TOM SWIFT LIVES!

 

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

JUNGLEMOBILE

 

 

 

 

 

This unauthorized tribute

Is based upon

the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.

 

SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR

 

As of this printing,

copyright to

The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures

is owned by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

 

 

 

 

This edition privately printed by

RUNABOUT

2014

www.tomswiftlives.com

 

 

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

WHERE GOD CAN NOT SEE

 

 

THE OLD MAN had a face like a condor with indigestion. He jabbed a bird-claw finger in the air, pointing south of east. “Donde Díos no puede ver!” He spat, not with contempt but with fear of the Devil.

“What’s he saying?” asked Bud Barclay. He added wryly, “Maybe I don’t want to know—sounds like the start of an argument!”

“He asked where we’re headed,” Hank Sterling replied. “Then he answered his own question, I guess.”

A third voice intruded, a gruff and lazy one. “Sí, it’s what they call it, these ignorant people. The name of the place is the Ondorále Forested Restricted Zone. That is what is on the map. But the native population jabbers about The Forest Where God Can Not See.”

“That name strikes me as a tad ominous,” Bud remarked with a half-smile. “But what’s a Tom Swift expedition without ominosity?”

“They are all superstitious old women,” muttered the speaker, a heavyset man with mustache and cigar and a generous helping of nose. “Where I come from, Bogotá, we laugh at the provincials, these forsaken indíos.” The man’s name was Diego; Bud had met him earlier that morning when the Sky Queen, the magnificent three-decker skyship of Tom Swift Enterprises, had made its elevator-like landing here on the outskirts of the town called Morichal Nuévo, in a field of stone and dirt.

The famous Flying Lab had come to southern Colombia as a multimach freight barge. She bore in her spacious hangar compartment Enterprises’ newest achievement, a long and sinuous exploration vehicle called the junglemobile—or the Glidepath for those on intimate terms with her. Stored in sections for its flight from Shopton, New York, it was being assembled in the burning sunlight by Enterprises personnel.

Diego had watched the operation with aloof interest from a cane-backed chair, on the porch of the tiny general store adjoining the field. The cluster of buildings were gathered at a crossroads, halfway in Morichal, halfway in nowhere, at the edge of the great of the Amazon Basin rainforest. The man had introduced himself as a bus driver making a half-day stop. “So you wish to go there, muy bien,” he remarked to Hank and Bud. “So why, eh?—off into the jungle wilderness, bugs, mud, Señor Puma—what for?”

“We want to give old Explora-Dora a chance to stretch her legs,” Bud replied with a wink in Hank’s direction.

The young engineer gave back a snort in return. “Our Mr. Barclay here likes that demeaning name—which skirts the edge of copyright infringement. The junglemobile’s official christened name is the Glidepath. She who glides her dainty way along the jungle path she makes for herself.”

“Nnk. Very poetic,” commented Diego disinterestedly. “And this whole thing—from Tom Swift, the one who went to Mars?—or maybe, was it the moon?”

“Both,” grinned Bud. “But ‘our Mr. Sterling here’ is the inventor this time out!”

“Aaa.” Hank shrugged it off modestly. “I threw together a few ideas, but it was Tom Swift who made it work.”

Diego nodded and stood silent for a moment, watching as a rectangular capsule, about the size of a dining room table balanced on its side, was slid up to its counterpart at the end of the rapidly lengthening vehicle. The edges touched—and seemed to merge together without any visible seam. Coming down from the porch, Diego approached the point of juncture, holding his cigar away as he inspected the spot and rubbed his fingers over it. “Ah!... so how is it you do this, eh? No welding, no rivets...”

“There’s a sort of double flange at the edge, lined with microscopic ‘hooks,’ as you might say,” explained Sterling. “The Duraflexon metal looks smooth, but really it’s very flexible and can be made to extend or contract by pulsed electric currents. We make the hooks swing out and grab the matching—”

“Bien, buéno,” interrupted the man with a shrug. “More interesting is this. I see no wheels, so how does this long lady make herself glide between the trees? Tell me that, eh, señors?”

The interruption was itself interrupted by a new voice, deep and gravelly. A big man—big horizontally—was waddling out of the shadows of the hangar deck, which had been lowered to ground level and was open on all sides. His cowboy hat and shirt of kaleidoscopic color announced the arrival of Chow Winkler. “Hey now, buckaroos, Dunc Lawrence jest got th’ word—Tom’s comin’ in fer a landin’!”

Diego glanced over. “Hm, ‘Tom’. Swift himself?”

“Swift himself,” grinned Bud.

“Did not fly with the rest, eh?”

“Naw,” Chow replied. “This one feller—one o’ the ones goin’ on this here jungle safari—unlike me!—got t’ Shopton a day late. Tom told us t’ go on ahead in the Sky Queen. Get stuff set up and goin’ strong.”

Diego shrugged. “But the city airport—hours away on these pitiful roads I know so well. Another delay, amígo.”

“Think so?” Bud, Hank, and Chow all pointed. A gleaming speck was darting across the clouds on the northern horizon. “Here they come all a-swoopin’ in!” whooped Chow.

Tom’s ultrasonic cycloplane usually traveled with the Flying Lab in its hangar as a cub aircraft. But the disassembled junglemobile had forced the SwiftStorm to remain behind, along with its companion vehicle, the atomicar. Ultimately it had been pressed into service as a faster-than-sound sky taxi.

The small craft came to a hovering halt above the field, its twin lift-drums—cyclocyls—giving it the talents of a hummingbird. Then it began an elegant descent, bumping to a gentle stop as its landing gear touched down.

The cockpit dome swung up and open and two figures swung themselves down to the ground. The first was a tall, lean young man, blond hair short and spiky, who might have been taken for a teenager. Tom Swift gave a wide, casual wave of greeting.

The second figure came to earth with an awkward stumble and a wide scowl. He was shorter than Tom and pudgy, his light hair somewhat south of blond and north of brown. His skin was basically pale, though hours in the sun gave it a piebald aspect. Regaining balance and dignity, he presented a certain affected elegance.

Wilson Hutchcraft, freelance archaeologist and philologist, had become involved in Tom’s research among the Maya in Mexico, a matter involving an ancient secret plumbed by the young inventor’s electronic retroscope camera. Hutchcraft had proven himself snide, egocentric, and generally unappetizing as a human being; yet in the end he had refuted the suspicions of Tom and his friends, and had more recently done a favor for Tom. And now—

“I know you rangers had t’ bring the owlhoot along,” grumbled Chow disapprovingly. “An’ I s’pose he’s a good enough hombre if’n yew can put up with his dang Boston pers’n-allerty...”

“But you don’t have to like it, mm?” remarked Bud sympathetically.

“Jest know he’s gonna make some crack about that there time I clonked him with th’ water jug,” declared the Texas-born cook. “Prob’ly first thing out o’ his mealy mouth!”

Hutchcraft approached the Shoptonians lugging his utilitarian baggage, squinting in the sun. “And so we meet, explorers, gaa-thered for our jog through—”

“Yep, thar she blows,” snapped Chow through clenched Texas teeth. “‘Jug’! Jest had t’ spit ’er on out, eh, Hutchcraft?”

The man’s eyebrows spiked. “What? I only—”

“Ye-ahh, go tell it t’ yer blame Boston beans,” Chow harrumphed. He turned on his heel, gouging a small crater in the packed dirt beneath him. As he stalked away, he added, “But I’ll gave a howdy t’ you, Tom.”

“Er... hey,” responded the youth, smiling but bemused. He warmly greeted Bud and Hank, then turned to Diego, who stood nearby at the end of a streamer of ash-colored smoke. “And—?”

“Diego Cíbola,” the man introduced himself, nodding. “No, no need to waste a handshake on me, young señor. Just a bus driver. Off I go soon enough. But what a bus you have, Tom Swift, this Glidepath of yours!”

“Thanks,” replied the youth. “We’ve tested the junglemobile in various rough environments in New York, but rough in New York can’t compare to what we’ll find here in your jungle.”

Diego shrugged and puffed. “Not my jungle, mi amígo. Whose jungle? Ask that squash-faced man over there, the Indian.”

“He said it had a special name,” Bud explained to his chum. “Something about ‘where God can’t see’. Beats me what it means. He said it in Spanish, then clammed up.”

“Praa-bably means nawthing, Barclay,” huffed Hutch. “Just some traditional nickname. But look at those tattoos along his jaw line—he’s a Naqafo-h’mi. Rainforest people. Tribe came out in the open just twenty years ago. He may speak only a little Spanish; maybe no English at all.”

“I’m a little curious to know what he was trying to get across, if it has something to do with the area we’ll be crossing,” Tom said thoughtfully. “I don’t suppose you speak his language...?”

“It has words in common with the Burozsa language group, with which I’m familiar. I may be able to make myself understood.”

Hutchcraft approached the old man, who glared at him stonily. Making what appeared to be gestures of greeting and respect, the linguist spoke some brief phrases that seemed to twist liquidly from his mouth in all directions. At first the Indian was silent; finally he made reply, becoming more animated and gesturing into the distance. He stopped abruptly and walked away from the Americans.

“Well, you got him talking, at least,” commented Hank as Hutchcraft returned. “What did he have to say?”

Hutch’s face was pensive and shadowed. “He used that naming phrase, both in Spanish and the Naqafo-h’mi dialect—‘the forest where God can not see’.”

“But why is it called that?” asked Tom. “What’s supposed to be there?”

“I can only tell you what he said. As far as the facts behind it, I have no idea. He says there’s a big stretch of jungle where the shade is very dark and the roots of trees are so huge and dense that even his own tribesmen can barely make their way along.”

Bud nodded. “Guess that’s why God can’t see. It’s too dark even for the Big Guy!”

Hutchcraft’s gaze switched uneasily among the others. “That’s not the point. Because God isn’t watching, strange things have been allowed to happen. His terms imply profanation, abomination, things that shouldn’t be—but are.”

“Hm! Way cool!” chuckled Bud gleefully.

“Perhaps to you. I myself would leave out the ‘way’. He says the forest is haunted—by fearsome spirit-beings half man and half beast!”


 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

 

EXPEDITIONERS

 

 

 

THE THREE from Swift Enterprises registered Wilson Hutchcraft’s statement with blank faces. But their exchanged glances shared something among them that would be hard to put into words.

“Looks like this little outing will really be one for the books,” Bud remarked; “namely the Tom Swift books!” Tom’s “invention adventures” were the subject of a juvenile book series that, in the interest of chapter cliffhangers and general excitation, was not overly concerned with accuracy—or even plausibility.

“Hutch, did he give any more info?” Tom inquired. “What kind of ‘beasts’? What does he mean by haunted?”

“As you can see, the old man wasn’t inclined to stand and chat,” responded Hutchcraft. “The words he used suggested the watchful presence of—I suppose we could say, the spectral remains of dead ancestors who don’t care greatly for their present-day relatives.”

“We’re not related to those Indians,” Hank pointed out.

“They do say all men are brothers,” noted Hutchcraft sarcastically. “The term he used has come to mean any sort of watchful jungle demon, evil things living in the shadows.” Tom asked about the “beasts” mentioned. “Mm, he wasn’t specific. Said something like, The men who are beasts, the beasts who are men.”

There was a silence, broken by Bud. “We-elllp, I don’t hear anyone saying he wants out—do I?” The black-haired youth mischievously cocked an eyebrow in the direction of Hutchcraft.

The man stared at him sourly. “If you’re trying to get a rise out of me, Barclay—or perhaaaps draw from my mouth some of the erudite wit that fellows like you regard as obnoxious—not that you understand it in the first place—I shall refrain. The fact is, I promised my mother on her deathbed to dial back the obnoxiousness.”

“I’m sorry, Hutch,” said Tom. “Did your mother die recently?”

“A few years back. Ten, eleven.”

Diego had returned to the shade of the porch, but was keenly eyeing the construction of the junglemobile by an assembly team of eight workers from Enterprises, overseen by the plant’s chief assembly engineer Art Wiltessa. Now he approached again. “Where you are going, good luck. May you find drink plentiful, women foolish. But now tell me about the wheels. There are none. Is this one of the flying craft you make, Swift?”

Tom grinned. “The Glidepath almost could fly, Mr. Cíbola. It contains what we call antiballast—‘weights’ made of ingravitized matter that fall upward, reducing the total weight of the vehicle. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the G-force inverter, but that’s how we make that sort of material.”

“Sí, so it floats along.”

Hank replied for Tom. “No, she just treads a very light footstep, so to speak. The j-mobe wends its way along among trees and undergrowth like a snake does.”

“Slithers, then?”

“It may look like slithering as it twists and turns back and forth between obstructions, and over them, but it doesn’t have ‘ribs’ under its skin to shove it along—it’s the skin itself that creates a push against whatever solid objects it comes into contact with.”

“Mm.” The man nodded. “No. No, makes no sense to me, amígo.” He approached the hull of the Glidepath, bending down with a grunt and feeling along its lower reaches. “This fender section—whatever we are to call it—smooth metal. No give to it. Yet it is to twist and stretch, and do as brother anaconda, through the trees? Is that what you say?”

“It’s the Duraflexon material,” declared the young inventor in answer. “Impulse currents from the flexible circuitry beneath the shell cause tiny protrusions—each one’s no bigger than a tooth—to stretch out from the hull. There are thousands of them, arranged in changing geometric patterns calculated by computer for the best ‘fit’ against the plant leaves or roots or whatever surface the j-mobe is in contact with.”

“Not just along the bottom, but on all sides, wherever the hull isn’t interrupted by one of those big picture windows,” added Hank with fatherly pride. “Even along the top. It gives the impression of ripples flowing along the outer shell from nose to tail.”

“I see,” pronounced Diego; “but I shall not see, for I must get my bus from the mechanic’s garage and proceed on schedule. A tourist group from Taiwan awaits me in San Naciénto. So good fortune, adios, bye-bye!”

“Nice guy,” Bud remarked as Diego strode from sight.

“Certainly good for the exposition,” noted Wilson Hutchcraft smugly. “When shall we be heading off, boys?”

“I’ll check with Art,” was Tom’s reply. “They’ve brought out the tail cap section, so I’d guess we’ll be off and slithering within the hour.”

In much less than an hour the junglemobile stood complete and waiting next to the Sky Queen. If the j-mobe was a sort of high-tech snake, it was a flattened one: its sides, six feet high, had almost no convexity, running the 60-foot length of the structure like matching walls, each compartment—six feet long, though the divisions between them were invisible—having a large square viewport set alternately into the right or left sides so as to leave each side of the craft an equal measure of wriggly skin between windows. The hull-high viewports were also entry hatches, swinging upward to form a protective canopy.

“Wa-aal, boss,” sighed Chow Winkler plaintively, “guess I kin see with my own eyes why I’m stayin’ behind on this one. No problem with th’ vertical; it’s the blame horizontal ole Chow can’t handle. This here loco-motive id’n much wider th’n the hips of a pack-horse!”

“Only three feet wide, pardner,” said Bud as Tom shot his old friend a look of apology. “Even less than that if you take the thickness of the walls into account. Those seats are contour cushioned, but your personal contour would be feeling mighty cramped after a few hours.”

“Shor would,” nodded the cook. “An’ jest whose doin’ was that, anyway? Who dee-cided t’ make this here jungulator so squash-narrow? You, Tom? Hank?” The two Shoptonians in question pointed laconically at each other, sharing the guilt.

“Well, now that we’ve given family sentiment its due,” Hutchcraft said, “how about some introductions? Some of you weren’t part of the Maya business.” The seven expeditioners had gathered next to the Glidepath—a total of eight with Hutchcraft included.

“Now that you’ve met Hank, let’s see... You met Doc Simpson in Yucatan,” began Tom.

“Along for the excitement,” the young medic added; “also collecting some of the jungle flora for my medicinal research.”

A tanned, vigorous young woman stepped forward and offered the outsider her hand. “Evelyn Troyes,” she introduced herself. “Here to sample the zoology.”

“Enough zoology out here for a zoo, my dear,” smiled Hutchcraft. His oily manner hadn’t evolved any since Yucatan.

“Two more,” the young inventor noted. “Red Jones here has done a lot of piloting for us—and even the highest tech sometimes needs guys with big muscles...”

“Two guys,” Bud interjected quickly.

The last to greet Hutchcraft was Felix Ming, an affable young engineer, visibly of Chinese heritage. “I am honored to spend most of my days in the plant’s aircraft division,” he declared with a nod. “But now and then my ancestral spirits favor me with more varied employments.”

“He talks that way to impress girls,” Bud wisecracked in Hutchcraft’s direction.

“I seem to be the only girl present,” smiled Evelyn.

Felix, a desperate and dissatisfied bachelor, smiled back. “Are you impressed?”

“Not so far.”

Bidding farewell to Chow, Art Wiltessa, and the others of the Sky Queen’s personnel, the eight expeditioners climbed into their capsules as instructed, Tom taking the pilot’s seat in the transparent “nose cone” that was the tip of the vehicle. “Everyone strapped in and ready?” he asked by group-intercom, the setting allowing all to hear and respond as if in one room. Seven voices came back with varying enthusiasms.

“Seems I oughta be up in the cockpit, genius boy—with you,” commented Bud quietly.

Tom chuckled. “Only one seat—you’d have to sit on my lap. People would talk.”

“People do talk, Skipper.”

The junglemobile was powered by a mighty source of electricity, an invention of Tom’s called the neutronamo. As silent energy surged from tip to tail, the minute protrusions that Tom had described rose out of the hull and began to oscillate and “flow”. The Glidepath sat upon rocky open ground, and what Bud called the “slitherers” lightly pawed into it to drive the j-mobe forward—lightly, because the craft’s weight was distributed along its length;  and, of course, because Swift ingenuity had reduced its effective weight to little more than that of the passengers and their belongings.

“There they go,” said Chow, watching from a viewport aboard the Flying Lab. “Off into that there green jungle. Ten days! An’ not a decent chuck wagon in sight. Brand my slippery snakes—jest don’t sit s’ well with me, Art.”

Art Wiltessa shrugged. “No use worrying, Chow. Does no good. Worry or not, Tom and Bud always get themselves into trouble.”

“Yup. Allus do.”

“And out again.”

“Ye-ahh—trouble is, there’s allus a first time, id’n there? An’ it’s that first time that gits ya!”

Chow Winkler was a prairie prophet. Trouble crossed paths with Tom and Bud before ten minutes and three measly miles had passed!


 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

PARALLEL PATHS

 

 

“SKIPPER, what is this? What’s happened?” demanded Bud over the j-mobe’s intercom.

“I do not require the advice of my venerable ancestors to say—something has gone awry!” added Felix Ming nervously. “Are you all right, Miss Troyes?”

“And why wouldn’t I be?” came the blithe reply.

“I was afraid you might be upside down, as I myself am—nearly so,” Felix explained.

“Don’t worry. I’m not carrying any loose change in my pockets.”

Wilson Hutchcraft was not inclined to feign cool suavity in the face of threat. “Swift! This infernal compartment has tilted upward—I’m almost riding on my back!”

“Listen, everybody,” Tom intercommed. “Just—chill. The junglemobile is just a little... up a tree at the moment.”

“But what is the problem, Tom?” came Bud’s voice.

“Like I just said, flyboy. We’re up a tree!”

The Glidepath trip had commenced with the odd vehicle scurrying its way forward with rapid ease over the hardpacked dirt and carpet of low brush that surrounded the settlement that was their point of departure. Even as the junglemobile nosed into thicker underbrush, the modest skirts of the true jungle ahead, there had been no hesitation; the expeditioners rode smoothly, gently swaying back and forth, or teetering forward and back, as the strange craft virtually swam among the flora edging the true Amazon basin, still well to the southeast as the trip commenced.

But the j-mobe’s modest pace—about 15 miles per hour at best—was a headlong rush in comparison to safari-trekking by foot. In minutes it was probing its way among restless shadows, tangled vines, and tree trunks yards thick, small front-mounted repelatrons helping to sweep open a temporary forward path. Despite the sophisticated pilot-assist guidance system, an adaptation of Swift Enterprises’ cybertron, the vessel’s captain could ill-afford to completely take his deep-set blue eyes off the unmarked green road ahead. Keenly attending to the instrumentation monitors, Tom failed to notice a sidewalk-wide bough intruding onto their path from above, half broken from a vast arching tree to which it was still largely attached. The Glidepath had stumbled onto the bough—and followed it upward as if negotiating a freeway onramp!

Now the prow portion of the junglemobile, the forward half of its length, had come to a stop roof-high among the trees, half-twisted along its length like a party streamer, its nose angled upward. As it straddled the still-swaying bough precariously, the eight passengers gulped at every motion.

“D-don’t worry, folks,” said Bud with breathless emphasis. “Remember, each of your cabins has its own repelatron anticrash system. Even if Explora-Dora slips and falls all the way down, nobody’ll get hurt.”

“Evidently the shock of a near-death experience will not be counted as ‘hurt’,” snapped Hutchcraft.

“Tom, is there anything I can do?” commed Red Jones. “I can open ’er up and slip down to the ground—make us lighter...”

“Now if Chow were here, that would make a big difference,” Bud gibed weakly.

“No one needs to do anything but sit and wait,” pronounced their young leader coolly. “All we’ve done is left the trail a ways. The j-mobe wouldn’t be worth her salt if a little thing like that posed a problem.”

“As for me, I’m content to wait with patient serenity. Any trek into the unknown requires faith and courage.” This from Felix, clearly aimed in the direction of Evelyn Troyes.

She had a reply. “Anyone who needs to summon courage to sit in a tree would have been better staying in Shopton.”

Adjusting the pilot panel for a rearward scan, Tom had the small cockpit telejector produce a schematic representation of the Glidepath’s position amid the various obstructions that surrounded it. The 3-D image floated in space before his eyes as he studied it. Dismissing it, its key data recorded in the cybertron, Tom grasped the controls and guided the j-mobe into a reverse motion. With the twin mini-repelatrons acting as invisible struts to steady it, the craft eased backward down the bough like a discouraged caterpillar and came to rest horizontally. “Problem solved,” announced the young inventor.

“Please baby my baby, Tom,” joked Hank Sterling. “My reputation’s at stake.”

Tom replied, “So’s my reputation—as a driver!”

The junglemobile resumed its rapid crawl through the trees and foliage, lush greenery becoming lusher and greener with every minute. Though civilization was not, in fact, very many miles behind them as the fruitbat flies, they now were completely surrounded by the margins of the vast rainforest ahead, drawing on all sides a veil that hid the work of man, who was an infant intruder to the work of Nature.

An hour passed, and then Tom brought the j-mobe to a quiet halt at the edge of a broad, treeless meadow covered with low brush, the midday equatorial sun flooding it with brilliance. “Let’s do some leg-stretching,” he commed. “And I want to do a quick visual of the hull.”

Tiny motors swung the Tomaquartz panels upward, and the safariers clambered out. “Those ergonomic saddle-seats are a real marvel, aren’t they?” remarked Doc Simpson. “The computer-adjusted strut setup counteracts any rockin’ and rollin’, and the body-support cushions re-mold themselves along the whole length of your body.”

Hutchcraft stretched and said, “I suppose you had a good deal to do with their design, doctor—?”

“Well, yes... as a matter of fact. But I’m not bragging...”

“Didn’t say you were. I merely insinuated it.”

Tom, Hank, and Felix Ming walked along the junglemobile from stem to stern, then back again on the opposite side. “Don’t see any obvious problems,” Hank pronounced. He said to Tom: “Boss, even if the basic design was mine, this trip wouldn’t be feasible without the add-ons you came up with. The creeper-propulsion and narrow cross-section gets us through the trees, but without your invisible cocoon we’d be dragging along a peacock-tail of underbrush and general gunk.”

Tom Swift’s most recent invention, called the resilientronic shield, was a kind of force field that used reversal of local momentum to bring intruding objects to a dead stop, allowing them to fall aside. Each of the inter-joined compartments contained its own shield generator, the field contoured to surround the hull at a distance of just a fraction of an inch, like an invisible glaze, the tips of the extended crawler-prongs protruding through without interference. “You never know when the last thing you’ve invented is going to be the first thing you need,” Tom observed with a grin. “Anyway, enjoy the sun for a few minutes. I’m due to PER Dad in Shopton with a report.”

Back in the forward compartment Tom activated the Private Ear Radio, as his quantum-link parallelophone was called. In much less than a second his unit “shook hands” with its counterpart at Swift Enterprises, in the office he shared with his distinguished father Damon.

From then on communication was instantaneous. “Wonderful that things are going well, son,” said Mr. Swift, “tree-climbing aside. Has Hutchcraft offended anyone yet?”

“Not fatally. I do wonder how long Felix will try to get Evelyn Troyes’s attention before she bonks him with a pith helmet!”

“The perils of being a shy aggressor. I’m sure she was entirely courteous when he started chatting her up here at the plant. Ming should realize that not all young single women of scientific bent are interested in suitors of the same type.”

Tom chuckled. “I’m just glad Mom was interested in guys like that! But Dad, another thing...”

Tom told Mr. Swift the odd story about The Forest Where God Can Not See and its peculiar reputation. “Man-beasts! The obvious thing to say is that it’s a typical tribal taboo-story. But we’ve said that before, and ended up running into everything from disintegrating gas to jungle dinosaurs—not to mention your Yucatan caveman Max Jones, billed as a giant jaguar-crusher.”

“I’ll admit to being scientifically curious.”

“I’ll admit to knowing that fact before you opened your quantum mouth, son.”

The junglemobile expeditioners resumed their trek, now headed, by a meandering and whimsical route, for a satellite-identified clearing, estimated some five hours distant, wherein they would camp for the night. They became used to the weird form of their travel, the landscape beyond the viewpanes rising and falling like ocean swells as the vehicle climbed and twisted between close-packed trees, over fallen logs, and among moss-clothed boulders. The sky was now seen only in dappled shreds flickering through the vast green canopy above. They traveled through deep shadows, sometimes broken by startling colors—leafy cloaks strewn with flowers, bright-hued vines struggling for sunlight. Birds exploded into flight as the Glidepath approached, and once Bud called attention to a pack of wild boars crashing through the underbrush.

“Where are we, Tom?” asked Doc.

“Not far from the Colombia-Brazil border,” replied the young inventor. “We entered the Zona Ondorále an hour ago.”

The next voice was unmistakably that of Wilson Hutchcraft. “And so, fellow adventurers, indulge your sins. Where we are, God can’t see us.”

“I’d suggest waiting until tomorrow,” Tom advised dryly, “when we get into the thick of it.”

The light above was red and dimming when the j-mobe came to a stop at the rim of the clearing. After contacting his father, Tom joined the others as Bud and Red Jones built a campfire on a rocky shelf, low to the ground. “Don’t know whether it’s more likely to repel or attract wandering jaguars, but it seems like the thing to do,” Bud remarked with a grin.

Strips of morphing metal—transifoil—unfolded from pockets around the viewpane apertures, forming frames for awnings of Tomasite plastic. Pulled along as the metal struts extended themselves, the plastic draped down to the ground and anchored itself automatically, forming three-sided tents open on their fourth side to the interior of the junglemobile, the upswung access panels forming the roof. “Air-conditioned comfort,” smiled Evelyn.

“In this humidity, we’ll need it,” grumbled Hutchcraft.

“Say, Hutch,” Hank asked, “why exactly did you get into this sort of work? No offense, but you don’t strike me as the... outdoors type.”

“I’m the intellectual type,” the archaeo-philologist answered. “Unfortunately, food for the intellect is found in inconvenient places. It’s a fact of the scholarly life. But I don’t let it deprive me of the pleasure of complaining.”

Seeing Tom standing a ways from the others, a silhouette staring off into the gathering darkness, Bud approached his pal. “Genius boy, I don’t have to see your baby blues to know that look. What’s on your mind?”

Tom turned and half-smiled. “Just something that may mean nothing. According to the long-range baseline scans of the repelascope, we have neighbors out there—neighbors on the move.”

“Animals? Or do you mean—those beast-men?”

“You’re half right, pal—the ‘men’ part. I just ran a sweep of that area with the penetradar; it’s a line of moving shapes paralleling our path, about two miles off. We’re moving faster, but they seem to be traveling a straighter route, allowing them to keep pace fairly well. From their speed I’d guess it’s a caravan of some kind. I’m pretty sure it’s another expedition.”

“Enemies?”

“Well, flyboy, we do have quite a habit of attracting enemies—at least that’s what those books say,” chuckled the youth. “But there’s no reason at all to make that assumption. They probably have permission from the Zona authorities just as we do.  This region is partially regulated by international agreements, but it’s still part of Colombia. They even allow licensed hunting out here, with certain restrictions.”

“Mm-hmm. But there’s more, isn’t there.”

Tom nodded, brow crinkled. “Just this. When I say they’re paralleling us, it’s actually a little more deliberate than that. When we pause, they pause; when we swerve, they swerve. Bud, whoever they are, they seem to be monitoring our position closely. They want to keep close, but not cross paths and reveal themselves. I don’t know how they’re managing to keep watch on us from that distance, or who they are—or what they might be planning to do!”

Bud couldn’t help a gulp. “To us!”


 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

 

TREK THROUGH THE TREETOPS

 

 

“I KNOW what those are,” said Evelyn Troyes.

“They’re called liftsuits,” said Felix Ming.

“Thank you, Felix, but if you’d been listening you would have heard that I just said I know what those are.”

“Sorry. My revered ancestors—”

“Tell them to unclog their hearing aids.”

It was early the next morning, the half-seen distant sky pale and misty with dawn—a warm and humid dawn. The night had been quiet; but though Tom had established an automatic sensor-perimeter around the Enterprises encampment, his sleep was hair-trigger. Was their modest field-test expedition being stalked? The young inventor was determined not to wait like hapless prey for whatever mystery brooded a couple miles distant.

He and Bud stood before the other yawning expe-ditioners—Wilson Hutchcraft was in full-bore complaint—wearing a concatenation of straps, struts, parabolic dishes, and boxy backpacks. “Though I’ve fallen a bit behind in my obligatory reading of those snazzy juvenile adventures,” Hutch said with thudding sarcasm, “I do recall that you used these contraptions on the Grand Canyon project, building your monorail.”

“The workers used them in putting together the floating magnetic ‘track’ the MonoSwift runs along,” Bud responded with narrowed eyes: he had a low resistance to Wilson Hutchcraft. “Ingravitized weights from Tom’s G-force inverter—the same stuff as Explora-Dora’s antiballast—provide lift, and the human hummingbirds get pushed along by Tom’s matter-repellers.”

“Repelatrons. I assume you’ve heard of them, Hutchcraft,” commented Doc Simpson with his own sarcasm.

“But if I may ask, boss,” began Felix with a veiled glance toward Evelyn, “don’t you think this little trek may bring down on us the same danger you’re trying to scout out? The liftsuits don’t make you invisible, you know.”

“Or do you plan to land and take to the underbrush before you reach the other camp?” Hank half-suggested.

Tom shook his head. “I plan to keep to the air, but low down. We’ll start off skimming the treetops—the angle, from a ground view, will keep us out of sight. Then as we get into view of whatever’s out there, we’ll drop down and maneuver under the foliage canopy but still off the ground. There’s no need to land, I think.”

Red Jones looked wary. “Not to spook you, guys. But if they have the techs to track our motions at ground level from miles away—and through all these trees, yet—don’t you think they’ll detect your approach?”

“Perhaps so,” Tom conceded. “But what can they do? We’ll be in and out quickly. I doubt they’re techy enough to have tree-avoiding cruise missiles at launch-ready.”

“Then I trust you’ll be joining us for breakfast,” smiled Hutch superciliously.

Bud smiled his reply. “If we don’t stop for fly-through.”

Reducing the earth-anchoring pull of the tiny gravitex devices built into their backpacks, the boys buoyed upward and let the breeze of sun-up carry them toward the wall of trees that hemmed-in the clearing where the expedition had camped. They surmounted the treetops, rising at a steep angle, and activated the repelatrons that would steer and propel them forward.

They spoke to one another by transiphone radio-com, and Bud’s first remark had the echo of a nervous yelp. “Whoa! Those top branches just about walloped my strikingly handsome face!”

“Wouldn’t want that, flyboy,” chuckled his close pal. “Don’t forget, these new liftsuits have resilientronic shield generators as standard equipment. Just don’t get too close to me; the field interaction could knock us both for a loop.”

“I remember. I’ll keep to gorilla-arm’s length, chum.”

Their guidance localculators, accessed through their hand-held Spektor control units, kept them apprised of their location and course. After a few minutes of slow aerial travel, Tom bade Bud pause. “Time to drop down,” he explained in hushed tones. “Our big blip is only a thousand yards dead ahead.”

They slipped down through the laden branches, wood and leaf bending aside under the influence of their protective shields. Suddenly Bud stifled a cry of fear. “S-sorry, Skipper. Some kind of baby tree-snake took a flying leap right across my gray eyeballs!”

“Bet you startled her more than she did you.”

“Well—of course! Only my voice was shaken.”

The two inched forward in shadow, their boots dangling a few feet above the tangle of the jungle floor, ducking the thicker boughs that the shields couldn’t handle. “I see something—” whispered the young inventor.

But it was what Tom failed to see that posed a problem! He glimpsed motion in the shadows—big and ferocious motion rushing his way—and saw the tree-limbs at eye level whip about. Something erupted toward him, a dark something with a ripping growl and a flash of razor teeth. A jaguar!

Tom Swift had no time to react. He looked into the beast’s yellow eyes as they hurtled toward his face, smelt the hot scent of death from the creature’s heaving lungs. Abruptly, taloned paws inches away, the jaguar halted in mid-flight, hanging in the air for an instant as the rest of its body caught up with its head. Then it twisted awkwardly sideways, sliding across something invisible, and whirled away into the leaves with a savage screech.

“Tom!” cried Bud, steering toward his pal and starting to accelerate.

“No, Bud!” Tom hissed. “Stay back! Don’t let the fields overlap or—”

Too late! Bud zoomed close—and the two aero-trekkers rebounded violently in opposite directions, slamming deep into the tree boughs. For a moment all was leafy confusion. Then came a shout, the attack-roar of a big cat, and the crack of a rifle!

The Shoptonians extricated themselves from the trees and floated, almost by helpless instinct, toward what seemed to be an encampment ahead, human colors in dim morning sunlight. Bud pushed himself ahead of Tom, emerging into a long but narrow open space, like a fjord of rough grasses and brush among the lowering cliffs of the surrounding trees. He landed, and his chum joined him at his side. “So much for sneaky scouting,” said the San Franciscan wryly.

“Welcome to somewhere,” Tom said quietly.

It was the night-camp of a small safari. Several tents had been set up in a casual circle, blocking from view the embers of a central cookfire. A small group of jungle-garbed travelers stood looking at the two invaders in surprise.

Bud nudged his friend and gestured off to the side, near the further perimeter of the clearing. A short, boulderlike man stood staring at them, a rifle dangling from his hand. Heaped dead at his feet was a bleeding carcass, a black jaguar—presumably the very one that had bounced off Tom’s resilientronic shield.

Tom nodded at the man curtly, then indicated the other members of the camped expedition with a broad sweep. “These tourists are a long ways from Taiwan,” he observed sarcastically.

The shooter was Diego Cíbola, self-described bus driver. “A harmless little lie, Señor Swift,” he said with a shrug and no remorse. “No Taiwanese after all. These were my charges. I drove them in the bus a little further down that abominable deception of a road, then we got out and got going. And now we are here.”

“Why didn’t you want us to know of your plans?” asked Tom.

“Did you need to know? Are Americános supposed to know all things, like God above? I chose to make the conversation short. What of it?”

“Fine, but why—” began Bud indignantly—to be interrupted.

“That boy Tom Swift—one of you two?” demanded an imperious older woman, expansive in all directions and formidable. She marched forward toward them. “Kindly answer! Patience, I do not have an excess of. Speak!”

“I’m Tom Swift, ma’am,” stated the young inventor coolly. “It’s my expedition—Swift Enterprises’ expedition—that you people have been... observing. And whom have I the honor of addressing?”

The rushing freight train of the woman’s approach came to a stop. Her tone was disapproving, her accent garbled and European. “You ask my name, young man? And why indeed shall I provide it? It is you two who are the intruders!”

“Please forgive the intrusion,” Tom replied. “Our instruments made it obvious that your expedition was tracking ours for some reason, and Señor Cíbola here has already admitted to misleading us. I thought it might be convenient to know your name if I had to pass it along to the authorities.”

“Authorities!” exclaimed a slender, dark man who had been hanging back somewhat.

Nonplused, the woman turned to Bud. “And you! Who are you? Are you of any importance?”

“Not particularly,” smiled the dark-haired youth blandly. “I’m just a muscle guy. But my name’s Bud Barclay—call on me if you need help lifting your chins.”

“I have not bothered to learn these silly American expressions,” sniffed the woman. “Hardly important.”

“The lady who looks like the back end of a Spanish galleon is Madame Clevisse Bonoba, Comtessa di Halsfenthor,” said a robust, attractive woman with a tone of amusement and disgust, coming nearer with brisk stride. “Newest—though not so new any more—of the venerable royal stewards of a wrinkled sliver of a mountainous strip of nothingness in Brungaria. All those grand generations, and they have learned nothing of common courtesy.”

“Sorry, Countess Bomba,” Bud said to the older woman. “Don’t think I’ve ever run across your, er, place. And we’ve had quite a few dealings with Brungaria.”

The Comtessa rotated her searing glare from the younger woman back to Bud. “Brungaria! You refer to the republic, the tyrannical usurpers who cast out the ancient dynasty, the First Families of the distinguished race of Brungars! Halsfenthor was the gem of old Brungary; the lights of the Grand Chateau could be seen from—”

Tom also had no excess of patience. “Who’s in charge here? You, Diego?”

“I am,” said the slender man, approaching and offering his hand. “I am Dr. Osmán Ferrars, Tom. I represent those who hired Mr. Cíbola, our veteran guide and protector.”

They shook hands. “Is this a research expedition, Dr. Ferrars?” Tom inquired politely.

“In a sense,” was the reply.

Tom frowned. “Pardon me, sir, but in what sense?”

“Ah!” smiled Ferrars pleasantly. “There is surely no need to multiply mysteries. I am employed by an international consortium known in my native Argentina by its Spanish acronym, MARTA. It is a commercial endeavor quite as enterprising as Swift Enterprises, I would venture. A large and diverse corporation.”

“A pharmaceutical conglomerate,” amended the outspoken woman. “What they call Big Pharma.”

Dr. Ferrars gave her a half-bow. “You have saved me some breath, my dear Luz. Yes, Tom, Bud—medications and drugs. The purpose of this trip into the rainforest is, one might say, botanical. In the course of its unending researches, MARTA has come across traces of a biological material, evidently of plant origin.”

“Something of pharmaceutical significance?” asked Tom.

“Perhaps so—perhaps very much so. We call it, merely for convenience, miraphysón.”

Bud shrugged. “You mean, a flower or moss or something like that? I know penicillin comes from mold...”

“I am not permitted to give any great amount of detail,” declared the scientist. “These are proprietary matters of commercial importance, as I am sure you understand. Perhaps I may say that miraphysón is a quite complex strand of... mm, molecules. Though manufactured by Mother Nature in her vast botanical laboratory, the material, very slightly modified, will bind to animal tissue and produce medicinal effects of interest to farmers—those who raise cattle, hogs, sheep—many things.”

“We don’t need all the in’s and out’s, Dr. Ferrars,” Tom declared. “That’s your business. Anyway, you’ve already given me enough to guess the answer to my real question. The plant that is the source of your miracle biogen grows in these jungles—probably the place we’re also, inconveniently, headed.”

Diego pulled out his cigar and said, “The dark little corner of the jungle with the very exotic name.”

“Mm-hmm. I’d suppose your consortium has an ‘in’ with the department of the government of Colombia that certified our expedition—and had been asked to alert you. So you sent Mr. Cíbola to get a feel of what we planned to do, and you’re running parallel to us—”

“These nice boys are keeping an eye on you to make sure you don’t follow them, young Tom,” put-in the dark-haired woman. “When the alert came down, the planned MARTA operation was launched in great haste, to beat the famous Yankee scientist to the ‘treasure’ they seek. If your machine had shown signs of traveling along our own route into the interior, they would have taken clever care to put you off the track.”

‘Clever care’,” repeated the scientist-inventor. “The same sort of clever care you took with that jaguar, Mr. Cíbola?”

The man snorted. “Would you rather be breakfast for old gato grosso, Swift? We here have things to do before we get eaten, eh?” Seeing Tom’s frown, he added: “What, you don’t trust me?”

“You lied to us.”

“So I lied. If you only trust those who don’t lie, who will be left?”

Bud stepped forward, breaking through the silence that followed, offering his hand to the outspoken Hispanic woman. “I don’t think I caught your name, ma’am.”

She took the youth’s hand and pressed it. “Luziénda Vera—that, at least, is the name I am known by. But I doubt you are one of my public.”

“Sounds like you’re a celeb, ma’am.”

Her smile gleamed, a trained and experienced smile born to be photographed. “I do like to think so. I was an actress in Havana when I was very young. Then movies—Mexico, all of Hispanic America.”

“And in her present maturity, téle-novélas,” sneered the Comtessa. “Miss Vera is very big in Guatemala City—are you not, my dear?”

“Why yes, Comtessa. As indeed you yourself are big all over.”

The boys exchanged the kind of looks that cover stifled laughter. Then Bud’s gray eyes narrowed and he nudged his chum. “Skipper, over there behind the tent—somebody’s givin’ us a full body-scan.”

Near the dead campfire stood a gaunt, elderly man, with long snowy-white hair—sparse—and a stringy goatee. Evidently frail, he was leaning upon a cane, elaborately carved.

Seeing that he had been discovered, he roused himself and tottered his way toward them, eyes large and somewhat frantic. “Listen to me, listen to me, you lads!” he piped. “I know where you are going, and I know what awaits you there!”

“What do you mean, sir?” asked Tom.

He came near Tom, wheezing. “I have been there! I have been to The Forest Where God Can Not See! Ah, God cannot see—but I saw. I saw them in the shadows! Beasts who are men, men who are beasts—and trust me, boy, believe me—if you see them, they will use all their dark arts to make certain you will never be seen again!”


 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

 

SHADOWS IN SHADOWS

 

 

BEFORE Tom could respond to the man’s eerie warning, another voice called out from among the tents. “Oh, Grandfa! Have you gone wandering off?”

A woman of early middle years, attractive in an undecorated way, came hurrying toward the group, followed by several others who seemed to have been hanging back.

“He is all right,” Luz Vera said calmly to the newcomer, whose voice marked her an American. “Just making us a bit nervous with his extravagant ideas.”

The woman touched the old man’s sleeve in a soothing way and spoke to Tom and Bud. “Good morning! Has Grandfa been bothering you?”

“Not at all, ma’am,” Tom replied. “What he had to say was very interesting.”

The woman nodded, affection touched with apology. “Sometimes odd things make him a bit... exercised, you see. You two—I’m sure you’re who I think you are. Tom Swift? Bud Barclay?”

As Tom nodded, Bud’s eyebrows leapt humorously. “Good grief, you know my name too?”

“Of course I do,” she smiled. “You and Tom are always together, aren’t you? Everywhere! Oh—as for me, I’m Mary Kenning.”

Handshakes were exchanged. “And—this is your grandfather?” asked Tom.

She shook her head. “Oh no, not actually. He likes me to call him that.” The old man nodded vigorously. “It comforts him, to think he has a family. I’m someone who met him years and years ago, when he taught and lectured. I was... a fan, you might say. I was his student. I felt so privileged to be able to actually meet him, to talk about life...”

“I’ll spare genius boy here the embarrassment by asking, er—just who is this?” Bud inquired.

“Oh my, this—this is Edric Orvel Lemma. But—” She laughed gently. “That didn’t help, did it. Grandfa is one of the world’s foremost poets, essayists, and artists.”

Tom nodded politely. He pointed toward the circle of tents. “I see the expedition has other members too. Did you bring along a few spare poets?”

“I’ll introduce you to the entire party,” promised Dr. Ferrers with a low chuckle. “But first, if I may?—a question. What are these peculiar assemblages that you two wear upon your backs? Some sort of satellite communications apparatus?” He nodded toward one of the mini-repelatron parabolic dishes at the end of an angled strut, along which Mr. Lemma’s withered finger was gliding.

“They’re called liftsuits,” Bud responded. “We flew here with ’em.”

“Did you indeed? Why didn’t you astonish us by dropping down in our midst?”

“We were grounded by... pilot error.” The young flyer gave Tom a shamefaced look.

“It’s probably a good thing we didn’t keep to the air. Diego might have shot us down,” Tom added dryly.

“Aa, let us bury the hatched grudge, muchácho,” shrugged Cíbola carelessly. But his hand was still on his rifle.

The group of those yet to be introduced now straggled forward. In the lead was a plain, scrawny woman of vague age, who seemed to have been woven out of barbed wire. She halted well beyond arm’s length, frowning and silent. “This is my secretary and personal aide, Miss Dentata,” said the Comtessa di Halsfenthor in the haughty voice that seemed to be her native language. “She rarely speaks, and then only to say briefly what is necessary; and only to me. Do not seek to engage her in idle or provocative conversation.”

“I wouldn’t dream of saying a provocative word!” pledged Bud.

“And these other men—my assistants,” declared Ferrars. “Jorge has been my laboratory assistant in Buenos Aires for years. Martén and Carlito were hired in Bogotá to serve as—well, in the old days I think one would call them bearers. I am training them to assist in the collection of specimens. They speak no English; Jorge just enough to get by. As for me, English, German, and Portuguese, as well as my native Spanish.”

Tom looked down musingly for a moment, then at Ferrars. “Your expedition and its purpose have nothing to do with us, Doctor; it’s a big jungle. We’re not looking for ‘specimens’ of anything, and have no reason to follow you. We’re just field-testing Enterprises’ experimental vehicle, the junglemobile. Which Mr. Cíbola—Diego—has told you all about by now, I’d imagine.”

“No doubt,” smiled the guide.

“But perhaps you have further questions of us?” inquired Ferrars.

“It’s just that—what I see here doesn’t really fit the objective of your expedition as you’ve described it. You say you’re sponsored by the MARTA consortium to do some specialized research in the rainforest. But Luz, the Comtessa, Mary, ‘Grandfa’—pardon me, but—”

The scientist laughed. “Not what one might call scientists, hmm! But it is easily explained. This trip was sanctioned by the consortium, whose backing allowed us to receive the necessary approvals and permits from Colombia and the Amazon Basin authority. Yet—it was rather my own idea, my project. Approval, yes, but limited funding.

“The solution that I happened upon was to contact the Comtessa, who was known to be seeking such a... vacation... for reasons of her own.”

“And she is, might one say, loaded,” smiled Luz Vera. “So she is here with her one-woman retinue, looking very much like a bag of money. Coin or currency.”

“And as for us,” Mary Kenning spoke up, “we had left a standing request with the department officials—the commissioner adores Grandfa’s work—to be informed of any expedition heading this way, so that we might contact them and book passage, so to speak.”

“But why?” Bud inquired.

“Oh, I shall answer that intriguing question, my boy,” Mr. Lemma spoke up. “I am eighty-eight years old, you see, eighty-eight years in this world beneath sun and stars. But this poor peanut-shell of a body has not long to endure, alas. I was here in my youth—I believe I alluded to that fact—and do not care to die before another look at these dark woods, these colors of life and mystery, all these hot damp breaths of a vitality more than human. Here I am, and after this... why, I’m not entirely sure that I shall be... anywhere.” The brightness in his eyes faded; the engine of intellect fluttered to a halt.

There was a respectful pause. “That leaves you, Miss Vera,” said Tom pointedly.

“Why am I here?” replied the actress. “Perhaps because of my very close and special association with this taciturn man and his big gun. We are less than a couple; but certainly a pair. Mi cara Diego and I have gone many places together.”

“Pursued by her most ardent followers,” sniffed the Comtessa di Halsfenthor; “her creditors.”

A human storm threatened, which Luz Vera interrupted with a gesture. “Might you be wondering how this ponderous woman and this fragile man are able to make their way through the unaccommodating jungles? Come, boys, let me show you something.”

She led Tom and Bud around to the far side of the tents. Here they found a neat row of very compact vehicles with very large wheels, each passenger area enclosed by a canvas-like woven material—in effect, mobile tents; or rather pup-tents, for each one seemed only large enough for one. “You have what are called your ‘repelatron donkeys,’ I believe,” smiled Luz. “Perhaps we could call these motorized pack-mules.”

“The tires and much of the body-shell conformation are adaptations of designs for manned surface vehicles to use of the moon—from the pre-Swift days of lunar exploration,” Dr. Ferrars explained. “Once, you know, it was feared that the moon was covered in a thick layer of dust.”

“Electric power?” inquired Tom politely.

“Yes, powered by a clean energy source—solar batteries invented by Tom Swift Enterprises—”

“And manufactured high up in space,” concluded Luz.

“We roll along with about as much agility as if we were on foot,” Mary added. “But within our little Trekkers, we are air-conditioned and well-padded.”

Diego shrugged, audibly as well as visibly. “Ek, me, I think Swift’s snake-mobile is sweeter. But still, perhaps walking is best—with a good gun as your companion, eh?”

“We all have our own notion of congenial company,” said Luz with a hint of insinuation.

 “I, er, suppose we ought to be going,” Tom pronounced quickly. “But... Mr. Lemma, those beast-men you spoke of, what you saw when—”

“Why yes!” said the old man, as if recovering a scrap of memory. “Yes, I did see something like that, when I was not much older than you are, young sir; and not far from here, I believe—up ahead, to the... I think...”

“What exactly did you see?”

The man’s face crinkled with wry amusement. “Oh, well, you see, for me there is no more ‘exactly,’ only shards and clouds. In poetry, art—that is memory now, for me. Alas, poor Edric, eh?—I knew him well.

“Father and Mother and I... they were strong people... For days we saw shapes, shadows in shadows here and there, sometimes up in the great trees, sometimes in the brush or worrying a hanging vine, despoiling the tranquility of a dreaming flower...”

“Sir, what were these shapes doing? You say they were like men and like animals?”

There ensued a lengthy pause. “I saw a hand against the moon... watchful eyes that bore intelligence... things moving with purpose like men, but navigating the living shoals of the great jungle like the beasts who have dwelt there since time began... Perhaps sometimes they whispered to one another—or was it only the wet breeze that they kissed?

“Ah, but they accompanied us as we trekked through the forest called No-Puede-Ver. We were warned, the stories... those who penetrate the heart of that jungle, who never return...” The rest was heard by himself alone.

Tom shook the man’s hand gently. “Thank you, sir, and good luck to you—to all of you. This time we’ll leave by air.”

“Get ready to be astonished!” grinned Bud.

Dialing down their anchoring gravitexes, the two Shoptonians buoyed upward, waving. Swiveling their mini-repelatrons they thrusted back toward the Glidepath encampment, slightly above the treetops. “Loved the poetry,” gibed Bud; “the shooting, not so much. We never did find out how they were tracking us.”

“I think I figured it out, flyboy,” came the reply over the transiphone. “I made out some electronic equipment behind the tent openings. In addition to those trekker vehicles, I think MARTA, or maybe Dr. Ferrars, has supplied this expedition with a few tech gimmicks to deal with what they consider ‘claim-jumpers’—potential ones, anyway.”

“Some kind of ground radar, you mean? Or long-range heat sensors?”

“Maybe a simpler system. They could have used ultrasensitive receivers to triangulate on the very low frequency RF waves put out by the junglemobile’s intercom setup.”

Bud gave his friend a skeptical look. “But that’s just internal circuitry, not a broadcast system. Besides, the Tomasite coating would stop any signals from getting through—wouldn’t it?”

“It ought to,” Tom nodded. “But products don’t always live up to their advertising! All surges of current in wires produce corresponding waves in the electromagnetic spectrum—look it up in the Laws of Physics, chum. The AC current in our simple analog sound system generates radio waves in the acoustic frequency range. Vanishingly low in power of course.

“And, you know, the j-mobe isn’t intended to be some kind of spy vehicle; it’s just a stretch-jeep, basically. I can think of some spots in the shell where secondary waves might leak through... And with suitable amplification, well... They’ve found that moist vegetation can actually function as a sort of antenna for...”

Tom had more to say to his chum, saying it all the way to the landing at the Swift camp; not knowing that Bud had lowered the volume of his liftsuit transiphone to a mutter. He knew Tom was, essentially, thinking out loud. He told himself he was respecting his pal’s privacy by tuning him out.

“Just in time to have missed breakfast,” announced Doc Simpson as the two clomped down to earth. “Good, too—microwaved sausage, tofu scrambled eggs—”

Tom grinned. “We’ll just tell Chow the prepackaged frozen food was adequate.”

The two described the meeting with the MARTA safari to the keen ears that encircled them. “What a strange collection of odds and ends,” commented Evelyn musingly. “Even with their vehicles, to think of that human menagerie trooping through the rainforest... Do you really think we’re being told everything, Tom?”

“I have the same question,” Felix added.

There was a shrug all around. “Folks, I only know what I was told,” Tom said. “—plus, of course, what I observed. I’ll admit—there’s definitely something shifty about Diego Cíbola.”

Bud interjected, “I picked up on it too, Skipper. The guy didn’t just see a jaguar come strolling out of the brush and make for his rifle; I think he was waiting there, armed and ready.”

“Yeah,” nodded Red Jones soberly. “Waiting with his finger on the trigger to intercept a couple flying blips their detector equipment had warned them about!”

“My word, you boys-book types are practically leaping off your gaudy dust-jackets in search of ‘danger’,” contributed Wilson Hutchcraft over a mug of steaming coffee. “Why shouldn’t the group’s trek guide keep himself armed for whatever might come charging by dawn’s early light? As for their surveillance habits—let’s get real, boys. There’s big money in agricultural pharmaceuticals, and this man Ferrars is being paid to get to his magic vines, or whatever they are, firstest with the mostest. Hmmm? Call it best-defense industrial espionage.”

Hank Sterling had been hanging back, as if distracted. In the silence that followed Hutchcraft’s masterly analysis, he stepped closer to Tom and Bud and spoke in low tones. “I have no idea what our rival expedition is up to, boss, but what the old man was talking about may be right on the money as far as danger is concerned.”

“You mean all that stuff about what he saw when he was a kid?” asked Bud. “Somewhere in the florid phraseology there was something about spy-guy animals. Something like that.”

“A phrase he used stuck with me,” the young inventor said quietly. “He mentioned ‘shadows in shadows’. Kind of eerie.”

“More than just eerie, Tom,” declared Hank, his face troubled. “You left me in charge. While you two were off flyin’ around, I’ve been scanning our perimeter out to half a mile, using different mixes of settings and instruments. The penetradar’s been registering shapes—moving shapes—that stay clustered close to one another, like a scouting party. Once the whole group of them came within a hundred feet of the Glidepath! I looked right where the penetradar said they were, using the light-boosting binocs. Couldn’t see a thing.”

“If they are in the shadows, it seems they plan to stay there,” murmured Felix Ming. “But perhaps these ‘scouts’ are just curious tribesmen, native Indians who live and hunt in this area of the rainforest, not animal demons or such a thing. One can hardly blame them for wanting to keep a good eye on invaders from a world that hasn’t always respected their rights and traditions.”

“Experts for centuries at remaining undetected,” Hutch added. “A blowgun platoon. Call ’em the Neighborhood Watch.”

“Curious locals? Ordinary guys? Seems pretty plausible,” responded Hank. “Oh but, by the way—have I mentioned that these agile expert watchers are watching from a particularly good vantage point? Like fifty feet up in the trees?”


 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

 

WHISTLING MISSILES

 

 

DOC SIMPSON stared at the young engineer, more amused than surprised. “Aw come on, Hank, just what are you saying? We’ve got a troop of Tarzans swinging through the trees to keep an eye on us?”

“Wrong continent for Tarzan,” Bud reminded him. “But it does sound like monkeys or something.”

“Hank, does your detector allow you to tell anything about size and shape?” inquired Evelyn Troyes.

Felix rushed in with, “Ah, you see, the repelascope uses selective repulsion force to ‘feel out’ the distribution—”

“Excuse me, Felix, but I make a practice of getting data from the tallest engineer first,” said the zoologist in withering tones. And Felix Ming, far from tall, did wither.

“The repelascope isn’t designed to reproduce picture-perfect detail at such a great distance,” explained Hank. “Its main use on the j-mobe is to provide 3-D topographic input for the guidance system—including the ‘meat’ part, the human driver. I’ve been relying, mainly, on the penetradar—Tom’s ground-scanning radar that can be set to ignore whatever isn’t moving. All I can tell you is that these shapes were much smaller than tree trunks, darted around pretty nimbly, and—I think they had appendages of some kind.”

“Hopefully you mean arms and legs,” pronounced Hutch-craft. “I’ve encountered more than one indigenous tribe in forested territory that had learned the advantages of prowling around up among the higher foliage. All of them have been human—though not always well-clothed.”

Tom rubbed his chin. “Evelyn, why did you ask? Could these tree-huggers be arboreal animals? Monkeys?”

“Quite possibly,” the zoologist replied. “But don’t think in terms of big anthropoids, folks. Pongids—great apes and gorillas—don’t grow here in the Americas. We have what are called platyrrhines. Think small. The tree marmosets are tiny enough to fit in Bud’s hand, and the biggest monkeys aren’t much bigger than his admittedly-impressive forearm.”

“Thanks,” Bud grinned. Felix Ming took a pained glance at his own forearm, admittedly unimpressive.

“I guess I don’t have the data to determine what the things might be,” admitted Hank. “After a while they disappeared from the scope—probably scampered out of effective range, below the level of individual resolution. Fast!—they could move through the trees like they were running the track!”

“I’m next up at the controls,” Red noted. “Tell me what to watch for.”

“Something tells me we’re going to see a lot more of these shapes as we get deeper into the jungle,” stated Tom grimly.

“Maybe God can’t see ’em,” Bud commented; “but we will!”

“Mm-hmm. You may well see them, Barclay,” said Hutchcraft smugly. “Whether they’re really there to be seen is another question.”

“Let’s get rolling,” Tom directed his team.

The tents and their inbuilt amenities folded smoothly back into the Glidepath, and the passengers prepared to board. “Just a sec,” called out Doc. “Skipper, you said the Ferrars group was using our intercom waste output to track us; shouldn’t we put the system offline?”

“Or at least take good care in what we say?” Felix Ming added. Evelyn gave the young Chinese-American a skeptical look.

Tom made a negative gesture. “We’re not letting our self-appointed ‘rivals’ set our agenda, people. They can track us all they please. And even if it turns out they can monitor what we say—so what?”

“Right,” Bud grinned. “According to the books it’s all banter anyway.”

Red Jones had the next rotation shift as pilot-driver. Climbing aboard the nose cabin, he ran a quick diagnostic check and announced that all was well. The junglemobile extended its thousand creeping fingers and thrust forward, insinuating itself into a jungle increasingly dense and dark, hiding from the sun even as the sun mounted skyward.

Tom PER’d his father with a report. “I’ll have Security check out this Dr. Ferrars and his cohorts,” promised Damon Swift. “But as you say, there’s no particular reason to regard them as enemies. The fact that both expeditions will share the same five-hundred square miles of rainforest doesn’t make it at all likely you’ll be rubbing shoulders.”

“I won’t think about them,” declared Tom; “unless they force me too.” But as he clicked off the unit and turned his gave to the swaying landscape slithering by the big viewport, he wondered if the other expedition would allow him to remain oblivious. Did the strangely heterogeneous pack of travelers have a secret agenda in The Forest Where God Can Not See?

The morning’s trek proceeded smoothly. By the time of their midmorning rest stop, Tom was able to announce to his comrades that the Glidepath was now officially within the borders of the Zona Ondorále. “So we’re in our famous Forest of Mystery?” asked Doc.

Tom shrugged, and Hutchcraft commented, “These places have no definite borders, Simpson. Might as well ask for the longitude and latitude of Never Never Land. The tribesmen just point and nod sagely.”

“I haven’t seen anything more of the watchers,” declared Red Jones.

“How about the other expedition?” asked Evelyn.

“Still getting glints of them on the penetradar,” replied Tom. “Now we know it’s those midget vehicles we’re picking up.”

There was no clearing where they had stopped to stretch, only the gaps and chasms between the great vine-draped trees. “It’s fantastic that the j-mobe can worm its way through such narrow spaces,” Bud remarked. “Jetz, I keep feeling the urge to pull in my stomach!”

“It’s all in proportion to what we’re familiar with,” was Hank’s comment. “We moderns look at a gap and think in terms of whether we could drive a car through it, so it looks dangerously narrow. But if you think about it, trees have to be far enough apart for their root systems to spread out adequately. Something as slinky and pliable as the Glidepath has no more trouble in here than a big man with a backpack.”

Evelyn was leaning back, gazing up among the boughs and leaves. “You can hardly see any sky at all anymore. It’s permanent night down here on the jungle floor.”

“That’s why ground-hugging exploration still matters,” declared Tom. “The Amazon Basin has been well-mapped by plane and satellite, but that just means we know where the hills and rivers are—the big stuff. Down under the leaf canopy...”

“Who knows.” Bud’s voice reflected the tension they all felt.

They traveled on, Hank Sterling now in the driver’s seat. “Just saw what looked like a good-sized family of midget boars scrambling out of the way,” he announced over the intercom. “Bristly little pugs!”

“No doubt there are snakes everywhere around us—and above and below,” Hutchcraft remarked in the tone of a bored tour guide. “They know how to keep out of sight. And don’t forget the insects. Ah, and the arachnids!—monster spiders big as melons.”

“No need to be so illustrative, Hutchcraft,” remonstrated Felix Ming.

“If you’re concerned about my delicate sensibilities, Felix, you needn’t be,” Evelyn advised. “I like spiders. Tarantulas can be quite adorable.”

“Uh-oh!” exclaimed Hank suddenly. “Penetradar alert! Got a storm of blips coming our way!”

“Up high in the branches?” Tom asked excitedly.

“Well... not too high. Maybe scurrying along the very lowest of the boughs. Looks like they’re using vines as bridges, too.”

“How big are they?”

“Can’t get much of a reading on them,” answered Hank. “Way smaller than men, though. Must be dozens of the things!”

“Surely animals,” said Doc in a strained voice.

“Animals? The scope says they’re converging on us like an army maneuver!” After a moment Hank added, “Skipper, shall we take evasive action? I can push this baby to a faster pace.”

Tom thought a furied moment. “No, Hank. We’re well-protected by the resilientronic shields and the body shell itself. Bring ’er to a stop wherever the trees thin out a bit up ahead. I don’t want to outrun the things; I want to see what they are!”

“Always the scientist,” Bud chuckled—faintly.

In a minute Hank had halted the junglemobile in one of the increasingly rare semi-open spaces where the noonday sun managed to make it to the ground, though only in patches. “Now what?” asked Doc Simpson.

“They’re all around us,” reported Hank in a near-whisper. “They’ve stopped too, on the ground as well as in the branches. They’re waiting, probably to see what we’ll do next.”

One by one the expeditioners described what they could see—or rather not see—through the j-mobe’s big flat windows. The consensus was unanimous. “Nothing!” Hutch exclaimed sharply. “With my safari experience I’d expect to be able to make out at least a few glimpses of men or animals in this underbrush.”

“Could the instruments be out of whack somehow?” suggested Red.

Tom responded, “They’ve been picking up the Ferrars group well enough. No, whatever these things are, they’re real.”

“Yeah, pal—just invisible!” gibed Bud. “Hey, maybe they’re like chameleons! We can’t see ’em because they blend—”

The young flier stopped in mid-sentence, startled by a weird sound. Short, sharp whistles seemed to fill the air, penetrating even the sealed hull of the Glidepath! An instant later small shadows began to dart across the Tomaquartz viewpanes and tumble and bounce away in all directions. “Good gosh, what the heck are they?” demanded Doc. “Birds? Insects?”

“Don’t look for answers from the zoology department, Doc,” Evelyn replied. “They’re not living creatures, whatever they are.” In the dim light, the darting objects appeared to be tiny straight rods.

“Jetz, is somebody lobbing pencils our way?” joked Bud. “Maybe we’ve been ambushed by a mob of angry accountants!”

“Those micro-missiles aren’t just being pitched at us,” Tom observed; “they’re being shot! If it weren’t for the anti-momentum field we might be in real trouble!”

The barrage stopped almost instantly, as if at a signal. “The attackers are scattering in all directions,” Hank reported. “Holy Mack, can they move!”

When Hank reported that the nearby jungle showed no sign of the unseen aggressors, Tom cautiously popped open his window-hatch and slipped off his contour saddle-seat to the ground. He bent down low. “The things are all over,” he murmured to himself.

Scooping a few of the objects into his hand, the young explorer approached Hutchcraft’s compartment and motioned for him to open his hatch-panel. “Ever seen anything like these, Hutch?” asked Tom as he dribbled them into the cupped hands of the archaeo-philologist.

The objects seemed identical, each one a rod about six inches long and as thick as a standard pencil. On closer inspection they proved to be tubes, open at each end with a channel running down the center. One end, presumably the front, had an incisor-like prong extending forward above the round fore-opening. In his element as an expert, openings for braggadocio looming ahead, Hutchcraft examined the objects keenly. “Nope, Tom, new to me,” he replied. “Aaaa-fly ahn-usual. Looks like it was whittled out of a chunk of living wood, then fire-haaadened—maybe glazed with some sort of resin. And these little notches along the length...” He held the fore-end to his lips and blew, producing a whistling noise.

“So that’s where the ghost whistles came from,” remarked Bud. Like the others, he could hear what was going on over the open intercom.

“Like a flute,” Tom agreed. “Flying flutes! But I don’t think that’s the purpose of the slots. I’ll bet they create extra stability in flight by contouring the airstream.”

“But you say they’re not thrown, Tom?” objected Felix. “What, then, if I may ask, makes them fly in the first place?”

“Oh, well, I can answer that,” came Hutchcraft’s smug voice. “These things are arrows! Too short to be fletched in the usual way, with feathers, so somewhere along the line a tribal ‘genius boy’ came up with these precisely spaced notches as another way to keep them from tumbling.”

Tom was turning another of the missiles over in his hand. “From these scuffmarks, I’d guess they were shot from something like a midget crossbow, not a standard bow of the type used by a number of Amazon tribes. But we can’t just shrug this off as something primitive—shot with enough force, the sharpened prong up in front could probably penetrate a human skull! These arrows are meant to annihilate intruders, not just warn them off. Unless...”

“Unless what, boss?” asked Hank.

“Unless whoever arranged for this attack already knew that the Glidepath could easily slough off any ‘incoming’ less forceful than a cruise missile.”

“Someone with advance knowledge of the j-mobe’s capabilities,” Bud pronounced darkly. “And that Ferrars guy had a fire lit under him exactly because he knew about the machine, with enough early word about our trip to make him get his own expedition on the road.”

“We’ve had publicity over the last few months,” Tom conceded. “George Dilling’s been doing his job. It wasn’t a secret that the vehicle made use of what they call ‘Tom Swift’s experimental force-shield’.”

“Ah well, let us maintain a certain sang-froid, shall we?” contributed Hutchcraft. “More likely these marauding flute-flingers just didn’t care whether this was taken as a warning—or a death sentence”

“I guess that’s true,” Bud admitted. “They threw the whole works at the big silver snake that tripped their defense perimeter.”

“But who are ‘they’?” mused Evelyn Troyes. “Pigmy-sized creatures that move through the trees like animals—and attack with weapons like men.”

Felix said in a hollow voice, “ ‘Beasts who are men, men who are beasts’ !”

“Thanks, Felix, for establishing the proper atmosphere.”

“Sorry.”

The projectiles were stowed to be taken back to Enterprises, and Tom reboarded the junglemobile. Soon they were again underway, crashing with calm determination through the twining shadows.

Tom contacted his father by parallelophone. “You know, Tom,” said the elder Swift thoughtfully, “this isn’t a trip of exploration or a research expedition; you have no pressing objective in South America as does Dr. Ferrars’ group. The only purpose was to test Hank’s design in the environment for which it was intended.”

“Dad!—you’re not advising me to turn back, are you?” joked Tom.

“No. Insanity runs in the family; can’t be helped. Still, there’s no reason to continue on into that particular stretch of jungle, intriguing name or no. You could turn north, or take a jog southwest.”

“Sure—I could,” replied the youth dryly. “But you know, we selected our route pretty carefully, based on the terrain and the estimated tree density...”

“And there’s the not-irrelevant fact that you now have a real scientific mystery to pursue.”

“Say, you’re right, as a matter of fact! We’ll be extra-cautious, Dad. The shields will protect us.”

“From jungle demons?”

“C’mon, it’s the Unknown that makes science worth doing!” But as he switched off the Private Ear Radio, Tom had to wonder—was this science, or the notorious bravado of the famous Swifts?

The strange craft thrust on through the jungle for another couple hours, putting miles between the expeditioners and the site of the arrow attack. There were no more meadows or even large clearings for miles ahead; only shadows streaked with green. The dangling vines and foliage they shoved aside seemed eager to spring back into place behind them.

After a cramped and wary lunch, the trek continued, Evelyn now taking the helm. “No antiquated cracks about woman drivers, please,” she advised. “I’m willing to turn the j-mobe upside-down if that’s what it takes to get some male respect.”

“You’re doing fine, Evelyn,” declared Felix. “I, er—mean that respectfully, of course.”

There were no incidents for the remainder of the day, a day whose light was now only a distant glow high above them. Tom and Hank took careful note as the Glidepath moved serenely up mossy slopes, between jagged rock outcroppings, and across choked, hidden ravines. With the help of its diminished weight, the junglemobile could virtually function as its own portable bridge.

The destination of the Ferrars safari remained a mystery. Though the penetradar showed that the string of carrier vehicles was no longer precisely mimicking the course of the junglemobile, neither did they depart very far from the route of the Shoptonians, remaining within a few miles, sometimes nearer, sometimes farther.

When the waning day had turned to a blackness that was almost complete, Doc Simpson, at the controls, brought the Glidepath to rest for the night. Supper was taken inside the vehicle. No one wanted to tempt fate in this jungle of moving shadows within shadows.

Tom was between bites of a microwaved tambooli dish when the compartment was filled with a sudden beeping sound, carried down the length of the j-mobe by the intercom.

“The automatic alarm!” called out Red Jones. “The penetradar must be picking up something on the move!”

Bud’s voice called out excitedly, “Is it the other expedition, Doc?”

“No, that’s still a good mile off. I’ve got a couple objects on the scope,” confirmed Doc from the nose cockpit. “Human-sized—and closing in on us!”


 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

 

SNATCHED AWAY

 

 

“ALL RIGHT, Tom,” came the commed Bostonian drawl of Wilson Hutchcraft, somehow both supercilious and fearful at the same time; “you’re the captain. What do you plan to do?”

“Should we break out the i-guns and the impulse rifle?” asked Red. These weapons, derived from the electric rifle of the first Tom Swift, young Tom’s great-grandfather, projected invisible electric pulses through the air to stun, or drop, opponents without the risk of mortal harm.

“Bud and I will go scout-out the situation, armed and wearing the resilientronic shield generators from the liftsuit ensemble,” Tom declared without hesitation. “Doc, what’s the distance?”

“About twelve-hundred feet, off toward dead right. I’ll train the j-mobe’s lamps in that direction. Whatever they are, they’re not coming in a straight line but moving curlicue in a wandering way. They could be animals, Tom.”

“You said human-sized,” Bud objected.

“Yes, and it looks like they’re more-or-less upright.”

“Nothing in this part of the world fits that description,” stated Evelyn quietly; “but man.”

Or something not quite human, Tom’s thoughts filled-in.

Tom and Bud edged into the jungle in the direction indicated by the flood of the craft’s powerful electronic lamps. Bud carried the tubular impulse rifle, Tom the much smaller “handgun” model. They moved cautiously, their invisible force barriers, contoured close to their bodies, prying aside the loose foliage as they made their way forward. Not wanting to draw attention—or fire—they kept their flashlamps off, relying on the beams from the Glidepath’s lights; though after even a few dozen steps among the trees the blocked rays were more shadow than light.

“I hear them, Skipper,” whispered Bud. “Let’s hold up here and wait.”

A distant muttering of ruffled fronds and crackling branches became the sound of voices—human voices—a woman’s voice! “Slow down, you oaf! I can see nothing! You’ll lose me!” It was, very definitely, the voice of the Comtessa, panicky and blunderingly loud!

“To lose you—that development I would not grieve over.”

“It’s Diego Cíbola,” Tom declared in surprise. “But they’re nowhere near the camp of their expedition. Good night, what’re they up to?”

“Just now ‘good night’ isn’t exactly the phrase leaping for my lips, chum,” was Bud’s wry rejoinder.

Tom and Bud plunged toward the voices, calling out with their own. They were answered, and within a minute Diego Cíbola strode forth from a gap in the trees, and Madame Clevisse Bonoba, Comtessa di Halsfenthor, erupted forth behind him in a graceless stumble. Diego stared at the boys with his usual sour and world-skeptical expression. The Comtessa was flowing with torrential indignation in several languages, notwithstanding that she was panting. Both parties were disheveled and darkly stained.

Bud couldn’t help cracking wise. “Late night jogging, Madame Banana?”

“You!” she hissed. “So minimally significant I have dismissed the memory of your name—still, insults!”

“Forget that,” Tom demanded. “What’s going on, Cíbola? Why were you trying to reach our camp?”

The man paused to withdraw and light a cigar. “Whatever it is, it’s made it worth the risk of my life, for as you see, Tom, I have left my rifle behind.”

“Attacked! We were attacked!” babbled the Comtessa.

“Attacked by whom?” asked the young inventor.

“Ek, señors, you won’t get much of a story from this knotty barrel of a woman,” snorted the guide. “Blubber from blubber! We had stopped for the night; some sat by the fire to eat, some stayed in the tents we bring with us. Great trees overhung us, and from those trees little things came down, dropping like rotted fruit, sí?”

“You mean, things that were dropped on you or thrown at you?” asked Bud, the arrow attack in his mind.

“No, no,” cried the Comtessa, “they were alive, animals, horrible things!”

“Little fierce men,” declared Diego calmly. “What do you call them? Trolls? Pixies? The hermit tribes who live in these forests call them the xibta. But that is just their idióte superstition.”

“It’s a mighty persistent superstition,” Bud pointed out. “They attacked us before they attacked you.”

“We’ll guide you back to our vehicle,” said Tom, pointing. “See the lights there?”

The Comtessa frowned, volcanically. “Could not this ‘vehicle’ come to pick us up? It is unseemly for the Comtessa di Halsfenthor to trod these foul—”

Tom’s interruption was even less seemly. “Get moving, ma’am, or we’ll leave you!”

“Well!”

“The term is ‘good night,’ Comtessa,” said Bud mischievously.

When the four arrived at the junglemobile Tom gave a brief explanation to the waiting crew as he extended one of the compartment-tents. “We have washroom facilities on board—I’ll explain how it works—and we can supply you with fresh outfits...”

Diego Cíbola’s skepticism now had a specific cause. “Díos! You have clothing big enough for this woman? But perhaps you can take apart a tent, sí?”

Tom’s reply intercepted the Comtessa’s indignation. “Our outfits are modular; woven segments can be inserted or removed to fit any size. Now then—would you like Dr. Simpson to examine either of you? Are you injured?”

“Not much,” shrugged Diego. “Maybe the Comtessa’s voice is a little strained, eh?”

Within a half-hour, the newcomers were clean and somewhat calmed. They provided an account, available to all the expeditioners via the intercom. Diego Cíbola supplied most of the facts, the Comtessa most of the interruptions.

The tree-creatures had moved too quickly, too erratically, to be clearly seen in the flailing light of the campfire. Tom gathered that they were about the size of very young children but extremely thin, with peculiarly long spidery fingers like some arboreal animal. Their half-seen faces were not human; Evelyn Troyes mentioned that their descriptions suggested a species of tree-monkey found in this part of the Amazon basin. “Those eyes!—horrible staring eyes!” whimpered the Comtessa.

“Covered with dark silky hair,” Diego noted. “No clothes; but that is not unusual out here. Who needs pants?”

Yet if the midget attackers appeared to be animals, their actions were those of men. They swept through the Ferrars camp in a coordinated manner like a military assault, grouping together to threaten the individual safariers. “It sounds like they were following a definite strategy,” Tom said. “They acted to separate the members of your party from one another so that you couldn’t fight them off.”

“I was speaking to Virginia—Miss Dentata—when they came surging in, above and around, forcing us to flee in opposite directions,” narrated the Comtessa in a quavering voice. “Everyone was running every which way. There were no brave men anywhere, I must say!—I was quite abandoned. They, they pulled at me, those disgusting beasts with their vulgar little spidery fingers! But I made it into the woods. I did not think it wise to cry out, but after a time I saw Mr. Cíbola and joined him.”

“Mm-hmm, she joined me,” continued Cíbola, “leaving behind her a flattened path through the bushes like a steam roller! The xibta also clutched at me, señors, and as I made my hasty exit I saw that some of the others had been actually grabbed-up by bands of them acting together, like a team, sí?”

“What happened to those people?” asked Bud, his eyes wide.

“Ek, you will not believe, but I will tell you. I saw some—Mary, Jorge, Ferrars—being dragged up into the trees!”

“Great space!” Tom whispered in shock. “We’ll have to do something—rescue them!”

“I must point out,” came the intercommed voice of Wilson Hutchcraft, “that it’s hardly likely that these victims of the beast-men are still alive.”

“You always rush to the most distasteful conclusion, Hutchcraft,” said Felix with irritation.

 “And I think it’s also the wrong one!” Tom declared forcefully. “Whatever these creatures are, they obviously have purpose and intelligence; don’t forget their use of weapons. They maneuvered to abduct members of the party, perhaps as many as they could. If the purpose was to kill them, they could have done it right on the spot.”

Hank Sterling spoke up, incredulous. “Skipper, it sounds like you think this was a kidnapping—a hostage-taking operation! How could that possibly be?”

Cíbola uttered a puff of cigar smoke. “How? I tell you how. We are in The Forest Where God Can Not See! That is how.”

“In other words,” Doc Simpson declared grimly, “anything can happen.”

After further questions and answers, Tom encouraged everyone to try to sleep as best they could. “We can’t do much in this total darkness,” he pointed out. “Besides, the penetradar doesn’t show anything on the move within range. The beast-men must have carried their captives some distance, away from us. We’ll do some scouting with the liftsuits, but I think we’ll need the Glidepath if we’re going to get into a fight.”

“I would demand that you avoid further danger and return me to civilization,” huffed the Comtessa di Halsfenthor; “but I can hardly be expected to get along without the assistance of my secretary, Miss Dentata. She is, after all, a living filing cabinet. I can find nothing in her absence. We must see to her recovery.”

“Your loyalty is most inspiring, madame,” pronounced Hutchcraft.

There was little sleep for anyone that night, although Diego Cíbola managed a series of snores. As a patchy pallor crept back high above, the Enterprises expedition again gathered beside the Glidepath. “When it gets bright, Bud and I will start searching by liftsuit, following a pattern with the Ferrars camp as the center,” Tom explained. “We’ll stay above the trees and not touch down unless someone calls out. Even if we skimmed along near the ground, we couldn’t expect to spot anyone visually, not with all the foliage and shadow.”

Doc Simpson objected, “But the penetradar doesn’t show anyone moving around within a radius of several miles, does it?”

Tom nodded. “But someone lying on the ground, or barely moving, wouldn’t appear on the scan. And all we can do at this stage, frankly, is make ourselves known through the loudspeakers as we pass over and hope someone makes noise below. We’ll land at whatever’s left of the other camp and see if there’s any kind of trail to follow.”

Wilson Hutchcraft shook his head skeptically. “A trail to what? That frail old man with his cane, those two women... Seems to me, Tom, your responsibility right now is to the living!” Tom only stared back, coldly.

“Perhaps these are fools’ errands, as Hutchcraft likes to say, and at great length,” remarked Diego. “I tell you this. If anything is left to be done to find the missing ones, it will be done from your jungle bus, I think. Amígos, I think you will have to go pushing through the trees, deeper into the Zona. My impression, the xibta were heading to the south when they dragged people from the camp.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Tom declared.

The haughty Comtessa, at her most formidable, drew herself up and together, like the raising of a circus tent on its center pole. “Young man, I have shown great forbearance, as you are young, and an American, and  a person of—mechanical background. The horrors and inconveniences I have endured are not your fault. But I can hardly give credence to the suggestion that you and your friend plan to, to fly off and leave us—that is, me—here unarmed and undefended in this—”

“I though you wanted us to rescue your secretary, ma’am,” offered Hank.

“I demand it! But the people of ancient Brungary demand that this mission take place without undue risk.”

“To you?”

“Of course.”

Tom listened without interruption, then said quietly, “Very well, Comtessa, I suppose you have a point. We’ll leave the two i-guns here with you. Hank, Red—take them. Bud and I will be scouting from an altitude. We shouldn’t need them; besides, our force shields will protect us.”

“And the j-mobe is similarly protected,” Felix reminded the frowning Comtessa. She nodded curtly.

 Tom continued: “I’ve informed my father of the situation, and just spoke to the Colombia authorities by shortwave. But we’re the whole show, at least right now—even my cycloplane or atomicar are too wide to descend safely through the forest canopy, much less make any headway at ground level. We have to act immediately, with whatever’s at hand.”

“Then I have a suggestion, Tom,” Evelyn Troyes spoke up. “Put me in the second liftsuit, not Bud—Felix, please impress me and don’t say anything. In my work I’ve developed some pretty sharp eyes and ears, and my training as a zoologist could be a big help finding traces of where these animals have gone through the foliage—their track.”

“But—you’d have to be trained to use the liftsuit,” Bud objected.

All eyes moved to Tom Swift. He gazed at Evelyn as he turned the matter over in his mind. “What you say makes sense, and you’d pick up the operation of the suit in a minute. You know how simple the things are to operate, Bud.

“All right, Evelyn—done! Let’s get moving. We may be the only chance these people have!”

Minutes later Tom and Evelyn rose through the vault of trees and immediately were lost to sight.

And as they disappeared above, a new interruption intruded upon the tense camp of the junglemobile! All eyes turned with a single movement in the direction of the forest—where a startling sound, like the crack of a rifle, had split the dull quiet of the dawning morning.

“Holy Mack!” choked Hank Sterling, the first to find his voice. “Someone’s shooting at Tom and Evelyn!”

 

 

 


 

 

 

CHAPTER 9

 

 

THE WRECKED CAMP

 

 

“WHERE did it come from?” demanded Felix Ming. “Up in the trees?”

Diego shook his head. “Nah, señor, from the ground, over that way.” He pointed languidly. “I have pretty good ears myself, maybe better than your Evelyn, eh?”

“Then they couldn’t be shooting at Tom, not from under the trees like that,” Bud pronounced in hasty relief. “Maybe it wasn’t a gunshot—a branch breaking or something.”

Wilson Hutchcraft smirked his invincible superiority. “Sorry, Barclay—gunshot. Definitely. Bang!”

The matter was cleared up in seconds as a small, slender figure edged her way out of the brush and into faint visibility. “Luz Vera!” Bud exclaimed in surprise.

“Who?” asked Hank.

“Hmmph! Hmmph! Our resident fading artiste of stage and screen,” sniffed the Comtessa. “How nice to see you, my dear.” The nice was sour.

“And even nicer—she brings me my gun,” Diego noted.

The attractive woman, now bedraggled and limping, approached the group uncertainly, the rifle hanging loosely in her hands, its barrel thudding along against the tangled vines and roots. “This dim light—I can hardly see you,” she murmured unsteadily. “Bud—is that you?—Diego?—and I can certainly recognize your voice, Comtessa!”

“Come over—let me help you,” offered Bud. “Sit here in the open compartment.”

Doc stepped forward, medical kit in hand. “Let me look you over, ma’am—I’m a doctor. Have you been injured?”

As Red Jones helped Luz step up through the hatchway into one of the compartments, he asked her: “What happened? Did you escape from those—whatever they are?”

She gestured for water from Doc’s belt canteen, sipping before she answered. “I—I can’t say I really know what happened. This must be the Swift vehicle, isn’t it?...

“We were camped... wasn’t it last night, Diego?... I was sitting on a mat in front of my tent flap. I think I must’ve fallen asleep. Then there were noises, people running and yelling; Diego was shooting, Ferrars too, maybe others. Little animals—”

“Xibta,” interjected Diego Cíbola.

“Dark things that scampered—I could barely make them out. I...” Luz Vera faltered. “It was all chaos. The little man-things were rushing everywhere, clutching at everyone—”

“Horrid primeval pigmies!” the Comtessa felt moved to comment. “Monkey-men!”

“Please go ahead,” urged Hank.

“Yes. I’m feeling better now.” The actress drew a breath. “I saw a couple of the men, Dr. Ferrars’ assistants, yanked up into the trees, out of sight. And the skinny woman, Dentata—yes, Comtessa, she was also taken up, dragged out of sight. She did not scream...”

“I should hope not!” huffed the older woman.

“What about Mr. Lemma?” Bud asked.

“I—I don’t know. I ran into the bushes behind my tent and made my way around, to the side away from where these ‘xibtas’ were dragging the others. I risked coming out just once, to get the rifle lying on the ground. Then I just charged off into the forest. I’ve been walking for hours, in the dark... noises... I touched things that moved! But I believed I knew the direction of your camp. Finally I heard voices...” Luz slumped back into the seat, wearily.

“You’ve made it through in good shape, ma’am,” stated Doc Simpson, putting away his examination instruments. “Scrapes and bruises; that’s about all.”

“Lucky you didn’t trip over a snake, cara mi cara,” Diego said. “You might’ve dropped my rifle.”

“I suppose we ought to tell Tom that there’s one member of the other party he needn’t look for,” remarked Hutchcraft. “By quantum telephone, hm?”

Frowning and impatient, Bud shook his head. “The only PER unit is here with us. The matching unit is back in Shopton.”

“They’re probably out of range of the transiphone system by now,” declared Hank. “It’s mostly for suit-to-suit communication, not longer distances.”

“Then unless he has an exceptionally good cellphone plan,” the archaeo-philologist smirked, “we’ll have to leave him to his own devices. But I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

The appearance of Luz Vera turned out to be a mere footnote to the evolving situation. More alarming was the fact that, as hours passed and noon came and went, there was no sign of the returning air scouts. “How worried should we be, do you suppose?” asked Felix Ming of Bud.

“What a question!” Diego snickered. “ ‘How worried’—the answer is, as little as possible! I have never seen worry give any help to a man. It is as useless as fear.”

“I’m feeling a twinge of that useless emotion,” declared Bud, frowning. “The site of the other camp is just minutes away by—air. I don’t think Tom intended the search to go on for hours.”

“But maybe they found something,” Red Jones pointed out. “A trail to follow.”

Hutchcraft rolled his eyes, which seemed well-accustomed to it. “A trail up in the treetops? You Swift Enterprises people have read a few too many of those juvenile adventures.”

“Shut it, Hutchcraft!” Bud snapped.

“Whoever of you is in charge of this absurd expedition, you must surely make a decision,” pronounced the Comtessa di Halsfenthor imperiously. “And your decision must be—shall be!—to start your, your vehicle and go where the monkey-men have gone. We must locate and reacquire Miss Dentata. I cannot do without her. It would be an insult to my countrymen, to my high station as a remnant of my lost Brungary, if I were to be seen handling my own—”

“Ek, old lady, please don’t tell us what you don’t wish to be seen ‘handling’,” Diego Cíbola interrupted as he spat a bit of cigar. “A man can stand only so much. I speak frankly, señora, as one remnant to another.”

“Tom didn’t appoint anyone to act in his place,” Bud said. “Hank, I think you’re highest on the totem-pole around here. Or maybe Doc...?”

“This is no time to concern ourselves with job classifications and administrative flow charts!” exclaimed Felix Ming, in a muted way that was no less, for him, an exclamation. “By the Great Yellow River, you guys, even if Tom can take care of himself as always, what about Evelyn? I don’t say she isn’t a resourceful woman, but... er...”

“But what-‘er,’ my little man?” challenged Luz Vera, well recovered from her trek. “I walked through the jaguars and wart-hogs in dark night, and here I am; you say this woman Evelyn is just flying around up in the air like a moth. Are you her appointed Sir Galahad?”

“I was just expressing an opinion,” Felix sulkily replied. “I think we should head on over to the other camp in the junglemobile.”

“Well,” said Luz, “I don’t disagree, actually. Much as I hate to concur with our dear Comtessa.”

After some discussion, Hank concluded: “It seems we’re all agreed, then.”

“I won’t say that I agree,” suavely commented Hutchcraft. “I don’t choose to venture an opinion. But I know enough not to swim against the tide.”

“Man, you’d make a great politician,” joked Red.

“I’ve considered it.”

The group boarded the Glidepath, feeling some relief as the resilientronic cocoon swept into place around them. Bud took the controls; Luz Vera and the Comtessa taking the compartments made available by the absence of Tom and Evelyn. Cíbola found accommodation in the tail capsule used for cargo storage, which was already outfitted with an unused saddle-seat. “Gentleman that I am, I wouldn’t ask a movie star to ride back here,” he said. “And I can imagine the noise if we were to insist that our Comtessa ride ‘steerage’, eh?”

“She’s used to it,” remarked Luz—after noting that the subject of comment was out of earshot.

The j-mobe got moving, executing a neat twist-about in the underbrush and plunging into the trees on a southward heading. “We must be pretty deep in the God Forest by now,” Red stated. “Anyone know?”

“Pfah, it’s not a place on the map, amigo,” retorted Diego. “Who can know when you cross over?”

“But,” Bud commented grimly, “you sure can tell when you’re there.”

“What in the world is this business about God and forests?” demanded the Comtessa di Halsfenthor over the speakers. “Kindly desist! It makes me nervous. The old man was bad enough, compulsively spouting his ‘poetry’ and indecipherable expressions day and night.” She sounded queasy; the rising and falling of this mode of travel was making her junglemobile-sick; and, like Chow, she was not designed for the narrow craft; and vice-versa.

Bud knew the general direction of the campsite of the Ferrars group, and both the penetradar and the repelascope confirmed it with increasing certitude as they drew nearer. Within fifteen minutes the Glidepath came to a halt in the obscure clearing where the Ferrars safari had last camped. The scene was one of tumult. The tents lay collapsed on the ground, and several of the midget trek-cars rested precariously on their sides. “One of the carriers is missing,” noted Diego Cíbola, he and most of the others—the nervous Comtessa the exception—having left the j-mobe to examine the site. “Sí, it is the one used by Mr. Lemma. We made it comfortable for him to travel in, extra cushions, all that.”

“He slept in it,” Luz added. “The seat could be made into a hammock of sorts.”

“You know,” began Hank Sterling, “if he was inside when the invasion started, he might have been able to escape by driving off into the jungle.”

“To that, sí,” Diego replied. “El Viéjo had to drive the car himself as we traveled—no room for two. He was able to do that. Sometime his keeper Mary walked alongside, when the going was slow. Like leading a tethered burro.”

Bud and Hutchcraft hastened to the spot where Mr. Lemma’s trek-car had stood. “No real tracks,” Bud announced as he examined the grassy earth. “But these things are built light—looks like they’re pretty much just plastic shells with little motors and balloon tires.”

“But as you can see, they do leave a mark when dragged sideways by the leprechaun weightlift champions of the jungle,” added Hutchcraft with a gesture. “This way.”

The ragged marks led into the fringe of trees—and came to an abrupt stop. “Look at the scrapes all over the trunk,” Bud pointed, his gaze traveling upward. “Ripped leaves, torn vines—jetz, hard to believe but true. They yanked the whole car right up into the big boughs!—like a stretcher.”

“A pocket full of poet.”

There was little else to see in the camp—only disarray and signs of violent struggle. “There’s no way to tell who escaped and who got dragged off,” Red Jones observed. “No bodies, but... man oh man! It’s as bad for the escapees as for the others.”

“Forget the escapees,” advised Diego gruffly. “I survived the night trek through the jungle, because I am me, eh? The Comtessa survived because she was with me—and maybe also her bulk intimidated the animals. And Luz—ah, my dear, you are too lovely to be eaten.”

“You survived because you were found by the Americans; I survived because I found the Americans,” Luz Vera retorted. “People running free—I don’t know.”

“If anyone were nearby—and moving—the penetradar would pick them up,” noted Bud. “Nothing on the scope right now, but they might have been able to get themselves out of range.”

“They might be unconscious,” said Felix Ming. “Or sleeping.”

Hutchcraft snorted. “The first is raa-ther more likely, wouldn’t you say? However, there’s another possibility, fellow adventurers; other than death, I mean. Tom and Evelyn could have run across someone—even a little group—and guided them to some sort of protected place. I presume even your penetrating radar has some limit to its probing. Then again, what do I know? I haven’t read the books.”

“You’re too much of too little, Hutchcraft,” said Doc Simpson disgustedly.

“All this talk just stuffs-up the air, amígos,” Cíbola declared. “I go with the odds, as a smart man. No one seems to be near—so probably they are far, is it not so? Logic! Most of those who have not been found were seen being pulled into the trees by these Xibta bandítos, true? So we follow the little men, maybe to a good ending.”

Red scratched his thatched head. “Thing is, I’m not so sure this Forest Where God Can Not See likes good endings.”

“But I sure do,” declared Bud. He glanced at Wilson Hutchcraft as he added: “Besides, the books require it.”

After allowing the Comtessa di Halsfenthor to briefly emerge and stretch, a memorable sight, the Glidepath slinked on into the jungle brush, gently parted by the repelatrons as if cleaved by unseen hands. Bud and his fellows could only assume that the marauders had continued to travel in the direction indicated by the traces at the edge of the Ferrars campsite. There was no better assumption. Their main hope was not to literally catch up with the creatures, but to advance within range of the junglemobile’s scanner instruments.

Bud studied a topographic map, projected before his eyes in 3-D. “We’re headed a tad south of east now,” he reported to the others. “In fact, we’ll be crossing over the border into Brazil within the hour.”

“You have the proper papers, eh?” asked Diego.

Hank replied for Bud. “Not in the least! But we have a proper excuse.”

Presently the shadows were broken by faint, skittering light up ahead. Bud checked the map, inadequate though it was. “Got a little river—well, really just a stream—comin’ up. Might have to go alongside for a ways to find the best place to cross.”

“I do presume this barbaric vehicle is waterproof?” intercommed the Comtessa, more nervous than ever.

“It’s tightly sealed,” Bud replied.

“And anyway, my dear, you among all of us will surely prove unsinkable,” remarked Luz Vera.

Diego chuckled. “Ek, if this ship sinks, Comtessa, we will all hold on to you!”

The stream was a fast-moving one, and it had gouged a deep ravine into the ground, exposing twisted roots and vines that concealed much of its contour. After a pause, Bud turned the j-mobe sidewise to it and began to advance along the edge of the ravine. “No harm scouting out the bank for a few thousand feet,” he commed. “We can arch over it as we’ve been doing, but the lay of the land makes it—”

The jaunty Californian stopped with a gasp. The entire Glidepath suddenly tilted sideways, twisting. The ground under them—the edge of the ravine—was crumbling away beneath its mat of vegetation!

“Good night!” Bud yelped. “We’re sliding into the stream! Hang on!”

 


 

 

CHAPTER 10

 

 

NETTED RESCUERS

 

 

“HEY, EVELYN!” cried Tom Swift into his transiphone, “come back down!”

The young inventor had just surmounted the highest boughs of the great trees concealing the junglemobile camp below. He had adjusted his liftsuit controls almost by habit, leveling off; but Evelyn Troyes, inexperienced, had failed to do so. She was rapidly buoying skyward at a steep angle.

“Oh my!” she called back breathlessly. “What a fantastic feeling!”

Tom didn’t share her giddy mood. “Increase the gravitex unit, Evelyn, and come down to my level. For safety, we don’t want anyone below to be able—akk!”

The Shoptonian reared back in his suit harness, startled, as a thick cloud of birds, their colors brilliant even in the half-hearted light of dawn, erupted from the foliage below, almost straight into his face! “Gr-great space!” he sputtered. He made a wild swerve in midair. When he regained equilibrium and direction, the screeching, fluttering cloud was already far distant.

Evelyn was bobbing gently in the air near him. “This jungle has surprises from all directions,” she smiled. “Something must have set them off. Maybe just the sight of two misplaced humans invading their space.”

“Maybe,” said Tom. “I thought I heard—must’ve been the flock rattling around in the branches. Anyway, follow me. The air-tuned trons don’t give much of a push, but the Ferrars camp is pretty close.”

“If—it’s still there at all.”

As they flew they switched their transiphone headsets to an amplified feed from their external microphones, calling out now and then over their mini-loudspeakers. There was no response from below, and their headphones only registered the passing breeze, busy insects, and the rustling of leaves.

They touched down at the campsite. “No one’s here,” Tom concluded as they poked around in the morning shadows. “The tents are roughed up. But it looks like the supplies and equipment haven’t been touched.” He turned to look thoughtfully at his companion. “Attacking animals wouldn’t be all that selective, would they be?”

The zoologist shrugged. “Just depends. Animals don’t usually waste time attacking inanimate objects. They’d go after things that run and scream if they were defending their turf against invaders. But berserk attacks do happen, especially during mating season.”

“Is it mating season?”

“It isn’t for me.”

They carefully examined the turf-gouges and marks in the trees. “This seems to be where the things came down,” Tom pronounced. “And from the direction of the broken branches and the scattering of leaves and blossoms, I’d say they went back along this route as well.”

Evelyn nodded. “Massed together in groups—a number of groups. Working together as little platoons to carry along some pretty large and heavy objects—struggling objects!”

They again rose above the treetops, flying in the general direction of the creatures’ route as they had reconstructed it. They landed at intervals to search-out the track by the evidence of passage, now mostly high in the tree foliage. “It’s the weight of the captives that’s making the signs of the trail easy to read,” Evelyn noted. “I can tell that, traveling unencumbered, the half-men hustle along the branches light as shadows.”

Tom tried to contact the Glidepath camp by transiphone, but there was no reply. “As I expected,” he commented. “We’re pretty much out of range. But we’ll be back soon enough.

“Let’s continue on this heading for several miles; we might catch up with the tree commandos, or find some escapees that were too far distant to show up on the scanners in the j-mobe.”

“Sounds right,” nodded Evelyn. “These cryptids—that’s what we call undiscovered, unclassifiable beasties—have tremendous powers of strength and stamina. Unearthly! We may have to make a place on the zoological charts for jungle demons, boss!” In a grim and determined mood, Tom made no answer.

At length, the sun now well above the green horizon, they began to make out the glint of water below. After passing over a narrow, weed-choked stream that had sculpted deep banks in its headlong rush, they again dipped down near the jungle floor to seek traces of their quarry. “Tom...” Evelyn’s voice bore curiosity as she examined the surroundings. “No way am I a botanist...”

“You see something?”

She looked at the youth with furrowed brow. “A zoologist has to know something about the plantlife animals feed on and hide in—their habitat. What I’ve seen so far on this jaunt in the j-mobe has been boringly normal for this region, the northern margin of the Amazon basin rainforest; but these vines and blossoms...”

“Not so boring?”

“You might say that. They fall under the expected general categories, but there are oddities. At least I don’t recognize certain features.” She shrugged. “But I haven’t studied all the micro-ecologies of the region. Isolation, soil composition, even the density of the shade can cause the development of rare subspecies. They flourish in the environmental niches.”

Tom nodded his understanding. “And don’t forget, Dr. Ferrars was heading into this area to find the source of something unusual produced by jungle vegetation. This part of the Zóna may host all sorts of anomalies.” After a pause he added pointedly: “And not just anomalous plants!”

The two lifted off and continued. On the horizon ahead a run of low, rounded hills poked their heads above the treetops. “Let’s go all the way to the hills, then turn back,” Tom transiphoned. “I want to get back to the Glidepath before noon.”

Presently Evelyn remarked that the ground, largely hidden beneath the choking brush, seemed to be rising to meet the upcoming hills. “Should we put on some altitude, boss?” she asked. “Or do you—”

The zoologist’s inquiry found its answer in a sudden shriek of whistles from beneath them! Before they could react, the Shoptonians were under assault from the weird arrow-missiles of the tree-hopping beast-men. Though their resilientronic shields protected them and negated the force of the impacts, the sheer density of the flock of missiles was disconcerting and disorienting. “Back!” Tom commanded. “Back where we came from!”

The fliers rose higher and made an aerial u-turn. “Yeeeowp!” choked Evelyn. “I guess we caught up with them!”

“Sure did!” chuckled Tom grimly. “And they’re scanning the skies as well as the trees—their own Distant Early Warning system!”

After putting on some distance, the two slowed to a hover. “Tom—you know what this means. If the things dragged captives along, they must be right up ahead.”

The young inventor looked helpless, hanging from his harness as he floated. “Listen... head back to the camp, Ev. Tell them what we’ve found, and where it is. Your harness instruments recorded the heading and distance automatically.”

The zoologist gave him a chiding look. “I knew you were imaginative, boss, but not completely deranged. You don’t really think you can somehow single-handedly attack and free—”

Tom cut off her protest impatiently. “No, I’m not crazy! I’m fully protected by my shield, right? All I plan to do is get close enough to the main band to see what I can see—whether they’re carrying anyone along—anyone alive. It should just take a few minutes. Then I’ll bail up and fly after you.”

She smiled wanly. “My, so quick and easy. Ignoring the fact that you obviously want me to head back to report just in case you don’t survive this safe little chore.” She shook her head. “No way, Mr. Swift. When we get back, I’ll expect to be keelhauled for mutiny. But I’m sticking with you.”

Tom raised his eyebrows but could only shrug. “Then follow close—just be careful to keep outside the resilientronic reaction perimeter.”

They again headed toward the hills, almost brushing the top of the tree foliage. As they neared the site of the arrow attack, Tom guided his companion down through the boughs to a cramped landing on the rubbery mat of vines. “Whisper into the mike as we go,” he cautioned her. “The things can probably hear as acutely as they can see.”

They floated upward a couple feet and began to wend their way forward, guided along by the positional data captured by their instruments. They saw ponderous hopping birds and jungle hens pecking and darting, and glimpsed movement now and then in the shadows—tree snakes and small arboreals. Once a growling cry floated out of the distance. “Jaguar,” Evelyn whispered.

After many tense minutes, the zoologist suddenly caught Tom’s attention with a sharp gesture. “Up ahead—leaves coming down. Something’s shaking the branches.”

“Let’s stop here for a sec,” Tom replied. He knew there was no need to advise her to retreat to the shadows; everything was shadow!

Suddenly a small twig, then another, tumbled down to the ground in the narrow passage in front of them. “Good night!” Tom gasped. “They’re here! Up!” But before either could buoy up more than a yard, something shot across the bit of sky above them, a woven grid that flapped down on their heads. A net!

Even with the liftsuit gravitexes set to zero, the uplifting power of the antiballast barely overcame their weight. The bulk of the netting was more than enough to force them down, and though their shields prevented it from touching their bodies, it did nothing to prevent the net from enclosing them as it was cinched tighter by many barely-seen hands.

Their four eyes looked upward, recoiling at the sight of dozens of small beings swarming the shadows in the dense overhanging boughs. The cryptids, the men-who-are-beasts, the beasts-who-are-men, had dropped their silence and now chattered wildly—chattered in animal triumph over the tall, pale beings that were now their captives!


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

 

FROM TIMES LONG LOST

 

 

THE JUNGLEMOBILE did not roll over completely, but it was nonetheless helpless. It was instantly apparent that much of what they had been crawling over was merely densely twined vegetation hanging out beyond the margins of the steep bank of the stream. As it gave way the snakelike craft wobbled and skidded down toward the hurtling water.

The Glidepath group-intercom was choked with screams, male and female. But it was surprise and the sick sensation of a fall that triggered the reaction, for in fact the descent was less than twenty feet, and the j-mobe was light enough to be slowed by its contact with the bushy slope as it rumbled down. Still, it hit the water with a great, long splash.

“Is everyone al—” began Bud.

“I am alive!” came the Comtessa’s shrill reassurance. “But this is most intolerable, young man!”

“She is alive,” grumbled Cíbola. “But is there any good news?”

One by one the travelers reported in. There had been no injuries and, it seemed, no obvious damage to the Glidepath. “So ol’ Explora-Dora gets to slither on,” Bud reported wryly. “But—gotta get her up on dry land so she can do it.” The j-mobe was more than light enough in weight to ride on top of the water; but the water was in forceful motion, rushing the long and narrow hull downstream at a quick pace. The lengthy craft was being shoved along like a floating log.

It dawned on Bud that the situation was more dire than he had first assumed. Jetz! There’s nothing to grab on to! his thoughts fretted. The j-mobe’s extensible hull-prongs were ineffective as paddles, and the craft had no other means of forward propulsion. He used the gravitex units to retard their downstream rush, and swiveled the prow mini-repelatrons—which were fix-tuned to repel plant matter—to maneuver the nose and avoid the occasional jutting rock. But how could they get enough traction on the steep, wet, green-covered banks to drag the Glidepath up to the forest, its natural habitat?

“And so, Captain Barclay—or shall we say Admiral Barclay,” came a rivulet of Bostonian sarcasm, “how now?”

“Bud, we could PER Enterprises,” suggested Hank uncertainly. “The Flying Lab could come back with the vacuum lifter...”

Bud’s manly pride didn’t care to admit a need to be hauled out of danger like a trout on a line. “It’d take hours, and who knows where we’ll be by then?”

“Where we will be,” came the fretful voice of Felix Ming, “is far away from wherever Tom and Evelyn are.”

“Okay, everybody, just let me think,” Bud demanded brusquely. “We’re in no real danger. The resilientronic force field protects us.”

“As a matter of fact, folks—we’re not even wet,” Hank pointed out. “Er, technically.”

“Your child can do no wrong, eh?” muttered Diego.

The craft rushed along, riding high in the water like an elongated boogie-board. Presently the looming banks fell away, and as the stream broadened, it slowed. At last they drifted into a small, shallow lagoon among the forest giants. A scan by the repelascope revealed that its visible shores were not dry land but wet mud and weeds—swampland. The Glidepath nudged against mudbars and submerged rotting stumps as the now-muted currents carried it along.

The Comtessa did not hesitate to voice her opinion of the cruise. Nor did Diego Cíbola hesitate to voice his opinion of the Comtessa.

“Bud—I take it we can’t just go charging through the marshy ground up to something solider?” Doc Simpson asked.

“Nope, afraid not,” Bud intercommed back. “I’ve been trying to get a grip on the mounds of mud as we slide over; no go.”

“Happened to me in my car,” remarked Red. “Man, I was spinning wheels for hours.”

 “Just to spread cheer and thrill future readers,” Bud announced, “I’m going to try something, Tom Swift style. It’s going to be uncomfortable, gang—probably a little jarring. The anticrash system should keep you pretty steady, but cinch-up your straps and hold on—you’ll feel this!”

“You dare require the aristocracy of ancient Brungary to—” began the Comtessa. But the rest was submerged in a river of what might have been ancient Brungarian curse words. The Duraflexon hull of the junglemobile began to thrash in the water from side to side in the manner of a great water snake! The craft took on an “s” shape, trading its curves back and forth. In manual control of the stretch and twist of the tiny segments of which the skin was composed, Bud was using the repelatrons to steer the Glidepath toward what appeared to be the most accommodating stretch of shoreline, lurch by lurch.

As the j-mobe picked up speed, Bud was able to angle its nose upward, and as the shore approached the prow of the almost weightless craft was completely out of the water, the resilientronic force making a visible waterless trough beneath it. Though unable to see anything ahead of them, the Comtessa shrieked on general principles, her shriek wavering with the hingelike swing of her capsule.

The craft speared onto the marshy, shallow lake perimeter as if trying to beach itself, but its thrashing tail section continued to drive it forward. As the reeds and weeds flattened out ahead under the push of the mini-repelatrons, tangles of flattened branches and disintegrating logs were half-revealed. The j-mobe slid across the slick undergirding—and Bud extended the slither-prongs through the force-shield, stretching them to maximum length and grab. Getting some bite! he thought joyfully.

The junglemobile slowed, almost to a stop—but not quite. With a few bad moments, the Glidepath wormed hesitantly forward; and, with a startling lunge, picked up speed. Dry land!

“On our way again, folks,” Bud intercommed. He added mischievously, “Any complaints?”

“Don’t ask,” snorted Wilson Hutchcraft.

“I think our Comtessa has regally fainted,” reported Luz Vera.

“Finally some good news,” was Diego’s comment.

After penetrating fully and firmly into the rainforest, and away from anything the repelascope called water, Bud halted the junglemobile. Ignoring the Comtessa, who was now audibly active if indeed she had ever fainted at all, Red Jones asked Bud what the craft’s localculator revealed of their position. “How far did that stream take us, Bud? Do we have a heading back to the trail of the tree-guys?”

“We’re not in bad shape,” replied the young flier. “And I guess we can be glad we figured out how to cross the stream after all! Anyway, the Lookor will guide us back to the spot the trail continued—assuming the tree-troop didn’t make a sharp turn at the stream.”

“What I would like to know,” said Luz, “is how they themselves would have gotten across the stream—especially with all they were carrying.”

“Perhaps they’ve stocked-up on genuine Swift Enterprises antigravity suits,” suggested Wilson Hutchcraft with what he himself regarded as wit.

Within the hour Bud was able to announce that the junglemobile had returned to the stream bank at the desired spot. From this side the answer to Luz Vera’s question was in plain view—some hundred feet further upstream two thick trees met in an arch, a natural bridge. “Good grief, it really does pay to look both ways,” Bud commented ruefully.

The junglemobile stopped near the tree-arch, and everyone—even the Comtessa—came out to stretch. Bud, Doc Simpson, and Diego Cíbola keenly examined the underbrush and trees. “Plenty of signs,” remarked Cíbola; “scrapes, broken branches—and look there!” A plastic water bottle was lodged in the crook of a bough a few feet above him. “We had them in straps in the Trekkers. Must have fallen from the old man’s car.”

“Good gosh!” murmured Bud. “I don’t see how Mr. Lemma could possibly have survived that kind of treatment.”

Diego shrugged. “Ek, Barclay, I wouldn’t worry about it. He was probably dead before they took him up. Think positive.”

Doc Simpson was making a more minute scrutiny of the plants around them. “Fellows... I’m not an expert but Enterprises has allowed me to do a fair amount of research on medicinal herbs and plant life and the like. The serrated leaves on this vine...” He looked up. “I’ve never seen anything quite like them.”

“Here, neither has God,” pronounced Diego amid a puff of cigar smoke.

As the three trudged back to the others, Doc pulled Bud aside and spoke softly. “You know, Bud—we’re obligated to tell Mr. Swift what’s going on.”

Sighing, reluctant, Bud nodded. “Right. I know. I was hoping we’d come across Tom and Evelyn right away; or maybe they’d see us from up there. Genius boy wouldn’t have been dumb enough to buzz the tree-things or get in the way of their arrows. I can’t figure what could have happened to them...”

The medic put a hand on his friend’s arm. “I’m afraid Cíbola’s ixt-whatevers may not be the only enemies in this jungle. Drug lords and their gangs flourish all through this region under the cover of the tree canopy, thousands of square miles. Government efforts to flush them out have only driven them further into—”

“Into unexplored places like this one,” Bud finished. “You’re right, Doc. Still—the shields would protect them from bullets.”

“Sure, that’s right,” Doc agreed eagerly, with more enthusiasm than genuine hope.

Hank took over the controls and the trek proceeded. The track of the beast-men seemed to be angling toward some low hills with a narrow break between them. Having no better notion, it was toward this distant landmark that the Glidepath made its laborious progress.

The sun, mostly hidden from ground view, was descending. Hank reported nothing significant on the scanning instruments, and many transiphone calls were issued—with no reply. “We’d better make camp for the night,” pronounced the young engineer as the last luminous patches faded overhead, revealing small clumps of bright stars among the trees. “Looks like some open space ahead.”

They stopped, and most of the journeyers exited gratefully, if warily. The jungle was not silent but alive with the cries of falling night.

Hutchcraft’s voice suddenly called out, “Hey! Look at this!”

He stood at the further end of the clearing. Everyone but the Comtessa trotted over to him. He gestured toward a large tree trunk some several yards into the denser brush, flooded with light from the j-mobe’s electronic external lamps. Several long, narrow objects protruded from the trunk, parallel to one another and chest-high, like a fence-gate blocking any further advance. “More of those arrows?” asked Luz as she approached from behind them.

“Spears!” Red Jones corrected her.

“Somebody using this tree as a target,” said Diego mildly. “A competition! Who won, I wonder?”

“I don’t care who won,” snorted Bud; “just who played!”

Hutchcraft wrestled one of the spears from the trunk and examined it with a trained eye. “I must say, this is raa-ther unexpected. These are classic stakla javelins, boys—and lady.”

“Are they used by the forest Indians?” inquired Felix.

“Well now,” the archaeo-philologist replied. “I suppose anyone could use them—anyone with hands. But I know of no tribe anywhere in the Amazon basin who would.”

“Then where do they come from, Mr. Hutchcraft?” Luz asked calmly.

Hutch smiled her way. “Technically, it’s Doctor Hutchcraft,” he declared. “But I never insist on it.”

“Just answer the question!” snapped Bud.

“Ah, the question. These javelins are clearly and definitely the work of the Tawantinsuyu culture. That is to say, the great civilization better known to us as the Incas!”

“Incas?” repeated Luz incredulously. “I thought there were no more Incas.”

“Oh, there aren’t as such,” Hutchcraft assured the actress. “Of course, they have descendants; but the historic culture was wiped out by the invading Europeans centuries ago.”

“So who made these, hobbyists?” Bud demanded.

“Why no, Barclay. These staklas are originals, probably manufactured in the mountains of Peru in the early sixteenth century, while the Great Lord Son-of-The-Sun yet reigned upon his golden throne. They have been cleaned, repaired, and preserved with loving care.”

“Aaa, what is this nonsense you speak, Señor Hootch?” spat out Diego Cíbola. “What, you think they were left sticking out of this tree trunk since the days of the old Conquistadóres? The tree itself would have rotted away!”

“Mm, I didn’t say that, Cíbola, now did I?” suavely retorted Wilson Hutchcraft. “These weapons are much older than”—he glanced about warily—“even the Comtessa di Halsfenthor. The times they come from are gone, gone, gone! But take a look at the gouges in the bark, in the trunk of the tree. The weapons were fashioned centuries ago, but I’m quite sure these three staklas were driven into this living wood, with violent force, within the last twenty-four hours!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12

 

 

JOURNEY TO DARKNESS

 

 

 

THE CREATURES—called xibta by Diego Cíbola and cryptids by Evelyn Troyes—still clung to the shadows above Tom and Evelyn. They were hard to make out in detail; still harder in that they seemed to be in continuous motion, leaping deftly from branch to branch. Even those several who had ventured closer to the ground with the net, shinnying down the tree trunks and along hanging vines, jumped about like popping popcorn.

“Tom, can’t we fly ourselves out of this net?” asked Evelyn desperately.

But the young inventor, blue eyes darting about for some means of quick escape, could only shake his head. “The antiballast just isn’t strong enough to lift our own weights along with the weight of the net—much less with the weight of these animals added on.” He grabbed the netting material between his strong, lean hands and threw muscle into ripping it apart. “No go,” he panted at last. “These cords aren’t just twisted vines or grasses. Whatever the stuff is, it’s finely interwoven like real rope.”

“But—surely—you must have some kind of knife or blade in the harness pack!”

“Evelyn—never say must!”

The troop of xibta surrounded them, most looking down at their captives as if from stadium seats at a football game. Abruptly their shrill jabbering fell silent. All turned their heads at the same moment, looking further into the jungle along the heading the two from Enterprises had been traveling. “They must have heard something,” murmured Evelyn. “Some sort of call or signal-cry.”

“I still have my headset on external amp,” Tom declared. “If there was some kind of signal, it must have been above the audible range for us featherless bipeds, like a dog whistle.”

“They do seem to have a thing for whistles!”

The creatures now began to move in an organized, almost military way, still silent. The humans wondered if they would be dragged along the forest floor, or even set loose from the net. Instead two platoons of the tiny forest-dwellers scurried a ways down the trees to the right and left of their captives, grabbing up the netting on both sides. To Tom and Evelyn’s gaping wonder, the xibta drew the net, with the humans held inside, upward into the higher boughs. “Admittedly, we hardly weigh anything right now...” Tom noted. “But still—!”

“I know, boss. It’s unbelievable how they work together! Obviously they’ve been expertly trained to perform these tasks.”

Trained by whom? Tom wondered. And for what purpose?

Tom and Evelyn were shoved together as, at the jerk of a strap, the surrounding netting drew tighter; in anticipation they diminished their resilientronic fields to skin-tightness to forestall the powerful reaction that resulted from field overlap. Now packed tight, they were rapidly pulled upward in their sack, to a level where the tree branches intermingled just above them. Then the creatures began to troop along on parallel tree-paths, the sack dangling between them in the irregular open corridor somewhat below the mass of treetop foliage. The two banged and crashed against the protruding boughs that didn’t observe the need for a clear avenue.

“Listen,” Tom said between grunts, “we have a chance to get free, but it won’t last long. I doubt we’ve been caught for supper; the cryptids have been trained by people—humans!—to act as guard dogs and retrievers.”

“Agreed.”

“When we get to wherever we’re being taken, we’ll be put in the hands of people who’ll probably use a lot more than a net to imprison us.”

“Then what’s your inventive plan?” Evelyn asked the inventive young Swift. He told her, speaking quietly—not because he thought the creatures would be able to understand him, but because his mouth was only an inch from her ear.

They watched for a patch of blue sky opening up above, a space broad enough to accommodate two. When such a space appeared, Tom nudged his companion. Instantly, they both dialed their liftsuit gravitexes to full power. The cryptids, accustomed to a featherweight burden, were unprepared for the sudden advent of several hundred pounds of weight. Some of the creatures were yanked off their branches, screeching and clawing. The sack pulled free of their captors’ tiny hands and began to fall.

Another instant and the Shoptonians had again choked off the gravity units, pausing in their fall. Tom kicked at the place where a cinch-cord had pulled the mouth of the net together. The sack jerked open!—and then closed again. The xibta, surging massively through the leaves with astonishing speed, had snagged back the net.

The escape attempt ended with a pair of windy gasps as Tom and Evelyn were knocked together roughly in their crude, but effective, bag.

As the young inventor groaned, the zoologist panted: “Nothing like strategy. We’re really takin’ ’em by surprise—hmm, Tom?”

“Sorry, Ev. Turns out the scouting mission wasn’t as risk-free as I thought.”

“Not all theories pan out in the end.”

They swung along for hours, accepting their many discomforts with whatever good spirit they could muster—consoled by the spirit of scientific inquiry. Now traveling well above the jungle floor, the shadows were less oppressive and a fair amount of bright sunlight blazed through. They could see, at last, the form of their captors.

The cryptids, small compared to humans, were nevertheless impressively large for forest arboreals; some smaller, some larger, it seemed that if they were to stand straight they might be four and one-half feet tall, on the average. Covered with dark silky hair, their lower bodies were like those of primates, with jointed feet that wrapped about the branches like hands as they scurried along. But their upper bodies were almost like something spliced-in from a different species entirely, broad-shouldered with deep chests and arms that bulged with lean bands of muscle, ending in strangely narrow hands with elongated fingers. Their heads reminded Tom of lemurs—yet at some angles, like those of men.

‘Cryptid’ is right,” mused Evelyn Troyes. “I’d guess they’re a species of New World monkey—of the family Callitricidae, along the lines of the tamarin or marmoset. But the size and weight, the whole musculature, the faces...!”

Tom indicated a nod, though he couldn’t manage one in such close circumstances. “Monkeys are smart and trainable, but I’ve never heard of anything like this.”

“I don’t suppose these might be your Space Friends?” Evelyn asked jokingly. Tom had been in touch with mysterious, never-seen extraterrestrials for some time.

“If they are,” replied the young inventor, “they could use some wardrobe tips—and haircuts.”

Various glimpses and sounds had suggested that the band of arrow-flingers they had encountered earlier was up ahead, keeping a distance from their own band of captors as it surged raggedly along. But as the late day progressed the two bands drew closer and finally joined. There was no sign of other human captives, but the xibtas who had gone ahead seemed somewhat larger and bulkier, and had woven straps about their necks and shoulders to which their weaponry was attached in some manner.

“Little crossbows!” Tom said in amazement. “And baskets for those whistling projectiles! They couldn’t have made them themselves!”

“You know what you said about never saying ‘must,’ Tom?” retorted the zoologist. “Let’s add ‘couldn’t’ to that list.”

Knowing that the Glidepath party would surely be looking for them by now, Tom called repeatedly with his transiphone, to no result. But most of the time there was nothing to do but helplessly observe the swinging, flickering, flapping Forest Where God Can Not See as it passed.

Late afternoon brought something of a change in the terrain. “I think we’re passing through the break in those hills we saw miles ahead,” said Evelyn.

“As I recall from the map, there isn’t anything noteworthy on the far side,” Tom commented; “not even a valley. Just more jungle.”

The woman nodded but said: “Still, the hills probably have some effect on the ground climate, at least a bit; or produce a drainage sump, even marshland. Might create a more protected environment for this offbeat vegetation—which is getting more peculiar by the mile.”

Presently the Shoptonians made out human voices, faint but growing louder as the tree-trek proceeded. “Speaking in Spanish,” Tom noted. “Could be Ferrars and his assistants. If it is, the fact that they’ve been kept alive is good reason to hope we’ll all be safe.”

“I’ll hang on to that bit of hope, boss; and also hope all of us aren’t just being collected to dump in the communal meat locker.”

“Good night!—is the animal class you mentioned, Callitricidae, supposed to be carnivorous?”

Evelyn giggled, nerves raw. “Oh no, no!—herbivorous. Eaters of leaves, fruits, nuts, gums, nothing meatier than the occasional insect. But Tom—”

“What?”

“As was pointed out to me earlier—we’ll be dealing with more than cute little cyptids. And if it’s people—there’s no accounting for taste!”

The two continued to keenly watch the forest floor ahead of them, expecting to reach a clearing where the Ferrars party was being contained. But if anything the trees were huger and closer together, and changing in another way too. “Look at those roots!” Evelyn half-gasped. “Roots that big and crawly belong with banyan trees in South Asia, not in the Amazon Basin!” The fantastic roots, almost as thick as a human torso, covered the true jungle floor in a weird, twisted terrain.

Suddenly a yell came shooting out of the forest nearby: “Es el Americano! Sweeft!” Tom and Evelyn could see no one ahead, but the xibta band seemed to hesitate as a group, and a few chattered shrilly, as if startled.

There was a feeling of falling; the net-carriers were descending from the trees. The capture-net touched the mat of roots that constituted the ground floor; then it was jerked forward, bouncing along and forcing pained grunts from Tom and Evelyn. It was impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction but up, and most of up was occupied by the swarming xibtas. Then there was another pause, a brief one, and exclamations from human throats only yards away. “Don’t worry, Tom,” came the voice of Osmán Ferrars. “I think they are just putting you in here, where we are.”

Tom and Evelyn could make out, barely, desperate faces staring palely at them through small gaps in the encroaching roots. Then came a yank and they were dragged forward into vague darkness. After some more roughness the net was opened and the two were shoved out, stumbling. Scuffing sounds indicated that the xibtas were scurrying away; then came sounds like something being shoved into place. Our jail door, Tom thought.

They were now in a somewhat large space, or chamber, of irregular form, its walls, floor, and ceiling made entirely of the massive, intergrown roots. The only illumination came from a few patchy gaps on the side that fronted the jungle exterior. Tom guessed that the chamber, evidently a crude pen—or cage!—for prisoners, had simply been gouged out of the tangle of roots of adjacent trees.

The prison was crammed with human prisoners, faintly and intermittently visible. “Thank God you’re here,” cried Mary Kenning. “But—that’s selfish. You’re here as fellow captives, not rescuers.”

Tom’s eyes probed the dimness. Ferrars, Mary, Ferrars’ three assistants, Miss Dentata; and, leaning frailly against the trek-car in which he had been carried, the thin snowy form of Edric Orvel Lemma. “Mr. Cíbola and the Comtessa are with us at the Glidepath,” Tom said in a hushed voice. “This is my colleague from Swift Enterprises, Evelyn Troyes.”

“But what of Miss Vera?” asked Dr. Ferrars. “She was not captured with the rest of us.”

“I don’t know,” replied the youth.

“Señor, we have been here for hours,” stated Ferrars’ assistant Jorge. “It is too dark to see further. We know nothing of what is to be our fate.”

“There is a darker place!” piped Lemma. “A deeper darkness! My eyes are aged and weak, yet in the dark they see more keenly than many; and so I say: I have seen others beyond the roots, on the inward side. I have seen tall figures that move and gaze at us—many such shapes, with eyes. Turn and look, Tom Swift, turn and look—they are here now!”

Tom turned and looked. His eyes had become somewhat adapted to the near-dark. He made out, beyond the random chaotic gaps between the roots, a black darkness; and in front of that darkness, even blacker silhouettes—with, he suddenly realized, strange staring eyes that pierced the black.

The darkness spoke! “Who art thou?” The words were perfect English! “For what evil purpose hast thou come among us? Why do you come to this forsaken place, the cursed garden, the Land Eternal of the Children of Jehovah?”


 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

 

NO TURNING BACK

 

 

 

THERE seemed nothing to be said about Hutchcraft’s dramatic pronouncement. Ancient Inca javelins, newly thrown, in The Forest Where God Can Not See!

“Seems like you attract ancient weaponry, Hutch,” remarked Bud in hushed tones.

“Yes—those diamond-tipped arrow-spears in Yucatan,” the pudgy scientist agreed. “I daaan’t know how I do it. But in any event, those were modern re-creations; these are originals.”

“Well,” spoke up Hank Sterling, “let’s keep clear on the situation. They may have been made by the old Incas, but whoever stuck them in this tree is alive today.”

“And indeed, knew we were heading this way,” added Felix Ming. “We go along where there isn’t even a path, yet even so someone has blocked it. Bud, the javelin-throwers must be tracking us just as the other safari was!”

“Latest news updates. Maybe they have Internet access,” Bud cracked.

Diego Cíbola seemed to have reconsidered his initial skepticism. “You may be making a little joke, amígo, but it could be a true one. Some of those who live in the rainforest, even isolated tribes of which we know little, they sometimes work with the drug-growers and other bad people. And those people use all the modern things they can get to outwit the rest of the world, eh?”

“This is beginning to take the form of one of the chintzy melodrama-thrillers I have appeared in recently,” commented Luz Vera dryly. “Soon someone must fall in love with me, so I can charm my way to freedom with—whatever weapons a woman has at hand.”

“Keep your powder dry, Luz,” Doc urged with a suave look.

Bud and Red dislodged the remaining staklas, clearing the way; and there seemed to be no more to be found further along for some distance. Hank climbed into the control pod and announced, “No one showing up on the scan for a mile in all directions.”

“So the javelin-chuckers had enough time to put in some serious distance,” mused Bud. “But how could they have known hours ago that the j-mobe would be taking this particular route? Even keeping to the same heading, we twist and turn all over the place.”

“Assumptions, assumptions,” retorted Hutchcraft. “There may be no other staklas in the immediate area, but that doesn’t mean this obstruction is the only one. There could be many others on trails—pitiful trails—for a great range around.”

Red Jones nodded. “Yeah, I get it. Maybe they blocked all the trails we might use to get in where they don’t want us.”

“More than one assumption is being tossed around,” said Diego through smoke. “Sí. This is not to bar the way; that is my opinion. No—I know the ways of the jungle people, the indíos, and I’m sure it was true of those old Incas too.”

“What do you mean, Cíbola?” asked Doc. “A warning?”

“More than a warning—a curse! A custom, what you call ritual. Evil magic!”

“You’re right,” Hutch said, suddenly grave. “Now that you mention it, I recognize the symbols carved into the wood. Carved by some priestly artisan dead for centuries! Many tribes have a similar practice, but these carvings were used by the Tawantinsuyu culture, the Incas, to call down the ‘fingers of Lord Sun’ to destroy any who break the magic circle, a sort of ‘fence’ extending all around the holy ‘place of the spirits,’ which might encompass many square miles. These three javelins are not so much a gate to block our way as fenceposts!”

“Guess we’re doomed,” Bud shrugged. Then he grinned. “Hey, it happens.”

Bud entered the Glidepath to place a PER call to Shopton. The others found places that felt safe near, or within, the junglemobile.

The San Franciscan reached Tom’s father immediately, relating the account of Tom’s unexplained failure to return. “Very worrisome,” pronounced the elder scientist. “Missing for hours... Yet you say Tom and Evelyn took the shield generators?”

“Yes sir, attached to the harnesses.” Bud decided not to mention, just yet, that they had left the electronic weapons behind.

After Bud described the afternoon search and what seemed to be a threat, Mr. Swift said: “The instruments may pick them up any moment, but it’d be prudent to put together some sort of plan here at our end, obviously; and the national authorities should be involved if there’s a threat from some criminal group or local tribe. I need to be down there, Bud. Yet—we have to do some thinking about how best to proceed...”

“I understand, Mr. Swift.”

“And now you have these others with you, the guide, that actress, and—” Damon Swift paused. “I was planning to tell Tom. I had Security pull together some information on your Comtessa. Something seems a little off-kilter.”

“Well, that’s a nice way to put it,” Bud chuckled. “I’d call her a royal pain!”

“What’s odd is this. There was indeed a ‘Comtessa di Halsfenthor’ in Brungaria, the recognized leader, by right of birth, of the hereditary Brungar aristocracy. But the Halsfenthor royals were deposed and exiled decades ago, and the last legitimate possessor of that title would be very elderly today, in her nineties.”

“Well, Lady Balogna isn’t a sweet young thing, but she’s nowhere near that old,” Bud said. “If she’s legit, she must be a granddaughter or some other relation. Even if the title doesn’t mean much these days, I suppose that’s true of a lot of those old titles that get passed along.”

“Yes, that’s true enough, Bud,” agreed Damon Swift. “But bear in mind that she may not be all she appears.”

The youth laughed. “Mr. Swift, nobody could be all she appears!”

As Bud talked on the PER, Red Jones had drifted along aimlessly toward the aft end of the j-mobe. An imperious voice brought him to a halt. “You there—Mr. James, I believe.”

“Red Jones, Comtessa.”

“Are you certain?” The Comtessa di Halsfenthor sat like an expectant hen on the contour seat in her compartment, the hatchway open next to Red. “Very well. Alas, my forgetfulness!—I must have my secretary with me; she is my memory. ‘Red’—that is your first name, or your coloration?”

The brawny Shoptonian grinned. “Both, I guess, in a way. My real first name is Frederick.”

“Mm. Your red hair—might you be of Celtic background? Irish, Scottish?”

“Not unless it’s way back. I’m pretty much just plain American. I think somebody in my ancestors came from Germany...”

The Comtessa billowed a nod. “Well, that is acceptable. Surely better than Celtic. Might you be married, Mr. Jones?”

A big hand brushed through the thatch of red. “Well sure, I guess it’d be possible. But I haven’t done it so far, ma’am.”

“I see. Do approach—I wish to say something of a private nature.” Red ambled closer, leaning in through the floor-to-ceiling aperture. “You appear to be an extensive and well-muscled man, of some intelligence.”

“Some—yeah.”

“I don’t mind the evident fact that you are a mechanician.”

“Thanks.”

“So many are these days. The world, the world.”

“You got something broken, Comtessa?”

The elegant lady lifted her chin. “My dear sir, I have had several husbands—in succession, of course—and they have all died.”

Red attempted a sympathetic tone. “Died on you, hunh?”

“Indeed so, the first one. The second was riding a horse, the third sitting in a chair. And you see, I am required... that is to say, my duty to my people, my people of the true Brungary, is clear. By ancient and invariable custom, I must select a consort, a husband, who shall become the Comte di Halsfenthor, Arrant Duke Royal of Brungary.”

“Given that they all die in office, it sounds dangerous.”

The Comtessa frowned. “Their deaths were entirely natural, sir.”

“Got it.” Red nodded amiably. “So, like, Comtessa—are you asking me to marry you?”

“Not yet. Of course I would have to know a great many things about your background, your physical health, your ability to... one might say... participate in the production of an heir. If you see.”

“Oh sure, I’ve known about all that for years, ma’am. And I’m pretty good as far as all those things you mentioned. Incidentally, if I could ask—just who would I be producing with?”

“With myself, of course!”

“Got it.” Totally nuts! erupted Red’s thoughts. “But, you know, don’t get your hopes up. I think I’d rather stay at Swift Enterprises.”

“Well! My word! Do you so brusquely spurn me, young man?—!”

Red looked sheepish. “Sorry, Comtessa. I wasn’t aiming at a spurnment, just a turndown. I’m sure you’re a real nice lady down deep. But you know, there are other guys around here you might take a peek at—since you’re in a shopping mood. For example, Bud up there is young and healthy; and I know he’s always wanted to be Duke of a foreign country, like the rest of his family: all Dukes and Dukesses and such. Felix Ming is kinda shrimpy, but it’s for sure he won’t turn down any offer. That’d save you some time and effort.

“Say, I got it! Somebody right around your age and... well, he’s similar. In shape, see? His name’s Chow Winkler. He’s a well-traveled cuisineologist—a professional chef. Very healthy, good roots, single, sense of humor; snazzy dresser, too. Told me the other day he’d been looking for an eligible countess for quite a while.”

“Yes. I see.” The Comtessa looked doubtful, yet hopeful. “I do wish Miss Dentata were here to rationalize the sorting process. But I’ll note down these names. Perhaps, perhaps.”

“Sorry if I disappointed you, ma’am.”

“A dutiful life is often a difficult one, sir.”

“Yeah.”

Another conversation was being kindled on the other side of the long Glidepath. Doc Simpson sat alone in the shadows on a fallen log; footsteps crunched closer beneath a faint silhouette. “Is that you, Dr. Simpson? Mind a seat-mate?”

“I’d appreciate it, Miss Vera. Come sit. Got a big log.”

“So I see. And please call me Luz. Some pronounce it ‘loose,’ but those are jealous aging actresses from tiny countries with bad television.” Luz Vera plomped down next to Doc. “How is my accent? I work on it always. I’m hoping for Hollywood work before I’m completely restricted to ‘desperate other-woman’ roles.”

“Luz, you sound just like an American.”

“What a nice compliment!—Doc.” Her near-American voice was warm with practiced intimacy. “But please, surely Doc is not your real name?”

Simpson chuckled. “It’s turned into my first name over the years. The real one is classified—only my paycheck knows for sure.”

“Ah, a secret! We all have secrets. Won’t you share yours with me?”

There was a long pause. Luz had the impression Doc was blushing. At last he said, very quietly, “Bartholomew.”

She squeezed his knee. “But Bartholomew is a lovely, dignified name! Bartholomew Simpson...” Then thought caught up to reality. “Oh. Yes. I see.”

“So did all the kids in elementary school. I think I went into medicine because I got tired of hearing people laugh.”

“Then I apologize for this,” she said, laughing gently. “What happens when we are young—it stays with us, doesn’t it?—Doc. I was a skinny little thing, with braces.”

“You’re no longer skinny, Luz.”

“And no braces.”

The two sat quietly and close for a while. “So...” Doc commenced, “I gather—you and Diego—”

Luz gave a slight laugh. “It isn’t love. It isn’t much of anything, really. We met more years ago than—a lady cares to mention. Two adventurous souls, some interesting travels; to be a bit frank, his sort of life is ever so fun, but not what I want, not now. Our time has passed. We will have no more expeditions together.

“And you, Doc—what of you? Married?”

The medic looked away. “I was, once, for just a little while. Didn’t last.” He turned to look, from a close vantage point, at his log companion. “She kept calling me Bart!”

The safariers took dinner within the j-mobe, eating from packets, protected by the resilientronic barrier. Some of the meals had been prepared for the trip by Chow Winkler, delicious—and spicy.

Travel resumed with dawn, breakfast deferred. “There now,” commented Hutchcraft via the intercom. “Just passed the tree with the gouges—the voodoo fencepost.”

“No turning back now,” said Luz Vera. “If there’s a curse, we’ve earned it.”

“Who’s talking about turning back?” Bud retorted hotly. “Tom would come after any of us if we were in trouble, anywhere on Earth!”

“I am not a part of this reckless expedition,” huffed the Comtessa.

“Okay, lady, good point,” Diego commed. “For you, Tom Swift would say: forget it!”

It was Hank Sterling’s shift at the controls of the craft of which he was the principal inventor. As, for all the good it did, the sun mounted somewhere beyond the trees, the young engineer reported intermittent moving blips in the jungle on all sides. “Hard to get a fix. They’re all at the very margin of the scanning perimeter,” he said. “I think some are animals—ordinary animals. But others...”

“Right, we get the picture,” remarked Red.

It was still a green and yellow early morning when the Glidepath rested briefly, her passengers disembarking for a hurried breakfast. “No sign of any more staklas,” noted Wilson Hutchcraft. “As a matter of fact, whatever happened to our whistling arrow-shooters?”

“Feeling ignored, Hutchcraft?” asked Doc sarcastically.

“You know, maybe the little beast-men have learned to be afraid of the javelin bunch and their curses, assuming they are not cronies,” Diego speculated, sipping muddy coffee. “Afraid of them, not so much of us; even with this great big machine. So maybe they have a reason to be afraid. Maybe we should be too, sí?”

Bud sent the man a chiding look. “I thought you said fear was a useless emotion.”

“Aa, forget what I say. I do.”

Travel resumed, and Hank announced that they had entered the cleft between the low hills they had been heading toward. It was reported by the instruments solely; nothing but shaded jungle and bits of sky could be seen from the junglemobile as it writhed along.

“Keep trying the transiphone, Hank,” urged Bud. “If those midget manhunters kept to the general heading they started on, they probably passed through the hills at this low place even if they detoured around the spear-carrier boys on the approach. Tom and Evelyn could be right on the other side of the hills.”

“Mm-hmm,” added Hutchcraft pointlessly. “As trackers—or captives.”

Further comment was squelched; everyone aboard the Glidepath was suddenly thrown forward in their chairs with stunning force!

“Wh-what in the name of the Middle Kingdom—!” gasped Felix Ming. “We’ve stopped! Did we hit something?” There was no reply over the intercom! “Hank? Bud? Anyone?” Silence!

“What’s happened to everyone?” Felix called out in alarm. “What’s happened to the junglemobile?”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 14

 

 

STRANGERS IN A STRANGE

LAND

 

 

TOM SWIFT repeated, under his breath, what the barely-visible man—at least it seemed to be a man—had said. The Children of Jehovah! “Sir, we don’t mean to intrude—we don’t intend to be here at all. Is this a, a monastery; some kind of religious community?”

“Thou speakest words unknown,” replied the man sternly. “We are who we are! And be thou not thyself misled, for we are not deceived—we know who you are.”

“And just who might that be?” Evelyn Troyes asked in polite tones built on sarcasm. “Who do you think we are?”

Another voice answered from the darkness on the further side of the root-barrier; from slight murmurs it seemed there was a little crowd viewing the captives. “Thou art servants of the Evil One, here to tempt the Children—like these others with you who entered this land of the cursed.”

Osmán Ferrars whispered to Tom: “This is the first anyone has spoken to us since we were imprisoned. We have no idea what’s going on.”

Tom addressed the crowd of captors boldly. “Whatever you think of us, you have no right to hold us here. The authorities, the police, gave us permission to travel in the jungle. If we’re delayed, they’ll come looking for us.”

“More of your words,” retorted the apparent leader of the group. “Who hath leave to give permission but the Lord of Hosts himself, Jehovah? He alone has allowed you to enter, to be taken here by the bond-servants of Jehovah God, the kroiiat, though you serve Ba’al-Satan, the rebel and adversary. Lo!, even the Lord doth tempt, to put to trial our obedience, as was Abraham tested, and Job the afflicted, and the men of Sodom. He uses even the minions of his adversary to carry out his own will, thus to proclaim his glory and power.”

The young inventor’s mind whirled over his limited knowledge of the Bible. “Mm, yes; and he also uses his angels, sending them in disguise.”

One of the watchers, a woman, hissed out, “Yes, Eliezar—like unto the testing of Sodom.”

The man Eliezar seemed to turn this over in his mind. “You claim to us to be angels of the Lord, his servants from Heaven? Here in the form of sons of men?”

“And daughters,” nodded Tom.

“And indeed, you were not brought here with the others...”

Tom smiled to himself and touched his liftsuit controls. The watchers shrieked as he bobbed up against the root-ceiling of the weird jail! “You see, fellows?—power and glory! And something else too...” He increased his gravitex and returned to the root floor. He turned and called out, “Mary, come close and toss something straight at me, hard as you can—it can’t hurt me!”

Mary pulled a tin of bandages from her pants pocket and, hesitantly, threw it at Tom. The tin came close to Tom’s harness, hesitated, stopped for an instant, and fell at Tom’s feet. The crowds murmured, those inside the prison as well as those outside.

He approached the barrier. “Now, Eliezar, you seem to be in charge. You must be the bravest one around, sir.”

“I am fearless in my righteousness,” the man declared. His voice was quavering.

“Of course. So—reach through the gap and squeeze my arm.”

“But why—if thou wouldst—I say unto—”

“Are you showing fear in the sight of the Lord?”

The challenge to faith and manhood could not be ignored. A dim, trembling hand thrust through a narrow slit between roots. It tried to close on Tom’s extended arm, one place and another. But it was impossible; Eliezar’s bony fingers seemed to slide off, unable to get a grip or even touch the youth’s skin.

“You see, Children of Jehovah?” Tom grinned. “As designated angels, Miss Troyes and I are under divine protection. This is a test. You must treat us with respect.”

“Don’t get us mad,” added Evelyn.

“These—are great and awful things,” Eliezar said faintly. “We intended nothing but devotion to the Lord. Surely he wishes us to weigh the virtue of those who come to us from the Desolation of Mud and Ash.”

“We’re willing to forgive and forget,” Tom pronounced gravely. “But you must repent. First sign of repentance: let us out of here!”

“We shall give the two of you your freedom,” agreed Eliezar. “But, may Jehovah judge with mercy, these others shall remain here until we have settled the matter, the truth revealed. Every comfort shall be provided.”

“Well, it’s a start,” Tom replied with a sly wink at Evelyn.

Cautioning the other captives to stand at the far end of the chamber, Eliezar gave quiet orders to those gathered with him. There was a sound as if some crude latch were being undone, and several pale hands lifted a section of the wall of interwoven roots, a cage door that swung upward on what proved to be hinges of unbreakable cord like that of the capture net. “Come forth,” said a dark figure with a gesture. As Tom and Evelyn did so, the door was lowered and re-fastened in some way.

Without the barrier obscuring the view, it was easier to make out those who had been watching them. There were five, clearly human, three men and two women, all dressed in some stiff, woven material fashioned into toga-like garments. They had the common features of the native dwellers of the rainforest, those whom Columbus had called los indíos. However, their forms were spindly, almost gaunt, and their eyes seemed like pallid ovals with black centers beneath longish, jet black hair kept in place by woven headbands.

One man held a kind of shepherd’s staff. Tom assumed this was Eliezar; he was surprised to note that the man, like the other four, had a youthful appearance. Good night, they’re as young as I am! mused the young inventor. “Are you Eliezar?” Tom asked.

“I am,” said the man with the staff. “Lo!, if it pleaseth you, let us go hence to Althea, for we would confer with her. She will command us, as to the others from outside.”

“Is Althea the Mother Superior?—I mean, the person in charge here?” asked Evelyn.

“Praise to Jehovah, Lord of Hosts, Althea is the Prophetess of Fawt, He Who Came,” one of the women answered reverently. “But you are messengers of the Lord and must know this already.”

“Just testing you,” said Tom. “There may be more tests. Be sure to answer truthfully.”

“And don’t offend our heavenly ears by asking questions of us,” Evelyn added. “It’s for us to ask you.”

“It is meet and suitable,” nodded Eliezar. “And now to the tabernacle of Althea. Of course, you know the way, as all is known to Jehovah’s messengers. If you wish to precede us, we shall accompany you in procession.”

“No, no,” Tom responded quickly. “We want you to treat us as if we were common strangers, as a test of your courtesy. You go in front of us.”

“I shall obey.”

The Land Eternal of the Children seemed to consist of an extensive network of twisting corridors cut out from the dense, giant roots. The route to Althea was unpredictably vertical as well as horizontal; sometimes the roots were wholly above ground level, sometimes a distance beneath it. The darkness was not as adamant as it had first seemed from within the pen; in fact there was a certain amount of light falling from many directions, when the random gaps between the roots happened to line up. Tom noticed that the Children seemed to shrink back from the columns of light, dim though they were.

With Tom and Evelyn stumbling along, occasionally resorting to their liftsuits to ease the way, the group angled down as, it appeared, they passed fully beneath one of the broad trees. “So much for light,” whispered Tom, his hand touching the shoulder of Eliezar for guidance.

Evelyn whispered back. “But not entirely, boss. My eyes adapt quickly and—you know, I think these roots are phosphorescent, just a little. And...”

Hearing the whispers, one of the Children glanced back. His face was faintly visible in the blackness, his eyes even more so. “Good night, the people are glowing too! Any idea what’s causing it?” asked Tom, thinking uneasily of the luminosity of radioactive substances.

“Until we get some samples under the microscope,” replied Evelyn, “I’m just going to point out that certain species of fungi are naturally luminous.”

Traces of daylight from outside—fading with the sun—came and went. There were many others of the Children along the way, all similarly garbed, some peering in amazement from separate corridors on the other side of root-walls, or above or beneath. “It seems the Prophetess chose not to tell you that we would be arriving,” Tom commented to Eliezar, somewhat mischievously.

“As to you two, exalted ones, she did not,” responded the man. “Lord knoweth why.”

“He certainly doth.”

Evelyn asked, “How many are there here in the, er, Land?”

A woman spoke. “As well you know, blessed messenger, we are many. Hands of hands.”

“Oh—I see.” And with that she and Tom realized that the Children had no words for numbers: they counted by hands and fingers.

Some kind of primitive, isolated Amazonian tribe, Tom thought. And yet they speak English!

They stopped abruptly, at a place where the roots were especially dense—and especially phosphorescent. The Shopto-nians could see their surroundings as if by clouded starlight. “Permit me to gain leave from the Prophetess before we enter her presence,” said Eliezar with reverence. “I hope our custom doth not offend thee?”

“Not at all,” smiled Tom. “Remember, we wish to observe your ways. We want to see just how well the Prophetess is doing at her job of leading you.”

Eliezar passed through a sort of heavy woven curtain in the corridor wall, and there was a sound of muffled conversation, man and woman. Presently he emerged. “Go forth unto the tabernacle, ye angels of The Lord. Althea, holy prophetess, daughter of He Who Came, awaits you, to do you honor and converse of Heaven.”

Eliezar and the others remained in the corridor as Tom, then Evelyn, passed through the curtain—a series of curtains, one after another.

Confident within their protective force fields, they entered a large chamber with a high ceiling. The floor of twined roots was covered with a carpet seemingly made of the same material as the togas, stitched together, and woven decorations covered the walls.

There was a soft yellow light, from what seemed to be bits of root crammed into vases made from jungle gourds, the tips exposed and glowing, hanging from the roots overhead on cords. And seated within the island of light, on a throne of interwoven roots, was a woman, young and beautiful!

“Come forward,” she said. “I am Althea. I speak for Mighty Jehovah, the Lord of Hosts. I know you are not angels; Eliezar and the others are simple in their faith. Before you came here, you strangers, I knew of you; you and all the others who were brought here. God has told me you are ordinary people, and I see it with my own eyes. Now you will tell me who you are; and I will tell you what is to become of you!”


 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 15

 

 

TWO TONGUES

 

 

 

RELEASING his safety strap and half-standing, Felix Ming flipped the switch on the capsule intercom panel back and forth, trying desperately to reestablish communication. But not only was there no reply, but the tiny indicator light remained dark. “Something has knocked the com for a loop!” Felix breathed. “But... maybe...”

Trying the hatch controls, his fears were realized. There was no answering hum, no thunk of micromotors taking hold; the hatch did not lift and swing upward. Had his efficiently sealed compartment become a trap?

But then he remembered the emergency release lever, hand-operated. He threw his weight on the lever, and the door popped open. In a moment he stood next to the junglemobile. He thanked his ancestors—or just plain luck—that his fellow travelers were also climbing free, unharmed.

“Complete power failure, stem to stern!” exclaimed Hank, mystified. “Lights, instruments, propulsion—nothing works!”

“A battery failure?” asked Luz Vera, who had been freed by Doc.

“Explora-Dora isn’t powered by batteries,” Bud retorted. “We have atom-power, the neutronamo. It’s not the sort of thing that wears down or goes dry.”

“But it seems batteries are involved as well,” spoke up Doc Simpson. He held up a small flashlamp, switching it on and off without effect. “Battery powered—but it’s as stone dead as everything else.”

After some hasty experimenting, Hank reported: “It’s definitely something weirder than a power failure or some kind of short circuit. It’s as if electric current can’t flow anymore, as if conductivity in the wires has zeroed-out. Look!” The young engineer held up two small Swift Solar Batteries and brushed their terminals together. A bright spark flashed at the contact point. “The batteries still have plenty of power, and I’ll bet the neutronamo is working away as usual. But something has choked off the flow of current—every current.”

Bud ran a hand through his black hair. “Tom and I dealt with something like this just a while back—something that ‘snuffed’ electrical circuitry.”

“I know,” said Hank. “Maybe this is the same thing. Tom found a way to shield circuitry from the effect, but it’s not any kind of standard safety measure at Enterprises. We didn’t use it in the j-mobe.”

Doc held up a hand. “It may be something else entirely, folks. Don’t forget the electrical knockout effect we had to deal with near Mount Goaba, when we were exploring the caves of nuclear fire.”

“Too many theories,” Hutch grumbled, “and too few solutions. Has it occurred to you swift thinkers that neither the force field nor your ‘i’ weapons are any good to us now? Not that I’m afraid of Inca curses; but even a nonmagical javelin through the forehead can sting.”

A pounding sound drew Doc to the hatch of the Comtessa’s compartment, where a thick and frenzied face was pressed-up against the Tomaquartz. “Right,” he said. “She doesn’t know how to open it manually.”

“Smart of me to study the plans of this thing in advance, hey?” Diego smiled. “Okay, I admit it—Ferrars and his MARTA people did a little snooping, with tech of the highest sort. Blueprints in computer files, safely saved—but not so much. Frankly, señors, I could drive this ‘moby’ of yours.”

“Thanks for your honesty,” said Bud dryly.

“Oh, I am—now and then. Too many lies, how can you remember?”

Doc used hand-signals, much repeated, to direct the flummoxed Comtessa in opening the hatchway. Joined by Luz, he helped the big woman, hysterical in her customary haughty style, climb out. She was in no condition to reprimand anyone. But she was loud.

Meanwhile Cíbola had fetched his rifle. Walking a ways into the bush he raised it, aimed—and lowered it again. “No, nothing. Just a click. Hunchedcraft is right, I think. The jungle men can have their way with us, amígos: any way they like.”

“Holy Mo, I’m completely baffled,” Hank said. “Diego’s rifle isn’t electronic at all—no circuitry, no wires, no power. Yet it doesn’t work either!”

“Jetz, maybe there really is such a thing as jungle magic!” gulped Bud, gray eyes wide. “But—if Tom were here—I don’t think he’d buy it.”

“Paaadon my saying so, Barclay, but if Tom were here, I wonder if any of this would be happening at all.” Thus did Wilson Hutchcraft contribute to the excitement.

Slowly, Bud unclenched his powerful fists. Maybe he’s right! thought the youth dismally.

Minutes tensely passed in the green dimness. Eventually the Enterprises safariers fell as silent as the Glidepath.

Suddenly all six-foot-four of Red Jones rose up on his feet. He spoke quietly: “Everyone!—better get inside and close the windows—fast! I see incoming out between the trees—human-like!”

Fast was not fast enough. Before anyone could step twice—or the Comtessa di Halsfenthor step at all—strange, tall figures rose up in the forest on all sides of the stricken junglemobile. They wore leathern garments to which bits of metal had been fastened, and had stakla javelins in their upraised arms. They stood like grim statues, their features hardly distinguishable from the dark face-paint they wore.

The Comtessa signified her fear by a faint warbling sound which might have unnerved any lesser warriors. “Hutchcraft!” hissed Felix. “These guys—are they—?”

“How should I know what they are?—!” growled the philologist-archaeologist. “But... Pizarro’s men, the Spaniards, made sketches of Inca warriors with outfits of that sort.”

One of the men, wearing a helmet of polished metal, took a step forward and gestured with his javelin. He then lowered it, and the others did the same. “Natok!” he barked in a commanding tone. “Yowaklat b’ro ee myash q’lal!”

“Anyone understand it?” asked Hank.

“Nothing I’ve come across, Sterling,” replied Diego calmly. “Not Spanish. Not even Spanglish!”

“I recognize some of the terms and constructions,” Hutchcraft declared. “I’m sure it’s a very degenerate dialect of Old Tawantinsuyu, the language of the main Inca clan. Bits and pieces are still used in the Andes.”

“Try talking with them,” Bud urged.

Hutch edged forward in the direction of the leader, gulping with a dry throat. He made a gesture of polite submission. “Er... uoh t’olo xeru...”

The leader gave a contemptuous frown. “Palocht’lah! Ivev foh.”

Hutchcraft spoke to the others over his shoulder. “Called me a—well, he wants me to speak more properly.”

There ensued a lengthy and halting colloquy, with the warrior chief displaying frustration and eye-rolling impatience. Some of the other warriors chuckled now and then. It seemed they were as much amused by their leader’s discomfiture as by Hutchcraft’s tangled syntax.

Finally the man in the helmet made a forget-it gesture with his hands and spat out a long sentence to the warrior next to him.

Hutchcraft backed up and rejoined the others standing next to the Glidepath. “All right, what’s the situation?” demanded Bud.

The man replied slowly, “Well—haaadly easy for either of us, you know; and he doesn’t even have a doctoral degree—but it seems the man in charge is Chohualaw. I suppose you’d call him a sergeant. This is his platoon, on patrol. He doesn’t know what to make of us. Thinks we’ve been made—from animals—by the Lord of the Black Smoke, who seems to be the sort of spirit-god one ought to avoid. He calls the j-mobe a snake-canoe-house and thinks it was made just to make him look like a fool in front of his men—well, that’s the implication.”

“And—wh-what now?” quavered Luz Vera.

“Not too clear. We are to be escorted—forcibly!—to the Old Place Where We Dwell. A village, camp, something. He says ‘Just take these idiots to whatzizname with the two tongues—maybe he can make sense of this babble.’ I’m, er, paraphrasing.”

‘Two tongues’,” repeated Felix. “A translator.”

“I think so.”

As the warriors began to regroup, apparently to encircle the j-mobers for a march through the jungle, Bud asked Hutchcraft to ask the sergeant to allow him to retrieve several personal articles from the Glidepath. This gave Bud a chance to slam the open hatches, leaving them latched—but not locked, as the sealing mechanism was electronic. He returned carrying Cíbola’s rifle. “For all we know it may get better,” he told the guide.

Then the warriors made their circle, and Chohualaw gestured for them to follow him between the trees. “But—surely—am I to be compelled to, to struggle along among these ghastly plants?” cried the Comtessa, hand over, or in the vicinity of, heart.

“It’s intolerable, inhuman!” quickly agreed Wilson Hutchcraft, who had got wind of the Comtessa’s well-funded search for a consort; as well as her apparent delusionality. “Let me see what I can do, madame.” He spoke at length—arm’s length—to the Incan sergeant in the approximated language of the tribe. “All right,” Hutch reported. “He understands. He promises to take a slow and easy route. About an hour, at a gentle pace.”

“But where are we going?” asked Luz.

“To the Inca village,” was Hutchcraft’s reply.

“For some, maybe the stewpot,” smirked Diego Cíbola behind his cigar, glancing toward the Comtessa.

They got under way, Chohualaw leading, a thicket of stakla javelins following. Surprisingly, there was something of a trail; evidently the junglemobile had happened across an Inca super-highway among the vines and shadows.

Bud studied the surrounding troop in the passing bits and pieces of sunlight. The men were well-muscled and dark-skinned, with perhaps a touch of red pigmentation. Their hair was black and shiny, their cheekbones high. “They remind me of the Yucatan villagers we stayed with,” Bud commented; “the Maya guys.”

“Yes,” said Doc. “But at double the size.”

Felix caught up to Hutchcraft and asked, “Has he indicated what we’re in for? Have we violated a taboo of theirs?”

Hutch shrugged. “I could only make out, and just barely, an occasional phrase. He did say something about this being their land. But the main idea seems to be that we are to be brought before their king, the top man. It would be a dereliction of duty to deny the Son of the Sun the pleasure of our unexpected company.”

“You don’t think they’re working for a drug cartel, then?”

“No, Ming,” replied Hutchcraft sharply. “There would be no point to such a well-played Inca charade. Admitting that it’s the sort of adventure-story cliché likely to crop up in the juvenile series, it does seem that we’re dealing with some kind of lost tribe of an ancient civilization.”

“A blood-thirsty civilization?” asked Red Jones, overhearing.

“Not especially. Of course they had their fighting forces and Department of Defense. But compared to the Maya and the devoutly ferocious Aztecs, the Incas were pussycats. Pizarro and his boys had no trouble capturing the Great High Emperor, Atahualpa Inca. And, of course, tons and tons of gold.”

“Gold?” repeated Diego. “That reminds me—I need new fillings for my teeth.”

They trudged on, the warriors providing them with water from wooden caskets. Presently the character of the terrain, and the living jungle itself, underwent a radical change. The vines took on unexpected colors and a brambly texture—which the bedraggled Comtessa di Halsfenthor found a sufficient reason for comment. The great trees seemed to thicken, trunk, bough, and branch. But the most daunting change came at ground level: fantastic tree roots, ever more gigantic, which they had to crawl their way over and, at times, under. The problem was slightly mitigated by occasional carved stair-steps; even wooden bridges. “This route must get a lot of use,” Doc Simpson remarked.

“They keep it up, their Department of Public Works,” said Luz, walking next to the medic. “Nicely in repair. But you can tell, can’t you, that that the new is built on top of the old—the ancient!”

At last they began to see other people here and there, and signs of larger structures, not at ground level but well above their heads, in the trees. “Good gosh!” Bud marveled. “It’s a village of treehouses!”

“I’m thinking about what we’re not seeing,” came Hank’s comment; “namely the little xibtas. If they’re trained pets of the Incas, why aren’t they running around up in the trees with their masters?”

“Maybe they’re higher up. A split-level city!”

Finally the march halted and, at a signal, an angled ladder with handholds, a kind of staircase, was swung down from high above. Doc and Red assisted the puffing Comtessa as the conjoined expedition mounted the second-story height.

Here at last the outsiders beheld the Incas’ city in the trees, which was called—dispensing with laborious translations—Yadqimoxtma. The city consisted of elaborate wooden platforms on many levels, anchored to the mighty trees and upheld by thick boughs and manmade struts. The platforms were porous, taking the form of close lattices of crossbeams; and they were linked together by a massive network of catwalks and bridges. Everywhere were fantastic wall carvings, filling almost every space: animal heads, strange gods, huge staring eyes, and indecipherable fever-dream images. “Obviously based upon the art of the ancient Incas, described by the returning Con-quistadóres and the missionaries as they looted or destroyed them,” muttered Hutchcraft. “A treasure much better than gold.”

“Ek, I would settle for the gold,” shrugged Cíbola.

Continuing the march, they passed many houses, wooden dwellings with thatched roofs, and many citizens of the tree-metropolis who hastened aside with popping eyes. Little children shouted at them from slitlike windows, and harried mothers shushed them. “This place is gigantic!” marveled Luz Vera. “There must be hundreds of people up in these trees!”

“Even thousands,” said Doc, walking close.

“Surely these villagers provide their guests with—accommodations for comfort,” the Comtessa rasped in her usual imperious whine.

Diego Cíbola snickered. “You should have gone before we left!”

They passed into what seemed a government district, with long structures and many armed warriors on patrol, who nodded politely as Chohualaw passed, like neighborhood cops on the beat.

At last they stopped before a broad hut-house with the mouths of a jaguar and what might have been a human carved side-by-side above its portal of entrance. Chohualaw went inside, remaining several minutes before reappearing. He made a brusque gesture which needed no translation.

“This must be our two-tongue translator,” said Hank Sterling.

“But we’ve just walked miles through the jungle,” protested Luz faintly. “We must have food. Wilson, could you—?”

Hutch nodded and spoke to Chohualaw, who made a brief reply. “First we satisfy the bureaucracy,” the archaeo-philologist reported back. “Then we are to be fed.”

“Fed to what?” Bud gulped.


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 16

 

 

PROPHETESS OF THE PAST

 

 

THE PROPHETESS of the Lord Almighty was not a dark Amazon native, but a white woman, obviously not of the same race as the Children. Her look spoke of northern Europe, and her clipped accent England. Her long hair, elaborately wound, shone of red-mahogany in the strange soft light; her eyes were pale and gray and, in their own way, hypnotic.

“I’m Tom Swift,” said the young inventor, overcoming those eyes. “This is Evelyn Troyes. We’re here in the jungle with official permission, testing a vehicle.”

“Vee... huk... cul,” repeated the woman.

“You must have heard of Tom Swift Enterprises,” Evelyn declared. “We’re Americans.”

The Prophetess rose and stood grandly in front of her seat—her prophetic throne. “What thou sayest is like unto the Kingjames,” she said; “yet also not-so. Tomswift and Vlinturiss and this ‘Mamurzigah’—you are strangers and your words are not words.”

Tom nodded reassuringly. “Our pronunciation may be a little lax, ma’am, but it’s English. Like yours. Well, the Yank version, anyway.”

“En... glish,” Althea said dreamily. “Yes, I remember. Father used that word for his way of speaking. It is what they speak in Heaven.”

Evelyn snorted. “That hardly seems likely.”

“Maiden Vlinturiss, you show not reverence to the Prophetess of Fawt, He Who Came,” frowned Althea. “But I shall forgive you. You are untaught. You will learn.”

“Pardon me,” said Tom politely, “but who are you? Who is Fawt? Is this a religious community of some kind?”

The woman stepped closer, her eyes fixed upon his. “It seems you speak whatever first comes unto your tongue.”

“I’m afraid I can’t help it, ma’am. But I don’t want to be disrespectful.”

“You are such as you are,” said Althea mildly. “I think you don’t speak the Kingjames after all, Tomswift; you speak as Father did when we were alone. He did not use words like thou and thinkest; he didn’t talk in an arched voice. He taught me words not in the Book at all. I remember. You look like him, a bit.”

“I hope I look like somebody,” snipped Evelyn.

“I too hope you do, maiden.” She gestured toward thick mats of dried vines covered with animal skins, scattered across the floor. “You may sit in my presence.”

Tom and Evelyn complied as Althea, studying them keenly, resumed her throne. “What do you plan to do with us?” asked Evelyn. “We may not be angels, but I hope Eliezar told you about our aptitude for miracles.”

“He said you can float up in the air like mist,” she replied thoughtfully. “Am I to believe this? The Lord has not shown me. Eliezar is my High Priest, but he is not careful to tell the truth, not even to me.”

Tom stood. “Permit me to demonstrate.” He buoyed up to the ceiling, then down again; then, stepping forward, he offered the wide-eyed prophetess his hand. “Go ahead, ma’am. I won’t hurt you.” The resilientronic shield did its work, and Tom returned cockily to his mat and sat down. Evelyn stifled her urge to applaud.

Althea finally broke her own stunned silence. “By my father Fawt and my Father in Heaven! Perhaps I was wrong!—perhaps you are not begotten of ancient Adam and Eve after all!”

“We’re no angels,” smiled Evelyn. “We arrived on Earth in the usual boring way.”

“We’re just using the inventions of American science,” Tom stated. “It’s not magic, and we’re just people. I’d be happy to show you how to use our equipment, if you like.” Althea did not respond to this notion, but her brow developed a furrow of thought.

“Are you completely cut off from the world here?” asked Evelyn. “Don’t you get visitors from the government of Colombia, or Brazil? No news? No television? Where was your father from?—he obviously spoke English.”

The prophetess stared at the two, as if turning many thoughts over in her mind. “You can do these things; like the old prophets, like Moses himself, with his staff. To you, perhaps I ought not lie. I tell one sort of story to Eliezar and the other Children of Jehovah; but the truth is different. I remember what my father taught me. I remember the truth.”

“Please tell us,” urged the young inventor.

She nodded slightly, almost as if granting permission to herself to speak, and to her guests to listen. “Very well, then.

“I know, from my father, that this Land Eternal where we live, and the Garden above, called Eden, is not all the earth. The Children are taught that all beyond, beyond the far trees, is just death, the Desolation of Mud and Ash. They believe the many lands writ in the Book—Babylon, Sumer, Canaan, Israel, the lands of the Amorites and the Jebusites and the Moabites, even great Egypt—were all destroyed in the Second Punishment, when again God repented making man and this world.”

“I suppose Punishment Number One was the flood of Noah?” speculated Evelyn.

“Yes,” the prophetess replied. “But all that is just a thing-said. I know the great forest goes on and on, for hands of hands of hands; and then there are mountains and seas, where live the sea beasts and Leviathan. After you cross what is called the Atlantic Ocean, before you get to Heaven, there is the Land of Eng—that is, England. That is where father came from.”

“What was his name?” inquired Tom.

“He must have told me, but I only remember him by the name the Children call him, Fawt. I only called him Father.” Evelyn asked about Althea’s mother. “I do not remember her, or know her name. She was not Father’s wife. The woman who bore me was a captive held along with my father during the many wakings in the great jungle, before he came here. He said she came from another land, near England, where they have a different tongue. She died soon after I was born. I was cared for by some of the dark women when I was tiny, when father and I were held by the different tribes.”

Tom asked if her father had been captured in the jungle. “He told me he was exploring—one of his words which are not in the Book—in the jungle, trying to find a certain place. He traveled with other men; one of them was his son. But those who were guiding them the way were treacherous and turned against them—everyone was killed except Father. His hands were tied and he was made to go with one tribe, then another: he was a slave, traded many times among the nations of the jungle. Other such captured people came and went, and my mother was one.”

“When did all this happen?” inquired the youth. “If you were born back then, it must have been many years ago!”

Althea said musingly, “I don’t know what a ‘years-ago’ is. It was many, many wakings, Tomswift, and who has hands to mark them all? I remember the sun, and being held in women’s arms. Then I only remember being here, in this place of the xirixa—that is what they called themselves in the grunting-tongue, before Fawt taught them the Kingjames and the ways of the Book.”

“The xirixa,” repeated Evelyn thoughtfully. “One of the Amazonian peoples, maybe a tribe that never encountered Europeans. When did they start living here, in these warrens under the roots?”

“Who can know that? They do not. They have given up wondering; it does them no good, for they can’t remember what came before. Each day they are newly born, do you see? Maiden Whatever-Your-Name-Is, I am their memory! The prophets of old, Daniel and Jeremiah and the rest, prophesied what was to come; but I prophesy what has already been, the past! If I were not here to rule them according to the Book, and remember for them the ways of Jehovah God that were given to Moses of old, they wouldn’t know, from one waking to another, what to do, who they are—even how to find food for themselves suitable for Man. They would return to their old life, living like animals. They are the chosen ones, you see, the last of the children of the covenant who spurned the commandments of the Father. They wait here in the shadow of the Garden above, waiting for the End of Days and their final Judgment. My father was He Who Came—I am She Who Remains, preserved by Jehovah God to give consolation as they dwell in the Land Eternal.”

Tom tried to sound properly respectful. “That, er—sounds like quite a job, ma’am.”

Evelyn said hastily: “I think you were about to tell us how the xirixa started living here.”

“Yes. When I was very little, barely more than born, Father and I learned the old tongue, the simple words they used, hardly a tongue at all. They had their ways and habits, but of course they had no history: they could only say that they have always lived here in the land beneath the great roots.”

Evelyn Troyes shook her head. “They may have thought that. But this isn’t a habitat for man. Something forced them down here, maybe generations ago.”

“The Children remain here because they can not leave,” retorted Althea sharply. “Like Father and I, you come from The Above—the light does not war against you. You are not of the Accursed, the Forsaken.” To curious stares, she explained. “The light of the sun hurts the Children. Even a very small amount of light, even in the shadows of the trees, wounds their skin and clutches at their throats and hearts—they die!”

“I’ve read—what is it?—I think it’s called xeroderma pigmentosum,” declared Evelyn thoughtfully. “It’s just as she says, Tom—an extreme sensitivity to sunlight. I don’t recall the details from school, but it may be that a recessive gene, a bad chromosome, got passed around in the original tribe through intermarriage. As the symptoms started appearing they happened on this place and found a way to live.” The zoologist turned back toward the prophetess. “But what about food, water—all the necessities?”

“As to water, it is plentiful here; both from rainwater that collects, and from natural springs,” the woman replied. “For food, there are parts of the roots that we can eat, and other things growing in the ground. But we do have our Sustainers, though, who I send up at night to bring us the flesh of animals. They are good hunters, and all the xirixa see well when the light is weak—better than Father or I myself; and we came to see well indeed.

“Still, such food is scarce, and the Children are many. They would have died long ago if the Lord had not provided them the food of Heaven from the first. Do you not see it all around us?” She made a sweeping gesture, and the Shoptonians made out, for the first time, that the roots were discolored by patches of something dark. “The Book tells its name. Manna!”

The crewcut scientist-inventor rose and ran a finger along a patch of the stuff. It was spongy and yielding but seemed tightly bound to the surface beneath it. It left a dark stain on his finger. “Kind of an oily feel,” he reported. “It reminds me of something we ran across underwater in the seacopter, a kind of seaweed that exuded a chemical compound that... that was... well, it was hallucinogenic; it affected our minds and memories. In fact... we all have only confused memories of what happened down there...” His voice trailed off in a dead-end of thought.

“We eat of the Manna,” repeated the Prophetess. “It nourishes us. If I were not here, I think the xirixa would worship it.”

“Manna from Heaven. Another of the unexpected things we’ve seen in this part of the rainforest.” Tom nodded; then his expression darkened. “And also—the little animals. The ones you’ve trained to capture strangers in the forest and bring them here!”

“Ah—my bond-servants! The xirixa call them the kroiiat, a word they kept from before.” Althea smiled suddenly and bowed her head, closing her eyes. She fell silent. Tom and Evelyn exchanged glances.

Suddenly a scratching sound drew their eyes to a corner of the chamber, where they could make out, barely, a small opening. Long grotesque hands and a face appeared, and a single xibta scrambled into the room. Approaching Althea, it eyed the Americans warily.

The prophetess opened her eyes and petted the creature. “The kroiiat are the best of the New-Creations. I remember when they began to come out of the Pool of the Fountain of Life; it was not long after Father had died. I mourned with tears, but these ones lifted my heart, as if Father had returned. The first pair begat more, and now there are many.”

“We’ve never seen animals like this,” Tom stated. “They seem amazingly intelligent.”

“Oh, they are,” Althea agreed. “The kroiiat are the devoted servants of the Prophetess of Fawt, He Who Came. Jehovah has his messengers, the angels; and I have mine. They do what I want them to do; I have only to want it, to think it with strength, and they do it. Not always right away—I prayed for many hands of hands that they have weapons to carry, and then, of a sudden, Jehovah told them in secret how to fashion the little throw-twigs and use them. But I knew when it happened. What they see and hear, I see and hear, when I close my eyes, in my thoughts. True,” she went on, “it is not like being there myself. It is like ‘seeing things’ and ‘hearing things,’ but it is—as when I recall something I once knew, as when I can think of Father without in truth thinking of the look of his face.”

Evelyn seemed ready to scoff, but Tom interceded. “No, Ev—we’ve dealt with unexplained forms of mental communication before. Althea has some sort of telepathic link with the xibta and the sense-processing parts of their brains...” He turned again to Althea. “And I gather you can also control them with your mind in a general way, command them to do things routinely.”

She laughed softly. “A wonder of wonders! The Children can’t do it. I have made them our sentries; they told me of those who intruded upon the Garden, the big things with what Father called ‘wheels,’ the Strange Thin One with white hair as Father had—and the two of you. But I only believed you came down from the trees, not that you could walk in the sky. Some things are too much like a dream.

“The kroiiat are subject to my decree to attack by their own accord whatever seems like a Bringer of Torment to be visited upon the Children by The Evil One. They do not wait for my permission. It was only when their eyes spoke to me—do you understand?—that I commanded them to bring me these intruders alive. And—to find that you speak the tongue of the land of Fawt—!”

Tom’s scientific nerve was pinging. “You said—they came out of a pool?”

Althea ignored the question, continuing in a dreamy, reflective way, “I send out my little servants when the sun is gone—the light hurts their eyes—and through them I know what is happening, where the jaguar-beast prowls, where the devils lie in wait to trap the Sustainers when they hunt at night...”

“The devils?” repeated Evelyn. “Animals?”

“No, maiden, not animals, not the beasts of the earth who passed before the eyes of Adam, who were saved by Noah from the consuming waters.” The woman was suddenly very grave. “The Children are kept from The Above not only by the Sun, but by those to whom Jehovah gave the Garden of Eden when the First Father and First Mother were driven out for their disobedience. The two angels of the flaming swords allowed them in, the devils, those who serve Ba’al. They are our keepers and our tormentors. At least that is what I teach; the xirixa only knew enough to fear them and their long weapons.

“Those who live above us, who capture and kill the Children—they are men, not xirixa. But Lo! we call them the Devil-Men, for they serve the evil one, the Adversary. They are ruled by Satan’s emissary, the monster, the demon Ba’al in the form of a man, who is their king. They call him the Inca!”


 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

 

THE SON OF THE SUN

 

 

AS THE patrol sergeant watched stoically, the troop of expeditioners were waved forward through the decorous doorway and a beaded curtain. Hank and Bud, ahead of the others, found darkness inside; it took moments for their eyes to find the little threads of sunlight that had been allowed to enter through spaces between the wooden planks. “I can see nothing,” whispered Luz Vera, behind them. “Is the translator here?”

“Come thou forward,” came a hoarse, soft voice from somewhere in the room.

“There he is,” murmured Hank to Bud. “Left, in the corner.” A little bald man sat cross-legged on the wooden floor; his eyes seemed big, capturing the light like a cat’s.

“They say thou speakest mine own tongue,” said the man. “I hear with my two ears that they do speak truly.”

“We speak English,” said Hank, approaching. “We are Americans.”

The man shook his head. “I know not those words. Nor do I see you well, strangers, for even after Lo! these long and many wakings since I was made slave-captive, the light of day dims my eyes.”

Hank nodded his understanding, wondering if the man could see it, and Bud said, “We’ll try to keep out of the light. Sir, uh—who are you? If you speak the language, maybe you could tell us about this place?”

“For example—to pick a subject for conversation—what do we have to do to be sent on our way—alive?” put in Wilson Hutchcraft, fear welling up behind his words.

“I am Jeremiah,” the man said. “My name—it is almost all I can remember from before.”

“Did these people take you prisoner?” asked Hank.

“Yea, it is so. I am a Sustainer, one who comes up from the Land Eternal below to hunt flesh for food. We are often captured by these Devil-Men. I was taught their tongue, and they asked many things about the Land Eternal and the Children of Jehovah. They keep me alive for what I might remember; but as they know, we forget much of what happens in our land. It goes quickly...”

“Sí, but maybe you could stretch to remember the question just asked, eh? About keeping us alive?” prodded Diego Cíbola gruffly.

Bud frowned. “Ignore that one, Jeremiah. Several of our guys majored in Rude in school. We just want to know... whatever you can tell us. We don’t know anything about this city and these people.”

“I shall surely tell what I am able,” replied the man. “This place, this city, is called Yadqimoxtma. These people, the Devil-Men, wish to be called the Mancopoc. They say they have lived in the trees here some great long time, so many hands of hands of days that it must be called always. First they were few; now they are many, men and women and children—never have I seen so many children! They speak the profane tongue of Satan, the tempter and adversary of the Lord, and they worship his living image in the form of their king, the Inca; but all know he is Ba’al, the great monster of corruption, come to Earth.”

“Hmm! Have they ever mentioned where they originated?” inquired Hutchcraft, the academic in him surging forth. “Big mountains westward of here?”

“They say they once lived in another place, very far away, where their king ruled many nations,” replied Jeremiah. “That was surely before the Second Punishment, when the earth was left desolate. Perhaps they themselves aroused Jehovah to his fury. I think they might be of those called Egyptians.

“They say warriors from another place came unto their land, with metal rods of magic fire that could kill by being pointed at a man. They, the invaders, were called the Xisbanyorda, and a man of might led them, called Pajarwu.”

“Spaniards,” muttered Hutch. “Pizarro.”

“Some of these Mancopoc escaped, men and women, taking with them the great round shield of Ba’al the Abomination, which they requireth to summon forth he who shall be Inca, in whom Ba’al shall dwell. And Lo! they made their way here, where another nation lived—I think it was my people, the xirixa, when they dwelt in the Garden. Those of that nation were driven from the Garden, as the Book doth testify. And the Mancopoc did build this city.”

“Don’t they have any contact with the rest of the world?” asked Doc Simpson, stepping closer.

“What is ‘rest of the world’?” retorted Jeremiah in contempt. “It is forbidden to speak the lies of Ba’al in the tongue of the Kingjames! There is only desolation, and these Devil-Men of Ba’al, and the forsaken Children of Jehovah in The Below. I will not be led into blasphemy by you strangers; I know the Book and the teachings of Fawt and his daughter.”

“Ay, well. Not to be too rude,” said Diego languidly, puffing; “but if there are no other places, where do you think we come from?”

The xirixa rubbed his forehead. “I confess, I know not, man of smoke. Between the world and Heaven is the place where the virtuous dead come to judgment, the Land of Eng. The people there speak as you do, strangers; Fawt, He Who Came, spoke that way, and he was like unto man. Perhaps you have come from there, to judge us—my xirixa below, and the Mancopoc as well.”

Bud smiled. “It’s a thought!”

Jeremiah made an abrupt gesture toward the further end of the chamber. “That one—the woman who is wide—doth she make prayer before the Lord of Hosts?” The Comtessa di Halsfenthor had increased the volume of her fearful whimpering and muttering.

“I’m not sure what she’s doing,” Hank Sterling replied with a wink at Bud. “She speaks a language of her own.”

“Doth she come also from the Land of Eng?” asked Jeremiah. “The land where the dead come to judgment?”

“She comes from the land where food goes to die,” smirked Diego.

Doc Simpson stepped closer and said, “Jeremiah, we wish to be friends with these people, and with your people as well. We’re searching for others of our group who are lost in the jungle. We ask you to tell—whoever is in charge—that we mean no disrespect. If this city is supposed to be kept secret, we have no reason to violate that wish. You’ll find us worthy of your trust.”

The man fell silent for a minute, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his knuckle. “What you say is wise, and those who speak the tongue of Fawt must be righteous.”

“Oh, absolutely,” nodded Bud.

“Alas, I can do nothing. The iktar of the warriors, Chohualaw, serves the priest-father Dw’qibotak, who speaks for Ashtixmizuhuajo Inca. Chohualaw sayeth unto me that after we are done here—I was to hear some of your words, that we may know whence you come—then shall you be taken straightway to the Inca. The Inca, who these Mancopoc call ‘the son of the sun,’ as his spirit comes from the Killing Eye of the Cloud-Sky where dwelleth the Evil One—he will set your fate.”

Bud brushed a black lock from his forehead, nervously. “Have you met mister ‘son of the sun’ yourself? A nice guy—I don’t suppose?”

Jeremiah shrugged. “Few see him but the priests, the Akuns. We xirixa prisoners see him never. Nor do the ordinary Mancopocs see him; which does not prevent their complaints about the weather he brings or the taste of their meals or the ways of their children.”

“Sí, people always have to say something, usually worthless basúra,” commented Diego. “An old expression: wind from the teeth. Or at least I shall say it is ‘teeth’.”

The audience with Jeremiah was over. Presently the warrior-sergeant Chohualaw entered and gestured for the expeditioners to come outside, where they were again marched along the wooden platform lanes. Hutchcraft manuevered his way close to the Comtessa, who had regained a degree of scowling composure in the sunlight. “A woman like you should be spared Cíbola’s sort of raw vulgarity,” he told her confidingly. “A woman of your background must be given every consideration.”

“You are of the urbane kind, Dr. Hutchcraft, obviously a man of breeding,” she responded, followed by a watery sneeze. “You are the sort of man one might find among the aristocracy of Brungary.”

“Oh? Why, you’re very generous, Comtessa. But surely—do you really think—a man of modest charms like myself—could indeed find a place among—”

The Comtessa was still thinking her previous thoughts. “Cíbola, what a rude man, of low birth! Insufferable! Him with his filthy cigar—and that big turnip nose making a shadow on his mustache—!”

“It is rather over-ample. ‘The fellow has a big big nose; he’s early every place he goes’.” The archaeologist gave one of his shrill giggles. “But of course the measure of a gentleman is not his face, but his manner.”

“Indeed. But an ugly face can hardly be overlooked.”

“How true.”

“It seems we agree on everything, Dr. Hutchcraft.”

“I agree!”

The group halted at the largest structure yet seen, its broad entrance guarded by many of the stakla warriors, standing in stiff respect. Men in a different form of garb, long robes woven of colorful feathers and bedecked with bits of shining metal, came and went through the curtain-draped doorway. Felix Ming gestured at the plumed headdresses the men wore. “My guess is that these are the priests who serve the Inca,” he offered.

“Yeah, the Akuns,” put in Red Jones. “I heard the little guy call ’em that.”

“And I’d bet this is the ‘priest-father’ Jeremiah mentioned,” Hank said quietly. The man who had appeared from within, gaunt as a plantain, wore an elaborate golden helmet whose design evidently was meant to suggest the spreading rays of the sun.

Bud half-turned, looking behind him. “Hutch, try telling this guy that there’s no need to bother Sunny inside. We’ll just go on our way peacefully—after eating, maybe. Make up something sly—you’re good at that.”

Hutchcraft stepped forward with a glare at Bud. The Bostonian approached the apparent priest-father and began to speak haltingly, with many illustrative gestures. The man stared silently with hands folded across his chest; then he replied briefly. Hutchcraft reported: “This is Dw’qibotak, the high priest. He says I speak like a forest pig with a full snout.”

“Aa, so what else is nuevo, Mr. Hatched-fast?” sneered Diego. “Does he pay you any mind? He doesn’t yet know you well enough to ignore you, eh?”

“He says we must be looked-over by Ashtixmizuhuajo Inca, Son of the Sun, Ever-Living Though Ever-Dying,” responded Hutchcraft with slitted eyes. “Those who refuse will be—I’m paraphrasing—Dead-For-Good.” The Comtessa shrieked; Luz Vera comforted her and kept her upright.

Dw’qibotak stepped aside and gave a curt nod. “Chak wa pto!”

“That sounds like a formal invite,” Bud quipped. His bravado was Budlike, but within he was anguished—for his own fate, that of his companions—and that of his absent best friend.

The several Akuns drew aside the curtains and the captives entered into what seemed to be a waiting room of sorts, sweepingly decorated with carved figures of polished gold and lit by many small torches set into stonework chimneys.

To Bud’s surprise Dw’qibotak and the priests withdrew backwards through the entrance, bowing. The expeditioners were left alone. “What gives?” asked Bud. “Jetz, are we supposed to wait here until they call our number?”

“There’s no other door,” Felix pointed out.

“Be patient, señors,” counseled the unflappable Diego Cíbola. “Remember what has been truly said: half of life is waiting.”

“Mm-hmm,” Hutch added. “And the remaining half turns out to be not worth the wait.”

Luz interrupted, pointing. An entire wall was swinging open like a gate, silently. Bud noticed some taut ropes that seemed to account for the magical motion.

“I think,” said Hank, “our number’s just been called!”

The entire group advanced fearfully through the inner door, Bud and Hank still in the lead, the Comtessa dawdling. As the door swung closed behind them, they found themselves in a much larger and grander chamber with a high ceiling. The only light came from two chimneys, the flames not out in the open but behind fitted stones which allowed light through the thready gaps between them. These lights were at either side of the bottom of a grand wooden stairway, some twenty feet high, which narrowed like a triangle as it rose to a platform at its summit. The platform was deep in shadow, but higher up on the wall behind it was a broad disk of highly polished metal carved all over with the weird figures and symbols of the Incas. “The Tukawo,” pronounced Hutchcraft. “The mirror-disk that summons the sun-spirit down from the sky.”

No one was visible, and no voice beckoned them, but after a brief wait Bud and Hank begin to advance toward the steps. Bud immediately called out, “Careful, guys. The floor’s got a slant to it.” The entire floor inclined slightly upward, rising to meet the base of the stairs.

“They know how to set the atmosphere,” commented Doc. “Pretty good effect.”

There was a sound that made the group look toward the elevated platform. A black shape seemed to be rising into view, as if mounting steps on the further side of the wooden structure. The shape rose to the height of a man—and kept rising!

“Ohhhh!” whimpered the Comtessa. The figure was human in form, but much bigger than a man!

“Th-they really grow their Incas big out here!” Bud quipped, throat dry. Was the massive figure even human?—or another of the freakish anomalies of The Forest Where God Can Not See?

But it walked like a man, slowly approaching the front of the platform. Some faint firelight now reached it, and those below could make out a kilt-like costume of what appeared to be feathers interwoven with gold thread. Above was a bare, broad, muscular chest. The man—for man it was—wore many jeweled bracelets and a draping cloak affixed around the base of his thick neck. They saw, dimly, that he wore some kind of high headdress.

He stepped slowly, regally, to the edge of the platform, and stretched out a huge muscular arm. He extended a meaty finger ominously, pointing down at one figure only—Bud. It seemed as if he were about to pronounce a sentence of death!

And then a voice boomed out. “Now you are the slave of the King of the Jungle!”

Bud’s gray eyes widened. His jaw dropped, more than wide enough for a gasp to escape. “Wuh—wuh—it—can’t be!”

“He speaks English!” exclaimed Red in surprise. “Gosh, what is he, an American?”

“Yes,” Doc Simpson replied faintly. “An American.”

Wilson Hutchcraft cleared his throat. “I honestly never thought I’d say this sentence during the entirety of my mortal life, but—it seems the sacred king of this Inca tree-house city is a giant wrestler from the great state of California.”

“Say, I r’member you too, Hutchcraft,” laughed the eight-footer, descending toward the captives one step at a time. “Was I ever surprised, seein’ you guys in the waiting room through my little peep-hole! Gosh-a-mighty, no wonder they say it’s a small world!”

“Ay Díos mío!” exclaimed Diego Cibola impatiently. “How about you let us all in on the big joke, señors?”

Turning to Bud, who was grinning if still goggle-eyed, Hank ventured: “It’s him, right? From Yucatan?”

“If ‘him’ is named Maximilian Jones,” chuckled the giant, “then him is me. Of course these native guys around here have trouble with the name. They call me Ashtixmizuhuajo—best they can do. I gave up tryin’ to learn ’em to say it right. Sure seems to me the right way’s a lot easier than the wrong one.”

Catching his breath, Bud gave the others a brief summary of the strange life of Maximilian Jones. Born to giantism in the USA, he had been a heavyweight “show” wrestler in his younger days, touring under the name Max the Magnificent. But encroaching ill health had led him to retire to the jungles of Yucatan in search of vegetarian vitality and restorative herbs. Tom and Bud had encountered the loinclothed cave-dweller when a Swift Enterprises expedition had come to a village of Maya while testing Tom’s electronic retroscope invention.

“We’ve heard of you, of course,” Felix said to Max. “But I thought you lived in a cave there in Mexico. How in the great wide world—”

“Makes for quite a tale, young fellow,” declared Max. Removing his headdress he sat down on a step, demurely keeping his knees together. “Y’see, things got a little tense around that village, where I lived in that cave. So I went wanderin’ for a while; but I guess I’d got a taste fer talkin’ to other people, so finally I put on some pants and flew back to th’ US of A. Saw my folks, my old manager, my old girlfriend Priscilla—man, all those years musta fallen right on her face!—and then I knocked around Hollywood for a while—got on one o’ those ‘whatever happened to’ talk shows, but really, n’body remembers ol’ Max these days.

“I didn’t like the weather, and I had trouble keepin’ to my healthy diet. Then I got wind—through the health-food grapevine—that some tribes down here in the Amazon were passin’ around some kinda herbal stuff that’s better’n anything t’ keep you goin’ strong.”

“We know what it is,” interrupted Luz Vera, “don’t we, Diego? It’s what Ferrars and his people came to the jungle to find.”

Diego nodded. “They call it miraphysón”

Max shrugged. “Anyway, I got a lotta money saved up from my wrestlin’ days, so I came down here, where they said the stuff came from. I’d had enough o’ people for a while. Nice bein’ able to take my clothes off an’ run around in a loincloth again. Makes ya feel like a free man.”

“Must we listen to these things?” demanded the Comtessa, regal disgust having overcome her terror.

“Sorry lady,” said Max. “So anyway, some old friends o’ mine had a few clues as to where the herbs came from, and I went lookin’.”

“The rest is obvious,” Hutch said dryly. “You ambled around in the jungle until somebody happened to make you King of the Lost Incas.”

“Not far wrong,” laughed the wrestler. “See—found this out later—the old king—he was just the Acting Inca anyway—died, and they were out on a hill with the whole slate of candidates to see who the Sun God would pick for the new one. They do it by some hocus-pocus using that metal shield up on the wall—the reflection o’ light does it, see? Wellp, I saw the flashin’ light up ahead and walked right into it; next thing I know the whole crowd is bowin’ down. Here I was standing there, all eight feet! They figgered Mr. Sun had gone right into my little old brain, and now I was the man in charge—they call ’im the Inca. Lots of fun! Gotta do what I say. And I learned just enough of the language to get by.”

Red Jones stared at the man in awe—one of the very few he’d run across who was bigger than he was. “Man alive, so you’ve lived here ever since?”

“Mm-hmm, eatin’ my special herbs—includin’ that funny stuff I came here for, which grows around the roots of these man-sized trees. Good fer health! But I gotta tellya,” he continued earnestly, “lately I been feelin’ pretty bored. I’m supposed t’ be the boss, but really the Mancopocs just need me to nod at whatever they’ve a’ready decided to do. Not much exciting goin’ on here in uptown Yadqimoxtma, and I can’t handle the lingo well enough to have any real conversations—not like me or anybody’d want to chat with that frozen-faced head priest Dw’qibotak. Oh... and, er...” Paying close attention, Bud noted even in the dim light that Max’s broad pug face was blushing like a teenager’s. “They... bring me girls. Know what I mean? But I just send ’em back with, like, ‘no, thank you,’ see?”

“In the US they call it speed dating,” Bud offered jokingly.

“Well, it’s just not my style, that kinda thing. Makes a person tired and nervous. Gotta say, there’s more t’ good health than aerobics.”

“What on Earth is this undressed man taking about?” snipped the Comtessa.

“No wonder her husbands dropped dead,” muttered Red.

Max stood up and descended to the floor. “So what’re you folks doin’ here? Where’s my old pals Tom and Chow?”

“Funny you should bring that up, Max,” Bud replied. He launched into an abbreviated account of the Glidepath expedition, the attack on the Ferrars group, and the failure of Tom and Evelyn Troyes to return.

Max scratched his big forehead. “Wow! Big trouble in th’ big jungle, hunh. I know all about those little monkey-men; the guys here catch ’em all the time—sometimes serve ’em up, too—though I’m pretty much a vegan, remember.”

“But what exactly are they, Max?” asked Hank.

“Hard t’ say,” was the reply. “Some kinda trained animal; there’s this tribe o’ people who live down under the roots right below us—they use ’em like huntin’ hounds. My boys here, the Mancopocs, call them the moon-eyes. I never knew they could be trained to shoot arrows and kidnap people. Man!”

Leaving the Comtessa’s side, Luz Vera came closer, adopting her most persuasive voice. “Mr. Jones—they say it’s up to you to decide what will become of us. Surely the best thing to do is to let us go on our way and continue our search for our friends. Don’t you think?”

The giant gave a wide grin. “Sure, that’s the idea; I don’t know if those others are worth it, but I sure know Tom Swift! Problem is—I don’t know the language good enough to order Dw’qibotak or the warriors to set you back on the ground and guide you safely back to that jumbo jeep of yours. So—

“I’ll take you myself! How bout that?”

“Jetz, that’s fantastic!” cheered Bud.

“There is kind of a... problem,” the Inca, Son of the Sun, admitted. “I’m not supposed to go outside. They’re afraid the Sun-God’ll jump right out of me and, I dunno, fly away. Dw’qibotak’s the one person who doesn’t always have to do what I say, and he commands the temple guards.

“But guys, that’s a problem that ain’t a problem! One of the Akuns who’s more-or-less a nice guy showed me a secret way out of the temple right down to the ground—kind of a hole down the middle of the trunk of one of the big trees the temple was built on, with rungs like a ladder inside. You climb down to a tunnel right under the roots, and after a while you come up in the open jungle, see? Pretty easy—I do it just about every day.”

“Easy for you, perhaps,” objected Felix Ming. “But we are not giant wrestlers. What of the women?”

Max the Magnificent laughed. “Aw, this nice lady here looks healthy enough,” he pronounced, nodding at Luz. “As for the other one back there—it’ll be a tight fit. But maybe we can, you know, grease ’er up!...” He laughed again; the Comtessa di Halsfenthor did not join in.

Basking in the sour glare that momentarily silenced the sacred chamber, Hutchcraft gestured grandly. “See here, Jones—Jones the Inca, not Jones the Red—the Comtessa di Halsfenthor has already endured a great deal today, and it’s scarcely noon. If you’re the local deity in charge, let’s have some food and a rest period before squeezing down the inside of a tree—or whatever you have in mind.”

Max Jones looked sheepish.  “Yeah, you’re right, Hutchcraft. Where’s my manners? Bet even Bud and this big guy here could use a break.”

“We all could, Your Solar Highness,” purred Luz.

“Aw, just call me Max,” grinned the giant. “Dw’qibotak and the others won’t think it disrespectful—don’t know a word o’ English. But just say it with some reverence, okay?”

“You want reverence?” repeated Hank. “Max, we’ll knock our heads against the ground twenty times if you’ll show us to the exit—so we can get back to finding some people who got themselves hunted down by animals!”

“And,” Bud added quietly, “two more who went after them.”

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 18

 

 

THE POOL OF LIFE

 

 

 

AT THE WORD Inca, Tom and Evelyn exchanged glances. “What is it?” reacted Althea. “Do you know of this already?”

“One of the nations called their king by a word sounding like the one you used, ‘Inca’,” replied the young inventor. “Those people were conquered many years ago—they no longer exist.”

The Prophetess of Fawt gave Tom a sulky look. “Words!—you use words that mean nothing to me. Tell me now—what is a ‘years-ago’?”

“Don’t you know what a year is?” asked Evelyn.

“The word is in the Kingjames,” Althea conceded. “Methuselah and many others are said to have lived so-and-such many years. But what does it mean? Some way that they lived? That they were especially righteous, perhaps?”

Tom knuckled his crewcut. “Well... a year is twelve months, or 365 days. It’s a fixed amount of time.”

“Time...” she repeated musingly. “Father spoke that way; I remember now. It is like how many wakings, two hands, three hands...”

“That’s right.”

She shook her head. “There are a few wakings, and then there are all the wakings. Who can remember all the wakings? Can you, Tomswift? We know of days, when there is sun, and night, when it is dark; we know of now, and of then. What is before then is simply always.”

“Life underground,” murmured Evelyn to Tom. Addressing Althea, she said: “But you know you haven’t been here always. You were a little girl, with your father; that wasn’t forever ago.”

“But it is within the Always, maiden,” the Prophetess retorted, frowning at the Shoptonian’s impertinence. “Do you think differently? Do you have days that go on for many, many wakings? Of what use is it to give number to such a thing?”

“We mean no disrespect, ma’am,” Tom said. “We just wanted to honor you for having many years of life, like Methuselah. Not all women have them.”

“Not all women admit it when they do,” added Evelyn.

Althea nodded and was silent for a moment. Then she walked across the dim-lit chamber and took something from a niche, where the tangled roots formed a shelf. She brought it to Tom—a plate-sized tin box with a hinged lid. “This was Father’s,” she explained. “He told me he kept it with him from when he was in England.” As Tom held the box, she unlatched the lid and removed a small, round object, slipping it into his palm. “The top opens up, Tomswift. I never understood what this thing is for.”

The object was made of brass, and tarnished black by time and circumstances. The Shoptonian flipped open the round lid with his thumbnail. “It’s called a compass, ma’am. That narrow thing there is called a needle. It always points in the same direction, north, however you turn it. See?” He demonstrated.

“Yes,” said Althea. “You turn the metal gourd, but the little finger, the ‘needle,’ does not turn with it. Something Jehovah God does?”

Tom smiled. “He does it through science, just as he makes us fly.” Tom glanced at the inside of the lid, then showed it to Evelyn. Three letters were engraved:

 

P H F

 

“Is this your father?” Tom asked Althea, pointing.

“I don’t remember his old name from Eng,” she replied; “But I know it wasn’t anything like Phuff!”

Evelyn valiantly suppressed a giggle. “Many people have names in three parts—three words. They sometimes mark things by using the first letters of each of the words.”

“How much I am learning,” declared Althea with a trace of sarcasm. “And now tell me of this.” She took out something square and disheveled and put it in Tom’s waiting hands.

It was a book. The front and back covers existed as only a few scraps, and the pages were yellow and crumbling away along the edges. The youth turned the book to examine the spine, which was still intact. He read aloud:

 

HOLY BIBLE

 

IN THE STANDARD VERSION,

THE KING JAMES,

AS COMMONLY SO CALLED

VOLUME ONE

THE OLD TESTAMENT

 

“Father taught me to read by teaching me this, in the tongue called the Kingjames,” stated Althea. “He called it The Book, and from this come all our ways and laws. As Prophet of Jehovah God, Lord of Hosts, he taught the xirixa how to behave, to obey the Commandments given Moses, even how to speak. He gave each one a name. They ceased to be xirixa and thus became the Children of Jehovah. And as Prophetess I do as he did, though...” Her face fell. “Sometimes I wonder if the Lord really approves of what I say and do.”

“I think we all wonder things like that, sometimes,” said Tom gently. Thumbing through the book, he paused and said, “Here—writing in pencil. It starts mid-sentence; some pages have fallen out.”

“Father made that writing,” nodded Althea. “But I can not read it at all. It is not the Kingjames.”

“It’s cursive handwriting, not printing,” the young inventor explained.

“Read it to us,” urged Evelyn.

Nodding, Tom pulled a tiny penlight from the utility pocket in his safari worksuit. “It’s pretty faint. ‘...to provide law and give form to their formless bestial lives. It is in our interest as well, to create a touch of civilization and require them to treat us with respect and thus to keep us safe, but how strange, the way they learn so readily, yet so much is forgotten in a single sleep. Now they speak English and keep in practice, for they are forbidden their old gruntings and jabber; but as to proper ritual and even the simplest forms of society, they must be reproved constantly. They cannot retain the complexities of the real world. It is enough to the purpose that they are given the myths of the Old Testament to shape...’ The writing stops there,” Tom stated. “The next pages are missing.”

“There is more in several places, Tomswift. It is my will that you read the rest to me.” Though her voice was commanding, Althea’s face bore a pleading look.

Tom nodded and began thumbing through the Bible, reading whatever fragments of handwriting he came across. “Here’s some. ‘...and returned again with our lives, I thank God, but there will be no more attempts at escape. Althea and I can not expect to survive the harshness of the jungle for long enough to reach any outpost of civilization; and the hostile tribe occupying this region allows no one to pass. Worst of all, the end of our hopes, is the affliction we have somehow contracted from the xirixa. Over these months the sunlight has become deadly to both of us. We can not travel by day, and the terrors of the night...’ ” The passage ended there.

Tom found another. “ ‘I have ceased to even attempt to keep track of time. My daughter is no longer a toddler; can it be that we have lived in what we term the Land Eternal for years? We live in an endless gray monotony relieved only by the great project, the civilizing of our people the Children. What irony that as we teach and rule them, we ourselves seem to be sinking to their level, forgetting more and more of the old life even as we find ourselves inhumanly healthy. My son, my wife, England, are like the dreams of a child now, and for all my labors Althea finds such things fairy-tales; she too has come to accept the stories of a world known only to these pages. Perhaps it is a kindness after all, if she is never to know any...’

The young inventor looked up; Althea was sobbing. “Your father loved you,” said Evelyn, touching her shoulder.

The Prophetess nodded. “I should never doubt and should never weep. When he died, I wanted to die as well. The ritual helped, though. We taught the Children to treat the dead with proper reverence, not merely cast the carcasses among the trees above. The people gather and say words over the dead, as directed by my priests, and the bodies are lowered into the Pool of the Fountain of Life, where they are consumed and their souls taken up to the seat of Jehovah. It was done that way with Father; it will be done that way when I too die.”

“You’re young, Althea,” said Evelyn. “No need to think about dying. Think about returning with us to civilization.”

“Am I young?” snapped the Prophetess bitterly. “Just a word. For me the whole world might just as well be desolation; I can never escape. The sun would kill me. It is the watchful eye of the Adversary.”

Evelyn Troyes looked bemused. “The photosensitivity syndrome is chromosomal, not something one person could contract from another. Yet somehow the two of them developed the condition just by living down here with the xirixa. I don’t understand it, Tom.”

Tom shrugged. “This whole area is a treasure-trove for science. The variant forms of plantlife, the cryptid animal-men... The soil must be rich in some kind of mutagenic substance, possibly something in the water. Althea, you said something about new creations—”

“Yes, Tomswift,” she replied. “They come out of the Pool. That is, those that live; most are only floating dead things, hideous and rotted. But my little bond-servants, the kroiiat, also came forth, one male and one female, alive after many others who were lifeless. From those two come all the ones we have now.”

Tom’s eyes sparkled with interest. “Ma’am, Prophetess—while you’re deciding what to do with us, I would certainly like to see that Pool. If it is permitted?”

Althea provided a regal smile. “I am Prophetess of Jehovah God, daughter of Fawt, He Who Came. If I say it is permitted, so it is: and I permit myself anything I like. I shall take you there. Unless,” she added slyly, “you two holy messengers know the way already?”

“We’ll follow you,” smiled Evelyn.

Althea led Tom and Evelyn from the tabernacle chamber. Eliezar and his group waited where they had been left; Tom had the impression the High Priest of Fawt had been listening, though those within had spoken quietly. “I shall guide the angel visitors to the Pool of Life myself,” Althea said to Eliezar brusquely. “You may leave.”

Eliezar looked displeased. “Yourself? But, then, Prophetess, hast thou indeed determined... you are certain of... are they of Jehovah God in truth, as they have proclaimed unto us?”

“Do not make me say the same thing twice,” she snapped back. “Now leave.”

“As Fawt and Jehovah command,” bowed Eliezar, skulking away down the root-corridor with the several others.

“I find him troublesome,” said Althea quietly. “He thinks he ought to be my successor before Jehovah—or the father of my successor. Neither is to my taste.”

“I’ve run across men like that,” remarked Evelyn.

The Prophetess led them a long route that tended downward; soon the corridor walls were rock and clay as much as living root. They encountered fewer xirixa as they proceeded. “These lower parts are the sacred precincts of the Land Eternal,” explained Althea. “Sometimes one wants to be alone, to think.”

Though they were deeper in the earth, Tom noted that the phosphorescence seemed stronger and more general. “It’s not the roots themselves that are glowing,” Tom told Evelyn, “it’s the ‘Manna’ deposits, maybe all the way down to the level of microscopic spores.”

Presently Althea slowed. “Summon reverence from your souls,” she said to them. “We are in the presence of a miracle wrought by the hand of Jehovah God Himself.”

The corridor was now almost entirely an underground tunnel. Ahead, where it broadened abruptly, a pinkish luminance painted the walls. There was a faint murmuring of water.

The Prophetess led them into a rounded cave, partially dug out by hand. She stood on a narrow ledge of rock, gesturing at a pool of glassy water a few feet below them that reflected their images. There was no need for Althea to pronounce its name. The Pool of Life!

On all sides and above, the walls were choked with masses of the edible substance called Manna by the Children. Here it grew not only on roots and rock but clumped upon itself, forming grotesque mossy icicles and fingerlike fronds, all glowing with a kind of vegetative moonlight. “It likes the trapped moisture in here,” Evelyn commented. “It’s running wild.”

“The dew here is not mere water,” declared Althea. “The Pool of the Fountain of Life is fed by living water from the Tree of Life, one of the two trees planted in the Garden above by Jehovah Himself, those whose fruits were forbidden the first man and his woman companion. It was Ba’al-Satan, in the guise of a serpent, who caused a spring to come down here from that tree to this pool.”

“Did the xirixa call this pool a holy place even before you and your father arrived?” inquired Tom respectfully.

“They had not the words or ways to understand what was holy and what was not,” she replied. “It seems they drank much from the pool, and one could see that it made them healthy. Father said...” Her voice trailed off uncertainly, memories elusive. “He said drinking of the water changed him; he said he had almost died when we first came here... but he lived so much longer than he expected...”

“How long has it been since your father died?” Tom asked.

“Who can say? Many wakings, a few—what does it matter?”

Evelyn, kneeling, was examining the edge of the Pool of Life, which was about thirty feet across. “The water is still, yet all sorts of little things are scattered along the edge,” she said to Tom. “Pieces of shell, and—even bits of bone.”

“The water is good to drink,” stated Althea; “but as we drink the water, the water eats us. Place anything dead on a rock, half into the Pool—very soon what is in the water will soften, and soon thereafter there will be no more of it at all.”

“Acid,” muttered the young inventor; “or some kind of hungry super-bacteria. And this is where the new animal forms come from?”

The Prophetess nodded gravely. “Indeed so. Behold over there the top of an opening in the rock. The opening is much bigger below the surface; we call it the gateway to the Womb. Things never cease to issue forth from the opening, into the depths of the Pool. I have told you of this. Mostly dead things, strange things, monstrous things—but when the Lord so wills it, things that move and live. It pleases the Lord to follow death with life. Whenever we have placed much dead flesh in the Pool, we can be sure that something new and alive will come forth, within a few hands of wakings.”

This seemed to spark off a train of unspoken thought in Tom Swift. Rubbing his chin, he asked: “The little bond-servants—did they emerge from the Pool after the death of your father?”

Althea frowned at the mention but nodded. “They did—I remember. I conducted the ritual; I watched his body sink down. A few wakings, and then the first forms of the kroiiat began to appear in the waters, dead things and then, at last, living. I will say this. I think the Lord left some of Father’s soul behind in the Pool, to use in making the kroiiat. Yes, Tomswift—so that I would not be left all alone and forsaken here in the Land Eternal.”

As Evelyn looked at Tom curiously, the youth also nodded, the gleam of thought in his eyes. “Prophetess, I think you may be right. This Pool really is a place of miracles—more than you know!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

 

REVELATIONS AND MIRACLES

 

 

 

TOM DIDN’T elaborate upon his comment as Althea led the two outsiders back through the corridors of root, trodding silently behind the Prophetess of Fawt. “I feel as though I myself have just come forth from the Pool,” she said. “First come the outsiders you call your friends, and then you yourselves, with your wonders of what you call Science.”

“You believe what we’ve told you?” asked Evelyn Troyes. “Don’t you?”

“I suppose I do. Jehovah has not led me otherwise than to believe. But belief gives me no guidance at all as to what to do next.”

“You mean—with us?”

“You and the others of your kind. I commanded my kroiiat to capture whatever they find wandering in the jungles; but in the past that has always been Devil-Men who became separated from the rest. We hold them in the prison, try to learn some of their tongue—it is vexing—and then place them before Judgment.”

“How are they judged?”

“Harshly. It was the Lord who set the Devil-Men the task of tempting and tormenting us, but that’s no excuse; they were chosen to do evil things because they are themselves evil. We owe them no mercy. But you are not of their kind.”

“We certainly aren’t!” declared Evelyn. “Let me give you some divine insight, Prophetess. We’ve come here as living signs of forgiveness—assuming you treat us all properly, of course. Guide us safely back to the land outside the Garden, and we’ll report back to the Lord that it’s time to set all of you free from this root-level prison. You won’t have to worry about the sun, either; he’ll blot it out for you!”

“I know what it is, to joke. Father used to joke also,” Althea observed with a twitch of a smile. “The xirixa seem unable to do it.”

Presently, nearing the pen of the captive outsiders, they came upon Eliezar and those who waited with him. “You may conduct these Holy Strangers back to the chamber, Eliezar,” pronounced the Prophetess coolly. “All who are contained must all be shown every courtesy before Jehovah God: it is he who sent them here. Give them the best of our food and drink.”

The High Priest gave her a look that suggested a lack of complete reverence. “But surely—if they are of Heaven they need no Earthly sustenance—Prophetess?”

She stared at the man. “They are here to test our ability to be gracious and generous to strangers. I have no worries, of course—it is a test of you and the Children, Eliezar; I’m sure you’ll wish to do well. Especially since... well, I’m told that some of your secret thoughts have not been the sort one expects of a High Priest. But if you cannot control your thoughts, no doubt you can earn forgiveness by careful behavior.” Eliezar bobbed his head, his expression easy to imagine but lost in shadow. “After my next waking I will decree what shall happen to our visitors; and indeed, to all of us. It seems, my Children, the Lord of Hosts has readied a new covenant!”

Tom and Evelyn were led back into the cage of roots. It was night; if there were a moon or stars somewhere, no trace of them entered between the cracks. “We will provide food and drink for all of you,” sniffed the High Priest. “May you be satisfied.”

As Eliezar and his entourage left, Tom heard the gate being refastened in place. “I think Eliezar regards us more as rivals for power than emissaries from God,” the youth whispered to Evelyn.

“I just want to chow down on some fried Manna and get a good night’s sleep!”

“There you are, you two,” called Jorge from the semi-darkness. “A little glow, from somewhere, but still we see almost nothing.”

“We have gathered over here in this corner, by the trek-car,” came the piping voice of Mr. Lemma. “We can not see, but my friends were unable to stop me from regaling them with great and fluid thoughts; for whereas normal men see by light, I see by my inner darkness, eh?”

“You mustn’t exhaust yourself, Grandfa,” reproved Mary, unseen.

“Oh? But I came here to this jungle to exhaust myself, my dear. There’s no reason to preserve any of me, not a bit; nothing of the great, and best-forgotten, Edric Orvel Lemma is to be shipped back to the world of concrete.”

“What matters now,” interrupted Dr. Ferrars brusquely, “is what this woman ruler of theirs said to Mr. Swift and Miss Troyes. Do we know what this place is all about? Do they intend to keep us prisoner here?”

Tom gave a sketchy summary of what he had learned. “But I don’t want to keep talking. I’m thinking over a few things. The main message right now is that Althea understands that we don’t constitute a danger. There’s every reason to hope that she and her ‘pets’ will let us all leave.”

“But leave to where, Tom?” asked Mary fretfully. “We must be many miles from what’s left of our own camp. Do you have any idea how to return to your jungle vehicle?”

“Not much,” replied the young inventor. “But the xibta tree-men seem to know every inch of this local jungle—and whatever’s in it.”

“Let’s just stop talking,” groaned Evelyn. “Tell ghost stories around the campfire or something.”

“Alas, there is not the ghost of a campfire to tell ghost stories around,” chuckled Lemma. But if there were no open flame available, it seemed the xirixa had, sometime, perhaps with the help of Fawt or some other deity, mastered fire: when bark-wood platters of food were brought to the captives presently, there were scraps of cooked meat among the other foodstuffs.

Using their pen-lamps, Tom and Evelyn helped the others examine their evening meals. “No doubt much of this is Manna in one form or other,” commented Dr. Ferrars. “Evidently safe to eat.”

“Perhaps even healthy,” Tom added, something pointed in the tone of his voice.

To relax and stretch out on the layers of animal skins that were their bedding, Tom and Evelyn removed their backpacks, carefully switching off the force-cocoons to prevent any interaction effects. “Why not just switch off the suit power completely?” asked Evelyn.

“The gravitexes need to stay powered-up, to anchor the units to the floor,” Tom explained. “Remember, the ingravitized matter doesn’t require power to fall upward—it’s made that way.”

Conversation slowly muttered away to nothing. The captives slept; and some miles distant the Glidepath was also full of sleep, its occupants not yet having lost all power or made the acquaintance of the Inca foot patrol. All that, and their audience with the Son of the Sun, awaited Bud and the rest in the day that was to follow.

Breakfast came in company with slitted traces of the morning sun from outside. “No coffee this morning,” said Mr. Lemma chirpily. “But we have gourds full of—what?—to enjoy. Ghastly to smell, gritty to drink, lifeless and lacking in warmth, and yet—does it not seem stimulating?”

“Imagine it comes from powdered Manna,” shrugged Jorge. “Not so bad. Worse I have had, at some times. Sí.”

Tom continued to keep to himself, his thoughts busy with mysteries that had only one foot in science. But not long after the exotic breakfast came an interruption—a clattering sound, vaguely overhead, and a startled outcry from Evelyn Troyes. “Ohh! Something just whacked against my elbow!”

Tom could make out her featureless silhouette some yards away. He pulled his pen-flashlamp from his worksuit pocket and clicked the switch. Nothing! “Something’s wrong with my flashlight. Are you okay, Ev?”

“Yes, but... Tom, my light’s not working either.”

Tom was puzzled; both flashlamps were powered by Swift solar micro-batteries with years of life. “Good night!—I’m afraid...” His blue eyes pierced into the darkness above him, the irregular ceiling of the human pen. “I’m right. Wish I weren’t.”

“What is it, Tom?” asked Mary from her corner of the near-darkness.

“It’s our liftsuit packs. They’re bobbing around on the ceiling.”

“Can’t you reach them?”

“I’m afraid that’s not the point,” the young inventor replied grimly. “Some phenomenon seems to be choking off the flow of electric current in all the devices we brought with us. With the gravitex units unpowered, there was nothing to keep the antiballast from falling upward.”

“My digital wristwatch has stopped dead,” came the voice of Dr. Ferrars. “What could cause such a universal loss of power, at the same moment?”

“A new mystery, a new challenge to our rapt delusion of mastery of the universe,” uttered Lemma as if it were a joyous occasion. “Ah, and with it comes the heady tang of mortal danger, does it not? For now I suppose your invisible armor has also melted away, Tom?—but perhaps I shouldn’t have blurted out that engaging fact, hm?”

“I don’t think it matters,” Tom responded dismally. “I think news travels fast in this part of the world.”

Hours dragged past with no return of power and no word from the Prophetess. The inward-facing bars of their pen, the side adjoining the interior of the Land Eternal, were choked with black shapes and luminous eyes: the entire population seemed determined to come by to view the beings from Jehovah-knew-where. From the other side came the hot, murky breezes of the rainforest. Now and then the captives saw bands of the cryptid creatures scurry past the gaps between the roots. Tom wondered: if he addressed one of the passing kroiiat, would Althea hear it? No need for cell relays in Eden! he self-chuckled.

Sometime in the middle of the day, Martén and Carlito, Ferrars’ assistants who spoke no English, got into a fistfight that ended as abruptly as it began. “What was that about?” Mary asked Jorge.

“You want to know, really?” The young technician grinned broadly but sheepishly. “They fight over who is—what is word?—prettier—you, or the one with Tom Swift.”

“Miss Troyes? But why does the subject even—”

“Por favór, senoríta, if you do not know why men argue over such things, perhaps you have spent too much time with the old poet.”

Dr. Ferrars stood and stretched, frustration almost visible on his shadow face. “We’re getting crazy in here, all of us, and this is only the second day. Do you still think we are to be released, Swift?”

Tom, already standing, regarded the scientist coolly. “I have no control over it, sir. I think you’re in a better position to pull the right strings than I am.”

“Me? What do you mean?”

All conversations suddenly stopped. The jail fell silent. “Maybe Ev and I are the only ones here who don’t know the truth of all this,” Tom replied. “What about it, Mary? Jorge? Miss Dentata? Have you known from the start of the trip that Dr. Ferrars was heading right for this spot? That he’s been in touch all along with the people who live in The Forest Where God Can Not See?”

“What is Tom Swift saying, Osmán?” asked Jorge sharply. “You have always told us—”

“Sí, sí, I know what I told you,” snapped Ferrars. “I was given my orders by my superiors, the MARTA people. I had to sign what they call, what is it in English?—agreements for non-disclosure. I could be sued if I said too much.”

“Oh my, non-disclosure!” cried Mr. Lemma. “What a delightfully obtuse term for something fundamentally immoral—to darken the bright cheeks of truth in the cause of wages and benefits! Now now, Ferrars, throw caution to the winds of time and space—confess all!”

“I have nothing to be ashamed of,” Ferrars declared with indignation. “They required me to say that we were here to try to pinpoint the ultimate source of the miraphysón we had found in trace amounts. Sí, a lie, if I must say it.”

“You didn’t come here to locate the source,” Tom Swift pronounced bluntly. “You came here to negotiate exclusive rights to it before any potential rivals caught on.”

“And why should we not, Swift? It was the laboratories of MARTA that studied the substance, that made the tests, that discovered—”

“That discovered that it isn’t just good for healing, or the digestion, or keeping milk cows contented,” interjected Evelyn, suddenly catching on. “It suppresses the aging process in humans! That’s right, Tom, isn’t it?”

Everyone could feel Tom nod. “It’s why the Children of Jehovah retain youth and vitality despite living their lives half-underground. It’s why our lovely Prophetess of Fawt, Althea, could win a beauty pageant—even though, according to handwritten notes by her father, she was born in the year 1928!” He added in a quiet voice: “Sorry, Ev. I wanted to keep it to myself until I had a chance to think it all through.”

“I understand, boss,” the zoologist responded. “But what a fantastic discovery!”

“These are lovely ideas!—that we are knee deep in the fabled fountain of youth, here in the darkness with the thirsty ghost of Ponce de León,” murmured Edric Orvel Lemma. “It grows in my imagination not as a poem, but a portrait. Ah, the beauty of youth restored; but who can see it in this light?”

“What we called miraphysón is extracted directly from what the ground-dwellers here eat, their ‘Manna’,” explained Dr. Ferrars sullenly. “Essentially, the stuff is a mutated variant multicellular algae, related to seaweed. It requires moisture, but not standing water: we found microscopic Cyanobacterial tufts on all sorts of ‘medicinal bark’ and root-products originating from this region. Scientifically...

“Tom—Miss Troyes—have you scientists run across something called palindrometic DNA editing?”

“I’ve read something about it,” answered Evelyn.

A grin forced its way to Tom’s lips. “I wish my Mom were here! She has a degree in molecular biochemistry. What you’re talking about is on-the-fly genetic modification, isn’t it?”

“They call it ‘Crispr,’ and I refuse to waste time explaining why,” Ferrars stated. “It’s a technique having to do with utilizing ‘immune system memory’ in the DNA of living bacteria to transfer and infuse new sequences in the biological material they infest. Some unidentified mutagenic factor, evidently confined to just a few square miles of this jungle, has stimulated a plague of bacteria-born re-editing of genomial keys in living plants and animals. In effect, this God-Can’t-See forest is an ongoing experiment in DNA modification, with miraphysón one result among many.”

“A very promising secret gold-rush for MARTA, Osmán,” sneered Jorge. “Of course we all knew it was a valuable medicine. But it seems further details were none of our business, eh, mi amígo?”

“You knew very well of the rejuvenation effect.”

“But not of your contact with the local tribe, not of the little animals, not of this prison under roots! No one was warned, sí? If Luz Vera is dead, it is because you and the bosses came rushing in to grab what you could without cool-heads and preparation!”

There was just enough light to judge that Ferrars was hanging his head, perhaps in shame, perhaps weariness. “As to the sharing of information, I did what I was told to do, to keep talk from spreading among the competitors. Yes, you people of good virtue, MARTA maintains contacts among the various secretive types, gangs and criminals, who hide in the Amazon Basin and engage in trade with tribes not known to the outside world. We were told of an isolated people who made rare, intermittent contact with nomadic jungle bands. It seems they knew nothing of the biological traces in what they traded, goods originating here. We—that is, Cíbola and myself—were given assurances that we would be allowed to meet with them, with their ruler, and make a kind of commercial treaty...”

Tom interrupted. “I’m pretty sure the people you were to meet are the ones that live above this place, the ones the xirixa call the Devil-Men. The xirixa themselves have absolutely no contact with other tribes or the outside world. And for their sake I hope it stays that way—because once the top executives of MARTA discover that this, the Land Eternal, is the main source of the algae—”

“Then we will see what comes when mere sentiment for the lives of the already-living comes up against the world’s real flesh—profit!” concluded Lemma. “I fear the Children of Jehovah will soon find themselves hurled into a most trying adulthood.”

“They could be wiped out. No one would ever know!” Evelyn exclaimed angrily. “Is that the plan?”

“I have nothing to do with that sort of decision,” said Ferrars.

And then a new voice erupted—shrill and unpleasant. “You have everything to do with it! With all of it!”

Startled, it took Tom a moment before he realized who was speaking. “Is that—Miss Dentata?”

“Virginia Dentata!—she who speaks when spoken to, and then not much.” Deep in shadow, the scrawny woman was even less visible than usual. “Regale us with your own campfire story, Osmán! Tell us how you methodically sought out the Comtessa di Halsfenthor two years ago, how you played upon her known obsession with continuing the Brungar royal line after the deaths of three husbands and eight children, one by one, decade by decade. My mistress Madame Clevisse outlived everyone who might have taken up the mantle; Osmán found her a very pliable source of funding for his MARTA researches.”

“Her treatments in Buenos Aires gave her new hope and vigor,” growled Dr. Ferrars. “Physically she is now decades younger than her true age! More of this and she will again be able to bear children. We gave, she got; was this wrong?”

“It seems to me you and your colleagues also ‘got,’ Dr. Ferrars,” Tom noted dryly. “You got a well-heeled subject for human testing who could finance every aspect of your project—including an expedition into the Amazon Basin.”

“Desperate people are oh so easy to manipulate,” came Miss Dentata’s bitter voice from the dimness. “And you manipulated me too, Osmán, with promises and inducements you never intended to honor.”

“Forgive me for noting that I am not responsible for your own desperation, Virginia,” retorted the scientist coldly. “You read in my attentions something that was more your wish than any reality. You were her assistant, her secretary. I offered nothing but a means to assist your patroness, and—perhaps the possibility of some financial support.”

It took a moment for Miss Dentata to reply, and her words were faint and tearful. “I don’t excuse myself. But I never would have encouraged the Comtessa to persevere if I had known the price, the effect of that cursed miraphysón!”

“Youth is preserved, even restored,” Tom said; “but the subject suffers cortical damage. Over time, the capacity to store and retrieve new memories is gravely impaired; and the effect is cumulative. The Comtessa di Halsfenthor can’t just be dismissed as difficult and eccentric. She’s struggling to cope with a shrinking world in which everything between years ago and minutes ago slowly dissolves away into fog.”

“I am her memory,” sobbed Virginia Dentata. “She can no longer get along without my help.”

“Please, we’re working to improve the situation, to overcome these side effects,” Ferrars said. “This is the science of medicine. This is how it works; we will move forward.”

“But the people down here, the xirixa, sure aren’t moving forward,” declared Evelyn bluntly. “Living off the miraphysón-rich Manna algae allows them to survive, but they can’t learn or progress. To live as human beings they need outsiders like Fawt and Althea—plus some regimentation from the Old Testament—to impose a society on them artificially. And even that phony little reprieve—Tom?—it won’t last, will it?”

Tom Swift shook his head. “No, it won’t. Outsiders start off at a higher level in coming here, but they too have to eat the Manna. Althea’s memories will ebb away; I think they are already. Language skills are about the last to go, but the day will come when she’ll be unable to read—and then unable to speak—‘the Kingjames’.”

“Miracles from the Pool of Life!” snorted the zoologist. “Some miracle!”

Tom paced over to the outward-facing wall, streaks of green-shaded sunlight branding his young face. “There is a miracle down here, Ev: at least a scientific one.  The palindrometic re-editing, however it works, isn’t just producing random mutations in living DNA strands. The xirixa call it ‘new creation’ for a good reason—what’s happening here in the Land Eternal is a kind of ongoing cloning! Species that haven’t been genetically connected for hundreds of millions of years are emerging from the Pool as new hybrid species, capable of reproducing!”

“Sí!” exclaimed Jorge. “The little tree people!”

“The cryptid kroiiat, Althea’s servants, aren’t just some new improved kind of monkey or marmoset. I’m sure they’re part human!”

“Ah-hah, then perhaps the old saying is wrong,” Lemma commented. “Not all men are brothers!”

Tom laughed unexpectedly; the poet’s comment somehow reminded him of Bud. “The kroiiat began to emerge—as first drafts, you might say—soon after Fawt’s body was lowered into the Pool. Some combination of acid and devouring bacteria got hold of Fawt’s characteristic DNA sequences and ended up grafting them onto shredded sequences from other life forms whose remains got into the local groundwater—”

“Chimaeras!” exclaimed Evelyn Troyes. “Radical transgenic combinations across the lines of species and genera!”

Mary Kenning spoke up, timidly. “I don’t really... understand all these scientific things, but—are you saying that this, this substance does more than extend life? It doesn’t just make people healthier?” She seemed oddly dismayed; so it seemed to Tom. And then he realized what miraphysón could mean to her—to her beloved, dying, Grandfa.

“Evidently, much more,” responded Osmán Ferrars. “Side-effects—truly a problem for science. Yes, we knew of some effect upon memory. We thought it relatively minor; after all, the Comtessa came to us already old. But, Dios!—this business of the tree animals, new species—”

“When the scientists first started talking about how new species emerged, in the Nineteenth Century,” Tom mused, “they came up with what’s called the Lamarckian theory.”

“Right, acquired characteristics being passed on genetically to offspring,” commented Evelyn.

“Giraffes born with longer and longer necks because they keep straining to reach high leaves,” the young inventor continued. “That sort of thing. The theory was wrong as a general explanation, but in this case something of the kind may be happening after all, somehow. In fact, it’s even weirder than that! The xirixa accidentally developed a chromosomal defect that made sunlight fatal to them, and they not only adapted to it by developing physical traits to help them live underground, but the package of traits—including the defect—isn’t just inherited by offspring, but passed along by dissolved cellular material in the water, which gets into the food chain by way of the Manna.”

Edric Orvel Lemma was almost giddy with the stimulation of new ideas. “Delightful! But you scientists and doctors—how prosaic you are in your miracles! To ordinary humans, these are dull matters; I hope they prove to be merely a foretaste of something more impressive.”

“All right then, how about this, sir?” grinned Tom. “I think some of the complex structures of the brain, acquired through personal experience and learning, are also being passed along. The kroiiat didn’t just develop those little arrows because Althea ‘wished’ them to. They received in their ‘new creation’ complex skills that stayed dormant until pried out by necessity—and the most likely source is Althea’s father. The cryptids have bits and pieces of Fawt’s memories!”

“Then Althea was right,” murmured Evelyn, awed. “Her father really does live on in her pet bond-servants!”

“In a way, yes! Which could have something to do with her ability to link to them mentally, and their willingness to obey her every—”

Tom Swift’s sentence remained unfinished as, suddenly, the barrier-gate to the pen was opened. Eliezar stood just beyond, with several of the men of the Land Eternal. “You two—Tomswift and the woman—come thou. The Prophetess, daughter of Fawt, He Who Came, desires to do you honor in her presence.”

“It seems we are about to find out our itinerary,” said Dr. Ferrars; “hopefully our travel plans.”

Tom and Evelyn left hopefully. But within a few dozen steps through the phosphorescent corridors, hope became dim as the light. “This doesn’t seem the way to the tabernacle chamber,” Tom frowned, instincts alive.

“No, ‘Holy One’,” sneered the High Priest, as more of the Children fell in behind them. “You deceivers, you tempters who doth come from Ba’al-Satan—that sacred place you shall never see again. We go to submit you to Judgment. And as we find you without your infernal garments, your instruments of sorcery and protection, you will find Judgment to be harsh indeed!”

There was no more talk, and no need for further threat or protest. The root corridor wended downward, the plant-glow revealing more and more clay and pebbles between the exposed roots. Finally Tom and Evelyn were forced through a narrow opening into a large circular area with an arching ceiling. “Our courtroom,” said Evelyn Troyes in disgust. “And there’s the judge!”

Althea the Prophetess stood before them in the middle of the chamber. “Guess you decided we weren’t on the side of the angels after all,” Tom said to her bluntly. “Or did you switch sides, Prophetess?”

As she turned to face him fully, Tom realized he had been unjust. Her lovely face was streaked with both fury and tears. “Oh—Tomswift! I am betrayed! Eliezar tricked me to come here—I am to be placed before Judgment just as you two; and then all the others who have come from The Above!”

Evelyn snorted. “Taunting him about his ‘secret thoughts’ may not have been your most divinely-inspired moment, all things considered.”

“It was a whisper from the Tempter, I suppose,” conceded Althea. “But what really drove Eliezar to betrayal was my speaking of a new covenant for the Children!”

Tom nodded, surprised at his breezy lack of fear. “I suppose he’s partial to the old one.”

Eliezar listened to the conversation as he backed away through the opening. “The Lord of Hosts has turned against you, Althea, and so has your father; for Fawt, He Who Came, spoke to me in a dream and said that he would speak only through me henceforward. Thus you face Judgment!—but even now Fawt suggests to me that he will revoke his sentence against you... if...”

“I think I can guess what’s coming,” Tom said dryly.

“If you give yourself unto me as wife and proclaim me the True Prophet of this land!  For it is not right for a Prophet to be alone; for he is also a man. And there is the matter of children, to come after us, our successors, begotten to serve Jehovah when we are taken to his throne. For long though we live, all must die in their time.” Eliezar shut the gate and bound it tightly from the other side.

“You know, Prophetess,” said Evelyn Troyes, “I wouldn’t be too quick to reject the guy’s offer. There are more important things in a marriage than looks and personality.”

“Rather would I beget with the Serpent himself than with this fount of lies and corruption!” snapped Althea.

“Eliezar, I think she’s just not that into you,” Tom called across. Then he rubbed his forehead. “Ev, I—something’s wrong with me—I’m babbling irrationally—can’t focus—”

“Me too,” said the zoologist. “I feel giddy... oh so giddy... like this is all unreal...”

“It’s the Manna—we ate some. It must affect newbies quickly... Got to try to—uh—invent our way out of this.”

“Oh, you will, boss.” Evelyn pointed. “Got a weapon on you? Or are you just glad to—”

Tom fished a key ring out of his pocket and held it up. “And, you know, most of these are electronic and dead as doornails. Well, I do have this key to Bud’s apartment...”

“Something you’d like to tell me about that?”

“Doesn’t matter. He says they already talk about us.” The young inventor thrashed his head angrily. “Man, why am I joking around?” He focused on Althea, who was watching in bewilderment. “So who’ll be judging us? Eliezar?”

“No one judges, Tomswift,” she retorted. “In this arena, we are at the mercy of Judgment himself!” She nodded toward the far side of the enclosure. There was a low, broad opening at the base of the root-strewn rock wall; and in the blackness of that opening, a deeper blackness was stirring. “Judgment comes! None survive his wrath!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

 

JUST THINGS-SAID

 

 

 

THE CREATURE that slowly struggled out into the semi-light was a zoologist’s dream, but a night-terror to the average human. Great space, it’s as big as my bed at home! Tom gasped mentally. The beast named Judgment had a wide, squat, bulky body that suggested some sort of giant toad, big double-jointed hind legs shoving it forward on its flat belly. Yet it was evidently a mammal; the front part of its body was like that of a gargantuan rodent, big-eared, with daggerlike teeth and beady red eyes that were barely visible.

It paused. It reared back ominously and then, with a startling motion, stretched its fore-body ahead of itself like a striking cobra! “Truly a chimaeric hybrid,” said Evelyn calmly and dreamily. “Transgenic fusion... Who knows how many species got thrown into the pot?” Still halfway across the arena, Judgment uttered a squealing hiss, and its big ears twitched and turned. “Ah, see that? Echolocation, like a bat!”

“Using sound to see us,” Tom declared.

“Judgment can stretch to almost twice his usual length, when he is in a fury,” whispered Althea, sad but dignified. “He is the most fearsome of the New Creations, those who came forth from the darkness of the Womb of Earth where lie the hidden reaches of the Pool of Life. All who face Judgment die!”

“And whatever’s left of them goes back into the Pool—raw material for the next version of Judgment!” Evelyn pronounced. “The guy gets to become more and more human with every meal.”

“In other words, more deadly!” gulped the young inventor.

The creature moved awkwardly, heaving and lurching its bulk with some difficulty and pausing often. “He usually faces one victim at a time,” said the Prophetess. “Facing several may confuse him!—perhaps if we go in three different directions—”

“Excuse me, Prophetess,” Evelyn interrupted, breathless; “but I don’t think this little enclosure has three directions!”

Tom Swift suddenly bent down and scooped up some loose pebbles and clods of dirt. “Do what I’m doing!” he cried. He flung the shards into the air between himself and Judgment.

“Oh, Tomswift, you’re not even hitting him!” protested Althea.

“He’s not trying to!” Evelyn shouted. “It’ll confuse the echoes the monster uses to see us with!”

The three danced around the periphery of the cramped arena that now seemed much smaller than its first impression, shouting and throwing as Judgment darted and hissed, spraying them with his rank and steamy breath. As he seemed about to close in on Althea, Tom catapulted himself forward and slammed the beast’s snout—which, to judge by the enraged reaction, was a tender spot—with Bud Barclay’s door key. The screeching monster whipped its ratlike head about and reared back to lunge at the youth, a violent lunge that Tom knew he would be unable to evade!

Suddenly came a fantastic change! Judgment yelped and spun, jaws snapping emptily at something behind him; and as he did so, he seemed to be scrambling against some half-seen force that was dragging him backward toward the cave-mouth whence he came. And then— Good night! The Manna’s really doing a number on me! came Tom’s tumbling thoughts.

A giant, half-clad man was clasping Judgment’s struggling haunches and tugging the creature backward!

“Hiya, Tom!” shouted Magnificent Max, with a half-laugh that belied his facial expression—sheer terror!

And then other figures erupted into view—Bud Barclay fiercely swinging a rifle like a club, Hank Sterling, Felix Ming, and especially Red Jones, who called over to Max: “C’mon, fellow Jones! Let’s flip this critter on his backside!”

But Judgment declined the indignity of being flipped. Unaccustomed to real resistance, the transgenic chimaera-zoid threw himself back through the cave opening, brushing past several other humans who scattered without awaiting permission—Diego Cíbola, Luz Vera, the shrieking Comtessa di Halsfenthor, and the even more loudly shrieking Wilson Hutchcraft.

“S-Skipper, we—we were makin’ our escape down Max’s secret tunnel—wh-when—” Bud panted.

“We heard a familiar voice,” continued Hank, “in the usual familiar mortal peril.”

“Two familiar voices!” Felix added quickly, gazing at Evelyn Troyes, whose eyes were wide and unbelieving.

“So then, Tom Swift, Miss Troyes,” said Diego casually, “how are you? Que pasá? Whaz goin’ on, eh?”

Althea, Prophetess of Fawt, turning grandly toward the many watching eyes beyond the root-wall, had her own speech to make. “You Children of Jehovah, you who stand and watch this travesty, behold! As with Daniel, as with Jonah, the Lord has shown who has His favor, and who has His scorn! More have come from Heaven: to protect your Prophetess, but also to witness the New Covenant brought to us by Tomswift! Where is Eliezar and those others who conspired with him?”

A woman called out, “The betrayer has fled, Prophetess, but the Land Eternal is not big enough to hide him long.”

Another called, “Do you wish him bound and cast into the Pool of Life, Divine One?”

“Actually, that might not be such a good idea,” whispered Tom in an unsteady voice.

As Althea imperiously deputized some of the xirixa who had been watching the arena, there was a moment for shared hugs and brief explanations between Tom and those who had remained with the Glidepath. “Turns out there are all sorts of passages and corridors down here, Skipper, among the roots and in the ground itself,” said Hank. “Max’s secret road to the outside connected to the tunnel ol’ Monstro uses to get into this place.”

“We heard your yelping and came to join the fun!” Bud chuckled gleefully. “I always wanted to fight a real monster!”

“I’m still not as brave as I like to let on,” confessed Max. “Actually—if I’d-a known what the thing could do, maybe I woulda conked out. But... ya know... it looked like it was too big to move well.” He was stealing glances in the direction of Althea as he spoke.

“I, of course, did the responsible thing and expended my energies protecting the women,” sniffed Wilson Hutchcraft.

“Bud, I know you’re a good shot,” Evelyn stated. “Why didn’t you shoot the creature with Diego’s gun instead of using it as a club?”

“I grabbed it out of his hands and—” began the San Franciscan.

“The rifle doesn’t work,” Diego interrupted, grabbing it back from Bud with a quick movement.

Hank and the others explained the mysterious loss of power to Tom. “It sounds like the power loss at the Glidepath happened at the same time as it did here,” commented the young inventor. There was puzzlement in his voice as he added, “But what sort of phenomenon could interfere with purely mechanical and chemical mechanisms, like the works of a gun, as well as electronics?”

“My ancestors did not doubt the presence of magic in the world,” Felix put in. “Perhaps we should consider their wisdom.”

Althea was issuing decrees and commandments, and it seemed the New Covenant of the Land Eternal would not require the services of a priesthood. The arena gate was opened, and a hidden barrier restored to the cave-tunnel of the beast known as Judgment; and the Prophetess ordered that all the groups of strangers from The Above be assembled in the tabernacle chamber of Fawt, He Who Came. Stories of capture and escape, and the two opposing cities, were sketched out in the excited crowd; and Virginia Dentata greeted the Comtessa with warmth and tears. “Then no one has paid for this with their life,” exclaimed Dr. Ferrars. “Thank God for that!”

“And you!” Althea said to Max. “You, the one the Devil-Men worship, the Inca, the abomination sent to Earth by Ba’al-Satan! Large you may be, but you do not strike me as abominable.”

“Aw, I’m not, not really,” replied the pug-faced ex-wrestler. “All that’s just publicity, stuff my manager put out when I was touring. I’m not magnificent or mighty or even terrible; just Max Jones.”

“Your words are not-words to me, Maxjones,” stated the Prophetess with a thoughtful look. “Still, I know many of these things are just things-said made up by my father. Perhaps we need fewer such things-said now.”

Edric Orvel Lemma could not let the moment pass. “Ah, dear ones, it is all just ‘things-said,’ ultimately that. But some such things are less mischievous than others. The tongue sometimes manages a taste of truth, a tantalizing taste.”

Max Jones could only scratch his head at that. “Anyway, Miss Fawt, you seem pretty un-abominable yourself; I mean that complimentary-like. If I can help get things squared up between this place down here and my city upstairs—well, you know, there’s no need to be hunting or killing or eating each other.”

“But, large man, I am given to understand that you wish to leave the Garden, that you wish to return to the land whence you came.”

Max reddened, dimly seen. “Uh, well, ma’am, that was before, when I was gettin’ pretty bored. Now that I see—now that I’ve met—anyways, now it’s different, right? The city o’ my Mancopoc guys, Yadqimoxtma—that’s whence enough fer me right now, I guess. Dw’qibotak—he’s the head of my Akuns, the priests—he’s not such a bad dude, just a little on the dull side, too darn religious. Us two cities could work t’gether, see?”

Bud felt an urge to do some prompting in a good cause. “You know, Althea, you might need some extra protection from Eliezar—he’s probably got a gang of followers. You’re no good to your people dead. Or—are you immortal?”

“I am a woman, only that.” She was looking fixedly at Maximilian Jones. “If only I could bear the light of the sun! I could live above, with you, Lord Inca, to give confidence to my people in the union of the Land Eternal and your City of the Garden; for we have always thought you to be Devil-Men, sent to punish and—to tempt us.”

“I—I don’t really mean to be tempting,” said Max haltingly.

“You know, Max, aerobics aren’t so bad for you if you don’t overdo it,” suggested Hank Sterling, which brought a quizzical look from Tom; though Evelyn Troyes seemed to understand, somehow. “At any rate, people from down here, like Jeremiah, can live up in Yadqimoxtma, as long as they keep to dark quarters during daylight hours.”

“My little temple is pretty dark, all right,” Max hastened to say.

“And meanwhile,” said Tom Swift to Althea, “Dr. Ferrars and his employers have good reasons—good financial reasons—to come up with a cure for the side-effects of miraphysón, your Manna.”

“Excellent reasons,” Miss Dentata said harshly; “for some of us may be inclined to talk to the media about the MARTA Corporation’s approach to pharmaceutical testing.”

“Science will, inevitably, march on,” promised Osmán Ferrars.

“I hope, Comtessa, you will permit me to continue to serve your interests, by my presence?” suggested Wilson Hutchcraft somewhat nervously.

“Oh, that is hardly required, now that Miss Dentata has been returned to me,” the Comtessa di Halsfenthor replied vaguely. “No, Dr. Hutchcraft, go about your life. We have found the source of my medication; I haven’t told you, but I am in treatment at present with Dr. Ferrars. It is expensive treatment, but it is a duty to my fellow Brungars. I shall resume my search for a satisfactory and able consort when I am a bit younger, I think.”

“Then it seems I shall be leaving the rosy glow of science and budding romance and returning to America,” snapped the archaeologist-philologist coldly. “I prevailed upon Tom Swift to take me on this chaotic quest as a means of resumé enhancement in the interest of profitable future employment. That goal is, I am delighted to say, accomplished. And behind me!”

“What do we do now, Skipper?” Bud asked his pal.

Tom rubbed his chin, which was showing a trace of blond stubble; he almost looked older than a teenager. “Right now it’s probably safer and more comfortable up above, in the Inca city. That’ll be our first stop, I guess.”

“We have no idea where we are in relation to our campsite,” Jorge pointed out.

“Now that we have a little time to prepare, I’m sure Swift Enterprises will be able to pick you up and deliver all of you to your destinations by air,” Tom said. “You won’t need to safari back to civilization in your vehicles. But to do that,” he went on, “I’ll need to return to the junglemobile and try to get the PER quantum communicator up and running.”

“But nothing’s working, boss,” Red Jones objected.

“The effect could pass any time.”

“But more likely, genius boy will find some supersmart way to work around the prob,” grinned Bud. Tom grinned back affectionately.

“Ek, let’s make it simple, amígos,” Cíbola declared with a wave of his cigar. “I know my business. I had my two eyes wide open while we were being marched to the treehouse city. I will guide young Tom back to his snake-bus; not too long for us, maybe just an hour or so. Then, Tomás, wave your hands, make your magic, fool around with the radio—maybe the whole Glidepath will start to creep again. We can come and pick the rest of you up, maybe.”

Bud nodded vigorously. “It’s a plan! Tom and me—and Hank—well, Felix is also a—”

But Diego was shaking his head. “No no. Just me and Tom right now, for the trip to the vehicle. For two in the jungle, I can make it safe—for a crowd, too distracting; too exciting for the snakes and His Majesty Jaguar, eh?”

Bud looked skeptical, but found that his pal was nodding. “He’s right, flyboy. And there’s a better reason, too. We don’t really know how all this will play out back here, what with the Eliezar faction and those ‘akuns’. It’s not that I doubt you two fearless leaders, Max, Althea—but you’re facing a novel situation and—who knows? I’d feel better if you’d stay behind to bolster our defense, Bud.”

“Me and my muscles.”

“And your sunny disposition.”

The Prophetess of Fawt, many things on her mind, was at least half-listening. “I will send a troop of my Bond-Servants to accompany you, Tomswift. They will keep to trees and shade, but will watch for dangers and have their little weapons at ready; and the Lord will place before me what they see.”

“No, senoríta,” insisted Diego brusquely. “They are not needed—what of my pride? I want no more complications, por favór. Tom and I—that is all.”

Tom waved away further objections. “Let’s just get going. We don’t have an i-gun, but at least Mr. Cíbola has his rifle.”

“Se-séh. Doesn’t shoot—in time of danger, I will hurl it like a javelin. Besides,” said Diego, “just having this rifle in my hands feels lucky. It has sentimental meaning for me, amígos—it belonged to my old grandmama.”

“Did she ever shoot anything with it?” asked Red Jones.

“Yes—my grandpapa.”

“Listen, Skipper,” said Bud, “even if you don’t want to be bulked down by the liftsuit equipment, take the two shield generators with you.”

“Not that either happens to work, Tom,” Evelyn noted pointedly.

Tom smiled and shrugged. “Like I said—who knows? Bud, if the effect passes the shields will be of more use to our crowd   than firearms would be. Keep people more or less clumped together and the remotes at ready.”

“Guess you know best, chum.”

Althea announced to the boggling xirixa that she would be ascending to The Above for a little time; but warned that she would be keeping watch through many little eyes and could return without notice. Finding a tunnel-route that avoided the den of Judgment, the entire troop climbed back up to the sacred temple of the Inca. Despite handholds and rungs within the hollow trunk, the ascent was arduous; Mr. Lemma, and especially the Comtessa, were assisted by the ingravitized liftsuit packs, firmly buckled in place though unpowered and uncontrolled.

At last they emerged into the high-ceilinged chamber. “I—I think—I must sit down,” gasped the Prophetess. “I never hoped to see any new place, ever; not even in dreams. The knowings from my Bond-Servants are nothing like real seeing.”

“Heh heh, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, ma’am,” chuckled Max Jones. “Mm, that’s some kind o’ old saying. It means—”

“It is obvious, thou Monster of Abomination.” The Prophetess was smiling, and even her smile was like a command.

Inca Max ordered the Akuns and warriors to clear the elevated paths and allow the two outsiders to depart unhindered. Promising a quick return, Tom and Diego exited into the emerald-tinged sunlight of the humid jungle in its midday drowse. As they paused at the edge of a deserted catwalk, Edric Orvel Lemma joined them. “This sight—what a marvel it is,” he said softly.

“I’ll bet you’ll be glad to get back to a nice hotel bed, though,” Tom smiled.

“No,” said the venerable traveler. “No indeed, Tom. I will not be going back. I meant what I said. This place, this green twilight, will see the last of me.”

The youth’s brow furrowed. “Sir, the miraphysón can—”

He shook his head of gray-white mist. “I will take no magic potion, young genius. Mary will beg me to; yes, I know. I realize the truth now, that she arranged this trip not by happenstance, but because word of Dr. Ferrars’ medical project had been divulged to her by her friend in officialdom—my ‘admirer.’ But I will insist, to whatever extent a frail old man can manage it, that she return alone and finally accept some sort of life for herself. I have served as a refuge far too long, eh?”

“Artists and poets!—crazy,” shrugged Diego Cíbola. “You have no wish to be young again? I expect Luz to gulp the stuff down, to help her get jobs on TV in bustling Guatemala City.”

“But you see, Cíbola, nature provides this gift at a price, one no sane person can ever afford to pay,” continued Lemma. “What profiteth a man to gain youth but lose his very memory, his past? For now I am all past. I am nothing but a dry, crumbling container for memories, a storehouse for all I have experienced. Is that not enough? I think so.”

“Then I’ll just wish you happiness in your choice, Mr. Lemma,” Tom said, offering his hand.

They shook. The moment of silence that ensued was broken by, “This great green wall... Tom, I have one thing more to say. Listen—to something very strange. Even from a poet!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 20

 

 

COLORLESS GREEN IDEAS

 

 

 

 

 

 MR. LEMMA seemed shy—almost embarassed. “A bit of foolishness from an old man who sees odd things in words. A bit of foolishness from an old man who sees odd things in words. It is this: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. Remember that. If you find that it seems to have no defined meaning, no clear sense to it, just the slightest stirring—well and good, young man: you’re only human. And congratulations. For those who find nothing in it are not even that.”

Cíbola’s voice bore obvious contempt. “Aa. Let’s get going. I am a practical man.” He stalked away with a faint mutter of Green ideas!

 The two descended into The Forest Where God Can Not See, Cíbola striding confidently along the hint of a trail that was all but invisible to Tom. “I wonder if Althea has her xibta pacing us after all,” the youth speculated. “I’m not sure a Prophetess feels bound by her word.”

“Amígo, the lady did not give her word, just a little bit of a nod,” Cíbola replied. “Such things are not binding even on women who are not Prophetesses, eh? But I myself am a jungle beast, you know—I would sense the tree-demons if they were scampering around us. No, we are alone on this trek.”

The trek meandered on, and Tom noticed with worry that the gloomy shade was starting to turn to black shadow as the sun headed for the unseen horizon. “Magic or not—I’m betting not—I’m not sure what to do if the, er, device-killing phenomenon doesn’t stop of its own accord,” he told his companion as they took a moment to rest.  “Grandma’s rifle may need more than luck to protect us when it gets dark.” After a thought, he added: “But actually, we don’t know the effect hasn’t stopped already. Diego, maybe you should try—”

“Sí. Es verdad.” Grasping the rifle, Diego turned away from Tom and aimed into the underbrush. Click!—nothing louder. “Nope. Still cursed. But I think we are near your junglemobile.”

Tom sighed. “At least Hank remembered to switch off the propulsion—otherwise the Glidepath would run off into the jungle when the phenomenon ended.”

“Sí; and this big snake leaves no trail.”

The trek was over sooner than expected. Ten minutes later, Cíbola grunted and pointed through the trees. “There!” The j-mobe’s tail!

Relieved and happy, Tom trotted up to the Glidepath and gave it a hasty once-over. “She seems fine,” he reported.

“Will we have trouble getting inside?” asked Cíbola. “With no power, the electric doors didn’t work—the fool Comtessa had to be shown by hand signals how to pop it open.”

“The emergency mechanical system—” He paused for a moment. Looking away from the grizzled safarier and taking a step, he continued. “It can be worked from outside the hull, when it’s been left on latch, not sealed. But...” The young inventor pressed his bare forefinger against a small oval. The cockpit hatch-window swung upward with a barely-audible whir! “Good night, problem solved! The power’s come back on!”

Cíbola chuckled past his cigar. “Muy bien, Señor Tom!”

Clambering inside the control compartment, Tom ran a quick diagnostic of the junglemobile. Finding nothing amiss, he picked up the Private Ear Radio unit and quantum-contacted his father. “Son! Thank the Lord you’re all right!” exclaimed Damon Swift.

“Sorry to worry you, Dad. Just the usual thrills and chills. I suppose I’ve put everyone in an uproar back there.”

Mr. Swift gave a hearty laugh. “As a matter of fact, you’ve reached me in the Sky Queen!—over the ocean and headed for a landing spot we identified with the megascope, just a few miles north of the last reported position.”

Tom laughed too. “PER us when you’re on the ground, Dad. We’ll slither over in the j-mobe and bum a ride home.” Before signing off he explained to his father that the Flying Lab would be ferrying a freight of additional passengers and equipment to various locations yet to be designated.

Ending the call and stepping outside, Tom found that Diego Cíbola had entered one of the capsules and was about to swing down the hatch-viewpane. “Shall I activate the sealing mechanism?” he asked.

“Might as well,” was the reply; “now that we know the mechanical system can open ’er up if the anti-electronic effect resumes.”

“Then let’s get going, eh? I think I’ll be able to see enough through the window to keep you going on the path back to the tree-city.”

Tom put the odd craft into motion, making a half-turn at Cíbola’s intercommed direction. They plunged into the dense foliage of The Forest Where God Can Not See, proceeding rapidly. Presently Tom reported, “Diego, aren’t we fairly close to the city by now?”

“Sí, the giant roots are—”

Suddenly, with a jolt, the Glidepath skidded to a halt. “Power’s still on,” Tom intercommed. “There must be an obstruction... yes, the repelascope says we’re wedged between a couple roots. We’ll have to back up and work our way free.”

The young explorer threw the wiggling thrust-prongs into a reverse conformation. The junglemobile jerked backwards a few feet, then stopped again. “I’m afraid I’ve worked us in deeper,” he commed.

“Then good luck to you, muchácho, because we need to get nearer to the city before the power fails again—and night comes, which is a bad time to be walking through the jungle,” warned Cíbola with his usual calm.

Tom piloted the vehicle forward and back. Then, abruptly, the instrument panel went dark and the sound of power went silent. Yup, there it is! Tom told himself. Just as I expected.

Forcing open the access hatch, he climbed out, finding Cíbola waiting for him, rifle dangling from his hands. “Sun on the way down, Tom. Got to be ready. Even if Gra’-Mam’sita’s rifle doesn’t shoot now—”

“I know—luck. But it doesn’t seem to be bringing us much of that at the moment, either,” the youth added dryly.

“Tell you what, let’s climb up on top and look over the details. Who knows, four strong hands may be enough to free us. Is there a ladder or something?”

“No, but we can use one of the hull-panel grips to hoist ourselves with. Over here—I’ll show you.” Tom grabbed the edge of a nearby indentation and drew himself up. Cíbola pushed the Shoptonian upward from behind. Standing atop the hull on the rigid, still-extended prongs, Tom kneeled and reached down. “You’ll need both hands,” he told the man. Cíbola passed his gun up to Tom, then worked his way up, with a grunt.

“Ek, maybe I’m getting old,” panted Cíbola to the other, who stood a few strides toward the nose of the Glidepath. “Can you see...” Cíbola interrupted himself, glancing around. “But where is my rifle?”

Tom Swift pointed off into the distance. “Somewhere out there. I did a javelin-throw, hard as I could. Does your Grandma also own a machete? Might take her a while to find it.”

Cíbola took his cigar from his mouth and dropped it on the hull. “So.” Looking down, he mashed it out with the heel of his boot. “Not that I’m surprised, muchácho. When I mentioned the old lady and the hatch release mechanism—ah, my keen jungle senses. I saw you thinking! And said to myself, ‘Diego, for a clever man you can be very stupid, eh?’—to make you think of the thing.”

Tom nodded. “You’ve been pretty cunning, sir, all along. But yes, you reminded me of a certain fact; namely, if the ‘anti’ effect stopped the simple, purely mechanical action of your rifle—Bud and the Comtessa and the others wouldn’t have been able to operate the hand release mechanism either. They would have been trapped inside the j-mobe.”

“Sí. But indeed they were not.”

“Mm-hmm—sí! So you were only pretending that the rifle didn’t shoot—faking it. To use unexpectedly when you needed it to threaten us, to take control of the Glidepath. Or was it all about killing us?”

Cíbola grinned. “Ah now, Swift, does Cíbola seem like a murderer? A nice guy like me? But ‘seeming’ is one thing, truth is another. I climbed up here with visions in my head of shooting you, dumping your healthy young body somewhere for animals to make use of.”

“And then pilot the Glidepath—where?”

“Where do you think?” barked the safari guide. “To where I was going from the start, the Inca city that my criminal friends received the miraphysón-laced goods from. Are you too young to know of wheels within wheels, little factions in big companies—like MARTA—wanting to cut deals and make fantastic profits?”

“Well, I’ve heard of shadows in shadows,” Tom dryly responded. “Dr. Ferrars was supposed to engineer an exclusive deal with the Mancopocs on behalf of MARTA—”

“With my help; MARTA and Ferrars figured my knowledge of the earlier contacts would grease the oil—of course they didn’t care that my circle of old friends included nasty people using the great green jungle as their hideout. But I can be nasty too. I say to myself as I lie in bed: Diego, why not kill off all those others when you get there? Why not work alone as the go-to guy for supplying this valuable stuff? A few years, a few trillion dollars—USA dollars—and a nice retirement.”

“And you even would have a great vehicle to ship tons of the miraphysón through the jungle.”

“Sí, as it turned out—a little extra. Showing God is on my side, hmm?” Again, Cíbola grinned. “Have you also deduced, you smart little boy, that the effect that kills electric power is something I myself do? Under my control?” He withdrew a small object from his pocket and held it up for Tom to see. “Not that I am a scientist. But they told me how to use it. They say it contains a tiny, tiny speck of something from that Africa mountain, Goaba—the faction has contacts all over. You press two parts together with your thumb—machines drop dead for miles around. Electrical machines, that is, not what is merely gears and springs and levers.”

“And not rifles,” stated Tom. “Speaking of truth and seemings, the vehicle wasn’t snagged. I faked it to get you back out in the open, so I could grab the rifle. I guess you found it an opportune moment to act also.”

“So I killed the power, and got you up on the roof—aaa, that was just a whim, I suppose. And now I am without my dear sweet rifle. Soy tan estúpido, again mas: I handed you the rifle without even a thought. Just silly habit. Especially silly, since I assumed you knew what was going on. And surely, you would have i-gunned me if I hadn’t killed all the electricity. And, you know, just before I was stupid I was smart...”

Diego Cíbola again reached deep into a pocket. This time he brought forth the small i-gun, which he smilingly aimed at Tom. “You came out from your compartment with this little gem in your pocket.”

“Treat it carefully, please; it’s my grandmother’s,” said Tom.

“Plucked it right out of your pocket as I boosted you up. I have many useful talents, amígo. And a good aim.” Tom stood immobile as the man’s arm stiffened and his trigger-finger moved to the actuator button. Nothing happened, of course; and Cíbola chuckled ruefully. “Díos. I’m not at my best today.” Keeping his aim steady, he moved his other hand, holding the “anti” device, and squeezed it.

Tom knew Cíbola was reversing the position of the plug of antiproton-emitting matter in the device, switching off the effect so that the i-gun could be fired. The effect ceased instantly. And in that same instant, the junglemobile whirred to life—for Tom had never shut it down. The propulsive microprongs along the top of the hull resumed their rapid oscillation. Tom Swift was prepared, falling to his knees as he was swept along, rolling off the hull roof to the ground, harmlessly. Diego Cíbola, however, was startled. He stiffened up, tumbled onto his back like a fallen tree, and was propelled toward the prow; for the Glidepath had been backing up when it had powered down. He was thrown forcefully off the roof, banged against the nose of the craft, and ended stunned among the vines and roots. The i-gun was out of his reach—and in a moment in Tom’s grip. The electronic suppressor had tumbled somewhere out of sight.

Cíbola’s big nose was bleeding; he made no effort to rise or flee. “You couldn’t have planned all this,” he groaned. “You couldn’t have guessed what I would do—not even you.”

“No. Just some swift thinking,” grinned the youth. “Things happened, and I decided to—go with the flow.” He bound Cíbola with his belt and detachable strips of his Swift Enterprises worksuit. “I hope you won’t mind spending the rest of the safari sealed in the cargo compartment, Mr. Cíbola,” Tom said.

“Ek. Depends. Is it a non-smoking room?”

The junglemobile had been scurrying backwards, but within one hundred feet it had rammed to a stop against a barrier of giant roots. Locking away the treacherous, dazed safarier, Tom resumed the trek to the wooden tree city, Yadqimoxtma, which now was near enough to register on the Glidepath’s instruments.

Even as he began to make out signs of habitation in the foliage, several figures ran out into his path, waving their arms frantically. Halting, Tom called through the external speakers: “Bud! Felix! What’s wrong?”

“Skipper, listen!” cried Bud Barclay. “You can’t trust Cíbola! We just realized—if the door mechanism worked, his rifle couldn’t be—”

Shopton’s young inventor couldn’t hold back a laugh.

Two days, and many arrivals and departures, later, Tom Swift Enterprises’ Flying Lab super-mach’d through the cloudy skies high above Virginia, Shopton not so far ahead.

In the view lounge on the top deck, Tom’s father leaned forward on his padded sofa. “Son, I don’t know how we can resolve the dilemma posed by the miraphysón discovery. Even if it’s not yet perfected for human use, imagine what it means to the human race! It can’t be suppressed or somehow walled-off from scientific research. But at the same time, what of the xirixa and the Mancopocs? Cultures and societies can’t be preserved under glass—they evolve like everything else. Yet the modern world, commercial competition, global corporations and consortiums—how can such untutored people survive their contact with the world beyond the jungle?”

Tom gazed out the window at passing clouds. “I don’t know, Dad. You and I invent new ways of doing tasks, poets like Mr. Lemma invent new ways of using words...”

“But who do we turn to to invent new ways of living with other people?” contributed Bud. “Without wiping out everything that makes it worthwhile in the first place?”

“Maybe Max and Althea will surprise us,” suggested Evelyn Troyes. “With their strange careers and fresh viewpoints—we may end up learning something from them.” Then she smiled mischievously. “And of course big bullies and ‘devil-men’ run the risk of ending up dissolving away in the Pool of Life!”

“Incidentally,” said Tom to Evelyn, “not to pry, but—do you feel more—er—appreciative of Felix now? You can’t say he lacked initiative or courage during the trip.”

“It never was about that,” was the reply. “I know I was a little snarky with Felix. I’ve apologized to him. And then I told him a big truth. I told him that at this point in my life I’m much less interested in what they call romance—than in the romance of zoology.”

“Still, you never know what’s around the bend,” commented Damon Swift, “professionally or emotionally. Doc Simpson has three weeks’ vacation coming up. He intends to take it in a place I never would have guessed. Guatemala City!”

“My my,” smiled Evelyn, a certain knowingness in it. “He must want a long, slow recovery from all these adventures.”

“He may be surprised,” Bud grinned, “at the sort of adventures he’ll find there!”

Tom enjoyed the comment, but his mind was elsewhere, far ahead of the Sky Queen and already back at Enterprises—itself only a brief stop on a path into outer space with his Lunar Accelapult.

Hank Sterling had been sitting quietly; now he spoke. “Boss, I should thank you. This time it was my dream, my invention, that got turned into reality. And not just a test run—an adventure! None of it would have happened without the enterprising Swifts and the extra work you did on it, Tom. Far as I’m concerned, the ‘and his’ on this one still belongs to Tom Swift, not Hank Sterling.”

Tom only shrugged modestly. Bud said to him: “C’mon, genius boy, it’s a great compliment! Whataya think?”

“What do I think?” repeated the young inventor. “I’m thinking about what Mr. Lemma said—colorless green ideas sleep furiously. And something else he could have added to it: ‘Men are strange beasts’!”