TOM SWIFT AND HIS
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
MISSION IN THE DEPTHS
“WHERE ARE WE, Skipper?” Bob Jeffers asked his young boss, who was leaning forward in the pilot’s seat of the big, strangely-shaped vehicle known as the geotron, keen blue eyes studying the controls.
The blue eyes keenly swiveled toward Bob. “Vertically or horizontally?” Tom Swift asked in reply, grinning. “Why don’t I give you both?—we’re 4100 feet down and 28 miles from base. Want the weather?”
“Don’t need to ask that one. Nothing!”
They were cruising along on, and under, the Moon. The geotron was two hours into its mission: to probe the depths of the harsh lunar crust in the interest of science—and life. “Boss, you know I’m not a scientist,” Bob said as if in apology. “I’m not even an engineer like Sterling or Wiltessa. You brought me up here to the Moon, but I don’t really understand just what we’re doin’ down here in the Gee!-Oh!. What’s the deal with prospecting for water way down deep like this?”
“AgriColony Alpha needs it to irrigate the crops. It’s one thing to prove the basic feasibility with tanked-in water, but it’ll be the funding that dries up unless we can prove those theories about deep-ice layers.”
“That part I know,” nodded the Swift Enterprises employee, a muscular young man with skin-tight auburn hair. “But I’d think long range instruments like your telesampler would do a better job than a couple guys trying to eyeball for water underground—not like you can see anything in the first place.”
Tom nodded wry agreement. “We’ve done tele-sampler probing all over the place, Bob. We’ve come up dry so far.” The telesampler was one of the young inventor’s young inventions, a device capable of snatching minute samples of material over enormous distances by means of a focused beam of penetrating energy. “The sampler’s X-raser beam can cross millions of miles of space, but even the big model can’t plow through more than a few hundred feet of solid matter. The atoms it charges-up start dispersing the terminus field.”
“I suppose I should have known that. But do you really think we’ll run across water this far down?”
“Some optimistic scientists do. We’ve already found trace amounts at the surface,” the young inventor reminded his co-pilot; “crusts of ice in the permanent shadows of deep craters and fissures, never touched by sunlight. Other celestial bodies of substantial size—dwarf planet Ceres is an example—have water in the lower crust left over from their formation, real underground seas. Cross a few fingers, Bob; if we’re going to plant life on the Moon—literally plant it in the form of agricultural crops—we’ll need less of a hint and more of a river.”
Though Tom Swift was a permanent teenager in the fictional series loosely based upon his real-life adventures, a fair number of years had slid by since he had led an expedition to Earth’s dead dry satellite in Enterprises’ spaceship Challenger. Decades after the Eagle had first brought man to Tranquility Base, the Moon had at last been opened up to colonization by the ever-engulfing human race. Using the new technology of vehicular transport driven by Tom’s force-ray repelatron—not always with acknowledgement of inspiration and sometimes by virtue of the unashamed bootlegging science made convenient—many nations now had established scientific bases and proto-colonies across the mottled, puzzled face of Luna.
But just what to do with the Moon was a matter of controversy. A proposal to ameliorate the environmental dangers of converting ever-higher percentages of Earth’s surface to food production by establishing cropland on the Moon had been greeted with the usual sneers—but Tom and others had suggested ways to make it work. It would be the labor of generations. Yet the dream would die in infancy unless science could unlock hidden sources of water beneath the lunar surface.
Tom pressed a glowing bead on the control board, activating the intercom connecting what was at present the pilot’s cabin with the identical rear-facing cabin at the geotron’s other end. “How’s it going, tail-draggers?”
The answering voice was Tom’s best pal and constant companion, Bud Barclay. “Swimmingly, rockhound. Or at least I wish we were swimming in something other than dirt. The window back here doesn’t show anything but window—with grungy stuff crawling over it like a snail stampede.”
“It’s about time to take another sample,” came another voice, Lyrae Aspodiel, the trek’s selenologist—lunar geologist. “But nothing interesting in the accumulator cells so far.” During scheduled stops a tiny hull aperture was irised open, allowing molecular samples to be snagged by a mini-telesampler in the Gee!-Oh!’s instrument bay. The inherent limitations of the device kept the sampling range to a narrow radius, a few score feet.
“We can push downwards a little further,” Tom replied. “The low gravity up here means less ambient pressure than we’d find on Earth. The geo-repelatrons can handle it.” Ranks of the repulsion machines, inset into the geotron’s hull, drove back the rock and dirt encompassing the vehicle.
Yet mere seconds of downward crawl seemed to belie the words of the youthful prospector. The geotron shuddered slightly, then swerved horizontally with such force that the selenauts were wrenched painfully against their safety restraints! “Good night, did we just ram a giant gopher?” crackled Bud over the com, jaunty voice slightly shaded by alarm.
“I’m not sure what that was,” Tom admitted.
“Maybe a meteor hit up above us.”
“The instruments don’t show any sign of ground shock or reverberation—which also rules out a quake. All I know—” Tom’s words broke off as the Gee-Oh! again swung about even more violently—and then twice more!
“Boss, I’m not liking this.” Jeffers, a naturally calm and composed man, spoke calmly but intensely.
The intercom bleeped. “Say, genius boy—I’m not liking this,” pronounced Bud.
“The opinion’s going viral,” Tom commented back dryly.
“But listen, it just might be something good,” added Lyrae. “We may have penetrated into a lower stratum with different characteristics and compression profiles. Different stuff in the dirt.”
“You mean water?” Tom asked excitedly.
“I won’t stake my rep on it, but we could be losing our grip because of moisture suffusion or micro-crystals of water ice. The crust could be slipping as we put stress on it. I wrote a journal article on that possibility.”
At Tom’s touch-command the ground voyager shuddered to a halt. “Do some telesampling, Lyrae. Let’s see if we can dope out what’s going on out there.”
Ten minutes passed before the intercom bleeped again. “Good news?” inquired Tom hopefully.
But Lyrae Aspodiel’s report was less good than hesitant. “I’m not quite sure what to tell you,” she responded. “We have some good samples in the cells, and the spectrograph reads them as containing water... sort of.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m having trouble interpreting the scan profile. There’s some kind of contaminant in the traces that I can’t identify right off the bat—something unexpected.”
Bud joined in. “Tom, it could be something like what we found under the ocean, that mutant form of water.”
“Yes,” replied the scientist inventor, his mind flashing back to the subocean exploit that led to the creation of his aquatomic tracker. “What they called Configuration Eighteen. The repelatrons had trouble scanning for it, and on second glance I think the geotron’s slipping and sliding had to do with instability in the repelatron back-reaction. Lyrae,” he continued, “send me the spectrograph detail. I think I can readjust the repelascope to give us a picture of how the stuff is distributed.”
The repelascope was a scanning device that gave the geotron a form of “X-ray vision” in the opaque environment of the underground world, using a fine-tuned repelatron to feel-out the contours of the deposits of elements and compounds in the area, mapping them onto an imaging screen—in this case the inner surface of the cabin viewport, doing double duty as an output monitor.
In minutes Tom and Bob were scrutinizing an image of—what? “It’s showing up as shadow, which means the repelascope can only pick up the outlines of the deposits, not the substance itself. Whatever it is, it’s in veins and sheets spreading in all directions all the way to the scanning threshold—miles! The layer of deposits seems to keep to about the same level, a fairly constant depth. That’s why we didn’t have any trouble with the Gee!-Oh! until we dived deeper.”
“What do we do now, Skipper?” came Bud’s voice.
“Let’s not push onward any further; the rockin’ and rollin’ could pose a danger.”
“Jetz, I definitely agree!”
“We’ll go full-reverse—your compartment is now the prow, Captain Barclay. Steer us home.”
“Aye-aye,” Bud responded crisply.
Backward became forward. The geotron tunneled its way back to Crater Hillengard, site of AgriColony Alpha, with its precious cargo of granules in the telesampler’s collector cells. Moving with determination at maximum crawl, the Gee!-Oh! arrived at the crater wall in a little over an hour, angling up into the pressurized dome that had been assembled to hangar it.
As Tom detached the storage unit to carry it to one of the colony’s many labs, he said to his comrades, “Let’s see what we get on the big spectroanalyzer and mass-momentometer.”
“I’ll work on pronouncing the names,” Bud gibed, proving that he was, still and always, Bud Barclay.
Having no role to play in the work, Bob Jeffers left for his other duties as Tom, Lyrae, and Bud took the moving ridewalk through busy, bright-lit corridors. In the main chem lab they were joined by the colony’s chief chemist, Ladislau Mul, a Ukrainian. “Ah, our mystery water! But is it water, my friends? Szr chae, God knows. And so shall we, eh?”
Mul’s optimism was soon blunted. “The instruments are unanimous,” Tom announced after several attempts. “Typical deep-crust materials, a lot of something that sure looks like water, and an unidentified trace contaminant that doesn’t like our instruments.”
“It doesn’t like the mighty Swift Spectroscope,” commented Bud. “But genius boy, that gizmo picks up the same kind of nuclear waveforms as the repelatrons use, doesn’t it? And the geotron’s repelatrons—”
“Didn’t take to it either,” finished the young inventor thoughtfully.
Dr. Mul was frowning deeply. “And it seems the momentometer is equally puzzled. Ha!—perhaps this stuff bears with it a curse.”
“I’m not giving up on the momentometer just yet,” Lyrae declared. “It’s just molecules, guys, and it has mass. I think the problem is that we haven’t done a really fine-grade analysis of the output numbers. Give me and Dr. Mul a couple hours on the computer—don’t you think, Ladislau?”
The suggestion drew a smile. “I shall not argue with a lady; still less with a scientist.”
Tom and Bud left them to their work. “Let’s head up to the observation deck, pal,” Bud suggested. “Maybe clear our heads.”
The broad, well-appointed gallery, set hundreds of feet up on the in-facing slope of the crater’s encircling wall, allowed the multinational residents of AgriColony Alpha a sweeping view of the floor of Hillengard. The crater, some twenty miles across, was capped with an invisible ceiling of the “non-matter matter” called Inertite. Its netting of linked nano-filaments retained the earthlike atmosphere produced by Tom’s atmosphere-making machine, yet flowed around objects larger than molecules, permitting transit craft to pass through without impediment. Not far away loomed the vehicle that had carried the Enterprises team, and the geotron, to the moon colony—the mighty repelatron spaceship Challenger with its encircling rail-rings. The ship was like an old friend to Tom and Bud, a big one.
Another old friend, also a big one, awaited them near the slanting view windows, wearing a gaudy shirt and cowboy hat. “Wa-aal brand my moondust!” exclaimed culinary heavyweight Chow Winkler with pleasure. “Gotcher self back in one piece, didja?”
“We sure did, pardner,” grinned Tom. “The usual handfuls of mystery to keep us busy.”
“Uh-huh. Better a touch o’ mystery than a bucket o’ trouble, son.”
Bud shot his older friend a teasing look. “Day’s not over yet, old timer. And remember, up here it’s thirty Earth days from one sunrise to the next.”
“Uh-huh. Feels like it, too.”
The three chatted for a time, surveying the crater floor, dotted with small experimental fields of wheat and corn, a few scraggly orchards, and an area of rice paddies. “Mighty pitiful, tell th’ truth,” pronounced Chow with the scorn of an ex-Texan. “Like to see a few saguaros. Barrel cactus. Even a tumbleweed ’r three. Jest somethin’ worth th’ look.”
“Getting homesick for Shopton, Chow?” asked Tom.
“Ain’t Texas, but she’s got a passel more charm than this ole dusty Moon up here. Thank th’ prairie stars we only got a few more days afore we head back.” The former chuckwagon cook added quickly: “An’ I shor do mean reg’lar days!—like as back home.”
“We still have some scheduled hours of geotron prospecting before we hoist the Gee!-Oh! back up on the Chal and make for home,” Tom noted; “but it’ll go by fast, I think. We’re finally getting some signs of real water, so we can concentrate on one—”
Chow suddenly half-turned and interrupted his boss with a slight gesture. “Jest a sec, Tom. Look down there t’ yer left—don’t let her see you.”
Tom and Bud made a pair of concealed glances. “What, that woman in the uniform?” asked Bud with raised eyebrows.
“Base Security,” Tom noted.
Chow nodded secretively. “Yeah, that’s th’ one all right—Kitty Plethysma. What kinda loco name is that?”
“You don’t want her to see you?”
“Don’t care to have her see me lookin’ back at her.”
“Tom, I think this is another one of Tex’s many smitten admirers,” grinned Bud with a nudge.
Chow reddened but nodded. “You boys know it!—happens all th’ time. No control over it. Mebbe it’s the hat. These here blame females keep throwin’ down their saddles my way, an’ I got a few too many years under me t’ dally by the ole millstream. Know whut I mean?”
“I, mm, get the idea,” responded Tom with a sly wink Bud’s way. Bud broke out laughing; Chow broke out glaring.
The mop-slender, determined-looking woman swiveled abruptly and stalked off down a corridor. Chow breathed a sigh of relief. “Guess I’m gonna live t’ fight another day.”
The tiny nanocom, nestled above Tom’s right ear, muttered its alert. The Shoptonian tapped it twice, switching to broadcast mode so his friends could also hear. “This is Tom.”
“Mr. Swift, this is Frank Jollberg in Communications. Major Horton just called in for you from your outpost in space. He’s asking you to reply immediately.”
“Yup,” snorted Chow in wincing resignation.
“Did Horton say why, Frank?”
“He says their probe radar has detected something in lunar orbit that they can’t identify or explain.”
“By th’ blame bucketful,” added the cook, with a head-shake.
TOM AND BUD moved quickly, leaving their weighty friend huffing along behind. They ascended by ramp-escalator to the Communications Section, atop the tower that rose above the crater’s peripheral wall.
A man hurried up to them. “Frank Jollberg. I’m second in command up here, but Chief Brenn—have you met Rachel Brenn?—is on her way.”
“Is this an urgent situation, Frank?” Tom asked.
“Well, not necessarily,” the communications technician replied. “But what Major Horton said sounded a little—”
“Attention getting,” Bud completed.
“You handled it right,” Tom reassured Jollberg. “Is the outpost accessible right now on the space transmi-tron?”
“No, she’s in Earth-eclipse right now.”
Bud explained to Chow, who had just stumbled up to them, “That means the outpost is on the far side of the earth. Blocks radio.”
Tom nodded toward his friends. “They must have accessed one of the higher-orbit radar satellites to scan the lunar vicinity.” Jollberg explained that Horton, head of the team on the Enterprises space station, had been able to contact AgriColony by means of the quantum-link parallelophone—nicknamed the Private Ear Radio—which could ignore the interposed Earth as deftly as it ignored space itself. “I’ll call back by PER, then,” Tom declared.
Ken Horton’s familiar voice soon filled the speakers. “I probably made it sound more ominous than it is, guys. No reason to think it poses any danger. Just something odd and unidentified that suddenly popped up in an orbit with one end way-high. Dr. Goldstone thinks someone ought to take a look at it.”
Tom glanced at the faces keenly watching him. “Something artificial? A spacecraft?”
“It’s too small to image it, but Goldstone’s been studying the bounceback profile. It doesn’t show as meteoritic nickel-iron or cometary ice, and it isn’t a metal hull either. He says the reflectance profile is hard to read. And the shape of it...”
“What shape does it have?”
“As I said, we can’t pull enough data from the radar to produce any real image. It’s small and narrow, maybe a couple meters long by half a meter wide.”
“Wish they’d say it in reg’lar feet,” muttered Chow disgustedly.
Horton went on, “Several protrusions coming off it. Might be antennas of some sort—or just bumps on a space fragment that got too near the sun and softened like taffy. It’s doing a double-axis rotation, not too fast.” Before breaking contact, Horton promised to transmit the radar data to Tom.
What to do? “We could ask Dad to look it over with the megascope at Enterprises,” the young inventor mused uncertainly. He referred to the electronic super-telescope housed in the plant observatory.
“Aw c’mon, Skipper,” urged Bud. “Let’s pay a visit and give our eyeballs a little face time! You know you’ll want to haul it down to some lab or other.”
Chow cleared his billowy throat. “B-but—mebbe it’s somethin’ you won’t want t’ grab hold of—some blame thing made by the space people, mebbe. R’member, not all o’ them folks are good guys. Grief ’n gravy, even th’ good guys aren’t always the good guys!” The westerner had in mind, vividly, Tom’s history of contact with extraterrestrials over the years since a small missile bearing mathematical symbols had gouged its way into the Swift Enterprises airfield. More than one never-visited planetary civilization had busied itself with terrestrial affairs; and even the ones who called themselves the Space Friends used dubious methods in their attempts to study and understand Earth’s peculiar inhabitants.
Tom thought a moment, face serious, then turned to Jollberg. “Frank, we’ll head up in one of the shuttle-buses, any one that’s good to go. No need to prep the Challenger for this mini-flight.”
“I’ll make the arrangements, Mr. Swift,” nodded Jollberg.
“Thanks. We’ll lift off just as soon as the outpost gets a line of sight and transmits the radar data.”
“Not long, then—less than four hours.”
“More’n enough time to take a little dinner,” decreed Chow, Enterprises’ executive chef even on the Moon. “An’ I don’t much care what counts as th’ dinner hour way up here.”
“It’s whenever you want it to be, pardner,” smiled Tom.
Hours later, insides well stocked with western-style vittles, Tom’s small team lifted off from the floor of Crater Hillengard. Their spacebound shuttle-bus, a German design, rose effortlessly through the invisible Inertite canopy, trading an Earthlike environment for the stark extremes of the void. “Say there, boss,” said Chow as the lunar horizon took on a curve, “jest had a thought—now, you r’member what happened before, when we went out flyin’ on those bitty Repelatron Donkeys and I hadta snatch Buddy Boy up in m’ lasso...”
“One of my many highwire stunts,” Bud nodded ruefully. “Jetz, why bring that up? Is this Worry Day for the Winkler clan?”
“Wa-aal, your wagon took a dive cause them repellers don’t work so well near th’ ground. So—ain’t this space bus flyin’ that way? By re-pellertrons? An’ we start off on the ground...”
“I understand your question, Chow,” replied Tom as he worked the controls. “We still have the lag effect near the ground when we use single repelatrons, as we do on the Donkeys. The distribution of elements and compounds varies too much—too ‘grainy’—for the trons to keep themselves fine-tuned within a couple miles of the surface. We handle the problem on the shuttles the same way we do with the Challenger, though on a much smaller scale, of course. Dozens of mini-trons are acting at the same time, compensating for the random fluctuations in one another. We do something similar... in...”
Tom’s voice trailed off. Bud finished for him. “In the Gee!-Oh!—the rows of repelatrons that keep us from getting smashed flat.” The black-haired Californian knew his chum’s thoughts. What if we’d gone further underground? Would the geotron have survived the mysterious instability? Would we be here to ask the question?
“I want to know why it happened,” said Tom Swift quietly. “And what it has to do with the contaminant in that moon-water.”
“Mebbe some varmint poisoned your well,” suggested Chow. The others had no rejoinder. It just might be true! Tom and Bud—and all their friends and co-workers—had faced determined, sometimes crazed, adversaries in their strange exploits and adventures on the earth, and off it. The two had only recently survived bizarre happenings in the Amazon Basin during the field test of Tom Swift Enterprises’ experimental junglemobile.
The shuttle-buses were skeletons of metal folded about a coffin-shaped pressurized cabin, the metal struts bristling with small parabolic dishes that anchored the nearer ends of the repelatrons’ linear spacewave fields to the fuselage. As the craft neared an altitude of five miles above Hillengard, Tom re-aimed the antenna dishes toward the far horizon, and their trajectory shifted smoothly from vertical to horizontal. After minutes of steady acceleration, they were shooting like a comet over the vast plains of Mare Imbrium.
“On course to intercept, Mr. Swift,” reported Heather Isaka, a member of AgriColony’s regular personnel recruited to assist in the operation of the shuttle. Presently the long-range scanners began to show a tiny, hurtling object far ahead.
Chow looked a mite nervous. “Dang-blasted suspense!” he hissed.
“I think I see it,” Bud announced excitedly. “Funny shape. What the heck is it, Tom? Some kind of space junk?”
They closed the distance—and boggled! “Good gosh!” gasped the young inventor.
“A man!” exclaimed Isaka.
“Or at least a spacesuit,” Tom corrected her. “I’ll pull us close, to twenty meters—er, that’s about fifty feet, Chow—and match speeds. Let’s break out the e-noculars.”
Passing the electronic binoculars between them, the four scrutinized the orbiting puzzle. It was recognizably a pressurized spacesuit of some dull material, its size and shape compatible with ordinary terrestrial humanity—four splayed limbs, hands and feet, a helmet atop its shoulders. As it tumbled purposelessly, they could see an attached backpack that presumably contained air tanks. “Reflectorized helmet visor,” Tom commented. “Can’t make out his—or her—face.”
“His or her or it!” added Chow pointedly.
Tom nodded. “You’re right, pardner. No visible insignia or writing on the suit. For all we know it could be one of the space friends, or any of the alien beings we’ve dealt with. None have ever disclosed their physical form.”
“True as truth!—they could look jest like Texans.” But Chow quickly reconsidered. “Naw, wouldn’t bet on that.”
“How shall we proceed, sir?” inquired Isaka politely.
“Let’s swing around in front of it and retrobrake,” Tom decided. “We’ll slow very gently—a tap on the brakes—and let it coast through port three into the equipment bay. Feed me the maneuvering numbers, Miss Isaka.”
As they adjusted position and the gap narrowed, Bud half-whispered: “I can’t tell if I’ve seen any movement. Maybe we’re bringing aboard—”
“A carcass from some Boot Hill up in space,” Chow pronounced. “Don’t much like this, boys.”
When the floating suit touched down in the equipment bay, Tom sealed the compartment and again give the object a look-over, by vidcam. “No, no sign of motion or life. No need to expect anything gruesome, though. It’s probably just something discarded by a ship on its way to Hillengard.”
“Ye-ahh, well, them gangster types discard stuff too, an’ I don’t mean picked-over chicken wings,” murmured the cowpoke cook.
Bud gave a grin. “Don’t see any cement shoes around the ankles, though.”
“Wouldn’t need ’em up here, Buddy Boy.”
“Man, you are a bundle of Texas sunshine today, cowpoke.”
“Son, they’s times it rains in Texas.”
Landing at AgriColony Alpha, Tom kept the shuttle compartment sealed until he could dock a crate of transparent metallumin—another coffin!—against the shuttle port. He then used the robotic arms inside the bay to shove the space object into its container. He explained to AgriColony Security: “We don’t yet know what sort of what might be crawling around on the outside of the suit—not to mention what might be inside!”
In one of the multipurpose labs he had been using during his stay Tom commenced an instrumental examination of the spacesuit and its unseen contents, using a gravitoscopic mapper to gauge its distribution and mass, and a remote-scan device called the leptoscope to determine its exact composition and to probe within.
The results were grim to the point of horror! “Chow’s fears were on the money,” Tom told Bob Jeffers, who had come to assist him. “There’s a dead man inside—or at least something that might have been human.”
“Whatever it was, it sure is dead!” agreed Jeffers. The spacesuit contained shards of organic material, fragments of bone, even teeth and hair—enough to make a human body!
“And plenty of fluid, including what’s almost certainly human blood.” The young inventor was half-sickened by the discovery. “Good grief, the body was completely pulverized by some tremendous force! And there’s no sign of desiccation, or decomposition from anaerobic bacteria, which is always present inside a body...”
“Which surely suggests, mon frére, that this terrible event occurred within the last few hours,” stated Denis Corvalle, Chief of Base Security, who had come to observe what was beginning to look like the start of a murder investigation. “I have my duties; we must first determine if any of our Hillengard population cannot be accounted for. And then we commence seeking cooperation from our many neighbors here on the Moon—some of whom, hélas, do not willingly cooperate with us.”
“The victim may be one of their people,” Tom pointed out.
“Indeed, and perhaps killed under color of official authority. All the more reason for reluctance and concealment.”
“But what about the suit itself?” asked Bob. “It doesn’t look like one of ours.”
“No, but Agri is an international project, not run by Swift Enterprises,” the scientist-inventor reminded him. His voice wanted to shake. “We supplied most of the space gear, but not all of it. The actual suit material is pretty standard-issue stuff—Tomasite blends are used all over the world these days, patents or no—and the overall suit design is typical too. There’s nothing to show where he came from—nothing so far, anyway. He might have come from here. Enterprises is providing a lot of technical support for this operation; I don’t like to think it, but he could be an Enterprises employee who happened to be using a non-TSE suit for some reason.”
“You’re sure it was a man?” Jeffers persisted.
“Jaw size and the ratio of bone mass to the overall body mass is a pretty conclusive indicator. We haven’t extracted any tissue samples, though, for DNA testing. I’m not breaching the case or the suit until we know there’s nothing microsized that could contaminate or infect AgriColony.”
“But indeed,” stated Chief Corvalle, “you have promised us a safety determination within hours, have you not? For we must commence a search of our DNA databases, here on the Moon, and then perhaps on far Earth as well. No fingerprints, for there are no fingers; and even the teeth are shattered. If this is a question of homicide, we must know our victim.”
Tom wiped his pale forehead. “I—I’ll start in a few minutes. I need to...”
“Take it easy, Skipper,” urged Bob gently. “This guy isn’t goin’ anywhere.”
Tom gulped. “He’s already been.”
It took more than a few minutes for the young inventor to regain his composure. Tom had seen death before; he had never seen death so raw and ferocious. If this was a murder, he told himself, we could be dealing with a maniac—a psychopath loose on the Moon!
Before returning to the grim scientific examination, Tom went to his quarters to contact his father, the PER quantum-link eliminating the space that separated Crater Hillengard from Shopton, New York. “I was just reading the early digi-transmission from the installation authorities,” Damon Swift stated. “Good Lord, son! But let’s not allow ourselves to wallow in drama. This could have been the result of some sort of terrible accident which someone has reason to cover up.”
“Right, true,” his son readily agreed. “But Dad, the condition of the remains—!”
“We both know even direct exposure to a vacuum would only cause rupture to the skin and eyes at worst, not something as disintegrative as this. Based on the orientation of bone fragments, I’m sure the force was outside-in, not inside-out. In fact—this strikes me as weird—it seems to have been entirely along the vertical axis of the body...”
“As if he had been struck from above.”
“Hit like a nail under a hammer!”
“Perhaps a crashdown in an arriving spacecraft with no braking, impacting like a meteor,” suggested Mr. Swift. Having not seen the remains, he retained a degree of calm detachment. “And then, Tom, they forced the remains into a spacesuit—”
“And sent him into orbit? Why not just incinerate the body, or bury it deep on the Farside? Dad, the Moon is nothing but empty fields to dump a body in!”
“I’m afraid I’m not used to thinking like a homicide investigator. But at least a handy spacesuit makes an efficient casket, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so,” Tom replied. “But in this case the victim was already inside his casket when he died! He was wearing that suit when it happened! The instruments show that the whole inner surface is, is smeared with—what used to be his skin. Scraped right off him as—as h-he was being—”
The rest of the conversation consisted of calming, comforting words, father to son.
Tom made his way back to the examination room with new determination. He would solve this puzzle—a scientific mystery as much as a human one!
As he paused in the corridor, hand reaching toward the doorlatch switch-sensor, a voice called out to him—Lyrae Aspodiel. “Now I don’t have to call you on my nano, Tom. Are—are you all right? They’re all talking about—”
“I’m... okay, Lyr. Did you and Dr. Mul get anything more in your water analysis?”
A tense expression crossed the face of the selenologist. “Yes. I’m afraid we did.”
“Something unexpected—that could mean the end of this whole lunar project!”
TOM COULDN’T help thinking: I’m not so sure I need this right now. But with a frowning nod he urged Lyrae to go ahead.
“We massaged the momentometer data, Tom. We doubted what we were coming up with, so we stooped so low as to do old-fashioned chemical analysis—reagents, litmus paper, all that. We even fed a little to some fast-growing microfungi. And we got an answer. We know what the contaminant is.”
“Barium arsenate. Poison!”
The youth sighed. “I see. Naturally occurring?”
“There’s no reason to think otherwise. It was present in all the samples from the stratum we found. I would never have predicted it...”
“And no one could have predicted where the geotron would have been taking samples. I can’t believe it was deliberately salted-in; it can’t be some sort of attempt to undermine the project.”
“Well, Tom, you do have some pretty determined enemies out there,” commented Lyrae with a wry smile. “But I can’t see a motive, can you? We can’t be surprised at surprises—we’re on another world.”
Tom rubbed his chin. “Well, we don’t have to speculate. An enemy couldn’t have poisoned the whole lunar crust. We’ll take samples all over. It’ll be disappointing if what little water we can find locally is unusable, though. Hillengard has the sort of soil we need to sustain earthly crops, and the crust materials are just the sort we need to feed the atmosphere-making machine. Having to completely relocate would delay the farm project for years.”
“Look on the bright side. If all the water on Luna is contaminated, there’ll be no need to relocate.” Tom didn’t find the grim humor amusing. He shook his head and entered the examination lab without bidding Lyrae Aspodiel goodbye.
Much of the gruesome examination was conducted remotely, by sophisticated scanning instruments, from outside the metallumin isolation tank. But ultimately Tom could not avoid what he had been dreading: opening the suit and extracting samples of tissue from the crushed body. He rolled the container-case into a Tomasite-walled compartment, with an airlock, adjoining the lab. Disengaging the case’s locking mechanism by signal, Tom entered in his own spacesuit and unfastened the cadaver’s suit—if cadaver was even the right word for such a collection of human remains.
As he began taking scrapings and extracting bits of cell and flesh for analysis, using delicate scalpel-like tools, the young inventor glanced at one of the suit sleeves he had unfastened and set aside. On the connector ring that sealed the sleeve to the suit torso he could make out minute letters. Something stamped into the metal! he thought excitedly.
M 5 F
“Must be a registration number,” he muttered. Or did the word have further significance? It rang a tiny bell of memory...
There proved to be no further lettering in the suit, which seemed to have withstood in fair shape the crushing power that had surged through it top to bottom. Nor was a name tag found among the twisted, tangled remnants of the former man’s clothing, which included buttons, a zipper, a metal belt buckle, shoes flattened down to the soles, and some coins which he carefully examined. American money, Tom noted. In the search for clues, pretty small change. He wondered if fingerprints on the coins could have survived the scouring effect of their being forced, in one explosive instant, through collapsing body and bone.
If the man had ever carried a wallet with identification, it had been mashed and pulped. The scanning instruments detected no sign.
After a preliminary analysis by base medical personnel, Tom released his data, tissue samples, and the physical evidence to Chief Corvalle to pass along to the Agri biochemistry section. “No trace of anything beyond the ordinary population of microbes. The med lab sees nothing that looks like an infectious agent, sir.” Tom added dryly, “No surprise. We’re fairly sure this man didn’t die of seasonal flu.”
“The inspection took rather a longer span of time than we had anticipated,” pronounced the Quebecois lawman coolly. “One wants to minimize exposure of evidence to hands that may, might one say, compromise its integrity. But we shall solve this problem of identity and cause of death—I insist upon it! Oui! We will proceed.”
“And what about those words on the suit?”
“A Latin term for an organ of the brain, I am informed. Corpus Callosum. Perhaps meaningless. Perhaps the fellow had a pet name for his garment—do not soldiers sometimes name their rifles? But naturally, my report to my superiors will be comprehensive.”
“And now, sir, I’ll also ‘proceed’—to bed.” And then, as he left, he remembered that he would need to contact his father first, concerning the barium arsenate contaminant. And begin arranging for new, distant crust sampling. And—
“I’ll need an entire lunar night to make up for the sleep I’m going to miss!” he told himself disgustedly. “Not to mention the main reason I came to the Moon personally in the first place. I’ve hardly had a chance to think about that project.”
In his office at Swift Enterprises, days before leaving for the Fearing Island spaceport and the Challenger flight, Tom had observed longstanding custom by briefing Bud and others of his usual team about the inventorly task he had found waiting for him upon his return from South America. “I’m sure you’ll all be involved in this one way or another—if not on the theoretical or technical end—”
“Th’ food end,” Chow interjected smugly.
“And the kidnap-abatement end,” Bud added. “Been awhile.”
“Since I’m here, I’m assuming you’ll be looking for a model or prototype,” noted modelmaker Arvid Hanson.
“I will,” nodded Tom with a grin of excitement. “I’ll need a little something to test out a mighty big project. We’re going to put a ring around the Moon!”
The listeners shared a few glances, and Bud broke out laughing. “Genius boy, that sounds more like a chapter cliffhanger than a Tom Swift science project.”
“I concur with the sentiment,” said physicist Rafael Franzenberg; “but I know you Swifts leave the joking to Barclay here when it comes to science. ‘Ring around the Moon’—a children’s game? A colorful metaphor?”
“Let’s call it a lunar accelapult,” responded the young inventor. “The ring will be a sort’ve racetrack. It won’t be made of solid matter—but it will go all the way around ol’ Luna.”
Chow removed his hat, not paying tribute to a new concept but for head-scratching purposes. “Wa-aal, boss... I guess I heard o’ catapults, big wooden throwin’ arms they usedta use t’ lob rocks at castles. Saw it in a movie. And ‘accela’—got a’ accelee-rater pedal in Nelly Belle, m’ pickup...”
“You’re halfway there, cowpoke. The accelapult will be—well, a little like snapping your throwing arm in an arc for a hard-driving pitch.”
“Finally talkin’ my language,” Bud said, the best athlete among the scientific crowd in the room. “But man, that’s a mighty big windup, Tom!”
“For a mighty big pitch, flyboy—a fastball across the solar system and on into interstellar space!”
Franzenberg liked to be ahead of the game. “Ah! Planning to launch some sort of space probe to the stars, are you?”
Tom stood and leaned jauntily against the cabinet counter behind his desk. “That’s right. But it really is going to be a ‘space’ probe, not a star probe.”
“I don’t follow,” said Hanson’s assistant Linda Ming. “You’re launching something from the Moon with no destination?”
“The destination is all around us, guys,” Tom replied with an expansive gesture. “Space!—that is, ‘space’ as it’s understood in relativistic theory. The spacetime continuum.”
“Mmnh. Guess mebbe I’d better go cook somethin’,” said Chow doubtfully. “Any ole thing—if this is one of them ‘talks’ like that Dr. Kupp likes t’ ladel out. Can’t never understand what the feller’s sayin’.”
“Don’t let it bother you, Winkler,” Franzenberg commented suavely. “Neither can he.”
“I’ll explain,” continued Tom, “though I can’t promise it’ll be as entertaining as the interruptions!
“A group of universities with expertise in astrophysics have been working together, and with NASA, to examine and verify some parts of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity regarding—Bud, don’t let Chow leave the room!—regarding gravitation and variation in the ‘flatness’ of the spacetime continuum. Some of the tests involve extremely subtle differences in measurement and are all but impossible to make on Earth, or even in the inner solar system, where the sun’s gravitational field changes too ‘steeply.’ These folks, who call themselves the Ein-Gen Group, have contacted Enterprises to help launch an instrumental probe they’ve designed, Caliper-1, that—”
Franzenberg could not stop himself from breaking in. “—that will use the length of the solar system as its baseline for measurement. Obviously.”
“Not so much ‘obviously’ to me,” noted Bud, who had clamped a muscular hand on a thick Texas arm.
“Right, Rafe,” grinned Tom. “But the length of the trip isn’t the only factor. The probe will need to simultaneously measure—so as to discount extraneous effects—certain aspects of the earlier part of Einstein’s work, called the Special Theory.”
“That’s the stuff about how time slows down and mass increases near the speed of light,” Arv said. “Not that I know much about the theoretical end of things.”
The scientist-inventor nodded. “The point is—here’s where the accelapult comes in—Caliper-1 will have to make its entire multi-billion-mile transit as close as possible to a speed science regards as unattainable by any means...”
“No need for a dramatic pause, Chief,” Franzenberg interjected. “You mean Velocity C. The speed of light!”
Tom’s silence, and raised eyebrows, confirmed the conjecture.
“I know it’s impossible to go faster than light-speed—something like 186,000 miles per second, isn’t it?—but Tom, doesn’t your Cosmotron Express spaceship get pretty close?” inquired Linda. “Couldn’t you just get the ship headed in the right direction and set the probe loose?”
Tom opened his mouth, but the voice of reply belonged to Rafe Franzenberg. “Useless! The spacedriver propulsion method utilized by the mighty Starward negates the precise effect that is to be measured.”
Tom interrupted in interruption. “The spacedriver engine bends the ambient momentum-field around the ship, Linda. In a way we take hold of a handful of the spacetime continuum in front of the ship and drag it to the rear, behind us. The relativistic effects take on a different form in that case. The point of the Caliper mission is to measure space in its ‘ordinary’ condition, which is what General Relativity deals with.”
As Linda Ming nodded, and Chow and Bud looked blank, Franzenberg said: “In that case this accelapult of yours will have to feed energy to the probe in tremendous quantity if it is to go shooting off anywhere near Velocity C. How in cosmic space—”
The young inventor jovially held up a cautioning hand. “It’s pretty much impossible. I agree. And that, folks, is why they call me an inventor!”
EARTH FOR ESCAPE
TOM’S FLITTING memories wisped away again. His main purpose in coming to the Moon himself—other Enterprises employees could easily have wrangled the geotron in its prospecting sorties—had been to devote some time to taking low-orbit readings of variations in the Moon’s gravitational field caused by the varying distribution of mass in the Lunar crust. Earth’s satellite was a perfect sphere to the human eye, but in fact she was very slightly stretched, like a hen’s egg. Just as the Moon produced tides on Earth, so Earth gave unbalanced pulls and pushes in reply. The eternal tug-of-war had poorly-mapped consequences that might interfere with Tom’s “racetrack,” perfectly circular, which would be established mere miles above the surface.
And now, a water crisis and some kind of murder mystery! he thought resentfully. Everyone’s going to put pressure on me to devote time to—
“Doing some amazing musing, chum?” Bud had ambled up the corridor behind Tom. “Whoa! That deep-set-blue-eyed expression tells me I’d better sneak away quietly.”
“No, Bud, it’s fine. I’m just having trouble making time for my accelapult work.”
“Facing a deadline?”
“Well—a fuzzy deadline.” Tom explained to his pal that the Caliper-1 probe had been designed to take its readings in harmony with a certain configuration of the planets in their orbits. “Even the positions of some of the larger planetary satellites, such as Ganymede and Titan—Luna too—can complicate the spacetime measurement profile.”
“And they’re all in motion, always. I see. You have a launch window, basically.”
The Shoptonian nodded. “A reasonably relaxed one. But if we miss it completely, it’ll be quite a few years before these conditions come around again. The Ein-Gen Group has been developing this for fifteen years.”
“Got it,” said Bud meekly. “Turn your back and I’ll tiptoe away.”
“Walk with me. I’ve got to hit the sack, but... I’d like to bounce a few ideas off you.”
“My rubber head is all ears, genius boy.”
Though the ridewalk ran its silent way down the middle of the broad corridor, the two walked beside it, slowly. Tom said quietly: “The Challenger lifts off tomorrow—that is, in about ten hours—for Fearing. Twenty-three of the personnel here at Agri have been up here for months and are due to rotate back to Earth. I’ve decided to go back with them.”
“Oh really? Change of plans?”
“I’ve re-thought it. I don’t need to spend time on detailed mapping of the gravitational grid after all, not at this point. There’s a way to make the accelapult system more adaptable to variations—more ‘forgiving.’ Some of the math will be tricky, but I’m sure Dr. Kupp can—c’mon, don’t make a face, flyboy. Omicron Kupp isn’t such a difficult fellow when you get to know him.”
Bud smiled superciliously. “No pain, no gain. In the case of Dr. Kupp I think I’ll struggle along without the gain.”
The young inventor chuckled and went on: “You can’t really get the—er—best from Dr. Kupp by just assigning him a problem. I’ll have to be right at his elbow, keeping him focused. I can work with Arv and Rafael, maybe steal Hank Sterling away from Dad’s solar project...” He glanced intently at his friend, eyes troubled. “I don’t think I can get anything done up here.”
“I know why, Tom,” responded Bud seriously. “It’s not about Kupp and his mathematics, not entirely. It’s what happened, what you had to deal with in that room, in... that spacesuit.”
Tom’s stride faltered. He looked stricken. “It’s more than just a distraction. I keep thinking about it, seeing it. That man—he has a family somewhere, loved ones. He was right in the middle of life, don’t you think, just going along. And then—” His voice quavered away for a moment. Bud waited. “It could have been anyone. Except... I can’t stop thinking... Bud, it could have been me!”
“It wasn’t.” Bud put a comforting hand on Tom’s back. “I get it, though. Yes, good idea. Let’s get away from this morose mound of moonrock for a while.”
They walked in silence. As they neared Tom’s apartment, he paused and said, “Pal, I’d like you to stay here while I’m gone. It’ll just be a week or so, probably. I want to have an accelapult prototype going, to bring back up when I’m at the point where my gravity mapping will be more useful.”
“Sure, Tom, if that’s what you want,” replied the black-haired flyer, surprised. “But jetz!—what can I do with you on the other side of space?”
“You’re as good at piloting the geotron as I am. You and Bob Jeffers can keep the prospecting going according to the original schedule. I’ll have some of the others here do some drilling throughout the region with the mechanical earth blasters, radius of several hundred miles, to check for more hydrologous strata and sample for barium arsenate contamination. Neil MacColter’s up here in Hillengard, you know. He knows how to run the blasters. He can take charge of that operation; some good people on the international team as well.”
“Okay, Skipper,” Bud agreed. “But have you considered—maybe I’m as freaked out by all this as you are!”
“You’re better able to handle freakish things than I am.” And Tom added mischievously: “You’re from San Francisco!”
“Yeah. San Francisco, California—that’s two strikes right there.”
The next day—so called—the huge Challenger rose up on repelatron legs and began its run for Earth. As Crater Hillengard diminished below, Tom sat at the command board, Chow looming beside him. “Glad you’re headin’ back home, son. Can’t hardly sleep, thinkin’ about what that gosh-blame sneaky Roosian might be doin’ with my cookstove.” Boris Yakunetsky was Chow’s second-in-command. The Russian émigré had been personally selected by Chow, which both parties soon found reason to regret.
“I’m sure Dad and the others will be happy to have you back,” smiled Tom, “armadillo stew or no.”
The food-wrangler beamed. “Mebbe so. Hope so. An’ boss, t’ tell the truth, had me another good reason t’ shake moondust off my Texas boots and get goin’. That woman, Kitty Plethysma—makin’ eyes at me, allus tryin’ t’ find out where I am...”
“Sounds like you don’t like being liked, pard.”
Chow snorted. “Druther be gored by a bull! Not that I care s’ much about looks an’ all—in Texas y’ purty much take what yew kin get—but I’m a proud man o’ the range. Got some standards. A few. Wa-aal, not s’ much. Still, that Kitty looks more like a bundle o’ rail ties on two skinny feet! Thank th’ Pecos we’re leavin’ her on the Moon. Hope t’ gosh I never lay eyes, er anything else, on her ever once more.”
The older man glanced at his friend and his words fell away. “Say there, why’d you get so quiet, Tom?” The youth’s face bore a strained, thin half-smile. “Sumpin’ wrong? That there’s whut I call a caught-in-the-jam look. All I’m sayin’—all I—” The horrific truth had already dawned on him; he didn’t want to face it. “Naw. Naw! Yer not gonna tell me—”
“Believe me, I don’t want to,” said the young inventor sheepishly. “Lt. Plethysma has been at Hillengard from the start of the farm project. I happened to see her on the roster, with current status. She was way overdue to be rotated back to Earth. There are health issues with being too long in a low-gravity environment.”
“Hmmph! Leastways she’s not one o’ ours. Doesn’t work for Swift Enterprises. She’s one o’ the foreign ones—got a’ accent.”
“She’s from Brooklyn.”
“S-she is? Brooklyn, America? But at least—”
“She’s Enterprises personnel.”
“Don’t tell me!”
“Security over at the Construction Company. But, I—I hear—according to the roster updates—she’s requested a transfer to—”
“Boss, if you ever plan t’ eat again, you turn this buggy right around! I’ll stay up on th’ dang Moon!”
The cook rubbed a big hand over his broad, disgusted face. “So where is she right now?”
“Down below with the others.”
“Then I’m spendin’ the rest o’ this trip lookin’ at the stars—up here!”
As the Challenger left the Moon behind, she increased acceleration to a comfortable 1-G. On a whim the young space pioneer took a swerving course to allow the passengers some sight-seeing. “If you’ll look out to starboard, folks, that great big ball is Enterprises’ cosmotron express, the Starward,” he announced over the in-ship PA. “We have her parked in the gravity-balanced zone called L1. As you can see, we’re engaged in constructing a fleet of our environment-repair flying platforms, the solarplanes. Each one is then lowered into the upper atmosphere from above.” Tom saw no reason to add that the Starward and the floating construction dock next to it would be used in Tom’s lunar accelapult operation.
The triumphs of the New Millennium made the earth only a few hours distant from the Moon. An uneventful flight ended with Tom bringing the Challenger to rest on its special landing pad at Fearing Island, leased by Tom Swift Enterprises from the Federal government for use as a spaceport and seaport. “Welcome, travelers!” radioed the chief mission controller Amos Quezada.
Tom and most of the returning personnel flew back to Shopton aboard the waiting Sky Queen, Enterprises’ famous three-deck Flying Lab—the first big invention young Tom had put his name to. As for Chow Winkler, he was rumored to be aboard, but there was some mystery as to his exact whereabouts. “He’s having a trying time,” the young inventor told Markham Wesberg, pilot for the trip.
It was after midnight in Shopton. Sleeping at home near the plant, he rose early, restless and somewhat aching from the return to the rigors of terrestrial gravity—his body weight had increased by a factor of six! Yet it was his mind, not his body, that made its claim. He fought memory. Tom and his father had agreed not to mention the substance of that memory, the horrific incident, to his family or their associates at Enterprises.
He decided that taking action would improve his mood. Sitting at the unit near his bed, he accessed his personal, encrypted journal and typed in a key phrase: Tax dollars still at work? This had become the signal for contact with a high-security government group known to the Swifts as “Collections,” who seemed to know a great deal about matters unknown to everyone else—such as scientific espionage and the newest apps for death.
There was no response. And Collections usually replied within seconds, as if eyes and hands were poised over a keyboard.
Frustrated, Tom finally made his way downstairs to join his family for breakfast. “How long do you plan to hang around this time, Tom?” inquired his pert—and sarcastic—younger sister Sandra. “Bashalli and I can hardly wait to find out how you’ll be avoiding us next.”
“Stop teasing, Dear,” urged Mrs. Swift as Mr. Swift chuckled. “Tom’s adventures keep the family in the headlines.”
“And keep the book series selling, too,” Tom added. “We all went out just a few weeks ago, sis. You and Bud, me and Bash. Remember?”
“To a soccer game and fast food. That shall not be counted as a double date. I won’t even call it a single date. More like the boys doing pointless guy-stuff while the girls are permitted to tag along uselessly.”
“Well, San—pointless and useless sort’ve go together.”
Tom’s father became very sage. “I recommend that you remedy this situation just as soon as you’ve had enough of Omicron Kupp.”
The young inventor laughed. “That won’t take long!—Though really, when you get to know him he’s—”
“No he isn’t,” said Sandy.
Tom commenced the remedy immediately, joining his close friend Bashalli Prandit for coffee and a scone at the coffee bar owned by her older brother. “So now, ever-young Thomas Swift, poisonous Moon water and a magic space catapult. It will never end, I think. Next I suppose you’ll stumble across a dead body.”
The youth—as the book series called him—tried to keep his face blank. “We don’t yet know the extent of the water problem, Bash, or what sort of underground process is causing it. As to the exciting part, the accelapult—it isn’t magic, it’s—”
“Science, of course,” smiled the raven-haired Pakistani. “Now that we are sitting close in romantic, intimate surroundings, pretend I’m Bud. Tell me how it works. Something about a racetrack around the Moon?”
Tom accepted the implied accusation blandly. “Well, Bash—”
“I’m losing interest already, ‘genius boy’.”
“I’m calling it a spacetrack, not a racetrack.”
“It’s not solid; it’s not like the repelatron skyway.”
“No dinosaurs this time, hm?”
“Are you in a mood?”
“Just my time of the millennium. But please do go on, Thomas.”
“Fine,” Tom said humorously—but with narrowed eyes. “Mm, could you pass me that empty pie tin, please?” She did. “You’ve probably fidgeted with very thin pieces of metal like this now and then, for no reason. People do. You grasp it on opposite sides, and make a little twisting motion...”
“It’s the biggest, and only, thrill I have.”
“See this little bump here on the edge? I flex the pie tin a tiny amount...” The tin made a sharp clack! sound. “And now the bump, the flex-deformation, has jumped over to the opposite side, instantly. Reverse the movement of your hands—now it’s jumped back. See?”
Bashalli had begun to look interested despite herself. “I’ve noticed that before. I don’t even know if it has a name.”
“Of course, no object is actually shooting across,” explained the young inventor. “It’s an illusion; a noticeable part of the overall shape disappears on one side and something similar appears on the other side. It’s like the motion of waves on water—the eye is following the progress of a shape.”
“Yes, I understand,” Bash said. “But such moving shapes are not nothing. They do things. Water waves wear down the shoreline.”
“They sure do. Now, the accelapult’s spacetrack—”
She interrupted. “I assumed it would involve your wonderful repelatrons. Perhaps a series of them, switching on and off in sequence, like the little light bulbs on the marquee at the old movie theater.”
“Good guess. But wrong. To accomplish the goals of the project we need to accelerate the Caliper probe to as near the speed of light as possible, and then let it zoom away inertially, at constant velocity, with no further forces acting on it—except gravitation. Nothing like that has ever been done. Even repelatrons the size of a football stadium would vaporize if we tried to feed them that much power; and besides, relativistic effects would distort the repulsion field fine-tuning and—”
“Let us very hastily set aside Prandit’s Conjecture,” said the Pakistani. “Let us resume the pie-tin approach.”
Tom laughed—cautiously. “Okay. I think you know that what we named Inertite isn’t atomic matter at all—it’s a weightless, massless ‘substance’ composed of intertwined knots of the spacetime continuum itself. They’re like linear force fields, nano-filaments. They’re much smaller than the atomic nucleus; for all we know, there may be no lower limit to their size. The ordinary rules don’t apply to non-matter matter.”
“You use these filaments to make the, mm, netting that holds-in the air churned out by your atmosphere machines, do you not?”
“That’s right. The filaments can be forced to flexibly inter-link, like chain mail on suits of armor. But for the accelapult we’re producing a different kind of structure, more like the geometry of crystals and very rigid.”
“But it seems that the pie-tin effect requires a bit of flexibility,” Bashalli objected. “As do persons now and then.”
“True—but the smaller the better, because we’re tapping the energy inherent in its rigidity, so to speak. The spacetrack goes completely around the Moon, remember, and that’s a good 10,000 miles. Something that long is bound to have a little give to it.”
Bash nodded, long hair swinging prettily across her forehead. “Then I see, Thomas. You create this ring, and produce a little twist, and the ‘kink’ travels around it at the speed of moonlight!”
“Close to it,” smiled the young inventor. “And each time it surges over the instrument package, it’ll give Caliper-1 a push. After a huge number of such pushes—about eighteen per second—she’ll have been accelerated to her maximum velocity.”
“And you set her loose upon the unsuspecting solar system.”
“Right, Bash! To the benefit of mankind.”
“And as to womankind,” she remarked suavely, “perhaps we will enjoy watching—watching the boys in their high-fiving excitations. But Thomas...”
“I’m very, very happy to see you.”
“Me too, Bash. Want me to high-five you?”
At Enterprises Tom spent the afternoon with the brilliant if obscure Dr. Omicron Kupp. Surviving the encounter, he spent an hour with Arvid Hanson, inspecting the modelmaker’s work on a midget prototype of the accelapult field generator, which Tom planned to test in space.
But the Moon wouldn’t leave the young inventor alone. As the day wore on, Tom met with Harlan Ames, chief of security for Tom Swift Enterprises, and his assistant Phil Radnor. “We’re keeping the possible Moon murder top secret,” Ames assured Tom. “And it’s not only you and your Dad who’ve asked us to. The high-ups got the report from whatzis-name, Corvalle, right away. They need it kept quiet pending some answers.”
Tom asked: “Just who are these ‘higher-ups’ in a case like this?”
“Start wherever you like and work your way down, boss. Under the general covenant for space exploration, the United Nations International Space Authority is legally on top of all permanent settlement work on Luna. But realistically, UNISA’s job is limited to—”
“To observe and report,” said Radnor dryly, “like the cop in a shopping mall.”
Tom grinned. “Not too useful in what might be a murder investigation. But I know Chief Corvalle works directly for the AgriColony Alpha oversight group.”
“Mm-hmm,” nodded Ames. “Certainly not for Swift Enterprises, though we’ve supplied quite a bit of the trained security force up there and the ACA consortium is supposed to coordinate with us..”
“But who did you actually hear from?” asked the youthful spaceman.
Radnor answered. “A crowd. Our usual contact people in the US intelligence community. Matter of fact—maybe it’s typical—there’s real competition as to who’s in charge. The CIA talks about the participation of foreign nationals in the project, Homeland Security talks about international terrorism, the FBI likes to point out that some parts of the Hillengard habitat are, technically, American soil. Bernt Ahlgren—who somehow channels the CIA and other such folks—seems to have emerged as the main go-to guy. He’s pretty insistent about pulling the covers over this thing, maybe because he’s in charge of capturing foreign chatter with intelligence implications...” Rad’s voice trailed off. He seemed to be waiting for Harlan Ames to comment.
Tom glanced from one face to another. “There’s more, isn’t there.”
“Yup,” said Ames. “More. The International Infectious Disease Commission. Our own Centers for Disease Control cooperates with them—and they’re all pretty sensitive to criticism since the Ebola scare. Heading off a world panic is a big priority right now.”
Tom was incredulous. “A world panic about what? Good night, whatever happened up there may be deliberate or accidental, but it certainly isn’t some sort of plague!”
Ames leaned forward across his desk, face stern and serious. “And just how sure are you of that fact, Tom?”
FEAR IS CONTAGIOUS
“YOU CAN’T be serious, guys!” exclaimed Tom Swift. “Except—I know you are. People are worried that—”
“People are worried that people will worry,” Ames declared with a degree of disgust. “This is a matter of politics and PR and something along the lines of crowd-control, not medical science.”
“And money—funding for the lunar development effort,” added Phil bluntly. “Growing food on the Moon is a tough sell. The word boondoggle has been tossed around. If the public panics, everything falls apart.”
“So these powers that be—except they never quite are—have decided to save the public the trouble by doing some advance panicking on their behalf,” was Ames’s sour comment. “You know how I hate all this. Tom—I just told your father about it an hour ago—some radical disease alarmists in the loop think lunar conditions might give rise to mutant viruses or bacteria, stuff already in the human body that could turn—”
Tom nodded a frown. “That could turn into something capable of, of dissolving the human organism—maybe any organism from Earth!”
“And which might be unstoppably contagious,” Harlan confirmed, “with an unknown gestation period and an undeterminable route of infection. So, panic! But let’s be fair: absurd though it might be, there’s a tiny basis in fact. A mutated common virus got loose on Little Luna not so long ago.” Little Luna was the pet name for Nestria, the phantom satellite that had become Earth’s tiny second moon. A debilitating illness had briefly threatened the visiting humans, which had included Chow Winkler.
The young inventor couldn’t completely dismiss the possibility. “But—the dynamics of the fatal... effect... were obviously external. The man was completely crushed top down by some sort of overwhelming force!”
“A force which, oddly, destroyed his body but left unaffected the suit he was in at the time,” Rad pointed out. “That could be interpreted as the weird workings of super-bugs, Skipper. You yourself looked for microbes. Nothing—but you’re not a medical guy or microbiologist. Who knows what things like that would look like? What if they’re too small to be seen even with your leptoscope?”
“Sure. Or maybe they’re invisible—or ghosts!” retorted Tom sarcastically. Yet inwardly, he had to concede that his ego was involved in the matter. Could he have missed something? He could have. “What next? Do they plan to put me in quarantine?”
Ames gave a reassuring shake of the head. “I asked that question myself, Tom, and the answer—from two sources—was a firm No. Let’s not get sucked into the panic. Tom Swift is a pretty important public figure—”
“A celeb,” added Tom with dry irony.
“Bad headlines are their nightmare. So right now you’re sitting pretty at the bottom of the threat-level chart. They note that you and the other med examiners kept inside sealed protective suits while exposed to the remains directly.”
But the young inventor said to himself what he knew the others were also thinking: The victim was sealed tight in a spacesuit too—but it happened! Tom realized how much was now at stake—for the Hillengard project and for him personally—in the results of this murder investigation on half-dark, distant Luna.
Tom gave himself a respite from panic and politics, immersed for several days doing what he most enjoyed, the work of inventing. He refined the mechanical principles that defined the accelapult spacetrack in the company of Drs. Kupp and Franzenberg. He met with representatives of the Ein-Gen Group, who had established an operational beachhead at nearby Grandyke University. He rubbed scientific elbows with Arv Hanson and Linda Ming, endlessly revising a working test model, the accelapult in micro-miniature.
AgriColony Alpha’s quest for usable water was not forgotten. Tom remained in PER contact with Bud, Lyrae, and the various men and women in charge of segments of the Crater Hillengard agricultural experiment. “So far, genius boy, nothing but bad news and bad water,” Bud reported. “My geotron trips—even had the Challenger freight us to the other side of the Moon when it got back with the new team—just more of that same water, when we find anything at all. Same deal with a couple dozen earth blaster digs, miles deep. Jetz! Barium arsenate isn’t just poisonous—even the name makes me sick!”
Nor was there elevating news from Denis Corvalle. “No suspicion has been confirmed! Nothing has been brought up into our bright lunar daylight! The poor, pitiful occupant of that spacesuit has not been identified! Even here, in the Colony—” Tom could almost feel the Quebecois’s face reddening across 200,000 miles. “Well now, I must say—it appears our own record-keeping has been somewhat neglected in favor of more stimulating pursuits. Growing rutabagas! Bah!”
“In other words,” Tom declared, “the man in the corpus callosum suit might still turn out to be one of ours.”
“Let us hope not, mon ami inventif.”
Clicking off the PER unit, Tom murmured: “I’m getting tired of hoping for hope.”
By the end of the day Arv Hanson’s accelapult model sat shining and complete on a worktable, a cylinder of dark metal about two feet in length, broad as a wrist, with an open v-shaped groove running end-to-end. “Worked fine in the tabletop tests,” Arv told his boss with evident pride. “So—tomorrow morning in space? I’ll have Wiltessa’s guys install it on the Space Kite overnight.”
Tom nodded, but added: “This time there’ll be a little variation in our usual procedure, Arv. There’s a promise I’d like to keep.”
Next day Enterprises’ tiny cosmic-ray spacecraft sailed into the early morning sunlight, gaining speed slowly but steadily. “You’ve used the Big Swede on so many of these space tests, boss,” said Linda Ming. “About time you let me see how little there is for the copilot to do!” Despite her words, her eyes shone with excitement—her first trip into space!
Tom laughed. “I told you I’d take you up first chance I had, Linda. So here you are, all alone in this little compact with a known tinkerer! Should we have brought a chaperone along?”
“You’re the one in danger, kid. I’m four years older. And I’ve been around.”
“Linda—so have I.”
The Space Kite established orbit at 1,000 miles, and Tom used the gravitex device to give it a precise orientation. “Okay, Madame Co-Pilot,” he said to Linda. “As you seem to have nothing much to do—” He handed her the Spektor remote-controller. “—my orders are: unseal and open the upper utility hatch.”
“Sure... er, aye.”
“Fine. Confirmed. Now: extend main boom, thirty percent.”
Linda manipulated the thumb-wheel on the small control device. “Made so, Captain. Mm, I mean—I did it.”
“Right, there it is. Isn’t this fun? Okay, Linda, highlight ‘routine delta’ on the screen... got it? Now ‘enter’.”
Lights fluttered and needles twitched on the Space Kite’s control board. “I hope it’s supposed to do that,” Linda said nervously.
Tom gave her a thumbs-up. “Perfect! You just wove a three-mile acceleration track out of the spacetime continuum.”
She beamed. “So it works! What next?”
“Bring up ‘routine epsilon’ and activate it.”
Now a veteran of space experimentation, Linda did so easily. Tom explained that a spray of xenon gas had been introduced into the accelapult’s field. “It’s already been squirted halfway to the Moon! Now we’ll try some other materials and densities.”
All was successful, though success was unseeable—with one exception. “Tom, what’s that—it looks like a glowing line going away into space. Do you see it?”
Tom nodded. “Mm-hmm. Dr. Kupp thought the acceleration ‘snap’ might have that effect on neon. The pulse super-energizes the molecules. When they smash together along the way, at the ‘frayed edge’ of the field, the energy is released as visible light.”
“Amazing power. I’m surprised the recoil doesn’t send us spinning back to Earth!”
“C’mon, Enterprises doesn’t do ‘recoil’,” Tom retorted humorously. “The momentum pushback is absorbed by the local fabric of the spacetime continuum, not the catalytrex.”
“I’m glad for that, boss. I haven’t had breakfast.”
The tests concluded, the two happy astronauts returned to Shopton—and a Chow Winkler breakfast.
Further tests were in store as the mechanism was made stronger and more sophisticated. The following week Tom was ready to test a newer, larger model accelapult and its more forceful spacefield-thrust technology. The site for the test was a park on the bluffs overlooking Lake Carlopa, which day and season rendered all but deserted. “Thanks for inviting the girls to watch,” said Sandy with the tiniest eye-roll. “It does give us all some face-time.”
“Sorry Bud couldn’t be here,” Tom responded. “He’ll be back from the Moon by Easter.”
“Of what year?”
The group had started with two males and three females. Arv was joined by Linda Ming, Tom with Bashalli. With Bud absent, Sandy was left the odd one out. At the smiling and very pointed urging of Tom’s mother, Tom had recruited another man to join them for the outdoor test. A rather young man—quite young. “I’ve really been ripped—that means anxious—to meet you, Miss Swift—oh, er, Sandy,” enthused Ryan Sebacius, all of nineteen and an intern at the Swift Construction Company. “I’ve tagged your page on FaceBe. I love the pic. I read your blog every morning. Meanlike dude, I feel like I’ve grown up with it.”
Sandy produced a thinly polite smile. “That’s very flattering, Ryan.”
“When you don’t post, I re-read the previous one. I’ve seen you at SCC,” he continued. “When you’re demonstrating a Pigeon Special, I make sure to take a break and watch.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t have noticed me—I always hide. Behind shrubs and stuff, you know? Sometimes I use binoculars. Better that way, right?—or you might think I was stalking you. You know, like—it might make you nervous.”
“And I do appreciate it. These are dangerous times.”
“Didn’t want to make a bad first impression.”
“This conversation is not at all a first impression. I already feel I’ve known you forever.” She glanced at her brother, the sort of glance known to remove paint.
“Yeah, me too.” Ryan sidled closer. Sandy could detect the faint, manly aroma of acne cream. “And like, dude, when I’m watching I’m no way lookin’ at the Pigeon Special. Knowata-mean?”
“I’ve known since fifth grade, Ryan.”
“Like, especially when I have the binocs. Adjustable—I can zoom in. To tell you th’ truth, Sandy—cause I’ve been reading all these books on assertiveness, see?—I think you’re, like, The Berm. No... Bomb—The Bomb. Yeah. I’ve always had a, a thing for older women. Way older. Older the better, cause they know their way around. Babes with background.”
“Uh-huh. In my many many years I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on my background.” Sandy edged backwards, dazzled by her ability to remain polite without sacrificing the condescension. “My, Tom. Where did you ever find this... charming... youngster?”
“Oh, over at the Construction Company,” Tom called back absently, setting up the accelapult test prototype.
“Felix knows him,” said Linda Ming, referring to her romantically challenged brother, also an Enterprises employee. “Which explains a lot.”
Bashalli came strolling up, adjusting the colorful headscarf she had retrieved from the car. “What a lovely, chilly day! The breeze is sweet.”
“Yeah well, that may be my medicated cream,” said Ryan with a shrug. “I got strong glands. Really do the job. Hormones!”
Sandy stared at her fresh young infatuatee. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Ryan. Well, let’s not be hasty—maybe I do. Not destructively. You might have a future. If you survive this morning. But like dude—mightn’t you be a little more comfortable with someone who speaks your language? Whatever it is?”
“Riiii, you mean, like—what’d you guys useta call ’em back in the day?—teenagers?” The lad screwed up his face indignantly. “No, uh, effin’ way!—older women do it for me. Girls, promkwins, are too, like, frothy, know whut ’m sayin’? And, er, besides... they keep turning me down.”
“All those assertiveness books my therapist makes me read...” His sigh was deep and discouraged. “Guess I’m not doin’ so well with you, hunh? But Sandy... you got th’ wisdom of age, right? Maybe you could, like—give me a suggestion?”
“Maybe I could.” She squeezed his shoulder. “Unread those books!”
Tom, Arv, and Linda completed the test setup. The new demo accelapult consisted of a pair of thin, flat tubes running in parallel like model train tracks without connecting ties between them. Separated by only a couple inches, the paired tubes extended to about five feet and were mounted on an adjustable framework base. “Made of durastress,” remarked the young inventor. “Super-light, super-strong. Technics printed flat on the in-facing surfaces. Swift solar batteries for power.”
“Then your ‘spacetrack’ really will be a sort of track after all?” Bashalli asked.
Linda Ming, present for the test as Arv’s assistant, answered. “No, this here is just the part that catalyzes the nanofilaments right out of empty space and makes them grab one another. The acceleration ‘track’ is invisible and more-or-less intangible. As I know from personal experience.”
“I call this component the spacefield catalytrex,” Tom noted.
“You would,” pronounced Bash sweetly. “I mean that in an encouraging way, of course, my dear Thomas.”
As Hanson swiveled the device, aiming toward the chilly lake at an elevated angle, Tom held up a small pellet about the size of an almond. “This capsule is our stand-in for Caliper-1. Microtech inside. It’ll signal back the relevant stress vectors.”
“Stress vectors...” Bashalli repeated, shading her eyes and looking out over the lake. “It seems we’ve had quite a number of stressful experiences in connection with this lovely lake.”
Sandy agreed. “For example, torpedoes. Blasts of water that knock you right out of the boat. A couple sabotaged picnics, on top of, and next to, the water.”
“And,” inserted Bash, “don’t forget invisible aircraft hooking para-kite flyers and dropping them mercilessly into the depths.”
“Whoa!” laughed Ryan. “Talkaboutcher bad dates!”
“We will!—later,” whispered Sandy to Bashalli, who giggled.
“Don’t worry, guys, this time Lake Carlopa will just sit there and be wet,” Arv laughingly assured the others. “We’ve already tested this setup a dozen times at the plant. No probs.”
“Really? No explosions?” inquired Bash.
“Not so far,” responded Tom dryly. “This is just a distance test, a wringout for the more-extended acceleration field. Nothing new. Just need some numbers.”
Sandy’s roll-of-eyes was now big and earnest. “Mm-hmm. Maybe we should save time and start off lying flat on the ground.”
Placing the pellet in its cradle, Tom signaled that the one-shot test was about to begin. As he and Arv turned their faces downward, eyes studying the readout meters intently, the young inventor thumbed a button. There was a tiny sharp sound, somewhere between a pop! and a whistle. By the time the sound had reached the ear, the pellet was long gone.
“Perfect!” Tom pronounced happily. “Way faster than a speeding bullet!”
But even as his words escaped his mouth, they were choked away by moans and gasps behind him. He swiveled. The observers—Linda, Sandy, Bashalli, and Ryan—were staggering backwards and falling to their knees, knuckling their eyes. Tears were streaming down their faces!
“T-tear gas!” cried Linda Ming.
ALARM FROM ABOVE
HORRIFIED and stunned, Tom could hardly collect his thoughts—but only for a moment. “Stay low—next to the ground. I—I think...” Or was tear gas a ground-hugger?
The youth rubbed a hand across his face. And suddenly it struck him that his own eyes were unaffected. He glanced toward Arv Hanson—the same. “Gosh, it can’t be something in the air!” Tom exclaimed. “But what in space is it?”
“Skipper, look at the back of your hands,” blurted Hanson. “Mine too—top of your forehead—our skin—all of us!”
Everyone’s exposed skin had taken on a pinkish hue! “But only the skin facing the accelapult apparatus—meaning—” The young inventor called out loudly: “Listen, everybody, stay calm—I think we’ve all been exposed to a flash of ultraviolet light! We’ll be okay.”
“Thank you, Doctor Swift!” Sandy moaned.
Tom cellphoned Enterprises and explained the emergency. In minutes Tom and his companions were being loaded into two TSE vehicles under the brisk direction of Ralene Bell, part of the plant’s infirmary team. “I’m having all of you admitted to Emergency at Shopton Memorial,” Dr. Bell told Tom. “It doesn’t look like you have anything to worry about, though.”
“Well! Diagnosis confirmed!” remarked Tom’s sister, clearly well along in her recovery.
All six were examined. Eight of twelve eyes were bloodshot-red and stinging, and all six observers had discomfort and tenderness on stretches of skin. Eyedrops and ointments, and a great deal of water, returned them to something like their normal selves. “My goodness,” said the shift nurse. “Blistery skin and conjunctivitis. Too much sun today?”
Tom shook his head. “No, ma’am. Not the sun. The spacefield kink produced by the catalytrex feature of my accelapult prototype generated an unexpected burst of electromagnetic radiation in the ultraviolet band. I should have kept in mind the moisture level around the lake at that height. Over-excitation of the oxygen orbitals.”
“I see.” She wrote on the chart: Incoherent speech due to probable sunstroke. Maintain hydration.
“I hate Lake Carlopa,” growled Sandy.
“Skringy first date, hunh,” said Ryan Sebacius apologetically. “I feel bad. I know, like, older people can be kinda delicate. Next time, maybe a movie?”
“I hate you,” was Sandy’s next comment—and the last ever to Ryan Sebacius.
By next morning, all six were back to normal. And nicely browned.
“It won’t be a problem in the actual operation,” Tom assured the alarmed science-wranglers of the Ein-Gen Group the day following. “Not up above the Moon—no moisture.” In fact, “no moisture” is a problem we’re dealing with, he thought wryly.
Chow provided Tom an early lunch in the youth’s design lab. Under his big hat the big cowpoke had a nervous look. “Mm—jest wondered, boss—don’t s’pose there’s any wind o’ that—”
“Kitty Plethysma?” He chuckled affectionately at his long-time friend. “No distant-early-warning alert on that topic, Chow. She’s probably hard at work in Security over across town. Maybe she’s set aside all thoughts of you in despair.”
“Hunh! Not likely. I’ve allus been right memberable.”
Tom’s vision of the complete Caliper-1 launch system had grown to fullness, in his mind and now onto his advanced 3-D design constructor. The Starward’s L1 “assembly line” would turn out nineteen of the full-sized catalytrex units, each one the size of a two-car garage, the ship’s three excursion modules ferrying the prefabricated parts up to the floating facility from the earth for final assembly. In the first phase, the units would be guided into high lunar orbit paralleling from above the spacetrack route Tom would ultimately select—high, to allow each unit a line-of-sight to those on either side unbroken by the lunar horizon. After the initial “guide” spacetrack had been precipitated out of the raw continuum between the units, the units would be brought down near the Moon’s surface, dragging the completed but weak accelapult field with them, so that the field would reinforce itself in the decreased circumference. And then, after careful adjustment, the probe would be launched. “But we have to get it right the first time,” Tom told himself. In the end the pulse-wave, the spacefield’s moving “kink,” would rip the catalytrex generators to pieces at the moment of the lunar accelapult’s final fling.
As had proven all too typical at Swift Enterprises, Tom’s musings were interrupted by the plant’s intra-phone demand for attention. “Mr. Swift, Trent said you were in your design office,” said the TSE incoming-call operator at what habit and tradition still called the switchboard.
“Call for me?”
“Yes sir. It came in on one of the Crater Hillengard parallelophones, the one used by Mr. Corvalle of the Security Office. He says it’s—”
“Yes, I know—urgent. Put him on, please.”
The French-drenched voice was loud, clear, and bombastic. “Tom! My friend!—I can hardly tell you of the things that have happened and, en certainmént, are about to happen! C’est terrible! Perhaps you can guess what those words mean, eh?”
“I’m afraid I can, sir,” sighed the young inventor. “A problem in your investigation.”
“Absolument! You shall hardly believe it!”
“Oh, you never know. Did ‘Corpus Callosum’ get up and walk away?”
“Well, Chief Corvalle, you were right,” Tom declared. “I don’t believe it.”
The man snorted over some 200,000 miles. “I have made it dramatic, and now I have your attention. Yet it is not so untrue as to be less than astonishing. The human remains, and the suit containing them—pfft! Gone!”
Tom sank back down on his ergonomic work stool. “What exactly do you mean, sir?”
“Young man, I mean précísement that what was so carefully in our possession is there no longer! Perhaps you know that there have been certain... concerns... with regard to the possibility of an undetectable infectious agent having residence within the spacesuit and the biological—matter—encapsulated thereby. You opened and looked; then it was moved, for to be placed before the medical staff. Ah!—mais non, not to be. They did not proceed after all. I was commanded in great haste by my superiors to maintain the seal of the transparent carton in which the items you examined were contained. Oui!—a perfect seal. Thereafter, no further intrusion. We had only the minute quantities you yourself extracted to provide for our search of the DNA databases. Ah, how careful we were, Tom! The protective garb—is the plastic material not called Securitite?—worn by you and all others in contact with this bodily evidence—afterwards we even cleansed those suits by neutron bombardment. Nothing from that... that scrap heap of corrupt flesh and its environs could have possibly—”
Tom interrupted impatiently. “Good night, are you saying some kind of contagion has shown up among the personnel?”
“No, no, the tragedy is one for law and justice, the uncovering of criminal actions, not mere health—that is, so far as we know, oui? The suit and its contents were in their sealed box, which was in turn within a locked room, a secured and sealed biomedical laboratory. Yet forty minutes ago, suddenly they are vanished!”
“You don’t know where they are?”
Denis Corvalle became acidly ironic. “Is that not what the word vanished implies? Can one see what has vanished? Non, monsieur! We have no idea!”
“Well, I don’t ‘see’ how that could be true,” objected the youth. “Don’t you have your security personnel on patrol? What about cameras? I saw vidcams all over the place.”
There was a silence. “I—may I point out—the funding provided—”
“Inadequate security staffing?”
“And indeed, always a touch of confusion and inefficiency as one trained team is returned to Earth and the arriving one is assigned to their—”
“What about the cameras?”
“In truth, most of the little units you see are—devoid of content. Empty cases. ‘Scarecrows,’ eh? Only for the present, of course. In the budget we have clearly requested—”
“I don’t really care about the budget, sir,” stated Tom bluntly. “Evidently someone—probably someone you regard as above suspicion—punched in the access codes and waltzed off with everything we need to solve this mystery. During the afternoon snack break, Chief?”
“You needn’t be disrespectful, young man,” remonstrated Corvalle haughtily. “My best people are investigating this theft.”
“The same ones charged with preventing it?”
“Monsieur Swift! I insist that you not make this annoying situation intolerable!” the man snapped back. “Let us devote our attentions to amity and positive efforts. You have a tracking device, a sensitector it is called. No doubt a number of them have been made, hm? I ask you to send one up here to Hillengard per suivite, with personnel trained in its use. Or perhaps—you yourself—”
The young inventor shook his head wearily. “I don’t plan to return to the Moon until I’ve accomplished some goals here at Enterprises. The Ein-Gen project can’t be set aside; there’s a launch window. I apologize if my tone shows a little... frustration. But after all, sir, you’re the security professional on the job.” He paused. “Naturally... I’m confident a man with your impressive background will solve the case long before I could do anything.” Tom had decided on strategic flattery.
Denis Corvalle’s tone lost its edge of frost. “Well, oui. Perhaps it is so. Eh bien. Let us wait a day or two before sending your Challenger back to collect your technological detective machine. I suppose I owe to myself the time and opportunity to defend my reputation.”
“That’s exactly how I look at it,” Tom declared. His deep-set blue eyes had rolled themselves moonward.
“Yet let us be well aware of all the alarming possibilities, Tom,” added Corvalle ominously. “I have made a preliminary report, for am I not obliged to do so? Imméd-iatement! This incomprehensible theft is now a matter of record. And in consequence—perhaps certain rumors that have drifted my way, even here on the Moon—perhaps they shall grow into something much worse than mere rumor.”
“Rumors of what?”
“What indeed! Rumors that the Moon may be shut down—quarantined completely! For fear has been aroused, eh? Who knows but that these stolen things might bear a contagion against which mankind can muster no defense! Who possesses them? To what use may they be put? You think and fret about Einstein and your project, young sir—there are things much more worthy of your fretting! Unless we find and contain the human scraps, we cannot deny that what destroyed that man may well become loose on Earth below!”
TOM’S WORK—his real work, the work of a young inventor—was stifled for the day by his conversation with Corvalle. He felt dejected—his agile mind was sighing. The irrational contagion scare was not all. He was haunted in some disturbing way by the now-vanished remains labeled Corpus Callosum, a mystery and a horror that kept rising up in front of him. And one obsessive thought in particular—“That could be me!”
He finally got up from the stool with sudden, queasy resolve and wandered back to his desk in the administrative office he shared with the CEO of Tom Swift Enterprises, his father. Tom barely acknowledged the greeting from Munford Trent, the Swifts’ efficient secretary-receptionist in the outer office. “What’s wrong with me?” he murmured, sitting down in front of his desk’s cybe—cyber unit, as what were once called “computers” were now known in their many new incarnations.
But he realized that—in unending parallel to so many of his scientific exploits—science was waiting on the solution of the mystery. “But why do I always have to be the one who solves it? This isn’t the darn book series!—this is real life!” Yet mental griping couldn’t alter the fact that political panic over the grim discovery in lunar orbit might now, it seemed, interrupt all work on the Moon, effectively ending the time-limited Caliper-1 project and rendering his lunar accelapult pointless for years to come.
What was Corpus Callosum?
As he had already done several times since his return, Tom accessed the suite of powerful search engines that worked in special harmony with his personal cybe system, which he sometimes called, with respect, the Little Idiot. The term “corpus callosum” trawled up a great many references to medicine, neurology, and human anatomy. The meaning of the science-Latin words was “calloused body.” As explained, the corpus callosum was a small section of the brain that carried neural messages back and forth between the brain’s right and left halves. When the link between cerebral hemispheres was damaged or severed, specialized brain functions began acting without cross-coordination, as if the person able to talk to the world were divorced from the person able to perceive it. Images shown to one eye only could no longer motivate behavior, such as pointing or grasping, by muscles controlled by the other, separated hemisphere; or in the alternate case, something seen clearly could not be described in words or even named. It suddenly struck Tom that a cutoff in the corpus callosum “bridge” was all too much like the cutoff of the lunar colonies’ link to the earth during the imposition of a quarantine. Wasn’t it?
The young inventor had found nothing else of obvious significance, nothing linking the term to space colonization, massive cellular breakdown—or murder. Now, on a hunch, he began to search-out the underlying words, not in Latin or English translation, but in other world languages.
He soon confronted something that looked like a lead. A number of archived news reports and articles in the Finnish language made reference to kovettuneet kehan—Finnish for the English words “calloused body,” always paired together. A small number of English translations of the reported matters, all from nearly twenty years previous, told an outré story that ended in tragedy.
REPORT NO SURVIVORS
IN CULT GROUP INCIDENT AT SEA
...All 83 members of the group known to our readers as Kovettuneet Kehan are reported dead in the foundering of their vessel Futrikkas in the mid-Baltic Sea, including charismatic cult leader Neimorud Airut. The event has been classified a mass suicide. Helsinki authorities had only yesterday indicted, in absentia, Airut and others of his closest followers in conspiracy to smuggle drugs, and for threatening the lives of former cult members thought to have cooperated with legal investigators in our Finland, in Latvia, Norway, and Sweden...
Tom read more about the event, and then looked up background information, sometimes using his system to provide an instant approximate translation for what was printed in Finnish. What he learned was intriguing, if not obviously relevant. Unnoticed by the publics of western Europe and the Americas, the Kovettuneet Kehan group had operated as what was often termed a saucer cult by the news media.
“I’m not familiar with that term, Dear,” said Tom’s mother Anne at dinner.
Sandy answered brightly. “Mother, it’s like those people in California who worshipped a comet and killed themselves.”
“Mm-hmm,” nodded Harlan Ames, who—a widower—often joined the Swift family for dinner when his daughter Dodie was away at school. “They killed themselves after a hearty breakfast at a local restaurant.”
The pert young lady giggled. “Well, at least they got the day off to a healthy start.”
“That was a cult, all right,” Tom said; “but not a saucer cult. Saucer cults are usually groups of people who believe in, I don’t know, prophetic messages from the good people who drive flying saucers and have it in for cows. I think they usually have a leader who picks up telepathic signals emanating from the ‘space brothers’ or something.”
Noted Ames: “They tend to write books and organize conventions at which said books are sold. With promises of passage to Planet Morbion or some such celestial Eden.”
Tom’s father cleared his throat. “I’m chuckling too, but—let’s not forget that there really are space people who drive what could well be described as flying saucers.”
“Way true, Dad,” agreed Tom. “The Space Friends. And there was Dr. Feng’s monastic group who received information from lights in the sky.”
“Far be it from me to pass judgment on these guys and their enlightenment—whether from Outer Space or High Heaven,” Harlan put in. “But mass suicide suggests inspiration from a pretty unhelpful source. And in the case of this Finland group, there’s also the charge of criminal activity.” Damon Swift asked the security chief if he were familiar with the years-past events. “I remember chatting about it with my cousin Steve; this was way back when I was still in the Secret Service and we hung out together in DC. The story didn’t get much play over here. But Tom,” he continued, turning to the young inventor, “if there’s a space angle there’s at least a bit of a reason to think this collection of dead fanatics has something to do with your corpse up on the Moon.”
Ames’s words brought a wince that Tom couldn’t conceal—the corpse was out of the bag! Sandy’s blue eyes flashed from face to face. “Let’s see now. Big brother Tom knows. Distinguished security chief knows. Obviously Father CEO knows. And those exchanged looks tell me that Father has told Mother. But there’s one person, one pert-nosed little blond person, who seems perhaps just a bit uninformed.”
Tom gave his father a respectfully reproving look. “Dad—you told Mom?”
“She made me,” declared Mr. Swift. “Wives and mothers have ways, son.”
“Daughters have ways too, Daddy,” Sandy noted. “Tantrums, pouting, psychiatric bills. But seriously—it’s a little Old Millennium to treat me as a delicate flower just because I’m pretty. Come on, I mean—a corpse? On the Moon? I live for stuff like that.”
“Please accept my apologies, on behalf of the entire Swift family and the Enterprises workforce.” Damon Swift turned Tom’s way with a shamefaced, and then mischievous, smile. “Tom, go ahead and tell the tale.”
The young scientist-inventor and professional son snorted. “Thanks, Dad.” Tom commenced a summary explanation of the incident and its mystery, avoiding some horrific detail that he judged unnecessary for dinner-table conversation. “So, San—theories? Suspects?”
“I would need much more raw data to solve this one, Tomonomo. Could you fly me to the moon?”
“Got gossamer wings, sis?”
The group retired to the living room, Mr. Swift glancing at a concealed control panel on the way. “System up and running, Damon?” Ames inquired.
“Perfectly.” After many years—or months—of incursions onto the Swift property by thrown spears, high-tech bullets, and wall-smashing explosives, the anciently cutting-edge magnetic alarm system had been replaced by one of Tom’s recent inventions, called a resilientronic shield. The invisible barrier enclosed the entire property on all four sides, sloping up to the two-story house and hugging its peaked roof and chimney like an impenetrable skin. All “incoming” came to an instant halt and slid away, though outgoing passage was unimpeded. The control system could be programmed to open a contoured gap to allow admission to anyone whose friendly molecular pattern had been registered in the repelascope scanner’s brain.
“I wonder...” began Anne Swift as she sat down next to her husband on the big sofa. “Wouldn’t the shield also protect a person from any of those moon microbes they’re worried about? It seems it would be even more effective than the sealed suits.”
Moon microbes! Mr. Swift gave his son a further sheepish look. “As I said—she made me tell her.” Harlan Ames laughed.
“Okay, San, you don’t need to roll out any more heavy artillery,” Tom stated pre-emptively. He explained the fear of contagion that was spreading among the global health authorities.
Sandy nodded. “I understand. You can’t really blame them, can you. But there’s got to be a better way to save the human race than putting a wall around the Moon.”
“There sure is,” agreed the young inventor. “Uncovering the real cause of—what happened.”
“If this ‘corpus callosum’ deal has any significance at all—it still might be just an index label for the man’s spacesuit—then what Tom told me about earlier could point us in the right direction,” Harlan Ames pronounced thoughtfully. “Before I left the office, Radnor and I did some further research on the Finland cult and its leader. Neimorud Airut, however it’s pronounced, left an extended family behind.”
“Not all of them acknowledged, no doubt,” dryly interjected Tom’s father.
“A nephew of his maintains a collection of records and documents regarding—here goes!—kovettuneet kehan.” The security chief clumsily sounded-out the words.
“A true believer?” asked Tom.
“Not according to his writings. He thoroughly repudiates his uncle and the doctrines of the cult; in fact he changed his name and moved to Uppsala, Sweden. His collection is used by researchers, mostly historians and academic scholars.”
“Probably crackpotologists,” Sandy pronounced. “They say it’s a growing field.”
Mrs. Swift now spoke up, voice soft but tinged with both concern and resignation. “Tom, you’re not—mm—I suppose you feel it necessary to pay a visit to this man. Oh—I don’t know why I even bother to ask.”
“I’m sure thinking about it, Mom.”
“In other words, you leave tomorrow, first thing.”
“There’s nothing dangerous about it,” Tom said with a sympathetic smile. “Not like I’m meeting a spy on a street corner! Look, I’ll ask Arv Hanson to go with me—he has relatives in the area to drop in on. I’m sure he’d appreciate taking a break.”
Damon Swift said soberly, “I think he should do it, darling. It’s just a two-hour hop in the refurbished Sky Queen, and...” The elder scientist paused to choose his words. “Tom, getting away from Enterprises and the Ein-Gen project would be good for you, I think. The strain is showing on you, son. You haven’t been quite yourself lately.”
Tom nodded. “I feel it. But—let’s keep all this quiet. Nothing’s gone out to the general public about the death and the contagion scare. Bernt Ahlgren and the others sure want it kept that way, to minimize the politics and avoid tying their hands. None of you should pass it along, not to anyone. It stays in this room. Right?” He turned to face his sister. “How long before you tell Bashalli, San?”
“Tomorrow. First thing.”
The silver-white Sky Queen lifted off the next morning, early, seasoned pilot Slim Davis at the controls and nose pointed toward Sweden. “What are you trying to find out, Skipper?” asked Arv Hanson in the top-deck view lounge. “What exactly do you want me to do?” Neither Arv nor Slim had been provided with more than an evasive once-over-lightly sketch of the Moon mystery, and both understood and accepted that Tom’s obligations prevented a fuller account.
Tom’s eyes rested on the scudding clouds. “Maybe this is all one of my hunches—or maybe more. The saucer cult is the only unusual, murderous sort of thing connected to those two words. And also, in its way, to outer space.”
“But haven’t these people been dead for years?”
“Arv—we’ve had our share of reported dead people who turned out to be anything but! Anyway—your big role in this venture is to keep a mother from fretting by keeping an eye on me.”
“I suppose I can manage that,” grinned the microtech model-maker. “Actually, it sounds interesting.”
“On the phone this man Eero Tuskavlaan seemed pleasant enough—okay English. I told him our webzine ForeSite wanted some background info for an article on, er, the impact of extraterrestrial contact on psychology.”
“I know you don’t like to lie, Tom,” Arv said. “But that one’s a pretty good one.”
As the Flying Lab began its descent to Arlanda Airport, the international air transport hub of Uppsala, the lounge intercom beeped to life. “Skipper, I’ve got your Dad on the PER,” announced Slim from the Deck Two control compartment.
Hastening down, the young inventor took the Private Ear Radio unit from its cradle. He assured himself uselessly: no reason to expect bad news.
“Son, I have bad news,” came the familiar voice. “Now your trip is more important than ever. What we’ve been afraid of has happened!”
“DAD—you must mean—”
“Yes, Tom, I’m afraid I do. Ahlgren phoned with advance word. UNISA is about to make a public announcement, with followup confirmation from the White House.”
Tom’s heart sank. “Quarantine?”
“They’re using the phrase ‘temporary hold’,” stated Damon Swift, clearly disgusted. “As if this were a bank account or a telephone call! They’re avoiding any mention of a possible contagion; and of course there’ll be no hint of the actual physical effects of this—whatever-it-is. Our world will spin merrily along. But as of ten minutes ago the Moon is in a state of lockdown. All flights into or out of the lunar installations—all of them, every country’s—are to cease. In fact, Ahlgren told me that several spacecraft already en route are turning back.”
“Quarantine for a contagion of fear and confusion,” Tom muttered. “But Dad, are you saying flights to the Moon are also being blocked?”
“That’s what I’m told,” replied Mr. Swift. “It doesn’t make obvious sense, I know. Evidently there’s a feeling that if incoming lunar flights are permitted to land it will stir up an outcry if they aren’t allowed to return to Earth as scheduled. I suppose that’s true. I don’t know what I would do if I had to handle this situation, Tom. But for the indefinite future the Moon is off-limits.”
“They usually relax quarantines as soon as they get detection and decontamination protocols in place. The thing is—that doesn’t mean everything goes back to normal right away.”
Tom’s father agreed. “Whatever safety procedures might be set up, any travel not thought ‘necessary’ will certainly be discouraged until the cause of the death is officially determined—signed-off on.”
“Which may be never, Dad, given that the victim has disappeared! Too much delay means the end of the Caliper-1 probe for now—probably for decades.” And Tom’s inner voice added a thought that affected him not scientifically but emotionally: Bud’s trapped up there!
The skyship jet-liftered down onto its designated spot at the airport. Once the Flying Lab would have required a special heat resistant landing pad, but recent changes had rendered its incendiary jet flares no hotter than a blow-dryer.
To avoid wide eyes, the three Shoptonians rented a car at the terminal in lieu of using Enterprises’ odd-looking atomicar, carried along in the craft’s flying hangar. None had visited Uppsala, Sweden’s historic royal capital, before. They had no time to be tourists and see the sights, but street traffic was light and smooth and they glanced in passing at the imposing architecture of the Domkyrka museum, the beautiful Stadstradgarden park, and the city’s resident castle, Uppsala Slott. “Man, this city seems to be a collection of puzzle pieces from all over time,” remarked Slim.
“What I’d like to come back to see is the Linnaeus Garden,” said Tom. His voice couldn’t help being listless. “Carl Linnaeus was pretty much the father of modern botany, you know.”
“Er, no. I didn’t.”
Arv smiled. “Tom’s the one with the scientific education, Slim. Me and you, technical engineering and aviation. We’re not paid to think great thoughts.”
“We couldn’t do it even if we were.”
The Swedish version of GPS audio guidance, easily switched to English, led them through the lovely city and into a suburban region. “My father’s folks don’t live too far away,” said Hanson. “But I won’t stay long. Just a little hello after we visit the saucerian’s nephew. Enough time to load up on lingonberry pie. With goat cheese.”
They finally pulled up to a modest home, brightly painted. A small sign by the driveway read:
förvarings- och insamling
“I can read it, I think—thanks, Mom and Dad,” declared Arv. “Neimorud Airut Depository and Collection”
“No saucers on the lawn,” joked Slim. Tom smiled dutifully.
The man who greeted them at the door was plump and balding, his lips permanently pursed as if by tattoo. His smile was polite but cool. As he shook hands with Tom, he said: “Ah now, the famous Tom Swift. Here, you know, they call you not ‘young inventor,’ but ung tinkerer—young tinkerer.”
Tom grinned. “That may be more accurate, sir.”
“Perhaps so, eh? And now, as we sit down, please tell me—what is your true reason for this visit? Surely not the story you provided in your call; how foolish to suppose they would send such as you to look over documents for an article. And indeed, such things could be sent to you over the wire in precise form, digital. So what, then, is behind this deception? Or do you prefer to continue pretending?”
Tom’s face filled with shame. “I—er—apologize, Professor Tuskavlaan. My reasons—well...”
The man smiled tolerantly if impatiently. “Surely the reasons are straightforward. You wish to ask questions of me about my uncle, and to observe on my face whether I am telling the truth when I answer. I’m not offended, Tom. Nothing offends me now—I realized long ago that this world of ours is utterly psychotic. Do go ahead, all of you.”
“We two don’t have any questions,” said Hanson. “We were just brought along to watch your face.”
Tuskavlaan looked as if he had laughter under consideration, briefly. “Very well then. Tom Swift, how may I assist you?”
“Heh, since you’re not buying my cover story—”
“Sorry, Skipper,” said Arv. “Guess it wasn’t as good a lie as I thought.”
“What we’re dealing with, sir, is a murder investigation that I’ve been asked to contribute to,” Tom began. “Some of the details involve matters of security...”
“Which nation? Well, never mind. Proceed.”
“Human remains were found in connection with a mechanical device which was imprinted with the words ‘corpus callosum’. We don’t really have much in the way of clues, but since your uncle’s group—”
“I will tell you about my uncle and his group,” interrupted Eero Tuskavlaan. “His family name was not Airut, which means ‘herald’ in the language of the Finns, but Solkapp. My own birth name was Friedriks Solkapp; perhaps I didn’t need to change it, but I did. I don’t wish anyone to think that I have such revolting tendencies running in my blood. If you think I might be inclined to protect or excuse the man, read on my face how much I detest him and all his lunatic works!
“My father has told me what a lout he was even as a child, how he manipulated others, how he stole and swindled. And then, ahh! the voice begins.”
“What voice to you mean?” inquired Tom.
“The one in his head! He called it ‘The Signal’ and used it to convince others, gullible people, to provide him with money and comfort.”
Tom nodded. He had encountered that sort of thing before. “It might be helpful to know—just what was The Signal supposed to be?”
“Supposed to be? It was whatever the Great Herald wished it to be from moment to moment!” snapped the man. “But according to the holy canons of Kovettuneet Kehan, the mental voice belonged to a space being, a thing without form roaming the galaxies in search of, what, a human loudspeaker. The reference to the organ of the brain called corpus callosum has something to do with the link between mortal man and this transcendent dispensary of wisdom and prophecy—the link being Airut himself, naturally.”
“The circumstances of the murder seem to have something to do with space travel,” Tom commented carefully. “Space exploration.”
“And perhaps what was on my news ticker just before you arrived, this business about cutting off the moon bases.” He provided a tolerant smile. “Not my concern. Yes, the cult had to do with outer space in a certain sense. And in fact...” Tuskavlaan was suddenly struck by a memory. “Do you know that Tom Swift is mentioned in my documents of the group? The writings of Airut himself?”
The young inventor was amazed. “But how can that be? The suicide happened years ago!”
“But you see, your name preceded you.”
Slim Davis spoke up. “Skipper, he must mean your great-grandfather.”
“Indeed so,” nodded the man. “He of the wizard camera and airship, all those things. Surely you recall his very controversial announcement of the discovery of intelligent life on Mars! He could not prove it. His great reputation was shaded.”
“And your uncle referred to that?” Tom asked.
“My uncle? No!—The Signal! Just the briefest mention, in passing, during his usual pretended trance. Nothing important.”
The curator of unwanted memories brought out the document containing the reference, which turned out to be an incidental non-sequitur, along with other articles and accounts for Tom to glance over. Eventually the young inventor conceded: “It seems I’ve taken up your time for no reason, Professor. I can’t see any connection at all between your uncle’s group and this unusual death.”
“But it’s all very interesting,” added Slim Davis.
“Yes, my friend, it is fascinating whenever guile meets gullibility,” smiled Tuskavlaan.
As he escorted the Americans to the door, Tom held back and said, “One other thing occurs to me. The public reports seemed pretty definite that all the members of the group had died when the ship sank.”
“Yes,” nodded the Finn. “All eighty-three aboard that ship of fools. All the bodies were recovered and identified. You see, the Kovettuneet Kehan had been under surveillance by the police authorities for some time. The membership—the followers of The Signal—were well known. By that time they only trusted one another and barred visitors and new acolytes.”
“But wasn’t there also mention of threats against suspected police informers?—defectors, in other words. Even if the active members were accounted for, there must have been former members who had some contact with your uncle’s wider circle, even if they had a falling-out with the man himself.”
A frown accompanied a silence across the man’s face. He then spoke thoughtfully. “Well now. Your speculation has rather brought me up short. Yes, in articles about the indictments there were such mentions, attempts to retaliate against those who squealed to others about the real activities of ‘Airut.’ I have never run across any further reference to those persons. Alas, I can provide you no help about this question. I will consider the matter. No doubt it all resides deep in a filing cabinet in Helsinki.”
The Americans took to the road and the GPS again, to meet with Arv Hanson’s relatives. Tom was preoccupied, dissatisfied to the point of bitterness. “This was all just a waste of time and fuel, guys. If I’d made even a little progress on the ‘murder mystery,’ I might’ve been able to make a case for relaxing the Moon cutoff. Now the Ein-Gen probe looks like a corpse itself! This time my Tom Swift hunch was just wishful thinking.”
“Feels bad, Skipper, I know,” said Slim with sympathy. “The science-invention stuff is what your life is all about.”
The comment struck Tom. “Is it?” he repeated in a murmur. And he thought: Is it?
They chatted with Arv’s relatives—distant cousins—in their condominium in the heart of Uppsala and were fed lunch. Not long afterwards the Sky Queen hit the air on the great-circle path back to Shopton. “Sorry, Dad,” Tom PER’d his father. “Your genius son struck out.”
“Knowing my genius son, the situation will turn around pretty quickly,” Damon Swift replied consolingly. “The remains may be recovered, the mystery solved, any time now—I’ve been given robust assurance by Chief Corvalle’s ego.”
“I’m anxious to talk the whole lockdown situation over with Bud. And then there’s the AgriColony operation and the water business. Maybe I can make progress on all that, at least—if Caliper-1 goes away and my accelapult goes into the famous, forgotten Swift Chest of Secrets.”
“The Bud quantum cartridge is ready and waiting here in the office, Tom,” Mr. Swift said. “I’ll see you at home.”
The super-mach flight touched down on the Enterprises airfield, the late afternoon taking a chilly turn, breaths turning to fog. The Sky Queen’s broad landing pad descended on elevator pistons into the depths of its underground hangar, and the youth bade his travel companions goodbye, with thanks. Tom immediately took the plant ridewalk to the administration building and the office for CEO and Son. Stepping off the elevator he glanced at the adjacent office, Security. “Hi, Trent. Looks like Harlan and Rad are out.”
Munford Trent nodded in reply. “They both left with your father, Tom, about forty minutes ago.”
Closing the office door Tom lounged back in a comfortable visitor’s chair, Private Ear Radio in hand. He slipped into place the cartridge containing the matrix of “counterparticles” linked to only one other such set in the universe. “Hey, genius boy!” answered Bud Barclay instantly. “Good news from Sweden?”
“Don’t I wish, chum!” Tom groaned. He gave his pal a quick summary of the day’s events. “So now I’m back—and nowhere.”
“Just as bad up here in Old MacDonald’s crater,” said the Californian wryly. “Lyrae Aspodiel told me she and Dr. Mul aren’t optimistic about uncorking much poison-free water anywhere on Luna. They think some weird process down deep under the entire crust is pushing the barium arsenate up into the water layers. She hopes you’ll drop everything and come up with a giant filter—Moon-sized!”
“A filter I can do. Moon-sized might be a stretch. And especially,” he went on wearily, “if we can’t figure out why the contaminated water throws the repelatrons out of whack. Repelatron filtering would make it easy.”
Tom asked about the effect of the travel quarantine. “Doesn’t have any effect on the ongoing work,” replied Bud. “I sure am missing Sandy—and your Mom’s meals. Jetz, even Chow’s meals! Most everyone who knows about it is pretty mystified why snatching Mr. Corpus Callosum would shut down all flights. I hear the Russian and Chinese colonies are just about spittin’ meteorites over it.”
“I’m sorry I can’t give you more details, flyboy. Dad and I have made some secrecy pledges on behalf of Enterprises.”
“No worries. I’m already in the know about the plague scare and all that stuff.”
Tom was startled! “Wha-what? You are? How did—”
“Bashalli told me, over the PER you gave her—after all, Tom, we’re Friended. She called me—”
“I’m heading home,” the young inventor snorted; but he was half-chuckling. He knew Bud and Bash—at least—could be trusted with secrets.
Tom drove home in his bronze sports car, silent and electric by virtue of a Swift Solar Battery. Twilight had fallen and faded; the days were brief and he had chatted with Bud longer than he had realized. The route from Enterprises to the Swift property was a short one, and he was soon turning onto the mouth of the long driveway. A small green light blinked next to the turnoff, indicating that the barrier-shield was up and running. As he drove slowly through the invisible aperture that the system configured around his car, tightly, he noted a slight rubbing sound. “Have to remember to make the vehicle default a tad wider,” he muttered to himself. “Driving onto the property shouldn’t be like threading a needle.”
Inside the front door, dropping his keys into his pocket as he pulled the door shut, he paused. The house seemed quieter than he had expected. “Mom?” he half-called. “Dad?”
“In the living room,” returned Mr. Swift.
Entering, Tom asked his father, “Where’s Mom and sis?”
“Visiting Mrs. Spring,” he replied, turned away. “Come over here. Take a look at this...”
Damon Swift picked something up from an endtable. As Tom drew near, the elder Swift turned to face him. He held a small item in his hand.
“One of our impulse mini-guns,” Tom nodded. “Is there something wrong with it, Dad?”
Mr. Swift’s voice was husky—yet sharp. “Don’t call me that. I’m not your ‘Dad.’ You’re not my son. My son, Tom Swift, is dead!”
THE LOOK on Damon Swift’s face was one Tom had never seen before—pale rage, sorrow, fear. Nor had the youth ever seen his father with a gun in his hand, threateningly pointed at Tom’s chest! “Wh-what in the—what do you—Dad?—!”
“Stop it!” snapped Mr. Swift. “You don’t have to put up your hands, but—just—stand there.”
Tom tried to keep his voice calm and reasonable. What had happened to his father? What had happened to his mother and Sandy? “Okay. What did you mean about—my being dead? I’m right here!”
“I realize... that you may not understand,” the other said, with a musing voice that seemed to come from far away. “You may well believe that you’re Tom Swift. That’s their standard procedure, isn’t it? They give you something like an ‘ordinary’ center of consciousness, functioning much as ours does. You have all the basic memories, the sense of self, that the original had. It’s deeper inside you, the subconscious part you can’t know, that executes the mission, that knows the truth. My son told me it was that way, in Aurum City, with the simulacrum he called Gary-X.”
And Tom—if it was Tom!—understood. Near the subsea ruins of the ancient city of gold, among the seafloor space pyramids that hid a mechanism programmed to alter the world, Tom and his friends had confronted a fantastic replica of one of Swift Enterprises’ employees, a man named Gary Dalquinn. The “simulac” didn’t dream—literally—that he was not the original human, but rather the functioning emulation of a personality housed in a synthetic body. Constructed by the extraterrestrial race known as Tom’s Space Friends, the simulac’s inner self had only occasionally emerged to take control of the body-replica and communicate with Tom. Yet “Gary-X” had been, ultimately, an earthly extension of the Planet X race.
“Da—er, I mean—why would you doubt who I am? Why would you think your son, the real Tom Swift, is—”
“Turn and go up the stairs, to your... Tom’s... bedroom. I’m right behind you with this i-gun. I’m not sure how the pulse-bolts affect the synthetic materials of which your body is constituted. I’ll admit that fact. But you may not know either—not your human consciousness, at least.
“Proceed at a steady pace. Break your rhythm and I press the button.”
“I understand. All right. We can talk it through upstairs.”
But in fact Damon Swift began the talk on the stairs, as they mounted slowly to the floor above. “The notification came from Ahlgren while you were still airborne. The Hillengard people contacted him. He wanted to send in an armed team immediately. I asked for twenty-four hours to make my own determination. I imagine the shaking of my voice moved him. He consented.
“Naturally I sought multiple confirmation. Denis Corvalle knew—he had been the first to be told. And I spoke to Dr. Mul, to each of the several Hillengard biochemists who had made the analysis, even to the technicians who had run the data and come up with the match. And no, if you wonder—I think you do have the ability to wonder, don’t you?—no, I didn’t tell Bud Barclay. He’ll be among the last to know. Before Bud, I’ll have to tell your... Tom’s... mother and sister.”
They were stopped at the open door to Tom Swift’s bedroom. “Where are they really? Mom and Sandy—however you want me to say it.”
“I was being truthful,” Damon Swift replied. “I wanted—needed—them out of the house. This first conversation had to be the two of us alone. I made some excuse, some weak and stupid excuse, something about scanning for a listening device... What does it matter?
“Go in, T— ...let’s call you Tom-X. Lie down flat on the bed, on your stomach... Please.”
The figure now called Tom-X did so. “It’s easy enough to figure out what happened... sir. The corpus callosum DNA matched Tom Swift’s, didn’t it.”
“A perfect match. No one had thought of it, of course. But my son’s DNA is recorded and indexed, for use on the DNA-keyed touchpads and so forth. No blinking light, no bell went off, just a fact on a monitor screen. The remains in that spacesuit are those of my son. Tom Swift is dead.”
“But—but listen—” protested the other, voice choked with emotion. “It wouldn’t have been difficult to capture some of my cellular material, to contaminate the remains to falsify—”
“Don’t you suppose I’d give anything on Earth for that to be true?” snapped the older man. “There were multiple tissue samples, excised materials from several spots, including the inner surface of the suit. You yourself took those samples! And then... I was insistent!... the excised samples were divided and retested on the spot, independently. The same. No extraneous traces, none. All doubt is gone.”
“No,” stated Tom-X. “Not all doubt.”
He had turned his head to look at the man whom he had to believe was his father. Just outside the door, Mr. Swift no longer pointed the i-gun. His arm sagged at his side. “No...” he half-whispered. “Not... all doubt. We’ll test your own tissues, of course. The Gary-X simulac duplicated human anatomy down to the cellular level, but not below. There was no trace of DNA in the granular material left behind when his body disintegrated.”
“And Gary-X didn’t dream. Remember, Mr. Swift? He couldn’t—he didn’t have a subconscious level of his own. But I dream! I did last night!”
“Or so you say,” countered Mr. Swift. “Perhaps you believe it. Perhaps your creators have improved the capabilities of their creations.”
“You could use the thoughtograph on me. Dreams show up as—”
“We’ll test you every way we can! If you turn out to have DNA, DNA like my son’s, if you dream...” His voice broke. “But the fact we must face is—the very first fact is—that whatever may be true of you, what was recovered on the Moon was what remained of the body of Tom Swift. That Tom Swift, that person... is...”
Damon Swift didn’t complete the thought. He reached in and began to close the door. The figure on the bed called out fiercely: “How about you? Are you sure you’re Damon Swift? What if you’re the simulac, programmed to—”
“No,” interrupted the man icily. “I have DNA. I tested myself before I left.” Mr. Swift stared harshly. “Now I know you’re not my son. I’ve never seen tears on my son’s face, not since childhood.”
“Your son... may have hidden them from you.”
The man who was Tom Swift’s father pulled the bedroom door further closed, leaving an inch to look through. “Strange to think that you may not have any idea who, what, you are. What would it be like? You believe in your own existence as much as any of us does. Or perhaps not. Believing, knowing, thinking—can the insides of a mind be engineered? Perhaps your ‘consciousness’ is only an outward thing, a guise engineered into you by your creators. Something to be performed for others. Perhaps you’re just a voice that emulates speech, moving eyes that emulate seeing.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I’m well beyond belief,” replied Mr. Swift. “Someone killed—destroyed—my son. If I deny... the evidence... I’m risking my family, my country, who knows what else—on the basis of sentiment and wishes, fallible things. I have a duty to assume the worst—Tom would understand that.”
“I do understand that.”
“Do you?... The substitution must have been made while Tom was working at the AgriColony installation. We know there are unknown agents of some sort up there; the theft of the remains proves that. Are there many of you among the colonists and scientists, monitoring humanity’s space efforts, intervening?
“But I’ve also wondered if this could be something humane, kindness on the part of the Space Friends. What if Tom were killed in an accident, even by a plague?—mightn’t they have produced a replica-Tom to take his place for my sake, to spare my pain, the family’s? Or simply to take advantage of the situation to learn more about Earth and its ways through the senses of someone who moves freely in the highest circles... well...”
Tom-X knew—or “knew”—that disputing what was a matter of logic would be useless. He said nothing. Mr. Swift pulled the door shut. There were further sounds from the others side, rubbing and scraping. “I’m putting locktape on the edges of the door. I suppose you know what that is. Binds molecularly. An Enterprises product. You won’t be able to open this door until I neutralize the tape patches. Of course they may have given you enhanced strength. But in such a case the door wouldn’t matter anyway—you could just break through the wall.
“I’m containing you as a precaution. They gave me twenty-four hours, and I... I need to sit and think this through carefully. If you’re not my son, if you’re not human, if you’re not even a living thing, they may have equipped you with certain technologies in order to defeat the simplest tests. All along the house repelascope accepted you, your molecular signature, as Tom Swift, rightly or wrongly. You may be able to get around the DNA touch-sensors or analysis by leptoscope. We’ll move you to Enterprises as soon as I can devise a more sophisticated test protocol.
“I’ve sealed the bedroom against any communications—Tom’s cybe, cellphone, anything. If you can communicate directly with the X-ians... then there’s nothing to be done. Ames and Radnor assisted at the plant in evaluating my attempts at confirmation, so they understand the situation. They’re here on the property with a few trusted members of the security division, watching the house on all sides. If, somehow, you are Tom—don’t climb down the wall, don’t try to run. They’re armed with the big electric-pulse rifles. Those weapons can kill a man—or, probably, a non-man.”
Still on the bed, the figure inside the room spoke once more. “Would you do it? Would you shoot to kill?”
“I don’t know.” A long silence. Then Damon Swift said: “No.”
“You couldn’t,” said Tom-X gently. “Thanks... Dad.”
Footsteps walked away from the door.
Tom-X swung his legs down onto the carpet. He sat on the edge of the bed for long moments, blank-faced but trembling. Then he rose. In the bathroom he stared into the mirror for a long time. Eyes stared back. But whose eyes?
“Tell me everything,” he whispered.
When he returned to the main room, his stride was resolute. He glanced out the window at the well-lit lawn below. He saw no figures, no rifles. But they can see me up here. He crossed the room to switch off the room lights, to look out again, at a different angle, without being visible.
He turned. The window, on the far wall, framed the tops of dark trees and a clouded night sky above them.
And something else. Something else!
WHEN THE bedroom had been illuminated by the room light, the in-facing reflection had filled the window pane. Now the room was dark. There was no reflection. The pane revealed words—a message!
TX $$ AT WORK
RET TO MOON IMMED NO MATTER WHAT
ONLY U CAN DO
DISAST FROM CORP CALLOS
DEATHS ALL BASES
CC AT LNR LAT
The letters showed dark, transparent against the far background, the pane around them—of metallumin—somewhat lighter. The lettering was crude. It was as if someone had written them with a finger in the condensation and fine frost settling on the cold exterior of the pane. After LAT was a skewed mark that broke off awkwardly. This was a message written in great haste, evidently not completed.
He was going to give the location, lunar latitude and longitude, but was interrupted, probably when Dad and the security team arrived. He had to run. The letters are blurring out; time has passed, maybe an hour. Some kind of focused pulse-laser. Probably up in one of the trees on the other side of the road. He knows those trees. He was here before.
“He” worked for the mysterious Collections group, and had been nicknamed, by Tom Swift, the Taxman—“your tax dollars at work.” The Taxman’s appearance was grotesque, a hulking figure with barrel chest and elongated arms, and he had earned a second nickname—the Gorilla. He had talked to Tom directly one night, here on the Swift property, and on a later occasion as well, again at night. But not recently. Tom had wondered if the Taxman were still alive, or if Collections itself still existed. Events had driven the group into crisis mode. Was this the only kind of reply he—or they—could make to his earlier attempt at contact?
The writer of the message knew about Corpus Callosum. Presumably, then, he knew about the victim on the Moon, the spacesuited remains. Did he also know that those remains had disappeared? That DNA insisted upon the death of Tom Swift? That the person reading his message, the person being asked to play hero, might be someone unknown?—perhaps a greater threat than “Corpus Callosum”!
The figure who considered these things, standing in darkness, fell into a fit of thinking. Play hero?—he had to free himself. Somehow, now, he had to return to the Moon. It didn’t matter who he really was, whether he was of Earth, whether his human breath was breath at all. If he had to prove to the world, to himself, that he was the genuine, real Tom Swift, the best way would be to act as Tom Swift would act, to use his scientific wits to save lives. He could not wait idly for testing, possible confinement, or even—the thought suddenly leapt at him!—what would happen if he did turn out to be a simulac. When his usefulness had ended, the simulac called Gary-X had disintegrated!
He looked around in the dark, not seeing but visualizing. Then he tilted his head back and looked up. The bright landscape lights below outlined, on the ceiling, the rectangle of the window. When the front of the house had been reconstructed, after the blast that had partly demolished it, a two-foot square had been cut in the wood-beam floor of the attic above to facilitate the stringing of special power lines. The square opening, fitted with an unlocked wooden lid, was above his bed, concealed above the bedroom’s false ceiling. The false ceiling was of light, flexible material that could easily be pried apart in segments.
He stood on the bed and began to pry at the ceiling with the sharp corner of a picture frame. In minutes he was up in the attic, creeping soundlessly through the blackness toward the frosted-glass window under one of the roof peaks. Once he half-stumbled. He recovered and listened. A voice?—but it was a distant one, outside somewhere.
He forced open the small window, which swung inward to facilitate cleaning. For a moment he stood looking. This side of the house faced Lake Carlopa, which lay placidly about two miles distant. From this third-story height he could see it beyond the scraggly tress, brush, and weedy open land. Under the hazy, starless night it was just a shiny blackness. In the far distance, the moving, wavering light of a boat, yellow in the faint trace of fog.
The Security people, probably five or six—yep, there’s one— will make a perimeter on the lawn, about an equal distance from the house all around, a circle. But the property stretches in a long rectangle toward the lake. The backlot part will be behind their backs...
Those below were watching the first floor and the windows of Tom’s room, now dark. Those around back didn’t look upward until a slight motion caught the eyes of one, who hissed out an alarm. A moving something was protruding from the dark rectangle of an open window just below the roof peak. Forearms were joined by a head, shoulders, then crouching knees as the figure wormed his way diagonally through the tight aperture.
“He’s gonna jump!”
And Tom-X jumped—not down, but sharply upward like a jack-in-the-box, arms high, palms together as if diving into the sky. As his arc reached its summit, the figure verging on a long fall, the arms suddenly spread wide, then swept downward.
The resilentronic shield-barrier was a roof as well as a wall. And it only stopped and shrugged-off incoming motions, movement toward the house—not outgoing. And out can also be up! thought the dangling figure as his flexing arms drew him upwards, on his elbows, through the barrier.
The shield was domed on top, a gentle curve just touching the highest point of the roof. Whether by his own memories or another’s, Tom-X knew how closely it passed the attic window, how high he would have to leap. He writhed and dragged himself onto the top of the invisible, frictionless surface. He squatted there, but only an instant. His body began to slide in the direction of the rear of the property, toward the lake.
The slide started fast, and got faster. He heard yelling, but there were no bolts of disabling, or deadly, electricity from the impulse rifles.
I was right. They wouldn’t shoot me. How could they? I just might turn out to be Tom Swift!
The figures below had been startled and perplexed, wasting seconds to shout their alerts. His slide was leaving them behind. As the back fence, and the ground, neared, he scrambled to his feet and leapt wildly. He felt no fear at all. He felt almost nothing, just the hammer of his heart. It seemed oddly distant.
Tom-X sailed over the tall fence and landed running. Now he was safely beyond his pursuers, who would have to exit the Swift property through the driveway gate. Even if there were more of them in cars, on the road—he was well off the road and, in moments, among trees and brush and shadow.
He pushed himself as hard as he could, found a narrow private drive, and followed it as it wandered down the shallow slope toward the lakeside. It was an achingly long run. Then, abruptly, he was at the lakeside road, car lights sweeping across him as he stood panting.
He started trotting in the direction of Shopton. His mind roiled and raced, visualizing the lay of the land. He needed to get to Enterprises before Harlan Ames’s private policing operation expanded to the Shopton PD—and beyond. But as of this moment, the public knew nothing.
Yet, in fact, they did know something—the face and name of Tom Swift, young inventor, pride of Shopton, New York. He trotted a more measured pace, half-turning toward the cars surging past from behind him. He waved in a calm manner. Many cars passed, a few with beeps of recognition.
One slowed. The driver leaned over toward the half-open passenger window. “Tom Swift! Out jogging?”
Slowing more, Tom-X stifled the gasps of his breath. “M-Mr. Martinberry! Hi—I—uh—”
“Pretty chilly,” commented the town librarian, rolling along. “Just heading back home. Dinner out. Tyler’s going to be wondering—”
The youth gestured for Mr. Martinberry to stop. As the car pulled over, he approached the passenger door. “S-say, I was wondering—could I ask a—a favor—”
“Do you need a lift?”
“Car trouble a ways back. Power dropped out.”
“Your electric car?”
“It happens—some problem with the, the magpela-transnecticon overbite.” He hoped the man wouldn’t ask why Tom didn’t use his cellphone.
“Oh, you can use my—”
“Mr. Martinberry, I’m in—a huge hurry. One of my tests will be ruined if... if I don’t get to the plant in a matter of minutes. If you could—”
“I’d be honored!” chuckled the man. “Hop in. Enterprises is mighty close.”
They sped along—although Mr. Martinberry’s notion of speed wasn’t Tom’s—and approached a turnoff. “Turn here, please.”
Martinberry glanced at Tom curiously. “That’s the old Mansburg road. You don’t want the main one?”
“No, sir. My test setup is... actually... just outside the plant wall, around back.”
The old road was little used, more or less deserted at night. The rear wall of Tom Swift Enterprises slid past for a good distance, and then Mr. Martinberry pulled over to a stop as his passenger’s request. “I’m super-grateful, sir—this is a pretty important experiment!”
“Always glad to help,” the man replied. He added with a grin: “Say, you are Tom Swift, aren’t you? Hope I’m not helping a spy or saboteur!”
“Believe me, Mr. Martinberry, I’m as Tom Swift as a Tom Swift can be!”
Tom-X didn’t wait to watch the car drive off. He trotted through brush toward the high wall, then ran along it. No resilientronic barrier just yet, thank goodness! he thought, eyeing the top of the Tomasite-coated wall.
He found the spot he wanted and stopped. Stepping back a ways he could make out the top of the dome of the plant observatory, home of the megascope space prober. And next to his hand was a tree with a long, supple limb that winter had denuded of leaves, an easy reach.
He dug down into his pocket. Emotion can be pretty distracting. I wonder if Dad realizes even now that he forgot to make me empty my pockets. He pulled out his keyring, and a small, flat-sided object stamped with the company insignia. Plant employees and visitors were all issued these electronic amulets, which replied to the plant’s ever-scanning security radar, the patrolscope system, with “disregard” signals specific to every unit, every individual.
Tom knew what had been done, what logically must have been done. Harlan Ames would have ordered the monitoring technicians to initiate Protocol Five. The amulet code for Tom Swift would no longer allow free admittance. It would set off a security alarm, a perimeter breach, signaling its location. And they would be on alert. Inside the wall they would come running in force, by foot and nanocar.
Moving to a precisely calculated position, carefully wedging the amulet into a cupped spot on the barren tree bough, he pulled it back as far as he could. He made a last line-of-sight adjustment and let loose. The bough whooshed forward, slapping the amulet into the air on a trajectory that sent it high over the wall. He heard it clatter against the observatory dome, and thought he heard it slide down to the tarmac. Alarms would be going off, a squad would be mobilizing. It would take a few minutes to reach the observatory, to pinpoint the amulet, to begin combing the area for an intruder who—they would be told—was wearing a Tom Swift disguise. Not Tom Swift but an incredible simulation!
He was already on the run along the wall, fast as he could force himself. He knew the place he wanted, a spot on the perimeter close to a certain complex of hangars. It was far—had to be, to elude his hunters, decoyed and delayed, within the walls. Yet he had only minutes before Security, chagrined, would switch back to Protocol One and report, not a disallowed amulet, but an intruder without any amulet at all.
His breath ripped through his teeth like a strip of cloth. Man, they could almost pinpoint me by the steam of my breath! At last he staggered to a halt. There was no time to lean against the wall.
Whoever he was, whatever he might be, he knew one thing clearly—he had reached the most vulnerable, most critical part of his mission. He was fleeing Damon Swift, Harlan Ames, Bernt Ahlgren, everyone, with one stark plan in mind: to flee Earth itself!
TOM-X STOOD panting and aching, head canted back, gazing up at the top of the Swift Enterprises perimeter wall. The top was well beyond his reach. He knew he had less than a minute to surmount it. Or was it already too late? They would be on the move in a disciplined panic.
He fumbled from his pocket what he called his tech-wallet, a thin flexible case containing various mico-tools and handy bits of technology. “Binds molecularly. An Enterprises product.”—yes, Dad, I know what locktape is. I carry a few squibs with me. Handy stuff. He pulled out a couple of the pre-cut patches and pulled off his belt. Stretching high, he held one end of the belt against the wall and pressed one of the strips across it, pushing the tape against the wall surface with force, breaking open the layer of activator “bubbles.” In seconds both ends of the belt were stuck fast to the wall. The belt became a handgrip, and then a foothold. Thanks for the home-schooling, Dad—especially the gymnastics! He swung himself over the wall and hit the ground with a thud.
Tom-X took the briefest of moments to scan the area. The hangars and worksheds were dark. There was no sound other than nervous crickets straggling through the cold months. No night-shift work was going on here, not at this end of the Swifts’ four-mile-square invention factory. But off on the other side of the airfield, by the observatory—there, quite a lot was going on! He made out lights darting around like fireflies swarming.
His key ring was already out and in his palm. He trotted up to the small, high-sided hangar nearby and thumbed the bead-button of the electronic signal-key. He heard the reassuring sound of a door latch popping open.
Entering the darkness within, he flashed his tiny penlight back and forth. The occupant of the hangar was as big as a compact car standing up on end—yet it was oddly hard for the eye to catch. He could barely make out the transparent dome that enclosed its front side—its prow. The Space Kite was still waiting its turn for the standard checkover, untouched since its venture with Tom and Linda Ming, the test of the accelapult prototype. Now that event felt like ancient history.
He fingered the signaler that would unlock and open the cockpit dome for him. His amulet ID code had been suspended, but for now his keys still worked. For now! he reminded himself. But luckily “now” happens to be exactly what it is!
He climbed aboard.
It would be two hours before an observant patrolman would notice that the main hangar door had opened wide and high. And no one noticed the drifting something that had edged its way forward through that door and out into the night, rising slowly like a child’s lost balloon in a breeze—then faster, faster—faster!
The Space Kite sailed placidly toward the wintry clouds that hung above the horizon, riding the cosmic rays that rained upward from below as they swept with ease through the body of the earth. Its acceleration was gentle, hard to notice. Tom-X could scarcely feel it. His feeling of impatience was far more insistent. He knew the Kite would frustrate radar as well as the human eye, coated with a crystalline sheath that refracted and distorted the electromagnetic waves that would otherwise disclose its position. It wasn’t invisible—but good as.
In its lackadaisical way the Space Kite accumulated speed, passing into the upper atmosphere and then, at long last, into starry space. Tom-X angled the gravitex cone—the gravity concentrator that gave the kite its string—and aimed Moonward. It’s all downhill from here! he joked inwardly.
He disabled the long range radiocom—any use would give away his position, and he didn’t care to hear arguments, threats, or pleadings from those who didn’t know of his purpose—or his identity. He glanced at the PER unit nestled in its cradle. Immune to triangulation, he might have used it to explain himself. But it was empty of the quantum cartridges necessary for its operation.
The Space Kite attained an acceleration rate of 1-G, and Tom-X pushed on to double. 2-G was an uncomfortable pressure, but somehow he seemed beyond discomfort. He had to reach his destination before a full alert sent a fleet of spacecraft, manned and unmanned, to block the intruder that was, after all, not quite beyond detection.
He watched the earth shrink, the Moon grow. At the midpoint, they flipped places, the Space Kite commencing a forceful deceleration. He seemed now to be hurtling downward toward Luna’s stark desolation.
At last, a mile or so above the surface—precision hardly mattered now—he balanced the vectors and brought the Space Kite to a stop. During the long approach he had chosen a dark patch to aim for, Mare Crisium, the Sea of Crises, appropriately named and easy to identify. It was several hundred miles distant from Hillengard. From here on he would proceed as low to the ground as he could manage, guided by the tiny craft’s navigation computer toward AgriColony Alpha. The truncated message had not given him the location of Corpus Callosum, whatever the cryptic name might prove to be. He needed help, human and technical, to continue his mission. I have to trust someone, Tom-X told himself. And Bud will trust me back. I know he will. He has to! Or would he too wonder whether this fugitive called Tom-X was Tom Swift, his trusted friend?
The miles sped by; the spray of cosmic subtrinos surged from every corner of the universe and could push the Space Kite horizontally as well as vertically. He had time to review a vivid memory of a similar situation, when he and Bud had used the Kite to secretly board a highjacked ship lurking in the sea above Siberia. That effort had been successful. But Li Ching hadn’t expected us, he thought. By now Agri’s been warned that an emulated Tom had probably crossed space and was likely to intrude—purpose unknown.
He finally saw, rising over the horizon, the ragged line of Crater Hillengard’s rim. He swerved course to parallel it at a distance until he made out signs of man, structures protruding out through the lunar dirt. A foggy phantom, he drifted up the long, low slope to the crater wall, many miles, until the slope became a serious one. Then the Kite hopped and skipped toward higher ground.
At last Tom-X came to a halt, setting the craft down on a rough ledge, a wall of dark rock and dried lava only yards ahead. He was steps away from one of the colony’s thermal dissipation grilles. He recalled the installation layout developed by Enterprises; he knew there would be a worker access panel next to the grille.
He made out the panel, half-shadowed, and unsealed the Kite’s cockpit dome, swinging it upward. During the long flight he had pulled on a generic-model spacesuit, compressible and neatly folded in the craft’s locker; now he hopped out into the vacuum and edged up to the door panel. As he did so he braced himself. Here the atmos-maker’s filament barrier bulged out like an elongated bubble past the door, into the open. Though the air pressure increased to Earth-normal by gradations, there was still enough of a pressure differential to make even the first steps a fight against a strong counterpressure. He dug in against it.
Next to the panel he glanced down at the keyring in his gloved hand. AgriColony Alpha had never been deemed a high-security operation—what enemy would want to attack a farm? The exterior code-locks were fairly simple, as Tom-X well knew—more Swift Enterprises design work. He didn’t have an Agri electri-key on his personal keyring, true enough. However—
He began to push buttons, accessing different signalers three at a time—multiple signal codes, transmitted simultaneously. The receiver chip in the lock would become confused, lag a bit, and when the phase-overlay happened to fall within the receiver’s preset range of tolerance...
A thread of light appeared at the edge of the door frame.
Inside, Tom-X pulled the door closed, hearing through his loosened helmet the click of the door’s resealing mechanism. He trudged down the workers’ rampway next to the heat duct, seeing no-one until he entered onto one of the ridewalk corridors. The passers-by ignored him or gave a slight nod. They had probably been alerted to report an infiltrator disguised as Tom Swift. But this man in spacesuit and helmet was just another Agri workman on his way to somewhere.
Now and then Tom-X glanced up at the minicam security units on the ceiling. He smiled, for once thankful for the inadequate funding that made them empty dummies, not enemies.
He stepped off near Bud’s dormitory apartment, doors down from the one he—Tom Swift—had been using at Agri. For the first time since he had escaped the Swift home he felt a twinge of... what? Fear? It was as if he were about to confront some fact, some reality that he might be unable to endure.
Tom-X knocked. The door opened. He gazed at his pal through the tinted helmet visor. Bud’s face was unreadable. He whispered hoarsely to Bud, through the loose helmet’s gap, “May I come in for a moment, Mr. Barclay?” He didn’t want Bud to know, just yet, who was facing him—who he claimed to be.
Bud motioned him in. Tom-X stood a little to the side, so as not to be visible from the corridor. With a gulp, he pulled off his helmet. Blue eyes met gray. “Bud, it’s me. Whatever they may have told you, it’s really me, flyboy.”
The Californian’s face was white, lips pressed together in a thin line, muscles tensed. He said nothing but took two steps backward and pulled shut the door. He faced Tom-X for a silent moment, studying him. “Tom Swift is on Earth, in isolation somewhere. They said he’s working with an international team, trying to come up with a gadget to detect the unknown killer something from ‘corpus callosum.’ Can’t contact him. Even his family can’t. The government guys think it’s a virus, an artificial super-virus made in one of the colonies, maybe with help from the Space Friends or their masters or—whatever. For terrorists to use. That’s what they tell me.”
“What else did they tell you, Bud?”
“Ames said, by PER, that a duplicate, a replicant, had tried to impersonate Tom in Shopton. Probably a simulac, maybe the X-ians keeping an eye on their baby virus. A facsimile human with all the right memories, like the one in Aurum City. The phony Tom stole the Space Kite a few hours ago. Ames and Corvalle think he’ll show up here, at Agri.”
“And here I am.”
“And here you are.”
“Bud, I’m not a simulac,” insisted the one who looked like Tom Swift. “I mean—I’m trusting you, I’m being honest—if I am, I don’t know it. I can’t believe it. Could you believe someone telling you you’re not Bud, not the guy who woke up in his bed this morning? I’m not armed. I don’t pose any danger. I don’t know of any ‘mission’...”
“Gary-X didn’t ‘know of any mission’ either,” Bud stated grimly. “But he had one. It was down deep, but—”
“Yes... I know.”
“Maybe your whole purpose is to spread that stuff, Typhoid Mary in space! The Planet X people like to experiment on us puny oxygen-breathers, right? Maybe they want to see how we die.”
Tom-X could find no answer to the maybe’s. “Okay. But will you listen to what I have to say? And then...” The possible young inventor’s voice became barely audible. “Then you can call Security.”
Still standing by the door, Bud gestured for “Tom” to sit on the bed. The crewcut youth told his friend the story, the fantastic sequence of events.
“So they think—that—Tom may be dead,” said Bud, slowly. “Even Mr. Swift thinks it’s... possible. And what’s left of him is just stuff in that spacesuit. Tom Swift’s DNA.”
“A perfect match. I’m not denying it.”
“You don’t know if you have DNA at all.”
“If I’m a simulac like Gary-X, I won’t.”
“You say they didn’t test you. You say. Of course, who knows the truth? Who knows... anything?” Bud took a few steps and picked up a large case by its handle. “Recognize this?”
“One of the travel cases I use for my delicate instruments.”
Bud’s quiet response was like granite. “One of the cases Tom uses. It’s kept locked. It has a special lock.”
“I know,” said Tom-X, a strained whisper.
“Unlocked by a sensor pad keyed to Tom’s DNA.” Bud held out the case. The sensor-pad button was next to the handle. “Press the button.”
OBSERVE AND REPORT
THERE WAS no reason to hesitate, no point in holding back, nothing more to wait for. Who I am, what I’m going to be, is on the other side of that tiny button. Stripping off his right-hand suit glove he extended a finger. He touched the oval pad.
The pad turned neon-green.
Tom—Tom Swift!—was caught up in a Barclay bear-hug that lasted a long time. Bud was gasping with emotion. “When you said just now wh-what they, what they thought—that it was you dead, in that spacesuit—”
“I flashed on... about... how your body, Tom’s body, had—jetz! I—”
“Me too,” choked Tom. As Bud pulled back, the young inventor added: “And you need to know what to expect, pal. This superficial reading of my DNA won’t be treated as conclusive. Dad planned to work up some more sophisticated tests. Even then...”
“No—listen!” Bud exclaimed sharply, pinning Tom in his gaze. “It doesn’t matter what they think. You’re Tom Swift, the genius guy in the retro crewcut and the dorked-out blue striped tee—who invents stuff—who saves people, and now and then whole planets—and me! I know you!”
“How?” asked Tom sadly. “Intuition?”
The muscular Californian barked out a laugh. “Intuition? I don’t know from ‘intuition’! And look... I’m no philosopher, either. I don’t even do normal physics, much less metaphysics. When I say I know you, it’s not your kind of knowing, or Ames’s, or Dr. Kupp’s, or—some DNA-scanning quantum computer. It’s my kind, Tom. It’s what I call ‘knowing’! Yeah, I made you touch the button—I’m too macho to let guys from some planet with a lame name like X play me, just because they know what an impulsive jerk I can be.
“But that was just a little back-pocket extra insurance, see? I don’t have it in me to doubt what looks and sounds and acts like the one person on or off the earth who I know better than I know myself. That’s what I mean by knowing, Skipper—Tom. If I’m wrong—
“Aa, I never really liked Earth that much anyway. Too many bugs.”
And Tom knew, without a doubt, that this was Bud Barclay.
They sat down together and began to talk about what might come next. And then, a few words in, the room door, left unlocked by Bud, swung open. “Mes amis, this is a fine little device,” said Denis Corvalle, touching the tiny unit in his right ear with the barrel of the revolver in his hand. “Not a Tom Swift invention—an Irish firm makes them. They call it the Magna-Ear. So, eh bien, I just stand suavely out in the hallway and I hear everything. Interesting, dramatic—emotional.”
“Sure,” said Tom with quiet chagrin. “You set up a working vidcam to keep watch on the place Tom—real or bogus—was most likely to end up. Right. I was a little too focused.”
“But you know, Chief, that’s the way Tom Swift gets pretty often,” Bud spoke up, anger and scorn in face and voice.
“But of course, Bud,” smiled Corvalle. “And my preparation merely proves that I am not one of those humorously bumbling French detectives that one encounters in cinema farces. For—never forget—indeed I am not French. I am Quebecois. I only speak French, hélas. I suppose that’s bad enough.”
“I’ll cooperate with any testing you want to do, sir,” said Tom. “Now that my smart friend has proven that I have what sure seems to be Tom Swift’s DNA, I’m guessing the odds are in my favor. I might be Tom Swift, at least. And you must admit, sir—I look a lot more like him than the other guy does.”
Corvalle nodded—with his revolver. “Mm-hmm. I find that I concur. But unlike Bud Barclay I do rather like our Planet Earth; thus I am obliged to find such confirmations as may be. Oui?
“I received—from my superiors—the alert of your probable imminent arrival, with sufficient advance to not only establish the camera, but to alert my biomedical staff to prepare for a test that they had recommended when this DNA business first arose. Given the freshness of the corpus callosum remains, the substitution of persons—if it happened—probably occurred after Tom’s recent arrival on the Moon, with his geotron. Thus, our especially minute comparisons must start with DNA traces left by Tom on some earlier visit, when he was real, might one say. Good fortune!—we have found quite a number of such microsamples. And now, our deeper analysis of all these materials, our two current sources against what we are confident belonged to the original Tom—”
The young inventor interrupted. “I believe I understand the approach you’ll be using. You’re going to go beyond basic DNA analysis and compare epigenic traces, aren’t you?” He turned to Bud. “Flyboy, that means identity-typed material external to the cell nucleus that constantly changes, ‘evolves’, due to all sorts of ongoing bodily actions—”
“Genius boy, to be honest—I don’t really care.”
Tom grinned. “Well, the point is that even identical twins or clones would have different epigene profiles, even if the base DNA itself is indistinguishable. We’ll see how well the remains, and this body of mine, match the older samples.”
“Now come with me, won’t you, Tom?” the security chief ordered. “You, Bud—respect my desire for caution and remain here until the analysis is completed, s’il vous plait. I assure you, the machinery of comparison will make this terrible, dramatically calculated suspense last only a matter of minutes.”
Bud shrugged. “It isn’t suspense anymore. Not for me. I have my answer, Chief.”
“Ah! May your trust prove justified.”
AgriColony Alpha’s machinery of comparison worked its wonders quickly. Denis Corvalle stared at a printout of the result, handed him by blank-faced technicians. His face had also a studied blankness.
“Well, sir? Am I me or not?” asked Tom.
Corvalle glanced up, and now he frowned. “Your traces, whatever one is to call them, match the older samples with wonderful precision. You have not merely the same identifying DNA present at the birth of Tom Swift, but the epigenic ‘portrait’ reflecting his subsequent development. You, young sir, are Tom Swift.”
The youth grinned. “Now I can get on with living!”
“Do not live overly much just yet,” the man cautioned. “For you see, the samples from the spacesuit are also a perfect match, in just the same way. The poor victim is also, quite definitely, Tom Swift!—though in poor shape at the moment, eh?
“So. What am I to do? What shall I report? Where there was one Tom, there came to be two! Absurd! Are we to think these space allies of yours, these advanced scientific makers of miracles—they have just recently improved their human-counterfeiting technique to such an apex of perfection? Too timely a breakthrough to be accepted, I think! The pulverized Other has as much right to the name Tom Swift as you do! So then, my prodigal scientist, I ask you—for you are the Tom Swift still capable of answering—in what rational way can this be explained?”
The remaining Tom was silent with thought; at the same time, the bizarre silliness of the dilemma made him feel almost giddy. “Chief Corvalle... At this moment I don’t have a rational thought in my head! Could I be dreaming? Could you be dreaming me?”
The man dismissed the watching technicians and sat down facing Tom. “I have been presuming a relation to what was reported, in security circles, of your recent involvement with these ‘simulacs’ created by the alien beings. This question of the presence or absence of DNA was based upon the characteristics of that sort of synthetic form. We must now presume some other basis to this most perplexing situation, this logical paradox somehow given life. A dream, you ask?...
“The fiction story that was issued, about the underwater pyramids—just how much of truth did it contain? This actual replication of persons was only one element. The ‘brain’ that was your adversary induced peculiar delusional beliefs in you and others, intruded upon your dreams... Shall we entertain the possibility that this inexplicable affair could be hallucinatory in some manner?”
“That juvenile ‘novel’ was based on as much truth as we felt able to share with the general public,” conceded Tom. “But it was dramatized and dressed-up to make for an exciting read. My honest answer, sir, is that the mechanism called the Decider is contained and immobilized. In any event, its mind-control capabilities had a limited range. It couldn’t affect us here on the Moon. No, I think—trying to be rational—that whatever the cause was, these events really happened. Of course...” The youth paused. “It would be easier to believe that, if we had the missing spacesuit and its entire contents, not just a few samples and scrapings. Are you ready to produce it, Chief Corvalle?”
The security man looked at Tom Swift, then down at his shoes. When his gaze rose again, his greenish eyes twinkled. “One must never underestimate one such as you, hero to boys aged 10 through 14 the world over. So, mon ami, it seems—”
“I figured it out in the spacecraft on my way back here,” explained Tom pleasantly. “I think it was when I was pulling on that spacesuit. Dummy vidcams and general confusion can’t account for how someone could break into that sealed lab and lug a spacesuit down a corridor past security guys—your people—who were on the alert.”
“C’est vrai—true it is. And I, of course, possessed the necessary door codes to allow my entry.”
“Those labs have many lockers and cabinets inside, for secure storage—for example—”
“For example,” chuckled Corvalle, “bins for medical and biological waste with chutes that swing out from the wall. Which, of course, would be left inaccessible and unemptied within a room sealed and secured by my own directive. Yes, our dear friend Corpus is nicely rolled up, mostly stuffed into his helmet, and living a quiet life sealed in a waste receptacle.”
“Not such a great life for someone entitled to call himself Tom Swift.”
“Agreed. But he doesn’t complain.”
“My instincts haven’t been very impressive lately, sir, but I might as well admit that I think you probably had a good reason for your actions. You sure took risks—even suggesting that I return with one of my sensitector-trackers.”
“Why yes,” agreed the man jovially. “Rather a clever bit of diversion. One might say I put you off the scent. But still, Tom, you must surely wonder what these risks were for. I’ve read of your personal motto, le résultat est la raison pour laquelle—or as you would say, the outcome is the reason why.”
“It was a Russian woman who gave me that motto, quite a while ago now,” Tom nodded. “What outcome? Well, hiding Corpus removed some crucial evidence from access by others. Maybe you were buying time, to solve the case yourself and boost your reputation.”
“Mon Dieu! Am I so enraptured by my ego?”
Tom politely ignored that question. “But I think the main reason is that you don’t know whom to trust. If there’s a murderer, he or she might well be part of AgriColony, maybe someone on the science or medical teams. Makes sense. Not to be immodest, Chief Corvalle, but the connection to Enterprises makes Agri the most technologically advanced installation on Luna—”
“But of course. And the form of the murder, the grotesque pulverization of the body—obviously a matter of the most advanced of modern methods.” Corvalle seemed delighted with Tom’s deductive powers. “At first I merely wished to keep the remains separated from those of bad motive, lest they compromise the crucial evidence. Have you yet suspected that I myself was ‘Chicken Little,’ spreading alarm to the authorities with my exaggerated concern about viral weaponry and infection? Not difficult; for I know my politics. A mysterious theft of biological tissue that might bear something of use to terrorists? C’est terrible! Dreadful! They agreed in haste with my suggestion that a total quarantine was justified. No one of them wishes to be caught with flattened feet. Not of benefit to the career.”
“And also, a lockdown prevented the wrongdoers from being joined by secret reinforcements from Earth,” said the young scientist-inventor. “Whatever’s going on up here isn’t a solo act. A group must be involved.” The young inventor thought: a group like Airut’s fanatics!
“Correct. A good rule: one must keep the cronies at bay and deal only with the wolf, not his pack. Due to my calculated actions, mutual aid—discouraged! Escape—impossible!”
“I didn’t find ‘escape’ all that impossible, sir,” noted Tom mischievously, which brought a chuckle. “What do you plan to do now, Mr. Corvalle? Please don’t ask me to leave my family and friends thinking I might be dead and duplicated.”
“Non, of course not.” The man thought for long moments as Tom waited. “Upon due reflection, I think I acted, perhaps, with an undue expansiveness. For after all, under my own authority I can keep the remains of this alternative Tom Swift—deceased!—in a secure place until... until I engage in further reflection. ‘Ah, the body has been found! All a mistake! Some incompetent will face my wrath!’ And then—
“I will arrange an end to the quarantine, with the same credible urgings that first brought it about. Cronies? We shall use them! Let the pack descend—or ascend—for now we shall be watching new arrivals for clues to conspiracy. We shall watch from concealment, silently, patiently—my orders to my trusted personnel shall be observe and report. Just as they say to hired patrolmen at—”
“I’m, er, familiar with the concept, sir,” said Tom.
“And to the mistrustful world below I will proclaim that we have determined, beyond any doubtful shadow, that the one who made his way here is indeed the same Tom Swift who has borne that name for years—and is, we officially pronounce, a human, biologically and anatomically complete, not some artificial duplicate.”
“But Chief, as you said, the epigenic test showed the smashed corpse is just as much—”
Corvalle held up a hand. “Whatever I merely said, monsieur savant, I shall of course refrain from declaring those findings valid and conclusive. There was not enough tissue to produce a definitive judgment, surely? Do you not agree? Thus, for we shall be rational, there is one Tom Swift after all—and one pitiable collection of similar DNA that eludes further analysis.”
“I don’t like to lie,” Tom stated bluntly; “especially to my Dad and loved ones, to my Enterprises ‘family.’ I don’t like to lie—but I do like the way you think!”
As the two ridewalked back to give Bud the results of the test, Corvalle suddenly raised a further question. “Tell me, Tom—it now occurs to me—precisely why did you undertake such an incredible effort to return to the Moon? Why did you not simply await your father’s tests? I brought an end to your plan, I suppose—did I not?”
The youth hesitated, trying to cover it. No one, not even Bud, knew about the Taxman’s message, and the message and mission seemed to be, very pointedly, for Tom alone to handle. He had to assume the covert informant, trustworthy in the past, had his reasons. Sure, I may like Chief Corvalle, he thought, but just how far can he be trusted?—him and his big boastful mouth and ego! “I guess I figured... well, here at Hillengard I wouldn’t be confined to—”
Corvalle nudged Tom amicably. “Pfah, never mind. No doubt you had some rash plan worked out in your great imagination, as you always do in those books. No need to embarrass yourself by describing it—all irrelevant, and now sanity has been restored for some fragile bit of time.”
“As soon as we’ve spoken to Bud—”
“Then avec vitesse to our communications center, to commence a good deal of loud conversation. I must make my report. The quarantine must be dismantled. I will give you privacy to speak to your Mr. Ames, to Ahlgren, and most especially to your father—restoring confidence that he is again your father. No doubt the exchange will be emotional in the extreme, young Tom. But don’t be abashed. Does not every young man wish to escape his father now and then?”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Tom replied dryly. “What I really want to do is get on with my work, the lunar accelapult and the Caliper-1 probe mission. Solving the Corpus Callosum mystery can wait.”
But he well knew that those words were untrue. It couldn’t—and wouldn’t!
SHOOT THE MOON
“WAS IT as bad as I think it must have been, Skipper?” asked Bud.
“Emotional but not awful,” replied Tom with a nonchalant shrug. “Turns out even calm and scientific Dads can cry—a little—when they find out their ‘genius son’ really is. Mom, San, Bashalli—they had all been fed the cover story about my being spirited off to work in secret.”
“Your Dad may shed a few more tears when they gang up on him for faking them out,” Bud gibed. “What about Ames and Radnor?”
“Nothing shakes those guys.”
Hours, sleep, and breakfast had passed for the two Shoptonians. Now the two were cruising along in the geotron, alone. “So when’re you gonna tell me why we’re way out here underground, chum? Can’t be looking for water, not with nobody along to work the sampler. And then—” Bud gestured toward the empty Private Ear Radio cradle on the “dashboard.” “No PER on this dirt buggy. We’re cut off completely. How come?”
“I have something big and scary to talk about,” came the grim reply. “I don’t know if conversations inside the Colony installation, or even outside by transiphone, are really immune from listening ears.”
“But the PER’s quantum link can’t be tapped.”
“No, but the unit itself, the electronics, might be, somehow. How about an embedded nanochip that records what we say aloud and plays it back by conventional radiocom when we surface?”
Bud grinned. “Tom Swift, you’d make a great criminal! Okay, so what’s the plot? Major death and destruction? Jetz, I’ve been in this business long enough to know what’s coming!”
“So have I,” returned the young inventor with no enthusiasm. Now he told Bud about the Taxman’s window message. “Joking aside, I know I can trust you to keep this an absolute secret. Outside a secured environment we can’t even talk about it between ourselves. For now.”
Bud responded in American Sign Language. “Absolutely!” He continued aloud, “But c’mon, it’s been a couple days now! You haven’t solved it?”
“I don’t know yet what I’m supposed to be solving! There’s a threat to all us human ‘selenites’ here on the Moon that has something to do with whatever ‘corpus callosum’ is...”
Bud scratched his head. “We-ellllp, ole Taxy started to give you location coordinates, so it must be a place, or something at a place.” Then he added wryly, “Of course, that doesn’t exactly help. Everything’s at a place!”
“We do know a little more, though. The words corpus callosum were stamped on a spacesuit,” Tom pointed out. “There were also some numbers, which at least suggests that this was one of many suits connected to a specific project or installation—maybe a spacecraft and its crew.”
“Or a group, genius boy, like that saucer cult deal from Finland,” his friend reminded him. “They could be operating out of a secret base at the location in question, or maybe one of the other colonies. Say, does Finland have a colony up here?”
Tom shook his head. “But I wouldn’t look for a Finnish connection anyway—the original cult members are dead. But... then again...” The youth looked thoroughly frustrated and miserable.
“It’ll all come clear to you, in one of those genius-boy flashes—the kind you usually get about two-thirds of the way through those books.” Bud gave Tom a poke, and Tom laughed.
“The problem is,” retorted the young inventor, “are we two-thirds through? Or still near the beginning? Or—way too close to the end!—?”
“Jetz, Skipper, don’t ask me—I’m not the writer!”
The Gee!-Oh! returned to base, and Tom decided to allow his subconscious—now that he felt sure he had one of his own—to ponder the matter in the privacy of its secret sphere while he diverted himself with other things.
All remaining issues with Tom’s accelapult system seemed to have been resolved. It was time to begin actual construction and preparation for the Moon-circling launch of Caliper-1. “My father and Jake Aturian—at the Construction Company—are overseeing the manufacturing of the basic modular components of the system,” Tom reported to the Ein-Gen executive committee in a Luna-Terra conference call relayed through the space outpost. “As I’ve described, the segments will be ferried up to our L1 station by the Starward’s three excursion modules, and Cinder Norlin and her team will assemble them in the zero-G environment there. They’ll eventually be dragged into lunar orbit by automated repelatron ‘tugboats’.”
“What you are referring to, Mr. Swift,” interjected one of the members, “these are your several mechanisms for—how shall I say?—condensing the propulsion field out of the vacuum? That is, your acceleration track?”
“Yes ma’am, that’s correct,” Tom replied. “I call them spacefield catalytrexes.”
“Will you be working alone in managing this project?” another scientist asked. “I recognize your experience in managing large operations—construction of the Enterprises space station, the Antarctic drilling project, the efforts in Ngombia and Kabulistan. No one doubts that you are a young man of many extraordinary talents.”
“Thank you for that vote of confidence,” Tom replied modestly. “I suppose I’ll be the one in charge, but I won’t be alone—Dr. Rafael Franzenberg—I know you’re all familiar with him and his work—will be joining me here at Hillengard to assist in testing the units. We’re all well aware that we have only one opportunity to get it right.”
Much of the initial work on the accelapult had already been done, on Earth. During the L1 construction phase, Tom had little of a scientific nature to occupy his mind. But he couldn’t stand to be idle. As the Corpus Callosum mystery seemed stymied for the moment, the youth turned his attention to the peculiar matter of the contamination of lunar water sources by barium arsenate.
He sat and hashed the question over with Lyrae Aspodiel and Ladislau Mul. “I have identified certain unexpected aspects of this conundrum,” stated Dr. Mul. “Of course this fact stimulates me greatly! Chemical studies of our water samples, of which we now have a great many from all over this vast desert of ours, disclose some things that evidently make our drops and drips rather shy—eh, pardon me, I am being a romantic Ukrainian in my expression.
“Now we know that we are not dealing with a chemical compound in the usual sense,” he continued. “The arsenate is present in a quasi-colloidal form. You understand, Tom? No? I mean, there is no integration of the outer atomic orbitals, the electron rings. There is an energization effect of an unusual kind, not well understood, something seen in laboratories only rarely, artificially produced with great effort.”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Mul,” said Tom. “I’m not following you.”
Lyrae took up the slack. “The linking electrons won’t settle down as they should.”
“A recondite matter of relativistic quantum physics,” smiled Mul.
Tom smiled back. “You’re beginning to sound like Omicron Kupp at Enterprises. I know you’ve met him, Dr. Mul. He lives in a pretty abstract world and isn’t easy to understand—but of course, when you really get to know him he’s—”
“No he isn’t,” Mul pronounced. “At any rate, Tom, it’s surely no wonder this combined substance so thoroughly eludes your spectronic spacewave technologies, your repelatrons and the like. All those devices are highly state-dependent.”
“Something undetected, deep underground, must be causing this,” said Lyrae. “Admittedly, our quake-wave ‘sonograms’ of the Moon are still fairly sketchy. I think there may be a connection to what you came across at Crater Aldeb, Tom, the energized nebulous material you call Galilectrum.”
“Something is going on down deep that churns out these wild and weird molecules,” the young inventor mused. “When we identify what that ‘something’ is—I’ll be as excited as you, Dr. Mul.”
As Mul chuckled, Lyrae added: “The whole gosh-darn AgriColony operation will be mighty excited when you figure out how to give us usable water, Tom.”
Tom shrugged ruefully. “If.”
Talking often to his father by PER, and to others of the Swift Enterprises team—including the human outlier Dr. Kupp—Tom whittled away at the water question. What was going on beneath the lunar crust? Sometimes he found that he had gone for an entire waking period without a thought as to the far more serious matter of the mortal threat to the Moon’s colonists. But I have no leads, no idea what to do, he told himself, just before berating himself. Should he share his privileged information, bring others into the equation? What if he accidentally forewarned those involved in Corpus Callosum and sabotaged any hope of stopping them? The Taxman, the Collections group—none responded to his concealed, subtly worded inquiries.
On pretexted sorties in the geotron, he mulled-over the dilemma with the only person who shared it. “The only thing I have to comfort myself with, flyboy, is the fact that the Taxman hasn’t tried to get a further message to me by his usual methods.”
Bud’s eyebrows raised. “So how is that comforting?”
“Think about it,” replied Tom. “It was urgent that I get to the Moon immediately—but if the actual destructive event were imminent, isn’t it almost certain he’d find a way to slip me the information I need? Not to mention a pretty forceful nudge!”
“I see what you mean.”
“The man’s whole occupation is to find ways to secretly get around barriers. And he knows me and how I think. He must be confident that I already have the resources to solve this problem in time to prevent what he’s warning me about. If Collections has been compromised and he’s still acting as a lone agent, he must have ended up deciding that getting the last part of that message to me would be riskier than allowing me to dope it out myself.”
“That’s right,” Bud said hopefully. “If things were at the chokepoint he’d let the authorities know that it was time to start a mass evacuation. Unless... well, jetz, unless—”
“Unless he doesn’t know about the DNA and the epi-whatsis findings. I mean—the one he’s counting on is Tom Swift, and... y’know...”
“I know, Bud. Whatever we’ve decided to accept as fact, you and I—and whatever I might like to think—it could still turn out that I’m not who I think I am, who I want to be. The Taxman may be counting on something that the real Tom knows—something that I don’t know I don’t know!”
Bud groaned. “Aw maaan, let’s change the subject—whoever you are!”
The arrival of Rafael Franzenberg on one of the Cosmotron Express’s excursion modules allowed some progress on the water problem—in a way that also supported the Caliper-1 project. “I’m being ruthlessly compelled to accept possibilities I’ve always presumed weren’t,” mock-griped Franzenberg. “A new bit of super-speed science by a fellow named swift! Evidently this is going to become a commonplace thing, pushing objects around in the upper percentiles of the speed of light.”
“Nature has a big hat to pull surprises out of,” Tom grinned.
“I suppose next you’ll be breaking the speed limit entirely.”
The clue hunt for the cause of the barium arsenate phenomenon took, typically, an inventive form. And also typically, Tom had readied a “Bud explanation,” which also helped Tom himself sweep-up his thoughts. “I’m calling it a penetrator-probe—a penetrobe. No, chum, it’s too puny to dignify with a Barclay nickname.”
“Yeah, so I see,” nodded Bud. The object held in vertical clamps, on a counter in the lab Tom was using, was about the size of a shoe, hexagonal and perfectly flat. “Pretty thin, too. Good grief, it looks thinner than a sheet of paper.”
“Walk a few steps. Take a look at it edge-on.”
The young pilot did as he was instructed, and his gray eyes widened. “What in strato-space—! Where’d it go?” He moved his head back and forth. “I get it. It’s too thin to see edge-on at all.”
“Right,” nodded the young inventor, “and thin is an understatement, believe me. What Rafe and I and, er—that other guy—came up with is a two-dimensional object!”
“Uh-huh, yeah... I take it that’s supposed to impress me, hm?”
“Ever seen one before?”
“I’m not seeing it now!”
The comment wrung a laugh from Tom Swift. “Every real material object has three dimensions, pal—that is, three spatial dimensions: height, breadth, and thickness. But this penetrobe unit—”
“Got it,” said Bud. “Best two out of three!—zero thickness.”
“Well... I’m not being exactly truthful,” his friend admitted. “For a number of reasons, some coming from quantum theory, anything we’d consider an ‘object’ has to have some extension in all possible directions.
“But think about Inertite—for example the nano-filaments we use for the atmos-maker’s air enclosure. The linear fields it’s made of are fantastically small, little bits of the spacetime continuum that are many orders of magnitude smaller than the atomic nucleus, even smaller than the effective diameter of an electron!”
“Yup, I’d count that as small.”
“And I’m talking about the filament’s longitudinal measure, its length. Its crosswise dimension is smaller still!”
“So then, this deal here is made of filaments in parallel, but not layered-over one another. Like, I dunno, a super-fine woven handkerchief.”
“Yes, more or less,” said Tom.
The conversation, continued further with Bud to a point of satisfaction, was largely repeated in space a few days later aboard the mighty Challenger. “I think I follow what you’re saying, Tom,” said Lyrae Aspodiel, along on the flight to watch history being made. “The penetrobes are little flat constructs with no transverse thickness. So they’re like the finest, sharpest blades possible; and that’s why they can slice right through my favorite celestial body, Luna.”
“Incredible to think you’re going to shoot ’em all the way through the core—and out the other side!” Bob Jeffers marveled, at the ship’s controls with Bud.
“Only possible way to do it,” declared Tom. “The Moon may be smaller than the earth, but the deep pressures are beyond anything we can duplicate artificially, which makes the lunar core harder to penetrate than diamonds. To probe it we had to make something sharp and thin enough to pass right through the space that makes up most of the atoms’ volume, while at the same time is laterally incompressible and non-deformable.
“Fortunately, we’ve gotten pretty good at weaving our ‘space-knots’ together into usable shapes. The big problem was to find a way to embed detector circuitry in the matrix so that it didn’t stick out or cause the support structure to bend—non-matter matter doesn’t conduct electricity, you know; can’t make circuitry out of it.”
“How, then, did you solve the problem?” asked another listener and fellow traveler, Dr. Mul.
It was Rafael Franzenberg who replied. “How? Genius, pure genius! The impulses flow from one nano-component to another not over conductive paths in the manner of your grandfather’s old-fashioned printed circuit, but rather by phase-locked microwaves—photon stuff. Takes up no space at all! Admittedly the things that actually do the scanning and receiving are a billion billion times too thick in the lateral direction. They’ll rub all along the way, accumulate energy and vaporize as soon as the probes emerge from the far side—almost as soon, that is. It takes at least a little time for molecules to excuse themselves and leave the table.”
“Which is exactly why the probes will be traveling at close to the speed of light,” Tom noted excitedly. “The whole traverse through the center of the Moon will take less than a tenth of a second!”
“Don’t blink!” Bud called out.
The Challenger was to visit ten points on the Moon where the water phenomenon had been identified by the geotron or the earth blasters. At each location six penetrobes would be propelled downward through the surface along the lunar diameter. This would provide a new test for Tom’s accelapult apparatus; a catalytrex mounted on the ship’s external platform would generate a straight-line “spacetrack” some six-hundred miles in length, accelerating the units to their unprecedented velocity. Tests in empty space had already demonstrated that the system was workable. Now to put it to work!
The first point of penetration was a cratered plain in the Tycho region of the Moon known as the Barcantine Plateau. “Stopped and hovering, Tom,” Bud reported.
“All aimed and ready,” added Bob.
No countdown was needed. “Ready, aim, fire, Chief!” Franzenberg grandly nodded.
Tom grinned. “Matter of fact, I just did—and if everything worked, the swarm of penetrobes has long since shot right through the core and out the other side! Let’s hope they blipped their data to the relay satellite before they disintegrated.”
“Skipper!” Bud called out suddenly. “Emergency interrupt signal!—I think it’s from the Japan installation.”
“Put it on the speakers.”
The accented voice bespoke panic and urgency! “American spacecraft! Nani o yatte iru teishi! Stop what you’re doing! The whole surface is shaking! This moonquake will devastate our base, Mun-Shi!”
Tom gaped in shock. Had he himself triggered the cataclysm he had come to the Moon to prevent?
THE LONG DARK NIGHT
“OTHER MESSAGES coming in now!” Bud called out. “Jetz, they’re backing up!”
“This is impossible! Insane!” muttered Franzenberg. “The points of entrance and exit were nowhere near any of the colonies!”
Bud waved Tom over. “Here’s Communications at Agri, Tom.” He handed his pal the microphone.
“Challenger, this is Rachel Brenn.”
“Chief Brenn, what’s happening down there?”
“Massive seismic activity over huge areas of the surface,” reported the Chief of Communications. “Farside as well as Nearside. It must have something to do with your core probe experiment, Tom—it started right at the time you registered with UNISA for your first test.”
“Seems to have died away, they’re telling me. But—damage!—the South Africans are reporting leakage from their dome!—
“Tom, why didn’t you warn us that this could be a dangerous experiment?—!”
The young inventor struggled to keep his emotions in check. “Ma’am, it wasn’t dangerous—it couldn’t have been! Nothing we did had enough power to—gosh!—shake the entire Moon!”
“I see,” she replied coolly. “But what the authorities will think—the AgriColony board, the UNISA people—that I can’t predict.”
Cancelling the remainder of the mission, the Challenger returned hastily to base. “I just spent two hours analyzing the preliminary reports,” Lyrae told Tom in her office. “Speaking as a selenologist—I wish I weren’t a selenologist! None of this adds up, Tom.”
Tom nodded glumly. “Was it a moonquake?”
“Well, you can call it that. The Moon sure did quake. But the ground-wave patterns—surface and deep—are atypical, to say the least!”
“Basically, there were multiple epicenters,” declared the scientist. “I don’t mean secondary epicenters for early aftershocks, I mean that the initial moonquake was composed of hundreds—thousands!—of separate quakes all over the crust from pole to pole, each epicenter going active at the same time!”
“Yes. The same time,” said Tom. “The fraction of a second the penetrobes were traversing the bulk of the Moon. And we know the traverse was completed, by the way. The monitor satellite recorded all the databursts.”
“Congratulations,” offered Lyrae. Her expression was sympathetic.
The young inventor winced. “Right. ‘Congratulations’ on a new mystery and a near-catastrophe. We’re just lucky no lives were lost and the damage was limited.”
She shrugged. “There’s always next time.” It might have been a joke.
Taking what little comfort he could from his father and Bud Barclay—and Chow—Tom pored over the seismological data, giving it a more detailed analysis than had been available to Lyrae Aspodiel. “The recorded penetrobe data will probably tell us more,” he told Franzenberg, who loomed at his elbow. “But I’m seeing something interesting.”
“Interesting? I believe we’ve already had ‘interesting’,” huffed the big man.
Tom highlighted some shapes and figures on his computer display. “The moonquake began during the penetration, that’s true. But the other epicenters didn’t go active simultaneously—not exactly.”
“They hardly could, you know. The initial quake-waves had to spread.”
“Yes,” Tom said. “And Rafe, waves like that are transmitted at something like the speed of sound in the crust material—it would have taken hours to make it all the way around. This phenomenon made it to the farside in a matter of seconds!”
Franzenberg said nothing, but his face did the talking for him.
“I know.” Continued the youth, “We’re not dealing with mechanical lithic waves at all, but something moving along at—”
“Our friendly fascinating nemesis. The speed of light!” Though Rafael wasn’t much for rubbing his chin in the manner of Tom Swift, he did possess an ample prow to thump. “Ah, the thrill of discovery, the agony of—premature theorizing. What’s your first take on it, chief?”
Tom thought deeply for a moment. “Well... I...”
Franzenberg stared impatiently. “Something wrong? You’re younger—you get to make a fool of yourself first.”
“Okay. I’m thinking about our mystery comet and its neutron-matter companion.”
“You called it Starro. Or perhaps Bud did.”
“Remember how it disrupted the spectron spacefield? Certain kinds of repelatrons become unstable, eventually unusable.”
“Until Swift ingenuity disintegrated it. All right, I’ll concede that such an effect propagates at the speed of light. But this isn’t that sort of phenomenon at all. Whatever came surging out makes the ground nervous, not repelatrons.” He held up a hand. “And before you mention it—yes, I remember the quake-making technology of the space beings. But they surely wouldn’t engineer precisely-timed moonquakes in order to make you look bad. Would they?”
Tom shrugged wryly. “The X-ians play a game we’re not allowed to understand. However, I’m not thinking along those lines. Rafe, what if the flock of penetrobes acted like a fuse, discharging some of the energy they accumulated into crustal layers with unexpected characteristics—maybe...”
“Do I want to hear the next sentence?”
“What if Luna is veined with connected pockets of nuclear plasma! Oscillations could radiate along the veins in all directions as something like Alfven Waves. You yourself identified plasma motes at Crater Aldeb, Rafe.”
“Indeed I did,” said Franzenberg brusquely. “But that had to do with Galilectrum, evidently a rare and highly localized substance.”
“The Moon’s interior—maybe even down to the core—may be riddled with nuclear surprises!”
“Mm.” It signified a concession. “It could tie in with the water business.”
“At any rate,” Tom declared excitedly, “no more Moon slicing for now! I’m going to extract and analyze the mnemo-chip data from the receiver satellite, as soon as they haul it down.”
Franzenberg nodded, already deeply immersed in new ideas. “Well now... You did find evidence of higher-element fusion—a phrase I can hardly bear to say!—during your dig at the south pole. Someone, probably an Italian, has been talking about demonstrating low-energy fusion. And Nurishankuor—University of Bengal—thinks undetectable fusion micro-incidents are continual in solid matter as a consequence of the indeterminacy function. He thinks Planet Earth may hide a quantum sun in its core! Why not the Moon? The natural pressure even a few miles down make magnetic-bottle containment look like tissue paper...”
“Rafe, all that sounds like notable quotes from Omicron Kupp!” grinned the young inventor.
“Mm, yes, well—poor Omicron. So much snarking. But really, you know, if you get him relaxed he’s fairly—”
“No he isn’t.”
Taking dinner in the elegantly-appointed AgriColony Alpha dining room, which had been designed to suggest the ambience of a five-star hotel, Tom was joined by Bud and Bob Jeffers. “Feel like I should be wearing a dinner jacket and tie,” joked Bud.
“Got one in your room?” Bob grinned back.
“I usually borrow my Dad’s.”
Tom barely smiled, and Bud knew his pal’s high-capacity cortex was in heavy use. He turned to Bob and tried to make smalltalk spiced with his Barclay brand of amusing banter. Tom seemed quip-immune, eyes drawn back, as if magnetically, to his unseen inner space. What’s he thinking about? What’s on his mind? Bud wondered. And then he wondered further: But—is it “his” mind?
It was Jeffers who ventured a question. “So Skipper—looks like you’re making plans. What comes next? More water prospecting in the geotron?”
“No, that’s... I’m... not really needed right now,” replied Tom slowly. “Sorry, guys—thinking about quite a few things.”
That’s for sure! Bud thought.
Tom continued. “The moonquake revealed some unusual underground features that could end up tweaking the parameters of the accelapult’s spacefield ‘track.’ I’ve built in some flexibility, but if there’s been any serious shifting in the crust strata—or something deeper down—I may have to do some recalculation before zero-hour.”
“I know you’ll only have one chance to get the probe launched,” nodded Bob. “Can you shift me from the Agri work to your Caliper project? I’d like to help if I can.”
“Thanks. I always know I can count on both of you,” Tom responded warmly. “Good night, we’ve all been through so many... things. Haven’t we? And now—
“The search for usable water can go on under Neil MacColter and the other technicians—you too, Bob, for now. I’ll let Lyr decide whether to do any more geotron or earth blaster work. I’m setting it aside, far as my own involvement. I’m going to spend the next few days trying to understand what’s going on inside Luna.”
“And I guess you’ll be setting aside the other business too,” Bud noted pointedly. “You know, murder victim in orbit, corpus callosum—the subplots?”
“I haven’t forgotten anything,” Tom snapped back, following it with a look of apology. “I’m feeling pressured by both time and space!”
“That’s easy to understand,” said Jeffers. “Deadline ahead. You only have till the end of this big long lunar night to get everything in place.”
“The long dark night of the soul,” nodded the young inventor. Bud stared at him, wondering: Jetz, is that the sort of thing Tom would say?
But the game played on as it had to. One by one the big catalytrex units were dragged into high lunar orbit for testing. Each time Tom found himself flinching as the spacefield link was forged between them, slightly displaced so as to be unobstructed. He knew the invisible accelapult tracks were many miles up and parallel to the surface, not angled down into it in the manner of the acceleration field that catapulted the penetrobes. Nothing, no excess energy, would be shot into the hypersensitive strata that seemed armed for quakes. Absolutely safe!—yet Tom had said the same thing about the earlier test, and the whole Moon had trembled.
If there were to be any positional readjustment, it would be accomplished during the next phase, when the completed ring of catalytrexes was lowered to its final orbital configuration close to the surface. In the shuttle-buses, sometimes the Challenger itself, Tom undertook a series of high-altitude surveys of the still unconquered Moon. Using special instruments, he was no longer focused solely on mapping mass distribution and gravitational variance. He was also seeking hints as to the nuclear lay of the land—the strange, deep land hidden under the face of Luna.
Franzenberg, and often Lyrae Aspodiel, accompanied him during many of the orbital treks. But five terrestrial days before the end of the lunar night, he went up with Bud alone. “I’m betting we’re safe from flapping electronic ears here in this shuttle and up here in orbit,” Tom explained. “No PER, and I’ve scrutinized the cabin pretty thoroughly for recording devices.”
“So it’s safe to talk—about ‘it’,” Bud nodded. “Man, sometimes I feel like I’m gonna explode if I don’t find out what you’re planning, space-spy guy—and you always have a plan. But I know how cautious you’re being—not even writing me notes, or hand-signing!”
“Maybe I’m paranoid. Then again, I didn’t have anything to say.” He added with a wry lift of eyebrows, “So what do you think, flyboy? Is Tom Swift ever paranoid?”
“Is he ever!” Bud chuckled. “He once—I mean, you once—jetz! When’ll this all be over—Tom?”
His comrade did not try to answer the unanswerable. Tom pointed to a small monitor screen on the control board. “Whoever I am, he’s an inventor. That’s an output for something I worked up yesterday and installed on the bus just before lunch. It allows us to detect from the inside whether any outgoing signals are being transmitted by some secret monitoring device. In other words, we can keep watch on local space outside the hull for any signal waves passing through—to them.”
Bud feigned enthusiasm he barely felt. “Wow, that’s great! So how does it—”
“Forget it, pal,” was the listless interruption. “You don’t need another boring explanation. Not right now. We two adventurers have a special mission.”
“Hunh? We do?”
“We sure do.” Tom brightened suddenly. “It’s time to go take a good close look at Corpus Callosum!”
WHAT LIES BENEATH?
BUD gaped incredulously at his friend. “You mean you—did you know all along where—”
“No. I didn’t know ‘all along’,” responded Tom coolly. “Why do you ask? Thinking I might be doing something that Tom Swift wouldn’t do?”
Bud struggled to answer—and then suddenly relaxed into a sheepish smile. “Guess this comes with not being intuitive, genius boy. I know who you are. But I’m not absolutely sure I’m right!”
Tom gave a wan laugh. “That makes two of us.”
“Okay. So this time favor me with an explanation. What have you figured out about the big CC?”
“I looked more closely at the data Lyrae Aspodiel had collected,” Tom began. “She’d acquired it from the dozens of automated seismometers planted on—or implanted in—the Moon as part of the international selenological survey. I didn’t just look at the readouts covering the big quake that I, er, caused. I looked back at the earlier records, going back months.”
“You mean you thought this might have happened before? Somebody else might have stuck something into the Moon’s innards?”
Tom smiled. “I wasn’t looking for that, exactly. What we did with our penetrobes triggered the subsurface reaction in some way, but there’s no reason to assume the particular technical specs were crucial. Maybe anything pumping energy into the depths could set off a similar reaction.”
“Okay, I get it,” Bud affirmed. “Maybe weak versions of the quake are happening all the time—when meteors hit, or the colonies do some drilling work—or say, even when we use the earth blasters to look for water!”
Tom nodded. “It made sense to take a look for it in the data, anyway. So I massaged the numbers, ran enhancement software, did some very Tom Swift-ian things. And I found what I was looking for, chum. Not just quake activity—the Moon is always getting pinched and pulled as it moves around the earth—but the specific pattern of simultaneous quake centers over the entirety of the crust. Weak stuff. It was buried in the ordinary quake data; it only stood out when I used the pattern-profile as the basis for enhancement.”
“Jetz, you really are—”
“Let’s not worry about that right now,” Tom interrupted. “These odd seismo-patterns have been happening for quite a while, Bud, with no regular schedule that I can figure out—nothing to do with the relative positions of the celestial bodies, for example. And before you ask, it doesn’t correlate with earth blaster use, meteorite shock, or anything else we can pinpoint. It seems to happen randomly.”
“Yeah—except when your probing sets it off! You’re not gonna tell me that was just a coincidence, are you?”
“Not at all,” declared the youth. “I was one cause, definitely. And something else has been causing the other incidents—for almost a year now.”
“It has to be that, flyboy,” insisted Tom grimly. “It fits in with the idea that CC can cause mass destruction, which is exactly what can happen if the triggering phenomenon, whatever it is, is too strong. That must be the danger the Taxman warned me about!”
Bud settled back in the copilot’s seat for a moment, gazing at the rounded horizon that gave starry black space an edge. “So far you’ve said everything but the important thing, Skipper. Where is Corpus Callosum? What is it?”
“Guess I’ve developed a habit of speaking cautiously,” admitted the young scientist-explorer. “I mapped out the multiple epicenters for the earlier incidents, noting the times they went active down to the nanosecond. A big clue bobbed up in the data—the important thing. I’ve been puzzled by the fact that the epicenter activations spread out across the crust, all the way to the farside, in sequence—but not exactly in sequence, and not at the same rate of spread. Some went active even before a light-speed pulse could reach them!”
“Jetz! Maybe I’m physics-dumb—but I’ve managed to absorb the fact that nothing can travel faster than light!” Bud exclaimed. “What on Luna could—”
Tom rubbed his eyes. “Bud, it was my brain that got ahead of itself—and stumbled. We all just assumed the phenomenon was traveling along the horizontal layers of strata, following the curve of the surface or the density-layers underneath. Wrong! It was propagating from a single point on the surface in all directions, including right through the bulk of the Moon to the other side.”
“So it took the shortcut!”
“And that’s how it could reach more distant locations before some closer ones—closer ‘as the crow flies,’ that is. I don’t think this is some kind of plasma-wave at all, spreading along connected veins—it’s an energy ‘surge’ that triggers the subsurface reactions wherever it happens to pass through the nuke-whatevers. The things must be in a state of equilibrium, hyper-sensitive and primed to react, a chain reaction, when something feeds them even a tiny bit of extra energy.”
“Just as your probes did,” nodded the athletic young man. “Except... wait... if—”
Tom stopped him impatiently. “We can deal with all the ‘if’s’ later. The new analysis allowed me to finally pinpoint the place on the surface where the effect originates—Corpus Callosum!”
“And that’s where we’re heading.”
“And we’re almost there.”
The shuttle-bus orbited on, minute after minute, silence filling the control cabin as the desert landscape rolled out from the forward horizon. Tom was intent at the controls. At last, with a glance at Bud, he slowed the bus until it hovered immobile on its multiple repulsion beams. “So we’re there?” asked Bud. As Tom snapped off a nod, the San Franciscan continued: “Don’t see a thing except nothing, Skipper. I’m glad you’re recording the position data—it all looks the same to me. Except—” He glanced toward the horizon. “No big blue Earth. So we’re on the farside.”
“Right,” replied Tom, “and pretty far south—that’s the edge of the Pauli crater up ahead.”
“Couldn’t find it if I wanted to! So now what? Do we land?”
“No, pal, I’m done for now being stupid,” Tom said. “Instead of zooming right into danger, let’s use the instruments from way up here.”
“What if they shoot us down?”
“So much for strategy!”
Tom used a variety of probe instruments as the bus drifted over the general area of the energy-surge origin point—a something that had earned the name Corpus Callosum. “Well, here’s one result,” Tom reported. “There are a number of the poison-water pockets in this area. The masking effect is doin’ a number on the repelascope. Subsurface shadows everywhere, like a scattered jigsaw puzzle. That could be a sign of the aberrant nuke activity further down.”
Bud nodded. “So I see. What about the pene-tradar? The gravy-scope?” The latter was a typical Barclay nickname for Tom’s Long Range Gravitoscopic Mapper, which used variations in gravitational energy-density to detect even deeply-hidden objects.
Tom adjusted the monitor readouts. “Something’s down there, all right.”
“Circular. Reflects the penetradar like metal. And according to the LRGM...” Tom cast a grim look at Bud’s eyes. “It’s hollow!”
Bud seemed to expect the result. “Yep—a spaceship! Maybe it’s like that animal saucer the Planet X guys sent to the Moon before.” When Tom had first raced to the Moon in the Challenger, it had been to rendezvous with the remotely-guided Space Ark in order to study diseased animals native to the Space Friends’ unknown home planet.
But Tom could only shrug. “It’s disk-shaped, but it’s many times larger than the Space Ark, or anything else the SF’s have shown us. Just below the surface, well above the moisture-bearing layer.”
“Uh-huh. Just below the surface—as in camouflaged by dirt and lying in wait!”
“You could be right, flyboy,” stated Tom quietly. “But think of this—it could be extremely old, millions or billions of years! It might have started off just sitting out in the open; meteoric dust and impact particulates could have gradually covered it over.”
Bud was startled by the thought! “Jetz! It could be another one of those robot-brain probes, like the thing next to the underwater pyramids!”
“It could be anything!—maybe even some sort of natural phenomenon after all.”
“And maybe we should be talking all this over on the other side of the Moon, genius boy!”
The shuttle-bus returned to Hillengard with its load of ominous mystery. As they set down within the huge airspace, Bud gestured and said to Tom: “Hey, something big is missing. Like the Challenger!”
Tom suddenly grinned. “One of us—Tom or ‘Tom’—forgot to mention that the Chal was heading back to Earth. Quick turnaround, though. She’ll be back in a few hours with some mighty major freight aboard!”
Bud looked at his friend curiously. “Oh? How major?”
“Majorly major. They’re bringing the Caliper-1!”
THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE
TOM REMINDED Bud of the schedule for the Ein-Gen Group’s daring project. The accelapult spacetrack—in its high-orbit configuration—was all but complete. Now it was time for the priceless instrument package itself to take its place on Luna.
After supper with Franzenberg and Lyrae Aspodiel—who found herself the victim of Rafael Franzenberg’s attentiveness—the group went to the base observation deck, joining Chief Corvalle and a small crowd of others. This was the first of several moments deemed historic. “I won’t claim to have been involved in the design of the probe package itself,” Franzenberg was saying. “But the lunar accelapult system required a good deal of input from an experienced physicist.”
“An experienced physicist,” Lyrae repeated. “Mm-hmm. Experienced in what, Rafael?”
“Experienced in experience, Lyrae. In the ways of the world.”
“The ways of the world?”
“More than one world, actually. Of course you know I was on Mars.”
“The entire dining room knows.”
The discussion was interrupted by a public-address announcement from Base Communications. “Spacecraft Challenger on final approach. Estimated touchdown, three minutes.”
“Guess I’m tingling,” Bob Jeffers said to Bud. “In a manly way, of course. I don’t know why. I’m no scientist. Just how important is this thing, anyway? Empty space? Now food and water—that I can appreciate.”
Bud nudged him. “Ever tried rattlesnake stew?”
The Challenger, huge and gleaming, elegantly descended through the filament envelope and nestled down near the observation window. In moments the cabin underhatch opened and the wide freight-elevator capsule slid down into view, carrying a knot of serious-looking men and women. Tom glanced at Corvalle. “So many? Chief—what with the murder business and the quakes, is it really wise to—”
Denis Corvalle lay a big hand on Tom’s shoulder. “Now now, mon ami, have I not explained the desirability of encouraging all who wish to come here to place themselves before our keen vision? We welcome he or she who would make a suspicious move and thus reveal this mysterious plot! Oui? But of course you agree. The danger is from plotters, not mere shaking—or do you plan further probing insults to the tender fundaments of Mademoiselle La Lune?”
“Not me,” sighed the young inventor. He understood Corvalle’s impulse, but what was he to do? Did the new arrivals make it more risky to share the Taxman’s warning with others, alerting unknown plotters to adjust and further conceal plans leading to mass destruction? Or did more visitors increase the possible cost in lives of Tom’s decision to try solving the problem alone, in silence? Speech or silence—and somewhere a ticking clock!
The matter became even more poignant as the group approached. “Good grief!” Tom gasped, immediately trotting toward the escalator to the ground-level entrance. In moments he was outside, calling out—
Young inventor and CEO-scientist exchanged hugs. Damon Swift showed two looks at once, one of them shamefaced. “Weren’t expecting me, I know. I put myself on the passenger list at the last minute. I had to watch the accelapult’s final fling, Tom... and... also...”
“Dad, you didn’t do anything wrong. I understand. You had to protect Mom and Sandy and—everyone.”
“As you’ve done so many times... son.”
As the two walked back to the habitat complex side by side, Tom ran over in his mind what would come of telling his father about the Taxman’s message and warning. I told Bud, he thought; why not Dad? Why?—because then his father would be thrust into the moral dilemma of whom else to tell, and whether his son should be prevented from acting on his own. And could Tom disclose the danger on the Moon without also sharing the startling results of the epigenic analysis? What would be the consequence if Damon Swift again began to doubt whether Tom was Tom? “It’s too much,” he half-murmured. “Too much.”
From the observation deck Tom and the others watched the unloading of the Caliper-1 materials from the Challenger. “Jetz, it’s bigger than I thought it’d be,” Bud commented. The object being carted toward the storage hangar was oval in shape, flat on the top and bottom, and all of fifteen feet in length. Eight crewmen were pushing it along, like an entourage accompanying an arriving VIP.
“That’s not the probe, chum,” Tom responded. “We call it the Tortoise. And see that little opening right in the middle of the top?” He pointed. “Nested down inside that opening is the Hare—the Caliper-1 itself. It’s a perfect cube, nine inches to the edge.”
Bud scratched his head. “Nine inches? That isn’t much bigger than my head!—I think.”
There was a laugh all around, and Damon Swift explained. “Bud, at near-light speeds even the whole Moon doesn’t amount to much more than one of those orange traffic-cones as the probe swerves around it many times a second. Remember, it’s the centrifugal force that will hurl the probe across the outer solar system at its fantastic velocity.”
Tom continued the account. “At the moment of release, the outward-directed pressure on the Caliper will be unimaginably great—any ordinary structure would be flattened to a film of neutron matter. So what—”
“Allow me,” interjected Rafael Franzenberg with a suave look in Lyrae’s direction. “You see, the problem is even worse than the situation faced by the penetrobes, because those ingenious little trinkets had the pressures of the lunar depths to counteract structural deformation during their fraction-second traverse. So the designers of the Caliper—naturally we at Swift Enterprises had a great deal of input as the moment of mating approached—‘grew’ a cube of metallumin from the center outward, layer upon layer, each layer thinner than a human hair.”
“So it’s a solid block, right?” Bob Jeffers restated. “No hollow spaces for the thing to smursh down into.”
“All the circuitry and sensors—even the power source—are ‘painted’ flat on the thousands of structural layers,” nodded Tom. “The layers touch above and below over their entire surfaces; there’s no intervening space. Even so, what really keeps the Hare from collapse is the counterforce produced by the Tortoise, its carrier module.”
“Repelatrons?” asked Lyrae.
“Those things, wonders though they may be, would hardly be adequate to the task,” Franzenberg grandly pronounced. “The Tortoise apparatus siphons-off a fraction of the surrounding accelapult field, distorting and redirecting it, somewhat as a prism redirects light—only a metaphor, you understand. The diverted vectors of force point downward toward the surface, substantially counterbalancing the outwardly-directed inertial force developed during the whirl.”
“Until it doesn’t,” added Tom. “At the instant of release—the ‘fling’—the Tortoise module will simply disintegrate and the Hare will zoom off on its merry way.”
Bud screwed up his face in humorous tribute. “Jetz! I’m sure glad you guys worked all that out—and I didn’t have to!”
After the Caliper-1 apparatus had been berthed, after greetings and discussions with the arriving Ein-Gen technicians, Tom spent time alone with his father, carefully and cautiously discussing the affairs of Earth and Moon. Tom felt like reminiscing, and many invention adventures found their way into the little room Mr. Swift would be staying in. “Who would have thought you’d have this kind of life, Tom?” mused Damon Swift. “My grandfather Tom had it. But my own Dad didn’t, and I certainly didn’t. Perhaps it’s the times a person lives in that makes the difference.”
Tom looked at him soberly. “Maybe that’s it, Dad. These are challenging times. It feels like the human race is on the edge of... something.”
“That feeling is widespread,” agreed the elder Swift. “Even people who don’t notice it may have it lurking underneath in some way, in the unconscious. Our minds detect patterns, absorb things on their own—that’s what they’re for.”
“Yup. Things get in there, inside, and—we never know—”
Tom fell silent. Mr. Swift said, “That saucer cult, the people in Finland—even if the leader was a charlatan, something made the message resonate with his followers. Space brothers coming to save us... a new religion with its own apocalypse. It’s odd how little we’ve talked about what it might mean to our planet, this contact with the Space Friends and their Planet X superiors. We’ve gotten used to it, somehow. Things go on as always. I’m not so sure Earth is prepared for what may happen in a year, a decade—a century.”
Maybe it’s already happening, Tom thought.
The two spent some time on the Private Ear Radio speaking with family and friends in Shopton, where it was mid-afternoon. It seemed to Tom, strangely, that a great deal of time had passed since he had spoken with his mother, with Sandy, with Bashalli. Even a chat with avuncular, grumbling Chow Winkler—whose unwanted romanciére had been sighted prowling the halls of the administration building—couldn’t lift Tom’s oppressive mood. Why do I feel so haunted? he asked himself.
Later, in his room, the answer came. “I feel this way because I don’t want to think about what I have to do,” he muttered aloud, gazing at himself in the mirror, staring into his staring eyes. “What I—have to do. I’m haunted by myself—because—I think—I’m going to be saying—”
After some futile stabs at sleep, the young inventor rose and dressed again. Leaving his room, he ridewalked to one of the habitat-complex’s exits, stepping out into the humid air that filled Crater Hillengard. He walked slowly through rows of struggling corn, through a field of listless cabbage, through fruitless trees in a stunted orchard. At last he stopped and sat down on an empty fertilizer drum.
Tom looked toward the crater wall, with its ranks of mammoth heat lamps for the long subzero nights. The blue crescent of Earth was peeping above the wall. The stars were sharp as spikes. Miles away, near the center of the crater, he could make out the spinning dispersion disk of the atmosphere-making machine.
He pulled up his shirt sleeve. A flat bit of equipment, eight inches long but almost as thin as a tattoo, was strapped to his forearm. This new model of the Spektor, the universal remote-controller and monitor unit, was composed of flexible materials down to its circuitry. It molded itself to his skin. Nice little invention, he thought.
Far away from any ears but his own, Tom began to speak into it, his voice channeling into the paper-flat mnemo-chip he had pressed onto the Spektor’s interface patch.
“This is Tom Swift,” he said. “I have some things to say. I want all of you to know why I’m doing what I’m doing—what I’m about to do.
“I’ve recorded a separate file on this chip giving the text of the message I received from Collections—or at least from the Taxman, whoever that might be these days. It was etched onto my bedroom window, in the night frost. I found it the night you locked me in, Dad. I’m sure it blurred out before anyone noticed it. So I’m the only one who read it. As you’ll see, it talks about a threat to lives up here on the Moon. It was interrupted and there have been no further messages, but—maybe I’m wrong—I took it to mean that only I could stop it. There could be people—probably are people—monitoring Hillengard and the other colonies, maybe even informants in government circles, forcing Collections to sneak a message to me in this weird way. It could ruin things if plotters were tipped-off that their plans were known. My intuition, scientific or not, made me feel that the danger should be kept secret. Though I told you, Bud. Had to do that.
“I found what I’m fairly certain is ‘corpus callosum.’ I have no idea if it has anything at all to do with that saucer cult. It does seem to have something to do with the strange quake patterns we’ve been seeing up here—I’ve recorded my documentation. Bud will tell you where Corpus is and how I located it, on the farside. He doesn’t know the exact coordinates, though; I’ve recorded them on this chip. But I don’t want anyone charging in to rescue me until I’ve had a chance to find out what it is—and what I’m supposed to do about it, me myself. Please try to believe in me one more time. And then, if I fail, you may have to destroy Corpus Callosum, at... whatever cost. Whatever cost, Dad. Or begin some sort of mass evacuation. Or maybe nothing at all. For all I know, the Taxman might have been mistaken. But we’ve trusted him before. What else can I do?...
“By the time you listen to this, Dad, I suppose you’ll know all about my epigenic duplicate, my perfect ‘other self.’ What if he is—was—the authentic Thomas Edison Swift? I don’t know. I don’t know how to know. All I do know is those two words inscribed on his spacesuit, and the fact that they mean—seem to mean—something catastrophic. I try to keep it out of my head, but—what happened to that body in the suit may be what could happen to others here on the Moon. I—
“Good night!—maybe I should never have come to the Moon in the first place. Why couldn’t I have just dropped out of the ‘race to the Moon’? Was it all worth this? Something so...
“Are the extraterrestrials involved in all this? Their incredible super-technology, their control of matter and energy, of space and time? That’s probably the most plausible explanation. But who knows? This could be a huge mechanism like the Decider back at Aurum City. Maybe a buried spacecraft. A foreign plot. Something nature came up with that we wouldn’t have dreamed of—with all our science. We’ve come face to face with inexplicable things before.
“No, I can’t delay any longer. The Space Kite is still sitting where I parked it. With its anti-detection coating you won’t be able to track it—you can barely even see it with your eyes. I’ll fly low to the site and use my sensors and instruments—whatever I can bring along—to... well, I’m not sure how to finish that sentence.
“Bud, Dad, Mom, Sandy—Bashalli—Chow—all of you, at Enterprises, wherever you may be—gosh, even the readers of those ‘Tom Swift’ books—I hope you know how much I love you all. I have to do this. Because—somehow, no matter what—or who—I am some kind of Swift!
“I’m leaving. Please give me a few days—Earth days or Moon days; I’ll leave it to you. I want to see the launch of the Caliper-1. I want to see you all again. But... really... I’m not so sure I will.
“Please be safe.
INSIDE THE SECRET
TOM SWIFT left the recorded mnemo-chip on the bed in his quarters. He had pulled a blue-striped T-shirt from the closet, spreading it flat; he set the chip on top of it, on a white stripe.
Gathering a few bits of portable technology and donning an Enterprises spacesuit, he made his way to the Space Kite. He didn’t care if the corridor vidcam saw him. It hardly mattered now.
Soon he was skimming the Moon, gathering speed. And soon enough he had crossed over to the lunar farside. As the fleeing horizon behind him seemed to pull down the stars, he had to wonder: had he just seen Earth for the last time?
Tom had the exact coordinates of the Corpus Callosum object, though he had kept them from Bud. The Kite’s computer was a sure and swift guide, and it seemed little time had passed when there was a Beep! from the control board. Tom slowed the Kite to a crawl. Now what?
He began to cruise in a circle along the edge of the buried structure, the track of its circumference having been registered by the computer during the survey flyover. As before, the penetradar revealed its overall form.
Suddenly Tom paused the Space Kite in a stationary hover. The penetradar had detected a narrow protrusion extending out from the edge of the structure, angling toward the surface. An access corridor! Tom thought excitedly. It must be! He ignored any thought of other sorts of protrusions: solar prominences, trees with branches, squid with tentacles—or floating spacesuits with empty arms and legs. He very much wanted Corpus Callosum to reveal itself as something comprehensible, man-made, and defeatable.
Detecting no trace of perimeter sensors or radar scans other than reflections from the penetradar, he set down on the lunar surface some distance back, the cockpit dome facing the rumpled ground that was the site of the underground object. Sealing and pressurizing his suit, Tom swung open the dome and hopped down to the ground. He moved to use the Spektor to close and reseal the dome—and chagrin-grinned. The mini-Spektor was still attached to his forearm, out of reach under his suit sleeve. Pulling down the dome manually, he told himself: Guess I shouldn’t complain about having to do a little extra work while saving the world—or at least the Moon!
His suit gravitex minimizing the low-gravity bounce, the youth began walking toward a low mound that seemed a likely place for the access corridor to meet the surface. After a few dozen long strides, his heart leapt at a reassuring sight—human-sized boot prints in the dust! Lots of ’em, all over—and denser near the mound! Then Tom reflected on the fact that, here on the weatherless Moon, footprints might remain visible for millions of years. Had the builders of whatever lay beneath gone the way of the dinosaurs aeons ago?
They hadn’t! Three spacesuited figures, evidently human, bounced into view from the far side of the mound. They froze, as if startled to see a figure clothed in a spacesuit unlike theirs. Tom was startled by the lunanauts, but not by their suits—because they were the same suits worn by the other “Tom,” whose suit had been imprinted with the words that had led Tom here. Tom’s face was visible; their faces were masked by their reflectorized visors. Tom earnestly hoped they had faces!
The three seemed unsure of what to do. Tom touched the i-gun attached to his suit, but moved his hand away as the three made gestures that were not only friendly but welcoming. Good gosh, this may be just a legitimate scientific project by one of the other installations, he thought. They may have no idea that what they’ve been doing has caused micro-quakes. And just because someone got ahold of one of their suits doesn’t mean they had anything to do with his death. Tom didn’t want to cause an international incident. Though he was more than willing to engage in wishful thinking.
With gestures the three led the young inventor around the mound to the other side, where a reinforced panel stood open. Beyond was an airlock, and beyond that an escalator platform that carried them down at a slant toward the huge structure of Corpus Callosum—if that happened to be its name. The escalator ended at a fairly large chamber full of air, and all four removed their helmets. Tom sniffed the air—warm and moist air with, strangely, a scent of growing things.
The three did have faces, normal human ones that smiled at their visitor in a pleasant way. Even more than pleasant—somehow, strangely, they seemed enthusiastic! Tom was surprised to find that they were all rather elderly men, their hair mostly sparse and white. One man stepped forward with a nod and offered his hand—both hands, grasping Tom’s hand warmly. “It’s so good to see you again, Tom,” he said with a smile. His English came with an accent that Tom could not identify.
“Well—thank you—sir,” Tom replied politely.
The man chuckled. “ ‘Sir?’ You haven’t forgotten my name, have you?” The other two men also chuckled pleasantly.
“I’m sorry,” Tom said. “It seems I have. I’m afraid I don’t even recall where we met.”
The smiles were replaced by looks of concern. The man said, “Tom, has... something happened? Have you had an accident while you were outside?”
“But surely—do you really not know us?” said another haltingly, his accent thicker. “You do not recall that I am Alig? Your chess partner, eh? You beat me regularly!”
The third man spoke. He sounded like a severe Scotsman. “Say now, you heave-ta r’member me, Tom—Old Lemmy? Awl th’ toimes we sut ’n skittled?—which I’ve missed, lad.”
“Don’t you see, fellows, he doesn’t remember,” reproved the first speaker. “Something’s gone wrong, an injury. Or maybe—like what happened to Birgitta.”
“But she was old, Charles, mighty old,” frowned Old Lemmy. “No way our Tom could have Alzheimer’s.”
“Tom, do you know this place at all?” Charles asked. “Do you know where you are? But I’m being silly—after all, you found your way back to us.”
“Gentlemen, I’m not sure what to say,” responded the young inventor. “I came here because I was tracking some—er—scientific phenomena with my instruments. I’ve never been here before in my life. I’ve never met any of you, as far as I know. Are you part of one of the international colonies?”
The three stared at Tom silently. At last Charles said gently, “We’re part of Corpus Callosum. You were here with us for, what was it, about a month—longer. You left a few weeks ago; we were sorry to see you go. No one was sure if we would see you again—not sure, however much we were told you’d come back to us. You knew us. You had learned the names of nearly all the Ninety-Nine, I think. But now... what could possibly have—”
“No, Charles, this is most useless,” Alig interrupted. “You can see that he’s confused. Let us forestall any distress on his part. We should—”
“We’ll take you to Flynn,” pronounced Charles. “I should explain—he’s our executor.”
Tom nodded. “The person in charge?”
“Yes—in charge. But first, you know... well, I suppose you don’t know... we need you to take off your spacesuit so we can put it through the sterilization protocol. It’s a requirement here.”
“Mustn’t import nasty germs from out there,” grinned Old Lemmy. “Us creaky old folks, we can be a moit day-licate. Just a precaution. Wayre you stay’n at that base the Americans set up, Hillengard?”
“That’s where I just came from,” replied Tom. “I arrived from Earth—New York—recently.” He instantly regretted his words as the three exchanged glances.
“Earth—bad enough. But New York—!” Alig said with scorn.
“The suit will be sterilized inside and out,” Charles told Alig. “And Elyssa will check him over medically.”
He led Tom into the adjoining locker room and directed him to remove his suit and place it inside a cubicle with a sliding hatch. “As you see, we have items of our Corpus wardrobe hanging in there,” stated Charles. Tom glanced at the ranks of clothing, footwear, and a number of the all-too-familiar spacesuits, lining the walls. “You’ll find your size easily. Or keep what you’re wearing if you like.” He lowered his voice and gave Tom a wink. “You don’t remember, but Alig is something of a hypochondriac, Tom. We sterilize the spacesuits as a matter of policy, but no one is really worried about germs in your body or on your clothes. Handy-hand!—we’ve had our shots and aren’t all that delicate! After all, we made the list because we were the healthy ones.”
Tom kept his own clothes. As he stepped out of the locker room, rolling down his shirtsleeves, Charles gestured at the Spektor on the young inventor’s forearm. “Mm, more of your conveniences—all the latest, eh? Let’s take it and put it in storage.” He held out his hand.
Tom tried to keep a frown from his voice and face. “Oh, is there a problem?”
“Flynn doesn’t approve of electronics walking around down here. Might accidentally foul up the machinery. Pretty sensitive stuff.”
Tom relinquished the Spektor, feeling vulnerable. But this doesn’t seem like an enemy situation, he told himself. And then he remembered the shape other-Tom had been found in.
Tom was led down broad, bright corridors by the three, who evidently called themselves Callosans. The halls were full of men and women, all fairly elderly, ambling along the lushly carpeted way as if on a garden path. Some nodded at Tom with friendly smiles; many greeted him warmly, by name, with various degrees of accent. Corpus Callosum seemed to know Tom Swift very well indeed. “Aye, no doot you’re confused,” Old Lemmy said to him. “We all have such regard for you, young friend. ‘Young’—that’s the word! Some envy here and there, I’ll confess it. Still a noice head o’ hair, lad.”
“Do you all come from different countries?”
Alig replied. “Indeed, a few, quite. I am German, Lemm is Scottish. Charles here—”
“Hungarian born, raised in Canada,” said Charles. “Most of us are European. Only a few Americans; but Flynn is one of them, and—he won’t admit it—he tended to favor those who can speak English. A bit, at least. Made it easy for you too, Tom. Before.”
They passed a cafeteria-restaurant, an auditorium with a stage, a gentle-appearing gymnasium, and what seemed to be a game room with many Callosans playing cards or other games, or chatting with one another on sofas among potted ferns. Charles remarked, “You’ll enjoy rediscovering life as we live it in Corpus. Gardens and hothouses—smell ’em?—, the library... well, you’ll see.”
“We’re awfully proud of what we’ve done. You had this tour before,” noted Alig.
“It seems I’ll get to enjoy it all over again,” Tom said dryly. “But I don’t at all understand how I—”
“Nither do we, lad,” stated Old Lemmy.
They entered what seemed to be an administrative section, and stopped before a large door.
CORPUS CALLOSUM EXECUTOR AND
DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS
“Ah, perhaps I should mention,” Charles said to Tom, “we don’t use our last names here in Corpus. Not a rule, of course—just a custom we’ve developed, a habit. You see, Tom, we prefer to leave behind what’s out there, up there, back there where we came from.”
“Do you know, boys, I don’t think I recall any more whether Flynn is his first name or last name,” chuckled Alig. “Just as well.”
They think I have amnesia, Tom commented inwardly. I think they have a touch of it themselves!
Motioning the others to remain, Charles entered the office with a knock, emerging a minute later. “All right, Tom, let’s go on in. Flynn understands this odd condition you’re in. He has a lot to tell you, believe me.”
“Believe me,” replied Tom, “right now I’m having trouble believing anything!”
The four entered the office.
Executor Flynn—first name or last—stood beside his big desk with hand extended Tom’s way. The man was tall and skinny and hawkish, and some years younger than the average Callosan. His brown hair was only half-streaked with gray above his thick glasses. He was garbed, like the others, in the sort of casual clothing one might wear while watching the surf from a terrace with cocktail in hand.
“Well, Tom, I’m going to say ‘welcome back’ even if you don’t recall the back part,” the man half-laughed as Tom shook his hand. “Or so they tell me.” He waved the young inventor into a chair and politely gestured for the others to leave.
“See you soon, Tom,” said Charles.
“Lemmy, Charles, Alig,” Flynn said to Tom with a smile. “Some technical background and comfortable in what we call our outerwear—the spacesuits. I send them out fairly often to take a glance at the surface. We don’t wish to have Corpus Callosum accidentally poking its big head into the view of some orbiting camera. We’ve noticed—you yourself worked on it—that our tests of the main system cause a bit of shifting of the ground around here. You told us, matter of fact, that instruments have detected it over a large area. Not so good for our privacy.”
“It’s how I located you, sir,” Tom said.
“Mm-hmm, so you said before. The first time.”
Tom drew in a breath. How much frankness should he risk? I’ll have to give out some information to get any back. “Mister—”
“Just Flynn. Please.”
“Flynn, you and the others all tell me I was here before, a few weeks ago, for some extended time. But I wasn’t! I was on the other side of the Moon, working on some scientific projects at AgriColony Alpha in Crater Hillengard over that whole period. Before and after I was on Earth, until I flew back up here a while ago. Please don’t try to tell me I was dreaming or hallucinating—” Admittedly, “I” may not actually be Tom Swift! “—I mean, sir, everyone has seen me and I’ve been doing my work...”
The man nodded. He voice was firm and politely challenging. “And everyone here—everyone!—also saw you among us, where you also did work. Seems to require some imaginative thinking, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Absolutely. And I think the first step has to be for you to tell me about ‘before.’ Please humor me—let’s just accept for now that what I’m saying is true, that I don’t know anything about Corpus Callosum or my earlier visit.”
“Yes, of course. Well then—what do you need to know?—
“Corpus Callosum—all this—is what you might call a sealed, private community. We are all participating in a sort of mass scientific project, as volunteers. I’m the fellow in charge.”
Tom interrupted. “Is this project a government operation—some government?”
“No, no,” Flynn replied. “Entirely privately funded and operated, as are some of the other colonies up here. In theory, we’re ‘policed’ by UNISA. In practice—”
“In practice, they don’t know you’re here. No one does. You want to keep it that way.”
Flynn chuckled. “Let’s focus on our mystery. We commenced full operation a year ago—just had a birthday party. All sealed tight. So imagine our reaction, about two and a half months ago, when we suddenly came upon the very famous Tom Swift strolling down our corridor in a state of some... confusion, dressed just as you are now. He couldn’t explain—I think you didn’t want to explain—how you—he—got there. Some of your Swift Enterprises technology, I assumed. You’ve developed some sort of matter-beaming machine, didn’t you? Teleportation?”
“My quantum telesphere. But the Moon is well out of range, so far.”
“I won’t press the point,” smiled the Executor. “You declined all my requests for an explanation. Many odd things about you. Somehow you already knew a great deal about us, about the project. You seemed already acquainted with several of us—with me, with Charles and his friends, a few more. You knew, in a general way, how we live here.”
“But not in great detail?” asked Tom. “That could be important.”
“Oh, it was—as if you’d already mingled with us for a while, a few days. In fact, I wondered if you’d been among us invisibly, watching and learning. You just shook your head at that.”
A grin was Tom’s present response. “Enterprises hasn’t perfected outright invisibility, sir. And we can’t yet walk through walls.”
“No—Enterprises hasn’t perfected such things,” Flynn said with cryptic emphasis. “You—he—didn’t disclose anything of his purpose here. I can say we were all happy to see you nonetheless, rather excited to have you here among us. Of course, we were concerned about the consequences of all this to our... security. Our isolation and privacy is of enormous importance to us.”
“If this visitor was at all like me, he must have wanted to leave,” Tom stated bluntly. “You prevented that.”
Flynn’s brow creased. “As I said—isolation and privacy. I’ll admit, with apology, that we didn’t allow you to leave or to contact Hillengard or others—yes, Tom, you told us back then of your work at this AgriColony of yours. We assured you, very sincerely, that we wanted to make you familiar with our purpose and the nature of our project—and then, trust established, it would be up to you to decide whether to leave or remain.”
“To leave or remain...” repeated the youth. “Then you mean—you thought I might stay here? I might actually become one of your Callosans?”
“When you got to know our point of view. When you understood us. When you understood what was going to happen.”
“And just what is going to happen?” Tom demanded. Was he about to learn of the Taxman’s looming disaster—the terrible threat to life that had brought him to the Moon and to a perplexing place called Corpus Callosum?
BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
But Flynn chose to ignore Tom’s question. “And it seems you did reach that point of sympathy, Tom,” he went on. “Perhaps you were faking it. But you were very willing to help us solve our technical problems, these intermittent issues we have with the main system, the equipment. You seemed to like us, to have some feeling for our safety and for—our success. You learned our names, we of the Ninety-Nine. In many ways you seemed like one of us already.
“And so, you see, we began to trust you. We allowed you to go up to the surface with some equipment, to try to figure out the nature of the problem by observing from outside the perimeter as we ran one of our tests—one of our usual tests, at low power of course.
“You never returned. Gone!—some footprints ending in odd shapes in the dust. No trace. We were saddened. I suppose we felt a bit rejected—even, frankly, rather betrayed.”
“But you must have learned that I was at Hillengard.”
“We avoid monitoring the communications of the other colonies, or the news from old Earth. We don’t want to extend a surface antenna or use electronics above ground, not if we can help it—satellites can detect such things.” The man paused, then suddenly stood. He walked musingly across the office. “But as it happens, I do have a roundabout, backdoor way to communicate. Even at low power, with a conventional antenna that we’ve camouflaged, we’ve found a way to make use of the space-radio system of one of the nearby installations without tipping them off—so far, anyway: I risk it as infrequently as possible. After a few days, I took that risk. I wanted to try to find out if you had chosen to alert the authorities, reveal our existence. I apologize for my lack of faith in you, Tom.”
“So you did know,” nodded the Shoptonian. “You found out I was working at Agri, after I disappeared from here.”
“Yes indeed,” declared Flynn. “You had made it back safely, it seemed. No hint of any revelation that might endanger our purpose. But I didn’t discover this by monitoring communications from your colony. No, I was in contact with—well, we have agents and operatives down below, on Earth, those who share our hopes though they weren’t selected to join the Ninety-Nine—”
Tom Swift gave the man a sharp, glowering look that made Flynn silent for a moment. “Agents and operatives. In Shopton? Reports on my activities? A few spies at Swift Enterprises? Unh-hunh. Not that I take offense, sir—it happens a lot.”
“So I gather. If those boys’ books are at all accurate. Operatives in Shopton, true, for a perfectly logical and practical reason. But not within your walls, Tom. No need for that.”
Tom waved the words aside impatiently. “I know I’m a guest here, but—to be honest—you’re not really telling me anything. Why are you operating in secret? Why is it important to spy on Tom Swift Enterprises—and me? Who are these elderly ‘volunteers’ of yours? Just what is this project—Corpus Callosum!”
The man regarded the young inventor calmly, with a slight smile—and then laughed. “Come on, guy, relax! I’ll tell you what you want to know. Funny... when you were in this room a couple months ago, in that very chair, I was the one with flying eyebrows. Nothing fazed you. Everything I’m about to say, you already seemed to know.
“Well then. Corpus Callosum takes its name from a special group, a kind of club, I was once involved with, based in Finland and called Kovettuneet Kehan—some words in the—”
“Yes, I do know about that,” the youth interrupted. “The saucer cult that drowned themselves. I spoke to the leader’s nephew.”
“So you said before. Though how in the world you first took an interest in the term ‘corpus callosum,’ our current project of that name, or what is—in a way—its predecessor—”
“Flynn—I’ll give you a ‘how in the world.’ How in the world can this base and these people be connected to Airut’s psychic-space-spirit cult? The authorities were convinced that all the members, and Airut himself, were lost when the ship went down. Was it some kind of hoax?”
The Executor shook his head. “No hoax. Airut and his people committed suicide. I wasn’t aboard. I wasn’t one of his true believers—the man was a swindler and a smuggler who finally went completely schizo. I tried to keep as far away from him, from his schemes, as possible. But I was his employee. I worked for Kovettuneet as the organization’s chief financial officer and, I suppose you could say, fundraiser. I managed the money; investments, expenditures—”
“Imports? The drug trade?”
“I had no direct involvement in any of that,” snapped Flynn. “I wasn’t paid to ask questions—I was paid not to ask questions. Sitting in my nice office in Helsinki I only heard the rumors about that element of funding. I was in charge of the legit stuff, Tom, contacts with potential monied enthusiasts all over—very discreet contacts. And as a matter of fact, I myself was a big donor to the operation. My family is old and mighty wealthy. Maybe I didn’t believe in ‘space spirits,’ but this whole sci-fi cult fascinated me, the psychology, the fanaticism... call it a sort of hobby of mine. And a personal challenge.
“And then the legal pressures and the craziness got too much. And the boat sank.”
Tom considered it all for a long moment—how little sense it actually made. “The boat sank. Years ago, in Finland. So what’s this?”
“Oh, this? Not a bad question!” said Flynn dryly. “The true believers drowned—but there were those who had left the cult beforehand, in disgust. It was dangerous to do so. Airut threatened them. They fled and went sour on the whole thing. Condemned the man for his manipulative fantasies.
“But you know, why did they feel drawn to the silly thing in the first place? Because of something within them, I think, some need, some extra helping of imagination that they were born with. True of me as well, Tom. I’ve accepted that fact. Years later—many of us kept in touch, cautiously—we began to hear that a few of the breakaways were reporting contact with the ‘The Signal’ themselves. They told of messages that were interesting... persuasive.”
“Good night!” Tom exclaimed. “You and the others revived the Corpus Callosum cult! Is that what’s going on here? Some kind of isolated colony for the new believers?”
“You’re off base, my friend,” smiled Flynn in a condescending way. “We’re not some sort of religious cult. No prophet. The Signal?—lost its mystical aspect and revealed that it was a ‘transmission,’ some kind of advanced mental technology allowing planetary intelligences to contact us, to give us advance word of their coming physical arrival on Earth. In obscure bits and pieces, interpreted by the several human loudspeakers among us, we began to piece together a coherent message. Now this ‘Voice’ talked about the commencement of a new human era, with help and guidance from our galaxy’s super-civilization, billions of years old! I suppose it was just another saucer-cult gospel at first—except—then—
“Then the world learned that the extraterrestrials are real!”
Tom could easily picture the situation. “You thought the Space Friends—the aliens I was in communication with, the X-ians—”
“Yes!” declared Flynn forcefully. “The Signal was theirs! The Great Human Change, the dawn of a cosmic consciousness—Airut perverted and exploited the Voice for his own lunatic ends, but now, at last, it spoke truly! A fantastic new world...
“Yet it was a sad revelation. So many of the original followers were already old. The Change would come in its own time, gradually, perhaps over decades or even centuries—giving humanity a grace period, allowing it to adapt to the new order of things. But as to when, who knows? The Signal only gave maddening hints. Brotherhood, peace, all questions answered, a scientific utopia on Earth—but so far away in times to come...”
The young inventor suddenly seemed to grasp where Flynn’s loud words were leading. “The more elderly among you wouldn’t be around to see it. Unless—! Flynn—are you planning to meet them before they finally establish their, their kingdom on Earth? To join them in space?—! Is this—is this entire hidden structure some kind of space vehicle?”
Flynn sat back down and leaned forward. Now his voice was very quiet, very serious, full of wonder and awe and a kind of pity for his listener’s ignorance. “Corpus Callosum is a link, a linchpin between two worlds, between the old humanity and whatever is to come, just as the organ in the brain ties one side to the other, logic to inspiration. We are a bridge between the human past and the more-than-human future. You accepted that before, Tom. You already seemed to know—as if you had come to us prepared.
“No, Tom. This isn’t a spaceship. We’ll soon be outward bound on a great journey, that’s true—you as well, I hope. But we won’t be journeying into outer space. To see and stand in wonder at what’s going to happen, to be part of it all, we’re going to take a very different sort of journey—a journey through time—into the future!”
“Through time!—?” It took Tom Swift many thudding heartbeats to find his voice. What did Flynn mean? Was this as much a fantasy as Airut’s wild ramblings? “I hope you understand, sir, that this is a little hard for me to take in. Do you literally mean a journey? The Corpus Callosum project has something to do with, is an attempt at, time travel?”
“Oh, I’m not speaking metaphorically at all, Tom,” replied Flynn. “My field is finance, not poetry. This structure, Corpus Callosum, is in its way a sort’ve great big time machine! Say, you’re looking at me like you think I’m nuts. When you were here before you took it in stride. As indeed you should, Tom, since you yourself invented it!”
“I—!” Tom sank back in his chair, limp with thought. Executor Flynn waited. “But—I see. Time. You must be... You’re talking about the time-transformer.”
Time had passed in its long and lazy way since the young inventor had perfected his apparatus to slow or hasten its inexorable flow for those occupying the chamber at the focal point of its energies, the dyna-4 capsule. The huge structure, now in use, had been built underground in Nevada. “So Corpus is—”
“Our little city, safe in its protective enclosure, is a giant-scaled dyna-4 capsule. The lens-disks that distort time are above and below the living space, extending out from there. In scaling up from your version, we—that is, the hired scientists and engineers who believe in the project—discovered some shortcuts and design changes available at this size and power.”
“Then this isn’t so much a time-travel vehicle as a kind of suspended-animation chamber,” Tom pronounced. “The passage of time will be slowed for all of you. It’ll seem to you like hours or days, but when you exit—”
“We will exit into the future!—the promised future world foretold by the Voice and constructed for mankind by your Space Friends. We’ll all live to see it, Tom. This is the ultimate in life extension.”
“But Flynn, this technology, the basic physics—”
Flynn laughed. “Let’s give thanks to a man named Omicron Kupp! Eccentric, forgetful, rather mentally disorganized—and, frankly, not well-suited to maintaining the encrypted secrecy of his data files. My Shopton operatives rooted around electronically and found everything they needed, as well as useful leads on how to copy all manner of further work by your Dr. Franzenberg, your engineers, Mr. Wiltessa—you yourself, of course. All we needed to build the next new model of the celebrated time-transformer!”
“But the next step up in creating a larger version—I call it the next ‘notch-point’—the energy required—”
“Yes—a huge hunger for power, on the order of the power demands of a real city. A problem—until my people began analyzing data from various onsite studies of the Moon. They found hints, hidden patterns, data camouflaged by data that the selenologists hadn’t noticed. Something scientifically odd is going on down below, Tom. What are, I take it, laws of physics are being routinely violated. Luna hides pockets of unexpected nuclear activity, strange stuff. I can’t be expected to explain it. But the data patterns indicated some hotspots fairly near the surface, and so we chose this location.”
Tom nodded sharply. “You came to the Moon to tap the subsurface nuclear reactions, more than enough power to run your ‘main system’.”
“And for the isolation. Our hidden community must remain undisturbed, obviously.”
“For how long?”
Flynn shrugged. “As long as necessary—to meet the future! We’ll pause in our journey now and then, to try to find out what’s going on. Actually, with the establishment of the new technological order, it’s more likely that the hybrid cosmic society will discover us. We expect to be welcomed. The future society will surely be peaceful and benevolent. And we do have some value, you know, bearing artifacts and memories of what will be, to them, ancient history. Corpus is a time capsule in many senses, Tom, almost a Noah’s Ark preserving the remnants of this sad era of ours. Movies, music, works of art, samples of technology, plant and animal life, books—guy, we even have a set of your juvenile fictionalizations!”
In the midst of it all, the young inventor had to grin at the notion. “The authorized ones, I hope.”
“Of course. No need to preserve that fan-fiction stuff.”
The two sat quietly, looking at one another. Executor Flynn rose from his chair. “Come on, Tom, let’s take a stroll. The Ninety-Nine know you; it’d be nice for you to know them... again.”
They walked through the halls of Corpus Callosum, which seemed to have a diameter of several city blocks. The Callosans were numerous, gray, and friendly. There was also another quality in their attitudes which Tom finally found a word for. They seem to be grateful, he thought. Is it because I invented the time-transformer? Because the think I can fix whatever problem they’ve been having? Or...
Corpus still held close its mysteries—many more than Flynn was able—or willing—to unveil. But the administrator kept up a running commentary. “You played many a game in there, Tom... This is Marie—I think she has a bit of a crush on you, don’t you, Marie?... In this auditorium we listen to perfect reproductions of symphonic or popular music, the highest digital fidelity. We have some musicians here, too—Georgi is a fine concert pianist, and we have our own string quartet... Surprised to find a swimming pool on the Moon? Good for health. The low gravity certainly adds an extra element!... Our nice, compact hospital... These are our kitchens—wonderful cuisine...”
Flynn also showed the young inventor facilities with a more practical purpose. “We hope you’ll become very familiar with this room, Tom—as you were before.”
“I know what it is just by looking,” said the youth. “Your internal control setup for the time-transformer.”
“With adjacent workshop, for convenience.”
“Flynn, what’s the nature of the problem you’ve been having?” Tom asked. “The one you were having the, er, earlier me work on?”
Executor Flynn gave a slight shrug. “You’ll have to ask the tech team for details, I’m afraid. Theo over there is a prominent physicist—I’m sure Dr. Franzenberg knows of him. The gist of it is a degree of instability in the time-flow effect, some fluctuation. Annoying thing, like a rattle in a new car that you can’t quite pinpoint.”
“What did I say about it before? Did I have a theory?”
“You came to us already aware of the glitch, but without a solution. Let’s see—I believe you said the field produced by the system bulges out beyond the perimeter of the big disks a ways, upwards and outwards, an energy-surge at the moment of activation. An overflow of—what did you call it?—the chronoclastic vector matrix.”
The term energy surge struck Tom instantly. “That’s probably how the time-transformer triggers the moonquakes.”
“Hmm. You called it a scale-up issue; you said it wasn’t a problem at the Nevada installation. Well, you’ll have time to work on it.”
Flynn moved along a ways—but Tom remained rooted to the spot, frowning. “Will I, sir? Maybe I’ll have quite a lot of time. I’m feeling drained, beat—I don’t have the energy to play games with you, and I’d be grateful if you spoke frankly to me as well. You have no intention of letting me ‘choose’ to leave Corpus. I’m a prisoner here, as I was in my first visit. It’s obvious. You can’t afford to let me leave—and not just because you want your secret protected. You need me because I’m the inventor of the apparatus. You want me around to fix it and keep it running smoothly—now and in the future—all the way into the future!”
Flynn had returned to Tom’s side. “It’d surely be a convenience. Set some minds at ease.”
“No wonder your people feel grateful for my presence.” The youth realized he was snarling.
“But of course,” the other said mildly. “This project is our lives. We’ve left everything behind for it—I left my family. You’ll baby it along, see that it works; you’re the final piece, friend.” Unexpectedly his face took on a sly look. “No game playing? Then why don’t you admit who you really are!”
So now I have to confront it! “I’m Tom Swift. Inventor.”
“Sure of that?” Flynn asked mockingly.
“What’s that supposed to—”
“The Signal has hinted at it. The Callosans believe it. Even Airut, charlatan though he was, mentioned your name in his ramblings. Yes—‘Tom Swift’! Then it was just the name of a dead man, so we assumed; now it belongs to that man’s great-grandson—young genius, young explorer, young inventor. Famous, brave, brilliant young Tom Swift. The privileged one. The one human among everyone on Earth selected by an extraterrestrial race to speak to mankind, to make first contact, to speak for them. Chosen!”
NOTHING BUT TIME
Tom was taken aback, but forced out a weak laugh. “Well—some people in South America thought I was an angel; now I’m a messiah! I’m really coming up in the world.” Flynn didn’t join in the laugh. His face was noncommittal as it studied the face of Corpus’s visitor. “But you’re kidding, I hope. You don’t really believe this—story?”
Flynn’s face relaxed. “No, of course not. I’m a hard-headed guy. I manage money, and in the case of this project I very cautiously recruit people who expertly manage other things—finding ways to get a Moon colony built in secret, for example. But more than a few of the Ninety-Nine develop something of a worshipful look when the name ‘Tom Swift’ is mentioned. They say they’ve set religion and mysticism behind them—Airut stung that out of them—but they’re only human, my friend. It would be wonderful and comforting if we could be shepherded into the future paradise of the Space Friends by the one they’ve chosen to represent them on Earth.”
“Another reason to hold me here?” asked Tom grimly.
The man named Flynn shrugged. “How many reasons does a guy need? If you really insist on accentuating the negative, Tom—fine, I’ll play. You’re important to our success. We need you here. I want you to feel well-disposed toward us, to start to share with us the excitement of all this—what scientist and inventor could turn down a chance to see how the world you’ve been shaping turns out?”
“Thanks much, but I’d rather keep shaping it.”
“Which is why you left us before, when I was trusting enough to let you go outside. Trust you cynically cultivated. Props for that, Tom.” The man focused his eyes on Tom, and those eyes were cold. “And we still need you. Which is why I did what I had to do to bring you back to us.”
“I came here on my own, because—”
Flynn nodded. “Because ‘disast from Corp Callos, death to all bases’. Oh, and the dollar sign. Ah, it’s the usual Tom Swift story. ‘Only you can save those poor people, Tom Swift, only you!’—just the thing to motivate you and to keep you quiet. No sharing the glory, Chosen One. Cutting off the coordinates at the end—I think it made the message more convincing, more realistic. And intriguing. Plus we couldn’t be absolutely sure the wrong eyes wouldn’t glance at that window pane before it faded out.” He paused, taking in Tom’s smoldering outrage. “Yep, fooldja! My Shopton guys put together the techs to burn the message from out on the road—from original blueprints and specs, wherever they came across them. Really, my people are pretty talented hackers. I can’t tell you exactly who this Taxman really is, or what Collections is all about—but at least I was able to find enough quoted samples to pick up the style of their silly communications with you. ‘Your tax dollars!’ Corny boys-book stuff, don’t you think? Still—got you back here, hm?”
“All right,” grated the young inventor, red with anger and shame at being so thoroughly duped. “So I take it there never was—”
“No pending disaster, far as I know. Those mini-moonquakes—yes, they happen whenever we test the main equipment—no big deal. Still, you never did solve the fluctuation problem. I thought you might have left us with a worry, a little nervousness, that the crust effect could get serious when we go for the big power. Am I right, Tom? Is that what you assumed? The disaster?”
Tom stared. “I’m through with talking for now.”
Flynn nodded pleasantly. “I’d imagine. Tell you what, I’ll ask Journee over there to show you to your apartment. It’s the one you used before—consider it yours, guy. Everyone knows where it is. So relax, think, have dinner, play some board games, take a stroll wherever you like, get a good night’s sleep. Try to get your head around all this. You were able to do it before, you know. Tomorrow we’ll get you started looking over the machinery and all that.” After a pause, Flynn added with a wink: “That is—the parts of the machinery we’re willing to permit you to monkey around with.”
The apartment was big and comfortable, and Tom did his best to clear his head and stow his anger—for the present. He eventually wandered the halls, chatted with the Callosans, had a tasty supper, and almost acted as if he were a visiting vacationer—almost. Sleep was the hardest task. He lay with his arms folded behind his head, and his head ached with questions. Who had come here before, apparently bearing his looks, his memories, and a desire to impersonate him? Yet impersonate was not the right word. It seemed almost certain that this Tomlike predecessor had been the astonishing, and unnerving, bio-replica whose remains had been recovered from orbit. Something produced by the X-ians?—an upgraded model of a simulac?
Or was there a simpler solution, so obvious that Tom had set it aside? “All I really saw, with my own eyes, was a suit and some smears of tissue. For all the reported DNA-epigenic tests and supposed confirmations after I left—why couldn’t Corvalle and the others be lying?” he muttered to his pillow. “The Taxman thing was a hoax; maybe the replicant thing is another—dueling hoaxes!” His mind chose to debate the point. Oh really, Tom? All those people conspiring against you? Is the “Voice” telling you that? You’re getting as paranoid as the late and wet Mr. Airut!
Oddly enough—perhaps not so oddly for Tom Swift—the thing that most annoyed him among all the existential crises and moonquakes was the likelihood that he would miss the debut of his lunar accelapult. In a matter of days Caliper-1 would be launched—catapulted—into history without him. “Aw man!—and in a matter of days I might be catapulted into history—future history!”
The next morning—time wasn’t well kept or well marked in Corpus Callosum—the Shoptonian was guided from breakfast back to the control-monitor room. Despite himself, he soon yielded to curiosity and fascination, examining computer models of the general setup of both the “dyna-4” enclosed habitat and the mammoth time-transformer itself, which extended much further into the surrounding underground. “We made changes, things beyond your American installation,” said the attending technician, an obese man named Rhynvic. “No offense meant, of course. Much fortunate, that this man Kupp had worked out the mathematics and geometry for us. Do you know about tensors? No? Fun little things.”
Tom said, “I’m interested in how you tap the underground energy source for power. Do you scientists understand what’s going on down there?”
“Oh, perhaps some bits, not everything. Something impossible. Fusion? Can’t be, eh?—this is not the sun! And you know—I’m sure you do, Tom; well... you used to—that we will have no access to this outside source during the course of our actual time-slowdown. At higher power the time bubble allows nothing in, nothing out.”
“Well,” replied the youth, “it depends on the intensity. But objects don’t pass easily through the ‘shear’ separating one speed of time and another. I take it you have a way to store the energy you’ve accumulated?”
“Yes, yes, I’ll be showing it all to you. You didn’t need me to do it back before, not so many weeks ago.”
Tom said dryly, “It seems I was smarter back then.”
Rhynvic surprised Tom with a giggle. “Hah! But smart enough to send us good numbers from up on the surface, the very day you ran away. Without those field-flux numbers, we would have no ability to fix this delinquent time bubble of ours. Would not you, the inventor, also be stumped?—as it seems the numbers have now escaped your mind. Mustn’t go sailing off in a leaky boat, hm?”
An hour later Flynn dropped by—to find his unwilling guest frowning and suspicious. “You’re still not being honest with me, sir. You can’t expect me to solve these technological problems without—”
Flynn held up a stop-sign palm. “Let’s lose the attitude, friend. Not always easy to remember that you no longer retain what you knew very well a while back. What’s your issue?”
“You’ve been running the time-transformer continuously since I arrived!”
“Oh, that? True. Your nice blond hair has been graying at a slightly slower rate since I gave the order, a moment after Charles intercommed me that you had returned, before we shook hands.”
“But why? Why risk the fluctuation effect?” demanded Tom.
The Executor looked serious and shrewd. “Tom, you must think you’re the only intelligent guy on this side of Luna! I’m not a fool. I know your people will show up here eventually. Today, for all I know. And for all our locked doors and moral pleadings, you’ll find some scientific way to get out. Don’t you always?
“As a finance guy I have to think long-term, and I’ve had a lot of time to think since I naively let you go wandering outside before. The time-distortion focus, the central part of the field where time is slowed for us, extends a little beyond the walls of our airtight living space, just as the surrounding part of the field—the reverse of the effect—bulges out on all sides even beyond the edges of the disks. And even at very minimal power... but you see where I’m heading with this.”
“As a matter of fact I was just talking with Rhynvic about the barrier effect,” Tom responded coolly. “Penetrating into the accelerated-time zone from outside causes difficulties that rescuers wouldn’t be prepared to deal with, even at the low energies you’re applying now. And near the habitat wall, where the time-flow reverses, positive to negative—”
“A much stronger differential. Nothing can pass through the gradient from fast to slow; so much for potential intruders from the outside world,” pronounced Flynn. “As for the other direction—a crewcut escapee might be physically able to step through, but the effects of being wrenched between conflicting time rates wouldn’t be pleasant. Or healthful. Agreed? Even at this trickle of power—we never see the fluctuation at such low levels—the impact is surely rather discouraging. And a pretty effective prison wall.” He chuckled. “Being a two-timer is both good and bad.”
“Depending on which side you’re on,” commented the young inventor sourly. “And I agree, Flynn. You’re an intelligent guy—for a jailer.”
Tom spent the day working with the technicians and scientists of Corpus Callosum, earnestly interested in the challenge of the fluctuation problem—but always—as always—thinking. They’re letting me study the field output, but they’re smart enough to lock me out of the basic controls and the power system. Without disabling the time-transformer, pausing it momentarily, trying to escape from Corpus through the differential time barrier would kill him, if it were possible to do at all. Yet if he remained he would be carried off into the future in a solid, unbreakable block of “frozen time”—and if he didn’t render the mechanism safe for use, he would be risking death as much as the other Callosans when the system was thrown into full power. Two chances for death, he thought, and one chance for the most permanent exile imaginable. Great choices, Chosen One!
Tom ate supper in what was termed the Garden Room. He noted uneasily that when he entered, some of the others rose from their chairs as if in respect. The big room served as both a casual dining room and an auditorium, and was decorated with potted plants—some tree-sized—and various ornate fountains and artificial waterfalls. The air was damp and scented, and even the lighting suggested something like a forested setting.
He was gestured over to “the artists table” and chatted about art, music, and writing, none of them within his field of competency—yet the dozen or so men and women seemed to hang on every word. It made Tom uncomfortable and awkward; he was glad to finish dessert and migrate to the far end of the room.
“Oh, hello Tom,” called a small, elderly woman gently, sitting alone opposite an empty chair. “Do join me for tea, won’t you?”
“I’d be happy to, ma’am.”
She smiled as the young inventor seated himself. “My name is Pauline, as you knew before, though they say you can’t remember. My native Bristol has nothing so quiet and pleasant as my little corner here. I never did like crowds. That was the worst thing, back all those years ago when I was a fool worshipping another fool, that scoundrel Airut. Always a crowd, always people milling about.”
“You accepted his teachings?”
“Oh, I do wish I could deny it. But I was discontented with life, my job, my relatives. It all seemed so wonderful, what he and his Voice promised. Or I should say, Tom—what we wanted to believe were inside all those garbled murmurings of his. Such nonsense.”
“Forgive my saying, Pauline,” said Tom, “but you seem too nice a person to need to escape from this world into the next one.”
“What a dear boy you are. We’re all so very gratified that you came back to us. But we also know...” She hesitated as if teetering on the edge of a delicate subject. “You don’t really care to stay and be a part of Corpus. We know about your adventurous exploits, of course. Tea with a quaint old lady—while you’re accustomed to flying through outer space and building great bubbles on the bottom of the sea. You and your friend Bud... you must miss him a great deal.”
Tom grinned. “I haven’t been here quite long enough to miss him yet, ma’am, but over the next thousand years I’m sure I would.”
They laughed together. “It won’t seem so long, Tom, not for us,” said Pauline. “Flynn says that when he turns it way up, our whole journey won’t take longer than rubbing your eye. It’d be awfully nice if you’d stay with us this time. Do think it over, won’t you?”
The young inventor leaned forward and squeezed her hand. “Pauline, it looks like it doesn’t much matter to Flynn what I think. I hope you all realize that I’m being kept here as a prisoner. Not that this isn’t the nicest prison imaginable.”
“Flynn is terribly insistent now and then. I suppose he has to be, to keep us dreamy-eyed old people on track. But really, don’t you think you could find love, friends, excitement, so many things, somewhere in the future?”
“I’m sure I could,” Tom nodded. “But you have to build the future before you can live in it. That has to be done now, ma’am. There’s a project I’m working on right now that could help us understand space and time better than ever before. Honestly, I think I prefer the start of the future to the end.”
They listened to the fountain for a moment. “We all give up something, Tom, to get where we want to go in life, don’t you think? You’re so young right now, but you’ll know some day. You’ll know what you gave up and what you got. I hope you won’t give up the future.”
“I don’t give up easily, ma’am.”
The young inventor eventually returned to his living quarters. He was restless and his prodigal mind seemed to be on strike for the moment. He paced.
He found himself looking absently at the polished wooden writing desk pushed up next to one wall. It seemed like a restored antique, but it was marred by scratches on its surface. He approached—and froze!
The scratches were not random or careless, but obviously had been made with intent. They were clustered together in a deliberate pattern—the sort of pattern Tom recognized immediately. Space symbols!—the mathematical hieroglyphs by which the Space Friends communicated with Earth!
“Am I dreaming?” he gasped softly. “Great space, are the X-ians here, here in Corpus Callosum after all?—!”
He forced himself to regain his calm. This was a scientific problem to be solved. He considered the cluster of symbols. They were crudely done, as if the writer had scratched them into the dark finish hastily, with whatever implement was available. Long experience allowed Tom to decipher the simple message:
FIND BELOW REAR
Instructions to the reader? A reference to the reaction pockets below the Corpus installation? But then it occurred to him that the desk had a drawer extending beneath the position of the symbols. He pulled it open; various uninteresting odds and ends...
Rear! it had commanded. He stretched his lean forearm and felt pieces of paper pressed against the back slat of the shallow drawer. Drawing them out, he saw that they were small sheets torn from what might have been a pocket notebook of the sort he himself carried with him almost always. A scrawl of handwriting covered the several sheets. There was something about that handwriting...
The sheets were numbered. He read the message start to finish, then a second time—and on the second reading his face was pale. Clutching them, he hurried from the apartment, half-trotting down the corridors.
He entered the large room in which he had removed his Swift Enterprises spacesuit. Ranks of Corpus clothing in various sizes still lined the walls, including the colony’s own “outerwear” garb, their simple generic-style spacesuits.
Tom was alone, as he had anticipated. He leaned his back against a wall and hunkered down on the floor and read the writing a third time as it trembled before his eyes.
Tom, I’m you. It’s that simple. I’m your future self, your self-to-come, but I’m not on your calendar any more, but in your past. I’ve spent weeks here. I don’t quite recall how long I’d been in Corpus, in the future where you are, before it happened. Was it days? Or that first day working in the dyna-4 control lab? I think what happened to me, the time transition, had some micro-distortion effect on my brain cells. Medically harmless, but my memories seem dulled. And I’ve been “back here” working in the lab for so many days that I can’t be certain which memories belong to which time era. Maybe there’s some law of physics that makes it difficult to retrieve memories when your past lies in your future. So I’m not able to tell you how long you have before it happens to you—the transition—or exactly what the circumstances were—will be.
What happened to me, what’s going to happen to you, must have to do with one of the random fluctuations in the chrono field, which I remember Flynn keeps running all the time “up there.” Some kind of reaction wobble in the nuclear pockets below? That’s the gist of what I came up with “since you,” if you get what I mean.
All of a sudden, instantly, I was back here. No one could figure out how I got here, or how I already knew so much. I smiled and kept it a secret. Of course, I knew so much because of Flynn’s briefing in the future, when Charles and the others brought me inside. To you that’s much more recent than it is to me.
Do you understand? I’m the “other Tom”—that is, we are—you’re going to become what I am now, here in the past!
Here’s the thing—if that’s all true, then—sorry, I had to stop writing for a minute—then we’re going to die! What you found in orbit, the human remains—that has to have been what was left of my own body—which is also going to be your body, future-former Tom! Up ahead they say I—me, back here—left the installation and disappeared. They assumed I went back to Hillengard, but now we know that wasn’t “me”—it was you, fresh up from Earth. Something’s going to happen to me, when I go outside to take some readings of the fluctuation problem. I’ll pick a spacesuit. I don’t remember the exact serial number anymore, but whichever one I happen to put on will turn out to be the spacesuit! It just has to end up that way! I remember Flynn saying my bootprints just came to an end. I’m fated to be destroyed, by some unknown—something.
But I have to take those exterior measurements. I know just how to do it; I can’t rely on others doing it right. If I don’t go out, if I stay inside and try to hide from my future, the critical readings won’t be there to fix the time-trans, and—you don’t know this yet—they’ll risk starting the time-transformer at full power even if Corpus is destroyed—along with you-me and all the Ninety-Nine! Because now I know something I didn’t know when I was you, Tom—whatever they tell themselves, however much they want to deny it, Corpus Callosum is just as it was under Airut. It’s a suicide cult! These elderly people don’t care to live any longer, not in this era of ours, and so it’s Future or Die! for them. If they can’t have the future, they’d just as soon leave the world behind the other way. No matter what, they won’t be going back to Earth.
This business of time defies all logic. You’re me—so I know you understand. When I went outside “before”—in your public past, my personal future—I went to my death. But first I did transmit some data from my equipment, and those numbers might be the very ones you’re working on now, up ahead. It could be that after you get catapulted back here, Rhynvic or one of the others will use that data and solve the problem themselves.
If I go out, I’ll be killed—and since I know that, it’s a suicide on my part, right? And if I don’t go out, history changes but the critical data is lost and maybe everyone dies—and I-we didn’t volunteer for that! Worse, who knows what sort of time-loop might come about when the unfixed apparatus swallows itself?—maybe like a “knot” that pulls through—even, maybe, a massive energy explosion that could react all along the nuclear faultlines. Trying to change history and preserve my-our own future could cause in reality the super-disaster Flynn made up! Better risk my—our!—death.
But much as it seems it all has to happen—maybe not! Back here I don’t have the leeway to monkey around with Time and Fate, but what about you—my earlier self, up ahead? I don’t have any memory of finding and reading, before I was catapulted past-wards, this message I’m now writing. That could just be the memory-deletion problem. But what if the reason is that it didn’t even exist “the first time around?” Maybe my writing it and leaving it for you changes things somehow. If you’re reading it, it might mean the whole sequence doesn’t absolutely have to occur. What if you solve the fluctuation problem before it hits you and sends you back?
Yeah. What if what if. Logically—it could all be inevitable, whatever the details. Has time, history, “already happened,” start to finish, beyond editing and revision? I’m probably wasting time right now, writing this. But Time deserves to be wasted—for scheduling my death!!
Tomorrow I’ll be outside, and then I’ll probably be a smear of dead molecules. Unless somehow we get this untangled, you and you and me and me, and break out of the loop.
Hey—nice knowin’ you!
Tom, the slice of Tom Swift existing in “the present,” lowered the pages. He had picked a spot near the row of hanging spacesuits for a reason. There was one gap, one missing suit. There was lettering on the wall behind the spot, lettering this Tom could still recall and recognize, though his later self could not.
M 5 F
It was as other-Tom had said. The death suit was the suit he went out in, the suit this Tom was going to go out in. He—his future self in the past. The one and only real Tom Swift was going to die. Unless, defying all paradoxes, he could change his future—to change his past!
ON THE WAY TO SOMEWHERE
THE GARDEN ROOM was now an auditorium, the dining tables folded away. The fountains burbled, the forest was still in the air, and nearly all the Ninety-Nine stood expectantly. Tom Swift stood on a low platform, next to a lectern. The man named Flynn stood next to him, face half smile and half stone. He’s suspicious, Tom thought.
The young inventor held up a small object that fit neatly into his hand. He held it high and spoke loudly. “This is it,” he said. “Pressing this button signals Rhynvic, in the control room, to activate your main system computers to start you on your journey into the future.”
Flynn stepped forward. “We’ll soon be seeing—‘in no time,’ as the saying goes—what mankind and the extraterrestrial brotherhood have created together,” pronounced the Executor. “What they will be creating, over a century, a millennium—however long before we leave Corpus Callosum.”
“It’ll be a better world,” said one Callosan loudly. The white-haired crowd whooped and applauded.
Old Lemmy spoke. “Aye, now listen, all o’ yuh—clap fer happy if ya want, but it’s Tom Swift who gets our thanks today. He’s th’ one who found out how ta make the machine purr like a kitten. Wi’out young Tom, who knows where we’d be, time or space or whatever?”
“Heaven is the future!” pronounced a woman who Tom knew was one of those who spoke for The Signal.
“Yeah, let’s hope that’s the final destination!” declared a man, provoking laughter.
They gave Tom three cheers. Tom acknowledged it, but his face looked sad and disquieted. “Yes, I solved the fluctuation problem, with valuable help from Rhynvic and the rest of the scientific and technical staff.” Not to mention help from myself! he thought. “The apparatus has been reconfigured to interact with the nuclear power source deep below you, in such a way as to counteract and suppress the fluctuations that were showing up in the time field. It’s a complex sequence of modulations, and it’s derived from my readings taken on the day I took my short leave of absence from Corpus. You thought I’d abandoned you—I know some of you thought that—but I had some personal matters to take care of before rejoining you.”
“And at last you’re one of us!” called out Alig. “You believe in the project—in us!”
“Yes,” Tom said. “I do believe in you—all of you.”
“In us, Tom,” someone said. “It’s us; you’re traveling with us now.”
Tom nodded, glancing around the room, giving Pauline a wink. “Well... let’s not make Rhynvic wait any longer.” He again held up the box, thumb cocked. “When I push—”
“No,” said Flynn firmly. “I hardly think you should be the one to wave the starter flag, Tom. Not that we’re less than overcome with gratitude. But I’m the guy in charge. I represent the project and the Ninety-Nine.” He held out his hand.
Tom murmured wryly, barely audible: “All the effort to convert me, Flynn, and I think you still don’t trust me.”
Flynn turned slightly away from the crowd. “Don’t ask me to accept that we have successfully converted you to the cause. No, Tom. You could never be one of us.”
“Maybe not, but I’d better make the best of it. I’m pretty thoroughly sealed-in by the time-differential barrier. And you’ve locked me out of the on-off function completely. I can’t shut down the time-transformer for even one second. So don’t be afraid of letting me press the button, Flynn—if Corpus stutters itself to death, well, I’m here too.”
The Executor’s smile was unmoved. “Just hand it over, Tom. In a few minutes—our minutes—you can press all the buttons you like.”
Tom gave him the signaler, with its one lone button. With a flourish, Flynn pressed it.
Nothing happened. “Are we—are we on our way?” asked a woman, one of the Artists Table group. “Or maybe I should say, Are we there yet?”
“It takes a few moments,” was the young inventor’s tense reply. “After Rhynvic works his controls, the time-transformer has to power-up to maximum and go through a sequence of events. Don’t be impatient, friends. You have all the time in the world!” The assembly fell silent. No one could hear Tom Swift’s own, internal “voice.” It was a kind of countdown, with visuals provided by his imagination. The visuals came in darkness—Tom had shut his eyelids tightly and covered them with his hand.
Utility hatch: open.
Main boom: extend.
Accelapult device: aim.
Accelapult sequence controller: routine delta.
Accelapult sequence controller: routine epsilon.
Accelapult sequence controller...
On impulse Tom spoke the word aloud. “Activate!”
The ultraviolet flash, near the ceiling of the Garden Room, produced no visible light. But as before at Lake Carlopa, the effect was startling and immediate. The crowd—Flynn included—gasped and exclaimed. Some fell to their knees. Some tumbled into one another. Most were rubbing their eyes—some their exposed skin, which would soon be very red and sensitive, stinging from a bad sunburn. As Tom uncovered his eyes and leapt from the platform, he risked a quick glance around. No one seemed to have collapsed. As Charles had said, the hearty time-journeyers were old, but not all that delicate!
Innocent and unknowing, Rhynvic’s button-push had transmitted Tom’s instructions from the computers of Corpus, through its camouflaged surface antenna, to the Space Kite, the small test model of the accelapult still stowed aboard. The energy of its linear spacetrack passed unimpeded through ground and walls, to be absorbed by the Garden Room’s artificially moist air—and re-emited in an instant.
At the same time Rhynvic had indeed activated the fluctuation-cancelling routine Tom had devised—but Tom had programmed-in a twist. Before smoothness came turbulence, one big fluctuation at the start, lasting about ten minutes. During those minutes the time-transformer field, though still active, would be in a null state. The barrier would be down. Tom would be able to escape Corpus Callosum.
But he had things to do on the way. And in ten minutes the mechanism would finally establish stability and resume powering-up to its maximum. And then it would be the Callosans who would be on their way. Would Tom be among them?—trapped and utterly beyond the reach of the outside world for whatever fate Time decreed?
He bolted down the halls, encountering no one and trying not to count the seconds off in his head. In the garments room he whipped one of the spacesuits from its holder and donned it clumsily. Starting its hiss of breath and sealing the helmet, he made for the escalator to the surface. In a minute—how many minutes remained?—he stood again on the desert of Luna beneath unyielding stars.
And then a bad moment. Where was the Space Kite?
The moment dissolved and he felt like giving himself a rap on his helmeted head. The anti-energy sheathing made the craft hard to see, especially in the crawling shadows where it now waited. He made out its indistinct form and began to bounce along in its direction. The arc of each stride suspended him without traction, slowing the run—and out of nowhere a dire thought leaked in. He was outside Corpus Callosum, but when the vast timefield moved beyond its null state, wouldn’t there be a surge, an overflow reaching the surface? Tom had been assuming that he had succeeded in re-setting his personal history, that he had gotten beyond the point where a fluctuation had, in a lost “once,” catapulted him into the past.
But—! Great space, other-Tom couldn’t remember the exact situation, what he had been doing when it happened! It could happen now, any instant, as the field reasserted itself. Tom could still be thrown backwards! He might yet be claimed by Fate, caught in Time’s unbreakable grasp!
But Time and Fate had relented. The young inventor found himself in front of the Kite, raising the cockpit dome and scrambling aboard. He didn’t bother retracting the accelapult until he was well underway—when he had leisure to listen to the thud of his heart. “And by now they are underway as well,” he murmured. “On the way to—somewhere.” They had captured and deceived him; yet he wished them well.
The Space Kite scudded along near the surface; if there were a moonquake when the Corpus time-transformer flapped its wings of energy, Tom saw no signs of it in the slopes and pinnacles as he shot past them with ever-increasing velocity.
Suddenly his observations were interrupted as a huge complex of shadow fell across the Kite—a moving shadow coming from behind and above. The Challenger!
As the giant craft matched speed with the midget one, Tom brought the Space Kite to a landing on the exterior vehicular deck, to be drawn into the hangar within. And in a minute—
“Aww maaan, were we glad to see you twinkling along out there!” Bud exclaimed in the control compartment, through a muscular bear-hug. “We thought you were just off somewhere thinking and writing notes to yourself—”
“Bud here was a little more concerned than that,” stated Mr. Swift wryly. “I’m afraid I was the voice of calm. I didn’t expect you to bolt, son. Er—not again, anyway.”
Freeing himself from Bud, Tom laughed. “As a matter of fact, I just did it a third time!”
“But finally Chief Corvalle ordered a big search of the whole facility,” Bud went on. “Jetz!—even that bin where he hid the body. I was afraid we’d find you! Took a while to realize the Kite was gone.”
“We figured you’d taken off for this ‘corpus’ thing,” put in Bob Jeffers from the control board. “Bud didn’t have the exact coordinated from your survey. Your Dad and Lyrae—also Dr. Franzenberg—had to recreate your quakewave calculations.”
“A laborious process over a couple days,” said Mr. Swift. “This was to be a scouting mission, prior to whatever action might be required. And now you’ve met us along the way.”
Tom was happy—yet puzzled. “But—I left you the data on the mnemo-chip, Dad. You must’ve searched my room right away.”
“I was first in, genius boy,” Bud replied. “Didn’t see any kind of recording chip or note—I did wonder if you were leavin’ a clue, the way you’d spread out your tee on the bed.”
The mystery isn’t over! the young inventor thought grimly. Something’s still going on at Agri! Was another struggle waiting in the wings?
Tom put it aside for the moment; the others wanted a story, and he told it as concisely as he could—perhaps too much so. “Sorry, boss, but I don’t think I follow all that,” said Bob apologetically. “Something happened—you went back in time—then you wrote yourself a letter, and—you made it so it didn’t happen in the first place.”
“I thought you said you didn’t follow it,” Tom grinned.
“Chum, I gave up expecting things to make sense years ago,” joked Bud. “Or months ago, depending on what you read. Though—if it’s okay to ask questions...
“Tom, this ‘earlier you’ is the guy who—”
“Who got turned into less than the sum of his parts.”
“But it was you, the real you—right? And now you’re here, and it didn’t happen. So... I mean... just what did happen, Skipper? If you’re you, whose leftovers are back at Agri in the fridge?”
Mr. Swift said quietly, “If space can have its twists and turns, detours and shortcuts—the sorts of things Caliper-1 is to study—why not time as well? We may have to accept such things and tame them, Bud, even if our poor brains never understand them.”
“But I think I’ve figured out a little bit of what happened,” Tom declared; “how those pulverized remains of the other me wound up in orbit. When I got free today and was running toward the Kite, I realized I’d overlooked the way the chronolens field surges outward during its fluctuations. I think my earlier self also didn’t think about it—and it caught him.”
“So how does that explain things?” asked Jeffers.
“When we were first experimenting with a model of the dyna-4 system in my lab, we found that if the accelerated-time portion of the field is the part on the outside, any object inserted into the field is sucked right into the field at a touch, speeds through it like a super-bullet, and comes shooting out the opposite side. And that’s what happened to other-Tom! He couldn’t have felt a thing; it was all too instantaneous. The edge of the surging field touched him as he was taking his readings—and in an instant he was zooming into orbit, completely crushed by the gigantic forces of acceleration.”
“Yes,” nodded Mr. Swift, “the forces that Tom’s accelapult will use tomorrow to launch the Ein-Gen probe.”
“Tomorrow?” Tom was overjoyed! “Then I haven’t missed it! I wasn’t sure how long I’ve been away—the Callosans were more interested in lassoing time than in keeping it.”
“Genius boy, when you push that button I’ll be right there with cheers and champagne!” Bud chortled.
“Actually, flyboy, the thrill of button-pushing is a tad overrated,” replied the young inventor dryly. “I’m planning a different sort of thrill.”
Tomorrow found Tom, Bud, and Lyrae Aspodiel hundreds of miles from Crater Hillengard, positioned on a slope within sight of the repelatron shuttle-bus that had flown them there. As if dressed for a special occasion, the three wore the newest models of Tom Swift Enterprises spacesuits. The suits had no helmets; their heads were enclosed by intangible bubbles of the same form of Inertite nano-filaments that held down the air above AgriColony Alpha’s farmland. The bubbles were all but invisible, though the chunk of air they contained refracted the light into a faint corona.
Tom pointed upward at a slight angle. “There’s where it crosses.” There was, of course, nothing to see but stars.
“I guess this isn’t exactly selenology,” remarked Lyrae. “But it’ll be in all the lunar history books. I just had to see it.”
“See what?” Bud demanded. “Jetz, the accelapult spacetrack is invisible, those cataly-things are below the horizon, and the Tortoise—not to mention the Hare—will be hippity-hopping along way too fast to be seen! So just what are we supposed to watch for, Skipper?”
Tom grinned at his pal. “You don’t think I know how to put on a show? C’mon, Bud, we have to give ’em something to put on the cover of the book version! It’s almost time—they’ll be gearing up now at mission control in Hillengard. Wait for it...” His arm whipped up again, pointing. “Now! Look!”
Suddenly the sky seemed to open up, to unfold like a flower in a brilliant display of every color of the rainbow! The flash vanished almost instantly, leaving them dazzled.
“Gosh to goodness!” Lyrae exclaimed in awe and delight.
“The disintegration of the Tortoise vehicle as it loosed the Hare!” explained the young inventor. “There’s a resonance interaction between the accelapult field and the expanding mass of particulates. Let there be light!”
“So Caliper-1 is off on its way?” Bud asked excitedly.
“Let me com Rafe Franzenberg,” was Tom’s reply. After a long tense moment a new grin broke out. “Yes—a perfect launch! The Ein-Gen team reports good telemetry from the probe. Of course at that velocity the signal is severely red-shifted...”
“Of course it is,” dryly commented Bud.
They flew back to Agri for a triumphal celebration. In the middle of it, speaking over loud music, Ladislau Mul brought up one of the colony’s unsolved problems. “This Einstein business is all a marvel, Tom, but my mind is full of barium arsenate. You are the genius inventor; what can you do to make our garden grow?”
Tom smiled thoughtfully. “It seems to be a Moon-wide problem, as the other colonies are beginning to discover. I’m sure it has something to do with the scientific mystery of that weird subsurface nuclear activity. Of course there are cumbersome mechanical and chemical ways to filter out the poison, but...” His blue eyes reflected a familiar gleam from within his own depths. “There’s water elsewhere in the solar system—plentiful water. Why not pipe it in?”
“What? A pipe?”
“An invisible pipe as long as we want it to be—made by my accelapult!” Tom began to sketch it out in his mind, as if it were to be his next project. But that assumption would prove incorrect, as Tom Swift on Planet Zero Minus would show.
The youth finally returned to his apartment, thinking over the bafflements of time-loops and a missing mnemo-chip. His thoughts were interrupted by a rap on the door. “Dad! C’mon in.”
Damon Swift entered and gave Tom a quick hug. “A few things I wanted to go over with you before I say goodbye.”
Tom looked at the older man curiously. “Goodbye? I thought you’d be staying a few more days.”
“It’s not that kind of goodbye.”
Mr. Swift’s expression was strangely intent. It gave Tom an odd feeling. “Oh? Is there a problem, Dad?”
The other shook his head. “No. Not a problem at all. It’s just that you won’t be seeing me again.”
Heart pounding, eyes wide, the young inventor backed up until the bed stopped him. He choked out his next words—almost whispering. “You—you’re—not my father. You’re one of the bio-replicas. You’re one of the Space Friends!”
“Please don’t worry,” said the other. “Damon Swift is safe and well. He’ll be returned to you as soon as I depart, just as we did before, with Gary Dalquinn. You know, they—we—what a problem pronouns make!—the technology of the X-ians is still affected by the toxic barrier emanating from the seafloor pyramids. They can’t do it within Earth’s atmosphere. We made the substitution in space, while your father was en route here. Instantaneous and unnoticed. Of course he’ll remember nothing. This artificial persona that allows us to speak and understand—translating our modes of cognition into human forms and vice-versa—it’s a part of this emulated physical body and brain. It will all dissolve as I leave, as was the case with Gary-X—you told me about it, son.”
“What’s this all about?” demanded Tom angrily. “What gives you the right to do this, to intervene? Why won’t you explain yourselves?”
“The right? Our right is the same right you yourself assert,” replied Damon-X calmly. “The right of intelligence to understand what is and what is not. They monitor things, Tom, things we do as we move into space. They—we—I knew of the Ein-Gen probe, its significance to your species, your civilization. My presence, using the sensory modes of a human whose involvement would not cause alarm, allowed me to make observations that we find interesting, from which we have already learned...”
“They don’t want to tell us, son,” said Damon-X. “My Damon persona—the ‘self’ that seems to be me, your Dad—somehow grasps a little of his thinking, but I can’t fit it into words. But I know this. The day will come, Tom Swift, the day the Corpus Callosans... what is the concept?... the day they dream about. And then we shall meet.”
Tom was resentful and sarcastic. “Right. Because I’m the Chosen One?”
“Because you are Tom Swift.” The artificial human, other-Damon, dug into his pocket and tossed something on Tom’s bed. “We knew of the mnemo-chip, just as we knew of the events at Corpus Callosum—all the events. He took it—that is, I took it—took your recording to ensure that the sequence of those events would be allowed to reach its culmination without interference from Bud or Chief Corvalle or the others here.”
“And naturally you won’t tell me why.”
The pseudo-man smiled in a fatherly way. “You have your experiments; we have ours.” He backed toward the door a step, then paused and spoke again. “I will... maintain... cohesion for a moment longer. Your father, the Damon persona, has its influence on this body. He loves you, Tom Swift. He regrets how infrequently he communicates that concept. Whatever it may be.
“And he knows that you have a troubled feeling about the destruction of what you call other-Tom. So I’ll tell you—they understand it all, Tom, though I don’t know if I can explain their concepts—
“You never faced bodily destruction, Tom Swift. What happened was never part of your... it’s a word... your Fate. You misconceived the situation. The fluctuation didn’t throw you into the past. Think of each successive moment, every ‘now’ that makes up your personal history, as a very, very thin slice of your fourth-dimensional extension, your body’s length in time. Each such slice is the entirety of you—brain and body—as you exist at that instant. The field fluctuation knocked aside just one slice, a ‘now’ one instant ‘thick,’ like pulling out one card from within a deck—and transferred it a couple months pastward. It was so thin your normal timeline simply bridged the gap and continued—and that timeline is you, here. But in the past, it gave rise to its own separate continuity, its own brief future—which came to an end. He was as much you as you are, son.”
Tom nodded, entranced. “Yes. One person, two bodies, two times. And maybe, in a way, one mind or spirit connecting both. I felt from the start that what we found in that spacesuit was also, somehow, a part of me.”
But there was no one left to answer, just a heap of clothing on the floor and a drift of powder.