THE TOM SWIFT INVENTION ADVENTURES
ON PLANET ZERO
BY VICTOR APPLETON II
ILLUSTRATED BY SCOTT DICKERSON
TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT ON PLANET ZERO MINUS
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing, copyright to
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
THE CAPTIVE SUN
“MR. SWIFT, I just wanted to say—once more—I’m so grateful, your allowing me to watch this experiment with you. It would have meant a lot to Dad.”
“Your father was a talented nuclear engineer and a good man,” Damon Swift replied gently to Iris Mantova. “Jules contributed greatly to the Helios project. I never had the pleasure of knowing him well—all those miles between here and Shopton got in the way. But bringing you on board was the least I could do.”
“I received my final clearances just two days before... before the end,” continued the young woman with a catch in her voice. “It made him smile. I’ll remember that always.”
The youthful technician and the graying older scientist, head of Tom Swift Enterprises in New York, stood shoulder to shoulder in a shielded observation blockhouse amid the wheel-pattern of looming domes and modernistic lab buildings that constituted the Citadel, Enterprises’ nuclear research facility in the southwestern desert. Tense and wide-eyed, they were waiting to witness a birth—of a sun!
Two more witnesses stood with them. “I hope my explanation of what we’re doing today wasn’t too sketchy, Iris,” said young Tom Swift. “Dad’s really more plugged-in to this experiment than I am. He’s been studying solar phenomena for years.”
His father chuckled slightly. “But Tom’s the professional explainer around here.”
“He’s had a lot of practice,” said black-haired Bud Barclay, Tom’s close friend and inevitable explainee. “Believe me, ‘sketchy’ is a real skill when you’re trying to get a musclehead like me to stretch his brains around—whatever this thing is.”
The holding pen of the Helios Fusion-Core Reactor, awaiting its cue three thousand feet beneath the baked terrain of New Mexico, had been built laboriously with the assistance of Tom’s mighty super-borer, the atomic earth blaster. The pressing layers of earth and rock were a necessary safety measure required by Federal regulators in view of the fantastic energies involved. The HFCR used a wealth of advanced technologies to reproduce in micro-miniature a controllable version of the sun of the solar system in order to study some physics-defying phenomena that science had been encountering since young Tom had begun his inventive career.
“Dad kept his security pledge even at home,” noted Iris. “Of course I knew in a general way what the project was about. Nowadays even us science-minded girls can’t ignore what they call the new physics.”
Bud shrugged wryly. “Glad I don’t have to try to explain that! Something about elements and weird matter and high-pressure stuff—stuff that’s not supposed to be. I’m told it makes scientists nervous.”
“Pal, you’d be nervous too if half of everything you learned turned out to be wrong!” declared Tom. “First we found veranium in South America—a stable radioactive isotope without precedent in nature; then traces of higher-element fusion under Antarctica, halfway to the Earth’s core. Exploron gas—Inertite—Diracinium—Galilectrum—”
“And now the sub-lunar phenomenon,” added Mr. Swift. “That’s what really lit a fire—a nuclear fire!—under us to finish the Helios project.”
On the moon, facing the scientific challenges that brought about his lunar accelapult, Tom had discovered evidence of strange, moon-wide nuclear reactions going on beneath Luna’s cratered crust. The seemingly dead world was alive with something unexplained, some anomalous form of thermonuclear fusion taking place on a scale well beyond the puny and halting experiments of Earth’s scientific community. It was hoped that the long-developing project at the Citadel, rethought and expanded, would capture and tame energies intense enough to force Nature to yield another of her great secrets.
Tom glanced at his more-than-just-a-watch wristwatch. “Six minutes to go. We’re in the last phase of the countdown.”
Bud was showing a trace of un-scientific nervousness beneath his loopy black hair. “I’ve been through countdowns like this a million times, of course. Old hat. Yawn yawn. But, er... on behalf of newbies like you, Iris... you did say this has all been tested out before—right, Tom?”
“We’ve run ’er up to eighty-eight percent,” the crewcut young inventor replied calmly. “Today’s the big test of the full self-sustaining mode—as well as the little side-test of my photon-wave axistor. Just a piggyback experiment.”
“But not so little in terms of the SunStorm Satellite,” his father noted. “It’s your invention that makes such a close approach possible, son. We need to take a look deep inside the solar corona if we’re to understand what of our new cousin planet is doing. It’s far closer to the edge of the corona than any substantial body in our solar system.”
Tom’s accelapult had launched a space probe into the dark distant heights of the solar system, speeding starward through the sun’s extended gravitational field to measure, minutely, the warp and woof of space itself. The numbers transmitted by Caliper-1 had baffled the international scientific team charged with interpreting them. There was an unexpected fly in the oatmeal of data, a shifting “tweak” in spacetime, at the very edge of detection but clearly emanating from the vicinity of the sun itself. At last astronomy, assisted by Swift Enterprises technology, had penetrated the solar glare to unveil the truth. Far within the orbit of the planet Mercury, in human terms almost skimming the fierce firestorm of the sun, was an undetected dwarf planet which had been unofficially named—amid controversy—Zero Minus. It was thought that some aspects of tiny Zero Minus not only had a bearing on the spacetime squiggle, but might begin to answer some of the questions that the Helios reactor had been designed to investigate in its own way.
Bud scratched his head—using the motion to disguise a quick unmanly glance at his own watch, a duplicate of his pal’s. “Um—well—this wave-bender gizmo of yours, the axistor—hey, just three syllables for once!—I don’t quite get what it has to do with baby Zeer, genius boy. Or with your sun probe, Mr. Swift.”
“Tom’s lecture had enough heft to explain that part of it, Bud,” smiled Iris Mantova. “I know the SunStorm was originally planned to orbit further out from the solar surface, using ordinary shielding techniques to handle the temps and the rads. But Zero Minus lives much closer to the sun—and that’s where the scientific action is. Tom’s axistor bends the radiation away from the probe, bends it like a sort of touchfree energy-mirror, so it can glide along in its own heat-proofed shadow.”
“And it’s energies of that kind that Helios will be blasting out today,” Tom nodded. “It’ll be the best possible test of the axistor system in realtime.”
Bud nodded blandly, but gulped unseen. Even in miniature, they were grasping and twisting the power of the sun! And it seemed to the San Franciscan that Old Sol was too hot-tempered to be trifled with.
The countdown ended with a beep! as the four peered intently through the transparent observation slot in the wall of the blockhouse. What occurred was almost too fleeting for the human eye to catch. A thick, pipelike duct, angling up from the ground a considerable distance away, erupted in a fantastic pulse of light, a disk of pure white surrounded by concentric rings of brilliant color, intense pale blue to, at the periphery, a deep violet. Though the viewport material automatically dimmed-down the flash, eight human eyes were barely able to see the thin pencil-beam of light that winked upward from a small structure that had been anchored in the path of Helios’ fury. And then there was nothing, other than a faint smoky haze rolling along the ground. “Looks like a complete success!” exulted Damon Swift. “I believe I saw the re-vectored beam from your device, son.”
“Straight up into the big blue sky!” grinned the youth. “And the casing is still in one piece, as far as I can tell. That smog out there is just a little atmospheric decomposition from the heat—as expected. Helios birthed some strands of thermonuclear plasma around the duct.”
“Uh-huh. Silly-string for a really wild party,” gibed Bud.
Both Mr. Swift and his son were studying their handheld remote monitors, called Spektors. “Early numbers are quite on the mark,” commented the elder Swift. “I’d say your axistor—”
And then came a suddenly! A pulsing screech penetrated the blockhouse walls, vibrating the window—meaning that it was loud indeed. “Sirens!” gasped Iris. “Security alert?”
“No,” stated Tom. “That’s the signal for a disaster warning!”
“Good grief! Maybe the HFCR set off a problem in the main reactor—could that be it?” Bud Barclay was wide of eye—and tense of muscle. If the buried Helios reactor was much more powerful, the Citadel’s central reactor was very much closer!
His pal’s answer was stifled by more noise amid the roiling consternation—the burr of his nano-cellphone, matched and overlapped by his father’s.
“This is Tom.” “Damon Swift here.”
Iris and Bud watched helplessly as the younger and older Swifts paced back and forth, barking raggedly at their tiny units. They both clicked off at the same time, exchanging glances. “That was project control. Some kind of runaway problem—” began Mr. Swift.
“And the monitor team at Big Nuke says it’s spreading!” finished Tom. Big Nuke nicknamed the main reactor, on the surface beneath a huge dome.
“But—jetz! Wha-what is it?” gulped Bud. “Radiation?”
“It seems not,” replied Mr. Swift; “not so far, anyway. The effect appears unconnected with Big Nuke, thank the Lord. Something to do with ground materials. They’re saying it’s safe to go out into the open air—no, Bud, Iris, I can’t take time to explain. Tom, we need to head over to—”
“Make that a four-headed ‘we’,” insisted Iris. “Right, Bud?”
“Like the lady said, guys!”
The four unsealed the blockhouse door and lunged into the bright sunshine. The sirens still blared, and emergency vehicles were darting about like panicky ants as helicraft swirled above.
They began to run—and suddenly their strides faltered. “The ground!—what in the world—the concrete—” Iris staggered into Mr. Swift; Bud’s muscular arm lashed out to right Tom as the young inventor momentarily lost his footing.
“Great space! Look!” cried Tom.
All the asphalt and concrete surfaces in view were sagging, like a blanket on a worn-out mattress! A shallow depression, already several hundred feet wide, was slowly spreading across the ground, its rounded edge approaching them. As it oozed past a lab building, the structure began to list over and crack. A wall of windows shattered explosively!
Iris whirled to face Tom, green eyes blazing with fear and blame. “Tom Swift, what have you done? What have you unleashed?—!”
The accusation stunned Tom! “Me? I—I haven’t—”
“Your experiment did!”
Bud interrupted. “Uh, you know, maybe we should hash it out later. Like after we’ve outrun that... er...” He couldn’t come up with a gibe to cover the situation!
“It’s slowing,” pronounced Tom’s father. “I think it’s going to stop spreading before it reaches the main buildings.” They resumed running—down a concrete sidewalk that had suddenly decided to run uphill as its other end dipped like a seesaw.
Reaching the building that housed Helios control, Mr. Swift wrenched open the door with difficulty in its newly skewed doorframe. Inside, wavering lights revealed disarray and helpless excitement as the Citadel’s elaborate power grid struggled to right itself.
Tom trotted up to an acquaintance among the control staff. “Suzuoki! Rand, what’s the situation in here? Dr. Peters says—”
“Don’t ask me! Helmut Jaynes is saying...” The engineer drew closer, as if lowering his voice would calm the situation. “Dr. Jaynes calls the effect some kind of breakdown of molecular cohesion. What that means, exactly—”
Mr. Swift interrupted the shrug. “Do we have metrics on it? Is the affected area emanating from a particular spot?”
A woman in a project blazer called the answer from across the room. “The expansion of the area has stopped; what we have around here is just some tilting at the periphery. And we have—well, I suppose it’s an epicenter, like in an earthquake.”
Tom guessed the rest. “The Helios chamber.”
The woman, Dr. Khanid, nodded and motioned Tom to join her. “You can see the composite graphics on this monitor, Mr. Swift—both of you. The core-sphere hit maximum and stabilized, and instantly this whatever came surging out in all directions, vertical and horizontal—like an expanding bubble. What penetrated into the open air was just the topmost slice of it.”
“And then,” said Helmut Jaynes, walking up with Damon Swift, “the effect fell back again, luckily. They’re saying the main reactor complex was untouched.”
“And no injuries, I gather,” Tom said. “Evidently the effect had nothing to do with my axistor device.” He glanced at Iris Mantova, who glanced away.
“It clearly had to do with Helios.” Jaynes began to manipulate the control board to bring further data onto the screen. “And the effect, gentlemen, didn’t just turn the ground into powder.”
“Meaning what?” demanded Mr. Swift.
“Meaning this, Damon. Helios is no more. The core-sphere, our captive sun, has escaped! Vanished!”
“GOOD GRIEF!” exclaimed Bud. “You mean the thing’s been stolen?” His tone was amazed and excited, with perhaps a tinge of hungry anticipation. Heroics ahead!
“You’re Bud Barclay, aren’t you? Tom’s friend?” There was something cool and condescending in Dr. Jaynes’ voice. “No, nothing’s been stolen—not to disappoint you, young man. No arch-villainous activity of the sort portrayed in those juvenile accounts of your exploits.”
“Bud’s a key member of the Enterprises team, Doctor,” snapped Tom stonily. “His experience makes his question entirely reasonable.”
Jaynes nodded. “Very well, then. The data shows something unexpected, but nothing nefarious.”
“Let me see, Helmut,” demanded Mr. Swift impatiently. “Put the concatenated readings in profile mode.”
“I was about to.” The researcher adjusted the monitoring apparatus. “Of course I’m slowing down, tremendously, what you see,” he muttered. “This was a matter of milliseconds. Now then, this polygonal figure represents the HFCR containment vault, and this bright circle inside is the fusion-core matrix itself. We’re coming up on the stabilization point—watch—” With a startling twitch the circle changed shape, as if twisting inward upon itself, morphing into a spiral form that narrowed to a point at the bottom. Rapidly whirling, it sank downward.
“Corkscrewing right into the ground!” Bud noted with amazement. In an instant it had completely left the containment chamber.
“We were able to track it further,” explained Dr. Jaynes. “It faded out, dissipated completely, after a few hundred meters.”
As the two Swifts nodded their perplexed understanding, Iris Mantova murmured, “Didn’t get all that far down, then. I guess the earth won’t blow up this time.”
“We haven’t a clue as to what happened,” declared Yilash Khanid. “But of course we’ll have to take time to study the data.”
“Yes—and ‘what happened’ seems to be several happenings,” Tom’s father said thoughtfully. “Obviously, the molecular effect, if that’s what it is, might have caused the release of the core-sphere by weakening the containment barriers, perhaps even the magnetic grid.”
Rand Suzuoki came trotting up behind the group. “Look at this!” he interrupted, holding up a tray bearing a couple objects and setting it down on an equipment table. “Security brought in a box of things like this, scooped up from that hollow area. Loose stuff. And it wasn’t easy to—well, you’ll see.”
One object was an ordinary brick, the other a palm-sized ceramic tile designed to resist heat and radiation. Instrument scans confirming no dangerous radiation or chemicals, Tom slipped protective Tomasite gauntlets on his hands and picked up the tile as the others watched. His hands shifted as he curiously applied a gentle pressure—jerking back, startled, as the tile shattered into fragments. “Good night!” he breathed. “The thing’s as fragile as a potato chip!” Shaking the pieces from the gauntlets, the young inventor closed his left hand around the brick to grasp and lift it. It fell apart instantly, dissolving into a pile of ochre-hued dust!
“Fantastic!” gasped Mr. Swift. “Then it’s as they’ve been speculating. The emanations from the Helios Reactor must have affected the inter-molecular bonds of all solid matter in range!”
His son nodded briskly. “Including the microstructures of the tarmac, concrete, the ground itself. That must be it, Dad. The solid ground turned into something like quicksand!”
“A fascinating thing for Swift Enterprises to study,” commented Iris Mantova. “This ‘new physics’ is quite a bit more exciting than the old one.”
“Yeah, exciting. Jetz, maybe I should look into changing jobs,” joked Bud, an accomplished pilot, with awe in his voice.
Equally awed and intrigued, Tom and Iris Mantova joined Mr. Swift and many others, studying the complexities of the computerized routines that produced the micro-sun, codeline after codeline. After hours of inquiry and data harvesting, Tom and Bud left the building to examine the ground phenomenon in the fading daylight. Iris Mantova followed them. Tom’s steps slowed. He turned to face the technician. “Iris...”
“I know what you want to say, Tom,” she said. “I don’t know why I said what I said.”
“Did you really think I was personally responsible for what happened? ‘What have you unleashed?’ sounds like an accusation. What’s behind it?”
She shook her head ruefully. “Oh, I don’t know—the stress of the moment. I apologize. I had no right to blurt that out.”
“I don’t mean to make a big deal of it,” Tom said reassuringly. “It seemed like an odd choice of words.”
Iris spoke with hesitation. “Yes—odd. I suppose... I think it was because of something Dad said, back before we knew his cancer had nothing to do with his work here. ‘If the world blows up, we’ll know the Swifts completed another successful experiment.’ It stuck in my mind. Dad was lashing out, bitter. But Tom, he loved working here. He wasn’t serious. Just... you know.”
The young scientist-inventor was silent for a moment. “The human costs of science. The dangers. Reckless pursuit of knowledge—all that. Don’t think I haven’t had my own doubts, Iris. But finally I made my peace with it, for better or worse.”
“I know—Dad knew—you and your father, the whole Enterprises workforce—you do everything possible to avoid exposing others to risk.”
Bud spoke up. “Tom cares, Iris. He came after me in New Guinea after I crashed. He’s not some kind of cold-blooded science-over-all guy. We all know that, back at TSE. Maybe people out here write it off to hype. It’s real. It’s Tom Swift.”
“Let’s just forget it,” Tom urged. And yet...
Kneeling at the edge of the sunken ground, Tom poked a long metal rod into what had once been hard-baked, pebbly dirt. The rod probed downward inch by inch until Tom’s gloved knuckles were almost touching the sloping ground. “Like pushing through a pile of birdseed,” the youth muttered. “I doubt I could have come up with an invention to have that sort of effect.”
“Maybe not,” said Bud. “But you’ll be first to harness it—with some gadget or other.”
“Probably.” The young inventor avoided glancing toward Iris Mantova as he added: “For better or worse.”
For all the scientific excitement, Tom was glad to turn the early data-gathering over to others, anxious to return to Shopton to continue work on adapting his axistor system to his father’s SunStorm probe. “I believe I’ll remain here for a few days, son,” Mr. Swift told him at dinner. “Helios may have mysteriously ducked out on us, but these bizarre phenomena could have a bearing on what we’ll be finding in the vicinity of Zero Minus. We need to know what to look for.”
“Makes sense, Dad,” nodded the young inventor. “You can fly back Saturday with the other TSE people.”
The next morning, early, Tom and Bud roared eastward through the pale desert sky, Bud happily piloting the utility jet manufactured by Enterprises’ affiliate, the Swift Construction Company. Noticing that his chum seemed quiet and distracted, Bud said: “Skipper, what with all the other excitement your own typical Swiftian triumph got sort’ve overlooked. That wave-bender of yours really, er, bent waves, right?”
Tom pulled himself back to the moment and grinned. “Or—to be pompously precise—rotated their axis of propagation through 90 degrees. Never been done before.”
“Not to be a wet blanket, but... don’t mirrors and prisms do things like that all the time?”
“Depends on exactly what you mean, chum,” responded Tom. “People say that mirrors ‘reflect light’ and prisms ‘refract’ it. That’s what the words mean, all right, but the picture most people have in mind isn’t correct—not in detail.”
Bud shrugged. “I assume light waves, or photons or whatever, hit the surface and bounce back at an angle, like a ball bouncing off the wall in a handball court. Isn’t that right?”
“No,” Tom replied with a head-shake. “Light—electromagnetic radiation, including the kind we call heat—can only travel in a straight line, at an absolutely constant velocity. It’s a pretty basic law of nature. It can’t slow down and do a U-turn. What’s reflected or refracted isn’t the waves themselves, but the ‘ray’ or ‘beam’ that signifies their route of travel through space.”
“Afraid I don’t see the diff, pal.”
“And I’m afraid I can’t make it plain,” chuckled Tom. “What happens is that the quantized energy associated with the traveling wave is absorbed, photon by photon, by the atoms of the surface it hits—no change of direction. But that gives each atom an energy overload, causing it to emit a new pulse of energy which propagates in wave form in a different direction. All those minute changes of route add up. The bottom line is that the series of waves takes a new course, a new direction through space.”
“Aha! The series is one thing, but the individual game is something else.”
“Leave it to a muscle guy to find a sports analogy.”
“Okay,” said Bud. “But now that I think of it, doesn’t your polar-ray dynasphere bend waves—or rays, or whatever?”
“It sure does, flyboy. But it uses a different principle. It re-tunes some of the constants of local space, so that absorption and re-emission take place as I just described, but without a solid physical surface. It’s far too limited to handle energies like the SunStorm Satellite will face.”
“So what’s the wave-bender do?”
“I guess the easiest way to put it is: it stretches and twists the underlying fabric of space itself in a very narrowly focused area. The waves ‘think’ they’re traveling along in a straight line as usual, but what’s a straight line to them is curved from our point of view—see, pal?”
“The geodesic of—”
“Still comin’ up a No, Skipper.”
“Well... for example, around a black hole—”
Bud smiled blandly. “Let’s just listen to music.”
New York, Shopton, and Swift Enterprises was only a brisk supersonic leap for the jet. Bud landed with characteristic deftness and bade his friend a short-term goodbye. “Off to argue with my landlord, genius boy. See you later. Don’t blow up any worlds.”
Tom smiled. But Bud noticed: He didn’t answer.
As the young inventor crossed the airfield toward one of the plant’s conveyor-belt personnel ridewalks, he nodded at one of the work-suited ground crew he passed. The man was frowningly regarding a bandaged thumb. “Hi, Ef. Hurt yourself?”
Efraim Ramez shrugged. “Aa, got careless late shift. Mala noche. So. Puede ser esto un día mejor—today’ll be better, eh?”
In the Administration Building office that he shared with his father, he called his mother and his close friend Bashalli Prandit, then settled back in his chair. He rubbed his eyes. Feeling a little stressed-out, he thought. Was it the events of the HFCR experiment? Or...
Why did his thoughts want to end with dot-dot-dot?
He thought about Iris Mantova, what she had said in anger. I wish she hadn’t come up with that, he thought; I can’t get it out of my mind. But then something else seemed to rise up in front of that thought. Two words he had just heard. “Mala noche,” he repeated to himself. Spanish for “bad night.” That’s exactly what it was for Efraim, Tom thought. Nothing odd about it. Why did those words, all those words, keep running through his mind?
Distracted and restless, the young inventor switched on his desk cybe unit, the advanced computer link he called his Little Idiot. An opaque rectangle floated in midair before his deep-set blue eyes. Accessing his search setup, he typed in MALA NOCHE. He hesitated before pressing Enter. Some unaccountable impulse led him to add another search-term: SCIENCE.
The top several listings all referred to the same use of those words. Professor Malanoche Witt, Oxford University, Retired. Many honors and awards. Scholarly articles, books, lectures...
“Unusual name,” Tom said to himself. “Guess that’s why I remember it. Must’ve run across him somewhere.” But the man had been retired for years, though not yet sixty. “What’s the guy been up to?” wondered Tom Swift, studying a recent photo. And then he wondered why he was wondering about a British professor who had formerly headed a division called The College of European Natural Philosophy at Oxford. The science connection was obvious: natural philosophy was just a traditional name for what was now termed physical science. It seemed Prof. Witt had made a name for himself in the study of the history of science and its impact upon culture—medieval and renaissance.
That’s about as remote from crumbling ground and missing suns as anything I can think of. He blanked out the cybe display. Maybe I’ll think about it someday. Give it fifty years or so! Tom wasn’t much for abstract academia. He liked to get his hands dirty.
He began to study and sign some documents. He glanced out the big window as one of the Enterprises jetrocopters lifted off.
He felt, more than saw, a shadow, a presence. Looking up, his eyebrows lifted. A man stood in the doorway, a bespectacled man of older middle years with an unlit pipe in his hand. He stood silently, looking at Tom from the top of a tweedy jacket.
The youth was startled! “Why—it’s—Professor Witt! This is a surprise!—I was just reading about you.”
The man gave Tom an odd look. “A surprise?”
“Yes, sir—I had no idea you—”
Witt answered mildly with a slight smile. “But young Swift, is surprise really the most suitable reaction? Surely you expected me? No?”
“Why else would you have been seeking information about me? Surely you won’t deny your interest? After all, you just looked at my photograph. I’m told I do resemble myself.” The Britisher gazed at Tom suavely, pipe in hand, pausing for an answer as if it were a real question.
Before Tom could even begin to answer the unanswerable, a hand shot across his vision, knuckles nudging his face, blocking his eyes!
DESTROYER OF WORLDS
THE HAND was turned palm-away, pressing against Tom’s eyes and the bridge of his nose, closeness making it dark and huge. The startled youth jerked back without thinking—and discovered that the hand was his own, lying flat across the papers on his desk. “Good night!” he gasped. “I dozed off!”
Collecting himself, he looked about curiously. No one was standing in the door—or anywhere. The clock showed that only minutes had passed. Going out into the front area, he asked the two Swifts’ secretary, “Say, Trent... has anyone come into my office lately?”
“Well, you,” replied Munford Trent languidly. “But if you mean someone else, awhile back Chow came by and asked if you and Bud had landed—didn’t go in, though. Nor did he leave any foodstuffs.” Registering Tom’s silence and expression, Trent asked: “Everything okay, Tom? I heard about some kind of weird goings-on yesterday at the Citadel...”
Tom smiled. “You’re pretty plugged in to the grapevine. Yes, Dad’s fusion tests produced some unexpected results. My own gadget worked fine, though.”
“I’ll inform the grapevine. Sworn duty.”
On unfocused impulse, the young inventor ambled over to the plant infirmary for a discussion with Doc Simpson, who performed some tests with instruments that would have astonished earlier generations. “Nothing wrong with you, Skipper, that hasn’t been wrong since birth,” joked the young medic. “I’m pretty sure you leapt from the womb with that lump of inventiveness already inside your skull.”
Tom half-laughed with a nod. “It’s just a little unusual, Doc, my falling asleep at my desk like that.”
“Unusual,” Simpson agreed; “but not unprecedented. It’s happened a couple times while your brain was putting the rest of you through its paces. It’s stress, Tom. All that business up on the moon while I was, er, out; and then this excitement at the Citadel...”
“Oh, you heard about that?”
“Munford Trent told me all about it.”
Chuckling, Tom stood—and froze! “Doc!—aren’t we—I mean—” He lowered his voice to a whisper as Doc leaned in close. “Someone’s in the other room! I saw—”
Simpson looked at his boss curiously. “In the exam cubicle? How could anybody get in? There’s no outside door.” Motioning Tom to follow, Doc reached around the edge of the open door and flipped on the light. “Nobody here. But look—from the other room you can see the mirror on the wall.”
“Sure. Right. I just glimpsed my reflection,” Tom said—uncertainly.
“Mm-hmm. Sounds like a little sand in your gears, boss. But tell me...” Doc went on, “the thing that happened at the Citadel, your Dad’s fusion experiment—it had some sort of effect on solid matter?”
“Up to a certain distance.”
“Can you really be sure it didn’t affect you?”
Tom’s brow crinkled at the thought. “The ‘crumbling’ effect wasn’t evident in the observation blockhouse. We were never inside the edge of the zone. Nothing detected in the air. No chemicals, no radiation.”
“Nothing detected,” Doc repeated with emphasis. “But the human nervous system, the brain, the big blob of jelly we think with—it’s pretty finely detailed and customized, you know, and every detail counts. Just the slightest tweak in the wrong spot...”
“I get it,” stated Tom impatiently. “Anything’s possible. What are you saying, Doc? Some little corner of my brain might have ‘crumbled’? Just because I dozed off?”
“Well, Tom, it was enough to make you pay me a visit. But I’m not diagnosing anything. You’re fine.”
“Is there another kind? Get a good night’s sleep.”
Tom returned to his office disgruntled. After calling his father to get updated on matters molecular and mysterious, he spent some time in one of his labs with his test axistor device, which had accompanied him and Bud on the flight back to New York. Can’t concentrate, he thought finally. Not good. Waste of time.
At last, late afternoon, he called home. “Hi Mom. I think—I’ll probably be a little late. I still have some things to do before I head home.”
He could feel Anne Swift nodding, and could hear a note of concern in her voice—because she sensed something in his. “Dear, are you—”
“I’m fine, everything’s fine. If I’m not home by supper, you and Sandy go ahead. Sorry to bail on you, with Dad out of town.”
“Tom... are you going to—that place?” She was trying not to sound chiding and motherly, but didn’t entirely succeed.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.”
“I see. Then I’ll see you later, Dear.”
That Place had a name: Habit-Tat. It wasn’t much of a “place” at all, somewhat cramped, unprepossessing, a neon sign above a door in a dirty stucco wall, not in the best part of proud Shopton. Some called it a pleasant, friendly local hangout. Meaner types called it a dive. Most types had never heard of it. The juvenile book series purporting to tell of Tom Swift’s many exploits treated it as not merely unmentionable but literally inconceivable.
Tom arrived on a zoomcycle, silent electricity making it a ghost compared to the growling cycles for whom Habit-Tat provided a watering hole some days, some nights. He had been in the mood to feel the air whooshing by.
Tom entered the dimness and the low throb of music. Those inside seemed to have seen better days, as had their beards—and chins. Two hulking patrons left together as the youth came in and sought out a spot at the bar, a spot he had come to know. Music groaned from the jukebox. Pool cues clicked against balls. Habit-Tat felt like it belonged to another place and time.
The middle-aged woman behind the counter, who looked like she, at least, belonged there, nodded his way. “The usual, Tommy? Or is it time to up your game?”
“Probably is. But—”
“Pineapple juice it is. I won’t waste breath trying to shame you into even a little slug of carbonation.”
“They say it’s hard to stop once you start,” Tom grinned. “Besides, I’m trying to cut down on my carbon footprint.”
Luoy Vanvong filled the order and slid it across the counter at the end of her index finger. “Here early. Something to discuss with your bartender? Maybe what happened at that nuke plant of yours?”
“Good night, has Munford Trent been here?”
“That guy? Naw,” replied Luoy. “But there’s more than one grape on the grapevine, kid. So talk to me. Let the juice loosen your tongue. If I don’t pass along my daily quota of secrets to the Black Cobra, he lobs antimatter my way.”
Tom laughed at the joke, while wincing at the mention of his persistent adversary, as melodramatic as his colorful pseudonym. “No, no big secrets right now.”
“Excuse me? I’ll decide what’s big.”
“I dunno. I dozed off a while ago. Yesterday at the Citadel someone... said something to me that—bothered me. And today, one of the plant employees said a few words in passing, nothing important, that set off a train of thought that ended up inside a dream. The plant medic—even he said something that stuck with me. I’m not usually this way. I have no idea why I’m obsessing over these little things. Dad’s solar project... I have work to do.”
The woman nodded. “And here you are, Tommy. Y’know—while talking and wiping, we bartenders study everyone else’s lives, not having any of our own. And I shrewdly observe that you, Mr. Crewcut, don’t really have anyone to talk to. Ever think of that, bogus son? Friends, for example.”
“I have a lot of friends,” protested Tom.
“No you don’t. You don’t know that, but I’m not you so I do. Employees are not friends. Mom and Dad and Sis are not friends. Bashalli Prandit is your... designated whatever... but not a friend. Not possible. I won’t venture to say what Bud Barclay is to you, but in my book there’s a diff between friend and best soul-pal. Too close is as bad as too distant if you need objectivity. Tommy, you don’t have old high school friends—you were home-schooled. You don’t even have neighbors! Instead, tempting youth who is never tempted, what you have is pineapple juice.
“Pineapple juice isn’t much of a life, Tom Swift.”
“I don’t know that I like this conversation so far,” said the frowning young inventor. “It’s a little silly telling somebody who’s cruised around the solar system that he doesn’t have a life!”
“Sure. And it’s downright ridiculous that a young man of such vast accomplishment comes sidling into a neighborhood bar. To talk to—or at least be talked at by—an older if much too available lady with the name Luoy Vanvong.”
Tom’s grin was broad—and shielded him from the main subject for a moment. “I’ve always meant to ask you, Luoy—your name—”
“Where was I born? Raydo, Kansas. Or maybe you want to know where my parents came from.”
“Mm. Shoulda guessed.”
There was a loud silence for a while. Luoy wiped out some glasses, took a tray of drinks—some carbonated, some even better—over to the pool table. Tom stared into the liquefied remains of a pineapple’s insides.
Returning, Luoy resumed as if there hadn’t been a gap. “I look forward to your visits, Tom. Really do. Unlike most of my fans here, your desperation has polish. And somehow you look like a teenager.”
“It’s because I avoid carbonated drinks.”
“Must be it. My daughter spent her daylight hours suckin’ up the darn things.”
“I didn’t know you have a daughter, Luoy.”
“I barely do myself. Haven’t seen her since high school.”
“How long ago was she in high school?”
“I meant since I was in high school.”
“Naw, just a-spoofin’ you. But I do have one. She’s somewhere. Don’t know where. She’s had some birthdays, double-digit. Maybe she’s married. Hope she doesn’t have kids—she’d make a lousy mother. Runs in the family.”
“Life,” shrugged Tom. “Life.”
“S’what they call it. Stupid thing. And even when you have life made of something as smart as science, Tommy... You ever hear of J. Robert Oppenheimer? Atom bomb guy?”
“Sure,” Tom said.
“Somewhere I read something that he said, since we’re talking about what sticks with a person. How’d it go? He was watching an atom bomb test, a bomb he’d made himself. Years back, when it was a big deal. And as it blew up he said, ‘I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.’ Just who he’d say something like that to, I can’t imagine. But I’m not a scientist.”
Tom repeated it in his mind: destroyer of worlds. “Thanks, Luoy. I came in feeling bad. Now I feel terrible.”
“Maybe we need someone to make us feel terrible now and then, bogus son. And you’re welcome.”
Tom zoomcycled back to Enterprises, then drove home like a good boy in his electric two-seater. He thought: Bud gave his convertible a nickname, but to me this is just... my car. I wonder why I never...
At home, cozy behind an invisible force field, Tom made himself a sandwich from supper leftovers and joined his mother and sister in front of the television. It was better than the biggest big-screen digital model—it telejected its image into the empty air, as big and broad as anyone could possibly want, given the quality of the programming.
Tom told the story of the two days, the words that he couldn’t shake off, the doze, the tiny nibble of dream. “Oh Tomonomo,” said Sandra, “if you’re going to get all real on us, I’ll push the mute button.”
“I don’t have a mute button, sis.”
“But why do these things bother you, son?” asked his mother gently. “Why did you go to Dr. Simpson?”
A thought—and a shrug. “Really, I don’t know. Maybe it’s something about seeing the ground slide around under my feet. You know—if you can’t even trust the solid ground—”
“That scientist at the Citadel had no business saying what she said,” frowned Sandy. “I don’t care if it was a crisis. There’s no need to be rude.”
Tom briefly smiled. “I don’t like to think of myself as a possible world-blower-upper. And then that dream... the words mala noche—‘bad night’—reminded me of the British professor with that as a first name. I ran across it somewhere, I guess.”
“My goodness,” said Sandy. “‘Professor Malanoche Witt’!—sounds more like one of those archenemy super-villains from comic-book movies.”
This time Tom was able to laugh in agreement. “Right! I’m almost expecting the Black Cobra to ring the phone with some threat or—”
The telephone rang. At exactly that moment.
The young inventor almost snarled. “No. Nope! I must have dozed off again!”
“It might be your father,” said Anne Swift. Like Sandy, she was suddenly pale. “Perhaps—I should—”
“No, I’ll answer, Mom.” Tom lifted the house phone to his ear, cutting off the ring. “Hello?”
“Is that you, Tom? Do you recognize my voice?”
“It’s space, Tom, space—a problem in space! And I’m afraid it might be... something...” The voice trailed away into—dread!
SPACE! “I’m sorry,” Tom said, muffling his inner alarm bells, “but who is this? How did you get this number?”
“Mm, then you don’t recognize my voice. This is Felton Demburton, Tom. World Portico Hotels. Remember?”
“Oh, of course, sir. Then—you must be talking about Bartonia!”
The exploit had seen the light of fiction in a tale entitled Tom Swift and The Captive Planetoid—the establishment of a scientific research colony on—or in—a tiny planetoid steered into an elongated orbit around the sun. The operation had been initiated and funded by the well-known hotel chain to study, orbit after orbit, the sun’s great playing field from within Mercury to the borders of the outer planets, a journey of years at a stretch. With the discovery that Mercury was not, in fact, the innermost planet, the Bartonia scientists had made use of the planetoid’s thrust system to temporarily truncate its long orbit, keeping it close to the sun and within observation range of Zero Minus.
“Yes indeed,” replied the CEO. “Bartonia. We consider it our scientific hotel in space—that’s the promotional angle.”
“Mr. Demburton, I’m not interested in your promotional campaign,” interrupted Tom impatiently. “You’ve called me at home about—what, exactly?”
The hotelier cleared his throat. “Um, yes, my apologies. You’ve probably forgotten that you provided our people with your exclusive private number. I know you prefer to keep it a secret, what with the intrusive—”
“Sir—you said there was a problem?”
“Well, young man, perhaps that’s a premature characterization. It might not be, precisely, what Swift Enterprises would consider a problem. But it raises some concerns. At least I feel concern. I’m nervous about it. We’re talking about outer space, you know.”
“I’m not sure what we’re talking about,” snapped the youth. “Shouldn’t you be discussing this with the solarnauts themselves?—with Mr. Gerard and his team?”
“Ah, but, you see—that is the problem. In a nutshell. Not to be overly blunt—”
“Please be as blunt as you can manage!”
“Yes, well. We’ve lost contact with Bartonia.”
Tom passed a hand across his eyes—and this time he knew from the start that it was his hand. “When?”
“I don’t have an exact time as to the, the cessation,” stated Demburton. “But our space communications component—in Pasadena, California, and in Sri Lanka, both sides of the world—reported it to my people about two hours ago. We’ve confirmed with both stations.”
“What are the details?”
“As far as you know—sir.”
Mr. Demburton reassembled himself. “I think you know that we’ve had a constant feed from the planetoid, voice and telemetry, since Bon Voyage. They use a powerful radio, of course. They check in with us, briefly, several times a day, and the separate data signal is never interrupted.”
“I know,” Tom said. “Though actually, they couldn’t keep in touch by the conventional radiocom when Bartonia rounded the far side of the sun.”
“Of course. But for vocal contact they had resort to that super quantum device of yours. What’s it called? Parallel something...”
“The parallelophone,” stated the young inventor. “We call it the PER—Private Ear Radio. It’s unaffected by distance or intervening bodies, even the sun. You’re not saying that PER contact has gone dead too?”
“I’m very much afraid I am!”
How can that be? Tom asked himself. “Do you mean their communications officer doesn’t answer?”
“We’ve been trying, of course, ever since the main radio went dead. No reply! As to the other device, I suppose our signal might not be getting through—”
“There isn’t a ‘signal,’ Mr. Demburton; it’s a spaceless quantum link. Either something has happened to the equipment itself, or—”
“Or to the people!”
Tom’s moment of silence constituted confirmation. “You say the main radio went out. The telemetry feed as well as voice contact?”
“Ah, I should have been clearer,” came the reply. “The data link continues without interruption, they tell me. But they can’t raise any actual people, do you see? By either method of contact.”
“I understand,” Tom said. “Then it’s better than I feared. If you’re still getting telemetry—well, it means the worst hasn’t happened.”
“Yes, thank the Powers That Be. Obviously our first concern was that Bartonia itself had met with disaster. I’m told the telemetry shows nothing unusual, nothing at all. But still, Tom,” continued the CEO, “that’s all about specialized research, not interior conditions. We have to deal with the human question. A sudden illness? Loss of oxygen? And we both know that America has enemies—some of them your personal enemies—who have a degree of spaceflight capability.”
The young inventor could think of more than one such enemy—though an operation such a great distance from Earth would entail a tremendous technological leap that could hardly be concealed from the rest of the world. “Mr. Demburton, you were right to call me. My father is out of town, but I’ll get in touch with him immediately. Then I’ll head back to Enterprises.” Tom added wryly: “I’m pretty sure I won’t be sleeping much tonight.” Unless I do it on top of my desk, his mind insisted on adding.
The call ended with vague promises. When the young inventor hung up, he could see that his mother and Sandy had been listening intently to his end of the conversation. “Tom—something’s happened on Bartonia?” asked his sister, knowing the answer.
“Your friend, Mr. Gerard...” began Anne Swift.
“He was—is—rather sweet,” Sandy said. “I know he’s strange, but—I hope he’s all right.”
Tom provided a quick rundown on the situation, ending with: “I’ll call Dad now. It’s still early evening in New Mexico.”
Reached at dinner, Damon Swift was calm and cautious. “Whatever’s going on out there, son, we’re not in a position to do anything over these millions of miles of space—except get some kind of confirmation and clarity here on Earth.”
“You’re right, Dad. I’m driving back to the plant—I’ll scope things out with the space prober, get in touch with the outpost—Portico’s communications people, too. We need real data; Mr. Demburton wasn’t exactly speaking with scientific precision.” The youth added dryly, “I think he was mostly concerned with how to word his press release.”
Back at Enterprises, Tom sped across the grounds in a nanocar, a midget electric vehicle. Arriving at the high-domed observatory, he activated the mammoth megascope space prober and adjusted its invisible beam to streak across the void to the last known orbital position of the tiny planetoid. Even at light speed, the beam’s travel time was far too lengthy for the impatient youth; but finally a Beep! sounded.
An image swam into view on the screen, a roundish craggy object half brilliant with light, half black as soot in its sun-shadow. Thank goodness! Tom breathed mentally. Despite the continued telemetry, he had been more than half afraid that the screen would show only blank space—or hurtling fragments.
“Hey, Tom!” startled the thought out of him.
“Bud? What’re you doing here?”
“First question is—what’re you doing here?” retorted Bud, sinking into a chair by the control console. “I messaged Sandy—she said you’d gone back to the plant to handle some problem. I figured: what’s a problem without Bud Barclay? And then your handy nanocell transponder told me where you were hiding. So.”
Tom grinned. “Glad to see you, flyboy. Hate to see you miss sleep, though.”
“I’ll make up for it in old age. So what’s the deal? More ground been slidin’ around? Using the scope to look for it?”
Tom explained the Bartonia worry, concluding with: “She’s still out there in orbit, looking good.”
Bud nodded. “Too bad your Mighty Eye can’t look inside. I know ground induction messes it up.”
“That and local solar effects. Strong stuff. Destabilizes the counterparticle node, the viewing terminal.”
“And no sign of... you know what.”
“The Black Cobra’s spacecraft? The Fanshen? No sign. Li Ching’s never demonstrated any ability to travel beyond Earth-Moon space.”
“Mm. Of course his anti-detection coating makes it hard to see. But actually, Skipper,” Bud continued, “it wasn’t the snakeman I had in mind. Need a little recap on what the Space Friends have done since they first plowed the ground here at TSE? Moving Little Luna into orbit? Moving the outpost out of orbit? The Black Window bit out in deep space? And I might mention the simulac business—of recent fond memory.”
Tom conceded the point with a faint and rueful smile. “They do tend to snatch people right out of their shoes!—at least up in space away from the earth. And there’s also the other extraterrestrial group, the ones who were searching for the undersea cache.”
“Awww man, sometimes I feel like we should just stay on our side of the atmosphere and pull it in after us,” grumped the dark-haired pilot. Silence answered, and Bud looked up curiously. “Tom?”
“Sorry, pal. Just feeling elsewhere, for some reason. Anyway, back to eyeballing.”
For more than three hours Tom studied Bartonia from different angles and positions in space, near and far. There was no trace of anything alarming, and its orbital parameters were nominal. “Okay, she’s where she ought to be,” he said half to himself, half to Bud.
“So where is everybody?” said Bud. “Why’d they stop talking?” The entire science colony was underground, within Bartonia. Only a few antennas, and the “rock rocket” propulsion structure, hinted at the presence of humanity. There was no obvious answer to the lack of answer.
Tom made some calls from the observatory. “Sorry, Mr. Swift, we don’t know anything more than what we told Mr. Demburton,” said the scientist in charge of night operations at the California facility. “I’ll tell you this—their shift officer up there, Dr. Prantok, was on the line with us when it happened. He broke off suddenly, mid-sentence. Nothing more.”
“Do you know what he was saying? The first part of the broken sentence?”
“I’ve listened to the audio-file. It’s a bunch of nothing, really. Casual chat about the Zero Minus study. Prantok says ‘The last t-sampler series’ —that’s your telesampler instrument, you know— ‘showed no sign of any—’ And then the voice just—stopped.”
“Nothing in the background? No unusual noises?”
“Not a bit, Mr. Swift. The signal was still ‘open,’ but nothing was being broadcast.”
“As if he had just stopped talking suddenly. Could you send me the original digital recording? I’ll give you my office cybe e-address.”
Other calls were equally unenlightening. Finally Tom left the building with Bud, absent-mindedly taking a moving ridewalk back to the administration building, leaving the nanocar parked in place. The two young adventurers batted possibilities back and forth. “Gotta admit,” Bud said, “a space mystery is more my speed than loose molecules. If we head out there, genius boy, remember—I get to drive!”
Nearing their destination, Tom edged his way off the ridewalk and began to walk with Bud along an immobile walkway, slowly, musingly, weary and deep in thought. He seemed oblivious to his friend’s banter. Suddenly he paused his lanky stride. Something struck him as... wrong. He took a few steps, stopped, walked, and stopped again. What’s going on? he demanded of the night. Why do I feel... so...
“Jetz, you’re looking a little wobbly,” noted Bud with alarm.
Taking some steps, Tom looked down at his feet. Whatever the oddness was, it was there. He was walking along—but was he? He had the bizarre conviction that his two feet were not moving at all, but were resting in place—even as he could see with his own eyes that they were striding along in the normal way. Had his lower legs become numb? He bent down and poked his ankles, just above his shoes. He felt the poke. Why then did his walking feel like—
Good grief, it’s as if I’m lying flat on my back! Could he have fallen asleep at the megascope? Was this another dream?
“Bud...” Tom said in a quiet voice hushed by fright. “I’m afraid something’s wrong, really wrong.”
“In space? On Bartonia?”
Tom gulped. “No. Wrong with me!”
BUD BARCLAY gaped at his pal, then reached out to touch his shoulder. “Okay, Skipper. Time to tell me what you’re not telling me.”
Tom glanced around and lowered his voice to a whisper. “No... not here. Let’s get back to the office. I think someone’s listening.”
“Listening?” But Bud saw the seriousness in Tom’s face and said no more.
They resumed walking, now faster, and Tom abruptly realized that the eerie outré feeling in his feet—or in his head about his feet—had dissipated. As he walked along he felt less and less sure that he had felt anything unusual after all. And that abrupt change of attitude was as disturbing as the original.
The two elevatored to the Swifts’ office to await the transmission of the truncated communications recording. As they stepped inside, Bud pointed to a small LED light set into the doorframe. “Showing green. No unauthorized electronics with sizzling circuits. Sound blocker active. So let’s talk, genius boy.”
They sat. “You must be thinking I’ve really lost it,” Tom said apologetically. “And the thing is—I just might agree!”
“If you start agreeing with me, I really will think you’ve lost it,” joked Bud. “It’s supposed to go the other way! So what’s up? Is a spy loose at Enterprises? Not last week’s spy—a new one?”
Tom held his thoughts behind pursed lips for a long moment. “I’m not even sure how to explain it. Something about what Iris Mantova said to me—I keep thinking about it. And after we landed, I came up here to work—”
“You dozed off and dreamed up a prof with a silly name.”
Tom snorted. “Good night, Doc told you?”
“Munford Trent. What did Doc say?”
“That I might be affected by something to do with the Helios anomaly, maybe making me ultra-sensitive to stress.”
“But the others of us were there too, Tom. Have your Dad or Iris said anything? I sure don’t feel any stranger than usual.”
“That’s one reason I’m not so sure about Doc’s theory. Whatever the cause... it seems that little things that happen, that people say... as if it sets off some sort of loop in my brain, like a computer malfunction.”
Bud grinned. “No wonder I wouldn’t notice. I’m loopy all the time! Is that why you went to Habit-Tat?” Winking at Tom’s expression, he added: “Trent really gets around.”
After a chuckle, Tom replied, “For some reason I wanted to unwind and talk, I guess. But Luoy made it even worse—she said—”
“The ‘destroyer of worlds’ thing?”
“The whole strange thing is still happening. Just now, outside, I... I felt like I was in two places at once, doing two things at the same time. I felt like someone was watching, listening. And I just realized—I came back on the ridewalk with you and didn’t even think that I’d parked a nanocar next to the observatory.”
Bud scratched his head, eloquently. “Don’t know what to tellya, Skipper. Not that I really know the subconscious from the one on top of it, but could there be a reason why you looked up that professor guy? I’ve read that shocks can sometimes bring out what they call buried memories.”
“Obviously I ran across his name some time or other,” the young inventor nodded. “But how does it connect up? What could he have to do with what Iris said—or anything?”
“Maybe that’s the buried part.” As Tom responded with a perplexed look, Bud continued, “Look, genius boy, Doc may be right. Maybe that Helios effect warped your famous brain just a little tiny bit. Made you prone to getting paranoid or overreacting—getting obsessed with random memories—and now you have two mysteries to solve, the Helios thing and—”
The “and” now asserted itself as a tone announced the arrival of the digitized soundbite from the Pasadena facility. The two listened to it several times. “Just as they said,” Tom pronounced. “The Bartonia com operator breaks off in midsentence. But let’s try something.”
Tom sent the sound data through some enhancement software developed in connection with his oscillotron device. He scrutinized the resulting wave-pattern on his screen and highlighted some sections of it. “What’s that?” asked Bud.
“Very faint background sounds, with the random noise filtered out. The sounds of silence may not be so silent after all, flyboy.” Tom amplified the result and output it to his cybe speaker.
“Don’t!...If you...What is...” Weirdly distorted, the words were barely understandable.
“And that other sound—can you hear it?—maybe a door opening,” muttered Tom.
“So the guy didn’t just drop dead,” Bud commented. “Someone came up behind him—maybe.”
Tom switched off his equipment. “Yes. Another member of the project team...”
“Or not. A drop-in visitor from elsewhere!—not expected for dinner.”
The two friends worked and talked, and the sun poked its head above the horizon. Up with dawn, executive chef Chow Winkler brought them an early breakfast, and an early sight of the wide and gaudy elegance of this day’s western shirt. “You two look like what’s left after a cattle stampede! Mebbe what I salted into yer eggs’ll perk you up.”
Tom smiled. “What, pardner?”
“A dollop o’ optimism!”
Eventually, optimism consumed, they walked over to the facility’s own space communications center. “Something up, boss?” asked the morning attendant, Mike Zimmerman. “Expecting a midnight message over Aunt Maggie?” Swift Enterprises’ magnifying antenna was the main communications conduit between Earth and the Space Friends.
“Nope,” Tom replied. “Today, outgoing.”
Accessing the computerized index-translator called the Space Dictionary, the scientist-inventor composed a message in the extraterrestrials’ symbol-language as Bud looked on.
TOM SWIFT TO SPACE FRIENDS. THE SCIENTISTS OCCUPYING OUR BASE ON THE PLANETOID BARTONIA, IN ORBIT NEAR THE SUN, DO NOT RESPOND TO EARTH COMMUNICATIONS. CAN YOU PROVIDE ANY INFORMATION AS TO THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND THEIR CONDITION?
The antenna shot the message out into space, where it spread like an ordinary broadcast in all directions. It was never certain, in advance, whether a reply would come from the Space Friends’ science base in orbit about Mars, or from the unknown location of their world of origin, which had been nicknamed Planet X.
“It may take awhile,” Bud remarked. “They haven’t been in a talkative mood lately.”
Tom nodded. “I have the impression the Deimos group is feeling some heat from their superiors on their home planet—wherever it is. They refused to explain anything about their intervention on the moon. No reply.”
“Maybe the local guys didn’t know anything about it,” Bud pointed out. “Treating us like lab rats is mostly a game the Planet X authorities play.” Tom agreed.
It was mid-morning before Tom was summoned back to Communications.
TO TOM SWIFT. WE ARE FRIENDS. WE CAN SUPPLY NO DATA WITH RESPECT TO THIS MATTER.
“That’s that,” Bud commented grimly. “They can’t tell us—or they won’t!”
Tom glared at the readout monitor with growing anger. “I’m not going to accept that, Bud. Not this time!” Bringing the Space Dictionary back online, the youth pounded out a new message.
TOM SWIFT TO SPACE FRIENDS. WE HAVE RECEIVED YOUR RESPONSE. IT IS NOT SATISFACTORY. WE HAVE ASSISTED ONE ANOTHER ON MANY OCCASIONS. OUR OWN FRIENDS MAY BE IN DANGER. WHAT PREVENTS YOU FROM SUPPLYING WHAT WE NEED?
“That’s tellin’ ’em, spaceman!” cheered Bud as Tom pressed the Enter key.
The key made its tiny sound—and at nearly the same instant, a chime-tone announced the arrival of a new message from space! “Jetz!” Bud gasped. “They must have the answer right at the tip of their tentacles!”
But the readout screen remained blank. Tom pointed to a small side-screen, where a light was flickering. “The system’s having a problem translating the symbols. I’ll override the holdup—we can get something from the approximation, anyway.”
TO TOM SWIFT. WE ARE FRIENDS. WE ARE NOT ABLE TO USE OUR INSTRUMENTAL FORMS OF OPERATION IN CLOSE PROXIMITY TO THE CENTRAL MASS OF THIS SYSTEM.
“Well, I guess ‘that’ really is ‘that’,” Tom declared in frustration. “I think they’re saying that their technology doesn’t work so close to the sun. We have that in common—the cosmotron spacedriver engine on the Starward has the same problem, due to the steep warping of space deep in the sun’s gravity ‘well’.”
“Who knows if they’re telling the truth, anyway?”
“Who knows if they even know what ‘truth’ is, flyboy?” retorted Tom. “—‘anyway’?” As he and Bud left the room, Tom spoke his thoughts: “Their tech has its limit—fantastic as it is. Pal, there’s always a slight lag in the transmission routine after we push the button, and a similar processing delay when a message is received. For a response to have come in instantaneously like that means it was better than instantaneous—the reply was resident in our system even before the question had been sent!”
“But how can that be possible, Tom?”
“Ask the stars!”
As it became mid-morning in New Mexico, Tom called his father with his report on the space beings and his megascope probe. He left out of the conversation the recent peculiarities in his personal life.
“We have to hope Bartonia will come back on the air soon,” said the elder scientist. “Obviously it’s beyond reach of the Starward due to the space-drive limitation, and the Challenger couldn’t get there quickly enough to deal with any immediate ongoing crisis.”
“Too true, Dad,” Tom replied. “We might still get a clue of some kind from other long-range instruments—we could use the big telesampler to find out if there’s any sort of surface contamination by radioactive material.”
“Well... yes... unidentified particulates from Zero Minus might have been knocked into space by the solar wind or far-coronal effects,” mused Damon Swift. “Though how that could account for this abrupt silence...”
“We’ll have to keep thinking—all of us,” continued Tom. “We’ll throw everything we have at the problem. And in fact—” His voice was suddenly luminous with excitement!
“An idea, son?”
“Might be,” Tom audibly nodded. “Dad, your SunStorm Satellite mission is ready to launch, isn’t it? That is, as soon as we finish installing my axistors to protect it?”
“You’re suggesting using the probe to investigate the Bartonia situation? A flyby?”
“Exactly! And listen!—instead of letting it poke along on its way for weeks using the repelatron carrier—why not make use of the accelapult? The spacetrack generators are still up in lunar orbit!”
Mr. Swift seemed both pleased and startled. “Speed didn’t matter before, but now it could be critical. But Tom, we can’t launch at anywhere close to light speed, as we did with Caliper-1. It would pass the planetoid much too quickly to give us any real data—the tiniest fraction of a second! And there’s no way to significantly slow the probe, not from such a great velocity.”
“We won’t push the accelapult to its highest capacity,” was the response. “Even a trip of a few days would be a big improvement on what we’d planned for the mission. If that’s too much of a delay—that’s as good as saying that we’re too late already.”
“Then we’ll do it!” stated Mr. Swift firmly. “I’ll return to Shopton on the next flight.”
Tom immersed himself in the emergency probe mission, joined that evening by his father. They worked late at Enterprises and arrived with dawn the next morning.
They had hardly finished breakfast when the plant switchboard routed a call through to their office. “Good night,” said Tom with raised eyebrows. “It’s from Russia!” He put the call on speaker setting.
“Hello? This is Tom Swift? I am Dr. Feodar Zoskian, astrometrics, if you see. Perhaps you have known of me?”
Tom glanced at his father, who said, “This is Damon Swift. Yes, Dr. Zoskian, I recall you. Are you calling from Iskrya?” Pride of the Russian Federation, this was the name of the floating stratosphere station engaging in space research and various forms of observation—some not subject to public discussion.
“Ah, da! Damon Swift! How you are hello!” After some moments of polite chat, Zoskian got to the point. “Damon, we have received through our cosmic inquestor-receiver—the telescopic radio, you see—a very noteworthy something. We think it is of interest to you, Enterprisers, because—what is this term?—the wave-length channel—”
“The frequency?” prompted Tom.
“Da, the frequently. We received this signal, you see, utterly weak and faint; we were exercised in the brain. And I am told—this is why I call you—the channel is one used by you, for messages in space. By your spatial crafts. You see?”
Tom and his father exchanged flashes of mingled alarm and hope. Could this be a message from Bartonia?
“What did the message say?” Tom asked eagerly.
“We received the signals, but no milk! We could not get words from them,” the scientist replied. “Perhaps it is a secret code, eh? You have the right to do so—we certainly do. But we applied all your secret codes, and big was the goose’s egg. That is all we know. It played a long time, though, perhaps an hour; and then faded away. They say the source was in motion.
“But anyway, my friends, I shall send it to you right now—from Iskrya up to your outpost in space, and they shall relay it. Give me a minute.”
“Thank you,” said Tom. “But—one more question. Were you able to determine the general location of the source of the signal, even though it was moving?”
“Oh indeed. We have several receivers way up here in the sky, with the utmost directional function. We know well where signals come from—usually, of course, they are deep in the cosmos. Not this time.”
“Where, Feodar?” Mr. Swift asked.
“Mm, where! Very unexpected. For you see, these signals come at the earth from far distantness. Jupiter!”
AFTER the Russian connection was broken, Tom and his father looked at one another with amazement. “Jupiter!” the younger one repeated.
“Then this can’t have anything to do with Bartonia,” frowned Damon Swift. “The X-ians had the power to move us from one end of the solar system to the other, true; but we were already among the outer planets when they did so. They say they cannot operate as close to the sun as Bartonia and Zero Minus—”
“Or are they lying?”
“They might be, obviously—or perhaps the concept-symbols regarding their limitations were mistranslated. But—Jupiter!”
“It’s also possible the Russian calculations are in error,” Tom pointed out. “Let’s see what we can cull from the data. Dr. Zoskian said he’s giving all the relevant figures along with the signal itself.”
The relayed transmission reached them in minutes, and became the subject of keen scrutiny. “Well, Dad, it’s sure not an audio transmission of the type Bartonia uses to keep in touch,” Tom stated. “No indication of vocal encoding at all.”
“But it’s not just a background tone, either,” said his father. “A complex frequency envelope. Might it carry numeric data of some kind?”
Tom looked up from the tri-axial oscilloscope. “You know, we have an encryption specialist on staff now, Dad—Oswald Palindromo.”
“Yes, the new hire. Let’s call him over.”
The man arrived in minutes, a graying man with large round eyes that blinked often but never squinted. “Good morning—a good morning for me whenever I can put my skills to use. Let me ‘examine the body,’ if I may.” Palindromo, newly retired from work at the Department of Defense, studied the recorded output for some time, muttering to himself now and then. “Mm. Yes. Well. Consider these comparison profiles, gentlemen.” He pointed at the monitor screen. “Diverging curves with respect to vectoral absorption ratios—changing over time, then vanishing briefly whenever the Russians recalibrate.”
Tom asked, “That’s a sign of source motion, isn’t it?”
“Very rapid source motion, and not rectilinear, not like a spacecraft on unaccelerated trajectory. Compensating for the various movements of the earth—of Russia—I think the transmission source is in orbit about Jupiter.”
“A satellite, then,” nodded Mr. Swift.
“Madam-I’m-Adam, there’s more!” Palindromo put forth with enthusiasm. “The fan-out of the propagation, with the signal source as its base point, shows non-collinear axes. Do you follow me? What we’re seeing is a reflection from a curving surface, a spheroid—a very large one, in fact.”
“I get it!” exclaimed the young inventor. “It’s a bounceback!—probably reflected from one or more of Jupiter’s moons.”
“It would be much more diffuse if it were being reflected from the planet itself, with its deep atmosphere,” his father said. “So—could this be a signal from Bartonia after all?”
The two did some calculating as Oswald Palindromo looked on quietly and smugly. “Yes!” Tom announced excitedly. “This signal could have originated right around the time regular communications was cut off! So—out into space, across the solar system, to the vicinity of Jupiter—and back to Earth—and to us when the Russians decided to let go of it.”
“An undirected signal, perhaps pumped out through one of the auxiliary antennas, one not designed for communications.” Mr. Swift considered the matter. “An act of desperation, under duress—a message in a bottle tossed overboard. World Portico delayed giving us the alert; no one was looking for unusual signals when it passed us outward-bound.”
“But,” Tom said in frustration, “is it a message?”
“Not a message in sound,” spoke up Palindromo. “No vocal modulations. Nothing definitely numerical, not even basic Morse code. In fact, I don’t think it’s encrypted—just coded. Different thing, you know.”
“All right, Palindromo, just what do you mean?” demanded Tom’s father.
“What I mean, sir,” smiled the man, “is that this looks to me very much like a video signal. Of the crudest sort, in fact. Not from any sort of sophisticated camera unit. If you want my guess, someone on the planetoid set up their handheld to keep watch on something—until the battery went dead, or perhaps Bartonia’s own rotation put the transmitter on the far side. They just pumped the output through whatever antenna was available.”
“Such as a radar transmitter,” Tom said. “They have a penetradar system for their planetary encounters.” He said to Palindromo: “If it’s that crude and simple-minded, I suppose you—”
“Give me three minutes,” Palindromo interrupted. “Or less—if you pay undertime.”
In less than three minutes, an image filled the screen—faint, fuzzy, and drifting from side to side. “Well, this is it,” declared Palindromo with a gesture. “Was it worth the wait?”
Tom and Mr. Swift leaned closer, fascinated—and frustrated. The screen showed what looked like a blank wall or bulkhead, with marks scrawled across it that suggested hasty work with a marker or crayon. The marks were letters, and roughly spelled out what seemed to be—or might have been intended to be—a single word.
“An abbreviation?” Tom’s father speculated. “Someone’s name?”
“Dad, someone from Croatia is called a Croat,” stated the youth. “Or it might be just the beginning of a longer word—maybe something in a foreign language.”
“Or—to consider the simplest explanation—a misspelling.” Oswald Palindromo shrugged blandly. “No doubt the circumstances were distracting. At any rate, that’s the message—can’t do any more for you. There’s no change throughout the length of the transmission. It just statics-out in the end.”
Thanking the cryptologist, the two Swifts began long hours of thinking—to no result.
The sun slowly hid itself, and Tom and his father hastened home. Supper at the Swifts’ often featured guests, but this time the crowd was bigger than usual—bigger in several senses. It was Chow Winkler’s birthday, and the dining room and living room were festooned with streamers hung with child-size cowboy hats of gaudy colors, dense with sparkles. “Brand my ole bony backside,” sniffled the sentimental ex-chuck wagon wrangler, “jest like the million stars over Texas!”
“We have water, too, old-timer,” joked Bud, “to remind you of the Rio Grande.”
“Since it’s m’ dang birthday, Buddy Boy, you kin call me old-timer all you please.”
Mrs. Swift served as Texas a dinner as she could manage—and Anne Swift was not only a degreed molecular biochemist, but a good cook. The dinner table had been extended into the next room to accommodate not only Chow, Bud, and the four Swifts—but also security chief Harlan Ames and his daughter Dodie, Dodie’s fiancé Ritt Kincaid, Munford Trent, and Tom’s close friend Bashalli Prandit. “Most ever’body a cowpoke could want on his birthday,” beamed Chow. “And nobody a person wouldn’t want—if’n you catch my drift.”
“Don’t worry,” Bashalli assured him. “Even Budworth would not be so dense as to invite your uppity subordinate.”
“Hmmph! Ye-aah, but I didden mean that there Boris gullycoot,” said Chow. “I think you all know who’s first on th’ most un-wanted list!”
While working with Tom and Bud on the moon, Chow had run across—or been run-across by—a woman named Kitty Plethysma. The ex-Texan, long single and wounded by an old love, was not merely uninterested but positively dis-interested. He found reason to think the disinterest wasn’t mutual. “Chow, when we hired her away from Swift Construction to work with us in Security,” said Ames meekly, “we had no idea you’d be uncomfortable with her being around the office.” Ames’ office abutted that of the two Swifts.
Chow snorted. “Gives me th’ blame willies, allus throwin’ a prairie eye my way when I get out o’ the elee-vator.”
“She’s paid to evaluate possible security risks, Chow,” Dodie pointed out. “Who knows what could come barreling out of an elevator?”
“Now you listen, I’m not jest a What, I’m a person—a Texan—a mighty fine kwee-zeen flinger!”
“What does she say to you?” Sandy asked. “Something insinuating?”
“Jest plain ‘good-morning’ and ‘good-night’ is more’n incineratin’ enough fer me!”
“As a matter of cold fact,” remarked Trent, “I really don’t think she happens to care for men.”
“Then why’s she lookin’ at me like a starvin’ buzzard?” Chow demanded. “I’m shor one-hunnert-percent man! Yew jest ask anybody.”
“I’ll be sure to ask around,” Trent nodded.
“I love dinner conversation,” said Bud with a wink at Tom.
Many cards were opened and read, cards from Winkler admirers with names like Hank, Arvid, Art, two Mings—and even a Boris. After a mammoth cake in the shape of the Lone Star State had been reduced to rubble, the group retired to the Swift living room and to the odds-and-ends of conversation. “Is there still a worry about the Bartonia scientists?” inquired Ritt.
“I think it’s fair to say the worry is increasing,” Tom declared grimly. He described the general situation and the repurposing of the SunStorm instrumental probe. “I don’t think we can risk the time ‘confirming’ a life-threatening problem out there before taking action, but we do have to have some idea of what’s going on and how to respond. What little evidence we have doesn’t suggest a medical crisis—not to me and Dad, anyway. There were hints in the broken-off communication that there was some sort of take-over of the colony...”
“If you wish the Pakistani view,” said Pakistan-born Bashalli, “what you’ve described strikes me as the work of a hostile boarding-party, as in a pirate action.”
“Asteroid pirates!” Bud popped-off. “Naw. Been done.”
“Space rustlers!” added Chow with cowboy confidence. “Bet m’ Stetson on it! An’ I shor don’t nesser-sarily mean th’ two-eye, two-leg kind! Don’t take a genius t’ see it’s got sumthin’ t’ do with that there midgy planet.”
“That’s a real possibility, Chow,” nodded Mr. Swift. “But don’t think Zero Minus is inhabited—or hollow. It’s a good deal smaller than Earth’s moon, has no water or atmosphere beyond transient solar hydrogen—and Bartonia’s observations make clear it’s solid as a cannonball.”
Mrs. Swift asked, “But even if it’s not inhabited, Damon—couldn’t it be occupied, as Bartonia is? Travelers or colonists from somewhere else might have established a base there, underground.”
“Or invisible,” suggested Sandy.
“Not to wet-blanket all this, but it seems to me we’re going a little too far beyond the evidence,” Harlan Ames contributed. Inevitably, he sounded much like a father. “This isn’t an Enterprises security matter, but I’ve been briefed on it. Some muffled words, broken communication—I’m glad you Swifts are checking things out long-distance before mobilizing your usual derring-do.”
“As am I,” declared Anne Swift with disapproval and resignation. “Of course I’m hoping for the best, but really, these people are volunteers, not personal friends or Swift Enterprises personnel.”
For some unexplained reason the term personal friends evoked uncomfortable resonance in Tom.
“Gotta say, if we listened to our Moms all the time, we’d never have much fun,” Bud declared wryly. “My Mom wanted me to be a travel agent—she gave up on ‘exotic dancer’. You know—at those clubs. Now that’s risky!”
“I think he’s joking,” muttered Trent.
“It’s not always easy to tell,” murmured Sandy.
“Cain’t see m’self doin’ either one o’ those things,” remarked Chow introspectively.
After more chat and a televised elaboration of Charles Ollaho Winkler’s greatest moments, mouths were turned to homemade ice cream and, again, to the Bartonia mystery.
“Please explain something to me, Thomas,” said Bashalli. “You’re worried about all this closeness to the sun, and as usual have invented something to deal with it—but how can the Bartonians survive at all in such heat? Why doesn’t their space island simply melt away?”
“It’s all in the numbers,” Tom replied; “that is, in the details. The planetoid was made to rotate on its axis, which means there’s always a shadow side and a cooling period. As to the science colonists themselves, remember that they’re underground. The problem for Dad’s SunStorm Satellite probe is that we don’t have adequate shielding for it. Even Tomasite can’t handle all that radiant heat—at least not sufficiently well to protect the more delicate instruments.”
“The original plan was to go into a much wider orbit, about halfway-in from the orbit of Mercury,” Mr. Swift explained. “Then, thanks to Tom’s invention, we began to think in terms of very brief sorties deep into the corona proper—nearer than ever to the helio-surface itself. It’s Tom’s photon-wave axistor ‘sheath’ that provides the final piece.”
“Genius boy’s always the wizard when it comes to making things possible,” grinned Bud proudly.
“That shor is truest truth!” beamed Chow. “An’ I been around t’ see it more times ’n I kin count! But now listen, boss,” the westerner went on in serious tones, “over the years we’ve went ’n rescued folks right ’n left ’n upside-down out in that big starry space up there—right?”
“Sure have, Chow,” Tom agreed. “And made it back, too.”
“Yup—Little Luna, Mars, that big window thing—oh, an’ when you got taken off to Venus that time, Mr. Swift. So now I gotta ast ya—when do we leave? When do we go head out there to Bartonia an’ wrassle our people away from th’ rustlers?”
Tom and his father could only shrug weakly, smiles to match. “Well, Chow, I think you’ll have to clear it with Mom,” Tom said with an affectionate wink at Anne Swift. “Right now—we don’t really know what’s going on with the science colonists. We picked up some background noise that might indicate some sort of infiltration, as Bash said.”
Chow scratched his hairless head, indicating surprise mingled with irritation. “Aw, c’mon, don’t hold back on ole Chow! Or... maybe you’re not takin’ me along? That it?”
“But the situation is just as Tom said,” insisted Mr. Swift. “What makes you think we’re holding something back?”
“B’cause yuh’re only talking about noises, not the dang big clue that settles the whole thing.”
“I do believe,” Munford Trent said, “my robust friend means what you two have been sweating over all day. Or was I not supposed to tell anyone?”
Sandy giggled aloud, and Dodie covered her mouth. Mrs. Swift only smiled as she explained, “Trent happened to mention it just before you arrived. Only briefly.”
“That word in the image,” added Ritt. “C-R-O-A-T.”
“That’s what we received, all right,” the young inventor confirmed. “But we have no idea what it signifies.”
“No idee?” It was Chow’s turn to chuckle. “Wa-aaal, this may be my party, but I guess you’re gonna get th’ gift! Sure as straight-plain shootin’ that word is croatoan!”
“Meaning what?” asked Harlan Ames.
“Meaning we gotta get up there right fast—cause the whole passel o’ those poor colonists have been taken right off Bartonia!”
CHOW was obviously enjoying his moment in the sun, despite the seriousness of the matter at hand. “Mean what I say, folks!”
“I know you’re not joking,” Tom said with a frown. “But now, pardner, how about explaining? Or should I ask Trent?”
“Don’t ask me,” retorted the secretary. “I’m efficient, but not all that efficient.”
Eyes turned back to Chow. “Okay, okay. I’m not s’much of a reader, but I do like stories about the old pioneers and settlers an’ such. Now then, back around th’ time o’ Plymouth Rock an’ Jamestown an’ Pocahontas—way back then—the English came across and started a little colony here in America on the Atlantic coast—they hadn’t discovered Texas yet. It was on this island called Roanoke.”
Sandy suddenly interrupted the tale-teller. “Oh, I remember about this!”
Chow harrumphed to regain the room’s attention. “Well now, everything started out fine, and the English boat went back to England t’ talk to King Arthur or Robin Hood—somebody like that. And then when they came back to Roanoke a year later—nobody’s there! Whole place was dee-serted!”
“What happened to them?” asked Dodie. “Was there a plague?”
“No bodies anywhere!” replied Chow. “Course the Englishers asked around, but the local Injuns didn’t have anything t’ say. I guess mebbe they ’as busy gettin’ ready fer Thanksgiving. Anyway, they never did figure out what’d happened. So Roanoke is called The Lost Colony.”
“That’s quite a gripping story, Chow,” Trent commented. “But that video image didn’t say Roanoke.”
“Naw, I know that. But when the people from th’ boat were pokin’ around, they found a word carved into some wood. Yep—croatoan! Jest like I said.” Chow spelled the word. “There was a tribe nearby with a name like that, so people think mebbe they attacked Roanoke an’ kidnapped everybody and hid ’em away. But th’ blame main thing, to which I am bringin’ your attention to, is that word. See?” Chow concluded with a smug smile.
Sandy looked reprovingly at her brother and father. “Now don’t just dismiss this, man-Swifts. Bartonia is a colony in a way, and it’s a sort of island, and it surely does seem they’re lost. At least they might be. So using that one particular word tells the whole story.”
“Yep, whole thing in a nutshell,” added Chow.
Tom found himself nodding. “I’m not dismissing the idea. I suppose... if something were happening, if the base were being attacked or invaded and ordinary Earth communications were cut off, someone might have had just enough time to hide and set up a video unit.”
“I can visualize it,” Ames said, picking up the thread. “He’s going to write an explanation on the wall, but here’s someone coming or breaking into the compartment—so he has just enough time to scrawl out a single word that he thinks will summarize the situation.”
“And he doesn’t even have enough time to finish it,” Bud commented. “Jetz, they probably just carried him off—or worse!”
There was a silence. “This is surely a fine subject for a party,” declared Bashalli dryly. “My way of putting it had at least a degree of swashed-buckling romance to it.”
“It underscores the need to act as fast as we can,” Damon Swift pronounced. “We have no ability to reach Bartonia quickly, by spacecraft. But we’ve already arranged for the launch of the SunStorm probe package. The axistor system has been installed and tested, and our people at the L1 station were instructed to begin reorienting the catalytrexes—Tom’s accelapult generators, in lunar orbit—before I even returned from New Mexico.”
“And what then?” asked Ritt Kincaid with a quick glance sideways at Dodie. “If you can determine just what happened, what can you do?”
“What use is it to try?—is that the question?” Tom spoke with a feeling that only Bud and Bashalli detected—but could not name. “Anyone have an alternate suggestion?”
“We may find we have some options that don’t involve sending a manned mission to Bartonia,” his father said briskly. “That’s the only hope we have, if indeed something dire has happened. We’ll know more in less than two days; the SunStorm launches tomorrow—from Earth to the moon, and then from the moon.”
“Mebbe I jest shoulda kept my gurgles an’ burgles inside m’ dang mouth,” muttered Chow sheepishly. “But anyway—time fer some gee-tar music!”
The day following Tom and his father, with Bud and Chow, gathered at the megascope to watch the launch of the two-stage probe vehicle from Enterprises’ leased spaceport, Fearing Island. A framework cradling the small, drum-shaped SunStorm Satellite rose from its pad, suspended on the invisible rays emanating from the carrier’s repelatron radiators. “The original plan was to use that carrier for the entire flight,” Mr. Swift commented. “But now it’s a convenient way to get SunStorm to the moon and the accelapult spacetrack.”
It was a couple hours from the earth to the moon, the same journey that had, in long-ago 1969, taken three days. Tom made computer-assisted adjustments to the megascope’s viewpoint terminal, which placed the watchers’ “eyes” only a few score feet from the hurtling carrier. “Getting pretty close to old Luna, Skipper,” remarked Bud presently. “Shouldn’t you be slowing down?”
Tom replied, “Not in this case. We’ll release the probe directly into the spacetrack field at full space-speed. No reason not to—it’s barely crawling compared to how fast it’ll be travelling in a few minutes. Almost 2000 miles per second!”
“Yep, that should do ’er,” Chow said approvingly.
The accelapult system consisted of a continuous invisible ring of self-reinforcing kinks in the fundamental weave of the spacetime continuum, encircling the entire bulk of the moon. Pulses of whiplike force would drive the satellite forward, accelerating it to its unthinkable velocity before releasing it. As the framework carrier fell away, the Swifts watched the positional data with narrowed eyes; fine-tuning the main launch sequence after it began was all but impossible. “On the mark, son,” said Mr. Swift quietly. “Any second now...”
“There!” exclaimed the young inventor.
Chow gave a Winkler blink. “Hunh? ‘There’ what? It’s gone!”
“That’s how fast things happen once the payload is inserted into the spacetrack,” Tom explained. “A few whirls around the moon—and it’s on its way!”
Fast though the SunStorm was travelling, the megascope beam, piercing the void at light-speed, could keep up with ease. In a moment the probe reappeared at the center of the screen. “Both external tracking data—we’re using the outpost’s equipment—and inbuilt telemetry show good numbers,” exulted Tom’s father.
“So,” Bud inquired, “just how long will it take to get to Bartonia? Er—feel free to round it off.”
“Yeah,” nodded Chow with enthusiasm.
Tom grinned. “Bartonia—and Zero Minus—are about a quarter of the way around the sun from us right now. So we’re looking at about 13 hours. More or less.”
“Plenty o’ time fer two meals—and snacks!” pronounced the local cook, pleased.
Tom and his father took their meals at the megascope console, Chow and Bud and others drifting in and out of the observatory. They made regular progress reports to Mr. Demburton and World Portico, who were in turn in contact with the many Earthside families of the silent solarnauts—though some of the colonists had taken their families with them. But as the long hours rolled by, sleep unthinkable, the two Swifts discussed other matters. “Strange to think—only days ago our main concern was the HFCR phenomenon at the Citadel,” said Mr. Swift. “All the incredible importance to science—but endangered lives remind us of what is really important, doesn’t it?”
“Sure does.” Tom nodded, somewhat wearily. “Dad, that man Malanoche Witt, the one I seemed to fixate on for a while... There’s really no reason to think what happened in the test had anything to do with outside interference? Sabotage?”
The older man smiled. “No, Tom, for once the whole affair seems purely scientific, some aspect of the very physical principles we were trying to reproduce and study. Phil Radnor has flown out there to work with the Citadel’s own security people—and the federal monitors, of course. No sign of any sinister spywork.”
Tom retorted, “They’ll have to come up with a villain or two for the book series!” Father and son shared a laugh.
“No more of those strange feelings, I trust?”
“Not a one. As you said—endangered lives.”
As the hours passed there was no change on the screen—but one. The sun, in the video background and far ahead, was swelling mightily. At last Tom remarked. “Milestone, Dad. She just crossed the orbit of Mercury; one hour to the flyby!”
“And your invisible axistor ‘cocoon’ matters more and more from here on.”
“Skin temps holding steady—and you can see how the sun’s disk seems dimmer, even as it grows larger.”
“Just as long as the system contours an opening on the probe’s ‘dark side’—so signal-returns from the scanning instruments get through.”
“And it’s amazing to think how brief the crucial encounter period is—a matter of milliseconds!” Tom responded. “She’d be long gone before a shutter could snap.”
“Which is precisely why,” said his father, “we don’t take snapshots.” Mr. Swift pointed at a small bead of dull light slightly off the center of the screen. “Planet Zeer. We might be able to make out Bartonia if it weren’t for the axistor dimming effect...”
Tom adjusted the screen output, selectively enhancing certain elements and blotting-out others. A minute speck appeared near the rim of the dwarf planet’s dimlit form—though near on the screen was in spatial reality more than 700,000 miles beyond. “There she is, Dad, almost at point zero on the monitor.”
Minutes passed. Zero Minus had begun to show some detail within its expanding sunlit crescent, though tiny Bartonia was still no more than another star against black space. Tom had fallen quiet, studying the screen.
Suddenly, hesitantly, the young inventor touched his father’s arm. “Dad... does this look right to you?”
Mr. Swift glanced at a multi-meter readout next to the monitor. “The profile is well within the lines. We’ve accounted for the effects of planetary gravitation and Einsteinian precession elements. I see no deviation—”
“I—I’m afraid I do. Maybe it’s just a trick of my eyesight, but... We’re looking forward right along the straight-line trajectory of SunStorm, as if we were riding on it—that’s the preset megascope viewing angle, isn’t it?”
“In that case, the flyby intersect ought to be at the exact center of the monitor. But look, doesn’t it seem the trajectory intersects Bartonia itself?”
“Son, the probe will pass the planetoid at a distance of less than 150 miles, hardly detectable on the screen from SunStorm’s present position,” Mr. Swift calmly pointed out. “Really, the gap won’t be evident to the eye until a mere second or two before the encounter. You know that.”
Tom didn’t rebut the statement, but brought up radial positioning lines on the monitor. “Now I’ll expand the image and do some enhancement.” The disk of Zeer leapt off the monitor’s left edge, and now the precise cross-hairs were occupied by a small irregular circle representing Bartonia. “At this magnification, we ought to see at least a bit of a gap separating the scope’s centerpoint and the body of Bartonia. But it sure seems to me the targeting point is overlapping what little disk we can make out. And it’s shifting the wrong way!”
Suddenly troubled, Damon Swift took a longer, closer look. “Yes. I see what you mean. Not very distinct, but it almost seems... arguably... the projected tracking figures derived from the SunStorm’s signal output don’t quite match the megascope’s image perspective.” He glanced at his son and spoke reluctantly. “We both know how it works, Tom. The probe’s internal positioning register uses the ambient gravitational gradients from all local bodies to vector-calculate its trajectory elements, with a baseline from its internal gyros. It’s not obvious how there could be this much divergence between such precise positional telemetry and what we’re seeing with our own eyes.”
“How can there be any divergence at all?” demanded Tom. “It’s as if the probe, this one object, were in two places at once!”
“Let’s not be quite so dramatic, son,” Mr. Swift said reprovingly. “The megascope’s quantum connection gives us a realtime image, but the signals from the probe take time to reach us. We’re getting reports of its status from several tens of minutes ago—the readout numbers here are calculated projections. The computer predicts upcoming position, assuming the numbers evolve as predicted, and it’s always possible that some ‘squishiness’ could creep into equation applications. But the accelapult release was perfect. We know from that fact alone that the trajectory is within the parameters. The basic laws of motion will prevail over our human frailties.” The elder scientist seemed to find his short lecture reassuring.
But Tom was not reassured. The young inventor became all-frown. “Really, Dad? Remember what the SunStorm Satellite was investigating in the first place! The probe, or even Bartonia, may be experiencing the same spacetime effect that Caliper-1 reported. At close range!”
“But we included that in—”
“All I know—all we know—is what we’re seeing!” Tom insisted. “And we can’t just close our eyes to it, Dad. If the trend continues, SunStorm won’t zoom neatly by and make its observations, she’ll strike Bartonia dead-on with tremendous energy—and wipe out whatever is left of the science colony!”
THE LOST COLONY
THERE WAS no answer—but to think. Forcing calm on themselves, Tom and his father coolly discussed alternatives. “We have no ability to alter SunStorm’s course, whatever it might be in reality,” stated Damon Swift. “The probe is a projectile—a cannon shell. It has no maneuvering thrusters, no repelatrons.”
“I know, I know,” nodded his son. “We can throw all the signals we want in SunStorm’s direction, but with no thrust system to hook into—”
Tom fell silent.
His father read his face and gave him a piercing look. “Tom, it’s not like you to lose hope. There must be a way! What about making use of your dynasphere? You corrected the orbit of the Kronus satellite—and Bartonia is many times nearer than Saturn!”
Listlessly, Tom considered the idea—which had already occurred to him. “If only we had more time and some dependable positional info. But there’s no time to get the Dyna Ranger into space from Fearing Island, and in any event we’re not sure how to give the beam a precise heading. A push on the wrong side would just make matters worse!”
“I have to agree,” pronounced Mr. Swift with a sigh. “And in not many minutes our best efforts won’t matter. We’re approaching the point where even a light-speed beam or signal wouldn’t reach SunStorm before impact.”
During those grim minutes others entered the observatory to watch—and share the dread on the faces of the two Swifts. Bud protested, “But, I mean—jetz! That thing’s smaller than a trash barrel! I know it’s going pretty fast, but it’s a BB next to the planetoid! How could it—”
“One percent of the speed of light is a lot more than pretty fast,” replied his chum. “It’ll deliver a gigantic amount of energy on impact.”
“Ohh-kay now,” drawled Chow. “Not thet I know s’ much, but—wouldn’t she jest go right through, like a bullet through a gunslinger’s hat? Make a little hole, but the chance o’ someone bein’ in the way—”
“That’s not what we’re facing. Parts of SunStorm might well penetrate the body of Bartonia, but the impact energy will vaporize a big chunk of that space rock, and shatter the rest into tumbling fragments. It’ll be like a thousand H-bombs! No one on or in the planetoid could survive.”
“Then let’s hope the original Winkler Theory is right,” Bud said in a quiet voice. “Let’s hope it’s the Roanoke situation—and the colonists are somewhere far away.”
Hank Sterling, Enterprises’ chief engineer, was among those present. “In the old days, runaway test rockets could be blown up before they hit,” he mused. “But I know there’s nothing like that on SunStorm.”
“No,” said Mr. Swift. “Nothing like that.”
But Tom was still looking at Hank’s face. It was a look Bud Barclay had seen many times. “Hank, I think you just lit a fuse in a Swiftian brain!”
Tom’s father also knew it well. “Tom?”
Not looking at anyone, avoiding all eyes but those within his own head, the youth spoke his idea off into space. “We could transmit a series of microwave pulses toward the probe’s general position—a very simple, basic sort of command code. We could output it through the transmitron on the space outpost! And since we’re only sending a signal, we don’t need to be precise in aiming, as we would if we used the dynasphere to produce its effect.”
“But wouldn’t your axistor sheath just reflect it away from SunStorm?” objected Linda Ming, assistant to the plant’s modelmaker Arvid Hanson, who was out of town visiting his retired parents. “That’s what it does, right? An energy mirror?”
Mr. Swift was ahead of the game. “The field aperture on the shaded side! Yes, a signal could get through to the antennas.”
“Sorry, but—what’s the point?” Bud asked. “The thing can’t change course! What kind of command would you send it?”
“The worst kind of command, Bud,” was Tom’s hollow-voiced reply. “But the only option left.”
“I, I think—he’s gonna tell it t’ blow itself up!” ventured Chow with wide eyes. And Tom nodded, looking not at the westerner but at his father.
“End of mission,” said the laconic Assembly Chief Art Wiltessa.
After setting up the space relay, Tom and his father muttered numbers back and forth. Their fingers flew over many a console and input keyboard. None of the dread-sharers bothered them with questions.
“This is the best we can do, Dad,” Tom finally pronounced. “The transmission window is closing—it’ll work or it won’t.”
“D-dang suspense!” gulped Chow.
The young inventor extended a finger toward the unit controlling the transmission into space from the magnifying antenna, to be relayed by Enterprises’ orbiting outpost.
But his father brushed Tom’s hand aside. “I’ll do it, son. The SunStorm is mine.” Mr. Swift pressed the bead-button.
“Um...” Chow was staring at the megascope screen. “Hate t’ say it—hate t’ see it—but the thing’s still there.”
“It takes quite a while for the signal to reach the probe,” Hank explained. “But when it does, the megascope principle lets us see it in realtime, just as it happens.”
“Ye-aah, more suspense. Feel like I’m livin’ in one o’ them books! Who writes that gosh-willy stuff?”
“I’ll introduce you,” said Bud dryly.
As the minutes peeled away, Tom offered an explanation. “The transmitted code will trick the probe’s onboard computer into running instructions for an earlier part of the flight, before things got hot around it. The axistor units will be drawn in close and powered down.”
“Putting the SunStorm into stormy weather—namely full solar heat,” Linda stated. “But surely that wouldn’t melt or vaporize the probe’s composite shell.”
“That’s not what we’re after,” replied Mr. Swift. “As the temps shoot up on the inside, some of the protective component casings will warp and crack—including the ones using liquid helium to supercool elements of the instrument circuitry.”
“And as we all know,” Bud continued, “heat and liquid helium don’t like each other much.”
“It’ll be enough,” said Tom dully.
They waited out the minutes. And then, suddenly, the image on the megascope monitor seemed to rip itself to pieces—and the screen turned to static. “Done.” Mr. Swift’s comment was a pronouncement of death—the death of his offspring.
Tom said, to no one mourner in particular, “Blast effects disrupted the viewing terminal. But we don’t need a ringside seat to know what happened. By our calculations, the probe fragments will be widely dispersed when they hit. Their total momentum is unchanged, but Bartonia can survive a spray of pieces over a large surface area.” His voice trailed off listlessly.
“Mission uncompleted, but—” snorted Bud. “—definitely finished. What’s the next step, guys? Can you build another probe to sling at ’em?”
“And blow it up?” asked Tom bitterly. “We still don’t know anything about the course-shifting phenomenon. It could change unpredictably, maybe because of the proximity of Zeer. How do we program a course without knowing the ‘lay of the land’?”
“In other words,” the abashed pilot conceded, “no countersteering in this kind of wind.”
“But what if it were a piloted mission?” Hank abruptly suggested. “We could easily cobble together an off-the-shelf crew capsule—couldn’t we, Art?” Wiltessa nodded. “The accelapult system provides a counterforce to protect the vehicle from the forces of acceleration. The launch would be survivable. In that scenario, the craft could be continually course-corrected in the last minutes and guided to a close flyby.”
Cautiously, Tom agreed. “In other words, a human pilot could eyeball-it in realtime, even if the spacetime variations came randomly.”
But Mr. Swift’s face remained grim, and his tone was skeptical. “I don’t doubt that we could add a live pilot and a maneuvering setup to the basic probe. But with all the legendary magic of Tom Swift Enterprises—and your assembly team, Art—completion and launch would take closer to a week than a day. And the end result would be data that we’d hoped to have, needed to have, in hand now.”
“What are you saying, Dad?” asked Tom with emotion. “That it’ll be too late to help the Bartonia team?”
Silence fell with a thud.
“Not to add a ray o’ gloom,” Chow Winkler said, “but—mebbe it’s a’ready too late, fer all we know.” Tom and Bud exchanged an affectionate glance that included the big cowpoke. They knew his main concern was to forestall risking the lives of his good friends in a lost cause.
“We have to balance these things, weigh the options,” continued the graying CEO and father.
Bud interrupted. “You’ll be the one who tells the families, Mr. Swift.”
“I’m well aware of that fact, Bud. The reality—”
And then it was Tom’s hand that interrupted. “Wait! We’re not thinking big enough! What if...”
“Sorry, Mr. Swift,” Bud stage-whispered. “Just trying to shake down an idea or two.” Damon Swift gave back a wink.
“Go on, boss. What’s your idea?” urged Linda.
“It’s too late for a data-gathering probe—we’re beyond that point. We don’t need a piloted probe—we need a rescue mission!” The young inventor paused for a reaction, but the listeners waited stone-faced. “I’m sure that in the same amount of time it would take to put together a second SunStorm Satellite, we could create a much larger vehicle to send a whole crew to Bartonia—to land there!”
Hank Sterling grinned broadly. “Have t’ say, I figured that would be next on the agenda!”
“Pardon me if I don’t take any of this in a spirit of high adventure,” said Tom’s father gravely. “I believe the last count of the science colony was eighty-eight. Setting aside the relevant question of how you plan to slow your vehicle for a surface landing from 2000 miles per second—”
“Setting that aside, Tom—and the equally relevant question of how you plan to launch from Bartonia for the return—do you really think we can ready such a huge vehicle in a matter of days?”
“Might be too much of that ‘legendary magic’,” bluntly offered Art Wiltessa.
“Brand me fer a mule, let ’im talk!” Chow demanded.
“Thanks, pardner,” said the youth quietly. “I’m not saying we can bring the solarnauts back to Earth with us. I’m saying we can go out there with supplies—it might still turn out to be a medical crisis—and with weapons, if that’s what it takes to regain control. In any event we can uncover the nature of the situation and reestablish communication. If we can’t just fix things to allow the Bartonia orbit mission to proceed, then—then all we can do is wait the weeks until the Challenger can get there to evacuate them. And us.”
“Assuming.” There was no need for Bud to say the rest of the sentence—that there’s anyone left to evacuate!
Damon Swift gave a weary half-smile, a capitulation to hope. “I’m not opposed to trying. Have I ever been? It’s what we do—for a hundred years now. But son, is this just the usual noble Swift sentiment, or do you have some inventive notion of how to get a vehicle to the crisis zone in a matter of hours—and then somehow slow down to land?”
“I mean—you know—I know you know—there’s no catcher’s mitt on Bartonia,” Bud said with an apologetic look toward his chum.
“Maybe Tom plans to come up with a de-celapult,” was Linda Ming’s comment—not sarcasm, but hope.
Chow’s broad face broadcast some cowboy scorn in every direction. “Mighty typical. First thing t’ jump outta somebody’s mouth is a string o’ discouragin’ words!”
Tom rubbed his chin; thought had taken him over. “I do have a notion... a plan... probably an invention.”
“More than ‘probably’,” Bud chuckled.
“What, then?” asked Hank. “How to we land a rescue team on the planetoid?”
“How? We parachute in!”
BLAZING TO A RESCUE
SIX DAYS later the mighty Challenger was en route to the moon and Tom Swift’s lunar accelapult—the invisible spacetrack that would javelin the rescue mission toward the sun. Attached to the craft’s “front porch” vehicular landing platform—and extending beyond its edges—was the typically strange-looking vehicle that would bear the young inventor and his chosen team, five total, to the silenced space colony.
“It was pretty tough, telling Chow we didn’t have room for another crew member,” Tom told Bud as the athletic Californian piloted the ring-encircled spaceship.
Bud nodded wryly. “If you put it that way, he probably took it as a comment on his waist size.”
“I tried to make up for it by letting him name our solarcraft. And Blazing Brand is a good name, flyboy.”
“Mm. If you say so. Of course, the main idea is not to blaze. I’d probably call it the Far-Flung Firetruck.”
“I’ve heard about these nicknames of yours, Barclay,” said the diminutive man standing next to them, an expert in astrophysics and celestial mechanics named Wulfred Arends. “Rafe Franzenberg gives a nice lifelike summary of you top-level fellows. You two have all the fun and do all the heroics—my nieces are fans of the book series—while drones like me labor in our cubicles unsung.”
“Want to be sung, Wulf?” gibed Bud.
“After our safe return, please. And I’ll do the singing.”
There were others on the command deck, some to guide the Challenger back to Earth, two to complete the roster of crew members for the rescue flight. The fourth missioner, Dinah Ingraham, was a specialist in all aspects of interplanetary-range communications technology. The last, Dr. Morgan Tefft, was a noted expert in space medicine originally from NASA, now borrowed by Enterprises from the Centers for Disease Control. The physician and researcher, rather older than the others, had an international reputation as a contagion fighter and a pioneer in the biology of humanity in space.
The Challenger was using the ray-force of its repelatrons to slow, and the moon seemed—and felt—to be beneath them. Tom contacted his father by parallelophone, one of several such units that would accompany them on the Blazing Brand. “About to pull into orbit, Dad,” he said. “How’s the view?”
“The megascope viewpoint is on the other side of the window and about ten feet in front of your nose, son,” came the reply. “And my old eyes will be right alongside throughout the trip—though I’ll have to pull back a ways as you power-up your energy mirror.”
“I’m afraid resonant effects from the axistor sheath may disperse the megascope matrix even at a distance of several miles,” Tom said. “But it’ll feel good to know you’re somewhere out there watching.”
Tom broke contact. “We’ve attained orbit, Skipper,” declared Bud. “Take over, John.”
“Happy heroics, guys,” said the ship’s return pilot, John Yarborough.
Already spacesuited, the five activated their helmets—spherical barriers of nanofilaments that the eye could not catch—and elevatored down to the ship’s hangar-hold, then out onto the open deck. The Brand’s access door, protected from the vacuum by a similar barrier, yawned open and waiting. Tom glanced at Dr. Tefft. “A little woozy, Doctor?”
“Are you asking because of my age, Tom? I’ve been in space a great many more times than you have.”
“But never on a crack-the-whip ride like this one,” noted Bud.
“My work has never been much of a carnival,” Tefft responded. Bud realized the medic was not inclined toward humor. He’s seen a lot, thought Bud.
The astronauts took their seats in the Blazing Brand and Tom sealed the hull. The clamps that held the solarcraft to the Challenger’s deck released them with a gentle push. The solarcraft lifted off into space.
Tom activated the bank of small maneuvering repelatrons tucked within the white-chromelike skin of the craft, and the Brand responded smoothly, speeding away from the Challenger. The arid, scarred plains of the moon passed beneath them. Ten minutes later they could feel the effects of braking deceleration. “Orbit confirmed,” Tom announced presently.
“Then—we’re sitting right in the middle of the accelapult ‘space track’?” Dinah asked.
“Right,” Bud answered. “Don’t look for a yellow line down the middle—the whole thing’s invisible.”
“I’m making the final checkthrough,” Tom told them. “Then I’ll start the accelapult cycle myself, from here.”
“Should we, mm—fasten our seatbelts or something?” inquired Wulf. “The fantastic forces you’re playing with—!”
The young inventor was tense, but forced a weak smile. “If all goes well, we won’t feel a thing.”
Bud added unhelpfully: “And if all doesn’t go well—we won’t feel a thing in that case either!”
“Nor ever again,” muttered Dr. Tefft.
A busy moment passed. Tom sucked in a breath.
The start of the flight came with no countdown and no announcement from the captain. Suddenly the moon below became a hazy flutter, the stars above a spinning dome of luminous cobwebs—and in two heartbeats the glittery sky was calm and normal again. “We’re off,” said Tom quietly.
“Lacking your famous excitement and drama,” grinned Wulf Arends. “But I notice the moon is nowhere to be seen.” He nodded toward one of the craft’s slitlike viewports.
“She’s well to stern and shrinking like a punctured balloon,” Bud grinned back. He turned to his pal. “Genius boy, I know you tested all this out a million times or so—at least I asked that many times—but it still seems queasy, not doing the hare-and-tortoise routine.”
Dinah asked, “What does that mean?”
“It was our method of launch for the Caliper mission,” Tom explained. “A special vehicle carried the probe during the accelapult phase right up to the release point—it had to do with siphoning off some of the field’s energies to counteract the centrifugal force inside the probe, which obviously was unthinkably strong. In this case, the same technology is built right into the solarcraft itself.”
“It does have a downside,” remarked Bud mischievously. “No fireworks display as we leave.”
“I can live without it,” Morgan Tefft stated in his cool, grave way.
Tom confirmed the precision of the launch parameters with the space outpost, and spoke briefly with his father. Then he said to the others: “Really—we can just kick back now. It’s all momentum, from here to the last hour or so when we start the deceleration phase.”
There was quiet for a time, broken, surprisingly, by Dr. Tefft. “Technology isn’t my field, except as it applies to the world of medicine. I take for granted that you plan to get us to our destination in one piece—”
“At least one,” Bud interjected.
“But I can’t claim to have really absorbed all the briefing materials. This business of ‘parachuting’—in a vacuum...”
“I’m not too clear on that myself,” remarked Dinah.
“Then I’ll explain,” the young space explorer nodded. “Why not? We have hours to kill, after all, and nothing much to do.
“The Blazing Brand is now coasting along toward the sun and Bartonia at about .01 C—one percent of the velocity of light.”
“That is to say, 3000 kilometers per second,” appended Wulf Arends. “For those allergic to the metric system, 1860 miles p. s.”
“So we’re following on the path of the SunStorm Satellite,” Tom continued, “though the distance is greater because Bartonia and Zeer have moved along a ways in their orbit of the sun since... what would have been the planned flyby. And as you know, that’s why the axistors are crucial—our superfast trajectory has to be a straight line until the very end, and now the direct route takes us too near the sun for any kind of shielding to protect us.
“So—how do we slow to make a landing? Well, space, especially near the sun, isn’t as empty as you think, though it stills counts as a vacuum. There’s a solar wind constantly streaming into space from the sun. In terms of mass it’s mostly protons, basically hydrogen nuclei with their electrons torn away by the energies of the fusion process.”
“I know I’m showing off,” interjected Wulf again, “but I’m not as funny as Barclay and it’s all I have. So: you have your protons and electrons, also some free-range atomic hydrogen and helium, all mixing it up in the inner and outer coronas. And, lest we forget, those subtrinos our young genius here uses to blow his Space Kite along—I gather it’s too gusty near the sun to use that sort of propulsion.”
Nodding confirmation, Tom went on. “Because the protons have a positive, unbalanced, electrical charge, we can grab hold of them with an electromagnetic flux—my space solartron uses the same technique. And as we grab hold, their momentum is transferred through the flux-field to the body of the solarcraft. So the field interacts with the solar wind just as a parachute interacts with atmospheric air, and the back-drag slows us down.”
“From such an incredible speed, eh?” Dr. Tefft did not look skeptical, but clearly found the notion difficult.
“As a matter of fact, Doctor, the high relative velocities multiply the effect,” declared the crewcut young inventor. “Of course we’ll have a pretty lengthy brake-skid—tens of millions of miles! But by the end we’ll have matched speed with the planetoid, and we can come in for a soft landing with our repelatrons.”
“And—er—of course—your axistor wave-benders won’t pose a problem for the magnetic parachute,” half-asked Dinah. “I know the axistors will be active as we approach the sun. As you explained.”
“The axistors change the propagation vectors of electromagnetic waves. No interaction with a localized flux-field, or incoming solar particles,” replied Tom briskly. “Besides, the axistor ‘sheath’ wraps around the Brand tightly, like a cocoon; it doesn’t get much beyond the inductor panels at the end of their booms. But the ‘heliochute’ field extends out for a radius of more than a mile. Several miles, in fact, at maximum.”
“Mm, well—I suppose that’ll do,” Bud joked.
The five reclined their seats and did what they could to relax, between meals and PER reports to Earth, as the hours passed. There was no sense of motion despite their phenomenal velocity—only the constant swelling of the solar disk ahead of them, its harsh glare diminished by the automatic dim-down material of the viewports. They tried to make brief sleep, in shifts, but the tension of the mission made it mostly futile, the other half of futility attributable to Wulf Arends’ habit of unconscious humming. Bud used American Sign Language to say to Tom: At least he doesn’t supply the lyrics!
And Wulf signed back: I saw that!
At last Tom announced: “Checkpoint 5. We’ve just crossed the orbit of Mercury. The axistor system is now active, at minimum power. It’ll increase automatically as we go along.”
“Skipper,” Bud asked, “are you seeing any trace of that warping business?”
Tom shook his head. “No. But I really don’t expect it until much further along—that’s when it started showing up on the SunStorm.”
The first deadly moment, the near-solar flyby, came all too soon. The Blazing Brand was angling across the sun’s doorstep! It was more than an hour before Dinah said, “Isn’t that Zero Minus? The little spot up there?”
“Very hard to make out,” muttered Dr. Tefft.
“You’re right, Dinah,” Tom declared. “But don’t expect to see anything of Bartonia until the last few seconds.”
“I plan to have my eyes closed,” remarked Wulf.
Tension and excitement grew inside the crew compartment as the external sunlight slowly dimmed away to a dull phosphorescence, even as the solar disk almost filled the black sky ahead. The axistor panels, at the ends of their fully-extended booms, were now in full-throated activity, bouncing the sun’s fierce radiations off into space. Finally Tom shuttered the viewports and turned his attention to a teleview monitor. “Temps holding steady, but... The monitor shows we’ve started drifting from course,” he reported tersely. “I’m controlling the repelatrons manually to correct, but it’ll become ten times more difficult when we start braking. And—I think this ‘slipperiness’ of spacetime is also distorting the repelatrons’ linear fields.”
“I don’t think I needed that information,” huffed Morgan Tefft.
“I hope you’re monitoring your blood pressure, Doc,” Bud commented innocently.
“Please don’t call me that.”
Not long after, the control board uttered a tone. Tom glanced over his shoulder at his crew. “Okay, this is it. Everyone assume position for deceleration mode. Sixty seconds.”
The crew took their seats and all the seats rotated— facing aft, they would be meeting the force of the heliochute maneuver with their backs. A secondary control board rotated along with Tom’s seat, keeping it, and the crucial forward-view monitor, in front of him. “Resilientronic cushions on. Gravitex-shadow units activated. Confirmations, everyone.” Each astronaut in turn confirmed that the inertial counterforce devices, mounted under each of the seats, were operational.
“And Captain Swift?” Bud called out. “I’d like to hear a confirmation from you, too!”
“Confirmed, pal. And I just signaled Dad by PER. So here we go—the biggest slowdown in human history!”
Tom gulped and pressed a single button-bead on the panel in front of him, trying to brace himself during the five-second countdown.
And then the heliochute started clutching at protons, and the five were thrust violently toward the prow of the rescue solarcraft, taking it on their backs with gasps and grunts. At the very edge of the sun’s fire, the rescue flight’s deadly, critical thread-the-needle stretch had begun!
THE SOLARCRAFT and its crew took the rigors of braking with soreness and complaint but no injuries. “W-we’re in for more th-than an hour of this?” grunted Dinah.
Bud replied quietly—but tensely. “It’s a lot tougher on Tom up there. He has to take all this and steer, too.”
“I’m... doing fine,” Tom gasped out. “Everything nominal—perfect!—on the heliochute parameters. The trajectory deviations are getting worse, just as expected.” Keeping his deep-set blue eyes on the readouts, he contacted his father by his Private Ear Radio.
“Looks like you’re right on the money, Tom,” came the familiar voice, from the Swift Enterprises observatory. “You have quite a crowd here with me at the megascope, incidentally.” New voices came, and Tom grinned.
“Space greetings to all of you—Mom, sis, Bash—you too, Chow!” There were back-sounds of cheers. “And Dad, the instruments are picking up a lot of data on this spacetime weirdness. The computers are crunching, but I can’t see any pattern in the swerves. Completely unpredictable.”
“I won’t distract you, son. I can tell in your voice that it’s rough going. Enterprises out.”
Tom frowned slightly. I wonder what Dad meant—about my voice? he thought. Seems to me I sound pretty calm...
He turned his attention back to his “steering wheel” and the task at hand—avoiding potholes on the highway to Bartonia.
The actual G-forces of braking were very high. An unprotected human body could not have survived. But the force of Tom’s inventiveness was even stronger. Protected in various ways, the crew was enduring it, achingly. “But as soon as we set down, I want to examine each of you,” warned Dr. Tefft.
Bud retorted: “Long as I get a lollypop out of it.”
The rough passage seemed to go on forever, and the strange swerves of the solarcraft were now making themselves not merely detectible but felt. But finally Tom announced, “Bartonia dead ahead, folks. We’ve made it through the whitewater part of the trip! About 30 seconds to touchdown.”
“Don’t forget, Captain, we’re supposed to stop first!” Dinah called out weakly.
There was no drama to the landing on Bartonia. Along with the craft’s velocity the braking forces suddenly petered out, and a moment later Tom said, “Maneuvering repelatrons a little quivery but in good order—good enough. We’ve matched Bartonia’s rate of rotation. Final descent protocol... Landing struts, full extension. And—” The Blazing Brand felt the very slightest of shocks. “We’re down.”
The cabin erupted with weak and shaky cheers. As the protective units were shut down, the astronauts stood and stretched. Tom lowered the viewport visors; they had landed on the darkside of the planetoid, and the huge sun was not visible.
Bud pointed. “But we’re not alone.” The pallid disk of Zero Minus hung amongst the stars just over the slowly moving Bartonia horizon.
“Before we start frog-marching our way to the colony’s entrance, I’m letting Dad know we’re okay,” Tom stated, activating the PER unit.
The response was immediate. “Congratulations, Brand! My viewpoint is a ways away, but it looks like a perfect touchdown!”
Tom confirmed this, but added. “Dad, I think something must be affecting the PER circuitry. Your voice sounds a little... off.”
“In what way?”
“It’s a little hard to describe. Maybe it’s the same thing you heard in my voice earlier.”
“Yew-arrr voy-zzz-ur—leee...” The weird distortion of his father’s voice ended suddenly in electronic silence!
“Good gosh, what’s wrong with the thing?” asked Bud.
“I’ll take a look at it,” said Dinah. “But it doesn’t sound at all like a circuitry problem.”
“What else could it be?” Wulf asked. “Nothing in intervening space could affect the quantum link.”
“I think we’re going to be facing a lot of puzzles here,” was Tom Swift’s comment. “But the mission comes first.”
As the crew resumed their seats, Tom began edging his way across the planetoid’s bleak, jagged landscape, using brief angled bursts of repelatron power. Of somewhat irregular shape, Bartonia was approximately ten miles across at its broadest, with negligible surface gravitation. The tiny world had been set into a slow rotation in order to use centrifugal force to give the underground science colonists a useful touch of gravity; Tom’s gravity-concentrator device, the gravitex, held the solarcraft against the surface. Spike-screws extending from the Brand’s landing struts kept the solarcraft from bouncing with each hop. They seemed to be moving like a mosquito across a ceiling, ground above, stars below.
“All right,” the young inventor announced presently, “I’m seeing the subsurface living space on the penetradar...”
Standing next to his chum’s seat, Bud pointed through the forward port. “And look—right by that crater—that’s one of the elevator shacks.”
As he had been doing intermittently throughout the journey, Tom tried to contact the colonists by space-radio as well as PER. There was, again, only silence. “We’ll park with our hatchway next to the shack. I’ll be extending the filament airspace to cover the shack, but activate your helmets anyway—we don’t know what sort of breathability we’ll find below.” It was a haunting image that gripped all of them. It was very possible that the Bartonia habitat was not only airless—but lifeless!
Loosely pressed against the surface by their suit gravitexes—still seeming, dizzily, to be walking upside-down—the team made their way to the structure, a few halting steps. The airlock hatch-panel retracted at a touch and the five entered cautiously, following a spiral “catwalk” that ended with boots against the elevator-car ceiling. As the panel closed and sealed itself, they could tell that the automatic machinery was pumping air into the compartment. “Air normal,” Tom reported, and Bud announced, “Goin’ down!—er, in an up-ish way.”
They elevatored down a few score feet. The inner panel swung open. The lights were on; the air was breathable. “No smell of rotting flesh,” commented Wulf Arends as the visitors switched-off their invisible filament-helmets. All were aware of the i-gun pulse weapons holstered to their belts.
“No people either,” added Dinah.
“I noticed,” Bud stated.
Tom stepped over to a public-address intercom next to the elevator, fingering the button. “Attention! This is Tom Swift! We’ve entered at Elevator Bay 2—please reply!” Nothing—emphasized by several repetitions.
“But the speakers are working, Skipper. You can hear ’em,” said Bud. “So, gang—welcome to space island Roanoke.”
Burdened by the eerie silence, they began to explore, trudging down long corridors, probing into rooms and labs. There was no sign of death, but no sign of life either. Bartonia was uninhabited!
“I’ve been taking my readings, analyzing microsamples,” declared Dr. Tefft. “I see nothing that could account for this, bacterial, viral, chemical. No sign of toxins. Nothing in the air that shouldn’t be there. No surface traces of blood or other bodily fluids...”
Dinah was carrying one of Tom’s hand-held sampling instruments. “Same with my analytracer readings. Perfectly normal.”
“Normal can be dangerous,” Bud suggested.
“Let’s check Main Command,” directed Tom. “Then the Infirmary. And I want to find the compartment where that word was scrawled—there might be evidence of a struggle.”
Main Command was the colony’s central control room and communications center. It too was spotless and deserted. “There’s where the communications man would have been sitting when he was cut off,” Tom declared, gesturing at an empty chair. “The microphone indicator is still reading On.”
Dinah Ingraham examined the space radio, opening up a panel in the console to scrutinize its circuitry. “Boys, I see nothing amiss. We could put in a call to Earth if—”
“I don’t want to wait for a slowpoke exchange at mere lightspeed,” responded Tom with a faint smile. “Let’s keep going until we have something to report.”
The base Infirmary showed no sign of anything amiss. Dinah helped Tom access the Bartonia medic’s daily log, from the compartment’s electronic memory. “No panic,” declared Tefft. “Nothing unusual in the medical report. She seems bored.” As Dinah clicked off the file, he added: “I have to say, at this point a medical explanation seems out of the question.”
“Unless,” Tom said, “ ‘medical’ includes psychiatric. The Bartonians may have...”
As his pal hesitated, Bud filled in the blank. “—lost it.” And then he regretted his choice of words.
“Let’s find the wall with the word,” urged Wulf.
They soon found it, on the bulkhead of a small storeroom. “There’s the marking pen,” Tom pointed. The marker was off to the side, not obvious to the eye. And on a shelf, leaning against a heater, was the abandoned handheld vid-device whose little eye had gazed at the scrawled word CROAT—apparently never interrupted.
Dinah’s eyes followed a series of interlinked cords and mated jacks. “Plugged it into this computer... and look at the screen. The signal went out through an antenna named beta-4.”
Tom nodded. “The betas are for local transiphone traffic—spacesuit communications, or the worker-bees.” The young inventor explained that these were repelatron mini-craft intended for use in scouting the asteroids or planetary satellites encountered by Bartonia during its years-long orbital mission. “They’re not designed for transmission over interplanetary distances.”
“Worked in a pinch, though,” Bud remarked. “Look, gang, we’re all thinking the same thing, aren’t we? Somehow, for some reason, the whole mission team was forced to abandon Bartonia—forced, and obviously suddenly. No warning, no time for anyone to leave much of a message, if this wall-scrawl is an indication.”
“Couldn’t even finish the word,” observed Dr. Tefft. “But as I understand it, that’s really just an assumption. We’re only assuming that the intended word is CROATOAN, with its reference to the Roanoke mystery.”
“But it’s consistent with what we’re finding,” Tom pointed out quietly. “Let’s check the worbee hangar.”
Tom led them there, and it was as suspected. The hangar was empty—the worker-bee craft were gone. “Chief, do you know—could the worbees have carried off the entire crowd?” Wulf asked Tom. “Were there enough?”
The young inventor thought for a moment. “As I recall there were fifteen of them, some larger than others. The bees would be packed, but I think all eighty-eight colonists could have made it across in one trip.”
Tefft looked quizzical. “Across?”
“That’s the Roanoke scenario, isn’t it, Doctor?” retorted Bud. “From the island to the mainland. To Zero Minus!”
“Of course they’d been making landings all along,” Tom mused as the group headed back to the elevator. “The whole point of this ‘pause’ in the Bartonia mission was to learn about Zeer. No one can determine what causes the spacetime instability, but we do know a fair amount about what the planet is made of. They had—have—gravitoscopic mappers to probe Zeer’s inner structure. We know about it’s rotation, gravity, basic composition...” The youth sounded discouraged, distracted.
When they again passed through Main Command, Tom picked up one of the base’s parallelophones, hanging from a wall cradle. He selected several quantum cartridges, each linked to units at specific earthly locations, and tried them one after another. “All dead!” he reported, needlessly. “What’s your diagnosis, Dinah?”
She examined the several cartridges, and the several PER units themselves. “I can’t explain this, Tom,” she finally replied. “The cartridges are in good shape; the particle conformation hasn’t decohered from use. The circuitry seems perfectly fine. Batteries up. Yet, somehow—rudely violating the basic laws of physics!—they’re not allowing us to connect with the counterpart units, not one of them.”
Tom rubbed his chin, perplexed. “The extraterrestrials—the Space Friends and their people—have a way to interrupt the connection. Bud and I dealt with it on Mars. We were cut off from Earth.”
“But if the Planet X guys are behind this, why would they make the Bartonians fly off in the worbees?” Bud objected. “And it’d also mean they were lying about not being able to operate this close to the sun!”
“I don’t know the answer, flyboy,” replied his chum quietly. “Just like I don’t know why that weak video signal made it out across the solar system. It’s... it’s almost...” His voice trailed off; an odd expression crossed his face.
“Are you all right, Tom?” asked Dr. Tefft.
Tom stared at the man. “What about... don’t you hear it?”
The young inventor looked from face to face. “None of you are hearing those sounds? I’m sure they’re—voices!”
“I just hear us, Skipper,” said Bud. “Voices? Like the colonists, you mean?”
Tom covered his ears, then took his hands away. “I—no, I—I only know a few of the project team, but the voices I’m hearing seem familiar, voices I know. Several people, but... I can’t quite make out...”
“Let’s return to the ship,” insisted Morgan Tefft. “This could be some sort of medical or neurological issue, Tom. I’ve discussed—with Dr. Simpson—”
“I’m aware that he briefed you,” interrupted the youth brusquely. “And Bud knows all about it.”
“All about what?” Wulf demanded. “Dinah and I need to be up to speed on anything that could affect the mission.”
Tom gazed at him sullenly. “You’re right. I thought it was over. And—I had to be a part of this team. My inventions, my—” Again his voice trailed off. He looked down at his hands. Where was he? Or better—was he really where he seemed to be, on Bartonia? Because one voice, faint and distant though it was, had briefly come to the fore.
“... if only... you could... just want to know that... please try...”
It was the voice of his father!
ON TO THE MAINLAND
ALMOST before he realized it, the voices and the strange feelings had evaporated, and Tom shrugged it off as far as the others were concerned. No good could come of telling them that their leader was hallucinating the voice of a man hundreds of millions of miles distant. He provided an account of Doc Simpson’s concerns. “I’m fine,” he concluded in a voice that admitted no argument. “Back to the Brand. We need to do one more thing here before we—head across.” Across the strait of emptiness to a new world!
Back in the solarcraft, protected by the bank of axistors that were fully extended from the hull, Tom deactivated the anchoring gravitexes, allowing the ship to float free. Instantly it began to rush away from the surface, gently hurled outward by centrifugal force.
For an hour the young inventor guided the Blazing Brand in a series of circuits of the tiny planetoid, scanning the surface with eyeballs and instruments. At last he announced: “Not a trace of the colonists or the worbees, not on the outside and not on the inside of Bartonia either—nothing.”
“What you mean, genius boy,” commented Bud, “is nothing moving.” Tom did not respond.
Dinah Ingraham said, “So either they’ve crossed over to Zero Minus, or they’re off in space somewhere. And it’s a big somewhere. Tom, couldn’t we detect them by long-range scan?”
“That’s what I’m trying to do,” was the terse reply. “Nothing’s coming back to the radarscope, and its effective radius is much greater than the repelascope’s. Unless they’re in the radar-shadow of Zeer, or on Zeer’s surface beyond repelascope range...” He didn’t need to complete the thought.
“Then let’s get going,” urged Bud.
The Brand’s mini-repelatrons pushed away from the faint gravitation of Bartonia easily enough, though Tom noticed—but didn’t mention—their peculiar lack of focus. The darn things aren’t concentrating! he thought. Tom set a direct course for Zero Minus, a midget among planets but a gigantic world compared to the planetoid. Accelerating, they crossed in the dwarf planet’s shadow; its disk loomed almost black against the sun. “The trons don’t have a lot of power,” the youth reminded them. “The traverse will take more than an hour. We’ll ease into orbit and start searching.”
Dr. Tefft had a grim, skeptical look. “How could they possibly survive down there?”
It was Wulf Arends who replied. “The same way they crossed space—by staying in the worbees. Zeer and Bartonia aren’t as close to the sun as we were on our straight-line shortcut. The worbee shielding would have been enough to protect them during the traverse.”
“Actually, the colony was well-equipped for survival under unexpected circumstances,” declared Tom. “They had collapsible ‘igloo domes’ of Tomasite, coated with Inertite to protect them from radiation. They had enough food for years in space—not only what they grew themselves underground, but compressed rations.”
“And what about air?” persisted Tefft. “Surely those little space pods couldn’t carry enough tanked oxygen to support the whole Bartonia population for this amount of time.”
“No, Doctor. But the colony had one of my solartron matter makers—and two smaller-sized spares. They’re compact enough to be transported, and the hydrogen nuclei accumulators are especially efficient this close to the sun. They could manufacture their own air—water, too.”
“We have to assume that the colonists are still alive,” Dinah said musingly.
“Yes, but we also need to keep all the alternatives in front of us,” retorted Tefft. “I don’t mean to sound negative, but for all we know the colonists could have been attacked in transit and—”
Tom cut him off. “Let’s focus on the task at hand. I need to deal with these ‘space currents.’ The effect seems to be getting worse as we approach Zeer.”
The orbit they eased into was a lazy one, though fairly circular. Under the pull of relatively slight gravitation, the Brand was able to orbit Zero Minus slowly and close to the surface. The craft looped about the dwarf planet for hours, scanning continuously. Zeer had been photographically mapped by the Bartonia colonists; the rescue team were able to anticipate the more rugged areas and scrutinize them with greater care. “About how much have we covered so far, Skipper?” Bud presently inquired.
“About thirty percent, flyboy,” responded the young space captain. “And remember, this is just a preliminary survey. The instruments—not to mention our puny human eyes—could easily blip over such small things as the worbees or habitat domes. The real work begins tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” repeated the black-haired copilot. “Don’t tell me we get to sleep!”
“I could sure use some,” muttered the young inventor. When had he had a real night’s sleep?
“I just wish I could figure out why none of our long-range communicators are functioning,” complained Dinah. “The Bartonians could be down there sending distress signals—but we wouldn’t know it.”
Tom could only shrug—along with something to add. “Everyone should be aware of the scope of the problem. The spacetime effect we’ve been fighting isn’t just getting stronger, but it seems to be... spreading!”
“You mean, over a greater area?” asked Wulf.
“No, I mean it seems to be producing a greater variety of phenomena. The computers—the Spacelane Brain, as we call it—are giving outputs that don’t seem internally consistent. The same thing happened to the SunStorm Satellite as it penetrated this region.”
Bud was frowning. “That’s a little spooky, pal. Can we land this boat safely with malfunctioning computers?”
Tom Swift reiterated the frown. “It’ll require some real seat-of-pants piloting. And I’m not sure that what we’re dealing with is malfunctioning technology.”
“An intervention of some kind?” asked Morgan Tefft. “The work of an enemy?”
“I don’t know where it comes from,” Tom stated. “But what I’m seeing goes beyond circuitry and components. This is all pretty out there, but bear with me. It’s as if some of the basic laws of science, the really fundamental physical principles, are being tweaked in the same way as the spacetime grid. I know—it’s not easy to say what that even means. Obviously the degree of deviation is at the very threshold of detection, or we—or we couldn’t...”
The young inventor rubbed a hand across his eyes. Again—the strange sensation, the distant voices that seemed so familiar... several voices, even his own voice. How could that be? What were they saying?
The telephone rang. At exactly that moment.
The young inventor almost snarled. “No. Nope! I must have dozed off again!”
“It might be your father,” said Anne Swift. Like Sandy, she was suddenly pale. “Perhaps—I should—”
“No, I’ll answer, Mom.” Tom lifted the house phone to his ear, cutting off the ring. “Hello?”
“Is that you, Tom? Do you recognize my voice?”
“Yes, Mr. Demburton, I—” Tom stopped himself in puzzlement. Why in space did I think of Mr. Demburton? he quizzed himself. The telephone voice was nothing like the hotelier’s. Yet, somehow, it seemed familiar. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I said that. Who’s calling, please?”
Tom could almost feel an amused smile pass along the line. “Do you really not know who this is? Or has the sound of my voice cost you your vaunted equilibrium?”
The man chuckled in a pleasant, quaint way—avuncular and British. “My word! We spoke only hours ago.”
Of course Tom knew who it was. He forced himself to admit the fact and give it voice. “Is this Professor Witt?”
“Prof. Malanoche Witt, as well you know, young Swift. Really now, there’s no use pretending. Let us spare ourselves the usual games, eh? Pleasant though they may be. It is surely time to get down to—the larger questions. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Tom was flummoxed! “Professor, I—I know who you are. As a matter of fact—coincidentally—I looked you up online earlier today. Have we met?”
“Ah! Perhaps ‘met’ isn’t quite the word for the two of us, do you think? But in the absence of your friend Barclay, I suppose you need to add a note of humor.”
“Sir, I—but—how do you know that Bud isn’t—”
“Now, now,” the man interrupted, “our time together is precious; always is. Even such a brief exchange as we had in your extraordinarily modern office just hours ago.”
Good night, he’s talking about the dream I had! thought the young inventor. “Professor Witt, I have no idea what you’re talking about or why you’ve called me like this.”
“Oh, I see.” Tom could imagine the academic’s eyes twinkling. “Well then. Kindly do me this favor, won’t you? Put your left hand in your pants pocket.”
“Wh-what?” But he did it as he spoke, half-consciously.
“Very good. Now withdraw a little clump of those coins, not all of them—and before your hand leaves the pocket, allow me to say: three dimes, a penny, and a quarter. Pull it out and open your palm, young Swift.”
Tom did so. He turned pale. The man’s prediction was exactly correct! “How—how are you doing this?—!”
He could visualize Witt laughing gently, holding his pipe. “How indeed! But let me ‘top myself,’ as you say. There were a few coins remaining in your pocket, weren’t there? Just those coins, nothing else. But things change, as well we know, you and I. So...?”
Tom thrust his hand back in his pocket. There were no coins. Instead there was a bit of paper, like a crumpled napkin, small. He pulled it out, and felt obliged to report: “A napkin, from—”
“Yes, from Habit-Tat; so it says in small blue letters at the bottom, to the left, next to your thumbnail.”
The youth was dumbstruck for a long moment. Was he dreaming? In fact—had he really awakened from dozing off in his office? Was everything that had happened in the rest of the day part of that dream, unreal? As he thought, he found that he had turned over the napkin. There was smudgy handwriting, in blue ink, on the reverse side.
No no, young fellow, this is no dream. I am indeed just who I say I am—and we, you and I, are just who I say we are. Do gather your thoughts before our appointment.
I trust you won’t be late?
Tom said nothing—there was no point in asking questions of a dial tone! Prof. Witt had hung up without a click.
He returned to the living room, his young face clouded. “I take it that wasn’t Daddy,” said Sandy. Her irony was serious.
“What’s happened, darling?” asked his mother. “Nothing—at the Citadel?”
Tom stared at her, at Sandy, for a moment long enough to make both of them fearful. “No. Not Dad, not the Citadel. The man said he was... Malanoche Witt!”
“The man you were speaking of,” said Anne Swift. “But why on Earth would he be calling here?”
“What did he want, Tomonomo?” Sandy demanded.
“Actually... I don’t know, San,” came the reply. Tom went on to reiterate the content of the call. “The note refers to an ‘appointment,’ but I don’t know anything about it—or how he did the trick with the coins and the piece of paper.”
Sandy decided her detective skills required demonstration. “Let me see the napkin, Tom. I’ll be careful not to get fingerprints on it. Of course your fingerprints are already all over it.”
Tom held out his hand. “Fine. Here.”
His sister frowned. “Don’t make fun of a professional investigator, Tom Swift! ‘Here’ what?”
There was nothing in Tom’s hand! He checked his pockets, then looked over the floor. “Sandy—Mom—I had it right in my hand!”
His mother said, “Wherever it got to, there’s something we can do. The home system can tell us where the call originated—you don’t even have to ‘star-69’ it.”
Tom went to the small computer panel, connected to the telephone’s base set. He keyed-in the inquiry once, twice, three times—with growing excitement of the worst kind! “Something’s really wrong. You both heard the phone ring. You heard my end of the conversation. You saw me check my pockets. But...”
Sandy urged him on. “ ‘But’?”
“But according to the system, there have been no incoming calls in the last three hours!”
WHAT WITT WANTS
HARLAN AMES met his young boss the next morning, not in the Security office with a Chow Winkler breakfast, but in the large employee coffee-bar next to the plant cafeteria. “Given what you told me over the phone,” Ames said with a sip, “I had an urge to get out from behind that desk.”
Tom understood. “Yes. It’s about security—yet not exactly. It’s kind of personal.”
“Let’s not even try to classify it, Tom. So tell it again. You say... you received a call on your private number last night, at home.”
“But your home system showed no incoming calls at all. Uninterrupted dial tone.”
“That seems to be the case.”
“That’s more or less what I said, Harlan.”
“Have a lot of confidence in this system of yours? Could it be subject to remote interference?”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t even bother ruling out ‘interference’ anymore. I’m afraid work at Swift Enterprises is mostly interference! But over all I don’t see how it could have been accomplished. I talked to the man—he told me what was in my pocket—I read the note—”
“Mm, the note. A note that wasn’t in your pocket a few seconds before. And which in a few more seconds wasn’t anywhere at all.”
“That’s a pretty succinct summary of the situation,” stated the youth dryly. “A very definite telephone conversation that seems not to have taken place.”
The security chief nodded and sipped, contemplative sipping. “Doc Simpson suggests a medical explanation for your dozing off yesterday, your dream of this... fellow.”
Tom felt a spike of anger rise in him. “Look, I’m tired of—people seem to treat all this as an overreaction, something to do with stress or lack of sleep—”
“Have you been shorting yourself on sleep, Tom?” Ames interjected.
“I’ve had plenty of sleep!” snapped the young inventor. “I slept well last night... well enough.”
“I suppose. I guess. Are you planning to play psychiatrist, Harlan?”
The older man smiled. “My apologies. But I think you’ll agree, what you’re bringing to the table isn’t the usual spy and sabotage routine. When people start to talk about dreams and visions—”
Tom conceded with a sigh. “And obsessions. And maybe—delusions. But—no! Mom and sis both heard me on the phone...”
“All right.” Ames nodded. “Clearly—not a dream. I’ll count that as evidence of reality. What kind of reality, I don’t know. Boss, you’ve dealt with enemies who affected the brain in one way or another—the undersea mechanism, that ‘unseeability’ device Gina Emiliotti used—am I right?”
“The Aurum City group is monitoring the Decider and its pyramid terminals for any energy signatures,” was the quick retort. “It’s inert. And this is nothing like the effect of that cognitive recognition-suppressor device we dealt with. This isn’t suppression, it’s—”
“Implantation. Okay, what else? Could the Space Friends be causing this with their high tech?”
“Oh, who knows, maybe. I don’t know. How can we know?” The young inventor looked defeated. “The only common thread in this is—”
“The peculiarly weird name of a peculiarly bland and uninteresting British professor. I looked him up, Tom, when I came in, using some of my restricted-access sources. Nothing sinister about him at all—nothing! Well-liked, much respected. Retired. Goes for walks in the countryside with his two dogs—whippets. Hangs out at a pub, plays darts, bets on rugby, gets visited by his grown children. Takes day-trips now and then. He writes long letters to fusty academic journals on subjects that I don’t understand and wouldn’t want to. He’s about as fascinating as a lukewarm cup of weak English tea. And yet he’s somehow been drafted into the role of the latest iteration of Fu Manchu or the Black Cobra—”
“Same thing, aren’t they?” Tom half-joked.
“And so far the guy’s popped up twice—so I’m told by the younger of my employers.”
“Harlan, I don’t blame you for being cautious,” Tom said. “I suppose it’s as you said at the party, ‘we’re going a little too far beyond the evidence.’ You’re right about that.”
Ames nodded, but looked at Tom curiously. “The party?”
“The other night. Chow’s birthday.”
The security chief finished off an egg-stuffed bagel, slowly. “Hit the spot.” Wiping his lips, he frowned at his table-mate. “Boss, today is Chow’s birthday. The party at your house is tonight. It hasn’t happened yet.”
It took a long moment for Tom to respond. “Yes. True. I’m not sure what occasion I’m thinking of. Didn’t you say...?
“But no—I don’t know why I said that.” Those words... He concentrated. “I didn’t mention it, Harlan, but something similar happened last night. When I picked up the phone, I thought of Demburton—remember him? In fact I answered as if I knew that’s who it was, who was calling.”
“Felton Demburton, the World Portico man. Why would he cross your mind?”
“I have absolutely no idea.”
Tom rubbed his chin. Ames looked down at the table. “I don’t know how to advise you, Tom. No, I don’t think this is some sort of mental problem. Something is going on. It’s just that... the timing, right after what happened in New Mexico. Though how there could be a connection...”
“I know Rad’s been rooting around with the other security people at the Citadel. Dad says they don’t see any sign that the HFCR incident was intentional.” The youth paused. “Harlan, that look tells me you’re about to say something I might not want to hear.”
“And something I don’t want to say, boss. It’s a strange but true fact that Phil Radnor hasn’t been rooting around at the Citadel.”
A strange but true dread rose in Tom. “Right. Because he hasn’t left yet. A fact I know very well.” He stood suddenly. “See you at the party tonight, Harlan.”
Tom left the lounge and strolled about aimlessly in the morning sunshine. Jet traffic soared and swooped and buzzed over the airfield. He greeted friends on the workforce, but there were some he passed without notice. Dreams... he thought. What was it I dreamed last night, anyway? He tried to recapture it. Wasn’t it something about hanging from the ceiling, like a bat? Driving a car while facing backwards? A burning-hot desert sun—and yet it was night. But, he reminded himself, dreams never do make much sense.
He had to admit it—he did feel tired, worn out. What if Doc were right? “Good night, next I’ll be getting phone calls without the phone!”
Tom spent a few hours in his big lab, adjoining the underground hangar. He called his father, chatted with Bud, with Chow. He found a glib, downplaying way to talk about the previous night’s incident.
And around noon he found himself leaning on the counter at Habit-Tat. “Two days in a row,” smiled Luoy Vanvong. “And it’s not yet Pineapple Happy Hour. I’d say something deep and dire is rolling around under that blond crewcut.”
“Yup. And I don’t know what it is,” the youth replied. “Things have been happening...”
“They have a way of doing that.”
“Except—I’m not so sure they really have happened.”
“I hear things like that every night, around two AM. Next you say Bashalli and Bud don’t really understand me.”
Tom chuckled. “I’m not so sure I know what the word ‘understanding’ means anymore, Luoy.”
“It means you need to talk very lucidly to your bartendress, Tommy. Is this more about that experiment? Or what happened yesterday? Your office catnap?”
Tom recounted the matter of the phone call. “The house phone definitely rang. That’s not in doubt.”
“And when you answered—”
“I was in another world, it seems.” The young inventor stared at his older friend. “You know, right now is another example of that—strangeness. When I said another world...”
Luoy nodded. “Maybe you mean—did it seem like you’d said it before? What they call déjà vu?”
Tom considered the matter. “Not that, exactly. Not like half-remembering what I’m doing as if it had happened before. More like certain words and ideas... strike me.”
“Strike you how?”
“As if they mean something. As if the fact that I picked those particular words, that phrase, wasn’t just a commonplace choice. Ordinary words that seem to refer to something that I can’t quite grasp.” He added in silent thought: Knocking on the door of my brain.
“Very ominous. Or profound. Definitely crazy-making.” Luoy wiped down the counter for a few minutes, served a packaged cold sandwich to a patron who looked even less appetizing than the sandwich. When she drew near again, she looked about theatrically and said in a low voice. “Please don’t let this get around, but—the truth is—bartenders don’t know everything. It’s all hype. And this isn’t real pineapple juice. Everything I do or say is phony—made from concentrate. Even the water is made from concentrate.”
“I’ve long suspected,” Tom grinned, “that this whole establishment of yours is a hologram.”
“My father was a Swift Enterprises telejector. Don’t I look it, Tommy?”
“You look more real than real, Luoy,” came the reply. “I think you’re probably more real than I am.”
“Ah! That’s it! Maybe this is just one of those books you folks sell in your gift shop,” she said with eyebrows raised daintily. “And if it is—time to turn the page, young youth.”
When Tom left onto the sidewalk he felt refreshed and cheerful and irrigated. He turned toward his parked never-named two-seater. At which point the good feelings dropped away to nothing.
“Well now!” exclaimed Malanoche Witt, leaning against Tom’s car, holding his pipe. “You’re a bit late. I do understand, though. Miss Vanvong’s name may be a tad inscrutable, but as a person of sorts she has a talent for clearing one’s head, don’t you think?”
The man was about fifteen feet away. Tom noticed that he cast a shadow, that he was reflected in the permanently self-polished shell of Tomasite paint that coated the sports car. “Oh yes indeed,” continued Professor Witt, “I’m a real meat-and-bones person, young Tom, shadow and all. Peter Pan lost his shadow, but mine is nicely loyal and stays put. Have you checked your shadow lately?”
“Why did you call me last night?” demanded Tom in a faint voice.
“Did I call you? Oh, that’s right. Yes. Why? To remind you of our appointment today. Here.”
Tom edged a step nearer. “I don’t know why this is happening. I don’t know what you want. I take it you’re trying to force me to doubt my sanity—is that it? How about if we agree the plan worked and you just disappear.”
The seeming Brit capped a hand to an ear. “I’m sorry, Tom. I didn’t quite catch that. Hard to hear with this talking distracting me.”
The young inventor couldn’t help but listen. Talk? Yes... as a matter of fact... talking.
“Gee... boy... whatever they say, Tom... you never gave up on me... soon... back to what we...”
Bud’s voice, coming softly and deeply from everywhere and nowhere, was gone. “Bud—!” gasped Tom.
“No,” said the academic. “Just Malanoche Witt. Isn’t that the way of our sad world, Tom? What you ask for is Bud; what you get is Witt.”
Tom gestured awkwardly, like someone struggling with a thought. But within every such overt move was a covert one. He was closing in on what he could only regard as his nemesis. “I’ve alerted plant security about this,” he declared.
“Yes. But is Harlan Ames really interested in someone as dull as—what was it?—a cup of lukewarm tea?”
“You’re not really Professor Malanoche Witt.”
“No? But please do consider, I’m so much like him, young Swift. Indeed, I fancy I’m like him body and soul.” The man studied his pipe as if looking for his next comment. “Well now—‘body’. Let us think gravely upon that word, shall we? What is a body, really? There are celestial bodies, of course, such as, let me pick one at random, Planet Zero Minus. And most often we speak of human bodies, living things. That is a provocative subject. Consider, Tom,” he continued, “the body’s ability to heal and repair itself, to keep itself whole, to fight—ah, this is significant!—to fight infection. T-cells, white cells, local swelling, a fever—quite automatic. The body’s protective system is built in, is it not? No brain needs concern itself with mobilizing for defense. When the body is attacked, when something goes awry, it deals with the matter forthwith while the person continues on unawares. At least until the sneezing starts.”
The young inventor was halfway to his goal. He intended to seize Witt by the arm. “I didn’t think you had a medical specialization, Professor.”
Witt smiled pleasantly. “I’m constructing a nice metaphor, teaching by way of allegory. Aging academics tend to do such things. I hope you find it as charming as I do, Tom.
“And I have something of a point, surprising as that may be. A ‘body’ is a distinctive clump of matter—so we think of it, commonly. And yet—mightn’t the term be applied in a further, wider sense? For example, what we call Western Civilization is a body of sorts, don’t you think? It clumps together in its way. It has a kind of character; we speak of its attributes. Nations are bodies, cultures are bodies, the entire history of the human species—homo sapiens—well, isn’t that a kind of body? Covering our planet, extending itself, from each present moment, back and forward in time?”
Tom said sarcastically, “If that was a point, I’m afraid I missed it.”
“As do my students. But you are a child of the age, Tom Swift, and I suppose I must make things pedantically obvious. What I’m urging upon you is the idea that humanity, the whole enterprise of human history and society from beginning to end, is not some collage of events and happenings and brainless individuals with their wooden clubs and computers. All these bits and pieces that one studies in school are merely the temporally-distributed cells and organs of something whole—a body. And if the health of that body is threatened, if there is a wound in a certain place, an infection, an incursion...
“Do you understand? At the first point of infection, Tom Swift, it will launch its cellular battalions—it will mobilize. No strategist will plan it, no general will authorize it. The body that is humanity will do what it must—to protect itself, to safeguard such life as it has—its future!”
The scientist-inventor knew he had to grasp the idea. “The body, the future... what are you saying, Professor? You really believe this irritating harassment of me has something to do with a threat to humanity?”
The man was facing him squarely. “To its future, Tom. To its continuation. Or do you think the great human story wants to be left unfinished? No, lad, stories have desires just as lesser persons do. There must always be a next chapter!” Witt took a step forward. “And really now, this hero business, this ‘edging closer’ to grapple with me, to catch me offguard—are not such common plot developments easy to anticipate? No doubt we are nearing the close of one of your ‘chapters.’ Is a thrill needed? But don’t trouble yourself. Allow me.” Malanoche Witt was abruptly in motion, making full stride in Tom’s direction, calmly closing the last bit of sidewalk that separated them.
“Destroyer of worlds!” he exclaimed cheerfully.
Without pause or hesitation, without turning aside, without raising a protective hand, Professor Witt strode directly into Tom Swift—face on!
THE ASTONISHINGLY unexpected moment came and went in an instant. Tom hardly had time to lurch back. He braced himself for the impact of body against body.
It never came. Professor Witt walked directly into Tom Swift’s body like a man striding through an open door—and was gone! Tom felt nothing!
Stunned and unbelieving, the youth looked right and left on the sunlit concrete. He was alone. His only company was the music issuing from the open door of Habit-Tat behind him.
He stood in place woozily, then made his way to his sports car. The short drive back provided time to think—but thought was scattered.
In the executive parking lot at Enterprises he considered giving Ames the bizarre sequel to his earlier report, but decided against it—it didn’t feel like something he wanted to do. Instead he reached up and touched the slender nanocell unit parked just above his ear.
Bud answered immediately. “I’m at the gym, Skipper, just pulling my shoes on. Reminding me about Chow’s party tonight?”
“No... something else, pal. I—I need to run a few things by you.”
“Need a little of the Barclay wit, hm?” Wit! Bud said it; Tom winced at it.
In the office, sound-killer active—this was something the Munford Trent branch of the grapevine didn’t need access to—Tom sat with his close chum and described the sidewalk encounter. He was surprised at how well he remembered the details.
Bud whisked an errant lock off his forehead. “This isn’t just gonna go away, is it, Tom. Jetz, that seedy professor sounds more like a leprechaun than a stodgy eggheaded Brit! Do you see any sense in what he said to you?—bodies, the future, infection—?”
Tom shook his head dismally. “It seemed to mean something—it sure meant something to him—but to me it was just a babbling brook of words.”
“Something about protecting the world? Maybe he thinks you’re going to ruin the environment or something.”
“Mess up the world in some way—just as Iris Mantova and her dad said.” Tom let his brain run for a moment. “He was comparing humanity to a kind of organism, a collective ‘body’ occupying time as well as space...”
“A time giant!”
“In which people and what they do—all the little events, all the twists and turns of history—are something like cells in the giant’s body. The organism has to ‘work’ in a certain way or the ‘body’ gets sick, maybe dies! He seems to believe this so-called body has what amounts to an immune system that automatically fights and neutralizes invasive threats, infections, things that disrupt the predestined pattern of its further development, its overall healthy state.”
“In other words, the future!” exclaimed the young pilot. “So is he claiming to be reading something in his crystal ball, to know that you’re going to, I dunno, invent something terrible, something, er—inorganic?”
“That doesn’t ring right with me, flyboy,” Tom thoughtfully replied. “Not quite that. Real organisms, living bodies, don’t need to understand or predict the particular effects of some kind of infection or damage. If I cut my finger, my system doesn’t stop to think about it, to weigh the consequences, in order to mobilizes its protective response. That level of detail isn’t required. Antibodies don’t have a Joint Chiefs of Staff. The immune system acts locally, immediately, right at the point of harm, to counteract whatever is happening before it can cause further damage.
“I think Professor Witt—or whatever the thing is—isn’t trying to predict humanity’s future, but to protect it!”
“From you.” Bud knew the matter was serious, and scratched his head in a serious way. “So—I don’t think I get it—he’s not some scientist from the next century trying to head off some Swift invention that sent old Planet Earth spinning into the sun?”
“It’s not an easy thing to get, flyboy,” Tom said wryly. “It’s just something I gathered from his in-your-face lecture. I could be completely wrong. It may not mean anything!”
“He may not even exist outside the brain of—” Bud regretted the sentence immediately, even without an end.
But this time Tom didn’t pause for indignation. “Maybe not. There is such a person, in England, but what I’ve been seeing and hearing may not be a person at all! What if it’s something nonorganic, not even ‘there,’ exactly, when I deal with it, but the agent of the human race’s immune response adapted to the necessities of the ‘inflammation’ in the here and now?”
“Right, an antibody that walks like a man, squaring off against an infection named Tom Swift!”
“The tricked-up appearance of a human being to handle and neutralize the harm caused by a real one!”
It was quite a thought, and a strange one. Both were silent and frowning. At last Bud said: “So the guy isn’t real—maybe. Can others see him or hear him? Or is ‘Professor Witt’ a purely private performance?—audience of one!
“And as a matter of fact, genius boy—how could this pipe-smoking mirage cause your home phone to ring? You say your Mom and San heard it too!”
Tom nodded. “Obviously, chum, there’s more to it than my off-the-cuff speculations. I first saw him in a dream, maybe just because someone happened to use an expression that tugged something out of my memory... I dreamed last night, too...”
“Hey, what if that’s how he does it!” exclaimed the Californian excitedly. “While you’re asleep and dreaming, he—he programs you somehow, and the program gets played out when you’re awake—as a kind of ‘episode’ in which you seem to be talking back and forth.”
“Implanted phony memories that take over as if their content were really happening then and there,” the young inventor summarized. “That’s the best idea yet.”
“Yeah. If only you knew what was in your dreams last night...” Suddenly Bud brightened. “Tom! You could use—”
“Right!” Tom cried. “The thoughtograph imager can bring back a dream and put it on the monitor—the visible part, at least!”
Tom’s thoughtograph imager was perhaps his most incredible invention thus far. Its invisible scanning beam was able to probe a small section of the cortex of its subject, the section in which “mind’s eye” images were given final shape, showing the result as a still image on a television-type screen. Though not literally a mind reader, the thoughtographs captured any mode of mental imagery—including images from dreams.
Tom led Bud to the nearby lab in which the large device was housed. Bud had already mastered its operation; Tom sat down in front of the imager’s multiprong antenna array and signaled Bud to proceed. “Set the superficial backtrack scan to a little after midnight—I couldn’t fall asleep for a while. Go forward from that. When you see the transition to the dream state—”
“I know, Skipper. Start recording!”
Bud reported his step-by-step progress to Tom. “Okay, climbing into bed... eyes closed... mm, the usual tumble and jumble of falling asleep... on and on and—there! Dream-images comin’ in!” Bud adjusted the mechanism for a slower, more detailed mode of thoughtography, recording the output digitally.
Tom fidgeted and said at last, “Flyboy, let me see what you have. If the image series isn’t relevant, we can jump forward.”
“Fine—I don’t know if what I’m seeing on the screen is what you’re interested in. It’s what you could call disjointed—maybe even surreal.” Bud added: “Remember, genius boy, this dude’s your personal hallucination—I have no idea what he looks like.”
Bud paused the imager as Tom rose and rounded the console. He accessed its digital memory at the point Bud had marked as the start of the dream state. “All right,” breathed the young inventor. “Let’s see if I can look Malanoche Witt straight in the eye.”
Images began to appear one after another, staccato-fashion. Where there was movement, it proceeded by jerks and jumps. Tom was perplexed by what he saw. “What is this?” he murmured. “Just some random dream about...”
“About what?” Bud finished, equally mystified by what appeared to be snapshots from a story—but one neither young man had anticipated.
There were images of the Enterprises observatory, Tom and his father and his friends crowded about the space prober monitor. He glimpsed construction work, a craft of some kind—something about the moon, Bud and some others in a compartment—a craggy landscape—long, empty hallways—stars... I hear people speaking? How is that possible? Tom wondered. The thoughtograph could provide only silent, still images!
Almost without realizing it, he felt himself leaning closer to the imager screen—but was it the imager screen? It seemed to be drawing him forward into it, into the scene, merging with it just as Malanoche Witt had merged with Tom’s body as if it were made of... nothing.
“Can we deal with this effect on our equipment?” asked Bud. “Not that I’m ever smart enough steer away from risk—but what if we end up shipwrecked down there with the others?”
Tom stared at his pal, not replying. He looked from face to face. In the background was the faint whir of the Blazing Brand’s survey equipment.
“Are you hearing more of those voices, Tom?” Dinah asked gently. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Sorry,” replied the youth. “I felt distracted. Guess I’m not all here...”
“As the medic on this flight, I’m directing you to lie down,” Dr. Tefft declared. “You’re no good to us—Captain—with your concentration compromised like this. Zeer will wait down there for a few hours.”
“Maybe Zeer will,” snapped Tom. “How about the colonists? I’ll sleep—later. Right now we need all eyes on deck!”
Bud’s own gray eyes showed concern. “Tom, you don’t look right—and I don’t think it’s a problem with spacetime!”
Tom ignored his friend. “Sorry, Doctor—I’m countermanding your order. Give me something to help me stay awake and alert for a while longer... please.”
Tefft breathed in disapprovingly. “Very well. You can take it with your adapticum tablet. It’s mild but effective. I won’t provide a further dose, though.”
Blue eyes brightened for the moment, Tom proceeded with the instrumental survey, mile upon mile of twisted, tumbled desert and spiked mountains, marked by harsh, black shadows. “One of the mysteries of Planet Zero Minus,” began Wulf Arends in conversational tones, “is the surprising lack of craters. The surface looks young, which probably means it’s been churned-up during the most recent phase of solar system history.”
“I suppose the sun’s heat melts it over and over,” Bud suggested.
“If so, the process isn’t a normal one. In addition to the usual silicates, Zeer’s surface has a high metal content which has settled down to a fairly heat-resistant form. No, Barclay, erasing the craters means something else. Probably something to do with solar tides, though at this distance from the sun that too would require a special explanation.”
Tom was half-listening. “There’s also the mystery of the missing asteroids,” he said, voice hoarse.
Bud grinned. “Real Hardy Boys stuff, huh?”
“The area closest to the sun, well inside the orbit of Mercury, lacks the distribution of asteroid-type bodies found throughout the inner solar system—a shortfall of ninety percent! Dad’s original probe mission was supposed to investigate that; the Bartonia team was also looking into it.”
“I guess Chow’s rustlers are rustling asteroids, too,” Bud joked. “Any leads?”
“Not really,” Tom said. “Something in near-solar space may be causing larger bodies to fall apart. The solar wind could then sweep the debris out into space, or cause it to spiral right into the sun by obstructing its orbit.”
Wulf nodded. “Fun stuff! When I talked to your Dad about it, Tom, he made a good point—that de-cohesion phenomenon you folks came up with at the Citadel could easily play a part in the mystery.”
“Yes, absolutely,” said the young inventor. “The whole point of the revised Helios project was to investigate ‘deviant’ nuclear phenomena that the SunStorm would have been equipped to study near the—”
He broke off as the monitor board bleated an alarm! “Repelascope readings!” exclaimed Dinah excitedly. “Something’s down there!”
DESCENT INTO MYSTERY
“WHAT’S the scope picking up?” asked Bud Barclay excitedly. The repelascope instrument was designed to interact, at great distances, with specific elements, compounds, and mixtures.
Tom keenly studied the several output displays. “It’s... a little hard to read. Bud, it’s something like that spectron-wave distortion effect we saw on the moon when we were prospecting for water.”
“Do you mean the detector is useless?” Tefft demanded.
“No, Doctor,” was Tom’s curt reply. He considered the readings for a moment. “If we make some corrections, I’d say we’re reacting to magtritanium, Tomasite, metallumin—and I’m sure this is a Lunite signature, from the worbees’ repelatron radiators...”
“In other words, human technology,” Bud summarized. “Can you bring up an image on the scope?”
A few clicks later the young inventor shook his head. “No go. But we ought to be able to pinpoint where the readings are coming from.”
But this too yielded disappointment! “I can’t understand it,” muttered Tom in dismay. “The beam-reaction doesn’t want to settle down!—we’re getting contradictory readings.” Hearing his own words he looked up at the others sharply. “It’s the same thing that happened to the tracking instrumentation on the SunStorm.”
“So. A problem is posed,” Dinah said. “You’re supposed to be pretty good at solutions, boss.”
Tom flashed her a look of thanks. “From the way the readings are changing as we move along in orbit, I’m pretty certain something is directly below us. The likely area is about fifty miles in radius. We can pause in orbit, hover on our trons and scan visually with the electronic telescope.” He worked the control board, but even this simple maneuver posed unusual difficulties. The Blazing Brand slowed to a stop relative to the surface, but the astronauts could feel it bucking and sliding.
“Man! I could give our replatrons a quick kick in the antenna!” Bud grumbled.
“Wait!” called out Wulf suddenly, taking his turn at the telescope eyepiece. “I see something—several somethings!”
Tom quickly put the enhanced output in front of all eyes, using a telejector to paint the image in midair. “Those little splotches are worker-bees—I’m sure of it!” exclaimed the young Shoptonian.
“I’m only counting six,” said Dr. Tefft in his usual serious tone. “Didn’t you say there were fifteen at the base, Tom?”
“That’s right. And that’s not the only thing coming up short. Look at where they are.”
“What do you mean?” asked Dinah.
Tom glanced at her, grim-faced. “A landing convoy would surely land close to one another, wouldn’t they? If those things are worbees from Bartonia—”
“I get it,” said Bud. “They’re scattered over several miles. And look!” He pointed into the floating image. “That one looks different—like it’s lying on its side.”
“Say, how about a little more negativity?” offered Wulf sardonically. “At this magnification we should be able to make out the pressurized habitat-domes easily, don’t you think?”
Tom responded with, “They could have sought refuge next to that long outcropping. In the black shadows...” He interrupted himself to announce a decision. “There’s no need to speculate. We’re going down! Strap in, everybody—this could be pretty rough.”
All five activated the cushioning systems that had protected them during the solarcraft’s deceleration phase, and Tom began manipulating the flight controls. Decreasing the force of the unsteady repelatrons, he eased the Brand downward, glad that Zeer had no atmosphere to complicate the descent. Yet complications arose nonetheless, mile after mile. The ship bounced and bounded and wandered sideways, making sickening lunges and sometimes seeming to stall in midcourse. “We—we are slowing down, aren’t we, Tom?” asked Dinah in polite fear.
“We are,” Tom replied. “But you can expect a mighty hard landing. We’re darting around like a fly.”
The Brand seemed inclined to emphasize the point. Suddenly it began to swing sideways in an arc, gyrating as if its nose were the hub of a whirling wheel! Someone behind Tom choked out something about Jetz!
The whirl paused—and the solarcraft zoomed down toward the surface like a runaway elevator! Straining against the disorienting forces, Tom’s nimble fingers flew at the controls.
Suddenly came a feeling of pressure, as if something were holding the craft back, arresting its terrifying plunge. “Y-you just did something fantastic, didn’t you, genius boy!” gasped Bud.
The descent was smoother and slower now, but the Brand still had enough wildness to make the last minutes risky. “Last thousand feet!” Tom called out. “Hold on!” The command was superfluous—muscles were already bulging from holding on!
A violent shock—and they were down!
For several moments the only sounds were panting breaths. “Are we in good shape?” asked Wulf Arends. “That is, compared to the kind of shape we could be in?”
“The ship reads as fine,” Tom responded. “I guess I should say something like—welcome to Planet Zero Minus.”
Bud unbuckled and made his woozy way forward. “So—the heliochute—you used it like a real parachute?”
His pal nodded weakly. “The solar outflow is pretty thick in these parts, even near the surface. It was enough to give us squishy brakes and a little bit of a keel. It wouldn’t have worked at all if the chute didn’t extend over miles, though.”
As the crew gathered together, Tom cautiously opened the protective panels on the viewport slits, dimming-down the glare of the mighty sun. “Did we manage to land near the vehicles?” asked Dinah Ingraham.
“Near a couple of them, fortunately,” Tom replied. He pointed. “There’s one, about a mile off.”
“And, it appears, upside down,” noted Tefft. “If the colonists survived the drop—any of them—they’ll surely need medical attention. But, sorry to say, we may be too late.”
Tom shook his head. “We shouldn’t just assume they came here immediately after contact was lost. They might have been in space, in their worbees, for quite some time.”
“Oh Thomas... could just show... what the doctor says...” This was the voice Tom was listening to, the faint distant voice that distracted him—the voice of Bashalli Prandit. It was too great an effort to calculate how many millions of miles distant she was in reality. But that word—reality—
Tom tapped the arm of his pilot’s seat, looked at the palm of his hand. Even considering that he was on the surface of another planet—why did things feel so wrong? “Disjointed... maybe even surreal,” he murmured. He looked at Bud. “Isn’t that what you said, flyboy?”
Bud stared at his friend. “Me? I didn’t say anything.”
“No. I guess you didn’t.”
“Keep us in the loop, Tom,” demanded Tefft sharply. “We have the right to know your condition. Are you having that reaction again? Voices and all that?”
“I was. It’s gone now.” The young inventor tried to make sure his voice was that of a confident leader. “I’m learning to ignore it.”
“I’m just glad to be here,” pronounced Bud wryly. “So now what? Can we hop the ship over to one of the worbees?”
They could. Used in brief bursts at low power, the repelatrons seemed to function normally. A series of mini-flights, and the Brand was nudging a worbee. At close range they could all see that its landing struts were twisted.
“Don’t say a word!” Bud commanded suddenly. “Call this a mutiny, Captain Swift, but you sit yourself down in that big chair while I go across alone!”
Tom came up with a grin from somewhere. “Aye-aye!”
Switching on his suit transiphone and video minicam, Bud undertook the five steps from the solarcraft’s hatchway to that of the downed worbee, marked EXC—9. “I don’t know if this news is great or terrible,” the young astronaut transiphoned, “but the airlock hatches are wide open—outside and inside.”
“Go ahead, Bud,” Tom urged.
Bud entered. He turned from side to side so his video receptor could give his companions a comprehensive view. “Lights on,” he said; “nobody home.”
“But no bodies, either,” Dinah pointed out is quiet relief.
“Then they’ve either migrated somewhere on Zeer,” commented Morgan Tefft, “or they were never in the transit vehicles in the first place. The worker-bees can run on computerized piloting.”
Tom’s replying comment was grim. “If that’s the case, this whole setup could be bait for a trap. It’d be obvious that Earth would send out some kind of rescue expedition.”
Bud overheard. “Right—obviously headed by Tom Swift!”
Tom suited up and joined his chum aboard the worbee. Both soon returned to the Brand. “No definite sign of what happened,” reported the young inventor. “All worbees carry some emergency supplies and equipment, including spacesuits and one of the habitat domes—they’ve been removed. When I tried the worbee’s cockpit transiphone...”
“We heard you,” Dinah stated. “But there was some kind of distortion. It affected your suit units too, including the video.”
Bud snorted. “This spacetime static doesn’t know when to quit! So I guess we can’t just put in a call to the Bartonians and ask where to go to pick ’em up.”
“I wish it were just some kind of static,” Tom retorted. “But this phenomenon is weirder and more basic. Don’t forget, it’s jangling the repelatrons and knocking out the parallelophones.”
“Not to be overly pompous,” put in Wulf, “and don’t call me a philosopher without smiling—but I think the best way to put it is that some of the fundamental constants of physics—of science—don’t quite work in this part of the universe. Beats me exactly what that means, or how it’s possible.
“The thing I wonder about—okay, worry about!—is that the phenomenon might not have stable values. What if it goes through some kind of cycle, like the tides? In other words, what do we do if it gets worse?”
“However it ‘gets,’ we’re going to do what we’re here to do,” Tom declared.
After visiting the other worbees in range—some damaged, all showing signs of a hurried evacuation—the crew turned their attention to the task of locating the missing colonists. “They must have stayed within foot-travel distance,” asserted the Brand’s commander. “They might have taken refuge in natural caves—that’s what happened with the Mars astronauts—but observations from Bartonia and the early landing parties determined that Zeer is fairly dense—solid. The crust wouldn’t support cave systems.”
“Their penetradar observations could have been distorted, Tom,” noted Dinah.
“True. They might have assumed any oddities in the readings just represented unexpected subsurface conditions. But I think broad-scale surveys were probably fairly accurate. Random distortions would offset one another.”
“Let’s light up those shadows, Skipper,” urged Bud. “With our suit flashlamps—”
“ ‘Suit flashlamps’?” Tom repeated in mock indignation. “C’mon, what kind of lame expedition do you think this is, Barclay? We’ve got better than that!”
“I suppose this rig is outfitted with Enterprises’ super-searchlight,” guessed Wulf.
“As a matter of fact,” Tom said, “we have the best light in the solar system at hand!” To curious stares, the young inventor manipulated the controls. “Right now, if you were about one hundred feet away and looking back, you wouldn’t be able to see the Blazing Brand at all—just a huge oblong mirror curving around the hull on all sides.”
“I see,” nodded Morgan Tefft. “You’ll be making use of your axistor system.”
“It is an energy mirror,” Bud pointed out. “And light is energy!”
“I’ll be wave-bending the sunlight right into the shadow of the long ridge over there.” Tom added: “In case you think I’ve... really...” No one but Bud noticed a slight falter. “...lost it—I’m setting the vector angles for partial reflection only. All the better not to blind or vaporize our rescuees before they’re rescued! Plus, of course, we have to let some reflected light back through the viewports if we plan to see anything.”
The effect was thrilling—but useless. The intense brilliance showed a half-mile of bare rock; nothing else. “It was worth a try,” said Dinah. “You illuminated the mystery, at least.”
“We’re not done yet,” Bud put in, defensive of his chum. “The touchdowns are all over the place—and we haven’t even sighted half the worbees. The colonists could have trooped along in the shadows for quite a ways toward a meeting point.”
Tom looked dejected and, still, distracted. “Well—let’s get hopping.” The solarcraft made its halting way along the ridge, mile upon mile.
Presently Dr. Tefft called out, “Wait a moment. Tom, can you refocus—that way?” He pointed.
“Say now! What’re you two hombres lookin’ at?” The familiar foghorn that was Chow Winkler bounced off the walls of Tom’s lab-workshop.
“Genius boy’s looking over a photo album of dreams, pardner!” chuckled Bud in reply.
Tom said nothing for a moment. He stared at Chow as if stunned to see him standing at the open lab door. “Chow? You can’t be—here!” he said in a faint voice.
“Ye-aah, I know. Too early for m’ supper run.” The big cook edged through the door, looking right and left nervously. “You ’n Buddy Boy ’n me makes three—go it’s okay.”
Bud laughed. “Jetz, Chow, you really are letting Kit Plethysma get under your big hide!”
“Aw, you jest watch yer words, son,” protested the ex-Texan. “Gettin’ under my hide is the last thing I want from that half-skinned female coyote! Gettin’ so’s I can’t push my cart around without—you know.”
“I don’t think I would know, pard,” Tom joked weakly. “I’m mostly stalked by ideas.”
“And dreams,” added Bud. “But I didn’t see anything along the lines of a crazy professor in all that thoughtograph stuff.”
“I didn’t either,” conceded the young inventor. “Those images didn’t mean a thing to me. Just... dreams.”
Chow looked back and forth between his young friends. “So why’re you so interested in dreams, anyway? If yours are too dang dull, mebbe you could put me in front o’ that brain telee-vision, boss.”
Tom shook his head ruefully. “Some other time, Chow. I think I’ll head home early. Something I want to work on before your party.”
“See you t’night, son.”
It was the following morning when Tom spoke of his home-work—to Harlan Ames and to his father, who had just arrived back from the Citadel. “After the thoughtograph came up empty, I carted the oscillotron home to see if I could at least verify that I’d had a real phone conversation with Witt, despite what the system said.”
“To no result, I take it,” Mr. Swift anticipated.
As Tom nodded, he explained: “My voice on one side, dialtone on the other. I wave-scanned the handset, the table, the wall—even my wristwatch.”
Ames said coolly, “Then just where does that leave this matter, boss? I’m not questioning your truthfulness or your sanity, but I have no idea how to investigate a possible threat from a less-than-probable person.”
“Have you succeeded in locating this man, in England?” Damon Swift asked his security chief.
“Not so far. The Oxford people don’t have his current address; his kids, his fellow academics—I have several phone numbers, but no one’s been answering. His ex-wife is off skiing in Austria, they say. I have the impression Mr. Witt often goes on these little holidays, with no notice to anyone, all alone.”
Tom looked at the carpet of Ames’ office. “He—if you can call him a ‘he’—hasn’t made any ranting threat against me. The most he’s done is imply that he sees me as some kind of threat.”
“A threat to be neutralized,” his father noted bluntly. “Son—please be patient with what your old man is about to say—you know I’ve talked this over with Simpson; with your mother as well. At this point, we think it’s time of deal with all this in... a more personal way.” Tom forced himself to remain silent, listening. “Your condition—what else can we call it?—began almost immediately after your exposure to the Helios accident.”
“I suppose that’s true,” admitted the younger Swift. “I had a strong reaction to what Iris said to me.”
“Neurological effects can be subtle; nevertheless, they can be dealt with.” Damon Swift showed on his face that what was about to come from his mouth might be easily misunderstood. “Tom, there’s a man in West Virginia who runs a, a helping program for persons dealing with what they call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—”
“Good night, Dad, I’m not a combat veteran!”
“Dr. Simpson thinks stress might exacerbate whatever the HFCR phenomenon might have done to you. By learning some skills to anticipate and manage the ordinary stresses we all—”
“All right. I won’t waste time arguing,” snapped the young inventor sullenly. “I suppose you’ve already bought my ticket.”
Harlan Ames answered. “Doc spoke with the man in charge, Ernest Magonias, just before you came in. I’ve looked into it, Tom; my cousin went through it last year, and he found it helpful. It’s all very casual, low-key, no touchy-feely stuff. His sessions don’t require reservations. Just show up. Participate, boss, do your best, give it a try for a few days. You’re an experimenter, aren’t you? In this one, you are your own subject.”
Tom shrugged. “Fine. Sold. Consider me off.”
Mr. Swift had one more thing to say. “Magonias’ website says his participants are urged to bring with them someone who knows them well—it’s part of the process. Obviously Bud would—”
“No!” Tom interrupted. “Not Bud this time, not for this. It doesn’t feel right. I think I need somebody not so wrapped up in my life—the legend of the famous Tom Swift!”
His father smiled. “Son, I appreciate your attitude toward all this. Do you have someone in mind to go with you?”
“Oh yes,” replied Tom, “I sure do!”
THEY flew to Wheeling, West Virginia, in the close quarters of Tom’s triphibian atomicar, the Silent Streak. Most of the time, Tom flew at sparrow altitude away from populous areas, hoping the abundant tree foliage would block the view of those who might take a moment to boggle—and cause an accident. “What were we doing the last time I was in this car with you? Oh yes—I believe we were dodging bullets,” said the passenger.
“No, that was the time before last. Well, actually, the time before that.”
“That’s right. Last time was the robot vulture. Or was it the laser missile?”
Tom laughed. “Okay, Bash, you’ve made your point. We haven’t spent much personal face time in the Streak. Guess I have way too many enemies.”
“Our lack of ‘face time,’ my dear Thomas, has nothing to do with enemies,” retorted Bashalli Prandit tartly. “But it has everything to do with the transparency of this ridiculous dome.” She tapped a delicate, if steely, fingernail against the dome that enclosed the passenger compartment of the oddly-shaped vehicle.
Bashalli had been Tom’s choice of a companion for the stress program. She was surprised by his request; he was not only surprised by his request, but by her acceptance. “So, Bash, I—I take it—” Tom began haltingly, not quite masterfully, as they jumped a brook, “er—your brother—”
“Moshan raised two eyebrows,” the Pakistani émigré replied; “but no objections. We are, of course, of a conservative culture. The boys and the girls are not encouraged to mingle, though they hear rumors of one another’s existence. But I am trusted, you see. He knows that I am of a respectable nature and more than able to fend off any unwanted advances, assuming I want to. Of course, he knows something else as well: that I am not getting any younger.”
“Well, yeah, we’re all getting older.”
Bashalli turned away from Tom, not wishing him to see her eyes rolling. “That is not the suavest way this truth has ever been acknowledged. And what of your own parents? Did they seem at all concerned about this little holiday to be shared by diverse sexes?”
“Oh, they were fine about it. I was a little afraid they’d want me to arrange for a chaperone.”
“Oh, what silliness!—as if they needed a chaperone at their age.”
The atomicar could fly, but it was no jet. Hours had passed, along with Pennsylvania. Now they were cutting across Virginia, westward tending. “And we will be staying at a nice hotel, Thomas?”
“It’s very highly rated.”
“By whom, exactly?”
“We’ll only be staying there a couple days, Bash.”
“What of the nights? Well, we shall let them take care of themselves.” Bashalli ran a hand through her dark, long hair, wishing there were a breeze inside the plastic cubicle to make the motion more interesting. “Tom, you know—I’m very happy to do this, to go with you to something so emotional and private. I’m quite honored. And indeed, I am honored to do anything at all with you in which Bud Barclay is not included.”
Tom grinned. “Come on! We all like Bud—you too.”
“Yes, of course I do,” she said. “But I regret to say that his notion of amore—the way of man with woman—I speak of statistical probabilities—how shall I put it? In the most private moments, he seems to lose that sense of adventure that he so often demonstrates in other situations.”
“Sandy said that?”
“Well,” said Tom sheepishly, but with a twinkle, “I’m sorry you don’t find flying with me very romantic.”
“Oh, Tom, sometimes you can be so thrilling, so gallant, so... tingle-inducing,” sighed Bashalli. “And then, of course, I awaken. My life is too often colored by—a very particular kind of discontent. I would use a quite precise word for it that we have in Urdu, my language. But alas, you would not understand.”
“You could translate it.”
“Translated, I fear you would understand it even less.”
After several more bantering hours and a picnic lunch, the atomicar’s cybertron brain steered their flight to its ultimate destination, which they flew over. Ernie’s Commons was a single building rather far out in the West Virginia countryside, quaint in appearance from a height of 100 feet. “Well, it looks healthful enough,” pronounced Bashalli.
“I’ll land on one of the country roads and drive into Wheeling,” Tom stated. “On the ground they’ll think we’re some kind of advertising vehicle. In the air—”
“I know. They may think we are robot vultures. And fire laser missiles.”
The Silent Streak finally arrived at the hotel; Tom insisted on self-parking. The hotel had an appealing façade and all the best services. The rooms were pleasant and cool and remained so throughout the night. At breakfast Tom had pineapple juice. Bashalli had a certain expression on her pretty face.
The appointment with Ernest Magonias was casual, but mid-morning had been suggested. The atomicar pulled up—wheels touching pavement—at 9:48. Inside the door was a large anteroom, a banner that said Healthy Perspective, and a man to greet them. “Ernie Magonias, Tom, Bashalli,” he said as he shook hands. He was balding and weighty with muscle.
“Good to meet you, Doctor,” smiled Tom.
“No, no, let’s throw that right through an open window! I’m not a doctor, and this is not a medical program. And before you ask—no, not a shrink either.”
“I see,” Bashalli said primly. “What are you?”
He chuckled. “Call me Sgt. Ernie! I learned what I learned in two wars in Iraq—and thereabouts.”
“I suppose the best way for us to ‘learn’ is by doing it,” Tom said. “When does the next group session start? This morning?”
“I don’t do ‘sessions,’ friends. I offer perspective collectives.”
Bashalli had a look that threatened a sharp comment. Tom blocked it by saying, “Um—then—when shall we be in place?”
“Oh, take a walk, read some brochures, wander into that big room over there in about an hour, if you like,” non-doctor Magonias replied. “Always got a few newbies, so I go through the drill most days. This isn’t a longterm commitment, one of those things where you pay for a week of it. A meeting or two will do it. See, the body corrects itself—”
“The... body,” Tom repeated under his breath.
“It turns out that stressed-out Trauma sapiens just needs a little information, some guidance, a room full of encouragement. And—something special.”
“I’m sorry,” said Bash. “You said—trauma—”
The man laughed. “Oops, pulled a little jargon on you! I’m just sayin’ that our poor species, Homo sapiens, has an inborn tendency toward getting itself traumatized.”
“Sometimes with good reason, surely.”
“Ma’am, man’s natural state is contentment.”
The seats were filled by 11. The pairs of participants, called by Magonias dyads, not couples, were of different modes of human relationship—siblings, sweethearts, buds, bros, even cyber-game competitors. Tom counted the attendees; there were twenty-four. The group was tense and muted, perhaps desperate for hope. Good gosh, thought the young inventor, do I look as bad as that guy?
Magonias had a pleasing way about him. He talked of his experiences, his method, its effect. “And now, let’s turn the key and get going,” he said. “Those of you who are here for yourselves—not your accompanying companions—please say a few things about where you are in life. Not about ‘stress,’ not about how lousy things are, just let us get a handle on you a bit. No names, please. All I ask is this: as each person speaks, listen! And think, is that me? Is that really me?”
The procedure was innocuous, not very interesting. Tom did his best to comply.
When the circle was run through, Magonias had them all stand. “No, relax, we’re not gonna join hands and sing—and no ‘group hugs’ and all that. We’re going to do some perspectivization. It’s personal—has to be. No one can pull apart your private stress but you, you yourself.
“As you see, we have doors all along all four walls. They lead to what we call blackout rooms. They’re soundproof. You go in, shut the door—no locks, by the way—and switch off the light. Get comfortable in the big chair in the middle. Lean back. Put your feet up if you want. If your body wants to doze off, let it.
“In the room next to yours is your dyad-mate. He or she will be talking about you, which you’ll hear through a nice little stereo unit in your headrest. The point is to listen by listening! That means that you listen with all your attention to what you are hearing with your ears, and while you do, pay close, close attention to your own thoughts and feelings. By really listening to another person, maybe for the first time in your life, you’ll train yourself, not really knowing it, to listen to yourself—your inner self. Because: tension comes from inattention! You’ll see.
“Now let’s do it!”
Tom sat in the solid dark, fairly relaxed, trying not to feel skeptical. He waited, and in a moment heard Bash’s voice in both ears. “All right, Thomas—Tom,” she said. “It seems I am first to speak of my feelings, my feelings as you spoke back among the group. Let me see...”
He tried very hard to follow the sense of her words, but it was oddly difficult. For a long moment he wondered if she had left. Was Bashalli still speaking, or wasn’t she? Perhaps straining to hear, being unsure, was part of the process...
Were his eyes still open?
“Oh Thomas... seeing you... it’s so hard. I am so—sad. And that seems too cheap a word.”
What did she mean? What was she saying?
“I come every day, but... I don’t know that you know I’m here...”
Was she crying?
“I’m here too, genius boy. We’ve all been coming...”
Bud? How could Bud be in the next room?
“They say you’re gone, but how can I believe Tom Swift could ever stop thinking? Aw jetz!—I see you in that bed, all those tubes and bandages—”
“What in space do you mean, pal?” Tom demanded aloud. Or—was it aloud? Had his lips even moved?
“They want to switch you off, Tom,” quavered Bud—his voice. “They say there’s no, no thinking going on in there any more. Your Mom and Dad, Sandy, Chow—I never thought they’d give up on you. But they have! It’s just Bash and me...”
“Oh please Tom,” said Bashalli; “just move a little, just make that line over there wiggle...”
Bud’s voice resumed. “Did you know what happened, pal? Is there still a part of you that remembers? But... it was so quick you couldn’t have understood. Tom... the day we flew back from the Citadel... you were in your office, sitting at your desk... maybe you heard the roar or something...”
“Can’t you hear me?” Tom tried to shout. “Can’t either of you hear me? Where am I?”
But Bud’s words simply continued over his. “The jet, one of the minis—overflew, badly. Clipped the Admin building, the wing smashed right into your office, Skipper! They pulled you out. They did surgery—several. You’ve been here for weeks in this bed. Sometimes you move a little. They say it doesn’t mean anything. Sometimes... we think you can hear us. Can you, Tom? Are you in there anymore?...”
The young inventor felt as if he were sliding backwards into the darkness. He couldn’t feel the chair. “It’s you, Professor Witt! I know it is! Come out from behind—!”
The next voice said: “Where I’m pointing, Tom. Can’t you see?”
Light seemed to flood in from all directions. Tom stood squinting, one hand on the controls for the axistor system. He looked up at Morgan Tefft almost groggily, then let his eyes follow along his extended arm and beyond. “Yes... yes, I see—where you’re pointing...”
“The backwash is weak, but it looks like one of those lattices you showed us on the screen,” said Tefft.
“It sure does, Skipper!” Bud exclaimed. “One of the atom-snatcher grilles for a midget solartron!”
Tom nodded in a vague way and manipulated the control trackball. The axistor-reflected sunlight shone into the black shadow of the outcropping. A cluster of habitat-domes!
“We’ve found them,” the youth breathed happily. “That is—”
Dinah decided to say what was on Tefft’s mind before Tefft did. “We know they made it that far, at least. Now—are they still alive?”
Wulf glanced toward Bud Barclay. “That colony, Roanoke... the colonists—”
“That right,” Bud declared quietly. “Not one of them was ever seen again. Dead or alive.”
The Blazing Brand was still almost a half-mile distant from the settlement. After trying the transiphone communicator and receiving no reply, Tom activated the solarcraft’s repelatrons. They flew—wriggled—closer, nosing into the shadow next to one of the domes. “Look!” exclaimed Dinah.
Two spacesuited figures had erupted from the dome, waving wildly!
“Thank God,” muttered Tom.
“I don’t think I need to add a ‘jetz!’ to that, chum,” Bud said.
After some maneuvering, Tom extended the hatchway filament-barrier over the figures and opened the hatch, gesturing them inside. The two pulled off their helmets. “Tom Swift!” gasped one of them, a woman Tom recognized named Helga Lakhada. “Oh, this is—this is unbelievable!”
“I think we have not met,” said the other, a young Asian man with a thick accent. “But surely, your face is known to us, as is this one’s, Bud Barclay, your associate. Yes? As to me, I am Brin Rathu-Tsan, of Laos.”
Hands were shaken all around and introductions exchanged. “I don’t suppose I need to explain why we’re here,” Tom grinned. “When communications ceased, we set off to—”
“To rescue us!” Dr. Lakhada, a planetary geologist, laughed giddily. As Dr. Rathu-Tsan joined in loudly, the rescue-missioners exchanged veiled glances. Perhaps the reaction was a natural release from despair. Yet—it seemed strange.
“You’re our guests,” said Dr. Tefft with a thin smile. “Please sit down. Obviously we need to hear your story.”
Rathu-Tsan stared at the physician, all humor suddenly lost. “Our—story?”
Bud felt the impulse to say, “Hey, everyone’s got a story!”
“Why yes, Rath, it’s quite true,” said Dr. Lakhada, taking a seat. “They need to know what happened on Bartonia. They came quite a distance to hear our tale.”
“I did not mean to appear reluctant,” Rathu-Tsan said. “You see, we are not in the habit of regarding our fellow humans as safe.”
“Not safe?” repeated Wulf Arends. “But—”
“That is part of the story,” Lakhada said. “And now you will hear it—what we faced on the planetoid—and what we are facing here on Zero Minus.”
Rathu-Tsan amended: “What you yourselves will now be facing, here with us on this little planet. And my apologies for saying—you have no choice but to face it. For the fact is, I think, I’m really rather sure, that you will not be able to leave.”
BUD’S SMILE was grimly ironic. “You know,” he said, “I seem to remember somebody using the phrase ‘bait for a trap’ not too long ago. Or was I dreaming?”
“Let’s hear what you have to say,” demanded Tom of the two.
“But where shall we start?” mused Dr. Lakhada with a glance at her fellow Bartonian.
“With Hazmat Littendoorf,” Rathu-Tsan proposed.
They began their account, shared back and forth between them.
Planetoid Bartonia, diverted from its path by the technology of Tom Swift’s “rock-rocket” thrust system, had commenced its long journey, undertaking an elongated cometlike trajectory toward the sun. In the first days, all had been well with the science colony. The researchers worked closely with one another, making long-range observations of the Earth-Moon system, the busy vacuum of interplanetary space, and the solar environment ahead of them. An uninterrupted torrent of data was sent Earthward.
But presently a degree of vague concern cropped-up. One of the maintenance engineers, a German named Hazmat Littendoorf, seemed to be getting—“A little out of kilter,” said Lakhada.
“Off the beam,” added Rathu-Tsan. “Out of tune.”
“What’s all that supposed to mean?” inquired Dr. Tefft impatiently.
“Hazmat was a bit marginal from the start,” explained Dr. Lakhada. “I know—he told me—that Neil Gerard wasn’t entirely sold on his participation in the mission. He had a good reputation as a technician, with specializations that are rare but very useful to us. But, you know, his social skills, his temperament...”
Rathu-Tsan was nodding. “Not the best, I might say.”
“Do you mean he was difficult to deal with?” inquired Dinah Ingraham.
“Oh, well—what is ‘difficult,’ really?” replied Lakhada. “He was fine in most ways, most of the time. Friendly enough. Polite. But I would call him awkward. The sort of person whom one suspects of having secret thoughts. You’re never sure he’s quite saying what he means.”
“When he would speak,” interjected Rathu-Tsan, “he would look from face to face. As if he were calculating his response. That is not frankness! I found him peculiar.”
Tefft noted, “That’s a typical description of someone on the autism spectrum. Perhaps high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome.”
“Mm, yes; and it’s not as if Neil didn’t have some peculiarities of his own,” resumed Helga Lakhada. “Yes yes yes, perhaps only peculiar members of our species would be suited to long space journeys.”
The concern evolved very gradually, day by day, week by week. Littendoorf spent most of his off-duty time alone, in his private cabin. His comments seemed more and more judgmental of others. “He became moralistic. He disapproved of friendship or intimacy between—well, you know what I mean. Amatory relationships. But such things were not merely allowed but encouraged. The team members would be together for a lengthy period of time, even if some would come and go during the closer passes to Earth.”
“He said he disapproved?” Tom asked.
“He hardly needed to!” huffed Rathu-Tsan. “One could read it on his face, in his eyes. Don’t you know when someone disapproves of you?”
“I think I’m getting a little lost in your story,” Wulf said. “How did this attitude of one guy—”
Lakhada held up a hand. “These are preliminaries, seen retrospectively. The point is to note this one team member who provoked concern even at the start.”
During the journey, Zero Minus had been discovered. As Bartonia began its swing around the sun, the scientific group on Earth coordinating the mission had directed them to temporarily change course. They were to share Zeer’s solar orbit in order to make extended observations of the dwarf planet.
“Wait a second,” Tom interrupted. “Did you experience any technical or experimental deviations as you came closer to the sun, or to Zeer? Things you might have attributed to minor equipment malfunctions, for example?”
“Or even something you might have called turbulence?” Bud amplified. “Like, maybe—a rough ride?”
The colonists exchanged uncomfortable glances. “Perhaps so,” stated Rathu-Tsan cryptically. “There were rumors... that is to say... not all was well. I have heard that the orbital insertion required repeated readjustment. Yet no one thought it worth reporting back to Earth.”
“There were problems with the traverses between Bartonia and Zeer,” Lakhada admitted. “In the worker-bees.”
Tom nodded. “With the repelatrons.”
She returned the nod but did not amplify. “Other matters had begun to draw our attentions. By then, even as we rounded the sun, we began to grasp that something was happening to some amongst us, other colonists, as much as half of them.” The signs had been subtle—too much so for Tom and his companions too understand well. Lakhda and Rathu-Tsan seemed to be describing a growing sense of suspicion and apprehension directed against certain of those on the team who became known, in whispers, as the Other-Siders. “Not that they were physically separated from us. We still worked side by side. But more and more of us—the Our-Siders—became convinced of a conspiracy growing among them all.”
“A conspiracy to do what, exactly?” Bud asked wide-eyed.
“They would not reveal it, naturally,” declared Rathu-Tsan scornfully. “What sort of conspiracy reveals what it is about? We saw them talking together, studying the controls—plotting! Clearly, it was to be a mutiny, a take-over of Bartonia by the Other-Siders. And we would have to be eliminated.”
“They found something on Zero Minus,” insisted Dr. Lakhada sullenly. “They did not wish us to share in it. Pigs!”
“I... see,” said Tom.
At last the tensions had boiled over. Hazmat Littendoorf’s analysis of the situation—that some planetary evil had invaded Bartonia and taken possession of the Other-Siders—no longer seemed far-fetched at all. Evidently he had advanced from peculiar to prophetic. “An evil force!” exclaimed Rathu-Tsan startlingly. “There is wickedness in space, in the solar corona, in the region of the fires of the sun—unsuspected evil! It is caged there, confined in a cage of light-energy and radiation, and we broke in on it!”
“Calm down!” ordered Tefft sternly. “...Please. We need to understand the details of what actually happened.”
Dr. Lakhada indicted that she understood. “We found signs that the Other-Siders were trying to poison us. Our project physician, James Stolcroft—he was in on it. Things in our food, odd odors in our air...”
“You all breathed the same air, though,” Dinah pointed out.
“Oh did we? Did we?” snapped Rathu-Tsan.
“He may have given his cronies an antidote,” Lakhada noted. “He would have to, wouldn’t he?”
“That’s true,” said Wulf.
“I get the general picture,” the young inventor declared. “No one reported it to Earth, I suppose because you didn’t want the Bartonia mission to be scrubbed.”
“Why would we give them that satisfaction?” was Rathu-Tsan’s indignant comment.
“What about the loss of contact?”
“The parallelophones ceased to work,” Lakhada stated. “All very suddenly. How they did it, I can’t imagine. Our communications officer—one of them—covered it up with false reports over the conventional space radio, which still worked for a time. Earth was unaware. He pretended everything was fine. All strategic—but we ourselves had our strategy. At a given signal, from Hazmat Littendoorf, our leader, we took action! We struck! Our technical people had fabricated personal weapons in secret—we snuck up upon the enemy, made them our prisoners.”
Rathu-Tsan jumped in excitedly. “Of course they snuck up on us too, at the same time. We were captives of each other—it was chaos!”
“I would imagine,” offered Tefft dryly.
“Each side compelled the other side to board the worker-bees in groups,” said Lakhada. “It was a forced evacuation of Bartonia. By that time the, the power of evil had completely nullified all communications with the earth.”
“Not quite all,” Tom interrupted. “Someone on one side or the other found a way to get a video message through to us. It seems your ‘power of evil’ affects some things more easily than others. Video frequency-envelopes can make it through—or at least they could at that time. Now—perhaps not.”
Yes!” Rathu-Tsan nodded vigorous confirmation. “It grows, it grows!”
“But—look—you haven’t really explained—,” began Dinah, “You said we wouldn’t be able to leave. Why? What will stop us?”
“Oh yes, that business,” responded Brin Rathu-Tsan, abruptly calm and affable. “First, of course, the evil will continue to affect and limit your technical systems—all of them. You will be as cut off with Earth as we are. But more of significance is this: you have surely found, as did we, that the repelatron systems have become unstable. They are unable to cope with this ‘spacetime turbulence.’ Even such a short step as a million miles would be torture! How you made it here in the first place—a mystery! Or perhaps you have invented something new, Tom Swift?”
Tom shrugged. “We didn’t come here by repelatron. But we don’t have a means to return to Earth, not on our own.”
“Then there’s that,” stated Dr. Lakhada with a pleasant smile. “But also, you see, your whole assumption is inside out and upside down. We Our-Siders don’t wish to leave! And neither will you!”
“That’s crazy,” muttered Bud. “Have you looked outside? Zero Minus isn’t exactly a resort!”
Both of the Bartonians were now beaming sunnily. “My, my, how much you have to learn!” stated Lakhada. “The secret of Zeer is the most important thing in all the cosmos—contentment!”
“Contentment...” Tom repeated.
“Why yes, contentment. You feel it almost at once—don’t you feel it? All your resentments, all your pain—they fade away.”
“Evaporate!” added Rathu-Tsan.
“Be that as it may,” said Wulf, “your good vibrations can’t last long. You can run off air and water all you like, but you can’t grow enough food in the domes for all of you to live on. You’ll die.”
Lakhada laughed merrily. “Oh, of course we will! But they say starvation isn’t an unpleasant way to die. Or, perhaps—is it dehydration? Well. In any event, our last days will be heavenly. Wouldn’t you trade a few years for a moment of that?”
“Er—can I think it over?” asked Bud.
Tom had strolled a few paces, trying his best to keep his face expressionless. “Tell me—where is Dr. Gerard?”
Brin Rathu-Tsan replied, “You must consider him a deposed leader, Tom. He resisted us. He is an Other-Sider.”
“He resisted you?”
“He refrained from not resisting. I’d call that a showing of colors!”
“The Other-Siders have their own encampment,” Dr. Lakhada explained. “About a mile further along in this shadow of the ridge. He is there.”
“Are you two, er, sides in touch with one another?”
“Certainly not!” snapped Dr. Rathu-Tsan. “It would be immoral! Are we to grovel before evil?”
“Good point,” commented Wulf Arends with a sly, barely seen wink.
“And besides,” Lakhada said, “all communications, even the transiphones, have fallen prey to this, this curse. Ten, twenty feet—then there is only distortion.”
“But guys,” spoke up Bud, “has it even occurred to you—the solartron matter makers are pretty delicately calibrated machines. If what’s going on keeps getting worse—”
Both Bartonians smiled toothily. “But we’ve already told you, it is bliss to live here on Zero Minus, even just for a day, an hour, a minute.”
“You forgot millisecond,” remarked Wulf.
“As I’m sure you realize,” Tom said, “this is all a lot to take in. If we’re to get the most from our... our time here on Zeer—well, we need to do some thinking. We need to discuss things.”
“Oh yes, of course,” nodded Helga Lakhada. “We have no right to distract you nice people. We appreciate your coming all this distance to rescue us.”
“We’ll go back to our bubble now,” Rathu-Tsan concluded. “Do come knocking when you’re ready.”
They left. Tom shut the Brand’s hatch and double-checked it. He turned to the others and gestured eloquently.
“Well now,” said Dinah weakly.
“Even without the details, it’s clear what sort of thing we’re facing here,” pronounced Morgan Tefft. “These people are in a state of paranoid schizophrenia attended by stark delusionality and extreme emotional labiality.”
Bud nodded. “On the tip of my tongue.”
“But what could have caused it?” asked Dinah. “It seems the whole Bartonia colony had some sort of nervous breakdown.”
“We prefer the term psychotic break these days. As to the cause, I’ve seen various drugs produce such an effect. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this Doofen-dorfer fellow put something in their food, acting from his own advancing psychosis. Naturally he then deflects the blame onto his perceived ‘enemies’—very typical.”
But Tom’s crinkled-brow expression became a headshake. “I don’t agree with this way of thinking. We’re getting this whole story from just two people. For all we know the oddball man could turn out to be the sanest person around!
“And if this is ‘psychosis,’ let’s remember—it isn’t limited to the Bartonia people, and it doesn’t just affect the mind. What about the spacetime phenomenon? The communications blackout? And—shall we say it together?—my own mental... uh—”
“Thing,” Bud finished helpfully.
“It isn’t rocket science to know that we need a lot more info on the real situation here on Zero Minus,” Wulf observed. “We need to speak to Neil Gerard, wherever he is. Probably to ‘Hazmat’ as well.”
“We need to accept their nice invitation and pay our new friends a visit,” confirmed the young inventor. “Not just these people, but the Other-Siders.”
Bud cleared his throat. “Mm, yep. The thing is—what if there aren’t more people than those two? Like—ever hear of the Donner Party?”
Dinah stared at him. “You—you think...”
“We five could be next on their menu!”
That ominous comment was the last thing Tom heard from any of the other astronauts—for a while.
A THINKING DRIVE
A BRIGHT pale cloud spread itself in front of Tom Swift’s eyes—in front, which was also above. It was Bashalli’s face, frightened and desperate. “Tom, what’s wrong? Can’t you hear me?”
“Let’s get him some water,” came the voice, offstage, of Ernie Magonias, who called himself sergeant.
Tom was still in the reclining chair in his blackout room, but the room was no longer blacked out. His eyes darted about for a moment, and he gave himself a shake. “Bash—I’m—I guess I’m okay. Did something—”
“You didn’t come out, Thomas,” she gulped. “We found you just... lying there.”
She shook her head. “Your eyes were open, at least when we flicked on the light, but—you didn’t seem to see me. You didn’t answer. I kept shaking you—”
Tom heard a sob in it, and grasped her wrist warmly. “I’m sorry, Bash. You shouldn’t have had to be put through that.”
Magonias brought a tumbler of water; Tom sat upright and sipped. “I have no idea what happened to me. I’d say I dozed off, but—”
“Your eyes were open, Thomas,” Bashalli stated bluntly.
Tom and Bashalli were in no mood to listen to explanations, speculations, or excuses from the stress-reduction guru. As they atomicar’d backed to the hotel, the Pakistani asked wryly, “I certainly feel relaxed and stressless. How about you?”
“I just want to get back to Shopton.”
“Not many people have ever said those words,” Bashalli noted. “But I could easily repeat them twenty times.”
They left early the next morning, and were back in Shopton for a late lunch in Tom’s office. “What a nightmare,” said Damon Swift apologetically. “Perhaps the man has been covering up other such incidents.”
“We can sue him later,” retorted Bash. “I’m leaving as soon as I finish Chow’s dessert.”
“Not going to call Sandy?” Tom inquired with a wink.
“I’m too drained. If Sandra needs up-to-the-minute news, she can call Munford Trent.”
After Bashalli left there fell an awkward silence, honoring father-to-son guidance that had gone well awry. Tom broke it with: “Dad, I think the best thing for me is to get back to work on something or other. How’s the solar project? Is the SunStorm ready to launch?”
“Nearly so. Fearing Island tells me the axistor installation has passed all tests. The probe will be battened down to the repelatron carrier tomorrow. If all goes well, she’ll launch tomorrow night.”
“Great! I’m going—”
“To go home. To reassure your mother and sister. To rest.”
Tom’s smile was thin. “You must be a prophet, Dad. But first I’ll have Doc give me a once-over.”
Tom slept the sleep of the exhausted, three times—before supper, after dessert, and after midnight. The next morning he pretended all was well, but by noon he was, again, indulging his thirsts at Habit-Tat.
“Parents don’t always know best,” advised Luoy Vanvong sympathetically. “I’ve known two—somewhat casually—and been one—very casually. We try. Maybe I should say—we try to convince ourselves that we’re really trying. Hard sell, sometimes.”
“I can’t believe you were any less than a smart, attentive mom, Luoy,” Tom said.
“Oh, I suppose I was—but only while serving drinks. So now, spill what you’re aching to spill, Tommy. Just what did happen to you in that little room?”
Tom stared at his little glass, as if he were meeting its eyes. “At home, in bed... I’ve started remembering things. I don’t think they’re just the latest episodes in my—weird dreams. They seem different. They seem like things that really happened, things that had just happened to me.”
“I understand what you mean,” Luoy nodded.
“You know, it’s hard to talk about. It seems so personal—almost embarrassing.”
“You’re sitting on a stool in a bar, kid.”
“Yeah. Well... there were two things, like two plotlines.”
“One after the other?”
“Not exactly,” Tom replied. “They were completely separate, and remembered separately—distinctly—but I can’t say that one was before, or after, or during the other.”
“Ah ha!” she smiled. “Two series, two different channels!”
“Sort of. One... dream-series... had something to do with going to that new dwarf planet they discovered, Zero Minus, near the sun. There was some sort of dramatic situation, a spaceship that used my axistor invention—something about the science base on Bartonia, the planetoid.”
“Isn’t it studying the planet?”
“Right. And we have our automated probe mission launching tonight to study the whole solar region that Zeer orbits through. I’m sure that’s what put Bartonia and Zeer into my mind.
“Anyway, this morning I still held on to a few memories of the dream. For some reason the science team had been forced to leave Bartonia and to set up a base on the surface of Zeer. I was talking to a couple of them—I remember Bud Barclay being there with me—something about people getting crazy, having delusions... That’s all I recall about it right now.”
“Sounds like your brain is trying to come up with ideas for the next ‘Tom Swift’ book,” said Luoy humorously.
“It’s the other plotline that worries you, isn’t it.”
“The other one isn’t—fun,” confirmed the young inventor. “It’s pretty awful. I didn’t see anything, but I heard voices of people who are close to me. I felt like I was lying on my back, immobilized, wrapped-up—it seems I’ve felt that way before, on another occasion, though... I...”
“What did these voices have to say, Tommy?”
“It was disjointed. That there had been a bad accident—that I was in a hospital, in a coma—that they were talking about, about pulling the plug on me—b-because—” His voice gave out.
“But Tom, it’s just a dream.” Luoy’s voice was caring and earnest. “I’ve had a few nightmares in my time. I’ve been chased by a monster or two. But here, feel my hand. We’re here. This is what’s real. You’re not running these things in your head because you’re in a coma. It’s probably just that thing that happened to you at your nuke station—what your Enterprises doctor said.”
Tom sighed. “Yes, I’m sure you’re right. I shouldn’t have discounted it. I owe Dr. Tefft an apology.”
“Isn’t his name Simpson?”
“Didn’t I say Simpson? Luoy—you didn’t spike this juice, did you?”
She looked sly. “If I had, Tommy, you’d be in no shape to ask!”
As the youth went out into the sun, he felt a touch of anticipation. But no—the phantom Professor Malanoche Witt was nowhere to be seen. All around him was just—Shopton. Tom clambered into his bronze-hued car and sped away from the curb. I’m not really needed at the plant right now, he thought. Dad’s dealing with the SunStorm launch.
He decided to take a thinking drive, all the long loopy way around Lake Carlopa.
Oddly enough, his thoughts were quiet and placid. He drove past the turnoff to the Swift Construction Company, past the dance-club, past the gravel beach, past the little town of Sandport, and no real thoughts intruded upon his thinking drive.
It was because of that calm, perhaps, that he barely reacted when he realized that the passenger seat was occupied.
“Well,” said Professor Witt apologetically, “I didn’t want to startle you.”
“I suppose I’ve fallen asleep at the wheel,” said Tom placidly. “Maybe I should try to wake up.”
“No need to exert yourself, young Swift. You’re wide awake. At this moment.”
“Or so you say, Professor. If I really am in a coma, this would all be just the same, wouldn’t it be? What kind of scientific test can a guy perform to distinguish dream from reality? They’re both the same—when you’re inside them.”
“So very true,” nodded Witt, pipe unlit. “These are hardly novel questions, you know. My field, natural philosophy—yes, the development of the scientific attitude, specifically; but people disdain to realize how much the developing practice of what we now call science involved very serious thought about the nature of reality. Truth!—what is it? Mm, that question ought to ring a bell.”
“Are you here to fight the Tom Swift pathogen, Professor?” Tom inquired blandly. “I don’t know if you’re a smart man—or even if you’re a ‘man’ at all, no offense—but why not just level with me? Why not tell me what you want me to do? Or not do?”
Whatever Malanoche Witt might be, he was able to chuckle. “I’ve been telling you all along, lad.”
“Though you won’t quite grasp this, not now, there are some very important truths that cannot be told. Not all meanings can be compressed and summarized into those efficient little things called words.”
“Oh my, am I trying your patience? But perhaps I can make use of words at this point—crude implements though they be.” He touched his pipe stem to his lips, as if thinking. “In clever and subtle ways, by dreams and visions and sips of pineapple juice, I have changed you, Tom. Everyone has certain inner defenses of which they are hardly aware—more of that automatic mobilization, though on a much smaller scale, of course, and in latent form. Do you see?”
“I think so.”
“Let us say,” Witt continued, “that what I have done—go ahead and put brackets around the ‘I’ if you like—is transmit to you a kind of code, a code delivered through the application of raw experience, hmm? Bud was right, in his typically approximate way, about my method of programming you. These ‘plotlines’ over their several ‘channels’—pubkeepers can be awfully wise—are indeed points during which your capacity to receive, to understand, to shape your reality, has been altered. Enhanced.”
“Undermining my defenses,” Tom nodded, trying to keep an eye on the road.
“Yes and yes again, young Swift.”
“Which logically implies—”
“That what you are to do—that what I am here to ensure that you do do—is something you will find repugnant. The specific organ fights what the body requires! You have been fighting me all along, though you didn’t have the ability to realize it.”
“Since the accident at the Citadel.”
“No. Rather before that.”
This perplexed the young inventor. “Before? Then this doesn’t have to do with my... my nervous system being affected by—”
The Professor sent him a chiding look. “All I’ve done on so many fronts, and you still can’t accept—it.”
“You said you would start spelling it out.”
“Yes,” Witt nodded, “and I’m nothing if not honest—literally ‘nothing.’ Mm.
“Very well then, Tom. Your recent scientific activities, those facilitated by Tom Swift Enterprises, have inadvertently unleashed a danger. The field of combat happens to be—let’s see now—the predestined evolution of Man, humanity as an entity, over time.”
Tom seemed, suddenly, to understand. “What happened at the Citadel! Nuclear effects having to do with the spacetime continuum! It might somehow make it possible for history—what people in the future regard as having already happened—to go in a different direction!”
“Just so. You don’t understand the relation between fixed measurable time and the events of history, nor would I attempt to explain it to you. But this discovery, this ‘captive sun’ business, all that—it wasn’t supposed to happen. But you chaps opened the door. And made it possible for it to cause itself to occur, to actualize. Events want to happen, Tom. They press hard against the barriers of probability. But all but one are sloughed off, discarded. Might-have-beens.
“Of course you don’t know what I mean. But you do feel what I mean, don’t you?”
Tom suddenly swerved off onto the shoulder of the road, which was all but deserted on this stretch. He switched off the engine. “Well!” remarked Witt approvingly. “Full attention, eh?”
“The danger to, to whatever, Future Man or History or the Spacetime Organism—is it the molecule-cleaving phenomenon? Are you saying it hasn’t stopped?”
“What a thrilling boys-book interpretation!” chuckled Witt. “No, that little episode was only—let us call it a preface. The door that has been forced open is the door of knowledge, Tom. Now the scientific community, a body within a body, itself a sort of gland or organ—is primed to produce something poisonous. Power has been given them. The insight gained through these solar and nuclear investigations must lead, inevitably, to widespread utilizations. And that would be something this thing that Bud called a ‘time-giant’ cannot... permit. A bad ending, young Swift, a bad ending indeed. To a bad night.”
“The experiment happened,” Tom declared. “The research has been done. The equations are written. And the solar probe launches tonight. But—” A thought suddenly clicked into place. “Is that it? Am I supposed to stop the SunStorm Satellite?”
“You did it before, you and your father,” retorted Professor Witt suavely. “You don’t quite recall it, but it was a nice bit of softening—though insufficient, as it turned out. Not even Zero Minus and the planetoid and all this ‘Roanoke’ nonsense—you’re not ready yet to fully grasp what must be done.”
“Great space, tell me!” Tom shouted.
“All right,” replied Witt calmly. “Though I see there is more work to be done before you can be allowed to keep it in consciousness. Resistance, resistance. So, then.
“These ‘new physics’ experiments must cease. No more micro-suns, no more attempts to assay near-solar space and its spacetime structure. And so, certain of those things you mentioned, key equations and so forth, must be discredited. The Citadel incident must come to be regarded as a close call, a narrow escape due to faulty assumptions. All such work, anywhere, must be shut down.
“But, you ask, just how shall the cat be put back in the bag? There are codes and numbers already in computers. Mere deletions, without some helpful if gravely discouraging amendments, would do nothing. And even then, there are brains possessing a crucial kind of conceptual understanding of these recondite matters. In little time, it would all be reconstructed—rebooted is the term. What to do? Two steps.
“First, you must travel to the Citadel and enter a small length of code into the computer upon which the Helios work is founded. Not so hard.
“Second, as regards to what lies within brains, those bits and pieces of dangerous genius—you are to kill your father.”
THE SABOTAGE PLOY
“OF COURSE, it’s perfectly natural to find this disquieting,” said Malanoche Witt to Tom, who had been turned to staring stone, white knuckles gripping the contoured steering wheel. “Disturbing, distressing—but as a hero one must be prepared to accomplish difficult things. All for the greater good, you know.” His voice evinced a degree of sympathy, though touched with his usual condescending amusement. “As to punishment—you’re not thinking of it at the moment, but you certainly will be in time—there are many ways to avoid detection. And you are surely the least likely suspect on Earth.”
Tom was finally able to pry loose a few words. “Now I know that this—you!—is just something hallucinated, dreamed up. The Helios effect jarred my brain pretty badly, obviously.”
“Have not we disposed of that unanswerable question, What is real?” retorted the Professor. “Everything has its reality in one way or another, don’t you think?”
“There’s no ‘reality’ in which I’d even consider—”
The phantom-man interrupted. “Be so good as to ‘consider’ the back of your left hand, young Swift.”
The young inventor looked. The back of his hand was covered with inky writing!
“As a scientist,” continued Witt, “you have a degree of familiarity with the Greek alphabet—handy for equations. Note, please—you’ll find it helpful to memorize all this—the several Greek letters, in precise sequence.” Tom read off the characters under his breath:
IOTA PSI LAMBDA EPSILON SIGMA
“And note also the hyphenated string of numbers in a line beneath them. These numbers are the address of a certain demarcated section of something called the G-Zeta Subroutine-3 Protocol of the primary activation program for producing the Helios micro-sun. You will fly to the Citadel, physically access the sole terminal allowing late input, and at the designated spot substitute the five characters, in Modified ASCII code, for what you find there. Your log-in will not be recorded, and the change will be undetected. But all copies will contain it.”
“What will it do?” demanded Tom.
“Hi-jinx of the most annoying kind,” was the reply. “There will be no more of this sort of experimentation for decades—that is a former fact that will once more become an active fact. If you see? No one will die—not from this—but the world science community will be sent off in the wrong direction.
“Of course Damon Swift will quickly recognize the nature of the error, one of three who have a sufficient conceptual grasp of how it all works to do so. Of the remaining two, Mantova is dead, and Dr. Kupp cannot focus his profound analytic attention without guidance by your father—who will be in this case, of course, your late father. The steps of discovery and correction will not be retraced until such time as History ordains.”
Tom found himself able to be dazed and horrified in the same moment. “But, but, I—what does the HFCR experiment—do? What makes it such a threat?”
Witt chuckled. “Oh, well now, of what use to you is such knowledge, Tom? Mere distraction. But you tempt me. Consider the potentialities of a weapon that in essence converts solid matter to molecular dust. What do you suppose would happen to an organism—a body—whose delicate internal structure turns to something like desiccated porridge? I refer not to single human bodies, but to the great supra-temporal organism known as Man. Curtain down for Humanity.”
“But—if it’s a scientific problem—why couldn’t we discover how to—”
“Alas, time—this new-minted bit of time we now occupy so unexpectedly—does not permit it,” declared Witt briskly. “And so a most forceful course-correction is required. Hammer it all back in place.
“Oh, stop fighting it, Tom!—but I know my wishes are in vain at this point. More softening is required. So, so. Back to it.”
As Professor Witt spoke, Tom’s gaze had again been drawn irresistibly to the back of his left hand. The black-on-flesh lettering was no longer there.
“I didn’t mean to shock you, Skipper,” said Bud. “But I’m only being a half-jokester on the cannibal bit.”
Tom looked up from his hand, eyes scanning the interior of the Blazing Brand. He knew he had been, somehow, elsewhere. I have to look—normal, he thought. I can’t let them doubt me. “No, sorry, I just—there’s no reason to think in such extreme terms, pal.”
“No there certainly isn’t,” agreed Dr. Tefft. “And you’re right, Tom. We don’t know whether, and to what extent, those two represent the remainder of the colonists.”
“We have to eyeball the situation,” Tom decided. “But not all of us at the same time. Wulf, you and Dinah should remain here—to get back into space in the Brand if something happens to us in the dome.”
“Then I’ll be going along with you?” asked Tefft.
“I think we’ll need your medical expertise, Doctor—and before we head on over, you’ll need to prepare.”
Two hours later three spacesuited figures exited the solarcraft and, in weak gravity, bounced along under the filament canopy through the black shadow, toward the airdome. “The shadow will stay in place, more or less, for several more Earth-days,” Tom noted. “Zeer rotates pretty slowly. But eventually the Bartonians will have to move. The airdomes won’t protect them from full solar heat.”
Remarked Bud wryly: “I don’t think they really care.”
The approach of the three was observed through a transparent peep-hole next to the hatch-flap, and they were admitted by Helga Lakhada, who was beaming with pleasure. “So nice to have you join us! This is a sharing moment.”
Bud smiled thinly. “I’m sure feelin’ it.”
The dome, connected in series to the several other domes, was packed with those who called themselves the Our-Siders. They applauded as the young inventor gave them a friendly nod. Tom noted to himself that they hardly looked healthy; they seemed pale and gaunt. “I hope Dr. Lakhada has told you why we’re here,” Tom began.
“Oh no, it’s not necessary,” piped-up one young man. “We just live in the present!”
“Today’s delights are all we need,” exclaimed another gaily.
“That is—” declared another, “as long as everybody here is a true Our-Sider. Some of those who joined us had Other-Sider tendencies. We had to expel them.”
Bud gaped. “Good night, you mean you forced them out into—”
“We sent them along the shadow, in spacesuits, to the haven of the Other-Siders,” explained Helga Lakhada. “And some of the Other-Siders—misled people who weren’t truly evil—also came here.”
“It all balances out,” said a grinning woman. “Life is balance. It’s one of the Great Principles.”
“I’ve always thought so,” Tom pronounced. “Um—but—who’s in charge here?”
“Do you have a King?” asked Bud. “A lead psychiatrist?”
A lanky, balding man approached them, pushing through the crowd. He was head-above tall, and his fixed smile was unnerving. “I’m neither,” he stated quietly. “But I’m in charge.”
“This is our Grand Inspirer,” introduced Dr. Lakhada, who clearly thought of it as a title. “Hazmat Littendoorf. If I made him sound peculiar or annoying when we spoke earlier, please pretend I said just the opposite, won’t you?”
“Helga Lakhada—an H. L. like me—is well beyond knowing what she’s saying,” Hazmat Littendoorf said as he shook hands with the arrivees. “We’re into mood-swinging here. It’s liberating.” He leaned forward and said into Tom’s ear: “Something’s happened to them—to the others too. They’ve become as erratic as—as I used to be. I see it now, how I was. Strangely, I’ve gotten better as they’ve gotten worse. You know, I’ve wondered if my craziness gave me some sort of immunity to all this.”
“That could be a valid insight, Littendoorf,” said Tefft. “I’m a professional in this field.”
“A professional lunatic?”
Tom turned to the assembled Siders. “We’ve brought a large store of food and medicine, and other supplies, from Earth. We’re here to help you, and... perhaps a few of you would like to continue the Bartonia mission...”
Many heads gave a negative shake. “No no no,” one man spoke up. “At first I was one of the Difficult Ones too. When they started forcing us into the Worker-bees, I hid. They found me, though. They pounded on the door. I had just enough time to leave a message, one word, on a wall.”
“That’s what brought us here,” Bud said.
“I’m ashamed of my stubborn lack of trust.”
“You’ll move beyond it in time.”
“By then I’ll be dead.”
“No one has to die—” began Tom Swift.
“Oh, how stupid!” laughed an oddly formed woman. “Everyone has to die! Without death, the world becomes unbalanced.” She stepped forward and offered her hand. “Cythera Duff.”
“Why yes, we’ve met,” said Tom. “I was at your wedding on Bartonia, before it went out of range of Earth.”
“My wedding? To Neil Gerard,” she nodded—and then frowned fiercely. “Those two words must never be said! He—I won’t provide his name—is an Other-Sider.”
“You see what I mean,” noted Littendoorf to the visitors. “I may get a little delusional and paranoid now and then, but yeow!—These people have popped their O-rings!”
“Now Hazmat, you know you love us anyway,” chided a pert young astrophysicist. “It’s all a part of the ultimate bliss!”
“Mm-hmm.” The Grand Inspirer seemed more than a bit skeptical—yet indulgent of his inspirees. “I try to do my part here as a leader, you know. They all smile sweetly, but I can’t get them to follow what I say. I tell ’em to have separate domes for the men and the women—nothing! I tell ’em to at least stand on separate sides—nothing! Now we’re planning a nice democratic vote on whether the women should dominate the men or the men should dominate the women—I don’t really care, but one sex has to be on top, right? It’s dimorphism! Aa well, maybe I should just stand around and smile like the rest of them.”
Morgan Tefft now nudged Tom slightly with the suitcase-like container he was holding by its handle. “Let’s get on with it, please,” the medic said in low tones.
Tom addressed the group. “Folks, mortal concerns may not mean much to you at this point—but our vehicle has a big hold full of supplies, including food. You might find it most pleasant to die on a full stomach—some of you look a bit hungry.”
“Yeah, we couldn’t get much food in the worbees with us,” agreed a voice.
“And also, I have my duties,” the rescue-missioner went on. “I couldn’t, er—live with myself if I didn’t complete my tasks. I’m sure you understand. So I hope you’ll allow Dr. Tefft here to check you over, determine your physical condition, here as... official inhabitants of planet Zero Minus. Meanwhile, I’ll use some diagnostic instruments of my own to make sure the solartron is working at peak efficiency to give you air and water.”
“We feel just fine,” said a white-faced youth, evidently one of the children who had gone along with their parents to explore the solar system.
“Finer than fine!” added Cythera Duff.
The medical examinations, cursory though they were, nevertheless took most of two hours. Tom and Bud visited the solartron console, which was in one of the remote airdomes, and returned with a positive report. Presently Tom called for attention and said: “It seems everything here is in pretty good shape. But now it’s my duty to make an assessment of the others.”
“The Other-Siders,” stated Helga Lakhada with disgust on her face. “They shouldn’t be allowed the privilege of a blissful death!”
Tom was firm. “It’s my job to do it, ma’am. How far away is their encampment?”
“Further down the shadow,” answered Hazmat Littendoorf. “Perhaps a mile.”
“Is there a way to contact them?”
“We ripped it out and smashed it!” cried Cythera gleefully.
“Oh,” said Tom, “uh—good. I’m sure they’ll show us as nice a welcome as we’ve had from you.”
“Sure—if you think pure evil is ‘nice’,” floated from the crowd.
Tom and the others exited and returned to the Blazing Brand. “Did they buy it?” asked Dinah excitedly. “Any problems?”
“No problems whatsoever,” Tom replied. “Virtuous sabotage. We weren’t watched while we were working at the solartron output feed. The canister is in place.”
“Remember, the neuroactive formulation is still fairly experimental,” cautioned Dr. Tefft. “It’s had very positive effects in psychiatric use, in severe and intractable cases. It’s largely been studied in injectible or oral form, but I’ve read several studies on aerosol delivery.”
“And this stuff is supposed to calm ’em down?” asked Wulf Arends. “Are you feeling any calmer, Barclay?”
“We had only a few minutes’ exposure to the emissions,” the doctor reminded him. “We’d hardly feel anything. It takes roughly a half hour.”
“What did you really find during your examinations?” Tom asked Tefft. “What’s going on with the Bartonians medically?”
Tefft’s face was grave. “Heart rate and blood pressure off the charts. They don’t sleep anymore, and barely eat. And what I found most disturbing was their muscular tension. Their muscles are so tightly ‘clenched’ that it’s remarkable that they can still move or speak.”
“Yet they don’t have a clue that their bods are coming unglued,” Bud said.
“Their brains, their cortexes, don’t know what to make of this. The continuous distraction is interpreted as some sort of pleasure—an overwhelming feeling, evidently.”
“Your neurexsymadone should make them drowsy and tranquil,” commented Tom. “At least we can hope so. They might just throw it off.”
“But if it does affect them, there’s an extra benefit,” Dr. Tefft added. “Even in the worst cases it makes the subject tractable—docile.”
“So you can get them to return to the planetoid,” said Dinah thoughtfully; “and get Bartonia back on track and away from—whatever’s going on here next to the sun. But do you think there are still enough working worbees to carry all these people across?”
Tom shrugged. “It appears not all of them are wrecked—and there are more near the other camp. The Brand can carry quite a few when we free up the hold. At best we’ll probably have to make several trips, though.”
They didn’t wait to see what was happening inside the domes of the Our-Siders. Tom worked the solarcraft controls, and the Brand rose up on repelatron force, working its way along the outcropping and its shadow.
It was a bone-jarring trip from the first step! “G-good grief!” gasped Bud. “And I thought the heliochute deceleration was rough!” The ship was bucking and bouncing in all directions, its frame dipping unpredictably to make gouges in the hard hot surface of Zeer!
After a minute the young captain called a halt, setting the Blazing Brand down. “I was afraid of this,” he said. “The spacetime effect has continued to get worse.”
“But why?” asked Dinah.
“My guess,” Wulf responded, “is that it has to do with the position of Zeer as it goes along in its orbit. The orbit—remember, Bartonia is following along—is pretty elliptical and canted to the solar plane. Every hour makes a difference.”
“That’s the report from the Physics Department,” Bud retorted sarcastically. “But it seems pretty silly to chalk all this up to Mother Nature playing around with us, guys. I think something does live in the neighborhood, and it wants us gone! Messing with our minds makes for a mighty effective weapon. We all get crazy and paranoid and start killing each other—and ourselves!”
“I see,” Dinah mused. “They turn us into living weapons that we use against each other. We never do fight the ‘aliens’—they never even make an appearance. The monsters on Maple Street turn out to be our neighbors.”
“I’ll tell you this,” said Bud. “Naming streets after trees is a lousy idea!”
Trying not to be obvious, Tom found himself staring at his best friend with rising alarm. Was Bud becoming affected by the phenomenon, whatever its cause? Who would be next?
“Beyond all that, there’s another fact we’d better face,” Tom said. “Even now—I’m afraid we may not be able to lift off and return to Bartonia. The propulsion system is way too unstable!”
“Well,” Tefft said dryly, “then let’s hope our friends are right about our wanting to stay. Because not wanting to may no longer make a difference.”
“What now, Captain?” asked Wulf. “Got an invention on the way?”
“What we do now is let the ship sit here quietly,” was the reply. “We can’t risk serious damage. We’ll walk the rest of the way to the—Other-Siders.”
The same three set out, trudging along in the shadow. “Tom—I saw that look you were giving me,” Bud transiphoned. “You figured I was starting to suffer from brain-rot, didn’t you. But look!—you starting weirding out back on Earth! Remember that night at Enterprises, after you were working in the observatory?”
Tom looked downward and said nothing in response. But Morgan Tefft found something to add. “I have to note that there are similarities in the symptoms, if not in degree of severity. As Dr. Simpson told me, you had an oversize reaction to some minor things—a critical remark someone made to you at the nuclear station, a couple words, an unusual name—
“And the Bartonia people are showing the same symptoms, Tom. During the earlier phase of the trip this man Littendoorf harped on his own unusual notions of ‘reality,’ and it began to spread and mutate like an infection—obsessiveness turning to paranoid delusion and violence.”
“It makes sense, Morgan,” Tom said bleakly. “But it’s gone much further out here, by the sun.”
“You just got a little taste of it in New Mexico, chum,” said Bud; “you and me both. But here—the spacetime thing is enough to wreck repelatrons! Which, by the way, doesn’t rule out the possibility that bad guys with three-eyes and horns might be hiding somewhere and force-feeding us with spoiled spacetime.”
After a number of silent steps, the young inventor commented. “What you both say may be true. And there’s one more thing to keep in mind. You’re here too! If there’s something on Zeer that’s affecting my brain—”
“We have to keep a good eye on each other,” declared Tefft.
They finally made out airdomes and a solartron grid ahead. And they were met outside by several spacesuited greeters. “We heard your transiphone conversations,” said a man Tom recognized as one of the chemists. “That is, we heard the sounds—the words were too distorted to make out. But we recognize you behind those invisible helmets, Tom, Bud—and...?”
Tom introduced Dr. Tefft. “You don’t seem all that surprised to see us here, Professor Jimson,” Tom remarked. “I understand from the other settlement that you don’t get visitors very often.”
“They’re insane, suspicious people,” said a woman named Alberta, a structural engineer. “We call them the Other-Siders. On Bartonia we discovered that they had been taken over, possessed by some evil force that lives in the solar corona. An intelligence we disturbed.”
“They call you the ‘Other-Siders’,” Bud said.
Inside, Tom rushed forward to greet an old friend. “Mr. Gerard! Your wife told us you were here with this group.”
Neil Gerard nodded as he shook hands. “Good to see you, Tom. Relatively speaking. And Bud. And I know who you are, Dr. Tefft, from articles on space medicine. I always wanted a chance to sit down with you, get off my feet, maybe get a little drunk, no talking—figure you’d want to put space medicine aside for a while and just live! Yeah? And now here we are! Don’t know about you, but I’m alive.”
“Can you tell us what’s going on here?” Tom asked of Gerard. “The others tell us—”
“Yeah. ‘Others’ is right!” interrupted the famous futurist. “Those irritating fools are about as other as they can be without turning inside out and eating with their feet. I’ll never forget the look on Cythera’s face. She said things to me, Tom, said! With her own mouth. And those eyes!—looked to me like those beady things were about to up and crawl right down her face.”
“When did you start... noticing?”
“When? Aa, what is when, anyway? That man, one of the custodians—starting mouthing off, spreading rumors!—I mean, Cythera and I were married! To each other! What’s it to him, anyway?” Gerard seemed to fume and sizzle inwardly for a moment. “If he ‘can’t get no satisfaction,’ he can just deal with it somewhere behind the beaded curtains of reality. Right?
“And he never could keep the bathrooms fixed. His ideas—X-raser johns!—what kind of anatomical insight is that? Given human carelessness. Prevalent among humans.”
Tom was willing to violate etiquette and interrupt. “Sir—you devoted most of your life to moving man deeper into space, self-sustaining space colonies, all those wonderful things. You can’t—you couldn’t be like the others—”
“No one can accuse me of ever being like anyone!” Gerard snapped.
“So I know you wouldn’t want to just abandon the Bartonia mission and... just... die down here.”
“You know, that’s very true, Tom,” the man said amiably. “I miss the wide open spaces—that’s funny!—but here, you know, you have a chance to open communications with The Intelligence...”
“Do you mean you’ve actually contacted—”
“ ‘Contacted’! Contact is for football! We all feel a Presence here. Zero Minus is bathed in the Light of Life.” He paused, as if thinking deep thoughts. “But there’s always evil to balance the good. Electrocharge is negative and positive. Magnetic needles point north or south. Clockwise, counterclockwise. Half of us were touched by the Good on Bartonia—the rest live in the filthy bathroom-less domes of the Other-Siders. It would be wrong to even think of leaving Zero Minus without wiping that black spot off the map! And by the way, we have some excellent maps. North is top.”
The young inventor sighed many an unheard sigh, but finally produced his cover story about the need for Dr. Tefft to conduct examinations—and for an inspection of the second solartron. “I raise no objection,” shrugged Neil Gerard. “I’ve never seen why the inside of a person should be any less open to view than the outside. I remove my clothes twice every week, without fail. Never while I’m showering, though.”
Tom and Bud, goggle-eyed, performed their virtuous sabotage as Tefft performed his medical exams; it transpired that both colonies of opposed Siders were subject to the same symptoms, physical and mental.
Eventually Tom told Gerard, “We need to return to our vehicle to process the data.”
“Seems no need,” the man said. “You can’t transmit your findings back to Earth. I doubt you can even leave our little world. And we’ll end up dying one way or another, healthy or not. I just hope we can annihilate the Other-Siders first!”
Bud seemed to have reached a limit, exclaiming, “But man, why do you have to die? What’s so great about death, anyway? Jetz, just get back to the planetoid and rev up the engines!”
Several of the Our-Siders, version two, exchanged amused glances. Gerard smiled condescendingly. “Say, that’s right—you’ve kept to the shadow ever since you landed. Truth? Truth! You wouldn’t have been able to see the sun.
“Come along, you three—it’s an unforgettable sight. We have a little mobile telecamera set up a half-mile out on the plain. Great color and detail. Of course we have to dim it down a lot...”
Gerard led them to an adjacent dome, to a console with a monitor. He switched it on and transmitted some aiming commands to the remote camera. “Now, you want pleasure? Thrills? Space excitement? Enjoy!”
The visitors were stunned—and perplexed!—by what filled the screen. “Is something wrong with your equipment?” Tom asked in a faint voice. “That can’t be real!”
“Real as Roentgens!” smiled Neil Gerard.
THOUGH HIS EYES were frozen on the image as helplessly as the other missioners, Morgan Tefft exercised a doctor’s habit of attention to symptoms. “Tom, you say it ‘can’t be real’... what do you mean? Are you in doubt of reality?”
“He wants to know if it’s time for your next ‘psychotic break,’ genius boy,” offered Bud. “But you’re not breaking—are you?”
Tom didn’t answer. He said: “Mr. Gerard, what is this? What is this screen showing us?”
Neil Gerard spoke gleefully. “What is this? It’s a This! Mighty unusual one, though. Still—beautiful!”
The screen showed what it was showing in brilliant colors. Tom knew it was supposed to be a view out in the open, a view of the dwarf planet’s topography, evidently from a camera atop an extended pole or boom—a view from a height of perhaps fifty feet, higher than the edge of the long outcropping that cast its protective shadow on them.
The rugged plain beyond, which they had seen during their landing, was no longer a plain. And the horizon at the back of it was no longer what most people would call a horizon. The world was bent! The horizon dipped down toward its middle in a smooth curve, saddle-shaped, the land rising up on either side. The ground itself had taken on strange, stark hues, burning bright and unreal under the swollen sun. The shadows were like hard black stone.
Most disturbing was the sun itself. It was no longer round! It was a distorted spill of light, irregular and crude looking, bounded by scratchy lines and looming hugely at the edge of the weirdly inverted horizon.
“Jetz! I think we’re seeing the artist’s sketch the sun was based on!” gulped Bud. “So why is the camera doing that, Gerard?”
“Does it bother you, Bud? It’s perfectly real—mm, maybe perfect isn’t exactly the word,” retorted the futurist. “But I went out. It’s nonbogus. When you go outside, put on your best sunglasses and take a good look. That’s what’s happened to solar space over the last few hours.”
“It’s the light... the propagation vectors of light are being twisted,” Tom pronounced, “the same basic effect as my axistor system produces. Space itself has become a kind of distorting lens!”
“Human brains, so big in proportion—to our feet, for example—and still you’re thinking small, friend,” chuckled Gerard. “We managed to bring some serious technology down with us—benefits of modern miniaturization. This isn’t just about light! Gravitation, momentum, geometry—it’s all becoming skewed—more and more, moment by moment!
“And what’s it all about? What are the correlations? It’s the orbit, boys, the orbit of Zeer—Bartonia too, I’d guess—around the sun. It’s evolving!—or at least it’s changing; I suppose de-volution is also change. The Our-Sider astronomy team confirmed it just before you three arrived.”
“Pardon me if I fail to understand,” said Tefft. “The orbit?”
“Two syllables—is that so difficult? Orbit! Zero Minus doesn’t just spin around the sun like Newton—not even Einstein! We’ve seen it change, swerve like a duck on ice!—which I once saw, by the way—loop and twist like... well, what’s something that loops and twists... a roller-coaster? Like that!” It seemed Neil Gerard was becoming giddy, though with Neil Gerard it wasn’t always readily determinable.
“Sir, are you saying that—that the planet’s orbit is unstable?” asked Tom.
The man looked scornful. “No, Tom, I’m saying your blond hair dye’s leaking into your ears. Of course I’m saying—er, that.”
Tefft tried to speak as softly as possible into Tom’s ear. “An electronics problem—like we’ve been seeing. Camera malfunction.”
“What’s that tired old rocker saying?” demanded Gerard with indignation. “I’m telling you we’ve got ‘twist and shout’ going on out there! For real! With a bullet! The Solar Presence is getting angry—it’s been more than accommodating to us uninvited strangers, but there’s a limit, Tom, and he’s not serving cordials any more. I think this little rock is about to be cleansed of us fine technological fungi—that’s plural!—by a brief roll in the sun!”
A woman in a lemon-yellow jogging suit suddenly called out, “It’s all true, it’s all happening! The physical universe, the laws of science—elastic! Logic, math, everything—I’ve been running the numbers on my computer, Tom, and Pi isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Reality is changing!”
Tom was stunned to find himself decisive and utterly calm. “Then that’s it—now I know. This is the unreal plotline, the dream path; none of this is true! I’m not here on planet Zero Minus. There’s no rescue mission, no Bartonia crisis. None of it happened. I’m—I’m still on Earth—I must be!”
Dying in a hospital bed?
Insane from the Helios effect?
“Hurry, young Swift, hurry!” cried Professor Malanoche Witt. He stood in the light from the distant security ground-lights, casting a stretched shadow in Tom’s direction. He was yelling across a distance of about a football field. “Run! Fast! I can only suppress the security sensors for a few more seconds!”
Tom dug in and ran frantically toward Witt and the outer buildings of the Citadel. He could almost feel the inscribed commands on the back of his hand. The night air of the desert was cold. The stars above were cold too. Something, somewhere, had given him a hoked-up dream of danger far off in space. As if science and Pi and the laws of physics could ever change!...
His feet thudded against the dirt. His mission—his mission—he had a mission...
“There’s a good lad!” cheered Witt as Tom ran past. “Enter the numbers! Save the day! Oh, the humanity—!”
But Tom Swift slowed. His legs became listless. He curved around and halted, staring. “My word, Tom, this is hardly an apt time to pause and think!” Witt observed. He wasn’t annoyed—his smile had broadened. “Might it be that you have some remark to make at this juncture?”
“I’ve just run quite a little distance. Frantic speed. I ran at the top of—”
“Of your legs?”
“And yet, the thing is—shouldn’t I be panting? My heart pounding? A little sweat?” The young inventor felt his forehead. “Nothing. It’s freezing cold in the dry air—my breath is hot—but no wisps.” He took a few steps closer to—whatever was listening.
Witt chuckled in his pleasant, avuncular way. “Don’t tell me that’s all—? You have a good deal more to say.”
“You can get me past some of the most advanced security at the world, here at the Citadel. How could I have landed within walking distance? Or driven up in a car? Where are the patrolscope drones? How could I even get into the main building—good grief, this is a Federal nuclear facility!”
“Well,” Witt retorted, “you do have quite a reputation, you know.”
“Let’s say you are some kind of ultra-dimension antibody stimulus to prevent something or other. Let’s say you have magical powers. Maybe you’re a leprechaun. All that power to do things; it’s not just a power to influence my mind—Mom and Sandy heard the phone ring. You have the power to suppress the whole security setup here. So why in space do you need me to enter a few bits of code?”
The quaint figure gave Tom a suave look. “My! If this becomes any more intense, young Swift, I may have to light this silly pipe of mine. But let’s proceed. About your father?”
“Right. You want me to murder my Dad—to keep history in line,” Tom said coldly. “Why not influence his mind? Get him to fall down an elevator shaft, step in front of a speeding car—?”
“What a gruesome imagination! Perhaps you should be running the show.”
“Is that it?” Tom demanded. “A show?”
Professor Witt tossed his pipe away into the desert and crossed his arms. “Say now. Are you not the same impetuous young fellow who said aloud, mere seconds ago, that it was the Zero Minus plotline—your term—that was unreal? And now here you are, and this one isn’t good enough for you. Awfully choosy, I’d say. So—two down, then. Leaving the third alternative.”
“Me in the hospital,” said the Shoptonian without a nod, “about to be switched off, because everyone thinks I’m gone, brain-dead.”
“No. They’d use my thoughtograph imager to probe my thinking. And besides, they wouldn’t let me deteriorate all tubed-up in some hospital bed—”
Witt finished for Tom. “They’d immediately put you in your dyna-4 capsule and let your time-transformer suspend you in time for as long as it took to come up with a way to repair you.”
“So all this isn’t some kind of near-death hallucination either. It’s as phony as—” Tom gestured broadly at the desert, the Citadel—and Malanoche Witt. “As all this!”
“Now you say: ‘and as a matter of fact...’,” Witt prompted.
“And as a matter of fact—you knew I’d figure it out. You wanted me to. That’s the whole purpose, isn’t it.”
“All this necessary nonsense, just because some guy on the airfield just happens to say ‘mala noche,’ which just happens to remind you of some tweedy academic’s name.” Witt put both hands flat to his face, and pulled off his face like a mask. Beneath was, as Tom expected, the frank, familiar face that was Tom’s own. “So whattaya think, Me? Is it time for the Big Reveal?” All surroundings had vanished. In fact, the only thing before Tom’s deep-set blue eyes was a grinning face under a crewcut.
“The Helios effect did this to me,” Tom said—or just thought to himself. “Witt, the coma business—something my brain needed to do—can’t mull over it now. No time, because I was wrong. Fantastic and impossible, but... the situation on Zeer is real! That mission is the one I have to finish!”
“I agree!” exclaimed Bud. “I don’t exactly know what you mean, chum, but I bet you do!”
Tom grinned at Bud, at Dr. Tefft, at Neil Gerard and the others who stood in the airdome. “Yup—I do! The voices and visions are all over, I think.”
Mr. Gerard was rubbing his eyes. “Something’s strange. I know Strange, and this is it. What was I saying?” He squinted at Tom. “What kind of gorgonzola was coming from my big mouth, anyway? Like I’d ever want to die!—or let Cythera, my lovely nebula, take the Big Hike without me. You guys did something... some kind of gas?”
Tefft nodded. “The solartron is pumping out something curative, Gerard, something to make all of you sane. Relatively speaking. I presume you’ll be more cooperative as we try to get you back to Bartonia.”
“We’ve never not been cooperative,” said a distinguished engineering sort. “Just nuts!”
“The TV program hasn’t changed, folks,” Bud pointed out. “Tom, what’s going to happen here on Zeer?”
The young inventor put both hands to his head—not to remove his face, but to focus and think. “Whether someone is causing this, some ‘intelligence,’ or not, the local spacetime environment has changed in a very basic way. Let me see the figures from your instruments and computer.” In another airdome, Tom studied intently—and quickly. “We can’t trust the precise figures, but we have to take the overall trend seriously. Zero Minus and Bartonia will be passing much closer to the sun than anyone expected.”
“Skipper, you mean—right into the sun?” Bud asked, white-faced.
“No, pal, nothing like that. Zeer won’t be destroyed. But now we know why the surface has such odd characteristics: every now and then it melts! Volatile substances are long gone from the upper layers, and metals have become concentrated.”
“But—if we went to the side away from the sun—” began Alberta.
“No, no, forget that!” Neil Gerard cut in. “Solar wind, coronal plasma flumes, superhot stuff will sweep all over Zeer.”
“Still, it’s so attenuated...” another said hesitantly.
“Uh-huh, well, speak for yourself! Low-density packs a mighty big punch, Lowell, when you’re zooming through it at near-solar orbital speed. 83 miles per second! This whole planet’s gonna be vibrating like a clarinet reed. And I played clarinet in the marching band!”
“What I gather is this,” stated Morgan Tefft with his usual calm. “All repelatron-based propulsion systems, on the worker-bees and the Blazing Brand as well, have deteriorated to junk in this space weather of ours.”
“Okay,” Bud conceded. “Maybe that is a bit of a problem. So—we work it through. Because we have to get off Zero Minus!”
“That’s right, flyboy,” agreed Tom. “And we’d better think fast. Because pretty soon there may not be a surface on Zero Minus to get off of!”
“Time to head for the exit!” contributed Gerard.
Tefft shot the futurist a look. “Nicely put, Gerard. Now show us the way, won’t you?”
Bud turned toward his friend, and a grin grew on his face. “That’s something Tom’ll do—right, genius boy?”
“At least now I can think again,” was the response. “Look, we three Enterprisers need to get back to the solarcraft, and all the Siders—you’d better be One-Siders from here on!—need to get in touch with each other and work with us.”
“If they’ve been given the Love Gas too, leave that to me,” insisted Gerard. “Me and Cythera. We’re partners! And married, of course. I have pictures.”
“All right. I think if I up the signal strength on the transiphones we can stay in contact, at least for a while,” Tom explained. “But conditions are worsening by the hour.”
They returned to the Brand, Tom freighting an idea in his head that he fleshed out further with Wulf Arends. “If we try to lift off by repelatron, we’re just as likely to power-dive right into the ground,” the youth explained. “But we do have something that seems to work pretty well despite the spacetime distortion effect—and for the heliochute, a stiff plasma wind is a friend, not an enemy!”
“The heliochute,” repeated Dinah. “You mean use it like a parasail or a kite, to sweep the Brand up into space?”
“It’d be a one-shot deal,” Tefft objected. “We couldn’t return to act as a ferry-boat. Do you intend to abandon the others? Even if we dumped all our supplies, we couldn’t pack even half the colonists into this craft!”
“Morgan, I didn’t say anything about parasailing,” retorted the young astronaut. “And I’m not abandoning anyone! We can use the interaction between the heliochute’s extended field and the solar hurricane in a different way entirely.”
“Thrilling and dangerous?” asked Bud jokingly.
Tom gave forth a chuckle, ironic and grim. “Do we ever do anything that isn’t, pal? The only thing to wonder about is whether we’ll live to brag about it back on Earth.”
AS HAD BEEN proven time and again by Tom Swift Enterprises, and by Tom Swift himself, imminent death was a spur to efficiency of thought and action. As the hours trembled by and the sun became ever more less like a sun, the Bartonians were unified and docile once again, Hazmat Littendoorf had regained his normal, but familiar and manageable, discomposure, and Tom found himself rigging four ultra-strong Tomasite-Durastress cables to selected spots on the hull of the Blazing Brand.
Bud assisted his pal; both now wore standard hard-helmet space gear; the Inertite nanofilament barriers were no longer reliable, and they needed dim-down visors to work in the searing light. “Okay, Skipper,” Bud reported. “The links check out at one-hundred percent strength—at least that’s what the sensors say.”
“We can’t do better,” replied Tom. “The connections may not be perfect, but all we need is adequate.”
“Now we decouple the drill-anchors from the landing struts and fuse them to the ends of the cables. I’ve worked out where to work them into the ground. In this case the hardness and density of the surface is just what we want!”
“I’d put it second to a ticket home, pal.”
Their task completed, Tom and Bud reentered the solarcraft, where the other three missioners had already strapped themselves in. Tom transiphoned Neil Gerard. “So,” he said, “how’s the wife?”
“Cythera seems—I’d call her docile,” the futurist replied. “I hope she gets over it.
“All the domes are sealed and ready, Tom, here and at the other cluster. We’re all suited up. Unnecessary equipment’s been tossed—the atom-collector grids are inside with us, along with the two mini-solartrons. We’ve pushed away from the outcropping as far as we can without leaving the shadow.”
“Stabilize yourselves as best you can,” Tom directed. “I’m afraid you may end up—”
“Yeah, I know—bouncing. We can take it. I guess. Well, really, I have no idea. Pretend I didn’t say that.”
“I’m starting the countdown now,” said the young inventor. “I’m sure this’ll work. You won’t need to pretend I didn’t say it.”
“I know, Tom. With you it’s always right the first time. That’s why there’s a book series about you, not me. Still, sometimes things do explode.”
Tom’s plan was a bold one. The heliochute setup, projecting its gigantic flux-field in all directions, would act not as a parachute but as a sort of funnel. The rushing sun-winds, roaring across the surface of Zero Minus at unthinkable velocities, would be concentrated into a jet powerful enough to literally sweep the solarcraft off Zeer and into space—and not just the Blazing Brand, but the stranded Bartonia colonists as well.
For the plan to work with maximum efficiency, the solarcraft’s field generator, built into its hull, had to be lifted above the surface about one hundred feet and held steady there against the jet-force. And that was the first challenge to be faced. Zero Minus, hurtling along in its orbit, was already starting to feel the bite of the nearing solar corona. There was no dust left on the surface to be stirred-up by the impact of the hydrogen nuclei, but gravitation was slight and the force was enough to dislodge pebbles and flakes of metal. The hull of the Brand resounded as they struck with hypersonic speed. But the captain had to brave the strange space typhoon and rise until the steadying cables became taut.
The control board alerted Tom to the moment of action. He eased-off on the gravitexes that kept the ship pressed against the ground. Instantly the Brand began to slither and rock. Tom freed the fore-end first, and the craft swung upward as if on a hinge, at the same time plowing backwards along the hard surface material with a weird rasping sound. The sound ended as the solarcraft was shoved upward by the rebounding particles.
“Off the ground!” Tom called out to his companions. “Sorry for the rough ride—there’s no way to use the gravitexes to compensate for the surges.”
“Oh, w-we don’t m-m-mind!” replied Dinah Ingraham unconvincingly. “Unghhk—!”
There came a sudden hard jerk, then another, as the forward cables pulled taut, holding them against increasing plasma-wind. “Here goes!” Tom announced. With an inner gulp he switched on the flux-field generators, unfurling the invisible heliochute over several square miles of stricken Zero Minus!
The jet-effect of the funneled winds struck like a cannonball—the Blazing Brand groaned and vibrated, as if on the verge of being ripped apart! “Mighty rough seas, Skipper!” Bud yelped.
“Stronger than we need—I’m dialing it back a little.” But even as Tom worked the controls, the ship suddenly listed over.
“What’s going on?” exclaimed Wulf. “You’ve got to maintain the angle of the field vectors or we’ll—”
“Great space!” was Tom’s return cry. “One of the rear cables is going slack—it can’t hold us level.” He used the hull minicam to zoom in on the problem. “Drill-anchor four is dragging free—it must’ve levered-over a rock that was holding it in place.”
“Then it’s time for the repairman to make a call,” came the excited, tremulous voice of Bud Barclay. It was impossible for the ship to return to the surface.
Within a minute a panel on the underside of the Brand, near two of the cable-links, slid open. Bud, then Tom, edged out, gripping in turn the rear-directed cable that was still taut, tiny motors in their gauntlets making their grips as firm as the clench of a vise. They didn’t need to push off—the hydrogen hurricane drove them downward on the angled cable.
The two were only linked to the cable by the clasp of the gauntlets, their bodies streaming out vertically like flags. “Jetz!” transiphoned Bud with a gasped chuckle. “Don’t need a windsock to tell which way this wind is blowing!”
But this kind of wind was as capricious as a tornado! With no pause to warn them, the force veered around almost 180-degrees, half-spinning both astronauts on the cable like spokes on a wheel! “B-Bud—!” Tom choked. The unexpected jolt had overcome the grip-motors in one gauntlet, tearing it free. He was holding on against the terrible force with a single hand!
Bud reacted by instinct. He freed one hand of his own, folding his footballer’s legs around the cable to compensate. With a grunt he stretched back, arm extended, and snagged his pal’s wrist—which instantly jolted loose again as the wind swerved onto a new heading. Tom contracted his stomach muscles and lurched his upper body forward. His fingers flapped back and forth against Bud’s—and then they held.
Bud helped Tom draw himself onto the cable again and regain what both hoped would be an adequate two-handed grip. “Forget hand-over-hand,” Tom quavered. “From now on I’m in shinnying mode!”
They made it to the ground, increasing their suit gravitex units to keep them pressed against it. The wind effects were less along the surface; nevertheless they made their way scuttling low. Ahead was the cable-end with its anchor, flopping wildly back and forth against the ground, sometimes off the ground completely.
Working as a team they snagged it—and it fought back against capture, dragging both of them along. Finally they mastered it. “Over there, flyboy,” Tom transiphoned. “The penetradar shows that pointed boulder going down deep—it should hold firm.”
They screwed the drill-anchor in place. Even together they were far too weak to pull the cable taut, but Tom was able to use a lever device, like a car jack, to draw it through the anchor sleeve until it was fairly straight. “Okay, back up!” Tom directed. “Reorient the gravitexes toward the horizon—they’ll pull us up along the cable against the wind.”
“Right, Skipper...” breathed Bud. “The horizon—if that’s what you want to call it.” The scene around them had become bizarre—fantastic! The distorted, angled-off sun was streaked with lines of brilliant color, thready streamers of light radiating off into all directions. The stars seemed to have migrated into clumps that stretched away from the sun in a spiral form. The downturned horizon gave the vast plain the look of a trough, the ground shimmering with spikes of color and flashing sparks. The effect was hypnotic.
“If we don’t get going,” Tom urged, “we may never leave.”
“I know, genius boy. But look at all that! It’s hard to break away.”
“We’ll take snapshots from up in the ship, pal. Go!”
Safe inside the Blazing Brand, Tom again increased the power of the heliochute’s funnel effect. “All right, Bartonians,” he transiphoned against a roar of static. “I hope you can hear me. Cast off! Cast off!” He repeated the command over and over.
“There!” exclaimed Dr. Tefft.
The external viewscreen showed rounded objects moving across the broken face of the sun. The many airdomes, closed and sealed on all sides like bubbles, weighed little beyond the weight of the colonists within. But their surfaces caught the concentrated wind like billowing sails. The jet effect was whisking them into space!
“The direction is good,” commented Wulf happily. “The vectored forces will move them right into the planet’s shadow.”
“They wouldn’t be able to survive the direct rays for very long,” Tom nodded. “Not without axistors.”
The five watched and waited until Tom announced: “They’re all up and out. We can retract the heliochute field now—the wind will keep them all accelerating away from Zeer by itself.”
“Them,” repeated Bud, “and us!”
Tom ejected the four cables, and the Blazing Brand zoomed away from Zero Minus and the deadly sun that clutched at the barren little world. As they put in more and more distance, the sight behind them grew ever more disturbing. To the human eye it seemed as if the dwarf planet were being mashed and pulled like taffy!
“Tom, how much of that is just the effect of twisty light rays,” asked Dinah with awe, “and how much is real?”
“Well,” he replied, “a guy I know would probably say that everything is a little bit real in one way or another.” Tom added with a grin: “Of course he was just a mental fiction. So he should talk!”
“Nearly all we’re seeing is from the bending of light and the unequal effect on color frequencies,” commented Wulf Arends. “Guess it’s connected to Tom’s nuclear spacetime phenomenon, the thing Caliper-1 detected out in space.”
“Not just connected—I’m pretty sure it is the phenomenon,” the young inventor mused. “We produced a form of it at the Citadel, on a small scale. But here, close to the sun, it’s tremendously amplified. It must have to do with the intensity of the solar gravitational field, which Zero Minus disturbs as it moves along in its orbit.”
“Not to interrupt these high-domed activities,” Bud broke in jokingly, “but we do have a few more things to do, guys.”
As Tom had reasoned, he was able to maneuver and propel the Brand without use of the solarcraft’s repelatrons, by using the heliochute system as a “sail,” with the gravitexes acting as a kind of “rudder” or “keel.” As distance shriveled the distorted disk of Zero Minus, the Blazing Brand drew nearer the fleet of drifting airdomes. After confirming by transiphone that all was well in the scattered Bartonia colony, Tom expertly reined-in his cosmic sailer and again used the heliochute to focus the space currents on the cloud of objects. Circling them at a distance of ten miles, he herded them closer together—and gave them a collective shove in a chosen direction. “We couldn’t fit that crowd into this space dinghy of ours,” Tom remarked to Morgan Tefft. “But we don’t need to—not with Earth’s biggest space liner standing to!” The homesick colonists were returning to the comfortable rock called Bartonia!
The Blazing Brand arrived first, settling down as gently as possible near the entrance to the underground base—an annoyingly dicey task with the ship’s repelatrons on strike. Down inside, at Main Command, Tom instrumentally surveyed the overall system.
“What do you think, genius boy?” asked Bud. “I know the phenomenon afflicts some of these big gadgets, and I know it’s been getting worse.”
“Much worse over all,” agreed the Shoptonian. “We can’t trust anything involving higher-level computations—but as long as we keep sniffing Dr. Tefft’s medication now and then, our own ‘meat computers’ will allow us to do what’s necessary.”
“Guess we knew from the start we’d have to do some real seat-of-the-pants flying.”
Presently, with trepidation, Tom aimed and activated the planetoid’s huge thrust-drive system, whose “cannon-mouth” was now angled toward the sun by the constant rotation of Bartonia. Though its bank of super-repelatrons sputtered and wavered as badly as its smaller cousins, the principle of the rock-rocket was so simple and direct that even a wildly unsteady repulsion force was sufficient to hurl rocky subsurface material into space, producing the thrust that allowed Bartonia to break orbit. Within minutes they had drawn near the airdome cluster. “We’ll keep approaching you on a very slow drift,” Tom transiphoned the Bartonians. “You’ll touch down gently at a near-horizontal angle. The surface is rough enough prevent you from rolling or bouncing very far—but do what you can to cushion yourselves.”
The plan worked beautifully—though some of the colorful bruises on the colonists were more beautiful still.
Bartonia base throbbed with life again—and with vigorous cheers for Tom Swift and his fellow astronauts. Surprisingly enough, it was Hazmat Littendoorf who led the cheers! “You know, I may keep sipping the neuro-meds even after the others don’t need it any more,” he told Dr. Tefft. “I think I like feeling mellow. It’s like a vacation.”
The planetoid resumed its original trajectory, leaving Zeer and the sun well to aft. Hour by hour, day by day, the technicians were able to report that they seemed to be leaving the zone of spacetime disturbance behind as well. Everything—brains included—was inching back toward normal.
And finally came a signal accomplishment. Communication was reestablished with the earth, first by means of the parallelophones, then the main space radio.
Conversations and updates extended over many days; weeks remained before Bartonia reached position to allow a rendezvous with an Enterprises spacecraft to take Tom and his companions home.
“Obviously we were incredibly relieved to hear from you, son,” PER’d Damon Swift. “Though it could have been worse. I was able to make out your original touchdown on Bartonia by ultra-enhancing what we could get from the megascope. Even that failed in time, though.”
“Every hour seemed to make the interference—the distortion—more severe, Dad,” Tom replied. “I’ve been trying to study it since Bartonia resumed its journey; I think it must go through a cycle, as sunspots do. Interaction with Zero Minus adds another factor.”
“Yes. The whole matter is incredibly complicated, which has made Omicron Kupp ecstatic, naturally. You know,” continued Mr. Swift thoughtfully, “it was a perturbation in the orbit of Mercury that first gave weight to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the part having to do with gravitation. We all assumed the equations could be extended in a straightforward way to more extreme environments, such as that much nearer the sun...”
Tom picked up on the thought. “A reasonable assumption that turned out to be wrong. Until Zeer we’ve never been able to observe the behavior of a planet-sized body so close to the sun—so deep in its ‘gravity well.’ There are local twists and turns in the spacetime geodesic that—”
“That we never dreamed of.”
“Mm, let’s avoid that expression, Dad. Please.”
Mr. Swift chuckled affectionately. “Yes—those peculiar dream-episodes of yours. Clearly your exposure to the spacetime effect at the Citadel was the key factor.”
“I think so,” agreed the young inventor. “Really, Doc was right all along. Even an incredibly subtle change in the geometry of spacetime, just for a fraction of a second, affected the delicate ‘wiring’ of my cortex, just enough to create a delusional world that broke in on the real world now and then. Though I don’t know why you and the others at the Citadel weren’t affected in a similar way.”
Mr. Swift’s comment was cryptic: “Who says we weren’t? But your high-strung inventive imagination may have turned a transient disability into something much more elaborate. My son Tom is a pretty unique package!”
“I’ve been thinking about something else, too,” said Tom after a moment. “We’ve been thinking of the episodes as a malfunction, some kind of damage. But that may be the wrong way to look at it. What if everything I experienced was really some deeper part of my brain trying to heal the rest of me?”
“You mean, to repair the damage?”
“Not the physical damage to the tissue, but... call it damage to my thinking-self, my Tom-Swiftianism. ‘Professor Witt’ seemed to be saying something like that, the business of an automatic healing response fighting a threat to the way things were supposed to be. It was symbolic. What’s inside us doesn’t worry much about humanity in general and its ultimate fate, but about the fate of the only thing it really knows, the self, the person-who-is! The mind seems to have a lot of parts, Dad, and it may be that those parts communicate with each other—and input whatever commands are necessary for repair work—by means of dreams and images and inner stories. For my inner ‘Witt,’ it was imperative, a matter of survival. The destiny at stake was my own!”
“Perhaps so,” responded the older man. “You know, I managed to get in touch with the real Malanoche Witt, in England. He said he was flattered that anyone in America even knew his name!” Tom laughed at that, and father and son shared a warm moment across many millions of miles. “Incidentally, Chow’s planning a big feast for you and Bud.”
“Dad, be sure to tell Chow that he was right about his ‘Roanoke theory’,” Tom urged; “even if the only ‘Croatoans’ turned out to be the colonists themselves. We couldn’t resist the thought that these strange occurrences were some kind of attack by an alien intelligence. That’s just narrow human thinking. We have to get used to the idea that as we go out into space, into the wild and weird, we may find purely natural phenomena that seem to us like the work of an enemy!”
“True,” replied Mr. Swift. “We should remember that, once, thunder and lightning were taken to mean that somebody ‘up there’ didn’t like us.”
One matter remained unsettled, something Tom finally addressed a few days later. “This is one really long-distance call I’m not looking forward to,” Tom told Bud, standing nearby.
Tom inserted a cartridge in his Private Ear Radio that linked him to its counterpart in the communications center of the Citadel. “Hello, Tom,” said a hesitant voice. “I guess... I’m ready for this call.”
“It’ll be okay, Iris,” said the young inventor.
“I’m so sorry—for what I put you through—for all of this,” Iris Mantova said, across space. “I know the security people told you everything. Tom, I know I had a duty to speak up. I held back—I just couldn’t. Tom, he was my father.”
Tom’s tone was sympathetic. “I have one of my own.”
“I wondered if you’d seen it that day, the day of the incident. You were looking over the digital record. I was sure you’d seen it before I had. But you didn’t say anything.”
“One line of code, registered as having been inserted by your dad while he was on sick leave, when he wasn’t supposed to have remote access,” stated Tom. “That was all it took to cause the HFCR to take a wrong turn in its process protocol. I know he couldn’t have had any idea what would happen, Iris—no one could have guessed the molecular effect.”
She sighed, with a trace of tears. “He was so bitter for a while, Tom. It’s... a hard thing to die. He blamed everyone—you and me, Enterprises—the world. If he’d been in his right mind, he never would have—”
“I know.” And Tom also thought: I’ve learned a lot about not being in my right mind! “And we’ve learned some important things because of it—not just about the ‘new physics’ and all that, but also...”
“About the mind. But it was your mind, Tom. You didn’t volunteer for that experiment.”
“It turned out to be more than an ‘experiment’,” Tom said. “It was a kind of detective story, you know. It even had a secret code! My inner self, whatever it is, wasn’t just trying to fix me. It was also trying to tell me that it had solved a puzzle that had lodged somewhere in my brain—about the cause of the Helios accident. I must have noticed that line of code and the edit signature, but it didn’t register consciously. I suppose the neurological effect was starting to block things and distract me.”
“But It noticed—and found a way to let you know,” Iris said.
“By cooking up a phony mystery of sorts to intrigue me, compelling me to think about the Citadel, the HFCR project, and the idea that someone had done something to a particular part of the program that needed to be reversed,” agreed the young inventor. “It brought in my Dad, too, to give the whole thing so much emotional weight that I couldn’t dare set it aside—not because it was all that important in the real world, but because It thought it was. And It forced me to remember a string of Greek letters—
“My father. Jules Mantova.”
After Tom ended the call to Earth, Bud said wryly, “Jetz! I guess I have to go back and get a psychology degree to keep working for Enterprises—maybe one in philosophy too!” After a laugh between the two friends, Bud pointed to some sketches next to Tom. “Is that it, genius boy? First look at the next one?”
“Yup, that’s it—my Ocean-Eye Camera,” Tom confirmed. “Doesn’t it sound like something to take along on a vacation? No stress, no danger. Fun and sun—er, forget ‘sun’!—and relaxation.”
“Right—relaxation. Now that,” said Bud with the world’s most skeptical eyebrows, “is definitely an imaginary story!
“By the way, I keep forgetting to ask you—why in the world do they call our teeny planet Zero Minus, anyway?”
The question brought a grin back to Tom’s face. “Because Mercury has always been planet number one. So what do you call a planet further inward? Some wanted Planet Zero, others Planet Minus One. So—compromise!
“But it was just a temporary name, anyway. Now they have an official name. Tachysto! Know what that means? ‘The swift one’!”