“SO JUST how sure are you that you’re Tom Swift?”
It took a moment for the young man who did, in fact, think he was Tom Swift to locate the one who had spoken, a high-pitched voice. She was well below his line of sight. It was nearly a six-foot-high line of sight, subtracting forehead and brow, and the girl who had spoken was not only very short but sitting cross-legged—the legs were like those on balloon-animals—on the deck. She was backed-up against the wall, shaded from the dazzling South Pacific that glared back at both of them.
“Did you say something?” Tom asked with a friendly smile.
“Guess so,” she replied. “Somebody did.”
Tom left the deck railing, with its overlook of the lazy swells, and ambled closer. “I don’t think we’ve met.” His hand wanted to reach out in a handshake. But even if she had stretched her pudgy, balloonish arm and hand toward him, he doubted they’d connect without an awkward crouch on his part. “I’m—well, you know, I guess.”
She cast an impish expression his way, angled upward. “Everybody knows. This whole trip is pretty much about you. And you’re a celeb. ‘Tom Swift’ is a brand name. Ri’? But you don’t look exactly like the guy on the covers.”
“Of the news magazines?”
“Of the Tom Swift books.”
“I guess I don’t,” conceded the young inventor. “Big reader?”
Now her attitude was scornful. “Those books are for scappies!—kids, you say. And who reads? These days—” She held up her handheld deev, its screen dark and blank in accord with the unusual shipboard protocols of this most unusual voyage. “Many pix of the great Tom Swift, Mars guay. If they hadn’t ciped the batteries I’d show you what you look like on a better body.”
“Wearing a blue-striped tee?”
“Wearing-a nothing-a at all, matter o’ fact.” She came close to giggling at his hard-to-conceal discomfiture. “It was trending-a for awhile.”
“Uh huh. Why did you ask if—”
“Meb because you’re not wearing-a the tee in real life, either. That white cotton I’m-a-dentist-on-a-resort-cruise button-collar shirt you have on—not a confidence builder. Not if you’re the real deal. It doesn’t say young inventor or—really frankly honestly—anything-a much worth the time.”
Tom couldn’t help but grin; though he unconsciously ran a finger up the shirt, feeling the cotton just to make sure he was still wearing it. “Thanks for the fashion critique. What’s your name?”
“Ready? ‘Sincere Beloved.’ That’s it. That’s the name Mum and Da gave me. I have some others when I need ’em. Maori-Tasmanian. Can’t say we don’t have a sense of humor.”
The odd name was actually the most convincing thing about the girl. She was very roundish, convex at all angles, eyes startlingly wide, skin a coffee color, hair an alarming black stormcloud of loggy tangles that looked as if they were poised and anxious to commence writhing like snakes. Tom couldn’t help thinking of Medusa. “Did you join the cruise at Tasmania?” he asked.
She replied with leaden irony: “Ri’, me and my steamer trunks. Do I look like a passenger? I help Mum an’ Da in the galley. A few little jobs. No one to leave me with back home—Makira. Solomon Islands. So here I am. Chrismus to Chrismus I think I’ve traveled as far as the moon. But, y’know, in a circle, ri’?”
“What about school?”
“Uh-hunh. Dwu’t, I’m eleven! Time to see the world! By the bye, have you seen it?—they say it’s around here somewhere.”
“I hope so,” chuckled Tom. “Look for something blue.”
The cruise ship La Meridienne seemed too small for anyone—even an eleven-year-old who barely amounted to four feet tall—to keep out of sight. The ship wasn’t part of a major cruise line, but part of the ongoing life-saga of Nee Ruykendahl, an aging world celebrity and retired soldier-of-fortune who had parlayed his much-parlayed name into a come-on for a cruise-tour operation. He and some investors owned the ship, modern and well-appointed if compact, and since Tom had first encountered the South African during his subocean geotron exploit the man’s hired, customized cruises had become popular. Ruykendahl was, nominally, the captain of La Meridienne. In truth he left the details of captaincy to others, prowling the sunwashed decks in a friendly way. He enjoyed people, and especially enjoyed people enjoying him.
When Tom had finally touched Earth again after the frenzied perils of the tiny dwarf planet called Zero Minus, his family and friends had urged a vacation—a real vacation, a vacation from inventing, from the demands of Tom Swift Enterprises, spread famously in Shopton, New York.
As usual, Tom was reluctant to take time off and very resistant to pressure. He gave in—but halfway only. “Okay, Dad,” he finally told his father. “You all have a point. I suppose having delusional episodes, living an alternate life in my head, does kind’ve suggest the value of a smidgen of rest.”
“Indeed so,” nodded Damon Swift. “All the medical experts—that is, Doc Simpson and your mother—concur. Enterprises has no projects on tap right now, no government contracts, no pressing research that won’t require years to conclude. No spy activity! And your present invention is really more a hobby than an effort of your prodigal brain. This would be the perfect occasion for you, intrepid son, to go off somewhere—”
“I don’t veg very well, Dad—no more than you do.”
Mr. Swift smiled affectionately. “True enough.”
“So I have a counter-proposal,” Tom said, suavely leaning back in the luxurious chair usually used by guests to the Enterprises office he shared with the elder Swift. “Why don’t we all go?”
“All? What do you mean?”
“All means all. What if we rewarded our most senior staffers—our friends—us!—with a paid vacation on Nee Ruykendahl’s cruise liner. You know,” he continued as his father’s eyebrows elevated, “he’s been pushing us to do something like this for quite a while. It’s publicity for him, and he’s offering a good deal, a nice package. And you did say you wanted to give Dodie and Ritt a memorable honeymoon as a gift.”
Dodie Ames was the lively daughter of Harlan Ames, longtime chief of Swift Enterprises security and a widower. Her wedding date with young Ritt Kincaid was very near. The Swift family had already offered them a three-week cruise, perhaps in the Caribbean, perhaps down the coast of the Americas.
Mr. Swift shut his eyes and lowered his chin to his suit collar. “I see,” he said quietly. “Intriguing notion. It wouldn’t be hard to let the plant run on half-steam for a few weeks.”
“It’d be more exciting for Dodie and Ritt, Dad—something different!” Tom urged with enthusiasm that he hoped would be catching. “Nee’s La Meridienne cruise basically circles Australia—Melanesia, New Guinea, Tasmania, New Zealand—”
“And the Boothnes Island coral shoals,” his father added. “They’re both skindiving enthusiasts. They say it’s quite a sight, the coral, amazing...” His face broke into a smile. “But, as you said all—I can’t quite feature Chow skindiving.” Executive Chef Chow Winkler had stored a good measure of his cuisine behind, and below, his belt.
Tom laughed. “He’ll be happy to wander around on dry land collecting recipes and coral-themed shirts!”
Damon Swift was still pensive. “A family vacation... it’d certainly be a unique experience. Ruykendahl’s ‘Voyage Primeval’ package sells itself on the promise of a getaway from the modern world—and modern is pretty much the essence of what we do here, son. Travelers are isolated from technology, wi-fi, the internet—all the things we take for granted at Enterprises. It’s a rule. You have to sign a sort of contract.”
“Like going into solitary confinement.”
“But I must admit,” continued the CEO, “Doc directed me to an article about the constant stress of modern life in our technological, mass-media world. Human beings aren’t designed to live in that sort of electronic jungle. In fact, the article specifically mentioned Boothnes Island as a place for what they called a healing escape. To cleanse the soul—something like that.”
“We could all use a chance to sweep-out our busy brains.”
Mr. Swift gazed at his son with humorous skepticism. “Your essence is inventing, Tom. Could you really endure a few weeks of dull human normalcy? Ruykendahl requires signed agreements from everyone. No laptops allowed on the Meridienne. No videophone hookups permitted—not even a Private Ear Radio. Any news of fiendish plots against Enterprises will have to come by way of short-wave.”
“If not carrier pigeon! I’m all for it, Dad.”
“Then I am too.”
Swift Enterprises had gained a deserved reputation for turning abstract notions into concrete realities. The wedding happened overlooking Lake Carlopa, the plan well settled beforehand. Many among the top employees opted out for one reason or other; many had spouses or partners with jobs or commitments that couldn’t be set aside on short notice, or children in school. Some—often the invention factory’s more theoretical thinkers—had no interest in spending two weeks in a dalliance with the absurd world outside their skulls. And despite what Damon Swift had stated in his sales pitch to his son, Enterprises did have a few projects on the back burner requiring a degree of attention. In the end, stretching any rigorous definition of staff, the vacationers came down to the honeymooners, the Swift family, a couple handfuls of engineers, technicians, and administrative types, such close friends as Chow and Tom’s devoted pal Bud Barclay—and—
Bashalli Prandit spoke firmly. “Thomas, my delight in traveling with you on this trip is hedged by doubt as to its... definition.”
“I require absolute concrete assurance that this will be a true vacation, an easygoing and relaxed period of time, in which friends, friends of both sexes and all available genders, will simply putter and amble and, and eat, and... apply oils. And so forth. May I remind you that the lengthiest and most intimate span of time we’ve spent together recently was fictitious—a dream!”
Her close friend grinned warmly. “Bash, I guarantee—”
“Hmmph!” frowned the Pakistani playfully. “As if I would accept a mere verbal guarantee! I can’t insist that you sign in blood, Thomas Swift—not that even that would be enough—but allow me to be violently clear. This is not to be another one of those ‘Lake Carlopa dates’ with poison gas and flashes of ultraviolet and, and torpedoes and all that nonsense. You are not to spend your time in your cabin working on a new Tomasite submarine or smell-o-vision or a pizza-eating computer! You are not to meet with aliens or wrestle sea serpents or hang out with that absurd Black Cobra! None of that!
“In fact, Blue-Eyed Brain, I want you to promise to leave all your customary paraphernalia behind—technology, circuit boards, computers, your quantum radio—everything! No cheating! Treat Mr. Ruykendahl’s travel contract as, as a marriage license.”
“You’re asking for quite a commitment, Bash,” joked Tom.
“I do swear, Tom Swift, if I see so much as a hint of a repelatron—!”
The young inventor, who it seemed was to be shorn of that title for awhile, held up a meek hand. “How about a few pencils? My notebook? A screwdriver?”
Bashalli relented with a giggle. “Well, I suppose I’ll yield to that—if I must.” Her dark eyes shone.
“Then you have my word.”
“On the honor of Swiftdom?”
“Your lovely sister will, of course, assist with the enforcement.”
“Enthusiastically, I’m sure.”
“And with pitiless determination.”
The large Enterprises party had flown to Australia amid the luxurious comforts of the Swifts’ famous Flying Lab; La Meridienne was something of a step down, a return to the primitive—though with better food and a volleyball court. Now, fours days along, Tasmania well astern, desperately trying not to be bored—Tom politely regarded a strange round girl named Sincere Beloved.
“So,” he said, “you’ve been along this route before—right, Sincere?”
“Many much muchly.”
“Well, next up is Boothnes Island. That’s the real challenge for a guy like me. What I’ve read about it—”
Sincere Beloved gave Tom a shrewd look. “Forget reading-a, dwu’t. Pretty little Boothnes isn’t like anyplace even you have seen. Pretty—but don’t look in the dark corners. She has her secrets, ri’? Ugly ones!”
“SHE SOUNDS bratty,” said Sandra Swift to her brother, over lunch. “What kind of silly name is Sincere Beloved?”
“Sandra,” interjected Bashalli, “this is a new millennium, and being judgmental about unconventional names is terribly quaint. There is a rap artist named U-Go-Wayhoma. He won a competition. One of those ‘America’s Most’ things”
“I miss television,” sighed Dodie Kincaid. “Not broadcast, of course.”
“Tomonomo,” Sandy said, “right now you’re expressing what they call an eloquent silence. There’s more, isn’t there.”
Tom considered his ciabata sandwich for a moment, knowing that by doing so he would confirm Sandy’s suspicion. But alas. “Sis... actually...”
“Is there something wrong?” asked Dodie, dividing her attention among several faces.
“Not quite yet,” Bashalli said darkly.
Tom shrugged. “She talked a little about Boothnes Island. Really, just a few words...”
“Mm-hmm,” smiled Sandy. “How few?”
“Something about the island being pretty, but—having secrets—er, ugly secrets.” He glanced meekly toward Bash. “Not much.”
“No, of course, not much. A little comment from a child. It’s fine,” she said pleasantly. “And the reason it’s fine, Thomas, is that you’re going to ignore it. It will be deleted. And because it will be deleted, it never happened. There will be no ‘mystery’ to investigate, no Tom and Bud to the rescue, no science, no invention, no explosion. And thus, Thomas, no fierce reaction from a sweet young Pakistani. Because vendetta is an ugly word.”
“Isn’t ‘vendetta’ Italian?” inquired Ritt Kincaid innocently, squeezing his wife’s hand.
“The concept is universal,” Bash replied, “and the word in the language of my country is even uglier.”
The five sat at a cafe table beneath an awning, looking out over the second-level aft deck. Bud Barclay was playing tennis with Nee Ruykendahl. The young black-haired athlete had won and won again, and in moments had made it three. “Hie, victory over Ruykendahl!” exclaimed the nominal captain as they shook hands. “A claim not many can make.”
Bud grinned. “I think you let me win, Nee.”
“Three times? Would I? Surely my ego would not permit. Then again, I want my passengers to have good memories. That is not unimportant. For repeat business.”
Bud and Nee climbed the short run of deck stairs to the veranda. “I’m not missing technology at all,” Bud grinned. “Nope. This is my element.”
“Not air?” teased Tom. Bud Barclay was an avid pilot.
Bud waved his hand about. “Whataya think this stuff is, cream cheese? And you can breathe it!”
Bashalli half-turned in her chair. “Mr. Ruykendahl—who is this little girl Tom met this morning? She calls herself Sincere Beloved.”
“Oh yes, the little rounded one,” replied the big, bluff man. “Her parents are rather good chefs; I tried to accommodate their needs. They hope to train her. She’s been along on several of these sparkling Ruykendahl adventures. Tell me, Miss Bashalli, has she been annoying you? Or annoying you, Tom?”
“No, not at all,” Tom said.
“No? Not annoying? Are we speaking of the same person?” Ruykendahl chuckled. “Little Sin is annoying and rather underfoot by nature and habit, eh? Her every thought jumps right off her tongue!—I think it vibrates afterward like a diving board. I have urged medication. Still, children are peculiar these days. I am wary of having one.”
“I’d like a few of them anyway,” said Dodie. Her new husband nodded, and coughed.
“Let’s set aside the messenger and think about the message,” Tom suggested. “She made some comment about Boothnes Island having ugly secrets and then sort’ve, er, got up and rolled off on her way without elaborating. Was she just playing, or is—”
“Tom..!” Bashalli warned darkly.
“Secrets?” spoke up Bud. “Like a mystery?”
“Bud—!” Sandy warned even more darkly.
Nee Ruykendahl shrugged. “Ak, who can say? That little girl—her personality is abnormal. As for Boothnes... perhaps I should shower, eh?... But as for the island, all is as I explained, as is laid out with beautiful photographs in the expensively produced package brochure. There they are even stricter about technology and modern convenience than we are on La Meridienne, on this voyage, this unique and stimulating holiday—eh, newlyweds? Aboard the ship we relax and enjoy and sip nice cocktails. A simple life—but we do have electric lights. On Boothnes Island—well, one goes back to the nineteenth century. Forget Edison, Marconi, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers. Forget the Swifts! It is a world of steam and gaslights and pedal-operated sewing machines. Instead of video streaming, community sing-alongs. No telephones—you just walk over and chat. Ah, charming!”
“And if you get sick, they have leeches,” Bud commented with a wink.
“No, no, there is one little area where electricity and modernity is permitted,” Nee assured them hastily. “Very modern hospital, modern communications. But there only. And how could one get sick in that pure, sweet air, with no fumes, no microwaves?”
“It all sounds wonderful,” said Tom with mixed enthusiasm, “but what about what ‘Sin’ said? Have there been problems?”
Ruykendahl frowned defensively. “Do you think I would sell a vacation package with defects inside it? It would ruin your time and my reputation. And I do not plan to give refunds. You will find the liability limits spelled out—or at least alluded to—in the brochure, last page, bottom. Microscopic print.”
“Nee, I’m just asking,” Tom responded. “If there are alleys with a bad rep, we’ll want to avoid them.”
“Says the habitué of Habit-Tat,” noted Sandy dryly. This was, for others, a shabby bar in Shopton; for Tom, a place to chat, unwind, and sip fruit juice.
“Well, my young people, I know nothing about this,” declared Nee. “Now I must go shower, in the interest of such guests as I am soon to come across. Coming, Barclay?”
“I think I’ll shower alone today, thanks.”
“I meant—oh, never mind.”
Ordering something with ice and color in it, Bud joined the little group. “So,” he said, “where’s everybody?” The contingent from Enterprises amounted to thirty-four; there were no other passengers aboard.
“Most are over on the other side,” replied Sandy. “Hanging around the pool, shuffleboard, reading—this trip has brought back the concept of The Book. Paper, in fact.”
“My Dad would enjoy this,” Dodie noted. “He loves to read at home.” Harlan Ames, a sane man, had declined the offer to join his daughter’s honeymoon cruise.
Ritt snorted. “I hope none of you even thought of asking my old man along. Not that he could be bothered to even—”
It was a sentence that evidently deserved interruption. “Tom! Tom!”
“Over here, Chow!” Tom called out. The older man, wide and red-faced, puffed his way up the steps. “Are you okay, pardner?”
“Uh—hmph—I—they just—” panted the westerner.
“Is something wrong, Mr. Winkler?” inquired Ritt.
Bud shook his head sarcastically. “I’ve given up even asking.”
“Um—wait now—uh—ye-aah, I should say there’s a mite somethin’ wrong!” exclaimed Chow. “Over on t’ other side—a plane jest crashed!”
“Crashed?” repeated Tom in amazement. “You mean it crashed onto the deck?”
“Naw, boss, it’s one o’ them perpeller planes with the—the things under it. T’ make it float on th’ water!”
“An amphibious job? A seaplane?” asked Sandy. “Did it land in the water, Chow?”
Bashalli rolled her luminous mahogany eyes. “As if it could ever be that simple.”
“Naw, she didden s’ much land as—uh—” Chow scratched his hand across his big forehead. “Wa-aal, we saw ’er way off, up high, buzzin’ along—an’ then she makes a big turn and heads down steep—tried t’ sorta flatten out, I think, but then—brand me if she didden jest scrape along on th’ water an’ then somethin’ broke off an’—”
“What about the people inside?” asked Tom excitedly.
“I saw some hands wavin’ but—”
But Tom and Bud were already in motion, making for the other side of the Meridienne as the others trotted along behind, Chow anchoring the far rear, which quickly became farther and dropped from sight. Arriving at a crowd clustered near the deck railing, Tom ran up to his father and mother. “Dad, Chow said—”
Mr. Swift pointed. A few hundred yards distant, somewhat ahead, a motor launch was approaching the foundering seaplane. “That’s Zimby Cox out there, with Dunc Lawrence and Billy Yablonskovic, and one of the ship’s crew. They got moving wonderfully fast.”
Bud tugged on his pal’s sleeve. “Skipper, that plane’s not staying afloat much longer. Look—one pontoon’s half ripped loose from its strut. And the way she’s listing over—”
“She’s taking on water,” Tom nodded. “Wish we could help, but another boat would just be in the way.”
One by one, three passengers were helped down into the rescue boat. “Thank God. They seem all right,” declared Mr. Swift.
“Not that one,” interjected Tom’s mother. A fourth figure, limp and lifeless, was being passed down through the cabin door.
The deck crowd watched the launch put about and return to the cruise ship. Before it reached the ship, to exclamations from the crowd, the seaplane suddenly rocked back on its tail and slid beneath the waves. “We’ll have to radio the location to the authorities,” noted one of the Meridienne crew standing nearby. “Perhaps set a buoy.”
“She’s probably not worth the trouble to recover,” commented Slim Davis, Tom and Bud’s good friend and an Enterprises pilot.
The launch was hoisted up to deck level by a gunwales crane and the rescuees were helped off. Tom noted that they had each managed to bring a suitcase with them—all but the unconscious figure, who was eased down flat to the deck.
A woman Tom recognized as the infirmary chief of the La Meridienne came rushing up with two nurse-assistants. She crouched low and examined the unconscious man. Finally she rose, shaking her head. Dead.
Nee Ruykendahl had arrived, hair dripping and plastered down. “What? What is this? You, fellow—who are you?”
The eldest of the plane survivors, a wiry middle-aged man of Asian appearance, sunburnt and wrinkled, stared at Ruykendahl. “Perhaps—no English? Eh?” asked Ruykendahl impatiently.
“He speaks English,” said Zimby Cox. “They all do.”
“Not entirely well,” the rescuee stated calmly, “but adequately. Sir, I am Dr. Noashpe Eng. And this, my dear wife Bamal. And my daughter Thlarsha.”
“Courtney,” corrected the last-named, sharply. Her voice was hoarse.
“And you, sir?” asked Dr. Eng.
“Ah! Ruykendahl! This is the La Meridienne, our lovely and romantic cruise ship. Of which I am captain and, with some others, owner. Yes, Nee Ruykendahl, the adventurer.”
The man nodded with little expression on his face. “Very well, then.” He turned toward the doctor. “It seems we three are well, if you wish to know. I have no pain, no dizziness, pulse strong, normal heart rate. But no doubt you will wish to examine us further, for insurance purposes.”
“Insurance!” exclaimed Nee. “If you mean to allege some liability—”
“Can you tell us what happened to your plane?” asked Damon Swift gently. “Were you descending for a water landing?”
Dr. Eng shook his head. “Not in the least, no. We flew out of Christchurch, New Zealand, early in the morning. Our destination is Adamstown, Pitcairn Island. Or rather the ocean adjacent thereto.”
Slim and Bud exchanged glances. “Seems you were a little off course,” Bud declared. “Did something happen?”
“Som’thang happen-eyd to the pilot,” Mrs. Eng said thickly. “He was—he—”
“Made a cry and clutched at his heart,” Dr. Eng continued. “Yes, lost control, of a sudden. My wife and I are both doctors, but what could we do?”
“Thomas,” Bashalli whispered, “there is blood on the dead man’s neck.” She suddenly winced. “Oh, goodness! What evil spell forced that out of my mouth?”
“We were tossed about violently when we hit the water,” said Eng. “As to this man, Patag, he unbuckled himself as the first pain hit him, perhaps reaching for medicine. I know not, sirs. We only just met him; he was provided through a local service, spoke little. Of Fiji, I think. His service will inform his relatives. A pity.
“And now,” Eng continued, “what of us? This cruise of yours—where shall you make landfall? Shall it be soon?”
“We are within hours of our next stop, Boothnes Island,” came Nee’s reply. “But you will find no air connection there, I fear. You will have to hire a boat to take you to the nearest airport—perhaps Tahiti.”
Dr. Eng shrugged. “We shall spend a day or two on Boothnes, then. There is no emergency. We have our things with us, as you see, by good fortune.”
“Fortune wasn’t so kind to Mr. Patag,” muttered Courtney Eng. Behind her fashionable dark glasses, she might have been crying. “The man deserved better. He was nice.”
“I fear nice people can have bad hearts,” observed the ship’s physician.
Courtney took in breath to speak, but Dr. Eng interrupted. “So very true. Now, direct us where we are to go, if you would, Captain. Perhaps someone would be so kind as to contact a hotel on Boothnes, to arrange for some brief accommodations.”
Ruykendahl frowned the frown of a man who didn’t care to be ordered about. “To contact hotels on Boothnes is hardly a simple matter, Mr. Eng, as radio use is largely restricted. I will exercise my considerable influence after we land.”
As the family was led away, Chow came running up, out of breath. “Brand my big Texas boots, I ain’t made t’ go up an’ down an’ all over th’ place! Got myself lost! So—what happened? Where’s that airy-plane? What’s it all about?”
“Good question, pardner,” Tom replied.
“No it isn’t!” insisted Sandy. “Tom, things like this—well, they happen all the time! It’s not the tiniest bit interesting! I’m not intrigued... is anyone intrigued?... well, I’m sure not!”
“My big Pakistani mouth,” murmured Bashalli in self-recrimination. “Blood!...”
Bud grinned. “So—blood. Big deal. Everybody’s got blood, right? Usually on the inside, of course...”
Linda Ming, assistant to Arvid Hanson, Enterprises’ chief technical model-maker, stood among the crowd. “Seems a little odd,” she said to Tom, “the way the girl spoke about the pilot, a man she’d only been acquainted with for a few hours.”
“A man who spoke little,” added her brother, Felix Ming. “So he was described.”
“...It is catching...” Bashalli was musing aloud, “...the curse of the Swifts. I am infected...”
“Tom, just—just go do something,” urged Sandy, irritated and resigned. “Go work on that thing you’ve been puttering with in your room.”
“You have a thing in your room, Tom?” smiled Dodie inquiringly.
The young inventor smiled back and nodded. “An invention—a low-tech one, the only way the invention police would allow it on board. Tinkering is just another name for relaxing.”
“Just try stopping him,” Bud put in, leaving to shower. He had already seen the thing when it was still a newborn sketch.
“Show it to us,” said Dodie and Ritt, marriage making them a unit. Billy Yablonskovic also indicated an interest.
Tom was happily obliging. “Come on!”
TOM led Dodie-and-Ritt, and Billy, below, down long halls with thick carpets and indirect lighting, to his stateroom, big and lusciously appointed. A pair of folding tables had been set up to one side, littered with pieces of—not technology—but something more like mechanics. There were rods and gears, small wheels, cylinders poking out of other cylinders, a framework cradle of connected struts, things that looked like cut-glass ornaments, and a big rectangular box, one side open and revealing further mysteries packed within.
“No wires,” noted Billy.
“And no power cord or batteries,” Tom grinned. “I’m keeping a promise I made—and keeping to the spirit of this pre-tech cruise. The meropticon is as un-electric as a screwdriver—or Galileo’s telescope.”
“Hm. ‘Mer’ and ‘optic.’ A handy device to spot mermaids?” joked Dodie.
Tom winked. “Bud already made that joke. Also the one about ‘peeping Tom.’ Actually, the official name, meropticon, can be translated pretty directly as its nickname, the ocean-eye camera.”
Ritt Kincaid nodded. “Yes—I know ‘icon’ means image.” He was proud of his university degree. “Some new kind of camera for underwater imaging?”
“That’s right,” Tom replied; “though it’s not yet what people think of as a camera, really. The picture-storage capability is a screw-on element that I’ll have to work up back at Enterprises. Right now it’s really more of a viewer, like binoculars or a telescope. Then again,” he went on, “the original camera obscura, back in Renaissance times, was just a darkened room with a peephole in one wall to admit light from the outside. It was a simple arrangement, but enough to create a visible image of the outside scene on the wall opposite the peephole.”
“I’ve read about that,” Dodie said thoughtfully, “but I never understood how it worked, projecting an image without using some kind of lens.”
The young scientist-inventor was delighted to explain. “The little hole in the wall is so small relative to the ‘spread’ of light waves from outside that the only light that can make it through are waves that propagate—that is, travel along in a certain direction, which we call rays—parallel to one another.”
“They don’t have to elbow and ‘scrunch’ each other to get through the hole,” Dodie observed.
“By keeping in line the rays are laterally compact—they don’t interfere with one another, and hit the wall with minimal dispersion. So the eye sees the reflected patch, on the wall, as a defined image; not just a big blur of overlapping micro-images with no internal definition, like the patch of light falling on the floor from that porthole over there.”
“Yeah,” said Billy. “And if you put a lens in the hole—”
“The propagation vectors get bent, focused, to ‘countersteer’ against further dispersion as the light crosses to the reflecting surface.” Tom paused and gave a rueful smile. “I’m not sure an optical physicist would approve of the way I’m putting all this.”
“Ignore those guys,” proclaimed Billy. “Understanding is better than correctness, right?”
“So just what have you come up with?” Ritt asked Tom. “Some kind of super-lens?”
“Better than that,” came the proud response. “Things like lenses and mirrors don’t work with perfect efficiency; not even close. They always have little pits and other irregularities—and they absorb a certain percentage of the energy carried by a ray of light as it passes through, even as they scramble it a bit. But—
“What if you could somehow filter out, subtract, all the optical ‘static’ in the incoming rays of light, not by blocking the worst parts, but by forcing the rays to beam along in parallel paths—and without interposing anything that would absorb or degrade their energy?”
“I think I get the idea, Tom... sort’ve,” said Dodie with a trace of doubt. “No lens, but the light that comes out the ‘exit’ would create a clear, bright image anyway.”
Tom nodded. “That’s it, Dee. But what’s more important is that the meropticon is set up to pass along image information from light intensities that are unimaginably weaker than what our poor human eyes are used to—so weak that even special lab instruments have trouble detecting them.
“But let me catch my breath and show you a little sample.”
“Sandy Swift is better than I am at this,” Dodie remarked to Billy, who chuckled.
Tom had Dodie stand against a wall and closed the porthole curtains. He turned the ocean-eye camera so that several round apertures on one end of the box were facing her, and began making delicate adjustment with small wheels and slide-levers protruding from the surface of the chassis, saying, “There are several orders of magnitude in hand-calibrating the components.” Presently he nodded toward the wall opposite Dodie. “Look!”
A bright rectangular patch of light, small, had appeared on the wall. As Tom made further adjustments, a remarkably clear image of Dodie Kincaid took form, so sharp and realistic that it appeared as if it had been enameled right onto the wall’s surface. “That’s amazing!” enthused Ritt. “It must be being projected from that little window on the back of the box.”
“Right,” confirmed the young inventor. “Now look at this.” Motioning Dodie over, Tom swiveled his device, pointing its front end at one of the walls. He again spent some time making adjustments by hand. “This time the image is a little too dim to project the way I did before. Just put your eyes up to the visor slot.”
Dodie was first. “Oh!” she breathed.
“What do you see?” asked Billy.
“I—I’m seeing the hallway on the other side of the wall! The wall is just gone!”
“You mean, like in an X-ray?” Billy took a long look, then Ritt.
“Not an X-ray,” declared Tom. “And not like my Eye-Spy Camera or TeleTec viewer, either. There’s no electronic scanning beam involved—nothing’s coming out of the meropticon’s ‘eyeball.’ All it’s doing is looking! The internal workings consist of ultra-fine ‘needles’ of an exotic crystalline material, grown artificially in a zero-G environment, that co-linearize the wave propagation vectors so precisely that we can actually perceive light—quantized as photons—that work their way right through the empty spaces in the atoms of the solid wall. Atoms are mostly empty space, you know,” he added.
Billy scratched his head. “I believe it—because I see it—but if I wasn’t seeing it I’d look into trading-in my brain for a new one!”
“Incredulity is all I ask,” joked Tom Swift. “Plus a screwdriver and a pencil.”
“But what about the ‘ocean’ aspect?” asked Ritt.
“I plan to use the meropticon to see all the way to the ocean floor—even hundreds of fathoms down—as if the water were completely invisible. And in natural light, too!”
“Tom,” said Dodie, “you picked a perfect voyage to test your invention. I can hardly wait to take a big bright look at all those miles of coral!”
Most of the Swift Enterprises vacationers spent the largest part of their days on or near the broad main deck, in the sun, as that was something of the point of the whole adventure. Mid-afternoon, sipping, they heard and saw a helicraft circle the Meridienne twice and descend onto the ship’s roof helipad, out of their sight. Minutes later Nee Ruykendahl bustled robustly into view, leading a tanned, balding man in a wildly colorful shirt. “I like that there feller already,” muttered Chow to the four gathered Swifts.
“Maybe he’ll turn out to be a Texan, Chow,” suggested Sandy.
“That ’d be so much likin’ I’d drop dead!”
Nee clinked a cocktail tumbler to gain the crowd’s attention. “My friends, I give you Mr. Brian Halfstern. Fresh off the copter that is to take our poor Mr. Whatsisname back to his people on Fiji—that is, his earthly remnants. Now, as you may notice, my La Meridienne is stopped in the water, anchored; yet look east, west—where is our destination, eh? All planned, all planned!—Let us allow Brian to explain.”
Halfstern cast a professional grin in all directions, like a radar dish. “So fine to see you all here, mates. Tom Swift people from the States!—hope you didn’t take a wrong turn up at the moon. Heh. Well now.
“I represent the Boothnes Coral Shoals Conservancy, headquartered back in lovely Melbourne. I’ll be by your sides during your stay on the Island. Think of me as a host combined with a friendly and ever-helpful ambassador. The rules of the Island, accepted by the international community in support of the Conservancy, have been established by the owner of Boothnes—a private island, you know—and they are taken most seriously—all in the cause of our uniqueness and your enjoyment.”
“I feel this speech will be something to be endured,” muttered Ramesh Bol, Swiftian engineer.
“Be strong, Mr. Bol,” Tom’s mother whispered back.
Mr. Halfstern had gone on, momentum unspent. “The Boothnes Sea Protocol covers this entire region, several thousand square miles of bright clean ocean surrounding Boothnes Island on all sides, extending well beyond the visible horizon. The priceless biological treasure of the Boothnes Coral Shoals is reviving—after some setbacks in recent years—and the Conservancy has every good reason to applaud the stance of Lord Oberaine—the owner of the island, you see. He wishes no electricity, no technology—not even the thudding diesel engines of this fine ship. And so, none is permitted. Consider the entire protected zone cleansed of all modernity. You will pardon us, I hope, as we inspect your luggage. Of course, you signed your consent forms before embarking...
“The La Meridienne remains here, at the edge of the protected zone, as you proceed on to your several days of paradise. You will be conveyed to and from the Island by a delightful steam-driven paddle-wheeler, or on a graceful ketch driven by the breeze. Both are soon to arrive; the choice will be yours, of course.”
The vacationers fetched their luggage and made their preparations. Standing in line for inspection differed little from the boarding-security measures at modern airports. A few guilty cellphones and shameful laptops were surrendered for safekeeping aboard the Meridienne, and the passengers boarded the quaint watercraft that had arrived in the meantime, dividing between them almost evenly. Only a small squadron of crew remained aboard the cruise ship.
Tom had chosen the paddle-wheeler. As the craft pulled away, Bud nudged his pal. “Over there, genius boy. Must be the girl you mentioned, with the funny name.” Sincere Beloved was sitting on the deck near the stern. Her big eyes were closed and her pudgy legs were spread out in V-formation. She resembled a meditating teddy-bear.
“I’m pretty sure she’s watching us between her chunky eyelashes,” Tom said. “Nee’s right—the girl’s a little weird. Guess she has a free pass to mingle with the paying passengers.”
“Plan to interrogate her about that ‘ugly secret’ business?”
“No, chum. We’re on vacation, right?”
“Mm-hmm.” The Californian broke into a grin. “And of course we don’t want to take time away from the bigger and bloodier mystery—Doctor and Doctor Eng and their interrupted journey.”
The young inventor sighed. “I’ll admit it’s on my mind. Sometimes my mind does what it wants. But I’d rather just tinker with my ocean-eye camera. When I’m not living the joys of my great-great-grandpa’s barbaric era with you and the girls.”
“Barton Swift, eh?”
“Guess I’ll have to add one more ‘great’ to the list. Barton Swift’s house had electricity.”
As the anchored La Meridienne inched below the horizon aft, all eyes awaited their first glimpse of their destination. But as it developed, Boothnes Island gave little satisfaction to the eye. “That’s not much of a romantic vacation island,” said Enterprises worker Dick Folsom to his girlfriend Lori Matthews. “Just a long strip of brown. And not all that long, either.”
“I think we had enough of a romantic getaway on Mars, don’t you think?” retorted Lori with a smile.
“Some things ya never get enough of, little ma’am.” Dick Folsom hailed from Texas, and spoke it.
As the two seacraft approached, Boothnes Island broadened but didn’t rise. It was remarkably flat, more like a pebbly ironing board than an oceanic paradise. It was a skimpy, scrawny six miles long, planted over with various grasses and eucalyptus trees. The town covering it had no name but The Town. The passengers could see a jumble of low buildings and a couple church steeples—no more. “What’s that, dear?” Anne Swift asked her husband, pointing. “I didn’t think they allowed any bigger ships to dock.”
“They don’t,” Mr. Swift replied. “It’s a tourist attraction, not a real ship. I’ve been reading that little book they put in the cabins—it’s a full-scale model of the Dutch sailing ship that discovered the island in 1834. Of course back then it wasn’t an island, just a giant rock poking up out of the sea, surrounded by rubble. They reported it as ‘Duyvil Spaeck’ and put it on the charts. It didn’t get a real name until they brought in rocks and gravel around 1870 to expand it into an artificial islet for a permanent lighthouse.”
The Ming siblings were standing near. “A rich and varied history, most interesting,” contributed Felix. “They sank iron beams, lowered huge concrete blocks, freighted in sand and clay and topsoil over several decades; the last expansion was completed in the 1930’s. They brought in all sorts of plants and flowers and trees, rich green turf, whatever they could find to hold the ground together. Always privately owned, sometimes by a business concern, more recently by individuals. Dactylus Oberaine—he calls himself Lord Oberaine—bought it about twenty-five years ago.”
“Nice canned lecture, brother Fee,” interrupted Linda Ming with sisterly condescension. “It’d be better used to impress pretty girls on the mainland.”
Felix, an unwilling bachelor, gave her a wistful look. “This could be called ‘practice’.”
Practice was startlingly interrupted by a quavering shriek from Diana Mulvey-Lawrence, pilot Dunc Lawrence’s wife. “Eeeee! Look! Sam!—what’s wrong?”
Sam Barker, another Shoptonian aboard the side-wheel steamer, was leaning against the deck railing, so limply that he seemed ready to slip over into the water! “I—I—g-g-g—”
Sandy came charging up, Bud close behind. “Mr. Barker,” gasped Sandy Swift, “are you alright?”
“Ocean travel gettin’ to you, man?” asked Bud.
Barker’s paper-white face swiveled between them. “I—down in the water—” he choked. “I just saw a body!—a corpse!”
BOOTHNES ON THE ROCKS
“WHAT what what? What is what?” The big bluff figure of Nee Ruykendahl elbowed through the gathering crowd. “Who is this man? Are you ill? We accept no responsibility for pre-existing medical conditions, young man.”
“Sam says he saw something in the water,” reported Zimby Cox.
Diana Lawrence spoke quietly into Ruykendahl’s ear. “Sam’s a little—you know... mentally delicate.”
“Nevertheless, no liability.”
“Okay, Sam, just what did you see?” asked Bud.
Sam was breathing heavily. “I was just relaxing, leaning over,” he said in a faint voice. “I was looking down where the shadow’s on the water—I thought I might be able to see some of the coral—and then—something was moving—kinda drifting past—under water...”
“Tell us, please!” demanded Mr. Swift.
“Meh, let us not press him,” Ruykendahl cautioned—cautiously.
“It was a face—a human face! Just a couple feet under the water, looking right up at me with big blank eyes—a corpse’s eyes! It looked strange, bloated, just staring at me. No expression—I’m sure it was d-dead!”
“Nothing there now,” reported Slim Davis, walking along the railing and peering down deeply.
“It could have been sucked under the hull,” Bud pointed out, “or forced down lower.”
Slim added, “More likely we just left it behind. Maybe we should turn—”
Nee waggled a hand negatively. “Now now. Let us not be hasty. The story must be investigated with care. I have no opinion on the matter, of course. But let us consider that this valued passenger is—in a very moderate way—somewhat disturbed.”
“Couldn’t you have seen your own face reflected back?” Sandy asked Sam.
“If only,” sighed Bashalli.
“I know what I saw,” Barker insisted.
“You know what your eyes saw,” Nee insisted back. “It might have been anything, hie? A discarded mask, a sunfish. And we have not ruled out delusionality. I say this with respect and compassion.”
Tom had been considering the situation without speaking. Now he said: “There are no other boats in sight—except the ketch—but we’re near enough to the island for it to have been a swimmer.”
“A mighty good one,” retorted Bud, “with a real gift for holding his breath.”
“Still, flyboy, there’s no reason to conclude it was a dead body.”
“Hm. No, no reason,” Bashalli repeated with a dismal tone. “ ‘No reason’ but the fact that the curse of the Swifts demands this sort of thing. Danger and distraction pads along after you like a loyal dog wherever you go, Thomas.”
“Nonsense!” harrumphed Ruykendahl. “This is a marvelous stress-free interval on enchanting Boothnes Island, home to the South Pacific’s largest island golf course. As to this ‘face’ business, I shall of course report it to the Island authorities. No one of you need bother further with it. Now!—turn to the fore and enjoy the landing.”
The knot of passengers drifted toward the prow, but Tom and Bud stayed behind for a moment with Sam, obviously much shaken. “I know what people say about me, boss,” he said sullenly, “and I suppose it’s a little bit true. But why the holy heck would I ‘break’ suddenly like this, just standing by a railing?”
“I believe you, Sam,” said Tom reassuringly. “Whether what you saw was a dead body or not—it was something.”
“You saw a face, but—what about the rest of the thing?” Bud asked. “Was it a man or a woman? A Pacific Islander? What about clothes?”
Barker shook his head wearily. “What I saw was just a human face looking up at me. I couldn’t really tell the color of the hair or any distinctive features. Could have been man, woman, or child. But you know,” he continued after a pause, “I couldn’t see even a hint of the rest of the, the person’s body.”
Bud found this disturbing. “You—you mean it was just a head? Beheaded?”
“No, Barclay. It didn’t strike me that way at all. It was as if he—it—was standing upright in the water, arching his back to look upwards at me. See what I mean, guys? Like someone standing on the bottom...”
“Which couldn’t be true,” Tom pointed out. “The boat couldn’t make it across such a shallow stretch of water.”
The three ambled to the front of the boat and joined the crowd. In minutes the boat was maneuvering to slip into a dock on the blocky shoreline of the flat paradise. The sailing ketch had already made landing a hundred feet further down. Across that distance they could hear Brian Halfstern cheerily percolating, and the distinctive form of Chow Winkler, in his cowboy hat, was easy to notice. The cook waved at Tom and Bud. “Wait’ll he hears about our soggy starer,” Bud snorted. “A corpse!—jetz, Skipper, is there such a thing as an underwater zombie? The swimming dead?”
Tom just shook his head. “I’d rather think about that.” A wheeled crate was being guided down the gangway by one of the ship employees. “Though I don’t know whether Bashalli prefers me to work on my invention—or the mystery.”
“My guess is she’d much prefer you to work on your tan, pal. Incidentally, where’s our little Miss Sin?”
“Probably with her parents. They may have been on the other boat.”
“Say, maybe she was the fishy face!”
“No way, flyboy. She’d bob along on the surface.”
There were other vacationers, from many lands, already on Boothnes, as well as scientists studying the great coral shoals. Some of the town hotels were full-up. The Swift Enterprises party ended up divided three ways—no inconvenience in such a micro-sized town. Walking from one hotel to another was hardly more strenuous than walking across a hotel lobby.
The four Swifts, along with Bud and Bashalli, had selected a hotel which was—as was everything—next to the golf course and adjacent to an enclosed park for tropical birds. The two-story hotel, the Villa Gauguin, evidently copied a famous one in Bougainville. There was a veranda and a large tiled fountain, and everything was of wood or adobe. The place had a moorish-revival feel, a taste of the Mediterranean, some restful quaintness mean to suggest the vineyard countrysides of France. “This is surely wonderful,” declared Bashalli doubtfully. “Genuine it is not, but neither are tourists. I must take time to sketch it.” Bash was an art student.
Mr. and Mrs. Swift had their own room. Sandy chose to share with Bashalli. Tom had a big private room to tinker in, and Bud was next door.
Bud called his friend over. “Look at this, Skipper—gas lights! So... do you push a button to turn ’em on, or—”
The young inventor pointed to an instruction card in a frame on the wall. “Each sconce has some sort of flint gimmick that you flick with your thumb, like a cigarette lighter. And something inside expands and contracts with the temps, so the gas shuts off by itself if the flame goes out.”
“I’m sleeping better already.”
By the time everyone was settled in, the day had become late. The dispersed Shoptonians from the La Meridienne were called together by Mr. Halfstern to dine at a Polynesian-style restaurant and meet the “Constable-Chief” of Boothnes Island. “I welcome you all,” said the voice from the dais, whose name was John Jarismattis. “And I welcome back amongst us our friend Brian, who lives here two seasons of the year. As for me, Lord Oberaine has bestowed upon me the easiest job on Earth, for I head our little police force and in truth we have nothing to do—no crime! Well, now and then a cellphone finds itself snuck in amongst us, or a digital camera—but this crowd does not reek of such evil!”
“What do you think of this dinner, Chow?” Anne Swift asked the big figure across the table. “I don’t recall if you like this kind of food.”
“Wa-aal, ma’am, guess it’ll do,” replied the westerner uncertainly. “Been all around th’ blame world with you good folks, and I guess I’ve tried jest about ever’thing—even that Brungarian stuff, which jest about made me swear off eatin’ fer life.”
“And don’t forget Boris’ Russian dishes,” needled Sandy. Boris was Chow’s second in command at Enterprises, and the man and his works were little loved by Chow.
Chow snorted. “Boris, hunh. Cain’t fergit Boris’ dishes—they remind you all night long. Matter o’ fact, you’d be a dang sight better eatin’ the dishes and throwin’ out what’s in ’em!” Then he joined the others in laughter.
During dessert Dave Brogard, an Enterprises technician, wandered over from his shared table to say hello to his friends. “I’m over at the Elysian—with the Dillings and Jilly from the switchboard, Slim Davis, Sid Baker, whatsisname from the legal department...
“Anyway, we got to wondering about that family from the seaplane. They were on the ketch, but we don’t see ’em here tonight...”
“You might ask Ruykendahl over there,” gestured Mr. Swift. “But I doubt you’ll learn much. He just wants it all to go away.”
“And under the rug,” added Bud. “Half the words he knows is ‘liability’.”
“And the other half is the fascinating subject of himself,” Bash noted. She turned to another tablemate, who had been quiet during the meal. “Thomas, I suppose your inventive mind is processing all these peculiar things. Or is it your camera?”
“Both, I guess,” replied the young inventor. “Can you blame me? I don’t take what the little girl said all that seriously, but the seaplane business, the thing Sam saw in the water...”
“Yes. Oh, Tom, I suppose I’ll have to give up blaming you. Or anyone else,” Bashalli said. Her tone struck Tom as wistful and oddly serious. “You are who you are. How well I know it.”
Tom didn’t comment. He asked Dave if he had seen Sam during the afternoon. Sam was absent from the dinner. “Yep, ran into him at a watering hole an hour ago. Said he felt fine, but wasn’t in the mood for any elbow-rubbing.”
“One can hardly blame him,” said Mrs. Swift. “It’s like something from a nightmare.”
“I know what it is!” Chow blurted. It seemed he had been pondering. “I know what that there face musta been!”
Tom’s affection for his colorful friend kept his skepticism under wraps. “What do you think, pardner? You were pretty much on the mark with ‘Roanoke’—that Zero Minus business.”
“Shor was, son,” nodded the ex-Texan proudly. “So now, what I think is this—gangsters! Mafioses! Brand my cee-ment shoes, drug pushers ’r smugglers ’r slave traders are dumpin’ bodies in th’ ocean! Dead bodies!”
“But why here?” Tom’s father asked the cook.
“Cause it’s whatcha call iser-lated. Nothin’ else around fer a million miles ’r so, and ya cain’t even go snoopin’ down in th’ ocean b’cause all that coral stuff makes it off limits. See?”
“You know,” said Bud in self-surprise, “the Big Guy’s making a lot of sense, actually. Shady types use islands for all sorts of things—the Caymans, for example. Why not set up some kind of operation here on Boothnes? And if anybody gets inconvenient, you slough ’em off into the sea.”
“I can think of a lot of reasons why that wouldn’t be smart,” Tom responded, careful to give Chow an appreciative wink. “Then again, there are stupid gangsters.”
“True as truth,” nodded Chow. “They’s no one born who ain’t plain stupid now and then.”
“Absolutely,” Bud said.
“Whattaya mean by that, buddy boy?”
“Just agreein’ with you.”
“Wa-aal, knock it off.”
Later Tom accommodated Bashalli by joining her to watch the vast sea of stars rising over the golf course. As always, it was a stunning sight. “In a funny way it’s even richer, stars in the sky, than it is in space without any sky,” Tom observed moodily.
“Yes. Here, the stars are like gems on a cloak, but in space they seem stark and... inhuman.”
Tom grinned. “Inhuman? You must be thinking about that floating head!”
“I assure you I am not,” Bash replied. “Although it seems I might as well be—friend.”
Returning to the hotel, the young inventor made himself sleepy and relaxed by working a bit on his ocean-eye camera before going to bed. Something I never thought I’d do, he thought with a chuckle, inventing by gaslight! He slept soundly.
Next morning Tom joined his family in some casual touristing, wandering from shop to shop, all of which feigned a degree of humble quaintness marred only by the very contemporary prices of the items offered. “Bashi and I had a nice little conversation about you last night, Tomonomo,” Sandy remarked with a sly look.
“No doubt,” responded her brother dryly. “I guess I didn’t do something. Sometimes our Miss Prandit asks a lot of a guy.”
“The problem is that she doesn’t ask.”
In an emporium of coral carvings and knick-knacks, Tom made out a familiar voice somewhere on the far side of a crammed display of midget silk palm-trees. “Drinkable water here is, of course, very scarce,” Felix Ming was saying. “But they have sunk wells to tap a deep aquifer, and yesterday I saw an ingenious reservoir—on stilts!—that extends out over the ocean to catch rainwater. My revered ancestors in China did such things, clever things. Diverting rivers—floating islands—sculpted frogs that registered even minor earth tremors by dropping iron balls from their mouths! All with an artful perfection of form...”
Rounding the counter corner Tom found the affable Chinese-American displaying himself to a pretty girl with black hair and plantain-hued skin. She nodded every few words. But as the young inventor approached she smiled politely and walked away, murmuring something like: he tangata ke taua—“Such a strange man” in Maori.
Felix’s face bespoke resignation. “I had already begun before I realized she spoke no English. It would have been rude to stop.”
“Don’t worry, Felix,” said Tom with a sympathetic chuckle. “Plenty of these tourists speak English. Nee told us they get a lot of traffic here from New Zealand and Australia—the U. S., too.”
Another voice entered in, an elderly woman standing near. “Oh yes, yes, but those who live here all the time, the islanders—they speak many of the Pacific languages. Their English is quite imperfect. But I have studied Melanese and Fijian—very helpful when one wants something.”
Tom nodded. “I would imagine, ma’am.”
“For example, one overhears local news that never gets put in the silly local paper, the one for tourists. See those native men over by the window? Laborers; wherever one travels the local workers always know everything that goes on. I heard them speaking Melanese about, can you believe, something that washed up on shore last night. I think it was the body of someone who drowned!”
The young Shoptonian felt his crewcut head becoming all ears. “Really? That’s intriguing. Did they happen to mention where, or—what happened afterwards?”
“Oh, young man, I was merely illustrating my point,” fluttered the woman. “I don’t want you to think I’m an old busybody. I believe one of them mentioned the ‘Black Knife Rocks’ and the other said ‘by the big tank’. Anyway, don’t expect to find it in the newspaper.”
Tom returned to his parents and sister. “I think I’ll walk around with Felix Ming for a while—he’s feeling a little lonesome.” He then returned to Felix. “Would you join me?” Tom explained. “I’m feeling a little lonesome.”
“And, if I may venture, in the mood to scout out some rocks.”
“I have a funny way of relaxing.”
Asking around, helped by an island map, the two young men found the secluded part of the shoreline where, it seemed, some gruesome, gossip-worthy event had occurred. But the jagged black boulders, among weathered concrete blocks jumbled together at crazy angles, showed nothing of interest at first glance. The sea foamed up in the shadows of deep, narrow gaps.
“No—there is something there, down by the water,” Felix declared suddenly. “See over there? A pile of something...”
The pile half-pivoted on one hip and spoke to them. “There you are. I know what you’re here to see. And I know all about it!”
“FELIX WONG MING, allow me to introduce you to what a ‘Sincere Beloved’ looks like,” Tom said dryly, with a gesture.
“Oh,” responded Felix. “That’s the one.”
“I’m a one, any-whom.” Sincere didn’t rise but remained swiveled in a dry niche among the blackish debris, speaking over her shoulder. “I right-figgered you’d be comin’ along-a here, Tom, when you caught a breath of what came rolling-a in last night. I got my sources here on Boo, an’ they got big enough mouths for even blond-Yanks to hear.”
“Did you see—what happened?” asked Felix.
“Naw, Mr. Unimportant Chinese Guy. Who needs t’ see when you got friends to tell you about it?”
“All right, Sin,” Tom put in impatiently. “I thought you were just ‘playing-a’ around—but maybe you really do know something about all this. Are you ready to stop with the bratty hinting and start—”
She interrupted with a cackle that wiggled her mass of hair. “Yeah-a, the whole mystery-plot-adventure thing-a. Sure, mate. Things wash up on these shores, all round. What things? Opinion is divided, boay. I’ve seen a few. Maybe one. Okayee, none. But I heard.”
“Some men spoke of a body, someone who drowned,” Felix prompted, adding with sarcasm; “assuming you can penetrate my inscrutable Chinese accent.”
“Ooh! Hurt-cha feelings? Soddy.”
“Go on, Sin—please,” urged Tom.
“Surey-sure. What they snatch out of the surf look like they mighta been deady-bodies. But their outsides are pretty much gone. Look like soggy burlap bags with nubs where arms and legs and heads would be. Human bones, though.”
Tom frowned with thought. “Sounds like they decomposed—too long in the water.”
“And nibbled by passing-a traffic. Ocean gets hungry.”
“But the island authorities—surely they investigate?” protested Felix. “These deaths could be murder, maybe something like political executions.”
Sin looked away, hiding her expression. “Naw-one on this phony made-up island wants to push it. Bad for business. Mass murder makes the touries nervous. Some-a-few of my friends say the police guay, calls himself John Jarismattis—he’s-a-got hired eyes on patrol, snitchers among the Boothies, a special squad that comes runnin’ out to scoop up anything-a that gets tattled to him. Always say it’s what’s left of a shark or something-a. If you guays see one of those half-skinned fishies, go tell him right away—he’ll pay you to keep shut about it. Maybe give you a free extra week! Or if you’re a local... better keep shut real. Rumors of bad doin’, hm? Gone gone gone. ‘Moved away.’ Sure did, eh!”
The young inventor nodded. “I get it. And it sounds like there isn’t all that much to talk about, anyway. Just something tossed up by the waves. With bones.”
“What is your theory—Sin?” asked Felix. “As you seem to know so many things. What’s really going on?”
Sincere Beloved shifted her legs to face the two. Her taunting smile was gone. “The raw ugly? Don’t know, Mister. I saw’d that face in the water too, come floatin’ by the steamboat. Heard about thing-a’s like that. I think the skrushy bodies have deady faces even before they drinkdown too long. And after that, don’t have any face left a’tall-to-speak.
“An’ hear me say, the stinkers may not be exactly human after all, boays. Don’t s’pose your pointy white ears ever laid hold of the fweega?”
Tom asked her to repeat the word.
“Fweega—from old stories. Who knows who started it?”
“Some kind of spirit or demon?” speculated Tom. “Mer-people?”
“That’s too Euro-white, too fairy-a-tale. Here’s what my Da tells me, h’oke? Way down under the water you got yer Bad Dream Father-King, Uoglaui. Stuck down there since Big-God poured out the water from his hollow log—I’ll call it a log. When somebody drowns, sometimes Uoglaui takes three fishies in his hands and pulls the life outta them and clomps it together like clay, and then he stuffs it into the deady mouth.”
“The victim comes back to life?”
“Not human life—fish life. They can’t see or move—not-ting-a like that. Just float around down deep; looking-a up to where they was, trying-a to see, but they can’t see. Their human skin rots away, but they grow fish-skin. They just wait, until ole Bad Dream Father-King snaps his fingers, so they’ll rouse up and be his warriors to fight for ’im when the Five Animals come down from above the sky. Don’t-try ask me to explain that part.”
Felix Ming fell into a gulp. “By the Spire of Gold! Do people believe this?”
Sin gave a shrug. “Just sayin’. Da told me. The things—bodies—are called the Come-up-ers—fweega. One thing-a, though...”
“What?” asked Tom.
“My Da is pretty much a liar. So am I. Family trait. Can’t trust a one of us, boay.”
The blond Shoptonian gave Sin one of his spare looks of disgust. “Having a good time?”
Sincere Beloved giggled. “The story’s real, even if it izzen-not true. Ask your friend who saw that face—he’ll believe in the fweega, sure!
“And if you’re in the mood for something-a true, boays, maybe you’ll trust me just a taddy to point you in a nice direction. Aye-man?”
“Perhaps I will be foolish enough to indulge you,” said Felix. “What direction is this that you have for us?”
“Look on the cheesy touries-ee map in your hand. Northy end, right at the top.”
The engineer took a look as Tom waited. “Where it says ‘Devil’s Rockpile,’ you mean?”
“Yo-pah, righty. That’s the original piece of land, which ever’thing-a spread out from. Where the Boothnes owners live—His Lordship and Her Ladyship.”
Tom was looking over his friend’s shoulder at the map. “You must mean the section marked The Residence.”
“Yo-pah, Tom, that’s what they call it—big house, mansion,” Sin confirmed. “Not open to you fun-havers. Not even the year-rounders, ones who live on the island. Fence and gates. Out of bounds except by invite-ee.”
“So what are you suggesting, Sincere?” asked the young inventor. “That we should arrange to talk to the Oberaines?”
“Like that would ever happen. No-poh, what I hereby suggest is that you wander over seaside neary-by, ledgy flat place with grass, tonight—eleven, say. Keep shut and hide. You’ll see something-a, Blond Tom. Got a friend of a friend who says it happens always when the moon is pure-big.”
“What will we see? A fweega, maybe?”
“Who knows?” pronounced Sin teasingly. “Not me. I’m mostly liar, remember.”
There were no more questions and even fewer answers. The two trudged back into the touristy herd. “Strange child,” commented Felix Ming. “Do you think there’s any more than moonshine in what she’s saying?”
Tom could only shrug. “That head was real, whatever it was. And there’s a real whiff of mystery around the Engs. As for the ‘fweega’...”
“Nonsensical, admittedly,” smiled the Chinese-American. “And yet, boss—we did find such strange rumored creatures in the jungle.”
“Real enough to attack the junglemobile,” the young inventor conceded. “I’m torn about this stuff, Felix. The girls, my parents—they’re right, really. This is a vacation. This isn’t some scientific expedition involving Enterprises.”
“I would say, boss, it is what they call a gothic romance!”
Tom chuckled. “Can’t deny my curiosity—er, scientific or otherwise. Maybe tonight Bud and I—”
“And Felix, if you please. I don’t know if you’ll understand this, but—now and then, in a way—as a charming single fellow who nevertheless gets turned down—as if by a law of nature—I feel a need to demonstrate to myself my... perhaps I should call it my manhood.”
“I do understand, Felix,” said Tom with half-amused sympathy. “And you’re very welcome to join us.”
Setting a time and place for later, Felix went off to join his sister. Tom, thoughtful, strolled along the beachfront for a while until he came across a small group—his parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Dilling, and the assistant medic at Enterprises, Ralene Bell. “This’ll all make an interesting article, Tom,” enthused Dilling, who was, in effect, the plant’s publicist. “Swifts on vacation! It’ll humanize all of us, don’t you think?”
“I never realized I needed humanization,” Tom replied with a smile. “What’s up, Mom and Dad?”
“We’ve just been playing ‘coconut bowling on the green’,” answered Anne Swift. “I’m afraid we disgraced our country, though.”
“We were defeated by a group of Peruvians,” Mr. Swift explained. “College students on holiday.”
“I’ll have to try it. Have you seen Bud?”
Raylene Bell said, “I waved to Bud—he was heading for—what is it?—the Avia-quarium. It’s over next to the Oh Poi! restaurant.”
“He was with Chow Winkler and... oh, it was the pilot, Slim Davis,” stated Mrs. Dilling.
“Guess I’ll head that way,” Tom nodded. “Too nice a day to spend working on the meropticon.” He tried to sound innocent of all evil intent. Of course, they’d understand, he thought, so there’s no need to tell them.
“Are you making progress, son?” inquired his father. “Not that it matters, overly. It’s the Swift version of whittling.”
The youth chuckled. “Keeps my hands busy when I feel like thinking about something else! Yes, Dad, I’ve got the level-eight caliper setup working fine. Maybe I’ll give it an outdoors test tomorrow.”
“If Sandy and Bashalli don’t kidnap you,” warned Mrs. Swift humorously. “They both agree that you’re not entirely in the vacation spirit.”
It may get worse! thought the young inventor as he went on his way. But feeling guilty was, after all, a waste of energy on vacation.
Tom finally found Bud and the other Shoptonians in front of a quiche stand, spoiling their dinners. “Gotta try one of these, Skipper!” Bud urged. “Real man food!”
“Mightn’t quite put it thet way,” Chow commented. “But I wouldn’t mind havin’ it on my chuck wagon—better’n chaw. And say, boss... you seen any sign o’ them—you know?”
“Hunh? What do you mean?” demanded Slim. Chow launched into a vivid and detailed exposition of his theory, punctuated by waving his paper quiche plate.
As the cook held forth, Tom was able to pull Bud aside. “Listen to this, pal,” Tom said quietly. “Feel like some moonlight mystery?”
“You need to ask?” joked the San Franciscan. “What’s the mystery?” Tom gave an account of his conversation with Sincere Beloved—and the matter of the apparently human remains. “I’m all up for hunting mer-people—or zombies. But what’ll we be seeing up on land?”
Tom shrugged. “Beats me. She seemed to be hinting that this has to do with the island owners; maybe the island police. Some kind of cover-up.”
“These things usually end up requiring the latest Swift invention, genius boy.”
“Then the mystery’ll have to remain unsolved—the ocean-eye camera still has a few bugs in its big eye!”
Afternoon involved swimming, sunning, and lessons in group dancing, a kind of Polynesian square-dance, with Brian Halfstern as “caller.”
Afterwards Tom approached the avuncular fun-facilitator and spoke to him quietly. “Mr. Halfstern, I was just wondering... what happened to the Eng family? I haven’t seen them since we arrived. And it’s a small island.”
The man smiled. “It surely is! Concerned about them, are you?”
“Aren’t you, sir?”
Halfstern’s professional smile diminished. “Of course. The Island Constabulary—at the South Point Station, where shortwave communication is permitted—has already arranged for the Engs to be picked up by a commercial fishing craft headed for Caithness Island, the nearest landfall. They’ll be ferried to the boat when it makes anchor at the Conservancy limit in about a week.”
“I see. Caithness is to the west, though, opposite their original heading.”
“Ah yes!—the ‘Tom Swift adventures’,” said Halfstern. “Are you looking for your next mystery? A spot of danger?”
“I was only—”
“Please, Tom,” interrupted the other. “Why not do yourself and your friends a favor and turn off your radar for a few days, hm? The Engs are fine. Where they choose to go from here on is their business really, isn’t it? Even on this isle of abundant amusement and relaxation, one needn’t be sociable. They’ve endured a very abrupt and trying change of plans—to say the least.”
“That’s certainly true,” nodded the young inventor. “I was just curious.”
“Or perhaps, just perhaps,” Halfstern said, “you wonder about that poor pilot and the ‘mysterious’ crash. What you don’t know, and were not in position to see, was the presence of a medical doctor and licensed coroner in the chopper that brought us to the La Meridienne. He examined the body; the man clearly died of heart failure, the water impact throwing him against some sharp corner of the cockpit instrument panel. He was gashed; bloody, but not contributory to his death. If you don’t care to trust the word of an insidious person with a puka-shell necklace like myself, I’ll be happy to provide the number of the police authorities in Fiji—although—foolish forgetfulness!—I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until outside the no-tech zone, eh? Well, you’ll be off on your way to civilization in a couple days, wuncha be? Mate?”
Tom thanked Halfstern coolly and left for the next round of festivities—golfing, a sport he had no talent for. As he abundantly proved.
That night the youth dined with Sandy and Bashalli and the Ming siblings at an Australian-themed restaurant called the Ozzy Steakstravaganza. “I’ve had ostrich before,” stated Linda Ming. “It’s not bad. Tastes like chicken. These steaks—”
“I think even Chow would approve,” Bashalli said.
“Tom,” began Sandy with some hesitation, “I’m afraid to ask, but—just where do things stand with that floating head? Please don’t bother saying you—and no doubt Budworth Barclay—haven’t looked into it.”
Tom shrugged with a half-smile. “Maybe you should look into it, San—you’re the one who reads mystery books and identifies ‘suspects.’ As for me—no idea.”
“Mm-hmm,” Sandy pronounced with leaden skepticism, well-practiced. “By now you’re on the trail of something, big brother. I think Bashi and I ought to follow you when you leave dinner.”
Tom’s smile became blithe. “Fine. Why not? I’ll either take in the island sing-along or work on the meropticon in my room.” He didn’t mention that he would later be leaving his invention—and his room—behind.
Ten-thirty found Tom, Bud, and Felix enveloped in Pacific starlight, standing at the end of a little paved path in front of a gate of metal spikes. PRIVATE decreed the sign on the gate, bluntly and without appeal. A tall chain-link fence spread from it right and left. “To be honest,” said Felix, looking up, “I don’t care to rip my flesh by climbing either that gate or that fence.”
“Rather than demean your manliness by showing my prowess,” Bud retorted jokingly, “let’s head seaward along the fence. We can probably slip through if we don’t mind getting wet.”
“Fine time to be caught without a repelatron,” gibed Tom Swift.
At the end the fence extended well into the surf, but as it sloped down across the pebbly beach it turned reasonably climbable. After a few scrapes, the three were on the other side and heading along the periphery of a wooded area, obviously planted and tended like a big garden.
The glimmering sea was at their left. For a ways their open pathway was scarcely above the high-water line, but it gradually rose a bit. At last they were on a low bluff with a sharp seaside edge, still little more than twenty feet up. “This must be the original rocky islet,” Tom pointed out. “It looks like there’s solid rock under this fill-in layer of clay and gravel.”
“And bamboo, criss-cross, with vine roots woven in,” added Bud with a gesture. “I wonder if they get typhoons down here?”
“I do believe we are too far south,” replied Felix. “This is, of course, the southern temperate zone.” He still had a reservoir of facts that hadn’t been fully exhausted on dazzling various female tourists.
They had been speaking quietly, and now Tom, in the lead, urged them to drop to whispers. “We’re coming up on the open area marked on the map. A lawn on the bluff—a lookout point, with benches.”
“So look out.” From Bud, of course.
They edged right up to the trees, clinging to shadow. In a matter of a couple dozen strides the planted stand of trees curved inland, making a half-surround for a broad flat lawn abutting the drop-off above the sea. Split jagged boulders spired up from the shoreline below.
Suddenly Felix, the first to see, grabbed the shirtsleeves of his companions, who flanked him. “Look...!”
The starlight and moonlight flooding the open space was startlingly bright. The whole lawn seemed covered with a sheet of powder-blue snow. And in the middle, outlined in fleecy luminance, was the form of a woman in a diaphanous robe of some spectral material that streamed out behind her in the gentle sea breeze. Her head was bare; her long hair was gossamer, moving restlessly as she stood still, facing away from the Shoptonians, gazing out to sea—an empty, barren sea.
“Lovely!” breathed Felix. “Beautiful!” She was indeed.
But then the Chinese-American gasped. The woman was moving, striding forward with small, slow steps that didn’t hesitate as she approached the edge in front of her.
“B-by my ancestors!” Felix choked. “She—she’s going to jump!”
TOM AND BUD rarely hesitated, but in this case Felix Ming didn’t hesitate at all. He bolted out of the shadows and thudded onto the moonlit lawn, crying, “No! Don’t! Stop!”
The woman did stop, instantly. She spun toward the human missile, face concealed in her own shadow, then turned away and hastened toward the further perimeter of trees. The black shadows swallowed her up.
Felix had stopped. Tom and Bud skidded up to Felix’s side, almost knocking him over. “Felix,” panted the young inventor, “I think you might have overreacted just a little!”
“Yes... perhaps...” he admitted. “But—guys—I couldn’t help myself. I felt—taken over—by some superior force.”
“I’ve run into that force myself,” Bud declared wryly. “Not always to my liking.”
Felix became sullenly defensive. “Please, do not dismiss my feelings so... dismissively. My first sight... that is... she, she touched something in me. I was drawn forward, catapulted—the need to come to her side, to rescue her—”
Tom Swift had to smile. “This manhood-reassertion of yours seems to be going right along! But I’m afraid zooming to her rescue scared her more than she alarmed us.”
They were startled by a low, soft voice from somewhere among the trees and the quiet night. “I was not frightened. Why should I be? I only wanted to find a secluded place to get a look at you.”
Felix’s eyes tried to penetrate the moonless gloom. “Ma’am... Miss... I was only... I feared you were...”
“None of you three should be here,” continued the voice. “This part of the island is our private residence.”
“Please accept our apologies, ma’am,” replied Tom. “I’m afraid we decided to do some exploring by moonlight. The ocean is lovely from this overlook. We didn’t mean to disturb your privacy.”
“It’s all right. Who are you?”
“And I am Felix Wong Ming, who has made a fool of himself.”
“No,” she said. “It was very sweet of you. I’m—quite charmed. But really, I was not about to jump. There is no danger; that ledge rests upon solid rock. I come here often, to stand, to... to watch... when the sky is as it is tonight. I love the way the stars rest upon the darkness, so peaceful and comforting.”
“Why yes, yes it is,” declared Felix. “I have often found that true.”
“Then you understand.”
“I think we’re intruding, pal,” Bud whispered to Tom.
But Tom found himself wondering how this encounter explained any of the secrets of Boothnes Island. “I take it you’re one of the Oberaines, ma’am?”
“I am their daughter,” said the woman, still hidden. “Marysse Oberaine. Mother and Father want me to call myself ‘mademoiselle,’ but these pretensions seem awfully silly. Lord and Lady Oberaine! It means nothing.”
“You don’t need to hide, Marysse,” Felix said in a strangely frail tone of voice. “If I may call you that—?”
“Of course, Mr. Wong Ming. And if you shield your eyes a bit, I think you can see me—here, where I ran in. There’s a marble bench.” The three young men took a step in that direction, but Marysse said abruptly, “No—please. I’m not prepared to meet visitors. I’m returning to the house; there’s a little brick path through the trees. I’m sure you won’t mind finding your way back the way you came.”
Felix did mind. “But Marysse, if—if I—”
The voice was already more distant. “Perhaps we shall meet again... Felix.” That was the last.
The three trudged back, silent at first. Then, beyond the fence, Felix said, “You can say it. I know I behaved oddly and impulsively. It was as if she somehow... called out to me. Not at all like the others I’ve seen and, um, been interested in...”
“Stars, moonlight, and a warm sea breeze,” suggested Tom with a sympathetic smile in his voice.
“She was like a ghost.”
Bud spoke, as if in answer. His voice was puzzled. “I think I have sharper eyes than you two—goes with my head. I could make her out, sitting on the bench.”
“How I wish I could have, too,” Felix said. “I’m sure her face was enchanting. When she was standing in the light, her face was in shadow or turned away.”
Tom glanced across at his chum. “Bud, what’s wrong?”
“When she stood up to leave, she rose into—well, not light, but just a tiny bit of lightness. For a split second I saw her face, kind’ve... but Tom, Felix—
“It wasn’t a face! There was no face there!”
“Don’t try to freak out a Chinese romantic!” snapped Felix indignantly.
Tom asked, “You mean she was wearing a veil?”
Bud shook his head slowly. “No—or if it was, it didn’t hang out from her face. It must have been some kind of contoured mask that fit close from her chin up to her hairline. I mean, she—no eyes, no eyebrows, no lips, no nose—no nothin’! Just a pale oval-shape. Like an unpainted store mannequin!”
“I can tell you’re not joking, flyboy,” Tom said. “I guess that’s the connection Sincere was referring to—a floating face in the water, and now a woman without a face! What all of this could possibly mean...”
“It’s a mystery,” Bud added needlessly. “I’ve heard of losing face, but this—!”
“I will solve this mystery,” declared Felix Ming with grim determination. “I must!”
Back at the Villa Gauguin, they slept amid their own private jumbles of thought. Tom rose early and spent the daybreak hour working on the ocean-eye camera—allowing him to ponder other things as he worked.
After a breakfast almost sumptuous enough to induce sleep, Tom and Bud joined a crowd, mostly of Enterprises people, heading to a pier. “It’s about time we saw something of this coral reef, or shoal, or whatever we are to call it,” said Bashalli.
“I don’t see how it could be very colorful down under water,” Bud commented. “Not from above, anyway.”
“Mother and Daddy saw it yesterday,” Sandy put in. “The boat has a sort’ve deep-draft hull with picture windows on all sides and one in the floor.”
Nina Kimberley, an Enterprises team member with considerable nautical experience, noted: “As I understand it, much of the Boothnes coral beds lie pretty deep down. Since they don’t use electric lights, how are we to see it at all?”
“Just wait,” Sandy replied with a smug look.
“Is there such a thing as a steam-driven light bulb?” gibed Bud.
Arriving at the small pier, the ingenious answer presented itself. The boat, another steam-paddler, sported a number of flexible mirrored panels along its sides, atop swivel joints. A team of joking and grinning island teenagers were stationed on the roof to keep the reflectors properly aimed, using long poles. “Concentrated sunlight!” exclaimed pilot John Yarborough, joining them. “These island guys are real pros when it comes to gettin’ clever with natural resources.”
“Same idea as my—” But Tom’s comment was drowned out by shrilling from a group of youths in tee-shirts bearing the slogan MANILA—NOT SO VANILLA! in rainbow colors. In a moment the young inventor finished, “I’ll be gazing at the coral from up here while you’re all down under.”
“Yes, Thomas. Your invention.” Bashalli looked sourly at the wheeled crate Tom was pushing. “But you will join us this evening in dancing. Not square dancing. Not even round dancing. What is called close dancing. And by the way, that was not a question.”
“I’ll be there, Bash,” Tom replied, “with feet on!”
As the steamboat chugged away, Bud helped his pal set up the ocean-eye camera on a broad concrete slab that extended, atop the usual mass of heaped gravel and searock, a ways out over the low waves. Atop its adjustable mount, with its boxy chassis now fully closed, the meropticon resembled, on a small scale, an old-style television camera with several circular “eyes” bugging out from its front. Bud looked them over and said: “They really do look like bug-eyes, genius boy!”
“Those ‘facets’ you see are the ends of the lineator rods I’ve shown you,” explained Tom as he began making the complicated micro-adjustments for focus. “Each rod is actually a hollow tube with a huge number of ultra-thin needles running its whole length in parallel. In proportion to their length I think they must be the thinnest solid objects on Earth—much thinner than a human hair!”
“Those are the synthetic crystals?”
“Exactly, shaped and grown to specification in zero-G. You should see them under the leptoscope back in my lab. In micro-view the surface of each needle is covered with spiraling ranks of what look a little like scalloped ‘leaves’ running down the whole length, in a pattern with a sequence based on the Fibonacci series—well, forget that, chum. The magneto-polymerized connector stems—okay, that too—the point is that they self-adjust to stay perfectly in line. Absolutely straight! Natural crystal lattices are orderly enough to produce calculated light refraction or diffraction, but with this kind of precision we’ve beat Nature by two laps!”
“And all it does is just sit there looking—without any power at all,” marveled the flyer.
“You know,” Tom went on, “human retinal tissue is actually fantastically sensitive—under the right conditions it can respond to as minute a stimulus as a single photon! In using such faint incoming light as my camera deals with, the problem is to untangle the image-forming information encoded in the wavefronts, to get it to reinforce rather than muddle. Oddly enough, most of the work is done, not by the crystal needles themselves, but in the contoured open spaces between them which outline a hexagonal ‘photon corridor’. The setup uses surface effects to act as a rectifier-amplifier.” The young prodigy added that the basic approach had first been explored by physicists at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, who had succeeded in creating an optical system that emulated some of the photon effects of a black hole’s event horizon.
Bud noticed that his friend seemed to be speaking a bit rapidly. “Er, impressive as always, Skipper.”
“Yes—impressive,” said Tom, not glancing up. “Not everybody is impressed, though. Bashalli seems to think of the thing as a rival.” His voice was taut.
Bud found nothing to say. Tom straightened up and looked out to sea. “Before I make the final onsite calibrations—they’re pretty intricate—I think I’ll move the meropticon a little. This angle may not be the best. Let’s see...” The two moved closer to the edge of the slab, their faces caught in the dancing reflections.
A shadow flashed by Tom’s blond crewcut! It came from the middle of a fist-sized doughnut-hole of foam collapsing in the surf below. And it ended in a quivering shaft embedded in one of the potted palms nearby.
The two were too stunned to react—for an instant. “G-good—great—jetz! Rivalry is one thing, but is Bash trying to shoot the camera?—!”
“Get down!” Tom commanded. At ground level he hissed to Bud: “Speargun-shooter under water!”
Almost lying flat, they waited. Would the hidden shooter next aim directly at the meropticon? Or—more likely—were Tom and Bud the real target?
A few tourists stood looking curiously at them. Dunc and Diana Lawrence were among them. “Lose a contact lens?” Dunc called over.
Scuttling well back from the sea-edge of the overhang, the two pals cautiously rose to their feet. Bud approached the projectile. “Mm-hmm, from a diver’s speargun. I think I know the brand, too. CO2 cartridge—flee, sharks!”
“We may be doing the girls a favor by keeping away from them,” declared Tom dryly. “Great space, does somebody plan to make us the next floating corpses?”
A watching woman, perhaps Japanese, was pointing their way, amused and delighted at the show. Her several young children giggled. Tom nodded with a smile, then said to Bud, “We’re obligated to find that Constable-Chief, Jarismattis, and let him know the fish are starting to spear the tourists.”
“Or maybe the inventors. Skipper, couldn’t you use the camera to scope out the underwater scene? Look for some sinister scuba?”
The scientist-inventor-tinkerer shook his head. “I don’t want to get too close to the water just yet. I don’t want the meropticon smashed.”
They quickly packed away the ocean-eye camera and carted it back to Tom’s room, also taking the spear. Careful not to touch it with bare hands, Tom had locked it in the equipment case. “Now to hunt down what passes for the law in these parts,” he told Bud.
Heading toward the south end of the tiny island, they almost immediately ran across Dick Folsom and Lori Matthews, Chow following closely. “Hi!” called Lori. “Have you been to the ship replica? It’s a museum.”
“Interesting stuff,” Dick reported.
“Shor was,” added Chow. “And lemme tell ya, when a pair o’ Texans agree that sumpin’s right good t’ look at, trust it t’ be mighty good!” Chow came closer and said in a low—for a cowpoke—voice, “Took m’ mind off what’s prob’ly happenin’ back in my galley at th’ plant. Jim-danged Russian!
“And say, whatever happen to the two guests o’ honor, anyway? Hardly seen ’em since we got here.”
“Well, Chow, it is their honeymoon,” Tom grinned. “They may be spending a lot of time in that bungalow they were given for the stay, next to the trout pond.”
“I s’pose,” shrugged the grizzled cook. “But someb’dy should remind ’em that this here’s a blame vacation. They’re s’posed t’ be havin’ fun.”
“I think they know that,” observed Bud.
Tom and Bud walked onward, and in ten minutes they could see the Island Constabulary building ahead, with a number of bicycles and a pair of jeep-like vehicles—the only gas-engine autos on Boothnes Island. And on the nearer side of the front lawn stood the familiar figure of Brian Halfstern in close conversation with John Jarismattis. “I was coming to see you, Mr. Jarismattis,” Tom explained with a narrow-eyed glance toward Halfstern.
“Brian tells me you have some concern for the Eng family,” said Jarismattis. “I’m happy to tell you they departed just an hour ago, by sailboat.”
Tom eyebrows rose. “I understood they were to remain here for several more days.”
Halfstern answered. “Pure luck. A private yacht was in the area. They agreed to take them along to their next stop, the fine city of Darwin.”
“Good for them,” Bud commented blandly.
“I didn’t come here about the Engs,” Tom stated. He described the spear attack. “I have the spear itself locked up if you want to examine it, sir.”
Halfstern and Jarismattis exchanged glances that were hard to interpret. Are they laughing at me? the youth wondered. “Well now,” said Jarismattis, “this is unprecedented, to say the least. We have no crime here beyond a little drunkenness and pickpocketry. And, well, one of the bellhops collected undergarments. I’d tend to assume it was a matter of carelessness—some inexperienced visitor mis-handling a speargun.”
“If I accidentally speared someone, I’d probably surface and apologise,” Bud pointed out sarcastically.
“It’s only human to be embarrassed,” Halfstern counterpointed out. “Still, John, one wouldn’t want rumors to get around.”
“No. Rumors feed themselves, don’t they? Nowadays they show up on the Net. I’ll look into the incident, Tom, and one of my officers will come by to pick up the—weapon. Though I’m not entirely sure what to do with it, actually. Can one can leave fingerprints underwater...?”
“Don’t bother yourself about it, sir,” Tom said with a frown. “It hardly matters. We’ll all be returning to the Meridienne tomorrow, anyway.”
“Ah well, mate—plans can change,” chuckled Brian Halfstern. He pulled a small, square envelope from his shirt pocket and handed it to Tom.
The young inventor thumbnailed the flap open. After reading the message, he showed it to Bud.
The off-white paper was densely fibered, clearly expensive. The rose-colored lettering was embossed.
Lord Dactylus Oberaine and Lady Oberaine
are Pleased to Invite
Mr. Tom Swift, Mr. Bud Barclay, and Mr. Felix Ming
to Join Our Dinner Table at The Residence
This Friday Evening
Boothnes Island Evening Attire
WHO KNOWS WHAT’S TRUE?
BUD BARCLAY’S first thought was, Sandy and Bash will be annoyed at being left out!
Tom gave voice to his first thought. “We’re very honored, of course. But that’s the day after tomorrow. We’ll have left Boothnes.”
“It would be a shame to turn down this invitation,” retorted Mr. Halfstern. “The Oberaines sent a messenger and had me pay them a visit this morning; they do very much hope for the privilege of meeting the celebrated explorer and inventor. An intimate dinner, the five of you only. And as you have... questions... about the island—”
“Not an hour ago I spoke to Captain Ruykendahl. He is most willing to keep the La Meridienne in the area until Sunday midday—there are separate, shallow coral beds beyond the limit of the Conservancy for snorkelers and divers to enjoy during the interval. You three will be ferried to the ship on His Lordship’s own sailcraft on Sunday morning.”
“You two have had a pretty busy morning,” Tom declared with irony. “And us, too.”
“I’ll be happy to inform The Residence of your acceptance,” said the unctuous Mr. Halfstern. “And I can provide an assist in explaining exactly what constitutes ‘evening attire’ on Boothnes Island.”
“That’ll help,” nodded Bud, adding: “I was thinking in terms of something in wicker. Or bamboo?”
As Tom and Bud walked back into the thick of town, Bud said, “Pretty clear why those three noteworthy names got invited and not such other worthies as, say, Damon and Mrs. Swift.”
“Or the intrepid Nee Ruykendahl,” nodded Tom. “Marysse told her folks about the three intruders she met last night.”
“Are we about to be chastised?”
“Maybe locked up in the Tower of Boothnes!”
Bud chuckled. “But actually—I’m happy to show up for this snooty shindig. They’ll just about have to tell us why their daughter has that bewitching blank-faced look.”
“Probably. And it might be something not very exciting—some kind of skin allergy affected by sea spray, for example.” Tom fell silent for a dozen steps. “Two things are wedged in my mind, flyboy. First—what were we supposed to see last night? Why did Sin Beloved send us there?”
“Because she’s a bratty kid!”
“True. But... Anyway, the second thing is this. Just why was Marysse Oberaine there?”
“Well, Skipper—she said she—”
“I know what she said,” Tom interrupted. “I don’t doubt it, but don’t you feel in your bones that something isn’t being said? Marysse wasn’t just relaxing before bedtime. I had the feeling she was looking for something.”
“Something out at sea,” Bud agreed. “You’re right. The whole thing was strange—like Felix said, ghostly. Maybe Boothnes Island is haunted!”
The young inventor tossed a wry look. “Ghosts—that’s something my camera can’t see!”
Though this was no longer their last full day on Boothnes, it was for everyone else. After Tom had explained matters to his parents, with disarming if carefully limited frankness, he and Bud explored Boothnes’ many charms with the girls. Over the hours, during lunch, and through a hot afternoon, they ran into nearly all members of the Swift Enterprises travelers. “Guess I feel fine now, folks,” Sam Barker told them; “although I got cleaned out at a pool table by Ramesh Bol and Davis and Cherie Oakes.”
“We don’t know what you saw in the water, Sam,” Tom told him. “But me and Bud’ll be here an extra day. Who knows what we’ll find?”
“Yes, who knows, Tomonomo,” Sandy put in. “Let’s see now. Speargun attack—check. I know your camera isn’t the type to explode like your usual inventions. So...”
“How about a cruise missile?” Bashalli suggested.
“Such wit from Pakistan,” said Bud.
“Born of desperation,” the young lady retorted. “But we shall insist that you both remain alive and relatively ambulatory until the end of the dance tonight.”
“Er—let’s keep walking,” Tom said uncomfortably.
At the entrance to the petting zoo, the four came across Linda Ming, accompanied, to the right and to the left, by two young men. “Don’t we make a wonderful multicolored sight?” enthused Linda. “Polsin here is Danish, and Ulorngo is Malay. They’re keeping me company since Felix is in one of his self-absorptive moods today.”
“Some day the poor guy’ll absorb himself right out of existence,” Bud joked.
“Tell me about it.”
Tom noticed Billy a few yards behind Linda and friends. He was sandwiched as well, between two girls. “Looks like you’ve made some friends, Billy,” smiled Sandy. “Introduce us, won’t you?”
“Sure. This blond one belongs to the Danish guy. This dark one belongs to the other guy.” The young Enterprises employee looked vaguely disgruntled. “I’m just tagging along to mind the girlfriends, in other words. Mr. Border Collie.”
“Vacation romance!” chuckled Bud Barclay.
“Both words are somewhat disputable,” Bashalli stated.
Eventually they took time out for some volleyball, and to loll on a beach of imported white sand. Dinner, with the older Swifts and Chow, took place in one of the island’s many dinner-theater-nightclubs. “I’m afraid I’ve never heard of this man T’ho-B’ho,” Mrs. Swift said quietly as the entertainment plowed onward.
“Jetz, I wish I weren’t hearing of him now,” groaned Bud.
“Says he’s the most pop’lar singin’ star in Dee-jay-karta, whatever that is,” spoke up Chow. “That thing he’s strummin’—wa-aal, I don’t even want t’ call it strummin’.”
“Too bad you didn’t bring your guitar,” commented Sandy. “Er—you didn’t, did you?”
“Naw. Just my gun, Ole Mouthy. Never know.”
“No, pardner, you never do.” This set off a train of thought in the mind of Tom Swift. “I wonder what happened to our little friend Sin? I never did find out which of the crew from the ship were her folks.”
“Should be easy to spot,” Bud said. “Look for some Maori-Tasmanian types on their last legs.”
The night ended, as commanded, with slow dancing on the floor of what was billed as the South Sea’s Largest Dance Pavilion and Card Casino. The music was live—in fact, the band, from Australia, was quite good. “Now you see, Thomas,” murmured Bashalli as she looked up dreamily into deep-set blue eyes, “This isn’t so difficult, is it? It might even put one into an inventive mood, one might say.”
Tom smiled, but his voice wasn’t in it. “Sure, Bash. I always like dancing with you. Oh—there’s our happy newlyweds!”
Ritt and Dodie floated by. “We’ll never forget any of this—this wonderful wedding gift!” Ritt declared. “And symbolic, because—”
“Because it was at a dance that we first set eyes on one another,” finished Dodie luminously. “Of course that was right before I was kidnapped and tied up.”
“Don’t think I didn’t think of it,” said Ritt. “Er—that didn’t come out quite right.”
At last the big moon broke them all into their respective pairs. Bashalli made warm conversation as she and Tom strolled along. “So you’ll be meeting the local royalty while the rest of us are snorkeling—or something—back on the La Meridienne. Does it make you nervous? As a mere commoner?”
Tom thought for a moment, trying to answer honestly. “No, I’m not nervous. They’re just people. Still—I wonder if I’ll ever know what’s going on here on Boothnes Island. You know how I feel, Bash—about leaving problems unsolved.”
“Yes, Tom.” There was a sigh in her voice. “I do know that. I know who you are, what you are like, where you want to be headed in life. The problem-solver.”
“Is that bad?”
“No, Thomas. You are far more admirable a human being than any I have ever known. I accept you; it’s the price of admission.”
Tom stopped, drew her close, and kissed her warmly. “Bash, you know you’re closer to me than—”
“No, ‘genius boy,’ don’t say it. Don’t say a word until you know it is true, please. And... who knows what’s true? Who ever knows? On Boothnes Island. Or anywhere.”
Next morning the vacationers had a few hours after breakfast before being ferried back to the waiting cruise ship. “I have little shopping to do,” Nee Ruykendahl told Tom and Bud as they all left the breakfast coffee-bar, where alcohol and cigarettes were already flowing heartily. “Who would I buy for? I have no companion. Ek, the world is my companion. I don’t choose to lug around hats and coral figurines and paintings of whales. Who benefits from such rot?”
“But you’re more than happy to take people to places where such ‘rot’ is sold,” Tom pointed out dryly.
“Naturally. I serve my guests, and as it happens my guests are not always of the highest class. If they were they would not be traveling with Ruykendahl, I fear.”
“Got a point there, Nee,” said Bud.
“Nee, just for the fun of it, why not level with us?” Tom suggested pointedly. “You’ve made many stops at this island. You know the Oberaines, Halfstern, and Mr. Jarismattis. You must know what’s going on here—the decomposed bodies that wash up. What’s it about? Me and Bud aren’t international law officers; and anyway, I’m not suggesting that you’re personally involved. So—?”
“Hm! Hm!” sputtered the adventurer. “Still on about all that, hie? Very well. Yes, I know that mushy, unrecognizable ‘bodies’ wash up on these shores. I have seen a couple myself, with the eyes of Ruykendahl! It seems they are human remains of a sort. But when were they alive?”
“What do you mean?” asked Tom.
“You, young sir, my friend, are an exploit-haver—as am I. We wish things to be very dramatic and exciting and full of mystery, do we not? But Tom, there is no evidence at all that these remains belong to persons who died from drowning or some sort of foul play.”
Bud snorted. “Man, they’re sure not what I’d call alive!”
“No. Dead they are, and in perfectly ghastly shape as well. But I am assured, and believe, that there has been a thorough investigation by John Jarismattis, and by the national government that has jurisdiction over these waters. Do you know what they found within? Embalming fluid!”
“Jetz!” Bud exclaimed disgustedly. “They started out as corpses!”
“So all this is a case of someone dumping human remains—dead of natural causes, maybe, fresh off the slab—at sea,” pronounced the young inventor.
“So I am told, and so I believe,” nodded Nee. “Why alarm my vacation-goers with this repulsive matter? Does it add to the festivity? Let it go, let it go.”
Tom was troubled and unconvinced, but said: “You may be right, Nee. I suppose the Oberaines will give the same advice tonight.”
“Of course. And now—there are some preparations to make for the trip back to my beautiful Meridienne.”
The two friends walked back to the hotel, where Tom’s parents and sister were packing for their return to the cruise ship. “I don’t know, Tom,” Bud said. “I don’t think Nee is just talking through his captain’s cap, but it doesn’t exactly make any of this less weird.”
Tom agreed. “I doubt Nee buys the story himself—he just wants to get beyond the whole thing. It explains nothing, flyboy. Who’s dumping bodies? Why? Some sort of corner-cutting mortuary? The nearest islands are hundreds—thousands—of miles distant. Is there some selective subsea current that shunts corpses to specific locations? This has been going on for a long time!”
“And the story got undercut before it was even told to us,” noted Bud. “The spear business doesn’t fit at all.” But then the San Franciscan thought some more. “Or... maybe it does, Skipper. What if the target wasn’t our handsome heads, but your ocean-eye camera? Some nervous fish fancier might be very concerned about undersea scoping of the local corpse industry!”
Tom shrugged. “I guess Bashalli is right—trouble follows right along wherever I go.”
“Wherever we go, Tom.”
The departure of the two pre-tech boats took place before noon. Tom and Bud waved from the pier. The young inventor assumed Sincere Beloved and her parents were somewhere aboard among the returning crowd. But there was no use wondering.
Under Brian Halfstern’s tutelage, Tom and Bud, with Felix Ming, put together suitable evening outfits—neatly pressed slacks and pastel shirts, with high collars but without neckties. “Most comfortable,” said Felix when he met up with the others. “But—you two—your frank opinion—”
“Felix, m’man, you look as manly as a Chinese tiger in that getup,” Bud assured him with a shoulder punch. “Marysse will find you as irresistible as—”
“As the moonlit sea. To be optimistic.”
Tom cautioned, “We may not see her tonight at all, guys. But I do intend to ask some questions—politely.”
“Even exquisitely polite questions may be hazardous to one’s health, here on Corpse Island,” retorted Felix grimly.
As promised by Brian Halfstern, the Shoptonians were picked up in front of the hotel in style—by a horse drawn carriage! “I wish Sandy and Bash and Linda had been invited for this,” Tom commented. The enclosed carriage, emblemed with what was, apparently, the Oberaine crest, seemed a familiar sight in town, drawing many waves from both tourists and natives. “The Oberaines aren’t mystery landlords keeping to themselves in a castle,” Tom remarked. “I’ve asked around—they come to town often and are pretty highly regarded.”
Bud snorted. “I’m sure Dracula charmed the local peasants too.”
“My increasingly anxious ancestors and I hope you will maintain this lightness of tone at least through dessert,” urged Felix sarcastically.
Bud smiled. “I usually keep it going until I’m thrown out.”
Their first sight of The Residence, in the yellow light of fading day, showed it to be prim, proper, and pleasant—but not impressive. It was hardly a castle, just a three-story house of generous size, surrounded by broad lawns, flowerbeds, and runs of trees that, as the Shoptonians knew, could cast deep cloaks of shadow. Beyond the house they could make out a somewhat dilapidated stone tower. “The old lighthouse,” Tom remarked.
It was Lord Oberaine himself who opened the front door to them—a big, graying man with a cultured accent that Tom found not entirely convincing. The guy wants to come across as upper-crust, he thought wryly, but actually he’s a little further down in the pie!
Lady Oberaine, joining her husband, urged them into the plush living room for cocktails, both alcoholic and otherwise. “I am delighted to meet you,” she said to Tom as he half-bowed and offered his hand. “But please, let us set aside this ‘Lord and Lady’ business tonight. I am Lytia; this is Dactylus.”
Tom smiled. “I’ll try, ma’am. I was raised not to call adults by their first names.”
“I, the same,” added Felix.
As for Bud, “Back at home, I usually just grunted and pointed.”
“Americans are loved around the world for their easy informality,” said Dactylus Oberaine pleasantly. “You know, Lytia and myself are natives of Belgium—Flanders—but my ancestors were English nobility. But they had the bad fortune to ‘back the wrong horse’ centuries ago, and they were disenobled. When I purchased Boothnes from the previous owners some many years ago, I decided to revive my family’s ancient honor. Nothing official, you know. Just a bit of quaintness to give extra decoration to our old-fashioned theme.”
“The theme is carried through charmingly,” noted Felix. “Here you live in another era.”
“Was the tourist business already perking along when you bought the island?” Bud inquired.
“Oh, Boothnes has been a world resort destination since the end of the Second World War,” replied Lady Oberaine. “The previous owners emphasized it, though. Tourism keeps us afloat—so to speak. The fishing industry is dead, and coral export—not permitted.”
“But even back in earlier days, Boothnes had a small claim to fame as a place for persons seeking seclusion,” Lord Oberaine went on. “Between the wars, it was intermittent home to a number of artists, poets, writers—some with names you would surely know. Beautiful isolation!”
“Yes,” nodded Tom Swift. “Beautiful isolation.”
They were called to dinner by a server. As everywhere in The Residence, light was provided by gaslight sconces, oil lanterns, or candelabras. The walls were elaborately papered, and there were many paintings—some, Tom thought, probably by some of Boothes’ recluse-artists of older days. The table was large, the tablecloth was a striking shade of pale rose, and most of the implements were of polished wood, lacquered and hard as metal. “You may find some of these dishes a bit exotic,” smiled Lady Oberaine. “You’ll also find on our table, discreetly, some more familiar alternatives. Please don’t feel it discourteous.” But the three young men of Swift Enterprises were if anything experimenters and they enjoyed such dishes as Tasmanian wasabi, black truffles, leatherwood honey, and wild abalone; and from Fiji, preparations of taro and coconut.
“I’m afraid there’s no such thing as Boothnesian native cuisine,” joked Lord Oberaine. “I think the original lighthouse keepers raised sheep and pigs to eat.”
“I see the lighthouse still stands,” Tom commented. “Is it the original?”
“The real ‘original’ was just a very tall pole with a colorful pennant,” replied their host. “Eventually a powerful flame sea-lantern; and then, of course, electricity and a radio beacon—I forget the technical term for that system. Now we have signal buoys out beyond the limit.”
At the end dessert was served—a creamy froth with a saffron dusting. “From Papua New Guinea,” said Oberaine. “Though the saffron is from Tasmania.” Then came a strong Australian coffee, with cream from contented New Zealand cows.
Bud grinned. “A real global dinner! Bet you import the ice to keep things fresh from Antarctica!”
“Ice is delivered regularly to Boothnes,” explained Dactylus. “For a resort it is a most necessary import.”
“We have an old-fashioned ice-shed behind the kitchen,” explained Lytia Oberaine. “We live as the gentlefolk lived in 1890.”
“What a life,” Tom said with a polite smile.
“Yes, we love our life here.” Mrs. Oberaine’s voice seemed to fade at the end. Tom sensed the two wanted to exchange glances—but not then and not there.
“Now then, dinner over, let us do what gentlefolk do. Shall we repair to the smoking parlor?” suggested the master of the house.
“Oh, is it broken?” asked Bud. Lord Oberaine stared at him quizzically—and then his attention was abruptly diverted.
“Sir—ma’am,” began Felix in a polite blurt, “I—please excuse me if this is rude—but obviously you know that we came across your lovely daughter last night, out by the sea... and... we were all much hoping that perhaps she might join us. That is—may I invite her down? I ask on her behalf... for I had the impression she might wish to, to...”
His words petered out. Lord Oberaine looked at Felix Ming keenly with what might have been a slight smile and no reply.
“I must excuse myself,” said Mrs. Oberaine in a quiet, strained voice. “I do need to discuss a few points with Cook. Tonight has been such a great pleasure.” As the others stood courteously, she rose and left.
“Lord... Dactylus... we’re your guests and don’t want to seem demanding,” Tom said. “Of course, we don’t know if Marysse is even home this evening.”
Felix had further heartfelt blurting to do. “I would much like to see her.”
Oberaine stood. “Let us enjoy more comfortable surroundings, gentlemen. Follow me, if you will.” His voice was that of a man pondering something exceptionally ponderous.
Lord Oberaine was first through the broad dining room arch, followed by Bud, then Tom. As the young inventor passed Felix, the Chinese-American touched his sleeve and leaned close. His whisper was so low Tom wondered if he had heard it rightly:
“She is here—with us!”
What could it mean?—in a room otherwise empty?
THE UNSEEN LISTENER
THE THREE were led to a comfortable oval room furnished with a number of mannish chairs and tables. “I don’t smoke much, which makes me almost unique on this island of vacationers,” declared Lord Oberaine with a smile, “but I do enjoy the occasional cigar. Will any of you join me? No? Well, there is also brandy and—whatever you like. My chair is in front of a drawing-draft. Not everyone cares for the aroma of even a fine cigar, eh?”
They sat. Lord Oberaine lit. Then he leaned back and made a smoky gesture. “You come to me well-known— Tom Swift, a world celebrity, with your valiant companion Bud Barclay. Your habits of thought, your... intrepidity... are the stuff of popular stories, and they peep through, between the lines, in articles in journals of science. You, Mr. Ming, are not so legendary; but already I sense a good deal about you, the sort of timber you are made from.”
“Felix has great timber, Dactylus,” interjected Bud, because he was Bud.
Oberaine chose to continue speaking directly to Felix. “My daughter told me about last evening, of course, in much detail. You and your friends entered our property without permission, but what of it? We simply prefer to keep apart from our transient population of rambunctious strangers. It’s no large matter, nothing for you to apologise for.
“I take it, Mr. Ming, you feel drawn to Marysse—you, who will be leaving us after one more day. One day! She appreciates your gallantry, young man. She is charmed by you. But you have no idea of her circumstances.”
Felix had brightened. “She is charmed? Sir?”
“I’m guessing we’re being frank right now,” pronounced Tom Swift. “It’s obviously none of our business. But as you mentioned it, what circumstances do you mean?”
Bud said boldly, “For example, what’s with the mask? Pardon me, Dactylus, but I have an impulse-control prob. It’s chronic. Left my meds behind on Meridienne.”
“I enjoy persons like you, Bud,” said Oberaine. “I don’t mind answering these bluntly-put questions. Only a few people here know the answers; it’s an intimate family matter. We’ve asked that it not be spread about.
“As a young child our daughter was in an accident, a fire. She was badly burnt on one side of her face. Our island habits were much more open and modern then; naturally, we sought the best medical care for her, many surgeries performed by the most talented surgeons in the world. And indeed, they did a fine job.
“But there was a psychological cost. How could there not be? Even when it was physically possible for her to be up and about, she withdrew from sight. She would not allow herself to be seen by others. Riding in our car—later our carriage—she stayed huddled in the shadow, wearing the gauze mask designed for her. She stopped leaving the house—except at night. She made friends, but would not see them—her ‘social media’ consisted of notes and letters. Her mind exaggerates what she sees in her mirror. They call it a phobia of the self.”
He paused to puff. His visitors nodded sympathetically.
“That is the explanation for the mask. But there is more to her circumstances, Mr. Ming. Some two years ago she fell into a correspondence with a young man who had come to Boothnes to study the coral, as a great many do. Friendly discussions by letter became... more. The friendship went in another direction. This man, Kristian Larrin, was allowed to visit. At last she was willing to remove her mask. It made no difference to his feelings.”
“I—I see,” murmured Felix, eyes downcast.
Oberaine’s next statement was bitter. “Perhaps, Mr. Ming, it will please you to know that Larrin died in the course of his investigations of the shoals. He drowned.”
“Forgive me, Felix. All that matters now is that meeting a man, having an admirer—pain and memories. It is not a matter to be undertaken lightly by either party.”
“I understand,” said Felix, “if it is not too bold to think one can understand the pain of another. I will only say that, last night, Marysse seemed unafraid. It may be that my, uh, temporary nature is a good thing. She might find it helpful to see, briefly, someone who will be soon to leave.”
“In the U.S. we call it an NSA relationship,” interjected Bud. “No strings attached. Felix could be a sort’ve practice tee.” After a moment he added sheepishly, “They say this impulse bit gets annoying after a while.”
“It’s up to Marysse,” Oberaine said to Felix. “Perhaps indeed she will like to see you before you leave. We could send a note to you at your hotel. I wouldn’t count on it. But perhaps.”
“Thank you for indulging us, sir,” said Tom. “Our curiosity brought up some unhappy things.”
There was a pause. Oberaine ran down his cigar a little; the Shoptonians sipped their various drinks. Tom’s was pineapple juice.
“We did have a few things on our minds in coming here,” Tom ventured at last. “We didn’t know you’d be telling us about your daughter. We—”
“Yes. I know the nature of your questions,” the man interrupted sharply. “It’s why I was anxious to have you here. Call it my ‘impulsiveness’! I would not care to see Boothnes Island become a ‘mystery’ in one of those fictions. I spoke to Nee Ruykendahl before he left. I know what he told you. Shall we discuss this matter of the so-called corpses?”
“Absolutely!” said Bud. “—sorry.”
“Do you know where they’re coming from?” inquired Tom.
“No,” was the reply. “Constable-Chief Jarismattis has been in touch with Interpol and the like. Investigation of the remains gives no answers. I have heard only one theory. It seems that these days, in Asia, there is a certain secret traffic in cadavers—hard to believe, eh? Nameless corpses—there are always such—are bought and sold and, hidden in holds, shipped.”
“Body smuggling!” Tom exclaimed.
“For medical use—and in some traditional cultures, medicinal use. If you see. In any event, ships may founder; ‘spoiled’ cadavers may be dumped. Who knows? But the Qwou islands are northwest of Boothnes; cadaver gangs are thought to operate there.”
“I have to say, that’s a mighty bizarre scenario,” Bud declared. “I won’t joke about that one.”
“I suppose you’ve considered that such a gang might have a base here on Boothnes,” said Tom.
Oberaine resorted to his brandy for a moment. “No doubt you’re thinking of the speargun attack reported to me.”
“Couldn’t it be true?”
“I don’t deal in what could be true, Tom. There is not the slightest hint that Boothnes harbors any—”
“No!” exclaimed Felix startlingly. “I won’t permit this, not any more—this stereotype of the passive, helpless Oriental!”
Bud was as wide-eyed as any. “Er, Fee, pal... maybe you need to Zen-out for a minute or—”
The Chinese-American had bolted to his feet. “I will wait no longer for permission, Sir. I have the right, the right to—”
Felix stalked forcefully out of the room, into the tiled entrance hall. As Tom and Bud floundered up out of their chairs in astonishment and loped after him, they heard his pounding footsteps on the stairs to the second story. Then the footfalls stopped. “Marysse—!”
“Good gosh, Felix!” cried Tom as he jetted into the entrance hall. “You don’t have any right—” But the young inventor paused at the foot of the stairs, as Felix was paused on the fifth stairstep, standing frozen, gazing fixedly toward the shadowed hallway at the top. The only light was from the floor below.
“Come back down, Felix,” Tom urged gently. His friend complied, slowly stepping backwards down the staircase, still facing upward.
“Well! You have an unexpectedly ardent nature, Felix,” pronounced Lord Oberaine coolly. “Did you plan to charge right into her bedroom?” Felix said nothing and avoided his gaze. “But let us calm ourselves. Perhaps it is flattering. Marysse might take it that way, hm? She may yet consent to see you tomorrow—her passionate suitor, Felix Ming. It is her decision.
“In any event, perhaps our evening is best brought to a close. I’ll be told I was foolish to do this, to... bring you in.”
Something about the expression struck Tom as odd. Bring you in, his mind repeated. What had been the real purpose of the dinner?
Oberaine continued after a pause. “I trust these questions of yours have been answered to your satisfaction—and that you are all honorable enough to be discreet and considerate of our feelings and our privacy. Bonauku will pull the carriage up and take you home.
“Oh yes—our private sailboat will be waiting for you at the town pier, Sunday morning at ten, to take you back to the La Meridienne. She is named the Whisper. And now, my friends—goodnight to you. A most interesting experience.”
As they clopped back into town, Bud was the first to break the strained silence. “I was trying to make you look good by comparison, Felix,” he told Felix. “I, er—guess it didn’t quite work as planned.”
“Forgive me, you two, if I embarrassed you,” Felix said quietly. “Sometimes feelings become—like a tsunami.”
Tom nodded in the dark. “What did you mean when you whispered to me?—that Marysse was there with us?”
Felix took in a breath and exhaled slowly. “Bud has sharp eyesight—I have sharp earsight. All through dinner I was aware of... her. I could hear soft footsteps on the floor above... then a pause... she was listening! I heard her descend the stairs until—I’m sure she reached the bottom step, perhaps even came near the dining room. There she was, somewhere behind me, waiting and listening just out of sight.”
“As if she was there with us,” Bud said. “I get the idea.”
“But she wasn’t there when we left the room,” Tom pointed out.
“No. Just before, when Oberaine spoke of going into the other room, I heard her withdraw up the stairs.” Inside the carriage Felix’s face was unseeable. But Tom and Bud sensed its dismal expression. “As we sat there, talking of corpses, I thought only of Marysse. Something about her has a strange hold on me, I admit it. Then I heard her again, in the hallway up above—”
“Sorta blew your stack, hunh?” Bud suggested.
“All right, but—why were you standing on the stairs like that?” probed Tom. “Did you see something at the top? Was she there?”
“I—I burst into the entrance hall like a crazed fool and started up the stairs, seeing her standing at the top in the darkened hall—waiting for me. And yet—and then—”
“Good grief,” gulped Bud. “Don’t tell me she disappeared like a ghost!”
“No, Bud. The, the thing is—it wasn’t Marysse Oberaine after all. When she turned and hurried out of sight... the figure wore no mask. I saw a face I recognized, and—I was startled!”
“Whose face?” demanded Tom Swift.
“The girl from the seaplane—Courtney Eng!”
Though there was nothing to see, Bud found himself rubbing his eyes. “Then the two Engs left their daughter behind on Boothnes! She did seem a little annoyed with them, I guess. Maybe they had a family fight.”
Tom asked Felix: “But are you really sure? The upper hall was fairly dark, and none of us has ever seen Marysse’s face. From an angle and a distance she might resemble Courtney Eng.”
“I didn’t stand close to the Eng girl on deck,” Felix said. “And she was wearing sunglasses. But I’ve become—from sad necessity—fairly adept in recognizing the curves and lines of a woman’s face even when some of her features are obscured. I cannot doubt that the girl I just saw at The Residence was Courtney Eng.”
“Well... what could it mean?” Bud asked the intermittent darkness. “Maybe Courtney and Marysse are friends. But if the idea was a get-together here, it sure doesn’t jibe with what the Engs said about the purpose of their trip.”
“The Engs never gave a purpose, flyboy,” Tom corrected him; “just a destination. In fact—it strikes me how little we really know about all this.”
“What do you mean?”
“We know that a seaplane went down, and three people were rescued—and one body, supposedly the pilot who supposedly died of natural causes. After that—what have we really seen with our own eyes? How do we know those people really are named Eng? How do we know that waterlogged face Sam saw wasn’t a fake, to—to fake us out. None of us ever saw a corpse wash up, we just heard about it from a couple guys who might have been planted there in that shop...”
“And indeed,” Felix said, “we didn’t even hear them, did we. A woman came up and mentioned their conversation.”
“Yes,” Tom said. “Admittedly, it means that yakky little girl Sincere Beloved is part of it, spreading empty rumors—or actually elaborating on some dumb remark she happened to make on the Meridienne. Maybe she’s being used or acting under a threat; maybe her parents—and we’ve never seen them either!—are involved. Though why she set us up to encounter Marysse Oberaine in the moonlight...”
“She, at least, was real!” insisted Felix.
“Guys, that spear sure had a real point to it!” Bud snorted.
“Maybe just to scare us, chum. Better yet, maybe to add a piece to a bogus puzzle meant to distract us!”
“But why, genius boy?”
“Here’s an idea. To get us to waste time using my meropticon to hunt for deep-floating cadavers—rather than look elsewhere for something they very much don’t want us to find!”
TOM SWIFT worked a good deal on his ocean-eye camera during the night. His hands occupied, his mind was free, and he had a good deal to mull over. And at the same time he felt appropriately guilty, and chagrined as well. I can’t stop it, he told himself with a mental shake of the mental head. My brain just can’t manage to leave things alone. Like his famous same-named forebear, he couldn’t help engaging in the endless pursuit of knowledge, which often meant the pursuit of mystery. He continued the pursuit afterwards, as he slept, as he dressed, as he breakfasted.
This was one last extra day on Boothnes Island for Tom, Bud, and Felix. Felix Ming remained compulsively and anxiously inside his hotel, the Estate House. He hoped with vain desperation for a messenger and a message. There was none.
Tom and Bud went walking. Now and then they were crowded to the side by an automobile—for the ancién regime of Boothnes permitted steam-driven vehicles, and a dozen or so were in use by the permanent population. There was even a midget steam locomotive running along the eastward coast. “Toot toot,” Bud piped up. “So, Skipper, how do we spend this sunny day? Hit the surf, maybe?”
“Sure,” was the distracted reply. “Inasmuch as there’s no internet service, nor anything to connect to the internet with. I’d love to do some worldwide webbing on such subjects as Lord and Lady Oberaine and Dr. and Dr. Noashpe Eng.”
“Yeah. I forget the wife’s name—the girl had another name too, didn’t she? I don’t suppose Sincere Beloved shows up anywhere.”
“Maybe under sympathy cards.”
“For her parents.” Thinking visibly, Bud said thoughtfully: “Tom, I don’t think those two docs ever said what they were doctors of. Couldn’t they be involved in treating Marysse’s disfigurement, or—the mental stuff?”
“That’s a thought,” nodded the young inventor, who had of course come up with the thought well before his pal. “They may have been on their way to Boothnes when they crashed, not Pitcairn.”
“In a plane. The no-tech rules don’t apply to privileged guests of M’Lord.”
“I think occasional ‘violations’ are allowed off the south point area. And,” Tom continued, “remember another of those things we’ve been told but don’t really know. The Engs may not have left Boothnes at all.”
“All three may be upstairs at The Residence workin’ on Marysse.”
“We may never know, flyboy. Right?”
They had their morning fun and their lunch. As they rose from their patio table, Tom told Bud that he wanted to test out some new tweaks he had made to his invention. “The meropticon fulfills its basic purpose just fine,” he said. “It sees through things, especially through the surface glare of water. But I’d like to try it in much dimmer light, with a wider scope of vision.”
“The idea is to view the seafloor clearly over a large area, as if you were surveying it from something of a height. Even out to a mile or so in all directions.”
“Mm. Well then, I guess you’d need kind of a high vantage point, wouldn’t you, professor?” Bud elaborately rubbed his chin and squintingly looked about. “Hardly anything taller than two stories here. Church steeples?—too far from the shoreline. Saaaay, how about—?” The black-haired flyer pointed northward. “How about up on that thing there?”
“Oh, that thing?” Tom played along jokingly. “You know, I think—yes—that’s the old lighthouse tower, the one next to The Residence.”
“So it is.”
“We’d have to go there in the dark, of course, for a complete test. The camera should work by moonlight.”
“But y’know, darn it!—well, we’d be able to see right into some upper-floor rooms in The Residence. Hard to avoid it, Skipper. It’d be a real invasion their privacy.”
“Oh well. Not the sort of thing we’d do.”
“Certainly not, flyboy.”
“Around what time shall we not be doing it?”
“Let’s not do it around, oh, midnight.”
So the plan was set.
After dining with a group of young science-types he had chatted with—interns from the University of Edinburgh—Bud had the experience of working out at a gym lit by gaslight. Finally strolling back to the hotel, he met Tom just coming out a side door with his invention in hand—truly in hand, as he carried the meropticon by a handle as if it weighed no more than a briefcase. “Good night, genius boy, what did you do?” Bud exclaimed. “Get rid of all the insides and just keep the case?”
Tom laughed. “You know how lazy us inventors are. I slipped in some ingravitized antiballast, just like I did for the oscillotron. Now the whole thing doesn’t weigh much more than a cheeseburger! But you have to avoid quick stops and sharp turns—it still has all its mass and momentum.”
“Right, I remember. Say, did you invite Felix?”
“I decided not to,” said Tom. “This spy mission we’re not doing... well...”
“He’s a little distracted. In kind of an impulsive mood.”
“Yep. We’ve already got one Bud Barclay, chum.”
They walked, avoiding the larger roads, and however light Tom’s burden it was a long walk. Reaching the fence, Bud asked if they would hop it at the same place as before. “Let’s not,” Tom replied. “They may make an exception to the no-tech rule for security devices—especially since we’ve already breached their perimeter on our own. Let’s go along the fence in the other direction.”
“Okay. Felix didn’t want to rip any flesh going up and over, but I don’t care—it’s happened a lot.”
They went along for a few minutes and soon found a stretch where fidgetty tree boughs had damaged some of the fence. In seconds they were hastening across the Oberaines’ private property. “All in the cause of science,” murmured Tom with a chuckle.
The skirted the big house to the rear, which terminated at a rocky beach, then hiked up the gentle rise of the low bluff. The old lighthouse tower loomed ahead, weirdly brilliant in the shine of moon and stars. Some parts of its wall had a tumbledown look, but it still rose several stories above the landscape, even not counting the ruined summit. The door was of metal, as was the big padlock on it. “Not to worry,” announced Bud in a whisper. “Look—we can stretch to reach that busted window up there and hoist ourselves inside.”
Crawling in, they found themselves on a spiral staircase of rusted iron corkscrewing up into the blackness. “We really are in some kind of old-fashioned mystery story,” Tom joked.
“Don’t trip over the pirate treasure. Or the counterfeiters’ printing press.”
There were no more windows along the stair-climb, but at the top they encountered a trap door, unlocked. They scrambled up into a round room with narrow glassless windows on all sides. Blue-gray light gleamed through in shafts that almost looked solid.
Bud drew his friend to one of the windows. It was a straight eye-shot to The Residence, only a few hundred feet away. “No lights,” Bud observed. “Guess they sleep at night like normal people. Or bats.”
“Let’s try an abnormal way of seeing.” Tom unfolded and extended some positioning struts built into the underside of the camera chassis. Though unpowered, their foot-pads mechanically anchored themselves to the old wooden floor by hand-pumped suction. After the usual several minutes of intricate adjustment, Tom said: “Okay. Let’s see what we can see.” He pressed his forehead against the flexible visor that circled the eyepiece, its durafoam-Tomasite material contouring itself to his head.
“So?” asked Bud anxiously.
Tom pulled back, discouraged. “What little photon-energy gets into—and back out of—the solid walls just isn’t enough for the crystals to co-lineate. Let’s see if I can make something out through the windows.”
Most of the second and third-floor windows had closed shutters, probably of wood. The meropticon could penetrate the wood. But at their distance Tom could only make out tiny, dim shapes within. “But over there—a double window. It might have drapes.” The young inventor tried again, turning more of the minute thumb-wheels on his device. Success! “Getting a pretty good look into that room!”
“Let me look, Skipper!” The image was as if the room were brightly lit by a shadowless light. But it was very small—the meropticon was not a telescope and did nothing to eliminate the shrinkage of distance. “Guess my sharp gray eyes aren’t any more useful than your blue ones. And I’m only seeing through the part of the wall where the window is. Furniture.”
They tried a few more spots with equally scant results. “So much for the spy part of this mission,” Tom said. “But at least we can do the science part. Let’s move the camera and take a look at the seafloor.”
Poking through a window-slot on the opposite side and angling down slightly, the meropticon gazed deeply into the waters that surrounded the north end of Boothnes Island. It was an amazing sight that wrought gasps from the mouths of the watchers! “Jetz, look at that coral!” Bud exclaimed, taking his turn as Tom beamed proudly. “It’s not just that you made the water invisible—the colors! Who needs a Swift Searchlight?—!”
Before their eyes a rolling subsea plain stretched out in all directions, cloaked in a weird landscape of billowing coral in sheets, layers, and gentle dunes. The hues were sharp and vivid. “We poor humans aren’t used to seeing that combination of colors and textures laid out over such a distance,” Tom told his pal. “Even the fish wouldn’t see it like that.”
“Good grief,” breathed the Californian softly. “A new sight—a new kind of sight.” He drew back from the binocular eyepiece and glanced at Tom. “Unless maybe the fweega can see it!”
The young inventor’s voice was disdainful. “Let’s not talk about Sin’s ‘fweega,’ flyboy. Let’s try to spot some nocturnal sea-dwellers. But even sharks and dolphins are likely to be too distant to really make out.”
“Not to mention goldfish.” Yet in less than a minute Bud called Tom over to take a look. “I am seeing a few sub-swimmers down by that pink outcropping right of center. Can’t make out what they are, though.”
Tom looked, turning and re-angling the camera slightly. “I see ’em.”
“Little wiggly guys. Eels, maybe.”
Flicking on a cigarette lighter—omnipresent in the shops of Boothnes Island—Tom studied the numerals on a mechanical “range finder.” “No—not eels. They’re bigger and more distant than it seems. A good-sized school of them, traveling in line...” Suddenly Tom looked up, eyebrows raised. “Bud—”
Bud half-groaned—yet hopefully. “Mermaids? Sea serpents?”
Tom looked again, trying for a long minute to make sense of what he saw. “Out of sight now, behind a coral shelf. Pal, I’m sure those things are human sized!”
“Jetz! Fweega on patrol!”
“I’m not leaping in that direction, Bud. Their ‘wiggling’ could have been kicking legs and arm-swings.”
Tom nodded. “A bunch, working the midnight shift. Probably just a ‘school’ of marine scientists from the island studying the coral and its inhabitants. I don’t know that observations have often been made at night. Interesting research in unusual conditions.”
“Mm-hmm.” Bud had a further point to make: “Scuba divers. With spear guns, maybe?”
There was no reply—because the reply came from the outside. The yelps and howls of dogs!
“We’ve been found out!” Tom grated. “And I don’t think rifles count as high tech on Boothnes Island!”
THE EMPTY SEA
A GLANCE out one of the landward windows revealed a pair of hounds bearing down on the lighthouse, following the course Tom and Bud had taken. They were unleashed. Trotting along some distance behind the pack were two figures. One seemed to be carrying a dimmed-down lantern.
“Your call, Tom,” whispered Bud. “Have I ever told you my skin’s allergic to teeth?”
Without thinking—or rather, with thoughts on more pressing matters—Tom unstuck and folded-up his ocean-eye camera. “Nobody takes this baby out of my hands!”
“I don’t suppose we can ride the thing through the air—?”
They crouched down to the floor, risking only a peek now and then. The ragged sounds came closer. “They’re at the base of the lighthouse,” Tom said into Bud’s ear.
Between the growls and yelps, they made out voices forced to be louder than their owners may have wished. “What? No. I don’t know—”
“—lock’s not cut off. They couldn’t—”
“—if they backtracked, or—”
“—off the property by now—”
At last the tumultuous mini-mob of man and beast struck off in a new direction. Standing cautiously, Tom used the meropticon to survey the grounds, its science cutting through trunks and foliage and turning deep shadows to daylight. “They’re off toward the east edge,” he reported. “I don’t see anyone else.”
They exited the tower as they had entered, this time heading for the point of access to the property on the west-facing beach that they had used the other night. Now and then they heard distant howls, but soon enough they were beyond the fence and trudging into town. A steam-bus of merry-makers chugged past them, singing. Fun never slept on touristy Boothnes Island.
“They can’t be certain who came over the fence, whatever they might suspect,” Tom pointed out. “Know something? I’m not so sure I care all that much about the Oberaines and their mysteries, flyboy. I just want a few hours sleep—and to leave this stupid tourist trap!”
“Consider the motion seconded, mister chairman.”
In their rooms, finally on the edge of sleep in their beds, both young men realized that the third member of the left-behind trio might feel differently. At breakfast, Felix Ming listened expressionlessly to the adventure of the night. “I’ve considered simply remaining here,” he said sadly. “I think, perhaps, my destiny is here, my happiness, the life I was meant to live. Mock me if you wish, fellows. It doesn’t matter.
“But, for the honor of my family, I must think also of my duties to Linda. It seems wrong to simply bail out in this way. No—I will return to the Meridienne and continue the trip. But when we return to Australia I shall not be boarding the Sky Queen. I shall book passage here—that is, if I harbor any hope.”
“I’m not joking about it, Felix,” Bud said feelingly. “We all have... something... to find in life. Don’t we? Maybe this is yours.”
“Even if she hasn’t sent for you, you could still send her a letter,” suggested Tom.
“Posted one hour ago,” nodded Felix. “Composed with great care over a long night.”
Wanting to be sensitive, the young inventor nevertheless felt compelled to note: “Really, a lot in your life hangs on the sentiments of someone whose face you’ve never seen—and who only spoke a few words to you, Felix.”
“It doesn’t matter how few the words were,” Felix replied. “It was her voice that told me everything.”
Ten was drawing near. The three had had their baggage sent on ahead to the ship—except for the meropticon in its wheeled case. “Call it a sentimental attachment,” Tom told his companions dryly.
“It seems Boothnes Island breeds sentiment,” Felix said.
Bud added, “Better that than mosquitoes.”
The Oberaines had a private pier well north of the public pier area. The Shoptonians had seen the Lordly sailcraft, the Whisper, several times during their stay without realizing its significance. It was a handsome and modern forty-foot masthead sloop.
As they approached, they were greeted by their skipper. “Jemmy Ochs, Mr. Swift. I’m a proud Manxman—Isle of Man, chu know. Ah, but this big bush o’ red hair up on top o’ the mountain—” He doffed his cap to illustrate. “—that’s the gift o’ me mother, from Penneyfee, Ireland. So I call m’self Irish most o’ the time.”
“Have you worked for the Oberaines a long time?” Tom asked the agile, sunburnt sailor.
He shrugged. “Long time? What’s long, mate? The sea, the sea—goes on and on, dunnit? No time, just days and nights and one big horizon. All there is.”
“You have the poetic view of life,” observed Felix.
“Meh, I’m chust a bloke. Love me the salt and the foamy.”
Everything stowed away, sun burning brilliant, the Whisper pushed off, Ochs assisted by a Polynesian, Moako, who busied himself with his tasks and spoke little. “I think I enjoyed Boothnes more than you two did,” Bud said, lounging shirtless on a deck chair. “I managed to work in just about everything. Even got to break into a lighthouse. I’m satisfied—though I wish I had my digital miniflash. Do they still have places that develop real film these days?”
“Swift Enterprises has everything—somewhere or other,” Tom joked.
Short-statured Boothnes slowly sank away, the last bit being the top of the lighthouse. Leaving Bud and Felix to their relaxations, Tom approached the prow and stood near Ochs. “Jemmy, I don’t want to pry...”
“Butcher gunna, aye mate?”
Tom laughed. “Sure am! I was just curious—we happened across a few stories about the island—and the Oberaines—”
“Aye, thar Lordships—loovely people, Mr. Swift. Pay well, allus p’lite. My kind.” The man seemed entirely sincere.
“Yes,” agreed the young inventor. “My friends and I had dinner at The Residence the other night.”
“Yea, so I’m told. But let’s get down in the crackies, eh?—what’s got your curiosity up?”
“There was a rumor about human remains floating up on the shore. Just talk?”
For a long moment Ochs seemed about to refuse answer. “Wal now. Guess you mean th’ drownees, hm? That’s what we call ’em, fella.”
“Have you seen any yourself?”
“Found one!—I’m th’ bloke who reported it in, to the Constabulary. Kind of a rule about it. Mustn’t let it get around to our visitors. But as you’re outbound anyway...”
“Jemmy, just what’s going on?” Tom asked. “I was told it probably had something to do with traffic in cadavers.”
“War ye now.”
“Man like me, don’t much care t’ ask too many questions. No need. Why be curious?” He made a broad horizon-spanning gesture. “That’s all the answer a bloke needs, all that out there. Answer t’ ever’thing.””
Tom decided on a different tack. “The scientists, the ones studying the coral—”
Ochs laughed. “That crowd! So many ye can’t count ’em. Young and old, every blime color o’ the rainbow. Year after year.”
“I wondered—I’m a scientist myself, you know—”
“G’blimey, everyone knows what you do! ‘Tom Swift’!”
“Er, yes.—Do the divers ever go out at night to do their research?”
“Nightside?” The seaman knuckled his forehead. “I s’pose they do. Never thought much about it. Why? Seen lights in the water?”
“I happened to see something off in the distance,” Tom replied. “Just last night. It seemed like a whole team of deep-divers.”
“I just thought it must be difficult to work at night.”
“Imagine it is.”
Ochs seemed to be waiting patiently for Tom’s next question, even as his eyes were on the horizon ahead. And Tom did have another. “Since you’ve been on Boothnes for quite a time, Jemmy—have you run across a little girl, from the Meridienne, named—”
Ochs half-smiled. “Pay-koolar, idden she? Sin Beloved, calls herself. Comes in with th’ ship—mother’s a cook or something, dunno. Bet she’s whar all these questions o’ yours are comin’ from, eh?”
Tom had to grin. “Some of them.”
“Don’t know what’s th’ use o’ that one, mate. Runs her mouth like a outboard motor! Giggles. Spect she fell outta her mom smack on ’er fawzzy head!”
“But one thing she said... Because of Sin, we ended up meeting...” The Shoptonian paused. He had promised discretion; how much should he say? “I hadn’t realized that the Oberaines have a daughter.”
“Yea, Marysse, their fine little lady.”
“Ever met her?”
“Naw, naw,” said Jemmy with a headshake. “No one meets her. Keeps herself out o’ sight—problem with her face. Wears a white thing over it, see. Too bad. And say now, Tom—there’s a mystery for ye,” he went on. “Thinkin’ on it now...”
“Mayhaps in a way. Not so much the accident—years ago—not even so much what she wears over her face. But she met a fella, loovely love, all set t’ marry. An’ what then but he goes out in his scuba and gets himself all drownded! Sad thing.”
“Was there something odd about his death? Something mysterious?” Tom asked.
“Wul now, what I’m thinking on is what happened afterwards,” replied the sailor. “This place, Boothnes—always had the gimmick of bein’ old-fashioned. Tourists like it. But it’s just a few yars ago we still had telephones and electric lights and all such things. We war just what they call quaint—see? Just that. Then right after this man Kris was lost, big big change. Pull’t the plug, if you see. Oberaines got it all written into some contract with the coral protectors, UN committee, sea law—don’t ask me, bloke. But the base-bottom is, no more electrical stuff. Not one thing. No TV, no computers, not even signal-nav for this boat o’ theirs. Not even diesel ’r petrol motors. Steam only!—or pure sail wind. Fanatical about it.”
“All of a sudden,” Tom mused. “What do people make of it?”
“Meh, not much. Mayhaps just the owddity of rich people. Or some say, the girl, Marysse, got some quare idea about science and electricity and modern things, see?—blamed it for the fella’s death. Stupid notion. But that’s what we got now, since then, by royal decree. Eh?”
Jemmy Ochs startled Tom by abruptly turning away and striding over to his assistant on the far side of the deck. Question period over! thought the young inventor wryly. He returned to his friends, more puzzled than when he had left them.
“Wonder how the Black Cobra spends his vacations,” Bud murmured languidly.
“For me, friends, this is less a vacation than a revelation,” commented Felix.
Tom sighed. “If there are scientific heroics to be performed, I don’t know what they are. Not much I can do for these ‘drownees’ of Ochs’. Good luck to the Engs if they can help Marysse Oberaine. And nobody seems to need rescuing.”
“Perhaps I do, boss,” said Felix quietly.
Each in his own way, they gazed at the blue blankness of the Pacific for a time. But presently a twinge of nervousness began to make itself felt. Bud expressed it first. “Skipper, shouldn’t we have reached the Meridienne by now? Or be able to see it, at least?”
Tom nodded Bud’s way. “Seems like it. Then again, remember that they’ve moved on, away from the Conservancy perimeter. Nee planned to anchor near some of the minor coral beds, for diving.”
Yet as the minutes accumulated, the sea remained empty. Glancing across the deck, Tom read concern on the faces of Ochs and his mate. He approached and asked the captain, “About when do you expect us to reach the ship?”
The man didn’t look at his passenger but frowned at the blankfaced horizon. “Not long.”
Not long stretched into fifteen minutes, then twenty. Tom approached again. “I’m sorry, Jemmy, but I need to know exactly what’s happening. Something’s wrong. Are we off course?”
“We are not,” responded Ochs. “The compasses do their duty, the charts show their pertinacity. We are whar we ought to be—even rather furth’r along on the same heading.”
“And the La Meridienne?”
“Ruykendahl has decided to indulge his passengers with some fool side trip!” he snapped. “And what’s he expect me to do about it? He can use his radio now, shor yea he can, but has he fergat that the Whisper don’t have one at all?”
The sloop soon swerved from its set course, sweeping back and forth in an expanding oval, tacking for and against the sea wind, crossing horizons. The sun passed its zenith and began its long, slow fall. But nothing showed itself in its brilliant light. The Meridienne was gone!
DARK IN ALL DIRECTIONS
SOMETHING tumbled Damon Swift out of sleep—a polite beeping that became more insistent, like an alarm clock feeling neglected. Saturday, their first full day back aboard the La Meridienne, had consisted of fleeting but crowded hours. Nee Ruykendahl had up-anchored the day previous, when the Enterprises guests had returned. Now the ship rested some miles beyond the Conservancy border. At least a few of the things a scientist and CEO might want were available again. He had spoken to Shopton briefly by short-wave, smilingly turning the mike over to Chow for a report on the meal situation from engineer Art Wiltessa, known to be a blunt-spoken realist. Then Tom’s father had concluded communications by assuring Harlan Ames that Dodie was still sparkling.
Beep beep beep beep!
“Darling, could you shut the alarm off, please?” murmured Mrs. Swift.
“I don’t—I—it’s not the alarm...” But what was it, exactly?
It was the phone next to the bed. “Um—hello—this is Damon Swift.”
“Yes yes!” said Nee Ruykendahl impatiently. “It is because you are Damon Swift that I called you!”
“What time is it, Ruykendahl?”
“A quarter past eternity! Please come up on deck, Damon, toward the prow. Dress if you need to. Casual attire is acceptable. But I require your opinion!”
“My opinion? In the middle of—”
“Exactly!—in the middle of! You are the chief of all these scientists. Something scientific is happening!”
As he threw on a semblance of clothes, Mr. Swift recounted the fragmented call to his wife. “If it’s ‘something scientific,’ Damon,” said Anne Swift, “I’m coming with you. I’m a scientist too, you know.”
“You’re right, dear. It surely could be a problem in molecular biochemistry.”
They arrived up on deck. Scarcely glancing out at the darkness of night, they sought out Nee Ruykendahl, standing with a half-dozen of his crew. All were waiting silently. “Well? Well, Damon?” demanded Ruykendahl.
“Well what?” retorted Tom’s father. “What do you want?”
“Pfah! Look about you, man!” The South African gestured toward the sea, away from the ship. “If you see more than the eyes of Ruykendahl, do let me know.”
“Is there something in the water?” asked Mrs. Swift, following her husband to the deck railing.
“Something’s...” But Damon Swift was too perplexed to go on—by what he saw, by what he didn’t see.
There was no moon. No stars. No horizon. No ocean!
Only darkness wherever the eye directed itself.
“A weather condition?” Swift turned to the captain. “Has some kind of fog rolled in, Nee?”
“No weather I’ve ever seen!” declared a crewman.
“I am called up on deck—this is what meets my eyes!” huffed Ruykendahl. “I am informed—by certain soon-to-be-former members of my crew who chose certain recreations over their duty to the ship—that this black somethingness appeared while they were busy looking elsewhere, about twenty minutes ago. No warning. Nothing on radar. No great wave, no jostling of La Meridienne, no lightning. We are still afloat. But lean over, Damon, Anne—look down at the water.”
The Swifts looked. There was little to see. The water reflected the lights of the ship as usual, but it was weirdly calm, virtually waveless. “We are being calmed to death!” exclaimed Ruykendahl. “The ocean is no longer the ocean.”
Anne Swift was as fascinated as her husband, and in her own quiet way excited by strange possibilities. “There’s no wind, not even a little breeze. The air smells dank to me. But there’s no mist in the air that I can see. Damon—I don’t know how it could be possible, but I think we’re inside something!”
Mr. Swift nodded. “It surely seems that way. Nee, you know this part of the Pacific. Is there anything, anywhere—some sort of huge floating drydock—”
“Ridiculous!” snapped the man. “Besides which I already thought of it. How could anything be huge enough to swallow-up this entire ship? How could it have been concealed from the world? Satellites! Satellites are always watching, are they not? Your outpost in space is always up there.”
“This far south the angle’s bad. But I have to agree. Some kind of ship-eater is too fantastic.”
Anne touched her husband’s arm. “It might be invisible. Tom has inventions that create one-way invisibility.”
“Yes, or a camouflage effect.” Mr. Swift asked Nee to have some of the deck spotlights swung about, to send their beams into the encompassing blackness.
“Tried that first thing,” grumbled one of the crewmen. “Well, you’ll see.”
The beams created hazy spots on what was evidently a surface of some kind—a more or less transparent surface, as the beams could be seen continuing beyond it, weakly, for some distance. The beams were swung up and down, side to side, and the outline of the phenomenon became apparent. “All right,” Mr. Swift said. “We have a semi-transparent, strongly reflective surface about one hundred feet off the starboard side of the Meridienne...”
“Same on all sides, sir,” called a voice. “Front and back, too—even straight up!”
“The surface is perfectly smooth, no gaps or projections that I can see. It curves around and over the ship, in the manner of a cylinder.”
“Like an egg!” Ruykendahl spat out.
“I’d say cocoon,” was Mrs. Swift’s contribution. “It’s like a gigantic cocoon of glass.”
“Evidently with enough water trapped inside to keep the ship afloat.” But after a thoughtful pause, Mr. Swift added: “Well, that’s just an assumption. The covering may not continue below the surface of the water. It may just barely touch—but enough to stifle the ocean waves.”
There was no reply. Mr. Swift glanced over toward Ruykendahl and his men. There was some unheard muttering going on. “Is there something else?” asked Damon Swift.
Nee Ruykendahl’s face assumed a sulky mien. “Do we need more? I think not.”
“Tell him!” urged one of the men.
“Good advice, Nee.”
“This is a pleasure cruise,” stated the big man. “If something is not pleasurable, it is nothing. There is no need to disturb our guests.”
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s too late. If you expect any help from me—and my wife—I insist on all the data.”
A frail-looking dark-skinned man stepped forward without extracting permission from his captain. “Sir, Mr. Swift, I will tell you. If they beat me, I don’t care, I am from Sri Lanka where it is not uncommon.”
“Don’t be afraid,” said Anne Swift kindly. “We’ll see that you won’t be punished.”
“Yes, my ma’am. I say—there are things out beyond that wall of glass. You will see them too if you look aside from the glare.”
“What things?” Mr. Swift inquired.
“I saw, we all saw—the Captain as well. They move around, up and down. As if they are watching us. When they come close—then you can see. They have faces—faces like the dead!”
“Rubbish!” Ruykendahl exclaimed—but it was a strained and faint-voiced exclamation. “Vakti is superstitious and... nearsighted.”
“All of us have seen them,” said another, with nods all around. “Just now one passed through the light.”
“In other words, cadavers,” nodded Mr. Swift. “The same sort of thing Sam Barker saw in the water.”
“But he only saw a face, Damon,” Tom’s mother reminded him. She addressed Vakti. “Is it only faces that you see?”
Ruykendahl settled on a full-disclosure policy. “No. The faces are only the most disgusting part. As the things pass, one sees that they are entire bodies with human form. They move as if floating.”
“You’re saying—without saying—that beyond this enclosing surface is water—the sea!” declared Mr. Swift impatiently. “The La Meridienne is resting underwater, somehow, in an air-filled space with transparent sides. These dead-faced watchers are swimming past us and looking in.”
“I just saw one!” whispered Anne Swift. “They must be wearing diving suits with grotesque masks!”
Nee rubbed his head. If it weren’t already aching, it soon would be. “Very unfair—Halloween at sea. No refunds! Some rival cruise company is trying to ruin me.”
Mr. Swift assumed a sharp tone. “I suggest, captain, that you revise your priorities.”
“No doubt this is the work of one of your unending population of enemies, Swift.”
“Don’t you have any enemies, Nee?” asked Anne sarcastically.
“Only my ex-wife, madam. And she, at least, has good reason.”
Damon Swift abruptly turned and strode off the deck hastily, entering the interior of the La Meridienne. He returned in a few moments, nodding his head. “As I thought. Nee, your tropical fish are in dire straits.”
“I should care about animal rights at this moment?—!”
Swift smiled. “I just glanced at the display tank in the grand salon—the salt water tank. The water is heaped over to one side, with an open space at the bottom!”
“Damon!” gasped Tom’s mother. “Repelatrons!”
“I know what them things are,” said one of the crew. “You folks got air-bubbles down under the Atlantic—those machines push back the water.”
“That’s right. The repulsion force can be precisely tuned to elements, compounds, even gross mixtures as one finds in salt seawater. The force goes through everything—the hull or the bulkheads wouldn’t stop it. And so it acts on the water in the aquarium, which must have a composition very close to the local seawater.”
“Yes,” conceded Nee grudgingly. “It is constantly refreshed. So then, is this some experiment your son has left running? Can we switch it off?”
“The repelatron effect isn’t radiating from anywhere aboard the ship—the angles show it,” replied the elder scientist. “I would say a bank of repelatrons, a large number, are stably fixed close underneath the ship, either attached directly to the seafloor, or, more likely, to a big mobile structure—it obviously was maneuvered into position to entrap us.
“I’d guess the initial effect was to create a rounded depression—a sort of ‘water crater’—with the Meridienne in the middle. As the surface level is forced downward, the ship descends with it. The waters rise on all sides like a wall, and finally close above us.”
“I see,” said Nee. “Indeed, I have been inside such a water-bubble before, with your son. Do you know how deep we are at present?”
“Not offhand,” responded Damon. “But your bathymetric sonar should tell us.”
The two Swifts followed Ruykendahl to the wheelhouse. “The pulse-returns from directly beneath are instantaneous,” the captain reported. “The keel thus is very near the bottom—in truth, it may rest upon the bottom.”
Returning topside, they found that the party had been increased by two—Sandy and Bashalli. “I heard you leave the stateroom,” Sandy explained. “So we’re trapped underwater?”
“No one has used the pejorative term ‘trapped’,” Ruykendahl retorted. “I have been in worse situations in my elongated life—and here I am, still alive. This is all merely an experience, a vacation experience. We’ll light up the water around us and enjoy the sight, hie? And in the meanwhile you Swifts and your people will be proceeding to return us to the surface. With your customary efficiency, to which I can attest through personal experience.”
“Tom and the others will be here to rendezvous with us in just a few hours,” Anne Swift reminded her husband.
“I’m afraid we don’t quite know just where ‘here’ is.”
“It does not stop,” said Bashalli moodily. “It can not stop. To be a Swift is to be—underwater. Perpetually underwater!”
“Oh Bashi, don’t worry,” said Sandy.
“What—me worry? Why? Like our captain, I am still alive. What more can I ask for, Sandra?”
“Please, girl, no drama!”
Bashalli Prandit’s sleepy eyes managed a flash. She gestured toward the wall of water. “Please, someone, pull the plug on that! Put me out of my—oh!”
“What?” demanded Sandy anxiously.
“You didn’t see it? Out there, in the water, something pale, sort’ve squirming along—it had a face!”
Vakti, the Sri Lankan, stepped closer and nodded. “Yes, young ma’am. We have seen their faces. What this good gentleman Mr. Swift said is best. They are the dead-faced watchers!”
THE SHADOWS were growing longer when the sleek Whisper made its return to Boothnes Island. As Ochs and his assistant watched grimly, Tom, Bud, and Felix leapt down onto the pier. The Chinese-American said, “I’ll arrange for rooms for us at the Estate House. I’ll tell them we’ll be here—”
“Better make it open-ended,” Bud interrupted with a glance toward his pal, who seemed consumed with an inner fury the San Franciscan seldom witnessed.
“All of them!” growled the young inventor in an ominously low voice as Felix trotted off, pushing the wheeled meropticon case, to be stored securely at the hotel. “Mom and Dad, sis, Bash, Chow, our friends—they caught them all!”
“Who’s ‘they,’ Tom?”
“Am I supposed to know?” Tom snapped—and repented. “Sorry, chum. I thought a mystery might be diverting on this vacation. I wasn’t expecting things to turn dark.”
Bud nodded and gave a sympathetic touch. “Me neither. But look, Skipper, there might be some safe, ordinary, reasonable explanation... for...
“Naw. Can’t think of one. Yup, it’s a plot.”
Tom rubbed his eyes. They stung from frantic use in the long day’s bright sunlight. “Nee might turn out to be as untrustworthy as we once thought. He could have plotted to deliver us Enterprises people into the hands of someone or other, someone playing for ransom—maybe revenge!”
“You think he could be part of all the fweega stuff, the Engs—”
After a long silence, Tom shook his head. “No. Nee is a lot of things—certainly a braggart and self-promoter—but not the sort of person to play the big villain. If for no other reason than the effect on his rep!”
Bud arrived at an inevitable, horrifying thought. “Tom—what if—attackers might have actually sunk the—”
“Forget it! That trail of thought leads nowhere, flyboy. It’s just a wall that blocks—everything. No, we’ve got to act, to do something. We’ve got to pry loose some truth!”
Bud coaxed out one of his characteristic grins. “Right! Where do we go to start prying? Jarismattis?”
“If there’s a plot, I’m guessing he’s in on it—him and his crony Brian Halfstern. They’ll protect their secrets. So let’s try the opposite direction first, north instead of south.”
“As in The Residence!”
Tom and Bud headed northward, not bothering to consider how to gain entrance to the property. At the edge of the town they were startled by the honk of a horn on the road behind.
“Get in!” John Jarismattis directed sharply, sitting in one of the Constabulary jeeps.
“And just why should we do that, Jarismattis?” Bud demanded, fists bunched. “Planning to pull a gun on us?”
“Get in—or don’t. I know where you’re heading. I’m going there too.”
“All right,” Tom said. The youths clambered in.
“I suppose you’ve got some sharp-eyed somebody watching Ochs and the pier,” snarled Bud. “Pretty obvious that we’d be going to the Oberaines.”
“It’s nothing to do with Jemmy Ochs,” retorted Jarismattis quietly. “But I heard—that’s true. And I immediately phoned Lord Oberaine, over the sole telephone line still allowed on Boothnes.”
“Tell me right now!—what’s happened—”
“No,” Jarismattis interrupted Tom. “I’m not getting into it now. You’ll hear it from all of us together, at The Residence. It can’t be explained piecemeal.”
The main gate to the property was opened for them by a functionary, and Dactylus Oberaine himself admitted them to the house. He was ashen-faced and led the three into the smoking room, where Mrs. Oberaine waited with hands primly folded. No smoke this time—but smoldering fire filled the air, invisibly.
“All right,” huffed Oberaine hoarsely as they all took their seats. “We know what’s occurred—”
“How?” demanded Tom Swift. “Because you and your people are behind it?”
Lady Oberaine’s voice reflected frank pain. “Oh no, Tom, you don’t understand at all. Please, try to be patient as we explain.”
“You’re asking a lot, lady,” Bud snapped.
“Dactylus knows of the situation because I told him about it in my phone call,” said Jarismattis calmly. “And I know about it because I received word by short-wave at the south station.”
Tom nodded. “From who?”
“From those who are besieging Boothnes Island, Tom. Those who give us orders that we must follow—or condemn dozens of people to death!”
A sudden suspicion surged up from Bud. “The Black Cobra—Li Ching!”
Lady Oberaine looked toward Jarismattis. “Who is that?”
“Never mind,” replied Jarismattis. “One of Swift’s competitors. He has nothing to do with The Dwellers.”
Tom and Bud restrained themselves from the obvious question and waited.
“Let’s—start off. Perhaps you’ve run across what’s often termed ‘brittle bone disease’,” commenced Lord Oberaine. “Quite rare, but the media likes to give it a bit of play because—who doesn’t like other people’s tragedies?”
“I’ve heard of it,” Tom said.
“The medical name is osteogenesis imperfecta. I’ve practically memorized the textbook description: ‘Caused by a defect in the gene that produces type 1 collagen, the key protein responsible for creating bone. The defective gene is usually inherited, but some cases derive from a genetic mutation.’ There is more than one type, and they’ve discovered a certain population that lacks the ability to ‘correct for’ the mutation, which turns out to be fairly common but is suppressed in nearly all cases.”
“Yes, sir, I understand what you’re saying,” nodded the young inventor.
“We ran across a mutated disease thing a while back in Australia,” Bud observed.
“I recall the matter, Bud, though this is unrelated. And in fact, what I’m going to describe is only similar to OI, not the classified disease itself. But the two were conflated by the medical world for decades. The disease of reference has some lengthy technical name; in the matter relevant to Boothnes Island, it’s just called the structural syndrome.”
Jarismattis took the story over. “Bones and joints are brittle from birth, increasingly so with age. The victims—almost none had been studied prior to the turn of this century—usually died in infancy, if not in the womb. The ribcage collapses, the heart and lungs quickly give out, squeezed to death or punctured. Modern techniques allowed for some cushioned suspension of the body, helping to forestall the inevitable shattering of the bones under ordinary human use—walking, lifting, even just sitting up. About the only merciful aspect of the structural syndrome is that it doesn’t affect the spinal cord, shoulder area, or the bones of the head.”
Bud had become pale. “So... why are you telling us this?” he asked in a faint voice. “Good night, have people on the Meridienne contracted it?”
“It is not contagious,” stated Lord Oberaine.
“About nine years ago a treatment facility—which was also, in effect, a hospice—was established here on Boothnes,” Jarismattis continued. “Here, because it was realized that many cases, unreported, cropped up every year in the South Pacific by persons sharing a certain genetic background. With attention these poor children survived long enough for some developmental study. In fact, by carefully suspending them in water-filled tanks and minimizing the movement of their limbs, a good portion began to make it into adolescence.
“Those lucky ones manage to survive. But their lives are tragically restricted. Visiting the facility was... devastating. Their minds and senses were fine; some even found the strength to accept their lives. They could speak. Yet they would never leave.”
“Is this facility still in operation?” asked Tom.
The Oberaines and Jarismattis exchanged subtle glances. It was Dactylus Oberaine who answered. “The island research center and clinic was torn down and the south point hospital built on the site, but the facility still operates. Not on Boothnes Island, though.”
“But there’s a connection, obviously,” Tom declared. “And I’m waiting to hear about this ‘siege’ and the people giving orders.”
Oberaine continued. “The founder of the clinic, a very talented medical researcher from Indonesia named Toglol, died. He was well-connected; with his death, funding for the hospital and its research dwindled. But then there appeared a possible savior, a woman named Soonglat. I don’t recall her first name at the moment—do you, John?”
“No,” Jarismattis answered. “But it doesn’t matter. She is only called The Director.” Tom inquired if the woman were a physician or medical researcher. The question brought a trace of a bitter smile to the face of John Jarismattis. “You’re a tinkerer and inventor, Tom. She is also a sort of tinkerer and inventor, in fields related to medicine and human biology. Director Soonglat initially presented a resume that turned out to be fictitious. No one knows much about her real background. It seems she was born in Nepal, educated in Singapore. She speaks only Nepalese and Indonesian Dutch, I’m told.”
The comment seemed odd. “You sound as if you’ve never met her,” Tom said.
“None of us have,” replied Lady Oberaine. “That... woman has never been on Boothnes as far as I know. When she took over the facility, she ran it from a distance, through the people she brought in.”
Bud spoke up. “And then she shut it down?”
Jarismattis gave a crisp nod. “Several years ago. The patients and the staff were relocated to the new facility. Director Soonglat had engineered funding, from several nations. From governments. From agencies of military establishments, secret groups.”
“In other words,” said Tom coldly, “the syndrome research had military implications.”
“Yes. Because, to explain, the research took a direction that no one on the outside could have suspected—which is one reason the clinic was removed from public view.”
“What direction?” demanded the Shoptonian.
“Modification of human biology. Not cure of the disease; not immunization. No—a means of coping, of living. A change in the basic human form.”
Bud suddenly leaned forward. “Tom—the human remains, that floating face! They’re converting humans into fish!”
The young flyer’s exclamation was shot down immediately, with scorn. “This is no time for absurdities from science fiction,” scowled Jarismattis. “The truth will be hard enough to accept. Soonglat’s people—we think the medical staff must be quite large by now—have developed a kind of artificial epidermis, like a permanent second skin, that not only provides support for the bodies of the patients—a buttressing effect—but allows them to draw dissolved oxygen from the seawater.”
“In other words,” said Tom, “they can breathe underwater. They can remain submerged permanently, to keep their bones from shattering under their own weight.”
“But why not just use Tom’s hydrolung system?” Bud asked. “It does the same thing.”
“Oh young man, don’t expect us to know all the details of their—her!—thinking,” responded Lord Oberaine with vehement disgust. “They make very clear that they feel no obligation to satisfy the curiosity of the outside world—or to science. What we’re telling you is what we’ve pieced together over the last few years from inadvertent remarks.”
“As well as—” began Mrs. Oberaine.
Tom was ready to fill in the blank. “Now we know what Mr. and Mrs. Doctor Eng specialize in,” he pronounced. “I suppose they were on the way to the clinic when their plane crashed. Where is it located? Near Pitcairn Island? On a ship?”
Dactylus Oberaine chose not to answer directly. “They call the clinic by a Dutch term that means, I’m told, Hope Fortress. And that’s how they think of it—as a fortress to be defended at all cost.”
“Okay, you’ve said everything but the most important part!” interjected Bud hotly. “Why is it kept secret? Why is it a fortress? If they have a technique to save these victims—”
Tom spoke forcefully. “No, flyboy. That’s not the most important part right now. We don’t need to know ‘the plot’ or whatever Soonglat plans to rant about when we stand in front of her. We need to know what happened to the La Meridienne and its passengers. And how to ensure their safety. And get them back!”
As Tom spoke, the three facing him suddenly raised their eyes toward something behind him—someone who said quietly: “I’ll tell you.”
IT WAS early morning aboard La Meridienne, even under water. Passengers and crew were straggling up onto the deck, to jog from stem to stern or to enjoy a South Pacific sunrise that was nowhere to be seen. The waiting crowd drew them and enlarged. The limited explanation for the strange darkness required many repetitions over the several hours before breakfast.
“So we’re caught inside one of those hydro-repelatron domes?” reiterated Rich Durveene, who had piloted the Shoptonians from New York to Australia.
“We are not caught, sir, merely present,” insisted Nee Ruykendahl.
“It seems so,” Ramesh Bol bluntly stated, replying to Durveene.
Bashalli had long since taken up the habit of glaring at Ruykendahl. “If this is ‘merely present,’ you blustery fun forcer, I would much prefer to move my presence into the sunshine!”
“Mr. and Mrs. Swift and all these expert engineers and scientists are working to bring about that very result,” said Ruykendahl sulkily. “Being abusive doesn’t help the situation.”
One of the crew said loudly: “Working? Those big-shots are just standin’ around like kiwis.”
“Thinking takes time and concentration,” Ritt Kincaid pointed out. He turned toward his wife. “That’s right, isn’t it, sweetheart?”
“Of course it is, Ritty.”
A sandpapery-voiced cowpoke made himself known. “That there’s right!” huffed Chow. “Gotta keep calm! Keep yer blame heads! I just got here and don’t have no idee what’s goin’ on, but it’s allus been fine advice.”
“Chow,” said Sandy, “the whole ship’s underwater in an air bubble.”
“That so?” The cook knuckled his big head. “Hunh! Mebbe I’m wrong. Okay—panic!”
“There will be none of that,” commanded Nee Ruykendahl. “You who are under my employ will continue to do your jobs in a professional manner that brings credit to—me. Breakfast is to be on time.”
One of the Meridienne stewards suddenly pointed and called out, “Look!”
Something was emerging from the wall of water, something round affixed to the end of a long metal arm. It proved to be a loudspeaker. “Passengers of this ship,” it blared emotionlessly, “you have been moved to the seafloor. You are safe. No one will be harmed. You will soon be given an explanation and be permitted to ask questions.”
“And just who are you?” bellowed Ruykendahl furiously. “How do you dare do this to Nee Ruykendahl? I am an international celebrity! I have a website!”
“It might be just a speaker,” Anne Swift said to him. “They may not be able to hear us.” In any event the object remained in place, silent and immobile.
“And what do we do now?” asked George Dilling.
“Obviously,” said Bashalli dryly, “we have breakfast.”
Mr. Swift had withdrawn from the crowd, standing alone in deep thought. Dave Brogard approached and said, “Mr. Swift, Tom’s still out there, isn’t he?”
“He and Bud always come through.”
“They have so far, haven’t they.” But Damon Swift’s voice sounded tired and uncertain. “The problem is this. We don’t know whether the Boothnes people are involved in this. They might take Tom and Bud prisoner. When the boys find out that the ship is missing, they’ll want to take action, contact the mainland—contact Swift Enterprises, of course...”
“I understand,” said Brogard dismally. “Even if they’re not captured, they might not be able to get access to any radio equipment. But couldn’t they just tell some of the other tourists to report the situation when they’re out of the ‘zone’?”
Mr. Swift could only shrug. Behind that shrug was the realization that the most effective way to prevent contact with the outer world would be to eliminate those seeking to do so.
The La Meridienne functioned normally. Electricity still flowed from its dynamos—though Mr. Swift warned Nee that the diesel motors might have to be limited, or choked off, if the air in their bubble were not to be replenished somehow by their captors. Most of the passengers had awakened by now, to find themselves in the midst of a fantastic situation; yet despite this—it was, after all, an exotic Swift Enterprises vacation. Many of those on the trip, those closest to Tom and Damon Swift, had already participated in a few adventures in earth, air, fire—and water. They were fairly calm, and helped calm the ship’s crew, who were to serve them breakfast on time.
“Aw now, lissen ever’body,” Chow Winkler said in a voice of cattle-drive command. “The Swifts always know what they’re doin’, don’t they? Shor they do! So sit tight an’ eat. Mebbe we kin git th’ satellite TV goin’ down here. An’ if yew wanna go divin’—water’s right there. Jump in!” Having made his point, he headed with dignity toward the galley. He had been making a practice of observing the cooks for educational purposes—whether their larnin’ or his.
At breakfast, heavy with foreboding, a further matter presented itself. “I am informed by the dining steward that three of your people are missing, Damon,” said Nee quietly, sitting next to the scientist. “They are not at breakfast and are not in their staterooms.”
“I have their names. Zimbalist Cox, Morris Davis, and Hesper Berengard.”
Mr. Swift repeated the names inwardly—the names as he knew them. Zimby Cox and Slim Davis, good friends of the family and loyal employees. Hesper Berengard worked in the plant’s travel office.
“They’re missing?” asked Sandy with a rogue catch in her voice. “Daddy—how does that fit in to all this? Have they been taken? Could someone have boarded the ship last night, before we—sank?”
“I’ll answer, darling, so your father doesn’t need to,” said her mother, trying and failing to bring up a smile. “We don’t have the data yet. They’re probably somewhere else on the ship, that’s all.”
By contrast, Ruykendahl didn’t bother to feign a reassuring look. “We are searching, Anne, searching the entire ship. I rarely lose passengers. They will be found. Or perhaps not.”
“It’ll be all right, Sandra,” offered Bashalli comfortingly. “It always is.”
Sandy was grateful—but not inclined to be comforted. “Oh, Bashi, don’t pretend. I know you don’t believe anymore.”
“I don’t believe in many things,” the Pakistani émigré responded. “But I do believe in hope.”
The two good friends rose and walked away together in sympathy and quiet conference. Anne Swift leaned close to her husband. “Damon—over there, where the servers are coming out... isn’t that the little girl Tom and Bud were telling us about?”
“The one who set them up to meet the Oberaine girl?” Mr. Swift glanced toward Nee Ruykendahl. “How about it, Captain? Is that Sincere Beloved?”
The man returned a sour look. “Alas, I am much afraid it is. She is paid to provide help in the kitchen. Our world class cruise cuisine requires—”
“Never mind that.” Damon Swift swung to his feet and strode across the dining salon. The girl sat cross-legged on the floor, looking at him steadily with an ungiving expression. “Are you Sincere Beloved?” he asked her.
“They call me Sin, big Swift.”
“Stand up, please.” There was a steely tone in the man’s voice that Sin evidently found worth notice. She stood and looked up at his stern face, still high above. “I know you’ve talked with my son and his friends. He says you have a habit of hinting that you know a great deal of what’s going on around here. You seem to know something about those bodies that wash up, and the Boothnes Island connection to it. Do you care to deny any of that?”
“No sir. Big eyes, big mouth.”
“Do you know anything about three passengers, two men and a woman, who can’t be found aboard ship?”
“Anything-a? I know everything-a!”
She shrugged. She couldn’t even fake a smile—this white American grownup looked formidable. “I don’t sleep easy. Sometimes I just nap like a catfish. Even at night, you can bet I’ll be roamin’ somewhere. Last night, round midnight, even th’ bar was closed—three scuba types over by the rail. Reckon-ized ’em too. Memory like a sand trap. It was Slim and Zimby and the woman they call Hessy.”
“In scuba gear?”
“With nicee lamps, for underwater. They wanted to look over the coral at night. Thought it’d be fun. I went up an’ asked ’em.”
“I see.” The CEO nodded crisply. “All three are diving enthusiasts. They got in the water?”
“Sure-a-sure. Right down in.”
“Did you see them return?”
“I’m right-telling-a you now, big Swift, they couldn’t come back, nopa. Minutes, minutes, a few but not so many—and then ever’thing-a happens! The whole ship goes duckin’ down a big water hole—and then we’re inside wiv water all around an’ over, like Christmas wrapping!”
“My son wasn’t certain whether you told the truth,” stated Mr. Swift. “Have you managed it this time?”
She looked convincingly abashed. “I whoop’r it up now and then, suree-sure. But I was right about the Lordee’s little lady, wudden I? That’s truth. Now—believe if you can.”
“I’m sure you realize how important this all is. This is no occasion to be—a child.”
“Oh, maan-oh, I can tell righty-truth when I want to! C’mere.” She motioned him to crouch down close and spoke in a whisper. “I can speak true even when big important people want me to lie. Dudden that prove something? You go ask Nee-Cappy about my Mum an’ Da, Mr. Swift. I’m not supposed to say it—now I am. He’s the liar, and now I’m telling-a you! You tell him I said that, and just see what you think about who’s liars and who’s truthers.”
Before Damon Swift could react, Sincere Beloved had darted away.
He began to return to the table, but before he had half-crossed the dining salon a commotion—shouts—came hurtling in from the deck beyond. Everyone turned, and Sam Barker appeared, panicky. “Something’s happening out there—behind the water-wall!”
“What sort of ‘happening’, sir?” demanded Nee Ruykendahl. “Not to question your accuracy. Although, may I note, with due courtesy, that you are regarded by some of your friends as perhaps slightly deranged. So I am told.”
“A bunch of those swimming things are all crowded together and something’s pushing in through the wall. It looks like we’re about to be boarded!”
“So much for breakfast,” commented Bashalli. “I’ve hardly sipped my guava juice.”
First out the door was young Billy Yablonskovic, followed by Mr. Swift and Nee Ruykendahl.
Near the intruding loudspeaker, but even with the level of the deck, a number of the pale dead-faced watchers had gathered just beyond the bubble-wall. The wall itself was changing, becoming distended and bulging inward toward the Meridienne. “They’ve altered the contour of the repelatron field,” pronounced Linda Ming. “A gangbridge is coming through.”
An enclosed bridge, like a tube, had now penetrated into the airspace. It angled down and came to rest on the deck. Several men exited, wearing uniforms that suggested efficient sanitation workers more than military men. But guns were present, holstered and unholstered.
A balding middle-aged man, wearing thick eyeglasses, was at the fore. He approached confidently, the others remaining back a ways. “Captain Nee Ruykendahl,” nodded the man in greeting, with a trace of some unidentifiable accent. “You’ll pardon me if I don’t request ‘permission to come aboard’.”
“Given the circumstances,” snapped Nee, “I suppose I shall have to tolerate this impudence. And you are?”
The man ignored the question, instead turning to face Damon Swift. “Of course I know you by sight, Mr. Swift. Not that we’ve ever met. But I’ve spent time with your dossier.” It was hard to tell if the man were being taunting or merely factual—though the armament suggested an answer.
“What is this?” Tom’s father demanded with dignity. “Are we prisoners?”
The man offered his hand. Mr. Swift shook it warily. “I am Dr. Stanisliew ten Proost. I’m sorry to confirm that you—all aboard this ship—are indeed our prisoners. But we needn’t be regarded as enemies, sir.”
“Nice and friendly jailers, mm?” sniped Linda Ming, the crowd of passengers pushing forward behind her.
“A good way to put matters, Miss Ming. You’ll all be well treated. But I’m sorry to inform you that your vacation cruise—a honeymoon cruise, isn’t it?—is at an end.”
Sandy had recovered her bravado enough to say: “I suppose this is about hostage-taking. You’re trying to force my oh-so-famous brother to do something, right?”
“Sandy!” her mother cautioned her. “Let Dr. ten Proost speak. I imagine we’ll find out just what these people want soon enough.”
“An admirable attitude, Mrs. Swift,” smiled Proost. “One must remain calm—especially when confronted with a most unusual situation. Which I am about to outline for you.”
PIECES OF TRUTH
TOM AND BUD turned in their chairs to look behind them. The voice was feminine; the speaker was, clearly, Marysse Oberaine. She wore her pale, gauzy mask; in the light the youths could make out a faint trace of her features beneath.
“You decided to join us after all, dear,” said Lady Oberaine approvingly.
“Yes, Mother,” Marysse replied simply. “These two gentlemen—and Felix—have earned the right to know the truth. Tom is the sort of person who solves problems. He might be the one we’ve been hoping for.” She sat down off to the side.
“Go ahead, Marysse,” John Jarismattis gently urged her. He no longer seemed an adversary, but a fellow victim in a roomful of victims.
Tom leaned forward earnestly and said, “Marysse... what’s the rest of all this? Our ship—”
He stopped as the young woman abruptly put her hands to her face, touching her mask. “If we’re to have truth,” she stated, “let’s have it all the way.”
She pulled off her mask, which stretched and clung as it came away. “Now you know, gentlemen. Who I am—and what I’ve become.”
“J-jetz!” gulped Bud.
Marysse Oberaine was Courtney Eng!
“I’m not some gothic case romantically wasting away in a secret room,” she said. “I keep out of sight—for obvious reasons—but I’ve made many trips abroad over the years as part of my facial reconstruction and... some emotional issues. The Engs are my lead doctors, the general coordinators of my care.”
“They live here at The Residence much of the time,” explained Dactylus Oberaine. “They have a suite adjoining our daughter’s—medical equipment and so forth.”
“No doubt you permit them to use electricity,” Tom commented dryly.
“We give them all they need. We insisted.”
“Felix recognized you as Courtney Eng at the top of the stairs,” Bud said. “And he sensed Marysse was somewhere listening. But not that you two are the same person.”
Marysse nodded slightly. “Here on the island, I wear my nice little mask when I leave the house even when I think no one will see me, even at night by the sea. It’s a habit; I feel uncomfortable with the idea of someone here seeing—the truth. I don’t want people staring at me the way you two are! They call it a phobic obsession. But when I have to travel with the Engs I conceal the, the bad part of my face in a more conventional way, make-up with a contoured latex under-layer. My papers identify me as their daughter; I began touching up my facial covering to look Asian for passport photos. Now I do it without thinking whenever I’m off the island.”
“Man, this, right now—it must be difficult,” Bud commented sympathetically. He glanced at the Oberaines, who seemed to be urging him, silently, to be understanding of what was before his eyes. “I mean, showing us—”
“The truth. Yes. I find it hard to even speak. But I want to be brave. It’s time.”
“I suppose you were returning to Boothnes when—” began Tom.
“Returning from treatment in New Zealand. But please, let’s not discuss the crash and all that. I—I can’t.”
“She was dozing when things went wrong,” Lady Oberaine told the visitors. “She only remembers the crash itself. It was terrible—frightening. The pilot, bleeding...”
Tom’s sympathy for Marysse Oberaine was banked by his insistent concern for the larger, more dire picture. “The Engs—did they really leave the island?”
“They did,” confirmed Jarismattis, “but the complicated story we told you was a covering fiction. It’s my job to protect the Oberaines’ privacy. In fact, the Engs were picked up by amphibious helo just outside the zone, to be flown to their home in Singapore. They have preparatory work to do before Marysse’s next visit.”
Tom turned to Marysse. “Please—tell me about the Meridienne and what’s behind it all.”
“Yes,” said the young woman, who seemed to have chosen a chair in a part of the room where light was scarce and her expression guarded by shadow. “I was listening just now; I know what you’ve been told, Tom and Bud. The thing to understand is that Director Soonglat is a fanatic. I don’t know where the line is drawn between various conditions—psychopath, sociopath, obsessive-compulsive... They talk about her a little in a roundabout way, the ones who represent her and come to Boothnes. I don’t think they know how much they reveal.”
Jarismattis added: “We know the Hope Fortress operation has unidentified agents among the permanent population here, but the ones we consider ‘official’ representatives of The Director don’t remain more than overnight. They usually stay here at The Residence. A fine meal, drinks—they loosen up.”
Nodding that he understood, Tom addressed Marysse. “What exactly is Soonglat fanatical about? Her medical project? Funding?”
“All of that in a way,” replied Marysse. “But her main concern is for everything to remain hidden from the world. I think no one really knows why—I suppose she’s afraid governments or militaries will swoop in and take over.”
“Presumably the woman finds that secrecy gives her a degree of leverage,” John Jarismattis pronounced. “She and her people can make all sorts of promises, all manner of announcements of fantastic breakthroughs that no one is ever allowed to inspect. Then she plays one group against another, extracting the money she needs for the next round—endlessly.”
Bud nodded. “The lady’s smart. Evil—but smart.”
“None of this answers the question,” Tom stated bluntly. “Though I think you’ve all given away more than you realize—maybe more than you want. Obviously this ‘Hope Fortress’ facility is located underwater! Am I right?”
“You are, Tom,” said Letia Oberaine, surprised. “How did—?”
“You’ve told me the operation isn’t here on the island anymore. But their outsize concern about travelers to and from Boothnes Island implies that what they’re concerned about must be nearby.”
“And there’s no land even close,” Bud noted.
Tom continued, “Then take into account the underwater face our friend saw, and the human remains that wash up here—and, as a matter of fact, something we saw in the water with my camera device. No doubt these all have to do with what you called The Dwellers, Mr. Jarismattis. In whole or in... parts.” The man nodded tensely. “Not likely the remains had been wafted across any great global distance by currents. The ‘blackout zone’ that everyone enforces so strictly includes and surrounds this island; Boothnes itself, and thousands of square miles of ocean. So. The facility is underwater somewhere within the limits of the Conservancy.”
“Then that must mean that jerk Halfstern is involved!” exclaimed Bud excitedly. “He’s one of the bigshots who run—”
“No, Bud,” interrupted Marysse. “I can’t stand the man either. But to be fair, he’s as much a victim of this as anyone else. He is watched; the Conservancy itself has been infiltrated. Like all of us, he’s forced to do what he does—to follow orders.”
“Hostages.” Tom Swift spoke in calm, bitter tones of assurance. “They can’t literally take over Boothnes Island, a resort known all over the world. So they force compliance by taking hostages and keeping them captive underwater. ‘Do as we say or—’ ”
“ ‘Else!’” Bud finished.
“Terrible, terrible situation,” said Dactylus Oberaine. “It began a few years ago, when they closed down the clinic. Some of the islanders, nurses and others who worked there, suddenly dropped out of sight, no warning or notice. At first the story was that they had chosen to stay with the project as it relocated. But no one could get in touch with them.”
“And then others disappeared,” Jarismattis continued. “Mostly year-round residents—but not all. Some seemed to have been selected because they were... marginal types, uneducated, the lower parts of the resort service staff, no family on the island. The people you never notice. Some first come here as runaways looking for work, you know—drifters, rootless people from Polynesia, Fiji, New Guinea, all over the South Pacific. And even at this late date, Boothnes can still attract eccentric loners, artists, people who just want to be left alone. Not that anyone cares.”
“So they disappeared,” Tom said.
“They were taken, evidently by persons planted amongst us who have a talent for that sort of thing. Soon enough, we were told the truth. Cooperate with The Director—or their fates would be on our conscience! We were provided proof that they were alive and well in Hope Fortress.”
The young inventor again turned toward the shadowed form of Marysse Oberaine. He tried to speak gently. “That’s what happened to Kristian Larrin, isn’t it.”
She broke out with a sob. “We were to be married. At first everyone was certain he’d drowned. That’s what we told his family, and the European marine research group that funded his coral studies.”
“Then he was allowed to contact us, by short-wave,” stated Jarismattis. “Kristian and Marysse speak to one another every few months. He’s closely monitored and forbidden to say much about the Fortress, and at any rate none of the hostages know exactly where on the seafloor it’s located.”
“As I understand it, it was around that time that the complete tech shutdown was enacted,” Tom noted.
“We’ve never been given an explanation for that nonsensical requirement,” said Lord Oberaine irritably. “But the Soonglat people gave us our orders. We were to approve the binding legal covenants being set forth by the Boothnes Coral Shoals Conservancy. But we were to insist on the inclusion of the anti-tech rule, to apply throughout the designated protected zone, Boothnes included. International enforcement. Violators—tourists and their cruise conductors, the coral scientists, everyone—were subject to lawsuits and other penalties. And the curtain came down.”
“But why?” Bud demanded. “I still don’t get it!”
“No one knows,” murmured Lady Oberaine softly. “The ban even applies to aircraft. Overflights are not allowed. I suppose the world thinks we’re just a pair of eccentrics making silly rules, here on our quaint little island.”
“Some think it has to do with Marysse and her... mental condition,” volunteered Bud, trying not to stare at her in the shadows. “Your boat captain told Tom that story.”
Lord Oberaine nodded. “Yes, I know that’s his idea of it. Jemmy’s a good man, very discreet, very loyal. But we don’t dare tell even him the truth. The Hope Fortress crew give us little reason to expect understanding—or mercy. If they learn of rumors that cut too close, I’m afraid they’ll demonstrate their willingness to—”
“Don’t, Father!” exclaimed Marysse.
Then came another sort of exclamation—the bang of the front door being thrown open, followed by the howl of a dog and the sound of paws skittering across a tile floor. Jarismattis and Lord Oberaine bolted up out of their chairs as two big hounds scrambled into the room!
Two men followed. “Sorry about this, m’lord,” said the larger of the two, as the other made signals to the trained dogs to stop and be silent.
“What is this, Ishmael? Elsto?” demanded Oberaine.
“Yuh... what it is...” Ishmael ran a hand through his moppy hair. “Now, don’t think I like any o’ this, folks. Nossir, don’t much at all. Just now got orders, though.”
Tom stood up slowly, eyeing the two hounds, who eyed him back. “Well, Lord Oberaine, I think you’ve just been introduced to two of those planted ‘agents’ you mentioned!”
“Yeah, and the two human beings who feed ’em,” Bud gibed sarcastically.
“Well now, don’t suppose we can expect you fellas to be all polite and friendly,” said Ishmael, who seemed the more voluble of the two.
The other man, Elsto, edged up to Ishmael and said something in low, guttural tones, gesturing toward Marysse Oberaine, still seated. “My word o’ wonder,” said Ishmael with eyebrows aloft. “You—are you Miss Marysse? Never seencha without your face all covered up, ma’am! Figgered you was just another visitor.”
“Don’t look at me, Mr. Grund,” she admonished, lifting her mask into place.
“What are you here to do?” asked Mrs. Oberaine fearfully. “Why are those dogs here in the house?”
Ishmael Grund shuffled his feet. “Mm. The dogs. Fair question. Got me word from the boss—part-time job, y’see, ma’am—that you’re all to go upstairs. Herded upstairs, if ya see. We got guns, but don’t mean t’ pull ’em out. No need to scare you. These here dogs—well, you all know these two, Caesar an’ Brutus.”
“Nice names,” remarked Tom dryly.
“Friendly, gentle souls. Won’t bite unless—well, no need to say.”
“They didn’t sound so gentle the other night,” Bud put in.
Ishmael looked at the young flyer in surprise. “Other night? Say, was that you two?” He chuckled. “Kids come on the property all the time. Sometimes they get inta the old lighthouse—two by two. If ya see.”
Bud smiled. “I’ve heard of it.”
Tom stared at John Jarismattis coldly. “Is this your work, Jarismattis? I was starting to trust you.”
“I have nothing to do with this business!” the man snapped. “Who gave you these orders, Grund?”
“Well, actually—we got a little radio out at the kennel,” the man replied sheepishly. “I know it’s not allowed, but, y’know, none of this is allowed. Strictly speakin’.”
“What’s the name of this ‘boss’ of yours?” inquired the young inventor. “Anyone I’d care to meet?”
“Matter o’ taste, I’d guess. Don’t know any name. Never seen him. Just says, ‘This is your supervisor.’ And then asks us for reports, or tells us what to do next.”
“And what is next?” Marysse asked.
“Up to the third floor, ma’am. That’s what the man wants. You three Oberaines get locked in your bedrooms—that’s nice and pretty comfortable for you, I’d say—you other two get a separate room. Mr. Jarismattis, you stay with us till we get th’ word—I guess you’ll be needed to work some stuff down at the south station.
“So, see, rest of you—dogs watch the stairs. The servants don’t go upstairs anyway, except when they’re told to. Don’t tell ’em to, please. Any of you start in makin’ noise, something bad happens. Pardon my sayin’.”
“And then?” asked Tom Swift.
“Well—then is then, doncha think?”
Ishmael and Elsto herded Tom and Bud and the Oberaines up the staircase, the big dogs patiently slobbering and wagging their tails at the bottom. On the third floor the Oberaines were put in their respective bedrooms behind locked doors—locked by key on the outside.
Tom and Bud were hustled into a large room at the further end of the hallway. Elsto preceded them into it and turned on the gaslights. “Gotta lock you fellas in too,” said Ishmael. “Not so bad. See, over there, nice bathroom.” The room was large. It seemed to have been a bedroom at some point; there was comfortable furniture and a single large bed. But more recently the room had been used, evidently, as a workroom. Tom noticed big cardboard boxes, unsealed, and heaps of packing materials. He could see the old lighthouse out one window. “This is one of the rooms we looked at through the camera,” muttered the young inventor. A window on another wall showed a view of the ocean from the rear of The Residence.
The two Shoptonians each felt a twinge of strategic hope as they noted the blankets on the bed, but hope was dashed immediately. Elsto stripped the bed bare and dragged the bedclothes out through the door. The window curtains were next. “Just the two of us here at the moment t’ watch the outside,” explained Ishmael. “Can’t have you makin’ ropes t’ climb down from the windows.”
“You must’ve read the books,” Bud commented sourly.
As the jailers backed through the door, Ishmael paused and asked: “Say, you two had dinner? I can have Josephine whip something up. Brandy? There’s tea.”
“We’re fine for now,” Tom replied.
“Feel free to ask again after midnight,” suggested Bud. “Er—knock first.”
The door was locked. The steps of four booted feet withdrew down the hall, then down the stairs. “Well now, Skipper, that door doesn’t look so tough,” Bud said.
“But they are. And their guns.”
“And their dogs.”
Tom took in the view from the two windows. Land and sea were tinged with the first traces of sundown. A faint early moon was peeping in and out from behind a cloud. “No bars on the windows,” he observed. He edged close and looked down. “But no ledge either. Just a straight wall all the way down.”
Bud nodded and eased down on the mattress. “If they’d left sheets, I would have suggested making a parasail, inventor guy. I’d settle for antigravity. Maybe teleportation.”
“Sorry, chum,” grinned Tom chidingly. “No electricity.” He rummaged through the various bureau drawers and the room’s closet, finding nothing of use. And the big packing boxes were all empty. “I’m not feeling too ingenious right now, Bud,” he said grimly. “Not with everybody missing.”
“We’ll save the day.”
Tom sat down next to his friend. “There’s too much at stake right now to risk rushing Ishmael and friend. We need to get out of this place and get away, and—”
“Start up Plan B.”
“Right. So out the window!... somehow.” Tom forced open each of the big windows in turn, leaning far out and twisting to look upward. “No way to get around those eaves and up onto the roof. Best bet is to figure out a way to the ground from the rear window, out of sight. We’d have to move fast, but nothing in here’s like a rope. No electric cords. Not even window curtains! We can’t just drop—not from this height. There’s quite a crowd depending on our staying relatively unbroken right now. Who knows how long before ‘then is then’!” Bud nodded soberly. Tom gazed about the room like human radar.
In less than ten seconds, Tom’s face lit up. He pointed. “Why bother with rope, flyboy?”
“PERHAPS you and your associates would care to sit down?” Nee Ruykendahl offered the subsea boarding party with mock graciousness.
Stanisliew ten Proost shook his head and said politely, “Most thoughtful, Mr. Ruykendahl, but it might put us at something of a disadvantage with respect to the use of our weapons. Mustn’t have that.”
“But really, just how necessary are those guns?” Ritt Kincaid piped up with a glance at his bride. “We’re not dangerous. This is our honeymoon!”
“Since when are honeymoons not dangerous?” someone was heard to mutter.
Proost nodded toward Ritt and Dodie. “That’s true, Mr. Kincaid, but this voyage is not everyone’s honeymoon. One must be cautious. Haven’t you read the children’s book series? Tom Swift always comes out on top. Just before the little plug for the next title.”
“That infernal book series,” grumbled George Dilling. “If we still owned the rights I’d have it—”
“Do I have to be the one to move this along?” The scolding voice that rang out belonged to Anne Swift. “For goodness sake!—go ahead, Dr. ten Proost. What’s next for us? What are we supposed to do?”
“To do to pass the time while awaiting rescue by Tom,” added Dick Folsom dryly.
“Well now,” said Proost amiably. “I do need to give at least a snippet of explanation, don’t I? Very well.
“I am part of the management team running a medical facility which—as we can hardly keep you from finding out—happens to be housed within a very large pressurized structure on, and mostly beneath, the ocean floor. Not especially deep, in comparison to your Helium City and other such masterful efforts. But you should know that plunging through the barrier—that is, the bare surface of the water—enclosing this lovely La Meridienne would be fatal for you without suitable protection. You’d be thrown backwards and very possibly break your neck.”
“Is our position still near our anchorage?” asked Nee Ruykendahl.
“Yes. You have simply been caused to descend by our machinery—which you surely realize is based upon the technology of your company, Mr. Swift. Insofar as protecting your patents and exclusive rights, sir, the horse is out of the barn. International bootlegging is the new normal in this age of ours, eh?
“The ship and the airspace have, in toto, neutral buoyancy. The structure beneath you will be moved to a new location, your ship nestled within it like a baby in a cradle. The distance is significant; the trip to our facility will take a number of hours. Our facility, incidentally, is called Hope Fortress, which is a translation of the original Dutch name, ‘Hoop-Fort’.”
A woman in a Tom Swift Enterprises jacket waved her arms for attention, calling out, “Those, those things in the water—the ‘dead-faced watchers’—what are they? Space aliens?” The pale forms, with their bizarre countenances, had grown to a crowd of about twenty, floating about, peering through the bubble wall but not approaching too closely. They suggested hungry fish eyeing fish food beyond the glass of their aquarium.
“No, no,” replied Proost. “Not more of the Swifts’ extraterrestrials. They are just people, human beings who happen to live underwater. We call them The Dwellers. You’ll learn about them in time.”
“You said medical facility,” Damon Swift repeated loudly. “Are these ‘Dwellers’ your patients?”
“We prefer to avoid that somewhat disempowering term. Let’s call them clients.”
“Mister, we just work on the ship, for Captain Ruykendahl,” a crewman yelled plaintively. “Whatever you got in for these Americans, it don’t have nothin’ t’ do with us!”
“A good point, fellow,” replied Dr. ten Proost. “I think these matters can be worked out. For now, happiness and hope, mm?
“And now—not wanting to wear out my welcome amongst you charming vacationers—I’ll bid you good morning.” The man and his cronies began to back toward the gangbridge. Proost gestured toward Damon Swift. “You, sir—Mr. Swift—please accompany me. We have some things to mull over.”
Anne Swift touched her husband’s arm. Mr. Swift took her hand. “I won’t be separated from my wife and family, Doctor.”
“Nor from Sandra Swift’s plucky foreign friend Bashalli Prandit,” insisted Bashalli Prandit.
Proost chuckled. “I see! Anyone else, then? No? Then come along, you four.” They were gun-gestured into the gangbridge, which closed up behind them.
And in another corner of time and place, an upstairs room in a home called The Residence, the room’s broad rear-facing window swung open. Two forms rose up and perched for a moment on the sill, yellowed by a South Pacific sunset. Then one, then the other, eased off into space and commenced a fall—rapid enough, but not all that gravity would want. Tom and Bud each held lifelines, two lifelines that unspooled from the legs of a sturdy table that had been shoved against the wall below the window. The room seemed to be screeching!—unnervingly loud to those escaping.
They landed hard and extricated themselves, with some difficulty, from weirdly bunched and tangled lines that seemed to want desperately to cling to them. As they began to sprint toward the beach, Bud whispered with a chuckle: “Gold stars and a Medal of Honor to the genius who came up with man’s best friend—duct tape!”
They scrambled along the beach, crouching as low as possible and halfway in the surf. At Tom’s suggestion they headed around toward what they thought of as the backside of Boothnes Island, the eastward coast. As they hopped the Oberaines’ fence, there was no sign of anyone following. Not a creature was stirring—not even a yelp.
They crossed the little town undetected, taking advantage of the surging human tides of Boothnes’ early-evening revelers. “How long do you think we have, genius boy?” Bud asked.
“With luck, until Ishmael comes up to look in on us. But they can’t be sure where we’ll go. They’ll probably expect us to hide someplace, or try to break into the south station and use the radio.”
Bud grinned. “Or they might assume we’ll head for the hotel to get Felix and your meropticon—that’s what I’d predict. But then I’m no genius—boy!”
What they did was make their way to the Oberaine pier, where the Whisper bobbed elegantly. A big figure rose to standing behind the rail. “So it’s on then, lads?” called Jemmy Ochs. “Meeting over? Who’d you choose to go see? Did they tell you anything?”
“A little,” panted Tom Swift. “Not as much as I’d like. I’ll tell you after we put to sea.”
“Some plan o’ yours, boyo—fine strategy from the golden go!” chucked the man. “M’man Moako took hisself off-duty about a half-minute after you lads hit port. Went off follerin’ your friend Felix and that wheelied case of his. Probably still camped out at the hotel, watchin’.”
Tom nodded briskly. “Your instincts were right, Jemmy.”
“Yawp. Explains a few. Not a bad joe overall, but I could feel ’im always watchin’. A spyin’ eye, working for whoever’s running th’ show here on Boothnes—Jarismattis or whosome-ever.”
“I’ll help you shove off,” Bud offered. “Then we’ll thank you for coming over to our side.”
Ochs shrugged. “Not easy. Those Oberaines are nice folk. But when my eyes tell me somebody’s stealin’ whole ships—maybe sendin’ them to the bottom!—eh, now, not fer me. I been right im-moral fer the first half o’ my life. Now, second half, it’s time t’ balance ’er out!”
“Plan B” had been born in whispers while the Whisper herself had been sailing back to the island. With the Meridienne missing, and Ochs’ reputation as a competent seaman and navigator somewhat under a cloud, it hadn’t taken much convincing to comply with the strategy Tom had worked out with Felix Ming—using the Chinese-American to decoy a likely tail, Moako, as Tom and Bud sought leads before quickly returning to sea.
And that wasn’t the only element of sleight-of-hand. As the sloop went full-sail, Tom went down into the cabin and came back with his ocean-eye camera in hand, ready and waiting! “I just hope someone does break into Felix’s room,” chucked Bud gleefully. “They may be disgruntled, but there’re plenty of magazines crammed into that carrying case for them to enjoy.”
“Now I’m certain that spear shoot was aimed at the meropticon,” Tom stated. “The person in charge—it seems to be a woman named Soonglat, Jemmy—has a real passion for secrecy. And she lives underwater!”
“Hm,” shrugged Jemmy. “Never heard that name. No reason I would, though. But fella, not to be a dark cloud... you pretty sure they didn’t just sink the ship somewhere out there? That the passengers are still with us?”
The young inventor sat by the rail, holding his invention close and looking out at the glimmering sheet of ocean. “I have to believe they are, Jemmy. Our meeting was interrupted before Jarismattis could tell us everything he’d been told. There’s reason for hope, though. It’d be pretty hard to sink a cruise ship without producing a good deal of surface debris. At the same time it wouldn’t make sense to just sail away hundreds of miles to some secret destination, not with half of Swift Enterprises still aboard.”
“It’s the sort of thing that might attract a little attention,” gibed Bud. “Even given Nee’s two-day stopover, the Meridienne is due at New Caledonia pretty soon. As they say—people will talk!”
“Talk—and fly around the South Pacific with all the technology available,” Tom nodded. “So I’m guessing the Soonglat gang will have radioed ahead to New Caledonia with some concocted story and transferred the passengers to this underwater facility of theirs—they call it Hope Fortress, Jemmy.”
“And afterwards they could disguise the ship, lads, camouflage it somehow,” observed Jemmy Ochs.
“Man, it happens more than you’d think,” Bud remarked, remembering a similar ploy, extravagantly recorded in Tom Swift and The Cosmic Astronauts.
The search was on for Hope Fortress. Tom began in the most logical place—not where the La Meridienne was supposed to have dropped anchor, but the spot on the coral shoals where he had seen the subsea forms of what were, most likely, The Dwellers—Sincere Beloved’s fweega, if her strange myth weren’t just another self-amused concoction.
The Whisper was still within a mile of Boothnes Island’s northern point, in sight of The Residence and the old lighthouse. “Oddly enough,” Tom told the others, “this may be the part of the local waters where we’re least likely to be seen. The lighthouse is just a ruin, and the Oberaines seem to have kept to their own no-tech rules in their house—though the two outside guards didn’t. Any kind of sea-radar is probably at the southern station.”
“Aye, makes sense,” commented Ochs. “Say now, how d’ you two know I’m not one of these bad fellas?”
“Easy,” joked Bud. “The really colorful ones never are!”
“And deep down I’m Irish. Irish folk are never bad to anyone. Unless, o’ course, you’re not Irish.”
Bud and Jemmy laughed—and then silenced themselves when Tom didn’t join in. “Sorry, Skipper,” Bud said quietly. “ ‘Being Bud’ is what I do to keep my edge at times like this. You’ve always been—”
Tom interrupted his chum. “I don’t work that way. I can’t. I wish I could. I have to think about—”
“Alternatives, alternate paths,” Tom went on. “What’s the best way to go? A hunch? Flip a coin? Jemmy, you could just take us to the nearest landfall, or we could sail until we run across a ship—and then we could contact Enterprises or Australia or whoever. Sure. But days would pass, wouldn’t they? And our friends and loved ones are in the hands of what seem to be crazed fanatics of some sort, obsessed with maintaining secrecy at all costs! Who knows how much time we really have!”
“Young man, you are wiser than I am,” said Jemmy Ochs. “Never thought I’d live long enough to say that to any man.”
Bud gave Tom’s shoulder a squeeze.
In a matter of minutes the Whisper had reached the vicinity of the spot where Tom and Bud had seen the sea-dwellers among the coral. “Time to take a look,” Tom said, moving the meropticon near the railing and extending and fastening its stabilizing leg-struts.
Jemmy, at the wheel, called back: “May I ask—what exactly do you hope to see?”
Tom half-shrugged, beginning to make the fine adjustments required by his ocean-eye camera. “All I can say is, I hope to see something worth seeing.”
The Whisper held position. Tom aimed the camera at the ocean with as steep an angle as he could manage, and put his eyes to the eyepiece. Now and then he interrupted his gazing to give direction to Jemmy. “Plenty of coral down there,” he murmured.
He let Bud take a look. “Jetz, it’s amazing! The ocean’s gone! It’s like we’re drifting along above the ground in a balloon—at noon.”
Ochs was also allowed a look. “I been divin’, but never seen it like this, all spread out like dinner on the Christmas table! Where’s all the light coming from? Some sort o’ spotlight, Tom?”
“No—this late sunlight, even starlight or moonlight, give us all we need. If we can form images with the scattered shreds of light that make it back through fathoms of water, goosing out a little extra visibility is nothing.”
An hour passed, then two. They headed north for no particular reason, more or less down the center line of the restricted zone. The sea was alive—but not with anything remotely human.
Boothnes had dropped below the horizon when Tom suddenly exclaimed, “Wait!—something’s there.”
“What is it, Skipper?” Bud asked.
Tom studied the view with great intensity. “I’d say... bits and pieces of construction material. Some metal beams, cables.”
“Could it be leftovers from when the island was being built?”
“No—not rusted enough, and the form seems modern—contemporary subsurface construction methods. Keep going, Jemmy. Nice and slow, a little to starboard.”
The sloop inched along, its course constantly altered at Tom Swift’s direction. “The debris’s getting denser, guys. But—what’s—” He looked at his companions excitedly. “I just saw two of the Dwellers! We’ve got to track them! Hard-a-port, Jemmy—swimming speed!”
The search continued with new hope for a quarter-hour, Tom providing continuous reports. The Whisper remained rather far behind the swimmers, who had now been joined by a third. They could be seen, but could not see who was seeing them. The special advantage of Tom’s meropticon was now abundantly evident: micro-adjusting the crystal rods, the young inventor could survey broad vistas through the eyepiece, not the relatively narrow, dim, hazy field that television-type cameras would dislay. What Tom could see was well suited to the eyes of a searcher or tracker. The big picture!
“We’re coming up on something,” he reported. “A structure on the seafloor...”
Jemmy now asked a question that Bud Barclay had raised with his pal repeatedly. “All fair then, we find it and stop. So what then, lad? How do we get ourselves down to the thing?”
Tom straightened to face the seaman, stretching the kink from his back. Glancing out to sea, his answer faltered somewhere in his throat. “Actually... I don’t think that’s going to be much of a problem.”
A crater-wall of water had risen around them. And inside that crater, the water level was dropping. They were descending into a well in the sea!
THE DEAD-FACED WATCHERS
THE THREE SWIFTS and Bashalli Prandit strode through the tubular corridor toward the open hatchway ahead. “The conformation of the bubble, to fit around your ship, makes it awkward to just poke our craft in,” explained Proost. “As to our submersible, I think you’ll feel very much at home.”
“Called the S. S. Bootleg, I’d guess,” was Sandy’s gibe.
Sandy Swift wasn’t far wrong. Proost’s sub was clearly based upon Swift Enterprises’ diving seacopters. “A few enhancements, of course,” noted Dr. ten Proost. “One mustn’t stay mired in old technology.”
As they entered through the sub’s airlock, Anne Swift said with quiet feeling, “Sir—Dr. ten Proost—you strike me as a person with sensitivity and a conscience. You’re not at all like some other adversaries my son and husband have encountered.”
The man smiled. “I should hope not, Mrs. Swift.”
“And you’ve taken care not to frighten us unnecessarily.”
“But consider. That word, ‘unnecessarily’...” repeated Dr. ten Proost. “What is unnecessary to one may be inescapable to another. Do realize that Hope Fortress is not some hidden base for world villainy. My employer, Director Soonglat, is nothing like that ridiculous Chinaman who is given such tedious prominence in the book series. She is humane and utterly dedicated to serving good ends—to the great tasks of mercy.”
“I suppose you mean providing medical services to these Dwellers of yours,” Tom’s father declared grimly.
“Yes indeed, and to others like them. They suffer from a disability—that is, they are differently-abled—and subsurface living provides a degree of freedom and independence. They do require periodic medical attention—occasional tune-ups, one might say.”
“Is Hope Fortress part of some government project, Proost?”
“Do you plan to lodge a complaint with an embassy, Mr. Swift?” joked the man, waving the visitors—or captives—to some comfortable seats. “We have various sources of funding, none of them in the public eye. One could hardly ask the taxpayers to invest in our program, which some would call an interference in the natural order. People even protest radiative cleansing of food, don’t they? We humans are a nervous race.”
“Perhaps your new fish-men will be less excitable,” Bash put in sarcastically.
“Fish men and fish women, Miss Prandit,” retorted Dr. ten Proost with a wink. “Mostly men, though, by a large margin. Hardly matters—they don’t reproduce. Their numbers grow by enrollment.”
“They sound like mathematicians,” Sandy smiled. The adventure had scattered her fear, for the moment.
The seacopter, called the Beatrix, was crewed by swarthy Asiatics who evidently spoke no English. They muttered something to Stanisliew ten Proost, who said something back, nodding. After the sounds of the folding up of the telescoping gangbridge tube, the craft rocked and acquired a feeling of motion. “We’re on our way,” the man explained. “We’ll arrive at Hope Fortress in less than forty minutes, long before the Meridienne. Would anyone care for a beverage? A pastry?”
“Have you any guava juice?” asked Bashalli.
They sped along through the green depths. Presently Proost ordered the external lamps switched on. Multicolored corals gleamed in all directions, backed by moving shadows as the beams swung across them. “The biology people tell me these shoals are endangered—warming waters or something. Sad, loss of such beauty. In our hidden, unofficial dealings with the Conservancy, we’ve been careful not to interfere with their objectives.”
“Are you going to tell us that this technology blackout zone has to do with preservation?” challenged Damon Swift.
“They do say it helps a bit,” Proost said. “Submersibles, teams of swarming scientists darting about in those electronic diversuits you fellows put out, with their water-jets—can’t be good. Scares the fish, at least.”
“And just what is the real reason?”
Dr. ten Proost sat down and crossed his legs. “There was a time, Damon, when being embedded in the seafloor many score fathoms under was sufficient to the purpose of going unnoticed. Surface sonar would overlook us. But these are other times. Governments incessantly probe the seas. You and your son have invented various scopes and detectors and monitors and sensors to threaten us, to expose us. Ocean-eyes are everywhere, sir, and they never blink. But all these things have something in common, don’t they? Electricity—more precisely, electronics. Computers, boards, circuits, chips; I’m not the sort of person who really understands such things.
“Director Soonglat does, though. To engineer a complete, legal, enforceable suppression of all manner of electrical modernity within the Conservancy perimeter makes us effectively invisible. Perhaps satellite technology can see us; but they have such a wide field of vision that our little half-buried blip, here amongst the coral in a protected zone, is insignificant.”
“A preventive measure,” nodded Mrs. Swift. “An inoculation against the technology of detection.”
“Absolutely!” agreed their host. “Rather than try to ban only certain kinds of instrumentation, we ban them all. That is to say, we induce the owners of Boothnes Island to include such provisions in the Conservancy covenant.”
“Mighty good thinking all the way around, Dr. ten Proost,” declared Sandy. “But it must not work all that well if you have to seize shiploads of vacationers now and then.”
“I do believe,” Proost responded, “that I will let someone else address that issue, Sandy—Miss Swift.”
“Your Director, Soonglat, in other words.” Damon Swift’s voice was cold and disgusted. “I presume that’s why you’ve separated us from the ship—to have an audience with your boss.”
Stanisliew ten Proost seemed to freeze. His amiable courtesy was clearly hanging by a thread. “You will not be permitted to speak with The Director. Certainly not! If she wishes to see you, all of you, she will. We will preserve her best interests and follow her directives at all costs. Don’t imagine that you could get close enough to influence—to subvert in any way—” Proost’s breath failed. He seemed too agitated to speak!
“My word, mister villain,” said Bashalli, “it’s easier than I thought to make you lose your natural suavity.”
Dr. ten Proost stood and crossed the cabin, facing away. When he turned back he seemed to have collected himself. “Pardon my reaction, won’t you? This job, our project here... it’s unimaginably complex. Many lives depend upon not making an error. A tiny misjudgment might—
“But you understand, Damon. Of course you do. Your company is known for its dedication to its workforce. The storied Swift exploits have saved many lives, and not just fictional ones. Your son just returned from a space flight to assist the personnel of the Bartonia planetoid mission—all those millions of miles...”
Sandy asked, with both interest and a trace of real sympathy, “Doctor, look—are you saying the stress of your duties—that it’s weighing down your—”
“If you think I might be unstable, that my promises to you, my account of the situation, might be unreliable...!” But he summoned a smile in the last instant. “Thank you for your concern. Everything’s fine-and-fine at Hope Fortress. We’ll arrive in a little while—then you’ll see.” He strode from the cabin, leaving one of the armed crewmen on watch, his face hard and emotionless.
“Don’t worry,” Sandy told him. “We won’t jump you. These chairs are very comfortable.”
The Beatrix whirred on. Now and then something hazy and half-seen shot past the cabin viewpane. They became more numerous with time. “The Dead-Faced Watchers,” noted Bashalli. “Whatever we’re supposed to call them, that’s what I’m calling them.”
“I took some courses in medicine and disease as part of the molecular biochemistry degree program,” said Mrs. Swift, “but I don’t know what sort of disability would be helped by putting people underwater for long periods of time. Those faces of theirs...”
“I have the impression the faces are masks,” her husband stated. “It may have to do with their breathing system.”
“But one can’t help wondering what lies beneath,” Bashalli added. Then she added more. “We’ll be finding out soon, I think. There are lights up ahead!”
Dr. ten Proost appeared in the seacopter compartment door to confirm Bashalli’s announcement. “That’s Hope Fortress ahead, my friends. It’s pressurized, with good magtritanium walls and only a few small windows.”
“I imagine it has its own repelatron bubble. Your mimickry of our Enterprises hydrodomes,” remarked Mr. Swift coolly.
“But you see, Damon, there is a power problem,” replied Proost. “Your son’s fantastic invention devours electricity, and we lack the sort of nuclear resources at hand your company takes for granted. The Director has chosen not to risk detection by attempting to... acquire... your neutronamos—that’s what the atomic capsules are called, yes? Our big ship-grabber platform—we have a second, smaller one, as well—runs off fairly conventional power arrangements, supplemented by a great number of your solar batteries. Our workers are constantly involved in replenishing and refurbishing. This ship, our nice Beatrix, will require a day of labor after we dock. Just powering the repelatrons on our extensible access corridor, small and simple things—”
“Accept our apologies for making life so difficult for you,” Sandy said.
Mrs. Swift asked, “But surely your whole community down here, your clinic facility—the power demands must be huge.”
“Oh indeed,” the man responded absently, watching the approach to Hope Fortress through the viewport. “It’s not really my area—we all have our assigned specializations—but I understand this location was selected in part because of access to some sort of ‘heat vent’ in the seafloor nearby. Rising hot water, turbines, generators—well, you’d have more of an idea than I would.”
The lights Bashalli had seen were small ones, probably not visible from the surface many wet fathoms above them. Damon Swift guessed they functioned as part of the subcraft docking procedure. They wouldn’t risk a full-scale sonar guidance system, he reasoned; not with their pathological passion for secrecy. Sonar pulses would not respect the security perimeter of the hidden base, and might be detectable even outside the techless Conservancy zone.
Lamps came on ahead, hidden from the surface beneath a ceiling. The Beatrix nosed its way into a subsea hangar scarcely wider than its own measure. The passengers heard a deep clanking sound aft of the ship. Presently the water level began to drop. “We try to avoid using the repelatron gangbridge when we can manage without it,” explained Proost. “Air is pumped into the hangar at the same rate as it is cleared of water, naturally.”
“Mr. Ruykendahl did promise us a relaxing vacation with plenty of sea air,” commented Bash.
“Down here we get air and sea in one breath,” Sandy noted.
Proost smiled with many teeth. “Very amusing! I’m happy to see that you’re adjusting to this rather unique situation.”
Damon Swift stared at him. “We have no choice but to adjust, Proost. But don’t think for an instant that we can be made content with being held captive. I won’t bother with ‘you’ll never get away with it,’ as you must be pathologically certain that you will. What sort of delusional mind could find it a sane procedure to kidnap an entire shipload of eminent—”
Proost made a sudden, startling motion, slicing the air between himself and Tom’s father as if with a meat cleaver! “Stop! I have my limits, Swift. You know nothing of our purpose here. You dare weigh us on a moral balance—” His words halted. The fanatical fierceness drained from his face. “I merely ask you to be courteous. You are, after all, a guest.”
The unwilling guests were herded through an airlock. A long corridor led them past a large room lined with lockers and deep-sea gear of various kinds. Standing against a wall were a few big and bulky objects entirely familiar to the outsiders, even sentimentally so. “My goodness!” Sandy exclaimed. “Fat Man suits!” These egg-shaped submersible units, designed for single occupants, sported mechanical limbs and domed top portions. After long use, Enterprises had replaced them with a different technology.
“More of what you call our mimickry,” Proost declared sarcastically. “So very useful to underwater construction work. We copied from one of the suits given a ‘burial at sea’ in the Atlantic. I make no apology for our years of study of your methods and projects. Even the leavings of Tom Swift Enterprises are of fantastic value to us, the merest of mortals.”
Passing a few inhabitants of the facility who regarded them curiously, they were taken down a hall to furnished quarters. “You can expect to be here for a few hours. Relax, nap—as you like. Alas, no internet access. We’ll be serving a nice hot lunch at about one, by the clock.”
The door, a metal panel, slid shut with a degree of inarguability.
“Don’t discuss any escape plans aloud,” cautioned Sandy Swift in a whisper as the captives gazed at the blank door panel. “These rooms are always bugged!”
“No offense, darling,” Mr. Swift said to his daughter, “but it’s usually Tom who comes up with the escape plans.” But at that moment Tom was many miles away, just starting his first futile boat trip from Boothnes Island to the La Meridienne—to where the La Meridienne was supposed to be—the start of a day of searching that would end with escape from The Residence and a second trip in the Whisper.
As to where the cruise ship was in reality, that was a matter known only to the professional abduction staff of Hope Fortress—and a number of persons known as The Dwellers. “Wanted to be part of a real Swift adventure,” said Enterprises pilot Luke Tor, standing on the deck, looking out at darkness with a slight tinge of jade. “Sure did. Tell everyone about it. Put it on your Faboo page, with pictures. Hoo boy. Here I am.”
“Not as much fun as they make it sound in those books,” nodded Diana Lawrence. “Well, this could be fun, I guess. Not so much when you don’t know but that you’re gonna die at the end.”
An hour had passed since the Swifts and Bashalli had left for parts unknown. The La Meridienne was on the move, evidently crawling along over the seabed which could be seen, a bit, when the ship searchlights were directed downward. But mostly the passengers saw occasional fish in the light—and more than occasional swimming forms known by the passengers as the Dead-Faced Watchers. There were many of them, and they seemed curious about life inside a bubble of air.
Almost forgotten was the fact that a broad and big-voiced ex-Texan hadn’t been seen since early morning. While others were congregated in the dining salon eating a nervous breakfast, Chow Winkler had slipped away to his cabin in search of an old and helpful friend. “Hey there, amigo!” he said to Ole Shoot-Yer-Mouth-Off, his antique western revolver. “They kin take away them ray-guns and repellers and all-whatnot, but Mouthy, yuh’re the real business, yes-sir-bob! An’ lissen here!—got me a thought we’re gonna be headin’ up a charge mighty soon, you and me. Gotta get these good folks away from... from the not-so-good folks.”
After making sure that Ole Mouthy was full of bullets and oiled for business, Chow made his way to a spot he had run across down in the bowels of the ship, a huge room full of huge machinery, now silent. Other than some splashes of red from a few tiny lights, the room was dark. They’s times a feller got t’ be alone, the chef thought. Need t’ stock m’self up on raw thinkin’—that’s right, Winkler, jest like the Swifts do. Strategy!—that’s the blame word! He sat himself down for a heart-to-heart with Ole Mouthy.
Chow ignored the occasional waggle of the ship as it moved along the floor of the sea. No sound penetrated the hull of the Meridienne. The room was dead silent.
Or was it?
Much as the cowpoke wanted to ignore it, his ears told him something was up. Now and then it was a slight scraping sound, a scuff. Now and then a hushed mutter. “Oh-kay, buckaroos!” he finally said aloud, gripping Mouthy firmly. “You had best come on out now. Got me a gun! Not a good idea t’ make a gun s’ dang nervous!”
“My gosh, it’s Chow!” came a familiar voice.
Three forms separated themselves from the dimness. All were dressed in the sort of garments that might be worn under a wetsuit. “Brand my tater tots!” whuffed Chow. “Zimby! Slim! And—” He almost lost his voice and his gun. “Whoa now, izzat—?” Then his equilibrium returned. “Aw, okay—Hesper Berengard. Fer a second o’ in-dee-jestion I thought you were that woman back at Enterprises, the one who—you know—has got herself after me. Not gunna mention her name. Happiest day o’ my life when Radnor told me she was stayin’—”
“Chow!” exclaimed Zimby Cox, mutedly. “What in the world has happened? What’s going on? Do you know?”
“We heard what that man Proost said, from hiding,” Hesper explained. “But we left when the Swifts did and the crowd started to break up.”
Chow scratched his head with the barrel of Ole Mouthy. “Hunh? Proost? Whattaya mean? I jest know we’re down in some kinda water hole, and the squawk-box said somethin’ about—”
“We know more than he does,” Slim Davis said to the others. “Listen, pardner. We went scuba diving last night, just for fun—we’re in the Scuba Club at the plant—”
Chow snorted. “Gotta say, I never had a thought o’ lookin’ in t’ thet one. Not my style.”
“Well, we’re certified expert class. Anyway, we’d hardly got ourselves wet when... uh...”
Zimby picked up the story. “The water started pushing us around! We were shoved away from the ship and we could see the seawater getting mounded up—if you get what I mean—and from below we could see that the surface right under the Meridienne was going down like the floor of an elevator.”
“Ye-aah, I know ’bout that,” nodded Chow. “Mr. Swift said somethin’ about repeller-trons down under the hull.”
“That’s what you said, Zim,” Hessy offered.
“It was the only explanation. Too dark to see. So—we made signals to each other to get aboard the ship right away; if it got too deep, it’d get below the limit of our diving capability.”
Slim added, “And of course we were just using standard pressurized air tanks, not something like Tom’s hydrolung. We had to think about time.”
“Okay, well—mm, so you got inside?”
“Right, Chow,” Zimby answered. “There’s no solidity to the water-wall any more than the surface of the ocean. We just dived through it—dived into the air.”
“That’s putting it a little mildly,” demurred Hesper. “The difference in pressure shot us into the air space!”
“Sorta thing thet happened t’ me once,” the westerner chuckled.
“Look, we have to keep focused,” snapped Slim Davis in a low voice. “We managed to climb back onto the ship, and then we found a nook to hide in as everyone started to come up on deck and take a look. We stashed our gear there, out of sight. We were able to make out what was being said—including what came from that loudspeaker. We figured we might have a chance to turn things around by staying hidden.”
“We were talking it over,” continued Hesper, “when that tube thing entered into the airspace.” The three now provided Chow with a summary of what had happened since he had left the deck.
“Great sea snakes!” sputtered the grizzled chef. “So this guy hightailed off to some hospital with them four folks? An’ it’s underwater?”
“That’s what we saw, Chow,” Slim nodded. “We snuck down here—Zimby’d noticed it. We figured it’d make a good hideout for some strategizing.”
“We thought you might know what’d happened since we came down,” added Zimby. “Guess not.”
Chow shrugged. “Naw. Been spendin’ time gettin’ Ole Mouthy in shape. And mebbe that’s all t’ the good! Those Swift ee-lectric pistols wudden allowed on the trip—fer all I know, this is the only honest-t’-real gun around!”
The four seated themselves on some crates in a dark corner. “It stands to reason they’re watching the other passengers and crew somehow,” declared Slim. “Proost’s crowd wouldn’t just let us rattle around in the ship for hours. They might have cameras hidden in place.”
“Mebbe so,” Chow agreed. “But since this boat trip is s’posed to be what they call low-tech, mebbe we should think that way too. No need t’ call me smart, but doncha think they’re right likely to have spies on board, in the crew? See?”
“You know, Chow, that is ‘right smart’,” smiled Hessy. “Even if they do have TV cameras or microphones here and there, having an agent or two to run them gives the facility people flexibility. Instead of trying to transmit a continuous feed—and now it’d be underwater—they could just have someone provide a summary report.”
Chow beamed, and Zimby Cox said, “Then we have an advantage. No one knows where we are—not even where you are, Chow. If we could identify whoever’s working with Proost—”
“Ole Mouthy’ll take care of ’em!” boasted the big ex-Texan. He added quickly, “Not like I plan t’ perferate ’em—jest mean I’ll cover ’em. Wave Mouthy at ’em. You know.”
Slim pointed out, “We three can get back in the water, and our diver experience gives us an edge.”
Chow raised his gun in agreement. “Dang right! Jest get back in the water! An’ then... er, then what?”
Slim Davis surveyed his comrades. “Then? Then... we’ll think of something.”
The conversation in darkness was not the only gathering of the captives of the La Meridienne. In the Ping-Pong Room, tables shoved aside, Nee Ruykendahl addressed the remaining Swift Enterprises vacationers, the ship’s crew having been excluded. “I thank you for thus assembling, my friends. Please do let me assure you that the management of this cruise line, which is me, is working diligently to resolve the somewhat tedious situation we find ourselves in.”
“Not everyone’s here,” interrupted John Yarborough. “What about Chow? And Slim? And Zimby Cox?” Another voice called out the name of Hessy.
Ruykendahl frowned. “Now now. No need to fan hysteria by disorderly interruption! If I may continue—all is well aboard the Meridienne, though, of course, the actual location of the ship is somewhat other than might be desired. Or so one would presume—we do not in fact know what the location is. Well, of course—sunken. You were promised an exotic travel adventure; and I maintain that this is it. No need to worry. For all you know, it may all have been planned and scripted! It wasn’t, though.
“Or am I just saying that? Judge for yourselves!”
“Pardon me for interrupting,” Linda Ming called out sarcastically, “but what exactly is being done? Whether or not we’re officially out of that hoked-up ‘no-tech zone,’ we have the right to expect that you’ve made radio contact with the authorities!”
“Mm. Mm,” responded Ruykendahl. “I am not responsible for what you choose to expect, madame. You Enterprises people are surely scientific enough to realize the impossibility of making radio contact from the depths of the sea. Thanks to a certain degree of human error on the part of some members of my crew who have blown both Christmas bonus and severance pay, we had, er, already commenced our descent before it was fully recognized that there was something to inform these so-called ‘authorities’—and just whom do you suppose these magical lords of order to be?—about.
“So—if I have your attention—let us discuss some positive efforts to—”
“Hey, just wait!” demanded a notoriously irritable Enterprises scientist named Romer Prescott Degg. “Great caesar salad, this big windbag has no idea what’s going on or what to do! The rest of us need to put together—”
Before Captain Ruykendahl could boil over, Sid Baker exclaimed, “Guns! What about guns? You must have some on board!”
“Of course I must!” snapped Ruykendahl. “I am a world explorer, an adventurer, a man accustomed to danger! I carry a gun of world class, a Snessel, at all times—not indeed at this very moment, or when sleeping or playing tennis—but... frequently. It is next to my bed.”
There was a hubbub. “Everyone! Everyone calm down!” demanded Linda Ming.
George Dilling raised a hand, bearing notebook and pen, into the air. “Yes, and please speak clearly and distinctly, those of you with something to say. I’m taking this down for future use in, in public communication and company promotion—and I don’t take shorthand.”
“Absolutely right!” proclaimed Nee. “To proceed wisely we must be clear and distinct.”
“Nee, where’s your crew?” asked Dodie Kincaid.
“Yeah, where?” added her husband, like a husband.
Nee cleared his throat. “Yes... my crew. It has occurred to me, as surely to you, that some among my crew must be working with those who have, mm, diverted us. They must be monitoring us and, in some manner, making reports to their true employers. And until these malefactors are identified and dismissed from service—for cause!—I have set them apart from these discussions.”
“Mr. Ruykendahl,” said Lori Matthews quietly, “don’t you think you ought to get that gun of yours?”
The man nodded. “I do indeed think that. As I have said, it is kept next to my bed. However... to speak frankly and with understandable reluctance... it is—no longer there. At some time since I was awakened today, it was, alas, stolen. I have already reported this matter to the ship security officer, whom I prefer to call our serenity officer, and who has four assistants. They are all trusted, and, as a matter of fact, they are all armed. Their little guns can hardly compare to mine, not to be vulgar, but they are here to protect us and keep turncoats at bay. There is no need for alarm, friends.”
Dick Folsom had been standing next to the closed door of the room. Opening it a crack, he looked out. “Do your security people wear white jackets with patches that say Ship Secure? With smiley faces?”
“Like the five guys standing in the hall with guns aimed at this door, maybe?”
“Hm,” Nee Ruykendahl muttered. “A big man is ever willing to concede the possibility of error. Perhaps, after all, we ought to at least consider becoming alarmed.”
PRISONERS OF HOPE
Miles distant, in Hope Fortress, the newly arrived Shopton captives had not long to wait in their comfortable cell. Stanisliew ten Proost knocked politely and entered well before lunch was served or even desired. “I have just come from The Director,” he said. “It seems she does wish a meeting after all. A rare privilege.”
Damon Swift rose from the sofa and straightened the tie on his casual cruise shirt. “I presume she’s ready to give us some account of her actions,” he said with dignity.
“You presume too much, Mr. Swift.”
“But of course,” said Bashalli, her tone opaque and resigned; “we have surely come to the expository turn of plot. There will be ranting, waving of arms, threats—”
Dr. ten Proost stared at her impassively. “You would be well advised to curb your lively personality, Miss Prandit. We are a proud community here in Hope Fortress. It gains you nothing, and may cost you much, to mock The Director.”
“Fine, whatever,” stated Sandy with an eye-roll. “Let’s get going.”
Proost shook his head. “No, Sandy. Not all have been asked for. One only.”
“Very well, Proost.” Tom’s father took a step forward.
“It is Mrs. Swift who has been asked for,” Proost said.
“Wh-what?” exclaimed Sandy incredulously. “They want to talk to Mom?”
Proost smiled in mute reply, and Anne Swift said calmly, “And why not? The Director is a woman.”
“You’re right... of course,” Mr. Swift quickly said. Yet he looked stunned—a child of the Old Millennium.
Mrs. Swift was led down crossing corridors, Dr. ten Proost ahead, an armed minion behind. At one point they walked past a long view-window that occupied one wall of the corridor. Beyond the thick pane were a dozen swimming, cavorting forms, visible in a bright greenish light. The effect was that of an enormous, exotic aquarium. “One of our full-immersion training pools, for those who have newly undergone the conversion,” explained Proost. “Every day, a new client from here or there, transported with the greatest of secrecy.”
“Of course, Mrs. Swift. Do you think they might prefer to die miserably?”
Presently they entered a large auditorium-like room. At the further side, next to a door, a little knot of people stood waiting expectantly. Most appeared to be Asian. One of them pulled the door open, and for a moment it seemed nothing was happening. Then a shadow appeared and slowly grew, and then the person casting the shadow—a very elderly woman with skin the color of old ivory and iron-gray hair. She stood ramrod-straight, but walked with great difficulty, assisted by canes in both hands.
She stopped and stared at Anne, still and impassive as a granite column. “The Director speaks no English,” said a young woman who had entered behind her. “I will translate.”
Her eyes still focused on Mrs. Swift, The Director muttered something, weak and faint. The translator said, “She says, I am Director Soonglat, Mrs. Swift. I welcome you to Hope Fortress.”
Anne Swift nodded with a polite smile. Other Swifts might have commenced with a protest or demand, but Anne Longstreet Swift approached life differently. She had her own, quiet form of assertion. And could cook. “Tell Ms. Soonglat that I—”
“Speak to her directly,” interrupted the translator.
Tom’s mother nodded. “Thank you for your welcome, Madame Director.” As the words were translated, Soonglat elevated her head slightly, which Mrs. Swift took to signify acceptance. “We are not here voluntarily. Please tell us what you wish of us.”
The translated words in reply were: “What we do here is of great humanitarian importance.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“It must not be subject to interference. Nations and governments would steal our discoveries for their own uses. We would be shut down.”
“I agree that the matter poses a danger to you.”
“Scientists and medical authorities would impose standards that are unreasonable. Our advances have come by means of free experimentation.” Mrs. Swift gave a slight nod, and waited. “Those who suffer from this affliction are not always permitted to make their own decisions. It is they who are the ones held prisoner! We take them here to give them lives that the world is content to withhold from them.”
“Yes. But—respectfully—you have not told me why I am here, my husband, my daughter, my daughter’s friend—all those passengers aboard our cruise ship. What is your purpose? When shall we be released?”
Anne Swift’s question was translated, apparently, but not addressed. “Anne Swift, we know of your background. When I was told that you were among those being brought to Hope Fortress, I was most interested. Some of our work raises questions in your field of expertise... which is... is called... molecular biochemistry.” The words were difficult to translate, it seemed.
“I’m flattered, Madame Director, but—really—I’ve done no work in the field for more than twenty years. I don’t see how I could be of any help to you. Surely there are many others much better suited to assist you.”
“They are not here. You are.” This seemed to be the dead end of the strange conversation. Soonglat was helped to rotate until she faced the doorway. She slowly left the room.
“It is as expected,” stated Proost. “Come with me, Anne. Our lead researchers will explain what is wanted.”
As she fell in again, Mrs. Swift said, “Tell me, Dr. ten Proost, are your clients the only ones here in Hope Fortress who are allowed the freedom to think for themselves?” Proost did not reply.
Tom’s mother was led along as before, down corridors and then down a slanting rampway to a lower level. After a circuitous course, they arrived at a door. “Open it for her, Hans,” directed Proost with a brusque motion. He continued striding on down the corridor without pause, leaving the two behind.
“Yes, Doctor.” A door was swung open for her, a thick metal door like the door of an airlock, and she entered a room full of what she recognized as sophisticated medical equipment. The armed escort nodded politely and backed out, pulling the door shut, but with no sound that it had been latched or locked. To her surprise, Anne was left alone under bright lights reflecting off sterile white walls.
A click, and two figures entered through another doorway in what appeared to be crisp surgical garb, with masks. When they pulled down their masks, Mrs. Swift found herself unable to be surprised. In a way, it made sense; in the way convoluted plots manage to make sense.
It was the two doctors, victims of the seaplane crash—the Engs.
Anne Swift nodded without enthusiasm. “Well. My son was told you had returned to—”
“It was, of course, a lie,” stated Dr. Noashpe Eng. As always he spoke bluntly, not cushioning his words—a no-nonsense sort of doctor. “All necessary. Do you wish to know why?”
“Then I will tell you anyway. We were en route to a water landing off Boothnes Island, but our pilot—we had used him many times and presumed him loyal—had developed certain scruples...”
“About The Director’s work with The Dwellers?” asked Mrs. Swift.
“Oh no no, not about that,” Bamal Eng replied. “This work here, it is—of greatest virtue. The pilot—loyal to the work.”
“Then,” said Anne, “his scruples must have concerned your betrayal of that work, Doctors Eng. Please don’t be offended. I’m just stating the obvious.”
“It is easy to see that your famous son has inherited his incisive intelligence from both sides of his family,” Mr. Eng remarked, blandly enough to be sincere. “Quite right; we have over time developed goals distinct from those of Director Soonglat and her devotees. The biomedical process is of interest to national groups, those around the world seeking advantage in a newly difficult age. Those are our clients. They reward us generously.”
“We bring them information,” explained Mrs. Eng, “the data of many experiments over these years. And specimens of our biological progress and—the word, it is perhaps techniques?”
Tom’s mother hid her disgust. “ ‘Specimens’. Corpses of clients who didn’t take well to your ‘process’?”
“Pfah!” Mr. Dr. Eng exclaimed. “They did not die by our hand. Conversion to the hydrozoic form is—you yourself surely understand!—a great strain upon the organism. The synthetic dermoplast, the imposed skin that permits underwater breathing and mobility—well, now and then the body will reject it. A toxic shock to the human body’s largest organ, the skin. It is, in its way, like any implanted graft that the body finds biochemically novel.”
Bamal Eng smiled suddenly. “Ah!—and you, you are of the field molecular biochemistry! And when The Director so discovered, it was thought you might contribute to solving her problem, these deaths. And it is a fact—these deaths, the bodies, the investigations, threaten our own purposes, we two.”
“Please don’t underestimate me. I’m also known for my pot-roast. Did you kill your pilot? I’ll avoid the judgmental term ‘murder’.”
Noashpe Eng did not seem to mind either way. “He knew of your ship, knew who you were, who was aboard—traitorously, he decided to deviate the course, to land near you, to reveal all too many things to you celebrities of science. I presume, and I have a talent for presumption, that he thought you might end by supporting the work of Hope Fortress, while getting my wife and myself in trouble both with what is falsely termed ‘international law’—the rule of the moneyed over the moneyless—and with the fanatical acolytes of Soonglat. Oh, but our success depends upon our neither being imprisoned nor dismissed. As it happens, my wife has some knowledge of how to fly an airplane. And I had a little knife, a scalpel. As it happened.”
“Too late to return to your course, though.”
“Oh!—we had to crash in ocean,” exclaimed Mrs. Dr. Eng. “To crash, so close to the ship. A poor outcome.”
“I’d have to agree, Mrs. Eng.”
Startlingly, Noashpe Eng barked a sort of giggle. “You might well agree, Mrs. Swift! Because of that simple incident, that accident, many regrettable things have happened. For it is the case that you, too many of you, saw the body, the seaplane—us! We’d not have interfered otherwise. You would have gone along, had your purchased fun, enjoyed Boothnes, and in time passed on to other things. Do you see?
“But it went so wrong. A ship of scientific people, the celebrated Tom Swift even!—interest whetted, what might have developed in the end? What questions would be asked, what investigations launched by authorities, even by those who have trusted that their concealed donations supported legitimate medical research? We can not afford such unpredictable factors.”
“And so, to minimize concerns,” Tom’s mother said, “you decided to do such subtle things as kidnapping an entire ship.”
Eng nodded. “Does it seem an overreaction? Yes. But what real choice had we? We can not rely on The Director now. Soonglat is ever older and ever more ill, mentally—a complete fanatic who thinks, compulsively, only of this project of hers, which she is oh so sure is a humanitarian mission. She takes the sentiments of motherhood much too far. Such virtue! And she recruited disciples who thought in a similar way; and they brought in more like themselves. They are all fools, paranoid, insane!”
“Mm, the sort who are easy to manipulate. By persons less insane. Or more.”
“We tolded them what is had to be done, in this trying instance,” said Bamal brokenly. “No, not best for their secretness, no. But for us, we two, worth such a risk.”
“And sad happenstance continued, you know,” Dr. Eng went on; the option to refrain from recounting the story in detail was long gone. “We were most chagrined to learn that one of your employees had seen a Dweller with his own eyes, beneath the surface. Much as we discourage it, much as we try to instill discipline, to police them, so many are very young. Even the oldest ones are at most sixteen...
“Do you remember what they are like at that age, Mrs. Swift? Back and forth—rebellious, then so desperate for praise. These children take silly risks to see the world they barely knew most of their lives. Incorrigible! It was one such boy, Kermieu, who came close to the island with his posse-gang of friends...”
Bamal Eng interjected, with feeling, “They are uncouth! They speak in a vulgar manner! They call each other dwu’t—a corrupt, ugly Maori way to say your word ‘dude’!”
“Kermieu—an annoyance. He knew the beloved Director, the great savior-mother, was concerned about your son’s sub-scopic device. She had a drawing; he was shown it. And there it was in sight, up above! So what did he do? Shot it with his hunting speargun! Not authorized!
“They know nothing, nothing, of discipline and self-control. Their world is new and they are curious. Now and then, they are seen. The contoured masks they must wear—engineered with light-amplifying goggles and special ear-pieces to protect against harmful changes of pressure—yes, do they not themselves look like corpses?”
“They do make an impression.”
The man sighed and paced a little along an equipment rack. “They die, they deteriorate, they wash up on Boothnes Island—all this isolation is too often in vain. There is no real warning when one of these seizures is about to occur. What can we do, Mrs. Swift? The whole point of the Soonglat project is to allow the syndrome victims freedom to move and live—we say to them ‘de zee is van jou’—the sea is yours! Do not doubt that she and her followers truly believe this.
“So these mer-children, guided by the few that are older, frolic and wander when they are supposed to be learning how to hunt food in the sea. And too often they stray from the organized groups, stray far. And now and then they cease being able to breathe through their ‘gill-skins’ and—”
“And are inconveniently reported by tourists.” Anne’s voice was dark.
“Rapid epidermal decomposition is an effect of the conversion, and the disease itself ends by dissolving the joints post-mortem. We have told the Boothnes people to obfuscate these incidents. To the public, the tourists, decomposing sharks; if anyone probes, they tell the Islanders of mainland investigations and dumped cadavers. Only the owners, a few others, know the facts.”
“We, we who are not naive and obsessed, we determinate what is to be reported, on Boot’nedess,” Bamal Eng piped up. “Slowly, we have improved on the rules that first came from The Director. It was not we who first began the taking of hostages to enforce obedience! She will do anything to protect her mission. But—
“Perhaps, Noash, we are the same? We have debated the morality of all this, Mrs. Swift. It is only that our causes differ. Now we have our own people on the island who report to us alone, not to Soonglat’s staff. So convenient.”
Mr. Dr. Eng smiled. “And thus, by rules enforced by judicious hostage-taking, no exposure, no electricity, no devices probing these coral shoals. Hope Fortress is within the protected zone, but a distance from the main coral seabed, hard to detect visually by the diving researchers who are permitted only limited kinds of technology.”
“But some of them have seen the Dwellers?”
“It has happened, rarely. The scientists are required to get permits and to have on file details of where they will be working. We can usually keep the Dwellers away from such small designated areas for a little time. For such limited cases we can maintain silent watch by means of our submersibles, undetected. Some are small.”
“When some of the diving people do see a Dweller,” said Bamal Eng, “so sad. They are not allowed to return to spread stories. It has happened a few times. We much regret it.”
Noashpe Eng added, “Yes, very much. It threatens to create inquiries and poses a delicate problem, when people disappear—people with families and reputations.”
Anne Swift steeled herself to remain, somehow, polite. “People like the Swifts—like many of those on the La Meridienne.”
“Yes, that is true,” the man concurred brightly. “Indeed, a difficult problem to consider. So many frustrating ironies, Mrs. Swift! When we decided to capture the cruise ship, I told Bamal: Well, one good thing—we will bring Tom Swift among us. Did it happen? No! Nothing is easy. By some chance the owners of Boothnes took an interest in your son and his friends, we are told very tardily. The ship is down beneath the sea—and we are suddenly informed by our agents that the renowned young inventor did not return to the ship with the others! He is at large!
“Oh, they all have excuses. They say, Nobody told us to report this! A wasted opportunity, Mrs. Swift!—yes, what a fine hostage. Well, measures are being taken. He will come looking, like a good son, and then we will have him. But—
“You know what I think? I think Jarismattis or Halfstern or one of the others—perhaps even the Oberaines—sought to trick us, to enlist your son’s aid by blocking our strategies in a manner that we could not prove was deliberate! Thus hoping to evade a punishment. Sly foolishness.”
Mrs. Dr. Eng made a sound of contempt. “And to think how long we have helped their daughter with her problem! Earnestly!—we two share genius. It was to our benefit. But still—no gratitude in this world!”
“I hope you’re not looking to me for advice on managing the problem, Doctors Eng. Or sympathy. But thank you for this—rather tiring—exposition.” Tom’s mother smiled. “Now that I think of it, Bashalli predicted this.”
There was a silence. Anne Swift was thinking very hard.
“Goodness me. The Director, Soonglat—she is stupid,” resumed Bamal. “It would be best for her if we brought her life to an end. Poor thing! She believes you will be, what is it?—fascinated by all this. Your bio-molecular studies, your son’s genius... ‘perhaps they will see the good in this, will consent to help us.’ Only the demented could believe such a thing! You will resist, of course you will. But her head is fixed upon it. While she lives and has her followers, my husband and I must pretend to ask your help.”
“Should you wholly resist, even in our little pretense,” Noashpe Eng stated, icily calm, “the three others will be penalized. Your husband, your daughter, and the impertinent girl from that backwards country of Pakistan. And of course, when he is in hand, your son. He is hostage for you, you are hostage for him.”
There it is—the ‘threat’ part! thought Tom’s mother. “And those aboard the cruise ship? What of them? A refund?”
“No, there are no refunds. A few may be kept here in Hope Fortress for a time. Hostages—perhaps your own government could be placed behind the Eightfold Ball, to prevent interference. We worry about such possibilities. An idea, perhaps.” Noashpe Eng seemed to be working the matter out in his head as he spoke and paced. “She, of course, must have the illusion of assent. But all in all it seems the ship must be dragged somewhere deep and blown-up, with bodies sufficient for identification. A place known to harbor many sharks, I would think. To obscure any oddities in the remains.” He paused his pacing. “Mrs. Swift, as a clever and educated woman what do you think of this plan?—well, never mind. You have no motive to be honest in your answer. No doubt you will make some sarcasm, or insult us.”
Anne Swift shook her head. “No, not at all. But if you wish me to say something...”
“But of course!” smiled Mrs. Doctor Eng.
“Then allow me to speak for a moment about pot-roast. I’ve always enjoyed preparing meals for my family. Even simple, traditional dishes. Now, pot-roast requires a rather large roast-pan, which must have a lid. We have an old-fashioned iron roast pan, or pot, which we use. No high technology there! And the thing is—I see you are both looking puzzled—it’s quite heavy, especially when it’s ‘loaded,’ as you might imagine. Dealing with it isn’t for the weak.” She repositioned her feet, shifting her weight, as if to illustrate. “Over time—here, look at my arm—it builds muscle.” She lifted her arm. The Engs stared at it.
Taking a half-step toward the male Eng, she lowered her arm. “But I was speaking of pot-roast.” She whipped her arm upward, a column of muscle and bone, and daintily rammed her fist against Noashpe Eng’s rather undistinguished jaw. “Mix flour with salt and pepper...” Mr. Dr. Eng was not quite decked, but was definitely countered; instruments clattered to the floor and broke as he toppled backwards. “Rub into all sides of the roast...” The man gurgled, stunned, as his wife screeched. “Heat shortening in a heavy kettle...” Eyes on Bamal Eng, Anne blindly grasped something large on the counter, a piece of equipment. “Add roast and cook, medium heat...” Bamal launched herself at Tom’s mother with a kind of growl. “Browning it on all sides...” The Shoptonian banged the scientific instrument in her hand against the side of Mrs. Dr. Eng’s face. “Add tomatoes, water, peppercorns...” As Bamal staggered backwards, a moving shadow told Anne that Noashpe had hip-rolled himself up to a standing position and was hunkering for an attack. “And two of the quartered onions...” She spun three-quarters and rammed the instrument into Eng’s face. He collapsed at the knees. “Cover tightly and simmer gently...” Bamal Eng, shrieking, had turned to run from the savage housewife. “...or until almost tender.”
Darting forward, Anne Swift grasped Mrs. Eng’s shoulder with her free hand and forced her to pivot. Rather than wait for her right hand, with its weapon, to catch up, Tom’s mother launched a furious punch with her left which made a nice landing just under Bamal Eng’s eye. Mrs. Dr. Eng half-spiraled down to the floor tiles.
Anne had always been taught—and had taught her children—that slugging women in the face was rude, uncouth behavior, not to be done. But she felt that given the unusual circumstances, couth could be put in abeyance.
The two enemies were at least semi, and very close to un, conscious. Anne glanced at the scientific implement she had grabbed-up as a weapon.
Ready when you are!
Guess it was my time to perc, she thought.
How long did she have to—to do something that she would surely think of in a moment or two. It probably involved leaving this lab room. Which meant dealing with a guard who could not be expected to have an interest in pot-roast. And then somehow making her way down hostile hallways as—no doubt—sirens would be sounding off and lights flashing and burly uniformed types running around with guns. And maybe smoke in the air. That’s what happened in movies, and on TV, and—in the juvenile book series that made her son’s dangerous life somewhat entertaining.
But for the moment, the recipe card was blank, and the cookbook of eternity was shut.
TOM’S MOTHER—her body, at least, hardly thinking—decided that the best thing to do would be to assay the corridors by which she had come and attempt to return to, and free, the others. She approached the hatch-like door of the room. She drifted up to it, touched it, hoped that inspiration would strike. Reciting a recipe from memory seemed to have calmed and strengthened her, for reasons doubtless known to psychologists. But at the moment it didn’t feel like a likely course to pursue.
On the wall next to the door was a placard. There was another on the other side, in the corridor, which she had quickly read in passing. Printed in several languages, the pertinent part read:
— TO SEAL HATCH (FLOODING) —
pull hatch handle upward while depressing red button
release red button
flip black lever to SEAL position
close hatch with firm motion
The door was surely unsealed at present, to give quick access to the armed guard outside. She had noticed no rigmarole when it had been opened for her.
Breathing deeply and quickly to give her voice an hysterical edge, she lurched the door open and shrieked, “Oh, oh my God, something’s happened, she’s killing him! Get help, hurry!”
The guard, Hans, dropped a jaw and bugged-out a couple eyes. Not the brightest bulb on the underwater marquee, he didn’t bother to unholster his gun but rushed forward into the room. Acting with the speed of a salad toss, Anne Swift performed the requisite procedures and shoved the hatch-door closed with a firm motion.
No sound or jiggle came from the other side. It was a pretty thick and solid door.
But there was another door in the room; certainly an intercom. She had to get moving!
The corridor was long in both directions and, for the moment, empty. She began to walk, very tentatively, in the direction they had come from. At a thought she fished from deep in her flax-weave pants pocket a fashionable “hip mini-purse,” withdrawing a credit card and then, after some searching, a bobby pin. In a moment the card was attached to the front of her blouse. Her name and thumbnail picture was visible; the indicia of the card issuer was somewhat obscured. I should look slightly official to the casual passer-by, she thought. The occupants of Hope Fortress had probably not dealt with credit cards for years. They probably had never accepted them in the first place.
There were intersections, upward ramps, and elevators. Some seemed familiar, some did not, and she had the sinking feeling that some of those that didn’t, should’ve been. A few people passed her. They barely gave a glance. Once she heard running boots—two armed men erupted from a side-hall, crossed, and disappeared again. I should have left a trail of seasoned bread crumbs, she thought. Because, wherever she was within Hope Fortress, the name for the place was Lost.
And others were loose and wandering beneath the sea. As soon as the door had clicked shut on their suite of comfortable captivity, Sandy had motioned for silence. “All right,” she whispered at the lower edge of audibility, “we have to—”
“Pardon me, honey?” interrupted Mr. Swift. “I can’t make out—”
“Oh Daddy! I’m sure they’re listening to us! If we’re going to plan—”
“Plan for what?” Bashalli asked.
The youngest and blondest of the Swifts frowned. “You’re both being difficult. We have to use this window of time to escape!”
Damon Swift shook his head. “Escape? Are you thinking we’re going to leave here without your mother?”
“But—really—they won’t hurt her. That man—he’s not the aggressive type. He’s nice. He’s—polite. And anyway, they’ll need her for, I don’t know, negotiations or bait or something. Mother will be perfectly safe! Can’t we do without her for just a little while?”
“I myself can do without all of us,” smiled Bashalli. “At any rate, Father Swift, we might as well permit Sandra to express herself. I should be happy to hear how one might escape an underwater prison.”
“Go ahead,” said Mr. Swift warily. “I suppose we’d listen if Tom were—”
“Tomonomo doesn’t absolutely have to be the hero of every situation!” snapped Sandy. “We both have the same genes, you know. I may be one year younger, that’s true, but it was a very uneventful year.”
“All right, Sandy,” surrendered Damon Swift. “I don’t mean to underestimate you.”
“She has proven herself to be rather a smart pastry at times,” Bashi noted. “What shall we do?”
Sandy switched off the overhead lights. “In case they’re watching by camera.”
“Aren’t there cameras that see in the dark?”
“We’re not in the dark, Bashi. The bathroom light is on. Now then. This room is air-conditioned—you can feel it. And we’re underwater, which means they have to be pumping air into the room. Anyone want to dispute the logic?”
“Not I,” said her father.
“So. There must be a big duct or conduit feeding into these rooms. True? We open the gratings and start crawling!”
“A fine plan, Sandra,” Bashalli commented. “And it has always worked in the movies and on television. Where then is the nearest grating?”
“Well, I—I can’t tell in this dim light.” After fumbling for the wall switch, Sandy flicked on the room lights again. “Er... well, it must be here somewhere.”
“The air is wafting up from the bottoms of the walls,” Mr. Swift pronounced after a moment. “Instead of floor-edge molding, there’s a kind of screen just beyond the edge of the carpeting. The ductworks must be beneath the floor.”
It developed that the carpeting was held in place by snaps. Pulling it up, they found a small access panel set in the floor with a utility duct beneath. Air was rushing through it, and it was lined with power cables. “Looks like a difficult squeeze,” said Bashalli.
“Oh, we can do it, I know we can!” insisted Sandy.
“You’re right,” said Damon Swift thoughtfully. “I’ll remove my tie.” They forced themselves down into the conduit, and the stiff carpet fell back into place.
“What we are doing now is called worming our way along,” whispered Bashalli after a few arduous yards. “If we don’t get electrocuted, where do we emerge?”
“We’ll run across something,” Sandy assured her. “Please don’t be so negative, Bashi.”
There was a bit of dim light in the conduit thanks to some LED utility squibs at intervals. “We may find a way to make use of these power cables,” Mr. Swift said. “They appear to be well-insulated, but we might be able to manage a very carefully targeted short-circuit at some vulnerable point in the system.”
“Vulnerable point?” repeated Bashalli. “I must say, at this moment I am made entirely of vulnerable points.”
“Let’s just keep crawling,” Sandy grunted.
There was crawling going on elsewhere as well. Nee Ruykendahl’s great and storied La Meridienne crawled along the seafloor in its repelatron cocoon. The airspace was insufficiently buoyant to lift the cruise ship, which rested upon its framework cradle of metal beams as it was dragged along, directed by automatic guidance with no human pilot required.
And in the Ping-Pong Room, the Captain stood at the front of a crowd as if to protect them, with his chest out. He faced five men with guns, who wore the jackets of ship security. “So, Reynolds,” scowled Nee Ruykendahl. “It seems my trust in you—as well as the fee I paid to the supposedly professional service that located you—was tragically misplaced!”
“Let me say, Nee,” replied the man named Reynolds, an American, “this moment, aiming a gun at that big, bloated, blubbery face of yours—I’ve dreamed of this for a long time.”
“I’ve had dreams like that too, Mr. Ruykendahl,” put in one of the others, meekly.
“Just where do you find these employees of yours, Ruykendahl?” demanded Romer Prescott Degg.
“Obviously they have never been my employees!” retorted Nee. “And just who do you work for? Our kidnappers?”
Reynolds smiled whimsically. “They don’t care for that term, but I suppose it comes to the same thing in the end. The Hope Fortress management—the real management!—has all sorts of nice people like us salted throughout the South Pacific to keep an eye—and if necessary, a gun—on nice people like you.”
Dodie Ames Kincaid mustered some of the courage she had inherited from her father. She stalked a step forward and exclaimed: “Not one of us even cares about your sea fortress or anything about it! That pudgy man—”
“She means Dr. ten Proost,” explained Ritt helpfully.
“What does he care about this ship? Here we are at the bottom of the ocean and even that’s not enough, now—now you idiots show up with guns and—”
“Now now, blushing bride, save the harsh words for the end of the honeymoon,” chuckled Reynolds. “We don’t take orders from that dupe Proost. We don’t even know what they do in that underwater base of theirs. We get our pay—”
“And good benefits, Mr. Ruykendahl!” taunted one of the gun-holders.
“—from some people who’re involved in some pretty big international stuff. Some kind of medical research the big boys around the world want to buy. Make better spies—something. So guys like us get hired and put in place with good pay; ya gotta spend money to make money, know what I’m sayin’? We’re on Boothnes, we’re in that Conservancy thing, the cruise lines—all over.”
“All as I suspected from the beginning,” declared Ruykendahl grimly.
“Yet you hired us.”
“I had to confirm my suspicions, naturally. And you did have excellent recommendations.”
George Dilling called out, “Nee, could you repeat that last sentence?”
“Now,” said Reynolds, “down to business. You can forget plotting the French Revolution or whatever you thought you were doing in here. You’re all gonna lie down flat on the floor. When this ship-dragger gets to the Fortress, they’re gonna find everything ship-shape on board, no fuss. We’re gonna earn a bonus on this job.
“Oh, here’s another point, folks. We get to shoot three of you if we want, no penalty. Not that we want to... okay, maybe Herb wants to—he has mental problems... but it’d make a point, don’t you think? Discourage heroics? So who gets to be number one? You don’t wanna disappoint Herb.”
A shrill, small voice cut the air. “Hey Herb, raise your hand—I’d better shoot you right away!”
One of the men looked about the room, startled. “H-hunh?”
The crack of a hidden gun matched a spurt of red from an ankle. “Thanks, Herb!” Herb was kneeling, whimpering.
“It’s that little brat, Sin,” growled Reynolds. “Come out so we can see you! This isn’t a game, kid!”
“It is if it’s fun!” Another shot—and Reynolds’ wrist was spurting blood, his gun was clattering across the floor.
“Where the heck is she?” demanded one of the betrayers, yet unperforated. “Ruykendahl, you let a little kid play with guns? That’s disgusting!”
“No,” came the voice, “that’s a Snessel. I’m going-a t’ demonstrate again, boays, but don’t harsh me—I’m a little new on it.”
“You know,” said Linda Ming to the three not yet bleeding, “I’d suggest setting down your guns and backing up. The child sounds dangerous.”
“I was about to make the same suggestion,” nodded Nee Ruykendahl.
“Still gotcher three guns on ya, Ruykendahl,” declared one of the three, an Australian abo.
He was right only briefly. A gunshot overruled him. “Two guns!”
The two guns lost their bravery. The men backed through the double-door of the room with frantic haste.
As Ruykendahl and the Shoptonians began to collect the discarded guns and immobilize the three bleeding cronies, who were in any event disinclined to be mobile, Sincere Beloved crawled out from her hiding place among the folded ping-pong tables—and the door slammed shut violently.
“Hurry! Before they—” Nee threw his muscular bulk at the door. It shook and groaned. But it wouldn’t swing open. Several Shoptonians joined in the effort; it was futile.
“Jammed something into it on the other side!” announced John Yarborough with a wince. “We’re trapped in here.”
“We’re what?” called out George Dilling.
The La Meridienne dragged on, scuffing and furrowing the seabed and crunching fragile coral.
Anne Swift, within the place called Hope Fortress, continued to be lost. She walked purposefully up and down corridors and ramps, passing people who seemed at home, a fixed smile on her face to match the tiny picture on her pinned credit card. The facility isn’t all that big, she thought, but it’s awfully complicated. She wondered if being under the sea might affect one’s sense of direction.
She found an area that seemed familiar. Was she near the room where the others were being held? One corridor looked promising but turned out to be a cul-de-sac, with a broad set of doors at the end. She paused—and a face appeared at the little window in one of the doors. The face was connected to a pleasant-looking young man who swung the door open. “Hi there,” he said. “If you’re looking for Recovery Three, you’ve found it. Come on in!” He held the door for her, smiling.
He reminds me of Tom, thought Mrs. Swift. Without really thinking, she accepted the man’s invitation and entered a wide room with a low ceiling. She felt she had to go somewhere.
“Kristian Larrin,” said the man, offering his hand. Evidently he glanced at Anne’s card as they shook. He said, “Oh, are you Mrs. Swift? I was told to expect you.”
She gulped inwardly. “Oh... really?”
“The Engs told us—you’ve met them, haven’t you?—that you’d be touring the different sections of Hope before you began your assignment here.”
“Mm, yes. I’m on break. I felt like wandering a little. I hope it’s all right?”
“Of course, ma’am. I’m happy to meet you—you Swifts are famous all over the world, but the news never seems to write up your own accomplishments in—theoretic biology, isn’t it? Or is it genetics?”
“Oh, I do a lot of things,” she replied wryly. “Are you part of the, er, medical team?”
“Well,” he smiled, “not exactly. I’m a sort of odd-jobs guy, though my background in aquatic ecology gives me a helpful skill-set. I was studying the coral when I came here.” He motioned Mrs. Swift to sit down as he leaned casually against a table, arms folded. “I guess ‘came here’ isn’t exactly the best way to put it, actually.”
“I was surprised to find out that a number of people here are... involuntary,” noted Anne cautiously.
Larrin chuckled. “It’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? I was underwater when they caught me! I was in such a great hurry to announce to the world the fantastic fish-man I’d seen. It took me awhile—it was a couple years ago that they captured me—before I was able to accept The Director’s vision. The work will be finished some day, all published, and we’ll all be proud to say we were part of it.”
“You’ll be set free?”
“Absolutely!” affirmed Larrin. “But for now...” Something seemed to cross his mind, to be dismissed. “—well, it’s comfortable down here, even exciting. I guess good gets done in mysterious ways sometimes.”
“I’ve surely learned that,” nodded Tom Swift’s mother. “But... your family, your friends... do they know—”
The young man’s face became shaded. “They think I’m dead—drowned. Director Soonglat has her reasons. I do have occasional contact with one person who lives—up there.” He gestured upward. “I’ve been able to talk several times by radio with a young lady on Boothnes—Marysse Oberaine. Her parents own the whole island, so it’s a special case. The administration here needs to maintain good relations with them.”
“My son met the Oberaines,” Anne said. “He had dinner at their home, and they spoke of Marysse. She had—an accident?”
Larrin took a moment to reply. “It happened many years ago, and she needed facial surgery—a series of surgeries and other treatments. I... we became...
“She was so isolated, ma’am, so depressed and vulnerable. I was a visitor to Boothnes; my project would have lasted months. I was put in touch with Marysse, and over time, a little time, we became emotionally close. Do you see? I didn’t realize...
“Mrs. Swift, she fell in love. I couldn’t bear to hurt her. I didn’t realize just how fragile she was—is!—psychologically. She started mentioning marriage, and then she seemed to think it was—you Americans say, a done deal. I never intended that; I never committed to it. Now I play along when we talk, but I don’t plan to return to Boothnes even when this operation goes public. Call me a coward, but—I don’t know how to tell her the truth without... you know.”
“Without shattering her,” Tom’s mother said with understanding. Larrin nodded. “Her disfigurement must be a terrible burden for her.”
He suddenly frowned, staring off into space. “Her disfigurement. Her mask. She removed it in front of me. I looked. Mrs. Swift—
“She has no disfigurement! It’s all in her head! I was stunned—what could I say? Her parents took me aside and explained that the treatments had corrected all the damage years ago. But she just can’t accept that what she sees in the mirror, her delusion, is just a piece of imagination. I think she’s even worse, now, since I—was gone. At some level she must realize I didn’t fully return her feelings. But she can’t face it, ma’am. She says she wanders out in the night to look at the ocean, looking for me...
“But I’m down here.”
He stopped speaking. It took Anne a moment to resume. The story was fantastic!—yet she was, after all, beneath the sea in a factory for fish-people. “I—I don’t know quite what to say, Kristian. Isn’t there a, a gentle way to at least begin to tell her—”
“Gentle?” The man smiled ironically. “There probably was, once. Not now. I fell in love with one of my co-workers. We were married eight months ago!”
“Oh! Is the Director empowered to perform marriages?”
“No. But marriage is marriage, ma’am.”
As the comment was unanswerable, Larrin motioned Mrs. Swift over to one of several rectangular tanks in the room, coffin sized and transparent. Each had a small external speaker and what seemed to be a microphone within. “These open at the bottom to a shared salt-water tank underneath the facility,” explained the man. “We can swing up the lid when necessary; they’re recovering from a middle phase of the conversion process. It’s my job to monitor them.”
The tank was occupied by a Dweller, a Dead-Faced Watcher, floating face up. The mer-person’s exterior was an odd and inhuman shade of blue, with a dulled texture that seemed to Anne’s eyes almost like velour—brushy, fuzzy. “Nanotubules connect the gill-skin to the fellow’s arterial system, passing through the epidermis. It’s an oxygen-infusion method that I’m told is based on something your son invented.”
“You must mean the exploration suits used in the Mars expedition.”
“In this case, the dermoplast layer is permanently joined to the body. It almost fully replicates living tissue! But as you’ll see...” Larrin swung the lid open. Reaching in he delicately pulled off the contoured mask of elastic material that covered the Dweller’s face. Beneath the weirdly disturbing dead-face was the face of a young boy with dark skin and sparkling eyes. His face poked slightly above the water like a tiny, very tentative island. “He speaks some English,” said Kristian Larrin. “Oumalo, this is Anne Swift. She’s here to help the project.”
“H-hello... Anne...” the boy responded weakly.
Mrs. Swift was touched. “I’m pleased to meet you. How are you?”
“P-pretty... good today... more and more, I can m-move my arms... legs...”
Larrin regarded the boy fondly. “The artificial skin gives support and protection to their limbs. It’s engineered to be extra-responsive to contractions of the larger muscles—a kind of muscle amplifier, as their muscles are quite atrophied before conversion. Oumalo is one of my charges. I’ve watched his progress since—”
A bell-like tone from a speaker on the wall interrupted him. “Bereiden twee aankomsten!” it announced.
“Do you happen to speak Indonesian Dutch, ma’am? They are saying ‘Prepare for two arrivals’. I wonder... are they bringing more clients from the mainland?...”
“Kristian, these good humanitarians have become more aggressive than you realize,” declared Tom’s mother with sudden anger. “I’m not some visiting researcher, whatever they told you. I traveled to Boothnes with my family on a resort cruise ship. Those who really dictate what goes on here in Hope Fortress—and it’s not Director Soonglat!—have seized the entire ship, with everyone aboard, and dragged it beneath the ocean!”
“The Engs are behind it all. Please believe me! They’ve betrayed Soonglat’s ‘vision,’ Kris. You owe them no loyalty. Hope Fortress needs to be rescued from them!”
Anne Swift talked over him. “My ship must surely be one of those two arrivals. And as to the second ‘arrival,’ forgive me a bit of old-fashioned motherly intuition. I think my son Tom has been seized and sunk as well!”
FACTS TO BE FACED
TWO MEN, wearing white jackets bearing the insignia of the Meridienne and the words Ship Secure! stood on either side of the doors promising the Ping-Pong Room. They held discreet but efficient-looking pistols, and their guns were aimed at the double-door, which was shivering and protesting from something attacking it on the other side.
The men were disheveled and grim. They became more so as they sensed motion at one end of the hallway.
An archetypal American figure had stomped majestically into view—a formidable figure wearing a yoke-shirt of startling color and a cowboy hat. He stood like half of an imminent shootout—although his sixgun was already in hand and pointed. “Ho-kay now, buckaroos,” said Chow Winkler. “The look o’ you two shor don’t make me feel all that see-cure! An’ don’t you doubt that this here friend o’ mine—meet Ole Mouthy!—kin knock those li’l-girl pistolas out o’ your hands afore you can even turn ’em my way!”
“Oh really? Really? That’s quite a boast, Mr. Winkler,” retorted one of the men, albeit nervously.
“Don’t get him upset, Leo,” whispered the other man. “I think he’s an actor in an Aussie TV series.”
Suddenly a sneeze rang out! “So much fer th’ sneak strategy, Hessy,” Chow called reprovingly to Hesper Berengard, who had come up from the opposite end of the corridor. “Aw, guess it don’t matter.”
She was brandishing a bow and arrow! “I’m impressed by all the games and recreations you fellows have aboard this ship,” she said. “I’ve been practicing at your archery alley ever since we left Tasmania. Not that I need to.” She aimed at Leo. “I’m just below Olympics level. Point to wherever you want the bullseye—don’t need it marked in black.”
“Wa-aal, since you’re pickin’ this feller Leo,” said Chow, “I git the other one. Say, what’s yer name? So’s I kin tell yer next o’ kin.”
“We—we surrender, actor!” quavered Leo. “This resort cruise isn’t supposed to include violent death. It’s a standard vacation package.”
“Toss ’em down, then. Kick ’em over—aw, wherever you want, jest gotta be out o’ reach.”
In seconds Leo and associate were immobilized by strong ship’s cord and seated on the floor far from their weapons. “Better not be any more o’ you on his jim-danged boat,” warned the ex-Texan, “Or me an’ Mouthy’ll take it out on you!”
“No, no—no more!”
Chow, willing to be generous, nodded. Then he grinned at Hessy. “Say, not bad, partner!”
“Not bad yourself, partner. I’m just glad I didn’t have to figure out how to shoot this bow-and-arrow thing!”
“I usedta watch th’ injuns do it.”
“Me, I saw ‘Robin Hood’ three times.”
The doors were liberated and opened, and in moments the hallway was filled with a flood of vacationers, a captain, and a tiny figure known as Sincere Beloved. In the middle of the hubbub, Chow asked Lori Matthews, “Say now—do I look like some actor? On TV, mebbe?”
Romer Prescott Degg felt compelled to answer. “You do, Winkler. But that actor has been dead for about forty years!”
“My luck,” muttered Leo in disgust. “Reruns!”
Nee Ruykendahl and much of the crowd hastened topside. The jade cocoon still encompassed the La Meridienne. “Nothing’s really changed,” Sam Barker pointed out. “Even if those five are all the planted agents aboard, we’re still stuck down here. Proost’s people won’t have much problem doing whatever they want with us.”
“Wait—something has changed, guys,” Billy called out. “I see lights—little tiny lights—up ahead. I think they’ve parked us next to the facility.”
“I expect every man and woman aboard to resist!” proclaimed Ruykendahl. “We have several guns, and numerous large bottles of champagne to bludgeon with. We will begin with the less prestigious vintages, of course.”
Linda Ming had been standing at the deck rail some distance away. Now she called out for attention. “Something else is out there!” She was pointing.
Whatever it was, it was egg-shaped and reflected back the light from the La Meridienne. And it was big enough to encompass, resting at its bottom, a silhouette that looked very much like a large boat—and smaller silhouettes, moving, that might be passengers.
When the repelatron cocoon had closed above the descending Whisper, completing the bubble of air, Tom Swift realized what was happening. “Someone’s using repelatrons,” he told Bud and Jemmy excitedly.
“Right, like the hydrodome bubblevators,” nodded Bud.
As he explained the concept to Jemmy Ochs, Tom swiveled the ocean-eye camera back and forth on its base of struts, scanning the waters around them and the seabed beneath. “Great space! We’ve found what we’re looking for!” he exclaimed.
“Jetz!—the undersea hospital? Hope Fortress?”
“Better than that, flyboy. It’s the La Meridienne!” Tom turned from the eyepiece to glance at his pal. “They’re trapped in their own airspace about a hundred yards away.”
“Can you see the people, lad?” Jemmy asked.
Tom returned his gaze to the meropticon eyepiece. “Yes. They’re tiny with distance, but I can see a crowd on the deck. I’m pretty sure I can make out Nee... and Chow isn’t hard to see. They’re all moving freely, as far as I can tell. No sign of duress.”
“That’s a relief,” Bud breathed. “But... genius boy... what about—”
“Can’t tell if Dad or Mom are in the crowd,” came the terse reply. “I’m looking through the ship walls, but the figures inside are just too small to identify.”
“No need to give up the wind all of yet,” Jemmy urged. “If your ship’s bein’ held so near, odds are they’re takin’ people over to the sea building.”
Tom nodded and again swiveled the camera to a new angle. The young inventor paused, staring—then straightened up with a puzzled expression. “What’s up, Tom?” Bud asked.
Tom just shook his head, gesturing for Bud to come over and look for himself. “Good gosh!” gulped the young Californian. “Unless there’s something wrong with your camera’s eyeballs... there’s sure something wrong inside Hope Fortress! The lights...”
“The interior lights are flipping on and off wildly all through the facility,” Tom told Jemmy. “Something must be going on with their power supply, some kind of emergency. They may be trapped underwater as much as we are!” Tom supplanted his friend at the eyepiece and studied the scene in more detail.
He gasped suddenly. “It’s Mom—I’ve found her! She’s in a room with a man I don’t recognize—and—what in the world...!
“Now I’m seeing Sandy! She’s crawling on hands and knees... out of some little opening in the wall of the same room... and there’s Dad! And Bash! Mom’s hugging them...”
Tears forcing themselves into his eyes, the young inventor surveyed more of Hope Fortress, which was essentially a scene of panic and chaos. The dry dwellers were trying to flee but with no definite place to flee to, as the facility lights continued to flutter back and forth between bright and black.
“The whole thing may be falling apart! We have to get in there and rescue them!” Bud cried. “But—how do we even get through this water-wall?”
There was a startling reply to Bud’s query! One dark-suited figure, then another, jetted into the airspace and clunked down onto the deck of the sloop, awkwardly and painfully. They wore scuba suits, air tanks, and harnesses dangling with underwater implements. Groaning, they pulled their masks away.
“Good grief!” exclaimed Tom in amazement. “Zimby! Slim!”
“We’ll introduce them later,” Bud said to Jemmy.
“Uh... hey... Skipper,” croaked Slim Davis. “Give us a sec—hit the deck pretty hard.”
Zimby Cox nodded. “Ohhh yeah. And we had to be pushed mighty hard to squeeze through the bubble around the cruise ship and get back into the water. Back pressure! Sure easier getting from water to air, though.”
“So easy I’m bruised,” griped Slim. “Pow! Tom, the Meridienne is—”
“I know,” Tom interrupted. “And I can see through the meropticon that Mom and Dad, Sandy and Bash, are inside Hope Fortress—that’s what they call it, guys.” He explained, in frantic summary, what else he had seen and something of what he knew of the overall situation.
“We first pushed back into the water to see if we could find a way into the facility—and then your bubble appeared above,” Zimby said. “When I figured out that what I was seeing was your camera thing poking over the gunwales, I pointed and Slim went along.”
“Figured you heroes had to be on board, Skipper. So we’re here to help,” smiled Slim. But his voice sounded defeated. “But how?”
Jemmy broke the silence. “Wouldn’t mind my sayin’—right now ‘how’ also means ‘now.’ As in—fast!”
Inside the undersea base, in Recovery Three, the overhead lights had begun to fluctuate only a minute after the intercom had announced the two new arrivals to Hope Fortress. “Swear-Gott, what’s happening?” gasped Kristian Larrin.
“I—I was hoping you’d know!” said Tom’s mother, whose voice quavered much like the lights. As the lights faded out, emergency lights came on—to be replaced as the overheads came back briefly, like a clumsy strobe effect.
“It’s never happened before. I know there’s a backup system, but cycling back and forth like this...” He flung open the doors to shouting and frenzy beyond! And now, indeed, sirens were blaring and instructions were being provided—unheard. “Mrs. Swift, the Fortress may be flooding, or—perhaps it’s what The Director has feared—foreign intervention! We may be under attack!”
Anne Swift had a share of Swiftness to summon. “Kris—I must get back to where my family is being held. Can you help me? We may be just as safe there as—”
“Sandy?—! Where did—how did you—?”
Extricating themselves one by one from the room’s utility conduit hatch, the crawling four, greasy and bruised, became a tearful hug of five. “My family,” Anne told Kristian Larrin. “Out of nowhere, by miracle!”
“By worming, Mother Swift,” jibed Bashalli wearily. “And by the miracle of your having contracted a very smart marriage, to a man who can do skillful things with power connections.”
“Fairly simple,” shrugged Mr. Swift. “But it’s plain luck, seeing you through one of the grilles. This room is just a few doors away from where they had us stashed, Anne.”
“I applaud all this,” interjected Larrin, struggling to be heard over the racket, “but if we are to escape the facility, we must take advantage of this confusion. I know where the submersibles are docked—perhaps you will be able to guide us to the surface, Mr. Swift, with your technical knowledge.”
“Then you’re joining us?” asked Mrs. Swift.
“For the moment,” he replied. “What you said about the Engs... some of us have had our suspicions for a long time. This isolation must end at last, I think. But also, I too have a loved one here to rescue! I can do nothing until I am free.”
“Daddy,” said Sandy, “what you did—you said it wouldn’t endanger the facility...”
“It won’t, Sandy. I could verify that they have adequate redundant systems. But since they don’t know what’s causing the problem—well, I presumed they would collapse into confusion. It seems I was right.”
“This won’t hurt the Dwellers, will it?” Mrs. Swift asked Larrin with concern.
“Of all here beneath the sea,” he replied sharply, “it is they who are least likely to be affected!”
Larrin led the others, trotting behind him, through the human storm and the roiling, rollicking light. But abruptly, as they approached a large hatchlike door panel, the lights seemed to resume their normal unwavering duties. “They probably isolated the problem and rerouted the power,” said Damon Swift.
“We can read how they did it in the book version, Daddy,” Sandy reproved him nervously.
After checking an indicator, Larrin beckoned them through the portal. “In here! The water’s been—they say minimized. Machinery holds back the sea; some kind of electronic repulsion.” Inside, on a concrete deck, he gestured at something resting on the pressed-down surface of the water beyond. “One of the small submersibles.”
Mr. Swift nodded. “Obviously based on one of the early models of the Enterprises jetmarine. We should all be able to squeeze in.”
But then, without a word, they all found themselves staring and silent. The aqua-hangar, much larger than the one where the Beatrix was docked, evidently kept dry by repelatron force, opened on to a kind of ceilingless pen. There, beyond the bubble-wall, a railtrack was visible on the seafloor, leading some distance to a flat framework that rode its rails, a structure of metal beams and dish-shaped antennae. Repelatrons, Damon Swift thought instantly; this is the little brother of the device that grabbed the ship. And looming above the “grabber” was the bubble it had produced—and the boat held captive within.
“It’s Tom!” breathed Bashalli. “And Bud!”
“And three others. But are they friends?” asked Mrs. Swift.
The mobile framework was being rolled along the tracks toward them. As the bubble was unaffected by the ceiling, the structure moved right into the hangar until the two airspaces overlapped, halting with the sloop a few yards beyond the edge of the concrete slab they stood upon. The Whisper was now low and dry!
“Are you all okay?” Tom called across anxiously.
It was an unexpected voice that answered! “They are far from ‘okay,’ young man.” The two Doctors Eng, bruised and smeared with red, had come up behind the knot of escapees! As the Shoptonians and Larrin stood stunned, the Engs rounded them. Noashpe Eng waved them toward the back of the pier—with the small weapon in his hand!
“An Enterprises i-gun,” pronounced Tom’s father calmly. “Or something like it. That early design has been superseded.”
“Yet no less deadly to life at its maximum setting,” grated Dr. Eng. “Mr. Swift, my beloved wife and I have suffered much disrespect—many indignities—at the hands of this woman here, Anne Swift, mother of invention, eh?
“We have taken lives before, we two. We have chosen Mrs. Swift for the first of today’s executions. Then this traitor Kristian Larrin.”
“And then-so,” shrilled Bamal Eng, “then we shall improvise!”
Tom Swift cleared his throat loudly. “Excuse me, but I’m paid to improvise—we call it being an inventor.” His hand was on the ocean-eye camera, which he had swiveled front-to-back. He had removed the eyepiece visor; the rear viewing aperture, uncovered, now faced the pier.
Mr. Dr. Eng gurgled something like a laugh. “That pointless, powerless invention of yours! Something you tinkered together for vacation play. We know all about it here. What do you propose to do, young sir? Take pictures to commemorate your death?”
Tom grinned broadly. “Mm... not exactly.” Eyebrows raised, he nodded toward Zimby Cox, standing close.
A rod of light, intense and fantastically white, bridged the gap between the viewing aperture and the snarling face of Noashpe Eng!
Mr. Dr. Eng shrieked and collapsed backward, falling out of the beam and clawing at his eyes—not easy with a weapon in hand.
He barely had time to hit the concrete deck. A phalanx of hurtling humans—Damon and Anne Swift, Sandy, Bashalli, and Kristian Larrin—rammed the two Engs from behind with a furious force no less intense than Tom’s beam! The new indignities and signs of disrespect drove the pair to the edge of the slab, and almost beyond.
Larrin deftly plucked the i-gun from what was left of Eng’s grasp, turning toward the hatch-doorway. Several members of the Fortress workforce—Mrs. Swift recognized one from her encounter with The Director—had entered, looking like they were ready for confrontation. One wore a soldierly uniform and had a revolver in hand. “Toss it into the sea, Colonel Thanaspral!” ordered Larrin with a wave of his i-gun. “This electronic blaster can produce a deadly effect broad enough to drop all of you at once.” Not that he knew that to be true. “And then there is Tom Swift’s laser; you just saw what it can do.”
“Wij zijn hulpeloos, sir,” said one of the men—We are helpless.
A figure pushed forward through the group. “I see, I see,” pronounced Dr. ten Proost with obvious contempt. “You have chosen to change sides, eh Larrin? Is loyalty to the project, to The Director, now inconvenient for you?”
“Does loyalty to Hope Fortress mean loyalty to the Engs?” snapped Kristian Larrin. “Most of us have been uneasy for a long time, suspicious about their motives, their unexplained procedures—and now this whole foolish matter of using the marine-descent machinery to hold captive seacraft and their passengers!”
“You know well why The Director has taken hostages,” Proost returned sullenly. “You even came to agree with the need for your own kidnapping!”
“Dr. ten Proost, this new—policy—isn’t the work of your Director!” Anne Swift spoke out. “The Engs are working for their personal gain, not for The Dwellers. They murdered a man when they thought he might endanger their positions, their schemes. I think you’re a decent man—can you accept such an outrage?”
There was muttering among the Fortressers. Then Proost spoke more gently. “But Kristian, what about the sea-children? Where does this revolt lead? Do you intend to permit these Swifts to alert the world to our existence?”
“It is my opinion,” Larrin replied, “that Hope Fortress must find a way to operate legitimately, in the open. Let us all consider that Director Soonglat is very elderly and may no longer be fully in charge of... even herself. Her fears may have been legitimate at first, but now—”
Proost held up a hand. “Yes—paranoia. It has been whispered. If we truly wish to serve The Dwellers—to help all victims of the disease... perhaps...
“But it’s not likely that I will be a part of it anyway, Kristian. I’ve not participated in murder, but we have all participated in kidnapping.”
“Fewer assumptions, please,” urged Damon Swift. “Tom Swift Enterprises swings a good deal of weight, not only in science but, in its way, in politics. I don’t know what we can do about matters of law—this facility is part of the Boothnes Conservancy zone; there could be controversies about jurisdiction—but the positive things you’ve accomplished are extraordinary.”
“Drop the kidnapping bit and we all may be able to get along,” Sandy said.
“Wondrous things happen when the Swifts are on your side, Mr. Proost,” observed Bashalli. The she turned toward the Whisper and called out, “And you, Thomas? No inspiring remarks?”
Bud nudged the young inventor, and Tom grinned. “I’m just keeping my trigger-finger ready—in case my meropticon laser blaster is needed to convince any doubters!”
In minutes Tom’s father had been put in radio contact with Boothnes Island, and with policing authorities in New Zealand, Australia—and Shopton. The end of world concealment seemed to produce cooperation; with or without the consent of Director Soonglat, the Whisper and the La Meridienne were gently returned to the surface.
Zimby and Slim rejoined the cruise ship. Tom and Bud sailed back to the island with Jemmy Ochs at the helm, for a brief final visit.
Mr. Swift chose to sail with them. “Now that things have finally calmed down, son,” said Damon Swift, “I can ask you the obvious question—how in the name of physical optics did you produce that bright beam with the meropticon? It has no power, no internal light source, not even a conventional lens!”
The scientific scion gave a shrewd look. “Well Dad, that beam looked scary, but as you know it was just a super-bright light, not a laser beam—it couldn’t have melted a snowflake!”
“Yes, and it surely worked to disable our captor at the right moment.”
“The ocean-eye camera is a light super-amplifier even in its ordinary use—in making things visible. Photons of near-undetectable energy enter at the front, get forced into line by the crystal rods, and exit at the viewing aperture—”
“Like a football line in full charge!” Bud put in.
“But Tom, the light falling upon the ‘eyes’ at the front end was far too weak to even begin to—”
“You’re forgetting that an extra factor appeared at the last moment—on the way down!” grinned the younger Swift. “Some fish-men of our own—who still had some powerful lamps with them from their midnight coral exploring!”
“In other words, Mr. Swift—genius boy improvised!” Bud commented happily. “On vacations, people have to do that a lot.”
Landfall at tiny Boothnes brought more news. “Yes, Tom, and I know how little believable it is,” explained Felix Ming, “but I tapped my romantic passion for heroic purposes. I led a charge, along with a soccer team from Uruguay—very nice girls—and we stormed The Residence to get some honest answers from the Oberaines.”
“And impress Marysse, Fee?” needled Tom.
“For many reasons, I must admit. I was quite surprised, how slight the resistance we encountered. I understand the overall situation now, of course; but the dogs have teeth and don’t care about context.
“Marysse... Now that I know that I’ve seen her true face—so tragic, her delusion—I will remain here as her friend, just until her fiancé comes here from the facility. I’m surprised he didn’t come with you, in fact. And yet...” Felix gave a pitiable sigh. “I have at least a few more days with this enthralling person who—is not mine to love.”
An odd smile crossed Bud’s face. “Tom—we didn’t even mention—”
Tom squeezed Felix’s shoulder. “Felix, you may end up staying here a lot longer than you expect!”
At long last, cleansed of agents and other troublesome crew members, the La Meridienne resumed its leisurely cruise in the South Pacific sunshine. In his stateroom Tom continued to pass the time by tinkering on impulse with his ocean-eye camera. This use of his hands freed his mind, giving birth to the first glimmerings of what would become Tom Swift and His Cybrid Synaptor—after the vacation had finished its vacating.
It turned out that a few matters were yet unresolved. As Tom and Bud chatted with Nee Ruykendahl on deck, the young inventor noticed Sincere Beloved approaching them. “Sin,” Tom said, “Dad mentioned something about a secret you had—he forgot all about it.”
“It had to do with you, Nee,” Bud remarked.
Ruykendahl looked surprised—perhaps even a bit nervous. “What! This annoying girl—a secret—me?”
“Yeppity-yep, Neezy, the secret!” giggled Sin. “Why worry? It’s a good secret—couldna taken that Snessel gun o’ yours if anything-a had been... different.”
Tom looked back and forth between the two faces. “Something about the gun?”
“Something-a about knowing-a where the gun lived, see? How I knew—why I knew!”
As Ruykendahl sputtered inaudibly, a few clouds of thought drifted into Tom Swift’s brain. “Sin, you’ve been pretty mysterious from day one! We never did meet your parents.”
“Are you sure?”
“They’re here on this ship, aren’t they?” asked Bud.
“One is. The other, my Mum—I look just like her—she’s in Tasmania right now. Hardly a trace of my ole Da on my outsides. But hear me saying-a the truth, boays-two: it’s mighty nice being able to travel around and have adventures. Yuppa!—mighty nice when your Da just happens to be captain of the ship!”
Tom and Bud stared slack-jawed at Nee Ruykendahl. He frowned fiercely—at everyone present—and managed to say:
“Whom I choose to father is no one’s business but my own.” He stalked away as Sincere made her usual sound of glee.
“That’s quite a secret!” Bud declared.
Tom bent down and said, “I never did figure out why you asked me if I was really sure I was Tom Swift that first day. Was it because you had your own secret identity?”
“D’wut!—there are secrets—and secrets!”
Sincere Beloved whispered something in Tom’s ear, and bounced away for places unknown.
“So what did she say, Skipper?” Bud demanded. “Another secret?”
The young inventor ran a hand through his spiky blond crewcut. “What did she say, pal? D’wut!
“She said... ‘I’m not a girl!’”