This unauthorized tribute is based upon the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.



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The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures

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“I’M NOT used to flying on a plane that doesn’t have its own name,” Tom Swift said to no-one in particular. He only glanced, musingly, at the two uniformed men sitting across from him in their plush contour seats, facing him across a pull-out tabletop. “The Sky Queen, the SwiftStorm, the Silent Streak—I guess you could call my flying atomicar a sort’ve ‘plane’...”

“That’s a lot of ‘s’s,” noted Major Daytinson, “ ‘s’ as in Swift. But this, Tom, is not a Swift Enterprises aircraft. Don’t mistake it for a friend. This is an official NATO supermach jet, big and comfortable and, thanks to a few magic things, hard to track by radar or satellite. Those of us who trade in secrets, son, avoid names like the plague. Why help the enemy by making it easy to tag us in some computer file?”

“Is there an enemy right now, Major?”

“There is always an enemy.”

The nameless jetcraft was following an invisible arc drawn by man upon the earth, an arc that would touch ground at an airfield near the town of Korsor, Denmark. It was a town Tom’s ever-active mind had never happened across. But it was home to something called The Arena, an obscure NATO base where the young inventor was to demonstrate a new invention, a semi-robotic equipment carrier called a ServoCat. Or, by those on friendly terms, Felinity.

“Do you object to the fact that your machine is being assessed for military application?” asked the third man, politely but pointedly.

Tom shrugged. “Why do you ask, Lieutenant? The Swift family has always supported our country’s defense efforts.”

“Defense efforts,” repeated Lt. Sersackly, “but some of you, pardon me, intellectual types are squeamish about what your government regards as matters of defense and security.”

“Drop it, Lieutenant,” Daytinson interrupted with smooth command. It was, in fact, martinied. “Tom is here voluntarily. And besides, this is not, strictly speaking, a US government project. It’s NATO. Free friendly nations joined together to keep the peace—”

“I don’t need to be sold on it, guys,” stated Tom. His mood was unenthused. He glanced out the window at a sheep-meadow of clouds spread down below, horizon to horizon. He assumed Major Daytinson was thinking about something known to very few, as few as possible. And many of them were also nameless.

The jet carried in its secure hold a second Tom Swift invention. And this invention was nothing like a cat.

Tom’s brain was a multi-tasker. On vacation in the South Pacific—a most unpacific vacation, as it turned out—he had amused himself by tinkering with a prosaic invention called an ocean-eye camera. It was fun, a kind of whittling. There was even a mystery to enhance it. But on his return to Shopton, New York, his brain had snapped-to and turned its attention to a pair of projects he had been working on intermittently for some time. The Amazon jungle had interrupted him once, outer space twice—and then his ocean cruise. Now, months later, the ServoCat was ready to prowl. The other—ready to be revealed in good time to secret-loving eyes, eyes that were attentive indeed. Felinity was clever; her technological cousin was stunning.

“My father and I always thought colonization of the moon would somehow humble the human race into seeing things differently,” Tom said quietly. “You can’t see national borders and differently colored countries from the Sea of Tranquility. But here we are with our secrets.”

The Major gave a slight nod, perhaps just a hint of sympathy. “Even your trip to Mars wasn’t enough to stun us into sweetness and light. Well, there’s always Jupiter.”

“If there’s a solution, sir, I’m afraid it doesn’t lie in space.”

Daytinson nudged his lieutenant and indicated that the three should rise and relocate. There were chatting men and women around them in the long passenger cabin, officious types, many in white shirts, some in uniform. They came from the reaches of Europe and the United States, NATO people, scientists and soldiers and persons with carefully obscured occupations who had first gathered in New York before embarking with Tom for Denmark. Tom Swift had a mind for many things, but names were not among them. He was glad to follow the other two down the aisle into the separate cabin toward the rear, pulling shut a thick door that the young inventor knew would shield them from prying eyes, ears, and electronics.

“This is not preschool, and some things are not for ‘sharing time,’ hmm?” Daytinson observed, taking his swivel-seat in the long, empty compartment. “Our allies understand that certain aspects of this matter are best kept well under the radar. For the present. They’ll learn about the key reason for this gathering in due course.”

“I’m sorry, Major,” said Sersackly, “but to be frank, the briefing—”

“Perhaps a bit too brief? For me too, Kerwin. So I’m asking Tom to paint us the picture in his own way, clear and colloquial. We military men lose touch with the normal use of human language over the years.”

The two men leaned back in their chairs and waited for Tom to speak. He felt he had been given his orders, and didn’t care for it. “You both know the basics, obviously,” he began. “My synaptor records and transfers memories of a certain kind from one person to another.”

The Major interrupted. “As you’re busy squirming, Lieutenant, I’ll ask your question for you. Tom, what do you mean by ‘of a certain kind’? Nice memories? Guilty memories? I have a few of the latter I wouldn’t mind re-enjoying at leisure. In a secure setting.”

“Didn’t you invent this sort of mind-reading technology a while back?” interjected Kerwin Sersackly.

“The synaptor does use some principles applied by my thoughtograph imager, true. Also the neurintel control system I developed for the exosuit—”

“Now in wide military use,” pointlessly interjected the Major. “Tanks and aircraft; drones, too. Machinery becomes your muscles. Act without hesitation. Trained impulse. Ultimately our men in the field—women too, of course—become situationally transparent. Orders go out from senior command, pass through some number of bodies and brains, and are executed without hemming and hawing, instantly, efficiently. The onboard brains of our troops need not be distracted from more pressing duties. Details handled by reflex action.”

Tom stared at the man, dialing back some reactions that would have accomplished nothing. “The kind of thing I’m calling memories isn’t what most people mean by that word, sir. It doesn’t involve visualizing something, or words in your mind, or even data. You don’t ‘remember’ anything. It’s more along the lines of specific sets of learned muscle habits and responses.”

“I see. More ‘reflexes’,” Sersackly repeated. “I take it we’re supposed to use that kind of terminology. But, pardon my asking, what’s the significance of it? What are we supposed to do with it?”

Annoyed by the question, the Shoptonian was blunt. “If you military people don’t see any use for it, why is this demo top-secret? I’ve agreed to stay completely out of touch with, with anyone, for six days.”

“What Kerwin is trying to say,” said Daytinson, “and it’s not a bad point, is that transferring a certain proficiency in pointing and shooting from a veteran warrior to a green newbie is obviously helpful, but—our professional military already has had many generations of practice in the fine art of extracting the man from the mouse. Or woman.”

Did these manly men in uniform know anything about this latest Tom Swift invention? “What I’m referring to is quite a bit more extensive than—than I think you gentlemen realize.

“Look. Very little that human beings do shows ‘thinking’—er, no offense. For example, right now I’m giving an account of something complicated. But it’s not as if I’m thinking about which nerves and muscles to activate in order to produce the words I need, or where in my brain the exact words are to be found. I ‘order up’ the sort of thing I want, the general idea I want to get across, and purely unconscious processes take over. The muscles, the cortex, the nervous system tap into what you might call a stored program—think of it as an app—that carries out my desires as best it can. It’s trained by a lifetime of experience.”

“In other words, the dumb-servant part of your brain,” noted the Lieutenant.

But Tom shook his head. “Dumb? It’s a lot smarter and more sophisticated than any computer yet developed, Lieutenant. ‘It’ knows how to compare alternatives, how to adapt quickly and smoothly to rapidly changing situations that can’t easily be reduced to numbers and equations. Or do you think ballet dancers carefully think through their next moves on the fly?

“If we knew how to transfer the totality of a person’s ‘programmed neural response-set’ to someone else—that is, copy it off and print it out on someone’s brain, directly—that second person could get through a big part of a normal day in a semiconscious state, like a kind of sleep-walker. His body would react appropriately to stimuli, sights and sounds, like a fantastic humanlike robot; in sci-fi they usually call it an android. But what I’m talking about isn’t an artificial device that emulates human behavior but a real, biological human body that retains its own natural mind and personality, its identity, on top of the various modular apps encoded in its nervous system. The part that was born still does the thinking, if it wants to; the body is left to exercise the transferred skills as it needs to.”

“Mm. You see, Lieutenant? Skills learned without learning. The reactions are borrowed from somebody else and implanted. Play the piano like—you know, like Paganinni, like Boticelli, like Spumoni—without one minute of practice. Master Jiu-Jitsu! Kick sand in someone’s face on the beach! All that.”

Tom’s comment was wry. “Call it the ultimate how-to book, Major. And it reads itself.”

Sersackly regarded the famous young inventor with a sour expression. “And so. Unamplified people like me will end up obsolete and out of a job. Granted, in a good cause. In the long run protecting our freedoms is worth human obsolescence. Your machine can really make a full-functioning human-droid, Swift?”

“No. That’s not even on the horizon. But at Swift Enterprises we’ve been able to copy and transfer some limited, very specific skill-memory from one brain to another. A friend of mine, who eats a lot but never even boils water, absorbed some pretty fancy cooking skills!” Tom smiled at the thought of his pal Bud Barclay’s sessions in the sacred kitchen of Enterprises chef Chow Winkler. And Chow’s bug-eyed reaction. “Incidentally, the term we use for such cortically-enhanced humans is cybrid—living hybrids straddling the line between cybernetic functioning and conscious human thought.”

“Welcome to Earth’s new species, Cyber sapiens,” smiled Daytinson.

“Who knows the limit of the cybrid synaptor when it comes to—”

The connecting door clicked and opened. The young woman who walked in was dressed in the tightly efficient uniform of the NATO jet’s flight attendants. “Sorry,” she mouthed, meekly. “Major, Captain Andres is asking you to come forward. He needs some information before we begin our descent. We’ve entered Danish airspace.”

The man nodded briskly and rose. “Hold these bright thoughts, gentlemen.” As he exited the compartment, the attendant politely closed and clicked the door behind the military man, remaining. She approached Tom and the Lieutenant with a gleaming smile, like a mother moonlighting as a fashion model. “Might either of you like some refreshments?”

Tom noted her name badge: Yvonne. “Nothing for me, ma’am.”

The lieutenant shook his head frowningly. “The food and drink on these NATO buckets is as lousy as on commercial airlines.”

The woman nodded and took a step back. She paused behind Lt. Sersackly’s seat, which was turned to face Tom. To the young inventor’s amazement, she began to unbutton her blouse! She put a cautioning finger to her painted lips and gave Tom a sly wink.

Four buttons down, she reached into her blouse and withdrew a small object that cradled easily in her hand. Tom saw her move that hand toward the back of Sersackly’s head. There was a slight but oddly pungent sound, and, instantly, another such sound from the Lieutenant’s throat. The man’s head jerked and crimson came from his startled eyes. A tremor ended in a slump.

“Yvonne” looked down at the man calmly and gave him a hard nudge. Lt. Sersackly toppled sideways onto the floor, gracelessly. “What does one say? Should I say, Such a promising career cut short? —But who am I to make such a judgment, mm? I know nothing about him at all. Except that he has departed this flight in midair.” She looked at Tom Swift with her warm efficient smile and brandished her tiny weapon. “Please remain seated, as we say. This thing is called, in my language, a killmaker. It enters the skin small and silent, and then becomes a matter of grave importance.

“Oh my, Tom, your face looks just like a pile of wet sand. Have you a question, perhaps?

“I’ll anticipate. No, Tom, I do not envision killing you. That decision is well above my pay grade, and of course we only have so much room on the floor. My pleasant task is to facilitate a last-minute change of destination. Now in progress. Yes yes, it’s true, all too true.

“Tell me, American, are you of a religious bent? Do you believe in Satan? You are to meet him. Let us hope you are not the paragon of virtue and goodness that they say you are. Satan hates virtue and goodness. And when Satan hates something, you know, it ceases to be.”













YVONNE stood politely, expectantly, weapon in hand, as if awaiting a drink order. Tom was unable to speak for long moments. His eyes seemed to have locked onto Lt. Sersackly’s spreading blood pool. “Where are you taking us?” he finally choked out in the smallest of voices.

“Did you say us?” The woman resumed her condescending smile. “But there is no more ‘us’ as far as you’re concerned. Those blustery predatory types in the forward cabin—whatever their country, they pinch and leer—alas for them all. The click of the door signaled the rapid end of breathable air for them. I’m glad of the soundproofing. Their cries and struggles—well, let us think of pleasanter matters. I shall think of the clever means by which we removed the pilots from this equation.”


“Two more nice smart ladies of the sort businessmen used to call stewardesses. We are a turncoat crew, we in our nice little tight costumes engineered for comfort and allure. Our hospitality is no longer what one might expect. But really, we anticipate no complaints to management.”

Tom forced himself to recover a degree of equilibrium, tribute to a life of danger and surprise. “I suppose I can guess where we’re headed. It’s not even a big change of course, is it. Kranjovia. And your beloved leader, Ulvo Maurig—good casting for the role of Satan.”

It had called itself, in the end, the Democratic Workers Republic of Kranjovia. Orphaned by the collapse of its Soviet backer and captor, the tiny sliver of a Baltic Sea nation had struggled heroically to preserve and protect the blessings of brutal totalitarianism under a home-grown dictator with a big and powerful family. Maurig, permanent General-Secretary of the Workers Prosperity Party, had challenged the West many times, and the projects of Tom Swift Enterprises on too-numerous occasions. “I’ve lost track of our last bout,” snarled Tom. “The sunken tanker? No, I think it was his involvement in the Russian polar business. Do you recall, Yvonne? Hm?”

“My name is not Yvonne, tall little man.” She took an intra-com from a pocket and spoke. “M’ur tra comparkt bek. Tom Swift sub’hyott.” A voice said a few words back in the Kranjov language, and not-Yvonne smiled brightly. “All is well,” she said to the young inventor as if reassuring him. “Don’t worry; we are on schedule. I will sit here a few seats distant, sit radiantly, watching you, holding my killmaker, as we cross Denmark. We shall then take an irregular course. At last, a leap across the cold Baltic and—Kranjovia DWR.”

“Born there? Are you a patriot as well as a killer?”

She laughed lightly. “Oh no, no. Who would ever choose to be born in such a place? I am Estonian. Still, I am as easily corruptible as anyone, my dear young Tom. At age twelve I chose to worry no more about morality and all that nonsense. Ah well. I’m happy to let you decide whether I am better or worse off for my decision. Think it over as you sit there unmoving.”

Tom sat unmoving. An hour passed.

The landing in Kranjovia was sudden. The deck tilted. Sun-bright ground came charging up from beneath, a barren airfield. Then some jolts.

“Welcome to East Serpentopol,” smiled his keeper. “Go ahead and visit the small boys’ room if you wish. Some things must be done before we go forward; there are corpses. Incidentally, please forget anything I said as you boarded about ‘emergency exits.’ The only emergency exiting permitted on this airline is—”

“By way of the ceiling,” Tom finished.

Eventually the door was thrown open by two burly men in the red and gray uniforms of the Kranjovian military, guns at ready. As they herded the young inventor down the aisle and passed his turncoat attendant, she said sweetly: “Buh-bye, buh-bye!”

They left the NATO jet, cleared of bodies, and Tom stood in the sun on the tarmac between the two men. “Mind if I smoke?” he asked dryly.

“It is not permitted, sir,” replied one of the men.

“Good. I’ve never done it. It’s bad for you.”

The three were facing the tail end of the jet. The cargo bay doors had swung open. Though he expected it, Tom was nonetheless startled as something big surged down the ramp, moving lithely.

The ServoCat was about the size of a small compact car—a minicar. It looked less like a cat than like the animated skeleton of a big and powerful sabretooth from the Ice Age. Its body was made of contoured tubular shapes, modular segments joined together in some manner not obvious to the eye. No machinery was visible within its bony frame; it was composed more of gaps than body. The Cat—Felinity—had no tail, but it did have something protruding between its shoulders that might have been taken for a head, or at least a thick neck. But there was nothing like a face. Instead the prow-bulge bristled with crustacean-like “arms” and mechanical grippers.

One thing was very catlike: how it moved, gracefully, liquidly, prowlingly.

Wouldn’t be hard for spies to learn how to use the controller, Tom thought. Probably someone still standing within the cargo hold. No doubt one of the murderous flight attendants.

Felinity stood immobile a few yards from the bottom of the ramp. Something else was carted down and lifted into a van bearing several very-serious-looking armed men, front and back. It was, of course, the big padded crate containing Tom’s synaptor equipment. “My ServoCat could’ve helped your pals with that big box,” Tom remarked to, or at least toward, his guards.

“Kranjovian soldiers do not require assistance, sir,” one of them stated.

“You’re assisted by those guns.”

“They are to assist you—sir.”

Eventually the guns assisted Tom into a large auto, a kind of stretch limo for VIP prisoners. There were armed men on either side of him, two more in the seat behind him, one in the seat in front of him, next to the driver. “Nice,” said the youngish American. “I feel like a celebrity.” No one appreciated his bravado. “Um, I hate to mention it, but the windows back here are a little smeary. Matter of fact, opaque. Mind if I roll one down? Oh, never mind—it seems there’s nothing to roll it down with.”

The car began to move, sluggishly. Tom wasn’t asked to buckle his seatbelt.

He could see a little through part of the front windshield. They drove through the big flat field, past flag-adorned tanks and helicopters, then onto a narrow paved road that seemed to run straight, like a taut rope, toward the horizon. He wondered if the van with the cybrid synaptor were following. Or was it the vehicle ahead? And where had Felinity been penned?

They passed forested land and low hills, then assayed a long causeway bridge over what seemed to be marshland. Finally a turn brought a view of a skyline, Serpentopol proper. There was no traffic in front of them. “No jams on Kranjovian freeways. No cars! Is the city inhabited?” I suppose the Hero-Leader has had everyone shot! he thought. He refused to face the fact that he was desperately afraid: What a time to be stuck without a repelatron.

They entered the more populous district of the Kranjovian capital. At last Tom could see, but not hear, traffic and people. “You know, they don’t look all that oppressed,” he said aloud. “I just saw a baby who wasn’t crying. It’s refreshing to see a city without satellite dishes. Those cars!—I’d always hoped they’d bring back the ‘fin’ look.”

Now tall buildings were all around them in some semblance of a downtown district, with shoppers up and down broad sidewalks who were trying to bustle, as if by command. Suddenly the driver glanced down at what was evidently the dashboard screen of a rear-view camera and muttered something. Another look and a louder mutter. Then the mutter became a sharp exclamation—“Voktla!”—and Tom was pressed back in his seat by a screeching acceleration. One of the armed guards gasped out “Borniz! Cuad ish ni?”

“Ga veek! I’vokt veek sas ril—”

The gist of the matter under discussion became clear as the car jolted violently. Its back end seemed to fling itself upward, and the car rolled sideways with great force. The young inventor glimpsed a sidewalk, fleeing pedestrians with gaping mouths—some pointing at something behind the car—and the wall of a building. The wall slapped the side of the car. The car windows didn’t shatter—Tom would have thought even less of Kranjovian materials science if they had—but the whole side of the vehicle seemed to snap and rip, twisting the side door open at a sick angle.

Exactly what happened to the guard seated to Tom’s right, next to the door, was unclear. But Tom found himself catapulted through the still-crunching opening, hitting the sidewalk in something like a somersault and sliding on his shoulder. The car rumbled along away from him, leaving him behind as it gouged the building wall and shattered windows.

The Shoptonian was probably in pain, but was too startled and confused to pay attention. He gained his feet somehow and stumbled woozily toward a dark alleyway. He almost rammed the side of a dumpster, but hands from behind his back jerked him aside at the last moment. “You—this way—come! Run run run! I’ll steer you!”

He was steered along the alley, almost pushed, as the noisy chaos behind became more distant. A barely-glimpsed side street, another alley—and he found himself sitting and panting next to a blank-faced door, propped limply against a grimy wall.

His helper was a slender young woman. Her hair was light in shade, and either very stylish or very disheveled. So was her outfit. Her big eyes, rimmed in dark color, darted about, then turned toward Tom. “Stop talking!” she commanded.


“You’ve been babbling. You didn’t know? American English. I can tell. I studied it. Not bad, eyn? But vokt, let’s keep quiet. Otherwise, pardon me, I’ll knock you black.”

Tom clenched his teeth. She was right—he had been making noise without hearing himself.

There were sounds in the far distance, perhaps sirens. Tom shifted and leaned back against the door, barely conscious. When he regained himself all was silent and the young woman—he would call her a girl—was studying him. “We look for car accidents. Accidents are good stuff. Bad ones are tutrag!—brilliant, wonderful, the best. B’cause, do you see, we can take things, from the car, from the people. We take them to sell—black market. Nice way to live! In America no one really lives. They say.”

“Why did you help me?” Tom rasped out.

“Why wouldn’t I? You look interesting. Americans are interesting. I like people who make me excited. Where were they taking you, the Mauriggers?”

“To the main Maurigger... I guess.”

“Y’hey, Ulvo the Man, the man himself! Well! Then maybe I should kill you. What do you think?”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” he replied. “I might change my mind if the pain gets worse, though.”

Her back to the dirty wall, she slid down and sat next to him. “So who is your name?”

“I’m—” He hesitated slightly. Should he provide his real name? An alert would probably be broadcast...

“Oh don’t worry it, Tom Swift, I already know. Here—your State of New York driving license.” She was holding his wallet open in front of him. He didn’t raise his hand to take it. She shrugged and tossed it in a trash can yawning nearby. “Eyn, forget it, you won’t need it. This is Kranjof’yo, manboy. If they’re not so sure who you are, they just shoot you.”

“Very efficient,” commented the young inventor. “As I don’t see any obvious pockets on you to pick, what’s your name?”

“My name is ‘O’,” she replied.

“Go on.”

“That’s all the on there is to go.”

Tom nodded. “Got it. Short for ‘oh-who-cares’?”

“Like to pry? My name is—I’ll make it a word in English, very similar—Oblivya.” She spelled the English form. “See? Same root. Oblivion! From Greek or Latin or something.”

“How about a last name... O?”

The girl shrugged. “No reason not to, Tom. The lists I’m on have so many names on them it doesn’t make a difference. I’m just another nobody. Oblivya Zyg.”

Tom offered his hand. It had red on it. Oblivya Zyg only stared at it, impassively. He lowered it, and she said: “So what were you wanted for? Don’t worry, I won’t ransom you. Who needs trouble? There are plenty of car accidents on these streets. Fresh harvest every day.”

“Listen... O... we can talk and I’ll tell you my life story, but...” He was wincing and his tongue didn’t care to work.

“They say that’s what happens,” she nodded, with no trace of sympathy. “You’re in shock, you don’t feel it—and then you do. Anything broken?”

He moved some hands and limbs, tentatively. “I don’t think so. Bleeding here on my arm... maybe my shoulder...”

“OK, Tom.” Now O offered her hand. She was stronger than Tom had expected, helping him to his feet without a grunt—except from Tom. “Let’s go.”


“To a place.”

O drew him along, down a lonely street, into another dismal alleyway, past a rust-laden door that stood ajar, into a long darkness that crunched beneath their feet. And it smelled.

There were splashes of sunlight here and there, beaming through gaps and half-covered windows; they accomplished little. Between the pain and the dark, Tom seemed to be struggling through a fog. O seemed to know by heart the circuitous route through the ruins of some lost civilization.

A few dozen steps and a more substantial door stood in their path, with an ornate and blackened doorknob.

“So here we are, Tom,” she said, standing in front of the door and looking at him. “For better or worse. Maybe both.”

From the dimness right, left, and behind came three knife-points, probing Tom’s neck!














“NOTHING PERSONAL,” O said to Tom as he stiffened. “Relax. Got to let our security boys feel useful. Call this our metal detector. Three metal detectors.” She said something and the points withdrew. As they came into view, Tom saw that they were not knives but big rusty nails. “Rusty metal going into you, not good,” commented O blandly. “You know? Tetanus—they give shots in your tummy. Best to avoid.”

The “security boys” were two boys and a girl. Tom realized that all of them, O included, were very young, probably teenagers or thereabouts.

“You’re not going to frisk me?” inquired the young inventor.

“Already have,” O stated. “Back in the alley. No beepers, no little microphones, no wires of any kind. No money, of course—it’s in my pocket next to your keys.”

“Pretty thorough search.”

“Very thorough. Top to bottom, out to in. Actually ‘in’ was first. I determined quickly that you are indeed an American. As we say, my fingers have big eyes.”

“You thought I was lying?”

“Everyone lies. It’s a matter of degree.”

The other girl wedged herself forward and apparently unlocked the door, heaving it aside on ancient hinges. The ugly sound made a doorbell superfluous.

The five entered. The room was big and broad, lit only by a few skylights somewhere high above and by tiny, dirty windows here and there; Tom saw no hint of electricity. It was dotted with rubbish which revealed itself, on closer inspection, to be pretending to be furniture—wooden boxes, barrels, rickety chairs, sofas spilling their guts, some tables, the remains of a desk. No beds, but mattresses and blankets here and there. Some crude pup-tents, made of carpet material, had been raised on broomsticks.

The sullen, rumpled room had a population. There were more teenagers, twenty or thirty, randomly displayed in all their sad shabbiness. Low conversations and laughter wound down and stopped as the room met Tom Swift.

“Look up,” said O to Tom.

What he saw was disorienting. The room had no ceiling!—none to speak of, at any rate. The original ceiling seemed to have been pulled apart, leaving only a few bare beams. Only a fringe remained of the floor of the room above. And the yawning vacancy went on. Tom could see upward, through wide and ragged gaps, five floors of tumbledown emptiness with yellow skylight beams providing a trace of luminance.

And pale faces with eyes. All the floors were inhabited—where bits of floor existed to inhabit.

Tom murmured something. “English! You, whadchu say?” demanded one of the boys.

Nothing much,” replied the American weakly. “I’ve seen something like this before—trees in the Amazon rain forest with little animals looking down at me from high up.”

There came a flurry of quiet, sullen translation. A girl said, “Good truth, American. Little animals! That’s all we are here.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“If you please, shut up,” said O. She made a brief speech, loud enough to be heard high above. At the end, the others made sounds suggesting grudging acceptance.

O nodded and turned to Tom. “I told them you’re a lost American named Tom, on the run from the Mauriggers, which means you’re okay’d. I said I trusted you. That counts, because everyone knows I’m crazy-paranoid. For me to trust someone, someone must be very much trustable.”

“Paranoia taught you to frisk well.”

“Mmm, when I’m interested. If not, goodbye body parts.”

“I’ll... I’ll do my best to keep you interested.” Without being interested himself, the young inventor plopped down on a deceased sofa nearby. He found he was gasping. “I—I think I need bandages... or at least...”

“I will help this Tom,” said a woman who seemed rather older than the others. She came over carrying a jiggling leather purse, stylish and expensive looking, no doubt a survivor of an auto accident. She took out bandages and tubes of ointment. “I am called the name Parvigga,” she said to Tom.

“She was a nurse,” explained O. “Her husband one day found himself under a moving tank. She came to us. She gives pills and other good things.”

“Something—for pain...” Tom gasped. “That’s all I need now.”

One of the boys chuckled. “Hah, you say! But later—!”

“Shut, Woor,” reproved O. “Most likely there will not be a later for this one.”

“Kranjovian op-optimism,” Tom remarked sourly.

“Truer than you think, Tom.”

Somehow Tom found himself waking up. Which implied that he had been asleep, perhaps for some time. It seemed to be night in Serpentopol, leavened only by a distant streetlamp framed in a broken window.

O sat near him, squatting on a pile of blankets. Tom was still on the sofa, but stretched out. “Interested enough to do another frisk?” he murmured, clearing his throat.

“The blue stuff put you to sleep,” she said. “Why live through pain? The Blue keeps you from dreaming, though. Or maybe it isn’t sleep. Eyn? Still, works much. Feel better?”


The nurse, Parvigga, emerged from the soup of darkness. “So Tom. No infection. Swelling, okay. You had fever. Bones good. I put cloth—you say, what, bandages—over the rip of skin and bruising.”

“What was happen to this one? What he do?” asked an unseen boy. “I am practice more English, see.”

“What did I do? Aerobics at a really cheap gym,” Tom answered. “I want my money back.”

A voice commented, “See? Like on TV. Americans always joke. No sense, but whole audience is laughing.”

“It’s called a laughtrack,” explained Tom.

As his deep-set blue eyes settled down to their job, he could make out more of the big room. The sturdy, grungy youth of Serpentopol were bunched in lazy groups, some sitting around single candles as if around a campfire, talking quietly in their guttural language. There were many outbursts of laughter and the usual indignations and grumbles. A fistfight started and subsided after a swing or two.

There were other sounds, too. Some of the pup-tents were occupied and in use. O gestured at one. “Babies are made here, Tom. Why, I don’t know. Well, sentiment and lack of dedication.”


“To the cause.”

“What is the cause?”

“Living one day more. This is Kranjovia.”

Tom was provided some candle-warmed food, unidentified, and some drink that wrinkled his nose and made him cough. O gazed at him silently. “I feel better,” he said to her, finishing.

“Good. You would feel worse if you knew what you just ate.”

“I don’t need to know everything all at once, O,” he retorted wryly. “But—just what is this place? Who are you and these people?”

She shrugged, glancing at some of the others who sat nearby and were listening. “This place—what would we call it in your language, I wonder.”

A girl said: “In his language? I know!—from that new TV show we saw, the one stolen from American. ‘Hey Dobe, this is, like, nowheresville!’, remember?”

“Good as anything,” nodded O. “So this is Nowheresville, Tom, and we are the Nobodies. We live in places like this, or in the Salt Swamp, or sewer pipes, or empty bunkers, or piles of wood that used to be farmhouses. No condos for us, no Manhattan apartments as big as whole countries, with maids. The Party tells us most Americans are slaves, made to clean floors with toothbrushes.”

“Do you believe that, O?” asked the young inventor.

She smirked. “Believe? No one believes anything. The Party people don’t believe. Just words and paper, you know? But you have to pretend to believe, eyn?”

“Are you all runaways?”

“Everyone is running from something, do you not think so? Here, we are mostly kids. We hear the rumors, find each other. Mostly the Mauriggers leave us alone—for we are Nobodies, after all.”

“But—your families—”

“We are our families,” interjected a young boy with hair that seemed to be living a life of its own. “American... I will try to say... things happen, Mother or Father dead or in prison, people starving, people sick...”

“And y’hey, television one hour a day. Rocking music not allowed in public, can you stand it?” a girl added. “We should live like that? What we hear from visitors, from Poland, from Russia—like a dream. And America!—they say Americans have gone to other planets and live on the moon. The great big moon! Pardon if I ask, and do not laugh, sir—could it be true?”

Tom had to grin. “It’s true.”

“And the dead, they are brought back to life?”

“That’s what we call television reruns.” But then Tom’s mood hardened; face turned frown. He turned to O. “I’m grateful to you. I know you’re outcasts here and living on the edge—you have to be careful.”

“Yes—to stay alive.”

“But... O... I’m in a bad situation. Things are in the works that need to be stopped. I can’t remain here, but I don’t know what to do, or what you’ll allow me to do.”

“So I think you’re asking, What are my plans?” responded the girl. “I will tell you. I will show you! Take my dainty hand, Tom—over there, in that corner, is a tent. It is vacant. Or I’ll make it be. How sweet, we will be alone now, just the two of us, and you will learn and I will teach. And afterwards—let us hope I still find you interesting!”














SHE TOOK the young inventor’s hand and drew him to his feet. What can I do? he thought. Science was, after all, about taking risks and exploring the unknown...

Some of the Nobodies lounging nearby made snickering sounds and enacted an attitude of innuendo. It seemed to Tom that they were exchanging a few knowing glances too many.

O guided him, gently, into the tent, which was a burlap lean-to against the wall, with blankets layered on the floor. “Let us face the wall,” she said softly. They knelt side by side in the darkness and O brought her face next to his.

“For this, we must be as quiet as we can be,” she whispered into his ear.

“I—I will—I’ll certainly—uh—”

“Please. You act like I’m about to start slicing. Should I be insulted? Meh, I don’t care.”

“Uh, then—”

“I have to whisper this,” she said into Tom’s ear. “These blankets, they only muffle just so much. I’m going to tell you some things, and ask you to do some things. The others here, my friends—they can’t know of this.”

Tom nodded, his nod brushing her cheek. “I understand. I take it you’re not just another Nobody.”

“Far from it, American,” she declared. “I know enough not to give your whole name to these others.”

“Then I take it you know not just my name but who I am.”

“I’m wised-up. I’ve had some education—I mean I educated myself between my hours of education in Maurig’s ‘schools,’ which are stupid things. Of course, even The Man Himself has to admit your existence, Tom Swift. Even in Kranjovia we see our new little moon, Nestria, over our heads, and we know of the young guy who went there, for America. Some rumors can’t be stopped. Capitalist hog that you may be, you are a hog who goes to Mars and the bottom of the sea, and who makes flying cars and rays that push things. A bugging device that works across time!—you can bet Maurig doesn’t want that to get around in Serpentopol. He lives on secrets, like on oxygen.”

Tom produced, unseen, a smile. He said, “So I’m an important hog. Are you afraid your friends might turn me in, for a reward?”

“Maybe a little afraid,” O conceded. “But mostly, I want no complications. I don’t want the Mauriggers to take you away. You are too valuable to me.”

“Why? You want me to invent something?” he asked dryly.

The girl named O was silent, as if organizing thoughts into tactics. “You are the first intelligent outsider I have met, Tom. You are American. You know how to do things. You’re not just another half-dead Kranjie trying to get along and keep shut and keep off the lists. The Mauriggers don’t know where you are, most not even that you’re here in this country. Just the inside crew.”

“I see,” Tom said. “And I see that you have quite a bit to tell me that you prefer to hide, O.”


“No,” he interrupted, “let me say it before you deploy whatever made-up story you’ve put together. You know who I am, and I think you have a pretty good idea of what the ‘inside crew’ wants with me, and, I’d guess, how frantic they are right now to find me. I think you knew I was in that car and when I would pass you on the street. This wasn’t one of those ‘accidents’ you Nobodies look for and loot. You knew it would happen, didn’t you.” A pause, and Tom added: “I think you’re a pretty special Nobody, O.”

If she sighed it was unheard. Her voice retained its usual careless insolence. “Y’hey, this is great!—you’re somewhat smarter than I thought.”

“You’re working with whoever caused that crash.”

“In a way. You might say so.”

“Are you here in this Nowheresville as some kind of spy? An informer?”

“Use that word again,” she hissed out, “and I will rip off those bandages and set free more blood! I am loyal to the Nobodies and poison to the Mauriggers!

“But it is true—I do know things, and I keep them to myself. If others knew, they would put themselves in danger. We are a pretty wild raving crew, my kind. For a long time I’ve known how to find out some of the Mauriggers’ secrets, even the biggest ones. I won’t explain, American; you don’t need to know all the little decorations of my life.”

“Then just what are we discussing, Oblivya Zyg?”

“Tom Swift, now I’ll tell you. Please cut your ears sharp for this.

“Years ago—I was very young, and I’m older now than you think—a young man came to my village to work in the local office of the Bureau of Corrected Living—the government’s enforcers. But he was... different. His name was Thorth. He was suave and strong of body, and his smiling teeth—”

“I get the idea, O.”

“Of a surety you do. So yes, we met, we liked each other, in secret we loved—people can’t help it, even in Kranjovia, Tom.”

“We do it in America now and then,” commented the young inventor.

“You would almost have to, or there would be no more Americans,” O declared smartly. “Though I was too young to make a pledge, I did. We were to run off; as part of the government, he knew some ways to get across the border. It’s not too hard to cross into Poland.”

“He must’ve had really great teeth for you to trust a Maurigger.”

“But he wasn’t, Tom. He knew The Man Himself was stripping the country, even more than the Soviet occupiers did in the old days. Thorth was in touch with people, not only the Movement here, but in other countries, even in your government in the United States of America—for, one thinks, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be conquered and enslaved. To get rid of the Mauriggers, Tom, I would use many a toothbrush on many a floor, you see?”

“But he broke the deal. The one you two had.”

“It was broken for him. He was suddenly posted to another district, very far. But he taught me... how to find out things, to use his contacts. And so I found out, he’d jumped from his bus and gone into hiding. He became much wanted, a criminal, a traitor.”

“Okay,” the Shoptonian began, “but what—”

“Please be as good a listener as you are a scientist!” she insisted. “We have not much time. So—Thorth was on the loose. He managed to get messages to me a few times at first, with great risk to us both. That’s true passion. But for years, nothing. I was in desperation; I became more of a rebel than ever, one of the Nobodies. Men ruin you one way or another, don’t you think? Then—

“Then after so long I caught in the breeze some information. Thorth was alive and free-ranging, maybe here in Serpentopol; no one was sure. But he was no longer a Political—we use that word. He had turned into some kind of crime-thug. It wasn’t just propaganda from the Mauriggers, it was true.”

“Some sort of gang?”

“No. He works alone. He steals things, very expertly, like it was nothing, no sweat—and I can tell you, he used to sweat very freely. The authorities call him by a special code name, Grystofrat Lahe—‘Lahe’ means ‘cool.’ So the word went out, keep watch for Grys Lahe. Rewards offered. Firing squad if you blink too many eyes.”

Tom nodded. “I understand. But if we’re in a hurry, O, maybe you could summarize the rest. Not that your saga isn’t interesting.”

“Very well.” Her voice was like a glare. “In the middle of all this I was almost able to get in touch with him, not long ago, after years of trying. He got a message to me that it was time for we two, see? To flee together from the Big Kran and all of it, to live elsewhere...”

“On the proceeds from his, er—occupation.”

“It didn’t happen. But something happened. Starting just a—”

Abruptly a widespread and forceful commotion, followed by frantic shushing, broke out in Nowheresville, batting away O’s words. “Something’s happening right now!” snapped the young inventor. He trundled on his knees to the tent flap and peered out. Flashing lights—red, white—were breaking the dimness through the small windows on one wall. And sound was leaking in—distant sirens!

O grasped Tom’s forearm. “It’s a raid,” she hissed. “The wolfen—the civic police!”

“Have they surrounded—”

“Not here. I can tell—down the block. Happens now and then. We all scatter to our holes when it does. They could come here to search. Sometimes they do.”

It seemed the Nobodies of Nowheresville knew the drill. Tom made out a few darting forms, candle-gleams being snuffed—and suddenly the big room was empty and dead silent. Clattering on the floors above also died away. O said nothing more but yanked on Tom’s sleeve.

They ran through a small, half-hidden door, down hallways, and into the cold dark outside. “Up!” O urged, pointing across at a none too reliable fire escape ladder on the adjacent building.

They went up. Rust flaked and groaned.

Tom and O clambered onto the roof of the neighboring building, its windows dark—Serpentopol seemed half abandoned, the other half uninhabitable. “No moon, but stay low,” O commanded. They made their way past the peak of the roof and started down the other slope, Tom taking the lead.

Whatever the building’s roof was made of was both frail and obstinate. Something gave way with a crunch beneath the Shoptonian’s feet, which were still wearing the polished dress shoes they had arrived in. He stumbled forward down the slope of the roof, trying to regain balance with waving arms. He grabbed at an ancient television aerial as he passed; it snapped like a pretzel, and he fell to his knees, rolling, sliding forward, trying to push himself back. And on the far side of his two feet was the edge—and a long drop!

Tom choked out a cry for help, desperately clawing at the shingled roof as it slid by. He groaned—and realized that he had come to a stop. His heels were beyond the edge and resting in a rain gutter.

“Okay, come on, got you,” Oblivya gasped out behind him. She had snagged his shirt and dragged him back, with several violent moves, to a safer perch.

They sat next to each other, panting. “Welcome to Serpentopol, American,” she muttered. “See that blob of light, way away? Government offices and tourist traps. See that darkness everywhere else? That’s Serpentopol.”

“Thanks... for...”

“Let us just say everything.”

Tom nodded and let a cool breeze blow past. He could smell swamp and, from far away, ocean. “O, is this private enough for you? Want to continue your soap-opera romance? Or shall I?”

“Mighty snarky. I should’ve let you ride the rain gutter to the ground.”

“Some of what you’ve been saying is probably—somewhat, and not very much—true,” Tom pronounced bluntly. “Maybe you do have a lost boyfriend with multiple names. Maybe finding this ‘Grys Lahe’ guy is the price of your helping me escape from this workers’ paradise.”

“Maybe you’re catching on, space hero.”

The young inventor gazed off, toward the far clouds and some peeking stars. “I’m pretty sure that ‘raid’ we just ran from was phony. You started off saying we had only a little time; you knew it was going to happen, even when, approximately. I’d say those wolfen of yours were called in on a bogus tip from you yourself—maybe through your contacts, the ones who feed you inside scoops.”

“Is this what scientists do, Tom? Making theories? So why would a nice Nobody do such a thing?”

“Maybe you’re not so ‘nice,’ O,” he said back. “Anyway, I’d guess this was all about a staged excuse to get me away from Nowheresville without anyone raising—whatever Kranjovians raise.”

She sat motionlessly watching the night, not raising even an eyebrow or anything else. “I am nice,” she finally said. “I could be even nicer, Tom, nicer to you. But you’re all business. You don’t relax. I’m surprised your skin can be creased, much less bruised.”

“If you want my help, tell me what I need to know. You can skip the intimacies, please.”

“T’vokt,” she pronounced—a rude suggestion in Kranjov Tom just happened to know. “Well, if we are to be only friends, then—

“I don’t work for the government, and I don’t exactly work for the Movement. I don’t care to say that I work for anyone. I’m my own person. For years now. The Nobodies are my friends. They put me up in Nowheresville when I need a place. And I help them too, in little ways, when the neighborhood gets too hot.

“Yes sir, an anomalous tip—is that the word? Everyone scatters, but one thing more: my friends think I have a good—that is, better—reason to run off with this American guy. The Mauriggers know about our place. They keep a lazy eye on it when they don’t have anything horrible to do. They come onto the block, we all run away like ducklings, as usual. No big deal, me being hand in hand with someone, running down an alley and up over a roof.”

“I gather you’ve done it before.”

“No, American, I’ve done it frequently. Let us say I am a playful girl.”

“All right. So in some vague way you think you’ve thrown the watchers off the scent—maybe even some possible watchers planted right in Nowheresville?”

“They are my friends. But who can police their friends, eyn? They—”

“Oh, it’s pretty clear,” Tom said. “Outcome, reason. You bring in some American novelty named Tom to get patched-up and fed, but the longer I stay, the greater the risk that one of these Nobodies will get nosy, or maybe drop a tip of their own to the police. Selling the Mauriggers Tom Swift—quite a prize, even for rebellious youth.”

“It would buy privileges,” O conceded. “Most people are only human. Who’s not for sale?”

“I’m not,” Tom retorted intensely. “So now I’m up here on a roof in Serpentopol with a crafty young lady.”

“Who may have something up her sleeve.”

“No. Not up her sleeve.” Tom pointed, and there was enough light to show where he was pointing. “There!”













THE GIRL looked down. “There, hm? I should be insulted.”

“Even if I’m right?”

“Especially if you’re right! You don’t trust me.”

“For you, O, it’s a compliment. You’re what we call a ‘player.’ An expert one.”

“Do you feel played?”

O’s unkempt outfit lacked obvious pockets, but it seemed her billowy pants had a concealed pouch of some sort. Tom’s finger was pointing to some protruding ridges beneath the fabric, evident as O sat down or moved in a way that made her pants more close-fitting. “I saw it pretty quickly,” noted the young inventor with a hint of superiority. “If you want to conceal something like that, train yourself not to keep touching it.”

“I’m not going to show it to you, Mr. Big Blue Eyes,” she responded carelessly. “You don’t need to see it. You certainly don’t get to touch it. If you try to—”

“You’ll scream?”

“No, I’ll kick you off the roof. You can do the screaming.”

They sat quietly—the silent sound of thinking—in damp air. Finally Tom said: “All right, I’ve figured it out.”

“Tell me, do.”

“That combo limo and paddy-wagon, what happened, the crash... I didn’t stop to think things through—blame the Blue. Something came up behind us, but it didn’t ram the car, it lifted the back end of the car and flipped it sideways.”

“Y’hey—a super-monster is on the loose in the streets of Serpentopol!” she gibed mockingly. “Perhaps it planned to take a bite of Ulvo’s armored auto fleet, d’ya think?”

“What I think,” Tom replied, “is this. The van ahead of us on the street was carrying one part of my luggage. Behind us was another one rounding up the rear of the caravan. I never saw them pack away my robotic ServoCat. But it was in there, wasn’t it, O—so you could use that little controller to activate it and set it loose!”

“ServoCat,” she repeated. “You Americans like these gimmicky names. Better sales?

“All right, manboy. Doesn’t matter now. I do know quite a bit, Tom. Sure do; that is, my secret sources do, and they slip me what I need when I need it. Yes, they knew about the Cat—it wasn’t really a secret, anyway, though the NATO demonstration was supposed to be. Let us say that ‘someone’ found out enough about what you were putting together, over in New York where you are allowed to drive a car, to develop a simple remote control, simple enough for a dear Nobody to quickly master. We knew the plan, the route through the city, and the time, more or less. Leaks all over the place! And so I was prepared.”

“You planned to steal the ServoCat? To sell it?”

She snorted. “Please, who cares about that big ugly thing? Let it roam free! But we knew it was part of the caravan and close to your car—and it was obvious that you were in the security limo. The Mauriggers are never smart enough to do something unexpected.”

“So,” Tom continued, “you activated Felinity and made her push her way out into the street—not too hard for her. A few catlike leaps and she’s grabbing the limo by its reinforced bumper. She’s designed to be easy to operate. The more complex routines are all internally pre-set.”

“A big mobile can-opener with the charm of a cat. And—there you are, my Tom, nicely spilled out like vodka on the concrete in front of me. It was very much easier than we had anticipated. Luck, I suppose.”

“You didn’t even care about the Cat,” the American reiterated. “The main thing was to get Tom Swift away from the Maurig crew. Why?”

O looked at him searchingly in the traces of starlight. “I’ve told you. I need you. To find—”

Tom held up a palm impatiently. “No, just forget it for now. Let’s get—somewhere else. Off this roof.”

The girl shrugged and nodded, carefully rising to her feet. “Need me to steady you, manboy? Eyn, you’re a bit old.”

“Don’t let it get around.”

“I’m amazed you can still get around.”

They crossed, delicately, the rotting roof and found a roof-door with a stairwell beyond. “Once, so long ago, this was what you call in your country a department store,” O said quietly as they made their way down the dark, dilapidated stairs. “It was called R’Myid’s. I read about it once, and saw some pictures. Very posh—do they say that?—and expensive. For the Uppermosts of Serpentopol. Then, all the Stuff came along. Nazis and Sovietskis and The Man Himself. Shut down as too ‘cosmopolite,’ looting, fires...”

“I suppose there’s a colony of Nobodies here too.”

“No, not now. The place is full of rats and cats to eat ’em. But not your Cat, Tom. At least I don’t think so.”

The young inventor’s mind supplied the surrounding dark with some discouraging images. “You’re not—thinking we’ll spend the night here—are you?”

“Certainly not. I am too refined.”


“To tell you the truth,” she replied, “I have no idea what that means. But the women are very skinny and wear fur coats and diamonds.”

They creaked their way down several floors, often stumbling. Each stumble seemed to be answered by tiny patters and bigger scufflings. When bits of light managed to filter in, Tom saw it reflected from strange low eyes that stared coldly and darted away.

“If it makes you feel any better, American,” remarked O, “don’t worry about me; I don’t mind rats. Big, small, hungry—they can live their own lives in peace.”

Tom couldn’t suppress a gulp. “Last time I saw one was in an alley, when I came-to after somebody knocked me flat.”

“Last time I saw one it was running across a floor while I was sitting on a sofa. Next to you.”

They finally made it out into the open air, one street away from whatever the wolfen were engaged in—by that time probably cursing false tips.

“I don’t suppose we have a particular destination, do we?” asked the American impatiently.

“My old sweet, I regard all destinations as particular. I do know a place, not far, where we can sleep—we: that is, you and me.”

“I have to trust you, Oblivya,” Tom declared. “I don’t have a choice. I suppose that was the point. And I’m still willing to believe that it’s probably better to be in your hands than Ulvo Maurig’s. Do you care at all that—”

“That what? You’re worried about catching up with the rest of your luggage?”

“World peace—humanity—the balance of power—my duty as a—”

For the first time, the girl laughed. “I should have expected. You’re a Political! Duty and honor and all that djurm the Big People spit out. You’re as robotic as your cat.”

Tom fell back a slight distance as he followed her down the deserted boulevard. Am I resentful? Or offended? Or just angry? This stupid kid—! He also realized that his thoughts were sulky. And he said at last in full sulkiness of tone: “You don’t have to respect me. But respect yourself by respecting your own truth, at least. If it’s not just another lie, you want me to find this Thorth guy because you love him. Some people call love just more djurm, O.”

She didn’t say a word for quite a number of steps, and when she did she didn’t look at him. “All right.”

O led Tom to an apartment building of the classic tenement style. Some lighted windows showed a degree of habitation. The two slept in an abandoned apartment, without life but with, at least, a mattress and a couch. Which provoked some discussion.

Tom slept longer than he should have. When he awoke he found his aches much more tolerable, and the sunlight bright. O was sitting on the floor. “What time is it?” he asked her.

She shrugged. “Whatever time it feels like being. ‘Time’ is for the fools who go to work. But while you were sleeping, I got us some lunch. I don’t say bought, just got.” She indicated some styrofoam containers. Evidently styrofoam, not democracy, had conquered the world.

They ate what seemed to be doughnuts stuffed with herring, every bit as tasty in practice as it sounded in theory, and drank cartons of lemonade. “I was able to turn the water valve,” said O. “Take a shower if you want. Not a long one. We can’t stay here too long.”

“Did you call in another raid?”

“Fine, don’t take one!” She started to take another bite. She stared at the quasi-sandwich, what she said was called uapice, and put it back down. “What is it like in America, Tom? All we really know comes from television programs that pass through Germany and Poland and Maurig’s hungry censors. Some of what we see seems silly. Could a Cuban band-leader really afford a huge apartment in New York City? For him and his demented wife? Who can believe that?”

“Well... I live in a nice two-story house with my family,” responded the young man. “And I have an electric car.”

“Do you play with it often?”

Tom chuckled. “O, it’s not a toy. It’s what I drive.”

“Mm. But then, you’re a hog, one of the upper-uppers. You live in great wealth. The Party teaches that you’re all corrupt exploiters of the masses of laborers. And now you’ve invented these robots! The laborers will be out of work and starve.” Her eyes twinkled. Tom knew she didn’t believe a word of her “education.” “What is your family like, Tom?”

Tom spoke with pleasure and sadness. What were the chances he would see them again? “My father named me after his grandfather, who was also an inventor and explorer, and Dad inherited the traits and passed them along. He’s more level-headed and realistic than I am, O. Very moral. Maybe a little conservative. I suppose he’s the most admirable man I’ve ever known.

“My Mom is warm and sympathetic, but—it never overpowers her practicality. Do you know what I mean? She knows how to draw lines. In the most loving and caring way possible.”

“Ah, you live with the angels.”

“My sister Sandy is fun, vivacious, and intelligent. For some reason she doesn’t show her intelligence as often as she might—I mean her scientific education. Maybe I’ve put her in the shade somehow... I feel bad about that.”

O nodded, trying with creased brow, but failing, to hint at any emotion. “And—the other stuff? I know you are unmarried. Do you have a girlfriend? Boyfriend?”

“If you mean—well, I have close—”

She held up a palm. “Doesn’t matter. I have no dog in this pony hunt, Tom. Have or not have what you like. Nothing to me.”

“You have someone, after all.”

“Of course I do. Thorth is everything a good Kranjie girl could dream of. I am pledged to his heart, as we say here.” Her brow darkened. She added: “Of course... admittedly, Kranjie girls can’t afford to dream very high. It is all about settling for what gets you to the morning.” Tom left O to her thoughts for a time. She said suddenly: “I want to leave this room. Do what you need, then let us go into the sunlight.”

“I’ll tell you what I need, Oblivya,” responded Tom soberly. “I need us to get clear with each other just what you want of me and how you’ll help me get across the border. I think I’ve waited—”

“In the sunlight, please. Humor me. I saved your life, American.”

Tom took advantage of the shower, trying to keep his eyes as tightly closed as he could manage and to bump up against nothing—or step on something. Then they sidled out into the early afternoon of Serpentopol.

“This street is boring,” O complained. “Just to experience a trace of life, let’s go toward the downtown. There are people and cars. Tourists and Uppermosts—those favored by the Party.”

“You’re willing to risk our being seen?”

She gave a look of scorn. “I wonder if your intelligence is just propaganda. Two people on a deserted street are much easier to see than two people in a moving crowd. Do you really not see that, manboy?”

“Of course I do. Girlgirl.”

Downtown meant a hike of some blocks. The change from the worst to the best of Serpentopol was dramatic, a matter of crossing the modest river known as Chasdieo on a narrow bridge. O had found, by her special means, a cap and shades for Tom Swift, as well as some more practical footwear. It was little enough a disguise. But Tom’s light, blond, blue-eyed features were typical among the Kranjovians, and he allowed his formerly neatly-pressed garments to go seedy, with some supplementary ripping. As to Oblivya Zyg, she seemed, as always—oblivious.

Now the two were amidst cars and crowds. Hostile, resentful, paranoiac Kranjovia was held at arms’ length by Europe and its Atlantic allies. The tourists seemed largely Asian or Middle Eastern. But Russians were richly in the mix.

Tom commented and O said, “Maurig wants tourism, but tourist agencies keep shy of crazy tyrants. You never know when something mandatory will turn into a shootable offense. And then the surviving relatives give bad publicity.”

“So many Kranjovians seem to speak English. True in Nowheresville too.”

“Right,” she replied. “You didn’t know? Education Correctness laws. Everyone is to learn it in school. It’s defensive. We must be able to understand the enemy’s communications in order to outwit him, when America stops dithering and finally invades, as history decrees. Every true patriot will be called upon, you know, djurm djurm. Idiotic, don’t you think? One nice coincidence though, Tom. When I was a schoolkidnik in a mandated little dress, one of the books I read for practice was a very yellow, crumbling thing called Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone! But those books were just made-up stories, weren’t they? Capitalist propaganda?”

Tom chuckled. “My great-granddad! The inventions were real, O.”

“If you say so, American. I still don’t believe about the Cuban bandleader.”

Greater downtown Serpentopol was hardly Manhattan or Paris. The young inventor supposed it compared favorably to Pyongyang—perhaps. The shops and restaurants, theaters and grand hotels, seemed vulgar and garish. They were trying too hard. The tourists elbowed their way along the streets, cars honked, and it all seemed like a false front. This is a made-up city, he thought.

Yet there were historic sectors with a certain charm. Monuments and statues sprang into view with the turn of a corner. Tom pointed at one. “Why a statue of Napoleon?”

“That one? You think that’s Napoleon? It’s the great hero of the 1822 War against the Swedes, General Voorfig.”

“O... that’s a well-known rendering of Napoleon, hat and all. It’s obvious—”

“Permit me to say, American, that the plaque below it says Voorfig. And by government decree, all public signs must be true and accurate. Whatever it says on the sign is true. It is the law. And to settle it, the law itself is proclaimed on such a sign.”

The Shoptonian found himself grinning. “I hate to say it, and I don’t see how it’s possible or even moral under the circumstances, but—I seem to be enjoying myself.”

“If you are trying to be seductive, forget it. Or try harder.”

As Tom reflected on the words he had just said, he realized his self-rebuke was justified. Whatever two now-deceased military men had had in mind, the cybrid synaptor did involve technological breakthroughs that could give an advantage to—nations as irrational and rabid as Ulvo Maurig’s Kranjovia. Tom couldn’t bring himself to shrug that off. Apart from his own abduction, the seizure of the device had brought forth mass murder. And it was his invention. “Look, Oblivya—”

“Call me ‘O’.”

“I’ll call you what I want to. It’s time for you to knock off the cute banter and evasions and tell me exactly what’s going on. What do you know about Maurig’s plans? Just what do you expect me to do? If I’m your hostage, what’s your price?”

“American, your charm—”

Tom grabbed a fold of her shabby, loose-fitting pullover and yanked her five steps into the shadow of an awning. The stood in the recessed entrance portico of what seemed to be a better-class hotel. Sidewalk foot traffic didn’t swerve into it. Quiet talk would be ignored.

“My charm didn’t make it across the border,” he told her angrily. “Talk. Or pull out a weapon of mass destruction, because in a few Kranjovian seconds I’m going to start running!”

It seemed Tom’s last sentence was doomed to go unheard. O was looking off into the distance, and Tom suddenly realized that the rising hubbub he’d been ignoring included not only car horns but the yell and shriek of crowds.

He looked.














THERE WAS movement down toward the further end of the block. It surged and lurched back and forth, sometimes on the sidewalk, sometimes in the street. It was inherently alarming, abrupt, bizarre—and Tom knew exactly what it was, even before he had quite focused his eyes on it.

Felinity was coming. If it wasn’t quite a full charge at cheetah-like speed, neither was it a gentle amble. The ServoCat was restless and in pursuit. It loped along the walk when it detected a usable opening—knocking aside any human impediments—and bounded into the street when convenient. Cars were skidding and crashing.

Evidently a traffic signal changed. The cars in one lane, with their backs to the drama, halted and jammed. The strange, catlike skeleton of metal adapted instantly to the vehicular barrier. It sprung smoothly into the air, deftly alighting on the nearest car-roof. And then it leapt to the next, and the next, using them like stepstones in a pool. Felinity barely paused with each landing. Tom knew well that the Cat’s motion computers could scan and calculate with fantastic speed. And he also knew well—it seemed certain—that it was coming for him!

“Your controller!” he hissed. “Get it out and—”

But O had already done so. The little mouselike thing was in her hands and she was manipulating a thumbwheel and a slider-display. She glanced up and down in a staccato rhythm. “Voktla!” she sputtered. “No control!”

But perhaps it didn’t matter. The Cat was bounding toward them in full charge! With a last, huge bound, Felinity closed the gap and clanked down in front of them, its faceless nose ten feet distant. Then it found its balance and stopped dead. Tom saw some of its sensor-microreceivers swivel in their sockets as they zeroed-in on what was obviously the Cat’s intended prey. He assumed the pause was part of a preset program. Someone, somewhere, was eyeing the tiny monitor in the control unit, looking through the ServoCat’s video eyes, judging which command-set would most easily resolve the situation.

The Cat had not been outfitted with weaponry for the NATO trip, and Tom saw no such enhancements. But it had any number of extensible “arms” and gripper mechanisms that combined all the menace of sharp claws and crush-strength vices. Under control of the merciless, Felinity couldn’t help being merciless herself. It would scarcely hesitate to capture. Or kill!


“The door!” He shoved O along toward a wide revolving door under lettering—two forms of lettering—that proclaimed:




No-one else stood in the portico, under the awning. Only Tom and O were in immediate danger. Felinity was graceful, but big. She could hardly worm her way through the revolving door; her controllers would hardly know what kind of command to send.

They flung themselves through the turning gap, shooting out into a plush lobby. People with newspapers glanced up in casual interest.

“Are—are we safe?” panted Oblivya. For once she seemed to be exhibiting emotion.

She was answered immediately by an explosion of shattering glass. The ServoCat had grabbed the door and ripped it off its pivot!

“Don’t bother answering,” she mumbled toward Tom.

Felinity was now squeezing her way through the cleared portal, clawing with sweeping gestures like a cat after a mouse in a mousehole. The Cat was already halfway through!

There was a stairwell near a far wall, but an elevator door had just slid open ahead of them, several guests with suitcases stepping out, boggling, and scattering in random flight. Tom grabbed O at the elbow and propelled her toward the elevator. Inside he slammed a button without looking, then glanced into the lobby as the door slitted. The ServoCat was fully inside and charging toward them, tearing carpet and overturning sofas and bellmen as it barreled along its irresistible course.

The twin doors closed. And just as the car began to rise, the doors shrieked with the violent shock of contact with metal. Somewhere a buzzer began to do its duty.

“If you’ve been waiting to see the blowing of my cool,” grimaced O, “here it is. That thing!—here on the streets!—if I had thought—”

Tom uttered nothing but hard breath. Tom’s random selection sent the elevator car to the third floor. It opened on several guests waiting calmly. They smiled at Tom and O politely.

The danger made politeness futile. “Go back!” Tom urged with a gesture. “Don’t go down!” But they only stared at the American with puzzled alarm.

O said something in another language. The group reacted with annoyed dismay and trooped back down the hallway. At Tom’s look she said: “No one cares about political drama, manboy. I told them in simple Kranjov that you were drunk off your schneeg. And about to upchuck. And crazy.”

“I thought all Kranjovians spoke English.”

“Didn’t notice the lettering on their shirts? Finland! Don’t expect anything quick from such persons.”

“Or swift,” said Tom dryly. Then he suddenly half-spun toward the far end of the hallway. A large unlatched double-door seemed to be flapping on its hinges. And with each flap—a bizarre skittering sound, growing louder!

“That’s the emergency stairs!” O gasped. “It can do that?”

“We’ve got to—”

“Ruh rah, American! Your Cat can sniff us down?”

“No!” insisted the young inventor. “It’s not outfitted with any kind of tracking equipment!”

The mounting noise now suggested, unavoidably, that Felinity was clambering up the flight of stairs just below. Their floor, their hallway—next stop!

Suddenly Tom’s agile hands sprung into action. O was still holding her controller box, unconsciously; he snatched it from her grip. “You’re gonnata waste time on trying it again? Tom, the Cat doesn’t respond to—” She interrupted herself, surprised, as Tom tossed the unit into the empty elevator car. As it clattered across the floor, he reached around and stabbed one of the floor-select buttons.

“No!” exclaimed Oblivya.

The doors began to slide shut. Come on, come on! shouted Tom’s thoughts, backing away, half-looking down the hall at the stairwell door. With a ding! the elevator shut itself.

A loud clomp announced the arrival of Felinity at the landing just beyond the double-door. The portal was more than wide enough to accommodate the ServoCat. And the doors themselves would easily be sacrificed to splinterhood. This was one strong cat.

The numeral 4, signifying the floor above them, lit above the elevator doors. And in the stairwell, the skittering sound resumed, now receding. O muttered something in Kranjov that sounded relieved as well as vulgar, adding: “Ohhh-kay, then. It’s going back down? What did you do? Hit it on the nose with a newspaper?”

“Felinity wasn’t tracking us directly,” came the quiet reply. “It was tracking you. The controller box had some sort of homing beacon in it. Which is now elevatoring to the top floor.”

“Awh. I... see. Your stock with me is going up again, manboy.”

Tom stared at his companion with a blue-eyed look that was both calm and cold. “Let’s go. The stairs down to the lobby should be clear now.”

“If they still exist.”

The hotel lobby had the ambience of a kicked-in anthill, but none of the civic lords of order had yet arrived. As Tom trotted across the ripped, humped carpet toward the gaping remains of the entrance, Oblivya tailing, he said to one of the bellhops: “You might want to evacuate the top floor. Not to tell you your job.”

They exited over shards of glass into the street, a scene of tourist chaos. Sirens were approaching from several directions. “Now I play leader!” snapped O. “Follow!” She didn’t wait. She ran.

They wound their way out of Serpentopol’s frothy, phony tourist district. Trying to keep low, O led Tom down streets that became narrower and twistier, past shabby office buildings, shabbier warehouses, and finally into a great peripheral emptiness of urban rubbish that petered out in the Salt Swamp.

“We’re pretty exposed out here,” Tom warned nervously. “Does Maurig have drones?”

“Yes,” was the quick reply. “The population.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, O, but your wit is getting less and less delightful.”

She halted. They stood in the shadow of what might have been a gunnery placement from the World War II era, now just masses of concrete and rust. “All right, American, okay. I’ll agree this mess isn’t anything like fun. My whole operation, Thorth and all, my plan—your mechano-cat has unscrewed it up. Do I sound happy and vivacious, like an American blond? I’m not. I might as well swallow that rusty girder over there.” As she moved her shadowed face, Tom caught a glint from her cheek. “Meh, i’vokt, I’m starting to...

“But no. I won’t!”

Tom thought for a moment, feelings conflicted. “I’ll gladly get sympathetic, O—but later. I’ll do what I can to find this—well, I guess he’s your fiancé.”

“My pledged-one.”

“You want my help. I’ll foolishly believe you about that. But not much else, lady. Every time I turn a corner I find that things are less and less what they seem.”

O nodded slightly. “Yes. True. I’m a good player indeed.”

“Can we stop playing? I don’t like being played.”

“Who would?”

The youngish inventor, bedraggled and bruised, glanced out into the sunlight and the ugly, wet fields around them. “Did you know about the beacon in your controller?”

“No!” she snapped fiercely. “I was in as much danger as you!”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Somebody wanted it there.”

“It was no accident,” O conceded sullenly. “The Mauriggers—”

“You told me these contacts of yours are opponents of the Maurig gang. With other countries involved—including the United States. But there’s more to it, isn’t there.”

“Of course. There is always more. Untie a knot and there’s another inside.”

“Mm-hmm. When I tossed your controller, you reacted instantly—it was not what you wanted me to do. So just what did that ‘unscrew-up,’ O?

“But it’s not hard to guess. Your box was also a communicator. It was how you kept in touch with whatever group you’re working for. Right? This isn’t some foreign-funded slacker squad doing mischief like cyber-geeks in heat.”

“Nice way to put it.”

“What is it? A NATO op? CIA? Russia doesn’t feel warm toward Ulvo—maybe this is another Ukraine, a takedown funded by the Kremlin.”

“I don’t feel in the mood for a tearful confession, manboy.”

“Don’t call me that!” snapped the young inventor. “If you can’t call me Tom...”

“Then what? Mr. Swift? American? Capitalist hog? Or maybe you’d like sweetheart?”

Tom stared at O, mind distant. “You can call me... Skipper.”

The girl snorted. “A nickname for a little tot. Is that what your girlfriend calls you?”

“Right now it’s the only nickname I’ll answer to—O!”

Oblivya made no answer except to sidle away several arm-reaches. They leaned silently against the rubble for a length of time. The Salt Swamp was stenchy, humid, and dead-feeling. Serpentopol rose in the distance as if presiding, through a brownish haze. There were cries of birds—seagulls, it seemed—but otherwise nothing but a thick quiet with an occasional wisp of breeze. It was mid-afternoon.

Tom was almost startled by O’s voice. “The swamp is part of the sea. A few vissas—miles—going, to the west, and there is the Port of Serptensza. Big ugly, noisy place. What else?—the Party made it. But we will slant a little north of that, to Umbe i-Ckiyril-Sanc, the Bay of Saint Cyril. It’s where we were to go from the start.”

“In other words,” said Tom Swift, “where you were to deliver me to your friends.”

She went on, ignoring the comment. “My grandpapa told me what it was like, when he was a child. He said it was—we say, lively as life. It served the Old Port, which now is unusable and filthy, all clogged up. It was full of bars and dancing-houses and places of scandal. Much favored by sailors and tourists, and tourists who wished to meet sailors. And there was The Nose, a bit of land sticking out into the water, where there was—what is the English term, a festive place with merry-go-round and roller-coaster?”

“Amusement park.”

“The best in Kranjovia. Now it is all deserted and ruined, inhabited only by people who are themselves deserted and ruined. People like me, hm? There, The Nose, someone waits for us. When the sun if half-set we will go to him.

“If that meets with your approval... Skipper.”

“Is this guy dangerous?”

Tom could not see the smirk, but could feel it. “Dangerous? Very much so. But meh, only to those who prefer to live.”














THEIR WAIT for sundown was long and hungry, but finally the sun gave up and was ready to retire.

As O and Tom trudged and squished along, Tom said: “Does this journey to The Nose have anything to do with your search for Thorth? Or was all that just a little color to get me interested?”

“You don’t think there’s love in Kranjovia?” she retorted contemptuously. “The Man Himself can’t kill everything. But of course, I forgot, we’re taught how your country is all about greed and slavery. You call it the Holy Dollar.”

“The Almighty Dollar. Please say it with reverence, though.”

“Are you mocking my feelings?”

“No, just your education.” Thinking, Tom added: “Except—I doubt you believe any of that creaky propaganda, Miss Zyg. I have the impression you’re pretty up-to-speed on the realities of the world outside the border. Whatever group you’re working for can’t afford to have fogged-in agents.”

“That’s almost a compliment,” O said in her carelessly contemptuous voice, “in its own weird way. But I don’t work for anyone. I work for myself. Just me. Sure I know things! You Americans say ‘street smart’—I’m smart over the whole country. I don’t get taken in. I’m nobody’s stool.”

Tom smiled but made no reply.

They were on a much-broken asphalt road, half devoured by marshland. The young inventor wondered how long it had been since it had accommodated any sort of motor vehicle. Even Felinity would bog down along the way.

But at last, stars coming out, they were on dryish land and paved roadways. Trees and bushes began to gather around them. “Getting hungry?” asked O.


“He’ll feed us.”

“Before or after he kills us?”

“Us?” Her smile gleamed. “What you mean ‘us,’ American?”

A long, low rise gave them their first view of the sea. Leftwards, lights of ships and the skirts of Serpentopol and its modern port; to the right, small dead buildings, roads, and rubble along the bay, the old abandoned port. A spit of land extended out into it, The Nose. Even from a mile Tom could make out the sad remains of a Ferris Wheel. “That won’t be going around any time soon,” he commented.

“It has no more ‘round’,” said Oblivya Zyg. For once she seemed wistful and vulnerable. “But you, Tom—I suppose you’ve gone up and down on many such things, you and your special someone. Or are you too much the thinker to have any use for such baggage as the body?”

“I think you’ve already decided what stereotype to apply to me,” Tom retorted wryly. “So I’ll just leave it to you.”

A mile more, avoiding some of the scattered and disheveled citizens of what was once a busy quarter of Serpentopol, and the two came to a chainlink fence and an elaborate gateway. There was little left of either. The clowns on the wooden gateposts had been drained of merriment; they were colorless spectral watchers. “No lights,” O said, “and it all looks deserted, but it isn’t. People like me, ragged hiphop wanderers, live here, just like in the other place. There must be hundreds. When I’ve stayed here, the skating rink dome offered the very best in desperate communal living.”

“I don’t see anyone.”

“That’s the idea. The wolfen don’t completely ignore this place. Oh yes, someone might be plotting revolution, or streaming capitalist movies—same thing. So they sweep through now and then. Whatever. We end up okay. They have no more place for us in jail than out.”

Tom pointed up at the sign on the gateway arch, which said its piece in the Kranjov form of lettering. “What’s it say? Just Say No To Revolution?”

“It welcomes one and all to Ziwna-zieml—Land of Giddiness. But no, in English ‘Strangeland’ would be better. Leave behind all the cares of life, everything normal, be free and wild, no reality. And after that you get Ulvo Maurig.”

O led Tom past warped ticket kiosks, rusted attractions, charcoaled buildings that had burnt to the ground decades ago, and down a dismal midway. There was even what was, obviously, a shooting gallery—shot. Now and then Tom heard the mutter of voices that seemed to melt away in the shadows. Strangeland was haunted by the present as well as the past.

Presently they stood at the timid sidedoor of a large building. O retrieved a key concealed in a hollow brick, and with a creak they were inside, in blackness. “He knows we’re here,” whispered Oblivya. “The door sets off a little alarm. I am familiar with this building.”

“Will he come get us?”

“Touch my shoulder and I’ll guide you. I know how to go. He’ll turn on some lights further along.” Further along was a bizarre tunnel-like corridor with a high ceiling. The lights were indirect and unseen, producing a glow that was mostly blood red; Tom felt as if he were walking through an atmosphere of paint. The corridor swerved wildly and sometimes turned back on itself. It had a small-gage track down its center. “For the little cars,” said O. “They went along very slowly, I think. Two in each.”

Tom grinned. “We call a ride like that a Tunnel of Love.”

“Well,” responded O, “it’s at least a Tunnel. To that I agree. I’m not sure I would call it Love. Perhaps it’s what some mean by that word. Then again, maybe there’s no very good English translation for what it is.”

“Oh, we manage. What are these inlets along the walls? Is that for the scary glow-in-the-dark monsters?”

O gave Tom a dim look of scorn and pity. “Monsters? American, those are little stages upon which a variety of live performances were mounted, to educate the passing travelers in the fundamentals of anatomy and biology, in a manner easy to absorb. You know, to produce an amiable atmosphere. That’s what I’m told, anyway. I’m also told that the people who crash here stage revivals now and then. But alas, no one to see.”

“Not even you?”

“To see? At such moments I’m too busy. With my performance.”

Presently Tom followed Oblivya through a hidden slot into what was evidently a backstage area, a hallway lit by small electric bulbs that gave a weak and wavering amber light, with deep shadows quivering in wait. Tom continued to follow quietly, saying nothing. But his blue eyes were darting everywhere. I’m not going to just let myself get handed over to the King of Strangeland on a platter, he told himself. But what advantage could he find along the way?

The hallway ended at a crude plywood door. “So here we are, Skipper,” said O with quiet wariness. “Another in a series of doors.” She glanced his way, and the Shoptonian could see that even Care-Nothing Oblivya Zyg was tense.

She gave three raps, and there was a click of unlocking. As she pushed it open, she half-turned to Tom, saying, “I’m just the door-opener. You go in firs—”

There was no one behind her. O stood alone in the dimlit hallway.

Tom had spied a section of the wall covered by a panel of wood that seemed to be leaning free over it, not nailed. As O turned away to knock, the young inventor sailed into smooth action, angling open the panel and slipping through into blackness without a sound. He knew that from O’s position at the door, the hallway wall would seem unbroken—for a moment or two.

Though the inner walls of the attraction were of old splintery wood, the floor was bare concrete. He was able to make his way forward silently—he hoped—guided by intermittent flakes of light leaking through cracks in the wooden planks. His narrow walk-space cut rightward, then leftward. He realized he was skirting the square room in which his fate waited for him.

He came to heavy concrete blocks piled up like steps and made his way upward, barely avoiding banging his head. In a moment he was high enough to make out the top of the layer of four-by-four beams and plywood sheets that evidently covered the room that had been his destination. Light leaked through gaps; the room below was brightly lit.

Sound also leaked through. Oblivya was talking, probably in Kranjov, rapidly and with tones of apology. Nothing came in response but the slight creak of someone shifting his weight. Good night, I have to get some distance! Tom commanded himself. This may be my only chance!

Balancing himself like a drunk tightrope walker he made his way along a metal girder, then stepped cautiously onto a surface that meandered forward through the shadow, angling right and left. It’s the roof of the “tunnel”, he thought; I should be able to follow it to somewhere near an exit.

He heard O’s voice coming from somewhere behind him. “Tom? Tom! Don’t be stupid! We’re your only way out of all this—fun!” She surprised the Shoptonian by giggling. He didn’t know Oblivya Zyg had it in her.

His route took him to an obstruction that seemed to be the inside of the building’s outer wall. He leaned-in and applied his strength, and some rotting tarpaper and stucco yielded to it. He looked out over the greasy-dark expanse of Strangeland, fifteen feet up. He worked his way through the break he had made and stood for a moment on the narrow ledge of a decorative overhang.

The American edged his way along and, after a few sideways steps, swung himself down into a loosely fenced yard, circular, like a corral, with a high cupola ceiling above that rose to a point in the middle. He saw the gate on the other side, half-unhinged. He began to trot toward it, weak and hungry.

I don’t need that grungy kid to get out of this, he insisted. My wits haven’t failed me yet. The caves of nuclear fire, the underlands of Mars—this was nothing.

But whether or not Tom’s wits were intact, the ground beneath his feet was loose and uncooperative. But it wasn’t ground. It was an artificial surface, rough but level, and it started to move. The big round yard was spinning!

He staggered forward, struggling to keep his feet, but tumbled sideways. And sideways led to blackness.













WHEN TOM awoke for good—good enough to know with certitude that he was awake—he kept his eyes closed. He had arrived with a load of surreal memories that he wanted to consider before making any sort of commitment to the world. A carnival—stairs—cats and rats—something about the ground—hands, faces... and Strangeland.

He was lying flat on his back on something cushioned. His face and head felt numb. There was a rumbling sound, and a vibration under him; sometimes a slight twitch to one side or the other. A car, he thought. More likely an ambulance. If the King of Strangeland had found him worth capturing, he would probably consider him worth preserving in usable shape.

He unlatched one eyelid. He saw dim light illuminating walls, perhaps from a single source. It came from behind him, behind the top of his horizontal crewcut head, out of view. He ventured a bigger look, and on the far side of a layer of blurriness he saw a woman seated on a chair that folded down from the wall of the vanlike vehicle he was in. She stared at him impassively. She was Oblivya Zyg.

It was a changed Oblivya Zyg. She was no longer a violently hip ragamuffin of the streets and the rat-ridden Nowheresvilles of Kranjovia. She was neat, combed, and clean. She seemed to have gained five years, even ten—adulthood. Her clothing was not that of the Style Resistance but a concession to something bigger, better organized, than her urges. She was, in a word, more civilized. With, still, an edge.

“Do you remember?” she blandly asked him. “You’ve woken several times. Each time you say Where am I? And then you get around to What happened? I was expecting something more intellectual.”

His voice was raspy. “What do you answer?”

“She lets me answer,” said a very different kind of voice, somewhere behind him.

The Shoptonian didn’t ask permission to pull himself upright. He swung around on the edge of his cot dizzily and slid his feet to the floor, turning toward the front end of the van compartment, modestly large. The little light, very unassuming, was set in the far wall; the man in front of it was a silhouette, mostly shadow. But it was a voice he had heard, a shadow he had seen.

“It was you in that room?” Tom asked quietly.


“And this, all of this—your doing?”

The silhouette shook its head. “All of it? Don’t flatter me or yourself, my friend. I’ll admit I switched on that spin-ride floor when I saw you out there. I thought you might like to give it a whirl. Amazing we could refurbish that old machinery—something to do in our spare time, there at our dull little listening station. And before you object, Tom, consider that we get to have fun too—now and then.”

“I know I’m having fun,” Tom said sarcastically.

“Now now, talk nice, kid. You took a tumble and I danced right out there and pulled you in. We’re pals, right?”

The scientist-inventor gave a wry nod. “Sure are. You’ve always been pretty friendly—for a Gorilla!”

Miza Ranooq was a big, hulking simian figure with a voice as deep and dark as the Congo jungles. He didn’t deny—yet didn’t quite confirm—his identity as a source Tom usually encountered via the internet, who had come to be called the Taxman, agent of a group willing to accept Tom’s nickname, Collections. It seemed to be a very unmarked door in the United States security establishment, fearfully sophisticated, evidently focused on major threats of a technological nature. “Do I get to see your face this time, Miza?” asked Tom. “Or do you plan to keep to the shadows, as usual? Then again, I guess even seeing your shadow is a privilege. How long has it been? Since Spindrift and the aquadisk ploy?”

“He knows your name?” asked O in frowning surprise.

“Why not?” retorted the Taxman’s deep tympanum voice.

O frowned. Don’t tell me she’s jealous! Tom thought. She said: “Vokt, I’m learning a lot tonight. I thought you never let them see you and never never gave a name.”

Ranooq addressed Tom. “Miss Zyg hasn’t been ritually anointed by an account of the long history of our work together, Tom. But you see, Oblivya, Tom has a special kind of significance to our exclusive club and its work. His adventures fascinate us. We pay a lot of attention. So we let him get involved with us now and then in a way that—do pardon me—isn’t available to you. We keep our secrets in separate boxes. Can’t let these things get around. Nasty ears are listening.”

“I take it Mr. Ranooq employs you, O,” the young inventor said to her coolly. “No wonder you get all the latest gossip and the latest tech.”

She bristled. “I told you, manboy, nobody—”

The Taxman didn’t permit her to finish. “Tom?” The American shifted his gaze. “Catch!”

What happened next happened like lightning. Ranooq whipped his thick, very long arm downward in a pitcher’s arc. Something small blurred across the compartment, bouncing off the walls with sharp sounds—several, coming almost all at once, chut chut chut chut. A gasp was startled from the young inventor’s throat, and O uttered what was, for her, a shriek.

“G-good night!” burbled Tom. “Wha-what in the—”

Ranooq was utterly calm. “Nice catch.” He nodded slightly, with an angle that urged Tom’s eyes downward. Tom looked down—down at his right hand. A small rubbery red ball nested there, his fingers around it. “Oh my goodness,” said the Taxman mockingly. “Now how in the world did you manage to do that, Tom?”

The Shoptonian sat dumfounded on the edge of the cot, feeling his heart pound. “I... I see,” he breathed.

“Vokt! It might’ve hit me!” snapped O.

But Tom slowly shook his head. “No. Not likely.” Ball in hand, he gestured toward a spot on the wall near the rear door hatch. “See that reflector tape? He was aiming for that. Miza, you’re pretty good on the pitch.”

“Of course, I figured out all the angles in advance,” said The Gorilla. “Including the inevitable margin of error. No likely trajectory intersected your lovely head, O. But they all intersected Tom Swift.”

“But—if I hadn’t been able to see the direction you were throwing—” began Tom’s objection.

“I made you look.”

“That you did,” breathed Tom. “No thinking, no calculating, no effort. I barely even registered what was happening—consciously, that is. But I snagged the fastball like a pro.”

“We did it while you were out,” O said sulkily.

Stunned and wide-eyed, Tom looked at O, then back at the Taxman. “So this is where it ended up. Was Collections behind it from the beginning—killing all those people on the jet? To steal my synaptor?”

“Hm. ‘All those people.’ Just what did you see on that plane, Tom? Seems to me you saw one guy in uniform fall on the floor with oozing blood.” The young inventor could feel the agent smile. “You’re usually the first to question the obvious. Are you losing your edge?”

“It was a hoax?”

The Taxman shook his head. “No. As a matter of fact. Maurig’s people killed the lieutenant and most of the others, including the pilot. A few of Maurig’s people... weren’t Maurig’s people. But we couldn’t stop it. It would have tipped our hand, derailed something more important. In the long run.”

Tom said nothing.

“What’s in this crate here,” Miza Ranooq continued, tapping it, “isn’t the synaptor machine you brought from America. The rogue elements in the American chapter of our club—the ones who penetrated it and sent me into my on-my-own mode—remain active. Active even now, after the United States government has shut down the unit and ‘disavowed.’ Asa Pike crawled through a hole in our security that others opened for him; and those others retain quite a few of our memorabilia—our techs and methods. And oh-so-much information.”

Tom looked up. “They’re spying on me, on Swift Enterprises. Like you did.”

“They can’t possibly do it like we did,” retorted the agent. “But they do have some key technology and our extant files, accurate as of the shutdown of the US branch. So they have the wiles to get past the standard safeguards. Believe me, Tom, they can break security barriers far more difficult than those at Swift Enterprises!

“So yes, they spied with their little eyes, copied what amounts, these days, to blueprints. They pulled enough intel on your first versions of the device to build one. And we stole the details from them to build another.” He tapped again on the crate. And to emphasize the point, he sat down on it.

“And so, Skipper, it seems we’re supposed to call you a cybrid now,” stated O. “Consider yourself enhanced.”

Tom managed to send one look of disgust in two directions. “It’s ridiculous!—and not worth even one life. Especially with the first models, the transcription effect only lasts briefly. In a matter of hours I won’t be able to catch even a slow ball, much less a burner.”

“Think we don’t know that?” Miza said. “We needed to know whether the version we had would work on its inventor. Whose brain is, after all, somewhat abnormal.”

“And now you know.”

“We sure do. And, as I said—we do get to enjoy our work.”

“This... this whole thing...” But the Shoptonian stopped himself. Suddenly he was dead tired. “Forget it. You’ll tell me when you want to—if you want to.”

“Listen, American Swift,” began Oblivya, defensive and angry. “I didn’t know everything. This big burly anthropoidal gave me a plan to get you out of that limo and to Strangeland—a plan and a little box. They didn’t bother to tell me about this transfer machine, whatever it is, until we had you down on the cot. I never had to understand all the tech the movement boys gave me—they just had to teach me how to use it. I don’t know what their big goal is. But if I help them, if I bring you in—”

“Right. They’ll help you with your goal as the payoff. And what is your goal?” asked Tom. “Am I still supposed to believe it’s all about finding your escaped boyfriend? Does he even exist?”

Tom paid no attention to O’s burn of indignation. Suddenly he swung his legs up and lay himself back down on the cot. Woozy, he murmured: “So... who’s up front? Who’s driving?...”

The Taxman answered from somewhere. “The driver is a young man who thinks he’s working for Maurig. Next to him is a man who thinks the Russians are employing him to keep watch on the driver. And so, as a matter of fact, they’re both working for us.”

Tom Swift wanted to ask where “us” was being driven to. But, somehow, he had descended into something like sleep.

Confused dreams came and went in a jumble. Tom awoke. Now the darkness in the van was almost complete, leavened only by a hint of a red gleam from somewhere next to the rear loading door, behind a flange. The van’s rumble was gone, though he could still sense motion. “Are we—”

O—her voice—shushed him. “Whisper.”

“We’ve reached our destination, Tom,” said Ranooq deeply and very quietly. “We’re at the freight airport at Kalininsga. It’s a good ways from Serpentopol; the Mauriggers worry that someone might try to fly in a nuclear device. Someone did, actually. Turned out to be a dud.”

“You’re putting me on a plane?”

“We are.”

“To America?”

“Dream on, manboy,” snorted O.

“All right,” Tom said into the tinted darkness. “So we’re at the airport. What happens now, Miza?”

“Well, I misspoke,” came the reply. “We are not actually at the airport; we are above the airport. What you’re feeling are the forces of takeoff.”

Tom found that he was almost immune to amazement. “Fine. I’m on a cot in a van inside a plane in the air. Which is en route to—?”

“Maybe you’d best just lean back and rest your deep-set blue eyes,” suggested O mockingly—almost bitterly. “After that brain thing, you might not do so well at absorbing new information. We wouldn’t want you to get confused—American.”

“Keep your emotions in check, Agent Zyg,” admonished the Taxman coldly. “Tom, you’ll be told what you need to know during the flight. We gave you a little something to relax you—O’s friends call it ‘Blue’—and it’s still in your system. Sleep it off.”

Tom didn’t need to agree. His body did it for him.

When he again struggled to wakefulness, the compartment light was back on. He sat up. He felt well-rested; he felt the passage of time. His mind was clear.

“We’re almost there,” said Oblivya, sitting cross-legged on a fat floor cushion. “You wanted to talk, but I guess you wanted to sleep even more.”

“You also wanted to see my face, didn’t you?” came the deep voice from the forward part of the compartment. A few scuffs and Miza Ranooq was fully in view. Whatever the young inventor might have been expecting, the Taxman turned out to be fairly unimpressive—just a big man with a big jaw and grim, squinty eyes.

Tom gave a good look. Then he said: “So who’s flying this rig? Those two drivers?”

“No. Kranjovian air-freight pilots. The sadly misled drivers drove us into the hold, then headed off to the airport bar, I suppose. They were told this was a load of biomedical samples of some importance to the military, very secret, lethal, sealed in locked cases. To remain sealed. No peeking. Not wrong—we three are biomedical samples of a sort, aren’t we? And important.”

 “And so no inspections,” nodded the Shoptonian. “Look—have you told anyone I’m okay? My family? Swift Enterprises?”

“Just how worry-wartish are your people, Tom?” asked O blandly. “Aren’t they down with the kidnapping thing by now? Anyway, this is just the third day.”

“Tom, my friend, like a good son you sent them a brief video an hour after your safe arrival in Denmark—great flight, full agenda for the next several days, out of touch, lotsa love,” Miza explained. “Fairly decent work, given the generally low standards of the Maurig people. We could have done better, of course. We could have made it interactive.”

“You know, I feel pretty good,” said the American. “So I’ll move on from ‘denial’ and ‘bargaining’ to the ‘acceptance’ stage. Where are we going? Somewhere The Man Himself can’t follow, I hope?”

The Taxman raised his bushy eyebrows. “Alas. Bad guess. Sorry to tell you. Ready for the harsh reality? After we finish our hop over a lot of icewater we’ll be putting you right into Ulvo Maurig’s hands. I mean that more or less literally.”

“Still feeling good, Skipper?” mocked O.













TOM SWIFT sat motionless, studying the face of the man whose face he had never seen.

“You’re not even going to say ‘what?’,” commented Oblivya. “Do I need to feed you your lines, manboy? On video, in books, Americans always have to have something to say.”

Tom glanced her way. “I’m just afraid you might find me interesting.” O shrugged. Tom turned to Ranooq. “I take it Collections has an assignment for me. One of those things I’m not allowed to turn down. Or even understand. What am I being volunteered for?”

O reacted with waspish indignation. “What does he mean, collections? Some silly spy name for your—”

But the gorilla-ish man ignored her, his eyes locked on Tom’s. “I’ll tell you what little you need to know, Tom. And believe me, what you need to know is just a sliver of the big picture.

“Ulvo Maurig’s people contracted with our deviant clubmen to snatch the design data on your synaptor device, the data regarding the initial test models—the models made by your employee Arvid Hanson—and as much of what followed as possible. We interrupted that plan, but the Mauriggers acquired enough to build a somewhat crude version that has now become, as I’m told, obsolete.”

“It ‘worked’ but had some real problems,” grimly nodded the young inventor.

“Which you have solved with your current model, the one you planned to demonstrate in Denmark. And now the ‘real problems’ are Maurig’s. Though we cut off the operatives at your plant, the rogue agents in the US government establishment are still supplying enough of a feed to let The Man Himself know that a perfected model was available, and was on its way to The Arena. He and his people desire it passionately.”

“The military—the US military—thinks the synaptor can be weaponized in some way, though I don’t think the idea holds water,” Tom said. “Why exactly would Kranjovia go through such an elaborate, risky melodrama to steal the new model? Risks have costs—for example exposure, not to mention war. As I understand it, the Maurig regime has no real friends anywhere on Earth. Everyone knows he can barely manage to keep the country afloat, despite all his bluster. What outcome makes it worthwhile? Why is he doing it?”

“Vokt! What is this djurm, you Miza?” sputtered O. “This is all supposed to be about Thorth, not some kind of scheme by the Politicals!”

The Taxman spoke to her without turning his gaze from Tom. “There is love and there is war, Oblivya, and I’m sorry to tell you that war takes priority.”

“If you don’t keep your promise to me, I’ll kill you.”

“If I don’t keep my promise to you, you’ll already be dead.”

“Please answer my question,” Tom demanded.

“Was there a question?” The Taxman’s voice was calm and cynical. “My friend, do you think you know enough to even formulate a sensible question?

“If you want some words to mull over in that prodigal brain... the Mauriggers dream of creating a perfect military force, absolute masters of high-tech weaponry, and equally masters of hand-to-hand combat, espionage, and plain old street violence. For every skill, there exists someone on this earth who is the master of that skill. They wish to copy and stockpile those skills and imprint them on the brains of their servile conscripts, the Great National Patriotic Army.”

The Shoptonian shook his head. “I can think of a dozen reasons why that sort of thing is—lunacy.”

“It’s hallucinatory fantasy,” agreed Ranooq. “It makes no sense. But here’s what does make sense. With that vague tactical goal, fudged and distorted by the necessities of ‘state secrecy’, floating around the Kranjovia establishment, a palace coup can be portrayed as an all-out betrayal of the country to foreigners. Dissidents would have to make the shaky case against the synaptor plan without having enough access to the science to support their doubts. It would be one of those ‘if there’s even a one-percent possibility’ situations. Hard to refute, given that the debate itself must be conducted under absolute secrecy.”

“And so,” said Tom, “all Ulvo Maurig needs to do—”

“Is to convincingly demonstrate, in rigorously secure surroundings, that Tom Swift’s cybrid synaptor really can do what the US and NATO think it can do. Once the basic technical credibility is established, the difficulties of actually using it on a mass scale become that which must not be said. Doubt is treasonous. Trust the leader at all costs!—and, naturally, his chosen successors.”

“I hate Politicals and their way of thinking, their stupid exploitations,” snarled Oblivya Zyg. “All I want is to not have to live in Nowheresvilles all my life—my life with my heart-pledge Thorth. I don’t give a djur who runs things, or who runs over things. Let Americans come! Or Poles or Russians or people from Mars. Just leave us alone!”

“O, I’m afraid Mr. Ranooq isn’t giving either of us the option to be ‘left alone’,” Tom said quietly, staring down at the little rubber ball in his hand. “And now I understand what you want me to do, and why Maurig wants me. He wants me to teach his people how to run the machine, how to adapt it to his long-term purposes, or at least put on a convincing show. And you want to put me next to him to sabotage the synaptor!”

The Gorilla nodded. “After all, my friend, you are the inventor.”

A moment passed. Tom lay back on the cot, flat, one hand across his eyes. “Where is this plane headed? Not someplace in Kranjovia, I take it.”

“Iceland,” said O.


“Because that’s where Maurig is,” explained Miza Ranooq. “We’ve known for a long time that the Exalted Hero-Leader of The People doesn’t actually reside in the executive compound in Serpentopol. He handles affairs remotely, by encrypted electronics, from his fortified installation in the icy wilds—him and his political and military staff, his inner circle. When he has to make a public appearance back in dear Kranjo, he uses doubles. Not a very original idea.”

“The Iceland government—”

“They don’t know. And we don’t tell them. We like him there. We can monitor his antics more easily when he’s not physically behind the last shreds of the Iron Curtain.”

“It’s hard to believe the US government would hold back such—”

“My club is not part of the US government,” declared Ranooq coldly. “A chapter was. And that chapter is no more.”

“I see,” Tom said from beneath his hand. “And does the US government know you were never part of it?”

“Why spoil their illusions, Tom? Don’t those eminent men deserve a restful night’s sleep? Various cabinet secretaries and military generals and shiny-shoed flunkies presumed to know what we are and how we fit in. We played our roles. You helped us do so, you know—you called us Collections, a name you made up. Very homey, hm? And—well, we did draw our salaries in good US dollars.”

“But you banked it elsewhere,” said the Shoptonian wryly.

During the ensuing quiet the Taxman provided Tom and Oblivya with food and drink from small cartons, then retired to the synaptor crate to sit and wait, like a stone gargoyle on the cornice of a building. Tom lay on his cot, half-turned toward the wall, asking no questions. O sat sullenly with her thoughts.

Hours later all could feel a change in the motion of the plane. “We’re banking,” Tom muttered.

“Beginning our descent,” stated Ranooq. “I hope you won’t be too disappointed that we won’t be using the Leifur Eiríksson International Air Terminal at Keflavík Airport. It’s some 31 miles from Reykjavik, but too near the US base for comfort. I prefer not to be watched. Call me shy. We’ll set down at a small freight airfield pretty much out in the Icelandic boonies.”

“And then this becomes my express delivery van—direct to Ulvo Maurig.”

“This? Oh, cheer up, my friend. You’ll be traveling in style.”

“Another limo?”

“A humvee. It’s waiting now.”

“How do you know?”

“Because it has to be, Tom.”

There came waverings, swervings, bumpings—and silence. We’re down, thought the young inventor.

The Taxman checked his watch and held up a finger to signify: Wait. After a minute he rose from the crate and signaled Tom and Oblivya to stand and move out of the way.

Tom stood—and moaned softly. He put a hand to his cheek, then rubbed his eyes. “That stuff—that ‘Blue’—I can’t keep balance...”

“I’ll hold him up,” said O, moving to the Shoptonian’s side.

The Taxman was at the van’s rear hatch. He reached around a flange into a slot next to it. The trace of red light reflected from his hand, which moved sharply. Then came a couple mechanical sounds, and the reflection turned yellow. He shifted and put his meaty hand on the big door lever to “unhitch” the door.

In that instant Tom Swift’s muscles had already swung into fierce action. His left arm, still grasping the little ball, whipped around sideways. The ball flicked across the cabin like a bullet, striking Ranooq on his left temple with such force the bulky figure bounced forward, his head hitting the hatch. O screeched in surprise—something she hadn’t done in ten years. As she did so, Tom tore across the cabin, arms and fists preceding him. Slamming into the Taxman bodily, he whapped the man’s head against metal a second time. Ranooq grunted and slumped to the floor. He lay there like a mountain range.

Tom had already thrown-over the lever and pushed open the hatch door. Beyond was part of the freight deck, then another hatch panel. A porthole bespoke thin daylight outside the plane. Looks easy, he thought.

Tom hopped down onto the deck. Not wasting a muscle, he pivoted and faced back. He extended a hand to Oblivya. “Well? Come on! I’ll give you three seconds!—two!—one!”














IT SEEMED Oblivya Zyg was used to making life decisions quickly. Bounding forward, she took Tom’s hand and he pulled her roughly from the van to the plane’s deck. The loading hatch presented no problem. The two leapt down to the oily tarmac. They ran. This time it was Tom Swift who was steering.

There were several hangars in view, and Tom caught, in the briefest of glances, the squat square humvee that waited to take him to the dictator of Kranjovia. “Wuh—we—we could take the—” gasped O. Tom didn’t answer. He replied succinctly by dragging his companion in the opposite direction.

No one was in sight. They rounded the corner of a hangar and reduced speed to a fairly reasonable trot. “Look, manboy—Skipper—just what are you—how do you plan—” Her babble was more than a whisper, but well-muted.

Tom issued a very soft, gentlemanly response. “Shut up.”

After a moment Tom began a faster run. Ahead was a tall chainlink fence running a long distance to the right and the left. Tom didn’t hesitate or slacken his pace; it was as if he planned to charge right through it. But instead he leapt upward smoothly and violently, catlike, digging the toes of the old sneakers O had acquired—part of his “disguise”—into the metal weave. One arm stretched high. One hand clamped onto the top of the fence. It should have hurt; somehow it didn’t. Then he forced a squeal from O as, in some startling manner, he seemed to swing her upward from the ground, virtually hurling her across the top of the fence, swinging himself over as she dropped to the ground with a rude mention of pain.

Beyond the small airfield was some rather barren countryside, hills rising in the near distance, jagged mountains all along the horizon, a dust of white on the ground. Several paved roads passed the facility. There were no moving cars on the roads, but there was a one-strip parking lot where a few cars squatted, unoccupied.

It was clear that Tom planned to steal a car. O began to move toward a polished late-model sportscar, but Tom yanked her in another direction—a very old station wagon.

“I’vokt! Not that djurm piece of rust!” protested the young Kranjovian.

“Easier to hotwire,” muttered Tom. “And no alarm.”

“How can you tell?”

“Science. And intuition. And I don’t care.”

The car was unlocked. They clambered in, Tom on the driver’s side, lefthand. He leaned low and began acting like an expert auto technician in a frenzy. Suddenly the car stuttered and revved. “Seatbelt, O,” commanded the young inventor. “I hear Iceland is pretty strict.” The car roared away onto the two-lane road, crunching the patches of icy white. As in the United States, Iceland drove road-right.

Oblivya was muttering—sometimes shrill babbling—in Kranjov. The sound spiked when Tom suddenly braked and executed a fast, careless U-turn that included a skid. “Knock it off, O,” he barked. “I don’t need distraction.”

“Okay, okay, but—like—where in Hyie’hffen are you going?”

There was no answer for a long minute as Tom sped down the road at well above the Icelandic speed limit. They whisked past one or two vehicles headed the opposite way. There were no other cars in their own lane, fore or aft, as far as they could see. “All right, Miss Zyg, I’ll tell you what I know and where I’m going,” the American said at last. “The answers are Nothing and Beats me. Got it?”

“American, you have gone berzierkor!” O cried hysterically. “What is this? You take me away from, what is his name, Ranooq—the one who will bring me to Thorth and get us—”

Tom interrupted. “You’re wrong.”


“That oversize model of a human being is not Miza Ranooq, O.”

She stared at him, then turned her stare toward the road ahead. “But you—you recognized—”

“Sure. I thought he was the one I had encountered a couple times. I thought that at first—I think my brain was fuzzed out from that drug of yours.

“But in a while I really started looking, started listening. Something was wrong—felt wrong. For all the similarities, the rhythm of his words, his expressions, seemed a little off to me. Oh yeah, he’d been well trained and he sure looked the part. But by the time we were in flight I was certain he was a ringer. For one thing, the real Miza Ranooq is Algerian and speaks English with an accent. This man didn’t quite manage it.”

“So you held on to your little ball.”

“And put it to good use.”

“I’m not sure yet that the use was ‘good,’ sir.”

“I’m quite sure that I don’t care what you think, ma’am. I may need you around, Miss Zyg. It’s a matter of convenience. But I seem to have a talent for handling difficult situations. If I can steer you toward this Thorth idiot—I don’t know him, but I know he fell for you—I’ll do what I can.”

She glared at him. “Insults, hm. That’s the way it is on your television episodes, too. First they resist each other. Banter!—and then—”

“ ‘And then’ won’t happen.”

“Say and say again. Try for it, manboy, and I’ll jump from this car.”

“The handle is three inches from your dainty hand. I won’t slow down.” After a moment Tom added: “I’m not lying, O.”

“Not lying,” she repeated. “Yet you have lied about so many things, American. Why did you bother pretending that you don’t speak Kranjov?”

The young inventor side-glanced at her, puzzled. “I don’t. Or rather—just a few choice terms.”

“Are obvious, ridiculous lies still lies?” she pretended to muse. “So you don’t speak my language. What do you think you’re speaking right now?”

Tom gulped, astounded. “You—I—I am speaking Kranjovian! You were muttering and I understood and answered in the same—”

“These exploits are too surreal to impress me.”

“Listen, O,” Tom said with a shaky voice. “I never took a lesson in that language in my life! I don’t know how—”

“And now,” she said, “now you are back to English. Should I just overlook your careless mistake?”

Tom made no answer. With one or two necessary stops at the roadside, they traveled on silently, now at a more temperate speed. Traffic on either side of the road remained scarce.

As they passed a small billboard, O said sullenly, “I don’t know what it says, but sometime we’ll have to eat, manboy, if you still do that after your enhancement. Maybe it says there’s a town ahead.”

Tom shook his head. “Know what it said? ‘Love our cold country, please no cigar butts.’ In Icelandic.”

“Which you don’t speak.”


“Because you never learned it.”


“Well then, go ahead. Say something in Icelandic. Or maybe why not Kranjov? It seems you can do anything! Thrill me, boy wonder of New York.”

Tom’s thinking had become too heavy to bear sarcasm. “When I try for either—when I deliberately make an effort to translate what I’m thinking about into a sentence—it doesn’t happen. I can’t consciously summon up words. I don’t think I could write anything in those languages either. It’s when I don’t think about it that I can do it. It’s as if—my mouth—”

She completed the thought. “Oh, I see, you’ve deputized your mouth to speak on your behalf. Nice. Not that such djurm makes one bit of logical sense.” Abruptly she half-smiled. “But as by miracle you understand Kranjov, perhaps I ought to avoid vulgarities in my language, eyn?”

“I knew the gist of that one from the start.”

O acknowledged this with a nod. “Uh-huh. So what else can you do, Tom Swift? If you’ll allow yourself to speak of such things. In any language.”

“You’ve seen several things,” he replied. “So have I. I not only caught that rubber ball, I threw it just as expertly as—let’s call him Pseudo-Man. I’ve never had that kind of skill; I leave it to a friend of mine, and even he isn’t that good. I didn’t think, didn’t calculate angles or trajectories, didn’t even quite know what I wanted to accomplish—except to escape. My arm and hand did it for me—like a genie!

“In fact... I don’t even remember thinking about how to open that hatch-door. I just plain did it!”

“By instinct.”

The young inventor shook his head thoughtfully. “Maybe it’s what some people call ‘instinct,’ O. For all I know I may be tapping some kind of buried neuro-cortical code that our species has lost contact with since primordial times...”

“Since back in the trees. With the gorillas. Not to raise a sore subject.”

“But our primate ancestors never developed pitching skills, not to mention the talent to absorb foreign languages out of thin air! It was just my body on its own, my muscles, that avoided the humvee and pulled you over that fence—that plus a bit of my gymnastics training—and selected this car. O—I have no idea how to hotwire a car!”

“Your biting rudeness really showed a skill that I hope your mother never taught you,” frowned Oblivya. “So, ‘Skipper,’ there it is, there you are, here we are. One wonders just what your body plans to do next. To us. To me. That’s what’s in control—right? Vokt.

“Here I am. Iceland. Breaking speed laws, skidding on ice. And who’s at the wheel? It seems it’s something called a cybrid.”

Tom said what was hard to say: “Yes.”

“It was that brain machine.”

The Shoptonian nodded but did not speak. No need.

They drove on. They passed road signs at fairly large intervals. When Tom tried to read them, when he focused his attention and searched his prodigal mind—nothing. But sometimes, without thinking, he muttered a translation. And sometimes, even without the mutter, he seemed to get the gist of the sign’s meaning—in retrospect.

The sun, never high in the sky, was half behind the mountains, pale and misty. “I’m hungry and thirsty and rather agitated,” said O sulkily. Tom did not reply. “Fine, cybrid, do not trouble your robotic feelings. I have Blue. You don’t matter.”

“ ‘Blue’...” repeated Tom Swift quietly. “Where does it come from? Do you know?” She shrugged. “I think it comes from a Himalayan country, Vishnapur. They have blue algae, a distinctive blue, that produces something they call yorb. It can be processed into a family of drugs with various effects—including recreational use.”

“Uh-huh. Don’t get hooked on it, manboy. It gives pleasure. You don’t care for pleasure.”

“It can also produce violent paranoia.”

“Ah! That’s what’s causing it.” She gave Tom a sidelong glance. “As I am now pharmaceutically sociable for the moment, perhaps I will ask you where we are going?”

The young inventor smiled. “Aren’t you the same Oblivya Zyg who dragged me across half of Kranjovia on the basis of ‘tell you later’?”

“There it is. That’s your violent paranoia talking. Perhaps Icelandic beer will flush it from your delicate system.”

“I don’t drink.”

“What do you do? Except drive.”

“I think.”

“Right. Finally at last I happen across an American, and it’s one who thinks. T’vokt.”

Tom noted the persistent word—a word of action. “That is not thinking.”

“How would you know?”

O did something startling—she giggled. And Tom Swift laughed.

“Whatever is inside you, Tom,” said O, “it makes you seem almost human.”

“I would guess,” replied Tom, “it’s the same with you.”

Smiling, O stared into the distance. “Where are we? Your special powers tell you anything about that?”

“I don’t need anything more than my science training to tell me that we’re northward on the island. Look at the sun. Iceland’s just below the Arctic Circle.”

“That’s what you think,” O pronounced. “What do you feel?”

Tom tried to clear his mind, to not think. “I—I don’t—it’s as if I can remember the gist of what someone else is thinking—something about my muscles, inner sensations... I, er, feel we’re up in the northeast, near the coast. I don’t know how to describe it—how a sensation, a feeling, can tell me something like that. Like a map made of little nudges urging me to move my thought this way or that—

“No, don’t bother making a joke, O. I know it’s just nonsense. You can’t explain in words something that’s about what words can’t say. But the bottom line is, I wanted to go this way. Somehow it seemed like the right thing to do. And I want to continue. Until we get there.”

“Get where?”

“No idea—yet!”













AT AN INTERSECTION, Tom turned left toward what he knew, in his unaccountable way, was the coast. “Heading north,” commented Oblivya. “A wish to stand beneath the northern lights, perhaps?” Tom murmured something. “What was that you said? A revelation?”

“I said ‘ice and light’,” the inventor replied quietly.


“Wish I knew.”

There now were more cars on the highway, coming and going—though more was something of an exaggeration. Tom said: “Up ahead we’ll find... something. Food and lodging, I think.”

“And I think we have an interesting evening up ahead,” the Kranjovian replied with her customary insinuative tone. “Or do they have evenings in northern Iceland?”

They came to a sign, a turnoff, a parking lot, almost empty. The lot abutted a long, two-story building of modern design, the Icelandic equivalent of a country motel, an overnight place for tired drivers. Tom pointed at the lettering on the side, words in Icelandic that somehow told their tale. “ ‘Hús Is og Ljós’. House of Ice and Light.”

“Food and drink would be enough. For a start—Skipper.”

They parked and entered. As Tom approached the registration clerk, he had a pseudonym in mind—one that seemed to jump into place from nowhere. “Yes sir?” said the young man at the counter, in Icelandic.

Tom grasped the meaning thoughtlessly. He replied: “Herbergi fyrir aðeins í kvöld, takk. A room for just tonight, please.”

“Yes, most certainly—Mister—?”

Oblivya rushed forward with her own idea of secret identity. “Mr. and Mrs. Felix Navidad. I’ll spell it for you.”

“Oh, English?” said the clerk. “You speak our language well, Mr. Navidad. It is rather a trial to the tongue, they say.”

As the clerk looked down, Tom shot a glare at his companion, who was all smiles. The Shoptonian reached for his pocket as if by ingrained habit. Suddenly he remembered—O had thrown away his wallet. Including the credit cards he had planned to pay with! Good night, what am I doing? his mind demanded of his brain.

But O was not to be caught without a surprise. “Oh, I have it, Dear Precious,” she said, withdrawing a credit card from some depth within her. As it passed before Tom’s eyes, he glimpsed the small photo on it. It was Tom’s own card.

“Thank you, sir. Fortunately we do take credit cards here,” the clerk said.

“Fortunately, so do I,” commented O with a mischievous look Tom’s way.

The man did something electronic, with a beep!, below the counter. “Yes, that’s fine. I did not doubt you, but we have our procedure. Now, let us be traditional, eh—please sign our guest register, Mr. Navidad.”

Tom took a pen and did so; or rather, attempted to. The signature scrawled out, and Tom halted with a start. Good night, that’s not my signature! He made a second attempt. His hand moved erratically.

The clerk looked at him. “Sir?”

“Oh, don’t worry,” O told the man. “He’s on drugs. Driving makes him tense. Try again, Honey Sweet. It’s easy enough to write Felix Navidad.” It was a reminder.

Tom faked a signature. And—after some kind of mental struggle—provided an address, the home address of his chief engineer at Swift Enterprises, Hank Sterling.

The clerk accepted it with a smile. As he handed the card back, he glanced at Tom with another sort of smile. “Perhaps someone has mentioned how much you resemble someone we see so often in the news, the globally famous ungur uppfinningamaður of America—the famed young inventor, the moon man, eh?”

“He’s not so much a young inventor these days,” responded Tom wryly. “Look—Hreggur—sometimes... a person wants to be out of the public eye...”

“Oh yes, I well understand, Mr. Navidad,” grinned the man. There was a hint of conspiracy in the Icelandic air. “Our cold little Iceland is very far out of the public eye. Except for the volcano and the financial crisis. It’s all right, sir. We’re good.”

“Might we have the honeymoon suite?” asked O tauntingly.

“Mrs. Navidad, all our rooms are the honeymoon suite.”

Their particular honeymoon suite was Number 21. Tom closed the door, and by the same motion turned to confront Oblivya with a fierce frown. “Enjoying yourself? The idea is not to arouse suspicion!”

She smiled and plopped down on the bed. “I was clever. Now, you see, he is on our side. Men stick together in such matters. All will be kept discreet. He will tell his grandchildren about the time he conspired with the great Tom Swift.”

“That credit card—”

“Would I be so stupid as to throw it away? On the street we learn the true value of things. I’ve been many people in my life. Foreigners are best—their names don’t always give away their sex. Sometimes I’ve been Jacques or Marlon. And Kranjies don’t know the difference between Justin and Justine.”

Tom accepted the logic but paced the room anyway. “They’ll trace the charge eventually. It’ll be eat, sleep, and run.”

“Mm. Such it is with many men I’ve known. Oh well. Still, it’s rather a nice room.”

“We could bring in a few rodents and some broken furniture,” said Tom, “if you’d feel more at home.”

“You’re crude and mean.”

“It’s what the Navidad family is known for. Dearest.”

Tom looked at the big bed, then at the long, large sofa by the wall. Then he said: “Let’s have dinner. I saw a coffee shop off the lobby.”

Oblivya stood. “It’s on me.” She waggled the credit card she had commandeered. Tom’s picture seemed to nod.

After showering, they had a traditional Icelandic meal of hamburgers and cottage fries, followed by ice cream doused in brandy. It was good, and filling. Even O seemed content—yet Tom felt she was eyeing him in an odd way. He was afraid he knew what she had in mind for the end of the evening. Though he was less and less sure precisely why he was afraid...

Back in their suite, Tom resumed his pacing. “Someone’s out a car. And maybe a spy! Pseudo-Man’s bump wasn’t life-threatening, but he’ll be physically unreliable for days at least. The humvee driver—maybe the plane pilot—would have looked after him, probably.

“But it doesn’t matter much, O. ‘They’ know we’re somewhere here in Iceland. Since the car gave us miles, they don’t know where we are—not until they hack the credit card cyberbase and backtrack the charges. If this isn’t the club I call Collections, it won’t be easy; my friends and family have special arrangements with the card companies to block this kind of situation.”

“Why Darling, it sounds as if you think you have enemies,” purred O sarcastically. “Or perhaps that paranoia is taking effect?”

“Right now, we have enemies. Both of us.”

She nodded. “I’ve had enemies most of my life, manboy. I suppose marriage is about sharing.”

Tom Swift stared at her, with a strange, stern kind of anger. But was it anger? “This is real life, Oblivya. I admire you, what you’ve done. You’re clever and—I’d call you brave. But it’s hardened you. You can’t afford to dwell on the dangers, so you’ve made it a matter of amusement. You’re playing. Think!—you’re not just risking yourself, Bliv. Having no fear is as bad as having too much.”

O held up a hand, a hand that said Stop. Her expression was new and stark. “What did you just say? Just now?”

“Want to argue? ‘Having no fear is—’ ”

She stopped him. “No, Tom. You said Ku poel hirmu, on s’ma halb, ku liiga palhyu. Your stupid finger-wagging motto came out in Kranjov! Didn’t even notice, did you.” Tom started to speak, but she interrupted instantly. “Forget it. That’s old miracle. More important is what you called me. You called me Bliv.”

“Oblivya, Bliv, O, what does it matter?”

Her eyes seemed to grasp his. She touched the mattress next to where she sat; she patted it. Some earnestness in her expression killed any resistance. Tom sank down. She said, “Right now we must be as honest with each other as we can be. ‘Think’ yourself. When we arrived, when we went up to the counter, you most obviously didn’t intend to give your real name...”

“Of course not. I made up something on the spot.”

“But I interrupted you. What name did you almost say?”

“Good night, I don’t remember. Just a first and last name I made up.”

“Made up? Or pulled up?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I saw you start to say it,” O said. “It was on your lips. I talked over you, but I can talk and chew nuts at the same time, as the expression goes. I heard it. You said Edweir.”

Tom’s face expressed puzzlement on top of impatience. “I slipped into Icelandic, remember? Some Icelandic word the synaptor imprinted on me, picked randomly. Maybe I ‘felt’ that it was a typical name.”

“It’s not Icelandic.”


“I tried, I wanted to think it was just a coincidence. And then—you signed the guest register. And some other things, some little mannerisms. And your attitude—tough and callous and rather...

“No, I’ll leave it at rather.

“And... Bliv. You called me Bliv. That’s what he called me, Tom. And that was his signature.” The scientist-inventor felt the color draining from his face. “You know now, don’t you. That brain stuff, what I helped Pseudo-Man put into you with your machine—it came from him. Yes! Edweir Thorth!”

Tom stood shakily. He didn’t pace but crossed the room like a machine and sat down on the sofa. “I didn’t know. How could I? Nothing in my thoughts told me the source of the input. The synaptor doesn’t transfer information or memories. It imprints skills, reflexes, neuro-muscular automatic responses. It couldn’t—I don’t see how—”

“If it can teach you words, another whole language—”

“Yes,” Tom conceded. “We didn’t see it at Enterprises. But—yes, we should have considered the possibility. Language dispositions are built into the cortex at a deep level; there are patterns that seem all but universal among humans. All those little ‘urgings’ I sense consciously are just the superficial part of what my brain is doing. Vocalizations—linguistic choices—are learned muscular skills just as much as throwing a ball is. An internal dictionary, not in thoughts or real words but in nerve-code! As we try to express—”

Tom jerked back, startled, as Oblivya barked “Hey!” at the top of her lungs!

“Don’t try that on me, manboy! Don’t you dare try to push it aside! This isn’t a science conference, American. I couldn’t care less about this abstract logical intellectual djurm. Is that it, your way, evading important things by wasting time with, with pointless explaining—!”

The Shoptonian caught his breath. “I... I’m sorry.”

“In some way, in some part, by Great God, you, you are the man I’ve been seeking, my heart-pledge, my lover. Something in you, Tom Swift—you are Thorth!”

Tom saw the tears shining on her face. He could feel them drawing his attention, his concentration. He forced himself to look away. “I’m Tom Swift, just Tom Swift. Except I’m an enhanced version. O, I didn’t ask for this. I’m... not...”

But Oblivya was speaking. “I’ve seen it in your eyes. Since you first woke up after—what we did. I’ve seen eyes like that a lot, Tom. I know what it means. And if you don’t know—then maybe you really are a young inventor. After all.”

There was much more conversation along the same lines, a mixture including much emotion and little sleep. Eventually sleep won out completely.

At 6:33 AM, the room phone blithered hesitantly, apologetically. Tom answered, blearily.

It was the young man at the front desk, speaking in low tones. “Sir, you might wish to know—I am most sorry to awaken—to interrupt—the two of you, but—a man, a rather fat man, just now came in and asked me—you see, he had a picture, a famous young man with blond hair whose name is well-known. I said no such man had registered here. He said something about a stolen car...”

“Where is he now?” asked the Shoptonian tensely.

“I was unbudgeable in a friendly way, for I am a trained professional, and he suddenly turned and left through the door. I see him now through the window, standing next to a car, a yellow compact, talking to someone within. His attitude is contemptuous, if I may put it so—do you see? Arrogant! I thought, Mr. Navidad, that if you and the woman—ah, your wife, of course—had a desire not to be photographed or, er, publicized—”

“I much appreciate it,” Tom said.

“Ah, celebrity. No more privacy. Sometimes we men need a bit of privacy, do we not? Otherwise, death by Internet. So, do accept my solidarity. Down the hall, at the end of your wing, a little door to the outside, the back. I will disable the alarm from here. The area is not visible from the lot, but as to getting into your car—”

“They can have the car. I had to, to borrow it rather quickly. Without the formalities.”

“Mm, jealous husbands—we Icelandics are a passionate race. I know this to be a fact.”

In three minutes the Navidads were on the run.











         THE REAL DEAL




TOM AND OBLIVYA, with gasping effort, threw themselves into their own running wind as they shot through the rear door of the House of Ice and Light. The clear area behind the big motel yielded to low shrubbery, then a barren unoccupied pasture dotted with snow and shouldered by a poor excuse for woodlands, interrupted everywhere by upthrusting boulders, some twice Tom’s height. They needed the cover and used it.

The terrain was tilted. Their stretching footsteps overcarried slightly, unbalancing them. Some kind of long slope, thought the young inventor, and in a few miles, the sea. But they couldn’t see it. The sky was an odd, opalescent yellow-gray, their puffs of frozen breath mingling above them as they were left behind. There was thin fog, not at the ground but spread above like a transparent blanket just out of reach. It was still early morning.

Sometimes they slowed, chests heaving, but not for long. Then at last, in the shadow of a boulder spreading away from the rising northlands sun, they stopped. Tom leaned against the boulder. The former Mrs. Navidad leaned against Tom. The sparse, snowbound woods surrounded them.

Finally they were able to talk, hoarsely. “We’ll freeze without a car,” O panted. “Want to steal another?”

“If we can,” shrugged the Shoptonian. “But where from, neither me nor Thorth knows.”

“Then the two of you need to clomp your heads together because on foot, Skipper, we’re dead. The Insidious Them knows we’re somewhere out here. They have cars. They have drones. They have—”

“Guns,” Tom completed the thought.

He looked toward the horizon. If the shore were that way... what about a boat? Or would their enemies—were they the Mauriggers?—anticipate that very move?

The thoughts were interrupted as O eased downward and sat flat on the cold ground. She hugged her knees. “Well, Tom... well.”

He gazed down at her stonily. “Yeah. Sorry, no inventions today—not even a screwdriver!”

“Right. The great inventor. I’d forgotten.” She suddenly met his eyes. “Tell me something. You’re a smart guy. The world knows it. So why, smart guy, didn’t you do the obvious back there? At the motel. In the bridal suite.”

Tom Swift felt only half like Tom Swift. The Swift half reddened. The other half saw no need to. “O... was that how it was with Thorth? Any dangerous situation  was an, an opportunity—”

She smiled a sigh. “Oh, now, Tom, try not to jump to conclusions. The ‘obvious thing’ I mean is, why didn’t you use the motel phone to call someone? America, loved ones, the CIA—whatever? I’vokt, you could have called the Snow Patrol of Iceland!

“No, manboy, don’t struggle to save face. We both know the reason—though I think I’m the only one willing to name it. What you started to say just now, me and Thorth and ‘the way it was’—a little bit true. More than a little. Thorth was not a bureaucrat. He was—is—a subversive, a rebel, a spy. It takes a certain kind of personality to do daring things, to work to undermine your own government, to live the secret life. He accepts danger. It does something to him...”

“Exhilarates him?” Tom suggested dryly.

“If that is the proper way to say it in English, fine and sweet. But we were lovers. In Kranjovia that’s like a summer vacation; because everything else is like school. I didn’t go with him as he did whatever he did back in town, but his exhilaration was easily shared. Pleasantly so, in fact. If these concepts are foreign, ‘Skipper,’ you might consult the Thorth part of you.”

Tom sank down next to O. “I don’t need to ‘consult’ anyone about that, ma’am. But what does it have to do with the telephone?”

“You don’t see it. As they say of work horses, you are purblind.”

“Unblind me.”

“Can you take it? Meh. Unwillingly, annoyingly, you are attracted to me, Tom Swift. That special, specific what you call neuro skill set that belonged to Thorth and was well exercised by him, and frequently may I add, doesn’t want to just rest unused inside your lean capitalist body. To be blunt: your inner tides are distracting you. Those words!— that’s what I think. You and Thorth are too busy wrestling to even think about obvious things like telephones or WiFi connections to—whatever your drowsy little town is called. Last night, at least, you couldn’t think the obvious thoughts. You couldn’t focus on escape. Because, you see, some strong assertive exhilarated part of you—”

“Didn’t want to escape. I see.” Tom looked off. “Good theory. And now explain why you yourself didn’t bother to mention the thing, last night when it would have mattered. Who’s inside you?” She didn’t respond. “Forget it. You could be right, Bliv—uh, O. Something distracted me. But however strong Thorth’s romantic clutches might be, I’m not going to let him run my life. He’s not here. I am. You and I are going to get ourselves safe.”

“Sure. Naturally. Nice place to get. After tripping from one end of the Solar System to the other, safe seems pretty near, no doubt. So,” she went on, sarcasm on the rise, “how? Either of you can answer.”

Tom answered with a shrug. “I think we’re done resting.”

He started walking with new purpose. Something tugged at him. O followed with no objection. After a minute’s hike Tom said, “I neuro-feel that this area, this countryside, is familiar—a good place to be. I think... I’ve been drawn this way ever since we got out of the plane.”

O looked at him sourly. “If it’s Thorth’s instincts that are tickling you, this part comes from his more recent life, more recent than when I knew him. I don’t know a thing about his being in Iceland. I suppose it’s part of his identity as Grystofrat Lahe, thief and wildman.”

“Maybe. And if ‘Grysto’ continued to be part of the resistance, his being here must have something to do with Ulvo Maurig—assuming anything Pseudo-Man told us is true. And—you know—I think at least some of it is. That little airport must be fairly near Maurig’s secret compound—”

“If there even is such a thing.”

“Fine—I feel it’s true. I doubt they planned to lug us all over Iceland in that humvee. If Thorth was working against your exalted supreme leader, he would almost have to have come to this area. He would know the map, the roads—the roads that led to the motel, which he might have found convenient to use. He would visualize the area repeatedly—neurally imprint it. He came this way for a reason, often enough for the route to ‘feel right,’ which the synaptor can pick up and transfer. Now—”

“Is there still a now, Skipper?”

“—now we’re continuing on the trail, to a place—it feels like a place where he hid, a safehouse—something like that. It’s this way, O. His base of operations.”

O’s eyes became wide. “Then—then Tom, he might still be there! We’ve found him!”

Tom nodded. “Maybe so.” His insides disagreed. He didn’t want to disenthuse Oblivya, but something within made him certain that the man had moved along to other places. Or at least had done so prior to the recording of his neuro data by the synaptor.

Would Edweir Thorth have been needed after his neural insides had been recorded?

They had trudged for more than an hour through the rocky woodland when Tom became aware, by twitch of muscle and an inner tenseness, that they would soon be running across something that neuro-felt like a road—a small road, a secret road, not a paved highway.

His footsteps turned to a new angle. “We’re getting near,” he murmured. O said nothing. She looked disgusted. At life, at Tom Swift.

And then came a man’s voice through the pale, chilly quiet. “Over here, Tom,” were the words, casual, friendly, conversational if somewhat gruff. The voice was even familiar—But I sure was wrong about that last time! warned Tom’s thoughts.

A man stepped into view from among the trees. He wore a fleece jacket and a cap pulled over his ears. “Been awhile,” said the man to Tom Swift, who stopped dead.

“And who are you?” demanded Oblivya. “Now what? Let me guess—another gorilla. The real deal, I suppose.”

Tom shook his head, perplexed. “No, it isn’t Ranooq. But I... know him.”

O’s voice was scornful. “Uh-huh. That’s a good enough reason for me to run like djurm, American.”

As the two drew closer, the man said: “Yes, right. This is the Kranjovian girl, I take it. You make friends easily, Tom.”

“Good night!” Tom exclaimed softly. “I thought—we were told—”

“All your Christmas cards were returned to you, hmm? My apologies. Secrecy applies even on the holidays.”

The young inventor rushed forward and shook the man’s hand warmly. He said over his shoulder, “Oblivya Zyg—Quimby Narz. I haven’t seen him in—”

“Since I got off your personal jumbo jet after telling you all about the Russians and their ice problems. Which you handled pretty well for a civilian. You have no idea how much I hate to say that.”

Standing off, O’s gaze shifted back and forth between Tom and the newcomer, whose basset-hound face disclosed many years of life. “And just how do you know about me, Mr. Quimpery? And what do you know? You are another spy? Of course you are. All I want is to find love and maybe, if it’s not too tedious and stupid, overthrow my government, and this, this is what I get! I’vokt!”

“Now now, young lady, watch that mouth of yours,” remonstrated Narz with a wink at Tom. “I’m old enough to remember when young girls didn’t talk that way in front of their elders.”

“Whatever keeps you turned up, grandypop. Americans!—even father Swift here is quaint.”

Narz raised an eyebrow humorously. “Perhaps we can discuss this crucial matter further in my car. Sometimes the woods have ears.”

“And sometimes the skies have eyes,” Tom added, glancing upward. He was neuro-certain Ulvo Maurig, quaint despot though he might be, was well acquainted with the use of modern mini-drones!

They followed Quimby Narz to an ATV at the edge of an unpaved roadway, which seemed barely wide enough for a Shetland Pony. A middle-aged woman sat at the steering wheel. She nodded politely.

O rolled her eyes. Or at least her voice did. “Well! You must be Strawberry Delight. Or is it Contoura Seat? We see—that is, steal—movies even in poor Kranjovia. The spy-woman sexpot always has some laughable name.”

“Katrin Ekkelsdottir,” said the woman affably, in good English. “I should be so lucky to be one of those spy-mistresses. It would be more relaxing than wife and mother.”

“Here they are, Katrin,” smiled Narz. “Oh-kay, everybody in. Drones are flying. This fog ceiling isn’t much, but I don’t want it to burn off before we get home.”

“Home?” repeated Tom.

“Well, it’s certainly my home,” responded Mrs. Ekkelsdottir.

They set off, bouncing along on big tires with tree boughs screeching against their sides and tree roots rocking them back and forth. “I suppose it’d be polite to say something about what’s going on,” Narz said. “Just to pass the time.”

“Tom wants to know. And I could stand a little information, though I expect it to be too political for my tastes,” commented O superciliously.

Narz nodded without glancing back. “Then it’s fortunate that I have no intention of exposing you to the dull details of our spy-movie masterplan, Miss Zyg. Not to offend you beyond obvious necessity, but you don’t seem the sort’ve young lady who can keep her mouth overly shut. So I’ll say a few things. And the rest, Tom, will stay in the pot until you and I have some facetime in a special room up ahead.”

“I understand,” replied the Shoptonian. “But how much do you know of what’s been happening to us, Quim? Obviously quite a bit!”

The man chuckled. “Probably less than you think. Especially since—oh well, let me give a preface.

“I was an agent of the big American spy company, Miss Zyg, the CIA. After a life that wasn’t terribly cinematic I grew too old and feeble to operate my laser olive fork, so I became a desk guy, something of a consultant. My main personal distinction is that I can’t blink one of my eyes, due to an injury acquired in the field. I have one other distinction that I’ll refrain from mentioning as it’s nobody’s business and I blush easily.

“Back when I was less old than I am now I was assigned to give some help to Tom here in resolving... oh, some minor matter in foreign relations. Best forgotten. I then was cast in the role of irritating guardian angel, bearing news of scientific problems our allies the Russians were having. After which I went home, kept in touch for a little while, then was wise enough to retire. I have a condo in a retirement community where I spend most of my time complaining about anything I can fit my mouth around.”

“Mr. Narz is being humorously fictitious, O,” Tom commented.

“It comes easy; I’ve spent a life being less than truthful. In good cause, naturally. Now then,” the man continued, “I happened to be casually strolling around Northern Europe when my prepaid cellphone buzzed. It seemed that a planeload of important persons, Tom Swift among them, had gone astray. Rather far astray.”

“Were your people on that plane, Quim?” Tom asked.

“Of course,” he replied. “That jet contained so many unticketed passengers I’m surprised it got off the tarmac. Smart people know that there’s no such thing as a ‘secret conference to demonstrate a new technology to NATO’. Everyone watches everyone watching everyone—bragging rights. Guys do that, Miss Zyg.”

“Most with little justification,” O noted sarcastically. “Meh, I’m only going by my own experience.”

“No doubt very broad. At any rate, Tom, we could only observe and report, not get into a gun battle over the snack cart. So there you are in Kranjovia with your cat-robot and—other accoutrements.”

Tom broke a brief silence. “Oblivya knows about my cybrid synaptor, Quim. In fact, she’s operated one.”

“Oh really? I misjudged you, Miss Zyg. I wouldn’t have thought a teenager would have such developed technical ability.”

“I am not a teenager,” retorted Oblivya.

“Clearly, but I was being polite.”

“And how do you happen to know anything about me, Old Farmer Q?” she demanded.

“Oh, we hear things here and there,” Narz explained with a smile visible at the edges. “It’s what we’re paid to do. When Tom’s limo was flipped over—we love a parade—my watchful colleagues saw a sweet young thing trot him down a few streets and alleys. Tom being Tom, we keep our collective eye on him. From an aesthetic distance. Oh, incidentally...” The agent fished something out of the glove compartment and handed it back over his shoulder. “Thought you might want your wallet back.”

The Shoptonian laughed. “You fellows certainly earn your pay!”

“Don’t try to wrestle the credit card away from me,” snapped Oblivya.

“We won’t,” responded Narz. “It’s been cancelled. However, it will be missed; it told us where on this planet you were spending the night.”

“So much for high-tech security,” Tom snorted wryly.

“I never purchase those services—all scams. Oh—your question, Miss Zyg. We’re at least slightly acquainted with you and your exploits—including your instructive ‘living tableaus’ in the Tunnel of Love—because we’ve had our eye on your boyfriend and all his buds for years now. They want regime change in Kranjovia. So do we, but on our schedule—quickly pulverized revolutions don’t really help anyone, and we don’t want to give the Russians an excuse to come rushing in.”

Tom asked if Narz’s associates had been aware of the plot to wrest the young inventor from the flight highjackers and, it seemed, deliver him independently to Ulvo Maurig. “Not in great detail,” the agent answered. “We’ve known for years, of course, that Maurig operates out of his base in Iceland; and we know that this arrangement has created a division among his enthusiasts. The civic establishment in Kranjovia, the office-holders and bureaucrats and politicals, are the ones who took the plane, and your inventions, and you. They answer to The Party and the Motherland Defense Council. The Old Guard. Tom, you would not have lived long enough to be brought into the august presence of The Man Himself. After they drained you of any secrets regarding your brain device, you would be ‘regrettably killed in an unforeseen escape attempt.’ And these Old-Guardists would thereafter own the next hundred years. So they think. Irremovable power. They think of the synaptor as a totem, see?”

“Great space, these people are lunatics!” pronounced the young inventor in disgust.

“Politicians. I’ll let you make such fine distinctions as you might.

“Now it seems,” continued the agent, “that the opposing faction, basically the extended Maurig family and their hangers-on, knew all about the hijack-kidnap plot and worked up a counterplot of their own. They made good use of you, Miss Zyg—I suppose you hear that a lot.”

“Nothing insults me. You have no credibility with me, American,” O declared sullenly.

“But they established credibility with you by playing on your feelings for your absent lover. So you got to go into battle with that little control-communicator gimmick, Tom Swift got extracted from the kidnappers, and pretty soon we arrive at that dump of an amusement park. And a man in a room.”

“Oblivya was led to believe he was part of the resistance group that Thorth belonged to,” Tom interjected. “And then I was led to believe—”

“Right, that he was working with the club you’d interacted with before—your key contact, in fact, Miza Ranooq.”

“Quim—have you ever met Miza Ranooq?” asked Tom suddenly. “Do you know if he’s still alive?”

Agent Narz paused. Evidently the matter, and the question, was more momentous than the Shoptonian had realized. “Tom... you need to get your questions in order. Don’t assume—”

He was interrupted by a shrill warbling sound that grew in intensity. “Ah!” he said. “Exercise time. Katrin—pull over. Under those trees.”

As their driver did so with a bump, Oblivya demanded: “What silly djurm now? What’s happening?”

The shrill tone continued. Quimby Narz leaned down as if reaching beneath his seat. When he sat up, his hands were clamped around what looked very much like a rifle!

“Pardon me for just a moment. I have to get out and kill something.”












AS TOM and Oblivya Zyg watched breathlessly, Quimby Narz slid out of the car. His feet touched the ground—and he was running. He became a fleeing silhouette among the scrawny trees. They saw him stop and swing the rifle into position, angled upward, his eyes snapping into place against a flexible periscope-visor that branched off from the barrel.

A flash and a sharp roar rocked the woods! It came, not from Narz’s weapon, but from somewhere high above. The agent stood casually for a few moments, glancing around. Then he returned to the vehicle, a baggy pleased expression on his face. “Got it,” he said as he pulled the door closed.

“Wh-what, a flying squirrel?” demanded O shakily.

“Oddly enough, we sometimes call them that,” Narz replied. “A drone, of course. You’ll notice our dashboard alarm has shut up.”

“Radar?” asked Tom.

“Radar? Old millennium. We use a Tom Swift invention, as a matter of fact—your repelascope feeler-outer. Don’t worry, the government paid your company the license fees.”

Katrin spoke up as she gunned the motor. “We see them now and then, my husband and I—more and more lately. We ignore them, of course. We are only innocent farmers, eh?”

Oblivya sounded grim. “I’m so glad you’re all so suave about this. Because to me, spy people, it’s a little bad that the Mauriggers now know where we are!”

“No they don’t,” responded Quimby Narz soothingly. “We have a system, Miss Zyg. We see Ulvo’s drones all over Iceland, especially in this area. We rarely interfere. Let the little things flutter along! What will they see with their zoom lenses that would bother nice folks like us? Nude sunbathing is no big deal in Iceland. And before you ask, No.

“But—here’s the smart part—we do shoot them now and then, maybe, oh, one in ten of them. And not just here, where matters are a bit sensitive, but all over, randomly.”

“I see,” said Tom. “They can’t conclude anything about your locations from the pattern of destruction.”

“Mm-hmm. And there’s more to the business. See now, Maurig’s ‘flying squirrels’—manufactured in Pakistan, by the way—are loaded with very efficient self-destruct mechanisms. Their thinking is that if some enemy gets hold of one of the drones to take apart, it’d become all too easy to develop a specific counter-drone tech. So—Boom! Which means that as of now, at least, the Mauriggers don’t know whether the drones are being shot to death by enemies or destroyed by some intermittent flaw in said internal mechanism. All up in the air!—so to speak.” Tom asked about Narz’s handheld weapon. “It’s classified as a ‘railgun’ if you read the line items in our secret budget—sort’ve a maglev track with an electrostatic booster. The bean—don’t you just love our names?—zooms along at something like Mach 2. Its passage through the air gives it such a powerful static charge—”

“You’re basically throwing lightning,” Tom pronounced.

“In Kranjie,” noted O, “schoolchildren read stories about mighty Gwotun, one of the yaaldetj gods of old, who does that sort of thing. Of course, now it’s mighty Maurig who does it.”

Narz shrugged. “A little nerve-wracking, all that voltage. They say we’ll be switching to that accelapult technology you developed, Tom. Good thing I’m retired—I’m of an age where I get sentimental over the old traditional methods. I still find myself looking for phone booths now and then. You two don’t even know what that is.”

They rumbled on. Progress on the minimal road, wriggling between trees and stumps, was tortuous. The trip was just suspenseful enough to discourage conversation, grunts excepted. Although often enough O found enough voice to break the silence.

At last the trees suddenly thinned out and an open area of many acres came into view, a rocky meadow. A wood-framed house of modest appearance lay ahead of them, dormer windows on the high-peaked roof bespeaking a second story. The house was trimmed in bright yellow. Katrin said cheerily, “So here we are. Welcome, dear friends, to Gula Dögun farm.”

Tom nodded. “ ‘Yellow Dawn’,” he murmured absently.

“You can stop showing off any time, manboy,” grumbled O.

“Very impressive,” Narz pronounced. “Where was your machine back in Secret Agent High School when I had to learn Brungarian? Kids today!”

Oblivya glanced around impatiently. “A farm. Is this what you call a climate for farming? What do you raise, polar bears?”

Katrin Ekkelsdottir chuckled in a reserved Icelandic way. “We are a fish farm, my girl. Those covered sections over there are artificial pools, oxygenated, solar-heated. And it’s not made up as a cover story—we really do it. Very pleasant work.”

“Very interesting,” commented O, “to anyone as painfully bored by all this silliness as I am. Pardon me for being single-minded.”

“Well,” remarked Narz, “that’s more mind than some people one encounters, eh?”

They parked in a covered driveway and were led inside, across a house-wide porch of wooden planks. Inside, the farmhouse was much more modern and comfortable than was hinted by the exterior. “So you are the ones, eh?” chuckled the robust middle-aged man who greeted them. “As we say, friends of friends, friends of all.”

“My husband, Nis Poldantden,” introduced Katrin. After nods and scowls were exchanged, Tom asked about their children.

“Ah, our litla hvítkál!” exclaimed Nis with twinkling eyes. “Off to Reyk for school these months.”

Tom turned to O. “ ‘Little cabbages’.”

“As if I need to know that.”

Narz stated resolutely that there would be no discussion or exposition until after a hot meal, which Nis had already begun preparing. Tom and Oblivya rediscovered their appetites, not daunted by unfamiliar Icelandic cuisine and a pungent coffee, covfefe. “It gave strength to Norse seamen,” said Katrin.

O smiled. “Did they weightlift it?”

After a cream-filled dessert called tvinkies, the five retired to the living room, where a fire blazed and Oblivya Zyg smoldered. “Whether you feel like opening your pot here and now in front of me,” O said to Narz, “you’re going to tell me about my heart-pledge now.”

The agent raised his eyebrows. “Or?”

“Or I will keep asking!”

“Then I yield, Miss Zyg.” Quimby Narz winked at Tom. “Here’s what I can tell you. If it doesn’t satisfy you, I recommend another dose of covfefe.

“Your Romeo, Edweir Thorth, has been an asset in the Kranjovian resistance for years—since he was younger than you are now, in fact. Smart kid, popular with the ladies—all for duty, I’m sure—and he had a nice mix of skills. The Party apparatchiks liked him. He became embedded in the lower reaches of the bureaucracy, the kind of position that allowed him to move from place to place.”

“And you recruited him?” asked Tom.

“Me? I don’t recruit anyone,” protested Narz. “In fact, Thorth followed up on various floating rumors and made contact with the local resistance by his own initiative. Very motivated; to me that means big ego, but then I’ve been a born-again cynic since sixth grade when I sat on—well, I deal with it. And so: he came to our attention—the US operation, and various allies who may not entirely know that they are our allies when it comes to bringing down the Maurig government.”

“He left me. He said he was assigned elsewhere. Too sudden!—hearts should not be broken so soon. What did you have to do with that?” O demanded.

“Nothing at all. But I’ve reviewed the intel. He was becoming so proficient at his office work that he was making his supervisor look bad. Thus his supervisor wanted him gone. If not dead. So his transfer orders came down. And then he jumped the bus. The resistance underground passed him along, and he worked for them for years. A smooth and skillful operator who acquired the nickname Grystofrat Lahe—‘Christopher Cool’. He perfected his athletic skills—climbing buildings, swinging down from roofs, breaking and entering, circus-acrobat stuff—and became the go-to guy for theft work.”

O nodded. “Tõhsi—true, yes. He became known as a katusevanhun—a roof thief.”

“We say, a second-story man,” Tom interjected.

“Whateverlike! I know these ‘intels’ already,” snapped O. “My sources in the anti-Mauriggers told me of his career. And then all news, even from his old contacts, ran dry. A few rumors.”

“Very distressing, the things men do,” pronounced Narz condescendingly. “But if you want to feel good about it, he had to set you aside for a time in order not to risk your life. Well—his, too. His rep grew. The Mauriggers started taking him seriously. His thefts were mostly of what we technically term secret stuff. Not really crucial, impressive secret stuff. But, you know, we take what we can get.”

“And at some point he came here, to Iceland,” declared Tom as if he could feel the decision.

“Beautiful Iceland. And that, Miss Zyg, is not at all where we wanted him.”

O glared. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that all Mr. Thorth’s work involved the resistance movement in Kranjovia. It was where they—which includes we—needed him and his skills. The organization had made a place for him, for the kind of material he was able to locate and take. The resistance came to depend on him. But somehow he showed up here, on Ulvo Maurig’s doorstep. Going up against The Man Himself takes things to the next level. The game here is big, way too big and ferocious for even a very talented amateur like your sweetheart to take on.”

“He never liked being a cog in the big machine,” Tom stated dreamily, not asking what part of himself was speaking. “He needed to feel challenged. He wanted to be in charge of—his destiny. He wanted to be, not a just a dedicated worker, but a hero.”

“Yes,” agreed O, for once quietly. “He was—what is your word?—idealistic. He could not stand to sit still.”

“And so he nobly slipped his reins—without warning, endangering quite a few people who probably wanted to be heroes too, or at least to stay alive—and came here, to Iceland,” continued Narz. “We lost track of him.”

There was a silence. It seemed like the end of the account.

It was revived. “Some told me of rumors,” stated O after a moment, looking for, and not finding, a supplementary tvinkie. “Rumors of rumors of rumors. They said he had become a real thief, an economic one—for money’s sake. It didn’t bother me—I am one myself, you know. But—is he the same person? Do idealists rob?”

“A message was passed along to you very recently, Oblivya,” Narz said bluntly. “Have you told Tom about it? It came by way of your usual contacts in the resistance—that’s what you thought. You believed Mr. Cool, Thorth, was putting into operation a plan to get you out of Kranjovia, freedom for both of you. It involved a scheme to deliver Tom Swift to one of the resistance leaders, part of a plot against Ulvo Maurig. You received your instructions and carried them out.”

O’s face was shadowed and stony. “But it was bogus. I was duped. It didn’t come from Thorth.”

“I’m sorry,” said Narz, and his voice was sincere. “It was a ploy by the Iceland Mauriggers to steal our celebrity asset here from the establishment faction back in Kranjovia. The Old-Guardists would have kept Tom and finally killed him; the Icees—our term—want Tom here in Iceland, where dwells The Man Himself.”

“Just tell me, secret agent man—is he here? Is—is he alive?”

“I can’t tell you any more,” replied Narz. “No can do. What I need now is to hear what this guy you call ‘Pseudo-Man’ told both of you. I need to know what brand of—djurm—he was peddling. Could make a difference. Lies tell truths, don’t they?”

Tom and O gave as accurate an account as they could, helping one another fill in the blanks and resolve the scrambled parts. “I see it,” commented Quimby Narz at the end. “Obviously both factions of the Mauriggers are in contact with the renegade ‘Collections’ offshoot in America. Doing business together. It confirms what we thought we knew. And it’s bad.”

“Bad for the CIA? For America?” asked Tom worriedly.

“Frankly,” Narz replied, “I don’t know anyone it’s not bad for.” The agent seemed to withdraw into himself; his voice became soft and murmurous. “The disintargeter project. So Azimuth Kraissc ended up...” Noting puzzled stares, he interrupted himself. “And now, Tom, we need to go into a quiet room and close the door.”

Oblivya stood up along with the young inventor. “Are you prepared to fight me, you old prune? After all this I deserve to know exactly—”

“Miss Zyg,” said Katrin. “I know jiu-jitsu.”

“As do I myself,” added Nis with a jovial smile. “Please be cooperative. Do not give us the pleasure of tying you down to the piano.”

“It seems I am being sent to my room,” snapped O resentfully—acidically.

“Ah, that’s the spirit, dear,” Katrin said.

At Katrin’s touch, the side wall of a staircase opened, revealing a very shallow compartment barely broad enough for Tom and Narz to stand side by side. As the covering panel closed, Tom could feel them descending. “No motor,” remarked Quimby Narz. “All counterweights and passive hydraulics. The Israelis develop things like this, so as to obey the admonition not to use work-machinery on the Sabbath—so I’m told.”

They stopped ten feet down, in an open subfloor room that seemed almost as broad as the entire house. There were devices and equipment everywhere. And some big cardboard boxes marked with children’s crayon drawings of the Icelandic St. Nicholas. “Basements have a lot of uses,” the agent chuckled. “This one is perfect for confidential discussions be—”

“—because you’ve set up silentenna sound-barriers all around,” finished the young inventor. “I don’t need anything from Thorth to guess that!”

“Good going. And now take a look at this.”

Narz touched a control, and Tom gasped involuntarily. A weird glowing mass, like a circular cloud, had suddenly sprung into being in front of the two, filling a large portion of the room! Its surface was composed of luminous “facets”—dozens of them. On second glance the Shoptonian realized that each facet was actually a picture. “Go ahead, boy inventor. Guess,” urged Narz.

Tom took a few steps forward. “I get it, Quimby. More Swift magic! Telejector images, aren’t they?”

“Yup. But we don’t need the 3-D element for this purpose. This is just a really cool spy-thriller-type viewing screen. We can keep watch over the entire property surrounding this house with a single glance—kind of a bug’s-eye approach. This is all in realtime, too. None of those clunky swiveling video cameras you see in cheesy shopping malls; every image is now, simultaneous.”

“Video microcams?”

Narz shook his head. “You got the micro right, son. Ultra-miniaturized transceivers—about the size of postage stamps and more or less transparent—all over the walls, eaves, and chimney.”

“Yes... transceivers for my repelascope,” Tom nodded. He neuro-felt the correctness of his conclusion. Clearly Thorth had known all about them.

“That’s its charm—combination motion-sensor and video. They detect any unwanted motion by unauthorized bunches of molecules. And then they feel ’em out and construct an image for us.” The agent motioned Tom into a comfortable chair. He remained standing.

“All right, Tom, it’s time for our discussion,” he said tensely. “It’s time for me to entertain you with a few facts about Ulvo Maurig and his admirers that you’ll wish you hadn’t heard!”













“I TAKE IT Pseudo-Man’s story about raising a cybrid army was as phony as it sounded,” declared Tom Swift grimly. “I didn’t buy it for a second.”

“The Mauriggers don’t do well in assaying the intelligence of their opponents,” replied Quimby Narz. “They just can’t believe any human could be smarter or cleverer than their leader. Yes, the tale you described has nothing to do with truth. Not that my colleagues and I know precisely what the truth is.”

“Only that it’s bad.”

“Alas. So here’s what we’ve put together—our working hypothesis.

“As I accidentally uttered a few minutes ago—this is why there’s such a thing as mandatory retirement—it has to do with a man named Azimuth Kraissc. He’s a Turkish Cypriot, a man with an extraordinary mind.”

“A scientist?” Tom asked.

“Nope. A prodigy, one of those savant types who can calculate prime numbers and eighth-roots in their heads; whatever good that is. As a kid he was pushed toward becoming a mathematician. By age eleven he was bored with that and became a chess champion, the great hope of half of Cyprus.”

Tom shrugged. “Never heard of him.”

“He’s a restless soul who never sticks to one thing very long. He created what he called higher geometric music. He wrote a romance novel based on Confucius. He meditated. He found God and no doubt God was impressed. His thoughts were such as no mortal man could follow. That was just the start.”

“You mean he had a breakdown?”

“In the case of these sorts of minds, what does that even mean, Tom? Many countries tried to recruit him—this was just after the fall of the Soviets—and he was unwelcoming. So then, of course, we all spent big money keeping track of him and his unclassifiable activities.”

Tom half-smiled. “That didn’t work either,” he was prompted to say.

“Of course not. But it did give him a new game to play: eluding us, all of ‘us.’ One day he turned up gone.”

“And now he’s been found.”

“Texas truth, as your friend Chow would put it. For some reason or other, maybe just for the fun of it, Azimuth Kraissc is working for the Ulvo Maurig government.”


“It seems so,” Narz replied with a frown. “And now we get to that second word that jumped over my dry withered lips.”

“Right,” said the Shoptonian. “ ‘Disintargeter.’ I felt a twinge of recognition for both words, Quim. Some kind of weapon? A bomb?”

The agent sucked in a breath. “Not a bomb. Bombs blow up, and then they’re gone. The disintargeter—”

Tom Swift could feel something rising within him, not a word, not an image, but a kind of pointing. And he suddenly knew what was being pointed at! “I—I know. They’ve harnessed the Lunite deatomization effect!”

Tom’s memories—his own memories—surged up with dread and a kind of awe. On Earth’s tiny new moon, the phantom satellite Nestria, the adventuring spaceman had held in his hands crystalline rocks that had somehow functioned as weapons, projecting a heatless energy that seemed to dissolve the forces that held atoms together. No one knew how the energy was produced or directed, but it required the semi-metallic substance Tom had christened Lunite, found only on Nestria. Other enemies had attempted to develop and control the disintegrative phenomenon. Thus far it had held close its secrets.

“We’re sure they haven’t harnessed it yet,” nodded the agent, “but that’s the goal. We think they’ve made significant progress. We know they’ve made a big effort to acquire quantities of pure Lunite on the black market—the fact that it’s used in bootleg repelatrons makes international controls all but impossible to enforce.”

“I take it this man Kraissc is part of their project.”

“Yup, has been for years now. But,” Narz noted, “there’ve been some recent setbacks.”

“Something happened to him.”

“Say, with Cool inside you you hardly need me to explain things! Last Summer Azimuth Kraissc suffered a debilitating stroke—we’ve penetrated the Icees enough to at least know that. Evidently he is alive but unresponsive. We think his input was vital to completion of the project. And that’s why—”

Tom took the sentence over. “And that’s why they want the latest version of my cybrid synaptor. They’ve convinced themselves that it will be able to pull some of the man’s special skills—mathematical, I suppose—right out of his brain and implant them in someone able to apply them.”

“The basic notion isn’t exactly beyond belief, you know,” Narz noted with a smile. “I was there in Brungaria when you used your imager to ‘pull’ visual information from a corpse. We can call this a sequel.”

Tom rubbed his chin. “A few days ago, I would have dismissed the possibility as sci-fi of the comic book variety. But now I’ve experienced it for myself. Neurally recorded ‘habits’ go beyond simple muscular reflexes like catching balls. They may not be ‘thoughts’ in themselves, but it’s clear they can, somehow, tease out thoughts by aiming brain processes in a certain direction. So it might well be possible that a significant part of Kraissc’s mathematical turns of mind could be—relocated.”

“Maurig’s people think so, anyway. The rest of us can’t afford to place bets on the wrong side.”

“All right,” Tom nodded, “I understand that. And I gather the Mauriggers are in a hurry. They can’t just do hit-or-miss experimentation with the synaptor, given that Mr. Kraissc might fully depart this world any time. Which is why they need the inventor on hand.

“And what do you want of me, Quim? Is it the same plot as Pseudo-Man’s fiction? You want me to get in close and sabotage my invention?”

The agent wiped aside the idea. “No. Not the objective. Of course if you want to do that, we wouldn’t mind; a useful thing in the long run. But what we’d be overjoyed about would be your getting a good scientific sense of how far their project has proceeded. Would a little help from Kraissc’s brainwaves make the weapon—if that’s what the Disintargeter is; the word’s a translation—ready for use? Or are there big fundamental issues, technical or pure science, that might keep their rollout date years in the future? Just how much breathing room does the world have? Do you see, Tom?”

The young inventor regarded the agent coolly, then abruptly rose from his chair. “Don’t tell me you’re walking out on me!” protested Narz. “Didn’t I make it dramatic enough?”

Tom gestured toward the chair. “I’m standing, Quim, because for a moment you’re going to be sitting and I’ll do the standing. Sit down! Now!” Narz did so, eyebrows high. “The Mauriggers aren’t the only ones who underestimate the intelligence of others, Agent Narz. I’ve been waiting for several days for someone to tell me something that makes sense, and it hasn’t happened yet!”

Narz looked pained. “You’re determined to make me cry, aren’t you.”

The Shoptonian took a calming breath. “Do you really think I’m so stupid as to believe that a planeload of military and scientific VIP’s could be diverted from its designated landing site and flown to—to Kranjovia!—and the rest of the world would just assume that everything was going along as planned? Just because the proceedings of the conference were supposed to be held back from the public? Just because someone issued a phony video on my behalf? Good grief, it’d be a world crisis! Jets would be scrambling up and down the Baltic!”

“Please calm down.”

“I don’t think Mr. Thorth is inclined to stay calm, Narz. In this case I agree with him. You’re playing with my life!”

“Message received,” stated Quimby Narz. “And what does that celebrity intellect of yours tell you is really going on?”

Tom suddenly smiled. “Thanks for asking! It’s pretty obvious that that NATO flight was never expected to land in Denmark. You and the big boys knew the Mauriggers were going to seize it. You knew because it was arranged that way! The entire point of the ‘mission’ was to get us to Kranjovia!”

“None of the passengers knew, son,” the agent said. “The pilot knew. Our people knew, of course, as well as the other ‘spies’ salted aboard by our allies in this matter. Strange to say, the naughty stewardesses who actually seized the plane didn’t realize they were being allowed to do so. If you remember, we’re dealing with two self-avowed Maurig factions, Tom. We wanted to have the Old-Guardists believe they had what it took to pull off something with big implications. Namely to negotiate a deal with the rest of the world while leaving the rival faction, the ones here in Iceland, Maurig himself, out in the—well, you know.”

“And all those deaths on the plane, Quimby?”

“All? There was one death, Lt. Sersackly, and he was one of the collaborators, a Maurig mole in our military. We’d sniffed him out; his pals knew it and thought he’d be better off dead—better off for them. The others on that plane, pilot included, were herded into a big room. They’ll be sent home safely when this situation is resolved.”

“And what are their loved ones being told?” demanded Tom angrily.

“Some version of what the US government is telling your family, Tom,” came the calm reply. “We’re admitting that the Denmark story was a cover, that you and the others are helping the NATO allies in some top-secret negotiations in Serpentopol that might last days or weeks. And that for everyone’s safety nothing can be released to the public! Any rumors darting around the Net will be denied and quashed and—will earn a polite visit from some sober-looking guys in suits.”

“Is it working? I watched some TV in the motel. Nothing.”

“It’s working as well as we expected. A few days was all we needed.”

Tom’s energy faded. He leaned back against a work table. “What was the negotiation to be about? Something about this ‘disintargeter’ thing?”

Narz snorted. “There’s sure nothing bigger to negotiate about! Basically, the Old-Guardists were willing to discontinue and dismantle all work on the project if the West would provide certain assurances and payments—basically keeping the Party afloat for a few more years, so the faction leaders could ‘cash out’ before the inevitable collapse. It’s a plausible basis for talks. But first they have to convince us that the project will be going operational within a matter of months.”

“Which would be more ‘plausible’ if they had me and my synaptor.”

“They don’t know that we know of Kraissc and the need to save his brain-patterns—whatever—but it was built into their plan. Sometimes negotiating means letting the other side get their feet under them. You can’t negotiate with jelly.”

“Nice motto!” snapped Tom fiercely. “And so you were willing to give me to them. And eventually I have that accident—‘oh, what a shame!’”

Quimby Narz’s face was not built to show feeling, not at such a late stage in life. Yet it seemed he felt hurt by the accusation. “You don’t understand and can’t understand. Yes, the Old-Guardists planned to download you and sacrifice you if that was the only way to keep you out of the hands of the Icees—Maurig’s personal retinue. But in our backchannel contacts they made clear to us that this would also be something that could be made to go away. We would have insisted on your safe release.”

“My eventual safe release!”

“You don’t think preventing the ‘deatomization’ of most of the world justifies some inconvenience, young inventor?”

The Shoptonian could only shake his head in dismal disgust. After rubbing his eyes, Tom said quietly: “Let’s put the past aside, Agent Narz. Your game with the Kranjovia faction was busted up by the Iceland faction when they pried me out of that limo and got me a ticket to Iceland. Now I’ve escaped them too.”

“It never occurred to them what a cybrid could do with a rubber ball, hm?”

“And now—what? I guess the idea is to get them to recapture me. Take me to your leader!”

“Well now,” grinned Narz, “at least you’ve retained your sense of humor! This is an errand of whimsy, isn’t it? I’ve already commenced making some—”

Some sentences were doomed to remain uncompleted, even in Iceland. A beeping sound erupted. The overheads dimmed and brightened. Two pairs of eyes turned toward the floating flock of telejector images. Several of them showed signs of motion from different angles.

“Something outside,” spat Narz tensely. “The r-scope readouts show—one person. Looks like he’s climbing a tree. See him there?” The agent tuned the repelascope controls. The device was unable to generate perfectly clear, sharp images at any significant distance, but it was easy to make out the form of a human being scrambling upward among the boughs of a high tree. “He wants to get an elevated view of the farmhouse, obviously. Seems they don’t buy the ‘accidental’ death of their drone—not this time.”

“So much for the ‘safehouse’,” Tom declared grimly. “Think it’s anything more than just some routine investigation? Since I gather we’re the only habitation near where the drone was destroyed.”

Narz stared for a moment, moving his gaze back and forth across the assembly of picture-nodes. “No,” he whispered. “Nothing routine this time out. Look there, Tom. One-hundred meters off, among the boulders. See it?”

“Good night!” Tom gasped in dismay. “The ServoCat!”

“On its way to here, son! To here—to us!”













TOM’S SERVOCAT was on the prowl! Felinity was moving slowly and low to the ground, taking advantage of what little cover the shrubs and boulders could provide. But the elevated angle of some of the repelascope transceivers gave the watchers a good view of the robo-feline.

“Any sign that it’s powering-up for an attack?” Quimby Narz asked tensely.

“She’s always powered up,” was the reply.

“No weaponry?”

“ ‘No weaponry’ is standard—but who knows what options they’ve added to her?” Tom studied the screens. “I don’t see anything unusual. I don’t know what they plan to do.”

“Maybe break down the door,” stated Narz; “as I hear happened in Serpentopol.” As he spoke he himself was in motion. “I’m going out there, my friend. The thing may be made of tomswiftronium, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take it out.”

“Quimby—look at it. It’s made of crisscross support struts, like a playground jungle gym,” protested the inventor. “It’ll be hard to hit a vulnerable spot—you’ll be shooting right through the gaps!”

“The Cat isn’t what I’ll be shooting at!” With that agent Narz slammed himself into the elevator cab. Apparently it had an emergency fast setting; it popped upward like a jack-in-the-box.

What should I do? thought Tom. What am I supposed to do? It occurred to him to wonder, fleetingly—what would Christopher Cool do?

He saw new movement on a couple of the view-nodes. Narz had crawled out one of the roof windows! The agent was keeping the high chimney between himself and the man in the tree. Shouldering the chimney he rose to his knees. Tom saw the railgun rifle in his hands, the barrel starting to swerve toward the tree-man as Quim edged out from behind the chimney...

The repelascope conveyed no sound, but the agent’s body pantomimed a Bang! as it jerked back. He’s down! shouted Tom’s thoughts in return. Tree Man was armed by more than a big robotic cat!

Narz was still alive. Tom saw the agent’s hand move—and then jerk away as several roof shingles took to the air. Narz had fallen forward and slid a couple feet. His upper body was completely exposed to the gunman!

I’ve got to get him inside! The young Shoptonian had grasped how the elevator was to be operated; in seconds he was up above, dashing frantically through the living room on his way to the stairs. “He said to hide!” exclaimed Nis. “What is—”

“Do as he said!”

Oblivya was rarely inclined to do as anyone said. “Don’t go up there—think! You’re not Thorth, you’re—” But her voice was already somewhere below. Tom had left it behind.

Tom found the window. He could see Narz’s legs splayed out on the shingles. They were moving—Narz was trying to back himself up and get behind the chimney. Shots were crackling through the cold air, and with each shot, a bit more of the roof exploded. “Have to get him inside,” he gasped, “to safety!”

The young inventor considered the angles—of sight, of shot. He could make out the distant shooter from where he stood, but only barely. If the man moved to another bough, Tom would be completely exposed.

The window stood open, curtains restless in a breeze. Hunkering down, Tom made his way to the window sill. Narz was not within reach! Tom brought his face near the opening and spat out: “Narz! Keep backing up! Stretch out your legs!”

“Go away... Tom...” murmured the agent.

“Quim, get yourself over here or I’m going to you!”

If there were a reply, a couple shots rendered it unheard. Narz worked a palm up against the chimney bricks and pushed, muscles tensing. He shoved himself backwards and gained several inches. Rolling slightly with a groan of pain, the agent straightened his leg and stretched his foot toward the window. With a gulp Tom’s arms darted through the window and grabbed a shoe. Tom yanked with full force—and the shoe pulled off in his hand! The young inventor rocked backwards.

“This is insane!” gritted Tom Swift. Again he threw himself forward and thrust both arms out the window, grabbing Narz’s two pantlegs. The tree-man seemed to sense what was happening behind the chimney; he unleashed a volley that peppered the roof right and left. But Tom was already drawing Narz through the window. Knowing that he might be doing unwitting damage, lacking an alternative, he dragged Narz a few feet to the side and let him lie as he assessed the man’s injuries.

Quimby Narz was clearly in bad shape—perhaps mortally bad shape. Several gouges in his flesh were oozing; several rips in his clothing were encompassed by a spreading dark. The agent’s blinkable eye was fluttering. The other was winced by pain into a slit. “Stay with me, Quim,” murmured Tom. “Finish the mission, man.”

“I’m... not really enjoying... retirement,” Narz gasped.

Then Tom jumped—because the whole house had jumped beneath him. Felinity was on the attack!

“The Cat—it’s going to—” A spell of violent coughing interrupted Narz. “—to break through... the wall. The guy will... set off the propane tanks... explode!...”

A wave of something, almost like calm, swept over Tom. “I’ll stop the Cat. I’ll send the others up here to see to you—they’ll probably be safer here than on the ground floor.” As he darted away, Tom hissed: “Be good, Quim!”

Tom clattered down the stairs with a yell: “Get up there, all of you. Narz is wounded! Keep low. Please... do what you can for him.”

“But what—what’s happening out there?” begged Katrin. The wall shook and banged. A big window shattered right through the drawn drapes.

“Come on,” snapped O. “Up!”

Tom elevatored to the cellar room, a vague sort of plan taking shape. He studied the telejected images. Though detail was lacking in the repelascope output, he had a good sense of what Tree Man was doing. He seemed to be manipulating something on his forearm as his left hand grasped something like a rifle. “Okay,” the Shoptonian said aloud to his own ears. “He’s controlling Felinity directly. It’s not going through a drone or a relay. He got into that position before he knew Quim would crawl out on the roof because he had to eyeball the Cat’s movements. If I can take him out, Felinity is blind!”

Several of the images showed Felinity from various angles. The ServoCat’s extensible gripper-arms were made to assist in loading, not for fighting. But her multi-jointed legs had real power. She had begun butting the wall like a bull—and would soon bring down the house!

Tom reviewed in a flash the repelascope system, his own invention. Its invisible beams “touched” whatever materials it was tuned for and aimed at, the slight resistance, a tiny recoil, allowing the device’s brain to map-out its target and simulate a picture. Unlike the mighty machines that had driven his Challenger spaceship to the moon, the beams from the repelascope transceivers conveyed only a negligible force.

Negligible individually.

Tom’s hands swooped over the controls that he had watched Narz manipulate. One by one the viewing nodes morphed into the same image, the same object seen from dozens of angles. Though the postage-stamp-sized transcievers were not designed to be pivoted—that was not to say they couldn’t be tweaked a little!

The bank of images now told one story only: the legs of Tree Man and, at the end of those legs, two feet scraping bark off a tree bough that was wet—and slippery. With a quick movement the young inventor threw as much power as he had available into the repulsion rays.

The repulsion rays piled on. The man’s feet shot out from under him, out into space. The rifle whirled away as Tree Man fell out of frame.

Tom adjusted the view angles. Something lay on the ground near the base of the big tree, among broken boughs that had come down with him. “Not bad,” Tom said to, and of, himself.

He refocused the repelascope. The ServoCat was repeating its last commanded action—Charge! The farmhouse still shuddered, creaked, and cracked. But with each crash, Felinity wandered more and more out of line. Without eyeball input and correction, she was losing her bearings! One last head-butt brought down the roof of the covered porch, and then the Cat charged off across the meadow, barely missing one of the fish ponds.

Tom broke off and hastened back to the room upstairs. O, Katrin, and Nis were gathered around the limp form of Quimby Narz. “He’s dead, Tom,” stated O.

“No, no, he’s still alive,” Nis corrected her. “There’s a thready pulse. We two have medical training; we can keep him alive, I think.”

“Not long, though,” Katrin added. “I believe a lung is punctured. He must be taken to the hospital.”

“What, in your car?” snorted O. “The woods around must be lousy with guys and guns.”

Nis shook his head. “Then where are they? No reinforcements for the shooter, no one to replace him. No, girl, we will put him in the Fortinbras, the big car, and take the most direct route to Brallogt town. We can not wait, you people!”

As the couple ministered to the pale, bloodied agent, Oblivya drew Tom aside, onto the stairs. “So, Skipper. They have a phone here.”

Tom stared at her impassively. “No.”

“I’vokt! Our little brain surgery has really made you crazy, American! We can get out of all this! What more do you think you can do?”

“No longer interested in finding Thorth, O?”

“Thorth!—I...” Her voice trailed off. “Yes, of course I am. But I myself am not an idealist, not a dreamer. My heart-pledge is most probably dead. Don’t you think so? And whatever is left of him... is...” She stopped, pensive.

Tom cut through her silence, speaking fast and crisp. “Narz told me what’s at stake, O—Maurig’s people are developing a weapon that can’t be defended against. At this stage they may be willing to negotiate it away, but that may not be true in a week or a month. Maurig wants me there to perfect the use of my cybrid synaptor; that gives me an ‘in’ to scout-out the situation and do whatever I can.”

“Oh. I see. You’ll use the phone to ring him up for an invite, I suppose?”

“I’ll go to him. On my terms! It feels like the right thing to do.” But the word in his mind was: neuro-feels. “We’ll start off now.”

Oblivya smiled. “Hmm. Two words need comment: now and we.”

“ ‘Now’ means goodbye to Yellow Dawn Farm. As for ‘we’, you’re coming with me, Bliv.”

O smiled. “Why yes. I do believe I shall.”

Katrin gave Tom the keys to the couple’s smaller car, a Citroen-like minicar called a Haerdystrákur; she also provided both with warm clothing and a fair amount of Icelandic currency to keep them going. “I don’t know what more I can do for you. We two are not spies; we were willing to help Quimby, just as we helped the other, Grystofrat Lahe—yes, miss, we admit it now.”

“We were told to say nothing more than what was authorized,” explained Nis. “We helped Quimby and the agents because we have relatives in Kranjovia who have suffered under the regime. Maurig, The Man Himself—may he be soon dead!”

“Please! Tell me when you last saw Thorth,” asked Oblivya desperately, with a glance toward Tom.

Nis answered. “It has been months. But he didn’t always pass through here during his operations in this country. He told us almost nothing of what he was doing. Yet I will say, Miss Zyg, he seemed well enough when we saw him. He came and left on foot—I believe he had a car stashed somewhere.”

“Do you have any idea where Maurig’s compound is?” Tom asked. “Did Thorth or Quimby tell you anything?”

Katrin Ekkelsdottir answered. “We here are only a few miles from the North Coast; we have the impression the Maurig place is westward down the coast, perhaps far.”

“From some mentions I think it is very near the great bay, Huna, and up in the nearby mountains, the edge-cliffs that go round our island,” said Nis thoughtfully. “In the Haerdystrákur is a GPS-mapper; the nearest town is a small fishing settlement almost due north of us, Maildculvit. They may have heard of this—the sea fishers know everything, eh? But sometimes tell little.”

Tom thanked the couple warmly and took a last look at Quimby Narz. Then he and his companion made for the tiny Haerdystrákur, so small and light it looked like it could be lifted with one hand. The young inventor took a moment to search near the house for Narz’s dropped railgun weapon, which he had seen slide off the roof. “Nothing! The porch roof has collapsed on top of whatever’s there,” he reported.

“And what of the gun of the shooter?”

“Forget it! I don’t care to waste time pawing through that bloody mess. Lots of blood on this mission, Bliv.”

As they slammed the car doors, Oblivya stared straight forward, an odd expression on her face. “Mission. You said blood and mission. So you thought, American. But no. You said: Palju vereid sjelles mitsioonis. You spoke Kranjov, my language. Casually, callously, brutally.

“Manboy—genius boy!—don’t you realize what’s happening to you?”








         A STOP BY THE SEA




TOM SWIFT gunned the engine, which responded with something between a dutiful purr and an angry growl. The efficient little Haerdystrákur sent mud and dirt flying, then grabbed. They were suddenly moving rapidly across the desolate meadow, toward a gap in the surrounding trees—the green-brown avenue that would take them to the small paved road heading north to the fishing village.

The young inventor said nothing until they were among trees. “You’re right. I know—I spoke in Kranjovian, without thinking. What’s more, I called you Bliv, didn’t I. No surprises in all that. I’ve been cybridified with some of Thorth’s subliminal response patterns. You did it, O—you and Pseudo. Get used to it—I’m trying to.”

“Deny it. Always deny! You struggle with it. With him.”

“What the vokt do you mean?”

“That is what I mean!” insisted the Kranjovian. “Don’t you think someone like me, on the street, on the run, has to learn how to take the measure of others? When we first met—only days ago!— would you ever have spoken like that? Words like that? You were—what do they say?—cerebral. Maybe too good for your own good!”

“And now?”

“And now, manboy... your eyes say it more and more. You said this mental imprinting would fade, didn’t you? But no! It’s spreading out its roots, hour by hour, Tom Swift—hour by hour! The old part of you is being overcome!”

Tom’s hands gripped the wheel tighter. “All right, O. I understand what you’re saying. Look, I’m weary, worn out, stressed—and I’ve seen death. Maybe my own ‘inner self’ is withdrawing for a while, to rest and recharge.”

“And your other self is taking over.”

“This is pointless,” stated the young inventor coldly. “Look, Oblivya, are you afraid of me? Is that it?”

“No,” she replied, not too convincingly. “I can handle myself. I handled Thorth. I will handle you, Skipper. Everything has a handle.”

They drove through a few dustings of snow, mostly silently. Tom refused to discuss his plans—he wasn’t entirely certain what they were.

Within the hour they found the green-gray sea a half-mile ahead of them. The little road veered leftward; a few cars passed. Then they were on a series of switchbacks, from cliff-height down to the coast. As they veered back and forth, the view was breathtaking and cold.

They soon saw a small sign declaring Maildculvit, and behind the sign a scatter of buildings, new and old, all small. They spent some of their reserve of money at a cozy diner, bought American-style coffee at the local outpost of an omnipresent coffee-bar franchise, and tried to nose about inconspicuously. Nearly everyone spoke English, for better or worse. And Tom found, alarmingly more and more, that he could understand Icelandic—but only as long as he didn’t try. Thorth fled whenever Tom asserted himself. For now!

O pointed out that the reverse was true as well.

He chatted with some sipping patrons as O sat studying him. “We’re on our honeymoon,” he told them, raising a pair of matched smiles.

“Oh, from America. Or Britain?”

“America—New York.”

“Hmm,” said a plump fisherman’s plump wife to the Shoptonian. “Do you know, you seem familiar... perhaps... without your whiskers, you might—”

“I used to play teenagers on American TV. But I’d prefer to forget that.”

The woman smiled. “Oh yes, I see.”

“So of all places you come to Maildculvit to enjoy your new marriage?” asked her husband with obvious skepticism. “But my word, there is nothing here! We just fish and send our children elsewhere.”

“Oh Frieters,” the woman scolded her husband, “it’s because there is nothing else to do that this is perfect for a honeymoon! Or have you forgotten?”

“Forty-six years ago,” said the man to Tom and O. “Exactly. I could count up the minutes.”

“What bliss,” pronounced O sarcastically.

“We must be speaking of a different forty-six years,” the man retorted wryly. His wife laughed.

“My name is Don Sturdy,” Tom said, offering his hand. “And this is Brita. We love the sea, the north, the aurora...”

“Frigidity,” added O.

“We’d like to spend one night here, just one, and then motor on west. We have friends who live near Huna Bay—it’s a surprise visit.”

O added: “A wonderful surprise if we actually find the place. We have no address, no phone number, and we don’t know their names. Or what they look like. Or how many of them there are.”

As the couple exchanged politely blank glances, Don—Tom—forced a chuckle. “She likes surrealistic humor. For some reason.”

“But for now, we are here. We would like a nice hotel with a honeymoon suite,” declared O primly. “We are much in love.”

The woman asked, “Have you had a long courtship?”

“We just met.”


“About three days, I think. Isn’t that right, dearest?”

“Seems longer,” smiled Don Sturdy. “But then, what is time?”

The man and wife chuckled dutifully. “Yes, well, nice hotel, nothing at all like that here. This place—well, it is barely a place at all. But you know,” continued the woman thoughtfully. “Frieters—old Halscor said just the other day—”

“Ah!” the man said. “Yes. A friend has a house on the sea, about a klil—kilometer—down. They let a room now and then, by arrangement—it is empty now. A supper, a breakfast, little money in cost. Halscor Dosskorsson and his boy Steifnan. The wife died, very sad. I’ll call—” He pulled out a cellphone. “But you might as well just go ahead. Halscor is sure to agree. Very amiable, and he likes an excuse to cook.”

Receiving some simple directions, Tom and O drove along the coast to a modern-style house overlooking the sea. Halscor Dosskorsson, a gaunt and windswept character, greeted them at the door. “Yes, yes, hello to you, Mr. and Mrs. Sturdy! By all means share our home and the night. It’s a bit lonely here in little Maildculvit. So much of silence—the wind and the sea-birds.”

Inside the house, they met his tall son Steifnan, who was about thirty. “Don’t expect conversation,” said the pallid-faced man bluntly. “I am socially disabled. A degree of autism.”

“Also mild Tourette’s,” added the father with a smile. “And indeed, something of a cold.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” said Oblivya. “We’ll be spending most of our time talking to the wind and the sea-birds.”

The two travelers were able to finally relax—a little—for the rest of the day, chatting with Mr. Dosskorsson, who had as much to say as his son did not. Tom took charge of creating the romantic saga of Mr. and Mrs. Don Sturdy while O did what she could to keep it wobbling on the precipice of absurdity. Their lack of luggage provided a challenge. “We are in love and impulsive and thrill in the conquest of each new day,” explained O in the end. “And of course, we are both serious drug users.”

Halscor nodded politely. Steifnan sneezed.

Over supper, Tom cautiously began to steer the conversation in a useful direction. “We’ll be heading west along the coast, and then southward along the bay, the... Huna... and then—”

“Will you be camping, then? Mountaineering?”

“No...” was Tom’s response. “We’re actually going to the home of some friends, distant relatives—don’t interrupt, darling—to stay for a month or so—”

“Liar!” erupted Steifnan shockingly. “Lies, lies!”

His father waggled a finger, gently. “Now now, boy, when you must speak so, you must take due responsibility.” He glanced at Tom apologetically. “It’s his condition—can’t help himself.”

“Papa! You know they lie!” continued Steifnan.

“They have every right to lie if they wish, son.”

“Just why do you think we’re dirty liars, Steif?” asked O. “I’m always fascinated to learn how we trip ourselves up.” She smiled at Tom, who suppressed a glare.

But Steifnan supplied the glare. “That’s not my name. Everything you say is a lie.”

“I see,” said O. “Then you’re accusing us as a general principle.”

Mr. Dosskorsson made soothing noises. “Ah now, madam, it’s no matter to us. You’re still welcome here. The state of your immortal soul is your own business, surely? If you two have run away together, may your adventure be blessed. Not enough adventure in this world.”

Tom studied the faces in front of him. He found that an inner decision had been made. “You’ve been very kind. I’ll level with you.”

“If you wish, Mr. Sturdy.”

“We’re trying to locate someone—a group of people—without being located ourselves. It’s a legal matter; it has to be resolved quickly. We’ve been told they’re here in Iceland on the northwest coast.” He took a breath. “It’s all messy and private—it has to be kept confidential. We can’t risk—”

“No official involvement. I see. Keep down under the radar.”

Oblivya beamed her own patronizing message. “Such smart people! I will tell everyone I meet that what they say about Icelanders is most unfair.”

Mr. Dosskorsson pulled out, and lit, a cigar. “Hm. Now tell me, how do you plan to proceed? You don’t wish the police—so who? Lawyers, detectives? Gossipy old fishwives, mayhaps? I would most enjoy helping you succeed is this venture of yours. But how? What might we have heard, here in our little village?”

Tom rubbed his chin, which had become stubbly. “Gossipy things. These people would probably live in an isolated setting, maybe high up—the sort’ve place you might need to get to by helicopter.”

“That describes nearly our entire island, Mr. Sturdy.”

“But it would be a big sort of place, probably with a large number of employees. They would be regarded as reclusive, secretive.”

“I see,” smiled Halscor thoughtfully. “Like in the movies, the stronghold of the maniacal world conqueror bent on revenge—or whatever. Always killing off his employees for amusement.”

Steifnan suddenly bolted up out of his chair. He held up his index finger and pointed, running toward the living room as if following it like a missile. “Here!” he called out.

The others rose and followed. Mr. Dosskorsson’s son stood near a far wall, his finger touching, as if glued there, a large square piece of varnished wood that hung on the wall. “Oh yes, son, your map.” Halscor smiled at Tom and Oblivya. “He made it in school—wood shop.”

O drew close and examined the map. “This is either Iceland or roadkill—whatever it it, it’s squashed flat. Not that it isn’t well done. I do have a taste for abstract art. I mentioned that, didn’t I, my love?”

“See what I mean?” Tom said to Halscor Dosskorsson. The young inventor turned toward the map. “The outline of the coast, isn’t it? No words. No towns.”

Steifnan tapped his finger on the wood, insistently. “Here! Right here! Fool liars, this is where you want—where those people go who don’t come back!”








         DRY TONGUE




“PEOPLE WHO don’t come back,” Tom repeated, adding wryly: “Seems to me I hear things like that all the time.”

“Steifnan, don’t be silly,” reproved Halscor. “This is not one of those movies you watch.”

“Why do those people not come back?” asked Oblivya.

Halscor held up a hand. “Please, it’s just his nonsense. He blurts out whatever comes into his mind.”

“That’s called honesty,” said Tom dryly. “Go ahead, Steifnan. What’s there?”

“You see, papa? Not everyone treats me like a kid,” Steifnan said with dignity. He then sneezed.

“My son tends to concentrate on certain things to the exclusion of all else, when it strikes him,” explained Halscor. “He’s heard me talking about this business with my old comrades around a table at the drykkjarhöll—the tavern. You know how we talk, we older people, killing time, drinking.

“So. There have been some disappearances along the coast in the area covered by Steifnan’s finger. A few small fishing boats, a few men, failed to return; this is during the course of the last couple years.”

“Was it investigated?” Tom asked.

“Of course. This is a modern country, Mr. Sturdy. The police, the coastal sea patrol—nothing was found. But there is no reason at all to make a big deal of this, if you are not a relative or a creditor. Even when the area is free of ice, it is treacherous and often foggy. Big rocks stick up from the water, and there are twice as many just beneath. No one actually fishes there, certainly not commercially. But for all its danger it is a direct route into the bay.”

“No wreckage? Nothing?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Even papa lies!” blurted Steifnan. “The lady said—about the jacket.”

“Ah! Let us hear what the lady said!” urged O.

Halscor looked disgusted. “The old woman was just passing through on the way to the old folks home. She said her husband’s jacket was found on some rocks at low tide. It was never proved to be his.”

Steifnan stared fixedly at his own finger. “It was of a strangeness, oddball. It was not burned by fire, not ripped by sharks. But it was subtracted from itself.”

“Subtracted?” repeated Tom.

“Only part of itself was left. The lady said it in her own voice and I was there listening! The jacket was a half—it terminated in a clean line. The rest of it had gone away. Not cut away, just gone!”

The word that rose into Tom Swift’s mind was Disintargeter. The deatomization effect! “I think I see. Thanks, Steifnan. Can you tell us exactly where—”

“He has a scrapbook,” said Halscor, sighing. “He collected everything he could find. Before this, locomotives. I’ll provide you with the shoreline location before you leave, if you really think it will help. But it is a desolate stretch. No one lives there. There’s not even a paved road—the weather ruins any pavement.”

“One of the purr tunga comes out there, where they found the jacket,” his son said sullenly. “Things must be hidden up inside.”

At Tom’s quizzical look, Mr. Dosskorsson explained. “It means ‘dry tongue.’ I’m sure there’s an English term for it. As you know, the coast of our country is hedged by high cliffs with many breaks in them, like a tabletop made of old cracked wood. Many have rivers or streams coming down in them, big waterfalls. Others are simply long, narrow valleys with a sharp slant, as if cut impatiently by a knife. Many are dry the whole year. Dry tongues seeking a drink from the sea, but in vain.”

“I’ll be sure to correct that, too,” commented O. “Icelanders are poetic.”

“And have been so for centuries,” Halscor noted.

Eventually the honeymooners were shown to their room. There was one ample, comfortable bed with many blankets folded at the foot. There was no sofa.

They stood side-by-side without speaking, looking fixedly at the bed. O said in a low murmur: “I will ask this once, and once only. Would you like to go to bed with me?”

Tom Swift answered. “Are you taking a poll?”

Next morning they breakfasted and prepared to leave. Halscor Dosskorsson handed “Don Sturdy” a map he had printed out. “Here we are well north of our island’s Ring Road. So you’ll have to begin by driving south, then westward. But as to how you’ll get back to the coast—”

“I’ve been thinking of that the whole night,” Tom interrupted. “Tell me—is there anyone local who might be willing to rent me a boat, a small one? I have quite a bit of money on me...”

“That, now that, is a good idea,” replied the man. “I myself have been up the coast in calm weather many times, even into the Huna. A day’s trip, easily, to the place of mystery. And indeed, I have a rather small boat that I’ve planned to sell when I get to it—it’s no longer good for me to go out to sea. Let’s take a look.”

The small fishing boat was satisfactory, and the deal was made. “If I had known our honeymoon would require this sort of travel,” said O, “I would have waited a few hours for someone better.”

“I’ve put in enough juice to get you most of the way, Mr. Sturdy,” stated Dosskorsson. “I’ve marked on the map a little place, smaller even than our village here, where you can refuel. The man there, Joh’n—a fine fellow, friendly, talkative, good teeth. He would be the first to know of local rumors and scandals.”

Tom retrieved the GPS device from the car. Returning, he handed Halscor a small piece of paper. “I have to ask another favor, and it’s pretty important, sir. This is the phone number, in New York, of a good friend of mine named Harlan Ames. If you haven’t heard otherwise in four weeks—please call him and tell him you have news about the boss’s son. Then tell him everything that’s happened.”

The man nodded and slipped the paper in his pocket. “I understand. These are grave matters, eh?”

Before stepping into the boat, Tom glanced at the map he had been given. “Here—this is the ‘dry tongue,’ I take it, and the fuel dock. But what are these little marks?”

“They are my marks, mine!” blurted Steifnan. “But you are free to look at them, of course. It is where the buildings are, on the beach, between the end of the purr tunga and the ocean.”

“Buildings? But I thought—”

“Not houses. No one lives there. Storage and some equipment. I have looked all this up on the Net—the Earth View, and a website. All these matters are part of the case of the missing fishers. I document it all, many square inches of paper.”

“Steifnan, you didn’t mention this,” Halscor said with irritation. “You always require attention! What are these things?”

“It belongs to Röddstjarna Group,” responded Steifnan. “I look into things thoroughly, papa. They launch the relays here. It is where they are stored.”

Tom asked for an explanation, and Halscor Dosskorsson provided it. “Yes, I suppose one must have a focus of suspicion in any mystery—but it is just a red herring. It is a company. Röddstjarna—”

“ ‘Voice Star’,” interjected Tom.

“—they provide, what do you say, data relay service—for telephones and computers and so on.”

“A cable service?”

“No, not on the ground. Not by satellite either. They launch—I can only compare them to weather balloons. But they can be steered, you see. I gather they float up high, above the harsh winds and weather, and they act like cell towers. That’s all. It began some years ago. Röddstjarna Group is the name of the corporation. There has never been a problem.”

“The stupid police asked questions and went through the buildings,” Steifnan declared. “Of course it was all nothingness. But I know there are no coincidences.”

As Tom and O clambered into the boat, Halscor called out: “Oh, but wait—what of the car?”

Tom shrugged. “I think the owners will be well-compensated for its loss. They may come here and inquire. I’m afraid I can’t get in touch with them at present.”

“And it seems you prefer not to tell me their names,” grinned the man. “Well, perhaps in a while I will advertise—‘car found.’ But I know—I will place a notice on Grieg’s List.”

With much thanks and a wave, Tom and Oblivya set out in the little boat, heading westward within good sight of the rugged coast. “I am bored with this already, manboy. Minute by minute, nothing changes.”

“I did my best to get you to stay behind, O,” retorted Tom. “You’d have the car.”

“And I would have the Mauriggers looking for me with flying eyes and God knows what else.”

“So instead you’re going with me to the Mauriggers directly. Does that make sense?”

“Does anything?” She was quiet for a minute. “But as that absurd Steifnan would put it, you lie. Whatever you said, last night and this morning, you didn’t want me to leave. No more than I do.”

“And of course, you might find Thorth in the mouth that this ‘dry tongue’ sticks out from.”

“Of course. My heart-pledge. Thorth.” Something in O’s voice was ambivalent.

They passed boats of different kinds and sizes, including some that were marked as tourist excursions, and now and then aircraft crossed above them. The sun loitered low on the horizon, hour after hour. Tom taught O the basics of running the boat. “Easy enough,” she said. “I’m quite expert at picking things up.”

“To say the least.”

By midday Tom sighted a high, lime-green sign advertising the fuel dock and the few buildings around it. They pulled in and chatted with Halscor’s friend as the tank was being filled. “Nice little thing, this boat,” remarked Joh’n. “Old Hals—he will miss the sea. But he needs to watch his health. His son needs him.”

Fabricating a plausible reason, Tom asked if Joh’n had heard of anyone living up in the cliffs, or on the tableland, above the Röddstjarna facility. “No, not living up there,” replied the Icelander. “I suppose there are some attendants at the beach installation, but corporate headquarters is in Oslo, I believe.”

“No hidden fortresses or forbidding mansions?” inquired O with her habitual sarcasm. “No place to launch atomic missiles?”

Joh’n laughed pleasantly. “I fear not. There is Áhyggjulaus, of course...”

Tom suddenly knew the word. “Carefree. The name of—?”

“Oh, the old house of Mr. and Mrs. Tullmona. The husband died long ago, the wife when I was a boy. I suppose it still stands up there somewhere, what’s left of it. But no one lives there. I think I’ve heard that the property was part of some matter for lawyers—who inherits it, you know, that stuff.”

“There must be a road.”

“There was. But many years ago it was all washed away. There may be nothing left up there—our weather here ruins everything.”

Soon Tom and Oblivya were on their way again. Banter evaporated. The feeling was somber, as was the sea. “Tom... what are you like?” the young Kranjovian asked him.

Tom shrugged. “What does that mean?”

“I’m not snarking now. I’ve now been married to you twice; I want to know. When you’re not in a foreign country, when you’re not fighting dragons, when you’re not—with me. Back in that little town—”

“You know who I am. The world knows who I am—other planets know who I am!”

O gave him a scornful look. “Djurm, all that’s just what gets passed around, what morons post and repost. Are you ever fun? Do you weep? Do you love?”

Tom studied her like an adversary. Then he softened. “Sometime, after all this, maybe I’ll tell you. Or—do I even know? But I’ll tell you this, O...

“A little while back, I had a conversation with someone. We went into that conversation as good friends, and came out of it the same way. No tears. It’s funny—how momentous things sometimes don’t make a difference in a person’s life, none at all. Do you know what I mean? You’ve been in a fantastic, insane situation over the last few days. But you still go to sleep at night and wake up and have breakfast. Life’s not even close to normal. Yet we go on. No scientific theory could predict that; no inventor could invent it. Maybe that’s the answer, O. Tom Swift is the guy who goes on.”

Oblivya Zyg looked out at the ocean. She saw no answer there.

After another hour Tom consulted the little GPS device, which provided a simple schematic map of the coastal area on its tiny screen. “According to what the Dosskorssons gave us, we’re pretty close now.”

“Tell me something, Skipper,” said O musingly. “Not to start a controversy—just to pass the time, very sweetly—but don’t you have some kind of fantastronic electro-telescope that you made? Couldn’t you just call up—email!—your employees and have someone look down and see what’s going on here? A close look?”

“The megascope can be used for that, sure. But back in the US they don’t know anything’s wrong—they’d been asked to maintain the security of the cover story, the demonstration of the synaptor.”

“Mm. Oh. I see. That settles that. One wouldn’t want to break one’s cover just because the decrepit old world is about to get blown up or something. Of course, I’ve heard you also have a super-radio thing to call them—”

Tom’s voice became harsh. “Knock it off, O. Maybe, back at the farmhouse, I could have done that—I’m sure Narz kept in touch with his people by one of my Private-Ear Radios. For all I know letting me make a call was the next item on the agenda. And then Felinity attacked. Should I have taken the time to root around for the PER unit?” Even as he spoke, the Shoptonian knew he was responding evasively.

“Ah me, who am I tell tell a celebrity what to do?” she replied blandly. “Especially one with a real passion for heroics. I knew someone like that. Just like. Now and then, out of control.”

Tom didn’t answer. But he had to ask himself a question: Who’s really in control of me? What did I think it’d be like to be partly someone else? You still feel like yourself—but the self you feel isn’t yours!

He was still mulling the question when Oblivya suddenly said: “There—that must be it!”

A mile down some flat, featureless buildings had appeared, sitting a hundred feet back from the surf—blank concrete blocks.

Tom pulled in—with more expertise and strength than he’d realized he possessed—and beached the craft. He and O dragged it out of sight between two high rocks.

Tom stood still, staring at his companion. She said: “Okay, manboy, dispense some of your usual wisdom! You look like you belong in a store window.”

The young inventor pointed. “Walk over that way, please. About halfway to those rocks.”

O shrugged and complied. While she had her back turned, Tom bent down and scooped up a piece of granite about the size of a golf ball. She took two more steps. Tom reared back—and whipped the stone in her direction with all his strength!













THE TRAJECTORY of the stone was almost as flat as the path of a bullet. It passed a foot to the right of O’s shoulder. Before she could react, it shattered explosively on the boulder a few yards in front of her.

She spun, mouth gaping, and almost stumbled. “Wh-what was—” And then she looked at Tom and knew. “You!—is this where you get rid of me? Or—”

The young inventor took a step closer, then another. He looked at his hands; they were trembling. “I—Bliv, I didn’t—”

He shut his eyes tightly. When he opened them again, he was startled to see how far he had walked with them shut—how close he was to Oblivya Zyg.

“Don’t think I can’t fight you off!” she hissed.

“I didn’t mean to do that,” Tom protested. “I only meant to see if I still had the throwing skill I had inside that van, in the plane—that’s all!”

“With me as target.”

“No...” His voice was anguished and confused.

“Yes. He was like that,” she said, her voice wavering. “Suddenly he’d be angry, aggressive—pitiless. Then suddenly sweet and tender. I endured the latter. Frankly, I preferred the former—you know I like things interesting. So has it come to this, manboy? Now I have to fight you off? Or decide whether or not I want to?”

“I’m not—”

“No, Tom,” O said quietly and, for her, sadly. “You’re not Thorth. I know. You’re a conglomerate, aren’t you—one thing and another. You’re a cybrid.”

They stared at one another. If there was movement, it was inward. Tom felt as if he would topple over as he struggled to halt his advance toward O. He suddenly let all strength leave his legs and plopped down cross-legged on the harsh, pebbly sand. He dug his fingers into the sand as if he could somehow anchor himself in place. “What I did—what I was trying to do, what I thought I was doing—was determine if my cybrid skills had faded. They should have. Clearly they haven’t. And that’s important, O. It means I was wrong about what you and Pseudo-Man did to me. It wasn’t the early-model design, copied from whatever the Collections turncoats got ahold of at Swift Enterprises. What was in that crate was the improved model—the same unit I was taking to the demonstration in Denmark!”

“Do they look different?”

“Not especially,” was the reply. “The neurosponders—several curved oval-shaped units designed to fit the cranium closely, mounted on a framework—were changed only slightly; most of the improvements were at the processing level.”

She didn’t react immediately. She looked out over the sea for long moments. Still looking off she said: “Street-smart means no illusions. I’m smart enough to grasp what this means, Skipper. It means my Thorth was there in Kranjovia, right there where your machine was.”

“He would have to have been, for the new machine to scan his neuro-patterns. They can’t be copied from machine to machine, only reproduced in a living cortex by the same unit that recorded them.”

“So. Maybe at the airport. Maybe he was one of the people in those cars, in the vans, maybe in your own limo. Next to you! Why not? You don’t know what he looks like. And so... probably... he’s joined them. He’s working with the Mauriggers!”

“I’m sorry, Oblivya,” Tom said gently. But his hands twitched, his muscles clenched beneath his skin. Thorth was writhing with frustration!

She sighed and produced a trace of a sad smile. “Meh. Love is... whatever. A’ Bogg. Death-Devil wins in the end, always. So what do we do now? Climb up that tongue thing?”

“No, Bliv.”

“No. I expected this. I fly oceans and seas, and now you think you can discard me.”

“Listen to me,” Tom said, earnestly and firmly. “I have a job to do. I really don’t care if you think I’m being stupidly ‘heroic’ or not. I’m the inventor, and I have to be the one to deal with this. I may be the only one who can sabotage the skills transfer; if not that, it’s also true that I’m more familiar with the Lunite deatomization effect than almost anyone on Earth.”

“Yet surely, American, there is a big and growing part of you that requires my company for what we shall call motivation.”

“Both parts of me don’t want you killed, Miss Zyg. And both hero and inventor can’t afford any distraction from this point forward.” Standing unsteadily, gripping himself internally, Tom drew near and handed her the GPS-mapper device. “Take the boat and head back down the coast. Land somewhere, hitchhike, make phone calls—whatever. Here’s your chance to leave Kranjovia behind for good.”

“And if my ‘heart-pledge’ is alive somewhere?”

“He’s not worth it.”

“T’vokt, what gives you—”

“I’ll help you pull the boat out. You don’t want to see what neuro-Thorth can do if he gets mad enough.”

“I already know.”

Tom Swift stood and watched Oblivya shrink and vanish into the glare of the far waves. His head—his whole body—ached and vibrated. “But we have other things to think about, don’t we.”

Keeping to the cover of the beach boulders, the young inventor approached the Röddstjarna facility. The late afternoon sun revealed no sign of life. But there was a formidable fence of chainlink and barbed wire. Should he breach the barrier? He seemed—felt sure!—he was strong enough, skillful enough to do it. “Why not? Thorth was an athlete, an acrobat.” “Y’hea, kid, but your muscles are soft.” “I had gymnastics training growing up.” “Pfah, growing up in the soft lazy world of America.” The debate didn’t quite form itself into words and sentences—but a debate it was.

Suddenly there was movement within the facility grounds, and Tom shrank back further between huge granite blocks. What the young inventor had assumed was a flagpole now proved itself to be something else, part of an automatic balloon-launch system. A big oblong balloon rose through a surface hatch and ran up the mast as if on a rail. It paused at the top, higher than the roofs of the buildings, rocking and twisting. Then it broke free like a bubble from a bubble-pipe. As it rose, the powerful sea wind blew it away from the ocean, into the rising gouge in the high cliffs that Tom knew was the purr tunga—the dry tongue—that marked this bit of geography. It was blown along faster than it ascended, scraping without damage against one side, then the other.

He neuro-felt a degree of familiarity. At some point Thorth had observed this very scene and knew well what it represented. “It’s up there, at the top of this tunga.” “Right, the center of the spiderweb.” “It’s madness to walk right into—” “American men! Sanity! Life is not sanity, it’s adventure, the knife edge. What gets you up at night is a mystery. No wonder your women complain.”

Tom knew his next direction was up.

Trying for as much cover as he could find, the Shoptonian entered the tunga—about fifty feet broad—and began to work his way up with skills belonging to a man sometimes named Thorth. He reasoned that it was unlikely that he would have happened along just in time to see a rare event; balloons were probably launched frequently, at least during certain hours of the day. And he was right: twenty minutes later he became aware of another balloon straggling up the rocky gouge behind and below him.

Tom paused for a few moments, turning to take in the sight. The Röddstjarna balloon was about as long as a very large luxury auto, bulgingly convex and somewhat elongated in the horizontal direction. It was enclosed in a swath of open netting, from which a simple framework of thin struts dangled beneath. At the corners of the framework were the blurs of several small propellers, evidently providing a degree of control. At the center of the framework was a minute payload bristling with curved shapes that Tom knew were antennas. “They can’t launch into the headwind,” he told himself, “so they just let the wind carry it up the gully and whisk it away.” “Right past the base.” “My destination. If I can hitch a ride, I might get a good view of the layout before they detect me.” “A bold foolish move that thrills my veins, American. And so, my acrobatic mastery will assist us.”

He—they?—watched the balloon approach below his waiting position, trying to estimate where to stand. It was impossible to be in the least precise. Tom would have to fling himself into space across a frightening distance. This meant an arc beginning well above the level of the balloon, timed carefully.

He scrambled up, the balloon drawing near, and leaned out, poised on his slender arms. Tom didn’t seem to notice the moment he launched himself. He was falling, like a spider dropping on his line. And then, somehow, he was in the elastic valley he had made for himself on top of the balloon, frantically grabbing at the netting as the balloon half-rolled like a spindle.

Tom Swift didn’t feel quite like himself again until he realized, suddenly, that he had worked his way down to the framework, arms and legs enmeshed in the net and wrapped around the struts. One strut snapped off. But the young inventor didn’t care.

What now? “Do not anticipate, react as the moment comes around.” “Easy for you to say, Thorth—you’re not even here!” “Am I not part of you? You imagine my voice. My special abilities are of more value now than all your hypotheticals.” Neuro-Tom had to admit that Neuro-Thorth had a point. Then again, Neuro-Thorth’s life was not at stake...

Tom’s weight had made the big balloon sluggish. It bounced and scraped along listlessly; only the stiff, frigid ocean wind pushed its ascent. Yet ascend it did, and suddenly the top of the nearby cliffs, great blocky tumbles of granite, passed his sight. He was out of the purr tunga.

This meant an instant diminution of the wind, and the balloon leveled off. Shifting his entangling perch, the Shoptonian saw the huge, cracked cliffs on one side mounted high, but with an inset like a broad, flat-topped ledge. The ledge was occupied by structures of some kind; the mountain shadows cast by the low pale sun made details elusive. It seemed to be a large, sprawling house—in ruins. On the paved surface of the ledge were helipads, one occupied by a chopper that was being unloaded.

Tom’s eyes caught something protruding from the shadow, well-lit against sky and ground and running off to his left from an aperture just below the lip of the ledge. He could see it clearly—but what was it? It was a thick, straight line crossing the empty air for what seemed to be hundreds, even thousands, of feet, steady and perfectly horizontal. A cable? A pipe? His eyes followed it along.

It ran straight across to the flat summit of a high, narrow crag, like a granite icicle growing up from the bottom of another branch of the purr tunga. The flat area was also occupied by the work of man, a round dome-topped structure that suggested an observatory. Tom was neuro-certain what it was: the ominous thing called a disintargeter. “And the other must be ‘Carefree,’ their base—Ulvo Maurig’s hideout in Iceland!”

Apparently he had surveyed all he was going to be allowed to. He saw figures running across the paved area. They were shouting—at him, at each other. Some had automatic weapons, it seemed, and they began to use them—but a command, in Kranjovian, silenced them. He felt the balloon bank limply, swerving toward Carefree, and it struck him that the tiny propellers were, of course, subject to remote control.

The men stood still. The balloon drifted closer, starting to cross above them. And then, at a low command, they commenced firing in earnest.

Tom’s makeshift transport came apart. Staying calm, he held on for several seconds as the dying balloon descended—then he kicked off sideways. He fell only a yard or so; his landing reminded him that he still had painful bruises from body-surfing down a Serpentopol sidewalk. The balloon, freed of weight, lived a moment longer but ultimately slithered over the edge into the purr tunga.

Tom lay still, half on his back, wincing. A dozen young men in bland outfits with cold-weather jackets—not military uniforms—stood facing him in a half-circle, weapons at ready. An older man approached, parting their ranks. He had thickish lips and thinnish hair—he could have been a podiatrist. “It would be needless sarcasm to say ‘welcome’ or some such thing,” he said in good English, smiling. “No need to insult a guest with silly pleasantries. How do you feel, Mr. Swift? Break any bones?”

“C-cold,” Tom croaked.

“Yes, I would imagine. We’ll look you over inside, provide some warmth. You won’t be mistreated here at Carefree House.”

“Where will you take me to be mistreated?”

The man laughed. “Well now! That—like everything—is up to The Man Himself!”














SPEAKING KRANJOV, the man ordered some of the men to gently help the young inventor to his feet—more men than was really necessary. “We didn’t expect you to arrive by balloon,” he said. “We presumed you’d climb, using the skills you’ve acquired. There is no usable road, but there are remnants.”

“I take it you’re The Lesser Man Himself,” Tom muttered.

“I gather you’re in a bit of a mood, eyn? Understandable. I am Strativur Tmeig. I give many an order, but have no official title. Well, I suppose ‘spouse of Mrs. Maurig’s favorite niece’ might be considered a sort of title.” With armed others following, Tmeig led Tom into the shadows of the ruined structure. In a middle room was an escalator! “Not bad, yes? Very pleasant. I don’t really like feeling closed-in, do you?”

They traveled down a fair distance, emerging into a room as broad as an aircraft hangar, though with a low ceiling. The light was harsh, electrical. Tom was amazed at the sight—a subterranean village of gnomes! Workers thronged about, making noise. Beams—tracks for transporting heavy pieces of machinery—crisscrossed the ceiling, their various cargos dangling beneath them on clasp-hooks. “We’ll have opportunities to make use of that cat-machine of yours,” stated Tmeig. “We love having it at our disposal—though it’s hardly much of an invention for Tom Swift, conqueror of outer space, eyn? Still, most practical.

“Incidentally—no doubt you’re quite exhausted, but I’m quite the enthusiast—did you notice that very straight tubular thing connecting Carefree House to the Lagkunsihik’del?”

Tom interrupted. “The Disintargeter.”

“Yes, I’m told that’s the English translation. Well now, that metal beam is just a more elaborate version of the sort of suspended tracks you see in this room. Something about an inner helical buttress—it can’t sag or sway, needs no support, very modern engineering. When we need to ship something across to the Crag, which is really too narrow to accommodate a helicopter, we simply link one of these tracks onto it and—there you go. Sometimes we use it for human transport, obviously. They call it ‘powered zip-line;’ I hear it’s rather a sport. Great fun. It’s all fun here at Carefree House, you know.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying our time together, sir,” said the young inventor. “When do I learn... everything?”

The man laughed. “The dramatic confrontation? The exposition, given as a battle of wits? I’ve always enjoyed those obligatory scenes.”

“I take it I’m here because of my cybrid synaptor.”

“Obviously. A key employee, one whose uncanny cognitive skills are required for the completion of the Lagkunsihik’del, lies suspended between life and death. He—”

“Azimuth Kraissc.”

“—yes, very good!—he must serve as a mental donor. He is irreplaceable; so, we plan to replace him.”

The Shoptonian decided on a spot of coyness. “But Mr. Tmeig, you already know how to do that sort of thing. I have the impression you’ve studied the synaptor’s operating documentation developed at Swift Enterprises. And I know from my own experience that you’ve been able to duplicate my invention from my original plans.” Of course, Tom knew even more than that.

Not responding, Tmeig silently gestured for Tom to precede him to a cross-hallway. Presently the young inventor found himself in a suite of rooms, brightly lit and well-appointed. “Your prison! But better than most hotels, certainly most Kranjovian hotels.”

“How many channels does that big TV get?” asked Tom dryly.

“How many? All of them! Approximately,” was the smiling reply. “I’ve been told some of the signal comes via your outpost in space. But to prevent any waste of your valuable time and effort, let me advise you that the signals come in but nothing can go out.”


“Yes, really—eyn? Now this room,” he went on, “was reserved for our leader’s younger brother—and his various rotating companions; I speak literally as well as figuratively. Thus it is most luxurious. But you needn’t fear irritating the man by your occupancy. He fell from favor, and subsequently fell from the cliff.”

Tmeig motioned for Tom to sit down in a plush chair. The man then sat facing him. “It won’t be so bad for you, my friend. Obviously we expect a degree of amicable cooperation. We do realize that assisting us may not be your first choice.”

“And after I provide this ‘assistance’?”

“We can both hope that you will find yourself safely among friends and family.” He squinted at an inner list he obviously had memorized. “Let me see... Damon Swift, Anne, Sandra, Bud Barclay, Charles Winkler, Ames, Hanson... and of course your dogs... mm... Caesar and Brutus! Yes.”

“Or, of course, I may find myself at the bottom of a cliff.”

“Let us be optimists here at Carefree House,” Tmeig chuckled. “Soon, a sumptuous dinner; then—perhaps after some soothing television—I suggest a good solid sleep, free of all worry.”

Tom said: “I’ll sleep much easier if I have an idea of what you plan to invite me to do for you.”

“Oh yes,” the man said; “that’s right, you raised a question before. Mm! It is true that we learned how to operate your synaptor device, the primitive version we were able to replicate by way of expert theft. And we did attempt, several times, to transfer the relevant cognitive traits from Azimuth Kraissc to one of our employees—one patriotic volunteer at a time, I mean. All nice fellows. Unfortunately, the process seemed to have a bad effect on them. They could not apply themselves to the desired tasks. In actual fact, they became violently deranged, delusional, incoherent—rude and uncooperative. The autopsies were inconclusive. Our panel of psychologists—very useful when one wishes to preserve authority with a minimum of visible force—suggested that such a mix of unusual, extreme skills might be treated as a sort of cognitive infection by brains, neural tissue, not accustomed to that kind of thinking.”

“And so you needed a more perfected and tested synaptor.”


“Yet there was an even greater danger,” declared Tom Swift coldly. “The more sophisticated machine might require special adjustments and calibrations. Using it without special instruction could damage both parties—the recipient and the donor, Kraissc.”

“Indeed so. Kranjovia has spent too much money keeping Kraissc floating at the edge of death to risk pushing him over. And of course, without his unique contribution, the great machine is useless. And a good many of us will lose our jobs. Likely our heads, too. So, Mr. Swift, thank you in advance for what you will be providing us.”

Strativur Tmeig rose with royal dignity to leave. Tom stopped him with a sharp comment. “I’m not finished with you, Mr. Tmeig. I’m not feeling inclined to be docile in the face of half-truths and outright lies.”

The man had paused at the door, regarding Tom with a smirk. “That man whose skill-set you received—yes, I’ve heard him characterized as rather bold. Perhaps more self-assertive than one might wish. It seems those skills were part of the package.”

“The man has—or had—a name,” Tom stated hotly. “Edweir Thorth. You may know him as Grystofrat Lahe. Your crowd of ‘Politicals’ exploited him, took him away from his fiancée, drove him into using his personal skills for thievery—and then it seems you recaptured him and made him a donor for the synaptor process. What did it do to him?

“Because I know you used the new model on him. You didn’t have the inventor to tell you how to use it. What did it do to him, Tmeig? But to someone like you, I suppose it was worth any risk, destroying Thorth as part of testing the synaptor’s resistance effect on someone like me—because I’m what you need, a delicate ‘advanced brain,’ the kind able to receive whatever Kraissc has to give without cortical collapse.

“Don’t think I don’t understand. Receiving Thorth’s neuro-skills was just preliminary. You’d didn’t bring me here to teach you how to operate the synaptor. The reason you’re so sure I’ll help you with the machine, your hold on me, is that you plan to use me as the recipient. Me!”

The man put his hand on the door handle. Something—a programmed lock mechanism—clanked. Tmeig didn’t pause, but spoke as he left, not turning to face Tom. “The psychologists were right. You are clearly the ideal candidate for the process, with an irresistible motive to see it come out right. For you surely value that prodigal mind of yours. You would hate to see it become—unusable—by careless application of your great invention. Enjoy your next few hours, Mr. Swift.

“And incidentally, I am not a Political. I am a Relative.” Clank.

Tom was brought a hot dinner, which he didn’t enjoy. He enjoyed world television even less. As for sleep, there were dreams. Some involved Oblivya Zyg; he found them disturbing. And he wondered if the dreams were his.

Next morning, after breakfast, Tmeig reappeared with his usual sinister affability. “Sorry you didn’t sleep well. We watched you toss and turn, and recorded your mutterings. And after all I did to make things easier for you!—or at least no worse. I refrained from telling you what this morning would bring.”

“Brain washing?—but I suppose it’s more like the reverse.”

Tmeig smiled. “Come with me.”

With armed guards following at a polite distance, Tmeig led Tom to the escalator and back to the great underground work-factory. Machinery and material still inched along below their rail-tracks, but the gnomes were absent—the room was empty of people. Tmeig led the young inventor to a spot on the floor. “Wait here. Right here, if you would.”

Tmeig and the guards withdrew to the escalator and were soon lifted out of sight. The only sounds were the slight whirs and clanks of the conveyor system; movement was all around him. Tom said to himself, “Can’t say I like this.” “That makes two of us.” “You don’t know what’s going to happen either.” “I was never allowed here.”

Tom Swift and his inner Thorth were silenced by a change in the light. The bright, harsh industrial lighting dimmed away, replaced by a dull red-violet, very soft. It took a moment for the Shoptonian’s eyes to shed the dazzle and become accustomed to it. It reminded Tom of a photographic darkroom.

The eeriness didn’t intimidate Tom. It made him—the pair of him—restless. He took a few steps, randomly. He waited; he wandered. “All right,” he said loudly, “bring it on, get it started. What next, Tmeig?”

A very low, very hushed voice said, “I am here.”

Startled, Tom glanced about. There was no one. The voice was not Tmeig’s—yet he neuro-felt familiarity. Even, suddenly and unexpectedly, fear. But whose voice was it? Where had he heard it before?

“I am here,” it said again. “Turn and look.”

Tom did.

At first there seemed nothing to notice, just the streams of machinery and equipment. Then his eyes stopped at one particular piece of material hanging from the track not far away. It was somewhat triangular, narrow at the bottom, wider at the top, curved in outline, shaped a bit like a seashell. Various tubes and rods were jointed to the top crosspiece. About the size of an overstuffed chair-back, it reflected dully in the dim light.

His eyes swept upward and struggled to understand what they were seeing, an oval section in the upper middle of the casing. And then Tom choked; he found himself wanting to stumble backwards—but was frozen in place.

The metal shell had a face.

It was pale, white. Its features—eyes, nose, mouth—stood out black against the whiteness. The young inventor wondered, for a moment, if it were some sort of mannequin-face, like a mask. Could that have spoken?

And then the Thing on the Hook spoke again. The lips parted, the eyes shifted. “I am here.”

“I...” Tom slowly found his voice. “Who—who are you?”

“I am Ulvo Maurig.”

“I don’t understand... sir. Why are you speaking to me this way, through this mechanical... head? Where are you?”

The eyes snapped into place, as if assisted by motors. “I am here. I am Ulvo Maurig, General-Secretary of the Workers Prosperity Party of Kranjovia. You will excuse me—my English is not as it should be, Mr. Swift.”

“I’ve learned to speak Kranjov,” Tom said breathlessly.

“I am Ulvo Maurig,” the face repeated, dully, expressionlessly. “I am what bears that name. What I am, I don’t know. It seems to me that Ulvo Maurig was a man, a human being. I remember seeing that man in the mirror. I remember hearing his voice. Now I am only something that speaks.”

“Great space! Does this have something to do with my invention, with the cybrid synaptor? Or—is this some kind of computerized simulation?”

“I am Ulvo Maurig.”

Tom was aghast with a feeling of horror! “Please... tell me... what’s going on. Are you inside that metal casing?”

“I don’t know where I am. Am I inside something? There are no more mirrors for me. I look outward, only that. When there is light, I see; I see you now, as if you stand in front of me. I move. The scene changes. Sometimes I move backwards, sometimes forwards, slowly. I don’t walk. I seem to have no feet. Between periods of light are periods of darkness. I believe I am kept in a cabinet. In there, I cannot see. Nothing changes. I cease to think. Time—what does it mean, that old word? There is no ‘time.’ There is only... this.”

“You can speak. You can still think.”

“Is that what thinking is? Another word that once had significance, but now...

“Yes, I do speak. I hear myself. I do not, however, initiate speech. I ask for nothing. When I hear a question—then I answer. I don’t know why. I am compelled. I only listen to myself, to what the voice is saying. ‘To myself’—but I am not a Self. I am a thing of parts.”

The Thing on the Hook fell silent. It was not gazing at Tom, only waiting with empty eyes for something visual to occur.

“Are you in pain?” the young inventor asked.

“I feel nothing. I have no sensations. I have no needs, no desires. I want nothing. I once had emotions, but I can no longer recall what they were like. Nothing matters to me. I do not know if I am alive. Perhaps not. I don’t care.”

Carefree! Tom thought. “As far as I know, you used to be alive. Ulvo Maurig was a person. If you are Ulvo Maurig—what happened to you?”

“I remember certain facts about my life, the life of Ulvo Maurig. I commanded things, things that happened. I was a cause, not merely an effect. I was the leader. No one opposed me in Kranjovia. All fell silent when I spoke. Tom Swift—you—you inconvenienced me. Molten iron, the ruins of the golden city under the ocean, something about... water, a kind of water. I think—you enraged me.”

“I know,” said Tom. “And then?”

“A military parade. A faction wished me dead. I was on a platform. Something... occurred.”

“What have they told you?”

The question seemed to stimulate Maurig’s recollection. “Yes, I recall. They told me there was an explosion. I hung between life and death—hung there. Hung...

“There was much damage to my body. I was kept alive. They had to amputate my limbs, one by one, my feet, legs, hands, arms. They’ve never told me how much of my body remains, and I have never inquired. It doesn’t matter. My heart beats, my lungs breathe—I hear it. Or do they belong to someone else? I hear through electronic ears, they say. And I see and speak. That is all. There used to be more. There are senses, bodily senses, that I can’t remember.”

“Do you wish to die?”

“I want nothing.”

“Tell me this. Why do they keep you alive in this condition? What is the purpose?”

“It was explained to me. There are factions, two factions. If I—if the body dies, if the death of Ulvo Maurig becomes known, the struggle to succeed me becomes war. Neither side benefits in such a case. There will be no country left to rule. Russia will invade to settle the issue. So they have agreed on this one point: Ulvo Maurig will not be permitted to die until both sides come to an understanding. The Serpentopol people are allowed to come here on a regular basis, to verify my existence. Thus Ulvo Maurig... remains. Alive, dead—I no longer know.”

Maurig stopped. Tom thought furiously. How long did he have before the pathetic remnant of the Kranjovian leader was put back in its darkness? What needed to be asked? Was this all a ruse? If so, the Shoptonian seemed unable to resist it... “Sir, I—don’t know what to say about your life here. Will you answer truthfully any question I ask?”

“I have no reason to lie. I will speak whatever comes to my voice. Which is to say, my voice will speak.”

“The project, the big machine over on the crag—I forget the name in your language—what is it for? How will it be used?”

“It is called the Lagkunsihik’del—the target-disintegrator. When I belonged to time, before, I was kept well-informed; the scientists took pains to cause me to understand. It will be used to threaten large areas of the world with destruction, a pulling-apart of atoms.”

Tom nodded brusquely. “I know of the Lunite deatomization effect. But if it’s some kind of beam-weapon, what do they plan to do to position it? Some kind of aircraft? It seems to be huge, and I know the emanations can’t curve around the horizon.”

“The atomic force does not come from the machine.”

“Wh-what? I don’t understand.”

“A man named Kraissc has discovered the secret of its release. This installation will send a signal, a kind of knot woven of energy with certain mathematical proportions—space, time, something—so it was explained—that will travel through space directly to the real source of the power, the satellite Nestria.”

“To Nestria? But why?”

“The moonlet contains the necessary substance in large quantities. Kraissc’s theories, and some small laboratory tests, indicate that the pulse-signal will cause the entire spatial body to act as one, to generate the destructive force and transmit it to the target on Earth. The Leadership will determine the choice of target.”

Tom Swift knew he had turned white as he listened. The real Disintargeter wasn’t the machine on the crag. It was Nestria itself! “And you say... it’s been shown to work?”

“There are test results. Some remain skeptical. It was my plan... the plan of Ulvo Maurig, before the event... to pursue more than one option. If the device is ultimately unworkable, the world will nonetheless be caused to think otherwise, even without a demonstration. No one will be certain. No one will dare gamble. They will pay.”

“But Kraissc’s skills are needed to finish the project, to bring it to the point where you people, at least, know the outcome.” The Face said nothing. Tom remembered the necessity of questions. “Is that correct?”

“It is correct.”

“Can you order the project stopped?”

“I barely exist. No one listens. It doesn’t matter to me. I am no-one. I am selfless.”

“The world won’t necessarily submit, Mr. Maurig. Your country could be devastated by attack whichever option is chosen. Don’t you at least care about Kranjovia?”


Tom paced. He seemed to be having trouble thinking. Thorth was insisting on action! “I—I—but... there is something I’d like to ask you. One last thing, Mr. Maurig. I suppose it’s just... curiosity.

“Here you are, sir, hanging like a piece of meat, completely controlled by others. In other words, you yourself are a lot like the country you created for your fellow citizens. Hanging and waiting. For nothing. Was it worth it, Mr. Maurig? Did your life add up to anything at all? Was it your lifelong dream to become a dictator, a tyrant? I’ve always wanted to ask that question of someone like you. When you were a kid... what did you want to be? Tell me.”

The mouth of the Face twitched. Perhaps it was all the emotion left in what was once Ulvo Maurig, The Man Himself. “When I was a boy I decided to train myself to fight, like a prizefighter. But that career was not my goal. My goal was to become strong and agile enough to accomplish one thing. I wanted to beat my father to death. On my nineteenth birthday I did so.”

“Did it make you happy?”

“I don’t remember.”

Tom found nothing to say. And abruptly the Thing on the Hook was moving away under its track, ebbing away in the dimness.

Tmeig and the guards had silently come up behind the young inventor. “I too was curious, Mr. Swift. Naturally, your colloquy was recorded. Someday the world will be inspired by the story and sacrifice of Ulvo Maurig. I wondered how you would react, what questions you would ask. One must solve the mysteries of life as they come up. It gives an advantage.”

They began to walk toward the escalator. “You tested the disintegrator in prototype form, I take it,” Tom said. “Fishing boats near the coast...”

“Alas, we had some important persons to impress—‘convince’ might be the word—well before Kraissc had anything definite to show for his ingenuity. We created the impression of progress by using a nice Tom Swift invention called the X-raser. Faking the results of a project—does not your own government do the same thing now and then? As necessary?” Tom said nothing. “Ah well. I’m afraid you don’t approve of me, Tom Swift. It doesn’t matter. Selfless people must remain dedicated to the cause.”

“And what is the cause?”

“To dominate other such selfless people, of course. Ultimately, what other cause could there be?”

When they reached Tom’s suite, Tmeig paused at the door. “You may rest for a few hours. Later, in place of supper, you will become acquainted with your great destiny. For now, do relax. Is there anything you would like?”

“Since you asked,” replied Tom, “at this moment what I’d like most of all would be to push a bullet through your teeth—sir.”













EVENTUALLY, hours later, Tom Swift was led into something that looked and smelled like a large hospital room, white-walled and well-lit.

There was a bed—more like a pedestal—surrounded by beeping medical gadgetry, IV lines, many such things. In the middle of the spiderweb was a little man, motionless, eyelids shut. Tmeig said, “And now, Mr. Swift, meet the man you are to become, in a manner of speaking. You will be, for as long as you are useful, the new and more accessible Azimuth Kraissc.”

“You’re hardly likely to let me return to America afterwards. Not after what I’ve seen,” declared Tom grimly.

“I said you might return to your loved ones,” responded Tmeig. “I did not say what sort of shape your body—or most especially, your mind—would be in.”

There were a couple other men in the room, white-coated and sterile in appearance, standing at ready—medical men. At a nod from Tmeig, the armed guards withdrew behind the door to the hallway and shut it. “No need to admit unnecessary germs,” pronounced Strativur Tmeig. “Now: as I want this to be a delightful experience for you, I have arranged a few nice surprises.” He smilingly crossed to a very large door-panel on a high wall and pressed the button that caused it to swing upward. Beyond was a big chamber, evidently a garage-hangar for Carefree House’s helicopter and ground vehicles. The space for the chopper was empty; through wall windows Tom saw it out on its helipad in the misty gloom of a frozen evening.

No lights were on in the hangar—and then there were. A strange constellation of small lights, many-colored pinpoints, suddenly floated in midair at shoulder height. Tom easily recognized what they signified, and what was holding them up off the floor. The lights were the receiver-scanner units of his cybrid synaptor, tiny narrow tubes, like glass pipettes, lit from within. And the synaptor and its array were being held in place above the floor by the ServoCat! “No friendly greeting for Felinity, Tom? I don’t blame you; it seems she’s gone over to the dark side,” taunted Tmeig. “Now that we’ve developed an expertise in operating your automaton, it occurred to me to use it in place of that awkward framework that came with your invention—all those struts and adjustable wheels and so forth. One invention will be applying the other invention to the head that invented both! I find it delicious.”

“Not that Tmeig himself will be blundering around with the controls,” said a man’s voice from the hangar, speaking accented English. “He has no aptitude. Only relatives.”

The man stepped forward into the light. Tom had never in his life seen him before. And yet he knew him instantly, with the undoubting familiarity of a face seen a million times in a mirror. “Edweir Thorth, man of many talents,” Tom stated. “Some of which we share.”

“Should I be jealous, American?” laughed Thorth. “I don’t mind sharing. I don’t feel a lesser man.” Thorth stepped forward, and Tom noticed bruises and heavy bandages on his arms and neck. “Yes, a little damaged. It seems I was shot out of a tree.”

“You were the Tree-Man.”

“Of course. The operator of your Cat!—a naughty Cat that had to be chased quite a ways before I could recover it.” The Kranjovian held up a box—the ServoCat control that Tom had brought from the United States. “I was there at the airport, Tom, when your stolen flight came down. Indeed, I rode with Felinity into Serpentopol.”

“I take it you’ve abandoned revolution. Too boring, Thorth? So now you’re now a Maurigger.”

Tmeig answered. “We caught him a few months back, this skillful man who had become known as Grystofrat Lahe, and patiently showed him the wisdom of working with the winning side. You see, Edweir had learned a great deal—some very crucial things—working against the Serpentopol faction. Despite his vile treason and impulsive nature, we judged him to be useful. With the secret data he had acquired by theft, we were able to plant him unrecognized among the Politicals, the establishment; when he escaped them again, he brought the Cat here, to Iceland, to us. Naturally we tested his loyalty—and at the same time, his mastery of the new control unit. Strange to say, we never did realize that one of the persons in that fish-farm of spies was the very man we sought, Tom Swift—the man himself, heh?”

Tom nodded. “Drones can be equipped to carry videocams for facial-recognition apps, but it doesn’t work so well looking down on the top of a person’s head,” he said dryly. “Any more surprises, Tmeig?”

“One more,” came a new voice. The owner of the voice stepped forward into the light. Oblivya Zyg!

“As you once said, O—you really are a player,” commented the young inventor bitterly. “Have you and Thorth and Mr. Tmeig been working together all along?”

O’s voice flashed—yet, strangely, her eyes did not. “No, Tom, I—listen, manboy, nobody owns me! Their speedboats cut me off, they aimed their guns, they—they told me they would take me to my heart-pledge. When I got off the helicopter—”

“She got off into my arms,” finished Edweir Thorth. “My beloved is not known for being faithful in the crude common sense, Tom Swift, but her deeper feelings are reserved for me alone.” He paused and sent Tom a nameless sort of look, with eyebrows upraised. “Or—might there be reason to think otherwise?”

“Let us proceed,” snapped Tmeig. “Walk the machine over to here, next to Kraissc. We will delete the recordings most recently used—Thorth’s skill-set, the set we imprinted onto the cortex of our Mr. Swift—and then, with your kind assistance, Tom, we will commence the scan of Azimuth Kraissc.”

Thorth held up the control unit. “Over the last few hours—we needed a bit of convalescing after our reunion, our reuniting—it amused me to teach my Bliv how to use these controls. Really, not much trickier than what she used in Serpentopol. Many programmed routines are already in the box.” He handed the control to Oblivya. “Take it, my darling. Walk the Cat into position. We will share this moment, mm?”

O looked doubtful, even fearful. She shifted her gaze back and forth between the control unit, Thorth—and Tom Swift. “But I... if you wish me to. If I make a mistake—”

“There can be no mistakes. Keep watch, Thorth,” commanded Tmeig coldly. “Both your lives, your little pointless lives, depend upon the precision of what is about to be done.”

“Long live the devolution!” proclaimed Tom wryly. “And it may all be for nothing, Tmeig. Since I woke up this morning, I’ve found it harder and harder to understand Kranjov, or to access Thorth’s traits—for example, his anger at you Mauriggers, his compulsive need for action... oh, and something else rattling around in there. About Oblivya Zyg. I’m sorry to say his feelings are not quite what you suppose, O. Well... some of them are exactly as you suppose. Others may surprise you.” He turned to face Tmeig. “But that part is between the lovebirds. I just thought it worth saying that even with the newest synaptor model, the neuro-traits start fading out after a couple days. I’m becoming just another Tom Swift again, bit by bit.”

“None of that matters,” stated Tmeig crisply. “As you well know—it is in the stolen documentation—the neural download can be repeated as needed. The significant part of Azimuth Kraissc will live as long as the body of its recipient. And then, if all is well, we merely move on to the next one. It seems Mr. Kraissc is destined for a sort of immortality. Yet, strange to say, he will not live to enjoy it.”

At the moment Tom was, literally, of two minds. The fading part of him remained fearless and defiant; but Tom Swift The One And Only was engaged in a battle with fear. For once—in the crunch—he had no plan. Soon he would either be a minority party in his own mind—or dead.

Strativur Tmeig was making brusque motions and muttering sneering words of Kranjovian that the young inventor found, increasingly, opaque. At a word from Thorth, O began to manipulate the control unit. Felinity stirred, swung forward a leg, and began to creep into the room.

The ServoCat was the center of attention as it approached the bed of Kraissc. But then the two medics in attendance made stifled honks, looking past the Cat toward the door. Tom looked. Tmeig looked.

Thorth, standing in the big portal, had drawn a gun. It was a midget weapon; Tom recognized it as a killmaker.

“Thank you much, my sweet,” called Thorth to Oblivya. “Your taking the little box freed my hands for other things. And the actions of this big Cat drew all eyes—all but mine.” He aimed the mini-gun into the room, casually sweeping it back and forth. “Now then, friends, who among you shall I reward?”

“It seems the extraction procedure has damaged your brain, Thorth,” declared Tmeig scornfully—yet with a rising hint of alarm. “What do you intend, to assassinate me and become—what, ruler of Kranjovia? There are armed men throughout this compound!”

Thoughts—perhaps feelings and urges more than thoughts—flooded into Tom’s mind and compelled him to speak. “No, I understand it now. It’s what you’ve always wanted, Thorth, isn’t it? This monolithic soul-crushing state offends your sense of heroism. Kranjovia can only tolerate one hero at a time.” Tom half-turned to Tmeig. “All along he’s been planning this moment. Something reckless and heroic. Something big!”

“My second self understands me very well!” chuckled Edweir Thorth. “Something big, magnificent—fireworks! I have no need to use this silly pistol. Unless... don’t tempt me by charging, by trying to alert others. No, just stand and watch and enjoy. Applaud at the end—if you are able.”

“What... what do you plan to do?” quavered O. “You mean to say... you used me? I was just a pawn? Our love—”

Thorth said something that Tom knew, even without any inner translation, was an insult and a curt dismissal. Then the man went on. “Oh Bliv, don’t be such a silly little gozsan. There is much more to life than love and feelings and all that djurm. You and your incessant rebellions... yet all the while such a passive baby dove, so little courage, so little daring. You and I together in bliss!—do you really know your heart-pledge so slightly? Pfah! Tom Swift knows me far better than you do.”

Tom replied in his own way. “I think—I neuro-feel—he’s going to destroy the Disintargeter.”

Tmeig managed a new sneer. “Hämmastravfa! Ridiculous! The machine is inaccessible to you, iydioot! The chasm separates us from it—even the power plant is contained in the dome, which is of strong stuff indeed!”

Thorth, the onetime Grystofrat Lahe, summoned a swashbuckler’s grin. “Oh really? Serious objections. But tell us, friend, as we are joined here together—just what are the findings, the corrections, coming from the great mind of Kraissc intended to accomplish? What is the exact nature of the great flaw in the weapon that must be overcome? May we term it a vulnerability?” Tmeig stood in defiant silence. Thorth aimed his killmaker more precisely. “Careful. You’ll still be able to speak even if I give you an extra hole or two, eyn?”

“Our own scientists anticipated the problem,” answered Tmeig sullenly. “Kraissc confirmed it.”


“The signal-pulses from the Lagkunsihik’del...”


“They travel to the moonlet on a ray of narrow focus.”

“And so?”

“Without developing certain complex correctives, the anti-atom energies cannot be directed. They return along the route of the pulses.”

“In other words,” proclaimed Thorth gleefully, “a case of ‘return to sender.’ The great disintegrator will commit suicide! It was my great fortune to discover these embarrassments in the course of my many thefts.”

Strativur Tmeig now addressed the others in full panic. “This madman!—the returning energies overflow in all directions! Not just the dome, but the crag, this base, perhaps as far as the sea and for many miles around—”

“A smoking crater,” concluded Tom. “A big bunch of nothingness. I’ve seen it.”

Oblivya’s voice was shrill and faint. “But... My One... you would do this? Really?”

“I have the key, Bliv, the code sequence that overrides all safeguards and activates the machine, sends it to its own destruction. Hah, the world saved, Thorth a hero!”

“Hero?” snapped Tmeig. “You will be disintegrated—all will be. Who is left to sing your praises?”

“He doesn’t care,” said Tom. “He’s not looking for fame. It’s the thrill—just the thrill.”

“So very true,” nodded Thorth. He began to back out of the room, toward the hangar and the exit to the outside. “What can one say? Not a flawless plan, perhaps. Yet I long to do this. History may not record my magnificent gesture, but, you know, I am selfless and dedicated in my unique way. And I will know.” He glanced toward Tom. “What is your expression? Nagu ameeriklased tahaksid öelda: ‘I’m livin’ the dream!’”

He was suddenly running. As he trotted through the hangar, he scooped up a hooded jacket from the floor and began pulling it on. He yanked open the door and pushed out through the icy breeze.

“What does he think to do?” babbled Tmeig. “There is no place on the crag for even a helo to land!”

“He’s not using a helicopter!” hissed Tom Swift. He began to dash after the running man. As he passed one of the hangar personnel, Tom snapped the man’s jacket from his hand, acting almost by instinct—his own, or another’s.

The next minute was a blur of frantic motion to the Shoptonian. He had pulled on the jacket, freezing wind assailing him from all directions—and the jacket happened to lack a hood. He felt weirdly absent. Yet circumstances were dramatic enough to captivate every ounce of his attention.

Placing one foot ahead of the other in an impossibly fast trot, racing to catch up with Thorth, Tom was crossing the chasm atop the track-rail girder, like the world’s greatest and least fearful tightrope walker! He didn’t bother to look down. He didn’t calculate his steps. His body was distant from his onlooking mind. But Thorth’s skills are fading! his mind gasped. Soon he would begin to falter, become dizzy, flail his arms helplessly—and that would be the end.

But not quite yet.

Thorth had already passed the halfway point, a small figure trotting steadily along on the rail-girder in the bright blue starlight. Tom found himself moving faster, faster—but terror was creeping up on him. He could only keep going by not thinking what he was doing!

Somewhere along Tom felt, more than saw, a shadow cross the track, cast by something behind him. He half-paused and risked a look.

The ServoCat was stalking him! Stabilized like a metal statue by gyros and gravitexes, Felinity was rapidly closing on him, deftly flowing along like a drop of oil along a wire! Tom hesitated—and in doing so, all his fear surged up as his cybrid skills seemed to evaporate. He turned and tried to move, but his feet seemed paralyzed. He felt himself tipping forward.

Mechanical claws grabbed him on either side. He was steadied. And suddenly there were touches on his head, on top, on the sides, on the back of his neck below the jut of his skull. An instant—and he felt bizarre sensations that he had felt before, at Swift Enterprises, sensations that he could only describe by the words: the world seemed more real than real. The synaptor’s input-output units were in place and operating. New cybrid skills were being imprinted on his mind!

The units and the claws were suddenly withdrawn, and the flood of neuro-traits told Tom Swift what had happened. Thorth’s skills, still recorded inside the device!

“I’ve been recharged!” he muttered through dry, blistered lips.

Tom now began to sprint. All fear and doubt was swept away by impulse and supreme physical confidence. Leaving Felinity well behind, Tom closed the distance to Thorth. As he neared to within a couple-score strides, the man ahead suddenly slowed, stopped, and turned to face him. “Well! By Bogg himself! It seems you are determined to ruin my show. That hurts, Tom-Edweir.”

“I’d guess it hurts you more than it hurts me, pal.” Both were now speaking fluent Kranjov.

“Let me see, let me guess.” Thorth’s face was alive with a ferocious grin of excitement. “You come at me like a bazooka shell. We fall into the gulch together. Is that it? It doesn’t occur to you that the Lagkunsihik’del ought to be destroyed? Come, American, where is your heroism?”

Tom’s sudden grin was equally broad. “It’s not my heroism, ‘Christopher Cool,’ it’s something borrowed. The mental parts that belong to me won’t accept massive death and destruction as the only alternative remaining. Though admittedly, I don’t seem able to calm myself and think things through rationally at this moment.”

“I totally relate, man. But remember, American, those very useful Thorth skills, much renowned, are fading away. Even now—surely you are finding yourself a bit dizzy? Your courage is sparking like an old light bulb?”

“Butcha see—man—I’ve just re-upped!” Tom made a half-gesture.

Thorth looked further along the rail-track. “Ah, our friend the Cat, sitting in place with no curiosity. But don’t tell me Tmeig—” But he stopped himself. A new grin broke out. “Hah—Oblivya! I myself taught her how to use the controller. What drives her? A wish to live? Or a girl’s wish to preserve someone she loves? But—one must wonder—who is that someone?” Daringly, he began to edge himself backwards toward the crag. “You may have my physical skills, but I have one thing you do not, Tom Swift. I am wearing a hood over my head! The cold winds of north Iceland will soon—”

Tom interrupted with action. He loped forward, swinging his arms, and as he was all but within reach of Thorth he crouched and slid himself off the rail, into the air. He fell, but as he flashed past the girder he suddenly shot out his arms in a kind of supplicative gesture. His crooked forearms curled up as they crossed the underside of the rail, then hooked around it, converting his fall to a swing. He swung like a pendulum. He opened his hands and arms. His feet and legs arced up, wrapping around the girder on the further side of Thorth. Using his momentum he rolled into a corkscrew motion that brought his hands against the rail—and suddenly he was atop it and again standing upright.

Tom’s breath was making clouds. As was Thorth’s. “I’vokt! That always was a fantastic feat! The move took me months of practice—and I admit, I was terrified until I fully mastered it. And now... now you stand between me and my destination, eyn.”

“If I have to throw us both off,” said Tom, “I’ll do it. Do you mind? You’ll agree that it’ll be exciting for both of us, that long fall.”

Thorth stared at Tom silently for long moments. The light seemed to go out of his eyes. “The doctors say such excitement is bad for the heart.”

“Turn around and start walking, Edweir—Grystofrat. We’ll think of something to make sure the Disintargeter never comes to life.”

Thorth turned away. As he walked, he suddenly chuckled. “But—Tom—pal—the night’s surprises are not quite over. At this point, I might as well confess. The machine will never be used. Among the documents I stole were some recent studies by Azimuth Kraissc himself. He reached a conclusion that he chose not to share. You see, the machine can not be made to operate as a weapon—never. The suicide effect can not be overcome. It would have been a waste of gray matter to put bits of old Azimuth in you, Tom.”

Tom was startled! “But then—there was no need for you to—”

“No need. True. I am a creature of mad impulse, it seems. You know, you might wish to investigate the possibility that use of the synaptor affects the donor, too—I think it amplifies and unbridles the skills that it records.”

Felinity preceded them on their reverse course, calmly gliding backwards. Reaching the cliff and the Carefree House ledge, the nimble Cat turned about and leapt onto the slanted rockface above the portal that the rail-girder came from. The robotic device attained the ledge above in two swift bounds.

Figures were gathered on the ledge, barely visible. “If I neglect to report what I know—about the weapon’s unfaxable state—” said Thorth quietly, “they will not want to kill you, Tom, not for a while yet. You will be part Kraissc for a while, but you will live. As for me, meh. I’m over.”

Tom was still giddy with energy and double-self-confidence. “It’ll work out. Somehow. Always does.”

Thorth, then Tom, stepped off the track and onto a utility stairway carved into the rock. At the top waited a group of warm-dressed Mauriggers with their guns, arrayed in a half-circle. “Take the man Thorth,” ordered one of the men in Kranjov, apparently in charge. Thorth was seized and taken off.

Tom stood still. To his surprise, he was handed a fleece hood to put on. “Go ahead. You will listen better unfrozen,” the man said.

“Where’s Tmeig?” asked Tom hoarsely.

“He is not here. There has been a tragedy. Mr. Strativur Tmeig was found inside the medical chamber. He is dead.” The Kranjovian smiled slightly. “Most oddly, it appears he was crushed by a wild animal, surely one of huge size and strength.”

“Strange,” commented the young inventor.

“I am in charge in Carefree House. I am of the name Dareoin Zaztanof. The men report to me.”



“What now?” asked Tom. “I stopped Mr. Thorth from destroying half of Iceland, which was stimulating enough. Where do you guys plan to take me?”

The armed men shuffled uncomfortably as Zaztanof replied. “We are requesting your assistance and support, Mr. Swift, in the best interests of diplomacy and world peace. We know of the alert that your comrade Zyg gave. We do not wish to fight the forces of NATO. If you will inform your government that you have not been mistreated—surely true—the whole matter can be amicably resolved. These are political matters. We have informed Serpentopol and received their approval.”

“And what of the approval of your leader, The Man Himself?” inquired Tom, thoroughly bewildered by the turn of events.

“I must announce that the brave and unequaled Ulvo Maurig, General-Secretary of Kranjovia and savior of its people, is now consigned to history. He too is deceased.”

“Great space!” exclaimed the Shoptonian. “When?”

Zaztanof checked his watch. “In about an hour, I should say.”

Tom was escorted into the depths of Carefree House and taken in some haste to what he was told was the communications center. “The balloon relays will allow you access to your government, or that of Iceland—as you wish,” stated Zaztanof politely.

Tom glanced about the room. “Mm. I believe I’ll call home first—after I consult with my policy advisor.” Oblivya Zyg stood in the middle of the room, eyes on Tom. “Please leave us alone. These are confidential matters. Um—switch off the listening devices, won’t you?”

“As you say, sir.”

Alone with O, Tom gave her a raised-eyebrow look. “You really do pick things up fast. The ServoCat control, the synaptor-transfer operating details...”

“I did learn the method, you know, helping Pseudo-Man on the plane,” she reminded him.

“And just what’s this djurm about an alert?”

She smiled blandly. “Oh, I have no hesitation lying, you know, when it seems right. Why should I disintegrate because some rotten man enjoys manipulating me? Did I not say it—Skipper? I am nobody’s stool.

“So I informed them of my whispers to that peculiar damaged son of Dosskorsson—you know, that he was to wait a day or so, then contact the Icelandic government with details of where the oh-so-celebrated Tom Swift was headed, and doubtless held captive or some such thing. Which would mobilize NATO and the West and New York and all that. Under the stressful circumstances of the moment, they wisely decided to stand down.”

“All lies, of course.”

“As I said. It is my nature to be useful, not moral.”

“You do it well,” Tom Swift nodded. He found himself approaching her, zeroing-in for a smooth landing.

“So, manboy. It is Now?”

“Yup, it is Now. It’s my nature to be grateful,” he said suavely, his eyes near hers. “Because of you, it seems I’ll live to invent another day—eyn?” That invention, that adventure, would be Tom Swift and His Deep-Ranging Bathysub.

“But is it you who says this, or Thorth?”

“At this moment we seem to be of one mind—Bliv.”