TOM SWIFT LIVES!

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

SUBOCEAN GEOTRON

 

 

 

This unauthorized tribute

Is based upon

the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.

 

SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR

 

As of this printing,

copyright to

The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures

is owned by

SIMON & SCHUSTER

 

 

 

 

 

 

This edition privately printed by

 

RUNABOUT

2012

www.tomswiftlives.com

 

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOM SWIFT AND HIS

SUBOCEAN GEOTRON



CHAPTER 1

 

 

                SKYHOOK SNAG

 

 

 

 

“IT IS no surprise,” Bashalli Prandit observed with a wry smile. “Warm white sand, sparkling waves dancing across a lake, merrymaking friends making merry; ah, and two lovely young girls immodestly displayed. And what have we?—we have Tom Swift, young inventor, inventing.”

Tom Swift, young inventor, reclining on a blanket in the shade of an umbrella, glanced up from the notebook that rested on his bare lean stomach. “I take it you’re feeling unpaid attention.”

“And I intend to collect.”

Tom winked. “As someone once said, ‘It is no surprise’.”

“Mother said Tom was born holding that silly notebook,” offered Tom’s sister Sandra, a ways away on her beach blanket. “Give up, Bashi. He’s just impossible.”

The raven-haired young Pakistani flashed a lovely, steely smile fortified with double ranks of determined teeth. “But you see, I have taken my attitude from Swift Enterprises. I shall make the impossible possible.”

Tom had agreed to attend the Enterprises employee beach picnic good-naturedly, but with an affable reluctance. An inventor invents, and he was in the thick of it. He had played a little sand-volleyball, a little beach-badminton, and taken a swim that had barely wetted the back of his blond spiky crewcut. Now his deep-set blue eyes were keenly focused on a page of scrawled equations and rough sketches.

Bud Barclay, Tom’s best friend, came rollicking up out of the gentle waves of Shopton’s Lake Carlopa. “Hey, genius boy! What do I have to do, roll you in?”

“Come on, everybody!” snorted Shopton’s famous headline generator. “You know this is how I have fun. That company, Hidden Resource Inc., expects a demonstration of the repelatron lithextractor in just― ”

Bashalli plopped down next to Sandy, interrupting Tom with a shake of her head. “Thomas, surely you lie awake at night alone in your bed, seeking names for your machineries. Lithextractor! My word.”

“Nope, my word!” chuckled the inventor in question.

Soon after Tom’s return from Australia and the conclusion of his adventures with his sonic silentenna, Tom and his father, who was the head of Swift Enterprises, had received a visit from a small delegation representing Milendro Brundage, whose company, Hidden Resource, was unknown to the two Swifts. The visitors had presented the two with a challenging problem involving mining and mineral extraction in the Dakotas. Tom’s lithextractor, now near completion at the Swift Construction Company, Enterprises’ Shopton affiliate, was the Swift answer. But the final details occupied Tom’s prodigal young mind.

A broad deep shadow fell athwart the group. Chow Winkler, a wide older man wise enough to cover his width in colorful beach garb with a western theme, came plodding up. “Can’t get ’im up, hunh?”

Bashalli said, “No, indeed.”

“Wa-aal, brand my sea bass, nothin’ new about that! This here young sprig’s allus taken t’ figgerin like water to a fish.”

That-there-young-sprig laughed, and Bash’s giggling voice came back: “Please! Don’t call my date a fish!”

“Don’t even call him a date,” Sandy eye-rolled.

“Say now!” persisted Chow. “He’ll be a flyin’ fish afore we’re through with him.”

This was greeted with three winces and one pair of raised eyebrows. “Flying? What’s that about?” asked Tom, smilingly mystified.

Chow looked sheepish. “Guess I got me a big mouth. All th’ eatin’ I do.” He was Enterprises executive chef and everyone’s friend and favorite.

“Now that the secret’s out,” said Bud, “we might as well tell what it is. But you’ll have to get up on your long legs, pal, and follow me.”

“And leave the notebook,” sniffed Sandy.

Bud led the way toward a nearby boathouse, the other four following. Swinging up the wide door, the muscular youth nodded at a sleek, Tomasite-hulled speedboat with a wraparound windshield and the Tom Swift Enterprises “guy with a hat” insignia on the side.

Tom shrugged. “I knew you were going to have them bring out the Blue-Eyed Blitz,” he noted. “How is that a surprise?”

His muscular friend cast a suave look. “Hey, this is misdirection, like sleight-of-hand. You haven’t even noticed the real surprise.”

Tom’s eyebrows shot up as Bud nodded toward a big, curving object lying on its side against the wall of the boathouse. It was made of red-and-white-striped fabric material and rested atop a projecting framework of white tubing.

“Wow!” Tom exclaimed. “A water kite!”

Bud grinned excitedly. “They just delivered it yesterday.”

“You mean it’s yours?”

“Bought it over the Net! It’s the latest model, Skipper, super-lightweight, springy, but tough as titanium. Tom, it’s the nearest thing to flying like a bird you’ve ever tried!”

Tom knew his friend had enjoyed the sport back in his native San Francisco. “Boy, this is terrific, Bud!”

“Now you get yerself up there an’ show how it’s done, Boss,” Chow urged. He added: “Then I’ll try it.” As the others stared at him, the cook patted his stomach. “Heh! Jest kiddin’.”

The boys pulled the Blue-Eyed Blitz out of the boathouse on its wheeled carrier while the girls and Chow balanced the featherweight kite on the gunwale. They maneuvered the craft down into the shallow water off the section of the Rickman Dunes recreation area that Enterprises had rented for the day. Anchoring the craft, they waded ashore. Tom carried the towline and a pair of water skis which Bud had stowed in the boat.

Sandy and Bash overflowed with eager excitement—mixed, in Bashalli’s case, with a twinge of worry. Her snarky humor fell away as she asked Tom softly, “You—you haven’t done this before? Ought you not practice a bit? At a safe altitude?”

“We plan to start off at six inches, then increase gradually,” Bud gibed.

“They say it’s pretty safe,” noted Sandy. “You don’t go all that high. And there’s an emergency release if you want to get loose and fall in the water.”

Chow leaned close and whispered to Bashalli, “I’m jest a mite worried too. But go try stoppin’ these boys when they got their brains all set.”

Bud said to them, “Hold the kite for me, will you, please?”

While they did, he strapped the safety harness around his right thigh and turned to Tom. “I’ll do my flying trapeze bit first and then you take a turn.”

Now I see why you were all keeping me away from the picnic basket,” Tom said wryly.

“This shouldn’t faze you after all the acrobatics you’ve done in outer space!” Sandy said with a laugh.

Bud nodded as he slipped his feet into the water skis. “Sure, there’s nothing to it.”

“If there is nothing to it, there is no need to do it in the first place,” murmured Bashalli under her breath. “Logically speaking.”

“Oh, you know men,” commented Sandy.

“These boys should live so long.”

Grinning, Bud attached the towing cable securely to the kite harness. Tom and the girls swam out to the speedboat and made the line fast to a cleat at the stern, then clambered into the boat. Bud waded into the shallows on his skis, then poised the kite above his head, gripping it by the crossbar-strut.

“Okay, let ’er rip!” he shouted.

“Don’t much like that choice o’ words,” gulped Chow back on the beach, a natural mother hen beneath his Texas hide.

The Blue-Eyed Blitz got under way gently, pulling the line taut. Then Tom gunned the whisper-quiet electrokinetic engine, powered by a Swift solar battery, and Bud whizzed forward until his skis were skimming the waves amid a torrent of spray.

As the Blitz picked up speed, the kite swelled behind him like a parachute canopy, filling with wind. Then, suddenly, Bud went soaring aloft! Higher and higher he rose. The kite bellied stiffly overhead as be hung by his arms from the crossbar, special gauntlets strapped around his forearms, hands, and wrists to ease the strain. Excited shouts went up from swimmers and the onlookers along the beach.

“Oh, I wonder what it’s like up there,” Bash murmured breathlessly.

Tom glanced over his shoulder. “Bud says it’s like taking off on a ski jump and not coming down!”

The Blitz made the long circle around the midsection of Lake Carlopa, its broadest stretch, then nosed back toward Rickman Dunes. As Tom cut speed Bud gradually descended until he was again planing over the placid surface.

Jetz!” Bud called out as his ride stumbled to an end. “That was great!”

“Okay,” said Tom. “My turn. But we’ll have to do it again later, when Mom and Dad get here.”

The young inventor waded ashore and listened to last-minute instructions as Bud helped him attach the safety harness. “I’ll take it easy, Tom,” Bud assured him in a whisper.

As Tom waded into position and Bud took the wheel, Chow called from the beach, “Hey, how bout’ you let me in th’ boat too?”

Bud nodded. “Sure, cowpoke. Er—sit toward the rear, please.” A somewhat cumbersome loading operation commenced. But at last the westerner was in place.

As the craft started off, Tom could feel the lift of the water kite almost at once. The wet wind stream beat against his face. Suddenly he was arcing upward! “So this is how a bird feels!” Tom grinned with exultation as his muscles tightened. The boat was now far below and ahead, lake and sky all around him. The sensation of the sharp wind slapping openly against his skin was very different from parachuting—or, as had once happened, falling helplessly through the stratosphere.

Yet he was still Tom Swift. After acknowledging the thrill and the scenery, he began to think about his notebook and the lithextractor.

His reverie came to an end with a sudden jerk and a slight sound barely able to pierce the whoosh of the wind. He glanced down and his eyes went wide.

The length of towline below him was flapping and whirling uselessly in the wind!

Good night!” he gasped. “It’s snapped!” He was flying free!

The situation was perilous. Panic nudged against him as the kite, slowing, lost lift. Though he could loose himself and fall to the lake, a plunge from such a height risked broken bones—at a minimum. Still...

And then things changed, suddenly and strangely. With a stunning jolt the kite leapt forward, angling upward again at breathtaking speed. The young inventor’s arms twitched with pain where they joined his shoulders. What’s going on? he wondered desperately. With no towline, how could the kite be charging skyward into the wind?

Noticing a rattling sound, Tom arched his back and looked up. A small crescent of metal encircled the joint where two struts came together. A thin cable, or cord, extended forward from the object and off into the sky. “A hook!” he gulped. “I’ve been snagged in midair!” He doubted it was a split-second rescue; but deliberate or not, he was now being dragged away from Lake Carlopa and the chance to free himself by dropping.

He passed, at freeway speed, over the ridge that bordered the lake, one hundred yards up and rising. Okay, okay, he thought. If I can get the kite loose from the hook, maybe I can glide into a turn, loop back and set down on the water.

He looked up again. The hook hadn’t closed itself around the strut—it was open like a questionmark. If he could somehow joggle the kite—

Kicking off his skis, Tom began to swing his weight from side to side. The kite didn’t like it, lurching and dipping in sickening, unpredictable ways. The hook slid back and forth along the strut. But whenever it passed the middle, the pull caused the strut to flex. That was the key! He adopted a rhythmic movement. As the hook slid through the flex-point, he wrenched himself forward, a bit of gymnastics that tilted the whole structure and, for an instant, lessened the taut pressure on the hook. It twisted—but snapped back into position.

He repeated the maneuver, arms aching. Can’t keep this up! he admitted fearfully.

The hook slipped off!

But now Tom and the kite were almost falling, hard land waiting below. As a free parachute, the kite was a bust.

Maneuvering into some sort of glide-path seemed impossible. Although Tom could tilt the kite from side to side by swinging, there was no way to control the vertical axis and angle the cloth against the windstream. The crossbar merely rotated in his hands.

But, as usual, Tom Swift was a magnet for ideas—it was in his blood. He suddenly remembered the length of split towline slithering below him. With an unnerving swing of leg he managed to snag it, and in a second it was in his hands. He tossed it up, looping around a strut, then repeated. Working the double-loop into position above him, he pulled on the cable. The kite responded!

By throwing his weight onto the cable, he now had a small, awkward, uncertain measure of control. The kite bellied out again, slowing and at last acting as a clunky glider-parachute. He began to curve around, back in the direction of the lake, now several miles off.

As for the ground, still below—and very near!

When the towline had split, the Blue-Eyed Blitz had nearly tumbled, nosing down into the water and sending a spray across the occupants. “Aw now, this ain’t s’ good fer my Stetson,” Chow protested, hand on hat.

They were stunned to see the lower part of the line whipping down out of the sky! Twisting to look back, they watched Tom and the water kite briefly lunge downward—and then suddenly swerve and soar anew toward the lakeshore. “I—I don’t understand,” choked Sandy. “Is he trying some kind of stunt?”

“Not intentionally!” Bud retorted grimly. He yelled at the top of his lungs:

Tom! Let loose! Drop!”

No, no!” cried Bash. “He’s passed the shore—he can’t drop now!”

The Shopton sky was sunny enough, but woolly with thin low clouds and haze. Tom and the kite soon became a small, speeding speck high in the distance. Unsure of what to do, Bud began to circle widely at high speed.

And then they saw Tom again, the water kite slanting lower to the ground, swerving and wiggling like a worm—but approaching Lake Carlopa. They watched in breathless suspense as the kite recrossed the shoreline.

“He’s got to drop,” grated Bud. “If he hits the water strapped tight to the thing, he’ll be pulled under.”

“Look!” Chow shrieked.

Tom was free of the kite and falling! They stared in helpless horror. The fall was long enough to slam Tom hard into the water with a tremendous splash—and with enough force to snap his neck!

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

 

                TECHNO-FOE

 

 

 

 

GRAVITY showed Tom no mercy. He plunged into Lake Carlopa straight up and feet first like a man in a runaway elevator, raising a column of spray.

“He’ll be pretty badly stunned from the fall,” Bud told the others in a tremulous voice. “He sure hit the water hard.”

Seconds passed. When Tom didn’t reappear, Bashalli moaned, “Ohhhh—! What can we do? He’s drowning!”

“You take me over there, Buddy Boy!” Chow commanded. “I’ll jump in an’ bring him up even if I sink right down to the blame bottom!”

Bud gunned the boat toward the distant spot. “Just sit down, Chow. I can only handle one rescue at a time.”

Reaching the spot Bud reversed the prop-screw, bringing the Blitz to a violent, bobbing stop—a skid on water. Telling Sandy to take the wheel and maneuver a safe distance away, the black-haired athlete ripped off his tanktop and threw himself into the water.

At almost the same instant Bashalli cried out frantically, “There he is!” Tom’s face had appeared at the surface, blowing water. He was struggling to stay above, but his movements were feeble and uncoordinated.

Tom sank from view. But powerful strokes brought Bud close to his pal. He dived under. Another moment and he had reappeared with the limp young inventor in tow. “I’ve got you, Tom,” Bud gasped. “I’m right here—steady!” If Tom responded, Bud could not hear it.

As word spread the Enterprises employees had gathered at the water’s edge in a surging mass of fear. Now they broke into cheers.

The voice of young Doc Simpson, the plant medic, rang out commandingly. “Bud, don’t lift him out! Just keep his face above water!” Doc charged out into the low swells and cradled his friend and employer protectively.

“Can you hear me, Tom?” asked Doc.

Tom moaned faintly. “I... I don’t...”

“Listen, Skipper,” persisted Doc gently. “Try moving your arms and legs a little—and your neck. Just a little!”

Bud and Doc exhaled with relief as Tom responded to the order. “All right, Tom,” said Doc. “Let’s get you up on the beach. Let us float you.”

“We’ll do all the work,” Bud grinned, his face white. “We’re paid employees, boss.”

A lifeguard met them and helped to lift Tom ashore, waving back the swarm of bathers and onlookers, which now included Bashalli, Sandy, and Chow.

“I’ve phoned for an ambulance!” a man shouted.

Tom was gently nudged into place on the sand, where the warm lake waters still lapped. Sandy and Bash watched anxiously as the lifeguard checked his condition.

“His pulse and breathing seem to be okay,” the Dunes lifeguard reported. “We’d better cover him with a blanket till a doctor gets here.”

“Oh, Bud, do you think he’ll be all—?” Bash started to ask.

Doc answered for Bud. “No visible bleeding. He has feeling in his extremities, and can move them. I don’t feel anything poking out. I think he was lucky.”

“Ye-aah,” sniffed Chow, “if’n yew call it luck to fall outta the dang sky!”

Tom’s sister held Tom’s hand. “Doc thinks you’re okay, Tomonomo.” There was a tearful catch in her voice.

Tom stirred and murmured weakly. “Tell Doc I think he’s okay too.”

Soon the wail of a siren could be heard in the distance, and an ambulance came shrieking across the sand. A white-uniformed intern jumped out, while two attendants hastily unloaded a stretcher. As Sandy and Bash described the accident, the medic opened his rig-case and began examining Tom carefully, strapping an oxygen mask on the young Shoptonian.

“You’re on the money, Dr. Simpson,” he told Doc. “No broken bones, as far as I can tell. But he may have suffered other injuries.” The intern stood up and spoke to the two attendants. “Okay, guys—get him into the ambulance.”

Silent, Bud watched anxiously as his pal was placed in the ambulance, Doc climbing aboard as well, then told Sandy and Bash, “Change your clothes and we’ll drive to the hospital.”

Sandy telephoned her parents before leaving the beach. Meanwhile, Bud had returned the Blue-Eyed Blitz and the downed kite to the boathouse. As they sped off in his red convertible, Bash said angrily, “Fly like a bird. Safe fun. So are we having fun yet? Do you two ever do anything safe?”

“I don’t know what happened up there,” Bud grated. “That towline—I inspected it myself, every inch!”

“That break in the towline was no accident.” Sandy’s declaration was firm. “It’s the beginning of...”

“Of what?” demanded Bashalli.

“Of the usual something.”

Soon after Bud and the girls reached Shopton Memorial Hospital, Mr. and Mrs. Swift arrived. Tom had revived and was given a complete checkup, including X-rays, an MRI scan, and neurological tests. Except for severe bruises from hitting the water, he had suffered no major injury; but his ankles and knee joints were tender. “Rammed your feet into the lake bottom. Could have been much worse. Let’s keep you here overnight,” said the medic in charge to the youth.

“You just hate that, don’t you, Dear,” said Mrs. Swift with a smile.

Chow, who had also arrived in the meanwhile, bustled up to his beloved boss. “Here now, son, I got somethin’ for you.”

He handed the young inventor his notebook.

“Thanks, pard,” Tom muttered weakly.

Next morning, Sandy, Bash, and Bud came to visit the young inventor. They found him propped up with pillows, busy with pencil and paper. Sketches and computations were strewn about the hospital bed.

“Now see here, brother dear,” Sandy said. “I thought you were supposed to be resting!”

Tom grinned, like a small boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “This is ‘resting,’ sis. You don’t see me up on my feet, do you?”

As the visitors pulled up chairs, Bud asked if Tom felt like telling what had happened in the air. They were all astonished at his account of the weird hook and line. “But Thomas, just who was this flying fisherman?” asked Bashalli. “Did you see the plane?”

The young inventor shook his head. “No, and I didn’t hear anything either. Of course, the wind was whooshing past my ears, and the sky was pretty hazy.”

“And you don’t know how high up he was, or how far ahead of you,” Bud pointed out. “Then again—if he was too far off, how in heck could he have guided that hook to the kite strut?”

“It seems impossible,” Tom agreed. “If someone asked me how to do it, I’d suggest some sort of radar-imaging system using the hook as an antenna.”

“And also something to manipulate the line and guide the hook into place,” added Sandy thoughtfully. “Enterprises already has things like that on the market—your transifoil, for instance, or the ‘chain-mail’ you use in the diversuits.”

“You’re right, sis. And there’s also the question of how the line was broken. If there was some sort of explosive squib, someone would’ve had to have inserted it beforehand. But― ”

 “We are getting ahead of ourselves,” declared Bash. “Perhaps this was some sort of peculiar accident involving a careless pilot dangling a line for some absurd reason. —Now Sandra, do not give me such a look of scorn!”

Bud interjected, “I talked to the lab guys at Enterprises, the ones Security’s having look over the kite and the tow line. They say the line was cut clean through, Tom. No fraying or burning. It was a Tom Swift type invention—part guided missile, part flying buzz saw!”

 “Harlan Ames is looking into the whole situation,” Tom reported, naming the head of Enterprises plant security. “And Dad’s informed the aviation authorities.”

The talk passed on to Tom’s plans for the next day—dogged plans he was not about to let his body countermand. “Bud and I will be flying out to South Dakota—Rapid City, in the Black Hills. That’s where Hidden Resource Inc. has its office.”

Bashalli asked, “And you’ll be taking the new machine? The thing Budworth calls your Hungry Earthworm?”

“Yes, the lithexor—my repelatron lithextractor.” Tom noted that this would only be a small demonstration model, compact enough to be carried in the hangar-hold of Tom’s Flying Lab, the Sky Queen.

I don’t suppose your demonstration requires a lovely assistant this time?” suggested Sandy with a gleam.

“That’s what I’m along for,” joked Bud.

The bedside phone rang. Sandy answered, then silently mouthed Uncle Harl. She passed it to Tom as the others bent close to listen.

As announced, the caller was Harlan Ames. “Strange stuff, chief,” stated the former Secret Service man. “I’ve checked the records from the Enterprises airfield radar sweep—as you know, it covers the whole lake area—and also contacted the guys at Shopton Airport. Absolutely no sign of an overflight at that time of day, low or high. Nothing.”

Bashalli noted quietly, “Ah, but our Sandra Swift is quite sure it was a ‘something’.”

“How about a visual?” Tom inquired.

“I’ve asked as many of our folks who were there as I could find; also the Dunes employees. No one saw anything, no one heard anything.”

“It’s not surprising they couldn’t see the line and the hook,” mused the youth. “But I’d think the aircraft would have to have been cruising low and slow, like a small prop plane or a chopper. I’d think someone would have noticed.”

“But you didn’t detect it either, Tom,” Ames pointed out. “As I say—strange.”

Tom hung up to find his companions exchanging sober glances. “It’s pretty obvious what we’re dealing with,” said Sandy.

“For has it not happened before?” contributed Bashalli.

Bud agreed. “That camo-coating of his doesn’t just distort light, but cancels radar waves.”

Tom Swift had long since commenced a wince. He was an old and persistent enemy, a Chinese turncoat and international master of technological espionage. Comrade-General Li Ching, who enjoyed the cachet derived from calling himself the Black Cobra, had first invaded the affairs of Swift Enterprises during Tom’s spectromarine selector project. He had subsequently proven himself a determined menace beneath the sea and above the air in space. He had dropped out of sight after his recent plot, a mass kidnapping and imprisonment of psychics, had been foiled.

“Okay. Li’s anti-energy sheathing could make an aircraft hard to make out in hazy clouds and glare, like we had over the lake yesterday,” Tom admitted reluctantly. “And since the solar batteries came out, we’ve started seeing electric-run prop planes all over—we sell ’em ourselves.”

“Very quiet, just like the Blitz,” Bud noted.

“And old spyface sure has the technology to come up with a guided skyhook,” Sandy added. “And plenty of motive to use it, too.”

Tom shrugged—but it was laden with wry agreement. The Black Cobra would be only too happy to capture Tom in some spectacular, bizarre manner that would salve his ego and quiet his obsessions for a moment.

“Some people,” pronounced Bashalli, “are badly in need of medication.”

The next morning Tom was back on his feet and the Sky Queen up in the skies, the lithexor prototype lashed down in the hold.

A few Enterprises workers accompanied Tom and Bud to assist setting up the lithexor demonstration. One of them, Tom’s chief engineer, Hank Sterling, stood behind Tom and Bud in the spacious flight control compartment. “Can’t say I’ve ever visited that part of the country,” he remarked. “Pretty rugged, isn’t it?”

“Sure is,” Bud agreed. “The Black Hills and the badlands. I’ve backpacked there. Mighty cold in winter.”

“It’s what’s underneath all that hard ground that Hidden Resource is interested in,” commented Tom. “Lead, gold, uranium—nowadays, of course, oil and natural gas. Beryllium and mica, too. What this company wants to do is explore and mine at a much deeper level than is usual.”

The Flying Lab’s jet lifters set the mammoth ship down between two hills, in a stark, rocky field owned by the company. A driver met them. Tom and Bud were driven from badlands to the office-lands of Rapid City, to the ultramodern company headquarters in an oasis of trees and fountains.

Milendro Brundage, CEO of Hidden Resource, had a luxurious waiting area, walls covered with nature photos and neat plaques bearing sentiments like Sharing Nature’s Gifts and Today’s Resources—Tomorrow’s Treasures. Also: Tops in Investment Growth Three Years Running.

Tom and Bud had a short wait, sipping hot chocolate. Mr. Brundage’s oaken door was closed, his vertical blinds shut.

The door swung open and a big red-faced man in a big dark-faced suit stalked by. A minute passed, and then a slightly-build youngish man appeared, sandy hair disarrayed. He wiped his red eyes. Beneath them his face appeared shiny. He extended his hand to Tom. “Mile Brundage, Tom. What an honor!—to be actually meeting Tom Swift!” He turned to Bud. “And you. Of course, you’re...”

Bud was hopeful. “Yes?”

“Mr. Sterling. Very well known in the engineering community.”

“Not well known enough, I’d say,” Bud said sourly. “Bud Barclay.”

“My close friend and special advisor,” Tom added.

“Please come in.” Brundage started to lead the way, then paused and turned. “I—I apologize for—for this display,” he muttered, wiping his eyes. “That man... I’m an emotional, empathetic sort of fellow. I hate having to discipline an employee. Bob has so many problems. Anyone might turn to drink. But—but the stockholders—they have families, too. Better ones than Bob’s, actually. I have responsibilities...”

“I understand, Mile,” Tom said understandingly. “My father and I run Swift Enterprises as a team. It can be tough.”

“I hope you’re better suited to the job than I am. My father pushed me into this. I just wanted to make furniture. But ohhhhh no.”

The three sat in comfortable chairs. Tom showed Milendro Brundage photos and sketches and figures, and Milendro Brundage took it in through a damp-eyed haze. “Now... now if I can understand how this works... your extraction machine pushes down through the ground...”

Bud chuckled. “I call it the Hungry Earthworm.”

“Do you?”

“I’ll explain how it works,” Tom offered. “Obviously you’re familiar with Enterprises’ matter-repelling machine, the repelatron.”

“Of course.”

“I’ve developed a new version,” the young inventor continued, “which is able to concentrate the selective repulsion force in a small area, rather than producing a linear field-beam that shoots off into space like a ray. As a result, the effective strength of the force is greatly increased. The model I’ve designed for the extractor tunes itself continuously to repel the surrounding earth and rock—any ground materials it senses nearby.”

“I see.”

“A number of these tight-focus repelatrons are clustered in the nose cone, the ‘head’ of the ‘earthworm,’ basically forcing the ground matter aside as it moves forward, trailing a segmented conduit behind.”

Brundage nodded with unfocused, damp enthusiasm. “And then when you reach the vein of ore, or whatever—why, that’s the hungry part, I’d suppose.”

Tom grinned. “It swallows it! A pulverizing system reduces it to small fragments, and a sort of vibrating helix inside the ‘throat’ conveys the fragments back to the surface in a continuous stream.”

“Much more efficient than our standard conveyor equipment, it seems.” Brundage paused to wipe an eye and think. “And you say your lithextractor can shrug off the tremendous pressures of deep-crust mining?”

“The repelatrons can run continuously, powered by a bank of our neutronamo generators—it does take a great deal of power, holding back all that rock.” He added that the walls of the conduit and the “business end” had an inner honeycomb structure that resisted collapse or deformation. “And they’re made of an interlaced composite of Neo-Aurium metal and several other ultrastrong materials we’ve developed.”

“Well then,” declared Milendro Brundage with only a vague excitement, “I’m looking forward to your live demonstration.”

Brundage returned with Tom and Bud to the field where the Queen had landed. Under Hank’s supervision, the lithextractor, coupled to a few of the telescoping conduit segments, had been readied for action. Mounted on a lengthy, extensible crane boom solidly anchored below, its tapering, awl-like nose was angled down against the rocky ground.

Eyeing the nose cone, the CEO managed a watery laugh. “Big as my car! And this is just a small prototype, you say?”

“The real work version will be much larger,” Tom explained; “and you can add as many conduit segments as you like.”

“Mmm—that reminds me of a question,” Brundage said. “You’ve done something like this before, haven’t you? The molten iron business in Antarctica?”

“Now that was really something!” exclaimed Hank proudly. “But the lithexor works on a principle completely different from Tom’s atomic earth blaster.”

“Yes, that was my concern. For this sort of operation we don’t want extreme heat. No subsurface smelting or vaporization. No blasting, of course. A serene glide down into the earth. Even the model that uses oscillating vanes—the mechanical blaster, you call it—would have some disadvantages.”

Tom nodded. “I think we’ve overcome those problems, sir.”

There was a pause, which Bud decided needed filling. “Er—‘lith’ means rock,” he lamely observed. Brundage was too occupied with his inner tears to respond.

The demonstration commenced. Under Hank’s supervision the lithextractor’s cone was pushed into the ground with steady pressure from the crane boom. Beneath its point the earth seemed to peel back in all directions, circular ripples spreading like those in a pool—yet they were solid, never falling back. The operation was utterly silent.

But even standing a fair distance away, the watchers felt a wash of heat, and saw its waver in the air. “The repelatron field effect pumps a lot of energy into the surrounding earth as it forces it aside,” Tom explained. “But it’s nothing like what the earth blasters do.”

In moments Sterling announced that the boom had reached its maximum extension—100 feet down! Tom showed Brundage the collection bin at the topside end of the conduit. It was brimming with shards of rock. “Very impressive, Tom!” pronounced the executive. “And operating it seems rather straightforward. I suppose... well, even someone not quite at his best, someone who’d had too much to drink... Bob could certainly keep watch over the technical crew... that, at least.” He seemed to be struggling with deep thoughts. “That wife of his, those children... how anyone could even get through the day...”

“Sir—the next part of the demonstration― ”

But Brundage did not return easily to the real world. “And you, Tom—married?”

“No, sir.”

“Ah me. To be already divorced at such a young age. This world is a hard, tough place.”

“So they tell me,” responded Tom dryly. He sent Bud a look that made his pal smile.

The lithexor was demonstrated at several other spots, where Hidden Resource’s geologists had found varying subsurface conditions. The machine performed perfectly. “I’ll report this to my Board of Directors, Tom,” nodded Brundage. “And to Mom too, naturally. I’m quite sure we’ll be in business. This dirty, harsh business.”

Brundage drove off, and Tom and Bud broke down in laughter.

As Hank and the tech team began to stow the machinery for the trip back to Shopton, Tom and Bud climbed to the middle deck of the Sky Queen. But at they reached the hatch to the control room, they were met by one of the day’s flight crew, Rich Durveene. “Tom—I was just heading out to get you—we took a call...”

“From Enterprises?” asked Tom.

“No. From a private cellphone to Hidden Resource. They routed it through to us. For you.”

“Still on the line?”

“No. He spoke rapidly—said he was driving to meet you here, in the Sky Queen! He said to delay takeoff as he’d be arriving in minutes.”

Tom was perplexed and somewhat annoyed. “So who was it?”

Rich looked embarrassed. “I—er—he had a bit of an accent, and—I think he said his name was Roy Kendall.”

Tom shrugged, and Bud said, “Never heard of him. Maybe it’s a reporter. The local papers announced that you’d be visiting today, George Dilling told me.”

“But Tom, there’s more,” persisted the crewman. “I asked what he wanted, of course. He said it was urgent—that something had happened to a member of your family!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

                THE MISSED MEETING

 

 

 

 

AS DURVEENE had no further information, Tom immediately contacted his home, pale with anxiety, frowning with fearful questions. “Nothing wrong back there,” he reported to Bud in relief. “Mom and Sandy are fine, and Dad just called.”

Jetz!” Bud exclaimed angrily. “It must be just a gimmick to get in to see you!”

But Tom was troubled. “To see me for what purpose? To catch us off guard?”

“Hey...” Bud gulped. “Li Ching has an accent!”

“I doubt the Black Cobra is tooling around in South Dakota, flyboy; and of course we’d recognize him on sight. Still—I think we’d better be a little self-protective.”

Bud nodded. “Yeah. I hear it’s a hard, tough world out there!”

Tom gave Rich some quick instructions, then returned to the lower deck with Bud in order to watch from the hatchway. In less than a minute a square-framed, tank-tough auto pulled to a stop. The man who exited, big and ruddy, might have been similarly described. He climbed the extensible access stairs with hand outstretched. “Hello there, Tom Swift! Ah, and Bud Barclay, eh?” The accent struck Tom and Bud as Dutch.

As Bud enjoyed the rare thrill of recognition, Tom shook hands. “Mr. Kendall?”

The man chuckled. “Oh me, so much for international reputation. The name is Nee Ruykendahl.”

Bud’s brows lifted. “Really? You mean—you’re the—mm― ”

“Explorer, adventurer, soldier of fortune. And indeed, some would say mercenary. All too often these days, has-been.”

The boys knew who the man was; or at least who he “had been”. Less known in America than in Europe and Africa, Nee Ruykendahl, a South African of Dutch ancestry, had been a headline celebrity some years before—perhaps twenty of them. He had fought in brush wars, penetrated jungles, climbed the unclimbable and crossed the uncrossable. He had also been canny in publicizing his exploits.

“There was a TV miniseries—” Bud began.

“Inaccurate and sensational, precisely as I wrote it,” said the man blandly. “What have I in life as I grow older, but my reputation—my name? To be blunt, my brand.”

Tom nodded, beckoning the man forward as he closed the hatch. “I’m sure we’re honored, sir, but I’m told you said something about a threat to my family? Or was that also sensationalized?”

“Have I set off your suspicions?”

“Please answer my questions.”

Ruykendahl shrugged. “Perhaps my call was a bit garbled. When I read of your demonstration here, I seized, in my characteristic bold manner, this opportunity to come see you.” Seeing Tom flush with anger, he added: “But no, my friend, what I said is quite true. I am concerned about a relative of yours.” He held up by handle what appeared to be a padded metal case for photographic or video equipment. “In here the matter rests. May we go to some place where I may show it to you?”

“Up to the lounge,” Tom said brusquely. “Top deck.”

He led Ruykendahl up, Bud following. As they stepped into the viewlounge, the explorer swore under his breath. The floor-to-ceiling viewpanes showed that the skyship was already in flight—hovering above the clouds!

The big man looked at Tom shrewdly. “I see, I see. If I were one of those implacable foes of yours, being trapped high in the air might make me hesitate in my diabolism. Hard to get away from the scene of the crime.”

Bud smiled at him. “Nice view. Relaxing.”

“But I am already relaxed, my young man.”

The three settled around a table, and Ruykendahl began his account. “Nowadays, boys, in my beefy decline, I am involved in recreation of the most stirring kind. If one is easily stirred. Bluegreen Safari-Adventures, it is called. I do not own it, but without me it is nothing, nothing. Mountain climbing, scuba diving, what have you. Always ending in comfortable surroundings, drink in hand.”

“Do you know Bob?” Bud asked mischievously.

“Please get to the point, Mr. Ruykendahl,” Tom insisted. “Who in my family are you concerned about?”

“Who? Your cousin, Edgar Longstreet.”

Cousin Ed! Wealthied and coddled by life and circumstance, the son of Tom’s mother’s brother had woven himself in and out of Tom’s life for years, even taking part in Enterprises activity and peril in New Guinea and Kabulistan. Ed Longstreet was a world-traveler and, like Nee Ruykendahl, a challenger of unknown places—though less muscularly. “Has something happened to him?” demanded the young inventor.

A shrug met the question. “But I said only ‘concerned,’ Tom. Is that not enough to bring to your attention?

“Last summer, Ed was one of my safariers on a cruise. We set off from Mexico in BSA’s little cruise ship, the Wascala, and went south along the coast, stopping for scuba and snorkel, and to see the nice pretty fishes through the glass bottom window. Good resorts, some exploration of tame tourist jungle, a touch of Andes climbing. Then on across the Pacific to Hawaii, with a stop or two. Many find love, even marriage, on such adventures. I myself have found both on occasion.”

Tom tapped the case. “What’s in here?”

Ruykendahl unlocked and opened it, taking out a small object and placing it in Tom’s hands. The young inventor frowned at it. Fist-sized and very light in weight, it was shaped overall like a truncated pyramid with a square base, made of some rough, pale material. But it was strangely malformed and incomplete. Its shape was as if it had been sliced neatly in half on the vertical diagonal.

“Let us call this Artifact A, Tom,” said Ruykendahl. “We scubaed in shallow waters off Easter Island, a brief stop, four years ago, collecting interesting lava-rocks worn by time, and so on. I naughtily urge my guests to keep an eye out for remnants of lost Lemuria, the Atlantis of the Pacific—as imaginary as much of my reputation, hmm?

“But strange shapes do turn up. A guest gave me what looked like a chunk of rock that he had found on the bottom and thought interesting—but not so interesting up topside. It was only much later, when I had returned to my home in South Africa, that this rock turned up among my things and I began to consider it. On a hunch I took scalpel to it, removing layer after layer of seafloor encrustation to find this beneath. Clearly it has been made by the hand of man.”

“Yes,” Tom agreed. “And if it was covered over it must be very old. It looks as though there is a second part to it, its other half.”

“Quite so,” said the adventurer. “A curious sort of thing. Yet I am not an archaeologist, hie? Perhaps it was just something dropped from a ship, years and years ago. A paperweight. Indeed, it rested upon my bookcase, innocently.”

“Okay,” interrupted Bud. “But what about Ed?”

“On the cruise last summer, again we dived at Easter Island. This time it was Ed Longstreet who found a similar encrusted object. The shape suggested what was beneath, and I told Ed what I just told you. I suggested that he loan his find to me, to take home and put with the other and see if, indeed, they had been made to fit closely. But he was reluctant. He wished to have it more fully cleaned and brought forth, by professionals of his acquaintance in Mexico. He may not have trusted me, sad to say.

“Yet we have kept in close touch by email message almost daily. At last he told me the object, Artifact B, was ready for the test. I was to bring my half and rendezvous with him on the ninth last, at a certain place in Mexico, the little town of Las Mambritas, not far from Rosarito, on the coast of Baja California.”

“I can guess what comes next,” declared Tom. “He didn’t show.”

“He missed the meeting, even after many days of speaking of it, even that very morning.”

“By telephone?”

“No, Tom, always by email. Of course, I did have some cellphone numbers to reach him, but have only got his voicemail, which tells nothing. He did not show up in this place, a library. The staff knew nothing—no one of that description, no messages left.”

Tom shrugged. “Cousin Ed’s kind of a free spirit, Mr. Ruykendahl. If he was briefly delayed, he may have assumed you’d wait.”

“For days? Don’t think so, hmm? And he has not responded to email since that morning. It is more than two weeks.”

“You know, Ed’s parents live in New York,” Bud put in. “We could contact them.”

Ruykendahl shook his head. “What a fine idea! I did so immediately, trying not to alarm them. I have called more than once. There is nothing.”

Tom said quietly, “I see.” He was silent for a time, turning the artifact over in his lean hands. “Ed might have allowed word to get around about his object. If someone thought it was valuable...”

“I am thinking the same as you, Tom. And so my worry.”

“And no one even knows what these things are, or where they come from?” asked Bud.

“Nor when they were fashioned. They do appear to be machined objects, suggesting a relatively recent date. One wonders, what were they doing, lying upon the seafloor, covered by crusty sea debris? How old might they prove to be? Decades? Centuries? Trinkets—or, ah!—something of value to Ed, and to me. And, boys, he does not need the money—but I do.”

Bud scrutinized the object. He commented with a smile, “No little ‘souvenir of inscription. Still, it looks like somebody’s school crafts project to me. I had to carve a fish out of soap.”

Ruykendahl continued unfazed: “I was in Utah, on the slopes. When I read that you were visiting, Tom Swift, in your great jet plane—well, I had wished to get in touch with you, not merely because Ed Longstreet is your cousin, but because you have your camera device which could determine the age of the artifacts.”

“My electronic retroscope,” Tom nodded. “I don’t have it here on the ship. But I do have some instruments to look inside the object and give what it’s made of. Have you had it X-rayed?”

“Yes. But no details of structure could be made out. Of course, one wishes not to carve into it.”

“Do you know anything of the material it’s made from?”

The man adopted a trace of a smile. “I would ask you to make that determination, if you would.”

Tom led them to the middle-deck lab section, to a cubicle used for chemical analysis and similar work. He set Artifact A beneath the electronic eye of a Swift Spectroscope, and examined the monitor readouts—colored bars and elliptical patterns.

“So?” Bud asked impatiently.

Tom looked up but didn’t answer immediately. “Let’s try the leptoscope on it.”

The leptoscope was in effect a combination X-ray, telescope, and super-microscope, using advanced methods to represent details of substances and objects nearly down to the level of the atom. Tom scanned through the object in thin layers, from the outside in. The onlookers waited in silence as the minutes passed and Tom’s frown deepened.

He switched off the machine with an abrupt movement. “I’m afraid I can’t be of as much help as you hoped, Mr. Ruykendahl.”

“You are ‘Tom’ and I am ‘Nee.’ Can your instruments not penetrate the material?”

“They penetrate it fine, and I have a preliminary analysis of its composition,” Tom declared. “It’s made almost entirely of calcium carbonate—lime.”

Bud made a skeptical noise. “You mean, like sea shells?”

“Like coral.”

Nee Ruykendahl was as skeptical as Bud. “I am hardly unfamiliar with either of those. Sea shells, coral—yes, they can be quite hard, but despite my tender care I managed to rap against it a few times with my tools, and it is more like metal.”

“Oh, I agree,” nodded the young inventor. “Scanning down to the one-angstrom level, the leptoscope shows a complex pattern of molecular chains, all interwoven and ‘knotted,’ so to speak. There are other trace-substances all through it. I think they act as a binding agent, a sort of glue. It would take diamond-tip tools to make much headway into this thing.”

“But Skipper, what is it?” asked Bud. “What’s it for?”

“I have no idea. It’s uniform throughout, completely solid.”

“You are not saying, I should hope, that this is not manmade after all?” Nee objected. “Not the involuntary artwork of a mollusk!”

 Tom chuckled. “No, I’m sure it’s been artificially produced—or at least artificially worked and cut. It’s a nice bit of molecular engineering, Nee. The best bet is that it’s something made in the last few years and accidentally dropped overboard.”

“But—the thickness of the encrustation― ”

“I can’t explain that. Perhaps it has some sort of odd chemistry that catalyzes biological processes in contact with its surface. If you’ll permit me to take it back to Enterprises, my retroscope may have a better answer.”

Ruykendahl nodded briskly. “Surely. I would be curious to see your methods in action.”

But Tom politely shook his head. “I’m—sorry, sir. We have something of a security alert in effect at the plant right now, and I can’t allow visitors onto the grounds.” As the older man sputtered, Tom added shrewdly. “Of course, if you’re suspicious of my motives, I can understand. There may be other places to take it for answers.”

“Let us both set suspicion to the side,” replied the adventurer with a narrowed gaze. “I have no motive to do wrong against you, Tom. And as for your doing wrong to me, you lack my sort of animal cunning, clearly, so I think Artifact A will return to me promptly. I am traveling at the moment; I will telephone in a few days.”

The Sky Queen returned to the ground, and Nee Ruykendahl left.

“He’s not like I expected,” Bud remarked. “The TV series didn’t do him justice. He’s a lot seedier in person.”

Tom nodded, adding wryly, “Maybe we all are. But chum—I didn’t tell Nee everything I found with the instruments.”

“Something weird?”

“Something that might make the two artifacts very valuable—and might have been behind whatever happened to Ed.”

Bud’s face lost its humor and grew tense. He had come to regard Tom’s cousin as a friend. “Sounds like you think he was kidnapped.”

“Yes, or― ”

“Let’s leave it at kidnapped,” Bud retorted. He picked up the small object and held it before his gray eyes. “What was it you found, Skipper? What makes it valuable?”

“What makes it valuable is what it’s made of—not the lime, but some of the trace substances,” Tom pronounced. “Bud, I’m pretty sure Artifact A comes from someplace other than Earth!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

 

                VISITOR’S WARNING

 

 

 

 

BUD BARCLAY took it in for a moment. “We’ve seen quite a few ‘artifacts’ from outer space already, pal.”

The meteor-missile that had borne the symbol-language of the space friends to our world had been only the first such artifact. The beings had sent other vehicles, and traces of ancient alien visitation had turned up in the Yucatan jungles and beneath the Atlantic. The extraterrestrials—home planet undisclosed, they had become known as the X-ians—seemed unable to give an account of their history, or even their physical form. The abstractions of mathematics, the basis of their attempts to communicate, were unsuited for certain specifics. And it seemed in addition that the Planet X dwellers didn’t care to tip whatever they used as a hand.

Tom agreed with Bud and said thoughtfully, “I don’t know whether this has anything to do with the Space Friends or not, but the substance I’ve detected is Lunite.”

Bud gulped. “From Little Luna? Then it must be connected to the SF’s—they’re the ones who moved Little Luna into orbit in the first place!” In an astounding feat of unexplained technology, the beings had steered a small asteroid, now known as Nestria, into orbit between the earth and the moon. Leading a rocket expedition to the moonlet, Tom had been able to establish a breathable atmosphere for the human visitors, and Nestria now sported a thriving colony of scientists from many nations.

Unique to Nestria was a semi-crystalline metal, never found on our planet, which Tom had named Lunite. The metal had proven its worth as a key part of repelatron technology.

But it had another, fearsome property. “Whether the Lunite metal in this artifact—long nanotubules scattered all through it, barely detectable—was mined by the X-ians or not, it most likely came from somewhere in space. And because it’s Lunite we’re talking about,” Tom continued tensely, “the two artifacts aren’t just scientifically interesting, but dangerous.”

“Hunh? Why?”

“Have you forgotten what Lunite can do?—what those two hunks of Lunite I held in my hands did?”

Bud hadn’t! “Jetz! It can disintegrate things!”

“The deatomization effect,” nodded the young space explorer. “We have no idea how to control it, but we do know Lunite is involved in producing it.”

“Tom—could the artifact be some sort of weapon?”

Could be,” was the reply. “If so...” For a moment Tom seemed to be struggling with an idea, a disturbing one. “The Black Cobra has hinted at having made his own extraterrestrial contacts. And we think he knows all about Lunite and the deatomization effect. It’s one of the reasons he tried to seize Nestria!”

“Uh-huh. And he just tried to seize you, Skipper, right out of the sunny skies!”

Tom gave a wan smile. “That’s the ‘popular theory’ right now, anyway. We don’t really know, I’ll admit. Though—this artifact, and Ed’s disappearance sure makes the theory an interesting one!”

The Flying Lab returned to Shopton with its freight of mystery. While Bud ran some errands Tom sat down with Harlan Ames and Ames’s assistant Phil Radnor to discuss the matter of Ed Longstreet’s apparent disappearance. “Sure sounds to me like, at minimum, an abduction,” declared Radnor. “A rare, valuable object—Li Ching’s possible involvement― ”

“Let’s not let our hunches abduct the facts,” warned Ames dryly. “Li’s involvement rests mainly on the intuitions of such investigative noteworthies as Sandy Swift—and a few traces of metal, evidence of, basically, nothing.”

Radnor nodded. “Yeah, okay, true. From what I know of your cousin, Tom, he might’ve had every intention of meeting with Ruykendahl but stumbled across something along the way and gotten himself...”

Distracted is a good word,” chuckled the youth. “Ed might be under the impression that he sent Nee an explanation, not realizing he’d sent it to the wrong place or something. And he’s notorious for giving out phone numbers to voicemails that he hasn’t checked since the turn of the century.”

“And another thing,” said Ames. “This fellow Nee Ruykendahl—what do we really know about him? He’s basically a celebrity in eclipse, looking for publicity. True? The fact that we can’t get in touch with Ed at the moment doesn’t mean Ruykendahl’s story isn’t complete fiction.”

“You’re right, Harlan,” agreed the young inventor. Yet his thoughts added: But that artifact is mighty peculiar—and the Lunite is real!

When Tom’s father arrived, Tom repeated the story and discussed the various matters of doubt.

“A new adventure in the making, I’d say,” Mr. Swift commented. “At any rate, son, it seems your lithexor performed flawlessly. I have a feeling Hidden Resource will have Swift Construction Company go forward on the fullsize version.”

“I think so too.”

Tom was anxious to scan the subsea artifact with his electronic retroscope, and Mr. Swift was anxious to view the result. They took Enterprises ground-conveyor system, the ridewalk, to the lab that the retroscope called home and placed the artifact in position on a holding rack in front of the camera’s scanning tube. “Let’s see if anything’s been eroded away from the surface. I don’t expect to find anything, though.”

“Too new for the cosmic ray effect to make a pattern, surely,” agreed Damon Swift. “With that sort of micro-engineered structure it must be of modern manufacture, however it first appeared. And besides, it doesn’t appear the sort of thing someone would carve pictures or symbols into.”

As anticipated, the “retro” viewing panel showed no change from what was visible to the eye. “All right then,” said Tom. “Let’s see what the master time dial has to tell us.”

Tom carefully adjusted this age-determining component of the retroscope apparatus. But when he looked at the dial readout, he was all frown. “Nothing.”

“Try recalibrating,” urged the elder scientist.

Tom did so, and then began running a check of the electronics. But nothing Tom did caused the dial to light up with an age reading. “Well... I guess Artifact A is ageless as well as priceless,” Tom joked. “Seriously, Dad, I can’t imagine what might prevent the retroscope from coming up with even an approximation.”

“Yes—that would be possible even if there are no eroded surface patterns for the imager to ‘read’,” murmured Mr. Swift in perplexity. “Odd. But no doubt we’ll stumble across the answer soon enough.”

Tom spent the rest of the day in the administrative office, then accepted an invitation to have supper with Hank Sterling and his family. The puzzle remained in his mind; but the more insistent puzzle was the one involving Cousin Ed.

As it was still early in the evening when he arrived home, Tom suggested that his mother place a call to her brother Quent, Ed’s father. “I don’t want to alarm him,” said Anne Swift. “But I think I can manage it with a smidgen of cautious wording. Big Brother Q has always been a little slow on the uptake. I say that in a loving spirit, of course.”

Tom went out to the small workshop adjoining the house. When he walked inside again an industrious hour later, his mother reported:

“Quent hasn’t heard from him, and is absolutely certain there’s not a thing to raise one’s blood pressure over. I spoke to Edna, too. They’ve learned to take for granted that their boy can fend for himself.”

“I guess we ought to trust parental instincts,” Tom nodded.

Dear, as a parent of two very bright and unusual children, I learned otherwise. Now I go by opposites.”

Next morning Harlan Ames told Tom that he had extended feelers to a number of his security contacts, trying to attain some insight into the subsurface repute of Nee Ruykendahl. By mid-afternoon it seemed Ames’s efforts had already paid off. “A woman is driving here to meet you, Tom,” Ames announced. “She has some sort of connection to the people who own Ruykendahl’s ‘safari’ company. It’s a big corporation. She was over in Rochester when the company grapevine reached out and grabbed her.”

“It’s in their interest to tell us what a sterling guy their employee is,” observed Tom with a smile.

It took several hours—worth two snacks delivered by Chow Winkler—for the visitor to arrive. The Swifts’ office secretary and receptionist, Munford Trent, showed in an attractive dark-haired woman, hand extended but face serious. “Hello, Tom. Ona Matopoeia. Yes, my real name; I am Greek, from Macedonia.”

Tom nodded her into a comfortable chair. “And you work for—um― ”

“Bluegreen Safari-Adventures, Ltd., it is called; that is to say, for those who own it. It is one small possession of a much larger corporation, with headquarters in Milan, ZandinAlfaGiovo. But I’m sure you’ve heard of ZAG.”

“Are you part of the public relations staff, Miss Matopoeia?”

She smiled. “I understand why you might suppose that. And indeed, the house attorney who called me, from Milan, was concerned about the possible effect of these questions about Mr. Ruykendahl—the public effect, you see. Matters of image.”

The young inventor gave a look of apology. “Ma’am, we don’t want this to get blown out of proportion. We don’t have any real suspicions about Nee. It’s just― ”

“It’s just that in fact you do,” she interrupted crisply. She seemed to be teetering on the edge of a cautious revelation as Tom waited. “You and your people have your own reputation, of course, and it is a fine one to have. The Swifts are regarded as trustworthy—your word is your bond.”

“We like to think so,” said Tom.

“Then may I presume that what I am about to discuss will remain a matter of confidence? Not to spread further than your father—and your security staff, I would suppose.”

“And one or two others among my most trusted associates,” Tom rejoined firmly. “I won’t keep secrets from them. But I’ll vouch for them personally, ma’am.”

“All right,” she said. “Concerning Nee Ruykendahl, I’m afraid these hesitations of your are well justified.”

“Really!”

“Yes. You see, I am, basically, a private investigator that ZAG has hired, very quietly. I specialize in trans-national financial matters—fraud, embezzlement, outright theft.

“The management of the corporation has found reason to suspect Mr. Ruykendahl, who was hired and attached to the Bluegreen division because of the public value of his name, of what amounts to fraud. There is growing evidence that he has lined his pocket, misused funds, and exploited these ‘safaris’ to rook the clients—they are usually wealthy—into phony side ventures.”

“What sort of ventures?”

“Various sorts. Nee Ruykendahl is rather a restless breed of man,” she pronounced. “He passes easily from one thing to another. He organizes bogus, hopeless ‘treasure hunts.’ He hints at mineral strikes in obscure locations, hard to reach—‘but you could get in on the ground floor,’ as the phrase goes. I gather he has managed to engage your scientific interest in some sort of archaeological find?”

Tom replied cautiously, “Of a sort.”

“Easter Island?”

“How did—?”

“It is a scheme he has tried before,” Ona Matopoeia continued. “He knows people who are adept at fabricating artifacts—antiquities. He has shown you such a thing, hasn’t he?—to pique your interest. Soon he will offer to lead you and your scientists to the location. But there is always the small matter of his fee. Of course, he will promise nothing. And nothing will be found, naturally. But he will smile inwardly, to have hoaxed the great Swifts!”

Tom’s own smile was bemused. “Seems like a pretty elaborate way to make a few extra bucks, Miss Matopoeia.”

“It is a challenge to a man like that, what they call a grifter. Look at his career. Defeating great odds—followed by the cashing-in. A matter of ego. Ultimately the real motive behind con men.”

The young inventor considered the matter, uncertain how much to reveal to his visitor. How did he know that she wasn’t the grifter in this affair? “Is there something you’d like Enterprises to do?”

“I am here because my employers wish to protect themselves,” was the reply. “The Bluegreen division is profitable; we do not wish to see it disgraced in the news media. And so it is best to warn you, Tom, before things come crashing down.”

“We’re grateful, ma’am.”

“We can help each other. If you can find a way to play along with this scheme, to gather evidence... It would assist us greatly to know who he works with.”

Tom promised his cooperation. Ona Matopoeia promised a telephone conversation with Harlan Ames, who had left for the day.

Tom met Bud for dinner in town, the kind of dinner that comes with fries. The impulsive pilot was amazed at the report on Ruykendahl. “Genius boy, I knew most of the guy’s rep was enhanced—amplified!—but it’s a downer to think he might be a crook.”

“Kind of your hero, chum?”

“We all need heroes, Tom.”

The pair of heroes laughed. Then Bud asked the young scientist-inventor for the latest thinking on the subocean artifact. “Thinking? Pretty much at a dead end,” was Tom’s answer.

“And you say it doesn’t show up as old on the retroscope dial?”

“It doesn’t show up as anything—as far as time is concerned.”

 “But it’s a solid object. It’s not a ghost or somethin’.” Bud shrugged. “Maybe because it has that Lunite in it― ”

“No, I’ve tested Lunite under the scope before—some of the things left behind on Nestria, in the cave of the gravity-cube,” said Tom. “The time dial gave a reasonable age. So... it isn’t...”

Bud Barclay, best friend, knew the significance of a Tom Swift pause after a trailoff. He waited expectantly as the Swift brain mulled over something new.

Tom bolted to his feet. “We’ve got to get back to Enterprises!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

 

                ACTION REACTION

 

 

 

 

BUD didn’t ask and Tom didn’t elaborate. They threw down money and made for Tom’s sleek sports car. It took minutes to reach the plant and skid to a stop in the executive parking lot.

Tom raced to the lab with Bud at his heels. He pulled the artifact from the security-safe and again placed it beneath the retroscope.

“I, um, see what you mean about nothing,” Bud remarked cautiously, with a nod at the time dial readout.

“Just wait, pal. I need to get into the programming.” In a moment Tom exclaimed with delight:

“There! I was right!”

“About what?”

Tom indicated a set of numbers on one of the digital meters. “What those numbers mean—Dad didn’t think of it either― ”

“Jetz, what?—!”

Tom grinned. “Artifact A wasn’t telling us her age because it was too great! The analytical routine couldn’t interpret the input.”

“Then you’re saying,” began Bud, “you’re saying this thing is old? Real old? Skipper, you’ve measured stuff going back thousands of years with the retroscope!”

“But nothing like this! The reprogrammed time dial shows it, Bud. Artifact A was manufactured hundreds of millions of years ago!”

Bud plopped down on a lab stool, limp. “I know you’re not joking. You don’t joke about science.”

Tom plucked up the artifact and stared at it, eyes aglow with scientific excitement. “Obviously, it wasn’t made by humans—not Earth humans.”

“So—the space friends?”

“We don’t know yet. Maybe not! There’s never been any suggestion that the X-ians were here on Earth so long ago, before the age of the dinosaurs. No,” he continued, “I think this is something else, from somewhere else.”

Bud whisked his stray lock of black hair off his forehead—for all the good it did. “Wasn’t Nee saying something about ‘Atlantis in the Pacific’?”

“Don’t count on that one,” Tom declared with a head-shake. “The whole theory of ‘Lemuria’ was put forward in the 19th Century as a way to explain the migration and distribution of lemurs and other animals. Besides, he’s got the wrong ocean! It was supposed to be in the Indian Ocean, a land-bridge between India and Madagascar.”

“Okay. But I know I’ve read about a lost continent in the Pacific.”

“Sure. ‘Mu.’ That one’s even more fictitious!”

Tom finally went home, brain brimming and almost boiling over. His scientific family, and a long conversation, awaited him. The next morning he asked Hank Sterling and big-boned Arvid Hanson, Enterprises’ chief prototype engineer and modelmaker, to join him in his underground lab adjacent to the cavernous hangar for the Sky Queen.

“What’s happenin’?” asked Arv jovially. “Need a model thrown together by noon?”

“I believe we’re here for our general scientific expertise and vivid imaginations,” Hank told him as Tom chuckled. “Engineers!—nobody more fancy-free than engineers.”

“I’ll be asking for a few of those fanciful ideas if this experiment doesn’t work,” declared Tom, gesturing toward a lab counter. A metered pulsed-current generator was attached to Artifact A by two very fine silver wires, hard to see.

“So that’s what you were telling me about,” murmured Arv, bending close. “Ruykendahl’s lump.”

Hank Sterling was more interested in the equipment. “Looks like you’re planning to feed some square-wave pulses into the thing.”

“Exactly,” said Tom. “Very low frequency and power at first.”

“But why?”

Arv added skeptically: “Not only that, but—isn’t this made of calcium carbonate, like coral? How’s it supposed to conduct a current?”

The young inventor brought up a diagrammatic image on a computer monitor. “This is a simplified version of the artifact’s inner structure, at tremendous magnification. These twisty segments here are about the size of human nerve cells.

“Last night I showed this function-schematic to my Mom and Dad, and Mom—her background’s molecular biochemistry, you know—said it resembled, in a way, sequential parts of an RNA string in a cell nucleus.”

That’s what I call a Mom!” gibed Hanson.

“Look, this bit is like what they call an ‘exon,’ which is coded by molecular patterns to guide cell replication. In other words, it’s the ‘memory chip’ for the cell’s ‘data’. And the segments are like cells in another way, too—it looks to me that each ‘link’ can pass an activation current along to the next one by calcium-ion transfer where the segments intersect, as nerve cells do.”

Both imaginative engineers found Tom’s notion almost too imaginative! “Well now,” Hanson said, “what should be make of that, Hank? Is he saying this lump is some kind of nervous system? A sea shell brain?”

“Maybe a computer for the fish.”

“Maybe we should just sneak away.”

Tom laughed. “Fine. But I have reasons for my off-the-wall ‘square-wave’ impulse, fellows. Going over the leptoscope data, it seems to me this entire object is meant to function as a kind of circuit, or circuit board. Basically, the Lunite filaments thread the calcium segments together in long, long chains that run from this contact point here to the second one, the other terminus of the circuit. I guess you could say the artifact is a kind of calcium-chain yarn ball, all wound around.”

“Hunh!” snorted Arv. “The world’s most complex knot!”

Hank observed thoughtfully, “If it really is something left on Earth by ancient spacemen, it just might be a component of one of their machines after all—a real sort of ‘circuit board,’ but based on technological principles entirely different from ours.”

“Principles derived from biology,” Tom nodded. “Let’s see what happens when we tickle it a little. Shouldn’t hurt it.”

Making a final check of the connections, Tom depressed the key on the board that would begin feeding a pulsed current into Artifact A.

The three jumped back, startled, as the lab erupted in sound!

Wincing, Hank covered his ears. “Wh-what—what in—?”

The flood of noise seemed to be coming at them from all directions. Tom shut down the pulse generator—but the wild racket continued unabated. “It’s not coming from the lump!” exclaimed Tom suddenly. “Listen! It’s coming from the lab equipment!”

The matter clarified. Every piece of equipment in the room, every computer, every electronic device connected to a speaker, beeper, or buzzer was sounding off frantically. “Malfunction warnings—overload alarms,” yelled Arv.

“And not just in the lab!” Tom responded. He swung open the thick lab door, and a roar of sirens came surging in. Hangar technicians were standing in mute confusion or bolting about in disorder.

Holy Mo!” gulped Hank. “We may need your silentenna to calm this down, chief!”

But even as he spoke, the racket began to drop away, piece by piece. The emergency sirens abruptly cut out, and Tom found, to his relief, that the lab equipment responded, one by one, to a simple switchoff or reboot. “Maybe that was a little too much tickle,” muttered Tom sheepishly.

“Yeah. But what happened?” demanded Hanson, eyes scanning the lab. “These devices aren’t connected together. Tom, most of them weren’t even switched on!”

“An electromagnetic pulse effect?” suggested Hank.

Frowning, Tom shook his head. “We would have felt something that powerful in our bodies,” he noted. “Our bodily ‘wetware’ would have made us human antennas!”

Tom immediately contacted Plant Operations—after cancelling the phone’s shrill whine of Help!

“You should be where I am, Tom,” declared the harried chief of operations. “Every car in the employee lot is yelping! Idiot anti-theft alarms. Noise and sirens all over Enterprises. And may I remind you, Tom, we are four miles square. Sixteen square miles of noise!”

“Thanks, Frank, for handling it.”

Phil Radnor in Security also had a report. “This phenomenon wasn’t limited to the plant. It jumped the wall and hit the town too!”

“Good gosh, how far did it go?”

“Radius of a few miles, I guess. Mayor Clyde’s office didn’t waste a second calling me, but it seems the effect faded out just short of downtown.”

Hanging up, Tom and his friends puzzled over the phenomenon. The youth mused, “What happened seems to have induced a very brief flow of electric current in circuits of a certain kind, the sort usually found in things like overload sensors and surge limiters—smoke detectors, too.”

Hank Sterling was bewildered. “And yet it’s not an electromagnetic pulse. It didn’t affect wiring or circuitry in general...”

“Only certain kinds of configurations,” added Arv. “Perhaps specific semiconductor arrays—maybe specific semicon materials.”

Tom, meanwhile, checked over the various lab instruments for a clue. “Nothing beyond what we just saw.”

“Yeah, saw with our ears!”

The young inventor shrugged slightly. “Some kind of unknown force or energy emanating from Artifact A when I stimulated its calcium circuit. Gosh!—imagine what might have happened if I’d really turned on the juice!”

“That much imagination even us engineers can’t manage!” joked Arv, and Hank laughingly agreed.

Tom thought it prudent to suspend his investigations of Ruykendahl’s lump for, at least, a decent interval. He talked with his father up in their shared office, and spent some time parrying sharp inquiries from Dan Perkins, editor of the Shopton Evening Bulletin. And George Dilling, of Tom Swift Enterprises’ Office of Communications and Public Interest, took a moment to share a few hoarse comments with his two employers.

Chow wheeled in his lunchcart, frowning but trying hard to keep his frown from spreading to his sometimes salty Texas tongue. “Chowder ’n hot dogs,” he told Tom and Bud. “Had a little somethin’ else cookin’-up in th’ microwave. Right nice. Then it started in screechin’ at me!”

“Broke your concentration, huh Tex?” asked Bud joshingly.

Chow glared but only said—nothing.

After the big man had stomped away under his western-sun hat, Bud asked his pal if anything had been heard from—or about—Ed Longstreet.

“Nope,” replied Tom. Bud saw worry on his face. “Ed’s parents think he’s okay, that it’s probably just a snafu. And since it seems Nee isn’t to be trusted, they could be right.”

“Even if he isn’t trying to pull a con, Skipper, maybe he just doesn’t know Ed all that well. That meeting may have come across to Ed as something more casual than Nee intended.”

“I don’t know,” Tom muttered restlessly. “And I hate not knowing.”

“Tell me something I don’t know!”

They munched sullenly for a time. Then Bud came up with: “Well, genius boy, now that your lithexor’s wowing them in South Dakota, what’re you working on next?”

Tom smiled. “Mile Brundage called just before lunch, wanting a few more miracles. Actually, dealing with Hidden Resource had already set off a flurry of thoughts. How about a tunneling torpedo?—that doesn’t make a tunnel! Is that ‘invention enough’ for you?”

“Sounds kind of explosive!” chuckled the Californian. “A weapon?”

“No, an automatic robotic prospector that can scout around looking for ores and valuable deposits deep underground—miles deep!”

“Good night! Then again, you can’t go much deeper than the center of the Earth.”

“But my earthdrone won’t be anything like the earth blasters,” Tom explained. “The blasters create tunnels—that was pretty much the whole idea. The drone will function on the repelatron principle, like the lithexor.”

“I guess the lithexor doesn’t make a tunnel, exactly,” Bud conceded, “but it does make a hole. That’s what it drags the pipe through, right?”

“Sure, but what I have in mind is the next step, a further extension of the approach. What I’m thinking,” he went on, “is that I might be able to design a special kind of ‘geo-repelatron’ that would take advantage of the fact that the solid materials of the ground have a degree of springiness and elasticity even under the enormous compressive force of their depth. What if a vehicle could force open a small space on all sides, just big enough for it to slip through, and then allow the compressed earth to spring back into place behind it?”

“Hey, I get it—it is like a torpedo. It shoves the water aside as it goes along, but the water just closes back in. I mean—I’ve never heard of a torpedo leaving a hole in the water.”

“And the thing is, water is actually a lot less elastic than rock—it’s virtually incompressible.”

Bud nodded and said with fondness of memory, “Back in high school we once dropped a big water bottle out of third floor window onto the sidewalk. Man! It went off like a bomb! Er—it got me suspended. But Joey Gergus just got a little wet.”

“Because that water couldn’t compress, you converted nearly all its energy of motion into... more motion. In a different direction!”

“I’ll do anything for science, pal.”

Tom began to sketch out his ideas for the unmanned earthdrone as Bud and others came and went. The robotic prospector would have a spindle-shape, tapering like an awl in front and in back. But the geo-repelatrons will have to work very differently from the repelatrons we’ve used before, he mentally noted. And the pressures involved!

A bleep of the desk phone made Tom jump. “Hello?”

“Tom, this is Nels Gachter. Got something happening in the space communications room.”

“Oh? Something coming in through the magnifying antenna?”

“I’ll say!—it’s from your space friends, but the translating computer has fizzled out three times so far. It’s a very long message this time.”

Tom set down his pencil. “I’ll be right there!”

The space communications room was adjacent to the airfield control tower. As Tom arrived, Nels waved him over to the monitor output from the computer that used Tom’s “Space Dictionary” to translate the symbolic concepts of the X-ians into something understandable to terrestrials.

Tom glanced over the preliminary results. “Doesn’t make sense,” he murmured. “And I don’t think it’s from our usual contacts, either—the scientific group stationed in our solar system. It doesn’t have their usual ‘we are friends’ salutation. I think it’s coming directly from the ones they call their ‘masters,’ the authorities back home on Planet X!”

“Which may not be welcome news,” retorted Nels. He knew the X-ians hadn’t always proven themselves reliable friends—as the term was understood among human beings.

“Now that we know it has their quirks of formatting and encoding, I think I can get the computer to make more of it,” Tom said hopefully.

In minutes Tom and Nels Gachter were considering a fantastic message from space!

 

TOM SWIFT. WE HAVE RECEIVED YOUR TRANSMISSION AND COMPREHEND THE MEANING. WE HAVE SOUGHT THIS INFORMATION FOR MANY CYCLES OF TIME. WE NOW KNOW THE LOCATION OF THE MEMORY CRYPT ON YOUR WORLD. OTHERS HAVE ALSO INTERCEPTED THIS DATA FROM YOU. YOU MUST RECOVER THE CRYPT AND CONVEY IT TO US BEFORE THESE OTHERS TO PREVENT DESTRUCTIVE CONSEQUENCES TO BOTH OUR WORLDS!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

 

                THE MEMORY CRYPT

 

 

 

 

“YOU’VE done your usual fine job of translation, son,” declared Damon Swift as he and Tom pored over the printed output from the imaging oscilloscope, fanfold sheets spread wide over the Swift kitchen table. “I have a few quibbles. But what’s a father without quibbles?”

Tom laughed. “No comment! What quibbles?”

“I see why you used the term memory crypt, but it strikes me as a little... romantic. You might as well use a term like data storage device.”

I think this cluster here—” Tom pointed. “—is meant to indicate the idea of ‘old’ or ‘ancient.’ And this one involves termination of complex processes, particularly those involved with living organisms. When we were dealing with the Space Ark problem, we translated it as ‘death’!”

True. Yes, I see—a biological allusion. Not just old data in a container, but― ”

Dead memory in a crypt! Dad, if anybody is being romantic, it’s the X-ians themselves.”

It had been two hours since dinner, two hours of mathematics, logic, and obscure imagery. Even so, the real mystery—the crisis!—remained to be solved. “Let’s consider the basics again,” urged Mr. Swift. “Evidently the Ruykendahl artifact functions as something like a prerecorded message, left on Earth many aeons ago by― ”

“Persons unknown.”

“All it needed was the tiniest pulse of electricity to activate its ‘send’ function. A radically inexplicable force, coded in some manner, flashes out and is intercepted by the space beings.”

“They seem to be assuming I transmitted it to them deliberately,” Tom noted.

Mr. Swift nodded. “Information about something they have been seeking for some great span of time, a record of data important to them in some way. In fact, important to others!—competitors or adversaries.”

“Given the huge span of time, I’d guess a different race of extraterrestrials, not just a rival bunch of X-ians. The Others may be the race of beings who created the crypt.”

“Or the original ‘owners’ may be long extinct. Yes, I agree, Tom,” said his father. “And I agree that they are speaking of something grave, destructive consequences. But I don’t agree,” the older scientist went on, “with this phrase.”

Tom was puzzled by the objection. “ ‘We now know the location’—you think it’s a bad translation?”

“No. But I think it’s incomplete. This modifying symbol has usually signified something like ‘attenuated’ or ‘partial.’ I suggest that we translate it along these lines.” He wrote out a line on the paper.

 

WE HAVE NOW ATTAINED FROM YOU PARTIAL BUT INCOMPLETE DATA AS TO LOCATION

 

“I see...” Tom murmured. “Yes, I think you’re right, Dad.” He looked up suddenly. “In fact, it makes a lot of sense! If Nee is being truthful, there are two of these artifacts, intended to fit together like puzzle pieces. You’d need both to encode the complete location coordinates—whatever form they might be rendered in.”

“That’s my notion as well.” The man smiled. “I make it a policy not to disagree with someone who’s agreeing with me.”

They contemplated the matter. But the course of action was already floating before them. Tom said: “Despite this Miss Matopoeia, we have no choice but to take Nee seriously. He can lead us to the waters where he says both objects were found—and maybe more importantly, to the spot in Mexico where he’d arranged to meet Cousin Ed. Whether Ed’s been kidnapped or just sort’ve misplaced, if he still has Artifact B, he has the key to finding the memory crypt—and dealing with whatever two-world threat the X-ians are telling us about!”

Contacted early next day, Nee Ruykendahl was suavely impressed by the account Tom provided—an edited account, as Tom saw no reason to mention the apparent danger to two worlds. “Hie! My Lord! I am to believe this little paperweight of mine is 250 million years old?”

“According to the retroscope time calculator, it took on its final form in 254,701,000 BC. Approximately.”

Nee laughed heartily. “What, only approximately?—well. Can these alien contacts of yours not tell you more about this treasure-chest we are to find? For surely this is an old-fashioned treasure hunt now, with a mysterious pirate map in code!”

Tom nodded at the telephone. “Naturally, we’ve sent a message back asking for more information. The gist of their reply is that they are still decoding the details of the data transmitted by the beacon; by Artifact A.”

“Yes, by my Artifact A.” The young inventor could clearly discern Ruykendahl’s emphasis—as well as the man’s hungry leap at the word treasure.

They haven’t yet provided any real information on the contents of the cache,” said Tom. “We only know that it’s of importance to them. As to where it is, they say they expect to provide some information soon. But it may be too incomplete to allow us to pinpoint its location.”

“Perhaps we should expect nothing better from a piece of machined sea shell,” offered the explorer. “But if we should have the other half of our pirate map― ”

“That’s why we’re willing to hire you, sir. We need you to guide us to the spot where your ship anchored, where the divers found the artifacts. For all we know, there could be more of them down there, with additional information. Maybe a complete one.”

“And of course we must first locate your cousin, if we can.” The man seemed to hesitate. “We are likely to find him with the B object still in his possession, I’d think. And we will find him. If as one hopes he is still― ”

“Forget the speculation,” snapped the youth heatedly. “We leave for Mexico in three hours. We’ll pick you up on the way.”

“Do slow down when you do so, won’t you?”

The Sky Queen skimmed the air southward with a minimal crew—Tom, Bud, and Nee Ruykendahl, the latter under the discreet but keen watch of the former.

The neighborhood of Las Mambritas was barren, dry, pebbly. Finding a spot to set down the giant skyship was easy enough. As they descended they watched the play of late sunlight on the ocean, two miles west, interrupted now and then by small boats. “Fishing,” Nee murmured.

Las Mambritas proved to be small and poor, a tired old man no bigger than an infant. Yet it was not the cliché dilapidated tortilla village of popular Gringo presumption. Some of the streets were newly paved and striped, there was a small but tidy business district of sorts, and even a trace of suburbia at the town limits. They found the station of the local Policía to be newly built, entirely modern.

Also surprising and modern was the Chief of Police. “Veracíta Jualéngro,” the young, strongly constructed woman greeted them. “Uh-hmm, boys, a woman. Barriers fall all over the place. And the clattering sound you hear? Jaws dropping.”

Bud grinned. “I was expecting a droopy mustache.”

“I shave it off daily. Now then—Edgar Longstreet.”

“We know you’ve been investigating, ma’am,” said Tom politely.

“Yes. I told your man Ames the result. No result.”

“It was at the new library that I was to meet him,” Nee stated. “The employees knew nothing when I asked, but since then, perhaps...”

“No, sir,” interrupted Chief Jualéngro. “No one saw anything, nothing worth seeing. Si? No screaming, no gunshots.”

Tom said dryly, “That’s a relief. But ma’am—Chief—he had emailed Mr. Ruykendahl many times, and had referred over some time, several months, to living here in Las Mambritas. Do you know where he was staying?”

“Sorry, nope, we do not,” she replied. “He was not at the hotels. In a trailer, an RV, as many do? Perhaps. He may well have come into town to dine, to buy food and things. But who would notice? We have our tourists. We circulated the photos provided; no one recognized him. It may mean nothing much. I have told this to Mr. Ames and others.”

Nee Ruykendahl broke the uneasy silence. “We might as well be honest, boys. Not a good sign. Ed has not simply wandered off carelessly, I would say. Not a case of a simple missed meeting.”

“No,” pronounced Tom. “It’s as if he was never here at all.”

“But what of his messages to me?” objected Nee.

Tom shrugged. “I don’t have an answer—yet. If we had some kind of molecular ‘scent’ specific to Ed, or some place to start from where we knew he had been recently, I could use my tracking device to trail him. But the sensitector can’t work from nothing.”

“And nothing is what we have a lot of,” Bud pronounced.

“Too bad he didn’t communicate by letters,” remarked Nee. “You might have taken the trace from that.”

Bud said, “I’d say we need to do a little non-electronic detective work, guys.”

“I will accompany you and help as much as I can,” declared Chief Jualéngro. “My badge here, even pinned to the front of a woman, has its power in our little Las Mambritas.”

“Ah! Nice to hear,” Nee commented. “And may we call you Veracíta?”

“No,” she responded sharply.

“Oh.”

“It is hard enough to command respect, señor.”

As the four left the station, Nee muttered to the boys: “There was a time when being in the company of Ruykendahl was entirely respectable.”

They made their inquiries, resuming the next day after sleeping the night in the comfort of the Flying Lab. By midafternoon, nothing was still nothing. “Look,” said Tom, “just because Ed’s messages mentioned Las Mambritas doesn’t mean he was literally living within the city limits. As you’ve said, Chief, people live here and there nearer the beach.”

“Even on the beach.”

Bud grinned. “A nice life.”

“Yet dangerous, I’m afraid,” frowned Jualéngro. “There are always robberies. We do not patrol there, and people are vulnerable.”

“Cousin Ed’s more likely to be checked in to a comfortable hotel,” Tom noted. “But the hotel never heard of him.”

They walked on along the town’s main street, keeping to as much shade as they could find. Chief Jualéngro seemed thoughtful, and said at last:

“It’s true that there is only one nice hotel in Las Mambritas. But somewhat further down, near the beach—there is a little motel, a place for tourists who don’t care to sleep on the sand, but who can’t afford the niceties. The bungalows—casitas—may be rented for the season. It’s beyond the town line, and I tend to forget about it.”

Tom nodded hopefully. “Let’s take a look.”

“Today our patrol cars are all in use. Not far to walk, though.”

“A walk is nothing for we three young men,” boomed Nee. “And of course you are accustomed to it, madame.”

She gave him a sharp look. “I never go there.”

Bud leaned close to Tom and whispered, “But Ed does like adventure.”

They began their trek, Chief Jualéngro slightly ahead. As they neared the edge of the town’s more modern district, Bud heard his pal moan quietly and noticed that he was shaking his head in wry disgust. “What’s the matter, Skipper?” Bud asked. “Leave the water running back on the Queen?”

When we pass that window up there, glance at the reflection—about a block back.”

Bud glanced. “That man? Floral shirt?”

“He’s not a tourist.”

“Trailing us?”

“Yeah, I think so,” replied the young inventor. “He caught my eye. And you know something, flyboy? I’m sure I’ve seen him before!”

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

 

                A CASE OF UNKIDNAPPING

 

 

 

 

BUD BARCLAY slowed, drawing Tom back to allow Jualéngro and Ruykendahl to put in some distance. “Okay, tell me!” Bud hissed. “You mean you saw him in town earlier today?”

“I’m pretty sure he was in the lobby at the library, reading a newspaper, when we were talking to the staff. I didn’t pay attention. But I mean more than that, Bud,” he went on in low tones. “I’m sure—well, I can almost feel that I’ve met him in a different context, a different place. Talked to him, even.”

“But where?”

“My brain is working on it.”

The two hastened forward and, without halting the group, told the Chief about the possible follower. “C’ba! He surely has a big pair of audacities on him, trailing a uniformed officer. He can see that I’m armed.”

Tom kept his eyes on Nee Ruykendahl’s face as he said, “He’s staying pretty far back, so I’d prefer to just keep walking for now. It may give us a clue as to what he has in mind.”

“Yes, and indeed he may just be another tourist,” agreed Jualéngro. “I love them, but they are bothersome like flies.”

Bud noticed Tom’s gaze. He wonders if Nee and the guy are working together, the youth thought.

As they proceeded, now among old adobe-clad residences at the edge of Las Mambritas, the man behind dropped further behind, and suddenly he was no more to be seen.

“But be on your guard, boys,” advised Nee. “In the jungles the prey that stalks you may circle around to the front.”

At last, after a lengthy trek along the beach, they arrived at a sprawl of very elderly cottages and a sign in broken neon: Motor-Court Los Tres-Anos Especialidad.

“The years may be especial, but that sign has sure seen better days,” Bud remarked.

“It has lost a good deal,” stated Chief Jualéngro, “making the whole place a sour joke. In town we merely say ‘El Tres’ and look away.”

There was something of an office, but nothing of an attendant at the counter—only an electric fan and a caged parrot, staring vacantly without greeting.

“Permit me to exercise some authority,” stated Veracíta Jualéngro. She went behind the counter and leafed through the ledger she found there. “He was here!” she exclaimed. “Payment in cash—but this is weeks ago, upon arrival.”

A young boy came rushing in. His indignation faded when he saw Jualéngro’s uniform. “Oh, Longstreet? Yes, the man in your photograph—Si!”

He was staying here?” asked Tom eagerly.

The boy hesitated. “He came here a time ago, I forget, and paid for five weeks. I have seen him now and then. He rides a bicycle into town. But his casita is off to the side—I wouldn’t see him much anyway. Lately... Well, I don’t think I have seen him for quite a few days now. Maybe a week? Two? I mind my business.”

“Then he’s gone,” muttered Nee quietly.

“May we see his cottage?” Tom inquired.

Before the boy could reply, Jualéngro answered for him. “We may!”

The boy gave Tom a key and directed them. As they approached the cottage, fearful of what they would find within, Bud suddenly whispered. “The door!—not even shut.”

“I hear sounds inside,” said the Chief, drawing her weapon.

Bud rushed ahead impulsively, thrusting the door open but standing aside on the porch. As the door swung round into the wall, there was a muffled shout from inside.

With a passing glare at Bud, the Chief marched up to the open door and called out in Spanish, then English, “This is the police, in there. Please come to the door!”

An instant later a tall, slender figure stood blinking in the sunlight. “Wha—great—Tom!—?”

“Ed!” Tom rushed forward and greeted his amazed cousin with a bearhug.

Ed Longstreet grinned and gulped. “How in the world did you find me down here?—oh! Nee!”

“You set off some alarms, friend,” said Ruykendahl.

Ed shrugged. “Come in. Hi ya, Bud. And—?”

Jualéngro introduced herself, and the four entered the casita and found places to sit among scattered clothes and stacks of unwashed plates. “Guess it isn’t detective work to see that I wasn’t expecting visitors,” Ed declared sheepishly. “But what’s this about alarms? Are Mom and Dad worried about me?”

“They don’t know how to get in touch with you,” Tom responded.

“Well—that’s me, cuz. They’re used to it.”

The young inventor looked toward Ruykendahl and gave a slight nod. “I’ll tell the story,” he began. “I like to talk. The sound of my voice, very motivating.”

He told it. When it was concluded, Ed’s face was full of bewildered astonishment. “I don’t understand any of this, Nee—guys.”

Bud chuckled. “That makes it unanimous.”

“What happened that morning, Ed? When you were to meet Nee at the library?” asked Tom soberly.

“At the library?” The young traveler looked at his younger cousin with perplexity. “Look, Tom, Nee... this whole deal is new to me. I never sent any of those emails!”

“What!” exclaimed Nee.

Ed nodded emphatically. “The last time we talked was face to face, last summer, months ago! The object I had found on the cruise—you wanted to see if matched the one you had back in South Africa. Remember?”

“Of course. You kept it. You said you were going to have it cleaned.”

“Sure, in Mexico City. I stopped there along the way to here, Las Mambritas. This is one of my now-and-then hangouts—beach life for a few weeks. Dad says I’m ‘getting my head together’; far as I’m concerned, I’m just sleepin’ late and not worrying about maps and timetables.” After a pause, and a nodding grin from Bud, he continued: “Maybe I should have been in touch, Nee, but... I guess I wanted to relax for a while. I didn’t feel like getting up a meeting with you so soon.”

Ruykendahl chuckled. “I’ve heard rumbles that dealing with Ruykendahl can be strenuous.”

“I didn’t realize you thought comparing the objects was urgent. Just something we were curious about.”

Chief Jualéngro tapped her hand on an endtable. “Let us be precise, Mr. Longstreet. You say there was no arrangement to meet in town? No recent exchange of messages?”

Ruykendahl pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “Here—I printed these out.”

Ed looked at them. “Not from me. Where did you get this net address for your replies?”

“Ah!—it was merely the return address on the earliest of the messages, after you had come to Mexico. So it said.”

Ed shrugged. “Not mine. I haven’t even unpacked my laptop. I’ve been in one of my contemplative moods, guys. I wasn’t anxious to be in touch with anybody. And sorry to put a damper on the thrills and chills, but I didn’t get kidnapped either.”

Tom rose to his feet angrily. “This is all some sort of hoax—a ruse from the beginning!”

Ruykendahl also stood. “I don’t much care for the way you’re looking at me, my friend. Do you imagine I’d be so foolish as to put together some nonsensical plot, and then sit here in this room with a police official, a woman with a gun, as it falls apart?”

The young inventor shook his head, subtly warning Bud to keep his own temper in check. “No. I’m not making an accusation. The person I most suspect isn’t in this room.

“There are some things I can’t discuss right now. But there was—you might call it an attempt on my life, last week. There’s some reason to think the person behind it is a man, an international criminal, named Comrade-General Li Ching. We’ve been his targets before.”

“The man who calls himself the Black Cobra,” pronounced Jualéngro. “He is well known in law enforcement. There have been rumors he was somehow involved in the world blackouts, the solar phenomena that affected the Nestria satellite for a time.”

“We’ve heard the rumors too,” Bud commented dryly.

“I’m sorry,” Tom said, “but I can’t go into detail. But these artifacts have some scientific value that Li might like to exploit. How a phony ‘kidnapping’ fits in, I don’t know.”

Wordlessly, Ed went to a portable travel-safe and opened it. He held up what was obviously the mate to Artifact A. “I’ve had this in my possession constantly. If this safe were opened or moved an inch without my entering the code, my cell would beep an alarm no matter where I was, up to ten miles. Anyone wanting to steal the object would have a lot of problems.”

“If you were off in town, they could have grabbed and run,” observed the Chief.

“But they didn’t,” stated Ed. “Look, I knew the thing was interesting and possibly some kind of old carving with archaeological value; that’s why I kept it safe with my travel documents and so on. But I sure didn’t have a clue that it might be something somebody would go to any trouble to steal. I mean, you know, it’s obviously not ancient—it’s machined.”

“It’s older than it looks.” Tom took Ed’s Artifact B and examined it, by eye and with a powerful magnifier he carried, folded, in his pocket kit. “I can’t do any real analysis here. But it sure looks like the one Nee brought to us, superficially.”

Jualéngro raised an eyebrow. “Were you thinking it might be a phony? Counterfeit?”

“I’m thinking a lot of things,” responded the Shoptonian wryly. “At the top of the list—what could have been the point of this hoax? What did they hope to accomplish? They went to some effort to induce Mr. Ruykendahl to come to Las Mambritas at a certain time, to a certain spot within a couple miles of where Ed was staying anyway. If you two had kept in touch and Ed hadn’t been in an antisocial ‘mood,’ the meeting might have happened on its own.”

“But there wasn’t a meeting,” Bud pointed out. “They got the two of them close together, but in a way that they wouldn’t actually meet.”

“They risked an accidental meeting,” muttered Nee.

Ed shook his head. “No, not if they knew my habits. I don’t go into town all that often. I didn’t even know there was a library. And they obviously did keep track of me, enough to let Nee know I was here in Mambritas.”

“If indeed they—whoever—knew your habits, they must have been watching for some time, well before the date of the arranged meeting at the library,” Jualéngro commented. “Sí. They must have been spying on you since you first arrived in Mexico, Mr. Longstreet, and they may well be continuing to do it.”

Ed shrugged. “Weeelllp, I never noticed anyone acting like an eye-spy. I suppose the owner here or his son would pick up on my comings and goings.”

“Anyone staying here in these bungalows, or living in the general area, could keep track of you easily, without detection,” Tom said. “And I think we’ve already run into the person the watchers are reporting to.” Tom described the middle-aged man who had seemed to be following them earlier.

Ed could only scratch his balding head. “I think I stopped noticing people like that—tourists in funny clothes—years ago.”

It was agreed that Ed, with his portable safe and the artifact, should spend the night protected by the Sky Queen’s security system and sturdy hull. Chief Jualéngro called for a couple taxis. After a wide-eyed tour of the famous Flying Lab, she left to return to work with a promise to continue the investigation. “Perhaps I can identify this haunting tourist of ours.”

Relaxing in the observation lounge, Ed told the others that he was ready to cut his vacation short. “I guess Mexico’s given me a little too much to ‘contemplate.’ After you’ve fitted the two halves together back at Enterprises and run your tests, Tom, I think I’ll move on. Maybe some boating in the South Atlantic.”

“We won’t need to fly up to the U.S. to fit the artifacts together,” Nee spoke up. “My Artifact A is here with us on the plane. And Tom may wish to amplify a bit on just why these matched objects are so important.”

Ed gave his cousin a look of surprise. “You said they’re quite old and made of unusual materials—sounds familiar, doesn’t it?—but is there something more?”

“A lot more!” declared the young inventor. He now related to Ed the fantastic age indicated by the retroscope, and the involvement of the space friends. As before, he held back, for the moment, the more alarming details—in front of Nee Ruykendahl.

Ed’s response was to grin broadly. “Creepin’ crabbies, everything turns to sci-fi! So these lovely lumps are broadcast beacons, like the service that radios map directions to you as you drive.”

“Nee here calls them treasure maps,” Bud nodded. “But the X-ians haven’t exactly told us what the treasure is—that is, why it’s a treasure. Sounds to me like just an old abandoned filing cabinet.”

“We may know the answer when we link the two pieces together,” Tom noted. “Shall we do it?”

“Without the electric current this time, genius boy,” Bud warned humorously. “Switching on the whole thing could set off beepers from here to Albuquerque.”

Tom led them down one deck to the analysis lab cubicle. Cautiously slipping on thick gauntlets of protective material, he removed Artifact A from its locked, shielded container. Taking Ed’s lump in hand, he slowly brought the two segments together as Bud, Nee, and Ed watched in edgy suspense.

The objects touched.


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

 

                MATA-KI-TE-RANGI

 

 

 

 

THE WATCHERS saw a look of frustration cloud Tom Swift’s eager face. With a piece in each hand, Tom moved them, turned them, pressed on them. He abruptly set them down on the countertop.

“They don’t fit.”

“Jetz!” groaned Bud. “Don’t tell us that!”

Tom gestured for his pal to give it a try. Bud did, and the others took their turns. But it was obvious that the objects, similar as they appeared to be, didn’t fit together.

“Too bad,” pronounced Ed. “Maybe there are a lot of these beacon-transmitters scattered all around on the seafloor, in halves, all a little different.”

“Seeking their soul-mates,” was Nee’s comment.

“It was always a possibility,” Tom admitted. “I was hoping it’d turn out differently. If the X-ians can’t squeeze more data out of the transmission from the first piece, it might be impossible to find the memory crypt without a complete beacon. There must be a complete one out there somewhere!”

“Who knows if the crypt still exists!” said Ed. “A few million years can be a little hard on computers and filing cabinets, even made by aliens.”

Ruykendahl exclaimed impatiently, “Pfah! This piece of Longstreet’s must be encoded with something! Activate it as you did with the other, Tom, and let your cosmic friends make of it what they will.”

Tom looked at the explorer coolly. “I’d rather not put half of Mexico into a state of alarm. Before I do anything further with the objects, I’ll try to get more information from the extraterrestrials.”

Nee seemed to deflate. “I wish I possessed your scientific calm. Alas, the celebrated Ruykendahl is not a reasonable man. But that’s all right. Reasonable men do not have such interesting lives.”

“Scientists do lead pretty humdrum lives,” Bud cracked.

Securing the artifacts, they returned to the lounge. “Mind a suggestion, cuz?” offered Ed. “Make Easter Island your next stop. I know you’ll want to use your submersible equipment to search on the ocean bottom, but you might get some sort of lead as to the location of more of the beacons by speaking with a fellow I met there last summer, when the Wascala anchored there for a couple days.”

“And what might this man know of these ancient objects?” asked Nee with some irritation.

“He’s an expert on native lore and culture,” replied Ed. “If there are many of these objects out there, they may turn up in fishing nets now and then, or wash ashore. If you could map out where they’re found, wouldn’t that be a clue as to the location of the crypt? Even if it hasn’t happened in modern times, local myths and traditions sometimes ‘encode,’ in their own way, information about such strange incidents.”

Tom agreed enthusiastically. “You’re right! All sorts of discoveries—including caches of artifacts and the buried ruins of lost cities—have been located by sifting through stories and legendary accounts. It’s worth a day or two.”

“And if you don’t mind carrying my baggage with you, I might just make Easter Island my next stay,” Ed added. “When you fly back to the States, I’ll be your local ear-to-the-ground guy.”

“Okay with you, Nee?” asked Bud.

The big adventurer shrugged. “Why not? I was to lead you anyway to the area of the seafloor where we anchored the Wascala. Easter Island is not far and along the route. I wish to solve this mystery as much as any of you.”

“For the ‘treasure’?” asked Tom bluntly.

“Oh, my young man, I need an income in these days of my public abandonment, true enough,” answered Ruykendahl mildly. “But this cache is a scientific matter, not something to be auctioned, even if I had the right to do so. What is at stake here is my image, my fame. Eh? A Ruykendahl adventure! I need to reboot my reputation.”

With Bud their pilot, they took off southward. Alone with his chum in the control compartment, Tom contacted the Easter Island authorities to make arrangements and secure the necessary permissions, then spoke to his father in Shopton. He told his son that there had been no further messages from the space beings. “I’ll let Ed’s parents know that their lack of worry paid off,” promised Damon Swift.

Switching off, Tom turned to Bud. “What do you suppose we’re getting into, flyboy?”

Bud grinned. “Oh, the usual. Which means, as usual, I can barely follow what’s going on.”

“Someone, maybe Li, found out about Ed’s having the artifact,” Tom mused. “He’s probably been keeping tabs on Nee as well—if Nee isn’t part of the plot himself, as Miss Matopoeia suspects.”

“The guy has a motive to build everything up to get backing from you and Enterprises, make it sort’ve sensational and a scientific mystery—that’s a better hook for Tom Swift than Li’s skyhook!”

The young inventor chuckled. “It’s working! But it’s obviously not just some kind of stunt, Bud. It’s a fact that the objects contain Lunite, are incredibly old, and generate some sort of unknown energy. And the space message has to be genuine—the symbol language hasn’t been made public or circulated.”

Bud was suddenly serious. “Maybe not to the public. But Tom—you’ve been sharing all this Planet X stuff with the U.S. government. They’ve been known to spring leaks now and then.”

“Yup—true. And we already suspect that the Black Cobra has managed to connect to some sort of extraterrestrial source, Planet X or otherwise. He may have doped out enough of the space symbols to fake a message. Maybe even intercept our own outgoing messages and respond to them.”

“In other words,” stated Bud, “the same thing he’s already done to Nee Ruykendahl!”

“If.”

“Yeah. If. Man, I hate ‘if’!”

The flight of the Queen was hours long, thousands of miles almost due south over the slowly darkening Pacific to a tiny rock of an island almost equally far from the coast of South America—one of the most isolated spots on the face of the sea.

On the way, Tom read about their destination from reference books in the Sky Queen’s library. Called Rapa Nui in the native tongue, the island had been discovered by Dutch Commodore Roggeveen on Easter Sunday, 1722. Like later visitors, he had been astounded and mystified by its hundreds of gigantic stone statues—all with the same weird, sneering face.

Its Polynesian people had had numerous unhappy contacts with outsiders. Many had been carried off by Peruvian slavers in 1862, capturing or killing about half of the island’s population. A handful of escapees returning to the island from Peru had set off an epidemic of smallpox, and tuberculosis spread by missionaries took another quarter of the native population. Violent clan wars further decimated the inhabitants, until only 111 persons remained.

 Finally Chile had taken over the island. Now the native descendants numbered several thousand and the minute island was used mainly for sheep raising.

“Those big stone statues—what do they represent?” asked Bud.

“No one knows for sure,” Tom replied. “It’s amazing that they could even have been quarried and erected on such a tiny, remote land speck.”

Ed remarked quietly, “An unsettling, eerie place. It makes you believe that a pile of rock can feel loneliness. And grief.”

Soon the Flying Lab jet-hovered over Easter Island. Cliff-girded and ringed by jagged black lava reefs, the island was green and hilly, interrupted by the craters of the several extinct volcanoes that had given birth to it when the Pacific was newborn.

“Look! There are some of the statues!” Tom said, pointing. The huge pieces lay face down, along a crumbling stone platform near the shore. “I’ve read that they stood on burial platforms, or mausoleums, all around the island,” Tom added.

Nee commented, “A number have been set back up in place. Ah, tourism.”

Bud landed the Sky Queen in a field of jagged black pebbles between the cramped island airport and Easter’s only village, Hanga Roa. A Chilean Navy officer, Lieutenant Moreno, came to meet them in a jeep. “An honor! I am told you are planning some underwater explorations.”

“Yes sir. The first goal is to narrow the area of our researches. I’m—er—checking a theory connected with something that may have happened on the ocean floor.”

“A volcanic activity perhaps. We are host to many scientists, geologists, archaeologists—some are pleased to live here on Isla de Pascua—that is our official Spanish name—the year round. And of course we are well acquainted with Mr. Ruykendahl and his safari-ship Wascala.” As Nee looked smugly pleased, Moreno continued: “But our governor is most eager to see the famous Tom Swift. You must accept his invitation to dine with him this evening. Allow me the honor of escorting you to his residence after you are dressed.”

“I thought I was dressed!” Bud muttered to Tom in a whisper.

As Tom and Bud rode into town in the lieutenant’s jeep, excited islanders, mounted on wiry horses, came galloping toward them. The people were raggedly dressed, but greeted the visitors with gay, friendly smiles.

Ia-o-rana!” they chorused.

At Lieutenant Moreno’s whispered suggestion, the boys called back, “Ia-o-rana korna!—Good day, everyone!”—the island’s traditional greeting.

The older district of the village of white-painted houses with iron roofs was fenced off from the surrounding grazing land. As they motored through, Ruykendahl pointed out the many hotels, large and small, new and old, and seemed personally acquainted with their owners. “But many visitors prefer what you call ‘bed-and-breakfasts’,” commented Moreno. “We have modernized greatly over the last generation, since a popular book made us well-known. Now we have two supermarkets!”

The residence of the island governor, appointed by the Chilean government in far-distant Santiago, was contemporary and decorous. Gubernadór Contreras, who wore a khaki uniform with gold epaulets, welcomed them in a comfortable living room and peppered his guests with polite but animated questions.

They dined sumptuously at a linen-clothed table the size of a landing strip. Just as they were finishing the meal, an elderly American was escorted in, greeted warmly as an old friend.

“This is the very man you wished to see,” smiled the governor. “Professor Tyburn is a man of many distinctions, always welcome here. He lives near; I had my servant call him after you made mention of his name, Mr. Longstreet.”

“Wonderful to see you again, Ed,” said the white-haired American.

The professor was delighted to meet the other two fellow Americans. But his handshake with Nee Ruykendahl was proper but chilly. Tom knew that showy adventurers like Ruykendahl were sometimes poorly regarded by scientists and students of traditional cultures.

Tyburn offered to show the boys the great statue quarry at Rano Raraku, a crater near the northeast corner of the island. “It’s a sight you’ll never forget,” he said. “Even you two, who have been to the moon—the moons! And I’ll be glad to tell you whatever I know of these subjects you’ve brought up—the myths and folktales, and just plain gossip, of the old-time people of mata-ki-te-rangi.”

“Is that here on the island?” inquired Bud.

“It is the island, Bud,” the man replied. “One of its early names in the indigenous dialect. It means ‘Eyes that talk to the sky’.”

The boys exchanged veiled, startled glances. Talking to the sky! “That’s a pretty poetic name,” Tom ventured. “How did they hit on it?”

Tyburn shrugged. “Beats me. These things go back centuries, and the ancient people wrote no histories—no books at all. No doubt it has to do with the statues, who some say look upwards—and sometimes out to sea.”

“They watch protectively,” pronounced the governor. “Sentinels guarding this island eternally.”

“Guarding against what?” Nee asked. “What do these giant eyes watch for? To whom do they talk, hmm?”

“Oh, no one knows anymore,” Tyburn said. “Some ancient fear lost in the shadows of history.”

An ancient fear. But not so old it can’t come back to life! Tom mused.

What if the memory crypt proved to be Pandora’s Box? Yet Tom Swift was determined to open that box!

 


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 9

 

 

                STRANGE-HEADED WATCHERS

 

 

 

 

THE NEXT morning was Sunday, and Nee Ruykendahl urged the three Americans to join him for a church service to hear the talented choir of native singers, a well-known attraction. He then went his own way, to call on a few friends and local business contacts in the interests of Bluegreen Safari-Adventures.

“I’ve arranged for horses for us, guys, to ride over to Rano Raraku to meet Drake Tyburn,” Ed told his companions. “Best way to get around.”

“Do we tell the cab driver ‘Rent-A-Horse, please’?” Bud joked.

Tom suggested, “Let’s walk to the stables, if it’s not too far.”

Nothing’s far in this town,” Ed laughed.

They strolled down the main boulevard. As they neared the patio of a streetside restaurant, crowded with late-breakfasting tourists, Tom suddenly grasped Bud’s and Ed’s elbows and drew them back, out of sight behind a parked truck. “There he is, at a table eating—Mr. Tourist!” hissed the young inventor.

The others were startled! “You’re sure? Skipper, we just left him in—” began Bud in protest.

“I recognize him,” Tom insisted. “He’s still setting off my ‘familiar face’ detectors!”

Ed suggested calling the town police, or Lieutenant Moreno. Tom seemed to consider this. Then his face hardened. “No. I’m sick of all this. We’re in public surrounded by people. I’m taking the direct approach.”

He immediately stepped back into view and began to stride purposefully toward the patio and Mr. Tourist’s table. Ed remarked nervously, “Tom’s direct approach looks to me like a direct attack!”

The man was reading a newspaper as he ate alone. Sensing an approaching shadow, he glanced up. At first his interest was casual; then it seemed to Tom that his face froze.

“Hello,” said the Shoptonian, thrusting his hand forward. “Nice to see you again.”

Mr. Tourist stared at the hand, then warily offered his own. “Good morning,” he said to Tom. “I—have we met?”

Tom pulled up a chair unbidden and plopped down, grinning. “We sure have. Don’t you recall?”

“I’m afraid I don’t. Might you have mistaken me for someone else, Mr.—?”

“Please, Mr. Halspeth. You know I’m Tom Swift. I imagine you have a few good closeups of me in your wallet. Can’t have you following the wrong guy, right?”

The man glared at Tom coldly. “Yes, of course I recognize you. But that other name—Halspeth? Where did you hear it, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“In Africa, oddly enough.”

“A friend?”

“Not especially; of course it’s early in the day. Don’t be offended, but I didn’t recognize you until just now, when I heard your voice. Breeman Halspeth, data science and counterfeiting.”

“I see.”

Tom nodded. “You can’t place the meeting, Bree, because you never knew it had taken place. I was disguised. We sat next to one another in a movie theater and spoke just a bit. You introduced yourself.”

“It seems I did,” said Halspeth. “A movie theater?”

Underground movies, you might say.”

The man was silent for a moment. Then a smile grew and broadened on his face. “Why yes. The Helmsman’s idiot film—the secret base beneath Goaba. I shook your hand.”

“You must’ve had some luck, not getting caught up when they raided the place.”

“Luck—right. I left on my assigned task some days before it all fell apart,” he calmly replied. “Of course, subsequent events made that assignment unnecessary. But our inspiring friend the Black Cobra values talent. I was recalled to duty, Tom. And here we are.”

“Here we are,” Tom repeated jovially. “In fact, I’m sitting with you at your table. Care to kidnap me?”

“Mmm, I’d rather not.”

“Tired after your flight? The boss must’ve provided top-of-the-line jet transport. Or did you manage to stow away in the Sky Queen? C’mon, Bree, brag a little.”

Halspeth gave a thin laugh. “No, I’m a little too thick in the middle for that sort of thing. We presumed your stop in Las Mambritas would be followed by a trip here. Ruykendahl and your cousin obviously told you where they had found... certain objects of interest. I am to forward to the Comrade-General regular reports on your doings, Tom, just as I did regarding Longstreet. No kidnapping in either case. Oh, and no counterfeiting, by the way. The police are welcome to question me. I’ve committed no crime. Li Ching?—just a pair of words.”

“I think ‘Black Cobra’ works better as a brand name, don’t you?” Tom suddenly leaned across the table, eyes fixed on Halspeth. “Think about this, Halspeth. By being seen here, chatting openly with your designated quarry, you’ve caused the boss a moment of concern—don’t think he isn’t watching you as carefully as you’re watching me. You’d be smart to look seriously at changing sides.”

“Perhaps I would be, Tom. But I don’t choose to do so. We all have our agendas, don’t we?”

“Sure. What was the Helmsman’s agenda, going after me above Lake Carlopa? Just curious.”

The man chuckled. “Yeah, I’m sure you are. The man seems to have some kind of obsession with all things Swift. But you know, they don’t bother telling us peons more than absolutely necessary—to forestall conversations like this one.”

“Haven’t been promoted to Righthand yet?”

“Strange you should mention that. I expect such a promotion rather soon. And now, friend...” He rattled his newspaper. “Dow-Jones awaits. Go. If you don’t value your health, as they say, kindly value my time.”

Tom rose and left, proud of himself and amused. But also with a twinge in his back that spoke of the possibility of a bullet.

“That was crazy!” declared Bud as his pal rejoined them. “Tom Swift, you’re my hero!”

“Let’s head on to the horse place,” Tom said with a gulp. “I’ll tell you about my little drama along the way. If Mr. Tourist wants to skulk along after us on a skulking horse—let him.”

Receiving a map at the rental stables, the three set out on horseback. The trail across the island was strewn with sharp volcanic rocks which would have cut their shoes to ribbons.

“Now you see why everyone rides,” said Ed. “There are actually more horses on Easter Island than there are people.”

Bud noted that he had seen many a car, truck, and scooter, and Ed replied: “It’s a concession to the modern world. Some people don’t like it—environmental problems.”

It was nearing noon when the group reached the quarry. The boys were awestruck at their first sight of the huge stone figures, called moai, littering the grassy slopes of the crater. All the heads, weirdly proportioned, were long and thin, the skull-shape flattened in back and on top—and all with the same jutting chins, long ears, and tight, sneering lips.

As Drake Tyburn called out a greeting and came walking up, Bud gasped, “Good grief! This is as weird as finding a herd of elephants at the North Pole!”

“Many of these statues are thirty feet high and weigh close to a hundred tons,” said Professor Tyburn. “One lying up there on the side of the volcano measures sixty-nine feet. Imagine what the weight is!”

Some figures were buried in earth up to their chests, while others lay flat on their backs. A few were only partly quarried. Stone picks and adzes lay about as if workmen had suddenly dropped their tools and fled—fled some ancient fear, the boys thought. “Easy to see why people think of them as ‘the heads.’ But if you look a bit closer, you can see that they’re complete torsos, with their hands on their stomachs.”

As they ate lunch with a small group of other visitors, Professor Tyburn explained that the figures on platforms around the shore had worn red stone topknots. He told of the legendary chief, Hotu Matu’a, who had first sailed to the island from out of the sunset. “But Easter’s ancient story is still shrouded in mystery,” he ended. “No one really knows when the statues were carved—there’s radiocarbon evidence for the 1500’s, but there are many competing theories.”

Tom said thoughtfully, “They remind me of something I saw in Yucatan and read further about. Didn’t the Maya use boards to deform the skulls of ‘sacred’ babies so that they looked a little like this?”

“Yes, a priestly tradition of some sort, not well understood. And in fact there are theories of some direct influence by the Americas on the original culture of the island.”

“And... you know...” began Bud tentatively, “the extraterrestrial guys that Tom is in contact with landed in Yucatan way back when. Do you think—well, maybe they really looked this way and inspired the priests.”

Tyburn nodded tolerantly. “I’ve certainly heard theories like that.”

Lunch over, the elderly man guided them into the statuary section along descending trails marked by ropes. As the four stood alone in the strange shadows, Tyburn asked what sort of legend and lore Tom was interested in. “We have a lot of it, passed orally along the generations.”

“A couple small carved objects have been discovered on the ocean bottom a few hundred miles northwest,” Tom explained. “Unless my instruments are giving some sort of false result, they’re extremely ancient, and they have... an unusual composition. We’re planning an underwater search operation, but we’d like to narrow the scope as much as possible.”

“I see—old stories and reports from fishermen might help you.” Tom showed Tyburn a photo of one of the artifacts. “Well,” he said, “I’ve certainly never seen or heard of anything like it. Legends of peculiar things being discovered at sea?” He thought deeply for a long moment. “Nothing that specific. Sorry.”

“Well, look,” Ed interjected, “do the native cultures regard any spots in the ocean as important or sacred in some way?”

“Oh, that sort of thing is common in all oceanic societies,” nodded Tyburn. “I suppose the most distinctive such spot in Rapanuian tradition is rather in the area you’re interested in, now that I think of it. Further north and east. More a direction than a location, to tell the truth.

“In old times there was a group that gave special worship to one of the local deities, a sort of ghost-man god called Moai-kava-kava. One variant myth speaks of his sacred bedchamber beneath the waves, where each sunset he tries to lasso the sun and pull it down to tame it. All he ever gets for his trouble is a bit of fire, which can be seen burning beneath the sea, down deep.”

Tom rubbed his chin. “Well—you never know. Maybe it’s a lead. It’s in the general area of the search, at any rate.”

After clambering about the craters to inspect the statues, the three visitors bade the archaeologist goodbye and started back. Their horses jogged southward along a coastal trail. Professor Tyburn had said this would take them past several of the stone burial platforms.

Suddenly a volley of weird yells split the air. Tom and Bud glanced around in surprise. Darting out from behind one of the looming statues, three horsemen were galloping toward them, wearing strange, ferocious-looking masks!

“Jetz!” Bud exclaimed. “Who are they—South Sea highwaymen?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said in a puzzled voice, “Maybe it’s just high spirits.”

Ed was frowning. “Cousin, I sure don’t like their looks. Never heard of anything like those masks.”

“Come on! Let’s not stick around and find out!” Bud said, urging his horse forward.

Tom heeled his own mount into action. Soon they were racing at top speed along the rocky trail. Ed, the best horseman of the three, had unknowingly moved far ahead of the two youths. Suddenly Tom’s heart gave a jolt as he saw his pal’s horse stumble over a stone. Bud went flying out of the saddle!

Not bothering to yell out to Ed, Tom yanked his whinnying mount to a halt. As he leaped to the ground to assist Bud, the young inventor’s pulse quickened fearfully.

The masked riders were bearing down on them fast!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 10

 

 

                REEDS TO HANG ON TO

 

 

 

 

LUCKILY Bud was rock-stunned but unhurt. He struggled to his feet as Tom hurried toward him.

“Are you all right?” Tom asked anxiously.

Bud winced and rubbed the seat of his pants. “No bones broken, but I can see right now that I was never cut out to be a rodeo rider.”

Spooked by the approaching horsemen, Tom’s and Bud’s mounts had trotted a good distance away. It was now hopeless to escape the men who were pursuing them. The boys stood their ground as the three riders halted nearby, impassive and threatening in their eerie masks.

Buenos días,” said the leader in a quiet voice, dismounting. “We do not mean to harm you, señors.”

 Tom stared at the man and said warily, “That’s nice to know, sir. But you’ve driven our horses away and got my friend injured. I’ll count that as harm.”

The leader muttered something to his companions, and Tom thought he heard them chuckle. In spite of the man’s friendly words, the trio wore knives in their belts and seemed ready to point trouble their way. Bud stared at their eerie masks. Made of polished wood, they portrayed hideous, hook-nosed faces with chin-beards and long, dangling ear lobes. They looked like the carved statuettes of evil spirits—called the Long-Ears—which they had seen for sale along the boulevard.

“If you come as friends, why are you afraid to show your faces?” Tom asked.

Instead of answering, the man said, “Señor, are you Tangata Manu—the Birdman? For you come from the sky in your great flying canoe.”

The other laughed, and Tom and Bud knew they were being mocked. “You know our names,” Tom pronounced. “Let’s see now, which one of you is my old friend Halspeth?”

The apparent leader was briefly silent. The three waited unmoving atop their mounts, staring like the great statues.

Plucking the knives from their belts, they nudged their horses and closed in on Tom and Bud.

“Do not fight and we will not hurt you,” said the leader. “Be wise and hold out your arms so that we may tie your hands.”

The boys exchanged hasty glances, debating whether or not to put up a struggle. Against fists alone, neither would have hesitated, but knives made the odds too risky.

“We’d better do as he says,” Tom muttered. Bud snapped off an angry nod.

The leader took chains from his saddle and bound each boy’s wrists as his cronies rounded up the Americans’ horses. Tom and Bud were hoisted aboard their horses again, and the attackers took the bridle reins in hand. Then the group rode along the trail to a point overlooking the ocean, where a steep rocky slope led down the cliff to the water’s edge. Here they dismounted.

“Are we supposed to climb down there with our hands chained?” Bud growled. “You might as well just shoot us now.”

“We will lower you with a rope, little birdman.”

The boys were painfully lowered, bouncing and scraping against the lava-stone, down to the secluded cove. A small motor launch awaited them, two more masked men aboard, silently watching. These men were armed not with knives but revolvers. They used the guns to motion the boys aboard, and gunned the motor.

“Those cliffs make a nice cover for your operation,” Tom said. “But you should realize that we have instruments on our plane that’ll make it easy for our crew to find us.”

Bud realized his friend was trying to draw out the captors. “And it takes a big crew to fly the Sky Queen—big strong men. Enterprises hires ex-commandos for all its missions. Ever been shot with an electric rifle?” he blustered.

The men ignored them, one piloting the boat, one covering the prisoners with his revolver.

They traveled a great span of open sea, until low-lying Easter Island, and finally its volcanic peaks, had vanished behind the horizon. The afternoon sun was lowering in the sky when they bumped up against a tiny islet, a mound of rock and gravel in the middle of a wet nowhere.

The two youths, still chained, were motioned onto the gravel of the beach. “If this is your boss’s secret base, I’ve seen better,” Tom remarked calmly.

The man with the gun at last broke his silence. “Look around you, Tom Swift. You see this little rock with your own eyes, desolate, isolated. Your cousin and the other one, the explorer, will raise an alarm, and the authorities will search for you. First they will search the town, then the rest of the island. It will be days before they begin to search the sea. When they come here at last, exposure, the sun, lack of food and water will have done their work on you. We will not need to touch you.”

“What do you want?” demanded the young inventor.

“You have in your possession certain objects that have come your way. We want them. They are sacred to us.”

Bud snorted. “Don’t tell me the Black Cobra’s got religion!”

“The objects are sacred to us,” the man repeated. “We must have them. We are sure they are in your jet, somewhere protected by locks and security devices. You, Swift—we will take you back with us if you agree to cooperate, leaving your friend here to make you hesitate to betray us. When we have both objects and have gone our way unimpeded, we will release you and you can come pick him up, alive.

“But perhaps you will not pledge your assistance, not yet. What do you think?”

Tom shook his head. “You’ve got it all wrong. We’ll be located within hours. And so will you two—all of you. My cousin knows all about Breeman Halspeth; he’s probably been arrested already. I’d say we’re the ones who have the upper hand.”

The man with the gun was unmoved. “This was expected. We will return tomorrow. Perhaps the night will lead you to reconsider. You will not sleep well.”

As the boat sped away, the youths awkwardly lowered themselves onto the beach. “Let’s get to work on these wrist chains,” Bud urged. “Sharp rocks and shells all over the place.”

Prying open their cuff-bands was more difficult than expected, but finally they were free. “Time for a Tom Swift invention,” gibed the Californian as he rubbed his wrists. “How about a sea shell radio? AM would be good enough.”

Tom sat, gazing out at the waves and the red sun that now rested upon them. “I guess we’re stuck here, flyboy, until someone spots us.” Tom pointed to a fin gliding through the water beyond the low breakers and added, “Unless you want to risk swimming past the sharks.”

Bud shuddered. “No thanks. I’ve met more than enough. Not that sharks bother me. But after all, there’s no place to swim to. Except maybe whatsisname’s bedroom way down deep.”

To pass the time, the boys explored the islet, a matter of a few dozen paces. Among the weirdly upjutting rocks they found deep hollows, overgrown with weedy grass. Nearer the water were loose clumps of reeds. Tom recognized them as totora reeds, which grew in the marshy crater lakes of Easter Island.

“What a place to get stranded!” Bud groaned.

“That’s the idea, pal.”

Night fell with no sign of rescue, only ocean breeze. The boys heaped up the reeds on the beach and used them as mattresses.

They lay sleepless, conversing of various things that would draw their minds away from their insoluble predicament. “So, so,” Bud murmured. “When we’re back and safe and everything’s just sweet, what’s next? An underwater search for that crypt?”

“Has to be,” replied Tom. “We can’t forget what the X-ians told us—the threat of destruction. Since we didn’t get much from Tyburn, we’ll have to fly over the area where Nee and Ed made their discoveries. The gravity-mapper and the other instruments might be able to detect any areas of the floor where the beacon-objects are strewn fairly densely, if there are any.”

“Sure—maybe even the crypt itself.”

“And it’s always possible the X-ians will have squeezed more information out of the signal they intercepted, even without the other half of the artifact. Maybe.”

Bud could hear the discouragement in Tom’s voice, and kept the conversation going. “So—the geotron-ic earthdrone. How’s that one coming? Bet you’re hard at work on it mentally even as we lie here!”

“It’s... okay,” was the listless response. “Mr. Brundage sounded anxious to have it, and the technical basics are pretty well set. Seems kind of unimportant right now, what with everything else.”

“If some of those beacons are buried deep in sea bottom junk, maybe you could use it to help you solve the big problem. You could set it to detect Lunite or somethin’.”

“Sure, Bud,” muttered Tom. “Sure.”

Somehow they fell asleep beside the thundering surf.

Daybreak found them stiff and hungry. The coal-black rocks grew broiling hot in the rising sun,

“Man, I’m about ready to face those sharks,” Bud grumbled. “How about you, genius boy?”

“Same here.” Tom rubbed his jaw thoughtfully, looking at their mounds of reed. “You know, Bud... these totora reeds don’t grow here on this rock, obviously.”

Bud nodded. “Yeah. I suppose they get washed into the surf around Easter Island and drift here. Say—that means we’re not as far from the island as we thought!”

“True. And the bigger point is—they float pretty well. They don’t just get sogged down and sink. You know,” Tom said with sudden energy, “it seems to me we could escape by boat!”

Now a laugh punctuated Bud’s wry nodding. “Listen, genius boy. Building a jet-propelled railroad in the desert by hand, that I’ll believe. Making an igloo fly—even that I’ll believe. But as far as weaving a boat—!”

“Challenging me, Barclay?” Tom grinned. “I’ve seen reed boats in South America. We could make two for ourselves out of these reeds.”

“Two boats? We haven’t enough for one.”

“We have for the kind I’m talking about.” Tom began bundling the long reeds into two separate sheaves, each shaped like a huge, curving tusk. Then he tied each sheaf at several points with knotted wreaths of weed.

Bud watched in puzzlement. “Those are boats? Planning to carve a couple outboard motors out of rock?—not that my inventive chum couldn’t manage it.”

“Well, call them boats,” Tom replied. “We’ll lie on them and paddle with our arms and legs. That way we won’t be quite such shark bait.”

Bud exclaimed, “You are a genius, boy!” He added: “Admittedly, at some point on the trip we may not have any arms and legs to paddle with.”

The boys picked up their reed floats and a few sharp rocks to use as anti-shark weapons, then waded, at a run, out past the breakers and launched themselves into the water. Bud was amazed at how well the frail craft worked. Soon they were gliding swiftly in the direction of the unseen mainland.

To their joy and relief, favorable winds and unexpectedly strong currents sped their journey. Hours and many miles later, the sun hot above them, they could make out the summits of Easter Island’s volcanoes far ahead.

There were many signs of shark, and the constant muscular effort—and the nervous watch for the returning enemies—exhausted them. They felt themselves becoming weary. Then Tom’s sudden yell electrified them. “Watch it! We’ve got company!”

A deadly-looking fin was knifing toward them! Both boys quickly withdrew their arms and legs from the water. The shark nudged Bud’s float slightly, then lost interest and swam off.

“Wh-whew!” Bud flicked perspiration from his brow. “That’s as pally as I like to get with those babies!”

Both were aware of the real danger to them. A crazed shark, scenting a meal and charging, could ram their frail floats and flop Tom and Bud into the sea—and into teeth like daggers.

The boys resumed paddling, strength redoubled by fear. As Easter Island slowly unveiled itself from its cloak of ocean, Bud’s face blanched. In the crystal-clear water, he could see a striped form streaking in his direction. A tiger shark! It zoomed upward.

The muscled athlete knew the uncertain temper of sharks—a blow could frighten it off, or only enrage it. As the snout broke water, he raised his arm and hurled a razor-sharp stone like the ex-footballer he was. The shark darted away! Bud went limp with relief. Then he chuckled weakly. Tom hadn’t even noticed!

Knowing they were too low in the water to be seen from shore—or from the masked gang’s motor launch—they drew near the island at long last, trembling with ache and pain. As the reed canoes landed on the beach in the pounding surf, a flock of mewing seabirds rose up from the crest of a towering pinnacle and winged across the small cove to a neighboring rocky spire.

Tom and Bud scarcely heard the shouts, in Spanish, from the beach, barely felt themselves lifted and dragged ashore by strong arms.

Unconsciousness approached not as darkness but as a blinding glare. As Tom’s senses fell away, he heard a woman’s cry of alarm, in English.

“Oh dear, no! We’re too late!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

 

                THE THREATENED BEQUEST

 

 

 

 

“IT WAS the Englishwoman who brought you both to the hospital, in her lorry,” said Ed Longstreet, seated between two hospital beds filled by a pair of sunburned, bruised, bandaged young men. “Just out on a jaunt taking photos to bring back to her kids. Man alive! I’ll never make fun of tourists again!”

“I’ll have to thank her,” groaned Bud in husky voice, “just as soon as my muscles shut up for a while.”

“What did Lieutenant Moreno say?” Tom asked feebly.

It was Nee Ruykendahl, seated nearby, who answered. “Of course he’s very impressed with your endurance, you two, and your ingenuity. I’m a bit envious.”

“I’m sure you’d have come up with something daring, Nee, if you’d been lucky enough to get captured,” Tom murmured. He then added with a trace of concealed suspicion, “But you were off with your business contacts.”

“Mm-hmm. Fate strikes, and I wasn’t there.”

“They say location is everything,” remarked Bud.

“Moreno and the police say a man they believe was Breeman Halspeth—he went by a phony name, of course—left Easter yesterday afternoon by jet seaplane, the same one he arrived in on his flight from Mexico,” Ed recounted. “The governor’s pressing the search for these masked kidnappers, but― ”

“But the key word is masked,” said Tom with grim humor. “The mention of the old ‘Birdman’ cult—it was a big deal in the 19th century—was just a joke. But there may be some link between Li Ching and native religionists.”

Ruykendahl nodded. “That possibility can’t be sloughed off, friends. There have been revivals of the old customs now and then, an expression of pride and, alas, resentment against the horrors done to the original Rapanuians. Moreno thinks this Cobra of yours might have been manipulating one of these underground groups to get them to do his work.”

“Professor Tyburn said something similar when he phoned this morning,” Tom noted.

Still bandaged, but re-hydrated and smeared with ointments, Tom and Bud were released from the hospital by mid-afternoon. Within the hour they were back in the safety of the Sky Queen and high in the sky.

“I suppose I’ve earned some of my modest pay by guiding you to Las Mambritas,” remarked Nee Ruykendahl. “But not much has been accomplished, hie? Even providing you with the course of the Wascala on our Pacific cruises...”

“You know, Tom, he does have a point,” declared Bud innocently. “Just flying around over a big bunch of water doesn’t seem like anything major. Maybe we should just let Nee off and go on our way.”

As Nee frowned, Ed said hastily, “C’mon, this is just the start, isn’t it Tom?”

“A preliminary survey,” stated Tom. “Unless we have some incredible luck, we’ll be coming back with one of the submersibles.”

“And that is where Ruykendahl proves his worth,” noted said Ruykendahl. “I not only know the precise coordinates of our anchorage, but also certain facts of the underwater terrain that may constitute clues.”

“What facts?” asked Bud.

“Now, now—you must allow me to earn my pay.”

Arriving at Nee’s coordinates—a spot of blank ocean encompassing hundreds of square miles overall—they hovered for a time as Tom actuated and calibrated the Flying Lab’s probe instruments. He then had Bud commence a low-flying search pattern. But by sunset there had been no result.

They flew back to Easter Island, landing on the same barren clearing as before and sleeping the night aboard.

Next morning, they—and the Sky Queen—rose early. “We can spend another day on the search,” Tom decided. “Then we’d better head up to Loonaui for refueling, and to get going on the subocean phase. I just wish we could narrow things down.”

“Maybe your dad has got more info from space,” Bud suggested hopefully.

As the skyship circled broadly, sensor instruments operating automatically, Tom called Shopton on the Private Ear Radio. “Nothing significant from the space beings, son,” reported Mr. Swift. “They seem to think they won’t make any further progress without being able to use data from the other half of Ruykendahl’s object as a ‘key’.”

“What about Ed’s artifact? Do they want us to try to activate it?”

“They ask us to wait until they can study how to release the data signal without causing the other effects.”

Tom responded ruefully. “Probably a good idea, Dad. We don’t know what Ed’s object might do.”

Damon Swift had further news before ending the contact. “Yesterday evening we received a call at Enterprises that was rather unusual. The man said he was calling from a ship in the Pacific near Easter Island!”

Tom’s eyebrows flew up. “That can’t be a coincidence! What did he want?”

“To speak to the famous Tom Swift! He said he’d learned that you were in the area, and wanted to know how to call up to the Sky Queen. His name is Cyrus Springthorpe.”

“Did he say why he needed to contact me?”

“Only that it was most important that he speak to you while you were still close by. I’ll give you the information he left—I have no idea whether it’d be worthwhile to call him.”

“Might as well,” sighed the young inventor. “We’re sure not making any progress on the memory crypt business.”

Before placing the radio call to Springthorpe, Tom extended the search for a few hours more. He applied the advanced craft’s full armamentarium of detection devices: a telespectrometer, the radiation-sensitive Damonscope, his father’s metal detector, the gravity-gradient mapper nicknamed the gravy-scope, and “MAD”—a magnetic anomaly detecting device. None gave any clue to more of the beacon-objects or the space cache itself.

Tired and discouraged from the fruitless search, Tom joined Bud in the command compartment. “Look, Skipper,” Bud said with apologetic reluctance, “how do we know the crypt is still here? If it was planted millions of years ago, the ocean floor might have shifted, or the cache could have been washed away by undersea currents. The recorded info the beacons spew out might be aeons out of date—the crypt might have been destroyed!”

Tom frowned thoughtfully and shook his head. “Destroyed? No, I doubt that, Bud. The beings who left the crypt and the beacons surely knew it might be a great span of time before anyone could activate the data transmissions—the ‘pirate’s treasure map’. I could be wrong but my hunch is that technologically advanced beings would program the beacons to stay continuously linked to the crypt in some way and monitor its status.

“But you’re right—the ocean floor has changed radically since the thing set down. The beacons may only provide an approximate location for the crypt. We have no choice but to take whatever data we get, even if it isn’t very specific, and use it to narrow the search.”

Bud said gloomily, “Maybe the rival space creatures, the X-ians’ mystery competitors, have already beat us to the punch and grabbed the cache. They’re supposed to have picked up that transmission too.” He added as an afterthought, “And if you want even worse, pal—maybe the Cobra’s already snapped it up.”

Tom looked worried. “We can’t rule it out. But it makes a bigger mystery out of why those masked riders kidnapped us. They wanted the objects badly, and that means to me that they hadn’t yet doped out the location data.”

Suddenly Tom grasped his chum’s wide shoulder as a thought struck him. “Bud!—that fellow Springthorpe is here in this area, in a ship! He might be trying to contact me because he saw something unusual going on at sea!”

Jetz!” Bud exclaimed. “Such as—someone trying to raise a space cache from the sea floor! Er—not that I have any idea what that’d look like.”

There was no more hesitation. Tom immediately radioed the man, as instructed.

“I’m so gratified to receive your call, Tom,” said the man who identified himself as Cyrus Springthorpe. “It makes things so much more convenient. My friend on Rapa Nui, Rogerio Moreno, happened to mention your visit and your search plans when he radioed the other day, so I directed the Luciente toward that area.”

Bud saw disappointment flash across Tom’s face. Whatever Springthorpe had in mind, it didn’t seem to be urgent after all. “Well,” Tom replied, “my father said you wanted to speak with me.”

“Yes, Tom, face to face if possible. Would it be possible for your Flying Lab to land you on our ship?”

Tom expressed surprise and said in response, “Unless the Luciente is an aircraft carrier, I doubt you could accommodate a landing by the Sky Queen. But we do have smaller craft aboard.”

After assuring the young inventor that the proposed meeting could be quickly concluded, Springthorpe provided the necessary coordinates. As Bud piloted the skyship further to the northeast, Tom brought up an oceanic map on the monitor.

“Where exactly are we headed, Skipper?” Bud asked.

“Empty ocean. It’s over a seafloor feature called the Yupanqui Basin. And you know,” Tom continued thoughtfully, “this is the region Professor Tyburn mentioned, where Rapanuian lore says that underwater ‘ghost-man’ lives.”

“Right, the guy who wants to rope the sun.”

Presently the majestic Sky Queen was hovering on its jet lifters high above the Luciente. It was the size of a large yacht, but its hull conformation was unusual. Broad, flat, and low to the water, the craft resembled a sort of barge.

After discreetly urging Ed Longstreet to keep a wary eye on Nee Ruykendahl, Tom set the Flying Lab’s autopilot system, called a cybertron, and descended with Bud down to the hangar-hold with its extensible launching deck. Moments later they were dropping toward the Luciente in the skyship’s baby aircraft, Tom’s ultrasonic cycloplane.

They set down on the wide deck and Tom killed the SwiftStorm’s whirling cyclocyls. One figure, a distinguished-looking older man with a trim white mustache, stepped forward out of the knot of watching crewmen. Instead of typical nautical garb, Cyrus Springthorpe wore a crisp business suit and was topped with a Homberg hat. Yet one thing spoiled the dignified image—he was wearing white canvas deck shoes.

They shook hands and exchanged introductions and pleasantries. Then Springthorpe said to Tom, “Now then, let’s get out of this sun and get down to business. I have to show you my precious pet, who I’ve named Bertie. He’s dead—stuffed, in fact—but fascinating nonetheless. You see, he’s a three-legged fish!”

Bud gave a skeptical snort. “Sounds like a real conversation piece!”

Metal stairs led down to a large room, outfitted like a laboratory. Tom and Bud noticed photographic and video equipment, and many large glass-walled tanks—aquariums. Some were occupied. “Very impressive,” Tom remarked.

“Yes, I think so,” said Springthorpe. “That is, we think so—the Animata Institute of Pacific Research, based on Molokai, Hawaii. They own this ship, our mobile aquatic laboratory. As for me, I have a background in marine biology and ichthyology; they hired me to head up the Marmor Marine Laboratory, a division of the Institute with its own dedicated endowment.”

“I’m not familiar with the Luciente, but I’ve read about the Institute and its work,” Tom commented.

The man nodded and took a plastic case from beneath one of the workbenches. “Time to introduce Bertie.” He unsnapped the lid and took out a grotesque stuffed specimen.

Bud’s eyes bulged. “Good grief! It is a three-legged fish!”

“Bertie always causes a sensation,” Springthorpe said with a chuckle.

Benthosaurus, isn’t it? A kind of ray fin,” Tom said, examining the fish with interest. “These aren’t legs, Bud—although this guy does use them to balance on. They’re actually extensions of his pelvic fins and tail.”

“Aha!” Cyrus Springthorpe rubbed his hands together. “I can see that you know your deep-sea fishes, Mr. Swift. I wasn’t sure you had specific ichthyological training in your impressive resume. Have you seen any Benthosauri alive?”

“Yes, I’ve seen them on several dives. But is that what you wanted to discuss, sir?”

Putting Bertie away, the scientist became serious. “Have you ever heard of a man named Niklos Marmor?”

“He was the man who endowed the Marmor Marine Laboratory, wasn’t he?” Tom responded.

“That’s right,” Springthorpe nodded. “Niklos Marmor came to the United States as a poor immigrant boy. He went to work as a seaman on a fishing trawler. In time he built up a fishing fleet of his own and grew wealthy. Over the years he developed a keen interest in marine biology. Before his death some years ago, he arranged the enormous continuing endowment that the laboratory bearing his name depends upon. But there was a certain—detail. Mr. Marmor envisioned a new type of aquarium—one for the study and live display of deep-sea fishes and other creatures which exist at great depths—specifically including a ray fin. Of course, such an aquarium would present great technical problems.”

“It sure would,” said Bud. “The aquarium would have to be strong enough to sustain the same tremendous pressure as a submarine a couple of miles down. Isn’t that so, Tom?”

The young inventor nodded and said, “Or even more. They’ve started discovering living creatures as deep down as seven miles below, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench! Just bringing the specimens up alive to stock the aquarium would be a scientific feat.”

“Exactly,” said Springthorpe. “But Marmor believed it could be done. In his will, he set up a sizable trust fund to establish and maintain such an aquarium.” The attorney named a figure large enough to make both boys gasp.

“The will stated certain conditions,” Springthorpe went on. “And there’s the catch. Mr. Marmor was afraid the scientific establishment would ignore his special dream, and so he made not only the specific bequest, but the entire endowment, conditional upon the Institute’s completion of such an aquarium by a certain date. Otherwise the monies are redirected to other scientific purposes, to be spent in the country of his birth.”

“Is the ‘drop dead’ date near?” inquired Tom.

“The end of this year, I’m afraid.”

The young scientist-inventor whistled. “I hope the Institute has the project close to completion!”

“We shared that hope, Tom, but we may have made some poor choices. Several American firms with an expertise in aquatic engineering made an attempt. All failed and withdrew. At last we turned, reluctantly, to a large engineering team in Indonesia.

“They reported impressive progress, but our trust may have been misplaced. Various sources have told us that the firm has a reputation for fakery and deception.”

“I see,” Tom said.

The scientist motioned the youths over to a large television screen. “The attorneys who represent the Marmor Trust are very scrupulous, and it’s vital that we at the Institute determine the truth as soon as humanly possible.” Springthorpe pressed a button and the screen came to life. “The Indonesians provided us with a video that purports to show deep-sea fish in the prototype high-pressure tank they’ve designed, which by contract they can withhold from external inspection until they’ve completed the entire project. We suspect the possibility of fraud. I’d like to show a copy of the video to you.”

Tom looked puzzled. “But I don’t understand. How do I fit into this matter?”

“Tom, time is very short. We thought that with your unique scientific and technical background, you might be able to determine whether what this video shows is a genuine breakthrough—or a hoax. Will you give it a try?”

Tom agreed, and the video record commenced. The picture thrown on the screen was an underwater shot of a fish with long, needlelike teeth protruding from its jaws. Another weird, dark specimen glided past the camera—its stomach looked like a football. This was followed by a dogfish shark, with huge, milky, sightless eyes resembling headlamps.

“Those are specimens from the ocean floor, all right—we’ve seen ’em all!” Bud exclaimed.

Tom nodded in concurrence and murmured, “Strange creatures of the deep!”

The video showed various forms of marine life. Some of them glowed with a strange, brilliant luminescence. Several times, vertical streaks of light darted through the water. One streak halted abruptly, revealing a itself as a long slender fish resembling a silver spear. It poised before the camera a moment, then turned and darted downward again.

Tom identified it. “Paralepsis.”

Correct,” commented Springthorpe.

As the video ended, the marine scientist looked at his visitor expectantly. “All right now, Tom. How does it strike you? What is your professional opinion regarding those pictures? As a deep-sea expert who has made many dives to the ocean floor, would you say this record shows a genuine accomplishment?”

Tom was thoughtful for several moments. “You’re asking a lot, sir, and some reputations are on the line. It’s a hard question to answer. The specimens shown are certainly deep-sea fish. But I saw nothing to indicate that they were in any sort of enclosure. Offhand, I would doubt it. In my opinion, the video was probably taken from a bathyscaphe, or perhaps by a deep-sea television drone.”

Cyrus Springthorpe leaned forward intently. “Can you back up that opinion in any way? We must have some sort of justification.”

“I’ll try. Let’s run it again,” Tom replied.

As the images passed by again, he pointed to a cloud of tiny crustaceans sweeping rapidly past the camera. “See how that plankton is moving? It’s being carried along by a fast current—which is something that’s often encountered at great depths.”

“We’ve encountered some ourselves,” Bud interjected wryly.

“Thus we’re looking at open waters,” declared Springthorpe. “But how do you know the camera itself wasn’t moving?”

Tom pointed to the silvery Paralepsis which streaked upward and then froze motionless before diving again. “We know the camera was stationary for that shot. There’s no shift in angle; it’s not a tracking shot. The movement we see in this video are real exterior movements.”

Moments later came a sequence showing a slender, eel-like creature, its tail undulating like a whip. “And there’s a Halosaurus,” Tom added. “I’ve often seen them hover motionless just that way in a swiftly moving current.”

“That’s right,” Bud declared. “They aim their noses into the current and wave their tails like that to keep from being swept away.”

“Right indeed,” pronounced Springthorpe. As he switched off the video player, his face bore a pleased smile. “You’ve convinced me, Tom. Wonderful job. Now name your fee.”

Tom gave a slight chuckle. “Forget the fee. I’m not used to being paid to watch a TV show.”

We’ll be sending a check to Swift Enterprises, nevertheless. Call it a slight contribution to world oceanographic research.”

Springthorpe’s face grew grave. “And Tom—I’m authorized to say that the Institute will give you 100 times that amount if you― ”

“I know what you’re about to say, Mr. Springthorpe,” Tom interrupted. “I’ve expected it ever since you began your story. I’m very sorry, but right now Enterprises is engaged in vital scientific work that can’t be postponed. That’s why we’re here in the Pacific. It’s just not possible for me to work on your aquarium problem before the Marmor Trust’s deadline.”

“I sympathize. But surely you realize the consequences—to science—if the Institute lost the ongoing funds from the Trust.”

“I just don’t see any alternative.”

Springthorpe stood silently, then gave a slow nod. “I was afraid our request—our plea for help—might come at an inconvenient time. And yet... as I understand from speaking to Rogerio and to your father, you’ve been engaged in searching for something of scientific interest, something to be found in the depths of the ocean in this part of the Pacific. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Some sort of unusual underwater phenomenon, perhaps?”

“I suppose you could call it that.”

“Then I may be able to assist you. I think I’ve stumbled across something that meets that description,” declared Springthorpe with intensity. “And if this would somehow speed your search—if it helped you locate what you’re looking for—might you be willing to reconsider helping us?”

Tom and Bud exchanged glances. The offer seemed too good to be true. Could it be a trick of some kind? Could Springthorpe himself be working with Li Ching to divert Tom from the search for the space cache?

Tom said carefully, “I can’t promise anything, Mr. Springthorpe. My answer has to depend on what it is you’ve discovered.”

“Yes. Yes, of course.” He briskly replaced the disk in the video player. “What you are about to see was shot from the deck of the Luciente last week. I held the camera myself. Any member of the crew can verify it.”

The video had evidently been taken at late twilight. Stars were brightly visible through the last wan traces of orange. The screen showed a calm, dark ocean, with a bit of the deck railing.

Bud gasped slightly. Tom would have as well—if he hadn’t been stunned and fascinated by the weird sight before his eyes.

The ocean was filled, horizon to horizon, with a glowing wheel of yellowish light—a rotating wheel with spokes twenty miles long!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12

 

 

                UNDERSEA GHOST FIRE

 

 

 

 

“IT CAN’T be what it looks like,” choked Bud in faint voice. “Nothing artificial could be that huge!”

“If that were some sort of physical, mechanical device, the ends of those ‘spokes’ would have to be moving at something like thirty miles per second,” Tom pronounced. “I can’t say that’s impossible. But it would have to stir up the waters like a kitchen blender!”

“And yet the surface is entirely calm and undisturbed,” nodded Mr. Springthorpe. “And there was not the slightest sound. It began suddenly, in an instant. The crew called me up on deck to see it.”

“Those things that look like spokes must be light beams,” Bud declared suddenly. “Sure, that’s it! There must be a bunch of super beamers—like your Swift Searchlight, Tom—attached to something rotating on top of a sub.”

But Tom shook his head in disagreement. “It can’t be that simple. Taking perspective into account, the ‘beams’ don’t widen out as they spread from the hub, and they all terminate abruptly. They look more like giant neon tubes—solid objects.”

“Objects that pass through water like ghosts,” stated Springthorpe. “Keep watching.”

Seconds later the wheel abruptly vanished, leaving only the shadows of the deep. “It has not reappeared since then.”

Tom asked if other seacraft had reported the phenomenon. “I’ve asked, but there are no definite reports,” he replied. “Not entirely surprising, though. At this time of year especially, that little corner of the South Pacific doesn’t see much traffic, commercial or otherwise.

“But there are a couple more points I’ll mention,” Springthorpe went on. “I’ve read of reports, some very old, that seem to describe similar phenomena in various places across the southern Pacific. And Moreno has mentioned a few vague stories floating around Hanga Roa recently.”

“What kind of stories?” asked Bud breathlessly.

“Stories passed around by religious cultists; in this case, followers of an ancient spirit being who is said to live beneath the ocean here in the area of the Yupanqui Basin― ”

Bud gasped. “Good night—that ghost-man who has fire under the sea!”

Professor Tyburn said he was named Moai-kava-kava, I think,” Tom confirmed. “Bud and I might have already had some... contact with a few of his modern-day followers.”

“Then that’s what Rogerio was referring to, hmm? He mentioned the incident that gave you two your bandages. At any rate, that’s my pitch, Tom. Can you give us a nod?”

“I’m grateful for what you’ve shown me,” was Tom’s careful answer. “All I can say is—it depends. Tell the Institute that I said it looks, given this, like a possibility—if this ‘light wheel’ turns out to have something to do with our search.” Springthorpe expressed beaming gratitude and provided Tom with the exact position from which the Luciente had observed the phenomenon, as well as a copy of the digital video. Tom expressed thanks to Springthorpe.

Tom and Bud returned to the Sky Queen in a pensive mood. “It can’t be mere coincidence,” Tom insisted as he told Ed and Nee the story.

Hardly coincidence. The Pacific’s pretty large, and for the artifacts to be found just a few hundred miles from this sea of ghosts—well!” declared Nee emphatically.

“I’m afraid I don’t believe in ancient ghost-demons,” Tom retorted. “My theory is that those sweeping bands of light were triggered by an underwater scanning mechanism—a search beam, like sonar, that has some sort of excitation effect on tiny shreds of sea life floating in the water, causing them to visibly fluoresce as the scanning beam passes across them. In other words, it switches them on and off sequentially in a way that gives the illusion of motion, as on an electric sign.”

“Do you mean—this is something being done by the Black Cobra in his search?” Ed asked.

“Could be,” Tom replied.

But Bud was able to top it. “Or it could be the extraterrestrial bunch we’ve been calling the Others!”

After circling the Yupanqui Basin region and finding nothing interesting by instrument scan, Tom had Bud set course slightly west of north, toward the Swift Enterprises rocket launch facility on the equatorial island of Loonaui. “We’ll refuel the Sky Queen there,” explained the young inventor; “and then we’ll park it and shift over to the seacopter we have berthed at Space Central.” As a thought struck him, Tom turned to his cousin. “But you wanted to stay on Easter Island, Ed.”

Ed Longstreet held up a hand and grinned. “Forget that! I’m not about to let you sideline me from your deep-sea rummaging—in a Swift super-sub, no less.”

Nee Ruykendahl cleared his throat. “Um, and, naturally, even if you now have another part of the sea in which to look― ”

“Don’t worry,” Tom smiled. “You’ll earn your fee. We’ll still take a look at the spot where the Wascala was anchored. And I don’t plan to have you walk the plank afterwards.”

“Not right away,” Bud joked.

The Flying Lab’s jet lifters were by now almost entirely depleted of their special fuel, but the main forward jets weren’t hungry at all. The Sky Queen skimmed along somewhere above the sound barrier, and a few hours later used the last of the lifter reserve to set down neatly near Space Central, an old hotel that Enterprises had refurbished and rebuilt. “So—Loonaui!” boomed Ruykendahl. “From this island, rockets into space! I’ve wanted to visit, but never quite found the occasion.”

“Here’s where Enterprises launches regular supply rockets and personnel shuttles for the outpost in space,” Bud explained proudly. “Tom says there are advantages doin’ it from here rather than the rocket base on Fearing Island—that’s our little facility off the Atlantic coast.”

As Nee, Bud, and Ed sat together in the viewlounge, Tom, having left the ship, was making arrangements for use of the seacopter stationed on Loonaui. “What I don’t quite follow is why you have submersibles attached to this operation,” remarked Ed. “Afraid one of the rockets might fall into the ocean?”

“It’s because the rockets are launched from under water, sort’ve like Polaris missiles are launched from subs. They needed a way to inspect and service the aqualaunch mechanisms down on the floor. But, of course,” the black-haired San Franciscan went on, “now they’ve set up a hydrodome down there. They keep a couple jetmarines and a seacopter here mainly because good old TSE needs a marine base on this side of the world as well as in the Atlantic.”

Ed nodded. “Got it, Bud. One of these days I’m gonna muscle my cuz into letting me take a trip up into space. That’s one place I haven’t vacationed in yet.”

“As for me, I have the same hope,” muttered Nee. “But the years go on; I fear they are leaving Ruykendahl behind.”

In an hour the four were arrowing back toward the Ghost Sea region aboard an Enterprises diving—and flying—seacopter, the Angler. Resting on a cushion of air driven downward by its reversible central rotor, thrust forward by jets of superheated steam, the saucer-shaped craft was far slower than the supersonic Flying Lab. It was dawn when the craft finally reached its destination after a night of sleep bobbing gently on the waves.

Tom reversed the blade pitch and the seacopter plunged downward into the deep watery darkness, which was broken by the beam of the Angler’s aqualamp. “I’m laying in a spiral search pattern,” Tom told Bud, who was to act as pilot while the young inventor monitored the subocean detector instruments.

The next few hours held nothing interesting. “No ghost fires, no light wheels,” Ed remarked to Bud, stifling a paradoxical yawn. “But these underwater sights are always fantastic, scuba, skin, or seacopter. Know who I miss, though? Chow Winkler. Not so much for his cooking, but― ”

“I know,” Bud said. “He’s a pretty lively character. I feel like coming out with a few of his ‘brand my’s myself.”

“I enjoy the company of kindred spirits as colorful as I am,” smiled Nee in his suave manner. “What I am missing right now—as it makes no sense—is the purpose of the hoax perpetrated by this Halspeth man and his employer. He falsely induces me, Ruykendahl!, to bring my object for comparison to yours, Longstreet, yet studiously prevents our meeting one another to join them together.”

Ed noted, “The pieces don’t fit anyway.”

Tom, listening, turned from the sono-resonance monitor. “But he didn’t know that, Ed. I’ve been mulling it over—maybe it helps me go to sleep!—and I have something of a theory.”

Ruykendahl raised his eyebrows. “Ah! Then let’s hear it.”

“Tom doesn’t exactly need to be asked, Nee,” laughed Bud.

“Here it is,” said Tom. “First of all—Bud, I think we need to work on finding a better way for you to order things over the Net.”

“Hunh?”

“I’ll bet the Comrade-General picked up on your ordering the water kite, flyboy. The Enterprises picnic at the lake wasn’t a secret; he’d calculate that we’d be trying the kite out. So when I took to the air, he sent out his blurry plane to snag me. Not exactly a straightforward way to kidnap somebody, but― ”

“But admirably colorful,” Nee commented. “For it seems he also has a reputation to consider.”

“Yet for all that, the Cobra is cautious. The truth is, he could pretty much snatch any of us any time he wanted to, if he thought it advantageous. The question is, why did he particularly want to risk the attempt at that time?” After a round of shrugs, Tom continued: “And we have the answer; we just didn’t put it together because when the incident happened we didn’t yet know about the artifacts. Evidently the Cobra somehow knew Nee was on his way to the U.S. and carrying his object with him.”

“Somehow...” repeated the explorer. “After the failed meeting I was no longer emailing my plans, of course. The man’s spies must have kept on my trail from Mambritas onward.”

“Sure, but it’s more than that,” retorted the young inventor. “The Cobra must have known about your find while you were still in South Africa. It’s because he knew of your artifact that he started in with the bogus messages.”

“Yet I made no public announcement. For once Ruykendahl was silent!”

“Something to chew on. But anyway, Nee, once he knew you were flying from Mexico to the U.S. it’s no great leap to guess you would end up coming to Enterprises—to me—for an analysis.”

“These things always end up in your lap, genius boy,” agreed Bud. “So that must be why the BC wanted to get you out of the picture.”

Glancing back at the readout screen, Tom nodded. “To forestall what ended up happening—my activating Artifact A at Enterprises, which caused the X-ians to contact me.”

“Guess the Cobra knows by now that Tom Swift means trouble!” chuckled Ed.

“After what happened on Easter I feel pretty certain his top priority is to get his hands on the objects, probably because his space contacts have doped out how to energize them to unlock the coordinates of the memory crypt.”

“But this all started months ago,” Bud objected. “How not in the world would the Others, the rival space gang, find out about the recovery of the beacons? Like you said, the X-ians only knew about them because of the accidental signal you sent just the other day.”

Tom conceded that his chum’s insight was a good one. “But it wouldn’t be too surprising if just moving the objects, as Nee and Ed did when they discovered them, caused them to transmit some sort of alert-‘beep’ picked up by the Others― ”

 “A cosmic version of Longstreet’s security alarm!” interjected Nee.

“Maybe the X-ians received it as well, but they didn’t make a connection to us until they received the big transmission originating at Swift Enterprises.”

“Wait, wait a sec!” interrupted Ed. “Slow down for me. I haven’t lived all these complicated, super-duper-scientific Tom Swift plots—just read about ’em in the books. Go back a little.”

Tom grinned. “Sorry, cousin. I guess Bud and I have gotten used to this stuff.”

“That and getting knocked out,” Bud wisecracked.

“Okay. Nee aside, just how did this snake guy find out about my artifact in the first place? You can’t tell me that little lump of corrugated seashell knew who’d picked it off the ocean floor and was toting it around. So who tipped him off?”

“I think I know.”

“Someone from the Wascala trip?”

“Yep. One of the divers.”

“Who?”

“You!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

 

                THE CLUTCHES OF THE DEEP

 

 

 

 

ED LONGSTREET stared at his cousin. “Me, huh. I don’t get it. Are the bad guys now monitoring me as standard procedure—because I’m your cousin?”

“I don’t know about that,” grinned Tom. “But it suddenly struck me—you had your object professionally disencrusted and cleaned by a lab in Mexico City on your way to Las Mambritas.”

Ed squeezed shut his eyes and groaned. “Oh, good lord. I casually gabbed the whole story to the staff there!”

“The Cobra has his feelers out to science-related and techno-support establishments around the world,” Tom explained. “He’s an expert at bribing and corrupting employees, usually by means of third parties so the connection can’t be traced. Let’s say the Others told the Comrade-General that they’d found out that some of the beacon objects had been discovered on Earth—the keys to finding something they’d been after for aeons. Once the Cobra knew Nee was one of the possessors of an artifact—I don’t have a theory about how he managed it—and the need for its corresponding half, he’d be ‘advertising’ in likely places to find out if any similar finds had been reported. I’ll bet Li had the whole story in hand within hours!”

“I see no strategy in this deception,” objected Ruykendahl. “Those bribed informants would pass along Ed’s plan to meet me for the comparison. If making the match was the goal, why not simply allow it to happen in its own time?”

“Because that was exactly the problem. The key factor was time! If Li was working with the rival extraterrestrials we’ve called the Others, he’d have known that they wanted the memory crypt location data absolutely as soon as possible—to beat out the space group Enterprises is in contact with. They couldn’t just wait for Ed to get to it in his own sweet time.”

“Aw, good gravy. I’ve got an interplanetary rep for being lackadaisical!” groaned Ed.

“All right now, let’s look at the big picture,” urged Nee excitedly. “These villains came to know of the two objects, one with Ed and—yes, I see it!—the other still in South Africa, in my home. And so a meeting, a false meeting, was engineered. And why? Yes! Why!—And like you, I too have an answer. My answer is: I have no idea.”

Bud looked at Tom. “You’re on, pal.”

“There’s only one explanation I can think of,” replied the youth. “The point was to get the two artifacts in the same vicinity—and not to risk tipping their hand by an actual theft unless they turned out to be corresponding halves.”

“Of course!” exclaimed Ruykendahl. “A robbery always entails a degree of risk, and in this case, it would be especially difficult. Not a mere burglary, for I had the object in my possession, in my metal carrying case, at all times. I even piloted the rented airplane myself, so as to travel to Mexico without the necessity of others handling the case. The Cobra’s agents would have known a theft would be impossible if, as it seems, they wished to avoid taking the little object outright, at gunpoint. Hah! With me, the once-famed Ruykendahl, lying dead in the street! I would be a celebrity again, but at some risk of exposure for the Cobra.”

Ed nodded vigorously. “And you know how I protected mine. That magtritanium travel-safe has one of the finest locks in the world, and anyone opening the safe or moving it would have set off the alarm in my cellphone. Even if I couldn’t get back to the bungalow fast enough, I’d have known what had happened and got the authorities involved.”

“Not to mention Tom Swift,” Bud noted.

Tom held up a hand. “You both had your artifacts well secured. Li would only undertake a double theft—probably with murder—if he were certain that possessing the artifacts was necessary. If they didn’t match, there was no point.”

Bah!” erupted the adventurer, as if the triumph were his own. “Obvious!—now that you have worked it out, eh? But now, my friend, do tell me this. How could he determine that the halves fit together? What could he do, short of seizing them outright? To attempt fitting them together, he would have to have both in hand, would he not?”

“Which is just what you two would have done yourselves, when you got together,” observed Bud, “Maybe the space guys told Li that just fitting the pieces together, without electricity, would broadcast a signal of confirmation, like a fax ‘handshake.’ His cronies would pick up the signal and then jump you both!”

Ed was already shaking his head. “Great theory so far. Except—I never was told to go anywhere. The meeting didn’t happen. In Mambritas, close but no cigar.”

Tom turned again to the instruments. His chum saw something in the frown on Tom’s face. “Skipper, is there more to it?” Bud asked.

The young inventor glanced up. “There has to be more. Let’s say they knew Ed wasn’t set up to receive email, so they couldn’t work the same trick on him that they did on Nee. Still, they might’ve just sent him a message—maybe a cell text message or a disguised phone call—on the day Nee was waiting, telling him to come join Nee at the library. Why didn’t they? It’s as if something unexpected happened, to change the plan right then, that very morning.”

“Well,” said Bud, “maybe the Cobra found out in some other way, at the last minute, that the pieces didn’t match, that they wouldn’t fit together after all. So he called it off before the final move.”

“And yet... he did try to kidnap me, Bud. If he or his contacts still thought Nee’s piece, Artifact A, was valuable enough to go to some real trouble to prevent my activating it...” Tom suddenly turned pensive, struck by an uninvited thought. “How do we know the two artifacts don’t fit?”

“Hmph! I surely put all my muscular force into the effort,” declared Ruykendahl.

Ed seemed to understand. “No, look—Tom’s saying something else, aren’t you, cuz?”

“I’m afraid so,” sighed the youth, “and it should have occurred to me earlier. These two objects don’t click together like puzzle pieces. So we say they ‘don’t fit.’ But maybe that’s just Earth-thinking—wanting to physically join together two similar objects that look incomplete to human eyes.”

Good night!” Bud exploded. “The pieces don’t have to be joined together! They just have to be brought to within a few miles of one another!”

Tom’s confirmation was grim. “The data may have been transmitted then and there, but only the Others, not the X-ians, were primed to receive it because they knew when the transmission would take place!”

Nee Ruykendahl frowned. “The objects lay close to one another under the sea for millions of years.”

“They might not have been primed to transmit until they’d first been activated, by being moved from their long-term resting places. By the time Artifact B was moved by Ed, Artifact A was out of range in South Africa. And now, since it seems there was no reaction at all when we brought the objects close together a second time in Las Mambritas, it may be that their internal ‘batteries’ have been drained and will require an external current. We’ll get the specs on that from the X-ians—I hope.”

“Okay,” said Ed doubtfully. “Except—you said that the BC is still trying to get his hands on the two artifacts. If the transmission has already taken place and his space clients have what they wanted—why?”

Bud added: “Not only that, Tom. What about that wheel of light? If it’s some kind of search beam, why are they still searching for the memory crypt? Wouldn’t they have the coordinates?”

“It may be that they—or the Others—turned out to be wrong in thinking that bringing two halves close to one another would cause a complete ‘download’ to be transmitted. It would show that the halves correspond, but might be ‘thin’ on data. They’d only know the general area in which the beacons were found.”

Ed mused, “It might be that you’d have to have a complete object, already joined together in one piece, to force out the entire data download. A ‘loose fit,’ from a distance, wouldn’t be good enough.”

“The separated parts may deform in shape over time—that’s why we couldn’t click them together into one unit.” The young inventor paused, rubbing his eyes. “But here’s another possibility.”

“What?” demanded Ruykendahl.

“My theories,” said Tom, “may be all wet!”

Disgruntled, lost in thought, they continued the search. It still was important to try to find further clues as to the location of the crypt—or even to uncover the treasure itself by happenstance.

At the end of two days, there was nothing to show for their effort—no sea-ghosts, no beacons, no space cache. Not one of Tom’s advanced instruments disturbed itself with so much as a yawn, much less a buzz of discovery. “There can’t be much of the bottom in this area that we haven’t eyeballed. So much for Springthorpe’s big lead,” muttered Tom, discouraged. “Let’s head south to your location, Nee.”

Arriving at the place where the Wascala customarily dropped anchor for its guests to scuba dive and explore the shallow bottom, Tom made an instrumental survey over a wide area, again to no result.

“But this is the place,” Nee pronounced without hesitation.

Ed agreed readily. “I recognize that submerged reef over to portside.” He pointed to a distinctive outcropping. “It was right next to the base that I found my artifact.”

“The sensors don’t show anything interesting,” said Tom. “The two pieces you found may be all there is.”

But Bud pointed out, “They may have been carried a ways and dumped here by a freak current, Skipper. There still could be a whole slew of the things out there somewhere.”

“I hope so, pal. The two objects we have may turn out to be defective or incomplete. I’d sure like to have some more as backups.”

After a few more loops, Tom had Bud pilot the Angler in a northerly direction, taking them to a region somewhat west of the Ghost Sea. Hydrographic charts suggested that deep currents might regularly sweep down southward from this area.

The ocean floor began to dip downward, gently at first, then in a sharp slope. Tom sped the rotors for diving and moved the control wheel forward. “Down we go! I’d like to hug the seafloor as much as possible.” The seacopter plunged like a porpoise into the blue-green depths.

Soon gaudy-colored fish darted past their cabin window. The water darkened to violet, then gray, until at fifteen hundred feet or more they entered the realm of perpetual night.

Suddenly Bud noted a burst of wavery patterns on the audio-analyzer oscilloscope. Flipping a switch, loud noises erupted from the hydrophone speaker. In the yellow glare of their aqualamp search beam, the boys glimpsed the cause—a black cachalot whale fighting off the waving, reddish-purple tentacles of a giant squid.

“A duel to the death!” Bud gasped.

“Giant squid. Monsters! Once thought to be a myth; as indeed am I in reality,” remarked Ruykendahl with irony. “The oceans hide some grim secrets. And who'd ever guess it topside?”

Tom remarked, “Bud and I went up against some of that guy’s cousins in the Caribbean a while back.”

“One of ’em really liked me, though,” joked Bud. “Speaking of secrets, Tom, anything on the readouts?”

Tom glanced at the dials of the automatic instruments. “Not so far.”

Deeper and deeper the Angler sank. They were three miles below the surface when the seacopter finally settled to a hovering halt mere yards from the bottom.

“Boy oh boy, what a landscape,” murmured Ed Longstreet, who had come forward from the rear compartment to peer out at the barren scene with the others. Here and there could be seen an up-thrusting fold of rock or a scattering of mineral nodules. Nothing else broke the gray-brown monotony of the ocean floor. “Looks like we’re even too deep for plants—too far from sunlight.”

“That’s another case where science has changed its mind,” Tom said. “It may look like a big wet desert out there, but it’s chock full of all manner of tiny organisms that don’t mind depth and darkness, aquatic animals as well as plants. Some of them dive down temporarily from above to do a little deeper-sea fishing. Some of the plants even use slight thermal gradients to give them energy here in the dark!”

To keep the sensors close to the rugged bottom, he had Bud descend the final few yards, bumping to a stop. Tom moved a lever to extend the crawl treads, and the Angler began to rumble slowly along the bottom. Minutes later, Tom stopped the craft.

“Picking up something now,” he said in hushed excitement. “The telespectrometer’s showing a weak indication of Lunite just above the detectability threshold—high concentrations of calcium carbonate too!”

Bud squinted out the cabin window and shook his head. “As a certain big-hat-wearer would say: Brand my shellfish, I don't see nothin’ nowhere out there but sea muck!"

“Neither do I,” Tom admitted, playing the search beam over the ocean floor. “The readings are just too faint for any useful triangulation. This could be like hunting for a needle in a haystack.”

“A Lunite needle in a mighty soggy haystack,” Bud retorted.

“Ah now, young fellas, you must use your eyes as well as your electronics,” chuckled Ruykendahl. “The shapes of these small objects are odd enough to make them stand out against the sand and rock, even if half-buried. Longstreet and I both found one easily enough.”

Tom nodded. “Good point. C’mon, flyboy, let’s suit up.”

“You have diving suits for this kind of pressure, Tom?” asked Ed in surprise.

“Special ones, custom tailored and made to order!”

The two boys squirmed into Fat Man deep-sea suits. These were shaped like thick chrome-silver eggs topped with viewdomes of ultrastrong Tomaquartz and equipped with remote-controlled mechanical arms and legs.

As Tom and Bud emerged from the Angler’s airlock, Bud sonophoned: “Tom—about that pressure business― ”

“Did Ed’s question make you jumpy, pal?”

“Me? Naw! But... we’re three miles down, and you did some redesign work on the Fatsos just a while ago...”

Tom reassured his friend quickly. “After we added the diversuit elements, we tested each suit thoroughly. We always do—the works! This depth is pretty much their limit; but we won’t be going any deeper. Look around, Bud. This western part of the Yupanqui Basin is pretty flat.”

They set off and began to search the area. Aqua-flying with their ion diverjets, they circled outward from the seacopter until they had combed more than a square mile of the sea floor, keeping keen eyes on the midget instruments built into their suits.

“Any luck?” Bud called over his sonophone. “I sure haven’t had any.”

“Not a trace,” Tom replied. “The Fat Man tele-spectrometers aren’t giving us any more than the one on the seacop, even at closer range.”

“Same with eyeballing. We may as well go back to the ship.”

“Ten minutes more. See that long rise over there? Let’s skim along the edge in two directions. It looks like it’s a major current-deflector, and floating stuff may have ended up stuck or dumped there.”

Tom jetted left, Bud right, playing their powerful suit lamps over the low ridge, which resembled an undersea dune.

“Flyboy!” Tom signaled. “The Lunite readings are getting stronger all of a sudden!”

“Be there in a sec!”

A lengthy opening in the bottom, a long black fissure, suddenly edged into the lamp beams. Wow! thought the young inventor. Readings jumping all over the scope! Whatever was setting off the sensors was somewhere down in the crevice!

Tom hovered above the opening for a moment, gazing down into its well-like interior. He swiveled the lamps, and saw that the sloping sides of the fissure suddenly fell away into black depths that extended beyond the range of the beams. “Bud, there’s a deep hole in the seafloor over here—it may be artificial!”

Jetz!” cried Tom’s fellow explorer. “Maybe it leads right to the crypt!”

I’m going in a little ways.”

The youth diminished the thrust of his jets and adjusted the Fat Man’s electronic buoyancy-control device. He began to sink into the fissure.

Seconds later he noted with surprise that the sides of the hole seemed to be withdrawing instead of narrowing. The polyfrequency sonarscope told him that the bottom of the crack was much further down than he had supposed. Too much pressure for safety, Tom told himself. Better head back up.

But he had no sooner given mental voice to the thought than he exclaimed aloud as the Fat Man’s monitoring light board suddenly flashed red all across, and the one-man cabin rang with sound!

“Good gosh, it’s happening again!—all the emergency circuits are being energized!” he gasped.

The suit controls had seized-up under the electronic onslaught—a high-tech charley horse! Tom desperately fought to regain control, but every effort led to a new buzz of warning.

Not every alarm was a mere malfunction. “Too deep!” choked the youth. If he didn’t reverse his slow, nightmarish fall immediately, the mounting pressure would exceed the suit’s limit. He would be crushed!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 14

 

 

                ANSWERS IN HAND

 

 

 

 

“ARE YOU down there, Tom?” called Bud from the edge of the fissure. “I don’t see your suit lights.”

A distorted, droning sound shuddered through his suit speakers. “Say again, Tom. Tom?”

The Californian jetted upward to get a better vantage point. He swept the area on all sides with his lamp beams and sonarscope. “Hey Skipper, I’m gettin’ a little nervous up here! Do you read me? Where’d you get to?”

He again dropped low over the yawning crack. “Okay, pal, guess I’ve been nominated to play fetch again. I’m comin’ down.” Jetz, I hope you’re down there! he thought fearfully—for he remembered what Tom had said about the depth-limits of the Fat Men!

Tilting his suit slightly so he could see downward through the dome, Bud began to descend. Again he heard the harsh droning sound. But this time he thought he could make out a voice!

Now a cone of greenish light appeared far below. Bud gave a start—it was turning like the Wheel of Light! But it was also brightening as it rose up beneath him.

Tom’s Fat Man! “Skipper! Do you read me?”

Now the voice was strong and clear. “Now I do! Whew!—the whole suit went out on me. Major malfunction down here.”

Bud laughed in surging relief. “Right, call it a real wardrobe malfunction!”

Tom had reversed the emergency interrupts and regained his control of the Fat Man. “I was way too near to getting a little wet!” he told his pal as they soared up out of the opening. “Tell you the details later. Let’s get the Angler over here and take some onboard readings with full instrumentation. I’d like to know how deep the crevice goes—and whether there’s any sign that it leads to something big!”

Returning to the waiting seacopter, Tom guided them to the fissure, directing the full panoply of detector devices downwards. “Mighty deep,” commented Ed.

“I’ll say,” Tom muttered. “More than 130 fathoms further down from the seafloor. And I think that’s not the end—it just jogs sideways out of view.”

“Did someone dig this tunnel?” asked Nee. “A royal road to the treasure cache left by the space beings?”

Tom shrugged, uncertain. “If it is artificial, erosion and earth movements over millions of years have made it as good as ‘natural’.”

“Your machinery said something is down there,” declared Ruykendahl. “You said you detected that space substance, Lunite. Evidently the presence of your diving suit set off the same sort of wave of force that you told me about. No doubt that means one of the treasure-beacon objects is deep within that crevice, hie?”

“No doubt,” nodded Tom coolly. “Come here for a second, Nee.”

Tom led the adventurer to the airlock, as the others followed behind. “Am I now to walk the plank after all?” harrumphed Ruykendahl. “Too harsh a penalty for a bit of natural impatience!”

Tom stood next to his Fat Man suit and pointed.

Locked in its jointed metal hand was a complete beacon-object!

Tom grinned at the three gaping expressions. “I think I jostled it without realizing on the way down, and saw it on the way back up, sticking out from the wall like a sore thumb from outer space!”

“You might have mentioned it, Skipper,” stated Bud with mock annoyance.

“I did say ‘details later,’ didn’t I?”

After some comradely cheering, Nee observed, “Well now, I’m most gratified to have earned my modest fee.”

“We didn’t find a thing where the Wascala dropped anchor, Ruykendahl,” snorted Ed Long-street.

“Let us not be small-minded. It was from that location that our captain tracked the ocean currents.”

“We’re grateful, Nee,” said Tom, adding: “In fact, we may even give you a bonus.”

“Which I surely can use.”

Further instrumental surveys indicated that the Lunite readings had come from the recovered artifact only. There was no sign of any further anomaly that might signify the presence of the memory crypt. Ending the search, the Angler returned from the sea with its tiny treasure. Tom decided to make port at nearby Easter Island, and arranged for the Sky Queen to rendezvous with them there, piloted by a small crew from the Loonaui base who would then man the seacopter for its journey back.

Before departing the island, Tom spoke to Lieutenant Moreno. “Unfortunately, I can provide no news as to the masked horsemen,” he told the American. “There is no sign of them in town, nor of any organized group of cultists—if that wasn’t a mere cover story. Of course we located and searched that little sea rock of your captivity, but there was nothing to be found. We have been most methodical and thorough; the Governor is greatly concerned.”

“I see,” Tom responded quietly. “What about rumors, Lieutenant? I know your friend Mr. Springthorpe has told you of his sighting up north.”

“My friend Cyrus—with his little stuffed pet, Bertie! Yes, he described this ‘wheel of light’. But I’ve heard no other such reports—surely they would be repeated in the newspapers under big headlines. Perhaps the location is too far away.”

“I don’t suppose Breeman Halspeth said anything useful?”

Moreno shook his head. “We called Halspeth in and verified his identity, checked over his passport. He responded frankly to our questions, and produced the necessary papers and alibis. There was no reason to detain him. He left us by air, yesterday morning.”

“Oh?” The young inventor paused thoughtfully. “There’s no doubt he’s involved in all of this in some way,” noted Tom in a grim voice. “But at any rate, sir, Mr. Longstreet plans to remain on Easter Island for a time while he decides where to go next on his travels. I’ll be in touch with him. He can tell me what’s in the local headlines!”

“We’ll keep him well informed,” Moreno promised. “And also—keep him well protected. If there are enemies here, he would make a nice target for their plotting, I would say.”

When Tom returned to the Flying Lab, he found Nee Ruykendahl awaiting him with folded arms. “Now then, Tom, I wish to discuss with you—certain matters.”

“Mm-hmm. Like what?”

“Bud Barclay appears to have gained the impression that I will be staying here on Rapa Nui, like Longstreet.”

“Well, Nee, as you say, you’ve provided the services we hired you for. You’ll be paid by electronic funds transfer. I assume you’ll be anxious to get on with your life.”

“Oh, I intend to get on with my life, my friend,” he replied sarcastically. “Must I point out that the artifact now stored in your jet is my personal property? Did you plan to fly off with it?”

Tom stared at the man indignantly. “I assumed you were still willing to let us conduct our studies of it. We don’t yet know if the complete object I found is of any value to the extraterrestrials as to their—purpose. There may be more data to be extracted from your object and Ed’s.”

“In other words, it is valuable, eh?—and Ruykendahl is the owner!”

The young inventor felt himself flushing with anger. “The space people tell us that they’re dealing with a serious problem. Time is critical! I don’t think it would do much to enhance your public reputation if things fell apart because—because you wanted to hold the artifact for ransom!”

The explorer held up a beefy hand. “Now, now, let’s be pleasant. I’ve not spoken of any such thing. And incidentally—do remember that in such a pathetic case as my own, any publicity is good publicity. Look at any newsstand, Tom.”

“What exactly do you want?”

“To continue to accompany you, to play a role in this project to its end. Allow me to be present during the recovery of the memory crypt—won’t you? For otherwise, when I say on my website that the great Ruykendahl was there, I will be lying. I’m sure you realize that deliberate lying is to be deplored!”

Tom decided not to waste time unraveling the man’s peculiar logic; and suddenly he remembered his promise to Ona Matopoeia to give Ruykendahl a chance to reveal his con-artistry. “All right. We’ll fly you back to Shopton with us and keep you involved in the recovery. In return, you must refrain from interfering, and allow us complete access to Artifact A.”

“Of course!” said Nee heartily, slapping Tom on the back. “Now you see?—best to be pleasant!”

After Cousin Ed’s grateful farewell, the Sky Queen rose majestically under Bud’s touch and turned toward New York and Shopton. “This time, pal, maybe you’d better alert the National Guard when you feed a little current through the new lump,” urged the athletic youth wryly. “You’re planning to push the ‘send’ button on it, aren’t you?”

“Sure am,” nodded Tom. “But not until I get some sort of word from the X-ians on how to transmit its data without setting off that knockout blow!”

“Well, you already set it off once down in that hole. It seemed pretty mild—for something that just about killed you!”

“You and the seacop weren’t affected at all; but don’t forget, this was just its own programmed response to my presence in the fissure—maybe something like a motion-sensor alert. Who knows what will happen when I try sending a pulse-current through a complete object.”

Bud swiveled to look at his friend, face clouded. “Even though we don’t talk about it, that ‘destruction’ crisis is still out there. What do you suppose it’s all about? I mean—the crypt’s been lying around somewhere for millions of years, right? Why the sudden urgency?”

Tom rubbed his chin, but no answer came forth from Aladdin’s Lamp. “The X-ians haven’t told us. Maybe it’s one of those things they can’t explain in the space symbol language. But I don’t think the data-cache itself is the threat—it’s not a ticking time bomb, flyboy. I think the threat comes from those ‘Others’ who are after it too.”

“Like business competitors stealing a big breakthrough.”

“Or enemy agents making off with blueprints for a doomsday weapon.”

“You have this reassuring way of putting things, Tom.”

As the Queen flew across Mexico, Tom phoned Veracíta Jualéngro at the police station in Las Mambritas. “Well now, Tom—I have news!” proclaimed the Chief. “The shoddy little motel where your cousin stayed—you know, the ‘El Tres’ motor-court—it is burned to ruins!”

“What!”

“Three days ago. Arson, clearly. But now there are no more clues, no records, nothing but ash. Fortunately there were no casualties. The owner and his son made an insurance claim immediately—and then dropped from sight. Nowhere to be found.”

Tom sighed, shaking his head. “Figures. The owner or his son may have been recruited by the man we saw tailing us—his name is Breeman Halspeth—to keep an eye on my cousin.”

“Let me tell you, Tom, nowadays thieves and burglars are as technologically savvy as Tom Swift,” she replied.

At last, past midnight, the Sky Queen settled down into its underground hangar at Swift Enterprises and the three weary travelers went their separate ways—Bud to his apartment in town, Ruykendahl to the hotel he had called from the air, and Tom to a troubled night’s sleep at home.

By the time Tom awakened the next morning, his father had already left for the plant. When Tom arrived at their shared office, he immediately saw excitement on the elder scientist’s face.

“During the night we received a message over the magnifying antenna, son!”

“Wow! From the Space Friends?”

“Or at least from the X-ians,” corrected Damon Swift pointedly. “I’ve been working on it for hours. Here, take a look.”

He handed a notebook sheet to Tom.

 

TOM SWIFT. WE CONFIRM THAT WE HAVE RECEIVED THE ACTIVATION SIGNAL FROM AN EMITTER OF COMPLETED UNITY.

 

Mr. Swift had written a sidenote of interpretation: completed unity = beacon object with both halves joined together. “They obviously picked up whatever signal the crevice object sent when you jostled it.”

 

WE POSIT AS STRONG PROBABILITY THAT YOU HAVE THE EMITTER IN YOUR POSSESSION. WE ARE NOW ABLE TO PROVIDE YOU WITH THE ENERGIZATION MODE PARAMETERS TO TRANSMIT TOTAL DATA TO US WITHOUT ILL EFFECT AS PREVIOUS. RECOVERY OF CRYPT IS NOW URGENT AS OTHER LOCATION SOLVERS WILL ALSO RECEIVE THIS DATA AND WILL ATTEMPT CAPTURE OF MEMORY.

 

Tom smiled slightly. “And Bud says I have a way of putting things! But I gather they’re going to tell us how to activate the new beacon safely.”

“That’s clear, Tom. With a complete unit we’ll be able to send them everything they require to determine where the data cache is.”

‘Capture of memory’,” Tom repeated. “We call it data, Dad, a bland scientific term. But they call it memory. I can’t help wondering—are we just recovering a recorded data file?”

Mr. Swift looked puzzled. “I don’t see what you’re getting at.”

Is it a data download and transmission? Or are we activating the memories of a living brain?—one 254 million years old!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 15

 

 

            OUT OF REACH!

 

 

 

 

THERE was no point in discussing Tom’s disturbing possibility. The two Swifts knew that the answers might be soon to come.

The set of symbols Mr. Swift had translated were followed by another section of pure numerical data, the instructions for safe application of the pulse-code that would cause the new object to transmit its contents into space, a signal that, in some manner unknown to Earthly science, was evidently able to span the light-years to the distant star-world called Planet X.

This time the transmission would originate in Enterprises’ high-energy lab. Tom had Hank Sterling and Arvid Hanson remove the artifact, which had already been cleaned and examined by the plant’s technicians, from its ultrasecure storage vault and hand-carry it over to the lab, where Tom and his father awaited with a printout of the X-ians’ detailed instructions.

“So this is it!” gulped Hank. “Maybe we should kill the phones—Mayor Clyde’ll probably burn up the lines if there’s another reaction!”

“My guess is that this time’ll be pretty dull,” was Arv’s rejoinder.

Tom wrinkled his brow. “Let’s hope for some boredom.”

“All right, I’ve programmed in the pulse sequence,” announced Mr. Swift.

“Connections in place,” Tom said. “Power on. Go ahead, Dad, send the activation code.”

Mr. Swift touched a button, and they all winced subconsciously. But other than a few waggles from an oscilloscope, nothing happened.

Hank looked disappointed. “That was it?”

Arv shrugged. “Dull, all right.”

But Tom was grinning. “Hopes fulfilled!”

“The current definitely passed through the object—both halves, I’m certain,” pronounced Mr. Swift. “Now to wait for the X-ians to confirm that they received it. I imagine it’ll take some time for them to decipher it, though.”

“And even the confirmation might not come for days,” warned Tom. “Conditions for communications seem to vary greatly from time to time.”

But in this instance they were in for a startling surprise. Tom had barely finished his comment when the plant interphone buzzed. “This is Nels in the communications room. We’re receiving a space message over the antenna—something big!”

The four exchanged glances of pleasure and amazement and hastened to the communications center. As they arrived, space symbols were marching across the monitor, tentative computer translations beneath them.

 

TOM SWIFT. YOUR TRANSMISSION RECEIVED. EMITTER DATA COMPLETES PARTIAL DATA FROM EARLIER TRANSMISSION. MEMORY CRYPT WAS IMPLANTED INTACT CONTINUANCE BY NECESSITY.

 

“What does that mean?” asked Arv Hanson. “I mean—‘implanted intact continuance by necessity’?”

Mr. Swift chuckled. “It’s just a raw early translation, based on general principles that we’ve embedded in the Space Dictionary software.”

“But I already have a notion of the meaning, based on eyeballing the symbols,” Tom declared. “The general idea seems to be that the cache, the data storage unit, was affixed—in a firm, stable manner—at its location. And then they go on to say that it’s indestructible, as least as far as the rigors of space exploration go, by its very nature.”

“You mean because of what it’s made of, how it’s put together?” Hank inquired.

“Not sure. It seems to be more basic than that.”

There was more to the message.

 

WE HAVE KNOWN OF THIS MEMORY CRYPT FOR A GREAT TIME DURATION AND HAVE MADE EXTREME EFFORT TO LOCATE IT. DATA CONTENT ENCODES

 

The next cluster of symbols had no translation beneath it. “The computer doesn’t know what to make of it,” Tom observed. “But some of the symbols have been used before, in reference to biological processes.”

“In other words, life!” breathed Arv.

 

HIGH PROBABILITY ALTERNATE SOLVERS HAVE INTERCEPTED YOUR TRANSMISSION BUT LACK IMMEDIATE CAPACITY TO EXTRACT CRYPT LOCATION COORDINATES. COORDINATES FOLLOW. ESTIMATE NINE OF YOUR PLANET ROTATIONS TO THEIR FULFILMENT. OPPOSED GROUP CAN NOT INTERCEPT THIS MESSAGE THAT WE CONVEY TO YOU. TOM SWIFT, YOU MUST ATTAIN MEMORY CRYPT TO FORESTALL NEGATIVE LIFE CONSEQUENCES.

 

“Four clusters of numerical data conclude the transmission,” stated Mr. Swift.

“Holy Mo, this is mighty big stuff!” gasped Hank. “Negative life consequences—you don’t have to be a champ interpreter to read that as a life or death situation!”

“The X-ians give us nine days to get the crypt,” Tom noted grimly. “Nine! And that’s just an estimate.”

“But you won’t really need that long, will you?” observed Arv. “Now that you have the location data, you can just go pick it up.”

“I’m afraid it won’t be that easy,” said Damon Swift, as his son nodded.

Tom explained. “The first two clusters provide lateral coordinates, which we ought to be able to translate into latitude and longitude. The third cluster gives measurements perpendicular to the plane of the earth’s surface—in other words, distance along the planet’s radial axis.”

“Depth,” pronounced Mr. Swift, “given in their system of units, which we can translate into miles.”

“Miles,” Hank repeated. “That sounds a little ominous. At worst it’s just a few miles down on the ocean floor, isn’t it?”

“I wish that were so, Hank,” replied Tom. “I can already tell—with their symbol system you translate generalities first, then specifics—that the general location is the Yupanqui Basin region, the same part of the Pacific we’ve been looking at. But the depth indication reads as several miles beneath the waves!”

“I’m very much afraid that the store container may be out of our reach,” Mr. Swift added slowly. “And if that’s the case, terrible consequences may follow.”

“Damon, Tom—I don’t understand,” said Hanson with a puzzled look. “Even if it’s deeply buried, you could surely get to it with one of the earth blasters.”

The young inventor responded, “Dad’s not talking about literally getting to it. If the crypt is buried that far beneath the surface, excavation would be impossible. Earth blaster technology doesn’t allow us to grab a sizable object and bring it back up intact. Even the new lithexor system couldn’t do something like that.”

“Well, boss, you are called a ‘young inventor’,” Hank noted wryly.

Tom’s reply held no optimism. “But there’s a further problem. The fourth cluster is a reference to time. It seems the location coordinates are not updated automatically after all—the beacons just ‘sleep’ when they haven’t been activated. Bud was right. They don’t tell us where the crypt is, but where it was 254 million years ago. In an area of the world where the crust has shifted and folded by thousands of miles!”

The two Swifts could not afford to yield to despair. They studied the message from the X-ians hour after hour. “According to our best geophysical data, the crypt’s original site would have been about a mile beneath what was at that time the ocean bottom. But now it could be much deeper.”

Tom agreed. “And that’s why we couldn’t find it with our probe instruments. Even the gravity-mapper would have a problem distinguishing it at a depth of miles.”

“The device may have been entirely automated, landing on Earth and embedding itself for longterm preservation until those who created it could retrieve it,” mused Tom’s father. “The transmitter beacons—there must be a number of them—were designed to remain near the surface in hopes that at least one of them would survive long enough to provide the recovery mission with the crypt’s location.”

“Yes—at the point of touchdown. They probably expected to reach Earth a little more quickly than a span of millions of years,” noted his son dryly. “Or it may have gone completely off course.”

However it got to wherever it is, son, it’s clear that we have to recover it. And we have nine days to do it.”

“A deadline where ‘dead’ really means something.” The youth passed a trembling hand across his blue eyes—and then, suddenly, it was no longer trembling.

“Dad!” he exclaimed. “I think—maybe—I have the solution!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 16

 

 

            MOLE TEST

 

 

 

 

AS ALWAYS, Tom Swift’s solution was an inventive one that promised to take mankind to new, unexplored places. It was at the end of the day, as Chow Winkler served a light supper to Tom and Bud, that the young inventor described his approach to his friends, showing them his early designs on his lab flatscreen.

“That’s it, hunh?” said Chow, squinting. “Looks like some kinda boat.”

The preliminary workup displayed a vehicle with a boatlike lower hull, enclosed on top and tapering to a point fore and aft. “Looks like a mole to me,” joked Bud. “A mixed-up mole with a pointy snout in back as well as up front!”

Tom, invigorated, laughed at the comment. “Call it a mole-mobile if you like, flyboy. It travels underground, and I’m hoping it’ll allow us to reach and recover the crypt.”

Chow scratched his bald head. “Now son, are you thinkin’ you’re gonna ride around in that thing? Way down in th’ dirt?”

“Compressed crustal material, Chow, a whale of a lot denser and tougher than plain ol’ dirt!”

“Guess she’ll make quite a hole.”

“Not at all,” Tom began.

“I get it,” Bud interrupted. “It’s like your lithexor. You’ll use those geo-repelatrons to push the ground away—and then when you pass by, the ground just eases back into place without leaving a tunnel.”

“Exactly right! I took some concepts I’d already developed for my earthdrone project and adapted them to a much larger manned vehicle. Basically, the localized repelling forces affect the solid ground in a radius of about one hundred feet; the size of the affected area is so large in comparison to the vehicle that even a small percentage of additional compression will open up a temporary gap, just wide enough for the vehicle to shove its way forward.”

Tom explained the general principle of the geo-repelatrons—which gave the mole-mobile its name, the geotron—to Chow as the cook listened patiently. “Not a bad idee, I’d say,” he approved. “You gonna drive her straight from Shopton t’ that place under the ocean, right through th’ ground?”

The youth grinned. “Pardner, if we went dead-straight and cut across the world from here to there, at the middle we’d be hundreds of miles beneath the surface—too much pressure for even the geotron vehicle to handle!” He explained that the craft would be conveyed to the South Pacific aboard the mammoth research ship Sea Charger, designed by Swift Enterprises. “As you know, the Charger can really haul out on the ocean.”

“Okay, but just how do you get down to the seafloor from the Charger?” Bud inquired. “I know the Charger can submerge, but I didn’t think she could run all that deep.”

“She can’t,” Tom agreed. “So I’ve designed the geotron-mobile to be a real subocean geotron. She’ll maneuver like a sub down to the bottom, and then dive in to the earth.”

“Subocean geotron...” repeated Bud Barclay. “Let’s call her― ”

“Aw now, jest you wait, buddy boy!” interrupted Chow. “You’ve put yer brand on a lotta Tom’s inventions! Let me take a crack at a name!”

“Come on, Chow, I did let you name the spectromarine selector,” Tom winked. “Besides, I told Bashalli about the idea this afternoon, and I—er—conceded that she could come up with a name.”

Chow crossed his plump arms. “Uh-huh. Basherelli. I kin hardly wait.”

Tom looked a little sheepish. “Um... she wanted to name the geotron the Gee!-Oh!”

“Musta been right hard to talk her outta that one.”

“I... didn’t try.”

Chow and Bud engaged in some shared eye-rolling.

It took Swift Construction Company on the other side of town, which often handled Enterprises’ large scale construction jobs, three days to assemble the moving-van-sized geotron. Tom and his father supervised the careful testing of the result, watching as the mole-mobile’s repelatrons flexed their muscles, shoving aside huge, heavy blocks of various materials and registering the force on massive piston-spring scales. “Perfect!” exclaimed the son. “You know, Dad, I’ve heard it takes some companies months or years to turn plans into working prototypes.”

“And I’ve heard Tom Swift lives in his own spacetime continuum where impossible things happen daily,” replied the father with eyes twinkling.

At last Tom and Bud eyed the big craft as it stood in “drydock” in the midday sunshine.

The high-sided Gee!-Oh! was covered with dish-shaped repelatron radiator units, row after row, recessed into contoured sockets in the hull. Most of them pointed outwards at right angles to the hull, but there were also some on the two “snouts” aimed fore and aft. “Pressure comes at us from all directions, on all sides,” Tom noted to his chum. “There are more rows of geo-repelatrons on the topside.”

“But no window for human eyeballs,” commented Bud. “How’s the pilot supposed to see where he’s going?”

Tom smiled. “A viewport wouldn’t be very useful down in the middle of solid ground! There’s a TV setup for external viewing underwater, though.”

“What about when she’s underground?”

“She’ll run on instruments that can penetrate the solid environment—the penetradar and LRGM gravity-mapper.” Tom acknowledged that scanning instruments of that sort might not produce a detailed enough response to allow them to locate the buried memory crypt. “Those ‘human eyeballs’ can do jobs machines can’t yet manage alone. So I do have a special imaging system aboard. Remember the repelascan device that we use on the aquatomic tracker? I’ve come up with a way to convert the resistance-feedback response into visible imagery. I call it― ”

“A repelascope.”

Tom grinned in surprise. “How’d you know that? I haven’t mentioned the name to anyone yet!”

“Genius boy, you’ve put repela on just about everything around! I’m expecting a repela-skateboard any day now.”

The geotron had passed all its preliminary tests at Swift Construction; now the boys were to try it out in action, through and under Lake Carlopa. As Tom signaled with a remote-control unit in his hand, small motors pushed open the vertical seam that split the hull into two halves that rolled on extensible tread units. As the sections slid like a sleeve along the interior hull, the access hatch was revealed. Tom and Bud passed through a high-pressure airlock and climbed up to the small fore-cabin.

Tom spent a long time scrutinizing the instrument board. “The Gee!-Oh!’s a pretty complicated piece of work, flyboy,” he said. “And all those ’trons really scarf up the power—it takes nine neutronamos to run the thing!”

“Jetz, Hoover Dam on wheels!—er, flexi-treads.”

At last the two halves were slid back together and sealed, and the geotron began to crawl forward on its treads. It eased into the access channel that linked Swift Construction Company with Lake Carlopa, less than a quarter-mile distant.

Tom noted a small structure on the video monitor, a few hundred feet beyond the facility’s perimeter fence. “The old Swift homestead. I think Great-Grandfather Tom and his dad Barton would be pleased to see where human invention has gotten to.”

“You’ve done ’em proud, Skipper.”

Though constructed of lightweight materials—a single-plate Neo-Aurium hull enclosed a honeycomb support structure of the same sort developed for the lithexor and earthdrone—the vehicle was very heavy nonetheless. It sank immediately to the bottom of the channel, which was just deep enough to cover it over. “Buoyancy is definitely negative,” Bud remarked humorously. “Do you plan to just drop her over the side of the Sea Charger and let her sink like a boulder?”

Tom grinned. “I didn’t think of that! No, the geo-repelatrons can be swiveled by up to thirty degrees in their sockets and can be used for propulsion. When we’re in aquatic mode, we’ll use them to reduce pressure all around us to produce buoyancy, as we do in our hydrodome shuttle platforms; although in this case there won’t be a visible bubble.—You can say ‘holy bubblevator’ now, pal.”

Bud looked scornful. “You must be thinking of someone else!”

The Gee!-Oh! rolled along the bottom of the channel and into the lake. Rather than sinking to the lake bottom immediately, Tom activated the repelatrons and adjusted the vehicle’s buoyancy. He was pleased with the smooth, instant response. “These localized-field repelatrons are subject to much less of the lag-effect than the kind we use on our spacecraft,” Tom told Bud. “They can be retuned to the surrounding materials much more rapidly.”

They cruised through the lakewaters at a moderate depth and speed. Tom kept in touch with his father at Enterprises by means of a Private Ear Radio, which was unaffected by the intervening water and ground.

Once the boys were well offshore, Tom began to take soundings with the fathometer. Gradually the depth readings increased to sixty feet.

“This is far enough out from shore,” the young inventor said. “Let’s take her down.”

His hands moved swiftly over the control board, diminishing the repelatron-induced buoyancy. The geotron plunged toward the bottom.

Bud was too busy studying the operation of the controls to watch the play of freshwater life as they settled to the green-lit lake bottom, made bright by the craft’s electronic lamp beam. Presently he glanced at the video screen. “Lake Carlopa’s not all that exciting from underneath.”

“Seems like yesterday I was down here with Bashalli in the atomicar,” was Tom’s offhand response. “Now for the real test.” He shot Bud a tense smile. “Ready to make like a mud puppy, pal?”

“As ready as I'll ever be. But first check me out on these repelatron controls. As a professional seat-of-pants pilot, I never depend on the simulations, you know.”

“All guidance and control is worked by computer, so the job of piloting is fairly simple,” Tom explained. “Altogether, there are eighty-six separate repelatron radiators spaced around the hull, inset flush. For a steady course, just set the compass heading and the angle of elevation or depression on these dials. The computer takes over from there and activates the proper repelatrons and buoyancy level. Or, if you flip this toggle switch to ‘manual’, you can steer directly through the control stick.”

“Sounds like a breeze!” Bud declared. “That all there is to it?”

“That’s all. Just for a start, let’s burrow down at a 60-degree angle, dead ahead. Got your seat straps buckled?”

“Right, Skipper.”

“Okay, here we go!” Tom set the dials and flooded the geo-repelatrons with their tidal-surge of power.

Slowly the geotron’s stern tilted aloft as repelatron beams pushed against the lakebed and inclined the craft to the proper angle. The interior frame of the control cabin rotated to keep its passengers level. As Tom manipulated the controls, the craft nosed downward into the sediment.

Like a huge sea worm, the geotron nuzzled its way through the ooze. Bud sucked in his breath nervously as the video monitor went black and a sinking sensation—which was much like fear—took root in his stomach. Tom nodded at the monitor with crisp approval as the last glimmerings of underwater sunlight were shut out. He switched over to the repelascope system, and the screen showed pebbles, rocks, sand, and layers of clay crawling by.

“M-man, it’s eerie down here,” Bud muttered in a hollow voice. “No place for somebody with claustrophobia. Not that that’s a prob for me, of course.”

“It may be eerie, but a geologist could read centuries of history just from what we’re seeing. And there’ll be a lot more under the Pacific.”

“Right. What’s our speed now, Tom?”

“About three knots.”

The craft slowed as it penetrated into denser, harder strata of the muck that undergirded the lakebed. Tom switched to “manual” to try steering by hand. Several minutes later the geotron began to roll unsteadily from side to side.

“Whoa! Take it easy, Tom!” Bud said. “Are you trying to make me seasick?”

“I’m turning a bit green myself,” Tom retorted. “We’re gyro-stabilized, but I underestimated the sharp differentials in the pressure gradients. I’ll install a gravitex device to keep her steady.”

By adjusting the power and keeping a defter touch on the control wheel, Tom finally managed to hold the geotron at a stable angle. When they were eighty feet below the lake floor, he leveled off and headed straight toward the margin of the lake opposite Shopton.

Tom now made a further adjustment to the repelascope to scan a greater distance ahead. A weird scene leapt into view, a mass of cloudy contours, bulges, and cracks, with what seemed to be rocks scattered everywhere. “The system ‘overlooks’ interstitial material. You’re basically seeing the ‘surfaces’ of areas of higher and lower density and variations in composition,” Tom said. “The coloration is artificial, painted-in by the computer to make the image more understandable.” He told his comrade that the effective range of the repelascope was about two hundred feet. “That’s not very far, I’ll admit, but the geotron moves pretty slowly through solid ground—we’re not likely to slam into anything unexpectedly.”

Presently the instruments showed that the Gee!-Oh! was approaching the lakeshore. “Want to come up for air, flyboy?”

Bud nodded and gave a slightly forced grin. “Guess I wouldn't mind. It’s great playing down here among the worms, but I’ll admit to feeling a mite claustrophobic after all, I guess. Plan to turn her around up topside?”

Tom shook his head as he pulled back on the control wheel and sent the geotron angling upward. “I’ll surface, but there’s no need to turn around—we can just stroll back to the duplicate control cabin at the other end and turn the stern into the prow. That’s why the geotron’s designed this way; you never know if you’re going to find a convenient place underground to make a U-turn.”

The climbed at a shallow angle to the surface, avoiding the water completely and crawling out onto the beach—a narrow strip bordered by pine trees. “Back on top and still three-dimensional!” Bud exclaimed in obvious relief.

“With an audience!” Gazing at the exterior video monitor, Tom halted the geotron.

Straight ahead, at the edge of the trees, were several people. They were kneeling or crouching in the brush, and all of them carried binoculars. Their arms and mouths were in violent motion—their faces white with terror. It didn’t take a microphone and speaker to gather that the geotron didn’t just have an audience, but a panicked audience in full scream!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

 

            SUBTERRANEAN SHRIEKS

 

 

 

 

“I’LL BET they're bird watchers,” Tom said nervously.

One, an elderly woman, pointing at the geotron, was gesticulating wildly. A half-dozen were backpedaling in terror. The others gaped and trained their glasses on the craft.

Bud chuckled. “We've really given them one for the record book! A giant, glass-eyed, iron-billed sandpiper!”

“I don’t blame them for being frightened,” Tom murmured, chagrined. “I should have been careful to pick a place to surface inaccessible to the public.”

A man in the group picked up a stout stick and brandished it fiercely. Another began breaking off a branch from a tree. Several boggling women retreated, screaming, as the geotron rose up further and settled flat on the beach.

“Good grief, they must be getting ready to attack us!” Tom gulped.

“We may have to call out the coronary squad, Tom.”

“We’d better duck out through the cellar!”

As Bud shook with laughter, Tom threw the geotron into reverse, and the huge sharp-nosed machine withdrew into the ground.

When it was safely below the surface, Bud said, “Whew! Welcome to tomorrow’s headlines! What now, mole boy?”

Tom brought up on the screen a topographical map of the area. “Hmm. Rather than head back, I’d like to test my invention in rocky soil before we run into it deep under the sea floor,” he said. “The system can’t compress solid rock, just shove it a bit if it isn’t too massive. We’d have to detour around a layer of real bedrock.

“This is forested parkland around here. Suppose we head straight below it and on toward the northwest.”

Bud nodded agreement and Tom set the geotron in motion. The craft wedged its way steadily along, twenty feet below the surface and cruising without a ripple.

Tom PER-ed his father to report the upcoming test. “How far afield do you intend to go, son?” asked Damon Swift.

“It all depends on the ground composition. I’d be willing to go quite a few miles before heading back. While we’re down here we might as well take advantage of whatever comes along.”

“Scientific serendipity! Good luck.”

Tom experimented with the system and found that the Gee!-Oh! could burrow along much more rapidly than expected. After about an hour and a half, Tom announced that they had journeyed more than thirty miles.

“And it’s getting plenty rocky, all right,” Bud murmured as he watched the material streaming across the repelascope screen and imagined the crunching sound the craft must be making as it elbowed its surroundings aside with a thrust of repulsion force.

“We're getting into granite.” Tom cautiously increased power to the repelatrons, and the craft moved ahead somewhat faster.

Suddenly they heard a dull rumbling sound. Jarring vibrations shook the geotron, and it began to lurch violently in random directions.

“J-jetz!” Bud hissed nervously. “Is somebody dynamiting up there?”

“Worse than that,” Tom said, eyes focused on the instruments. “I think we’ve set off an underground rockslide!”

He had scarcely finished speaking when the geotron ground to a stop. With a pale glance at Bud, Tom gunned the repelatrons to their fullest thrust power. There was an eerie metallic creaking as the huge machine strained to push back the enormous weight of rock all around it. But the geotron did not move.

Bud turned a frightened face to his companion. “Tom, we're trapped underground!” he gasped. “But where? How deep?”

Tom began to check the localculator position-finder in response. Suddenly the geotron began to shudder wildly! “We’re breaking free!” the young inventor cried—in fear as much as hope.

Screeching a metallic cry the strange, unruly subterrene abruptly lunged forward, hurling Tom and Bud backwards against their seats. With a jolt the deck tilted downward at an angle. It became obvious that the Gee!-Oh! was worming its way into the earth at top speed—not much for freeway travel, but a headlong nightmare deep underground!

“We have to get control back right away,” gasped the geotron’s designer, “or we could end up stuck miles down!”

The craft had turned wild as a bronco in its plunge into the earth. The boys were pounded against their padded seat restraints with such violence that Tom had to fight to maintain consciousness—much less regain control.

Worse yet, the geotron began to twist and turn about both its axes. It rotated completely over several times, spindle-fashion, leaving its pilots dangling upside-down for a moment. And then its forward angle abruptly dove into a downward curve, progressing into a complete loop—an underground somersault! Now its snout was nudging upward.

“Th-the hull is deforming!” Tom managed to gasp out. “The pressure dynamics have become unbalanced!” His words were barely audible under the harsh creaking and groaning of the stricken machine.

If Bud had a gibe in response it was blotted out by a sharp report. The boys gasped as their craft was hurled upward like a cork popping from a bottle!

Clang! The hull crashed against rock. Then came a sickening plunge that ended in a bone-jarring thud!

The Gee!-Oh! fell still and silent at last. The boys lolled in their seats for a minute, shaken and stunned, trying to collect their wits. Around them lights flickered and faded, then struggled back to life.

Bud murmured, “T-Tom? Are you all—ungh! Wh-what happened?”

“I don't know,” Tom managed, panting. “But we’re stopped... somewhere.”

“The way we shot up—maybe we made it up to the surface.”

Bringing the main control board back to hesitant life, Tom reactivated the video system and switched on the geotron’s exterior lamp.

Bud exclaimed in awe as the screen revealed a large subterranean cavern. “We must have hit the roof of this place!” he said. “But it’s a good twenty feet overhead! Tom, this crate can’t fly, can it?”

“No, Bud,” he responded slowly, “but the answer will sound even stranger. Believe it or not, we fell. Upward!”

“Fell upward! I know you’re not, but—are you kidding?”

Tom shook his head. His voice took on an edge of excitement that was invulnerable to the situation. “No, on the level. I've heard about this happening in deep South African mines—rock falling upward, that is. Remember, under the tremendous pressure encountered at great depths, rock and other crustal material is slightly elastic. It has a bit of ‘give.’ When a tunnel or shaft is dug, some of the overlying pressure is partly released, and loose rock may be squeezed upward. Miners have been killed or hurt in this way.”

“How does that explain our accident?” Bud asked, still puzzled. “Are we in a mine?”

“When we broke through the floor of this cavern,” Tom explained, now in professorial mode, “the pressure on top of us suddenly dwindled to zero—so the pressure underneath, acting through the repelatron field, spewed us up like rock out of a volcano. We crashed against the roof and fell back again.”

“Safely, right? Please?”

“We’re alive. The control board is active.”

Bud shook his head. “Man, this is really a topsy-turvy world down here. We can tell Chow that bronco-bustin’ is nothin' compared to underground rock-bustin’!”

Rubbing his bruised head, Tom declared, “Bud, do you realize we've made scientific history today?” he said. “It’s not just a case of going ‘where no man has gone before.’ I doubt if any living creature has ever― ”

“Good night, Skipper, tell me about it up in the sunshine!” reproved his fellow geonaut. “Turn over the engine and let’s get moving!”

But the engine refused to turn over. The craft rocked slightly and creaked, but didn’t move. Tom scrutinized the readouts. “Our corkscrew trip, and hitting the ceiling, threw half of the repelatron reaction-rods out of whack. The ship can move in one direction but not make an opening to pass through, while the repelatrons at the other end can shove away the earth, but there’s no longitudinal thrust to move us that way.”

“We can’t separate the two halves and take one back up?”

“The geotron’s not like the seacopter—the halves aren’t independent units that can be separated.”

Bud strove to remain calm. “All right. Well then. Do we know where we are?”

Tom accessed the positional instrumentation. “Not too far down—about 2200 feet. We must’ve got deflected upward at some point.”

“Okay, 2200—easy. Not even half a mile. So all we have to do is radio our position to Enterprises. They drop a hole down to us by earth blaster and lift us out.”

But the young inventor was already making further checks, and his report was grim. “The power surges and fluctuations degraded the spatial emulator template in the localculator. It’s not providing our geographical position.”

“But—then—all they have to do is triangulate on the Private Ear Radio― ”

Tom shook his head. “It’s not really a radio. It’s a quantum level link. Without wave propagation from the source, there’s nothing to triangulate.”

“Fine, Tom!” Bud snapped. “Then I’d say your latest search for scientific data is a bang-up success!”

“I’m sorry, pal,” was the quiet reply.

Bud was instantly remorseful. “I’m sorry too.” He gave his friend’s shoulder a squeeze. “So now—the solution.”

Minutes later, at Swift Enterprises, the Private Ear Radio on Damon Swift’s office desk beeped to signify an incoming call from the one thing in the universe it was attuned to—the Gee!-Oh!’s corresponding unit.

“My heavens, Tom—what a fix you two are in!” exclaimed the elder scientist. “We’ll begin an aerial search with penetradars immediately!”

“I’m hoping that won’t be necessary, Dad. I’d like to make it home for dinner—oh, Bud says Me, too!”

Tom had worked out a solution, just as Bud had expected. Within the hour special geophysical sensing devices at Enterprises were ringing with vibrations—sound-range vibrations speeding through the solid earth!

“Even if we can’t use the geo-repelatrons to get us out of here,” Tom explained to Bud, “we can still use them to push and jar the surrounding earth. I’m having the ’trons send out pulsations of repulsion force, producing vibrations in the crust—propagating waves that can be triangulated on!”

“I say—thank goodness for propagation!”

The geotron shrieked out its sonic cry for help. It took mere minutes to pinpoint the mole-mobile’s location, in Canada just north of Lake Ontario. Fortunately the youths were beneath open land. After securing the necessary permissions, Hank Sterling and Tom’s father—and Chow—flew to the area in the Sky Queen with several key pieces of technology aboard. Several back-and-forth traverses by Tom’s earth blaster opened a shaft above the geotron, narrow but just broad enough to accommodate the terrasphere, a spherical manned capsule that descended on long cables.

Tom and Bud exited the geotron’s airlock hatch and sprinted at the terrasphere, holding their breaths and squinting their eyes. The cavern air was thick with natural gas and other unbreathable accumulations from the depths of the earth.

As Hank piloted the skyship back to Shopton, the youths sat in the viewlounge, tending to their new bruises as Tom talked the matter of over Mr. Swift.

“Tomorrow’s first priority is to return with more digging equipment and raise the geotron,” promised the elder scientist. “We’ll freight it back to Construction on one of the H-5 flatbeds.”

“Tom, what was the prob down there, anyway?” asked Bud. “What’ll it do to the search for the memory crypt?”

Bud’s question hung in the air for long moments, looming like a dark mountainous cloud.

“What’ll it do?” repeated the young inventor. “If we can’t work up a solution, it could bring the search to a dead stop.”

And it wasn’t a matter of pure scientific disappointment. If the search came to a stop, the space beings warned and promised destructive consequences to mankind!


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 18

 

 

            SIGNPOST IN THE SEA

 

 

 

 

TOM SWIFT was already focused on the new challenge. Replying to Bud’s question, “I think I understand what’s going on. Remember what I said about the limitations of the geo-repelatron system with respect to rock strata? Well, it turns out that even when bedrock doesn’t completely block the route, its presence within the ‘expansion bubble’ around the ship badly distorts the pressure vectors. As far as the hull and frame are concerned it’s like the difference between bending and scrunching. Even the composite hull couldn’t withstand it, and when the hull started to give way, it fouled the repelatron radiators.”

Mr. Swift gave a wry look. “It seems we have some tough redesign work ahead of us.”

“We sure do,” Tom nodded. “And it’s already started up in my head. For one thing, I’m going to fill-in all the hollow spaces inside the ship, except those needed by the crew, with Tomasite. It won’t solve the problems at the hull-surface, but it’ll prevent frame deformation—and the Gee!-Oh! itself will be as solid as bedrock!”

“Genius boy, you just raised my comfort level,” chuckled Bud.

“But then there’s the matter of the hull, son,” observed Damon Swift. “Off hand, I see no early solution.”

Bud said, “Guess you’d better tell Mr. Springthorpe he won’t be getting an aquarium out of Enterprises. Earth deadlines have to give way to cosmic deadlines!”

Yet Tom Swift’s eyes were alight with idea! “Not necessarily! Believe it or not, I think both big problems may have the same solution!”

“There you go! What have you in mind?” asked Mr. Swift, proud already.

Tom drew in a deep breath. His idea was a challenge in itself! “Dad, do you remember when I was working on how to contain the atomic power capsules for the atomicar? I found an approach that worked, but along the way I started looking at something else.”

“Yes, I recall your mentioning an alternative.”

“I’ve worked on it intermittently since then, and actually got it made, but production is too difficult and costly right now for practical manufacture and widespread use.”

“Chum, this might be an occasion for some justified cost overruns,” Bud wisecracked. “So what is it?”

“It’s a material that’s ultrastrong and resistant to deformation in final form, but completely malleable—bendable and moldable—during certain stages of the production process,” was the reply. “It’s a molecular-engineered metal alloy I call metallumin.”

“You intend to make the geotron’s hull out of it?” asked Tom’s father.

“It would be an outer shell, fitting right over the existing hull like a second skin, with just a few seams for the tread extenders and the division of the hull. The repelatron spacewave fields pass right through it, of course.”

“Sounds great,” Bud exulted. “So, I guess you’ll use it to make the Institute’s deep-sea tank out of it, too.”

Tom nodded excitedly. “And it’ll turn the tank from just a big container to a real aquarium—because metallumin is as transparent as glass!”

“Hunh? See-through metal?” Chow had entered from the galley bearing sandwich nutrition for rescued geonauts. “Mighty fine fer supermarket canned goods, boss.”

“But—transparent metal?” Bud’s skepticism was involuntary.

“Why not?” smiled Tom. “Rock is about as opaque as anything, yet it consists of a crystalline structure, though fragmented. You can’t see through a sheet of lead or iron, yet metallic ores are also crystalline, basically.”

“It’s all a matter of the mutual orientations of the component lattices,” Mr. Swift observed.

“Sure is!” put in the local cook.

“The scattering axis. Applying some of the same methods used in the translimator machine, I was able to ‘build’—from the bottom up, you might say—an alloy whose lattice arrays transmit photons, passing light along almost unimpeded, even through thick sheets. In fact, metallumin is much less reflective or refractive than standard window glass, or even Tomaquartz. Except at sharp edges it’s almost completely invisible to the eye!”

“Okay!” laughed Bud Barclay. “Invest in metal windows!”

Bud’s quip was prophetic. As Tom worked at top speed to redesign the raised but dented geotron, it became evident that the transparent metallumin shell would permit the Gee to have true pilot viewports after all, curved contour windows for the pilot compartments, fore and aft.

The other project also went forward. Cyrus Springthorpe was thrilled at the prospect of meeting the Marmor Trust’s deadline. “These sketches you’ve sent are fantastic!” he exulted from the Luciente, far distant around the bend of the world. “A walk-through, see-through aquarium for the rarest and strangest life forms on Earth!”

“We’ve begun construction at our affiliate, Swift Construction Company,” said Tom. “My father is keeping an eye on the aquarium project while I continue with my subocean mission.”

“And as to that,” came the response, “I think you’ll be interested to hear that the light wheel has been sighted again!”

“Where?”

“The location is the same. We observed it late last night, from a greater distance. It’s hard to believe this phenomenon isn’t connected to your mission—whatever it is you’re after down there on the bottom.”

Tom agreed, adding, “My cousin Ed Longstreet has told me of rumors floating around Easter Island. Other sailors have started reporting the wheel. It might be appearing more frequently, getting more active.”

“Which means, I gather, that there’s additional pressure on you to continue your search.” The young inventor smiled at Springthorpe’s choice of words—pressure! “It’s odd, though...”

“What is, sir?”

“That these local rumors haven’t been wafted my way by my friend Rogerio Moreno. He knows of my interest in your project and the possible significance of this phenomenon.”

Tom hesitated. He had deduced some things that Springthorpe was unaware of. “Ed has been told he’s gone on temporary medical leave.”

“Oh really? I had no idea. Hopefully just some minor matter.”

Yet Tom suspected otherwise. Before Lieutenant Moreno, effectively in charge of Chilean police interests on the island, had dropped out of sight, the youth had already spoken of his misgivings to Harlan Ames.

“You think he’s playing with the other side, Tom?” asked the security chief.

“Let’s say some things don’t add up,” replied Tom, “things that I’ve had lurking in mind for a while. When we spoke on my second visit to Easter he told me that there was no sign of cult activity; yet I remember Ruykendahl telling me that Moreno had spoken before of current problems of exactly that kind.”

“But Nee Ruykendahl is already a suspect himself. He may not be trustworthy.”

“That’s true, but there’s another thing. Moreno told me to my face that Halspeth had departed the island the day before Bud and I were hospitalized. Just a few days later, the story had changed. The ‘new reality’ was that they’d been able to question Halspeth, that he’d flown out during our seacopter search. The island airfield authorities confirm the second version.”

Ames nodded. “It could hardly have been some sort of innocent error, assuming Halspeth hadn’t flown back to Easter in the interim. Moreno’d be in a great position to work hand in glove with local cultists—or maybe just thugs for hire—and with Halspeth himself. Moreno might have engineered your kidnapping!”

“And now he’s disappeared.”

After developing some further plans for investigation with his young boss, Ames said:

“By the way, I just heard from John Thurston. The CIA has been told by government investigators in Mexico that the motel fire business may have importance well beyond the borders of little Las Mambritas.”

“How so?”

“Pretty worrisome business,” the older man continued soberly. “They’ve found traces of a substance known to intelligence and military circles as kwanggi. It’s an advanced pyrolytic agent—a fire accelerant—first developed by China during the Vietnam War era.”

“China,” Tom repeated grimly. “Betrayed homeland of Comrade-General Li Ching! And we know he has the contacts and technological smarts to find and use such a thing. It sure ties the motor-court fire to the Black Cobra!”

“Kwanggi is impractical for battlefield use because it spreads too slowly and there’s no good way to control its perimeter. It’s like a sort of heavy fog. It spreads along the ground. And it’s hypergolic, Tom. You don’t light it with a match. You wait for the cloud to expand, then you spray a catalyst on some little corner of it—instant flashfire. Everything within the perimeter is utterly incinerated.”

“Sounds like an efficient way to get rid of unwanted waste—such as evidence,” noted Tom dryly.

One hovering unknown was the size and shape of the crypt. Since the recovery of the complete beacon, Enterprises had exchanged several messages with the Planet X communicators. When Tom described the airlock in the geotron, which in this case would double as a freight hold for the recovered crypt, there was an immediate response.

 

HIGH PROBABILITY MEMORY CRYPT CAN BE CONTAINED IN THE VOLUME YOU HAVE INDICATED. OBJECT IS STABLE FOR RELOCATION BY TOM SWIFT METHODS WITHOUT HARM TO DATA MEMORY.

 

WHEN CRYPT IS ABOVE CRUSTAL LAYERS AND CAPABLE OF UNIMPEDED ASCENT WE WILL REMOVE IT FROM YOUR PLANET. REQUIRED THAT YOU PLACE BEACON OBJECT IN IMMEDIATE VICINITY TO ESTABLISH CONDITION PARAMETERS FOR OUR ACTION.

 

“It seems they plan to use the beacon object as a ‘sight’ to focus their transport mechanism on the crypt,” suggested Mr. Swift. “Or it may even function as some sort of antenna or relay device.”

Tom agreed. “I’ll bring both Ed’s and Nee’s half-pieces along on the flight and take them aboard the geotron, as well as the complete beacon I found.”

“All very efficient,” smiled Mr. Swift. “One could almost forget that we haven’t actually found the crypt!”

“I know, Dad. But even though we didn’t detect anything before, I still think that light-wheel phenomenon is a clue. It surely indicates someone’s idea of the most likely location. Whether it’s part of the Black Cobra’s search effort or something the Others are doing themselves, I plan to use it as a signpost—whether they like it or not.”

Damon Swift gave a warm squeeze to his prodigal son’s shoulder. “Let pirates beware—Tom Swift has the treasure map, marked with a big glowing X!”

Tom laughed. “More like an asterisk!” He couldn’t help adding, mentally: And asterisks sometimes lead to unexpected footnotes.

Its tests completed, the reworked geotron was freighted to Long Island and at long last was put aboard the Sea Charger for fast transport to the Yupanqui Basin area, with its wheels of ghostly sea-fire.

Preparing for his own departure from Shopton two days later, Tom took a call from Milan. “One moment, Mr. Swift,” said an accented employee of ZandinAlfaGiovo. “I have here Miss Matopoeia to speak with you.”

“Hello, Tom, from Italy,” chirped Ona Matopoeia cheerily.

“Hello, ma’am.”

“First, I thank you for the reports you have been sending me. I wish to tell you, my own work of detection has found further evidence of questionable conduct by Nee Ruykendahl. Even as he has worked with you, by your side, it seems he has been pursuing contrary interests. It may not be merely a matter of fraud, but a real danger to you and your employees!”

The young inventor’s stomach tightened. “We’re dealing with a lot of that nowadays.”

“I’ve just reviewed photographic evidence that Mr. Ruykendahl met with certain unsavory characters while he was on Easter Island with you. These men have been involved in securities fraud and the like, and they are known to be violent—perhaps even murderous. I believe Ruykendahl is seeking investments from dubious sources to keep afloat his cruise business and what is left of his celebrity image. The egotism of the man is boundless!”

“It sounds like you’ve really gotten to know him,” Tom commented.

“When one tracks someone so long and far, it’s like a marriage! Tom, I ask you—do you think you can protect yourself? Neither I nor ZAG wish to put your life at risk. Yet admittedly, your watchful eye and close contact could be crucial to the legal case we’re making.”

“Miss Matopoeia, we’re used to danger at Swift Enterprises,” Tom declared wryly. “He’s kept himself out of the way since we’ve returned to Shopton, but I promised he could accompany us during the next phase of our research project. We all leave again for the South Pacific this evening.”

“Then I pray for your safety, Tom. If you have enemies, this vain, desperate man is among them!”

At last confirming word came from Zimby Cox, Tom’s friend and a veteran of many Enterprises oceanic projects, from aboard the Sea Charger. Having sped around the bottom corner of South America, the ship was nearing Easter Island and the Yupanqui Basin search area. “See you in a few!” declared Tom happily.

The long arc southward was made in the versatile cycloplane. As Nee Ruykendahl exclaimed and marveled in the back seat, Tom and Bud quietly discussed the mission in guarded language. How much did they dare trust the adventurer, with his celebrated past and shadowed present?

It was night, beneath an overcast Pacific sky, when the SwiftStorm began its smooth descent to the deck of the mighty Sea Charger.

“Rain, I think,” remarked Nee. “Even storm. Nothing to worry about—I’ve been through many and much, and here I sit, not dead, eh? Ruykendahl the survivor!”

Tom and Bud didn’t answer, their eyes drawn to a sudden trace of movement far below.

Then a hazy glow suddenly suffused the cabin as the ocean filled with sweeping bands of luminescence, horizon to horizon!

“Jetz!” cried Bud. “The Wheel of Light!”


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

 

            IN THE CAVERN OF TIME

 

 

 

 

NEE RUYKENDAHL was not one to be struck speechless. “Incredible!” he cried. “A spinning wheel of the ocean deep! A whirlpool of living light! Or perhaps we should say that those bands are the octopus arms of a plea for help.”

“A master of hype,” Bud muttered.

Tom studied in silence the weird sight. Springthorpe’s video had failed to capture the wheel’s sheer vastness. The human eye and brain could scarcely cope with the concept of a visible something with luminous arms that extended outward mile after mile, engaged in steady rotation.

Ruykendahl was still spreading the pleasure of his own voice. “Ah, ah! What memories. I stood upon a high mountain cleft and gazed out upon a misty valley as the sun rose behind me. My shadow spread wide upon the bank of fog, and suddenly I confronted a thousand-foot giant who mimicked my every move. Gestures of fantastic size, hie? Talk about your religious awe, boys! And now I feel the same sort of thing.”

The phenomenon was suddenly no more. The sea was a restless sheet of black.

“Was it enough of a signpost, genius boy?” asked Bud.

“We’ll find out. I’ve recorded the precise location of its hub. The Luciente was never in a good enough position to pinpoint it. An elevated view is what was needed.”

Bud gave his friend a thoughtful look. “Sounds like you think it has a fixed location.”

Tom nodded. “Springthorpe’s reports suggested that, even though the coordinates were a little loose. If there’s some kind of craft pursuing a subocean search, it’s focused on a very small area. And that’s exactly where we’ll be tomorrow in the geotron.”

They made ready to land on the deck of the Sea Charger, which was as large as an aircraft carrier. As they swooped down, Bud pointed aft. “There she is, Tom.” The Gee had been latched to a swing-arm derrick on a floating pad, used for rocket launching, that was separated from the ship.

After greeting Zimby Cox and other Enterprises employees, Tom and Bud—and presumably Nee Ruykendahl—slept the remainder of a fitful night. After breakfast they gathered in the yellow morning light at the side of the waiting geotron.

“You are quite sure there’s no room for Ruykendahl up front in your wheelhouse?” inquired the man in a challenging tone.

“I’m keeping my part of our bargain,” said Tom. “You’ll be present during the operation, and there’s a second viewport at the other end and a complete monitoring setup.”

“But—to stow me away in the stern—!”

Bud smiled mischievously. “No need to feel bad. The Gee doesn’t have a prow or a stern. We treat the two ends without favoritism.”

The halves of the geotron slid aside and the three climbed aboard. Tom lockered the beacon objects in the airlock hold, then guided Ruykendahl to his seat. As he shut the compartment hatch, Tom said with the voice of a captain:

“The geotron is a delicate piece of equipment, Nee. For your safety and ours, please don’t leave this compartment.”

As the boys passed through the hold again, Bud nodded at two bulky objects standing mutely to one side. “The new-style Fat Men! It’ll take me a little while to get used to them.” While redesigning the geotron to make use of the metallumin shell, Tom had also applied the new technology to his deep-sea robot suits, which might have to perform tasks at pressures much greater than ever dared. Every inch of the suit exterior was now protected by its invisible sheath of transparent metal, and the top viewdome had been reconfigured as well. The Fat Men were now also bubble-heads!

Tom signaled the crew via PER, and the geotron was swung out over the waves and lowered gently. As the clamps opened, the vehicle began to plunge like an elevator, but Tom adjusted the repelatron buoyancy factor and the descent of the Gee slowed to a stop. “The gravitexes are keeping us mighty steady,” Bud observed.

Tom nodded tensely and intercommed back to Ruykendahl, “Everything all right, Nee?”

“Of course! How else? Have we arrived, captain?”

Now, at last, the real undersea search could begin in earnest. With the repelascope aboard Tom felt certain he’d be able to locate the buried crypt, however far the shifting, squeezing earth might’ve carried it from its original location. And he hoped against hope that the light wheel had given enough of a clue to narrow the search. “The harder task might turn out to be scooping up the thing after we find it,” the young inventor told his co-geonaut. “If it’s buried as deeply as we think, just paring away the hard materials around it with the mini-lithexor equipment will be quite a challenge.”

“Yeah, and then we have to wrestle it aboard with our mechanical Fat Man muscles,” Bud agreed wryly. “But—gotta find the treasure chest before fretting over digging it up.”

The Gee swooped downward, and cruised in haste toward the target area. “Nothin’ much on any of the monitors,” Bud grumbled.

“Remember, Bud, the repelascope’s imaging process has a very limited range,” Tom advised. “We’ll have to lay down a pretty tight search grid over—under!—the seafloor if we expect to run across anything. The X-ians think the cache isn’t much bigger than a refrigerator or large packing crate.”

“Maybe it’ll shout out to us if we get close,” replied the San Franciscan. “But I’m not just talking about the space cache. The Cobra’s somewhere out there, genius boy. With that anti-energy sheathing on his sub, he could elbow us before we knew he was there!”

“We’re also pretty hard to detect, flyboy, thanks to our antitec coating. Even-steven both ways.”

“Yeah...” Bud had more on his mind. “Tom—you really think... I mean, about the crypt... it’s not some kind of data chip or hard drive but more like a living brain?”

Tom grinned at the anxiety in his chum’s voice, so much a contrast to his own scientific excitement. “Maybe it’s something in between organic life and artificial mechanism. We’ve seen it before, you know—Exman!”

“True—the visitor from Planet X. But the X-ians themselves don’t seem to know what to make of it.”

“Only what it’s for—and that they want it.” The youth turned the matter over in his mind. “Do we even know what life is, Bud? Really? Is it all just chemical reactions and cellular data processing? Exman was able to sense our thoughts. What exactly was he ‘reading?’ Some kind of energy?

“I have this dreamy notion that the civilization that created the object might not think in terms of mechanical technology, as we humans do, but of ways to artificially reproduce organic systems, such as the brain’s neural memory function. The beacons seem to be like that—inanimate objects that emulate brain structures in order to carry out complex tasks—which is just what brains do. Why couldn’t this device, with a name we translate as ‘memory crypt,’ be something more like an artificial skull, a kind of self-sustaining head with a brain inside it?”

“Pretty weird,” breathed Bud. “A thinking brain? A person?”

“Well... that may be a limitation in our thinking. Why couldn’t there be a brain with no self-awareness, no consciousness, devoted entirely to remembering? Time could mean nothing to it. Century after century it rifles through its memories, classifying, copying, rearranging according to― ”

“Tom!”

Dazzling light suffused them, sweeping across the nose viewport of the geotron in alternating brilliance and shadow. The Wheel! “Now we’re seeing it under water and up close!” Tom thrilled. “Nothing on the scope... Bud, we may have been all wrong in our concept of what this is!”

“Huh? How?”

“The wheel of light isn’t some kind of scanning beam generated by the searchers—the memory crypt itself is producing it, to indicate its presence to anyone who trips its sensor perimeter!”

Bud laughed, equally thrilled. “Man, I was right—it’s a shout out! ‘Come get me!’”

“Let’s do it!”

For the first time they could see that the radiating bands not only spread outward but angled upward, as if on the surface of an inverted cone with its point below the floor. The phenomenon disappeared quickly, but Tom had already captured its angles and plotted them on the topographic course computer. “The origin point is nineteen miles dead ahead, as we’d calculated—and several hundred feet beneath the sea bottom.”

“Piece of cake for the Gee.”

When the geotron had approached to within a mile of their target, Tom settled her down upon the barren sandy desert of the seafloor. He swept a broad area with the LRGM detector. Bud caught his expression. “Something?”

“A definite blip at the exact point we figured—an abrupt mass-density gradient. Big!—it may be some kind of protective area of hardened material around the object itself.” He turned toward his chum and declared with mounting excitement. “We’ll have to edge up close to use the repelascope. Time to duck underneath!”

Tom tilted the Gee!-Oh! and lunged forward and downward. In moments the seafloor was high above them.

The subterrene cruised closer and closer, deeper and deeper, through the hard subocean earth. “The LRGM readings are getting sharper,” Tom muttered. “But there’s some kind of unevenness—an area of greater density, then a sudden drop-off. The hardened material is like the wall of a container.”

Bud grinned. “Organic emulation, Tom—a seed in a nut shell!”

At last Tom brought the geotron to a stop, a few score feet from the memory crypt’s hardened “shell.” He commenced probing with the repelascope.

Both boys gasped softly at what appeared on the monitor. “Good night!” exclaimed Tom. “Open space—a cavern! The surrounding wall must be fantastically strong to resist the pressure down here.”

“You’ve matched ’em ton for ton with your metallumin, genius boy—even though they got there a few hundred million years first. Think we can poke our nose inside?”

“I’m sure we can. The Gee is built to― ”

“What’s happening up in the cabin of the privileged, fellows?” came the intercommed voice of Nee Ruykendahl. “It feels as if we’ve stopped.”

“Sorry, Nee,” replied Tom. “I’ll send the repelascope picture back to you. I’ll adjust the screen input so you’ll be able to watch the recovery operation. It seems the device may be sitting out in the open; we may not have to use the lithexor to dig it free.”

“I’ll be watching with a tiger eye, Tom.”

Switching off the intercom, Tom mentioned to Bud, “Don’t worry about Nee, pal—I’ve locked his cabin hatch and disconnected the control system for his end.”

“This is turning into fun, Skipper!”

Tom nudged the controls and the geotron began a cautious advance. As her nose reached the shell, the vehicle slowed abruptly to a snail-crawl. “Unbelievably hard,” Tom murmured. “All extra power is being diverted to the repelatrons. I just hope it’ll be enough.”

Bud asked what the wall was made of. Tom responded, “Nothing too unusual. Typical local materials—silicates, calcium, various metals. But it has a distorted, interlaced structure I’ve never seen before. The implanting and embedding of the cache may have generated tremendous heat and force.”

It took minutes before the geotron suddenly broke through the inner surface of the barrier and surged forward into open space. As the viewport emerged, it was instantly evident that the human optical system—two pair of eyes—was able to detect features overlooked by the repelascope. “Light!” gasped Bud. “Not much—but even a little’s kind of unexpected!”

Shutting off the cabin lamps, the youths could make out the jagged walls of the cavern. Everywhere were tiny flecks, glowing with every color of the rainbow—a field of stars far underground!

Tom studied the instruments. “Not a radiation effect, thank goodness. You know... I think it’s something called triboluminescence. Certain kinds of crystals can build up internal energy when ‘stressed,’ which they release in the optical range. If that’s the cause, it means these walls can’t be absolutely fixed in place.”

“Y-you don’t mean they might start closing in on us, do you?” gulped Bud.

“No. But some sort of change must be going on, a shifting of internal stresses, to replenish the tribo-charges. It’s another sign that the memory crypt isn’t just an inert receptacle, but something active and functioning. Weird as it sounds, it must be constantly rebuilding and restructuring its protective shell in response to even minute shifts in crustal pressures.”

“In other words,” said Bud with wide eyes, “like a living thing!”

Tom caught the last words but his attention was suddenly riveted elsewhere. “Living thing? Not the only one down here, either!”

Bud followed Tom’s rapt gaze through the viewport. In the dim haze of light they could see movement. Eerie forms swirled about the cavern!

“Oh man!” Bud breathed. “It’s true! Sea ghosts!”

The fantastic shapes were barely visible in the dimness, though they possessed a faint luminosity of their own. Yet even as Tom and Bud gaped, they seemed to grow brighter—and brighter! “Living neon tubes!” gasped Bud Barclay.

“I think they’re sensing our presence and making themselves more visible,” Tom pronounced. “Or something knows we’re here and is making them visible to us.”

Under calmer scrutiny the eerie forms weren’t ghosts but aquatic life, swimming about in the water-filled cavern. There were fish large and small, long sinuous bodies like eels, rippling umbrellas of gelatin like jellyfish, even crustaceans waving their grotesque claws and antennae.

They had something in common. The shapes were transparent—glowing outlines with see-through centers! “They may not be human ghosts, but they look to me like fish ghosts!” insisted Bud.

“They don’t register on any of our instruments,” Tom noted. “Bud—they’re an optical phenomenon, like the wheel of light. The crypt must be generating them.”

“Pretty lively looking. And three-dimensional. It’s like what your telejector does, Tom.”

“That’s the effect,” agreed the young inventor. “The method must be completely different, though, to work this well under water.” He speculated that the forms were composed of an attenuated “cold plasma” adhering to a template-pattern under the influence of some unknown power. “In other words, they’re real bodies that move and occupy space, rigid but so immaterial that they pass right through ordinary matter. Look—you can see how they go right on through solid rock.”

Bud nodded. “Okay. But if they’re artificial, what exactly are they supposed to be? Some of them resemble deep-sea fish, but I don’t recognize most of the things.”

“I can identify a few of them,” replied the young inventor. “These are reproduced specimens of aquatic life from the time the crypt was set in place 254 million years ago! The crypt must’ve scanned its surroundings and recorded what it saw.”

“Fine, but why the playback? Exercize?”

“We may know more when we find the crypt itself. According to the repelascope, the cavern has branches heading off every which way, like a squashed spider.”

Tom informed Nee that he and Bud were about to exit in the Fat Men, and briefly contacted Mr. Swift in Shopton via the Private Ear Radio. “What you’re describing is already a momentous discovery,” responded Damon Swift. “Incidentally, the space communicators have sent a message asking that we inform them immediately of your findings. I’ll compose an interim report right now.”

Activating the video cameras in the hull and switching on the Gee’s exterior lamps, Tom led Bud back to the airlock. They donned their Fat Man suits in tense anticipation and cautiously exited. The front half of the geotron penetrated into the cavern, and the midsection hatchway was several yards above the winding, sloping  cavern floor. The youths used their suit jets to touch down gently.

“Look at this place!” Bud gaped. The cavern had the appearance of a coral cave, twisting and mounting in every direction with no order that merely human minds could comprehend. The walls were streaked with metallic colors, and shards of crystal intermingled with obsidian black. They were pitted and pockmarked everywhere, with sharp projections and ridges protruding into watery space.

“A lot’s happened to the surrounding crust,” Tom declared, awed and fascinated. “At some point this whole mass must have run like a wax candle!—and that was just the beginning.”

His thoughts were interrupted by a gleeful laugh over his suit sonophone. Soaring high up, Bud had attempted to grasp one of the eel-creatures in his mechanical arms. The eel not only ignored him, it passed right through the Fat Man’s metal body!

“I don’t think any aquarium’s gonna be able to hold these babies,” he chortled.

Tom pointed with robotic fingers. “Look over there, flyboy. The fish aren’t just swimming around randomly, they’re bunching together—swarming into that branch cave. Come on!”

Bud landed and they waddled cautiously forward, moving into deep shadow broken by their suit lamps—and by the neon streaks of the ghostly fishes.

“You know—I think they’re guiding us,” Bud speculated. “Get it? That must be what they’re for! It’s like an animated signpost for visitors.”

“The wheel is the big public sign, the fish are like the circles around a bullseye!”

The swirling mass became denser still as Tom and Bud followed along. And then came the “eye” of the animated hurricane. Scores of the simulated lifeforms, animate images captured long before the first stirrings of Homo sapiens, wheeled about an open center, like a spinning disk pieced by a hole. And beneath the open space, alone on the variegated cavern floor, stood a single object!

“The memory crypt!” Tom whispered.


 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 20

 

 

            COBRA COILS

 

 

 

 

TOM AND BUD found themselves approaching almost reverently. The shape of the object eluded any human description. It was vaguely like a vertical block, but bizarrely twisted and stretched, and covered with flat, shiny facets.

“Know what it looks like, Tom?” sonophoned Bud. “A big chunk of quartz crystal.”

“That’s not what it’s made of, though,” said Tom as he checked his suit telespectrometer. “It’s similar to the beacon objects—patterned calcium carbonate and other substances, but much denser and more complex. In fact...”

He sighed. “What’s wrong?” Bud asked, alarmed.

“This project just turned impossible. According to the instruments the crypt weighs tons! We won’t be able to budge it, much less carry it away in the Gee.”

There was silence for a moment. Bud knew his pal was feeling great disappointment and frustration. “Tom, it’s just a postponement. You can come back with more equipment—muscle machines. Maybe the space friends can help.”

“Maybe. But...”

Suddenly a new tone entered the voice of the young scientist-inventor. “Good gosh!—what if ”

“More bad human thinking?”

“Maybe some good human thinking for a change! Bud, the penetradar shows the object extending down into the cavern floor. It’s not just sitting on top—it’s put down roots!”

“Come on! Now it’s a plant?”

“No, it’s still a memory crypt—but this object here is only a part of it. The whole cavern is the memory crypt!”

“Okay. So it’s a container― ”

“You don’t understand!” cried Tom. “The walls keep moving and changing because this central control component is using them for adjunct memory storage! It’s like a peripheral storage device on a computer; but this peripheral can grow without limit, and now it’s thousands of times bigger than the original unit!”

Tom made a breathless story of his speculations. The original device, whoever its creators, whatever its purpose, had plunged to earth aeons ago with its load of interstellar data. “It protected and preserved itself automatically. But it didn’t cease functioning, Bud! It’s continued to ‘scan’ and learn and memorize—it may contain the entire history of human civilization—even the secrets of human life itself!”

“Jetz! I don’t think my brain can get a grip on an idea like that.”

“Who knows how much detail it’s absorbed! To contain its memories, it’s been somehow inscribing them into its protective shell, layer upon layer for hundreds of millions of years. Even if we could rip loose this master unit, most of the data the X-ians want would still be down here in these walls.”

“Right. For the Others to download, with all those destructive consequences! Tom, what can we do? We can’t lug the whole cavern up to the surface!”

“What we can do,” pronounced Tom, “is return to the geotron and contact Enterprises. Dad’s our link to the X-ians.”

With the phantoms still swirling about them undisturbed, they returned to the Gee.

“You disappeared around a corner,” complained Ruykendahl over the speaker. “What did you find? I have a right to know.”

“We’ll gladly tell you as soon as we know ourselves!” snapped Tom into the intercom.

Mr. Swift promised to relay the findings, and Tom’s speculations, to the space beings. The boys waited tensely, but it was a short wait.

“They responded almost instantly,” reported Tom’s father. “In fact, most of the time has been spent on translating their message.”

“What’s the gist of it, Dad?”

“Evidently they understand your notions, Tom, and concur that moving the central unit alone is pointless—even if you could manage to do it. They’ve provided new instructions.

“Now they say: Do not attempt relocation of object to planet surface. Place small transmitters in vicinity and depart to safe radius. We will undertake further action directed at entire structure complex.”

“I understand,” Tom said into the PER. “But—I don’t get it. If they have the ability to raise the entire cavern-shell from where it sits down here, why did they want us to bring the crypt up to the surface in the first place?”

“I have no idea, son,” was the reply from Shopton. “But we’ve known all along that they can transport enormous masses through space. They moved the Nestria satellite into orbit, and transferred the entire space outpost to Venus.”

“All we can do is follow their directions,” said Tom. “And then keep ourselves from getting caught up in their net!”

Tom and Bud placed the beacons near the space-cache pylon, taking a long final look at the treasure they had sought. “Earth’s biological history’s in there,” mused Tom. “Maybe the secrets of the universe! And pretty soon it’ll be way out of reach.”

“Maybe the planet guys will be in a mood to share,” Bud said. “For a change!”

Returning to the Gee Tom and Bud entered the opposite-end control cabin, as the craft would now be reversing direction. “Y’see, Nee, it’s just as I said,” Bud remarked. “Now you get to ride up front.”

The adventurer was not placated. “Yes, but what of the space treasure? Abandoned!”

“We have no choice,” stated Tom as he reactivated the control system.

“No choice. And no photos of Ruykendahl beside the space cache—Ruykendahl the discoverer! Why did I bother to assist you, eh?”

Bud smiled blandly. “For the science?”

“Pfah to the science. You boys are leaving the science behind. So many wonderful questions left unanswered!”

“I wouldn’t worry, Nee,” muttered Tom quietly. “I’d say there are still some questions to be answered back on the Charger before you head off to your next adventure.”

It was much easier to exit the cavern than it had been to enter. The geotron pulled forward into the “open” ground, and the repelascope showed the cavern walls squeezing closed behind it. “It might be more than just the pressure that’s closing the hole,” observed Bud.

Ruykendahl frowned sulkily. “And what is that supposed to mean?”

“I mean it may be healing itself.”

“Fine. Don’t answer Ruykendahl.”

Tom was anxious to get the vehicle to a safe distance. Knowing they could travel much faster in the water they “surfaced” into the vastness of the ocean that lay upon the Basin.

They surfaced into danger! Almost before they could react, dark silhouettes, black lines that criss-crossed, shot across the cabin viewport.

“Cables!” Tom yelped. “A net!”

The tapelike cables proved themselves to be unbreakable, and they seemed to have minds of their own. The exterior camera showed that the ends of the cables had rocketed deeply into the seafloor like a hundred anchors, pulling taut the netting that now held the Gee!-Oh! fast in place, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

“Your repelatrons, Swift!” rasped Nee Ruykendahl. “Use their power to free us!”

Tom shook his head. “I can’t tune them to the cable material—the telespectrometers can’t get a fix.”

“The Cobra’s anti-energy crystals!” exclaimed Bud furiously.

The all-channel sub-communicator now buzzed to life. “Have I succeeded in surprising you, young Tom?” came the familiar reptilian tones of Comrade-General Li Ching. “But I cannot take complete credit. My craft eludes ordinary detection, but is hardly invisible to the eye. We have been tracking you from a bit of a distance for some time. Perhaps an alert sentinel in your aft cabin could have raised an alarm.”

“I was watching the screen, of course,” protested Nee sullenly. “Not gazing out the window.”

“I hear that. Hello to you, Mr. Ruykendahl! By sad happenstance you will now have a final incident to round off your biography.”

“All right, sir, you’ve got us trapped,” said Tom into the microphone. “You can skip the usual ‘resistance is futile’ and get right to the bottom line.”

The Black Cobra uttered his cold equivalent of laughter. “The bottom line? As it has been from the start, the recovery of the buried object my current clients desire most desperately to possess. Thank you for leading us to it. Now we have the space cache, and you too, Tom Swift!”

Tom began to explain that the memory crypt had been left behind, but the Cobra instantly cut him off. “Enough. I shall save what you call my ranting for later in the day.

“I know your hatch-airlock is amidships. I will open a gap in this controllable netting of mine—you saw another example of the technology up above your Shopton lake, Tom—and extend a pressurized passage from my submersible to yours. And mine, incidentally, is bigger.”

Li’s submersible, made dim by its anti-energy coating, now swam closer. It was shaped like a tortoise shell, flat bottomed, slightly curved on top, with four distinct corners that projected outward from the main hull. Tom noticed metal tubes at the tips of each projection. “Hydrojets,” he murmured.

The underwater passage turned out to be an air bubble lying across the intervening seafloor. “Kind of an insult,” said Bud, “using your own water-repelatron technology against you!”

Gunmen exited into the bubble and shepherded the three across the sand drifts and gritty blanket of shells. Li Ching, in his customary Imperial China military regalia, awaited them, a skinny snakelike form rearing up ramrod straight. “My, look who it is! ‘I’ve seen your picture, Tom Swift!’ With perpetual companion Bud. This time, boys, you’ll find no windows to leap through to escape me.”

“You can’t get away with imprisoning me, whoever you are, sir!” grumbled Ruykendahl. “I am an international celebrity.”

“I, sir, am a bigger one,” smiled Li Ching. He gestured at the armed men standing next to him. “And as you see, I have retained my fans. Unlike the great Ruykendahl.”

They were led down a corridor. A bulkhead hatch was unlocked and opened. Tom, entering first, exclaimed in amazement—

“Good night! Ona Matopoeia!”

Nee Ruykendahl entered. He froze. “What! What is this?”

Miss Matopoeia sneered. “The great man is almost speechless—not quite, of course. Never that.”

Nee looked at the boys accusingly. “All along!—she was involved in this.”

Tom shrugged. “Your nemesis from ZandinAlfaGiovo. Your employers don’t trust you, Nee.”

“My employers! ZAG has nothing to do with this.” The adventurer commenced a snarl. “She has reason enough on her own, in the sick recesses of her vengeful mind.”

“I take it you’ve met,” commented Bud dryly.

“Don’t pretend you didn’t know!” snapped Nee. “Ona Matopoeia—my wife!”

“Ex-wife, darling,” corrected the woman.

“And fellow prisoner,” added the Black Cobra, clearly much amused at the situation. “Shall I use this convenient moment to tell you fellows how it all worked? How my—heh!—space friends communicated their obscure object of desire, some sort of data storage device, to be located by means of signalers that had, it appeared, suddenly come to brief life in the South Pacific?”

Tom nodded. “But you didn’t know where they were, or who had possession of them. I suppose that’s when you recruited Ona.”

“No,” she spoke up. “It was I who initiated the contact, after learning of the Helmsman’s need through his discreet ‘advertising.’” She turned upon her boggling ex-husband and spoke with fierce contempt. “The house—our house, Nee!—was full of listening devices even before our divorce, the cruel selfish settlement you and your lawyers imposed on me. I knew you’d hidden your assets, the wealth of your celebrated career—I had no doubt! And so I listened, year upon year, even before I worked my way into ZAG as an investigator.”

“She has stalked and harassed me worldwide,” Ruykendahl said to Tom. “Lawsuits, innuendos, all forms of bile. And you know what? We were man and wife for a grand total of eight months!”

“Ah, love and bitterness, ever wedded,” pronounced the Cobra. “Useful, though, as are most human frailties and foibles. The spurned woman discovered that her obsession had in his home one of the very objects I sought—and that there existed a second such artifact with—of all people!—the cousin of Tom Swift.”

“And then the lab boys gave you a call,” declared Bud.

“Indeed so. And then—well, I’d imagine you’ve put together the remainder, Tom. False messages to bring our Mr. Ruykendahl into proximity with Mr. Longstreet at the time of my choosing; control is everything, as in a science experiment. The extraterrestrials assured me that it was unnecessary to physically join the fragments, only to bring the corresponding units near to one another. Transmission would occur spontaneously if they were within a few miles of one another.”

“If the data was transmitted from Las Mambritas, why was your employee still trying to get ahold of the artifacts?” asked Tom.

The Comrade-General stared at Tom impassively for a moment. “A sore point. To be betrayed—dishonor, disrespect. I will not tolerate it.”

“I see,” Tom murmured. “Halspeth was after the objects on his own.”

“An independent side venture, unauthorized, into which he brought another of my scattered workforce, Moreno, conveniently located near the area of sea activity. They had no appreciation for these historic dealings with outer space; they thought only of the vulgar monetary value of these ancient remnants. Imagine, using the horrible kwanggi gas, stolen from my arsenal, to destroy evidence! I will not have my employees dare to exploit me. Or, of course, to place my operations at risk.

“And so useless an attempt, easily uncovered. Naturally, Breeman Halspeth is no longer an employee of the Khanate. He has been terminated.”

“That’s the word for it,” pronounced Bud.

“Who indeed can one trust in this world?” continued Li grandly, evidently enjoying himself. “Not Miss Matopoeia here, who found the strength to set her bitterness aside long enough to feed information to Halspeth. And here she is, a prisoner, to suffer the ultimate fate of prisoners. And elsewhere aboard is Rogerio Moreno with his accomplices, those men in their absurd devil-masks. If there is to be kidnapping and threat, it is I who shall order it. At this very moment, in a chamber with walls that are thankfully soundproof, these sad fellows are being debriefed.”

As the ranting exposition trailed away, Tom spoke up. “You’ve miscalculated more than once, sir—if it’s any comfort, so have I. The locational data from the beacons was a few hundred million years out of date. You were searching the sea in the wrong area.”

“So I reluctantly concluded,” nodded the Cobra. “I am big enough to admit error. I should have investigated this business of the sea-lights as you did, obviously. But I finally had the wit to track your big research vessel, and then your tunneling craft. And now all is well.”

“It’s not!” blurted the young inventor. “The space cache isn’t what you and your space contacts thought it was. We weren’t able to recover it—search my vehicle if you don’t believe me!

“And now, Li—listen to me! The Planet X communicators are about to do something themselves to the cache, and they warned us to put in some distance. We’re all in immediate danger!”

The Black Cobra regarded Tom gravely. “Hmm! You don’t say. Knowing you for an honest if annoyingly troublesome young man, I suppose I ought to take you seriously.” He turned to his armed escort. “Come Varlov, Urnung. Our captives can wait for a time while we put out to sea a bit. We can drag the Swift machine along with us, I’d think.”

As they turned as a group, crowding at the narrow hatchway for the briefest moment with Li in the lead, Nee Ruykendahl stepped forward and said sharply: “A moment, Colonel Cobra! If I may say—” Li paused in the hatch, his men jostling up against him—and Ruykendahl struck, barreling into the three with enough muscular force to shove them out into the corridor, stumbling over the raised hatch threshold!

There was grunting and shouting and a single wild gunshot. Tom and Bud surged into action, slamming their foes against the metal bulkheads and allow them to sink down, stunned.

“And another thing,” said Nee coolly. He grabbed up a gun and sent a bullet into the leg of one of Li’s men!

“Forget that!” commanded Tom Swift. “We’ve got to get aboard the Gee!”

As they began to run, Nee hesitated. He darted back into the compartment and tugged Ona Matopoeia out with him. “Oh, come along, vile woman! We’ll speak words of apology later. You first!”

The corridor and airlock were deserted. As sounds of pursuit began to stir behind them, the four dashed across to the geotron through the linking repelatron bubble and shut the Gee’s hatch, immediately drawing together the two ends. On the video screen Tom saw, briefly, the snarling face of Li Ching in his own hatchway; then it closed and the bubble suddenly shrank away.

As Tom settled in at the controls, Bud gasped out: “Skipper, the net― ”

“I overlooked the most obvious escape route!”

Tom threw fresh power to the banks of geo-repelatrons and the gravitex devices. Immediately the geotron began to sink straight down into the seafloor! At a depth of fifty feet, the craft began to cruise forward, and then rose up again into the water—free.

Tom glanced at the others. “Now for some fast― ”

A shock ran through the geotron as a blinding light overtook them!

The light was dazzling and seemed to emanate from behind them. It had a peculiar quality—it was almost as if the solid earth behind and beneath had become transparent.

Yet in an instant, like a photoflash, it was gone.

“What’s happened?” demanded Ona Matopoeia.

“I can’t explain,” Tom said quietly. “But I’ll bet there’s a big hole in the seafloor aft of us.”

Yet the young inventor was wrong. Instrumental probes showed no subterranean gap—not even the hollow space of the cavern itself. “Didn’t it work, Tom?” asked Bud. “Couldn’t they transport it after all?”

Tom spoke slowly. “No shaft up to the surface—but nothing else either! They didn’t leave it behind. The sensors read that the structure has totally collapsed, fallen apart. There’s nothing left!”

“I don’t get it.”

“Bud... they didn’t intend to move it after they found out how big it was. They used the Lunite in the beacons to generate the same deatomizing force they produced before, up on Nestria. They decided to completely destroy it—all those answered questions!—to prevent the Others from getting control of it.”

Shocked silence was broken by Nee Ruykendahl. “Hmmph! Talk about obsessive behavior.” He was looking at his ex-wife.

Back at Enterprises some days later, the Swifts received grim word from John Thurston. The Cobra’s submersible had been located, drifting and silent, in the depths of the Yupanqui Basin. Within was only gray ash and bits of bone and teeth. “The flash-pulse from the crypt must have disabled the sub in some way,” Tom told Bud. “Rather than risk the ultimate humiliation of capture, Li must have released the pyrolytic gas.”

“The guy’s faked his death before.”

“Our special contacts say they were able to make a DNA confirmation of Li’s remains. Moreno’s, too. Want to hear something strange, though? They found some of those carved Easter Island masks in one of the storage lockers—completely intact!”

Bud exhaled a bit of shaken breath. “That ghost-man guy takes care of his own stuff!”

The X-ians had thanked Tom, with little explanation except to reiterate that the memory crypt’s contents would have led to unthinkable dangers. Remembering the old accounts of similar wheels of light elsewhere in the sea, Tom asked them if other such caches might have come to Earth. As half-expected, he received no reply. Nor any advance warning of another strange object heading toward our world, The Mystery Comet.

Well before the deadline set by the Marmor bequest, Tom and Bud and the Swift family—and Bashalli Prandit, Ed Longstreet, and Chow Winkler—attended the public debut of the Marmor Deep-Sea Aquarium in the waters near the Institute, in Hawaii. The amazing Enterprises-constructed facility was like a huge hollow cylinder of metallumin lying on its side, with a pressurized repelatron-sustained viewing corridor running down its middle from end to end. Lit by Tom’s aqualamps, their gleam visible only to the eyes of human visitors, the strange creatures of the deep swam above and below and on all sides amid the unthinkable pressures of their habitats.

As Cyrus Springthorpe accepted congratulations and gave running commentary to wide-eyed guests, Bud drew Tom aside. “This is quite a deal, genius boy. But all those fish swirling around us― ”

“Like the ghost-fish in the cavern. I think so too, pal.”

Bud shook his head in a kind of awe, thinking back on what they had encountered. “Hard to imagine—a brain just sitting there, like those Easter Island heads—for two hundred million years. Nothing to do but think!”

Tom smiled. “Not ‘think’—remember! And who are we to say what might please an artificial mind? To contemplate the secrets of the universe... I’m not so sure 254 million years would be long enough!”