TOM SWIFT LIVES!
TOM SWIFT AND
THE MYSTERY COMET
This unauthorized tribute
Is based upon
the original TOM SWIFT JR. characters.
SCOTT DICKERSON, AUTHOR
As of this printing,
The New TOM SWIFT Jr. Adventures
is owned by
SIMON & SCHUSTER
This edition privately printed by
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TOM SWIFT AND
THE MYSTERY COMET
“TOM! T-Tom!” yelped Bud Barclay in the general direction of his best pal, Tom Swift. “Wh-what’s happening to us?—!”
“I don’t know!” responded the young inventor with alarm in his voice. He winced as a slap of stinging pain coursed through his body, sending him writhing into the air.
The air of the large crew compartment of Spoke Five was already full of figures that twisted and struggled like fish in a net, startled and unbelieving. They all seemed caught up in a slow-motion nightmare!
The day previous, Tom and Bud had traveled the 22,300-mile trek to Swift Enterprises’ orbiting space station, the famous outpost in space, to make a final test of a purely practical invention of Tom’s. Since its construction, the combination research facility, space factory, signal relay, and way station for outbound astronauts had rotated serenely about its spherical hub, a modest whirl that simulated the effects of gravity in the parts of the structure nearest its outer circumference. Bringing a semblance of gravitation to the free-floating environment of space was a matter of convenience, but also a matter of health. Lengthy tests had shown that space personnel suffered a deterioration of muscle in a zero-G setting and sometimes developed circulatory problems that became critical upon return to Earth.
But the rotation of the big fourteen-spoked structure had made difficult some aspects of its regular routine. Antennas required counter-rotation. Giant mirrors, focusing the harsh sunlight upon the outpost’s solar battery factory, had to be arrayed in a scattered network of hull-mounted reflectors whose angles required constant readjustment and intricate calculations. Docking, by visiting spacecraft, with the station at any point other than its hub docking corridor, was a challenge that had on occasion gone awry.
One major difficulty involved extravehicular work by the outpost’s technical and repair team. The centrifugal force of the rotating sky wheel necessitated the use of special spacesuits with magnetic gripper-coils during any activity on the exterior hull of the spoke-modules. The mechanisms had sometimes failed, and even a momentary fluctuation was enough to send an EVA worker tumbling off into space.
Upon his return to Enterprises from the Pacific, where his subocean geotron invention had once again thrust him into danger, Tom had taken up the problem in almost a spirit of relaxation. An approach to a solution had soon come forth. The outpost’s technicians had installed a bank of repelatrons—Swift Enterprises’ repulsion-ray machines, invented by Tom—in the hub of the wheel, at the junctions where the spokes joined the central unit. Aimed outward, the super-miniaturized devices would generate a pressure that would hold the facility’s personnel against the decks of the module in the absence of the rotational force, allowing the outpost to come to a full stop without the problems posed by zero-G.
In the midst of crisis, the preceding few hours flashed through Tom’s agile young mind. Waiting in a compartment at the broad end of one of the modules, Tom had transiphoned the station commander, Major Kenneth Horton, who awaited Tom’s orders inside the station control center in the hub. “Go ahead, Ken.”
“Roger. Braking thrusters activated, Tom.”
Small vents at the broad outer ends of the spokes had erupted in a faint haze of jetting gases. Moment by moment the mini-rockets braked the outpost’s rotation as the personnel inside braced themselves for what was intended as a brief period of levitation.
Through a small bulkhead porthole, a kind of light-duct periscope, Tom had watched the round blue horizon of Earth crossing before his eyes, disappearing, reappearing, with each rotation. The movement diminished. Presently Horton confirmed, “Vector zero, Tom. Full stop. Amigos, we’re bouncin’ like balloons in here—Chow Winkler looks like a captive blimp!” Tom had grinned as a reproachful squawk leaked through Horton’s microphone. Chow, executive chef and a rotund visitor to the outpost alongside Tom and Bud, didn’t accept comments on his waistline in humble silence. He was a proud—and always audible—Texan.
With rotation halted Tom’s keen blue eyes had focused on the remote control and monitoring box in his gloved hand, a multipurpose device Tom had invented which he called a Spektor. “I’m switching on the repelatrons,” he had signaled.
“At which point we hit the deck like a ton of bricks,” wryly concluded one of the techs, Selina Rowe, floating nearby like a dandelion puff.
“No,” Tom chuckled, “that’s exactly what you won’t do, not if the new system works as planned.”
“And if it doesn’t?” challenged Bud with joking skepticism.
“Then we’ll chalk it up to ‘normal experimental risk’!”
Despite the banter, the space crew couldn’t avoid a twinge of anxiety. Man was not born to outer space. Any experimentation ran the risk of unexpected hazards—and danger in space could easily turn deadly!
“Here we go,” Tom had announced, his voice piped throughout the outpost by intercom.
A digital readout proclaimed that the micro-repelatrons had been activated. But the sky dwellers already knew—they were drifting down into place. The selective repulsion force, carefully tuned to special synthetic materials in their work garments, had been remote-controlled by Tom to take effect in a soft and gentle way. “This is great!” radioed Horton. “We’re all back on the deck and right-side-up just as we should be!”
Tom had replied happily. “And no explosive comments from Texas, I presume!”
“B’lieve me, son,” came a gravelly voice in the background, “if’n I had somethin’ t’ cuss over, you’d hear it fine from here t’ the Alamo!”
“Skipper, it’s working great!” Bud chortled. “Just a little bit of pressure holding us down against the deck.”
“It’s sure easier to walk around,” added another crew member. “Not so clunky, what with the changes whenever you happened to move ‘up’ toward the hub. Just standing up from a chair felt a little dizzying.”
“That’s the main idea,” Tom said. “Using repelatrons to selectively mimic gravity creates a much more natural effect. And it also creates an environment with advantages you can’t find on Earth—not even in Chow’s Texas. Look.” He had opened his hand and let loose the Spektor unit. It floated in midair. “Since the trons are only attuned to the suit fabrics, the don’t affect other―”
“Hey!” came a sudden yelp. “What’s goin’ on?”
Weird surges of pressure had begun rolling back and forth across the new work garments, up and down, in and out. Everyone in the compartment, no doubt everyone in the outpost, had suddenly bounced up off the deck.
“Good night!” Bud had called out, at first more chagrined than alarmed, and even a tad amused. “The new system must’ve gone down completely.”
Then, suddenly, the phenomenon had increased—painfully so!
Now Tom, helplessly stranded “up” near the ceiling of the compartment, was struggling to snag the Spektor unit that floated maddeningly just beyond his fingertips. The bodily vibrations were becoming much worse, creating a pinching and shearing effect that threatened to leave bruises. And that could be just for openers! he thought desperately.
For all he knew the inexplicable phenomenon might tear them to pieces!
“Heads up, boss!” called out Bert Everett, a regular member of the outpost crew, with a strained voice. He stretched out a leg and tapped the Spektor with the tip of his boot. The Spektor tumbled head over heels in Tom’s direction. Then, as he reached out for it, it suddenly fell to the deck—as did Tom Swift and the entire space crew.
“Gol-gosh-owww!” came Chow’s protest over the transiphone.
“Gotta agree,” Bud groaned. He had fallen on an elbow.
“Are you switching off the new system, Tom?” asked a tech.
Tom moved his fingers to do so, then stopped. “Well... it seems to be working all right for the moment. Ken,” he transiphoned, “what do you say?”
“I’m getting word from the spokes right now,” the station commander replied. “The malfunction—whatever it was—happened throughout Sky Haven, but it seems to be over. Just a few bruises. And complaints.”
Tom chuckled. “I’ll bet.”
Bud followed his pal as they “climbed”—the hub was now up once more—to the main station control compartment. Horton awaited them there, with Chow and the outpost’s head of technical engineering, Corvin Burkes.
“The Spektor reads everything as nom right now,” declared Tom, “but it was out of reach when things went bad. Corvin, what does the board say?”
The older man gestured at the broad panel of instrument readouts. “At this moment, nothing interesting. Let’s bring up the recorded data. I’m afraid I wasn’t paying close attention, er—during.”
They scrutinized a replay of the data. Tom frowned deeply. “What’s up with it, pal?” asked Bud.
“I’m getting the worst possible answer from the readouts,” replied his friend wryly. “Namely nothing.”
“True enough,” added Burkes. “According to the automatic system monitors, power to the microrepelatron bank held steady throughout.”
“Aw now,” Chow objected from across the room, “You cain’t tell me my achin’ backside is jest dreamin’!”
Bud laughed, but Tom responded soberly. “What happened to us was real. And dangerous. And, for the moment—a mystery and a half!”
“WHAT sort of ‘danger’ do you have in mind?” asked Horton. “Could it have caused real injury or damage?
Tom nodded. “It sure could’ve, if it had continued to get worse. You know,” the youth continued thoughtfully, “this didn’t seem to be a power loss, but some kind of surge—or some kind of fluctuation in the repulsion field that whipsawed us back and forth.”
“But the records show nothing,” Corvin objected.
“What they tell us is that there was no fluctuation in the power feed. But that leaves one possibility—that the repelatron spacewave field itself, the spectronic matrix that interacts directly with the nuclei of the selected atoms—underwent some sort of oscillating destabilization.”
Tom’s listeners exchanged glances. “Genius boy, I never pretended to understand the ins and outs of your magic repelatrons,” Bud said. “But I didn’t know there was anything that could affect the force rays directly. I mean—we ran into those anti-energy crystals that fouled up the field, and sometimes we’ve had to deal with weird materials the trons couldn’t ‘read’...”
“Like ‘water X’ when we were constructing the undersea tube-tunnel,” agreed the young inventor.
Ken Horton asked, “Are you thinking that sort of thing happened here?”
Tom shook his head. “No. There was no trace of anything in the air; and besides, it happened all over the outpost for less than a minute, and then switched off. The energy-refracting particles don’t work that way.
“And as to an ‘unreadable substance,’ the trons didn’t make use of telespectrometer readings—they didn’t have to, as they were preset to repel the fabric interweave in the new work togs. And remember, the repulsion effect did work, and is working now. But―”
“With a slight interruption of service,” Bud finished with a wince.
“‘Interruption o’ service’ my sore britches! Since when are yew so polite, buddy boy?” harrumphed Chow. The assault on his prairie dignity was unforgiveable.
After a moment’s reflection, Tom approached the portion of the control board that was dedicated to the microrepelatron system. “I’m programming in an automatic routine to minimize the problem if it happens again,” he explained. “I’ll use the compartment alert-scanners to detect any ‘floating’ of human-sized bodies. If it happens it’ll automatically ease-down the system to zero. Then you’ll have to reactivate it by manual interface.”
“In other words, push a button,” chuckled Horton. “Guess we can manage that.”
There were no further incidents during the several hours Tom remained on the outpost. Eventually he and his friends boarded the spacecraft that had ferried them starward, the mammoth and mighty Challenger, and pulled away from the station.
Tom seemed wary and hesitant as he sent the repelatron dish-antennas sliding along the ship’s encircling rail-rings to produce the angle of push that would drive the Challenger toward the earth. “Now boss,” said Chow with a shoulder-squeeze, “donchew let that space shiver spook you. Sometimes these blame machines jest need a little kick—then they’re fine as fiddles.”
“I know,” nodded Tom. “And I don’t want to ‘spook’ you two either. But remember, when we enter the atmosphere this big ship of ours will be riding on repelatron beams.”
“Good night!” Bud gulped. “Are you thinking that m-maybe whatever happened to the G-emulator setup might spread to the repelatrons on the Challenger?”
Chow concurred with the gulp. “Aw now, brand my Texas sunspots! Why’d ya have t’ think up that one?”
“Don’t start worrying just yet, pard,” Tom smiled. “We’re using the repelatrons for maneuvering right now and there’s no sign of any problem. But Bud—you’re right. Since we don’t know what caused the malfunction on the outpost, we have no idea whether it might spread further.”
The young inventor used the Challenger’s quantum-link communicator—called the Private Ear Radio—to contact his father at Swift Enterprises in Shopton. “The whole thing’s inexplicable,” murmured Damon Swift after Tom had concluded his account. “We understand the anti-energy refraction effect now fairly well, and how it decoheres the field beam. This phenomenon has quite different characteristics. It sounds as if the beams from the new repelatrons were sputtering in some way, like an overchoked car engine—repeatedly failing and then reestablishing themselves.
“But son, how can that be? The spectron linear field generated by the repelatrons is composed of self-sustaining ‘twists’ in the very fabric of spacetime—interlinked space-knots, as we say. For the field to just stop working―”
“I know, Dad. It would be like space itself blowing a fuse!”
“There must be some other cause, perhaps something simple that we haven’t run across before. Perhaps some completely unanticipated environmental factor.”
Something, a ghost of ideas to come, stirred in Tom’s imagination. “I wonder... there is a new space phenomenon out there right now—new since we first came up with the repelatrons, at least. Could it be having some weird effect on the spacewave field?”
“What do you have in mind? What’s ‘it’?”
Since its discovery by deep-space astronomers months previous, a comet had been streaking toward the sun from the outer darkness between the stars. Nearing Earth’s orbit, it had become a brilliant sight, a steamer of milky white stretching almost halfway across the night sky.
Mr. Swift chuckled. “Well, Tom, you’re approaching the question with good experimental logic, identifying all the relevant variables in the situation. But Comet Tarski is just the usual speck of space dust and ice—with a big long tail that’s a whole lot of nothing.”
As Tom clicked off the PER, Bud, who had been listening attentively with Chow, said: “What’s all that mean, Skipper? Or were you just free-wheeling? Could the comet―”
“I don’t know,” Tom said. “It’s just something out there in space that’s new since we began using the repelatron principle, back when we were building the hydrodome.”
“Ye-aah. But boss,” piped up Chow nervously, “she’s been out there fer quite a while now. Howcome all of a sudden―”
“Don’t ask me,” came the rejoinder. “I just work here.”
The Challenger landed smoothly on its special pad on tiny Fearing Island, the Swift Enterprises spaceport/seaport off the coast of Georgia. The three flew back to New York in an Enterprises jetrocopter with Bud, an experienced pilot for all his few years, on the stick. In their Shopton beds, Bud and Chow slept well that night, but Tom’s sleep was uneasy.
How could a whole lot of nothing cause a whole heap of trouble?
Next morning, in the administrative office at Enterprises he shared with his father, Tom made a quick PER call to the outpost. Ken Horton had further problems to report. “Sorry, chief, but it’s been happening over and over, several times an hour. Your interrupter has had to keep shutting the system down. It’s gettin’ a little old, making like fidgetty jumping beans.”
“I’ll bet,” said Tom. “Ken, you’d better just kill the system for the time being and resume rotation until we come up with a fix.”
“Roger that, hombre.”
His creative minding working the puzzle in “background” mode, the youth began the always-formidable task of reviewing the e-messages and letters that awaited him.
When Mr. Swift came in, Tom held up one letter for him to see. “I guess people think inventing leaves a lot of free time,” he snorted. “Someone’s begging me to attend a convention in Phoenix to give a talk about something or other. Tomorrow afternoon!”
Mr. Swift chuckled as he took the letter. The letterhead read:
HEROES TO INSPIRE US
“Have you heard of this, Tom?” asked Damon Swift. “What sort of convention is it? Science and technology?”
“No,” Tom replied. “As I understand it, it’s mainly for science fiction fans. But not general-purpose sci-fi stuff. They’re into something very specific. Believe it or not, there’s a whole genre called invention fiction. I think it also includes what they call techno-thrillers.”
His father gave a doubtful nod. “Techno-thrillers—I’ve heard of that term. Novels with heroes who end up fighting super-machines or plotters who use computers. It often involves foreign agents, or mad scientists. Government conspiracies, too. That sort of thing. I have the impression it’s elbowed westerns aside.”
“Bud likes them. I’m afraid I’ve never read any—er, knowingly.”
“You and I don’t need to read a lot of fiction, son,” Mr. Swift pointed out with twinkling eyes. “Our daily life is ‘fiction’!”
Tom laughed. “As to invention fiction, I’m afraid we may be the primary perpetrators. Most of the newer stories are the Runabout Press fictionalizations of my own thrilling exploits!”
“Yes—plus reprints of the old series about your great-grandfather.” Like the original Tom Swift, who had invented everything from giant cannons to photo telephones in the earlier years of the last century, Tom’s own new-millennium exploits were recounted in imaginative form by writers who knew more about the mechanics of kidnapping or blows to the skull than about science and technology. Yet the series—billed as thrilling stories of new inventions in the world of tomorrow which promise to be the great achievements of the future—sold much better than the more prosaic accounts provided by the Swifts for the news media and the scientific journals. Written by the holders of contractual rights the Swift family had sold off long ago, the books were advertised as being designed for “science-minded boys age 10-14.”
“The funny thing is,” noted Mr. Swift, “George Dilling did a survey which indicated that most purchasers of the books were middle-aged men, and almost all of those were engineers. I suppose they’re looking for something lightweight and relaxing.”
“In other words, entertainment that falls somewhere between literature and television.”
Tom took the letter and tossed it onto his desk. “I’ll ask Trent to send out the usual form-letter turndown.”
His father sat down behind his desk and seemed to mull something over for a moment. “Son—I’d like you to try to take them up on their invitation.”
“There’s a reason,” said the older man. “You’ve had a pretty steady diet of stress lately. Even your vacation in Pakistan turned into the usual life-or-death situation. And since you’ve returned from the seafloor business you’ve been working away on the deep-sea aquarium, or the space outpost project, or this new device you mentioned...”
“Right, the telesampler.”
“Tom, your mother and I are worried, and Doc Simpson concurs. The things you go through aren’t just a form of exercise. Your subconscious must know you’re facing death repeatedly—and if you don’t relax when you have a chance, who knows what’ll end up crossing over from your brain into your body? I don’t want you to end up with a fatal coronary, like Hank Sterling’s father.”
“I know, Dad,” Tom responded quietly. John Sterling had been one of Damon Swift’s closest friends.
“This convention in Phoenix is a very small matter. It might even be fun! Certainly a couple days of relaxation.”
The young inventor grinned and picked up the letter again. “You’re right. I suppose it wouldn’t be hard to jet over to Phoenix for a day and a night. To tell the truth, I think I could use some mental housecleaning right now.
“And it’s not exactly a trip to Kranjovia, or down an anti-matter volcano. It’s Phoenix. People go there to retire! Okay, Dad—for once I’ll head away from danger.”
But within a day, Tom’s decision turned out to be not at all what the doctor ordered!
“TOO BAD the girls couldn’t come along,” Bud said to Tom as he piloted their commuter jet across southern Illinois. “Bet Sandy had a few, mm, thoughts on the subject.”
Tom grinned. “I don’t know about thoughts, but she sure had some words!”
The youths’ customary double-dates in Shopton were Tom’s vivacious sister Sandra, one year his junior, and dark-haired Bashalli Prandit, who worked with her older brother at a coffee house in town called The Glass Cat. Both had been invited to join Tom and Bud on their expedition to exotic Phoenix, but Sandy had work to do in her part-time job as a demonstrator of the Pigeon Special line of miniplanes, and Bashalli was engrossed in preparing for an examination at the art school she attended. Sandy had avoided any reticence in expressing her disappointment.
The mach-plus jetcraft, manufactured by Enterprises’ Shopton affiliate the Swift Construction Company, crossed the continent like a lightning-fast flying carpet. They landed at Phoenix, where one of the convention organizers, a bald-headed man with thick glasses named Desmond Gozzamash, awaited in a very large—if very old—car. “A mint condition Imperative Motorskill Geminaut, 1963! She’s worth a lot o’ comic books, gentlemen.”
“I’ll bet,” smiled the young scientist-inventor.
“Maybe someday Tom’s atomicar, the Silent Streak, will be a valuable collectible,” Bud speculated from the rear seat.
“Oh, I wouldn’t think so,” replied Gozzamash.
They fought traffic all the way to the roofed carport of the Gardenia Grove Hotel downtown, a massive old structure recently refurbished. The entrance to the hotel throbbed with convention goers, most of them in T-shirts. “I told you you shoulda worn the blue-striped number, pal!” Bud laughed.
“I’m traveling incognito.”
But even in suit and tie, Tom Swift was instantly a sensation, camera flashes erupting on all sides and picture-cellphones raised high in a waving forest of excitement. “Tom! Tom! Over here! Reach for it, Tom!”
One conventioneer begged to run a hand through the young inventor’s spiky blond crewcut. “M-maybe later,” Tom gasped as he was jostled about.
From a few ranks back in the crowd, a sultry voice called out, “Tom Swift, you may be only a boy, but I am the woman to make you grow up!”
“That guy had better get a life,” Bud grumbled. “You know...” he added after a moment, “I think I recognize him from my high school football team.”
Tom whispered to his chum, “The Noise Suppression Conference sure wasn’t like this!”
“Yeah,” agreed Bud. “It was a lot quieter!”
As they staggered into a slightly secluded part of the lobby, Gozzamash said, “But see now, Tom, you’re what it’s all about. You’re it! You’re the bomb! The money! This is basically an organized gathering of hero-worshippers!”
Tom smiled thinly. “Well—long as it’s organized.”
The two were protectively shepherded up to their room, where they showered and girded their loins for the afternoon to come. “Okay,” gulped Tom. “Down to the field of combat.”
“Aw, c’mon, it’s not so bad,” urged Bud with a grin. “On the other hand, this is why repelatrons were invented.”
Within the convention hall itself the crowds seemed a bit calmer, preoccupied with bargains and maneuvering through the crowded aisles. Tom signed a few autographs, and one dubious moon rock, as he made his way to the table dedicated to the Tom Swift juvenile fictionalizations.
“Jetz!” Bud gaped. Behind the table stood a big wide figure in a blazing western shirt and cowboy hat!
“Wa-aal brand my chickpeas! Here ya are!”
“It’s a—uh—remarkable effect, ma’am,” Tom murmured politely.
“Look jest like him, doncha think?” exulted the woman.
“Yes,” Tom nodded. “Jest like.”
The long table was crowded with books. There were a number of the old books that fictionalized the adventures of Tom’s great-grandfather; Tom shot a grin toward Bud as he noted the red oval on the book spines with its signature image of Great-Grandfather Tom—the “guy-with-a-hat” that had become the insignia of Tom Swift Enterprises.
And then there was the new series, already a couple dozen or so. Bud picked up one of the paperbacks and studied the front cover. “You know,” he said, “I don’t so much mind that they have me talking like a guy with a major crush on himself. But even the artwork is pretty careless. Look at this, pal—if the two volcanoes in New Guinea were that far apart, you could have just flown right through between ’em in the Sky Queen. And you couldn’t see them in any event, because of the storm.”
Tom nodded his agreement and picked up another of the sacred texts. “But I think the cover to Hydrolung does us more than enough justice.”
“We should look so good,” grinned the San Franciscan. “Still... it’s pretty accurate.”
As the two ambled along, a young woman approached them shyly. “You know, I—I just wanted to say—I envy you two so much. It must be so much fun every day, living on that island with all those scientists.”
“Well, we don’t live on Fearing Island, ma’am. We live in Shopton near Swift Enterprises,” replied the young inventor politely.
“Ohhh,” she responded, face falling. “Sorry. I thought you were Rick Brant and Scotty. I’m not really into the Tom Swift thing.”
Bud snorted. “Man, this really is a hero-worship convention.”
Eventually they made their way to the lecture hall in which Tom was scheduled to speak, overflowing with an excited crowd. As Bud sat off to the side, the Shoptonian was warmly introduced by Mr. Gozzamash. A riot of cheers filled the air.
“Thanks so much, everybody,” Tom said. “This is my first visit to your convention.”
He spoke for a short time on the subject of the future of space flight and the role of the individual in the history of science and invention, then began to read questions, which had been written by members of the audience on small bright-yellow index cards. “Let’s see now. ‘Whatever happened to the dentist guy in the Earth Blaster story?’ Last I heard he was in a mental institution.
“‘Is the Black Cobra in the stories a real person?’ He sure is!” Tom didn’t add the fact—unknown to the general public, at least until the publication of Subocean Geotron—that the brilliant international criminal was dead.
“‘Do you have a secret identity?’ If I told you it wouldn’t be a secret!”—which drew a big laugh from the crowd.
The scrawl on the next card said: ‘Please explain why your quantum radio doesn’t violate the fundamental principles of Einsteinian equivalence with respect to causal reversal above velocity C.’ Tom gulped and said sheepishly: “Mm, can’t make out the handwriting on this one.”
The next card passed forward asked several questions about Tom’s contacts with an extraterrestrial civilization. “Well,” he said, “as you can imagine the whole thing is very complex. Our first contact came from a meteor-like missile inscribed with―”
“Bo-rrr-ing!” came a heckling voice, and Bud half-stood, casting a fierce look at the crowd.
“Anyway,” continued the young inventor coolly, “there’s not much we can tell the public about the extraterrestrials beyond what you’ve read in the news and the journal articles. We’ve been asked to refrain from comment on certain things, for national—and actually, international—security reasons that make sense to us. And as we’ve tried to make clear, the space beings have provided almost no information about themselves, or their science. You can’t really rely on the fictionalizations, by the way—they sort’ve over-simplify and sensationalize a lot of things. As of now we don’t know a great deal about the Space Friends or the civilization back on their home planet, which we think must be in another solar system. We don’t even know what they look like!”
One elderly woman suddenly bolted to her feet and cried out: “Isn’t it true that they’re really shape-shifting vampires?” The crowd seemed embarrassed and shush-ed her down.
Tom shook his head. “As I said, we know next to nothing about them. By every indication, though, their motive is scientific, not hostile. By the way—I doubt intelligent beings with a completely different biology would get any value out of human blood!”
“We’d give ’em heartburn!” muttered someone to a wave of laughter.
“But Tom, what about UFO’s and alien abductions? That’s not very ‘friendly’!” a woman called out. “Are these friends of yours behind it? Don’t they travel around in flying saucers?”
Tom puzzled over the question for a moment. “I don’t really know anything about alien abductions, I’m afraid. It’s true that some of the vehicles we’ve seen have a disklike shape―”
“Of course, of course! The famous alien light-ships!”
The shrill voice yanked Tom out of his thoughts. A middle-aged man at the periphery had stood up and cocked his chin defiantly in Tom’s direction.
Some members of the audience began to hiss and boo. “Aw, siddown, Doc Soc!”
“Sir, did you have a question?” asked Tom.
“More than a question,” huffed the man. “Call it an accusation. I accuse you and your company of perpetrating a hoax on the world, Swift!”
“A hoax?” Tom was startled.
The man folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t suppose you happen to know who I am?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Of course not! Too busy inventing—inventing space fantasies!”
Bud Barclay was on his feet and almost pawing the stage like a bull. “Mister, if you don’t shut down and sit up, I’ll be mailing you your upper plate! Er...”
“Yeah!” barked Mr. Gozzamash. Turning to his guest, he said: “Don’t mind that crank, Tom. He shows up at these conventions all the time—been banned from most of them.”
“A few hundred thousand radio listeners call me a scientific truth teller!” the man laughed derisively.
The audience was becoming agitated, but Tom was determined to take command of the situation. “All right, sir. Just who are you?”
“Not surprised you’ve never heard of Doctor Sarcophagus!”
The young inventor nodded slightly. “I haven’t listened to your program, but I’ve read about it. Are you a scientist?”
“Hah!” shouted a woman in the crowd.
“He’s a professional debunker,” hissed Gozzamash. “He makes a living stomping on scientific imagination in the name of―”
“In the name of science, Gozzamash!” The man’s retort reminded Tom that his weekly radio program was called In The Name of Science.
Frowning angrily, Tom held up a hand to silence the roiling room. “Okay ‘Doctor,’ I can see you have something to say. Come on up here. Come up on stage with me. Let’s make this interesting.”
The watchers protested and Mr. Gozzamash turned red. “A face off?” sneered Dr. Sarcophagus. “I admire your guts.” He charged forward up the aisle and in a moment was standing next to Tom at the microphone.
“Now,” said Tom, “go ahead and tell me to my face. What are you accusing me of?”
“You, your company, and half the governments on this planet,” the man retorted. “I’ve set forth my evidence a hundred times. My listeners can repeat it in their sleep. The organization I head―”
Tom interrupted. “What organization?”
“SCAT!” called out Gozzamash.
“No,” Tom said, “I asked him up here.”
Dr. Sarcophagus gave the youth a patronizing look. “The Skeptics Committee on Anomalistic Twaddle, commonly and inevitably called S.C.A.T. Know what we do, Tom? We expose cults, popular pseudo-science, fake technologies, paranormal claims, bogus discoveries—and in this case, nonsense about so-called alien life visiting Earth!”
“What are you saying? That you’re skeptical about the extraterrestrials?”
The man laughed. “Skepticism is allowed in this free country, and in this case it’s well justified.
“Some unidentified something flies low over Tom Swift’s company town and gets called a ‘space missile from friendly aliens’! Nice cover for a test of a new experimental cruise missile from Swift Enterprises!
“Or some high-speed lighted blob whizzes across the country and ends up in the Atlantic. Lights in the sky!—which is mighty familiar to the folks here in Phoenix, by the by. Space specimens? Or more rationally a satellite-projected hologram designed for use by our own Defense Department!”
“You’re nuts!” roared a teenager.
“Yeah, we all want to believe in the extraterrestrial myth, don’t we!—friendly space aliens coming here to save us from ourselves, from the doubts and dangers of modern technology and real science. Religion 2.1, and you can sin as much as you want! But where’s the evidence? Only the Swifts have ‘permission’ to talk to these angelic space people!
“That’s not science, folks, that’s fraud! Science works by sharing data and evidence, replicating results, confirming hypotheses. Here’s one of the most important scientific events in history, and no one is allowed to examine it, or even confirm its existence. Great grief, it’s announced to the world at a meeting of a local astronomy club!”
“All you have to do is do what Galileo did and look up in the sky,” declared Tom heatedly. “That little moonlet overhead, Nestria, was maneuvered into orbit by the Planet X scientists! Is that just some kind of trick of the light?”
Dr. Sarcophagus had clearly anticipated the argument. “Oh yes. Your heroic flight to ‘Little Luna.’ Nice book. Nice TV spectacle. Let me direct you to another volume in the sacred canon, the one where your father tests a device for creating asteroids from space dust. Or how about the recent hullabaloo about some gadget of yours pushing around a space probe orbiting Titan! Maybe we shouldn’t have given such short shrift to old Professor Voort after all. Maybe our second moon really is some kind of technological stunt perpetrated by Swift Enterprises for some military purpose—or to give the United States some kind of foreign policy advantage. And the sheeplike public is supposed to swallow it all!”
The man paused and Tom said forcefully. “I’m sorry to be rude, but that’s just insane!” The audience, who clearly wanted to believe, burst into applause. “You’re asking people to accept that thousands of people—employees, astronauts, scientists, military and government people, members of the news media—are engaged in some kind of massive conspiracy―”
“Or perhaps they themselves have been hoaxed by a small coterie of insiders.”
“But—but you can’t―”
“I can and I do,” Sarcophagus cut in, “every Friday night at 10:30! Look, consult any reputable scientific work published before that big announcement of yours. Even the wild-eyed exobiologists agreed that advanced alien life would be exceedingly rare and scattered throughout the universe. As to what we call intelligent life, it’s most likely a fluke of evolutionary adaptation. At this point in the history of the universe, we’re probably the only technological civilization within a million light years. How could any conceivable civilization conquer the absolute speed limit, the speed of light, and come trooping halfway across the cosmos just to schmooze with a celebrity father-son team of tinkerers? What kind of rational sense does that make?”
“But—why in the world would anyone want to perpetrate a hoax like that?” the young inventor asked, anger turning to amazement.
“The government—many governments—and the military have what they think are adequate reasons for whatever they choose to do. Even scientists—para-scientists!—have a motive for fakery. Namely funding!
“And you Swifts have another interest in all this, don’t you? Your revered great-grandpa disgraced himself by claiming to have found indications of intelligent life on Mars—no evidence, just his word of honor. This ‘space friend’ garbage is a mighty nice way to get control of the history books and clear his name!”
Gozzamash jumped to his feet. “This is over!” He switched off the microphone.
But if the mike was dead, Dr. Sarcophagus was still alive. “Put up or shut up, Tom Swift! I’m challenging you! In the name of science―”
Then security guards ushered him off the stage and out of the room.
Tom stood stunned. Then he quietly asked that the microphone be switched back on. “Ladies and gentlemen, I... well, I guess I don’t know what to say. But let’s not let it stop what we’re doing.”
The audience applauded. Tom took the next written card and responded, then answered a few more.
But just as the young inventor had begun to get his wind back, he pulled out a card that knocked it right out of him!
DO NOT GET INVOLVED WITH FENG.
THIS IS NOT YOUR CONCERN
AND COULD COST YOU YOUR LIFE!
MESSENGERS OF LIGHT
TOM silently read the scrawled note a second time, then half-crumpled it without comment and took up another. As he answered the question he carefully set the crumpled card aside, then slipped it into his pocket.
His appearance finally concluded, Tom dealt with autograph seekers and the gushing gratitude of Mr. Gozzamash. Leaving the room by the rear door he motioned Bud aside and showed him the cryptic note.
“Good night, Skipper!” the black-haired pilot muttered. “What the heck is feng? Something they sell on the internet? One of those Chinese things where you stand on one leg and let your brain go blank?”
“Beats me,” replied Tom. “Maybe just schizo nut-sense from one of these ‘fan’ people. Or maybe a joke.”
“Threatening your life? Somebody out there has a funny unfunny sense of humor!”
Tom nodded slightly but his face was shadowed. “Threats are a dime a dozen, pal, but after dealing with that Sarcophagus character—well, he seemed to be taking his ‘mission’ pretty seriously.”
“I was thinking the same thing. He probably wrote it to get your attention.”
“Yes, or maybe one of his followers. I’ll keep it for Security to look over back at the plant. But I’d sure like to know what ‘feng’ means.”
“Let’s wander around in the dealers room,” urged Bud. “Maybe we’ll see it on a sign. Or if we’re lucky someone’ll shoot a ray gun at us—big clue!”
They spent an hour trickling their way through the oozing crowd in the big hall of hawkers and dickerers. It turned out that Tom Swift was not the only inventor-hero with a loyal following, though he was one of the very few nonfictitious—or semi-fictitious—ones. There were tables devoted to Jules Verne protagonists, Wells, Conan Doyle, and the techno-thrillers Mr. Swift had mentioned. There were Tesla-ites, superhero acolytes, walking and bleeping robots, complex devices for kitchen use, and unconvincing photos of unidentified flying objects. One woman sat next to a sign that said: Ask me about my trip to Venus. And another table sold bumper stickers reading:
I LOVE MY RETICULAN GRANDCHILDREN
“And they’re very well behaved,” the woman stated when she noticed that the table had caught Tom’s eye.
They turned into another aisle. “I’ve read my share of kid books, but most of this is a mystery to me,” Bud commented. “Like—who’s Danny Dunn?”
Tom didn’t reply but motioned his friend over to a nearby display of photographs of the day’s convention highlights. He pointed silently and the young Californian’s gray eyes grew wide. “Hey, that’s you! But―”
“Looks exactly like me down to a ‘tee.’ Blue stripes and all! Except I’ve been wearing white shirt and tie since we arrived.”
“But it’s here, all right—and this morning, it says.” Bud gave a shrug. “I guess some ‘Swiftonian’ decided to make himself up to look like his crew-cutted hero.”
Tom’s keen eyes probed the photo more closely. “Bud—my impersonator is talking to a guy seated at one of the tables. There’s a little placard in front of him that says Dr. Karl Feng!”
With help from one of the convention volunteers, Tom and Bud speedily located the table in the photo. No one was seated behind it, but the table bore a stack of paperback books. “‘Messengers of Light: A Medieval Mystery of the Skies’ by Karl Feng, Ph.D.’ ” The cover illustration showed a comet streaking across the starry heavens.
“The guy’s playing up the comet bit,” Bud remarked. “Good way to sell books this year.”
A voice behind them said, “Ah! Gentlemen! Do you wish to buy?”
It was the man in the picture—a small, slender, rather frail-looking man with a thready mustache and goatee. He seemed about the age of Tom’s father, perhaps a bit older. His eyes suggested an Asian background, but in other ways he appeared European. Tom decided he was Eurasian, as his name suggested. Smiling, the man said to Tom: “You vanished so abruptly I thought I had offended you. But perhaps you went off to find your friend, eh?”
“I don’t understand, sir,” Tom responded. “Have we met before?”
Bud nudged his pal. “He thinks you’re the guy in the photo—T-shirt Man.”
Dr. Feng’s polite frown turned to surprise. “Ach! Now I see! My word, you are not the young man I spoke to this morning after all!”
“He said he was me?” Tom asked.
“He did, and there was a strong resemblance! I knew you were to appear here today; naturally I assumed―”
“Dr. Feng, it seems to be some kind of... trick,” said the young inventor tensely. “It’s probably harmless but—what did he speak to you about?”
Bud added with enthusiasm, “We’re digging for clues, like the Hardy Boys.”
“Yes, I see,” nodded Feng. He had a slight accent that Tom decided was German. “He said very little. I think he rather snuck up on my table, perhaps to avoid causing a sensation among the others in the room. Hm! He introduced himself and said, very kindly, that he had heard of my book but hadn’t yet read it. I turned away to get a loose copy for him to autograph, but when I turned back he was nowhere! I felt a bit disappointed to have lost a sale.”
“We’ve seen a photo of him talking to you. Do you happen to recall its being taken?”
The man shook his head. “No indeed. With these tiny modern cameras, who can tell? Perhaps we are being snapped even as we speak!”
Bud looked about nervously.
Tom said reassuringly, “Just somebody’s idea of a prank, I suppose. But tell me, sir,” he continued, “what’s the subject of your book? Are you an astronomer?”
Feng smiled, clearly pleased by the question. “Well now, I am a historiographer, an historian with a certain particular interest in old manuscripts and documents—that sort of thing, you see. I have earned two doctoral degrees, in fact, from the University of Heidelberg—in history, and in psychology.”
Bud grinned. “That’s kind of a neat combo. Just how do they fit together?”
“In surprising ways,” the man chuckled. “You see, I have followed the trail of the famous psychologist Carl Jung, who advanced the idea that the symbols we use reflect pre-established guiding intuitions lying deep within the human unconscious. We all share these tendencies collectively, by birth—the collective unconscious.”
“I’ve heard of his theories,” Tom nodded.
“He studied the cryptic symbols used by the medieval alchemists. I have pursued the matter further. I contend that a secret, hidden school of alchemists, the Brothers of Hermes, practiced alchemy not to turn lead into gold, but to transform mankind’s spiritual perception.”
Bud didn’t follow. “Er—yeah?”
“Odd sounding theory, is it not? The concept is that by meditating upon certain visual signs, certain primordial symbolic forms drawn forth from the universal heritage of the human mind, an individual becomes better attuned to the wisdom of a higher reality. Ultimately the entire race is elevated as the practice becomes widespread. All rather messianic.”
Tom hoped desperately that Bud had turned away, so as not to offend Dr. Feng with any eye-rolling. “And what are these ‘messengers of light’ your book talks about? Are they connected to comets?”
“Perhaps, Tom, your interest will lead you to buy a copy of my little book,” Feng said with a twinkle. “The thing is complex and typically obscure. It is also typical that I am called a crackpot and a charlatan.”
Bud nodded and said, “Some people come up short on the dipstick as far as imagination. Tom’s talk was disrupted by some nutcase who runs a ‘skeptics club’ or something.”
Dr. Feng’s delicate, spider-webbed face clouded with anger. “Bah!—that publicity seeker who calls himself Dr. Sarcophagus! He makes a good income with his ‘crusade,’ investigating and ‘debunking’ paranormal claims and unusual theories, the sort of thing his people term twaddle. A vulgar schoolyard taunt! I run into him all too often. Mean-spirited—obsessive! The internet seems to generate people of this sort.”
With a glance at Bud, Tom tried to defuse what threatened to evolve into a furious tirade. “Well, Dr. Feng, I’m glad to have met a real scientist here.”
“Might you wish to purchase...?”
“Er—yes. Of course.”
Book in hand, Tom bade the man goodbye and found Mr. Gozzamash. “Ready to head back to the airport, if you don’t mind,” Tom said.
As Tom and Bud followed him from the hotel and walked across the sidewalk to the curb, a voice yelled out from the throng: “Hey, Bud Barclay, you may be only a boy, but I am the woman to make you grow up!”
“Nice t’ see ya, Drilly!” Bud yelled back with a wave. The athletic youth explained to his chum, “We always called him Drillbit.”
As Bud flew the jet eastward, Tom spent some time skimming through Karl Feng’s book, well illustrated with drawings of various symbols and reproductions of medieval tapestries and pictures from illuminated manuscripts. As something caught his attention, he provided Bud with an intermittent commentary. “I have to admit, this theory of his is pretty interesting. Certain basic symbols seem to appear over and over in world cultures. They even work their way into the shapes of letters—for example, the big fancy letters in gold that start chapters in monastic manuscripts.”
“Sounds like word-o-logical guerilla warfare!”
“A famous Englishman from the time of Elizabeth I, Dr. John Dee, copied down a whole alphabet of symbols of this sort, which were supposedly seen in a crystal ball. He called it the ‘Enochian language’—the language of angels and devils.”
“Sounds a little reticulan,” Bud joked. “But you know, genius boy—you do the same sort of thing when you tune in to the mathematical symbols of the space friends. The imaging oscilloscope setup is pretty much a modern crystal ball, isn’t it?”
Tom laughed. “Say, you’re right!”
“Is there an author bio?”
“Yep.” Tom flipped the book over. “Hmm. It says his father taught in communist China and married a German woman. Dr. Feng grew up in China, emigrated to Austria and Switzerland, and finally settled in Heidelberg, where he got his two degrees. He’s a professor at the University there.”
“And now he’s—er, what exactly is he doing, pal?”
“He’s doing ‘historical research on the development of key cultural symbology in the medieval European milieu’.”
Bud snorted. “Yeah. That’s what happens when you get to write your own bio. So—have you found out what messengers of light are?”
“I’ll have to read it in more detail,” replied the scientist-inventor. “Basically, the secret group of alchemists, the Brothers of Hermes, wrote their manuscripts in something called ‘the green language.’ The text, in Latin, had a conventional surface meaning, but a kind of subsurface meaning was coded into it.”
“Like a cryptogram?”
“No. It’s just that the words were known, to the initiates, to have a double meaning.”
“I get it—a book written in puns!”
“I don’t think Dr. Feng would put it quite that way, flyboy. Dr. Feng thinks references to ‘the messengers of light’ have to do with chemical phenomena—chymicall―” Tom spelled out the word. “—that the initiates would interpret—like reading tea-leaves, I guess. It all has something to do with some mystical thing called the White Queen...”
Bud had a wisecrack ready and primed to go, but its launch was interrupted by the alert-beep of the Private Ear Radio. “From Enterprises,” Bud noted as he whisked up the compact unit from its cradle on the board. “This is Bud, SCC-19W.”
“Bud, this is Tom’s Dad,” came the familiar voice, crystal clear. “How’s your fuel reserve right now?”
The black-haired youth raised an eyebrow. “Um, fine. Why?”
“Could you handle an extension of your flight plan? Another couple thousand miles east?”
Bud gulped. “Jetz! I—I guess that’d work. We fueled up in Phoenix.”
Tom took the PER unit from his chum’s hand. “Dad, what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure, but it could be an emergency in the making. I’d like you to take a look at it right away, without delay.”
“An emergency? Where?”
“On the ocean floor, Tom—Helium City!”
A PUZZLE BENEATH THE SEA
HELIUM CITY!—Swift Enterprises’ deep-sea hydrodome! Established on the Atlantic floor several hundred miles east of the island of Bermuda, the installation was an artificial bubble of air enclosing a helium-extraction operation. At any given time the big hydrodome housed dozens of employees!
“Dad—tell me!” Tom urged.
Mr. Swift spoke cautiously, almost shame-facedly. “Perhaps I’m overreacting. Hollifeld—he’s in charge down there, as of last month—wasn’t overly concerned when he contacted us...”
“But what’s happened?”
“Over the last day or so, a number of the workers have reported to the infirmary, saying they felt ill—dizzy, short of breath. The facility physician, Cara Praeger, thought it might be a virus, but all the standard tests come up negative. The thinking now is that it’s something in the air that some of the workers are especially sensitive to.”
“But the air is constantly monitored.”
“I know,” agreed Damon Swift. “Nothing shows up in the spectroanalysis, and the pressure reads normal. But Tom, any oddity that affects the deep-sea living environment automatically puts lives at risk, at least in potential. Dr. Praeger is new down there; I’d feel better if you’d fly there directly and take a look yourself. You took one of the amphibs, didn’t you?”
“Yes, one of them happened to be prepped and ready. We can set down near the floating platform.”
“I’d much appreciate your setting my mind at ease.” Mr. Swift promised to relay word to the hydrodome crew immediately.
Tom and Bud altered course for the Helium City site, not sure whether to be merely concerned, worried—or panicked! “Doesn’t sound all that serious,” remarked Bud hopefully after Tom had spoken directly to Dr. Praeger by conventional radio, relayed down to the hydrodome from the access platform on the surface.
Tom nodded. “It doesn’t sound serious at all, thank goodness. But as we know, sometimes unusual microbes and similar agents turn up when we expose the ocean floor to air.” Bud had been a victim of such an infestation, a dangerous skin fungus.
After hundreds of miles of blue ocean, now touched with the bronze colors of the setting sun, Bud began the descent to the floating platform that was the upper world’s point of connection to the hydrodome far below. Tom plucked the radiocom microphone off the control board. “Like the dome, the platform doesn’t have a PER,” he explained. “Atlantica North, this is Tom Swift. We’re beginning final approach.”
But Dixon Wade, sole operations attendant on the platform, failed to respond. After several tries, the boys exchanged worried glances. “Just set us down,” Tom said quietly.
The newest descendant of the first Tom Swift’s ocean airport system, the platform, Atlantica North, was compact, flat-topped, and polygonal. Composed of several score floating “cells” that latched together magnetically, it was large enough overall to serve as a helipad and a floating pier for seacraft, including the tankers that transported the compressed helium to the mainland. The deck, raised several yards above the low waves, was stabilized by Tom’s gravitex device and bore a small enclosure, like a pilot-house, for the attendant stationed there.
Surveying the scene with electronic binoculars, Tom said: “There—I see him. He was out near one of the bubblevator hoists.”
Bud shrugged. “Wonder why. They can be monitored from the shack. Eyeballing wouldn’t do much.”
The jet splashed down on its extensible pontoon-skis and Bud guided them to a gentle bump at the passenger gangway.
Wade greeted them. “Hi, guys, sorry I stepped away from the com. I—I’m plenty bugged, Tom. Something’s mojo wrong down there!”
Tom nodded. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Glad of that,” Dix Wade replied. “Or you’d really see some major outfreaking! Sometimes, y’know, they try to keep these big outbreaks quiet—things that make your skin fall apart... I got jumpy and tried to see if I could see anything coming up from below, like bubbles or... uh... anything—okay, bodies! But no.”
Tom contacted his father at Enterprises via the shed’s videophone setup, the Enterprises private TV communications network, relayed worldwide by the space outpost and other satellites. “I just called down, Dad—still keeping it calm, but there’s something in Mr. Hollifeld’s voice...”
“The possibilities are frightful, Son, whether Hollifeld wants to admit it or not.”
“I know, Dad. I guess your instincts were on the money. I’m heading down now to see for myself, but—it might be smart to ready our planned evacuation procedure.”
“I’ll begin immediately.”
Hearts thudding with suspense and dread, Tom and Bud crossed the short gangway to one of several small, square platforms equipped with a repelatron radiator, a gold-hued sphere of metal that halfway penetrated the deck. By thrusting back the seawater to produce a controllable air bubble around the structure, the undersea elevator, linked to vertical guide cables, allowed passengers to safely descend to the facility below.
With a wave to Dixon Wade in the monitor shed, Tom took hold of the bubblevator controls, atop a pedestal adjoining the surrounding rails. A circular depression leapt into being under the transport, flattening the waves with repulsion force. “Going down,” murmured the young inventor, easing back on the master lever. Instantly the partial bubble diminished and the platform began to descend in response to the minimization of its buoyancy. The sides of the air-filled sphere rose up and closed in around them, meeting over their heads as they entered the water smoothly.
“At least this jalopy’s working all right,” said Bud—a bit more loudly than necessary.
Tom nodded as he craned his neck, looking downward past the edge of the platform with nervous urgency. “Can’t see anything yet. But that’s normal in midocean seawater; Helium City’s pretty far down.”
The last of the light from the surface had faded away completely. “I won’t switch on the lamps,” Tom told his fellow hydronaut. Bud understood that Tom wanted to be able to catch the first gleams from below. It struck the young pilot that his pal seemed unusually jittery. Jetz, maybe this is worse than I thought, he wondered.
Moments later a slight twitch passed through the deck. Before the youths had time to wonder, another came, much more powerful. The bubblevator began to waver and rock back and forth, swinging on its guide cables! “Good night, what’s up with this?” Bud gulped. “I’m gonna get subsea-sick!”
“Problem with the buoyancy!” Tom grated, tightly grasping the guardrail.
“Th-the bubble isn’t about to go bad on us—is it?”
“No deformation,” replied Tom. He looked up overhead. “But you can see what’s happening.” The air bubble was wiggling and twisting on all sides, like an unsteady soap bubble in a fluttering breeze. Tom reached for the controls, preparing to expand the bubble and head back up at top speed—but before he could take action the bubblevator sphere suddenly became rigid again.
“Whew!” Bud breathed. “Guess she got over it.”
“Got over what?” Tom demanded with a deep frown. “There’s no problem with the telespectrometers. Nothing unusual in the seawater. The power from the solar batteries held steady all through.”
“What about the currents? You know, pal—one of those deep-water jetstreams.”
“The automatic scanners don’t show a thing. Just a few fish.”
“Bet we spooked ’em!” chuckled Bud nervously.
There was no further turbulence, and presently Tom announced, relief in his voice, that he could make out a hazy glow down beneath. “At least the lights are still on.”
“Yeah. But if the lights are on and nobody’s home, I’m leaving!” The gibe fell flat.
The light changed from sea-green to yellow to white as they came even with the transparent hemisphere of the hydrodome. “Plenty of people walking around,” observed Bud. “I just hope they’re ours, Skipper.”
“I see Mr. Hollifeld,” Tom declared. “And there’s Nina Kimberley.”
Bud grinned “Kinda stands out—a mermaid among mermen!”
At last the bubblevator touched down on its concrete pad and was automatically locked in place. Tom increased the small bubble until it overlapped the adjacent section of the huge hydrodome airspace, allowing them to walk directly into Helium City.
All around the circular floor of the installation—seafloor of gravel, mud, and sand, dried by infrared lamps—workers rose to their feet from the pipes and machinery they were attending to and waved a greeting at Tom and Bud, which they returned. Wilt Hollifeld, the chief of operations, rushed forward to shake hands. “Glad you’re here! We don’t know what to make of this health problem,” he told Tom. “Started just a while ago, all of a sudden. Doesn’t last long, but when you can’t figure the cause...” Despite his hearty tone, worry was etched on his face.
“Can you think of anything that might have set it off, Mr. Hollifeld? Anything unusual?”
The facility chief shook his head. “Not a thing. Seems it’s over, though. Most everyone’s been released by Dr. Praeger.”
“That’s good to hear!” But the news gave the young inventor only a half dose of cheer. “Still, we’d better figure out what’s going on fast. Bud and I encountered some difficulties on the way down.” He described the unexplained behavior of the bubblevator system.
“We don’t like coincidences,” Bud noted.
They entered the main building, which included the dorm, mess hall, and the small infirmary and sick bay. Tom was introduced to Dr. Praeger, a petite young woman who had interned with Dr. Carman, the chief physician on Fearing Island. “The medical situation seems to have abated, Tom,” she reported. “All but a couple of the men are back at work.”
“May I speak to those two men, doctor?”
The two workers, introduced as Mike and Orlando, were resting on cots in the sick bay section. They appeared somewhat pale but shook hands vigorously as Tom and Bud approached them. “We don’t know any more about it than anybody else,” Mike shrugged. “Just got kinda wheezy.”
“I got wobbly on my feet, Mr. Swift,” added Orlando. “My lungs started gulpin’ air a little, so I figgered I’d better come see the doc. Feel fine now. Er—will this look bad on my work record, ya think?”
Tom grinned. “Not at all. Actually, safety depends on you fellows checking in whenever you’re not in top shape.”
“The Swifts are marshmallows, man,” gibed Bud, who was employed by Enterprises as pilot. “You can get away with anything!”
As Hollifeld and two of the foremen joined the little group, Tom asked: “How many of the workers reported feeling woozy?”
“Altogether, twenty-two,” responded Cara Praeger. “That’s most of the work force. But except for these two big bruisers, everyone was cleared for duty within a couple hours or so. The symptoms were all similar, none of them medically acute.”
“And you don’t know the cause?”
Hollifeld replied for Dr. Praeger. “Nothing’s been identified. No sign of virus, fungus, or bacteria. Body temperatures stayed normal.”
“There was a slight increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which is normal during stress,” Praeger noted. “Mostly it was just a passing spell of wooziness, kind of a choking feeling.”
“I see. Where were the victims when this thing struck them?”
“No one place,” said one of the foremen, “no one job. They were just out workin’ here and there all around the dome, like per usual. It’s what we’re paid for.”
Tom rubbed his chin. “I don’t have any kind of medical training, I know. The way it comes across to a layman, it seems like anoxia—their lungs just weren’t getting enough oxygen.”
“It kinda felt like that,” agreed Mike.
“But we checked out the air and pressure immediately,” Hollifeld pointed out. “Checked the instruments themselves as well. Besides, they would have sounded an alarm automatically.”
“I know,” said Tom, puzzled. “And it would have affected everyone. Okay, let’s use the scientific method—one thing I do know something about! The people who came down with the symptoms seem to have had nothing in particular in common. What about the rest of the work force, the ones who didn’t get sick?”
The hydrodome employees exchanged glances. “The others?” repeated Dr. Praeger. “You mean like me and Wilt here?”
“Joe here came down with it out by the pumping rig, so he doesn’t count,” said one of the foremen. “Me, I didn’t get it, but I wasn’t doing anything special.”
“Well, for example, were the unaffected people all indoors during the critical time period?” Tom suggested.
“I guess most were,” conceded Hollifeld. “But not all of ’em. I was outside all morning, and nothing happened to me.”
“You say... most of the unaffected were indoors,” repeated Tom, looking downward in the depths of thought. Suddenly his face brightened. “Your knees!”
Hollifeld boggled. “Huh? Our knees? What about them?”
Bud suddenly grinned. “Hey, I think I get it. Look at Orlando here, and Mike—and Joe too. Look at the knees on their work uniforms!”
The three gawked at their own knees and the knees of the others, puzzled. “What’re we supposed to be seeing?” grumbled Joe Eyling.
“Your pant knees are grimy, dirty,” Tom declared.
“Yeah? So? Even with the tron running it gets muddy out there.”
“But my knees are clean,” murmured Mr. Hollifeld. “Are you saying something is spreading by way of mud or dirt?”
“No,” stated Tom. “I’m just telling you what I noticed first—and then my ‘scientific intuitions’ led me further. I’m supposed to have an overactive imagination, so I’m told!
“I’m guessing that those who weren’t affected are mostly supervisors or technical support people—you could call yourself that, Doctor—who didn’t have occasion to kneel down or crouch low to the ground during the last day or so. You spend most of the time working indoors, in the building.”
“Sure—not exactly white-glove work, but our knees stay clean, usually. Most of the outside work crew’s almost always getting down and dirty for one reason or another,” agreed Hollifeld. “We others all go out into the open space now and then, naturally, but we don’t usually have to kneel down right on the ground.”
“But...” Dr. Praeger was bewildered. “What’s coming from the ground that could cause such symptoms?”
Tom said, “Not from the ground—near the ground! I’m thinking that heavy trace gases of some kind might have leaked into the dome, gases that drift around but stay concentrated low to the ground. They could be odorless and colorless, but anyone who happens to breathe them in while kneeling or crouching might feel breathless from reduced oxygen.”
“I guess—it’s worth checking out,” Hollifeld admitted. “The intakes for the monitoring sensors are mostly up on the beams, now that I think about it. They’re built into the big overhead pylons that hold the lamps and the air circulation vents. At that height the monitors might not have sucked in enough of the gases to cross the alarm threshold.”
Picking up some hand-held analysis instruments, Tom led the others outside and bent low. “That’s it!” he cried jubilantly. “Argon, radon, nitrous oxides, complex hydrocarbons...”
“A real city with real smog!” Bud joked.
“It stands to reason,” commented Hollifeld. “This whole area is stocked with all manner of gaseous compounds, not just helium.”
“Right now the traces in the air are almost nil,” reported Tom. “The scrubbers have filtered most of the stuff out.”
“If only traces remain, the leakage must have diminished or stopped,” noted Hollifeld. “Some kind of brief or intermittent problem. But Tom—what if it happens again, worse? For all we know it could signal that something big’s going on down here, maybe something that could wipe us out!”
“YOU’RE right,” stated Tom Swift quietly. “We have to take it seriously.”
“Got a theory, pal?” Bud inquired, thinking: Like I have to ask!
“Maybe. Let’s go back inside. I want to look through the recorded monitor data in detail.”
The youth spent an hour poring over the output from the various sensor devices, examining all readings made over the preceding two days. At last he waved Hollifeld over. “I guess I have a correlation. I don’t know just yet how well it works as a cause, though.”
“What did you find that I missed?” the man asked in a defensive tone.
“Nothing anyone could have expected you to find, sir,” replied Tom soothingly. “It was the ‘clue of the knees’ that gave us the real timeframe of the incident. Since we’re dealing with drifting and settling gases, whatever happened initially must have occurred quite some time before the symptoms became noticeable. You wouldn’t have been looking for that.”
“Yes. Didn’t think to,” conceded Hollifeld. “But what could it have been, Tom?”
“Something big enough to have travelled 22,300 miles to do its dirty work!”
Bud’s eyes widened—as he swelled with pride in his best friend’s cool acuity. “Jetz! The repelatron stutter up on the space outpost!”
Tom described the strange, brief phenomenon. “But how could something like that create a flow of gases?” demanded the operations chief skeptically. “Wouldn’t our sensors have detected a repelatron problem like that?”
“They did! It’s just that you were looking in the wrong timeframe.”
Dr. Praeger had approached and was listening intently. “Even if that space event had something to do with the breathing problems—what about the interference you two ran into? That happened within the hour, long after the other phenomenon.”
“Let me explain,” Tom began. “Our usual monitor instruments don’t measure the spacewave repulsion field directly, but only its effects on the materials selected and its backpressure on the repelatron itself. In the outpost we were all in a position to immediately feel the effects of a fluctuation—the repelatron force was what was holding us down. That’s not the case here in the hydrodome. Small-scale oscillations over such a big surface as the dome wouldn’t be very noticeable to the eye, not if it didn’t last long. But,” he continued, “that’s not to say it wouldn’t have a significant effect. It would still hold back the seawater, but I can understand how small ‘wigglings’ at the margins of the air-water interface, the ‘bubble,’ might cause minute nodal points of field decoherence—making the bubble wall porous to certain loose molecules.”
“Like poking pinholes in a paper cup.”
“Allowing heavy trace gases, dissolved in the local seawater, to penetrate into the airspace. If it was along the lines of what happened in space, the whole thing lasted less than a minute—and then the gases began to spread around.”
“But how could that single isolated incident―” Hollifeld began.
Bud interrupted excitedly. “It happened a second time—while we were bubblevatoring down from the platform!”
“I haven’t forgotten!” Tom grinned. “And the record shows that it happened about twenty minutes earlier, too. In fact, by running the sort of enhancement analysis on the digital readings here that we used on the outpost, I was able to isolate an extended pattern of brief ‘bursts’ of tron-field fluctuations at regular intervals, continuing ever since the first one the other day.”
Hollifeld shook his head. “I don’t get it. Why do these periods of fluctuation have different consequences? You mean to say the gases have been leaking into the dome intermittently—and still are?”
Tom nodded his head. “But the later bursts were much weaker in effect, fortunately, though I can coax them out of the automatic monitor data. The cause, whatever it is, ‘de-tunes’ the spacewave field somewhat differently on each repetition. It may be just a random variation—static of a sort. Most of the flux-bursts seemed to have produced no measurable effect in Helium City at all, as far as I can tell.”
“Except... one of them threw off your bubblevator repelatron,” noted Praeger. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s it. The interference was too weak at that point to have much impact on your big dome repelatron, but the much smaller bubblevator repelatron had a much more noticeable reaction. Bud and I will make sure we go back up during one of the null points in the cycle.”
Jack Eyling asked, “But why was the effect limited to the water repellers?”
“Plus the new mini-trons on the outpost,” Bud put in. “It sure didn’t overlook that!”
“Sorry. I don’t have all the answers,” replied Tom ruefully. “It may have something to do with the particular spacewave configurations that the seawater and fabric repelatrons use. It’ll take time to zero-in on the relevant factors.”
There was a long moment of silence, mixed with dismay. “Tom, as chief of the Helium City operation I’m responsible for a lot of lives,” declared Mr. Hollifeld solemnly. “If this thing is continuing even as we speak, who knows what will happen in the next of these fluctuation incidents? Or the one after that!”
Tom felt a great weight on his own shoulders as well. “Mr. Hollifeld, I asked my father to put our undersea evacuation procedures into effect as a precaution. Our research ship, the Sea Charger, is on its way, as well as the three manta-class seacopters docked at Fearing Island—the big freight carriers. I’m authorized to ask you to begin an orderly evacuation of all personnel up to the Atlantica platform as fast as you can manage it, between bursts. Helium City can run on computers for a while, until we can get a handle on what’s going on.”
Hollifeld snapped off a grim nod, the equivalent of a salute. “We’ll get going immediately,” he stated.
Tom added: “As an extra precaution, sir, please bring the secondary repelatron—the emergency backup—up to full activation. Having two overlapping fields might help cushion the effect.”
“Yes, ‘the effect’,” pronounced Dr. Praeger fearfully. “In other words, the possibility that the entire hydrodome air bubble will collapse.”
“I wish I could rule it out,” nodded Tom; “but I can’t.”
After copying the instrument data and contacting his father via long-wave aquarad, relayed through Enterprises’ docking facility on Long Island, Tom and Bud hurried back to the surface. Night over the Atlantic was starry and clear, but to their eyes it seemed overcast with mortal danger that touched many lives.
In Tom’s mind, shadowed by the strange repelatron failures, the events of the hero-convention seemed somehow to merge with the present threat. As Bud piloted them into the sky, he could tell that his friend was brooding and troubled.
“Our skeptical friend Dr. Sarcophagus thinks I spend my time playing around with junk-science, daydreaming in the cause of hoodwinking the gullible public,” Tom muttered to his pal bitterly. “He and his followers think people like me are too lazy and self-indulgent to do real science. They want science-by-committee, not imaginative leaps.
“I’m called a hero, Bud—and these skeptical debunkers have no use for heroes in science. They want math, not some kid’s imagination. Too much fun! But I’m sure not kicking back and having fun at the moment. I’d just as soon turn it all over to a big team of ‘scientifically correct’ researchers.”
Bud nudged him and said quietly, “If you’d done that, a whole submarine city might have ended up drowning, Tom. Please—stay scientifically incorrect!”
They jetted back to Shopton and what was left of the night.
Next morning brought welcome word that the evacuation of the helium hydrodome, as well as the similar subsea complex near the Madeira Islands, had been completed.
Tom spent some time with security chief Harlan Ames and Phil Radnor, his assistant. “We’ve been all over that cryptic card,” Radnor said. “We can’t pull anything useful from it, Tom, not if you need a quick answer. It’s just a standard three-by-five index card. Ordinary ink from a roller-ball gel pen—you can buy ’em anywhere.”
“What about prints on the card?” Tom asked.
“Always the first thing we look for,” replied Ames. “Unfortunately this card came to us pretty well-handled.”
“They passed the cards forward through the crowd,” nodded the youth.
“We’ll pull from it everything that’s there to pull,” declared Ames firmly. A veteran of the Secret Service, he was well-trained in modern criminological technology.
“Well,” Tom said jokingly, “I wouldn’t know anything about all that technological stuff. In any event, the writer might not show up in any fingerprint database. Probably just some guy who thinks it’s fun to rattle celebrities—or likes mysteries even if he makes them himself.”
The three went on to discuss the two men Tom had encountered at the convention. “The information I’ve dredged up is—well, it’s interesting,” Ames pronounced, “but I don’t know if it’s very relevant to the questions at hand.
“This fellow who calls himself ‘Dr. Sarcophagus’—he had to fend off a trademark infringement suit to be able to use the name—is basically a former science writer and accomplished amateur magician who makes a living performing and lecturing. He has a regular magazine column, he blogs, writes indignant letters to indulgent editors—that sort of thing.”
“He’s a pretty entertaining writer,” put in Radnor. “Lots of clever turns of phrase—but he also likes to turn the knife.”
“He makes it personal to the point of tossing off casual insults,” Ames continued. “He has his enemies list, and he doesn’t ‘suffer fools gladly.’ He’s mounted a crusade against what he regards as ‘public pseudoscience’ and ‘paranormal rubbish.’ You don’t want to mention UFO’s or spoon-benders within earshot, Tom.”
“I’ll take care not to,” responded the youth dryly. “What about this organization he mentioned?”
“Ah!—SCAT. Mailing list, 4300. Active members, 3. They traipse around the country debunking whatever they can find to debunk, and then they write it up in their slick quarterly newsletter with big dollops of sarcasm. And yes, they push some lunatic notion that the whole Swift space-contact saga is―”
“Let’s just say moonshine,” interjected his stocky assistant.
Tom nodded. “A big, elaborate, high-tech hoax concealing weapons experimentation and ‘black budgets.’ Gosh, for people who call themselves logic-minded skeptics, they’ve sure committed themselves to a conspiracy theory wilder than anything in the ‘Tom Swift books’!”
“Still, there’s nothing criminal in all this, as far as I can tell,” cautioned Ames thoughtfully. “Freedom of speech is there to be used, I guess, even by fanatics and crackpots. The guy—his real name is Randolph Sarkiewski, and he’s not a ‘doctor’ of anything—is obsessive and pretty full of himself, but as far as I can tell he’s sincere—calls himself a good citizen acting in a worthy cause. And making a little income at it.”
Tom nodded. “It’s sure true that there’s a lot of fake science and urban legendry floating around out there. Anyone who takes on ‘the Church of Informatics’ can’t be all bad!”
“His confrontation with you was probably mostly for publicity,” commented Ames. “Now as for Dr. Karl Feng—you’d probably understand his background more than we would. He’s actually well-respected in his academic field. But his out-there speculations are the kind of thing that drives the skeptics contingent into full rant. The mainstream historians pretty much dismiss the whole business of the Brothers of Hermes and this weird ‘mental alchemy’ theory of Feng’s.”
“That’s his obsession!” Tom chuckled. “Maybe we all have one or two. But his book’s interesting.”
“And let’s not forget—someone thinks the man’s important enough to warn you away from,” Phil Radnor pointed out.
“And to fake a visit from the famous Tom Swift and his signature T-shirt,” added the young prodigy with a wink. “But the incidents could be unrelated. Maybe my double’s just a hero-worshipper.”
Ames grinned. “After all, Swift Enterprises itself sells those tees—over the Net.”
Later in the morning, as Tom sat alone in the office he shared with his father, a wide shadow crossed his desk. Chow stood in the door.
“Jest came to see when you wanted lunch t’day, boss,” said the westerner in the usual gravelly tones of the great pebbled prairies. “An’ Trent out there—he allus gets miffed if’n you call him Munford—said to tell you Lettall M’neeka’s on the way up.”
“Hmm? Who’s—?” But then Tom smiled. “Oh! I’ve never heard it pronounced aloud. Here’s how it’s written.”
He turned his desk appointment book around for the cook to see and pointed to an entry.
“Wa-aal now!—that there’s quite a handle!” chuckled Chow. “She must be a right modern kind o’ gal, hmm?”
“It’s a man,” Tom explained, “and the name, funny as it looks and sounds, is good honest Brungarian. He’s our visiting exchange-astronaut.”
For much of the century concluded the eastern European nation of Brungaria had been a staunch enemy of the United States and the western world. With the fall of communism and the Soviet bloc it had become a hesitant, and occasionally suspicious, friend. With the support of NASA and the State Department, Tom’s father had arranged a one-month exchange of space pilots with the Brungarian equivalent to NASA, called COSMOSA. Enterprises astronaut Neil MacColter had traveled to Brungaria in exchange for one of COSMOSA’s top space trainees—whose name was startling to American eyes and ears.
Chow had a doubtful expression on his face. “Guess I heer’d about that there notion. Sure he ain’t one o’ the usu’l spies, are ya?”
“If he is, pardner, he’s kept it undercover.”
“Ye-aah, well, that’s what they do! But if yew tell me to feed the poke, that’s what I’ll do.”
As Chow began to back out of the office door, he almost knocked over Munford Trent, the Swifts’ executive secretary. “Mr. Monica is here, Tom.”
“Great! Please show him in.”
The young man who entered and offered Tom his hand was lean but muscular, with piercing blue eyes. He had a short moustache, five-o’clock shadow along his jawline that appeared permanent, and hair buzzed so short to his scalp that his hair color could not be determined. “At last!” he said with a bright smile and no discernable accent. “Tom, I’m honored—I know all about you!”
Tom laughed. “Don’t tell me you’ve studied up on me!”
“Ever since I was selected for this assignment I’ve been reading your books, the fiction series. I’m reading them in order, one by one. Quick reads—here you call them ‘page turners,’ don’t you? Just today I finished off Repelatron Skyway, on the plane.”
The scion of Tom Swift Enterprises felt slightly embarrassed. “Lethal, the books... please don’t take them too seriously. They’re really aimed at the young adult market—school kids.”
“But listen, they’re exciting; I’d call them inspiring. What a fine message about human harmony, the Skyway story!” The Brungarian added in a friendly way: “And please, Tom, just call me Lett, won’t you?”
The two sat and talked for a time, and Tom provided some details of the training routine planned for him. “I’m afraid COSMOSA is something of a mess right now,” Lett commented. “As you know, the anti-democratic faction, the Sentimentalists, infiltrated the more advanced elements of my country’s spaceflight program and used them to their own evil purposes. Of course our good-guys regained control after the brief coup was defeated...”
“I’ve been intending to ask you,” Tom interrupted, “are you and the other astronauts at all in touch with Col. Mirov?”
“I’ve come to consider him a friend, Lett. I know he spent some time recovering from his injuries on Little Luna—Nestria. And then he was recalled to military duty in the uprising against the coup leaders.”
The young Brungarian’s face clouded with thought. “Yes, Mirov. Something of a hero to my countrymen.”
Hero. That word has worn out its welcome! came into Tom’s mind. “I haven’t been able to get in touch with him lately. Has he decided to retire? I thought he might rejoin your space program in some capacity.”
“No, not as far as I know,” shrugged Lett. “The sad fact is... even the new Brungaria retains its old habits. Perhaps it’s part of our Slavic culture. There’s always hidden backbiting and deal-making and—what is your phrase? Kissing upward from beneath?”
“That’s a good approximation,” Tom smiled.
“At any rate, we in COSMOSA have the impression that Col. Mirov is somewhat out of favor these days. I don’t mean he’s suffered any bad consequence, Tom. But I think right now he wishes to enjoy a private life—and the politicians are pleased to permit him to do so.” He changed the topic. “Now then, pal, as this flyboy of yours calls you in the stories, I suppose I should find my quarters and commence―”
Lett Monica was interrupted by a string of rhythmic musical tones. “Aha!” he laughed. “The Brungarian National Anthem!—here I am in America with my cellphone.”
He held the unit to his ear and answered. “Daz? Oh! Most surely.” He looked up at his host with raised eyebrows. “Somebody asks to speak to you, Tom.”
Strange, Tom thought. “Hello,” said Tom into the phone. “This is Tom.”
There was a lengthy pause, long enough for Tom to wonder if anyone was on the other end. “Tom Swift. Do I have your attention now, Tom? Think very carefully about the message I gave you. Stay away from Feng. He has earned his fate!”
FROM PARTS UNKNOWN
“WHAT? What do you mean? Who is this?” But Tom’s words came without thinking—he knew they would prove useless, as always in such cases. He handed the phone back to Lett Monica. “He hung up on me.”
“One of those mysterious telephone threats, is it?” asked the Brungarian with a smile. “Or is that only in the stories?”
“It happens,” Tom frowned. “He had your cell number, Lett, and obviously knew you’d be here with me right now. In fact... might someone have followed you here to the building?”
“I noticed no one, genius boy. You might ask my security escort, Maury. Nice guy.”
“I will. Did the voice seem familiar to you?”
“Not at all. And Tom, if you’re really asking whether it sounded to me like another of my fellow dirty Brungarian spies—also no. But all he did was ask for you, just a few words.”
“He said more to me,” snorted the young inventor. “And actually—the voice did strike me as a little familiar, somehow. But I can’t place it.”
Monica chuckled. “Sure! In every plot there has to be a buildup of mystery.”
Tom cut off the banter as politely as he could. “I’ll report this to Security. Now I’ll walk you over to the plant guest duplex, where you’ll be staying.”
“And maybe I’ll meet Bud Barclay and your father,” said Lett as he stood. “Not to slight the semi-regulars, eh?” Tom forced a thin smile.
Returning to his office after leaving Monica to relax and unpack, Tom was pleased to find Bud awaiting him—especially pleased, because Tom wanted someone to listen to his account of the Brungarian visitor and the phantom phone call. “C’mon, pal, it’s not a real threat if they don’t say ‘or else’! Could be worse. Might’ve been an attorney.
“So what do you think of this ‘Lett’ guy?”
Tom shrugged. “Nice guy. Since you’ll be involved in training him, flyboy, I should warn you—he’s read those darn books and likes to use expressions like... flyboy.”
“Well, it’s not like they’re trademarked,” laughed the San Franciscan. “Of course, if he starts in with genius boy...!”
Tom was swift enough to withhold comment. “My brain feels a little full right now. Human threats are one thing, but I’m totally baffled by the repelatron field phenomenon. Quite a bit of our undersea work depends upon the repelatrons.”
“Not to mention our space trips,” agreed Bud. “Man, it’s hard to imagine a world without repelatrons these days! Do you still think the big comet might have something to do with it?”
Tom leaned on his desk, thinking. “The only reason I even thought of the comet was that it was a new factor in the ‘equation,’ and our initial problem occurred in space. But really,” he continued, “there’s nothing at all unusual or unexplained about Comet Tarski. We’ve looked it over with the megascope and the usual long range instruments in preparation for our visit.” Enterprises was planning a trip to the comet, including a landing, in the Challenger. Lett Monica would be part of the mission.
“You know, with a few exceptions comets are mostly visual phenomena, things to be seen. However bright they look against black space, however long their tails might be, they don’t really amount to much physically. They have little mass or heat. They’re not radioactive. It’s just that they’re striking to look at—people like to read a lot of significance into unusual things like that.”
“In other words, comets have good publicity agents. Image is everything!”
Not smiling, Tom studied his friend thoughtfully. “Do you really think that’s true? Is image everything?”
Bud lost his jauntiness. “What’s wrong, Tom? What’s going on with you? I know this repelatron bit endangers lives, but—we’ve faced that more than a few times, right? You always handle it.”
“Yeah,” replied Tom. “That’s what heroes and genius boys do, hmm?”
Casting about for a change of subject, Bud snapped a mental finger and said, “Um, say—shouldn’t you be telling me about your latest invention?”
“Like in the books?”
“Forget the books!” responded the black-haired youth sharply. “What about that space-scooper gadget you mentioned?”
“Want to hear about it?”
“Jetz, since when do you ask?”
Tom smiled. “Okay. I call it a telesampler.”
“Naming it’s a good start.”
“I have to name ’em quick or they get nicknamed. Want to see it? I’ve been fooling around with it in my electronics shop just down the hall.”
“Absolutely!” Bud exclaimed. “Let’s head down to the lab and see what’s on the slab.”
“Nothin’. Something my Dad says.”
As they walked the few dozen steps to the door of Tom’s mini-lab—one of many throughout Enterprises’ four-mile-square complex—the young inventor gave Bud a preface. “I started working on the idea quite a while ago, when Dr. Tarski identified the comet by telephotometry, long before it was visible to the eye.”
“Heading in from Comet Central, hmm? The Kuiper Belt?”
Tom shook his head. “This one’s an oddball. It’s coming into the plane of the solar system at a high angle—possibly from interstellar space; so I guess it does have a little special interest after all.”
“Could it have come from some other solar system?”
“That’s not a likely scenario, flyboy. It probably originated in a cloud of interstellar material not orbiting a star but floating free—leftovers from the galaxy’s early days. Some random collision jarred it loose and sent it on its way.”
“Got it,” Bud nodded, “and I know the astronomers have all said it won’t come near the earth.”
“No, but it does cross the earth’s orbit more or less, about a third of the way ahead. Then it’ll snap around the sun and head back out into deep space. But it’s got itself roped by the sun now, and it’ll be orbiting back in, oh, a few million years or so.”
“I’ll keep an eye out.”
They entered the lab and Tom gestured toward one of the work counters, littered with wires, components, and test equipment. “The telesampler!” Tom said grandly. “Or at least—the telesampler in the making.”
Bud approached the counter and walked around it, eyeing the heap of technology. “Hi there, Swift invention!” he said jauntily. “So this is your super space scooper. Does it work, Skipper?”
“Good enough for a demo. I’ll switch it on and set the focus to―”
Tom stopped as a low, wavering humming sound seeped into the lab from the hallway beyond, like a drone from some distant world.
Bud’s face brightened with a mischievous grin. “Get your telesampler bench rig ready, Tom!” he urged in muffled tones. “Chow's coming!”
Tom admitted he was ready for a spark of diversion. The two conferred in whispers for a moment.
Then the door swung open and a plump, cowboy-booted figure came clumping into the room, pushing a lunch cart in front of his ample midriff. “Thought I hear’d Buddy Boy in here. Soup's on, buckaroos!” he boomed. “An’ looky here at this chocolate cake I jest baked!”
“Mmm, boy! Looks delicious!” Bud said. He reached one hand down behind the laboratory workbench, out of the cook’s view, then pulled out his fingers globbed with chocolate frosting. “Tastes delicious, too!” Bud added, licking off the icing with loud lip smacks.
Chow blinked in surprise. He looked at the cake, then stared at Bud, goggle-eyed. “B-b-brand my beefsteak, what's goin’ on here?”
Although Bud was ten feet from the lunch cart, a hunk had just been gouged out of the cake frosting!
Chow’s eyes, bulging more than usual, fixed on Tom. “Time t’ mess around with my ole bald hat-rack, huh. Okay boss, what’s this here whipsnipper doin’ this time?”
“Don’t panic, old-timer,” Bud said soothingly. “I don't aim to eat it all up—not in one gulp, anyways.” He thrust his fingers out of sight again and in a moment was licking off more icing.
Chow's jaw sagged and his double chin quivered in helpless astonishment—with a Tabasco touch of indignation. Before his very eyes the gouge in the cake frosting was growing larger!
“Quit funnin’ me!” he bellowed, glaring at Bud. “My brain’s one thing, but now yuh’re messin’ with my cake! You’d best b’lieve me when I say yew don’t wanna do that!”
At Chow's ferocious expression, the boys gave way to howls of good-natured laughter.
Tom switched off the device. “Don’t mind flyboy, Chow. He’s not really the one who’s swiping your icing—my telesampler here is the culprit.”
“Telesampler, my newest invention. It’s designed to obtain samples of any substance at a distance.”
Chow stared at the complicated hookup of microcircuitry, enclosed in protective panels of transparent plastic. Clamped to the top of the assembly was a swivel-mounted dish antenna, from the center of which protruded an odd microwave emitter of latticework rings. The whole antenna was mounted in turn at the center of a much larger metal grillwork, curved in the manner of a trough. A flexible tube led from the rear of the assembly to a large Tomaquartz beaker, which Bud now brought into view. Chow could see a few smears of cake frosting in the bottom.
Chow walked closer, scowling, and pointed a finger suspiciously at the antenna. “You mean t’say this here thingumabob sucked the frosting right off the cake—my cake!—like a—like a gol-blame vacky-oom cleaner?”
Tom grinned. “Well, not quite like a vacuum cleaner. But it’s the guilty party all right. The device operates by an electromagnetic wave action. In principle at least, the final version can work at ranges of hundreds of millions of miles.”
“Hoppin’ horned toads!” the cook blurted. “Then if I cooked up a mess o’ frijole beans out in Texas, you could sample ’em right here in Shopton—is thet what yuh’re sayin’?”
“I could if I had a clear line of sight and my telesampler had enough power to work with. This experimental lab setup couldn’t do it, of course. Anyhow,” Tom added with a chuckle, “I’d rather have you working your chuckwagon here at Enterprises, pard.”
Though Chow never held a grudge, his wide face did hold a frown as he eyed his victimized cake. “Nice t’ hear! Don’t look to these eyes like you two got much ree-spect fer my perfession. Didn’t need to take out sech a holy hunk to make a point.”
“Just funnin’ ya, Chow,” said Bud apologetically. “And, er—besides―”
“Besides, old Tom needed some cheering up,” Tom finished wryly. “Don’t let the telesampler spook you, though. It was only able to grab such a large amount of material―”
“—because the distance was only a few feet. Under its normal conditions of use, it will only be able to convey a stream of individual molecules, just enough for an analysis at the receiving end.”
Mollified, Chow began to dish out an appetizing lunch of lean steak and fatless French fries—much more flavorful than its description. “Jest a few bitty mollycules, huh. Don’t plan t’ make much of a hole fer yer minin’ operations, I guess.”
“It’s not for mining, pardner,” Tom explained. “You see, really long-range instrumental analysis of distant objects—planets and other space bodies, like asteroids—isn’t as precise as scientists might want. Telespectrometry, Doppler radar analysis—it gives a general picture, but it’s like taking a snapshot of a distant mountain. Some of the details get blurred out.”
“Cain’t see th’ forest fer th’ trees, hm?”
“Yep. And of course some things out there are too attenuated or distant to reflect light back to optical instruments. That’s why we send landers to planetary surfaces, or let them fall into atmospheres: it’s the only way to get actual samples of matter to examine in detail.”
“Tom’s going to try it out on the comet,” Bud said through a few French fries.
“That so?” Chow continued to peer at the telesampler rig. “Wa-aal now, how does she work, boss? I figger ya already went over it with Bud, like as always.”
“Well, basically,” Tom explained between mouthfuls, “the antenna pulses out a high-energy microwave beam, concentrated like a superthin laser beam, that knocks particles loose from the surface of the target substance. Sort’ve the same way a beam of light knocks free electrons off a photoelectric plate.”
“I don’t unnerstand that neither, son,” grumped the ex-Texan. “How d’ye make them lil bitty party-cules o’ the stuff come back to you?”
“Robot carrier pigeons,” Bud said unhelpfully.
“The momentary ‘hotspot’ produces a microsized puff of what’s called plasma, a very thin gas of molecules with a net electric charge. The plasma is barely detectable, but it packs just enough punch to carry the loosened target molecules along with it back to Earth—the plasma, because it bears a charge, can be propelled along by the reflected electromagnetic beam as it returns to the transmitter.”
“Like radar,” Bud put in. “The bounceback carries the ion gas, and the ion gas carries the target particles. Piece o’... cake.”
“And,” Tom concluded, “the curving receiver panel functions as what’s called a wave guide, sending the sample through the connecting tube to the recovery tank—in this case the plastic beaker Bud was scooping the icing from.”
Chow shook his head admiringly. “Brand my burro, it’s plumb wonderful! Why, a prospector wouldn’t need t’ pan fer gold with this lil ole whatchamacallit! A feller could jest fly around up in th’ air takin’ samples and mark it on a map.”
“Yes.” Tom nodded. “Matter of fact, this afternoon Bud and I are going to test this preliminary model in mineral prospecting. It has practical uses here on Earth as well as out in space. It won’t just detect radioactive substances like my Damonscope does, or metals like Dad’s metal detector—it will actually scoop up samples of anything I aim it at—or so I’m hoping.”
“So the beam can pierce soil?” Bud asked.
“Not yet. The ‘capture beam’ itself has little penetrating power—that gold of yours, Chow, would have to be lying on the ground in plain sight, I’m afraid. But my perfected model will have something extra for subsurface probing.” Now energized himself, Tom added that the telesampler system also would analyze and identify the sample automatically by a Swift Spectroscope and some other advanced instruments developed by Enterprises. “With my space model, I’m hoping to mineral-prospect distant moons and other celestial bodies. It’ll be the heart of the comet probe operation I’m putting together.”
“Wow! How about that, Chow?” Bud exclaimed. “Imagine bringing home a piece of comet!”
“Sure beats a pickax.”
Chow plucked off his chef’s hat and ran a beefy palm over his sparsely-attended scalp. “Looks like your fuzz up there is starting to run wild,” gibed Bud. He patted the telesampler controls. “Want a little off the top?”
“Naw, Buddy Boy. Ain’t had much need fer a real haircut since Texas came t’ Abilene.” Chow turned to Tom. “Jest one o’ my colorful Texas toss-offs, boss. Like as they allus have me spoutin’ in them―”
“Let’s start packing up the machine,” Tom said to Bud, darkly.
Presently the two boys jeeped out to the airfield. The Sky Queen had already been raised from its special underground hangar. This giant, three-decker aircraft, solar-powered and equipped with jet lifters for VTOL hovering, had become known worldwide as Tom Swift’s Flying Lab.
Several employees and mechanics who had just completed the prep protocol were standing by. Hank Sterling, the blond, square-jawed chief engineer of Enterprises, and Arvid Hanson, a hulking master craftsman who oversaw the fabrication of working prototypes of Tom’s inventions, hailed their young chief as he climbed out of the midget electric vehicle, called a nanocar.
“Ready for take-off, Skipper?” Sterling asked.
“Sure thing, Hank!”
“Here’s the model,” Bud called over, “packed in this―”
He was overlapped by: “Say there, fellow travelers!” Lett Monica came strolling up from where he had stepped off Enterprises’ moving-walk conveyor system, the ridewalk. “All set up in the bungalow, Tom. I thought I might meet some others of your posse. You are Bud, aren’t you?” The Brungarian offered his hand.
Shaking it, Bud grinned. “Strong grip, Lett! Is muscle-building part of space training over there?”
“No, physical development is a national goal in the new Brungaria. These muscles come from high school gym class!”
After introducing Lett to Hank and Arv, who had been briefed on the astronaut-exchange program, Tom asked Lett to join the Sky Queen’s testing mission. Lett reacted enthusiastically. “My word, Skipper! Fabulous! Your celebrity airship and your latest invention too—um, have I misapplied my English, Bud?”
Bud’s grin had thinned down at the word Skipper. “No... not at all. You speak better than I do, Lett.” He flashed Tom a glance that spoke volumes.
Arv Hanson said hastily, “Where’s your telesampler to be installed, Tom?”
“I had the hangar crew pull out the big searchlight and bolt some clamps onto the extender boom. We can use the searchlight’s gimbal base to aim the telesampler.” He explained to Lett that the Flying Lab’s powerful Swift Searchlight was designed to be extended out beyond the metal skin of the huge jetcraft. “The sampler beam is blocked by solid objects. It took some doing to figure out how to get through air without fuzzing out.”
The five climbed aboard the ship with the telesampler carrying crate rolling on a handtruck. As Tom and Hank installed and checked over the jerry-rigged device in the searchlight bay, Arv and Bud gave Lett a tour of the versatile skyship. “A marvel of the air, quite majorly, dudes,” exclaimed the Brungarian. “Cool! Wowee! Man, send my sinuses to Arizona!”
“Er—we like it,” said Hanson politely.
“Say, Lett, whereabouts in Brungaria are you from?” asked Bud. “Volkonis?”
“Hey, a city which owes much to you amigos!” The young trainee laughed. “No, no, our capital is too stately for younger people—we who have grown up after the Revolution. I hang with my family in newly built suburbs, in the northwest. And your family, Bud—in San Francisco?”
“I’d say I have family in two places—S’Fran and here in Shopton.”
“Love it!—this loyalty to your best pal. Alas, chum, back in dear old Brunka I have only a girlfriend or two.”
Arv Hanson commented dryly, “That sounds like a sufficient amount.”
“Yeah. But don’t think me oppressively macho. You see, in the new Brungaria the young women have been liberalized.”
Tom called them to the forward control compartment over the intercom. The small sky crew had completed the pre-flight check list, and the tower radioed clearance for takeoff. With a roar of its jet lifters the Sky Queen soared vertically into the blue, smoothly turning onto its heading over Lake Carlopa. “I plan to do some swimming in that lake of yours,” Lett remarked as the whole broad landscape of upstate New York began to unfold below them. “I hope to learn a great deal of this country during my stay. I wish to learn to surf and become a typical beach bunny. You surf, don’t you, flyboy?”
“When I can,” replied the Californian. “But I’m low on the bunnyhood scale.”
At a thousand feet Tom leveled off and pursued the short flight to the west. Presently he eased down to a lower altitude as they came to a barren, hilly area chosen for the test. “There’s a pretty varied and interesting geology in this region,” Tom told Lett. “We saw it from underneath not too long ago—in my underground vehicle, the geotron.”
“Jetz, chum, now there’s a book for which I could set my seat on fire!” exclaimed Lethal Monica.
Foregoing interpretation, the young inventor turned to his copilot. “Okay, take over, Bud. Keep her hovering steady until I com you to move on to the next spot.”
Asking Hanson and Sterling to monitor the telesampler’s overall performance through the main board monitor readouts on the command deck, Tom climbed down into the searchlight bay and wriggled into a small fold-down seat facing the telesampler console. A low hum came from the machine as he switched on power. Thrilled as always to commence chipping away at the Unknown, Tom shoved a lever. Through the observation slit in the bulkhead before him, he saw the emitter antenna of the transmission unit move out into position, silhouetted against mottled ground and bright sky. He aimed it at a bare patch of soil below and tuned the circuits.
A blink of light on the monitoring board proclaimed welcome news even before Tom glanced into the sample receptacle. “Got something!” he chortled over the ship intercom. “Just a tiny smudge—but something!”
“Congratulations, Tom,” Hank Sterling commed in reply. “Everything meters out fine up here—the output profile is exactly as you calculated.”
With a grin of pure pleasure, Tom eyed the master analysis oscillograph. “Dredged up some aluminum silicate—that’s clay to you boys up there. Let’s try that next hill, Pilot Barclay.”
The Sky Queen moved ahead with a twitch of forward power, ambling along slowly on its jet lifters. Again Tom aimed and tuned the telesampler beam-transmitter.
He frowned in startled surprise at the indication on the readout panel—but only for a split second. Before he could give name to his thoughts, a blinding flash arced upward from the ground and the compartment exploded around him in purple-white lightning!
THE USUAL SUSPECT
THE INTERCOM speakers throughout the skyship screeched like fingernails on a blackboard, then collapsed into static. “What’s happened?” gulped Hank Sterling.
“Jetz! Tom!” choked Bud. A swath of indicators on his board were flashing red! With a single sweep of hand he switched on the craft’s sophisticated automatic pilot system and rocketed out of his seat toward the metal stairs leading down to the bottom deck. Wisps of yellow-gray smoke were already billowing up the stairwell, and the air was tainted by the acrid smell of fried electronics.
The youth was horrified by the sight that met his eyes as he leapt from the bottom step in the direction of the searchlight bay. The overhead lights, flickering dully, gave only faint illumination to a compartment thick with stinging smoke. Visibility zero! thought the copilot desperately. The searchlight bay must be on fire!
Bud tensed to dash forward through the smoke. Then he drew back—a dark silhouette loomed up in the bay hatchway in front of him. As it came nearer, he made out two figures: Lethal Monica and, sagging and stumbling in the grip of his arms, Tom.
“H-how—how is—?” Bud stuttered.
“T’neb—here, help lower him,” gasped Lett. “The air low down―”
“I know, better,” said Bud, taking half his pal.
The young inventor was stunned but conscious. As Bud and Lett eased him down flat, he whispered, “I’m—I’ll be okay—the air circulators...”
“Hank, step up the air system!” Bud shouted up the stairwell. “Arv, get down here with a flashlamp!”
Even as Arv Hanson joined them, flashlamp in hand, the ship’s interior circulation and filtration system had begun to whisk away the pungent smoke. Tom sat up weakly, ignoring Bud’s gentle protest. “No... no, I’m all right. Nothing broken.”
“What about your eyes?” asked Lett.
“Still working. There was no concussive blast, fortunately; no flying glass. Got a few burns and scrapes, though—oww!”
“If you think you’re all right,” said Arv, “I guess the next question is—what about the ship? Was the hull breached?”
Tom rose to his feet unsteadily before he answered. “No. I’m sure we’re intact. At least... Swift and the Sky Queen are intact. From the glimpse I got, I’d say our test routine is over for today.”
Tom slowly approached the bay hatchway and asked Hanson to shine his light within. “Good gosh!” he murmured. “The console looks like it went through a blast furnace—and that’s just the part inside the plane. The transmitter setup out there must look like a battered bird cage!”
Standing close at Tom’s side, Lett asked, “Not an explosion, but what then? Great heat, but I see nothing burning.”
Tom ran a hand through singed hair. “Think of it as a lightning strike.”
“Hunh?” Bud objected. “The sky’s as clear as anything!”
“Not from the sky, pal,” responded Tom. “This was man-made lightning that struck upward from the ground.”
“Some kind of weapon?” Arv inquired worriedly.
The young prodigy gave a weary half-smile. “Not this time, I think. It’s something I’d envisaged as a danger and thought I’d ruled out.
“The outgoing pulse-charge beam must have cut into a buried power conduit, near the surface under loosely-packed dirt. Feeble as it is, the capture beam nibbled the rest of the way through the insulation to the cable itself.”
Bud asked, “But what caused the flash? Wouldn’t the power short to the ground?”
“Normally yes, but this is one of those famous Tom Swift inventions, and nothing is exactly normal. Some of the current—more than enough!—must have surged up the path of the ionized particles in the beam, like a lightning discharge.” Tom frowned and ran his fingers through his blond crewcut again. “Anyhow, that’s my guess. The telesampler’s wave action is so complicated, it’s hard to tell exactly.” After a moment he added that the dense smoke and charring came, not from flame, but from the flash-vaporization of the device’s protective plastic panels under the electrical onslaught. “The Tomaquartz window and Tomasite-Inertite coating on the hull stopped most of the surge. It came inside through the main power leads and connector sockets. Looks like I was pretty lucky—the spray of hot particles mainly jetted into the bulkheads and ceiling.”
“Yah!” agreed Lethal Monica. “Or it would be Fire Sale on Young Inventors!”
“This is no time for jokes,” Bud frowned.
After a last look Tom led the others back up to the control compartment and briefed Sterling. “The damage was fairly well contained,” he reported. “The Queen’s main systems read out okay.”
Tom nodded, but his face showed no relief. “Well and good. But something went wrong somewhere, guys. In planning our route I checked out all the underground placements and made sure the guidance brain kept us clear of them. I was only making small adjustments on the stick. The cybertron and localculator set the overall course.”
“We didn’t deviate from that course by an inch, genius boy!” Bud insisted. “Our locational readouts were exactly as you’d told me!”
Tom gave his pal’s shoulder a tap. “I’m not doubting it, Bud. I think the readouts themselves are at fault. We’re miles away from the designated test area.” He quickly confirmed his judgment by running a series of diagnostic routines on the ship’s systems. “I was right,” he pronounced, “but in this case I’d rather be wrong. The problem was a sudden glitch in the localculator’s central spin-vector resolver. Not an electronics problem; a major deviation in the spin component of the calibration particles themselves.”
Three faces looked blank, but Hank Sterling’s was furrowed with disbelief. “I don’t follow you, boss. The spin coefficients are a basic physical property of matter. They’re not something that could suddenly go bad.”
“Right—it’s impossible,” Tom nodded. “But for about half a minute along the way, the impossible happened. Just as it happened before, on the space outpost and in the hydrodome!”
The brief flash-pulse had affected the Sky Queen’s radiocom as well as the in-ship intercom, but she was equipped with a Private Ear Radio linked to the Swift Enterprises control tower. As Tom piloted the plane back to Enterprises he received some dismaying news. “What a break!” he groaned. “The plane and lightning flash were seen from the ground, and George Dilling just received a call from the mayor of Greenwichville. We blacked out the town!”
“Tough toenails, eh?” remarked Lett Monica in a joshing tone. “Just like in the opening chapter of the Atomic Earth Blaster story. And there was something similar in Space Solartron.”
“Enterprises is getting a real reputation among the public utilities companies,” Arv Hanson chuckled.
Tom frowned at the Brungarian space trainee. “Lett, could you do me a favor?”
“Please—don’t mention those books again.”
Arriving at Enterprises, Tom sought out his father. “We’ve smoothed things over a bit—the public’s usually with you, son. I hear you’re something of a hero! We assured the mayor and the state people that we’ll handle immediate repairs and compensate all damages. Fortunately, Greenwichville is a small town.”
The young inventor groaned. “Boy, this just isn't my day! At least there’s one bright spot, if anybody’s counting—the telesampler seemed to work fine on that first sample we took.”
Harlan Ames, whose office was next door, joined them presently. “I heard what happened. I suppose I should do my duty and ask—was there anything suspicious about the incident?”
“Scientifically suspicious,” Tom replied. “But not humanly suspicious.” But then his face darkened as Ames and his father waited for more. “Of course, I’m making an assumption—that this freakish physical phenomenon we’ve been dealing with is coming from nature, not man.”
“Exactly why I asked,” stated Ames. “If intelligent beings—the kind Dr. Sarcophagus thinks are mythical—can do things like move asteroids around and produce artificial earthquakes, we can’t eliminate something planned and deliberate.”
“With what purpose?” asked Mr. Swift.
Tom answered. “The space friends don’t seem to need what we call a purpose, at least none that we can understand here on Earth. The possibility’s been in the back of my mind, Dad, Harlan. We may want to send them an inquiry over the magnifying antenna.”
“I’ll begin composing one,” promised Tom’s father.
“What’s in my restless mind,” Ames went on, “is the fact that the Brungarians, the Sentimentalists faction, have previously established some kind of working relationship with the space friends’ superiors on Planet X, wherever in space that might be. And by a nervy coincidence, we now have a visitor from Brungaria here at the plant—and up in the Sky Queen with you.”
“I don’t know...” shrugged the scientist-inventor. “He comes across as a boy-next-door type, real eager to please us and learn the ropes. Which is just a twinge of intuition—means nothing, I guess. I just don’t like the idea of making any foreign visitor an automatic ‘usual suspect.’ Do we really have to start off mistrusting everyone?”
“We do in my business,” retorted Ames dryly. “Especially when you tell me the intriguing fact that this Monica kid somehow beat Bud Barclay down to the compartment and dragged you out. As if he knew in advance what was going to happen, one might say. Hmm?”
“I guess that’s true,” Tom acknowledged. “Hank told me he jumped up instantly when the intercoms started squawking. So by the cold hard logic of scientific evidence, he has to be classified as a suspect. Right?”
Tom stood and left the room, telling the older men that he wanted to examine the remains of the telesampler. “Damon, is something wrong?” asked Harlan Ames quietly. “Tom sounds one-off lately.”
Mr. Swift nodded. “I’ve noticed it. So have his mother and Sandy. But he doesn’t choose to talk, and I don’t choose to probe.” He smiled. “Inasmuch as it would be a complete waste of effort!”
Ames chuckled. “It’s a miracle we manage to survive our offspring.” A widower, the security chief had a daughter of about Tom’s age.
Next morning Bud looked up his pal in the young inventor’s big lab-workshop, which opened onto the Flying Lab’s gigantic underground hangar. “I’ve got our energetic Brungarian doing a workout routine in the zero-G chamber,” he chuckled. “Now he has a reason to be bouncing off the walls! So what’s up in here? Busy? Is the no-quip lamp on?”
Tom grinned. “Never! Just hashing out plans for the Comet Tarski probe flight.”
“I figured you’d be down here trying to unscramble what’s left of your poor space-scooper.”
“Arv Hanson and Linda are working up a new prototype from my plans, in their shop. I came up with a beam-conductivity limiter last night—somewhere between nodding and dreaming.”
“Nothing stops a Swift, least of all his eyelids,” Bud joked. “But it looks like you are working on something, genius boy.” He gestured across the room to a well-littered workbench. On top a long shiny cylinder, like a rod, was mounted on a swivel base. The end nearest the base bristled with the customary tangle of wires. “It looks like some kind of gun.”
“You’re not far from right,” replied Tom. “C’mere, let me show you something.”
Tom led his friend to the thick, shielded observation window that looked in on the lab’s test chamber. Inside, a series of objects, all in line, had been clamped to a frame. One was a diamond-shaped polyhedron, like two pyramids joined together at their square bases, turned into a horizontal orientation. It seemed to be “aimed” at a metal plate several feet distant. A baseball sized chunk of white material was suspended on the further side of the plate.
“Watch,” Tom said as he manipulated the control panel on the wall next to the viewpane.
Bud watched. There was no change inside the test chamber. “Er—has it happened yet?”
“Not quite yet.” Tom’s finger stabbed a button.
The white chunk suddenly cracked in two and fell to pieces in an explosive burst of white powder!
“Ohh-kay,” said Bud. “A new explosive? Tom-swiftamite, maybe?”
“Please, I’m too peace-loving for that! Says so right in the books.” As Tom spoke, Bud caught a trace of something in his chum’s voice that made him uneasy. “What I’m doing,” Tom went on, “is developing a new kind of ultra-long-range laser that works in the high X-ray part of the spectrum—an X-raser.”
“Looks like this kind of X-raying might not be so good for the patient’s health.”
“It’s not recommended for medical use,” Tom chuckled. “It’s going to be a key part of the final ‘space’ version of my telesampler. It’ll work in tandem with the microwave ‘capture’ beam, which will still be used to convey the sampled particles back to the receiver. I’m calling the combined emission unit a transmitron.” Launching into a well-Bud explanation, Tom reminded his friend that the original microwave pulse-beam had only a limited ability to penetrate solid matter.
“Just enough to do damage,” Bud commented wryly.
“X-rays, of course, have superior penetrating power, and as the frequency is much higher, so is the energy level—the bang for your buck.” Tom explained that the beam from the X-raser, propagating over millions of miles with virtually zero dispersion, would not only penetrate the surface of whatever it struck down to a precise depth, but would replace the ionizing microwave hotspot used in the earlier version. The terminus of the X-raser beam would free the solid particles to be sampled, and would simultaneously liberate sufficient energy to produce the thin ion-plasma that the reflected capture beam would carry back to the telesampler. “In theory the X-raser could probe down dozens of feet, even hundreds in some cases. We could find out what’s inside Io, or what’s underneath the frozen seas of Triton!”
“I’ve been wondering about that,” Bud nodded dryly. “And I’d guess it might have some uses in comet-probing.”
“Absolutely,” grinned Tom excitedly. “From our long-range studies it’s not clear whether the comet’s core has a surface that the Challenger could safely set down on. By using the transmitron model of the telesampler, we could start taking deep samples days before the ship reaches Tarski.”
“Okay, now I get what the test setup is,” Bud declared with a nod toward the chamber. “The pyramid deal is the X-raser itself, that hunk of whatever was the test target, and the metal plate shows how the beam can pass through solid objects.”
“Right, flyboy. And you’d have to hold the magtritanium plate up to the light to see the hole the beam made as it burned through. It’s as thin as a human hair!”
“Mine or Chow Winkler’s?” inquired Bud jokingly.
Bud’s joke didn’t have a chance to elicit laughter. Tom’s pocket cellphone buzzed. The youth plucked it up and answered.
“This is Security, Tom,” came the voice of Phil Radnor. “We just got an excited call from George Dilling. We’ve got an over-the-top situation brewing out in front of the plant.”
“Over-the-top?” Tom repeated.
“You’ll agree when I tell you. It seems somebody’s out in front of the main gate threatening to block it with a picket line! Can you guess who it is? That little old skeptical inquirer himself. Dr. Sarcophagus!”
“GOOD GOSH, Doctor!—that is, Mister Sarkiewski― ”
“Oh, just call me The Amazing Randy.”
“Just how far do you plan to go to publicize your point of view, Mister Sarkiewski?” snapped Tom Swift.
He and Bud had raced to the main gate of Swift Enterprises, joining Harlan Ames and several of his security patrollers. On the other side of the gate bars stood the beefy figure of Dr. Sarcophagus, clad in white shirt and sportcoat, both somewhat wrinkled and threadbare. As was the man himself, Bud noted.
Casually marching back and forth, as a clogged stream of cars waited and honked on the access road behind, the celebrity skeptic bore a placard that read:
TAKE THE SARCOPHAGUS CHALLENGE,
SET THE TRUTH FREE!
The young inventor noted that the media had been alerted to the confrontation well in advance. A throng of overexcited cameras and caffeinated reporters jostled one another, blocking the gate even more effectively than Sarcophagus could do himself.
“I’ve called the Shopton Police,” stated Harlan Ames with cold calm. “I’d say you have about four minutes to stand aside. This is private property.”
“Sure of that?” taunted the man. “I’d say about, oh, 73.6 percent of this entire operation has been funded by the public. You’ve received a nice treasure chest of government grants, regulatory exemptions, generous zoning concessions, discounted utilities, special tax breaks. And you know, Harlan, your efficient plant security setup—basically a combination corporate police force and private army—couldn’t exist if the government leaders who are pledged to work for something called The People weren’t inclined to look the other way.
“And of course there’s the Swift public image, which, as they say, ‘makes the impossible possible.’ Can’t have a public image without the indulgence of the public, eh? Seems to me, friend, The People are the real owners of this fabulous factory. Lucky for you they’ve been hoodwinked into refraining from exercising their right of oversight.”
Tom knew Bud was boiling like a nuclear furnace, and he also knew that escalating the surreal situation would only make matters worse, however much the watchful media might appreciate it. “Don’t feed the cameras, flyboy,” Tom whispered. He turned to Sarkiewski, whose slow march forced Tom to walk along opposite him. “All right... Doctor. Is there something specific we can do for you? What’s this ‘challenge’ I’m supposed to accept for the good of science and humanity and The Truth?”
The man smiled condescendingly. “You forgot my Arbitron ratings. I’m just a publicity seeker, hmm? Gadfly? Crank? Irritant?”
“Just how am I supposed to set the truth free?” Tom demanded quietly. “What truth?”
“Ah, the truth! What is it, where is it? But I hear The Truth is Out There!—way out, in the case of Swift Enterprises and your mystery guests from the aptly named Planet X!”
“All right, sir. You don’t have to talk to me,” grated Tom. “And I don’t have to stand here talking to you, either.” He stepped back and started to turn away.
Dr. Sarcophagus suddenly turned serious. “Okay, Tom. Just listen for a moment. I take pride in not being a hypocrite. If I’m going to talk about scientific protocol and hard evidence, I have to put up or shut up. With me there? I’m asking you to embed me in the daily operations of your organization, just for a while—weeks; I do have a life, after all. Take me along on your comet trip, your deep-sea spectaculars, whatnot and whither. Let me nose around a little, chat with your employees. When you get one of your mystical ‘space symbol’ revelations, let me sit there as you translate it. Admittedly, these phone calls from the ET’s could be easily faked.”
“Keep cool. You could be the victim of the hoax yourself, used by the big boys to pass along their ‘disinformation.’ After all—you haven’t actually seen these mysterious X-ians. Hmph!—‘X’. I’ve gotten so I don’t even like to see it in equations!
“Anyway, there’s the challenge. Give the world a reason for confidence that these metaphysical events aren’t just hype papering over some military project too embarrassing for politicians to make visible.”
Tom was taken aback by the audacity of the proposal! “Good night, why should we give a radio personality, an entertainer, a free pass to our ongoing operation? Your ‘ratings,’ Doctor, are not my problem!”
“No? And just what is your problem right now, young inventor Tom?”
The young inventor flushed with frustrated anger. He felt it unwise to disclose the strange repelatron phenomenon to the general public. And yet—
Would declining Sarkiewski’s peculiar “challenge” be equally damaging? Might it lead to public distrust—even alarm? He was well aware that the whole matter of the Swifts’ extraterrestrial contacts had generated controversy, uneasy speculation as to the space friends’ never-stated intentions in communicating across the great cosmic gulf. What was ultimately in store for Earth? Was the fate of the entire world resting upon the instincts of one young man? There might be greater dangers to humanity than “alien vampires!”
Tom approached the bars and looked the man in the eyes, intensely enough to bring his march to a halt. “Come inside, sir,” he said quietly. “Dismiss your media gang. There won’t be anything more to see today. You can announce that I’ve accepted your challenge, details to be worked out. I think your methods are disruptive and—insulting—but if I can settle these issues, well... maybe I do owe it to the public.”
The look of sheer astonishment on the skeptic’s face showed that he had never dreamed his challenge would be accepted!
The actual negotiations and limits were handled by Tom’s father, Harlan Ames, and the Enterprises legal department. Tom begged off, asking only that Sarkiewski agree not to distract workers from their work—including worker Tom Swift. “But ask your questions, Doctor,” Tom told him. “If you find hard scientific evidence that I’m hoaxing the public, I’d say you have an obligation to publicize it.”
“Please understand,” replied the man who preferred to be known as Dr. Sarcophagus, “I’m not so delusional as to doubt the reality of your inventions or your various explorations. My doubts fall into two categories—the existence of these aliens and their communications, and the validity of the traditional Swift style of ‘doing science.’ It seems to me your family status as national heroes falsely emphasizes the role of the intuitive lone inventor in our modern world. I have a reasoned suspicion that behind the studied hype and image, the invention work here involves just as much collaboration as is true elsewhere. It’s not all about the invention adventures of the celebrated Tom Swift!”
“I never pretended otherwise,” pronounced Tom coldly. “But assuming you intend to be fair, best of luck.”
“And you’ll take me with you to the comet? In your luxury space hotel the Challenger?”
“I will,” Tom promised, “as soon as our physician pronounces you fit for the stresses of extended space travel.”
As Sarkiewski spent his days nosing around Enterprises like a billy-goat and Lett Monica experienced American space training and more earthly pursuits, the repelatron degeneration continued to taunt Tom and his father. Tests on the space outpost showed continued instabilities and fluctuations, and the now-unoccupied hydrodomes beneath the sea quivered and leaked in a regular rhythm. “At least we’ve learned a few things, Dad,” Tom said one overcast morning. “The effect follows a rising and falling pattern with a basic cycle of 24 hours.”
“In other words,” nodded Damon Swift, “whatever the source of the phenomenon, wherever its point of origin, its effects are somehow keyed to the rotation of the earth.” He pointed out the most likely deduction: that the flux-burst was weakened when the bulk of the planet was interposed between any vulnerable repelatron fields and the source. “It must radiate through space in a straight line, like light or other electromagnetic phenomena.”
“Dad, it may not be that simple,” objected Tom thoughtfully. “So far only certain repelatrons seem to be affected—located at three places. And even in the hydrodomes and in Sky Haven, not all the repelatrons there are vulnerable to this interference.”
“Yes, and that’s a clue—experimental evidence! We’ve seen no trace of this in the Challenger’s super-repelatrons, thank goodness, or in the atomicar lift system. Nor the skyway trons in Ngombia—and they’re monitoring that very closely.”
Tom wandered over to the big office window and gazed out over the grounds of Enterprises. “Could it be intelligently directed after all? A weapon aimed at Earth?”
“Or aimed at Tom Swift by the good citizens of Comet Tarski?” teased Mr. Swift gently. “Let’s take care not to adopt conspiracy theories even less probable than those of the good Dr. Sarcophagus.”
“Right,” said Tom with a smile. “But now and then I have to wonder—what if scientific deduction starts to falter in the same way as the repelatrons?”
“Then, Tom, we’ll be out of a job, and Shopton will have a four-mile-square white elephant on its hands!”
Mr. Swift left the office to spend time at the plant observatory, where the megascope space prober had been studying Tarski almost continuously since the comet’s arrival in the solar system. Tom worked at his desk flatscreen, planning the scientific itinerary for the Challenger comet probe mission.
Presently Trent announced an incoming call. Tom’s brow crinkled at the name: Karl Feng!
“Dr. Feng!” said the young inventor. “This is a nice surprise.” His mind deftly reviewed an important question: had he ever finished reading Feng’s book?
“Güten morgen, Tom!” the academic said. “I thought I would call you personally to let you know that I received your message and have been able to clear my schedule.”
“Well! Fine... er, what message are you referring to, sir?”
“The letter was passed along to me by my publisher.”
“I’m sorry, but... I guess my mind’s on other things this morning. What letter do you mean?”
When Feng spoke again after a pause Tom could hear surprise and dawning dismay. “Tom, perhaps I ought to be very specific. My publisher received a letter two days ago, on your company letterhead, bearing the signature ‘Tom Swift.’ The gist of it was to invite me to Shopton at my earliest convenience, to discuss with you and your people my findings pertaining to comets. The message stated that you had run across some information that would make my theories relevant to your upcoming space mission. Are you saying—surely you are not telling me that the letter was fraudulent!”
Tom spoke grimly. “I’m sorry, sir, but that’s exactly what I have to say. I’d be pleased to talk with you, but I never sent you a letter.”
“Ach! Then I must apologize, with a red face.”
“There’s no need, Dr. Feng,” the youth assured him. “This may be related to that Tom-lookalike who approached you at the convention. It could be just a prank―”
“I find it less than humorous,” snapped Feng. “And when I read in the news that my persistent adversary Sarcophagus has wormed his way into Swift Enterprises—! One can’t help wondering how far he is willing to engage in his stalking of nonestablishment science and scholarship.”
“You could be right,” Tom said. The situation had aroused his own suspicions, and focused them in the same direction. “Sir, you said you’d cleared your schedule. Why not go ahead and visit us after all? Your theories are fascinating—and I know our security department would like to examine that letter.” Tom thought, but did not say: Let’s see what happens when Feng and Sarkiewski get within arm’s reach. It would be an interesting chemical experiment!
Feng agreed readily, and seemed to be flattered by respectful attention from America’s headline science-celeb. Tom promised to have Bud pilot him to Shopton from his temporary residence in Durham, North Carolina, three days hence. “I don’t think the local airport can accommodate the Queen, though,” Tom told his pal when the young pilot dropped by.
“Don’t suppose. Say, how about I take the atomicar? It’s a fun ride. The prof might enjoy it.”
Tom nodded, adding cautiously: “But—maybe you should fly close to the ground.” The repelatron problem loomed in Tom’s mind.
The young inventor tried to concentrate on perfecting his X-raser transmitron and mate it to the new full-size telesampler. Late in the day he took time to demonstrate it to Sarkiewski and to Lethal Monica, inviting them to observe a test on a long runway of the Enterprises airfield, cleared of traffic and personnel. “The target is at the other end, almost four miles away,” Tom explained. “You can’t see it. It’s basically a big aluminum drum containing various materials in concentric layers.”
“Brand my Brungarian spurs, if you can’t see it, how do you aim this freaky gizmo?” asked Lett, gazing at the transmitron, which had been mounted on a flatbed truck. The completed model consisted of a pair of the long, tubular antennas that Bud had seen in Tom’s lab, which now functioned as the X-raser output. The base of each rod was encircled by a thick hooplike ring which enclosed an array of the polyhedral wave generators that Tom had tested previously.
“We have to have a certain amount of locational info at the start,” answered Tom, “which the computer uses to aim the dual antennas. The finer calibrations are made by reading the bounceback from the microwave capture beam, emitted at low energy prior to activating the X-raser component. The transmitron setup handles both the microwave and X-ray beams simultaneously.”
Dr. Sarcophagus nodded, and the nod was dripping with acid. “Yes indeed, the latest in laser disintegrators! I’d imagine the Defense Department is most interested in your demonstrations.”
Tom turned away without responding, but Lett remarked, “These antennas do look like gun barrels, Skipper. But I suppose one might say the same of the ruby rods used in standard lasers.”
“The X-raser creates a tight beam, but it doesn’t work anything like optical lasers or microwave masers,” Tom commented. “Instead of using crystal lattices or, for example, ammonia molecules to release excess ‘pumped’ energy as precisely tuned parallel waves, the transmitron acts directly on space itself. Using technical principles we developed for the polar-ray dynasphere, we modulate the local electrical and magnetic constants of a very small enclosed space, which in turn affects what’s called the quantum vacuum-flux coefficient. We then induce a very intense electrostatic charge, and the energy is released through the wave-guide tubes as electromagnetic waves of whatever frequency we select, far more coherent than anything coming out of the standard laser, and perfectly parallel.”
“Typically impressive,” pronounced Sarkiewski, though he seemed unimpressed. “Why do you need two of those antenna tubes?”
“It allows us to control the wave-cutoff point and produce a terminus where the two beams cross. By precisely controlling the position of the terminus, which is where the target particles are pried loose, we can set it to a precise depth.”
Tom’s lecture ended with no further questions. He made final adjustments to the dual antennas, which angled toward each other almost imperceptibly. As he began the final procedures, Lett Monica asked hesitantly:
“Tom... about Mr. Sarco’s question... couldn’t this be used as a ray-gun weapon? That is to say, you have two beams full of energy—what if someone were by chance strolling innocently across the runway right now?”
“Pffft!” uttered Dr. Sarcophagus.
“It’s not as though the thought never occurred to me,” the young inventor retorted irritably. “The initial microwave distancing beam functions as radar, and we repeat the sequence with each pulse of power, many times per second. The transmitron will shut down instantly if anything unwanted gets in the way.” He added that the twin beams, separated until intersecting at the terminus point, had only partial power individually.
“Now,” Tom said. “I’ll set the terminus just outside the barrel, then inch it forward into the center, taking samples along the way.”
He threw the master switch.
At the click! of the switch the antennas and transmitron chassis exploded like a bomb, in a blast that rocked the watchers off their feet!
COMET IN DISTRESS
“WELL NOW,” gasped Dr. Sarcophagus from his position flat on his back. “I should have remembered that the testing protocol of Tom Swift inventions invariably includes one or two explosions!” He felt about for his glasses.
Tom had risen to his knees. “Actually, I’d intended to skip that part of the routine,” he said dryly, and with a shaky voice. “Are you two all right?”
Lett Monica, engaged in collecting himself and wiping off his stubbly dome, said: “Sure, boom boy, I’m of tough Brungarian iron. But this time I wasn’t quick enough to pick you up! Of course—I am a trenchcoated saboteur, eh?” He laughed at his possible wit.
Meanwhile Tom was walking around the truck, gazing up at the blackened, smoking antenna tubes of his new invention. “Before either of you asks—no, I don’t know what went wrong. I think the explosion occurred in the first stage matter-receiver, where the captured particles are fed into the conduit to the analysis tank.”
“And was it the usual sabotage?” sneered Sarcophagus. “The thrills and chills that have enticed ‘science-minded boys’ from time immemorial? Or a natural phenomenon unanticipated by intuitive Swift science?”
Tom ignored him, pulling out his cellphone and contacting the plant infirmary. “Larry, could you sent a med-nano out to runway sixteen? Please tell Doc to expect two patients for a lookover. I’ll drop by myself a little later.”
“But I feel fine!” protested Lett.
“We mustn’t stand in the way of liability mitigation, Monica,” smiled Mr. Sarkiewski. “Have to keep those insurance rates down.”
After the two had been driven away, Tom took the wheel of the flatbed and drove it to one of the hangars which possessed an electronics test lab. He opened up the telesampler, transmitron to tank, seeking the cause of the explosion.
Eventually arriving at a plausible conclusion, the youth ridewalked across the plant to the looming dome of the observatory, where he knew his father was continuing his megascope observations of Comet Tarski. “Hi, Dad,” Tom hailed the older man, who stood at the monitor console beneath the huge ring-antenna of the space prober. “We had a little―”
“So I’ve heard,” said Mr. Swift. “What’s your assessment?”
The youth sighed ruefully. “Maybe Dr. Sarcophagus is on to something about my ‘intuitive approach.’ I made some bad judgment calls. Volatile jet fuel molecules in the air were getting snatched up and combining in the first-stage chamber. The matter-lenses weren’t doing the job.”
Damon Swift gave a sympathetic nod. “Son, you did anticipate that possibility; it’s just a miss on the mathematics. I’d say your machine is transporting significantly more material than you’d anticipated, more than the calibrations could cope with.”
“In other words—a reassuring word from Dad that Son is more successful than he knows.”
His father smiled broadly. “That is a father’s privilege. But don’t presume it’s just... what’s that word?... hype!”
Tom laughed. “I won’t. Science mustn’t be prejudiced! Anyway, I think it’ll be fairly easy to readjust the lenses.”
They chatted for a time about Comet Tarski and the plans for the probe mission, set to begin the week following. “Still no certitude on whether you can land the Challenger on the core,” reported Mr. Swift. “We’ve known from the start that the Repelatron Donkey shuttles would be too risky in that unsettled environment, but I’m afraid the surface of the nucleus is also turning unstable as Tarski gets nearer the sun. Take a look.”
The circular megascope screen, electronically culling lightwave information from a beam-terminus only a few score miles from Tarski’s surface, disclosed a bizarre and violent landscape. The “ground” of the cometary nucleus was almost coal-black, but broken randomly by streaks of highly reflective material—chemical-laced water ice of all colors of the rainbow—that thrust up jaggedly like icebergs. White plumes of jetting vapor extended miles into space like quills.
The actual surface, irregular and pockmarked, was now in constant ferment. As fissures opened and closed, clouds of white steam blasted toward the megascope’s invisible Mighty Eye, spewing masses of ice and dust in all directions. Tom knew that most would escape the comet’s miniscule gravity and hurtle away into space.
“We didn’t expect this much explosiveness,” commented Tom thoughtfully. “The ship couldn’t land there, that’s for sure. It wouldn’t even be safe to do a close flyby.”
“Which makes your telesampler all the more important,” nodded his father. “Spectroscopic readings show only the usual substances, more or less—about eighty percent water in its various forms, plus carbon dioxide and other carbonaceous compounds. The typical cometary hydrocarbons, some granular silicon, a narrow range of sulfates.”
“But we’ve never seen a nucleus boiling that way. Even if it’s mostly subsurface water sublimation—steam bursts in a near vacuum―”
“Clearly there’s something further, of real scientific interest, going on up on Tarski,” declared Mr. Swift. “If this is a true interstellar comet, there may be a mass of unexpected reactive compounds at a deeper level. The conventional instruments give too blurred a reading. We need your telesampler to retrieve physical samples from deep down.”
Tom chuckled wryly. “My telesampler has already had some problems with ‘unexpected reactive compounds’, Dad!”
“You’ll fix it, Tom—as always. Take it as an informed reassuring word from a knowledgeable source!”
As Tom made ready to leave, his father reported that there had been no reply to the coded message he had sent spaceward earlier in the day. “Of course that’s not unusual. Our space friends are poor correspondents—it may take days before they transmit a reply.”
The young inventor spent the next couple days working with Hank Sterling and Arvid Hanson on resolving the latest telesampler problem and getting the space model, to be used in the comet probe, up and running. Late one afternoon Tom’s ridewalk to the main assembly building was diverted, by phone call, to the small executive parking lot near the administration building. He watched in smiling excitement as Bud piloted the atomicar, floating on its repelatron-driven cushion of air, over the security wall to a deft touchdown. Tom could see two figures in the big, unbroken passenger dome of the oddly-shaped vehicle. Both waved.
As Dr. Feng stepped down from the Silent Streak, holding a bulky briefcase, Tom offered his hand. “Welcome to Shopton and Enterprises, Doctor!”
“Ah, Tom!” The little man’s wrinkled face creased into a tight smile, slitting the almond eyes which showed his half-Chinese ancestry. “So happy to see you again, if under rather dismaying circumstances.”
“Please don’t worry about that letter, sir.”
“I have brought it with me, as you asked.”
“And how was your trip?” asked Tom. He added mischievously, “I hope Bud here didn’t try any aerobatic stunts?”
As Feng chuckled, Bud said: “I played nice, genius boy, but I’m surprised we didn’t get a little carsick along the way. Flying mode was a tad unsteady.”
“Oh... really?” The young inventor couldn’t help a twinge of alarm despite his pal’s usual breezy demeanor.
“Wasn’t too bad,” Bud continued, “just whatcha might call a little squishiness in—the repelatron system. At intervals, Tom.” If Dr. Feng had possessed the ability to read faces, he would have noted the boys’ shared looks of worried concern. It seemed the repelatron problem had spread further!
“Right now our guest duplex is in use by... a couple visitors,” Tom said, helping Bud with the scholar’s baggage. “But I think you’ll find the ‘first class’ accommodations in the Sky Queen entirely comfortable. We’ve parked her up on her dedicated airfield pad, and I’ve stationed a couple employees aboard to attend to your needs during your stay.”
“It’s really great,” Bud enthused. “It’s like a top-flight hotel that you can pick up and move around the world like a suitcase.”
“Himmel! But I’m quite easy to satisfy, my lads,” declared Feng. “And these impositions upon your hospitality won’t last more than a few days, after all. I could just as easily have taken a room in a motel. In my travels I’ve seen the insides of a great many of them.”
“It’s not just hospitality, sir,” Tom responded. “As you know, Enterprises is working on a project with an imminent deadline, our space trip to the comet. Having the pleasure of your company here at the plant will make things more convenient for all concerned.”
Feng nodded, noting sagely, “Yes. And perhaps a bit safer for me, given the mysteries of our unknown ‘prankster’.”
That evening Dr. Feng joined Bud and the Swift family at their large residence minutes from Enterprises. “What a fine meal, Mrs. Swift,” complimented the German as dessert was concluded. “All three of these men have greatly praised your cookery, and they were surely right to do so.”
“Thank you,” said Anne Swift modestly. “I enjoy cooking as much as molecular biochemistry. I’m always careful to give my two hobbies equal time.”
“Mother’s very inspiring,” gleamed Tom’s pert sister Sandy. “I haven’t yet quite decided my entire future, but it will definitely include a dash of biochemistry!”
Bud looked sheepish. “I guess I’m more into, er—applied science,” said the pilot-astronaut.
As they settled back in the Swifts’ spacious living room, over coffee, Damon Swift remarked: “This room of ours has seen its share of scientific discussions—and more than a little wild speculation.”
“It’s here that we talked about going after molten iron deep in the earth,” his son amplified. “We hashed over the location of lost Atlantis, the possibility of antiproton matter in Africa, technological development projects in Kabulistan and Ngombia...”
“With only an occasional interruption—things like penetrator bullets and flying spears. I’m afraid we live in a rough neighborhood,” giggled Sandy.
“I’ve come to think an active imagination magnetically attracts peculiar situations,” pronounced Damon Swift ruefully.
“And peculiar enemies,” noted Bud.
“Yes—imagination. Imagination may at times be a scientist’s most valuable ally,” Dr. Feng said quietly as he opened his briefcase. “Surely it is imagination that has motivated the comet probe which you are planning.”
He removed a large padded envelope and carefully withdrew what appeared to be several sheets of tanned and torn parchment behind a layer of protective plastic. “But perhaps what I will discuss with you tonight will exceed your capacity for—the unorthodox.”
“Tom’s given all of us a briefing on what’s in your book,” said Bud. “I’m not so sure I ‘got’ it all, though.”
Dr. Feng nodded. “Quite so. Nor would I expect it upon first acquaintance. Allow me to give a preface.
“As you know, my father and grandfather both taught at the University of Peking, where I too served on the faculty before I was forced to flee from Red China as a young man. My opinions were regarded as too much a deviation from standard scientific materialism, if you see.” The listeners knew that after becoming a refugee, Dr. Feng had gone to his mother’s homeland in what was then West Germany and had eventually taken a post at the University of Heidelberg. “For a time I taught in the field of psychology, and maintained a private practice in town,” he explained. “But we Fengs have always been keenly interested in the work of the ancient Chinese astronomers. To perhaps impress you, the old court writings speak of a great comet which was seen by them more than twenty-six hundred years ago, around 650 B.C. The chief imperial astronomer provided a very exact account of its movements through the celestial vault—the starry sky.”
“In Europe at that time comets weren’t understood at all, though astrologers and fortune tellers cited them as omens of evil or disaster,” Tom noted. “It wasn’t until Tycho Brahe, in the 16th century, that the western world realized that comets are objects in interplanetary space, not atmospheric phenomena like clouds or the aurora.”
“Yet as I say in my book—and what I place before you here, tonight—my recent studies have to do, not with my illustrious ancestors, but with a secret order of monks, who called themselves the Brothers of Hermes. Hermes, the divine messenger of the gods, was regarded as the founder of the secret sciences, and specifically alchemy.”
“I know you believe they made a connection between alchemical studies and comets,” Tom nodded. “You say they believed that meditating upon alchemical symbols while a comet was visible caused a spiritual transformation.” He smiled apologetically. “I’m sure I’m mangling your theory, Doctor.”
“Not as badly as most, Tom,” replied Karl Feng. “But let me move to the most significant part of that theory, which I have developed and investigated in detail since the book was published. It may well affect your comet probe mission, for it concerns a mystery of outer space—a mystery revealed by those equally mysterious lights in the skies known as Unidentified Flying Objects—UFO’s!”
THE SANCTUM NEVER SEEN
TOM and his father were intrigued by Dr. Feng’s announcement. “A mystery of outer space!” Mr. Swift echoed. “You’ve certainly aroused our curiosity. Tell us about it, Karl.”
“Especially the part about flying saucers,” Bud urged. “Sandy here believes in that kind of thing.”
“Budworth has this boyish compulsion to make jokes about my theorizing,” sniffed Sandy. “Just because I one time alluded to the possibility that people from space were―”
“Does this have anything to do with those parchments?” Tom asked Feng with great haste.
The professor smiled. “Why yes, as a matter of fact.” Dr. Feng explained that the parchment fragments were from some old manuscript pages which had recently come into his possession. “They seem to be part of a medieval book on alchemy, and have been so classified by historians and historiographers. Nothing too terribly interesting.” He glanced quizzically around at the Swifts and Bud. “Perhaps you feel the ancient alchemists were merely frauds?”
“Not at all,” said Mr. Swift. “Many were gifted scientific workers. They developed special tools and precise techniques that we still use today.”
“For that matter,” Tom said, “their ‘secrets’ may be more than just occult rituals. People who study things closely, generation after generation, sometimes stumble on things without knowing how to explain it to others in ordinary language. They may have known more of the secrets of nature than we realize.”
Feng nodded gravely. “Their work was exacting, and they permitted themselves insights from inner resources, psychological and spiritual, that we have forgotten in our very logical, materialistic age—the age of superficiality, if I may so put it. That is one reason why these manuscript fragments may prove most important.”
Mr. Swift frowned. “How so, Karl?”
Dr. Feng said he had translated the pages, written in medieval church Latin, and that they hinted at a secret “school” or center of alchemical study somewhere in Germany. “No such place has ever been found, but its existence is alluded to in several ancient sources, particularly ecclesiastical manuscripts presently housed in the Vatican. It was no doubt well hidden; in fact, if you ‘read between the lines’ using the Green Language, as I have learned to do, you discover that it was called the Sanctum Never Seen.”
“Not to joke around,” Bud put in, “but that sounds more like the name of a bar.”
“I’m entirely serious. This cultic sect, the Brothers of Hermes, apparently carried out their studies under sworn secrecy for several hundred years. Their ‘invisible college’ was evidently located in a cave system, its entrances well-hidden, somewhere in the Bavarian Alps—southern Germany near the Austrian border. So I believe, based upon my recent research.”
“It certainly sounds like fiction,” said Mrs. Swift. “What’s supposed to have happened to these people?”
“I believe agents of the secular and church authorities—essentially Teutonic Knights employed as mercenaries and ‘enforcers’—discovered the location of the Sanctum. It is reported that they blocked up all the secret entrances with boulders and dirt while the monks were forced to remain inside. To be blunt, they were buried alive!”
“Ohhh...!” murmured Sandy, horrified.
The listeners shared silent looks. Then Tom’s father broke the silence. “Your investigations clearly have great historical significance, Karl. What of this space mystery—the UFO business?”
“Yes,” nodded the German, “the mysterious UFO’s, what Jung called ‘a modern myth of things seen in the skies’. He thought their circular form purely symbolic, a symbol of the mind’s transcendent quest for unity projected upon the sky by the collective unconscious.”
“Okay, but what about the UFO’s?” demanded Bud impatiently.
“Allow me my lazy scholarly ways, young man,” reproved Feng with a smile. “You good people may not realize that unidentified flying objects have been seen long before their official debut in 1947. Many sightings were recorded in documents from centuries ago—one at Nuremburg, Germany, in 1561, is well-known among the well-knowing. And indeed, one finds hints of similar things in the Old Testament.”
“Yes—in Ezekiel, for example,” noted Mr. Swift.
“A famous instance, Damon.” Dr. Feng paused. “What I am asking you to believe may sound very strange—yet the manuscript, interpreted according to the rules of the Hermetic language, speaks of a definite knowledge of UFO’s. Certain passages suggest that some form of actual contact was made.”
“Is that what you mean by those ‘messengers of light,’ Dr. Feng?” interrupted Tom in surprise. “I thought it had to do with alchemical practices.”
“So I thought when I first wrote-up my researches,” replied the man. “But these parchments suggest something both more concrete—and more incredible. I’m sure the messengers referred to were luminous objects seen in the skies—UFO’s—whose occupants somehow imparted secret knowledge to the Brothers of Hermes!”
“J-jetz!” breathed Bud.
Mr. Swift shook his head doubtfully. “You must admit that it all sounds rather far-fetched.”
“Our own contact with space beings would have sounded pretty unbelievable not long ago,” Tom said. And he thought: To people like Dr. Sarcophagus—it still does!
Karl Feng leaned forward and regarded Tom with great intensity. “Think of the old manuscripts and laboratory records the Sanctum must contain—a priceless historical find! But also, there is another reason to seek it.”
“That space mystery?” Tom queried.
“Quite so. What if I were to tell you that part of the knowledge given the Brothers of Hermes by the Messengers of Light, whatever they might turn out to have been, concerned what we see in our skies even as we speak?—Comet Tarski, the destination of the space mission you are about to launch!”
“With all apology, Karl, such a notion is absurd!” pronounced Tom’s father in disbelief. “It’s quite clear that this comet originated in interstellar space. It has never passed through the solar system. No human eye has ever seen it.”
Sandy raised a timid hand. “D-Daddy,” she gulped, “Dr. Feng isn’t talking about human eyes.”
Feng shrugged. “I am only reporting the facts as I find them. These manuscripts, quite definitely more than a thousand years old, provide very precise data applying to one celestial body only—Tarski. Even the year of its entry into our system is stated!
“Listen now. Permit me to read my translation, into English, from the Green Language as rendered originally in Latin.
“Behold, what eye shall gaze upon the White Queen, who comes veiled as a bride, whose procession lies among the stars, whose shining diadem bears gems of all colors? What eye shall see the bridal train, white as snow, delicate as cloud, that trails behind her? What eye shall read the message she bears? Who shall heed her warning; for indeed her consort is the Dead Hand, Daemon Diabolicus, the Fallen Servant, Lo! the Serpent Who Strikes, who tears with fangs all of the seed of Adam, who hides behind her beauty.”
“Good gosh!” murmured Tom Swift.
“That is what it says,” asserted the scientist calmly. “And immediately beneath are the various dates and figures I have mentioned, making entirely definite my conclusion: that this White Queen is in truth our Comet Tarski. And my friends, this section bears a heading—This is What the Divine Messengers of Light Have Taught Us From the Sky. I regard the entire matter as certain!”
No one quite knew what to say. For a time the only comment came from the ticking grandfather clock in the foyer.
“I can sure understand why you wanted to respond to that phony letter and tell us of this,” said Tom quietly. “It may be fantastic, but it really does seem this brotherhood from centuries ago had some kind of source of accurate information about present-day events.”
“The thing I, er, especially noticed,” said Bud hesitantly, “was that ‘dead hand’ deal. What does it mean? It’s almost like the saucer guys were giving a warning that the comet would cause some kind of catastrophe!”
“Mm, yes, Bud, I suppose a serpent sinking fangs into the whole human race does sound just a little negative,” Sandy gibed with the weighty irony innate in younger sisters.
Feng nodded. “I’ve wanted to find a way to tell you, ever since reading of your planned expedition, that some horrific danger may confront you. I regret having held back, like a timid academic. The phrase ‘dead hand’ is my own translation, merely the gist of what is being said. The actual wording speaks of dead flesh blackened by rot, the hand of a corpse.”
Bud snorted. “Great. I feel much better.”
“The comet nucleus is black,” Tom declared, his words coming slowly. “And the passage you read speaks of multicolored ‘gems.’ Dr. Feng, the surface of the body is covered with streaks and patches of chemical ices with all sorts of different colors!”
“Further evidence, quite unexpected, that my interpretation is correct,” said the older man. “And I urge you, I beg you, consider that if these messengers possessed such knowledge of a comet still far off in space, surely their warnings must also be taken seriously.”
Damon Swift spoke gravely, as a scientist—and a father. “Tarski may hold some kind of hidden danger for your mission, Tom, something we’ve been unable to detect.”
“I’m afraid it’s a lot worse than that,” Tom replied. “Remember that what Dr. Feng has quoted describes a threat not just to the Challenger flyby, but to ‘all the seed of Adam’—the whole human race!”
“But how could such a thing be true, Karl?” asked Tom’s mother skeptically. “I understood the comet would be tens of millions of miles distant even at its closest approach to the earth.”
“My dear Mrs. Swift, how should I know?” retorted Dr. Feng politely. “That is a matter for the physical sciences, is it not?”
With a glance at his father, Tom decided to say a little more. “Doctor, we may be dealing with the comet danger already. We’ve had some problems with our repelatron technology—a kind of interference—and the effect seems to be coming from space. I’ve wondered all along if Comet Tarski might have something to do with it.”
“Well then!” exclaimed Feng with what almost resembled delight. “Have your instruments pinpointed the actual source, Tom?”
“We’ve been unable to do so,” explained Mr. Swift. “We don’t understand the nature of the phenomenon. But as further incidents occur, perhaps the timing and location will give us a clue.”
“It—um—seems like it’s getting a little worse,” Bud put in. “At least it’s starting to mess up other kinds of repelatrons.”
Tom was grim. “We have to complete the comet probe before it starts affecting our space-propulsion repelatrons. Fortunately we’ve seen no sign that it’s going in that direction. The phenomenon may only target the repelatrons that have ‘dedicated’ tuning—for example, those that interact only with water or air. The Challenger’s super-repelatrons have a much broader scope of reaction.”
After Doctor Feng had passed around his parchments fragments, everyone tried earnestly to move the living-room conversation toward lighter subjects. But the mystery of the White Queen—and the Dead Hand—lingered like a fog. It wasn’t hard to guess what was on Tom Swift’s mind.
Should he attempt to solve the mystery of the Sanctum Never Seen before embarking for Comet Tarski? Did lives depend on his decision?
The following morning, with telesampler work and mission planning in other hands for the moment, Tom gave Dr. Feng a tour of Swift Enterprises. He introduced the scholar to Lethal Monica during a break in the astronaut’s space training. “Aha! Another foreign spy!” joked Lett, which triggered a look of perplexity on Feng’s face. “No no, Doc, just a spot of fun. Tom enjoys the breezy approach to life. Just read the—oh, sorry, Tom.”
But it seemed the breeze was about to become an ill wind. A figure was striding across the manicured lawn between buildings, a figure clad in a rumpled white shirt and a perpetually sour expression. Sarkiewski evidently didn’t recognize his habitual “foe” from behind. Tom anticipated a big reaction in a moment’s time. He had expected it all along, and wondered what the confrontation would reveal about Sarcophagus—away from microphone and stage, Randolph Sarkiewski—and his motives.
Tom’s instincts underestimated the chemistry’s volatility. As Sarkiewski’s gaze met Karl Feng’s face, the professional skeptic turned white with emotion—and charged forward like a commando on the attack!
THE STUDENT PRINCE OF
STARTLED, Tom held back—but only for a split second. Then he shoved Feng behind him and jumped in front of Dr. Sarcophagus. “Good night!—stop!” he shouted. “What in space is wrong with you!—?”
“I fear—this man—is quite out of his mind!” gasped Karl Feng. “He stalks me everywhere!—even here!”
Sarcophagus seemed to be struggling to bring his anger under control. Standing with clenched fists, the color slowly returned to his face. “I—I apologize, Tom,” he rasped. “This man―”
“Is my guest!” snapped Tom. “Don’t think I won’t set aside your ‘challenge’ and have you thrown off the grounds if you try to harass Dr. Feng!”
The skeptic appeared abashed. “In this case, it appears I’m not a very good example of my principles,” he admitted quietly. “I was taken by surprise.”
“Should I apologize for the fact that my face enrages you, Sarcophagus?—if that is what we are to call you,” Feng demanded.
Tom permitted a time-out of a few moments duration, for inarticulate heavy breathing. Then he said: “Maybe I’m the one who should apologize. I should have alerted you both.” He explained to each why the other was present at Swift Enterprises. “You’re both here by invitation,” he concluded. “As your host I don’t wish to be rude, but I have to insist that you two guys act more grown-up than I look! Is that reasonable?”
“Eminently,” nodded Dr. Feng with great dignity.
“I won’t cause a problem,” Sarkiewski promised with a hint of snarl. “But it would be in everyone’s best interest if this high priest of the paranormal were kept clear of me.”
The man known to the airwaves as Dr. Sarcophagus turned and stalked away. “Holy Mope!” gulped Lett Monica. “Off what wall did that come from? What exactly does Sarc have against you, Doctor? Did you steal his girlfriend?”
“I fear my wife would not approve such adventures,” replied Feng dryly. Tom knew his family lived in Heidelberg, pursuing their lives as the academic pursued his theories around the world.
“This has to do with philosophy,” was Tom’s terse comment. “And I’m afraid the war of the philosophers will be heating up again very soon.”
“Oh really?” Feng reacted in surprise. “What do you mean?”
Tom explained that he had decided to spend a few days in Germany prior to the start of the comet probe. “I’m not delaying the departure of the Challenger,” he said. “But my personal involvement isn’t necessary at this point—Enterprises has a lot of experience planning space missions. Dad and I agree that we need to try to find out more about your Brothers of Hermes and its secret school. Our instruments may help uncover the Sanctum, and getting more of the warning given by the Messengers of Light may be absolutely critical to our safe completion of the Tarski probe.” His mind added: And keeping the Swift repelatrons up and running! He felt certain of a connection.
He gave Lett a concise account of Feng’s findings and conjectures. The astronaut whistled in astonishment. “Good night! And all the while I’m just floating around in the zero-G chamber.”
“Lett... take a few days off and come along,” Tom urged. “Doc Simpson mentioned that you needed a break from the training regimen before the trip begins. You might as well tell Brungaria what it’s really like to work at Swift Enterprises.”
“And of course I shall accompany you,” nodded Dr. Feng. “But—but surely―”
“I’m afraid so, sir,” Tom confirmed apologetically. “I’ll have Sarcophagus coming along as well. I don’t want him running wild here at the plant, and I’m trying to keep my commitment to him and his ‘investigation’—as long as he behaves himself.”
“Such a simple matter,” grinned Lett. “All he has to do is dial back on the obnoxiousness, just a bit.”
“For him, a difficult challenge,” Feng observed.
The travel plans were made with professional dispatch. Dr. Sarcophagus responded genially, even when Tom noted that Feng would be part of the trip. “Naturally. Germany is his natural habitat. I’m looking forward to seeing what you make of his ‘inspired’ theories and occult alchemical nonsense.”
“In other words,” said Tom with a stony smile, “whether I’m taken in by it.”
“Nice way to put it. Don’t be overly disappointed if this ‘Sanctum’ mysteriously evades all attempts at capture. It’s just more of the popular idiocy exploited in books and movies—secret codes in the Mona Lisa, hidden message from the Bible. You might consider a stop along the way back to say hello to the Shroud of Turin.”
The young inventor shook his head. “I’ll limit myself to comet-predicting medieval UFO’s, I think.”
“Everyone’s a specialist these days.”
Sandy begged to go along until her listeners begged her to stop begging. She and her luggage quickly became part of the working vacation.
Tom decided to include Bashalli Prandit as well. “We can use another skeptic, Bash,” joked Tom over the phone.
She giggled. “Oho! Like a doctor’s second opinion! And no one can deny that I’m not at all reticent in my opinions.”
“We’ll give you and San a couple days to tour Heidelberg while we fly south—unless you’d prefer hunting for buried monastic schools in the Bavarian Alps?”
“Please no, Thomas, serving endless slices of Bavarian Cream Pie has soured me on the entire region.”
Under the pressure of time, preparations for the trip were completed in a matter of hours. As the great skyship was already parked on its airfield landing pad, it was decided that the flight crew and passengers would rendezvous at dusk, with Chow providing one of his colorful dinners aboard. After-dinner conversation came and went, and the more feminine members of the group retired to their comfortable staterooms.
Minutes later, Enterprises pilot Slim Davis at the controls, the Queen was spearing upward into the night sky on its jet lifters. Beyond Shopton, the craft rose from six thousand feet to their approved flight level, then gradually increased speed until they were streaking northeast on a great-circle route at almost Mach 2.
Presently Bud and Chow decided to hit their respective sacks in the crew bunkroom. Too energized to sleep, Tom joined Lett Monica and Dr. Feng in the viewlounge on the top deck, with its floor-to-ceiling panes. “I suspect that you Swifts live constantly in the midst of an adventure,” the professor murmured. His goateed face wore a Buddha-like smile as he gazed out at the stars and the glowing scar that was Tarski, the mystery comet.
“It sure seems so, I must admit,” Tom said with a grin. “Maybe that’s the difference between being an inventive tinkerer and what Dr. Sarcophagus calls a real scientist.”
“In that, he is a fool,” grumbled Feng. “There are times when even sedate scholars are called upon to engage in derring-do. Yet it is true enough—such things are not easy at my time of life. Personally, I’m beginning to prefer a quieter—”
“I see I’m not the only one who can’t sleep!” came a vocal interruption as Randolph Sarkiewski appeared ominously in the doorway arch. “I thought I’d come forward to make observations on upper-atmospheric phenomena. Please don’t mind me and my big ears, hm?”
“Feel free to join us,” said Feng in icy tones. “One must be hospitable to fellow journeyers.”
As Sarkiewski plunked down in an anchored easy chair, Lett asked: “Tom, was that your telesampler machine that I noticed being loaded aboard?”
“Yep,” replied the youth. “I plan―”
Dr. Sarcophagus broke in. “Is this the model that blows itself up? American technology’s most elaborate exploding cigar? Remind me to hold on to my glasses.” He seemed to feel the tranquil conversation required a bracing dose of sarcasm.
“No,” Tom forced himself to say politely. “It’s not the large space model you saw, but the small test prototype.”
“The nice one that only draws bolts of lightning,” Lett added carelessly. “So you repaired it, Skipper?”
“Arv Hanson reconstructed it, with some improvements. I plan to use it during our search in the mountains. Now that I’ve installed a small-scale version of the X-raser transmitron, we should be able to detect clues well below ground level.”
Dr. Sarcophagus flashed a smug look. “Clues to a marvelous fortress of ancient occult wisdom from the Great Beyond. Lemme tell ya, Tom—if you actually manage to find anything, I’ll end up below ground level myself—from shock!”
The next morning when the girls awoke, the huge craft was already winging over France at supersonic speed. Soon after, Middle European time, the Sky Queen set down on a cleared field at Sembach, northwest of Heidelberg, as Enterprises had arranged. Chow Winkler served them a tasty brunch.
Slim volunteered to keep watch aboard the Queen, as he had visited the city previously. Tom’s group skimmed through the countryside toward the famous old university town in a rented touring van, large enough to comfortably accommodate the boys, the girls, Lett, Chow, and the two warring older men, who took care to sit far apart.
As they approached Heidelberg, Sandy and Bashalli were overwhelmed by the beauty of the scene. The town nestled on the River Neckar in a valley of the green-wooded Odenwald Mountains. Above it towered Heidelberg Castle. The river, which flowed westward into the Rhine plain, was spanned by picturesque bridges, with white-winged sailboats cruising on its placid blue surface.
Bash sighed over the view. “Oh, Thomas! Heidelberg must be the most romantic university town in the world! I have lived in several countries, but have seen nothing like this.”
Dr. Feng smiled and nodded. “Many American writers, such as Washington Irving, Longfellow, and Mark Twain, have said the same, my dear.”
Bud immediately began chortling a song from the famous Sigmund Romberg operetta The Student Prince. Sandy covered her ears. “Please! Let’s not get that romantic!”
Tom laughed. Bud protested with a gray-eyed wink, “Come on! It’s my kind of music!”
“Enchanting,” remarked Lett. Bud and Tom noticed that he was gazing toward the girls, not the scenery. Each kept his thoughts to himself.
Nearer than the huddled red-slate roofs and old church spires rose a slender, modernistic tower. “That’s the Mengler skyscraper,” Dr. Feng said. “This area to the north and west is the newer part of Heidelberg. We have many ardent preservationists in this wonderful old city, but alas, big new buildings always sprout up.”
“Ye-aah,” snorted Chow. “Same all over. They’re gonna turn th’ prairie back home into a blame parkin’ lot, an’ I don’t mean fer steers!”
Tom drove the van down an avenue running along the river, then headed on into the Hauptstrasse, or main street. The narrow thoroughfare, from the era of the horse and the hardy pedestrian, was crowded with traffic. Students whizzed by on motorcycles and motor scooters—even motorized skateboards.
“I see the ‘skate look’ is still fashionable,” noted Bashalli. “Among the younger young inventors.”
Dr. Feng deposited his luggage at his private lodgings, reserved for academics, and then directed Tom to his family residence in the city, introducing them all to his patiently stoic wife and eldest daughter.
Afterward, he guided the American and Brungarian visitors around the Old University and New University. The latter, he said, had been built partly with American funds. “Actually, compact little Heidelberg has no real campus. The University buildings are scattered all over town, on both sides of the river. What you see here are only a part of the whole university.”
Feng told them Heidelberg had over twelve thousand students—many of them from foreign countries, including several hundred Americans. “And nearly half are now girls.”
“Good—and phooey!” said Sandy. “There goes another romantic dream. I expected to see crowds of boys in uniforms marching around.”
“You’re a few decades too late,” Sarcophagus commented acidly. “There were plenty of marching boys in uniform here in the 1930’s. All over Germany, in fact.”
In the ensuing silence, the skeptic eyed the pretty female students who lounged about the grassy courtyard of the New University with their books and friends and electronic necessities. “Oh well, who’s complaining?”
“I have no complaint,” muttered Lett Monica cheerfully. Now Sandy and Bash noted the Brungarian’s admiring gleam cast in their direction.
“Maybe we should—park and walk around,” Tom suggested uneasily. “Some of us only have a few hours to sightsee before we fly off.”
Lett spoke up. “You know, genius boy, I wonder if my participation in your search is all that―”
“I consider it part of your training,” stated the young inventor with polite insistence and a half-glance at Bud.
“Tomonomo, I hope this training of yours isn’t too narrow to be useful on Earth,” Sandy said primly.
To which Bashalli added: “‘If such narrowness be training, ’tis folly to be wise.’ ”
The girls giggled. The males wondered why.
Tom found an alley in which to park, and they began to tour on foot. Sandy and Bash were entranced as they strolled about the cobbled streets of the Altstadt, or Old Town, with its quaint baroque buildings. Dr. Feng showed his guests the ancient Gothic-style Church of the Holy Ghost. Then he glanced at his watch. “Perhaps it is time for some refreshment.”
“Not much in th’ mood fer beer and sauerkraut,” harrumphed Chow. “But mebbe they kin rustle somethin’ up fer a Texan.”
The professor took the travelers to an old medieval-looking tavern, where they ordered sandwiches. The room was dark with smoke-stained oak beams. Musicians, a jazz combo, were playing at one end of the room.
“The typical student hangout,” commented Dr. Sarcophagus. “You can smell it in the air, if you see what I mean. I give talks in places like this all the time.”
“I don’t come to such places to talk, generally,” Lethal Monica noted. “Guys, intellect is way overrated.” He turned to Sandy and Bashalli. “Don’t you think so too, ladies?”
They only smiled, but Chow nodded in vigorous agreement. “Don’t hafta convince me o’ that, son. That and mathy-matics.”
Tom noticed a group of male students around one table. They wore small, narrow-visored fraternity caps and broad sashes of gold, silver, and black across their chests.
“They belong to one of the old student corps,” Dr. Feng explained. “But nowadays such fraternities have gone rather out of fashion. Yet it endures. I’m told it is a protest against modernity.”
“Against modernity. Ever considered joining, Feng?” needled Sarcophagus.
The group from Shopton sat along a large wooden table that had seen many an elbow in its time. As they ate, the two American girls drew admiring glances from the students. A tall, handsome young man, with close-cropped blond hair, seemed particularly taken with Sandy. “Entzuckend! Lovely!” he muttered aloud—loud enough to be heard across the room. Bud growled something under his breath.
Presently the student arose and came over to their table. Smiling, he made a quick heel-clicking bow and said to Sandy, “Visitors from America, I believe. If I am not too bold, perhaps the gnädige fraulein would care to dance?”
Sandy smiled up at him prettily. “I’d love to, but I wouldn’t know how to dance to that music.”
“I shall teach you, mademoiselle. Or if you like, I shall have them play something more suited to your delicacy.”
Bud jumped up from his chair—a tardy jump that required several nudges from Chow and Bashalli. “Sorry, pal, you’re too late. She’s dancing with me.”
“No I’m not,” corrected Sandy mischievously. She turned to the German and said, “This boy has been hanging around me all day. Bud is very sweet, but really—!”
“Miss Swift is with me,” repeated Bud. “Go click your heels someplace else.”
The student’s smile froze. “I was speaking to the gnädige fraulein. Shall we allow her to choose?”
“Sandra is quite adept at choosing,” Bashalli remarked.
Bud reddened. “You heard me, buddy. Now if you’ll please march out of my way—”
Tom groaned. Realizing her joke had exceeded its bounds, Sandy smiled and murmured hastily, “Bud, please don’t be silly!”
Her remark only seemed to irritate Bud further. Stepping forward, he started to elbow the student aside. The young German curtly brushed his arm away. Bud, already at boiling point, mistook the gesture for an intended blow. His muscled fist lashed out and caught the student squarely on the jaw.
The German youth was knocked backward. He straightened up, eyes blazing. “You will pay for that gemeiner flegel!” he hissed at Bud.
“Aw now, mister,” Chow fretted, “buddy boy here didn’t mean t’ break yer fleegle! Jest simmer down.”
The man ignored Chow. “If you are not too much of a coward, we shall settle this quarrel with dueling sabers!”
“Any time you like!” Bud retorted to the student, who suddenly seemed taller than he had first appeared.
Tom sprang to his feet. “Good night, this has gone far enough! Nobody fights duels nowadays.”
The student eyed Tom scornfully. “I can see that you know nothing about Heidelberg. Your companion has given unspeakable insult to me and to my family. Honor demands a response.”
“It’s ridiculous!” Sandy insisted. “Please, Bud, can’t you just apologize to him?”
“Apologize? He’s the one who came barging over where he wasn’t wanted!”
The blond youth plucked a card out of a pocket and handed it to Bud. “I shall meet you at the Grüne Jaeger. It is an inn on the Neckar above Heidelberg. Anyone can direct you. Shall we say six o’clock?”
“Jest go ahead an’ do it, Bud!” urged Chow frantically. “If he wants ya t’say six o’clock, say it!”
The imperious student clicked his heels and bowed stiffly to Sandy and the others, then returned to his own table. Soon he was laughing and talking with his companions. The tavern owner, who had bustled forward, also shrugged and walked off.
Sandy seemed on the verge of tears. Bash tried to comfort her. Dr. Feng was the only one at Tom’s table who had remained completely calm. “Most unfortunate,” he murmured.
“Good grief,” Tom said. “This sort of thing doesn’t still go on in Heidelberg, does it?”
“Officially, dueling has been long forbidden,” Feng replied, “yet duels still take place among fraternity students. The worst that results is usually a small facial scar. I think perhaps the young man would not have issued the challenge if he had recognized me as a member of the faculty.”
“Or if his friends hadn’t observed this slur upon his well-guarded manhood,” snorted Sarcophagus. “Same thing with you, Barclay. This is just what I mean—a preference for sentimental old rubbish instead of reason. Still infesting us in our new millennium.”
“Isn’t there any way you can stop it?” Sandy asked Dr. Feng.
The professor’s eyes were troubled as he tugged his goatee. “I could of course report the incident to the university authorities—”
“Nothing doing!” Bud snapped. “That creep would think I wanted to worm out of the duel. I’m an American!”
“Well I’m not, buddy boy, and I think it’d be best to keep your face whole and unsliced,” Lett advised, with a broad wink toward Sandy.
Bud glanced at the card and read the student’s name aloud. “Hunh! Wolf von Enzbach—sounds like someone out of an old Hollywood horror movie.”
Dr. Feng looked startled. “I have heard of this fellow before. He is the son of Graf von Enzbach —what you would call the Count von Enzbach. Part of the old Bavarian aristocracy, which is still respected in this city.”
“Good night!” winced Tom. “Great way to run into a real student prince!”
Feng added: “He is also said to be the best fencer at the University.”
Bashalli sighed in exasperated disapproval. “Then let us be clear. The difficulty is not our running into a prince, but a prince running through Bud Barclay!”
“OH, NO!” Sandy gave a little wail. “This is my fault. Bud, you just can’t go through with this!”
“Why not? What kind of a Galahad would he be if he ducked the fight for his fair lady!” remarked Mr. Sarkiewski with scorn. “Wars have been started for less. But not to worry. Feng can confer immortality on him with the famous Philosophers Stone of the alchemists. Makes gold too—though I don’t notice many wealthy philosophers.”
The others ignored him. “I’m gonna go through with it,” grated Bud.
All the same, as they left the tavern, Tom thought his pal looked a bit apprehensive. It was a feeling he shared. Bud was a fine athlete, but football, basketball, and baseball had given him little aptitude for fencing. And blond young Wolf von Enzbach was looming ever larger as a formidable foe indeed! “Flyboy—you don’t know the first thing about fighting a duel with sabers. Sure you won’t change your mind?” Tom asked quietly.
The black-haired Californian shook his head stubbornly and glanced at his watch. “I still have the afternoon to prepare.”
“The afternoon? You’ve got to be kidding!”
“C’mon, chum. You know I never kid.”
“Look, you can’t expect us to hold up the Sky Queen while you―”
Bud had felt the rivulets of doubt from his friends, and his pride was wounded. “You don’t need me on the survey, Tom. I’m not a scientist. Please just go ahead, fly away—okay? I’ll keep an eye on the girls.”
For once even Tom Swift’s look of grave disapproval had no effect on his best friend. “All right, Bud, if that’s what you want.” He turned away and strode over to the others. “Come on Chow, Lett, Mr. Sarkiewski, Dr. Feng. I’m driving us back to the Queen.”
“But you know, Tom,” said Lett, “in this special situation... well, mightn’t it be best for me to hang with the girls, for extra protection?”
“My familiarity with Heidelberg and its quaint customs...” began Dr. Feng.
“Er, boss, if it’s all th’ same to you, I’d kinda like to watch...” put in Chow.
“Fine,” snapped Tom. “I’ll take a taxi and leave you the van. Will you join me, Dr. Sarcophagus?”
“Absolutely. I have no interest in these annoying testosterone contests.”
Stony silence prevailed until the taxi Tom had summoned disappeared down the boulevard. “He’ll be there,” Bud stated firmly.
“Yes he will,” agreed Bashalli. “How can one miss seeing one’s best friend sliced like ham?”
Bud snorted. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. Ever think Tom might not be the only one around here with imagination?”
“It takes no mystic intuition to sense you have something in mind, young lad,” smiled Dr. Feng.
Hours later, as a somber six o’clock fell into place, Dr. Feng pulled the van up to a rustic inn, perched on the eastern slope of the Königstuhl mountain, overlooking the river. A weather-beaten sign hanging over the door bore the legend:
ZUM GRÜNEN JAEGER
with a picture of a green-coated huntsman.
“How very colorful,” remarked Bashalli Prandit.
“Not s’much as my shirt,” retorted Chow truthfully.
Bud gulped as they climbed out of the van, but said nothing. Despite his afternoon of preparation, he was looking rather pale.
Inside, Wolf von Enzbach was waiting at a table with several other students. “Ah, you are most punctual!” He smiled and stood up. “Some refreshment, perhaps?... No?... Then if you are ready, Herr Barclay, let us proceed.”
“I’m ready,” Bud said curtly. He nodded at another figure, waiting at a table and scowling beneath a ragged blond crewcut. “Hi Tom.”
“So how was the search?”
“Let’s just get this over with.”
“One moment!” huffed Lethal Monica, bringing up the rear. He carried a large, flat box under one arm.
Wolf von Enzbach had come with what seemed to be his usual entourage, now including some young ladies. They all seemed to be joking and commenting to one another. “Ach, du liebe güte!” one student muttered loudly through scornful white teeth. “Hoffnungsloser fall! A hopeless case!”
Another chuckled and said, “Sein Kopf wird aussehen wie ein Rangierbahnhof von all den Schmissen!”
“Say, did that feller jest say somethin’ about weinerschnitzl?” Chow asked Dr. Feng.
“I’m afraid not,” replied the older man. “He says with all the cuts Bud will get, his head will look like a criss-cross railroad track.”
The stout master of the inn, evidently well used to these events, pretended to busy himself at the counter as the crowd filed into a back room. Two dueling sabers were laid out, crossed, on a bare oak table—the only item of furniture.
“You are quite sure you would not prefer to apologize for striking me?” Enzbach inquired.
“Let’s get on with it!” Bud growled.
“As you wish. I realize you are only a brash American boy and not one of us, Herr Barclay. I shall be merciful and do only the most superficial damage, ja? I shall give you some souvenirs of Heidelberg to show off in America.” The blond youth began to explain the formal procedure for the duel.
“Wait!” cried Sandy Swift dramatically.
Wolf von Enzbach smiled at her in surprise. “Yes, fraulein? A comment? I trust you will not humiliate your gallant defender by begging me to spare him?”
Sandy spoke to him brusquely. “Certainly not, Prince!—er, Sub-Graf. Since you were the one who challenged my friend, he has the right to choose the weapons—isn’t that so?”
Enzbach’s face took on a puzzled frown. “Yes, that is correct, gnädige fraulein, according to custom. But—”
“Okay, Von, buddy, I pick these!” Bud nodded, his grin nervous as he pointed across the room. Lett Monica removed the lid of his parcel and held it up for all to see.
“Ach, vas ist? What are those?” asked one of the girls.
“Merely sabers,” smiled Dr. Feng. “I assure you they are genuine products of Heidelberg, which we have troubled ourselves to procure for your convenience.”
Chow grinned at Wolf. “Butcha see, th’ joker in th’ deck is this—they’s made o’ rubber!”
“What is this foolery?” demanded Enzbach.
Karl Feng shrugged. “You must agree, Meinherr von Enzbach, that this is in full accord with the rules of these matters. As a professor of history of this university, I am fully conversant with such traditions, if you yourself are not.”
“But—but Herr Professor—with all respect―”
Dr. Feng reared up sternly. “If you wish to pay respect, young sir, do call to your mind my position with the university—and my obligations with regard to reporting questionable activities. Now then, kindly proceed.”
Enzbach’s mouth had long since dropped open. One of his friends started to chuckle. The next instant Enzbach himself burst out laughing.
“Ach! Very well, if that is your choice.”
“Go ahead, Doctor,” urged Lett Monica. “As the eldest present—that’s true, isn’t it Chow, brand your hide?—as you said, it’s your role to hand Bud his sword. Gotta be correct.”
“But no, Herr Spaceman,” interrupted Wolf with upraised hand. “This society, myself and my comrades, have adopted the Alsatian practice. Professor, Barclay shall select and take in hand his own weapon from the box, and I the other.”
“Very well,” nodded Feng.
“Seems our good doctor doesn’t know all the rules after all,” muttered Lett to Sandy in disapproval.
Bud walked over to the box and took out one of the swords. He politely held the box out to Enzbach, who nodded smartly and seized the one remaining. “En garde!” exclaimed the German theatrically.
“That there means gitcher self ready t’ fight,” Chow whispered to the girls.
The combatants crossed swords, both flimsy blades bending backward as they did so. The clownish fight began furiously. Everyone in the room was soon roaring with laughter, Tom included. The young inventor whispered to Bashalli, “This was worth postponing the flight a few hours.”
“And it was all Bud’s idea, Thomas,” giggled the Pakistani. “But we did help him find those silly toy swords.”
Wolf’s blade feinted and slashed with dazzling speed. Before long, Bud’s face was crimson as his opponent’s rubber sword slapped him smartly again and again. At last, with a single sweeping blow, Wolf von Enzbach knocked the sword from Bud’s hand. It whapped down on the floor like a limp fish.
The room shook with applause and cheers.
“And now,” said Wolf, “since your face is as red as mine, perhaps we can shake hands and be friends.”
In spite of feeling foolish, Bud was unable to keep from laughing. He thrust out his hand. “Fair enough, pal! Now that our duel’s over, I don’t mind saying I’m sorry about that sock in the jaw. Guess I was being kinda hasty and bad-tempered. Maybe. A little bit.”
The aristocrat gave an easy grin that made him look like an American to American eyes. “Of course. Realizing now who you and your friends are, I expect no less from Bud Barclay. Your character is well presented in those books.”
Bud carefully refrained from looking Tom’s way. Wolf bowed in Sandy’s direction. He said suavely, “And I apologize if my admiration for the fraulein made me seem too bold.” He turned back to Bud, grinning impishly. “Do understand, I never intended to do more than make you perspire a bit. You are a brave fellow, and if you should ever enroll at the university, my friends and I would be honored to have you join our corps.”
“Great! But I sure wish you’d told me that sooner. I’ll bet I lost ten pounds worrying about the plastic surgery I’d need after... after you finished carving your initials... in...” Bud suddenly squinted and ran a hand across his forehead.
Tom’s instincts reacted immediately. “Bud, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing... guess I’m just a little... T-Tom?...” He rubbed his eyes and leaned against the table.
“Brand my spurs,” said Chow uncertainly, “that there fence-makin’ would tucker anybody out.”
“Tom!” Sandy gasped. Bud had begun to tumble to the floor! As Tom’s arm’s closed around his friend, a loud thunk! came from behind them. Wolf von Enzbach, eyes fluttering, had collapsed!
“Hey! What’s coming off?” exclaimed Lett Monica. “How’s it hanging? Are we under attack?”
“We may be!” hissed Tom. “And now two of us are down!”
GRAVE FOR A GOD
DR. FENG stared down in dismay. “Himmel! We must get the boys to a hospital!”
Both Bud and Wolf, lying prostrate, showed the same symptoms. All their muscles seemed to have contracted and were bulging out like cords. Their faces were contorted, their eyes forced shut. Lett Monica hissed, “Zorshak’n! They must be having some sort of seizure!—we learn in my training to recognize the epileptic Grand Mal.”
Enzbach’s university friends were muttering in helpless German, shocked. One of the girl students approached Tom. “P-please, I am Elka—I am training now as, what, a nurse. I will help you, but we must hurry—perhaps their hearts will stop!”
“Aw, don’t even say it!” blubbered Chow. “Give ’em artificial resteration er somethin’!”
“No,” gasped a voice. “P-please don’t!”
“Bud!” Tom exclaimed. His pal, eyes open, seemed to be returning to normal.
Wolf von Enzbach was now sitting up as the girl Elka rubbed the back of his neck. “I—it seems I am to live. But I ache, all over I ache.”
“Jetz! So do I!” Bud groaned. “I feel like I’ve been squeezed in a vise.”
“But now—what happened to them?” demanded Bashalli. “Are there fumes in the air?”
Tom crouched down and sniffed Bud’s toy sword, which lay on the floor, careful not to touch it. “There’s something on this sword, some kind of coating. It may be a contact poison!”
“Everyone—into the front room!” commanded Dr. Feng. “Leave the swords alone!”
Elka called an ambulance, explaining the situation. The emergency personnel arrived quickly and commenced an examination.
The attending emergency physician spoke in German to Feng at length. “He is sure they are out of danger,” reported the scholar. “He thinks there was a drug, a medication used by certain heart patients, on the swords. Yet he is also puzzled, as normally it would not enter through the skin.”
“They were both perspiring and wiping their foreheads,” Tom stated grimly. “It probably entered through their eyes.”
“But how’d it git on them golsarn little toy swords in th’ first place?” sputtered Chow.
Tom asked the girls, “Did you have them with you at all times, since you found them?”
“Well... not exactly,” answered Sandy. “We found them in a display at one toy shop, but they were all out. The owner called around and found them at another shop, and we drove over and picked them up there.”
“Oh man, guys, someone must have been following us,” exclaimed Lett. “He overheard us talking to the owner of the first shop, then phoned a crony to go ahead and dope-up the swords at the other.”
“Has to be something like that,” Bud confirmed with a shaky voice. “After we took the package out of the shop, it was with us constantly.”
“You mean, you never left it in the van?” asked Tom.
“Not even!” insisted Lett. “When we made one sightseeing stop, the only one, I held the box in my hand the whole time, with the lid on it.”
“Well, however it happened, I can tell you this—we have to call the police,” Tom declared. “The tamperer couldn’t have known which package you’d pick. He must have doped all the swords in the shop!”
“To poison innocent purchasers, the wretched schweinhund!” barked Enzbach. “Mein Gott! I will speak directly to the commander of the police myself—he’s a friend! You, innkeeper!—you must lock up that room, until the police come for the evidence.”
The agitated group milled about for a time, and several of the students left, as did the ambulance personnel. Those who remained finally decided to have supper at the inn. “Nice big meal’ll do wonders. Mighty good way t’ flush out that there snake poison,” Chow pronounced.
Bud gave the Texas chef a sly look. “It’s always worked before.”
As they ate supper at the inn, Tom explained to Wolf and his companions why he had come to Germany. Dr. Feng told them how he had learned of the secret alchemy center from the old manuscript fragments. “The collegium was dedicated to Hermes—called Mercury in Latin—the legendary messenger of the gods,” the professor related. “My interpretations suggest very strongly a location in the Bavarian Alps between the town of Achenpass and a tiny mountain village called Steurenen. As I have told you, it was said to be concealed underground, within a system of caves, and now the precise place is lost to history.”
Wolf von Enzbach raised a hand, a hand accustomed to command, and silence fell. “Herr Professor Feng, a good thought occurs to me. This region, west of Steurenen—a branch of the Enzbachs have lived there since the fifteenth century, in Kurenkastel.”
“A castle?” interrupted Sandy. “You mean a real castle?—knights in armor and a moat and all that?”
He smiled. “A real castle indeed, though the moat is long dry and the suits of armor stand empty. As is true of many such places, it is mostly a museum now, administered by the Bureau of Antiquities and Heritage. But nonetheless my grandfather’s brother, Great-Uncle Helmand, is the legal owner of the property and dwells there half the year.”
Tom asked, “Do you recall—has he ever mentioned anything about the Sanctum Never Seen?”
“No, not to me—but listen! Growing up I stayed there many a summer, and have often come across a legend, an old story told among the village people. The gist of it is that the god Mercury himself claimed one of the high valleys for his earthly court and dwelt there, and is buried beneath in a secret crypt!”
Sandy was startled and wide-eyed! “Goodness!”
“Merc’ry,” repeated Chow Winkler. “That’s the feller who wears a bowl on his head and’s got them bitty little wings on his feet—you know, the one who delivers flowers.”
“And how is it a god can die, any-so-hoo?” Lett challenged humorously.
Dr. Feng chuckled. “These folk tales need not be logical. Yet in their own way they record the truths of history, like scraps of newspaper. I have run across some similar references in the manuscripts. It’s one reason for my interest in that specific area, a few hundred square miles. But I didn’t realize Kurenkastel belonged to the Enzbach family, jungen Wolf.”
“Please, my new comrades, permit me to extend an invitation of behalf of my Great-Uncle,” pronounced Enzbach soberly. “We have now some weeks before instruction resumes. I wish you, all of you here at this table, to come and stay as our guests for as long as this search continues. Use Kurenkastel as your home base, as it is said, and enjoy our hospitality. What an honor it would be, to discover the crypt of Mercury in what may be called our backyard!”
“The sanctum may indeed be a kind of crypt,” smiled Dr. Feng, “but not of a god; rather a brotherhood of alchemists whose beliefs and loyalties upset the medieval ecclesia and the civil authorities who served it. Somehow I sympathize with these wisdom-seekers and their plight—a fact Sarcophagus will undoubtedly make much of.”
“What do you intend to do now?” asked Sandy.
“My dear, that is up to your illustrious brother,” was the reply.
“Ja, and there lies the question,” nodded one of the student corpsmen, whose name was Marcus. “Herr Swift, how shall you pursue this peculiar search?”
“Before you answer, Thomas,” interjected Bashalli teasingly, “please note that he is not asking for a detailed ‘well-Bud’ sort of account. Ja?”
“Okay. Then to be mercilessly brief,” began the young inventor good-naturedly, “I have a new experimental machine aboard my Flying Lab that allows me to take molecular samples from the ground, or a distance under the ground, without landing. Then it gives a reading on the composition. I don’t really know if it’ll add much to what our other instruments come up with, such as the LRGM gravity-differential mapper and the penetradar system. But it might—and it’ll sure be a good test for a technology I plan to use on my manned probe to Comet Tarski.”
“We have read in the news of your planned trip,” remarked the nurse-trainee Elka, from deep within the left arm of Wolf von Enzbach. “To make a friend of the great comet!—Wünderbar! How wonderful!”
“In this search Tom Swift’s telesampler may well play a valuable role,” declared Dr. Feng. “For you see, the sentence fragments in my manuscripts may refer not to the god Mercury, but rather may mean that the alchemy center was located near a deposit of the metal mercury—the strange-sounding term The White Queen was often used to signify it. Such key ‘magical’ substances are usually given mythic names in the Green Language of the secret alchemists. The chief ore of mercury is cinnabar—which often occurs near the outlet of hot springs. There are many such in Germany, eh?”
“So if Tom scoops up underground cinnabar, start looking for skeletons nearby!” Bud added.
Giving the Heidelberg students several hours to make necessary arrangements, Tom and the Americans took the van back to the Queen’s temporary airfield. Letting off the others, Tom drove the van back to its rental lot, and was then shuttled back to the jetcraft.
As Tom boarded, he found Bud awaiting him, a pensive look on his face. “Listen, Skipper... Slim just told me that Doc Sarc went out again this afternoon, right after he returned here with you.”
“Yes, he said he wanted to do some sightseeing nearby, in the village. It’s only a few minutes walk.”
“Uh-huh. And Slim says he came strolling back a few hours ago. Then he went to bed.”
“I know what you’re thinking, flyboy, and I’m thinking about the same thing,” said Tom seriously. “Sarkiewski could have used his time to set up that chemical trap for you and Wolf.”
“Isn’t he the logical suspect?” Bud urged. “He could have been the source of that threatening note and the phone call, and he’s obviously some kind of weirded-out wingnut with a fanatical obsession. Who knows what crazy people like that might decide to do? This whole stupid ‘challenge’ to you might have just been a gimmick to get onto Enterprises grounds and do―”
“Sabotage?” The crewcut youth smiled at his friend. “It could be. He didn’t object to going along on this trip. He’d have been recognized if he himself tried to follow you in the city, but he may have hired someone to be his eyes and hands.”
“Right! Maybe he went out to give somebody a paycheck!”
But Tom was trying to be objective and cautious. “Bud, you can put together any kind of theory if you start from the premise that your suspect is just plain nuts. Those warnings may have just been the work of some hero-worshipping prankster who wants to get in the... books. And I can’t imagine any reason—even a paranoid lunatic reason!—for Sarcophagus to try to take out you and Wolf von Enzbach. Besides,” he continued, “there’s a very different scenario on my mind.”
“That poison-sword stunt may not have been aimed at Barclay, Swift, or Enterprises at all. What if Wolf von Enzbach were the target?”
Bud was startled, but he conceded, “Didn’t think of that. Maybe it’s a political thing—he’s a pretty powerful guy, it seems.”
“Or—it may be something more personal,” Tom said with a brow wryly wrinkled. “It looks to me like Elka is his girlfriend—or at least she thinks she is. Your duel basically came about because Wolf was flirting with Sandy...”
Bud rubbed his eyes. “Yeah. Got it. Crazed with jealousy! And Elka has nurses’ training, too. She probably knows all about that heart drug and where to get it.”
“And who knows where she was during the afternoon? Or what she was doing?”
“Aw maaaan,” groaned Bud. “Looks like the Queen’s flying to that castle with a real load of trouble on board!”
THE FLYING LAB covered the miles in minutes, landing near Kurenkastel at the edge of a small Alpine lake. As morning crept across the overlooking peaks, the breakfasters were thrilled at the majestic beauty of Bavaria.
“Wa-aal, brand my big ole cow-eyes!” Chow Winkler enthused. “This whole place looks like one o’ them carved cuckoo clocks!”
“And how does it compare with where you are from, Chow?” asked Wolf’s friend Marcus.
“Ain’t nothin’ compares with Texas, son.”
As the sun rose higher, Wolf led them to the great door of the castle, or Schloss, nestled on higher ground at the base of a mountain and overlooking the lake. The huge decorous ruins had once been a summer home of the royals of Bavaria. Wolf told Sandy and Bashalli—the others were permitted to overhear—that it had been first been constructed in the ninth century, and wrecked three hundred years ago by a French king’s army.
“A good thing, perhaps,” he added with a chuckle. “As you see, it was built and rebuilt century by century in such a jumble of styles it makes a more beautiful ruin than it was a piece of architecture. This part, the museum and living area, is modern—built in 1802.”
“Long as it has indoor plumbing,” remarked Dr. Sarcophagus.
“Aw now, I’m sure it does,” Chow assured him.
Wolf continued unfazed. “A frequent guest here in the old days was a poet—Josef Victor von Scheffel,” he said. “He wrote the words of many of our favorite student songs at Heidelberg.”
“Don’t be misled, though,” one of the girls said to the Americans. “We Deutchlander jungen are not stereotypes from old operettas, hein? We hold all those things to our ears and dance to what is ‘now,’ jawohl?”
“Same in Brungaria,” observed Lethal Monica. “We are mojo more cool than our fudzy elders.”
“Some of us feel an obligation to uphold the dignity of tradition,” muttered Wolf haughtily.
“And others of us feel sentimental folk traditions should be put on the shelf next to magic wands and love potions.” No one bothered to turn to look at Dr. Sarcophagus.
In the great vaulted foyer the group was welcomed by Wolf’s great-uncle, an elderly but vigorous man, and his decorous wife Alyse. Graf von Enzbach was blind and walked the familiar halls with a cane, yet nonetheless wore a monocle in one eye as a symbol of ancient aristocracy. The girls liked him at once, but had to stifle a giggle as he bowed and brushed their fingertips with his jutting Kaiser Wilhelm moustache. “I do not require eyes to see that I am in the presence of loveliness,” he said suavely, in perfect English.
The Americans shook hands with him, thanking him for his hospitality. “Pleased t’ meetcha, Graf,” said Chow. “An’ you too, Graffiti.” The Countess smiled graciously.
Wolf gave the visitors a long tour of the castle and its many treasures of art and history, a longer tour than Tom, who was anxious to commence his scientific mission, would have liked. After an early luncheon, during which the Count and Countess told Tom what little they knew of the old legends, Tom politely excused himself and his search team.
“These charming frauleins will not be bored while you search,” promised Wolf. “There remains much I can show them.”
“No doubt,” said Bashalli.
The Sky Queen lifted into the air. “They should put a resort hotel up here,” chuckled Slim Davis. “Or maybe a nature park. Look!” He pointed and the passengers glimpsed wild deer feeding among the tangled greenery of the slopes.
“Not far away, you would find the mountainsides terraced with vineyards and, in the right season, the air sweet with the scent of grapes and berries,” commented Dr. Feng. “In fact, Heidelberg probably got its name from Heidelbeerberg, meaning Huckleberry Hill.”
“Zat so?” responded Chow Winkler. “I know me a song about that! ‘I got me a thrill on Huckleberry Hill.’”
“No yodeling before the yodeling hour, wrangler,” said Bud sternly. “It’s the law.”
“Let’s get to work,” Tom directed.
They flew a methodical pattern among the peaks, skimming low through narrow valleys and across broad meadows of mountain flowers. Lett accompanied Tom below in the searchlight bay, where the rebuilt telesampler was based. “Thanks for all your patience, genius boy,” said the Brungarian. “I know teaching me how to run your machine goes well beyond the astronaut training routine.”
Tom nodded. “I’m glad to give you a wider view of what I do and how I do it.”
“And I’m glad to watch you give it.” Standing behind them in the open hatchway to the cramped compartment, Dr. Sarcophagus had an urge to comment which was, as always, irresistible.
“Please don’t distract us, Doctor,” stated the young inventor coolly.
The telesampler worked perfectly, its probing X-raser beams, each thin as an atom, penetrating as far as fifty feet into the ground. Tom snapped up several samples per second, mile after mile, digitally recording the precise locations and analysis results. “A few traces of just about everything,” he told Lett. “But the cinnabar traces are widely distributed and more or less at the normal background level for this part of Europe.”
“So Mercury lies in his grave undisturbed,” said the astronaut.
“So far. But we’ve only overflown about a fifth of the target area.”
As evening approached and the mountain shadows engulfed the Kurenkastel valley, Slim landed the Queen and the travelers hastened to their quarters to change for dinner, which Wolf had assured them would be, if not formal, utterly proper. The Schloss was so massive that each of the twenty-three guests had his or her own bedroom, lavishly appointed.
“Very good thinking, Sandra, having us bring evening clothes,” commented Bash in a whisper.
“I don’t mind impressing the Student Prince,” giggled Sandy.
“At the risk of depressing Bud?”
“At least we’ll know he’s paying attention!”
The girls’ intent was somewhat daunted as they arrived in the great dining hall. All the young ladies—and the student corpsmen—were impressively attired. “Makes me feel like a blame prairie flower,” grumped Chow.
Karl Feng chuckled. “Consider yourself an ambassador in the cause of cultural variety, my friend.”
Wolf von Enzbach sat next to Sandy. Bud whispered to Tom, “I see an X-raser beam coming from Elka’s eyes.”
His pal shrugged. “Flyboy, I’ll be glad when we manage to get up in space.” His tone was subdued. Bud could sense that Tom had the repelatron problem and the cryptic comet warning on his mind—and perhaps the more perplexing self-doubts raised by Sarcophagus’s blunt critique of his unscientific science.
After some polite conversation over soup, the Countess whispered something to her husband. “Ah! I have just been reminded of something my venerable old mind chose to set aside,” proclaimed Graf von Enzbach. “Perhaps, Herr Swift, it will be of value to you in your pursuit.”
Tom raised his eyebrows. “Something about the alchemy school?”
“Jawohl! Of course! It is a tradition about a hill near here.” The Count rose from the table and pulled aside the heavy red-velvet drapes from a window, guided by his expert sense of touch. The others gazed out across the moonlit valley and the ghostly peaks beyond. “Now then,” he said, “if you will look out straight ahead, perhaps a bit to the right, you see in the far distance a double peak—two rather sharp points, like two daggers, eh? Alyse, am I showing it correctly?”
“Perfectly, my dear.”
“We see the peak, sir,” Tom declared.
“It is a good distance, perhaps twelve kilometers, perhaps more. There is a valley beyond, and at the further end is a small low hill, more or less of a bump on the earth.
“I had quite forgotten that my distinguished ancestors collected some legends of this locality, and spoke of a tradition that an ancient monastery once stood on the hilltop. At some point it was used as a crude observatory for studying the stars, so it says, and as recently as two hundred years ago one could make out some crumbling stone foundations—I have seen a drawing. Now there is nothing left to see, but perhaps you will find something beneath the ground, eh?”
“That could be a breakthrough clue!” Tom exclaimed gratefully. “The Brothers of Hermes seemed to be referring to things observed in the sky. It makes sense that they would have some kind of structure up on the surface!”
“I’ve heard nothing of this tale, Great-Uncle,” said Wolf. “Does this place have a name?”
“Do not all things have a name? Berg der Weissen Konigin, it was called from elder times.”
Dr. Feng reacted with a gasp! “The Hill of the White Queen!”
“Whoop! That there’s a clue, all right!” Chow exclaimed.
After dessert the animated group retired to an even larger hall with an even higher roof. “Good grief!” Bud muttered. “You could park the Sky Queen in here!”
Slim Davis laughed. “Maybe not quite, but it’s pretty impressive.”
They spoke—and some drank enthusiastically—late into the evening. But as the hours chimed many of the visitors wandered off to their rooms. “On behalf of my country, please accept my apologies,” yawned Sandy daintily. “I think I’ll just have to drop out and go to bed.”
Wolf von Enzbach stood. “Here in this great house it is easy to become lost, gnädige fraulein. Permit me to accompany you.”
“Aristocrats though we may be,” stated the Count, “we are not as wealthy these days as one might think. We turn off the lights in much of Kurenkastel after ten.”
“Oh, I remember the way, Wolf,” replied Sandy uneasily. “Don’t bother.”
“Good night, Sandy!” Bud said forcefully.
Sandy had been given a lofty room on the second floor, with a huge stone fireplace. Enough moonlight filtered through the high hall windows for her to find the door without difficulty—though at one point she paused and stared at a shape in shadow at the far end of the hallway. Oh—just a suit of armor, she remembered. But she stared a moment more to make absolutely sure it hadn’t moved.
An hour later Sandy awoke suddenly, thinking she had heard a door creak. Her own door? Tensely she reached out for her small flashlight on the night stand. She found herself fumbling about nervously. Where is the darn thing? she demanded silently.
Courageous—and impulsive—as always, Sandy sprang out of bed to a nearby window, sweeping open the thick draperies. The illumination showed nothing in her room that shouldn’t have been there, and the door was closed and locked.
But—what was that? Didn’t something just brush against her door?
“Hello?” she called out, but so weakly her voice probably didn’t even reach across the bedroom.
The faint scuffing sound came again. I’m just being silly! she remonstrated.
Letting the drapery fall back into place, Sandy pulled on her robe in deep darkness and felt her way to the door. Unlocking it, she edged it open a crack. Beyond was the plushly carpeted hall, half illuminated by the far window’s moonlight. The long side of the hallway opposite Sandy’s door was completely open and looked out into a cavernous space several stories high. Lined with a handrail banister, her hallway was more like a long, narrow arcade.
The Shoptonian approached the handrail and looked over into vast darkness, broken here and there by shafts of pale moonlight slanting down from the high windows. She could easily make out bright patches on the carpeted floor down below, and the sweeping stairs that led down to it.
She felt, more than heard, a sound. She whipped her head around to look back down the hall. Near the standing armor, but definitely in front of it, was a gray shape—the height of a man, but featureless. As she watched it began to approach her! It had no face!
“B-Bud—Tom—Bashi—if that’s—if you’re playing a—oh please don’t!”
It was backlit in the slanted light from the hall window, a vague gray thing. Sandra Swift was not superstitious, but she couldn’t help wondering if her philosophical upbringing might have been a shade too narrow. The eerie figure moved slowly, but if it had legs and feet to walk with, Sandy couldn’t see them. It seemed to be floating along like a fog. And yet as it passed in front of an illumined part of the wall, she could see that it was solid and blocked-out the background—but not entirely. The edges of the form were hazy and transparent.
The thing paused—then suddenly rushed forward toward Sandy! With a shriek she whirled and fled down the hallway toward the curving stairs, sensing that the specter was pursuing her!
She took the stairs in a series of jumps, twice losing her balance. When she stumbled and recovered she looked behind her. The ghostly form hovered so close she could have touched it! The phrase that rose to Sandy’s mind was: dead silent!
She leapt onto the carpet of the lower floor. Stumbling again, she scrambled away and bumped into something hard—one of the narrow tables that lined the wide hallway to the living-room area. She backed up against the table and swiveled, her heart thudding.
The figure stood immobile some distance away in the middle of the open space, the bottom of the well-like space that stretched up three stories to a dark, distant ceiling.
“Stop joking!” she whispered. “You’re frightening me!”
The gray form was now only a shadow among shadows, the slant of moonlight crossing a yard or so above its head—or where a head should have been! Sandy could barely make it out in the darkness. But she could see just enough to register that it was moving.
And then her blue eyes shifted upward and widened in terror. The phantom form had left the floor, floating upward through the ray of moonlight, and enveloped in the darkness above!
SIGN OF MERCURY
“THAT’S Sandy!” cried Tom, jumping up from the ancient chair in which he had sat for hours. The castle rang with a scream!
“One of the girls...” murmured Lett Monica doubtfully.
“I’d know that scream anywhere!” yelped Bud. “Come on!”
Leaving the Count in his chair, those who still remained for conversation—Tom and Bud, Wolf, Marcus, and Randolph Sarkiewski—dashed from the well-lit chamber into the darkened hallway that led to the stairs.
Oof! Sandy collided with her brother full on!
“Oh—Tom—I—there’s―” She made a great and prideful effort to pull herself together. “Tom Swift! If you and Bud think this is funny—!”
“Sandy, what is it?” Tom demanded.
She could hear the sincerity in his voice. “I just saw what I guess you could call a ghost!”
She could feel, if not quite see, the men looking at her with bemused skepticism. “A ghost!” repeated Wolf’s student friend Marcus. “Wolf, did you neglect to mention that Schloss Kurenkastel happens to be haunted?”
“Bah! There are always such stories.”
“I sure had something running after me!” gulped Sandy. She told her story.
“It flew up into the air?” asked Bud. “Did it have little wings on its feet?”
“Budworth must always have his joke,” came a feminine voice. Bashalli appeared out of the darkness, followed a few steps later by Elka.
“We heard a scream!” said Elka. “What is this you’re saying, Miss Swift? Ein fledergeist?”
“Before we make an emergency call to an all-night parapsychologist,” Sarcophagus grunted, “let’s find the bedsheet this joker wore over his head.”
“Sandy said it floated up into the air,” pronounced Tom, defending his sister. “Could we have the lights on?”
Wolf von Enzbach complied and the long, wide hallway became bright. “It was down there,” Sandy pointed. “That big carpeted space.”
“There’s nothing there now,” noted Wolf. “Elka, did you see anything as you came down the stairs?”
“Not a thing!”
“Nor I,” reported Bashalli. “Even without the lights, there was enough moonlight to make things out.”
“But not so much at the bottom,” Sandy declared.
Dr. Sarcophagus stalked past the knot of people. “Follow me! I’ll show you how non-deviant science makes decisions.”
He led them to the open area and looked upward. “Mm-hmm!” He pointed toward the ceiling three stories above. “Why, what have we here? Looks to me like a big ironwork chandelier the size of a dinner table, hanging at the end of, what, a long, long chain of metal links, nicely anchored into that ceiling way up there.” He turned to the onlookers with a superior smile. “Our be-sheeted prankster wakes Sandy and chases her through the dark down to where he wants her, where there hangs a very thin but very strong cord, perhaps like fishing line, looped over the chandelier. At the bottom, which is out of view in the shadow, is a little hook or clothespin or something. He neatly hooks on his ghostly garb, and as Sandy watches, up it goes—right through the moonlight from the window and into the darkness above.”
Sandy stared at the man, not knowing what to believe. “You mean it was hauled up, like on a pulley?”
“No pulley required. The cord, after the loop on the chandelier, goes to a weight, probably perched on the edge of one of those open balconies, out of sight. Tug on the line, the weight tumbles off—there you go!”
“It sounds rather smart,” said Marcus.
“Of course. But what is smarter is to suspend credulity and examine the actual evidence—in this case, that chandelier. A little real evidence goes a long way. Ectoplasmic visitors need not apply.”
Tom Swift had listened in polite silence. As Sarcophagus concluded with a smirking flourish, he strode into the center of the open space and knelt down, then looked straight up. “But sometimes, Mr. Sarkiewski, a little evidence goes too long a way.”
“Tom has some genius to display to us,” Bashalli announced.
Tom shrugged modestly and turned to Wolf. “When you were giving us the tour, I noticed how carefully the castle is kept up. Neat as a pin, always clean, no dust.”
“Certainly,” nodded Wolf. “Great-Uncle Helmand insists upon it. We maintain a small army of household attendants who are always vacuuming and cleaning.”
“The carpet is sure clean—no dust or lint when I rub my hand on it. But that chandelier way up there—looks like it would be quite a major operation to dust off.”
“That is so, of course,” Wolf conceded. “I doubt it is bothered with even once a year.”
“Hey, I know what Tom’s getting at!” muttered Bud suddenly.
Tom continued. “It’s just that running some kind of pull-cord over the chandelier would almost have to bring down a sprinkling of dust-bunnies or something like that—wouldn’t it, Doctor? But this carpet here underneath it is clean.”
“A minor point!” huffed the skeptic. “You’ve looked only in one spot.”
“No, several spots, all underneath that suspect chandelier. Oh, and also,” he went on, “there’s Foucault.”
“You mean the Foucault Pendulum?” asked Sandy. “That one?”
“Right—very long-lined pendulums with heavy weights that swing frictionlessly on their own for hours or days at a time. Like gyroscopes, they don’t turn along with the earth, and so, as the earth turns under them, they appear to be slowly turning their angle of swing with respect to the ground or floor.
“But all I mean is to refer to the fact that long heavy pendulums keep swinging for a long time. That big heavy chandelier is just hanging free on its chain. Shouldn’t it still be swinging if it was used as you theorize, Dr. Sarcophagus?”
The defender of nondeviant science reddened but said, “Okay, Swift. What’s your opinion? Spectral monks? Intervention by high-spirited aliens? Shall we check the carpet for crop circles?”
In silent response the young inventor walked back and forth for a moment, staring up at the high windows on the far wall. “Just noticing where I can see the moon, which gives the limit of the moonlight beams that slant down to the floor. From Sandy’s description the ‘phantom’ must have stood about there, which isn’t directly under the chandelier, but a couple feet to the side. Something rising straight up would pass right by the chandelier and end up bumping the ceiling—and the slant of the ceiling would cause it to graze along to...” Tom removed from his pocket a pencil-thin electronic flashlight that projected a concentrated beam, and shone it upward. “There!”
Gasps filled the air. High above, a gray mass clung to the ceiling, dangling limply!
“It’s just cloth!” pronounced Sandy in disgust. “It looks like gauze!”
Tom nodded. “Some very lightweight fabric, which the haunter wore on top of the rest of his costume. That’s why you could see through the outer fringes of it.”
“A balloon, isn’t it,” stated Wolf.
“I’d say a balloon is taped inside the cloth sheet right at the middle, like a head that the gauze hangs down from.”
Bashalli said, “The prankster releases the whole affair, and up it floats through the moonlight.”
“That balloon would have to be pretty big,” observed Sandy thoughtfully. “But... I didn’t notice any kind of bulge in the phony’s outfit.”
“Sure!” Tom replied. “Which means the stalker had it on top of his head, maybe tied down around his neck with a string.”
Sarcophagus waved a hand impatiently. “The wonderful world of speculation! Your conjecture doesn’t hold water, not in the face of other evidence. Such an arrangement would make the figure appear unusually tall, but Sandy has described someone not especially taller than the average man. I suppose you’ll say next that he lugged a helium tank around under his cloak to inflate the balloon on the spot! Or some other boys-book gimmickry.”
“I thought you professional skeptics made a point of challenging lazy assumptions,” retorted the youth coolly. “Maybe the person carrying the balloon wasn’t ‘the average man,’ but the average woman!”
“For example,” said Bashalli, “this one right here, who is looking in every direction except toward you, Thomas!”
“Elka!” exclaimed Wolf, astounded.
Marcus spoke up quietly. “She didn’t pull the stunt alone.”
Elka had tears in her voice. “I... I suggested that we put together a little prank, a little fun, and Marcus went to the village to buy the cloth and one of those silvery Mylar party balloons. He was able to sneak it back to Kurenkastel in his backpack.”
“So that’s where you two went wandering during the afternoon,” said Wolf. “But this was not mere fun! It is unforgiveable, your frightening our guest in this manner.”
“It may have been aimed at Sandra,” Bashalli said knowingly, “but she herself was not the motive—not the only motive.”
“You are my friend, Wolf, but you are always self-centered and insensitive to Elka’s feelings!” grated Marcus heatedly. “What sort of gallantry is it, shamelessly flirting with Miss Swift even in front of the very eyes of your liebchen Elka? She deserves better!”
The eyes of the young aristocrat flashed fire. “Better!—such as you, Marcus?”
“Could we just skip the duel this time?” groaned Bud.
Tom’s face was grim. He stepped closer to the tearful Elka and spoke in a low voice. “I have to ask you a question. I realize you meant no harm, knowing that Bud and Wolf are strong, healthy young guys. But please tell me—was it you who put that drug on the swords?”
Wolf boldly cut across her startled protest. “It is impossible! All afternoon, beginning to end, Elka was at my side, or in front of me. There was no opportunity.”
“Nor did I ever leave sight,” added Marcus. “Several can verify my whereabouts throughout the day.”
“Then I guess I’m wrong,” concluded Tom apologetically. “We’ll have to leave that scientific investigation for another day.” Tom turned and eyed the fuming Dr. Sarcophagus. “Doctor, now you know a little more about me. It’s my feeling of curiosity, call it a self-centered whim if you want, that makes me question the safe normal answers and look a little harder. We Swifts have a family trait. We don’t accept limits just because other people say we should. If that’s just an excuse to indulge in imagination—sometimes it works pretty well, don’t you think?”
“What I think is that I need some sleep!” snapped the man sourly.
The next morning—not too early—the pursuit of the newest clue commenced. The skyship made a startling sight in the bright sunlight, hovering near the walls of the old medieval castle. Standing on a terrace the Graf’s servants gawked in astonishment.
“Not Wolf, though,” Bud pointed out.
“Actually, I invited him to join us,” replied Tom. “But he said he’d be busy all morning. I don’t think he’s very interested in science.”
“At least not this field.”
Tom went forward and took over the controls from Slim Davis, joining Lett Monica, Dr. Feng, and the inevitable Dr. Sarcophagus. Chow had declined, joining the girls and some of the others on a sightseeing trip through tiny Steurenen and then on through the local mountains. “I’ll keep an eye out fer avalanches,” the westerner promised.
The Queen streaked toward the Berg der Weissen Konigin. When they reached the low hill, barely noticeable, Tom descended to the searchlight bay, followed by Lett and Sarcophagus. As Bud copiloted next to Slim, the young inventor extended the boom and switched on his aerial telesampler. He aimed the gunlike transmitron unit at the ground as the craft maneuvered in slowly widening circles about the hilltop. Sample readings began to accumulate, each one analyzed instantly even as it materialized.
“If there was ever something down there, I see no trace now,” commented Lett. “No old ruins. Just boulders and mountain brush.”
“Well—I’m disgusted to admit that I hope you come across something,” Randolph Sarkiewski muttered grudgingly. “I’ve never doubted the value of the science of archaeology, only its many mutated offspring.”
“Those that led to our finding Atlantis, for instance?” needled Tom with his eyes on the readout dials.
“So you choose to call it. I’m still waiting for the promised mystic crystal revelations.”
“Slim! Bud! Hold it!” Tom called over the intercom suddenly. His eyes were fixed on the analysis output monitor. Then he lifted the transparent recovery tank for the others to see.
“Look!” Tom’s face was flushed with excitement. At the bottom of the receptacle, divided into containment cells, was a tiny smudge shining with a silver gleam!
“Got some mercury ore?” Dr. Sarcophagus blurted with uncharacteristic eagerness. “Cinnabar, perhaps?”
“Not ore! Pure mercury!”
“But genius skipper,” objected Lett, “I thought mercury was never found in a natural setting, unrefined.”
Tom’s eyes glistened like the silver sample! “It’s not!—and that means what the telesampler has snatched up isn’t just a vein of natural ore! The beam must have penetrated into some artificial chamber inside the hill!”
Pinpointing the precise location of the “catch,” Tom directed the Sky Queen to hover steadily as he took more samples. “There’s no doubt at all!” he declared happily. “Pure mercury, probably right out of the beaker! As well as glass, copper, steel, wood cellulose—all manner of substances you’d expect to run across inside the Sanctum Never Seen!”
“How deep is the chamber?”
“Roughly forty feet beneath the top of the hill, which is still high above the valley floor. Bud says they’ve confirmed it with the other instruments.”
“All right, all right,” hissed Dr. Sarcophagus. “I suppose you’ve earned a good gloat. You’ve found something interesting. As to what it really is—we’ll see!”
THE DEAD HAND
WHILE Slim Davis steadied the Flying Lab, the air-launch hangar deck was extended from the underhull and a ladder was lowered some twenty feet further to the hillside. Tom, Bud, Lett, Dr. Feng, and Mr. Sarkiewski scrambled down hastily.
“Over here, near this rock!” Tom cried, leading the way. “The LRGM shows a long open space, an underground corridor, passing almost directly below. Looks like it connects to the main chamber we’ve detected.”
“But you said it appeared the mouth of the tunnel was blocked up, just as the legends say,” cautioned Karl Feng. “How do we get access to the corridor?”
Bud pointed upward. “Here comes the answer!” A metal object, resembling a small torpedo, was descending toward them on a cable.
“The small earth blaster—the nonvaporizing mechanical model—will open up a safe crawlspace for us through solid rock,” Tom explained. “We’ll angle it sideways and punch through the corridor wall.”
The pulverizing hypersonic vanes of Tom’s digging machine penetrated the slab of underlying granite like a knife through cheese. Suddenly the deafening whine fell silent. “Okay, Skipper,” radioed Slim from the control compartment. “The penetradar shows she’s broken through.”
“Go ahead and pull her out and up,” replied Tom.
“I can understand how a person might get swept-up by all this drama and excitement,” declared Dr. Sarcophagus.
“What! Even a skeptical sci-guy like you?” remarked Lett Monica.
“Oh, I’m as human as anyone else, Monica,” grumbled Sarcophagus. “The difference is—I fight it!”
The earth blaster had made a circular opening, just wide enough for each of them to pass through one by one at a crouch. Tom, holding his electronic flashlight, went first, Bud at his heels as usual.
They emerged in a downslanting tunnel, dank and odorous, that was clearly the work of man. Squared blocks of worked stone paved its floor, and the walls were lined with granite pilasters supporting a ceiling of solid rock.
“I believe the old traditions have been wrong in one regard, at least,” said Feng in awe as Tom played his flashlight back and forth. “The Brothers of Hermes did not establish their monastery-collegium in an underground cave system. They constructed their sanctum of solid stone, and built up an artificial hill over and around it!”
“With hidden entryways,” Tom observed. As he flashed the light beam one direction down the corridor, he added grimly: “Maybe just one of them—all the easier to collapse and seal up, unfortunately.” Only ten steps further, the hallway was completely choked by boulders and rubble.
“I believe their attackers even put something like cement between the boulders,” Lett pointed out.
“Extra insurance against escape by alchemy,” commented Dr. Sarcophagus. For the moment his voice was faint and verging upon respectful. It was easy to believe that the dark, silent, brooding place was a crypt for the dead.
In the other direction, further downward, the corridor was intact, but the explorers could see no further than a wall where the passage cut sharply to the left. “But look,” said Tom, nodding toward the wall. “Something’s carved on it.”
Feng took a few steps closer and extended a trembling hand, touching the gouge in the face of the rock and following it, as dust and dirt flaked away. It curved in a complete circle. Just above this and touching it was a shallow, half-moon curve. Below the circle was a cross.
“The alchemical symbol for mercury!” Dr. Feng exclaimed in awe. “The White Queen!”
“One of them, at least,” Tom reminded the scholar. “Hopefully this White Queen will tell us something about her big sister out in space.”
“We must be near the alchemists’ secret chamber!” Bud insisted. “But where the heck is it?” The second leg of the corridor extended another twenty feet and stopped at a dead end!
Lett trotted to the end of the corridor and examined the wall. “Nope, no secret panel, not that I can see.”
The others gathered behind him. “You may have to apply your digging machine again,” said Dr. Feng.
Bud scratched his head. “Good grief, I’ve heard of bridges to nowhere, but why build a tunnel to nowhere?”
“Not unprecedented,” noted Sarcophagus. “You find them in Egyptian tombs. Stops grave robbers, but the spirit of the pharaoh wafts right on through.”
“That statement is fairly close to truth,” commented Feng sarcastically.
As Tom rubbed his chin over the development, Bud was pacing about restlessly just outside the zone of light. Just as Dr. Sarcophagus started to dispense some further wisdom, the others heard Bud yell amid a clattering tumult. He had almost disappeared from sight, leaving a California-shaped gap in the side of the hall!
His head and shoulders, smudged with dirt, reappeared. “Come on!” he exclaimed. “There’s some kind of opening here! I leaned on the wall and fell right into it!”
“Why, this is most ingenious!” declared Dr. Feng as he examined the ragged edge of the opening. “It was once a door of wooden slats covered in plaster, to which a thin stone surface had been affixed for camouflage. But the wooden crosspieces have rotted through.”
“Just waiting for a little muscling from Bud Barclay!” Tom joked.
Bud was already probing deeper into the open space beyond as the others trampled over the loose stones and crowded in behind him. They were in another corridor. Tom’s lamp showed that it opened out into blackness a few yards ahead. They approached slowly in throbbing anticipation, all but overwhelmed by the musty eeriness of their surroundings.
Bud, in the lead, suddenly stopped. “Careful. The floor ends in stone steps. We’ll need some light up here.” In a breath Tom, Feng, and the others clustered around him. All four gasped at the sight revealed by Tom’s flashlight beam.
Ahead lay a big, low-ceilinged chamber, its floor a few feet lower than that of the corridor. As Tom played the beam about they could see that the chamber was filled with ancient alchemists’ equipment!
“We have found it!” Feng choked in a trembling voice. “The hidden center of alchemical knowledge!”
But there was more, and Bud gasped in fear as it leapt into view in the moving beam. Tom’s light fell across a broken skull that leered back at them!
“It’s okay, Bud,” Tom said. “Old Mr. Bones looks glad to see us. He’s grinning!”
Stepping down past Bud, he strode into the sanctum chamber, widening his beam and swiveling the flashlamp. Interrupted here and there by thick support pillars, the crypt like room was about fifty feet square. Arranged about the floor were brick athanors, or furnaces, with bellows and tongs hanging ready for use. Flasks, crucibles, retorts, pelican jars, and coiled distilling apparatus stood everywhere. Several long wooden tables bore bottles, mortars and pestles, and earthenware vessels. A number of oil float lamps hung on chains from the roof of the cavern.
The chamber was occupied!—by silent occupants who hadn’t moved in many centuries. Shattered, crumbling skeletons littered the floor and the tops of the work tables. The intruders could make out rotted shreds of cloth—monk’s robes.
Dr. Feng was whispering to himself. Listening, Tom was surprised to discover that he was speaking, not English or German, but Latin—the language of the Brothers of Hermes. “Dr. Feng...?” said the young inventor tentatively.
The scholar stared at him for a moment as if uncomprehending. “I—oh. Forgive me Tom, gentlemen,” he said slowly. “This moment is, to me—stunning!”
“Wasn’t that Latin?” asked Tom.
“Yes. It’s their Latin. Just being here, in this ancient chamber...
“Can you not feel it as well? Their anguish, knowing that they would never again see the sun and the stars? Yet they continued. Days passed, food and water and lamp-oil ran out, but they continued studying the symbols of the higher wisdom, making notes in their manuscripts—even as they knew that the parchments would crumble to dust before they would be seen by other eyes.
“For they knew, don’t you see? They knew what would come to pass, how many centuries would go by in the outside world before an avatar, one young man touched by the hand of wise Mercury, would lead others through the stones.”
“How long have you rehearsed that speech, Feng?” snarled Dr. Sarcophagus in contempt. “What are you pretending to do, channel the lingering spirits of these pathetic fanatics? For all we know this complex could have been built during the last world war by Hitler’s pet occultists. We’ll need radiocarbon to tell us the date, not pixie dust!”
“You know nothing, you poor man,” replied Karl Feng. “The truth finds no place in your rigid mind.”
“Okay, enough of that,” demanded Tom Swift. “We’re here to find out about the comet. There’s an inscription carved on that wall—Latin. Can you make it out, Dr. Feng?”
He stepped closer, squinting. “Oh yes indeed. It is the Sacred Statute of Hermes Trismagistos, who was called the human image of Divine Mercury on Earth.”
KNOW YE ALL MEN THAT NONE SHALL ENDEAVOR AFTER THE SACRED WISDOM OF ALCHEMY BUT HE WHO IS PURE IN HEART AND INSPIRED BY THE LOFTIEST OF INTENTION
“Purified of intelligence,” grumped Sarcophagus under his breath, “and inspired by rubbish.”
Tom was intrigued by several tripod-mounted assemblages of polished mirrors and slabs of crystal. “I’m sure these were usable telescopes—made centuries before Lippershey’s invention of 1608!” Evidently the occupants of the Sanctum Never Seen had mingled astronomy with their alchemical studies, just as the ancient traditions had claimed!
“Made—and buried,” said Bud. “Maybe the world could’ve used some of that ‘lost wisdom,’ Sarcophagus. Even if it just unscientifically jumped out of some guy’s head!”
Dr. Feng was more interested in the stone shelves of ancient leather-bound volumes and papyrus scrolls lining the walls. “What a treasure trove!” the professor enthused. He dared not open the books for fear their mildewed pages would crumble to the touch. “I see writing that must be the titles, but... ah well, impossible to read after all these years.”
“Maybe I can help,” said Tom. He made several careful adjustments to his electronic flashlamp, twisting segments of the barrel. The brilliant disk of illumination it produced faded. In its place was an intense halo of neon-like hues. “This phase-tuned polarized light should enhance contrast and make the faded letters visible.”
The method worked. Awestruck, Dr. Feng translated several of the famous titles, mostly written in Church Latin or medieval German: The Great Mirror of the World, Stairway of the Sages, The Magnum Opus Unveiled, The Book of the Twelve Gates. “Many of the others,” he said, “are totally unknown to historians of alchemy. I think some volumes may be written in Persian.”
The parchments displayed out in the open were beyond even electronic recovery; most had crumbled to small brown scraps and fragments. “But look at this!” called Lett. On the shelf in front of him were several tarnished metal plates entirely covered with lines of writing.
“Whatever this is,” said Tom excitedly, “it was important enough for them to etch it into bronze!”
Randolph Sarkiewski snorted, bluster obscuring awe. “Bronze? Too bad. I’d expect the important stuff to be inscribed on plates of gold!”
Dr. Feng examined the metal tablets carefully. “This section—a collection of the ancient symbols, the primordial alchemical signs that the adept must meditate upon to attain enlightenment! Yet I’ve never seen such an array of them...” Scrutinizing further, he gasped! “A passage in Latin—Himmel! It’s more of their story!”
As Feng began to peruse the Latin, Tom asked: “Sir—does it seem to have anything to do with the Messengers of Light?”
Dr. Feng didn’t answer. With wide eyes, he stood like a statue, gazing at the metal plate. His lips quivered.
“Good night!” Bud whispered. “The guy’s gone into a trance or something!”
Dr. Feng now spoke, very slowly and quietly. “The signs disclose the revelation—the signs in the sky...”
“The comet?” asked Tom urgently.
Feng seemed to be reading the passage. “We all stood above to see the Messengers of Light weave their message in the night sky. Their torches flew about, for swift and sure is the stylus of Great Mercury, and they wrote above us in fire. Of all this lower world only we, we initiates, we adepts, we students, yea be it so, only to us was the knowledge granted, the sacred key. Many looked and saw this fire, but only we Brothers could read the light.”
He fell silent again. Sarcophagus said, “The usual inspirational tedium from the séance room.”
“Please be quiet!” Tom snapped.
Feng had stepped sideways and was gazing at the second metal plate. “I understand, now I understand. They were summoned and stood on top of this hill. The objects, bright lights in the night sky, moved in patterns almost faster than the eye could follow. They left glowing trails against the dark, symbols like those known to the alchemists of old, written in fire—made of light! The Brothers—it was Brother Albertus—copied them down. For years they studied them, concentrated on them, many years. Bit by bit the symbols translated themselves to the devoted ones. Even when they closed their eyes, they saw—they knew!”
“Enough of this!” grumbled Dr. Sarcophagus.
“G-go on, Dr. Feng,” Bud urged.
The Chinese-German moved on to the third and last of the plates. “Yes—here it is, the revelation of the Messengers. But...” Suddenly it seemed the spell was broken. Feng looked up at Tom in confusion.
“Can you understand it, Doctor?” asked Tom.
“Only a little, Tom. The sky message is not in the Green Language. The Brothers have given the message in numbers and references to the zodiac and the fixed stars, to astrological configurations. I believe this message is the original source of the information about the comet, Comet Tarski.”
Bud’s eyes were wide. “That—that warning? With the fangs? That... dead hand?”
“The warning we already know about is after the astrological part, almost word for word. But it continues—there is more! ‘Celestial messengers, He who in his graciousness has sent you, our praise, undying, endless. You leave this to mankind, to those children of children yet to come, so that when these things come to pass, the month, the day, the hour, the year, the seed of Adam shall be spared, they shall watch for the entrance of the White Queen, they shall read from her diadem the disclosures, the alchemy of truth, primum materium, to stay the vengeful hand of the consort, to fend off this evil, to stay the Dead Hand as it strikes the Sun, O Ye Sun Apollo, archangel, protect us, may we be saved as the Dead Hand burns the scroll of Man to ashes!’
“And then one more line. The month, the day, the hour, the year is written in the Green Language,” pronounced Dr. Feng. “I can read it—this year! Whatever is to be done—whatever you must do, Tom!—decides the fate of our world!”
OFF TO A COMET!
EVEN AS the majestic Sky Queen streaked toward Kurenkastel to collect the two girls and Chow, Tom was on the Private Ear Radio to his father in Shopton. “I have the three plates in front of me right now, Dad,” the young inventor reported, voice steady.
“Can you confirm the date information?”
“Yes. It’s also said in a different way in the numerical part of the inscription. I’ve been able to translate the astrological indicators and run the numbers. Feng was right. Whatever’s going to happen is about five months away.”
Damon Swift’s voice was, as usual, very calm and crisp. “According to the Brothers of Hermes. We should give at least a little credence to Dr. Sarcophagus. As he told you―”
“—end-of-the-world predictions are a dime a dozen throughout history. The only reason to take this ‘Dead Hand’ business seriously is that these medieval monks were able, in some fantastic way, to predict very exactly the year and month Comet Tarski would become visible to the unaided eye, and its trajectory through the inner solar system. However it happened, they ended up with the raw data.”
Tom rushed in. “But—Dad—it’s more than just that. Dr. Feng and I agree that the ‘message’ alludes to other things that were, to them, centuries in the future.”
“Such as you yourself.”
“Maybe. He thinks so. But look, if those sky-lights were created by extraterrestrial beings, they may have the same mastery over space and time as the Planet X scientists. We can’t just rule out the possibility of a technology able to probe future times.”
“We don’t need to debate philosophy, Tom,” responded the older man bluntly. “I agree that we must take the passage seriously as a warning—at least that—of some catastrophic threat to Earth, connected in some way to the mystery comet.”
“I’ve run the numerical and positional data in the body of the message itself,” Tom continued. “It basically projects the course of Tarski all the way to the critical date. At that point, in five months, the comet will be within the orbit of Mercury and nearing its closest approach to the Sun.”
“The message seems to be saying that it will actually strike the Sun.”
“No, I don’t think that’s what it means,” Tom disagreed. “Dr. Feng says the particular Latin words they chose imply that the Dead Hand will ‘strike’ from over a distance, like a warrior throwing a spear or―”
“Or a coiled snake suddenly springing!” Mr. Swift was quiet for a moment, turning it over in his mind. “None of it makes sense scientifically. Many comets pass closer to the Sun than Tarski will. And Tarski is just a haze of dusty fog trailing along after a little lump of rock and ice. Even if, somehow, these hermetic alchemists were given information about the comet and its composition—they’re alchemists, son. They have occult notions of the ‘powers’ of metals and chemicals. They may have read their own beliefs into the symbols produced by those ‘Messenger of Light’.”
“But don’t forget, Dad, our own instruments show something unexplained going on, on the surface of the nucleus. There could be interstellar material in its core with properties we’ve never seen!”
“But—to constitute a danger to our planet from hundreds of millions of miles away...”
Tom interrupted. “Dad, I’ve decided to move up the departure date of the comet probe. I want to be in space in forty-eight hours!”
Mr. Swift was stunned. “Great Scott! Has Karl Feng panicked you with all this ‘dead hand’ talk? The space model of your telesampler isn’t even―”
“I know,” said the young inventor. “I talked to Hank Sterling just ten minutes ago. Some last minute unsolved problems—but we can solve them en route, in the Challenger. Hank agrees.”
“I don’t know if I can give you much of an answer,” came the quiet response. “I sure don’t expect to give Sarcophagus any justification that he’d accept! But something inside me says that I should take the Messengers’ warning very seriously. I think—maybe I just feel—that Dr. Feng’s on to something, some kind of truth that we’re not able to see from way down here. I don’t know where imagination and intuition and hunches come from, Dad. But if real scientists are supposed to look at all the data—that’s a kind of data too! It’s just lazy prejudice to slough it off.”
“Yes. I agree.”
“I don’t think we can afford to delay finding out just what’s up with Comet Tarski. The clock’s ticking; there’ve been more of those intermittent anomalies in the fixed-setting repelatrons. It’s getting worse, whatever the cause. Who knows whether the Chal’s repelatron drive will still be available in the crunch?”
Damon Swift tried not to sigh. “All right, Tom. We all trust your judgment. After all—you’re the hero!”
“No, Dad,” stated Tom Swift. “I’m your son.”
Tom directed Slim to divert course and head for Fearing Island. He explained to Sandy and Bashalli that after letting off the others, the girls would be flown on to Shopton aboard the Sky Queen.
“Then it is all that serious?” inquired Bashalli. “But I don’t need to ask, Tom. Only to say... come back safe.”
The young inventor radioed Fearing to ask that the spaceship be made ready, then called Hank Sterling. “I’ve decided to go ahead, Hank. Jet down to Fearing with the space model right away.”
“Will do, boss. See you there by dinnertime.”
The task that Tom found most distasteful was a purely human challenge. “So, Swift, just what did you want to have a conversation about?” began Randolph Sarkiewski, mouth already open and running, as he joined the youth in one of the lab compartments. “Need a few more skeptical correctives from someone who dares to get squinty-eyed over the Swift intuition? You know what I think. All this haste to rush into space endangers the lives of your crew and could compromise your scientific goals as well. All because some idiotic―”
Tom interrupted coldly. “Don’t go on, sir. You don’t have to worry about any of this. You won’t be joining the mission.”
“Got on your nerves, hm? And what about your commitment to me? My challenge?”
“Tell your fans whatever you like. I don’t care if it ‘hurts my image.’ Frankly, Doctor—Mister!—you’re out of control. You don’t believe in my approach to the mission. Fine. I don’t care to have you on board making your usual insulting asides and distracting me and my team. There’s no need for discussion, sir. You’ll be flown back to Shopton tonight, with Sandy and Bash.”
Dr. Sarcophagus stood like a granite statue in a rumpled white shirt. “I see. I suppose Feng will be part of your team?”
“I think he’ll be of value in understanding whatever we find out there. You don’t have to agree with that. You just have to accept it.”
The man’s expression slowly changed, evolving from red anger to something else that made him pale with barely concealed emotion. “Might I be allowed to say a little more to you—Tom?”
The youth nodded curtly.
“I’m going to give you something extremely valuable, valuable because it’s extremely rare,” he began in a low voice. “Namely an apology. I have been insufferable. I call myself a skeptic and a scientific rationalist, but my conduct has been that of an obnoxious, closed-minded bigmouth. I’d like to blame some of that on the culture of the public airwaves and the internet—but it’s mostly just me, just Randy Sarkiewski.
“Tom, there’s a kind of a reason for my... attitude. I don’t choose to publicize it. My SCAT associates, my loyal audience of skepto-heads—they don’t know about it. It’s personal.”
Now it was Tom Swift who appeared skeptical. “Are you going to ask me to feel sorry for you?”
“No. I just want you to have a few more facts.” The older man hesitated, collecting his thoughts as if pulling them into the open with sheer muscular force. “An entire branch of my family was killed by the Nazis, in Poland. Only my grandparents, newly wed, were able to escape. Want to know what their terrible crime was? They were reported to have made some disparaging comments about a pet ‘scientific’ theory promoted by the Nazi leadership. Accepting it without question was treated as a test of loyalty.”
“A scientific theory?” repeated Tom, intrigued.
“A pseudo-scientific theory. Aha! Establishment science crushing all challengers? You decide: it was called the Cosmic Ice Theory. It entailed that everyone believe that the Sun is a big ball of ice! A real thrill for those pure-blooded Teutonics who wanted to institute worship of the frozen north—frost-giants, aeons of twilight, all the old tougher-stuff Nordic myths favored by the Hitler gang.
“The leadership, Der Fuehrer himself, were obsessed with occultism, magic and mysticism, raw primordial power from some higher—lower!—source. They consulted astrologers in planning military moves. They threw over biology in favor of occult doctrines of ‘racial destiny.’ Millions died. Including most of my family. Not remembered, not avenged. No justice. Just numbers, Tom. That’s all that’s left of them.
“Heard enough? Maybe you understand now why I get a little emotional, a little obsessed, on the subject of pseudoscience and paranormalist cult leaders and all that feel-good anti-rational rubbish! And then I see reputable scientists, respected scholars, signing on to the scam...”
“Such as Dr. Feng?”
“Dangerous myths dressed up as science, marketed to a gullible public. I can’t respect such a man, Tom. But—I could do much better at pretending to.”
The man stood in front of Tom, waiting.
“Mr. Sarkiewski,” Tom said at last, “it’s not my place to judge you. Who knows what it’d do to anybody to have something so, so unimaginable happen to a person’s family! You acknowledge that you’ve acted badly...”
“I do. Please don’t tell my audience.”
The young Shoptonian half-smiled. “Okay. Look... are you saying to me that you can get yourself under control? Even around Karl Feng?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying,” he confirmed. “I’d like very much to see this project through right to the end. Take me along on your comet probe—please. I’ll be good. Maybe even likeable.—well, let’s not set the bar too high.”
Tom shrugged, but with a nod. “Departure time is 1 PM tomorrow. Be sure to pack your skepticism, Mr. Sarkiewski.”
Tom’s goals were met with the usual Swift Enterprises efficiency. At 1 PM the following day the mighty Challenger was whooshing upward through the thinning air and over the black border into space. “How do you feel, Doctor?” Bud asked Dr. Feng as they stood before one of the ship’s big viewpanes. “Space can seem a little big first time out.”
“I’m all right,” replied the scholar. “If I am quiet, it is from a contemplative mood. The stars, all those stars... What do they wish to tell us?”
“Right now I’m more concerned with that guy.” The young astronaut pointed toward distant, brilliant Tarski. “Maybe he’ll tell us his story even before we get there—if the telesampler does what Tom wants it to.”
Below, in the ship’s wide vehicular hangar, Tom labored with Hank Sterling to iron out the final difficulties of the space telesampler. “I know you’d like to get this baby going en route, Skipper,” said Hank. “Getting a preview of our mystery guest out there is a good idea.”
“If there’s some sort of danger our regular instruments can’t detect, taking samples while we’re still distant could keep us alive,” the young inventor pointed out tersely.
“Wellllp, our 1-G acceleration and deceleration should put us in Tarski’s lap in 51 hours,” replied the young engineer. “Since we’re dealing in prophecies, I predict we’ll have the telesampler on line before Chow rings the dinner bell.”
“That’d be great, Hank.”
As it turned out, the problems had been solved before the range cook had even begun working his craft in the Challenger’s galley. “Ready to take the first slice,” announced Tom, standing at the auxiliary control panel on the command deck.
“The moment of truth!” murmured Dr. Feng, watching with the others.
“No doubt about that,” nodded Dr. Sarcophagus.
Bud, seated at the main control board, half-turned toward his chum and said: “Okay, genius boy, vacuum established in the hangar. I’m opening the hatch and starting the conveyor.”
Tom gave a tense smile. “You don’t need to take the machine all the way out onto the landing stage. Just park ’er right in the hatchway. Perfect line of sight to the comet.”
As Tom adjusted the controls, Chow Winkler nudged Lethal Monica with a pudgy elbow that wallowed in a shirt of supernova color. “It’s allus this way, Lett. Big suspense! Guess that’s why th’ books sell like they do.”
Lett smiled nervously. “Yee-haw, pardner. This moment could be one of the end-of-chapter cliffhangers.”
“Allus turns out all right.”
“So far,” muttered the Brungarian. “But these days, sometimes they kill off a main character.”
Tom fed energy into the telesampler down below, and the rainbow of lights before him twinkled and changed. “Transmitron good. Positioning beam on its way. Data in a few minutes.”
“And then you’ll have your first sample?” asked Sarcophagus.
Hank answered for his young employer. “No, Mr. Sark. This is just radar-type information to give the X-rasers a precise fix. A five minute round trip at light speed.”
“Conveying the actual material samples back to the Challenger will take a lot longer,” Tom added. “Though the capture beam travels at the speed of light, it can’t accelerate molecular mass instantly. The excised particles never get anywhere near light speed.”
The positioning bounceback was received and fed into the analysis computer. “We know where the bulk of the nucleus is down to the inch,” noted Tom presently. “I can’t say the same about its surface, though. It’s flopping around like boiling oatmeal right now.”
“Th’ boss like t’ use cookin’ examples when he does his explanations,” Chow whispered to Lett. “Like to think he got it from me.”
“Ready to go, Tom,” reported Hank.
“Right.” The young inventor stabbed a button. “X-rasers on. Capture beam away! Now we have a little time to stretch.”
Chow decided it was his duty to rustle up some supper. The others remained on the command deck.
“I wonder, Tom,” said Dr. Feng. “Have your space friend contacts been able to tell you anything about the White Queen—the comet?”
“I was politely and supportively wondering the same thing,” Sarkiewski stated.
“No, but not for lack of trying,” was the reply. “Dad has transmitted a coded message several times now, but there’s been no response—nothing.”
Sarkiewski smiled blandly. “But I gather that’s not unusual. Your aliens seem to make themselves scarce at certain critical moments.”
“Maybe it’s just to spite you, Sarky,” Bud remarked with his own brand of smile.
Glancing at the clock, Hank Sterling stretched his arms. “Hard to wait. I want those samples.”
“Me, I don’t mind waiting for wonderful things,” Lett said. “What a tale this will be for my buds back in Brunka.”
At last a polite chortle from the board announced the return of the telesampler capture beam and the first of a steady stream of particles from the comet. “Working perfectly!” grinned Tom happily.
Bud asked if the first samples were from deep beneath the surface. “Not the first ones,” Tom answered. “This series is from the coma, the ‘atmosphere’ of ice particles and dust surrounding the nucleus—the head of the comet, in other words.”
“The crown of the White Queen!” said Feng.
The first samples showed nothing unexpected, matching the instrumental data gleaned by means of Earth-based instruments.
Tom then commenced a methodical probe pattern that penetrated the surface. “Tarksi is rotating,” he noted. “I’m just running the beam right along the equator. We’ll get a good picture of materials distribution without having to shift the beam angle.”
More and more wisps of matter materialized in the receiving tank, hour after hour. So many samples were accumulated that Hank, in a spacesuit, had to switch out the stuffed receiving tanks several times.
As Tom studied the analysis readout, his expression slowly evolved, from scientific excitement to nervous bewilderment—to thoughtful astonishment! “Don’t tell me something’s gone wrong with the machine?” Bud asked.
Tom looked up at his friend, frowning deeply. “No... it’s not a tech problem.”
“It’s what we’re scooping up. Bud—I’m not so sure Comet Tarski is a comet!”
THE SILENCE that followed was broken snortingly by Dr. Sarcophagus. “Please!—not another hive of space bees? Ectoplasm? I’m asking in a spirit of polite curiosity.”
Tom was conferring with Hank in whispered tones as they both eyed the readout board. “You’re right, Skipper,” Hank nodded. “I agree.”
“Captain my captain, what’s what?” demanded Lett. “Going to battle stations?”
Tom addressed the knot of watchers. “I didn’t mean to imply something ominous. I’m just—surprised.
“The visible surface of Tarski is pretty much what we’d expected. But just a few feet down we’re picking up metal.”
“You mean veins of metal ore?” Bud asked. “Is that unusual?”
“These aren’t veins of unrefined ore, flyboy. These are very pure deposits of a great number of different alloys, butting up next to one another, side by side, in bands of varying width with well-defined edges. The nucleus has now rotated several times under the capture beam. The analysis computer’s mapped the sequence pretty well.”
Bud’s voice became tense. “You say it’s not a comet... what, then? Jetz, is it s-some kind of—spaceship?”
“No. Not that.” As Tom spoke Bud followed the young inventor’s sober gaze to Karl Feng. The scholar was slightly shaking his head.
“All right, Feng, pull the rabbit out of the hat!” snapped Dr. Sarcophagus. “Tell the rest of us what the ‘mysterious others’ are whispering in your ear. Er—please.”
“You know, don’t you, sir?” asked Tom.
“Perhaps. Somehow. I do know something.” Feng stared off into space, toward the comet. “The purpose of the Messengers of Light was to provide the warning—and the key to what the White Queen bears in her crown.”
“It makes sense now,” Tom nodded. “‘Read from her diadem the disclosures.’ It’s this sequence of metal stripes that we’re supposed to read and translate. That’s where the real message is. It spells out the danger—to us and to Earth.”
Chow had been listening with open mouth. Now he rushed in with: “Brand my comet spurs, I get it! Stripes o’ metal!—it’s like them bitty little tags that get read at th’ cash register!”
“Bar codes,” confirmed Tom. “That’s the basic idea, anyway—it has to be something like that. But these bars are written in strips of metal, not ink. A long-range spectrographic study, or just digging up a specimen here and there during surface exploration, wouldn’t have done the job. Scanning the code sequence requires exactly what the telesampler is able to do—sweep right along the hidden layer, retrieving detailed sample data continuously, in order, from beginning to end.”
Dr. Feng now spoke, as if from some great distance away. “It had to be this way. They could not travel to us, but they saw it from deep space, aeons ago—the danger to the living planet, third from the Sun; to its delicate, primitive inhabitants who had nonetheless begun to climb the stairway of intelligence...”
“And more to the point,” interjected Sarcophagus, momentarily caught up in fascination, “who had that peculiar mutation of the brain that leads to the use of language! Otherwise a message would be futile.”
“Are you now a believer, Doctor?” asked Lett Monica.
“I’m giving my disbelief a very short suspension.”
“Dr. Feng—what else?” Tom urged.
“I think... I know... they transmitted the pattern of lights to our world over and over, for centuries—millennia! They could only hope that there would be someone to see, someone who would pay attention and try to unravel the meaning. They couldn’t know who or where or when. From such a distance they would never know if it had happened. They simply sent the message. Some saw it and wrote it into myth. It became part of the Bible, of mystic lore and folktales. Even today—some of the UFO’s reported are just spots of light moving across the sky.”
“But the Brotherhood was there watching the sky,” breathed Hank Sterling. “The right kind of people at the right time and place!”
“All that meditation... maybe they really did get mentally transformed or something!” suggested Bud excitedly. “They weren’t just there by accident!”
“No,” said Feng. “Not by accident. The Sanctum Never Seen was built there, in that valley, for a purpose, to... to observe...” Suddenly his voice faded out.
“He’s losing it!” gasped Lett.
But the academic recovered. “No. I’m all right. All this that I’m saying—it feels like something in a dream.”
“You yourself have meditated on those alchemical symbols, Dr. Feng,” Tom pointed out.
Suddenly Tom and Bud jumped forward, to prop up Dr. Feng as the frail academic began to collapse! They guided him into one of the seats.
His eyelids fluttered but he again regained strength. “My word, I thought I’d handle excitement much better than this!”
“Doctor, you’d better go to your compartment and rest,” Tom urged.
Feng ignored him. “The, the Messengers of Light—the translation key is found on the third of the plates, in the numerical data. The sky lights were too crude and limited to convey more than the basic warning, what to watch for, when to expect it. The diadem in the crown... Tom Swift, use the key. Only you... can...” He passed a hand over his face. “I can’t talk... Yes, perhaps I ought to rest.” Bud offered to help Feng to his cabin.
As they left, Tom threw himself into the grim task of translating the “bar code” message of the White Queen. Shunning food, the scientist-inventor used the Challenger’s powerful computers to analyze and reanalyze the numerical data from the original Sanctum inscriptions. “I didn’t make much progress until I started using the zodiac data as well,” he explained to the others when he’d succeeded in his task. “The senders were efficient—they used the star-position numbers that gave the when and where of the comet as a key to extracting the complete translation rules from the rest of the message.”
“And you’ve applied the key to the comet metals?” asked Dr. Sarcophagus.
“Yes. I’ve done the best I can do. It all hangs together. I understand about the consort and the Dead Hand.”
“Okay now, son,” sputtered Chow. “Enough o’ th’ big buildup! What’s with this here concert? What’s that Hand fixin’ to do to us?”
Tom looked over to Hank Sterling, and the young engineer took the reins. “The comet code data has nothing to do with words,” Hank began. “It encodes, in a super-simplified way, what you might call pixel positioning data.”
“Pixels!” repeated Sarcophagus. “It’s a picture?”
“More like a diagram or schematic,” Hank corrected. “It’s to be understood in three dimensions and it evolves over time—it has successive ‘frames’ showing how things change.”
“What things?” asked Bud Barclay.
“It’s basically a kind of map of a region of space—space itself, the spacetime continuum. The fabric of space can have curvature―”
Dr. Sarcophagus interrupted. “The metric of space.”
“That’s what they call it. You can use a diagram to map it out, just as the lines of latitude and longitude map out the spherical curvature of the earth.”
Chow waved a beefy hand impatiently. “So what th’ Sam Hill is it mappin’? What’s it for?”
“I can’t help wondering myself,” declared Lett. “What sort of danger does it show, Tom?”
Tom replied: “Do you all know what a neutron star is?”
“Aw now, you blame well know I’m not likely to!” huffed Chow.
“It’s not something you’ll find in your galley, pard,” smiled Tom. “It’s something that happens when stars of a certain mass collapse upon themselves. The orbital electrons and nucleus protons in the atoms the stars are made of—mostly hydrogen and helium—are forced to merge together under gravitational pressure. They become bunches of neutrons, forming a continuous material called neutronium. As all the space between the separate particles has been squeezed out, neutronium is unbelievably dense.”
“To illustrate by convenient analogy, as in my entertaining lectures,” put in Dr. Sarcophagus, “if you were to take a steel rod laid across the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific and remove all the atomic space within it, the result would be a little slug about as thick as your thumb—yours, Winkler.”
“But it would still have all the mass and weight of the entire extended rod,” Tom continued; “and neutron stars retain their original mass as well—but what was once a star several times bigger than our sun is now compressed into a little ball about twelve miles in diameter! Gravitation at the surface of a neutron star is fantastically intense—it’d turn the Statue of Liberty into a thin film in a fraction of a second.”
Chow gulped voluminously and Lett said, “I see, I get it. The intense gravity changes the curvature of space, and that’s what the diagram is mapping.”
“But what does all this have to do with Comet Tarski?” demanded Sarkiewski-Sarcophagus. “Despite its use as a code-carrier, it’s a flimsy little comet, not a neutron star!”
“I’m afraid Comet Tarski isn’t the problem,” said Hank quietly.
Tom answered the skeptical question. “The consort to the White Queen—the Dead Hand—is an invisible one, invisible because it’s much too small to be detected from a distance. It would be hard to pick up even with the megascope. The diagram indicates that it’s roughly another million miles beyond the comet’s coma, on the side away from Earth. According to the spacetime diagram, what we’re dealing with is a fragment of a neutron star less than one inch across!”
The listeners didn’t know how to respond. “So that’s it?” Bud burst out. “The big danger to the whole human race is some little marble?”
Chow added sagely, “Don’t see how yuh’d set down th’ dang Statue o’ Liberty on a marble!”
“It’s called a staroid,” continued the young inventor. “It’s almost impossible to chip anything off a neutron star, but there are a few scenarios that permit it—and it’s happened. This little marble has as much gravity as the Moon!”
“Y’mean that little Starro thing’s gonna hit th’ earth?” exclaimed Chow. “I mean—wh-what’s gonna happen to Texas?”
“If it’s following a path similar to Tarski, it won’t come anywhere near our world,” Sarcophagus insisted scornfully. “At that distance even the gravitational tug of something the mass of the Moon would be imperceptible without special instruments. Hardly a catastrophic danger.”
“Yet it is a danger,” came a faint voice from the interdeck elevator. Dr. Feng had rejoined them. “For the Dead Hand is to strike out at the sun!”
“The course of the staroid follows that of the comet—or actually vice-versa: Tarski is slowly orbiting Starro, which pulls it along with it. Obviously the White Queen was given that course deliberately, by the alien race that sent the messages. It’s a big signpost, a marker for something that couldn’t ordinarily be seen.”
“They hoped, a desperate hope, that planetary inhabitants advanced enough to detect the code inscribed on the comet would have the ability to defeat the Dead Hand.” Feng panted slightly as he spoke.
“What will the Dead Hand do, Tom?” asked Lett Monica. “What will happen in five months?—that day, that hour?”
Tom’s mouth was dry. “It’ll reach a certain critical point within the solar gravitational field, and its own intense field will undergo an abrupt change of state. It—it will act like a million-mile-wide lens, producing a concentrated beam of hard radiation, radiation from the sun, that will sweep across the inner solar system on the plane of the planets.”
“Across our planet,” pronounced Hank. “It’ll be like worldwide fallout from a massive nuclear war. Over time, human deaths could be in the hundreds of millions.”
“Don’t ask me to accept this, Swift!” exploded Randolph Sarkiewski. “It’s just your personal theory, your dramatic sci-fi scenario! Where’s the peer confirmation, the hard evidence, the confounded journal articles? You feel sure of your ‘findings,’ rock-solid. Let me tell you something—all of you! A famous mathematician lost his mind and a friend asked him, How could someone with your rational mentality believe in these fantastic delusions? And the man said, Because they came into my mind with the same logical conviction as all my best theories! Get the point? One man’s feeling of truth isn’t sufficient―”
Bud stepped forward menacingly. “I’ve wanted to have my fist meet your face for quite a while now, Sarcophagus! If you don’t swallow your―”
“Bud!” Tom reproved.
Sarcophagus wasn’t finished. He seemed to be advancing to sheer hysteria. “You, Feng! You’re the cause of all this! Crackpot intuitions, your privileged personal connections to the Cosmos—! If there’s a world panic, it all falls on you, Feng, it all falls on you!”
“Lett!” Tom barked. “Please escort Mr. Sarkiewski to his cabin. If he hasn’t cooled down, lock him in!”
As the fuming skeptic was led away, Chow asked Tom: “Wa-aal now, looky, boss. Starro’s jest a pewly little thing. Jest use one o them repellers o’ yours to push ’er on out inta space.”
“Starro has the mass of the Moon, Chow,” responded Hank. “Want to try pushing the Moon around with a repelatron?”
“But you’ve figured something out, Skipper,” urged Bud. “I know you have.”
Tom didn’t nod, but said, “Maybe. But we have to put about immediately and return to Earth.”
“Not to the comet?—or Starro?”
“There’s no point,” said the young inventor. “There’s nothing we can do about the staroid’s course, not a thing. I’m hoping we can do something about Starro himself!”
Tom withheld explanation, and Bud commenced the process of deceleration and reversal of course.
“Sarcophagus took a pill,” reported Lethal Monica. “He’s calmed down and sends his apologies.”
“Another apology? The ‘unique events’ are really piling up,” said Tom dryly. “He can leave his compartment, but he’s not to say anything to anybody—especially not to Dr. Feng. The stress of all this is starting to affect Dr. Feng pretty severely. It has me worried.”
“I’ll make it my business to keep close to Sarco and make him mind,” promised Lett. “I can’t help you kayo the Queen’s consort, Skipper, but I do owe you something for my ticket to ride.”
In minutes a further problem was thrust upon Tom Swift’s prodigal mind. “I’m keeping it under my hat,” Bud told him, “but the super-repelatrons are starting to have intermittent problems just like the others. You still think it comes from Tarski?”
Tom shook his head. “No, I’m sure the whole thing is caused by Starro. Our instruments have finally been able to scan it, and the neutronium fragment is spinning like a top! A relativistic effect—Einstein predicted it—called frame drag is coming into play. Instead of just causing some distortion of local spacetime, Starro is producing a kind of ‘spacetime tidal wave’ that gradually builds to a critical point and then surges out into space, over and over. That’s why repelatrons are affected—the spacewave repulsion field is embedded in the fabric of spacetime. That’s also why other spacetime constants, like the spin coefficients used by the localculators, have been going haywire. It may even be affecting the ability of the Space Friends to communicate.”
“I see. Er, I don’t see, but I ‘see’!”
“I might’ve guessed this, Bud, if I hadn’t been a little shaken up. All the tumult on the surface shell of the comet is probably caused by tidal effects, interaction with the gravitational field of the staroid.”
“Why is it getting worse?”
“Because Starro and Tarski are getting deeper into the gravitational field of the sun as they move along. More energy locked-up in local spacetime.”
Within the hour the instability of the Challenger’s repelatrons had become evident to human senses. Everyone could feel the ship accelerating and decelerating, wobbling, twisting, rocking like a raft in rough seas. But still they hurtled Earthward, and Tom pursued his idea feverishly, consulting continuously with his father and the Enterprises team via PER.
As the repelatron problem worsened alarmingly Tom concluded that it would be unsafe to attempt atmospheric reentry and a landing. Instead he had Bud place the ship into the proper trajectory for a rendezvous with the space outpost—and killed the repelatrons completely. “We’ll just use them as we approach, very briefly,” Tom explained.
Lett Monica strode over to Tom, keeping half an eye on the glowering Dr. Sarcophagus at the other side of the control compartment. “If I could ask—what is there in your ingenious plan that requires our return to Earth?—and yet not for a landing?”
“It has to do with the telesampler,” Tom replied. “I think I can use it against the staroid.”
“Hmm. Great jets! Do you plan to use the sampling beam to ‘sample’ it to pieces?”
“I don’t think I can ‘sample to pieces’ something with the mass of the Moon,” said the youth dryly. “What I’m going to do is scoop up something from Earth—and then use the telesampler in reverse! Maybe it’s just something from my feverish imagination, Lett. But unless it works, I’m afraid we don’t have any hope at all!”
THE BINDS THAT TIE
WHETHER devised by science, spirit, or human alchemy, Tom Swift’s bold plan was not to shove the neutronium fragment from its deadly course—but to destroy it utterly!
Tom explained his idea to the others on the main deck of the Challenger—a group which included Kenneth Horton, for the ship had made its shaky arrival and now floated one hundred feet from the rotating space outpost.
“I shore do like th’ idea,” said Chow, “but how’re ya gonna do it? Blow ’er up with a bomb?”
“I don’t think even an American H-bomb could make much headway against something that can flatten the Statue of Liberty!” commented Lett.
“Or maybe your X-rasers?” speculated Ken.
Tom shook his head. “There’s no weapons technology on Earth that could have any effect at all on our ‘little big man’,” he declared. “I doubt even the space friends could do anything. Little Luna’s just a peanut compared to Starro.
“But there’s one thing that’s effective against anything,” Tom continued. “Namely antimatter!”
“Antimatter!” Bud looked stunned. “Good grief! We’ve been able to deal with it before, but―”
“Antimatter isn’t bothered by mass,” Hank noted. “It eats mass!”
“Hmmph!—I guess the space critter’d make a good meal fer it, then,” Chow put in.
“Before I toss in my vital okay—I think I need a few details, chief,” said Horton. “I know you have a source of antimatter from that mountain in Africa. What do you plan to do, lob a chunk at the staroid? Man, it’s a mighty small target a great big hunk of distance away!”
“You’re right,” agreed the young inventor. “But we have something designed for pinpoint accuracy—the telesampler.”
“Here comes the ‘reverse English’ idea!” Lett enthused.
“From here in orbit, I’m going to aim the capture beam at Earth, right into the antidiracinium bed under Mount Goaba,” explained Tom. “I don’t need much material, just a fraction of an ounce. Once we have it in the tank, I’ll reorient the transmitron and target the star fragment. But this time, instead of taking a sample, I’ll be sending a sample—a stream of antidiracinium molecules aimed right smack at the middle of our little marble!”
“Yup!” murmured Bud wide-eyed. “Antimatter—great for getting rid of unwanted anything!”
“We’ve calculated that even a relatively infinitesimal mass of antimatter will be enough to trigger a chain reaction,” Hank stated. “The fragment’s entire mass will be converted to energy and dispersed into space.”
“If you’ll permit me to make a mild observation― ” croaked Sarcophagus from across the room, “I trust you realize the consequences of producing a Moon-sized blast. Even at a distance of tens of millions of miles― ”
“It’s all been calculated,” Tom said evenly. “And by real scientists at Enterprises. I’m sure you’re familiar with Dr. Kupp...”
“I even had the dubious pleasure of meeting him.”
“All the great brains agree that whatever hard radiation reaches Earth will be sufficiently weakened by the atmosphere to be harmless. Little Luna will be on the far side at that time, by the way, and the outpost and the ship are protected by their Inertite coatings.”
Tom had directed the Challenger to the outpost because he needed some equipment not stored on the spaceship: the magnetic suspension container he had developed for the express purpose of handling antidiracinium. Installing the complex “bottle” in the telesampler’s matter-receiver consumed something that they had in slight supply—time. The fateful moment had to be carefully calculated. Tom wanted the explosion to take place while the staroid was behind the gaseous coma of Comet Tarski from the point of view of the earth. “There’s not much to it, but at least it’ll help damp down the radiation,” Tom explained to Bud as they worked to ready the telesampler. “It’s a window that’s closing, though, as the two move along and the angles change.”
Bud nodded. “Tom... not that this is very important right now, but—what about that mystery stalker and his threats? We still haven’t figured out who doped up those toy swords, and ol’ Doc Sarco’s not exactly a picture of mental health.”
“I know,” sighed his pal. “I’m just glad Lett’s keeping an eye on him. And that Dr. Feng’s keeping his distance!”
Finally came the crunch, the moment of action. Because it was impossible to completely stabilize the huge, massive Challenger as it floated freely, Tom separated the transmitron unit from its swivel base on the main body of the machine, and he and Bud, in their spacesuits, gently guided it a few yards out into the void. “Its own internal gyros will do a better job if it doesn’t have to cope with movements of the Chal,” Tom had told his friend. “We’ll float it.”
The space model of the telesampler was much larger than the test model Tom had taken on the Sky Queen. Its transmitron assembly consisted of a curving trough of a special transparent material, with the two X-raser emitter tubes mounted at either end. The jointed waveguide conduit led from the rear of the receiving unit to the main chassis, which remained in the ship’s vehicular hangar.
Floating nearby—and making absolutely sure they were not in the way of the X-raser beams!—Tom used the Spektor in his gloved hand to activate the transmitron, pointed toward the eastward horizon of the blue Earth below. “Ranging contact confirmed,” he murmured into his suit transiphone. “We’ve acquired position next to Mount Goaba. Here goes scooping!”
Bud’s answer was unheard—a gulp. If the magnetic bottle malfunctioned even slightly, the antimatter explosion would disintegrate the Challenger and hurl what was left of the boys into deep space! And—and we have had a few little equipment problems lately, he thought, thanks to our buddy Starro! What if the containment field were vulnerable to the spacetime tidal waves!
But the matter was already in motion. As the ends of the X-raser tubes glowed with a faint corona, Tom reported jubilantly: “Got it! Antidiracinium in the container, fresh from Africa!”
Tom now expertly remote-controlled the transmitron into its reverse orientation. Bud could almost see the line joining the wave-beam projector to the distant, deadly staroid—by far the smallest target humanity had ever tried to hit!
“She’s steady,” said Tom, now icily calm. “The positioning beam is on its way. Bounceback in nine minutes.”
Hanging in space, it was a very long nine minutes.
“Here it is!” cried Tom. He made final positioning adjustments, then activated the powerful capture beam, which was now propelling captured antimatter away from the telesampler and off into space. “Well, flyboy, for better or worse the load’s on its way.”
“To a meeting with a piece of a star!”
“Let’s go back aboard,” Tom directed. “We have hours to kill before anything happens.” Leaving the transmitron outside to continue sending the beam that propelled the stream of molecules, Tom and Bud jetted back into the vehicular hanger, then through the airlock and into a pressurized corridor.
“I’m going up for some snacks,” Bud told Tom, pulling off his helmet. “Man, I’m beat.”
Tom nodded. “I’ll be up in a while, but I want to look over the comet samples. Say—if you see Dr. Feng, ask him if he’d like to join me, will you? He deserves a chance to see with his own eyes a few pieces of the White Queen!” The several sample cases, flat transparent containers honeycombed into minute cells, had been moved from the hangar bay into the corridor for easier examination.
Tom waited in the hallway for a time, and was pleased when the elderly scholar stepped out of the interdeck elevator. “Tom! What an overwhelming experience this has been!”
“How do you feel, Dr. Feng?”
“Fine and well. Perhaps my subconscious has been emptied of whatever my long alchemical studies put into it.” He stepped closer with a sympathetic smile. “And I’m glad we’re alone, Tom. I wished to take the liberty to say something to you of a personal nature.”
“A small observation,” he said. “Perhaps it’s the practicing psychotherapist within me that speaks. You’ve been troubled, Tom, for quite some time. I’ve sensed it. I’ve read it on your face, as long ago as the Phoenix convention. It preceded the entire affair of the comet and the staroid—didn’t it.”
Brow furrowed, Tom nodded. “I really can’t explain it, Doctor. When the repelatrons started failing, I had... a weird reaction. All those things Sarcophagus brought up seemed to make it worse. I don’t know why.”
“Here’s something to consider,” the man said earnestly. “I know something of you and your history, Tom. Your first inventions—in some ways they were elaborations and improvements upon the work of others, don’t you think?”
“I guess you could say that,” admitted the youth. “Bigger and better jets, robots, rockets, a bathysphere for a volcano... even the special engine for the jetmarine came from someone else’s discoveries. I was pretty much a tinkerer, I think.”
“And a good one. But the repelatron was quite different, Tom. For that one you had become a ‘real scientist,’ to use Sarkiewski’s term. You created something the world had never seen before, and it’s been crucial to nearly everything you’ve done ever since.”
“True. The repelatron’s my special baby...”
“Who seemed ready to let you down, Tom—to betray you. That’s a serious hurt, my friend. Your scientific credibility was suddenly thrown into doubt, do you see? Irrational as it seems to us, your mind asked: What if this invention of mine, this sign of my prowess, has only a transient existence? What if it gets taken back? What if the skeptics are right after all, and the dream of manhood attained is shown to be only― ”
Dr. Feng stopped abruptly at a sound. Tom turned as the elevator door opened and Dr. Sarcophagus emerged, followed by Lett Monica.
Sarcophagus turned to Lett coldly. “You told me Feng was down here alone.”
“No, Sarco, I only said I knew he was heading down here,” corrected the Brungarian. “Why does it matter? Planning to make one of your ugly scenes?”
“I wanted to speak to Dr. Feng on a personal level,” the skeptic said. “Might you two others do me the favor of leaving us alone for a few minutes?”
Lett barked out a laugh. “No way, man! You might punch our alchemical friend in the nose.”
“If you have something pressing to say, Sarkiewski, you’ll have to say it in front of Lett and myself,” pronounced Tom.
The man shrugged. “Fine. But at least step over here, Feng, so I don’t have to blurt it out across the room.”
Feng approached warily. “If this is an apology, sir, there is no need. Let us declare an armistice, shall we?”
“An armistice? Why not a nonaggression pact?” The skeptic gave a slight, thin smile. Tom noticed that his face was white—drained. “Well now, herr wissendoktor, I don’t have the authority to negotiate with you. That authority belongs to some people who have been dead for more than half a century.”
Tom blanched. Dr. Sarcophagus had pulled a tiny handgun from his pocket and was pointing it at Karl Feng! “Don’t move, Karl. I have a pathetic urge to say something before I pull this trigger. And Tom, Monica—one step this way and I cut the speech short and send Feng into the great blank Beyond.”
Dr. Feng stared at the pistol, his hands slightly raised and trembling. “My dying amounts to little, sir, but it saddens me that your crusade against me has led you so far—you, the great man of rationality and scientific truth.”
“Oh yes, it has its ironies all right,” replied Sarcophagus with a shrill voice. “But fact is fact, whether humanly rational or not. Your mother’s father, Otto Reizlinter, chose to betray his friends to the Nazis—men and women of my grandparents’ generation, a branch of my family. Who speaks for them now? You have your voices, Feng, and I have mine. Long as I’ve lived I’ve sought, rationally and methodically, to uncover the truth and heal the wound. The past makes its claims, doesn’t it?—you of all people should know that, Feng. I now have the great honor of closing the circuit. Pardon the corn, but this gun shoots justice. At least a partial justice, hmm? One all-but-finished life for a couple dozen barely begun.”
“I know nothing of the actions of my mother’s father,” protested Dr. Feng.
“I don’t say you do. Reizlinter was never a suspect on my list. When I received documentary evidence a few months ago, I was chagrined—chagrined at all the years wasted on false leads.”
“Stop!” Tom called out desperately. “Think about what you’ve stood for—was that just a sham? Where’s your rational skepticism now?—when you’ve got such a personal stake in your own ‘feelings of truth’!”
“I mentioned the irony, Tom,” quavered the skeptic. “One lives with inconsistency. Rationality... yes, I’ve crusaded for it, fought the good fight against popular credulousness, the mass hysteria that leads to lynch mobs and fascist demigods. Yet finally, in the end, you face—It. What good did reason and rationality do those victims?”
“And what good does this do you?” cried Tom. “You’re trapped in a spaceship! Murder all of us and then what happens?”
Randolph Sarkiewski sighed. “Murder all of you? No murder; one execution and one suicide. The ties that bind, Karl, the ties that bind us all, across time.” He raised the gun higher and stood unmoving. “Tom... you might like to know... security measures work as poorly against amateur magicians as against séance mediums... you should have searched inside my laptop...”
Tom tried to keep the man talking, but he only shook his head. Feng slowly backed away, but came up against the bulkhead. The intercom was off. The elevator was silent.
Tom saw that the barrel of the gun was shaking. Suddenly Sarcophagus thrust it forward at arm’s length! “Now... now I...”
The arm folded up. The gun drooped.
“Whattaya know, whattaya know,” whispered Randolph Sarkiewski. “All these years and... I don’t have it in me. Sure don’t. All gone. The fight goes to It. As always.”
Tom panted a sigh of relief as Dr. Feng lowered his hands.
Lethal Monica stepped forward and held out his hand. “The gun, Sarco.” Sarkiewski numbly handed the Brungarian his pistol.
Lett stepped back a ways. He aimed the gun at Dr. Feng!
“Lett!” Tom gasped. “What, what are―”
“I regret it all, Tom,” replied Lett with real sadness in his voice. “Talk about wasted effort, Sarco! Oh man did I think myself a clever Brungarian lad, sending you those phony documents, maneuvering to get you two here. But you don’t have the right stuff, eh? I have to do it myself after all. T’rem gad’t! I so much don’t want to do this.”
“Right,” said Tom bitterly. “You had possession of the sword carton all afternoon. Never left your hands. You expected Feng to pick up the swords and hand them to Bud and Wolf. Dr. Feng, frail and helpless—he was the target.”
“A perfect analysis, Tom,” responded Lett Monica.
“But mein gott, why in all heaven do you wish my death?” cried Karl Feng.
“Oh, I have my reasons. No big exposition. They can make up something for the book version, Tom.”
Now it was Lett who held out the pistol to fire at his victim. Yet this situation was different—for Lett stood between Tom and the other two. As he half-turned away, Tom launched himself and rocketed forward with his right fist leading the charge!
For a few seconds Tom and Lett filled the corridor with struggle and noise—and one wild gunshot. And then Lett Monica was down. The pistol, unaffected by the slight magnetic field that held the crew against the deck in the absence of gravity, floated uselessly at the far end of the corridor.
The Brungarian looked up at Tom with a resigned, cynical expression. “Hrm-tah. Seems I’m gonna supply the exposition after all, hey?”
“Just who are you?” Tom demanded.
“Not a phony, not a fake—genius boy,” replied the astronaut trainee. “My legal name is truly Lethal Monica. But I wasn’t born with it. Hello, Tom, from Dimitri Mirov.”
Tom nodded. “Streffan Mirov’s son.”
“Sure am, buddy. The ties that bind are ties of blood. Let’s see now. How much time do I have? How many paragraphs in the book?
“I changed my name. I wanted to succeed on my own, not by favoritism to the son of a Brungarian hero. I was legitimately admitted to the training program. But despite all efforts, COSMOSA remains deeply infiltrated by i- Szentimentlya, the Sentimentalists faction that wishes to reestablish the old totalitarian state. Nothing escapes their beady eyes, and when they learned of my identity they were able to place me as the exchange astronaut, to get me into America for a special mission.”
“You’re a member of the faction?”
“No!” Monica spat out. “I despise them! I despise the betrayals they have forced upon me—of you and your friends, of Dr. Feng...
“But they had a hold on me. Binding!”
“Blood ties,” Tom repeated. “Something to do with your father?”
“They threatened to kidnap and murder him, Tom, and in such things they’re real pros,” he said. “And I’m afraid our democratic government wouldn’t work too strenuously to prevent it. They have very mixed and wary feelings toward the popular Col. Mirov, who is known to have cooperated now and then with the West. Dad!—what could I do, Tom? A hero, a noble man—my father! Little enough, to take a life and give up my own.”
Feng cleared his throat and asked in a reedy voice. “My own popularity seems to be in jeopardy these days, more so than an academic expects. Surely you know why these people marked me for murder?”
“Some stupid thing. One of your psychiatric clients, years ago, was a bigshot in the faction. You know how it goes, paranoid fear about what he might have disclosed in your sessions. Who knows how long professional ethics would keep you from passing your case notes to the authorities?”
Tom was putting the pieces together. “You had a crony dress up as me and get his picture taken with Dr. Feng. He submitted that threatening card. I know why. You wanted me to get interested in Dr. Feng as a figure of intrigue involved in a mystery plot.”
“Yuppity-yup, Tom. The department of planning and connivery put it together, not me. Pay attention to Feng and his comet theories, bring him to your plant where I could get at him at will—except I didn’t want to do it any more than Sarco. So I made my own plan. Frabricated evidence. Trick Sarcophagus into thinking a man he already disdains is descended from some now-identified person he hates—obsessively.” He looked over at the pale, glowering Sarkiewski. “No offense, Doctor, and I admire your work. But really, you’re a little bit crazy. Your psychology, and your family history, can be put together by those who seek, eh?
“But I was a little crazy too, getting impatient and trying that stunt with the toy swords. I ended up feeling stupid, believe me.
“Okay, is that it? Oh—I sent the fake letter to Feng, of course, to get him to make the first move to take advantage of your planted interest in him, Tom. The threatening call in your office? Me! I recorded it and sent it via automatic timer.”
“It was you who induced me to come down to this room,” grated Randolph Sarkiewski. “You couldn’t have known I was armed.”
“No. But clearly you were going mad, chum. Matter of time before you tried something murderous. I stuck close to you just to watch it all happen. Maybe help it a little—or fake the result if need be. Our time together was about up, you know. But at last, good old American opportunity knocked.”
“It seems I may possibly live to an older old age, Tom,” said Feng. “What is to be done now?”
The young inventor suddenly realized that he felt buoyant, as if a great weight had been lifted. “These two are about to be locked away and shipped down to Earth. It might be, gentlemen, that you’ll be treated leniently. You both had... your reasons. We’re all bound by the past, one way or another, aren’t we? Me too. I was born with something to live up to.
“Of course, there is that little detail about attempted murder or conspiracy or—well, others can work it out.” Before intercomming Hank to come down with a Swift impulse gun, Tom promised Lett Monica—Dimitri Mirov—that he and Enterprises would try to arrange some protection for his father through their contacts in the U.S. State Department.
“I thank you,” he said.
“What about me?” huffed Sarkiewski.
“You may be off the air for a while. Midseason hiatus. Don’t let it soften your skepticism, though—guys like me need it.”
Hours later, Tom stood before the Challenger’s twin viewpanes with his friends—Bud, Hank, Ken Horton, Dr. Feng, and Chow Winkler. “Any time!” Tom said—and even as the words came out his mouth, the chamber filled with light. Millions of miles away, on the other side of a comet that wasn’t entirely a comet, a tiny piece of star had departed for its particular heaven.
“The mission of the White Queen—the labor of compassionate beings of far away and long ago—is complete,” said Dr. Feng.
“Good night and jetz!” Bud exclaimed breathlessly. “A big thank-you to space friends everywhere, including spaceboy Swift!”
“Please hold your applause to the end of the performance,” Tom joked. “There’s still a lot out in space for a real scientist—and a tinkerer!—to fool around with.” Including, as it happened, The Captive Planetoid with all its mystery and danger.
“Is it always worth the price?” murmured Ken Horton. “Because it seems there always is a price.”