Chapter 1: The Interrogation Frustration 1 The Interrogation Frustration
I PADDED DOWN THE STAIRS as quietly as possible. I slid one hand down the handrail with the other steadying the backpack slung over my shoulder. I tried to keep my school supplies from rattling, a sound that might give away my position. Luckily, school was already out for the day, and I didn’t run into any other students along the way. I’m sure I looked as if I was up to something—which I was, of course.
When I reached the first floor, I peeked into the main hallway. Only a few students were in sight. A couple milled by lockers and one shuffled toward the front door. There was no sign of him, though.
I took a deep breath and stepped out. I kept a brisk but quiet pace as I made my way to the center of the building. Once at the main intersection, I could turn left toward the front entrance or I could turn right and head out through the back door. My plan, such as it was, was to take a right.
I mentally kicked myself for not coming up with a real plan. Instead of waiting behind in Engineering class, it would’ve been so much easier to leave after the final bell rang. Then I could simply blend in with the crowd of exiting students. Now I was out in the open, exposed.
As I neared the main junction, I could see into the hallway leading to the front entrance. I skidded to a stop.
There he was. Inside the school.
The tall man wore a dark blue blazer and jeans. His back was to me as he peered into the chess team’s trophy case.
I exhaled and slowly began moving again. I shuffled down the corridor toward him. If I could just make it to the junction without being spotted, I could turn right and duck out through the back doors. Unfortunately, he must have spotted my reflection in the glass case. The man spun around as soon as I was near.
“Tom!” He held up a hand. His gray-speckled beard stretched across his face as he grinned.
I nodded and sighed. I hitched up my backpack, gave a weak smile, and walked over to him.
“Sorry.” I jutted a thumb back down the hall. “I was just… uh…”
“It doesn’t matter, you’re here now,” said Mr. Kavner. He ushered me toward the front door. “Let’s sit on the front steps. Get some air.”
Steven Kavner was a friend of my father’s. Normally, not someone I’d want to avoid. But he was also a journalist who wanted to interview me for a story. That was something that I wished I could avoid.
Mr. Kavner and I sat on one of the long cement steps. “State your name, please,” he said.
I cocked my head a little. “But… you already know my name.”
Mr. Kavner grinned. He tapped the tiny body cam poking out of the front pocket on his blue blazer. “Yeah, but just for the record.”
I sighed. “Tom Swift Junior.”
“Great,” said Mr. Kavner. “And where do you go to school?”
I glanced up at the school’s name stretching across the building above us. He just pointed to the small camera again.
“The Swift Academy of Science and Technology,” I replied.
Mr. Kavner nodded. “Tell me a little about your school.”
I squirmed a bit and sighed again. “Well, it’s a special school where we get to learn advanced subjects, create our own inventions, and go on cool field trips. Stuff like that.”
I knew I was really underselling it. The academy was way more than that. Advanced subjects? How about aerodynamics and engineering to go along with algebra and history. Create our own inventions? It wouldn’t be unusual to see robots or drones zipping through the halls. I would know; I piloted some of them. And as far as cool field trips were concerned, last year the eighth graders had a lock-in at the Wesley Observatory. Shandra Watts even discovered a comet.
Yeah, I knew my description didn’t do the school justice, and Mr. Kavner knew it too. He rolled his eyes.
“Gee, Tom,” he said with a wide grin. “I couldn’t help but notice that you and your school share the same name.”
I rubbed the back of my neck and shifted a bit on the hard step. “Yeah, my dad founded the school with the profits from his company, Swift Enterprises.”
Of course, Mr. Kavner was well aware of this, too. After all, he and my father had gone to college together. They had even worked on some inventions together. But I guess somewhere along the way, Mr. Kavner’s interests had changed. The only reason I had agreed to the interview was because he was a friend of my father’s.
The thing is, I’m not too thrilled to share my name with the school. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my father and his accomplishments, especially the school. But all I’ve ever wanted was to be treated like any other student. And now I was the subject of a news story that would do the exact opposite. Needless to say, I really didn’t want to be here.
“Can you tell me about your upcoming lock-in at Swift Enterprises?” Mr. Kavner asked.
I winced as a couple of fellow students exited the building. They gave us curious glances.
“Actually, can we finish this another time?” I said as I slowly stood. “My friends and I have to test something we’re working on.”
Mr. Kavner’s eyes lit up. “A new invention?” He sprang to his feet. “Can I see?”
Oh boy. That was the wrong thing so say to a journalist.
I held out a hand. “Whoa, uh… it’s not done yet. And it’s not mine. I’m just helping. But when it’s ready, sure.”
His shoulders drooped. “Oh, okay.” He reached up and pressed a button on the side of his body cam. “So, we’ll pick it up tomorrow?”
I snatched up my backpack and bolted for the main door. “You bet!” I called back to him.
I felt a little bad brushing off Mr. Kavner like that. But I felt a lot worse being the focus of his article. You see, the worst thing about attending a school with your name on it was… well… attending a school with your name on it. Everyone automatically assumes you get special treatment. And I mean everyone: teachers, students, you name it. So when I first started here, I did everything I could to prove that I was just a regular student. I didn’t expect special privileges or easy As. And I certainly didn’t go crying to my father when something didn’t go my way. And let me tell you, my father’s default position would be to take a teacher’s side anyway. So you can imagine my surprise when he asked me to talk to his reporter friend.
I made my way through the school and out the back door, and jogged down the sidewalk toward the track. The academy didn’t have a track team or anything. We were more about our fencing team and killer chess team, but that didn’t stop us from also having a state-of-the-art track. We mainly used it for running in gym class. Otherwise, the stadium only filled up when we had large outdoor assemblies where we watched fellow students launch model rockets, that sort of thing.
The track was mostly deserted. A couple of students sat in the bleachers and someone was actually speeding around the track. My three friends had started without me.
I set my pack down behind the two who were watching from the side. “What lap is this?” I asked.
“This is her second one,” replied Noah Newton. My best friend glanced down at his phone. His stopwatch app ticked away the seconds.
“She’s not going as fast as she’d hoped,” said Amy Hsu.
I dug through my pack and pulled out a small pair of binoculars. I uncapped the lenses and trained them on the girl zipping around the track. Samantha Watson came into focus. Her brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she had traded out her glasses for her prescription sport goggles. The four of us made up the Formidable Foursome, as my dad liked to call us.
Sam sped around the track on what looked like a Segway on each foot. Each of her sneakers was strapped onto a platform with a large wheel on either side, and each skate had its own gyroscope that kept it level. But unlike the Segway, there was no handle and it wasn’t self-propelled. Sam operated them like regular roller skates or Rollerblades. They were also connected wirelessly, so if they moved too far away from each other, they would subtly turn back. In theory, it would be difficult to wipe out while wearing them.
“Coming around the home stretch,” Noah announced as Sam rounded the end of the track and headed toward us.
Sam wore kneepads, elbow pads, wrist guards, and a helmet, but none of the safety gear seemed to slow her down. She pumped her legs and swung her arms like a speed skater racing toward the finish line.
“Time!” Noah shouted as she zipped past us. He checked his phone. “One minute, point zero eight seconds.”
Amy looked up and to the right. We all knew this expression well. When Amy looked up and to the right, she was accessing her mental calculator. And when she looked up and to the left, she was looking at her internal clock. It was spooky how accurate she was. “Average speed,” Amy said, “thirty-five kilometers per hour.”
“I know science is all about the metric system,” said Noah. “But give me that in good old MPH, will ya?”
Only a brief glance up and to the right this time. “Almost twenty-two miles per hour,” Amy replied.
“Wow,” I said. “Impressive.”
“Still… too… slow,” Sam said between breaths as she rolled up to us. “It’s… this track.”
She had a point. I pressed a foot down and the track surface gave ever so slightly. See, this polyurethane track was made for running. It not only absorbed the impact of runners’ steps, but the surface was also rough so runners could be safer in all kinds of weather. A smooth, firm track would be better for wheeled vehicles to get more traction. And more traction meant more speed. That’s why race car tires have no tread at all—for more surface contact with the racetrack.
“I’ll get more accurate results this weekend,” Sam said with a grin. “I can’t wait.”
This Friday we were going to have our very first lock-in at my father’s company next door, Swift Enterprises. One of the new employees came up with the idea and coordinated with our engineering instructor, Mr. Edge. The entire seventh grade would have access to the company’s industrial equipment and testing areas. That included the company’s indoor track. Which was designed for wheeled vehicles.
“You’ll do great,” I told Sam. “You look like you have the whole speed-skater form down.”
Sam blotted her neck with a towel. “I think I could do better.”
“You could ask Mrs. Scott for some advice,” Amy suggested. “I think she used to be in a Roller Derby.”
“News flash,” said Noah. “I think she’s still in a Roller Derby.”
Amy covered her mouth. “No way.”
Sam nodded. “I don’t doubt it.”
I clapped my hands together. “Okay, it’s Sam’s invention, so she got to go first. Who’s next?”
“Sam did get the first turn,” said Noah. “Then Amy and I got our turns. This was Sam’s second run.”
“What?” I asked. “Everyone’s gone but me?”
“Hey, you had your big interview,” Sam said. “We weren’t going to wait forever.”
“How did it go?” Amy asked.
Noah stepped between Amy and me. “No more questions for Mr. Swift, please.” He placed a hand on my chest and jutted his other arm toward the girls. “And no autographs or selfies at this time.”
Sam and Amy laughed while I just shook my head. My friends knew I didn’t want to be a part of the news story. But if your friends can’t give you grief about this stuff, who can?
I chuckled and pushed Noah’s hand away. “It went… well… shorter than expected.” I let out a breath. “We’re not finished yet. I kind of just put it off.”
“You might as well get it over with, Swift,” Sam advised as she removed her safety gear. “Just rip that bandage right off.” She handed me the wrist guards.
I strapped on the guards and put the interview out of my mind for now. I tried to replace the anxiety with excitement about trying the skates for the first time. Even though this was really Sam’s invention, we each had a hand in it. I helped her design the suspension, Noah contributed big hunks of computer code for the wireless link, and Amy checked and double-checked Sam’s calculations from possible speed to maximum body weight. Through all of the testing and retesting, I had yet to even try them on.
I pointed to the skates. “So how hard were they to control?”
“ ‘Control’ isn’t really the right word,” Sam replied. She removed the rest of her pads and helmet. “It’s a little more intuitive than that.”
“My mom tried to teach me ice skating when I was little,” Amy said. “I was horrible at it.”
“But she nailed these skates,” said Noah. “You just have to go with the flow.”
“ ‘Going with the Flow’ is my middle name,” I said swimmingly. I finished putting on Sam’s safety gear.
I was really good at that. Not strapping on safety gear, but going with the flow. I often ran in with half a plan and figured out everything else on the fly. I was very meticulous when it came to science, but with most other things… yeah, I usually just winged it.
“Be careful with these,” Sam said as she removed the skates from her shoes.
“I got this.” I gave her a dismissive wave as I sat on the track. I quickly strapped the skates onto my shoes like I had done it a hundred times.
I’ll admit I was cocky; I was a decent skater on my own set of Rollerblades. Heck, I hadn’t even wiped out that time Noah and I used three fire extinguishers to propel us down the sidewalk.
I held my arms steady as I stood on the skates. My left foot was tipped down and my right was tipped up. I felt the gyroscopes push back as they leveled out both feet. Once I was stable, I leaned forward ever so slightly. I didn’t fall over, but glided forward instead.
I grinned. “Cool!”
I tried to push off with my right foot, just as I would with regular skates. As I kicked out, I felt the wheels angle against my will, turning my right foot toward my left. The automatic movement surprised me and I pushed back instinctively. The skate didn’t budge and I wobbled, my arms swinging wildly.
“You’re fighting it, dude,” Noah said.
“Just ease into it,” Sam instructed.
I tried to push out again, this time not as far. Unfortunately, I leaned back too much and the skates began to roll backward.
“Does this thing come with training wheels?” Noah asked Sam.
I felt myself losing balance again and my arms waved some more. I knew the gyroscopes would keep me upright, but I couldn’t convince my body of that. Then my right leg went out too far again and the wheels cut back automatically. I wobbled even more.
“You’re trying too hard,” said Amy.
She was right. I couldn’t just go with it. I was trying too hard to control the situation and I was doing it very badly. So badly that my right foot cut in front of my left and my legs twisted together. I spun in a clumsy pirouette before slamming, butt-first, onto the track.
At that moment, I was glad the track had some give to it.