In spite of his agitated manner, Alan Armstrong knew exactly what he had to do. Opening the locked doors to his study, he closed them behind him and hurried to an oak bookcase. Swinging open the faux case, he revealed a doorway that led into a passageway that was now coated with webs and dust. He ignored the signs and scents of long disuse and raced down the tight passageway until it opened up within a massive building located beneath the Armstrong stables.
While the priceless horses far above the underground structure rested or ate as part of their day-to-day routine, below their home, Alan Armstrong was busily bringing the silent headquarters of Spy Smasher back to active life.
“I was a dolt to let things fall into disarray like this,” he said. “With the life I live, I should have known my equipment might be vital at any moment. Packing away a worn costume wasn’t enough to end the legacy or curse of the Spy Smasher!”
Putting on the famous pilot-inspired costume of green and red, he slipped the mask and goggles over his eyes. He clipped a red cape around his shoulders and adjusted a heavy belt with a special holster.
Perhaps it was but a trick of the flickering lights, but Alan Armstrong also seemed to put aside certain nuances or mannerisms that were such a part of the Virginian’s customary persona. He seemed to assume a far more confident, even threatening manner as the last shreds of Alan Armstrong disappeared beneath the heroic guise of the Spy Smasher. Oddly enough, an observer might have decided that the man was more alive in costume than out of it.
Approaching a sleek golden aircraft, he jumped up to swing into a portal on the hull. Spy Smasher piloted the craft skillfully and soared out an automatically sealing passageway to emerge through heavy doors behind the stables. “They locked behind us on my signal as always,” he said softly. “No one will be able to get into my base in my absence.”
Spy Smasher clenched his fist as he cursed the fact that Eve had removed her wedding ring during her earlier maddened condition. A signal device within the gemstone would have made tracking her even easier.
Adjusting a series of dials on a control panel, he smiled bitterly as a red blip appeared on the grid. “The Gyrosub can track that horrible craft that took Eve!” he said. “It can locate it easily enough, since devices aboard are meant to pick up certain signals only a craft of the same design would emit.” He shook his head and cried, “The same design. Father, what has your greed done to us?” But his cry went unanswered.
As Spy Smasher piloted his Gyrosub in pursuit of the craft that had abducted his wife Eve, he thought about how it had all started. He knew that, based on the design of the massive ship that had taken her and the mocking words that came from that craft about his father, there could only be one source for his current misery: his late father, Jack Alan Armstrong.
While he remembered the elder Armstrong, two sensations came to mind. He felt that same old sense of pride and awe in exactly how incredibly strong his father had been, and he felt the shame and grief that he had never managed to truly connect with the harsh and passionate man.
Alan knew his father had been a man of remarkable courage and confidence. Bravado would have been a better word, since the elder Armstrong swaggered through life with a larger-than-life ego and appetites to match. He had never known struggle or hardship, since the Armstrong family had stood shoulder to shoulder with the Colonial aristocrats of pre-Revolutionary War Virginia. Washington, Henry, Randolph, Campbell, Armstrong — the names had been bandied about in familiar tones in the small circle of elite planters who had turned the rich land of Virginia into their private version of transported British estates and privilege. Armstrongs had ruled men. Armstrongs had owned men. Alan knew this with a sense of inherited shame. He still found it ironic that patriots, like the original Armstrong men, could fight for liberty while at the same time withholding that precious commodity from some men and women based purely on something as superficial as race.
In any event, Armstrongs had been loyal to the Continental Army and had served with distinction throughout American history. They had been community leaders in government, law, religion, and commerce. During the War Between the States, they had worn gray and had fought to uphold a way of life that was threatened with destruction. Finally, these forces had shaped the character of Jack Alan Armstrong, and he embodied all that was powerful and yet merciless in that breed.
He had never needed to work for a living. The very idea was as foreign to him as it had been to his own grandfather. Money poured into the family coffers, and champion horses, among other goods, made that easy wealth a certainty from one generation to another.
Now Alan recalled one specific childhood memory with a fresh regret and bitterness that caught him by surprise.
Two young boys were laughing loudly and cheering wildly as a rugged old man slowly brought a fiercely bucking horse into a state of submission. The boys, who were identical twins, looked up at the grinning rider with matching gazes of admiration.
“Gosh, Johnsie, that was great!” said Alan Armstrong.
“You’re better than any of those movie cowboys!” said his twin, Jack Armstrong.
Before Johnsie could reply, a newcomer raced forward and pushed past the boys to leap over the fence and confront the old man. “Get off,” said J.A. Armstrong. “I’ll show that horse who owns him! I’ll make it learn to obey the touch of its master’s hand!”
The boys frowned and exchanged glances of concern as each grew quieter and seemed to almost shrink into themselves like wilting flowers. Their father didn’t notice their reaction. He was far too busy asserting himself to both hired hand and horse.
Johnsie dismounted and said, “Mr. Armstrong, I wouldn’t be so abrupt-like around him. He’s still jittery!”
J.A. Armstrong smiled coldly and said, “Good. I like things I own to be afraid of me!” He leaped on the horse’s back and fought with tremendous strength as the frightened animal reared and raced around the enclosure.
Johnsie saw the boys follow their father’s progress, and he shook his head. They clearly admired his raw power and courage, but they had felt his overwhelming personality more than once and were obviously cowed by his ways. A boy should respect his old man, but not be so scared of him that he can’t rightly be himself, thought Johnsie.
Meanwhile, in a shattering display of power, J.A. had brought the horse down and had barely rolled aside before it fell. “Stupid brute! I’ll put him down!” roared the angry Virginian.
“You can’t do that! It’s your own fault that he fell!” yelled Jack.
Alan winced as he realized his brother had spoken without thinking.
J.A. jumped the fence and gripped Jack by the arm. “Don’t you ever presume to tell your father how to act. I’m a man. You’re a punk kid. When you can look me in the eye and stand face to face with me, then maybe I’ll listen to you, but if you grow up to be as soft as you act now, then I’ll still think nothing you say matters!” He released the boy and shoved him aside.
As Jack rubbed his arm and tried to fight back tears, Alan tried to lead him away from the scene where J.A. was yelling orders at Johnsie. The boys reached the stable and sat down with their backs pressed against the rough wood.
“He’s not so big! I hate him!” said Jack.
“You don’t mean that!” said Alan. “We have to love him. He’s all we have left, except for each other!”
“Well, maybe I don’t hate him,” said Jack, “but father or not, I don’t like him!”
Alan shook his head sadly and said, “You know something? I don’t, either. Jack, do you think there’s something wrong with us? A guy is supposed to like his dad!”
“No!” said Jack. “A real dad loves his kids and shows it in how he treats them. Buying us stuff isn’t enough to make up for the way Dad bullies us!”
Alan nodded and said nothing as a gunshot echoed from beyond the stable.
Alan and Jack Armstrong were working on a crude model of an airplane when their father entered their room and stood over them. “Oh, Dad, we were just putting together a model. Do you need us to do something?” asked Alan.
“No,” said J.A. Armstrong. “I wanted to tell you that I’m going to be out of state for a few weeks. If you need anything, the staff will provide it. Dithers can reach me in case of a crisis.”
Jack hesitated, then said, “Dad, we were thinking of joining a new science society dedicated to astronautics. Could we hold a meeting here? The house is big enough and all!”
J.A. frowned and then said, “Sounds like a bunch of nonsense. Astronautics is not even a proper word.”
“If you’d read something once in a while, you’d know it is a real word,” insisted Jack. “In fact, a guy named Valier is working on a rocket-car motor! If that could be applied to air travel, then imagine the possibilities!”
Alan cut in and said, “We know you are too busy to indulge in hobbies like that, but we sure would appreciate it if we could invite some others who like that kind of thing here!”
J.A. nodded and said, “Invite them. Have the staff prepare whatever you need. I’ll be gone anyway, so it won’t annoy me.”
“Thanks!” cried both boys at once.
J.A. stopped and turned around to face them. “Your old man has more going for him than you two dreamers imagine! This business in North Carolina might just make you two realize that. It might also make this family a global name!”
They nodded and remained silent until his heavy footsteps indicated that he had departed.
“So, what’s in North Carolina?” asked Alan.
Jack shrugged and said, “Who cares? The old man’s only interested in chasing women. He lets Dithers run the business. In spite of his big talk, he doesn’t know anything about science or industry!”
“I don’t know,” said Alan thoughtfully. “For just a minute there, I thought he was really trying to get through to us, like he wanted our approval!”
Jack made a loud and rude noise and said, “That’s hooey!”
Two weeks later, the Armstrong boys received some startling news from Dithers, the portly and gruff businessman who ran the Armstrong holdings. He stood before them, and for once the rough-but-capable old man seemed at a loss for words.
“Boys, I wish I didn’t have to tell you this,” he began. “I’d give anything to make things right. I guess I should just say it. You’re young men now.”
“Something’s happened to Dad!” said Alan.
Jack stiffened as he noticed how pale his sibling had become. “Easy, Al, “he said.
“He started to feel ill this morning,” said Dithers. “He tried to brush it off. You know how he is. Well, it was serious. He died before we could even get him to a doctor. Heart failure. I’m so sorry!”
“It can’t be!” cried Alan.
Jack cursed and stared wide-eyed into the distance.
“It was quick,” continued Dithers. “He didn’t really know what hit him. You boys meant the world to him.”
“Why didn’t he ever tell us that?” said Jack.
“Maybe he just couldn’t,” said Alan. “Maybe he thought we just knew.”
In the present, Spy Smasher shook his head as if to free himself from the painfully personal grip of memories of his long-deceased father and brother.
Piloting the Gyrosub skillfully through the air over North Carolina, he lowered it slowly as mountainous terrain rose up around the craft, and he spotted a strange landscape below.
A crudely formed valley rested within the craggy slopes that formed a rough basin border around it. From the air, little could be seen except for trees and rocks and foliage. However, Spy Smasher knew that for a pilot with his level of skill and a craft with the impressive maneuverability of the Gyrosub, the seemingly barren terrain below could offer hidden possibilities.
Bringing the ship down, he allowed it to shatter a path through the trees. He had no concern for damaging the natural setting. He only cared about resolving the matter and finding his wife. I can restore it later, he thought. After all, Jack and I planted most of those trees decades ago, anyway. He landed the remarkable Gyrosub within a smooth spot in the basin and hurried out to race across the land until he found a passageway.
The Great Eyrie is one place I never expected to return to, he thought. But then again, I should have known father’s crimes would eventually come back to haunt me.
Dropping down a sheer slope that led out of the steep passageway above, he landed gracefully below and adjusted his goggles to an infrared setting. The darkness yielded to his special vision aids, and he realized that his hunch had been correct. The Great Eyrie was far from unchanged. The natural cavern was clean. The old workspace was again functional, and new devices dotted the area.
Spy Smasher frowned as he moved into the cavern and swiftly noticed the type of equipment that had been placed in the old base. The huge craft that attacked my home and flew off with poor Eve came from plans like these, he mused as he looked over a sheet of paper that hung from one wall.
“It is fitting that retribution was born here, since your stolen Gyrosub came from this womb as well. The craft your crooked sire took from my family will rise like the phoenix to reduce you and all you’ve built upon a false foundation to crumbling ashes!”
The stentorian voice came from everywhere. It obviously came from hidden speakers, and the same type of concealed monitoring devices had allowed the speaker to see Spy Smasher’s progress as well.
“You know who I am, and I know your secret as well!” he yelled. “I know you are connected to Robur in some way. I’ve come for my wife! If you want to punish someone for what my father did all those years ago, then you can hurt me. Leave my wife alone!”
Laughter filled the cavern, and the voice said, “How naïve you are! It is not merely the line of Robur that seeks your death. Look for the truth in your own bloodline!”
Spy Smasher darted aside as a blinding flash of electrical energy erupted to his left. Robur may have designed ships like my own years ago, but he was declared dead after his revenge schemes failed! he thought. (*) My father only bought the land for a real estate deal. He only learned about what was hidden here below the surface after the fact. He died before he ever had a chance to do anything with the plans left here to rot!
[(*) Editor’s note: See Robur the Conqueror, by Jules Verne (1886) and The Master of the World, by Jules Verne (1904).]
As another blast shook the ground beneath his feet, he gave silent thanks for his insulated costume and boots and moved deeper into the cavern.
A third blast rocked the cavern, and rocks rained down from above to bury the hero in smoke and rubble as laughter faded, and silence reigned supreme once more.