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The Virtual Vandal

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Tom and his friends attend a science camp in this fourth novel in Tom Swift Inventors’ Academy—perfect for fans of The Hardy Boys or Alex Rider.

Every year, Swift Academy students go to a nearby summer camp to field-test their inventions. Tom and his friends have been working hard on all their projects, but they’re most thrilled about Noah’s new virtual reality simulation. They can’t wait for it to go live, and everyone is looking forward to running tests at the camp. Nothing dulls their excitement, not even when a mysterious prankster starts messing with people’s inventions.

But things take a nosedive when the pranks turn into vandalism. To make matters worse, clues point to Tom’s friend, Sam, as the one responsible. With Sam’s reputation and student projects on the line, it’s up to Tom and his friends to unmask the true vandal. And when Noah’s simulation enters the arena, they quickly discover they’re not the only ones meeting in virtual reality…

Chapter 1: The Simulation Demonstration 1 The Simulation Demonstration
THE THREE OF US SLOWLY made our way up the dark steps. I led the way, followed by my friends Amy Hsu and Samantha Watson. As we stepped out onto the third floor, I aimed my flashlight into the empty corridor. I could feel my heart beating faster with anticipation.

“This is really creepy,” Amy whispered. “Cool, but creepy.”

“Why are you whispering?” Sam asked. “We’re the only ones here.”

“Because we’re creeping around the school at night,” Amy replied. “Even if it’s not really…” She trailed off as she whipped her flashlight back down the stairs. Sam and I froze, listening.

Then Amy relaxed, and we continued down the hall. “Besides—” She went back to a whisper. “Noah might be spying on us.”

“Of course he’s spying on us,” I said with a chuckle. “He worked too hard on this not to spy on us.” I glanced around. “Isn’t that right, dude?”

There was no reply.

“That would’ve been too easy, Swift,” Sam said as she led the way down the dark corridor.

Noah Newton, my best friend, had created a special scavenger hunt for us. And the setting for this hunt? Our school, the Swift Academy of Science and Technology. At night, of course.

If the name of our school sounds familiar, it’s because it was named after my father, Tom Swift Sr. He founded the academy with profits from his company, Swift Enterprises. If you think it would be cool to have all these places with your last name on them, you’d be wrong. Honestly, it just means I have to work harder to be a regular student like everyone else.

A flash of light burst through a nearby window. Soon after, the walls seemed to rattle with the deep boom of thunder.

“The thunderstorm is a nice touch,” I said to Noah, wherever he was. He still didn’t reply.

Sam stopped moving forward. “What was the clue again?”

Amy responded automatically. Having a photographic memory, she had already memorized it when she had first read it. “?‘Once on the third floor, don’t be afraid of the dark,’?” she replied. “?‘Find not the king of the jungle, but the king of the park.’?”

“Who’s the king of the park?” I asked.

“A lion is supposed to be the king of the jungle,” Sam replied. “Even though they technically don’t live in jungles.”

“What about in Mrs. Livingston’s classroom?” asked Amy. “She has a lion poster in there.”

“It’s worth a shot,” I said.

We glided down the hallway toward our biology classroom. I swung open the door and reached for the light switch. I heard the switch click but the overhead lights didn’t come on. The only light came through the windows and barely illuminated the room.

The three of us poured in and made our way to the wall behind Mrs. Livingston’s desk. Hung there was a motivational poster about courage, sporting a large lion with a thick, shaggy mane. I’m not sure if Mrs. Livingston had it up there to remind us to be courageous and ask questions, or because of her notoriously difficult exams.

“Wait a minute,” said Sam. She stopped moving. “The clue said not the king of the jungle.”

“That’s right,” I agreed, glancing around. “But who would be king of the park?”

Amy pointed to a poster on the other side of the classroom. “What about that one?”

I turned and squinted across the room. I had completely forgotten that Mrs. Livingston also had a tyrannosaurus rex poster at the back of the classroom. It wasn’t a motivational poster or anything; it was just part of a cool dinosaur display she had created. The exhibition also included a fossilized megalodon tooth, the fossilized femur of an Edmontosaurus, and a cast Mrs. Livingston made of a real dinosaur footprint (a small theropod of some kind).

“King of the park,” Sam said, excitement rising in her voice. “Like Jurassic Park.”

“Even though the T. rex really lived during the Cretaceous period,” Amy added.

“Yeah, but Cretaceous Park doesn’t have the same ring to it,” I said as I made my way toward the poster.

We all gathered around it. On it, a huge T. rex stood in the clearing of a prehistoric forest. It grinned at us, its mouth full of jagged teeth.

“The poster is exactly the same,” Amy observed. “Noah didn’t add anything to it.”

“Maybe he hid something behind it,” Sam suggested. She reached out and grabbed the bottom left corner of the poster. But when she lifted up the flap, the corner jerked itself away from her and snapped back to the wall.

“What the…,” Sam began.

Then the entire poster began to expand. We stood back as the bottom of the picture slid down the wall and onto the baseboards. The top of the poster stretched up toward the ceiling as the entire thing grew. Soon, the image of the terrifying dinosaur covered the whole wall.

“What’s going on?” asked Amy.

The dinosaur was now life-size. My heart raced as it glared down at us. Then, as if it couldn’t get any stranger than that, the T. rex moved. Just a blink of an eye at first, and then one of its two-clawed hands closed.

“Did you just see that?!” Sam asked in an entire octave above her normal speaking voice.

Before anyone could answer, one of the dinosaur’s huge feet stepped out of the poster. It scattered the fossil display and crashed down on a nearby desk. We moved back as the desk shattered.

Above us, the T. rex leaned out of the poster! Its long snout stretched and contorted as 2-D slowly became 3-D. As it loomed over us, it cocked its head and examined us with one large eye. Its mouth opened wider, long tendrils of saliva dripping down from above.

“Run!” I shouted.

The three of us bolted toward the door as the T. rex roared. I chanced a glance back to see the full-size tyrannosaurus rex on our tails, crashing through desks as it chased after us.

My heart raced faster as we ran out of the classroom and headed toward the closest stairwell. Amy and Sam shot past me as I checked behind us. There was no way that huge dinosaur would fit through the classroom door.…

Boy, was I wrong. The T. rex burst through the wall. Shattered cinderblocks and splintered wood ricocheted down the empty corridor as the creature skidded to a stop in the middle of the hallway. It sniffed and whipped its head in our direction. My blood turned to ice.

I flew down the stairs and caught up to my friends as they entered the first floor. I could hear the dinosaur barreling down the stairwell behind us. There probably wouldn’t be any steps left by the time it reached the bottom.

“Unbelievable,” Sam said as she glanced back.

We darted down the main corridor, toward the gym.

“What’s that?” Amy asked, pointing ahead.

There was a small wooden box on the floor ahead of us. It sat conspicuously in the middle of the hallway, right in front of the open gym doors. We came to a stop next to it and I lifted the lid. Several long red cylinders lined the box.

“Is that dynamite?” Amy asked.

“We’re supposed to stop a dinosaur with dynamite?” asked Sam.

As if on cue, the huge T. rex crashed to the bottom of the stairwell. Dust and debris filled the air as the dinosaur lumbered through the entryway and stomped into the first-floor hallway. It paused to give another bone-chilling roar before moving in our direction.

I pulled out one of the sticks of dynamite and turned it over in my hands.

“It doesn’t have a fuse,” I said disarmingly.

“Does anyone have matches or a lighter?” asked Sam. “How could we light it even if it did have a fuse?”

The T. rex roared again as it ran closer.

“W-w—what do we do?” stammered Amy.

“Oh man,” said a familiar voice. “You guys are so going to get eaten.”

Suddenly, as if by magic, Noah appeared between us and the charging dinosaur. He reached into the wooden box and pulled out a stick of dynamite. Noah removed a clear cap off one end of the stick and brought it toward the other end, and then I realized that it wasn’t dynamite at all. With a quick motion, he scraped them against each other, like striking a match. The road flare ignited with a hissing, sparking red light.

“Check it out,” Noah said as he turned to face the charging beast.

The T. rex slid to a stop in front of the flare. Its giant head stretched forward and tracked the bright light as Noah moved it from right to left, and then left to right. Then Noah tossed the flare through the open gym doors. The dinosaur took off after it, twisting the metal doorjamb as it squeezed through the entryway. We watched as it disappeared into the dark gym.

“Aw, man,” Sam said. “We should’ve guessed that one.”

“I put a hint in the clue and everything,” Noah said.

“The same way Dr. Grant tried to distract the T. rex in Jurassic Park,” Amy added.

“Except it worked when I did it,” said Noah.

“Dude,” I said, turning to my best friend. “That was awesome!” I extended a fist toward him.

Noah reached out and our fists simply passed through each other.

Amy giggled.

Noah sighed. “Yeah, I never could get that to actually work in here.”

“So… that’s it?” asked Sam. She peered into the dark gym. “The T. rex isn’t coming back?”

“No, this is where his program ends,” replied Noah. “And he’ll completely reset in a minute or so. I was thinking about making him play basketball when he’s in the gym. But I ran out of time.”

“That would’ve been funny,” Amy said. “With those little arms.”

“I know, right?” asked Noah. “I spent way too much time on him already, though.”

“I can tell,” I said. “Amazing detail.”

“Thanks,” Noah said. His avatar gave a polite bow.

Sam, Amy, and I just had the honor of being the first to test Noah’s new virtual reality program. That’s right—my best bud was a brilliant programmer. And for the past several months, he had been using every bit of his free time to create a virtual Swift Academy. Of course, he didn’t have time to reproduce every classroom, but what he did create looked impressively accurate, right down to the smallest detail.

Noah even did a great job on our four avatars. Each of our characters looked lifelike—it seemed as if we were actually in the school’s first-floor hallway when, in actuality, we were each in our own homes.

Noah created a system where we could put our phones in a special visor. Then we could connect to the program through Wi-Fi or our cell service. The program itself was on the school servers so we could log on and view the virtual world through our phones no matter where we were. Add a special controller for each hand and we could move our hands and pick up virtual items in his virtual school.

“You guys did great until the end there,” Noah said.

“So you were spying on us,” said Amy. “I knew it.”

“Of course,” Noah said. “I had to see how you would react.”

“How did you do it?” Sam asked.

“The easiest way I could think of,” Noah replied. His avatar’s left hand reached over and touched his right hand, which probably meant that Noah was pushing a button on the controller in real life. Then Noah disappeared.

“Cool,” said Amy.

“I can make my character invisible and intangible,” Noah’s disembodied voice explained. “But I can still pick stuff up.” A road flare rose from the wooden box and seemed to float around by itself.

“Good way to cheat at hide-and-seek,” Sam said. “What button makes you invisible?”

“Sorry,” Noah said as he reappeared. “Only the creator has that power.”

Sam’s avatar shook her head. “Figures.”

Amy’s avatar looked to the left. “I have to go,” she said. “My mother’s calling me for dinner.”

“I’d better be going too,” Sam added. “Thanks for letting us try your program.”

“Yes, thank you,” Amy agreed. “It’s really cool.”

“I’m glad you liked it,” Noah replied. His program wasn’t sophisticated enough to relay facial expressions, but I could tell from the sound of his voice that he was grinning from ear to ear.

I raised my hand and my avatar gave them a wave. “See you tomorrow.”

The girls waved back before their avatars faded to nothing.

“So you’re going to turn it in to Mr. Varma tomorrow?” I asked Noah.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Then I’m going to open-source it for everyone.”

“Really?” I asked. “So anyone can change any part of it?”

“Just about,” he replied. “They’ll be able to customize their avatars, add characters, change the different environments, create side missions…”

“Wow,” I said. “Do you have any idea what you’ll be unleashing?”

Noah’s avatar nodded. “I can’t wait to see what people come up with. But don’t worry. We’ll still have the basement to ourselves. That’s unchangeable.”

“Cool,” I said.

When Noah created the game, he had our four avatars spawn in the basement. And only the four of us had access to that part of the school. We even used the access code we already had memorized thanks to a previous… mishap involving drones and the FBI.

See? Things get weird in the real Swift Academy, not just the virtual one.

“And…” Noah said, his avatar raising both hands. “Now I’ll finally be able to pull my weight with our two projects.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll put you to work tomorrow,” I said. “But first I have a question.… Will the T. rex chase you if you remain completely still, like in the movies?”

Noah’s avatar raised his hands in an exaggerated shrug. “I guess you’ll have to try and see.”

“Let’s do it!” I said, and I moved my avatar down the hall. Noah and I ran up the stairs to give the T. rex another try.

More books from this author: Victor Appleton

More books in this series: Tom Swift Inventors' Academy