THE MYSTERIOUS HITCHHIKER
Tom and Bud were bursting with curiosity. Although the Swifts had been in radio contact with creatures from outer space for many months, this was the most exciting news yet!
On one occasion, the unknown beings had moved a small asteroid—the phantom satellite Nestria—into orbit about the earth. Later they had sent strange samples of the animal life of their planet, aboard orbiting missiles, to be studied by the Swifts. They had also helped Tom, Bud, and Mr. Swift a number of times when their lives were at stake while on daring voyages beyond the earth. What was their latest intention?
The telephone rang and Sandy went to answer it.
"For Pete's sake, Dad," Tom pleaded, "don't keep us in suspense! Who or what is this visitor?"
Mr. Swift smiled at the boys' baffled expressions. "The fact is that a message came through today that—"
He was interrupted by Sandy who had come to the door. "The phone call's for you, Dad. Long distance from Washington."
Bud groaned as Mr. Swift went off to take the call. "It's a conspiracy," Bud said. "Everyone's ganging up to keep us from finding out about that mysterious visitor!"
Tom grinned. "We lasted through an earthquake this afternoon, pal," he said consolingly. "I guess we can last through a phone call."
Inwardly Tom was as impatient as Bud about the exact nature of the message.
Several months ago, the space creatures had sent their first communication in the form of mathematical symbols carved on a black missile which had landed on the grounds of Swift Enterprises.
Tom and his father had decoded the symbols and beamed out a reply over a powerful radio transmitter. Later messages had been picked up by radio telescope and converted to appear as symbols on the oscilloscope screen.
"Sandy must know what it's all about," Bud broke in. "She's the one who first mentioned the visitor."
"Of course I know," Sandy said mysteriously. "So does Mother and so does Phyl. But don't think we're going to give it away!" she added teasingly.
Tom and Bud cajoled the two girls and Mrs. Swift for further information. But Sandy and Phyl only shook their heads, obviously enjoying the situation.
"At last we're getting back at them for the way they've neglected us!" Phyl said, her brown eyes sparkling with laughter.
"Come on, Mother!" Tom said. "Be a sport. You tell us!"
But Mrs. Swift too shook her head. "I'm sorry, Tom," she demurred gently, "but I think the girls are right. I'll say this much, though," she relented, "it will be the biggest challenge that Tom Swift Jr. and Sr. have ever faced!"
"Whew!" Bud remarked as the two boys glanced at each other. "That must mean it's plenty big news! It would have to be, skipper, to top all the other jobs you and your dad have taken on!"
Conquering outer space, probing the ocean's secrets, drilling to the earth's core—these were only a few of Tom Swift's many exciting exploits.
In his first adventure, Tom, in his Flying Lab, had gone to South America to fend off a gang of rebels seeking a valuable radioactive ore deposit. In his most recent challenge, Tom had defied the threats of Oriental killers determined to ferret out the secret of the Swifts' latest space research.
As the two boys silently recalled the exciting events of the past months, Mr. Swift returned to the living room.
Tom and Bud leaned forward in their chairs. "Well, boys," Mr. Swift said, "as I started to tell you, the space receiver picked up a message today from our unknown planetary friends. The message informed us that they are sending a visitor to earth—a visitor consisting of pure energy!"
"Energy?" Tom was startled. "I don't get it, Dad!"
"Frankly, I don't quite understand it myself," Tom Sr. confessed. "The message didn't explain how or in what form the energy would arrive. But, at any rate, they want us to construct some sort of container for it."
The elder scientist paused thoughtfully. "In my opinion, the energy which they speak of must be a sort of invisible brain. The symbols were rather difficult to decode, but apparently our job will be to construct a device through which the energy will be able to receive impressions of what life is like here on earth, and also to communicate its own responses to us."
Tom sat bolt upright. "Dad, this is terrific news!" he exclaimed. "If we're able to make this energy or 'brain' communicate, it may be able to tell us what the space people are like!"
Mr. Swift nodded, his own eyes blazing with as much excitement as Tom's were.
Bud, too, was deeply impressed but could not resist quipping, "What sort of body will you give it? How about a beautiful, superintelligent space girl for me to date?"
"Nothing doing!" Sandy retorted mischievously. "I insist on a handsome young man who'd have time to take two nice earth girls out on dates!"
"Ouch!" Bud pretended to wince. "I really left myself wide open for that one!"
Mrs. Swift put in, "Goodness, mightn't it get out of control and be rather overpowering? Suppose it went berserk!"
"Rather an unpleasant possibility," Mr. Swift agreed, smiling wryly. "But I trust our space friends wouldn't let that happen."
Both he and Tom became thoughtful as they discussed the problem.
"The energy will arrive in two weeks," Mr. Swift added. "Unfortunately that phone call was a request that I go to Washington on urgent government business. So you may have to take over and work out a solution on your own, Tom."
It was a sobering thought to the young inventor. "You were right, Mother. This is a terrific challenge."
Soon afterward, the little gathering broke up. Bud, who had left his own convertible at the Swifts' that morning, offered to drop Phyl at her home.Tom awoke the next morning, refreshed by a good night's sleep. After a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs, he drove off to Enterprises in his low-slung silver sports car.
"Think I'll listen to the news," Tom thought, and switched on his dashboard radio.
A moment later the announcer's voice came over the loud-speaker. "Casualties from yesterday's disastrous earthquake now total thirty-one injured," the announcer reported. "Most of these are employees of the Faber Electronics plant and four are in critical condition. There is one note of cheer, however. At last report, Mark Faber, the brilliant president of the company, is now expected to recover." Tom gave a thankful sigh of relief.
The announcer continued, "The nearby town of Harkness was only lightly damaged, but the plant itself was almost totally demolished. No estimate of the losses has been released, but will certainly run into millions of dollars, including some highly secret defense items which were being developed at the plant. Scientists are puzzled by the severity of the quake in what had been considered a 'dead' area."
For the first time Tom, too, was struck by this curious aspect of the disaster. So far as he knew, no serious tremors had ever before been reported within hundreds of miles of the region.
He was mulling over the matter as he drove along a lonely wooded area, not far from Lake Carlopa. Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted as a man stepped out from among the trees ahead and gestured with his thumb for a ride.
"Sorry, mister," Tom reflected, "but I've had trouble with hitchhikers before!" He shook his head to let the man know that he did not intend to stop.
To the young inventor's amazement, the pedestrian deliberately stepped onto the road—squarely in the path of Tom's oncoming car!
Tom jammed on the brakes, and the silver sports car screeched to a stop. Only a quick twist of the wheel had prevented an accident!
Somewhat angrily, Tom exclaimed, "What's the big idea, mister? Don't you realize you might have been—"
"Shut up!" the stranger snarled. In an instant the man had yanked open the door and climbed in beside Tom.
"Take me inside the grounds of Swift Enterprises," he commanded in a foreign accent. "And no tricks or you will regret it!"