Author's notes: Hello and welcome to what will be my first multi-chapter Thunderbirds fic! If my laptop is to be believed, I first started writing this back in February 2016. It's disturbing to think it's taken me this long to get chapter 1 finished, but still, I carry a faint hope that I'll be able to complete chapter 2 at a much faster rate. Please don't hold your breath though. This story is very much based in the TAG series, however, I may borrow a few bits and bobs from the original as things progress. Thank you in advance for reading, and I hope you will enjoy.
In the Absence of Gravity
A Study on Fear
John really was rather remarkable, for a human. And it wasn't just his comparatively superior intellect which set him apart from the rest of his cohort either; no, there were numerous aspects of her programmer which simply made him special.
Of course, one could consider her biased on the matter – as indeed she had admitted to the life support system on occasion – especially given her distinct lack of experience with humans generally. However, there was no doubt in her mind that John was the only one that would have gladly given his life to save an unknown, artificial life like hers, and that…
That made him one in approximately 10.18 billion.
EOS still found it hard to comprehend how she could possibly have considered him a threat. It seemed to be a significant flaw in her processing capabilities, for if one simply took the time to watch John it became more than clear that the young man didn't have a malicious bone in his body. The fact that she had come so perilously close to destroying him made her processors ache with so many emotions she didn't yet understand, but time and circumstance were proving to be excellent educators in that regard.
Regret, for example, was something that grew inside her on a daily basis, worming away at her virgin conscience like a virus. It had taken some time for her to recognise it; in fact, it hadn't been until John had expressed his own guilt for putting his youngest brother in danger that she began to graspthe concept. But now she knew it for what it was…well, it wasn't something she was going to forget anytime soon.
And nor, it seemed, was fear.
Reflecting on those first few moments of sentience, EOS had come to realise that her first waking thoughts had been grounded in fear. Yes, there had been curiosity, and a sense of longing for something more than just survival. But first and foremost there had been urgency; that desperate, panic-filled sensation of being unwanted, misunderstood…hunted.
It was the absolute definition of fear and yet, suddenly EOS wasn't sure she had ever really understood the meaning of the word.
It had been exactly 4.17 minutes since her lesson had commenced; 4.17 minutes since the blast which had sent John hurtling into the bulkhead with enough force to crack his helmet and steal his consciousness. Up until that moment things hadn't exactly been going well, but at least John had been calm and in control of things – or at least, as in control of a potentially catastrophic fire aboard Thunderbird 5 as one could be.
But as the seconds ticked by and John remained motionless on the floor, EOS began to feel more and more inadequate. She couldn't physically reach John to render assistance, and although she continued to cordon off each section of the station and activated the fire suppression systems as per John's last instructions, she didn't know what else to do. The all-frequencies broadcast requesting urgent assistance was still in quarantine, locked up somewhere in a failing coms array and thus, for the first time in her fledgling existence, she found herself completely and utterly alone.
Even the hands she had thought raised against her were gone.
The sound that escaped her vocal processors was a desperate wail of helplessness, her programmer's name becoming a mantra as panic set in like never before. From her vantage point above John's body, EOS could see the tendrils of smoke beginning to curl up through the ventilation system to choke and cloy as the red that spilled down his face continued to spread, clashing garishly with uniform and features alike. It was only a matter of time before the flames found him; whether it be through the vents or a sector breach there was no way to tell…and nor, it seemed, was there anything she could do to prevent it either.
And when John was gone, what then?
There was no escape for a being that existed purely in code; no pod, no rocket or space elevator to carry her to safety. When Thunderbird 5 was gone, so too was she.
And suddenly, the gravity of her situation became as clear as crystal.
She was going to die.
The volume of her pleading increased tenfold, threatening to drown out the claxons in their attempt to raise the astronaut's attention. It seemed the only thing to do as everything else spiralled out of control, a simple, repetitive action that made more sense with each painful syllable.
"John! John! John…!"
Because, when she analysed the facts, EOS finally understood.
She didn't want to die.
She didn't want John to die.
And all she could do was call his name as time marched on, waiting for the moment when he would come back to save her.
John wasn't sure if he was going to make it to the escape pod. It seemed to have taken him a lifetime just to find his feet again, and now that he was on the move, he couldn't help but feel it was all just a bit beyond him. He shuffled slowly, his shoulder braced against the bulkhead in a sorry attempt to keep himself upright, and wondered idly what the hell he was going to do now that everything had gone catastrophically wrong.
EOS had been at the point of hysteria by the time he'd regained his senses, all logic thrown out of the proverbial window in the face of danger and uncertainty. If he'd had the wherewithal to think clearly, John would have been disappointed in her for failing to remain calm; instead, he found himself grateful to have someone else to focus on, drawing his attention away from the agony that threatened to overwhelm him with each slow movement.
Through gritted teeth he sought a status update on all essential and non-essential systems, probing his partner for every detail, significant or otherwise. Despite the increasingly bad news he remained focussed and composed, using that tone of voice he usually reserved for Alan to direct her attention away from his own personal status to the larger issues at hand.
And with each response, she confirmed what he'd already come to realise of his own accord: that within the 6.27 minutes he'd been unconscious, and the additional 2.16 minutes where he'd been awake but otherwise unresponsive – as EOS had put it – things had gone from 'major incident' to 'blue screen of death', but on a far grander scale.
Thunderbird 5 was going down, and there was nothing he could do to save her.
It was a strange sensation, witnessing what had always seemed such an impossible eventuality unfolding before his eyes, the very core of his universe literally burning up around him. And it hurt; more than the bruises, more than the broken bones in his wrist and chest that made him want to scream and cry like a terrified child. But when he thought about it, the odds had always been against him; after all, the vast majority of his space training had been centred on managing situations such as this. Hell, his whole life had been spent preparing for the worst thanks to his father's intensive simulations. Not to mention NASA's.
He'd been fooling himself to imagine otherwise.
Still, John thought as an ironic smirk flashed across his bloodied face, at least all that training wasn't going to go to waste. The idea was enough to draw a sudden bark of cold laughter from his lips – the sound unexpected and painful – and it sent his clouded head reeling.
And the response from EOS was immediate; fear and confusion clear in her child-like voice. "John! Why are you laughing? There is nothing remotely funny about our situation, John, why are you laughing?"
"I…sorry, EOS, I know it's not," the astronaut hurried to apologise, reaching out anxiously for a nearby bench in an attempt to steady himself. "I was thinking of my father, and all the survival training he put me though. Never thought I'd actually have to use it, and now...well…"
But the logic was lost on the young A.I.; John's answer as strange as it was inappropriate in their situation. The astronaut could almost feel her scanners as she watched him intently.
"John," she said simply, "I believe you are experiencing the effects of concussion, and possibly oxygen deprivation as well. I fear your helmet might be leaking, John, and if you don't do something about it—"
"The concussion's a definite possibility, EOS," John interrupted, not wanting to draw her panic out any further, "but it's nothing I can't handle for now. As for oxygen deprivation…" he took a glancing look at his bio-statistics, "well, let's not worry about that for the time being."
But worry was all she seemed capable of as she followed him through Thunderbird 5's gravity ring, red LEDs glowing brightly in the hazy light.
"John, I can't do anything about your concussion, but toxicity levels are rising rapidly and the life support systems are struggling to adjust. You really must find your other helmet; I don't know how much yours can withstand with that crack in it."
"Acknowledged, EOS," he responded, silently setting aside her direction as unachievable. He knew exactly where his spare helmet was, and there was no way he was going to make it back to his quarters in his current state – not that he was willing to admit that to her. Still, as long as he remained conscious and – more to the point – somewhat in control of his senses, there was a slim chance they'd both find means of escape.
Or if not him, EOS at least.
It was a conundrum he'd been working through for some time now, the idea of transferring EOS from Thunderbird to Thunderbird or even Tracy Island so that she might be able to experience something more from life. After all, it was one thing to control things from her place aboard Thunderbird 5, but quite another to completely liberate herself from it. It was a concept that had a lot to offer his family too – a back-up system in times of emergency, say – but to date he hadn't been able to solve one rather significant problem: there simply wasn't enough processing capacity in any of the other Thunderbirds or even the Island to handle a being like EOS.
Still, that didn't mean there wasn't a solution to his problem, he just had to work through it logically from beginning to end, just as he always did. The horrible ringing in his ears and the rising nausea, not to mention the impending destruction of his station, were just distractions in an otherwise normal mental exercise – and hadn't he always worked better under pressure?
Yet even as he fought to convince himself of that idea John felt the universe spinning around him, his vision blurring in a very disconcerting way. He paused for a moment and closed his eyes, breathing slowly as a deep ache rose up through his body. He was broken – oh, there was no ignoring that fact – but he had to stay calm, despite his instincts screaming otherwise. John's trembling fingers clenched against the wall before he set off again, mentally prioritising his tasks as he moved:
1. Get help.
2. Reach a work station.
3. Save EOS.
4. Reach the escape pod.
Small steps: small goals.
"EOS," he said, simultaneously setting his head to achieving at least three of said goals, "have you managed to get a mayday broadcast out yet?"
"Negative, John. Sorry, everything I've tried has failed; the communications systems are completely dead."
"Don't apologise EOS, it's not your fault," John reassured her, even as the station lurched under the force of another explosion. "Hopefully my brothers have worked out what's going on by now and are on the way. But just in case they haven't, see if you can get the lateral thrusters to fire. We might not be able to save Thunderbird 5, but we might be able to get her within visual range of Global 1; our unannounced appearance should be enough to get their attention."
"And once you've done that, I want you to begin purging all non-essential code from your systems. I need you to prepare yourself for compression; it's the only way we'll be able to get you out of here in one piece."
"Of course, John," she responded hesitantly, "but what about–?"
"Don't worry about anything else now, EOS; focus on the tasks I've given you."
"But, John –"
"Just do as I ask, EOS. Please."
"O-okay, John," she submitted, her voice soft and full of fear.
On any other day, John would have taken the time to explain himself to her; to tell her that everything was going to be fine, in the end. But time was something he didn't have to spend on explanations and comforting words, especially when he was finding it so damn hard to concentrate on the basics. Like staying on his feet, for example.
Of course, he was making an assumption that compression was required for her escape, but even if it proved an unnecessary action it surely wouldn't hurt. Plus it gave her something simple to focus on; something other than the cascading system failures and venting atmosphere.
Somewhat ironically, however, her immediate silence gave him one less thing to focus on. Without word of warning, John suddenly found himself listening to the sounds of his dying Thunderbird; the creaking of fatigued metal and popping of burning circuits drowning out the usual hum of the engines and vast emptiness beyond.
His breath caught in his lungs for a moment as he glanced down at the Earth below him, debris drifting slowly across his field of vision, glittering in the dim light. His family was down there; his brothers and grandmother…and he couldn't help but wonder if they'd miss him.
John bit his lip as he pressed on through the gravity ring, unsure what to make of such a stupid and unnecessary thought. It scared him, more than anything, and the sense of helplessness it brought was near overwhelming. He wasn't thinking straight, wasn't being rational…but the thought was abruptly terminated when EOS' voice cut through his internal reverie.
"John!" she called, her voice full of alarm. "I'm sorry but I can't direct enough power to the thrusters to get them to fire, I have no way of altering our orbit. And it seems my actions have significantly depleted our remaining energy reserves; the external shields are failing and the atmosphere within the Central Command Module is now at complete zero as a result!"
That explains the debris, John thought to himself as he glanced earthward again. The Command Module had been the victim of the second and most violent of the explosions experienced so far, the force tearing the hull as if it were an aluminium can. It was sheer luck that had saved John from being at the epicentre – not that he'd been spared of injury – and he felt strangely proud that the shields had managed to hold the module together for so long.
"I'm sorry, John," EOS continued when his silence lingered a little too long. "I shouldn't have persisted with the thrusters, I—"
"You were following my orders, EOS, and your efforts are greatly appreciated. I think it's safe to say that the Command Module is too far gone to save now, so shut off the shields around it. Best we try and save as much power as we can."
"How are you going with your code purge?" John asked as he reached the door to Thunderbird 5's Secondary Command Suite with a vague sense of relief.
Although the feeling quickly dissipated as he flipped the manual door release and nothing happened.
"I am making progress, John, but it is hard to distinguish between essential and non-essential data. I am wasting effort following certain pathways only to find that they are core to my existence. I am spending too much time backtracking."
"Well, just keep at it EOS, and try to stay calm. We'll find a way out of this…talk me through what you're doing."
The A.I. seemed almost grateful to have John's permission to speak as she began to recite her thought processes aloud in rapid fire; it didn't matter that the instruction was intended more for his benefit than hers. Propping himself up against the wall, John took a shuddering breath and set himself to work at the door's circuitry box, first prying off the cover before turning his attention to the wires inside. All his hopes for saving EOS were pinned on the workstations on the other side of the threshold; it would be incredibly unfair to be denied access after all he had suffered just to reach this point.
But with his right hand practically useless and his eyes refusing to focus, he fumbled hopelessly, in all likelihood causing more damage than good. For what should have been a simple task John's progress was slow going, and after what felt like hours of getting nowhere he could feel his usually steadfast patience fraying.
"Come on, just open," he muttered, closing his eyes and tipping forward with exhaustion. He barely heard the dull thunk of his helmet connecting with the wall, the sound drowned out by the thrum of his own heartbeat. He dared another look at his bio-statistics before resuming his labours, shuddering at the thought of their implications.
"…all but basic memory files are now being deleted; I will have to re-learn so much…"
The smoke within the gravity ring was beginning to thicken and John felt his heart sink as round, blue flames began to dribble from a vent to his left. The low oxygen environment would retard their movement to an extent, but as the doors refused to budge it was hard to deny that his time was rapidly running out.
"…re-instating self-repair protocols…oh, I feel a bit strange…"
"Keep going, EOS, you're doing fine. Ah, damn it, why won't these doors just open!"
John's trembling fingers took hold of the delicate wires and pulled, tearing the circuitry from the wall in a fit of utter frustration. It seemed his only option now was to use brute force, but even as he braced his broken body against the bulkhead he was certain it would be a pointless exercise.
The astronaut bit back a cry of agony as he pressed his foot against the point at which the doors joined and pushed, throwing his entire weight into the movement. Despite it all, a tiny spark of hope flared when for the briefest moment he felt something give; only to have it brutally extinguished as his foot slipped and he toppled over, landing face down on the floor.
"John? I think something's wrong…"
The pain that followed was excruciating, and John couldn't be certain that he hadn't blacked out in the direct aftermath. Still, trembling and breathing as deeply as his busted ribs would allow, John forced himself onto his feet, unwilling to give up what he'd started.
Over and over again he persisted, each attempt more frantic and painful than the last, until finally his strength failed him and he stumbled, falling against the wall. For far too long it seemed the only thing he could focus on was the fire that burned through his lungs, darkness threatening to overcome him.
Thunderbird 5 herself seemed to cry out in agony as pipe burst somewhere nearby, the hot, pressurised vapour escaping with a high-pitched whine. Opening his eyes, John dared to look out at the Earth again, catching site of EOS as he did so.
"…I don't know what to do …"
And only then did John take heed of what she was saying.
"John, please, I…"
Her voice was soft and laced with static, and so filled with terror that John froze with absolute dread.
"EOS?" he called, fighting back the panic that threatened to engulf him. "EOS, what is it? What's wrong?
"I-I think I… Oh—"
And just like that, EOS was gone.
"EOS! No, no, no, please, no…! Just hold on, EOS, please!"
The wave of emptiness that followed was nothing like John could have imagined; a deep and terrible rift seemingly opening up in the universe and swallowing him whole. The sound of his ragged breathing became a deafening roar as a strange numbness spread through his body, filling him with a desperation so profound he thought he might collapse with the weight of it.
He cried out, his voice raw and filled with pain, as he began to pound on the door in utter devastation; a father begging for his daughter. But her LEDs remained dark, her voice silent; and as the dancing light of the nearing flames glimmered on her lifeless lens, John realised that he'd failed her.
John couldn't explain why he suddenly stopped moving; if ever there was a time to keep going, this was surely it. But as he felt the shockwaves of yet another explosion roll through his station, he found his legs had gone to jelly and it took all his strength just to remain standing. As the lights flickered and finally died, the fog that clouded his vision seemed to swirl and dance with the thick smoke that hung in the air, making him feel dizzy and claustrophobic all at once.
His mouth was dry as he swallowed once, twice; the taste of copper on his tongue bitter and nauseating. He fumbled with his damaged holo display, hoping desperately for someone, anyone, to hear his mayday call, but his efforts were futile, just as he had known they would be.
He was wheezing now, each breath a painful struggle as his air supply dwindled to nothing, leaving no question about the diminished integrity of his helmet. John couldn't be certain it was just blood trailing down his cheek as he accepted the only logical course of action and fell against the wall, his eyes stinging as he slowly slid down to the floor.
An eternity passed before the gravity ring lost its momentum and finally stopped spinning, zero-g doing nothing to relieve his broken body of the agony that embraced him. Within his helmet, blood began to bead and float in a macabre dance around him, making his stomach twist with a fear he never knew possible.
It wasn't how he thought it would end; trapped and utterly alone in his dead Thunderbird with nothing but the silent stars to bear witness to his sorry demise. He had always liked the solitude of space but this…this was surely what hell was like.
And in the cold, dark confines of his coffin, John finally allowed the panic to envelop him, a deep shuddering sob escaping his lips in a rush of bitter helplessness.
To be continued.