Authors note: Here's the final instalment. I hope you have all enjoyed the story and I have not put you through too much suspense. Thanks to everyone who has sent me reviews, especially if I have not had chance to thank you directly.
Will there be a sequel to this one? I don't know – you'll have to ask my Muse
Voices in the dark
John shivered. When the sun had set he had welcomed the respite from its fierce rays, but now the cold was beginning to bite. He remembered reading that temperatures in the Sahara could drop below freezing at night. He lay looking up at the sky, trying to make out the constellations through eyes swollen from the sun's glare. At least it kept his mind off his parched mouth and aching body.
Suddenly he was aware of someone beside him. A woman, bathed in golden light, was bending over him. With gentle fingers she brushed the hair back from his forehead. 'My poor boy. What has that man done to you?'
'Don't worry, Johnny. You won't have much longer to wait.'
She vanished, leaving John with confused thoughts. Did that mean he was dying? Maybe: he thought he would prefer to die under the stars rather than in the heat of the sun. At least then his family and the secrets of International Rescue would be safe from the Hood.
John was not sure how long he lay there, hovering on the verge of consciousness. Then there was a hiss of air, followed by a thud: another hiss, another thud, then –
"Here he is." Wasn't that Alan's voice?
"God, look at the state he's in." That sounded like Gordon. Two figures with hugely misshapen heads bent over him, blocking out the starlight. Aliens using his brothers' voices? He must be hallucinating again. But no, they were cutting his bonds.
"John, can you hear me?" Gordon's voice again. "We've come to get you out of here."
He moaned as they raised him to a sitting position. "Hang in there, John," said Alan "we know you hurt, but we've got to get you away as quickly as possible. All hell will be breaking loose here in a couple of minutes. Can you get your arms round our shoulders?"
John did as he was told and was half dragged, half carried to the far side of the compound. There his brothers took firm hold and activated their jet-packs, lifting them all over the wall.
Gordon and Alan pushed back their night-vision goggles. Alan lit a torch while Gordon propped John against his chest and produced a bottle of water.. John had never felt such a beautiful sensation as the life-giving fluid tricking into his mouth. "Steady there," said his brother as he tried to take a mouthful and ended up coughing. "Brains warned us we'd have to do this slowly. Your throat is too dry to swallow properly."
Alan meanwhile had been checking his brother for injuries. He lifted his wristcomm. "We've got him Dad! He's pretty dehydrated and burned, and he might have some cracked ribs, but I think he's going to be OK."
"Have you found out who we're dealing with yet?" Scott's voice came over the link.
"No, just about to do that. Hold on." Alan turned to John. "John, we need some information. Just nod or shake your head. Now, we know there are at least two people in the fort. Are there any more?" John shook his head and Alan continued. "Was this a kidnapping for ransom or…" he paused. John was shaking his head vehemently.
"No. Hood." Somehow he managed to get the word out.
Both boys nodded grimly to hear the name of their old enemy. Alan lifted his wristcomm again. "Dad, John confirms there are only two people in the fort – and one of them is the Hood."
"That fiend has attacked my family for the last time." John had never heard his father sound so ferocious. "I'm going to blast him and that girl to kingdom come!"
"No! Phin Li! Save her!"
"But John, she's the one who kidnapped you!" said Gordon, puzzled.John shook his head, struggling desperately to make his cracked lips and swollen tongue form the words. Somehow he must make his brothers understand.
"Are you trying to tell us that she wasn't a free agent?" queried Gordon. John nodded.
"Hang on a minute, Dad, John's got some more information for us. It seems the girl is innocent. He thinks we should save her."
"Is he sure about this?' came Scott's voice. "you know what the Hood is like for laying traps."
John grasped Alan's sleeve, ignoring the pain from his blistered fingers. "Alan, she's Tin Tin's cousin!"
Alan spoke to his watch. "John's pretty adamant about this. I think we should give her the benefit of the doubt. Give me two minutes to get her out."
"FAB," came his brother's reply, "but no more than that. I don't want this bastard getting away from us this time."
As Alan jetted to the top of the wall he reflected on Scott's tone. His brother was in his full beat-the-playground-bully mode. The last time he had heard that was when two crooks had stolen Alan's racing car, leaving him and his grandmother to die on the San Miguel bridge. Scott had chased the villains, driving them off the road.
At the top of the wall, Alan paused on the walkway, adjusting his goggles to infra-red. "I can see two signals," he said into his wristcomm, "one strong signal on the upper floor and a weaker one down at ground level. I'm going to assume that the weaker one is the girl."
"Leave your wristcomm on transmit," came his father's voice; "any sign of trouble and we'll be right there."
Alan dropped down to the ground and ran across the courtyard. Entering the downstairs room he could see the girl sitting in the dark. Even with the night goggles he could see the resemblance to Tin Tin. She made no reaction to the sound of the door opening.
"Come on, Miss, you have to come with me," said Alan.
"My father told me to wait here for his instructions" she answered, without emotion.
"Well, my father has different instructions." He hesitated, then, pulling her to her feet, bent and scooped her up in his arms. She made no struggle, much to his relief. A couple of times he had had to use his fists to knock some sense into male rescue victims who had become hysterical during a rescue, but he had never had to hit a woman yet, and did not want to start with this one. He ran across the courtyard, reaching for the button on his jet-pack. This girl was so light the equipment would be able to lift both of them. A moment later he had landed beside his brothers.
John reached for Phin Li's hand but she did not react to his touch.
"OK, Dad, I'm back. Send in the cavalry."
John heard the sound of engines and turned to see Firefly emerging from behind a sand-dune.
"There goes Dad," said Gordon by way of explanation, as Firefly's cannon blasted away the gates of the fort.
A scream of jets overhead was followed by the rattle of machine-gun fire as the silhouette of Thunderbird One blotted out the stars. "And here's our big brother," added Alan.
In a few minutes the two mighty machines had reduced the buildings inside the compound to rubble. Jeff, his mouth set in a grim line, scanned the site with infra-red but could detect no signs of life. He walked over to the group by the wall as Thunderbird Two landed nearby. "Let's get away from this place."
Come on John," whispered Gordon as Virgil came towards them with a stretcher, "we're taking you home."
Phin Li has been installed in a care home, where John visits her every month. He hopes each time to see some glimpse of the girl he met in Paris, but without success. The best psychiatrists in their field have been able to get nothing from her apart from "I am waiting for instructions from my father " Phin Li will eat, wash and dress herself when told to do so, but the rest of the time just sits quietly in a corner of the lounge. A television is always on for those residents who can make sense of it. No-one has ever noticed that whenever International Rescue is mentioned on the news, the fingers in her lap clench into fists, while in the deep recesses of her mind a fragment of the Hood's soul rants and raves.