This story follows Family Emergency, talking place a few months later. The characters (which are Gerry Anderson's, not mine) have recovered from events in Macedonia, and believe themselves rid of the Hood. By the way, this story was supposed to be posted in chapter format, but I can't seem to locate the files.
Mighty pleased with himself, the good news, and life in general, Gordon Tracy loped out of the mansion's family room and over to the pool deck. He was in a very good mood, which usually meant trouble for someone. Athlete and aquanaut, he was also something of a prankster, and never quiet for long.
TinTin was lying out by the water, he noticed, sun-bathing with a 'New Scientist'magazine at her side and a rolled up towel under her head. She was asleep, and utterly peaceful. Beautiful, too.
Over in the deep end, meanwhile, his brother Alan had passed out on a floating air mattress. The set-up couldn't have been better.
Without a twinge of conscience, or forethought, Gordon pounced on TinTin, lifted her off the chaise lounge, called out,
"Hey, Alan...! Catch!"
...and threw the raging, flailing girl into the pool. She landed squarely on his groggy brother. The air mattress folded in half at once, sending Alan and TinTin to the bottom of the pool. Helpless with laughter, Gordon was unable to defend himself when TinTin leapt clear of the water like a drenched Siamese cat and started punching him.
"You idiot! You total, absolute jerk! You ruined my makeup!"
"Makeup!" Gordon repeated incredulously, ducking a left hook. "Why were y' wearin' makeup in the ... (urf!)... water!"
"I wasn't IN the water!" An upper cut, this time, which Gordon dodged adroitly, only to catch the next one, lose his balance and fall headlong into the pool. Seizing TinTin's arm on the way, he took the squirming girl down with him (much to Alan's amusement). They surfaced moments later, and TinTin resumed hitting him over and over again, shouting,
"I was sunbathing, moron! Working..." (slam!) "...on..." (smack!) "...my..." (thud!) "... tan...!" (wham!)
Still laughing, Gordon shoved her off toward Alan, who tried to duck TinTin underwater. Twisting suddenly, she seized the waist band of Alan's shark-print trunks and yanked violently upward, giving him a vicious wedgie.
Gordon dove out of reach, easily avoiding her lunge. The water was his element. In the water, he could not be caught... unless he wanted to be. But TinTin was not in a playful mood. Splashing toward the ladder, she snarled,
"I'm so glad I'm going to Europe for finishing school! Three more months, and I'll finally be among serious people! People who care about important things!"
"Like fashion and makeup?" Gordon teased, venturing back within reach.
"Urrhh!" She raged. "Three months is too long to be stuck with you two! You're so... so... childish!"
"But TinTin, Angel," Gordon laughed, giving her a mocking pat on the shoulder, "We'd miss you!"
She kneed him in the groin just as hard as she could, then got out of the pool, leaving Gordon and Alan behind in a storm of angry French.
"No fair...," Gordon choked, doubled over and clutching the pool's edge for support, "...bein' cussed out... in a foreign language. I like t' know... what I'm... gettin' called!"
Alan, who'd by now un-wedged himself, floundered over to join his gasping brother, saying, "Dang, Gordon..., I think she's really mad."
"Y' think so...? But why? We were... just havin' ...a little fun."
"I dunno, Man; girls 're like that. Happy as anything one minute, evil little buzz saws the next. Gotta keep an eye on 'em."
"...Which I'll be havin' t' do from Europe," Gordon replied, recalling the reason for his earlier good spirits. "I made the cut."
"Hey!" Alan grinned, "You're going to the Olympics? Congratulations, Dude!"
"Thanks. Touch and go, there, f'r a bit. I thought f'r sure I'd be cut after missing so much of training. Turns out my overall time is still faster than everyone but Royce. And I'm number two, officially, in the 400 meter Individual Medley."
Somewhat recovered now, the two brothers climbed out of the pool, picked up their towels, and limped back to the mansion, still talking shop.
"Good deal, Man," Alan continued. "I'll miss you, though. With you AND TinTin gone all summer, it's sure gonna be dull around here. Nobody to pick on but Scott and Virgil, and they're so easy, it's pitiful."
"Oh, I'll visit," Gordon promised lightly. "Might even drag TinTin along, once or twice. And neither of us 're leavin' till May, anyway. We've plenty of time, still. When I'm not doin' sets, that is...,"
With the Olympics so close, Gordon was beginning to get tunnel vision. He'd increased his distance to fifty miles a week, training relentlessly, and consuming more calories than any three of his brothers combined. Still had a little time to plot mischief with Alan, though. Life was too short not to find out what lay at the other end of TinTin's fuse.
Elsewhere: Clayton Reynolds had a plan. He was a long-time petty criminal with more arrests than successes, no family or friends, and no future. Having refused the state's 12-step rehabilitation program, he couldn't get a job, could not legally buy or sell goods, or even make use of public comm facilities. He was, in short, completely cut off from regular society, alerting scanners all over the city of San Francisco whenever he made a move.
Clayton was growing desperate, willing to take risks that would have seemed like foaming insanity at any other time. A thin, hatchet-faced man with the dead eyes of a sociopath and a permanent, burning hatred of authority, Clayton meant to take one last risk, and let it ride. His ID chip was the big problem, but the chip could be dug out, leaving him untraceable, and without an identity. Why not? He'd already reached the absolute bottom, camped out in the basement of an abandoned building, battling rats and roaches for the scraps tossed out by the local homeless shelter. But all was not lost. Not yet.
He had a blueprint, stolen from a briefcase nearly nine months before; a detailed floor plan of the new Starlight Tower Complex. He'd kept the plans with him all this time, knowing that someday they'd be useful. Well, he was down to his last card, and someday had finally come.
Clayton intended to remove his ID chip, sneak into the Tower's shopping level, rob the stores after closing, then set a fire the next day to cover his escape. It seemed foolproof. Better, to his spiteful and vainglorious way of thinking, it was big. Later, when he'd made his score and gotten away safe, he'd take responsibility for the biggest torching in San Francisco's history, and see the name "Clayton Reynolds" respected at last.
"Yeah...," he muttered to himself, gnawing on his fingernails as he crouched in a square of flickering neon light and studied his precious blueprints, "...it's gonna burn... all of it. All of them. They'll go up like offerings, in my name. Mine. I'm gonna fill the sky with smoke and screams."
That night at dinner, TinTin was decidedly frosty toward Alan and Gordon, choosing a seat beside Virgil instead of her usual position between the younger brothers. They affected not to notice, lest TinTin think that her freeze-out was working.
It was a long, multi-course, semi-formal occasion, as all family dinners were when Jeff Tracy was present. Virgil, Scott, Brains and Jeff wore jackets and ties. (John had the good sense to be elsewhere, and Grandma was bustling about the kitchen, giving Kyrano dozens of contradictory orders and generally getting in the way. Fortunately, he'd the patience of a martyr.)
Determined to impress the boys while still ignoring them, TinTin had put on her best. She looked cool and beautiful in an embroidered silk dress with a golden phoenix pattern against jewel-toned blue. So much for the sophisticates of the family.
Alan had buttoned his shirt, at least, and he wore a belt with his baggy shorts, but his blond hair was spiked straight up, and he'd taken his nightly wardrobe competition with Gordon to an entirely new level, the back of his black shirt featuring a flaming skeleton on a skateboard.
Gordon never put gel in his hair. He spent too much time in the water for any such thing to be practical, and his auburn hair was pretty short right now, anyway. His concession to formality was long pants, his entry in the "who can wear the loudest shirt" competition something he'd picked up at a souvenir shop in Tahiti. A riot of mis-shapen tropical flowers in electric blue and acid orange literally hurt the eye, winning him the night's honors, and the right to order his younger brother to do something really stupid the next day. He usually won these things, having no desire to break another three or four ribs skateboarding off the roof and into the pool, again. Alan had a sick sense of humor.
Their father ignored the on-going shirt wars. Instead, he held forth about the old days of the space program from the head of the table, suffused by the warm glow of candles, mellow brandy, a fine cigar and soft classical music. He had a deep voice, and loved to hear himself talk. ..And talk, and talk.
Meanwhile, Alan was miserable, hardly caring that he'd lost to Gordon for the third night in a row. TinTin was whispering to Virgil, looking at him, laughing at his lame comments like they were funny, or something. Once or twice, she even touched his hand, pretending to reach for the salt cellar at the same time as his wretched big brother did.
Catching Gordon's eye, Alan gestured toward the laughing pair, his face flushed.
"So...?" Gordon replied in a whisper, finishing off his third helping of Beef Bourguignonne. "She's tryin' t' getto you. Have somethin' to eat, and pretend y' don't notice."
"Easy for you to say," Alan muttered, glaring homicidally. Not that TinTin was his girlfriend or anything. Not yet, anyway. He had hopes, though, and seeing her hanging on Virgil's every word like that caused his muscles to bunch and his blood pressure to rise until he thought he was going to explode.
Finally, Alan could take it no longer. The roar of his own hormones drowned everything else out; his brother's advice, his father's droning tale, and his own feeble, teen-aged common sense. Leaping up from his seat, he lunged across the table and shoved poor, unsuspecting Virgil over backward, chair and all. Beef stew and smoked salmon spattered all over the damask table cloth and TinTin's dress, bringing his father's quiet, elegant evening to a crashing end. Virgil surged up to retaliate, of course, dripping gravy and Cabernet Franc. He seized a fistful of Alan's shirt, yanked the boy off his feet and threw him to the floor. Usually calm and even-tempered, Virgil did not react well to painful surprises, such as suddenly wearing his dinner.
Still furious, Alan got halfway up, then hurled himself at Virgil again, sending them both careening into TinTin, whose tight dress hadn't been designed for evasive action.
Gordon and Scott tried to break it up, only making matters worse. Dumping the entire contents of the lemonade pitcher on Virgil probably wasn't such a good idea. Neither was wrestling Alan to the ground in a headlock. Tempers snapped, food went everywhere, and TinTin had to haul Brains to safety after an errant fist sent his glasses flying clear across the room.
It was Jeff who finally restored order, with a single, bellowed command.
All at once, the boys grew very still. Scott made a single, embarrassed effort to right a crystal candlestick, only to have the sagging taper drop off into a soup tureen. The flame went out with a guttering hiss, its smoky demise triggering the fire alarm. Oops.
Their father was clearly enraged; the lines across his forehead looking like they'd been chiseled in with an icepick, the veins in his temples throbbing as though about to burst. Once again, it was going to be a very long, very busy, night.
San Francisco: Elizabeth Barrett Atchinson was sixty-eight years old, and long since widowed. She was a small woman, but unbent; bright of eye and quick of step despite the reading glasses and cane that advancing age had forced her to accept. Although the state would have provided for a comfortable retirement somewhere, playing bingo and crocheting doilies with a lot of napping seniors wasn't for Mrs. Atchinson. She had two good reasons to stay involved in the world; her volunteering, and her young grandson. The chronically under-funded public library needed assistants, and no one was better at shushing loud talkers, flushing the hedges for necking teens, and calling up overdue discs than Mrs. Atchinson. Although thin and fragile as a song bird, she could swing that cane with formidable force, and her scathing lectures had been known to reduce skate punks and thugs to lowered heads and a quiet, "Yes, Ma'am". Volunteering gave her a reason to get up in the morning, but her grandson, William, was her pride and joy. The boy had just turned ten. He looked exactly like his father had at that age, brown hair, grey eyes, snub nose and all.
Every other weekend she took the mid-town street rail to Nob Hill to pick him up at his parents' town house. They'd go to the movies, or to the art museum, or maybe shopping. They were an amusing sight, the stiff, severe old lady and her happy, sprightly grandson, and they brought smiles to all who saw them.
This weekend, Elizabeth Atchinson was taking young William to the mall at the new Starlight Tower Complex. They'd shop for books, she decided, have lunch at the "Overlook", and see that new action movie. And, as always, the day would end too soon. Still, it was worth it. For a few short hours and a bit of modest spending, she could experience the joys of childhood again, with the little fellow she loved most in all the world.
With the ID chip gone, wearing an expensive suit he'd taken from a murdered businessman, Clayton Reynolds walked boldly through the north doors of the Starlight Tower. It wasnear closing time for the stores. All he had to do was take an elevator past the office level, to the restaurant and shopping complex, and try to look like he belonged here. The businessman's wallet had provided more than enough money for a haircut and shave, and he'd been able to bathe at a public restroom. The rest was a matter of projecting the right attitude. If you looked successful enough, and in a sufficient hurry, nobody ever asked questions.
The Tower was a giant spear of glass and titanium-reinforced concrete, rising three-hundred storeys and glittering in the occasional sunshine like ice. It was hollow, actually, with a long, square shaft through the middle that housed a massive, free swinging counter-weight. Otherwise, upper-level winds would have torn the Tower apart. A marvel of engineering, it was one of the tallest buildings in the world, and certainly among the most beautiful. Not that Clayton cared what it looked like. He was very busy with other matters.
There were many banks of elevators, inside and out, so fast your ears popped as you rode to the observation deck. Clayton chose an inner car and got in, looking neither to the right nor the left, as though he did this every day. If anyone wondered, he had a story ready; he'd worked late, and nearly forgotten his wife's birthday again. Had to get a last minute present... or a good divorce lawyer.
The elevator rose, smooth and swift, depositing him on the 251st floor with a little chime and a soft,
"Thank you. Enjoy your experience at the Starlight Tower."
Clayton ignored the mechanized good wishes, stepping out into the shopping mall with his head up. All he had to do now was buy something moderately expensive, lose himself in the crowd, and wait till closing.
"It's not funny, John!" Scott muttered, yanking the scrub brush out of its bucket with a great slosh of dirty water. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to get red wine stains out of a white carpet!"
"Sorry," his brother's picture responded from the mantlepiece, not a bit contrite. Like every other photo and portrait in the mansion, except Mom's, it was capable of acting as a two-way video connection to its subject. Very handy.
With a faint smile, John added, "Better you than me, Scott. I lack your skill at knocking heads together."
"Oh, he'll get his," Scott muttered, attacking the closest stain with vengeful fury. "Little punk's gotten me in trouble for the last time. I'll pound his spiky-haired, CD listening, baggy pants wearing...,"
"Love you, too, Scooter!" Alan called from the other side of the formal dining room, where he and Gordon were hand washing the table cloth in a big plastic tub. Virgil, equilibrium restored, was repainting the walls with great, dramatic brush strokes, humming to himself. He, at least, was making progress. There was no such thing as interior latex rug paint, though, and Scott was by now angry enough to bite steel and spit nails.
Their father's iron-clad rule was: it didn't matter who started the fight, or why. Everyone involved was punished equally. It wouldn't have bothered Scott so much, if he'd actually been fighting, but all he'd done was try to help Virgil...!
Pausing in mid-scrub, Scott growled, "Junior, if I have to come over there, Father 'll need to order a special mission to collect your scattered body parts. Put it another way; shut up, or I'll shoot."
Gordon and Alan glanced at one another over the washtub, as Scott regathered his shredded dignity and resumed talking to John.
"Think he's serious?" Alan ventured, after a moment.
"Best not push it and find out," Gordon replied, adding more Woolite to the wash water. "Detergent fumes have been known t' do strange things to the mind... And you'd better pick up the pace, if we're to have this thing clean by the time Father returns."
Glumly, they went back to scrubbing, ardently wishing for an alert; any alert.
He'd hidden in a janitorial supply closet at the Food Court, safely unnoticed until the shopping sector shut down for the night. It had happened in stages. First the footsteps and conversations had faded, then the electronic, subliminal-message-bearing background music. For a time, other sounds had filled the air; the mechanized buzz and hum of robot cleaning crews, the soft whir of motorized trash cans. Then these, too, had fallen silent. When an hour passed without a single voice or footfall, Clayton checked his watch. 2:10 AM. Still early. There was plenty of time left to do a bit of illicit shopping, then set up a little blaze.
Cautiously, he cracked the door a bit and peered through. Nothing. The Food Court was still and deserted. With gathering confidence, Clayton opened the door all the way, and ventured forth. He had the run of the place. Without a chip, he triggered no sensors, and none of the stores had gates or bars to prevent entry.
A regular citizen, here to shop legally at normal hours, would be allowed to pick up displayed merchandise and wander freely from one emporium to the next. Only when the shopper passed the sensor stations at the mall exits would his or her account be billed for whatever they'd taken, the information transmitted, once again, via the chip. A very reliable system... usually.
Clayton began with the jewelry stores, plucking the choicest gems from their velvet nests, filling his pockets with gold, diamonds, emeralds and platinum. Blithely unaware of his presence, the security cameras never came on, not did the alarm systems shrill out any warning of the mall's unwanted guest. Only if he went past the outer sensors with tagged merchandise and no chip would there be trouble, and Clayton had no intention of doing anything that stupid.
All was silent as the arsonist moved on to a fancy cigar shop, where he rifled dozens of boxes for the most expensive imports he could find. After that, "The Sharper Image" yielded up a handful of staggeringly over-priced gadgets meant to let everyone know just how wealthy, busy and successful one really was. Store after store was plundered of its smallest, most valuable articles; enough to quite fill the two alligator bags he'd lifted from a handy luggage stand. Clayton would have liked to take more, but time was passing, and he still had a fire to set. After all, the shopping spree meant nothing if he didn't get away with the goods.
Sitting at a Food Court booth with a cup of strong coffee, Clayton consulted his blueprints. He'd fetched along some dearly-bought plastic explosives, and there was plenty here that would burn. All he needed to do was decide where best to set his charges, and how to disable the sprinkler system. Enjoying himself, Clayton worked far into the night, eagerly anticipating the chaos and terror to come.
Morning arrived, dank and foggy, and the day shift began flocking to the Bayview district and the Starlight Tower; office workers, security personnel, managers and food handlers, all the folk whose daily lives proudly revolved around San Francisco's newest landmark. It was something, to be able to say, "I work at the Tower." Rumor had it that WNN was even planning to move its offices into the highest storey. Nor was business its only draw.
Tourists came from all over the world, to shop, eat, take in the view from the observation deck and get a souvenir holograph. There were locals, as well. Mrs. Atchinson and young William were among the first to enter the mall that day, and they were far from alone.
A bit of a to-do developed almost immediately. Merchandise was missing from some of the stores, it seemed, and an early morning security guard was found dead in a stairwell, his uniform and weapons gone. These matters were investigated, discreetly, but the true seriousness of the situation wasn't realized until seven carefully-timed explosions shook the 251st floor, knocking people to the ground and shattering windows. Startled, shoppers, tourists and workers picked themselves up, looked around, and wondered what had happened. Then someone smelled smoke.
Clayton's plan worked very well, indeed. Not only the sprinkler systems, but the fire alarms had been disabled, so at first the other floors had no inkling of their danger. It took several cell-phone calls before the San Francisco Fire Department realized what had happened, and by then the cleverly spaced explosives and accelerants had done their work; the mall was a roaring inferno.
Taking William's hand, Mrs. Atchinson instinctively sought safety by going higher. She knew better than to try the elevators; electrical power was apt to fail during a fire, converting the lift into a stalled death trap. Instead, they joined the hundreds of frantic others taking the stairs to the roof, or tried to. It was a dense and pushy crowd, very difficult for an elderly lady and a small boy to negotiate. Mrs. Atchinson made light of the matter, for William's sake. Worried by all the noise and confusion, he asked,
"Grandma, what's going on?"
She gave him a warm smile. "A bit of adventure, William. Something to tell the class about, come Monday. We'll go to the roof and be lifted off by the firemen, and you'll have a story with which to amaze your parents. Come along, then. Up we go!" And she pushed a way into the stairwell, helped along briefly by a young shop clerk whom she quite forgave the scruffy 'soul patch' and tattoo.
Giving her hand a squeeze as they made their way up the stairs, William said, voice as firm and positive as his dad's,
"Don't worry, Grandma. I know just what to do in a fire. They taught me at school, ages ago! Keep under the smoke, don't try to hide in a closet, and, um..., stop, drop, and roll."
Mrs. Atchinson smiled at him. "An expert! And all this time I'd thought modern education had quite gone south! Well, you remind me again if it comes to such a pass, William. For now, though, let us save our breath for climbing. We've a great many landings, yet."
"Okay, Grandma! Just wait till Mrs. Fowler hears about our trip! She'll be really glad I listened, huh?" Only after ten flights of stairs did his energy start to flag.
The San Francisco Fire Department didn't call for help directly, but Thunderbird 5's computer filters picked up their internal transmission almost immediately, and tagged it for special attention.
John listened intently, leaning back in his seat, arms folded across his chest. Since the near-disaster in Macedonia, he'd become extremely cautious, checking and rechecking each distress call. This one passed every scan; location, transmission frequency and local news verification. Deciding that he had a legitimate emergency on his hands, John called in.
Virgil was at the desk this time, working on a sketch pad, with his feet propped up. His brown hair was a bit mussed, and his dark eyes a little reddened, but otherwise, the third Tracy showed no ill effects from a night spent painting walls.
"Hey, John," he greeted his ice-blond older brother. "What's up?" Almost casually, Virgil elbowed an ashtray out of the portrait comm's line of sight. He'd promised to quit smoking, but unlike Scott, who'd resorted to hypnosis, Virgil just couldn't seem to part with his Marlboros. Didn't much like being pestered about it, though.
Thankfully, John seemed not to have noticed. He said, after acknowledging Virgil's greeting,
"The San Francisco Fire Department is calling all units to respond to a high-rise fire in the Bayview region; Starlight Tower. They suspect arson. The lower storeys are being evacuated, but the people above the 251st floor appear to be trapped . Wind conditions won't allow a helicopter rescue, and the firefighters can't get through from below. They've already sustained serious casualties trying."
Virgil removed his boots from the desk and sat up. Setting aside a half-finished sketch of the mountains, he said,
"Looks like we've got work to do. Send the information, John, and I'll get the crew together."
"Right," John replied with a nod. "I'll be in touch, periodically, as I learn more. In the meantime, don't do anything I wouldn't do..., like smoke."
Busted. Smiling ruefully, Virgil promised yet again. "Quitting tomorrow, for sure. I mean it, this time." Then he hit the general alert button, summoning everyone from Father to TinTin back to the office.
San Francisco: The observation deck was terribly windy. Odd how that had never seemed worrisome before, Mrs. Atchinson thought, turning her face away from a sudden, smoky gust. She'd rigged a mask of sorts for William, out of her handkerchief. It helped, somewhat. There were several hundred people packed onto the roof, waiting with diminishing hope for one of the circling helicopters to dart in and take on passengers. Pulling the boy close, Elizabeth Atchinson braced herself against another powerful blast.
"They can't land, can they, Grandma?" William asked her, raising his voice to be heard above the crowd. He was calmer than she would have expected, and that, strangely, tore at her heart more than tears would have.
"Well," she began gently, giving his shoulder a comforting pat, "They have to wait for the wind to die down a bit, don't they? Once the weather calms, they'll swoop over and pick everyone up. Home in time for supper, I assure you."
He believed her, being still young enough to consider his beloved grandmother the final authority on everything. Shielding his little face as best she could with a corner of her hound's-tooth coat, Mrs. Atchinson gazed up at the clattering, circling helicopters, and began to pray.
Tracy Island: Back at the office, Jeff Tracy considered the data streaming across his computer screen, as his team crowded around for a look.
"Let's see..., wind gusts up to sixty-five miles an hour..., strong thermal updrafts..., no room for even a one-skid helicopter landing...,"
"And a probable panicked rush even if a 'copter did manage to touch down," Scott added soberly, looking over his father's shoulder. "People could get killed or pushed off the building just trying to reach the aircraft."
"So, what do we do?" Virgil asked, looking around at the others. "How do we get them to safety? Thunderbird 2 can handle the wind, no problem, but to take people off, she's gotta land, doesn't she?"
"M-Maybe not, Virgil," Brains replied thoughtfully, biting at the end of a pen. As the team's engineer, he knew the capabilities of each 'Bird, and how to adjust the craft in a hurry. "I-if we, ah..., if we m-modify pod 4, s-so that it, ah... it can l-lower a wide enough r-ramp from un-underneath, people c-could, ah... could walk up the r-ramp while Th-Thunderbird 2 hovers j-just overhead w-without much, ah... much crowding. W-worth a t-try, I, ah... I think."
"Might do...," Gordon cut in, frowning, "But, how much room would the ramp need? Could enough space be cleared f'r it?"
"Perhaps," Jeff mused, "but we'd need to winch someone down to keep order and back people away, first." Coming to one of the lightning decisions he was famous for, the elder Tracy said,
"It's a go. Scott, launch immediately and head for San Francisco. Set up Mobile Command as near as you safely can to the Tower. Take Alan with you. Do you both good to spend some quality time."
"Yes, Father," Scott mumbled, his enthusiasm at roughly the 'I've just been handed a moldy sardine' level.
Proceeding as calmly as if he'd no idea what was going through his eldest son's mind, Jeff said,
"Establish contact with the Fire Chief as soon as you get there. Let him know what we're planning."
"On my way, Sir." Giving his father and brothers a quick nod, Scott strode over to an illustrated wall panel. Just above his head a pair of decorative brass lamps contained cleverly hidden switches. When pressed, the switches confirmed his ID, triggering the panel to pivot, and depositing him on the other side of the office wall.
No teak screens, oriental statuary, or heavy furniture here. The room Scott stepped into was a giant hangar, dominated by the sleek, towering spear of Thunderbird 1. Bathed in floodlights, the rocket hummed with barely restrained power. More than just beautiful, it was lightning turned into steel, the very embodiment of speed.
Scott quickly reached the end of the hangar walkway, where he was scanned yet again, from top to toe. Beside Hackenbacker, only Scott Tracy was allowed to fly Thunderbird 1. Anyone else who made the attempt, and somehow got this far, would have been stunned unconscious by a massive jolt of electricity and taken up to the office by Brains' robot security force. Knowing all this, Scott stood very still as a series of genetic and back-scatter radar scans confirmed his identity, and made certain he wasn't being forced into the craft at gunpoint.
Satisfied, the walkway at last extended itself, bridging about fifty feet of emptiness, and bringing him to the cockpit hatch. The door hissed open like a serpent, and Scott stepped briskly within.
A fresh uniform awaited him there, but first he sat down in the pilot's seat, proudly running a hand along the vertical flight controls.
Scott wasn't fanciful, having been taught from boyhood that a man worked hard, followed the instructions of his superiors to the letter, and never complained; but Thunderbird 1 was his fortress. Here he was confident, his piloting and leadership skills unquestioned. Here he didn't follow orders, he gave them. And it felt very good, indeed.
Scott was suited up and running through the last of the pre-flight checklist by the time Alan peeked through the hatch.
"Uh..., Hey, Scott. Where d'you want me?" His youngest brother asked nervously, looking as though he expected to be kicked.
"In the hold," Scott grunted, eyes on the readouts. "You'll find a couple of pull-down seats with safety harness on the inner bulkhead. Don't touch the Mobile Command gear. Some of that stuff's pretty sensitive."
"Okay. I'll, uh... see you again when we get to the danger zone, I guess."
Scott nodded briefly, then returned to work, barely glancing aside when Alan entered and climbed below. They'd be launching in minutes, and everything had to be perfect.
When the wall panel clicked shut, Jeff turned to face his remaining sons.
"Virgil, Gordon, stand by in Thunderbird 2. You'll launch as soon as Brains has finished work on the pod. He'll be going with you, to assist and trouble-shoot."
"Yes, Father," Virgil replied seriously. Then, giving his young co-pilot a friendly shove in the right direction, he added, "Let's go, Kid. Show time."
Soon they, too, had left the office; Virgil through his own trick wall panel, Gordon more precipitously, taking a set of maintenance access stairs two at a bound. Brains had departed as well, using his PDA to type instructions to the swarm of construction robots that handled vehicle maintenance and upgrade.
Now only TinTin remained. A little hurt, for she considered herself more than the equal of any male, and hated being left behind, the girl said,
"And what of me, Mr. Tracy? What shall I do?"
Jeff glanced up from his data screen, frowning slightly.
"Oh..., TinTin. Right. Take the engineering station. I want the performance of both aircraft closely monitored; especially that of Thunderbird 2. San Francisco is a major city, and this mission will be witnessed by thousands of by-standers. Nothing must be allowed to go wrong. If anything happens, determine the correct on-site response, and call over at once. I want the situations handled before they have a chance to turn into problems. Understood?"
"Yes, Sir...," TinTin replied, a little unhappily. Flying a desk wasn't what she'd had in mind.
Meanwhile, an enormously powerful crawler lowered Thunderbird 1 from hangar level to launch pad in a scant five minutes. Scott's attention flashed swiftly from one heads up display to the next; weapons, reactors, avionics and scanners... all showed green, as did each of the many ancillary systems he had to keep track of during flight. So far, so good.
Nodding to himself, Scott strapped in and triggered the launch sequence. Far overhead, klaxons blared like old-time air raid sirens, warning any stubborn, last-minute bathers to take cover. Precisely ten minutes later the pool drained violently into several large holding tanks, then began a slow, rumbling slide beneath the deck. Sunlight flooded the cockpit, blinding him briefly. Then the windows compensated by darkening just a bit, allowing Scott to read his instruments. He flipped several switches in a row, heard and felt the engines roar to life.
Brains had designed Thunderbird 1 to move, building what amounted to a tiny cockpit squeezed between a great big gun and the mightiest engines on the planet. All that power wasn't easy to control (truthfully Thunderbird 1 was a pig to fly, and would have dropped like a stone without constant computer trim adjustments)... but it sure was fun.
The launch computer completed its countdown. Belching flame like an erupting volcano, the engines opened up all the way, and Thunderbird 1 catapulted into the sky, shaking the entire island.
Once the worst of the noise and vibration stopped, and he'd climbed to about thirty-thousand feet, Scott hit the comm switch.
"Thunderbird 5, from Thunderbird 1. Switching to Horizontal flight mode. You with me, John?"
His brother's face appeared on one of the forward view screens, calm and unruffled as ever. "Go ahead, Scott."
"I'm away. Estimated time to arrival in San Francisco...,Twelve minutes."
"Got it, Scott. Virgil's right behind you. He and Gordon will be up in another five minutes, at most. Also..., there's some commercial airline activity at that altitude. Suggest you climb to forty-thousand, then make a direct descent over the danger zone. I'll keep you off radar, but there's nothing I can do about visuals."
"F.A.B. Thanks, John. Let 'em know I'm coming straight down, would you? I hate being fired on." Before resigning his commission at his father's request, Scott had flown an F-21 fighter jet for the US Air Force, and old reflexes died hard. John smiled.
"They'll be expecting you. Fly safe."
"Right. I'll call in again on short, close and final."
He pressed a button, and the screen switched back to an outside view. Meanwhile, responding to Scott's command, the rocket began to level out, switching from vertical thrust to the faster, and more difficult to maintain, horizontal flight. The pilot's seat was gyro-stabilized and mounted on gimbals. Fortunately. Otherwise, Scott would have found himself attempting to fly at some mighty peculiar angles.
Taking John's advice, he climbed to forty-thousand, then leveled off completely, throttled forward, and blazed for the distant mainland.
Cindy Taylor pushed through the double doors to the station manager's glassed-in office, wondering what puffy, no-stress, milk run he was planning to send her on, this time.
"You rang?" She grumped, a bit more sarcastically than she'd intended. It had been over a month now, since the business in Macedonia. You'd have thought they'd trust her not to crack when presented with something meatier than a local dog show.
Jake Hall straightened from the new opening graphics he'd been examining. Spotting Cindy, he stubbed out a cigarette and jerked his thumb at the picture window. (Jake was not what you'd call a nice guy, really, but good at his job. He'd been with WNN far longer than with any of his last four wives. Balding, ulcerous and slightly overweight, he conserved words and gestures like they cost him money.)
"Fire at the Starlight Tower. Want it?"
"I'm there, Jake. Thanks." As she turned to sprint for the doors, her boss added,
"Dianne is free. I'll have her m..."
Cindy paused in mid-stride, bracing herself against the frosted glass door. Dark eyes narrowing, she told him, firmly,
"No, thanks. I'll get a tripod and handle my own filming. I don't need any help."
Fists on his hips, Jake attempted to stare her down. When that failed, he tried reason.
"Look, Taylor; no one can adjust the camera for quick shots alone. Now..., you want therapy, or the story?"
Flushing, Cindy snapped,
"No therapy, no coddling, and no cameraman! I'll be fine, dammit!"
Jake turned away, shrugging.
"Suit yourself. But if I get a crappy story, you get six months of beauty pageants and local color."
Giving him her best swift, artificially bright smile, Cindy stalked through the doors.
"No more 'boss of the year' mugs for you, Mister!" She called over one shoulder. Then, after picking up her equipment and signing out a van, she was on her way.
Approaching San Franciso:
When he reached the coast of Northern California, Scott hit the comm to John.
"Thunderbird 5, from Thunderbird 1. I'm approaching the danger zone, maintaining an altitude of forty thousand feet. Beginning descent... now."
"F.A.B., Scott," John responded after a moment. Judging from the view screen images on the bulkhead behind him, there was a flood going on in Southeast Asia, somewhere. "The Fire and Police Departments have cleared you off a supermarket parking lot. I've uploaded the coordinates. Your contact is Chief DiMarco. I've been talking to him, and he's willing to cooperate. Says it's getting pretty bad up there."
Replied Scott, as he triggered up the impeller field and began firing retro rockets to brake his plunge,
"Then we'd better make this happen, ASAP." There was a slight edge to his voice, and a bit of tension in his face as Scott brought Thunderbird 1 rumbling down toward San Francisco. For the sake of his mother, whom he'd been far too young to save, Scott Tracy couldn't allow himself to lose even one victim. Switching comm settings, he snapped,
"Thunderbird 2, from Thunderbird 1. Virgil, what's your ETA?"
His brown-eyed brother appeared on screen at once, looking serious, yet far more at peace than Scott ever did. He was holding Thunderbird 2's steering yoke perfectly steady, with the throttles pushed all the way forward; clearly wringing out every bit of speed her massive engines could offer. Behind him, Gordon was eating something and consulting with Brains.
"We'll be on-site in..., fifteen and three-quarters minutes, Scott," Virgil responded. " Won't be putting down, this time, so I don't need landing clearance, but those helicopters have gotta go."
"Right. I'll pass that along. Make it quick, Virge. Time's running out."
For the second time in a little over a month, Cindy Taylor watched Thunderbird 1 touch down. In moments, it grew from a tiny speck, smaller than the charm on her bracelet, to full, earth-shaking size. The landing skids came out, and the big rocket braked in a storm of hot wind and billowing smoke. By this time her camera had lost picture. No surprise there. Cindy turned the thing off and watched with the rest of the cordoned-off crowd, as Chief DiMarco ran across the parking lot, one hand at his helmet brim. All at once, Cindy shut off her microphone with a mumbled excuse and stopped reporting. The whole scenario..., the rocket touching down, the surging, shouting reporters, someone rushing toward the descending pilot..., it reminded her sickeningly of another situation in Macedonia, and of what had happened next.
'Maybe Jake's right...,' Cindy thought to herself, growing depressed, suddenly, 'maybe I do need therapy.' Not that she'd ever admit it to him.
Meanwhile, after warning Alan in the sternest possible tones to stay safely hidden, Scott disembarked. The fire chief hurried forward, shook his hand, and immediately started talking, squinting through the swirling, ashen wind. He was a stocky man with a big moustache, grey-haired and dark-eyed.
"Glad to have your help, Son," he told Scott, "Chief DiMarco, S.F.F.D. The bottom storeys 're completely evacuated now, but the fire's still out of control. We're shooting water in as high as we can go, and a couple of heli-tankers are on their way. We need a plan to get those folks off the roof, though. What've you got for us?"
"I'm going to set up a command center here, Chief. My teammates will arrive in a few minutes, and they'll do the heavy lifting. First thing we need to do is order those helicopters back, so Thunderbird 2 can get in. Might want to warn the people on the roof first, so they don't think they're being deserted."
The chief nodded briefly, answered a call on his radio, then said, "I don't think they'd give up on us that quick, Son; come hell, high water or earthquakes, we get the job done, and everyone knows it. Never too proud to accept a little help, though." With a couple of quick radio commands, DiMarco cleared away the swarming police and news helicopters, then got back to business. And high overhead, wrapped in searing flame and cloaked in smoke, the Tower continued to burn, roaring and snapping like an activevolcano.
While the chief orchestrated the fire-fighting effort, Scott set up Mobile Command, International Rescue's portable field headquarters. He'd just gotten his instrumentation and comm systems on line when Thunderbird 2 showed up, her speed and size creating a pressure wave that would have scattered the circling helicopters like autumn leaves. She came to a whooshing halt about two hundred yards over the tower, hovering in midair with all the aptness of a soaring hippo. A green one.
As delicately as possible, Virgil dropped to within a hundred feet of the observation deck. Outwardly calm, he was tense as a watch spring inside, eyes never leaving the shifting altimeter. One wrong move and his steering rockets would torch a great smoking swathe through the crowd below.
"Easy does it, Big Girl...," he whispered. "Slow and easy."
Gordon was already in position and ready to go, wearing a stout harness and steel-cable tether. Once Virgil brought them low enough, he'd step out through the forward hatch, and Hackenbacker would winch him down to the deck. Looking out through the open hatch, he saw an ocean of upturned, hopeful faces, but not much space. Brains, too, was watching.
"Ah..., a-about twenty more f-feet, Virgil. We've, ah..., we've cable enough to d-drop now, but if, ah..., if the w-wind has a ch-chance to catch G-Gordon on the w-way down, he'll sw-swing like a pendulum, and h-hit an antenna, or s-something."
"F.A.B., Brains. Twenty more feet." Virgil responded tensely, easing her down inch by cautious inch. He popped another stick of spearmint gum in his mouth, wishing vainly for a cigarette, and brought Thunderbird 2 as low as he dared. Then, hitting the comm to Hackenbacker, he called out,
"That's gonna have to do it, Brains. Any lower and someone's hair's gonna catch fire."
"G-got it, Virgil. I'm, ah..., I'm sending Gordon down n-now."
Turning away from the bulkhead comm unit, Brains gave Gordon a thumbs-up signal, got a breezy wave in return.
'Well', Gordon thought, as Virgil would have put it, 'show time.'
Giving the tether a final, quick tug, he stepped out into nothingness, plunged about six feet, then was brought up short and sharp by the harness. Almost immediately, he began to spin, knocked this way and that by the swirling air currents between the burning building and Thunderbird 2's great, flat belly. Keeping his eyes fixed on the tilting horizon, Gordon concentrated fiercely on not being sick. Then the winch started up. He swung, spun, and dropped, half-deafened by the combined roar of Thunderbird 2's steering rockets, the fire, and the surging crowd below. A sudden violent wind gust caught him, threatening to swing Gordon out over three hundred storeys of empty space. At the last minute something hooked his harness. Risking a quick glance downward, Gordon saw three burly men and an elderly lady hauling at the end of a cane. Working together, they dragged him back from the teeth of the murderous gale. Dozens of willing hands reached up, took hold, and eased him to the dubious safety of the roof top.
"Thanks," Gordon told them, really meaning it. Then, once he'd determined that his legs would hold him, he tapped his wrist comm.
"Virgil, Brains, I'm down."
"Good job, Kiddo," his brother replied, looking deeply relieved. "Tell them what's going on, clear me some room to lower the ramp, and we'll get started."
"F.A.B., Virgil. I've got this." Turning to face the dirty, worried crowd, he shouted, "Folks, I need you t' back away from this side of the building. Set on each other's shoulders if y' have to, but I need about a hundred square feet at th' edge here. We're lowerin' a ramp t' take you aboard."
Funnily enough, there was little shoving, and almost no panic. Gordon had always heard that people in danger became hysterical and unruly (...and the drowning ones certainly did...), but these folks remained calm, even helping those too tired or frightened to move. In less than fifteen minutes, he had his hundred feet.
"Ready, Virgil." He called up. "Lower away."
Scott had been following all this from the parking lot below, relaying the occasional message from Thunderbird 5, or the island base, to Virgil. All was going well. It appeared that they'd clear the roof just before the fire ate its way to the top. It was going to be close, but...,
Suddenly, Scott received a startling update from John. Glancing over at the mob behind the police line, he replied,
"You're kidding. Where?" Then, "Right. Got it." Taking a deep breath, Scott stood up. "Back in a minute, Virge," he radioed over to Thunderbird 2, then strode across the warped concrete.
Moments later he stood before Cindy Taylor, surprised by how good it felt to see her again.
"Hey!" he said, for want of anything cleverer.
"Hi, Hollywood." She gave him a little wave, and a crooked smile. He smiled back. Even sooty, she was beautiful. He felt like he'd been punched.
"Nice to see you again."
"Mm-hmm. Me, too."
Drumming his fingers against the wooden barricade, Scott told her,
"Listen, I haven't got time to talk, here...,"
"Oh, sure, I understand. I wasn't thinking you'd...," She didn't get a chance to complete that statement, because Scott reached across, seized her by the waist, and lifted Cindy clear over the barricade.
"I've got to get back to work. Come on. Just don't take any pictures or notes, alright? "
Almost too dazed to respond, Cindy nodded wordlessly, and followed. She hadn't really expected to see him, this time. Surely an organization as big and well-run as International Rescue had more than just a handful of pilots? Yet, here he was, and she didn't know whether she wanted to kiss him, or cry. Both, maybe.
"John spotted you," Scott was telling her. "He always scans the crowds for weapons and cameras, and keeps me alerted to anything dangerous. Not that you're..., you know..., deadly, or anything. He just thought I'd, um... be inter... That I'd like to know."
They'd reached Mobile Command by then, saving Scott further embarrassment. He really didn't seem to know what he wanted to say. To cover his awkwardness, he began explaining the command center's many functions... But it wouldn't have mattered if he'd been lecturing on the history of polar exploration, in Swahili. Cindy was more than content just to stand there and look at him, nodding occasionally, just as if she had any interest at all in what this flashing indicator or that buzzing alarm meant.
Then the Fire Chief raced over, face pale and concerned. His first words broke the spell, snapping both of them back to reality.
"...Didn't manage to get through until just a few minutes ago. Low battery, probably. They're trapped in an elevator on floor two-seventy-one. Is there anything you can do? It's a family. There's a kid in there!"
Scott's face went suddenly grim. Touching a button on his portable console, he said,
"Virge, we've got serious trouble!"
Virgil unstrapped and stood up, calling for Hackenbacker, who was still down in the pod, settling refugees.
"Brains!" He shouted, "I need you up here, now!"
The engineer assented at once, squinting worriedly over the comm. A few moments later, he was back in the cockpit.
"Ah..., V-Virgil, it's..., Ah..., it's not s-safe to leave civilians a-alone in the pod. Someone c-could fall out, or t-touch the wrong switch. I sh-should really b-be, ah..., be down there."
Virgil, meanwhile, had been yanking equipment out of a bulkhead supply closet; air masks, motorized climbing harnesses, and rope; hundreds of feet of rope. He replied, tersely,
"They'll just have to mind themselves. Got a family trapped in the building, still. Twenty or thirty minutes to work, if that. Get the last few people on board, and hold her steady for me. Back in a flash."
Hackenbacker nodded. "F.A.B., Virgil. I'll, ah..., I'll inform G-Gordon."
Virgil raced out the rear cockpit hatch without another word, slid down a steep flight of metal stairs, and into pod 4. He barely noticed all the people. Sitting about the pod's ballroom-sized deck in quiet huddles, wrapped in blankets and drinking bottled water by the gallon, most were too weak with relief at being rescued to do more than smile and call out their thanks.
Virgil nodded, waved, and engaged in the finest example of broken-field running San Francisco had ever witnessed. He would have done the Forty-Niners proud. Reaching the ramp at last, he sped down to the roof, fighting a hot, gale-force cross wind the whole way.
Gordon was at the bottom, directing traffic. Only a few dozen men remained on the observation deck behind him, awaiting their turn to come aboard. Security guards, mostly, and some upper-level building maintenance personnel. Responsible enough to manage their own way up, all of them.
Reaching his younger brother, Virgil drew him aside and explained the situation in swift, urgent tones. He was proud to see that the kid never hesitated.
"Right, then," Gordon responded, taking his share of the climbing gear from Virgil. "Let's be off."
Together, they hurried across the smoky roof toward a set of access doors. The elevator in question had stopped between floors Two-seventy, and Two-seventy-one. Virgil didn't mean to walk all that way, though. Thirty-something flights of stairs would take much too long. He had a better plan.
Alpine and wilderness rescue were his specialty, and as far as Virgil was concerned, climbing out of an elevator shaft with injured tourists wasn't much different from getting a fallen hiker off a mountainside. Except for all the smoke.
He and Gordon raced along the upper lift terminal, reading the numbers beside each set of shiny bronze doors. Finally, they located the right one.
"Here it is!" Gordon called, from about thirty feet further left. "Number seven!"
Virgil joined his brother just as Gordon got his cutting tools out and began slicing a way through the sealed doors. Keenly aware that the clock was ticking, and the ravenous fire below clawing its way higher with each moment that passed, the two brothers cut away most of the heavy metal doors, then peered into the smoky darkness of the shaft.
"I see them," Virgil grunted. "On top of the elevator car, three of 'em. They've gotten the escape hatch open. Good work."
Now to figure out how to get them to safety. Modern lifts were mag-lev. They had no cables, depending instead on great teams of electromagnets to accelerate and brake the cars. In an emergency power outage like this one, the sudden electricity failure would instantly trigger the inflation of a big rubber safety gasket, sealing the car in place. In this case, the gasket had caught the lift car between floors. Worse, with all the doors emergency sealed, there was nothing for the trapped family to do but climb to the roof of the car and wait for rescue. Virgil made a mental note to design something better, then cast about for a means to anchor a line.
Gordon broke the lock on a maintenance closet, coming back with a tall aluminum-alloy ladder. Virgil shook his head.
"Not long enough, even fully extended."
"Not what I had in mind. Look, there's a ledge about the inside of the shaft at each floor, so someone could climb up the emergency ladder and creep their way over t' the doors. See it?"
"So, if we lay the step ladder across, like this...," Gordon set the thing down by the ruined doors, eyeballed the distance, made a quick adjustment, then let it fall across, bridging the two sides of the shaft with a sharp, metallic clatter. "... We've got a cross beam. Now y' can fasten the line."
Virgil cuffed the back of his head, smiling.
"Not bad, Kiddo." Then, a little uncertainly, "Think it'll support our weight?"
"One of us, maybe..., carryin' a single passenger. I'll go. I'm down t' 165, with all the laps I've been doin'. You've gotta be..., what, 200...?"
"210," Virgil admitted regretfully, as Gordon strapped on an air mask. "Okay. You're on. Just be careful, got it? This isn't the way that ladder's meant to be used. Sideways, it may not be very strong. Something happens, get the hell off, in a hurry."
"Right." Stepping cautiously onto the creaking ladder, Gordon walked out to the halfway point, then crouched down and pulled at his harness's tethering hook. It was a powerful, spring-locked, steel carabiner, capable of supporting six hundred pounds. Fastened between the carabiner and the harness's mechanized reel, he had hundreds of meters of thin, braided steel cable.
Gordon fastened the line to the ladder's underside, then continued across to the back end of the shaft as Virgil held down his end of the ladder, which was threatening to tip.
At the back of the shaft a long set of evenly spaced metal brackets formed a utilitarian emergency ladder. He didn't mean to climb all the way down, though. Just far enough to get below the ladder, playing the line out as he went.
Gordon gave himself five feet, crossed himself, then kicked free of the wall. The set-up held. The aluminum ladder squealed and vibrated briefly, but neither bent nor snapped.
Donning the leather gloves Virgil had provided, Gordon took hold of the line, squeezed a trigger on the harness, and dropped down the shaft like Spiderman.
In moments, he'd reached the stalled lift car. A little blonde, all of four, maybe, was bouncing up and down and clapping her hands.
"Yay! I told you, Mommy! I told you, Daddy!" She called through the cloth mask her parents had tied over her mouth and nose. "I told you they'd come get us!"
Her father coughed agreement through a mask of his own. He was a big man; nearly three hundred pounds, Gordon estimated, with a sinking heart. As the fellow shook his hand, and the little girl hugged his waist, Gordon said,
"I'm with International Rescue. I'm here t' take you t' safety. Be a couple of trips, though."
The man nodded. He seemed to be smiling anxiously, but the T-shirt mask made it hard to be certain.
"Sounds good to me, Fella. Thanks for coming. Name's Connors..., Mark Connors. Take Erin and Emmy first, will you?"
Gordon assented, took his first good look at the man's wife, and realized why they hadn't tried to climb. Her loose, billowy shirt failed to hide the curve of her belly, which she stroked tenderly. Gordon was no doctor, but he judged her to be about five or six months along, and in no condition for heavy exercise, or smoke. Removing his air mask, he offered it to her.
"I c'n take you, and the little one, at one go I think, Ma'am. But I'll have t' come back f'r your husband. Ready?"
She bit her lip and nodded, tucking a strand of light-brown hair behind one ear. A last, lingering kiss and hug for her husband, and then she put on the mask and bent a little, just low enough to scoop up her daughter.
"Come on, Emily. Hang on tight to Mamma, now. And don't worry, everything's going to be just fine."
Emily couldn't have been less concerned if she'd been frisking around at a class picnic. Squeezing her mother tight, the little girl told her,
"Mommy, stop worrying! I'm okay! Let's go up! And up, and up, and up and...!"
Wondering whether he'd ever been that annoying, Gordon got an arm about the two of them, glanced upward, and braced himself. Then he triggered the harness reel. The cable began to retract, hauling Gordon and his passengers clear of the lift. After a moment, though, he stopped.
"Ma'am," he said, on a sudden notion, "if y'r willing t' give y'r husband the mask, he c'n start climbin', and meet me on the way back."
She agreed instantly, as did Connors. The mask was handed over, then Gordon hit the trigger again. The trip back up seemed to take forever. He could feel every sway and creak of the ladder through the straining line, smoke stung his throat, and the little girl, Emily, kept wriggling.
Finally, they reached the top. A hand-over-hand scramble got them onto the vertical escape ladder, where Gordon was able to set Mrs. Connors and Emily down for a bit. They were just below the make-shift aluminum 'cross beam', across from the doors.
Time for stage two. Gordon fielded the harness that Virgil threw him, then picked Emily up again, hooking one arm through the wall ladder. Working carefully, he strapped the harness on her as tightly as it would go, but it wasn't made to fit a four-year-old. If she fell, the harness wasn't likely to hold her. Worried, Gordon had her practice clutching at the straps. She scrunched her face up every time, wrinkling her nose, clenching her eyes shut and shouting,
"Good enough, Angel. Now, listen..., D' you... Do you like the playground?"
"And you climb on th'..., what's it called... the monkey bars?"
"YEAH! I climb all over, only Daddy stays right by, to catch me. He's really, really, REALLY BIG!"
Gordon nodded encouragingly. "Right. Well, this ladder is just like the monkey bars. See that funny-lookin' guy in th' yellow sash over there? That's m' brother Virgil. He's gonna catch you at th' other end. I want you to crawl across th' bars to him, okay? Can y' do that, Angel?"
"Uh-huh! I'm a big girl. I won't fall even a little bit. Watch me, Mommy!"
Mrs. Connors nodded, hand over her mouth.
"I... I'm watching, Baby. Have... fun, be careful...!"
Gordon lifted Emily gently onto the aluminum step ladder; gave her sandaled foot an encouraging pat.
"Off y' go then, Em."
Giggling, she began crawling across on her hands and knees. Virgil caught hold of the door frame and leaned out over the echoing shaft, one arm extended toward the little girl.
"Come on, Sweetie...," he called her, "just a little further..., doing great...," Then, "Gotcha! Up you go!"
Emily shrieked with laughter as Virgil scooped her off the ladder and onto the top floor. She capered about and hugged him, shouting,
"I did it! I did it! I climbed the monkey bars!" And then, after squinting up at him, "Hey! You're not funny-looking! He said you was funny-looking!"
"Who..., Gordon? Ahh, he's just jealous. I get more women."
Emily looked puzzled.
"Okay... But is Mommy going to crawl on the monkey bars? She shouldn't. Daddy would be mad at her. She's got a baby in her tummy."
On the other side, Erin Connors nearly wept with relief, embracing Gordon. Now for the hard part. She was too poorly balanced to edge around the shaft, even with his help, and couldn't scramble across as her daughter had. Only one choice remained.
"Right, then. Catch hold 'round my neck, Ma'am, and we'll swing across hand over hand."
"I'm not too heavy? M-Mark says I've gained fifty pounds."
Gordon could have gone all day without hearing that. He was pretty sure the ladder would hold up. Question was, would he?
"No panic, Ma'am. You're hardly big enough t' notice. Hold tight, then, and let's go."
Once she'd got a firm grip on him, twisting about a bit to accommodate her swollen belly, Gordon seized the aluminum ladder and swung away from the wall.
It wasn't bad, at first. She was heavy, but not unbearable, and he was quite strong. As Virgil had observed, though, the ladder wasn't meant to be used this way. It had steps rather than bars designed to be gripped with the hand. With a woman on his back, he didn't have complete freedom of movement, either. And then there was the smoke, which had become noticeably thicker. From deep below he began to see the hungry orange glare of advancing flames.
"Gordon!" Virgil shouted, "Hurry! Scott says the fire's just a few floors under us! We've gotta wrap this up!"
"Yeah...," his brother gasped, "on... on m' way."
Like doing pulling sets, he told himself. Nothing but pulling sets, dragging a bulky floatthrough the water for lap after exhausting lap. Keep the arms moving, that's all there was to it. Keep moving. He was shaking by the time he got within Virgil's full-stretch reach.
His brother got down on his belly, extended an arm. Gordon hardly saw him, focusing past his aching shoulder muscles, past the smoke and heat that seemed to be shredding his lungs with every breath.
'Touch the wall,' He was thinking. 'Last lap. Last one. Just... touch... the... wall.'
Virgil stretched further, got a fistful of Gordon's uniform. Then, with a great, grunting heave, he dragged the two of them out of the shaft.
Back at Mobile Command, Scott let out the breath he'd been holding for what seemed like fifteen minutes. Reaching up, he squeezed the hand that Cindy had pressed to his shoulder.
"They made it...," he murmured softly. "...both safe on the top floor, Virgil says."
"Thank God," Cindy replied, giving him a sudden, brilliant smile. "What about Connors? Has he climbed out, yet?"
"I'm checking, hold on...,"
No luck. Connors hadn't shown up, according to Virgil, and Gordon was readying himself for another trip down the elevator shaft.
Rising from the portable command center, Scott looked around for Chief DiMarco. The man was standing by one of the newly-arrived heli-tankers, updating its pilot.
"Chief!" Scott called, striding over. The parking lot was getting awfully crowded, with Thunderbird 1, three aerial water cannons, and scores of harried police and firemen rushing about in every direction. DiMarco turned; met him halfway.
"Sorry to interrupt, Chief."
"Not a problem, Son. How can I help?"
"I need an update on the fire's position. How far up?"
"I'm having the heli-tankers start blasting at floor 268. Tell your men they've got less than ten minutes. And...," DiMarco clapped a hand to Scott's uniformed shoulder. "...If you need assistance getting them out, say the word. We'll do whatever it takes."
"Thank you, Chief. I appreciate the offer." With a quick nod, Scott returned to Mobile Command, and hit the comm.
"Virgil, the fire is now two floors beneath the stalled car. Listen to me: you have got to get out! Thunderbird 2 and everyone in it are in as much danger as you are. Find Connors and get back to your 'Bird, understood?"
"F.A.B., Scott, we're working on it. Out."
Scott nodded, hardly aware of Cindy's comforting hand. "Work fast, Virge."
Gordon dropped along the line again, moving so swiftly he scarred the gloves. He almost missed Connors, who had managed to ascend three and a half storeys.
"Sorry...," the man gasped. Clearly approaching the end of his strength, he was clinging to the metal rungs with hands that shook. "...I just can't... can't go any farther."
With a brief word of encouragement, Gordon settled himself on a lower rung, then climbed up to Connors' level and got an arm around the man's waist. Together, they pushed away from the wall; swung out into fierce, smoky blackness. The aluminum step ladder thrummed with the shock of their sudden, combined weight. Metal screeched and deformed. A rivet popped. They dropped a centimeter or two. Then..., nothing.
Gordon held his breath as they twisted and spun in mid-shaft, waiting. When nothing more happened, he triggered the harness reel. Slowly, painfully, they began to rise. The harness mechanism strained and buzzed, but did its job.
Five minutes later, they reached the top. Moving like a tired old man, Gordon kicked enough to start them swinging again, then seized hold of a steel rung, and pulled them back against the wall. The rest was fairly easy. Shove the aluminum step ladder aside, climb to the level of the ledge, then shuffle around to the door, where Virgil took over, helping them step through to safety. Now, only a single flight of stairs separated them from Thunderbird 2.
"No, wait!" Emily cried out, after she'd hugged her exhausted father. "What about Larry! We can't leave Larry!"
Virgil and Gordon exchanged startled glances. Someone had been left behind?
"Larry the Ladder!" The small girl explained tearfully. "He's coming to my playground! I promised him! He saved all of us, and I promised him!"
"The ladder...?" Gordon repeated, "You want t' rescue... the ladder?"
She nodded frantically. "I promised! Please, he's crying! He helped us, and now he's gonna get left behind to burn up!"
Her parents attempted to reason with the girl, but it was too late. Now Gordon was stuck with the mental image of a weeping ladder who'd given its all in a rescue, left behind to burn.
Muttering, "Great. Thanks a lot," He plodded back over to the lift doors, reached down, and pulled back the step ladder. He rejoined the others an instant later, carrying the stupid ladder. Virgil gave him an odd look. Trying not to laugh, probably.
"Shut up," Gordon snapped, as they headed for the stairs. "I don't want t' hear it."
At the foot of the roof-top access stairs, someone stopped them. Seeing only his security guard's uniform, neither Virgil nor Gordon alerted. Then the man pulled a gun.
"International Rescue," the gunman spat. His face was gaunt and twisted, his eyes as empty as a corpse's. "What a pleasant surprise." Gesturing with his gun, he ordered them back into the elevator gallery. "Move it! Double-time, or I shoot the kid."
Mrs. Connors gathered her daughter close, gasping a little when the tiny spitfire raged,
"I don't like you! You're bad!"
But the man only grunted. Let the brat say whatever she liked. Alive, she was a hostage. Dead..., no use whatsoever.
"I said move! Back inside!"
Gordon looked over at his brother. They both wore sidearms, but the weapons were holstered, and Gordon was burdened with a ladder, besides. They might get off a shot or two, but not before someone got killed; probably one of the Connors.
Virgil, however, seemed not to realize this. He was staring like a Pit Bull, hands slowly clenching and releasing. He hated ugly surprises, and cowards.
"Virgil...," Gordon whispered. "Don't."
They still had a little time and, in the lift gallery, more room to maneuver. Willing his brother to please, somehow, restrain himself, Gordon began backing toward the doors.
Virgil shot him a glance, then reluctantly followed suit, his jaw muscles standing out like boulders.
Once they'd all backed out of the stairwell, the gunman spoke again.
"The air masks, give them here! And your weapons. Careful..., I can drop any three of you, before I start worrying where my next hostage's gonna come from. The guns, I said!"
Slowly, Virgil and Gordon obeyed. Keeping them covered, the gunman leaned down to pick up both pistols, and one of the masks. The other he shot apart, smiling at them as he did so. Then, tucking the guns into the waistband of his stolen uniform, he pulled aset of handcuffsfrom one of the bags he wore slung across his thin chest.
"I gotta thank you two," he taunted, as he prepared to lock them all in. "Things were looking a little rough. But now, with this gas mask, and some more firepower, I can make it down the stairs and outta this mess."
Erin Connors leaned into her husband's embrace, holding their little daughter. The Tracys remained perfectly still; watchful and unmoving as a pair of tigers at a water hole. So far, nothing they couldn't reverse with Gordon's laser cutter...
Then, unable to resist, the man took aim at Gordon and pulled the trigger, sneering,
"When you get to hell, tell 'em Clayton Reynolds sends his regards!"
Brains was growing concerned. Virgil and Gordon had gone into the building over forty minutes before. Now, not only were they late, they'd stopped answering his calls. Something had to have gone wrong, Hackenbacker realized grimly. Worse still, Thunderbird 2 was getting harder to handle as updrafts from the blazing Tower began shoving at her. He couldn't remain much longer; and he couldn't bring himself to leave.
A violent blast knocked the Bird sideways, suddenly, causing one of her wings to shear off a roof-top microwave antenna. The folk crowded in the pod screamed and clutched at one another.
"S-Scott!" Brains called over the comm, "Th-they're, ah..., they're still n-not back and n-n-not answering! please ad-advise!"
Over the view screen, Scott looked tense enough to fly apart at a touch.
"Five more minutes, Brains. That's all I ask. Give them five more minutes!"
"F-F.A.B., Scott. Th-then what?"
Said the oldest brother, leaning forward, "Then I go in after them, dammit! But we don't just leave them there to die!"
"U-understood, Scott. F-five more minutes."
Alan cut in, almost shouting,
"Scott, I could help! Send me in, and I'll..."
"No." His brother snapped. "We've got two in danger already, plus civilians. I don't need another potential victim."
"I said no. It's too dangerous, Alan!"
The boy did not reply, but inside Thunderbird 1, safe... and helpless..., Alan could only pound on the control panel, and wait.
In the Tower:
Slowly, Gordon sat up. Virgil pulled the ladder off of him. There was a flattened bullet lodged in one aluminum-alloy leg. It had been stopped, just barely, mere millimeters from his chest.
"See?" Emily told them, giving Gordon's shoulder a pat. "I told you we should bring Larry! He did it again. Bet he could open the door, too."
Not trusting his voice, Gordon merely shook his head, accepting Virgil's hand up. Reaching into a belt compartment, he got out his laser cutter, and went to work on the handcuffed door. Reynolds was long gone by then, having headed down the stairs, and good riddance.
In the stairwell, Virgil paused; looked down the way Reynolds had gone.
Gordon shifted the ladder to a more comfortable carrying position, saying,
"Not worth it, Virgil. We haven't time. Let him go. He'll get the end he deserves."
"Yeah..., " Virgil conceded reluctantly. "Guess you're right. Let's get out of here."
Virgil helped Connors get his wife up the stairs. Gordon carried Emily, and the ladder. Moments later they were on the roof, battling a raging wind storm to reach Thunderbird 2. The ramp was still down, but Brains appeared to be having trouble keeping her in place.
Butted about by swirling, contrary blasts, Thunderbird 2 yawed this way and that, flattening air-conditioning units and antennas like so much crumpled tin foil.
They took cover by the Tower's hollow central square, crouching against a high safety wall put there to prevent suicides. Then, when2 swung about again, Virgil lifted Mrs. Connors, Gordon hoisted Emily, and they made a run for the ramp.
Fortunately, they were spotted. Brains twisted the steering yoke as far over as he could, fighting a savage gale. Several of the strongest passengers raced down-ramp, meanwhile, catching hold of first Virgil, then Mark Connors, and last of all, Gordon. Theyclambered inside, freeing Thunderbird 2 to lift away at last in a firestorm of screaming rockets.
Inside the pod, Gordon up-ended half a bottle of water on himself, then drank the rest. Virgil got up, after a minute of savoring the fact that he was still alive. Giving his younger brother a sharp rap on the head with his knuckles, Virgil said,
"Keep things in order down here, Kiddo. I'm taking the pilot's seat back before Brains flies us into a mountain."
As for the rest, the ladder ended up in one of Pod 4's equipment lockers. Gordon traded an International Rescue uniform patch to Emily for the right to keep "Larry".
Back on the ground, at a safe distance from the Tower, the passengers were put ashore. Gordon offered his arm to an elderly lady, assisting her down the steep ramp. The young boy who walked along with them was full of lively questions about Thunderbird 2, and very proud that his grandmother had used her cane to hook an International Rescue pilot onto the Tower roof.
Chief DiMarco gazed longingly at Thunderbird 2, meanwhile, sighing,
"She'd make one hell of a fire engine...!"
The blaze was finally contained, then extinguished, leaving the Starlight Tower partially gutted, but still standing. They'd rebuild. San Franciscans were stubborn, that way.
When the worst was over, and everyone accounted for except Reynolds, Scott shut down Mobile Command. Recently up-graded, the equipment folded down into three largish cases, about as big and heavy as luggage for a week-long vacation. ...Which he could have used. Cindy helped him carry the cases back to Thunderbird 1.
They stood a moment at the base of the ladder, while Scott tried to think of something to say.
"Well, um...," he rubbed at the back of his neck. "It was... I mean..."
Then someone called out, from inside the rocket,
"He thinks you're a hottie! He wants to go out with you!"
Cindy laughed, flushing slightly. "Who...?"
On firmer ground, now, Scott growled, "My former brother."
"Uh-oh. Former, huh?"
"He's going to die, soon."
"I see," Then, as she handed the case she was carrying to Scott, Cindy added, "I'd love to. Go out with you, that is. I mean, if your terminally ill brother's telling the truth."
"Well, he's obnoxious..., and annoying..., but uh, I've never known him to be a liar. It may be awhile, though. I've got a pretty crazy schedule."
Cindy leaned over and kissed his cheek, saying softly,