This story follows Hammerhead, and The Date. About a month has passed, and a kidnap conspiracy is developing. Still Alternate Universe.

VIPER

It was around noon in mid-town Manhattan, and Jeff Tracy was working through lunch, again. He sat in his top-floor, corner office, surrounded by heavy furniture and oriental art, poring over a list of recent stock buy-outs. The news was grim, and unexpected. In blocks of ten to a hundred, from this share holder and that, over the course of little more than a week, someone had purchased enough of Tracy Aerospace to achieve very nearly a controlling interest.

Someone was attempting to wrest command of the business away from the man who'd dreamt and nurtured her. Someone crafty enough to use dozens of dummy corporations and lightning swift leveraged buy-outs to challenge the major stock holder; Jeff Tracy himself.

'Who...?' As he clicked through the list of stock transactions, Jeff considered which of his few business rivals might have launched such a potent and stealthy assault. Who would dare? Not Eddie Houseman. His little SpaceTech, Inc., hadn't the capital for purchasing that much stock, that quickly. Not Cassie Brathwaite. Had Cass wished to attempt a hostile takeover, she would have warned him first, over a round of golf and whiskey sours. No, there had to be someone else, someone...

A sudden delicate chime derailed Jeff's train of thought. He glanced over at the lushly papered wall to his left, and saw that the telecom was glowing. Judging from the icon flashing in the upper right corner, Lady Penelope wished a word. Jeff ran a hand through his thick grey hair, and straightened his tie. He was no longer a young man, but still attractive; what he'd lost in youth more than made up for in money and power. Penelope Creighton-Ward, however, was an aristocrat, directly descended from the ancient Saxon nobility of England. She was also an IR operative.

He pressed the accept key, and the telecom brightened at once, transmitting Penelope's serenely smiling image. She was standing before a painted, stormy seascape, one he knew to be housed in the manor armory. Right away, Jeff realized that this was no social call. Still, one never knew who was listening.

"Jeff, Darling!" Penny chirped, exquisitely blonde as a porcelain doll. "How lovely to speak with you! I have simply smashing news."

"Lady Penelope," Jeff smiled expansively, leaning away from his massive mahogany desk. "The pleasure's all mine. What's it been..., three, four days since we spoke last?"

"Seven, Darling, of course!" She corrected indulgently, cocking her head a bit to the side.

"Of course. And to what startling news do I owe the joy of seeing your lovely face again?" His voice was deep and caressing, his brown eyes warm.

Penelope blushed charmingly; a mere affectation, (she was capable of summoning modest blushes at will) but quite fetching, nevertheless.

"Well, Dear," she began, just as though gossiping with an old friend, "I was just in Paris for a shoot! The synthesizer is operative and weaving away. I just about killed Francois when he hadn't got it last time, and substituted silk despite my message expressly requesting pennelon! Well, for the general public, natural fibers may do, but closing the season in rags is not in my schedule. Francois says that he's aiming for Versacci's share of the market at the London show. Remember, tea at four. Ta, Darling!"

He lifted a hand, giving her an especially warm smile despite the grave news coded in her message.

"At four. Thank you for calling, Penny. Have a good weekend."

She waggled her fingers at him, then cut off the transmission. Jeff went back to his list, giving no sign by word or action that anything was amiss. Then, twenty minutes after the call, he buzzed his secretary.

"Charlotte!"

"Yes, Mr. Tracy?" the girl's voice came over the comm, bright and sharp as a card of new pins.

"Arrange an appointment with my son, Gordon. Use the LA number, my former wife's residence. He is to present himself no later than seven AM tomorrow morning, and tell him to bring a full report on his marks, and a course list for next school year. Understood?"

"Yes, Mr. Tracy. Seven AM appointment tomorrow with Gordon. Call to the LA residence, and have him bring a report card and schedule. I'll get on it right away, Sir."

He nodded, though she couldn't see him, adding,

"And, Charlotte..., cancel all of my appointments for the rest of the afternoon. Make the usual excuse. There's something I need to take care of."

"Yes, Mr. Tracy. Cancel all of the afternoon's appointments. At once, Sir."

Charlotte was nothing if not efficient. She'd deliver the summons to Gordon. Question was, would it get there in time? And would he listen?

Los Angeles:

A beautiful sky, blue and flawlessly clear as a gem-stone, seventy-five degree weather... and the last day of summer school. Finally! Alan Tracy bounded off the bus with a joyous whoop, whipped around to face the bright yellow instrument of torment, and shouted,

"See ya!"

Then, as his former classmates looked on and cheered, the blond terror whirled his empty book bag around over his head and flung it into Mrs. Carver's hedge. He...was...FREE!

Six weeks of paradise stretched before him, filled with skateboarding, surfing, video games, sleeping till twelve, and hanging around with his brother. Nothing could shake Alan's good mood at this point, short of an alien invasion.

The bus doors creaked shut with a long, windy hiss, andit rumbled slowly off, leaving Alan in blissful solitude. Leaping like a salmon, he punched the air, shouting aloud in English, Polynesian, and the little Spanish he recalled from class. The corner stop in his sunny, palm-lined neighborhood hadn't seen such an explosion of primal joy since the summer before. But, enough delays; he had some serious fun to get to.

Knowing that his neighbors hated it, Alan cut across their smoothly manicured lawns to get home; hurtling hedges, dodging sprinklers and scattering little shredded bits of report card all over Lexington Palms.

The Fergusons set their dogs on him, but the day Alan couldn't outrun a couple of basset hounds was the day he'd check himself into the retirement home. The stupid, fat little dogs were far behind and deeply winded in seconds.

Then, he discovered that the Sawyers, catching wise to his newest shortcut, had 'upped the ante' and electrified their fence. To keep the cats in, Mrs. Sawyer later insisted; to shock the crap out of Alan, the boy knew.

Other than that, though, he got home without incident, glad that his mother was with a client this afternoon, and too busy to answer the inevitable phone calls. The modest white stucco house, with its red tile roof, iron gate and stone wall, had never looked so welcoming.

Alan vaulted the low wall and ran up the drive, slapped a palm on the entry scanner, and flung open the door, shouting,

"I'm home!"

...But his dramatics were wasted on an empty house. He'd known that mom would be out, but it kind of stunk to learn that Gordon, too, was away. Almost as soon as he opened the door, a folded bit of paper fluttered for the tiled floor. Alan bent and caught it, quick as thought, before it could hit the ground. Opening the swiftly penciled note, he read, laboriously,

"Out to N.Y. for a bit. Father. Back late."

G.D.T.4

Alan grinned to himself. Gordon disliked his initials, saying that they stood for "another God Damn Tracy", so he'd taken to adding "4" to the end, making it "Gordon David, Thunderbird 4".

The word "father" was triple-underlined, the letters in general written so forcefully that the pencil had all but punched through the paper. Not that Alan blamed his brother for feeling stressed. One on one interviews with Jeff Tracy were hardly ever mere heart-to-heart, father/son chats.

"Good luck, Man," Alan sighed, folding up the note and tucking it away in a zippered inner pocket. "You're gonna need it."

Recalling the open door at last, he kicked it shut, then loped into the kitchen for dinner. The telepanel strip lit up as soon as he entered the room, displaying a prerecorded message from his mom. She looked kind of frazzled, probably because it had taken over two hours of bribes and begging to get him dressed and out the door, that morning.

"Hello, Sweetie," the recording greeted him. "I hope you had a good day at school, and that you didn't do anything too... playful. I'll be taking Mr. Sanchez out to the Japanese steak house, to discuss the influences, so I've left you dinner in the auto-cook. I've also credited 500.00 to your chip, so you and Gordon can go have fun tonight. Be a good boy, like I know you can, and, Baby...? Make good choices, okay? I love you!"

The last part Alan had mouthed along with the recording, for his mother always signed off with the same tiresome platitude. Like he'd know a good choice if it crawled up and bit him on the ankle! Still, at least she cared..., and after all the crap he put her through, too. That had to count for something.

Opening the wall-mounted auto-cook, Alan pulled out a lidded plate and peered beneath the plastic cover.

"Wow. Dinner. Looks nutritious." The lima beans, green salad and textured protein patty ended up in the waste bin, together with the plate (Alan hated doing dishes). Then he went to the refrigerator and stood leaning against the door for several minutes while he considered the possibilities.

Chips and salsa, leftover pizza, cream soda and oreo cookies thickly smeared with peanut butter were piled onto a tray, and then out he went to the TV room, ready to put his mind in low gear and overdose on junk food. Life didn't get much better, except in Thunderbird 3, or behind the wheel of something fast and nasty.

Gordon arrived about an hour later, looking deeply dejected. Alan launched himself off the couch in a flurry of chips, crossed the room in three bounds, and began throwing playful punches.

"Hey, Bro! 'Bout time you got back (urf...!)" This last as Gordon jabbed back, striking him in the gut. "How 'd it go...?"

His brother shrugged listlessly, saying,

"Not so good. He was on about my marks, again, and my course load f'r next year. Says I'm not challengin' m'self enough." Kneading at the back of his neck, where extreme tension was threatening to spark a major headache, Gordon continued. "Had a bit t' say about th' swim team, as well. Seems a couple of pictures got out, and he's afraid I'll be recognized. He... told me t' quit th' team, and go t' the island."

"Whoa..., I'm sorry, man."

Gordon shrugged miserably, more hurt than he cared to admit. They'd wandered into the kitchen by this time, where Gordon proceeded to raid the refrigerator and cabinets, pulling out pretty nearly everything that wasn't red-hot or nailed down. Alan watched, open-mouthed, finally gasping,

"Dude, what 're you making?"

"A sandwich."

"With all that?"

"I'm hungry."

Alan rolled his eyes.

"Yeah. That's new." Shaking his head, he continued, "Dude, you better never stop moving, 'cause there's, like, this giant blob of fat rolling along right behind you."

Just for that, Gordon added another three slices of ham. Alan hoisted himself up to sit on the granite counter, and changed the subject.

"So..., what're you gonna do?"

"Not sure," Gordon mumbled, around a very large mouthful of sandwich. "Never thought much beyond competing. All m' life I've trained t' swim. Don't know, really. But, he says... he says it's that, or leave off rescues."

"Oh, man...," Alan looked thunderstruck. "Not much choice, I guess. Is there?" The thought that his brother, his best friend, might choose anything at all over International Rescue, was inconceivable. When Gordon didn't answer immediately, standing there with his hazel eyes locked on the floor, Alan prodded, "Right?"

Gordon sighed.

"Right."

Alan drummed his fingers on the kitchen counter, thought up a quick diversion.

"Hey, man," he said brightly, "the 66s are in. Wanna go check 'em out? The new Viper's s'posed to be major hot. Mom zapped us five hundred to have fun with, so we could visit the showroom..., y' know, go for a test drive, and then cruise out to the mall, or something. Hey, nothing like 450 horses to take your mind off your troubles, know what I'm saying?"

Actually, at a time like this, Gordon would far rather have headed for the shore, to swim out of sight of land, float on his back, and think. But, Alan looked like he'd explode if he didn't get a crack at a 66 Viper, so...

"Right, then. Let's go."

Elsewhere:

The General sat in a big leather wing chair, in an office carefully arranged to provide him with full view of any entrants, while keeping him out of direct line of fire. There were seven heavily armed guards posted outside the double doors, and the big picture windows as well, but the General was a cautious man. The automatic weapon on his lap was loaded and ready. Just in case.

Anyone who crossed his threshold would have gone through twelve checkpoints and back-scatter radar scans, as well as a body-cavity search and many thorough pat downs. And no one was admitted without his express consent. He was far too powerful, too necessary, to risk.

What country, what army he was general of, no one could say. For that matter, not one of his many mercenaries, scientists or spies even knew his real name. "The General" they called him, or "Sir". He wore nothing but jungle camouflage BDUs decked with full military insignia, and went always and everywhere armed.

He wasn't much to look at; medium height, slender build, thinning dark hair, close-set brown eyes behind dark glasses, but he burned with a single, deadly passion. He wanted nothing less than to bring down the World Government, seizing power from the chaos and warfare that followed.

To this end, the General had assembled a secret organization of engineers and operatives, such as the one making her way to his office at that moment, from checkpoint 8. He'd been following her progress on his wall monitor, watching the tiny red blip that represented 'Tania' negotiate one checkpoint and guard post after another. At last, she reached the outer door, the one leading to the 'airlock'. The General waited.

Thirty seconds..., they'd be questioning her now, scanning her ID chip. Then, right on schedule, the comm unit on his armrest buzzed. The General deigned to answer.

"Speak."

"Sir," a hard voice called over the comm, "number 71 has arrived. Orders, Sir?"

He smiled slightly, picked up the machine pistol and aimed it squarely at the door, saying,

"Admit her."

"Yes, Sir."

A faint humming noise followed. The outer door had opened. Now she'd be stepping into the 'airlock', knowing full well that once that door shut, there was no escape except at his will, and that the chamber might suddenly flood with nerve gas, should the mood take him. The general stroked a red button on the arm of his wing chair. Handily enough, right beside the comm switch.

The chamber scanned her from top to toe, transmitting the image to his wall screen. She was unarmed, of course. It would have been the height of suicidal folly to come into the General's presence bearing so much as a hatpin. Still, he let her wait a bit, knowing that even Tania, his most useful and willing agent, had to wonder when, and in what condition, she'd leave that airlock.

A long three minutes later, he pressed a switch, and opened the inner door. Tania stepped into the office, cool and unconcerned, despite the automatic pistol pointed at her chest.

"You summoned me, General?"

She was as beautiful as he was ordinary, and in her own way, quite as dangerous. Muscled like a cat, she had jet black hair worn in a long, tight braid, tawny eyes and a slightly unhealthy pallor. Her clothing consisted of a black body suit topped by a military-style equipment vest.

Pausing a moment to emphasize how very much in his power she was, the General lowered his weapon, and nodded.

"I did." He came directly to the point. "All my sources indicate the information is sound. We have a positive match. Proceed with the operation, acquire the target, and retrieve as much information as possible. Leave no witnesses, and no survivors. I want their names," he leaned forward, a weirdly distant look in his shielded eyes. "I want their engineers and leadership acquired or neutralized, and their technology in my hands within the week. Understood?"

Tania smiled thinly, already planning.

"Understood, General."

San Francisco:

Cindy Taylor was still at her cubicle that night, sorting through a number of new leads. She was back at work by virtue of some rapid data shuffling by Scott's brother. She stayed, with Jake's blessings, thanks to a sudden influx of hot story leads. City scandals, human interest, unforseen emergencies; all at once, Cindy seemed to have sources everywhere. Jake was a happy man. He shelved his questions and watched the network's ratings go through the roof. And, as long as she kept the stories coming, Cindy could disappear every week for all he cared; in fact, he'd even have approved a little travel stipend. Very little, and very grudgingly, but a sign she'd crawled back into his good graces, anyway.

This latest story, however, hadn't come from her mysterious source. This one she'd pieced together on her own, over the last month or so. Leaning forward in her rolling chair, Cindy rested her chin on one hand, scrolling slowly through a list of names with the other. As the cursor flashed downward, she mentally ticked each victim off, confirming something that would have been merely interesting ten months ago.

Each one had been murdered, in various San Francisco locations, over several weeks. No pattern had been evident in their ages, sex, or financial status. They hadn't been robbed, and at first glance seemed to have nothing in common but the brutal, execution-style method of death. Then she'd dug further, and made the connection. Each and every one of those people... the old lady, the security guard, the travel agent, the stock broker... each one had been air-lifted off the roof of the Starlight Tower, by International Rescue.

The chair squeaked as Cindy leaned back, hugging herself. Why? Mentally, she reviewed the possibilities. Coincidence was definitely out. They'd been hunted too carefully. Might be a crazed weirdo looking for fame, but if so, they'd gone to great lengths to conceal their handiwork. The detectives she'd spoken to had described each body's disposal as almost maniacally tidy. No, the killer wasn't looking to make the headlines. Rather, Cindy's gut told her the opposite; this psycho was doing a job..., looking for something, or someone.

From there the road branched in two directions. One suggested that the killer was going around "cleaning up" for International Rescue, eliminating anyone who might be able to recognize one of the pilots. If so, they were working without IR's sanction. Why bother to rescue people you'd only have to kill later? The other possibility was even worse, from Cindy's perspective.

What if those people had been killed after they'd confirmed someone's identity? From a picture, say. Not Scott's. He'd never been to the roof. Mobile Control had been set up in a parking lot several blocks away from the Tower. She still vividly recalled the clattering helicopters, the choking smoke and hissing water jets, the giant building itself, sheathed in scarlet flame... and Thunderbird 2, hovering above it all, battling updrafts and winds to save lives. Scott had been safe below, with her... Alan in Thunderbird 1, out of sight, but for one brief introduction.

Virgil or Gordon, then. And Virgil Tracy was far from a public figure. Cindy thought back to the Olympics, to the closing ceremonies and victory celebrations, the thousands of flashbulbs and digital movie cameras. How many people had come up to their table that night at the restaurant, having seen Gordon race, wanting an autograph, a look at his gold medals...? The young swimmer had seemed dazed by all the unwanted attention. Finally, Scott had cut the evening short, paying the bill and shepherding his brothers, step mom, TinTin and Cindy away from all the furor. Too late, maybe.

Coming to a sudden decision, Cindy decided to try something. Leaving her file-and-clipping draped cubicle, she headed for the building's roof. Better reception, hopefully, and she needed to place a very important, very long distance call.

Eschewing the elevator (she'd been a touch claustrophobic since a long ago incident with a storm drain), Cindy sprinted up three flights of stairs, bursting onto the roof through a maintenance door.

It was dark up there, and cold. A chill breeze had slithered off the bay, bringing with it a shroud of smothering fog. The Lloyd Building might almost have been alone in a universe of swirling whiteness.

Sitting atop an air conditioner, Cindy pulled out her cell phone. She flipped it open, then sat a moment and stared at the key pad. Cindy knew nothing about Tracy Island, gathering only that sometimes, Scott was very much incommunicado. He generally called her, and rarely, at that. There was another option, one whose business it was to monitor communications, but...

'Damn. No idea how to reach him...!' Well, there was always the straightforward approach. Setting up for text messaging, Cindy punched in,

-John Tracy U out thr- and hit the transmit key.

-Go ahd- flashed the phone's screen, after a bit. He'd traced the number first, probably. Just to be sure she'd reached the right man, Cindy typed in,

-How's ur brthr-

She had to smile when he sent back,

-Which 1-

Bingo! Wasting no more time, Cindy told him of the murders, and of her suspicions.

-Thnx. Will follow up, kp postd.-

-OK thnx fr all the leads.- She'd figured, by now, that it had to be John who'd been sending her the tips and information. He confirmed it, just before signing off.

-No prblm. Stay saf/ public. Will montr ths # -

Then the screen went blank. Cindy flipped shut her phone, and stood up. The fog poured itself slowly past her, haloing the red exit light over the roof-top maintenance door. Feeling suddenly very cold, she hurried back inside, glad to know that someone was watching out for her.