FALLOUT

1

When the Islamic Republic of Persia pieced their reactor together in later days, they discovered what had gone wrong. A combination of budget cuts, too few control rods, and a container leak had led to near melt down, and a terrible disaster.

The elderly reactor was located in a scrubby, mountainous wasteland not far from Kerman, about 150 miles from the border, and four miles away from a small village threatened by fallout and nuclear fire.

High overhead, Scott Tracy surveyed the danger zone. On first pass, he saw drab yellow brick, mud-chinked stone, brush goat pens and milling people, pointing up in shock at Thunderbird 1. Then, having doubled back to gauge the scenario at reactor 15, he called over to John, aboard Thunderbird 2 with Virgil and Gordon.

"Thunderbird 2, from Thunderbird 1. You with me, John?"

"Go ahead, Scott," his younger brother responded promptly. "What's the situation?"

"Looks like a two-parter from here; radiation hazard and refugees. We'll have to split up. You and I'll take the reactor, and let Virge and Gordon handle evacuating the villagers. Clear?"

"F.A.B., Scott. I'll pass it along. ETA fifteen minutes... (sorry, my bad). According to Virgil, fifteen minutes, thirty-one seconds, from... mark."

Scott smiled at his brother's exasperated tone. He didn't need to see John, to imagine the cocked eyebrow and long-suffering expression. Virgil was a stickler for exact measurements. Always had been. John, though, tended to think in parsecs, Astronomical Units, and gigabytes. Bang; instant culture clash. The two got along well enough, just eyed each other strangely, at times. Like all brothers everywhere, maybe.

"Right," said their dark-haired field commander. "Just make it quick. The reactor's venting something. Smoke and steam, looks like. Radiation sensor's off the scale, and this wind's blowing the ash cloud straight at the village."

"On our way, Scott." John, again. "I'll start suiting up."

"F.A.B. See you in a few."

The comm cut off, and Scott brought his Bird around for another pass, hunting out potential landing sites. There was plenty of room for 2 between the village and mountains, but he'd have to put Thunderbird 1 down closer to the stricken reactor, on as level a patch as he could find. They hadn't much time, if his on-board computer had calculated the radiation level correctly. 325 REMs at over a mile away, and rising fast. Up close, it was even worse. The big cement building was on fire, its dome and cooling tower cracked and crumbling.

Working quickly, Scott brought Thunderbird 1 down in a storm of sand and screaming rockets, then shut her down, unstrapped, and got out his silvery radiation suit, thinking,

'Make it fast, guys. This one's gonna be bad.'

He was suited up and halfway down the ladder when the dark, gliding shadow of Thunderbird 2 eclipsed the blistering midday sun. First, the deep, subterranean engine rumble; rocks, sand and even Thunderbird 1 were bounced around by the tooth-rattling vibration and occasional hissing geyser-pop of 2's steering rockets. From this vantage, Scott felt an awful lot like an ant, gazing up in wonder at a descending boot sole. 'Huge' didn't even begin to describe her.

With a delicacy that belied her hulking size, she dropped close enough for John to be winched down, then roared off south, headed for the endangered village, leaving the two brothers to battle radiation and fire in Brains' newly modified hazard suits. They'd been improved, the engineer claimed, and Scott had to admit that his felt lighter and more flexible... and quite warm. Still, if the new alloy absorbed ionizing radiation as well as Hackenbacker said it would, he supposed he could handle a little heat. Better than another bout of radiation sickness, at any rate.

As an anxious mob of scientists and security guards pelted up, Scott clapped a gloved hand to his taller brother's slim shoulder.

"How're you doing?" He called over the hazard suit's helmet comm. John was relatively untried at rescues, spending most of his time in space, until recently. He'd handled things admirably during the Macedonian situation, but that had been awhile, and Scott wanted to be sure his brother could take the pressure. John's response was utterly calm, however.

"Hot as hell. You?"

"Same here. These suits may get the job done, but Brains didn't design them with comfort in mind." Another understatement. He was frying in there. Moving to meet the on-coming crowd, Scott added, "Talk to the people for me. Find out who's in charge and what's happened, then tell them to get back and take shelter."

"Right." Swiveling to face the concerned plant workers, John thought a bit, called up his rusty Persian, and began firing questions.

The whip-thin, big-mustached project leader, a Doctor Ahmet, gave him the basics, breaking into equally halting English when a term or phrase confused his serious young listener.

"Core meltdown," John reported grimly, once he'd urged the worried official to get his people to safety. "Ahmet says a team of volunteers went in about twenty minutes ago to try and shut things down, but they haven't come back." He'd gotten a map of sorts, too; a fire-escape diagram that one of the technicians 'd had the foresight to yank off a wall.

"Okay, then," Scott responded, nodding behind his transparent face mask, "let's do this. Under the circumstances, John, you know better than I do how to handle the situation. You lead, I'll follow."

Ice-blond John wasted no time on surprise or emotion, saying,

"We'll get in, get the volunteer party out, then shut her down. Comms may go out, so stay in visual contact."

"Got it."

Plan established, the two brothers headed deep into the cracked and burning reactor, once more risking their lives to save others.

Meanwhile, Virgil had set Thunderbird 2 down, one hundred and fifty two meters north of the village. According to plan, he'd remain aboard to monitor the situation, and forward communications from base to his brothers. Without thunderbird 5, scanning and control were far more haphazard than usual. He didn't like it much, but accepted the necessity; if they had to pull out in a hurry, Thunderbird 2 needed her pilot at the helm, not Gordon, or John.

As Gordon unstrapped and got up, Virgil hit a series of switches, releasing pod six, and triggering a set of powerful hydraulic legs to begin raising the Bird off the ground. Almost immediately, though, she lurched sideways, slamming Gordon into the bulkhead.

"Sorry!" Virgil called over one shoulder, as his red-haired younger brother picked himself up. "Sand's less stable than I thought. She'll settle soon. You okay?"

"Good t' go... once the little flyin' things clear off," Gordon quipped blurrily, prodding at a knot above his left temple. Jeff Tracy's well-aged whiskey had got to him, or he'd have felt sorrier for Alan, left behind at the last minute, because his mum didn't think nuclear reactors any place for a 14-year old boy. "Luckily," Gordon went on, "It's just my head."

Virgil smiled.

"Be careful out there; the wind's picking up, and that ash 'll be falling soon," he advised, growing serious again. Lowering pod 5's boarding ramp, the big, brown-eyed pilot added, "No heroics, Kiddo. Get the people loaded up and settled in, and we'll haul them off to Tehran for medical treatment. Got it?"

"Right. In, out; slam, bam, thank you, Ma'am. I'm off."

And Virgil chuckled,

"Dumb-ass." Then, hollering after him, "I'm serious! Think first! ...And leave the girls alone, unless you want it chopped off and handed back to you in a box. They mean business, around here."