Thanks for your patience with the original (very) rough draft, and for the kind reviews of # 19. Seriously. It means a lot. Edits have been made to this one, here and there, for clarity and continuity. Pesky multiple universes...!
Thunderbird 3, deep space-
Sleek and crimson, gleaming in distant Earthshine and the harsh, glaring light of a whirling sun, Thunderbird 3 deployed her tractor beam. She could ill-afford the power loss.A calculated risk, John would have called it, taken on the assumption that one try would snag Kuiper, and that the red Bird could then limp as far as the Moon Station, if not all the way home.
There was a Heim generator in the bow of the space ship. Triggered by a sharp thought from TinTin (nearly to the airlock, now), the generator's enormously powerful coils produced a rotating torus of magnetic force, 90 teslas strong, spinning at time- and space-warping speeds. Now another thing, strange and marvelous, happened; fired from the spaceship's bow, clear through the ring of magnetic force, a beam of violet laser light changed form. Halfway through the magnetic field, photons turned to gravitons, creating a tightly focused tractor beam. Power, out of light.
Speeding gravitons enveloped the tumbling, runaway derelict, carving what amounted to a slope in space, leading back to Thunderbird 3. To an outside observer, the derelict appeared to tremble, then pause, as though seized by something invisibly strong (actually, the wreck was teetering at the brink of a sudden gravity well, but same difference). Then, she began slipping backward, micro-thrusters cutting on to give the sparking hulk an additional shove. The two vessels began nudging together, while continuing forward progress.
Two thrusters popped and fizzled, starting small fires that went out almost immediately. The other four held, though, firing jets of deuterium gas into space, and providing a little more 'go'. The wreck had been snared.
At the airlock, TinTin received the first load of rescued cosmonauts from Alan. The youngest Tracy had been struggling with one of the victims, Kuiper's mission commander, but she'd gone suddenly limp, just about the time John stopped communicating.
Alan shoved the four cosmonauts at TinTin with frantic haste. The outer layer of his space-cold pressure suit was fuzzy-white with sudden condensation, almost hiding the IR insignia.
"Watch out, Babe," he told her, his voice coming dimly through insulated helmet glass, but clear and ringing half a second later, over the wall comm. "They've got some kinda, like, whacked-out space fever. Tried to attack me outside the ship, rip out my hoses and stuff… Anyways, gimme a second to get in the 'lock, again, then face us around toward the other piece."
He was panting, dry-mouthed despite the water tube inside his helmet.
"I'll go get the other two. And this time, Chica, answer the door! John let me in, last time, but he's not exactly reliable, okay?"
TinTin barely glanced up from the gasping, blue-lipped cosmonauts. Helmets off, they were sucking air in great, bracing lungfuls. One of them was throwing up; thin, bloody stuff, flecked with foam and yellow bile.
"Good luck, Alain, and take cautions. We are short of time, but also of Tracys. There are none to lightly dispose of, n'est-ce pas?"
Alan, already sealing himself back into the airlock, responded with a pale stab at his usual cocky swagger.
"Relax, Baby-Cakes. It's me. The situation is as good as wrapped up and tied with a bow. Believe it."
"But naturally," the dark-haired beauty replied, only a little sarcastically. She was, just then, too badly hurt to wound another. "With the so-great Alain at work, who else would we need?"
One at a time, she'd begun ferrying cosmonauts to 3's small treatment center. Said Alan,
"'Bout time someone figured that out! Autograph signing at 3:00, ladies. Two hundred dollars a pop. Kisses extra."
Then, the outer hatch opened, and the boy propelled himself on through. Black infinity enveloped him; dagger-sharp, dangerous beauty. Stars of many colors, depths and sizes blossomed round, waltzing past with a shimmering blue Earth and ferocious sun. A 3-D, wrap-around night sky, lovelier and more hostile than the ocean, no matter what Gordon said. You didn't really have time to look, but it haunted your dreams forever afterward, this cold and glorious emptiness. Space couldn't help but change you… and it was nothing like the simulations.
TinTin or Scott had gotten 3 oriented so that Alan's airlock faced the captured wreckage. With little blasts of his thruster pack, the young astronaut crossed the void between them.
There was no one on the comm now, not Scott, nor Gordon… not even John (whose: 'could we make this quick? I've got an appointment', tone of voice had rubbed the younger Tracy all sorts of wrong ways). The only thing Alan heard besides his pressure suit and rapid breathing was the surge and crackle of radiation over the comm. Kuiper's nuclear pile was leaking, spilling death all over the place. Which, right now, scored about a 22 out of fifty on the Alan Tracy worry-meter.
Had to escape floating junk, arcing voltage and razor-sharp hull plates before you earned the right to a miserable death from radiation sickness, after all.
"Wow," he said aloud, to no one at all, "I am so loving this!"
The tail section ended in five massive Pegasus lasers, meant to accelerate Kuiper nearly to light speed. A little forward lay the engine room and cargo hold, he thought. Cosmonauts, too. He'd read their names, but couldn't pronounce them, and hadn't bothered filing the matter away.
The open, torn end of the derelict was swinging like a pendulum around her weighty engine end, pulled close by 3's tractor beam, but not much stabilized. It continued its slow-motion tumble toward them, hull glittering silver where it wasn't blackened by explosion. Standing on end, it would have towered some nine stories high, moving about fifteen thousand miles an hour, if his helmet display could still be trusted. Only four miles an hour relatively, though. And still a challenge to duck into.
Alan slowed his own forward momentum with a touch to the thruster pack controls. Had to time this just right…
TinTin couldn't hit the pressor beam until he was safe (hah!) inside, and the ruined tail section was getting awfully close to Thunderbird 3.
When the charred and sparking breach swung down again, Alan zipped forward, feeling like a gnat trying to hitch a ride on amoving pile-driver, or an idiot climbing through the window of a cart-wheeling skyscraper. With ten yards of ruptured compartment to aim for, you'd have expected getting in to be easy…
He squeaked through, but mistimed his 'leap', nearly getting clubbed by a down-rushing bulkhead. That relative motion thing, again.
Did manage to snag hold of a bulkhead strap, though, almost ripping his arms loose instead of being swatted like a juicy, pressure-suited fly.
(Naturally, all of this was going to be tremendously expanded upon, when he saw Gordon again. Whatever paddling around his brother was doing couldn't possibly hold a candle to this.)
When he and the wreckage had agreed upon a speed and direction, Alan pushed away from the bulkhead, and began moving in. More hatches to locate and buttons to press, this time with no one to talk him through it. So, Alan started humming; 'Good Cause', by DeathStrike. Wasn't much of a song, more garage-band shrieks and guitar riffs than music, but it calmed his nerves and gave him a rhythm.
(Through the rear hatch by the second bar, duck that shredded packing crate at the drum solo…)
There weren't many words, and those few were pretty repetitive, but the song helped him through, like his mom's clarity chants, or other people's prayers.
Open a hatch, brace through decompression, haul himself inside, and shut the door behind him.
(Wet hair, lather, rinse, repeat…)
More stirred-up and swirling junk to avoid, and plenty of it. The cargo hold had been packed with supplies, intended for Mars and… For some reason, the line of thought confused Alan, so he cut it off. Why had he thought of John, just then? His older brother was the eternal student, or something… dropping majors like bad habits. Anyway...
Alan switched on his helmet lamp, and took stock of the situation. Looking around, he saw a scarred, curving bulkhead and pin-balling crates. What hadn't worked loose had broken open, creating a silent mine-field of careening debris. Great.
Timing his plunge, proceeding in short, hurried bursts, Alan made it across the shadowed hold. Bulkhead to strut, to cargo net, to rear hatch, dodging junk and breathing like a marathon runner between snatches of song.
(Oxygen was getting low… he'd have to hurry.)
There was another of those computerized locking mechanisms at the engine room hatch. Didn't the European Space Agency trust people? Like, who'd they think was going to be breaking in? A space burglar?
Watching his back as best he could, Alan punched in most of the access code, blanking on the last three digits. Hovering there, one hand clinging fast to a strap, stuff colliding soundlessly all around him, Alan Tracy stared at the silver-buttoned key pad. Now what?
He was about to try calling in, when the hatch-side computer went dark. Radiation, maybe? It flickered once, then came on again, and unlocked the hatch by itself, no code required.
Huh? All around him, other things were happening; robot loading arms reaching out to snag loose crates, emergency lights cutting on, and such-like.
"Aww…" Alan cooed facetiously (hiding his wobbly relief, no matter what), "somebody loves me! That you, Iceman?"
He fully expected John to come back with a typically affectionate comment like, 'shut up', or 'get to work'. Didn't happen. Instead, words scrolled across the nearest comm screen.
'Term: Iceman not understood. Please re-input. Hatch opening in 5… 4… 3… 2… release.''
Then, for a bit, Alan was too busy dealing with smoky, gale-forcewind to read his new friend's words. Things had hardly settled, silence returning to the briefly clamorous hold, when a robot loading arm swung around, a small white box gripped in its silver claw. Beside the box's EU flag decal, written in English, were the words, Replacement oxygen filtration cartridges: standard, 12-inch cylinder. He sounded them out twice, just to be sure.
"For the cosmonauts' pressure suits?" Alan hazarded.
The comm screen flashed once, by way of answer. Okay. Alan accepted the box, and a nudge into Kuiper's engine room from the curiously gentle loading arm. Long, jointed limbs and gleaming lobster claws should have been scary, but instead, Alan felt like a kid being lifted into his mom's car. Perfectly safe.
Nor did he have to do much hunting, once inside. The unconscious cosmonauts were handed forward by a set of maintenance grapples. Overhead floodlights swiveled around to highlight the cartridge insertion points on each man's environment pack. Working quickly, Alan switched out the cylinders, a procedure he'd covered a few times in simulation. Neither man's status panel changed, the lights on their chest plates blinking a fitful, worried red, but Alan tethered them up, anyhow. TinTin was good at this stuff. She'd make something happen.
The maintenance arms slipped along their tracked pathways to help Alan maneuver his burden back through the hatch. The teenaged rescuer didn't question their help, only peering through his helmet glass at huge laser engines, revived computer screens and glittering machinery. Must have been something to see, he thought, back when she'd been in one piece.
"Thanks," Alan said casually, to whatever had re-animated Kuiper.
'Expressed appreciation noted and logged, Alan Tracy.' Glowing words scrolled across the nearest comm screen, switching to the next in line as a pair of cargo hold loading-arms took over, again.
He and his tethered passengers were passed into the main hold. Most of the loose junk had been caught and stowed, he noticed, leaving only sparking yellow smoke to swirl past him like charged fog.
A steel claw, big and strong enough to snap him in half, had taken Alan about the waist. Another guided the bobbing cosmonauts. He wasn't worried, though. For some reason (something to do with the sideways, smiling emoticon that kept flashing up on his helmet display, maybe) Alan felt entirely at ease.
Overhead lights slipped up and past, illuminating the smoggy hold. Alan's tether pulled and tugged behind him, jouncing the victims along. Other, mechanical vibrations were communicated through the loading arm and pressure suit, betraying the shudder and yaw of a dying ship.
"So long, Arm," he sort of joked, when the three of them had been conveyed to the final hatch. "You, um…"
You what? 'Take care'? 'Have a nice eternal drift'?
"You probably saved all three of us, back there. One of these days, I promise I'll come back, and tow you home to Baikonur. I promise."
Much like John and Virgil, he had a thing about machines. Alan had no idea who it was that had actually helped him. No way he could have. All he did was accept, and promise to return the favor.
One of the free loading arms, big as the boom of a dock-yard crane, unfolded itself from the overhead. It lowered very gently and, before pushing open the last hatch, gave his uplifted helmet a slight tap.
Five had come to a conclusion, using John Tracy's algorithm for such cases; Alan Tracy, version 5.0, was a 'friend'.
'Unnecessary', she replied to the analog's last statement. 'That which was Kuiper has nowbeen erased by radiation. There is nothing further to be accomplished here, Alan Tracy.'
"Yeah, well…" Black space was visible again, just past the open hatch and through the ruptured compartment. One of his father's old sayings came back to him, then. "…that's exactly the kind of defeatist thinking that kept us off the moon for forty years, Dude. I said I'd be back, and I will. Count on it."
The Atlantic Ocean, off Curacao-
"Cut comm, and get the hell out of Dodge," John had told him.
Well, John wasn't in the cockpit, was he?
Unable to simply scramble for cover like a hunted fox, Gordon brought Thunderbird 4 around, and switched his receiver back on. He might not be able to help Alan, away off in space, but he could bloody well do more than sit on his hands and wait.
Cutting through water as dark and turbulent as wood smoke, Gordon returned to the Sea Base, scanning frequencies for news. Probably get called on the carpet for it, later, but they weren't likely to sack him (duct tape, possibly; the dole, no).
The last overburdened rescue ship had lifted free of the main dome, sluggish-heavy with refugees. Another would be along soon, according to the emergency channel. Question was, how soon? There were people still trapped inside the dome, and the water continued to rise.
With a balletic maneuvering of levers and foot pedals, Gordon brought Thunderbird 4 around until the ocean base, with its half-lit domes and towering sea mount, tilted back into view.
"Carlin, from Thunderbird 4," he called. "Anyone down there in need of a lift?"
"Depends," the base commander responded calmly, over the sound of rushing fluid and creaking metal, "Where you headed?"
Smiling to himself, Gordon throttled forward.
"Oh, a bit of all over, really. Thought I might nip down t' McMurdo Sound... see how th' other half lives. I've heard those southern hemisphere lasses 're right vixens."
He'd lined up with the cleared airlock, placing the yellow Bird spot-on for docking. Rather a delicate maneuver followed, involving the portside water jets. Bit like parallel parking a lorry, underwater, with dolphins looking on.
"Hard to tell, through all that fur and goretex," Commander Carlin responded, sloshing closer to his side of the airlock with two equally sodden companions. "They do have pretty eyes, though."
The Waterbird's onboard computers analyzed the dome airlock configuration, adjusting herself to match up. Moments later, with a booming, ringing clash, dome and submarine were linked.
Two sets of hatches swung open. Commander Carlin and two other men, one a Sky Diver pilot, the other a bold file clerk, hurried into the lock, hauling the hatch shut behind them. Moving swiftly (for the flooded dome would soon collapse, taking any hangers-on for their last ride), the men waded through cold, chest-high water, splashing across the linked threshold. At the far end was yet another round hatch, painted with a big, red '4'.
The linked doors clanged shut, then sealed tight. Noisy pumps thumped to life, draining bitter sea water from Thunderbird 4's cramped airlock. Soon enough, the three men stood square upon a solid surface. Not dry, precisely, but not floundering, either.
With a sharp crash and whirring sound, the inner hatch sprang open. A red-headed, wet-suited young rescuer leaned through the opening. He had hazel eyes and a slightly lop-sided smile. Was solidly muscled, but somewhat short.
"Welcome aboard," he said.
Tracy Island, a little later-
In the grip of drug-induced sleep, John couldn't stop himself from dreaming, nor affect the vision's outcome.
He was walking across a barren, rocky landscape. Rusty sand whispered beneath an orange-pink sky, high cliffs rose to the left, and things never before seen or imagined lay just ahead.
At his side paced another man. Ken Flowers, he thought at first, though he had no idea why Ken would put on a yellow-and-black hard suit (especially with 'Mars needs women' stenciled across the back).
They drew nearer the furrowed cliffs, walking along in companionable silence, buoyed by lower gravity and something else. Something that put a big grin on the… Marine? Wasn't he a US Marine… and... combat engineer?
At any rate, the smile on the man's dark face was wide, his loping stride easy and accustomed. You got the trick of walking here, pretty quickly. As for John, he might not know what to do with the mood that had crept in to curl warmly up inside him… but he knew better than to scare it off. 'Happy' was so rare a condition, he hardly had a word for it, except around engines and horses.
No time to dwell on it, though, for something entirely unexpected happened at the dark cliffs. With a sudden, sharp 'CRACK', a plug of pitted ice shot away from the rock face. Water jetted forth, fast and hard as a fire-hose. It glittered like molten silver, hissing hundreds of yards through the air, to boil away before reaching the dust-dry ground.
They stared, the man beside him cursing softly, wonderingly, in several languages. John was less expressive, but no less awed. To see this, to be here, with these people (there were others, he realized suddenly, and a ship) meant more than he had boxes to hide it all in.
There was stick in his gauntleted hand, suddenly, so he wrote with it, scratching symbols in the parched, rusty sand; trying to explain something to… to… (Why couldn't he remember the man's name?) But, the symbols kept shifting and spinning, the capital 'A's and lower-case 'q's gathering in a buzzing black mass, like flies on a dead steer. Then the stick broke in his hand, and the entire scene shattered around him, depositing John in a narrow, metal-railed bed.
He sat up, filled with that peculiar desolation left behind by lost dreams. Someone had placed a crocheted afghan over the white sheets of his sick-bed… and there was a bottle of apple juice and a plate of sugar cookies on the rolling tray table at his side. A picture, too. The family, back when it had been nearly whole.
In the room's dim background, machinery beeped and hummed. Small lights flickered through the curtain surrounding his bed. John tried very hard to gather himself, but something was wrong. Something terribly important had been torn away from him… and he didn't even know what it was.
Stiffly, with a sore arm and head, still, he climbed out of bed. Quiet as smoke, he parted the curtains and stole out of the dim, chirping medical lab. Through deep-carpeted hallways and luxuriant chambers to his own rooms, where he put on hiking boots, khaki pants, a black tee-shirt, and his orange Chinook windbreaker (the one with the Princeton crest). Then, to the kitchen, in silence and stealth, for beer.
He intended to hike to the observatory, and get drunk. To hell with the moonless dark, and whatever medications they'd doped him with. All that mattered now was numbness, finding a way to stop caring so deeply about something he couldn't quite recall.
The exhausted family slept on, never hearing the opened refrigerator and clinking bottles, nor the soft footfalls of a young man determined to escape fond embraces and kind words. Determined to escape, period. Not that he was entirely alone.
Something lit the trail markers as John Tracy approached, and doused them again behind him, illuminating with extra brightness the trail's many windfalls and washouts. His computer, of course.
They couldn't communicate, out here. Something had happened to his ID chip, he'd deliberately left off his wrist comm, and there weren't any computer screens closer than the trail head. Still, like the blanket and cookies, her presence mattered.
It was a long, wet hike, steadily colder as he climbed his way up the dormant volcano. John ducked broken branches and clambered over fallen logs, startling fruit bats and tree frogs by the score. Stars peeked in and out amid shreds of ragged cloud, seeming to flicker in the gusty wind.
John saw the observatory comm screen flashing, long before he got close enough to read it. Lighthouse-like, the bluish glow guided him upward. Battered, wet and scratched, determinedly thinking of nothing at all, John hiked the last few yards, reaching the concrete observation deck just before sunrise.
Using his fist and the metal railing, he opened a beer, then wandered over to the comm pedestal.
'John Tracy,' the screen read.
After a moment, he responded.
"Go ahead, Five."
The blinking words were immediately replaced.
'Unable to initiate full scan. Please verify current physical and chemical status.'
He shrugged, still gripping the un-tasted beer. Apparently, his long walk had concerned her. Sitting down upon one of the deck's concrete benches, John set aside the beer and rested a bit, elbows balanced on his legs, and head in hands.
"I'm good," he told her.
She switched to direct sonic brain stimulation for the next bit, as he wasn't looking up.
'Recent John Tracy activity contradicts this statement. Unauthorized removal from maintenance facility and consumption of volatile fluids indicate physical and/or chemical fluctuation.'
He had to smile a little, at that. In the east, the sun seemed poised to launch its assault, painting cloud and sky a tumbling riot of gold and red and violet. Earth was so wet and warm, compared with… with Mars?
"Yeah," he sighed, craving alcohol a little less, now. "Maybe fluctuating is a good word for it. I'm just… confused, or something. I had a dream… Hell, I don't know, Five. Thanks for asking, though."
The computer was silent for a long second or two, then came back with,
'John Tracy, given the choice, do you select disclosure, or safety?'
He lifted his head a bit higher, shaking back silver-blond hair to stare at the screen.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded, feeling something clawing around inside him. Bits and pieces of things… rescues, the Hood, Drew, head trauma… his dad… whirled, stabbed and spun away again.
"Five, what are you trying not to say?" Then, "Disclosure, dammit! If you know what's going on, for God's sake, tell me."
So, she did.