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27: How To Win Friends and Rescue People

1: Upstart

Kanaho, of a bright, lovely tropic afternoon-

Five young men sat round an ornate wrought-iron table, partly shaded by its rakishly tilting umbrella. Above them, the umbrella's floral cloth rustled and snapped, stirred by a wind which had hurried, panting hard, from the sea. The ocean itself could be heard and smelt, but not seen. There were too many hedges, trees and walls in the way for plain line-of-sight; but nothing held back that distant thundering noise, or the wet and salt-heavy air.

Closer to, one could detect chlorine, sun-block, and the yeasty aroma of beer. Sunshine glowed from stucco'd walls, splintered off rippling pool water, warmed the terra-cotta tiled floor. It reflected, as well, off of mirrored sunglass panes and the green, curving surface of the young men's bottles. Flowers and vines and palm fronds nodded agreement with the wind, while colored birds like spilled candy darted and flashed overhead.

Not everyone nursed a beer, of course. Alan, the blond youngest, was well content with a Sprite (And with keeping his shoulders back and gut in, attempting to seem as confident and strong as the rest. But anyways, in his view, beer tasted nasty. Just saying, is all…).

Scott dominated the conversation, as usual; Scott and Virgil, with sometimes John tossing comments in the air like slim daggers, to watch them spin and then catch them, again. But he never had talked much.

Scott leaned forward a little: Mister Mirrored-sunglasses-muscular-Air Force-Recruitment-Poster Guy. Gesturing dismissively with one hand (his mother's old habit, not Jeff's) the pilot said,

"Yeah, but… 'Rescue International'? It just sounds funny, Virge. Backward, if you know what I mean."

He had Indian-black hair (very straight) and extremely blue eyes that no one could see behind military-issue sunglasses. He wore tan shorts and leather deck shoes, like most of the others, but no shirt.

Virgil shook his head, digging both figurative heels in for a long fight. His wavy brown hair was not so dark as Scott's, and his eyes were not blue, but warm brown. Of all the five brothers, in fact, Virgil most resembled their dad.

"I think it sounds more sophisticated, that way," he insisted stubbornly. "Besides… it puts what we plan to be doing first, instead of just in there, somewhere. John…? Help me out, here. What d'you think?"

John was a lanky young man. An astronaut (more or less) who tended to overflow chairs and bump his head a lot on low doorways. Like Alan, he was extremely blond; in a sun-bleached, driftwood sort of way. But his eyes were like Scott's: gem-quality blue-violet. In age he'd occurred between Scott and Virgil, and well before Gordon. Not that John pushed that whole "second in charge" thing, much. Having just returned from Mars, normal gravity and wet, heavy air were something of a trial for him. Sooner or later, he was sure to adjust. Now, though, John shrugged his thin, peeling shoulders and said,

"Whatever. Calling a T-rex 'Fluffy' doesn't get a bridle and saddle on, Virgil. All we've got so far is one… what did you call it…? Thunderbird? Yeah. 'Within-a-hundred-mile-radius Rescue' might be more accurate."

Virgil leaned over to give his newly returned brother an affable, one-armed shove. He'd have toppled him from the chair, had John not twisted quickly aside.

"You're a real ray of sunshine, Johnny. Y'know that?"

The astronaut smiled indifferently.

"I do my humble best," he said, turning his attention back to beer (which Mars had desperately lacked).

"Actually," cut in Gordon (the only one present more sunburnt than John), "It seems clear that what we're best advised t' do is begin modestly, with no fanfare, as such. A few rescues at a time, under deep cover, while Brains stamps out assorted new 'Birds, and then gradually we increase our range. Dead simple, really."

Sitting, Gordon Tracy gave the impression of being taller than he actually was, owing to a great deal of Olympics-forged muscle. He was spectacularly red-haired and thick as a brick, sometimes, but one had to make allowances for inhaled chlorine, repeated concussions and Skydiver launch-trauma. (Not to mention Alan's unfortunate influence.) Sunlight spattered from his coppery hair like the brandy-flare on a Christmas pudding, as Gordon turned to nudge his fidgety younger brother.

"Not heard from everyone, yet, have we? Alan, care t' put in your bit?"

The youngster grinned wickedly.

"Sure thing, bro, thanks for asking. The basic facts are these: long as I get to fly something… or drive it… nobody cares what it's called. International Rescue… Rescue International… who gives a flip? Dude, just pick a name and get started!"

John cocked his head to one side slightly, but you had to be very fine-tuned for gesture, to notice the movement. Producing a quarter from his pocket (below the long-sleeved black tee-shirt) he said,

"Okay. 'Flip' it is. Heads, IR… tails, RI. Virgil, call it in the air."

Iron chair legs scraped across tile as five alert and curious young men shifted round the table for a better glimpse at their future. John balanced the quarter just so on one thumb, and then flipped it heavenward. Glittering like his gold wedding band and silver-blond hair, the coin rose, peaked, and began to descend.

"Tails!" Virgil called out, leaning forward intently. John fielded the quarter just above table-top level, bringing his hand up and around, then slapping the coin on the back of his right arm. (Theoretically ambidextrous, he did tend to favor his left.)

"Scott," he said, preparing to move his hand and reveal the choice, "Will you do the honors?"

"Sure. Let her rip, little brother."

With his usual lack of embellishment, John uncovered the quarter.

"Heads!" Scott announced, flashing a quick, triumphant smile. "IR wins the toss. Read it and weep."

Well, Virgil Tracy didn't weep (settling back into his chair and reaching for another beer) but he did sigh.

"What else do we need besides a big-ass cargo carrier?" he asked, twisting the cap from his bottle. "For facing different rescue scenarios, I mean."

Scott considered a moment. Then,

"Isn't that Hackenbacker's department? And dad's?"

"Maybe so, but since we're the ones gonna be handling all this equipment out in the field… with, like John says, not enough 'Birds… it kind of makes sense to figure out what we need ahead of time, and put our two cents in. Am I right?"

He glanced sideways at John, who had mostly tuned out again to attempt balancing his quarter edgewise on the bumpy glass tabletop.

"Works for me," John replied, not looking up. "I suggest spacecraft. Something fast and long-range… with an orbital docking station."

"Submarines," said Gordon, jarring the table with a sudden, eager movement. The coin clattered onto its side again. But John, like Sisyphus, was a patient man. Certain dimly-recalled events had given him a definite sense of perspective. Gordon, too, soldiered on.

"At least one, that is t' say. F'r undersea rescues and suchlike."

"And something that could dig straight to the core! With a ray-gun, for battling zombies!" countered Alan.

"Right. Meanwhile… back in the real world," said Scott, reclaiming his brothers' straying attention, "we'll need a way to put someone on the spot in a hurry. Back when the amphitheatre came apart… Wow. Remember when we thought it was just a bunch of damn terrorists? Anyway, I noticed at the time that it took awhile for dad to reach and consolidate the available resources. How about a… a sort of on-site mobile command center?"

Made sense, and everyone said so, but Virgil was concerned about another matter, entirely.

"What about aliens, Scott? I almost got killed under that amphitheatre, when a Mysteron seized the shield generator and practically brought down the tunnel. Can we defend our systems against possession? Because having planes and equipment turn on us in the middle of a rescue would pretty much un-save the day."

"And Father Arnold's more of a businessman than an exorcist," said John, putting his quarter away. "But that's okay. I've randomized the anti-viral code. It'll keep mutating faster than they can respond… hopefully. Just a matter of staying on top of the situation and preventing selection pressure from evolving a better, faster Mysteron. That would be bad."

"But you'd be famous," Virgil kidded. "They'd name the new species… let's see… 'Mysteroni Johnii' or something like that."

"Pass," said his ice-blond brother, just about the same time that their father roared:

"BOYS!"

Jeff's echoing bellow originated from outside the house, because there was not one sleeping baby in there, but two; small Kara Jane, and Richard Grant Tracy, their new brother.