He stood looking down into the opened portal of the large engine. His jaw tightened as he looked over the confusing array of motherboards and other components that made up the inner working. At last he spied an almost insignificant piece tucked behind the wiring. With an evil grin, he reached in with his wire clippers and removed his prize.
Looking it over, he grunted. The information he had obtained had said it would be blue in color, but in actuality it was closer to dark green. With a mental shrug, he pulled out the decoy piece he had built. Holding up both pieces, he decided they were similar enough, especially since the portal would soon be sealed, and any further inspection would be done by remote imaging.
Having his prize, he carelessly placed his useless decoy, then closed the portal. He turned to the man standing at the other end of the scaffolding, and with a sneer, said, "Seal this, my slave."
The man, dressed in a clean suit, moved with a slack-jawed jerkiness that belied his MIT training. Like a puppet, he moved to the portal, and using a computerized electronic wrench, closed it up, ending with a thumbprint scan that verified his identity.
Satisfied, the puppet master's eyes flashed gold as he said, "You will go to your office and sit down. When the telephone rings, you will awaken with no memory of our dealings. On your birthday, you will get into your car, take it into the mountains, and drive it over a cliff."
With another sneer, the evil man left. There had been no true need for his last instruction to his hapless pawn, but it would be entertaining to see if his sway would hold until the man's date with destiny in three month's time.
TB TB TB TB
Several years later…
Scott Tracy sat at his father's desk and rubbed his eyes. The technical specifications that he was reviewing with his brother Virgil were intricate and demanding. They'd been at it for over an hour, and as far as Scott could tell, they'd likely still be at it for hours to come. "You know, Virg, I think we've been had."
Virgil, who actually reveled in the kind of engineering minutiae in front of them, looked up with a smile. "Nobody ever said Dad was a dummy."
Scott grunted. Their father had asked them to help review the specs for the new commercial hoverjet that Tracy Enterprises was building. As soon as he and Virgil had agreed, Jeff Tracy had left the office/cum/lounge saying he had to check on something with Brains. They hadn't seen him since.
"Okay, look at this impeller control motherboard. Weren't we going to upgrade that to the new 7Wx series?" Scott pointed to a schematic.
"Yes, but Dad nixed it. The 7Wx adds over 10,000.00 to the price and Dad wants to keep this economical."
Scott sighed. He was used to having only the best for his own use, and sometimes cost cutting rankled. Hearing footsteps coming from the hallway, Scott looked up, readying a wry comment for his errant father.
"Hi guys! Didja miss me?" To Scott's mild surprise, instead of his father, his younger brother Gordon appeared. The redhead had been away from home attending a conference on Jeff's behalf.
Virgil raised an eyebrow and deadpanned, "Have you been gone?"
"Aw, c'mere and gimme a big hug, you old teddy bear!" The young man put out his arms and headed for his brother.
"Touch me and die."
Gordon's eyes lit with an unholy glee, and Scott covered his eyes and shook his head. Virgil never seemed to get it that Gordon always took threats to be challenges.
As the young man went into manic little brother stalking mode, Virgil narrowed his eyes, daring him to try it. Scott considered intervening, but in truth, he was glad that his brother had made it home safely. Gordon's joie-de-vivre had been missed, although Scott would never admit it out loud.
"Hey! You're home!" Alan came in from the balcony, a big grin on his face.
Gordon turned, and his own smile blossomed. "Alan, my main man! Gimme the love!"
Gordon reached out his hand, and Alan grabbed it, and together they started an intricate series of moves, intended to be their 'secret' handshake. As the performance, and there was no doubt it was a performance, continued, Virgil shook his head and turned back to the specs littering his father's desk.
Scott tried to concentrate, but it was impossible. With his head down to give the appearance of studying the paperwork, Scott looked over at Virgil, who shared his pose, and also the small smile and twinkle in the eye. In silent agreement, the two eldest Tracy brothers hunkered down to wait out the show.
The 'handshake' had devolved into a series of bumps and grinds when a deep voice called from the hallway. "Gordon! Welcome home, son!"
Jeff Tracy came striding in, a welcoming smile on his face. Gordon and Alan broke apart, and Gordon moved to shake his father's outstretched hand. "Thanks, Dad. It's good to be back."
"How was California?"
"It was great! I surfed Huntington, I dove Catalina, I partied Malibu…"
With a mock frown, Jeff asked, "Did you conference Pepperdine?"
"Aw! I knew there was something I forgot!"
"Uh huh. When can I expect your report, son?"
"I can give you a preliminary right now if you want. I've got some documentation for the Isis Project that's pretty cool. Or if you're busy, I can put a full formal report on your desk by tomorrow afternoon."
Jeff nodded, then looked askance at the spec sheets covering his desk. "Why don't you go get that documentation, and we'll look it over down by the pool."
Scott turned a look on his father. Before he could comment, though, the portrait on the wall of his brother John lit up, the eyes flashing, indicating an incoming call. Jeff moved toward the desk as Scott relinquished his seat, gathering up papers as he stood.
Hardly missing a beat, Jeff hit the control that turned the portrait into a live feed of his middle son who was currently monitoring communications from onboard Thunderbird Five. "Go ahead, John."
"Father, I've got a call from Ashbury Manufacturing. Asteroid One is in trouble."
Scott's antenna twitched. Asteroid One was a commercial venture that had been in the news on and off for the last several years.
Charles Ashbury was a wildly successful, if somewhat eccentric, entrepreneur, who had concocted a plan to harvest rare metals from the asteroid belt. He had commissioned a space flight that took a team of scientists and astronauts out to bring back a large mineral bearing rock by means of a series of nuclear engines he had designed himself.
Scott had followed the progress of the project with great interest. His father had considered the idea foolish and a waste of time and energy. Scott knew that was in large part because the elder Tracy simply disliked Chuck Asbury.
Scott held no such prejudice, and had actually bought a couple hundred shares of the project. It wasn't a huge investment, but it gave him an interest in the success of the venture.
"What kind of trouble, son?" Jeff frowned.
"One of the nuclear engines is malfunctioning. They haven't been able to find the problem, and so far, they've been unable to shut it down."
"All right, and what do they want from us?"
John's eyes widened slightly at his father's indifferent tone. "Uh, well, they may need us to go out there and rescue the people on that asteroid."
Alan, who had been standing by the door, immediately started moving toward the ultramodern couch facing his father's desk. Gordon, who was currently sharing the couch with Scott, got up to move away – then paused at his father's gesture.
"John, how far out are they? I understood they were at least a year away."
"Yes, sir, they're actually about 15 months out. I've already run a projection, and it would take Thunderbird Three 145 days to reach them."
"And what exactly is the issue with the engine?"
"It's misfiring sporadically. It's making it impossible to keep the asteroid on course. The latest projection has it missing its final orbit position by at least 15 degrees. Dad, at the rate they're going, they could actually hit the moon, or even the earth."
"All right, son. Send Brains all of the information. We'll have him take a look, see what he can do."
"But Dad, we have to get out there!" Alan exclaimed. "Those people's lives are in danger!"
Jeff raised an eyebrow. "How about it, John? Is there an imminent threat? Something that will come to a head in 145 days?"
John seemed to cast around for an answer, but finally gave up. "No sir. As far as the team on the asteroid can tell, the engine is not in any danger of exploding, or releasing radiation. But Dad, the closer that rock gets, the harder it will be to divert it. Shouldn't we try to deal with it before it gets to an earth threatening position?"
Jeff looked around the room. Scott knew his father was seeing five sets of concerned eyes, but he worked out what Jeff would say even as his dad opened his mouth. "We'll let Brains look over the data, come up with a plan. Don't fret boys, we won't let the damn thing collide with the moon. But 145 days out means 145 days back, and we simply don't have the resources to send two fifths of our team out there for the better part of a year."
Scott nodded, backing his father up. Alan, ever impatient, was frowning, but Scott saw echoing nods from Virgil and John. Gordon, on the other hand, had an odd little smile on his face. Jeff saw it, too. "What?"
With twinkling eyes, Gordon turned to Virgil. "Just think of the possibilities, Virg. With Scott and Alan gone, you would be the big brother, the field commander, and I could be the pampered, spoiled baby brother."
"That might work for you two, but it doesn't change a damn thing for me," John commented dryly.
Scott turned a gimlet eye on his brother. "What makes you think it would be me and Al? It'd make more sense to send our two primary astronauts, don't you think? John and Alan would be gone, and it would be just you, me and Virgil." Scott made sure it sounded like a threat.
"Who you callin' spoiled?"
Alan's tone echoed Scott's, but Gordon just grinned, nudging Virgil in the ribs. "See? Think of how peaceful it would be without them."
Virgil held up a hand. "Did I not say 'touch me and die'?"
With a snort of amusement, Jeff shook his head. "All right, boys, that's enough. John, get that information to Brains as soon as possible. I'll want you and Alan both to assist him in his assessment. Scott, you and Virgil get back to work on those specs. Gordon, go get that information on the Isis project, and meet me at the pool."
To a series of acknowledgements, Jeff got up from his desk and headed to the balcony stairway that would lead him down to the pool. John signed off, and Gordon disappeared down the hallway, leaving Scott, Virgil, and a cranky-looking Alan to stare after them all.
TB TB TB TBOne year later
Scott grinned over at his co-pilot, Virgil. "Smooth as silk."
"Definitely a grandma ride," Virgil returned the grin from behind the protective goggles covering half of his face. Opening up a comm line, his tone was professional. "Palmdale Tower, going to horizontal flight."
"Roger that, HX14, horizontal flight."
Scott flipped a series of overhead switches, then took hold of the yoke. "Whoa, what was that?"
Virgil was frowning at his board, shaking his head. It was the second day of flight tests for the new Tracy Enterprises commercial hoverjet. This was the first transition from hover to horizontal flight test, and the shudder that had run through jet had surprised them both. "I don't know, Scott. My board is green."
"All right, tell the field we're bringing her back in in horizontal mode."
"FAB," Virgil reopened his communication line. "Palmdale, we're bringing her down. There was a problem with transition."
"What kind of problem, son?" Jeff's voice sounded through their headphones as if the man were standing next to them rather than halfway around the world.
"Not sure, Dad. All of my sensors are green, but we felt a definite shudder during the transition."
"All right. Don't try to go back to hover mode. Just land her as is."
"We're way ahead of you, Dad. Scott's on final approach already."
Scott listened to his brother with half an ear. He was already on a separate line with tower control. "Palmdale Tower, I'm going to do a low and slow. Give me eyeballs on this beast, Ted."
"Understood, Scott. We're waiting for you."
Scott licked his lips against the sudden dryness in his mouth. For all of his reputation as a crack test pilot, he didn't like surprises when he was flying. The shudder was definitely a surprise.
For eight hours the previous day, he and Virgil had put the HX14 through its paces in vertical flight. From the get go, he had loved the responsiveness of the machine. It hadn't faltered once, and Scott had been sure that today's tests would go just as smoothly.
He did a pass of the tower from left to right, then flew out over the California desert to do a careful, miles wide bank before taking a second slightly higher pass, showing his underbelly, from right to left. "Palmdale, how do I look?"
"She looks good, HX14. I've scrambled the fire squad just in case. Bring her in, Scott."
"All right, Ted. Standby."
Scott flew out over the desert, again making a wide shallow turn before lining up with the runway. He glanced over at his brother. "Uh, would you consider bailing out? I'll take her up to 5000 feet, spot you right next to the tower."
Before Virgil could explode, Scott continued, apologetically. "Had to ask, man. You know that, right?"
He watched as his brother swallowed his ire. Still, his tone was dangerous when he spoke. "Scott, if you don't have faith in this ship, we can take her up to 5000 feet, and you can jump. I designed this thing, and shudder be damned, it's a safe ship. Let's just get her on the ground so I can figure out what happened."
"Fair enough," Scott replied. Virgil's confidence bolstered his own, and he turned back to the task at hand. He landed the jet with barely a bounce, and ran it all the way out, applying the brakes tentatively at first, then with more authority.
Reaching the end of the runway, he turned the big jet around and taxied her to the hangar, waving jauntily to the fire crew as he passed them by. "Remind me to send some steaks or something to those guys."
"Tell you what. You spring for the steaks, and I'll buy the lobster."
Scott nodded as he brought the jet to a halt. He started in on the shutdown checklist as a herd of technicians swarmed the ship. Sensing his brother jittering next to him, he said, "I'll cover the shut down, you go keep the nerds under control."
"Hey, I resemble that remark," Virgil said, as he scrambled out of his seat.
Scott smiled as he continued flipping switches. It took him a good twenty minutes to complete his checklist, and with a slight frown, he made a notation on his clipboard to get with Brains on ways to automate the shutdown procedures.
He got up from his seat and stretched to relieve the tension in his spine. With a satisfied sigh, he headed for the hatch. He heard the roaring before he ever got to the steps down to the ground.
With a frown, he peeked out of the hatchway. Halfway down the fuselage, he saw Virgil, beet red in the face yelling at a quailing technician. Frown deepening, he hopped to the ground, and hustled to his brother's side. "Virg, calm down, man, before you blow a blood vessel."
Virgil turned a murderous look on his brother. "Don't tell me to calm down! Don't you tell me to calm down! Some effing asshole practically killed us, so don't you tell me to calm down!"
The technician had scurried away as soon as Virgil's attention was diverted. Scott crossed his arms and cocked an eyebrow and waited.
The pose seemed to infuriate Virgil all the more. He turned even redder and gestured angrily at an open hatch. "Look at this. Just look. Some idiot installed a GK3 chip instead of a 6Wx. It overloaded and burned out the entire system. Scott, if you'd tried to take her back to hover, the whole damn ship would have exploded!"
Scott felt his stomach clench at the news, but he didn't let it show on his face. "All right. We'll find out who did it and fire the bastard. Still not worth you having a stroke."
In the face of Scott's calm, Virgil couldn't keep on with his anger. Finally with a sigh, he said, "It'll take weeks to repair this. We don't have the time."
Scott heard the disappointment in his brother's tone. It was a disappointment that he shared. He had hoped to complete the flight tests on the HX14 by the end of the week, because next Tuesday, he was scheduled to fly with Alan and Brains out to Asteroid One to do a repair on their faltering nuclear engine.
"Tell you what. We'll change out Gordon for John before we leave. Has two pluses. First, you can have John as co-pilot when you're ready to test her, and second, well, Gordon on Thunderbird Five. 'Nuff said."
Virgil snorted a laugh, and Scott relaxed a bit. Now that his brother was calmer, he turned to the opened maintenance hatch. "So, didn't you inspect this part of the ship yourself?"
Virgil ducked his head. "Honest to God, Scott, I don't know how I could have missed it."
"Maybe you didn't."
Virgil's head came up at the hard tone. "What do you mean?"
"This is just like Asteroid One. Or did you think we were immune?"
Turning suddenly pale, Virgil covered his mouth. In the year since Asteroid One's nuclear engine had first malfunctioned, an inch-by-inch inspection of its systems had revealed that a crucial control chip had been stolen and replaced with a useless decoy chip.
The theft seemed to point to one technician who had subsequently died in an auto accident. Brains was confident that it was a case of industrial espionage, but the stolen chip had yet to surface as far as anyone could tell.
Scott nodded his head. "We'll get security to review the surveillance tapes, see if anyone showed an interest in this panel."
Jaw working, Virgil nodded. "There's no point in sticking around here. I meant it when I said the repairs will take weeks."
Glancing at the melted wires and warped components, Scott had to agree. Patting his stomach, he said, "Just as well. I've been pining for Grandma's cooking."
With a smile, Virgil said wistfully, "If we call ahead, maybe she'll make us a pork roast."
Scott slapped his brother's shoulder. "Let's get out of here."
The two Tracys walked side by side out of the hangar.
TB TB TB TBTen days later
Scott scratched at his stubbly chin and thought for the fifth time in as many days that he should never have agreed to Alan's suggestion of a beard growing contest. They'd been in flight for only a week, but already, he'd had to trim his beard twice.
He had no doubt that he was going to win. Alan's beard was coming in, but oddly, it was the color of Gordon's red hair. As much as the itching made Scott crazy, the reddish color of the beard was making Alan just plain nuts.
Scott glanced toward the third seat in the cabin, and felt a twinge of sympathy for Brains. Where the Tracy genes insured a full healthy growth, Brains' beard was hardly worthy of the name. The engineer had only managed a few scraggly strands. If Scott had known before the flight that Brains couldn't grow facial hair, he would have refused the contest.
"Coming up on final course correction in three… two… one…" Alan intoned, pushing several keys on his computer keyboard to deliver the instruction. "Thunderbird Three to base. Johnny, can you confirm the course correction for me?"
"John's on a break. I'll confirm it for you." Gordon popped into view. Scott carefully bit his lip to keep from laughing. The younger Tracy had dyed his hair to match Alan's sun-bright shade of blond in a show of support. He'd wanted to grow out a beard, but their father had nixed the idea.
Gordon looked down at his computer and frowned. "Uh, are you aiming at the sun, there, Al?"
"Gordon…" Scott said sternly, "Quit fooling around."
"Move." Gordon disappeared from the screen, and suddenly, there was John. "Thunderbird Three, your course is confirmed."
"Thanks, Johnny. I estimate reaching the asteroid in two hours, thirteen minutes."
"I agree. It should be visible to the naked eye pretty soon."
"Uh, not uh, yet, John," Brains said, his eye glued to a camera view. "It is fully visible, but only with uh, magnification."
John suddenly looked to one side. "Sorry fellas, we've got a rescue call coming in. Gotta go."
Scott felt a twinge of consternation. In the three weeks before lift off, International Rescue had only been called out once, but if this call resulted in a rescue, it would be the third in a week.
Feeling Alan's eyes on him, he barked, "What?"
"Nothing," the blond replied with a smirk in his voice. "Hey, either of you guys hungry?"
Scott completed his check of the navigation boards. There was no reason to believe John's confirmation of their course was inaccurate, but frankly, Scott had nothing better to do.
Truth of the matter was Thunderbird Three did not need two crewmen. When International Rescue was still on the drawing board, Jeff had balked at the idea of his then teenage son being entrusted with the big, powerful rocket. Not willing to let his father crush his little brother's belief in himself, Scott had suggested that Brains build in additional controls to convince Alan that TB3 was a two man job.
If Scott were to be honest with himself, he'd have admitted that Alan was a top flight astronaut. But secretly, Scott had an ulterior motive for not admitting it: he liked flying Thunderbird Three almost as much as Thunderbird One. Almost.
"What have you got, Al?"
"I was thinking we should break out one of Grandma's casseroles. Once we get there, who knows when we'll have time to eat?"
"Sounds like a plan."
"Okay, back in five."
The younger man headed downship to the small galley. Scott glanced over at Brains again, but the man was in full science geek mode, and likely unwilling to engage in small talk.
With a sigh, Scott opened up a link with Earth. "Thunderbird Three to Base. John, you there?"
"Yeah, I'm here, Scott."
"So, what's the action? Is there a rescue?"
"No, it was a false alarm. Some kid fell over a cliff, but local SAR has it under control."
"Good. Listen, can you upload those month end reports we were talking about? I've got some time to kill, might as well be productive."
There was a low comment from off screen, and John suddenly smirked. Scott narrowed his eyes. "What?"
John smiled sweetly and shrugged, "Nothing."
"It sounded like something to me."
Gordon pushed into view. "Actually, we were just talking about various bird calls we hear around the island…"
John shouldered his brother out of the way. "Knock it off. Sorry about that, Scott. He hasn't had his nap this afternoon. You sure you want those reports? Virg said he'd do them as soon as he finished up on Buggy."
Taking a breath, Scott shook his head. "Just send the reports."
"Okay, sure thing, Scott."
Scott glanced over at Brains, but the engineer gave no indication that he had heard the exchange. He knew Gordon would have made some sort of nasty crack, had John not intervened. For the life of him, he had no clue what birdcalls had to do with anything, or what, if anything, he'd done to piss his younger brother off. Sighing, he turned back to his own screen, where the promised reports had appeared. With a sigh, he started in.
A few minutes later, he was glad to set them aside, as Alan entered, the mouth-watering smell of one of their grandmother's casseroles preceding him.
"Gawd, that smells good," Scott said, licking his lips.
"I know. Nothing like a few days of rations to make Grandma's cooking smell all that much better."
Scott nodded as he accepted his zero-grav bowl filled with an aromatic stew. Alan handed a second bowl to Brains who mumbled his thanks, then sat down at his station. He frowned at the report on Scott's screen. "What's that?"
Scott swallowed a mouthful of stew and shrugged, "Month end reports."
Alan wrinkled his nose, but didn't say anything, instead shoveling a spoonful of stew into his mouth. Scott continued working as he ate, and by the time he was done, he had already completed two of the ubiquitous reports.
His brother, who was busy at his pilot station suddenly exclaimed, "Hey look, there she is!"
Scott looked up at the screen, and sure enough there was a small bright dot. As he watched, the dot slowly enlarged, the only visual proof of the speed at which they flew.
"Okay, so we're ready then, right?" Scott asked his colleagues.
"FAB, uh, Scott."
"We were born ready. You know that," Alan responded with a grin.
Scott grinned back and offered his brother a high five. Alan slapped hands with him, and with a look of fierce determination, turned back to his control panel.
Within the next 90 minutes, the asteroid grew from a shining dot, to a mountain-sized behemoth. Scott had known the dimensions of the thing from the reports he had received, but the reality was startling.
Roughly rounded, the asteroid covered the entire field of view and they were still several hundred kilometers out. What had seemed like a great idea several years ago, now looked like folly to Scott. If this asteroid were to hit the earth, the consequences would be catastrophic, as in "worldwide extinction" catastrophic.
Scott ruthlessly suppressed his misgivings. The answer was obvious. Don't let the damn thing anywhere near Earth. His attention was diverted as Alan announced final maneuvers.
Alan took the big ship off automatic control, and grabbed the steering yoke like Thunderbird Three was one of his racing cars. With Scott and Brains looking on, the young astronaut directed the ship in a wide circle, to bring them to the back of the asteroid.
When they reached the 'darkside,' Scott couldn't help his whistle of awe. Alan's course was bringing them fairly close to one of the big nuclear engines driving the asteroid on. The venting port was blasting blue white fire into space, a trail at least a couple hundred yards long, and with a circumference of 212 feet. Scott knew that dimension from his reading.
What his reading hadn't told him was how downright beautiful the exhaust stream would be. "Pretty."
Alan grinned, "Yeah, it is, isn't it?"
Brains, who had been just as entranced, shook it off and snorted. "Alan, can you take us out ten uh, miles or so? I'd like to uh, get a general overview of the uh, engine placement."
Alan gunned the ship, and within a few minutes, had them well to the rear of the asteroid. Spinning the ship in place, he put the asteroid in the dead center of the scanners. "How's that, Brains?"
Brains was concentrating on the placement of the engines, and he simply nodded, distractedly. Scott and Alan shared an eye-rolling glance, then checked out the view themselves.
From this distance, the ring of mighty engines were mere pinpricks of light on the surface of the asteroid. Scott kept his eyes on the lights in the upper left quadrant, and sure enough, after a few minutes, one of them stuttered and fell dark.
Alan's gloved finger thrust out. "There she is."
Scott nodded, and looked over at Brains. "Brains? Seen enough? Ready to get to work?"
The engineer startled from his scrutiny, nodded. "Uh, yes. Yes, I am. Let's uh, do this!"
Tickled by his friend's enthusiasm, Scott opened up communications. "Asteroid One, this is Thunderbird Three on approach. Can you give us a vector?"
"Thunderbird Three, welcome to Asteroid One. We're mighty glad to see you. Sending vector now."
Scott eyed the transmitted data as he replied, "Thank you, Asteroid One. We'll be with you in uh, eight minutes. Thunderbird Three, out."
Alan nodded his agreement as he concentrated on his delicate dance of thrusters and braking engines. Scott concentrated on his own station, making sure that Alan's moves would put them where they needed to be.
Soon they were flying over oddly earth-like hills and valleys. Scott spotted several geodesic domes that were used for hydroponic farming as well as for living quarters.
As they came in close, Scott saw the Universal Dock standing straight out from the top of a small dome attached by tubes to a much larger dome. Both domes were situated on a large plateau almost a mile from the nearest engine.
Alan had the dock in his crosshairs, and when they connected, there was barely a bump. "Good job, Alan."
Alan smiled at his big brother. "You had any doubt?"
"Not a one. Let's get this show on the road," Scott said as he unbuckled his safety harness. With a practiced push, he floated over to the elevator that would take them to the lower decks where the ship was mated to the base.
All three men boarded the elevator. It was a tight fit, but the trip only lasted a few moments, and then they were spilling out into the ready room. Scott headed straight for the exterior hatch, where he studied the controls to make sure the seal was tight, and a breathable atmosphere awaited them on the other side.
Satisfied, he looked back at his comrades. He felt a twinge at the sight. While both Alan and Brains were squared away, wearing their shipsuits like a uniform, the facial hair gave them both a scruffy look. Knowing he looked the same, he sighed, and asked, "Ready?"
"Absolutely," came Alan's confident reply.
With a short nod, Scott triggered the hatch control and the door slid open. Waiting on the other side were two men, both of whom Scott immediately recognized. One was tall, gray-haired and distinguished looking. The other was shorter with a wild untrimmed beard and an even wilder look in his eye.
The tall man stepped forward and offered his hand. "Welcome aboard Asteroid One. I am Captain Singh. This is Mr. Asbury."
Scott took the proffered hand and shook it. "How do you do. I'm Scott, this is Alan, and this is Hy."
There ensued a short back and forth as everyone shook hands and offered greetings. When the formalities were over, Captain Singh gestured to the tube. "Will you gentlemen join us in a conference room?"
Scott grimaced slightly, "Well, yes, Hy and Alan will join you. I'd rather stay here. If you've got some people that would like to help, we've brought you folks some fresh food that I'd like to get unloaded."
Asbury's eyes lit up. Captain Singh wasn't so easily fooled, though. He obviously realized that in addition to offloading supplies, Scott would be guarding his ship. Still, he accepted the necessity and with real warmth said, "Thank you. It is most kind of you. I will send porters."
Singh gestured for Brains and Alan to proceed him down the passageway, and Brains immediately floated away. Alan looked back at Scott to reassure himself that his brother would be all right, and at Scott's minute nod, followed behind.
Captain Singh waited patiently for Asbury, but the man had a question for Scott. "Um, don't suppose you brought us any ice cream?"
Scott smiled. He had known about Chuck Asbury's love of ice cream since he'd first started getting stockholder reports on the mission. "Chocolate."
The man's smile bloomed. "Excellent. Join us for dinner, Scott. We're having chocolate ice cream for dessert."
Scott chuckled, immediately warming to the man. "Sounds good."
With a laugh, Asbury headed down the tube, shepherded by his captain. Scott watched them go, then headed to the storeroom.
TB TB TB TB
48 hours later
Scott watched as Nuclear Engine Number Seven loomed ever larger over him. He was seated with Brains and two engineers from the asteroid's staff in a large lunar rover. At least, his mind insisted on calling it a lunar rover. Alan had pointed out before he left that it was actually an asteroid rover.
The big wheeled contraption was slow, but the trip was less than a mile, and now it was near the end. The engine stood a full two hundred feet above the surface of the asteroid. Scott knew from his reading that it also extended another two hundred feet below the surface.
It seemed amazing that the huge skyscraper-sized machine could be brought low by a computer chip no bigger than his thumb. In the cold darkness at the base of the engine, the rover came to a halt by one of the ubiquitous living domes. This one was dark, but Bill Watts hit the door controls, and the whole thing lit up.
As the four men entered through the airlock, Scott could hear the sounds of machinery powering up. The other engineer, Avi Toric, grinned. "We'll have heat and air in no time."
Scott sighed. "We aren't really going to need it, are we? Bra… Hy, it's not going to take you that long to install the chip, is it?"
From the time they had arrived, Scott had found himself at odds with the people on the asteroid. They were in it for the long run, and had no sense of urgency about the repair. Scott had conceded that once the chip was in place, the asteroid still had several months to go before it was in its final orbit between the moon and Earth.
What he hadn't been able to get across was that he had better things to do, better places to be. He had expected to land, fix the engine and leave, all within a few hours.
The asteroid's crew was more interested in talking. Talking about all the gossip from Earth. Talking all about the families they left behind. Talking about their plans and hopes for the future.
Scott realized that he should have anticipated that people stuck with nothing but their own company for over two years would be anxious to talk with anyone new. If he'd thought about it, he would have brought along Virgil, who was a great listener. Or maybe Gordon, who could entertain people for hours on end.
"Wouldn't you like to tour the facility first?" Avi asked, his attention on Brains.
Brains' eyes lit up, but with a glance at Scott, he shook his head. "Uh, no, we'd better just uh, get to work."
All three engineers studiously looked anywhere but at a suddenly disconcerted Scott. He felt like he was taking away Christmas. He shook his head at the fancy. He wasn't the field commander of International Rescue because he was afraid of making an unpopular decision.
"Well, then, let's get on with it."
In his hardsuit, Brains nodded, and with Watts in the lead, headed for the panel that needed repair. Toric grumbled, "This'd be easier if we had gravity and atmosphere."
Scott shook his head. "I've already told you, we can't wait the three days that would take. We're needed back on Earth."
Watts, who had been using an electronic wrench to open the panel, stopped and shook his head. "Now, see, that's what I don't understand, Scott. I've kinda followed the exploits of International Rescue, and I know for a fact that you guys don't do all that many rescues in outer space. I should think you'd appreciate the chance to get out and do things. I mean, don't the guys that fly Thunderbird One and Two keep score on how many rescues you each do?"
Scott sucked in a breath. Guys like Watts were dangerous. They would jump on any slip of the tongue to speculate about the organization of International Rescue.
Looking the man in the eye, Scott said, "No, we don't keep score on the number of rescues. We do, however, keep score on readiness. I'm not going to put even one life in danger because we weren't ready at a moment's notice." He shook his head. "Just because Thunderbird Three's rescues are few and far between doesn't mean there can't be another right away. As much as we'd like to stick around here, we just can't. We're already so far away from Earth that any rescue would be problematic. We have to get this done, and get back to base. Surely, you can see that?"
All three engineers had raised their eyebrows at the outburst. Scott sighed and shook his head, surprised that he had raised his voice. Brains took the pressure off. "There now, see? You've uh, made him show emotion. You should be uh, ashamed of yourselves."
Brains' amused tone took the sting from the words, and both other engineers snorted, and turned back to their work. Rolling his eyes, Scott found a handhold to anchor himself. He stood back to let the men get the job done.
After months of planning, and days of flight, the actual repair was rather anticlimactic. Once the panel was open, Brains reached in, and pulled out the decoy chip, handing it to Watts, then took the replacement from its padded case, and wired it in. The whole job took less than two minutes. "There. Uh, done."
Brains turned to his fellow engineers, and nodded. "Let's get this, uh, panel closed up, then we can uh, run some tests."
Watts, who had been holding the dummy chip, leaned over to put it in his carry bag, when there was a sudden flash of light. The man screamed, and Scott, watched in horror as blood was sprayed by the force of air escaping from Watts' suit.
Immediately in rescue mode, Scott pulled a seal patch from a pocket of his suit, and pushed hard to get to the man. Thinking quickly, Brains had grabbed the man's arm, and was squeezing with all of his might, trying to minimize the loss of air.
Scott slapped the patch on, grimacing. The flash of light had obviously been a booby trap explosive in the decoy chip. Tiny, but powerful, the explosion had ripped off three of the man's fingers. The seal patch formed a bubble over the hand, stopping the loss of suit pressure, but doing nothing for the blood loss.
"Brains? What do we do?"
In his helmet, Brains' face was as pale as the white suit surrounding him. "We need pressure. We need the pressure shelter. Now."
Scott hit the release on the backpack he had been carrying. The asteroid crew had assured him over and over that the repair was simple, and nothing could go wrong. His insistence on carrying his ER backpack had not endeared him to Chuck Asbury or any of the other designers of the asteroid's systems, but Scott was glad he'd stood firm.
He pulled out the emergency shelter from the pack. It was intended for use when a hard suit wasn't available. It was like a large plastic pup tent that could hold up to ten people for several hours, if there was oxygen enough.
Scott was fumbling to attach a hose to his own suit's air system, when Toric grabbed his arm. "Use this, it's attached directly to the dome's air."
Scott nodded curtly as he took the offered tubing. He glanced at the business end, and pulled a universal adapter from his pack. In less than a minute, he had the shelter half inflated.
"Okay, let's get him in there, Brai… uh, Hy." With help from both Brains and Avi Toric, Scott muscled Watts into the shelter. Pulling Toric out behind him, he tossed in the EMT kit, and sealed the shelter up.
Signaling to Toric, he pointed to a gauge. "Don't let it get above 15 psi."
When the engineer nodded, Scott stepped away and put in a call to his brother. "Scott to Alan, come in."
"Hey, Scott. You guys done yet?"
"We've got a medical emergency. We need the crawler."
"On my way." Alan's professional response told Scott his brother had heard the urgency in his voice.
Scott next called out to a different brother. "Thunderbird Three to Base. John, you there?"
"No, Scott. John is off duty. What can I do for you?"
Scott felt a warm relief to hear his father's voice. The formal language told Scott that his father knew there were other ears listening to this conversation.
"Yes sir, Hy and I are at NE7. Hy replaced the phony chip, but whoever was responsible left a nasty surprise. One of the other engineers was holding the chip when it exploded in his hand."
His father's voice was grave as he asked, "How serious is it, Scott?"
"It's serious, sir. The dome here is not pressurized, and we were working in hardsuits. We've gotten him into the emergency shelter, and Hy is trying to stop the bleeding. He's lost at least three fingers, and the rest is pretty mangled. Alan's on his way in the crawler. These people have a decent medical set up, but I think we'll probably bring him home with us."
"All right. I'll make arrangements at this end. Son, have you checked for any other surprises?"
"That's next on my agenda."
"All right. Keep me informed."
Scott took a moment to check on the wounded engineer. Through a herculite window in the side of the shelter, he could see Brains working on the man's hand. Deciding his friend didn't need an interruption, he turned to the remaining engineer.
The man looked up from his scrutiny of the pressure gauge he'd been watching. "It's holding steady at 14.8 psi."
"Okay. How familiar are you with this panel?"
"Very. It's one of my responsibilities."
"Good. Come on over here, and take a look for me. I need to know if anything else is out of place."
The man's eyebrows climbed, but he said nothing as he got up from his crouch and came over to the exposed inter workings of the engine. He gazed into the open panel and started to reach for a bit of wiring, but was stopped by Scott's hand on his arm. "Look, don't touch. We don't want to trigger anything."
Scott watched as the man glanced back at the shelter, swallowing hard. "Yeah. Okay."
It took Toric a good ten minutes to go over the entire panel. Scott had to watch him like a hawk, as the man again and again forgot the danger and reached to touch one component or another. Finally, he shook his head. "If there's anything else in here, I sure can't see it."
Scott had done his own study of the blueprints of the engine, and he nodded his head in agreement. "Okay, well, let's seal this up. No point in taking any chances."
A flicker of light out of the corner of Scott's eye caught his attention. Turning in his hardsuit, he saw the crawler coming to a stop next to the hatch of the dome.
Nodding to himself, Scott moved to the shelter. "Hy, our ride is here. Have you got him ready for transport?"
"We'll need a pod, uh Scott."
Scott bit his tongue. It was an obvious statement, but there was no point in taking the engineer to task over it. He nodded, and opened a line. "Alan, we're going to need the pod."
By the time Scott had the hatch open, his brother had already off loaded the rescue pod, and together, they muscled it through the opening, and working as a team, they attached it to the emergency shelter.
"Whoa. That's pretty nifty," Toric said admiringly. Scott had to agree. The shelter and pod had been designed to work together, and every time he'd practiced with it, he'd felt that same admiration.
"Standard IR equipment," Alan stated smugly. Scott threw his brother a sly little smile. There was no reason to tell Toric that this was the first time they had an opportunity to use it.
"Hy, you going to need any help?" Alan asked.
"Uh, no, Alan." Through the window, the brothers watched as their friend helped Watts onto the gurney which then slid into the rescue pod. Sealing the unit up, Brains looked up, and seeing Scott's eyes on him, gave a thumb's up.
As the two brothers moved to disconnect the pod, Alan asked curiously, "What happened, anyway?"
"The chip was booby-trapped. It blew up in Watts' hand. Took most of it off."
Together, Scott and Alan moved the pod into the crawler. Alan started hooking the pod to the crawler's sensors, and Scott said, "Have you got this? I want to get the shelter broken down, get out of here as quick as I can."
"Piece of cake."
"All right." Scott headed back into the dome. He found Brains shutting down the emergency shelter with Toric's help.
"Hy, you head out with Alan in the crawler. Toric and I will finish this."
"All right, uh, Scott." The engineer dropped the corner he was holding, and moved toward the dome's hatch. Scott turned to the shelter. The air had already been evacuated, and it was just a matter of folding it up.
With Toric's help, the ultra thin, tough material was quickly folded into a square small enough to be tucked into its holder in Scott's backpack. Helping him get the backpack reattached to Scott's hardsuit, Toric said, "You know, you guys could make a fortune selling your equipment. I know Mr. Asbury would give you a ton of money for that shelter and pod deal."
Scott shrugged. "Who knows, maybe some day we will."
Toric looked like he'd say something else, but then it seemed to occur to him that Scott had shut him down. With a nod, Scott said, "All right, let's get back to base."
"Okay. Do you think Bill will make it?"
Scott shrugged again. "I'm not a doctor, but I've seen people hurt worse survive."
Toric nodded and climbed into the rover. Scott glanced up at the giant engine, then got the rover underway.
TB TB TB TB
4 days later
Scott stretched finally feeling the knot of tension at the base of his neck begin to loosen. It had been a tough four days flying back from the asteroid. Along with the injured Watts, they had transported one of the asteroid base's doctors, and Chuck Asbury too. Asbury had insisted on accompanying them, saying he needed to be on Earth to insure Watts got the best care. Scott had agreed, knowing how heavy the burden of command was.
But that had meant four days of watching what he said. Four days of evading Asbury's persistent questions about Thunderbird Three and her equipment. Four sleepless nights as he worried about how much Asbury was deducing.
He was pretty sure that the man was trying to figure out exactly who Brains really was. Asbury was a sharp man, and though all three IR operatives were guarding their tongues, slips had happened, and Scott knew Asbury had the name "Brains" to work with.
It seemed it would only be a matter of time before Asbury figured it all out. Scott was dreading the debrief with his father. He knew Alan was as well. And now, as they said their goodbyes, that debrief wasn't far off.
Scott watched as a medical team from the World Space Transit Station hovered around the gurney holding Bill Watts. The three men were being transferred to the space station, and from there would be shuttled back to Earth.
Asbury strode over to Scott extending his hand. He looked a lot more professional since he'd shaved off his beard and cut his hair. Scott could see him as competent peer of his father.
"So, this is goodbye. Remember what I said. Anytime you want to change careers, you just look me up, right?"
Scott smiled as he shook the man's hand. "Right. Take care of yourself, Chuck."
With a grin, the man walked away, following the gurney. Scott watched him go with relief. He jumped when Alan said in his ear, "Man, I thought they'd never leave."
Scott glanced at his newly shaven brother, and grinned. "Let's go home."
"Sounds like a plan." The young man led the way back into the ship.
Scott followed behind rubbing his own smooth jaw. "God, I am glad to be rid of that beard."
"Yeah. Whose dumb idea was it to have a contest anyway?"
"I seem to recall it was yours."
"Nah, I've got too much sense. It must have been Brains."
"Right." Scott scoffed. The two brothers reached the control room, and slid with practiced ease into their seats. By the time they had their preliminary checks done, Brains had entered and taken his seat.
"WSTS, we are ready for departure." Alan advised the station.
"Thunderbird Three you are clear for departure, please do not engage engines until you are two hundred meters out."
"Understood, WSTS. Thank you for your hospitality."
"Any time, Thunderbird Three, World Space Transit Station, out."
Scott watched his navigation boards as Alan backed the big rocket away from the station. As soon as they were clear, and Alan had powered her up, Scott put in a call to Base. "Thunderbird Three to Base. Dad, we've offloaded the passengers, and we're now headed home. We'll be there in about 65 minutes."
"Understood, son. Good job, all of you. We'll see you when you get here."
Scott settled back for the trip home. He was hoping his grandmother had made some apple pie. He was going to need it after his father got through with him.
Alan apparently saw his brother's pensive mood, because he suddenly asked, "So, how long do you think it will be until he figures it out?"
Scott shook his head sadly, "Not long."
"Uh, who figures what out?" Brains asked.
Scott cocked an eyebrow. "Asbury, Brains. He was on to you. It's only a matter of time before he makes the connection between you and Tracy Enterprises."
Brains' face drained of color. "Are you sure?"
"I don't think there's much doubt about it," Alan replied. "The question is, what will he do about it?"
Scott shook his head. "I don't even want to know."
"Dad's gonna be pissed."
"Um, I'm uh, sorry. I, uh, didn't realize… I, uh…"
Scott looked sharply at the engineer. "Brains! This wasn't your fault. This is nothing you did, or had any control over. If anybody's to blame, it's me. I should never have agreed to let Asbury come with us."
"Actually, I think he was suspicious even before we left. I overheard him talking to Captain Singh about the design of Thunderbird Three. He said he thought he could see elements from other ships in her. He didn't say it out loud, but I think he was thinking Tracy Enterprises."
That was news to Scott, and he felt his eyes widen. "Geezus."
"Yeah. Dad is not going to be happy. I don't think he wanted us to go out there in the first place."
Scott sighed. "Well, we'll just have to deal with it."
Brains frowned, but nodded his agreement. The three tired men returned to their duties, and the remainder of the trip home was quiet.
As Thunderbird Three slipped down into her silo, Scott felt a bit of disappointment. Their timing was bad, and they were landing in the middle of the night. Scott knew only his father would be there to greet them, and the debrief would be delayed until the morning.
Scott disliked delays in debriefings, and he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep worrying about it. There wasn't anything he could do about it, though, so he didn't say anything.
Once the ship had touched down, and the automatic checks started, the three weary travelers trudged to the couch that would deliver them to the lounge. As they sat, and Scott triggered the delivery system, Alan said, "Cheer up, Brains. It was a successful rescue after all. The asteroid is back on track, and Watts has you to thank for saving his life."
"Yeah, Brains. You did a great job out there. We couldn't have done it without you."
Scott caught a glimpse of condescension on Alan's face, but Brains didn't see it. The engineer slowly nodded, the worry leaving his eyes. "Thank you, uh, Scott for saying so."
"Hey, I mean it, Brains. You really came through for us." Scott stated emphatically, as much for Alan's sake as Brains'.
"Sure you did. If nothing else, you kept those engineers from driving us crazy. And without you there, Watts could have bled to death. You know you're better at trauma care than either Scott or me. Not much better, but better." Alan nudged his friend, getting a smile out of him.
Scott sat back as the couch was raised up on a piston into the lounge. When the floor above them slid back, Scott was surprised at the amount of light that shone through.
As they came up through the floor, Scott had to smile. His entire family, including Tin-Tin and Kyrano, were waiting for them. "All hail the conquering heroes," John said with real affection.
Alan jumped up and grabbed Tin-Tin and swung her around. "Hi baby! Didja miss me?"
Giggling, the Malaysian beauty swatted playfully at him. "A little."
Scott ignored the byplay, and reached for his father's outstretched hand. "Welcome home, son," Jeff smiled.
"It's good to be back, Dad. What's everybody doing up?"
"Are you kidding? We all wanted to see if you could stand up after two weeks of weightlessness." Gordon grinned.
Scott looked over at Virgil, who casually reached out and cuffed Gordon. The two eldest Tracy brothers shared a smile that said a lot more than words.
"Well, enough of this. We're having a midnight feast, so come along, everyone." Grandma took a hold of Alan's arm on one side, and Brains on the other, and led the way into the dining room.
Scott's eyes widened as he saw the table tricked out in its holiday best. Grandma's white linen tablecloth was set with the gold and white china that had come down from her own great grandmother. The crystal was sparkling, and the candles were lit. "Wow. What's the occasion, Grandma?"
"No occasion. It's just nice to have a special meal every once and a while."
"I say we should make it a tradition. Everytime we come back from a rescue, we should have a special dinner," Gordon said, waggling his eyebrows as he took his seat.
John smiled sweetly, "So you're saying not all of Grandma's dinners are special?"
Scott breathed out, relaxing as his brother tried to backpedal. The problem with Asbury would have to be addressed, but he was confident that between his brothers and father they would come up with a solution. The asteroid itself held a promise of metals for a needy world, and now that promise would be fulfilled. And now, there was a great dinner in front of him. At the moment, he couldn't want for more.