Action Alert, Chapter 1

ACTION ALERT!

copyright © 2008 by Joan Marie Verba

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Chapter 1

Scott Tracy had only taken a bite of his slice of apple pie when the klaxon sounded, calling him to his father’s office. He put the fork down on the kitchen counter and ran into the lounge.

“Scott,” Jeff called to him from a seat behind his desk, “immediate takeoff for the U.S. I’ll give you details when you’re on your way.”

“Yes, sir!” Scott hurried over to the wall and turned so his back was against it. He reached up and touched the lamps on either side. The turntable swung him around to Thunderbird 1′s hangar. He stepped across the narrow ledge to the walkway, which sensed his weight on it and extended to the top of the 115-foot-tall rocket-reconnaissance craft. At the same time, the walkway controls sent out a signal to Thunderbird 1 to open the hatch.

Scott stepped inside, and the walkway, sensing a lack of weight, receded. He pushed the button to close the hatch, and then activated the automatic conveyor controls, which would start Thunderbird 1 on its way to its launch bay. He felt a slight lurch as it began to move, but Scott was well accustomed to it and kept his balance. He changed into his International Rescue uniform: peaked turquoise garrison cap, turquoise jumpsuit, light blue sash, turquoise boots with light blue trim. He also put on an earpiece, worn on duty for communications. By the time Thunderbird 1 had reached the level of the launch bay, Scott was fully dressed and strapped into the pilot’s seat. He worked the control levers on his chair to bring the aircraft into launch position.

“You’re cleared to launch, Scott,” Jeff said over the console’s speaker.

“F.A.B.” Scott said, using International Rescue’s code word for acknowledgement. He trusted his father but still checked his instruments to verify that the swimming pool above him had slid back, giving him a clear opening above. “Ignition.”

The rockets roared into life, hurtling Thunderbird 1 out of the launch bay. The video monitors gave him a brief glimpse of Tracy Villa as he soared past it and straight upward into a cloudless sky. The aircraft accelerated quickly to its top speed of 15,000 mph; by this time he had reached cruising altitude of 100,000 feet.

“Thunderbird 1 to base. Switching to horizontal flight.” Slowly, Scott directed the craft into an arc, giving it a course parallel to the Earth’s surface. As he did so, his chair, mounted on an axle, pivoted so that the back of Scott’s chair continued to point to the center of gravity.

A voice came through Scott’s earpiece. “Sending destination coordinates.” It was Scott’s younger brother John, who was on satellite duty on Thunderbird 5. He had undoubtedly taken the emergency call, as he usually did, and discussed the situation with Jeff before Scott had been called from the kitchen. The GPS system on the Thunderbird 5 satellite had transmitted the coordinates of Scott’s destination directly to Thunderbird 1′s console. The system immediately brought up a map and indicated Scott’s touchdown point with a red dot. Scott noticed he was headed for a desert region in Nevada.

“Okay, son, here’s the brief.” Jeff’s rugged face appeared on the console. He was 57, with gray hair receding at the temples. “A defense contractor has been testing a new explosive, and apparently it’s gone critical at the test site.”

“Since they’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Scott said,  “why not just let it blow up? Unless there’s a radiation or toxic waste hazard.”

“No, none of that,” Jeff said. “In fact, their purpose was to design an explosive that didn’t pose a radiation or toxic waste hazard.”

“Then why call us?” Scott asked.

“Well, first of all,” Jeff said, “they underestimated the power of the blast. They tell me when this goes up, it’s going to be like a volcano. And with the fault lines in the area, they’re afraid it’s going to trigger a major earthquake.”

“Can’t the military help, Dad?”

“They want the device hurled into the upper atmosphere. The Air Force can’t get a rocket there to do that in time. What you’ll have to do is get the bomb attached to Thunderbird 1, fly up to your normal cruising height and detach it. Brains says the inertia will take it safely away.”

Scott smiled. “Just in case, though, after I detach it, I’ll immediately change course so that I’m at a right angle to its path of ascent and put as much distance between it and me as I can before it explodes.”

“I expect you to do just that!” Jeff said.

The video monitor replaced Jeff’s face with John’s. “Scott, I’ve got the lab on the line. They want to talk to you; they’re getting kinda frantic.”

“Okay, put them through,” Scott said.

The face of a middle-aged man with black hair appeared on the screen. “I’m Dr. Frank Jenkins. Is this International Rescue?”

“This is Thunderbird 1,” Scott said. “What’s your situation?”

“Thank goodness!” Jenkins said. “How fast can you get here?”

“A little over 20 minutes, by my reckoning.”

Jenkins paused, apparently making calculations in his mind. “Okay. I think we may be able to hold it until then.”

“Just tell me where the bomb is and then have everyone leave the area, yourself included. I’ll do the rest.”

“Everyone’s already gone,” Jenkins said, “except me and Dr. Phillips. We have the bomb in a special pressurized container, and we’re monitoring it, so we can increase the pressure if needed. That can’t be done remotely or turned over to an automated system.”

“In that case, I’ll need to know the best place to land and how to get to you.”

“That I can do. You can land on the helijet pad–it’s marked–and I can send you a databurst with a cross-section of the building showing the bomb’s location.”

“That’s exactly what I need. Thanks, and keep the line open.”

“I will.”

As Scott neared the research lab, he spotted the helijet pad easily. After landing the craft vertically with the swing wings extended, he rushed to the hoverbike rack. He pulled out the hoverbike, activated it, and left Thunderbird 1 through its lower hatch. The anti-gravitational vehicle was the size of a motorcycle or airbike with a long, narrow, flat seat, and Scott easily guided it through the open entrance of the lab building. Using the diagrams Jenkins had sent, he rode through the hallways and staircases until he reached the basement room that Jenkins had indicated. The door to that room stood open. Scott glided in and stopped. He saw Dr. Jenkins standing next to a slim blonde woman wearing a lab coat and presumed that was Dr. Phillips. They faced an elongated, egg-shaped object encased in a transparent cylinder.

Jenkins turned as Scott walked toward him. “Not a moment too soon! Can you handle this?”

Scott looked over the cylinder. “I have magnetic clamps. Will that affect it?”

Phillips shook her head. “No.”

“Then I can secure it on the hoverbike and get it to my ship.”

“We’ll help you move it,” Phillips said. “The base of the cylinder can be adjusted and rolled, but it’s awkward.”

As the three of them moved the cylinder, Jenkins said, “What’s your plan?”

“Take it high up into the atmosphere and let it go.”

“That’s going to be tricky at supersonic speed,” Phillips said.

“Don’t worry, I have years of experience with the dynamics of flying past the speed of sound.”

“Then you know that when you try to put distance between you and the bomb, the suction could draw it back to you.”

Scott nodded. “I know how to maneuver and adjust speed to avoid that. Once I release it, it should just keep going up.”

“…until the pull of gravity starts pulling it back down,” Phillips pointed out.

“I’ll take it high enough so that it’ll still be a safe distance up before that happens. But I understand it ought to explode before then.”

“That’s true,” Jenkins conceded.

“If it doesn’t blow up before you release it,” Phillips said.

“How soon do you expect it to explode?” Scott asked.

“That’s the problem,” Phillips said. “We don’t know. It could be a few seconds or a few minutes from now.”

“…but not longer than that?” Scott asked.

“No.” Phillips said. “But you’ll have a warning: the bomb will crack the case when it’s about to explode. But it’ll be a warning of only moments, at the most.”

“I’ll keep that in mind!” Scott said. Quickly, he removed the magnetic clamps from the storage unit under the seat and secured the bomb to the back. Then he climbed in the front and started the hoverbike.

“Good luck!” called Jenkins and Phillips, as he took off.

Scott hit the accelerator and sped through the hallways as fast as he could. Once back inside Thunderbird 1, he quickly took the cylinder off the hoverbike, secured the hoverbike, closed the hatch, and put the cylinder with the bomb next to the hatch. Then he swung the inner hatch shield shut. This inner hatch shield, on hinges, was shaped like a shallow bathtub. When “shut,” it created an air bubble between it and the outer hatch door. With the bomb between the shield and the hatch door, all Scott would have to do when high enough is open the outer hatch door and the bomb would be sucked out rapidly due to the difference in air pressure.

Scott scrambled back into the pilot’s seat and lifted off as quickly as he could. Once in the air, with the swing wings folded back, he rocketed into the stratosphere. When he reached 100,000 feet, he opened the hatch and the bomb shot right out. Scott immediately closed the hatch and cut the engines so the bomb would not be sucked back with him in his supersonic air wake. The bomb, as predicted, kept going up. Scott turned the aircraft to horizontal flight and sped away as fast as he could. The monitors showed the bomb still in the cylinder, but that did not mean Scott was yet safe. The explosion would undoubtedly be strong enough to affect him even if he were miles away. With this in mind, he put more miles between him and the bomb each second.

Suddenly, an intense flash of light blanked out the monitors for an instant. Scott gripped the controls tightly, bracing himself for the impact of the shock wave which hit Thunderbird 1 moments later, slamming into the starboard side. A seasoned pilot, Scott did not panic, but selectively fired the booster rockets until Thunderbird 1 was pointed in a direction perpendicular to the force of the explosion. That done, he kept an eye on the altitude monitor to be sure that he was not in danger of hitting the ground…fortunately the Earth’s surface still lay miles underneath him. Meanwhile, Thunderbird 1 shook violently. Scott knew that the aircraft had been designed to stand up under extreme stress, and felt there was little danger in the fuselage falling apart; still, it was all he could do to handle the controls. Just as he began to wonder how long the buffeting would last, it stopped.

“Whew!” he breathed.

“Base to Thunderbird 1. Come in, please!” Jeff’s voice came in over the radio.

“Thunderbird 1 here!” Scott replied. “Mission accomplished. On my way home.”

“We were a little worried,” Jeff said. “We’ve been trying to contact you. All we got on the radio was static, and you dropped off the monitors on Thunderbird 5 completely.”

“I guess the explosion must have caused a great deal of electromagnetic interference. Any casualties?” Scott asked.

“No, thank goodness,” Jeff replied. “The news reports already are saying that the sound of the explosion was heard as far away as Seattle and Phoenix. It shook windows in Carson City and Reno; some people thought it was an earthquake.”

“How about Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Phillips?”

“John has spoken to them. They were in a deep underground shelter. They’re fine.”

“That’s a relief.”

“See you soon, Scott.”

“F.A.B.”

As he turned for home, John again appeared on the video monitor. Scott’s tall, slim brother had platinum blond hair with a prominent curl over his forehead, and wore a uniform similar to Scott’s except that his sash was violet. “Glad you’re okay, Scott.”

“So am I!”

“You should have seen the explosion from space. Wow-wee!”

“You should have felt it from where I sat!”

“I bet. We completely lost you on our monitors for a few seconds. I was holding my breath until we got Thunderbird 1′s GPS signal and automatic identification code.”

“Well, all my instruments say no damage. I’m sure Brains or Tin-Tin will double-check once I get home.”

“Call me if you need me,” John said.

“F.A.B.”

Scott made his normal approach to Tracy Island, his family’s home in the South Pacific. Once Jeff had checked the monitors and saw no air or sea vehicles from the island to the horizon in all directions, he cleared Scott for landing and rolled back the pool. Scott turned Thunderbird 1 so that the exhaust pointed to the ground, then he activated the engines to make a slow, soft landing through the opening to the launch bay, guided by a sophisticated laser system.

When he Thunderbird 1 was secure in the launch bay, the conveyor took it back up to its usual resting place, just beyond the wall of the lounge. Scott changed clothes again, and when Thunderbird 1 came to a complete stop, he took a long breath and let it out slowly. Patting the side of the cockpit, he said, “We did it again, pal; we did it again.” He took a minute, and leaned against the fuselage with his forehead touching the interior and smiled. “What a ride!”

Chapter 2

Feeling recovered from the adrenaline rush of the rescue, Scott then opened the upper hatch, and signaled for the walkway to extend. He stepped on it and it took him back to the ledge, where he stepped again with his back to the wall, pulled on the lamps to either side, and found himself again in Jeff’s office.

“Welcome home, son!” Jeff walked to him from his seat behind the desk and gave him a hug. “Good job!”

“Thank you, Father.”

“You were knocked around a lot. Any bumps or bruises?”

Scott looked down and patted his ribs. “No, not a scratch.”

“Fine, fine. But take it easy for a while. I’ll have Brains check Thunderbird 1 to be sure it’s still in shape.”

Scott smiled. “Okay, Dad.” He walked toward the kitchen. Checking his watch, he saw he had been gone only about an hour or so; the plate with the apple pie should still be there.

“Hey, Scott! Glad to see you’re still in one piece!” Virgil, Jeff’s second son, patted his older brother’s shoulder. “Good job with the bomb. I wish I could’ve joined you.”

“It had to be done fast,” Scott said. “Only one aircraft was needed anyway.”

“I know,” Virgil said, “but we go together so often it seems strange when you go off by yourself.”

Scott nodded, then looked around the kitchen. He saw Kyrano, a world-class chef, chopping vegetables on the cutting board, but the slice of pie had disappeared.

“Something you wanted?” Virgil asked.

“Yes, there was a plate of apple pie on the counter when I left. I don’t see it now.”

Virgil looked abashed. “Oh, sorry, Scott. I just finished it off myself. I didn’t know it was yours.”

Scott waved a hand. “That’s okay. I’ll get something else.”

Kyrano wiped his hands on a towel and stepped forward in their direction. “I just made a pitcher of fruit punch and I can quickly pop a bowl of kettle corn for you, if you wish.”

Scott grinned. “That’ll do fine!”

After declining an invitation from his father and brothers to join them in the billiard room, Scott sat alone on the veranda in a lounge chair, legs stretched out in front of him. A tall glass of fresh fruit punch and a large bowl of kettle corn rested on the table next to the chair. As he ate, he stared out to the horizon and listened to the surf rush against the shore. It had been just over two years since his father had proposed the idea of International Rescue to him and his brothers over the New Year’s holiday. He had left an exciting career as an Air Force pilot and traded it in for an even more exciting job: saving people who were in mortal danger and beyond the reach of traditional first responders.

The core of International Rescue consisted of his father, former astronaut and CEO of Tracy Technologies, Jeff Tracy, along with Scott and his four younger brothers. Jeff acted as the commander of the organization and took charge during their missions. The tall, dark-haired Scott, equipped with the fastest aircraft on the planet, would swiftly arrive at the danger zone first and evaluate the situation. Virgil, gifted with a calm, level-headed disposition and muscular build, flew the heavy rescue craft Thunderbird 2, and went on most of the missions carrying whatever vehicles they required. John, next in line after Virgil, and Alan, the other blond and youngest of the brothers, traded one-month duty as monitors on the communications satellite Thunderbird 5. In the course of their duties, they often piloted the space rocket, Thunderbird 3. Auburn-haired Gordon, born between John and Alan and a veteran of the aquanaut corps, had the primary responsibility of directing sea and water rescues on the submarine Thunderbird 4. Experts at their individual tasks, each of the Tracy brothers were all cross-trained on the machinery and could fill in or assist on any craft when needed.

Tracy Island, where they lived, served as International Rescue’s secret base. All the hangars and support machinery were well hidden in the volcanic caverns underneath the main house, Tracy Villa. Brains, who never gave out his birth name, was the genius who designed the International Rescue equipment and worked in the labs on the island. Also residing at Tracy Villa were Kyrano, Jeff’s best friend, who acted as their personal chef and maintained an extensive garden on the island; Kyrano’s daughter, Tin-Tin, who had an engineering degree and also helped with the missions, and Jeff’s mother. Outside Tracy Island, International Rescue had agents worldwide who assisted them. Foremost among these agents were Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward in Great Britain, who had worked many years in the intelligence services, and her assistant, the ex-con and ex-safecracker gone straight, Aloysius “Nosey” Parker.

So far, International Rescue’s record had been exemplary: they had succeeded on all of their missions and not lost a single life. Because of that, they had earned the respect of governments throughout the world, marred only by a brief but painful incident when a group of impersonators used their name to steal U.S. government secrets. Since then, Jeff and Brains had worked out a special identification code that no one else could duplicate. The code development had been underway even before then, after a U.S. Navy vessel had mistaken Thunderbird 2 for an enemy aircraft and almost succeeded in destroying it. Virgil, seriously injured in the attack, had barely managed to bring the crippled aircraft back to Tracy Island. His recovery, and Thunderbird 2′s, had been slow but complete.

Scott smiled as he reached for another handful of popcorn. Although the old saying stated “life begins at 40,” Scott found life at 32 pretty darn good….

Meanwhile, in a very remote part of Malaysia, Bela Ghat, alias The Hood, also contemplated the first two years of operation of International Rescue. An arms dealer by trade, he had pursued the Tracys even before International Rescue went on its first official mission, trying to learn its secrets…to sell to the highest bidder. He had instigated or accelerated several disasters just so they would show up and give him the opportunity to gather information on their technology. Every time, however, International Rescue managed to ruin or destroy any recording he made. Still, International Rescue never managed to capture him; he always got away in the end. He remained supremely confident that if he just kept trying, one day he would have the plans to one or more of the International Rescue machines, and then he would become wealthy beyond imagination.

Not that he was not already wealthy. The son of a rich landowner, he had made sure that he had inherited all of his father’s wealth, and that none had come to his older half-brother, Kyrano. He had used the money to build his residence, a shrine to an obscure ancient demon only he knew about, a demon who represented forbidden magic bestowing extraordinary mental abilities, and powers of persuasion. Using these, he often evaded arrest on the multitude of international warrants out for him, and on those rare occasions when he was imprisoned, he did not remain in jail for long. All he had to do was stare at a victim, and immediately the victim’s mind went blank. Often the victim fell into a deep sleep for several hours. The ability had served him well in the arms dealing business, but had not netted him the secrets of International Rescue…not yet, anyway.

Still, he had the advantage of an inside contact within International Rescue due to his special mental link to his half-brother. No one knew of this link, not even Kyrano. Using the ancient demon’s magic, all he had to do was to face the image he had made of Kyrano, with a lock of his half-brother’s hair embedded within, and he could mentally pick up anything that his half-brother would say, or think of saying. This way, he could find out at any time what International Rescue was planning or doing.

But much of the time, that was not necessary. His own television satellite dish could pick up any broadcast, and the news stations covered International Rescue intensely…despite the organization’s deliberate avoidance of any publicity whatsoever. That is how he knew that Thunderbird 1 had just saved Nevada and the surrounding states from a catastrophic explosion. Although no International Rescue member ever gave interviews, a Dr. Phillips and a Dr. Jenkins talked to reporters extensively and gave a detailed account. Ghat only felt sorry that he had not known that their bomb had been ready. He would have tried to steal it and sell it. 

He sat in his richly-carved, illegal-ivory inlaid chair at his equally ornate mahogany table and thrummed his fingers on its polished surface, thinking. True, in the past he had failed several times to find out what made the International Rescue aircraft unique, but that did not matter: the future held even more opportunities. The former Major-General of the country of Sirvania had paid him handsomely to help him overthrow the government–again–money Ghat would retain whether the plan worked or not. In fact, it might be better for him if the attempt did not succeed, because International Rescue would probably come on the scene, and in that case, he would have his best chance yet to learn their secrets!