Danger Zone, Chapter 1

Danger Zone cover

Danger Zone cover

copyright 2012 by Joan Marie Verba

Alan Tracy rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation. Destruct-All was the best fighting robot he had ever built, certain to pulverize anything that the others might come up with to challenge it.

Standing 22 inches high, with two hammer-arms moving vertically and two more moving horizontally—hinged so they would not interfere with each other—it would obliterate anything. He could hardly wait for the competition.

When Gordon, his next-oldest brother, had suggested a robot tournament, he had been skeptical at first. However, the entire International Rescue organization had endured a long interval without a single disaster to respond to, and while the peace was great for the world and humanity, Alan and the rest of the household had become restless. Initially, designing the robot had been a way to pass the time, but as his plans took shape, Alan had become more and more excited about the prospect, especially when the other declared participants in the household—Scott, Virgil, Gordon, Brains, and Tin-Tin—hinted excitedly at their own robot designs.

Alan’s wristwatch beeped. The face, which had displayed the time, disappeared and was replaced by an image of his father, Jeff Tracy, founder and head of International Rescue. Jeff was 58 years old, with craggy features and gray hair receding at the temples. A former astronaut and former CEO of his own company, he had a wide range of experience.

“Where are you, Alan?” Jeff asked.

“I’m in the workshop next to the Thunderbird 2 hangar.”

“I need you to get to Thunderbird 3 right away. Immediate lift-off. The thrusters on the Space Garden research satellite have been struck by a meteor. The satellite’s spun out of orbit and is heading for a cluster of vital communications and GPS satellites…including one of ours. The astronaut gardeners inside have no control. You need to locate it, rescue the astronauts, stop it from colliding with other satellites, and if possible, get it back to its proper orbit. John’s already sent its projected path and your interception course to Thunderbird 3’s navigation system.”

“Right away, Father.” Alan took the robot, put it in his storage locker, and entered a code on the keypad to secure it. Hurrying to the hangar, he scrambled up the ladder to the inspection monorail. A car immediately moved into place. He opened the door, climbed in, shut the door, and pressed the starter. The car zipped ahead, over and past the underground storage area for the various International Rescue vehicles, and into the hangar for the rocket Thunderbird 3.

The red spaceship stood 287 feet high, resting in a cave underneath a donut-shaped structure on the surface that the Tracys called the Round House. Alan stopped the car, got out, and stood on the movable catwalk. It swung over to the Thunderbird 3 airlock door, near the tip. He opened the door and stepped in. The catwalk automatically swung back into place.

Inside Thunderbird 3’s control room, Alan secured the airlock door and walked to the pilot’s seat. Standing in front of it, he consulted the readouts on the flight console and started a countdown.

“Prepare for lift-off,” he automatically said over the intercom, before remembering that he had no passengers. He sat in the pilot’s seat and strapped in. Checking the monitors to verify that the hatch above him had opened, he hit the ignition. Even though he was alone, he could not resist saying, “Blast-off!”

The three engines roared into life. Alan felt himself being pressed into the seat as Thunderbird 3 soared through the middle of the Round House and into the sky. Within minutes, he had cleared Earth’s atmosphere. The artificial gravity snapped on. Alan left his seat and put on his International Rescue uniform: a teal jumpsuit with matching boots, plus a white sash and utility belt. On the sash was International Rescue’s symbol—a helping hand extended over a map of Earth. Completing the uniform was a matching teal garrison cap.

Back at the console, Alan saw the signal showing an incoming message. “Thunderbird 3,” he said.

A picture of his brother John came on the screen. John, currently on duty on International Rescue’s orbiting communications satellite, Thunderbird 5, wore a uniform similar to Alan’s, except that his sash was lilac-purple in color. “Confirming that you’re on course for the Space Garden satellite, Alan.”

Alan nodded. “What’s the brief?”

“A meteor the size of a truck hit the Space Garden—a glancing blow at one end where the thrusters are—and spun it out of its orbit.”

“No warning?”

“Yes, somewhat. The meteor registered on radar, but the surface was too sooty to reflect much light, so we couldn’t get a clear visual. Besides, there’s always a margin of error in the projected path. The Space Garden moved before being hit, and the meteor almost missed it, but it wasn’t able to move far enough in the time we had. The thrusters were smashed, the fuel leaked out, and the satellite was knocked in another direction.”

“Is the meteor going to hit Earth?”

“No, it ricocheted back out into space.”

“How about the astronauts?” Alan asked.

“They’re fine so far,” John said. “But with the positioning thrusters damaged, there’s no way they can move it.”

“And ground control can’t reposition it?”

“Same problem. No thruster control.”

Alan sighed. “Just our luck.”

“If you’re able to pull alongside, Thunderbird 3’s robot arm ought to be able to grab it at a couple of points.”

“Can you send me the schematics?”

“Sure thing,” John said.

Alan checked his monitors as the data came in. “Okay, got them. Stay in touch.”

“F.A.B.” John signed off with International Rescue’s private acknowledgement code.

Alan kept an eye on the exterior monitors and the flight path. Many large satellites built in recent years broadcast automatic recognition codes, to make satellites easier to track and identify. He found the Space Garden’s almost immediately, and let out a breath in relief. That meant that the generator still worked, even if the thrusters did not. He felt it would be a shame to lose the Space Garden, and a setback to biological science, which seemed to be on the verge of some exciting discoveries as a result of growing plants—grains and fruits as well as flowers—in zero gravity.

He sent out a communication. “International Rescue to Space Garden. Do you read?”

A faint voice came over the intercom. “Space Garden reading you, International Rescue.”

“What’s your situation?”

“The satellite is intact. No loss of air. We’ve put on space suits as a precaution in case of collision.”

“I’m on my way, Space Garden. I should be able to reach you soon.”

“We’ll be watching for you, International Rescue.”

Soon the Space Garden appeared on radar, and shortly after that he had a visual. He reduced speed and maneuvered Thunderbird 3 until it was even with the oblong satellite, which was not significantly larger than the International Rescue vessel. Turning on Thunderbird 3’s exterior lights gave an even better view. He could see the smashed thrusters at a tapered end, and confirmed that there was no sign of a breach or loss of atmosphere. The satellite’s interior lights seemed to be working, and the clear viewports showed no frost or condensation. He could see inside clearly. Astronauts in spacesuits waved at him, and from what he could observe, the inside still had healthy, thriving plants as well.

Alan called the Space Garden again. “Okay, I’m going to try to grab the satellite. Brace yourselves.”

“Will do, International Rescue.”

Alan opened up a panel on the side of Thunderbird 3 and extended the robot arm. The satellite had the standard universal docking connections, and the usual rings where a space tug could clamp on. Alan had used Thunderbird 3’s robot arm numerous times before, and locked it on a ring on the first try. He gradually reduced speed and found the connection held. Now he could bring the Space Garden back to its original orbit.

“International Rescue to Space Garden,” Alan called, “I’ve locked on to you. Will return you to your designated orbit.”

“Thanks, International Rescue!”

“Do you need our assistance in repairs?”

“Negative. We have the tools and equipment to start repairs ourselves, and ground control is already planning to send a team to assist. But thank you.”

“Happy to help, Space Garden.” He closed that communication line and opened the International Rescue frequency. “Thunderbird 3 to Thunderbird 5 and base. Target acquired. Returning satellite to previous orbit.”

“Good work, Alan,” Jeff called back. “The university research department called and said they’re sending a repair crew at the earliest launch window. You can come on home once it’s back in place.”

“F.A.B., Dad,” Alan said.

International Space Control assigned orbits to all registered satellites to avoid space collisions and satellite overcrowding. All Alan needed to do was to tap into its public database to get the details on the Space Garden, and plot a course to that sector. Within an hour, the Space Garden was securely back in its regular orbit. After circling the satellite once to be sure everything was fine, he plotted a course to Tracy Island.

Once Alan had Thunderbird 3 on its way back to Earth, he found himself reflecting on how far he had come. When International Rescue started operations, his only previous space experience had been astronaut training, which culminated in a couple of NASA space missions. Although he had helped build Thunderbird 3, and they were all new to it at first, he found that Scott and Virgil and John—even his famous astronaut father—seemed more expert in operating it than he, and right away, too. Then again, Scott, Virgil, John, and Jeff had had logged countless hours working in space all those years while he had split his time between earning a college degree and participating in the Grand Prix racing circuit.

In the early years of International Rescue’s operation, someone else—usually his oldest brother Scott—would be on board when he piloted Thunderbird 3. Giddy with being in space at all, and at the controls of this one-of-a-kind vessel, he had not minded one bit. As time went on, he spent more and more hours in space, either piloting Thunderbird 3 or working every other month as space monitor on Thunderbird 5, switching off with John.

Eventually, Jeff allowed Alan to take Thunderbird 3 up on his own—though a significant number of missions still required two or more to be on the crew. Now, no one questioned his space experience; indeed, the rest of the International Rescue team seemed to take it for granted. He felt comfortable on Thunderbird 3 and Thunderbird 5, and his enthusiasm for space flight had not diminished one iota.

Re-entry, the most dangerous part of the space flight, passed routinely. Approaching Tracy Island, Alan maneuvered Thunderbird 3 so that it settled vertically through the donut hole in the Round House and back into the Thunderbird 3 hangar. Once the rocket ship was secured and the hangar had cooled, Alan changed into his civilian clothes, and left Thunderbird 3 the way he came: through the airlock door, onto the catwalk, and into the inspection monorail car. Since the robot was finished, he did not go back to the workshop, but stopped at the access door leading to Tracy Villa.

Once inside the house, he went directly to the lounge, which served as International Rescue’s control center. His father Jeff sat at his desk, checking his computer monitor screen. When Alan walked in, he looked up and smiled.

“Welcome home, Alan. The university wanted me to extend its thanks.”

“I was glad to help.” Alan looked around the lounge. The baby grand piano was unoccupied; Virgil regularly sat there, playing whatever music came to mind. The chairs and couches were empty. Stepping out onto the balcony, he saw no one splashing in the swimming pool. Turning to the ocean, he saw no one on the beach, either.

He looked back at Jeff. “Where is everybody?”

Jeff gestured to the door leading to the kitchen. “Grandma and Kyrano are making supper. Everyone else seems to be working on their robots.”

Knowing that an intrusion on any of the other robot makers would probably result in a request to get lost, Alan wandered into the combination kitchen/dining area. This was a huge expanse, filled with the latest appliances, abundant counter space, and numerous cabinets.

Alan sniffed the air. “What’s for dinner?”

Kyrano, International Rescue’s personal chef, turned from a floured counter. “Herb chicken with spinach salad, and dinner rolls.” He shaped the dough with his hands as he spoke.

“And apple pie for dessert!” Grandma Tracy said as she sliced apples in another corner of the kitchen.

“Sounds—and smells—good,” Alan said, as he accepted a piece of apple from Grandma. After munching and swallowing, he strolled over to Kyrano, who arranged the bread dough on the baking pan. “Any ideas on what to give Tin-Tin for her birthday?” Alan hoped her father had heard some hints or clues.

Kyrano looked up briefly and smiled. “Oh, I think Tin-Tin would be happy with anything that came from you.”

Grandma looked over and grinned slyly. “How about jewelry?”

Alan chuckled nervously. He and Tin-Tin had an off-again, on-again romance for many years now, which had remained steadily “on” in recent months. The relationship was comfortable, pleasant, and, on occasion, intoxicating, but he was not sure he was ready to commit just yet. “I’ll have to think about it, Grandma.” He sauntered out as quickly and casually as he could, before Grandma could hint at diamond rings.

Returning to the lounge, he saw Jeff still at his desk and ambled over.

Jeff looked up. “Something, Alan?”

“Well, I was just wondering what to give Tin-Tin for her birthday. Kyrano and Grandma were somewhat vague.”

“Why not ask Lady Penelope? She and Tin-Tin go shopping together a lot. She probably knows what Tin-Tin wants.”

“That’s a great idea, Dad. Thanks!” Alan walked to his room and sat at his desk. Turning on his laptop, he checked the time in England and dialed Lady Penelope’s computer.

Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, formerly of British Intelligence, currently an agent of International Rescue, appeared on the screen within a minute. In her late 20s, Penelope was a slim blonde with a highly developed fashion sense. “How can I be of service, Alan?”

“Just to be clear, I’m not calling with an International Rescue assignment.”

“Oh, I know. If it were, Jeff would have called on the emergency frequency.”

Alan nodded. “I need some ideas for a present for Tin-Tin’s birthday.”

Alan braced himself for Penelope to hint at an engagement ring, but she said, “I have just the thing. The current high-fashion item is a bracelet made of tiny LED lights strung together. They sparkle like diamonds. Cheap models abound, of course, but Tin-Tin has been admiring the ones sold in fine jewelry stores. I understand that one can find schematics on the web for various models. Custom-made ones are highly prized. With your engineering experience, I imagine you could fashion a unique design. I’m sure she’d love it.”

After a moment’s thought, Alan said, “That’s a great idea! I’ll get to work on it.”

“Let me send you some online catalog references for you to look at, too.”

“Thanks, that’ll be a great help.”

Within the hour, Alan had examined a number of pictures and diagrams, and began to form an idea of what he wanted. After transferring the data to a tablet computer, he walked toward a supply room to see if he could find the materials he needed. On the way, he met Brains, International Rescue’s resident genius and designer of all its vehicles. Brains stood a few inches shorter than Alan, who was 6’1”. His short brown hair framed a high forehead, and he wore blue-rimmed glasses. After Alan showed Brains the schematics and explained what he needed, Brains led him straight to a storage room.

Reaching toward a bin and pulling it out, Brains said, “These bead-sized lights w-w-would be an improvement over the LED lights for the bracelet, I think.” He put his hand into another bin and drew out a small square. “This would be your p-p-power source.” Again, he picked out materials from another drawer. “Here is what I r-r-recommend you use as a setting. And t-t-this would work as a clasp.” He set out everything on a bench top so Alan could examine it, then he extended his hand toward the tablet. “If I m-m-may?”

“Sure.” Alan handed him the tablet.

Brains consulted the screen and used his fingers to modify the design. “I think this w-w-would be more esthetically pleasing.” He handed the tablet back to Alan.

Alan examined the design and drew his head back. “Wow.” He looked up. “Thanks, Brains.”

 

Alan spent the next few days working on the bracelet. So intent was he on his task that a knock at the door of the workroom startled him. He turned to see Gordon, who had reddish-brown hair and a lean swimmer’s frame.

“Hey, Alan, aren’t you coming to the robot games?”

Alan laid the almost-finished bracelet on the bench. “Oh my gosh! I forgot it was today!”

Gordon made a sweeping gesture with his arm. “Well, get moving! We’re waiting!”

“On my way!” Alan rushed to the storage locker, entered the combination on the keypad, and took out Destruct-All. He walked quickly to the outdoor patio next to the pool, which had been cleared for the competition. Someone had already put wide blue tape on the flagstones in the rough shape of a circle. Far outside the circle, Jeff, Kyrano, and Grandma sat in lawn chairs, watching. Closer to the rim, Scott, Virgil, Gordon, Brains, and Tin-Tin stood or knelt beside their contraptions.

Alan surveyed the competition. Scott, the oldest Tracy brother, hovered over a boxy cube with a huge mechanical maw, complete with cruel-looking metal teeth. Virgil, the next-oldest of the brothers, knelt beside a torpedo-shaped robot with a drill at the end. Gordon sat next to a wide metal disk with jointed metal arms sprouting from it, resembling a huge metal spider. Brains stood next to a cylindrical structure with a flexible metal snake extending from the top. The tubing had grabs at the end. Tin-Tin made adjustments on a device resembling a toy fire truck, with a rotating spray nozzle on top.

“Everyone ready?” Gordon said, looking around. “Here are the rules: the robots go inside the circle. We stay outside. We can use remote controls, but can’t touch the robots. If a robot leaves the circle or is unable to move, it’s done. Last robot moving around in the circle wins.”

The participants nodded or mumbled agreement.

Gordon bent down over his spider-robot. “Okay, at the count of three, we put the robots in the circle and let them go! One…two…three!”

Alan and the others put their robots in and stepped back. Immediately, the machines went after each other. Destruct-All’s hammers went up and down, and from side to side. One got Scott’s robot on the upper ridge and bent it, but the arm nonetheless was caught within the jaws and pulled off. Meanwhile, Virgil’s robot drilled into Brains’s robot, only to be picked up by the grabs, pulled free, and swung outside the circle.

“Virgil’s out,” Grandma observed.

Virgil scratched his head. “That was fast.”

Destruct-All still had hammer-arms to spare. One swung at Gordon’s robot and struck off a spider arm. Scott’s robot abandoned Destruct-All, at least for the moment, and crunched another of the spider robot’s arms. Tin-Tin’s vehicle darted in and out among the other robots, avoiding damage or capture. Gordon’s robot, still possessing six good arms, grabbed Scott’s through a hole Destruct-All had made in it and tossed it out of the circle.

“Scott’s out,” Jeff announced.

Destruct-All swung its hammers, denting Brains’s robot and smashing more spider arms, but the grabs from Brains’s closed on one hammer and a spider arm closed on another, and together they threw Destruct-All out of the arena.

“Wow,” Alan said, as the wreck of the robot slid to a stop at his feet.

The spider’s remaining arms tried and failed to reach Brains’s robot. Its grabs snaked out of the way, caught an arm, and swung the spider out and away from the circle. Wasting no time, Tin-Tin’s vehicle aimed its nozzle at the remaining robot’s wheels and sprayed until the grabs came down. The nozzle then sprayed the grabs, which stuck open, unable to close. The gears on Brains’s robot ground to a halt. Tin-Tin’s vehicle triumphantly beeped as it zoomed around Brains’s robot in a victory lap.

Gordon took Tin-Tin’s hand and raised it above her head. “The winner and champion,” he announced, “Tin-Tin!”

The others applauded.

Gordon let go of her hand. “Well done, Tin-Tin.”

Alan walked over and gave her a hug. “That was a fine piece of engineering.”

“What sort of glue did you use, Tin-Tin?” Scott asked.

“Glue number three,” Tin-Tin said. “It had the right viscosity for spraying, but it dries quickly on contact when exposed to air.”

Scott nodded. “Good thinking.”

Kyrano stood from his chair. “I have prepared a coffee cake and coffee in the kitchen. Please, come.”

Virgil grinned. “So you knew Tin-Tin would win?”

Kyrano smiled. “No. I did not know which robot would prevail. We all cheer each other on, and I knew whatever the outcome, we would all want to celebrate.”

“Now that’s a fact,” Jeff said, rising from his chair.

“Amen to that,” Scott said. “Let’s eat!”

 

 

They took their plates, forks, and coffee cups and retired to the lounge. Opposite Jeff’s desk hung five portraits of the Tracy sons, in their International Rescue uniforms. The images, however, were composed of pixels, not paint, and could change at a touch of a button at Jeff’s desk. Alan glanced at his as he took a seat on the couch next to Tin-Tin and mused that in the past three or four years, since the picture was first taken, his face had become a bit leaner and more mature-looking. He wondered if he could approach his dad to have another digital picture taken, so he would not look forever like a kid on the wall.

Gordon settled back in a chair with a sigh. “Well, that was fun. What should we try next?”

Alan turned to him. “I don’t know about you, but I have a race next week.”

Virgil sat at the baby grand, but carefully put his coffee on a small table next to it, and his plate in his lap. “Where to this time?”

“Northwest Australia.”

“Rugged terrain,” Scott observed.

“Yeah, it’ll be a challenging course. That’s why they built it there, I think.”

Jeff took another sip of coffee. “Provided we’re not in the middle of a rescue, of course.”

Alan chuckled. “Of course!”

“If Alan isn’t able to go to this race, there will be others,” Tin-Tin said. “Besides, it gives the other drivers a chance to win.”

“Yeah,” Gordon said. “Ever since Alan’s been using the race car Brains designed, he’s won every race he’s entered.”

“True, but they’re catching up,” Alan said. “Automobile technology is constantly changing, and most drivers update their cars every race.”

“I think I can m-m-manage to stay ahead of them,” Brains said modestly.

Scott motioned to Brains. “That’s true; Brains works on Alan’s car after every race.”

“To be f-f-fair,” Brains added, “Alan works on the car, too.”

“Yes, but I couldn’t begin to think up the kind of improvements you add, Brains,” Alan said.

“M-m-most of the improvements come from my work on the Thunderbird machines and o-o-other vehicles we use in rescues. The principles used in p-p-power, fuel, steering, and aerodynamics apply to the car, as well.”

“That’s partly why I’m still allowing Alan to drive in two or three races a year, rescues permitting,” Jeff said. “What we learn from the car’s performance can apply to our other vehicles.”

Alan finished munching a piece of coffee cake. “Two to three races a year is plenty for me.”

Virgil almost choked on his cake. After downing a gulp of coffee, he said, “Are you the same Alan who joined the volunteer fire department largely to drive the trucks, and the paramedics to drive the ambulance?”

“Yeah,” Scott added, “and earned money to fix up that old 1950s antique car by starting your own door-to-door delivery service just so you’d have an excuse to drive every day?”

“To Alan’s credit,” Jeff said, “he was a good firefighter and paramedic, as good as the rest of you when you volunteered, and the delivery service taught him sound business sense.”

“Yes, when Alan and I were paramedics together,” Tin-Tin said, “he always got the patients to the hospital safely and in record time. He had a spotless record—no accidents.”

Alan waved toward the veranda and beyond, indicating the Round House. “As much as I love driving cars, piloting Thunderbird 3 and the other vehicles is even more exciting. If I had to make a choice between racing and International Rescue, I’d retire as a professional driver.”

Scott lifted his coffee cup. “So say we all.”

Virgil hefted his, as well. “You’re right, Scott; given the choice as to what I was doing before and what I’m doing now—no contest.”

“Hear! Hear!” the others said, lifting their mugs and joining in the toast.

The eyes on John’s portrait lit up. At the same time, they heard a beeping noise.

Jeff hit a switch on his desk. “Go ahead, John.”

A live picture of John on the space station replaced the portrait. “Father, we have an emergency.”