Situation: Critical, Chapter 1 by Joan Marie Verba
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SITUATION: CRITICAL! copyright © 2010 by Joan Marie Verba

The star disappeared. Something had unexpectedly moved in front of it; John Tracy kept watching to find out what that something was. Whenever an unknown object came between Earth and a star, occulting it, that could lead to a new discovery. He avoided the mistake he had made as a student astronomer: on that earlier night, he had drawn his head back from the virtual eyepiece in surprise, missing the best part of the occultation. More experienced now, he maintained his concentration. Smiling, he remembered that the camera was recording: he would be able to review the event later. He kept watching nonetheless; he always found a live event more exciting than a recorded one, and the virtual eyepiece provided a high-resolution image faster than the camera.

He could not immediately determine what had blocked his view of the star. The object he had momentarily taken his eye off of, as a student, had turned out to be a new comet. Despite his error, he had been the first to see and report it, and Comet Tracy had made a satisfying display in the night sky as it had passed Earth on the way to the Sun, which had drawn it in with its gravity and made an end of it.

This object, however, was too dim to be a comet, even a comet at a great distance from the sun. Perhaps it was a passing meteor? No, it was too slow to be a meteor. The star was taking a long time to reappear. Wait, there it was again! John grinned. This would be a major discovery; no objects, except for the star he had originally sighted, had ever been charted in this region of space.

The star winked out again. John’s jaw dropped. Whatever the object was, other objects must be orbiting around it. The star appeared again quickly, meaning that the second object had to be considerably smaller than the first. John kept looking. The star winked, meaning yet another, even smaller object, and then dimmed an instant, indicating a relatively tiny object.

After another half hour, the star remained steady. John kept the camera on, but finally drew back from the telescope’s virtual eyepiece. He rubbed his neck; it had become a bit stiff from the stargazing. Quickly, hands shaking with excitement, he pulled out the recording disk from the camera and inserted a fresh one. He carefully labeled the disk with the date, Greenwich Mean Time, and the right ascension and declination, which gave its position in the sky. Then he inserted the disk into the computer.

This computer had the latest in astronomy software. John watched two computer monitors: one showed the visual, the other showed the results from the spectrometer, which analyzed the light. Another window opened, giving additional data such as velocity and direction. Viewing all of the readouts, John raised both arms in a silent display of triumph. The preliminary results showed that he had discovered either a tremendously large gas giant planet or a brown dwarf star passing the solar system on its way around the galaxy, dragging a set of satellites with it.

With deliberate care, John organized the data for transmission to the International Astronomical Union. He entered his name as “astronomer,” and “Tracy Orbiting Observatory” as the origin of the data. Fortunately, no one found it strange that billionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy had purchased a state-of-the-art telescope for his third son and sent it into space. What the public did not know, however, was that this telescope was a part of Thunderbird 5, International Rescue’s secret communications satellite, in geosynchronous orbit above Tracy Island, International Rescue’s hidden base in the Pacific Ocean.

John took the datacard from the computer and walked from the astrodome to the Thunderbird 5’s communications center. The enormous satellite’s artificial gravity kept him steady as he descended to that level. Once there, he inserted the datacard into the central computer, the one with the fastest Internet connection, found the IAU’s website, and transmitted the information. When the IAU’s computer acknowledged receipt, he sat down on the adjustable chair and looked out the panoramic window at Earth.

Although he could see the Pacific Ocean, Tracy Island itself was too small to be seen from space by the naked eye. One of the monitors, however, showed the image from another telescope on Thunderbird 5, which gave a clearer, sharper picture than any military spy satellite. He had focused that on Tracy Island, and he could see the house that he and his four brothers had built, Tracy Villa. The pool next to it was empty; none of his family swam in it at the moment. What he could not see were the underground hangars which held the aircraft he and his brothers used for rescues. The rocket-reconnaissance craft, Thunderbird 1, normally piloted by his eldest brother, Scott Tracy, stood in a hangar next to the villa. Its launch pad was under the pool, which slid aside to let Thunderbird 1 rocket into the sky when needed. Thunderbird 2, the heavy-rescue aircraft, rested in a hangar in an enormous cave underneath a building they called Cliff House. His next-eldest brother, Virgil, usually piloted that one. Sharing the Thunderbird 2 hangar was Thunderbird 4, the compact but powerful submarine operated by his younger brother, Gordon. The space rocket, Thunderbird 3’s, hangar lay underneath the donut-shaped building they called the Round House. The day before, he had launched Thunderbird 3 through the donut hole and guided it to Thunderbird 5, where it currently resided in the docking tube.

After he and his father and brothers built Tracy Island and organized International Rescue, satellite duty had been split between him and his youngest brother, Alan. Each was to serve one month on Thunderbird 5 and the next month at Tracy Villa, helping with the rescues on Earth. This was a month where John had been scheduled to stay on Tracy Island, but Alan came down with the flu only a few days after switching with John, and now slept in his room on Thunderbird 5. Jeff had sent John up in Thunderbird 3 to take over monitoring duties until Alan recovered.

John stood from the chair and let out a long, satisfied breath. Again, he looked out the window. The words “International Rescue” had been set in metallic letters over the pane, though those letters did not obstruct the view to any great extent. Since childhood, his dream had been to live in space. As a young boy, every time his father came home from space, he would listen eagerly as Jeff related every detail…along with his brothers, who seemed no less interested. After his mother died, his father retired from the astronaut corps and founded Tracy Technologies, which provided supplies and construction equipment for the moonbase. The central part of the moonbase took years to build, and expansion projects continued years after that. At the time John earned his degrees, the core of the moonbase was still incomplete. While Scott served in the Air Force, Gordon in the aquanaut corps, and Alan in the Grand Prix race car circuit, John and Virgil joined their father at the company, and regularly traveled to the Moon and back. The two brothers supervised and participated in the ongoing construction, though the time they spent there decreased, and then ceased, as the various projects met their goals.

When they returned from their final moonbase project, Virgil worked at the Kansas headquarters as chief engineer for Tracy Technologies and John split his time between being a guest lecturer of astronomy at NYU and working in another field of interest, finance, as chief comptroller for Tracy Technologies. Still, John yearned to get back in space. Then one day, to his surprise and delight, his father asked him and his brothers to join him in forming an organization, International Rescue, to save people who would otherwise be beyond aid. Jeff had brought in a genius, Brains, who John had met in astronaut training school, to design the machines they needed. Then Jeff, his brothers, and Brains built everything in secret on Tracy Island. Jeff felt that the organization could not run smoothly unless they remained out of the public eye, and after overcoming some difficulties in their first year of operation, the world generally respected their privacy.

John found Thunderbird 5 to be a perfect fit for his interests. True, it did get lonely now and then, but every time he looked out that window or used his own private telescope for his research, he felt he was in the place he was destined to be. Even better, the communications satellite satisfied another passion he had nurtured since childhood: radio. Before he turned 21, he had every radio license it was possible to qualify for. Over the years, he had communicated with people all over the world, and spoke several languages fluently. Coordinating communications for International Rescue could not have come more naturally.

Right now, however, the communications console emitted only normal background chatter. He returned to the astrodome to see if the camera had captured anything further. Settling comfortably into the observation chair, he watched the camera monitor instead of looking through the virtual eyepiece. He did not expect to see anything else, but just to be sure, he backed up the recording to the point where he left and sped through it.

Something blacked out the star field for an instant, and was gone.

“Wow!” Two different objects in one night! John sat up straight in the chair and backed up the recording again. Whatever this was, it was big, near, and fast! When he reached the point in the recording again, he ran it very slowly. He had feared that a giant asteroid was nearing Earth, but the clean lines and flashing lights indicated a space vessel of some sort.

“Calling International Rescue!”

John touched his earpiece. This ever-present device felt so natural, he often forgot it was on. “International Rescue, reading you,” he said as he scrambled out of his seat and hurried to the communications center.

“This is International Space Control at Glen Allyn Field. We launched our scheduled lunar shuttle earlier today…”

John nodded as he entered the control center. He had seen the shuttle lift off earlier and followed it until it had cleared the Earth’s atmosphere.

“…but now we’ve lost contact with it. Radar from the moonbase shows that it’s leaving the Earth-Moon system fast. We can’t get another spacecraft up for hours, and we have nothing that can catch up with it at its current speed. Can you help us?”

John took a seat at the control panel. “We’re on it, International Space Control. We’ll be in touch.”

“Thank you! I’ll stand by. Call if you need anything.”

“We will.” John contacted Tracy Island.

Within seconds, his father’s face appeared on a monitor screen. Jeff Tracy was 57 years old, with gray hair receding at the temples. His serious expression emphasized his craggy features. “Go ahead, John.”

“Father, the shuttle to the Moon is out of control and headed away from the solar system. I need to take Thunderbird 3 out immediately and overtake it.”

“How’s Alan?”

John checked the monitor to Alan’s room. “Still sleeping. That flu medicine really knocks you out. He’ll be okay until I get back.”

“Get going, then.”

“F.A.B.” John used International Rescue’s own acknowledgement code. He pressed more buttons. “I’m transferring emergency pick-up to your control station.”

“Right, John,” Jeff said. “Your brothers and I will monitor the emergency channels while you’re gone.”

“Leaving now.” John rushed to the boarding tube, which took him to the Thunderbird 3 control room. After closing the entry hatch, he sat in the pilot’s seat, strapped in, and fired the retros to ease the rocket out of the docking tube. Once clear of Thunderbird 5, John searched for the moon shuttle using radar. He found it quickly, entered its course and speed into the navigation computer, and plotted an intercept course. Pushing the engines to maximum thrust, Thunderbird 3 accelerated rapidly. Within an hour, the moon shuttle appeared on the video screen. John reduced speed to match the shuttle’s as he drew near.

“International Rescue to moon shuttle, do you read?” He lowered his chin, listening for a response, but there was none. Rechecking the communications console, he confirmed that he had the correct NASA frequency, and that the gain was on maximum. “International Rescue to moon shuttle, do you read?” Still no response. He tried some alternate emergency frequencies, but nothing came through there, either.

Consulting his readouts, he considered his options. The shuttle was a long, thick cylindrical craft with a nose cone at the top, an exhaust port on the other end, and three short narrow fins equally spaced around it near the exhaust port. Nothing came out of the exhaust port; the engines had been shut down. Even so, with no friction in space, it continued on its path out of the solar system at a speed well past escape velocity. In addition, the shuttle spun around a point toward the middle of the vehicle, like a pencil spun on a table.

John could stop the spinning easily by using grabs to snag a fin, but that might jar the crew inside. They probably had their hands full fighting the centrifugal forces as it was. Instead, he maneuvered Thunderbird 3 close to the shuttle and released puffs of gas from the retros to push against the shuttle’s direction of spin. It was tricky to keep Thunderbird 3 under control, as well as to release the right amount of gas to slow the shuttle’s spin as gently as possible, but at last, the craft stabilized enough so that he could grab a fin. Then Thunderbird 3 and the moon shuttle sped through space as one unit.

After setting the autopilot to keep everything stable, John took Thunderbird 3’s elevator to a lower level and put on a spacesuit. He could only guess as to what had gone wrong with the shuttle, but he grabbed a repair kit about the size of a large suitcase and climbed into the airlock. With the other hand, he held tight to an air gun which would propel him to the shuttle. He opened the airlock door and found himself staring into space. For safety’s sake, and to facilitate getting back to Thunderbird 3, he hooked one end of a safety line to the fuselage, and the other to his spacesuit. A reel in the middle would feed out as much line as he needed.

From his past experience in constructing the moonbase, John was familiar with the structure of the moon shuttles. He knew exactly where their airlock was and propelled himself right to it. Once there, he opened the shuttle’s airlock door. After he stepped inside, he unhooked the line from his spacesuit and fastened it to a ring next to the door. He then closed the door and pressurized the airlock.

When the door to the interior opened, he found himself facing two astronauts.

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