By Polly Amber
Thunderbirds is a Gerry Anderson Production licensed by Carlton International Media Limited. Other characters in this story are my own fictitious creations. The lyrics of the song featured in this chapter were borrowed from 'A Space Oddity’, written and performed by David Bowie. I hope he doesn't mind. I wouldn't know where to find him to ask his permission.
John Tracy clad in a sweatshirt and jogging pants, sat in his sparsely-furnished living quarters on board Thunderbird five. He was struggling with the last remaining clue of a crossword puzzle. He chewed the end of his pen and pushed away a floppy lock of blond hair, which had been irritating his eyes. When he moved his head the unruly forelock fell across his eyes again. He made a mental note to get himself a haircut on his next visit to Earth. What was it his Grandmother used to say as she struggled to flatten his hair to make him look presentable for school? "You have a cow-lick, John." Being only five years old at the time, John did not understand her remark, but he knew that he didn't particularly want to be licked by a cow, so responded by taking a pair of sissors and cutting the offending lock of hair right back to his scalp. But it still grew back just as untidy.
John glanced at his watch. It was 7.45 pm Earth time. Barely half an hour had passed since he had last checked the time, day was the same as night in the blackness of space. The clocks on Thunderbird Five were kept to the same time as the ones on Tracy Island, so as to keep the disruptions to John's body clock to a minimum. From the monitor control room, just outside his cabin, John could hear a drone of voices, all talking at the same time, but in different languages. He had grown accustomed to this 'white noise' and was able to blot it out, like the noise of traffic in the street below a high rise city flat. In a way this noise was something of a a comfort to him, it reassured him there was still a world out there, where life was carrying on as normal. He gazed out of one of the windows and watched lights springing on all over the cities beneath him, they reminded him of the several million glow worms he had seen in a cave in New Zealand, when he accompanied his brothers on a rescue there. The Earth was both beautiful and dangerous, and for some of it's inhabitants, John would be a lifeline, their direct link to a non profit-making humanitarian organisation - International Rescue.
A computer monitored each radio receiver with a language translator, and John knew that he would be alerted by a bleeper should a distress call come in. His term of duty in the communications satellite lasted for a month and was alternated between him and his youngest brother Alan. On occasions his father would help out. An astronaut himself, Jeff Tracy often yearned for his younger days, when he had worked on one of the first manned Space Stations on the Moon. Helping out on Thunderbird Five from time to time gave him the chance to wallow in nostalgia.
John sighed deeply. He was bored. With another fifty two hours to go, he was nearing the end of one of the most uneventful shifts he had ever known. He felt rather guilty about feeling bored, because any excitement for him usually meant a life or death situation for some poor souls in the need of International Rescue's services. He frequently envied his brothers for being in the midst of the action, and although he didn't know it, they sometimes envied him! John had been on a few rescue missions and had felt the rush of adrenaline combined with a frisson of fear that had made him feel alive. Usually a solitary person, John found he enjoyed being part of a team. The elation of pulling off a successful rescue gave him a high that no alcoholic or chemical stimulus could ever produce.
Reclining on his bed, he picked up a science fiction book and idly flicked through its pages. There was nothing too taxing for a tired brain. It must belong to Alan, he mused. It seemed to be about alien life forms travelling to Earth through wormholes in time, mildly entertaining, but John was a man who immersed himself in scientific facts. He had long ago deduced that nothing with a body - certainly no humanoid or space craft would be able to survive wormhole travel intact. But it was a romantic notion for all the sci-fi buffs. And as for alien life forms, well yes, he supposed that given the fact that the Universe was infinite, it was odds on that we were not alone. There had been great excitement at the beginning of the 21st century when a robot probe discovered a source of water on Mars. He and his brothers knew of plans to create a possible staging post to enable further exploration of the Solar system. The planet would also be a rich source of minerals. John was keeping an open mind on the subject of alien life, but he did not expect to find his neighbours knocking on his door to borrow a cup of sugar!
John returned the book to the appropriate shelf in Thunderbird Five’s extensive library. Most of the books there were mainly for technical reference, but there was also a good selection of fiction. There were many of the great classics, and some spy and detective thrillers. There were several books written by John himself. He was considered something of an expert in his field and was frequently happy to oblige his old college by giving lectures and presentations to each new intake of students. His discovery of a new Quasar system (named after his family) had earned him a place in the history books alongside the likes of Halley and Herschell. John was an achiever in his own right. This quiet, handsome academic had a slighter build than his brothers. Older brother Scott, and three younger brothers, Virgil, Gordon and Alan, all had their father’s strong, muscular frame and firm chiselled jaw-line. Although in Gordon, with his easy going personality and his mop of unruly sandy coloured hair there seemed to be more of a resemblance to Grandma Tracy!
At 8.15 John made himself a mug of coffee in the small galley kitchen, which he took back to the lounge area. He had an overwhelming urge to call up the family for a chat but he figured that they might be busy. Besides his father was due to call in for a check in half an hour’s time.
His gaze was drawn to a jumble of strange items in a metal canister tucked away in the corner of the room. John had another hobby apart from astronomy. Alan called it space junk, but John preferred to be known as a collector of antiques. At the end of each century, and particularly around the time of the millennium, someone had a novel idea to launch time capsules into space in the hopes that they might be found by friendly aliens (John blamed old films like ET and Close Encounters). One of these canisters had been recovered during a routine overhaul of the outside of Thunderbird Five. John knelt beside it, opened the end of the cigar-shaped tube and began to rummage around. He found the contents fascinating. It yielded an ancient cassette recorder with a recorded message of peace and love accompanied by music from the seventies. There was also a strange item that looked as if it was meant to be worn on the head. He delved deeper and found a cube-shaped game that must have been doing the rounds at that time. He also found some interesting manuscripts, documenting historical events and sporting achievements. He smiled as he looked at a childlike drawing of human life forms. He wondered what an alien would make of it all.
Back on Tracy Island Jeff Tracy's eighty year old mother knocked on the door of Brains’ laboratory. She carried a tray with a plate of sandwiches and a mug of coffee.
"E-er j-just a m-minute," came a hesitant voice.
"Would you take a break and have something to eat," she called.
Brains opened the door peering owlishly through thick blue-rimmed spectacles. "Er th-thank you. I-I'm nearly finished, j-just a few more circuits to complete."
Mrs Tracy cautiously entered a chaotic looking room. She never knew quite what she would find in Hiram Hackenbacker's laboratory, and she was mighty glad she did not have to do the cleaning in there. She cleared a space between piles of complicated looking wiring diagrams, and set the tray down on a side table next to where Brains was working on his robot Braman
"C-could you please t-tell Mr T-Tracy that I will h-have to postpone the er demonstration until tomorrow morning,” he stammered, as he untangled a handful of spaghetti like cables in Braman's back.
Grandma Tracy gently chided him. “Surely you don’t intend to work on that thing all night long. You need your sleep, young man.”
But Brains wasn’t listening to her. He was pouring over the wiring diagrams muttering to himself about connecting the blue wire to the opposite terminal and the red wire to terminal B
Grandma Tracy tut- tutted and fussed over Brains’ reluctance to leave his work for some much needed sustenance. She knew that it would be more than likely, that her freshly brewed coffee would be left to go cold and the tuna and lettuce sandwiches would remain untouched. Brains remained totally obsessed with his creation. Even to the point of foregoing food and sleep. He had succeeded in giving Braman a logical and analytical artificial brain, one that was capable of beating a human being at chess, but that was not enough. He wanted to make a robot that would be able to think like a human being His ultimate dream was to build a robot capable of feeling emotion and understanding humour. So far he had managed to programme Braman's brain with a few childish Christmas cracker jokes, but so far Braman had been unable to understand the play on words that made them funny.
Grandma Tracy closed the door behind her and left him to his work, she returned to the lounge where her fifty six year old son Jeff was in conference with his eldest son Scott. Virgil was seated at the white baby grand piano that had belonged to his late mother. He was tinkling the ivories with one of his favourite jazz tunes. Behind him a large picture window framed the sun setting slowly over the glittering, turquoise Pacific.
"What's Brains doing in there?" inquired Grandma Tracy of her grandson Scott.
"Oh it's his latest idea. It might benefit John and Alan. Brains is trying to modify Braman with a view to him taking over duties on Thunderbird Five, so that Alan and John could have one month on and two months off."
"That's a great idea!" Grandma's face broke into a big apple cheeked smile. "It would be nice to have them around more. I know that living in space is a lot safer and more comfortable than it was in my younger days, but I still worry about them. It's not natural. We weren't designed for it."
"We could certainly do with more hands around here," put in Scott. "I happen to know that John has been feeling rather left out of things as late. It’s been so quiet around here. Of course it’s good that nobody is in trouble enough to need us, but if we have been kicking our heels down here, then John must be positively climbing the walls up there!"
"That reminds me," cut in Jeff pressing a button on the panel set into his desk, "I must give him a check in call to see if he's okay."
"Oh don't you worry about John," replied Grandma, "He's a very level headed boy."
John, at first did not hear the beeps over the music he was listening to, he was concentrating on the lyrics of the song he was singing. The time canister had yielded a tape of songs from the seventies and this one was particularly poignant -
"For here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the Moon, planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do."
He heard his father bleeping him as he was strumming air guitar. Jeff was mildly amused to see the head and shoulders of his middle son appear in the portrait frame. John had discarded his hat, and instead was wearing a headband with two glittering balls wobbling on the end of springs.
"What was that you were saying about John being a level headed boy?" hissed Scott to his Grandmother. "I'd say this notion of Brains’ hasn't come soon enough! He's obviously going stir crazy up there!"
Chapter 2 Strangers in the Night
John awoke in what was the middle of his night with a strange sensation of foreboding. It was like waking up suddenly from a nightmare which you can no longer remember. He sat bolt upright, his throat was dry and he could feel his heart pounding. He shivered. It seemed to him, that the temperature had dropped several degrees. His environment was controlled by computers to maintain Earth-like conditions. At first he thought there was some kind of malfunction. The temperature was usually maintained around a comfortable 70 degrees during his ' daytime ' and lowered to around 60 for his ' night time'. He pulled on a track suit top and went to check the main control area. He still felt jumpy although he didn't know why. A series of clicks and whirs startled him.
"Who's there?" he called instinctively. 'Who's there? What kind of a dumb question was that?' He was nearly twenty two and a half thousand miles above the Earth. Who the hell was going to answer him - Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? Suddenly his computer emitted a grating sound and sprang into action. John felt his heart leap into his mouth,
"Oh sweet Jesus! " he exclaimed, and then his face dissolved into a wide grin as he heard an artificial voice tell him that he had mail. It was his friend Krista, although she was thousands of miles away; John was able to share her excitement.
“GREAT NEWS!” she enthused. “ ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL NEWS. THE EXPEDITION IS GOING AHEAD! “
“That’s fantastic. I’m so pleased for you.”
“We have found a man who is willing to fund us. I don't personally like him very much, but he has quite a lot of money and can supply us with a very high tech. submarine. My father would not miss this chance for the world. He was so desperate to get to the bottom of this lake he would have sold his soul to the devil! Seriously though, I must admit I am a bit apprehensive! We will have to rely heavily on our weather forecasting skills and our surface team. We have our specially heated diving suits and supplies but the ice can be a problem. We will only have a window of a few hours to check this thing out and hopefully take back some samples to analyse. But I'm more excited than worried. We will be the first human beings to see something that has been lying at the bottom of the lake for centuries.”
"Good for you," John replied, "Keep me up to date. I'll be thinking about you."
“Gosh I'm sorry to keep babbling on about my news. How are you? Are you keeping busy?'
"No," answered John, "Things have been very quiet around here. I don’t really have anything interesting to say. I can't even talk about the weather because I don't have any up here!"
"Well, it's lovely and clear down here, Crisp, blue skies, it's summer at the south pole, but that doesn't mean I'll be able to get my swimsuit on just yet! The hottest part of the day is around minus two to just about freezing. But that's positively balmy compared to what we had to contend with when we arrived a month ago. It was early spring and the Sun had just appeared over the horizon again. Now it's daylight all of the time. I find it hard to go to sleep. We left McMurdo base last week and moved to our summer base beside Lake Vorta. We are very isolated here, and we spend a lot of our time on scientific research. The lake is still partially frozen over. Our drilling team has succeeded in cutting a hole in the ice which is big enough for us to launch our submarine from a ramp. We have been lucky that it has been exceptionally mild. The weather has stayed just above freezing point. If the weather drops by only a couple of degrees all of their hard work will have been in vain and the Lake will freeze over again. Greta has just walked in, she's with me now looking over my shoulder, and she says to give you her love!"
"Thanks Greta," mumbled John, and before he could stop himself he yawned.
"I’m sorry. I forgot that this is the time when you are usually asleep. You look tired John. I will let you get some rest now. I was so excited I just wanted to tell you as soon as I could. I will let you know when we are going to do the dive. Goodbye.”
"I will look forward to hearing from you."
John felt a whole lot better. He had something else to think about now. He had been chatting to Krista via an internet chat-room every day for the past four weeks. She was a 'girl' and a 'friend ', but not 'girlfriend', he felt comfortable communicating with her like this. Of course she had no idea of John’s true identity or his involvement with International Rescue. John’s cold, shivery feeling had gone away. He removed his track suit top and ran his finger over the picture icon on his computer screen. Instantly a picture appeared of a fresh faced girl with honey blond hair. She looked a little nervous and slightly serious unlike the dark-haired girl (Greta) standing with her arm about her shoulders. Greta was pulling a face. The picture was not particularly flattering to either girl, and John, while idly trawling through the chat rooms on another quiet evening, would probably not have given them a second glance if he hadn't been intrigued by the landscape in the background or rather the lack of landscape! This was not the usual ' friends- on- a- beach' type of pose, for each girl was wearing what looked like layers of thermal wear. Must be on a skiing holiday, concluded John. But where then were the mountains? In the background, there seemed to be pack ice as far as the eye could see. 'Two ice maidens looking for someone to warm us up!' stated the caption under the picture. (Greta's idea) Krista had cringed when she read that!. Then John caught sight of part of a dome - like structure, blending into the background, to the right of the photograph. He recognised it at once and realised that he and the girls in the picture had some common ground.
When John was nineteen years old and training to become an astronaut, he had spent a long winter holed up in that very dome. Or one that looked just like it, for there were several of them. All constructed to withstand the most ferocious of Antarctic winters. They formed the basis of a self contained village and housed living quarters, extensive laboratories, recreational and medical facilities. One of the domes had even been turned into a luxury hotel, where well heeled tourists could rub shoulders with some of the world's most eminent scientists.
John had come to learn how to survive in a hostile environment. It was a good training ground to help astronauts prepare for life on a Space Station or the Moon-base. The Antarctic wasteland was as much a desert as the Moon, In spite of all the snow and ice, very little rain fell, In terms of rainfall, the Antarctic was actually on par with the Sahara desert! John had spent a lot of his time studying the stars. The dark skies over the Antarctic were the clearest in the world. John had yet to venture into Space and had never seen stars as brilliant as these. The skies were completely unpolluted by light. They looked so close that John almost believed that he could reach up and pick one out of the sky. Krista had remarked upon the very same thing. John retained a fascination for this icy wilderness and cared passionately about its survival. He was delighted to be able to correspond with someone who shared his interests.
The girls had written a bit about themselves; Krista Linstrom was twenty three and a graduate of Science and Geography. Greta Harlstrop the same age was also a graduate of the same subjects. Both girls had attended the same college in Oslo where they had met and formed a strong friendship. From there, they travelled to Christchurch in New Zealand, where they joined Krista's father Professor Enns Linstrom, who was studying the topography of the South Pole. It was he who made the significant discovery of the Lake beneath the glacier. At first he was puzzled as to why the Lake did not completely freeze up. The ice on top of it was a mere thirty five metres thick in one place which was strange, as it nestled inside a glacier over two miles deep! The Professor was intrigued. Something down there was causing the water to heat up. Krista and Greta decided to join Krista's father and two other scientists to conduct extensive research.
Krista had told John a lot about her father. He was a geologist who was researching the effects of global warming and environmental pollution on the polar ice caps. His team were responsible for measuring the thickness of the ice covering the North and South Poles. They would cut out core samples of the ice. Different bands of colour on the ice would show which pollutants were causing the most damage. The hole in the ozone layer was growing wider every summer and the sea level was rising dangerously. The Towns of London and New York were already beginning to show signs of flooding. Their subway systems had to be abandoned in favour of overhead monorails and many of the ancient historical buildings, particularly the Empire State building were at risk from underground rivers. Krista's enormous pride and respect for her father was apparent. She mentioned him in almost all of her messages.
John wished that she would be a little more open about herself, although he was hardly in a position to complain! He had not been able to tell Krista anything about himself or his family, not even his real name. As far as she was concerned he was John Smith, who worked on a communication satellite, whose hobby was Astronomy. She knew that he had trained as an Astronaut and spent long periods of time in space and this seemed to fascinate her.
Obviously she knew nothing about International Rescue. There were few people that the family felt able to trust with their secret. They had an extensive back up team mostly of ex Secret Service and Security Personnel. Their island base was equipped with an adequate medical bay and their family doctor was a long established and trusted friend. But for a long time now the family had felt it was time to expand. It had taken a minor accident involving Virgil to make them realise that they needed a couple of reserve pilots capable of handling their unique craft. John longed to tell Krista about his beautiful island home and the pride he felt in his own family. He had the feeling that Krista's career was as all consuming as his own, and at the moment a 'no strings attached friendship' was convenient to both and besides, in cyberspace, his girl wasn't going to decide that she fancied his older brother!
Thousand of miles below Thunderbird Five's geo-stationary orbit, the Earth hung like a giant blue and green beach ball Dawn would be just about to break on Tracy Island. Jeff Tracy still hadn't been to bed. Night times for him were in some ways just a lonely as they were for John. He preferred to keep busy; since the death of his wife he had become a workaholic. He sometimes wondered whether he would have ever set up International Rescue if she had still been alive. He stood on his veranda and gazed out at the calm sea, a slight breeze ruffled his silver grey hair. The stars seemed to be particularly clear and Venus, the bright morning star shone with a brilliance in the first rays of sun rise.
Jeff wondered what sights he would have seen if he had been able to continue his chosen career as an astronaut. Fate had dealt him an unexpectedly cruel blow. The birth of his fifth son should have been one of the happiest events in his life, but his wife had died suddenly during a difficult birth. Left with his newborn son Alan, toddler Gordon, and youngsters Virgil, John and Scott, he abandoned his dreams of returning to the space programme. He had cut back on his space missions after the birth of Virgil and eventually left NASA to build his own engineering company. He was now an exceptionally rich man, but all the money in the world could not compensate for the loss of Lucille. Like a swan, he had mated for life. He now existed to save lives. Anything man made - a plane, ship or expensive car could be replaced, but a human life could not.
"Hi Dad." It was Scott, "Would you like me to take over for a while so you can get some rest?"
"No Son," answered Jeff slowly, "It hasn't been busy and I've been able to grab a few cat naps."
"Well at least let me get you some coffee, You look kinda preoccupied. Anything wrong? »
"No not really," answered Jeff. “I was just collecting a few thoughts. I was wondering if we will still be doing all this in ten years time. We have some great machines, built to last, but we are only mortal."
"I know what you mean," replied Scott, "What's going to happen to the family firm if we don't have a family to hand it on to? It's a great job but it sure puts the lid on a social life!"
They were interrupted by the arrival of Jeff's Personal Assistant, Kyrano and the smell of freshly percolated coffee.
"You must be a mind-reader. Kyrano that's just what we need."
"I could fix you some breakfast also."
"Thank you, but It's a little early. Besides, I don't think that anyone else will be up yet. Certainly not Alan or Virgil," replied Jeff.
Kyrano nodded and left. Jeff would have asked him to share the pot of coffee but he realised Kyrano would be keen to begin his morning ritual of meditation and besides, he drank only herbal tea. Kyrano was as rich spiritually as Jeff was materially. He was a great friend to Jeff and they first met while Jeff was in training for the Moon-base missions. Kyrano had been in charge of the astronaut's food and nutrition requirements. His culinary skills were matched only by his skills in botany. His presence brought a sense of calm to the frantic, often stressful lives of the Tracy family.
Scott poured himself a coffee and one for his father. "Have you spoken with John yet?" he asked.
"No, I will probably wait until he returns home, but I'm sure he will be only too happy to be able to get more of the action and we definitely need another pair of hands."
"Are you sure that John will be up to the job?" inquired Scott bluntly. "He has only been on a few rescue missions and he can be a bit of a hot head at times. I need to be sure that he understands the chain of command here. He has to do what he's told and no arguments."
"Typical brothers!" smiled Jeff, "What is it with you and John? You miss him while he's away, but within a few days of each other's company you're both at it like cat and dog!"
"Don't worry we're the best of friends really. It’s just that sometimes we have a difference of opinion. You know what these intellectuals are like. They never let anything drop."
"Well I don't have any doubts about John's capabilities where Thunderbird Three is concerned. John has more experience than Alan, but don't tell Alan I said that, and even though you'd hate to admit it, I reckon John could handle Thunderbird One as well as you. Thunderbird Two is the trickiest to fly because of its bulk. It needs a lot of skill to handle. I would like John to have more training in manoeuvres. When Virgil was injured I realised just how big a burden I was placing on the both of you. Thunderbirds One and Two are needed almost every time. If either of you are sick or injured then we have problems."
"You're right I guess, but I can't help thinking that if I were in trouble I would like to have a reassuring voice at the other end of the radio. I know that Thunderbird Five's computers take care of everything automatically while he's asleep, but if there was a call at least John would be there. Brains is having some trouble with Braman's voice circuits - he sounds too mechanical. Like an answer-phone, you know how everyone hates talking to a machine; somehow you just don't have the same confidence in them as you would a human being"
"You've hit the nail on the head,son," replied Jeff "That was my precise worry and probably the first thing John will say too."
There came the sound of bleeping from the control room behind them. The eyes on John's portrait were flashing.
"Speak of the devil. Is everything okay, John?"
"More or less, apart from my ears burning!"
"You look a bit peaky, son. Are you eating and sleeping enough?"
"And keeping regular?" cut in a voice from behind Jeff's shoulder.
"Morning Gordon,” acknowledged John. Gordon, the second youngest Tracy son strode across the room with a towel draped across his shoulders.
"I'm off for a swim Dad!" he yelled, and with that he departed.
"Try not to drown Gordon," John called after him. "When Alan takes over ..." he continued, "I wonder if he would be able to bring Brains along to check the environmental control computers. The temperature dropped a few degrees for no reason last night. I ran a few checks this morning but I couldn't find anything wrong. Perhaps Brains could double check for me."
"Sure thing, son. Anything else on your mind? You look as if you've been up all night."
"Oh you know how it is, " breezed John. "Drinks, all night parties. Life's just one big social whirl up here."
Jeff caught the edge to John's voice. The boy could do with a holiday.
Chapter 3 - The Sponsor
By 07.30 the Tracy household was a hive of activity. Kyrano was in the kitchen blending fresh pineapples, guavas and mangoes to make fruit cocktail. Grandma Tracy had just removed a batch of freshly baked rolls from the oven. The tempting aroma had been enough to lure Alan from his bed. He bounded into the kitchen, fresh from the shower. His blonde hair was damp and tousled. He was clad in a white T shirt which complemented his tanned athletic body, and light blue track suit bottoms.
"Morning everyone, morning Grandma." Alan gave his Grandmother a hug while simultaneously grabbing a hot roll from the baking tray. It burned his fingers and he dropped it on the floor.
"Serves you right!" said Grandma. "They're not cool enough to eat yet."
Alan settled for a glass of fruit juice, before he set out for his usual jog around the Island.
Virgil downed a second cup of coffee, and thought that he might do a few lengths of the pool, before changing into his greasy overalls to get to grips with the maintenance checks on Thunderbird Two. They had not been called out for nearly a month now. But there was still plenty to do. He had to make sure that his craft and all of the pod vehicles were in tip top condition. He decided that he would have to rope in Gordon and Alan to help him.
Brains was tucking into a king size breakfast that would have fed about three people, making up for missing meals the day before. This would probably have to keep him going all day. When he was fully engrossed in his work, he would probably forget to have lunch, in spite of Grandma's badgering. She thought Brains was too pasty and skinny for his own good. And as he had no kinfolk of his own she had 'adopted him as another grandson. She was only too pleased to keep piling the food on to his plate.
After he had finished this gigantic feast, Brains met his pretty Malaysian assistant on the way to his laboratory.
"Er h-hi Tin Tin. C-could you give me some er assistance with Braman. I-I'm working on his voice simulator."
"His voice?" queried Tin Tin. "Why couldn't He have a woman's voice?"
"B-Brawoman?" laughed Brains. "I suppose it was easier to think of him as a man. Perhaps we should call it Braperson."
"Females are a little outnumbered around here."
"W-well n-not for long! P-Penelope should be arriving tomorrow. Sh-she's on her way to Australia to escape the British winter. She usually stops over for a few days.”
“Good. It will be nice to see her again and catch up on the gossip."
When they reached the laboratory Braman was lying on a bench. An open flap in his back exposed a tangle of cables resembling unravelled knitting.
"He looks k-kinda sorry for himself at the moment. G-guess we should get to work."
They heard a gentle rap on the door, before Jeff walked in to check on their progress.
"Ah. Brains, Tin Tin."
"Good morning Mr. Tracy," they chorused.
"I've just been speaking to John. He asked if you could go up with Alan tomorrow and check over the temperature control circuits. I also told him about Braman, I think it would be a good idea to take him with you and give him a trial run, if he's ready."
"W-we have a slight p-problem Mr T-Tracy. He requires a human voice. I-I am also trying to programme some common sense and a sense of understanding of the pragmatics and semantics of language and its more abstract use. "
"We are trying to get him to understand a joke, Mr Tracy," explained Tin Tin.
"Okay Brains, hit me with it."
"Wh-what's the difference between a b-bad marksman and a constipated owl?"
Jeff laughed. "One shoots but can't hit."
"E-exactly. When Braman can get that he will be ready for anything!" replied Brains. "At the moment he can respond only to the facts he is given and he cannot understand innuendo or sarcasm."
“So how do you intend to make him more like a human being? A robot with human emotions has always been the stuff of science fiction. I hope you don’t create anything that would want to take over the world.”
“Oh n-no M-Mr Tracy, th-that would be impossible. What I am hoping to do is make Braman simulate human reactions, by using an electronic replica of the human genetic code. I want to give Braman an artificial intelligence. Using my own genetic code, I have programmed Braman to display a limited range of emotions.”
“Really?” Jeff was impressed. “Can you give me a demonstration?”
“Of course M-Mr Tracy,” Brains pushed the loose cables in to the flap on Braman's back, he then tightened a few screws. He pressed a button on Braman’s chest, the robot’s eyes flashed red and his head started to move. “B-Braman should now be able to make an appropriate response to both pleasant and unpleasant stimulation,” Brains explained.
“Let’s see him in action then.”
“M-Mr Tracy, would you punch Braman on the nose for me?”
“Well, if you’re sure he won’t fall apart.”
“You don’t need to hit him too hard. A slap on his face should be enough.”
Jeff delivered a smack to Braman’s metallic cheek-bone. Braman recoiled and uttered a small cry of distress.
“If Braman’s voice circuits had been properly functioning, he would have questioned an unprovoked act of violence. But as you see, he is rubbing his face with his hand and is recoiling from you.”
“Gee Brains, can you tell him I’m sorry ?”
“Y-you can tell him yourself.”
Braman extended his mechanical arm and hit Jeff squarely in the diaphragm.
“Oof!” Jeff doubled up, temporarily winded. “He’s not exactly the forgiving type is he?”
Brains looked horrified. “Oh M-Mr T-Tracy, I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”
“I guess so. He packs quite a punch.”
“I-I’ll h-h-have to m-modify his a-artificial muscles. He didn’t m-mean to hurt you M-Mr Tracy. He r-recognised your apology and offered his hand in a g-gesture of friendship.”
“You could have fooled me!”
Tin Tin giggled quietly to herself. Brains regained his composure and continued with the demonstration.
“N-now you will um see what happens when er Braman is given a pleasant stimulation.”
“Well you can count me out this time,” laughed Jeff.
“Allow me.” Tin Tin leaned forward and planted a tender kiss on Braman’s cheek. Braman’s left leg started to tremble. He made a strange moaning sound, and then smoke started to come out of the top of his head.
“Oh! Oh dear. H-he s-seems to be overheating. I-I’l have to switch him off.”
Jeff laughed out loud. "Guess I had better leave you to it then. I'm due to pick Penelope up from the mainland."
While Brains and TinTin worked diligently on Braman, John re-checked the circuitry of his life support computers. He realised how reliant he was on technology, and that made him feel suddenly vulnerable. He double checked again, as an obsessive checks locks and gas knobs before they leave the house. During his time as an astronaut he had been accustomed to being dependant on ground control computers. He was used to his every bodily response and function being monitored. Satisfied that the computers were working correctly, John headed to the gym. He had a sixty minute workout on the treadmill and rowing machine followed by a tepid shower. John realised the importance of keeping fit. Long periods in Space had a detrimental effect on his bones and muscles in spite of the artificial gravity. Now if that cut out he would really be in trouble! Both he and Alan found it took a few days for their bodies to adjust when they returned to Earth. He, and most definitely Alan, had a tendency to be irritable and argumentative during that period. The recycled air they breathed was no substitute for sunshine and fresh air. Their father insisted upon rigorous health checks and Kyrano carefully planned nutritious diets.
Lady Penelope sipped a Pimms in the luxurious surroundings of the first class lounge on board the Fireflash. This new supersonic jet was a remarkable engineering achievement, even Brains was impressed. It was one of the safest and fastest planes ever designed. It flew at five times the speed of sound and Lady Penelope's journey from London to Tokyo took just two and a half hours.
Lady Penelope was impeccably dressed as always. She wore a pale pink designer suit. Her shoulder length blonde hair was woven into a pleat and secured with an ornate hairclip. She was only twenty six years old, but she exuded an old fashioned elegance. She had inherited the Creighton - Ward country estate, and large fortune, upon the death of both her parents in a car crash. Her father Sir Hugh Creighton - Ward had been the head of the British Secret Service and his wife Amelia was a cousin to Jeff's late wife Lucy. Jeff and his sons regarded her as part of their family. To Jeff, she was the daughter he never had, and he could refuse her nothing. Her background and connections with the Secret Service made her an ideal choice as an agent for International Rescue. She had jumped at the chance when Jeff offered her a job. She was mature beyond her years and possessed a steely nerve and a cool, calm demeanour.
Sitting next to her, engrossed in the sports page of his newspaper, was her fifty five year old butler, chauffer and expert safe cracker, Aloysius Parker. He was, in contrast to Lady Penelope, a 'rough diamond'. After a brief spell in Dartmoor as a guest of Her Majesty, Parker had taken a vow to return to the straight and narrow. He decided to return to the more respectable profession of a butler, and his first job was at the Creighton - Ward manor. Lady Penelope managed to keep him to his promise, and made sure that he only used his dubious talents on the right side of the law. They made an odd couple, but they were effective and International Rescue was glad of their services.
When the Fireflash landed Jeff was waiting at the 'arrivals' terminal to transfer Penelope and Parker to his private jet for the fifteen minute hop to his secret island. He laughed as her saw Parker struggling with the luggage. Lady Penelope was not one for travelling light!
"It's a wonder the plane could get off the ground with this lot," he chuckled, as he relieved Parker of a large designer suitcase.
"One never knows quite what one will need," replied Penelope.
"One would if one 'ad to carry it all!" muttered Parker as he staggered behind them.
"I'm so sorry I could not accept your kind offer to stay over Christmas, but I was entertaining an elderly Aunt and Uncle," explained Penelope as they walked across the tarmac. "I hope it all went well."
"Yes," said Jeff. "It was a pity that John could not join us, but someone had to man the satellite. He drew the short straw."
"Poor John, in space there's no-one to pull your cracker. But from what I hear Brains is hoping to change all that."
"Yes," answered Jeff "He is trying to program Braman to think like a human being. At the moment Braman could pull the cracker, but wouldn't be able to laugh at the joke inside."
"If Brains could give a robot human emotion it would be quite an achievement."
"Could even earn him another Nobel Prize," added Jeff.
"He's probably got a drawer full of those already," laughed Penelope, as she climbed into the passenger seat next to Jeff.
When they touched down on the runway at Tracy Island, Penelope was warmly welcomed by Jeff's mother whom she regarded as an honorary Grandmother. Tin Tin was also keen to see her and catch up on all the latest gossip regarding the London jet set. Scott and Virgil, both competing for her attention, were only too pleased to relieve Parker of her luggage. They both insisted on carrying the heaviest suitcase. Alan too, harboured a secret crush on her, but that was unbeknown to Tin Tin who was his steady girlfriend. He had cursed his luck when he realised that his term of duty would start two days into her visit. He secretly hoped that he would be called out in Thunderbird Three and that she would be allowed to assist him. She had often hinted to Jeff, that she would like a trip into space, but Jeff was rather protective of her, and always managed to steer her off the subject.
Although Lady Penelope enjoyed a slightly flirtatious relationship with Jeff's sons she could not take them seriously. She found herself drawn to distinguished older men. The loss of her beloved father had left a void in her life, her brush with danger and espionage was a way for her to cope.
The Antarctic morning started early for Krista. She and her father had just finished breakfast when a small ski plane skimmed to a halt on a runway of ice. Her father strode out to greet a stocky looking man who was emerging from the passenger seat in the cockpit. He stamped his feet and blew into his hands, his breath freezing in the cold morning air. Professor Linstrom smiled warmly and shook the man's hand. He then led him to an isolated building standing on metal stilts driven into the pack ice. Their feet clattered as they ascended the metal staircase. The strange man looked stony faced as he entered the building in front of the Professor, and he stared coldly as he passed Krista and Greta. He then nodded silently towards them, before following the Professor into his office.
"I don't like him," whispered Krista "Something about him gives me the creeps."
"I know what you mean. It seems to have dropped another 10 degrees since he came in. Have you seen those eyes?"
Krista shuddered. "I tried not to look. He's the stuff nightmares are made of. But he's the only person who has been prepared to finance Dad's expedition and beggars can't be choosers."
"Bet he's only in it for what he can get," put in Greta "He looks that type."
In the warmth of Professor Linstrom's office, the man removed his bulky thermal outdoor clothing. The Professor noted that he had a strange, almost waxy complexion and unnaturally thick brown hair which he suspected was a toupee. He cast his eyes disdainfully around the meagrely furnished room, and then spoke with a heavy foreign accent, in a low guttural tone.
"You have considered my proposal Professor?"
"Well I'm very grateful for your support in our venture. I have waited years for something like this it could be the discovery of a lifetime."
"I am not a scientific man," stated the stranger bluntly, avoiding any eye contact. "And if you think that I am also a charity you are very much mistaken."
Professor Linstrom looked taken aback by his abruptness.
"You promised me some samples," the man continued. "There are definitely diamonds I hope!"
"Oh, without a doubt. Our team of diving experts went down yesterday, the rock samples show all the elements that make up the composition of the purest pink diamonds the world will ever see."
The man's eyes glowed with greed. "Good, good and how soon will you be able to recover these diamonds?" He spoke the last word slowly like someone savouring the last drop of a fine wine.
"Well there has been a problem."
The man emitted a low hiss.
"We have not been able to use the cutting equipment. There was some sort of accident, one of our men was injured and had to be airlifted to hospital."
The man uttered a curse and appeared to show no compassion towards the injured man. He banged his fist on the table. "I want results!"
The Professor looked angry. "Look here, we just don't know what we're up against. This thing could even be radioactive. The safety of my team comes before profit. I want to take some ultrasound equipment down I want to know what's inside before we go any further."
"I do not have the time to wait," the man replied menacingly. "I have loaned you a submarine with powerful weapons you could blast the thing to pieces!"
The Professor looked horrified. "Absolutely not! The whole purpose of this expedition is to gather scientific data. We believe this asteroid could yield vital information to the possibility of life on another planet. It has been at the bottom of this lake since the middle ages. We are certainly not going to blow it to pieces for the sake of a few diamonds. It could be more valuable than all the diamonds in the world."
"So you think that it might contain little green men from Mars," the man laughed mockingly.
"That's the exciting part. It is like Pandora's box, no-one knows what's inside."
"Well," concluded the man, rising from his chair. "As I said, I have no interest in science." He started to replace his outdoor clothing signalling that the meeting was at an end. "I am interested only in a return for my investment. I hope that you will not disappoint me."
With that he strode out of the office. Professor Linstrom held his head wearily in his hands. He began to wonder whether he had bitten off more than he could chew.
Chapter 4 - Night Fever
Halfway through the afternoon John realised that he was developing a headache. He was still a little unsure about the efficiency of the computers controlling his life support systems. The air around him smelled stale and stuffy. He was getting a little muzzy headed and wished he was able to open a window and smell some fresh air. He switched the radio controls to automatic and then went for a lie down in his cabin. There, he dozed fitfully. When he awoke he still didn't feel any better. A feeling of gloom threatened to drag him down further, but he had a job to do. Brains had asked him to supply a voice pattern to use in a synthesiser for Braman. As most of the computers here were programmed to respond to his or Alan's voice it was decided to replicate both and program Braman accordingly. John sat in front of a microphone making sounds phonetically. He also supplied a string of stock phrases, 'We will send help as soon as possible' and ‘this is International Rescue, how can we help you?' John wasn't sure about that last one - it made them sound a bit like a building society.
After transmitting this information to Brains he walked to the galley and poured himself a cold drink. He had been hoping for another message from Krista. She was obviously a lot busier than he was. He had plenty of time before his last round of' maintenance checks to send her an e mail. He didn't know quite what he was going to say. He wanted very badly to meet her. He was due to go home tomorrow, and he didn't know how long she would be staying in Antarctica. It wasn't exactly the warmest of places for a first date. Scott or Virgil wouldn't have this trouble he thought morosely. He decided to keep to her favourite subject - her work 'I hope everything is going well' he dictated, 'I am due to return home tomorrow, but I am dying to hear about your venture. I hope you still have my home e mail address. I was wondering if you might like to meet for lunch or dinner sometime, when you return back home of course, I would like to see you in a more hospitable environment. I feel we could become good friends. Hope to hear from you, fondest regards, John.'
He read it through and decided not to send it. It made him sound desperate and slightly stuffy. The trouble was, he was feeling desperate, desperate for human conversation, for contact, and desperate for relief from his pounding headache. He poured himself another drink, swallowed two aspirin tablets and returned to bed.
John supposed that it was 'night- time' when he awoke. He checked the clock to make sure; 11pm Earth time. The back of his T shirt was saturated with sweat. It was plastered to his back, he was aware that he did not smell very nice. What the hell was going on with the heating system? It was like a sauna. His throat was dry. He walked groggily to the galley and downed another two glasses of water.
The first thing that struck him was the silence. Gone was the usual chatter of voices from the many radio frequencies. There was just an eerie silence. John's brain jolted into action. This was a major malfunction. He was about to alert his father when something caught his eye. A small sphere of luminous green hovered slowly over the control panel. As it moved away from the radios so they sprang back into life. The sphere moved slowly around the room and then drifted over towards John. He held his breath. Instinct told him to stand still. The sphere advanced towards him in a wobbly fashion like globules of mercury in a test tube. It seemed to consist of light rather then liquid. It hung in the air inches from Johns face. He could feel static electricity making his hair stand on end. John dared not breathe out. His insides were churning with fear. The sphere drifted over his head and disappeared behind his back. He dared not turn his head to look. He felt a tingling sensation travel down his spine. After what seemed like an age the globe reappeared in front of him and then suddenly it was gone. John exhaled with a gasp and sank to his knees, his heart pounding.
A harsh bleeping noise jolted Alan from a rather pleasant dream. He sat up groggily and rubbed his eyes. Realising that this was the emergency alarm he shot out of bed and pulled on his jogging bottoms. He raced to the lounge where he was met by Brains who was standing beside his father.
"What's the emergency?" he asked eagerly. "Is John going to fill us in?"
"I want you to pack a few things in your bag. You are going to have to relieve John."
"But its three o clock in the morning," grumbled Alan. "I'm not due on for another twelve hours."
"John's sick, Alan," stated Jeff. "Brains and I are coming with you."
"What's wrong with him, Father? Is it serious?" Alan was now feeling a little guilty for his selfish outburst.
"I don't know," replied Jeff. "He has some kind of fever. He said that his legs felt like jelly and his head hurt. We need to get him to a doctor. This is the sort of situation that worries me. If you or John get sick up there you are very vulnerable, especially if you get something like a burst appendix that requires emergency surgery."
"Well, John had his appendix out when he was still at High School, so it couldn't be that," said Alan.
"Let's just get there as soon as we can," replied Jeff.
Alan returned to his room and hastily threw a few T shirts and changes of clothes into a bag. He was thankful for the invention of bio-degradable socks and underwear. The laundry facilities on Thunderbird Five were somewhat limited.
Meanwhile, Jeff roused Scott from his sleep and put him in charge of International Rescue until he returned.
"I-I think now w-would be a good time to put Braman to the test," suggested Brains.
"That's an excellent idea," agreed Jeff. "Do you think he will be up to it?"
"He's st-still not quite ready. I-I th-think it would be a good idea for me to stay on Thunderbird Five to observe him. I-I might need to m make a few m-modifications."
When Alan returned with his suitcase he, Brains and his father took their places on the couch in the centre of the living room. Braman rather comically sat like a ventriloquist's doll on Brains' knee. The couch disappeared down a shaft, which led to an underground chamber. From there it was transferred on to a trolley, which carried it by rail to Thunderbird Three's silo underneath the Round House. It was then deposited onto a ramp directly beneath Thunderbird Three. The ramp then lifted the couch up into the rocket, and its occupants made their way to their various stations.
Scott heard the surge of the rocket's boosters and watched as the mighty red rocket thrust into the night sky, blazing its tail of fire. He then opened a hailing channel to John, who acknowledged shakily.
"Hold on fella," assured Scott. "Dad and Alan are coming to get you".
Hours later Alan carefully manoeuvred the three hundred foot rocket into docking position with Thunderbird Five. His father was the first to scramble through the boarding tube and reach John's cabin. It was empty. Jeff's heart gave a flutter.
"John!" he called anxiously. "Where are you?"
"In here," a faint voice came from the medical bay. John was lying on one of the special diagnostic hospital beds. He had taped monitors to his chest and the pulse spots on his temples. His face glistened with perspiration. The monitors showed a rapid heartbeat and a raised temperature.
"You're burning up!" cried Jeff, placing a hand on his forehead. "How did you manage to get sick up here? I thought you boys had all of your flu jabs."
"Obviously didn't work with me," answered John weakly.
"What happened to you, John?" asked Alan, now standing beside him, sharing their father's concern.
"Some obscure space bug floating around I guess," John closed his eyes. The room was beginning to spin. He didn't have the energy to go into detail about the strange sphere of light. He even thought that he had imagined it in his delirium. His head couldn't cope with the questioning voices; he felt his senses drifting away.
"Sorry Alan," he slurred. "Guess I owe you a few hours."
"Don't be silly!" Alan replied. "Just get yourself well again."
"I just want to go to sleep," mumbled John and closed his eyes again.
"We're er leaving Thunderbird Five in the c-capable hands of Braman," announced Brains, "Now that he has your voice pattern he can run everything, we just need your er fingerprints to unlock the control panel."
John removed the monitors from his chest and attempted to sit up. His father reached over to remove the monitors taped to his temples. John swayed as a wave of nausea hit him.
"Can you stand John?" asked Jeff.
"Yeah I think so. Just give me a minute; I feel kinda dizzy." John swung his legs over the side of the bed. Brains apologised for disturbing him. Jeff supported John as he shakily walked to the control panel and placed the palm of his right hand onto a rubber mat. After a series of clicks, the machine sprang into action.
Braman spoke with John’s voice. 'Activate.'
"Incredible," muttered John. "He sounds just like me." He looked flushed as he sagged against the monitor console.
"Come on let's get you back home." Jeff motioned him towards the door leading to the boarding tube.
"Take care," called Alan and Brains.
When Thunderbird Three had departed, Alan and Brains set about easing Braman into his surroundings. Brains programmed his artificial brain with the layout of the satellite and details of all his duties.
"F-for this trial to be effective w-we have to leave Braman completely on his own." instructed Brains. "I have pr-programmed over twenty different languages in Braman's memory. But, he m-must be left to use his own judgement when responding to a call for help."
"So what do we do? Sit and twiddle our thumbs? I would challenge you to a game of chess but I know you always wipe the floor with me."
"W-well, you c-could start by tidying the place up a bit."
"Oh great!" snapped Alan. "Would you like me to do the ironing as well?"
His sarcasm was lost on Brains who had already disappeared to check over the life support systems.
Alan was still moaning, "I don't know why John wants to keep all this old junk." He aimed a kick at the time canister.
"I-it's his hobby. Don't knock it," replied Brains.
"Look at this." Alan held aloft a ZX80 computer.
Brains smiled. "R-remember that old portable typewriter he gave to Tin Tin. I-it’s a real museum piece now. S-some of this 'old junk' as you call it could be worth a few dollars."
"Did people really believe that this stuff could end up in the hands of extra terrestrials?"
"I-I guess so," said Brains peering at a panel of dials. " B-but we now know that no intelligent life-forms exist within our own S-Solar System, but if there is er anything further out there it would take us several life-spans to r-reach them."
"Still we may soon know if there could ever have been life on Mars. We know that there was once a sea."
"M-Mars could have been habitable at some stage in the um development of the er Universe. We know it shifted its path of orbit and that caused catastrophe. Any forms of um life would have been wiped out like the d-dinosaurs."
"I wish I could get the chance to go there," sighed Alan wistfully.
"That's strange," observed Brains.
"What's that?" asked Alan
"John mentioned that the temperature controls had gone haywire last night, but it all looks perfectly okay to me."
"He was coming down with the flu. He was bound to feel hot." Alan walked over to John's personal computer. The screen was flashing to show an incoming message. "Can I borrow Braman a moment?" he asked.
Braman, speaking with John's voice activated the screen. It was a message from Krista she had sent a more flattering picture of herself. Taken in a softer light, it showed her long, honey blond hair and sparkling blue eyes.
"Mmm… not bad. I think John's got more than one hobby up here."
"A-Alan, I-I d-don’t think you should be um snooping around." Brains shot him a reproachful look.
"Why not? My brother's a bit of a dark horse. He didn't tell any of us about her!"
“Alan! Th-that's private."
Alan ignored Brains' protests and was even more delighted when he chanced upon John's unsent e mail.
"Oh, too tame, Johnny, you can do better than that," he said, and with Braman's help he proceeded to make a few amendments to John's message.
"I-I-I really d-don't think you should be doing that," argued Brains. "John would k-k-kill you!"
Alan grinned impishly, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Braman’s voice said, "Send." John’s e mail was on its way in an instant.
Chapter 5 - Sweet and Sour
Professor Linstrom sat behind a paper strewn desk in his makeshift office. He replaced the phone receiver. He looked tired and dejected.
"Any more news about Arne?" asked Krista.
"It's not good. They won't let anyone see him. It seems he's developed some sort of infection and they have decided to transfer him to an intensive care unit at the Military Hospital. They would also like to check over the other diver."
"But he wasn't hurt was he?" queried Krista.
"What exactly happened?" asked Greta.
"Arne and Joe were about to drill into the rock to collect the samples required so urgently by our bad tempered sponsor, when suddenly, according to Joe, there occurred some sort of explosion. Arne was thrown back. He suffered a mild electric shock and a gash on his arm. I certainly didn't expect him to end up in intensive care!"
"Does that mean the lake could be contaminated?"
"That's a very real possibility. We must assume that it is and take the necessary precautions. There is no plant life in the lake. It's barren, as you would expect having been covered with a layer of thick ice."
"More setbacks!" grumbled Greta. "That will please Mr. Spooky Eyes!"
"He's a very impatient man," said the Professor. "But if I do not accept his terms then the expedition will have to be called off, and we loose the chance to go down in history with one of the most significant finds the world has ever seen. This could be even bigger than King Tutankhamen's treasure. For the first time in centuries, this lake is accessible and we have the technology to explore it. I don't want to miss this opportunity. The weather patterns could change again ; this region has become so unstable with the global warming, anything could happen. One severe winter and the lake could freeze up again."
"What will we do with only one diver? Ross did not go down with Arne and Joe so he will still be alright, but we must have another."
"I will go down," said the Professor. "I will take Lars to man the submarine Krista, I know that you want to come too but it could be dangerous. I would prefer you to stay and man the radio with Greta."
"No way! You will have to tie me down!"
"That's exactly what I thought you would say."
Krista retired to her room as Greta announced her decision to brew a cup of tea,
"Would anyone else like one?"
The Professor declined ; he would have preferred something stronger if he had not been required to keep an absolutely clear head.
"Love one," smiled Krista.
When Greta returned moments later with two steaming mugs of tea, she found Krista frowning at her computer screen and nervously fingering a small ring on the third finger of her left hand.
"Something wrong?" inquired Greta.
"Not wrong. Just complicated - look."
Greta squinted at the message over Krista's shoulder.
"Mmm, what I wouldn't give for that kind of complication." Then she added, "I take it he doesn't know about Lars."
"No!" Krista squirmed. "I mean, there was no need to mention him. John and I are just friends. We enjoy talking to each other."
"That message sounds like he wants more than just friendship."
Krista put her head in her hands, "I don't quite know how to handle this."
"Well, you've got to tell him. It's only fair."
"Do you think I've been leading him on?"
"Since you asked - yes!"
Krista seemed affronted by her friend's bluntness. "Well remember this was all your idea."
"Well, I kind of hoped that he might want to talk to me as I'm young, free, single, UNATTACHED." She stressed the last word. That hit a raw nerve. Krista gave her a withering look.
"And don't look at me like that; I think you need to be truthful with yourself. You've known Lars for how long?"
"Since I was a teenager. We grew up in the same neighbourhood. He was one of my father's students, came around on the pretext of extra tuition at first, but really wanted to see me. I liked him, he was sweet."
"I liked him, he was sweet. Have you noticed how you've just used the past tense?"
"Well I mean sweet- natured, you can't call a man of thirty five sweet"
"Look I know you will hate me for saying this but you and Lars .." she broke off flinging up her arms in frustration, "You're like a pair of old comfy shoes. There are no sparks, no excitement. You're only 23 you should want more. I know I would."
"Well I don't want sparks," snapped Krista. "He is a good man. I care about him and my father likes him."
"I can just picture the two of you in ten years time. He will be middle aged and he will be exactly the same as he is now. The sad thing is - you will be just like him!"
"You're just saying that because Lars doesn't like you."
"That's not true! I think that you are just comfortable with each other. When did he last tell you he loved you? And when did you last say that you loved him?"
Krista said nothing. She couldn't remember.
"If you really, truly loved Lars you would never have started a friendship with this John Smith."
"Well, I won't contact him anymore. He's probably married anyway. He hasn't told me a thing about his home life. I doubt that John Smith is even his real name."
"He deserves the truth, you owe him that much, and if he's in another relationship then he will come clean with you. There's no reason why you can't still be 'friends' if that's what you really want."
As Greta flounced out of the room in a huff, Krista traced her fingers over the words 'all my love, John.'
Thunderbird Three was hurtling towards Earth. Before they entered the Earth's atmosphere, Jeff took time out to check on his son. He had taken John's throwaway quip about picking up 'some obscure space bug' very seriously indeed. Thunderbird Five's hull was sealed to prevent contamination. Special screens shielded it from any harmful radiation. John had not been in contact with anyone carrying the flu bug as far as he knew.
John appeared to be sleeping soundly, although his face was flushed and his breathing rapid and shallow. Jeff took hold of his wrist to check his pulse, and found it was racing. Jeff radioed ahead to Scott to tell him to have the family doctor standing by. Dr. Franklyn was a long standing friend and one of the few people who knew of their involvement with International Rescue. He had his own air ambulance and could be at Tracy Island in minutes in the event of any illness or injury.
On hearing Scott's report of John's condition, the doctor wasn't prepared to take any chances. He wanted John to go for tests at a NASA-owned private hospital base in the Pacific. It offered treatment and recuperation to astronauts returning from long periods in space. It had a decontamination unit and extensive test laboratories.
When Thunderbird Three had been safely returned to its silo underneath the Round House, Jeff gently roused John who had been sleeping in a reclined chair. John's eyelids fluttered and then opened. His bewildered blue eyes strayed around the cabin of Thunderbird Three and for a moment he didn't seem to know where he was. When he saw his father he managed a weak smile.
"Come on, son, you're home now."
John undid his seatbelt and tried to stand, but the rigors of the return journey to Earth had exhausted what little strength he had left. His fair hair was matted with perspiration. His eyes rolled upwards as he collapsed in his father's arms.
Jeff half carried and half dragged his son on to the couch that doubled as a passenger lift. The doctor had insisted that John be taken to a room in the Round House rather than to the Villa. When Jeff arrived with John, he found Dr. Franklyn and Scott waiting for them. They were both wearing surgical face masks and rubber gloves. Jeff's face registered alarm, but he understood the need for precautions. There were many micro-organisms floating about in space, not to mention man-made viruses engineered for germ warfare. Scott stepped forward to help his father lift John on to a gurney. The doctor lifted John’s eyelid, the whites of his eye indicated that John had lapsed into unconsciousness. Dr. Franklyn took John's temperature and immediately ordered him to be taken to hospital.
As Jeff and Scott were hurriedly ferrying John to Jeff's private helicopter, they heard a woman's voice calling to them.
"Wait for me. Let me come with you."
Lady Penelope scrambled into the seat beside Jeff. Jeff saw the Doctor hand her a face mask and surgical gloves, as he attended to John lying motionless on the gurney. He handed a mask to Jeff as well. Penelope looked alarmed.
"It's just a precaution," reassured the doctor "We don't know if he has anything contagious."
"How is he?" she enquired.
"I'm trying to get his temperature down. He's in danger of having a seizure." The doctor placed packs of ice around John's head.
"Oh dear. I seem to have arrived at a bad time."
"Nonsense, there's never a bad time. We're always pleased to see you," Jeff assured her kindly. "I'm sorry I couldn't let you know what had happened."
"Well, Scott filled me in on the details. I want to help as much as I can. Are they going to take him to the Armstrong Centre?"
"Yes. It will be the best place for him."
Scott waved them off and watched anxiously as the helicopter whirled up into the air and away across the sea. He ambled across the sandy runway towards the villa. An urgent beeping from his pager made him break into a sprint. He took the steps at the side of the cliff face two at a time and bounded through the patio doors into the living room. When he reached his father's desk he could see the eyes on Alan's portrait flashing. He pressed a button on the desk to reveal a microphone.
"Go ahead. What's the problem?"
Braman appeared in place of Alan's picture, and using John's voice pattern, he mechanically recited a series of map references. Virgil plotted them on a map on the table infront of him.
"Yeah, I got it Braman Maluku Sea off the coast of Indonesia. What's the problem?"
Braman appeared to hesitate,
Virgil tried again, "Who do we need to help?"
Braman seemed to cope with that question a little better.
"Men report starvation to death. A man is missing."
"Is their vessel damaged? Is it sinking?"
Braman repeated the message as he had interpreted it, "Men report 'help we are starving to death here!'"
"Okay Braman, I'm on my way ! " Scott addressed Virgil who had risen from his seat and walked over to his chute. "I don't think I'm going to need you on this one. The coast guards can help. I'm not sure what to make of it, but I'll have to go and check. Luckily it's not too far away, should take about fifteen minutes at full speed. You're in the driving seat, brother! See you later. "
Scott held on to the lamp brackets that operated a secret panel in wall, which turned around and deposited him inside Thunderbird One's hangar.
Virgil and Gordon watched him depart.
"And then there were two!" said Gordon.
Flying at a speed of 7,500 miles per hour, Scott was soon at the map reference point. The sea looked remarkably calm. Below him he could see a small fishing vessel, bobbing up and down. But it didn't appear to be particularly stricken. Its name was written in oriental characters, possibly Korean or Thai. Scott wished that his father had not let Tin Tin and Kyrano go off to the mainland. They would have been able to translate the message a lot better than Braman had done. There was nowhere he could land, so he hovered alongside the ship and switched on his loud hailer.
"This is International Rescue. Any of you guys understand English?”
A tall thin man waved his arms and leapt up and down. The rest of the crew (Scott could see seven of them) were leaning over the side of the boat, gazing admiringly at Thunderbird One! They didn't look as though they were in danger of starving, but Scott was afraid they might capsize the boat in their excitement.
"Can the man who speaks English get to a radio?"
The man waved and disappeared below deck. A few seconds later Scott heard his heavily accented voice acknowledge him.
"Just what's going on here buddy? We received a call saying you were all starving to death." Scott was rather irritated to hear laughter over the radio.
"Well I'm glad you think this is funny! You have obviously wasted our time and money and right now someone else could be in trouble because of some juvenile prank!"
"No, no we didn't call you," the man protested.
"But we had a call on this frequency," argued Scott. "A man had gone missing and you were starving to death."
Scott could hear the men talking in an agitated manner in their own language. The man then moved back to the microphone and addressed Scott.
"A man has gone missing. For three hours now. He take motor launch to the harbour. It take about ten to fifteen minutes. He has our money. Our oven it explode, we put out fire no problem. We call takeaway. He go get foods. It is three hours now. He does not come back. We very angry, very hungry. We call him on his radio. 'Help we are starving to death here! Where the hell are you?' He replies he is lost, we tell him 'Call coast guard, call International Rescue, anything just bring our food, we are starving.'"
Scott hit his forehead with his fist in exasperation.
"How can he get lost when you can see the harbour from the ship?" Something didn't quite ring true. "Okay, now I'm here I might as well go and find him. Give me a description of the launch and where he was headed."
Scott flew off towards the harbour. He spotted the launch straight away, moored beside the quay. Luckily there was a suitable area of wasteland for him to land on. The first thing he became aware of was the laughter from a nearby colourful, but slightly seedy looking bar.
"I think I'm beginning to get the picture.” Scott walked over to a crowd beside the bar and gestured towards the launch. A stocky, greasy- haired man disentangled himself from the glamorous Oriental girl at his side, he muttered in his own language. Scott needed a translator.
"Anyone speak English?”
The glamorous girl sidled up to Scott and put her arms around him. She smelled of alcohol.
"I speak English real good," she purred.
Scott pushed her away. "Then tell your 'boyfriend' that he's in trouble! He's got seven hungry shipmates waiting for their dinner and if they could see him now he would be fish food!. And I don't think I need three guesses to know what he's done with their money!"
The young girl gave Scott a haughty look, cuffed the man around his head and began to speak like rapid machine gun fire. The man grinned drunkenly at Scott and turned his empty pockets inside out. Scott dragged him by the arm to the takeaway next door to collect his order.
A fat middle aged woman, tossing bean sprouts in a wok, squealed with delight when she saw his uniform. "Yes, yes, American dollars we take," she jabbered excitedly and ushered Scott to the front of the queue. He had to wait for the food to be cooked and found his taste buds being tantalised by the spicy aroma. The food looked good too. He decided to call home.
"Yeah, okay Virgil, that’s the Peking duck for you. Do you want rice? Okay, and King Prawn Chow Mein for Gordon. What about Parker?"
He heard Parker's voice clearly in the background. "H'ai don't want none of that 'orrible foreign muck. You can keep your Chop Suey and your Feng Shui. Hi'll 'ave Fish 'n Chips any day!"
Having collected the food, Scott marched the man back to his motor launch.
"I'll tell your buddies that you met with a slight accident. You owe me one big time! You'd better come up with a good story or they will feed your miserable carcass to the sharks!"
The man gave him a silly grin. Scott knew he didn't understand a word but it made him feel better. He climbed back into Thunderbird One and called Virgil.
"Mission completed, heading for home... and don't ask! Braman's for the scrap heap as far as I'm concerned!"
Chapter 6 - Setbacks
Jeff stayed at the hospital while Penelope took a room in a nearby hotel. In the early hours of the morning, Jeff had been called by John's doctor. John's condition was causing concern. His temperature had risen to 105. He was delirious and rambling incoherently. The doctors suspected some form of encephalitis or meningitis. They took blood samples and performed a spinal tap. They pumped him full of antibiotics. Now, all Jeff could do was wait for the outcome. He hated hospitals - too many bad memories. Here, he was no longer a man in control. He could do nothing other than wait, albeit in a comfortable private room. Time seemed to stand still in hospital waiting rooms, and at the moment it was as if nothing existed in the outside world. He wasn't even worrying about International Rescue! He hated to feel so useless. Until the test results had proved whether or not John's illness was contagious, Jeff had been kept in isolation, and could not even offer any comfort . Jeff could only watch his son through a Perspex observation window, as he lay writhing and moaning in the grips of a mysterious fever.
Jeff paced the room again. He had been there for nearly five and a half hours. His nerves were beginning to show the strain. This man, who was usually able to conceal emotion behind a poker face, punched the wall Not again! Once again, it seemed he was being called to the table where fate dealt the cards and he had no aces up his sleeve. He and fate stood at evens. Jeff had lost Lucy, but had won back Gordon, from the terrible hydrofoil accident that put him in intensive care for two weeks and almost crippled him. His recovery had been slow. He had to learn to walk all over again. As Gordon struggled, and on occasions broke down in tears, Jeff found himself feeling guilty for pushing his languid and easy going son too hard. But he pushed all of his sons to their limits. He believed in them and they had to be the best.
Lady Penelope replaced her surgical face mask and returned to Jeff's room bearing a pot of hot coffee and a plate of freshly baked croissants. "Any news yet?"
Jeff shook his head. "They are still waiting for the lab results. We still don't know if he has anything contagious. They'll let me know as soon as they come through."
"Here, have some breakfast, Jeff," urged Penelope. "You haven't touched a thing since John was brought in."
Jeff drank some coffee and took a bite out of a croissant, but then put it back on his plate. He wasn't hungry. He leapt up on hearing a knock at the door.
"Do you have the results?" he enquired urgently of the white coated doctor standing in the doorway.
"Please come in, Doctor Stevens." Lady Penelope motioned him towards the couch.
The Doctor sat down and flicked through some papers. "We still cannot say for certain what is wrong with your son, but we know that it isn't a bacterial infection or meningitis"
Jeff felt a little more relieved. "Some kind of virus then?" he asked.
"Well, not exactly. We have examined his blood, throat swabs and cerebrospinal fluid and we cannot find any signs of viral or bacterial infection"
"But there must be something wrong to make him run a fever that high!"
"We think that he may have suffered some sort of electrical disturbance to the brain, causing an imbalance of the brain's chemicals. This interfered with his body's ability to control temperature. His brain simply overheated like an overloaded computer"
You mean something literally blew his mind!"
"Well yes. I suppose you could put it like that! The odd thing is," continued the Doctor, "We had another patient admitted yesterday with exactly the same thing."
"Is he an astronaut too?"
"No, he was a deep sea diver."
"Was?" ventured Jeff shakily.
"I'm afraid he died an hour ago."
Penelope gave a gasp and tightly clutched Jeff''s hand. Jeff wanted to ask a question but he found that his throat had gone dry. "What can you do for John?"
"Well we're still playing it by ear at the moment. We are keeping him in a cool, dark room. His temperature has dropped back a little. That's a good sign. We have had to keep him sedated for a lot of the time. He became very delirious at the peak of the fever and kept trying to get out of bed. He became very anxious, he kept saying something about dying, and that he could feel his eyes burning, but brain fever does that sort of thing."
"Can I see him?" asked Jeff croakily,
"Yes, he's conscious and a lot calmer now. But don't stay too long or ask him too much. He needs to rest."
"Has he sustained any damage to his brain?"
"It’s hard to say. He can hold a conversation, but we will need to run more tests on him when he is stronger."
"And you're absolutely sure that he has nothing contagious?" asked Penelope cautiously.
"As sure as we can be."
The doctor led Jeff and Penelope to an air conditioned, darkened room. Jeff could see John lying in bed staring at the ceiling, looking pale and tired. He caught sight of them and managed a wan smile.
Jeff felt heartened; he was holding an ace and a king after all. This was definitely an improvement. Two hours ago, when Jeff had been allowed to observe John through the window of the isolation room, John had stared blankly at him without recognition, totally disorientated.
"We were all worried about you, son," said Jeff.
"How do you feel, John?" asked Penelope pulling up a chair.
Penelope dragged the chair a few feet away from his bed. After all, she was wearing a particularly exclusive Francois Lemaire, pink trouser suit.
The news of Arne's death completely floored Professor Linstrom and he gave serious thought to calling the whole expedition off. He felt out of his depth. There was something down there beyond the experience of man. He and his assistant Lars, a fellow Norwegian and future son- in- law sat around a table, together with scientist Tom Brandon and diver Ross Perry Krista was also present. Tom was studying ultrasound pictures obtained earlier this morning by a remote controlled underwater camera.,
"The interior of the asteroid looks to be hollow." he explained, "It contains some source of energy. It could be a natural occurrence. It could also be radioactive, which would explain the heat source which stops the lake from freezing solid. We also managed to obtain a core sample, using a less invasive method than blasting off chunks. Rather like removing the core from an apple. We have decided to approach this cautiously; if there is anything in there we don't want to upset it. There were traces of carbon based material in the sample."
"Bones?" ventured Lars, stroking his beard.
"That's the discovery we are all hoping for. Yes, they could be bones."
"Of extra terrestrials?" said Krista.
"That is plausible," answered Tom. "Something in there is protected by diamond encrusted rock. The outer layer of the asteroid has been burned away on it's entry into the earth's atmosphere. Look, you can see where the colour of the rock changes. This is the inner layer of the asteroid. This is a substance I cannot identify. It could be diamond. It's harder than the ice, this is why it has survived ; anything else would have been ground up by the movement of the glacier. This next photograph shows the area where Arne was blasting. The outer layer of rock was thin at that point and Arne had started to penetrate the asteroid itself, but at that stage he was injured."
"Could there be some form of defence mechanism something like a force field perhaps?" asked Lars.
"In my experience asteroids are usually just chunks of solid rock. They would not have any mechanism for defence or any reason for one. But this one is clearly not your usual common or garden asteroid!"
"What do you think it could be then?" asked Ross who had been listening intently.
"A capsule maybe or robot probe sent to collect data."
"Or spaceship with little green men!" volunteered Ross, but no one laughed at him.
"We can't rule that out. If there is anything alive in there it will be as curious about us as we are about it."
"What ever it was could have caused Arne's death," snapped Ross.
"We don't know that for sure," replied Professor Linstrom. "He did not appear to be very seriously injured when we brought him back up. He suffered surface burns and lacerations to his arms but the electric shock was not sufficient to kill him. The doctors at the Royal Navy hospital though it prudent to transfer him to a specialist unit because of the circumstances surrounding his accident and he was taken to the Armstrong Centre in the Pacific."
"Then why was his death so sudden? What killed him?
"He developed an infection. Headache and fever at first, a bit like flu, but then he deteriorated rapidly, his temperature rocketed to 108. His brain was overwhelmed and his vital organs began to shut down. The doctors could do nothing for him. It was as if his brains were boiling in his head!"
They all grimaced. It sounded a terrible way to die. Krista felt the tears stinging in her eyes.
"The authorities have requested an autopsy. We have been told to suspend operations until further notice, and requested to co-operate fully with the Government investigation officers."
"So that's that then," said Ross
"Who is going to inform our sponsor?"
"That unfortunately will have to be me," said Professor Linstrom. "I'm sure he will not be at all happy, but our hands are tied."
The meeting broke up and Krista returned solemnly to her room. She wished she had not quarrelled with Greta. She was disappointed for her father and upset by the death of her colleague and she needed someone to confide in. She badly wanted to call John, but Greta was right ; he had read too much into their friendship. She had promised to marry Lars and that was that. However she found herself wishing that Lars would spend as much time with her as he did with her father. Unnerved by what had happened to Arne she wanted to feel a pair of strong arms around her, protecting her like a small child. She and Lars did not have very much time for conversation these days. They had not even discussed setting a date for their wedding. The expedition provided them both with a convenient excuse. She switched on her computer and re- read the e mail from John that she had stored in her filing system. Then she left her room and knocked quietly on Greta's door.
"I’m sorry," she called. Greta bounded across the room, opened the door and hugged her.
"I hate us falling out."
A couple of days later, John was being wheeled down a corridor by a medical orderly. Although he was making good progress, his memory was still a bit like Swiss cheese - full of holes. He knew who he was, where he lived, who his family were. He could recall the name of his first girlfriend and the name of the family's first pet dog, but he could not remember some of the events prior to his illness.
He was wheeled into a room dominated by a large scanner with lots of dials and knobs. John looked a little nervous. He was met by Dr. Stevens, who tried to put him at ease. Dr. Stevens was a few years older than his father and had known Jeff when he was an astronaut. He had been the medical officer in charge of the Moon-base. He was also one of the few people to know the true identity of the members of International Rescue. Dr. Stevens helped John from the gurney.
"Now just relax. This won't take too long," he assured. "I just need to do a routine CAT scan to see if there has been any damage. You had an extremely high temperature and a surge of blood to your brain. You were very fortunate not to have suffered a seizure."
John cautiously lay down in front of the machine while Dr. Stevens fastened supports to keep his head and neck still. He turned a couple of dials and flicked a switch. John could feel himself travelling slowly into a narrow, dimly lit tunnel. He was glad that he wasn't claustrophobic.
"Do you feel okay?" asked the doctor.
"Fine. Carry on."
The whole procedure took only a few minutes, but it seemed a lot longer to John. He was aware of the camera moving to get different angles of his head and he could hear the whirring and clicking of the machinery. Then he found himself moving out into the light again. He squinted and made to shield his eyes with his hand. The doctor helped him into a sitting position. John was relieved to be rid of the neck restraint which had been cutting in to him. Dr. Stevens motioned him to take a seat by his desk. He then performed some reflex tests, all of which John passed satisfactorily.
Dr. Stevens shone a light into John's eyes and asked. "Can you tell me how much you can remember about the other day, when you became ill?"
"Well, it was a pretty nondescript sort of day. The temperature control on the life support system had been acting up. The previous night I woke up feeling freezing cold, but when I checked the systems they seemed to be okay. I had an e mail from a friend, read a book. Routine sort of stuff really."
"So nothing out of the ordinary happened?“
"I don't think so."
"Would you say that you were in good health? Hadn't been overdoing things ? Were you taking your vitamins and doing regular exercises, getting the right amount of sleep?"
John nodded, and thought the next question the doctor would probably ask him was ' Are you regular?' just like Gordon's wisecrack, and he did.
John answered 'yes' in all the right places, but then volunteered, "I remember feeling muzzy headed before I went to sleep. Then during the night I woke up feeling hot and thirsty. I went to get something to drink and the next thing I remember is lying on the floor next to the monitor bank with the mother of all headaches. Guess I must have passed out and hit my head."
"What did you do when you came round?
"I called Dad. I couldn't focus my eyes, I felt hot and dizzy. I didn't know what was wrong with me."
"At the height of your fever you were quite delirious and seemed to be in an anxious state"
"What did I do?"
"You said that you were dying, you were melting, that your head was bursting."
"That's how it felt. I never want a headache like that again!"
"Then you said ' We're all dying, contaminated, let us be'."
John looked puzzled. "Must have been having a nightmare."
Dr. Stevens finished writing his report. "Well, I will record this on your medical records as a fever of undetermined origin. You can go home and rest now, but I would like to see you again in ten days time. Call me at once if you experience any nausea, dizziness or visual disturbance."
John gave a smile of relief as he shook Dr. Steven’s hand. "Thanks, Doc."
Dr. Stevens looked apprehensive as John left the room. He took out John's medical report and began to add some more notes.
Back home with his family around him, John began to relax. His brain scan had been clear and he was now wallowing in all the attention being lavished upon him. Grandma had baked him apple pies galore, while Lady Penelope and Tin Tin fussed over him. ‘ A guy could get used to this' he thought to himself, but still there was something missing. During the five days he had been in hospital there had not been one single message from Krista. He felt a little hurt, but then realised, as no-one down here knew of their friendship, Krista would not be aware of his illness. He decided that now he was better he wasn't going to tell her. He felt embarrassed about his weakness. The hot sun around the pool was beginning to burn his face. He found that unlike Scott, Virgil and Alan he did not tan easily. Like Gordon, he had fair skin and a tendency to turn the shade of a cooked lobster! He sauntered into the living room a cool blast from the air conditioning fanned his face. He decided to give Alan and Brains a call. Almost immediately Alan's beaming face appeared in place of his portrait.
"John! Great to see you! When will the Doc let you come back to work?"
John laughed. "Sounds like you've had enough already! And you've only been on for seven days."
"That's seven days with a guy who gets prickly if you leave the spoons facing the wrong way in the cutlery drawer! And guess how long it took him to do this!" Alan held up a Rubik's cube retrieved from the eighties time capsule. Each side had been completed.
"I take it you are referring to Brains. I dunno; it certainly beat me."
"Still, he can't get everything right. I heard about Braman's debut. I guess I'm not about to be made redundant just yet. Seriously though, is everything okay up there? Any more gremlins in the works?"
Brains who had been listening in, answered for Alan. "I-It's funny th-that y-you should mention g-gremlins John. I-I th-think y-your computers c-could have been tampered with after all. "
"Well how? And by whom?"
"S-something caused a m-massive power surge to the c-computer controlling your life support system, c-causing the temperature to drop until the back up computers kicked in. Th-this h-happened again, roughly thirty minutes before your father received your call for assistance. S-something c-caused your c-computer circuits to overheat"
"Sounds a bit like what happened to my brain," joked John.
"I-I have a th-theory," volunteered Brains. "I-It c-could have been s-some kind of probe, in the form of a high powered energy beam. I-it could have been sent to spy on us."
"It would have to be a very sophisticated device to penetrate our shields," said John. "But I don't remember seeing anything. Perhaps I got in its way and it zapped me. Has anything else happened?"
"N-no, everything has been fine, b-but I'm going to stay on here for a while. I've uh still got work to do on Braman, w-we can't leave him on his own just yet.
"Well, if you'll excuse me, I'll go back and soak up some more sun," said John and with that he signed off.
Professor Linstrom ended a phone call after his sponsor had slammed his fist into the videophone, cutting off all communication. He was glad that he did not have the videolink on. This man sounded very ugly indeed! In fact if Professor Linstrom had been able to view his caller, he would have seen a very different man from the one who sat in his office, making demands a week ago. He would have seen that this man operated not from an office, but from an old converted temple hidden deep in the impenetrable Malaysian jungle. He would have realised that this man, as suspected, wore a wig, and minus that wig he was completely bald. He would have seen that the waxy complexion was a latex mask and the man's real skin was brown and swarthy. Only the eyes were the same, evil glowing eyes. The arch villain and terrorist known amongst the criminal underworld as 'The Hood' paced to and fro in front of a giant, grotesque, carved statue muttering curses in his native tongue.
"They do not fool me. This is an excuse. They will not cancel the expedition. They mean to keep the diamonds for themselves. How dare they take me for a fool!. Nothing will stop me! The diamonds will be mine! It's time these amateurs realised who they are dealing with. No-one makes a fool of me and lives!" He flung his disguise across the room.
"No more Mr.Nice Guy," he snarled.
The Hood was a man of very persuasive powers. It had taken him several hours to travel by jet, from his jungle hideout to New Zealand. From there he took a ski plane to McMurdo base in the Antarctic. On arrival he was met by Carlo de Santos, the man who was in charge of the investigations into Arne's death, and the mysterious asteroid at the bottom of the lake. The Hood explained that as he was sponsoring the Vorta expedition, he was anxious for it to proceed. He was assured by Mr de Santos that everything would be done to try to speed things up, before the short summer gave way to the freezing winter temperatures that would make the expedition impossible. He explained that the safety officer still had to take further samples of the lake and analyse them for toxins and all the survival gear worn by the expedition team, plus their cutting equipment would have to be checked over. He estimated that it would be at least another three weeks, before they could reach a decision, whether or not the expedition could safely go ahead.
The Hood felt anger rising inside him. Patience was not one of his virtues. In fact he had absolutely no virtues at all! His eyes glowed with a menace beneath his dark, beetle brows. Mr. de Santos gave a startled cry and began to feel his mind growing blank. He was unable to look away from those mesmerising eyes!
"Yes sir," he replied in a flat monotone voice. "I will do whatever you wish."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Professor Linstrom, striding into the lounge from his adjoining office. "Talk about changing like the wind! That was Mr. de Santos on the phone, from the department handling the investigation into Arne’s death. They have sorted things out much quicker than I expected."
"Sorted what out?" enquired Krista, looking up from her book.
"The investigating authorities have decided that the first samples were sufficient to test, and no toxins or bacteria have been found. They conclude that Arne died of an unspecified brain Infection which they do not attribute to his accident and therefore they do not need to inspect our equipment."
"So we can now go ahead," announced Lars eagerly.
"That's wonderful!" Krista enthused, but then she noticed a flicker of apprehension on her father's face. "But you look worried. I thought you would be pleased."
"Oh I am. It's just a little odd. I spoke to the same man yesterday and he told me that tests on the water samples had proved inconclusive, and he wanted to run some more. He said that our operation should be suspended for another two or three weeks. He wanted to be thorough, and he also mentioned that the Government were taking an interest in the asteroid and wanted to send some of their men from the Space Agency."
"That's all we need!" cried Lars "We don't really want their officials crawling all over the place. If we have the go ahead, I think we should go down again and take more core samples. Perhaps we can open it up without disturbing anything inside."
"I'm finding this a little un-nerving," said the Professor gravely. "I have the safety of my team to think about. Arne was my responsibility. He would still be alive if he hadn't been working for me"
"But he died from a brain fever," interrupted Lars. "That could have happened anyway. He might have been carrying some sort of bug which flared up at the wrong moment."
"I do not believe that it was an accident. I think something down there attacked him and so does Joe. He's not coming back."
"You're not suggesting that we give up now, after all the work we have put in? Not to mention all the money we owe. We need some of those diamonds and our sponsor will expect to see a return on his investment. We are all with you, me; Tom, Ross and the girls. We want this as much as you. We don't believe in superstition. If there is a natural source of radiation emitting from the rock, then we have our suits to protect us."
Professor Linstrom did not reply he was staring ponderously at an ultrasound picture, wondering what was at the core of the asteroid, whether it once had a form and a bone structure and, more importantly, was it dead or alive?
"I just feel that we may literally be getting out of our depth," he said at last.
"But this is the find of the century, you said so yourself. Bigger than Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb."
"And I fear it could also carry the same curse!"
Lady Penelope and Tin Tin were reclining on sun beds around the pool on Tracy Island watching John trying to race Gordon to the other side. Scott and Virgil were sleeping late, as they had been called out to a fire during the night. It was another clear, perfect tropical day. The temperature hovered around the eighties, with just the slightest of breezes swaying the palm trees. Kyrano had just brought them Pimms and lemonade. Parker, who had been given the day off, lay sleeping on a nearby hammock. He was not a pretty sight! His mouth was hanging open and he was snoring loudly. Kyrano shot him a disdainful look. The two men from different cultural backgrounds did not always see eye to eye. Kyrano objected to Parker calling him 'Old Son' and Parker's use of cockney rhyming slang left him totally baffled.
Jeff Tracy walked up the steps from the runway. He had been to meet the small seaplane which brought the mail and daily newspapers. He strolled over and sat next to Penelope, opening a can of cold beer.
"It's good to see John looking well again," she remarked.
"I guess he's fit enough to resume his duties. Brains is still up there with Alan fiddling about with Braman. They haven't had any more trouble with the computers, so John can take over in a few days time."
"Poor Alan is finding Brains a little overbearing," put in Tin Tin
Jeff laughed. "They are rather like chalk and cheese! Alan was never the academic, and Brains isn't built for speed like Alan. Perhaps they might do each other some good, but I guess they both get a little claustrophobic living in each others pockets."
"I think Brains is rather enjoying himself," remarked Tin Tin. "All those books to read and he's very keen on astronomy too. Last night he called to tell John that he had seen a strange star he couldn't identify."
"Well if anyone can identify it John can. He knows all of them by name."
Lady Penelope picked up the newspaper and began to flick through it, "Oh this should interest you Jeff," she commented.
"What's that, Penny?"
"A group of scientists are studying an asteroid found at the bottom of Lake Vorta. Professor Linstrom, leading the expedition, calculates that this asteroid caused the lake to form when it struck thousands of years ago. This impact caused the formation of a lake inside the ice cap which promptly froze solid, and has only recently become accesable due to the effects of global warming. Prof. Linstrom aims to analyse samples taken from the asteroid which he believes will contain vital geological information, and may even show signs of alien life forms!"
Tin Tin had vacated her sun bed to join Gordon in the pool. John emerged dripping and sat down in her place drying his face and hair. He caught Penelope's last sentence.
"What was that about alien life forms?" he inquired looking over her shoulder. He saw a picture of Krista, Lars and the Professor standing in the icy wastes next to Lake Volta. He suddenly fell quiet. He had sent Krista an e mail a few days ago, but had not received a reply. He thought it odd. They had been getting on so well before he had been taken ill, but now she seemed to want to nip their friendship in the bud. Just as John felt that it was beginning to blossom. He silently pulled the towel around his shoulders and headed off back to the house.
During the course of the morning the sun became obscured by a hazy cloud. The temperature dropped back sufficiently for Gordon to feel chilly enough to vacate the pool. Tin Tin remarked that this was rather uncharacteristic for the time of year. Blue cloudless skies were usually taken for granted. Instead of the fluffy white clouds, that came and went, and occasionally, during the winter months, built up to form a dramatic tropical storm. This type of cloud hung like a haze, the type you see on the horizon over polluted cities on the mainland. It remained there, in the south, for the rest of the day and by the evening; the temperature had dropped even more.
Gordon sneezed loudly as he pressed the remote control switch that activated a large television set into the wall in the living room.
"Bless you," said Penelope. "I hope you haven't caught a cold."
"It's getting cold enough!" he complained. "Perhaps we'll catch the weather forecast. This is supposed to be summer!"
Lady Penelope who was used to the British climate was about to say that it was still quite comfortable, when she was diverted by a bleeping noise. The eyes on Brains' portrait were flashing.
Jeff pressed a button on his desk to reveal a microphone concealed in the bottom of a crystal ashtray. "Go ahead, Brains."
"M-Mr. T-Tracy I er thought I might have a word with John." Brains looked a little concerned.
"Any problems?" asked Jeff.
"N-n-not really. Well not with Thunderbird Five anyway."
"What's the matter then?"
"You've not blasted Alan out into Space have you?" quipped Gordon. His father gave him a reproachful look.
"Well there's obviously something on your mind so out with it," ordered Jeff.
"I-i-it's that star I was telling John about."
"The one you couldn't identify."
"Y-yes it seems to be growing. I-it doesn't look the same as the other stars. I-I w-would uh like J-John's opinion."
John came into the room when he was summoned by his father, and asked Brains to train the high powered telescope on to the star and transmit a picture of it. It was on the screen in a matter of seconds.
John stroked his chin. "I don't think that it is a star. I've not seen it before and I know most of the Constellations in that part of the Hemisphere. It's kind of swirly like a giant cloud of dust. I don't think that it's a meteor shower; the particles do not seem solid enough."
"I-it's been getting bigger," noted Brains."A-and I think there may be some radioactivity, I have increased the uh protection on our shields. If it comes any closer we may experience some interference."
"Okay. Brains keep us posted," said Jeff. "Call us on the hour to make sure that the frequency is still clear."
"F. A. B."
"What do you reckon?" Jeff asked of John. "Could it pose a threat?"
"My main concern is that it could cause a communication black-spot, and any distress call from the affected area would not be able to get through."
"Is it just me or is it getting colder in here?" Gordon shivered and pulled on a roll neck sweater.
"I hope you're not going to fall sick on me," said his father.
"It does seem to be getting rather nippy," agreed Lady Penelope. Parker automatically rose to drape a cashmere sweater across her shoulders. "Thank you Parker, and could you close the window? I am in a bit of a draught."
" Sorry about the weather taking such a turn. You may get your British winter after all. I gather there has been snow in Australia.... in January!"
"Say, could this weird weather have something to do with that cosmic dust cloud?" suggested Gordon.
"It's mighty peculiar," replied Jeff. "Who knows what it will affect."
"We haven't much time left. The temperature is dropping and the weather seems to be changing. It's got to be now or never" said Lars bluntly to Professor Linstrom.
The Professor was only half listening to him. His attention was distracted by a small ski plane skidding to a halt on the runway. He groaned; he knew who his visitor was.
"I think our sponsor has come to pay us a call."
"I suppose he will be looking for the same answer as the rest of us. Are we going ahead or not? You are in charge. The decision is yours."
The Professor sighed deeply,
"Alright, will you go and meet him and show him in. By the way, you haven't seen Krista or Greta this morning have you?"
Lars shook his head as he left the room. Minutes later he returned with the mysterious sponsor. Professor Linstrom welcomed him cordially. He half expected the man to apologise for his angry outburst when they last spoke, but nothing could prepare him for what happened next. The man silently reached into his jacket pocket and took out a photograph. This he put down on the desk in front of the Professor. It showed a girl in her early twenties gagged with a scarf, her hands and feet tightly bound. She was lying on a filthy rug on the floor of a disused building. Her eyes were wide with fear. The Professor's blood ran cold and he was too shocked to speak.
"If you want to see your daughter again you will do as I say!" The Hood's eyes flashed angrily, exuding sheer evil. "You will take the submarine down tomorrow, prime the missiles and blast that rock to pieces. Then you will then bring all of its treasure to me. I must have those diamonds. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"
The Professor managed to find his voice. It came out in a strangled croak, "What have you done to her. Please, don't hurt her. She is my only child."
"Then you must bring the treasure to me. If you fail me your daughter will die!"
"I understand," repeated the Professor flatly. "I will do as you say."
"Good. At last we have a deal."
The Hood gave a malicious chuckle, and then swept out of the office. He climbed into the cockpit of his plane and sped away.
Lars barged in, eager to speak to the Professor. He found Professor Linstrom standing with his back to the door staring out of the window as if in a daze.
"Well what did you tell him?" asked Lars urgently. "He looked rather pleased with himself. What did you decide?"
"We will go down tomorrow," announced the Professor in a dull monotone, "We will use the missiles to blast the asteroid open."
"Wow. You've changed your tune, but missiles? Isn't that a bit drastic?"
The Professor stared blankly and did not answer.
"What about the diamonds. Did you come to an arrangement? We need to keep something for ourselves to cover our expenses for the trip."
The Professor clasped the photograph of Krista to his chest.
"There are things more precious than diamonds."
Chapter 8 - Weather report
The following morning on Tracy Island was as crisp as an English autumn. It was seven degrees Celsius on a tropical island where the temperature never fell below twenty. Kyrano was inspecting his garden, fearful of the effects of cold on his precious orchids. Gordon was helping him to construct a plastic tunnel for use in the rare event of frost. Growing plants was Kyrano's other passion apart from cooking. The large fertile garden at the rear of the house provided an ample supply of fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables to enhance Kyrano's culinary skills.
There would be no lounging by the pool today. It was too cold to swim, even for Gordon. Jeff and Penelope had gone for a brisk stroll along the beach, while Scott, Virgil and John watched the early morning news. After the day's main headlines there was a feature on the expedition to the bottom of Lake Vorta.
"After many weeks of deliberating, this long awaited operation will take place in a few hours time." The announcer continued, "The objective is to recover samples of rock from a meteorite that fell to earth during the middle ages. Until now solid pack ice has prevented any exploration of this site. Leading his team will be Professor Enns Linstrom together with his assistants Lars Borg, Tom Brandon and their diver Ross Perry ..."
Scott noticed that John was watching avidly. His body looked strangely tensed.
"Do you know something about this?" Scott's tone was inquiring.
"Yeah. I'm friendly with a girl. The Professor in charge of this is her father. I haven't heard from her for a while, I guess they've been having their fair share of problems ... There was some sort of accident I believe.... Didn't some guy die?"
"Did you know the guy who died, John?" asked Scott.
"No. I think his name was Arne something or other..." Virgil and Scott exchanged glances.
"Did Dad tell you about Arne?" Scott continued to question as Virgil interjected.
"Scott, perhaps we should leave this..."
"What?" John's curiosity was aroused. "Was I supposed to know something about this guy?"
Scott explained, "He was brought to the same hospital as you, the day before you arrived. He had the same symptoms as you, but like you, no apparent cause."
"What are you getting at?"
"Well, he died," said Scott. "His temperature soared and his brain overheated. He was delirious like you and you were both muttering the same things. That you were dying. Or rather you said we're all dying, we're contaminated. "
John shrugged. "I felt like I was dying at the time. I felt like hell, so I suppose it would be a natural reaction."
"But you would say I not we," said Scott.
"I don't remember. I was pretty much out of it and I never met that other poor guy."
"Dad says Dr. Stevens thinks that something down there zapped something at his brain."
"Is that what he thinks happened to me?" said John in alarm "Do you all think that I've been 'got at' by some alien life form?"
Scott and Virgil saw that John was becoming agitated and changed the subject. The television reporter had finished discussing the merits of the Professor and his team. There was now a picture on the screen of what looked like a large cigar shaped boulder resting at the bottom of a murky lake. The television reporter was detailing how they planned to open up the asteroid and what they hoped to find inside. John was staring fixedly at the screen. His body tensed and he dug his nails into the palms of his hands.
"They can't do that," he blurted. "They mustn't touch it."
"What's the matter?" Scott looked concerned.
John appeared not to hear him. He could feel a tingling sensation moving from the back of his neck slowly up into his head. Jumbled thoughts were spinning around his brain. It was a like being up in Thunderbird Five with all of the voices talking at once. He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. Messages seemed to come at him from all directions. There was too much information to take in, like a computer that has over-loaded. 'Leave us alone. We are contaminated. You will all die. It was as if he had a tele-printer in his brain churning out messages that he couldn't switch off. He suddenly felt hands on his shoulders, forcing his head down between his knees. Gradually the swirling sensation cleared and the voices receded to a mere ringing in his ears. He lifted his head and looked into the worried face of Virgil.
"John, are you alright? Would you like me to get you a glass of water?"
"It's not an asteroid," he said irritably "It's not what they think. They mustn't touch it. It's a tomb."
"I'll fetch Dad," said Scott.
Precisely on the hour, Alan checked in from Thunderbird Five. Scott answered, "Receiving you loud and clear. No problems with communication so far. Is everything alright with you?"
Alan frowned. "I don't know. That cosmic dust cloud is gathering momentum, and it's starting to shift its position. Brains has got the telescope trained on it. He thinks it's moving nearer to earth."
"Could there be any immediate danger?"
"Not if it stays where it is. Brains is sure that it is causing the freak weather conditions. He is monitoring the region that would be the most affected."
"Where would that be?"
"It's mostly centred over the South Pole. It's not doing any serious damage, on the contrary, Brains said it could even do some good. "
"How does he figure that out?" asked Scott.
"Well the polar ice caps have been unstable since 2025. The seas around have risen, there has been an increase in extreme weather conditions, more typhoons and hurricanes. It could cause the ice caps to thicken and make the area stable again and redress the balance of nature."
"There may be no cause for alarm at the moment, but what do we do if it comes any closer?"
"You get your thermal underwear out!" finished Alan.
"Scott! What about The Expedition?" cried Virgil in alarm. "The news report said that they were going to go down today."
"I should think that they would have checked the weather report, and changed their minds if they've got any sense," said Alan sharply.
"But if they haven't they could become trapped. Should we check with them?"
"I have sent out a hazardous weather warning to all of the scientific groups working in the vicinity. Most of them already knew. They have just as good equipment to monitor the weather as we have, and they are all making for the winter domes in case it gets worse," said Alan.
"But did you get through to Expedition Vorta?" asked Virgil.
"As I said I just put out a general call, but I could try to trace their frequency. Should we tell John? Perhaps he knows where to get hold of them."
"John's resting. We shouldn't bother him now."
"Still talking about me?" John was standing by the doorway. No-one had heard him come in. "Oh I'm okay now. It was just a dizzy spell. I heard Alan's call, I've just tried to contact Krista, but I can't seem to get an answer. We'll have to get Alan to put out a general call on their radio frequency. Alan should be able to track it. They must have a radio link."
"Did you hear Alan? Do that will you."
Scott turned to face John, "But we still can't be sure that they went down. It would be a foolhardy thing to do in view of the changeable weather and these people seemed like intelligent professionals."
Alan opened a hailing channel. "This is International Rescue calling Expedition Vorta, come in please."
There was no answer.
He repeated the call. "International Rescue to Expedition Vorta, do you read me?"
Still there was silence.
"Expedition Vorta, this is International Rescue. We have to urge you to call off your operation."
There came a crackling over the radio. A female voice sounded distant and strangely monotone. "Expedition Vorta to International Rescue"
"Thank goodness, I need to know if you are all okay. We have reason to believe that you may be in danger if you take your submarine under the lake. We have reports of adverse weather for your location. For your own safety I urge you to call off the expedition."
"Everything will be taken care of." The toneless voice replied automatically.
Alan signed off. "Well it sounds as though they have got everything under control. I guess we can relax for a bit."
"Thanks Alan. Keep in touch," said Scott. He then turned towards John, "Go back and get some more rest, there's nothing to worry about."
John wasn't so convinced. There was something strange about the girl's voice.
Greta automatically switched off the radio and resumed her trance like state. The thick set Oriental man beside her prised the microphone from her hand.
"Good work, my dear. Now if there are any more calls, just tell them that everything has been taken care of. I want nothing to jeopardise this operation. I will have the diamonds and nothing will stop me now. Not even International Rescue!"
Chapter 9 - Call For help
John was feeling edgy, there were things going on in his head that he couldn't make sense of. His father, as always was concerned but practical.
"How can you know the asteroid is a tomb?" his father had asked. ”Not even the scientists know that for sure."
John could not explain how he knew. He just did! He was beginning feel 'sidelined'. Although he was feeling fine prior to his dizzy spell, he noticed that his father avoided the subject of his return to active duty. He had also been requested to visit Dr. Stevens for another 'check up'. John felt sure that this was on his father's instigation, and when Scott and Virgil had been called out to that fire the other night, his offer of help had been turned down.
"He thinks I'm cracking up, doesn't he?" John confided to Tin Tin.
Her beautiful face became concerned,
"He worries about you."
"I just have this awful feeling. Call it a hunch. I just know something bad will happen if they mess with this thing."
"You should talk to my father. He has what you call 'hunches', he would understand."
"Those attacks that Kyrano has, am I having the same sort of thing?"
"It is possible," she replied softly.
"But how? Who does this to me? I hear jumbled sounds, I feel things, I sometimes think my father may be right. Perhaps I am cracking up."
"Speak to my father. He will help you understand what is happening to you."
John found Kyrano enjoying the peace and tranquillity of his garden. He was in the process of transferring his most precious and tender orchids to a plastic tunnel.
"Do you think we might get a frost tonight?" asked John.
"The weather is most unpredictable," answered Kyrano arranging the petals of one of his blooms.
"Yeah, It's weird," muttered John, and then he hesitated. He didn't quite know how to broach a rather personal question. "Kyrano ... You remember the first call we had ... the day International Rescue became operative..."
Kyrano paused. "I will never forget it."
John felt that he was being a little intrusive, but he had to continue. "Well, Dad said that you seemed to know something bad was going to happen to the Fireflash. Was that because Tin Tin was on the plane?"
"I sensed an evil presence. I felt there was danger."
"Those 'dizzy spells ' you sometimes have..." John probed him further.
"I cannot explain them. I have tried to tell Mr Tracy. He worries about my health; you have to feel it to understand it"
"I had one earlier," admitted John.
"What did you feel?"
"Panic, despair, death ... a mixture of emotions. At first my mind went blank and then I heard a jumble of voices, but they seemed to come from inside my head. I don't know how to describe it... not really like hearing... like knowing..." He touched a petal on one of Kyrano's orchids. "Just as I know that this feels soft... and when I pick up this rock it feels hard... It's like having another sense."
"Many people have a hidden sixth sense," explained Kyrano. "But in most cases it is never activated. In our modern world we do not need to use it. We have the distractions of work and ambition. We are relatively safe in our world. We do not need our sense to hunt for food, nor to avoid being hunted ourselves. Our sixth sense fades away, but in cases of extreme danger, especially when it involves a loved one. A dormant sixth sense can be re-activated."
"Father thinks something happened to me on board Thunderbird Five. He thinks that the same thing happened to that diver on the expedition..... the one who died."
"Have you been able to discuss this with your father?"
"Not really, I'm sure he thinks I've flipped!"
"I too cannot explain what happens to me," answered Kyrano. "It is not a pleasant thing. Your father is a practical man, but my people have lived with an awareness of the spirits of our ancestors. We use our sixth sense so we maintain our link. You must have been selected as a medium to receive their call."
"Spirits?" John was stunned. "You mean like dead people?"
"I believe the dead are with us all the while. They find ways of getting through to us when they need to."
John involuntarily shivered. "But how do I know who it is?"
"That is impossible for me to answer."
John was silent. His first thought was of his dead mother, but then he dismissed it. He had been aware of many hundreds of voices. "It could be whatever... or whoever is in that asteroid?"
"That is a possibility."
Something was slowly coming back to John's memory. "That night up in Thunderbird Five before I was taken ill..."
"Is there something you remember?"
"I remember a sphere of light," continued John. "It was floating around up in Thunderbird Five. I remember feeling frightened of it. I didn't know what it was, but now I think I do. It didn't mean to harm me or the diver. It just didn't know how to get through to me. I guess it was a little heavy handed."
"Maybe it was trying to ask for your help," suggested Kyrano.
John shuddered. "I've never had a distress call like that before."
It was midday in the Antarctic. The temperature had risen to just above freezing point. The sky had developed a strange milky tinge, the colour of apricot mousse. Tom Brandon was the last person to enter the small submersible craft. It bobbed in the water amongst slabs of ice. He fastened down the hatch. He figured that they had a window of about three to four hours to get to the bottom of the lake, complete their task and return to the surface before the temperature dipped to below freezing. He opened the radio channel.
"Okay, Greta. We're preparing to dive now. "
"Message received." said Greta tonelessly.
"She seems in a strange mood today." noted Ross.
"It's a pity that Krista was not feeling up to the trip." Tom addressed Professor Lindstrom, "I knew how much she wanted to come along."
The Professor grunted in acknowledgement. Tom knew that he had been against Krista going on the mission and he assumed that they had argued over the risks to her safety. Only Lars was aware of her predicament. He and the Professor thought it prudent not to tell the others.
A thin film of ice was already forming around the submarine, and as it disappeared beneath the icy waters the hole it left was starting to crackle and glaze over. The submarine slipped silently beneath the eerie, murky water. The lake was totally barren. Not even a weed or lichen grew around the water's edge.
Lars manoeuvred the craft clear of outcrops of ice and dived deeper. At a depth of sixty metres they spotted the asteroid half buried in ice and silt. Its rough texture made it resemble a sleeping crocodile.
Tom began to strap a pack containing the laser cutting equipment to his back, while Ross put on his mask and oxygen tanks.
"You won't need those just yet," said the Professor. "I have another plan"
His hand moved to grasp a black stick with a red button on the end.
"What are you going to do?" asked Tom, and then realised immediately just what the Professor was about to do.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" he cried in alarm, as he saw the Professor's finger hovering above the red button.
"HAVE YOU GONE MAD?" Tom lunged forward and tried to wrest the stick from the Professor's hand, but the Professor was a strong man and the slightly built scientist was having trouble holding him.
"I must do this," insisted the Professor tonelessly. "I must get the diamonds."
"Lars I need some help! The Professor's gone crazy! If he fires a missile at this range we could be dashed to pieces by the exploding rock!"
Lars handed the controls over to Ross and rushed to assist, but before he was able to restrain the Professor, he made a grab at the missile stick and pressed. The silver missile parted the water like a predatory fish, but mercifully missed it's prey and impacted into a wall of ice. A huge explosion caused a shockwave that sent a cascade of ice chunks raining down onto the submarine. The men inside felt their small craft being lifted, as if by a giant hand and tossed back onto the bed of the lake, like a toy cast aside by a bored toddler. They were flung around like rag dolls. Then all was still. It was Lars who gathered his wits first.
"Is anyone hurt?" His own mouth tasted of blood and he wiped it across the back of his hand.
Ross grunted, feeling his ribs, "I think I'm alright."
"Yeah fine no damage," answered Tom. "But the Professor's hurt."
Professor Linstrom was lying unconscious, bleeding from a head wound.
"It looks bad. It could be a fracture."
Tom moved the Professor into the recovery position and checked that his airways were clear. He seemed to be breathing steadily. Lars looked shakily around, peering through the port-hole, he could see that they were some twenty metres away from the asteroid. He figured that the sub was lying on its side like a stricken goldfish. He knew at once that it had been severely damaged. There was now only one thing they could do. He tried the radio, and was relieved to hear it crackle and hiss into life.
"Expedition Vorta to base. Come in please."
There was silence.
"Expedition Vorta to base. are you receiving me?"
Still nothing, why didn't Greta answer for pity's sake?
"Greta! This is Lars we're in trouble!"
The radio fizzed and crackled. “Too much static.”
"Call International Rescue," suggested Tom "They have far more sophisticated equipment than we have."
"Calling International Rescue," voiced Lars urgently. "International Rescue, this is Expedition Vorta. We need your help!"
He paused, anticipating an answer but all he could hear was an unintelligible babble distorted by interference.
"Keep trying," urged Tom. "If they can't pick us up, then no-one can."
This though only served to plunge the men deeper into depression. Lars clutched the radio mike. It was his only lifeline.
"Calling International Rescue..."
At the edge of Ross Island stood a disused canning warehouse. It looked like a relic from the early part of the century, when whales had been hunted to the brink of extinction for their meat and blubber. The blood of these long dead, butchered creatures still stained the lower floors. Now that this was illegal, there was no industry at all apart from tourism. The only shooting nowadays was done with a camera. The whale population, thanks to a genetic cloning programme was steadily recovering again.
Inside one of these buildings, Krista tried to wriggle free from her bonds. She had managed to find a rough piece of wood and was trying to cut through her wrist band. She was halfway through. She had been supple enough wriggle her legs through, so that her arms were now in front of her rather than behind, enabling her to remove her gag. But it was no use there was not a soul who would hear her if she screamed. She thought it worth a try anyway. When her throat became hoarse, she stopped and listened. She could hear a crunching noise. Someone wearing heavy boots was walking across the packed snow outside. Her first instinct was to call for help again, but something stopped her. She wriggled her wrists out of the bonds, put her arms behind her back and slid the rope back onto her wrist. The door swung open and there stood the Hood. He knelt down beside her and picked up the gag.
"I hate noise," he spat. "Especially shrill, screeching female noise." he started to replace the gag. Krista looked at him pleadingly.
"No, please I need some water."
The Hood opened a rotting window and scraped some ice off the sill. Krista moistened her mouth and throat.
"You can't keep me here."
She knew by the look on the Hood's face that it had been the wrong thing to say.
"Can't!" he repeated, pushing his monstrous face close to her. "And who are you to tell me what I can and can't do?"
Krista knew better than to try to challenge him, but how could she appeal to someone who did not possess an ounce of empathy?
"Please, If you leave me here all night I will probably freeze to death."
"I should have heard from your father by now," the Hood said, ignoring her pleas.
"Perhaps something has gone wrong," Krista said shakily, although she could hardly bear to think about it.
"Your father is pushing his luck. If he double crosses me..."
"Please... let me speak to him or to Greta. I need to know what has happened; suppose there has been an accident."
"Pah, amateurs!" hissed the Hood. "Don't try any tricks; I will be outside in the snowcat, I will radio through."
He slammed the door and strode back to his vehicle. He opened a frequency to hail Greta. He heard her entranced voice acknowledge him.
"Have you had any word from the Professor?" he growled.
"Is the submarine still at the bottom of the lake?"
"Yes. I think so."
"Can you reach them?"
"I will try for you now."
The Hood could hear her distant voice and he could hear the crackle and hiss from the radio.
"I cannot make contact," said Greta.
"Bah! " The hood slammed the door of his snow-cat shut. The girl was of no use now. It was time to get rid of her.
"Did you get through?" asked Krista earnestly when he returned.
The Hood silently reached into the pocket of his anorak. "I have a little present for you my dear." He set down a clock with wires and explosives attached. "A rather crude device I'm afraid. I am somewhat limited in raw materials here, but I've no doubt that it will prove effective."
Krista gasped. "You're, you're going to blow the place up!"
"Unless I get the diamonds, you have approximately three hours to live."
The Hood turned and walked towards the door.
"No.... please..." implored Krista.
He smiled maliciously and walked back towards her.
"But I am not completely a man without heart."
He threw a packet of dried fruit and some stale biscuits on the floor.
"I have brought you some refreshment. Enjoy it. It will probably be your last meal."
And with that he closed the door behind him.
Chapter 10 - The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
John's feeling of unease continued to plague him. He was embroiled in a row with his father. "Something has gone horribly wrong I know it. Please... at least send Thunderbird One out there to check."
"Now, hold on there, John," said Jeff. "We don't know for sure that they need us. We gave them a warning and we were assured that everything was okay. They would have to be complete idiots to disregard us."
"But what if something has gone wrong with the radio? The signal was very weak when we last contacted them."
"Yeah, but that was an hour ago and the girl said the same thing. That everything was okay."
"I just feel we should do something, father!"
"John, I think you are reading too much into this," said Jeff sternly. "I know that you are concerned for your friend, and you've been through a lot just lately."
John banged his fist on his father's desk in frustration.
"Now, steady on, John!"
"I'm not sick or crazy!" he said, trying to control his anger. "I know we are going to be needed."
"Look John..." his father was starting to wear his name out and his tone seemed patronizing. "Get some rest. I'll get Kyrano to give you something to help you sleep."
John strode angrily over to the window after Jeff had left the room. In spite of the calming tune that Virgil was playing on the piano, he could feel the anger and frustration rising in him. He tried to focus on the horizon and let the gentle tune envelop him. But all he could hear were voices in his head, full of fear and foreboding.
"Virgil!" He spun round suddenly and startled Virgil in mid play. "I must do something! I know that I'm right and I need your help."
Virgil looked uncomfortable and folded his sheet of music. He knew John was going to put him on the spot.
"I need help from you and also Gordon in Thunderbird Four. I have to get to Antarctica and there's only one way!"
"John, wait... I can't just..."
Virgil closed the piano lid and hurried after him, but John was already in position in front of the revolving wall which concealed the secret entrance to the hangar of Thunderbird One. His hands were gripped around the two lamp brackets.
"Trust me! Bring Gordon and pod Four, follow me in Thunderbird Two. I only hope Dad doesn't drum me out of the service for doing this." And with that, he swung around and disappeared from view.
"John... What the blazes...?"
Virgil banged on the wall, but John was already halfway to the nose cone of Thunderbird One.
Scott cat-napped on his bed, trying to catch up on some lost sleep. He had just reached that half awake / half asleep stage where your mind begins to spiral out of control, and into the realms of sleep. He half imagined that he was flying over the blue Pacific. Looking down on its many islands, dotted like jewels, from the cockpit of Thunderbird One. He fancied that he could hear the roar of its powerful engines .. Suddenly he was jolted back to reality, like someone who has just realised they left the keys in the ignition and the car door unlocked in a dodgy neighbourhood. He was wide awake now, but he could still hear the familiar engines of Thunderbird One. He raced to the window just in time to see Thunderbird One steaming out of the swimming pool and away up in to the sky.
"What the hell goes on?" he yelled, and ran out of his room slap bang into his father who was equally mystified.
"Scott! If you're here, who's in Thunderbird One?"
The answer was obvious.
"He's flipped!" raged Scott, "Totally flipped!"
"I'll have his hide!" growled Jeff.
"Excuse me." They were interrupted by the calming voice of Kyrano. "I believe John may be right. The scientists could indeed be in danger. Brains has a message for you."
Jeff and Scott raced to the lounge. Brains' troubled face appeared on the monitor. Jeff spoke abruptly, "Go ahead. What's the trouble?"
"W-we are e-experiencing a total radio blackout over the Antarctic r-region M-Mister Tracy. W-we have been unable to establish contact with Expedition Vorta. They should have checked in to their base half an hour ago but there has been no word. A-also the c-cosmic dust cloud is moving."
"Is it moving any closer to the Earth?"
"Y-yes at a great rate. A-Alan is in the astrodome m- monitoring the cloud with the high powered telescope. Th-the ice is freezing rapidly at the South Pole. If the scientists have been foolhardy enough to chance a dive they will be entombed in the ice. Even on the surface they face severe snow storms. W-we need to get them out real fast."
"Okay, Brains. Virgil, go and get Gordon and stand by."
"What are we up against here, Brains? Thunderbird Four can withstand extreme temperatures, and Gordon will require the specially heated diving suit, but what if we need to cut through the ice?"
"W-we may need to uh break through ice several metres thick if they are, uh, trapped in the water. We c-cannot use the mole in these, er, conditions. I-it is too heavy and the pack ice is unstable. Our, er, best bet will be to use our microwave cutters, to, uh, cut a chunk out of the ice big enough for Thunderbird Four to gain access. V-Virgil will then have to hover over the hole with his jets blazing to, er, stop it freezing over."
"Virgil, Gordon did you get all that? Off you go, as quickly as you can. I'll contact John."
Virgil stood with his back to a large painting of a space rocket which tipped him headfirst down a specially designed padded chute which levelled out and deposited him onto a revolving turntable. This transferred him to another chute which delivered him directly in to his seat at the control panel of Thunderbird Two. Gordon made for the passenger lift.
"Wait!" called Scott. "I'll come with you!"
Within minutes, the huge rock face door, concealing the secret hangar beneath Tracy Villa groaned open. The avenue of ornamental palm trees, were planted in special containers, which enabled them to tilt back sufficiently to allow for the enormous wing span of Thunderbird Two. This was a clever disguise guaranteed to fool anyone flying over the island into thinking that the runway was suitable only for light aircraft. The massive bulk of Thunderbird Two trundled slowly towards the end of the runway which tilted to provide a ramp for take- off. With booster rockets blazing, it thrust skywards.
John was riding high on the exhilaration of being in control of Thunderbird One. Flying at 10,000 miles per hour he found the craft quite light to manoeuvre. Beneath him, the lush Samoan Islands and turquoise Pacific Ocean blurred into a kaleidoscope of colour. He was brought back to reality by the sound of frantic bleeping. The excitement of snatching his big brother's favourite toy began to abate when he realised that he was going to have to face the music. At least he could plead insanity and get away with it!
"Sorry, Dad," he apologised "This was something I had to do. I couldn't make you understand."
"I'm the one who should apologise," replied Jeff. "Kyrano told me about the talk you had with him. I'm sorry I doubted your integrity. Virgil, Scott and Gordon are right behind you. Good luck, Son, I hope you make it in time. Brains tells me the weather is closing in rapidly."
As John flew further south he could feel the temperature falling in spite of having his cabin temperature set to maximum heat Beneath him now were cold grey seas littered with icebergs. He could see no vegetation and the only signs of life were the wheeling seabirds at the edge of the ice floes. He let his speed drop. He was beginning to feel the strength of the coastal winds buffeting Thunderbird One. He was now over the Ross Sea. The vast continent of Antarctica stretched before him. A long peninsula, pointed like a gnarled finger towards Cape Horn. It was a strange and beautiful sight, but John wasn't there for the scenery. It was hard to find any landmarks in this monochrome landscape and he wished that he had pressed Krista into giving him more details of where they actually were, but at the time he hadn't been planning to make a visit. He cut to cruising speed and hovered over Wilkes Land, looking for any signs of life. The winds were taxing his skills as a pilot. He continued further inland where the wind had abated. Even with the heat at maximum the cold was beginning to make his fingers ache. He was going to have to stop and put on protective clothes. Then he saw something in the distance that looked promising. A small structure resembling an oil rig and a caterpillar tracked snow vehicle. As he swooped lower for a closer look, he saw the lake. It was completely covered with a crazy paving pattern of ice.
"Thunderbird One to Thunderbird Two. I can see the lake, Virgil!" John gave the co-ordinates. "I'm going down to take a look. The lake looks frozen solid but I don't know how deep."
"John!" Scott’s voice cut in., " Use the thermal image camera, I believe the lake is less than forty metres deep in places. It should be able to detect any signs of life. Go over it now, at least we will know if they are down there or not."
"F.A.B. Scott." John hovered steadily over the lake. Watching the images the heat seeking camera relayed back to him. The picture showed colours of blue, green and black. Suddenly a large cylindrical shape appeared. The colours inside were like the layers of an onion, red, the hottest colour in the centre, diffusing to orange, pink and yellow and finally to the colder colours of blue and green around its edges.
"I think I have got the asteroid here!" called John excitedly, "It's just amazing! I hope the sub's around here somewhere. We have a better chance if it is in shallower waters."
"What do you figure the depth is?" asked Scott, "Can you get a reading?"
"Yes, about thirty five..." He broke off suddenly and then called, "I think I can see the sub. The camera has picked up four body images. They look warm enough to be still alive. I'm going to land now and see if I can contact them by radio."
"F.A.B." said Virgil. "We're about five minutes behind you."
John cautiously set Thunderbird One down where the ice looked the strongest. Bearing in mind the massive weight of Thunderbird Two, he called Virgil again.
"I think it's safe for you to land here. It feels pretty firm." He left the engines of Thunderbird One idly ticking over. In extreme weather it would be unwise to switch them off completely. He might not be able to get them started again. The cold really began to hit John. With his teeth chattering, he rummaged in the storage compartment for some suitable clothing. Scott made sure that he was always prepared for any extremes of weather. Thunderbird One carried everything from ski-wear, wet weather and climbing gear to eveningwear! John was still in his civilian clothes. He didn't have his uniform with him and Scott's was too big. He settled for several light layers and a fleece lined windproof jacket. He removed the sash from Scott's uniform and took out a pistol from the holster. He put it into his own pocket just to be on the safe side. He swapped his shoes for snow boots and donned a pair of thermal gloves. He then pulled a balaclava over his head and ventured out into the crisp, icy air. The wind was whipping up the dry ice, swirling it underneath the elevated buildings and threatening to bury the snow cat parked underneath it. John climbed the slippery metal staircase on the outside of the building. He tried the handle of the outer door. It was un-locked, he entered cautiously and called,
"Hello, anybody there?"
Further inside, he found the living quarters and kitchen area, but still no signs of any inhabitants. He opened another door and found himself in an untidy office, with papers and photographs flung on to the floor. He raised his left hand and spoke into his wristwatch.
"Scott. I'm pretty sure that the expedition is based here. I am in an office. I have found paperwork and photographs relating to the asteroid."
"We are just coming in to land," answered Scott. John could hear the whining of atomic powered engines above him. "Is there anyone around?" asked Scott
"There doesn't seem to be a soul ... wait a minute, I think I just heard something."
From one of the rooms, John could hear a strange whistling noise. He followed his ears and found the radio. Through the crackles he could just about make out voices. A girl sat in front of the radio with her back to him, but did not turn around when he spoke. He shook her by the shoulder but she just gazed rigidly in front of her.
"Greta!" John recognised her from the photo. "Greta, what happened? Where is everyone?"
Again she stared blankly ahead.
"Greta! Come on!" John gently tapped her on the cheek. It was no use. She stared vacantly, completely in a trance. John put his arm around her and lifted her to her feet and then half dragged and half carried her to the rear door. He flung the door wide open and an icy gust hit them both like a slap across the face. Slowly Greta turned her head and started to focus her eyes.
"Who are you?" she asked sleepily. She blinked and then a look of recognition flickered across her face.
"Is it John? But, how? Why...?"
"It's a long story. I need to know where Krista is. Did she go down in the submarine? "
"Krista...?" Greta looked vague
again "He told me to say that everything was alright."
"Who? The Professor?"
"No, the man who came here. He had those staring eyes. I couldn't look away from them. I remember sitting by the radio, a call came through. I think it was from International Rescue, and he told me to say that everything was okay."
"But it's not okay, Greta! It never was! The people in that sub are in great danger. Where is Krista?"
"I-I don't know..." Tears started to spring to her eyes.
"Please try to remember. I need to know."
Greta shook her head. "All ... all I remember are those horrible eyes!... He took her... I don't know where." It was all slowly coming back to her. "I remember hearing a noise, very early this morning, a sort of muffled cry coming from her room. When I went to see if she was alright, I saw him. He looked at me with those glowing eyes and I couldn't move or speak. I just stood there while he tied her hands and gagged her, and then he carried her away... I just couldn't stop him I couldn't do anything."
Tears started to pour down her cheek. John put his arms round her to comfort her.
"It's alright. You were hypnotised. You were completely under his power. Don't feel bad. We'll find her." He turned his attention to the radio and twiddled a few knobs, the voice was faint but at least intelligible.
"Is anyone there? Can anybody hear us?"
"Yes, this is International Rescue. I've found Greta. She was in a hypnotic trance, that's why she did not respond. We're going to help you."
"Oh thank God! Thank God."
"Are you all okay?" John asked.
"No. The Professor is hurt."
"Are his injuries life threatening? Can he be moved?"
"He's had a bad crack on his head and is semi-conscious, we are keeping him comfortable."
"What about your air supply?"
"Another hour or two at the most. The sub has been damaged we have no power."
"Did you touch the asteroid?" asked John cautiously.
"The Professor tried to blast it apart with a missile! He went crazy!"
John gulped. "Was it damaged?"
"No. The missile completely missed it and hit a rock. Our sub was swept away. The stabilisers have been damaged."
"The asteroid must not be touched. I believe it carries the contaminated remains of alien life forms. To open it up could unleash a devastating plague."
At this point Scott, Virgil and Gordon came hurrying inside. Virgil called John over to the Professor's office and Scott took charge of the radio. Virgil showed him the picture he had found on the professor's desk. It showed Krista lying bound, gagged and frightened. John felt a surge of anger inside him.
"She could be anywhere."
"Just stop and think, John. If you wanted to hide a hostage in these conditions, you wouldn't want to have to go very far. Look at the picture. See if you can gather any clues from the room."
John found it hard to look beyond Krista's vulnerable pleading eyes. He could see that the room was in a state of decay. It was filthy and bare of any furniture. Next to the grubby rug where Krista lay, he could see rust coloured stains ingrained into the floor.
"It looks like blood on the floor, she could be injured."
"I don't think that's fresh blood," said Virgil. "It looks too ingrained."
"Virgil," called Gordon, "that place we flew over on the coast. You told me that in the last century it was used to butcher the carcasses of slaughtered whales. There would be plenty of bloodstains on the floor in a place like that."
"And it’s remote and disused!"
"Take Thunderbird One and check it out with the infra-red camera equipment," called Scott. “Virgil, Gordon and I will figure out how best to help the trapped men."
Scott raised his arm and activated his communicator. Brains' face appeared in place of the numerals on his wrist watch.
"Brains, what's the situation with the dust cloud? John's searching for a girl whose gone missing. He's searching the coastal area near the old whale-meat factory. The wind is whipping across there pretty fast."
"W-well the cloud seems to be stable, but the weather is likely to get worse in the next couple of hours. Y-you could be in for a rough ride."
"We have located the sub. It's trapped beneath the ice. We may have difficulty launching Thunderbird Four. We don't know how thick the ice is. We don't know if it will support the weight of Thunderbird Two."
"Y-you will have to either cut or thaw a hole in the ice- . You and Gordon could use the microwave cutters. You will need a safety line attached to Thunderbird Two. Virgil will lower you over the ice and maintain position. Th-the heat from his boosters will make short work of the ice."
"And it will make short work of us too," put in Gordon. "We'll be barbequed like a couple of spare ribs if we get in the way! And if we're dangling on a safety line, that wind could blow us right into the jets."
"But if we wear the fireproof suits and one of us slips under the water we would freeze to death," said Scott.
"Yeah," agreed Gordon. "We're literally between the devil and the deep blue sea! The fireproof suits will not protect us from sub zero temperatures and the heated wetsuits are not flame retardant. Virgil will have to keep that big bird as steady as a rock!"
"W-well, the decision w-will have to be yours. You can either wear your fireproof suits and use the safety line, or your heated wetsuits and work on the ice."
"Well let's do that. We can't wait any longer!" Scott turned towards Greta. "You stay here by the radio, You'll be safe. We'll soon have your friends back."
Chapter 11 - Cold as Ice
Krista had managed to untie the rope fastening her legs. She tried to stand but her feet were completely numb with cold. This alarmed her. She had seen people with severe frost bite loose their fingers and toes, and even some whose noses had dropped off. She knew she had to get moving to circulate her blood. She rubbed the calves of her legs briskly. Slowly, she felt a pins and needles sensation running down to her feet. She moved them in circles, clockwise and then anti-clockwise. Then when she was sure that she would not fall over, she stood up and stamped fiercely as if she was being attacked by a plague of ants. A painful aching sensation crept into her toes, but at least it proved she still had toes! She looked at the clock packed with explosives. The seconds were ticking away. She thought of picking it up and throwing it out of a window, but she remembered how the Hood had taken great delight in telling her that it had been fitted with a sensory device to make it explode if touched. She shuddered as she thought of how hard she had stamped her feet. The vibration could have easily triggered an explosion. She stalked the empty warehouse, not knowing whether the Hood was still around. No, he would be miles away, she thought. There was a bomb primed to go off in fifteen minutes. Most bullies were cowards and she felt sure that he would be miles away from any danger.
She was not entirely correct on that point. Although the Hood was far enough away from the danger, he was close enough to observe. He was delighted to see one of his old adversaries touch down in Thunderbird One.
"Excellent, I have International Rescue also." He rubbed his hands together in glee as he watched eagerly, from his specially designed snow vehicle, which he had disguised as a mound of snow.
"Come on, what are you waiting for? Go and get the girl - her time is running out!"He gave a deep menacing chuckle.
John scrambled from the cockpit of Thunderbird One and raced into the warehouse.
"Krista!" he yelled at the top of his voice. His voice echoed through the empty room. "Krista, where are you?"
He was so busy yelling his head off that he didn't hear the click of a lock being turned behind him. The Hood slunk silently back to his hideout.
"Seven minutes to go," he smirked.
John barged through the empty rooms and then almost tripped over something on the floor. It was Krista. The shock and cold had finally overcome her, and she lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. John picked her up and carried her across the room. She was semi-conscious and trying to say something.
"The bomb..." Her voice trailed away, “Three thirty... "
John looked at his watch, there was five minutes to go. Carrying Krista in his arms he ran to the door, but found it locked. He shoulder charged it, but found it stronger than it looked. The timer was down to the last two minutes. John repeatedly kicked the door panel. One minute to go. He took out his laser pistol and aimed at the lock with a sustained blast. The metal glowed with heat. John gave the door another hefty kick and it swung open. He grabbed Krista and pushed her out of the door. As he was dragging her towards Thunderbird One, he felt himself being swept off his feet. He moved his body to shield Krista from the tremendous blast that ripped the warehouse apart, dashing vivid red flames across the pallid grey sky like paint flung across a blank canvas. An assortment of debris rained down upon them. He felt something strike his cheekbone and could feel blood trickling down his nose. Then a wooden beam caught him a glancing blow across the shoulder. John lay across Krista and protected the back of his neck with his arms. When all was still, he hauled his bruised body from underneath the rubble. Krista was still unconscious; he must get her back into the warmth of Thunderbird One. He was alerted by the sound of a harsh alarm coming from his craft. As he looked up, he saw an intruder attempting to climb in to Thunderbird One.
"Hey!" he called
The intruder paused, but then tried to open the hatch and get into the cockpit. John had left the engines switched on to stop them freezing up. This man had to be stopped. He took his pistol and aimed. The force from the blast of John's pistol sent the Hood reeling on to the ice. He limped towards his snow cat, making his escape. When John reached the cockpit with Krista, he found that the photo alarm was activated. The Hood had been successful. He had given up hope of getting the diamonds, but would settle for some detailed photographs of Thunderbird One to sell to the highest bidder. However, that was the last thing on John's mind. He knew Krista was suffering from hypothermia. He wrapped her in a foil survival blanket and held her tightly against his body.
"Will you keep it steady, Virgil?" cried Scott above the noise of Thunderbird Two's engines, and the howling wind. He dodged a fiery blast from Thunderbird Two's boosters. He and Gordon, clad in thermally heated wetsuits struggled with the microwave cutters to cut out chunks of ice seven metres thick.
"Okay Virgil. You can remove another chunk now."
Virgil lowered the grabs and Scott drove crampons into a three metre wide ice cube. When he was sure that it was secure enough to lift he called to Virgil,
"Okay, haul it away. We'll start on the next section."
Virgil slowly lifted the plug of ice, like removing the core from an apple. As soon as Thunderbird Two moved away, the ice hole started to freeze over again.
"It's still too narrow to launch Thunderbird Four safely," said Gordon, regarding the three metre wide hole that was rapidly glazing over. Virgil deposited the excavated core of ice and returned to hover over the hole. Scott and Gordon stood aside, while he switched the boosters to maximum to try and defrost another section ready for cutting. He turned the jets down again, and rose a few more feet into the air to give Scott and Gordon a safe clearance to begin work with the laser cutters. He felt the craft sway in the wind. It was taking all the skill he possessed to keep it steady.
Krista opened her eyes. She could feel warmth spreading through her body. For a moment, she felt like a child being held in the warm, safe embrace of a parent. The person who held her smelled of smoke and singed fabric. She noticed that the arm of his sleeve was charred and torn. She saw that she was in some kind of cabin and noticed a control panel with lots of dials and levers. It all looked very high-tech. She pulled back suddenly, as she thought she might be back in the Hood's snow-cat. A gentle voice reassured her. "It's okay, Krista. You're safe now."
The voice didn't belong to Lars or her father, or anyone she knew. She lifted her face to look at her rescuer and blinked with amazement, "John... John Smith?"
"Ah," said John, "I think I have some explaining to do."
"Later..." said Krista, and with that she kissed him passionately on the lips. He tasted of smoke and blood, but she didn't care. She finally knew what Greta meant about sparks.
John was taken aback, and for a moment assumed that she was not in full control of her wits. "I didn't know..." he began.
"Neither did I until I got your letter.”
"OH! What letter was that?" He looked perplexed.
"I didn't know how you felt until you wrote and told me..." She whispered the rest softly in his ear. John's face flushed pink to the roots of his pale blond hair.
"I wrote that?" said John incredulously and then added, "Oh. Yes, of course, how could I forget?"
Krista assumed that he was pulling her leg and kissed him again.
Scott and Gordon had succeeded in cutting away another large chunk of ice. It was not as large as Gordon had hoped, and there were still going to be problems launching Thunderbird Four. The hole in the ice was like a shaft and there wasn't room to launch the craft from the pod using the ramp. The hole was only a few metres wider than Thunderbird Four. Somehow Thunderbird Four was going to have to be hauled up and dropped nose first. Then Gordon was going to have to fire his motors to propel the craft into a dive and keep it clear of the ice. Both he and Scott agreed that they hadn't time to cut out another chunk so they would just have to chance it. While Scott stayed on the surface to cut away more ice, Gordon boarded Thunderbird Four and prepared for one of the trickiest tasks of his career. If he got this wrong he would be wedged solidly against the walls of ice.
"Ready Gordon?" asked Virgil.
"As I'll ever be," he replied taking a deep breath.
"F.A.B. releasing Pod 4 now."
The hydraulic jacks lifted Thunderbird Two into the air like it was on stilts, and left the Pod behind on a stable surface of the Lake.
Gordon piloting Thunderbird Four descended from his launching ramp, and then paused at the edge of the ice hole. Virgil then lowered a magnetic winch which Scott attached to the back of Thunderbird Four. He then wound in the wire cable until Thunderbird Four dangled like a hooked fish on the end of a line.
"Okay, Gordon. On a count of three, I will release the winch. On the count of three, activate your thrusters and dive. "
"F.A.B.," replied Gordon, and in spite of the extreme cold he found that he was perspiring.
"One ... two... three..."
Gordon pulled a lever as hard as he could. Thunderbird Four shot through the water like a missile. Gordon could hear a scraping noise.
"Damn!" he thought. He would have to re-touch the paintwork. Suddenly he was underneath the Ice. It reflected the light with an ethereal greenish- blue tinge. He switched on his trough shaped searchlight and trawled through the murky water.
"Thunderbird Four to Thunderbird Two, I am under the ice. I can see the submarine - it's lying on its side. I am going to try to contact the men inside."
Lars gazed from the porthole of the stricken sub and shielded his eyes as a shaft of light illuminated his face.
"Someone's outside!" he yelled excitedly "They've found us!"
He hurried to the radio.
"Expedition Vorta, this is International Rescue. Are you all okay? Do you have enough air?"
"Just about," replied Lars. "We're concerned about the Professor. He feels quite cold; I think hypothermia is setting in and with his injuries it could be serious."
"Okay, this is what we are going to do," explained Gordon. "I am going to pull your sub upright with my grabs, and push you back up through a hole in the ice. When you are on the surface you will be winched to safety."
"Well that sounds straightforward enough," said Lars.
"The trickiest part is getting through a corridor of ice. If we don't hit the right angle we could get wedged. Do you have any control over your machine?"
"No. There's only enough power to operate the life support systems. The sub is completely unresponsive."
"How about the steering? Can you raise or lower the bow? If you can that will be a help."
"I'll see what I can do."
He felt the craft lurch slightly as Thunderbird Four clamped on it's pincer like grabs. Gordon turned Thunderbird Four around and pushed the sub towards the surface.
Scott meanwhile, had finished cutting more chunks of ice, and they floated freely in a cocktail of murky grey water. He stood back to allow Virgil to lift them up and deposit them on the shore.
"That’s about the best I can do. It's up to Gordon now!"
Scott heard a familiar high pitched whine of engines. John was setting down Thunderbird One close to the main building. Scott gave him a wave and spoke into his wrist watch.
"How did it go?"
"Fine," answered John. "Krista's alright she's with me now. She's very concerned. How is her father?"
"Gordon is trying to bring them up now. The Professor has regained consciousness, but we will have to get him to a hospital as soon as they reach the surface. We will have to take him in Thunderbird Two; it will be impossible to get an air ambulance out in these conditions."
"I think we have had a visitor," said John. "Someone locked us into the warehouse after setting a bomb to go off. We only just made it. But whoever he was he had a good snoop around, the photo alert was activated. He got away on some kind of snow cat. Krista was still unconscious; I had to attend to her first."
Scott sighed. "Well, we'll have to deal with him later; he's not going to get far in this weather. Maybe he's holed up somewhere."
John and Krista left the cockpit of Thunderbird One and entered the building where they were met by an overjoyed Greta who hugged them both tightly. John's face was filthy and encrusted with dried blood from the graze across his cheek. He flinched as Krista dabbed it with some antiseptic. It was then he noticed the ring. The pain of his injuries was nothing compared to the pain he felt at that moment.
"It's okay. Just leave it. I must go and help the others" John winced as he twisted his injured shoulder to put on his coat. Then he closed the door and walked across the ice towards Scott.
"You didn't tell him about Lars," said Greta accusingly, after he had left.
Krista shook her head miserably.
"And I don't know how to tell Lars about John, I couldn't blame either of them if they never wanted to see me again."
Lars could see the tunnel of ice in front of him. Gordon manoeuvred the sub into the entrance.
"Are the controls responsive?" he called to Lars. "Can you lift its nose up a bit, we need a steeper angle."
"Is that better?" said Lars.
"Yes, lets see what we can do. It looks kind of glazed over on the surface, but I'm going to fire my boosters and give it a try."
He told Virgil to stand by on the surface. With a massive surge he propelled the sub through the narrow corridor.
"Keep that nose up!" he instructed. Lars heard a sickening crack and feared that the submarine had been smashed against the ice. He could see particles of ice all around him and then he became aware of a massive green craft hovering above.
"Good work Gordon! Lowering grabs now, you can release yours... Okay. Okay I've got it now. "
Gordon surfaced in Thunderbird Four and watched as Virgil whisked the craft away to safety. The raging winds had suddenly abated, and the sky had taken on a strange pinkish hue. Scott ran the ramp down to Gordon so that he could haul Thunderbird Four back into it's pod.
"Well I guess that just about wraps things up," said Scott to John, who was standing next to him. John was staring intently at the hole in the lake. He was shivering.
"Let's get you in the warm," said Scott, taking his arm. "You look as if you've had a rough time."
"Oh, just bruises and cuts," he replied dismissively. "I was just wondering what they might have looked like."
Scott regarded him strangely. "You mean whatever's down there inside that thing."
"I felt them dying Scott. I felt their fear, their hopelessness. I think they were wiped out by some sort of plague. I feel that they were like us. They probably had the same sort of brains as us. I wonder why they came here."
"Maybe they were trying to establish a colony if their own planet was doomed."
"Kyrano told me that he believes their spirits came back to warn us."
"We can't take the risk of anyone else finding it." said Scott, " It could release the plague, and that could wipe out life on Earth as sure as it wiped out the life of the poor creatures on whatever planet it came from."
"The lake will freeze solid. In a few hours time it will be inaccessible again. The tomb has lain untouched for thousands of years. Let’s make sure that it stays that way," said John.
As Scott and John walked toward the Thunderbird craft, they saw Lars sweep Krista up in his strong arms. He smiled and beckoned them both over. He shook John warmly by the hand.
"I can't thank you enough for what you've done for us and Krista owes her life to you."
John shrugged. "It's all part of the service. I hope you'll both be very happy together."
Lars saw Krista's face fall, she was unable to meet John's gaze. He was not usually a man of quick decisions but the events of the last two hours had strengthened his character. In the absence of the Professor he had taken charge of the stricken submarine and the personnel inside He knew what he had to do. He was still clasping John's hand in a firm handshake. John pulled away.
"We must get the Professor to hospital. Goodbye Krista. Virgil will take your father to the Medical bay at the dome . You may go with him if you like."
"John...," called Krista, "I didn't know what to say.... her voice trailed away.
John walked back to Thunderbird Two where Virgil was helping the other scientists inside. John went to fetch thermal blankets and hot drinks. Scott had helped the Professor on to one of the bunks in Thunderbird Two, and was now evaluating his injuries and administering first aid. There appeared to be no fractures and the Professor was now fully conscious. Krista ran to him and embraced him with tears streaming down her face.
Virgil called out to Lars,
"Quickly, we must all get away before we freeze up. I haven't got room for all of you."
"It's alright," said John flatly. "I will go with Scott. I should imagine that Lars will accompany Krista to the Medical Bay; after all, he is her fiancé."
Virgil raised his eyebrows as John jumped down and walked over to Thunderbird One.
Lars held up his hand and called to Scott to wait for him.
"What the heck's this guy doing?" said Virgil. "Can't he make his mind up? I thought he was coming with us."
Lars ran back and called to Krista. The two of them appeared to be having an emotional conversation. Then Krista gave Lars a hug and pressed something into his hand.
"Hurry up!" called Virgil. "We haven't got the time for any long goodbyes."
John sat in the cockpit of Thunderbird One. Scott was back at the controls and he was anxious to leave. He switched his boosters on ready for take off, then he hastily switched them off again.
Someone was running towards Thunderbird One, waving franticly. John rather hoped that it would be Krista, but that sort of thing only happened in the movies.
"John! John, wait!" Lars was calling to him. "I want to talk to you."
"But you already did," said John.
"No come down here," he called.
John sighed and climbed wearily out of the cockpit.
"I love Krista," Lars explained. John made to get back inside Thunderbird One; he was in no mood to have their happiness rubbed in his face. Lars gripped him tightly.
"What goes on?" snapped John, getting annoyed.
"Listen to me. I have loved Krista since she was a teenager." Lars looked determined to have his say. He was a large man with a bear-like build. Not the sort of man you would pick an argument with. Crystals of ice were forming in his thick beard. John appeared defensive.
"Look Krista and I .... we… just chatted to each other... No big deal..."
"I love Krista... but as a sister. That is why I cannot marry her." John looked confused as Lars continued. “I have just told her this. I have wanted to tell her for a long time but I was afraid she would be hurt. But she wasn't - she was relieved. Don't go without talking to her."
John grinned broadly and clasped Lars firmly by the hand. He winced as a pain shot through his injured shoulder.
"Go to her," instructed Lars.
"You should get that shoulder seen to," called Scott. "I'll tell Virgil to wait for you."
John smiled and ran to Krista who was waiting next to Thunderbird Two.
Scott had one last matter to attend to. He swept low over the landscape. He spotted the smoldering wreckage of the warehouse, and saw the caterpillar tracks which led away from the place where John had set down Thunderbird One. From there it was easy to follow his quarry. The tracks seemed to loop around what appeared to be a mound of snow and then double back in the opposite direction. Scott was not so easily fooled.
"I think the rabbit's in his hole."
Scott's thermal image camera had picked up the Hood huddled inside his protective all weather vehicle, which he had buried underneath blocks of ice, like an igloo. Scott aimed a jet of fire at the mound of snow. The Hood's vehicle was exposed. Scott then aimed a magnetic ray that would almost certainly ruin the Hood's holiday snaps. He stumbled from his cab and shook his fist angrily as Thunderbird One departed.
"A million curses upon you! One day I will have my revenge."
Virgil collected Gordon and Thunderbird Four in the pod and then flew them across to the large dome which housed the Medical Bay. He dropped off his passengers and then waited for John to have his shoulder strapped. He waved as he saw Scott set down Thunderbird One beside him. He was about to give him a call when his wristwatch communicator bleeped and Alan's face appeared from Thunderbird Five.
"Something strange is happening."
Virgil frowned. "Is it some kind of trouble?"
"No," replied Alan. "The dust cloud is dispersing all by itself. Brains has the telescope trained upon it now."
"Well, that's a relief. I'm sure glad it didn't come any closer."
"Did you get all the people out?" asked Alan.
"Yes, the mission was successful. John has hurt his shoulder. I'm waiting for him now. Oh..." He paused and then added, "and I think he would like a word with you ... something to do with your literary skills!"
"Yeah, well, I'll be seeing you Virgil," muttered Alan, and with that he hastily signed off.
John was discharged from the medical bay with some painkillers and instructions to rest. His shoulder was sprained, but the cut on his cheek didn't require any stitches. Krista held his hand and walked back with him to Thunderbird Two.
"Well, John Smith, I guess we both had our secrets."
John smiled. "But not any more What will you do now?"
"Return to New Zealand, when my father is well enough. He agrees with you. The asteroid must be left alone. Whatever is inside must rest in peace."
"New Zealand has some great scenery, remind me to visit."
"Make it soon," she whispered.
"Will you take a look at this!" It was Scott’s voice He, Virgil and Gordon were staring up at the sky. Ribbons of red orange and green were rippling across it, like a giant laser light show.
"That's the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights," explained Krista, " I have never seen them so brilliant. It's the most magnificent sight on Earth."
"It's pretty impressive from Space too," said John "You should come up and see it sometime!"
Epilogue - Welcome home
John had been away from Thunderbird Five for a whole two months now. His injuries had healed and he had just returned from a holiday in New Zealand staying with Krista and her father. He was travelling in Thunderbird Three with Alan beside him. Alan glanced at him and grinned smugly John smiled. "I suppose it was Braman's idea to send that e mail."
"It was part of an experiment," said Alan, trying to keep a straight faceJohn dissolved into laughter.
"And did it work?" Alan added.
"Hey! Do you think I'm going to tell you?"
Alan grinned. "It worked!"
As they were nearing Thunderbird Five, Alan opened a channel to Braman to tell him that they were about to dock. John heard his own voice answer "F.A.B."
"That's spooky; it's going to get a bit of getting used to."
"He does my voice too. You could always switch him over if you start to miss me."
"Well, I'm sure we could get Brains to work on him and give him Krista's voice."
John laughed again. "Go on, get out of here!"
"Welcome home, John." Alan gave John a cheery wave as he stepped through the airlock. The place looked surprisingly clean and tidy. Braman had even made him a cup of coffee.
"Thanks, Braman," said John. "I guess it's just you and me now."
John drank the coffee and left Braman to wash up the cup. He then went to his cabin to unpack his bag. Alan had left a pile of books beside the bed. 'Typical Alan,' thought John, 'too lazy to put them back on the library shelf.'
He picked up the books, walked the short distance to the library and stood in front of the shelves. The right hand side for fiction and left hand side for non fiction.
"Return of the Zombies," He read the title of the book on top of the pile. "That’s fiction. Slaves of Venus... good God, they get worse!” That too went in to the fiction section, filed alphabetically under the name of the author. “Return of the Space Poltergeists..." He paused, flicked through a few pages and then replaced the book firmly on the non fiction shelf.
He still didn't believe in little green men, but he believed in their ghosts!