The first time caught him daydreaming.
A flicker of light, a firefly, passed like green lightning across the edge of his vision. A single flash, and then it was gone.
He straightened in his seat, turned to survey the cool grey expanse of Thunderbird Five's control centre, a sudden uneasiness tracking like ice-water down his spine. His hands splayed warm across his thighs, fingers pressing hard into flesh as his eyes tracked intently across the room. Like a child caught in the dark he felt the walls closing in on him, an unknown presence lurking unseen at his shoulder. He blinked and the walls receded, returned themselves to bland, predictable normality.
The second time caught him shaving.
A burst of orange crossed his line of sight as he leant towards the mirror, sent the razor clattering from his hand into the bowl. He grimaced as a pearl of dark blood welled from his cheek and tracked its way into the foam that roughly lathered his chin. He raised a towel to the cut and leaned in to study his eyes in the mirror. The pupils constricted as he moved into the light, the irises blue and grey and streaked with pale strands of amber.
The third time, he called Brains.
'So, ah, how often has this happened?'
'Three.' John leant an elbow on the console, pressed his thumb against his teeth.
'Well,' Brains looked intently at John over the connection. 'It could be any number of, ah, things.'
'It wasn't a surge. Systems all display normal.' John's voice lowered, his hand falling from his mouth. 'Brains, I'm worried it might be me.'
Brains adjusted his glasses and peered carefully at his colleague. 'A-alright. Let's run a scan. Set yourself up and, ah, give me ten minutes.'
John cut the connection and headed for the medical bay, peeling off his tunic and t-shirt as he walked. He kicked off his boots as he powered up the equipment, slid onto the diagnostic bed and attached electrodes to his temples, his chest, settled back to wait for Brains to reconnect. He stared at the cool white wall in front of him, felt the heat from his body seeping into the bed beneath his back, listened to the CPUs ticking away as the equipment calibrated itself around him.
'John?' Brains' disembodied voice emanated from the diagnostic console. 'Are you set up?'
'Okay.' There was a moment of silence and John closed his eyes, visualised Brains hunched intently over his computer as he logged into Thunderbird Five's medical unit. 'The scan won't pick up any optical, ah, anomalies, but we should get a good physiological picture.' Another pause. 'Now John, just, ah, relax. This will take about twenty minutes.'
John closed his eyes, flattened the palms of his hands into the sheets.
'So you're saying the scan was clear?'
'That's right. No a-anomalies.'
'What could be causing it, then?'
'Well, there are, ah, a number of optical conditions that could cause light flashes. We can check them out when you, when you return.'
'Which is not for two weeks.' John scrubbed at his face with his hands.
'John?' Brains raised a finger to his nose, pushed his glasses higher on his face. 'It could be stress.'
'But the scans were clear?'
'Stress can manifest in a-all kinds of ways.'
Static crackled over the connection.
'John? Would you like me to arrange a, ah, rotation?'
'Well, well, try some relaxation exercises. And, maybe, try to get more sleep.'
Light burst at the edge of John's vision, made him blink. 'Brains?'
'Could we keep this between ourselves?'
For four weeks out of every eight, routine defined John Tracy.
He awoke each morning at oh-six hundred, prodded to gentle wakefulness by Thunderbird Five's morning protocols. The air temperature rose by five degrees Celsius. The comms centre initiated its changeover from automatic to manual. And, at the edges of his hearing, the coffee machine clunked into automated action. John felt these things more than heard them, subtle shifts in the structure around him signalling morning in lieu of birdsong and sunshine streaming through an open window. Sleeping, he was cradled by the hum of the satellite as she pulsed and breathed beneath him. Waking, he listened to her creak and groan as the sun rose over the edge of the Earth and blasted her with heat and light.
John lingered in his bed, curled warm in the hollow his unmoving body had made during the night. He sniffed as the scent of brewing coffee carried to his nose, rolled onto his back and pulled a pillow across his face. Around him the satellite protested loudly as sunlight, unfiltered by atmosphere, abruptly expanded her metal surfaces, her discomfort transmitted loudly through the superstructure and reverberating through the walls around him.
John counted the groans, groaned himself, rolled from his bed and planted his bare feet onto the metal floor. He sniffed again, brushed the hair from his face and brought the heels of his palms to his eyes.
A mote of light, a single flash of neon, burst white hot across the surface of his retina, made him jump as though a burning spark had passed through his hand and into his eyelid. John lowered his hands, opened wide his blue eyes.
A firefly passed like green lightning through the bulkhead wall, the afterimage burning itself in red across his vision. He blinked the image away and scooped up his clothing.
How could you be so fucking stupid?
John bolted for the comms centre, skidded to a halt in front of the systems console.
Shields… shields…. Shit!
Beads of sweat pricked cold along his brow as he slammed a hand onto the panel, opened up a connection to Base.
He shrugged a t-shirt over his head and struggled hastily into his uniform pants, checked the chronometer for local time. 6.10am.
Godammit. Get out of fucking bed!
'John?' Scott blinked at John curiously from the screen behind his father's desk. 'A little early for check-in, isn't it? Everybody's still in…'
'Get Brains up. Five's shields are failing.'
Scott toggled an alert to his father's and Brains' rooms, turned his attention back to his brother. 'What's happening?'
'Sensors are detecting ionisation build-up on the hull.'
'I don't know what's happening. For some reason the ionisation didn't trigger any warnings.'
'Non-operational.' John met Scott's eyes, the meaning in them clear. 'I'm downloading data from SOL19.' John paused as his father crowded into the space behind Scott on the screen. 'Dad. I need Brains now.'
'Brains, quickly.' Jeff shrugged his bathrobe higher onto his shoulders as he and Scott made way for the scientist to move behind the desk.
'Okay, John.' Jeff was all business. 'Explain.'
'Thunderbird Five's shields have been compromised by ionisation build-up. Fail-safes are inoperative and…'
'I-inoperative?' Brains repeated incredulously.
'Nothing is working, Brains, and I don't know why.'
'Try r-rebooting the system.'
'I'm trying, but the system is not responding.' John's voice relayed his frustration. 'Shield strength is currently at 79 percent, and dropping at point five per minute.'
'At that rate the station will be compromised in less than two hours,' Scott broke in. 'John, do you have the SOL data yet?'
'Downloaded. I'm dumping it to your desktop now.'
'Scott.' Brains shuffled to one side so that Scott could manoeuvre himself in front of the monitor. 'Check for any major sunspot or, ah, solar proton activity in the last t-twenty-four hours.'
'That's an affirmative on the sunspot activity. Sunspot 43581 has been emitting random bursts since July 12.'
'Three days,' Brain breathed. 'That explains a-a lot.'
'Explains what?' Jeff demanded.
'John's been experiencing some, ah, visual disturbances…'
'For three days?' Jeff straightened behind the desk and scrutinised John through narrowed eyes.
'Dad, I didn't even consider it could be solar…'
'Later.' Jeff cut through the reply and returned his attention to Brains. 'What do you think is happening with the shields?'
'The, e-effect solar proton emissions have on electronics is well, ah, documented.' Brains scratched absent-mindedly at his cheek. 'It's possible a, a stream entered the shields while they were in flux and, ah, damaged the operational systems. Apart from burning out connections, they have been known to a-affect binary code, ah, e-effectively re-programming a system and issuing, ah, phantom commands.'
'So more than one system could be compromised,' Scott looked up from the monitor.
'Almost certainly, Scott, but i-it's impossible to know without initiating a, ah, a total station diagnostic.'
'Which we don't have time for.' Jeff activated the general alarm. 'Brains, get down to the lab and collect whatever you'll need to repair those shields. If you have to replace the entire mainframe to get them operational, do it.'
'Y-yes, Mr Tracy.'
Jeff looked up at the monitor. 'John, activate station-keeping and bring Thunderbird Five down to 20,000 kilometres on a vector of 295. That should minimise exposure until we can get those shields back to a hundred percent.'
'Scott,' Jeff turned to his eldest. 'I want you, Alan and Brains to get up there in Thunderbird Three as quick as you can.'
'If there's time.' Scott looked up from the monitor. 'The International Space Agency anticipates a solar flare of unknown magnitude in the next twelve hours.'
'Then you'd better move fast.'
Thunderbird Five's attitude thrusters were designed primarily for making minor orbital adjustments, but in an emergency they could also be used to effect an orbital transfer manoeuvre. John keyed in the command code and hoped his father knew what he was doing, swore beneath his breath at the unresponsive panel and keyed the command code again.
What the hell?
This was not happening.
John checked the power inputs, initiated an override and keyed the code again. The panel burst to reluctant life beneath his hands, the engine ports registering green across the board. He aligned the thrusters and powered them to full, lifted his head to study the navigational display as the satellite began her descent.
John chewed hard at the inside of his lip as he ran through the calculations inside his head. Even at maximum speed it would take at least four hours for Thunderbird Five to drop 16,000 kilometres. He turned his head to the viewport, watched the sun tilt on the horizon as the satellite angled herself towards the Earth.
As soon as Alan and Scott were swallowed by Thunderbird Three's access shaft, Jeff turned to Virgil, Gordon and Tin-Tin. 'We're taking this to the operations room. Tin-Tin, I want you to monitor SOL transmissions in real time. Keep an eye on ISA and NASA as well. Anything out of the ordinary, the tiniest spike in solar activity, I want to know about it.'
'Yes, Mr Tracy.'
'Virgil, monitor Thunderbird Five. Log into the navigation displays, life support, power levels, everything. With Five on the move, docking isn't going to be easy. We need to know her position every second, and with the systems compromised we can't trust the onboard positioning system. Tap into her broadcast beam and the Moyla tracking station for cross-reference, and match coordinates with Thunderbird Three's data. We can't afford any slip-ups.'
'Gordon.' Jeff paused for a moment, glanced briefly at the ocean sparkling calmly beyond the plate glass window. 'Tap into military broadcasts and open a backdoor to the WDF network. Let me know what precautions they're taking, and if they begin shutting down any of their satellites in anticipation of a flare. They may have access to information we don't.'
'Understood.' John cut communications to Base and leant back in his chair. Ninety minutes. An even hundred if you counted docking. His brow knit together as he stared at a systems readout that was becoming increasingly unintelligible, and he raised a hand to rub absent-mindedly at his temple. Ninety minutes minimum until Thunderbird Three arrived to effect repairs, and in the meantime he was in a powered dive towards the Earth and completely unsure of his instrumentation.
He rose from his seat and paced the few steps to the observation port, used the Earth herself and the field of stars beyond to ascertain his trajectory, reassured himself that Thunderbird Five was not careening wildly out of control and hurtling him into deep space. He leant his forehead against the window, watched as condensation formed on the ice-cold glass beneath his face, the station humming beneath his feet as she descended at a rate of thousands of kilometres per hour.
'Movement.' Gordon pulled his headset away as the roar of Thunderbird Three's engines faded into the clear air above Tracy Island.
'Where?' Jeff moved to Gordon's side and leaned over the console.
'Communications satellites have begun shutting down.' Gordon slid a finger across the screen to enlarge the data. 'Military and telco, global positioning, targeting, you name it, they're all going into controlled shut-down.'
Jeff looked sharply at Tin-Tin. 'Space weather alerts?'
'Nothing, Mr Tracy. The SOL array is transmitting the same data, and so far no spikes in activity.' Tin-Tin paused as she updated her screen. 'ISA have broadcast a general alert, but nothing significant. Precautionary directives have not been issued to any manned stations.'
Jeff frowned as he weighed up his options. 'Okay, we'll continue on course. Virgil, how's Thunderbird Five's trajectory?'
'She's exactly where she should be, Father.'
'Good. Don't take your eyes off that screen. If Five's onboard navigation systems go down, this will be the only reliable fix we have.'
The more he studied the readouts, the worse his headache became.
John straightened, stretched his neck, adjusted himself in his seat and returned to his monitors. Shield integrity had continued dropping, and sensors were registering alarming levels of ionisation build-up on the hull.
He blinked as a mote popped white hot across his vision and scooted his chair over to the monitor displaying the SOL readouts. He brought up a live image of the Sun and leaned in to study it carefully. Stationed midway across the equator was 43581, a great black mass of magnetic flux that scarred its way darkly across the Sun. John switched the image to x-ray and stared intently into the void.
Deep inside the darkness of 43581 a spark flared. Like a live thing it fluttered, blinked, opened a baleful red eye and stared out at the universe. A tongue of flame curled across the surface of the Sun, uncoiled, spat itself millions of kilometres into space.
Tin-Tin saw it at the same time that John did.
The sharp cry raked along Jeff's spine like fingernails across a board, sent a wave of something akin to fear surging along the surface of his skin. He straightened from Gordon's console and turned to the young woman, seeing in her eyes the terror that had carried in her voice.
'Magnitude?' Jeff's voice was low as his hand found its way blindly to Gordon's shoulder.
'Off the scale.'
'I see it, Father.'
John watched, mesmerised, as the tongue of flame uncoiled leisurely from 43581 and stretched its way in slow motion into space.
'John, listen. ISA have detected a proton burst travelling ahead of the prominence.'
'Speed?' John's eyes lifted to the monitor and locked onto his father's.
'You need to suit up and get into the shelter. Now.'
'What about the attitude boosters? I can't…'
'Forget them, John. You've got less than ten minutes, so move.'
John spared forty seconds to check Thunderbird Five's trajectory and set the internal systems to emergency lockdown before he bolted into the narrow passageway that ran the circuit of the space station. The corridor lights flickered as the generator powered down, then flared into life again as the systems reinstated themselves, rebooting according to their own damaged protocols.
John's feet pounded loudly against metal as he sprinted for the radiation shelter located deep in the heart of Thunderbird Five. A warning klaxon sounded as he skidded to a halt in front of the door, then dwindled into sudden silence. He paused and stared back down the silent corridor, the walls around him feeling strangely alien and dangerous, as though they, and the universe, were finally closing in on him.
Keying the chamber open he slipped inside and pulled the heavy door closed, manually sealing it behind him. He checked his wristwatch, mentally counted down the time remaining till impact.
Slipping the wristwatch off he placed it on the low bench beside him, kicked off his boots and set to work with his EVA suit. The Kevlar compound was cold as it settled close to his body, like ice water passing through the fabric of his clothing and seeping into the flesh of this calves and thighs as he tugged it hastily upwards. He shrugged the suit higher and slipped his arms into the sleeves, hair raising in pimpled waves across his flesh. Four minutes. Blood pounded in his head as he bent down and struggled into the boots, activated the seals and straightened, slipping on and sealing the gloves as he did so.
John heaved the oxygen tank onto his back, checked and double-checked the connections, jammed the helmet down hard over his head and sealed it tightly to the body of the suit.
He pressurised the suit and picked up the wristwatch, raised it into the light.
John dropped his arm and backed towards the rear of the chamber, stared at the impassive grey door in front of his face as a mental stopwatch ran itself down inside his head.
'Understood.' Scott cut communications and leaned back in his chair. 'So that's it, then. We'll have to stay in low-Earth orbit until the proton burst passes.'
Alan looked up at his brother. 'I've adjusted our speed and trajectory to make sure we're the dark side in a few minutes. We should avoid the worst of it.'
'The worst of it?' Scott spared a moment to check the telemetry. 'On this trajectory we'll be back on the Sun-facing side of the Earth in, what, ninety minutes? And you're saying this is going to last a day?'
'The first wave will have passed in an hour, but the residual wave can last up to twenty-four.'
'But you said ISA are estimating eight.'
'This is a-a particularly violent burst,' Brains responded distractedly. 'It seems to be travelling at a, a higher velocity.'
Scott looked across at the scientist. 'What will happen when it hits? Five is directly in its path.'
Brains looked up from the SOL readouts. 'Unknown, Scott.'
'What do you mean 'unknown'?'
'I-I mean, there are too many variables. In less than an hour Thunderbird F-Five's shields will be compromised, but her hull may, ah, deflect a percentage of particles.'
'Unlikely,' Alan interjected. 'John was already reporting particle breaches. I doubt the hull will deflect a concentrated burst.'
'Yes, but, ah, Five has shifted in her orbit, as has her, ah, position relative to the Sun. It may just be, ah, enough, to…'
'I'm sorry Brains, but 'enough' just isn't going cut it.'
Brains blinked at the interruption. 'I'm sorry Scott, but it's, ah, an inexact science.' He readjusted his glasses and looked apologetically across the room. 'I-I'm sure John has taken every precaution and is in the radiation shelter by now. He should be, ah, quite safe, until we can rendezvous.'
'If we can rendezvous.' Alan's blond eyebrows knit together as looked up from his navigation console.
'What do you mean?'
'I mean, Scott, that when that proton burst hits, John's communications will be fried.' Alan's hands left the console and flew into the air in frustration. 'If Base loses tracking we'll have no way of relocating her.'
Scott looked from Alan to Brains and back again. 'Okay, we need to consolidate. What do we know?'
'We know that this particular, ah, proton event is preceding the main radiation wave by eight to twelve hours. Which gives us, ah, a small window of opportunity whereby we can dock with Thunderbird Five and, ah, effect repairs.'
'Not much of a window.' Scott looked at Alan. 'Is it possible to break orbit before the proton wave passes?'
'Negative. We do that, and our systems will fry as well.'
'So we're stuck in low-Earth orbit for eight hours. Best estimate.'
'Or until ISA indicate the wave has passed.'
'Okay. Assuming we stay in orbit for eight hours, that gives us, at barest minimum, four hours to get to Five, get in, repair the mainframe and get the shields back online.' Scott's eyes locked intently onto Brains'. 'Is it doable?'
'If it's not,' Alan cut in before Brains could reply, 'John had better be prepared to evacuate.'
Jeff cut the connection to Thunderbird Three and slumped back in his seat, bringing up his hands to scrub wearily at his face. There was no need for him to speak – they had all heard the appraisal of the situation, listened with mounting concern as Scott grimly outlined their diminishing time-frames.
Virgil watched as his father wearily scooted his chair towards Tin-Tin's console to assess the latest SOL download and fumbled absently at the shirt Kyrano had brought to replace the night-wear he'd been caught in earlier. Jeff straightened momentarily and ran a hand through his hair, the glare from the screen sending pale light into the shadows around his eyes and the sprinkling of grey that peppered its way across his chin.
Virgil scrubbed at the stubble that lined his own chin. 'Should we bring Three back in the interim?' he ventured, his voice echoing dissonantly as it cut through the silence in the room.
'You heard your brother,' Jeff replied without looking up. 'We're talking hours instead of days and they need to be ready.'
'What about John?' Virgil winced at the tremor in Tin-Tin's voice.
'We lost all communications when the first wave hit.' Jeff responded quietly. 'We just have to hope he stays put until Thunderbird Three gets there.'
Virgil turned back to his monitor. Thunderbird Five remained on her predicted trajectory and he dutifully recorded the location before glancing up to find Gordon silently watching him from across the room.
John checked the gauge on his O2 pack, lifted the watch into the light, leaned his head against the wall and tapped his gloved fingers impatiently against his thigh.
He stood abruptly, paced the three short steps from the low bench he'd been sitting on, placed a hand against the sealed hatch. The thrum of the engines coursed through the palm of his hand, a steady vibration that pulsed into his feet and numbed the sensitive tips of his fingers. He closed his eyes, curled his toes inside his sealed boots, inhaled deeply on air that tasted of plastic.
And then he felt it.
A dislocation in his inner ear as though he were toppling over.
He opened his eyes, fell hard against the hatch as Thunderbird Five tilted crazily out from beneath his feet.
Scott could feel control slipping away from him.
Sunspots, coronal mass ejections, solar proton events… these things existed far outside his world. They were as real to him as unicorns and mermaids, and just as elusive to catch hold of. Cave-ins, plane crashes, infernos… they were known quantities. They had their groundings in earth, air and fire. They had beginnings and ends and predictable outcomes. More importantly, they could be tamed. He could tame them. This thing seemed to have no boundaries, no end, and there was no way he could catch it, tame it, control it.
He perched in rigid silence beside Alan on Thunderbird Three's flight deck as they orbited the Earth, trapped in an endless spiral that was taking them nowhere. He checked his watch again, looked at his brother hunched intent over the flight display, glanced up at Brains who was equally intent upon his own calculations. Scott felt his teeth grind together, felt the artificial gravity pressing down hard against his back, the tension increasing between his shoulder blades and tightening the muscles of his neck. He checked his watch again. And then he snapped.
'How much longer?' The question fell unexpected from mouth, a meaningless verbal expression of the impatience he was feeling.
Alan ignored the outburst, but in his peripheral vision Scott saw Brains flinch, un-used, still, to his mercurial moods.
John could almost hear her scream.
He could feel her pain as an onslaught of high-speed protons pierced through what was left of her shielding, filtered their way between the molecules of her outer hull, sped unhindered through electronics, burnt across circuits, disrupted power flows, corroded connections and re-routed and re-wrote her protocols. His girl was being ravaged and he was helpless to stop it.
He slammed a fist against the wall as the gravity failed and the deck floated out from beneath him. The lights dimmed as he righted himself, flickered once and then failed completely. John screamed into the darkness, anger and adrenaline raging through his body as the Sun's radiation burned its way through Thunderbird Five.
Inside the operations room, winter reigned. Tracy Island's refrigeration plant kept the room temperature at a cool eighteen degrees Celsius, twenty-four hours a day, three-hundred and fifty-six days a year.
Virgil sat silently at his monitor, keeping constant track of Thunderbird Five as she shifted her orbit. He shivered slightly as the chilled air settled into his bones, refreshed the feed from Moyla, cross-referenced the signal from Five's onboard positioning system, recorded her location in five degree increments, shook his hands to get the blood flowing back into his fingers. He turned briefly to look out the window, reassured himself that out in the world, normality reigned. The Sun burned bright in the sky, blistered the blacktop of the tarmac, sent heat haze rising lazily into the blue summer air. Beyond the edge of the island the ocean stretched into infinity, a band of bright cumulus on the horizon signalling the beginnings of an early afternoon storm.
Virgil turned back to his monitor, refreshed the feed from Moyla, cross-referenced the signal from Five, stared at the white blip that represented his brother as it tracked slowly down the screen. He referenced her location, poised his fingers on the keyboard and froze as the small white blip flickered once and disappeared, the space where Thunderbird Five had been now completely void. Virgil accessed Five's telemetry feed, blinked in surprise at the stream of unintelligible data that flowed across the screen before the transmission abruptly ceased.
'Father.' Virgil couldn't hide the edge in his voice. 'I've lost Five's tracking beacon and telemetry. She's gone.'
'What's Moyla saying?' Jeff rose from his chair.
'Updating now.' Virgil could feel every pair of eyes in the room burning into his back as he uploaded the data. 'Moyla still has a fix, but the trajectory has altered. Dad,' Virgil looked at his father bleakly. 'If the data is correct, Thunderbird Five is now on a steep dive towards the Earth.'
John thudded heavily to the deck as the lights powered back on and the gravity abruptly reinstated itself. He grunted as he sprawled awkwardly to the floor, placed an arm against the wall and brought himself to standing. Beneath him the station jolted, a series of small thuds transmitting themselves through the floor and into his feet.
He placed a hand against the door, tried to read with his fingertips what was happening outside the room. The pulse of the engines hummed faintly through the thick metal, hiccoughed, sputtered and reinstated themselves with renewed vigour.
A surge of panic coursed through him as the vibration told him all he needed to know. The engines were still engaged, and running as unpredictably as the rest of the station's systems.
In Fiji they had a saying: Island Time.
For those living there, the South Pacific existed in an alternate place in space and time, was poised on a lazy meridian where the Earth lolled heavy with life and the Sun wheeled its way across the sky in slow-motion. Tracy Island floated along the borders of Island Time – Virgil had felt it himself. How many times, as Thunderbird Two winged her way home, he had passed across that miraculous border between sky and ocean and felt the weight of the world fall clean from his shoulders.
Today Virgil cursed Island Time, resented the minutes ticking away in agonising increments as he hunkered over his readouts, studied the relay from Moyla, fixed his eyes on the blinking dot that remained their only link to his brother as Thunderbird Five tracked her way steeply towards the Earth.
At the edge of his hearing Gordon's voice registered a low murmur as he updated their father… this hemisphere down… backup from ICT… Tracy Corp array…. Virgil… Virgil?
Virgil blinked, raised his eyes to meet his brother's.
'Virgil, I've got a line-of-sight on Five via array three.'
'Thanks.' Virgil tapped in the frequency and downloaded the feed, cross-referenced the earlier data from Moyla, triangulated Five's position and backtracked her progression. He stared at the readout and repeated the process as realisation dawned on him.
Not only had Thunderbird Five altered trajectory, but her speed had increased as well.
'Base from Thunderbird Three. Please repeat your transmission.'
Alan grunted in frustration as his father's voice was swallowed by static. He frowned up at Scott. 'Did you get any of that?'
'Negative.' Scott leant over the communications panel, spoke loudly and firmly into the microphone. 'Base from Thunderbird Three. Repeat.'
Static burst through the speaker as the solar storm cut a swathe of interference through the Earth's upper atmosphere. Alan adjusted the gain, motioned for Scott to try again.
'Base from Thunderbird Three. Repeat please.'
'… base….' The transmission was weak, obscured by hiss and crackle. '…thermo… four…'
Alan swore as the transmission cut out altogether.
'I-I think,' ventured Brains from the far side of the flight deck, 'that he was saying that, ah, Thunderbird Five would enter the thermosphere in, ah, four hours.'
'What?' Scott's voice registered his alarm. 'How?'
'I can only, ah, a-assume that the proton wave has a-affected Thunderbird Five's station-keeping engines. I-if John can't change trajectory, she will inevitably be caught by the Earth's gravitational field and…'
'But four hours?'
'That won't give us enough time to…'
'We don't have any time, Alan.Bring up Thunderbird Five's last known position. The minute we make it to the terminator, we're going for it.'
'That's it, then.' Jeff turned to survey his small team as the transmission died into silence. 'They're on their own.'
Virgil looked up from his feeds. 'Do you think the transmission got through?'
'Doubt it,' Gordon replied. 'Sat comms are down globally.'
'They're smart men.' Jeff offered a small smile that barely creased the corners of his mouth. 'I'm sure they'll put two and two together.'
'Mr Tracy?' Tin-Tin looked up 'We've started receiving radio transmissions – calls for assistance.'
'NASA have lost contact with the crews of the ISS and IDP. Roscosmos are reporting the loss of Globalstar 12 with three men aboard. WKN, NTBS and INN are all requesting retrieval of satellite operations crews, ESA, CSO, ISRO…'
'That's enough.' Jeff said quietly. He sighed, a weary exhalation, and placed a hand on the young woman's shoulder. 'Tin-Tin, go up to the lounge and start fielding those calls. Inform them that International Rescue have lost contact with their crew and are unable to provide assistance.' He lifted his head to stare out the wide window, at the storm clouds piling high over the ocean. 'This time the world is going to have to get by without us.'
John surveyed the sealed door before him.
Experience told him it was folly to exit the shelter now, that he had no way of knowing if the proton event had passed. But experience also told him that his Thunderbird was damaged. He could feel in his bones that she was still in motion, that he couldn't afford to stay sealed away for much longer.
Taking a deep breath he popped the pressure seal and pushed slowly at the heavy door.
'Breakaway speed,' Alan announced as he guided Thunderbird Three smoothly from her place in orbit and out into space.
'Now all we have to do is locate Thunderbird Five. Without a feed from Base it's going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack.' Scott didn't sound optimistic. 'Brains?'
'Can you extrapolate a location from Five's last known position?'
'Already calculated, but, ah, there are just, ah, too many variables.'
'Thanks Brains, just aim us in the right direction. Alan?'
'How are the shields holding?'
'So far so good. No sign of ionisation or particle breach. We may have timed our exit just right. Or got extremely lucky.'
'Let's just hope our luck holds out.' Scott muttered darkly.
The first thing he saw was smoke. It curled in pale tendrils along the ceiling, drifted in slow wafts into the corridor from the nearby access shaft, the tell-tale blue haze of an electrical fire somewhere in the bowels of the station.
John stepped through the hatch, screwed his eyes shut and waited for his body to be riddled through with protons travelling at half the speed of light.
Idiot. You wouldn't even feel it.
Light popped in his vision and he flinched, blinked and looked around warily. And then he ran.
'Nothing.' Scott stared into empty space, his frustration mounting with every passing second. 'Where is she?'
'Sweep two-eight-zero by ninety,' Brains instructed Alan calmly.
'FAB.' Alan redirected the sensor array, glanced surreptitiously at his brother as he bent intently over the radar screen.
'Where is she?' Scott repeated again as the radar swept through yet another quadrant of empty space.
John skidded into the comms centre and stared with dismay at the Earth as she filled Thunderbird Five's viewport entirely.
He keyed the command code into the navigation console, keyed it again, slammed a fist onto the panel when the unit failed to respond. He glanced over his shoulder, squinted into the glare of the Indian Ocean as the Earth rolled beneath him. Angle, speed, declination… it was all wrong. He keyed the command code into the console again, cursed violently when the engines again failed to respond.
Abandoning navigation he turned to the communications console, a quick glance telling him the comms were inactive despite a full load of power to the board. He activated his suit communications, but with the relay systems down the transmission was going nowhere.
He was on his own, with a big blue planet breathing down his neck.
'There she is.'
It was said with such calm that Scott thought he was hearing things.
Brains enlarged the on-screen image to display a familiar silhouette outlined against the brilliant blue of the Earth. He enlarged the image again, revealed a space station that was listing precariously as she descended towards the planet.
'The thrusters are misaligned,' Alan leaned over Brains' shoulder and tapped the screen. 'She's in danger of rotating.'
'Then we'd better get in there before that happens.' Scott rose from his chair and removed his sash and holster, began kicking off his boots.
'FAB' Alan slipped into the command chair and angled Thunderbird Three onto her new coordinates.
He never thought he'd have to use this thing. Contingency only, his father had said. Worst case scenario. Doomsday.
Well, sorry Dad. It's Doomsday.
John smashed the keypad cover with the side of his fist, keyed in the emergency code, stepped back to allow the escape pod to disengage from its protective bay and power up.
John stared blankly at the pod, at the keypad, at the pod again.
What the hell?
The blinking green light told him the pod had power, but like everything else on the station it was completely unresponsive and running according to its own directives. John gripped the keypad firmly with his gloved fingers, ripped the panel away from the wall and exposed the wiring beneath. He picked his way through the complicated mass until he found the connection he was looking for, pulling bodily until the wire broke free. Scooping the keypad cover from the floor he used the metal to attempt a cross-connect, threw the cover to the floor in disgust when the pod still failed to engage.
'There's no way we'll be able to dock. Thunderbird Five isn't responding to any of our hails and the docking tube is unresponsive to external commands.' Alan looked worriedly at his brother. 'We'll have to walk across, and it looks like we'll have to cut our way through the airlock.'
'External readings?' Scott opened the EVA locker and began assembling two neat piles of equipment.
'Sensors normal… minimal radiation and no ionisation build-up. Space environment registers as safe.'
Scott shrugged into his suit and looked pointedly at his brother. 'You're staying here.'
'What?' Alan's cheeks flared. 'I know Five's systems better than you or Brains. If anybody should be going, it's me.'
'You also know Thunderbird Three better than the both of us put together.' Scott slid his hands into his gloves and sealed them to the sleeves of his suit. 'I need you at the command. Once we've exited I want you to take her to eight hundred meters and keep pace. Keep communications open, and when we're ready to evac bring her in to three hundred and open the airlock. Got that?'
Alan hesitated, thought better of arguing the point. 'Understood.'
Scott handed a helmet to Brains and hefted his own. 'Brains, once we're inside I'm giving us ten minutes to get John out of the shelter and get those thrusters offline.'
John re-entered the comms centre and spared one second to take in the islands of Southeast Asia as they span past the observation port, ripped the fire extinguisher from the wall without breaking stride, lifted it above his head and aimed it squarely at the navigation console.
He flinched as a satisfying stream of sparks flew from the panel and splashed against the faceplate of his helmet, bouncing harmlessly from his chest onto the floor. He smashed the panel again and was rewarded by another stream of sparks and a brief dimming of the lights around him. Once more the extinguisher crashed into metal, the panel cracking and vomiting forth a collection of wiring and circuit boards, thousands of dollars of electronics and precious man-hours destroyed in less than thirty seconds.
Dropping the extinguisher to the floor John reached his hands into the panel and pulled hard on the torn metal to expose the sparking innards.
It engulfed him along with the darkness, pressed hard against his body, sent cold fingers probing ceaselessly at the seams of his suit, trying to find away by which to bleed his body dry of warmth and moisture and suck the life out of him.
Scott pushed away from Thunderbird Three, drifted tethered in space as he watched for Brains to emerge from the airlock, tried hard not to think of the vast expanse of nothing that surrounded them and the Earth looming far too close beneath him. He swallowed tightly as compressed oxygen passed cool and dry across his lips, the rasping of his breathing filling the small universe inside his helmet.
Brains wafted through the darkness, signalled 'ok' with a circled thumb and forefinger, activated his propulsion pack and jetted abruptly forward. They had only to cross a few hundred meters, but surrounded by the black and boundless chasm of space it felt like thousands of miles. Scott was grateful for the orange bulk of Three at his back, the tether that grounded him to safety, the slim silver silhouette of Brains as he powered ahead. Scott jetted forward, grasped Brains by the arm and angled him towards the docking tube, adjusted their momentum to butt them gently against the hull where they grasped clumsily for a handhold against the smooth grey metal.
Scott released the tether, turned to see Thunderbird Three arc smoothly away and made his way slowly into the docking tube. He keyed the airlock controls, waited five seconds for a response, held out a hand to Brains for the cutting tool. Angling the cutter into the airlock, Scott activated the power pack and sliced into the seal. The metal parted, separating in slow motion as the door was torn apart by the pressure of Thunderbird Five's atmosphere rushing explosively into space.
'WDF ground control have a radar fix on Thunderbird Five.' Gordon looked up at his father. 'They know she's coming in.'
Jeff's shoulders sagged as all hope drained away from him. 'Confirm.'
'That's an affirmative. Air Force are scrambling to intercept.' Gordon looked at his father grimly. 'That's it, then.'
Jeff leaned forward and rested his head in his hands.
'But John…' Tin-Tin's voice trailed away.
Silence flooded the room. The ticking of a clock. The sound of air humming through vents.
'I'll go.' Virgil rose from his chair.
'No.' Jeff lifted his head and turned to Gordon. 'You go.'
'Yes, sir.' Gordon dropped his headset to the desk. 'Orders?'
Jeff closed his eyes, dragged his voice unwillingly from his throat. 'Take her out at eighty kilometres,' he said quietly. 'Don't let any of those pilots get a visual.'
Gordon turned on his heel, his eyes fleetingly meeting his brother's as he exited the room.
'But John…' Tin-Tin repeated. 'Mr Tracy, do you think they made it in time?'
Jeff avoided Tin-Tin's gaze, walked to the window and rested his hands heavily on the sill.
The decompression caught him off guard, lifted him off his feet and hurtled him flailing across the room.
Hull breach, John thought unsurprised as he slammed bodily into the access hatch, fingers grasping at the doorframe as vacuum tried to suck him down the corridor and out into space. He ducked his head as debris flew haphazardly into the passageway, the loose items of his daily existence pummelling hard against his body, and he twisted hastily to avoid the discarded fire extinguisher as it barrelled past him.
The lights flickered and failed as the pressure equalised and vacuum silently invaded Thunderbird Five. John drifted in silence and darkness, the night side of the Earth looming menacingly below him, the room illuminated by random bursts of flame on a hull that threatened to ignite.
'Brains.' Scott ducked the debris cloud that was streaming out with the air and heaved his way through the destroyed airlock as the pressure equalised. 'I'm heading for the shelter. Get to comms and see if you can reverse those engines.'
'Scott.' Brains' voice echoed tinnily in Scott's earpiece. 'I-I don't think there's any point at, ah, this stage.'
Scott floated weightless in the darkened corridor, one hand pressed against the passage wall as the station flexed and shuddered beneath his fingertips. He turned to look at Brains, a silver outline hovering in the shattered doorway. 'Try, Brains. We can't just give up.'
Brains watched as Scott disappeared into darkness, paused uncertain on a threshold he had passed across hundreds of times. Minus warmth and light and sound, the station felt dead already, an empty shattered hulk caught in the Earth's gravitational field like a spider caught in a web. Even if he could reverse the engines it would only destabilise theirtrajectory, send Thunderbird Five into a spin from which none of them could escape.
Bursts of light flickered from the doorway ahead, sent a wave of foreboding creeping along his spine. There was always a time to give up, Brains thought morosely as he gripped the doorframe and guided himself into the comms centre. There were always things beyond your control.
John drifted in darkness, the blue spheres of his eyes reflecting a scattering of clouds above an ocean edged in sparkling sunlight. At this distance features became visible – mountain ranges, coral reefs, green swathes of tropical forest. A chain of islands passed beneath him, swatches of greens and yellows harboured safely in a sea of blue.
Calm enveloped him, drained the lingering remnants of fear and panic from his body. He felt secure in the certainty that this was always his fate, grateful that he no longer had to fight the nagging fear when he slid into bed at night that he would die in silence, and alone.
The South Pacific rose into view and he moved to the window, searched the familiar landmarks of the sea as Thunderbird Five crossed the terminator into night. He was well into the thermosphere now, the tell-tale flare of heat riming the edges of the observation port in intermittent bursts.
Gordon's hands were moist on the throttle, his feet restless on the footplate, his back pressed uncomfortably against an unfamiliar seat. His eyes darted restlessly over the flight panel as Thunderbird One continued her automated descent towards the launching pad, final flight checks cataloguing methodically inside his head.
Gordon swallowed hard, flexed his fingers around the flight stick, his body tense as the swimming pool slid grudgingly aside to permit his exit. Around him the cockpit echoed with unfamiliar pings and chimes as he brought the systems fully online, primed the ignition, closed his eyes and jammed the throttle to full.
At first he felt nothing, floated weightless as momentum gathered beneath him,heat and light that focussed into a single flame that thrust Thunderbird One abruptly skyward and smashed him hard into the contours of the chair. She hurtled from her hanger, passed at speed through hot air and into storm cloud, turbulence shaking the entire frame of the ship and jolting him into tense alertness. He steered through kilometres of gathering updraft, static sending blue flame roiling across the ship's outer skin as he angled Thunderbird One towards the upper edges of the atmosphere.
Scott stared in dismay at the hatch door open wide upon its hinges, at the dark shadows that crowded forbiddingly into the space beyond. He aimed his torch into the darkness and swung it searchingly around the shelter, an all too familiar sensation settling in his gut as the light reflected silently from the bare metal walls and bounced with crystal clarity across the airless and empty interior of the tiny room.
The shelter had been swept clean by decompression. There was no sign of his brother. No sign John had ever been there. The fear that had settled in Scott's stomach reached up to clutch hard at his heart.
He directed his torch back into the corridor, the blue beam promptly swallowed by impenetrable blackness. His brain ticked over as he assessed his diminishing options, the juddering of the station around him signalling his time had completely run out. He wanted to scream. The one rescue that had mattered most of all, and he'd arrived too late.
Scott gritted his teeth and took a mental step back, tried to replay in his head the actions John might have taken. It was a tactic he was all too familiar with – following the trail of human desperation to its inevitable conclusion. His torchlight bounced haphazardly along the corridor as he powered towards the escape pod, the ever-present darkness pressing menacingly against his back.
The escape pod remained nestled snugly inside its cocoon, the destroyed keypad the only sign of his brother's passage, the torn and mangled wiring testimony to John's mounting despair. Scott lifted the keypad and fingered the twisted wiring, tried to intuit his brother's next move from shards of frozen metal and plastic. He dropped the destroyed keypad in disgust, jolted violently as Brains' voice blasted loudly into his earpiece.
'He's here,' the tiny voice blurted excitedly through the speaker. 'John's here!'
The altimeter ticked over steadily as Thunderbird One powered rapidly skyward. Outside the cabin window the atmosphere thinned out, the brightest stars becoming visible one by one in the darkening sky.
Gordon adjusted the fuel ratio and increased the oxidiser, hoped there was enough to keep the engines ignited at the airless edges of the Earth. He had never piloted Thunderbird One to extreme altitude before, didn't know if even Scott had taken her to the boundary of sky and space.
'Base from Thunderbird One.' Gordon glanced again at the altimeter. 'Currently at 67 kilometres and require a bearing.'
'… One from Base.' Virgil's voice was faint and broken by static. '… magnetic 187.' Static crackled across the connection. '…visible soon.'
'Acknowledged.' Gordon adjusted his trajectory.
'Any sign…intercept?' Virgil queried over the deteriorating connection.
'Affirmative.' Gordon adjusted the onboard sensors. 'Squadron of seven below me.' He allowed himself a fleeting moment to revel in the power at his command, at the speed and superiority the technology at his fingertips afforded him. He sobered as the altimeter chimed, indicating he'd reached the lower boundary of the thermosphere. A spark jumped in his peripheral vision and he lifted his eyes to the viewport as a flame burst into life at the very edge of the sky.
'Base from Thunderbird One. I have a visual.'
Static crackled in the cockpit.
'Base from Thunderbird One.' The speaker emitted dead air, communications drowned out by the residual solar energy still bouncing around the upper atmosphere.
Gordon swung Thunderbird One around in a wide arc, armed the air-to-air missiles and brought the targeting systems online.
The flame burned brighter as it hurtled toward him at fifty kilometres a second and grew exponentially larger in his viewport. If he hesitated, it was for the merest of milliseconds. Whatever it may have been, whoever may have been aboard it, it was nothing now but a burning hulk and a threat to the planet International Rescue had sworn to protect. Gordon slid a thumb over the missile release, mouthed a silent prayer and fired.
'Target destroyed,' he whispered softly as Thunderbird Five splintered apart and tumbled burning to Earth.
Jeff Tracy ascended a small rise in the terrain and paused to wipe the sweat from the back of his neck. The low jungle of the Congo surrounded him, green and dense, alive with sound and moist with humidity. A cloud of birds rose noisily in the distance and wheeled in the late afternoon haze, winged their raucous way west.
He turned to survey the landscape, taking in the high escarpment of a nearby mountain range, the dark outline of Thunderbird Two as she rested on the plateau behind him, the heavy verdure of the valley below. A great scar of broken vegetation gouged itself across the forest at his feet, and he watched silently as Alan and John picked their way slowly across the jagged rent in the earth. Jeff didn't turn when footsteps sounded behind him, knowing well which of his sons belonged to the sure steps that scuffed their way steadily through the gravel.
'The debris field is scattered,' Scott came to stand beside him, 'but Brains is pretty sure we can locate it all.'
Jeff squinted into the distance as Virgil and Gordon emerged from Thunderbird Two's open pod.
'We've located the powerplant and escape pod,' Scott continued. 'They're pretty much intact.' He held out a hand. 'And we found this.'
Jeff turned to look at his son, at the dirt-smeared hand that was proffered towards him, at the twisted metal disc that was cradled there. The paint was peeled and cracked, the edges bent and charred, but the image burned clear in Jeff Tracy's clouding eyes.
A helping hand, on a field of blue.