by TB's LMC
While investigating the effect that a signal array is having on Earth, John and an old college friend undertake a rugged journey to find the truth. Unfortunately, things don't go as either man planned, and it's up to John to save his friend, himself…and possibly the entire planet.
Written For: A good friend who wishes to remain anonymous, and wanted to see a story involving John and mountain-climbing. (It kind of got out-of-hand from there.)
Thank you to Jaimi-Sam for her excellent beta skills.
Author's Note: The titles of each part of the story are climbing-related terms, which I've defined for you at the tail end of each part. The definitions come largely from the Santiam Alpine Club's glossary of rock, ice and mountain climbing terms.
PROLOGUE: THE FALL
John feels the tremor beneath his gloved hands half a second before the big one hits.
"Dev!" he cries at the top of his lungs, breath hanging in the frozen air surrounding them. "Mike!"
He hangs on to the two ice axes stuck into the frozen mass before him even as his double boots slip and slide, unable to find purchase as the mountain itself begins to shake.
Looking down to his left, he sees Dev hanging on for dear life to his own two ice axes, the boots with spikes built into the soles, which he insisted on using, keeping his feet a lot more steady than what John's wearing – boots with detachable spikes. Dammit. Then John looks down to his right, even as Denali tries to throw him from her rugged sides.
All he can do is watch Mike fall to his death. John squeezes his eyes shut and clings to what little he's got to keep him from following the experienced climb guide.
Pieces of ice crack and break away.
Several boulders roll down, one glancing off his right shoulder blade.
It's not the shaking that throws Dev off his perch below. It's the sudden wind that blasts into them like a brick wall just as the earthquake fades away, shoving John's cheek into a jut of rock even as Dev yells his name.
"No!" John yelps, breathless and in pain as he tries to crane his neck down and around to find his friend.
But he sees nothing. Visibility has dropped to zero in a heartbeat, and John's hanging on the side of a mountain called Denali in the state of Alaska, five thousand meters above sea level, in a raging snowstorm, alone.
He knows full well how he got here. He's just not sure how he's going to get out.
*Fall: To lose involuntarily one's position. (Well, I'm sure that was a no-brainer.)
PART ONE: THE LEAD
There is a steady vibration that becomes part of who you are when you're on board Thunderbird Five. An underlying thrum of electricity, machinery, that can almost trick you into believing you're orbiting Earth in a living, breathing creature rather than a space station you helped design.
This is his home every other month, except when one of the other three of his brothers has to take their two weeks of duty in space. He doesn't mind switching off with Alan, but he finds the comparative silence of the air on Tracy Island leaves him feeling empty, like a part of him is missing.
And when he returns to this place he loves so much, while it leaves him more in solitude than when he's on the planet below, he comes alive again with the lighter-than-gravity artificial atmosphere and the gentle song of transmissions in every imaginable language surrounding him.
As much as Virgil believes his Thunderbird speaks to him; as much as Scott believes his 'bird responds to his every touch; as much as Alan believes his rocket listens to his words and Gordon believes his sub cradles him gently in the depths of the oceans, John believes his girl is alive.
Right now, she is telling him something he was hoping she wouldn't. Data flows across the monitor he's seated himself in front of and he frowns at the readout. For the past three months, he's been using Five's powerful antennae to monitor transmissions of high-frequency radio waves shooting into the ionosphere surrounding Earth.
It comes from the Ionospheric Research Instrument, IRI, being run by the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, known as HAARP. Located in Gakona, Alaska, it's a research program funded by the U.S. government that John's kept tabs on since Thunderbird Five first came on-line, simply because a friend from his days at Harvard University is now a researcher there.
Assured by the Navy and Air Force, by the University of Alaska and the Department of Defense's research arm that the transmissions weren't affecting the planet any further than by causing some interesting occurrences of the Aurora borealis over that part of the world, John's friend Devrat Verma had agreed to head up the team that maintained, and made improvements to, the phased array doing the transmitting of the signals.
Five picked up the signals herself, because of course they didn't just stop at the ionosphere. One of the things John had decided to check into during his rotations, was whether these signals were having any undue effect in space. What his girl's data is telling him now, is that they're having an impact all right. Not out there with him in space, but back on Earth.
Conspiracy theories abound as to what the military's really doing with HAARP, but John's one to go with cold, hard facts, and hasn't ever really bought into alarmists and their insistence that the world's out to get them and everyone else. However, data doesn't lie, and if what he's got in front of him means what he thinks it means, well…he shudders at the idea.
A call to Alaska is in order.
"Ah, John, my friend, tell me, what trouble are you getting yourself into on that space station of yours?"
"Now, how much trouble can I get into on a Tracy Aerospace research satellite, Dev?"
The Hindu man chuckles. "Point taken. What has your father tasked you with this month, pray tell?"
"It's not so much what my father's got me working on, as it is what you're working on."
Dev's face registers a bit of surprise. "The IRI?"
"Got it in one."
"Have you begun working with HAARP without telling me? John Tracy, you are a devious man, sneaking in under my radar this way."
John quirks a grin at him. "Not doing anything official, Dev, just my own tracking and monitoring of those signals you guys are beaming into the ionosphere."
A gentle frown creases Dev's forehead. "I'm not certain I understand. Are you doing something you should not be doing?"
"It's all above-board, honest. I'd really like to talk to you about this most recent data I've gathered, though."
"Is there a problem?"
"I don't know, Dev," John sighs, leaning back in his chair and running a hand through his hair. This has the unfortunate effect of letting lose the cowlick he tries so hard to keep in check, and a curled wisp of hair falls over his forehead. "But I can tell you that I don't like what I'm seeing from the seismonitors in Alaska, and if I'm not mistaken, your Lens Effect on the outer edge of the ionosphere's gotten a little out of hand."
"Your data must be flawed. Only yesterday we completed a scan of the entire area our beams have been pinpointing for the past three years. The bulge in the ionosphere is no greater than it was last year, and the heated portion has not increased in temperature since last April."
"Six months ago, the ionosphere hadn't reached two hundred eighty-one Celsius," John counters, leaning forward and settling his elbows on his thighs. "Just let me send you what our little space station picked up, okay? Secure channel."
Dev tilts his head just a bit and gets a small smile on his face. "You wouldn't be turning into one of those conspiracy theorists whose only certainty in life is that the military wishes to destroy the very planet we all depend on for our survival, are you?"
"Hardly," John replies with an eyeroll. "Just take a look at what I've got, including the hypothesis I've developed based on my own interpretation of multiple pieces of ionic and signal data, and the extrapolation of my own findings from the AEIC**. We're talking a twelve-month timespan, so it may take you a while to get through it and check my calculations."
"Have no fear, the intrepid Dr. Verma is on the case!"
John grinned. "Namaste, bhai."
"Still keeping up with your Hindi, I see. Farewell, brother," Dev says with a tip of his hand off his forehead, and the video feed winks out.
John initiates the data transmission to Dev's secure line, then leans back in his chair again and looks up at the smooth metal ceiling overhead. He really hopes that somehow he's wrong in what he's found. That Dev will call him back tomorrow or the next day and tell him of his error, that he's missed something very simple indeed.
Either way, there's someone else he needs to talk to about his findings. John keys open one of International Rescue's encrypted lines to Base and breaks out into a full-blown grin when the sleepy-faced, bed-headed man who answers yawns unceremoniously.
"Not again," John says with a shake of his head.
"Oh, hi, er, John. Do you, uh, know what time it is down here for us mere, er, mortals?"
John glances sidelong at the digital time list atop the long bank of monitors that is Thunderbird Five's main control console. "Three in the morning."
"A-and what do we do at three in the morning?"
"What do we do, or what do you do? Typically, you're running a volatile experiment in the lab that somehow manages to wake the whole island even though you've got triple soundproofing and you're embedded in volcanic rock."
The man blinks and slides his large, blue-rimmed glasses onto his face. "The one time I decide to sleep," he mutters.
John chuckles. "Sorry, Brains. How was I supposed to know you've become a deviant of your own norm?"
"Ha. Ha." Brains scowls, rubs an eye beneath the lens of his glasses with two fingertips, and heaves out a sigh. "What's happening?"
"I've got some data I want to send you. You've heard of HAARP, I presume."
"Sure. I-it's the military project undertaken to investigate the, ah, potential for—why am I repeating this, you obviously already, er, know it yourself."
"That I do. A friend of mine's a researcher there. I've put together some information that started with me noticing a pattern to some of our rescues."
Brains suddenly appears wide awake. "Pattern?"
"Yeah, it was something about the locations we were being called out to, the types of disasters they were, the underlying cause behind each of them."
"Over what period o-of time?"
"The past twelve months."
"And this is the first I hear of it?"
"Hey, calm down, I'm not leaving you out of anything exciting on purpose. I had to be sure it wasn't just my imagination. Dev Verma's looking into this for me, sans any readings associated specifically with IR, of course."
"Send it right away, er, John. I'll start having a look at it right now."
"You betcha. And Brains?"
"I'm sorry I woke you, man. Really."
"For something like this, I would have, er, admonished you much more severely if you hadn't!"
"I figured as much. Get back to me when you're through, will you?"
"Of course. Brains out."
Well, that's the most John can do at the moment. He's due a few hours' sleep anyway, so now's as good a time as any.
It takes Brains a little longer to sift through John's data than he anticipates, and before he knows it, he's switching duty with Gordon, whose face belies just how miserable his outlook is on the next two weeks of his mandatory space duty.
John does as he always does when it's Virgil or Gordon. He snipes at Gordo. Cajoles him. Pokes his ribs a bit, and in the end, leaves him with so much to do, that the two weeks will pass before Gordon knows what's hit him.
He also gives his younger brother a hug before he steps into the airlock. A quick wink and a smile, and John is homeward bound, never mind that it took him thirty-five minutes to get Scott to leave Gordon alone about everything. As far as John's concerned, 'field commander' equals 'mother hen.'
The view of his 'bird as Thunderbird Three takes him further from her never ceases to capture his attention. And the view of Earth soon fills the viewscreen. It's a welcome sight, too. He's looking forward to reconnecting with his family, and to putting his head together with Brains' to see what he thinks about the HAARP theory.
He and Scott chat easily back and forth about everything and nothing. When you've got the most sophisticated equipment surrounding you for a month at a time, nothing that happens in the world gets past you. Nothing that happens in your family gets past you, either.
Scott won't talk about the row he had with Virgil. John knows better than to pry. Scott's more than happy to fill him in, though, on the debacle that was Alan's foray into underwater explosive devices which nearly sent Thunderbird Four to an early, watery grave.
So far they've kept that one from Dad.
John shakes his head. Kids, he thinks. And they wonder why one month Earthbound at a time is plenty for him.
*Lead: To be the first climber up a pitch and to place protection along the way while being belayed by a partner from below.
**Alaska Earthquake Information Center
PART TWO: THE SPUR
It's four whole days later before Brains finally pokes his head out of the lab. Only the special chute Grandma insisted her grandsons build ensures Brains ever eats a thing, and the small bedroom and full bathroom halfway up the steps to the door allows Brains to catch one or two winks and keep himself presentable, at least.
Unfortunately, Dev finishes up his review of the information at about the same time. They wind up on conference with each other, John and Brains in one of the Lab's anterooms, and Dev in his office at HAARP.
The news isn't looking good, but Dev refuses to believe the experiments he's involved with are doing what John's data says they're doing.
"I-I'm afraid there is no other explanation," Brains says matter-of-factly. "The signals your, er, array, are sending into the ionosphere have broken through the outer layer and are causing massive changes in, er, jet streams, ocean currents and the, er, very crust of the planet."
Dev's grim-faced. So is John, because he's been hoping and praying he was wrong.
Hours later, Brains and John have brought Jeff up to speed on the situation. Jeff's going to put in a call to his friend Colonel Hicks who helms the majority of HAARP's operations. In the meantime, John asks for a short leave from International Rescue to head for Alaska so he and Dev can work the problem from closer to home.
Jeff isn't keen on the idea, but says he'll think about it, which is good enough for John. He calls Dev back from his private bedroom suite vidphone and tells him his plan.
"You want to what?" Dev asks with a shake of his head. "Are you crazy, we're lucky if Mt. McKinley reaches minus thirty degrees this time of year, why are you so hell-bent on wanting to climb her?"
John says, "The challenge, partially. I've always wanted Denali under my mountain-climbing belt. But also because I'm sure there's something else pushing a much stronger signal out there. You yourself said HAARP's array signals couldn't possibly reach the frequency that's required to burst through the outer edge of the ionosphere, Dev."
"That is true. And I continue to refuse to believe the array is capable of that."
"Which means there's something else helping your signals, or sending its own, making it all worse."
"What makes you think there is anything on the peak of McKinley? And why must you insist upon calling it Denali, is that the language thing you are always playing with?"
John laughs. "That's the Native American word for it, and they were there first, my friend."
"This is true. Very well, I shall humor you with your Denali. I still want to know why you think whatever is causing the more powerful signal is atop her."
"I've triangulated three possible locations for a signal origin based on the trajectory required to pinpoint that particular bulge caused by your current array. Here, look." John pulls up a file on his holographic laptop and spins the display in a one-eighty so Dev can see the map with John's three spots marked.
"Your first location would have to be just the other side of the Interstate from Denali."
"Exactly, and it'd be far too easy for someone to stumble across in those woods, even if someone managed to cloak it somehow."
"Cloak it? John Tracy, are you working on cloaking technology?"
John laughs. "Moving on. What about my second location?"
"Graying Lake? The water would muffle the signal far too much for it to be very effective."
"My thoughts exactly. And that leaves us with Denali."
"Surely satellite images would show if something was sitting on top of that mountain!"
John nods, then pulls open another file and shows Dev a 3-D satellite image of the peak of Denali.
"I do not understand. There is nothing there, which seems to negate your theory altogether."
"Look closer, Dev. Here, I'll pull out the noise," John says, tapping a few keys and the mouseball in the keyboard of his holocomputer. "There. What do you see now?"
Dev peers closely at the image and frowns. "It would appear a section of the imagery is…phased, somehow. How is this possible?"
"You have got to be kidding me."
"Nope. And that's why I'm scaling Denali." John looks his friend in the eye. "I want you with me."
"And once we have risked life and limb to scale the mountain, and reached the peak at last, what will you do if there is something cloaked sitting there?"
John's face grows hard. "Disable it."
"You cannot! If it does exist, it's likely to be government property!"
"I don't care if it's got the personal stamp of the U.S. president on it, Dev! Nobody has the right to destroy the ionosphere and the planet; whether they realize they're doing or not is irrelevant. Dad's got a call in to Colonel Hicks, a man he was in the Air Force with who—"
"John, he's my direct supervisor, I know who the man is."
"Good. Whatever Dad finds out, though, if Hicks knows about it, I won't believe anything he says about what the extra signal's for. I have to find out if there's something sending that signal out and shut it off."
"Just you and me."
"Sure. We've climbed a few hills before. If I'm wrong, Dev, if there's nothing on top of that mountain, then at least we have a good vacation together like the ones we used to take in the old days."
"Oh, yes. Frostbite is something I have always wished to bring home as a souvenir," Dev deadpans.
John laughs. "You won't, I've got the best cold-weather gear you can find anywhere. I'll bring everything with me in your size. Be there in about three hours."
"You must have very fast transportation."
"I've got a Tracy jet," John grins.
"Of course you do. All right, fine, fine, I'll put in for a short leave, but if you get me thrown off this research team, your father's hiring me."
"Deal. See you later."
John hangs up, thinks about telling his father his true plans, and decides against it. He knows Jeff will try to stop him, will rely on whatever Hicks tells him. Will want to get Hicks to investigate John's claims, gather more data.
Waste more time, in John's not-so-humble opinion. If his calculations are correct, the fault line that created Mt. McKinley – Denali – to begin with, is going to become unstable real fast. And the erratic weather patterns forcing International Rescue out on more and more calls to the northern hemisphere are only going to increase.
More people are going to die needless deaths, and John's not about to let that happen. He's never been real good with red tape. So as he tends to do, he's just going to take a pair of scissors to it and do things his own way.
And hope he comes up with a good explanation for his dad when Jeff eventually figures out what the hell John's actually doing.
*Spur: A rock or snow rib on a mountain; a lateral ridge.
PART THREE: THE HEADWALL
"I spoke with Colonel Hicks, son."
"And?" John prompts, folding his arms over his chest and leaning casually against the side of his father's desk in the office.
"And he assures me that only the standard signals are pinging the ionosphere."
"Dad, there's evidence to suggest that's not all that's going on at HAARP. Even Brains has had a look and agrees with my theory."
"I trust Jonathan Hicks. He's a lifelong pigeon who came up a year after me. Nothing's more important to him than his God, his country and the Air Force. If there was something this big going on, Jon would know about it. Better yet, he wouldn't have let it happen to begin with."
"You seem pretty sure."
"I am. We got three months' worth of KP and latrine duty for the entire barracks for flathatting during maneuvers. You get to know a guy real well when you're forced to spend that much time with him."
"What's so funny?"
"The idea of you doing anything not by the book. Low-flying stunts, Dad?"
Jeff chuckles. "Your old man didn't always follow the rules, John."
Growing serious again, John scrubs at the one-day stubble on his chin. "Could there be something secret happening around Gakona that Colonel Hicks wouldn't know about? Any way to get things by him?"
"I doubt it. He's in charge, he's a man who's on top of things." Jeff considers his middle son for a moment. "You're really serious about this, aren't you?"
"Dad, when both Brains and Dev, who's been a research scientist with HAARP for four years now, agree with my findings, I don't see how I can be anything but serious. You can't tell me you haven't noticed the increase in seemingly 'natural' disasters. The intensity of earthquakes, of storms. International Rescue's going out a lot more often, and there's a pattern to the danger zones."
Jeff leans back in his chair and steeples his fingers. "Tell you what. I'll make a few discreet inquiries backchannel."
"And you won't tell Hicks."
"I won't tell Hicks. But John, keep quiet about this for now. You can't go making accusations against one of the military's pet projects, not to mention the University of Alaska and DARPA**, without something more than theories based on rescue locations—"
"For a secret organization, I know, I know," John interrupts, hands up in front of his chest to stop his dad from launching into a full-blown lecture. "Listen, that leave I requested? Talking with Dev, well, he's got some time coming, and we thought we might get together. I haven't seen him in person since he went to Alaska."
"How many days is a few?"
John keeps his voice nice and steady. "A week." He knows it could be more. That professionals usually take a week just to get up Denali, never mind down. But he thinks asking for two whole weeks might not sit well, so he's playing it by ear.
"A week, huh? Well, everyone gets a month each year, so why not? Just keep your ears open in case Scott needs to call you back."
"Will do, Dad."
"Take care, son. Say hi to Dev for me."
John nods and heads for his room to finish packing. He didn't lie to Jeff. He just didn't tell him the entire truth. Nothing wrong with that.
Nothing at all.
*Headwall: The upper section of a mountain where the terrain is set off from that below by being more steep.
**DARPA: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
PART FOUR: THE RUNOUT
John taxies Tracy Four, Tracy Corporation's answer to the latest Eclipse 1200 small jet, into the hangar he's reserved at Valdez Pioneer Field. A rented Hummer is waiting out on the tarmac, courtesy of a few extra twenties to the rental agency, and by the time John finishes running Tracy Four through its post-flight checks, unloads his gear from the jet and reloads it into the Hummer, and drops the driver back at the rental place, it's already nearing two in the afternoon, Alaska time.
He clicks the car's built-in vidphone on and dials through to Dev's private number.
"You actually came," Dev says with a shake of his head as his face solidifies on the screen. "I should never have doubted."
"Got that right, have you learned nothing about me in all these years?" John grins as he pulls onto Richardson Highway. "I've got a couple hours' driving ahead of me. Will you be able to meet me at your place by then?"
Dev looks at his watch, then nods. "I still cannot believe you actually want to climb McKinley."
John raises an eyebrow.
"All right, all right. Denali. You are a stubborn man."
"I am, at that. And yes, I do want to climb. Colonel Hicks told my father there's nothing going on other than your standard array."
"Well, there you have it, then."
"I don't believe him. And neither should you. You saw the same data I did."
Dev sighs and runs a hand through his jet-black wavy hair. "Yes, my friend. It's the only reason I told the Colonel I was taking a week off."
"That my sister is in town."
"You don't have a sister!"
"I do now."
"You know, I'm not sure I like being made out to be the girl."
Dev laughs out loud. "Not to mention, if you are my sister, then one of us is adopted. I'm the night to your day, John Tracy."
John winks at his friend. "No kidding. Got a place we can have dinner tonight? On me."
"You rich boys," Dev teases. "Carriage House is probably the best Gakona has to offer."
"Then be ready to hit it when I get there. See you in a few."
"If you insist," Dev says with an exaggerated eyeroll. John smiles as he shuts off the feed.
But his smile fades when his thoughts turn to the climb. He enjoys mountain-climbing, and had even tamed a few mountains here and there in his lifetime – mostly with Dev by his side – but nothing as potentially deadly as Denali. He's confident in his abilities, though, and in the state of the art gear he has with him. And he is a man on a mission.
If there's something anyone who's ever crossed paths with a Tracy knows, it's that once they've made up their minds about something, there really isn't any stopping them.
John is not going to let a mountain be the first thing that does.
The area surrounding HAARP is pretty remote, and John's glad when he finally reaches the little horseshoe road called – as they can only get away with in the wilderness of Alaska – Post Office Driveway. A few decent satellite radio stations have kept him company on the two-hour journey, but he was never one for sitting still for too long if he could keep from it, so stretching his legs sounds like a plan.
He makes his way along a dirt road off the Driveway, goes about a mile and then turns right onto a single-lane dirt road that's tunneled by an overabundance of trees. Gordon would love this, he thinks, the mostly untouched forest surrounding him left as intact as possible by the hunters, fishers, trappers and mushmen – and now the Navy and Air Force contingent – who call Gakona home.
It's a fantastic throwback to decades ago when more of the U.S. was like this. The tiny little log cabin on his left, not more than ten-by-ten in size, passes for the Gakona post office. Parcels of land are measured in multiple acres, not postage-stamp-sized feet. And things are built simply here. Even if they can afford it, the residents see no need for extravagance.
Most of the locals, he remembered Dev telling him soon after moving here, prefer to use local wood and materials to build their homes and outbuildings. Even the transplants who work for HAARP have adjusted to the local ways. It gives the two hundred and seventy-four residents pleasure to welcome someone as long as that someone enjoys fresh animal meat, fresh fish and cuts down only the trees they'll personally use for their homes and fireplaces.
It all looks good, but John is more focused on why he's there, than he is on taking in the natural Alaskan beauty surrounding him. He can't see Denali from here – it's more than five hours away by car – but it's all that's on his mind when he pulls into the driveway of a clapboard bungalow painted brown, with a stone chimney and a new Chevy four-by-four pickup parked out front.
John turns off the Hummer and gets out, groaning as his long legs protest being cooped up for so long. He leans down to touch his toes and stretch his back and hamstrings, then grins as the sound of slow clapping reaches his ears.
"Nice moves," Dev says, letting his screen door slam behind him and coming down the three steps that pretend to be part of a miniature front porch.
"Dev," John greets, wrapping his arms around his friend and slapping him on the back heartily as Dev does the same to him. "Good to see you, man."
"Though perhaps the circumstances are not ideal, I'm happy to see you again as well, John Tracy. Come, meet my girl."
"Girl? Since when did you get a girl?"
"Oh," Dev says nonchalantly with a wave of his hand as he leads the way back to the house, "you know how it is. One look from those pitiful eyes and you cannot say no."
John gives his friend a really weird look, wondering what the hell, as Dev ushers him inside. Where John is immediately attacked by—
"A cat?" he squeaks as a far-too-affectionate animal decides it needs to mark John's shin with its claws, stretching up to greet him.
"Indeed." Dev nods at the long-haired orange tiger-striped feline while John attempts to gently but firmly show the cat its claws are not welcome to perforate the pant leg of his jeans. "Meet Nisha."
"You named her 'night'?"
"She came to my door in the night, woke me from a sound sleep and promptly laid claim to my bed. I thought the name appropriate." Dev smiles as Nisha walks back and forth in a figure eight in and out of the space between John's ankles, curling around the side of his leg and weaving back through again. "She likes you."
John snorts and shakes his head. "Figures. So. Where's this Carriage House place? I'm starving."
"I will only let you take me out to dinner if you promise we spend it catching up with each other and not speaking of HAARP and strange signals."
Dev holds up a finger to silence him. "No 'buts,' John. In Gakona, the walls have ears. You never know who is part of the project and who isn't, so nothing at all but two old friends catching up. Understood?"
John nods. "Understood."
"All right. Let me give Nisha her evening meal of fresh tuna, and then we can go."
"Her evening…fresh tuna? That cat eats better than I do!"
"Proof that one does not need to be made of money to live like a queen."
"I will have you know," John protests as he follows Dev and Nisha into the home's small kitchen, "that I have never wanted to live like a queen in any way, shape or form."
Dev laughs so hard he startles Nisha. And John finds out just how fast an Alaskan kitty can climb a six-foot-two man.
He doesn't think it's nearly as funny as Dev seems to.
*Runout: The distance between two points of protection; the distance between a lead climber and the last piece of protection; the fall distance allowed by the distance from the last piece of protection.
PART FIVE: THE APPROACH
"Hi, I'm Mike Talbot." A man slightly shorter than John, but taller than Dev, reaches out and shakes John's hand.
"John Tracy, and this is Dev Verma."
"So you're the crazy ones who want to scale McKinley in minus thirty degree temps, huh?"
"And you're the crazy mountaineer who agreed to take us," John replies.
"That I am, Mr. Tracy. I've been up and down that big old girl eighty-four times, and in way worse weather than we're going to have this week."
John sizes up the six-foot man with crew-cut brown hair. He'd checked into Talbot thoroughly the night before, after he and Dev had finished dinner and gone back to crash at Dev's place. (Where John found himself 'snuggled into' while he slept on the couch by one Nisha, who was determined to leave fur over every inch of his clothing.)
Mike Talbot is a legend with RMI Expeditions. He's led some of the toughest, most dangerous climbs Denali has seen in the last decade. Honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, the forty-four-year old man is the best bet John and Dev have of making it to the top of Denali on what John can almost hear his grandmother call 'this fool's errand.'
He won't be telling Mike anything about their real reason for wanting to scale the twenty thousand plus feet of mountain, unless it becomes absolutely necessary.
"I see you've got some of the best gear they make," Mike comments, inspecting the clothing both John and Dev are wearing, and all the gear spread around them. Mike kneels next to John's backpack. "Christ, is this the Trion One-Twenty backpack? I didn't even know it was on the market yet!"
"I have connections," John replies blithely.
Mike whistles long and low in appreciation as he continues to look through all the equipment. "I've never seen sleeping bags like this. What's this material? And your tent, too?"
"New, from Tracy Aerospace," John explains. "Invented to protect against regulated temperature control breakdowns in space."
"Much lower temps than McKinley," Mike says with a nod.
"All right, well, it looks like you've got everything you need. I've got the food and water for me in my pack." Mike reaches out and grabs two bags off a nearby bench. "Here's one set of staples for each of you. Get yourselves packed up, and you get one last shot at real plumbing before we go. We leave in thirty minutes."
John mock-salutes Mike as he heads back into RMI's main building. Then he turns to look at Dev. "You haven't said much."
"I have not said anything," Dev counters as he goes about repacking his backpack.
"Not really. It's not the cold I am worried about. It's more what we may find at the summit of that mountain."
"So you do think there might be something up there."
"I could think of nothing else after reviewing the readings you sent me," Dev replies, zipping up one of his backpack's outer pockets. He stops, remaining in his crouched position, and looks up at his friend. "But what worries me more, is what you will do if we find that something."
"What do you mean? I'll have it shut down."
"How? If this is something being run in secret by the Navy and the Air Force, and if Colonel Hicks already has denied knowledge of such a thing, do you really think you or your father will have enough clout to make a difference?"
"We have our ways," John tells him, prompting a raised eyebrow from Dev. "What?"
"I once saw a television program," Dev says him as he rises to all of his five-foot-ten height, "in which a man said something similar to a woman. 'I thought only spies and Nazis said that,' is precisely what she said. To which he replied, 'Well, I'm not a Nazi.'"
"What, you think I'm a spy?" John asks, then laughs heartily. "Far from it," he says, clapping Dev on the shoulder. "Now come on, let's hit the head and then get a hot sandwich to tide us over. It'll be a while before we get lunch."
The men walk toward the building that houses both bathroom/shower combinations and a cafeteria. John smiles to himself. No, he definitely isn't a spy…
"All right, gentlemen, we'll be heading up the West Buttress. It's by far the easiest of all the ways to ascend McKinley." If Mike notices John grimace every time he doesn't use the Athabascan name for the mountain, he gives no sign. "I know you both were experienced as of a few years ago, according to what you said on the phone," he continues, with a nod to John, "but it's been a while and you've never climbed in minus thirty-two before."
"How long to make it to the summit?" John asks.
"I usually take larger groups, so crevasse rescue training takes an entire day. We'll chopper in to our West Buttress base camp, go through the training and probably make it to the 7,800-foot camp before sundown if you're as good as you say you are."
It takes everything in John not to tell Mike he doesn't need crevasse rescue training. Hell, John is trained in rescuing people from every conceivable situation, but that fact would be awfully hard to explain to Mike or Dev and besides, Dev probably needs the refresher. So John grabs his gear and follows the two men to the waiting helicopter.
He can't wait to get started. He can't wait to find out if what he thinks is sitting on top of Denali is really there. Because there's no better way to save peoples' lives than preventing disasters from happening in the first place. And if that signal is doing to the ionosphere what he and Brains are convinced it is, putting it out of commission is much better than International Rescue fighting to save lives after deadly storms and earthquakes have already happened.
*Approach: The section of the climb leading up to the technical section of the climb.
PART SIX: THE FREE CLIMB
They've been climbing for three days. So far, it's been nothing worse than John's done before, although he will admit he doesn't think he'll ever feel his cheeks again. But he's certain of one thing: he's going to tell Brains his new modified thermoplastic material truly is a genius invention, because he's felt like he's had a space heater blasting him neck to toes the entire time.
The bad news is, the temperature's dropped from minus thirty-two Celsius to minus thirty-eight, but in spite of Mike asking repeatedly, both Dev and John refuse to stop. As Dev says two hours into their third day, "Now that we're here, there's no way I'm bailing."
John contemplates his friend as he clips his carabiner to an anchor Mike's left for him in the rock and checks the rope connecting Mike to him, and him to Dev, to ensure it's clear. He and Dev had been lab partners in their Physics 15a course at Harvard. As freshmen, both had been wide-eyed and ready to kick some ass. Unlike many of their classmates, they actually had.
Both had majored in Astronomy with a concentration in Astrophysics. Both had excelled and graduated summa cum laude, sharing top position in their class at the end of their senior year. Every project, every paper, every experiment had been performed together. The two were inseparable for those four years. And while they could party with the best of them, India-born Dev had chosen to return to his home country upon graduation, while John went on to attend his father's astronaut training school in Florida.
They'd never lost touch. They'd shared their findings and research with each other over the ensuing sixteen years. And they'd gotten together whenever they could, made a little more difficult after International Rescue became John's life.
Six years after returning to India, Dev had accepted a research position at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which led to the HAARP appointment four years earlier. While it wasn't specifically Dev's forte in terms of what he'd built of his career to date, his hope was that he'd help take HAARP to the next level.
The other thing Dev and John had always had in common was their interest in communications…initially satellite linkages and then later on space-to-space transmissions. It had been their joint work on an experiment way back in their Harvard days, on the effects of gamma rays on radio waves as they travel through space and how spatial bodies affect radio versus gamma wavelengths, that had led to all involved space agencies to be able to communicate long-range with the Zero-X when she finally made it to Mars.
John had never been more proud than the moment he'd heard the Zero X's Captain Travers say that he and his crew made it to the surface of the red planet. Monitoring from Thunderbird Five, with Dev on a voice-only speaker live, the two had enjoyed their little triumph together, as they had always enjoyed their successes together.
"Yaham? eka lakha khojo?, mere dosta," they had said in tandem. Which translated from Hindi to English as, "Here's to another million discoveries, my friend."
John is looking forward to saying that again once they reach the peak of the mountain, which Mike says at the clip they're moving, should be the next day. Good. Four days in, see what's on that mountaintop, and put a call into his father, either to tell him, "Hey, guess what, we decided to climb Denali, I'll be another week," or, "Dad, Colonel Hicks lied to you."
He much prefers the first.
But fears he's going to be facing the second.
Day Four dawns clear and cold as hell. By the time there's even a hint of light in the sky, the three men have been up, eaten their breakfasts, and have half their gear repacked already. John's taking a moment to stare up at what's left of the night sky. He's so used to viewing things from the top of Tracy Island's dormant volcano or, better yet, through Thunderbird Five's powerful multiple telescopes and deep-space cameras, that he's forgotten what a northern hemisphere sky looks like.
It's different, to be sure.
First is the Aurora borealis, which he's been enjoying each night until he forces himself into his one-man tent to sleep.
Then there is the meteor shower he caught a glimpse of just as he was preparing to fold up his tent.
The clarity of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Lacerta. The beauty of Ursa Minor and Draco battling it out to the north, while Pisces, Aries and Pegasus float and fly through the skies to the south is breathtaking when viewed from a place where not only are both your feet firmly planted on the ground, but where there's absolutely no atmospheric interference.
Well, at least, none that can be seen with the naked eye.
John looks down at his EM hand-held radar. Both he and Dev have been keeping an eye on the readings so far, and neither like what they say. John likes it even less now, as he sees the EM reading spike. He frowns, finishes packing his gear, and is ready to go when Mike tells them to move out.
Dev front points over a patch of overhanging ice. John watches carefully to make sure Dev's placing his crampons right to keep his grip. Satisfied when Dev makes it to the rock above the ice, John continues his ascent, and lets his thoughts wander.
What will they do if they discover a device transmitting a higher frequency, stronger signal into the ionosphere, or possibly beyond? If it's cloaked, they'll be able to feel it, and John just happens to have a device with him that'll render most known cloaking technology useless. It's something he and Brains invented together after learning that the Hood had managed to develop some cloaking capabilities of his own.
John watches the placement of Mike's hands. This part of the mountain's a bit tricky with a twelve-foot nearly-sheer face to climb. They're dependent on Mike placing the anchors just right to catch them if they fall. The trouble is, there's about six inches of solid ice between them and the rock face. The titanium of the anchors and carabiners will withstand the cold, especially since the light breeze isn't really bringing too much of a windchill factor into the equation.
The concern is the rock beneath the rime, the thin ice covering it. While the twelve-inch anchors should be plenty in the event someone loses their footing, the rock they're anchored into is brittle at best, which is one reason many mountaineers won't climb this time of year. John's the largest and probably heaviest of the three men, so while the anchors might hold if Mike or Dev fall, John doing so could be disastrous.
Last thing he wants to do is become someone his own family needs to rescue.
But they're still making good time, and so far Mike's guidance and hardware placement has been impeccable, which is why John chose him to begin with. It's as John is hauling back to jam his right-hand ice axe into the mountainside that he senses something's not quite right.
The tip of the axe goes in clean and John pulls out his left-hand one, swings back and hits the ice with it. He adjusts his grip, and that's when he knows exactly what he's feeling.
It's a tremor. Just a minor earthquake that does little more than vibrate through the ice axes and the sabretooth crampons clipped to the bottoms of his double boots. He stops all movement and looks up to find Mike looking around in surprise. He looks down to find Dev looking up at him.
"You get tremors like that here often?" John calls up.
"I've never been on the mountain when there's been a quake!" Mike yells back at him. "We need to get to the brink of this cliff, just to be on the safe side!"
John resists the urge to answer with "F.A.B.," giving Mike the thumbs-up instead. He looks down at Dev. "Double-time!" he calls down. Dev nods his understanding, and John turns his attention back up to see that Mike is only a couple feet from the brink.
Denali begins to vibrate beneath him again. Only this time, it's stronger. Strong enough that the exhilaration of the climb disappears. Strong enough that it gets replaced by fear.
Then it stops, and all is quiet. John can hear the thwack of Dev's ice axes wedging into place beneath him. He hears the high-pitched sound of Mike pulling an axe out, and can almost hear it slicing through the air as Mike prepares to place it higher up.
There's a tingling at the base of his neck. It's the same feeling he gets out on rescues when something's about to go wrong. Gordon jokingly calls it his Spidey-sense. Right now, though, it's no joke. Dread fills John, and he opens his mouth to yell out a warning.
*Free Climb: To climb using only one's hands and feet without artificial aids.
PART SEVEN: THE FALL (REDUX)
John feels the tremor beneath his gloved hands half a second before the big one hits.
"Dev!" he cries at the top of his lungs, breath hanging in the frozen air surrounding them as the mountain shifts and moves like a live being. "Mike!"
He hangs on to the two axes stuck into the frozen mass before him even as his double boots slip and slide, metal teeth unable to find purchase as the mountain itself begins to shake.
Looking down to his left, he sees Dev hanging on for dear life to his own two axes, the boots with spikes built into the soles, which he insisted on using, keeping his feet a lot more steady than what John's wearing – boots with detachable spikes. Then he looks down to his right as a yelp of surprise and something solid and heavy sails past him, even as Denali tries to throw him from her rugged sides.
All he can do is watch Mike fall to his death, and brace himself against the pull he knows is going to come when the slack in the rope's all used up. John squeezes his eyes shut and clings to what little he's got to keep him from following the experienced climb guide.
Pieces of ice crack and break away.
Several boulders roll down, one glancing off his right shoulder blade. That's when he realizes there was never any tug at the rope. Either Mike knew the anchors might not hold when he hit the end of the slack and cut himself free just before he fell, or he didn't have his tether through a carabiner to begin with.
But there's no time for John to question or mourn Mike's actions. Because it's not the shaking that throws Dev off his perch below. It's the sudden wind that blasts into them like a brick wall just as the earthquake fades away, shoving John's cheek into a jut of rock even as Dev yells his name.
John yelps, breathless and in pain as he tries to crane his neck down and around to find his friend.
But he sees nothing. Visibility has dropped to zero in a heartbeat, and John's hanging on the side of a mountain called Denali in the state of Alaska, five thousand meters above sea level, in a raging snowstorm. Alone, for all he knows, with blood freezing almost as fast as it seeps out of the gash on his cheek.
The wind is really whipping, tossing John against the mountain like a ragdoll. Spots of bright red blood join the larger gash on his cheek as the rock and breaking ice cuts his face and forehead, the only parts of him that are exposed to the bitter Arctic air.
Snow has begun pummeling him as well, covering his thermal hat so quickly it dumps off in a huge clump when he bends sideways to try and get eyes on Dev. He can hear his friend's cries for help, but he can't fucking see him.
And his training kicks in.
He's not going to be able to keep his grip on the two ice axes the way the wind's hitting him. And he's pretty sure with all the strain they're taking, he can't trust the anchors through which his rope is laced, to hold. First order of business: securing himself. Second: finding and securing Dev.
John stabs the metal spikes attached to the soles of his shoes as far into the ice as he can, adjusts the grip of his left hand on its axe, and steels himself to hang on. After a deep breath, he releases the axe on his right, twists his arm back and grabs for the ice screw up, a rolled pack about ten inches top to bottom, that's lashed to the bottom corner of his backpack.
The Velcro easily tears away, and he struggles to hang on with his left hand, digging his feet into the ice face harder. One-handed he opens the screw up, takes the end of it between his teeth, and grabs a twenty millimeter ice screw. He flicks the yellow plastic protector off the end of it with his thumb. He's not sure if it's his own strength or the sudden gust of wind that slams into him like a freight train that jams the screw into the ice, but he doesn't care. Quickly he screws it in, gloved hand slipping a few times as his nose and cheeks numb completely under the onslaught.
He knows the weather can turn nasty here. It's another of the reasons people don't usually climb this time of year. But to have a series of earthquakes and then a sudden raging storm that wasn't on any radar when Mike checked the weather satellite feed this morning? HAARP, is all John can think as he grabs another screw from the pack and jams it in around twelve inches above the first.
That done, he grabs a third one out and positions it a foot to the left and up from the second, at a forty-five degree angle to form the tip of what will wind up looking like the outline of a house with a triangular top and square bottom. Now he's got to change hands, and here's the fun part, because he can't even see his damn ice axe through the swirling mess surrounding him.
Dev's frantic voice carries to him on an updraft, and he yells as loudly as he can for him to hang on, that he's coming. But he doubts Dev hears him. The wind is trying to push John up the side of the mountain as much as it is into the side of the mountain, and it's all he can do to feel around until the handle of the axe bangs painfully into his wrist bone where his glove has separated from the sleeve of his coat.
The litany of curses that flow through his mind don't escape his lips. He's keeping his mouth closed to preserve as much body heat as possible. It's a small thing, but it can mean the difference between hypothermic and just goddamn cold.
He gives himself less than a handful of seconds to rest his left shoulder after bearing all his weight before he firms his grip on the right ice axe and lets go of the left one, pulling out an ice screw and jamming it in as evenly as he can with the one directly opposite it to his right.
John's about to reach for another screw, the final one to be placed, when he feels the trembling of the mountain begin. He quickly grabs his safety rope and loops it through the biner* attached to the top-right screw, then shoves it into the top screw and just about manages to get it through the top left screw he just placed when the entire mountain seems to lurch. He gasps, dropping the screw pack from his teeth, and grabs for the left axe handle.
It falls away as the ice his spiked boots are dug into breaks apart.
His cry is carried away on the air as he swings out and the entirety of his weight is caught by his right arm and shoulder. But his glove can't keep his grip with the sudden pressure and his hand slides right off the handle. John compacts his body as much as he can, drawing his knees up, holding them to his chest, tucking his head down so he's in the fetal position when his safety rope catches him and he slams into the side of the mountain. Into hard, cold rock, just beneath the sheet of ice.
He loses consciousness when the back of his head connects with two-foot bulge of rock. Body going limp, he's helpless to resist the wind buffeting his body wherever it wants.
*biner: short for 'carabiner,'
PART EIGHT: THE PLAN B
John wakes with a start. It takes him a moment to remember where he is. All he knows right off the bat is that he's cold and stiff, that everything hurts, that he's busted something somewhere if the stab of pain that shoots through his right arm as he tries to upend himself is any indication.
He manages to get hold of the safety line with his left hand and get himself mostly upright, biting back a cry when he realizes his right shoulder's dislocated. The arm hangs down, useless, the wind tossing it around until John's seeing stars and knows he's about to black out again.
"John, answer me!"
Dev. Dev needs him. He bites his lip, trying to keep himself conscious, but the bitch of it is he can't feel a thing. Could've bitten clean through it, for all he knows. He pulls his body so that he can see his watch peeking out from between the glove and coat sleeve on his left wrist.
"Dad," he grinds out through clenched teeth. "John calling…ahhhh, fuck…Jeff Tracy…come in…Father!"
He doesn't hear his dad's worried baritone respond. He doesn't see the watch flip from looking like a normal Rolex to the digital feed of his father's face.
"Jesus…" John squints through his cracked goggles and feels his heart sink to his toes. The watch face is smashed to the point where the innards that make the communicator work are soaked from snow hitting them and then melting with the warmth of his body.
That's when it really hits him. He's on his own here. It's just him and Dev, and the storm from hell and continuing earthquakes and a thoroughly unforgiving mountain.
He lets his head fall forward, forehead resting against his useless watch. He's got a cell phone stashed in an inside pocket of his coat, but with only one arm there's no way he can grab it without falling to the end of his safety line again.
"Here," he whispers, trying to steady his breathing and keep from moving around too much. "I'm here."
"John! Help me! My line's not going to hold!"
John's head snaps up, the rescuer in him suddenly taking hold. "Dev!" he calls out. "Location!"
His throat is scratchy, and he coughs from the effort of yelling.
"Above you, I saw you fall!"
John looks up, but the weather's no better now than it was when he passed out. But, he reasons, Dev must be nearly a straight shot up from him if he's still secured to the safety line. Somehow John's got to climb up the line to his friend and see if he can't either get them back down to the narrow ledge he remembers them passing earlier, or up above the ice sheet to the chimney they were headed for to begin with.
If they can get inside that rock route, it'll offer them a lot more protection than they have out here, where they're completely exposed to Mother Nature. From there, they can ride out the storm and then see about getting themselves some help. That's it, then. The chimney it is.
"Shoulder's disclocated!" John yells up. "Gotta set it!"
He's not sure if Dev's heard him, but now that he's got a plan of action, he's determined to see it through to the end. He manages to wrap the safety line around his left arm three times, and grunts out the pain as he hikes his right side up and presses the area just behind his right shoulder against the craggy rock.
John hates having to do this. Because he knows, as he grabs hold of his own bicep, that he's going to be in a whole world of hurt in 3…2…1…
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa, FUCK!" he spits as he shoves the humerus back into the glenoid where it belongs and oh, holy shit, his vision whites out for a second and he's so light-headed he just knows he's going to pass out again and fuck, fuck, fuck does it hurt!
"John! Talk to me!"
He tries to force his eyes open, feels the clothing under his coat and thermal pants and his socks getting damp, his hair under the hat soaked with sweat from the trauma of the shoulder. It makes him shiver and he knows that it's definitely not good that he's gotten wet in minus whatever-the-hell Celsius it is with a windchill adding insult to injury.
"Yeah!" he manages to yell up as he gets his breathing back under control and goes from shaking like a leaf to minor trembling. Get hold of yourself, he coaches mentally. You've done way worse than this, and with no oxygen.
Well, space is cold as hell anyway, for those without the proper suiting, and when your O2 tank decides to stop working during a rescue, things can get a bit dicey. At least you can't get – shit! – slammed into mountainsides in space, though...as he's just been again.
He goes to move his right arm and oh, yeah, that hurts, oh, man, but he's John, he can do this, right? Right.
"Coming up!" he hollers.
John steels himself, tosses his right arm up, swallows the unacceptably unmanly whimper that tries to escape and grabs hold of the rope with his right hand. There. Hard part's over.
Ha, he thinks as he starts pulling himself up the rope hand over hand, famous last words.
*Plan B: The consequences of a fall. A good Plan B generally involves being caught by a protected rope. A bad Plan B involves probable injury.
PART NINE: THE PITCH
It seems like it takes an eternity. Every time he pulls himself an arm-length up, the wind tosses him around like he's feather-light. He slides a little. He loses his footing. He grits his teeth against the aches and forces himself to compartmentalize discomfort, to be dealt with later.
He's had to do it before. Rescues aren't always so easy, so cut and dry that every Tracy comes out unscathed. No, he doesn't go out on as many as Virgil, Scott or Gordon. He and Alan alternating on Five means the other three always get more field time.
But if anyone thinks it's easy to be thousands of klicks above the Earth listening as walls fall on your brothers, as fire engulfs their equipment, as they don't quite get out of a danger zone unharmed, well, they've got another think coming.
Al deals with it pretty well, John thinks. Sometimes he gets late-night calls from Thunderbird Five in the aftermath of a rescue that doesn't quite go as anyone plans. Al won't say much on some of those calls, but on others he talks a mile a minute like he's going to explode if he doesn't release the tension.
John gets it. He does. He just deals with it differently. He's not the heart-on-his-sleeve type of personality that Al is. He's more the type to deal with things himself, work through issues and problems and emotions where it's all hidden from view of the outside world. And that includes his family members.
He doesn't ever mind listening to or talking with Alan. Of all the Tracy sons, he knows he's really the only one who can identify with what's going on in Alan's head when he's up there. Al's much more a people-person than John, anyway. Though John's not a loner by any stretch of the imagination, and often seeks out the company of others just to pass the time, he's equally happy to be on his own.
There's all the research he does, all the searching through the depths of space to prove theories or make new discoveries. Writing his astronomy books, essays, papers and articles on his latest trains of thought where the pulsars, quasars, black holes, dark matter and magnatars are concerned. Just last week he thinks he discovered a brand-new galaxy roughly eighty-three million light-years from Earth with a black hole dead center of it.
The excitement of the moment he confirmed his readings seems so far away now.
The voice is much closer, and John looks up. At first he sees nothing but swirling snow, but then something dark. "Dev?" he hollers.
"Yes! John, I see you! Are you okay?"
"Yeah!" John yells back. He pulls himself up once more…twice…three times, and he's roughly even with Dev. He can barely tell that the man's got himself upright, but Dev's hand reaches out and grabs his arm to confirm his orientation. "We have to get to the chimney!" John tells him, wondering if his words are actually making more sense than they sound like they are.
Numb lips tend to make vowel and consonant formation difficult.
"You hurt?" he asks Dev, who's mostly sideways to face him.
Shit. That means he's going to have to do half the work of getting Dev up to that chimney. Trouble is, he's not entirely certain how far they are from it now. They're below the ice sheet still, which means they'll have to try and traverse it with this hurricane-force storm throwing them every which way.
"We need another route up!" John yells.
"Ice is thinner back there!" Dev hollers back, indicating the area of the mountain currently at his back.
Okay, thinner ice means John can either break it away so they're against solid rock, or if he places screws and anchors, they're likely to be more stable than the ones that are embedded in ice only.
"Oh, shit," he hears Dev say, and a half-second later, knows why. The mountain is moving again.
"Jesus…hold on!" he says, lunging forward and grabbing Dev in a one-armed bear hug. Dev cries out, probably because of his broken fingers on the hand furthest from John, but wraps his good arm and hand around John and holds on tight.
By the time this earthquake stops, John and Dev are swinging to and fro like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. John reaches out with his left hand and manages to catch the rope above them, which brings them to a crashing halt.
Dev screams as his right hand hits the mountain, and goes limp in John's arms.
Great, he thinks. Now I need a Plan B for my Plan B.
Oh, to have International Rescue's equipment at-hand. And oh, that he'd told his father where he was going.
Hindsight being twenty-twenty and all.
Though it's tricky, John manages to slide his right arm out of his backpack strap, letting the pack fall to the crook of his left arm, all without letting go of Dev. "Come on, man, wake up!" he yells into Dev's ear, but doubts even that gets through. Because if he's not mistaken, the wind has increased.
This is so not good.
He estimates the chimney to be about twelve feet up and two feet to the left of where Dev had indicated there was less ice. That's probably a good two feet over in and of itself, which means twelve feet up and four left before he makes it to what he hopes is enough protection to ride this storm out.
Wedging the backpack in between his pelvis and the mountain, John slides his left arm out of the strap and unzips the main compartment. There's a brand-new twenty-foot coil of rope, a backup safety line. It's all he's got, so it's what he's going to use. He's also got a balaclava, but right now Dev needs it more than he does, so he goes about the business of getting it over Dev's head, then pulling the toque he was already wearing down over top of it. It's about all he can do to keep him warm right now. He gets his helmet back on over top of that, almost giving up on trying to refasten the chin strap. He manages, though.
Next comes the job of lashing Dev's body to his, while still leaving himself able to maneuver to make the climb with the added weight of a life-sized ragdoll. John snorts at what he imagines Dev would say if he heard that particular thought.
He slings the backpack over his left shoulder and uses his right side to pin Dev to the side of the mountain, then works as quick as he can to fashion a makeshift rope harness. He gets the contraption up between Dev's legs and tied around both of their waists, his left loose enough to shift Dev to his back.
There's a loud crack nearby and John thinks, Thundersnow, as he takes a deep breath, then flips his body quickly so Dev's front is up against his back. He yanks the end of the rope to tighten it around both his and Dev's waists, then wrenches both his arms back to bring the two loose ends of the rope up Dev's back, over his shoulders, and then over his own shoulders. He finishes by tying those ends together in the area of his breastbone, and then securing the remaining double-tail to the rope already tight around his abdomen.
He turns sideways, letting Dev go slack to test out whether the jerry-rigged sling will hold. It seems secure, as Dev only settles a few inches. There. Now he's got to go right, up, and left.
And the storm's not letting up.
He's lost his screw pack, so he's…he laughs to himself…slightly screwed. Reaching into a side pocket of the backpack, he pulls out his cell phone. He has to take a glove off to work the touch-screen, and holy shit, it's cold!
Doesn't matter anyway. He was afraid there'd be no signal, and he's right. What's worse is the tether their phones usually have to Thunderbird Five seems to be blocked as well. He stuffs the phone into an inside coat pocket, half his brain working at the question of why Five's powerful satellite feed wouldn't be able to reach them.
There's only one time he's encountered any sort of atmospheric condition that rendered Five's signal useless, and that was due to an overabundance of gamma rays thanks to a heavy solar flare.
Damn. If a solar flare occurred two days ago, the clouds of electrons, ions and atoms could very well be hitting Earth right now. And if there's an overabundance of gamma rays produced as a result, that would explain Five being unreachable.
Great, let's just add insult to injury and show John what a monumentally bad idea this was.
*Pitch: A section of climbing between two belay points, no longer than the length of a climbing rope.
PART TEN: THE CHIMNEY
He can barely move.
John's managed to get himself and Dev, minus the last few anchors he had thanks to a nasty gust of wind that took his breath…and the anchors…away, into the relative protection of the V-shaped chimney. He's unstrapped Dev and shoved him back into the deepest hollow, having just dug out as much snow from it as he could manage.
Now he knows he's got to try to secure Dev's broken fingers. Better to do it while he's already unconscious than to wait for him to wake up and have him pass out again when John splints it. By now, every inch of John is hurting, but he fishes Dev's balaclava from his backpack and gets it on, and that starts helping warm his face up, at least.
It also brings to life the nerve endings that tell him his right cheek is a lot more gouged from that first wind blasting him into the rock than he'd thought.
The emergency kit he's carrying has just enough in it for him to splint each of Dev's four fingers, and his thumb, then wrap them all in a small thermal protective bag, securing it with medical tape wound around so many times he's used half the roll to do it.
The shape of the chimney makes the wind howl eerily around them. John pulls out Dev's cell phone and his own. He finds no signal from regular cell towers, as expected, and still nothing from Thunderbird Five. He checks his watch again, now that he can actually see it in front of his face, and confirms that it is well and truly smashed all to hell.
They've got emergency flares, but in this weather, there's no one to see them.
Now that he's able to stop and take stock of the situation, he realizes that at this point, going down is not an option. The pitches are too steep to try to descend without the gear Mike had attached to his backpack.
As far as he can remember from the last look at Mike's West Buttress map, there are a couple of awkward chimneys standing between him and the upper Cassin Ridge, where they'll be at around sixteen thousand feet. They'll be able to find a tent ledge there, giving John some much needed rest – assuming their tents can withstand wind gusts he estimates at around eighty miles per hour – and giving Dev an opportunity to wake up and get enough painkillers in him to keep him mobile.
The trouble now is actually getting to the Cassin Ridge. John is using his body to shield Dev from the part of the chimney that's exposed, but he won't be able to hold position indefinitely. You know, there are some things you just can't train for.
Well, if he and Dev make it out of this alive, he'll suddenly have the title of Expert Mountain Rescuer to use whenever a mountainous danger zone calls. Assuming, of course, that his dad doesn't actually kill him as soon as he sees him.
Oh, to be back down on the Kahiltna Glacier with Mike still alive and no hare-brained scheme to climb Denali in the middle of January.
But John's suspicions…and conviction to see this through…still stand.
He knows that on this mountain temperatures can routinely drop below minus forty. He also knows that oftentimes even without severe weather, the winds can get themselves up to a hundred miles per hour. But…
He is John Tracy. He is International Rescue. And if there's something atop that mountain causing damage to the planet, causing people to lose their lives, then he knows of nothing else to do than try to put an end to it.
His two regrets, as he looks down at Dev's unconscious form, are dragging his friend along with him, and Mike, who's lost his life in John's pursuit of the truth.
Maybe this hasn't been the brightest move John's ever made, but he and Dev are still alive, and there's still possibly something sitting atop Denali causing earthquakes and storms like the one roiling around the mountain now. There are an awful lot of lives at stake if this doesn't stop.
So John's got to keep going. He's going to save Dev, he's going to find out what's at the summit, and if there is something there, he's going to figure out how to make it go away.
Eventually, he figures, his dad will somehow find out what's happening, and that John's there in the middle of it.
When Dev wakes, it's not pretty. He's in so much pain all he can do is moan in agony as John makes it past the second chimney to a long ridge where all he's got to do is find somewhere to pitch a tent for them. It's the Cassin Ridge. They made it.
He gets Dev unlashed from his back, digs him a bed in the snow, and manages to get three D-level ibuprofens down his throat before Dev just passes out again. John can only pray his friend doesn't have internal injuries much worse than his busted fingers. His vital signs are decent enough, as rudimentary as John's techniques for gathering them have to be up here, and his pupils aren't either fixed or dilated, so at least there's no concussion.
But beyond that, he just doesn't know.
The winds have died down to only about sixty mph now. Only, John thinks, wishing he could do a good eyeroll without worrying about his eyeballs freezing. Because while the wind's not as strong, the temperature has most definitely dropped.
He manages to dig a good three-foot deep trench in the snow, and get one tent nestled securely into it. Its Teflon coating will keep the wind off them, at least, and the snow banking around them should actually keep it fairly warm, all things considered.
Then it's a matter of getting Dev into the tent and into a thermal sleeping bag. Lightweight and thin, the material developed by Brains for use in both space and Earth-bound cold rescue situations make it easy to carry these things on a climb or as rescue gear without taking up a lot of room.
John has never found himself so grateful for the inventor as he is right at this moment when he settles into the other bag himself, then gathers Dev into his arms and holds on tight. When he falls asleep, it's with Dev softly snoring and the sounds of the wind whipping around them filling his ears.
*Chimney: A rock route large enough for a climber to fit inside.
Chapter 12: Interlude: The Dyno
INTERLUDE: THE DYNO*
"Jeff? What's the matter?"
"Hm?" Jeff Tracy looks up from the laptop screen he's been staring at for the past…a glance at the time in the lower right-hand corner of the screen…two hours?
He sighs, runs a hand through his hair. "I suppose I am. It's everything John and Brains talked to me about," he confesses, leaning back in his chair and sighing again.
"You mean about Mt. McKinley, and that project where they shoot signals into the air?"
Jeff smiles at her recap of the portion of his conversation with John she'd overheard. "Yes, that's the thing."
Ruth Tracy perches on the settee in front of his desk. "What's troubling you about it?"
"Well, no sooner are those boys after me about this theory they have, than International Rescue gets called out to Alaska for the mother of all earthquakes. And now Scott's telling me Mount Foraker's showing signs of erupting. It's never erupted before in recorded history!"
She leans back, folding her arms across her chest. "So you think there's some truth to John's theory about another signal causing all these disasters."
"I don't know what to think. Colonel Hicks swears there's nothing up there other than HAARP, but…" Jeff's voice trails off, he runs a hand through his hair again and a worry line appears between his eyebrows.
Ruth leans forward. "What do you want to do, Jeff?"
He sighs yet again. "I may have to recall John from his leave, get him back here and see what we can do about ferreting out whether he and Brains are right. And if they are, what we can do about it."
Opening her mouth to speak, Ruth is cut off by the sound of Scott hailing them from his portrait on the wall. "Go ahead, Scott," Jeff says, opening the secure channel.
"Father, all the mountain climbers have been accounted for in the entirety of the central Alaska range. All the towns in the projected danger zone are in the process of being evacuated, and…hang on, getting a call from…RMI Expeditions? Hold on, Dad."
Jeff and Ruth watch, but are on mute, as Scott takes the call. Just from seeing the look on his face morph from serious Field Commander to Oh, shit tells them something's very wrong before he even gets back on the line with them.
"What?" Jeff asks immediately, rising to his feet and coming to stand next to his mother. Why did Scott's face appear two shades lighter?
"There's one small climbing group, it was a special charter that left for the West Buttress of Mt. McKinley five days ago."
"And?" Jeff asks, walking halfway to Scott's live feed, noting the tremor in his son's voice.
"Expert mountaineer by the name of Mike Talbot took two men up, and they haven't been able to raise him since the earthquake."
"Scott, talk to me."
Because Jeff knows there's more. When Scott glances to their grandmother, who's now standing next to her son, Jeff feels like he's turned stone cold. He can barely make himself breathe as the pieces start slotting together in his head and he knows before Scott utters another word.
"The men who chartered the special climb were Devrat Verma and John Tracy."
Ruth gasps, hand flying up to cover her mouth. Jeff simply stares at his eldest for what seems like an eternity. There are so many questions to ask, so many orders to give, so many things he should be saying, but…he can't.
Scott taps the console to his right several times, frown deepening. "I've been trying to raise John by sending our emergency signal to his communicator since I got off the line with RMI. He's not responding."
Jeff struggles to make himself breathe. "Can you get near the mountain?" he finally manages to ask.
"I'm headed there now, Father. ETA thirteen minutes. I'll have Thunderbird Two join me."
Jeff just nods and turns to wrap an arm around his mother. "He went to climb the mountain?" she whispers in disbelief, eyes begging Jeff to tell her it's not true, that they must all be mistaken.
He tries to smile, but it won't come. "He went to prove his theory, I guess," he says.
Ten minutes later, his own hails to John's watch are going unanswered. There's nothing from its GPS either. Gordon's having no better luck on Five, nor are Thunderbirds One or Two able to register any readings from the vast mountain John calls Denali.
None except the one at its peak that Thunderbird Two manages to catch.
"Dad," Virgil says, voice steady in spite of the turmoil Jeff knows he's got to be feeling, "that signature, it's…it's just like…"
"Like what?" Jeff asks, frowning at the look on Virgil's face.
"It's like the cloaking device we got our hands on from…from the Hood, Dad."
"What?" Jeff breathes in disbelief. "Are you telling me whatever's on top of that mountain was put there by the Hood?"
"There's, er, no other signature like it in the world that I'm a-aware of, Mr., er, Tracy," Brains says as he enters the Office. "I've read the, er, telemetry and a-as far as I'm concerned, whatever's on top of that mountain was put there by the, uh…Hood. O-or someone he shared his, er, cloaking technology with."
Virgil looks at Jeff, eyes gone big and round. Jeff looks at Brains. Brains bites his lip. "You're sure?" Jeff asks.
"U-Unfortunately, I am," Brains confirms.
"Oh, dear God," Jeff says, sinking into his chair. "John."
*Dyno: A dynamic move to grab a hold that would otherwise be out of reach. (Definition from Wikipedia Glossary of Climbing Terms at www DOT wikipedia DOT org.
PART ELEVEN: THE RIDGE
If asked weeks or even days later, John's not sure he'll ever be able to explain exactly how he gets himself and his injured friend to the top ridge of Denali in one piece, and without a single toe or finger lost to frostbite.
He is sure, however, that he's fucking exhausted.
He actually slept for six hours straight, waking only once when Dev stirred, to take his vitals, reassure himself that his friend wasn't concussed, and then go back to sleep. That wasn't the problem, though. The problem, he found out upon his first attempt to get out of the tent, was that the storm had buried them under a three-foot snowdrift.
Which was a bitch to dig out of with nothing but a small foldable shovel as a tool.
But he did, and Dev awakened, took another dose of painkillers and managed to do most of his own climbing until now they're only thirty feet down from the highest ridge along Denali that leads to its summit.
Then he passed out again, and John carried him strapped to his back the rest of the way to the top.
Right now he's dragging Dev behind him, using their two harnesses lashed together as a makeshift pull. Dev's harness is secured around his chest under his armpits and tied to John's harness. John holds one strap of his harness in each hand behind him as he trudges through the deep, fresh snow, with Dev bumping along behind him.
There's only one thing he cares about now that he and Dev have made it here in one piece and the storm has cleared, and that's what's sitting on that summit up ahead. He stops, shucks off his backpack and digs inside it until he finds the instrument he's looking for. It's the prototype he and Brains developed for a hand-held cloaking detector.
Initially they'd created it to detect any kinds of cloaking shields or mechanisms given their increased availability on the black market over the past year. They'd just finished adding a new signature to the group the device could detect, but it isn't one John's expecting to register as soon as he turns the damn thing on.
Yet that's exactly the signature that's identifying itself for him on the device's two-inch-by-two-inch screen. He stares at it in disbelief, suddenly realizing exactly what this means. There is something here atop Denali, and it's been placed there courtesy of the Hood.
He feels his heart drop to his toes, tempered only by the fact that there's no way the bastard himself would be up here. The device is telling him it's minus forty degrees, and the storm has only been gone for a handful of hours. The Hood couldn't have made it up here that fast, if he had any reason to want to come up here.
John stares along the ridge to the end, to the official peak of Denali. There is a reason, though, that the Hood might want to come here, especially if he's concerned about whatever it is that's cloaked in the aftermath of the earthquake and storm.
So John's got to get to it first, just in case.
He looks down at Dev, then back up along the ridge. If he runs, Dev will bump along too much behind him and he may exacerbate any unseen injuries his friend's suffering from. If he leaves Dev here, then he's completely unprotected if another nasty storm blows up or another earthquake rocks the mountain. So John has no choice but to continue walking, dragging Dev along behind him.
As long as the weather holds, they'll be okay, he thinks, turning off the cloaking detector and shoving it back into his pack. He just gets it zipped closed and is about to haul the straps up over his shoulders when a blast unlike any he's ever heard makes his ears ring.
At the same time, the mountain shakes.
His ice-covered eyelashes stick together a little when his eyes try to widen, and then suddenly do as he takes in something he can't possibly be seeing.
One of the neighboring mountains just blew its top.
*Ridge: A long, narrow elevation of land; a chain of hills or mountains. (Definition from www DOT dictionary DOT com.)
PART TWELVE: THE SUMMIT
He's halfway there.
Dev's just started waking up again, and so John stops, gets him to talk…how many fingers is he holding up, can he track the movement of John's index finger, everything they teach you to be a field medic. Everything he and his brothers learned and keep up-to-date on, for what they do.
Everything Dev knows nothing about.
Including the fact that – if John's not mistaken – International Rescue's arch-nemesis is behind what's happening here in this region of the world.
What's that sound?
It can't be.
It can't be!
John looks up and to the left. He sees nothing.
To the right. Still nothing.
Turns and looks behind him and…there.
It's Thunderbird One.
He wants to cry, laugh, shout, jump up and down, wave his arms. But he can't, because he'd give himself away far too much, and though Dev might not be completely tracking what's going on around him, he is leaning on John right now to keep him upright. So at the very least, no jumping up and down.
How can they have known John's here?
How did they find out?
Extrapolation based on John's theories, who he was taking leave to see and the location of his concerns?
Or are they here because others need rescuing in the aftermath of the earthquake and—
A loud explosion rocks the mountain again, and this time, John and Dev both go to their knees. Instantly the sky is filled with ash, blocking out the sun. Blocking out Thunderbird One.
That ash will force him to land. They'll never get to us. Never see us.
His heart, elated mere seconds ago, plummets.
Worse yet, the mountain hasn't stopped shaking. "Oh, my God," John breathes, clutching Dev close. There are literally only inches separating them from either side of the ridge, and they've sunk two feet into the snow, which means he truly doesn't know whether there's solid rock for those inches, or snow that'll give out if so much as a feather's placed on it.
So he hunkers down, wraps his arms even tighter around his friend, and prays. Prays that Scott gets out of there before One's too damaged to fly. Prays that nobody else in the vicinity will die because of the earthquakes and, now, the volcanic eruption. Prays that he and Dev will somehow make it.
The cold is getting to him.
Denali has stopped shaking, but he hasn't. It's all taking its toll, and he can't think of anything to do but keep pressing for the summit. Because if he and Dev are going to meet their end with ash raining down on them and making an already difficult breathing altitude nearly impossible by clogging their airways, then they're going to damn well put a stop to the Hood's cloaked transmission device before they do.
His and Dev's arms are wrapped around each other. Dev is conscious, and tracking fairly decently, John thinks. "I d-d-don't think I c-c-can get us d-d-d-down from he-h-here," John manages to get out through chattering teeth, muffled by the roar of the lava-spewing volcano the next peak over and the frozen balaclava covering his lips.
"I don't know how you got us this far," Dev replies in that clipped perfect-English accent of his.
John barks out a laugh. "Just l-lucky, I g-g-guess."
They're quiet for a moment, Dev's arms squeezing him tighter as John shivers even harder. "We must continue, John."
John raises his head and looks at him, peering through the ice crystals covering his eyelashes and the ash that's gathering around the eye openings of the balaclava.
"If there is a hidden transmitter at the top of this mountain, we must disable it." Dev reaches up and brushes the ice crystals and ash away from John's eyes. "The John Tracy I know never gives up."
At any cost, John completes IR's motto within his own mind. He nods, not sure whether he's actually doing so or if his head's just shivering harder than the rest of him. Dev's right. They hadn't come this far, survived falls and busted bones just to give up and freeze to death here so close to the top. So close to being able to put a stop to the Hood's plans.
John struggles to his feet with Dev supporting him as best he can. As they take their first step forward, he vows to himself that Dev's going to be made an International Rescue agent if they get out of this intact. Because after all this, the man deserves at least that much.
Just wait 'til he finds out what John really does for a living.
One foot in front of the other.
John first. Then Dev. John again. Dev again.
It's so slow-going, but after endless minutes they're almost there. They stop about five feet from where John's last scans told him the cloak signature was located. Dev is now standing on his own, looking all around but unable to see much further than his fingers at the end of his extended arm.
"This is bad," he says, then dissolves into a coughing fit that takes him to his knees. "Why is it…erupting?" he chokes out.
John finds the walk has warmed him enough that he's no longer trembling so violently, at least. "It's this damn signal generator here, whatever it is, I'm convinced of it," he replies, his short, shallow breaths making it easier for him to breathe. He shows Dev how to do it, how to minimize what he's intaking. Their balaclavas are keeping the larger ash particles out of their mouths and noses as they inhale, but John knows the finer particles are going to get through no matter what. Without any protective masks on-hand, there's nothing they can do about it.
Dev watches as John turns his hand-held device on, listens as it blares its warning that they're just about on top of whatever it is that's sitting here cloaked.
Then, another explosion.
And Denali moves beneath them.
Only this time, whatever's under the cloak moves, too.
Sparks shoot out from the top – and from that point, John discerns that the structure's at least twelve feet tall.
Dev cries out and crab-scrambles backwards, barely stopping in time to keep from going over the edge. John looks at him, yells, "Stay put!" and slowly moves toward the cloaked 'thing' even as the air around them grows thicker and darker with more ash. He knows this means the volcano's erupted yet again.
He supposes it's good they're at the top of the highest peak in this mountain range, because it'll keep them from the lava flows.
On the other hand, the higher they are, the worse the air's going to be. He can barely take a breath now without it wanting to choke him. He kneels, digs down about a foot, cups clean white snow in his hand and quickly shoves it up under his balaclava and into his mouth.
Gotta keep hydrated if he's going to try what he knows he's going to try.
John Tracy, you are an idiot.
Possibly. But he can't leave this thing functioning. Not when it's become more than obvious it has to be at the root of the evils surrounding them. Courtesy of the Evil plaguing his family, he reminds himself.
John gets to his feet and walks forward with arms outstretched until his left hand hits something. A good five minutes of running his hands up and around the structure he can't see, and he realizes it's definitely a tower of some sort. He feels out four legs that go up at an angle, probably meeting in a point higher than he can reach with a satellite-type apparatus perched on top. No matter what kind of transmitter it is, John knows the ash in the air means no signal will get through to the ionosphere for the time being, which means now's a good time to strike.
There's one thing he's got in his backpack that isn't in any way, shape or form normal mountain-climbing gear. He shucks the bag from his back, unzips it and reaches deep into the bottom of it. His hand pulls out a small two-by-two silver square with nothing but a serial number to identify it's precisely what he intended to grab out of one of their store rooms on Tracy Island.
He has to take one of his gloves off, though, to activate the small device. It can't blow the tower all to hell if he can't depress the button on the box's front face and key in the activation code to arm it.
He hears hissing. He hears popping and crackling and looks up. More sparks coming from seemingly nothing high above his head. He quickly pulls his right glove off, prompting Dev to scramble forward on his hands and knees.
"What the hell are you doing?" Dev yells out at him as he comes closer. "Your hand will freeze!"
Let it freeze, John thinks, turning the explosive unit over, tapping a tiny button to bring it to life, and groaning as the whipping wind makes his fingers completely numb. "Dammit!" he puffs out, willing his hand to work. "Come on," he drones, concentrating on moving his index finger over the tiny nine-number panel.
Dev comes even with him.
Next, an eight.
Dev fishes John's glove out of the snow and ash covering the mountain.
John's fingers curl in protest of freezing.
Dev leans forward, gets eyes on what John's doing.
John's hand stops. His breaths are coming rapidly. Pain gives way to rigidity gives way to complete numbness.
Dev looks into his eyes for seemingly endless seconds. He looks down, pulls his own hand out of his glove. He wraps his warm palm around John's index finger. One second. Two seconds. Three seconds.
John swallows thickly, willing himself not to choke. Not to cough. Not to pass out. Suddenly can feel his finger again, and touches the number four on the panel.
Quickly he shoves the explosive device up against the leg of the tower he can only feel because of Dev's bare hand warming his own finger just enough to sense the hard surface. He grabs his glove, yells at Dev to put his own back on, and slides his own over his hand which he's sure must be frostbit now.
"Get back!" John hollers, shoving at Dev's chest so hard the man tumbles backward a good two feet along the slippery ridge.
John gets up and turns to run. But he just can't move fast enough.
*Summit: The highest point or part, as of a hill, a line of travel, or any object; top; apex. (Definition from www.dictionary.com.)
PART THIRTEEN: THE COULOIR
The explosion throws him backwards so hard he thunks into the snow, head banging hard against a rock behind him.
He's dizzy. Can't get his bearings. Is seeing spots and flashing lights before his eyes. A loud screech of metal-on-metal. An ear-piercing groan. Something hits his pelvis. He expects to scream, to feel it crush his bones.
It doesn't. So he doesn't.
He tries to scoot away, but can't move. The tower has fallen, and John is pinned beneath it.
Fortunately there are three or more feet of snow beneath him, so all the tower leg really does is shove him down so his butt is against actual rock.
He's pretty certain nothing's broken. He's also pretty certain he's not going anywhere anytime soon.
"Dev!" he calls out, then chokes on the ash that seeps through the knit fabric of the balaclava. God, how his head aches. He wishes those damn stars would stop swirling around it. "Dev!"
It's silent. The ash sounds like falling rain. Smoke mixing with sulfur and a myriad of other acrid scents burns the linings of his nose and throat.
Relief: sudden, pure, sweet. Dev's alive.
"I'm trapped!" John hollers.
"I'm coming!" is the reply.
It seems like forever later, but finally Dev's hand bumps into John's head, and he has to remember not to take a deep breath even as he's tamping down on the cry of joy that wants to escape his lips.
But his relief is short-lived as he remembers hearing and briefly catching a glimpse of Scott in his 'bird just as the eruption spewed the guts of what he's pretty sure is a volcano that hasn't ever been a volcano before, high into the air.
Would his brothers try to scale Denali? Do they even know John and Dev are there?
God, Dad will be pissed when he finds out we are.
Dev is trying, but he just can't get enough leverage in the snow to move the tower's leg off John's hips – especially not with one useless hand. John's mind races until finally he says, "Listen, get my pack off me, there's a flare gun in there."
"How will anyone see it through this ash?" Dev asks, even as he's helping John get his torso up high enough off the ground to pull the backpack off him.
There's a great rumbling, and John wonders if it's just his and Dev's luck that Denali's going to blow next. But wait, that's not an explosive sound, that's…
"Thunder?" he says aloud. And as soon as the word's left his lips, a flash of lightning confirms it. "Oh, shit," he breathes, eyes widening.
"What? John?" Dev stops digging through the backpack at the tone of his friend's voice.
"I'm trapped under a metal tower," John says. He swallows as another bolt of lightning streaks through the thick black cloud surrounding them.
Blackish-gray smoke billows around them.
Dev looks up.
Another jagged streak, then another.
Ash coats them and everything around them.
Five streaks of lightning appear together, small, touching, webbing the cloud of ash all at once.
"Shit," John breathes.
And then more.
Dev looks back down at John. "We have to get you out from under that."
But John knows he's well and truly stuck. The tower leg's got him pinned to the hard, jagged rock of the mountain. There is no give. They don't have the equipment his brothers have to cut through the tower.
The wind starts to pick up and John thinks about what he's got in that backpack. He'd had to leave Dev's behind in the chimney because he simply couldn't secure Dev and two backpacks to his person for the ascent. The flare gun, he thinks. Yes…that'll work!
"The flare gun. Dev, get the flare gun, it's one of our—it's a new design, it's not like your standard issue." He feels hope start to rise even as the wind whips up, battling to clear the air around them. He can feel that it's easier to breathe within minutes.
Dev finds the flare gun and four spare clips in a small plastic box.
"Load one," John says, "and then give me the gun and the clips and get back."
"Get back? What the hell are you going to do?"
John grins, though he guesses Dev can't tell through the balaclava. "Going to blast my way out."
"With this?" Dev asks as he slides the clip into the chamber, closes it and hands both it and the spare clips to John. "It's a flare gun, not TNT!"
John winks at him even as he feels his eyelashes start to ice over. "If there's nothing else my youngest brother taught me, it's that anything can be turned into an explosive," he quips.
Dev shakes his head. "John, what if—"
"Get back, Dev, I need to get myself out of here before I become fried chicken."
"You are many things, John Tracy," Dev says, grasping John's gloved hand with his own good one and giving it a squeeze. "Chicken is not one of them."
Their eyes meet and John squeezes back, then shoos his friend away.
John makes it happen, all right. A little too well, as it turns out. He's reversed the polarity on the flare gun, which Dev hasn't a clue doubles as a weapon and triples as precisely what he needed: another explosive. It comes in handy on hairy rescues, and right now, John thinks, it's going to save his life.
Lightning continues to flash all around as he removes his left glove, uses his thumb to flick the switch on the left side of the dark gray flare gun's handle, then puts his glove back on. He cranes his head around to see where Dev is…far enough away, now, by John's estimation. But even through the balaclava, John can see his friend is worried.
Well, John is too, so there you have it.
Invisibility cloak now gone thanks to John's destruction of the transmitter, John can easily see where the silver tower leg is resting against a slight uprising of rock to the right of his hip. He gives himself five seconds to pray he doesn't blow his own leg off, takes aim at the rock just under portion of tower six inches out from his hipbone, and fires.
Pain sears through his body, but he feels the rock give just enough under his butt and legs that he can wiggle free of the tower. Dev rushes forward and grabs the back of John's coat, hauling him back even as John's own limbs scramble to get away.
There's just one problem with the whole operation. The charge was a little more effective than John intended it to be, and blew away a wee bit more rock than he thought it would.
Maybe more than a wee bit.
A bolt of lightning hits the fallen tower, sparks illuminating the entire cloud of ash.
John yelps as Dev grabs him by the hood of his coat and yanks him back. They wind up flat on their backs two feet away as a large crack forms in the mountain, the force of the small explosion picking up speed until it's created nothing less than a long, thin chimney-like slide starting at the peak of Denali and ending…well, they're not sure where it ends.
"Glissade?" Dev pants as he pushes John off him, "Sliding down on our asses…your way…of getting us down?"
John barks out a laugh. "Yeah, went exactly according to plan."
"My ass," Dev retorts as both men haul themselves upright. "Actually, it's your ass."
John squints at him through the ice crystals covering his eyelashes. "Huh?"
"That got burned."
"No, it's only my l—oh," John says as his gloved hand finds that a tear in his snow pants goes up higher than he thought and that his left ass cheek is, indeed, singed. "Ow."
"I will give you hell until the sacred cows come home," Dev quips, "but only after you've ridden your burn down the side of the mountain and gotten us out of here."
Well, shit, this is going to hurt.
"Hang on, I need to confirm the tower's no longer transmitting."
"It's on its side, John, hit by lightning and spilling acrid smoke into the air. You think it's still transmitting?"
"I'm not leaving Denali until I know for sure," John says, reaching for the backpack and pulling his indicator device from its depths. He switches it on and nods once, curtly.
The signal is gone.
"Does that mean we can get the hell off this mountain now?" Dev asks. "Not for nothing, but I truly do not wish to witness another earthquake or further volcanic eruptions this closely."
"Me either," John mutters as he puts the device away.
That's when he hears a whirring sound. It's a sound he knows well, and he looks all around them until he locates it: one of Thunderbird One's remote cameras.
Suddenly he loves Scott a whole lot. He waves at the camera as Dev's adjusting the Velcro closures on the bottoms of his thermal pants, and tightening the laces on his climbing boots. John quickly signs a message to Scott, then realizes that Scott can't speak hand languages any better than he can speak spoken languages – other than English, of course. He imagines Scott's either royally pissed off right now or sweating in relief at having found his brother.
John holds up the wrist where his busted communicator is still sitting, points to it, and then points down to the gully he's opened up with the explosion. Then he makes a motion with his hand like a bird swooping down, only he hopes Scott gets that it's him and Dev sliding that he means to convey.
Somehow he doubts it, but he can always hope.
Dev rights himself and John quickly acts like he hasn't been trying to communicate with anyone at all. Instead, he points up to the remote camera and says, "Does that thing say International Rescue on the side of it?"
Dev's eyes widen and he comes to stand right next to John, peering up through his own ice-crystal-laden eyelashes. "I'll be damned," he breathes. "So it does. They've come to rescue us!"
Well, crap. Now if John goes ahead with his sliding-down-Denali plan, Dev's going to call him crazy since the boys in blue are on the case. What John doesn't know is whether or not the 'birds can make it through the ash that still hangs heavy around Denali, even given the high winds that have started blowing it to the east.
It'd be an easy rescue if not for the—
There's another explosion.
And Denali shakes.
Only this time, it's not from a volcano.
"What the hell was that?" Dev screeches, and thankfully isn't tall enough that it's directly into John's ear.
John's eyes are drawn to the top of the tower that's hanging off the opposite edge of the peak by about twenty feet and burning like a giant metal bonfire. Then the tower upends itself and slides right down the side of the mountain. Flames leap from whatever was sitting at the top of it as it goes, leaving a curling trail of black smoke in its wake.
"I don't think we have to worry about that signal anymore," John says as he hears a high-pitched whine in the distance.
And there she is, the great, hulking green ship that is Virgil's baby. She's headed straight for them and John is torn between wanting to do a Happy Dance and start waving his arms like a wild man, and trying to bury himself in a snow bank so he doesn't have to face the wrath of his brothers and father.
But, Tracys take their medicine like they do their candy. Of course, that doesn't mean he has to be happy about it.
"Is that what I think it is?" Dev asks as Thunderbird Two gets closer.
"What do you think it is?" John asks. Innocently, he's pretty sure.
"That's International Rescue!" Dev crows, and he does jump up and down.
Because just as Virgil gets to less than one hundred feet from the peak of Denali, the rock beneath John and Dev gives way.
Soft, powdery snow is where Alan and Scott, two hours later, find them lying as though they've just finished making snow angels.
They'd slid down the side of the mountain, all right. They'd even managed to somehow slot right into the gulley John had accidentally made.
Then they'd been flying. Not with wings. Not in Thunderbirds. Not by choice.
The last thing John remembers is watching a snow-and-ash-covered ledge growing nearer and nearer at an alarming rate.
Now he blinks awake to the very loud sound of Thunderbird Two's engines. Once he's able to focus his vision, it's to find two fully cold-proofed men he's quite sure are related to him dangling from Two's nose. The eyes look equal parts relieved and annoyed as Scott and Alan harness the two mountain victims – who aren't really any worse for the wear, all things considered – to themselves and Virgil starts winching them upwards.
While terribly excited that he's getting to see International Rescue at work firsthand, Dev – has he been awake the entire time, John wonders? - can't help but holler across the two feet of air separating the friends and their rescuers from each other. "John?"
"Next time you want to go mountain-climbing?"
"I will tell you, my friend, to take a long walk off a short pier."
John's responding laugh is mostly one of relief.
*Couloir: A gully, sometimes a potential route.
EPILOGUE: THE EXPOSURE
John has been suitably chastised by his field commander; a good tongue-lashing from the guy who also doubles as his big brother that he won't forget any time soon. Never mind that he yelled just as much as Scott did because hey, in the end, they hugged, so it was all good.
After, of course, those 'great guys from International Rescue' take him and Dev to the nearest Alaskan hospital to get fixed up. And after, of course, John sees to it that Dev gets back home safely. And after, of course, Jeff Tracy – who himself had been flying Thunderbird One, since Scott was needed on Two for the rescue, John is shocked to learn – goes to the central offices for HAARP with a detachment of Air Force Security Forces in tow to have his so-called friend Hicks arrested on the spot, along with several other high-ranking military officials.
Lady Penelope had earned her keep and then some on this one. All the while Scott was flying back to Tracy Island to pick Jeff up, Jeff had been putting Penny and a few other of International Rescue's agents on the case of the theory put forth by John, and what the hell the Hood was up to.
In the end, Penelope had not only ferreted out that a good two-thirds of the top brass at HAARP were involved in allowing the Hood to set the transmitting tower up on Denali (and had gotten their pockets well-lined for their troubles), but she'd intercepted a transmission from Hicks directly to Malaysia warning the Hood that there was trouble.
When Penelope finishes her report, she offers her good-byes, tells John she is quite happy to see him well (he doesn't tell her about the burn on his butt…she is a Lady, after all), and bids the family adieu.
One by one the rest of the island's inhabitants trickle out of the room until Jeff and John are left alone, with John wondering whether his dad's tirade will be as colorfully infused with certain language as his brother's was. He stands before the desk (but well enough away that Jeff can't just drop the settee out from under him out of spite) and waits.
Finally he locks eyes with his father, clears his throat and says, "I'm sorry, Dad. I should've told you what I was up to."
But he's not twelve anymore, and he had his reasons, and he guesses his father must realize that because the next thing he knows is his dad's out from behind his desk, standing right in front of him, then hugging the ever-loving shit out of him.
"Next time," Jeff says, as he backs away and takes in the reddish-pinkish areas of John's golden skin that are remnants of frostbite, "I'll listen better, son."
That's all John can think.
Of course, two days later he finds out he's been given the job of mucking out every nook and cranny of Thunderbird Five on his next rotation. Which is fine, really, because he's got a kick-ass music selection he can blast throughout the space station, he won't be too busy with rescues since they've calmed back down after the destruction of the transmitter on Denali, and he and Dev are having long, daily talks and making plans about what can be done to repair the ionosphere without the help of the Hood.
So all in all, everything turns out okay on this one.
"Sssssss, ouch!" John hisses, turning his head from his face-down position on the table to glare at Brains, who's holding a cotton ball and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
"Sorry," Brains says, but his grin says he's not.
Maybe there is one casualty, John thinks with a groan. Because he's not sure his poor, formerly perfect butt cheek will ever be the same.
*Exposure: The distance from the climber to where the climber would likely stop in the event of an unprotected fall. (Also having to bare your butt cheek to a guy holding cotton balls and rubbing alcohol...)