In a synchronous orbit that continuously placed the bulk of Io between itself and most of Jupiter's radiation, the giant spaceship Zero X (Mark IV) awaited the return of a probe from the tortured orange-yellow surface of Io. The crew of Zero X were nearing the end of a successful seven week survey of the four Galilean moons.
Manned landings on the two outermost satellites had been conducted by the detachable Jovian Excursion Vehicle (JEV), but the inner moons Europa and Io were considered too hazardous to explore first hand. Therefore the detailed surveys had been carried out by sophisticated robotic probes.
"What's the ETA on that thing, Ray?" Colonel Paul Travers asked his scientist crewmate and fellow Zero X veteran.
Planetary Geologist Ray Pierce smiled wearily and stroked his grey-flecked beard. "It's due to liftoff from the caldera in seventeen minutes. What's the matter, Paul? Don't tell me you're bored with the cutting edge of exploration already! Next thing you'll be doing is telling me that the funding for this jaunt isn't worth it."
Travers gave a little chuckle. Pierce was referring to a televised debate that had been beamed from Earth several days before. The debate panels had been crewed by overwrought and hysterical types on both sides. The panel against space funding had featured a failed Presidential candidate, two disgruntled scientists with budget-cancelled projects, a Fire and Brimstone preacher, and a best-selling anti-technology atheist/humanist writer.
On the side of defending space funding was a motley collection of dry scientists and engineers with questionable social and debating skills. Their only saving grace was the animated defence put up by Professor Tony Grant, Pierce and Travers' old shipmate from the Zero X Mars expeditions.
"Good old Tony!" Pierce laughed again. "He did most of the talking for his team."
"Yeah," Travers said. "Honestly, I've never seen such a bunch of stiffs in all of my life. Where did he dig them up?"
"Oh, they're not a bad bunch. It's just that when you've chalked up three or four Phds, it gets a bit much to have to play politics, too. Especially in front of millions of television viewers."
Travers sighed. "Poor Tony. He would have sold his soul to come on this expedition. Boy, was he pissed off when he failed the medical."
"No shit!" Pierce exclaimed. "I was the one whose shoulder he cried on, remember? But luckily, he seems to have gotten over it now. Especially judging by that performance on TV. He's becoming a latter-day Carl Sagan."
Travers frowned. "Carl who?"
Pierce rolled his eyes. "Look him up." He grasped a roof handrail and propelled his weightless body toward the rear of the JEV main cabin, muttering something about philistine fighter jocks.
Ray Pierce and Paul Travers shared the relatively spacious control and living quarters of the Zero X JEV and main body with their three shipmates, Major Naseem Patel, Space Captain Brad Newman, and Doctor Bruce Kerrod. There had been virtually no incidents of friction or hostility among the crew during the epic space mission. Even the addition of the attractive Naseem Patel had created no appreciable sexual tension on board the ship. And this was despite predictions to the contrary by some deskbound psychologists. As Travers went aft to join his crewmates, he caught sight of Patel's floating, waist-length braid of raven hair before he saw the rest of her lithe form. Naseem was bent over an instrument panel with Bruce Kerrod hovering over her shoulder.
Paul Travers sighed and reminded himself again that he was a married man. Naseem Patel's femininity was tempered somewhat by her cool and businesslike manner. Nevertheless, the World Airforce Pilot-Astronaut was a beautiful woman. Travers smiled to himself. Kerrod was the one male member of the crew immune to Patel's charms. Ray Pierce and Brad Newman were doubtless grateful for Bruce Kerrod's sexual orientation, despite the fact that both Pierce and Newman were also married. But it was no secret that Ray Pierce's marriage was finished even before the Jupiter expedition had lifted off.
That fact had caused his crewmates to close ranks against the psychologists, who had wanted to ground Pierce because of his problems. Damned desk-jockeys! What they didn't realise was that if they had grounded the scientist, the loss of both his marriage and the mission would have destroyed Ray Pierce.
And here they were, over eight hundred million kilometers away from all their earthly problems. With new ones to occupy the here and now.
"Ray? I'm sorry, but we seem to be losing part of the uplink from the probe." Naseem Patel's tone was sharp with disappointment. Pierce moved quickly to her side, his face displaying equal sentiment. He reached over her shoulder and prodded a control. A radar signature of the probe's rendezvous course to Zero X appeared on the control screen.
"What happened?" Travers asked. Pierce made an adjustment and grunted.
"Well, the probe appears to have a automatic control system malfunction. Its engine shut down early and it doesn't look like it has enough delta-vee to make it." He pushed away from the panel. "That's it, I guess," he said disgustedly.
Patel put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Ray. I know how much this meant to you. The first Io probe fried by an eruption, and now this."
"Not to mention the malfunction of that second Europa bird," Brad Newman added. "But, Naseem. You said only part of the uplink was lost. What about manual control?"
Kerrod and Patel were shaking their heads as Kerrod answered. "We tried that, but there was no response. The probe is on a decaying orbit."
Travers cleared his throat. "How long till it impacts on the surface?"
"About sixteen, maybe seventeen hours at the most," Kerrod shrugged.
Travers scowled. It was bad. Ganymede and Callisto had needed no dedicated sample return probes because of the landings the crew had made on those two moons. But two sophisticated sample return landers had been carried for each of the moons they did not land on, one for each hemisphere. The second Europa probe had gone mysteriously silent, the first Io lander had been struck by volcanic materiel, and now this latest malfunction.
Patel snapped her fingers. "I think I've got an idea! Paul, what if we drop the ship to a lower orbit, detach the JEV and go capture the probe with one of the grab arms? We ought to have enough fuel to do it."
Travers held up his hand. "Now wait a second-."
"Yes!" Pierce jumped in excitedly. "We have to try, Paul. Otherwise we'll go back to Earth with more than a quarter of our data missing. This could be our only chance this century to obtain hard geological data and samples on the most volcanically active body in the solar system."
Travers held in check his irritation at having a command decision interrupted. He managed a bemused look. "I understand the scientific importance of those samples, Ray. I also understand your enthusiasm for wanting to rescue them, Naseem. But I think it would be ill-advised to try. This is an extremely hostile environment we are in."
"True, Paul," Patel agreed. "But Doctor Pierce is right. The way program funding is going back on Earth, there may not be a second Jupiter expedition. They might decide to press on with the next generation Zero X series and head out to Saturn. If they go anywhere at all!"
Patel was right. The World Space Exploration Council was under pressure to streamline and rationalise their operations. The next two Jupiter expeditions could very well be sacrificed to fund a mission to Saturn with a Zero X Mark V. Or more likely, attention would be reverted back to the still largely unexplored Mars, which was a far more likely candidate for colonisation than anywhere else in the solar system.
Travers exhaled loudly. "Alright, Naseem, Ray. Brad and I'll begin a course plot for lowering our orbit. But we'll be exposing ourselves to increased radiation from Jupiter everytime we come out of Io's shadow. We'll have to balance our needs for a low and fast orbit with minimum rad exposure, the best probe rendezvous chances, and JEV reacquisition."
Brad Newman was nodding. "I agree, Paul. And don't forget that we're scheduled for the next sleep period in four hours. I suggest we do the course plot, bring the sleep period forward two hours then initiate the de-orbit burn."
"If we do that then we'd better cut the rest period from eight hours to six," said Pierce. He looked at Travers. "Do you agree, Paul?"
"Yes. That sounds sensible. I'm glad to see your scientific curiosity hasn't got in the way of common sense, Ray. Let's get to it everyone."
The lowering of the orbit had gone according to plan. Zero X and the attached JEV had reduced the orbital height to ninety kilometers above the colourful pizza-like terrain of Io. They were nearing the end of the first pass by the frontside of the moon, assaulted by the mighty electromagnetic forces and charged particles of sulphur that accompanied Io in its orbit.
Travers had sent a message to the far distant Earth requesting concurrence and assessment of the flightplan changes. The flight directors had replied some hours later with a reluctant agreement and an advisement of caution. But it was merely a formality, as Paul Travers and his crew were determined to carry out the mission in any event, short of an authoritative contradiction from Earth.
"Let's get this going," Travers said as he stowed away the last of the plastic breakfast crockery. He soared through the hatchway separating the Main Bodys' living quarters from its control cabin. Patel and Pierce floated past him and into the JEV cockpit. Dr Kerrod set to work closing and dogging the hatch between the main body and the JEV as Brad Newman strapped in next to Travers. Kerrod joined them presently.
"Hatch secured," he reported. Travers nodded.
"Very well." He tapped a Comm button. "Main Body to JEV. Are you in, Naseem?"
"Roger, Paul. Ray and I are strapped and snug. I'm running the guidance check. Ray's starting JEV system checklist now. Talk to you shortly."
Less than five minutes later Patel's cool, rich voice reported in. "Okay, Paul. Systems checklist nominal. RCS heaters are off and Guido is in. Request separation countdown."
Travers scratched his nose and tapped a control screen icon. "You have a two minute countdown on my mark. Standby... Mark."
In the JEV, Naseem Patel flexed her fingers and gripped the thruster controls. Ray Pierce read off the last seconds of the countdown. "Five, four, three, latch retraction, one, proceed!"
The blocky, dip-nosed Jovian Excursion Module thrusted slowly away from the rectangular main body. Colonel Travers watched Patel's progress shrewdly. "Smooth job, Major. I read your separation rate as two meters per second." He glanced at the television monitor then back at his controls. "You have a go for the first manoeuvre burn in two point four minutes."
Jupiter's static hissed loudly in Patel's headset. "Roger that, Zero X. I'm increasing separation rate by one metre per second."
"That'll change your pitch setting by zero point three degrees, Naseem," Pierce informed her as he checked his duplicate guidance display. Patel smiled.
"We'll make a pilot out of you yet, Ray. Adjusting now." She tapped the minute change into the computer and glanced out of the forward windows. The distant sun was dropping swiftly below the horizon of Io, its brief passage marked by a breathtaking flare of orange, gold and pink through the moons thin band of atmosphere.
"God, its pretty out here," Pierce said.
Patel raised her eyebrows in agreement as she switched on the JEVs beacon. "Comm check, Zero X. How do you read, over?"
"Marginal, JEV," answered Travers through a hash of static and bell-like electronic tones from Jupiter. "Suggest you switch from Omni VLF to Bravo High-gain antenna."
Dr Pierce made the Comm antenna change and the reception between the two spacecraft improved immediately. Pierce recited the countdown for the first probe rendezvous engine firing. A short time later, the JEVs powerful twin main rockets were lowering its orbit still further. Nearly half an hour later the JEV and the trailing Zero X Main Body had passed behind the shielding of Io once more. The ailing probe was a large blip on the JEV radar screen.
"The probes' orbit is decaying faster than we anticipated," Pierce complained. "Do we have a sufficient fuel and safety margin left, Naseem?"
Patel nodded. "We'll have our hands full, but we can make it. Don't worry, Doctor." Her eyes scanned the instruments and displays shrewdly. They both jumped a moment later when Paul Travers' voice came through loud and clear, unhindered by Jupiter.
"Just make damned sure you have at least a ten percent propellant safety margin at all times, or the whole show's off!"
Pierce grinned. "Yes, Sir, Colonel Wetnurse," he muttered under his breath.
"Don't worry, Paul. This is a super flying machine we've got here," Patel said as she glared at Pierce mock-reproachfully. "And you've taught us well."
Patel piloted the JEV ever lower with a series of careful braking burns until they were on a nearly identical decaying orbit to the probe. It loomed large on the radar screen now.
"I can see it!" Pierce exclaimed. He pointed out the forward windows. "Look, its that bright star about five degrees above Io's occlusion."
Patel grinned from ear to ear. "Right, Ray. Let's go get him. I'm going to make a two point six second thruster burn. We'll be with him in eighteen minutes." She rocked the thruster controls gently and they felt a brief kick of propulsion. Ray Pierce lifted a protective flap on the control panel and pushed a button. Below the leading edge of the JEV nose, two claw-like mechanical arms began to extend. Within seconds they were flanking the JEV windows like the claws of a crab.
"Remote arms deployed," Pierce reported. "I'll turn on the floodlights when we close to within two hundred meters."
"This is Zero X. Do you-."
Pierce and Patel were startled to hear Travers' transmission interrupted by an alarming crash of static. Naseem glanced out the window. Io appeared to be slipping sideways to reveal more of the monstrous bulk of Jupiter. Their fast orbit was taking them out of the moons protective shadow.
"Hell!" Pierce exclaimed. "Is it just me or is the big guy out there getting even noisier?" His hands made a flurry of Comm adjustments. "Zero X from JEV, this is Dr Pierce. Can you read us, over?" For a few moments his only answer was more static. Then Travers came through again.
"This is Zero X. We're reading you loud, but not clear, Ray. Dr Kerrod says there's an increase in general ionisation. He's not sure why, but he's keeping his eyes peeled. I don't have to tell you I don't like this one bit. Your low orbit is exposing you to some pretty grouchy atmospheric charged sulphur particles. The moment you've got that probe, I want you to make a hard burn out of there for a quick rendezvous with the Main Body. Never mind the fuel economy, we'll come get you if we have to."
Patel and Pierce locked eyes a moment. Ray Pierce looked at the radiation gauges and drew a breath. "Affirmative, Paul. It is reading pretty hot out there, for some reason. We'll have probe capture in just a few minutes, then we'll burn out of this neighbourhood pronto."
"Distance to probe, eight hundred meters," Patel added. "I'm increasing closure rate to six meters per second. Standby for braking manoeuvre in ninety-eight seconds, Ray. We'll be coming in hot."
Jupiter's complement of official satellites was in stark contrast to the thousands of undetected temporary guests of the planet's awesome gravity. Ice and dust from smashed and leftover comets was the norm, with even the occasional asteroid.
One such asteroid had been on a spiralling descent toward an eventual collision with Jupiter for several months. But the weak gravity of Io had been sufficient to deflect the asteroid from its path. Enough for it to pass through the ion-flux discharge that permanently connects Io to its parent world with an electron bridge of two trillion watts.
The crew of Zero X had been careful to orbit at right angles as far away as possible from the discharge hemisphere of Io. But the asteroid had gone completely undetected as it sped along its intersecting path. And although relatively small, it was made entirely of nickel and iron.
The JEV and Main Body of Zero X were orbiting in direct line of sight between the asteroid and the tortured surface of Io. A primal, merciless arc of energy reached out for the unsuspecting spacecraft...
...Paul Travers was both watching his instrument panel and sucking coffee from a drink bottle when his whole environment went haywire.
"What the-" was all Brad Newman had time to say before a shriek and crackle of arcing and burning instrumentation, wiring and exploding lighting panels cut him off. The Master Alarm buzzed about the same moment Travers and Newman were slammed into their seats by a sudden burst of acceleration. The drink bottle was torn from Travers' grasp. It ricocheted off his face and flew towards the rear of the cabin where Dr Kerrod was shouting incoherently.
Checklist pages, small equipment and detritus swirled through the control cabin in chaotic accompaniment to alarms and the roar of the main engines.
Travers' eyes raked the control panel. All the propulsion status lights were glowing, even the backup system ones. The screens and headup displays were scrolling reams of gibberish.
"Paul," Brad Newman shouted. "The chemical rockets are firing at full thrust and I can't turn them off!" He yelped as a panel fascia burst, showering him with sparks and hot plastic. Blue arcs of electricity hissed and snapped across every centimetre of metal, including the window frames. Travers flash-visualised the quintuple-paned glass windows shattering and subjecting them all to a hard vacuum death. But the vision through those windows was far more horrifying.
The orange-red bulk of Io was swaying from left to right, dead ahead. It was growing larger by the second. At that moment, the electrical arcing ceased and most of the cabin lighting went out. Travers and Newman were being flung left, right, backward and forward in their seats. Travers risked grabbing the stubby control grips. To his relief he didn't get shocked, but control response was minimal. He took a deep breath and yelled over the noise of the rockets.
"Brad, all the steering thrusters are firing at once and I can't turn them off. We've got a wild bird here, buddy. I don't know if we can slow her down."
"The computers and electrical buses are still operating, Paul. But I get no instrument coherency and the engines aren't responding to my shutdown orders."
"What?!" Travers roared. "But the shutdown commands are hardwired into the control system, for Godsake!" His mind raced with fear-fuelled adrenaline. Procedures,..training. He was the most experienced Astronaut in service. Prove it, Travers!
He ground his teeth. The G force was strong and their off-course acceleration was taking them towards a collision with Io. He started when he realised the JEV had only been two hundred kilometers away...
"Paul, what about Ray and Naseem?" Brad Newman yelled with horror.
"I know, I know," he said bitterly. "One thing at a time. The Guido and engine management are screwed. Start a reboot, then switch to manual. You and I are gonna fly this thing all by ourselves."
It was a very tall order. Newmans face went even paler. "But, Paul-".
"Hurry up, Mister!" Travers snapped. "It's our only chance."
Suddenly, Dr Kerrod was at his shoulder, breathing hard and grasping the command chair. Travers was grateful Kerrod was alright, but was too busy to comment beyond a brusque command for him to strap in. Newman cursed and grumbled as he quickly shutdown the main control systems. The multitude of powerful steering jets ceased firing at once, but the main rockets continued burning stubbornly.
"Good work, Brad. But we're flirting with gimbal lock until I can damp out all this wild crap. Try using manual circuit breakers to cut power to the fuel flow."
"I'm on it," Newman grunted as he tore a protective cover off the auxiliary control panel, exposing rows of buttons and push-pull contact switches. He sent out silent thanks to the engineers who had stubbornly fought to retain this last bit of archaic 20th Century control technology.
"Paul," Kerrod spoke up. "Our altitude is dropping below thirty kilometers. We'll be hitting atmosphere any second."
Travers didn't answer. Sweat streamed down his brow and over his arms as he wrestled with the sluggish controls. Newman's hands were flying over the contact breakers as he consulted an emergency procedure manual. One after another the auxiliary control panels and instruments began to flicker back to life. Io was looming very large in the windows. Paul Travers eyes were slits of concentration and he felt like his jaw would break.
"Brad, give me back thruster control and main engine gimballing as soon as you can," he growled through clenched teeth. Zero X began to shudder.
"Soon as you can, Brad," Travers said again. A pink glow began to spread across the windows in accompaniment to the shuddering. But Paul Travers' eyes didn't widen until an arc of ionised plasma streaked across his window.
"We're in Io's atmosphere, for Christ's sake!" Kerrod shrieked. Io's thin atmosphere. The frictional ionisation they were experiencing meant that their velocity was way out of control.
Newman gave a shout of triumph. "Gimballing is back and you've got some thrusters."
Travers hauled on the controls and was instantly forced brutally down into his seat. The long, rectangular main body burned and bounced its way through the tenuous sulphur dioxide atmosphere, questing for altitude. After months of low and no gravity, Paul Travers fought unconsciousness as he piloted the giant spacecraft through its multi-G fight for survival. He was fearful that any moment he would hear the tearing sounds of structural failure.
But it didn't come. Zero X was climbing away from Io, trailing a mile-long plume of engine fire. The shuddering and the crushing Gs were replaced by the smooth and strong, but tolerable pressure of full-thrust main engines. Travers, Newman and Kerrod were shaking and drenched in sweat. Brad Newman reached for the circuit breaker panel again. The roar of the main engines did not stop. He swore loudly.
"Paul, I can't shut off the propellant flow."
Travers glared at him. "You've got to! God knows how much has been wasted already."
Kerrod was white as a sheet. "We're using tonnes of fuel every second, Brad. If you don't stop it we won't stabilise our orbit and we'll fly off to God knows where."
Newman attacked the circuit breakers with desperation. He pulled off two plastic breaker covers and yanked out the wiring, using his teeth to strip the insulation from them. He twisted the bare wires together and jabbed a circuit breaker. He was rewarded by a spark and the smell of burning insulation.
The engines stopped and weightlessness and relative calm returned. The three Astronauts sat in stunned silence for a long moment. Travers prodded them back into action.
"Okay, Brad. Good work. Lets pull ourselves together and get some control back into this thing." He noticed that Kerrod had a nasty cut and bruise over his left eye. "That looks bad, Bruce. Are you alright?"
Kerrod looked shaken but managed a nod. "I'll be okay. Let's get on with it." He locked eyes with Travers.
"Ray and Naseem. Oh no, Paul..."
Travers hit the Comm button. "JEV from Zero X, come in please. This is Colonel Travers calling JEV, please respond."
Static and the belltone peal of Jupiter were his only answer.
"We've got to get that radio working, Brad," he said grimly.
Newman made no reply. They had enough spares to construct several radio systems but he knew that there was a bigger problem looming. He brought up the propellant level readings on Travers display. He pointed at it. "Take a look at it, Paul."
Travers glared at the screen. Kerrod came to look over his shoulder. "My God," he said hoarsely. "That's not enough to send us on a rescue flight to Ray and Naseem, let alone blast us back to Earth. What are we gonna do?"
Paul Travers rubbed his aching jaw. "Bruce, you help Brad get the Comm system back up and running while I get the Nav computer working. We need more information before we do anything. And we've got to let Earth know what's happened."
Thirty minutes later Dr Kerrod announced to Travers that the radio was working again. And then Newman uttered a quiet oath as he drew back from the binocular display of the stereo television camera. His haunted and stricken expression spoke volumes. "Take a look," he told Kerrod and Travers.
Paul Travers saw the blunt nose of the twisted and barely recognisable JEV pointing defiantly at the sky. It had cut a long furrow across the face of Io, leaving a trail of smoking wreckage in its wake. In a matter of months the spacecraft and its inhabitants would be completely covered by Io's volcanic discharge, buried for all time.
Travers floated away from the binocs, eyes filling with tears of disbelief. He moved to his control station but paused before activating the Comm transmit button. "Brad, I want you to note their final co-ordinates precisely. I don't want anyone to ever forget where they went down."
In synchronous orbit above the Pacific Ocean the giant International Rescue space station Thunderbird 5 maintained its tireless vigil. John Tracy drew a second squeeze bottle of hot coffee from the galley dispenser and walked carefully with the aid of his grip shoes into the main control room. The soft babble of a dozen languages drifted from the array of speakers lining the monitoring consoles.
John yawned and combed his fair hair with his fingers. He was about to take a sip of coffee when something caught his trained and sensitive ears. John walked quickly to one of the console speakers. When the words `Zero X' crackled from the speaker the computer automatically suppressed all else and quickly enhanced and amplified the signal. John listened with mounting horror to the strained voice of Colonel Paul Travers.
"Central Control from Zero X, this is Travers speaking. We have major problems here. An electromagnetic phenomenon we do not yet understand has caused both the JEV and the Main Body to go out of control. The JEV impacted on the surface of Io and we believe Major Patel and Doctor Pierce are dead. We barely managed to regain control of the Main Body in time. Both Dr Kerrod and Newman are alright.
"Due to the uncontrolled firing of our main engines, we went into a highly eccentric elliptical orbit that would have had us impact with Jupiter in twenty days. However, Captain Newman and I used most of our remaining fuel to restore us into orbit around Io. We are safe for the moment, but the orbit is decaying. We don't know how long the orbit can be sustained with our available remaining fuel. But Newman estimates between fifty-eight to sixty days, according to available data.
"I say again, we are safe and in good shape. But we are realistic about our situation. We will download as much telemetry as we've got about the accident and our systems status."
John was dizzy from holding his breath. He let it out and inhaled deeply, preparing himself for what he knew was coming next.
"Central Control, we would like to suggest you contact International Rescue immediately. Unless they can get a Thunderbird out to us in fifty-eight days or less, our lucks gonna run out. This is Paul Travers awaiting further instructions. Zero X out."
The coffee tube tumbled away as John hurried to the main communications panel.
Rain lashed Jeff Tracy's rugged face as he sprinted through the courtyard and past the kidney-shaped swimming pool towards the Main House. His sweatsuit was soaked by the sudden downpour that had caught him on his morning run up and down the runway and main beach of Tracy Island. An emergency bleeping from his wristwatch had sent him hurrying back to the house. Jeff reflected sourly on his advancing years as his aching legs pounded up the last few stairs to the main house.
His old friend and butler Kyrano handed him a towel as he strode briskly into the lounge. Scott and Alan were already standing expectantly by Jeff's large desk as he moved to it. The eyes of Johns' blue-uniformed portrait were flashing urgently. The ornate silver ashtray on the desk hinged upwards to reveal a microphone.
"Go ahead, John." John's portrait was replaced by a live image of his flushed and excited face.
"Father, I've just intercepted a transmission from Zero X. Colonel Paul Travers is requesting that Central Control formally ask for our, help. They sound like they're in big trouble, Dad."
"What?!" Alan gasped.
Scott's eyes widened. "They want us to go to Jupiter?" He said incredulously.
"Quiet, boys," Jeff snapped. "Standby, John." He activated the main intercom. "Virgil, Gordon, Brains and Tintin. Up here on the double."
Virgil and Gordon appeared seconds later, already en route from Thunderbird Two's giant cliff hangar. They had heard the emergency signal over the intercom. Brains, Tintin and Grandma Tracy were right on their heels.
"Okay, John," Jeff nodded. "Give us the playback."
They listened intently as Colonel Travers' grim account from a half billion miles away was replayed. When it was finished Jeff Tracy shook his head in amazement. Even after a decade of International Rescue operations, he was still capable of being surprised. He looked at his family and friends as they contemplated the Zero X crews' tragedy with a mixture of sorrow and quiet expectation. Jeff found himself locking eyes with Alan. The face of his youngest son was a mask of determination.
"Well, Alan. What do you think?" He asked quietly. Alan exchanged a glance with Scott. His eldest brother nodded soberly.
"We can do it, Dad. We have to."
Jeff felt a mixture of pride and apprehension for Alan's confidence. But he knew that his Astronaut son's bravery was not foolhardy. Alan was his Father's son, as were they all.
The young scientist fingered his horn-rimmed glasses nervously. "Er, well, Mr. Tracy, although Thunderbird Three needs an overhaul, she's basically in good shape. But she was never designed to operate so deep in space. You see, it's a question of how much, er, fuel Thunderbird can carry and still be able to complete a rescue mission within a reasonable timeframe. She could probably fly all the way to Saturn with sufficient fuel reserves and other, er, consumables.
"But that would mean using the most fuel-efficient trajectory, and Thunderbird Three would never arrive in time for that, er, hypothetical rescue."
"Yeah, but Brains, we had Thunderbird Three beyond the orbit of Mars and into the asteroid belt once," Virgil said.
"That was more than six years ago, Virge," Gordon pointed out. "Three's had quite a few hours in her logbook since then. And you're forgetting that Jupiter is out nearly twice the distance of the asteroid belt! That will require a hell of a lot more fuel if you want to get to the Zero X in time."
"Now hold on," Alan scowled. "Three may have been in service for almost ten years, but she's hardly ready for the scrapheap yet. She's still the most advanced thing in space. Those old NASA Space Shuttles were in service for over thirty years! I'm telling you, we can make it-."
"Alright, Alan. That's enough for now," Jeff interrupted. "I'm all for healthy debate, but we rarely have the luxury of time. Especially now. Give it to us straight, Brains. Will Thunderbird Three's systems operate effectively for over one hundred twenty days, including taking on an additional three passengers?"
Brains felt the expectant eyes upon him. The tension was a palpable thing. A slight crackle from John's Comm line prompted him to answer. He drew a deep breath and answered truthfully.
"Yes, Mr. Tracy, I believe so. But-." He held up a warning finger. "I make no guarantees."
Jeff nodded and touched his wooden desk unconsciously. "Right. That's good enough for me, Brains. International Rescue has never passed up the chance to save lives, no matter how big a challenge. And we're not about to start now. Alan and Scott, start designing your trajectory and flightplan for a Jupiter rescue. Brains and Tintin will start maintenance and any required upgrades on Thunderbird Three systems. Everyone else will assist as needed.
"Patch me through to Zero X Central Control, John."
Jeff fixed them all with a steely glare. "Alright, everyone. This will be a hell of a tough one. We'll need to prepare and modify Thunderbird Three and launch her in two days. Three at the latest. Let's get to it.
"Thunderbirds Are Go!"
"Hey, Paul. I've got an idea," Dr. Bruce Kerrod said. Newman and Travers regarded him expectantly. The three of them floated within the Main Body's galley area, somberly finishing their breakfast.
"Let's hear it," Travers said with little enthusiasm.
"Well, I realise that at missions' end the main chemical rocket motors were intended to boost us to escape velocity, right?"
"Yeah," Travers sighed. "What's your point, Bruce?"
"Okay," Kerrod forged on, trying to raise enthusiasm. "I've been doing some calculations on using the Arc-jet ion drive to build our velocity to the point where we can do a couple of gravitational slingshots around Io and Europa."
Travers and Newman eyed him carefully. Newman frowned. "But the ion drive is pretty weak, Bruce."
"I know that, Brad," Kerrod interrupted. "Now, normally after we've achieved escape velocity with the rockets, the procedure would be to switch in the Arc-jet to accelerate us to two-hundred and fifty thousand miles an hour. To do that, the Arc-jet drive requires a lot of propellant. We've got all of that for the return boost still on board! Why don't we use it to perform those slingshots and send ourselves home on a minimum energy trajectory?"
Travers and Newman exchanged a look. Brad Newman looked thoughtful but Travers shook his head doubtfully.
"The idea has merit, Bruce. And there is even a similar procedure in the manual. As you know, if the JEV were to be stranded on one of the moons, the Main Body command pilot would then have no choice but to return to Earth alone. But that's assuming that the main rockets were still working. Now, the backup procedure I mentioned states that in the event of main rocket failure, the command pilot would be required to dump most of that chemical rocket fuel to reduce the mass of Zero X enough to make an ion drive slingshot manoeuvre.
"Now, he or she would have to retain enough rocket fuel for attitude control and this is where our situation causes a problem. A minimum speed trajectory back to Earth would take over twenty months. We don't have enough food and water left for three people for that length of time. And we barely have enough fuel for attitude control and course correction for fifty days, let alone more than twenty months." Travers shook his head sadly.
"No, Bruce. One of us alone might make it, if there were more rocket fuel. But there isn't any. And one guy could make the food, water and air stretch, but three could not."
Doctor Kerrod looked ashamed. "I'm sorry, Paul. I thought that..." He let his voice trail away.
"Its okay, Doc," Newman reassured him. "Its not your fault that we don't have enough fuel left to send a bathtub back to Earth, let alone the ship. And without sufficient reserves of steering thruster fuel we might find ourselves re-entering Earth's atmosphere `bass-ackwards', so to speak. Not to mention that partial atmosphere entry we did over Io. I'm not so sure our heat shielding wasn't damaged by that."
Travers brightened. "Hey, but I tell you what, Bruce. We should start designing a flightplan for your idea anyway. If International Rescue should run into trouble en-route to us, we could maybe raise our orbit high enough to buy them more time to reach us."
Kerrod placed his empty food tray in the washer slot and rubbed his palms together excitedly. "Right, Paul! I say we get to it immediately. With your permission, I'll show Brad my preliminary calculations right away."
"Go for it," Travers grinned. He exchanged another brief glance with Newman before the Navigator floated off to join Kerrod in the control cabin. Paul Travers' expression fell the moment he was alone. What Kerrod didn't know was that both he and Newman had kept the condition of the Arc-jet's electron replacement coils secret from the Doctor. They had been badly damaged by the electromagnetic phenomenon. If electrons were not replaced in the accelerated mercury fuel ions as they left the final drive coil, the ship would quickly build up a massive negative charge. The drive efficiency would drop until it was totally ineffective. And the side effects to the ships' safety were unpredictable.
Travers hated hiding the condition of the ship from Kerrod, but the Doctor needed the psychological boost of having something productive to do. And Travers knew Kerrod was no fool. The scientist would eventually think of checking on the condition of the ion drive coils. It was just a question of time before he asked the computer for an engine status check. The computer was in standby mode and thus was in no position to volunteer information. You had to ask for it.
Time was of the essence now, Travers knew. He had to keep what was left of his crew and ship together. He floated over to the small wardroom window and pulled the shade aside angrily. The fierce, orange-red globe of Io almost filled the window. Beyond it was the bloated, swirling cloud-banded vision of Jupiter and beyond that, the star studded black immensities of space. More than eight hundred million kilometers distant, preparations for the salvation of the Zero X crew were well underway.
Just over two days later the countdown for Thunderbird Three launch had started. Jeff Tracy yawned and rubbed his tired eyes. There would be time enough for sleep once Thunderbird Three was well on her way.
"Here you go, Mr. Tracy," Kyrano said. Jeff started. His old friend had approached unnoticed, bearing a tray with sandwiches and two steaming mugs of coffee. Jeff smiled and took a mug.
"Thanks, Kyrano. But I don't need two mugs. If I have any more coffee, I'll have to run to the can again."
"That's alright. The other mug was for me," Kyrano grinned. He took the other mug and placed the tray on Jeff's desk.
"Sorry, friend. I was forgetting that you'd been up for days as well." Jeff took a sip and eased himself into his luxuriant chair with a sigh. He shook his head. "My God, Kyrano. I think I'm starting to get a little too old for all this." He rubbed his forehead.
Kyrano favoured Jeff with a kindly smile. "Mr. Tracy, you are my dearest of friends. Although I think you work far too hard, you have many good years left in you yet. You and your sons have worked a miracle in creating International Rescue. And remember all the incredible successes you have had over these last ten years. Hundreds, indeed thousands of people the world over have you and your boys to thank for their very lives. As have my daughter and I."
Jeff smiled at Kyrano gratefully. "Thank you, old friend. You really are a pick-me-up at times. And not just for your cooking and coffee!" He laughed. He was interrupted by beeping and flashing from Virgil's portrait.
"Go ahead, Virgil," Jeff said crisply, masking his fatigue.
Virgil's equally tired face replaced the portrait. "I'm approaching final turning point now. ETA is four minutes, Father."
"Good work, Son. You're twenty minutes ahead of schedule. How's the payload?"
"Just fine. Gordon is down in the pod keeping an eye on them. But between you and me, I think he's asleep down there," he chuckled.
Jeff had arranged with the World Aerospace Corporation to supply them with heavily-insulated expendable strap-on fuel tanks for Thunderbird Three's mission. The Corporation President and his management and engineers had fallen over themselves to be placed at the disposal of International Rescue. Jeff had barely stopped short of demanding the equipment, and had no qualms for doing so.
International Rescue almost never asked for any kind of compensation. But when the opportunity arose to be repaid in kind on a practical basis for services rendered, Jeff and his sons didn't hesitate to ask. Besides, there were no suitable strap-on fuel tanks on Tracy Island and certainly no time to fabricate them. In addition, Thunderbird Two was carrying specialised medical equipment and storage containers for the Zero X crew, her samples and data tapes.
Jeff regarded his son's tired face again. "You look beat, Virgil. Rouse Gordon and have him standby to unload the pod. Brains, Kyrano and I'll meet you down in the hangar presently. After that, I want both you and Gordon to go straight to bed. We could have an Earthbound rescue call at any time and I want you both rested. Is that clear?"
"FAB, Dad! You'll get no arguments from us. Thunderbird Two, out."
Jeff and Kyrano moved to the main lounge window to watch for Thunderbird Two. As they were finishing their coffee the huge green rescue plane roared around the west side of the Island and banked for final approach. Virgil had flown thousands of hours in the massive, yet handsome hypersonic transport. But he never ceased trying to improve upon his landings. In spite of its powerful underjets and sophisticated flight control system, Thunderbird Two was still a handful to fly at low speeds.
The palm trees flanking the runway hinged outwards moments before Virgil made a flawless one-eighty degree rotation and touchdown with underjets screaming. The cliff hangar door cycled open and Thunderbird Two began to roll backwards towards the sanctuary of the giant hangar.
"Virgil is a great pilot," Kyrano said approvingly.
"He sure is," Jeff agreed as he placed his empty mug on the tray.
"Lets go, Kyrano."
The sun was casting a red-gold glow over Tracy Island as it rose above the Pacific horizon. Jeff Tracy's white hair took on some of the sunrise tint as he stood with arms folded, deep in thought before the lounge window. He was about to launch two of his beloved sons on a mission of mercy across a billion kilometers of hostile vacuum. Out to a giant world and its moons that had already killed two fine people.
But Jeff had no illusions about the exploration and conquest of space. He had been amongst the first Astronauts to return mankind to the moon early in the twenty-first century, after a painfully overlong restriction to Earth orbit-only missions. Several good men and women had been killed on one early mission. There had been strong and sometimes hysterical controversy about those deaths but ultimately manned spaceflight had continued. Jeff's old boss had taken the rap for that ill-fated expedition.
Just before leaving office, the Lunar Exploration Director told all the nay-sayers and spaceflight critics to take a flying leap and damn-well grow up. "This is the Twenty-First century, for Godsakes! We're not on a world full of flat-earth sissies from the dark ages. At least we weren't last time I looked. This is a dangerous business we're in, in spite of all the precautions we take. The loss of those wonderful Astronauts is not an excuse to stop! It's an opportunity to learn a lesson, albeit a terribly painful one, and for heavens sake to carry on."
And mankind had. Those words of frustration and sorrow were some of the truest and bravest Jeff Tracy had ever heard. Those Astronauts had been his friends and colleagues and their tragic deaths contributed to Jeff's determination to bring International Rescue into existence. Sometimes Jeff felt he would never exorcise that tragedy from his soul. Every time International Rescue saved a life he felt that little bit nearer to achieving closure for that part of his life.
Jeff checked his watch and sighed. It was time to go and wake up Alan and Scott. He'd sent his sons to bed nearly ten hours ago. They'd both been awake for over thirty-six hours, hard at work in the Thunderbird Three simulator and assisting Brains and Tintin in preparing the huge spaceship for her epic mission. Jeff, Kyrano and the rest of the Tracys were extremely proud of Tintin and the way that she had thrown herself into the missions' preparation.
Especially in view of the fact she would not be accompanying Alan and Scott to Jupiter. Jeff was unwilling to risk any more International Rescue personnel than was strictly necessary. Tintin's engineering and electrical systems skills were second only to Brains. That made her far too valuable to risk on a space rescue that was more hazardous than usual, in spite of her experience on several Thunderbird Three missions. And in Scott's absence, Gordon would pilot Thunderbird One whilst Tintin would take Alan's usual place in Thunderbird Two with Virgil.
Jeff knocked softly on Alan's bedroom door and entered. He was not surprised to find his son already wide awake, standing looking out of his window in a posture uncannily like that of his Father's just moments ago.
"I hope you haven't been standing there all night," Jeff growled.
"No," Alan shook his head. "Just for about twenty minutes or so, I guess. I slept well, Dad," he insisted.
"Alright," Jeff backed down. "Sorry, son. Go have yourself a shower and some breakfast. Final briefing is in forty-five minutes."
As Jeff entered Scott's room he was not surprised to find him still sound asleep, snoring softly. But at a second prompting Scott snapped awake instantly, ready for action. Jeff chuckled wryly. Scott rarely wasted any allocated time be it for work, play or rest.
Jeff Tracy stood solemnly in front of his desk. He regarded his family and friends with gravity. Scott and Alan sat on the sofa/launch access couch flanked by Brains and Tintin, who both looked pale and exhausted. Gordon, Virgil, Kyrano and a very frail Grandma Tracy sat in other chairs that had been arranged in a semi-circle. John stared down expectantly from his portrait screen.
"Let's have the final Thunderbird Three checklist for work undertaken, Brains," Jeff said without further preamble. The young scientist cleared his throat and began.
"Er, right. Thunderbird Three has completed a seven thousand point maintenance check with flying colours. The computers, electrical systems, life support, and propulsion are all nominal. Main and auxiliary power, guidance and navigation all check out. Hull integrity, heat and radiation shielding are all sound. Er, Tintin?"
Tintin brushed a lock of raven hair from her lovely eyes. "Thank you. Brains and I upgraded the shielding with very little weight penalty incurred. We also installed the new and more powerful radar unit two weeks ahead of schedule."
"What about its test program?" Virgil asked.
"The test program was essentially complete," Tintin assured him. "Further testing would only have verified results from the first run, which yielded virtually total reliability. However, Brains, Alan, Scott, Mr. Tracy and I all agreed that retro-fitting the rest of the new sensor package would be risky and unnecessary. There's simply no time to test the whole package."
"Er, yes," Brains agreed. "We also changed out all reactor coolant and installed fresh storage batteries. The strap-on rocket fuel tanks have been leak-tested and simulations show disruption to Thunderbird's aerodynamic qualities to be within, er, tolerable parameters. They have added ninety-eight tons to Three's liftoff weight. This is in addition to the twelve tonnes of extra mercury fuel for the Ion Drive and helium pressurisation cells we installed.
"However, along with the extra food, water and other, er, consumables, we still have a tolerable weight margin for a safe liftoff. Thunderbird Three is quite ready, Mr. Tracy." Brains finished.
Jeff nodded. "Very good. You've all done a swell job. Once again the personnel of International Rescue have made me very proud. The World President will address all nations just as soon as I have informed her that Thunderbird Three is well under way."
He looked at Scott and Alan. "Both of you underwent full physicals not three weeks ago," Jeff said. "So I know you are both in great shape. However, that aside, do you both feel fully capable of doing your jobs right now?"
Alan and Scott locked eyes with their father.
"Hell, yes," Alan said grimly. "We're ready."
"Absolutely, Father," Scott reaffirmed.
Jeff nodded once and glanced at his watch. "Right. Launch is in sixteen minutes. John will receive Thunderbird Three in less than two hours from launch, to facilitate a topping-up of Three's main tanks. Okay, boys. Lets get going."
Tintin and Brains stood and moved aside. Alan and Scott received handshakes and embraces from their family and friends. Tintin hugged first Scott, then Alan with tears in her eyes.
"Take care," she said softly. And then the two Tracy brothers sat down on the sofa again. Jeff touched a control on his desk and the sofa sank through the floor, taking Alan and Scott from sight. Seconds later an identical replacement sofa rose into view.
Below the house Alan and Scott's sofa was lowered on a hydraulic ram to meet a track that conveyed them horizontally into the cavernous Thunderbird Three launch silo. The sofa slid to a halt beneath the middle of the triangle formed by the ninety meter tall spaceship's three engine pods. Alan looked up proudly at the towering Thunderbird, her nose almost lost in the gloom far above.
Then another hydraulic ram drove them and the sofa up through an open hatch in the spaceships tail. They ascended a boarding tunnel that terminated in the small lounge cabin, two thirds of the way up the hull of Thunderbird Three. Alan and Scott crossed the lounge to the glass walled elevator and rode up two decks to the cramped control cabin near the nose. As the Tracy brothers moved to the control console, a closet opened automatically to reveal their blue International Rescue uniforms.
"Retracting injection arm," Alan reported. A faint whine of motors signified that the hydraulic arm that had borne them aboard was retreating. A moment later the access hatch slid into place, sealing Scott and Alan within the spaceship. The brothers started an immediate systems check and the minutes slid by.
"Final oxidiser loading complete," Scott announced presently.
"Roger," Alan nodded. "Closing inlet valves. We are now on internal power. All systems are nominal. T-minus three minutes to liftoff."
"Thunderbird Three from Base," Jeff's gruff voice broke through on the radio. "Sorry, boys, but I'm ordering a twenty minute hold. There's a freighter ship passing within forty kilometers of the Island. Even with the countermeasures network, I don't want to risk it. They're too close to the minimum failsafe point."
"Damn!" Alan muttered under his breath.
Scott sighed. "Okay, Base. Twenty minutes it is. Come on, brother. Lets get those uniforms on while we're waiting."
"Okay, Scott." Alan touched a control button. "Opening oxidiser relief valves." Then he unstrapped himself and rose. "I think I'll go visit the can first. Be back shortly."
Launch clearance was finally given twenty minutes later.
"Off you go, boys. God speed and good luck," Jeff said, barely containing the emotion in his voice.
Alan and Scott exchanged smiles. "Thanks, Dad. Launch silo hatch is open. Inlet valves are shut. Fuel pressure is go, all systems are go. Thunderbird Three is go."
As the last seconds came down to zero, Alan was aware of the sounds in the control cabin. The hum of electrical power, the whirr of the air-conditioning, and the acute beating of his own heart.
And then there was the muffled roar of the igniting rocket engines and a slight wobble as Thunderbird Three rose from her launch pad.
In the Main House, Jeff Tracy and his family looked out across the Island to the big Roundhouse. There was a brief puff of steam and smoke from beneath the Roundhouse. Then, the gleaming nose of the spaceship rose into view, followed by her slender red-orange hull and three long arms that swept gracefully down to the engine pods. Thunderbird Three climbed away on a three-pronged tail of bright flame, battering the Island with a deep thunderous roar.
The spaceship's climb rate seemed sluggish to Jeff Tracy's experienced eyes. He looked to where the cigar-shaped strap-on fuel tanks were bolted to the rear hull section, flanking the engine pods. The ninety plus tons of propellants looked secure and Thunderbird forged on, swiftly gaining speed and altitude. She began a roll and pitch manoeuvre that would place her in the correct attitude for orbit.
A vast and complex world-wide net of electronic countermeasures and jamming devices prevented the launch of Thunderbird Three from being detected. All the Thunderbirds carried equipment to hook them into the jamming web which included buoys around Tracy Island, land stations and ships around the world, and even all the military and civilian satellites in space. Before the maiden launch of any ship, satellite or spacecraft, International Rescue operatives and agents would mount small devices or modify existing equipment to link the various craft into the jamming net.
If for some reason a satellite missed being modified before launch, then Thunderbird Three would rendezvous with it in space and apply a jamming box externally. The upshot of all this arduous procedure was that if a satellite happened to look down upon Tracy Island during a Thunderbird launch, all it would see is a tranquil South Pacific island complete with the weather of that moment.
It was a very complex and expensive process, but one Jeff Tracy and his sons felt was completely justified and necessary. It had been proven time and time again that ruthless individuals would stop at nothing to learn the secrets of International Rescue. The technology the Tracys had at their disposal could potentially endanger many lives and shift the balance of power in the world.
Scott and Alan endured the heavy acceleration forces with practised nonchalance as Thunderbird Three roared out across the Pacific, gaining speed and altitude. Within seven minutes of launch the spaceship had reached twenty-nine thousand kilometers per hour, fast enough to achieve a standard orbit. But Alan continued on with the preplanned burn to increase speed still more. This caused Thunderbird Three to swing around the Earth in a huge arc that would intersect the geostationary orbit of Thunderbird Five.
Only when the main rockets had fallen silent did Alan and Scott allow themselves the luxury of a brief glance at the Earth. Thunderbird Three was climbing away from their blue, green and brown home world, swathed in brilliant white sunlit clouds. Scott marvelled once again at the thin and fragile-looking blue band of atmosphere.
"A guy can never get sick at looking at the old Earth," he said reverently.
"Yeah," Alan agreed. "Even after all these years nobody can really describe what she looks like from space. I guess half the fun is in the trying to."
Nearly two hours later Thunderbird Three had closed to within one hundred meters of the International Rescue space station. Alan steered the spaceship towards Thunderbird Five with skilful, tiny bursts from the manoeuvring thrusters. Thunderbird Five hung like a giant jewel against the pure black sky, the harsh sun striking blinding glints from the space station's array of antennae and modules. A minute later Alan was guiding Thunderbird Three's nose and docking collar into the box-shaped docking module that protruded from the main hull of the station.
A series of vibrations and mechanical sounds were transmitted through the hulls of both spacecraft. "Linkup complete," Scott announced presently. "Leak integrity is nominal."
"Hello there!" came John's happy voice over the radio. "Nice to have you aboard. What'll it be, gents?"
"Fill 'er up," Alan grinned. "And check the oil while you're at it." Seconds later the vibration and hissing of fuel pumps could be heard as all the fuel Thunderbird Three had expended during her ascent was replaced from the space station's own cavernous tanks. In addition to the strap-ons this now gave Thunderbird Three adequate propellant for Jupiter.
Thunderbird Three's powerful rocket engines utilised self-igniting synthetic fuel and oxidiser invented by one of Jeff Tracy's old scientist colleagues. The synthetic propellants were nearly as powerful as supercold liquid oxygen and hydrogen, but far less bulky and without the need to be cryogenic. Which meant that the fuel and oxidiser could be stored for long periods of time at essentially 'room temperature'.
When mixed in the combustion chambers the combination would ignite spontaneously and provide the terrific thrust needed.
"I'm really sorry about you having to stay for another one hundred and twenty-some days, brother," Alan said sincerely. He and Scott were having a cup of coffee with John as Thunderbird Three finished loading fuel.
John shrugged meaningfully. "That's okay, Alan. I'm in the middle of a solar observation program anyway. Not to mention that new comet I discovered."
"Another one!" Scott exclaimed. "How many is that now?"
"Twenty-eight in the past nine years," John smiled modestly. "But whose counting." A soft bleeping issued from the main control panel.
"Well, that's the fuel all loaded," said Alan as he stood up. "I guess we'd better get cracking, Scott."
John embraced his brothers briefly in turn. "Thanks for bringing me more food, clothes and movie-sticks, guys. I really needed more movies and music, I can tell you."
He regarded his brothers fondly. "Take care, guys. If it looks like something going wrong on the rescue, something that compromises your own safety... Then get the hell out of there. Don't do anything dumb."
"We won't," Alan assured him. "And don't worry about the fuel we took. Dad will launch a robot tanker missile in a couple of days."
"He'd better! Otherwise I'll be out of attitude control by the end of the week.."
Minutes later Thunderbird Three had pulled away to a safe distance from the space station. Alan used thrusters and gyros to fine tune the giant spaceship's Earth escape attitude until her nose was pointed toward deep space.
"One minute to ignition," Alan reported to Tracy Island. "Course and escape attitude are A-okay. Strap-on tanks are selected."
"Thunderbird Three from Base," came Jeff's gruff voice. "Okay, Alan, Scott. I want a verbal progress report twice a day and constant telemetry on the condition of Thunderbird Three. Take care, boys and Godspeed."
"See you later, Brothers. Give my regards to Jove," John added.
"Thanks, everyone. We appreciate it. Ignition in twenty-two seconds, mark..."
Exactly twenty-two seconds later a great plume of flame burst from the International Rescue spaceship, driving her from the thrall of Earth. Six minutes later the rocket motors cut off and the strap-on fuel tanks were jettisoned. The cigar-shaped tanks tumbled away and Thunderbird Three's mighty engines lit a second time, supplied by her own internal fuel supply. After another two minutes, Thunderbird Three had surpassed escape velocity by a good margin and the rocket engines fell silent.
And then Brain's ingenious multi-mode propulsion design came into play. Within the three engine pods, elaborate gate seals and mechanisms shut off the rocket combustion chambers. A network of six small but powerful nuclear reactors was brought to bear. Electro-magnetic acceleration coils and particle guns were charged and readied and pumps for the mercury fuel were started. The ion drive had come to life.
The thrust was weak compared to the main motors, but unlike the rockets the ion drive could operate for weeks. Three thin but white-hot streams of plasma were propelling Thunderbird Three towards the outer solar system at ever-increasing velocity. A velocity that would eventually exceed one million miles per hour and allow the International Rescue ship to traverse over one billion kilometers in less than sixty days.
Just like the billions of other television viewers around the world, the Tracys sat down to watch the World President's broadcast later that evening.
"Good evening, my fellow citizens. Several hours ago the International Rescue spaceship, Thunderbird Three set out on a daring mission of mercy across billions of kilometers of hostile space. The crew of Thunderbird Three intends to save the lives of the three surviving members of the ill-fated Zero X Mark Four space craft. Colonel Paul Travers, Space Captain Brad Newman, and Doctor Bruce Kerrod represent the true spirit of absolute bravery and determination.
"These courageous men survived the catastrophe that felled their fellow shipmates, Major Naseem Patel and Doctor Raymond Pierce. The heroic actions of Doctor Pierce and Major Patel will never, ever be forgotten by all those who treasure that which is best about mankind. The desire `To seek, to strive, and never yield' in the pursuit of excellence and the banishment of ignorance from all of our lives. And there is another quality in mankind which is to be treasured and admired by all. That quality of which I speak is mercy.
"For almost a decade now the members of that incredible organisation, International Rescue, have continually served to set the standard by which the quality of mercy shall be measured. Most of the citizens of this planet owe an unrepayable debt to the selfless actions of International Rescue. To quote the famous reporter, Ned Cooke: `Nobody knows who they are or where they come from. But come they do, and help they bring'. There is no simpler complement or appellation that anyone can render unto International Rescue.
"My position as the elected World President empowers me once again to relay the boundless gratitude all the peoples of the World feel towards International Rescue. And we, the citizens of the World, pray for the successful return of both the crews of Zero X and Thunderbird Three."
"Gee, thanks, Madam President," Gordon said with mild sarcasm. "If you hadn't cut the space program budget, you would've been able to build a ship fast enough to send there yourselves!"
The rest of his family and friends shushed him loudly.
"No, no, Gordon's got a point," Virgil defended. "Brains was able to develop such an efficient drive system for Thunderbird Three because he had realistic funding and no bloated bureaucracy to stall him."
"Er, that may be so," Brains cut in. "But if you recall, that was part of the reason some World Government heirachy tried to have International Rescue exposed and shut down, back when we, er, started. Some senators and ministers were upset that we had developed such advanced technology without the supervision and strict safety guidelines established by world engineering and environmental standards."
"Thank goodness for that," Tintin exclaimed. "Otherwise International Rescue wouldn't have remained the centralised and secret organisation that it is. Can you imagine the increased security problems and industrial espionage we would have had to weather had it not been for the way we had conducted ourselves?"
"But we aren't that centralised," Jeff corrected her. "Don't forget, there are hundreds of sub-contractors all over the world that supply components for our craft. Many of them don't know what they're building, and if it weren't for our operatives, agents and my personal contacts, the whistle would have been blown by some `sticky beak' years ago. Come to think of it," Jeff grinned tiredly, "If I had a dollar for every time that very thing had almost happened, I wouldn't have to pay so much to run this `chicken outfit'".
Jeff stood up and stretched mightily. "I'm gonna go to bed. I suggest all of you do the same," he said pointedly. "Except Gordon. You have the night watch, son. Try not to fall asleep in front of the TV, wont you?"
"I wont," Gordon promised. "But if I hear any more speeches like those from the President, I may throw up."
"Nice speech," Doctor Kerrod said after he muted the volume of Zero X's small television. "Maybe it's just the cynic in me, but why do International Rescue spend billions of dollars saving people? There's got to be more in it than just saving little ol' us."
Paul Travers sighed. "You are a cynic, Bruce, just as I've said time and again. `Sometimes a duck really is just a duck and not a turkey', as my Grandpa used to say. Maybe whoever owns and runs International Rescue has more money than they can spend. It could simply be that he or she really does want to serve mankind.
"And just maybe every now and then they can dole out some of that fantastic technology of theirs to cover costs."
Kerrod frowned. "I'm not sure I follow you."
"Well," Travers warmed to the subject. "Seven years ago, after International Rescue saved us during the first Mars expedition, I did a little digging around. That International Rescue guy who answered to the name `Scott' reminded me of someone. I couldn't put a finger on it so I went to a friend of mine in Interpol and he and I did a little research."
Kerrod's eyes widened. "Go on!" he prompted.
"Well, we fed an identikit description of Scott into the Interpol mainframe and asked the computer to try and match him to worldwide military and civilian aerospace personnel records. After a few false matches we came up with the right guy. But his picture and stats weren't on the screen for half a second when, so help me, the whole mainframe crashed! Alarms went off, and a dozen security guards practically threw us out of the building."
"F-for Godsake!" Kerrod spluttered. "What happened next?"
Travers was enjoying this. "Well, apparently that file was protected by some elaborate security program that set in motion all that fuss. I guess International Rescue has some friends in very high places. My buddy didn't just lose his job, he was actually given a big promotion, would you believe. In fact, he suddenly became very dismissive about the whole event when I was able to question him a few days later. He laughed it off! I got very pissed with him, but left it at that.
"Because of who I was, I was only given a short interview by the Interpol bigwigs and let go. For several weeks afterward I was expertly followed and presumably put under surveillance. When the heat had died down a little I started checking around again, this time by myself. You see, after some careful thought, I remembered that the file image of Scott I'd seen for a split second on that screen had given me his surname. Tracy. The file had come from the U.S. Air Force. Do you remember an old NASA Astronaut by the name of Jefferson Tracy?"
Kerrod frowned. "Ah, vaguely, I think-."
"Well, this guy Scott Tracy bore a resemblance to ex-Astronaut Jeff Tracy. And I found out that an engineering patent company, with a controlling interest in Hackenbacker Engineering, was earning billions in patent design allocations. Guess what? The directors of Hackenbacker Corp were a multi-qualified engineer/scientist and none other than Jefferson Tracy himself."
Kerrod was astonished. "Are you trying to tell me that you think this ex-Astronaut Tracy is the leader of International Rescue? And that this Scott Tracy might be his son? Call me sceptical, but you need more proof than that, Paul. It's a long shot. Did you look up personal details on this Jeff Tracy? Does he have any sons?"
Travers shook his head. "There are few personal details available on Jefferson Tracy. Apparently, he values his privacy a great deal. And the sources who could've helped me with further information were extremely vague and uncooperative. Some were downright hostile. However..." Travers smiled. He had Kerrod's undivided attention.
"...It doesn't stop there. Just a few hours after I'd reached a dead-end with my information trail, I received a phone call. I had been asleep but I was wide awake when the caller told me he was Scott."
"Jesus!" Kerrod exclaimed.
"Exactly. That's what I said. He told me to meet him in one hour at a bar I frequented in Houston. When I got there, sure enough, it was him. It was Scott. He was sitting at a table down the back of the room. When I joined him I'm damned if he didn't order me a Scotch and mineral water, too."
"Your favourite drink," Kerrod said wondrously.
"Yeah. He was dressed all in faded denim and just to reassure me it was all kosher, he showed me one of those blue International Rescue caps. Well, we shook hands and exchanged small talk. But he quickly got down to business..."
Travers appraised Scott coolly, keeping his expression as neutral as possible. However, the anger and irritation he felt towards the whole mess threatened to boil over. But the big, dark-haired International Rescue man was almost humble.
"I'm sorry about all of this, Captain Travers. Nobody has been hurt by this incident and I'm sure we'd all like to keep it that way."
Travers barely held his temper under control. "Well, since I know you only as `Scott', then why don't you just call me Paul? And are you threatening me, Scott, if that is your real name?"
"Scott is my real name," he said patiently. "And we at International Rescue wouldn't dream of threatening you, especially. You have to understand, Paul, that the security precautions put in place by International Rescue are not paranoid, sinister, or selfish ones. Even if you weren't as famous as you are, no harm would become of you. In fact, I'd like to thank you for exposing a weak spot in our security!" He smiled. "You are smarter than most and more intrepid than a lot of the people we rescue.
"And, I have to emphasise, you are a lot more honorable than most people would be in your position, knowing what you do know. You didn't run off to the military, the secret services, the tabloids or the Internet. Why would that be, Paul?"
Travers was insulted. "Why do you think!? I owe you my life, man. Don't you understand? I wanted to find out more about the people who had pulled off such a miracle. And for the last few days I've been hounded and followed and practically treated like a criminal. Hell, you've probably got all the secret services and societies of the whole world in your pockets." He fought to keep his voice down. "For Godsake, Scott, I just wanted to-". He stopped, suddenly too ashamed to continue.
"Its okay, Paul. I understand. And no; although we do have friends in high places, we are not omnipotent. I'm here, alone and needless to add, unarmed, because you need to know that we are serious about maintaining secrecy. Because there are people, and I mean rotten people, who will stop at nothing to gain our secrets. Guys like that creep who tried to hi-jack your ship. Some of our equipment could potentially be perverted into use as horrific weapons.
"Nobody wants that scenario on their conscience. You have witnessed first hand the caliber of our gear. You were originally a military man, Paul. You understand and know that what I'm telling you is the truth."
Travers nodded soberly. He took a sip of his drink for the first time. "Yes. You're right, Scott I'm very sorry for all the trouble I've caused you. I hope to God you don't think that I'm some kind of ungrateful S.O.B. I promise you it won't happen again."
"I know," Scott said. "And I have to say," he re-emphasised, "that International Rescue is not a Mafia outfit. We don't intimidate good people. I'm not here to offer you a bribe or payment, nor am I here to recruit you. And I'm certainly not here to threaten you in any way. I'm just here to appeal to your abundant common sense. Please, Paul, I'll ask you again. Do not go any further with your detective work. It wouldn't do you any good."
Scott smiled smugly and a little mysteriously. "You'd never be able to prove a damned thing anyway." Then Scott's expression became grave and serious. "You are in a position of tremendous responsibility, Paul. The potential safety of the entire world has now become a part of your life, no matter what you could or couldn't prove. And no matter what you motives were."
And then, Scott offered Paul Travers his hand.
Travers took the hand and looked Scott in the eye. "You have my word, Mister," he swore.
Scott stood up. "Thanks, Paul," he said simply. "And no offence, but I hope it's a long time before we speak again." He reached into his jacket and tossed the International Rescue cap onto the table. "Keep that as a souvenir. And if you ever need our help, just call."
With that, Scott turned and left the bar. Paul Travers stared at the cap for a moment. Then he stuffed it in his coat pocket and picked up his drink again...
Scott placed his uniform cap on the lounge table and reached for the steaming mug of coffee. He drank from it slowly, careful not to slop the hot beverage in the gentle artificial gravity generated by Thunderbird Three's constant acceleration. Scott glanced at the status monitor on the lounge wall. It read Thunderbird's velocity as 750 thousand kilometers per hour, gaining dozens of kilometers per hour with each passing second.
The International Rescue ship was almost halfway through her nine day period of maximum ion drive acceleration. Scott and Alan took turns watching over Thunderbird's systems while the ion drive was in action. The brothers would return to a simultaneous sleep shift when the engines were shut down. Scott turned on the movie-stick player and was chuckling at an old science fiction TV show when Alan appeared from the lift. He looked bleary-eyed and his blond hair was tousled.
"Couldn't sleep, eh?" Scott smiled as he muted the TV sound. Alan eased himself into an adjacent chair and glanced at the systems status screen.
"Nope. I guess I slept so soundly last night that I don't need it now. Everything working well?"
Scott nodded. "Basically. The temperature on one of the reactors is a little higher than I would like, but its still within parameters."
"Good," said Alan. "Have there been any messages from Dad, Brains, or Tintin?"
Scott noticed that Alan said Tintin's name with slightly exaggerated indifference. "No, not since when you went off seven hours ago. Any special reason Tintin might call, little brother?"
Alan pursed his lips. Trust Scott to be so direct!
"Is everything alright between you and Tintin, Alan?" Scott prompted gently. "You didn't have a fight before we left?"
Alan shook his head hurriedly. "No, no. Nothing like that. Though things have been a little strained since I gave her that lecture about us not getting further involved. Because of our hazardous lives, you know."
"Oh. That again," Scott said sarcastically. Alan glared at him.
"What? What've I done now?" He said defensively. Scott took a gulp of his coffee. Some of it escaped the mug and slopped to the floor in slow motion.
"Look, Alan. How much longer are you gonna play this game with Tintin? The pair of you have been acting coy with each other for years. The whole of Tracy Island knows how you feel about each other. You're both in your thirties now. You might be as old as Dad before you both decide to do anything about your relationship."
"If I live that long," Alan said glumly.
"Don't give me that crap," his elder brother snorted. "Our mission success rate is outstanding. How many rescue missions have we carried out in the last nine years?"
Alan's brow creased. "Over two hundred."
"Right. And how many of those were unsuccessful?"
"Only three," Alan said quietly.
"Right again. And you know very well that all of those occasions were not our faults. You can blame The Hood for the deaths caused in one of them. I think its safe to assume that we'll both be rather superannuated by the time our number is up. So relax," Scott grinned cheerfully. "You'll live to a ripe old age, little brother. Regardless of your pessimism or my optimism."
Alan smiled fondly. "You're probably right, big brother. Don't think I haven't already thought about what you've said. But there is one `slight' problem that complicates matters between Tintin and me."
Scott shrugged. "Yeah, what?"
"Brains," Alan said simply.
Scott carefully placed his mug on the lounge table. "Come again?"
"Brains," Alan repeated. "Haven't you noticed how much time he and Tintin have been spending together? And what about their shopping expedition to the mainland recently? They work together constantly. Tintin may have her engineering degrees, but just think of everything she's learned from Brains these past years. And she's virtually the only woman he has had any contact with, for years."
"I can see your point," Scott said. "But you don't seem to be as cut up about it as you could be."
Alan got up and paced the lounge slowly. "You're absolutely right. And here I am, on a dangerous mission that will last well over one hundred days while Brains is back there, safe and sound and available."
"So you're wondering if he and Tintin will take the next step while you're away? Hhmm. I can sympathise," Scott said quietly.
"It's not easy," Alan sighed. "Especially when Brains is such an amazing guy. He may not be very exciting on a social or physical level, but he's a very brilliant and sensitive man. We all care about him like he was another brother. Not to mention that we all owe him our lives several times over."
Scott nodded sagely. "Aint that the truth. Look, Alan. There's not much you can do about it way out here. You'll just have to be patient and hope that whatever happens will be best for Tintin's happiness. And if nothing has happened while you were away from Tracy Island, then you'd better damn well sort things out with Tintin once and for all when we return."
Alan smiled and smoothed down his hair. "You're right. That's just what I'll-."
A soft but insistent bleeping interrupted him. Alan glanced at the systems status screen and swore softly. "Reactor coolant alarm!"
Scott got up quickly. "I knew that darned reactor wasn't up to scratch. How serious is it?"
Alan strode hurriedly to the lift. "It could be bad. Come on!"
Millions of kilometers away in Brain's lab on Tracy Island, Brains, Tintin and the rest of the Tracys listened apprehensively to Alan's report on the condition of Thunderbird Three.
"Due to a coolant heat exchanger problem on the number four reactor, Scott and I have shut that reactor down. We have reconfigured the rest of the exchanger system as per Section C, Page Seventy-one of the Contingencies Manual. We have carried out a thorough analysis of the impact to our flightplan, and have concluded the following: We will have to operate the five remaining reactors and ion-drive at one hundred and seven percent for an additional thirty-six hours to ensure we arrive at Jupiter in time for rescue.
"Nevertheless, twenty-one hours will be added to our flighttime. We will inform the crew of Zero-X of our problems, but I repeat, we should still arrive in plenty of time to help them. However, if we suffer any more reactor malfunctions, we will have to resort to a main rocket burn. That's something I am reluctant to do, in view of our fuel conservation priorities. Brains: See if you and Tintin can solve the heat exchanger problem before we have to do the deceleration burn on the twenty-fourth of next month.
"All the relevant telemetry should already be in your computer, so don't sweat it. You'll have plenty of time to look at it, so I suggest you all go back to bed. Sorry to wake you all. This is Thunderbird Three, over and out."
"Huh!" Gordon grumbled. "`Don't sweat it, go back to bed'. That's easy for him to say."
"We don't call him `the fearless one' for nothing," Virgil yawned mightily. "But I'm gonna take his advice. G'night."
Jeff watched Virgil trudge away. "He's got the right idea. Brains and Tintin; I want you to only have a preliminary look at that reactor data. In view of those tremors in southern China, we may be called upon to help at any time if there's a major quake. I want you both rested in that event."
Tintin nodded. "Yes, Mr Tracy."
"Er, sure, Mr Tracy," Brains echoed. He waited until Jeff had left the room before banging his fist on the desk angrily. "Dammit! What could have gone wrong? I triple-checked everything before they left!"
Tintin placed her hands on his slim shoulders. "Sshh, Brains, darling. You did everything you could. If any mistake has been made to cause this, it's probably mine. We were both tired and under a lot of pressure to get Thunderbird ready." She massaged the tension in Brain's shoulders. "Probably no one is to blame."
Brains looked up at her and smiled fondly. "Yeah, I guess you're right, Tintin." All trace of his stutter was gone. "Let's have a look at that data, shall we?"
Brad Newman was on the night systems-watch when the message from International Rescue came in. He listened grimly to Alan Tracy's voice. Brad decided not to wake Travers and Kerrod from their fitful slumber. They had a lot on their minds already to constantly rob them of much needed sleep. He would tell them in four hours when they were scheduled to awake. And he would also inform them that his latest calculations told him that Zero-X's fragile orbit was decaying faster still than expected. By the time Thunderbird Three arrived they might have a couple of hours, if that, to affect a rescue.
An entirely accurate prediction could not be made until literally the last orbit. By then it might be too late. But Brad Newman was an optimistic man as well as a mathematician. You don't get anywhere in the space business without taking risks. And calculated risks had always been Brad's stock and trade.
He opened the shutters on one of the forward portholes and stared out at the surface of Io and the massive, ghostly bulk of Jupiter beyond. Brad then made a symbolic but heartfelt calculated risk:
He offered the ancient Roman God his defiant and erect middle finger.
MAY 22nd: IN JUPITER SPACE, INSIDE THE ORBIT OF EUROPA.
"Minus twenty seconds to rocket ignition," Alan Tracy announced in a calm-sounding voice. But as he spoke, his heart pounded with apprehension. The long voyage from Earth was nearly over. Now came the hard part.
Brains and Tintin had solved the problem with the number four reactor several weeks before. The new reactor coolant they had installed in Thunderbird Three before launch had contained minute amounts of contaminant. But it had been enough to clog a vital system valve. Their solution was to bring the reactors up to full power and run the coolant through both the backup and secondary filters three times. All Scott and Alan then had to do was don radiation suits, change out the filters and bypass the malfunctioning valve. To everyone's relief, the problem did not re-occur.
"Engine reconfiguration complete. The reactor cooling rates are within predicted parameters," said Scott. "Thank God," he added. "What's the chemical fuel status?"
Alan frowned. "Not great, but we'll make it. Get set, I'm triggering maximum thrust in five, four, three, two, one..."
The brothers were immediately pushed down hard into their seats. Scott grunted with surprise. After weeks of weightlessness and the feeble ion drive braking, the decelerative thrust seemed brutal, even though it was less than two G.
"Only eleven more minutes to go," Alan joked through clenched teeth.
"Sadist," Scott growled good-naturedly. Even after two months in cramped conditions the Tracy brothers were still getting on well.
After what seemed a proverbial eternity the rocket motors fell silent. Free-fall returned with a stomach-churning lurch. Thunderbird Three had changed her course sufficiently enough to rendezvous with Io in less than two more days. The increasing uncertainty as to whether they could reach Zero X in time gnawed at Scott and Alan.
"Velocity is within twenty-one point four meters per second accuracy," Alan grinned. "Read `em and weep."
"What a guy," Scott said drolly. He looked at the fuel gauges and stopped smiling. "I'm reading forty-one percent fuel left. That aint so good, brother."
"Not much we can do," Alan shrugged. "We'll worry about that after our classy rescue job. Try and get Zero X on the high gain again, will you?"
Scott nodded and switched the Comm to transmit. "This is Thunderbird Three calling Zero X, come in please. Thunderbird Three calling Zero X, please respond."
Pure electromagnetic white noise and the strident bell-tone of Jupiter were his only reply at first. But after several tries Scott got a weak but clear signal from Zero X.
"This is Colonel Paul Travers. Good to hear you, International Rescue. Is that Scott speaking?"
The Tracy's exchanged a glance. "Uh, yeah, Colonel, Scott here. How are guys doin' over there?"
Travers voice was artificially cheerful. "We're in fair shape. But I tell you, buddy, we're all heartily sick of this hayride and wanna get off, real soon. An hour ago we used the last of our fuel for one more stabilisation burn. Newman says it should buy us forty, maybe forty-one hours at best. After that, the only thing we'll be buyin' is the farm. What's your ETA now, Scott?"
Alan brought up the data on the console. "Our ETA is a nice and, er, safe thirty-nine hours and fifty minutes. You boys had better be in your suits by then. Are they rad-hardened?"
"Yes, they are. But they were only designed for EVA in close-Jupiter space for periods of no more than fifteen minutes. After that, their insulation becomes saturated."
"I was afraid of that," Scott grumbled. "And the transfer will have to take place on the Jupiter-facing side of Io. That will literally be on the very last orbit. If we have time I will give you guys rad-resistant coveralls to put on over your suits. They'll look baggy and kinda funky, but they'll work," he tried to joke.
Traver's reply was strained. "We'll try not to let your designer down on the catwalk, Scott. We're all a little out of shape, athletically speaking, but we wont let you down."
Scott and Alan marvelled at the Zero X Commanders' bravado. He and his crew had had ample time to contemplate their peril. Yet still Travers had kept his crew's morale largely intact. Paul Travers was more like Jeff Tracy than he would ever know.
"Just hang in there, Colonel. We'll be knocking on your door at the appointed time or earlier if we can manage it. Get yourselves some rest. We will talk to you at regular intervals till then. Thunderbird Three, out." He raised his eyebrows and sighed. "Phew! Those are great guys, Alan. If we don't save those fellers, we'd better not go back to Earth."
"Yeah," said Alan. "I hear the weather's great on Mars at this time of year!"
"No doubt. Mind the instruments, will you. I'll go make us breakfast."
Alan waited till Scott had floated out of the control room before speaking to the empty air. "`Mind the instruments, will you. I'm gonna make breakfast'", he said in an uncanny imitation of his elder brother. "Just where else d'you think I'm gonna go, smart guy?"
Abruptly, Scott's head popped around the hatchway, grinning ear to ear. "Aha! Caught you talking to yourself again. You know that means you do the breakfast and lunch dishes again!"
Scott ducked to avoid a ballpoint pen thrown with deadly accuracy.
Thirty-eight hours later things were proceeding considerably more seriously. A two minute full-thrust burn had placed Thunderbird Three into a decaying orbit around Io that closely matched the endangered Zero X. This had reduced Thunderbird's rocket propellant levels to thirty-one percent, an amount that alarmed the Tracy brothers greatly. This meant that a burn to escape Jupiter's gravity later on would deplete fuel levels to the point where the International Rescue ship would be unable to brake into Earth orbit.
"We can't worry about that now," Alan said grimly. "Maybe we could reach the moon or one of the Lagrange points and rendezvous with a tanker there."
"Yeah, Dad will sort something out. Anyway, I'd better go and suit up. We'll be there in thirty minutes."
"Wait a second," Alan held up a hand. He toggled the Comm switch.
"Zero X, this is Thunderbird Three. We are starting our intercept run now. I'm going to exceed my own propellant safety levels to ensure that the closure rates are within predicted margins."
A sharp crackle preceded Paul Traver's reply. "Affirmative, Thunderbird. We're already suited up over here. Atmospheric drag has been higher than expected in the last hour, so Doctor Kerrod and I have come up with an idea to augment our stability and attitude control. It's risky but we think it'll work."
Alan's reply was stern. "With respect, Colonel. I thought I told you I didn't want you guys doing anything that could possibly upset the apple cart. Our trajectories and timelines must be strictly adhered to if we're-."
"Just wait a damned minute!" Travers said angrily. "Grateful as we are that you guys are here, we can't just sit here and do nothing. Bruce worked hard on this idea and I think it has merit. Hear me out!"
Alan glanced at his brother. Scott leaned towards the Comm pickup. "Okay, Paul. This is Scott, lets hear it."
Scott knew that Traver's irritability was partly for show. The Colonel was probably trying to boost Kerrod's fast-failing morale and nerves by defending the scientist's idea, whatever it was.
Travers cleared his throat. "Okay, Scott. Sorry about the bite. Bruce and I have reconfigured part of the attitude control thruster system to run off our ion drive's mercury fuel supply. In a nutshell, we heavily overload the RCS heaters to vaporise the mercury. We can't throttle the thrusters and they'll have damn-all power, but they will work for a few bursts... Until we burn out the heater elements or clog the thruster vents, whichever comes first. But it should be enough to dampen any air-drag instability we accumulate before the EVA transfer."
Scott grinned. "Resourceful as ever, Paul. Okay, it sounds good from where we're sitting, buddy. Keep your transponder and running lights at full power. We're coming in. And I don't want you sitting at that control panel until the last moment again, even if your thrusters are still working. If you are not in the airlock when I arrive, we will not wait for you. Do I make myself perfectly clear, Colonel Travers?"
A massive surge of interference drowned any reply Travers might have made. The two spaceships had passed out of Io's shadow for what was likely the last orbit. Scott switched to another antenna and was immediately rewarded with hearing Traver's affirmative comeback.
"No argument there, International Rescue. We'll all be ready. Let's keep the telemetry at full exchange levels and all further Comm traffic to a minimum. Concentration will be imperative from now on. Agreed?"
"Agreed," Scott nodded. "I'll talk to you again in fifteen minutes, after I've suited up. Until then, follow any and all instructions from Thunderbird Three pilot, Alan, without question."
Without further preamble, Scott strode quickly for the airlock. Although Alan was far more experienced at spacewalking than his elder brother, he was unarguably more valuable in the pilot's seat for their current situation. Scott's flight time at the controls of Thunderbird Three didn't begin to compare to that of his younger brother.
Scott climbed into the lower half of the radiation-proof hardsuit then stuck his head through the neck ring and sleeves of the barrel-chested torso section, locking the two halves together securely. Instead of ending in gloves, the sleeves terminated with five bionic fingers tipped with pressure feedback sensors. Scott's own hands were inserted into bulbously-shrouded control gloves that would cause the bionic digits to instantly mimic any action he made and provide actual feel every time Scott touched or grabbed anything.
The environment of close-Jupiter space was so harsh that normal pressure gloves would need to be so thick they would be useless. Like wise the helmet Scott locked into place next: Instead of a conventional visored pressure helmet, Scott's headgear relied on a wide-angle stereo TV camera for vision. Lastly, Scott backed onto the air and power backpack attached to an airlock wall.
The hardsuit with its bulbous, bearing-articulated legs, long arms and goggle-eyed helmet, looked like a robotic simian. With the bionic hands' amazing tactile agility, Scott easily strapped on his bulky tool belt and attached the safety tether line.
"We're approaching final phase maneuvers," Alan's voice said in his helmet earphones. "I'll be firing a magnetic grapple line when we've closed to within thirty meters of Zero X. Attach three motorised harnesses to the line and make sure those Astronauts are in them pronto."
Scott nodded. "Sounds straightforward enough."
"Humph!" Alan snorted. "Atmospheric drag is increasing exponentially every minute. Sulphur dioxide levels are really high. I think one of the volcanoes is erupting as we speak. That would account for the drag. How straightforward would you like it?"
"Understood," Scott said soberly. "I'll get the harnesses ready. Are you broadcasting our Comm traffic back to Thunderbird Five?"
"Yes," Alan said distractedly. "Standby, I'm gonna be busy for a while." Scott heard and felt the thrusters fire four times at various thrust levels. He took three motorised harnesses from a locker and started the airlock depressurisation cycle. After several more thruster firings and radio exchanges with Zero X, Alan confirmed the launch and successful linkup of the grapple and tether.
"Yeah, I felt it go," Scott said. I'm going to open the airlock hatch presently. This is Scott calling Travers, Kerrod and Newman. Can you guys hear me?"
The reply was thin and wracked with static. "Loud but not clear, Scott. This is Bruce Kerrod. Newman and I are in the airlock."
"Where is Colonel Travers?" Scott growled. "I told him to be ready!"
"I know, International Rescue. But he nearly threw us out of the control cabin. Our rate gyros have all but packed in, so he's been controlling attitude manually to avoid gimbal lock."
Scott swore under his breath. "Alright. I'm opening my hatch in thirty seconds, then I'm attaching motorised harnesses to the tether line that will convey you to Thunderbird Three. The harnesses are dead easy to put on, but I'll spot you on that if I need to. It'll take you only two minutes to cross to Thunderbird, so the rad coveralls I spoke of a while ago won't be necessary. Tell Travers I'll be with you guys in exactly three minutes. If he's not in the airlock by then, tell him to forget it!"
Kerrod's voice was strained but clear. "Understood, Scott."
"Gentlemen," Alan called. "Make it snappy. I estimate atmospheric interface in four minutes!"
Scott pushed the hatch control firmly and the outer airlock door slid open. He gasped involuntarily at the view.
The red-orange surface of Io loomed huge and intimidating, scant kilometers below. Scott saw its valleys, mountains, volcanic and impact craters with frightening clarity. But also impressive was the close proximity of Zero X. Alan had closed Thunderbird Three to within thirty meters of the huge spaceship after attaching the magnetic grapple and its tether. Even without the JEV at front of the blue, rectangular Main Body, Zero X was still almost twice the length of Thunderbird Three.
The Main Body was dusted with a yellowish coating of sulphur. And it was impossible to ignore the huge swath of sky dominated by the glowing, cloud-banded immensity of Jupiter. Scott glimpsed continent-sized sheets of lightning rippling across areas of turbulent hydrogen clouds and the tangled knots of violent gaseous storms larger than the whole Planet Earth. It was but one of many startling sights from his life in International Rescue. But it would be one forever imprinted on his memory.
"Phew!" He exclaimed. "That's enough sightseeing. Time for work."
Scott attached the first three pulleys to the tether then clamped his own on last. He tripped the master control switch on his suits' chest unit and was drawn from the airlock into raw Jupiter space. The helmet's headup display radiation gauge immediately soared into the red. A small digital timer sprang to life.
"The clock has started," Scott said hoarsely. He glanced down at the looming surface of Io and immediately wished he hadn't. The harsh terrain was moving with visible, adrenaline-surging speed. Scott breathed deeply in an attempt to calm himself. Then he looked at the suit clock and breathed even deeper.
"Are you okay, Scott?" came Alan's concerned voice. Scott concentrated determinedly on the end of the magnetic grapple. It terminated next to the Zero X Main Body airlock.
"Yeah, I'm doin' fine, little brother. Say, that was fancy shootin' you did there, pardner. You roped that hoss real good!"
Alan attempted some strained humour. "You bet. When this dull job is all done, what say you and I hit up the Big Chief for a long vacation and go to a real Rodeo?"
"You're on," Scott smiled weakly. "The beer and hotdogs are on me. Say, brother, I'm nearly there already. Thanks a lot. Zero X, this is Scott. I'm ten meters from the airlock hatch. Open up and standby to disembark the hayride."
"You got it, pal," said Kerrod. The hatch irised open stiffly just as Scott brought the harnesses to a stop at its threshold. There were only two bulky white-suited occupants with opaque helmets waiting in the airlock. Scott didn't even bother to hide his anger.
"Where is Colonel Travers!" He barked.
The spacesuit with the Kerrod namebadge waved its arms. "He's coming right now, and he's already suited up. Paul depressurised the whole ship so he can open the inner airlock without a blowout. Quick, get us in those harnesses!"
"Thunderbird Three to Zero X. Atmosphere in one minute. Get a damned move on, you guys."
Scott used his suits bionic fingers to grab Kerrod and loop the top part of the harness over his helmet and backpack. It was easier said than done. Both Astronauts had small cylinders strapped to the thighs of their suits. Scott guessed that they contained samples from the recovered probes. The two Zero X men were not going to give up their dead colleagues' hard work easily.
Whatever the purpose of the containers, they were making Scott's job more difficult. He churned with frustration and urgency, but forced himself to work carefully. There was only one chance to get it right. He snapped Kerrod's belt section into place and moved aside clumsily, hitting the first harness' control switch as he did so. Doctor Kerrod bumped and bounced off the outer airlock hatchway before speeding off towards Thunderbird Three. Scott had no time to worry if the scientists' suit had sustained any damage, he and Brad Newman were already applying the next harness.
"Paul. Paul, this is Brad. Come on Skipper, we're going!"
But Paul Travers did not reply. Scott glanced grimly at the inner airlock hatch. Newman gripped his arm. Two opaque, inhuman pressure helmets stared at one another meaningfully.
"Paul!" Brad Newman shouted, ragged with grief and fatigue. After a long moment, Newman appeared to sag. Then he straightened reluctantly. "Do it," he said, almost inaudibly.
Scott hit the harness return button, numbly preparing himself to leave as well. But just then the inner airlock door slid open to reveal Paul Travers. The Zero X Commander swarmed clumsily into the airlock, waving his arms. He frantically tapped the side of his helmet. With a snarl more from haste than anger, Scott grabbed the Colonel and man-handled him into the last harness. Sweat trickled down his cheek and he wished like blazes he could wipe it.
"Scott, this is Kerrod. I'm in the Thunderbird airlock. Newman is almost with me. Hurry it up!"
"This is Alan. Hull temperatures are increasing. I'm going to have to jettison the grapple in about ninety seconds or lose everything."
But Scott had already started Travers across the tether at maximum motor speed. When the Astronaut was ten meters out, Scott triggered his own harness to follow at full power. The tether and Travers' suit were emitting thin wisps of dark vapour! Scott waved his suit arms and was shocked to feel a ghostly resistance to his movement. The atmospheric drag was increasing. In less than a minute Scott's armoured spacesuit would break away from the harness and make a new crater in the pockmarked surface of Io.
Scott swore as the timer readout on his helmet display began flashing bright red. He was out of time for real. Paul Travers bumped and wobbled his way into Thunderbird Three's airlock just as Scott's own harness stopped, started again, then finally ground to a halt just four meters from the airlock.
"Alan!" he shouted. "My winch has burned out. Detach the grapple and use thrusters only to slow our descent. I'm gonna try to..." Scott ran out of breath. Grunting with effort, he gripped the tether with one bionic hand and hit the harness release button with the other. The harness strapping sprang away and now there was only one mechanical handgrip between life and a dizzying plunge to his death.
He fought the tenuous but insistent air drag and managed to grab the tether with both hands. Scott moved carefully, hand over robotic hand towards the safety of Thunderbird Three. He felt tired and frustrated that he couldn't apply any more strength to the suit's substitute fingers. Less than one meter from sanctuary, Scott felt his grip giving way.
But then he felt a strong grasp take hold of his bionic hands. Scott arched his neck painfully to see Paul Travers dangling from Thunderbird's hatch. Part of a rescue harness was wrapped around one suit leg. The Zero X Commander was rescuing Scott with the only things left; human determination and improvisation. He hauled the International Rescue man aboard to safety with his own failing strength.
Scott lay on the airlock floor, dimly aware that Travers lay across him. That meant... That meant the engines were firing. Alan must be thrusting away from Io. Scott tried to push the exhausted Travers off of him, but couldn't. The acceleration of Thunderbird's engines was too great. He swivelled his helmet around the airlock until he saw the figures of Kerrod and Newman slumped in the corner. Kerrod waved to him weakly. Scott grinned broadly and settled back. They had done it.
Alan watched his TV monitor with grim fascination. The Zero X main body was falling to her destruction. She hit the rugged surface of Io tail-first, throwing a plume of sulphurous regolith skywards before slamming down and breaking her rectangular back. Brief gouts of flame puffed from the tangle of flying wreckage that skidded and bounced for several kilometers.
And then it was over, just a long furrow ending in a slow-settling cloud of mustard and red-orange dust. Alan turned back to his controls and settled Thunderbird Three into a safe Ionian orbit.
John Tracy listened happily to a tired but jubilant Alan speaking from almost a billion kilometers away.
"...We're all in good shape here. It was pretty hairy, but Scott managed to pull it off, with a little help from Colonel Travers. You know, that guy would make a pretty good operative. I better watch out for my job! We'll send you all a proper debriefing tomorrow. Everybody here is dog tired, but healthy. The radiation shielding on Scott and the Zero X crew's spacesuits got saturated, but none of them received a harmful dose. It was a close call, that one.
We've treated the Zero X guys to the best meal they've had in ages. And under the circumstances I've allowed them all a double shot of brandy, purely for medicinal purposes. Even Travers is sleeping it off now. He was pretty adrenalised by it all. For the sake of saving fuel we'll be staying in orbit of Io for sixty more hours until Callisto is in an ideal position to give us a gravitational slingshot.
"After that we'll be operating the ion drive for an additional two days to make up for a shorter rocket burn. The fuel situation is not good. I calculate we'll have enough to make lunar orbit in sixty-nine days. Dad will have to make a request for the Jovian Exploration Council to send tanker craft then, if they want to get their Astronauts back. But we'll worry about that closer to the day. There's plenty of time..."
"We'll be rendezvousing with the tankers in less than half an hour," Travers said. "So we don't have much time."
The former Zero X Commander stood with Scott in the Thunderbird Three lounge. He was dressed in his spacesuit, minus gloves and helmet. Doctor Kerrod and Brad Newman were already in the airlock awaiting the go-ahead for the spacewalk transfer to one of the tankers. The International Rescue spaceship was nearing the end of her long voyage. Alan would be accomplishing the last rocket engine burn to slow into lunar orbit in five minutes.
"Bruce and Brad already said their goodbyes," Travers continued. "But I wanted to give you this." He reached into his suit pocket and placed a small pair of gold Astronaut wings in Scott's hand. Scott's eyes widened. It was an extraordinary gift. For many a space pilot it was the proudest moment of their lives to be awarded them.
"I...I can't accept these Paul," Scott stammered.
"You must," Travers insisted. "You've never actually been awarded your Official Astronauts' wings, have you?"
Scott shook his head. Travers grinned. "I thought not. But God knows you've more than earned them. When I get back to Earth I'm going to make sure Alan gets a pair, too. You know, that uniform cap you gave me seven years ago was still on the ship when it went down. I didn't have time to get it. It sure gave me good luck these last few years and I'm sorry to have lost it."
Scott smiled and removed his blue cap. "This replacement comes with strings attached, Paul. I'm probably gonna be on vacation in a few weeks time and I just may pass through Houston. I insist on a big plate of nachos at a certain quiet little bar!"
The two shipmates laughed heartily and clasped hands. "Thank you for all you've done, Scott. International Rescue is an international treasure beyond price." He folded the uniform cap and stuffed it in his suit pocket. Scott clapped his well-padded suit shoulder.
"Come on. We'd better get you to the airlock before Alan fires the engines."
The eldest and youngest Tracy brothers watched the flare of powerful rocket engines recede into the bright sunlight. As they watched, a glowing blue and green, cloud-swathed sphere rose over the dusty and cratered lunar surface. The International Rescue men exchanged weary grins.
"Let's go home, brother," Scott whispered.
"Doctor Bruce Kerrod, Space Captain Brad Newman and I have no adequate words to describe our gratitude for what International Rescue have done for us, the whole Earth, and for the continuing exploration of our solar system. It may be some time before someone returns to Jovian space, but thanks to you, International Rescue, we have lived to tell the tale of our adventure. It was an adventure horribly marred by the deaths of our shipmates, Major Naseem Patel and Doctor Ray Pierce.
"But that painful tragedy aside, our journey to Jupiter was a journey worth doing and a tale worth telling..."
Jeff Tracy sighed and turned off the television. It was just after midnight. He yawned and stretched. Almost two days had passed since Scott and Alan had brought their tired selves and spaceship back to Tracy Island. His sons were still re-acclimatising themselves to Earthly gravity and real air. They were spending most of their time resting, exercising and performing maintenance on Thunderbird Three.
Jeff rubbed his eyes and turned his desktop computer back on. He resumed his International Rescue diary. His fingers raced over the keys.
Thunderbird Three shall henceforth be restricted to operations no further out than Martian orbit and no closer to the sun than Venusian space. Thunderbird Three suffered much minor damage during its voyage to Jupiter. She will require a month of refurbishment and repair before being ready for further operations.
The Jovian Zero X mission has forced me to look once again at Brain's proposal for a fusion-powered spacecraft to compliment Thunderbird Three. Such a project, if it goes ahead, will be so expensive it will mark the first time International Rescue will develop a vessel with the full financial and design co-operation of the World Government. Such a spacecraft is clearly beyond my sole financing.
The spacecraft would be christened Thunderbird Seven. It would take more than a decade to design and build, but spacecraft Seven would take International Rescue into the 22nd century and could be manned by a hand-picked, international crew. Thunderbird Seven would be so large she would have to be assembled in space, and may be capable of reaching anywhere in the solar system, even Pluto, in a matter of weeks..."
Jeff was startled by John's bleeping portrait. The familiar adrenalin surge kicked in as he reached for the reply button. Jeff Tracy grinned broadly.
"Business as usual," he chuckled. "Thunderbirds are still GO!"