There's a riddle I heard once when I was young. Maybe Grandma told it to me. Maybe it was Scott. Either way, I remember it driving me nuts for weeks on end before I finally twigged to the solution.
So there's this man, and there's a river in front of him, and he's got to cross it with a fox, a goose and a bag of beans. Why? Don't ask me. I never got that bit either. I mean, I can kind of see wanting to keep hold of your goose, and maybe even the beans, but why anyone would want to carry a fox around...
So, anyway, there're these three things, and they're all kind of hostile to each other - well, I guess the beans are only hostile in the social sense, but you know what I mean - and he's only got this really tiny boat and can only take one thing with him at a time and leave the rest behind. So how's he going to do it? The fox'll eat the goose, and the goose'll eat the beans, and if he takes the goose across first, what's going to be second? Either way, it's a pretty poor lookout for the poor chump slogging away in his little boat.
There's an answer, of course. It's a dumb answer though. Leave this here. Take that there. Maybe the beans'll just sit where they're put, but it's not like geese or foxes are known for their obedience skills. Telling them to 'stay' isn't going to cut the mustard, and if they're in cages anyway, why are we having the argument in the first place...?
I'm getting off the point.
The answer has this guy crossing the river back and forth like a yo-yo. Like anyone has time to row that darned river SEVEN times! Maybe back in the old days, when farmers lugged geese and foxes and beans around, all at the same time, that seemed like a fun way to spend an afternoon. Now, it sounds kind of nuts.
I wish it didn't.
Right now, I could do with time to sit down and work things out, and even a bit of messing around on the river would suit me fine.
Amidst the noise and chaos of a rescue, there's no time for head-scratching and logic problems. No time to fly back and forth all day either. The pod door is wide open behind me and, standing on the ramp, I can see just how fast the wild-fire is moving towards it. Virgil's voice spills from my wrist-com, insisting that it'll take eight minutes to ferry each load to safety. John's adds that we only have twelve before the leading edge hits. Scott follows them both, demanding to know what the hold up is. And in front of me, the traveller's dilemma shimmers in the firelight, my childhood torment made manifest.
The three patients should be in isolation, sealed into their wards. Every moment they're in the open threatens not just their lives but everyone around them. The last round of drugs, and the sealed environment suits we sent in, will hold for a little while but there's no way they're going to survive long without the machines they've left behind. The prospects for the rest of us aren't exactly rosy either. The slightest tear in those suits, a popped seam, and we're all gonners.
The doctors know that. Even with their own high tech med-suits, they're casting nervous looks towards the three ambulant plague victims. They've already told me not to get too close - to the patients or to their carers. They've told me something else too: that we can't all go together. The enclosed air supply on Two will expose everyone to this virus, with fatal consequences. Assuming we're not exposed already, of course.
I'm guessing they've not mentioned that to the rest - the cleaning staff and caterers, the local ranchers and farmers and, hell, even the rabble of poachers driven into this doomed haven by the encircling fire. No need to add to their alarm; there's more than enough of that already. Somewhere along the way, at least a few of them have worked out how much trouble they're in, and got themselves armed with everything from guns to building jacks, determined to fight their way to safety if that's what it takes. I'm pretty sure most of them are probably decent people, nice to know and kind to their old folks, but right now they're in a panic and they've nothing but their lives left to lose. I'm guessing they aren't going to back off any time soon.
If I follow medical procedure and just take the patients, keeping them isolated, the civilians will rip the doctors apart while we're gone.
If I take the civilians instead, I'm leaving the doctors exposed to virus and fire alike, and the patients ticking away the last few minutes of their lives in agony.
And if I take the doctors without their patients, I'll have a riot on my hands from doctors and infection-fearing civilians both, with three very sick men caught in the crossfire.
Either way, given John's flame forecast, there's no time to get cute about this. No time to ferry my passengers back and forth like cargo on some kind of medieval fairground ride.
"Gordon...?" Virgil's voice is strained, and seeing the flames lapping Two's wingtips I can understand why. There's no more time to hesitate. I've wasted too long already.
"Virg, pop the front hatch!"
It's not usual practice. We only use the back-up rescue bay in Two's airframe if the pod's somewhere else, usually afloat and waiting for me to dock. Right now the pod is behind me, ready for loading, but Virgil doesn't argue. A rumble of machinery, a whirr as the small ramp unfolds, and now there are two entrances to Thunderbird Two, not just the one. It's a good start and I hear a murmur from the crowd, but I've not played my trump card yet.
"And the rescue capsule! Fifty yards of line!"
Now there's a bitten-off oath from Two's pilot, and Scott is demanding answers again, but Virgil doesn't let me down. A hatch opens in the bulbous nose that swells above my head, and the small metal box descends, rocking as it hits the ground, while cable coils down over it to lie slack before the winch stops.
There's no time for niceties. I fix the three groups in front of me with my best glare. I like to think it's that which gets them moving. More likely it's the pistol I've pulled before any of them has time to react.
"You," I gesture brusquely to the civilians - those least likely to infect us all, "in there."
They follow my signal towards the air-frame hatch, skirting the patients and doctors with grimaces and shouted warnings to keep back. My second command is almost redundant. Most of the medical staff are already heading towards me and the ramp that leads to the more isolated pod. I wave the rest forward, and then dart past them down the ramp, to join the handful of medics already urging the suited patients into the cahelium rescue capsule. I'm probably closer than I should be, but I hold my breath and reach into the melee, batting aside clumsy gloved hands to snap hooks from the platform through the eyes on their suits. Giving the safety bar a firm tug, I snap it down into place.
A handful of breaths later I'm dogging the airframe hatch –
- and a few seconds after that I jog up the ramp into the pod, scanning my surroundings to check for stragglers.
"And check three!"
I thump the button to close the pod door, listening for the whine of its motors rather than looking behind me, and head on into the elevator without breaking my momentum.
There wasn't time for more than a glance at each group, let alone to make sure they're all settled and secure. This whole mess has taken almost the whole twelve minutes John gave us. I've got to trust to our rescuees' self-preservation and common sense instead as I raise my wrist-com to my lips.
"Virg, all aboard! Keep it steady," our shorthand for 'heaven knows if that lot are strapped in'. "Better get some height," aka, 'try not to bump the rescue capsule along the ground as you go'.
I stop the elevator when it's out of the pod but well short of the bridge. Already I can feel the vibration running through the ship as Virgil obeys my instructions - both spoken and unspoken. Stepping out into the crew quarters rather than the top deck, I drop into a chair and let loose a sigh.
"Talk to me, Gordon." Virgil's voice is calm and controlled but there's an edge of concern in his tone, and I know that Scott, and probably John, will be listening in on my comm frequency too. I look down at my wrist communicator to see Virgil's attention flicking between his comm pick-up and the task of flying this behemoth through wild-fire thermals.
"I'll ride it out down here until everyone gets med-checked; me included. It's probably fine," I lean back in my chair and stifle a yawn, letting my fatigue show but also my confidence. "But just in case. No point exposing you."
My brother's not happy about it, but he doesn't look surprised either.
"Right. Six minutes to drop off."
Virgil's face flickers, and his frown is replaced by Scott's.
"So, do you want to explain what all that was about?"
"Yeah. I was working out a solution to the three-things-in-a-boat puzzle." Scott's blink is all the confusion he'll show. It's enough to summon a weary grin to my face. "You know, the goose and the fox and so on."
Scott stares blankly at me for a moment or two. Our elder brother's eyebrows rise. His expression turns sardonic and his voice is calmer now we're on our way out of the danger zone.
"I know the one. And the answer is…?"
I glance around me, reaching out to pat the nearest bulkhead, all the while keeping my other wrist high so my brothers can see the gesture. It's not often I'd rather take Virgil's great green 'bird over my own little sub, but just occasionally I see how far up the creek - or that flaming river - we'd be without her.
Glancing down at the screen, I shrug.
"Sometimes the best answer is just to have a darn big boat."