TB1'S LAUNCHPAD TB2'S HANGAR TB3'S SILO TB4'S POD TB5'S COMCENTER BRAINS' LAB MANSION NTBS NEWSROOM CONTACT
 
 
SHIFTING GEARS
by RL BIRD
RATED FR
C

Alan and Tin-Tin are in mortal danger when General X sets his sights on International Rescue.


Public Transportation Officer Ricos Handel Rodriquez had held numerous positions in his long career with the transportation bureaucracy in the Philipines, including several years in this present post in Manila, but none of that experience was helping him now.

"Eight million dollars American!" Rodriquez said in shock.

"That's right," the voice over the videophone told him; the video monitor was showing only the words voice only selected, and so he could not see the speaker. "Deliver the money before noon today, or the bomb on the ferry will go off... And do not get the police involved, or it may explode even sooner."

"We can't possibly get that much money together in four hours!" Rodriquez bluffed.

"Then one thousand people will go down with the ferry at one o'clock today," the voice said bluntly, and cut the connection.

"They can't be serious!" Rodriquez's partner exclaimed.

"Whether they are or not, we must be, Andreas," he responded. "That's too many lives to take a chance that they are bluffing."

"Can't we just have the ferry anchor at its next pick up-point and cancel the schedule for today? Then we can inspect it."

"Do you realize how many people that will strand without transportation along the archipelago? I don't even want to think about the thousands of complaints we'll get. And even if we did that, then what's to keep these terrorists from trying the same tactic tomorrow, next week or next month?"

"What can we do, then?" Andreas asked.

Roddy gave his second a rueful look and sighed. "Today, we find eight million dollars in a hurry and get it to the drop point. Once the people are safe, I'll have to find some way of explaining the situation to the National Transportation Secretary. After the danger has passed, I know she will expect us to come with a contingency for the next time."

"I'll start calling the banks." Andreas picked up the phone. As he did, looked up to see the tiny globe on his desk, part of a desk set his wife had given him when he got this promotion two years earlier. His mind went back to a similar image; a symbol he'd seen four years ago, as he thanked the man who had pulled them and their then-infant son from the debris of an earthquake. Those men in the blue uniforms had performed miracles that day, finding and rescuing people who were buried under piles of rubble.

"Roddy," he said slowly. "He said no police, but he never mentioned that we couldn't bring in someone else to help us."

"What are you talking about?"

"Maybe International Rescue can help us!"

"Why? This is no disaster."

"Isn't it? You just said yourself that these blackmailers couldn't be trusted. How do we know that they won't set off the bomb anyway? That would be a disaster, and International Rescue might not be able to get here in time to help by then."


When John received the transportation officers' distress call, he agreed wholeheartedly with Andreas' assessment of the situation. Once he convinced Jeff, his father instructed him to have the Manila Transportation Officers continue to make arrangements for the money. International Rescue would devise a plan that would make payment unnecessary. He hoped.

Soon after, Thunderbird One, with Scott and Alan aboard, was on its way to Manila, with a special satchel Brains quickly assembled for the occasion. Soon after, Scott dropped Alan and the satchel off at the remote location where the Transportation Authority had arranged to leave a car.

Everything appeared to be working out perfectly.


On the remote windswept point, under a carefully arranged camouflage net, sat a lone man, positioned where he could see the ferry with his binoculars once it reached the bay. He waited patiently, certain of the outcome of the events yet to occur, as he gloated to himself.

Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow, I can release the news that The Army of X was responsible for the explosion of the ferry and that no mode of transportation is safe. Finally, the grand plans of General X will be put into operation. And he would receive as his reward a high position in the organization, as well as a hefty bonus.

He had chosen his vantage point carefully, so he was completely surprised when two vehicles pulled to a stop on the gravel road. The driver of the first car leaped out and ran back to the second, which then swung about as soon as he climbed in and clattered off, churning up dust that quickly scattered in the wind.

Shortly after, the observer was even more alarmed when a great silver and blue jet descended seemingly out of nowhere. Through the haze of debris kicked up the single VTOL jet, he could just make out the words "Thunderbird 1" printed on its sleek sides. It was International Rescue! And he could only marvel and admire the sleek craft.

Almost as soon as it touched down, a hatch opened on its underside and a blonde man in a blue uniform clambered down a ladder, carrying a satchel. The observer smiled. So the great and powerful Thunderbirds had been reduced to this: a mere delivery vehicle to insure the money arrived in time.

More out of curiosity than concern, he focused the binoculars on the blonde man's face. He was surprisingly young. As Thunderbird One launched once again into the air, the car sped off toward the Transportation Authority. The observer, unconcerned, turned his attention back to the bay. After the money was safely retrieved, he was looking forward to watching the ferry explode.


Alan swiftly drove the car, as only he knew how, toward the ransom drop off point. Just a few blocks from the park, however, he pulled over. He reached under the seat, and felt with his hands for the paper sack that was supposed to have been placed there. Ah, there it was. Quickly, he opened it. Yes, it appeared all the money was there. He placed the sack inside the satchel, then completed the drive to a specific picnic area at Luzon Park. Then he placed the satchel under the picnic table as instructed, and drove off.


As Alan was pulling over to place the money in the satchel, Scott landed Thunderbird One in a secluded location on one of the less populated islands that made up the Philippine archipelago, and awaited a signal from Gordon.

Thunderbird Two carried Pod Four to the South China Sea, on the western side of the Philippines, where it dropped the pod and deployed Thunderbird Four with Gordon aboard. Submerged, Thunderbird Four intercepted the ferry long before it entered Manila Bay, without a single passenger being aware of its presence. Carefully, Gordon maneuvered underneath the huge boat and examined the hull. Not knowing exactly what the bomb looked like or how sophisticated it was, he searched for anything that seemed out of place.

A tension headache was beginning to throb behind his eyes and perspiration dotted his upper lip and forehead as the time ticked away. There was less than an hour before the bomb was due to be set off and the deadline for the delivery of the money had passed when he finally spotted an anomaly.

"I've found it!" he reported to Scott. "It's at the stern, just below the waterline." He didn't mention how close it was to the huge screws that drove the boat.

Gordon pondered his options for detaching the bomb, aware how precious the time was. Ordinarily, Thunderbird Four's grapples were sensitive enough to pluck it from its position, but to do so, it would be visible from the surface. Any of the many boats passing them along the archipelago could be hiding the extortionists, and no one knew what they would do if they realized International Rescue was trying to foil their plans. The other option was to exit Thunderbird Four and remove it by hand. The risks inherent in this plan were more personal, since the speed the ferry was traveling was far faster than he could swim, and rigging a tether for himself was going to be tricky. The boat's hull was well maintained, but in these seas, barnacles and other sea life soon covered any smooth surface, making the magnetic grabs practically useless. Trailing such a long tether from Thunderbird Four would place him in danger of being pulled up into the vortex from the screws, which would tear him apart and probably detonate the bomb.

The lack of time finally forced him to take the chance. He still had to meet Thunderbird One out at sea after the bomb was detached with enough time for Scott to dispose of it far from land.

"Scott, I need to leave Thunderbird Four to get to the charge under the ferry. Is Virgil in position to operate her by remote?"

"FAB, Gordon" Virgil answered for himself. "I've just landed next to Thunderbird One."

Gordon gave him the course and direction, then flicked the relays that allowed the little submarine to be operated by controls in Thunderbird Two. "Transmission positive, Virg. Signal strength within tolerances."

"FAB. Be careful, Gordy."

Gordon quickly donned a harness over his wetsuit before settling the scuba gear in place, then pulled a short length of the tether from the small winch near the upper hatch of the airlock before attaching it securely to his harness. Hitting the controls that flooded the compartment, he waited impatiently for the indicator lights to change, informing him that the pressure inside the airlock was equal to that of the water. The red light turned green at last and he opened the hatch and swam out.

The ferry was barely 10 meters above him and he had positioned Thunderbird Four about two/thirds of the way to the stern. Using a tiny remote control in his harness, he signalled the winch to unwind cable until he could touch its hull, then slowed the deployment to a crawl. The turbulence under the boat was tolerable until he was within three meters from the screws, when suddenly, he was thrust violently upward, almost smashing into the bottom of the ferry. Finding a grip with one gloved hand, and taking his knife in the other, he managed to scrape an area relatively clear of encrustation with the other. Next, he fastened a magnetic anchor to the hull in the hole he'd cleared and attached a second, stabilizing snap-line to it. Then he slowly worked his way back to the ship's stern, letting the winch pay out the line a little bit at a time. The buffeting at the stern swung him perilously close to the starboard screw, but it also put him within reach of the bomb.

"Okay, Virgil, Scott, I'm in position to detach the charge. Looks like we were more careful than we needed to be. It 's a fairly simple timer, with no defaults to set it off if disturbed, and no remote receiver that I can see..." he commented as he continued his examination of the charge. "Hah, I'm surprised it stayed on as long as it did; the adhesive on the back is almost gone. And the bomber lied about the time, too. It's set to go off in thirty-two minutes, not forty-five."

"Then, get on with it, Gordon," Scott ordered, an exasperated note in his voice. "The sooner it's safely out in the middle of nowhere, the happier I'll be."

"Oh, relax, willya. We've got plenty of time." Gordon responded, the grin on his face evident in his voice. Then he took on a serious tone. "Okay, Virg, here's what I need you to do. On my mark, put Thunderbird Four into a steep dive to about thirty meters, then level off and stop. That'll get me well away from the screws, then I'll winch myself back in."

"Will do."

"Okay. Three, two, one...mark!" Gordon yanked the bomb clean from the boat. Immediately, the tether to Thunderbird Four pulled him downward away from the dangerous screws. Then he hit the latch on the snap line, which detached him from the ferry and he barely kept his precarious grip on the bomb as he plunged down behind his brightly-colored submarine.

Suddenly, he felt the force on the line slacken as Thunderbird Four came to a dead stop, but his momentum through the water brought him almost into a collision with her. "Wow, Virg," Gordon commented, as he triggered the winch to wind in the extra line and made his way back into the hatch, "that was some ride!"

"Yeah? Well, I'm just as glad I wasn't along."

"What's your ETA to the rendezvous, Gordon?" Scott interrupted the banter.

"I'll be able to tell you in a minute. I haven't cleared the airlock yet." A few seconds later, Gordon put his craft back on manual control and entered the pertinent data into the onboard computer. "Looks like five minutes, twenty seconds."

"FAB. Lifting off now."

"I'll meet you back at the pod, Gordon."

"FAB, Virg. See you soon."


While the attention among the three Thunderbirds had been absorbed in taking care of the bomb, Alan's part in the plan was not so much in the rescuing of the blackmailers' victims, but to keep the blackmailers from trying this again. After he dropped off the money, he drove the car back to the Transportation Authority, keeping an eye on the small monitor sitting beside him in the seat.

As he parked the car, Alan picked up the tiny device and carried it with him. The two Officers waiting inside the office looked up anxiously as he walked in, and were immediately reassured by the grin on his face.

"Tracker One to base," he said into the transmitter in his watch, as Roddy and Andreas crowded close to see the tracking device in his hand. "So far, so good. The satchel is transmitting perfectly. Pick-up was at 12:12."

"Good, Tracker One," the gruff voice of Jeff Tracy wound from the telecom's tiny speaker. "Thunderbird One reported that detonation was safely out at sea. He had plenty of time to dispose of the bomb, even if it did go off 12 minutes early. Keep your eye on that device. As soon as they stop, activate the sleeping gas and report their location to the local authorities. Do the Transportation Officers understand what we need them to do?"

Roddy and Andreas nodded eagerly. They were only too happy to protect what little they knew about International Rescue, in exchange for stopping and apprehending the extortionists.

A few minutes later, the transmitter indicated the satchel had stopped and was being opened. Alan waited 30 seconds, long enough for the money to be dumped out, then sent the signal to activate a canister on the bottom of the bag containing a potent sleeping gas. Two minutes later, Andreas directed him to a payphone, to call the Manila police.

Twenty minutes later, Alan reported that the police had found the blackmailers, due to a "anonymous tip" from a concerned tourist.


The observer waited for 12:48 with great anticipation, then impatiently waited another twelve minutes, but the bomb he had personally constructed and mounted simply did not go off. As he slunk to his home, he began to suspect that International Rescue was somehow responsible. But how? He had planted men in boats all along the ferry route that morning, on board the ferry itself until the last stop before Manila Bay and watched it himself through binoculars from the point. No one had come near the bomb, he was certain of it.

Then the next morning at breakfast, his suspicions were confirmed by the newspaper. He learned from the article that the bomb had indeed exploded at the proper time, only it had done so 200 miles out in the Pacific, thanks to International Rescue. He also learned that the idiots he had hired to retrieve the ransom had bungled even that simple job and had been captured by the police. Within an hour, instead of making his grand announcement as he had so carefully planned, he was on a plane to Asia, like a whipped cur with its tail between his legs. Once he made Hong Kong, he was safe enough: he promptly slipped into its notorious underground and disappeared, leaving behind a baffled unpaid servant in Manila who could not tell the police where he had gone.


"No, you can't go off on a vacation together. It's out of the question," Jeff Tracy slammed his fist down on his desk in the lounge of his Tracy Island home.

It was a normal idyllic South Pacific morning on the island; in complete contrast to the tension that suddenly filled the lounge. Jeff Tracy had taken on many tasks, only one of which might have broken other men. He had conquered space, then suffered the loss of his wife, the mother of his five sons, and raised them alone while building a billion-dollar business from scratch, then, when most men his age were planning their retirement, launched a secret and benevolent organization dedicated to saving lives. This was a man who of necessity had cultivated and diligently maintained a calm, cool demeanor. Nonetheless, when his youngest son made this request, he uncharacteristically lost his temper.

"But, Father," Alan protested. He stood dismayed on the other side of his father's desk, with Tin-Tin at his side. Jeff esteemed the sweet half-Malaysian girl as much as he would have if she had been his own daughter, and, to her credit, she had a better understanding of the reason for Jeff's outburst than his own son.

Alan floundered on. "We're not planning to be gone long. And if there are any rescues..."

"It's not rescues I'm concerned about," Jeff said gruffly. "Don't ask me again. It's not gonna happen." Jeff stubbed out his half-smoked cigar irritably. "I need some air." Then he stomped out to the patio and down the steps toward the beach.

"Well, how do you like that, Tin-Tin?" Alan looked after him in astonishment.

"Never mind, Alan," Tin-Tin said soothingly. "You know we don't need a holiday to be together .." She gently led him off in the direction of the game room.

Kyrano had been standing out of sight of both parties. He hadn't intended to eavesdrop as he was bringing Jeff his coffee, but he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now he looked out from behind the Oriental screen where he had discreetly hung back, glancing first at his departing daughter and her beloved, then at the rapidly retreating back of his old friend and employer. He sighed deeply, set the coffee down on the desk, then went out to the patio and down the stairs after him.

Jeff continued his determined stride to the beach, muttering to himself, and oblivious to Kyrano's calls to him. Finally, he stopped at the water's edge and stood glowering out at the waves.

Kyrano at last caught up with him. "Jeff Tracy, old friend, we must have a heart to heart talk..."


Far away on another island, General X was also in an especially bad mood. None of his associates were unable to withstand his withering gaze very long. "Why can't you imbeciles hire someone who can deliver on his promises!" The bomb in Manila Bay had failed to achieve any of its objectives, only one of a series of failed projects in the past month. He paced back and forth behind his massive desk, getting his temper under control.

"What we need is the power to deliver a decisive blow, so my plans for the world can be established. But we must sit and we content ourselves to paltry terrorist acts. And even those efforts do not bring about the desired results!" He glared about him in disgust. "Then to add insult to embarrassment, you can do nothing but patronize me!" He sent his fist crashing unto the desk in front of him, making the others jump.

"But general," one associate still had the audacity to speak, "if International Rescue had not spoiled our plans in Manila..."

"International Rescue!" A vein stood out on the General's neck. "If one of you imbeciles, my so-called advisors, had even a hint of the intelligence you profess to having, you would give me a plan to get my hands on those machines! If I had the power those machines could give me, none could withstand me!" He turned his back on them in utter contempt to glare at the map behind him. "Leave me! I cannot stand the sight of you!"


"Uh, Tin-Tin." Jeff caught her crossing the big lounge to Thunderbird One's secret access door, carrying the new calculations she and Brains were planning to program into the craft. "Tin-Tin, may I talk to you a moment?"

"Of course, Mr. Tracy," Tin-Tin was puzzled. He'd never found it difficult to speak to her before, and he seemed acutely ill at ease. Despite his request, he looked as if he'd rather do anything but talk to her.

"Uh, well, I guess it's pretty obvious that we all," and he waved his arm to indicate the entire island, "love you very much. Like a daughter. I do, anyway, and the other boys like a sister, maybe. And Alan, well, his feelings are obvious too, and not entirely brotherly... well, you two have a special relationship, shall we say." Tin-Tin stared at him in growing wonder; what in the world was making him so nervous? "And..." Jeff continued to ramble for a few moments, fumbling over his words, his hand in his pocket.

Finally, he rolled his eyes and took a deep breath. "Anyway, if you and Alan want to go on a vacation together, you should. I mean, you are adults and all that. But," now he pulled his hand out of his pocket, his ears beginning to turn red. "There's a time and place for everything. And with the work we do, we just don't have a place for certain little things around here... " he stopped. "I'm really saying this badly," he realized belatedly.

Almost in desperation, he reached out and took her hand, dropped something into it, then closed her fingers around it. "I just want you and Alan to be careful," he said cryptically. He dropped her hand, turned completely crimson, and beat a hasty retreat back to his rooms.

Tin-Tin was completely taken aback by Jeff's uncharacteristic behavior. Then she opened her hand and saw the round latex objects he had given her. She laughed quietly. Oh, the dear, dear, sweet man... She loved him almost as much as her own father.


It was almost an hour after midnight. Tin-Tin rolled over to Alan at her side and giggled softly.

"What is it?" he asked, raising up on one elbow.

"That your father gave us permission to go on holiday together."

"What's so funny about that? I think it's about time, don't you?"

"I know, but he wants us to be careful" She made little quotation marks in the air with her fingers.

"We're always careful," Alan grunted, falling back to gaze at the ceiling. "We always wait until everyone's in bed and I get back to my room before anyone gets up."

Tin-Tin giggled again. "Well, I guess we haven't been careful enough. Look what your father gave me yesterday!" She pulled open the drawer to her bedside table and took out one of the objects Jeff had given her earlier.

Alan's blue eyes grew round when he saw it. "Oh, man," he breathed. "If Dad knows, we've really blown it. You're sure your father is okay with this?"

"Father has known what's been going on for a long time, Alan. The oriental culture considers what we're doing natural and he approves of our relationship. He loves you like a son, you know that."

She kissed him tenderly and no more was said for some time.


A few hours later, the sun beginning to peek over the horizon, Alan ran his finger along her smooth shoulder. "I've been thinking."

Tin-Tin smiled up at him. "About what?"

"Getting married."

Tin-Tin sat straight up and turned to stare at him. "What about that famous "I'll never marry" declaration you've given Penelope and everyone else who ever asked?"

"Yeah, I know what I've said: with the type of dangerous work we do, it wouldn't be fair to ask somebody to share it... blah, blah, blah." He reached up to finger a lock of her dark hair. "Sure, the work is dangerous, but you've gone out on several rescues yourself, and I worry about you as much as you must worry about me. Then sometimes we can go on the same mission and sometimes we can't; especially when John and I trade places, and I'm stuck up in the space station for a month at a time.

"Think about it, though. Aren't we already sharing some kind of a life now? I mean, what would be the difference, except that we wouldn't have to keep sneaking in and out of each other's rooms and deluding ourselves that no one knows?" Abruptly, he sat up and took her hands. "Do you love me, Tin-Tin? Would you marry me?"

She had to fight down an urge to laugh. How long had she been waiting for him to even hint at the feelings they had for each other? How many years had their relationship been developing? Yet, here he was and she'd never seen his blue eyes as serious as they were now. Tin-Tin couldn't help but smile at him.

"You know I do, and you know I will, Alan." Then she did laugh, he actually looked relieved. "Look at us," she giggled. "We're practically married already; we live in the same house, we eat at the same table, we share the same bathrooms..."

Alan chuckled. "Well, if that's all it means to be married, then you're married to my brothers, too! Tin-Tin, you're a bigamist!"

"Oh, Alan! That's not what I meant!" Then she took on a teasing look. "Although, if Virgil had asked..."

Alan laughed out loud, forgetting that it was still early in the morning. "Hey, let's not get into that again! I know you and Virgil never got this far..." He gestured around her bedroom.

She was serious again. "No, we didn't. And we wouldn't have. The relationship that you and I have was always different from the one I have with your brothers... and Brains. Don't you ever forget that... again!" She referred to several incidents over the years where his jealous side got the better of him and they fought over what he thought he'd seen. All of which had been completely innocent, once he was forced to see what really happened.

Tin-Tin sighed as they lay back down again, and she snuggled into the curve of his arm. She reached over and ran her fingers through his thick blonde thatch, then down over his cheek to finger his chin cleft thoughtfully. "I think your father is going to be greatly relieved."

"Yeah, I guess. And he won't be the only one. Look, if there's got to be a wedding, can we keep it really small?"

"Of course, there aren't many that we'd ask to attend, anyway." She kissed his cheek excitedly. "And let's make it soon!"


"Why's he making such a big deal?" Gordon muttered to no one in particular as he plopped in a chair near Scott and Virgil in the lounge.

"All I can say is, it's about time," Virgil agreed.

"He even asked Dad to get John on visual," Scott chortled to his brothers.

"I think Alan's going to be more surprised than we are," Grandma chimed in.

Jeff put down the paper he'd been reading and looked up at the portraits of his sons lining the wall. One had been replaced by a real-time image of John up in the space station, Thunderbird Five. "John, can you hear everything okay?"

"FAB, Dad," John replied, "loud and clear."

Now Kyrano came in from the garden, pulling off his work gloves, to stand near Jeff behind his desk.

Brains hurried in with a tray bearing a tall object covered by a large cloth. He set it down on the table in front of him as he found his seat. "Quiet everyone!" he warned. "They're c-coming!"

Then, Alan and Tin-Tin, both looking rather flushed and excited, came in together from their walk on the beach.

Alan cleared his throat.

"Here it comes," muttered Gordon again.

Virgil gave him a quiet and exasperated "Shut up."

"Well, I guess you all wonder why we asked you all to be here together," Alan shuffled his feet as Tin-Tin gave his hand an encouraging pat. "Tin-Tin and I have been talking and thinking and..."

"Oh, get on with it," John interrupted from the portraits. "What's the date?"

Alan looked with astonishment at his brother out in space. "As soon as we can get the details worked out... How'd you...?"

"How'd he know you and Tin-Tin are finally getting married?" Scott interjected. "My god, man, we've been waiting for you to see what's right in front of you for years!"

Alan shrugged and grinned at Tin-Tin in resignation. "So much for a big announcement!"

"I want to be the first to kiss the bride!" laughed Virgil, as he hopped up to collect on his declaration.

"You'll have to beat me there first," joked Gordon, only just a step behind.

An ecstatic Jeff wrapped an equally emotional Kyrano in a big bear hug, while Grandma wiped a tear from her eye.

"Didn't I tell you, Tracy," Kyrano could be heard to say in the general congratulations and confusion, "We've raised them well. If you let them, they will do the right thing!"

"What do think, Brains?" Tin-Tin asked, after the initial excitement had died down. "You haven't said very much!"

"I think," said Brains slyly, pulling the cloth from the tray he'd carried in, "that this c-calls for some champagne!"


"Jeff," his mother leaned into his shoulder to whisper in his ear, as Tin-Tin was excitedly showing them her drawings for the gowns she had designed for herself and Penelope. "You know how I've waited for these two to stop tip-toeing around their feelings for one another, but doesn't it seem like taking on one month to plan and pull off a wedding is rushing it a bit? I mean, there's living arrangements to make, getting someone to officiate, flowers, a cake...I can't even begin to list all of the things that need to be done. And now she wants to make some elaborate wedding gown?"

Jeff chuckled softly. "Aw, Mom, I don't care if she and Alan wear purple sarongs and lampshades on their heads. I'm just glad that Alan is finally doing something about his feelings for Tin-Tin instead of sneaking around. Lucille and I were able to put a wedding together in a few days, and we didn't have the resources at our disposal that they do. I'm sure everything will work out just fine."

Oblivious to the whispered conversation, Tin-Tin laid her drawings down, a dreamy look in her eyes. "And I know just where to get the perfect fabric. It's in Singapore!"


Tin-Tin was an accomplished pilot herself, but with so many other accomplished pilots on the island, she rarely got the chance to fly. This was the perfect opportunity, Jeff suggested at breakfast, and it wouldn't tie up any of the other boys or their machines. "It also means that we can stay as long as we like," Tin-Tin had joked, grinning at Alan, who waggled his eyebrows lecherously. Which caused Jeff to pretend to choke on his coffee and wonder out loud why he'd ever suggested it.

Despite the kidding around, they dutifully made out an itinerary, just in case they might be needed for a rescue mission. They took off early the next day and reached Changi International Airport, in the eastern part of Singapore, just before noon.

The flight had been uneventful. Tin-Tin requested and had gotten clearance to land her red and white Ladybird jet, and a few minutes later, they pulled up to the hangar as she was instructed.

At the rental car counter, they selected a little white convertible so they could see the sights as they drove into the city. As they collected the keys, the door behind the desk opened and Rental Singapore's newest employee returned with his lunch.

He'd taken the job last week after settling affairs in Manila to avoid the investigation following the bungled ferry bombing. Accustomed to having servants to order around and an expense account, it irked him to be reduced to this. He barely earned enough money to pay for an adequate apartment and he had to cook his own meals.

The sandwich bought from a vendor in the airport was an extravagance he wouldn't be able to afford often, but he nearly dropped the sack when he saw Alan at the counter. Recovering his composure quickly, he busied himself at the desk until the couple left. He couldn't believe his luck; this just could be the means to place him back in the good graces of his superior, and he might soon be returned to his rightful station.

When his co-worker took his lunch break, he casually picked up the rental agreement and memorized the name and the hotel they'd listed for a local address. On his next break, he found a pay phone.


"I don't know what to do about a best man," Alan groaned, as they sped west along the roadway toward the city.

"That's easy!" responded Tin-Tin with a laugh. "Just ask Scott or Virgil."

"That's just the problem. Which one? I thought Virgil would help with the music, but when I tried to talk to him, he misunderstood. Now I don't want to disappoint him and I'd already asked Scott. And you know they're going to talk about it, and they're both gonna be mad; at each other and at me. You've talked to Lady Penelope about being your maid of honor?"

"Yes, and she was so excited. But look, there's no reason why Scott and Virgil can't both escort Penelope down the aisle. I'm sure she'd be thrilled."

"You think so?" Alan leaned over from the wheel to kiss Tin-Tin on the cheek. "You're right, that was easy! I'll straighten it out when we get to the hotel."

"Right now, I just want you to drive straight!" she laughed. "Off-road travel is not allowed on this stretch!"


"General, I have received information that some of the members of International Rescue are in Singapore."

The General's eyes gleamed excitedly. "Those machines! What I could do with those machines!" Then just as quickly, his expression darkened. "This information better be current! There have been no disasters in Singapore to require International Rescue!"

"No, General, no disasters, and the machines aren't there either, but at least one member of International Rescue has been spotted on holiday."

"One member? How is this known?"

"He has been recognized by a trusted member of my staff who witnessed their rescue operation in Manila last month. I trust this operative, General," his advisor responded as the general's eyes narrowed. "His reputation and devotion are above question."

"Very well. Inform the network. I want to know where he goes, when, and what he does. When the time is right, he should be brought here to our secret base."


On Tracy Island, Alan and Tin-Tin's announcement had produced another unexpected result. Scott, Virgil, Gordon, and Brains sat discussing it after breakfast by the pool.

Scott had broached the idea and was preparing his case by discussing it with his brothers and their friend before he took it to their father. "Look, with the way our operation and reputation are expanding, we're going to have to start recruiting people sometime. And they might as well be women." The oldest, he had served in the Air Force, as Jeff had, and so had both the personality and training of a natural leader.

"Women on the island? What would they do?" Gordon couldn't understand why this was suddenly a priority. He was a year older than Alan, and, like the others, a carefree bachelor. The only one of the brothers who had not trained as an astronaut, he had instead become an Olympic gold medalist swimmer and then joined the World Aquanaut Security Patrol before the accident that ended his career.

"Well, surely Tin-Tin isn't the only w-woman in the world with d-degrees in math and engineering," Brains contributed. Brains was not a Tracy by blood, but had been orphaned as a child, and raised by a prominent university professor. Jeff found him nervously stuttering through a lecture in Paris and recognized his amazing potential as an innovator. It wasn't long before he revealed to him his desire to build an organization that eventually became International Rescue. Brains had been welcomed into the family just as enthusiastically as Kyrano and Tin-Tin had been years earlier. He had re-paid that welcome by becoming the intrument to making Jeff's dreams come true.

Virgil, the middle son of those present, was a gifted artist and musician as well as pilot. He had the ability, more than any of them, to make a leap of insight beyond the information presented to him. He saw what Scott was leading up to, but he also saw the implications. "And besides, it's the best way to continue the operation into the future." Gordon and Brains looked at him in puzzlement. "Don't tell me you haven't wondered what'll happen when we personally can't go out on rescue operations. Of course, I plan to live to a hundred and fifty or so, but not everyone would appreciate being rescued by a centenarian, however strong and brave. Our children must continue the work we've started, or it will stop when we're gone. And that would be a shame."


Jeff stood alone in his room, lost in staring out the window at the Pacific. One hand rested on the framed portrait of a young woman, his late wife Lucille, who had died tragically shortly after Alan was born. In the other hand he held the rings he'd placed on her hand so many years ago, and broken-heartedly received back when she died. "Well, Lucy," he said softly, "finally it's happening. I was beginning to believe that our handsome sons were going to remain bachelors and that International Rescue would end with them.

"You were right, after all, Alan is the first. You said so when you first held him in arms, when he was already charming the nurses: "This one will probably be the first to find the right woman." Jeff smiled with the memory, then stroked a line along the cheek of the portrait with his finger.

"Lucy, if she'll wear them, I want Tin-Tin to have your rings. She reminds me so much of you, dearest. So smart. And fearless, too, just like you were when I'd leave to go to space. I know you would have loved her as much as the rest of us." He chuckled softly. "I just wish I could find four more just like her for the other boys." Then he placed the rings back in the little box he'd hidden in the back of a drawer for so long, and set it next to her portrait. Somehow, he had to find a way to get them re-sized for Tin-Tin's tiny finger.

There was knock at his door.

"Mr. Tracy, I need to talk to you," Kyrano said, as he brought in Jeff's morning newspaper and coffee.

"Not like the last time, I hope," Jeff chuckled.

"No," Kyrano smiled, "but it does have to do with our children again... and Tin-Tin's honor."

Jeff sipped his coffee and listened with growing wonder as his old friend related what was on his mind. He had known that Kyrano's family was aristocratic and that his half-brother had usurped his inheritance, but he had not realized how closely related he was to one of the old Malay royal houses.

"...Under the circumstances," Kyrano summed up, "I think it is appropriate for Alan to have this." He held out in his hand a bold, very ancient gold ring. Its crest depicted a sea bird with its wings outspread, holding a spice chest in its feet. In its beak was a small sparkling sapphire. "When my brother forced me to leave my home, I was able to take this with me. It is based on my family's emblem. I do not think it will need to be re-sized to fit Alan."

Jeff didn't know what to say. "Kyrano," he said finally, "are you sure you want him to have this ..?"

Kyrano nodded emphatically. "I am sure. I was the last in the line when my brother took over the household. I loved my wife deeply, but she was not of any noble family. This is a house," he closed his hand over the ring with a pained sigh, "that is no more. Tin-Tin has made me very proud, and, by joining your family, which has and will continue to bring great honor upon itself, she has restored honor to me as well."


Tin-Tin loved to shop anywhere, but the restored open air shops of the Singapore shopping district were exhilarating. She and Alan had spent the last two days buying things for the wedding, gifts for everyone on Tracy island and Lady Penelope, and had even found Alan a pair of sandals.

When she saw the fabric she wanted, she spoke to the proprietor in the Malay language. He was extremely cooperative and gave her a very good price. She chose bolts of white and pink silk, and a heavy brocaded satin in red. "There must be red for happiness, it's the tradition!" she giggled at his puzzled expression.

They were carrying her prizes back to the car when she saw it. "Alan!" Her eyes were shining brightly. He sighed and reached for his wallet. He could never resist that look. "That white suit! It's perfect for you!"

"I don't know, Tin-Tin. A white suit? What would I ever wear it for?"

"Well, for the wedding for starters! Come on, just try it on!"

A few minutes later, he stared at himself in the mirror. It was a vast contrast from the tropical print shirt and bush shorts he'd been wearing. He'd been transformed.

"See, what did I tell you?" Tin-Tin tore off a corner of the red fabric, tucked it in the breast pocket and fluffed it out. Then she stepped back to see her handiwork. "Now, that's a sight to come down the aisle to!" she gushed.

Alan shook his head and grinned. "Well, I certainly do want you to come down the aisle. But this isn't fair! I can't see you in the gown you designed, yet."

They found the little car and loaded the carefully wrapped packages in the back seat. Alan eyed the bolts of fabric and the other materials they'd accumulated dubiously. "Are you sure you can get all this done in two weeks?"

Tin-Tin laughed gaily. "Your grandmother offered to help me and Brains is working on an innovation to speed up the sewing. I can't not get it all done!" She paused and pursed her lips. "Although, I keep thinking there's something we're forgetting..."

Driving back to the hotel, Alan thought he saw something odd. He was sure he kept seeing the same three cars. It seemed as if one of them was at every intersection they drove past. Tin-Tin hadn't seemed to notice and was chattering happily next to him. They were having a wonderful time together and at last he dismissed it as just his imagination.

Since this was to be their last night here, the evening went by in a whirlwind. They had dinner at the hotel, took in two different dance clubs, and finally returned to their room late that night, exhausted from the fun of the day. Still, Alan had something nagging in the back of his mind that he couldn't place, but couldn't shake off.

The next morning, they planned some sightseeing before returning to Tracy Island in the evening. Like most days in Singapore, the day promised to be hot and humid. Tin-Tin wore white capris and sandals with her mauve silk blouse, while Alan thought jeans, a pale orange cotton shirt, and canvas loafers would be comfortable. They checked out of the hotel and decided to take their luggage to the plane before they did anything else. "That way, we won't worry about it. Besides, I don't want to take a chance that some tropical shower ruins my dress!" Tin-Tin explained.

She was in a buoyant mood after they made the stop at the airport. "I want you to see Empress Place, first..." her enthusiasm trailed off as she noticed Alan's troubled expression. "What's wrong?" she asked in alarm.

Alan was studying the rear view mirror. "I've been seeing the same three cars ever since we got here. Here they are again. And this time they have guns. Watch the black Audi behind us when I turn here..." Alan turned the wheel sharply to the left, making the tires squeal as they sped around the corner. Tin-Tin caught a glimpse of the two men in the Audi, as the black car continued to travel straight ahead although their convertible made the turn. The driver held a black object to his mouth, the handmic of a radio set no doubt, while his passenger tracked them with the short muzzle of an automatic weapon.

"Now watch, here comes a green Fiat," Alan brought her attention back to the intersection just ahead. Just as predicted the small green car appeared. At the next intersection, Alan turned left again. "Now a red Saab." The Fiat's driver spoke into his radio and shortly after, a beat-up red Saab appeared. Alan turned left, the green Fiat was back. One more left and they were back on the street where they had started. There was the black Audi again.

"Why do you think they're following us?" Tin-Tin was tense and alert now.

"Bet they think they can mug two rich tourists," he grunted, but he was sure it was more than that. There were other rich tourists; why would they follow them for three days unless they knew who they were following!

Alan turned right, trying to elude them, but the green Fiat was back with them in a short time.

Suddenly, she felt Alan's hand on her shoulder, pushing her down into the seat. "Look out!" he shouted at the same time. Almost simultaneously, there was a series of sharp cracks as several bullets outlined the upper frame of the windshield and bounced away.

Tin-Tin felt her lungs shudder when she remembered to breathe. Alan marveled how much she sounded like Lady Penelope when she spoke, her tone light, though her voice shook slightly. "Not avery good shot, is he?"

Alan's mouth was set in a firm line. "I don't think he meant to hit us; those were warning shots. They're trying to get our attention..."

Alan jammed his foot down on the accelerator, and the car leaped forward.

"I think we better split up. Maybe you can get away on foot." He tore off his watch with its secret videophone link to International Rescue headquarters and handed it to her. "Here, take my telecom. Call Dad as soon as you can, but get back to the jet."

Tin-Tin took the watch with trembling hands. It was far too large for her small wrist. "How will we find you? We didn't bring our edible transmitters."

Alan reached down to his belt and tapped the hidden switch. "I've turned on my belt transceiver. Thunderbird Five can track it."

They took several more fast sharp turns, some of them on two wheels, and when Alan was satisfied that they were briefly out of their pursuers' sight, abruptly pulled over so she could jump out. "Tin-Tin, I love you," he said, so seriously that cold hands gripped her heart. He wanted to be sure she knew in case something went wrong.

"I love you, too," She blurted her response, unsure whether he heard her over the protesting tires as he peeled off. The Fiat appeared, picking up the pursuit. She stood too long at the curb, numbly watching Alan race on, until she saw the Fiat's passenger glare back at her, speaking into the handmic as they sped past. She darted between startled passerby and ran.

Alan headed west, knowing Tin-Tin's goal lay to the east, at Changi and her jet. His plan was to keep the other drivers so occupied that they forgot about her. He made another turn on two wheels, his racing car experience prior to International Rescue allowing him to maintain control. The Audi pulled in behind the Fiat with the Saab close behind, stealth thrown aside as they closed in.

They soon reached a sparsely populated area of Singapore, where there was little other traffic on the road. Alan pushed the accelerator pedal down harder, trying to put more distance between himself and his pursuers. After a few minutes, he glanced into the rearview mirror, and looked up just in time to realize he was not going to be able to make the bend in the road ahead. He oversteered, but the little convertible was not a race car, and its suspension couldn't take it. It skidded sideways, then rolled completely over, smashing into a signpost.

Fortunately, Alan received only a few scratches and was mostly unhurt; he vaulted out of the car and tried to sprint away. The red Saab narrowly missed plowing into the rear, instead, veering off into a guard and smashing the already beat up fender. Somehow its driver kept it in motion to cut him off.

Quickly, the other cars closed in around him, forming a tight triangle. Dust kicked up by the cars swirled about him as he made ready to slide across the Saab's hood and escape, but the passenger of the Audi threw the door open behind him and leaped out, spewing gunshots along the battered red quarter panel. Alan raised his hands and turned to glare at his attacker.

Alan heard scuttling footsteps behind him then felt the sharp stab of a hypodermic in his shoulder. Almost immediately his knees went out from under him. As soon as he was down, the green Fiat turned and sped back to the shopping district, while two men threw Alan in the back seat of the Audi. They quickly squeezed in on either side of him and the black car bumped back onto the pavement, leaving the disabled Saab abandoned by the side of the road.

"We should take the car over on the boat, too," the driver said. "I'm sure somebody saw us."

"General X should give us a bonus for capturing him so easily," one of his companion remarked.

"Don't bet on it," another responded.

As the Audi careened on toward the harbor, Alan's captors were not aware that he was still awake and could hear them. He clung to consciousness desperately for a few more minutes, but finally the powerful sedative they'd injected did its work.


Jeff was surprised, but only mildly concerned when the eyes in Alan's portrait flashed off and on.

"Go ahead, Alan," he said, activating the visual switch. But it was a very tense Tin-Tin, not Alan, whose face appeared. A lead weight suddenly dropped into the pit of his stomach.

"Mr. Tracy, we're in trouble." She spoke calmly, but hurriedly. "Alan and I had to separate. We were being followed in the car. I'm on foot, but now I think someone is following me again. Alan took the car, but there are three other cars after him. They have radios of some kind. Alan's activated his belt transceiver, so he gave me his telecom."

"I..." she looked up suddenly, past the tiny camera embedded in the watch face. There was a sudden blurred movement, then the picture went dark and the connection was broken.

"Tin-Tin!" Jeff fumbled for the radio switch and tried to reconnect, but there was no response. He flipped another switch and the emergency intercom throughout the complex began to buzz.


Alan was not sure where he was when he awakened, but the traffic of Singapore was silent, so he knew the boat his kidnappers had mentioned brought him far from that island. A bright light shone in his eyes, and his hands were bound tightly behind his chair; he could only turn his face away from the brightness. There were two uniformed figures behind it, one with his arms crossed, standing slightly behind the other, an obviously more important person.

Alan took a deep breath, and tried to act like he was an innocent tourist as he squinted to see around the light. "What is the meaning of this! What do you want!"

The important one spoke, in a soft dangerous voice. "I intend to ask the questions here, but I will choose to answer one of yours first. What I want is information about International Rescue."

"International Rescue?" Alan's heart sank, but he continued to pretend ignorance. "I don't know what you're talking about. Just who do you think I am?"

"I know exactly who you are. Your name is Alan Tracy and you fly one of the Thunderbirds."

"You've gotta be kidding me! A Thunderbird ..?" The blow across his face was as painful as it was unexpected. The important one was short-tempered as well as dangerous.

"This is foolishness," he growled to the man with the folded arms. "Make him more uncomfortable, and he will be more willing to cooperate."

"Yes, General X," the second man bowed, then nodded at someone behind Alan's chair. Two men pulled Alan to his feet roughly, dragged him across the room, and heaved him into a prone position on a narrow table. His legs were quickly strapped down just below the knees. His arms were untied, pulled down over the sides of the table and tied again, fastened so securely to the table legs that he could barely turn his head.

From a smaller table beside him, General X picked up a small device no larger than his hand. On it were four small metal squares arranged in parallel on a handle with a long cord. He held it close to Alan's face for him to examine. He flipped a switch on the handle and immediately the metal glowed red. Alan winced as the heat from the squares struck his face. This was going to hurt.

The general made a show of studying the glowing metal pads as he turned them deliberately over and back again. "I am not an unreasonable man," he said slowly, "but I am an extremely impatient one. Tell me what I wish to know and you can be spared this unpleasantness. First, tell me about your base of operations."

"Base of operations?" Alan continued the charade, knowing it was useless. "Look, I've already told you, I don't what you're talking about!"

"The base for the Thunderbird craft is what I'm talking about," General X said in a ominous voice and nodded to one of the men standing behind the table. There was a sharp tug at the back of Alan's shirt. The cotton fabric was abruptly rent all the way up to the collar and the torn edges thrown up over his shoulders.

"Tell me, where is this base?" The general turned toward him and pressed the red-hot squares into his bare shoulder blade.

Alan screamed in pain and surprise.

"Where is your base!" he repeated, as he lifted the hot device away from his back.

"I don't know what you're talking about!" Alan managed to gasp.

The squares had darkened, but quickly began to glow red again. "What is the power source of Thunderbird One?" The device was pressed into his other shoulder.

"Auwgh!" Alan screamed again. "I don't know!"

The darkened elements glowed again. "Where is your secret base!"

Between each question, the general exaggerated a fascination for the way the four heating elements seemed to darken, and watched the glow return as he asked the next question. Then he always planted the device on an unscathed area of Alan's naked back following a predevised pattern. "What powers a Thunderbird machine?" and so the questioning continued. Alan refused to answer the questions, but could not keep himself from crying out.

Finally, merciful unconsciousness gave him relief.


Tin-Tin had found a tiny secluded park from which to call Jeff. While she was talking, someone grabbed her arm and swung her around until his arm was wrapped around her neck. Tin-Tin went into fluid motion, simultaneously grabbing her assailant's arm, stomping his foot, and twisting away from him.

As she did, Alan's telecom slipped off her wrist unnoticed into a rhododendron. Then she ran toward the street, screaming for all she was worth, but was ignored. There were three more of them near the gate. They grabbed her quickly, as she continued to scream. Suddenly, she felt a sharp sensation in her shoulder, and she collapsed. They threw her in the back of the Fiat and sped off toward the harbor. Alan's watch lay forgotten in the park.


John's image from the satellite bore a intent expression. "I'm showing Alan's homing beacon east of the shopping district at Singapore City. And his belt transceiver signal is moving rapidly out to sea. It looks like its headed straight toward an island in the archipelago," he said, consulting the electronic screen in front of him on the space station. He watched it anxiously for a moment, then looked up expectantly. "It's definitely headed for that island. Chart 80; north, 2 degrees 23 minutes 14/K; by east, 104 degrees 40 minutes, 07/P.

Brains pulled the chart and quickly found the location. "It's a p-privately owned island, a former c-coffee plantation," he read aloud, and looked up from the page. "Th-that would be a good place to take someone th-they wished to hold and question secretly."

"Yes," Kyrano spoke up quietly. They had almost forgotten he was there. "Many of those small islands were bought as British land holdings and some have changed hands many times. Anyone with ready funds could purchase one when the owners tired of their tropical paradise... or the political climate."

"I bet that's where they intend to take Tin-Tin also," said Gordon.

"I hope you're right, Gordon." Scott was looking over Brains' shoulder. "Lots of jungle in those highlands near the plantation." He looked up at the others. "We'll need some camo."

"It'll be dark there by the time you arrive," Jeff pointed out. "You'll be better off with night gear."

"But Tin-Tin had Alan's telecom near Singapore City," Virgil protested. "She may have escaped and still be there. Someone should at least check."

"Right," agreed Jeff. "So Scott, that's where you should go first."

The others looked up eagerly. Finally, it looked like they could do something.

"The rest of you get to that island in Thunderbird Two, best possible speed," Jeff ordered. "Take the gear and weapons you need in Pod Six. I want you in and back out in a hurry, so use the hoverbikes. And make sure that jammer's working."

"Right, Father," they chorused, and headed for the access chutes to the Thunderbirds.


Some sound made him pull himself out of the haze of pain. It was hard to concentrate, but slowly, he identified it. It was her voice. She was fighting and struggling to free herself. Tin-Tin! Alan groaned inwardly; so his hope had failed him and he'd suffered for nothing. Not only would it frighten her to see him this way, he knew that he would tell them anything if they tried to hurt her.

At once she was stock-still; she had seen him. "Alan!" Eight neat rows of eight raw squares, some blackened at the edges, covered his bare upper back. The odor of singed flesh still hung in the air. "Oh, Alan!" Horrified, it was all she could manage to say. Suddenly, the realization struck her, clear and despairing. Alan had suffered for information he had refused to give. Now that she had been captured, the balance would tip in the other direction; for her sake, he would no longer resist.

She gave a terrific heave of her shoulders and managed to free an arm. She clawed as many faces as she could reach, kicking out with her feet, and fighting wildly. "Alan, don't you tell them anything!" she shouted.

Alan struggled feebly on the table. There was nothing he could do help her, securely bound as he was and in agony.

Without warning, there was an abrupt strained silence. Somehow, she had managed to get her hands around one of the pistols they carried. She motioned the others aside with the business end of it, puffing from exertion.

Then she saw that the General had his pistol also, and that its barrel was jammed into the back of Alan's head. Alan had his eyes squeezed tightly closed, waiting for his skull to be shattered.

She bit her lip, and her head hung down, defeated. Without a word, she turned the pistol around and held it out. Its owner, his face badly scratched, snatched it, then twisted her arm around behind her back so violently that she gasped.

Alan's voice was weak with pain and despair. "Stop. Don't hurt her. I'll tell you want you want to know."

"No, Alan! No!"

"General!" The door to the room was thrown back, startling them all. In the doorway was the radio operator, his headphones still in place, shock written across his face. "One of the Thunderbirds is landing at Changi!"

General X's face bore an amazed expression. "And so these two lead the Thunderbirds to me!" he said softly. His gaze fastened on Alan thoughtfully. "International Rescue must want them back," he said slowly, a new plan evolving. "That is much more useful to me than answering any question." He turned away from them, his earlier frustration forgotten. "I must think how best to use this to my advantage," he muttered to himself. Then, an afterthought: "Lock them up securely downstairs. We must plan how they will get us the Thunderbirds."

Alan was untied and hauled to his feet. Then he and Tin-Tin were taken into the narrow hallway, through another doorway, and down steep stairs underground. The rough handling tore into his already ravaged back, and he stumbled as they dragged him along, through another corridor and into a small dim room. There they let him drop and threw Tin-Tin practically on top of him. The door clanged shut and a bolt creaked across it as she caught her balance.

Across the room, a narrow wooden bench stood against the wall. Tin-Tin tested it tentatively. It was sturdy and dry. Alan moaned and tried to lift his head from the floor. She went to him. "I'm here, Alan," she said softly.

"We're not in Singapore anymore. Where are we?" he mumbled.

"I think it must be an old plantation on one of the islands," she said distractedly. "Alan, we need to get you to that bench. You'll begin going into shock soon and the floor is already cold."

"Help me first, Tin-Tin. I've got to stop the signal from my belt transceiver." His groan as he tried to turn over pulled at her heart.

"But, they'll never be able to find us without it."

"Don't you see? We can't let them find us. It's the Thunderbirds he wants. If we lead them here, they'll be flying into a trap." A wake of weakness washed over him, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "The only way we can protect them is to not let them find us."

Kneeling beside him, and trying not to touch his back, she helped him sit up. He unfastened the belt and painfully drew it off. Every move was torment. Taking the belt by its notched end, he slung it, whip-fashion, at the floor. There was a pop as it struck the stones and the buckle flew apart.

The effort was more than he could tolerate. He fell over onto her and passed out. She could never remember afterward how she did it, but somehow she got him to the bench and on his stomach. His tattered shirt clung to the oozing wounds. It was not blood, but a clear yellowish fluid that soaked his shirt and dried stickily. Tin-Tin had nothing to bandage him with, though she now looked about her desperately.

What had evidently once been a wine cellar had been partitioned off by huge sheets of metal, bolted to the stone walls and floor with large brackets. The door was metal also, hinged to open outward. Tropical air and cool stone had resulted in abundant moisture, the stone floor was damp and slick with algae and the metal walls were beginning to corrode.

The one original wall was covered with moss and contained a high slit of a window with an ornate grapevine grating, alluding to the previous use of the underground chamber. Through that window, there was a glimpse of brown and green shrubbery, and she could tell that dusk was just beginning to fall. A single light recessed into the ceiling, its flat plastic face dingy with mildew, would soon be their only illumination.

She went back to Alan. He was beginning to shiver; shock was setting in. All she could do was cover the burns with the remains of his shirt. She sat down on the damp floor near his head, took his clammy hand, and pressed it to her face. Then, she finally let herself cry.


Gordon pounded his fist into his thigh in frustration. "What could have caused his transceiver to go out? Loss of power? Anything could have happened to him..." he stopped, just short of saying what he most feared for his brother.

He, Brains, and Virgil were flying in Thunderbird Two to the island while Scott was heading for Changi airport, alone, in Thunderbird One. Scott's smaller, faster craft would arrive in Singapore ninety minutes before the slower, larger Thunderbird Two would land.

Brains tried to control his frustration by staying busy, but that tactic didn't seem to work. He checked the jammer connections to Thunderbird Two's power grid for the fifth time, and then the connections to the other device, a camouflage field projector he'd been working on before Tin-Tin's call. The connections were perfect, just as he knew they were the first time he checked them. He gave it up and sat down with a sigh beside Gordon and behind Virgil, who was piloting the huge craft.

"The transceivers have n-never failed before." He was clearly puzzled. "Only the scanner on Thunderbird Five can p-pick up the signal, so whoever captured A-alan should not know he has one and d-destroy it."

"Then Alan destroyed it himself..." Virgil said slowly, as a new, more hopeful idea occurred to him. "Of course! He's being used as bait! It's the Thunderbirds they want! He's trying to not to lure us into a trap." He stared out of the aircraft's big windshield. "It's as clear as if radioed it in himself."

Brains frowned at the intuitive leap. He knew well that Virgil often had an inexplicable insight as to the well-being of all his brothers, but his assertion seemed improbable. Gordon had no such doubts.

"Then he's still alive!" Gordon was looking over Virgil's shoulder, hope rising in his eyes.

Suddenly, an alarm and flashing light appeared on the instrument panel. "Radar!" Gordon shouted unnecessarily. "Veer off Virgil!"

Virgil swung the huge craft away in a sharp arc, as Gordon dove for his seat and Brains hung on grimly.


"...So, we're pretty sure that they're trying to use Alan as bait to lure us in, Father," Virgil told him later, speaking through the videocom connection with Jeff on Tracy Island. He had brought Thunderbird Two around in a broad circle, then came in from the north below radar level and touched down in the hills behind the plantation. Dusk was beginning to fall and the three of them had already changed into black clothes and knit caps.

"The jammer is on and we've landed in a secluded place behind the hills near the plantation. Gordon and I are going to do a recon, while Brains stays here to keep an eye on things and make sure the camouflage field stays up. We're taking the hoverbikes so we can move faster through the jungle, so we should be done by the time Scott arrives."

"Good work, boys. Penelope just reported in, too. She got in touch with Sir Jeremy Hodge and asked him to talk to his contacts at Interpol. He found out that a terrorist ring has been operating in the region, and they are fairly sure their base is at that location. So, be very careful on your recon. Those men will be dangerous. As soon as Scott checks in from Singapore, I'll pass on your location."

"Tell him to be on his guard, they'll be looking for him" Virgil warned. "He needs to make a big show of leaving Singapore, then circle back here and come in from the north below radar level. He should land as far from the plantation as practical, Brains will be able to tell him where to meet us."

"FAB."


Scott felt like every eye on the street was staring at his International Rescue uniform. It was possible that Alan's predicament was the result of being recognized, but Scott had to be International Rescue to land Thunderbird One at Changi, and then get past the security he'd requested when he took her up again.

He checked once more with John, who assured him that the homing signal from Alan's watch hadn't moved. Several explanations had sprung to mind as he searched, none of which he dared share with his younger brother; John felt helpless enough already.

Either Tin-Tin had gotten away and was in hiding or she had been captured alive and imprisoned. Or, and he swallowed hard over the possibility, she was lying dead or unconscious somewhere. He didn't dare try to signal her, even just a flash, in case she was in hiding.

The signal grew stronger. As he passed a little gated park, the intensity of the signal fell and gradually grew less the further from it he walked. The watch had to be in the park. Scott back-tracked. By triangulation, he and John gradually narrowed down its location to the base of a plant. As he picked it up, his heart sank to his toes; the last sure lead to Tin-Tin's fate was gone.

Scott placed Alan's watch in his pocket, then lifted his telecom. John's already anxious face fell further at his big brother's bleak expression. "Put me through to Father, John."

"Okay, Scott," John responded, glad the transition would not let Scott see the tears form in his eyes.

"I've found Alan's watch, Father," Scott stifled his desire to wince as the hope flickered in his father's face, only to die when he looked into his eyes. "Tin-Tin must have dropped it, so there's no telling where she might be now." He did wince then, when he heard Kyrano's gasp of dismay. He must have been standing on the other side of Jeff's desk.

His father's voice was as heavy as Scott's heart. "All right, son." He glanced up apologetically to his old friend over the monitor. "We'll have to hold on to the hope that she somehow got away. Tin-Tin's smart, and she knows how to defend herself." If she wasn't outnumbered, Jeff thought to himself. "I'm afraid they need you to help rescue Alan now."


Above the jungle canopy, the horizon was ablaze with sunset. Under the jungle canopy, it was full nighttime dark. The dense cover above had kept the understory of the forest fairly open. Virgil and Gordon, on the hoverbikes, found making a path easy.

Their black clothes and caps made them almost invisible in the darkness, even to each other, without their night vision goggles. With them, everything around them had taken on an eerie glow, depending upon the heat each object possessed. Soon, the vegetation began to grow thicker, they were near the edge of the dense forest where sunlight had reached the understory plants.

Through the goggles, they could make out a black grid before them, the cool metal lines of a chain-link fence. They dismounted the hoverbikes and camouflaged them carefully. A moonless night had fallen.

Now Virgil cautiously crept close to the fence, keeping to as much cover as he could. He peered carefully up and down the top edge of the 10-foot wire structure.

"No cameras," he whispered to Gordon. Gordon nodded, and after donning thick rubber gloves, moved up to the fence and tentatively laid a hand on it. There were no alarms, no shouts from the grounds it surrounded, and it was not electrified.

"Can't say I think much of their security so far," he said softly to Virgil, pulling off the gloves.

"Yeah, but let's not get careless," Virgil agreed quietly.

They cut a slit through the fence and, carefully folding it back, slipped through to the plantation grounds. "All right, Kiddo," said Virgil softly to his brother. "I'll meet you back by the hoverbikes in one hour." They split up, going in opposite directions.

Earlier, they had established a flash code for their telecoms and then drew lots for who scouted the outbuildings and who got the main house. They both felt that the main house was probably the most hazardous of the two, with possibly less cover and more people to avoid. Neither had wanted the other to take that duty.

"It's too dangerous! You don't have any idea what's in that house!" Virgil had reasoned.

"Neither do you! And what if you get shot at and can't fly us out of here?" Gordon argued.

"Then you'll have to!" his brother shot back.

The stress of the mission and what it might mean for Alan and Tin-Tin were making them tense and irritable. Each had a grip of iron around the other's arm, the result of Gordon taking a swing at his brother, something he would not ordinarily have done even in jest.

"W-wait, fellas!" Brains intervened. "W-why don't you just draw straws. "Here," he produced two short pieces of wire from the work he had done with the camouflage field projector and held them out in his fist. "Sh-short gets the house."

Virgil picked one, Gordon took the other, and they compared lots. Virgil had drawn the house.


The plantation would have been a good choice for a base in a military operation, had the grounds been better kept, but the overgrown vegetation and trees at the edges of the property made their security sloppy. At several points, the trees actually overhung the fence and understory plants had pushed through, pulling the perimeter of the grounds inward unevenly, sometimes several feet from the fence.

This made better cover for Gordon, as he slipped from one plant clump to another. He found there were two entry points to the compound, one in the front of and closer to the house, which he left for Virgil to explore, and another in the far back of the property. The rough-looking men who guarded the gates were probably mercenaries.

Far from the back of the house, behind a vast ruined garden and a few trees, was a cluster of cinder block buildings and a large quonset. Lights were glaring out from two of them, apparently a barracks and the mess, judging from the number of men passing between them. To the rear of these, closest to the fence, there were four other buildings.

Gordon pressed himself against the back wall of one, and moved carefully around it to the side where the door was located. A slotted tab and loop for a padlock had been used to secure it, but the padlock was locked uselessly on the loop, the tab swung out to the side. Gordon tsk-tsked the poor security and cautiously pushed it open. It was a storage shed for small munitions, some of it grossly outdated and dirty. Gordon did a quick inspection of it and moved on.

The next building was similarly vulnerable. It was filled with cases of explosives: dynamite, plastique, blasting caps and others, along with the paraphernalia to deploy and detonate them. Gordon made particular note of these, as they might be useful later. The quonset was evidently the garage. A jeep and two trucks were parked under it, the jeep with its hood up and a large gap where the carburetor should have been. One of the trucks had a flat tire.

To his surprise, the fourth building was locked. He picked the padlock carefully, and laid it on the ground. A low hum greeted him as he pushed the door open. He'd finally found something that impressed him. The building held a small atomic generator, its refrigeration unit taking up one side of the building, its turbines the other. Judging by the instrument panels lining the remaining wall, it apparently supplied the whole compound with electricity.

Above its two main switches was a brand name, and when he read it, Gordon almost chuckled out loud: part of the name of the company that had produced it was Hackenbacker. Hackenbacker was one of Brains' aliases that he used for his engineering designs patented outside of International Rescue. No wonder the little machine impressed him so much!

He exited the building and carefully relocked it. Then he moved over to the barracks and mess buildings. Both had large screened windows that ran the entire upper half of the buildings, with shutters that hinged down from inside. Because of the heat, the mess was wide open.

The bunkhouse was dark, most of its shutters closed, as evidently all the men had gone to the mess. Gordon counted two rows of twelve double bunks through an open window. Most of the bunks looked like they might be employed. The doors to the barracks and mess were adjacent to each other, and the short distance between them was a well-beaten path.

Suddenly, the door to the mess swung open and two men swaggered out, one pausing to light a cigarette. Gordon flattened himself to the side of the building. If either man decided to wander around to the side, he'd be spotted. The barracks door squeaked open as the mess door slammed, the barracks lights were turned on, and, except for the banter of the two men, there was silence.

Gordon quietly let out the breath he forgot he'd been holding, and pulled his goggles aside to thumb a trickle of sweat from his eyebrow. He could see enough of the men playing cards or talking in the well-lit mess to determine that they were mixture of all races, some of them very dirty and rugged. He counted some 40 of these mercenaries, replaced the goggles, and then moved back into the greater darkness of the trees.

He checked his watch. Forty-five minutes had passed since he and Virgil split up. He began to work his way back carefully to the hoverbikes. Soon, without further incident, he slipped back out through the fence. He was back early; the wait for Virgil to finish his check of the house would be long and tense.


Virgil's assignment was thought the most hazardous because he had the greatest risk of being seen. However, the overgrown garden extended almost all the way to the back of the house and around the veranda on the sides. Once he had sprinted across a short section of neglected lawn, he had plenty of cover. He caught his breath as he took in a first impression.

The old house had probably been built near the end of the British possession of Singapore and still had a kind of faded dignity. It was two stories tall, with a high peaked roof, and set slightly off the ground on top of a stone foundation. The veranda had a latticed underpinning that did not go completely around the house, but wrapped around the front and sides.

Approaching from the back, but still at a good distance, Virgil began to work his way around the building. At the front of the house, a stairway came down from the veranda at the front doors. At the foot of the stairs, the gravel driveway circled a dry fountain and then led out to a gated entrance.

The driveway was crowded with several vehicles, mostly military, but three were not: a slinky gray Lincoln, a green Fiat and a black Audi. With binoculars, Virgil could see the two guards lounging on either side of the gate, one flicking the still-glowing butt of a spent cigarette through the fence.

He turned his attention back to the house. Two men were posted at the front doors, and two sentries walked the perimeter on the ground beneath the veranda, each going in opposite directions. That meant they crossed each others' paths twice, once in front of the house and once in back. He stopped to time their circuit, gritting his teeth over the delay, but his intuition telling him it might be useful later. From the time they passed each other and met again, two minutes had passed.

He crept behind one of the cars and, keeping it between him and the structure, pulled up the binoculars again and peered into the windows on the front of the house. On one side of the front doors was a big parlor that evidently served as the status room. In the room next to it, he could see the radio operator intently listening to something on his headphones. On the opposite side of the doors, there was another large room with a world map covering the whole wall, a huge desk sat in front of it. Above the first floor were smaller rooms, probably used as officer's quarters, with curtained windows.

Virgil continued to work his way all around the house, using the cars in the driveway as cover and stealing back into the garden on the other side. Almost in the back of the house was tall wooden tower. Near the top, its construction abruptly changed. Apparently the radio tower had been salvaged from an old naval vessel; it looked like it had been simply plopped down on top of the wood structure. The antenna extended from it another twenty feet, and next to it, softly creaking as it rotated, was a small radar dish.

Continuing around the building, one officer's room in the back on the second floor caught Virgil's eye. It was the only one with an air conditioning unit, cycling noisily. Bet that's where the head man stays, Virgil thought, whoever he is.

He was almost all the way back to where he'd started when he saw it, a narrow band of dim light, apparently in the foundation of the building. Even at night, without his goggles, he would have missed it. A cellar! and it was lighted, however poorly. Virgil paused, considering. If the opening was large enough, it could be a secondary exit from the house if they were detected and cut off from the entry point.

Virgil waited impatiently for the sentries to circle round again and then started to count down the time as they went out of sight around the building. Squatting down next to the narrow window with its ornate grating, he pulled the goggles down and peered in carefully. What he saw nearly took his breath. Alan was lying next to one wall on a narrow bench, and sitting on the floor next to him, her dark head leaning against the bench, was Tin-Tin.


As the sun went down, the cool dampness of the cellar had become acute. Tin-Tin had removed her sandals and was sitting on top of them, in an attempt to lift herself off the floor. Then she tucked her knees under her chin, trying to preserve some warmth. The anxiety, pain, and terror had taken their toll on her. As she leaned against the side of the bench next to Alan, despite the chill, she dozed off.

"Tin-Tin!" Startled, she lifted her head and gazed at Alan. Alan's breathing was ragged and uneven, interrupted intermittently by shudders, but he was clearly unconscious. She shivered and rubbed her arms, she was chilled through. Had she been dreaming?

"Tin-Tin." She heard it again. It was Virgil's voice! She leaped up and went to the wall, peering up through the grate. By the dim light from the ceiling, she could just make out a form outside the window.

"Virgil! You're in danger! They want the Thunderbirds!"

"Don't worry, they're safe. Brains is babysitting them, and he's activated the electronic camouflage net. Listen, Tin-Tin, I don't have much time. Do you know how many people are in the house? Or who we're dealing with?

"I'm not sure. I didn't get a very good look." She thought a moment, reviewing what she'd seen of the house. "Probably about 12. And they've been calling their leader General X. I've never heard of him."

"Me either." Virgil looked at her tear-streaked face, at Alan shuddering on the cot, at his torn and stained shirt. "Are you all right?"

Her face started to crumple. "I'm all right. Alan was going to tell them what they wanted, so they didn't hurt me .." Her voice broke and her words tumbled out in gasps. "Oh, but Virgil... he didn't tell them anything... wouldn't have given in... it was so horrible what they did... and then they brought me in..." Her voice constricted with emotion, she could only whisper. "He's hurt .." she choked. "... What they've done to his back, Virgil!"

Virgil heart ached at the anguish in her eyes and voice, and his anger boiled at the meaning of her words. He longed to reach in to her, to reassure her, the little sister she'd always been to him, but she was too far away, the grating too fine. Angrily, he pushed against it, and to his amazement, it swung inward with a rusty squeak. He froze, but the noise from the air conditioning unit above them was far louder.

He opened the kit on his belt and pulled out the three-by-three-inch square of an intricately folded emergency blanket. "Here, catch this," he ordered, and dropped it through. "You look like you could use these, too," and followed up by dropping in a packet of energy wafers and his water flask. Then he pulled the grate closed.

Suddenly, the watchface of his telecom glowed green and went out. He twisted the bezel once quickly, signaling he understood. "That's Gordon, flashing to tell me he's back at our rendezvous." Then the watch flashed white twice, Brain's signal. "And Scott's here." He was still looking at his watch. "Uh oh, be back in a minute."

He disappeared from the window until the sentries passed. He was soon back, and she saw his teeth gleam in a smile. "Sit tight. We'll be back soon," he promised, and his comforting presence was gone.

Tin-Tin carefully unfolded the blanket and spread it over Alan, tucking it under him. In the dim light, it would be difficult to see that he was covered. It was big enough for her to leave a corner of it out on the floor. Then she took a long swallow from the water flask and tore into the energy wafers. The last food either of them had was at breakfast. She left half the water and the other wafer for Alan, in case he came around before Virgil's promised return.

Alan's hand was still cold, but already his breathing had deepened and the shuddering had stopped. The conductive material of the blanket, using his own body heat, had warmed quickly. She sat down again next to him on the corner of the blanket and put her sandals back on. Hope was slowly thawing out her cold feet and dispirited heart. She touched Alan's face tenderly. "Hang on, please, Alan. Just a little longer."


Virgil hurried back to the slit in the fence. He found Gordon and Scott sitting on the ground next to the hoverbikes. Scott had just arrived, his hoverbike was still warm. Virgil gave them a thumbs-up as he flopped down beside Gordon. "Tin-Tin is here. She's locked up with Alan in an underground cell of some kind on the north side."

"Well, that's a relief," said Scott, with feeling. "I was dreading going back to Singapore to pick up a cold trail. What else did you find out?"

"There are about forty men on the grounds besides the ones in the house. Most of them will probably be in the barracks soon." Gordon reported.

"Tin-Tin thinks there might be twelve in the house."

"And Alan?" Scott turned to Virgil.

Virgil took a breath. "He won't be much help." He gripped Gordon's arm beside him. "He's alive, but he's been... tortured." He could hardly say it. "... And apparently Tin-Tin was forced to watch part of it."

Gordon's amber eyes flickered with rage. "Those filthy..."

"Easy, Gordon," Scott gripped his other arm, his voice steel, but his eyes two flaming sapphires. "We don't have the fire- or man-power to go in there guns blazing. We have to do this smart."

Gordon clenched his fists, but subsided.

"Let's get back to Thunderbird Two," Scott said, after a moment. "I have an idea. It'll require a lot of help from Brains, and the missile launcher..."


Virgil wiped away a trickle of sweat running down in front of his ear, between his night vision goggles and gas mask, and stared at his watch impatiently. What was taking so long? Finally, a single white flash from the watch face. Brains, having assembled an innovative special missile, had the missile launcher on Thunderbird Two readied for the first shot.

A few seconds later, a green flash signaled that Gordon's grenade launcher, armed with a sleeping gas canister, was trained on the barracks. In addition, they were all armed with high-powered rifles. Instead of bullets, they were loaded with pellets containing a strong sedative that broke open on impact.

Virgil had already signaled his readiness with a red flash to the others. He had stunned the guards at both gates, then he had taken similar care of the sentries. The guards at the door had gone inside. He again checked the grenade launcher, armed the same as Gordon's, at his feet. This was their backup, just in case Brains's idea didn't work like they'd hoped, although none of them doubted their ingenious friend's abilities.

Still Scott hadn't signaled. Virgil checked the time again. If he didn't signal in one more minute . . .


Scott was also feeling frustrated. His assignment had been to pick the lock to the generator building and shut it down. This seemingly simple job had hit a couple of snags. First, one of the mercenaries apparently had insomnia and had been wandering the grounds smoking a cigarette. He continued to amble aimlessly toward Scott, under the only cover he'd been able to keep, at a weed-plagued corner of the generator building. About the time Scott decided he would have to jump him, the man relieved himself a bare foot away from his hiding place and turned back to the barracks.

The second snag was the padlock. Some debris had apparently gotten in the mechanism when Gordon laid it down earlier and the pick jammed. Some choice words to say to his younger brother ran through his mind as he worked, sweating, to remove the pick and then cut the bar free. At last, he swung the door open and crept inside, pulling the door closed behind him. He found the shut-off levers and twisted the bezel of his watch. Then waited.


Gordon had also held his breath when the insomniac left the barracks and wandered over by the place he knew Scott was hidden. He raised the rifle and followed him through the night-sight, waiting for the right moment. He smiled grimly as the man unfastened his pants, wondering whether Scott had kept his own pants dry.

Finally, he breathed out when the shadow he knew was his brother went around the corner of the building, and waited impatiently. About the time both he and Virgil, if he had known it, were steeling themselves to see what was wrong, the blue flash signaled readiness.


Virgil exhaled sharply as Brains signal-flashed in code: Ready?

A green flash, his red, then blue: We're ready.

Fifteen seconds ticked away, and then he heard it, the whistling roar of an incoming missile. Suddenly, all the lights in the compound went out and there were shouts from the house. A dim echo of Gordon's grenade launcher incapacitating the men in the barracks came next. Then the missile struck the roof of the house and pierced it without exploding.

Its purpose was to penetrate the roof of the house, drop one gas canister on the top floor, then continue to first floor and drop another canister, leaving the cellar untouched. There were a few moments of pandemonium from the house, and one man opened the front door. He was quickly picked off by Virgil with a stun pellet and fell back inside. Then all was silent; the missile must have worked.

Virgil reached down, quickly packed up the grenade launcher, and drew its strap over his shoulder to hang in back. Then he barreled up the front steps and flattened his back to the front wall by the door. The house was still silent. Soon, Scott and Gordon pounded up on the other side of the door.

"What was the delay?" Virgil whispered to Scott.

"Long story," he hissed back. "I'll explain later!"

Virgil shrugged, and took his position in front of the door. He kicked it in, then stepped back as Scott turned and entered the house. They quickly followed him inside through the swirling remains of the gas, their weapons held ready.

Virgil knelt beside Scott, who was checking the man Virgil had picked off at the door. He appeared to be breathing without distress, to Virgil's relief; the combination of sedative and anesthesia could have dire consequences.

Slowly they went through the first level, room by room, pushing open each door carefully, rifles sweeping side to side. Every person they found had succumbed to the gas. Finally, they found it, a door leading down steep stairs to another corridor. As pre-arranged, Virgil went back out of the house the way they'd come in; he had another errand. Gordon took his post at the top of the steps.

Scott started carefully down the stairs, then stopped short. On the wall, through his night goggles, glowed a recent handprint. Someone had just been there! He continued slowly, but unless the owner of the handprint also had goggles, Scott had the advantage.

The cellar was pitch-black. Then a single shot rang out, hitting the wall high above him, as he stooped low. Scott turned and saw the shooter through the goggles. He fired his weapon and watched him pass out from the sedative.

Gordon was close behind him. "You okay? What was that?"

"Fine. They'd posted a guard down here."

Scott pulled his mask down and took a tentative sniff, thinking that the unconscious guard indicated the gas was not present. A few seconds passed, then Gordon pulled his off, too. Brains's missile had worked perfectly; the gas had not penetrated down this far. They found the cell quickly, drew the bar, and threw the door open.

Scott took one look at Alan and without a word handed Tin-Tin the rifle. Then he stooped down, pulled his brother onto his shoulder in a fireman carry, and carefully stood up. Alan was limp, unconscious.

Tin-Tin saw him nod to Gordon, who twisted the bezel of his watch three times, obviously some a code. Immediately, her heart leaped to her throat, as she heard what could have only been Thunderbird Two launching a missile!

"Quick, back out to the corridor!" he gasped; his "little" brother was not light-weight. He grabbed Tin-Tin's arm and pulled her with him. Gordon met them outside the cell door.

There was a tremendous crash, and the little grate hurtled through the door and hit the wall of the corridor with a clang before falling to the floor. The ground shook, and smoke, dust, and dirt poured out into the corridor. Gordon waited a moment, then peered around the door frame, waiting for the dust to clear.

Where the stone wall had been there was now a smoking gap of rubble. Knowing the gas would wear off quickly, they made their own back door. Brains had done it again. The missile had been so precisely aimed that it came in at a low angle, gouging a slope for them to climb up out of the cellar. Gordon waited for some of the smoke to clear and to make sure it was stable before shouting, "Okay, it's open! Let's move!"


Virgil took off at a dead run across the compound toward the break in the fence, the grenade launcher thumping on his back. It still irked that he had won the short straw this time, relegated to fetching one of the hoverbikes, while Scott and Gordon were searching the house for the basement room where he had seen Tin-Tin and Alan. The 'bike was needed to convey the badly injured Alan; since the gas would be wearing off at any time, the others could not carry him fast enough to the break in the fence.

Halfway across, he heard a shout from the driveway and turning his head, saw a figure holding a rifle, the glint of its nightsight pointing his direction. The weapon fired, and he rolled, so that the bullet only ripped the black shirt and cut a searing path across the surface of his shoulder. He fired back, but the figure and rifle were gone.

He waited a heartbeat or two, then scrambled to his feet. He could hear the live missile coming. In the driveway, the gray Lincoln he'd seen earlier roared to life and took off toward the gate. He didn't have time to fire at it, even if the pellets hadn't been useless. He just had time to hit the ground again.

The debris from the missile was beginning to settle when Virgil arrived back at the hoverbikes. He started one, and pushed it through the fence, then mounted it and glided across the compound toward the house. They met in the ruined garden in back of the building.

One of Tin-Tin's sandals had broken as she climbed out of the cellar, so Gordon had swung her up in both arms. Virgil had a bad moment until she assured him she was unhurt.

Scott pulled off his night-vision goggles and handed them to Tin-Tin. "Here, you're driving."

Tin-Tin opened her mouth to protest, then closed it again. She knew she couldn't run barefoot through the jungle to Thunderbird Two. She put the goggles on and mounted the hoverbike. They sat Alan, still unconscious, behind her, but he was too unstable to sit up without assistance even with the safety belt around his hips.

Scott thought fast. "Tin-Tin, I'll run beside you to keep him upright," he decided. "But we need to cover ground in a hurry, so go as fast as we can manage and not leave me behind. Follow Gordon, he knows the way. Virgil, you bring up the rear."

Scott stumbled several times without the goggles he'd given Tin-Tin, but with both Gordon and Virgil on foot also, they managed to keep Alan upright behind her. With great relief they reached the break in the fence and found the other hoverbikes under their camouflage. Scott climbed on behind Gordon, while Virgil took the third one, and they moved quickly through the jungle, faster than they had on cleared ground.

Virgil said nothing about his arm until they got back to the lights in Thunderbird Two, and only after Gordon noticed the blood on his sleeve. "It's just a scratch, honest," Virgil protested over their concerns. "Get Alan taken care of, then we'll worry about me. Besides, I've got to get us out of here, before General X's men regroup." Scott helped him stow the gear back in the pod and then went back to Thunderbird One.

Gordon and Brains placed Alan in one of the beds in the sickbay compartment behind Thunderbird Two's cockpit. Tin-Tin stood at the foot with her fists held tightly to her mouth, tears filling her eyes. She couldn't bear to watch, but yet couldn't bear to be away from Alan's side. Gordon had his arm around her, trying to support her after all she'd been through.

Virgil got Thunderbird Two airborne so smoothly that they were almost unaware of it. Scott had already taken off in Thunderbird One and was reporting the successful completion of their operation to their father. He also had the unenviable duty of informing him of Alan's injuries.


Brains gingerly removed the ruins of Alan's shirt from the burns on his back, his brow furrowed in concentration and concern. Alan was almost conscious, but too far gone to care or prevent a dry whimper from escaping his lips as the fabric was peeled off. Gordon's grip on Tin-Tin tightened as the devastation of Alan's back was revealed.

Brains looked up at them, concerned but optimistic. "Well, it d-does look bad, but there d-doesn't appear to be any damage to muscle or fascia b-beneath the skin. W-we just need to get it cleaned and c-covered and get him back to base as qu-quick as we can. But first," he reached into the medical kit for a hypodermic, "I'm going to m-make him more comfortable. From the sound of him, the p-pain must be excruciating."

A few minutes later, the wounds cleaned, Brains sprayed a clear protective layer over all. Alan was breathing easily, deep in a sweet painless sleep.

"Now," Brains stood up, gathering the medical kit together. "G-gordon, here's your c-chance to fly Thunderbird Two a bit while I look at V-virgil."


It was touch and go for a while. Alan developed a secondary infection on his back and began losing all three skin layers in patches. It was serious enough that Jeff considered relaxing security to bring in a doctor, an old friend from the military hospital at Guam. In the end, Scott made an emergency run to Guam in Thunderbird One to pick up antibiotics and artificial skin. Tin-Tin never left Alan's bedside, but she had company around the clock; some member of the family was always there, rescue calls not withstanding.

The only person who spent more time with Alan than Tin-Tin was Brains. His primary field of expertise was engineering, but he also had a medical degree. He recognized the necessity of the artificial skin and obtained the knowledge to use it. Jeff knew that the care Alan received could not have been paid for with any money.

Within days, Alan's own skin began to recover, and, as it was supposed to, began absorbing the artificial skin. Brains was certain there would be a minimum of scarring, but it would be a long time before he went out on the beach.


As soon as Alan began to turn the corner and recover, the wedding plans resumed with enthusiasm. The first thing to be done was to fly Tin-Tin's Ladybird back to the island. It had been safely hangared at Changi, and was still loaded with the things they'd bought in Singapore.

Jeff surprised everyone except Grandma and Kyrano when he offered to fly Virgil there in the blue JT-1 jet. Except for Tracy Corporation business and the occasional visit to Lady Penelope's estates, his departures from the island could be counted on one hand.

"Virgil and I weren't seen there," he explained, "and as long as Tin-Tin arranges it with the hangar company, no one will ever connect us with International Rescue."


By the time Virgil had gotten the Ladybird checked out, fueled and received clearance for take-off, he assumed that his father was on his way home. But as he taxied out for take-off, he was alarmed to see the blue Tracy jet still on the ground. Concerned, he contacted Jeff via their telecoms.

"Dad, everything okay?" he asked with trepidation. Singapore was beginning to look like a dangerous place for any of them to visit.

"Just fine, son," Jeff looked and sounded unusually buoyant, but was very circumspect. "I have an errand to run. See you at back at base."


It had been delayed a month, but finally one of the most eagerly awaited events in Jeff's life was about to take place. He had not been this excited since own his sons' births or even the inauguration of International Rescue. Alan, on the other hand, who had participated in dozens of tense rescues, had never felt so nervous, and was sweating as he stood next to the Reverend Dr. Brown, the minister flown in for the occasion.

He was still a little too pale for the white suit, but with the addition of the red vest and bow tie, he looked splendid. Scott and Virgil were amused by his discomfiture as they stood at his side in dark suits, their vests and ties matching his.

The main living area at the Tracy villa had been transformed into a wedding chapel. Grandma and Kyrano had taken care of every detail, with Tin-Tin's supervision. The piano had been moved to one side to make room for the arch in front of the balcony looking out over the Pacific. Flowers from the garden were everywhere. Chairs and a sofa had been arranged to form one row, the aisle splitting it in half. Food, from the cake to the buffet, had been prepared, and the champagne was chilled and waiting.

The guest list was very small: besides the family, only Penelope, Parker and Sir Jeremy Hodge were there to witness the event. Sir Jeremy had flown from his home in Paris to meet Lady Penelope and her faithful chauffeur in London, and they had all traveled together from England.

Finally, a signal was given. Virgil moved over to the piano and Mendelssohn's Wedding March filled the air. A door opened, and Penelope entered, her golden hair arranged and adorned with tiny pink rosebuds on the top of her head.

It was fortunate that Virgil knew the march by heart, for he played it on autopilot; he couldn't take his eyes off her in the gown that Tin-Tin had designed. A cascade of pink Singapore silk poured off her left shoulder and swirled about her to the floor, leaving the right shoulder bare. She carried a bouquet of pink roses in her hands. She gave Virgil a quick demure little smile, and continued serenely forward. Virgil gulped and almost missed a note.

Finally, Tin-Tin entered on her father's arm. Kyrano beamed in his red Malay jacket and dark slacks. Tin-Tin's gown was identical to Penelope's, but in white. Red beads sprinkled across the toes of her slippers peeked from under the hem. Her dark hair was also pulled up and arranged on top of her head. She carried red roses and tiny red rosebuds were in her hair.

Kyrano placed Tin-Tin's hand in Alan's and took his seat next to Brains. Parker and Sir Jeremy made up the rest of this side of the row.

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here with these witnesses . ." the minister began.

Sir Jeremy glanced over at the Tracy family on the other side of the aisle. Jeff, in utter happiness, sat with his arm about his mother, with Gordon seated on the other side. Virgil had left the piano and was again standing next to Scott and Alan. From Jeff's desk, via videophone, John grinned in real-time in front of a fake backdrop, he was actually on Thunderbird Five orbiting the earth. Since the visiting minister was unaware that the Tracy home was actually the base of International Rescue, Operation Cover-up had been initiated and the portraits of the boys in uniform had been exchanged for portraits in casual clothes.

A lovely ceremony, thought Sir Jeremy, and unusual. He couldn't remember ever going to a wedding with so small an attendance and in a more beautiful setting. All the more unusual as the main participants had been so close to not being there at all.

Come to think of it, he mused, the entire family was extraordinary: five young men, along with those they most loved, dedicated to rescuing others no matter what the cost. He was filled with pride at being even a small part of it.

Strange how a chance meeting can change one's life, he reflected. He and Jeff Tracy might never had met had not both of them known Penelope. Knowing his contacts with aviation manufacturers through his scientific investments, she approached him with a request to help her get some unusual aviation components manufactured, and, this was the strangest part, by different manufacturers. It seemed such an odd request from a person like Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward!

It wasn't until months later, through cooperating with Interpol on an unusual espionage case, that he found out Penelope was a former Federal Agent Bureau operative. However, she'd left the agency long before she talked to him. Sir Jeremy's investigations into her activities temporarily strained their friendship, but in the end, he met Jeff Tracy. Once Jeff explained his ambitions to build International Rescue, a more enthusiastic supporter than Sir Jeremy Hodge did not exist.

Sir Jeremy's reverie dissolved as the ceremony was nearing its end. "Are there rings to be presented?" asked Dr. Brown.

Alan and Tin-Tin looked at each other in dismay. That was what they hadn't remembered! Jeff and Kyrano were on their feet, and then Jeff tried to pull something from his pocket. Tin-Tin looked on with alarm. The last time he'd pulled something from his pocket for her...

"Tin-Tin, I know this is supposed to be from Alan, but we" and he gestured to include the rest of his beaming family, whom he had told just before the ceremony, "would be honored if you would wear these." He had Lucille's rings in his hand. "They were Alan's mother's."

"Oh, Mr. Tracy!" Tin-Tin reached up to hug him with tears in her eyes. "I would be honored to wear them."

"And I," Kyrano stepped up, "would be honored, Alan, if you would wear this ring bearing the emblem of my family." The tiny sapphire in the bird's beak gleamed in his hand.

Alan was overwhelmed. "How could I refuse?" he finally got out. Then light dawned. "No wonder everyone kept saying everything was taken care of!" He looked at his tearfully radiant grandmother. "And you knew all about this didn't you? No wonder you were afraid to talk to me today!"


Virgil's face was a study in rapture, Penelope's head on his shoulder, as they slow-danced to a recording. Scott and Gordon, completely unaware they were in identical poses, sat watching them with arms crossed impatiently. They were also unaware that they were the only people present not involved in the conspiracy devised against them.

"I think we should have made Virgil stay at the piano," grumbled Gordon. "At this rate, we won't get to dance at all." Scott only nodded, his scowl deepening.

Sir Jeremy, making a valiant effort not to laugh, could not take much more. He got up and went up to the bar. Parker was standing behind it, acting bartender.

" ĎAve you h'ever seen such a pair of tricksters?" Parker asked him quietly in his broad Cockney, watching Penelope and Virgil trying to stifle their laughter. Meanwhile, Scott and Gordon re-crossed their legs for the third or fourth time, again unknowingly in unison.

The unusual quiver that the two dancers were fending off finally got the best of them; they just couldn't hold off their laughter any longer. The joke finally dissolved, to the utter bewilderment of the two victims, who for the first time realized that everyone else had been watching them. Virgil had to sit down, he was laughing so hard, and offered his handkerchief to Penelope, who laughed until tears had come.

"If only you two could have seen yourselves!" Virgil exclaimed when he could speak again.

"They will," Kyrano assured, a slight smile replacing his normally serene expression, and he showed them the video camera he'd hidden in one of the flower arrangements.

Alan stood with his arms around the waists of the only other women on the island, his new bride on one side and Grandma on the other. They and Jeff stood off to one side, laughing from the balcony. John had signed off and was back at work on Thunderbird Five, monitoring communication traffic all over the planet; one of them might be the next International Rescue assignment.

"You see, Father," Alan joked, "we really do need more women on this island."

"I believe you're right, Alan," Jeff agreed. His eyes twinkled as he caught Tin-Tin's eye. "And maybe a few other little things!"

Tin-Tin laughed again and took his hand. "You know what I really love about this family? They're always open to new ideas!"

 
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