Gordon Tracy knelt on the beach, reaching for the Bombastic missile launcher. He balanced it against his thigh, checking to be sure that the missile was firmly in place inside the tube. Using both hands, he hefted the launcher to his shoulder, adjusted the targeting sight to his eye, and found Thunderbird 1. The rocket-reconnaissance vessel with the silver fuselage and red tip streaked across the sky. Even though Thunderbird 1 traveled well past the speed of sound, the targeting control pinpointed and followed it. Gordon hit the launch button. The recoil shoved him back into the sand as the missile shot out of the tube and into the air.
Quickly, Gordon set the launcher down stood watching as the missile approached its target, idly brushing sand off his arms and legs. Thunderbird 1 wavered in its course in an evasive maneuver, but the missile dipped and soared with it, rapidly closing in. When Thunderbird 1 turned, it turned to follow.
"Good grief, Gordon, that's going to blast Thunderbird 1 right out of the sky!"
Gordon glanced back to see his tall, platinum-blond older brother John standing behind him, also following the missile's flight. "That's the idea," Gordon said, grinning.
"Can't you do something, Brains?" Jeff Tracy, Gordon's father, turned to the younger man next to him, who was frantically working the dials and levers of a radio emitter unit, used for jamming or disrupting homing devices.
Brains lifted a hand in frustration. "I'm t-t-rying everything I can, Mr. Tracy. Nothing's working!"
Gordon raised an arm and pointed. "Look now, fellas, or you'll miss the best part."
The missile struck Thunderbird 1, shattering it amidst a blinding fireball. Seconds later, a thunderous BOOM rolled over the beach at Tracy Island. In the distance, they could see silvery bits reflecting the sunlight as they rained down towards the ocean below.
Scott's eyes widened. "Wow! If I'd been piloting Thunderbird 1, my goose would have been cooked for sure."
Jeff let out a heavy sigh and spoke into a hand-held microphone. "Okay, Virgil, come on back."
Virgil's voice came over the speaker. "I did everything I could, Dad. I just couldn't shake it."
"I know. We saw," Jeff said dejectedly.
"Even at a distance ahead of it, I felt the explosion," Virgil said. "Thunderbird 2 is undamaged, but that shock wave was pretty powerful. The Thunderbird 1 model was shredded. Nothing left of the tow cable, either. It was incinerated as far as I can tell."
Gordon could see the green, beetle-shaped Thunderbird 2 heavy-rescue aircraft heading toward the Tracy Island runway.
Scott turned to Jeff. "Aren't we going to try to recover the target?"
"Nothing left to recover, as I see it," John said.
Jeff shook his head. "As far as I'm concerned, we found out what we needed to know: if that new Bombastic rocket launcher could destroy a model of Thunderbird 1, with the same adamantium-cahelium fuselage, it could destroy the real one, too. Unless Brains needs the debris for study…?"
Brains adjusted his glasses. "N-n-no, Mr. Tracy, I don't need the model anymore." He extended a hand to Gordon. "What I do need to s-s-study is that rocket launcher so I can find a way to defeat the technology."
Gordon reached down, picked it up, brushed sand off the bottom of the launcher, and handed it to Brains. "That's what I got it for."
Jeff gestured up the hill. "Let's go back to the villa."
Tracy Villa, the residence they had all built, stood at the highest point of the small island. It not only housed Jeff, his five sons, and Brains, but also Jeff's mother, Jeff's best friend Kyrano, and his daughter Tin-Tin. The structure included the living quarters—bedrooms, study, kitchen, laundry—Brains's labs, and many of the support facilities for International Rescue, the organization to which they all belonged.
As they walked up the hill, the sound of ramjets grew ever louder as Thunderbird 2 approached the runway. A rock slab, part of the cliff at the end of the runway, went up in response to Virgil's signal, exposing the hangar built into the cave inside the cliff.
Square-jawed Scott touched Gordon's arm and pointed to the rocket launcher Brains carried. "Where did you get that, anyway?"
"Richard Nygaard," Gordon said. "We were in the aquanaut corps together."
"Were?" John asked.
"He left when his enlistment was up to get a job on land."
"As an arms dealer?" Scott asked.
Gordon shook his head. "He's a reporter for Ares Monthly. It's a magazine for weapons experts. The public can subscribe to it—I read every issue cover to cover—but it's also read by people who work in the military industrial complex and government defense offices."
"…as well as renegade illicit arms dealers and gun runners," Jeff added.
Gordon shrugged. "Inevitably, yes."
"So how did a reporter get a piece of the latest high-tech weaponry for you?" John asked.
"He goes to weapons shows all the time. The magazine's correspondents buy and bring back the merchandise to the main offices to photograph and analyze. You should see their display room."
"I can imagine," Jeff grumbled.
Gordon smiled. "When I read about this little item, I thought it might be something we needed to know about, so I asked Richard to buy an extra for me. I'm a licensed collector with a security clearance from when I was in the corps, so we were able to clear the government red tape for me to get it fairly easily."
"Who's making it?" Jeff asked.
"A munitions plant in Maurinia," Gordon said.
Scott raised an eyebrow. "The country where there's no functioning government right now."
"WorldGov is in negotiations to set one up," John said, "There's a government-in-exile organizing a congress."
"I hope they succeed," Gordon said. "After their former leader died, the country split into factions and fought against each other. A lot of people fled. One strongman took over and invited a bunch of robber barons in to set up shop. Then they deposed the strongman and set up their own small fiefdoms. It's a paradise for gun runners and illicit arms makers right now."
"WorldGov is putting a lot of pressure on them," John said. "Hopefully the people there will get relief soon."
"I ran a Fortune 500 company for many years…," Jeff began.
"Made the ëBest Companies to Work for in the U.S.' list seven years in a row," John interrupted proudly.
Jeff continued, "…and I'm all for capitalism, but you can't run a nation the way you run a corporation, and these gun runners couldn't manage a lemonade stand, much less a company, and even less a country."
"The way they're going, these particular robber barons will eventually run their enterprises right into the ground," John added.
"As bad as it is," Jeff said, "International Rescue can't interfere in government disputes; the politicians seem to be working hard on this matter, and there are signs it will eventually lead to a peaceful solution. What I'm worried about is that, in the meantime, this is on the open market, anyone can get it and aim it at us."
"Or use it to cause a disaster where we have to go and rescue people," John added.
Jeff nodded. "In any case, we have to make it a priority to find a way to neutralize it." He turned to his fourth son, reached back, and patted him on the shoulder. "Good work, Gordon."
They reached the lower level of Tracy Villa, which looked out on the swimming pool. Taking the stairs, they reached the main level and proceeded to the lounge, which doubled as Jeff's office and the control center for the International Rescue organization.
"I'll s-s-start analyzing this right away, Mr. Tracy," Brains said, and left for his lab.
"I'll join you, Brains," John said.
Jeff nodded and sat at his desk. Scott sat at the chessboard, inviting Gordon to play with a gesture. Gordon smiled, nodded, and sat. Soon, Virgil, second oldest after Scott, entered and walked over to Jeff's desk.
"Dad, there was a short in Thunderbird 2's electrical system. I think the shock from the explosion must have affected the generator."
Jeff turned to him. "Serious?"
"No. I've already repaired it. Only took me a few minutes. But I had to recharge and reboot…that should take three to four hours, at most."
Jeff nodded. "Okay. Thanks, Virgil. Good work."
Virgil walked the brief distance to the baby grand piano and started to play lounge tunes. Virgil was the most muscular of Jeff's five sons, and the most talented in music and art.
As the chess game and the music both went on, Gordon kept an eye on the hallway leading to Brains's lab. Earlier in the day, he had set a bead-sized holographic projector in the ceiling just outside the lab, and when they all went outside so they could see the rocket launcher test, he activated it. The projector gave the illusion that the door had disappeared and only a blank wall was there. To make the deception complete, he had covered the door with a rectangular piece of balsa wood the same size, painted white like the wall, so that if anyone doubted the illusion, they could not find the door by feel. Gordon smiled, awaiting the hilarious moment when Brains and John would realize that they had been tricked and come storming back into the lounge, outraged.
Minutes passed, however, and the house remained quiet, except for Virgil's soothing background music. Gordon turned more of his concentration to the chess game, challenging Scott to a greater degree. Perhaps Brains and John had immediately recognized the deception, found the projector, and removed the balsa wood door cover. For Gordon, that would work, too. Whenever he played a practical joke, his brothers nearly always retaliated in kind, sooner or later. Between chess moves, he wondered what creative response they would come up with. Like Gordon's pranks, his brothers' reactions were always harmless, never mean-spirited—but they were fun!
In addition to his passion for all things aquatic, and his fascination with weaponry, Gordon felt it was his duty to make the world a more lighthearted place. When he was a small boy, he would tease his mother by hiding her keys or buttons or other small items. Always, she would come to him and say with a smile, "Now, Gordon, where are my keys?" and Gordon would always get them for her. Her smile was his reward. Once, he overheard his father grumbling to his mother that Gordon was becoming too frivolous. His mother said that their little red-headed Gordon was just spirited, pointing out how hard he worked in school and at his swimming lessons, and besides, he was smaller than his other brothers, and simply needed to feel important, as everyone did. His father reluctantly agreed with her at first, and then, as his mother charmed him further, conceded her point. Mother was always good at getting Jeff to agree with her, and ending up thinking it was his idea.
After she died, they had all mourned for her, of course. Days passed, and everyone was just so…serious. He knew his mother would not want them to be unhappy for the rest of their lives. She had taught him a few simple card tricks, and as he got older, he read books on magic and magicians. With his mother gone, it seemed only natural for him to start cheering everyone up by making things seem to appear and disappear. Soon everyone was in a better mood, and Gordon made sure that whenever they started to get sad, or too serious, that he was there to remedy the situation.
"Checkmate!" Scott announced with a grin, and Gordon nodded. The fun for him was in playing and getting attention, not necessarily in winning.
A beep drew their attention to the wall, causing Virgil to stop playing in mid-stanza. Portraits of each of the five Tracy sons hung on the panel opposite Jeff's desk. These images, however, were made up of pixels, not paint. The eyes of the youngest Tracy brother, Alan, lit up and flashed, alerting them to a message.
Jeff flipped a switch at his desk console. "Go ahead, Alan."
The portrait of Alan in his International Rescue uniform—teal jumpsuit, matching garrison cap, white sash—became a live picture of Alan standing in the control room of Thunderbird 5, the communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit over Tracy Island. "Father, I've picked up a distress signal from the science ship Deep Sea Meridian. It was dredging samples from the ocean bottom and apparently an old mine left over from one of the Pacific wars came loose and exploded near them. The cable to a diving bell broke, and it sank to the bottom of the ocean. There's a crack in the hull and they're taking on water. The ship's okay, but there's no cable on their winch now. They can't retrieve the diving bell, and conventional rescue can't get there fast enough."
Gordon rushed to Jeff's desk and leaned over a map projection on the surface. "Where, Alan?"
"About 100 kilometers west-southwest of Tracy Island."
Gordon looked over to Jeff. "That's close enough for me to get there directly on Thunderbird 4."
Virgil stood from the piano. "I might be able to take Gordon there on Thunderbird 2 that short distance on partial power."
Jeff shook his head. "No, I'm not risking it. If something went wrong with Thunderbird 2, we might not be able to get there in time. Gordon's right: the fastest, surest way there is for him to go alone on Thunderbird 4." He turned to Gordon. "Gordon, emergency launch. Go!"
"Yes, sir." Gordon raced to the access elevator. This quickly descended to the hangar for Thunderbird 2, which shared its space with the submarine Thunderbird 4 and other rescue vehicles. Normally, a semi-circular pod with Thunderbird 4 inside would be locked to the frame of Thunderbird 2. Then Thunderbird 2 would carry Thunderbird 4 to the danger zone. The emergency launch procedure, however, required only the submarine. Once Gordon reached the hangar floor, he touched the controls that opened the stone door. While the gears ground noisily, he entered pod 4 and climbed into the submarine. Quickly, he changed into his International Rescue uniform: a teal jumpsuit and matching garrison cap similar to Alan's, except that his sash was orange. He sat in the pilot's seat and opened the pod door by remote control.
Thunderbird 4 rolled out of the pod, onto the runway, and toward the dock at the end of the runway. When he reached the dock, it tilted downward and Thunderbird 4 slid into the water with a splash. Once submerged, Gordon hit the thrusters lightly, descending to normal cruise level. Using the data Alan had sent to the submarine's GPS unit, he plotted a course. After checking the readouts, he put a hand firmly on the accelerator control lever and gradually pushed it to maximum. Brains had installed the same atomic fusion engines in Thunderbird 4 as he had in Thunderbirds 1 and 2. Because water was denser than air, Thunderbird 4 could not match the supersonic speeds of the aircraft, but it could reach 160 knots, making it the fastest vessel on or under the sea.
Gordon called Alan. "Alan, do you have communication with the diving bell?"
"Patching you through. Go ahead."
"Diving bell Deep Sea Meridian, this is International Rescue. I'll be there within a half hour. Please update your situation."
"This is Professor Lassiter of Maritime University. We're taking on water."
Gordon heard a rushing sound in the background. "How fast?"
"Right now, the water is over our ankles, and it's still coming in. At this depth, the force of the water is pummeling the inside of the bell like a sand blaster. We're staying out of its way."
"How many in your diving bell?"
"Me and two of my students."
"What model is the diving bell?"
"It's a SeaBella 1162."
"You should have enough air until I get there. I'm less than a half hour away."
"Thanks, but if the crack widens, that may not be enough time."
"I know. Do you have breathing apparatus with you?"
"We do, but the water's cold. I'm worried about hypothermia if we get too waterlogged."
"Wrap up with whatever you have and put the breathing masks on now. I expect to be there before you or your students lose consciousness due to lack of air or hypothermia."
"Will do, International Rescue, but the air pressure's rising with all this water displacing the air. Our ears have already started popping. We may need a decompression chamber if we ever get out of this."
Gordon sighed. He had experienced a case of the bends himself early in his aquanaut career, and remembered how excruciating it was. Some divers, having suffered from the bends once, vowed to kill themselves before they would go through it again. "I know. I'm sorry. But treatment for the bends is much better even when I had it years ago."
"Oh, don't worry, we're not going to do anything drastic. One of my students has a pregnant wife, I have a worried one, and the other student just got engaged. But please get here as fast as you can!"
"I'm coming toward you at full throttle. Watch for my lights!"
Gordon kept his eyes on the view in front of him as he sped toward the diving bell. Water rushed over and around the submarine, pushing everything that swam near aside. Sensors confirmed the tremendous wake trailing behind. Thunderbird 4's small size and sleek design facilitated its headlong rush to its destination.
Presently, long-range sonar detected the Deep Sea Meridian on the surface. Slowly, Gordon reduced speed and started to descend. The submarine made its best time at the upper levels of the ocean, where the water was the least dense. As water pressure increased with depth, the top speed Thunderbird 4 was able to achieve decreased.
"How are you doing, Professor?" Gordon called.
"Shivering. The water is almost up to our armpits." The voice was muffled; he had to be wearing a breathing mask.
"Almost there," Gordon reassured him. "I've turned on my beacon; you should see it soon."
Seconds later, the sonar detected the diving bell. The SeaBella 1162 had been built to withstand even the enormous pressure
at the bottom of the ocean. Gordon's guess was that it took the mine explosion to even put a crack in it, and that the
crack had not widened because the bell had been constructed to hold together despite the greatest stresses. In fact,
Thunderbird 4 and the SeaBella 1162 were two of only a limited number of vessels that could stay together at such depths.
"I see your light," the professor called.
"And I see you," Gordon called back. He checked the area around the diving bell; it had not tangled in old netting or other debris which commonly presented a hazard on the sea bottom. Reducing speed to minimum, he floated close enough to nudge the bell slightly, and found it moved: not stuck, then.
"What was that?"
"Just me," Gordon said sheepishly; he probably should have warned the professor before the nudge. "I'll have you out in a minute." Thunderbird 4 had two robot arms, called "grabs." The SeaBella 1162 had been designed with four handles that a robot arm could latch on to, as a safety measure. Gordon picked the nearest point and extended an arm in that direction. The pincers at the end closed on the handle and locked in place. He tested the connection by raising Thunderbird 4 slightly; the diving bell moved with it. Through his windshield, he could see the bell's observation window, and through that, the three people, who were indeed up to their armpits in water. They looked back and wriggled their fingers; he smiled, waved, and held up a thumb, gesturing upward. He emptied the ballast tanks and they rose as a unit.
He found the ship's crew waiting when they surfaced. Four of the crew rowed toward them in a lifeboat; two quickly pulled themselves onto the diving bell and opened the top hatch. They helped the professor and his students up and into the lifeboat. All waved at Gordon, who watched through the Thunderbird 4 windshield; he waved back as he retracted the grabs. The crew rowed back to the cables that had lowered the lifeboat into the water and re-attached them to the frame. Then the ship raised the lifeboat back to the deck.
Gordon opened communications to Thunderbird 5 and Tracy Island. "Mission accomplished. Diving bell occupants safely returned to the ship."
"Good work, Gordon!" Jeff said.
"Heading home," Gordon said, and closed the connection.
Gordon set course for Tracy Island, proceeding at a more leisurely pace. Descending to normal cruise depth, he took the time to gauge the condition of the ocean in this area. He noted both the clarity of the water, which seemed free of debris and pollutants, and the kinds and numbers of aquatic animals. The fish looked healthy. Schools swimming by seemed amply populated, and Gordon saw a variety of species as he traveled along. A couple of young, robust sperm whales investigated Thunderbird 4, and when the yellow submarine demonstrated no interest in playing, moved on. Gordon smiled. The world's conservation efforts, accelerated in the past half century, had produced excellent results. Even from the time he spent several months underwater as a member of the aquanaut corps, only a few years back, he had observed significant improvements.
Eventually long-range sonar spotted Tracy Island and the nearby Mateo Island, both tops of extinct volcanoes rooted on the ocean floor, both privately owned by Jeff Tracy. Gordon guided Thunderbird 4 to the dock, which tilted downward at his electronic command. Thunderbird 4 scooted up the ramp, onto the runway, and back to the hangar. The stone hangar door opened for him and closed behind him at his signal.
Once he had tucked Thunderbird 4 into pod 4, Gordon changed back into his civilian clothes. He favored high-collared shirts or turtlenecks with pants or jeans. Today he wore his favorite green shirt over black pants. Leaving the pod, and closing the access door behind him, he turned to walk across the floor to the elevator.
It was not there.
Puzzled, he scratched his head. Looking up, he saw the stage lights mounted in the stone ceiling that illuminated the
hangar. The big, green, Thunderbird 2 aircraft was there, frame raised on stilts, ready to lower onto a pod delivered
by the conveyor belt underneath. So… Gordon extended an arm. If Thunderbird 2 was there, and pod 4 was there, the
passenger elevator should be…here. Except he saw only a blank wall. The elevator could not have moved, could it?
Looking up again, he took an inventory of the hangar entrances and exits. An observation walkway in the back wall, well above Thunderbird 2, had a door leading to Tracy Villa. The inspection monorail, which traveled to and through all the hangars—Thunderbird 2's, Thunderbird 1's, and the space rocket Thunderbird 3's—also had a platform above him. The retractable slide that Virgil used to go from the lounge to the hangar had been fully collapsed into the ceiling, as it should have been when not in use. The passenger elevator, which went from just outside the lounge directly to Thunderbird 2, also had retracted. This left the access elevator that went from the hangar floor to Tracy Villa…in theory, anyway.
Gordon turned again to where he thought it should be. Nothing. Slowly, delicately, he extended a hand, palm up, and pressed it gingerly against the blank wall. Wood. Moving his hand side to side, the feeling remained the same: wood, painted wood. Strange, because little or no wood had been used in building the hangars. Nearly all the materials had been high-tech alloys, metal, or foams.
Suddenly, the thought entered his mind: of course! This was payback for his practical joke! They hid the elevator doors from him. Gordon began to chuckle, then laughed out loud. This was hilarious! He sank to the floor, too weak from laughing to stand. If Brains and his brothers had popped out of hiding places, shouting "Gotcha!" he would not have been surprised. But they did not. Just as his brothers generally said nothing when he played a joke on them, Gordon usually said nothing when they retaliated. Life simply went on…just as it should.
Although he could feel the wood covering the elevator door, he could not see it, so they must have put a hologram in place to give the illusion of a blank wall. When he finally picked himself up off the floor, he first looked for a projector to turn it off. Seeing none nearby, he guessed it had to be mounted into the ceiling, out of reach. He could have tried to find it with the electronic sensor equipment in the hangar, but, at last, he decided not to take the elevator after all. An access door had been built into the stone wall next to the hangar. Gordon simply went out that way, climbed the hill, and walked up the stairs into Tracy Villa.
When he reached the lounge, he saw John and Brains at a demonstration board, showing Jeff, Scott, and Virgil their analysis of the rocket launcher. They all turned to him.
"Elevator broken?" Jeff asked.
Perhaps his father had not been wise to the joke or the retaliation. That sometimes happened. "No, I just wanted to stretch my legs," Gordon said.
"Good exercise?" John asked with a knowing smile.
Gordon grinned. "Pays to be fit."
"Okay, boys." Jeff gestured to the demonstration board. "Let's get on with the presentation."
The demonstration board was a smartboard with a touchscreen. Brains orchestrated the images with hand gestures. "What John and I f-f-found is that the warhead has been p-p-programmed with multiple ways to seek a target. In addition to heat-seeking capabilities, there's a laser-guided system and the equivalent of facial recognition. That allows it to lock on to the appearance of a target in three dimensions, so that no m-m-matter which way it turns, the missile continues to follow."
"Wow," Scott said, "all that in one small warhead."
Brains turned to him. "Nanotechnology has allowed manufacturers to p-p-pack in quite a bit of sophistication in addition to the explosives within a missile."
Jeff tapped a finger on his desk. "So, how do we defeat it? We already have defenses against heat-seeking weapons and laser guidance systems. Would a holographic projection work? You know, like the ones you and the boys use to play practical jokes on each other."
Silence followed. The Tracy sons and Brains looked from one to the other sheepishly.
Eventually, Gordon laughed. "It's certainly something we can try, Dad, since we all know how to make a holographic illusion."
Brains had his lips pressed together, but when Gordon lightened the mood, he said, "I would s-s-suggest placing a stationary target on the rocks at the edge of Mateo Island and test firing from here."
They took the better part of the afternoon setting up a target. Brains quickly programmed a holographic projector while Gordon found a suitable wooden crate to use as a target. Although the Tracys had a yacht in a pen on the other side of Tracy Island, they normally used a 30-foot speedboat with an outboard motor to go to the storage caves on Mateo Island. Scott, Brains, and Gordon loaded the boat and pushed off.
While Gordon drove the boat, Scott pointed to the crate. "I see you added an artistic touch."
Gordon smiled. He had spray-painted a bull's-eye with a face in the middle, sticking out its tongue. "Not as artistic as Virgil would have made it, but it gives me something to aim at."
"How many warheads do we have to spare?" Scott asked.
"I got four with the rocket launcher, so we have three left."
Scott turned from Gordon to Brains. "That should be enough to test any defenses, shouldn't it?"
"P-p-provided we find the solution quickly," Brains said.
Gordon turned slightly from his perch at the boat's steering wheel. "I don't think I could get more, at least through normal channels. The government guys at import-export let me take four warheads as a collector and retired servicemember with a security clearance, and because I live on an isolated island, but they gave me a hard time even then."
Scott turned to Brains. "Meaning he used all of his Gordon Tracy charm to get them."
Gordon grinned. "If we need more than that, we'd have to go to an arms show outside normal channels."
"Black market, you mean," Scott said.
Gordon waved a hand. "Gray market, at the most, and I would have to bypass customs on the way home."
"Not impossible, but not easy," Scott said.
When they arrived at Mateo Island, Gordon tied up the boat while Scott and Brains unloaded it. They found a suitable boulder at the shoreline away from the storage caves, and firmly parked the crate on top of it.
Once back on Tracy Island, the Tracy men and Brains stood on the beach, looking toward the target. Brains took out his remote control while the others used binoculars to get a better view. As they watched, the crate seemed to turn into a moving carousel with brightly-painted horses.
"Now that ought to confuse it!" Scott said.
Brains turned off the projector. "Go a-a-ahead, Gordon."
Gordon sighted the crate and turned on the targeting so that the warhead could get a bearing. "Okay, Brains, whenever you're ready."
"At my m-m-mark," Brains said. "Five, four, three, t-t-wo, one. Fire!"
They heard a swish as the warhead left the launcher. The crate turned into the carousel. A heartbeat later the boulder shattered into a million tiny pieces as the warhead hit the target and exploded in a ball of flame.
John sighed. "Back to the drawing board."