THUNDERBIRDS - Operation Shadrach
THUNDERBIRDS - OPERATION SHADRACH
(c) Guy Blythman 1998
(aka "Thunderbirds Are Green")
One by one the helijets descended from the sky towards a concrete
apron in front of a cluster of metal structures which gleamed in
the brilliant sunshine.
From the first of the craft three people emerged; a young woman
in her early thirties, a man of similar age, and an older man with
heavily greying hair and a craggily handsome face.
"Wow," exclaimed the younger man, who was slightly built with short dark hair and an intelligent face. He blinked at the installation they had come to see through his massive thick-framed spectacles. "That sure is a sight to see."
Before them was an array of huge, curved solar panels, arranged in rows with each one positioned higher than the one in front of it, so that they would not block each others' sun. Those at the back were mounted on tall metal pylons, the resulting structures looking rather like the floodlights at a football stadium. Each carried a battery of forty or so solar cells. The sun glinting off it gave the whole assembly a fairytale quality.
"It certainly is, Brains," replied the young woman, whose name was Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward. "Let's hope it performs as well as it looks."
Lady Penelope, as she tended to be called, was a woman of many parts. Adventuress, socialite, secret agent (or so it was rumoured),patron of numerous charities and artistic concerns, leading fashion model....and that was to name just a few of them.
She was one of the world's most attractive women. At the moment her beauty could not be fully appreciated; in deference to local customs she wore a long white robe with a headscarf, while a pair of dark glasses protected her eyes against the burning desert sun. However, one glance at her classically beautiful face with its smooth, fair skin and noble, delicate - deceptively delicate, as those who knew her well could testify - features was sufficient to explain why men made the fuss of her which they did.
The older man was Jeff Tracy, millionaire philanthropist and President of the Tracy Corporation, a multinational aerospace company which was partly a front for International Rescue, the secret organisation dedicated to saving lives and averting disasters using technology far in advance of its time, of which he was the head. The younger, "Brains" - the brilliant scientist Homer J Newton III, to give him his real name - was International Rescue's chief scientist and engineer, and had designed the major-ity of its amazing equipment and vehicles.
They watched the other helijets touch down and disgorge their passengers. The smartly-dressed dignitaries began to mingle with each other, while the reporters - who were a little miffed at not having got there first - stood some way apart from the rest of the gathering, taking pictures of the VIPs or trying to decide which of them to make for first.
All around them was the vast, sweeping expanse of the desert, devoid of buildings or trees for as far as the eye could make out. The solitude of the site was awesome and terrifying.
The reporters converged on them, and there followed a period of intensive grilling. Brains answered the questions in his usual awkward, nervous manner. Penny and Jeff fielded them with skill, while inwardly finding the whole business a little tedious, and were glad when an official shouted for everyone's attention and advised them that they should now start making their way towards the reception area.
After the reception and lunch they were taken on a tour of the installation. Their guide gave a running commentary on the history and workings of the 50 million pound project. The plant was for most of the time wholly automated. Computers were responsible for security and maintenance, with occasional checks being made by a skeleton staff. Once fully operational, the plant would provide 60 per cent of the electricity required by the six nearest villages plus the town of Bashadeh. If anything did go wrong, the conventional electricity supply would automatically cut in.
At one stage of the tour, they had to step aside to let a robot guard glide past them, the red light in its multi-faceted head flashing as it rotated, surveying its environment.
"Security seems very tight here," commented Jeff Tracy. "Is that just for today, or is it always like that?"
"It's always like that," the guide smiled. "Nowadays you can't be too careful."
Jeff had the impression there was something she had been about to say, before she thought better of it.
The tour completed, they made their way to an open area at the rear of the complex, where rows of seats had been set up. Everyone took their places. Penelope mounted a podium and positioned herself behind a microphone.
Penny began her speech. "Ladies and gentlemen, as Honorary President of the World Commission for Renewable Energy it gives me great pleasure to welcome you all here today and to thank you for your presence. Your interest in this project is extremely encour-aging. Renewable energy may well be the saviour of the human race; we simply have to make it a success. I believe it to be the future. There will still be a place for other sources of power but, for reasons with which you will all by now be familiar, they cannot be allowed too big a share of the cake.
“We're here today to witness the culmination of many years' hard work on the part of a team of scientists who have placed their ingenuity and skill at the service of Mankind. They will be remembered for their remarkable achievement. I must also thank the government of Saudi Arabia for funding this project and helping to make the dream come true." As she said this, the cameras focused on the Saudi Energy Minister. Also present was the scientist who had designed the plant. There were representatives, scientific, technical and political, from a host of other prominent nations, including the USA, China and Russia.
"And so, it gives me great pleasure to inaugurate this, the world's first fully functional, commercially operating power station driven entirely by solar energy." A glance at a sundial-like device to her left told her the sun was at its height. "I now declare it open."
Penelope pulled a lever on the control panel beside her. All heads turned towards the giant screens as they swivelled round and tilted backwards, orientating themselves towards the sun. A burst of cheering and clapping broke out.
After the ceremony was over Penelope joined Brains and Jeff Tracy for another drink - non-alcoholic of course, this being an Islamic country - in the Reception Centre's bar.
"You performed well, as usual," said Jeff of her speech.
Penelope grimaced. "To tell you the truth, I hate public speak-ing," she told him, her voice lowered. "But it's an essential feature of engagements like these, I'm afraid."
"What do you think of the occasion?" she asked them.
"Well, Penny, it's been a wonderful privilege to see the whole thing in operation," Jeff said. "I just hope it all works out. Do you think it will?"
"It should. Of course, just one of these installations won't make a lot of difference. Once there are hundreds of them in suitable locations around the world....but of course there has to be an experimental stage first, with a solitary plant servicing a small area and being regularly monitored to ensure everything's running smoothly."
"I was thinking of renewable energy in general," he said.
"Well, if all the different forms of it are used together, each one developed to the maximum possible degree and given the greatest possible support by the authorities, then I think they might be able to produce enough energy to reduce the worst of the pollution, and maybe significantly reduce the number of nuclear power stations that'll have to be built. That means wind energy, tidal and wave energy, solar energy, geothermal and a host of other potential energy sources."
She lowered her voice again. "To be honest, I do have my doubts as to whether the programme will succeed. But as I see it, we have to make the effort. We've got to know for sure. In the past we've never really given renewables a chance to prove themselves. The politicians were always too cautious, and of course there was the pressure from the nuclear lobby. But after recent tragic events the climate is rather different. That's why solar power is catching on despite what happened at Monte Bianco a couple of years back." In that affair a solar generator had accidentally become focused on the nearby Mediterranean resort, reflecting the sun's rays onto it and threatening to slowly incinerate it. Only the timely intervention of International Rescue had averted a disaster. Penelope smiled, remembering her part in that affair.
"But of course," she said, gesturing at the golden sands which stretched away to the horizon, "in all this empty desert, there's little chance of it doing any damage."
Another robot guard glided smoothly past them. Jeff was reminded of the guide's words earlier, and mentioned them to Penelope.
"I think I know what he meant," said Penny darkly. "There are one or two people who have an interest in making sure projects like this don't succeed."
Her eye fell on a solidly built man in his late thirties, with a few streaks of grey in his hair - the product of some genetic quirk, she suspected, rather than premature ageing - that contrasted strangely with his tanned, youthful features and muscular physique. They'd glimpsed him previously on one or two occasions, examining the workings of the plant with a look of keen interest. He now stood alone in a corner of the reception area, sipping from a glass of lemonade.
Jeff and Brains followed Penelope's gaze. The man realised they were looking at him, and gave a charming, if rather wolfish, smile. Penelope came forward a little. "Good gracious me, Sir Nigel, I didn't expect to see you here."
The man squinted at Penelope, not recognising her at first. Realisation dawned, and for the briefest of moments his smile became a frown. Then he was all charm again.
"Ah, Lady Penelope," he beamed, coming forward to shake her hand. "Well, I trust?" There was a slightly icy note to his voice.
"Very well, thankyou, Nigel. Have you enjoyed your visit? As I said, I didn't expect to see you here."
"I'm always fascinated by new technology, whatever it is," Sir Nigel explained. He looked enquiringly at Brains and Jeff. Penny introduced them to him. "Jeff, Brains, this is Sir Nigel Halli-well, Chairman of International Nuclear Enterprises PLC."
As well as being the world's most powerful nuclear baron, Hall-iwell also owned a chain of chemical plants. He was a shrewd businessman and an influential figure in the world of industry and commerce. His rise had been meteoric; he had joined the nuclear industry fifteen years earlier, at a time when young people were frequently appointed or promoted over the heads of more senior rivals, and subsequently fought his way determinedly - some would have said ruthlessly - to become in an amazingly short time the head of the world's biggest and most successful nuclear company.
"Ah, Mr Tracy. I've heard so much about you, it's a delight to actually make your acquaintance." He shook Jeff's hand warmly.
Halliwell looked down at his glass and saw that it was nearly empty. "Well, I won't keep you," he said. "I think I've seen enough."With a final charming smile, he turned and made his way towards the doors.
"Well, what do you think of him?" Penny asked their companions, as Halliwell passed out of earshot.
Jeff frowned. "Didn't like the guy, somehow."
"Nor did I," said Brains.
"I don't think he likes us very much either," Penny said. "Not surprising really, when his interests and ours don't exactly coincide. He wants everything to be powered by nuclear energy while we've all been pushing for renewables to be given as much support as possible. For us to get our way doesn't exactly benefit him."
"As you say, it's odd that he should be here."
"Yes," Penny mused, gazing through the glass doors at Halliwell as he disappeared inside his helijet. "I suspect it's a case of wanting to know your enemy. But somehow it still makes me uneasy."
The same thought was in all their minds. As Penelope had said, there were people who stood to gain from any damage which could be inflicted on the renewable energy programme.
From Riyadh Sir Nigel Halliwell caught a plane back to London, where his private car was waiting for him. From Heathrow he drove to the junction with the M25 near Staines, and in half an hour was pulling up outside the high ornate gates of a salacious house somewhere in the Home Counties. He left the car and approached the video camera positioned on top of one of the pillars between which the gates were mounted.
Inside the house, in the living room, its owner was seated in an armchair, watching a video and occasionally taking a gulp from a can of lager.
Hearing a loud pinging noise, he got up from the chair with a sigh and hurried from the room along the corridor to what had formerly been the kitchens of the old house, and now contained a bank of monitor screens. Suspiciously he studied the face which had appeared on one of the screens. He flicked a switch beneath it. "Yeah?" he challenged.
"Mr Brancker? Mr Darren Brancker?"
"That's me. How did you know my name? And where to find me?"
"Well, I'm the sort of chap who has his sources," the man smiled.
"Oh, right. So who are you, then?"
"I'm Sir Nigel Halliwell, Chairman of International Nuclear Enterprises. And I have an assignment I would like you to undertake; one which will allow you to make use of your not inconsiderable talents in a certain field. Do you think I could come in and discuss the matter in more detail?"
"Hang on a minute."
After a moment or two the gates swung silently open. Halliwell took this as his cue to enter the premises. As he walked up the drive towards the big white house the door opened smoothly, but there was no-one there.
He paused uncertainly on the threshold. Then a disembodied voice addressed him. "I'm in the drawing room. The door on the left at the end of the passage."
He followed these directions, to find the man he had come to see sitting in an armchair, smoking a cigarette and gazing out of the French windows at the house's vast garden.
The man got up to meet him. He was small but stocky and muscular, with close-cropped, yellowish hair and sharp, weasel-like features. He wore jeans and a pullover.
"Good afternoon," said Halliwell. The little man nodded in reply. They shook hands briefly.
"Take a pew, Nige," said Brancker, gesturing towards a chair. Halliwell bristled at his easy familiarity, but tried not to show his feelings. He knew this man could command Presidents, Prime Ministers and even absolute monarchs.
"Fag?" offered Brancker.
Halliwell shook his head. "Er....no thankyou. I say, do you think we could open the window?" The smell of cigarette smoke hung oppressively in the air. Brancker had been using a particularly heavy brand of tobacco, and Halliwell found it gave him a headache.
Brancker turned and brandished the a flat rectangular device, like a TV remote control, at the window, which swung wide open, allowing a cool, refreshing breeze into the room and dispelling the noxious fumes.
"How about a drink?"
"That'd be fine."
Brancker poured him a glass of beer and handed it to him. "Now, what about this little proposal of yours?" he said, sitting down again.
Halliwell leaned back in his chair, relaxing. "Are you particul-arly what they call "green", Mr Brancker?"
"Call me Darren. No, I wouldn't say I was. I tend to steer clear of politics. Except where money's involved, of course."
"Of course. I wondered, er, Darren, what you thought about renewable energy. I very much doubt if it'll work. But we can't be sure. If it does, it'll put a lot of people out of a job."
"Now that'd be a shame. You want me to blow up a few windmills then, do you?"
"If we can kill this thing at the experimental stage, we'll kill it for good."
"You want me to carry out a little sabotage?"
"And you'll be prepared to pay well for it?"
"Of course. I, and my colleagues in this enterprise, will be extremely grateful to you. There'll be plenty of work for you to do. More than enough for you to maintain your present high stan-dard of living." He gazed pointedly at their surroundings, at the room's luxurious furnishings.
"I'm game," said Brancker. "Let me have a few more details."
"I believe you're quite fond of gadgets," Halliwell said. "I will shortly be taking delivery of a little device which I know you'll vastly enjoy playing with."
A few days later, Jeff Tracy was sitting with his family on the patio of their house on Tracy Island, the Pacific retreat which concealed the secret headquarters of International Rescue. They were discussing his visit to the solar energy station.
"Do you reckon this renewable energy thing will work, Dad?" asked Scott, his eldest son and pilot of Thunderbird One.
"Hard to say, son. There are too many uncertainties. But if it doesn't, we could all be in serious trouble. A nuclear future is a dangerous one. And the only alternative is for us all to go back to some kind of pre-industrial society. Which I don't think anyone wants to do, and that's understandable, even if it means we all get blown into little lumps of radioactive dust."
"Do you really think there's that much danger?" asked Gordon sceptically. "The precautions they take at nuclear plants are pretty intensive. Even the Eastern Europeans have finally got their act together."
"There'll always be some chance of a serious accident, even if it's only a slight one," Jeff answered. "And it's obviously going to be greater the more atomic power stations we build. For nuclear power to really replace fossil fuels as the world's main energy source, they'll have to build so many that it's bound to increase enormously."
"They might develop a safer means of using nuclear energy," said Virgil. "Like doing it by fusion rather than fission."
"Well, as you know, Brains and quite a few others have been working on that sort of thing for a long time. There's been some encouraging progress, but success is still a long way off. We've got to rule it out for the time being.
"We sure do need a solution to the energy problem," Jeff went on. "The environment's in a pretty big mess, thanks to global warning. The only way to reduce emission of greenhouse gases enough to have a real effect on pollution levels is to stop burning fossil fuels, or at least reducing the rate at which we do it.
“And we can only do that by making renewables work. In the past, the attitude of the politicians was a major problem, like Penny says. They were too cautious, too conservative, particularly where the question of funding the whole thing was concerned. And they tended to listen to the nuclear lobby far too much. But lately public opinion has become worried enough to remove all the political and psychological barriers." In recent years there had been several major nuclear disasters, most but not all of which had occurred in the former Soviet Union. They had left people feeling very worried about the future of the world. At the same time a spate of floods, long periods of unseasonably hot or cold weather, and violent storms and hurricanes, were clear and mounting evidence of global warming.
Jeff was interrupted by a high-pitched bleeping from the control panel built into his desk. On a wall screen a blip of light had appeared and was travelling steadily towards the island. A moment later they heard the sound of a light jet aircraft.
They waited, listening, until the pitch of its engines told them it was coming in to land. "Looks like we've got a visitor," said Jeff.
As always, he hoped whoever it was didn't stay long. It was always inconvenient whenever guests turned up uninvited. If a distress signal should be received while they were there, some elaborate means of getting them out of the way while the rescue craft took off, and while they returned, would have to be thought of.
"Oh well, we'd better go and see who it is," he grunted, getting up.
"Any idea, Father?" asked Virgil.
"I have a theory," Scott said, looking pleased. "Anyway, let's go and find out."
By the time they had emerged from the door in the rock face onto the runway in front of the cliff house, used by Thunderbird Two and by Jeff Tracy's private jet, the small twin-engined plane had touched down and was rolling gently towards them. Soon they could make out the goggled and helmeted face of the pilot.
The plastiglass canopy over the cockpit slid back, and a metal ladder was lowered down. The pilot unstrapped themselves and clambered out of the cockpit and down the ladder.
"Er - hello," said Gordon. "Can we help you?"
The pilot pulled off their helmet and goggles, releasing a cascade of glossy dark hair which framed an attractive, cheerful face.
Scott's face lit up. "Judy!"
Judy Price was a friend of the Tracy family, who had come to know them through her connections with Lady Penelope. She and Scott had become more than a little friendly, especially after an affair in which their arch-enemy, The Hood, had kidnapped the young student, whose father was a high-ranking international diplomat, as part of one of his schemes for world domination, and they'd had to rescue her from a particularly unpleasant situation.
He hugged and kissed her. "Great to see you again, Jude. How are you?"
"Fine. And the converse may be taken to be true. I'm happy to say I've managed to steer clear of master criminals with hypnotic powers." She greeted the others. "Hiya, Jeff, Virg, Gordon."
They for their part were similarly pleased to see her.
"I kind of figured it was you," said Scott. "So you've learned to fly!"
"To what do we owe this visit?"
"It's our Half Term this week, so I thought I'd borrow Dad's private plane and look you up. After all, we should be keeping in touch."
"Well, I guess you're welcome to stay as long as you like," said Jeff. "There's always a room ready for you here if you want one."
He turned to go back to the house. "Let's go and have some coffee."
"How's your Mom and Dad?"
"Sure wish I could see you more often," he said. "Listen, I'll take you out to the mainland later, OK?" He patted her on the arm.
"That'd be great."
They all went back into the house. Kyrano, Jeff's Malayan friend and helper, and Grandma Tracy joined them for coffee in the lounge.
"Where are Brains, Alan and TinTin?" Judy asked.
"They've gone to the space station. John was due for some more supplies, and there are some pieces of equipment it needed Brains' and TinTin's expertise to fix."
"Pity I didn't get here a bit earlier, or I'd have gone with them," Judy said. "I'd love to go into space."
"It might not be what you expected," Gordon warned her. "I've only been up there once or twice, but I guess it can be a bit boring in the long run."
"Boring?" exclaimed Jeff, the ex-astronaut, indignantly. "I don't think it's boring. For one thing, no-one knows quite what's out there."
Several hundred miles above the Earth, Thunderbird Five, the space station which monitored every radio messages being broadcast anywhere on the planet, or in the solar system, and isolated all calls for help, hung in the black void like a giant glittering chandelier.
"There she is," announced Alan Tracy, commander of the space vehicle known as Thunderbird Three, as the satellite appeared on the monitor screen before him. Beside him were Brains and TinTin, the lovely Malay girl who was Kyrano's daughter and Brains' assis-tant.
Thunderbird Three's retros fired, slowing the massive rocket as it approached the space station. "Thunderbird Three to Five. We're about to dock."
"FAB, Alan," answered John.
Sensors guided the giant rocket into the correct position for docking. The rocket's nose steadily disappeared inside the docking tunnel. As the ring encircling the fuselage came into contact with the fabric of the space station, magnetic clamps locked it into position. They left the ship through an airlock and made their way along a corridor to the main monitor room. "Hi, John," said Alan.
John didn't answer them at first. He was standing at a telescope, studying something intently through it.
"I said hi, dreamer."
John turned from it at last. There was a trace of worry on his face.
"Oh, hi there, guys. How's everything?"
"Fine. But you don't look too happy. What's up?"
"That big meteorite the astronomers said was due to enter our solar system in a few weeks' time. I've been tracking it, and I think they were wrong about its course. They said it would miss the Earth by millions of miles, but according to the instruments here it'll pass very close; maybe even hit it." Brains had fitted out Thunderbird Five with the most advanced astronomical equipment ever invented. This was partly to keep John from getting bored, and thus suffering psychological stress, during his spells of duty by allowing him to indulge his favourite hobby, and partly to allow dangers like this to be detected at an early stage so that the relevant authorities on Earth could take action in time.
"Let's take a look," said TinTin. They each peered through the telescope's eyepiece, but all that could be seen at present was a faint speck of light.
John indicated the instrument panel to which the telescope was connected. "Right now it's too early to say what'll happen. But if it does smash into the Earth it'll cause one hell of a disaster. It's at least as big as a decent-sized city, and it's travelling fast enough to impact with the force of an atomic bomb. Even if it just passes close, it's sure to interfere in a big way with the tides and the weather."
There followed several moments of awed silence. Brains consulted the instruments. "I s-see what you m-mean, John," he said, clearly impressed.
"How long will it be before you'll know for sure?"
"At the speed it's travelling, it'll soon be in close enough range. Needless to say, we'll let the International Space Authority know right away."
"Well, there's nothing we can do until then," said Alan. “We'd better get on with fixing that module."
They proceeded with the task, trying hard not to think about the massive fragment of rock which while they worked was hurtling towards the Earth, possibly spelling disaster for the planet.
The lone helijet touched down close to the solar power station. The door in its side swung out and down, forming a ramp down which came Darren Brancker, a large bag slung over his shoulder.
Squatting on his haunches, he placed the bag on the ground and opened it, taking out his remote control device. He pressed a number of its buttons, and watched as data flickered across the screen at its top. After a minute or two he smiled, nodding in satisfaction. He had a report on the plant's alarm systems; now all he had to do was put them out of action.
He touched another control on the device, and out of the bag flew a stubby tubular object with small wings like a miniature aircraft. The little drone began to travel slowly through the air towards the plant.
The isolated location of the plant, out here in the desert with no settlement of any kind within thirty miles, was of course ideal for his purpose.
The tubular device began to approach the perimeter fence. Initially activated by radio signal, it was now moving under its own power.
Any moment now it would start to do its work. He got to his feet and moved cautiously forward.
As the tube came within a few hundred yards of the fence - not close enough for it to be seen by the cameras mounted on poles at intervals along its length, but close enough for it to do its job - a bank of monitor screens within the plant suddenly went blank. At the same time a fuse box blew, de-electrifying the fence.
The tube passed through one of the gaps between the links in the fence, heading towards the administration block. A robot guard, patrolling the premises, trundled into view from behind an outbuilding. It jerked to a halt, then started weaving erratically from side to side, giving out a strange high-pitched noise. There was a bang and a flash, and the robot became still, smoke pouring from it.
As each part of the alarm system was deactivated, the deactivation registered on the screen of his remote control. One by one the flashing lights disappeared until the screen was blank. All the alarms in the plant and each of the video cameras covering the approaches to it had been neutralised.
He started walking towards the plant. He knew the deactivation would also register at the control centre at Bashadeh, but it would be some time before anyone could get here.
It was a simple matter to pick the lock on the gates - for him, anyway. "Nosey Parker, eat your heart out," he breathed.
He moved swiftly from one solar panel to another, placing a bundle of plastic explosive at the foot of each of the giant structures. Then he hurried back to the helijet.
Minutes later the craft rose into the air and set off towards the coast. As soon as it had reached a safe distance from the plant, Brancker triggered the bombs.
A series of massive explosions tore through the flimsy structures. The pylons were blown high into the air, to crash down in a heap of twisted steel girders. One by one the giant solar panels toppled to the ground or were blasted to pieces, shards of glass and fragments of metal flying everywhere.
Hearing the sound of the blast, Brancker smiled. It was good to be back in business again.
Then his radar alerted him to the fact that there were four Saudi Arabian Air Force jets flying not far behind him. Over his radio he heard the voice of the squadron leader, demanding that he land and give himself up.
He'd known, of course, that they would probably intercept him long before he left Saudi airspace. The pilots had not seen, flying beside the helijet, the tiny shape of the drone.
Again his fingers moved about the controls on the black box. The drone banked, turned and flew towards the four jet fighters.
The pilot of the leading plane stared in horror at his instrument panel, on which lights were flashing rapidly on and off. The pinging of various alarms filled the cockpit. Needles spun round rapidly. It seemed all the electronics on the plane were going haywire. A babble of agitated voices over his radio suggested that the same thing was happening to the other planes.
Simultaneously, the jets' noses dipped and they plunged towards the floor of the desert, engines screaming like lost souls in torment. Fortunately the ejection systems, not being electrically operated, still worked, and the pilots were able to bale out. But beneath them their planes crashed into the desert, four orange balls of fire expanding like flowers blooming on a speeded-up film.
As soon as he landed the squadron leader radioed his base. But Darren Brancker was over the coast and well out to sea before any further action could be taken to apprehend him.
On Thunderbird Five TinTin was working on the damaged module, with Brains' assistance. John manned his telescope, from time to time checking on the progress of the meteorite.
He consulted the instruments for the fifth time, and what he found sent a chill of horror through him.
"Bad news I'm afraid, folks," he announced.
"It's going to hit the Earth?"
"There's no doubt about it. Well, we know what to do."
He warned the International Space Authority in Geneva, and in a few minutes the news was being flashed around the world. At the same time he called Tracy Island.
"Do you reckon there's anything we can do, Father?" he asked Jeff.
"I don't know. Let me have a word with Brains."
"I'm here, Mr Tracy."
"It goes without saying that meteorite has got to be destroyed, Brains. What's the best way to do it?"
"I suggest we attach a rocket to the meteorite and fire it so as to change its course, sending it away from the Earth and off into space. However that wouldn't work right now, bearing in mind its size. We'd first have to blow it up into a number of smaller fragments. Some of those would be sent away from Earth by the force of the explosion, others would continue to travel towards it, but they could be taken care of fairly easily." He mused over the problem. "We'd need a pretty powerful nuclear explosive. There's nothing like that on the island, but the Army's maagaton bomb should do the job alright. Thunderbird Three could certainly get it there faster than any conventional spacecraft."
"I like it," said Jeff. "I'll get onto Washington and tell them what we’ve got in mind. Virgil will pick up the bomb and fly it back here for loading on board Thunderbird Three."
Judy had just come into the room from the patio. "Looks like you're going to get your first taste of action pretty soon," said Jeff. Judy had been pestering him for ages to be allowed to go on a rescue mission.
He sounded grim. "Oh, good...er, what's happened then?" she asked, uneasily.
Jeff told her. "G-gosh," she replied. This wasn't the kind of thing she had been anticipating. There was rather too much at stake!
She told herself that if it was the end of the world, then she, Judy Price, would be known should everyone survive for having played her part in averting it. Even if it didn't, she was determined to do something about it. "What can I do?"
"I'm not sure yet, honey. In any case, we won't be going into action until the meteorite comes within Thunderbird Three's range. I'll give you a call then, if you're available. In the meantime, why don't you stick around the place? I figured you could start to learn how to operate some of our vehicles."
The girl nodded enthusiastically. "That sounds like a good idea."
"So you reckon you really are ready to go on a mission, then?"
She looked hesitant for a moment.
"Yes," she told him firmly, "I think I am."
A hurried conference of world leaders agreed with Jeff's plan, and the following day Thunderbird Two blasted off for Richards Air Force Base, deep in the heart of the Nevada desert, where the bomb was kept. There, Virgil, Scott and Gordon helped the base personnel winch the trolley carrying the massive bomb into the trans-porter's pod.
Virgil studied the bomb with some apprehension. It was a solid, cylindrical affair about six feet long and a dull orange in colour, with three flukes running along its length at right angles to each other, to flare out towards its tail into curved fins. The warhead had been removed and would be stored separately until just before the bomb was placed in position on the meteorite. While the two were not attached the bomb presented no danger, yet somehow its presence still made him feel uneasy.
As soon as the repairs to Thunderbird Five were completed, Brains, Alan and TinTin headed for home. The spacecraft reversed out of the docking tunnel and swung back towards Earth. It arrived back at Tracy Island a few minutes after Thunderbird Two.
A mobile crane from one of Thunderbird Two's pods, with Virgil at the controls, lifted the bomb into the spaceship's cargo bay, where it would be reunited with its warhead at some stage during the journey. Soon it was joined there by the sledge carrying the rocket motors, and the various other items which it was thought might be required on the mission.
Judy was among those gathered in the launch silo to watch these preparations. "Could I go with them when the time comes, do you suppose?" she asked Scott.
"Better see Dad about that. You've no astronaut training, al-though you wouldn't need it much on Thunderbird Three. The thing is, we'll probably need as many people as possible to help sort out things on Earth. Once the meteorite gets within a certain distance, there'll be all sorts of things going wrong with the weather."
She nodded. "I understand. As long as I can get a piece of the action."
Lady Penelope stood surveying the wreckage of the solar station, a look of shock on her face. Nearby a team of police investigators was sifting through the rubble in search of clues to the identity of the saboteur.
As soon as she had heard the news of the solar plant's destruc-tion, Penelope had flown from Britain to investigate. With her was the plant's designer. Glancing at his face, she felt a pang of sorrow.
The thought of sabotage had been at the forefront of her mind. She recalled her words to Jeff on the day of the plant's official opening. "Is there any doubt the explosion was caused deliberately?" she asked the head of the investigation team.
"Lady Penelope, it's hard to think what other explanation there might be," he replied, echoing her own thoughts. "That helijet we intercepted was the only craft within a fifty mile radius. Its pilot must have been the saboteur; nobody else could have been there at the time the alarms were knocked out."
Penny returned to her helijet, removing her headscarf and glasses to reveal shoulder-length golden hair and blue eyes. The latter normally sparkled with a childlike zest for life, but now reflected a different emotion. They gleamed dangerously as she contemplated what had happened here.
She did have a tendency to suddenly become passionately interested in certain causes, but her belief in the renewable energy programme was more than just a symptom of the streak of craziness that ran through her character. Renewable energy could be of enormous benefit to the world; the thought that anyone might want to wreck its development filled her with anger. It wasn't that she had a prejudice against nuclear energy. Rather, she thought it only sensible not to give it too much preference, in view of the undoubted safety risk it carried. Either the saboteurs, whoever they were, deliberately wanted to make the world a more dangerous place or they cared more about their own short-term financial gain than the long-term survival of Mankind. It seemed insane. She told herself she would see them brought to justice whatever happened. She would make their apprehension a personal crusade, in which her skills as an agent would be of enormous value. Given the importance now attached to renewable energy, she felt sure she could rely on the assistance of the world's intelligence services. Since it might be some time before they could produce any clues, she decided to return home. At the Hall she received a call from Yeke Musara, the WCRA's actual, as opposed to Honorary, President. "No luck at all, I'm afraid," he told her with a sigh. "They found traces of plastic explosive on each of the solar panels. But there's nothing to indicate who the saboteur might be. All kinds of terrorist organisation use that sort of explosive. And they took care not to leave their fingerprints on anything. The helijet was a Jumping Jack, and that’s a very common type."
"How could he have got into the plant? And how on Earth did he knock out those planes?"
"Well, that's the interesting thing. Every alarm, every video camera in the place had been disabled. It must have been done from a distance, by remote control. He must have had some very exceptional device to be able to do it. Same with the electronics on the fighters."
Penelope sighed. "All, right, Yeke, thanks...please let me know if any more clues do turn up, though I don't think that's very likely. We'll just have to look into revising security arrange-ments at all our plants, though what good it'll do, if he has a device like that, I've no idea."
"This is an absolute tragedy, Parker," she said, turning to where her butler, a beaky-nosed man with a delightfully rogueish face, was pouring out some tea for her. "He isn't letting it show, but it's clear poor Yeke is quite devastated."
Parker nodded. He didn't understand much about science, but he knew enough to appreciate that renewable energy was important. What had happened did seem a great pity.
"And what's to stop them doing it again?" he asked.
She told him what the Saudi police had discovered. "Have you any ideas, Parker?"
The ex-convict frowned. "Not enough to go on. The geezer we're after can obviously get hold of some pretty nifty hardware. I can think of a few people in this country who might fit the bill. I'll visit a few of me old haunts, see if I can pick anything up." In his days on the wrong side of the law Parker and his associates had used plenty of high-tech equipment for breaking open safes. "Who do you think it is, then?" he asked her.
"The plant makes an odd terrorist target. Someone might have been trying to destabilise the Saudi government, but it's more likely they'd target the oil refineries, which is where most of the country's wealth comes from right now, than an experimental solar power station. I'd say our saboteur is probably a mercenary, working for someone with a vested interest in seeing renewable energy fail. That someone could be connected with the nuclear industry. Or it could be the oil barons. Someone in the Middle East who wants to be able to hold the West to ransom. Someone who isn't quite as enterprising as the Saudis have been, and could stand to lose economically if renewable energy becomes established in a really big way."
"Course," said Parker grimly, "if that flippin' meteor goes slap bang into us, it might not matter any more."
"Do try to look on the bright side, Parker," said Penelope. "It may be Jeff and the team are trying something right now. Let's hope they're successful."
In the vehicle storage and maintenance bay adjacent to Thunderbird Two's hangar, Judy was seated at the controls of the DOMO, a rather spider-like machine used for supporting and manipulating heavy objects, with Scott issuing her instructions over a radio.
"Go easy with that machine," he told her. Remember, it saved your life."
"I shan't forget that in a hurry," she said, remembering the traumatic circumstances from which she had had to be rescued. "Now see if you can pick up those metal sheets over there." He pointed to where the items in question were stacked in a heap.
He had shown her earlier how to work the controls. She tugged sharply at a lever and the DOMO moved forward, a little too quick-ly.
"Whoa...stop! Back a bit...that's right...."
The DOMO halted, then lumbered forward again, its three jointed arms held high in the air. It came up to the pile of sheeting and stopped, the suction cups on the ends of the arms poised high above it.
"Now see if you can pick the top one up." She pulled another lever and the arms descended, the suckers fastening onto the sheet
of aluminium and gripping it tightly. She raised the arms and the sheet was lifted high into the air.
"Try and put it down over there." He pointed to a corner of the maintenance bay.
She reversed the vehicle and swung it round, heading towards the spot he'd indicated. He moved to stand nearby.
The DOMO stopped. The suckers released their hold and the metal sheet crashed down, narrowly missing Scott as he leaped out of the way.
"Whoops....wrong button, sorry!" Remembering what he'd shown her before, she picked it up again and this time put it down success-fully.
"Great. Well done. We'll keep at it." He knew she'd soon get the hang of everything; she was quite good with technology.
"Now let's go for a swim," he suggested. They made their way to the little hut on the beach, where they changed into their cos-tumes.
They emerged from the hut onto the sand, relishing the feel of it between their toes and beneath the soles of their feet. She smiled up at him as they headed down the sloping beach towards the sea. They splashed about for an hour or so in the cool water, enjoying its sensuous feel and the warm sun beating down on their backs.
Afterwards, as they lay together on the beach, Scott thought how Judy seemed much more mature and responsible these days, and how glad he was at the change. When they'd first become acquainted she'd been rather childish and reckless, and he'd been afraid she wouldn't be suitable for him.
"I wish we could see more of each other," he said to her. "But of course you've got your studies and I've got to be on call most of the time in case of an emergency."
As he said this, the thought occurred in both their heads that they might not have much of a future, together or otherwise, if they couldn't stop that meteorite. But they dismissed it from their minds, and just lay there enjoying each others' company and the warm kiss of the sun.
"Grandma's knitted you a uniform," said TinTin, holding it up for Judy to see.
Judy felt thrilled. She inspected it proudly. "Shall I try it on?"
"I don't see why not."
TinTin was already in hers. The final preparations for Thunderbird Three's mission were almost complete.
She disappeared into her room, emerging from it a minute later to see that Scott had joined TinTin. Both of them regarded her admiringly. "Judy, you look great!" TinTin said. The blue outfit certainly suited her; Scott liked the way it hugged her figure tightly.
"This calls for a photo," he said, and went off to fetch his camera. They just had time to take a few snaps, one of the two girls together and two of just Judy, one with her striking a dramatic pose, before TinTin had to run for Thunderbird Three's launch bay. Brains and Alan were already waiting for her on board the spaceship. Brains was coming along in case his scientific expertise was required at any stage, and because he wanted to inspect the meteorite at first hand. They would call in at the space station again before proceeding to intercept the meteorite, to pick up John, who was to go with them in case any extra assistance might be needed.
Kyrano came through from the launch control room, telling Alan he was cleared for take-off. Then Jeff addressed the rocket's crew over the Intercom. "Good luck, all of you. You know how much depends on the success of this mission. If it doesn't come off we'll have a situation nobody, including ourselves, will be able to cope with."
Alan fired the motors, and seconds later they saw the red pencil of the rocket's fuselage emerge into view, rising up through the centre of the roundhouse into the night sky on three columns of smoke. This, Jeff thought, must be International Rescue's most important assignment yet. They had plenty of time in which to carry it out, yet the knowledge of what was at stake nevertheless disturbed them.
Two days later he gave Judy, now back in England, a call. "We may need you in a day or two's time. That's when the meteorite will start causing trouble on Earth. You'd better start making your way over here now. Scott'll pick you up from Kennedy."
"I'm ready," she said.
Thunderbird Three continued on its journey, a lonely speck of orange against the vast blackness of space.
Its crew were gathered round the instrument panel, watching the monitor intently for the first visual indication of the massive meteorite.
"Rendezvous time twenty minutes," Alan told his crew.
He altered the craft's course slightly, to one which would bring it right alongside the meteor.
Again, he found himself considering what would happen if they failed to destroy it. The meteorite would cause incalculable destruction as it got nearer and nearer to the Earth. Then, finally, it would smash into the planet with a force equal to half-a-dozen atomic bombs. It might cause earthquakes powerful enough to split the planet's crust wide open, and what that might lead to no-one liked to say. If it landed in the sea, the result would be tidal waves so massive that every coastline in the world would be devastated, and no ship would be safe.
In other ways, the meteorite's approach was already having a profound effect. Predictably perhaps, it was being claimed in some quarters that the Day Of Judgement was at hand. Street preachers and other kinds of evangelist were in their element, haranguing the public with their calls for repentance. Normally such people were ignored or ridiculed, but this time it looked as if they might be right. Thousands miraculously rediscovered an interest in religion, flocking to church in such numbers that the religious authorities really didn't know what to do. The prophets of doom were not dissuaded by warnings from the more practical of their co-religionists that if it should turn out not to be the end after all, they, and religious people in general, would end up looking rather silly.
Prayers were said in places of worship all over the world, by the devotees of all its religions, for the success of Thunderbird Three's mission.
There was already mass panic, frantic selling of stocks and shares. Law and order broke down, and crime soared to record levels.
The meteorite was now fully visible on the monitor. It was a massive chunk of pitted rock, roughly ovoid in shape.
"Whew!" John exclaimed. "It must be fifty miles across!"
"Fascinating," breathed Brains. "Quite fascinating. This must be the largest meteor to be recorded since astronomy began."
"Where do you think it could have come from, Brains?" asked Alan.
"Hard to say. One answer may be that it is a fragment of an asteroid that has been struck by a comet, or of a planet that's exploded for some reason. I should like the opportunity to examine it at close quarters."
"There may not be time," said Alan. "We've come to blow it to bits, remember."
The meteorite now filled the entire monitor screen. It seemed to be about to smash into them.
As the meteorite passed them, Alan fired the retros and Thunder-bird Three swung round in pursuit of it.
"OK guys, get suited up," Alan ordered.
He brought the craft to within a few hundred feet of the meteorite's surface, which appeared lumpy and irregular. A few minutes later he opened the cargo bay doors, and from the bay, propelled downward by thrusters, descended a sledge with the equipment they needed tethered to it by thick steel ropes. A little later the spacesuited figures of Brains, Alan and TinTin emerged from an airlock, likewise propelled by small but powerful jets built into their suits. John was to remain behind on Thunderbird Three to maintain contact with Tracy Island. The sledge landed on the meteorite's surface, the four astronauts touching down beside it. They unfastened the ropes, lifting from it a miniature version of the Mole, IR's underground rescue vehicle, used for situations where the ground had been so weakened that the bigger and much more powerful drill of the Mole itself would be liable to cause a deadly cave-in. During the journey from Earth they had attached the bomb, now reunited with its warhead, to the main body of the machine. They now mounted the Mini-Mole within a tripod support frame, its drill a few inches above the surface. Remotely controlled from a portable console which TinTin had set up nearby, the Mini-Mole began to burrow down into the body of the meteorite.
"I'm going to take a look around, if I may," Brains declared. "You should be all right without me for the moment."
"OK, Brains. But be careful."
"I shouldn't think there's anything here that might be dangerous," the scientist replied.
"You never know."
"On a meteorite this size, it's unlikely. W-w-what were you thinking of anyway....aliens?"
"I wasn't thinking of anything in particular. Like I said, take care. And don't go too far; we want to be able to leave here as soon as the bomb is in place."
Brains grunted in assent, then set off across the surface of the asteroid.
"I'm scanning for any trace of minerals," he told Alan through his helmet radio. "And I'm getting some strange readings. The analyser is going haywire."
"What does that suggest to you?"
"If there are minerals here, they're not like any that've ever been found on Earth."
"Well, let us know if you find anything interesting."
Brains continued on his way. The rock of the meteor's surface was the same dull grey colour as that of the Moon, but in places it was convoluted into bizarre shapes. The analyser continued to give unusual readings, ones that didn't make any sense.
About fifty yards away there seemed to be a wide fissure in the ground, stretching for as far as Brains could see on either side. He went up to its edge and dropped to his knees, leaning forward to peer inside. Nothing of interest could be made out. He peered closer.
Deep down in the darkness, he could just make out a vertical strand of greenish, phosphorescent light. He shone his torch down into the fissure and its beam picked out a kind of narrow ledge many feet below him, roughly opposite where the light was. He descended into the fissure to land on the ledge.
The light came from a vein of some green, and brightly glowing, crystalline substance. "There's some kind of mineral....I've never seen anything like it before. I'm going to take a sample..."
Brains leaned forward to inspect the vein. He reached out and touched it; the stuff felt hard, like rock, and knobbly.
Then the ledge crumbled away beneath his feet and he fell. Imm-ediately he reached for the controls of his thrusters, but before his fingers could make contact with them his head struck the wall of the fissure, with enough force to stun him despite the protec-tion afforded by his helmet.
As soon as the meteorite's effects became felt, the conventional rescue services went into action. It soon became apparent that they could not cope, and calls came flooding into Tracy Island. However swiftly they acted, and however hard they tried, there was no way of preventing many people from dying. "I guess everyone understands that," Jeff told his team. But if both IR and the conventional rescue services did their best, as he knew they would, they would be instrumental in reducing the death toll to something considerably lower than what it might have been.
"Where do we start, Dad?" asked Virgil. "There are all sorts of places that may be badly hit."
Jeff consulted a map of the world. "You may as well start in Holland; that's sure to be one of the areas worst affected. Con-tact the authorities there and see what kind of help they need. Judy, this is it - your first mission. Gordon, you'd better go along with them too, as it's a safe bet Thunderbird Four will be needed.
"Good luck boys - and girl." Judy smiled.
They made their way swiftly to their respective craft, which were soon hurtling eastward over the Atlantic.
The predictions that Holland, of all the nations of Europe, would bear the brunt of the disaster turned out to be well-founded. There was widespread flooding, particularly in coastal areas where many villages had disappeared beneath the encroaching waves. In large towns the smaller buildings were almost completely submerged, and of the bigger ones only the rooftops were visible above the water.
Thunderbirds One and Two flew low over the flooded area, keeping an eye open for situations which the conventional rescue authorit-ies couldn't handle. In the cabin of Thunderbird Two Judy waited, excitedly but a little apprehensively, for her first chance of serious action.
Scott called in from Thunderbird One. "I'm getting reports of a group of people trapped on top of a church spire. They think it's in danger of collapse. About eight miles south-east of here. The local rescue services are fully committed elsewhere."
"FAB, Scott," answered Virgil. Both craft banked and headed towards the danger zone. In a few minutes their destination became visible across the flat, waterlogged landscape. Most of the ancient church was now underwater, but the spire still protruded above the surface, four or five people clinging precariously to its sides. The water was still rising, but not as quickly as before. The structure didn't look too safe to Scott and Virgil.
The trapped Netherlanders cheered Thunderbird Two as it approached the ancient church and moved into position above it. Virgil lowered the escape capsule and Gordon and Judy helped them clamber into it. Then gradually it was lifted up into the body of the giant craft.
By the time the rescued had been deposited safely at the nearest of the centres from which the authorities were co-ordinating relief efforts, there was another job for the International Rescue team to do. "I'm getting reports of some kids they think may be trapped in a cellar in one of the flooded districts of Rotterdam," Scott told his colleagues.
"Looks like a job for Thunderbird Four," Virgil replied. "OK, Gordon?"
"OK." They changed course, flying south towards Rotterdam.
On the meteorite, Alan turned grimly to TinTin. "Just heard from Dad. This thing's already starting to affect the weather on Earth."
TinTin consulted the instruments on the portable console. "The Mini-Mole has almost reached the right level."
Alan decided it was time to check on Brains' progress. He was alarmed when the scientist did not reply.
"Brains! Brains, are you there? Are you OK?"
The only answer was the crackle of static.
"Folks, something's happened to Brains. I'm going out to look for him." Alan switched on his thrusters and rose off the ground, heading in the direction Brains had gone.
Flying high above the surface of the meteor on his thrusters, he could see over a considerable area. He moved slowly through space, surveying the landscape beneath him carefully. There was no sign of a spacesuited figure lying dead or unconscious.
He knew Brains couldn't have gone far. He must be here, some-where. Then he saw the fissure and propelled himself towards it. Descending into it, he saw the glowing vein of crystal and, further down, the motionless form of Brains. On reaching the scientist Alan found to his relief that he was merely unconscious. He tried to shift the senseless body, but discovered that one foot had become wedged between two nodules of rock. Taking a small hammer from his toolkit, he began chipping away at the rock around the trapped foot.
TinTin's voice came from the radio. "Alan, the bomb's in position now. Do I set the timer?"
Alan thought of what was happening on Earth. "FAB. Listen, I've found Brains. He fell into a sort of crevasse; he's OK, but out cold. I'm coming back with him now."
Brains stirred and opened his eyes. “Alan...."
"Well, I did warn you to take care. Are you OK?"
"Y-yes, I think so. Alan, that stuff....I must get a sample...."
"There's no time," Alan said firmly. "This meteorite is already causing major loss of life on Earth. It's got to be destroyed as soon as possible, and that means we must get beyond the range of the explosion as quickly as we can." While he spoke he continued to hammer away at the rock, which he'd succeeded in loosening a bit. "Try and move your foot now."
Brains wriggled and pulled, and the foot came free. "OK, let's go," said Alan. They rose out of the fissure, turned their thrusters on full and soared up towards Thunderbird Three. Looking down, Alan saw the Mini-Mole's abandoned trolley and the equipment sledge. It was a shame they had to leave the stuff here, he thought.
By the time they had joined John and TinTin in the spaceship's control room, there were less than three minutes to go before the bomb went off. Alan fired the chemical motors, and Thunderbird Three began to move away from the meteorite. A few seconds later he switched to ion drive. The Thunderbird streaked through space at a speed just below that of light.
They waited while the last seconds ticked away, bracing themselves for the shock to come.
The meteorite was blasted into a huge cloud of dust and fragments of rock. For several minutes, shock waves buffeted the craft violently. Then it steadied. They looked at the monitor screen. A largeish piece of the meteorite, big enough to do them considerable damage if not smash the Thunderbird to pieces, was heading towards them. Alan adjusted the flywheel which controlled the craft's attitude, and it veered sharply to one side. The chunk of rock shot past them, missing them by a hundred yards or so.
TinTin glanced at a screen. "Two of the fragments are heading towards Earth."
"How big are they?"
"About the size of a small town. They're too large to burn up in the atmosphere. They won't have any harmful effects on the weather, but there could still be serious damage to property or loss of life." Brains consulted the readings more closely. "One of them is too big to be broken up by a missile. I suggest we try sending it away from Earth with the rocket, as planned." He turned to Alan excitedly. "I want to see if any of those fragments contain samples of that mineral, or whatever it was that I found. There should be time for me to get them before they enter the atmosphere."
Alan frowned. "All right," he said. "But let me make this quite clear, Brains. If you don't manage to get your samples in time we are not, I repeat not, going chasing after that lump of rock. You'll have to say goodbye to it."
Brains nodded, unhappily. "I guess you're in charge, Alan." He went to put on his spacesuit.
"Nearly there," Virgil announced, as the outskirts of Rotterdam came into view ahead.
"Hey, can I go with Gordon?" asked Judy suddenly. Most of the jobs she'd had so far had been fairly boring, routine ones. Now she wanted to do something different. She'd never been underwater before, in a submarine.
Scott thought for a moment. "Don't see why not," he said. "It's doubtful you'll be needed for the actual rescue, but it'd be a good idea for you to see how it's done. You might have to operate Thunderbird Four yourself one day." He consulted Gordon, who ag-reed.
Thunderbird Two went into hovermode just above the water and released its pod. Once the pod had steadied, its door opened and Thunderbird Four's launch ramp extended to touch the surface.
Gordon fired Thunderbird Four's motors, and the little yellow submarine shot down the ramp and into the water.
Thunderbird Three had drawn up alongside the larger of the two fragments of meteorite, and Alan and John were supervising the fitting of the rocket. They drilled four holes in the surface of the meteor, one for each of the four legs of the sled on which it was mounted.
Brains, meanwhile, was flying low over the surface of the meteor, his scanning device in one hand. At first he detected nothing; then the device began to bleep.
A little later he saw it, a few hundred yards to his left; a band of greenish material a few feet wide, running across the meteor's surface. He propelled himself downward and to the left, until he came to rest gently on the ground just beside the vein. He fell to his knees and frantically began chipping away at it, transferring as much of the material as possible to the large metal container beside him. Occasionally he paused to glance at the Earth, which was growing ever larger as the meteorite hurtled towards it.
When the container was almost full, his radio bleeped. "Brains, we're ready!" shouted Alan.
Brains hesitated a moment longer, then turned towards Thunderbird Three and activated his thrusters.
In the outskirts of the city, the water had risen to just above the height of most of the buildings. Thunderbird Four was cruising gently along the submerged main street of the district, carefully negotiating its way around cars and other obstacles, its beacon projecting a ray of light ahead of it. One or two fish could be glimpsed swimming in and out of the sunken houses. It was an eerie sight. Judy gazed from the viewing portal in fascination.
Gordon turned to where she sat at the back of the cabin. "There are five kids trapped in that cellar. Their air won't hold out forever and there's a danger water may start leaking in, so we have to hurry. We're about ten minutes away from them." It didn't help that he had to reduce the submarine's speed in order to avoid hitting one of the sunken buildings or vehicles.
He explained how they would carry out the rescue operation. According to their parents the children spoke English, like many Dutch people, and were old enough to understand what was required of them.
En route to their destination, he showed her the controls and how each function of the submarine worked.
"How far down are we?" she asked suddenly.
"About thirty feet," he replied. "Why?"
"Just curious." She suddenly realised they were, indeed, some thirty feet beneath the surface.
"Are you OK?" he asked anxiously.
"Yeah, fine," she replied. She didn't quite manage to disguise the nervousness in her voice. She tried to tell herself it was too late to turn back now.
All around and above them....all that water.....the thought of it suddenly terrified her. If the submarine should spring a leak....she imagined the water pouring into her mouth, her nostrils, her lungs, in a choking tide, the pain in her burning lungs as she struggled to gasp in air that wasn't there.....
"This thing..I mean Thunderbird Four... is watertight, isn't it?" she asked, aware that the question was stupid.
"Thunderbird Four, leaking?" Gordon seemed to find the prospect amusing. "There's no danger of that."
Suddenly Judy sprang from her seat, her eyes wild with terror, and rushed at him. "Let me out!" she screamed. "We've got to go back...go back...." The words became garbled together in a hysterical shriek. Gordon leaped from his seat and grabbed her by the arms. The two of them staggered around the cabin, with him trying desperately both to restrain and calm her. It was a difficult job; she was quite strong, and terror had made her stronger. They cannoned into the console and Gordon's arm hit a lever, knocking it into the "on" position. Its motors at full power, Thunderbird Four shot forward at top speed. Preoccupied with trying to subdue Judy, Gordon didn't see what lay ahead of them. The little submarine crashed straight into the side of an abandoned lorry, knocking it over. The impact shook the craft and flung Gordon and Judy apart, hurling the young woman to the floor. As she struggled to rise, Gordon swiftly knelt down beside her and with one hand applied pressure to her neck at the point where it met her shoulder. She jerked, went limp, and fell back onto the floor.
A block of flats loomed into view out of the murk. He dashed back to the console and struggled with the controls, managing to slow down the sub just in time to prevent it smashing into the wall.
He realised that the light had gone. The computer was signalling damage to the beacon; the lighting trough - the boom at the front of the submarine, carried on two flexible arms, within which the battery of lights was mounted - was undamaged but the collision had smashed the delicate circuitry within it.
He cursed aloud. They'd lost enough valuable time already, and now they were going to lose even more; he'd have to navigate using only sonar, which would take a little longer.
He heard the radio bleeping. "How are you doing, Gordon?" asked Scott.
"We've got trouble, Scott. I'm going to arrive a little later than anticipated."
"What happened?" Scott asked.
Gordon gazed at where Judy's unconscious figure lay. "Oh, noth-ing."
Scott could tell from his voice that all wasn't well. "Gordon, what's up? Is..is Judy OK?"
"She's going to be all right," Gordon said. "I'll tell you what happened later. Let's just get on with the rescue."
A couple of minutes later Gordon found the house. He swung the submarine round until it was facing it head-on, then lowered the lighting trough. A missile streaked from the craft's nose and blew out the front of the building. Clouds of dust and fragments of mortar filled the water around it as the debris crashed down.
Several more missiles slammed into the building and detonated, blasting it into a heap of rubble. Gordon brought the submarine forward and, using the lighting trough as a shovel, began clearing away the debris to expose the trapdoor which gave access to the cellar.
His hand moved to another button, and the submarine's nose dipped. A small but powerful drill emerged from one of the row of openings in its front and began boring a tunnel through the concrete of what had been the ground floor of the building.
In the cellar the water was now pouring quite fast from the edges of the trapdoor and from one or two cracks which had appeared in the walls. It was up to the boys' knees and rising rapidly. They clambered onto a table which stood in one corner, clutching each other for comfort.
A little spider's web of cracks appeared in the wall just above the water level. The head of the drill burst into view, then dropped away on a hinge. With a hiss of compressed air, several metal canisters were shot along the tube and into the cellar, land-ing in the water.
A microphone inside the tube enabled Gordon to speak to the chil-dren. "These canisters contain breathing equipment. Put them on - and hurry!" They jumped down into the water and waded through it towards the floating cylinders.
They scrambled back onto the table, and following Gordon's in-structions put on the aqualungs and strapped the oxygen cylinders to their backs. "Have you got them on yet?"
They shouted back that they had, the hydrophone inside the tube picking up their voices.
"OK, Virg, do your stuff," Gordon told Virgil, once the water had reached the ceiling.
Thunderbird Two was hovering above the flooded street. A weighted cable dropped into the water from the hatch beneath its the cabin. The weight was also a powerful clamp, which attached itself firmly to the metal trapdoor.
"Cable attached," Virgil told him.
"OK, now pull!"
Thunderbird Two lifted, and the cable tautened. The hatch was pulled free, and the release of pressure shot the four children out of the cellar and to the surface in an eruption of bubbles. In a moment Thunderbird Four had surfaced too, and Gordon was hauling them through the airlock.
"Well done, Gordon," he heard Virgil say.
On the floor behind him, Judy was just starting to come round.
"Did you get your samples, Brains?" asked Alan as the scientist entered Thunderbird Three's control room. All four of its crew were now safely on board.
"Uh-huh," replied Brains.
"Great. Then let's send this chunk of meteorite off into the wide black yonder."
Alan's thumb came down on the firing button, and below them flame spurted from the nozzle of the rocket. For a moment the meteor remained on its course. Then it began to turn in a wide sweeping arc, and shot past them at a fantastic speed. In a matter of moments, it was no more than a tiny speck in the far distance. "Right, now let's get that last bit," said Alan. Again, Thunder-bird Three altered course. The final fragment of meteorite appeared as a tiny blip on the scanner, alarmingly close to the Earth. "Twenty minutes to re-entry," announced TinTin.
Its chemical motors on full power, the spaceship soon began to close the gap between it and the meteor. He wasn't sure if they could catch it before it entered the atmosphere, and there wasn't much they could do once it did.
TinTin looked up again from the console. "It's heading for an impact somewhere in South America. I think Rio de Janeiro could be in danger, or Brasilia."
"Call Dad and get him to warn the authorities," Alan replied. He glanced at the radar screen, where the two blips, one representing Thunderbird Three and the other the meteor, were almost touching.
"Visual contact any second now," TinTin announced. "It'll be within firing range in five minutes."
Alan opened a hatch in the spaceship's hull. "How long to re-entry now?"
"About the same time."
They waited anxiously as the meteor loomed larger on the screen. The ablation temperature was already rising and they could see the hunk of rock beginning to glow red with friction as it encountered the edges of the atmosphere. In less than a minute, it would be too late to attempt to destroy it.
"Target within firing range!" TinTin yelled.
"Fire!" shouted Alan.
A cobaltesium missile streaked from the open hatch in Thunderbird Three's nose and impacted with the meteor, blowing it into a million fragments. Below them a myriad tiny shooting stars, balls of flame with long fiery tails, streaked briefly but spectacularly through the night sky before evaporating.
"That's it, I guess," said Alan, breathing a deep sigh of relief. He clapped Brains on the shoulder. "Well, genius, we've saved the world and you've got your samples. Now let's go home."
The rocket ship's nose dipped, and it began its descent towards Earth.
In his laboratory on Tracy Island, Brains was heating a chunk of the mineral in a small furnace. Beside him, TinTin was studying a gauge which showed the temperature level. "It's at maximum now."
Brains waited a moment longer, then told her to turn the temperature right down.
He put on an asbestos glove and opened the lid, applying one of the fingers of the glove to the chunk of greenish mineral. He should have been able to feel the heat through the fabric of the glove, but didn't. He removed it and touched the fragment gingerly with his bare hand. "It's warm, but no more than that. But after all that time in the furnace, it should be white hot."
They examined it closely using a piece of equipment resembling an enormous and complex microscope. "No change in its molecular structure," TinTin reported, amazement in her voice.
"Let's put it back in the furnace," said Brains. They did, turn-ing the temperature up to maximum and leaving it at that level for some ten minutes. Then TinTin peered through a viewing portal in the door of the furnace, constructed from special heat-resistant glass.
"It's starting to disintegrate," she announced.
"This is something, TinTin," said Brains excitedly. "We must tell Mr Tracy and the boys." They divested themselves of their lab coats.
Jeff looked up from his newspaper as they bustled into the lounge.
"Well, what have you found?"
"Well, Jeff, whatever that substance is, it's unlike anything on Earth. Its properties are remarkable. In particular, it has an incredibly high heat tolerance. It didn't start to melt until the temperature inside the furnace had exceeded 3,000 degrees. I was thinking we might use it in our fire-fighting equipment."
"Great idea," said Virgil. "But we don't have a lot of it, do we?" "No. Now I think that meteorite was a fragment of an asteroid, or a planet, which was hit by a comet or destroyed in some interstellar catastrophe. If that planet or a sizeable chunk of it is still around, I want to find it. It probably isn't in our solar system, but if it's still within Thunderbird Three's range, I'd like to go out there and see if there isn't any more of the stuff on it."
"Do we tell people about this?" asked Gordon. "I mean, we aren't the only people who could make use of it. There must be all sorts of useful applications."
"And a lot of dangerous ones as well," growled Jeff. "I can see the military using it to make indestructible tanks, indestructible aircraft. Good in that it would save the crews from being killed, bad in that it'd accelerate the whole arms race. You can be sure that sooner or later they'd develop something to counter its eff-ects."
"There's too little of the stuff here to do much damage," said Brains. "And we don't have to take that much back with us; or tell people where it came from in the first place."
"Will we have enough of it for all our fire-fighting gear?" Alan asked.
"Yes, and a little left over. I've an idea what that can be used for."
In the room she was usually assigned when on Tracy Island, Judy looked sadly at the International Rescue uniform Grandma Tracy had made for her.
"Fat lot of use I turned out to be," she said miserably.
Scott stood in the corner, not sure what he should say. It was true she'd been a little impetuous in deciding to accompany Gordon in Thunderbird Four.
"Maybe it'd be better if you didn't go on underwater rescues in future," he suggested.
"I might be needed on one, though," she said. "You never know."
"Is it just..certain situations that spook you?"
Judy thought about this for a moment. "No," she said unhappily. "Not just that. To be honest....I just don't think I'm brave enough."
Scott was surprised. "You think so? You gave that Hood, or whatever his name was, guy quite a run for his money."
"That was different. He took it on himself to try and kidnap me. Of course, I got into that situation through my own stupidity. But I don't make that kind of mistake any more; not usually. To put myself in danger, when I don't have the choice....that's a very different matter. It just doesn't seem right."
"You don't have to do it if you don't want to, honey," said Scott gently, resting a hand upon her shoulder.
"I let everybody down," said Judy. She was obviously close to tears. "Those kids nearly died because of me."
"You're not listening. I said you're under no obligation to do it. No-one's got any right to make you."
"But I do want to do it," she replied. "It makes me feel I'm making something useful out of my life."
"Well, it's your choice," he told her. "But just remember, anyone can understand you being afraid. It's crazy enough that we do it. Nobody's going to blame you for backing out."
He gave her another pat. "Listen, we'll go for a walk round the island later on, OK?"
She smiled weakly. "OK."
In the meantime he left her alone, figuring she'd prefer that. After a while, someone else knocked on the door. It was Gordon.
"Er, Judy, I just wanted to say.....about what happened on the rescue. I'm sorry...you know, about knocking you out."
"That's alright. You had to do it."
"I can understand why you freaked out like that. Me, I guess I'm so fond of the water that I don't think about it most of the time."
"It was all our fault really," he went on. "There's something we should have told you. If something goes wrong on a rescue and it looks like we're going to die....and it's something really nasty, like drowning I guess....there's a pill we can take that causes instant death. Fortunately we've never had to use it, but if anything had gone wrong with Thunderbird Four you could have swallowed it and died in a second or two, without feeling any pain. The trouble is, you can't be sure until the very last minute that you won't be rescued."
"Why didn't Scott tell me about this?" she asked, more than a little angry and upset.
"Well," replied Gordon, "I guess he didn't want you ever to take it when you might have come out all right after all."
Judy tried to decide whether this was selfish of Scott. Probably it wasn't, at least not entirely.
The next person to visit her was TinTin. She sat down. "Judy..I heard what happened."
Judy sighed. "Everyone seems to be visiting me today."
TinTin saw that she felt patronised. "Well, if you want me to leave..."
"No, don't go," said Judy hurriedly, remembering that TinTin was her friend. "But I think I know what you're going to say."
She repeated what Scott and Gordon had said to her. TinTin gave her musical laugh. "You're quite right! That was what I was going to say."
She paced the room, trying to think of something different. "Why do you want to be one of us? I don't mean one of the family, you're that already. I mean of International Rescue."
"Till not long ago I was a silly, selfish sort of person," said Judy. "I caused a lot of people a lot of grief, and I don't know....I just.....felt that saving lives would make up for that." "There are many ways of doing that. Not just the ones which involve you risking your neck. Even if you don't save lives there are jobs where you can do something to improve their quality.
"Judy, my advice to you would be to try and find some other cause to devote yourself to. If you can't, then you know your destiny is with International Rescue."
This sounded like good sense. Judy was already starting to feel better.
"But whatever happens, you've got to have some confidence in yourself," TinTin said. "I think that's as much a part of the problem as anything else."
"Well, I'll be going home shortly," said Judy. She ought really to be getting back to her studies. "I need to do a spot of pack-ing. Thanks, TinTin, OK?"
"You're welcome." TinTin left her alone with her thoughts.
In the living room of Darren Brancker's house, he and Sir Nigel Halliwell were celebrating the destruction of the solar plant over a few drinks. Earlier Halliwell had handed Brancker a fat wad of cash - several thousand pounds, to be exact - as his reward for successfully completing the operation.
Halliwell put down his half-finished glass. He was anxious to conclude his business and be off as soon as possible. The social gulf between him and Brancker made him a little uneasy in the man's company. "Now for your next assignment," Halliwell told him. "I should warn you, it may be more difficult than the first. The REC have abandoned total automation at all their installations and brought in human security staff. However, that may be a good thing in some way. I don't want to kill anyone, but if people do have to die it would certainly help our cause more."
Brancker wasn't going to argue with that.
At the Creighton-Ward mansion, "Nosey" Parker was crouched over the screen of a computer, Penelope standing beside him.
Parker had established a computer database containing information on all his former criminal associates. The information would have been extremely valuable to the police, but not all of it was ever used. This was because Parker, unlike many criminals or ex-criminals nowadays, still had a concept of what was once called thieves' honour. Penelope had always understood this, despite it having caused problems on one or two occasions, which was one reason why Parker felt such affection and loyalty towards her. However there were some whom Parker was only too glad to shop to the police, since they had used methods such as murder which went beyond what he was prepared to do.
"There are several people who I reckon could be using that sort of equipment," Parker told Penelope. He touched a key and a number of faces appeared on the screen. His fingers continued to move about the keyboard, and one of the faces enlarged to fill the whole screen.
"I reckon this bloke's the most likely suspect; Darren Brancker. He was always into gadgets. An expert safe-cracker and alarm-breaker, though not as good as me as course. Used some pretty high-tech gear on his jobs."
"You and your gang had some very impressive equipment yourselves," Penny reminded him.
"Yeah, but nothing like whatever was used at the solar plant. What that could have been I've no idea. Pretty big league stuff, though, that's for sure. Brancker was good at designing that kind of thing, but I can't see how he'd have got hold of the resources he needed to build it, even thought there's quite a big market in jamming and anti-jamming devices."
Penelope pursed her lips. "Hmm....I was thinking maybe the Army could help. I'm sure they've got stuff like that. In the Third Gulf War something very similar was used to knock out Iraqi tar-gets."
"But I can't see anybody in the military letting him get hold of one," said Parker.
"It's happened before, Parker. I'd better make use of my contacts at the Ministry. In the meantime, I suggest you find out all you can about our three suspects, and we'll check them out. Learn what we can about their lifestyle, their movements. Maybe try a spot of electronic eavesdropping and see if we can learn something."
In a room within an old house somewhere in Southern Europe, a group of men sat talking. Sir Nigel Halliwell was among them.
"You're intending to carry on sabotaging the plants in the same way as the solar station, using your friend Brancker?" one of the group asked him.
"I was thinking we ought to try and change our approach. We have been lucky enough to avoid detection so far, because of the nature of the equipment we have been using. But sooner or later our luck will run out."
"We don't need to wait for that to happen," replied Halliwell. "They're sure to abandon the programme if the sabotage continues for much longer."
"Someone could still work out how we're doing it and think up counter-measures," the Italian insisted.
"I'm aware of that possibility. There is another plan I've been working on. Also, I always felt the argument that renewable energy would put all those who work in the nuclear and fossil fuel sector out of business was rather weak. A lot of people have been suggesting that we diversify, that we move into the renewable sector and perhaps devote ourselves to it entirely if it supersedes nuclear power altogether. So that is what I'm going to do."
"Your company is going to buy the plants?"
"I'm going to make a bid for them. These days most governments like to encourage private enterprise. I may not be able to buy up all of them, but that doesn't matter. I'm certain I can get a sizeable number."
"It may not be necessary; look upon it, if you like, as insurance.
“What I own," he grinned, "will be much easier for us to sabotage."
They'd complained it was an eyesore when the plans were first announced, and maybe they had a point. But in its own way, the wind farm was an impressive sight; a forest of concrete and metal towers covering an area of a hundred acres. Each windmill, or wind turbine as they were supposed to be called, had three huge rotors like the blades of an aircraft propellor, and a control cabin at its top which housed the generating equipment they drove.
At the moment the rotors were whirling busily in a strong wind. Ted Crandell regarded them with pride. Although these new structures sadly lacked the beauty of traditional windmills, there was still something impressive about them. The windmill, he thought, was in any of its forms the most aesthetically pleasing device ever invented by Man for the purpose of harnessing energy.
Crandell was obsessed with windmills. His office at the plant was covered with pictures of them, as was the interior of his home. His long-suffering girlfriend had twice threatened to walk out on him if he didn't stop droning on about them, though she'd learnt to put up with it since, and at school he'd been the butt of countless jokes. He was a fully paid-up member of a national society concerned with their study and preservation.
When the job of assistant superintendent at the wind farm had come up, he'd lost no time in applying for it. Whereas to Bob Ent-whistle, his colleague and superior at the establishment, it was simply a job, a means of making a living, for Crandell it was also a hobby, one he threw himself into with enthusiasm. To the (good-natured) ridicule of his colleagues, he insisted on using the terminology of the old-time millers and millwrights to describe the machines they worked with, calling the rotors sails and the axle which carried them a windshaft.
Right now Crandell was showing a party of like-minded people around the farm. "The biggest danger in this kind of work is storms or strong winds, just as with the old windmills," he was saying. "A really big one could rip the sails, or the rotors as we call them now, clean off. And those things hurtling through the air can do a lot of damage to both lives and property." That was why the wind farm had had to be situated here, on this bleak but austerely beautiful expanse of Yorkshire moorland, rather than in or near a populated area. "So this is what we do to avoid it."
He produced a mobile telephone and called Entwhistle. "Bob, shut down turbine number three."
He indicated the windmill nearest to them. "Now watch that one there."
A moment later, they saw the three rotors start to rotate more slowly as the brakes were applied. They stopped turning and folded together. Then, slowly, the whole structure sank out of sight beneath the ground, the column on which it was mounted being telescopic.
"However, we still need advance warning of a storm, so we can take the necessary precautions in time. We're tied into the national weather bureau and we also have our own storm detection equipment here on site."
Then, of course, there was the possibility of sabotage. But he preferred not to think about that.
In a plush office at the Ministry Of Defence, Penelope was enjoy-ing a glass of champagne with one of her many cousins, Colonel Sir Jeremy Chandler-Bateson.
"Good to see you again, Penelope old girl. Now then, just what is this all about?"
She explained the purpose of her visit.
Jeremy sat thinking for a moment. Then he asked her to excuse him while he made an urgent phone call. Ten minutes later he returned, smiling. "Seems it's OK for me to tell you, as you're one of us. As it happens, we have got something that could produce the effect you describe. Officially it's not supposed to exist yet, which is why I wasn't going to tell you without permission. It's called a universal jammer. It's effectively a miniature, remote-controlled aeroplane no bigger than the palm of my hand. Generates an electrical field which jams all electronic equipment within a radius of up to two miles, causing it to short-circuit. Anything which uses electricity, from computers to hairdryers, will go haywire.
“Its small size is a valuable asset; it can enter a building through a ventilation duct and travel along the whole ventilation system, knocking out all kinds of things as it goes. Altogether, it's a pretty formidable weapon. If some hostile power has managed to come up with their own version of it..." he shuddered.
"Can you see any way that would have happened?" Penny asked.
"It's always possible. They may have had the idea quite inde-pendently of us. On the other hand, it could be that someone gave them the plans - someone on our side. I hate to suggest the possibility, but - " he shrugged. "There are people who would do it."
"What about the device itself?"
"There are only about half a dozen in existence, and they're carefully guarded. It wouldn't be impossible for one to be stolen, if it were an inside job, but you couldn't conceal the fact after-wards."
"And the equipment you'd need to build it?"
"That could be duplicated by someone with the necessary resources - a hostile, or potentially hostile, power."
"It's extremely worrying," said Penny. "When war breaks out with them, those countries will be at a considerable advantage."
"Fortunately, there's a means of countering the jammer's effect."
"And what's that?"
"You can only do it by using another universal jammer. Anything else, the jammer will jam." He smiled. "We could supply you with a copy. But apart from the fact that it's not supposed to exist yet, it's hard to use without disrupting all other electrical equipment in the vicinity. And you'd have to know exactly where the saboteurs were going to strike."
"We've got to find out who's got hold of it, and bring them to justice," said Penny. "How many people would have had access to the plans for the jammer?"
"About two dozen. Of course, we vetted them all before they were appointed. But an apple can go rotten after it's picked, and an accomplished liar can be pretty good at beating lie detectors. We'll just have to interview them about the matter."
"If you let me know who they are, I can check the information against Parker's list. Hopefully, we can find out if any of the people on it have been engaged in dodgy dealings with someone who could have supplied them with a universal jammer or told them who might. Jerry - you work things at your end, and I'll work them at mine. We'll get them."
After the party had left the wind farm, Crandell made his way back to the site control centre where Entwhistle, a bluff, heavily-built Yorkshireman, was sitting at a monitor screen, a worried expression on his face.
"There's a storm on the way," he announced. "A big one."
"There's global warming for you," remarked Crandell grimly.
"Could be something to do with that meteorite, as well. It's probably had a knock-on effect on the weather. How long before it hits us?"
"A couple more hours. We can wait a bit before getting the windmills down."
Several miles from the wind farm, Darren Brancker was studying the installation, clearly visible across the bleak stretch of moorland, through a pair of long-range binoculars. After a moment he crouched down and unzipped the bag of tools at his feet.
He removed the universal jammer from its case and activated it with the control box, watching as it sped on its way towards the wind farm. "There you go, my beauty," he purred.
He adjusted the controls, and the device flew higher, and higher, until it was no longer visible. It was now travelling through the air about three miles above the wind farm. Any security guard who happened to look up would not have been able to see it.
He adjusted the device again, extending the range of its influence. In the control centre, Bob Entwhistle jumped as a console exploded with a bang, sending out a puff of smoke. Another exploded, and another. Then a fuse box on the wall blew up.
"What - " he began.
"What the heck's going on?" he shouted, as more and more consoles went up in flames. They jumped clear from the ones they were standing at, in case they were the next to explode.
"The attitude control for the sails is disabled," said Crandell, inspecting the damaged equipment. "And the lowering mechanism. In fact, everything's out of action. I just don't understand it! "We've got to get those rotors closed and the windmills down somehow," he said grimly, "or that storm will blow them to pieces!"
Entwhistle got up. “We'll have to do it manually. Come on - we've got fifty of them to take care of, and that storm must be well on the way here by now!"
"We'll never do all of them in time!" Crandell told him.
"Let's just do the best we can."
They hurried from the building and over to the nearest of the windmills, clambering swiftly up the steel ladder bolted to the side of the structure. They had no idea how long exactly they had left; the strange virus had knocked out their computer link with the weather bureau, along with every other piece of electronic apparatus in the place. They just knew they had to hurry.
Through his binoculars Darren Brancker watched them climb the last few feet to the cabin of the windmill. He knew, having been thoroughly briefed on the functioning of the place, that provision had been made for adjusting the windmills manually, and that the two superintendents would try to use it. In any case, they would never be able to see to all the windmills before the storm hit; but the more devastation he could wreak, the better.
At the top of the 150-foot concrete tower, Crandell and Entwhistle were operating the mechanism which would cause the rotors to fold up and thus allow the windmill to descend underground. It was heavy and difficult work, which was why two were needed to do it. Brancker took another item from his bag of equipment. It looked rather like a telescopic rifle. He raised it and squinted through its sights. Its vision finder enabled him to hit his target accurately from an incredible distance, firing right through the holes in the chain-link fence surrounding the site. The bullet struck the base of the windmill and exploded.
The blast rocked the windmill and blew out huge chunks of concrete, forming a pile of dust and rubble at its base. The structure gave a lurch and Crandell felt himself sliding towards the edge of the platform, while Entwhistle only just managed to keep his balance. Crandell managed to grab the safety rail just in time to save himself from sliding through the gap and falling to his death. Entwhistle helped him struggle back onto the platform. The windmill was tilting visibly at an angle of fifteen degrees to the vertical. Brancker's thin lips formed a satisfied smile.
"What the hell's happened?" shouted Entwhistle.
"Dunno," said Crandell. "But we'd better get down from here pretty fast, if we can."
"Aye," muttered Entwhistle. Taking great care, they managed to climb the slanting platform to the cabin and cross the room to the door at the back which opened onto the stairs.
They found that the explosion had put the lift out of action and buckled and twisted the internal ladder in such a way that it was not possible to climb down it. And in the meantime, the windmill was in a very unsafe condition. It would very likely go over at some time in the next hour or so, if not sooner. All the time they could hear the groaning of tortured concrete and metal which sig-nalled the structure's approaching demise.
Entwhistle tried calling the chief security guard, but his radio gave only a faint crackle of static. Every item of electrical equipment in the place seemed to be out of action.
There was only one thing for it. He went back into the cabin and crossed to the door that opened onto the platform, taking care not to slip on the smooth, slanting surface. Bracing himself against the wall with one hand, so as not to fall onto the platform and possibly slide over the edge to his death, he pulled open the door and shouted out to the security guards, hoping they would hear him. "Get help!" he yelled. "And fast!" The storm would blow the weakened building over, if it didn't collapse before it hit.
The wind, already strong, caught his words and blew them away. But one of the guards, who was standing not far away from the damaged windmill looking on helplessly, saw him yelling frantic-ally. He shouted something back in reply, but Entwhistle couldn't make out the words. The superintendent saw him run off, presumab-ly to fetch assistance.
Entwhistle had by now abandoned all hope of saving the windmills; the guards had no idea how to use the necessary equipment. His thoughts turned to his and Crandell's own plight. This was a very isolated area, and it occurred to him that by the time a helicopter or a fire engine arrived on the scene the weather conditions would be such as to render a rescue difficult if not impossible.
Since their radios, along with all the phones on the site, were out of action, one of the guards had to drive to the nearest village, some ten miles away, where he found a phonebox and called the authorities. On his way he passed Darren Brancker, who was heading for home in his van, his task accomplished.
It was soon decided that only one organisation had the equipment to carry out the rescue operation in the conditions which would prevail as the storm approached.
"Scott, Virgil, away you go," said Jeff. "Virgil, Alan can help you out with this one."
"And hurry. You'll just have time to carry out the rescue before the storm hits - I hope."
Scott and Virgil hurried for their craft, which within minutes were airborne and screaming through the sky towards the danger zone. Scott called the authorities and told them to make sure the wind farm and the area around it were cleared as soon as possible. "When that storm hits, the rotors will be torn clean off and there'll be bits of metal flying everywhere." Anyone left out in the open could easily be decapitated, or sliced clean in two. "We'll take care of the two guys on the windmill."
Thunderbird Two roared over the English coast, and in a few minutes was approaching the danger zone. The sky was as black as night, and rain lashed the cabin windows, blurring the view from them. The craft was relying entirely upon its radar to guide it to its destination. Alan and Virgil could feel its movement as the storm buffeted it. Thunderbird One, of course, was already on the scene.
"I think that windmill is going to go over any second," Scott told them, noting how badly cracked the concrete at the base of the structure was. "We may not have enough time to carry out the rescue!"
"I think you're right," said Virgil. "Hang on, I'm going to try something." He reduced Thunderbird Two's speed as it approached the swaying structure.
He brought the craft right up to it, so that it hovered with its nose pressing against it, its weight and the force of its engines preventing it from falling.
"That should give us a few more minutes," Scott told him. "Alan, you'd better hurry." Alan entered the compartment behind the cabin where the air-to-air rescue equipment was housed.
Virgil opened a hatch in the top of the forward fuselage, and Alan rose out of it, wearing a bulky pressure suit fitted with thrusters. He directed himself towards the cabin of the windmill, using the thrusters to counteract the force of the wind whose buffeting threatened to knock him off course. In the pack secured to his back was a coiled length of cable, the other end of which was attached to the wall of the air-to-air rescue compartment. It unravelled as he moved further away from the Thunderbird and towards the windmill. He could feel it jerking and twisting in the wind. Despite the thrusters the journey was a difficult and time-consuming one, but eventually he managed to reach the door of the cabin.
For Crandell and Entwhistle to move across the floor to open the door for him was too dangerous. As soon as they did the wind might blow them out onto the platform and over its edge. He unclipped a laser torch from his belt and began to cut through the hinges of the door.
"Scott, tell them to go out of the cabin and a little way down the stairwell," he said. The wind could still blow them out once the door was opened, even if they were at the back of the room.
Removing the door was a painfully slow business. He knew that all the time the windmill was getting steadily weaker as the storm worsened.
With a crash, the hinges finally fell out and the door came away from its frame, crashing into the cabin. He steered himself into the now empty room and over to the door that opened onto the stairs. He needed to pay out as much of the cable as possible; it had to be as taut as the wind conditions allowed. He flung open the door, and saw Crandell and Entwhistle standing a short distance down the stairs. "Hi," he grinned.
He detached the remaining length of cable from the backpack and fitted a clamp to its end. Then he attached it to the wall at just below waist height.
He studied the cable with a frown. "There's going to be too much slack. In this wind it'll thrash about like a demented snake. You'll have to move her back a bit, Virgil."
"If I do the windmill might fall, Alan."
"I'm going to give you a hand, Virgil," announced Scott. He brought Thunderbird One in until it, too, was pressing against the tottering building.
Gradually Thunderbird Two reversed, leaving the windmill propped up entirely by its sister ship, until the cable was completely taut. "You'd better move fast, Alan," Scott told him. "Thunder-bird One's not strong enough to hold this thing on its own for long." His craft weighed considerably less than Virgil's, although the force it could exert was still powerful.
From his pack Alan took a few further items. In a couple of minutes Crandell and Entwhistle were lying on their backs with their arms and legs in the air. With Alan's help they tucked their hands and feet into metal braces which Alan had attached to the cables in such a way that they could be slid along it.
Alan clamped the braces tightly around their hands and feet. Like Alan's jetpack, the braces were equipped with small thrusters, which Crandell and Entwhistle could operate with their fingers. Following Alan's instructions they switched on the thrusters, and in less than a minute shot along the cable and into Thunderbird Two. Alan followed with the jetpack.
"Virgil, when this windmill falls it's going to bring me down with it," called Scott.
Virgil could see only one solution to the problem. "Don't worry, Scott, I'll be with you in a minute," he replied.
He reeled in the cable. Once Alan was inside the craft, Virgil brought Thunderbird Two in until it was once more pressing against the tower of the windmill. Thunderbird One then pulled away from it. The awesome power of Thunderbird Two pushed the windmill gradually into a vertical position; then, as it continued to move forward, the concrete tower tilted to the left and began to topple. The upper half of the structure snapped off as it fell, hitting the ground a second or two before the lower. The rotors were sheared off by the impact, travelling for some distance along the ground before finally coming to rest. The cabin was smashed to pieces, shafting and gears spilling out.
"Well done Virg, Alan," said Scott.
The storm was now almost upon them. The rotors of the windmills were bending and flexing in the powerful wind. Then one of them snapped off and went flying through the air towards Thunderbird Two. Alan and Virgil ducked instinctively as they saw it hurtling towards them through the cabin window. It narrowly missed the win-dow, bouncing off the craft's hull once before the wind whipped it away again.
"I think we'd better be getting out of here, boys," said Scott. They turned their crafts round and headed away from the danger zone at top speed.
Crandell and Entwhistle watched in horror from an observation window as the storm hit the wind farm, ripping away the rotors and the other more fragile parts of the windmills until the sky seemed full of whirling fragments of metal. Glancing at Crandell, Ent-whistle saw he was almost in tears.
"At least no-one was killed, thanks to International Rescue," remarked Penelope to the head of the WCRE's British branch.
"I knew some people thought the wind farm was a blot on the landscape," remarked Simon Pemberton. "But I never thought they'd go that far to express their feelings."
"Well," sighed Penelope, "let's just hope nobody decides to have a go at this installation."
The convoy of cars, all of them meticulously clean and shiny, looked grossly out of place against the dreary expanse of Essex marshland as they made their way along the driveway which had been specially constructed across the flat landscape from the main road. Among them was Fab One, Penelope's impressive but rather tasteless pink Rolls Royce.
Metal barriers had been erected all along the route on each side of the road, and at intervals groups of police, some of them armed, were gathered. The convoy was headed by two police cars and two motorcyclists, with the same arrangement at the rear.
"There we are, folks," announced Parker cheerily from the wheel of the Rolls, as their objective came into view in the distance.
Clearly visible across the marshes which bordered this stretch of the Thames was the installation over whose official opening they were to preside. Beside the river stood the cluster of concrete buildings which housed the reception centre and administration block. Spanning it was a structure resembling a viaduct, with four concrete arches between each of which was mounted a curved metal screen.
The convoy turned onto the forecourt of the installation, and everyone began dismounting from their vehicles. There didn't seem to be that many reporters present this time; indeed, there weren't many guests either. This, Penelope knew, reflected a growing feeling that the renewable energy programme was finished, unless those who seemed determined to disrupt it could be tracked down and apprehended. However, although not feeling much enthusiasm for the ceremony, she was determined to make the best of it. She and Pemberton went over to join the other dignitaries, leaving Parker in the Rolls to listen to the racing results on the car radio.
In a few minutes she was on the podium addressing the gathering. The atmosphere of the ceremony, as she had expected, was a subdued and low-key one.
"And so, it gives me great pleasure to inaugurate this, the world's first fully functional, commercially operating power station driven entirely from tidal energy." She glanced towards an electronic information board which gave a constant update on the state of the tides. "Now, if we've timed it right..."
She smiled. "I see that we have."
"As Chairman of the International Alternative Energy Commission, I now declare this tidal barrage open." Penelope pulled a lever on the control panel beside her. All heads turned towards the row of giant screens gleaming in the sunshine. Slowly, they began to move up and down, rising and falling rhythmically. There was a certain grace and beauty in their motion which held the gathering spell-bound. Despite their mood, a burst of cheering and clapping broke out.
Watching the ceremony on television at his London home, Sir Nigel Halliwell smiled. Another job for Darren Brancker.
In his study at the island house Jeff studied the press release Brains had composed.
"This looks OK to me, Brains. But I'm still not happy about letting the public know. The details of our technology really ought to be kept a secret. It's always been that way in the past."
"It's y-your d-d-decision, Mr Tracy. But remember, it's not something we can be said to have invented. We discovered the mineral, and if we hadn't someone else might have done. Besides, if we want to do the best for humanity we've got to promote the whole renewable energy scheme. And that means promoting geothermal energy. Potentially, it's the most reliable form of it."
"Guess you're right. You're sure it'll be enough, what you've got in your lab?"
"Oh y-yes. Just a thin coating of the material, as long as it's applied evenly, should be enough to make a surface fireproof. There are limits to its heat tolerance, as I've already said, but they are quite generous. The pipes should certainly be able to withstand the heat at the depth they need to drill to to make the geothermal stations viable, as long as they don't go down any further than that."
"We'll need a lot more of it than that, though, if the idea is to build geothermal power stations all over the world," Jeff said.
"O-of course. Hopefully, with the modifications I've made to the astronomical equipment on Thunderbird Five, John will soon be able to identify the source of that meteor, and then we may have a much bigger supply of the compound."
He turned off the main road along a bumpy winding track which terminated not far from the water's edge in a dense thicket. The van, which earlier that day had been painted black, shuddered to a halt and he climbed down from the vehicle.
A cloud drifted across the face of the moon. Nothing disturbed the silence and stillness of the night save the occasional cry of a curlew. He could see the barrage, which was always illuminated at night, up ahead. Beyond it in the far distance were the lights of Ferringbridge village, powered by electricity generated by the plant.
Once again he did his stuff with the universal jammer. As it set off towards the plant he changed into his diving gear.
He waited until the jammer had completed its task and the cameras and alarms covering all the approaches to the installation, inclu-ding the river, were deactivated. Then he sat down on the river-bank, slipped into the water and struck out towards the plant, swimming a few feet below the surface.
On reaching the barrage, he swum towards the nearest of the six giant screens, or "ducks" as they were called thanks to their nodding motion, and took a flat metal disc about five inches in diameter from the pouch at his waist. He attached it to the duck and then swam back downriver towards the van.
He thought with relish of the spectacular sight the blast would make, tomorrow morning at high tide.
He climbed from the water, removing his face mask. The jammer was hovering in the air a few yards away; he deactivated it and it sank slowly to the ground. He put it into his bag and walked back to the van. Starting the vehicle, he drove shakily back along the track towards the road.
It was then that he hit trouble. The deactivation of the alarm systems had alerted the plant's superintendent, based at nearby Ridgebourne. (The policy of having a permanent on-site security force at each of the RE installations had been abandoned once it became clear that the saboteurs were bent on methods which rendered such a precaution futile). The superintendent called his team of security guards, each of whom lived locally, and summoned them to the scene.
Brancker had known that this would happen. From the van he saw their cars come along the road, each within a few minutes of the other. He waited until they all seemed to have gone by, then drove off.
Unfortunately for some reason one of them was late in reaching the plant. His car came into sight just as the van reached the point where the track to the river joined the road, and he saw the vehicle's headlights.
He drove on, knowing it was unwise to try and tackle the vehicle's occupant or occupants, who might be armed. He radioed the other guards and told them what he'd seen. The van had come from the river, which suggested the saboteur could have used that route to gain access to the plant. They must find out what he had done to it, and fast.
Penny had told Simon Pemberton to let her know as soon as any trouble occurred at one of the plants. He hadn't been sure whether that meant ringing her at an unholy time of the morning, but decided to do so, knowing her easy-going nature would lead her to forgive any overzealousness on his part.
"They may have planted a bomb or something on the barrage," he said. "A couple of divers will be going down shortly to check."
His news galvanised her into wakefulness. "Call me back when you know more," she told him.
The phone rang again a couple of hours later. "There's some kind of very powerful magnetic mine attached to one of the ducks. They don't seem able to remove it. They can see no sign of a timing mechanism and the saboteur must have got well clear of the area by now, so it doesn't look like he's going to detonate it by radio."
She went to wake Brains and Jeff Tracy. It had been decided to hold the next meeting of the Committee of the WCRE in London. Brains and Jeff would both be attending, and Penelope had offered them the hospitality of Creighton Hall, as she did whenever they were in Britain. She knew they would want to be on the scene of the trouble.
"A little problem at the tidal barrage," she informed them grimly, explaining what the divers had found.
Brains immediately started thinking. "So there's no timing device, and it doesn't seem to be radio-controlled. Hmmmm....the only other possibility is that it's designed to be triggered when the ducks are raised with the tide. It looks like our saboteur has a certain sense of humour and thought that would be appropriate."
"We'd better take the Neutraliser, just in case," said Jeff.
"You're going to call the boys?" Penny asked.
"Yes - if there's time." It was against his better judgement, but he somehow felt he should do something to help Penelope. He knew how much she wanted to save the renewable energy programme. "I'm sure they'll be glad to help, if I am. How long have we got before high tide?"
"I had the same thought as Brains and checked. There's about an hour to go."
"Should be time for them to get here, just. Let's head over there right away."
Fab One took the three of them to Ferringbridge, where they found Simon Pemberton already on the scene.
"I called International Rescue," she told him. She introduced him to Jeff and Brains, not telling him of course that they were members of the organisation she had summoned to their aid.
"Any leads?" Penny asked Simon while they waited in the dawn's dim light for International Rescue to arrive.
"None. They've found footprints and tyre tracks, but all they can tell from that is what make of van he was using and what sort of shoes he was wearing. Both are fairly common and neither give us any clues. As for the van itself, I expect he'll have got rid of it if there was any chance the police could trace him through it."
Penelope nodded, sighing. "It's probably a cube of scrap metal by now."
"Look, here come International Rescue," cried Brains. They looked round to see Thunderbird One come in to land on the opposite side of the river, wings extended and undercarriage lowered.
Pemberton talked to Scott by radio, apprising him of the situation. A further twenty minutes elapsed before Thunderbird Two arrived.
They watched as the giant freighter touched down about fifty yards from the water's edge, rising above its pod on four telescopic legs. The door opened to form a ramp, down which came the Neutraliser, a small jeep-like vehicle whose flat body supported an assortment of complex electronic equipment. Virgil Tracy was at the wheel. The Neutraliser was a mobile transmitter with the ability to jam all radio signals within its vicinity, except for the frequencies International Rescue used.
Then Thunderbird Four's ramp extended and the little submarine emerged into view, shooting down the ramp and travelling along the ground on its hover jets until it shot over the riverbank to splash resoundingly into the water. Its nose dipped and for a moment its tail was sticking out of the water, appropriately like some kind of diving bird, before it slid out of sight beneath the surface.
Meanwhile Scott was putting on his scuba diving gear. He hurried down the ladder he had lowered from the cabin of Thunderbird One, taking care to close the entrance hatch behind him, and waited by the riverside.
Below him Thunderbird Four was gliding through the murky waters of the Thames towards the barrage. As it came up to the duck with the bomb attached to it, Gordon lowered the lighting trough and twin magnetic grabs emerged from the front of his craft. They fastened onto the metal surface with a clang. The force of the submarine's engines pressed against it, keeping it stationary against the pressure of the moving water.
"OK Scott. You can do your bit now."
Sitting on the edge, Scott dropped into the water and dived. He swum towards the vast metal screen.
A safe distance away, Darren Brancker studied the tidal barrage, easily visible across the flat East Anglian landscape, through his binoculars and frowned. He had been expecting to see it disin-tegrate in a massive explosion. According to his watch, the tide would have come in by now.
No problem, though. He got out his black box and sent out a radio signal. When the barrage still didn't explode, he was somewhat put out. What was going on?
The only answer he could think of was that someone was trying to sabotage the sabotage attempt. They must somehow be jamming the radio signal. Well, I'll soon fix that, he thought with a grin.
Scott swam up to the bomb and began passing a slender wand-like tool - a demagnetiser - over it. As it came away from the duck, he grabbed it and tucked it into his waist pouch. Maybe Brains could examine it later for some clue to the saboteur's identity.
He swam towards the yellow shape of Thunderbird Four. Gordon retracted the grabs and waited for Scott to reach the submarine.
Virgil waited at the controls of the Neutraliser for Scott and Gordon to return to the surface. It was best if it continued operating until the bomb was safely dismantled.
Suddenly he heard a fizzing, crackling sound and smelt the odour of overheating circuitry. Alarmed, he glanced round to see smoke pouring from the equipment beside him.
Virgil was puzzled and a little disquieted. There was no reason he could see why the Neutraliser should malfunction. Like every other piece of International Rescue equipment, it was thoroughly checked at regular intervals. This just shouldn't happen, unless.....
Unless in some way it was being sabotaged. And if somebody was doing that, it must be because they were going to detonate the bomb by radio after all.
Virgil yelled into his three-way radio. "Scott, Gordon! Get rid of that bomb, now! Throw it out the airlock! There's no time to explain!"
In Thunderbird Four, Scott hastened to comply with his warning. The bomb sank slowly towards the bed of the river, a few yards from the foot of the tidal barrage. Gordon powered the motors up to full and Thunderbird Four hurtled away from the danger zone, as fast as any object could move through water.
It had just reached a safe distance from the barrage when the explosion occurred. The destruction of the installation was, as Brancker had anticipated, a spectacular sight. Two of the metal screens were blown from their mountings and sent hurtling through the air, buckled and twisted; one landed in the water and the other smashed into the reception centre and administration block, demolishing them completely. The concrete arches crumbled and collapsed into the river, taking the remaining ducks with them.
"Sorry, Penny," said Jeff as she turned away from the awful scene. "Let's just be thankful nobody was hurt."
Penelope nodded silently.
Virgil was about to drive the Neutraliser back into the pod when he saw a tiny, strange-looking shape travelling through the air not far away. A sort of miniature aeroplane, though it looked more like a missile. He had no idea what it was, but it didn't belong to International Rescue, and it was almost certainly the cause of what had happened to the Neutraliser. He ran after it, reaching out to grasp it, but his fingers closed around it only briefly before a sharp pain in them made him let go of it with a gasp.
He flexed his numb fingers as he watched the wierd object disappear from sight. It was as if it had been charged with some kind of electricity.
Simon Pemberton was staring at the stumps of the concrete pillars which had formed the arches of the barrage, protruding from the water like huge broken teeth. He punched the air with his fist in a gesture of frustration. "Who's doing this, Penny?" he asked appealingly. "Who? And why? Why?"
They waited in the cold and wet for divers to recover the frag-ments of the bomb. Nor were Thunderbirds One and Two going any-where for the moment; something appeared to have knocked out all the electronics on the two craft, making lengthy repairs necessary. Eventually, tiring of the wait, Jeff, Brains and Penny decided to return to Creighton Hall.
"You realise I can't risk any more International Rescue lives, Penny," Jeff said gently as they drove back towards the Hall.
"Not unless anyone's in actual danger."
"I understand, Jeff," Penny replied. "Brains, could you help? Surely your phenomenal mind could come up with an answer to the problem?"
Brains shook his head sadly. "I'm afraid not, Penny. As your cousin said, the right technology already exists; it all depends on knowing when and where the saboteurs intend to strike. It's essentially a police operation."
Penny clenched her fists, her eyes flashing unnervingly. "I'm going to get them in the end," she hissed. "I swear it."
Brains and Jeff found it strange to see Sir Nigel Halliwell at the WCRE Committee meeting, even though they knew of his recently acquired interest in the renewable energy programme (something which perhaps explained the fascination he had shown with the solar plant).
The atmosphere at the meeting was gloomy. As was not unexpected, the first item on the agenda was the continuing sabotage to the programme.
"We're doing what we can to find the saboteur, of course, but the trail as they say is cold." Yeke Musara explained that fragments of a bullet of unusual design had been found amongst the wreckage of the windmill. However this had served only to confirm that the saboteur or saboteurs were in possession of some formidable and highly effective weaponry. Examination of the remains of the bomb used at the tidal plant had yielded much the same result.
"How is the project going generally?" someone asked.
"Apart from the sabotage of course, the experiments are going well. Of course, renewable energy will only be successful if we use all the different forms of it together. By itself, wind power or solar power will never achieve what we are aiming for. The supply is too variable, even with the best storage facilities. And not everyone likes a patchwork energy system with half a dozen or so different sectors each making their own contribution to the economy; it might be difficult to manage."
"There's another approach to the matter," said Jeff Tracy. "Var-iability of supply may be a serious problem in the case of wind, solar and tidal energy. That leaves geothermal energy. I think we ought to concentrate on developing that sector. The wind, sun and tides are an unknown quantity; you never know how much of them, if any, you're going to get. But that thermal energy is always there, beneath the ground."
"Geothermal energy is the least reliable renewable energy source," someone objected. "Because of considerations of temperature we can't go deep enough. The water could get so hot that the superheated steam would fracture the pipes, or they'd distort badly so we wouldn't get an even flow of water. Therefore we can't produce enough energy to make the project viable."
Brains, sitting at the back of the room, smiled. He had just the solution to the problem.
"May I suggest the answer is that new stuff International Rescue discovered in that meteor. Its remarkable heat tolerance makes it just the sort of thing we need. If we could coat the pipes in it, they could be taken down to where the heat's sufficient to serve our purposes. They'd withstand the colossal temperatures easily."
"I think that's an excellent idea," someone said. The other attendees murmured in agreement.
"Well, it's worth trying," Musara said. "Assuming International Rescue will be willing to let us have a sufficient supply of the substance."
Brains allowed himself the faintest of crafty smiles. But his euphoric mood soon evaporated at the thought that unless they could find and expose the saboteurs, no form of renewable energy could possibly make progress. Their schemes were doomed to failure.
On his way back to his home after the meeting Halliwell reflected on what he'd heard there. It was a pity International Rescue had saved those two men at the wind farm. A few deaths would be an important boost to his cause. But the loss of their lives would have been nothing, compared to the chaos and destruction he and his associates would shortly be unleashing on the world.
The key item of news, however, had been International Rescue's discovery on the meteorite and its implications for the renewable energy scheme. It seemed likely the Commission would recommend that all renewable installations be shut down except for the geothermal plants, where a major programme of expansion and modification would soon begin. So it was there that he and Brancker would be concentrating their efforts.
Fab One was parked in a layby beside the main road, about five miles from Darren Brancker's house.
They had already bugged the other suspects on Parker's list, but had learned nothing of interest. Nor had Parker's tours round his "old haunts" gathered any information which pointed in their direction. As for Brancker, no-one was quite sure what he was doing for a living nowadays, but he seemed to be earning rather a lot of money.
Penny took a small plastic case from the glove compartment and opened it. Inside was a small, slim, tubular object no more than a few centimetres long, rounded at one end. It was a universal scanner, a device which had proved very useful in their recent encounter with The Hood, enabling them to infiltrate his hideout and expose him.
She wound down the window, and touched a control on the dashboard. The miniature scanner quivered, rose into the air and flew out through the window in the direction of Brancker's house, automatically avoiding obstacles such as trees, cars and buildings.
They waited. Eventually, a view of the house appeared on the dashboard monitor screen. It grew larger as the scanner approached the building.
The idea was that once it had scanned the house and its contents visually, taking a film of any objects or events which might be of interest to Penelope and Parker, the device would attach itself to the wall of one of the rooms and become a bug, listening to any conversations which took place within the building.
Brancker was in his living room when he heard the pinging of the alarm systems. He ran to investigate. In the converted kitchen he hurried over to a screen which showed a computer-generated plan of the house and grounds. On the line representing the perimeter of the grounds a flashing red light had appeared, and it was moving steadily towards the house.
Some kind of mobile electronic device, eventually, and it must be remote-controlled because there were none of the heat traces a human body would have given off. He glanced at another screen, which showed a "real" picture of part of the grounds. Nothing was visible to the eye; whatever device they were using had to be very small, almost microscopic. But a red light had appeared near the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, indicating its position.
He moved to a nearby console and pressed a button on it. In the grounds, not far from where the remote scanner was, stood a tall, slender metal pole with a gun-like object mounted on top. The "gun", a weapon and camera combined, swivelled down and then round through about ninety degrees. An invisible, pencil-thin laser beam stabbed from it and struck the miniature scanner, incinerating it. In Fab One the screen before Penelope went blank. "We've lost it," exclaimed Parker.
"It could have been a fault in the scanner," Penelope mused, "but I doubt it. You and Brains designed it between you, which makes it doubly reliable. It looks like Mr Brancker is quite as good at this sort of thing as we are. We'd better not try this tactic again, Parker. The question is, what do we do next?"
"I can hack into a few computers and find out whether Brancker's made any cash withdrawals or booked any flights anywhere."
"Excellent idea. I can't think of anywhere else in this country which might be a target for him, but there are quite a few installations in America and Europe he might try to strike at."
"This makes it more likely Brancker's the bloke we want," he said. "None of the other people we've checked out had anything like what could have destroyed that scanner."
"Quite, Parker. Well, let's go home."
The Hawk Springs geothermal plant near Woodsville, USA, had begun life as just a couple of small, insignificant-looking buildings housing a project largely experimental in nature. Now, thanks to International Rescue, it could be expanded considerably, with the pipes that would carry the water taken down several times deeper than had been envisaged. First, however, extensive geological surveys had to be carried out.
Bob Weissky, the project's Chief Engineer, was standing in a field close to the plant, drinking a cup of coffee while watching his team at work. Nearby, Dick Chen, its youngest and most enthu-siastic member, was examining a complex piece of surveying equipment and frowning. He glanced uncertainly at Weissky, wondering if he should interrupt the man's coffee break.
Weissky caught his eye and came towards him. "Everything OK, Dick?"
"Found something I'm not happy about," Dick replied. He showed Weissky the readings on the equipment. "If that means what I think it means..."
Weissky studied them closely. "It does mean what you think it means," he said. "Hmmm...this is going to need a few alterations to the original plan. I'd better go see Halliwell right away."
In the WCRE's Headquarters in Stockholm, Yeke Musara was conducting a rather uncomfortable interview with representatives from some of those nations which had been providing much of the backing for the renewable energy programme.
"It's not looking very good," said the US Energy Secretary. "Is it?"
"I'd have to agree that it's not," replied the Nigerian sadly.
"So far we've had three installations out of action, and it isn't clear how," the Japanese representative reminded them. "They could strike at any time, anywhere. Quite frankly, my government is inclined to withdraw its backing."
"I should say that that goes for mine too," the American said.
Yeke sighed. "If you do that, the project will collapse."
"I think on the whole it would be better for the programme to be closed down," began the German who represented the European Union.
"We can't possibly do that," protested Musara immediately. "Think of all the effort that's gone into it. Think how important it is."
"It may be necessary for the safety of the personnel. At any rate until we've found out who's been doing it and arrested them."
"Supposing we can't," said Musara gloomily. "They might simply melt away once they've achieved their objective - the closure of the programme. Then there won't be any chance of exposing them."
It was an Australian who spoke next. "Well, look at it this way," she said. "I realise you'd have to do it while they're still active, for just the reasons you state. But whatever happens, the way things are going our governments won't be prepared to continue pouring lots of money into the programme. If one more plant is attacked, then backing will have to be withdrawn. That's what my Prime Minister said and what I say. One more plant, is that understood?" She looked at her fellow politicians, who nodded their agreement with her approach.
The African understood their feelings, and knew there was nothing he could in any case do to change their minds. "Very well then," he said quietly. "One more plant."
Bob Weissky stood before Sir Nigel Halliwell in the New York office of his company.
"You're positive those findings are correct?" said Halliwell.
"There's no doubt about it. It'd be advisable to abandon the Hawk Springs site, unless we want to run it with just three pipelines, or carry out major modifications."
"The necessary work can be done with little difficulty," said Halliwell.
"Well, you've certainly done the sensible thing in coming to see me," he told Weissky. "Have you told anyone else about this?"
"Only the rest of my survey team," Weissky explained, wondering why Halliwell needed to know.
"Make sure they don't talk about it. If the news leaks out and things get distorted, as they often do, we could be in trouble. In the meantime, carry on with your work at the site."
"But we are going to tell someone sometime, aren't we? If people didn't know, it might lead to something pretty nasty happening in the future."
"Of course we will," smiled Halliwell.
Weissky left, still a little puzzled. The reason his boss had given for keeping the findings secret sounded vague and uncon-vincing. He felt he ought to press Halliwell a bit more, but didn't want to get on the wrong side of him.
But although he was puzzled, he wasn't worried. He didn't imagine Halliwell would be so irresponsible as to hide the truth, bearing in mind what the consequences might be. In any case, if Halliwell didn't publicly reveal the findings then he certainly would, regardless of his career.
In his office, Halliwell mulled over what the engineer had just told him. An idea began to form in his mind.
Two days after that, Weissky and his entire survey team were killed when the bus taking them to the plant crashed. In view of the sabotage that had been carried out in the past to the renewable energy programme, foul play was immediately suspected. But why should the saboteurs strike at the project in this way, when they had a magic weapon with which they could knock out the plant, by disabling its electrical and electronic equipment, whenever they wanted? And besides, the tragedy looked or had been made to look like an accident. If the saboteurs had wanted to scare people off working for the RE programme, they would have been sure to establish their responsibility for the deaths. So although a few people remained suspicious, an accident was what it was, in the eyes of the world at large, or else the survey team had been murdered by persons unknown for reasons which might well remain equally unclear.
One evening a couple of weeks later, Penny returned to Creighton Hall from a society engagement in London to find a message from Jeremy on her answerphone, asking her to contact him at the Ministry. He said there'd been a development which might be of interest to her. She drove over to see him right away, and was soon enjoying the customary drink with him in his office.
"I've just found out that one of the people who had access to the plans went on holiday a month or so ago. Decided to use up all his annual leave on a trip to France. Well, now he hasn't come back. I've a feeling he's our man. It could well be he didn't feel he could bluff it out if he came under suspicion and did a bunk."
"What's the gentleman's name?" Penny asked.
"He's Alex Slater. A Senior Technical Officer; that's quite a high grade in the MOD. There's nothing on his record until now to cast suspicion on him. Here's a photo of the chap."
He handed her a picture of a plump-faced middle-aged man, some-where in his fifties, with an unruly shock of white hair and thick-rimmed spectacles. He didn't look particularly distinguished, in Penelope's view.
"Any relatives?" she asked.
"He lived alone. Was married briefly, but it didn't work out. That was quite a while ago. Father dead, elderly mother still alive."
"The lack of close relatives would have made it easier for him to disappear," she mused.
"I guess that's true. The police have searched his flat, but there's no clue there as to what he might have been planning to do."
"So what's our next move going to be? Have you told the French Secret Service yet?"
"Yes, and Interpol. But I can fix things up for you to go out there and take over the investigation."
Penelope brightened, feeling that she was finally getting somewhere in her search for the saboteurs. "Jeremy, you're wonderful. Well, give me a buzz when you've done all your fixing. And send your folks my love."
She said goodbye to him and made her way out of the building. Leaving the building, she crossed to where Fab One was waiting in the car park. She stopped and turned as a shout rang out. "Penelope!"
Penny saw a man coming towards her. She recognised him as Roger Lyon, another MI5 operative, who she'd got to know in her early days in the service. She'd always liked him. He was a year or two older than her, with light brown hair and a wryly humorous face. His muscular body was smartly clad in sports jacket and tie.
Penny smiled. "Roger! What are you doing these days?"
"Still with the Army." He paused uncertainly, biting his lip as if trying to find the courage to say something. She gave him a quizzical look.
"Um, Penny....I wondered if you might like to come for a drink with me sometime."
Penny raised her eyebrows.
"You don't have to do it if you don't want to. I just thought.... I just thought it would be nice."
Penny smiled. "Get in the car, Roger." She brandished the remote control and the gull wing doors of Fab One swung up. She seated herself behind the wheel and he sat in the front passenger seat.
Penny turned to him. “Roger, I think I can tell your offer isn't entirely social in its motivation." He looked uncomfortable at this. "If it was, I'd be more than happy to do it. But I think you're angling for more than just an hour or two with an old ac-quaintance, aren't you?" Her blue eyes gazed at him penetratingly. He sighed. "Do you have to be so blunt?"
"I wasn't trying to upset you," she said hurriedly, giving him a little pat on the arm. She didn't resent his interest in her. It was perfectly understandable; she was one of the world's most attractive women, and he was young and single.
"But look, Roger...it's not that I don't like you. I'm just not interested right now in the sort of relationship you want with me. Sorry."
"All right," Lyon sighed. "But do you mind if I ask you something?"
"Is it..is it loyalty to Charlie?"
Penelope was silent for a bit, then gave a sigh. "He always said I should get married again as soon as possible, if anything happ-ened to him. He wanted me to be happy. But now he actually is gone, I find it hard to do it. It....seems wrong somehow."
"Well, if you ever change your mind...."
"If I do....then maybe. But I can't say whether I will...or when. You might just be wasting your time chasing after me."
"Look, Penny," protested Lyon. "You may deny it, but I can tell you don't like being on your own. I just wondered if...if you might be considering making....changes to your life. I...I hope I wasn't just thinking of myself when I made that offer to you just now."
Penny knew he meant it, and touched him lightly on the cheek. "Oh, Roger, you're so sweet!" she laughed.
"It's a crying shame," he went on, "that a beautiful young woman like you, with such a great personality, should be alone all the time."
"Oh, I'm quite happy with things, Mike, believe me. I've got plenty to do. Do you know why I'm an agent....why I like the kind of life it involves? Because the excitement, the danger, takes my mind off Charlie, off my loss, and helps me to adjust."
"But it doesn't work all the time," he said.
"I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind," she replied. "Please."
He was silent for a moment, then pursed his lips in an expression which said there was nothing more which could be done.
"All right, Penny," he said. "But hey...look after yourself, won't you? I mean, on your missions...."
"I promise you I will," she said, and kissed him on the cheek. "Take care."
He squeezed her hand. "And you." Then he was gone.
Fab One's six wheels rotated through 180 degrees and the car slid sideways out of its lot. They returned to their normal positions, and the Rolls headed for the exit.
Lyon stood looking after it through the glass doors of the building where he worked. A colleague came up to him. "Any luck with her?" the man grinned.
"No," he replied sadly, watching Fab One drive out of the car park.
"A remarkable lady," he said. "Very, very beautiful...and very very lonely."
As she headed back towards the Hall Penny reflected on what had just passed between herself and Lyon. She knew that much of what he had said to her was true. Generally she felt content with her lot, but her single status did get irksome at times; and it would be nice to have children some day.
For the moment, though, she could see no alternative to carrying on the way she was. It was a frustrating situation. But maybe her forthcoming mission would help to take her mind off the matter.
John Tracy was peering through his telescope at a faint white blob which had become visible with the device's increased power. It was the right distance from Earth's solar system, and the right size.
Excitedly he contacted Brains on the island. "I think I've found it. Looks like that meteorite was a chunk of an enormous asteroid which probably got hit by a comet. It's just outside our solar system."
Brains was tinkering in his laboratory when he received the call. "Thanks, John. Now I've got this finished, I'll start making preparations for the mission."
"What is that, Brains?" asked Scott, nodding at the small metal disc Brains was turning over in his hands. "Your latest inven-tion?"
"It's a heat-sensitive signalling device," the genius replied.
"And what does it signal?"
"That someone is in distress."
The concept seemed odd to Scott. "Forgive me for asking, Brains, but what use would that be exactly?"
Thanks to Jeff Tracy's patronage, Brains didn't need to work for a living. He had plenty of time in which to invent new gadgets or perfect existing ones. Some of this work was mere tinkering, done more for pleasure than because there was any point in it.
Brains smiled. "It is - ah - more useful than it looks, Scott. It occasionally happens that we know someone's in trouble but not what kind of trouble. You remember that business with the Duchess of Royston? She'd been kidnapped and shut in the cellar of an old house. We were able to trace her location thanks to the homing signal Penelope had planted on her, but we didn't know exactly what was happening there. When we got there we found the house had caught fire. We saved her in the end, but it would have been an easier matter if we'd known more about the situation in advance. The blaze only started just before we arrived on the scene; all the same, the whole business started me thinking. If someone were, say, trapped by a fire, and their radio was out of action for any reason, this new gadget of mine could be set off by the heat, and we'd know to bring the fire-fighting equipment. Of course we can't give one of these to everybody in the world, but we could equip ourselves and our agents with them. I can try and modify it so it responds to other things as well."
Scott nodded, seeing the sense in what Brains said. Then he thought of a further drawback. "What happens if you leave it lying next to an oven, or you're going to a barbecue or something and..." He chuckled at the thought. "Imagine dragging Internat-ional Rescue halfway across the world over a false alarm like that!"
"There's little danger of that, S-scott. Like all our homing devices the EADS - Environmentally Attuned Distress Signaller - is keyed to the wearer's biorhythms. It's particularly sensitive to adrenalin; in fact it requires it to activate it. Of course there are other emotions which involve production of that hormone, but fear, or any awareness of danger, has its own unique biochemical signature."
"It could be they'd be dead well before we got there," Alan said. "It could be. Then again it might, you never know, save someone's life one day."
"By the way I've heard from Penny," said Scott. "She thinks she's got a lead on those saboteurs. Says she's off to France soon."
"I sure wish we could help her," said Alan.
"Of course it's not the sort of thing we can get involved in," TinTin reminded him. "Beyond providing a little technical assistance."
"Renewable energy is a good cause," Alan said. "I sure hope she catches them."
Penny had heard about what happened on the rescue mission in Holland and sensed that Judy was upset about it. She'd offered much the same sort of good advice as everyone else, which Judy, now used to being consoled over the matter, listened to patiently.
Perhaps a little holiday would do more to cheer her up. Judy had a couple of weeks of her Easter vacation left, so Penny rang her and asked if she'd like to accompany her to France and help out with her mission there. "There shouldn't be any danger involved. You won't have to do much." She explained what was necessary; Judy thought it sounded quite exciting.
Judy arrived at Creighton Hall the day before they were due to set off. Penny had already packed all the stuff she needed into Fab One's boot, and made arrangements for her yacht, Fab Two, to be ready for her use if needed. Before they set off, she warned Judy that absolute secrecy must be preserved while they were on the mission. "I'm on various people's hit lists, and if they find out where I am I might end up being liquidated."
"You mean they'll turn you into liquid?" gasped Judy.
"No, dear," smiled Penelope. In her time some quite horrendous things had happened, or nearly happened, to her but she couldn't recall anyone trying to dissolve her to a fluid state.
"And no-one will mind me coming along?" Judy asked.
"Not if I vouch for your reliability."
While Judy did her own packing, Penny had a brief conference with Parker.
"So it's settled then, Parker," Penny said. "We're going off to France to look for our friend Mr Slater. In the meantime I want you to keep an eye on Brancker and watch his every movement. You say he doesn't seem to be planning any major outings at the moment?"
"Don't look like it, M'Lady."
"Well, keep checking. Every day. And now, I'm off. Look after the place while I'm gone. Come along then, Judy."
An agent of the French secret service, Marcel Duquesne, was appointed to work with Penelope on the case. She'd worked with him before on several cases, and quite a rapport had formed between them. Marcel was good-looking and likeable, but their relationship was entirely Platonic, he having realised that she wasn't interes-ted in remarriage at the moment.
Penny drove from the airport to Marcel's Paris apartment, where they drew up their plan of action over some coffee. "So, where do we start?" Penny asked.
"Well, Slater was last seen in the town of Dancy. None of the frontier stations report stamping any passports for him, or seeing anyone answering to his description."
"So it would seem he's still in France, unless he left the coun-try in a private boat or aircraft. They aren't subject to the normal passport controls."
"Does he own any property in France?"
"No. And whatever means of transport he might have used would have to belong to someone else. No-one remembers hiring a boat to anyone looking like him."
"So we'll need to check out - or whatever expression you would use over here - all private airfields and owners of private yachts in the Dancy area."
This they did. The strongest possibility, it emerged, was an airfield belonging to an aristocrat named the Comte D'Etaples; it was the nearest to where Slater had last been seen.
"Now what's our cover going to be?" Penny mused.
"It's already been prepared." Marcel explained the plan, which appealed to Penelope. They would call on the Comte at the Chateau where he lived on the pretence of being civil servants revising the French Government's Schedule of Historic Monuments (the Chateau was the French equivalent of a Grade One Listed Building). As part of their task they would need to make an inventory not only of the Chateau but also its contents, since the internal fittings of a historic building were included in the Listing.
"It should enable us to "check out" both the house and the grounds in the right kind of detail. Fortunately the airfield is part of the same property."
"If we turn up suddenly on the doorstep, it will arouse the Comte's suspicion," said Penny.
"The letter the Comte would have received said we would be calling on the 12th of the month; that's a week from now."
"Splendid," cried Penelope. It would give her some time in which to go cruising in her yacht.
She and Judy spent an enjoyable few days sailing about in the yacht, sightseeing and basking in the glorious sunshine, until the morning of the 12th arrived and it was time to go into action.
It was best if Penny disguised herself before meeting the Comte, as she was fairly well-known on the international scene. In her bedroom on the yacht she opened a suitcase, took out a black wig and put it on.
Gazing at herself in the mirror, she thought she looked very nice as a brunette. It made a change from being a blonde, although generally she was quite happy with the way she was.
She put on some make-up at the same time. If a sharp-eyed obser-ver saw that her skin tone clashed with her hair, they might sus-pect the latter was really a wig, and get suspicious. She decided on a pale complexion, which went quite well with dark hair.
It had been decided to use Marcel's car to get around, leaving Fab One in its bombproof garage on board the yacht; the trouble with the Rolls was that it was just a bit too conspicious. He picked her up from the yacht and they drove to the impressive eighteenth-century building, with its many towers and spires, standing within neatly laid-out grounds.
"I suggest we make a personal search of the house before we use my remote scanner," Penelope said. "It's unlikely anyone will spot it, but if they do we'll have blown the whole operation."
They rang the bell, and a few minutes later a retainer opened the door. They explained who they were, and the retainer, a large and muscular young man, told them to come inside and wait in the hallway. He went to fetch the Comte, who appeared a few minutes later, a tall distinguished-looking man with a sallow complexion and goatee beard. His silk waistcoat, necktie and black frock coat gave him a rather Victorian look. Penelope found his old-fashioned appearance disturbing, rather than merely quaint as might have been the case with some eccentrics (in some respects she was a bit old-fashioned herself, but the Comte seemed to her to be going a tad too far). There was something intimidating about the man, and at the same time, though his manner was polite enough, they sensed just the slightest hint of frostiness behind his courteous exterior.
"We will need to be here for several days," Penny explained apol-ogetically. She spoke in perfect French, without the slightest trace of an accent. As a girl she'd been quite an accomplished actress, performing well in school plays, and a year at an inter-national school in Switzerland had given her an affinity for languages.
"I understand. Whatever is necessary for you to accomplish your task. I think it is most important to ensure that buildings like this are properly recorded and preserved."
"Perhaps we should start inside. It is when we are inside that we will be most annoying to you. So we want to be finished there as soon as possible..."
"Where do you wish to begin?" the Comte asked. He opened a door. "Perhaps the living room..."
"Why not?" said Penelope. "Marcel, why don't you do the hall?"
Penny entered the room and set to work, scrutinising chairs, tables, and all other fittings in minute detail. The Comte stood in the doorway, regarding her as she went about her task. Though her back was to him, she could feel his piercing gaze sweep over her.
The Comte's eyes narrowed suspiciously. Surely it shouldn't be necessary to examine everything in such detail? Frowning, he turned away.
Meanwhile Penelope had noticed that one of the many paintings in the room had been turned to face the wall. Her curiosity aroused, she turned it round the right way and studied it.
It showed a group of men in eighteenth century clothing, seated at a table laid out for a meal. One of the chairs was empty. A liveried servant was opening a door and showing into the room a figure, to whom the eyes of the diners had turned. Penelope gave a start.
The figure's body, grossly fat, was like that of a gigantic, bipedal frog, with webbed, clawed hands and feet. The face was indescribably evil, with hooded, slanting eyes and a diabolically grinning mouth filled with rows of pointed teeth. Its ears were pointed too, and two enormous horns sprang from the top of the head. The caption at the bottom of the painting read "L'Invite D'Honneur." The guest of honour.
Wrinkling her nose, she replaced the painting as she had found it and resumed her investigations.
In another part of the building, out of Penny and Marcel's hear-ing, the Comte was just concluding a call on a mobile phone. "I see....very well then. Thankyou, goodbye."
He turned to the muscular retainer. "That was the Ministry I was speaking to. Their credentials seem in perfect order, but I'm still not happy." He stood there brooding for a moment, then a smile played across his sallow features and an unpleasant gleam appeared in his eye. "Valery, this is what I want you to do....."
A few minutes later, the retainer was climbing the stairs to the first floor of the building. In his pocket was one of the radios the Comte used to keep in touch with his retinue while they were patrolling his extensive estate. He carried a large screwdriver in one hand.
He entered one of the bedrooms and crossed to where a large metal plate was let into the floor. Kneeling down, he proceeded to unscrew and remove three of the four bolts which fastened it securely in position, and loosen the fourth.
Having finished her inspection of the living room, Penelope turned her attention to the room next to it, the library. This was a decent-sized affair whose walls were lined with oak bookcases. The latter held an impressive collection of ancient tomes, among which, she noted with admiration, were a Gutenberg Bible and a number of Caxtons, all of which appeared at least to be the genuine article.
Peering in through the door, the Comte saw Penelope lean across the oak table in the centre of the room, inspecting its polished surface.
He moved away from the door and spoke closely into the radio. "Now!" he whispered.
In the bedroom, Valery removed the final screw from the plate in the floor.
Below him in the library, a faint sound from above caused Penelope to look up and see one of the chandeliers that hung from the ceiling descend rapidly towards her. She reacted instinctively, throwing herself backwards. Losing her balance, she managed to convert her fall into an impressive backward double somersault, landing upright with both feet firmly on the ground. The chandelier crashed down on the table, with a force that had it been any less solid than it was would have caused it to break in the middle.
Penny became aware of the Comte regarding her from the doorway. His steely eyes bored into her. "Where did you develop reflexes like that?" he asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
"Oh, where I come from accidents like that happen all the time," she said nonchalantly.
"I must apologise," he told her. "The workman who installed that chandelier cannot have done his job properly. Unfortunately, as they were put in over a hundred years ago there is little point in complaining about it. Funny I didn't notice it until now."
Marcel came running in, having heard the noise. "Penelope, what happened?"
"Will you excuse me," Penelope said to the Comte. "I'm a little shaken up.....I think I ought to go back to the car and rest."
They gathered up their things, and Marcel helped Penny walk back to the car. Once they were seated inside, her composure returned. "He obviously suspects us," she sighed. "It's all up to the scanner now." Now that the Comte knew what they were up to, they had nothing to lose in using the device.
"Do you think he meant to kill me?" she asked Marcel. "Because I'm certain what just happened was no accident."
"Well....he could have avoided any repercussions with the help of friends in the government. But I don't think he minded if you died or not; he felt he could achieve his purpose just as easily by scaring us a little."
They drove off, stopping the car a short distance from the chat-eau. Penny wound down the window and activated the scanner. It flew through a gap in the hedge beside the road and set off towards the building.
Penny rang Judy at the yacht. "Have you got a clear picture?" In Fab Two's communications room, Judy sat looking at a bank of monitor screens. On one a picture had appeared of the grounds of the chateau.
"Yep," Judy replied.
"We'll try the airfield first. See if you can find it; I'm turning control of the scanner over to you."
At the moment, the screen was taken up by an extensive vineyard. The spires of the chateau came into view in the distance. Judy twisted a dial and the angle of the picture changed as the scanner turned to the left. A few minutes later the vineyards came to an end and Judy saw a concrete runway on which stood a couple of light aircraft. She reported back to Penelope. "Not sure about the makes of those planes...no, hang on, one's a Cessna and the other a Maxime."
"We need to get some microphotographs of the interiors of the cabins." Judy brought the scanner up to the window of the Cessna's cockpit. It scanned the instrument panel, the seating, and all other equipment and furnishings, clicking repeatedly as the photographs were taken. When it had finished, it moved on to the Maxime.
The asteroid was almost large enough to qualify as a planet. Maybe it had been one once, before some catastrophe caused it to break up. Alan suggested as much to Brains.
"I'm, ah, inclined to think you're r-right, A-alan," the scientist replied. "I'd need to carry out a few tests first, but I would surmise that it disintegrated due to geological instability."
Some three thousand miles across, the asteroid filled the whole of the scanner, a roughly wedge-shaped mass of rock the same colour and texture as the meteorite that had threatened Earth with disaster several months before.
"Hey, you guys, this is the furthest Thunderbird Three's ever been from Earth," Alan told his crew. The sudden realisation awed him.
"Right now I feel lonely, really lonely."
The others felt the same terrifying, overwhelming sense of solitude. They had a sudden urge to be back on Earth, where all the people were. Alan was glad TinTin was here with him. The presence of someone he loved made the isolation easier to bear.
"Maybe one day space won't be quite so empty," TinTin said. "We've already reached Mars, and soon we'll begin to spread beyond it."
"Maybe. But for now......anyway, we're going in." He switched to chemical propulsion, and the spaceship's speed decreased as it approached its destination. Half an hour later they went into atmospheric flight mode, although it wasn't as if the asteroid had any atmosphere but the thinnest. The spaceship tilted backwards into a vertical position and fired its retros, descending slowly towards the rocky, lifeless-looking surface of the asteroid.
On the yacht, Penny and Marcel were having a conference. They had just finished examining the microphotos taken by the remote scanner. "We know for sure Slater was on the Maxime," Marcel was saying. "The fibres the scanner found there match the coat he was wearing when he vanished."
"Well, that plane has a range of approximately 200 miles." Penny took out a map of Western Europe and spread it over a table. "And it would have had to have landed at another private airfield, or else there would be some record of its arrival." Using a pencil and a pair of compasses, she drew a circle on the map to indicate the radius within which the plane could have touched down. "Hmm.....somewhere in Spain, Italy or Switzerland....or one of about two dozen islands in the Mediterranean." Marcel's part in the operation was now finished and she said goodbye to him, thanking him for his assistance and urging him to keep in touch. Then she went and saw Judy, explaining to the girl what her plans were. "It'll take time to identify all the possible sites in the area and check them out. Are you going to stay with me?"
"No, I don't think I will, if that's all right," she said. "Kate's over in the States and she's invited me to join her for a bit. Her Dad's Chief Engineer at your geo-whatsit plant over there."
"Geothermal. Oh, that'll be nice. Give my regards to her, won't you?" Penelope liked Kate, who had been the most sensible and level-headed out of the circle of friends whom Judy had had during her school and college days.
It wasn't just the desire to see her friend again, or to sample the wonders of modern technology, that made Judy cut short her holiday with Penelope. She knew very well that most of the things she had been asked to do on their mission Penelope could have done by herself. Her involvement in the matter was basically designed to make her feel useful after her disastrous showing in Holland. Judy didn't really like that, though she knew that Penny was just trying to be nice. She preferred either real action, in which she had a chance to achieve things off her own bat, or none at all.
Alan adjusted Thunderbird Three's attitude very slightly as it continued to descend through the asteroid's tenuous atmosphere, guiding it towards a level patch of ground. They felt a slight tremor run through the craft as the three engine pods at its tail touched the surface. He cut the motors.
"Well, we've arrived," he said. "Let's get the Planetrover out."
The doors of Thunderbird Three's cargo bay opened, and a robot arm lowered the Planetrover to the surface. It was a squat, rugged vehicle with four huge wheels, bristling at its front end with a variety of probes, scoops and other devices.
Leaving TinTin to look after Thunderbird Three, just in case - just in case - danger of any kind should threaten, Brains and Alan climbed into the vehicle and set off across the uneven terrain, the Planetrover lurching and shuddering despite the cushioning effect of its enormous tyres. Alan drove while Brains studied the instrument panel in front of them. A light was flashing on it, and he gave a little cry of triumph.
"Just as I thought," he said excitedly. "There's a large deposit of the mineral a mile or two over to the northwest, on a bearing of OZ33 magnetic." Alan changed direction.
Brains continued to study the instrumentation closely. "Hmm....no radiation, I see."
"Why were you looking for radiation, Brains?" Alan asked.
"It occurred to me that if the planet had disintegrated, there might not be a natural reason for that. Atomic war might, possibly, have broken up the crust if enough missiles landed in areas of geological turbulence."
"You think the planet might have been inhabited?"
"Just a thought, Alan, just a thought. There certainly doesn't seem to be evidence of any life now."
"Not in the form we're accustomed to. But planets do break up, don't they, once they reach a certain age?"
"That's what they say. Fortunately, the Earth has a long way to go before it reaches that stage."
"Look, there's the vein," shouted Alan, pointing to a belt of greenish material that ran along the flank of a small mountain which had just come into view in the distance.
The Planetrover came up to the huge rock formation and stopped. One of the probes at its front extended until the cutting tool at its end was touching the rock. Alan switched the device on and it proceeded to cut out a large, square chunk of the mineral. Another probe, ending in a suction cup, lifted it out and deposited it in a storage compartment.
They carried on taking samples until the compartment was full. Alan turned the Planetrover round and they began the journey back to Thunderbird Three. "How many of these trips will we need to make, Brains?"
"About thirty, if that's all right with you. That should give us enough of the mineral to allow all the existing and projected geothermal plants to lay their pipelines as deep as the one at Hawk Springs. By the time that's been done, someone should have succeeded in synthesising the stuff."
"Talking of the Hawk Springs plant," Brains added, "I'd sure like to see that place some day."
The geothermal plant nestled in a remote valley in the hill country on the border between two states, many miles from the nearest settlement. Gazing down from her father's helicopter, Judy saw the complex of buildings sprawled out far below her. From the outside, there was no hint of the plant's revolutionary power source. It looked just like an ordinary power station; a collec-tion of faceless concrete blocks, mostly interconnected and varying in size, with a few Portakabins dotted around. Various vehicles, some belonging to the plant and some to contractors, were parked here and there.
The helicopter touched down and Judy stepped out. Kate was there to meet her, her waves of blonde hair emerging from beneath the safety helmet she was wearing. Judy gave her a hug and they exchanged greetings.
"How's Mike? And Claire? And Steve?"
"Mike I've lost touch with. As for the other two..." Kate rolled her eyes skyward. "Last time I heard, they'd both joined a group of bikers. Nice people, but they tend to kick over the traces a bit. Steve's been a guest of His Majesty once or twice, from what I gather!"
Judy laughed. The news didn't surprise her. Though Claire and Steve seemed happy enough with the life they led, which she was glad about, it wasn't really for her. She had decided some time ago that it might be preferable to avoid their company. Kate was now the only one of her former friends to whom she remained loyal, perhaps a sign of her increased maturity and common sense. "What about you? And your Dad?"
"We're fine. Well, let me show you around the place."
"Is it all complete now?" Judy asked.
"Yes, except for one last pipe. In fact, the plant's actually started operating with the three they've laid already."
They found Judy a helmet, and Kate proceeded to take her on a guided tour of the plant. Judy listened with interest as she explained its workings.
The project had moved ahead with astonishing speed since Sir Nigel Halliwell's company had taken over the plant. One thing could be said for the man, he was certainly dynamic and efficient.
The principal buildings stood more or less on a line with each another, linked by smaller structures some of which served merely as connecting tunnels. On Kate and Judy's extreme left was the pumping station, where the water was stored in huge reservoirs. From here it was pumped through the underground pipes and turned into steam by the temperature of the rock surrounding them.
After finishing at the pumping station they made towards a huge, slabsided concrete building. A group of workers who were seated on a length of piping eating their packed lunches smiled and waved at Kate, and she returned the compliment. She'd already become pop-ular with the men at the plant. A pretty girl – two pretty girls, now – about the place was just the sort of thing to boost morale. "This is where most of the action is right now," said Kate, as they entered the concrete building. Most of it was taken up by a single enormous room with ribbed walls and roof. Three massive pipes entered the cavernous hall and after a short distance angled sharply downwards to disappear into the floor. The position of the fourth pipe, not yet installed, was indicated by a circular opening in the wall.
A section of the room was cordoned off; there, suspended inside a cylindrical metal framework positioned above a huge hole in the floor, they saw the massive robot drill, a whorled, cone-shaped chunk of metal some ten feet thick.
A man moved to a control panel which stood against one wall and operated a few switches. "Looks like they're about to start drill-ing again," Kate said.
Every day, the drill was taken down a few hundred feet and then returned to the surface. In another few days, another few thousand feet, they'd have gone down as far as they needed to. A pig fitted with a similar, smaller drill would then be lowered to the bottom of the resulting shaft, to bore horizontally through the rock to a point below the turbine hall, where another vertical shaft had already been drilled to meet it. The pipe would be then be taken up the latter shaft to the turbines.
To the girls' right, the huge sections of piping stood waiting to be lowered down the shaft and bolted into place.
The drill's motors started up, the whine changing into an almost deafening roar. They saw the giant machine descend slowly into the hole, rotating with increasing speed.
It disappeared from sight. "Seen enough?" Kate inquired. Judy nodded.
Finally they checked out the generator hall, containing rows of massive turbines from which cables travelled underground to the nearest town, many miles away.
"OK. Let's go and see Dad, then we'll have something to eat."
"Doesn't the sabotage business put you off?" Judy asked as they made their way towards Kate's father's office.
"If it was a case of them planting bombs and that sort of thing, I wouldn't be here!" Kate laughed. "But they don't seem to be operating that way."
"I don't mean that. I mean, if they can keep on wrecking things every time they want, the whole thing's a bit pointless."
"I'm inclined to agree," Kate sighed. "But Dad's determined to carry on whatever happens, and I'm with him all the way."
The office was a small, cramped and rather untidy affair. Here Donald Holman, an intelligent-looking man in his sixties, sat hunched over a huge pile of books and papers.
He looked up from his work. "Hello, love. Hello, Judy."
"Hi, Dad. We were just going to the canteen. Will you join us?"
"I'd love to, but I'm buried in something important at the moment," he replied.
Kate tugged at his arm. "Come on, Dad, you're too wrapped up in your work. Have a drink with us, go on."
"All right, Kate. Just let me finish this and I'll be along in a minute."
Kate sighed. "Oh well, that's where we'll be, anyway. See you later." The two girls went off, leaving Holman to peruse his notes.
His brows were deeply furrowed as he studied the equations he had scribbled on a spare piece of paper. The readings the plant's seismograph had recently been giving didn't make sense. He was in-trigued rather than concerned by the matter; at the moment it was an oddity, nothing more. He saw absolutely no reason to think the plant might be in any danger.
Halliwell was on the phone to Brancker. "Are you free for the next two days or so, Darren?"
"Guess so. I'm self-employed, remember. Why?"
"I think it's time for you to go ahead with that little trip to the States I was proposing," Halliwell said.
Penelope now felt she was getting close to her quarry. All the airfields within the area of her search had been checked and eliminated from her enquiries except for one, which had recently been built on an island off the coast of Italy. It and the nearby house - indeed, the whole island - belonged to an industrialist named Vito Corelli, who used the place as a weekend retreat. It was thought he was planning to sell it, because a week ago he had suddenly moved out, stripping it of all its furnishings.
Penelope found it fairly easy to break into the abandoned house. She stood looking around the interior of the building. It was completely gutted, even the smallest items of furniture having been removed. Everything which might have provided some sort of clue, however slight, to assist her in her investigations was gone.
She smiled. It was too much of a coincidence that this place should have been abandoned immediately after their visit to the Comte. The gang thought they'd covered their tracks, but in fact the very act of trying to do that had alerted her to them. The Comte must have warned them that she was on the trail after the business at the Chateau.
A further development was in store for her as she made her way back to her yacht. She had just immersed herself in a warm, relaxing bath when she had a call from Parker. "M'Lady, listen! Darren Brancker's just booked a flight from London to New York. He's leaving in three hours' time."
Penny wondered what there was in America that might be a target for Brancker. "Of course," she said grimly. "The Hawk Springs plant. Parker, get after him! And take our new toy with you."
"Right you are," Parker said.
"Parker, we mustn't lose sight of him!"
Some two dozen journeys had now been made between the mineral vein and Thunderbird Three. On the last, with Alan and TinTin taking the Planetrover out and Brains staying behind, Alan had made a proposition.
"I'm glad I've got you to myself," he'd said to TinTin.
"I just wanted to say, TinTin.....I think it's time you and I got....you know....."
"Married?" she replied, never having seen any point in beating about the bush.
"Er, yes. I mean, I know TinTin Tracy sounds a bit stupid, but...."
"That's not a problem. I can keep my maiden name."
"Do you want to do it, then? I mean, it's about time isn't it? Your father certainly thinks so."
"You're right there," TinTin chuckled. She became thoughtful. "I don't know, Alan.....we already do lots of things together, and enjoy them. We spend as much time as we can in each others' company. I feel as if we're married already."
"I still think it'd be nice," said Alan. "If we're already married in spirit, like you say, then the only thing holding us back is our own indecision." Alan had once said that the life he led at International Rescue was too dangerous for anyone to share it with him, but on that occasion he hadn't really known what he was talking about, as had often been the case in those days. Since it was already the case that he and TinTin often went on the same missions, the excuse was a rather strange one - assuming he really did care for her as much as he made out, and he was certain that he did.
"I get the impression you're not that committed to the idea," he went on. "You certainly haven't mentioned it lately."
TinTin laughed gaily. "You know why? I thought you were the one who had decided not to commit themselves!"
"I guess I've changed." A lot of things about him had changed, following the affair in which The Hood had exploited his faults to almost bring about the ruin of International Rescue. No more were his private affairs disorganised and chaotic; no more did he do or say thoughtless things, and procrastinate over important matters. He was as sensible in his personal life as he'd always, notwith-standing a certain incident with a giant alligator in which his apparently impulsive behaviour had actually had some justification, been on rescue missions. Though obviously upset whenever any other man showed interest in TinTin, he'd often given the impression of being just as keen on all girls (he had gone out with Lady Penelope once or twice, although he now realised they weren't really suited to each other; she was more of a friend and imparter of good advice than anything else). But now he was certain where his heart's interest lay; where it had, he knew, lain all along.
"So you do want to do it, then?" he asked her.
TinTin looked directly at him and smiled. "Yes, Alan," she said. "I do."
What a place to get engaged, Alan thought with a grin, looking round at the alien landscape.
Now they were back in Thunderbird Three's control room, and the Planetrover had been returned to the ship's cargo bay.
"I should like to stay and do those tests I was talking about," Brains said.
"I think we'd better be getting back, Brains," Alan said gently. "We've got as much of that mineral on board as we can easily accommodate. We may be needed for a rescue mission within the solar system. Or back on Earth, come to that. And our world sure needs that stuff. It'll take us a while to get back, so we'd better make our move now." He gave the little scientist a consoling pat on the shoulder. "Other people will come out here eventually, and do a proper survey of the place. So come on, let's go. Oh and by the way, TinTin and I have got some great news."
Shortly afterwards Thunderbird Three blasted off for home. Alan switched to particle propulsion and they headed for Earth at full speed, eager to convey the news of the engagement to everyone.
Darren Brancker's car pulled to a stop in a remote country dis-trict about two miles from the geothermal plant. He got out of the car, taking his bag of tricks with him. The plant was clearly visible in the distance.
From his hiding place behind a clump of vegetation a few hundred yards away, where Penelope's other car - a Porsche - was parked, Parker watched Brancker get out of the car, place the bag on the ground and open it. He smiled.
Through his binoculars he saw Brancker take out the control box, and the universal jammer emerge from the bag and travel through the air in the direction of the plant.
"Not this time, mate," said Parker to himself beneath his breath. He opened the metal case lying on the ground beside him and took out the only thing which could neutralise a universal jammer; another universal jammer, supplied by Penelope's military cousin.
Parker pressed a button on a control box similar to Brancker's, and his jammer rose into the air and headed towards the other. Parker followed its movement through the binoculars.
He saw the two jammers steadily approach each other. Suddenly they both stopped moving and began to jerk from side to side, sparking and making wierd howling noises. Then with a loud bang they dropped to the ground and lay there, two charred and smoking lumps of twisted metal.
Parker suppressed a whoop of joy. A few hundred yards away Brancker was staring at the scene in horror and rage. He swore savagely at the loss of his beloved toy.
Parker hurried back to the Porsche, not wishing to hang around in case Brancker went looking for whoever had destroyed his jammer and, when he found them, got nasty.
Brancker went looking for the remains of the device and found it, along with Parker's. Another universal jammer. That could only mean the security services were on to him.
He stiffened, alert, at the sound of an engine starting. Running towards the source of the sound, he saw the Porsche disappearing down the road.
Again his finger stabbed at a button on his control box. This time a tiny, almost invisible, dart-like object, in appearance - and function - not unlike the remote scanning devices Lady Penelope used, rose out of the bag and whizzed off after the departing car. It would home in on the heat from the car's engine and attach itself to the vehicle.
He made a call to Halliwell. "Listen, someone's after us. I tried to sabotage the plant with the jammer, but they've got one of their own." He told him what had happened.
"Let me sort out the plant myself," Halliwell said. "In the meantime, use another of your little gadgets to find out who they are and how much they know."
"I'm sorting that one right now."
"Good. Remain on standby in case I need you."
Sir Nigel rang his secretary. "I'll be making a flight to America on Saturday," he told her. "Something's come up over there." He had no need to elaborate on the banal phrase; it isn't a secret-ary's business to ask close questions about their boss' affairs.
Parker pulled into the underground car park of the hotel where he was staying. On the way there he'd told Penny what he'd done.
"Excellent, Parker! Hopefully they'll give it up now, but in case they try some new tack we'll have to carry on keeping an eye out for Mr Brancker."
He parked the car, then got out. Brancker's device detached itself from the roof of the Porsche and drifted after him.
In his own car, parked in a clearing in a remote wood about ten miles from the geothermal plant, Brancker was studying the picture which had appeared on the screen of a device which resembled a portable television set, cradled in his lap. At the moment, all he could see of the man who had foiled his sabotage attempt at the plant was his back. Nevertheless, he looked a bit familiar.
The bug followed close behind the man as he passed through a door which opened onto some stairs. As he turned to climb them his side profile became visible.
Brancker stiffened. "Nosey," he said softly to himself. "Nosey Parker." He had one or two scores to settle with old Nosey.
He called Halliwell, who was driving to the airport to board his Fireflash to America, and explained what he had discovered.
"I think I know Parker," Halliwell said. He's chauffeur, butler and general henchman to Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward."
"I had an idea Nosey was working for some posh woman, but I wasn't sure who. Do you reckon she's part of it too?"
"Well, there've always been rumours about what she does in her spare time. Some say she works for MI5. We need to find out for sure. Does this man Parker know you're involved? Do you think he saw your face?"
"I can't be sure. I'm going to keep out of sight for the time being. I've found this abandoned shack way out in the wilds."
"Excellent. Keep Parker under surveillance and let me know what you find."
Parker entered his hotel room, shutting the door behind him, and began to pour himself a cup of coffee from the drinks dispenser. He switched on the television, brandished the remote control, and settled down to watch the final of the World Cup, wondering whether England would win this time.
The mobile bugging device entered the room through the tiny gap between the door and the floor, unseen by him. It rose up through the air and headed towards one of the walls.
Parker was just taking his first sip of coffee when a strident bleeping from the metal case lying on the sideboard caused him to sit up sharply. He hurried over to the case and opened it. Inside, his bug detection device was flashing on and off.
He began to search the room, holding the device out in front of him. After a few moments, the bleeping got louder and shriller. He was warm.
It seemed to be on one of the walls, yet he could see nothing that looked out of place. He knew, however, that some bugs were almost microscopic in size. He moved the detector across the wall, from side to side and up and down.
In time he found it; something that looked like a speck of dust, but appeared metallic. According to the detector, it was a tiny micro-transmitter. And he had a good idea who might have planted it.
Parker placed the detector on the table and twiddled more con-trols. A short but powerful aerial sprang from it, and a small VDU screen lit up. He studied it.
The little bug was transmitting to a moving vehicle, travelling along a minor road through the wild open countryside roughly thirty miles from the geothermal plant. Parker abandoned his coffee and made hurriedly for the car park, taking the case of equipment with him. A few minutes later he was speeding through the outskirts of the city, bound for the wide open spaces.
Penelope was at the headquarters of the Italian secret service, talking with Luisa Roberti, one of its agents and another old associate of hers. "What do we know about Mr Vito Corelli?"
"He is one of the country's leading industrialists. Supposed to have Mafia connections. But then a lot of people do, and often it's not from choice."
"If he's suspected of having links with the Mafia, I imagine you must have a file on him."
"We do. I'll have it sent up." She picked up the phone and dialled a number, issuing instructions to a junior colleague.
"What sort of company does Corelli keep?" Penny asked, while they were waiting for the documentation to arrive.
"The dubious sort," Luisa replied. "He used to meet with a group of fellow businessmen every other weekend at that house on the island. Some of them are also connected with the Mafia. And they got up to some very odd things."
A young clerk came along and placed the file on the desk in front of them. They started to go through its contents. Penny saw a photograph of a group of men drinking in the bar of what was prob- ably an expensive hotel. Luisa pointed out Corelli. Penny began scanning each of the other drinkers closely, and a moment later gave a start.
One of them was Sir Nigel Halliwell.
She told Luisa who Halliwell was. "You think he's connected with the sabotage?" asked the Italian woman.
"It doesn't constitute proof. But if it's a coincidence, it's a very odd one. I think it's worth monitoring Halliwell's movements. That, of course, will be down to my contacts in Britain."
Penny returned to where her yacht was moored, and cooked herself some lunch. She was just sitting down to eat when she had another call from Parker. "M'Lady? I've been following Brancker again. He's got some sort of place right out in the wilds. I've been keeping it under surveillance, but nothing's happened so far. I reckon he's just lying low for a bit."
"Good work, Parker. Keep watching him. If he's staying in the States it must be for a reason. His employers might need him for something." She told him of her own discoveries. "I'm going to carry on looking for Vito Corelli, although without solid proof it's not clear what anyone can do. But it's Halliwell I'm worried about."
"But I thought he'd gone green," replied Parker.
"So it appears. It just seems to me too much of a coincidence. He has, or did have until recently, an active interest in wrecking the renewable energy programme. If he still wants to do so, owning the installations themselves would be an ideal way to go about it. I'll have our other agents in Europe keep an eye on Halliwell, and report his movements."
"Good luck, M'Lady."
"Good luck, Parker."
Later that afternoon, Penny was sunbathing on the deck of the yacht when she heard her mobile ring again. It was Joe McClaine, the former Joe 90, International Rescue's other agent in the UK.
"Halliwell's just flown to the States. His plane should be touching down at Kennedy in an hour's time."
"Oh my God....the geothermal plant!" Thanking McClaine for the information, Penny rang her Italian colleague. "Luisa dear, I'm afraid I'll have to leave Corelli to you. I've an urgent app-ointment in America. Explain later. 'Bye."
Penelope sprang from her sunbed, hurried to her bedroom and quickly put on some clothes. Then she programmed a set of instructions into the yacht's computers.
She gathered together everything she thought she might need, then went down to the garage. She packed the various items into the boot of the car, then got in. She opened the double doors in the rear of the garage with the remote control, and drove out into the sea. A second after the car hit the water its hydrofoils raised it above the surface. It turned and headed towards the shore, while behind it, obeying its pre-programmed instructions, the yacht began moving towards a section of cliff which jutted out some way into the sea. An area of rock the size of a house opened like a door, revealing a concealed berth. The yacht sailed inside and the cliff face closed up behind it.
Fab One raced towards Rome. Penny had already booked her flight to America by phone; she'd also contacted one of IR's agents there and asked them to report on Halliwell's movements once he touched down on US soil. Strictly speaking this wasn't International Rescue business, but she knew he wouldn't mind. IR agents were usually glad to help with any good cause.
Thirty minutes later, Fab One was being loaded onto a Skythrust airliner bound for Kennedy Airport. Before leaving the car, Penny rang the former CIA operative for a progress report. "What's Halliwell doing exactly?" Sir Nigel had plenty of interests in the States; his business there might have absolutely nothing to do with the geothermal plant.
"He's on the road. Seems to be heading out West. And going well away from any of the major cities, right out into the wilds."
He's definitely making for the plant, Penny thought. "I think I can be sure now that he's up to no good."
"Do you want me to handle him?"
"Kind of you to offer. But I feel this is more my crusade than yours; it doesn't seem right to put you in any danger. Besides, I want him to myself."
As Kate was due to return to Britain shortly, she and her father had planned a farewell meal together for that night in Woodsville, the nearest large town to the plant, where Donald was renting the house he lived in while working on the geothermal project. He'd taken the day off and they'd spent a happy few hours walking in the wild, beautiful countryside near the plant before going on to Woodsville where Kate planned to fill in the time before the meal with some shopping.
Judy had left that morning, bound for Tracy Island. Aware that she and Scott weren't seeing enough of each other, she had been anxious to spend what remained of her vacation with him.
Kate was just setting out for the stores when she realised that she'd left her purse, containing most of her money and all her credit cards, at the plant. Unless she went back and retrieved it she would be unable to contribute towards the meal.
With a scowl of annoyance she returned to her car and drove back the way she'd come. She rang her father to tell him she'd be joining him a little later than anticipated.
The purse was most probably in his office and she doubted it would take her that long to find it; all being well, she'd soon be finished at the plant and on her way back to him.
The geothermal plant was located in a remote part of the countryside and almost completely automated, with only a few personnel carrying out routine maintenance or working on the installation of the new pipe. That made it ideal for what Sir Nigel Halliwell had to do. And by now the staff would have gone home anyway, leaving just one or two security guards on the premises.
He was driving towards the plant in a van belonging to one of his various companies. In the back a number of large, heavy metal objects could be heard shifting with the vehicle's motion.
Kate drove up to the security barrier at the entrance to the plant. The guard came out to meet her and she explained why she was there. He lifted the barrier for her, and she drove through.
Penny drove Fab One at full speed towards Hawk Springs. She had now changed into a black tracksuit-like outfit, which she felt would be more practical to wear than her everyday clothes if she did run into any trouble.
There was no time to lose. She could, she reflected, have warned the staff at the plant about Halliwell, but they were unlikely to believe her without more proof than she had at the moment. Essen-tially her plan was to stop him from sabotaging the plant, which she supposed was his intention, and if she came face to face with him to scare him with what she knew. He'd probably deny her alleg-ations, but that didn't matter. As long as she could dissuade him from further acts of sabotage, that was the main thing. Perhaps she could also force a confession from him.
Hearing someone approach, the guard at the gate looked up and smiled. "Hi, Sir Nigel," he said nervously. He was somewhat in awe of the distinguished Englishman. He was also a little surprised to see him here at this time; but, after all, it was his plant and he had a right to visit it whenever he liked. Besides, Halliwell had always taken a close personal interest in the running of the project.
Halliwell smiled amiably. "Good afternoon." He pulled out a gun, an automatic pistol fitted with a silencer, and shot the man twice in the chest. The guard crumpled to the floor of the hut, the brief expression of surprise in his eyes fading as they glazed over.
Halliwell stepped over the body and made his way towards the main complex.
Kate unlocked the door of her father's office with her father's keys and went inside.
If the purse was on the desk, it must be buried somewhere within the morass of papers there. She sighed.
A lengthy and careful search among them failed to find it. Nor did it seem to be anywhere else in the room. Where else had she gone while at the plant? The canteen; but that would be shut now. She could of course have simply dropped it somewhere. What would someone have done with it if they'd come across it? Probably han-ded it in to a security guard. She decided the best course of action was to go and look for one.
Halliwell entered the drillhouse and went to the console from which the drill was controlled. He studied the instruments for a moment, then found the right button and pressed it. He touched a few more controls and stepped back.
He heard the whine of the drill's motors starting up, and turned to look at it. The noise of the motors grew louder as the massive chunk of metal descended slowly towards the hole in the floor.
A few moments later he hurried from the building, a satisfied smile on his face. There was no immediate rush, but all the same he wanted to be as far away from here as possible when disaster struck.
Fab One pulled up outside the gate to the plant, and Penny saw the body of the guard slumped beside his little hut. Horrified, she got out of the car and hurried over to examine it. Dead.
Grim-faced, Penny gazed towards the main complex. She called the local police.
"Don't try and tackle them yourself, OK?" they warned her.
"No, of course not."
Fat chance, she thought. This was her baby. She was determined not to let this plant be destroyed like the others. There was no telling what was going on in there. As the establishment was in such an isolated area, they'd take some time to get there and by the time they did the saboteurs might well have finished the job and gone. And she wanted to catch Halliwell in the act.
She felt any risk there might be to her life was justified. However, she could at least be careful about how she went about this. Returning to the car, she took her gun from her handbag and moved stealthily towards the plant, alert as a cat stalking its prey.
Once inside she made for the security guards' office. She should be able to spot Halliwell on one of the monitor screens there.
She found a security guard lying dead across the console, and the bank of screens above it all smashed and smoking.
She tried to think. How would Halliwell be intending to sabotage the plant? Was he going round damaging things randomly, or aiming at one particular, vital part of it? If the latter, what part would it be? She wished she had more understanding of its actual workings.
She made her way along the installation's corridors. "Sir Nigel?" she shouted. "It's no use, I know you're in here somewhere. The police are on their way. You may as well give it up. I know you're behind the sabotage."
She explained how her investigations had led her to Europe, how she'd discovered his connections with Corelli and the Comte. "It's all over, you know."
She reached inside her pocket. Her fingers found the object con-cealed there, switched it on.
She stumbled over another dead body.
Halliwell heard her voice as he made his way towards the nearest exit, and recognised it as that of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward. He cursed savagely, his face twisting with rage.
She must be armed, he decided. She wouldn't have been so stupid as to walk into a dangerous situation entirely unprotected. And from the sound of her voice, she couldn't be far away. There was a danger they might bump into each other, whereas he had hoped to be able to slip out of the building and reach his van without her realising.
A door to his left opened into a sort of general storage area, stacked with crates, tools and other items. A fork-lift truck stood in one corner. He entered the room and searched for a hiding place.
A little later, Penelope's search took her to the storage area. She had guessed that Halliwell, if he was in there, would conceal himself somewhere and from his hiding place shoot her as she came in. After all, that was what she would have done.
She yanked open the door and dived into the room, twisting her body so that she would land on her side. As she hit the floor she heard a bullet spang off the wall behind her. Another missed her by an inch or so as she rolled across the floor towards the shelter of the forklift.
She rolled behind the vehicle, taking herself out of Halliwell's line of fire. In his current position, there was no other angle he could shoot at her from. A stalemate might have developed but for one consideration. Halliwell knew he couldn't stay here forever; the police would be on the scene sooner or later. He had to overpower her so that he could then proceed with the rest of his plan as quickly as possible.
He left his hiding place and began creeping in the general dir-ection of where Penelope was hidden, keeping himself concealed behind the piles of crates and other things. He had to find somewhere where he could get a clear shot at her.
Again, Penny guessed his intent. She crept from behind the forklift, dropped to the floor and began to wriggle along it. She could see several places from which Halliwell might shoot at her. All the time, she kept her gun in front of her, trying to keep an eye on each of them at the same time.
It wasn't easy. A shape appeared in the gap between two crates and fired at her. Again her lightning reactions saved her life. This happened several times; on each occasion she fired back, but missed. Halliwell was almost as good at this sort of thing as her, she realised.
The shooting match continued.
(Kate, some distance away in another part of the plant, paused in her search for her purse, frowning. It was too far off for her to be sure, but for a brief moment she thought she had heard the sound of gunfire, muffled and thus apparently coming from inside a building. It couldn't be, surely. That didn't seem to be the saboteurs' method of attack. It could just as easily be some process going on in the plant workshop, though as far as she knew all the workpeople would have gone home by now. Maybe someone was working shifts, or there was something very important which needed doing urgently.
After a further brief moment of hesitation, she moved on).
Penny didn't know what kind of gun Halliwell was using, except that it seemed to be silenced, but it couldn't have an inexhaus-tible supply of bullets. He had killed three people, perhaps more, and would have used at least one, possibly more, shots to despatch each of them. If she could exhaust his remaining ammunition..... Halliwell, meanwhile, had had the same thought, and was trying to get her to use up all her ammunition. Which of them would run out first? He had a feeling it was going to be him.
He was beginning to lose his nerve, and fought to stay calm. Then his eye fell on a stack of metal canisters not far away. Lying on his back, he was just able to reach them with his foot from where he was. He kicked out at them.
The canisters toppled to the floor, and the clattering noise caused Penelope to swing round in their direction. Her thought was that Halliwell had knocked over something, giving her a clue to his position.
For just a moment she was looking away from him. He fired, knock-ing her gun from her hand. It hit the floor some distance from her and skidded towards the wall. She lunged towards it, but it was too far away. She felt a bullet whizz through the air alarmingly close to her ear.
"Don't move, Penelope," Halliwell barked. "You're right in my line of fire."
He came out from his hiding place, and keeping her covered went and picked up her fallen gun, dropping it into his pocket. "That was quite a good shot, don't you think?"
"You've trained yourself, obviously," she commented.
"I thought I might need to do this sort of thing at some stage."
"I get the impression you don't want to kill me," she said.
"I may need a hostage once the police get here. After that....."
"How are you going to sabotage the plant?"
"I already have done. I may as well tell you what I did, since you're going to die pretty soon.
“This plant is built in a region where the Earth's crust is particularly thin. Now you can build a geothermal plant more or less anywhere, but the further you have to go down to reach the required temperatures the more expensive it is. Here, however, it's a little too thin for safety margins. The crust thins out suddenly at a point beneath where the borehole for the fourth pipeline is located. I made sure of that. The original engineer on this project realised the danger, but we had him killed before he could make his findings known. A few people thought it was the saboteurs, and they were right. They just didn't realise the saboteurs were us. You now know why I was so determined to go ahead with the project despite what had happened at the other installations."
"I started up the drill, and programmed it to keep going indefin-itely, until its motors ran out. It can keep drilling for up to a year, if necessary. But in three hours' time it will break through the planet's very crust. Now, inside the Earth there are powerful forces constantly vying with one another, pressing against the crust, which is frighteningly thin at the best of times - a thin layer of rocky scum on a lake of fire. As soon as that pressure is suddenly released by the penetration of the crust, all Hell will break loose. There will be a massive eruption of lava. It's not quite the same as what happens in a volcanic eruption; no-one has ever succeeded in penetrating the crust before, not in this way. But it will wipe out every person and destroy every building within a radius of twenty miles, unless they're lucky enough to be standing on high ground. The whole valley will become a raging inferno.
"Several hours after that, there will be a second and far more devastating eruption. Major earthquakes and volcanoes will occur over a wide area, and a chain of towns and cities including San Francisco will be devastated."
Penelope stared at him in horror.
"Now if the authorities have ample warning, they can get everyone clear in time. After the natural disasters of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s they're well versed in mass evacuation procedures. But they won't have the chance to carry them out, because only you and I know what's going to happen here and I'll be disposing of you for good as soon as your usefulness is over.
“It may interest you to know that there was actually an attempt made, with official encouragement, to tap the planet's geothermal energy by directly penetrating the crust as far back as the early 1970s. What actually happened is shrouded in secrecy, but there was some kind of crisis and the project was closed down. It was never restarted because a scientist whose name escapes me worked out that the results of direct penetration would be catastrophic, perhaps even leading to the destruction of the entire planet. It's now been proved he was wrong, but there would still be an incalculable disaster of just the kind I've described.
“I'll be well away from here by the time the police arrive. As I leave I'm going to set fire to the plant to destroy any evidence of what I've been up to, and the lava flow will remove any traces of my crime which do survive."
"Why?" Penelope asked, incredulous. "Unless you're just mad, there must be a very important reason why you want to cause all this devastation."
"Oh, it wasn't my original plan. I was going to carry on using the universal jammer to destroy your installations, but your sidekick Mr Parker put a stop to that. It’s your fault if I have to resort to drastic measures. Having the drill here penetrate the crust was a backup scheme, albeit a particularly effective one. Now, I can destroy not only this plant but also, as I'll explain in a moment, the whole renewable energy industry.
“I expect you thought I was doing all this for purely economic reasons. Not so. I came to the conclusion long ago that if renewable energy should prove successful, my company should attempt to move into that line of work, adapting to the new situation. That, after all, is what any sensible business would try to do. The real reason why I've been sabotaging your plants is....well, it's rather complicated. But basically it involves causing a series of major nuclear disasters, which will be somewhat difficult to do if renewables have displaced the atom as the world's main source of power."
"Why didn't you just target your own nuclear plants?"
"Because for the devastation to be as complete as we want it to be, I'd need to blow up all the atomic power stations in the world. And I don't own all of them; I wanted to, of course, but various governments thought it was too dangerous for one person to own too many, and as you know they introduced legislation against it. There are other ways of carrying out our plans. But none of them will work if nuclear power is superseded by geothermal, which it will be in a very short time once plants like this one start appearing all over the world.
“After what happens here today, the conclusion will be drawn that the disaster was connected with the plant. The world will be left with the impression that geothermal energy - potentially, at any rate, the most profitable source of renewable energy, as the Commission has realised - is in itself dangerous.
"Do you know there is an obscure Eastern religion which has an old legend about demons that live beneath the ground and will one day be unleashed to conquer the world, with help from a few human allies? In a way, what I'm doing could be the fulfilment of that prophecy."
"You people seem interested in that sort of thing," Penny remarked.
Halliwell smiled. "You've seen the painting in the chateau. I think that concerns something entirely different. But there are many dark forces in the world, Lady Penelope, forces which we intend to harness to maintain our rule once it is established."
"Your rule? So in the aftermath of the holocaust, you and your colleagues in this enterprise are hoping to dominate the surviv-ors?"
"Correct. There's a wonderful thrill that comes with having power, great power. And since I believe most people are unsuited to - " He broke off abruptly. Under cover of their talk, Penelope had slipped one hand into her pocket, reaching for something concealed there. But Halliwell was on his guard and spotted the movement. "Get both your hands up," he snarled. "And turn round. If you make the slightest move, I'll kill you here and now." She obeyed, turning to face the wall with her arms held high above her head. Halliwell felt in the pocket and took out the radio she used to contact International Rescue whenever she needed their help. He flung it on the ground and stamped on it, spewing its parts over the floor, then motioned to her with his gun to move on.
A thought occurred to Penelope. "Who are your colleagues, apart from the Comte, Brancker and Corelli?" Halliwell's ultimate aims seemed to be much the same as those of The Hood, who had planned to kill Judy so that her father would not be in a fit state of mind to to preside over a conference on limiting the spread of nuclear weapons (whose success prevented him from unleashing the desired holocaust). The Hood was dead now, or so the Tracys reckoned. And his fellow conspirators had been exposed and rounded up by International Rescue. But had all of them been accounted for?
"I'm sure you'd be interested to know more about our little set-up," Halliwell replied, "but I don't want to lose the advantage I have of time. Keep moving."
When they reached his van she would be knocked out and shut in the back of the vehicle. Then, as soon as the fire was well under way, they would disappear into the wilderness. Once he'd established he was safe from the police, she would die and her body be buried in a remote spot where it would never be found.
They made towards the nearest exit from the building. It was hen that Kate came round a corner and into their view.
Halliwell stopped in his tracks, thrown by this unexpected development. Penny took advantage of the brief distraction, knowing she might not get another chance. She dropped to her haunches, then flung herself backwards, colliding with Halliwell and knocking him briefly off balance. Whipping round, she grabbed his arm and tried to wrench the gun from him. The single remaining bullet went off, and then the empty gun clicked harmlessly.
Penny shouted to Kate. "Another gun - in his pocket! Grab it!" Still fazed by this totally unexpected happening, Kate struggled to gather her wits. Penny was desperately trying to prevent Halliwell taking out the gun. He flung her aside, sending her crashing into the wall, just as Kate snatched the gun from his pocket. Immediately he grabbed her, and the two of them struggled for possession of the weapon.
He was far stronger than she was, and steadily his fingers began to creep up her arm towards the hand holding the gun. Then she glimpsed an open hatch in the floor nor far away, giving access to a service duct.
She was terrified that he might succeed in grabbing the gun. There was one way out. She dropped it on the floor and then kicked it towards the hatch. As he let go of her in order to make a dive for the weapon, it slid over the edge of the opening and disappeared from sight.
Halliwell struck Kate a sharp blow on the back of the head with his own gun, the one that was now empty. Stunned, she collapsed at his feet.
He groped inside the hatch, but the gun was out of his reach.
He turned towards Penelope. When he had sent her reeling into the wall, she'd hit her head on it and been knocked out.
He considered how things stood. There were now two troublesome meddlers to be disposed of. Lugging a couple of unconscious bodies about, on top of the other things he had to do before he left here, would mean a perhaps fatal delay. The whole hostage business would have to be dispensed with.
He ran back to the storeroom, where his eyes fell on a length of twine which someone had left lying on the ground a few yards away, along with a pair of clippers. He ran the material through his fingers: it felt pretty strong. He'd really been looking for some heavy instrument, a few blows to the head with which would prove fatal. But none was immediately to hand, and he was reluctant to lose time looking for one. However, there was another course of action which should serve his purposes just as well.
"I was going to just shoot you both," he murmured as he dragged Kate over to a metal safety rail which surrounded a bank of machinery. "But since you caused me to lose my gun, you have only yourselves to blame if your last moments are extremely painful ones."
Kate was beginning to recover consciousness. He thrust her against the railing, and managed despite her struggles to pass a length of the twine around her body, binding her securely to it. Then, forcing her arms behind her back, he tied her wrists and ankles to it too.
"Of course," he said, "they reckon in such situations you're dead, or unconscious, from the smoke before the flames get to you." He smiled. "But the only way of being sure is if it actually happens to you. And the chemical I'm using to start the fire is of a revolutionary new type; it burns well enough, but it doesn't produce that much smoke. Sorry."
Kate stared at him, paralysed with horror.
He did the same to Penelope, working as fast as was consistent with doing the job properly. She was already coming round, and would be more difficult to subdue than Kate. She was like a wildcat in unarmed combat.
Halliwell glanced down at her. "You, Lady Penelope, deserve to burn. Goodbye." With a wave, he hurried from the room.
Kate screamed at him with all the breath in her lungs, telling him he couldn't do this. She went on screaming after he had vanished from sight. Then she heard Penelope give a little moan.
"Penny!" She saw the other woman's eyes flicker open.
"Kate," smiled Penelope. "I thought you might be here, from what Judy told me. It's good to see you again; a shame about the cir-cumstances, though."
"Penny, we've got to get out of here! He...he...." she was trembling so much that the railing was shaking.
Penny waited until the girl had managed to calm herself to some extent. "Now, my dear, what exactly is the problem?"
"He's going to burn the place down - with us inside it!" She started struggling again, to no avail. Halliwell had made a good job of tying the knots.
"Well, if we want to avoid such a ghastly fate, we're going to have to think clearly," said Penelope firmly. "The first thing to do is to rid ourselves of these tiresome restrictions."
She threw back her head and shut her eyes tightly. Her lips moved silently. Kate wondered if she was praying. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Shhhh," said Penny reprovingly. "This needs concentration."
Halliwell dragged the body of the gate guard into one of the plant buildings and left it there. Then he opened the rear doors of the van and carried out the canisters of chemicals one by one. He moved swiftly between selected parts of the complex, emptying their contents onto the floor as well as onto the tarmac apron which surrounded the buildings.
He produced a box of matches from his pocket. He struck the match and applied it to an old rag. Then, stepping back to a safe distance, he flung the burning rag into the spreading pool of dark brown liquid. With a roar like that of an angry beast, it ignited. He turned and ran.
Escapology was an important part of a secret agent's training. Penelope was trying to contract her arm and leg muscles so she could slip out of her bonds more easily. An important part of the process, learnt from a Tibetan mystic, was meditation. It took every ounce of her willpower to forget the fate which awaited them if she failed, and concentrate solely on the task in hand. She was mumbling some strange incantation or other, her eyes kept tightly shut. Kate watched her, trying not to panic. Already she could hear the roar of the flames; they sounded quite close. And the air in the room was getting warmer.
Halliwell's van drove away from the plant. There was no sign of any police.
Things were going well. He foresaw no more complications; the chemicals he had used to start the fire were so viciously flammable that when the police did arrive on the scene, there would be no evidence of his crime for them to report to anybody before the eruption occurred.
Meanwhile, hundreds of feet beneath the ground, the drill contin-ued on its way down, churning through the solid rock of the crust as if it were wet paper.
Kate saw flames licking and smoke pouring from under the door of the room. She glanced at Penelope, who was still in her trance-like state. Kate took a deep breath and shut her eyes, fighting to control the violent trembling of her body. It took every ounce of willpower not to panic.
Then the door crumpled and gave way under the onslaught of the flames, and the waves of fire surged into the room. Kate screamed. Still her bonds refused to give as the flames licked hungrily towards them. She could feel the searing heat on her skin.
“P-p-p-penny,” she gasped.
“Kate, please,” Penelope sighed.
Far above the Earth in Thunderbird Five, John Tracy heard the warbling note of the EADS and ran to the console. Briefly he studied the readings on it, then called the island. "Dad, I'm getting a trace from Penelope's EADS. It's very faint at the moment; too faint to get a fix on."
Jeff addressed International Rescue's absent chief scientist. "You were right, Brains, your new invention is turning out useful." He summoned the others to the study over the Intercom. "Boys, Penny's in trouble. Scott, Virgil, away you go. Gordon, you can help them out on this one. It's not clear exactly what's happening, so take all the equipment there's room for, but you're sure to need the fire-fighting gear. Circle the Earth and as soon as John gets a fix on the signal, make straight for the rescue zone."
Judy, who had been engrossed in a newspaper, sat bolt upright. "Penny's in trouble?"
Jeff told her what was going on. "I only hope we can get there in time to do something."
Before he could stop her, she had dashed for Thunderbird Two's launch bay. "Hey, I didn't say you could...." he yelled.
Beside him, Grandma Tracy looked up from her knitting. "Let her go, Jeff," she said gently. "She's got one or two ghosts to exorcise."
Jeff remembered how, on another rescue mission months before, Judy had stowed away on board Thunderbird Two in the belief (mistaken as it turned out) that Penelope was among those in danger. She had been trying to make up for the hassle she had caused Penelope by letting The Hood kidnap her. And that was what she was doing now. Even though she was a better, more responsible, person these days and wouldn't do it again, the memory still hurt her, still made her feel guilty and embarrassed.
"But if she loses her cool again - " he began.
"I'm not sure she will," Grandma said.
For another moment he stared after Judy uncertainly. Then his thoughts turned to Penny's plight. "She must have been fairly close to some sort of intense heat," he told John. "I don't like it."
"All we can do is our best, Mr Tracy," Kyrano said from beside him.
"I was thinking the trace shouldn't be that faint, Dad," John said thoughtfully. "Maybe the signaller is faulty. Could be it needs to be real close to the heat source to transmit at the right strength." The nearer it was to the fire, the more powerful the signal would be. "It's getting stronger, though. I should be able to get that fix any minute."
Penny felt the ropes around her wrists give way. She wriggled free of them and swiftly undid those around her legs and body. Then she hurried to untie Kate.
Kate realised she was free and stopped screaming. She scrambled away from the advancing flames.
"We've got to get out of here or we may be trapped," shouted Penelope. The flames seemed to be all around them, and closing in fast. They looked around for an escape route.
Of the two doors that provided exits from the room, one was blocked by a solid wall of flame. The other was still clear, though in a moment the fire would cut them off from it. They ran towards it.
They hurried along the corridor. The fire, spreading with astonishing and frightening speed, was fast cutting off all their exit routes and it looked like they might not be able to get out of the building. The heat was becoming uncomfortable even though they were moving very fast.
Kate had visited the plant on several occasions and was reasonably familiar with its layout. She struggled to think how they could best reach safety. They were afraid to open any doors they came to, in case a massive gout of flame shot out and enveloped them. However Penny realised, with a horrible sick feeling, that they might just have to take the risk.
They found a door which led outside, but a glance through a nearby window showed that the yard into which it opened was, like most of the plant's interior, a forest of writhing flames. They ran on, feeling their panic rise.
"Which way do we go?" gasped Penelope, as they came to a T-junction where the corridor intersected with another.
Suddenly Kate remembered. She pointed to the left. "Fireproof store....made of asbestos...got to.....make for...there......get inside it...." The store had been intended to house certain chemicals which, if exposed to a fire, could cause a big and very nasty explosion.
They ran in the direction Kate had indicated. All the other routes, behind and to either side of them, were now blocked by the fire, and they could see flames just ahead. The way to the store was still clear - for as far as they could see, anyway - but in minutes, perhaps less, it wouldn't be. Penelope fancied that all the flames seemed to be rushing together, linking up to form one big one. Speed was their only chance. If they ran very fast indeed......
Flames lashed out at them as they hurtled down the corridor. Whenever they came to a fire extinguisher they grabbed it and sprayed its contents around until it was empty. But all they could do was temporarily ward off the flames, hopefully buying themselves some time in which to reach the store.
From the window of the living room Jeff, Kyrano and Grandma watched Thunderbirds One and Two blast off. As they turned away, the eyes of John Tracy's portrait lit up. Jeff opened the channel to the space station. John reported that for the last few minutes the signal from Penelope's EADS had been getting weaker. Naturally, Penny and Kate were going away from the fire; and by so doing, were perhaps sealing their fate.
They turned a corner and saw the fireproof store just ahead, a large rectangular structure built from pieces of metal sheeting. In it was a door, which thankfully someone had left open.
They slid the door open and ran in, slamming it shut behind them. Thankfully they collapsed to the floor, panting. Another few seconds and Penelope was sure they'd have been overcome by the heat and smoke.
"We should be all right now," said Kate. "I hope."
"It's gone!" John shouted, horrified. "The trace has gone!"
Jeff went cold. Did that mean ....
"She could have just moved away from the fire," Grandma said.
"Why doesn't she use her radio?" asked Kyrano.
"Maybe it's smashed," replied Jeff.
He opened the three-way Intercom. "International Rescue calling Thunderbirds One, Two and Five. I want you to transmit a combined radio beam at maximum strength. With any luck that should pick up the signal."
It was fairly cool inside the store. The walls of the structure were pretty substantial, although the roar of the blaze outside was clearly audible through them. The metal shed was empty save for two canisters in one corner. Kate and Penelope sat hugging their knees. Once Kate had begun to recover from the shock of their ordeal, they started to talk.
"Where did you learn that escapology stuff?" Kate asked.
Penny realised that if she gave an evasive answer, it would only
increase the girl's suspicion. She sighed. "Can you keep a secret?"
"Yeah, of course," said Kate.
"I'm a secret agent. Or, in the correct terminology, an intelligence operative. I'm afraid I can't tell you any more than that."
She changed the subject. "I suppose we can stay in here until the fire burns itself out, or they put it out?"
Kate shrugged. "I haven't a clue."
"Do you think this place will stand up to a fire this intense?"
"I suppose so," replied Kate, a little doubtfully.
"And I'm afraid," said Penny quietly, "that that isn't our only worry."
Kate looked at her in alarm. "What else is there?"
Penny told her about the drill.
"Oh, no," she wailed, slumping against the wall in despair.
Jeff sipped at the coffee Kyrano had made him and waited anxiously for John to get back to them with further news.
"Still no trace, I'm afraid Father," John reported a little later. "We'll just have to keep on transmitting."
One thought gave him hope. Penelope could have moved away from the fire, as Grandma had suggested. Perhaps that was what explain-ed the fading and then cutting off of the signal. If so, it meant she was still alive. It also meant they would not be able to trace her whereabouts, at least not before it was far too late to do anything to save her.
A thought occurred to Kate. "Do you suppose burning wreckage will fall down the shaft and damage the drill? That could put it out of action." She dismissed her own suggestion. "I guess he must have thought of that."
Penelope nodded. "There's a hatch at the top of the shaft which can be slid shut to close it off, to stop anyone falling in. He must have used it."
She sighed. "We've got to get word to someone about what he's done. It doesn't appear we'll be able to contact the authorities from in here. Halliwell smashed my radio, and if we take one step outside we'll be roasted alive."
Then she remembered the device Brains had given her just before she set off on her trip to the Continent, and took it from her pocket. "This little thing could help us."
"What is it?" Kate peered at the EADS curiously.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you," Penny said. "But what matters most is that it could save our lives, and a few million other people's."
She saw that it wasn't signalling, probably because the thick walls of the store stood between it and the fire.
Penelope examined the fire extinguisher she had been carrying. It was still half full. "Now Kate, I want you to open the door. And as soon as you hit the button, you'd better jump out of the way."
They moved everything which might catch fire away from the door. Penelope stood well back from it as Kate pressed a button on the wall beside it. As the door started to slide open Kate leaped away from it as fast as she could. A sheet of flame billowed into the room.
Penelope threw the EADS into the fire. For just a split second before the flames consumed it, the device was signalling at full strength. On a screen on Thunderbird Five a point of light flared up briefly, then disappeared.
Penelope snatched up the fire extinguisher and sprayed its con-tents onto the flames. They retreated sufficiently for Kate to reach the button on the wall and shut the door.
On board the space station John glanced at a map of the world on a VDU. "I've got it, folks! It was there for just a second, but long enough for me to get a trace on it!" A light was flashing in the north-western United States. "Co-ordinates XA4KOW....Hey, it's the geothermal plant!"
"We got it too, John. Heading for danger zone."
High above the Pacific, Thunderbirds One and Two banked and sped towards North America.
By the time he'd left the plant earlier that afternoon, Donald Holman had been on the point of knowing what the readings on the seismograph signified. Probably they were due to the vibrations caused by the drill. But if that was the case......
If that was the case, they might be in serious trouble. He had to be sure first, before he raised the alarm.
Like Lady Penelope, he had a passionate interest in seeing the renewable energy programme succeed. He believed it would be for the good of the planet. It wasn't just fascination with a relat-ively new and untried technology that had made him apply for the post of Engineer at the plant.
He was desperate nothing should go wrong. The problem he believed he had identified could be solved, albeit very expensively. But they'd have to act pretty soon. He'd already rung Halliwell and, finding him not at his desk, had left a message on his answerphone. He'd try and chase him up in the morning, before they started up the drill again. For now, he decided to relax and look forward to the meal with his daughter.
On the subject of Kate, it occurred to him that she should be here by now. What was keeping her? It couldn't have taken her that long to find the purse.
He dialled her mobile phone number but got no answer. He realised she could have stopped somewhere for a bite to eat, leaving the phone in her car, and the thought comforted him.
But he tried several more times during the next twenty minutes and got no luck. Now seriously worried, he rushed to his car and set off in the direction of the plant, his heart thumping.
"Someone should be here within the hour," said Penny reassuringly.
"Oh, some friends of mine." Penny realised Kate was probably going to find out she was a member of International Rescue. She guessed the girl would be sensible enough not to tell anybody.
"How did you come to be at the plant?" Kate asked.
"Well, that's rather a long story," Penny said. She tried to think of a way to explain it that wouldn't reveal too much about her intelligence activities. "Let's just say I suspected he was behind all the trouble that's been going on at places like this. I came here to confront him, and although things didn't quite work out as planned..." With a grin she produced a small tape recorder from her pocket. "I brought it here in case he could be persuaded to make a confession. As it happened, he did. Every word of it is on here. We can blow his little scheme sky high."
The thought occurred to her that the tape might have been damaged by the heat, but modern technology being what it was it should be possible to repair it.
Kate frowned. "It's getting a bit hot in here," she said. And indeed it was. They could now feel the heat through the walls of the store.
The air was getting a little thin, too.
Several miles below them, the drill reached the bottom of the borehole and began to bite through the rock of the crust.
As Donald Holman's car approached the plant, the reason for his daughter's failure to show suggested itself. The place was a raging inferno. There seemed no part of it that wasn't engulfed in flames, flames that rose high into the sky, lighting it up eerily.
Oh Lord, no, he breathed. Kate......please, let her be all right.
He pulled up outside the plant to find about half a dozen police officers gathered there. He jumped out and ran over to them.
"What's been happening here?" he asked, almost sobbing. "Have the fire services been called?"
"Are you one of the staff, Sir?"
"I'm the Chief Engineer. Listen, I think my daughter's in there. Have you any idea...."
The policeman bit his lip. If there was anyone still alive inside the place, he didn't give much for their chances. By now they were probably a heap of ashes.
Holman made towards the blaze, but the policeman held him back. "There's nothing you can do. The fire services are on their way here..."
Just then a droning noise from above caused him to glance up. Thunderbird One flew over their heads and came in to land a few hundred yards away.
The policeman turned to Holman with a smile. "Well, if anyone can get your daughter out of there...they can."
On his way back to his hotel, Halliwell turned on his car radio in time to catch the early evening regional news programme, eager to see if news of the disaster he had caused had yet filtered through.
"A report is coming in of a major fire at the Hawk Springs geothermal plant near Woodsville. No further details are known, but we have just heard that International Rescue have arrived on the scene."
Halliwell started, causing the car to swerve dangerously. The colour drained from his face. "International Rescue?"
Pulling over onto the grass verge, he stopped the car and sat inside it pondering the implications of this unexpected and unwelcome development. If International Rescue had gone to the geothermal plant, then Lady Penelope and the other girl must somehow still be alive in there, and had managed to summon assistance. How that could be he could only surmise; the flames should have reached them a long time ago. And he was sure he'd accounted for all the regular staff at the plant.
But that was a purely academic question now. If International Rescue were on the scene, they might save the two women, which could lead to his exposure. They might even be able to stop the drill.
He called Darren Brancker. "Listen, we've hit trouble." He explained what he had done at the geothermal plant, and what had subsequently happened there. "I want you to meet me at..." he consulted a map, and gave Brancker a location far enough from the plant to be safe, but still conveniently close to it. "Bring as many of your gadgets as you can."
"Will there be any time to do anything?" Brancker asked. He seemed unenthusiastic about the whole idea, despite relishing the chance to use any of his gadgets.
"According to the news broadcasts Thunderbird One has only just touched down. Thunderbird Two always arrives a while later. De-pending on how long the actual rescue operation is going to take, we may be able to sabotage it."
"Hang on, what if we get caught in the eruption?"
"I've thought of that. We're going to escape in one of the International Rescue craft. You know what they're like; they won't leave us to die, no matter what we've done."
After a moment's hesitation, Brancker agreed with this plan. "All right. By the way, I think Parker must have found the bug I put on him and deactivated it. It seems to have stopped transmitting."
"Unfortunate. However the main thing is that we put a stop to that rescue operation and then get away from here."
"But what if he's told the cops....."
"Let's worry about that later. I'm sure we can think of some way round the problem." In truth, Halliwell wasn't in the least worried by the possibility of Brancker's arrest, as long as it didn't lead to his own exposure. If the disaster occurred as planned, then with any luck he wouldn't need Brancker and his gadgets any longer.
Brancker got together all his equipment and took it to the car. He started the engine and drove down the track that led from the shack to the main road.
A half-mile away, crouched down beside the Porsche with a pair of binoculars, Parker saw it turn onto the highway and head westward. Out of the box on the ground next to him rose the flying bug Brancker had planted on him earlier. Parker was pretty skilled at the technology of surveillance himself, and had made a number of modifications to the little gadget.
"Two can play at your game, Daz," he grinned, as it sped through the air after Brancker's car. Shortly it would attach itself to the vehicle, just as it had to Parker's when under Brancker's control. Now he could be sure of keeping track of all his old enemy's movements.
He waited for a minute or two, then jumped into the Porsche and set off after Brancker.
In the shadow of Thunderbird One, Scott was setting up his mobile control console. "What beats me is how you guys knew about this fire," the Police Chief was saying.
"That'll have to remain a secret, I'm afraid," Scott told him.
Donald Holman came up to them. "Excuse me, but I think I may be able to help you. I'm the plant's designer."
"Glad to meet you, Mr..." Holman introduced himself.
"The first thing I want to ask you," Scott told him, "is whether there's anyplace someone who was trapped down there could go to be safe from the fire."
"There's a fireproof chemical store inside the plant. Kate's a sensible girl, she would have gone there straight away if the fire had cut off the exits - but I don't know if she knew about it.
"And by the time it had done that, it might have spread so widely that she wouldn't have been able to reach the shelter anyway," he
"My daughter. I have reason to think she's in there somewhere."
And Penelope, Scott thought. What about Penelope? If the fire had destroyed the signalling device, as appeared to be the case, then she was probably dead.
"And the store should be able to withstand a blaze like this?"
"I don't know. The size and intensity of the fire look to me to be beyond anything we'd planned for. Whatever's fuelling it must be remarkably combustible."
"Well, with any luck our equipment should be able to extinguish it within hours." The conventional hardware, he reckoned, would take days, at least, to complete the task. And it would be a while before the local fire services could get to the plant in the first place.
"Is there anyone else who might be in there?" Scott asked.
"We can't account for the any of the staff," the Police Chief said. "The gate guard is missing too, which is odd." He glanced at Donald Holman, then at Scott. He hadn't wanted to say it for fear of causing Holman further worry, but guessed the International Rescue man would need to know it. "I think something strange has been going on here."
"You mean the fire was started deliberately?" Scott registered Holman's reaction.
"Looks that way."
Scott turned to Holman. "Look," he said gently. "I don't want to promise anything, but if she is still alive, we'll do our best to get her out of there." He finished erecting the Mobile Control console and threw a switch on it. A moment later the remote camera emerged from Thunderbird One and flew towards the plant. "The flying eye will help us to work out where they are."
His attention returned to the police chief. "Our heavy rescue gear will be here pretty soon."
"Do I tell the fire people to turn back?"
"Well, they won't be able to do much more than lend a hand, but any assistance is going to be valuable."
"I want to go down there with you," said Holman.
"I'm sorry, that's not possible," Scott told him. "At least one, probably more, people may be dead already - although I sincerely hope not. You're not trained to operate our equipment, and we can't risk any more lives. I know how you feel, pal. But believe me, you'd only be making things worse."
Holman realised he was right. He slumped despondently against the side of one of the police cars. Not only was his daughter probably dead, but the project he'd put all his effort into was going up in smoke before his eyes. He tried to suppress his feelings and concentrate on the task in hand. Then he remembered. His notes..he'd left them in the office. If there was the slimmest chance they had survived..... International Rescue would be going after people not bits of paper, but he knew the value of those notes. He had to get down there and retrieve them, once he knew what had happened to Kate, assuming the news was such as to leave him in a fit state to do it.
Scott was studying the screen on his console, onto which the flying camera was relaying what it saw. "Everywhere's a furnace apart from one or two places, and I can't see any sign of life in them. They must be in that chemical store. Whereabouts is it?"
Holman pointed out the building housing the administration section and storerooms. "Inside there."
"Right, thanks, Mr Holman." He switched on the console's radio. "Mobile Control to Thunderbird Two."
At that moment Thunderbird Two was about ten miles from the plant. As it approached the installation Virgil reduced the craft's speed. He turned to where Gordon and Judy were sitting.
"Are you sure you want to go ahead with this, Judy?" He'd explained the situation at the rescue zone to her.
Judy sat grim-faced next to Gordon. For most of the flight from the island she hadn't said a word. "That's the fifth time you've asked me that, Virgil."
"Well, we don't want a repeat of what happened last time," said Gordon.
"You're going to have to make your mind up soon," Virgil told her. "We're nearly there."
The truth was that Judy had had another sudden pang of fear. If anything went wrong with the rescue she might die; and she was far too young, and life was far too good, for that to happen.
But if Penny did die, though that was a horrible thought which she could hardly bear to entertain, she'd lose all opportunity of making up for the trouble she'd caused her in the past.
She thought of what TinTin had said to her when they'd talked after her first disastrous, in terms of her own performance, rescue mission. She had done a lot of hard thinking, a lot of soulsearching, since that conversation and she'd been unable to identify anything which appealed to her as much as the work of International Rescue.
Virgil knew there was no time to argue about whether or not she was taking part in the rescue. They might just have to let her go with them, and take things as they came.
Then Scott called them. "What's your ETA, Virgil?"
"Estimated Time Of Arrival two minutes, Scott. Any news?"
Scott told him all he'd learned from Holman and the police chief.
"The main thing to do is to get Penny and that other girl out of there," said Virgil.
Judy sat bolt upright in her seat. "What other girl?" Surely he could only mean.....
Virgil heard her and questioned Scott. A moment later he turned back to her. "She's the daughter of the Chief Engineer there..guy named Holman. Why?"
"Tell you later," said Judy. "There's no time now." Her face had set in an expression of fierce determination. Penelope and Kate. The two people who in the past had stuck up for her more than anyone else, even when she hadn't deserved it. As a prefect at the school they'd both attended, Penny had often bailed her out or covered up misdeeds that would if discovered have led to severe punishment. When Judy and her friends were on holiday in the Mediterranean on Penny's yacht, with Parker on hand to protect them from any kidnap attempt by The Hood, Judy had tired of adhering to a strict schedule controlled by Parker, and planned a little scheme by which they could get rid of him and take the yacht off on their own to a remote island, where they could meet up with a bloke she'd met on the beach and decided she rather fancied. Kate knew of the plan but refused to sneak on her. It would have been better if she had, considering what had subsequently happened, but Judy found she still appreciated her loyalty even now. There were various similar incidents which came to mind.
She knew there was no turning back now.
Gordon and Virgil noted the change in her manner and glanced at each other, intrigued, their unease partly dispelled.
Virgil saw the reason for her new resolution. "Do you know the girl, then, Judy?"
"Yes. She's one of my best mates."
"She'll realise you're with us," he pointed out.
Judy shook her head, a dismissive expression on her face. "Kate won't tell."
"Now if they're anywhere, they're in that chemical store," Scott went on.
"FAB. Gordon, do you want to take this on? Judy will give you a hand."
"FAB, Virgil," Judy and Gordon said in unison.
"Here we go then." Thunderbird Two came in to land beside Thun-derbird One, a few yards from the entrance to the plant. Virgil raised the massive freighter above its pod and opened the door. A moment later the Firefly, International Rescue's principal fire-fighting vehicle, rumbled into view. Its name was appropriate, for it did indeed resemble a huge yellow insect. Suspended in front of its bulbous nose on four moveable arms was a great curved shield of metal, useful for keeping off the flames and also clearing up the debris left after a fire. The alloy of which it, like the rest of the vehicle, tracks and wheels included, was constructed was called cahelium, and had a greater resistance to heat than any other substance on Earth, natural or man-made. Now that it had been coated with the substance Brains had found in the meteorite, that resistance was increased even further.
One of the policemen lifted up the barrier across the entrance, and the Firefly rumbled through it towards the blazing plant.
In the vehicle's cabin, Gordon studied the view through the cahelium-strengthened window. As far as he could see the building in front of him was a solid mass of flame.
Judy sat beside him. "If there's any trouble, I'll just knock you out like last time, OK?" he told her.
She looked at him sharply. "You won't need to do that," she said, with more than a touch of ice in her voice.
"Is...is that thing actually going into the fire?" gasped the police chief as the Firefly approached the blaze.
"That's right," Scott replied, grinning at his incredulous expression.
"But it'll burn up," the man protested.
"No it won't." At least, I hope not, Scott added under his breath.
They saw Firefly judder to a halt a few yards from the wall of the building. Projecting through an aperture in the centre of the fireproof shield was the nozzle of a small but powerful cannon. With a discharge of smoke, a shell shot from the cannon and impacted with the wall, exploding in a cloud of smoke and rubble. No sooner had the smoke begun to clear than a second shell struck home. Orange flames licked out of the huge hole which had been blown in the wall. The Firefly entered the building through the hole, pushing the rubble before it with its shovel or crunching it to dust beneath its tracks.
The inferno swallowed it up.
Lady Penelope and Kate had started to run out of things to talk about. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only thing which was running out. As the air grew thinner and thinner the effort of speaking became painful. They remained silent, trying not to use up energy unnecessarily.
Soon it was hurting even to breathe.
Both women were sweating profusely, and it was hard to think clearly. The walls of the shelter felt painfully hot to the touch. We're going to cook in here, Penny thought.
She dragged herself over to the suffering Kate and they hugged each other tightly. "They....must.....be here soon," she whis-pered. "They must...."
Everything around her dissolved into a blurry haze as conscious-ness slipped away.
The Firefly moved through the blazing interior of the plant, its shield warding off the flames. Whenever it came to an obstacle, like an internal wall, it ploughed through it, the shield acting like the blade of a bulldozer, shovelling the resulting rubble out of the way along with burning fragments that had fallen from the disintegrating roof.
Both Gordon and Judy were wearing thick fireproof suits. Although the vehicle's cahelium body would insulate them from the heat, it was best not to take chances.
Gordon was at the controls, studying the readings on the instru-ment panel before him. Two thousand degrees....boy, that was some fire. It was getting perceptibly hot inside the vehicle.
"We should call this Operation Shadrach," Gordon said. "After the guy in the Good Book who got thrown into the fiery furnace. Of course he had divine protection; let's hope the big feller upstairs looks favourably on us, too."
Judy studied the flames licking at the edges of the cabin window. All that fire...all around them....it was silly, really. There was far more danger than there'd been in Thunderbird Four; the intensity of the blaze was placing great strain on the vehicle in any case, and Brains' new compound was relatively untested. But she wasn't panicking. Maybe it was because she'd done that before; it was out of her system now. Or maybe it was the thought of Penelope and Kate. She tried to keep that thought in her mind.
A huge flame several feet long licked across the window.
Gordon glanced again at the temperature gauge. They were at maximum heat tolerance. He thought it best not to tell Judy that.
"How long before we get there?" she asked him.
"Not long now." Thanks to the information supplied by Donald Holman, they knew roughly where the chemical store was. The Fire-fly's sensing equipment enabled it to see through the smoke and flame and find its way to its destination.
Every now and then, pieces of burning debris crashed down onto the vehicle. The roof must be near to falling in, Gordon realised.
Not knowing whether the Firefly would hold out, and whether Judy would be able to stay calm, was placing severe strain on him, though he figured the girl would probably have freaked out by now if she was going to do it at all.
"I'll never go to a barbecue again," he said, cracking a joke as was his habit when in a difficult situation. It was a way of coping. His eyes met hers, and he wished he'd remembered that two good friends of hers were in danger. For an uncomfortable moment she stared hard at him through the visor of her suit. Then understood, and smiled.
Thunderbird Two hovered above the blazing plant, spraying foam onto it from a number of nozzles which had emerged from its sides and from beneath the forward fuselage.
Down below robot fire-fighting vehicles were also directing jets of foam into the flames. The conventional fire services were giving their assistance too. Soon the fire would have more or less stopped spreading, but would they be in time to save Lady Penelope and Kate?
In the chemical store the air was more or less exhausted. Kate collapsed to the floor, Lady Penelope slumping down beside her. The last thing Penny was aware of before she lost consciousness was that the wall of the shelter was crumpling and melting with the heat. Or maybe it was just the effect of conditions on her vision. She couldn't be sure.
It was now getting uncomfortable within the Firefly, though not unbearably so. Judy wasn't sure whether the bulky suits were actually making it worse.
“Internal wall up ahead,” she warned. This time for the sake of speed Gordon blew it away with the cannon.
Firefly forced its way through the debris. Then, through a gap in the wall of flames ahead, they could see the side of the store. The metal sheeting was blackened and twisted. “That's it," said Gordon. He realised that when the sagging roof of the building collapsed, its weight would cause that of the store to fall in too.
He reversed the Firefly, then swung it round in a half-circle, bringing it up to the door of the shelter.
"Here's where you'll be needed, Judy. We're going to have to hurry."
From the side of the vehicle there telescoped out a kind of folding tunnel. This extended until it was flush with the door of the store. Gordon and Judy hurried along the tunnel, both equipped with laser cutting torches. They set to work cutting through the door of the store. It was already buckled and twisted badly from the incredible heat it had been exposed to, and it didn't take them long to cut through it between them.
The two glowing lines met. The door crashed inwards at a kick from Gordon, and they hurried into the store.
Not stopping to check if she was OK, Judy grabbed Kate's arms and scrambled backwards into the tunnel, dragging her friend with her. Gordon lifted Penelope, cradling her in his arms, and ran into the tunnel after Judy. The door slid shut behind them just as the roof of the building finally fell inwards, crushing that of the already weakened store and filling the interior of the structure with blazing debris.
The Firefly was quite undamaged by the falling wreckage. udy retracted the autolock, and Gordon carried Penny into the vehicle. Kate was lying on a couch at the rear of the cabin, with Judy pressing an oxygen mask to her face.
"How is she?" Gordon asked.
"In a bad way; she's barely breathing. But she should recover."
"Then Penny should be the same."
He reversed the Firefly and it moved away from the store just as the rest of it crumpled and collapsed in a heap of twisted metal. A little later the chemicals that had been inside it exploded, rocking the vehicle and bringing down most of one wall of the building.
Meanwhile Penny and Kate were starting to come round, to Judy's immense relief.
Penelope stirred, blinking. She opened her eyes and gazed round at her surroundings. "Judith, my dear," she smiled. "How delightful to see you. I presume you must have rescued us. Now I'm afraid I've got some rather urgent news for you."
She told them about the drill. "We've got about an hour left."
Gordon paled. "Shee," he said at length.
He gave Scott and Virgil the news. "Is there any way we can stop that drill? Perhaps the Mole..."
"The Mole isn't designed to go that far down," said Scott. "And anyway the drill has a head start on it."
"Is there nothing in the pod that could do the job?" Scott asked Virgil.
"Hard to say, Scott." He realised that Thunderbird Three, heading back to Earth, would soon be within the correct range to enable him to contact Brains and ask his advice. "Tell you what - you see if you can get hold of Brains, and I'll head back to the island in case what we need is there. I'd better finish getting the fire under control first, though, or we may not be able to operate down there."
"Sounds like a good idea, Virg." Scott told the police and fire chiefs what was going on. "You'd better leave," he advised once they'd absorbed the impact of the news. "Tell the authorities in this and all the other states that are going to be affected to start evacuation procedures."
They wasted no time. As they hastened to their respective vehicles, Scott sought out Donald Holman.
"You'd better go too, Mr Holman. Your daughter's safe now."
He smiled at the look on the man's face. It was moments like this they were in business for, he thought.
"How can I ever thank you?" Holman asked.
"By getting the hell out of here," Scott said. Holman hurried away.
He called Brains. There was a channel to the spaceship from the Mobile Control unit, although it rarely needed to be used. "Mobile Control to Thunderbird Three."
There was a pause, and then he heard Alan's voice. "Thunderbird Three at your service. What's happening, Scott?"
"I need Brains' help. Can I have a word with him?"
"Sure." In a moment Brains was speaking to him. "Uh, what c-can I do for you, Scott?"
Quickly Scott outlined the problem. "Is there anything that could stop the drill?"
"Yes, the equipment you need is on the island, in Pod Two."
"Did you get that, Virgil?"
"Sure did, Scott. I should have the fire taken care of pretty soon. Once that's done I'll head back to base."
Scott saw the Firefly emerge from the inferno of the plant, blistered and blackened but still very much intact. It came towards him, its shield raised as if in salute.
Then he noticed something which puzzled and worried him. The last of the police cars and fire engines were now departing. That left just three vehicles in sight. One was Fab One, still standing where Penelope had parked it several hours before. Whose were the other two? He presumed one must be Donald Holman's, since it was unlikely he'd have left in one of the police or fire vehicles. But in that case, why was it still here?
He called the Firefly in the hope that Penny or Holman's daughter could supply some answer. Kate told him that one of the uniden-tified cars was hers; the other, she confirmed, belonged to her father.
"Then where the heck is he?" Scott said.
Kate thought. She remembered how anxious her father had been to finish those notes the other day. "He could have gone to get something that was in his office." She paled. "Oh no, he hasn't...."
Scott realised the flying camera was still hovering nearby. He told Gordon to remain on standby while he sent it to survey the blazing ruins of the plant for any sign of Donald Holman. He studied the screen anxiously, until he saw a figure disappear into a still-burning building. He notified Gordon, and the Firefly changed direction.
From Thunderbird Two Virgil reported that the fire was now more or less under control. "There are a few areas where it's still spreading, but not rapidly. One or two other fires left but they'll burn themselves out in due course. I'll just pick up the robot vehicles, then I'd better head for the island." They'd accounted for everyone who would have been in the plant when the fire started. He knew from Penelope, through Gordon, that Halliwell had already killed all the security guards.
He felt himself stiffen with rage at the thought of the murders. Enough lives were lost through natural disasters and disease without people insisting on taking them deliberately.
He watched Thunderbird Two retrieve the robot firefighters and take off. Stopping the drill would be a close-run thing. He hoped they could do it, in view of the disruption that would be caused if they failed. The main thing, though, was to get Holman out safely. After that, no more lives should be in danger.
From his last communication with Penelope Parker knew that she had followed Halliwell to the geothermal plant. Despite his concern at not having heard anything from her for some time, he had thought it best to proceed with her orders to trail Darren Brancker and monitor his activities. Then he realised his pursuit of Brancker was leading him to the plant. He'd heard about the imminent volcanic eruption, and that the area was being evacuated. His concerns for Penelope's safety now too great for him to leave to one side, he'd ignored the warnings from the authorities - which, interestingly, Brancker appeared to be ignoring too - and stayed on his enemy's trail.
Donald Holman reached the end of the corridor to find the flames barring his progress. He knew there was no other way of getting into the office. Despondently, he realised his notes would have to be left to burn.
From somewhere close by he heard a loud explosion. He guessed the fire had ignited a pocket of gas or a container of some chemical or other.
He could feel the heat on his back as he ran back down the corr-idor to the door and pulled it open. Outside, he saw that the wall of an outhouse, damaged by first the fire and then the explosion, had collapsed into a heap of rubble. He had to pick his way over the smoking debris, taking great care not to trip.
He was less agile and less well co-ordinated than he used to be. His foot turned on something and he lost his balance, hitting his head sharply on a large chunk of rubble. As he lay there stunned, the flames began to close in on him.
As the Firefly approached its occupants saw him through the cabin window. "Dad!" shouted Kate. She ran to the door of the cabin and scrabbled furiously at the handle, horrified that any moment the flames would swallow him up.
"Hold on," said Gordon, his hand moving to the controls. From the Firefly's cannon a jet of greyish-white foam shot onto the flames, driving them back.
The vehicle moved forward, pushing back the wall of flame as it did so. It halted within a few feet of Holman, the jet of foam still trained on the fire. Kate and Judy jumped down from the cabin and ran over to him.
"Dad! Dad!" Kate shouted, kneeling down beside him. "Are you alright?"
He opened his eyes and smiled weakly up at her. "Kate...Katie...."
"Come on, let's get him inside." They struggled to lift him to his feet. Gordon jumped down from the Firefly and ran over to help them. They hauled him into the vehicle and laid him on the bench seat at the back of the cabin.
They realised he was now fully consciousness. "You shouldn't have done that, Dad," scolded Kate, angry at his foolishness, though also relieved he was safe.
"I wouldn't have if it hadn't been important." He explained why the notes had mattered so much. "If the crust had been as thick as it was supposed to be, the vibrations from the drill would have been much greater. It occurred to me there might be a possibility of danger. Hopefully, Halliwell will be prepared to stop the drilling on my word without seeing the evidence."
"Um, there's one or two things we ought to tell you," said Gordon.
As they approached the plant cautiously, Sir Nigel Halliwell and Darren Brancker saw Thunderbird Two fly off. There was no sign of any police or fire vehicles.
"This is it," whispered Halliwell. "Come on." They made their way towards Thunderbird One, moving faster and less furtively now.
Scott, waiting by Mobile Control for the Firefly to return, suddenly became aware that two men were standing a short distance away from him. One was stockily built and fit-looking in his late thirties, the other a little younger, small and wiry with metal-framed glasses.
"How's the rescue operation going?" the older man asked amiably.
"Er - fine," replied Scott. "Look, I think you'd better get away from here. There's going to be a mighty big explosion pretty soon and you want to give yourselves plenty of time to get clear."
"We know," said the man with a smile, nodding to his companion. Before Scott could reach for his own gun the small man had whipped a pistol-like weapon from the pocket of his coat and aimed it at him. A second later Scott slumped to the ground beside the Mobile Control console, the stubby butt of a tranquiliser dart protruding from a tiny tear in the fabric of his uniform.
"That should keep him unconscious while we do what we have to," Brancker told Halliwell. "He should wake up in time to fly us out of here. Now what are we going to do in the meantime?"
"Find out what else is going on down there," Halliwell said. "Have a look through your binoculars."
Brancker scanned the ruins of the plant. "Can't see anything..no, wait." The Firefly had come into view from behind the smoking ruins of an outhouse. "Some sort of cross between a fire engine and a bulldozer, by the look of it. Can't see who's inside it from here."
"But it might be the lovely Lady Penelope and that other girl. I'm taking no chances. You've got your rifle, I trust?"
"'Course I have," Brancker grinned. "Never go anywhere without it."
He took the collapsible weapon from the bag he was carrying and unfolded it. Raising it to his shoulder, he took careful aim at the Firefly. His finger tightened on the trigger.
The explosive bullet travelled through the air and impacted with the side of the odd-looking vehicle. A second later there was a sizeable explosion which blew the Firefly over onto its side.
When the smoke cleared, they saw that it was quite undamaged. Brancker stared in astonishment. "It should have been blown to bits!" Instead, the International Rescue vehicle was barely scratched.
He prepared to fire again, but Halliwell stopped him. "You may just knock it back upright." They waited for a minute or two, but there was no sign of any movement from the vehicle. "The explosion must have stunned them. Let's take a closer look."
They hurried over to the Firefly, Halliwell studying it in fascination. "It's built like a tank. Whatever it's made of is incredibly tough. Not surprising, when you consider it must be designed to stand up to the hottest fire possible."
The Firefly seemed to have landed on the side with the door in it. Brancker and Halliwell waited for several more minutes, but no-one emerged from the vehicle. "I think they're trapped inside," Brancker said. They both wanted to get into the Firefly to finish off its occupants, but the awkward position it was in made that impossible.
"Well, as long as they can't get out," Halliwell said.
“They can’t. Even the windscreen looks like it’s made of cahelium.”
"We'll just leave them there until the eruption takes care of them," Halliwell decided. "It's Thunderbird Two I'm worried about. It went away for a reason; probably to get some more equipment. Either there's still someone trapped in the plant, or they're going to try and stop that drill somehow. We've got to prevent them from doing that. It should be a lot easier to get around now that they've very kindly put out the fire for us."
They started to make their way through the ruins of the plant towards what was left of the drillhouse.
The Firefly's occupants had indeed been stunned by the force of the explosion and the vehicle's overturning. Painfully, they picked themselves up from what had previously been the side of the cabin, and was now the floor, where they had rolled together in a heap.
"OK, everyone?" asked Gordon.
"Just about, I think," said Donald. The others nodded. "What happened?" asked Penelope.
"To tell you the truth, I'm not exactly sure," Gordon answered. "The thing to do is to get out of here." He called Scott using the radio in his pocket, although it wasn't likely anything could be done to help them before Thunderbird Two returned. To his unease he got no response.
"We've got to get out and find out what's happened to him," Gordon said.
"Can't we use the autolock?" Judy asked.
He dismissed this suggestion. The sides of the resulting tunnel would be too smooth for anyone to climb up, and just too far apart for them to chimney themselves up it.
They called Tracy Island and told Jeff what had happened. "There could be something funny going on," he said. "You might all be better off staying where you are. I'll warn Virgil to take care. Hopefully, he should be able to stop the drill, or at least get you out of there before the eruption."
But what had happened to Scott, and what exactly was going on at the danger zone?
As Parker approached the plant, he saw Thunderbird One standing outside it - and Scott's body lying motionless across Mobile Control.
The car screeched to a halt and he leaped out. Running over to Scott, he examined the young man and saw the tranquiliser dart sticking out of his uniform. Plucking it out, he shook Scott furiously, calling out his name several times. There wasn't the slightest response. At least he seemed to be unconscious rather than dead.
Laying him gently on the ground, Parker stood where he was, deep in thought. Someone had done this for a reason. If it was Brancker and Halliwell, what exactly was their game? Had they taken photographs of Thunderbird One?
What worried him most was that he could see the Firefly lying on its side, with no other sign of International Rescue's presence. He called the island and told them what he'd found. "Scott's OK, but I've no idea how long it'll be before he comes round. Whatever drug they injected him with must be pretty powerful stuff."
"If they've taken photographs, there should be a light flashing on the Mobile Control console," Jeff Tracy told him.
"Well there ain't," said Parker, glancing at the console.
Jeff told him everything that had happened since Penelope had gone to the plant to confront Halliwell. "Right now I think they're out to sabotage the rescue and make sure that drill penetrates the crust. They must have intended to force Scott to fly them to safety before the eruption occurred, so we can be sure that drug'll wear off before there's any danger. I don't know what they could have used to knock Firefly over. But Penny and the others should be all right in there for the moment. It's best if they don't try to leave it, what with Brancker and Halliwell maybe lurking about somewhere. Parker, can you get inside Thunderbird One?"
Parker grinned. "Well if I can't, nobody can. What have you got in mind, Boss?"
"I want you to operate the flying camera. I can give you the nec-essary instructions over the radio."
In a few minutes Parker was seated inside the cabin of Thunderbird One, watching the flying eye negotiating its way through the blackened ruins of the plant. After some minutes Brancker and Halliwell appeared on the screen, heading towards the drillhouse. "I can see 'em, Mr Tracy. Looks like old Darren's got some sort of rifle with him."
"Good work, Parker."
Darren Brancker stopped suddenly. He had become aware of a faint droning sound, clearly electronic in origin. "What's that?"
He turned and saw the flying camera hovering thirty feet away. With a snarl he snatched up the rifle and aimed at the device. A second later it exploded in flames, charred and smoking circuitry raining down.
"The picture's gone!" Parker shouted. "I think he must have knocked the camera out somehow. I saw him turn round and point that rifle thing at it."
"OK, Parker. You'd better stay there and keep an eye on things."
"What do you think, Brains?" Jeff asked. Thunderbird Three had been monitoring the frequency.
"I'd say that rifle must fire some kind of high explosive bullet," Brains said. "My guess is that's what they used at the wind farm....and what knocked the Firefly over, though it wasn't able to destroy it. It could cause serious damage to Thunderbird Two, may-be even shoot it down."
Listening to this exchange, Parker thought of Fab One's cannon. He could go down there and use it, but from the sound of things, Brancker's weapon was a lot more powerful. He might just be committing suicide.
"What do you reckon its range is, Brains?" Jeff asked the scientist.
"I should advise Virgil to keep at a distance of at least a mile from the plant."
Jeff called Virgil, who had now picked up the equipment he needed and was on his way back to the danger zone, and Gordon, advising them what they'd learned. "Look, Gordon, you and the others stay where you are and see if you can hit on a way out. But don't leave the Firefly just yet. We'll try and think of something this end."
He sighed. With Brancker and Halliwell lurking around, armed with a dangerous weapon that could blast Thunderbird Two out of the sky, there was no chance of Virgil being able to rescue those trapped in the Firefly, even though he had the right equipment.
Gordon and his companions were thinking over their problem carefully. "There should be some equipment in here we could use to get out," Gordon mused.
"Whatever we do will need using the autolock," Judy told him.
Gordon nodded. He continued to ponder their predicament. Then an idea came to him. There was a storage cupboard at the rear of the cabin, with one or two boxes of equipment in it. It was close enough to what had previously been the side wall, and was now the floor, for them to reach it. He opened it, took out one of the boxes and removed from it a couple of lengths of cable which each ended in magnetic clamps, the sort they sometimes used when rescu-ing people trapped inside burning buildings, for tasks such as gripping and removing the cut-out section of a locked or jammed door. They were metal discs about a foot in diameter. With a screwdriver he disconnected them from the cables.
Using the laser torches, he cut off the two handles from the door of the storage cupboard and welded them to the clamps to form handles. Then he waited for the metal to cool down.
"There it is!" shouted Brancker excitedly, as Thunderbird Two came into view above the horizon. He fingered his rifle impatiently, eager to use it at the first opportunity. The destruction of the heavy rescue vehicle would make a spectacular sight.
He was somewhat put out when it went into hovermode, remaining stationary a couple of miles from the plant and several hundred feet above the ground, well outside his weapon's range.
"What are they doing?" snapped Halliwell. "Why don't they land?"
"They must know we're here," Brancker said.
"It doesn't matter how," said Brancker practically. “Let's get back to Thunderbird One. If we threaten to harm the pilot...."
"Wait," Halliwell urged. "A - if they know we're here, someone may already be at Thunderbird One. B - one of us has got to stay here and at least keep them from carrying out the rescue operation."
"Look, mate, I don't care about sabotaging the rescue. I just want to get out of here alive. I don't even mind going to prison if it comes to that. I just don't want to get caught up in this eruption of yours."
Halliwell ignored him. "I'll stay here and keep an eye on Thunderbird Two. You go back to the fire-fighting machine and see if you can get those others out of it. If we take them as hos-tages..."
Brancker realised the tactic was a good one. He hurried off.
On the island Jeff was wondering how to break the stalemate he could see developing. "If only we could communicate with them, find out what they want."
"If we go in closer, they may shoot," said Brains.
"There's the Rolls' tannoy," said Parker. "It's taking a bit of a risk but I reckon there's no other choice." Jeff and Brains were inclined to agree.
Parker scrambled into Fab One and drove through the plant en-trance, heading for where he'd last seen Brancker and Halliwell. He decided it would be safest not to get closer than was absolutely necessary for them to hear the tannoy.
Brancker, on his way to the Firefly, heard the sound of the Rolls as it roared through the complex. Looking around, he saw it come into view between two of the plant buildings. He levelled the rifle and fired. His shot just missed the car, demolishing another wall of the administration block.
Parker swung the car round in a wide arc and drove behind the nearest building, hopefully out of sight of Darren Brancker. He skidded to a halt.
Hearing the car stop, Brancker hurried towards where he reckoned it to be. Then he heard a familiar voice address him through some sort of loudspeaker. "What do you want, Darren?"
"We want out of here, Nosey, that's what," shouted Brancker.
"Then give yourselves up. Put down your gun, Darren, and keep your hands where I can see them."
"No way. You're not turning us in." Brancker continued to make his way towards Firefly. Parker turned the car round and drove back towards the gate. Seeing the flash of pink, Brancker fired, and the blast rocked the car, almost overturning it but for Parker's driving skill.
Parker told Jeff of the unsuccessful outcome of his negotiations.
"We're not letting them on board with guns," Jeff said firmly. "Who knows what might happen. I want to save their lives if possible, but not at the cost of letting them on board either Thunderbird with guns in their hands. It's clear what sort of people they are. If they take over the craft they might use its secrets for criminal purposes."
Brancker and Halliwell knew very well that this would be Inter-national Rescue's policy. The only way of forcing them to change it, that they could see, was to somehow blast their way into the Firefly and take its occupants hostage. If they couldn't, they'd have to give themselves up or face annihilation in the eruption.
They would have to hurry. With a shock, Brancker realised there was less than half an hour to go before the drill penetrated the crust. He cursed Halliwell for having got them into this sit-uation.
International Rescue were equally aware of the rapidly approaching deadline. On Thunderbird Two Virgil, unable to go any closer to the plant in case he was spotted and fired on, drummed his fingers impatiently on the arm of his pilot's chair, regarding the scene below him anxiously. "It looks like we'll have to abandon any attempt to stop that drill, Father," he told Jeff.
"Sure looks that way, Son."
Sir Nigel Halliwell, meanwhile, had realised much the same thing. He abandoned keeping an eye on Thunderbird Two and hurried to join Darren Brancker.
"Can you see what's going on down there?" Jeff asked Virgil.
"Not from this distance. Maybe John could."
Jeff contacted Thunderbird Five and asked John to use the incred-ibly sensitive scanning equipment on board the space monitor to watch Brancker and Halliwell.
After a minute John reported back. "That Brancker guy is....hey, I think he's heading towards the Firefly!"
"M-m-mr Tracy, I think they must be planning to take Gordon and the others hostage," said Brains worriedly. "It's their last chance."
"Could they get into the Firefly?" Jeff asked.
"They could blow it back upright and then try to blast the door off." TinTin was speaking now. "Or the autolock; that's the other weak point. They probably wouldn't succeed the first time, but they're desperate. They don't want to die in the eruption but they don't fancy the idea of prison either."
Jeff frowned. All of what Brains and TinTin had said was true. As long as those inside the Firefly remained safe from the villains, everything would be all right. As the deadline neared they would most likely throw down their weapons and surrender, preferring loss of liberty to loss of life. But if Brancker managed to capture the Firefly's occupants it would put him in an agonising, impossible situation. He might have to choose between lives for which he felt a particularly deep concern - even if Halliwell and Brancker were to kill any of his family and friends, he wasn't sure he could abandon them to a fiery fate - and the security of the entire world.
"Mr Tracy, I think I have the solution," said Brains. "There's an inspection chamber for the underground pipes. They could try and hide down there. Then they'd also be safe from the lava. The lifts will have been put out of action by the fire but there's a series of ladders and walkways they can use instead."
"But would they reach it in time?" growled Jeff. He decided to take a calculated risk.
He called Gordon, warning him of the danger they were in from Halliwell and Brancker. "We think we've found a way to help you. Have you worked out how to get out of there yet?"
"Yes, we have."
"Then do it - and as quickly as you can!" He explained his plan.
Gordon and Penelope both stood on the box from the storage cupboard and then Penelope stood on Gordon's shoulders. This brought her close enough to the instrument panel to reach the button that would extend the autolock. She pressed it, then jumped down.
Strapped to Gordon's back was a pack containing various bits of rescue equipment. Grasping the makeshift handles he'd welded onto the magnetic clamps, one in each hand, he used them to haul himself up the wall of the cabin and into the autolock, and then climb up the now vertical tunnel. It was a painstakingly slow process, and one in which he could use only his hands. He would remove one hand from the wall, causing himself to fall back a short way, then heave himself up so that the clamp on that hand could attach itself to the wall a little higher than its previous position. Then he removed the other hand and the process was repeated.
"This is going to take a while," he informed the island. On Thunderbird Five, John saw that Brancker would reach the Firefly in just a few minutes. He called Jeff.
Somehow they needed to distract Brancker's attention long enough for Gordon and the others to escape from the Firefly and get to the underground inspection chamber. "Let me have a go," said Parker. He jumped back into the Rolls and drove into the plant, looking out for a sign of Brancker.
Brancker heard the car's engines, then saw the car come into view a few hundred yards away. Again he aimed the rifle and fired. The blast blew the car onto two wheels, and again only Parker's skill managed to prevent it from overturning.
Brancker ran after the car, consumed with hatred for his old enemy. Losing sight of it, he waited for it to reappear.
Gordon had reached the top of the tunnel, and swung himself onto what would normally be the vertical, but was now the horizontal, section of the autolock (which when the tunnel was folded out on a rescue would be at ground level, enabling access to be gained to a burning building). He unstrapped the equipment pack from his back and unloaded its contents. He lowered a rope ladder down to the others, securing it down with more magnetic clamps.
Penelope scrambled up the ladder with ease; Kate and Judy presumed she was used to this kind of thing. Soon she had joined Gordon and was crouched down beside him. Donald was the next to ascend, on the basis that if, no longer young and agile, he lost his footing and fell, Kate or Judy could catch him. The girls shouted their encouragement up at him. In the event he climbed up the ladder with surprising ease; probably it was the adrenalin produced by knowledge of the danger they were all in.
Kate and Judy managed the climb easily enough. Gordon opened the autolock, then undid the clamps fastening the ladder in place and hauled it up. They used it to climb down to the ground.
"We're out!" gasped Gordon.
Guided by Donald Holman, they hurried towards the hatch to the inspection chamber, hoping desperately that they could reach it before they were spotted.
Abandoning his wait for Parker to show up again, Brancker had started walking once more in the direction of Firefly. By now Halliwell had rejoined him. He had briefly considered continuing to search for the Rolls, but remembered that time was fast running out, his resentment at Parker's having shopped him to the police notwithstanding.
Then they heard the growl of Fab One's engines again, and the car shot into view, blasting at them with its cannon. Brancker and Halliwell dived to one side, bullets ricocheting off the tarmac around them. Again Brancker fired, and again narrowly missed the vehicle as it disappeared behind a building.
Parker knew it would only be a matter of time - a very short time - before it was hit. He decided it was time to give this up. He hoped the distraction had been sufficient to allow Gordon and the others to reach safety. Changing direction, he headed back towards Thunderbird One, all the time keeping the plant buildings between him and Brancker.
Brancker and Halliwell had almost reached the Firefly when they thought they heard the sound of running feet, some way off. They decided to investigate. They rounded a nearby outhouse just in time to see, in the distance, the figure of Lady Penelope disappear behind another building.
Halliwell stared after it, his face like thunder. “After them!" he yelled. They ran towards where they'd seen Penelope vanish from sight. They reached the building, and again just caught sight of a fleeing figure before it disappeared from view again.
Virgil watched these goings-on from Thunderbird Two, unwilling to intervene in case the saboteurs attempted to shoot him down.
The chase continued. Once or twice Brancker caught sight of their quarry and fired at them. The problem was that they couldn't shoot to kill, since a dead hostage was of doubtful value. And their quarry knew that. They could only try to scare them, firing alarmingly close to them and blasting chunks of rubble from the buildings around them, but the fugitives still ran on.
Halliwell guessed their intention. "They're going to hide in the inspection chamber!" Once he and Brancker were left on the surface with no way of getting at their prospective hostages, they would have to surrender. Probably International Rescue meant to pick up their friends either then or after the eruption, from which they would be safe in their hiding place.
If they could get into the inspection chamber too....and then take their hostages as planned...
By now, Scott had fully recovered from the effects of the tran-quiliser dart. Parker was giving him a run-down of everything that had happened while he was unconscious.
He consulted his watch. "The drill should penetrate in ten minutes. Let's get going." He hurried up the ladder into Thunderbird One, while Parker went back to the Rolls. While Thunderbird One blasted off the elegant car sped away from the danger zone.
"Not far to go now!" gasped Donald, as they ran through the still smoking ruin of the plant. All the same, he didn't think he could make it to the inspection chamber. By far the oldest of the party, he was finding it hard to keep up with the others. His constant lagging behind was slowing them down.
"You lot go on," he panted. "I'll try and hide somewhere." Kate opened her mouth to protest, fearing he might not be able to rejoin them in time, then realised there was no choice. He broke away from the rest of the group and hurried towards the ruins of the turbine hall. He ran into the gutted building and ducked down behind one wall, hoping Brancker and Halliwell hadn't spotted him concealing himself.
Following the directions Donald had given them, Gordon and the others found the building inside which the access hatch to the inspection chamber was situated, and dashed inside it. It took them a moment to shift a few chunks of rubble from around the hatch. Gordon forced it open with some equipment he had taken with him from the Firefly for the purpose.
Halliwell and Brancker entered the building just in time to see the upper half of Kate Holman start to disappear through the hatch. Just as Brancker shouted a warning and levelled the rifle, she vanished from view and the hatch began to slide shut.
They ran forward and threw themselves down beside it. Brancker managed to get one hand through the narrowing gap. Halliwell did the same, and they struggled to stop the hatch from closing. Below, standing on the walkway just beneath the hatch, Gordon, Kate, and Judy were all trying to resist their efforts. All they succeeded in doing was to trap their enemies' hands. Gradually but surely, the hatch began to slide open.
"Leave it," said Gordon. "There's a better way to do this."
Halliwell and Brancker felt the pressure on their hands suddenly relax. They slid the hatch back. Brancker, who had put down the rifle while he tried to open the hatch, snatched it up again. They scrambled through the opening onto the walkway - and immediately Gordon and Lady Penelope jumped them. Gordon put paid to Halliwell with a punch to the solar plexus, while Penny dealt Brancker two chopping blows to his thorax which caused him to fall to his knees in agony. Both men dropped their weapons, and the International Rescue members snatched them up.
"Right you two, behave yourselves," snapped Gordon, covering Halliwell with his stun gun.
He called the island. "Dad? We're in control down here."
"That's great. Listen, Gordon. I guess there's still time for Thunderbird Two to pick you up before the eruption, but if something went wrong at the last minute it'd be disastrous. I think it's better for you to stay where you are. We can get you out of there well before the second eruption."
They heard a banging from above. "That must be my father," said Kate, sighing with relief. They opened the hatch to let him in. Kate explained to him what was going on.
Donald marched up to Halliwell. "My daughter has told me what you tried to do to her," he snarled, white-faced and trembling with rage. "You...you monster!" For a moment it looked as if he would strike him.
Gordon gritted his teeth. He was inclined to let Holman - who, although in late middle age, looked angry enough right now to cause Halliwell serious damage - have his way, but knew it wasn't really in line with International Rescue's code. He grabbed the engineer by the arm, holding him back. All right, Don, take it easy." He spoke quietly into Holman's ear. "You're going to have to chill out. Otherwise it may make things difficult. They'll get their punishment in due course." He gave Holman a friendly pat on the shoulder.
Reluctantly, the engineer nodded. Gordon turned to speak to Brancker and Halliwell. "It's our creed to cherish all human life - whatever it's done. That principle has never been harder for me to stick to than now. So don't give us any trouble, or I might be tempted to set my friends on you." Brancker shot him a venomous look, while Halliwell merely shrugged.
"Right, we'd better start making our way down," he said. "We've got a long way to go."
Thunderbirds One and Two had touched down on the brow of a hill overlooking the plant. Fab One was on its way to join them. Vir-gil, Scott, Parker and their colleagues on Tracy Island were all checking their watches.
The last few minutes ticked away.
Many miles below them, the drill churned through the last few feet of rock and touched molten lava. Immediately it was melted into nothingness. The lava shot up the borehole with incredible force and in minutes was pouring from the hole in the floor of what had been the drillhouse in a seething, bubbling, white-hot tide.
The lava flowed outwards, breaking down the walls of the drill-house and collapsing it in a pile of rubble. It flowed on through the ruined complex, rising to about half the height of its buil-dings. It buried the vehicles parked outside the entrance and went on to swamp the neighbouring village, now evacuated, setting fire to all the houses.
Looking down from their vantage point, Scott and Virgil gasped in amazement. The countryside for miles around was buried beneath a vast boiling sea of lava which stretched away to the horizon.
As Gordon and his party descended further and further into the depths of the earth, it got gradually hotter and hotter. All found it heavy going, including Penelope despite the stamina Gordon knew she possessed. Gordon and Judy's protective suits might have insulated them from the worst of the heat but they had taken them off before leaving the Firefly, since the bulky outfits would only encumber them during their run through the plant from Halliwell and Brancker. They guessed there must be some kind of refrigeration system in operation - if not, conditions would be even more uncomfortable - but its effectiveness was limited.
And it was, as Gordon had said, a long way down. When they eventually reached the bottom, they were nearly out of breath and their legs ached painfully. They sat down on the rocky floor, each sighing with relief.
They looked around. They were in a vast chamber cut out of solid rock. The three huge, massively thick pipes emerged from one wall, about two or three feet above the ground to allow easy access for maintenance, and spanned the length of the chamber to disappear into the other. A few spare tools were stacked at the sides. The place was vast and echoing, with a cathedral-like atmosphere.
One of the pipes was bulging and distorting from the pressure of the steam inside. Something, presumably to do with the damage the fire would have wreaked to the pumps, had gone wrong and now too much water was flowing through the pipe. Or maybe there was a flaw in its construction. Whatever the reason, there was a strong possibility of serious injury, or worse, if it exploded. A thin jet of vapour was already emerging from a tiny fracture which had appeared in the metal. "I'd say that could burst pretty soon," said Penny.
"If it does, we could be in trouble," Gordon muttered. He gave Scott a call. "We're OK down here. You'd better get us out pretty quickly, though." He told his brother about the pipe.
"We'll do our best. Just sit tight and we'll be with you in.....I'd say half an hour, if not sooner."
As Fab One pulled up beside Thunderbirds One and Two, the telescopic legs of the heavy rescue vehicle were already elevating it above its pod. Scott was standing nearby, and Parker ran over to join him.
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
"Get them out of course. We can go under the lava in the Mole. But we'd better hurry."
"I want to go down with you," said Parker fiercely. "Penelope's done a lot for me." He didn't like the idea of her being down there with Halliwell and Brancker for any length of time, even if she was in control of the situation.
Scott didn't reckon it would do any harm. "All right."
A sudden alarming thought occurred to Scott. "Hey, Virgil, we've been forgetting the state of the crust. The penetration will have weakened it, and the vibrations from the Mole's drill could make it worse."
"Don't worry, I've just had a word with Brains," Virgil replied from inside the Mole's cabin. "He says we should be all right for the moment. And we don't need the drill for the return journey, we can use the caterpillar tracks."
Parker watched in awe as the drilling machine was brought out of the pod, its giant screw gleaming in the moonlight. It halted a short distance from Thunderbird Two, and the access ladder was lowered down. Scott and Parker clambered up it and joined Virgil in the cabin, strapping themselves into their seats.
"Reckon this is the first time you've ever taken part in a proper rescue mission, Parker," Virgil smiled. The butler was looking round the cabin with interest.
"Well, here we go." The cradle supporting the cylindrical body of the Mole proper tilted forward and its screw began to rotate, spinning faster and faster until it became a blur of whirling metal. The whine of the massive drill grew louder, changing slightly in tone as it met the resistance of solid ground. Great clouds of earth were thrown up as the Mole sank deeper and deeper beneath the surface. In a minute it had disappeared altogether, leaving behind it an enormous hole in the ground. It slowed down a bit as the soil gave way to hard rock, but not much.
"This will be about the deepest the Mole's ever gone," Scott told them.
They were three miles down before Virgil angled the Mole upwards until it was travelling in a straight horizontal line. He studied the temperature gauge. "Heat rising to half maximum tolerance."
"As long as it's only half," Parker muttered.
"Brains recently carried out some modifications to the Mole to make it more heat-proof," said Virgil. "He really does think of everything. He reckons that pipe won't burst just yet, by the way."
There were ten miles to go and the Mole was travelling at a rate of several hundred yards a minute. This, as Scott explained to Parker, was its maximum speed; all in all, he felt it was best to get their friends back to the surface as quickly as possible.
"Are we all armed?" he asked. The other two nodded.
"It might be a wise precaution," he told them. "Just in case we get any trouble from those two hardcases."
In the inspection chamber Penelope, Kate and Donald were eyeing the bulging pipe uneasily. Halliwell and Brancker were sitting together a little way off, Gordon and Judy guarding them with their own weapons.
They chatted to pass the time until their rescuers arrived. "I still don't see how you got involved in all this, Penelope," Kate said. She remembered Penny's secret service activities, and realised the answer must lie there somewhere.
There was something else that had been puzzling her. "Um, Penny,
I've been noticing one or two things and....." she glanced at her father.
Penny smiled wryly. "Am I with International Rescue? Yes, I am." She had been trying hard not to give that impression that she was, but such appearances were difficult to keep up. She guessed the EADS had given it away before anything else. Kate had of course already guessed that Judy was a member of the organisa-tion.
Penny looked hard at both of them. "You'd better not let that leak out."
"We won't," they chorused.
"Changing the subject," said Donald, "what's going to happen to
our two friends over there?" He indicated Brancker and Halliwell.
"I mean, they must have a long spell in prison ahead of them after all this, surely?"
Penny frowned. "I hope so. Unfortunately it's going to be impossible for Gordon, Judy or me to appear in court without revealing our membership of the organisation. However, I think quite a few newspapers will be interested in that tape."
She patted her left pocket, feeling the solid, reassuring shape of the tape recorder. Or rather she would have felt it if it had been there.
Her eyes and mouth opened wide with horror. "Oh, no! It's gone!" Kate and her father looked at each other in dismay.
"But how....." She was sure she'd had it all the time they were in the shelter. "I must have left it in the Firefly." Probably the tape had slipped out of her pocket while she'd been climbing up the autolock. "Oh no, the lava..."
Her face twisted in anguish and rage. For a moment it looked as if she was going to cry. Instead, she erupted in a torrent of rather unLadylike language.
Her anger spent itself and her head slumped forward. Donald Holman looked disconsolate too. "Cheer up, Dad," said Kate, putting her arm around her father's shoulders. He smiled at her affectionately.
"Yes, cheer up," said Penny, brightening. "I've just had a thought. The Firefly is obviously capable of withstanding extremely high temperatures. Is it possible it would survive immersion in lava?" She knew that was something Brains wasn't sure about either.
Donald gaped in astonishment. "You've got to be joking!"
"Just an idea," she said.
Holman noticed something on the far wall of the chamber, and astonishment and curiosity dispelled his gloom. "Good Lord. That shouldn't be there."
He pointed towards a squarish opening in the rock some ten feet high by eight feet wide. It began directly at the floor of the chamber. It looked as if a tunnel had been made in the rock, stretching away as far as they eye could see. Its walls were surely too smooth for it to have been created by any natural process.
Holman's excitement gave way to unease. "That's been deliberately excavated...but who by? No-one at the plant, that's for sure. And why?"
"How often does anyone come down here?" asked Penelope.
"Not very - there's hardly any need to. The last time I did was a month ago, and there was no sign of anything unusual then. To my knowledge no-one's been down since, and if they had they'd have reported it."
"Surely if there was some clandestine purpose behind it, the per-petrators would have to be rather lacking in commonsense," Pen-elope mused. "There'd always be the danger of someone discovering it. Which suggests to me that....." She paused.
They stared at her curiously. After a moment she continued hesitantly, still not sure whether the suggestion she was about to make wasn't too incredible. "That whoever made that tunnel may not be....."
Kate grew tired of waiting for Penelope to spit it out. She got up and walked towards the tunnel. "I think I'll take a closer look."
"Be careful, Kate," said her father worriedly.
Kate knew his warning was justified, but curiosity and a desire to relieve her boredom had got the better of her.
"Don't go too far," Donald shouted as she entered the tunnel.
Gordon, meanwhile, continued to eye Halliwell and Brancker with contempt. He saw that Halliwell was swaying from side to side, and seemed to have trouble keeping his eyes open. He supposed he ought to see what was the matter with him.
As Gordon moved towards him Halliwell gave a groan and slumped to the ground. "He's passed out from the heat," Gordon realised. It had proved possible to acclimatise to the high temperatures at this depth, but it was still uncomfortable in the chamber. Some people could stand it better than others.
"Don't worry, it's not likely to be fatal." Dismissively he turned away.
Suddenly, Halliwell came back to life, bounding to his feet and snatching Brancker's rifle from Gordon's grasp before anyone could react.
"Brancker!" he screamed, as Gordon tried to snatch the weapon back and a fierce struggle ensued. Brancker tried to capitalise on the consternation caused by Halliwell's initiative, lunging at Judy who was trying to get a shot at Halliwell without hitting Gordon. He knocked her to the ground, grabbing for her stun gun. Lady Penelope joined the fray, jumping on Brancker's back and digging her nails into the flesh of his cheek. With an almighty scream he leaped away from Judy, struggling to throw Penelope off.
Kate came running out of the tunnel, her face white. "There's... there's something in there....."
Brancker succeeded in dislodging Penny from his back. She twisted as she fell to the ground, and managed to land on all fours. He aimed a vicious kick at her, but she leaped back onto her haunches, grabbed him round the ankle and then stood straight up. Brancker's other foot was pulled off the ground and his backside made contact rather painfully with the floor of the chamber, causing him to let out a piercing yell. "I'll teach you to try and do that to a Lady," she hissed.
Gordon was still struggling fiercely with Halliwell for possession of the rifle. It went off accidentally and a section of the rock wall of the chamber exploded, blasting chunks of rubble from it.
Then, to Gordon's surprise, Halliwell ceased struggling and rel-axed his grip on the rifle, which fell from his hand. He took a few paces backward, staring with mouth wide open at something behind them.
From the opening in the wall had emerged four human-like figures. Human-like, yes. But clearly not human. Everyone stared at them in amazement, hardly believing what they saw.
The creatures seemed made out of solid stone, ridged and corru-gated so that it looked like scales. In their bulbous domed heads was an opening which presumably served as a mouth, but no nose. There were two eyes, chunks of red crystal that seemed to burn and glow with an internal fire.
Judy swallowed, Gordon uttered an expletive, and Kate trembled with fear, her father putting a protective arm around her.
Lady Penelope regarded them curiously, unafraid. "Goodness me, how interesting."
"What are they?" gasped Halliwell. "What are they?" He continued to repeat the words mechanically.
The strange creatures stood where they were, frighteningly motionless save for a gentle, almost imperceptible swaying of their bodies. It was impossible to read any emotion in what passed for their faces.
"I'd say they were made out of some sort of silicon," Gordon said, trying to cover his fear with scientific interest. "Like the rock snakes on Mars. Only they're intelligent - at least I guess they are. They look like humans, sort of....."
The initial shock of seeing the creatures had by now worn off. "We...we don't mean you any harm," smiled Judy. She extended a hand in friendship. It was ignored.
The creatures remained still, making no sound. Were they studying them? Or were they as taken aback at seeing the humans as the humans had been at seeing them?
Then one of the silicon creatures raised a hand and pointed towards the mouth of the tunnel, a clear indication that they should go into it.
Gordon shook his head, though he had no idea whether these beings could understand what the gesture meant. He hoped to make them understand what he was going to say by the tone of his voice. Raising both hands in a placatory gesture, he stepped forward. "Look, I'm sure we'd all like to come and have a drink with you. But if we stay here we're all going to be killed. Something pretty disastrous is going to happen soon." He decided to try a bit of sign language, gesturing to indicate a large explosion. The silicon beings failed to understand it, backing away in what looked like alarm.
The creatures clustered tightly round them in a rather intimidat-ing manner.
"It doesn't look like we have any choice," said Gordon. They all started moving towards the mouth of the tunnel.
All except Darren Brancker. Before anyone could stop him he had run to where the rifle lay and snatched it up.
"No!" shouted Gordon. "That's the worst thing you could..."
But Brancker had snapped. The strain of recent events, the threat of capture and imprisonment, and now this, had made him tense and angry. "I couldn't care less!" he snarled. "I don't know what game these things are playing but I'm not doing it their way. I'm not gonna hang around here and die."
Selecting one of the silicon creatures at random, he fired the rifle at it. The creature's body disintegrated into a shower of dust.
There was a shocked, nerve-wracking silence. Then one of the creatures raised an arm. They saw its hand, which was very like a human's in shape, drop away on a sort of hinge, revealing a hole through which they saw that the creature's arm appeared to be hollow. A jet of flame shot along and out of the arm and Brancker screamed in agony, dropping the rifle, as it struck him. For a brief moment his whole body was enveloped in fire, then it vapor-ised, disappearing in a cloud of black smoke. When that had dispersed, all that remained of Brancker were a few smouldering scraps of clothing and lumps of charred, shrivelled flesh.
"Like you said, Gordon," muttered Judy. "It doesn't seem we have any choice."
Clearly the stone creatures had interpreted Brancker's action as a sign of hostility. Their manner was rougher now, more aggress-ive.
One of them lifted an arm and pointed at the stun gun in Judy's hand. Whatever they were, they could obviously reason. They had realised the gun, too, was some kind of weapon. Judy threw it on the floor and kicked it towards the creature, which bent and picked it up.
Fascinating, thought Gordon. Though they were made out of solid rock, they were capable of flexible movement. If only Brains were here. Even though biology wasn't really his subject - he supposed all kinds of living creature, whether or not they were organic in composition, fell within the realm of biology - he'd surely be enthralled.
One of the creatures picked up the rifle from the steaming pool in which it lay, and then the party went off into the tunnel.
They made their way through a whole network of tunnels, doors of a crystalline material opening before them and closing after them. Soon they arrived in a much larger chamber, where the rock was sculpted into a variety of weird shapes. It was like some vast subterranean grotto. A number of other rock creatures were waiting for them. They got the impression they were in some kind of meeting place, a forum where important matters were discussed.
So what, thought each of the humans, happens now?
Back in the inspection chamber, a section of the rock wall cracked and disintegrated, and the Mole's drill burst through it. The whole of the drill emerged, then part of the main body. Once the exit hatch was clear of the rock the drill stopped moving and the Mole shuddered to a halt.
Scott, Virgil and Parker climbed down from the drilling machine, their stun guns ready in case of trouble. Realising that the chamber was empty, they stopped and looked at one another.
"Where the ‘eck are they?" asked Parker.
"I dunno," replied Scott, his alarm mounting rapidly. Then he noticed the opening in the far wall of the chamber, and pointed towards it. "Look! They could have gone through there." They searched the chamber, but could find no other openings.
"It's the only answer," Virgil agreed. "But why?"
"They wouldn't have done it unless something was wrong," muttered Parker.
"I guess you're right. Anyway, let's go take a look."
They moved towards the opening, keeping as far away from the bul-ging pipes as possible. As they neared the hole Scott's boot squelched in something soft and he looked down. "Yeccch! What's that?"
They bent down to examine the last remains of Darren Brancker. "I'd say it's definitely organic," said Virgil. "It's warm...been subjected to some source of intense heat." He picked up one of the scraps of clothing. "Doesn't look like this is from one of our uniforms. But I can't tell for sure, it's all so burnt up."
Scott felt his blood chill. If this was Judy...
They moved on, and after a while came to a point where their way was blocked by a wall of crystalline material.
"What is this stuff?" Parker asked wonderingly, running his hand over it. "Ain't never seen anything like it before."
Virgil studied it thoughtfully. "It must be a door of some kind," he decided. "Gordon and the others must have come this way, we've already worked that out. And since they can't have vanished into thin air, they must be behind this thing."
"And doors are my speciality," Parker commented. "Beats me how you open it, though." He couldn't see any kind of mechanism for the purpose.
They punched, kicked and prodded the wall, or door, or whatever it should be called, repeatedly but couldn't get it to budge. And Scott didn't think a stun gun, even at maximum intensity, would do much good. "We'll have to blow or cut our way through," he said. "The stuff we want is all in the Mole. I'll go back and get it."
He ran back to the drilling machine, where he took a couple of laser cutting torches from the equipment store, along with several canisters of cobaltesium explosive in case the torches didn't work.
When he returned he found the "door" had partially retracted into the ceiling, leaving a large opening. Virgil and Parker weren't there, but someone else - something else - was.
The stone creature pointed at the gun in his hand. He deduced that it wanted him to throw it down. After a moment of indecision he obeyed. He wasn't happy about leaving himself unprotected, but there was no guessing what powers these strange beings possessed.
It might not pay to anger them.
The creature pointed down at the gun and a jet of flame stabbed at it, reducing it to a steaming pool of molten metal. The creat-ure beckoned him to follow it. It didn't seem to regard the bag of equipment slung over his shoulder as a weapon, so he was allowed to keep it. Scott followed his strange captor, wondering what the Hell they'd all got into now, and reflecting that this was just what they didn't need in the circumstances.
"Wonder how long these things..." Judy remembered that the stone creatures seemed, at least, to be intelligent - "these....people have been down here for?"
"Who knows," shrugged Donald. "But I have an idea they've been excavating these tunnels for a while. They must have broken through into the inspection chamber. That would have kindled their curiosity somewhat. Then we came along, and somehow they became aware we were here."
"How exactly did they kill Brancker?" asked Kate, shuddering at the memory of his death.
"They must have a source of heat stored inside their bodies, and can draw on it whenever they need to as a means of defence. Being made of silicon, they can stand extremes of temperature much better than organic life forms - that's how they're OK down here - so it doesn't harm them. Or perhaps they're protected from it in the same way that a snake isn't poisoned by its own venom." Donald was more of a geologist than a biologist, but bearing in mind their silicon-based metabolism he supposed the creatures could be said to fall within the area of his study.
"What do they need to be defended against?" asked Penelope. "Each other? I suppose not...if the heat inside their bodies doesn't harm them, it wouldn't be much use as a weapon."
"It may not work like that," Donald said.
"The way that one's hand fell away. Do you suppose they could be artificial...robots?"
"No. I think they've adapted, augmented themselves, in order to do certain things more effectively. Silicon life forms must be more susceptible to that sort of thing than organic ones like us. Make cuts in a person’s flesh and you get lots of blood, very messy. And damage bones and nerve endings.”
"Never mind all that," Kate said. "What are they going to do with us?"
The creatures had surrounded them again, forcing them into a tight circle. Their weapons had been placed on a table at the side of the room; Gordon guessed they intended at some point to examine them, taking them apart to see how they worked. For the moment, though, their main interest was the six humans. These creatures were so utterly different from anything they'd encountered before.
Kate felt a stone hand running through her hair, and flinched away.
"It's all right," said Gordon. "They're only curious." It seemed sensible to go along with what the stone people wanted.
The stone creature continued to stroke Kate's hair. The feel of the soft yellow material was entirely alien to it. Strange, un-settling, but also fascinating. Nearby Penny's hair was also receiving attention.
What was this substance that the creatures had on top of their heads? It wasn't the same colour on all of them. One's was reddish-brown, another's yellow but with a strong red tint. A third had black hair with flecks of grey in it and a fourth's was entirely grey. Did the colour difference mean it would feel different too? The stone people examined first Judy's hair, then Gordon's, then Halliwell's, then Donald's.
On the first creature, the stuff felt much the same as it had on the yellowheads. But the other three's seemed coarser.
The stone people had already realised that these other three creatures were different from the rest. Essentially they were the same species but their configuration wasn't quite the same. They were more heavily built and the body was differently shaped.
Gordon guessed what they must be thinking. He wondered what they would make of a black person, or TinTin, whether the ethnic differences would confuse them.
Parker and Virgil were brought in. The others felt relief at this, even though their rescuers were now in the same situation as they.
The stone creatures began to prod and feel them all over, the two new arrivals included. Halliwell recoiled with a scowl.
"'Ere, watch it, mate," growled Parker. Kate also flinched.
"We'll just have to grin and bear it, I'm afraid," said Penelope. "I suspect it's either this or worse." All the same, she earnestly hoped the stone people wouldn't start taking off their clothes to see what they looked like underneath them.
Her worst fears were realised as one of the creatures grasped her by the shoulder and started to peel away the fabric of her suit. She closed her eyes and thought of England.
Fortunately, Fate intervened. She felt the ground tremble slightly beneath her feet, and at the same time the stonemen abandoned their interest in the humans. Their bodies swayed about violently, and they began making low moaning noises. Even given the difficulty of analysing their body language, it was obvious they were in distress.
After a few moments the tremor subsided. Again the stone creatures clustered round the humans; this time their movements were not so much threatening as urgent and purposeful.
They had felt earth tremors before, but never as serious as this. The Earth was angry and its anger had unsettled and frightened them. What did it mean?
Perhaps these creatures knew. They were so different that they must know many things the People didn't.
But how could they communicate with them?
"They must have got them out by now," said Jeff for the fourth time.
"If you're worried, Son, admit it," said Grandma. "We all are."
He had called his team four times in the last twenty minutes, without any response. "What the heck could have gone wrong down there?"
Grandma sighed. "Any number of things, Jeff. Any number of things."
"You know," Jeff said. "It's at times like this that I regret ever having made International Rescue a family business."
"There are advantages to it, you know," his mother replied. "We work together better. And we've never allowed our clan loyalties to get in the way of saving others. The Tracys are an exceptional family."
"But it hurts more when any of us are in danger," Jeff said.
"Well, it was your choice to set the organisation up. And you could always let the UN take it over."
Jeff turned to face her. "Are you saying I should?"
Grandma smiled. "No. I feel that somehow we're meant to work together as a family...and you've always trusted my judgement, haven't you?"
"Yes," he replied, his gloom dispelling a little. "Yes, I have." He called the space station, wondering if John could come up with an answer.
"I'll just check, Dad. Here we go.....Well, I can see Thunder-birds One and Two, and Fab One, and the Mole's trolley. But there's no sign of movement anywhere."
Jeff sighed. "OK thanks, John. Maybe Alan can help when he comes within range. Though I guess it'll be too late by then."
"How long to go before the eruption?" Kyrano asked.
"An hour and a half," Jeff said. "I'm not going to call them again for a bit." He knew that probably wouldn't serve any purpose.
Kyrano could always tell by now when Jeff needed some coffee. He went off to fetch it. Jeff had always insisted he didn't have to carry out such menial tasks, but Kyrano was equally insistent that he should. Eventually Jeff had decided it would be simpler just to let him do it.
While Kyrano headed for the kitchen Jeff sat at his desk, grim and silent, his pen drawing meaningless squiggles on the notepad in front of him. As he'd always said, the waiting was the worst part of a rescue operation.
The earth tremor (the first sign, though the stone people did not know it, of the imminent catastrophe which threatened them all) had clearly shaken the creatures up a lot. For an uneasy moment Gordon wondered if they thought the humans had caused it.
Then one of the creatures placed a hand on Penelope's forehead, at the same time cocking its head slightly.
And she realised. The creatures didn't communicate through speech at all.
"I think they're telepathic," she told her fellow humans. She guessed that the physical contact wasn't generally necessary among the stonemen themselves, but helped if something had made tele-pathic communion difficult, or if the life forms they needed to converse with belonged to another species, and might not possess the same powers as they.
She tried to fill her head with pleasant, friendly thoughts.
My name is Penelope Creighton-Ward. I am a friend. I do not want to harm you.
The other creatures like me, they're MY friends. They will not harm you either. She almost choked, thinking of Halliwell. She wondered if she was doing them a disservice by not telling them the truth about him.
The other humans were doing the same as Penelope, as the stonemen - or stonewomen, or whatever - each reached out and touched the forehead of one of them.
Hi! I'm Kate Holman.
Good day to you. My name is Donald Holman.
I am Sir Nigel Halliwell, Chairman of International Nuclear Enterprises PLC. Halliwell listed his other achievements and positions, trying to make the whole catalogue sound impressive.
Judith Price - call me Judy.
Gordon Tracy. Virgil is my brother...I don't know if you know what that means.
'Allo! Herbert Aloysius Parker, at your service. Just call me Parker, everyone else does. Not surprising really ain't it, when your other names are so naff. I don't know what my old mum was playing at, calling me that. He realised he was rambling in his uncertainty about what he should say.
Each of them, like Penelope, tried to give the impression they were nice people. Then, when they thought they'd done as much as they could towards that end, they started to talk - or rather think - about their backgrounds and interests. About where they'd been to school, and to university; about their jobs, their friends and relatives. Gordon and Virgil thought about the work of Intern-ational Rescue, stressing that its business was to save lives, to prevent death, destruction and chaos wherever it might threaten. Penelope gave a rough outline of human society and its technol-ogical achievements. She wondered whether a rundown of her species' history would be of interest to the stone people, then, hoping they wouldn't pick up on the thought, decided that it would be too lurid and violent. If they gave the impression humans were an aggressive and untrustworthy species, they might end up sharing Darren Brancker's fate.
Halliwell described his work as Chairman of INEP. Parker confined his cv to what he'd done for International Rescue and as Penel-ope's handyman, thinking it somehow unwise to mention his criminal activities.
The creature attempting to commune with Halliwell stepped back, puzzled. It tried to commune instead with Gordon, and after a moment moved away from him to stand very still, as if in deep contemplation of something.
It couldn't make sense of what Halliwell had been thinking, but one thing was apparent. The signals it was getting from him had been different from Gordon's. This creature was saying one thing when actually it thought another. Trying to disguise its true intentions. It had no idea why it would do that but there was something odd, disturbing about the deception.
Virgil decided he ought to concentrate on the explosion, and the thought that it would destroy the creatures. Unfortunately, his thoughts of death and destruction seemed only to alarm and anta-gonise the creature touching him, and he was forced to change the subject.
The creatures were puzzled. These beings' thought patterns were entirely alien to them. What did they mean? All they were getting from them was a jumble of strange and utterly incomprehensible signals.
"They don't seem to understand," Halliwell commented.
"I reckon they will, eventually," said Virgil. "French and English are both written, and spoken, languages, and it's possible for a user of one language to speak and write in the other. Let's hope it's the same with telepathy; if they can understand each other's thoughts, they can learn to understand ours too."
"Maybe, but "eventually" is a bit too long a time," Halliwell snapped. "We've got to get out of this place quickly or we'll be roasted alive!" The others looked at him. He was close to panicking. If he did, it could cause trouble, Gordon thought.
At that moment Scott was brought in, but the stone creatures ignored him, their attention taken up with the others. He stood looking on in some bemusement.
Halliwell, having found like Virgil that thoughts of the imminent eruption didn't have the desired effect on their captors, forced himself to stay calm and try to think of some other tactic. He presented himself as someone who could help them, who could promote their interests. It would be advantageous to get on the right side of these creatures. However, his thought patterns only seemed to disquiet them, to his embarrassment and annoyance.
Several of the other humans were also looking uneasy. Penelope was beginning to feel a twinge of fear herself. She struggled to stay calm, to find the answer to their predicament. They just didn't seem to be getting through to their captors, and time was fast running out.
Then she found the answer, or what she hoped was the answer.
The creatures had seemed most responsive to her when she'd been trying to project her friendliness, her liking and care for others. Their reactions had been subtly different. Reason didn't seem to get through to them, because of the difference between human thought patterns and their own. But if not reason....there was something else which might make a more vivid impression.
"Strong emotions!" she cried suddenly. "That's the key! Love! Joy! Sadness! But not evil or hate..."
What could she think of? One thing came immediately to mind. Her wedding to Charlie. What a happy day...a wonderful day......
Then the crash. The funeral, which she'd barely been able to attend, such was her grief. She arrived there supported between her mother and sister, who along with other members of the family escorted her from the church as soon as the proceedings were over. She had spent the ceremony in a kind of horrified trance, staring ahead in a zombie-like fashion as if unable to comprehend what was happening. She felt a tear start to trickle from one eye. Her stoneman reached out, wonderingly it seemed, and touched the drop of liquid, smearing it into her cheek.
Parker thought back to his happy, if somewhat dysfunctional, childhood. His mother and the lovely meals she'd have ready for him when he came home from school. Hours spent playing with other boys on Hackney Marshes, getting into all sorts of escapades....Mum explaining to him that his father had walked out on them. Then his wife doing the same thing to him after he'd become addicted to crime. His feelings as he came home, found the place empty and realised he'd gone too far. Meeting up with Penelope and realising he had an opportunity to make a new and much better life for himself. Lil, Penny's cook and house-keeper, who he was more than a little soft on. Simple, but to him sublime, pleasures like playing bingo, drinking with his mates down the pub, watching the football on the telly with a few cans of Lager.
Donald....Courting his wife, when they were both young students together at Oxford. He remembered in particular one glorious summer afternoon which they'd decided to spend boating on the Thames. They'd thrown away the oars and just let the boat drift away downstream. Lying back, they looked up at the vast blue sky which for millions of years had watched over the affairs of men and contemplated their future. And took the decision to get married.
His joy at Kate's birth. Cradling the new-born infant in his arms. Watching her grow into an attractive young woman.
Kate.....her pleasure at learning she'd got a First. Being photographed standing between her proud parents at her graduation ceremony, in gown and mortar board. Landing a fairly senior job at a leading London hospital, not bad for someone as young as she was.
The first time in her medical career that she'd saved a patient's life. He'd suffered a heart attack while being wheeled to the operating theatre, and only the quick thinking of Kate and her team had prevented it from being fatal. The warm glow of joy and pride she felt at his words of thanks.
Gordon and Virgil recalled the deaths of their mother and grand-father in an avalanche at a Colorado ski-ing resort, their rushing to the scene to find the house almost completely buried, crying unashamedly as they struggled to clear away the mounds of snow with their bare hands....the joy on their father's face and his eyes shining as he watched Thunderbird One soar into the stratosphere on its maiden flight, the first of the machines which would ensure, as much as anything could, that tragedies such as that which had robbed him of Lucille and his father would never happen again.
Gordon..being told that his water-ski-ing accident had not been fatal and he could and to swim again, to indulge the love of his life, to feel the water’s cool and refreshing kiss on his skin and the sheer joy of being able to plough through it with ease, invigorated….Virgil as an astronaut walking on the surface of the Moon, of another world, and looking up at his own world from it, for the first time…
Judy...Her father's work for the UN; the pride she felt when an important international conference over which he was presiding had been successfully concluded, and she knew that he'd brought peace to the world. The congratulations of her schoolmates. Her feelings for Scott.
Christmas parties, holidays by the sea, Sunday outings to the countryside or the park, assorted family gatherings. Happy times. Then, silly as it seemed, a kitten she had been given as a present for an unexpected period of good behaviour. They'd been made for each other, she and that animal. It was always her lap it wanted to sit on, always her that it wanted to play with. Right from the time of their first introduction, it would remain firmly loyal to her. She was sure cats knew, as humans did, that you were still the same person from childhood to adulthood, despite the changes in personality, outlook and behaviour. Judy came to love the animal and its mannerisms, with the same intensity, it seemed, that you loved a person, though not in the same sort of way. Its company cheered her up whenever she was upset about something. She cast her mind back through the years, and again she was cuddling its warm furry body, rubbing the side of its head with her knuckles, hearing the gentle rumbling noise as it purred in content.
The kitten had been her friend and they'd grown up together. Of course for a cat, growing old happened a lot faster than it did with a human. Shelley remained fairly healthy and active up until her fifteenth year; then, suddenly, a lot of things started going wrong with her. She'd have little fits and heart attacks; her back legs started to weaken; injuries took longer to heal. It was her kidneys that finished her off in the end. One week she lost all interest in her food and took to spending most of her time sitting in the garden, aware as old and ailing cats often are that the end was near. Judy had gone out and tried talking to the animal and stroking it, hoping desperately, but pointlessly as she more or less knew, for some spark of life. She got no response. But there was a faint, very faint, mewl of protest – or of acknowledgement? - accompanied by the feeble lifting of a paw, as she picked up the weakened body, weighing it seemed barely more than a feather, and carried it out to the car for that last dreadful journey to the vet's, with the animal huddled on the back seat under a blanket, staring into space with listless eyes.
Sad emotions. But born of love, because it was the love you felt for those no longer with you that made their loss such a terrible thing.
Sir Nigel Halliwell thought hard about what Penelope had said. Strong emotions. What kind of strong emotions did he feel? The love of power, of wealth, of the ability to make people do what you wanted.......and to hurt them when they didn't. Or even if they did. The joy of inflicting pain entirely for its own sake. Immediately he began to suppress those feelings. Because evil knows what evil is, and that it is wrong, though it does not care. He must hide his true nature from the stone creatures.
The creature touching him turned to its fellows, who had stepped back from the other humans, as if temporarily overcome by the flood of emotional signals they had been receiving from them. They were conferring with each other in low, purring voices; using speech, which normally they hardly ever did. What the sensations they had picked up from the humans meant, they could not yet be sure, but they were convinced it was nothing hostile. It was even....pleasing.
Opening telepathic communication with them, Halliwell's stoneman told them that he was again masking its true feelings, deliberately suppressing his thoughts. Its reasoning told it there must be some purpose behind this, but it couldn't see what that purpose might be.
The stone creatures advanced on Halliwell in a manner he didn't particularly care for. Penelope grinned with satisfaction; they'd obviously cottoned on to what he was.
So, thought Halliwell. They understood, or were beginning to understand, his true nature. If they were planning to harm him, there was nothing he could do. Except.......
He had nothing to lose. He moved towards them as they approached, unafraid, a look of savage determination on his face. They stopped, puzzled. He touched one of the stonemen on the arm.
The creatures realised he was inviting them to open communications with them again. Deciding there must be some purpose in his doing so, they each placed one hand on his temple.
Concentrating hard, he projected his personality, projected the evil within it. He gave full vent to his feelings, no longer hiding them. So he was evil. What about it? He didn't care.
The creatures had experience of benign human emotions. Now they were going to see the other sort. See whether they liked it. If they did........
He filled his mind with cruel, wicked thoughts. With relish he recalled the troubles he'd inflicted on his employees, his business rivals, even his family. The dirty tricks, the ruthless sackings which often stemmed from mere dislike of someone rather than financial necessity. The immense power a big employer like him had to damage or destroy people's lives, to wreck their standard of living and their ability to affect the world around them. The perverse, but exquisite, thrill he got from his knowledge of that power.
The joy of destroying people's confidence in themselves, their hopes for the future, the quality of their lives. The intoxicating taste of wealth and prestige, the scent of fear from those he bullied and threatened. The death and destruction he hoped to cause throughout the world, after which he would reshape it entirely as he wished.
Entirely as he wished. It was better than any other emotion in the universe, the sheer delight of being able to do, and to have, exactly what one wanted.
His eyes gleamed and his lips formed a grin of utter, horrifying evil. His whole face was alive with a terrible exultation.
After a while the creatures stepped back from Halliwell. They were silent for a moment, their heads nodding slowly. Their low moaning voices changed in pitch and tone; now they sounded agit-ated, unhappy.
An eternity seemed to pass while the other humans wondered what was going on. Then, to their dismay, a number of the stone creatures broke away from the rest and went to stand by Halliwell. Penelope had the impression they had identified him as some kind of leader.
More of the stone creatures joined them. The same thought was in each of the humans' minds. This was not good.
Roughly half of the stone people were now grouped around Halli-well. To the humans' immense relief, no more seemed disposed to join him. Their spirits rose considerably as the rest of the creatures began clustering protectively around them.
A wolfish look had come over Halliwell's face. He looked trium-phantly at Lady Penelope, eyes shining fanatically. "The demons that live beneath the ground! I was right! The prophecy is fulfilled!" At first the stone creatures had had no understanding of emotion, of morality, of good and evil. But the humans' arrival had changed that. Now he had given some of them, at least, an understanding of and a liking for the ways of evil, he could recruit them to his cause. He could destroy International Rescue and escape to the surface with his allies. Then he would find out if there were more of the creatures in other parts of the world. With the powers they possessed, they could be a formidable force in the execution of his plans.
Virgil Tracy realised what had happened. "All intelligent life forms have individual personalities," he said. "Individual wills. Whatever their...metabolism. Some of them have chosen one way, the others...."
The stonemen standing round the humans realised that they meant no harm, that they were good, and must be defended. And because the humans were good, the images they had projected in their minds of death and destruction could not be evidence of hatred on their part. It must be a warning of some kind. Something dangerous was about to happen. Before they could say as much to those of its fellows who had sided with Halliwell, the industrialist pointed towards the humans and the group of stonemen surrounding them.
"Destroy them!" he screamed. He had told the creatures that the humans stood in the way of their achieving his, and their, objective, which was to conquer both the human world and the underground world of the stone people, so that they could delight in causing pain to their inhabitants - and particularly the humans, who could be tortured in a wide variety of inventive and pleasing ways.
Immediately the two factions of stonemen began blasting each other with their heat rays. In seconds, many of them had been shattered into smoking rubble. Where the creatures were too close together to use the heat rays, they pounded at each other with their massive stone fists. For the moment the humans were forgotten. Having anticipated this, Halliwell grinned in exhilaration.
"Come on, let's get out of here!" Scott shouted. He ran to the bench where their weapons had been placed and began snatching them up.
It seemed wrong to abandon the stone creatures who had defended them, but there was little choice. While the creatures were engaged in fighting one another, the humans made their getaway, running from the chamber after Scott who had memorised the route on the way there, realising they might need to if they succeeded in escaping.
Back in the chamber, when he had dashed to retrieve their weaponry, Scott had been aware of someone snatching up Brancker's rifle. In his eagerness to get out he hadn't realised that it was Halliwell.
They ran down the tunnel, the industrialist among them. Interested only in escaping to safety, he was quite prepared to abandon his allies.
Hopefully, if there were any other stone creatures about the place their attention would be distracted from the humans by the battle going on in the council chamber.
Two of the stone creatures did appear before them, and one raised an arm to shoot at Gordon. He ducked just in time and the jet of flame whooshed over his head. Before it could fire again Halliwell had blown it to pieces. Halliwell dodged the heat ray from the other stoneman and blasted it, too, into flaming debris.
They came up to one of the crystalline doors, skidding to a halt. Scott took one of the explosives from the Mole, attached it to the door and triggered the timer. He stood back, yelling at the others to do the same. A few seconds later the bomb went off and the crystalline material was shattered into thousands of glittering fragments.
He repeated the process whenever they came to another of the doors. Soon they were in the inspection chamber. They ran for the Mole.
Halliwell paused and glanced round. None of the stone creatures were in sight. He raised the rifle and aimed it at Lady Penelope's back.
A bullet struck his hand and numbed it. He cried out in pain and the weapon dropped from his nerveless fingers.
"Figured you'd try something like that," Parker said. "Now leave that thing where it is and move," he ordered, keeping Halliwell covered with the gun. He watched the industrialist all the time as they approached the Mole.
Then the Earth shook again, much more violently than on any of the previous occasions, and everyone was thrown to the ground. Before Parker could get to his feet Halliwell had jumped on top of him, grabbing the gun.
Halliwell jumped back and fired. Of course, like most Internat-ional Rescue weaponry the gun was set to stun, not to kill. But that was good enough for his purposes. Parker went limp, and Halliwell scrambled back to where the rifle lay, snatching it up.
The others were staggering to their feet, getting their bearings. Looking round to check everyone was all right, Scott saw Halliwell with the rifle.
Selecting Judy Price as his target, Halliwell levelled the weapon at her. Scott reacted instantly, diving at her legs and bringing her to the ground in a rugby tackle. The shot missed, blasting a hole in the wall of the chamber.
"Scatter!" Scott yelled. Immediately they obeyed, running in different directions. Halliwell was now presented with five moving targets (Donald Holman, whom age had rendered less nimble than the others, had vanished from sight, having ducked down behind one of the pipes where it came close to the ground). Halliwell cursed; this made things much more difficult. He started firing, blowing more chunks of rock from the walls. He knew there wasn't much time in which to mess about down here. But he also knew it was only a matter of time before he hit someone. Brancker had reloaded the weapon before they'd gone underground, so he could be sure of having at least one bullet for each of them.
The effect of the explosive bullets, devastating enough in the case of inorganic matter, on human tissue would be far from pleasant, they thought.
"Halliwell, don't be stupid!" Scott shouted. "We're the only ones who can get you out of here!"
Halliwell had seen the Mole's snout protruding from the wall on the other side of the chamber. I only need one of you to operate that machine!" he yelled back.
The only stun gun was Parker's; the stone creatures had destroyed the other two, having only needed one of each type of weapon for scientific purposes. Halliwell had left it lying near Parker's body, but if anyone went to grab it they'd be in his sights long enough for him to be sure of hitting them if he selected them as a target.
Judy had joined Donald behind the pipe. Peering out from behind it, she saw that Halliwell was about twenty feet away. His atten-tion was currently focused on Virgil Tracy, and he didn't see her as she ran forward, dived headlong on the ground, twisting her body and covering her face with her hands to minimise any injury the impact would cause, and rolled across it towards him until her momentum was spent, ignoring the pain from her jarred bones.
The action brought her to within a few feet of Halliwell. She bounded to her feet and lunged towards him.
Having just missed Virgil, Halliwell selected a new target, Kate. He failed to hit her, but a section of the wall close to her exploded, throwing her to the ground and stunning her. He lowered the rifle and took aim again, intending to finish her off. Then Judy collided with him, almost knocking him off balance. The two of them struggled fiercely, Halliwell snarling like an animal as he tried to prevent her seizing the rifle from him.
Scott turned and yelled at the others. "Virgil, Gordon, get Par-ker. Penny, take Kate and her father to the Mole. And you'd better move it!" He ran to help Judy.
He was almost there when Halliwell flung her away from him with a savage burst of strength. She lay sprawled on the floor, stunned. Halliwell spun round to face Scott, aiming the explosive rifle at his heart.
He flung himself to one side, the bullet missing him by centi-metres. It slammed into one of the pipes, already weakened by the pressure of the steam building up inside. The explosion blew a massive hole in it and a jet of scalding, superheated steam shot out and struck Halliwell in the face. Screaming in agony, he dropped the rifle and fell to his knees, clasping his hands to his horribly blistered face.
Scott reached Judy and helped her to her feet. "You OK?" he asked her. She nodded. "Then get out of here," he said.
Scott made towards Halliwell, just as the industrialist, whom sheer rage and desperation had enabled to recover from the shock and pain of his injury, snatched up the rifle again. But Scott was now too close for him to use the weapon without causing injury to himself, perhaps blowing off a hand or an arm.
At that moment one of the stone creatures staggered from the mouth of the tunnel, lurching from side to side. Its body was cracked and shattered in several places and a greenish fluid oozed from the damaged areas. Halliwell became aware of its presence and spun round, the rifle still in his hands.
On seeing the rifle pointing straight at it the creature reacted instantly. A jet of flame stabbed through the air and into Halli-well. The industrialist's body erupted in flames and with a last agonised scream he was gone.
Scott and the stone creature stood regarding each other. It made no move to attack him. Must be one of the good guys, he thought.
He saw that Gordon and Virgil were carrying the unconscious Parker to the Mole, where Penny and the Holmans were waiting. Judy was still standing beside him. "I thought I told you to - "
"I'm not going until you're safe."
"I think we are," he replied.
A large crack had appeared in the chamber floor and was snaking its way towards them. He glanced at the pipe. It was about to burst.
The stone creature was making its way towards the Mole, as if realising it was a means of escape from danger. The creatures were not fast-moving at the best of times, and in addition it was badly injured. He guessed it would be too heavy to carry, being made out of living stone.
I can't leave it, he thought. He and Judy glanced at each other. Another earth tremor - the intervals between them were becoming shorter - reminded them of the danger they were in. The crust was starting to break up, and if they didn't leave now the Mole might be crushed to a pulp long before it reached the surface. They had no choice.
They turned and ran for the Mole. Quickly they scrambled inside, the door sliding shut behind them with a thud.
Virgil was already seated at the controls. "What happened to Halliwell?" he asked.
"Tell you later. Let's just get out of here."
Virgil started the motors, and the Mole began to reverse along the tunnel at full speed.
On the scanner, the picture relayed from the camera in the Mole's nose showed the chasm in the floor widening steadily. Scott saw the stone creature stagger and fall into it, disappearing into the bowels of the Earth. A second later the pipe burst with a massive explosion, filling the chamber with high pressure steam.
The huge cracks in the floor and walls were growing bigger. The massive pipes came away and crashed to the floor of the chamber, one of them breaking and spewing out another huge cloud of steam.
Meanwhile, the Mole's engines were being pushed to the limit of their endurance. Their ear-piercing scream filled the cabin.
Virgil glanced at the instruments on the console. Eight miles to go. Would they make it? What they'd already seen suggested it might be too late. The caterpillar tracks in the vehicle's side gripped the walls of the tunnel with savage force.
Suddenly the Mole jerked to a halt, almost shaking everyone from their seats and flinging Donald across the cabin. Kate grabbed him just in time to prevent his head slamming into the wall.
"What's happened?" someone asked, fearfully.
There had been a movement of the crust around them; only a slight one, but enough to trap the Mole's drill, jamming it tightly bet-ween two masses of solid rock. The engines strained to free it, without success.
Virgil told them what must have happened. "I'm going to disconn-ect the screw."
The trapped drill came free from the main body of the Mole, which immediately shot backwards along the tunnel. Virgil was now overrunning the motors, whose anguished screeching was painful to listen to. It was possible they might blow, but the risk was justified. The next movement of the rock surrounding them could squeeze the Mole like a tube of toothpaste, reducing its occupants to a sort of putty, or shear the vehicle in two. They grabbed onto everything in sight, bracing themselves in case of another nasty jolt.
The journey to the surface was a ghastly experience, one that strained their nerves to breaking point. They were constantly afraid the next moment would bring another convulsion of the crust, and that this time the result would be fatal.
Their fears seemed justified as the tunnel suddenly contracted again, changing shape. Again the Mole was brought to an abrupt halt. Then they heard the ghastly groaning of tortured metal.
Looking up, Kate saw that the roof of the cabin was distorting, crumpling inwards. She gave a cry of fear and hugged her father. Penny's eyes were screwed tightly shut.
"It may not crush it," Scott said. "The Mole's pretty tough."
The wall crumpled a little further, then stopped. He breathed a long shuddering sigh of relief, letting go of Judy who had been clinging to him tight.
"We're all right for the time being," he told them. But they each guessed that sooner or later the pressure of the moving crust would be such as to grind them all to powder.
For the moment the Mole was wedged tightly where it was. Virgil shut down the motors.
"Could we get out through the rear hatch?" Gordon suggested.
"That's a non-starter," Virgil replied grimly. "The bore tunnel slants too steeply. And if there's another tremor...."
They looked at one another. "We've had it," murmured Parker, who by now had fully recovered consciousness.
"Well," said Donald. "I don't know whether any of you see any value in prayer, but now might be a good time to start doing so." "I just want to say," said Penelope, "in case we don't get out of this alive, that it's been a pleasure to know you all."
"A-and you, Penny," replied Judy, gripping her hand.
Kate was crying softly. Her father wrapped his arms around her. Behind her back his hands were clasped tightly together while he mouthed a silent incantation.
Again they heard the ghastly sound of the crust convulsing. This is it, thought Scott. He reached for Judy.
But this time, the tunnel didn't contract but widen. The Mole began to slide back down the shaft, the pressure on it released. One set of auxiliary tracks hugged the tunnel wall, but the other could only whizz helplessly in empty space. It wasn't enough to counteract the forces of gravity.
Virgil's finger stabbed at the console and twin prongs sprang out from the body of the Mole, the suction pads on their ends clamping onto the wall of the bore tunnel to hold the vehicle stationary.
"I was banking on that happening," Scott grinned.
"Maybe it was an answer to your prayers, Donald," said Penelope.
"Funny sort of answer," Parker grunted. "It don't help us much." It seemed that once again they had secured what must be purely a temporary reprieve.
"It may do," Scott said. "We're gonna need one of the recovery vehicles. We're just near enough to the surface for this to work." He produced a remote control from the pocket of his uniform, and pressed a couple of its buttons.
Several miles above them in Thunderbird Two's pod, one of the rugged, low-slung Recovery Vehicles stirred into life. It lumbered forward and down the ramp formed by the open door of the pod. As Scott in the Mole pressed another button on the remote control, the digging machine’s trolley moved away from the borehole, allowing the Recovery Vehicle to approach it.
Once it was at the right distance from the hole the vehicle halted, and rose a short distance above the ground on four telescopic legs. Below, Scott was feeding more instructions to the vehicle's computer "brain". The pods on either side of it, just behind the cabin, angled downwards and a cable shot from each of them, travelling straight down the borehole.
Scott and his companions heard the clamps on the ends of the cables strike the rear of the Mole. Virgil retracted the prongs bracing it against the sides of the tunnel.
"Full thrust again, Virgil," Scott ordered. The engines came on, and at the same time the cables from the recovery vehicle began to retract as it exerted maximum force. Rapidly the Mole was pulled back up the tunnel, at twice the speed it had been going at under its own power. Everyone was praying, in one sense or the other, that the shaft wouldn't contract again before they reached the top.
They could smell burning plastic, and smoke began drifting into the cabin. "What's that?" Kate asked.
"The motors must have gone," said Judy. "Gosh - is the Mole going to need some repairs when we get back to the island!"
The same thought was in everyone’s mind. If they got back.
Because of the damaged sections the Mole was bumping badly against the walls of the tunnel as it shot upwards. The repeated jolting jarred their bones painfully.
It occurred to Scott that the ground would probably be less turbulent the nearer they got to the surface. He hoped so anyway. Everyone waited silently for extinction or deliverance. Then Virgil gave a shout. "We're nearly there! We're gonna make it!"
Half-a-dozen faces lit up. But there was no time to celebrate. "All right, listen everybody," said Scott. "By my reckoning that second eruption is due any minute. As soon as we're above ground, it's all hands on deck. Everyone into Thunderbird Two - that's the big green one."
"Scott, there's something I...." Hurriedly, Penny explained about the tape she had left on board the Firefly.
"We'll do what we can, Penny. But there may not be enough time."
A flashing light on the console caught Virgil's attention. On a VDU a number of jagged lines were moving rapidly up and down. "The seismograph's going crazy," he remarked.
In the underground city of the stone people the battle had long ago ceased. Stonemen lay dead on the ground, their bodies shatt-ered into several pieces or reduced to smoking dust. Severed heads and limbs lay about. Those of the creatures who had not taken part in the struggle stood looking at the scene of the devastation uncomprehendingly, feeling their equivalent of shock and horror.
Then rocks began to fall from the ceiling as it crumbled away. First small ones, then big ones, crashing down and shattering the stone creatures' bodies to powder. The air was filled with their wierd high-pitched screams as their city disintegrated around them, burying them forever.
There was no time to cheer, though everyone wanted to do so, as the first few feet of the Mole emerged from the ground into open air. Its occupants scrambled from the rear hatch and jumped down. Kate, Parker, Judy and Donald ran over to Thunderbird Two's pod and up the ramp while Virgil, Scott and Gordon hurriedly retrieved the Mole and Recovery Vehicle using the remote controller. It might have been better to abandon them, and so gain valuable time. But on the other hand, they might save many more lives in the future.
Penny jumped into Fab One and drove it into the pod, parking it incongruously next to the collection of rugged heavy rescue vehicles. Whatever happened she wasn't going to lose her beloved car again. As she climbed into the driver's seat she became aware that her mobile phone, lying on the seat beside her, was ringing. "Trust people to call when I'm busy," she complained.
The earth was already shaking unnervingly, and as he sprinted for Thunderbird One Scott saw a largeish patch of ground subside. In a few minutes it might be impossible for the Thunderbirds to take off.
The battered Mole was brought back into the pod, and the door closed. "Right, that's everything," Virgil declared. He saw that Gordon and the others were already making for the cabin, and ran after them. As he did so he heard the sound of Thunderbird One taking off.
Kate and her father were gazing round the cabin with interest as he rushed in and threw himself into his pilot's chair. Judy and Gordon were already seated.
"Hold tight," he shouted, and fired the craft's engines. Donald and Kate braced themselves against the cabin wall. A second later the giant transporter lifted into the air and flew off after its sister ship.
Behind it a massive gout of molten lava burst from the Mole's bore tunnel, forming a geyser some fifty feet high. The geyser collapsed, and then the lava flowed over the brow of the hill and down the slope towards the plant.
From Thunderbird Two's cabin they could see it creeping rapidly towards the buildings. Penelope was literally dancing around the cabin with agitation.
"The tape, Virgil! We must get the tape!"
"Hang on, Penny," Virgil replied. He increased Thunderbird Two's speed, and soon it was outrunning the onrushing lava, but only just. The stuff was travelling at a terrifying pace.
He scanned the scene ahead of him. "Let's hope Firefly's still down there in one piece," he said.
"Look!" shouted Judy, pointing triumphantly. Amid the blackened, half-collapsed buildings, damaged by fire and by the first erup-tion, she had caught a glimpse of yellow.
When the first eruption had struck the tide of lava had cannoned into the Firefly and handily turned it back upright. It appeared to be wholly intact.
"That stuff of Brains' really does work!" Virgil cried delighted-ly. "Just wait till we tell him about this!"
A number of cables, each ending in powerful clamps, shot from the underside of the transporter. "This may not work, Penelope," Virgil said. "And if it doesn't, there'll be no time to go back for another try." He was certain the lava was rapidly gaining on them.
This would need all his skills as a pilot, along with excellent timing and judgement of distance. He sent Thunderbird Two into a steep dive, gradually levelling out as the ground rushed terrify-ingly nearer. He had to get the angle just right. His face was set in a mask of grim determination.
About twenty feet from the ground, Thunderbird Two levelled out, flying low over the ruined buildings of the plant. The dangling cables twisted in mid-air.
The Firefly came into view again, and in a moment they were directly above it. They heard the clang as the cables fastened onto the vehicle's body. The Thunderbird's momentum should have torn them away immediately, but the incredibly strong adhesive substance with which they were coated counteracted the forces that threatened to dislodge them. The Firefly was plucked off the ground and whisked away as Thunderbird Two soared up into the sky.
Virgil began to haul it up into the pod.
From an observation window, they saw the rushing sea of lava engulf the plant for the final time. It was higher now, swamping the buildings completely.
Then it happened. They gasped in amazement and horror at the spectacle as the ground near the plant writhed furiously up and down like a storm-tossed sea, or the dying convulsions of some gigantic beast. With a terrible, indescribable sound it cracked right open.
Lava spurted high into the sky from the massive gash that had opened up in the crust. Huge waves of it, hundreds of feet tall, tossed and surged and billowed and thrashed, and great steaming gobbets of the substance flew through the air.
The atmospheric disturbance buffeted Thunderbird Two uncomfor-tably. "I think we'd better gain some height," said Virgil. "Hold on, folks!" He threw the craft into a steep climb.
They continued to watch the awful scene below. Several other cracks had appeared in the crust. As they spread and joined up, the remaining areas of solid ground crumbled away until they were staring down into a vast yawning canyon, several miles long and wide. A solid mass of orange-red lava rose up out of it, towering hundreds if not thousands of feet into the air, throbbing and pulsating like a gigantic beating heart.
The lava surged on, destroying the abandoned towns and villages that lay in its path. Eventually, the flow ceased. But then came the earthquakes. The ground split open along a massive fault line that stretched through several states to the coast - a coast now being buffeted by massive tidal waves. The evacuation procedures had been put in hand long ago, the population transferred to spec-ially designed temporary settlements that had been constructed just outside the zone they knew would be affected by the disaster, from which the evacuated people watched the devastation of their homes. As Thunderbirds One and Two flew high above San Francisco the tremor hit the city, demolishing thousands of buildings and damaging countless more. They saw the skyscrapers topple and disappear into the ground. A ripple passed through a row of warehouses, which performed a sort of Mexican wave before collap-sing in a huge shower of dust and rubble.
The tremor passed on, its force spent, leaving behind a dead, devastated city. A ghost town. But eventually the people would come back, and the city would live again.
"Well," breathed Virgil. "It's all over."
There was a moment of silence as the realisation that they were still alive began to sink in properly. Then, as the stress was released, they experienced an almost physical feeling of collapse. Another period of silence followed, then the cabin echoed to assorted cries of joy and triumph.
Scott's voice came over the radio. "Are you OK, Virgil?"
"Sure, Scott. Shaken up a bit, I guess. But I’m OK."
"Saw what you did back there with the Firefly. Nice work."
"We're all safe and sound, and Penny's got her tape. Hey, what an adventure, huh? And everything turned out all right."
"Did it? What about Halliwell.....and Brancker....." Scott sighed at the waste of life.
"And the stone people," added Penelope. A sudden feeling of sad-ness overwhelmed her. Her head slumped a little, and for a few moments moisture glistened in her eyes.
"Is it possible any of them could have survived?" Gordon asked.
Donald Holman frowned. "I doubt it. But who knows? And there may have been other communities of them elsewhere in the world. Let's hope that if we come across one, we can reach some sort of understanding with them."
"There are one or two things to be cleared up still," Penny said. "I've got to expose the rest of Halliwell's gang. That tape should be a start. And if you'll excuse me, I have a phone call to return." She pressed the button on her mobile which would tell her who'd tried to ring her earlier. The number looked familiar; anyway she rang it, and Roger Lyon's voice answered her.
"Roger! You rang me, I believe."
"Penny!" He seemed relieved to hear her voice.
"What do I owe this to?" she asked, a little suspiciously.
"I've been trying to get hold of you for ages. I don't think I properly apologised to you for being so pushy the other day."
Penny laughed. "Oh you silly thing, you weren't being pushy at all! Trust you to think that!" He certainly was a caring person, she thought. There was no doubt he'd make an ideal husband.
It was astonishing really. Mike was a seasoned soldier, used to being in command, to giving orders. He had been in all manner of tough situations, in Iraq and diverse other parts of the world; had survived a score of natural and man-made hazards, withstood interrogation and torture by Saddam Hussein's most brutal henchmen. And yet this kind of thing caused him such difficulty, such doubt and embarrassment. The thought touched her deeply, filling her with warmth and tenderness towards him.
In his London flat Roger Lyon smiled at her comforting words. "Well, anyway, I tried to track you down but you seemed to have disappeared. I guessed you might be on a mission, but if you were then I knew I might not be able to get hold of you for ages. I wanted to make sure." He hadn't wanted his embarrassment and regret at having, as he saw it, come on too strong with her preying on his mind continually. So he'd tried ringing some of the many individuals and organisations she was associated with, and eventually learned that she'd gone to the States. "No-one knew where exactly. The only place I had some kind of a steer to was the geothermal plant, because I knew you were involved in all that renewable energy business. Then I heard on the news about the eruption there and got worried. I just had to know what had happened to you."
"Roger, you're an angel. Look.......I think for that you deserve that drink you were talking about the other day. It shouldn't do any harm. I'll give you a ring when I get back home. But it'll be no more than a pleasant little chat between friends, you understand?"
"Of course," he said sincerely. "For now, I'm just glad you're all right."
Meanwhile other conversations were taking place. Kate was whispering in Judy's ear. "The chap in the other craft...that's your friend, isn't it? Scott?"
Judy nodded. She decided the best course was to explain to her who was and who wasn't a member of International Rescue.
She saw Gordon looking at her oddly, a faint smile on his face. She whispered in his ear, and she whispered something back.
A few more whispered exchanges passed between her, Gordon and Donald. Virgil looked round, puzzled by the silence which seemed to have fallen over everyone. "What's going on?"
They told him, and he told Scott, that Kate and her father were now in on the secret.
"You'd better not tell anyone else, you know," said Scott.
"Well, you did save our lives. So we won't say anything, will we Dad?"
"We certainly won't."
Scott thought it was time to call the island. He waited until Jeff's euphoria at learning they were all safe had subsided before explaining all that had happened. "We'll need to rebuild the Mole, but apart from that everyone and everything's in one piece. What about the damage caused by the earthquake, though? I imagine the disruption to people's lives will be horrendous."
"But not irreparable, Scott. And that eruption, along with the meteorite business, has taught everyone another valuable lesson about how fragile the world is. There'll be tighter controls on the building of geothermal power stations from now on."
"And once the world knows the disaster at Hawk Springs was due to deliberate sabotage, the programme won't suffer," Scott said. He cleared his throat. "Er - there's just one problem left, Father." He told Jeff about Donald and Kate.
Jeff sighed. Everyone seemed to be finding out who International Rescue were these days. "But I guess if you can vouch for them...."
"I'm sure we can, Dad."
"Well, in that case you may as well bring them back to the island. Kyrano and Grandma have got a slap-up meal prepared for you all to celebrate your coming home safely."
"That'd be great, Dad." He imagined Donald Holman would be fascinated to chat with Brains and examine all International Rescue's fantastic equipment. "Be seeing you soon."
He changed frequencies. "Can I have a word with Judy, Virg?"
"Sure. Here she is."
"Jude? I just wanted to say, you did well on that mission."
Judy beamed with pride. "Thankyou, Scott. Yeah......For a while I thought I might panic again. But it wasn't so bad."
"Not just that. I mean the way you tackled Halliwell. You risked your life twice. Would you do it again....if it wasn't a friend of yours?"
"Yes. Now I've helped saved them, I know I could do the same for anyone else. They may be my friends, but everyone's life is just as valuable, isn't it? There's no reason why one person should be allowed to die rather than another."
Everyone was laughing and joking now. Parker looked particularly pleased with himself; he was wearing Gordon's International Rescue cap, no doubt as a reference to his having completed his first ever rescue mission. Everyone congratulated him and slapped him on the back.
"Aircraft up ahead, Virg," called in Scott. "Well, not an aircraft exactly...hey, do you see what it is?"
"Sure do, brother."
Through the cabin window they could make out the distinctive outline of Thunderbird Three, now in atmospheric flight mode and travelling horizontally in the direction of the island. A moment later they heard Alan's voice over the radio. “Hi, fellas! Glad to see you made it."
"We sure did. How was your mission, Alan?"
"One hundred per cent successful. Hey, what actually happened down there, you folks?"
"I'm not sure you'd believe some of it, Alan! Let's just say Earth can be every bit as weird and fascinating as outer space. When we get home we'll tell you all about it."
"Sure. TinTin and I have got some news for you too." In their respective crafts Scott and Virgil grinned delightedly, realising what he must mean. "'Bye for now."
An old fisherman and his young grandson looked up from their boat as the Thunderbirds flew overhead, the noise of their powerful engines reverberating through the sky. It was a rare sight, the three craft flying together; one they would cherish forever. The old man raised his cap in salute. He wondered if the boy would ever need their help at any time during the life that lay ahead of him.
Their work finished for the day, they turned the boat round and headed back towards the coast. Meanwhile Thunderbirds One, Two and Three flew through the night sky towards their island base, where Jeff Tracy waited for those he loved to come home, as he had done so many times before.