Two hundred miles off the coast of Scotland, the oil rig Piper Four stood like a lonely sentinel with nothing to guard in this expanse of bleak, empty, grey North Sea. It was especially lonely now that the installation had gone over to almost complete automation.
Sam Durie emerged from a door in the superstructure of the rig onto the deck, breathing in the fresh, bracing northern air, polluted though he knew it must be to some extent by the fumes from the oil production process. He stood leaning on the deckrail for a while, alone with his thoughts.
After a while he heard booted feet clanging on the metal of the deck, and looked round to see his colleague, Lars Nordstrom, coming towards him, clipboard in hand.
“Everything OK?” Sam asked.
“So far all seems to be running smoothly.” The Norwegian gave him an odd look. “You alright?”
“Sure,” he replied after a moment. “I was just thinking. The place seems…” Dead. “Not how I remember it.” He gave a little laugh. “Wouldn’t be, of course…”
It was the first inspection he’d been on since completion of the automation programme. When he had worked on the rigs there’d been a canteen, a bustling, lively place; shops and a cinema. The rig was like a small town. Now, it had become a ghost town. You felt there ought to be lots of people in a place this size, but there were none. And there was something spooky about all those banks of machinery, functioning with perfect efficiency when left to themselves; the lights that winked on them and the low humming and bleeping they gave off, when they made any sound at all, which suggested a kind of life, an at least latent, slumbering intelligence. It gave him the creeps.
The rig could not be shut down altogether because the oil was still important. There wasn’t much left of it but the last reserves had to be completely worked out. Renewables weren’t enough on their own to meet the world’s energy needs, the supply was too variable. And the more nuclear power stations there were in existence, the greater the likelihood of a major disaster at one of them, at least. Fossil fuels would continue to make a vital contribution, and being used now on a smaller scale they would not be exhausted so quickly. It was part of a move towards a more planned, more regulated system which achieved a proper balance between the different sources of energy, allowing each to be used to the extent that was safe, and didn’t use it up too quickly, but no more or less. It had been inevitable in the end, much as some people might not like it.
Because the rig was still important everything had to be inspected from time to time to make sure it was working. You couldn’t entrust things entirely to a machine, there had to be some human supervision. Every month or so a couple of men were sent to each installation to check that the computers which controlled the drilling process were functioning properly and look for anything out of place. Sometimes it was necessary to stay overnight, if repairs needed to be made and a machine couldn’t do the job itself because it was the machine which had gone wrong. Durie might have to do that sometime, and he didn’t relish the thought of being on your own, or almost, in a place like the rig at night. Having only those vast silent masses of machinery for company, along with the ghosts of the men and women who had worked there, who he knew haunted the place even where the flesh-and-blood people were still alive, doing some different job somewhere, because wherever they might be now, their spirits were on the rig.
“I’ve still got to check B Level,” he admitted, guiltily. “I suppose I’d better get on and do it. Shouldn’t take long.”
“I’ll be in the crew quarters. I’ll make us something to eat.”
They had just begun to move off in their different directions when they felt the deck tremble beneath their feet.
That in itself was nothing unusual; the structure did sway in the wind. But the weather was calm.
Durie frowned. By his reckoning the rig was moving more than it ought to be. And there was a rushing sound all around them, growing steadily louder, which could only mean one thing.
The wind had dropped to as low as it got out here. But nonetheless the sea was rough, quite large waves rising and falling, breaking with a sound like the roar of some great beast and speckling the surface with white horses.
That didn’t make sense.
It was something under the sea that was causing the disturbance.
And it was getting worse.
Could it be an upheaval of the sea bed? He went cold at the thought. That could cause the rig to topple over. Its concrete foundations, the feet on the end of its three massive legs, were designed to withstand the most violent storms. But they hadn’t reckoned on undersea earthquakes, because you didn’t get that sort of thing in this part of the world. Not on a scale you needed to worry about, anyhow.
“I don’t like this,” he muttered.
He turned to look out to sea, taking a pair of binoculars from the case slung around his neck.
From the pattern of the waves he knew which direction to look in; over to the east.
There, the horizon seemed to be moving.
He cried out, quite involuntarily, in shock and amazement and fear. Nordstrom saw beads of sweat appear out on his forehead.
The wave must be over a hundred feet high, and it was coming straight towards them. A huge green wall of water travelling at over fifty miles an hour.
The Norwegian saw it too. “It’s a tidal wave,” he gasped. “A tsunami.” He stared open-mouthed at the spectacle, eyes popping.
In a rush of adrenalin, Durie gathered his wits. “Come on, the helijet!” he shouted.
The wave was four or five miles away. They might just make it.
Banishing from their minds the thought of what would happen if they didn’t, they ran along the deck, around the corner of the superstructure and across to the steps leading up to the helipad. Nearly dropping the key in his haste as he fumbled to insert it, Nordstrom unlocked the cabin door and they scrambled in. They strapped themselves into their seats and Nordstrom fired the motors, a powerful downward blast of air lifting the aircraft off the deck. He increased the thrust to full.
They felt the air displaced by the wave buffet the helijet, which veered crazily from side to side as it climbed, causing them to lurch in their seats, their bones rattling. Water splashed against the cabin windows.
As they continued to ascend the buffeting ceased. Durie looked down. But he couldn’t the see the rig, for it was buried beneath a mass of spray and foam.
The legs of the rig, on their piles sunk hundreds of feet into the sea bed, withstood the onslaught of the tsunami, even though they hadn’t been designed with something like this in mind. But the superstructure, relatively spindly by comparison, was smashed to pieces, splintered like matchwood. Railings were stripped away. Pylons, cranes, the helipad, the chimney where the excess gas was burned off, and finally the modules which made up the superstructure toppled into the sea and collapsed in a tangle of twisted metal, tossed about by the violently thrashing and churning waves.
Gradually, the wave dissipated; the waters settled and were calm. But of Piper Four all that remained intact, surrounded by the items of debris floating on the surface, were the three legs, looking like some strange, surreal monument to the mighty structure which had been there until a few minutes before, but was now no more.
“A tidal wave?”
Like Lars Nordstrom the radio operator on the cargo ship Lucy B could hardly believe it. “You sure?”
“It’s true,” his opposite number at the International Sea Patrol assured him. “We’ve been getting reports from ships all over the area. And some of them haven’t made it. So you’d better abandon her, and fast. Wait for Air-Sea Rescue to pick you up, they’re on their way. A lifeboat wouldn’t survive in those seas.”
While the radio operator alerted the captain, the ASR planes and helicopters were already leaving the nearest World Navy base at Port Fraser, on the east coast of Scotland. But they had their hands full.
They were receiving so many calls for help that they might not get to the Lucy B on time. And with the speed the wave was moving…
By the time everyone had gathered on deck the ship was pitching and yawing uncomfortably. By the time it was getting impossible to stand, the rescue planes had still not appeared. In any case they themselves would now be in danger from the onrushing tsunami. To attempt a rescue would be suicide and there was no point in throwing away precious lives. It was harsh, but justified. The Lucy B had been left to her fate.
The huge ship, weighing 740,000 tons, turned over and was flung about like a child’s toy, battered until its hull was breached and it sank with the loss of three hundred and fifty lives.
Some people were saved. But many more perished as the tsunami spread out in all directions from the point where its source seemed to be, causing devastation over a radius of several hundred miles. In view of the scale of the operation the authorities, realising they couldn’t cope, sent out a message to the only people who conceivably could.
Calling International Rescue.
But it was simply impossible to save all those in peril. All-in-all, fifty ships went down that day, large and small. It was as if the sea had turned into a ravening monster, devouring all who sailed on it.
In the living room of his house on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, of which he and his family were the only inhabitants, a craggy-faced man in his fifties with heavily-greyed hair sat at his desk in thought, occasionally lifting his eyes to gaze through the window at a sea which, unlike that which separated the British Isles from mainland Europe, was calm and peaceful. Kyrano, his Malay friend who out of a sometimes excessive deference insisted on acting as the family’s butler, placed a cup of black coffee before him but he seemed barely conscious that it was there. Otherwise none of the other people in the room risked disturbing him. They all knew how much Jeff Tracy – millionaire, ex-astronaut and devoted philanthropist - was saddened by loss of life, a desire to avoid which had been the reason for setting up the organisation of which he was head, and whose secret base the island was – International Rescue. Even though he knew very well that not even they could do the impossible.
“Brains”, real name Homer J Newton III, the brilliant young scientist who had designed most of the amazing, ahead-of-its-time technology International Rescue used on its missions, came in and approached him gingerly. He glanced up.
“We’ve j-just had the latest r-r-report from the International Oceanographic Institute.” Brains suffered from a speech defect which caused him to stammer and which even twenty-first century medicine had proved unable to cure, although it might be a case of his brain working faster than the rest of him could keep up with. They’d also failed to remedy his short-sightedness, without a delicate and risky operation he’d preferred to forego, and so he had to wear huge thick-rimmed spectacles behind which his eyes were constantly blinking in a way that symbolised the alert intelligence lying behind his bulging high-domed forehead, from which close-cropped dark hair was already beginning to recede.
“And?” grunted Jeff.
“The, ah, disturbances have definitely ceased.”
“Well, at least no more lives will be endangered. What about the cause, are they any nearer finding it?”
“N-n-no, I’m afraid not, Sir. One thing’s certain, though. It definitely wasn’t geological.”
Jeff frowned. “Are they sure?”
“Their seismographs didn’t detect any movement of the sea bed. I must admit it would have been my first thought, an undersea earthquake. But that doesn’t appear to be what happened.”
They looked round as a section of the wall and the floor beneath it rotated through a half-circle and Scott, the eldest of Jeff’s five sons and pilot of the rocket plane Thunderbird One, stepped into the room. Thunderbird One’s main role on a mission was reconnaissance, as well as carrying out a holding operation which could stabilise a lorry stuck on the edge of a crumbling cliff, for example, until the heavy rescue gear arrived. Scott’s brother Virgil, who flew the slower Thunderbird Two in whose pods that equipment was carried, was still on his way back to base.
Jeff smiled in acknowledgement. “Hi, Son. How did it go?”
“All the survivors are safely back on shore. The injured are in the hands of the medics; there’s nothing more we can do for them. Hundreds still missing but I don’t reckon we’ll see them again somehow. It’s up to the world authorities to carry out a search.” Scott collapsed onto the sofa, obviously exhausted. “Virgil and Gordon are about twenty minutes behind me.”
“Well, you all did your best I’m sure. And I guess no-one’s going to blame us for not being able to save everybody.” Especially when the first and last occasion they had failed on a mission had been due to deliberate sabotage. “We’ve done our bit. It’s down to others to clear up.”
“Mr Tracy and Brains were discussing the cause of the disaster,” said TinTin, Kyrano’s daughter and Brains’ assistant. “Apparently it wasn’t an earthquake.”
Scott nodded. “That’s what I heard. And it wasn’t freak weather conditions, either. All the reports say the wind was light. What atmospheric disturbance there was was near the surface and caused by the tsunami itself.”
Jeff’s frown returned. “If they don’t know the cause, we can’t rule out the possibility this is gonna happen again.”
An idea occurred to John, another of Jeff’s sons, and normally stationed on the satellite Thunderbird Five which, free from atmospheric interference, monitored all radio transmissions on Earth picking up any distress calls. He was currently enjoying a spell of leave while Alan, Jeff’s youngest son and pilot of the space rescue vehicle Thunderbird Three, looked after Thunderbird Five. ”The Moon has an effect on tides, doesn’t it? Could the tsunami have been caused by some change in its orbit? Or the Earth’s? Some other celestial body?”
“I don’t like the thought of that,” muttered Jeff. It seemed a Doomsday sort of scenario, and he shuddered.
“It can’t be ruled out,” said Brains. He hesitated. “But there is an alternative explanation.”
“And what’s that, Brains?” Scott asked.
“The tsunami could have been artificially engineered.”
“At the moment I’ve nothing to go on. But it would take a lot of money and considerable technological skill.”
“And what’d be the aim?”
“To cause as much devastation in that part of the world possible. As for the reason…well one can only guess.”
Jeff nodded. “You’ll work on the problem, Brains?”
“Of course. Now if you’ll, ah, excuse me, I must see that live broadcast from Loch Ness.” Brains rose.
“Oh, yeah,” said Jeff. “The latest attempt to find the famous Monster. Do you think they really will succeed this time?”
“That, uh, remains to be seen, Mr Tracy,” Brains replied. Then he was gone.
“He seems more interested in the Loch Ness thing than he is in finding out what caused that tidal wave,” commented Scott. “But that’s Brains for you.”
“It’s his way,” grunted Jeff. “I think he does care about it, at heart. He’ll find a solution to the problem, if anyone can.” He grinned, thinking that Brains would have the TV in his lab on, listening to the Loch Ness programme, while working on the tsunami business, and devoting an equal degree of attention to both matters.
“But do you really think they’ll go ahead with the expedition now, Dad? At a time like this…I’d have thought the tsunami thing would be on everyone’s mind. It’s a far more important business. I mean, the implications are huge. And pretty terrifying.”
“Guess it’s how the world preserves its sanity,” Jeff said. “When frightening things happen, and you can’t immediately deal with them, it’s a way of distracting attention from the problem so that it’s easier to cope with. And it is the start of what’s called the “silly season” in Britain right now. Come to think of it, it’s a wonder we’re not watching it in here. If they do find anything, it could be the greatest scientific discovery of the century.”
“I thought the WASPs found the whole thing was a hoax,” said John.
“There was a fake monster. That doesn’t mean to say there couldn’t be a real one as well.”
“I reckon they might just do it this time,” Jeff mused, sitting back. “They’ve finally found what they’ve been waiting for; a guy with just the right amount of money and who’s enterprising, or mad, enough to sponsor something like this. Actually it’s something Tracy Corporation might have done itself at some point, except I thought saving lives was more important.”
“You said yourself, the value to science would be considerable,” TinTin said.
“Sure, honey. I’m not against the whole business, if someone wants to do it and has the cash and other resources. I can’t see it doing any harm.”
“Penelope’s in Scotland, isn’t she?” remarked John.
“That’s right. Visiting her cousin, I believe. Hope she’s having a nice time.” He grinned slyly at Scott. “Bet you wish you were going with them, son.“ Judy Price, Scott’s girlfriend and a sort of associate member of International Rescue, was accompanying Penelope on her vacation.
“Would have been nice,” Scott agreed. He was obviously feeling a little hurt.
“Women like to go away on holiday together sometimes, without the fellas. They’re like that.”
“Well,” said Scott, turning on the TV, “let’s see if we can catch the latest news from Loch Ness.”
Anyone out on the Highland roads in the vicinity of the village of Glenbuchie at that moment would have seen an incongruous sight: a Rolls Royce, immaculate and gleaming and shocking pink in colour, and with six wheels, charging over the hills with its boot overflowing with luggage. It looked totally incongruous in its surroundings.
In the back were Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, the renowned socialite and internationally famous model, scion of an aristocratic family – and, unknown to the general public, former spy and now chief agent (with particular responsibility for the United Kingdom) for International Rescue in protecting the secrets of its technology – which could do enormous damage in the wrong hands – and Judy Price. Penelope was a blonde with classically beautiful features and a retrousse nose which gave a not altogether accurate impression of aloofness; Judy, some years younger, a brunette with shoulder-length raven hair and a slightly mischievous cast to her face. Judy came like Penelope from a “posh” family but at university had hung out with people from rougher working-class backgrounds who were sometimes more interesting, it had to be said, than those she had mixed with previously – a truth Penelope secretly acknowledged.
Both of them were wearing Tartan dresses and had tam-o-shanters perched on their heads, as in their view befitted the occasion. Judy had feared their host might think they were being patronised, but Penelope had assured her he wasn’t the type.
At the wheel, in greatcoat and peaked cap, was Herbert Aloysius Parker, Penelope’s chauffeur, butler and general sidekick. Parker had been recruited by Penelope to help her around the house, because the running of a big sprawling stately home couldn’t easily be done on one’s own, and also in her work for IR because his skills in certain areas came in extremely useful at times. She had caught him trying to burgle Creighton Hall and struck a deal: she wouldn’t hand him over to the police provided he agreed to work for her in future. Although he maintained his underworld connections because they might sometimes prove handy, part of the bargain had been that he ceased to be actively involved in crime. He had kept to it out of appreciation for her decency in not shopping him to the cops – it seemed to him the right thing to do – even though she had been motivated partly by practical considerations of his usefulness to herself. Both of them liked to think that his previous criminality had been habitual rather than anything else and that he was now cured of that habit. And unlike most villains these days, he had never used threats or violence against his victims. In his view, a good criminal shouldn’t need to do that sort of thing.
He had a cheerful, expressive, quizzical, sometimes lugubrious face whose prominent feature was that which had led to his nickname of “Nosey” Parker. A bit stereotypically, it had often been suggested that he must be Jewish, but London had always been a cosmopolitan city and who knew what was lurking in Parker’s ancestry or that of Cockneys generally. It was quite possible that some, at least, of his forebears had come over with the legions of the Emperor Claudius and that his was a Roman nose.
Penny would normally leave Parker to look after the Creighton-Ward mansion, but he needed a holiday too and it was traditional for him to accompany her on her vacations. Besides, she had a knack of finding trouble and it always helped to have him around if you needed to break in or out of somewhere.
Penelope gazed appreciatively at the rugged, beautiful landscape around them. “Ah, Bonnie Scotland,” she sighed.
It was a warm, but fresh summer’s day. Penelope had wound down the window to let in the gentle breeze which ruffled the heather and bracken on the surrounding moorland.
“So who is this chap we’re going to see, again?” asked Judy.
“This chap,” Penelope said, “is The McCraggan, Angus of That Ilk. He’s hereditary chieftain of Clan McCraggan, and head of the Scottish branch of the Creighton-Ward family.”
”I didn’t know there was one,” said Judy.
“We’ve got branches everywhere.”
“And he lives in a Castle?”
“Has done for hundreds of years – at least his family have.”
“So,” Judy said heartily, “what exactly are we going to do while we’re here?”
“I expect there’ll be plenty to occupy ourselves with,” Penelope assured her.
She gazed wistfully out the window. “I wish in a way Scott was with us.”
“You did agree with me this should be a girls’ thing.”
With me to do the heavy work, thought Parker with a sigh. Oh well…
“Anyway, he can join us later,” Penelope said.
Parker glanced at the Satnav. “Nearly there, ladies,” he announced. “Only a couple of miles.”
“Well,” said Penelope, “I hope this turns out to be a pleasant holiday. Not too exciting, just a nice little break. And it really was time I paid Angus a visit.”
“We couldn’t have picked a more interesting time to do it,” said Judy. “Let’s pop over to Loch Ness sometime and see what’s going on there. It’s only about a mile away, isn’t it?”
“Not just yet, dear,” Penelope said. “We’ll get settled in first. In any case, most of the action will be taking place underwater. We may as well watch it at the Castle on the TV.”
“They’ve got a screen rigged up on the shore so you can see what’s going on.”
“You can see it at home as well. Although I suppose there is a certain thrill involved in being on the spot…”
As might be expected, quite a crowd had gathered on the western shore of Loch Ness, from where the expedition submarine was to be launched. Some were locals, others had come from as far away as America or Japan. Some were little more than casual sightseers, others diehard “Nessie” fans who for years had believed in the reality of the monster like a religion and felt they would never be able to forgive themselves if they weren’t here today. There were members of the Society of Cryptozoology. There were people who were just geeks. There were those who were cashing in on the act by setting up stalls from which they sold refreshments and Nessie souvenirs – symbolic, the sceptics cynically commented, of the whole business of the monster right from when it first became a cause célèbre. There were people who were there without really knowing why; probably it was just because a lot of other people were and some sort of herd instinct had drawn them to the spot. But most seemed to find it a lot of fun, whatever the expedition found down there or didn’t. And it would be nice to be on the scene, or as near to it as possible, when history was made one way or the other.
Quite a few wore Nessie T-shirts and carried blow-up rubber monsters. The general mood was cheerful; no-one seemed to be thinking of the disaster which had just occurred in the North Sea. It proved Jeff Tracy right.
A TV reporter was interviewing people, questioning them as to the reasons for their presence and what they thought the outcome of the expedition would be.
“Och, there’s nothing in it,” one local said, screwing up his face and making a dismissive gesture.
“It should be interesting to see what happens, even if they don’t find the monster.”
“Ah just came for a bite to eat.”
“I came because it was something to do.”
In shot in the background several youths were jumping up and down and waving, trying to attract attention to themselves. Another held up a plaque with “HELLO MUM” on it.
“I came here looking for my mate – oh there he is, excuse me.”
“I’m certain the monster exists and that this will be the culmination of everything we’ve been waiting for over the years.”
“I don’t know really, I’m just…here.”
The reporter turned to face the camera. “One thing is clear. This will be the most expensive attempt yet to solve the mystery of Loch Ness. Much has been invested in it. Not only in terms of money but in the latest state-of-the-art technology. It is hard to believe that anything, except an unforeseen accident to vital equipment, can prevent us knowing within the next few hours whether the legend is to be decisively debunked, to the delight no doubt of the sceptics, or…” Bookies had already placed odds on whether or not the monster would be found, and some of them were doing business on the spot, their shouts ringing out like those of barrow boys at a market.
As with any large gathering of people the police were there to keep order, with an ambulance on hand in case anyone got hurt. Various cars and vans stood about, some belonging to the police, some containing the outside broadcast equipment of news teams from a host of countries, the expedition having attracted worldwide interest.
A rope barrier kept the crowd apart from the members of the World Ecology Bureau who were carrying out the expedition. Behind it was the prefabricated cabin serving as the expedition’s headquarters, with nearby several Land Rovers bearing the WEB logo. And also, guarded by police in visibility jackets, the low loader on which the submarine Marinus rested in its cradle, a sling around it attached to the hook of the massive mobile crane which was to lower it into the Loch and retrieve it once its mission had been accomplished. Both the crane and the low-loader had negotiated the winding Highland roads with difficulty, escorted by police cars.
The Marinus was an egg-shaped craft about forty feet long, with stubby stabilising fins and a rudder. Near it the two scientists who would crew it, ecologist Alexander Shieling and zoologist Tom Lonsdale, stood talking and drinking tea from polystyrene cups. Lonsdale was a tall skinny man with a thatch of greying fair hair, Shieling huge and black-bearded and rather intimidating until you got to know him well. Both were in their fifties.
Lonsdale looked out over the dark surface of the Loch. It was dark because of the particles of peat suspended in it, which tended to shut out all light. Somehow it made him shudder, even though he was a rational, level-headed scientist who shouldn’t be entertaining silly superstitions. There had always been something sinister about the Loch to his mind. The whole place with its forbidding, austere beauty, the rugged hillsides, wooded in parts, stretching down to those black waters captured the imagination and made it run wild.
“Penny for your thoughts,” grinned Shieling, although he thought he knew what they were. He was impervious to such fancies himself – at least he knew that was the image he presented to the world, whether or not it accorded with reality. After all, it would be a pretty poor show if you didn’t have an imagination. Contemplating the Loch and its secrets, for he felt sure it had them, he had to admit that sometimes…
“I keep on thinking, do I really want to go down there now that the moment of truth’s finally come,” Lonsdale said, almost to himself. “If you-know-what is there, but it turns not to be what it’s cracked up to be…”
“Well it’d hold things up a bit, but I could find a replacement.” Lonsdale looked remarkably unenthusiastic about the idea, and Shieling smiled.
“You know,” Lonsdale continued, “I keep thinking about those divers who went down in the thirties.” Searching for the body of a woman who had been drowned in the Loch, they hadn’t been able to reach the bottom and when pulled up were delirious, babbling about lost worlds full of sunken cities.
“We both know that story’s been embellished. They just got spooked because they couldn’t see anything. Thought it best to return to the surface.”
“I know that,” Lonsdale nodded. “All the same…as for the monster, I know I’ve said this before, but there’ve been too many sightings for all of them to be hoaxes. Surely…”
“Maybe there’s something about the Loch which causes hallucinations.” Shieling’s suggestion was at least partly serious.
“So do you think they really are there – the tunnels?”
“I don’t know.”
“If they’re not, that’s the end of it. We know that. Even if we search the rest of the Loch inch by inch.”
They lapsed into silence. Seizing his chance a member of a German TV crew approached them, microphone in hand. “And here we have the two men themselves.” He fixed on Lonsdale first. “Tom Lonsdale, how do you feel about this expedition?”
“Excited,” beamed Lonsdale, not wishing to admit to his fear of he knew not what. “I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life.”
“Do you think you will find the monster?”
Lonsdale shrugged. “Who knows?”
“But you would be disappointed if you didn’t?”
“I suppose so.”
“Thankyou. Alexander Shieling, what are your thoughts?”
“Whatever we find will be of value to science. If it confirms there is a monster, well and good. If it proves there isn’t one then at least the matter will be settled. People won’t waste their time looking for it.”
“Thankyou. Well, we can only wish you good luck.” With a nod and a smile the reporter moved on.
Again the two scientists were left with their thoughts. “You know,” Lonsdale began, “apart from anything else I somehow find it hard to believe we’re on the brink of finally having proof.”
“One way or another,” Shieling added, qualifying the remark.
“I suppose the day was always bound to come eventually.” The Marinus was equipped with the latest most advanced echolocation devices. If they couldn’t find Nessie then no-one could. The means had in fact been there for some time and it seemed incredible that we had succeeded in putting a man on the Moon, yet hadn’t been able to establish whether or not there was a monster in Loch Ness until now. The truth was that the right circumstances just hadn’t come about. The will had always been present on the part of the scientific community, but the crucial factor – a wealthy individual who was prepared to put his money behind the project – was absent. Then eccentric millionaire Jerry Grandison had heard about the latest expedition to the Loch, which hadn’t necessarily been interested in the Monster, and offered to turn it into something bigger, using his company’s vast wealth and the equipment it built for the marine exploration industry.
“For years we’ve been at loggerheads over this,” grinned Shieling wryly. “Me the sceptic, you the starry-eyed optimist…I say that nicely of course.” As indeed he did. “Now we’ll know which of the two of us is right.” Although there had long ago ceased to be any animosity between the two men, supposing there ever had been, on account of their differences. In truth, their poles weren’t that far apart. Shieling was sceptical but open-minded. He preferred to hedge his bets in order to avoid disappointment, apart from anything else, but any self-respecting scientist knew that the universe was a strange place – stranger, probably, even than we knew it to be - which held many surprises. Whatever it was actually doing, if a particle could even appear to vanish and then rematerialise in another place without crossing the intervening space then how could you be sure there wasn’t a Nessie? If you said the creature existed and it turned out it didn’t you would look foolish. If you said it didn’t exist and it turned out it did, you would also look foolish. In any event Shieling was generally interested in the ecology of the Loch which was a fascinating subject in its own right, Monster or no Monster.
Lonsdale found his fears abating, to be replaced with excitement. He felt like a child again. There were tears in his eyes, which he knew must be shining. Shieling only hoped the outcome of the expedition wasn’t too much of a shock to him. He had come to love the little man, who was totally inoffensive, and had a quite legitimate fascination with the unsolved mysteries of the universe we lived in. A desire to know.
Lonsdale had become uneasy again. “Alex, quite frankly… ought we really to be going ahead with something like this when…I mean, we all know what’s just happened in the North Sea…”
“We’ve come too far to turn back now, I suppose,” Shieling sighed. “But I admit, it’s got me worried. It’s got everyone worried, deep down. I just hope they can come up with an answer, and soon.”
Office of the World President, Government Building, Unity City
Nikita Bandaranaik collected his thoughts, tapping the fingers of one hand on his desk as a way of helping himself to do so, then straightened up with a deep breath and addressed the group of people seated before him. “I don’t have to say it, gentlemen. We need to come up with an answer, and soon.
“This has the potential to cause massive economic disruption in the region as well as major loss of life.” Already there had been a run on the stock exchange which was threatening to plunge the world economy into recession. The commercial shipping sector was losing money, with many of its employees refusing to put to sea. The doom-and-gloom pundits were having a field day, constantly proclaiming that the end of the world had come. Bandaranaik wondered if this time they might not be right. “And of course, if a massive tsunami could happen in the North Sea it could happen anywhere.
“My fear is that coastal settlements will be the next to suffer. That could be even more damaging than the crippling of the shipping industry. Most of the world’s population lives in cities that are on or near the sea.” Many centres of population had grown up in the first place around natural harbours or the mouths of rivers, geography making them vital nexus points for trade. “I suppose you can’t quantity the total cost, in every respect, if they were made uninhabitable. Nonetheless, Don, I’m going to ask you to have a go.”
Don McLuhan was the government’s Disaster Analysis expert. Giving his assessment, he spoke in a calm, detached fashion as if the subject was of academic interest only. Perhaps that was another way of coping, Bandaranaik thought. And what mattered most was that he knew his stuff.
“Well, Mr President, such a scenario would not in itself disrupt the global economy too severely provided the migration of populations inland were carried out gradually over a certain period and in all respects carefully controlled. But we may not have the time, if these tsunamis are to occur with frequency. And the numbers involved, which of course run into many millions, would lead to massive overcrowding and an intolerable strain on resources. Plus with the new cities that would have to be built to accommodate them, there would be considerable loss of the natural environment, such as to significantly lower the quality of life. People would be living in oppressive surroundings where they felt alienated, to an even greater extent than can happen in existing urban areas. When these factors are combined with the economic damage caused by the tsunamis there is a very real possibility of social unrest amounting to a breakdown of law and order.”
For a long moment no-one spoke. The silence was broken only by the monotonous, staccato rhythm of Bandaranaik’s fingers tapping on the desktop again.
”Nonetheless,” said the President finally, “I want a contingency plan drawn up for such an eventuality, covering all regions of the world. Concerning shipping, unfortunately it isn’t practical to stop all vessels from leaving port. But I imagine there are certain precautions which might be taken which will at least save the lives of their crews.” He glanced at the International Minister of Marine.
The Minister nodded. “Where practical, all ships can be equipped with a helijet or helijets, the exact number depending on their size, which can take the crew to safety if abnormal wave formations are detected. The modifications needed will be expensive, but less economically harmful than if crews flatly refuse to go to sea because of the danger. International Rescue have said they will help as much as they can, and there are of course the conventional air-sea rescue services.”
So far Admiral Carson, head of the World Navy, had remained silent, his craggy face immobile, waiting to be questioned. Now his turn came. “Roy,” asked the President, “would the Navy be able to carry out the modifications to its own vessels easily?”
“We’d need more money,” Carson told him bluntly. In fact there was a faint hint of reproach in his gravelly tones. Funding had often been an issue between the armed forces and the politicians. “But it could be done.”
“I think in the circumstances it is probable the funds would be forthcoming,” said Bandaranaik.
Carson allowed himself the faintest of sardonic smiles. Because this thing has shaken you up just a little, hasn’t it, he thought.
“Thankyou, Mr President,” he said.
Bandaranaik addressed the International Minister of Marine.
“You’ll see to it then?”
“Of course, Mr President. I’ll make the necessary arrangements as soon as this meeting is over.”
“There’ll still be the disruption to the economy, of course,” said the International Minister of Security.
The President nodded curtly. “I know.”
Also present was the director of the International Oceanographic Institute. “Your equipment will of course give us adequate warning of each tsunami,” Bandaranaik said to him.
“Of course, Mr President. I expect you also want to know if it can detect its cause. Well, at present we can only speculate. The disturbance radiated in all directions from an epicentre, which was travelling on first a south-north and then a north-south course. The northern limit of the epicentre’s range was approximately halfway between the north-east coast of Scotland and the western coast of Norway, the southern limit about a hundred miles north of Holland. The force of the tsunami was of course lessened with distance; fortunately it had spent itself before it reached land.”
“But what does all that tell us?”
“Well, I understand it’s been suggested some change in the behaviour of a celestial body could have caused the tsunami…”
The head of the World Scientific Council nodded. “An aberration in the orbit of the Moon or the rotation of the Earth, which will hopefully prove to be only temporary. We’re still working on that one. Or an asteroid, only our astronomers haven’t detected one near enough to be having this effect.”
“So where does that leave us?” demanded Admiral Carson.
“Until we know more…as I’ve said, we can only speculate. But it’s also been suggested the disturbance may have been…artificially engineered.”
“How?” asked Nikita Bandaranaik, as Scott Tracy had done before him.
“Again, it’s not a foregone conclusion,” said the director of the IOI. “But the fact that there was a clear epicentre, and that it could move backwards and forwards, suggests one thing to my mind. It’d be like nothing that’s ever been built before, but I’d say we’re definitely looking at some kind of craft. A submarine.”
FAB One drove through the tall wrought iron gates of McCraggan Castle onto the forecourt of the vast old building, and Judy Price looked up at its grey battlemented walls, its towers and turrets, with a feeling of awe. It was supposed to date back to the twelfth century, Penelope had told her; she had no idea if it really did, but its stonework certainly seemed in remarkably good condition. It stood amid extensive grounds, separated from the moor around it by a high wood and wire fence.
In the true fashion of Highland hospitality the Laird, as he tended to be known, and his ghillie, Jock, were waiting at the door to meet them. Both were smartly dressed. They wore kilts along with their suits and ties, as if they too had a sense of occasion. The Laird was a distinguished-looking man rather older than Penelope, whose red hair and beard had faded and were beginning to turn grey. The ghillie also had a beard, as if grown in emulation of his employer, but his hair was darker and although the Laird was by no means a small man, and sturdy in build, Jock at well over six feet tall seemed a giant.
The Rolls pulled up beside them, and Parker opened the gull-wing doors. Penelope stepped out, Judy and the chauffeur following. Penny went up to the Laird and enfolded him in an affectionate hug, pecking him on the cheek. His dour features melted in a welcoming smile. “Penelope, hen, how the de’il are ye? Havena set eyes on ye for…och, it seems like years.”
“Too many of them, Angus darling. I’m fine thankyou. And yourself?”
“Och, ah’m alright.”
“Well, it’s lovely to see you again.” Penelope indicated her companions. “This is Miss Judith Price, my ward. At least that’s how I still think of her. Old habits die hard.”
“We were at school together,” Judy explained. “She was a prefect and I was the new girl with a lot to learn. She’s never stopped bossing me around since.” She bounded up to the Laird and shook hands. “Yes, I’m Judy. How do you do?”
She wondered if this wasn’t a bit too familiar – something about him commanded an old-fashioned kind of deference - but he showed no disapproval. “Fine, thankyou,” he answered with a nod and a smile, his manner formal but not unfriendly.
“And Parker, my trusty right-hand man.” As Penelope later explained, he was generally known simply as “Parker” because he wasn’t that fond of his given names and before he could think of a suitable alternative the habit had stuck, until it was such common practice it no longer seemed rude.
Parker gave a friendly nod. “Pleased to meet you, Sir. Hoots mon, och aye the noo, and all that.” The Laird met this with a blank stare.
“Yes, quite, Parker,” Penelope smiled. “Er – I suggest Parker and Jock can take care of our bags between them.” This was in order to avoid an argument over who should wait on Penny and Judy, as it was traditional for Parker to do. Such things had happened before.
“Aye, well I dare say it’d make lighter work,” said the Laird, nodding agreement. “So, come ben and sit yerselves down.”
While Jock led Parker upstairs to the guest bedrooms, Penelope and Judy followed Angus down the entrance hall, with its plush red carpet, rows of banners, marble busts and suits of armour to the living room. This too was richly carpeted, with old masters on the walls and mahogany chairs and sofa which were either genuine antiques or very good reproductions. It was dominated by a big old stone fireplace.
They sat down, as bidden. The Laird lit a traditional log fire in the grate, and Judy shifted close to it, warming her hands against the flickering flames. ”Ooh, lovely,” she purred.
Angus went to fetch them some tea, which he seemed quite happy to make himself. Judy looked round the room again, taking in its atmosphere. “Your lot do seem to go in for traditional tastes,” she remarked to Penelope.
“I think Angus lives very much in the past. That’s not necessarily a criticism.”
Judy glanced at the TV. “I hope we get a chance to watch the Loch Ness thing.”
“I think we’d better be sociable, don’t you,” Penny said.
Judy leafed through the Radio Times. “Ah, here we are…it isn’t on at the moment, anyway. Starts again at two.”
Angus came in with the tea, pouring cups for the three of them. “So, what hae ye been up to lately, Penelope?” Angus asked as they settled down to drink it.
She gave him an edited version of her most recent exploits, which was exciting enough without telling him the whole truth. Which she couldn’t do, or at least thought it altogether best not to, because although Angus was family the fewer people knew about her contacts with IR or the intelligence services the better. The more did, the greater the chance someone would let something slip.
“Well, it’s good tae know ye’re keeping yerself busy.” He turned his attention to Miss Price. “And how dae you spend your time may ah ask, Judy?”
“I do the PR for an international modelling agency, based in London. Can be hard work, but it’s fun.”
“And I expect you’re occupied much of the time with your own company, Angus,” Penelope said. “And the affairs of the Clan.” He nodded.
Angus could have afforded not to work, but only just. The inherited wealth of the McCraggans had been steadily depleting for the last hundred years or so. He preferred to rely on his investment company, founded by his grandfather after the First World War, to generate the funds he needed to live at the Castle in the style his family had always been accustomed to. Especially when he was also concerned with keeping Clan McCraggan alive as a social organisation, meeting regularly so that its members could keep in touch, and in the flesh – doing it through the internet alone seemed impersonal and unsatisfying – and cement their common ties through traditional Highland cultural events, which were also a way of keeping the old way of life going. All that required money. And the global recession had hit Scotland hard, along with everyone else – though perhaps a little more severely than Penelope and her friends in England.
Such was his prestige among those who worked for him that he could be flexible in exactly how much time he spent at his desk. But from all accounts he devoted himself entirely to the job, because he knew how important it was.
When he wasn’t attending to clan or company business in Inverness, Aberdeen or Edinburgh he was to be found shooting on the estate, although most of that was culling rather than killing animals purely for sport, or simply doing whatever took his fancy; perhaps just enjoying a glass of whisky by the fire in his study, reflecting on anything that came to mind.
Judy asked if she could use the toilet.
“Well, ye’ll be using it all the time ye’re here,” Angus said. “Go out the door, turn right and it’s first on the left.”
Once she had left the room Penelope crossed to Angus and sat down beside him on the sofa. “How are you? Really?” she asked, lowering her voice a fraction.
It had obviously hit him very hard when his wife had died five years before. The sprawling Castle must seem bleak and empty without her. He had the estate staff, a housekeeper who kept the place neat and tidy and on special occasions cooked the meals, and the family retainer Jock, who acted as his gamekeeper and also general handyman – for company but that could never entirely compensate for his loss.
He gave a little laugh, and a weary smile. “I’m managing.”
He sighed long and hard. ”It’s getting more and more difficult tae keep up a place like this, what with the recession and everything. Even with the money from the business ah’m only just keeping ma head above water. Same with the Clan. Of course I get a grant from the World Government, but it’s been cut quite a bit of late. And the young people, the Clan doesnae mean much tae them these days. Even my own kids…” These days Angus rarely seemed to see his children, including his heir, the next Laird; they were all too wrapped up in their globetrotting jetset lifestyles, their high-profile City jobs. They were losing their accents. Their interest was exclusively with the wider world, rather than Scotland. And apart from the riotous parties about which Angus didn’t want to know, if they communicated with anyone it was usually by computer.
“It’s all old stuff tae them,” he said morosely. “Old stuff.” There was real pain in his face as he contemplated it. Penelope squeezed his hand tightly. “Nothing stays the same,” she assured him. “They’re bound to change their outlook as they get older. Or maybe with the mere passage of time. It just takes longer these days, because with people living longer the whole process has become stretched out. We’ve just got to be patient. Meanwhile if you need some financial assistance, you know I can always help.”
“Aye,” muttered Angus, vacantly.
Penelope frowned. You would have thought he’d be interested, if he was so concerned about the preservation of the Castle as a family home and the survival of traditional Highland culture. She knew Celtic types – although it was possible Angus’ blood was as much Viking – could be moody and fatalistic, some echo of the past lingering in a sense that everything was down to the old gods, the Fates, and there was nothing Man could do to change his destiny. Nonetheless his reaction seemed strange to her.
“Well, you’re welcome to discuss the matter any time you want. We also need to talk about what Judy and I are going to do while we’re here. The thing to remember is that Judy is still young, she needs to be constantly doing something new or she’ll get stroppy. Maybe it’s just the kind of person she is…”
Angus was staring into the fire. “Aye, well, ye do what ye want to,” he said.
Again Penelope was startled. It wasn’t that he was being generous. His tone had been completely casual. There was suddenly a detached vagueness to his manner, a vacant, faraway look on his face, as if nothing much really mattered.
It was as if he’d suddenly switched off. To her mind, it had to be something to do with his current financial and other worries; would be odd if it didn’t. But it also seemed it went deeper, in some way she couldn’t remotely begin to guess at.
“In my view the evidence proves it,” said Brains. “The disturbances are definitely man-made.”
“”Man-made”, Brains?” challenged TinTin, raising her eyebrows.
“Human-made” didn’t have quite the same ring to it, and he liked “person-made” even less. “Uh, artificial then,” he suggested, wisely avoiding an argument about political correctness.
“How exactly is it causing the wave?” asked Virgil Tracy, now back from the rescue mission. He was a handsome young man with film star looks who you’d have thought would have ladies hanging on his arm all the time, only he never seemed to seek their company when on visits to the mainland. He was more interested in music – to the extent of being an accomplished pianist – painting, philosophy and other “intellectual” pursuits, while at the same time capable of a down-to-earth, practical attitude to life.
“Simply by travelling at a certain very fast speed,” Brains answered. “Something certainly in excess of…I would calculate five thousand miles per hour. But it seems to move through water at something between the velocity of light and that of sound.”
There was a moment’s awed silence. “For an underwater craft, that’s incredible,” Virgil gasped. “Much faster than Thunderbird Four or Stingray. But going at that rate it’d…”
“It would c-cause exactly the kind of damage it is doing,” said Brains. “Provided it remains fairly near the surface, so that the effect of its passage is not dissipated with depth.”
“Wouldn’t such a craft be vulnerable to its own backlash?” queried TinTin.
It was copper-haired Gordon Tracy, the operator of underwater rescue vehicle Thunderbird Four, who answered. “Not necessarily. Its hull could be specially strengthened in some way. It’ll have stabilisers. And if it’s moving quickly enough, it’ll have gone by the time each wave would have hit it.”
“What would its power source be?” TinTin wondered.
“At a guess, ion drive propulsion as in some spacecraft,” Brains said. “Probably linked to an atomic reactor, as ion drive technology is still in its relative infancy and would not be sufficient to maintain such a speed over long distances.
“I know it seems wrong to say this, but it must be a wonderful machine. I wouldn’t mind seeing it in action.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing it stopped,” growled Jeff Tracy. “It’s killed lots of people and caused incalculable harm to others’ livelihood. But assuming the authorities have come to the same conclusion that we have, how are they going to deal with it?”
“Presumably a sufficiently powerful depth-charge would destroy or immobilise the craft,” TinTin said. “But they’d have to catch it first.”
“Their sonar would detect it,” said Virgil. “They could track it by its wake. Or if they located the epicentre of the disturbance, and the epicentre was the sub, then they’re sure to be able to find it the next time it does its stuff.”
“They located the approximate epicentre. These things have to be very precise. They’d need to know the exact location, and that’s always difficult. In any case the submarine is probably moving too fast to be caught.”
“Presumably it has to stop sometime, if it isn’t to wear out or it needs to renew the power source,” Jeff pointed out. “And it’ll need to slow down on returning to its base, wherever that is.”
“If they could find it - the base, I mean.”
“That’s going to be difficult. If the sub accelerated to full speed immediately after leaving it, it could be more easily pinpointed from where the epicentre was. But I imagine it doesn’t, and for that reason. Or if it only started to slow when it was a short distance from home…but it moves at such a phenomenal speed it’ll need to take time over the matter.”
“Well,” Jeff said briskly, “if it’s causing loss of life we ought to take a hand. But only if the World Navy can’t deal with it themselves. What we will do of course is try to keep the death toll as low as possible. After all, that’s what we’re in business for.”
His spirits now apparently recovered, the Laird was showing Penelope, Judy and Parker, the latter now in suit and tie, around the Castle, making sure they knew where their rooms were. Judy hoped she could remember. The place was a maze of corridors with what seemed hundreds of doors in each, and when they’d finished their guided tour she was convinced they hadn’t by any means seen all of it. You had the impression of countless nooks and crannies and cubby-holes, little passages that didn’t seem to lead anywhere, rooms large and small whose purpose often wasn’t clear. Just the sort of thing she liked.
They had lunch in the banqueting hall, seated around a huge old oak table which had obviously been there for a long time. Imprinted on its surface they noticed several dark stains, old stains which the Laird said he’d tried many times in the past to remove but with no luck. He didn’t say what they were.
“Well, what dae ye want tae dae this afternoon?” Angus asked once the meal was over.
“I was wondering if we could watch the Loch Ness expedition on the TV,” said Judy hopefully.
“Whatever ye like, lassie,” he said, getting up. “Ah won’t be around; ah’ve got some business at the club tae dae. Getting ready for the Gathering.” The annual meeting of Clan McCraggan was scheduled to take place in two days’ time.
With a nod to each of them, he left.
“Well, Judy, what do you think of our host?” asked Penelope.
“He’s OK.” She frowned. “Sometimes he’s a little bit…”
“Withdrawn?” Penny suggested. “I suppose he is. That’s the Highland character; friendly and hospitable, but also brooding and melancholy at times. It’s why Celtic types have often been rumoured to have second sight. As if they’re seeing into another world, to which the stolid, narrow Anglo-Saxon mind doesn’t have access. Part of it is in the genes. And I think part comes from having lived centuries ago in a bleak and inhospitable environment, where once you were finished at the farm or croft you couldn’t do much except sit by the fire, glad you were safe and warm, within the four walls of your hovel, insulated from the cold and wet outside. It sort of turned you in on yourself.”
“I think the modern world has tended to killed it off,” she observed, not it seemed without regret. “But perhaps not entirely.”
“Do you think he really has got second sight then?” asked Parker.
“I dunno about that,” said Judy. “But the way he just seems to turn off every now and then; it puts the wind up me.”
“So you noticed it too,” Penny said. She was looking thoughtful. “Well, I suppose if it doesn’t get in the way of our enjoyment of our stay…I keep thinking I ought to ask what it is but that’d be too nosy. He probably wouldn’t tell me anyway.”
“Part of being withdrawn,” said Parker.
“No…it’s something more than that, Parker. I’m sure of it. And there are times when being secretive is not a very good thing at all.”
By the shores of nearby Loch Dochfour nestled the clubhouse which served as a meeting place for Clan McCraggan and the venue for many of its activities. In the main room two officials of the clan, Jamie McBeath and Bruce Crawfurd, were laying out the chairs and tables for the Annual General Meeting which was to accompany the Gathering. Jamie was a short but stockily built young man with a head of very fair hair, Bruce taller and thinner and darker.
“Ah cannae see why the Laird doesnae want the meetings held at the Castle any more,” Jamie was saying. He felt it was a much more appropriate and atmospheric venue. “Here’s alright, but…och, ah dinnae what it is. He just doesnae seem to like too many people being over there.” Among other things he no longer allowed members of the public to look round the castle from time to time, as had been his practice in the past.
“Ah havenae set foot in the place for years,” said Bruce. “Ah’m not sure ah’d want to. From some o’ the things Jock’s been telling me…”
“So you agree with me then?”
“About something not being right.”
Bruce frowned, as if not understanding what he was about.
“Ah mean, ye must admit, he hasnae been himself lately.”
“He’s worried about the Clan, about everything; just as we all are.”
“It’s just that he’s so…distracted sometimes. The way he forgets things, and seems all of a sudden tae be in another world…”
“That’s what happens when you’re worried. It’s nae more than that.”
Jamie didn’t look convinced.
“Ah’ve heard he’s invited some relatives of his tae stay with him for a while,” Bruce said.
“If they’re family, maybe he cannae really refuse.”
The building was also the headquarters of a shooting club, of which many of the Clan including Bruce and Jamie were members. Having finished preparing the main hall for the Gathering they moved on to the room where all the trophies were kept and proceeded to give them their regular clean.
They went on discussing the situation while they scrubbed away. “It’s not what we need right now,” Jamie complained. “And in the last few months it’s got a lot worse. The state we’re in we’re not gonnae be able to break even financially for the foreseeable future. There are some things he could be doing to patch it up, at least, but he isn’t. He says how concerned he is about our problems and yet he’s hardly been seen at the office the last year or so. He’s letting it go to the dogs.”
“Aye, ye’re right there.”
“Sits all the time moping in his study at the Castle, at least that’s the impression I got. It’s time someone did something about it.” Bruce looked uncertain at this.
“It makes me angry when ah think of all the effort ah’ve been putting into it. Some people couldnae give a…” Jamie was secretary and general organiser of the Clan McCraggan Association, as well as working for the Laird’s company at its Inverness branch. He worked tirelessly in both capacities, spending more time on the Clan and all to do with it than a lot of young people might nowadays. To him tradition and a sense of identity, of belonging, were important.
“We usually get enough frae the Games tae tide us over,” said Bruce. The Clan were the principal organisers of the event and by common consent, in recognition of the work they did, a lot of the proceeds from it went into their own coffers.
“We won’t this time,” Jamie said darkly. “I’ve looked at the accounts. That’s how bad things are.”
Bruce put down the silver cup he’d been cleaning and stared at him. It was a moment or two before he absorbed the news.
“Why don’t ye raise it at the meeting?” he suggested. “Ye’ll hae to be careful what ye say, of course.”
“On past evidence he’ll just brush it aside,” Jamie muttered.
They heard footsteps in the corridor. The Laird poked his head round the door and immediately the two of them stiffened in attitudes of respect.
The Laird took a brief look round the room and nodded in appreciation of what they were doing. “Yes, very good…very good.”
Jamie took a deep breath, drawing himself up. It was obvious he was sufficiently worried not to want to wait until the AGM even though it was only two days away. “Sir, ah wonder if ah might have a word with ye…” The Laird looked at him quizzically.
“I’m a bit concerned about the general state of the finances. At this rate we’re not gonnae be able to keep the Clan together as an organisation. I…” He hesitated, then decided he might as well press on. “We really need ye tae be present at the next Board meeting. Dinna ye think we ought tae prepare a proper rescue package, draw up a new business strategy?”
The Laird smiled, blandly. “Don’t worry, Jamie, it’ll be alright.”
“How, though, Sir?”
“It’ll be alright,” he repeated. “Ah know things hae been hard but if we weather the storm it’ll all turn out fine in the end. We just need tae keep at it…”
He nodded to them both. “Well, ah’ll be off now. Got things to do at the Castle. See the two of ye at the Games, ah guess.” Then he was off.
Bruce frowned. “See, ah told ye so,” Jamie said. He gazed thoughtfully into the ether. “Ah think he’s got something up his sleeve, something he’s waiting for. But he’s no telling us what it is.” He sighed, shrugged, and got on with his polishing.
Now all the Tracy family were gathered round the television in the lounge, except for Kyrano who could rarely be parted from his garden and Grandma Tracy, Jeff’s mother, who was busy preparing supper.
“The largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, twenty-two miles long and one mile wide with a total surface area of twenty-one square miles, Loch Ness lies along the Great Glen Fault, which was formed by movement of the Earth’s crust during the Cretaceous and Tertiary Periods, between one and one hundred and forty five million years ago. It’s 433 feet deep on average, 755 at maximum.”
“Deep enough for something big to remain there undiscovered, at least for a time,” Jeff mused, scratching his chin.
“Tell me honestly, Brains, do you really think there’s anything in there?” Scott asked.
“I just d-don’t know, Scott,” Brains said. “It’s important to keep an open mind. But t-t-to be honest, there are serious obstacles in the way of the legend being true. For one thing, the Loch is oligotrophic and dimictic.”
Scott looked blank. “Uh…how’s that?”
“The, ah, optimum conditions for life are not actually found there. One must assume, since it is very rarely seen, that the, ah, monster inhabits the deeper parts of the Loch most of the time. Little light penetrates there, so the nutrient content of the water is low. Furthermore it is very cold. The monster may be protected by a thick layer of blubber like a whale or pinniped – that is, seal or walrus. But there may not be enough of the micro-organisms which provide a food supply for the fish which I presume it eats. Any large animal would require a more substantial diet. And p-periodically the warmer and cooler layers of the Loch mix; they are only stratified in summer. This may not provide a stable enough ecosystem to support through the food chain creatures like, er, “Nessie”.”
“But there are fish in the Loch,” said TinTin.
“Yes: eel, pike, sturgeon, stickleback, lamprey, trout, minnow, Atlantic salmon, Arctic char.”
Gordon grinned. “You got their names and addresses, Brains?”
“But there are not enough of them,” Brains continued. “I suspect the creature would have to eat so many of them it would soon exhaust its principal diet. It means there probably could not be enough of the animals to form a viable colony, which would have to contain at least a hundred individuals.”
“Perhaps Nessie likes to keep itself to itself,” suggested Virgil. “Does there have to be a colony, Brains? Why not just one or two families of the animals?”
Brains frowned. “Well…that’s possible, I suppose. But even one family would need more nourishment than I think it’s getting.”
“The only way there could be a monster is if there are tunnels connecting the Loch to an underground lake or sea, like some people have suggested,” said Scott. “That’s what this latest expedition is going to try and find out. It’s the best bet and also the last chance.”
“Supposing the thing is there, Brains, what is it?” John asked. “I thought it was supposed to be a plesi-”
“A plesiosaurus – a prehistoric marine reptile, related to the dinosaurs, which has somehow managed to survive to the present day. The idea is that it entered the Loch from the sea and became trapped there when the geology changed. There’s one problem with that – the Loch is fifty-two feet above sea level. And I don’t think geological changes happen that suddenly. Though if there’s an underground sea…” Brains lost himself in thought for the moment.
“Some of the eyewitness accounts have suggested a different kind of creature,” said TinTin, who’d been doing a bit of research into the subject herself. “More like a giant slug or shell-less snail, but with flipper-like appendages.”
“Well we’ll know for sure, before long,” said Jeff gruffly.
“It’d be kinda sad, in a way, if we did know the answer to the mystery,” said Virgil. “It’d spoil the romance of it, don’t you think?”
Jeff nodded. “And I’ve a feeling that might be true either way. A lot of people would be very disappointed if it turned out the thing didn’t exist. And if it did, the novelty would wear off after a while. Don’t you agree, Brains?”
Brains was startled out of his reverie. “Uh - oh y-yes, Mr Tracy. B-but something in our nature, uh, compels us to try and find out more about the world we live in, to keep on adding to our scientific knowledge. It’s an irresistible compulsion. And if we didn’t have any interest in doing that, we’d stagnate.”
“Sure,” agreed Jeff.
“I’ve always found it an interesting dilemma. We have no choice but to find out what we can even though the more we know, the less exciting the universe seems.”
“I’m not so sure. There’s some would give you an argument on that.”
“Yeah,” nodded Virgil. “The more we find out, the less we know. So they say.”
They returned their attention to the screen.
“Legends of a monster in Loch Ness go as far back as the sixth century AD, when St Columba is reputed to have driven away one of the creatures, which was attacking a man swimming in the Loch, with a crucifix and a prayer. After that, apart from the occasional sighting, things seem to have gone quiet until the 1930s, when a new road was opened up on the western shore of the Loch. There followed a rash of sightings and a number of photographs were taken, some of which were later exposed as fakes. Since then there have been many attempts to find the monster, all of which have failed, mainly due to lack of funds.”
“Load of rubbish if you ask me,” snorted Judy. She’d tried to take an interest in the monster because she’d suspected it might give her something to occupy herself with while she was here. She wasn’t sure she believed in it. “Nothing until the thirties and then when that road’s built they start seeing it all the time. Wonder why. It’s obvious the locals have been out to make money from gullible tourists all this time.”
It suddenly occurred to her that for all she knew their host might believe in the monster. Or that he might see her remark as an insult to the integrity of the Highlander. “Um…I don’t know what you think, er, Angus.” She realised she didn’t know what to call a Scottish Laird to his face, and looked embarrassed.
But Angus’ mind was on other things. “Who knows,” he muttered abstractedly.
“But if Columba saw the monster 1500 years ago, that’d seem to suggest there might be some truth in the legends,” said Penelope. “I don’t think people then had the tendency to perpetrate hoaxes the way later generations did. Although of course they were very superstitious.
“You’ve got it, Pens. Superstition, that’s what it was. And despite what you say, people have always been starting rumours in order to pull someone’s leg. Ever since the world began, I guess. And like I said, it’s a bit suspicious there should have been a massive increase in sightings after a road was opened along the shore of the Loch.”
“Because it made the area more accessible to tourists?”
“Who you could con into thinking there was a monster, so they’d visit the area and buy Nessie souvenirs.”
“Beg pardon, folks,” said Parker. “But if there was a monster…well, the road’d just mean they’d be more likely to see it, wouldn’t they?”
He had a point. It was so hard to know for sure.
“A lot of the sightings could be misidentifications of otters, floating tree trunks, water birds, shoals of fish just beneath the surface, because of a trick of the light,” Penelope said. “It’s been suggested Nessie might actually be an unusually large sturgeon. I suppose it helps if you’re one of those who likes to think there is a monster, because then, in certain conditions, you see what you want to see. And then of course there are hoaxes.” Which wasted people’s time and were no help to the advancement of science, being resented in particular by the pro-Nessie lobby because they made the whole idea of the monster seem ridiculous and fabricated. helped to discredit the whole idea of the monster.
“This time they think they’ve got it sussed,” Judy said. “In a few hours at the most, there won’t be any doubt either way.”
“Which I suppose is rather a pity,” sighed Penelope, unconsciously echoing the thoughts of Virgil Tracy. “Things wouldn’t be the same if we knew all the mysteries of the universe. All the dark, hidden places and what was in them.”
She saw that there was a strange look on the Laird’s face. “Aye,” he said. “That they wouldnae.” He took on a dark, brooding Celtic aspect. “Mebbe some things are best left alone.”
The engineer who had been checking over the Marinus’ systems emerged from the submarine’s airlock and gave a thumbs-up. “All systems AOK. You’re good to go, guys.”
Shieling clapped Lonsdale on the shoulder. “Well, this is it.”
Lonsdale found that his nerves were like beads on a piece of elastic which were being stretched to breaking point. He almost chickened out on impulse, then thought how that would look with half the world watching, and rallied.
Mark Simmons, the WEB official in overall charge of the expedition, came up and shook their hands, wishing them good luck. Then the two men turned to face the crowd, and the cameras, both grinning, Lonsdale a little nervously. A rousing cheer went up.
By now Lady Penelope and her friends had joined the gathering, Fab One causing quite a stir when it turned up. They’d decided in the end to see the action in person, so far as they could.
Shieling and Lonsdale stepped through the airlock into the submarine, Shieling first. The door slid shut and the bolts were drawn home, locking it.
Machinery whined and the crowd went quiet, the air one of anticipation, of expectancy, as the jib of the crane rose slowly to a forty-five degree angle, the Marinus swaying from side to side as it was lifted from the cradle twenty, thirty, forty feet into the air. Gradually it was swung out over the water. Then the jib descended until the craft was touching the surface. Explosive bolts detonated and the harness sprang open.
In the Marinus’ rather cramped cabin Shieling and Lonsdale were seating themselves at the control console. “Open ballast tanks,” ordered Shieling. Lonsdale obeyed. As the tanks filled with water the sub began to sink, disappearing from the sight of the onlookers on the shore. The waters washed over the spot where it had been.
Shieling studied the depth gauge. Ten feet…twenty…thirty…
They descended further and further into the Loch’s dark, Stygian depths, Lonsdale seeming to physically feel them close over him. It was like being in a room with no light and no door. For a moment he almost panicked, then he remembered the searchlights and turned them on. A VDU lit up before him, charts and graphs appearing on it, the largest showing the profile of the Loch with a green blip representing the Marinus.
“We may as well start the sonar.”
A high-pitched pinging sounded from the equipment. Not that Shieling expected to find anything just yet. The monster didn’t go out of its way to seek human company.
Immediately lots of little traces appeared on the VDU, but none of them was big enough to be Nessie. Fish, that was all.
Though their cameras were pretty powerful, at the moment they showed no more than a jumble of blurry images each of which could be anything. At closer range however objects would appear with greater definition.
“Close ballast tanks.”
The submarine stopped descending. “Incline hydroplanes to thirty-five degrees.”
Lonsdale started the motors and the submarine moved forward, at the same time resuming its descent but at a much slower rate, one that could be controlled using the hydroplanes.
Each moment took them closer to the final reckoning. The thrill of excitement Lonsdale felt almost stopped his breath. His heart began to beat faster.
“Let’s try this side first,” Shieling suggested, jerking his head to the left. Lonsdale operated the rudder controls, steering the craft towards the western flank of the Loch. The chart on the VDU was gradually becoming more detailed as the sonar probed every indentation, every fold, every fissure in the rock.
Mark Simmons’ voice came over the radio. “Shore Control here. How’s it going, boys?”
“All systems working AOK,” Lonsdale replied. “No sign of you-know-what just yet, but we’ve plenty of time on our hands.” It would be five hours before they needed to return to the surface to recharge Marinus’ power cells. It had been calculated that this would be long enough to find the tunnels and what lay at the end of them, plus spend a reasonable amount of time exploring the latter, though they could not be absolutely sure.
They studied the chart on the VDU closely, but still didn’t see what they were hoping to. “We’ll take her in as close as possible,” Shieling said. They continued to approach the wall of the Loch, moving sufficiently slowly to avoid a collision. Lonsdale couldn’t take his eyes from the VDU. He watched the jagged, glowing lines continue to form patterns as the echolocator traced the contours of the rock face.
Suddenly he realised there were breaks in them. Gaps in the pattern of the sonar readings; big ones.
He gave a shrill cry of excitement. “Yes! Look! There, do you see?”
“I see,” murmured Shieling softly. His elation in truth as great as Lonsdale’s.
Lonsdale called Shore Control. “Mark, listen! We’ve found the tunnels, I’m certain of it!”
There was a pause while Simmons absorbed this. “Alex, is that true?” he gasped.
“Yes, I concur.”
All radio conversations with the Marinus were being relayed to the crowd over the PA system. A buzz of excitement travelled through them. They knew what this might signify.
Again Lonsdale and Shieling scrutinised the VDU. There were about two dozen of the openings; they were of various sizes, some only a few feet across and others big enough for the sub to enter. “Let’s go and see what’s down them,” Lonsdale said, and swung the craft towards the mouth of the largest one.
Shieling consulted the readings on the console. ”Twenty degrees left.”
Lonsdale made the adjustment. Then he cried out again. This time the excitement in his voice was mingled with alarm, fear even. “What the heck is that?”
A new sonar trace had appeared between the Marinus and the side of the loch. A pulsing blip of light bigger than all the others. And it was moving.
Something had come out of one of the tunnels.
Two thoughts flashed simultaneously through Lonsdale’s mind. Could this really be it? It must, surely. What else, if it was big and it was moving? The instruments were saying it was at least thirty feet long…
Could it do them any damage?
And then he realised it was heading straight towards them.
If it knew they were there, it didn’t seem inclined to change direction.
Shore Control had heard his shout on seeing the sonar trace. “Marinus, what’s going on?” In Simmons’ voice was the same mixture of emotions as Lonsdale’s.
The crowds on the shore shifted uneasily.
The crew of the Marinus knew they should take evasive action. But even the practical-minded Shieling was transfixed with amazement and awe. He managed to collect himself. “Ten degrees right! It’s going to hit us!”
Then it entered the range of the cameras and searchlight. As the image appeared on the giant open-air television screen on shore everyone jumped back in alarm, Lady Penelope and Judy included.
Shieling and Lonsdale only saw it in full for a second or two, had no time to take it in before a massive body slammed into the Marinus and sent it spinning round, the impact hurling them from their seats to sprawl on the floor. They scrambled to their feet, trying to take stock of the situation, knowing they must assess the damage if any, decide if the creature was a threat to them and what to do about it. But before they could the Marinus swung sharply through one hundred and eighty degrees, its whole fabric shuddering with the shock. Frantically they grabbed for whatever handholds they might find, but it was too late. Shieling’s head slammed into a bulkhead, Lonsdale’s the instrument panel. The last thing Lonsdale’s mind registered before he blacked out was the blurry image on the monitor of a huge head with jaws gaping open.
The monster smashed again and again into the submarine. When the onslaught finally ceased the scientists weren’t conscious of it. Or of the Marinus, its hull crumpled and dented, sinking slowly to the bed of the Loch, sending up a cloud of peat particles and silt as it settled there.
Simmons was shouting into the radio. “Marinus, are you alright? Tom, Alex, can you hear me?”
He waited a few minutes, then turned to look at his colleagues Bob Parrish and Carl Donaldson, his face expressionless.
He spoke into the tannoy. “It seems contact has been lost with the Marinus. We will investigate to see whether a rescue operation is necessary. You’ll be informed of further developments as they occur.”
Outside the crowd were staring at one another in confusion, not yet sure how to react to what had happened.
“Either they’re out cold or the radio’s damaged,” Simmons said. We’ll send down a robot with a camera and echolocator.”
“All we can do for now,” said Parrish. “Until we hear from them.”
“If we do,” muttered Donaldson.
For the moment they dismissed from their minds all thought of what this might mean for study of the monster. They just wanted to get Shieling and Lonsdale out of there alive.
“Well, what do you reckon to it all, Father?” Scott asked.
Jeff found his thoughts mixed. “Not how I’d have preferred things to turn out, I must admit. But it’ll at least clear up the whole business, probably for good. If the thing’s a killer maybe they’ll just leave the place alone in future.”
“Perhaps it thought the Marinus was another monster, invading its territory,” Virgil suggested. “It’s about big enough. Maybe it would be less likely to attack a human.”
“Since it hardly ever comes out on land, we’ll never get near it,” Gordon said.
“Sure, it’s a pity,” said Jeff. “But it’s not what matters most right now. What’s happened to those two men?”
Stiffly and painfully, Shieling rose. He was bruised and aching all over and had a massive headache. He glanced at Lonsdale, slumped against the wall, who was just starting to come round. “Tom, are you alright?” He went to help, just as his colleague’s eyes fluttered open. Shakily Lonsdale stood, rubbing his head and wincing. “Are you alright?” Shieling repeated.
The question penetrated Shieling’s fuddled brain. “Yes, I think so,” he answered groggily, shaking himself fully conscious. “You?”
“I don’t think I’ve broken anything.”
“You’re bleeding.” There was a nasty cut on Shieling’s temple where it had connected with the bulkhead.
“Nothing that the first-aid kit won’t fix.” He tried to absorb what had just happened. “It’s there…we both saw it. It’s real…the monster…the Loch Ness monster…oh, Tom, I forgive you. When we get back on shore I’ll buy you a round…”
In truth, Lonsdale’s exhilaration and sense of wonder at finally being proved right were tarnished by the discovery that the creature was aggressive. But there was an even more pressing consideration to think about.
Warning lights were flashing all over the control console. Lonsdale checked the instruments, and swore.
The radio crackled. “Shore Control to Marinus, can you hear me? Tom? Alex? Are you alright, lads?”
Lonsdale answered. “Yes, we’re OK, Mark. Just a bit shaken up. But listen, we’re in big trouble.”
“What’s the damage down there?”
Gauges were dropping, and some of the lights were winking fitfully, dimming, brightening and then dimming again. “Engines out of action…heating and lighting failing…electricity supply failing…air supply failing…some structural damage…”
“Can you get out?”
Lonsdale glanced at another of the lights, and the creeping unease he had been starting to feel became a chill of fear.
“No! Escape system inoperative! Looks like the hatch cover’s jammed. The outer airlock door too.” The creature’s ferocious attack had buckled both out of shape.
“We were going to send down a remote camera…”
“I guess you might as well. But the situation’s pretty clear.”
“How serious is the structural damage?”
“Hull badly dented…looks like there’s a fracture at one point. Er, if you can get us out of this sometime soon it would be much appreciated.”
“You’re welcome. What about the – the creature?”
Lonsdale realised they’d forgotten all about it. The cameras were still working and he glanced at the screen. There was no sign of the monster, nor was it registering on the sonar. Unable quite to penetrate the Marinus’ hull, it had grown tired of playing with it and gone, no doubt feeling its point had been made.
Gone, back to where it lived most of the time. Not the Loch, but whatever was at the end of those tunnels. The theories had been confirmed.
“No sign of it,” he reported. “Well, we know it exists alright. Trouble is, we may not be around long enough to celebrate properly.” With an effort he kept his voice steady. “Unless you can work out some kind of rescue operation within the next hour or two, we’re probably going to cash in our chips.”
“Are the pumps working?”
Lonsdale checked. “No. If she starts to flood…”
“At what point is the hull fractured?”
“The point where the cabin is. Unfortunately. Look, Mark, we’re going to put the scuba gear on.” It had been thought a wise precaution to provide some. “The air in the cylinders will keep us alive for a couple of hours, whether or not the sub floods. But it won’t last forever. The thing is, it occurs to me anyone trying to rescue us may be in danger from the monster…”
“Don’t worry, Tom, we’ll think of something. Keep in touch.” Thank God the radio was still working. At least they could let the trapped men know what was going on, reassure them, and give them instructions where necessary.
“It doesn’t sound like that submarine’s in a fit state to be floated,” Simmons told Parrish and Donaldson. “We could send down a couple of divers with oxyacetylene torches to cut open the hatch.” Shieling and Lonsdale could then ascend to the surface in the scuba gear. “The problem is the monster. If it’s turned nasty…”
Parrish nodded. “We need the Navy for this.”
“That’s going to be difficult. Loch Ness is above sea level, remember. Even if they had the right gear it’d have to be airlifted in and that’d take time.”
“So where does that leave us?” Parrish asked.
WBC reporter Kylie Walker sounded suitably grave. “It appears the Marinus is trapped on the bottom of the Loch and that the submarine’s life-support systems are inoperative. There is believed to be damage to the hull. Unless a rescue can be carried out within the next two hours there seems little hope for Alexander Shieling and Tom Lonsdale. But with the inhabitants of Loch Ness apparently resenting any intrusion into their domain, is it safe to attempt one?”
“Basically the World Navy don’t have the right equipment,” Jeff grunted. “Not if this has to be pulled off in the time available. Unless you simply used divers, and we know why that would be dangerous. But Thunderbird Four’s got missiles.” Jeff pressed one of the buttons on the control panel built into his desk and an ashtray, purely ornamental in any case because he’d given up smoking some time before, swung up to expose a radio receiver. “I don’t think we’ll wait to be called in this time.” In a moment he was speaking to Alan Tracy on Thunderbird Five. “Alan, you know what’s been happening at Loch Ness?”
“Yes, Father. I’ve been monitoring their radio transmissions.”
“Tell them we’ve been watching and are on our way. If they say they don’t want us stepping in, well, that’s their decision. But I don’t think they will.” He swivelled his chair round and back so he could face everyone in the room. “Scott, Virgil, Gordon, away you go. Brains, you go with them just in case your advice is needed. It may help if you’re on the spot.”
“Yes, Mr Tracy.”
“Make sure the monster isn’t harmed if you can avoid it.” Equally, if it couldn’t be avoided they were quite prepared for the creature to suffer. Their main concern was to get Alexander Shieling and Tom Lonsdale to safety. As yet the Marinus’ hull hadn’t started to leak. But even if they didn’t drown the two men would gradually suffocate, trapped inside their cold, dark, steel tomb.
“International Rescue?” It was inevitable that almost immediately someone would think of them. “Are you sure they have the right equipment?”
“On past experience, yes,” said Donaldson. “I don’t know how they’d handle the monster. But it’s worth a try, I reckon. Apparently you just send out a call on any frequency and – “
Overhearing this, Simmons looked up from the radio with a grin. “They’re going to have a go, anyhow. That was them - International Rescue. They’re on their way.”
“Thunderbirds are Go!” declared Jeff Tracy.
Scott went to stand with his back to the two ornamental lamp brackets on the wall of the lounge, grasping them to steady himself. Again it and the floor swung where the was standing through one hundred and eighty degrees, and he stepped down onto the inspection gantry in Thunderbird One’s maintenance hangar, face to face with the rocket plane’s silver-grey, cigar-shaped fuselage. At the moment the craft was standing in a vertical position at the top of the inclined rails leading to its launch bay.
The gantry extended to form a bridge which connected with Thunderbird One’s nosecone, an entry hatch sliding open automatically, activated by sensors, as it did so. Scott went through into the craft’s control cabin, where the distinctive blue International Rescue uniform and cap were hanging. Donning them, he took his seat in the pilot’s chair. Meanwhile, propelled by powerful electric motors, Thunderbird One had begun to travel down the rails, along an inclined tunnel cut through the very rock of the island, to the launch bay.
Virgil, meanwhile, was also standing with back to the lounge wall, against the painting of a rocket launch which was Jeff’s pride and joy. The painting tilted back, connecting with the first of the chutes which by which access was gained to the cabin of Thunderbird Two. It dipped, and Virgil slid down the chute onto a turntable which rotated, then tilted to send him shooting feet-first down a second chute which by now had telescoped out to meet the hatch in the roof of the cabin. The hatch slid back, and Virgil was deposited in his pilot’s seat. As the chute retracted into the ceiling of Thunderbird Two’s hangar, another was descending towards a second hatch to the rear of the first. Down it travelled a pallet carrying Gordon Tracy and Brains. While they took up their launch positions, the row of interchangeable pods containing the heavy equipment necessary on most rescue missions began to move off along a conveyor belt, passing between the four tall legs which supported Thunderbird Two. When Pod Four was directly beneath it the belt stopped moving and the giant transporter sank down, magnetic clamps locking shut to hold the pod in place between the two horizontal booms connecting the forward fuselage and tail unit.
As Thunderbird One travelled along a further, horizontal pair of rails onto its launch pad, above it the swimming pool in front of the Tracy house was sliding beneath the concrete patio. Scott fired his motors and Thunderbird One trembled, then lifted from the launch pad, rising up through the opening where the pool had been and into the sky above the house, climbing towards its maximum ceiling.
Part of the cliff face beneath the house sank into the ground, exposing the steel door of Thunderbird Two’s hangar, which swung down allowing the giant transporter to move forward along a runway on the wheels in the floor of its pod. Another carefully and cleverly concealed mechanism moved aside the clusters of palm trees flanking the runway at one point, allowing the passage of its two forward-pointing wings, stubby-looking but in truth much bigger than they seemed until you were close up to them, although the craft’s revolutionary propulsion system, something akin to a hovercraft’s, meant they were needed more for stability than lift.
Thunderbird Two came to a stop, and clamps sprang up to hold it in place while the runway beneath it rose up and tilted back, becoming a launch ramp. Another, smaller area of concrete behind it did the same, forming a blast wall. Virgil fired the engines, their power providing the initial impetus for the craft’s take-off, carrying it high into the sky. At a height of two hundred feet it levelled off, tilting forward into a horizontal attitude. Thunderbird One meanwhile was doing the same, a gimbal system all the time maintaining Scott’s seat in an upright position.
Both craft now set course for Loch Ness. Thunderbirds were go.
Now that International Rescue were involved everyone had had to be sent home, to protect the organisation’s security. Fab One was on its way back to the Castle, its occupants in sombre mood.
Though the Laird looked self-satisfied, in a grim sort of way. He seemed to feel his forebodings were confirmed.
“I guess they won’t be going down there again, not if the monster’s dangerous,” said Judy sadly. “Unless they’re going to hunt it.” And she rather hoped they didn’t.
Penny shared her feelings. Of course her ancestors had hunted foxes, hare, deer, and other game animals and for them it was a way of life, a culture, whatever else it might have been. But she personally had no taste for that sort of thing. It was all a bit too bloodthirsty for her liking.
“I wonder what it tastes like?” Judy said.
“What would they hunt it for?” Parker wondered. “Apart from food.”
“Sport, I suppose,” Penelope answered. “If they were allowed to, though they won’t be. Or to study one for the advancement of science – a much better motive, though I suspect even that might be frowned upon if it meant harm coming to the creatures.”
“They could wait until one died and then get the body,” said Judy.
“After what’s happened I imagine everyone will think twice about going there at all,” Penny sighed.
“Pity,” grinned Angus. “Love tae have its head on ma wall with all ma other trophies.”
It was hard to tell, Judy thought, just where the turn of events would leave everyone. One thing was sure, there were other mysteries. And life had to go on in any case. There was plenty to be found that gave quality to it, through captivating the imagination or in some other way. The drama which was unfolding at Loch Ness was thrilling with or without the monster. “So International Rescue have been called in. I expect they’ll sort it out.” She tried to speak as if she, Penny and Parker were not actually members of the organisation themselves.
“Wish we could see it at first hand.” Which she did, feeling she was showing her loyalty to Scott and the others even by just watching from the sidelines.
“You won’t be allowed to,” said Penelope. “They guard their secrets very carefully. I’ve no doubt we’ll hear about it on the news. We’ll just have to hope that yet again IR can pull it off.”
“We’ll still be famous for having found the thing,” Shieling said consolingly.
“I guess you’re right,” Lonsdale agreed. “Although we may not live to enjoy it.”
The two men had now put on the diving suits, but were able to communicate through the radios built into them.
“It certainly hasn’t put me off doing this kind of thing again,” Lonsdale said.
“Nor me. We all know the danger’s part of the – “
Shieling froze. He could hear the faint pattering of water on the floor of the control room.
The crack in the wall was little more than a hairline fracture, but it would be enough for the water to eventually fill the room. With the suits on they would be safe from drowning. But of course their oxygen would eventually be exhausted.
”Alex, Tom? Can you hear me?”
Shieling answered the radio. ”Yes, Mark. The hull’s definitely leaking, although that isn’t really the problem.”
“Well, don’t worry. International Rescue are on their way.”
International Rescue! Despite their situation, the two men exchanged grins. Now they could be sure they stood a chance.
Initially the reaction of the world in general to the news was one of shock. Once that shock was got over their interest focused on the efforts to rescue Shieiling and Lonsdale, partly because they were angry at the monster’s action. It wasn’t what they had wanted, especially when they were also worried, whether or not they liked to admit it, by events in the North Sea. Real or not, Nessie had been regarded with a kind of affection, and now…
“Why did it attack the sub?” asked Mark Simmons, sounding indignant, betrayed.
“Because it was be seen as a threat, I guess,” Parrish said. “The creature was defending its territory. It’s what a lot of animals would have done, so we shouldn’t be too surprised.”
“Maybe not. But we’re going to have to think very carefully about what happens next.”
“My main concern right now is Tom and Alex.”
A policeman approached a group of youths who were still hanging around. ”Sorry, lads. I told you, go home.” Sullenly they stomped off.
Parrish and Donaldson joined Simmons in the Site Control cabin. He was on the radio to International Rescue, while crouched over a monitor watching the picture from the camera on the remote minisub. They peered over his shoulder.
The monster, if it was around, didn’t appear interested in the robot, probably because it wasn’t displacing so much water. The creature must have sensed the Marinus’ presence through the vibrations.
“It’s sitting on the bottom of the Loch, in an upright position,” Simmons was saying. “Pretty badly battered. Our main worry is the flooding. And the air-conditioning.”
Scott’s voice crackled back. “Uh-huh. But the two men on board are physically OK?”
“It seems so.”
“Just tell them to stay calm. There should be plenty of time to carry out the rescue before the air in those suits runs out.”
“I don’t know how you were planning to do it, but we’d like the Marinus salvaged if at all possible. I doubt if she could be used again but there’s a lot of valuable equipment on board which we can’t just abandon. I guess you could keep watch for the monster while a diver cuts through the escape hatch…”
“That’d take time, during which the monster might come along to see what’s going on. The quicker the operation’s accomplished, the better. If we can avoid having to tangle with the monster that’d be better from its point of view and ours. So we’re gonna try and kill two birds with one stone.”
At that moment the star-studded blackness of the sky was giving way to a midnight, and then a Pacific, blue as Thunderbird One crossed the time zones. Scott could see the curvature of the Earth, always a moving sight as it reminded him how close he was here to outer space, that cold dark endless realm in which the world seemed so lonely and vulnerable, almost the only planet in the universe with any life on it. Which was one reason why its inhabitants needed to be protected.
He called the island. “Base from Thunderbird One. Should arrive at Loch Ness in fifteen minutes.”
Ten later, travelling at a speed of 150,000 miles per hour, the craft flew over the west coast of Scotland.
Seeing the Highlands come into view on the horizon, Scott gradually reduced his speed. At the same time the Thunderbird’s nose dipped and it started to descend. At twenty miles from the Loch it levelled off. As it approached the danger zone its wings unfolded so that it was a plane now as well as a rocket, the drag slowing it down a little.
The sheet of water to the east of the mountains came into range of the camera which gave Scott his view of the outside world. He lowered Thunderbird One’s undercarriage, the two tall legs positioned one under each wing plus a third, shorter leg which extruded from one of the rear stabiliser fins.
On the shore the site officials had been standing around drinking hot tea and talking, in subdued fashion, while they waited for the machines of mercy to arrive. Hearing Thunderbird One’s engines in the distance, they turned to see it appear over the horizon. ”Will you take a look at that!” Donaldson exclaimed as it made its approach.
Scott fired his landing jets and Thunderbird touched down on the patch of ground which had been cleared for it. The police car drove over to meet it.
From the hatch in the underside of the fuselage a ladder extended to the ground, and Scott clambered down it. “Hi, guys,” he smiled, seeing Simmons and his colleagues come towards him. “Just need to set up my equipment and I’ll be with you.”
He had already loaded the various modules making up the Mobile Control console onto the hoverbikes stored in every Thunderbird craft. Under remote control, they carried the equipment over to a spot not far from the Site Control cabin, and from which a clear view of the Loch could be gained. Once it had been assembled, the police got to work erecting a cordon around it and Thunderbird One.
The radio unit allowed simultaneous communication between Mobile Control, Tracy Island and any Thunderbird craft involved in a rescue mission. But what Scott needed first to do was contact Lonsdale and Shieling. He found the right frequency. “This is International Rescue calling Marinus. Marinus, can you hear me?”
“We hear you,” replied Alexander Shieling. “And boy, are we glad to.”
“What’s the situation down there?”
“The water’s up to our chests. Rising all the time, though slowly.”
“Our heavy equipment should be here in about thirty minutes. That leaves one hour until your air runs out. Enough time to do the job, barring any complications.”
Shieling knew what sort of complication he had in mind.
Scott called Virgil. “Mobile control to Thunderbird Two. what’s your ETA, Virg?”
“Thunderbird Two to base. Weather conditions normal. Should arrive at danger zone within estimated time period.”
“FAB.” The acronym in fact didn’t really mean anything, other than that as far as could be seen, things were going according to plan.
Shieling and Lonsdale were sure they could feel the cold even through the fabric of the diving suits. It was a cold that came from the very depths of the Loch. “All things considered, the sooner we’re out of this the better,” Lonsdale said.
“Me too,” came Shieling’s reply.
All they could do was wait.
The water crept up, reaching the chins of the wetsuits.
Thunderbird Two passed over the ruins of Urquhart Castle, firing the jets in its underside as it approached a point directly above the centre of the Loch. The watchers on the shore saw it pause and hover fifty feet from the surface.
Gordon called the flight deck. “In position, Virg.”
“FAB. Releasing pod now.”
Clamps sprang open and the pod dropped from between the twin booms making up the fuselage to hit the water with a resounding splash, waves racing towards the shore. Motors whined and the door in its front lowered until it was touching the surface. Inside it, the platform on which Thunderbird Four rested moved forward on rails and then inclined, while at the same time the submarine’s launch ramp extended from it until the first few feet had disappeared beneath the water.
The twin turboboosters at the craft’s rear spat jets of flame and it shot down the ramp into the Loch, their thrust carrying it halfway to the bottom before it levelled off. Gordon switched on the beacon mounted on the scoop carried on two hinged arms at the front of the sub’s wedge-shaped forward section. The ray of light stabbed through the gloom before him, fish darting away from it.
“Wow,” he muttered uneasily. “Sure is dark down here.” The blackness had a quality about it that was unlike anything he’d ever encountered before. It seemed almost solid.
You got the idea almost anything could be lurking within it.
On Thunderbird Two Brains had heard his comment. “It’s the, uh, peat particles suspended in the water. It should not, uh, affect the visibility of our instruments unduly.”
Gordon’s sonar enabled him to locate the Marinus almost at once. He brought Thunderbird Four up close to the hull, nose towards it.
“First I’ve got to seal that fracture in the hull.” The submarine had to be watertight before any attempt was made to raise it. The sonar would enable him to locate the crack in the metal more easily than could the submarine’s cameras on their own, despite their high definition.
“There it is,” he said, and raised the scoop. One of four circular hatches arranged in a row in the forward section slid open, and the stubby nozzle of a gun-like device extruded from it. Gordon steered the minisub along the side of the Marinus to the crack in the hull, then turned to face it again.
The crack ran jaggedly down the Marinus’ flank for about fifteen feet. Gordon raised Thunderbird Four a foot or two, then brought her forward the same distance until the tubular device was in contact with the upper end of it. His hand went to a control.
A grey-white paste began to ooze from the tube, filling the width of the crack. Gordon carefully adjusted Thunderbird Four’s buoyancy so that it dropped slowly towards the Loch bed. As it did so, the sealant gel travelled down the crack, hardening almost instantly on contact with the water.
All the time Gordon was trying to banish the thought of the monster from his mind. They just had to take the risk. He was tempted to let his eyes stray to the sonar, only he knew he must concentrate first of all on the task in hand.
The gel continued to ooze out like toothpaste, solidifying within seconds to create a join stronger than the original undamaged structure had been. It took about four minutes to take up the whole of the crack. Once it had reached the bottom Gordon withdrew the tube. “That should do it.”
He glanced at the sonar. There was nothing registering on it.
“Fracture sealed,” he reported. “Are those guys in there OK?”
“Hold on.” A few moments later Scott called back. “Yeah, the water’s stopped rising. Good work, Gordon. Now let’s get her to the surface.”
Thunderbird Four settled onto the bottom beside the Marinus. Gordon took four bags of a tough plastic material, each with a metal disc attached, from the storage compartment at the rear of the cabin. Then he donned his scuba gear and entered the short tunnel leading to the airlock.
Rather prematurely, Lonsdale ripped off his face mask and gave a yell of triumph. ”Looks like we’re OK!” He swallowed a mouthful of water and spluttered.
“Not yet,” cautioned Shieling, as he hurriedly replaced the mask. “They’ve got to get us up first.”
They heard Scott Tracy’s voice. “Mobile Control to Marinus. Have made submarine watertight. Will now attempt to raise it.”
“Right,” Shieling shouted. “Good work.”
“I wonder how they’re going to do it?” he said. He was going to ask, but Scott had cut off. Looked like they just wanted to get on with the job, and Shieling didn’t blame them. He knew why it was best for them all to be out of here as soon as possible.
Gordon rose out of the hatch in the top of the airlock, which automatically closed behind him. The four bags were clipped to the belt around the waist of his wetsuit. Seeing by the light on his helmet, he swam over to the Marinus. He unclipped the bags and attached them to points on the submarine’s hull, spaced a roughly equal distance apart, two on either side near the top. The discs were fitted with magnetic pads enabling them to cling to the metal.
Half the time he expected some nightmarish, primaeval monstrosity to suddenly appear out of the all-embracing darkness around him. So far it hadn’t.
Just inside the mouth of one of the tunnels on the west side of the Loch, something moved.
Gordon slid open Thunderbird Four’s airlock door and swam in. As soon as the door had closed the pumps set to work. Once the compartment was fully drained he returned to the cabin and seated himself in the operator’s chair.
He called Mobile Control. “OK, boys, here goes.” He touched another of the controls.
Air hissed into the bags from the reservoirs contained in the discs and they rapidly inflated, bulging and billowing to form four huge balloons, each a bright orange colour. There was a creaking, clanking sound as the Marinus shifted, tilting. Slowly it lifted off the bottom, rising at a few feet a minute.
Gordon’s eyes followed it. “She’s on the way up,” he told Scott. “And it looks good.”
“OK. But remain there on standby just in case.” They wouldn’t relax until the Marinus was safely back on dry land. Because they never took any chances. All the same Gordon decided it was safe to take a look at the sonar.
He froze in shock.
There was a massive light-trace on the VDU, bearing down on the smaller blip that was Thunderbird Four, and moving at terrifying speed.
“Scott!” he shouted. “Monster!”
On the shore Simmons and the others saw Scott give a start.
For a moment Gordon stared spellbound at the image on the screen, paralysed by sheer, fascinated horror. He felt a pang of some primitive dread, a flash of fear from the time when Man’s ancestors were tiny creatures always at risk from something bigger, more powerful and more dangerous than themselves.
The body was humped, and shaped not unlike the shell of a turtle. Its hide was leathery, wrinkled and warty in places, with a grey-blue colouring. Through its massive bulk someone appeared to have threaded an immense snake. It had a long neck which twisted sinuously, and an equally long tail stretching out some way behind it. On top of the neck was a head like a lizard’s with short, blunt jaws, two dull eyes oval in shape and a pair of stubby horns. It was propelled through the water by two pairs of diamond-shaped flippers.
And it was coming straight towards him.
It saw Thunderbird Four as a threat, or as food. Gordon snapped out of his trance-like astonishment just in time, and pressed the firing button.
The taser missile streaked from its launch tube on the end of the wire which guided it to its target. The point of the harpoon lodged in the warty hide of the monster and it thrashed about furiously, twisting from side to side, the serpentine neck weaving to and fro. With an animal that big the harpoon would cause pain but not permanent injury. That had been the intention, for apart from their deep-rooted aversion to harming any living thing the value of these creatures to science was incalculable.
Then Gordon’s hand came down on a second button and the electric current shot along the wire to the creature, for a moment irradiating it with blue sparks.
Gordon released the wire. For a moment the monster thrashed even more furiously, then the dull eyes closed and it was still, sinking slowly to the bottom, raising a huge cloud of silt as it rested on it. The head rolled to one side on its long neck, jaws slightly open.
Gordon could see the monster’s flanks rise and fall. Good; the thing was unconscious, but not dead. They’d no idea what exactly the creature was – most probably a reptile, by the look of it – but the charge had had the same effect as it might on an angry whale, throwing its nervous system into disarray and causing it to shut down. What they couldn’t say was how long it was going to stay out. It was tempting to take a closer look at it, but better to head for the surface pronto.
Then Gordon registered a second massive body looming over the submarine. Another monster.
It slammed into Thunderbird Four with an impact like a tidal wave, almost overturning it. Had it not been for the restraint securing him to the seat Gordon would have been flung clean across the cabin.
He yelled into the radio. “There’s another of them!”
Again the monster smashed into the little submarine, knocking it violently sideways. The force of the attack sent a shuddering tremor through Gordon’s body, rattling his very bones, and slightly stunned him, so that he wasn’t able to respond to the next savage onslaught. This time the craft flipped right over, and there was a dizzying rush of blood to his head. He struggled to orientate the sub so it was in the correct position to fire another taser missile, but the monster kept spinning it round and tipping it over, before repositioning itself for another attack.
Could Thunderbird Four stand up to this?
He was only dimly aware of Scott shouting over the radio, telling him to use the taser.
He was certain there was a third monster there, and a fourth. He boosted the motors up to full in a bid to break through them, but they were all around him, blocking off his escape.
He fired another missile and saw one of them convulse before sinking like a stone.
An enormous tail slammed squarely into Thunderbird Four’s flank. Gordon saw the warning light flashing on the console, heard the strident bleeping of the alarms. Indicating damage. He let off a third missile and thought it found its target, but wasn’t sure. Through the cabin window he saw the monster’s huge head, the jaws open wide to snap at the sub.
He was being knocked in every possible direction. I can’t take much more of this, he thought.
He couldn’t see anything through the window. The beacon must have gone.
The monster was too close for him to fire another taser missile.
“Base from Thunderbird Four! They’re attacking me – I’m being smashed to pieces! I don’t know if the hull can bear it…” It must do, he thought. It’s designed to withstand the pressures at the very bottom of the ocean.
But he was rather more vulnerable.
His seatbelt snapped, and the next instant his head smashed into the wall of the cabin and everything went black. The last thing he knew was a plunging sensation, as if the craft were sinking.
“Gordon, don’t worry, we’ll think of something,” Scott shouted into the radio. At least he hoped they could. Gordon couldn’t hear him anyway.
Scott glanced to where the Marinus was now breaking surface, the orange flotation bags bobbing up and down with it. “Virgil, get the Marinus out of the water, and fast.”
“FAB, Scott.” Virgil lowered Thunderbird Two’s magnetic grabs and brought it in above the submarine as it settled.
Down below, the stricken Thunderbird Four hit the bed of the Loch and turned over onto its back. A monster rammed the craft with its enormous snout, knocking it the right way up. Then another attacked and flipped it on its back again. It skidded a few feet across the bottom.
Unable to bite through its cahelium hull, or penetrate the specially toughened glass the cabin window was made of, the monsters lost interest in it and the frenzied attack ceased. They turned ponderously and swam away.
The grabs closed around the Marinus, snapping shut with an echoing clang. Virgil fired his vertical jets and Thunderbird Two rose, taking the submarine with it. Once he was over the shore he descended until the Marinus was resting on the ground, then opened the grabs. The WEB technicians began running towards it. Now they could pump out the water and cut through the jammed airlock door.
“Now what about Gordon?” Virgil asked.
“I can’t get any answer from him,” Scott reported, concern clearly showing through his cool exterior. “We don’t know if he’s OK or…”
“Well we’re going to have to find out sooner or later. We can’t just leave him down there.”
“First we must make a visual estimate of the damage to Thunderbird Four,” said Brains. “I w-would suggest we use the diving bell.”
Jeff cut in and was apprised of the situation. He agreed with Brains’ suggestion. “Any trouble and we could winch it up straight away.”
“I’d better retrieve the pod,” said Virgil. “Just in case the creatures attack it.”
“Would they come to the surface? They haven’t done in the past, not very often.”
“We shouldn’t take any chances.”
Just then they heard Gordon’s voice. “Scott?”
They breathed a collective sigh of relief. “Gordon, what’s the situation down there?” Scott asked. “Are you OK?”
“Just about,” he answered dazedly. “But I’m not sure about Thunderbird. She’s on her back.”
Gordon was standing on what had been the wall of the cabin and was now the floor, speaking into his personal radio because in this position the one on the console was out of reach. He narrowed his eyes, trying to make out the readings in the instruments, the data scrolling up on the computer screens. “Life-support systems functioning normally. Structural integrity intact. But propulsion and guidance systems damaged…escape systems non-operational, in other words the airlock’s jammed. I’m stuck in here for the moment and in any case I don’t fancy making an ascent with those brutes around. We’ve no idea how many of them there are in all.”
“We’re going to lower the diving bell. What are the creatures doing right now?”
“Most of them have gone. But there should be one or two still unconscious. I can’t see from this position.”
“Well, just sit tight. We’ll get you out of there.”
“Who’s gonna go down?” asked Scott. “I’d better stay here to supervise Mobile Control.”
“Uh-uh-I’ll go, Scott,” answered Brains. Just as well they’d brought him along.
“OK, buddy. You be careful now.” Brains wasn’t the sort of guy you’d expect to have vast reserves of physical courage, but he did; though sometimes it was absent-mindedness, or a tendency to let scientific curiosity get the better of him.
Its pod now back in place, Thunderbird Two had returned to a hovering position above the Loch. The hatch in the underside of its forward fuselage opened, Virgil started the winch, and the bright yellow drum of the diving bell was lowered down.
The waters parted, then closed over it.
The capsule was equipped with its own beacon, camera and sonar equipment. Brains switched them on. He studied the readings on the instrument panel, from time to time crossing to gaze through an observation window.
In the glare from the beacon objects had a blurry, surreal, ghostly appearance, much as if seen in infra-red. The image from the camera was much clearer.
The depth gauge read fifty feet, a hundred feet, one hundred and fifty, two hundred.
Three hundred…four hundred…
Then the others heard him cry out. “I can see Thunderbird Four. A few feet more…slow rate of descent…” When the capsule was about level with the stricken submarine he told Virgil to stop the winch.
They needed to get a bit closer. “Now a little to the right.” Virgil obeyed, Brains bracing himself against the walls as the capsule swung with the movement.
He studied Thunderbird Four. It wasn’t lying so much on its back as on its side, propped up by the remaining portion of the rear stabiliser fin, part of which had been torn away, while the scoop was hanging half off. In places, particularly around the escape hatch, the hull was dented and buckled.
He could also see the huge bulk of one of the unconscious monsters. There were three of them in all. He studied the leviathans in awe, momentarily forgetting what they’d come to do.
They’d better work fast. They had no idea how long the creatures would stay out for.
“It looks as if the damage could quite easily be repaired,” he told the others. “But we’ll need to get her back upright before we can raise her.” He pondered the problem for a moment, then had an idea. “I suggest we use the capsule.”
“Simplest thing,” said Scott. “And there’s no time for anything else.” Virgil and Gordon agreed. “We’ll need to be careful, though.” They agreed with that too.
Virgil told Gordon to brace himself. “You too, Brains.”
“Here we go again,” Gordon muttered.
Virgil began to slew Thunderbird Two about, the great craft dipping and rising and veering from side to side. The diving bell swung on its cable like a conker. Brains grasped the handholds at the sides to steady himself. “A little more, Virgil.”
The capsule shuddered as it slammed side-on into Thunderbird Four’s side, the impact tilting the little submarine. It crashed down onto its belly.
“Y-you’ve done it, Virgil. Now, a few degrees to the right…” There was provision for mating the capsule airlock with Thunderbird Four’s; Brains could cut through the jammed door and then Gordon could be returned to the surface and safety, which was their priority, before they used Thunderbird Two’s lifting gear to raise the submarine.
Brains hadn’t seen one of the monsters stir as its consciousness slowly returned. Now it was lifting itself from the Loch bed; its eyes focusing on the diving bell.
Brains had let go of the handholds and was flung almost the width of the capsule’s interior as a massive body struck it, swinging it forty feet through the water. His head hit the wall, the glasses falling off.
On Thunderbird Two Virgil felt the tremor. “Hey, what’s going on?”
The next one jolted Brains out of his stunned state. He heard Virgil calling him. “Brains, what’s happening? Shall I pull her up?”
Brains retrieved his glasses and seized the nearest handgrip, before the next assault knocked him out again. “I-I think you’d better, Virgil.” Or he’d be smashed to pieces like an insect trapped in a roulette wheel.
The drum of the winch began to rotate, the diving bell to rise.
The monster seemed to see this as a victory and abandoned trying to tear the capsule open. It had chased off the intruder. It turned its attention to Thunderbird Four, swimming back towards the little submarine.
The monster prodded it with its nose, sending it travelling a few yards across the floor of the Loch.
Brains registered that the attack on the capsule had ceased. “Stop the winch, Virgil,” he instructed.
Virgil obeyed, but was puzzled. “What’s the idea, Brains? It’s dangerous to be down there – “
“If we don’t take care of that monster we’ll never get Thunderbird Four up. I’ve got an idea. It’s v-very risky, I’m afraid…”
“What are you planning?”
The diving bell was equipped with an airlock, in which scuba gear was stored for when extra-vehicular excursions were needed. Brains changed into it and took a taser gun from the equipment locker. International Rescue personnel needed to be able to defend themselves where necessary from dangerous marine life when on an underwater assignment.
The helmet of the suit was equipped with a searchlight for use in water like this, so Brains should be able to see what he was doing.
He went through the inner airlock door, closing it after him. “OK, Virgil, this is what we’re going to have to do.”
In Thunderbird Four Gordon was bracing himself once again for a rough ride. Unfortunately this monster had been unconscious when the others had attacked him and didn’t know that Thunderbird Four’s hull was impossible to penetrate. ”Not leaving me here, are you, boys?” he said woodenly.
“Hold tight, fella, there’s something we’re gonna try,” Scott answered.
The monster continued attempting to overturn Thunderbird Four. In a moment it would succeed.
Brains came shooting out of the diving bell’s airlock in cloud of bubbles. A second later the capsule slammed into the side of the creature’s head. The monster lost interest in the Thunderbird and turned to investigate this new threat. As Brains had calculated it ignored him, concentrating on the larger and therefore by its reckoning more dangerous enemy.
The taser gun was probably too small to cause a creature this big much of a shock. Unless he could hit some vital part.
“Lift the capsule, Virgil!” Brains shouted into his suit’s radio as the monster lunged towards the diving bell, jaws gaping.
Virgil wasn’t quite quick enough. The monster seized the capsule in its mouth and twisted, trying to rip the metal open with its teeth. It failed. But Brains heard Virgil shout out in alarm as Thunderbird Two was yanked downwards in a series of short sharp tugs, dipping and yawing.
The water loomed up beneath it.
Virgil fired his engines up to full. Thunderbird Two struggled to ascend, machine pitted against monster in an awesome battle of the giants. For a moment the Thunderbird remained stationary, the upward thrust of its vertical jets equally balancing it’s the monster’s massive strength. The two were caught in a deadlock. Then the sheer, enormous power of Thunderbird Two triumphed and it broke free, soaring high above the Loch, the capsule bursting from the water and swinging almost through a half-circle on its cable, like a wrecker’s ball and chain.
The monster now found its attention caught by Brains and turned towards him. Again its jaws yawned wide. Fighting to keep his nerve, he fired the taser gun right down the monster’s throat. The massive body convulsed then went limp, sinking.
“I’ve taken care of it,” he radioed. Now they could lift Thunderbird Four to the surface, with Gordon inside, before any more of the monsters woke up.
“Great. You’d better come up now, Brains, and I’ll pick you up with the harness. The capsule’s airlock might be damaged.”
Brains surfaced, the harness was lowered down to him, and he was raised into the belly of Thunderbird Two. Then Virgil lowered the diving bell again, using its instruments to locate Thunderbird Four, and shifting Thunderbird Two’s position until the capsule was directly above it. The magnetic clamp on its underside connected with the submarine’s hull.
“Taking you up, Gordon,“ said Virgil.
A few feet per second he raised the diving bell, and Thunderbird Four with it. It was with relief that Scott saw the little yellow sub emerge into the sunshine; presumably they were now out of danger. They could cut through the capsule’s airlock, if necessary, drain the water from it and load Thunderbird Four back into the pod.
The sound of some disturbance in the Loch caused him and the others on shore to look round. They stiffened. A long neck had emerged from the water, and the head with the two stubby horns on it swivelled to face them. The dull oval eyes stared fixedly for a long, unnerving moment. Then it dipped beneath the water and the monster was gone, back into the Loch which was its home.
“Phew,” exclaimed Gordon. “Thanks, fellas. I thought I’d never get out of that.”
“Sure was brave of you, Brains,” said Scott. “To do what you did.”
“S-someone had to, Scott,” said Brains modestly.
Jeff had been listening in. “Well done, boys. Now you’d better be on your way. We’ve got to get Thunderbird Four repaired as soon as possible, we’ve no idea when she’ll next be needed. We did what we came to do, that’s the main thing.”
But his voice was tinged with sadness.
“Sure thing, Dad,” Scott agreed. He wanted to drop in on Judy and Penny and Parker but he knew it was inadvisable. It would be difficult to do it without someone making a connection between them and International Rescue. They’d have to hide Thunderbirds One and Two somewhere, which would be pretty difficult.
But he definitely needed to see Judy again sometime. It’d do him good.
By now they had got Shieling and Lonsdale out of the Marinus. The two men were whooping with delight, clapping themselves and their IOI colleagues on the back and shaking hands all round. At least they had confirmed there was a Loch Ness Monster, even if its behaviour seemed decidedly anti-social. And of course they were still alive.
“We made it!” shouted Lonsdale, punching the air, his face split by a broad delighted grin. “We made it!”
Scott grinned too, feeling his regrets evaporate. Dad was right, this was what they were in business for.
“Well, I suppose it didn’t turn out too badly,” said Lady Penelope as the TV news came to an end. “International Rescue have done it again.”
“Still a bit of a shame, though,” commented Parker.
The Monster – Monsters, it seemed - might have proved interesting enough for the final solution of a tantalising mystery not to spoil things. The trouble was, no-one would be allowed near it now.
“I supposed you can’t really put one of the things in a zoo,” said Judy, a little regretfully.
“An animal that big would be very difficult to manage in captivity,” said Penelope. “It would be the same as with a living dinosaur, if they managed to find one in some remote part of the world. It seems a pity, I know, but it’s true. And these days it doesn’t feel right, somehow.”
“A lot of people don’t have the means to travel around the world and see the animals in their native habitat,” said Judy. “Or the skills, where they’re dangerous and you need to be careful. And they ought to have the pleasure of doing it, surely. So maybe zoos are necessary. Besides, we’re supposed to learn to appreciate nature and how can we do it if we don’t see it as it really is?”
“But ye cannae quite do that in a zoo,” said Angus. “It isnae their natural environment.”
“But it’s the next best thing.”
A fascinating conversation followed about the ethics of the matter, until Angus changed the subject by asking if there was anything else they wanted to watch. They shook their heads.
“I think I’ll take a walk round the grounds before supper,” said Penelope. “Coming, Judith?”
“It’d be nice. Yeah, OK.”
Meanwhile, as always after a mission, the International Rescue team were relaxing in the lounge of the house on Tracy Island, discussing how things had gone.
“Why do you think the monsters have suddenly become dangerous, Father?” Scott asked. “For hundreds of years they seem to have done their best to keep out of people’s way, if anything. Now suddenly…even when Thunderbird Four knocked one out with a missile another attacked it, instead of getting the message.”
John nodded. “They’ve never harmed people before. In fact they hardly ever seem to come out of the Loch. There’ve only been one or two sightings reported on land.”
“I, I’m not sure it’s necessarily a case of the creatures becoming aggressive,” said Brains. “John is correct, they’ve very rarely ventured onto shore. But now we have ventured into their environment, in a bigger way than previously. Nothing like the Marinus expedition had ever been attempted before.”
Jeff nodded. “So you think this time Man may have got a bit too close for comfort.”
“Exactly, Mr Tracy.”
“So what do you think they’ll do about the monster now, father?” asked Virgil.
“They’ll probably leave it alone,” said Jeff. “Might be the most sensible thing, especially now they know it’s dangerous. They’ve got their answer, after all. The thing exists.”
“Y-yes, Mr Tracy,” nodded Brains. “But I can’t help thinking we ought to know more. I know I’m mainly a chemist and physicist, plus an engineer, rather than a zoologist but it’s still science.”
“Sure, Brains. But there’s plenty of idiots who’d fancy hunting it just for kicks. The authorities will probably slap a protection order on it as an endangered species. After all, there can’t be many of these things around.”
“They’ll probably allow scientific study of the creatures to go on under controlled conditions,” TinTin told Brains, reassuringly. “And you’re already recognised as a leading scientist in your own right. I’m sure they’ll let you be a part of it.”
Brains nodded. “I guess you’re right, TinTin.”
At that moment Alan called in from Thunderbird Five. “Anything wrong, Son?” asked Jeff, clocking the look on his face.
“’Fraid so, Dad. It looks like we’ve got ourselves another tsunami.”
This time at least they were prepared. Over the previous two days World Navy ships had dropped a whole series of buoys, carrying extremely advanced sensing equipment, in the North Sea. They formed a line stretching all the way across it from Norway to France. Data from them, relayed by satellite, was constantly being transmitted to IOI headquarters at San Diego, California, where there was a room fitted out with rows of control consoles, permanently manned. On one of the consoles a red light had started to flash, causing the technician seated at it to stiffen.
A web-like pattern of lines on the VDU began to fluctuate. It usually did change from time to time, but now the difference was more noticeable. The disturbance could be natural, a freak occurrence; such things weren’t unknown. The technician waited, absorbing the data flashing up on the left side of the screen.
The pattern continued to fluctuate, more and more sharply. He studied the data again and made his decision, putting the call through to International Sea Patrol and the World Navy. “Disturbance of unusual size, increasing in strength, in North Sea region. Magnitude 7.3 on the Bloomveldt scale…7.4…7.5…”
The VDU incorporated a chart of the area showing the coasts of adjacent landmasses. “Epicentre currently ten miles west of mainland Norway. Travelling in southward direction.” Ten miles? That was too close to shore to get warnings out in time to prevent major loss of life. As those behind all the suffering and devastation had intended. People were probably dying in scores that very minute. Of course they did get the warnings out, in the form of newsflashes on international radio and TV and the Internet, and wasted no time in doing so. There was no point in alerting Coastguard patrols because they would be unable to operate; they’ be too busy looking to their own safety. But the emergency services, including International Rescue, went into action straight away rather than put themselves on standby, because in the circumstances it made no sense to do the latter.
Crews of ships large enough to carry a helijet were saved, though they still had to be abandoned at considerable economic loss to the company or other organisation operating them. Bathers, indeed a great many people who happened to be within a mile or two of the coast, were less lucky. Thousands were swept away and drowned or dashed to pieces against buildings when waves as many feet high lashed the beaches and then surged across the land for a distance of twenty miles in some places. With many the shock of the wave as it hit killed them instantly. They didn’t drown, they didn’t need to. Hundreds were never seen again and it was thought their bodies had actually been disintegrated by the force of the impact. No-one was safe unless they had time to climb to the top of a tall enough building. Sometimes cellars and bank vaults flooded, sometimes they didn’t. A few people survived by mere fluke.
Piers were smashed to matchwood or reduced to a spaghetti tangle of twisted metal. In fact, though it depended on how far inland they were, all but the strongest metal structures and most of the concrete ones met the same fate. And even they had their windows shattered, helping to make them uninhabitable for a time. Certainly any object out in the open that wasn’t fixed down was either destroyed or carried miles from where it had been when the tsunami struck. Giant cranes overturned or collapsed. Bridges were destroyed, along with radio and TV masts. Cars were pounded into scrap metal or left piled up in heaps as in a breaker’s yard.
Vital paperwork and records were lost as homes and offices were inundated. As outlying areas were also flooded, farm animals drowned and crops were ruined.
As might be expected, the worst loss of life and damage to property and infrastructure occurred in the region closest to where the epicentre was first detected. The further away you were from that point, the greater the chance the warnings would reach you in time to be acted upon. Nonetheless, you might still perish as the tsunami left a trail of devastation all the way from Bergen to Calais. Where the flooding was less serious people who managed to climb onto the roofs of houses were to be stranded there, sometimes for days, while waiting for someone to rescue them. Roads were clogged with vehicles as refugees tried to get as far inland in as short a time as possible. The less fortunate were drowned in their cars.
The submarine, if that was what it was, swung westward and then north up the east coast of England, for a while doing similar damage to that it had inflicted on Norway, Denmark, northern Germany, Holland, Belgium and northern France. But then it veered off to the east, travelling more or less straight up the middle of the North Sea for a short distance before the disturbance ceased and it could no longer be tracked by the epicentre. Maybe it didn’t want to push its luck and felt vulnerable too close to shore. Presumably it was now on its way back to its base, wherever that was. Leaving behind it incalculable economic damage and human tragedy. The latter could have been worse, of course, if it hadn’t been for International Rescue, along with the conventional emergency services.
As soon as the disturbance had first been detected, every effort was made to find and destroy the submarine, in a joint operation between the IOI and the Navy. Up to a hundred submarines, aircraft and surface vessels patrolled the North Sea, keeping a safe distance from the disturbance and all the time alert for any change in its direction that might threaten them. There was little else they could do unless the sub slowed down or stopped moving, because it was going so fast none of them could possibly catch it, even though a plane could follow its wake from above. It was noted that the latest and most advanced satellite tracking system still couldn’t get a precise fix on its location, even in the shallower waters near land.
Although some of the sensor buoys had been destroyed by the tsunami, or the delicate equipment within them damaged by the battering they received, it was possible to track the sub until it slowed to the point where it was ceasing to disturb the sea more than any conventional vessel would. Evidently it had carried out its orders for the day, or needed to conserve energy. Perhaps it had developed a fault. In any event, as soon as the disturbance was no longer noticeable on the surface Navy ships, subs and aircraft all converged on the point where it had stopped, roughly halfway between Harwich and the Hook Of Holland. This was their best chance of finding their quarry, perhaps their only one. All used echolocation equipment, lowered into the water on booms in the case of the planes, to try and trace it. Once they had succeeded a submarine could fire a torpedo at it, or a ship or aircraft drop a depth charge with a reasonable chance of hitting the target.
But they didn’t trace it.
“We may not have been looking in the right area,” Admiral Carson told Nikita Bandaranaik later. In addition, there was a timegap between when the epicentre stopped moving and when the disturbance it had caused ceased and it was possible for the various craft to get to work. During that time the sub might have moved on.
“I suppose,” sighed the World President, “that you’ll just have to keep trying until you get lucky.”
“Father, if this goes on we’re gonna have our work cut out,” said Scott.
He, Virgil, Gordon, John, TinTin and Brains had all participated in the rescue operation, which was now completed, in so far as it could ever be. It had mostly been a matter of airlifting people to safety, but there had been situations where Thunderbird Four could have come in handy and it wasn’t possible to use the craft as it was still in for repairs. While in some cases, they simply hadn’t been able to get there in time.
All six of them were exhausted. It had been particularly wearing to go more or less straight from one rescue operation into another. “This highlights something we’ve often talked about in the past,” Scott said. “If we come up against a disaster on a scale like this we’re at a disadvantage. There aren’t enough of us and we really need more than one of each type of craft, like in a conventional outfit. Operating from bases around the world and involving others besides ourselves. It’d be kind of sad, but basically we need to change the whole set-up.”
“Sure, Scott,” Jeff nodded. He’d thought about it many times. “But we can’t do that until the rest of the world catches up with our technology. There’s no need for me to repeat it, our gear is too far ahead of its time not to be a threat rather than a friend to humanity, if it falls into the wrong people’s clutches. The details of its functioning need to be secret. If there’s just us doing it, and from a single base, it’s easier to keep that secret.”
They all knew he was right. Virgil changed the subject. “Why do you think the North European region in particular is being targeted? Does someone have some kind of grudge against it?”
“Possibly,” said Jeff. “But I’ve a feeling these attacks are a dress rehearsal for something even bigger. A way of testing the submarine’s capabilities.”
“It’s doing alright so far,” muttered Scott.
“It’d certainly seem they’re unable to track it,” observed John.
“Well, they could if they were lucky,” Jeff said. “But luck can’t always be relied upon.”
“Why can’t they track it?” asked Virgil. “I mean, with all the latest technology at their disposal…”
“Well,” began Brains, “it’s just a thought, but…”
“But what, Brains?” asked Gordon.
“There’s been speculation that it might be possible to design a stealth sub – one that was impervious to sonar, just
as some military aircraft are impervious to radar. Its hull is made of, or coated with, a substance which absorbs the sonic pulses - in fact the whole of the electromagnetic spectrum, or the new satellite imaging system would have spotted it.”
“If that’s what this thing is, they’ve even less chance of finding it,” said Jeff grimly.
“All they can do is keep trying and hope they do get lucky. They’ll also be trying to devise some other, more effective way of detecting and neutralising it. If there is one.”
“And you haven’t had any luck so far yourself?”
“No, Mr Tracy. I’ve been exploring all sorts of avenues but without success. I just don’t have enough to go on. I could concentrate on building a model sonar-proof submarine and then find some way of tracking it, but if my theories about how the craft is escaping detection are wrong I’d just be wasting my time.
“We’ll just have to keep working on the problem, Mr Tracy,” he sighed. “I think we’ll crack it in the end but I can’t say when.”
“I think I know why you’re not feeling too happy, Brains,” Jeff said, a slight smile on his face. “You want to go looking for that monster, don’t you? Don’t worry, you’re sure to get your chance some day, like we’ve said.”
“I don’t think he can wait,” said TinTin.
“Brains, I don’t want to be Doomsday Joe but for all we know the world economy’s about to collapse, thanks to these tsunamis,” said Gordon. “Everything will collapse…it’ll seem crazy for anyone to do it after that. Pointless.”
“Which is why I’d like to do it while there’s still the chance.”
Scott recognised the signs of an obsession when he saw one. “I understand your scientific curiosity, Brains. But isn’t it more important we concentrate on working out a way of dealing with the stealth sub?”
Brains continued to look miserable. They guessed he didn’t fancy being cooped up on the island working on a task that for all he knew could take years to complete, and so probably come too late anyway. And his curiosity had been insatiably aroused by the whole Loch Ness business, the outcome of the IOI expedition serving only to further whet his appetite for knowledge.
“Like Dad says, it’s been killing people,” Scott reminded him gently. “And if we poke about trying to find out what makes those creatures in Loch Ness tick, we might only end up killing a few more.”
“Not if it’s done properly, Scott,” Brains insisted.
Grandma Tracy spoke up. “Why not let TinTin do the research on this stealth sub thing? She’s a qualified scientist in her own right, and highly competent. That’ll leave Brains to look for his monster, if he wants to.”
“Grandma’s talking sense as usual,” said Jeff. “What do you say to it, TinTin?”
The Eurasian girl nodded. “It’s a good idea. And I think I’d like the challenge. I’ll start right away.”
“But you’d sure as hell better be careful, Brains,” Jeff said. “After what happened yesterday…”
“As I said, Mr Tracy, if the operation were carried out properly there should be nothing to worry about.” Brains’ tone was a little frosty.
“And I’m not happy about International Rescue equipment being used purely for scientific research, however important it may be. That’s what you had in mind, wasn’t it?”
“It’s the best equipment available, Jeff. Which is why I’m sure we’ll take great care of it. And if it should be needed for a rescue, I assure you we’ll return to base immediately.”
“And you won’t be happy until you’ve found what you want. Alright, then. But if anything goes wrong it’ll be on your head, Brains. Thunderbird Four’s already been smashed up once.”
“I understand, Mr Tracy. But I don’t think it will go wrong; we’re prepared now.”
“So basically what are you planning to do, Brains?” John asked.
“W-we must observe them in their natural habitat,” Brains replied. I’m not convinced the Loch is their natural habitat, or they’d be seen more often. And as I’ve said, it’s not big enough for the size a colony of the creatures would have to be to be viable. I suggest we do what the Marinus was trying to; establish whether there is an, uh, underground chamber connected to the Loch by those tunnels it found.”
“Well, first things first,” declared Jeff. He clapped his hands. “Enough sitting around. TinTin, get to work on the stealth sub problem. Scott can lend you a hand. Virgil, Gordon, John, you’re gonna have to work round the clock to get Thunderbird Four repaired; even if she isn’t required on Brains’ expedition, we’ve no idea when she’ll be needed for a rescue. Brains can supervise the work and once it’s finished he can start planning his monster-hunting expedition.
“So – it’s all hands on deck.” Off they all went, leaving Jeff immersed in his thoughts.
After a while the beads of the necklace on the portrait on the wall of Lady Penelope lit up, flashing on and off. Jeff opened the channel to her. ”Go ahead, Penny.”
Penelope was sitting in her room at the Castle, speaking into the radio built into her powder compact. “Hello, Jeff. I just wondered how the rescue went on. You got those two scientists out, I know. But the rumour is you had a spot of bother yourselves.”
“As a matter of fact yes, we did.” He explained what had happened. “But we got it fixed. Thunderbird Four is badly damaged but it’s nothing Brains won’t be able to put right.”
“I wish I could have been there myself; I know Judy does. But I suppose it just wasn’t possible.”
”Well, you’ve certainly chosen an interesting time to go to Scotland.”
“It would seem I have. I just hope this remarkable discovery will lead to something positive.”
“Brains is going to carry out another expedition to try and find out more about the creatures. Apart from anything else I think he’s paranoid about the authorities slapping a ban on anybody going down there. He’s leaving TinTin to work on finding a way of stopping those tidal waves that have been occurring in the North Sea.”
“Yes, I heard about that, of course. Everyone has. A very nasty business, don’t know what it’s going to lead to. But life must go on, I suppose.”
“Keep this a secret, Penny – though you will, of course – but the thinking is it’s some revolutionary kind of submarine. That’s what our contacts among the authorities tell us. They’ve been trying to track it, but so far without success.”
“They’re bound to succeed eventually.”
“I guess so. But think of all the trouble it’ll have caused by then. I’ve a feeling we may be running out of time. They’re working to minimise the damage, of course, and it’d be worse if they weren’t. But it’s still a very worrying and frightening situation.”
“Is there anything I could do to help?”
“I doubt it, Penny. We’ve no idea who’s operating the craft and where from. But I’ll bear your offer in mind.”
“Please do, Jeff. Now we’re just off to Aviemore for the day, so I’ll say goodbye.”
“Have a great time. Oh, ah, Judy enjoying herself?”
“I think so.”
“Well, give her our love.”
Penelope smiled to herself. “I think Scott’s doing that right now.”
Judy, likewise, was calling from her room. “They said you’d run into trouble,” she said. “I was a little worried.”
“I was safe and sound running the whole show from the shore,” Scott confessed. He did sound a little guilty.
He described what had happened.
“I’d have gone on the mission if I could have done,” she told him.
“I know you would, honey. But don’t ever put yourself in any danger if you don’t have to.”
They talked for a while. “So, are you coming over or not?” she asked.
“Er, the trouble is, I don’t think I can,” he said sadly. “I’ve got to spend my time helping TinTin design some way of tracking the stealth sub – that’s what Brains thinks it is.”
“I understand,” she sighed. “Seriously. Don’t worry, I know there can’t be anything more important than what you’re doing right now. I suppose I’ll see you – whenever.”
“It depends what happens, of course. But I doubt if I could manage it before you go home. Sorry, sweetheart.”
“And I guess there’s not much point in me coming to see you, either.”
“Well – no, not right now. You wouldn’t be welcome…heck, that’s a pretty rotten way of putting it…”
“I’ve told you, Scott, I understand,” she said impatiently.
“The main thing is that you enjoy your holiday. And when you do come over we’ll go out on the town together, OK?”
“You’re on. Meanwhile, give my love to everyone. And I’ll give theirs to Penny and Parker.”
“Sure thing, honey. ‘Bye now.”
Afterwards Scott went for a walk around the island, needing to be on his own so he could think. It was about time he and Judy decided whether they really were going to…get together in a big way. She hadn’t said so herself but by his reckoning the thought must be on her mind. Would it work out? With the exception of Alan and TinTin, who both lived on the island and were active members of the organisation, because of the demands International Rescue made of them and the need for secrecy it had always been difficult for any of Jeff’s sons to find steady girlfriends – a situation that would become increasingly problematical with time. In a sense Judy was one of the family; in spirit, certainly, she was a member of IR and in fact had already been on a couple of rescue missions. But she had a life apart from the island, so it wouldn’t really work. Would he have to decide between her and the rescue business eventually? The thought troubled him. The one thing he was sure of was that he cared about her and didn’t want her to come to any harm. But that itself could cause problems on a mission. What if he made the wrong decision out of concern for her safety?
He thought long and hard. And once again came to the conclusion that the future would take care of itself.
Only a part of him felt that was a lazy way of looking at things. Especially if they couldn’t sort out the tsunami business.
It slid smoothly through the grey waters towards its home; sleek, streamlined and deadly, like some great black shark. On board, the crew congratulated themselves on its second successful mission. There was much back-slapping, embracing and triumphant cheering. The scenes they had just been witnessing on the satellite television said it all.
“They are powerless to protect themselves,” gloated Anarkhon. “They do not know when the next attack is going to be, or where. The fear and panic it is spreading will help us accomplish our task.”
“They could still find and destroy us,” warned Rachid. “If they are lucky.”
Anarkhon laughed. “Yes,” he said. “If they are lucky.”
“It does not bother me,” he continued. “The chance has to be taken, so why should it?”
Perhaps the greatest danger was that another submarine should accidentally come across them while they were travelling at normal speed and report the encounter to some authority before they could blast it out of the water with a torpedo. But that was unlikely. Their sonar would be powerful enough to detect the craft a hundred miles off. And its own could never detect them.
The helmsman looked up from his instrument panel. “We’re nearly there.”
Anarkhon sat at the radio. “Seastriker to base. We are approaching the sea door. Prepare to receive us.”
“Message acknowledged,” came the reply. “And well done! Make haste, for we will have a succulent feast ready for you shortly.”
“We’ll look forward to it.”
A few minutes later the submarine came up to the vast steel door which had been made in the foot of the cliff below the water level. It slid sideways into the rock and the submarine passed through the opening into the underground chamber beyond, the door closing after it.
Another potential flaw in their plan was that someone might accidentally find the entrance to their hideaway, while diving for pleasure or carrying out a scientific survey. The probability was that given enough time, it would happen; but also that long before then they would have succeeded in what they were planning to do, and such things simply wouldn’t matter.
It hadn’t been a bad day all told, Judy decided.
In the morning they’d gone down into the village. The Nessie souvenir mugs in the windows of the houses and shops were very conspicuous; and there was a Loch Ness Information Centre which they spent an hour or so looking around. Although it was as much about the general ecology of the Loch and the place itself, which to be honest Judy found more interesting than the monster. Which she’d probably never get to see at close quarters now, anyway.
After lunch they went to Aviemore. At this time of year there was no snow, which for her took a lot of the fun out of it, but she did enjoy her ride on the chair-lift, and there were other activities you could do, including trying out the artificial ski slope.
Now they were having supper in the big banqueting hall at Castle McCraggan. The log fire burning in the chimney piece, along with the central heating, kept the huge draughty old room warm.
Judy looked distinctly unenthused as a plate of haggis was set before her. Sheep’s stomach…ugh. She remembered her manners and put a brave face on it, as Penelope was doing (or maybe she actually liked it, her characteristic unflappability made it hard to tell in any case). Parker was going through a variety of extraordinary expressions in an attempt not to show what he thought of the taste.
“Well, I’m sure I didn’t need to bring my cook along too,” Penelope said. “Of course Lillian is very good…”
“But ah bet she doesnae know how tae cook a haggis,” Angus grinned.
They chatted animatedly enough over the meal, apart from Parker who was keeping his distance somewhat from the aristocracy, out of some strange, instinctive sense of deference left over from a long-vanished era. He was open enough with Penelope, but the Laird to him was a relative stranger.
Angus was asking Judy what she did in her spare time. “Oh…swimming. Sport…for recreation more than competitive. Going to the pictures with my friends…clubbing...”
“An active life. And your job…I think ye said ye liked it. Tell me, were ye being honest?”
“More or less,” she smiled. “I also said it was hard work. But you get to travel a lot, as well as become quite friendly with some of the girls. It has its good points.”
“And would ye be happy to stay in PR?”
“I think I’d prefer to stick with the same job as long as possible. Things seem more stable, more secure, that way. The future’s an unknown quantity, though. Who knows what life’s going to be like in years to come? For one thing, if they can’t deal with this tsunami problem the whole world could go down the spout.”
“Aye…things will be very different,” agreed Angus. Again that brooding look on his face.
He snapped out of it. “So, what dae ye want tae dae tomorrow, then? There’s the Highland Games at Invercrankie, just down the road. Ah’m giving the prizes.”
“Ooh, that should be interesting,” said Penny. She glanced at Judy who nodded, seeming inclined to give it a go.
“So that’s settled, then.”
About the rest of the evening they had no clear idea. Penelope gave Parker permission to take the Rolls into town, where he would see if he could find a decent pub with a quiet corner where he could sit down with a drink and read his paper; enjoying what were perhaps the simpler pleasures of life, though in his view no less sublime for that. The others retired to the living room to sit and chat in a pleasantly desultory, relaxed fashion. Although it was summer the night was a cold one, and Jock had stoked up the fire for them.
“It’s certainly a lovely old house you’ve got here,” Judy told the Laird. “I mean, castle.”
Angus nodded. “Been the family home for eight hundred years – longer, probably. And still standing just as firm as she ever did.”
“Does it have a ghost?” she asked.
“I believe it does, doesn’t it?” said Penelope. “How does the story go, I’ve forgotten…”
“Well let me refresh your memory,” said Angus. “In the ’45 rebellion the family supported Bonnie Prince Charlie. After the battle of Culloden the English went rooting out anyone who’d followed the Jacobite cause so they could punish them. Like outlawing the clans, it was part of their strategy for making sure Scotland never caused trouble again. The family had an escape route prepared in case the English came. There was a secret tunnel, an underground passage, which only the Laird and a few trusted associates, his faithful ghillie and one or two others, knew about. Probably came out somewhere on the moor, not far from the coast. They were going to use it to evade the English and eventually make their way to France. Ruan McKenzie was the Laird’s business manager, sometimes acting as the family’s agent in Paris and Rome, and ran the estate for him. But for a reward he betrayed the McCraggans to the English, who he told about the secret passage. The Redcoats came at night; McKenzie let them in. Some of the family were captured straight away; others tried to escape along the tunnel but the English, forewarned, followed them down it and caught them.
“The English weren’t really interested in finding out where it led. They had more important things to do. But it is said one of them tried, and got lost. He was never seen again. The tunnel led down and down into the very bowels of the Earth. The Laird and his ghillie knew where it came out; but the Englishman didn’t.
“The McCraggan was executed and the other members of the family transported to slavery in the West Indies. The English rewarded McKenzie handsomely; he was allowed to take possession of the Castle and estate, which they’d confiscated. That had been what he’d reckoned on. It was how the English kept control. “Such a parcel of rogues in a nation”…if ye don’t mind me saying so.” Penelope smiled wryly, while Judy just shrugged.
“McKenzie lived comfortably off his three pieces of silver for a while; but only a while. One night he was found slumped across the table in the great hall, the very same table that’s still there today…dead, with a look of terrible fear on his face. They called it a visitation…divine vengeance hadn’t taken long to catch up with him. Nowadays we’d say it was a heart attack but…
“After things calmed down the family were pardoned and returned to their inheritance, with the McCraggan’s son as the new Laird. As for McKenzie…well, the location of the entrance to the tunnel was a secret that died with those who knew it. No-one thought they’d ever need to use it again, ye see. But the legend has it that in case they do, McKenzie’s ghost haunts the tunnel, guarding it until the Day of Judgement as atonement for his sins. So that when that day comes, maybe his wretched miserable soul will be forgiven.”
Angus paused, perhaps for effect. The crackling of the log fire seemed very audible. They heard the wind whistling in the chimney, moaning like a lost soul itself.
“Gosh,” said Judy. “Spoo-ky.”
“The ghost’s face is the image of Death itself, and those who have seen it talk of the unearthly light in its eyes. It can kill a man at a glance, or drive him out of his mind. No-one who has seen it has lived to tell the tale, or been the same afterwards. The entry in the parish register would read that they died of apoplexy, or a visitation from God.” The Laird’s voice dropped to a low, blood-curdling whisper. “But there are others who know better.”
“When did it last happen?” asked Judy.
“Back in the nineteeth century, about the time of the Napoleonic wars. Since then the secret of the tunnel has been lost. No-one felt like trying to find it again after what happened to those who did.”
“Ooerrrrr,” said Judy, shuddering in mock fear. “I say, couldn’t we go and look for it?”
Angus smiled. “I take it ye’re not worried about the ghost, then?”
“Do you believe in it?”
He shrugged. “Who knows? But there’s no point in looking for that secret passage.”
“The people who made it knew what they were doing. You’d never find it.”
“You never know.”
“Why should you succeed where everyone else has failed?” He sounded almost aggressive. “The family have lived here for the past two hundred years and we’ve had plenty of opportunity to find it, but in all that time we never have.”
Judy pointed out a weakness in the story. “The people who got frightened to death by the ghost obviously found it.” But then the ghost thing was probably a load of tosh anyway. Though she found a part of her hoped it wasn’t, despite the power the spirit seemed to have to kill by fear.
“I don’t know about ghosts,” said Penelope. “As Angus says, who does? But it’s certainly plausible that the family should have constructed a secret tunnel as an escape route in case they were wanted by the Redcoats. And presumably it must still be there.”
“Well, I’m sure ye don’t want to waste your time here on what’s only an old wives’ tale, Penelope,” Angus said.
“He thinks something nasty will happen to us if we go down that passage,” said Judy, light-heartedly.
“I’m not saying that,” Angus replied. He stood and made for the door, leaving them to their own devices, as if impatient with the conversation. “I’m just saying you’ve got better things to spend your time on while you’re here. That’s all.”
Some of the spare parts needed to repair Thunderbird Four were already stored on the island, others were manufactured by companies owned or affiliated to the Tracy Corporation, who kept a reserve supply of them. Each component came from a different source and the manufacturer had no idea what it was ultimately destined for. It was collected and shipped to the island in secret by one of International Rescue’s many agents throughout the world (of whom Lady Penelope, as well as being responsible for protecting the organisation’s interests in the UK, was overall co-ordinator). The whole process took only a few hours.
In the repair and maintenance hangar Jeff Tracy and Kyrano looked down from an overhead gantry as Brains, Gordon, John and Virgil swarmed over Thunderbird Four. It was a well-rehearsed procedure, carried out by people utterly dedicated to the task, and wouldn’t take long. Gordon was welding into place the new lighting trough and Virgil the stabiliser fin. Brains had unbolted the plating which formed the outer skin of the submarine’s hull and he and John were dismantling the engines so they might more easily decide what could be repaired and what had to be replaced.
“The work is proceeding well, Mr Tracy,” observed Kyrano.
Jeff nodded. “Good thing too. I’ve a feeling she may be needed before long.”
Kyrano was one of Jeff’s oldest friends, and he often confided in him. “You know, Kyrano, I’ve never before had such a feeling that International Rescue is about to face its greatest challenge. And that we’re entirely unequal to the task. I’ve never felt so…hopeless.”
Kyrano fell silent, reflecting. “And yet so much depends on us,” he remarked.
“Sure. We’ve a responsibility to the world that we have to fulfil. But what’s going to happen over the next few days will stretch our resources to the very limit. It means a lot of people are going to die.”
Neither of them said anything for a bit. Then Kyrano snapped Jeff out of his gloomy pondering. “Something has occurred to me,” he said.
“What’s that, Kyrano?”
“This super-submarine can travel very fast, and is composed of some substance impervious to any existing means of detection.”
“So why, if it cannot be tracked and the people operating it wish to cause the maximum possible devastation, was there no tsunami yesterday? Our enemy has nothing to worry about. They can strike at any time, with impunity. Why should there have been an interval of two days between the first disaster and the second? Why don’t they keep doing it on a daily basis so they can achieve their aims as quickly as possible?”
“You know, Kyrano, you’ve got a point,” Jeff murmured thoughtfully.
“We have decided that to be as fast as it is the craft must have some very powerful nuclear reactor, or something more like ion drive propulsion, as in a spacecraft. The only answer must be that it is going at such a phenomenal speed the power source is exhausted by the end of each journey, and some time has to be spent in refuelling it. The energy required must be colossal and has to be allowed to build up. It could also be that in order to conserve it, the craft reduces its speed for the return journey, having done its work. Since it can’t be tracked it doesn’t need to worry about being caught. But this means it takes longer to get home. Perhaps it can refuel en route. Either way, it is making a fairly lengthy sea journey at normal speed and during that time it is not doing any harm.”
“So, going by the interval between the first attack and the second, it’ll be another two days before the next,” Jeff mused. “I see. Well, maybe that gives us a chance. A slim one. But let’s hope we can use it to our advantage…”
Judy didn’t like porridge much more than she did haggis, but it seemed she’d have to get used to it while she was here. The Laird told her on noticing her distaste that she must eat it as it was good for her.
The porridge was followed by beans on toast and tea. Then, once the meal had had time to go down, they piled into the Rolls and set off for the Games.
They weren’t the only such event being held in Scotland, or anywhere else, on an annual basis – there were several, each organised by different people. But they were certainly popular. The stretch of moorland where they were to take place was already covered with stalls, portakabins and brightly-striped marquees. And hundreds of people were gathered there waiting for the proceedings to begin. Most of them, judging by their accents, were Scots. Scots from all over the world, from all the places their forebears had emigrated to after the Clearances, to become engineers in Canada, the USA and the British Empire, and to help build up the latter as colonial administrators. It was a colourful, noisy, lively throng.
Steadily hundreds turned into thousands. Looking around him, Bruce Crawfurd smiled. “Surely this is going tae net the Clan a fair packet,” he said to Jamie McBeath. “Ah’d say ye didnae have anything tae worry about, Jamie.”
“Ah hope not,” his friend muttered. “Aye well…” He decided to get into the spirit of things, forcing himself to banish his concerns about the finances to the back of his mind.
“Well, ah’ve got tae go and get changed,” he told Bruce. He was taking part in the weight-throwing competition. “See ye later.”
The Laird had bought his guests tickets, and they took their places beside him on the front row of the main stand. As President of the organising body he declared the Games open. A bagpipe band played Scotland The Brave. Then the sporting events began.
They watched the tossing of the caber, and the weight throw – really a local version of the hammer throw. These were followed by a contest where athletes tried to toss a 56-pound weight over a horizontal bar, which was positioned progressively higher, with one hand. Then there was the maide leisg (“Lazy Stick” in Scots Gaelic),where two men sat facing each other on the ground with the soles of their feet pressed together and held a stick between their hands which each tried to pull against the other. The first to be levered off the ground by this was the loser. Jock, the Laird’s ghillie, won the caber-tossing competition, Jamie the hammer throw.
Penny, Judy and Parker soon became quite absorbed in what was going on. They picked their favourites, cheering and clapping them when they won and getting stroppy when they lost.
There was one awkward moment. It came when the Laird went up to present the trophy to the winner of the maide leisg. He addressed the microphone. “It gives me great pleasure to present this to…”
All of a sudden he seemed to have forgotten the man’s name, even though he was a member of the Castle staff and a prominent clan official, and should be well known to him. He struggled to remember it, frowning in fierce concentration, and eventually succeeded. But for a long moment the spectators were shifting in embarrassment and unease, wondering if he’d been taken ill. Penelope winced. Jock was stony-faced, as were Judy and Parker. Jamie shook his head slowly, lips pursed.
All in all, though, it was fun. And sport wasn’t the only attraction. During the intervals there were bagpipes and dancing, Celtic bands and displays of Celtic art, mock battles, exhibitions of Highland cattle. The Games and associated activities were a showcase for Scottish, in particular Highland, and Celtic culture. Vendors sold Scottish-related goods and each of the various clan societies had a stall where visitors could apply to join the organisation, provided they could prove their Scottish ancestry and also their direct descent from members of the clan. Observing all this, Penelope wondered how much of traditional Scottish culture, or the image of it, was a stereotype, a fabrication. The clansmen who took part in the Jacobite uprisings in 1715 and 1745 would not have worn sporrans. The Games themselves were largely a Victorian invention; though they were thought to have originated with the foot race to which King Malcolm III summoned contestants in the eleventh century, seeking to find the fastest runner in the land to be his royal messenger, there was in fact little evidence of their existence before the nineteenth century. Perhaps the Scots had been so traumatised by their treatment at the hands of the English after Culloden, the banning for a time of the clans and of tartan and the dispossession of the crofters, the destruction of the traditional way of life, that they’d been left without an identity and desperately sought to give themselves one.
There was of course a difference between Highland and Lowland Scots and in the past many people had attributed to Scottish people as a whole practices which originally had been uniquely Highland.
The romanticisation of Scotland by Walter Scott, which made it attractive to the Victorian English, resulted in a stereotypical and sometimes patronising view of the Scots but in some ways was a good thing, replacing the positive hostility to them which followed Culloden. For a time they had seemed a potential threat. It was unsurprising the English were rattled, as during the 1745 rebellion the Scots supporters of a Stuart restoration had come as far south as Derby.
The ’15 and ’45 had inevitably been, to some extent, Anglo-Scottish conflicts – the Scots were resentful at not having got a lot out of the Act Of Union, and had little reason to love the English. She knew Angus’ opinion: he thought the Pretenders were dangerous adventurers who had embroiled the Scots in something which had only got them clobbered. But it highlighted the whole historical issue of Anglo-Scottish relations. Fortunately, these days the two nations seemed to be on much better terms, due to devolution – though the latter had not by any means solved all Scotland’s problems – and the existence of the World Government.
The Games ended, as they had begun, with some twenty or thirty marching pipe bands playing all the old favourites including Amazing Grace, Scotland The Brave again and the Skye Boat Song. The Laird mounted the podium and made a brief, garbled speech thanking the athletes and all those who had been involved in organising the event. Then he declared the two hundred and twentieth Glenbuchie Olympic Games closed.
“Chance’d be a fine thing!” someone laughed. Jamie wished he was somewhere else.
“It’s appropriate, though, in many ways,” Penelope told her companions, trying to be polite to Angus. “Quite a few Olympic athletes have started their sporting careers here, I’ll bet.”
Everyone now adjourned to the Club for the World Highland Dancing Championships. This time, thankfully, the Laird remembered the name of the winner. The celebrations which followed went on well into the evening, with more music and displays of Scottish country dancing.
Parker disappeared at one point to return shortly afterwards in full Highland dress, with kilt and Glengarry. “Suits you,” said Judy. He had a go at playing the bagpipes. It came out first as a sort of feeble wail, then a dirge which sounded like several hundred cats being simultaneously slaughtered. Little different from what it sounds like anyway, Judy thought unkindly.
“Why don’t you try your hand at it, Parker?” she said mischievously when the dancing started. Penelope shot her a dubious look.
“Try anything once,” he said cheerfully. He attempted the Highland Fling, performing an extraordinary series of gyrations, all the time struggling to maintain a dignified expression, before seeming to get his arms and legs entwined with one another and collapsing in a tangled heap. Some roared with laughter, others kept a straight face. Judy and Penny clapped him enthusiastically, thinking it was the right thing to do. They dissuaded him from doing the sword dance as he’d probably get his feet cut off. He took it all with a smile, as a Cockney should. Altogether everyone had a good time.
But Penelope couldn’t help thinking about what had happened at the Games. She wasn’t one to let business get in the way of pleasure. Equally, she wasn’t one to let pleasure get in the way of business.
The following morning after breakfast, Parker was lying on his bed in his room reading a paperback thriller when Penelope came knocking on his door. He shouted for her to come in.
“Have you recovered from last night?” she smiled.
He grinned weakly. “Just about, M’Lady.”
“Well, if you’re not too busy at the moment I’d like a word with you.”
“Fire away, M’Lady.”
“I think we’re all agreed there’s been something funny about Angus’ behaviour.”
“Beg pardon, M’Lady, but I was noticing it myself.”
“I don’t know what it is but the Castle seems a cold place, these days.” Though Judy seemed somehow to liven it up a little. The effect of her personality was often to draw people out and Angus seemed to be deliberately resisting this, another sign in Penelope’s eyes that he was hiding something.
“There must be a cause, something which has happened in the last two years or so to make him like this. I think I’d like to get to the bottom of it if I can. Might I suggest you have a word with Jock? He’s worked here for years and might be in a position to know better than anyone else what the explanation might be.”
“All right, M’Lady, if that’s what you want. Don’t have anything against the feller myself.”
“It would look a bit odd if Judy and I went out for the day and left you behind, so we’re going to spend the morning at the Castle.” They could play table tennis in the games room, and there was a swimming pool. They’d politely declined Angus’ invitation to go shooting with him later on.
“Right you are, Madam,” said Parker. He got to his feet. “No time like the present, as they say.”
On the island most of the Tracy family were relaxing by the pool, or splashing about in it in carefree fashion, attempting for the most part with success to forget their worries about the supersub. TinTin was stretched out on a lilo, eyes blissfully closed against the sunshine. She felt something bump the lilo and glanced up. Looming over her was a huge horned head on a long neck, with a great grinning mouth. She screamed, gave a start and fell off the lilo, floundering for a moment before recollecting her wits and swimming back to it. She saw Gordon brandishing the giant inflatable Nessie and scowled, the scowl gradually melting into a tolerant smile.
“It’s all the rage still, the Loch Ness Monster,” commented Scott, sitting with his father and Brains on the patio. “Even though nobody’s entirely happy about how the expedition turned out.”
“It’s fortunate we manage to prevent it actually killing anyone,” said Jeff. “So how are the preparations for your expedition getting on, Brains?”
“I’ve identified the equipment I need and checked it’s working OK, Mr Tracy. We should be able to leave for Scotland
sometime tomorrow. Meanwhile I want to spend a little time helping Scott and TinTin in the lab.” It was a way of appeasing his conscience.
“And Virgil, you and Gordon are quite happy to go along with this?”
“Sure, Dad. We haven’t quite got the scientific skills to be of much use in the lab, anyway. We’ll go with Brains.”
TinTin had clambered out of the pool and now came to join them, wrapped in a towel. “So how’s your research coming along?” Jeff asked.
“Well, I can only conclude the material it’s made of is similar to what a stealth plane is coated in. That’s the only model we’ve got to go by. So we need something which dissolves that material or alters its molecular structure. We’ve got just about every chemical substance in existence in the laboratory and I’ve been trying each of them on the sample. No luck yet. If none of them work we’ll have to try two or more of them in combination. The question is, how many different substances will be needed and what’s the right amount of each?”
“We’re bound to crack it in the end,” Virgil said. “But it may take a very long time.”
“Yeah,” nodded Jeff. “And I’ve a nasty feeling we’re not gonna get it.”
From time to time glancing around to make sure he was unobserved – he didn’t think it would be a good thing if the Laird realised what he was doing – Parker made his way along the corridor to Jock’s room, which was on the other side of the Castle. He knocked on the door.
A moment later Jock opened it. “Jock, old son,” Parker beamed, “mind if I have a word or two with you?”
“Well ah dinna see why not.” Jock opened the door wider. “Come ben.”
Parker entered, looking around. The room was really an office for the estate; he saw a desk with a computer on it, and an old-fashioned filing cabinet. The wall was adorned with various trophies Jock had won over the years, at the Highland Games and other events; he was in his shirtsleeves and had obviously been proudly polishing them. Parker noted a statuette of a hammer thrower, a shield with an inscription proclaiming Jock to be World Caber Tossing Champion 2027. A door in a partitioning wall led to the ghillie’s living quarters.
“Everything to their nibs’ satisfaction?” Jock enquired anxiously.
“Oh, yes, everything’s fine,” Parker assured him. “No complaints about the service. On that subject, you don’t mind me being here, do you? You don’t think I’m trying to queer your pitch...”
“No, not at all,” Jock said, shaking his head fairly. “No, dinnae worry. Taking it in turns is about the fairest way of doing it, by ma reckoning. Care to share a wee dram wi’ me?” He nodded towards a bottle of whisky with a glass beside it.
“Don’t mind if I do,” said Parker. Jock filled the glass, poured one for his visitor, and pushed forward a chair. They sat down.
“Not many of our sort left,” Parker observed. “But the way I see it, it’s nice to keep traditions going.” He sipped at his Glenfiddich with relish.
Jock grinned. “Ah can see ye’re a man after ma own heart, Parker.”
Parker raised his glass. “A toast to the Creighton-Wards and the McCraggans.”
“Ay, the Creighton-Wards and the McCraggans.” They clinked glasses.
Topping up every now and then, they talked; about Scotland, about the estate, about their respective employers, about life in general.
“Ah wouldnae live anywhere else but here,” Jock declared. “Ah love the Highland life; it’s in ma blood. And ah simply couldnae bear to part from the Laird. Ma family have served his for centuries.” It wasn’t the first time Parker and his companions had heard him say so.
“Mind ye, he’s not the man he used tae be. O’course, it didnae help his wife dying like that. And his children not really giving a…but this place has no soul tae it anymore. That’s why it’s good tae have someone else here for a change.”
Parker coughed. “As a matter of fact, Jock…well, the real reason ‘Er Ladyship asked me to speak to you was…you were saying Angus wasn’t quite himself. The thing is, she’s noticed it too and she’s a bit worried, him being family and all that.”
Jock nodded. “Ah dinnae blame her. Ah guess it’s because he’s worried about the Clan, and maintaining the estate…keeping the whole thing going. He might hae tae give the Castle tae the National Trust for Scotland and live somewhere else; that’d finish him off, me too probably. Hundreds of years of history coming to an end. Ah’m sure they’d look after it, but it’d have no warmth tae it, no heart. Be worse than it is now; just a showpiece.”
“What ‘Er Ladyship was thinking was that it might be a bit more than that, though. She’s wondering if there might have been something in particular which set it off.”
Jock considered, frowning. “Ah first noticed it about a year ago when ah came back from holiday. Ah’d been away for two weeks in all. He seemed…preoccupied a lot of the time. When ah asked him what was wrong he just shook his head and walked away. And he started to forget things; that’s one reason why the business hasnae been doing too well and the Clan and the estate are in trouble.
“If it is worry about the finances, you’d think he’d be more attentive tae clan business, more concerned tae try and sort the problem out; but he isn’t. He keeps gaein’ on about how we need tae streamline, tae cut costs, tae market ourselves – though ah dinnae like the sound of that - but it’s all talk. He never says exactly how we’re supposed tae dae it. Ah dinna think he knows, tae be honest. And before that he was always pretty canny.
“Anyway…ah couldnae help noticing one or two things that were out of place…dust where it shouldn’t be…ah had the idea that while ah was away there’d been people here, lots of them, moving stuff about. Ah’ve a feeling he may have had everything valued, in case he decided to sell it, only he didnae tell me ‘cause he knew ah’d be upset.”
“It’s sad tae see,” Jock went on. “Sometimes, the look on his face – well, there isn’t one, not really – but it’s like he’s a robot, doing things in a…a stiff, mechanical sort of way.
“Other times he’s off his food…and he’s often wandering about the house or on the moor at night. Says some strange things…sometimes he puts on clansman’s clothing…” Jock grinned, despite his gloom. “The stuff they really did wear before Culloden, not what the Victorians thought they did. And he starts waving a claymore about…ah cannae ken it. Ah really cannae.”
Jock looked as if he thought he may have given away too much under the influence of the whisky. ”Parker, it’s been nice talking to ye but I’d better be getting on with ma work…”
“Right you are, old son. No worries. I’ll be off, then. Thanks for the drink.”
As the door closed behind Parker he raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips. Whether this would be enough to go by he wasn’t sure. But it was something interesting to tell Penelope, right enough.
In the living room Penelope was smoking a herbal cigarette, Judy sitting with a disgruntled look on her face. She got up and started pacing about restlessly.
“Are you looking for something to do?” Penelope asked, putting the matter as tactfully as possible.
“Well, it’s boring here,” Judy burst out suddenly. “There’s nothing to do. The nearest real nightlife is light years away.” You’d need to go to Glasgow or Aberdeen. Inverness was too quiet a place, where life moved at a slower pace than she was accustomed to and it seemed she’d spent hours waiting to be served in shops.
Generally she’d run out of interesting ways to spend her time. There was nothing in any of the nearby towns and villages. For days out there were museums, a working distillery, the battlefield of Culloden with its visitor’s centre, but such things didn’t turn Judy on. She envied Penelope, who if she was bored managed very well to contain it, looking at everything with an air of polite interest. They could go to Aviemore again but Judy wasn’t the sort to do the same thing twice, not within a short period. At the Castle…well the Laird with his long moody silences wasn’t much company. There was the television, the games room, the gym, etcetera, but she could enjoy all those facilities at home or at Penelope’s place. She had liked walking in the grounds, but seemed already to have explored every inch of them.
And they were stuck here for three more days. They couldn’t leave before time without seeming rude, which Judy had no more wish to do than Penelope.
“And you can’t have a sensible conversation with anyone most of the time,” she complained. “They’re completely drunk. Not surprising quite frankly, if there’s nothing to do.”
Penelope smiled. “Yes, but they’re also charming people…friendly and welcoming, as I said. The salt of the Earth. Things just happens to move at a different tempo here.“ Personally she quite liked the easy-going outlook of the Highlanders, which seemed to hark back to a more leisurely, pre-industrial era. They wouldn’t be the same without it.
“And your loony cousin keeps me awake at night playing the bagpipes.”
“”Loony cousin”,” chided Penelope. “Indeed!” But again she smiled. The dirge had kept her awake too.
Parker appeared. “Ah, Herbert Aloysius. What did you learn, if anything?”
Parker reported his conversation with Jock. Penelope noted the smell of whisky on his breath, which made her wrinkle her nose.
“It only serves to confirm what we know already,” she said when he’d finished. “Apart from one thing. Jock says he thinks a lot of people had visited the house while he was away…moving things about. Now who were they and what were they doing, I wonder?”
“Why don’t we ask him?” said Judy bluntly.
“Because Jock wasn’t supposed to tell us about it. Or the Laird would have told him in the first place. And we don’t want to get him into trouble, do we?”
“Suppose not,” Judy agreed.
“He could well have had someone in to make an inventory of the house’s contents prior to selling them, and not wanted Jock to know. If the other estate staff were aware of it, they’d have respected any wish on his part to keep it quiet. But is that the answer? The solution to the mystery? Is it?”
Penelope’s face was set in a frown of intense concentration. She twirled her ornate cigarette holder absently while she thought.
That day they decided to explore further afield, taking the Rolls over to the west coast and Skye, where they visited a working watermill and a folk museum among other things. Judy decided to put a brave face on it; ironically, while she was making the effort to enjoy the day it was Penelope who clearly wasn’t, having too much on her mind. She was trying to decide how far it was appropriate to tackle Angus directly about his behaviour, and wondering what the result would be if she did.
In the living room after supper that evening they discussed how to spend the rest of their holiday. “You sure I can’t go and look for this secret room of yours?” Judy said, her tone cheerful so that Angus would think she’d said it on a whim. She didn’t want to seem too pushy.
But Angus hadn’t specifically said she couldn’t, and she was half-inclined to have a go anyway. It would be one interesting way, at least, to spend the remainder of the vacation.
“I dinnae want ye prowling around the house getting in the way,” he muttered.
“I wouldn’t get in the way if I was careful.”
“Like ah said, nae-one’s found it in nearly three hundred years so why should ye?”
“You never know, I might get lucky. Go on, please let me – “
The Laird rounded on her with a ferocity which startled even Penelope. “Ah said NO! Now dinnae ask again, a’right?” He jabbed a finger at her. “Ye’re a guest in this house, dinnae make a nuisance of yourself.”
Then he stormed from the room.
Judy took a moment to recover her composure. “He didn’t have to blow up like that,” she said slowly, miffed.
“No indeed,” Penelope nodded. “Scots don’t usually lose their temper in such a way.” So it came as a disagreeable shock, she found, when they did. “I think they see it as beneath their dignity. They tend to try and get their way through more subtle means. They’re even more sober and self-controlled than the English, in some respects.”
“Why is he so against anyone trying to find that secret passage?” Judy said indignantly.
Parker chipped in. “I’m thinking, M’ladies, that it leads somewhere he don’t want anyone else to go.”
“And if it wasn’t something you might find eventually, if you tried hard enough, he wouldn’t need to get angry,” Penelope added. “Considered along with everything else, it has to be significant. Parker, Judith, I think we may have found the key to the whole mystery.”
Later they held a conference in Parker’s room.
“So, we’re all agreed we ought to start looking for this secret room,” said Judy. She was obviously raring to start there and then.
“Yes, but not now, dear,” cautioned Penelope. “I suggest we do it tomorrow, at some point when Angus is out of the house. He’ll be at the Gathering of the Clans. That should give us an opportunity.”
“Aren’t we being invited?”
“It’s like a select society. You’re not allowed to attend unless you’re a member of the clan, which rules out most English people.” Judy looked sour.
“I’m to be there as a guest of honour, but I’m sure I can think up some excuse for not attending. The problem will be Jock. He’s sure to be staying here to look after the place.”
“He’s a decent bloke, M’Lady,” said Parker, looking unhappy. “I don’t like to pull a fast one on him.”
“I understand your feelings, Parker. But I think something very bad is going on here and that the consequences of letting it continue will be far worse than having to deceive Jock.” She spoke with absolute certainty.
“Couldn’t we let him in on it?” Parker suggested, brightening.
Penelope considered this for a moment. “No, I’m afraid not, Parker. It’s taking too much of a risk. What if he told Angus? If he did it would be out of loyalty to his employer, not because he’s a bad sort. But it wouldn’t help us much.”
Parker’s face fell. “Guess you’re right.”
She patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll just have to try and do it without him realising what we’re up to, then maybe the issue won’t arise. We’ll wait a while after Angus has gone, so it won’t look as if we were taking advantage of his absence to do something he wouldn’t approve of.”
They watched TV for a bit, then retired for the night. Except for Parker, who sat up in his room until, as far as he could be certain, everyone had gone to bed. Then he crept downstairs to the room he had seen Jock go to earlier. It was locked, but that presented no barrier to him. He knew all about picking locks, and had the necessary equipment on him.
A few minutes later he crept back to his room, all the time trying to keep as quiet as possible, and not grunt from the effort of carrying the heavy crate cradled in his arms.
In her bed Judy was turning over restlessly.
She just couldn’t sleep. She had to find out where that secret passage was, and where it led to. And wasn’t night-time, when there wouldn’t be anyone about at all – not awake, anyway – actually the best time to look for it? She didn’t entirely agree with Penny’s thinking.
If anyone discovered her, she could always say she hadn’t been able to get to sleep – which in fact was true – and gone for a walk. And she was moving stealthily because she naturally didn’t want to disturb anyone. Hopefully they’d buy it.
Throwing back the sheets, she got out of bed and put on her nightie and slippers. It would look suspicious if she was still fully dressed.
She wondered if she should take her gun from her travelling bag. Penelope, who for one thing was an active secret agent and needed to protect herself from those individuals and organisations who had her on their death list, or suspected her links with International Rescue and planned to kidnap her so they could force her to disclose its secrets, always made sure that she and Parker each had a gun concealed somewhere among their possessions, wherever they went. If the weapons were discovered she could always use her connections and her social standing to talk herself out of trouble. Once Penny had decided she was mature and self-possessed enough not to shoot someone out of panic Judy had been given her own gun, because she had become part of the team, of the loop. Of course it would be used primarily to stun – though it could kill in the last resort - because International Rescue never took lives unless it was simply unavoidable.
The trouble was, if she were seen with it they’d be kicked out for sure. And if someone noticed it sticking out of her dressing-gown pocket…after a moment she decided to leave it where it was.
Carefully easing open the door, wincing every time it creaked, she slipped from the room. She noticed that the light in the corridor was on. Hopefully that didn’t mean the Laird or one of his household was still up.
Very slowly and carefully, she made her way down the oak-panelled passage towards the landing. The secret tunnel, if it led underground, must be downstairs, she reasoned.
Constantly on the alert, she heard every little sound of the night, every tiny scuffling of a mouse in the wainscotting, every noise made by the hot water in the pipes. And her own footsteps, soft as they were.
With a sudden stab of fear she wondered if she might encounter the ghost.
Oh come on, Jude. You don’t believe in that sort of nonsense. True, you’ve seen one or two strange things since you got involved with International Rescue, but ghosts are a sign of superstition. The dead don’t walk, or assume a form which can pass through walls or flit about with its head tucked underneath its arm.
She heard a voice, and stiffened.
Two voices. They were coming from further down the corridor, and as she drew closer she traced them to the Laird’s room. One was Angus’; it sounded dull, lifeless, hollow, though it often did anyway. The other was harsh and guttural, which made it difficult to identify the speaker at a distance. But the accent wasn’t Scottish; it didn’t sound like any of the Castle staff. Intrigued, she tiptoed on.
She came to the door of the room and put her ear to it. But the thick old wood muffled the sound enough to prevent her making out what exactly was being said.
She crept on, heart thumping. The lights were on on the landing and in the main hall, too. She’d have needed to turn them on in any case, to see where she was going. But it made her feel vulnerable, unprotected, visible.
She began to descend the stairs.
“Who is it?”
“My cousin and a couple of her friends.”
“Why did you not tell me they were here?”
The Laird flinched at his visitor’s tone. “Ah didnae think it mattered,” he protested. “They don’t suspect anything.”
“You are certain?”
There was a brief hesitation. “Yes.”
“Or perhaps you are afraid I will harm them.”
“There’s nae need tae. They don’t suspect anything.”
“They had better not. It was foolish to invite them here in the first place.”
“Ye said we shouldnae dae anything tae arouse suspicion. We’ve got tae be careful. It’d look suspicious if I turned everyone away from here, put the blinds down altogether.”
There was some truth in what he said. And he hadn’t wanted to refuse Penelope. The visit had been planned for some time. Besides she was family, English or not, and blood ties mattered to the McCraggans.
“In the morning you must send them away. Think of some excuse.”
“They’ll get suspicious,” Angus insisted.
“Less so than if you were to do it now, in the middle of the night.” The other seemed to be weighing his options. After a pause he spoke again. “Of course there is a third possibility. That you get them out of the way permanently. If you see what I mean.”
“I won’t do that.”
“You will if I decide it is necessary. Remember what I have promised you. Wealth and power beyond your wildest dreams.”
“I cannot be sure at the moment how long I will need to remain here. But our plans should reach fruition very soon. After that all will be different.
“We cannot afford to let anything go wrong at this stage. When we are so near to victory. Fail me and you will regret it.” The visitor rose. “I will leave you now. Remember all that I have said.”
Angus nodded dumbly. His visitor opened the door, paused at the threshold to glance in both directions, making sure there was no-one around who might see him, and then was gone.
At the bottom of the stairs Judy stood thinking. What was there on the ground floor? Main hall, library, ballroom, drawing room, games room, kitchens…could be in any of them.
How would the entrance be concealed? Had the Laird moved with the times and installed some system of recognition by voice or hand print? If he had she wouldn’t be able to get into it at all.
She tensed as she heard someone coming along the corridor upstairs, towards the landing. If they were going downstairs…
She opened the door of the ballroom and slipped inside. Closing it carefully, she listened. She heard the footsteps descend the stairs, then start to cross the hall.
As they passed the door of the ballroom she opened it slowly, peering out and in the direction the footsteps had gone, to the left. She saw the back of a man, a man in windcheater and trousers. Of average height and build, with ordinary-coloured hair.
He went through a door on the far side of the hall. Judy left the ballroom and padded towards it. He hadn’t shown any sign he’d known she was there, so he wouldn’t be lying in wait for her. She peered through the keyhole and saw only blackness. Evidently he’d gone on from there to another room.
Opening the door, she groped for a light switch, found it, flicked it. The light came on and she found herself looking into the library.
She hadn’t been in here before. Entering, she glanced around. Some of the bookcases were free-standing, others flush with the walls. Their shelves were lined with volumes some of which were new, glossy modern paperbacks, and some old.
In the past the place had doubled as a smoking room. There were chairs dotted around, lined in plush velvet and crimson, and a fireplace, now bricked in. Mounted on the right hand wall were a few hunting trophies, among them a stuffed stag’s head with an impressive set of antlers.
Judy was puzzled. She could see no other door into or out of the room; it must be right at the end of the west wing of the Castle. Yet it appeared to be empty apart from her.
The mysterious night visitor seemed to have vanished into thin air. That just wasn’t possible. But it would have to be the explanation unless…
It must be in here. The entrance to the secret passage.
She hesitated, then left the room and made her way quietly back to her own.
She was just passing the Laird’s room when the door opened suddenly, making her jump. He stood there, still in his day clothes. He must have heard her and been standing just inside, listening suspiciously. “Whit are ye’ daein’ up at this time of night?”
Judy composed herself. “Ooh, you gave me a fright. Sorry, I couldn’t sleep…went for a walk…I was trying not to make too much noise, didn’t want to wake anyone.”
His eyes were hostile, staring, a cold pale light in them which sent a shiver down her spine. “Aye. Well mebbe ye’re all right now?”
“I’m fine, thanks. I’m going back to bed now.”
“You do that.” He closed the door, but she didn’t hear him move away from it. Back in her room she sat on the bed, thinking. She had succeeded in arousing the Laird’s suspicions. But maybe he thought she’d got the message now. And he wouldn’t keep on listening for any sound of movement from her, he’d have to go to bed sometime. Everyone needed sleep if they weren’t to be tired, irritable, and inefficient the next day. The longer he’d stayed up, the longer he’d sleep for. So if she got up early enough…
She would have to wait before communicating what she’d found to Penelope. If she went and knocked on Penny’s door the Laird, being on her case, might hear it and investigate to see what was going on between them. She’d need to get some sleep herself if she was to get up early enough. That thought predominant in her mind, she got into bed, stretched out, folded her hands on her stomach and tried to will herself into oblivion.
When she awoke it was still dark outside. She glanced at the bedside clock; a few minutes after four. That should be enough.
After a few minutes her head had cleared and she felt sufficiently refreshed to make a move. It had to be now, for she’d no idea what time Jean the housekeeper arrived to start cleaning.
This time she dressed. If by some chance she did encounter anyone or anything hostile, she didn’t feel equipped to take it on in her nightwear.
She stood on the threshold of the room listening carefully. No sound from the Laird. She was about to go and wake Penelope, who in turn would wake Parker, when she had a thought. The three of them moving about the house would be more likely to be detected, to make some sound which would give them away. And it would be wondered why all of them were up and about at such an early hour of the morning. She went back inside, took her notepad from her handbag and scribbled a message on it. She ripped off the sheet of paper, and tiptoed from the room and down the corridor to Penelope’s. She slid the message under the door, then moved quietly away.
Her reasoning had been correct. She encountered no-one, and heard no sound of movement, on her journey to the library. Once there she began a comprehensive search, trying all the time to make as little noise as possible even though the care she had to take slowed her down, She considered all the possibilities, probing everywhere for hidden mechanisms, disguised springs and catches. She took down all the books from the shelves, afterwards carefully replacing every single one so as to leave no trace of what she’d been doing. She prodded, tweaked and ran her hands over everything in sight, trying to recall each of the various ways it was done in thrillers. She didn’t find what she was looking for until, acting on a sudden impulse, she crossed to the stag’s head on the wall, reached up and twisted the tip of one of the antlers.
She heard a hollow click, and in the wall where the fireplace had been a section of brickwork slowly opened inwards like a door, creating an opening large enough for a person to pass through.
Yayyyy!!!! she thought, grinning triumphantly. Got it!
She stepped through the opening. She found herself in a short passage, illuminated by a single electric light. So it was still in use. Intriguing…
At the end of the passage there began a flight of stone steps.
She came down them, moving stealthily as before. They led to a stone-walled passage lit by more electric lights hanging in the ceiling in a row which seemed to stretch far into the distance, connected by a single strip of wiring. For she couldn’t see the end of the passage.
Despite the lighting it was damp and dank, with mould on the walls, and she could hear water trickling somewhere.
After a while the lights came to an end, and at the same time the blocks of stone gave way to natural rock, strands of phosphorescent light in which provided the illumination.
She froze, suddenly gripped by fear. Justified fear. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. She had no idea what funny business the Laird was mixed up in exactly. There might be danger involved in this. It was foolish of her to go into it alone, even with a gun. Anything might happen. She must be getting back to Penelope, before anyone realised she had gone. Then they’d take it from there.
She was about to turn and go when something began to take shape before her astonished eyes, something that hadn’t been there before.
It began as a blurry, hazy patch of mist, hanging in the air; then it grew, at the same time taking on definite shape. Becoming a figure. Shadowy, wavering, insubstantial at first, then a little less so, although you could still see through it in places, see the stones in the tunnel walls. She stood transfixed by a dreadful fascination. Then as more of it became solid she gave a gasp of horror and clapped a hand to her mouth.
The apparition wore the costume of the middle years of the eighteenth century; powdered wig, frock coat, waistcoat and breeches. From the frilly cuffs on its sleeves protruded long, bony fingers. Bony because they were bone, and nothing else.
The face was a skull. A fleshless, grinning skull, whose eye sockets were filled with an unearthly fire, like coals plucked from the depths of Hell. She couldn’t look away from them. The fiery yellow glow burnt into her brain.
She began to feel dizzy. She couldn’t think of anything else but that infernal glare, just couldn’t tear her gaze away. It was getting hard to think at all. She just wanted to sleep…sleep…she knew she should call Penelope, but she couldn’t get her mobile out of her pocket. It wasn’t just her brain which was paralysed. Her whole body seemed…she could barely move her arm…
She swayed, lost her balance and fell, blackness engulfing her mind. She had one last thought before oblivion took her. The tunnel was still in use. So the ghost was still here, protecting it, as it had always done.
It stood over her for a moment. Then it raised its hands, took hold of its face and pulled and the face came away, along with the wig, to reveal another; harsh and brutal with a tight cruel mouth and flared eyebrows over burning eyes beneath a high-domed, completely hairless skull.
It was the face of public enemy number one, criminal mastermind and implacable enemy of International Rescue.
The face of The Hood.
When Judy awoke it was as if from a deep sleep, the one she ought perhaps to have had earlier.
She was slumped in a chair in a bare-walled room which seemed to have been hewn out of solid rock. A table with some food set out on it - bread and water, traditional prisoners’ fare - and a bed, a mattress on the floor with blankets and pillow, were the only other items of furniture.
Where was she? This didn’t look like anywhere at the Castle. Then with a sharp pang of fear she remembered. The ghost…
There was no ghost in here. But…
She tried the door and found it locked. In fact there was another door, which opened into a small, windowless inner room with a toilet and shower. But there was no means of exit from it.
Captured. What a silly little idiot I am, she thought.
With any luck they didn’t mean to harm her. After all, she was still alive. Anxious to find out who they were and what they wanted, she banged on the door and shouted. “Hey! Let me out of here! What’s going on? I don’t much like being locked up, you know. Hey, anyone listening?”
She gazed idly round the room and saw for the first time the CCTV camera positioned high up on one wall. She jumped up and down in front of it, waving.
The footsteps outside registered with her and she glanced towards the door. The footsteps halted, and a key turned in the lock. The door was flung open and she stepped forward, expectantly.
She saw a man dressed in black overalls. He had a harsh, hawk-like face with an aquiline nose and dark hair, moustache and beard, which gave him altogether a Mephistophelian appearance. The overalls had shoulder patches with some kind of emblem on them, a jagged streak of lightning.
She froze as she realised he was covering her with a gun.
“Sit down,” he barked, taking a couple of steps towards her.
“Since you ask so nicely,” Judy said, and returned to the chair. “All right,” she smiled. “I’ve now sat down. What would you like me to do next?”
She realised it might be unwise to provoke him. “Look, is it possible you can tell me what’s going on?” she asked calmly. “What’s the Laird’s part in all this? You don’t have to answer that, but I would be grateful if you’d give me some idea at least how long you’re going to keep me here.”
Without answering, the man stepped aside to let someone else enter the room. A big man, but giving the impression of squat, compact power. A man of indeterminate race, somehow simian-looking, with a head as bald as an egg, smooth brownish skin and menacingly arched eyebrows. A man whose features would have been twisted by a seemingly permanent scowl, an expression of utter contempt for all other human beings, had he not been grinning in mirthless, evil triumph.
She felt herself go cold and rigid, then begin to shake with pure terror. She had seen that face before. And had hoped never to see it again.
Not long before this man had kidnapped her and subjected her to a terrifying ordeal, threatening to kill her unless International Rescue revealed all their secrets to him. Intending to do it anyway, and nearly succeeding.
“So, Miss Price,” murmured The Hood. “My alarm systems detected an intruder. But I did not expect to see you here.”
Judy said nothing.
“I am delighted to meet you again, my dear,” he purred. “As for the answer to your question, if my plans are successful you will all know my rule in the years ahead. You will never be able to escape from it. How long you are going to stay here…well in the first instance, it depends.”
Judy found a voice. “On what?” she asked hollowly.
The hard face tightened, the narrowed eyes gleaming like cold, wickedly sharp steel. “On whether you are prepared to co-operate in delivering International Rescue into my power.”
By now, Judy’s courage and self-assurance were beginning to assert themselves. She wasn’t going to be intimidated, particularly because of what the man had tried to do to her the last time they’d met.
“What makes you think I have any connection with International Rescue?” she challenged.
“You know too many people who do. I have my sources, my agents, just like International Rescue themselves. I could expose them if it were not that it might lead to others possessing their secrets, and naturally I want those secrets for myself. I could have had them, too, a long time ago, if your organisation’s security had not been so intensive.”
Judy continued to look bemused by it all. The Hood chuckled dryly.
“You were the ghost, weren’t you?” she said. “Very clever.”
The Hood smiled thinly. “Yes. I was the ghost. It seemed somehow appropriate to make use of an old legend in that way, with the aid of a little optical trickery.”
“So this is where the passage leads? Your hideout.”
“And it was you I saw in the corridor earlier on, wasn’t it? In another of your disguises.”
“I never take chances.”
“You were paying a visit to Angus, weren’t you?”
“His co-operation is necessary for the success of my current project.”
“You’ve got some kind of hold over him, haven’t you?”
“You know my powers, Miss Price.”
“This wasn’t a trap? You didn’t know I was staying at the Castle?”
“No, I did not. But those who spend their time looking for secret passages are liable to bring trouble upon themselves.” Again those horrible eyes stared intently into hers. “I don’t suppose any other members of International Rescue happen to be in the vicinity? There are some friends of yours here too, I gather.”
Judy fought to keep calm; she’d have to if she was going to lie. And she had to lie because he mustn’t find out about Penny and Parker. “They’re just that,” she said. “People I met at College. They know the Laird and he invited us all to stay for a few days.”
“That is plausible enough,” decided The Hood. “Through your father you would know plenty of people among the aristocracy; among what is called high society.” A disparaging note had entered his voice.
His tone changed. “So International Rescue do not know of my little scheme?”
“What is your little scheme?”
He laughed scornfully. “And you think I would tell you? There is no need to burden you with unnecessary information.” He wasn’t going to tell her unless it was unavoidable. He was covering himself in case she managed to escape and told IR or the authorities.
“Who’s this guy?” She nodded at the black-clad man.
“His people are associates of mine,” said The Hood. “They are a technologically skilled people, and not without ambitions. But they lacked until now the contacts, the resources, to stamp their will on the world.”
Something about the black-clad man, his appearance and the insignia he wore, rang a bell in Judy’s mind. “Is he a - Zombite?” She’d heard the Tracys speak of having had a run-in with them a while back.
“Yes – he is a Zombite.” The bearded man looked proud at this, and his eyes flashed fanatically. “International Rescue thought them destroyed, but a few survived the explosion of the pyramid of Khamandides, and they have settlements in other places. However they needed allies, as did I. We have had our…differences in the past.” The bearded man compressed his lips very slightly at this. If The Hood noticed it he didn’t react. “But we realised in the end that each needed the other too much to dispense with their services. With the right leadership, Malik’s people can become a force to be reckoned with.” Malik looked a little too impassive at that point. He obviously resented the suggestion that he himself wasn’t providing that leadership. “One that will bring order and discipline to the world.”
“Well I suppose it needs it. But you only want power, don’t you? Power for yourself. You’re just a lot cleverer than the average nasty character, that’s all.”
The Hood bowed. “I take that as a compliment.”
“And you’ve hatched another clever plot to take over the world. So why do you need to know all International Rescue’s secrets? Or is that part of it?”
“if I possess their technology it would be less likely they could attempt to frustrate my ambitions somehow. And it will be useful in strengthening my rule, protecting myself against those who would seek to overthrow me. That has been my motive for working against International Rescue in the past, and is now.”
“We thought we wouldn’t have to worry about you any more.”
“I survived the destruction of the spaceliner Hawking. Again, you know my powers. I can draw upon forces whose nature you can only guess at. And use them to make you do whatever I want.”
“You think I’ll tell you all about how IR’s hardware works? Well to be honest, a lot of the technical stuff is lost on me. I’m not much of a scientist, or an engineer. I just help them out now and again. Anyway, why don’t you ask Kyrano?” She glared at him. “We all know you’ve been hypnotising him by remote, using him as your spy in our camp. You had him sabotage the automatic camera detector on Thunderbird One, didn’t you?” Brains was working on a means of protecting International Rescue personnel against The Hood’s unusual mental powers, but hadn’t got very far, because he was dealing with something as yet barely understood by conventional science.
“Kyrano does not have the necessary understanding either, not quite. I cannot press him for detailed technical information. There are other ways of getting what I want.” The Hood turned to the man called Malik. ”But we will see to it in the morning. We need all the rest we can get; tomorrow may be very busy.”
The Hood left. The Zombite backed away, covering Judy with his gun, until he was in the corridor, then the door was slammed and locked.
Judy considered her situation. She doubted The Hood would let her leave here alive, not with what she knew, until he had what he wanted. But she didn’t want to help him to get it.
She’d have to worry about it later. She’d had too little sleep these last few hours and needed some more if she was to be in the right frame of mind to cope with whatever lay ahead. So for the moment she just lay down on the mattress, pulled the blankets over her and drifted off.
A short way down the corridor Malik stopped, causing The Hood to do the same. “You are sure there are no other International Rescue members at the Castle? She is telling the truth?”
“As far as I can establish. I can render people unconscious at will, can hypnotise them into doing whatever I want, but I cannot yet read minds. I am working on it. If it were technologically augmented it might be possible to develop the faculty. But for the moment we will have to do without it.”
“International Rescue are dangerous,” said Malik. “We have had problems with them before. It is not good. If they come looking for her…”
“We confiscated her radio, so she cannot contact them. By the time they find her, assuming they do, the plan will have been implemented. Don’t worry, my friend. At the moment I don’t think we have anything to fear from International Rescue.”
Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward yawned, stretched and sat up, wiping the sleep from her Pacific-blue eyes. Briskly throwing back the blankets, she hopped out of bed and headed for the shower.
The sheet of notepaper on the floor caught her eye and she paused, frowning. What was it doing there? Penelope was a tidy-minded person, she didn’t leave things lying about like that. She went to pick it up, and saw the message. “THINK ENTRANCE TO SECRET PASSAGE IS IN LIBRARY. JUDY.”
“Oh, bless you you clever girl,” Penelope beamed. She showered, saw to her hair, dressed, then went to the window and pulled back the curtains. She opened the window to let the morning sunshine stream into the room. Then she went to Judy’s room and knocked on the door. There was no reply. Perhaps not surprising; it seemed Judy had been busy last night, although she really ought to have let Penelope know what she was doing, and was now making up for the loss of sleep.
A hideous moaning, like all the tormented souls in Hell, was coming from Parker’s room. Penelope frowned suspiciously, then decided to leave him for the moment and went down to breakfast.
“Where are your friends?” the Laird asked after a few minutes had passed without either Judy or Parker showing. It was a comment as much as a question.
“It looks like Judy’s overslept,” said Penny. “Parker…well, I think…” She coughed.
“Aye, he had a drop too much of the whisky,” Angus muttered.
“I’m sorry about that. I’ll have to have a word with him.”
Penelope took a sip of her tea. “Now, Angus, have you any suggestions as to what our programme should be today?”
The Laird coughed awkwardly. There were a few moments’ silence. Finally he spoke: “Penelope, ah’m sorry but ah’m going tae have tae ask you and your friends tae leave, go home. Something’s come up…”
Penelope didn’t try to conceal her disappointment, because she supposed that in the normal course of events she would have looked disappointed. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “We were having such a lovely time. There’s nothing wrong, I hope?”
“Noo, but an associate of mine has come up with a business plan for saving the company, and the estate and everything. He’ll need tae discuss it with me in confidence over the next few days and he’s coming here tae do it.”
“It sounds like good news. But I don’t think you need him. I’ve been thinking, Angus: I’ve a friend who I’m sure will be quite happy to lend, or even donate, you the money you need to get things back on back on their feet again.” That was true, in fact. She was pretty sure Jeff Tracy, rescues being after all his concern, would be happy to consider making the Laird a deal on generous terms which reflected the desperate situation he was in. Some sort of joint venture with Tracy Corporation which would restore the family’s fortunes.
Angus Laird looked uncertain. Unhappy even, Penelope thought. In fact for almost a minute he seemed to shut off again, just sitting there with a blank expression. He scratched his head and looked about him vaguely as if not quite sure where he was.
“Are you alright, Angus?”
He seemed to snap out of it. “Aye, well that’s very kind of you, hen,” he said, not answering her question. “But this guy…his family have been friends with ours for years. Ah cannae really refuse him. And he doesnae want anyone else around while we do it; that’s his way. Business confidentiality. Ah’m sorry.”
Penelope might have suggested that they didn’t have to discuss the matter here at the Castle, surely, but it would have been rude. If he didn’t want them here then they must leave and that was that.
Why didn’t he want them here?
“Well, I’m pleased for you, anyway,” she smiled. “I hope it all goes according to plan. Do keep me informed. We’ll get all our things together as soon as Judy and Parker are up and fed.”
“As soon as possible, if ye don’t mind.”
This was a problem, thought Penelope, frowning once she was sure the Laird couldn’t see her do it. She needed time to think of some way to delay their departure while they found the secret room, without making it obvious that she was stalling for some reason.
She could use Judy’s oversleeping and Parker’s…indisposition as an excuse. But she had to go through the motions. She went upstairs to Judy’s room and knocked on the door. Still no reply. This time she went in, and on seeing that the bed was empty crossed to the bathroom and tentatively knocked on its door too. No-one answered.
Penelope began to feel a creeping sense of dread. It occurred to her there might be another reason why Judy wasn’t showing.
The unearthly sounds were still coming from within Parker’s room. Deciding not to bother with knocking this time, she went in and strode over to the bed. Parker lay on it writhing and groaning. ”Ooh…ooh, me ‘ead…stone the flippin’ crows…lemme die in peace…”
On the floor nearby was an empty crate, surrounded by bottles of best Scotch whisky, also empty.
Penelope shook him by the shoulder. “Parker! Parker, get a grip on yourself.”
He sat up slowly, bleary eyes blinking dazedly at her. Furiously he shook his head. “Oh…sorry, M’Lady…ooh me ‘ead…s-sorry...”
“Are you back in the land of the living now, Herbert Aloysius?”
He managed a weak grin. “Just about, Your Ladyship. ‘Fraid I sort of got…a bit thirsty, you know…fancied a little nightcap…”
“Yes, well we can talk about that later. Judy’s disappeared.”
If Parker still hadn’t achieved full sobriety, this news now shocked him back into it. “Disappeared? What – “ Realisation occurred to him. “She didn’t go off looking for that secret room?”
“I very much fear so.” Penny handed him the note. “At least she had the sense to leave this. But I’m afraid something must have happened to her.”
“It means they might be on to us,” he muttered.
“I don’t think we’re in any danger. But the Laird has just ordered us out.” She apprised Parker of the conversation that had taken place in the dining room.
“Well we can’t leave till we’ve found her,” he said firmly.
“No. But from the point of view of our own safety it might be best. We’ve got to play this very carefully, Parker.”
Both knew they couldn’t call in Jeff and the boys because it was wrong to involve them if there might be another way out; they could be needed somewhere else to rescue people trapped in a burning skyscraper or sinking ship. Which meant that Penny and Parker were on their own.
“It’s alright, M’Lady, We’ll find her,” said Parker reassuringly.
Leaving him to shower and dress, Penny went back downstairs and found Angus. “I don’t understand it. Judy’s not in her room and I can’t think of anywhere else she might be. I’m afraid we’re going to have to organise a search party.”
She saw him frown. “Come tae mention it, ah think ah heard someone walking about the grounds last night. Wasnae sure. D’you reckon it might hae been her gone for a walk?”
“Well it’s possible,” Penny decided. Maybe Judy had heard someone moving around outside and connected it with the secret passage and whatever mysterious, possibly nefarious business seemed to be going on at the Castle.
“Could be she wandered ontae the moor, and the mist came down and she got lost. It’s happened before.”
“If she went out on a cold chilly night like that she’d have worn her overcoat; this is the north of Scotland, not the Costa Brava. Let’s see if it’s in her room.”
“Penelope, hen, dinna trouble yerself,” the Laird said, waving a hand. “Ah’ll go and look for it. You just sit yerself down and leave the searching tae us. I’ll find ye something tae read.”
“All right, Angus.” Not much reassured, Penny went to the living room, found a chair and sat down to think. Had Angus gone to check Judy’s overcoat was in her room so that he could hide it away somewhere, or destroy it, and then say he hadn’t found it? And was he so anxious she shouldn’t join in the search for her because if she did, she might stumble on the secret passage?
He reappeared a few minutes later. “Noo, it’s nae there. She must hae gone outside.”
“We’d better make sure,” she said, with just the right amount of firmness in her voice. The Laird must know he couldn’t begrudge it.
“Maybe she’s gone home,” he suggested. “She wasnae too happy at being here, was she?” There was a definite edge to his voice. “Ah reckon she slipped away from here in the wee hours and got the first train from Inverness tae London.”
Penelope wasn’t sure about that. It was something Judy might have done in her younger days, yes…but not now, even if she still had a tendency to impulsiveness on occasions. She’d at least have left a note of apology.
“Ah’ve asked my business friend tae hold fire for a while,” Angus said.
“That’s very kind of him.”
“Well, ah’ve got tae leave soon tae go tae the gathering of the clan. But we’ll get searching the moor, as well as the Castle. Ah’ll get some of the estate staff, a few of the locals, tae help. If we havena found her after a few hours, we’ll just hae tae call the police.”
He left her. A while later Parker came in. “I offered to help in the search. They said don’t bother, they were managing quite alright. I thought, yeah, but many hands make light work an’ all that. Something fishy going on if you ask me.”
“I think we know that already. The question is what to do about it, and that’s something we still haven’t decided.”
It would be quite understandable if she was reluctant to leave before Judy was found, dead or alive. The Laird couldn’t expect her to. It meant they had a stay of execution; but how, she wondered, to make best use of that time?
The Laird was standing just inside the entrance to the tunnel. “This is gonnae make things difficult,” he said. “Ye won’t harm the lassie, will ye?”
“Not if it can be helped,” The Hood assured him. “She must remain my prisoner until we have no need for secrecy; but that time will be soon. And remember, it is all in a good cause. I will bring order and peace. There will be none of the chaos and dysfunction there is with “democracy”. All men of ability and standing will be rewarded. Aristocracies will be respected, as they were in the past, under my rule.”
“Aye,” McCraggan nodded. “But her friends are worried about her. Once the police are involved…”
“Eventually you will have no option but to contact the police. But by then our plans will have reached fruition.” And they wouldn’t find her in any case, unless they got lucky, the Laird thought.
“Believe me, there is nothing to worry about,” said The Hood, his tone soft and hypnotic. “Go now.”
Judy’s eyes flickered open. She rose, went to the bathroom, showered and dressed. She felt much better after the shower; more equipped to think of some way out of her predicament, although that didn’t necessarily mean she’d find one.
She sat down at the table, chin in hands. It might be that Penelope and Parker would come looking for her. Or Jeff and the boys; Scott’ll get me out of this, she thought fondly. She couldn’t be sure of that, though. They’d have to find her first, and one way or another the sinister Mr X would want to make sure they didn’t.
A Zombite – she assumed he was a Zombite, at any rate he was black-clad and bearded as Malik had been – came in with a tray of food. A couple of hunks of bread, some cereal of a kind she couldn’t identify, and a mug of green tea. It was nutritious enough probably, but didn’t look very appetising.
No sooner had she downed the last of the tea than The Hood and Malik returned. “Are you suitably refreshed, Miss Price?” The Hood asked with mock bonhomie. “Then we can begin.” He sat down opposite her, the Zombite hovering in the background.
She regarded him sullenly.
He spoke. “You are going to send a message to International Rescue telling Jeff Tracy to send all Thunderbird craft to a remote location of my choosing. You will say you are being kept prisoner there. The authorities cannot be involved. I will supply you with the full details later.”
“They’ll smell a rat. They’ll tell the police instead.”
“Jefferson Tracy cannot refuse you. He will assume that you would not make such a request unless you knew what you were doing.” He studied her carefully. “I sense you are no longer as stupid and thoughtless as when our paths first crossed. The risk you took when you went looking for the secret tunnel was a calculated one.”
Judy very nearly told him that she’d left a note saying where she’d gone, which would eventually lead to his hideout being discovered. But he might decide to move against her friends before they could contact the authorities and she didn’t want that.
“And the sentimental fool will not involve the police if he thinks it would put your life in danger,” The Hood added.
“I won’t do it,” she said. “The Tracys are good people, they helped me when I didn’t deserve it. They save lives. I won’t betray them.”
“Oh, I was not suggesting you had a choice in the matter, Miss Price.” And The Hood’s eyes glowed with that unnatural golden light. Immediately she felt giddy and nauseous.
His will was so strong, so hard to resist. How much easier to…
“No,” she gasped. “I won’t do it…I won’t…”
Anything could happen to someone if they were in The Hood’s power, unable to resist him. She remembered what had happened the first time she had fallen into his hands, and concentrated on that thought. She must resist him. She must… “You’re not going to do to me…what you did before. I won’t let you…won’t let you…won’t let you…won’t…”
“I will do it to you again if you do not obey me.”
She just couldn’t betray the Tracys. “I…I don’t care!” she shouted, eyes closed and face screwed up with the effort of fighting the hypnotic influence. “I don’t care!”
No good. He was simply too strong for her. The whole uncanny, disorientating feel of another mind, and a very powerful one, within her own screwed her up and by doing so broke down her defences.
No! She wasn’t this man’s plaything, powerless to stop him doing what he liked to her, getting from her whatever information he desired. She would fight it…fight it…
She shut her eyes against it but it seemed to penetrate through the lids into them. And into her brain.
Suddenly Judy slumped forward over the table, eyes closed. She remained in that attitude, quite unconscious. The Hood rose and glared down at her, quivering with fury. When he tried to hypnotise someone, one of two things happened. Either it worked and they did his bidding, a willing zombie, or they blacked out, which tended to happen if they made a fight of it. While out cold they weren’t a lot of use to him.
He breathed hard.
“What do we do now?” asked the Zombite.
“We wait until she has recovered,” The Hood said. “It should take an hour or so. Then we will use perhaps less…subtle methods of persuasion.”
Brains had wanted an early start, in case they needed the whole day to do what they wanted to. It was just before nine a.m., local time, when Loch Ness came into view through the windows of Thunderbird Two’s cabin, its waters gleaming brilliantly in the morning sun.
Brains pointed. “That piece of ground over there should be about right, Virgil.” They had checked and according to some ancient law the land was in common ownership, so they wouldn’t be trespassing.
“FAB.” Virgil brought the Thunderbird in to land on a patch of ground, covered with gorse and heather, to the left of the road that bordered the western shore of the Loch. Here, a belt of trees running along the road’s edge would screen them from the view of motorists. The huge green craft settled and the boom of its engines died down.
Brains and Virgil were now dressed in rough overalls and heavy boots, with potholer’s safety helmets that had searchlights built into them. Virgil glanced behind him to where Gordon was sitting. “OK, Gordon, you’re in charge here. The alarm systems should warn you if anyone starts snooping around, and detect them if they try to take photographs.” He didn’t blame people for merely being curious, of course, but the less they found out the better.
They’d find the photos wouldn’t come out properly, but Gordon would still need to be on his guard. They might still see something they shouldn’t, and if their aim was to learn a little more about International Rescue they might use force to get what they wanted.
“If Brains and I do run into any trouble, you know the drill. But take care.”
“Will do. FAB, Virg, and good luck.”
“OK. Let’s go then, Brains.”
With the monsters dangerous, to try to find the underground chamber which Brains believed to be the clue to the mystery by going through the Loch itself was risky. However there was another, probably safer, way of doing it.
The main body of Thunderbird Two rose on its four legs, the ramp in the front of the pod came down, and a minute later the rumble of engines started up. The whorled snout of the Mole, International Rescue’s tunnelling machine, emerged into the open, followed by the sixty-foot-long yellow tube of the vehicle itself, resting on a sled which in turn was mounted on a caterpillar-tracked chassis. Used mainly for underground rescue work, the Mole could also from time to time come in useful for purely scientific purposes.
The whole assembly lumbered down the ramp and towards the point where the ground began to fall away to the gently lapping waves at the Loch’s edge. “About here,” said Brains, seated beside Virgil in the Mole’s cabin, when they were a hundred yards or so from Thunderbird Two. Hydraulic motors pushed forward a telescopic arm, and from Thunderbird Two’s cabin Gordon saw the sled carrying the Mole proper tilt to a forty-five degree angle. The Mole began to slide down it, the huge drill at the front of the vehicle starting to turn, rotating at faster and faster speed until the twin cutters on its nose were a whirling blur. As they touched the ground, bit into it, a geyser of soil, stones and rock fragments spurted thirty feet into the air.
Gordon watched the machine sink out of sight beneath the surface. The rumble and whine of the drill gradually faded. The tractor unit remained where it was for the moment before the hole the Mole had made, the inclined sled pointing to the sky. They’d fill in the hole, of course, before they left; it wouldn’t do International Rescue’s public image any good if someone fell down it.
Thunderbird Four, newly repaired, was in the pod just in case although they wouldn’t risk the submarine unless it was absolutely necessary. If anything did happen to Virgil and Brains then Gordon would call Scott for assistance and wait for him to arrive, provided there was time.
Taking out a paperback book, he settled down to wait. He hoped Virgil and Brains would be back before he started to get bored, but wasn’t optimistic. If Brains did find what he was looking for he’d be down there studying it in fascination for hours.
A few metres below ground Brains and Virgil felt the Mole shudder, slowing slightly but noticeably as it met the resistance of the bedrock, its speed reducing by about ten feet per minute. They studied the instruments on the control panel, the readings from the ultrasonic, thermal imaging and echolocation devices. They were now descending at a rate of twenty feet per minute.
The depth gauge read fifty feet…one hundred…one hundred and fifty. On one of the VDUs a blob of green light, descending almost imperceptibly, showed the Mole’s progress.
“This rock’s pretty solid,” Virgil observed. And so far, there was nothing else.
Three hundred feet. Four hundred…five hundred…
“You don’t think you could have been mistaken, Brains?” Virgil said.
“Those creatures must be coming from somewhere, Virgil,” the scientist replied.
“Of course we could be drilling in the wrong place. Want me to change course?”
“The t-tunnels the Marinus detected were on this side of the Loch. And it c-can’t be too far d-down because it would have to be on the same level as the Loch for the creatures to be able to enter and leave it on a regular basis. Uh-uh-also, to support a viable colony of animals the lake or sea or whatever it is would have to be pretty big. We’re bound to find it s-s-soon.”
Almost as soon as the words were out of Brains’ mouth Virgil gave a shout. “Look!” On the VDU a pattern of wavy, jagged lines was starting to form, not far below where the green blob was. Virgil inspected the readings on the screen. “Definitely some kind of large cavity…at least five hundred yards across…six hundred…” The jagged lines continued to appear, gradually spreading. “Looks like it’s at least a mile in extent, Brains. And several hundred feet deep. This could be it…and I’m getting water, lots of it.”
Brains was jerking and twitching in his seat with excitement. ”This must be what we’re looking for, Virgil! It must be!”
“The water doesn’t seem to completely fill the cavity.” Brains hadn’t expected it would, but was relieved anyway. If it had it would have made exploration difficult without Thunderbird Four. “It’s an underground cave…cavern, more like. With a lake in it, a big one.”
“I d-doubted the creatures spent all their time in water. They seem like amphibious reptiles, overall. But they have only occasionally been spotted on the shore of the Loch, or the neighbouring land. Which goes to prove that th-this is their p-principal habitat.”
Virgil studied the position of the Mole in relation to the cavern. “On our present course we’ll come out through the roof, above the water.” He brought the Mole as close to the cavern as margins of error permitted. Then the caterpillar tracks in the side of the digging machine gripped the surrounding rock as he changed direction so that it would follow for the moment a horizontal path. It took time, for they were travelling through solid rock, but they had enough of it to complete the manoeuvre. The ultrasonic location system was sufficiently powerful to detect such hazards as subterranean caves well in advance. Once the Mole had completed its mission it could reverse along the tunnel it was making, negotiating every twist and bend with ease, until it reached the surface.
As they neared the cavern the ultrasound was able to map it more clearly, but the pattern on the screen was still not complete. “We’ve no way of knowing just yet how long it goes on for, Brains,” Virgil said.
“To support any colony of large animals, it w-would have to b-be of quite considerable extent,” Brains told him.
“Well, if you want to we’ll keep going until we’re in danger of exhausting the motors, then head back.”
Virgil looked at the VDU again. “Yes…there seems to be a shore…and some clearance between the water and the roof of the cavern.”
He asked why there should be any at all. The cavern was below the surface of the Loch, so if there were tunnels linking the two why didn’t the Loch water completely fill it?
Brains frowned. “W-well, Virgil, there are many strange things about the Loch. But if you want an answer, for the moment I can only speculate that there is some kind of freak hydrological phenomenon, like a whirlpool in its effect, which creates a balance of hydrostatic pressures. Gravity may also be involved somewhere. Maybe some of the water is draining away through a cavity in the floor of the underground lake. P-p-presumably, the balance of forces is such that the suction does not make it impossible for life to exist within the lake.”
“Could subterranean movements have anything to do with it?”
“P-p-possibly. It may or may not be significant here that the monster is said to appear only when there are earth tremors in the area.”
“But you’d guessed it’d be safe to use the Mole?”
“I was certain the monsters did not spend all their time in the Loch. And I had a hunch they were not entirely aquatic; at any rate, something must be keeping the water level down in there. It’ll be interesting to find out what.”
The green line had stopped moving in a westerly direction, but was still travelling in all the others. The point where it had stopped must mark the western extremity of the cavern. They were about three or four miles from it. A little later the line stopped travelling downwards. “Maximum depth to bottom of lake eight miles,” said Brains. “To floor of cavern, five hundred feet.”
They passed the western limit of the cavern. “One hundred and twenty degrees left,” instructed Brains a few minutes later.
“Uh-huh.” Virgil made the adjustment and the Mole shuddered slightly. The blip on the screen changed direction with them.
“Depress to one hundred and forty-five.” The Mole slowly tilted until its nose was pointing downwards at that angle. It was an uncomfortable position for the machine’s occupants, who felt blood start to rush to their heads.
Brains studied the VDU carefully, gauging the moment at which to level off. They needed to emerge a few feet above the cavern floor.
“Level off now,” he ordered, much to Virgil’s relief. Virgil adjusted their angle of descent until the Mole was again travelling in an exactly horizontal line.
He kept his eyes focused on the instruments, watching the green blip steadily approach the western end of the cavern. Lines continued to form on the VDU, the scale of the computerised chart continually adjusting as new data was acquired. “Brains, it’s vast,” he breathed. “Not an underground lake…more like an underground sea…”
“It’s always been speculated such things existed. But there’s been no proof until now. Now what kind of ecology do they support, I wonder?”
Virgil reduced their overall speed, while keeping that of the drill the same. They didn’t want to shoot from the tunnel and crash to the floor of the cavern. He saw that the green blip was now touching the line which represented its wall. They felt the resistance cease, the Mole’s speed increasing a fraction, as it ground through the last few feet of rock and the nose cutters spun in empty air. When the exit hatch was beyond the mouth of the bore tunnel Virgil shut down the motors. The Mole slowed again, then stopped. He switched on the cameras.
As expected, they saw the interior of a vast underground cave, with stalactites hanging from the ceiling like giant teeth, strange rock formations dotted about the floor and bulging from the walls. Everything seemed bathed in a ghostly pale glow which they presumed was the effect of the infra-red optics. There wouldn’t be a natural light source this far down.
“Wow,” said Virgil. “We’re here. We’ve arrived.”
Brains consulted the readings on another VDU. “Temperature endurable without protective clothing. Atmosphere…should be enough air to breathe comfortably.”
They strapped pouches to their waists containing any tools and surveying equipment they would need. They mounted their hoverbikes, scooter-like devices which didn’t need wheels because a powerful field of electromagnetic impulses held them a few feet above the ground. The ‘bikes were a quicker way of getting around because they could avoid obstacles more easily. They were fitted with searchlights for use in environments such as this.
Virgil opened the exit hatch, and they switched on first the force field generators of their ‘bikes, then the motors. They glided out through the hatch, and almost at once Virgil brought his machine to a halt. “Brains, we don’t need the torches.” He had realised he could see without artificial aids. The light was coming from strands and patches of a phosphorescent material on the roof and walls.
Virgil closed and locked the exit hatch, and they moved on.
It felt pleasantly cool in the cavern, but slightly damp. From somewhere they could hear the tap-tap of dripping water, slowly wearing away the rock onto which it fell so that in another few million years’ time it would have a very different shape.
The other walls were a very long way away, how long they couldn’t tell; but there were outcrops, and stalactites and stalagmites, which gave the impression that the cavern was divided into a number of smaller chambers. They were carved into fantastic shapes: massive pillars and buttresses, majestic sweeping folds. Some of the stalactites formed thick clusters which looked like enormous cobwebs, huge fungoid growths. The weird rock formations resembled monstrous prehistoric beasts, and the eerie greenish glow from where the phosphorescence was most intense only made them seem more alien and unnerving. Both men were struck utterly speechless by the whole spectacle. They were looking on a sight that no man had ever seen before; the cavern must have been formed millions of years ago, when the ancestors of humankind had not yet begun to venture tentatively onto dry land.
Virgil nodded towards a kind of archway between two masses of rock. “Let’s see what’s through there.”
His voice echoed eerily.
They passed through the arch, rounded a rock formation, and stopped dead.
Before them there stretched away a vast sheet of water, seemingly endless, its surface gleaming dully like grey steel.
And on its shores basked some thirty or forty of the creatures, their necks twisting as they looked lazily around them, at the moment doing nothing in particular. Their flanks rose and fell gently with their breath. Some of them, much smaller than the others, were evidently young.
“It’s true,” whispered Brains. “All the theories…an underground sea…” Virgil thought it was time to tell the island what they’d found, and radioed in. “It’s incredible, father. There could be a whole lost world down here.”
“The naturalists will have a field day. How long are you going to spend down there?”
“For now, no more than a day,” said Brains. “I should like to return later with other scientists for a more detailed investigation.”
“Well, let us know what else you find down there. Out.”
Virgil studied the creatures a little uneasily. But they seemed to move with difficulty over ground, heaving themselves forward with an effort, their flippers dragging behind them. Brains guessed his thoughts. “Flippers aren’t good for rapid movement over land, one reason why they’re primarily aquatic. The hoverbikes should be able to outrun them.”
“Alan’d be relieved to hear that,” Virgil grinned. “He’s a habit of being knocked off these things by giant reptiles. If they are reptiles?”
“It’s hard to say without a closer examination, Virgil. They could be mammals. There are, uh, certain similarities to the plesiosaurus, undoubtedly. But there are also differences, indicating that if our Loch Ness Monster it is a plesiosaur, it is a highly evolved one. Notice the, uh, horn-like projections on the head. I believe they are for the purpose of allowing the animal to breathe without having to leave the water, if it needs to be away from the cavern for any length of time. It simply protrudes them above the surface until it has enough air. They must be connected to its nasal and respiratory passages…”
“Plesiosaurs were reptiles – cold-blooded. They’d need warm, tropical waters. They couldn’t survive in the Loch, surely?
It’s too cold – “
“It’s speculated some of the dinosaurs were warm-blooded. If they were, the plesiosaurus could have been too.”
“Then they’d want a pretty big food supply to generate the internal heat they’d need to keep themselves going. Conditions in the Loch don’t ensure them enough of one.”
“Unless of course most of the food is in here,” Virgil added.
“It may be. I would suggest there is a geothermal heat source which makes up for the lack of sunlight at this depth. But if these creatures are plesiosaurs they have become almost entirely aquatic, which is why land sightings of the monster are rare. Or they may be a species which developed into something like a plesiosaur, through, uh, convergent evolution.”
“How do you think they got here?”
“That too is hard to say. At one time it was believed they came in from the open ocean when Loch Ness was below sea level, acclimatising to life here and then becoming trapped when upheavals of the Earth’s crust raised the Loch and cut it off from the sea. The trouble is, the Loch is only about ten thousand years old, dating back to the end of the last Ice Age. Before that it had been frozen solid.”
“But you said they didn’t spend most of their time in the Loch anyway. Could it be they got in through the underground sea instead?”
“At the moment I don’t know how. But it’s certainly a possibility. One thing’s for sure, I think they’ve definitely been here a long time.”
The waters of the lake, or sea or whatever, parted, and a long neck burst into view. The creature’s head swivelled to eye Virgil and Brains steadily for an uneasy few moments until submerging again with a splash.
“Do you think it saw us?” Virgil asked.
“I don’t know, Virgil. But I’ve a feeling their eyesight isn’t very good. It doesn’t need to be, living in an environment to which very little light penetrates. That’s why the eyes are so small. It must, ah, hunt largely by sensing the vibrations the movements of its prey give off. It could avoid obstacles using a kind of sonar…”
“I got the feeling it knew we were there.”
“But it wasn’t bothered. The water is its principal environment. As long as we don’t intrude into that, or go too close to it, by its reasoning we’re not a threat, and we should be OK.”
“So if they’re becoming aggressive towards anyone entering by water, then does that mean something has intruded into it, and managed to upset them somehow?”
“Maybe.” They continued to explore, all the time keeping well away from the lake. They saw more of the plesiosaurs, if that was what they were; and at one point, something else. At first they thought it was the same kind of animal; the long neck and two stubby “horns” projecting from the head were familiar. But it wasn’t the same; it had no eyes at all and the texture of its smooth, glistening skin was different.
Virgil was reminded of a snail or some similar species. But the size of it…
“What the heck is that?” he gasped. Brains studied the thing with detached scientific interest. “Obviously there are, as TinTin suggested, two kinds of creature in the Loch – at least. One is reptilian, or possibly mammalian the way a whale or dolphin is, the other more like a mollusc or other invertebrate. There could in fact be a whole ecosystem down here of creatures no-one’s seen before – not frequently, anyhow.”
“As far as we can tell, the two varieties of monster get on with each other alright,” Brains observed.
“With each other,” muttered Virgil. “But something’s stirred up the plesiosaurs, at least – let’s call them that - against homo sapiens.“
An uncomfortable thought occurred to him. Something…or someone?
Conscious again, Judy was sitting on the floor looking at the wall, simply because there wasn’t an awful lot else for her to do.
The door was unlocked and The Hood entered the cell, accompanied by four armed Zombites, one of whom gestured to her curtly to come with them.
They led her down a corridor, cut through the rock, whose walls had been machined until they were smooth. At the end was a door which slid open at the touch of a button. They passed through it.
Judy caught her breath. She was standing inside a vast natural cavern, on the shores of a subterranean lake whose extent was difficult to gauge. The dark water gleamed like jet in the yellow glare from the strips of halogen lighting suspended on pallets from the roof of the cave. Promontories jutted out into it from the wall. Doors and observation windows had been built into the rock and at the water’s edge a concrete quay had been constructed, on which crates and unidentifiable items of machinery, some covered with plastic sheeting, were stacked. Further to the right a raised metal walkway led across to the conning tower, like a shark’s fin in shape, of a submarine moored between two steel and concrete pontoons.
Judy found her attention caught by the sub. About two hundred feet long, it was sleek and narrow-hulled, with two indentations, one on each side, near the blunt nose that looked like eyes. The vessel was made from a dully gleaming black material that had the appearance more of ceramic than of metal.
As she studied it in fascination, something clicked. But that wasn’t what concerned her right now. What were they going to do with her?
She noted another, much smaller sub, squat and compact in shape, moored a short distance from the big one.
They halted near the edge of the lake. Looking around and above her nervously, Judy saw a travelling hoist, a steel hook on the end of a chain wound around a pulley, suspended from a girder in the ceiling. The Hood gave a signal to a man standing at a control panel, who nodded in response. He touched one of the controls, machinery whined, and the hoist moved off along a set of rails, to stop when it was almost directly above the group by the shore. Then the pulley began to turn, lowering the chain, and she heard the rattle as it unwound. A death rattle.
When the hook was a couple of feet above head height the bald man gave a shout and it stopped, swinging gently. The bald man nodded to the men surrounding Judy. They grabbed her and bundled her towards it, yelling and struggling furiously. Roughly her arms were pulled up over her head and she felt the cold metal of the hook against the skin of her wrists. Then handcuffs were snapped into place around them, securing her to it.
The hook began to rise, lifting her from the ground. Her feet kicked helplessly in the air. Then the hoist started moving again, carrying her out over the water of the lake. It halted a few yards from the shore. She saw with a shock of fear what they meant to do, and fought the urge to panic. She wouldn’t give them the pleasure.
Nonetheless she thrashed and kicked and wriggled, helplessly, on her hook like a bait on the end of a fishing line.
The Hood shouted up to her. “You have one last chance to reconsider.”
She went cold all over, cold and sick, as she realised this was it, because there was no way she could tell him what he wanted to know. Fear paralysed her, The Hood taking her failure to speak as resistance. “Lower her!” he shouted. “Slowly.”
Gradually, inch by inch, the flat black sheet of water came up to meet her. Of course he was taking time over it in order to terrorise, to maximise her fear. Or allow her to rethink. Or both.
When she felt her feet touch the water, the horror of it seemed to grow legs, many legs, and scuttle all over her body. How long before it had reached her mouth, and she couldn’t shout out her surrender even if she had wanted to? Would that be it, then? Would she have sealed her fate, and within the next few minutes die an agonising death, choking and freezing in that black, all-embracing, icy water?
She felt the chill liquid soak through her shoes and socks, her trousers, into her flesh. The thought occurred to her that she might die of pneumonia, if nothing else. Would that be as distasteful, or a little better? The aesthetics of death…
She sank about a foot lower. Now the water was above her waist.
She couldn’t give in. If you said you weren’t going to betray someone you had to stick to that, or what were you worth? The more boldly she proclaimed her resistance the more humiliated and crushed she’d feel if in the end she couldn’t hold out.
A few more inches.
She’d be under in…less than a minute, she supposed. Although how long a minute seemed tended to vary.
Depending on what you were doing.
The water was at her chest.
Life was precious. And drowning not very nice. Surely she could be forgiven if she gave in.
No, don’t think that. Then you will give in.
Don’t think that.
The declaration of surrender died in her throat.
Another two inches.
The water lapped at her neck.
It must be less than a minute, now.
Seconds…how many seconds?
Her chin…it was at her chin.
She took a massive deep breath and clamped her mouth shut, pointless though that was, but of course there was nothing she could do to stop the water filling her nostrils.
She resisted the instinctive urge to struggle, to try and break free from the cuffs, because she knew it would use up her last few scraps of precious oxygen.
At her rate of descent and in the time left would she be dead before it was over her head? She wondered if Mr X was making the same calculation.
Suddenly the cable plunged and she shot down five, maybe ten, feet. It jerked to a stop and she hung from it, completely submerged, exerting all her willpower in a bid to stay still. She felt her lungs swell up like balloons. It was as if she had a pair of exploding firecrackers in her chest. In a few moments she would convulse and then slacken as her brain, deprived for too long of oxygen, died. She willed it on. No contest really, if you thought about it. A relatively brief agony followed by oblivion or, perhaps, translation to some blissful afterlife…she could but hope…
Then she was being pulled sharply up out of the water, immediately gulping in mouthfuls, lungfuls of air and not stopping to think why she had unexpectedly been reprieved. But she had barely got her breath back before she was in the water again, to the same depth as before, brought to the very brink of drowning, and then yanked from the lake into that slightly stale, but still precious and life-giving air.
The cable dropped again.
She wouldn’t…couldn’t…she wouldn’t let them down, they were good people…her friends…couldn’t let him get his hands on their secrets…couldn’t…
The water was on her face once more.
In, out, in, out.
How long could she keep it up?
If this continued she’d be dead soon, as sure as if she had remained submerged. It would be impossible to withstand the stress on her mind and body. She would start to thrash, her mouth opening and closing like a stranded fish’s, and that would be that.
And this time she stayed out, or so it seemed. She realised she was still dangling from her hook, drawing in breath in a rasping, staccato fashion, water streaming down her. Exhausted, she let herself slump.
She felt the vibration as the hoist moved off again, this time carrying her back to shore. She was lowered none too gently to the ground, her chest still heaving. The handcuffs were removed and she collapsed in a sodden heap, almost fainting from her ordeal.
She looked up weakly to see The Hood studying her thoughtfully. “You won’t do it, will you? You are a stubborn one. You would rather die than betray your friends.”
Shaking, she forced out the words. ”Yes, I would.”
“Then there is no point in killing you. There is another way of getting what I want. I will let International Rescue know that I have you, and that you will die unless they deliver themselves into my hands.”
“Why didn’t you do that before instead of dunking me?”
“I could not be sure that the Tracys would give in to my demands, or attempt some scheme to avoid having to make the choice. But you would be little use to me dead. I shall just have to take this alternative option and see where it leads. And at some point you could still be of value as a hostage, whatever happens. Though if my plan succeeds there may not be much International Rescue can do to stop me.”
“From doing what?” Judy’s eyes went to the submarine again. “That thing. It’s the key to this whole business, isn’t it?”
The Hood smiled. “Very well. Like everyone else you will be aware of the tidal waves which have been causing so much devastation in this part of the world of late.”
“That submarine is the cause, isn’t it? They reckoned it had to be some kind of man-made craft.”
“Travelling at a phenomenal speed. A combination of an atomic reactor and a form of ion drive propulsion. And also coated with a material that absorbs instead of reflects radar, so it cannot be traced. The Zombites really are a talented people. How a nomadic tribal desert race, living a simple life, could have discovered and perfected advanced technology…at some point I may tell you the full story. I know their secrets – I know many secrets. The legacies of a lost age, a lost world. Of a power most men have forgotten.
“However they still needed some practical assistance in building the submarine. I supplied the finance and some of the technology, and used my contacts to obtain the materials. Some of them co-operated willingly, others needed a degree of…persuasion, but the result was the same.”
“How does it get into the sea? The Loch’s above sea level, isn’t it? Come to think of it, where are we exactly? Some people thought there might be some kind of underground lake connected to the Loch…”
“You have answered your own question.”
“So there is, and we’re in it? Wow…”
“I suspected that it existed, and was proved correct. A company under my control pretended to be surveying for onshore oil. Instead we found – “ The Hood waved an arm around. “This.”
“The Loch and the cavern together provided me with just the right kind of base and hideout the project required. There is nothing else like it in the world. As long as no-one tracks the submarine here, which they won’t because it is sonar-proof. As to how it gains access to the sea, we have constructed a special lock and tunnel for the purpose. We dug the tunnel from this side so it would be less obvious, moving the equipment in in component form along the secret passage from the Castle. I also had to use my powers to manipulate a few people within the right organisations so that no-one would spot the tunnel mouth once it had been dug. I cannot prevent its discovery in the long run, but long before that would have become a problem the project will have achieved its purpose.”
“So the passage…it leads down to this cavern…”
“I found it while exploring the place, and realised it could prove useful. I also realised it led to the Castle and that the Laird must know about it, for someone had helpfully installed lights for part of the way. I had to make sure the Laird was in my power, so I could use it freely without the world at large knowing what I was doing. Build the base and the submarine undisturbed.”
“You must have called at the Castle when Jock was away on holiday, and hypnotised him.”
The Hood nodded. “And the rest of the estate staff, for a brief period. They didn’t remember anything about it afterwards. But the fewer people I need to use the influence on the better, as some of them simply black out and then it may be necessary to get rid of them, which might be noticed. I suppose I could have had the Laird give them the day off, but there would have had to have been some reason for such generosity and none presented itself.”
“Did you just break in or – “
“I was spying out the Castle and saw the manservant leave. I later learned from the Laird that he would be away for a week. I pretended to be a businessman offering his company a rescue deal. I had done my research, you see, and knew of his financial worries. I gained a mental hold over him by a combination of the hypnotic power and other forms of manipulation.”
“Exploiting his fears about the future.”
“Correct. The hypnosis need to be repeated from time to time, but it worked. However I still needed some insurance against someone else finding out where the passage led to. Yes, the ghost was an amusing little conceit.” He chuckled. “I also needed to stop people who might be interested in the famous monster, or simply in studying the ecology of the Loch, from stumbling on the lock or the cavern.”
Judy put two and two together. “So you found some way of making the monsters aggressive?”
“A chemical I released into the water.”
“But they don’t cause you any trouble, I take it?”
“They don’t come to this part of the underground sea. Once I realised the animals did actually exist I studied them, and found that it was possible to influence their behaviour. They are intelligent creatures. The chemical conditions them to avoid my own craft, which they fear, but to attack any other.”
Regardless of the dangers, thought Judy, remembering how Thunderbird Four’s taser missiles had failed to protect it. “You’re abusing them,” she said. “Exploiting them.”
“My dear Judy, there are more important things at stake in this matter than the welfare of animals, however scientifically interesting they might be.”
“And what’s it all in aid of?”
“As you know my aim has always been power. I have decided to seek it by attacking the world through that by which it gains so much of its prosperity and sustenance - the sea. The submarine’s first few outings were a test as much as anything else. Now I know that it works. It is equipped with torpedoes as a safety measure, but otherwise it needs no military capability to accomplish its task. All it has to do is travel fast enough from one point to another and the nearest coastlines are devastated. The only problem is that it uses up a great deal of energy very quickly, and must remain at the base for a day or so while the reactor is refuelled, which is a long process. But it will take less than a week to cause so much social and economic disruption that law and order breaks down and political authority collapses. As soon as the disintegration is sufficiently advanced my supporters in each country will rise up and take over. I shall rule for evermore.” His eyes shone and his face split in a broad grin which showed all his gleaming white teeth. He did all but burst into a peal of maniacal laughter.
“I see,” Judy said dully. She decided it was time to change the subject to her own immediate future. “Will you kill me if Jeff doesn’t give in to your demands?” She decided she might as well abandon the pretence that she didn’t know International Rescue for what they were.
“I need to show to my enemies I mean business,” he replied. “I have said this to you before. So I am afraid the answer to your question is “yes”.”
The Laird was in full Highland regalia. “Ah’ve got tae be off now,” he told Jock. “Any sign of that lassie yet?”
Though he knew there wouldn’t be.
“No, Sir. Er…Sir?”
Jock was looking anxious. “Dae ye think it’s possible she could have found the secret tunnel?”
“Why would she have?”
“Well, it would explain why we cannae find her. What if she’s lost down there? I mean, we cannae do nothing, that’d be wrong. We ought tae make sure. I know ye don’t want anyone except us tae know about the tunnel…but surely it shouldnae matter, now everyone knows about the monsters?”
“Ye never know, that tunnel might come in useful tae us some day. I like tae keep traditions going, Jock. And like ye say, it’s too easy tae get lost down there. Be no help if that happened tae us. No, better it stays a secret.”
“Couldn’t we just take a look, the two of us?”
“No need. If ye’re worried about it, dinna be. She couldnae possibly hae worked out how to get in there. Only you and I know that. No, she must be somewhere else. Let’s nae fret, and just hope she turns up safe and sound eventually.”
With a final nod, the Laird turned and was gone.
“If there is a global meltdown of just about everything,” Jeff Tracy was saying, “we should be able to help significantly to reduce the loss of life, for a time at least. We’ll need lengthy rest periods, of course. But if we share the task with the conventional rescue services, there’s a fair amount we should be able to achieve. Now the world governments will have taken steps to ensure the safety of their personnel, who’ll carry on working from special high-security bunkers, like in a nuclear war. We’ll need to co-ordinate operations with them at all times. The important thing they should understand is that we must be able to obtain the parts we need to repair or rebuild our craft, equipment and vehicles whenever it becomes necessary. If the facilities are still intact, we’ll need to mass-produce each of the Thunderbird craft and pod vehicles, and train as many people as possible in their use.”
“That means our technology becomes public, Dad,” said Scott. “At least, more people will know how it works than is safe from the point of view of security.”
“I know, Son. But it could be the lesser of the – “
On one wall were portraits of all Jeff’s sons, wearing ordinary everyday clothing. The eyes of Alan Tracy’s flashed. Jeff opened the link to the space station, and the portrait slid aside revealing a screen on which the real Alan in his International Rescue uniform appeared. “Go ahead, son. Is it a rescue?” Jeff clocked Alan’s expression and stiffened. “What’s up?”
“Father, I’ve just received a message. It’s from that guy who’s been causing us trouble ever since we went into the rescue business. The one who kidnapped Judy and me and…”
“I get the picture. What’s he saying?
“I’d better play back the message. Hold on.”
A moment later The Hood’s voice issued from the speaker on Jeff’s desk. “Calling International Rescue. Calling International Rescue. There is no need for me to introduce myself. But there is something you should know. The girl Judy Price, with whom I believe you are acquainted, is my prisoner.”
Jeff felt Scott tense beside him.
“If you wish to see her alive again, you must follow the instructions I am about to give you. All Thunderbirds are to fly to the following location.” The Hood gave a series of co-ordinates. “I give you my word that the pilots will not be harmed. It is the machines themselves I am interested in, not they. And the scientist known as Brains, who must be on board one of the craft.” His intelligence and skills would be invaluable. “You have three hours in which to comply. Thunderbirds One to Four must be at the location specified within that time. The slightest deviation from these instructions, and Miss Price will meet a lingering and extremely unpleasant death. That is all.”
A heavy silence fell over the room. Eventually Scott broke it; someone had to. “Well, what do we do, Father?”
“Is he serious about harming her, do you think?” asked John.
“I think in view of what he tried to do to her before we must assume that he is,” said TinTin, her lovely dark eyes full of concern. She liked to think of Judy as a friend.
Jeff had been thinking carefully. He looked up. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. Saving lives has always been our priority. We’ve risked the organisation’s security for them before. They’re why we’re in business at all.”
“I don’t like to say this,” Scott said, “but if our equipment falls into the wrong hands it could be thousands of lives lost. Maybe millions.” His manner changed. “If he harms Judy in any way, I’ll sure make him pay for it.” His fists clenched.
“Not until we know he has, Son,” Jeff cautioned. He sat back with a sigh. “So what do we do – sacrifice Judy, and probably avoid world disaster, or…”
“Either course of action could be defended, Mr Tracy,” said Kyrano. “One is right, the other is…understandable. So whatever happens you need not reproach yourself.”
“He’s right there, Jeff,” said Grandma. Her face clouded over. “Of course, it’s not that I want to see that poor girl come to any harm.”
“How do we know he won’t kill her anyway?” said Alan from the space station. “Bearing in mind what happened last time…”
“Last time he had an additional reason for it,” Jeff said. “He doesn’t now. Can you check that grid reference?”
“Already have, Father; KL543987R. It’s a remote spot in Greenland, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement. Where nobody will see what’s going on.”
“Did you manage to trace the origin of the message?”
“Yes, father, it came from a small village in the north of Sweden. But that isn’t necessarily where he’s operating from. The message could have been relayed, and whoever did it will probably be well away before the police can catch them. But I’ve identified the frequency they’re using so we can broadcast a reply.”
“OK. Stand by.” Jeff addressed the others in the room, and Alan. “Now this is what we’re gonna do, folks. I’ve decided on a compromise; we meet that deadline if we haven’t found some way of rescuing Judy by then. The craft will take off no later than is necessary if they’re to arrive at the specified place on time. Meanwhile I’m gonna contact Penny, see if she can do something. Judy was on holiday with her at that Castle in Scotland, so almost certainly that’s where she was kidnapped, or somewhere near. It gives us a steer. What our mysterious enemy was doing in the area I’ve no idea…”
“Thought he was finished, anyway,” said Scott. “But do you suppose he knew Judy was there and wanted to use her as a lever with us?”
“Then he’d have snatched Penelope and Parker as well - if he knew they were around. Maybe he tried. We must find out what the situation is there, and also warn Brains and Virgil. He’s no idea they’re actually in the vicinity and they’d better head straight back to base before he finds out.”
Jeff called Virgil. “Son, you and Brains need to get out of there fast.”
“Why, what’s wrong, Father?”
Jeff explained. “I think you’ve found out enough for the time being. I want you both, and Gordon and the Thunderbirds, back here as soon as possible. OK?”
“OK, Father, we’ll get going.”
Virgil told Brains what had happened. The scientist greeted it with his usual unflappability, though Virgil knew of course that deep down he really was concerned.
“Come on then, Brains.” Virgil swung his hoverbike round.
“Stay where you are!”
The voice rang out in guttural, strangely accented English, from about a hundred yards away, echoing from the walls of the chamber. They hesitated; whoever this was, it might not be safe to ignore the command.
They turned round. Emerging from behind a stalagmite were four or five men in black coveralls and helmets, carrying guns – by the look of them, energy weapons of some kind – which were pointed straight at the two International Rescue members.
They were far enough away to risk making a break for it. “Come on, Brains, let’s beat it back to the Mole!”
They turned round again, revved the hoverbikes’ engines up to maximum and sped away. They didn’t get very far. The tips of the Zombites’ weapons glowed, and Brains slumped forward over the handles of his hoverbike, his hand coming down on the accelerator, reducing speed. Then he slid from the seat to the rock floor. Virgil wondered if he should stop to help him and so risk capture; then he too felt his mind go blank. He toppled off the hoverbike to lie unconscious beside Brains. Riderless, the hoverbikes travelled on to finally crash into the wall of the cavern and drop to the floor, their front ends dented and crumpled out of shape.
The five men in black went over to the two unconscious bodies and looked down at them. Their leader smiled. “We must take them back to base at once. If they are who I think they are, our associate will be very pleased indeed.”
“THIS IS INTERNATIONAL RESCUE. WE HAVE RECEIVED YOUR MESSAGE AND WILL ENDEAVOUR TO COMPLY WITH YOUR REQUEST. HOWEVER THUNDERBIRD THREE IS AT PRESENT ON A DEEP-SPACE MISSION AND WILL NOT RETURN FOR SOME TIME.” This was in fact a lie, though The Hood did not know it. He could have checked with Kyrano, but he’d been cautious about making use of his half-brother in such ways since realising that the Tracys were becoming aware that he was doing so. In any case, Thunderbirds One and Two would be sufficient for the time being.
“THUNDERBIRD ONE, AND THUNDERBIRD TWO WITH THUNDERBIRD FOUR IN THE POD, WILL BE AT THE LOCATION YOU SPECIFIED BY THE DEADLINE. WE ASK YOU TO KEEP YOUR SIDE OF THE BARGAIN AND RETURN JUDY TO US UNHARMED, ALSO BRAINS WHEN YOU NO LONGER REQUIRE HIM. MESSAGE ENDS.”
The Hood composed a reply in which he accepted Jeff Tracy’s terms. Then he settled down to wait.
“And you say there’s no trace of her anywhere on the premises?”
Jock shook his head. “No, M’Lady, ah’m afraid not. We’ve looked everywhere. The whole of the house and grounds. The lassie’s nowhere tae be seen.”
“Oh dear,” sighed Penelope. “What can have happened to her?”
Penny and Parker were still in the living room, waiting for some news of Judy. Neither had really been reading the books Jock had given them to occupy themselves with. They just sat staring into space, trying to think of some way out of their dilemma. So far none had occurred to them.
Penelope was quite convinced that if they found the secret passage, they’d find Judy. But she didn’t like to mention that to the Laird or any of his staff because of what the consequences might be.
“We’re still searching the moor. Chances are she’s out there somewhere. ‘Course ah’ll let ye know as soon as we find anything.” Jock went off.
Penny’s mobile phone rang, in the special tone that told her International Rescue were trying to contact her. “Lady Penelope speaking. Jeff?”
“Penny? We’ve got a little problem, I’m afraid. And that’s putting it mildly.” Jeff explained. “Do you have any idea what could have happened?”
Penny lowered her voice so that no-one outside the room would be able to hear her. “We’d been getting worried about her ourselves.” She told Jeff about the Laird’s strange behaviour, and about the secret room. “Obviously our enemy has been hiding out here somewhere for purposes of his own and he’s got Angus under his spell, like Kyrano. Unfortunately of course we couldn’t have known that. And we don’t have any proof.”
“So is there anything you can do about it, Penny?”
“I think we’re meant to stay very much where we are for the moment. But if things are as serious as evidently is the case, we’re going to have to do something. I’ll keep you informed.”
“FAB, Penny. I know you won’t let us down. I told you Virgil, Brains and Gordon were in the area monster-hunting; you can contact them if you need any help, but we’ve got to be careful they and their equipment don’t fall into our enemy’s hands.”
“Right, Jeff.” She told Parker the news.
“Blimey,” he muttered. “Not looking good, is it M’Lady? One thing’s fer sure, we can’t stay sitting about in here any longer.”
“Indeed not, Parker.” She went to the door, listened carefully, then after a moment opened it and peered out. She could hear faint sounds as Jock or one of the other staff moved about on some business or other, but there was nobody in sight.
“Come on, Parker,” she whispered.
Judy sat on the bunk in her cell, once again staring at the wall. She had long ago given up considering possible ways of escape.
The door opened and an armed Zombite appeared. Keeping Judy covered, he stepped into the room, at the same time signalling for someone else to enter. A girl of about Judy’s own age came in with a tray of food, placing it on the floor. She was short and dark, like most Zombites – Judy presumed she was a Zombite – and dressed in much the same fashion. She wasn’t unattractive, though she deserved to be wearing something less severely functional and her face was marred by that look of grim, humourless dedication to duty they all seemed to have.
She thought it worth trying the female solidarity thing. “You know it’s wrong to keep me here, don’t you?”
The girl stared at her impassively for a brief moment, then turned away.
“You know what your friend, the bald guy, tried to do to me? He tried to drown me. Not very nice, eh?”
Judy thought she saw the young woman pause, shifting uneasily. “It was necessary,” she said. “Unfortunate but necessary.”
“How? Has he told you what he was trying to get out of me?”
“You are an agent of International Rescue. That is what I have been told.”
“International Rescue’s business is to save lives, and that’s why they keep a tight hold of their secrets. Anyone who works against them is surely a bit suspect in my book. What are you in this for?”
The girl faced her. “I am working for the triumph of my people. So that they can emerge from the desert to bring order and peace to a world that is falling apart. It is an honourable cause.”
“They’ve brainwashed you, haven’t they? Do you know your ally is a nasty, evil, power-crazed murderer? Is it honourable to work with someone like that?”
“It is justified, if in the right cause.”
“Depends what the right cause is, doesn’t it? Don’t you think the world should be allowed to make its own mistakes?”
“It is that kind of philosophy which has caused so much trouble. Your World Government has not succeeded in stamping out crime, poverty, greed, discrimination.”
“Things are better than they used to be. And at least it allows the different countries a fair amount of freedom over their own affairs. It’s learnt from the mistakes of the European Union. It prevents war, and also gives money to good causes and promotes culture internationally, while preserving liberty. I don’t think that’s what our friend Mr X has in mind, somehow.”
“I am convinced ours is the right cause. That is what I have been brought up to believe and I see no reason to doubt it. We will triumph in the end and it will be for everyone’s benefit if we do.”
The Zombite with the gun motioned towards the door with it, abruptly, as if impatient with the conversation. There was something very ugly about his body language. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a woman about the place,” Judy observed. “I don’t get the impression they’re treated very well, somehow.”
The two Zombites left without a word. She sighed and went back to staring at the wall.
Virgil and Brains sat handcuffed to chairs in a cell in the prison section of the Zombite base. They talked while they waited for something to happen, as surely it would before long.
“Who do you think these guys are, Brains?” Virgil asked. “They kind of look familiar.”
“I think these are the people we had some trouble with not so long ago; the ones who shot Scott down over the Sahara Desert, and would have done the same to you and Gordon.”
“You mean that business of the Lost Pyramid of Khamandides? I get you. I wouldn’t like to tangle with that bunch again. They’re pretty ruthless at protecting their secrets.”
“And at a guess they’re in league with Mr X.”
“What a combination. We sure are in a mess.”
“W-what d-do you suppose they mean to do with us?”
“Force us to tell them all International Rescue’s secrets, I imagine. I only hope we can hold out long enough for Dad to get us out of this somehow.” Penny wasn’t far away, maybe she could help. But neither of them mentioned the possibility, because for all they knew their captors had bugged the room and they didn’t want them to be led to her.
It wasn’t long before The Hood turned up, with an entourage of Zombites. “Ah, Mr Tracy, Mr Newton,” he smiled. “An unexpected bonus. I have tried to kidnap members of your organisation before, but the security which surrounds you has always made it difficult.
“My alarm systems detected your presence. We found your tunnelling machine; which I presume means that Thunderbird Two cannot be far away. Where is it?”
“It would have taken off when we didn’t come back,” Virgil said. By now Jeff would have told Gordon what had happened. “Our base guessed you must be lurking about this part of the world and we had orders to head for home as soon as we could.”
“But you have not long been captured. For the moment there is no reason why your friends should worry.” The Hood had calculated that it would take some time for them to return to the Mole and then to the surface. “No, you are lying. And there will be long enough for me to secure your craft for my purposes.”
Virgil and Brains glanced at each other, uncertain for a moment. Then Virgil decided there wasn’t any point in trying to deny it. “It’s a pretty big thing, it’d be hard to miss. You’d find it anyway, before long. So I guess we might as well tell you. It’s in the field west of the road running by the Loch, behind the trees.”
“Thankyou, Mr Tracy,” beamed The Hood. “A pleasure to have such willing co-operation for a change.”
“Now,” he continued. “If International Rescue were here on a scientific mission, and not a rescue, it would not have come here in force. There must be only one person on board, remaining on standby in case you encounter any danger and need their help. They will be easy to overpower. Don’t worry, for the time being they will not be harmed unless it is absolutely necessary.” Once he could do whatever he liked it would be another matter, of course.
“You won’t be able to get in,” said Virgil.
“I have my ways,” The Hood told him.
They saw him take out a mobile phone and dial a number. “I need you. You must return to the Castle, immediately. Hurry.”
A reception, with drinks, preceded the commencement of business. The main hall of the club was filled with figures in kilts milling around. The pattern of the tartan of the kilts wasn’t always the same, for their owners represented not only the McCraggan but also its associated clans. Their chatter filled the air within the big room, but it had a sense of urgency to it. Although they were happy to regard this as a social event apart from anything else, they knew the coming year could be the make-or-break one for Clan McCraggan.
Jamie McBeath rapped the table on the stage, calling for order. Everyone found a chair, the clan officials sitting in a line behind the table. The Laird declared the meeting open. They got through the first few, routine items on the agenda fairly quickly.
Then, as chairman of the meeting, the McCraggan of McCraggan stood up and moved to the microphone to give his report on the past year’s activities and assessment of the Clan’s future prospects. As often when addressing a meeting or giving a talk to visitors on the history of the Castle he dropped his Scottish pronunciation in favour of something more standardised, though his accent remained as strong as ever.
“First of all,” he began, “As President of the Clan McCraggan Association I should like to thank everyone who has worked so hard over the last twelve months to keep the ship afloat and made such a valuable contribution to all our activities. I know it’s been a hard time for us of late, but I’m confident that if we all pull together the coming year will see an upturn in our fortunes.”
Then, annoyingly, his mobile phone rang. Without a word of apology to the meeting, he answered it. “Yes?”
They saw his face stiffen, going suddenly cold and blank. “Yes…alright. I’ll be there.” He cut the caller off.
“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go,” he announced. “Something’s come up to do with the business. An urgent matter. I’ll be back as soon as possible.” Without a further word he got down from the stage and crossed the hall to the door, the astonished clansmen staring after him as he disappeared through it.
“That is that little matter taken care of,” The Hood smiled. “Now, there is information which I require from you two gentlemen. Let us see whether it is possible to extract it from you without risking Miss Price’s life. You are aware she too is a prisoner here?”
They nodded slowly, saying nothing.
“I would much rather not kill people if it could be avoided,” The Hood went on. “They might prove useful to me at some point. As slaves.”
Something in the Zombites’ expressions suggested a certain discomfort at the word.
“W-what do you want to know?” asked Brains, even though he knew.
“Everything to do with International Rescue. Its security codes, the names of all its agents, full details of all its technology.“
“J-just one thing,” Brains said. “It’s obvious you know who we are. Why don’t you just tell everybody, and that’d blow our whole set-up out of the water.” Then they wouldn’t be a threat to his ambitions, which they knew extended beyond merely making money out of selling their secrets.
“The answer is as obvious as your intelligence – “Brains”,” said the Hood. “You’re only trying to stall. If everybody knew the real identities of International Rescue then all kinds of people would be attempting to steal their technology and learn the details of its functioning. I want the information for myself, and myself only. It would destroy you if the world knew who you really were, but destroying you is not my intention. Not until your secrets are in my possession. Unless, when I finally become ruler of this world, I have such power that it does not matter.”
“How, ah, how do you propose to become ruler of the world?” Brains asked.
“You will see. Now then, down to business.”
He regarded Brains with contempt. A puny weakling given entirely to study. However powerful that intellect, it should be quite possible to bend it to his will.
He placed the object he had been carrying under his arm on the floor, and they saw it was a tape recorder, with a microphone pointing towards them. He started it running.
He shifted position so he was looking straight into the eyes behind Brains’ huge spectacles. “I would have…elicited the information from you when I had you in my clutches at Lake Anasta, after you had led me to that buried treasure. Unfortunately on that occasion your friends rescued you. There is nothing they can do to help you now.
“We will start with the propulsion systems of Thunderbirds One and Two.” The Hood’s eyes began to glow.
At the club the clansmen were standing around looking rather bewildered, not entirely sure what to do next.
“This cannae go on,” someone said. “He keeps on saying how worried he is about things, and yet…and now this. It’s as if he’s gone crazy.” The man spread his arms helplessly.
Suddenly Jamie drew himself up, his face hardening, a determined gleam in his eyes. “Well, ah’ve had enough of this. Ah’m going tae find out what he’s really up to.”
“Ah’m coming with ye,” said Bruce. Together the two of them marched out of the building, making for the car park.
“You will tell me,” ordered The Hood.
Brains’ eyes closed. He swayed gently from side to side.
“No,” he murmured.
“You will tell me.”
Brains’ eyes opened, closed again.
“You will tell me.”
“I…I won’t…I know what you’d do with…the knowledge…”
“YOU WILL TELL ME!”
“Nuh…nuh…no…” Brains’ voice came out as a strangled gasp.
Virgil looked on, his face grim. He didn’t want Brains to suffer unduly but nor did he want him to give away the information. He could only wait for the outcome of the struggle, feeling a certain fascination.
“YOU WILL TELL ME!” The Hood’s rage was terrifying. “You cannot resist!”
“Nooooo...I can’t…can’t…” The words were barely intelligible.
The Hood’s face twisted with rage. The man was proving surprisingly resistant.
Brains was thrashing from side to side, his face screwed up in savage concentration.
“You are an insect, a puny worm!” screamed The Hood. “I can crush you whenever I like!”
Brains slumped forward, quite unconscious. The stress he had been subjected to had caused his mind to simply switch itself off.
The Hood contemplated him with features like thunder, breathing hard. “Congratulations, Mr Newton,” he sneered. “Your will is stronger than I thought. Perhaps your colleague will be a better investment.”
He turned his piercing gaze on Virgil, and again his eyes shone with that unearthly, harsh yellow light.
Virgil swayed, his eyes half-closing. He winced as if in discomfort.
The yellow light seemed to glow brighter. “You will tell me!” The Hood barked. “You will tell me!”
But Virgil’s lips remained sealed. Nor did he black out. He just stared back at The Hood with a solemn, deadpan expression, the light from the mastercriminal’s eyes seeming to play over his face.
Finally the yellow glow faded and The Hood stepped back, shaking with fury, his face twisted in that hate-filled scowl.
A few, a very few, were completely immune to his powers. Virgil was one such person. Solid, a little stolid, dependable, utterly unflappable. Nothing flustered him, indeed he sometimes seemed to lack the sense of urgency necessary on a rescue mission, so that Scott had to chivvy him along. It was true he had a sensitive side, that he was interested in art, music, and philosophy, but this was just one aspect of a complex, finely-balanced and tightly-controlled personality. Whatever the reason, it was clear he was utterly impervious to The Hood’s charms.
“You too, it seems,” The Hood muttered. “Then you leave me with no choice. I think if I were to threaten to kill Miss Price in front of you – and I will carry out the threat if I have to, believe me – it would make the most difference. Even if she is stoical enough to throw her life away, you could not bear to let her. It is often like that with these matters.
“But we will wait until Mr Newton recovers. He is the one with the most knowledge, who actually designed all your amazing technology. I shall get what I want.” And then, The Hood thought, you will serve me – or you will die. Slowly and painfully.
Penelope had been checking all the bookcases, working her way gradually along each of the shelves, taking out every single volume to see if it was connected to some concealed mechanism which, when it was removed, would cause the bookcase to open out or slide aside and reveal an opening in the wall or floor which it had hidden from view. It was a mammoth operation; the collection had been amassed over several hundred years and consisted of almost as many books. Once or twice she lost her place and to her annoyance had to backtrack a little.
Carefully she replaced a dusty, venerable tome which went back almost to the early days of printing. “Any luck, Parker?”
Parker was waving to and fro a device which tested for the presence of sensors. If you found one a red light would go on and it would start bleeping. As yet he’d had no luck.
“’Fraid not, M’Lady. Doesn’t look like it’s electronic. Seems he’s got traditional tastes in these things.” He switched off the device. “No good. I’d have found it by now.”
“Then come and give me a hand.” Parker joined Penelope in checking the final bookcase. A few minutes later they turned from it with a mutual sigh, having found nothing.
“Parker, you would have some experience of…secret escape routes and that sort of thing.”
Parker coughed. “Well if you say so, M’Lady.”
“So – where would you have put the entrance to the tunnel?”
Parker cast his eyes around the room. He shrugged. “Anywhere that did the job. Trouble is, there’s any number of things it could be. We’re just gonna have to hope we get lucky.” And soon, before someone discovered them here and realised what they were doing.
Then they heard footsteps coming along the corridor towards the library. “Hide, Parker,” whispered Penny. “Over here.” They slipped off their shoes, picked them up and darted behind one of the freestanding bookcases. A moment later the door opened and someone came in. They crossed to roughly the centre of the room and then changed direction; going towards the far wall, Penny estimated. They halted.
Penny wanted to peek out from behind her hiding place to see who it was, but was afraid of being spotted. She tried to work out where the owner of the footsteps must be standing, whether they would see her. Where they would be facing, because if they turned suddenly…
There was silence for a moment, then the footsteps again. They continued to approach the far wall, more or less. Suddenly their sound changed, became muffled. In a few moments it died away altogether.
Penny and Parker came out from behind the bookcase. The room was empty.
“Something on this wall,” said Penny. “But what?” She cast her eye over the impressive array of paintings and hunting trophies. Like the books, collected over the centuries, and in greater quantities than there was space for in the main hall.
Or maybe you just had to apply pressure to a section of the wall and it would open up…no, not possible, if someone happened to lean against it, even though the probability was slim…but then if the trigger was something else, you could activate that by accident too. Like Judy before them, they set about prodding and tweaking everything in site, and running their hands over every patch of wall and floor.
They thought they could hear voices, coming from somewhere fairly close, but if so the thick centuries-old stonework muffled what was being said.
A short way down the tunnel, The Hood was handing the Laird a small tubular device with a handgrip, not unlike a futuristic gun. “This should allow you to override the alarm systems and gain access to the craft. Keep in touch with me at all times. If there is anyone on board and they resist or attempt to take off the girl will die.” Angus took the device, put it in his pocket and set off.
The Hood gazed after him as he disappeared. He needed to seize Thunderbird Two because he could not be sure Jefferson Tracy would in the end decide to give in to his demands and surrender all the Thunderbird craft in return for Judy Price’s life. He couldn’t pass up this opportunity. He might be risking throwing everything away, but he had to take the chance. He could still kill Judy unless Tracy surrendered the other Thunderbirds. And would.
Suddenly, a section of the wall where the trophies hung began to open inwards. Fortunately, neither Penelope nor Parker was in the line of vision of anyone coming through it.
There was no time to hide properly. They pressed themselves tightly against the wall, to the side of the opening – not the one between it and the library door, so he wouldn’t see them if he was intending to leave the room - and as far from it as possible. They still had their shoes off, so they didn’t make much of a sound.
Parker, the one on the outside, could just make out someone out of the corner of his eye. A man, he thought. The man turned, fortunately not in their direction or he’d have seen them, so that he was facing the wall and Parker reckoned he fiddled with something on it. Neither of them saw what because they were concentrating on keeping as still as possible, staring straight ahead, afraid the slightest flicker of movement would betray them if the man’s peripheral vision detected it. They must listen rather than look.
The man turned again, making for the door. They heard him go through it and close it after him.
“Did you see who it was, Parker?” Penelope whispered.
“Not really, M’Lady,” he said. “Had some idea it was old Angus, though.”
“I wouldn’t be entirely surprised,” Penelope muttered. She went to the wall and examined it carefully. “Now let me see, by my reckoning it would have been about…here somewhere. We’re getting warm, Parker.” She twisted a shield trophy on its hook.
Footsteps again. They concealed themselves behind the bookcase as before. They heard the door open and someone come in and start to move about the room. Listening to the sounds, Penelope realised this person was looking for something. Them, perhaps.
She’d suspected their luck would run out sooner or later. There was only one thing for it. She put her shoes back on, motioning Parker to do the same; their absence would have given the game away. Then she stepped out into the open, Parker again following her lead. With any luck whoever this was wouldn’t realise they had been hiding.
It was the ghillie. “Ah, Jock,” Penelope smiled. “Any news of Judy yet?”
“No, M’Lady,” said Jock sadly. They noticed that he bowed his head for a moment. Then he straightened up. “Er – may ah ask whit ye’re daeing?”
“Oh, I just thought she might be in here,” said Penelope vaguely. Not that Judy was a renowned bibliophile, apart from the trashy romances she seemed to be immersed in much of the time.
Jock gave a nervous laugh. “Why would she have come here before going tae breakfast?”
“Food for thought?” suggested Penelope. Her expression changed and she studied him closely, blue eyes glinting. He looked distinctly uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry if we were somewhere we shouldn’t have been,” she smiled, but it was a cold smile. Her voice hardened. “You know, it really is important we find out what’s happened to Judy.”
“Of course, M’Lady. Ah’m sure everything possible is being done.”
He looked at her oddly. “May ah ask what ye mean by that, M’Lady?”
“What M’Lady means,” said Parker, “is that there’s something we reckon you ain’t telling us.”
“You can tell us,” Penelope assured him, in that winning tone which people always found so hard to resist, especially when there was an edge of steel to it. “Don’t worry, it’ll be quite alright.”
“Ah don’t know what ye…“
As Penelope had suspected loyalty to the Laird was proving the most important thing to Jock. How much would it take to break down his resistance?
Just then there came a knock on the door, which had been left ajar, and Jamie and Bruce entered. “Sorry to interrupt,” Jamie said, with a polite nod to Penelope and Parker. “Jock, ah needed tae see ye. Where’s the Laird, dae ye ken?”
“Ah thought he was at the Gathering. Though ah heard a car draw up outside a while ago, and someone come in the house – must hae been him. Dinnae ken why he came back, but ah guess that’s his business.”
“It really is important we speak to him. Ah followed him back here from the club.” Penelope sensed the vibrations coming from Jamie: the anxiety, the need to find something out coupled with the utter determination to do so.
He looked at her and Parker, and then Jock, uncertainly. It was obvious he wanted to keep the matter confined to a certain circle.
“I’m Penelope Creighton-Ward,” she said. “Angus’ cousin. I know it’s none of my business really, but there are reasons I can’t go into just yet why I need to know what’s going on.” Jamie too found himself both attracted and disconcerted by that seductive voice, charming yet authoritative. ”I feel that in the light of certain things Parker and I have become aware of, it may be significant.”
Jamie hesitated, then made up his mind. ”He got this call on his mobile. He just seemed to – shut off. Then he left, saying he had urgent business tae attend to. Aye, well maybe he had. But the whole way he was acting, like a…zombie…ah dinnae like it. It’s not the first time ah’ve seen him that way and ah just dinnae like it.”
“It’s not the first time you’ve seen him like that, is it, Jock?” said Penelope, again drilling into the ghillie’s soul with her eyes.
Jock was silent for a beat or two. Then he bowed his head again. “No,” he sighed. “No, it isnae.”
He looked imploringly at Penelope. “I don’t want him tae get into trouble. Promise me ye won’t tell the police…”
“I can’t promise that, Jock. But if I’m to decide whether I should or not, I need to know a little more.”
It was with relief as much as anything else that Jock finally gave in. “Aye, alright,” he murmured, nodding slowly. He moved to the wall. ”Ye were looking for that secret tunnel, weren’t ye? Well, I can save ye the bother.”
Going to the stag’s head, he twisted one of the tines on the right-hand antler. There was a dull click and the wall beneath the trophy opened up the way Penelope and Parker had seen it do earlier. “The Chief said she couldnae be in here. But tae tell ye the truth, ah couldnae think of any other explanation. Ah just hope she hasnae come to any harm.”
He stared into the opening. “He didnae even want me tae go down there. Ah never asked questions. But the one time ah did, years ago, it fair gave me the willies ah can tell ye. So ah havenae done since.”
“Right,” clipped Penelope, taking charge. “Jock, you stay and hold the fort, or rather the Castle, here.” She turned to Jamie. “You look for Angus, see if you can find out what he’s up to. Parker and I will explore the passage and see where it leads.”
They heard an engine start up outside. “That’s the Chief’s car,” said Jock.
“Ah’ll hae tae move fast if ah’m not tae lose him,” said Jamie. “Ye got a car ah can borrow, Jock? If it’s a different one he’s less likely tae ken he’s being followed.”
“Aye, take mine, the Astra. Keys are in the entrance hall.”
“Thanks, mon. Come on, Bruce.” Bruce and Jamie dashed from the room.
“So, where exactly does the passage lead?” Penelope asked Jock.
In a conference chamber within their base, The Hood and the Zombite leaders were in conference. “I have made sure my supporters are in position and kept them informed of all developments,” said The Hood. “They will be ready to move as soon as the signal is given.”
“We must decide on the exact moment at which to seize power,” said Malik. “When will it be?”
“We will keep the submarine operating for as long as possible,” said Anarkhon, the vessel’s commander. “It should have achieved its objective by the time it is finally detected.”
“A week will be enough,” The Hood told them. “Already unrest is growing and riots breaking out. When the time comes, the Army and perhaps the Air Force will be too busy trying to maintain order to resist when my forces attack.”
“They may never detect the submarine,” Anarkhon said proudly. “Even if the World Navy is still functioning. But in any case, as you say, a week will be enough.”
Malik sat back in his chair and eyed The Hood intently. “And once we have triumphed – what then?”
“Do not fear, you will have the power you seek. You will rule on my behalf in the Middle East and North Africa region. That would be appropriate, would it not?”
“It is the West which needs order and discipline the most,” argued a Zombite called Ramzieh. “To stop its greed and permissiveness tearing it apart, as well as infecting others.”
“I shall make sure that is done,” promised The Hood.
Malik was still looking hard at him. “I must advise that there remains much suspicion of you. The feeling persists that you want power for its own sake. How do we know that once we are victorious you will not move against us?”
The smile on The Hood’s face was not a pleasant one. “You don’t, my friend. What you do know is that you will not have power at all unless you accept my help.” His expression changed to one more benign. “Not that I would double-cross you, of course,” he said earnestly.
While you need our technological skills, no, Malik thought. Once you don’t...
“You claim to be a Muslim, but what god do you really worship?” he asked.
“Or you,” The Hood smiled. “You practise a debased and twisted version of Islam. In truth you serve not Allah but a pagan deity of the kind the Arabs worshipped before Islam or Christianity came along. A brutal, bloodthirsty, wicked being. Perhaps your god is not so different from mine.” He winked enigmatically. “Remember, I have access to the ancient books. I know these things. I know…”
Several of the Zombites had sprung to their feet, dark eyes blazing with fury. “You blaspheme,” snarled Ramzieh.
The Hood was unintimidated. “Perhaps I do,” he said coolly. “But remember…” Still smiling insolently, he crooked a finger at them. “Sometimes you need infidels as one might a beast of burden. So it is permissible to make use of them. Tolerate me for the time being at any rate.”
And once you think you no longer need us, what then, Malik wondered. He doubted there was much they’d be able to do. The Hood had the contacts around the world, with enough weapons to overthrow the World Government if it was sufficiently distracted; they didn’t. And his extraordinary powers came in too useful. They themselves could still have caused all the disruption but they would not have been able to capitalise on it. He wished the man had not found out about their plans and proposed an alliance. Their rise to world domination from humble beginnings would be such an achievement that he didn’t like to think it was partly due to someone else. But it made such sense to go along with the suggestion that they couldn’t really refuse.
For his part The Hood was thinking about how he might find new ways of relaying and amplifying his supernormal mental powers. Then he would be able to control anyone in the world, at any time and in any way he wanted. Even if he failed to do this, once he had the technology of International Rescue in his hands…either way his dominance would be assured. The Zombites would not be a problem in the long run; he’d bend them to his will along with everyone else. Or destroy them.
But of course the first to suffer would be that philanthropic fool Jeff Tracy and his brood of brats, the traitor Kyrano and his daughter, that meddling Price girl, indeed anyone who had ever had anything to do with…he almost said, or rather spat, the words out aloud. International Rescue.
Turning into the main road from the driveway to the Castle, Bruce and Jamie could just see the Laird’s car ahead of them. They struggled to keep it in sight.
They followed it along the road that led past the Loch, trees on either side. In a little while they saw the Laird pull off the road, stop and get out. He disappeared into the woods. It was too far away to be sure but they thought he had some kind of gun with him.
“Bruce, if he hears the car stop he may guess someone’s on his tail,” Jamie said. “Drop me off here, then drive on. It’ll look like someone just stopped for a – ye know.”
“Aye, ah get ye.”
They slowed and pulled into the verge about fifty yards behind the Laird’s car. Jamie got out. “Ah’ll call ye later tae let ye know the situation.”
“Alright, mon, be seeing ye.” With a nod Bruce started the engine, accelerating away down the road.
Among the trees the Laird had paused, listening like a hunting dog. He heard the car start up again, and waited until the sound of its engine had died away in the distance. He guessed the vehicle had stopped briefly so its driver could relieve himself. There was nothing to worry about.
He moved on, with an almost instinctive stealth, a caution learned on past hunting expeditions. As far as he was aware no-one knew where he was or what he was doing, but it was best not to take chances. He had with him his great-grandfather’s old hunting rifle, which worked as well as it ever did.
Behind him Jamie was behaving with equal caution, if possible avoiding areas where there was undergrowth and where he couldn’t, carefully easing the foliage aside and then back into place. There must be no sound to alert the Laird.
The Laird came to the edge of the wood, and parted the curtain of leaves hanging before him. He peered out and saw the great green bulk of Thunderbird Two, with the Mole’s trolley a short distance away awaiting the return of the main vehicle.
Hanging his rifle on his shoulder by its strap, he took the device The Hood had given him from his pocket, switched it on and began slowly weaving it from side to side.
In the cabin of Thunderbird Two Gordon, having lost interest in his book by now, was tapping his fingers impatiently on the control panel. Brains and Virgil should be back by now, surely. He decided to give it another few minutes and then call them.
If they didn’t answer it must mean they’d been captured too, he thought bleakly. He considered going to their aid but it didn’t seem sensible to risk any more lives, and he sensed his father would agree.
Twenty minutes from now, he decided. Then he’d better be getting away from here.
“Whit are ye daein’?”
At the sound of Jamie’s voice the Laird turned. He froze briefly, then, pocketing the alarm systems jammer, unslung the rifle from his shoulder and aimed it at the young man.
“Ye wouldnae shoot me,” said Jamie. He was angry as much as anything else. ”Ye were spying on that International Rescue plane, weren’t ye? No-one’s supposed tae dae that.” International Rescue saved lives. As far as Jamie was concerned their wish for privacy deserved to be respected. ”Now suppose ye tell me what’s going on, what ye’ve been up to these last few months. First of all, who was it called ye? It was them who told ye to snoop on International Rescue, wasn’t it? Now I want some answers.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” said the Laird, his voice flat and hollow.
“Try me. Ah want to know the truth, for all our sakes.” Jamie’s face tightened, his fists clenching. “Ah’ve had enough of this, we all have. Now ye’re dragging Clan McCraggan into disrepute. Give it up, now, and come clean.”
The Laird’s finger tightened on the rifle’s trigger.
Jamie kept his cool, though inwardly he was terrified. ”Ye wouldnae shoot me,” he repeated.
The Laird faltered, his face twisting as if in pain. The gun wavered in his grasp. Seizing what might be his only chance, Jamie threw himself forward. He grabbed the rifle and tried to wrench it from the Laird’s hand. The two men staggered about as Angus, rallying, tried to resist.
In Thunderbird Two’s cabin Gordon heard the crack of a gunshot. He stiffened.
His eyes went to the monitor screens. One of them showed two men, one lying on the ground while the other crouched over him, very still as if paralysed by shock and horror. Zooming in, Gordon saw the rifle lying at his feet. He turned on the tannoy. “Hey! What’s going on out there?”
The crouching figure didn’t move. Gordon got out his gun and took the lift down to ground level. To his mind this was too much of a coincidence for there not to be a connection to the trouble they were having with Mr X. He had to investigate. He needed the gun so he could stun the crouching man if he turned from where he was. He wasn’t taking any chances.
Cautiously he approached the two figures. As he drew nearer he saw that the prone man was clutching his side and moaning softly as blood seeped through his fingers and soaked into the ground.
“Don’t move,” he ordered the other man. “Now what’s going on here, you guys?”
The Laird didn’t answer; it wasn’t even certain he knew Gordon was there. He remained staring down at Jamie, still paralysed. Finally he spoke, to no-one in particular it seemed. “Jamie…I shot Jamie…” He appeared to snap out of his trance, bending to speak to the injured man. “Jamie? Can ye hear me? Jamie!”
“We need to get him to hospital,” Gordon said, and at his words the Laird turned and saw him. “I’ll call for an ambulance. But I’d ask you to step away from that gun, if you don’t mind.”
The Laird obeyed, the sight of Gordon’s own weapon further serving to jolt him back to his senses. He rubbed his forehead dazedly. “Whit…whit am I daein’ here? Someone told me tae…tae deactivate the alarms on Thunderbird Two and…” He registered Gordon’s uniform. “You’re International Rescue, right?”
“I’m Angus McCraggan.” Penelope’s cousin, thought Gordon. The Laird.
“Pleased to meet you. But there are one or two things I need to get to the bottom of. You say you were told to – “ A memory flashed into Gordon’s mind from several years before. Kyrano sabotaging the automatic camera detector on Thunderbird One. He had talked earlier about hearing a message from someone in his mind, though he couldn’t remember who they were or what they wanted him to do. And they knew now that The Hood had been exerting some kind of telepathic mesmeric influence over him. On top of that, Penny had told them how strangely the Laird had been behaving lately.
“I think someone’s been controlling your mind,” he told the Laird. The Scotsman stared at him.
But first things first. Gordon rang for that ambulance on his mobile, saying there’d been a shooting accident. He let the Laird make Jamie comfortable, trying to staunch the bleeding. They couldn’t do much until the medics arrived. There was equipment in the sickbay on Thunderbird Two which could be used to treat the wound and dull the pain, but Gordon couldn’t risk taking his eyes off the Laird. If The Hood had implanted any post-hypnotic commands in him, they might be triggered at any time.
The Laird looked up. “The police will want tae know how it happened,” he said worriedly.
“Don’t worry, we’ll handle it,” Gordon assured him. All police, armed forces and intelligence services throughout the world knew there were special circumstances surrounding International Rescue and that they had to tread carefully where the organisation’s secrets were concerned.
“I’ll have to tell my base what’s happened,” he said. He’d have to be careful not to say aloud anything which might reveal that Penelope knew the International Rescue team, even though something told him the Laird would keep the information confidential.
Jamie was silent now, his face deathly pale and his breathing shallow. Fortunately the ambulance would be coming from Inverness, which wasn’t far away. As long as the bullet hadn’t gone through anything vital, he stood a chance.
”How were you going to deactivate the alarm systems on Thunderbird?” Gordon asked the Laird.
“I couldnae tell ye. I just don’t remember anything about it.”
“It must have been with some kind of device,” Gordon said. He looked around, saw nothing. “Can you search your pockets.”
The Laird found the jammer and handed it to him. “Would that be it by any chance?”
“Looks as if it might. We’ll have to take it to pieces, figure out how it works and think up some means of defence against it. If the guy behind all this is who we think he is, he’s used something like it in the past, only that could destroy the electronics rather than put them out of action. Was he bald, by the way, with staring eyes you couldn’t look away from?”
Angus thought hard, his face tightening in concentration. Finally a long-buried memory began to break through. He shuddered with dread at it, then relaxed. “Yes,” he nodded, as it all came back to him. “Yes, he was.”
In the control room of the Zombite base, The Hood heard an alarm bleep and glanced at a nearby bank of monitor screens, registering the image on one of them.
Intruders. And he knew who they were. Well, he had scores to settle with them, as with all the International Rescue crowd. They’d soon wish they hadn’t chosen to poke their noses in.
“This place gives me the creeps, to be honest M’Lady,” muttered Parker. “I can understand why Jock wanted ter avoid it.”
“I don’t care for it much myself, Parker,” admitted Penelope. The glare from the lights in the ceiling only made their surroundings seem more eerie. The effect was only enhanced when it gave way to the greenish-white glow from the phosphorescence on the walls.
And they were undoubtedly venturing into danger. Not for the first time Penny wondered why she got herself into such situations. The truth was that she worked as a secret agent, officially or unofficially, because it meant excitement, the thrill of peril, and had seemed a way of enlivening an existence which was comfortable and safe to the point of being boring. Later she had become more involved in charity work. But she continued to spy for International Rescue, and sometimes MI5 and 6, because spying was in her blood. There was that frisson of peril and also the feeling of triumph when you got your man or woman. In a way, she reflected ruefully, she was no less irresponsible than Judy had been at one time.
Certainly she knew there was a price that went with it. You had to take care. There had been one or two occasions when she hadn’t, very nearly paying for it with her life.
She felt Parker freeze beside him; sensed his fear. He pointed with a trembling finger. “Look, M’Lady, look! What’s that?”
A few yards ahead of them the outline of a figure was beginning to materialise; an ethereal, wavering shape that as they watched gradually became more distinct, more solid. And as it did so, the less they liked what they saw.
Penelope gave a gasp of horror.
“Oh, lummee,” said Parker. “It’s the flippin’ ghost.”
Standing before them was a figure in eighteenth-century clothing. With a skull face and fleshless fingers like long, bony talons. Its form flickered and rippled as if still not entirely substantial, and the light shone right through it. But it was there, no doubt about that.
The black holes of its eye sockets began to fill with a yellow glow.
Immediately Penny felt dizzy, nauseous. A heavy weight seemed to be pressing down on her mind; she found it hard to keep her eyes open. It was difficult to maintain her balance, too. At any moment she would fall.
Parker swayed, a hand to his head. She felt him knock into her. ”’Cor…excuse me, M’Lady, I…” He struggled to snap out of it, his breathing coming in short ragged gasps.
Penelope couldn’t tear her eyes away from that weird unearthly light. It was sapping her willpower, eating up her very soul. Like Parker she tottered, eyes flickering open and shut as she struggled to resist.
She guessed that if they blacked out they would suffer whatever fate had befallen Judy. And that would complicate matters for Jeff. She had to stay conscious. Had to…
What she was seeing couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be.
But it was. And it was evil, she knew that.
She must fight this. Must fight it. They had to find Judy. Had to stop The Hood. I, I know what this is, she thought. Who you are. I won’t let you win…
But he was winning.
Don’t give in. Remember the code of International Rescue; the code of the Creighton-Wards.
But it was too strong…too strong…
She felt her consciousness dwindle to a tiny point of light amid an impenetrable, fathomless blackness.
No. For her friends’ sake she had to fight it. Fight it…Fight it…
Slowly, face knitted tightly in concentration, struggling against the hypnotic influence every inch of the way, using every ounce of willpower she had, Penelope raised her gun.
Should she turn and run? But even that she couldn’t do…it was as if her legs were paralysed. She couldn’t move from the spot. Could barely move any part of herself. By sapping her will the ghost was also draining her physical strength.
She didn’t see Parker crumple beside her, quite senseless. She couldn’t let her attention wander for one second from the struggle. It would be fatal.
She fought to aim the gun.
The glowing eyes blazed even more fiercely.
“Mustn’t give in,” she said aloud, her teeth gritted, her voice breaking with the hideous strain. ”I mustn’t give in…”
Again the gun wavered in her grasp. Steadied.
Blackness started to engulf her again.
Mustn’t give in…
Her finger tightened on the trigger.
The stun gun went off and immediately, the influence straining to swallow up her mind ceased. One moment it was there, the next it was gone, switched off as if at the touch of a button. She stood very still for about a minute, eyes shut, breathing in and out, allowing the tension leave her. Then relaxed with a long shuddering sigh of relief.
She opened her eyes to see, on the floor before her, the body of a man. A man in old-fashioned costume and a Halloween mask. She bent and peeled away the mask, revealing a face she recognised from the files of every intelligence agency on the planet.
“You must have guessed International Rescue wouldn’t shoot to kill,” she said. “And been certain that your will would prove stronger than mine. Or you wouldn’t have taken the risk. Your mistake, I think.”
Brains and Virgil were still conspicuous by their absence. “I think he’s got them too,” Gordon told Jeff.
“You’re probably right. We know now where that secret passage of Penelope’s leads to. She called in a few minutes ago. She and Parker are checking it out. I’ve put her through to your frequency so she can call you if she needs to.”
“Father, let me go over there,” said Scott. “They may need all the help they can get.”
“That might be a good idea,” agreed Jeff. “OK, son, away you go.”
Minutes later Thunderbird One was airborne and streaking through the stratosphere towards Scotland.
Meanwhile, leaving Parker where he was for the moment, Penelope went and fetched Jock. They tied up The Hood and found a lumber room, nowadays rarely used, in which they locked him. “That should keep him out of the way until this business is cleared up,” Penelope said. “Then we can decide what we’re going to do with him. He’ll have to be handed over to the authorities at some point, but we’ll need to think of a cover story. Fortunately I have…friends who can minimise any inconvenience or embarrassment to Angus.”
“Ye said this guy had him under some kind of…influence…”
“Yes. I don’t think Angus was entirely happy about it, but he couldn’t quite manage to break free. Hopefully our friend won’t be able to cause too much trouble while he’s unconscious. Now I’m going back down that secret passage. We have to find Judy; I only hope they haven’t harmed her.”
“Ye be careful,” Jock said. “Suppose he’s got sidekicks down there guarding her?”
“I fear that risk will have to be taken. But I will be careful, I assure you.”
The siren of the ambulance taking Jamie to hospital died away in the distance. Gordon and the Laird were left alone.
“Controlling my mind,” the Laird muttered. There was a dangerous look in his eyes. Though a part of him still couldn’t quite credit it. “Ye say this character actually…”
“We’ve tangled with him guy before. He has…unusual powers. You shouldn’t blame yourself, believe me.”
“Aye,” said the Laird tersely. “So what happens now?”
Gordon’s radio bleeped. “Hang on,” he told Angus, and answered the call. He listed to what his father had to say, then shared it with Angus. “You’ll be pleased to know some…agents of ours have caught the guy. He’s locked up safe and sound. They’re going into the tunnel to find Judy. We know you’d rather its existence stayed a secret, so we’ll do our best to keep quiet about it afterwards.”
Angus grinned. “I could make some money taking tourists down there.” Now that was a thought. “Wouldn’t have to worry about ma finances any more…”
Gordon was looking uncertain. “I was just thinking. I need to go and give them a hand. But I shouldn’t really let you out of my sight because – “
“Dinna worry, laddie,” said Angus. “No-one’s going tae dae that tae me again.” He spoke with total conviction. Gordon clocked the set of his jaw, the steely glint in his eye.
In any case, the risk would have to be taken.
“Was the guy acting on his own, or does he hae friends lurking about down there?” Angus asked.
“That’s what we don’t know. We’re going to have to play this very carefully. Our agents had to take the risk of going down that passage in the first place. But for all we know he could have a whole army hidden down there.”
“Why don’t ye call in the police?”
“That always makes things difficult. It could lead to our cover being broken.”
“Ah’m sure they’d be discreet.”
“All the same, I’d rather they weren’t involved. The slightest chance of someone letting their guard slip, and something leaking out…”
“Ah’d certainly be discreet.” The Laird was one of the old school, Gordon thought. Conscious of how an aristocrat should behave – with honour. “You people deserve a favour or two, by ma reckoning.”
The gleam was in his eyes again. “Ye said “army”. I’ll give ye an army, alright.”
Parker was shaking his head dazedly, rubbing his forehead. “Are you alright, Parker?” Penny asked.
“Ooh…I think so, M’Lady…but what happened? It was…weird…”
“Someone tried to knock you out using hypnosis. And me; it was a close-run thing, though I’m happy to say they failed in the end.”
“A very substantial one, as it turned out.”
“Do we know who – “
“Mainly by reputation. But I’m pretty certain this is the gentleman who kidnapped Judy and tried to do away with her in that singularly unpleasant fashion not so long ago. The gentleman who’s been after International Rescue’s secrets, in one way or another, ever since we first went into business. At the moment we have him safely incarcerated, so let’s go and find out exactly what he’s been up to down there.”
“I don’t see any other option, Father,” Gordon said.
“You’re sure he can be trusted?”
“I think the hypnotic influence has worn off. He doesn’t remember anything The Hood asked him to do when under it.”
“That’s often the way with hypnosis,” Jeff grunted. “It proves nothing.”
“Somehow I think we don’t need to worry about him.” Gordon lowered his voice. “It means that if he finds out Penelope and Parker are with us, which he will, he’ll make sure no-one sings.”
“Well, I guess there’s an equal security risk if we involve the police. OK, son, we’ll take the chance. By the way, Penelope knows one or two things about Mr X, from her contacts in the world of espionage. Says he calls himself The Hood – guess that’s because he’s a master at disguise, and his true face is often hidden.”
“Well, it beats me how he escaped from the Hawking. But I’d say his luck’s finally run out.”
“Looks like it. But I doubt if he was working entirely on his own, and there’s still his sidekicks to take care of. Scott’s on his way, though the action might be over by the time he gets there. Meanwhile I’ll call Penny and tell her to hold fire until the reinforcements arrive.”
“FAB, Dad.” Jeff cut off.
Gordon turned to Angus. “There’s something you might as well know, since you’ll probably find out sooner or later. You’re Penelope’s cousin, right?”
“Aye. Ye know her?”
“She’s one of our agents. It was her who caught the guy who hypnotised you.”
The Laird didn’t look particularly surprised. “I wondered what she did in her spare time,” he commented.
Gordon grinned. “I guess he ought to have known – a calm cool collected stiff-upper lip English aristocrat like Penelope isn’t going to fall under a hypnotic spell that easily!” Of course Americans always said England when they meant Britain.
“Is that so,” he heard Angus say after a moment. “Is that so.”
Malik and his comrades were holding an urgent conference.
“The Hood has failed to return,” said Rachid. “If he has been captured, our security is in jeopardy.”
“The submarine’s reactor is nearly refuelled,” said Ramzieh. “It might be better to leave now, or in a few minutes.”
“With no base to operate from - ”
“They will not find us until it is too late. We have a store of isotopes on board so we can refuel while at sea.”
Malik agreed. “Shall we take our prisoners with us?”
“Yes,” said Anarkhon. They may come in useful at some point.”
“We cannot leave without The Hood,” objected Rachid. “He is essential to the plan.”
“We will wait a while longer,” Malik decided. “Then we will send a search party. If necessary the plan will go ahead without him, for better or for worse.”
In the main hall at the Club the McCraggan and its allied clans were still milling about in some confusion, or sitting around doing nothing. A desultory conference aimed at resolving the situation had led nowhere. A few were arguing pointlessly, or attempting to drown their sorrows in drink from the bar.
Suddenly Bruce marched into the room. “Jamie’s in hospital,” he announced breathlessly. Immediately reacting, the others, except for those who weren’t quite sober enough to have heard him, broke off what they were doing and stared in shocked silence.
“What happened?” someone asked.
“Dinna know. There was some kind of accident, that’s all they’d say. It’s pretty serious but he should pull through.”
Then the door was flung open and the Laird stalked in. At once silence fell, and every pair of eyes in the room went to him.
They registered his body language, his expression. And saw that something about him had changed. They froze, alert and expectant if still a little puzzled; keen to see what would happen next.
The Laird crossed briskly to the stage and mounted it. He turned to face the assembled clansmen. “If I could have your attention, lads.” His tone and manner were completely different from what they’d been for a long time. “I guess you’re all entitled to an explanation or two. So here it is.
“You want to know what’s been going on, don’t you? Well I can tell you. Someone’s been messing about with my mind. He’s been using my Castle – the family home of the McCraggans – as a base for some dirty business. Ah dinnae what exactly, but he’s been spying on International Rescue and he’s also been up to something or other dodgy under the Loch. He’s brought the family name, the clan name, into disrepute. They’ve got him locked away right now at the Castle, but for all we know there’s an army of his henchmen hiding not far away, so his whole rotten scheme may still be ticking. It’s got to be stopped. International Rescue say they don’t want to involve the police but they’ve decided they can trust me. But I’m going to need help.”
“Just a minute,” said a clansman. “You say he’s been controlling your mind. So how do we know he isnae doing it now?” There was a murmur of agreement. It was clear that quite a few of them still weren’t convinced; it all seemed too incredible. What the Laird had just told them might merely be an excuse – a far-fetched and therefore feeble one at that.
Angus smiled inwardly. He knew just what to do. “I dinna suppose ye do, laddie. Thing is, he’s no ordinary criminal, this scunner. But I’ll tell you this. Apparently, he tried to hypnotise my English cousin, Penelope. Only it didn’t work. Because a calm, cool, collected stiff-upper-lip English aristocrat wouldn’t fall for his charms, so I’m told. Get that?”
A deathly silence fell over the room. The silence of the grave, you could have heard a pin drop, etcetera. Then the horrified hush gave way to mutterings which turned into a low, dangerous growl.
“We’re not standing for that, are we lads?” cried the Laird.
Shouts of “no!” rose to the roof.
“Nae,” nodded the Laird. “So if ye can lend me your ears a while, this is what we’re going tae dae…”
A few minutes later about forty of the clansmen, some equipped with the contents of the gun club’s armoury, piled into their cars and set off. With the old fighting spirit of the McCraggans in their eyes.
So I could fall under a hypnotic spell, could I? Angus was thinking. A Scottish aristocrat wasn’t made of such stern stuff as an English one? Och, he’d show that Sassenach hen a thing or two, given the chance. What rankled most with him was that his mind had been taken over, there was no doubt about it. But that only made him more determined to get his own back.
And besides, he knew that the English always said “Britain” when they meant England. Now, he thought, we’ll show these Americans what a Scotsman can do.
Jeff was being updated by Penelope over the radio. “Well done, Penny,” he grinned. It was at times like this that a part of him felt towards her the way he might a daughter, the one he’d never had.
“But we’re not out of the wood yet, Jeff. Virgil, Brains and Judy are all potential hostages. We’re going to have to tread very carefully indeed.”
“Right. Gordon had better get going - we’ve no idea whether or at what point he’ll be needed and it might take him a while to get there. Only trouble is, who’s going to look after Thunderbird Two?”
“Don’t worry, Jeff,” said Penny. “We’ve seen to that.”
“We’ll take good care of her, won’t we lads?” said Bruce.
“Aye,” chorused half or dozen other clansmen.
“Right then, let’s be on our way,” shouted the Laird. He turned to Gordon. “Good luck, laddie.”
“You too,” said Gordon. The Laird and the remainder of the clan got back into their cars and drove off, this time to the Castle. Those without a weapon could equip themselves with one from the armoury there.
Gordon had brought the Mole’s trolley back into the pod by remote, then returned to Thunderbird Two, taken off and brought the craft down again on the shore of the Loch, just a few yards from the water. One of the clansmen was stationed at the original landing site to warn people away from the Mole’s bore tunnel.
Gordon raised Thunderbird Two above the pod, lowered the door and extended Thunderbird Four’s launch ramp. He took the lift down to the pod, seated himself in his chair in the submarine’s cabin and fired the turbojets. The craft shot down the ramp and into the water.
The clansmen took up position, two of them on either side of Thunderbird Two, fierce expressions on their faces and guns at the ready. Gordon knew they wouldn’t let anyone come near it. And if any clansman did attempt to satisfy his curiosity by snooping around inside the craft; well Gordon wouldn’t envy them if their comrades should catch them in the act.
Penny and Parker and the thirty or so armed clansmen at their back crept along the secret passage, past the point where the strip of lights in the ceiling ended and that phosphorescent stuff began. The walls were now less smooth and the tunnel had bends in it.
“The passage must have been cut to connect with the natural tunnel system,” whispered Penelope. “But how did your illustrious ancestors come to know about the latter in the first place, Angus?”
“Cannae say. Reckon one of ‘em must hae fallen down a pothole or something.”
“But the secret was never really lost, was it?”
“Nae. And a good thing too. That way we could make sure the beasties were left in peace.
“When they first found out about the caves, and the underground sea, ah’ve nae idea. But they’d hae built the tunnel at the time of the Rising, as their escape route. There must be an exit from the caves that leads tae the surface, ah dinna ken where, and someone found it by accident.”
There were various tunnels branching off the main one on either side. They had no time to explore them, of course, but nobody fancied doing that anyway. They had no wish to share the fate of the unfortunate Redcoat.
From around the next bend, some way ahead, they thought they heard footsteps; more than one person, by the sound of it. “It looks like we were right,” Penny said. “The Hood wasn’t alone.”
They hurried back along the tunnel a short distance, then went down one of the side passages, waiting just beyond where it joined the main one. “Everyone cover their mouths and noses,” instructed Penelope. She took a couple of gas masks from her handbag, put one on and gave the other to Parker.
She also took out a small round pellet and lobbed it out into the main tunnel just as three or four figures came into view. There was a dull plop as the pellet exploded and a cloud of dense grey-white vapour enveloped the Zombites. They staggered to a stop, wheeled about with choking cries and then collapsed unconscious.
“We’ll need to lock these up along with their master,” Penelope said.
Bruce and another clansman made to oblige.
Switching his searchlights on, Gordon steered Thunderbird Four through the dark depths of the Loch towards one of the openings in its side.
The submarine’s sonar enabled it to locate the entrance to the tunnel, as the Marinus had done before it. There it was – a large irregularly-shaped hole about a hundred feet in diameter. If it was big enough for the monsters to pass through then Thunderbird Four shouldn’t have any problem.
Gordon stiffened as a light-blip appeared on the VDU. The sonar was picking up something else, too. Something big, heading straight towards him. He knew what it must be.
This time I’m prepared, he thought. Let’s see which of us can move the fastest.
Increasing his speed to full, he shot towards the mouth of the tunnel. The blip on the screen gathered pace as the monster headed after him.
Thunderbird Four passed through the tunnel mouth with the creature about fifty yards behind it. The monster was moving with astonishing speed for its huge bulk, but it still couldn’t catch him up. Flippers were less efficient on the whole as a means of propulsion through water than fins.
But the creature wasn’t tiring. It might mean trouble if he couldn’t get rid of it. At some point he’d have to stop and turn to fire the taser. The tunnel was wide enough to allow him to do that, but it would take time to slow. He realised he should have used the device at the start.
The chart on the VDU suggested he had about a mile to go before the end of the tunnel. Its walls seemed to be ordinary, unremarkable rock, although he couldn’t see them with his naked eye because of the impenetrable blackness surrounding him.
The pattern of lines on the VDU was now showing the start of the underground sea. A minute later Thunderbird Four burst from the tunnel and into it, the monster not far behind.
The water here was as sinisterly black as that of the Loch, but clear, without any peat particles suspended in it. There seemed to be more fish about, too, or maybe you could just see them better. Shoals of them scattered at his approach.
He carried on travelling in a straight line, on the lookout for any obstacles. The monster was still following him. Go on, give it up, he muttered to himself.
Then he saw the light-blob slow, before beginning to move in the opposite direction, away from him. Looked like it had given up. Thank Pete for that. Now he could concentrate on finding The Hood’s base. Presumably it was on the shore of the lake, or maybe within the rock of the crust, part of which had been hollowed out for it. He adjusted his buoyancy and Thunderbird Four began to rise towards the surface.
Suddenly the submarine was jolted to one side, almost shaking him from his seat. He had the idea some kind of missile had struck it.
He saw it in the searchlight: an ovoid shape about fifteen feet long, moving through the water towards him, blind except for dorsal and aft stabilizing fins and a single TV eye in its blunt head. Beneath the camera protruded the nozzle of a cannon. Some kind of guard sub, unmanned, remote-controlled or automated and designed to keep out the monsters, along with any other unwelcome intruders. The monster had given up because it had seen, or sensed, something it preferred to avoid.
The sonar hadn’t detected it. It must be coated with the same kind of material as the stealth sub.
Which had to be significant. At once he thought he saw what was going on.
But first things first.
A damage report flashed up on a screen. The cahelium hull was dented, but intact. But it might be tested to eventual destruction.
He veered to the left just as the cannon fired again, the explosive shell shooting from it in a burst of bubbles; it missed him by a fraction and impacted with the side of the lake, blowing out a chunk of rock.
As the robot reorientated itself for another try, Gordon dived beneath its line of fire and the missile shot through the water above him, vanishing into the mouth of the tunnel and streaking away down it. The sub dived too, compensating for his manouevre. It had to turn slightly to bring him into its sights but by the time it had, he’d shot past it. They circled each other, playing a deadly game of tag. Again the guard sub fired, missing him but only by a fraction.
Gordon’s action had brought him closer to it. If he could just get within its turning circle…
Once more the robot fired and missed. Before it could change position and try again, Gordon tilted Thunderbird Four upwards to bring it on a collision course with the enemy. It struck the guard sub at an angle, with enough force to jolt it sharply sideways without seriously damaging the International Rescue craft.
The momentum of Gordon’s charge carried Thunderbird Four on a little way, then it turned swiftly to face the guard sub, which was lurching from side to side and up and down as its optics tried to focus on him, giving off an agitated electronic warbling. As he’d hoped, the impact had damaged its circuits.
Gordon fired a missile. As the guard sub finally managed to orientate itself, getting a fix on his position, the projectile struck home. The guard sub blew apart in an explosion of wreckage and bubbles, the fragments of it sinking slowly to the bed of the lake.
“Bullseye,” Gordon grinned. He continued on his way for a little while, then adjusted the buoyancy again. When Thunderbird Four was just a few feet beneath the surface it stopped, and Gordon extruded the craft’s periscope. He studied the view through it carefully, gradually rotating it through a full circle.
The far side of the vast lake was too distant for him to tell what was there. He brought Thunderbird in as close to the near side as was safe. And saw what must be the stealth sub, moored along with a few other underwater craft. Also the bunkers and outhouses and the doors and observation windows in the wall of the cavern.
He called Penelope. “We’ve hit pay dirt in more ways than one. I could fire on the sub; trouble is, for all I know the hull’s impregnable to missiles as well as sonar-proof. I might just stir things up and that’d make it hot for you.”
“Then hold back for now,” she told him. “Move in when I give the word.”
Parker decided it was time to remind Penelope of something. “We still haven’t worked out what we’re gonna do if they threaten to kill Judy and the others.”
“No, we haven’t,” she admitted. She paused and thought for a few beats, then radioed Thunderbird Four. “Gordon, I think I’ve got an idea.” She explained her plan.
They moved on. A little way ahead the tunnel seemed to end in a grey, metallic, obviously “man-made” surface. A steel bulkhead had been constructed across the passage, with a door in it. Beside the door was a combination lock and keypad, using strange unidentifiable symbols instead of numbers. Penny studied it.
“Ah, let’s just blast the thing,” growled a clansman, raising his gun.
“That doesn’t always work. Parker, you’re the expert at these things. See if you can work out what the combination is.”
From his kitbag Parker took a device like a TV remote control and clamped it to the lock. It had a screen on which a series of readings appeared. He studied them, concentrating intently. When he had finished assimilating the device’s report, he pressed each of the keys in a certain sequence. The door slid open, revealing a foyer which opened into a corridor at right angles to it.
“Well done, Parker,” Penelope smiled. “Now we need to know how the land lies. This should help.” She took a small metal and plastic disc, along with a remote control unit, from the bag. At a touch of a button on the remote the disc, which had two small wings for aerodynamic efficiency, rose from the palm of her hand and travelled through the air through the open doorway. The tiny camera relayed what it saw to the screen on the RCU.
Penelope saw the corridor and several others which branched off from it on one side. Six rooms altogether, each with its door shut. And a further door which at a guess led to where the submarine was moored, though she couldn’t be sure. How big was the place exactly? It depended on how many people needed to be catered for and fed. She couldn’t see anyone about, though maybe they were hiding. Lying in wait…a sensor must have registered that someone had managed to get the door open, and there would probably be CCTV inside.
Again they heard footsteps. Just one person, this time. They waited, each ready to shoot back immediately if attacked.
A Zombite entered the foyer. He was unarmed. He halted, facing them, and raised an arm in a gesture of peace.
“So ye want to talk, dae ye?” said Angus suspiciously.
“We have prisoners,” said the Zombite. “If you do not leave now they will be killed.”
“I suggest we negotiate,” said Penelope. “It would seem there is rather a lot at stake. We’re not prepared to just give up like that. And as part of the negotiations I want proof that our friends are still alive.”
“We will have them speak to you over the intercom.”
“That’s not enough, I’m afraid. I’ll need to see them in the flesh. I don’t want there to be any possibility of treachery, you see.”
“We will bring them here.”
“Not here. I’m afraid I get nervous in a confined space. And if negotiations were to break down and there was to be shooting, it would be a lot easier for us to end up hitting our own side, and that would never do, would it?” Her tone was designed to make clear she was quite insistent.
The Zombite hesitated.
“We already know about the submarine,” she said. “There’s no danger of your giving too much of the game away.”
Absorbing this, the Zombite nodded curtly. He had a conversation over his radio with a colleague or superior, in a guttural strangely accented language they didn’t understand. Then he told them to follow him.
That confirms it, she thought. That door does lead outside, to the shore and the submarine docking bay.
The Zombite led them down the corridor to the door, where he tapped in a combination on a keypad. It opened to reveal the shore of the lake and the buildings there. They followed the Zombite out. When they were roughly halfway between the wall of the cavern and the lake, he stopped. They looked around, taking in their surroundings with awe.
There was an awkward, expectant silence. Then the door into the base opened and twenty or thirty Zombites came out. In their midst, at gunpoint, were Virgil, Brains and Judy. Each looked apprehensive, but none of them seemed to have been harmed. The group halted a short distance from Penelope’s.
“May I suggest we all lower our guns?” she said. The Zombite leader hesitated. Slowly, very slowly, Penelope let her stun gun droop until it was pointing at the ground. Parker followed suit. Malik nodded at his companions, as Penny did at hers, and soon everyone else had done the same, although they still kept a tight grip on the butts of the weapons.
“Thankyou for agreeing to my request,” Penny smiled. “Now. You’re nothing without your friend The Hood, you know.” She hoped this was true. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to surrender now? I can put in a good word for you with the world authorities.” She thought she knew who these people were. All the world’s intelligence agencies had the Zombites on their files, as a potential threat to global security.
“We cannot surrender. It would mean the end of all our aspirations. Everything we have planned for, worked for. Our people would be taken into captivity, their way of life destroyed.”
“Just let our friends go.”
“We must have hostages. We have met your request; you have seen that they are alive and unharmed. That is all you can ask for.”
“If you don’t mind my begging your indulgence further, would you be so good as to allow us some time to think about it?” Penny said.
The Zombite leader nodded. It would suit his purpose if he did grant her that time. He could use it to do something which would tip the balance in his side’s favour.
“That’s very kind of you,” she said graciously. “However I’ll need to confirm the agreement with our base. I’ll just call them, if you don’t mind.”
She raised her radio to her lips. “Now, Gordon!”
Thunderbird Four burst nose-first from the water, taking the Zombites entirely by surprise. They glanced towards it and the clansmen seized the advantage, their rifles coming up.
“All right, none of ye scunners move!” shouted the Laird.
Some of the Zombites panicked, their guns swinging up to fire. Two were shot down before they could aim properly, but at the same time a couple of clansmen fell dead or wounded.
“Down!” shouted Virgil, as a full-scale gunfight broke out. He threw himself at Brains, knocking him over, so that the two of them sprawled flat on the ground. As soon as he hit it he shot out a leg to trip Judy. She landed on top of them.
Penny and Parker were also hugging the floor. They each began crawling towards whatever cover was available. On both sides people were seeking whatever hiding place was available, every few moments darting out from behind it and shooting. Some were cut down immediately, others managed to knock out one of the enemy, though often being shot before they could draw back out of the firing line.
Penelope was concealed behind a crate, Parker a generator housing. Though a Zombite bullet narrowly missed him Parker managed to dash from the generator to one of the spurs of rock, like buttresses, which projected from the wall. Penny realised he was trying to work his way round to attack the Zombites from behind, and concentrated on giving him cover. She was handicapped by not being able to use the gas pellets in case they knocked out her own side.
She shot down a Zombite who was aiming his gun at Parker’s back.
In Thunderbird Four Gordon saw a number of figures running towards the submarine. They must have panicked and were seeking to make their getaway in it. Or trying to ensure it wasn’t captured. He hesitated, then decided it was more important to help Penelope.
Studying the battle, he turned Thunderbird Four through forty degrees, and fired a missile. It impacted with the side of the quay. The explosion blew about half a dozen Zombites off their feet. Gordon launched a second missile at a point to the left of the first. The blast scattered a stack of crates, several of which smashed into a second group of Zombites and brought them down. At the same time Parker opened fire from the rear.
None of them saw the booms securing the stealth sub to the docking bay retract and the vessel slide out from between them, submerging as it did so.
Angus, clearly enjoying himself, shot down a Zombite who had managed to get behind Penelope and was about to fire at her. Bruce took care of another.
Gordon brought Thunderbird Four in to the shore of the lake and up to the jetty. He opened the airlock door and scrambled out, running to help Penny and the clansmen finish off the last few Zombites. Parker dashed to the wall and put a few gas pellets through the grille over a ventilation shaft, in case there were any more of the enemy lurking around inside.
A strange, deathly silence suddenly fell. The Zombites were either dead, unconscious or had surrendered. Judy, Virgil and Brains picked themselves up and went to join their friends. “Penny! Am I glad to see you!” grinned Judy, embracing her joyfully.
“He didn’t harm you, I hope?”
“Well, not really,” Judy said. “Anyway, we’re out of it now.”
“Did he succeed in extracting any of International Rescue’s secrets from you?”
“Fortunately no. We were too tough for him,” she grinned.
“Alright, Parker,” Penny nodded, appreciatively, as he came up to them. “Pleasure, M’Lady,” Parker replied.
Those clansmen who had survived the battle unscathed were doing their best to tend their injured colleagues, using handkerchiefs or whatever other material was available as makeshift tourniquets to stem the flow of blood. A number were already dead; Penelope saw the look of sadness on Angus’ face and patted him gently on the shoulder.
“They died fighting,” he said. “Like true McCraggans. They did their ancestors credit.”
Penny called for an ambulance and also rang the British intelligence services, arranging with them to liaise with the world authorities to see that International Rescue’s security wasn’t compromised and to take the Zombites into custody. “Maybe something can be done for these poor misguided people,” she said. Nearby some of the clansmen were guarding Malik and a dozen of his fellow Zombites where they sat dejectedly on the ground. Others were tending to the wounded of both sides as best they could.
Penny nodded towards the door into the Zombite base. “There should be medical supplies in there somewhere. We’ll have to wait till the gas has cleared, of course.”
Meanwhile she surveyed the scene of the battle, the burning crates and the bodies strewn all around them, her triumph like Angus’ tinged with sadness even if it didn’t show quite so much on that ice-cool surface.
“We sorted out the scunners, alright,” Angus said with grim satisfaction.
“Thankyou for your help, Gordon,” nodded Penelope. She realised he wasn’t with them. She glanced towards Thunderbird Four but it had gone. “What’s happened to him?”
“The submarine’s not here,” Judy said, clocking its absence. “He must have gone after it.”
Penny turned to the Laird. “And for your help too, Angus.”
“Aye, well, it was a pleasure. Anytime ye need helping out, ah’d be glad to oblige.” There was something in the way he said it that made her raise her eyebrows.
She called the island and told them how things had gone. “All three of them are safe, Jeff. Along with our security.”
“Thanks, Penny. Sometimes I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“It wasn’t just me, Jeff. Thank Angus too. I think we should make him an International Rescue agent.”
After Penelope had cut him off they stood around talking, while they waited for the authorities to arrive and for the gas inside the complex to disperse. It wouldn’t take long and after a few minutes Penny looked at her watch and decided it would now be safe to enter the place. The effect of the gas would not wear off for a while yet so any Zombites within would still be unconscious.
She, Parker, Virgil, Brains, Judy, Angus and a couple of the clansmen went in. Their aim was to search all the rooms, Parker picking the lock on each door.
As they approached the first of the doors it slid open and about a dozen armed Zombites poured out into the corridor. Caught completely off guard, Penelope and her companions froze. They’d be cut down before any of them could aim their weapons.
A few more Zombites appeared supporting comrades, among them the girl Judy had spoken with earlier, who had been knocked out by the gas. The Hood brought up the rear.
The Zombite leader had agreed to a truce for a reason. While they were negotiating, some of his people had slipped away, found The Hood and the Zombites who had gone to look for him earlier, and released them.
“Call to your friends outside and we start shooting,” rasped The Hood.
His gaze settled on Penelope. Her connections with International Rescue were known to him. “McCraggan told me his cousin was staying at the Castle. I did not suspect that cousin was you. For that is the case, is it not?”
“What do you want?” asked Penelope. “The secrets of International Rescue?”
“You and your companions would rather die than part with the information. And if I used my hypnotic powers you would simply lose consciousness or, if I repeated the attempt too often, suffer permanent mental damage. You are all too stubborn.” He studied Angus’ face. “I had you under my control before…”
“Ye won’t again, ye scunner,” growled Angus. “Ah’m not letting ye mess around with ma head again.”
“No matter. I will have the secrets of Thunderbird Two, of all the Thunderbirds, in due course. I could take you all prisoner, but there is no need. Victory is already within my grasp. There is nothing any of you can do to stop me now. However, to provide myself with some degree of insurance against your meddling I will take one hostage.” His eyes ranged over them as he tried to decide who it should be.
Judy stepped forward, her face without expression.
“Even though you have already been through enough at my hands,” he commented. “Impulsive…or noble, a way of sparing your friends the ordeal? Or both? Frankly I don’t care.”
Savagely he seized her and thrust her into the arms of a Zombite. “And this time there will be no deals. No opportunity for treachery. Any interference whatsoever and she dies – understand?” There could be no doubt he meant it.
“Don’t let that stop you!” Judy shouted to her friends. “Don’t worry about me – I mean that!”
The Hood addressed Penelope and the others. “You will no doubt try and think of some clever way to defeat my plans at no risk to her life. But I will have time to anticipate it.
“Besides you will be occupied elsewhere,” he laughed. “I am going to cause so much devastation that you will be too busy saving lives to worry about me.” They knew he was probably right.
“I want a clear path to my personal submarine. And the release of any Zombites you have captured. Do not try to follow me.” Penny and her friends moved aside and The Hood and his allies backed away down the corridor with their prisoner. They came through the door onto the shore. Bruce and the other clansmen stayed their hand. Penelope and Co ventured cautiously out to see them step away from the Zombite prisoners, lowering their rifles.
“In any case, we will soon be where no-one can track us,” The Hood grinned. They knew what that meant.
Leaving the injured Zombites where they were, The Hood and his party, with Judy, headed for the small submarine that had been moored close to the stealth sub, about half the Zombites backing away with their weapons covering the clansmen and the International Rescue contingent, guarding the rear. Penelope and Co stayed by the door of the base. Penelope considered throwing a gas pellet but she couldn’t even get it out of her pocket because the slightest move could mean Judy’s death.
The Hood’s party mounted the gangway and crossed to the hatch in the conning tower of the submarine. One by one they disappeared through it. It closed, the booms locking the vessel in place retracted, and a few moments later the submarine started to move off, submerging. Silently they watched it sink out of sight.
Gordon called in. “I went after the stealth sub. But I ran into some of the monsters and it slowed me down. I’ve lost it. I found this lock thing it used to get in and out of the place, there must be a tunnel leading to the open sea.” Through the cabin window he could see the lock mechanism. “I could use it, but they’ve a head start on me and we know how fast that thing can travel.”
“I don’t think it would be a good idea anyway, dear boy,” sighed Penelope, and told him what had happened. “Whatever you do you must let that other submarine leave. Stay out of its way. Though it depends what your father wants us to do.”
Jeff told them not to do anything for the moment. “There must have been some means of tracking the submarine from the Zombite base. If we at least know where it is that would help.”
“They’d probably have reckoned we’d use it,” said Penny wearily. “They must have destroyed it.”
“See if Brains can reconstruct the equipment. Meanwhile we’ll just have to think of some way of stopping them without risking Judy.” Not that any occurred to him right now.
There was far more at stake than just one life. But he wasn’t sure that in the end he could sacrifice it, whatever the cost if he didn’t.
He buried his face in his hands. He hated situations like these.
Everyone had gathered in the rather cramped control room of the submarine, Judy at the back covered by two of the armed Zombites.
The Hood glanced at a monitor screen and noted the huge shape of one of the monsters swimming away from them, with no particular interest.
They reached a huge circular steel door in the rock face near the northern end of the Loch, which slid aside, activated by sensors, at their approach. The sub passed through the opening, the door closing behind it, into a concrete-walled chamber, and sank down onto a cradle mounted on a platform in the centre of the floor, clamps springing shut to hold it in place. Pumps started up, draining the water from the chamber; and simultaneously a telescopic column retracted and the platform sank into the floor, down a shaft which led to a second chamber with another circular door in the far wall. This opened, letting in the sea, and when the water had half-filled the chamber the clamps sprang open and the submarine rose up off the cradle. It passed through the door and out into the sea.
The Hood radioed the stealth sub. “It’s me, in my personal craft. A few of the others are with me, and one of the International Rescue people. Prepare to pick us up.” He gave his position.
Penelope made to try the first door they came to, but Parker held her back gently. “’Ang on, M’Lady.” His keen eyes had spotted an object the size and shape of a matchbox attached to the wall just beside it. ”That wasn’t there before. Looks like they’ve booby-trapped it somehow. Probably a bomb. Don’t take no chances, do they.”
“I’m very grateful to you, Parker. And I’ll be even more grateful if you can find some way of deactivating it.”
“Well, ‘ere goes,” Parker said. He selected the items he needed from the kitbag; a jammer and a lock-picker. He got to work and in a few minutes had both neutralised the bomb and triggered the door’s opening mechanism. It slid open.
A Zombite was standing in the opening, his gun pointed straight at them. Immediately they dodged to one side in case he panicked and opened fire. The Zombite did the same. Penelope lobbed in a gas pellet and they heard the dull “plop” as it exploded, followed by choking sounds and then a thud as the Zombite hit the floor.
The gas cleared and they ventured in. The Zombite was lying very still with his eyes and mouth wide open. Penelope knelt beside him and after a moment straightened up. “He’s dead.”
“It wasn’t the gas?” asked Virgil.
“No, that shouldn’t be fatal. Suicide pill, probably.”
“Pretty dedicated, aren’t they, these blokes?” commented Parker.
“They’re fanatics, Parker. And that makes them very dangerous indeed.”
They were in some kind of control room. On the wall were two computerised charts, one showing a plan of the Loch, the underground sea and the lock system, the other a map of the world. Beneath them a control console stretched most of the length of the room. Its casing had been wrenched off, wires ripped out and circuitry smashed. Wisps of smoke were still emerging from it. Brains studied the mess. “Th-there must, indeed, have been provision for tracking the submarine once it had left base, probably by a homing signal on a special frequency. I imagine this was it. They wanted to make sure we couldn’t do it, or close the lock.”
“Could you put it all back together again, Brains?”
“I guess so, Virgil. There must be spare parts somewhere. I’d have no problem figuring out where everything went and how it worked. But I d-don’t know if I could get it done in time.” He guessed he would be slowed down by the plans and manual being in Zombite, a language hardly anyone understood nowadays.
“You mean before the submarine destroys its next target?”
“You’d better get started, then,” Virgil said. “We’ve got to find out where that sub is. And alert the World Navy, though I don’t know what they can do.”
But then there was Judy.
“In the meantime, we may as well get the Mole and Thunderbird Four back into the pod.” Virgil glanced round, sensing someone come to join them. It was Scott, now in full International Rescue uniform. “Well, look who’s here.”
“Sorry I couldn’t have arrived just a little sooner,” Scott said. “I used the secret passage from the Castle. By the way I found a guy there recovering from a bad knock on the head. He’ll be OK.”
“That’ll be Jock,” said Angus. “Glad those scunners didn’t harm him too badly.”
“As a matter of fact the medical people are right behind me. We’d better be on our way as soon as possible, guys. I guess we can leave Penelope to take care of things here.”
“Brains will have to stay on to repair this equipment so we can track the submarine. Dad’s told you what’s happened, I guess.”
“Yeah.” Scott’s face fell. “She volunteered herself as a hostage…it’s the sort of thing she’d do. Decent kid. That’s why I…” Care so much about her. “Hope we can get her out of it before we have to make a tough decision. A very tough one.”
A VDU on The Hood’s instrument panel showed the positions of his and the stealth submarine, the latter now hanging stationary in the water. The Hood’s sub slid underneath the other, in whose belly the doors of a special compartment had opened. It rose until it was completely inside the stealth sub, then the doors closed, the substance with which the larger vessel was coated obliterating the smaller one’s sonar trace. Now no-one would be able to track either of them.
The Hood led his party to the bridge of the stealth sub. The Zombite who had assumed command nodded to him in greeting. “What is our current position?” he asked.
“Approximately forty miles east of the Scottish coast.”
“Well, you know what to do, where to go,” The Hood said to Anarkhon. “Let us sit back and enjoy the ride.” The Gaat Group satellites would give them a spectacular view of the devastation they were about to cause.
He turned to face Judy. “Now to make doubly sure you do not cause any trouble for the time being.” The by now familiar glow appeared in his eyes.
She screwed up her face in concentration, determined not to make it easy for him. “Do not resist me!” he snarled. “There is no point. Co-operate or I will have you shot.”
She seemed to get the message, and her face relaxed. Almost immediately it went blank, zombie-like. The glow faded from The Hood’s eyes, the hypnotic influence ceasing, and he stepped back, satisfied.
“Take her to the prison section,” he ordered one of the Zombites. “You will go with this man,” he told Judy. The guard holstered his gun, since she was not likely to be a threat to him at the moment. They set off down a corridor leading towards the mid-section of the submarine, the door of the bridge gliding shut behind them. Judy followed the guard obediently, eyes staring fixedly ahead, limbs moving stiffly like those of a puppet.
A few minutes later they turned into another corridor and came to a ribbed steel door. The guard inserted a swipe card in a slot and the door swung open.
At that moment Judy came to life, throwing herself at the guard and snatching the gun from his holster. Before the astonished man could react she had jumped back, turned the safety catch and aimed the weapon at him.
Fooled you, she thought with a grin of triumph.
She couldn’t bring himself to kill him. There seemed to be two settings; she fumbled with them, switching the gun to what she hoped was stun mode, and fired. The guard was flung the breadth of the corridor by the shock, colliding with the opposite wall and sliding down it to land in an unconscious heap.
She searched his pockets and found a radio. She switched it on and spoke into the receiver. “Calling International Rescue. Calling International Rescue.”
The submarine couldn’t be impervious to radio waves too because otherwise it wouldn’t be able to communicate with its base, wherever that happened to be.
A hundred miles above the Earth’s atmosphere, Alan Tracy in Thunderbird Five picked up the message. “Judy! Is that you? Are you OK? Dad told me what’s been going on…”
“For the moment yes, Alan, I’m OK. I’m on this supersub thing. I managed to knock out my guard, now I’ve got to find a way out of here somehow. I’m afraid I’ve no idea of the sub’s position right now.”
“I can get a fix on you from this call and alert base. Meanwhile, good luck.” Alan turned to a VDU which showed a chart of the globe, and zoomed in on northern Europe. A light trace was pulsing steadily in the North Sea near the northern tip of Scotland.
He radioed the island. “Father, I’ve heard from Judy.“ He repeated what she’d told him, giving the location from which her message had been sent. “3456 zero north FGR.”
Jeff sat up straight, galvanized. “Right, I’m patching you through to Scott and Virgil.” He made the necessary adjustment. “OK, boys, let’s go after it. And stop it if we can. I’m taking the chance that Judy will remain at liberty long enough for us to find a way to pull this off without them harming her. We’ll also alert the World Navy, even if they couldn’t possibly catch that sub the rate it’s moving. But for the moment, it’s all up to us. Thunderbirds One and Two are the only things capable of matching the craft’s speed. Judy, did you get all that? Don’t worry, help’s on its way.”
“OK, Mr T. I’ll do my best not to get captured in the meantime.”
“That’d help. Good luck, honey. Keep the frequency open so everyone knows what’s happening. And by the way, don’t try to leave the sub while it’s going at full speed. The turbulence would kill you.”
“Don’t worry, I know that. Out.”
On the sub Judy contemplated the guard’s body. He should be out for quite a while, as otherwise there’d be no point in the stun setting. She dragged him into the cell, using the swipecard to lock him in. Then she went in search of some place to hide until International Rescue got here. She only hoped it would be a while before it was discovered the guard was missing, and even more of one before they found him.
The clansmen who had been guarding Thunderbird Two watched it take off, Brains on board. The Mole was by now back in the pod and it only remained to pick up Gordon before they went to join Thunderbird One, which had taken off a few minutes before from the courtyard of the Castle.
On the VDU a map had appeared of the North Sea and surrounding land masses, showing the position of the submarine. “Can we really catch up with it, Brains?” Virgil asked.
“If we strain the motors a little, yes - just about. Of course Thunderbird One is faster, in fact she could probably outrun it. But she’s not what we really need.”
Jeff radioed in. “Where do you suppose they’re heading, Brains?”
“If The Hood’s aim is to cause maximum devastation, my guess is he’s planning to target the eastern seaboard of the United States, or the Pacific coast of southeast Asia, or both. The centres of population and industry in those regions are vital to the world economy. I-if either or both were devastated…”
“Yes,” said Jeff quietly. “I get the picture.”
The Hood had retired to his cabin for the moment. There, he lay on his bunk dreaming of the swathe of destruction the submarine would cut through New York, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, and Buenos Aires before rounding Cape Horn and proceeding up the west coast of the Americas to lay waste San Francisco and Los Angeles. Then across the Pacific to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo…and of course all the cities, towns and villages strung out along those coasts would be devastated, along with their hinterlands.
They’d keep at it until The Hood’s supporters were in power and he could assume control. But they probably only needed to do it once to have the desired effect. His mind filled with images of dead, drowned cities, mass poverty and starvation, discontent exploding into violence, armed insurrection in the streets; all waiting for a strong hand to come along and sort it out.
A sweet dream indeed.
World Navy HQ, San Diego
“All right, International Rescue, thanks,” said Admiral Carson. “We’ve got that fix now. I’ll instruct our attack submarines to keep track of it and remain on standby. We’ll await further developments.”
“We’ll keep in constant touch with you via our space station.”
“Thing is, the sub’s moving so damn fast it’ll outrun any missile we fire at it. How are you going to slow it down?”
“We have a plan, Admiral,” answered Jeff. “We can’t guarantee it’ll work, and it’s very dangerous. But it’s our only chance. It’s often like that in the rescue business.”
The technician at the monitor screen in the operations room saw the blob of light that marked the supersub round the north-west tip of Scotland and enter the Atlantic. He plotted its direction, speed, depth and bearing, and called Admiral Carson. It must be causing a lot of damage around the Scottish coast, but that wasn’t its principal objective.
Its present course would take it to the USA, alright.
Doing OK so far, thought Judy. But she couldn’t see how she was going to get off the submarine and if she couldn’t, where was it best to hide? She had no idea.
She came to a bulkhead with a door in it. There was a slot in the bulkhead for a swipe card and she was about to insert the guard’s in it to see if it worked when she thought she heard a sound, a soft footfall, from the other side of the door. Someone moving stealthily about the sub because they knew she was on the loose and had to catch her unawares if they were to recapture her?
But if they knew she was free they’d have sounded the alarm, wouldn’t they?
She could retrace her steps to the cell and hide there for a few minutes, but it was too far away for whoever this was not to see her if they came through the door in the bulkhead.
She decided to take a chance and stepped to one side of it, pressing herself against the bulkhead, her gun levelled.
The door opened and Judy saw a figure step through it. It was the Zombite girl who had brought her her food on one occasion when she was a prisoner at their base under Loch Ness.
Judy noted she hadn’t drawn her gun. Which she would have done if looking for her, wouldn’t she?
In a flash Judy had her own weapon pressed against the back of the girl’s neck. “Don’t move,” she whispered fiercely. The girl stiffened.
Judy suddenly realised she had no idea what to do next. There was an awkward silence.
“I was looking for you,” the girl said. “I wanted to see if I could help. I saw what you did to the guard.” If this was true, she had been moving with stealth so as not to startle Judy.
“I don’t think it is right, what we are doing. I thought my people could bring order to the world, restore discipline, respect for authority and religion. But you are right, the one they call The Hood is evil. He wants power for its own sake. This mad scheme will only bring disaster upon the Zombite nation.”
Judy frowned. She couldn’t be one hundred per cent sure this wasn’t a ruse. But everything seemed to add up. And when they had met before the girl had seemed to show compassion, or at any rate have a scrap of conscience, at least, about the way she had been treated. In the end she decided she didn’t have any choice. “All right,” she nodded. “Shame on you if you’re trying to trick me.”
“That is fair enough. I am Alyesha.”
“Judy.” They shook hands.
“OK,” Judy said. “International Rescue are on their way. They know what’s happening and because it means saving lives, and they’ve got the right equipment, they’re taking a hand. Now until they get here it’s vital we stay free. Unfortunately, we can’t use the airlock at the moment because of the turbulence.”
“Also the door can only be opened or closed from the bridge. We could blast the lock but they’d know about it.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t escape but see if we can do something to help International Rescue. What if we shut down the reactor?”
“That too is controlled from the bridge.”
“We could damage something vital.”
“I don’t have the necessary technical knowledge to do that without killing us in the process. We could just blow up the submarine and ourselves with it.”
“We could knock out the engines instead.”
“Yes – let us try and do that. But what exactly are your friends at International Rescue planning?”
Judy told her. “Then there is something they must know,” Alyesha said. “The submarine is equipped with sea-to-air missiles.”
Judy called Tracy Island and told them this news. “Thanks for the warning,” Jeff said. “I think we can manage.”
She told him what they intended to do. “Fine by me, honey,” said Jeff. “But take care.”
Thunderbird One screamed through the sky above the North Atlantic, Scott’s radar screen showing Thunderbird Two about thirty miles behind him. He slowed down so that he wouldn’t overshoot.
“Thunderbird One to Thunderbird Two. We’re fifty miles behind the submarine. Should catch up with it in ten minutes.”
“Allowing for the time spent in dropping the pod.”
“I think you can do that about here. It’s just outside the danger zone.” The sea below them was calm. “Is Gordon in position?”
“FAB,” Gordon answered.
“OK, here we go,” said Virgil. He fired his retros and Thunderbird Two’s speed gradually slowed until it was hovering fifty feet above the surface of the sea. Virgil brought it down to about twenty, not wishing the impact when the pod hit the water to damage the Mole. He released the magnetic clamps, allowing the pod to drop gently into the water. The ramp was lowered and Thunderbird Four slid down it to disappear beneath the waves.
It dived to a depth some way beneath that of the submarine, where the turbulence the craft was causing would be less severe, then set off at maximum speed. It could follow the submarine’s wake when it spotted it, as well as homing in on Judy’s radio frequency.
Virgil retrieved the pod, Thunderbird Two settling onto it and the magnetic locks engaging to raise and lock it into position.
“Do you really think this is going to work, Brains?” he asked.
“It stands a chance, Virgil. The submarine is travelling fairly near the surface. It has to or the force of the wave it creates would be dissipated before it could do much damage.”
“Right. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed anyway.”
Admiral Carson watched the light-blob making its way across the ocean towards the east coast. You could almost see it moving. “Boy, is that fast,” he murmured.
The radio operator looked up. “Admiral, the IOI estimate approximately eight minutes until the sub’s close enough for the tsunami to reach New York.”
Carson nodded slowly, without speaking.
They’d already began a gradual, controlled evacuation of all the cities Brains reckoned to be in danger. Such a big operation would have to be gradual and controlled. Of course the mere fact that there was an evacuation would cause a certain amount of panic. And inevitably, there wouldn’t be time to get more than a tiny fraction of those affected to safety.
Alone in his office in Unity City, Nikita Bandaranaik stood with his hands clasped behind him gazing out the window in the direction of the sea, waiting for news.
On the submarine, two points of light appeared on the radar screen as data was relayed to the craft by the Gaat satellite. The radar operator looked up. “Two aircraft, heading in our direction from the east. Their speed is…five thousand miles per hour.”
Malik called The Hood in his cabin. On receiving the news, the master-criminal’s face tightened. “No ordinary aircraft moves that fast. It must be Thunderbirds One and Two. So Tracy has decided to sacrifice the girl’s life after all.”
“They must be tracking us. But how?”
“I don’t know, we’ll look into that later.”
“What should we do?”
“Kill the girl. And as soon as International Rescue are within range, fire missiles. We will take the opportunity to blast them out of the sky once and for all.”
“Is there nothing to fear from them, then?”
“Nothing,” declared The Hood. “The submarine is impervious to depth charges, and their underwater craft cannot keep pace with us. We have nothing to worry about.”
Malik’s lips formed what to those with him on the bridge seemed a sardonic smile. “Are you so sure?”
“What do you mean?”
The fact is, The Hood had always feared International Rescue, their ability to outwit him, and Malik knew that. Saying nothing, the Zombite cut him off.
He gave an order to Anarkhon, who gave an order to a crewman, who went off to deal with Judy. Then Anarkhon turned to the helmsman. “Surface.” Otherwise the turbulence would throw the missiles off course as they launched, and they might even hit the submarine. “Maintain present speed.”
Blowing its ballast tanks the vessel rose, its conning tower breaking surface, until its missile ports were above the waterline.
The gunner plotted the Thunderbirds’ position on his charts and fed the co-ordinates into the computer controlling the missiles.
Two hatches in the sub’s hull forward of the conning tower opened and the first missile shot vertically out of its silo, followed immediately by the second missile.
The Hood was now back on the bridge. He wanted to see this.
“Course correction.” The missiles tilted slowly into a horizontal attitude, at the same time changing direction and heading off to the east.
They registered on the Thunderbirds’ radar screens simultaneously. “Missiles,” shouted Scott.
The Thunderbirds climbed higher. The missiles did the same.
Scott and Virgil switched on their ECM systems.
The gunner winced as a buzzing sound filled his ears, and he yanked off the headphones he was wearing. Interference.
In the sky over to the east the missiles wavered, then each veered sharply off to the side. The gunner saw the twin points of light change direction, heading off course. “They’re using their jammers.”
“Change frequencies,” ordered Anarkhon. The gunner obeyed.
The missiles steadied, and the lights on the gunner’s VDU changed direction again as they regained their proper course.
Then they veered off it.
International Rescue had learnt from the incident when a World Navy warship had mistaken Thunderbird Two for a hostile aircraft and fired on it, causing serious damage and forcing it to make a crash-landing. Each time the Zombites changed frequencies, the Thunderbirds did the same, detecting the new frequency and immediately scrambling the signal.
It would be touch and go whether they could keep doing this in time to avoid being hit. The game would continue until one side or the other made a mistake. At least for the moment International Rescue would be too busy trying to escape the missiles to have time for anything else.
The Zombite who had been sent to kill Judy burst onto the bridge. “The girl has escaped!”
The Hood rounded on Malik. “Find her!”
“Is there CCTV on board?” Judy asked Alyesha nervously as they crept in the direction of the engine room.
“Fortunately, no,” replied her companion. “It was thought the submarine could never be tracked in the first place, let alone broken into.”
Suddenly alarms went off everywhere, filling the air with their shrill strident scream. “They’ve twigged I’m free,” said Judy.
Alyesha listened. “There’s no chance of reaching the engine room now,” she said. The sound of running feet was between them and it.
“What are we going to do?”
Alyesha led Judy back a short distance down the corridor, and opened a door. It was a storeroom, containing mainly food supplies, tinned fruit and meat and chest freezers.
Alyesha told Judy to move to one side while she stood in the centre of the room, covering the door with her gun. “Let’s hope we can hold them off until International Rescue get here.”
“Brains, we’re less manouevrable than Thunderbird One,” said Virgil. “If we have to change course – “
Brains had seated himself beside Virgil at Thunderbird Two’s instrument panel. His fingers began playing about certain controls. “Keep using the jammer, Virgil. I’m trying to hack into their computer systems. If I can feed the missiles a false set of co-ordinates…”
“If they realise what you’ve done, Brains, they could reinput the original program and override yours.”
“S-sure. But it takes longer to input the program than it does to change frequencies.”
Virgil saw what he was getting at. “I’m with you. But you’ll still have to get your timing just right.”
Scott saw one of the missiles heading straight towards him on a collision course. He kept the jammer going. The missile veered to the left; then to the right, back on course. Left again…right…left.
He had to get this just right. He waited, until the missile was so close it seemed only a few feet away.
The missile swerved to the left, coming straight at him again. He swung Thunderbird to the right.
Slewing off course once more, the missile shot straight past him.
As Thunderbird Two narrowed the distance between itself and Thunderbird One the missile that had been targeted on it came streaking towards it at supersonic speed.
The missile which had been aimed at Thunderbird One changed direction and hurtled after it, resuming the pursuit.
The missile heading for Thunderbird Two continued to veer on and off course, as Virgil deployed his jammer and the Zombites responded.
With a cold thrill of horror Virgil realised that the missile’s next course change would bring it slap bang into them. There was no time to avoid it.
The missile changed direction. But instead of smashing into Thunderbird Two its nose tilted up and it climbed. At the same moment, the missile chasing Thunderbird One did likewise.
“Well done, Brains!” Virgil grinned.
“Now switch off the jammer,” Brains instructed.
“They’ve fed in their own program,” said the gunner. “They’ve altered the missiles’ trajectories.”
“Override it. Restore the original program.”
Thunderbirds One and Two were now flying side by side. In the near distance they could just see the conning tower of the submarine protruding above the surface.
“Dive,” ordered Anarkhon. They didn’t want to be damaged in the explosion.
The submarine opened its ballast tanks.
The two missiles turned, at the same time losing height, and once again screamed after the International Rescue craft. They too were now flying close together, level with one another. And gaining on the Thunderbirds.
Brains reinput the rogue program. This time the instructions were slightly different from before.
The missiles began moving towards each other.
On the sub the gunner was frantically keying in the correct program.
There were six figures which had to be entered: X34Z31Y26.
Already less than twenty feet separated the missiles.
The missiles collided and blasted each other into a fireball of blazing fuel and wreckage. The debris began to fall towards the sea.
The shock waves knocked the Thunderbirds briefly off course, and jarred their occupants’ bones. But they were beyond the range at which the explosion would have badly damaged them. If only just.
Now Virgil brought Thunderbird Two down as close to the churning surface as possible. He felt the hull tremor as the tossing waves displaced the air beneath it. Spray lashed the underside of the pod.
He pushed his motors to the maximum. If they didn’t match the sub’s speed this wouldn’t work.
Enraged, The Hood slammed his fist down on a control console. “You fools!”
Malik was considering what they should do next. Glancing at the radar screen, he realised that the Thunderbirds were now almost directly above them.
They were about a hundred feet below the surface. “Dive deeper!” he ordered Anarkhon.
“No!” snarled The Hood. “If we do that, the tidal wave will be lessened in force. It will not have the effect we want it to. I forbid it.”
“You forbid it?”
“If they use depth charges – “
The crew were hesitating. Malik’s order had not been carried out.
“They won’t use depth charges, they’re a lot of sentimental fools. As far as they know the girl’s still alive and they won’t risk harming her – or us for that matter.”
“Then what have we to fear?”
“But if it is a few lives against millions,” said Anarkhon, “surely they will – “
Malik lost his temper. “DO IT!” he roared.
On Virgil’s radar screen two dots of light merged, becoming one.
“Now!” shouted Brains.
Propelled by blasts of compressed air four cables, made from a flexible form of cahelium, the strongest metal on Earth, and ending in powerful magnetic clamps, shot from the underside of Thunderbird Two’s pod, unravelling to their maximum length. They disappeared beneath the surface. The turbulence whipped them around but such was the force with which they had been fired from their housings that they found their mark, attaching themselves to roughly equidistant points on the sub’s hull.
Virgil fired the retros.
The submarine juddered, the violent tremor that ran the length of the vessel sending everyone sprawling on the floor. It began to slow.
“What has happened?” snarled The Hood.
“It’s the International Rescue craft,” said Anarkhon. “It’s put some kind of grab on us.”
“Curse them!” The Hood snarled.
At IOI a technician studied the pattern of expanding concentric circles, superimposed on a chart of the western hemisphere, on his VDU. He stiffened as he saw the epicentre of the disturbance had stopped moving.
New York would be in no danger; waves would lash the waterfront ferociously, but cause no more damage than in a strong wind. As long as the epicentre stayed where it was.
“More power!” shouted Anarkhon, as the engines strained to overcome the resistance.
It was no good. Slowly but surely, the sub’s speed was decreasing along with Thunderbird Two’s. Until finally the two of them stopped.
The sub’s engines struggled to push it forward. It jerked back and forth a few feet, causing everyone on board to stagger.
The ion reactor was running at full power. But the sub remained more or less at the same point. From the control room they could hear the pitch of the motors change. Different-coloured lights flashed on the control panel.
“Dive!” Anarkhon ordered. There was no sense in questioning the order now.
Water began rapidly to pour into the ballast tanks. But even when they were full the blip on the VDU showing their position remained stationary. The sub wasn’t moving in a downward direction, either.
It was no good. The sub was too heavy for Thunderbird Two to lift, but if it tried to dive the power of the IR craft’s upward propulsion jets, which kept it in the air, was enough to prevent it, maintaining the stalemate. At its heaviest with the pod in place, the Mole adding to its weight, the giant freighter was exerting all its enormous strength and power to keep the submarine where it was. The two were about evenly matched.
Virgil called Thunderbird Four. “OK, Gordon, we’ve got her. But make it quick.”
“FAB, Virg. I’m about thirty miles away.”
And a few moments later, off the coast of Canada, the nearest World Navy submarine, Defender, changed course onto a bearing which would take it to within missile range of the Zombite craft.
Scott had put Thunderbird One into hover mode near Thunderbird Two. “Looks like you’re managing to hold it, Virgil.”
“Yeah – don’t think it’s gonna be easy, though. Sure hope this does work. I’ve got one or two scores to settle with these guys.”
Judy called them. “Sorry, we didn’t make it to the engine room. We’re holed up in their larder. Er – is something going on out there?”
Scott answered her. “Judy, listen.” He explained what they’d done. “Whatever happens depends on whether or not these guys decide to make a fight of it. If they do, then you need to be in the airlock or near it. Preferably in diving gear. The place where it’s kept must be close by.”
She checked with Alyesha. “It is.”
“Which side is the airlock on?” she asked.
“The starboard side,” Alyesha said. Judy relayed the information to Scott. “The thing is, I’m not sure we could reach it without being caught.”
“Then stay where you are for the moment. We’ll think of something.” He only hoped they could.
In the control room a babble of agitated voices issued from the intercom. It was the Zombites who had gone in search of Judy, along with other members of the crew, wanting to know what was happening.
Malik told them. “Do not panic. Keep on looking for her for the moment. We may succeed in breaking free.”
In all the hassle no-one had realised Alyesha was missing from her post.
From time to time Thunderbird Two shot backwards or forwards a short distance, or dipped a few feet as the submarine tried to dive. The sub’s commander wasn’t giving up without a fight. Virgil thought back to the struggle with the monster in Loch Ness. Could he overcome this other, metal leviathan?
“Still managing to hold it, Scott,” he reported.
“Great work, Virg. Now if only we can keep it there long enough for the World Navy to blow it out of the water.”
“Let’s hope we don’t get blown up ourselves.”
“We won’t if we let go just before the missile strikes.“
“It could still happen.” If either the sub’s reactor or Thunderbird Two’s overheated and went into meltdown…
“We’ll let them know where they stand.” Scott guessed they could contact the Zombites by transmitting on the frequency The Hood was using when he delivered his ultimatum to International Rescue earlier.
What about Judy? He thought. They had to get her out somehow. If the sub’s crew refused to see reason…
He made a decision. “Virgil, I’m coming over to get the diving gear. We’ve got to get Judy and her friend out of there.”
“FAB. Take care.”
Scott put Thunderbird One on automatic, then fetched the jet pack from the storage compartment at the rear of the cabin and strapped it on. He opened the hatch in Thunderbird’s nosecone, fired his thrusters, and rose up out of it. Using the directional jets, he steered himself towards Thunderbird Two. Virgil had opened the hatch in the top of the freighter’s forward fuselage, used in air-to-air rescue operations. Again using the thrusters to adjust his attitude, Scott descended through the opening. He cut power and sank to the floor of the compartment beneath.
Taking off the jetpack, he went through a door into the equipment store, selected a set of diving gear and donned it. Meanwhile Virgil opened a hatch in the floor of the compartment below the cabin and lowered a steel ladder until it was touching the water.
”Going down now,” announced Scott a couple of minutes later.
“Take care,” Virgil urged.
Very slowly and carefully, Scott descended the ladder, an awkward, clumsy business in his flippers. It wasn’t made easier by the constant swaying and trembling of the ladder as Thunderbird Two juddered under the strain of holding the submarine. He had to keep a tight hold of it, and once nearly lost his grip and fell.
Nearly there. He let go, falling the last two or three feet into the water. He adjusted his buoyancy compensator and sank.
Glancing around, he saw the bulk of the submarine, a dim wavery outline, over to his right. The water around it was being agitated by its efforts to break free from the cables but it wasn’t enough to be dangerous.
If it did break free…
He still had to struggle against the turbulence. Gradually, as if he were swimming through treacle, pushing his powerful muscles to the limit, he forced himself towards the craft.
The gloves of his wetsuit touched the hull. He began working his way along the side of the vessel towards the stern, in search of the airlock.
A red light began flashing on the console. “Someone is calling us, Sir,” said the radio operator.
“It must be International Rescue. We may as well hear what they have to say.” The radio operator opened the channel.
“This is International Rescue calling Zombite submarine. You’ve no choice but to surrender. A World Navy vessel is on its way here at top speed and as soon as it’s in firing range it’s going to blow you all sky high, unless you evacuate the sub. They’ll pick you up and take you to safety. We’ll try and put in a good word for you, get you a fair trial.”
Virgil waited for the answer.
The Zombites looked at one another, while The Hood stood in the background, eyes glittering, suppressing his anger and hatred while he tried to consider his options.
“We can’t give in,” Ramzieh said.
“But we’ve little choice,” sighed Rachid.
“Not till the last possible moment,” said Malik.
All agreed on that, at least.
Silence from the radio. Maybe they were thinking about it, thought Scott.
He called the Defender. “How long before you’re in range, captain?”
“Another twenty minutes.”
“Once you get there, is it possible you could hold off firing your missiles for the moment? We might need a bit of leeway.”
For a moment there was no reply. Then the captain made his decision. “Sorry, International Rescue. I can’t do that. What if the sub breaks free before we’re in firing range? It’ll accelerate away so fast our missiles wouldn’t catch it. I can’t take the chance. That thing’s a menace to the entire world and it’s got to be destroyed.”
Scott knew he couldn’t blame the man. “OK, captain. That’s fair enough, I guess.”
“Well, you’ve nineteen minutes. All I can do is wish you good luck.”
Virgil knew from the warning lights on the console, and the pitch of the motors, that his craft’s reactor was being tested beyond normal limits. As yet there was no danger. But that wouldn’t remain the case.
He knew it would be the same on the Zombite sub.
Alyesha heard the footsteps halt just outside the door of the storeroom.
“Come in here and you’ll get your head blown off!” she shouted. She positioned herself to the side of the door, gun pointed at it.
In the corridor the Zombites who had been looking for Judy glanced at one another. That sounded like Alyesha.
“She’s a traitor,” one said.
And she could pick them off one by one as they came in. They saw no point in throwing away their lives, especially when they might get blown up anyway if the reactor went into meltdown, making it all pointless. They may as well wait to see how things turned out.
The Defender, fastest vessel in the World Navy’s submarine fleet, streaked on and on towards firing range of the Zombites, cutting through the water like a rapier.
Ten minutes. The captain doubted if International Rescue would make it in time.
Thunderbird Four, forty miles ahead of the Defender, was closer to where it wanted to be, but slower. It was touch and go which of the two craft would reach their destination first.
Gordon, like Virgil, was pushing his engines to the limit. “We’ll be cutting it pretty fine,” he told Scott.
“I know, Gordon.”
“I was thinking, it’s a pity we can’t use the paralyser, drill a hole in the hull and pump knockout gas in.”
Brains cut in. “No, Gordon. If the nuclear reaction runs out of control and no-one is able to stop it…”
He didn’t need to elaborate.
Finding the airlock, Scott called Judy on the radio built into his helmet. “What’s the situation?”
“I think they know we’re in here. They’re backing off for the moment, though.”
“Well, you can’t stay there forever, honey.”
“I know,” Judy sighed.
On both Thunderbird Two and the Zombite sub, the pitch of the motors and the wail of the alarm signals was now louder and more strident.
A warning message flashed up on a screen before Virgil, and a computer voice squawked, “WARNING! WARNING! REACTOR ENTERING DISTRESS MODE. REACTION UNCONTROLLABLE AFTER NINE MINUTES, MELTDOWN INEVITABLE IN TWENTY.”
The alarm systems on the Zombite sub were saying something similar.
Virgil and Brains glanced at one another.
Virgil called Scott.
“Shut down the reactor at the very last moment,” said Anarkhon.
“No! We must not surrender!” shouted Ramzieh.
The Hood tensed, clenching his fists. Trying hard to think of a way out.
If he could reach the escape capsule, there would still be time to get away before the reactor blew…
“Judy, I can’t wait any longer,” said Scott. “I’m going to start cutting my way through. It won’t take long.”
Attaching himself to the hull of the submarine with clamps, he got out his laser torch and applied it to the metal of the airlock door, turning it on at full power.
“Danger! Reactor about to enter overload!” could be heard all over the sub. The screeching of the alarms hurt the eardrums.
The Zombites in the corridor outside the food store hesitated, uncertain whether to try to escape or loyally continue to obey orders.
From within the storeroom Judy and Alyesha could hear them shift about, talking urgently, as they tried to decide what to do. Forgetting for the moment about the two of them.
Alyesha told Judy to open the door. As it started to slide open Alyesha came bursting out, blasting away with her gun. Judy followed.
There were three of them. Alyesha managed to knock out two; the third had time to react and levelled his gun at her, but Judy shot him before he could pull the trigger.
“Come on!” shouted Alyesha. “The diving gear store!”
With any luck the crew would have too much else on their minds to worry about them.
“Seven minutes to go, Captain,” reported the Defender’s navigator. The underwater missile was already primed and ready to launch immediately firing range was reached.
The captain nodded silently.
Whose reactor would give out first, thought Virgil. They’d still be blown to Kingdom Come either way.
Could they sacrifice their lives? And could they make Judy, Scott and Alyesha a part of that decision, against their will?
In the time remaining to them they had to be sure the submarine was neutralised and get everyone safely on board Thunderbird Two, before beating it out of there. He felt the tension knot his muscles tight.
Both Thunderbird Two and the sub continued to dip and lurch. The cables, designed after all to lift very heavy objects such as trucks and railway carriages, tautened and twisted but did not shear. Yet.
Seven minutes. The Defender’s captain tried not to think of what would happen if he had to fire the missile with International Rescue still in the danger zone.
All Gordon in Thunderbird Four could think of was the need to get there on time. It amounted to the same thing.
Those on the bridge of the submarine had quite forgotten Judy and Alyesha. They had other things on their minds.
“I say we must give in!”
“No! We cannot! We would rather die than surrender!”
“Keep trying! We must break free!”
“But it’s no use!”
“Keep trying! We could still do it!”
“And if we don’t?”
“Think of our pride, our honour!”
“While we are alive there is hope!”
“We’ll never get another chance!”
“There are so few of us left. If we could escape and carry on the struggle – what is so dishonourable about that?”
“We must break free!”
“It’s too late!”
“Then we must stay here and die like Zombites!”
The whine from the reactor rose higher.
Malik swung round to The Hood, his eyes blazing. “This is all your fault!” he snarled. “Your fault!”
“Without me you we could not even have attempted this project!” he protested. “I built the submarine - ”
“And now thanks to you it is all in ruins!”
The Hood started to turn away, towards the door. “Where are you going?” Malik demanded.
“I am making my escape. I do not intend to lose either my life or my liberty as a result of your blundering.”
“Our blundering?” shouted the Zombite, enraged. “No, if our fate is to be destroyed you will stay here and share it.” He drew his gun and aimed it at The Hood’s heart.
The Hood’s eyes glowed, and Malik swayed, his grip on the gun slackening. His eyelids flickered fitfully.
A shot rang out and The Hood lurched, shouting out in what was both a cry of pain and a curse. He clutched his side, from which blood was spurting, and fell, the unearthly light in his eyes dying. They closed and he went limp. The Zombite who had fired the shot looked down at him for a moment, then put away his gun and turned from the body.
The arguments continued.
The laser had almost finished describing a complete arch in the outer airlock door. Fed by a fast-acting gas invented by Brains, it was cutting through the metal at a fantastic rate.
REACTION UNCONTROLLABLE IN FIVE MINUTES
“Five minutes, Captain,” said the Defender’s navigator.
The estimate was based on how currents might cause minor variations in the vessel’s speed. As the captain, and International Rescue, knew it was possible for it to be out by a fraction on either side. So it allowed for a margin of error. Whether it was right or wrong, the captain would wait until he was absolutely certain of hitting the Zombite sub, even if he could have done so a few seconds before.
“Come on, baby, come on,” urged Gordon.
Alyesha stopped at a door which Judy guessed was the diving gear store. She blasted the lock with her gun. Inside, they each found a scuba outfit and hurriedly put it on.
The central section of the door fell away and the airlock began to flood. Scott unfastened the clamps holding him to the hull and swam in.
On the bridge of the Zombite sub, yet another red light flashed on the main console. It showed that someone had breached the outer airlock door. But no-one noticed it. And the flood warning siren was indistinguishable from the one warning that the reactor was about to run out of all control.
No-one saw The Hood heaving himself painfully inch by inch towards the door, not quite dead.
“Reaction uncontrollable in four minutes, Scott!”
“Virgil! You’ve got to hold it until the World Navy are within range!”
Brains, like Virgil, was managing not to panic. But his deadpan look, his companion knew, made no difference to the fear he felt inside.
The arch in the inner airlock door was already almost half complete.
By now both Judy and Alyesha had their diving suits on. “We must get to the airlock quickly,” said Alyesha. “When your friend breaches the inner airlock a flood door will come down automatically. He will lose time cutting through it.”
They didn’t waste any themselves.
“Three minutes, Captain,” said the Defender’s navigator.
The laser continued to trace its glowing path through the inner door.
Judy and Alyesha hurried on towards the airlock, running as fast as one could in flippers.
REACTION UNCONTROLLABLE IN TWO MINUTES THIRTY SECONDS
The central section of the inner door clanged on the floor. Scott saw Judy and Alyesha right in front of him. The flood door came down just behind them, a split second after it would have cut them off from the airlock.
They braced themselves just in time as the onrushing tide of water hit them and slammed them against it.
REACTION UNCONTROLLABLE IN TWO MINUTES
“Two minutes, Captain,” said the Defender’s navigator.
Gordon saw the rear section of the submarine come into view on his monitor.
Scott turned over onto his stomach and kicked off towards the outer airlock, Judy and Alyesha following. The three of them swam out of the sub, inflated their harnesses and began to rise to the surface.
The noise from the submarine’s alarm systems was almost deafening. Still arguing, the Zombites could barely make themselves heard above it.
Thunderbird Two and the submarine dipped and lurched ever more violently. The cables still hadn’t sheared, but if just one of them became loose…
REACTION UNCONTROLLABLE IN ONE MINUTE
“One minute, Captain,” said the Defender’s navigator.
Gordon brought Thunderbird Four to within a hundred underwater yards of the submarine’s stern. His cameras focused on where he estimated what he was looking for to be.
He saw it. Despite its revolutionary power source the submarine still needed to push against the surrounding water in order to propel itself forward. In the underside of the hull, just aft of where the engines would be, was a small square opening inside which something could be seen turning. Impeller vanes. Just enough water was being admitted to move them, but no more, and they must be constructed of some special metal which could withstand both the turbulence the sub was generating and the stress caused by the speed it was travelling.
He adjusted position slightly, so that Thunderbird Four’s nose was facing square on to the target. Then he adjusted the craft’s buoyancy, putting it in hover mode.
“Thirty seconds, Captain,” said the Defender’s navigator.
Gordon’s thumb came down on the missile firing button. A torpedo streaked from Thunderbird Four, smashed into the impeller vanes and detonated. There was an explosion of huge bubbles and chunks of twisted metal broke away, rotating slowly as they sank towards the sea bed.
“I’ve done it, Scott!” he yelled.
“Within firing range, Captain,” said the Defender’s navigator.
As the captain opened his mouth to give the order to fire the voice of Scott Tracy shouted from the radio. “Commander, abort attack! We’ve knocked out the submarine!”
“Hold fire,” the captain ordered.
REACTION UNCONTROLLABLE IN FIVE SECONDS
Frantically Virgil reduced power, to just the level needed to keep Thunderbird Two airborne.
REACTION UNCONTROLLABLE IN FOUR SECONDS…
REACTION NOW UNDER CONTROL. SYSTEM OPERATING WITHIN SAFETY MARGINS. EMERGENCY OVER.
With a deep, shuddering sigh of relief Virgil released the cables.
Suddenly one of the Zombites noticed the flashing light on the console. “The propulsion system is inoperative!”
He managed to attract the others’ attention. “Shut down the reactor,” ordered Malik. Now there was no point in keeping it running. They wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.
“We have lost,” Malik sighed, head drooping as he finally accepted defeat. “They will capture the submarine and – “
A technician turned from his console. “Leader, it is too late. We cannot shut down the reactor. It’s going into meltdown.”
“Scott, we gotta get out of here,” said Virgil. “If their own reactor is running away…”
“Right, Virg. As soon as we’re aboard. Gordon, I guess you heard that…“
“Sure did, Scott. I’m on my way.”
Thunderbird Four turned and shot away from the Zombite sub,
which hung motionless in the water behind it.
“Four minutes,” said Malik. “There is no time to save ourselves. All we can hope to do is take a few of the enemy with us.”
Anarkhon and Rachid nodded. They noted without interest that some of the others had gone, slipping away under cover of the argument. Let them run like rats if they wanted, he thought. We choose not to.
They stood in silence, waiting, facing death bravely as Zombites should.
The reactor was still struggling to feed as much power to the engines as possible. A ghastly screech like some huge animal in torment echoed throughout the length of the submarine.
The message on the screen of one of the computers proclaimed, TEN MINUTES TO MELTDOWN.
Scott, Judy and Alyesha broke surface, a few feet from the ladder hanging from Thunderbird Two. They pushed their masks up onto their foreheads.
“Get up that ladder now, both of you!” ordered Scott.
They swam towards it.
NINE MINUTES TO MELTDOWN
Judy and Alyesha kicked off their flippers, then Judy grasped the ladder, which Virgil was able now to hold still, and started to climb, Alyesha following. Scott grabbed the bottom rung and hoisted himself up. As fast as was safe the three of them clambered up the ladder and into Thunderbird Two.
“OK, Virg, we’re on board,” Scott panted into the intercom.
EIGHT MINUTES TO MELTDOWN
“Virgil, look,” said Brains. A bright yellow spherical object about fifteen feet in diameter was bobbing on the surface beneath them. An escape capsule.
The occupants must have been relying on International Rescue’s humanity. Well, they couldn’t be let down.
“We can’t leave them,” Virgil said. Scott agreed. Virgil moved Thunderbird Two a little to the left and opened a hatch in the underside of the pod.
SEVEN MINUTES TO MELTDOWN
The magnetic grab descended on its telescopic arm, closing around the escape capsule with a clang. Virgil raised it up into the belly of Thunderbird Two, the capsule firmly grasped in its four arms.
FIVE MINUTES TO MELTDOWN
Scott strapped on the jet pack and, turning on the thrusters, launched himself through the hatch and towards Thunderbird One.
As he guided himself through the hatch in the fuselage and into the control cabin, Thunderbird Two was already taking itself off into the stratosphere at full power.
THREE MINUTES TO MELTDOWN
Still in his diving gear, he seated himself at the controls, switched to manual, and sent Thunderbird One hurtling away from the danger zone.
They had to reach a safe distance from the epicentre of the explosion, and fast.
TWO MINUTES TO MELTDOWN
The Hood was slumped against the wall of the corridor leading to the escape capsule, one hand clasped to the bloody wound in his side. He had been too late. Nor could he possibly reach his submarine and get a safe distance from the blast in time, even if they’d open the hatch for him. In fact he was too weak to move more than an inch or two at a time.
He could hear a roaring in his ears, inside his head; like rushing waves, only he knew it was the sound of the reactor going helplessly out of control. He struggled to think, feeling his consciousness ebb away.
Curse International Rescue. Curse them.
It is written in the ancient books that ultimately I shall triumph.
How many more of these defeats would he have to go through before he did?
How long? he asked the nameless, evil god he worshipped. How long?
Only it knew. And it was not telling.
Ultimately I shall triumph…
Again he needed its help.
He was afraid that one day it would refuse to give it. When would that be…the next time? Or the next?
Or this time?
Only one way to find out.
Closing his eyes, and exerting all his willpower in order to concentrate, he muttered an incantation in a tongue long forgotten by anyone but himself.
He felt his body fade out of corporeal existence, one thought uppermost in his mind as it did so.
ONE MINUTE TO MELTDOWN
Thunderbird One was almost out of danger. But Thunderbird Two was too far behind it. Virgil pushed the engines as close to the limit as was safe. He couldn’t subject the reactor to much more strain after what it had been through.
THIRTY SECONDS TO MELTDOWN
Still too slow.
That’s it, we’re nearly there…
The submarine’s reactor blasted apart in a rapidly expanding white-hot fireball which turned the sea within a five-mile radius into a boiling, seething, bubbling cauldron. The craft itself was vaporised in a fraction of a second. The surface of the sea was torn apart as a huge cloud of steam and spray, with a glowing fire at its heart, erupted from it high into the sky, which for a second was illuminated by a brilliant flash of light. The explosion became a column of superheated, radioactive steam topped by a billowing mushroom cloud; a mini-Hiroshima.
The reverberations from the blast pulsed through the ether, tossing Thunderbirds One and Two about the sky like a toy at the mercy of a giant, angry child. Everyone closed their eyes and braced themselves, strapped tight into their seats. But the craft stayed on course and intact. After a minute or so, the buffeting ceased as the shockwaves died away.
“Virgil, you OK?” shouted Scott.
Virgil looked round. They were all pretty shaken, but unharmed. “Yes, Scott, we’re fine.”
“Great.” A strange calm seemed to descend over them. “I guess it’s kind of a pity,” Scott remarked after a while.
“If there was anyone still on board they couldn’t possibly have survived,” said Judy.
There was one thought in Scott’s mind. “The Hood. We gotta tell the Navy to look for his body. If he isn’t on board that capsule…”
“There wouldn’t be anything left,” Virgil told him. “However hard they searched they’d never find it.”
“No,” agreed Scott. “But then they wouldn’t anyway – would they?”
It was a long time since the banqueting hall at Castle McCraggan had been so filled with people. Several additional tables had had to be put up, though a number of the guests were happy just to stand around and chat over their drinks. At the main table were Angus, Penelope, Judy, Alyesha, Scott, Virgil, Gordon, Brains, Jeff, John, TinTin and Grandma Tracy. Also present were the clansmen, among them Bruce and Jamie, the latter now out of hospital, and in good spirits although still a little weak. All the Scots present were in kilt and sporran. The Tracys were smartly clad in dresses or suit and tie, as seemed to befit the occasion. Jock and Parker stood in the background, waiting on the gathering.
Angus was on his feet. “Well ah’ll say that turned out verra well indeed,” he said.
Brains raised a glass. “I believe the, uh, expression is “Och aye.””
“Whatever,” grinned Angus. He looked round at the members of International Rescue. “Ye can all be sure your secrets are safe with us. As for that Hood character, he’ll be sorry if he ever shows his face round here again.”
“He won’t,” said Jeff. “He’ll go and cause some new mischief somewhere else.” For a moment he looked glum. “I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever be free of him.”
“Dinna fash yersel’. If he does get up tae any more trouble, you’ll be there tae sort him out.”
“Too right,” Jeff nodded, brightening. “And for the moment, the world is safe. No more tsunamis, at least not man-made ones. There’ll be no global economic meltdown, no total collapse of law and order.” International Rescue really had pulled it off this time.
He stood up. “Whatever happens, the future of Clan McCraggan is assured. The rescue package I’ve just agreed with your chieftain on behalf of Tracy Corporation will keep it going, and ensure the Castle remains in the family. It’s something I’d have done anyway. But I’d say it’s particularly deserved after the help you all gave us when our security was in danger.”
“Maybe we should make you our Scottish agent, Angus,” suggested Penelope.
“I’ll second that,” said Judy.
“Aye, well as I’ve told Penelope here if ye ever need any help from me ye can be sure of getting it.”
“You’re welcome,” said Jeff. “And if you’re happy to defend our secrets we’re happy to return the compliment. No-one’s gonna know about that secret passage. It’ll help to protect the creatures in Loch Ness.” The World Government had agreed to make the Loch and the underground sea a protected ecozone; access to them would be very strictly regulated and for scientific purposes only. The lock system The Hood had built had been dismantled, as part of making sure no-one could use the Loch for clandestine purposes again. Steps were being taken to neutralise the chemicals in the water. The aim was to try and find some safe way for the inhabitants of the Loch to interact with Mankind and if that didn’t prove possible, to leave well alone. Which was probably the best policy.
“And the World Resettlement Organisation will look after Alyesha and the survivors of her people. She can be sure they’ll be respected. There’s a lot we can learn from them.”
“Ah’d say it all calls for a toast,” Angus said. “A toast tae Clan McCraggan.” He clinked glassed with Jeff.
“A toast to Clan McCraggan!” everyone roared.
“A toast tae the Creighton-Wards.”
“A toast to the Creighton-Wards!”
Penelope smiled to show her appreciation.
“And a toast tae International Rescue.”
“A toast to International Rescue!”
Then everyone relocated to the ballroom for the dancing – Highland style optional. Parker decided to forego the pleasure this time. Scott whisked Judy off for a foxtrot. Penelope danced with Jeff and Brains, rather awkwardly, with TinTin. The others did solos or stayed on the sidelines watching the proceedings; chatting to one another in lively fashion, laughing and joking. This was the Scots at their best, Penelope thought. Warm, friendly, and with a sense of humour sometimes as dry as their whisky, but nonetheless appreciated. Speaking of whisky, Parker was again having a bit more of the stuff than he should, but Penelope didn’t mind.
Angus lingered in the dining hall for a while before joining the others, feeling it was a time for reflection. He raised a glass to the portraits of his ancestors which adorned one wall. He had an idea they were looking down on things and liking what they saw. And that the ghost of Ruan McKenzie was looking down too, feeling only goodwill towards all at the Castle, while still waiting for a time when everything would be put right, in this world and the next. A time of which you occasionally got a wonderful foretaste. Like now.
On its way back to London, Fab One was driving along the road by the Loch, with Judy, Penelope and Scott in the back. Judy glanced out the window one last time at the dark waters and the rugged slopes leading down to it on the other side.
“Could we stop a minute?” she asked suddenly.
“What for?” enquired Penelope.
“I just - thought I saw something,” she said vaguely.
They drew to a halt on the grass verge and Judy got out. She led them through a gap in the trees to the shore. There, she stopped and glanced to their left.
“Good gracious,” said Penelope.
“Stone the bloomin’ crows,” exclaimed Parker.
“Will you look at that,” breathed Scott.
Basking on the shore, in open air and broad daylight, was one of the monsters. It didn’t seem to be doing much else but enjoying the sunshine, its long neck waving about in a languid fashion.
Slowly Judy approached it. “Take care, honey,” said Scott anxiously.
The creature seemed to be aware of her presence, its eyes blinking in the sun as it tried to focus on her. The neck weaved about for a moment or two then dipped towards her. Gently the creature prodded her with its snout. She patted and stroked the warty skin, smiling with pleasure. Cautiously the others came up behind her.
Losing interest in her, the creature let out a grunting bellow, like a foghorn, and started to turn round. They jumped hurriedly out the way, backing towards the trees. The creature heaved its huge bulk into the water, splashing them. It pushed itself out with its flippers, at the same time gradually sinking beneath the surface until only the top of its humped back was visible. With a final splash it was gone.
Somehow Judy knew the creatures were no longer aggressive. “I don’t think it would ever have harmed us. But I doubt if we’ll see much of them in the future. They probably think it’s safer to stay out of our way!”
“Why do you think it came ashore?” asked Scott.
Judy sought for the words. “Maybe for a moment it saw a better world. One where its kind and ours could really live together in peace.”
Feeling privileged to have had the experience, they returned to the car, and resumed their journey home.
“You know, it would have been interesting to find out what they tasted like,” Judy said.
“Better than ‘aggis, I expect,” growled Parker.
“Amen to that.”
“Now, now, the pair of you,” chided Penelope.
“Oh, it wasn’t so bad, I suppose,” Judy sighed. “Leaving out the times when we got the wrong kind of excitement.”
“Though even that can be fun, in a way,” said Scott. “Sometimes.” He got the impression, though, that Scotland was one place Judy wouldn’t be keen to visit again in a hurry. It was too different a world from the one she normally moved in.
“Oh well, back to work tomorrow,” she said wistfully. “Back to a busy life, trotting the globe…meeting people you like but probably won’t ever see again.”
“All you can do is make the most of the experience,” Penelope told her. “Auld Lang Syne and all that…which reminds me, I know it’s a long way off but I haven’t decided yet what I’m doing over the Christmas and New Year period, and I was thinking that on New Year’s Eve…I’ll have to check in advance that it’s alright, of course, but I know just the place…I don’t know if you’d be free, Judy…”
There was no answer from Judy for a moment. “Yes,” she said woodenly. “Yes…yes, I’m sure I can keep that date in my diary…”
Fab One disappeared into the glens.