This story first appeared in Issue 17 of the SIG! Fanzine, Spring 1987, published by David W Nightingale, in UK. Text and pictures taken from the fanzine. Story by Jack Heston and drawing by Steve Kyte (used for title).
This story is posted without the author's or the artist's permission - with due acknowledgment - hoping to attract their attention. If you wish it to be removed, please contact the webmaster without any delay.
It was an hour before sunrise when Thunderbird Two dropped down out of the clear, freezing Himalayan night to touch down smoothly a hundred yards from the winged missile that was Thunderbird One. Both were bathed in the flickering glow from a vast column of boiling flame that plumed out of the earth and rushed skyward, a pall of black smoke blotting out the stars in a wide band, like an arrow pointing the way of the prevailing wind.
About the burning well hundreds of technicians and soldiers and emergency personnel held their breath in anticipation as the local Commander sent a squad to stand guard over the new arrival and turned to the big, blue-uniformed American at his side who nodded grimly and raised his radio.
"Virgil, let' s make it snappy . The situation hasn't changed - the rig is still buckling and the men in the chamber below are still alive - just. All locals have been evacuated in a radius of 500 yards from the well-head. I'm over at the Commander‘s car, the spinners at your '11 o'clock. Pick me up in the Mole, Virg."
Scott Tracy had landed here in the northern valleys of Pakistan, through which snaked the upper reaches of the great Indus River, some 90 minutes before, responding to the distress call from the Government of Pakistan; the oil well blowout was not accidental but of direct, deliberate cause: not 100 miles away lay the border of Afghanistan, held and controlled by the central Asian Bereznik Alliance, the great power that had replaced the Russian Empire early in the 21st Century, and Pakistan was engaged in a small-scale skirmish, a border war with the regional forces of the super power. Bereznik jets had hit the well-head and, though they had not destroyed the complex, they had ignited a roaring inferno which Pakistan had not the immediate technical means to extinguish.
A burning oil well was, in itself, not sufficient cause for International Rescue to render aid; but the lives of several men were in serious danger as the air raid had caught them near the well-head and to escape its fury they had descended into the well-head's own shelter. By sheer chance, a close hit, possibly the same hit that had ignited the well, had caved in the access to the bunker and the rig tower now leaned drunkenly like a warped steel finger, glowing cherry red in the heart of the blaze right over the site of the shelter. It was impossible to get close enough to even attempt to dig them out, though the hundreds of tons of rock and earth protected them from the inferno, it also sealed them in an airtight tomb. Already they may be dead. There was no way to know otherwise as no contact had been heard via the shelter's cable communicator in some time.
The huge shape of Thunderbird Two rose with a hammering of hydraulics, the main ship rising above the squat shape of Pod Three. The Pod door lowered away forming the entry/exit ramp, a wash of halogen lighting shining from the interior, picking out in harsh glare the shapes of the incredible machines that had made the Thunderbirds a by-word for rescue itself. with a grinding roar of giant diesel engines the machines came to life and left their deck lock-down points; first came the bizarre, savage shape of the Mole, the burrowing machine that would extricate the trapped men, its long, conical bit, yellow hull and broad treads agleam in the firelight; on its heels came the huge, yellow bulk of the Firefly, that craft almost impervious to the temperatures generated in orthodox fire of any sort; and lastly emerged the long, low shapes of Recovery Vehicles One and Two, their red hulls shining luridly in the glare of the conflagration.
In the Mole, Virgil Tracy steered swiftly over to the Military Command car to pick up Scott, who began to pull on an environmental suit as they roared off towards the terrific shaft of burning oil. Alan Tracy, the youngest of the five Tracy brothers, piloted the Firefly through the complex, dousing obstinate spot-fires as he followed the Mole toward the blaze, to take up station in anticipation of his eldest brother‘s clearance to use the oxygen-consuming nitro shell, the only means by which to blow out a well fire. In Recovery One sat copper-haired Gordon Tracy, the second craft under remote computer guidance. The two red, tracked craft moved about the well-head until they shood on the side away from which the tower leaned, some 90 degrees apart, their ejector tubes elevated, their electronic grapnels charged and ready.
As Gordon took up station, Scott, standing at Virgil's shoulder in the Mole, regarded the scene on the console monitor.
"Okay, Gordon, try and get a grip on that tower. Even the vibrations of the Mole might bring it down."
He watched as his brother made fine sighting adjustments, tracking and elevating each ejector of his and the remote vehicle seperately, aiming for one particular girder with each. A moment later he heard his brother‘s report of readiness and sa id calmly: "FAB . Commence operation."
Gordon closed the release trigger and the high pressure tubes vomited their stout, missile-like payloads in ballistic arcs to their precision targeted marks. The electromagnets took hold of the roasting metal deep inside the pillar of fire and Gordon studied his instruments before reporting to Scott.
"The magnetic lock is not too good, I'm afraid. They'll stand the heat but the steel of the tower is denatured and it isn't providing all the attraction we had hoped for."
"That was always on the cards," Scott nodded. "There's no way we can influence that factor. Still, if you've got a hold, that‘s something. We have no nmre time to waste. We're going down. Take us away, Virg."
Thirty yards from the well-head, at an angle of 90 degrees from where the tower may fall, the Mole's hydraulic jacks sent the bit probing for the earth, its stern raised high into the night sky. Here, in the stony hills of Pakistan, the ground was alternately baked and frozen until it was iron-hard, yet to the Mole it meant nothing. The missile-shaped craft thundered down into the ground in moments, that whirling bit screaming louder than the roar of the flames, setting up a vibration that drummed through the earth. Muslim troops and oil workers gaped in awe as the craft vanished into the tunnel of its own making, spouting pulverised rock in a wall of dust.
Within the Mole, the terrible noise and vibration were damped by the insulation but the two brothers could still feel the thrusting power of the atomic motors ahead of the cabin that drove the bit, the drive treads and the mechanical pulverisers that compacted the rock into the tunnel sides under cataclysmic pressures, Inch by grinding inch, the bit tore through the substratum, the secret alloy at soaring temperatures, the rock actually melting in places. Virgil eyed the gauges closely, throttling the bit and drive treads to suit the rock type. He changed direction by tortuous degrees; altering course in solid rock was no simple trick with an all-but-rigid, cylindrical, machine. Levelling off at 150 feet, he sent the Mole up at a shallow angle, aiming to bisect the corner of the shelter. He could read the concrete and steel of its construction clearly in the quality of acoustic return and on the mass spectrometer.
"Okay, let 's go in real easy, " Scott continued in a whisper. "We have no sure communication with them, no way to know what part of the place they are in."
"We could drill up to the wall, then hack off and punch it in with a small, shaped, charge, " Virgil suggested. "A nice, small hole, just enough to get through, without taking half the place with the bit."
Scott weighed the options carefully, aware as ever that responsibility in the field rested ultimately with him: he had never, ever had to call home for instructions from his father, his only direct superior in the organisation 's unwritten echelon. He chewed his lip as he watched the sonar graphic , the face of the shelter coming ever nearer.
"I guess the air in there must be pretty foul by now," he said. "The heat will be terrific. If we go in with a shaped charge it will take at least 10 minutes longer. They could suffocate before we reached them. If we go straight in, regardless of whereabouts in the shelter they are... That bit is working at over 2000 degrees. In a smal l, enclosed, space we
could fry them. "
"Relax, brother," Virgil said, sweat streaming from his hair within his fire suit, voice a forced calm. "I am about to be brilliant. I think we're in range for an acoustic check. Let's have a look."
He backed the motors and the great bit screamed into silence as it came to a halt, and the Mole backed off a fraction to allow it to cool in a pocket of air fed in by the high pressure reserves. The sonar probes sent the high-intensity Ultra Low Frequency sound waves out into the quietening earth and they penetrated the shelter to send back a faint image of what it contained, in the way that Dolphin sonar worked.
"Well, there they are, Scott," Virgil breathed. They were represented in a computer graphic, seven men sprawled on the floor in various attitudes of unconsciousness.
"The north wall is clear and that's good for us; we may have had to go through the ceiling. Okay, get a hold of a sledgehammer!"
He re-triggered the actors and sent the Mole in toward the very edge of the shelter. The bit struck the concrete sheath and chewed through it in seconds before reaching the steel which flowed and rushed as it peeled away in ribbons in the ferocious heat induced by the cutting. The conical screw had to cut, not simply through the thickness of the wall, but along its length, only just piercing it. They knew that the inner sheath of reinforced concrete would be a tangle of lumps and twisted steel, and the Mole bored on, exactly parallel to the shelter. Inch by inch, second by second.
"Get ready, Scott..."
The eldest of the Tracy brothers stood by the port side hatch, a sledgehammer from the tool locker in his gloved hands, eyeing the console screen. Abruptly Virgil shut down the motors and hit a series of switches. "External refrigeration blowers on," he reported. "Give it a second... Okay - go!"
Scott hit the switch that sent the slab-armour hatch back into the hull-sheath and revealed before him was a wall of ruined concrete hanging by its reinforcing, and he attacked it with all his strength, clearing a way through the raining dust and soil. His helmet light showed him the interior of the shelter; there were the seven men, three of them awake and staring in disbelief at the apparition that was hewing its way to them. They rose weakly, calling to him in Arabic and Hindustani as he stepped through the hole in the ruined wall that the Mole had cut through with but the merest edge of her furnace-temperature bit . The internal air temperature was close to boiling point and the men were blistered and scorched, coughing on the roasting, dust-choked air.
"Virg, give me a hand..." Scott called and, in seconds, his brother was through into the shelter helping him to lift the unconscious ones, guiding those on their feet toward the hatch of the Mole, set back in the crumbling wall. As they moved them, Scott feared at least one was already dead, or in deep shock. It was a very tight squeeze to fit four stretcher cases and three walking-wounded into the Mole ' s necessarily small cabin, but they packed aboard aft of the control section, and Scott kicked the rubble clear of the hatch traverse to slide the armour back into its place with a ringing concussion of pressure-driven bolts. As the hatch light confirmed it to be locked, Virgil sent the Mole into reverse, back along its own tunnel at full speed, the bit idling as it cooled.
"Okay, Gordon," Scott called out. "We've got them and we're on our way out. Pass it along and then do your stuff."
When Gordon had relayed the news, to the relief of the oil men and military alike, he backed off the Recovery Vehicles, paying out line, moving further from the well-head than the tower was high and reeled in the slack.
"In position, Scott. I don't know if the lock is good enough but...here goes!"
He engaged the big engines in reverse and the treads chewed into the hard earth as the lines became taut shafts of metal and the soft girders of the tower began to bend, the crumpled struts heeling back over toward perpendicular; the two vehicles drew the tower over and maintained the tension; it hung on the brink of collapse for long seconds, treads scuffing showers of grit before the International Rescue machines, and then it came down in a welter of flame , the lower support struts tearing away to leave four ragged stubs of metal in the earth. It sat there, a great, glowing mass of superheated metal, and Gordon reeled in the slack once more to send the vehicles towing the hellish remains of the tower across the bare ground away from the now pure and symmetrical geyser of flame.
By this time the Mole had re-emerged and the jacks were returning it to the horizontal mode. Virgil engaged the tracked carrier's thousand horsepower diesel and swung the ungainly machine away from the bore hole and off toward the waiting pair of Air Ambulances that had flown over the ranges from Sringar's main hospital facility. As they went, Scott watched the tower as it was dragged clear, and at a hundred yards back he called, "That should be far enough to prevent it from relighting the oil. Okay, Alan, give me a second."
He leaped from the Mole as it came to a rumbling halt and spoke to the Pakistani officer in command who, in turn, ordered that al l should take cover, via hi s loop communicator. Then Scott called out: "Mobile Control to Firefly. They've got their heads down. You‘re clear to put out the fire."
Through the central aperture of Firefly's heavy Cahelium shield appeared the squat muzzle of the grenade launcher and Alan called out: "Firing nitro round - now!"
The gun barked and the heavy shell sliced the air to land squarely in the shaft of flame that soared from the well-head. The explosion lit the predawn sky with a sharp, white flash and a sound like a thunderclap rang across the hills.
The shock wave smashed into the armoured vehicle and sent it backward several yards but when it came to rest the devilish fire light was gone and a gushing column of black liquid welled into the sky, raining down as Firefly backed away and swung toward Thunderbird Two.
"Well done, fellas," Scott exclaimed as Gordon disengaged the electro-magnets and withdrew them, glowing red hot from the wreck of the tower, and began the return journey to the transport plane. It was only moments later that the officer in charge listened in disbelief to the message coming through his headset, and his dark face became ashen. "What is it?" Scott asked, abruptly on edge. The man answered in English:
"Our Air Force has called to tell us to evacuate. They say that they have tracked the launch of three short range missiles over the border in Afghanistan."
Virgil looked down from the hatch of the Mole as Ambulance Corpsmen lifted the rescued oil men. "Missiles, what ? You mean aimed at us ?"
Scott glanced northwest towards the darkening sky and swore beneath his breath. "We're not just gonna sit here and take that!" He spat, leaping into the Command car and blasting away in a shower of grit.
"Scott!" Virgil yelled, running a few steps before his brother was out of earshot. "Scott ! That's political! Come back!" He knew there was a distinct danger and part of him agreed with Scott but part of him recalled that International Rescue could never, would never, be associated with political actions.
Scott skidded to a halt in the shade of Thunderbird One and raced over to the plane to ride the injector platform to the fuselage and disappear within, tearing off the helmet of the fire suit and throwing it aside. He slammed himself into the pilot seat, closed the straps and took off in a roar of VTOL rockets to open out the supersonic combustion ramjets and the high-thrust rocket. Thunderbird One climbed like a bullet away from the earth, struts retracted, wings sliding to maximum sweep.
Grimly, Scott eyed his radar data display. The synchro-phased Pulse Doppler array in the nose was not intended for combat targeting but the possibility had been forseen, and Scott keyed in the demolition cannon, a four-barelled Gatling which could churn out 30mm high explosive rounds at 60 per second. He could see the missiles, short range bombardment rockets launched probably from mobile carriers less than 150 miles away, as they soared up toward the top of their loop.
At maximum ‘G's Scott looped with them, climbing to 100,000 feet, emerging into the light of the rising sun and rolling over to match their course toward Pakistan. Opening airbrakes, he decelerated in a drastic, stomach churning blaze of retro thrust to match speed with the rockets.
Pakistan‘s northern mountains were below, laid out like a relief map, and he slipped in behind the rockets at only 500 yards as they led him back down into the night. There was no time left, not even to think in any orthodox way, as the earth came racing up. The dark-haired pilot closed the firing contact and a stream of shells moaned out of the gun under the nose cone to reach for and strike the engine flare of the nearest missile. He tipped his wings by the explosion and fired again, playing over the second missile, the shockwave jarring him until his teeth rattled. One left, ten seconds to impact, the earth filling the sky before the nose-diving craft. Don't miss, he ground through clenched teeth, forming the words without sound. Don't you dare miss. The cannon roared a third time and the last rocket disintegrated, still a mile above the oil site, and he rolled Thunderbird One up in a 12-G inside loop to barrel up over the mountains at 3,000 miles per hour. The explosions would have been visible from the ground and, as Scott got a grip of his spinning nerves and stomach, he heard Virgil's voice.
"Brilliant, Scott. We just intervened in a war. You‘re the one who keeps telling us that we never do that."
"And one mistargeting could have taken Thunderbird Two," Scott returned breathing deeply as he reduced speed and unswept the wings. "Besides, I didn't like the thought of them undoing our work. we're not here to just pick up the pieces for either side in a war."
He broke off, eyeing the radar.
"I've got company, Virg. Bereznik jets, coming out of Afghanistan. Talk to you in a sec."
Three hypersonic jets were approaching from the same vicinity as the rocket's launch site and already he could hear the gutteral English of the leader as he attempted contact.
Scott responded, keeping his distance and climbing in a spiral about the as yet distant intruders.
"International Rescue to Bereznik Air Commander. Yes, it was me who destroyed your rockets in flight."
Bereznik Flight Leader to International Rescue. You have interfered with the Military activities of the Bereznik Alliance..."
"Now you listen to me," Scott growled, voice heavy with suppressed anger. "We have responded to calls from within the Bereznik Alliance - we have saved lives in your land, you must know that. We are impartial, we are non-political. We neither take nor uphold sides. Our only motivation is the saving of lives in danger. You launched immediately the well was extinguished, presumably to relight it, but our craft and equipment were still on the ground. We could not allow a mistargeted round to rob us of our ability to respond to those in distress; ergo, I destroyed the missiles."
There was silence from the other plane for some time and Scott kept Thunderbird One circulating higher and higher above them, yet still on his radar.
Finally the Bereznik Flight Leader responded: "Nevertheless, you have interfered with our military activities." He sounded as if he had received a coded message not to rub International Rescue the wrong way any further.
"We ask that you refrain from doing so again. Farewell." The three jets rolled away toward Afghanistan and Scott saw on his monitor as Thunderbird Two heaved into the air and rose to join him at 80,000 feet.
"We shall lodge a formal complaint with your government," Scott called as a parting shot before diving into formation with the green giant, agleam in the morning sun.
"Very nasty," Virgil remarked from the other plane. "Potentially difficult."
Not a chance," Scott returned, sure of his words. "They could only retaliate by refusing us access to their countries, but while there are disasters and national emergencies I doubt they will. They are not so stupid as to refuse aid because some regional commander chose the wrong time to wage war on their neighbours."
“I hope you're right Scott," the other returned as they raced southeast for home. "There was a nasty chance we might have not only extinguished but ignited trouble today."
"No," Scott answered, very definitely. "Thunderbirds stand for peace. The world knows that, the whole world, Bereznik included. And peace is the thing that everybody wants more than anything else."