The mountains crumble

Jeff Tracy was not a happy man. It was a little over a week since his sons had raided a sub-basement in an office building outside of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to rescue his organization's three scientists. A week of failure. The agents he had sent to retrieve a technologically advanced and potentially dangerous brain scanner reported that the room where it had been set up was stripped long before they arrived. No machine, no notes, no materiel left at all, except for the shards of a CD in a trash can. And he knew where those had come from.

His Thanksgiving celebration had been soured by the failure, although he tried hard to keep up appearances of enjoyment for his mother and for his sons. He had feelers out everywhere, trying to track down this machine, knowing that in the hands of unscrupulous people, it was a subtle weapon for uncovering secrets that were best left covered. The existence of his organization, International Rescue, depended on secrecy and was almost exposed during a first run-in with the brain scanner. Now he waited fretfully for news, any news, on this piece of equipment.

But that was not what occupied his thoughts at this moment. His boys were out on a rescue, and, as always, that took precedence.

Interstate 26 was a four-lane highway that meanders its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Cut from the sides of the mountains, the road was known for its scenic views, especially in the autumn. And also known for its danger, especially in bad weather.

There had been numerous rockslides and road collapses over the years, sometimes closing the road down for months at a time. But over the past decade, the transportation engineers thought they had licked the problems that plagued the highway. New paving materials, guaranteed not to split, crack, or fall under ground subsidence had been used in a massive repaving program. Cut areas were scoured of loose shale, and nets or fencing was used to keep rockslides at bay. The resulting safety record was impressive. The scientists thought they had the mountains beaten into submission.

But nature has a way of thumbing its nose at science. Three weeks of off-again, on-again rain had weakened the ground in certain parts of the road. Gully-washers had drowned even the hardy kudzu, and mudslides threatened to bring rocks and debris down on the unsuspecting travelers who used the highway daily. Finally, the mountains could take no more. In three places, boulders of impressive size rained down on the roadway, and in one of those places, the ground beneath the four lanes melted away in the driving rain and the boulder shattered the special asphalt, leaving a huge sinkhole. The clouds that had settled over the mountains obscured the vision of many drivers. The result: chaos.

Several cars fell into the sinkhole, their drivers and passengers either killed or severely injured. Cars that managed to stop were rear-ended again and again by those behind them. Several cars were buried by mud or smashed by boulders that rolled down the mountain sides. Local rescue crews were woefully understaffed for such an event, and none of them could make it past the multi-car pile-up that surrounded the sinkhole on both sides.

Thus, the call went out for International Rescue.

"There is no place at all for me to put Thunderbird 1 down, Father. The cars are all over the roadway up here," Scott Tracy radioed to his father back at base. "We're going to have even more trouble putting down Thunderbird 2 and getting the Recovery vehicles up here. The State police are turning people back, and rescue crews are trying to work their way up, finding the cars that aren't damaged too badly and sending them back down. Wait! I think I see a spot, not too far from the sinkhole. Yes! I can put her down there. Vector 344/87B."

Scott began landing procedures, putting Thunderbird 1 down on the roadway with delicate precision. Before he climbed out of the cockpit, he radioed his brother in Thunderbird 2. "Virgil, what is your ETA?" he queried.

Virgil spoke into the comm link attached to his ear. "ETA to Danger Zone, 15 minutes, Scott. This weather has visibility down to near zero." He looked back at his passengers. Not only had his brothers Gordon and John been sent along, but also International Rescue's lead engineer, Brains, and his assistant, Tin-Tin Kyrano.

"Father wasn't kidding when he said we would need every hand we could get for this rescue." Scott told his brother as he climbed out of his rocket plane. "Wish we could have picked up Bekkah, too. We could use her." He knew that particular wish was an impossibility. Dr. Rebekkah Barnes wasn't far away, but she was visiting her family, who had no idea that she worked for International Rescue.

A North Carolina State Police officer came up to Scott. "I am Lieutenant Bill Reading. We're glad you're here, sir," he said, shaking Scott's hand. He looked back at the long line of smashed cars and the people milling around them. "It's a bad situation, sir. Lots of minor injuries, some major ones, and more than a few fatalities. We can get some of these people processed and back down the mountain, but we need your help mostly to get to those in the sinkhole."

"Okay, Lieutenant. If I can get some help with my gear, we'll set up a command post here, and get working on those in the sinkhole. I'll need some space cleared for our transport vehicle to set down. Can you help me with that?" Scott asked.

Bill Reading nodded. "There should be enough room at the far end of the pile up. And the far left lanes should be clear for your equipment to use."

Scott began to haul out the components for Mobile control. This was going to be a tough one, he thought.

Virgil found that he couldn't set down Thunderbird 2 on the mountain for long. She was too long and too wide to stay on the roadway, and would impede the efforts of the local rescue units. He could, however, drop the pod with the equipment, which he did. Then he flew Thunderbird 2 down the mountain to a school parking lot, where part of a local National Guard unit kept watch over her. The commander of the unit drove Virgil to meet the rest of the IR crew in a jeep.

Gordon walked out to the very edge of the sinkhole and looked down. He mentally counted the cars in the hole and tried to discern where survivors might be. The clouds made visibility difficult, but he thought he got them all.

"Gordon! Move back!" Virgil called "You're making me nervous!"

Gordon grinned. He walked nonchalantly back to the group, gathered around Scott at Mobile control. "I've got about 15 cars down there. Probably about a third have live people in them. The Recovery vehicles can get to some of them, but not all. On some, the angle is just too steep."

"Okay. Here's the plan," Scott explained. "We want one of the Recovery vehicles up here as well as the mobile winch. Gordon and John will go down in the harnesses and give us an idea of who is still alive down there. Bring laser torches with you. Start with the top cars. We'll put rescue stretchers on the central winch to bring up survivors. Tin-Tin, you're at Mobile Control, acting as liasion between us and the locals. You'll help keep track of license plate numbers and other identification information for the police. Virgil, you and Brains will handle the Recovery vehicle. I'll handle the mobile winch."

"Scott, couldn't we get the second Recovery vehicle over to the other side of the sinkhole?" Virgil asked. "That way we'd have a better chance of getting those cars that are at a bad angle here."

"We'll see, Virgil. Let's do it this way and then see if we need a two- front approach," Scott replied. "It will take time to move the pod, time I don't want to waste right now." He looked at his team. "Everyone have their orders?" They nodded. "Okay, Thunderbirds are go!"

Gordon and Virgil sprinted for the pod. Gordon got into the mobile winch apparatus. This looked like a modified tow truck, but instead of just one hooked winch, it had three, each of a differing length, and each with its base in a staggered position on the truck. The first winch was short, its pylon ended just beyond the back edge of the truck. The middle winch was half again as long as the first, with an arm that folded out to make up the extra length. The third winch was twice as long as the first; its folding arm was as long as the pylon to which it was attached. The result was three hooks that could lower simultaneously and stay far enough apart that they wouldn't tangle with each other, yet close enough together that a man could reach the middle one from either end. Gordon backed this up to the edge of the sinkhole. John grabbed harnesses, helmets, tool belts, and laser cutters from the pod for himself and his brother.

Virgil drove Recovery Vehicle One out of the pod. This device had two large magnetic clamps attached to extra strong cables. The clamps were fired like arrows from sleeves on the sides of the vehicle. The sleeves themselves could be adjusted to almost any angle. The clamps would be retrieved by winches inside the body of the vehicle. Once the clamps were attached to an object, the vehicle could pull targets along by backing up with its caterpillar treads.

Virgil brought his equipment to the edge of the sinkhole but moved it closer to the mountain's wall so there would not be too much pressure put on one part of the highway. The last thing they needed was for their equipment to fall in on top of the cars already in the pit.

Scott took Gordon's place in the mobile winch control cab. He extended the arms of the two longer winches to their fullest length. He also activated the clamps that would hold the winch truck to the roadway. John and Gordon put on their harnesses and helmets, and strapped the laser torch kits to their backs. Gordon attached himself to the shortest winch, while John took the longest one.

"Ready, John?" Scott called into his telecomm.

"FAB, Scott."

"Gordon? You ready?"


"Okay, lowering away!" The winches slowly fed out cable and the two Tracy brothers were lowered into the sinkhole.