The Tracy family was enjoying a quiet spell. There had been no rescues for a week, and all maintenance on the Thunderbirds and the auxiliary machinery was up-to-date. They were ready to go at a moment's notice, but in the meanwhile, the family was taking advantage of the downtime.
“Jeff, you need to go outside and get some fresh air!” Eleanor exclaimed when she found her son sitting behind his desk, reading the latest business magazine on his data pad.
“Mom, you make it sound like I'm a little boy who's getting underfoot,” Jeff replied with a chuckle.
“Well, I wouldn't say you're exactly underfoot, but you do need to get outside and enjoy the weather. It's a beautiful day!”
Jeff put down his pad. “All right, Mother. I'll go outside, but only if you will, too.”
“Oh, I'm planning on it!” she told him. “I'm going to take my crocheting down to the swing in Kyrano's garden and work on it there. The light is better and the flowers are so beautiful...”
“All right! I give!” Jeff said, putting his hands up in protest. “I'm going!” He got up from his chair and gave his mother a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, Mom. I might get in some sun, and some swimming while I'm at it.”
Eleanor smiled. “That sounds like a good idea. I'll see you at lunch. Scott and Kyrano should be back from the shopping run by then.”
“At lunch, then.” He walked off toward his corner suite, stretching and yawning. Now that his mother had mentioned it, he did feel the need for the smell of the island's flowers and of the breeze coming in from the sea. He smiled as he pulled out his swim trunks, and changed out of his work clothes and into something more comfortable. And, instead of walking through the interior corridors to the outside, he slipped out onto the balcony that wrapped around the edge of the villa, and immediately immersed himself in the warm fresh air.
“Hey, Dad!” Virgil called from the high board as he saw his father descend the steps to the pool level. “Grandma chase you out here?”
“Yes, Virgil, she did – and I'm glad she did. I feel better already being out here.”
“Great!” Virgil turned his attention to the board, and executed a double-somersault that became a smooth dive, landing him in the water with hardly a splash. He came up for air and waved. “Come on in! The water's great!”
“Let me get settled first, Virgil, then I'll have a swim,” Jeff said. He crossed over to a lounge chair and unbuttoned his Hawaiian print shirt, draping it over the back of the lounger, and left his sunglasses on the small table beside it. Then he entered the water via the stairs in one corner, and began to swim the length of the odd-shaped pool. One length down, then back again to the shallow end where he stood and scrubbed his face, tossing his head to get his wet hair out of his eyes.
“Looks like I could use a haircut,” he said to no one in particular.
“Hey, Dad! What are you doing in the pool?” The question came from Gordon, who was dressed in shorts, shirt and hat, wearing a pair of sturdy hiking boots on his feet. Alan, Tin-Tin, and Brains followed, all dressed in a similar fashion, and all carrying backpacks. Alan and Gordon each also carried a machete in a sheath, hung from their belts. Brains had the pieces of a metal detector sticking out of his backpack's top.
“I'm following your grandmother's orders,” Jeff said, squinting up at the small group. “Where are you four going?”
“Up to the crater,” Alan replied promptly. “It's been a while since we've climbed up there, and since the day is nice, we thought we'd check it out.”
“The, uh, trail may need some c-cutting back,” Brains added. “It would behoove us to, uh, clear away any extraneous f-foliage.”
“Brains wants to see if there are any interesting alloys in the soil,” Tin-Tin added. “He seemed to think there were last time we went up.” She smiled impishly and shook her head. “Any excuse for a picnic.”
“Well, be careful and don't stay too long,” Jeff admonished. “If you run into trouble, give us a holler.”
“What kind of trouble can we run into up there?” Gordon scoffed. “Besides the occasional bug bite, that is.”
Jeff's face looked thoughtful, and for a moment he seemed to focus on the waves in the pool. “You never know, Gordon.” He glanced up again, and gave them a smile. “Just be careful.”
“We will, Dad,” Alan promised. He tapped Brains on the shoulder with a knuckle. “Let's get going.”
Jeff watched as the quartet headed around to the back of the house. There was a path back there, a switchback trail up the steep side of the mountain that made up the island. It branched off in spots, and could take a climber to the promontory where the communications masts were located, or back down to the beach further along the island's coast. One branch could even take a hiker to the other side of the island, though it took several hours and was rather treacherous on the way down.
Then there was the branch that went up to the crater of the extinct volcano. The crater itself was a wide concavity, covered with grasses, and with spectacular view from its rim. Jeff had been up there twice, a long time ago. The thought of returning there made him uncomfortable, and when it had come time to survey the island, testing the crater to assure themselves that the volcano was indeed dead, he sent his hired help. It was one of the few times he allowed others to do something he himself would not.
“Dad?” Virgil's voice shook him out of his thoughts, and he glanced at his second-eldest. “Are you all right?”
Jeff nodded slightly. “Yes, I'm okay, son. I think I'll just sit down for a while.”
“Okay, Dad,” Virgil replied, frowning, watching Jeff climb out of the pool. His father had paled at the mention of the crater. The change in complexion wasn't as noticeable from the side of the pool, with the glare of the waving water casting odd patterns of light on the skin, but he had been looking directly at his father from the same level and the slight drain of color was unmistakable. I wonder what's wrong?
Jeff sat down in his lounge chair with a sigh. From where he was, he could almost see the edge of the crater looming far above the house. He shuddered a little, remembering the last time he had climbed to the summit and encountered...
What exactly did I encounter? he asked himself. Was it a UFO? A meteor? A hallucination brought on by my loneliness? I wish I knew for sure.
Without conscious thought, his mind went back in time, back to his days of training for his historic trip to the moon. He had been sent out for training in a plane that was rigged to malfunction, creating a situation so dire that his only recourse was to bail out. He managed to maneuver his plane as close to a bit of land as he could, then ejected from his craft, parachuting down into the wide Pacific, a container clamped to the underside of his ejection seat. Moments before hitting the placid waters, he released the container, which hit the water and automatically opened, inflating into a life raft. Once he'd gotten free of the seat, he swam over to the raft, hoisted himself aboard, and began paddling for all he was worth toward the little island he had spotted.
The place looked like paradise, warm tropical breezes, long sandy beaches, beautiful flowers and frond-laden palm trees in profusion. It was also deserted, something that Jeff discovered after hours of attempted radio transmissions and several days of exploration.
“Didn't know there were still uninhabited islands in the world,” he had groused at the time.
He found the island's spring, and set up his camp near it, close enough to the beach to be able to get there quickly, and far enough within the greenery to provide protection from the rain. The raft had a packet of emergency provisions, and Jeff made it his business to know what was edible on the island and what wasn't. There seemed to be a good number of coconut trees, and some of the palms bore thin-fleshed dates, a fruit that Jeff would grow to loathe over the time he was there. So, he used what he had, cannibalized what he felt he could afford to, and settled down for what would turn out to be the longest ten weeks of his life.
He was six weeks into his “Robinson Crusoe act”, as he would later call it, when he was awakened from sleep by a bright light overhead. Helijet! was his first thought, and he leaped out of his makeshift hammock and took off at a run toward the beach. The path was well-worn by now, and the light was close enough to illuminate his way. When he reached the beach, he looked upwards, hoping for the sound and sight of his salvation. Instead, he glimpsed the glowing trail of something unidentifiable, heading in his direction.
“Wow!” he exclaimed as it passed overhead. He followed it with his eyes, backing up along the beach and into the shallow waves so he could estimate, by its trajectory, where the thing would crash.
“Hmm. Looks like it may have made the crater,” he said aloud. “Wonder what it is.”
He was about to climb back into his hammock when the thought that it might be a small plane hit him forcibly. He groaned. It's dark, it's a long way to the crater, and I am tired. I can't possibly go.
But the idea of a human being - or more than one - hurt or possibly dying, made up his mind for him. He swore, grabbed his flashlight, and picked up his first aid kit, sliding it into the backpack he'd cobbled together from the top portion of his flight suit. He put on his boots, lacing them up securely, then settled the backpack on his shoulders, and headed out into the jungle.
Tracy, you are an idiot! he berated himself as he climbed. The last thing you need is a broken leg or a sprained ankle! Still he went on, silently thankful that the night was clear and that he had both a bright, rising full moon and a powerful, nigh-on-indestructible flashlight to help him on his way.
He'd only gotten up to the crater once during the daylight hours. It was a long hike, but one he'd felt he needed to make, just to see if there was any land nearby. The view had been spectacular, but his hopes had dropped when all he had seen was mile after unending mile of blue Pacific.
The path he had cut was steep, and still full of foliage that he had to push out of his way with his free hand. The closer he got to the crater, the more he was convinced that what he was doing was stupid and foolish. Still, he felt compelled to continue. The dappled moonlight gave his surroundings an eerie, almost unearthly look. As he climbed, his mind began to focus on the here and now, this moment, this step, this breath, retreating from the self-recrimination and failing to look ahead and plan for what he might find.
At last he came to the edge of the crater. He shook his head, clearing it, realizing that he hadn't been focusing on what was to come. He checked his gear, tucked his flashlight into his makeshift pack, then hefted himself over the two meter tall rock wall that stood between him and his goal.
The concavity looked gray under the moon's light, and a wide swath of black cut through the stubby grasses, some still smoldering from the heat of the object's passing. Jeff followed the swatch toward the crater's opposite end, pulling out his flashlight again, and letting its light go before him.
Suddenly, the light went out. At first he stared ahead, wondering what was wrong. Then, when he finally realized that the beam had failed, he lifted the torch to his face and checked the bulb. He angled it so the moonlight shone on the bulb, but even then, he could see nothing wrong. Damn! What's with this thing? He hit the flashlight's body against his palm once or twice, an ineffective move. These things are supposed to be unbreakable! They're not supposed to lose power!
As he focused on the light, a wind came up, blowing across the crater's expanse, stirring up the ashes of the burnt grass. Jeff cursed again, then put the light back in his pack. At least there's enough light to see by, he told himself. Now to find out what we've got here.
By this time, it was readily apparent to him that he wasn't dealing with a plane. Any aircraft that went down would have most likely exploded into a ball of fire, setting the crater's dry cover ablaze. In fact, I'm surprised that all the grass hasn't caught fire, he said to himself as he strode along.
Before long, the burned grass gave way to a dirt trench, one that became sharply deeper as he followed it to the far end of the crater. It was two meters wide, and surprisingly smooth, its rounded bottom giving a hint of the shape that had dug the trench. He walked alongside the depression, leaving his bootprints in the turned up dirt beside it. Finally, he stopped in his tracks and gazed uncomprehendingly at the thing before him.
“Dad?” A familiar voice cut in on his thoughts. “Dad? Are you okay?”
Jeff started, his heart beating wildly. He took in a deep breath, then another, and looked up to see Virgil gazing down at him, an expression of puzzled concern on his face. “Oh! Virgil! You startled me.”
Virgil's expression changed subtly; a frown creased his brow. “I startled you? You seemed wide awake.”
“I was just... daydreaming. Just lost in my memories,” Jeff said, giving his son a shaky smile. He waved a hand. “I'm all right, now.”
“Anything you can tell me about?” Virgil asked, pulling over a chair, and settling down next to his father's lounger. “You looked pretty... concerned.”
Jeff shook his head quickly, too quickly to Virgil's eye. “No. It was nothing important.” He rubbed his forehead, and scrubbed his face with both hands. “I – I think I'll go inside for a bit, get something to drink.” He rose from the lounger, stumbling a little as he did. Virgil sprang to his feet, but Jeff's outstretched palm let him know that his assistance wasn't needed. “Be back soon.”
Jeff padded back into the house at the lower level. The cool air inside made him shiver a little, and he wished he'd grabbed one of the thick towels that were kept by the pool for such an occasion. He made his way to the small elevator and slumped against the wall as it carried him to the upper floor. Running a hand over his face again, he breathed in and out slowly, trying to bring his thoughts into focus. When the lift's doors opened, he hurried down to his suite, and when that door closed behind him, he locked it.
Safe at last, came to his mind unbidden. He pulled a bottle of good Scotch from his liquor cabinet and poured himself two fingers' worth, tossing it off quickly. Another dose, and he put the bottle away, sipping on the second libation as he sat on his leather sofa. He twirled the glass in his fingers, staring unseeing at the plush carpet, then downed the drink and pushed his drying hair away from his forehead.
That thing... that sphere... I know I didn't imagine it!
He'd gotten a good glimpse of the matte black sphere that sat in the trench, nearly swallowed up by the surrounding earth. It was still giving off considerable heat, and the grass around it would have been alight if it hadn't thrown up its own dirt bulwarks on either side. Ignoring the voice of reason that screamed in his head, Jeff climbed down into the trench, fascinated by the sphere, and drawn to it as a moth to a flame. It was as if he couldn't help himself; he just had to have a closer look. He stepped closer, the heat still emanating from the object making him sweat... or was that the battle between what he knew he should do and what he was doing? With a tentative hand, he reached out, and touched the thing.
Back in his sitting room, Jeff started again, taking deep breaths as his mind forcibly shoved the memories aside. He was never quite sure what had happened after he touched that black globe. Images swirled around in his mind's eye; unearthly, incomprehensible. Emotions filled him, strange, unfamiliar feelings, alien smells, sights, all of it overwhelming... The next thing he knew it was daylight, and he was lying in his hammock. His hand - the one he had touched the thing with – was painful, showing signs of burns and blisters, already well into healing. His pack lay on the ground beside him, and strangely enough, when he opened it to get at the first aid kit, he found his flashlight was turned on. That night, he was surprised to find the moon already waning, and at a size indicating a loss of three days or more.
I was there for nearly four more long weeks. I should have gone back to the crater, he thought. I should have taken another look, found out what was really up there, what made me lose three days of my life. But I didn't. Something held me back. Something that still holds me back today.
Rising, he walked over to the wide windows that faced the back of the villa... and the mountain. He raised his eyes to the summit, to where he knew the crater was.
One day I'll go back. I'll take my courage in both hands and go back up there to see if there's any sign left of what I saw. One day, I'll tell my boys about it so they can help me look. One day... but not today.
He lay his head gently on the cool glass, and closed his eyes for a long moment. Then he took a deep breath and stood upright once more. Virgil's probably wondering where I am. I'd better go back outside and enjoy the rest of the day – at least until Gordon and his team come back. Maybe they'll have something to tell me about what's in that crater.
With that final thought, he headed back outside, determined to put the memories behind him and just enjoy the day.