Christa kept her foot to the floor, accelerating the Mobile Crane to its top speed, dodging the occasional barrel of wood pulp that shot from the back of the Crablogger and rolled into their path. The Crane's six huge tires with their heavy tread bounced as she swerved back and forth over the torn up terrain. Mae kept craning her neck to see if the Crablogger was coming into view. Sally was on her wrist telecomm to base.
"According to Eddie, the machine was on a programmed course that took it past the city. Problem is that it's already deviated from that course enough to put Sibu in danger," Val said, relaying the message.
"What about the reactor?" JC asked, looking over Sally's shoulder at their youngest sister. "Last time Robotics International told us we had to shut down the reactor to stop the thing."
"Seems they built a failsafe into it and made the shutdown process easier. I downloaded the codes to the Mobile Crane," Val replied. She looked at some notes she had made. "But the pulper has to be shut down, too, and Eddie says it was fully fueled. Brains estimates that it will be 20 more minutes before that fuel runs out and the pulper will stop processing the trees. I'm told that if the pulper shuts down with the cutter still going, the cutter goes into 'safe mode'." She grimaced. "Don't know what's so safe about it though...." Her comment was interrupted by Mae's cry of "There it is!"
Inside the control center, the Hood sat up straight as the Mobile Crane finally came into view of the Crablogger's cameras. At last! the villain thought. I will slow down and let them get close enough to put a operative on top. Then I will shut down the pulper and we'll see what happens.
Christa's no-holds-barred driving closed the gap between the Crablogger and the Crane in a few minutes. "The thing must be slowing down," she observed. "How much longer on the pulper's fuel?"
Sally relayed the message to Val, who asked Brains. "Since the cutter has slowed down, you probably have a few extra minutes before it starts throwing trees."
"Throwing trees?!" the four rescuers cried in near unison. "Don't tell me that's the safe mode!" Sally added.
" 'Fraid so, Sal," Val said apologetically. "It keeps cutting the trees and throws them aside since it can't process them."
"We'd better get up there fast, then," Sally returned, resolution in her voice. She glanced at her copper-haired sister. "You with me JC?"
"All the way, Sal," JC replied. "Oxyhydnite cutters?"
"Yeah. I'll get on there first and you pass the equipment to me. Then jump aboard to give me a hand. We'll have to keep our heads low. And don't forget the emergency jet packs." She addressed her other two sisters. "Once we're aboard, you two get out of here. Follow the path until we get the machine to stop. Then you can come back and pick us up."
"F-A-B," Christa said. She focused on the machine in front of her, hoping that the Mobile Crane would fit between the stands of jungle trees and the Crablogger. All too soon, she was squeezing in between the two. Mae glanced at her in awe, and her respect for her older sister went up a notch.
This must be like flying Thunderbird Two, the blonde thought. It's so big and bulky and so often there's barely just enough room for Christa to set her down at a danger zone. She has to be very precise. No wonder why she insisted on driving! Mae turned around to find JC and Sally already gone from the passenger seats. Looking out the back window, she saw Sally giving her a thumbs up from the platform.
"Looks like they're ready," Mae reported.
"F-A-B," Christa replied. "Adjusting course and speed to match."
The Hood smiled, watching as International Rescue prepared to board, a finger tensely poised over a particular switch. Come now. Come into my parlor.
Sally hung on tightly with both hands in anticipation. JC's grip tightened on both the platform and the oxyhydnite tanks as Mae flipped a switch in the Mobile Crane and the platform began to rise.
"I'll direct Christa, Sally!" JC yelled. "You get up there!"
"F-A-B!" Sally prepared for the jump to the Crablogger as JC directed Christa to the right spot.
"Christa! Right three degrees! Pull forward two meters!"
The Hood kept an eye on the pulper's fuel levels. Faster, bitches! The pulper will turn itself off in a few moments and then chaos will ensue! The monitor showed the platform, bearing two of the IR operatives, rising again to the level of the top hatch. Much better! Now which one of you will be my victim?
"Careful, Christa!" Sally cautioned. "The platform is at the right height. Can you close the gap?"
"I'll try to get closer," Christa said through gritted teeth. She turned the steering wheel slowly to the right, bringing the two vehicles together.
"Watch out!" Mae screamed. "Rock!"
"Damn!" Christa swore as she swerved sharply to the left to avoid a large boulder churned up and cast aside by the root extractor in the Crablogger's underbelly. Sally, who had been preparing to jump, fell backwards, slid across the platform, and under the safety rail.
"Sally!" JC lunged for her, grabbing onto her arm with both hands while her legs were securely wrapped around a supporting pole. Sally glanced down for a split second, then looked up to her sister. The determination and pain in JC's face was plain to see: she was not going to let her sister fall, even though her shoulder screamed from its injury. The Thunderbird One pilot reached up to grab onto the platform with her free hand, then, with JC's help, she hauled herself back up to the Mobile Crane's scaffold.
"What the hell....?" Sally started to shout into her telecomm, but JC grabbed her wrist and shook her head.
"No time!" She indicated the huge machine, which, thanks to Christa's quick reflexes, was getting closer and closer. "Get ready to jump!"
Sally nodded, and took up her position at the edge of the platform. The gap closed to a mere meter, and Sally looked down. The tires of the IR machine and the Crablogger were inches apart and traveling at the exact same speed. Sally sent up a silent thanks for Christa's expert driving skills, backed up to the far side of the platform, then took a running jump. She landed squarely on top of the yellow behemoth. Standing up, she braced herself, wrapping a leg around the arm of the Crablogger's crane and holding out her hands for the oxyhydnite tank and cutters.
"Uh-oh," the Hood said, eyes behind the mask widening as the light on the pulper's indicators went from green to yellow and then, after a pause, to red.
JC tossed the cutting equipment over to Sally, who deftly caught it. She was about to join her sister on top of the Crablogger when a loud grinding noise split the air. The two sisters exchanged glances outside, while inside, Christa asked, "What the hell....?" Ahead of them, one of the cutter's grabbing arms snatched up a severed tree, and, instead of feeding it into the sharp rollers of the machine's maw, it tossed the fallen foliage aside.
Both JC and Sally flattened themselves to the tops of their respective perches. Sally called into her communicator, "Christa! For God's sake, get JC down and get out of here! I can handle the Crablogger!"
Christa hesitated. She did not want to leave Sally to face a potential trap all alone. But the decision was taken out of her hands as Mae, a scowl marring her pretty face, pounced on the button that brought the Crane's platform back down. JC looked in through the back window and yelled angrily, "What the hell are you doing?"
"Sally's orders!" Mae shouted back. Their attention was diverted by another tree flying through the air, this one missing the Mobile Crane by a meter. JC swung back into the cab, her face thunderous at leaving Sally behind.
"We'll back off out of range," Christa said, taking command of the situation. "The machine has slowed down and the trees won't be cut quite as quickly. Then we can get close enough to put you on the pulper, JC, and you can climb up to the cutter from there."
"Do it!" JC growled. "I'm not leaving Sally up there by herself."
Christa glared at JC, but slowed down to a near crawl, dodging a couple of discarded trees as they were thrown like missiles from the front of the cutter. But finally, they were far enough behind the cutter to avoid its wild pitches and were able to match speeds once again.
Sally watched from the top of the Crablogger as JC was lowered down and as Christa pulled back out of range. She kept her head down as a sawn off tree swished overhead.
This thing is as unpredictable as Val's moods! she groused to herself. Sliding herself over to the hatch, she tried to open it. Damn! I'm going to have to cut through after all! Rising to her knees, she pulled over the cutting gear that JC had managed to pass to her. She slipped the face mask on, then fired up the oxyhydnite cutter and began to cut a hole through the metal near the thick hatch.
The Hood smiled, almost quivering with anticipation as the cutter's effects were seen inside the control room. Glancing at the monitor, the disguised criminal mastermind noted that another IR operative had managed to clamber aboard the pulper and was making slow, steady progress toward the cutter.
The timing on this will be tight. I must claim my victim right away and be off before her sibling arrives. The mastermind pulled a jet pack similar to the one which Sally wore from the heavy backpack, and strapped it on over the black clothes. Then, with gun in hand, the Hood stepped back into a shadowy alcove to wait for the operative.
"Come on, come on! Faster, baby, faster!" Sally muttered as the oxyhydnite-fueled flame slowly outlined a rough circle on the top of the huge machine. With a final hiss, the cutting point made the circuit complete and the thick metal plate fell inward. Her father's warnings fresh in her mind, Sally pulled her gun, and lowered herself carefully into the control room.
Outside, at the far end of the wavering catwalk that connected the Crablogger's cutter with its processing unit, JC watched as Sally's form disappeared into the cutter.
"Dammit, Sal! Why can't you wait for me?!" she grumbled aloud. A swishing noise made her look up, and she flattened herself to the connecting walkway as a sapling flew toward her to crash on the surface of the pulping unit then fall away. The immediate danger over, she rose to try and make her way across the swaying bridge.
Sally surveyed the room, slowly scanning it with her eyes. A slight noise behind her made her swing quickly around and suddenly, like a deer in a car's headlights, she was caught by a pair of glowing yellow eyes. She had an impression of pale skin, and red hair, and a voice greeting her by name. She whispered a desperate "No!" as her body swayed and the mind behind the eyes took possession of her and she swooned.
The Hood stepped from the shadows. "Excellent! I now have the most valuable of Tracy's daughters in my power. He will pay dearly for her return. But I must move quickly!"
Pulling a sturdy harness from the backpack, the Hood fastened it around Sally's form, then dragged her over to the actual hatch of the Crablogger. Propping the pilot against the pole that ran through the hatch and attached to the crane arm outside, the villain quickly went back to the control console and keyed in a code. The doorway shifted to an unlocked position and slid open. Hurrying back, the evil one hooked Sally's harness to the jet pack's straps, pulling them into a sturdy, forced embrace. Then another button was pushed and the crane pulled the two up and outside to the roof.
JC glanced up as the crane activated and saw with horror, Sally, limp and motionless, bound somehow to the body of their most hated enemy and rising to the top of the massive machine. Two jet packs fired, and the yellow-eyed menace rose slowly into the sky with her sister and commander. A scream of despair and terror was ripped from JC's throat.