“So, any ideas?” Virgil asked of his father and brothers.
“I have one,” Jeff replied. “But first, pull out of the way so those trucks can get across.”
Within minutes, Virgil had cleared space enough for the Firefly to pull off the road. John contacted the lead truck driver and told him to drive over the bridge to safety. As each truck eased across the wooden span, the passengers rolled down windows and waved madly at the Firefly’s occupants. Behind his air mask, Gordon grinned and waved back. His eyes followed the vehicles as they rumbled into the fire-free forest across the ravine and out of sight.
“Okay, Dad,” Virgil said as the last truck drove off the bridge. “What’s the plan?”
“How wide do you think this ravine is right here?” Jeff asked.
“I have no idea. Why?”
“We need to find a spot where the ravine narrows to less than the length of the pod,” his father explained. “If we can find such a spot, we can just put the pod across and you can drive right on inside.”
“Cool idea, Dad,” Scott said from his perch overhead in Thunderbird One. “There’s a laser measure in One’s toolbox, but I have a feeling the bridge is here because this is the most narrow spot.”
Gordon looked across the landscape, seared and still burning. “Well, get to it, man. The dicetyline supplies are running out.”
“You just keep the fire away from the Firefly while Scott measures the ravine,” Jeff said.
“F-A-B,” Gordon replied, his voice weary. He took a deep breath and continued his fight against the onrushing flames.
“Thunderbird Two to Thunderbird One. What’s the hold up?”
“One here. Trying to figure out just where to land. There doesn’t seem to be anyplace close to the bridge.”
“Firefly from Thunderbird Five,” John’s voice had an urgent tone to it.
“Go ahead, John,” Virgil answered.
“The wind has shifted again, and it’s coming from the west, which will bring more flames toward your position.”
“F-A-B,” Virgil replied. “Thunderbirds One and Two from Firefly. John says the wind has shifted. I’m going to move back to the roadway and wait there. No sense getting caught in this brush.”
“F-A-B, Firefly,” Jeff answered.
“F-A-B, Dad.” Virgil put the Firefly in reverse and prepared to move it. “Virgil to Gordon. I’m pulling out and onto the road again. Hold on tight.” He paused for a moment, waiting for an answer. “Gordon? Are you all right?” Another silent moment, then he called louder, “Virgil to Gordon! Acknowledge!”
“Firefly from Thunderbird Five. What’s wrong?” John called.
“I don’t know!” Virgil cried. “Gordon’s not responding!”
“C-Come in,” Fermat called when he heard the knock. The door slid open and Alan walked in, math book under his arm.
Fermat swiveled his chair around toward his friend. “S-So, did things g-g-g… how d-did things go with D-Dom?”
“Pretty good.” Alan dropped the book to the floor and sat down next to it. “Looks like we might be able to help each other out.” He glanced around the room. “Where’s A.J.?”
“Th-The library. He left a n-n-note.”
“Ah, too bad. Wanted to ask him how his call to his dad went.” He shrugged, opening the textbook. Pausing as a thought struck him, he raised an eyebrow, a calculating look in his eyes. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Since he’s not here, let’s give your dad a call and find out what’s going on with the rescue.”
“I d-don’t know.” Fermat frowned, shaking his head. “I d-don’t think that’s such a g-g-good idea. D-Dad would be at the c-c-c… at your father’s d-desk. He w-wouldn’t appreciate being d-distracted.”
“Well then,” Alan said as he got up quickly from the floor. “How about the tertiary drive? Open it in a separate window that we can collapse easily … we can lock the door …”
Fermat was silent for a moment, powerfully tempted by his suggestion. With a nod, he looked up into the older boy’s eyes and said, “Lock the d-door.”
Alan grinned and did as his friend requested. When he came back to look over Fermat’s shoulder, the younger boy was entering a password to access the hidden third drive which was keyed to a server at the command center. “Th-This should give us a p-p-p… an account of wh-what’s happening, with c-communications and e-everything.”
“Looks like we have some catching up to do,” Alan commented as the window opened listing the back-and-forth communications as if they were an IM conversation. Those at the Danger Zone were listed with either their name or the craft/vehicle they were using. “Look, Dad’s piloting Two, Scott’s in One, and Gords and Virge are in the Firefly.” He frowned. “I wonder where the hell they are?”
Fermat clicked on a link that brought up a map of the world, with a blinking light showing the current position of the Thunderbird craft. He clicked on the light, and the map “zoomed in”, showing the forest and which craft was where. “Th-There. They’re in E-Ecuador. One is the b-b-blue dot, Two is g-green and the F-Firefly has two Fs on it.” He turned his attention back to the communications log. “They’re b-battling a f-f-forest f-fire.”
Alan prompted his friend to put up a second window of the dialogue. The younger boy could read much faster than the Tracy son, and Alan didn’t want to hold Fermat up as they scrolled down.
Finally, they caught up to the end of the dialogue, and Alan’s face creased in deep concern. “Gordon? What’s wrong with Gords?”
Just then there was a noise at the door. “It’s A-A. J.!” Fermat hissed as he quickly shut down the drive, clicking down the windows and map with the speedy application of his mouse.
Alan looked at him in disbelief. “Wait! I have to know—!”
A.J. walked in and both boys looked over at him. He took in their startled expressions and frowned a bit. “Hello, Fermat, Alan. What’s going on?”
“Damn!” Scott said as he hovered over the Firefly. “He’s slumped over the dicetyline cannon!”
“Then we have no time to put down the pod,” Jeff said curtly. “Scott, you land. Virgil, see to your brother. I’ll prepare the mega grabs.”
Virgil slid his face mask on as he popped the canopy of the Firefly’s driver compartment. The heat of the fire, so close to where they were stopped, made him take in a deep breath. He scrambled up and over to the cannon’s platform, where Gordon’s limp form made a gasp catch in his throat. Beyond the end of the Firefly, Thunderbird One made a quick landing, obscured in a billowing cloud of blowing ash and sand. The pilot’s cockpit dropped open and Scott slid out, wearing a face mask and air tank but no heat suit. He ran to join Virgil at Gordon’s side.
“What’s wrong with him?” Scott asked loudly.
“Heat exhaustion, maybe,” Virgil replied, his face furrowed with worry as he examined Gordon. “And he’s low on air.” He turned to Scott and in a voice tight with fear, ordered, “Let’s just get him into One and out of here!”
“Okay, Virgil. Calm down; I’ll take him. But Dad will need you down here.” Scott bent down and lifted Gordon into a fireman’s carry. He grabbed at Virgil’s arm briefly, giving him a sharp, serious look. “Will you be okay?”
Virgil nodded briefly. “Yeah. Just get Gords to safety!”
“F-A-B.” Scott withdrew his hand, readjusted Gordon’s weight, and hurried off to his ‘Bird.
Virgil watched them go for a few seconds before turning his attention back to the fire. “Damn! The dicetyline supply is below five percent!”
“Just keep the fire at bay.” Jeff’s no-nonsense voice cut in. “I’ll be over your position in a few seconds. Then I’ll lower the mega-grabs. You’ll need to attach the grabs for me.”
“F-A-B,” Virgil replied. His father’s commanding tone was exactly what he needed to stay focused on the job at hand. He pressed the trigger on the dicetyline cannon and watched as the green foam shoot out under high pressure, extinguishing the flames that crawled so close to him.
Thunderbird One took off with a roar and another scattering of sand and soot. It flew off over the ravine, toward the cool forest, passing above Thunderbird Two’s bulk as it moved slowly towards Virgil and the stranded Firefly. The winds kicked up by Thunderbird Two’s hoverjets pushed some of the fire away from the pod vehicle, and the cargo craft covered the smoke wreathed disk of the sun, making it easier for Virgil to look up. A door in the pod’s base slid open, letting the bright yellow magnetic mega-grabs to come snaking down towards him. He allowed himself a small, grim smile behind his face mask; his father’s aim was as good as his own.
“I’ve got the grabs! Let out another three meters of cable!” he directed.
“F-A-B,” came Jeff’s voice, audible only because it was directly fed to Virgil’s ear. The grabs moved down a bit more; Virgil pushed them open enough to connect them to the special pads built into each pod vehicle for just such an emergency.
“Okay! They’re in position!”
“F-A-B!” said Jeff. A humming noise sounded as the electromagnets came to life. Virgil listened carefully for the tell-tale clanks that meant the vehicle was secure.
“Virgil, I have a red light on pad one. Is it in position down there?”
“Negative, Dad. Release the clamp so I can reposition it.” Virgil jumped down from the cannon platform as the humming noise stopped. He checked out the magnetic foot that was designated as pad one. It wasn’t quite in place, so he moved it slightly forward. He checked the other feet, feeling the fire’s heat increase as it again neared his position. A tree fell across the road with a large crash, missing the Firefly by mere inches. He jumped at the sound. Climbing back onto the platform, he called, “Try it now!”
The magnets hummed into life again and this time Virgil heard four solid clanks.
“That did it, Virgil. All lights green across the board. Better strap back in for the ride.”
Virgil sighed, letting his shoulders relax a bit, then climbed back into the driver’s cab. Sealing it up again, he called into his face mask’s communicator, “I’m good to go, Thunderbird Two. All strapped in and ready to blow this popsicle stand!”
“F-A-B!” Jeff’s voice filtered down, sounding relieved. “Upsy-daisy!”
The big winch took up the slack on the cable, gradually raising the Firefly into the air, When three meters of space existed between the bottom of the pod and the top of the Firefly, Thunderbird Two moved out slowly to avoid creating too much swing.
Virgil took off his face mask and hood. He ran his hand through his short, sweaty hair. Shaking his head sharply, he let sweat drops fly before running a hand through his locks again. “Firefly to Two, how’s Gordon?”
“Don’t know yet, Virgil.” Jeff’s voice sounded weary. “Scott took him straight to the nearest hospital. Said he couldn’t wait for Two’s sickbay.”
“The hospital at Peyo reports that Thunderbird One is on approach to their helijet pad,” a third voice broke in.
“Hey, John,” Jeff said with a touch of humor. “Almost forgot you were there.”
“Yeah, right, Dad,” John replied. “Not when I was reporting every little shift in wind direction so you knew what was going on at the Danger Zone during the airlift to and from Peyo.” Virgil heard his brother blow out a long breath of air. “That was too damned close, Virge. You guys are going to give me premature gray hairs.”
“Then your hair won’t need peroxide,” Virgil quipped.
“Ha, ha, very funny.”
“Virgil, we’ve got a sizable clearing coming up. I’m going to let you down and open up the pod so you can put the Firefly to bed. It’s not safe to carry you like this much further.”
“F-A-B, Dad,” Virgil replied. “Let’s do it.” He paused before addressing John again. “Just be glad you’re up in Five where it’s air conditioned. It was hot as hell down here today.”
“I’d much rather have been helping you out down there than staying up here listening and not able to do a damned thing,” John’s tone was sharp, unintentionally so. He sighed and moderated it. “I’m sorry, Virge. I’m just worried about Gordon.”
Jeff cut in. “We all are. Good thing Alan has no idea what’s going on out here. I’m sure he’ll hear about it though. I think I saw Lisa Lowe’s crew setting up at the hospital in Peyo.”
Virgil groaned. “How the hell does she get around so fast? Teleporter?”
“If that’s her secret, I want it!” John snorted. “It’d make the trip home a hell of a lot faster!”
Virgil chuckled. He peered out Firefly’s cab, watching the ground slowly coming toward him as his father lowered Firefly to the dry, grassy ground.
“Uh, ah, just checking the scores,” Alan prevaricated. He picked up his math book and gave A.J. a weak grin. “Got to get going on the homework.”
“Scores. What scores?” the younger boy asked.
“Football!” Alan said at the same time Fermat blurted out, “B-Baseball!” They exchanged glances as A.J.’s frown grew deeper. Fermat indicated Alan with his head. “F-Football.”
“Oh, okay. Are either of you going to dinner?” A.J. asked as he put his things away.
“Uh, no. We usually we just hang out and snack,” Alan explained. “Same thing on Sunday nights.”
“Uh, I’ve g-got to go t-to the infirmary,” Fermat said with a small groan. “M-Medication.” He sighed. “I might as well g-go to the d-dining hall while I’m th-there.”
This stopped Alan cold for a moment. “Ah, right,” he finally said. “Okay. Well, I guess if you’re going to supper, I’ll go too.”
A.J. smiled. “Great! You can tell me all about the football scores. I’ve never been interested in the game before. Maybe it’s time I started.”
“Uh, sure!” Alan replied. He left his textbook on Fermat’s desk as his friend shut down the computer. “We can tell you all about the game, can’t we, Brain?”
“Y-Yeah, P-Pinky,” Fermat hesitatingly agreed.
The three walked out, A.J. locking the door behind them. Alan strained to hear the broadcast from the common room’s television. He huffed a relieved breath; whatever the other boys were listening to had nothing to do with his family. But just after he passed out of earshot, Lisa Lowe’s blandly pretty face appeared.
“I’m here at the main hospital in Peyo, Ecuador—”