Alan stepped into the games room and scanned the crowd for his friend. The pinball games proved to be manned by people he either didn’t know or had a “I was in his class once” acquaintance with. Fermat must have gotten bored, he thought, or maybe he’s gone back to his room.
He was tempted to use the communicator on his wrist, but decided the risk was too great. Emergencies only, he reminded himself, I’d lose the privilege if I did. Seeing someone from Ms. Gerrick’s class last year, he stepped over to ask about Fermat’s whereabouts.
“Hackenbacker?” the boy said. “Israni came and got him. They were talking about hitting the courts.”
Fermat, though seemingly the stereotypical clumsy geek, had surprisingly advanced hand-eye coordination, which he kept sharp through typing and playing pinball. Once he was on a machine, he zoned out just about everything else, playing to the usual half-hour time limit. All of the school’s machines had his initials atop of the high score list.
Courts, huh? Alan thought as he left the Student Union. With Dev, that’s got to be basketball. Devdan played skillfully enough to make the school’s team but found the challenge of his academic studies more important. During the weekends he could often be found playing a pick up game or two on the outside courts.
Alan walked briskly at first, and then broke into a trot. It’ll be a while before anything shows up on the televid. Maybe I can get in a few minutes playing until then.
Approaching the courts, he grinned to see Dev score for his side, leaping up and over his opponents to send the ball swishing through the hoop, catching nothing but net. The action shifted to the other end as the opposing side got control of the ball. Fermat sat on a bench nearby, watching, cheering on his friend, and talking to the dark-haired boy next to him. Alan came up behind him, and thrust his fist down over Fermat’s shoulder, his thumb stuck between his fore and middle fingers. The gesture was the sign language letter “t” and was a signal between the two boys that meant the Thunderbirds were go. Fermat glanced at it before turning to look at his friend, an expression of delight on his face. He was itching to ask Alan for details, but knew he couldn’t right then and there; it might compromise security.
Alan sat down next to the bench and asked, “So, who’s winning?”
“The o-other guys,” Fermat said, rolling his eyes. “Wish I w-were o-out there. But I c-can’t, not with this a-a-a… cast. C-Couldn’t play p-pinball very well, either.” He turned to his neighbor. “D-Dom? D-Do you know m-my friend, A-Alan?”
Dom leaned over a bit to look at Alan. He shook his head. “I know about him, but we’ve never been introduced.” He held out his hand. “Dom Bertoli.”
Alan took the hand and shook it. “Alan Tracy. We’ve got a mutual friend in Kay Lewis.”
“Yeah, he’s on the yearbook staff,” Dom said.
They were distracted by Dev making another basket. Alan put his thumb and forefinger in his mouth to whistle loudly while the other two cheered. The game went on, with the other team in possession of the ball, so Alan asked Dom, “You okay? I heard about that attack—”
“I’m okay.” Dom nodded slightly. “They got the asthma under control at the hospital, then called my folks. But they’re in Ft. Lauderdale and I’m here.” He shrugged. “The hospital got permission to release me. I expect my parents up here sometime tomorrow.” He turned to Fermat, giving him a playful punch on the shoulder. “Wish I’d had this one along. Kay tells me he scared away the guys who went after him.”
“Well,” Fermat began, blushing. “I-It wasn’t j-j-j… only me, y’know. A-Alan here b-brought backup.”
“Cool! Glad to hear you had his back, Alan.”
Someone from Dev’s team scored again and, suddenly, the game ended. “Who won?” Alan asked.
“The o-other guys,” Fermat repeated with a sigh. “46 to 32.”
“Well, I’d better be going.” Dom stood up, stretching. “Nice to meet you, Alan.”
“You, too, Dom,” Alan replied. He gave Dom a thoughtful look. “Hey, is your roommate Trey Mackenzie?”
Neither Alan nor Fermat could miss the grimace that passed over Dom’s face. “Yeah, he is. What about it?”
“Well, I’d like to talk to you about an idea I just got concerning him. It might be good for both of us.”
Dom shrugged. “Sure. Why not? We can talk now, if you don’t mind walking back to the dorms together.”
“Great!” Alan turned to Fermat. “Hey, I’ll meet you in your room in a bit, okay?”
“S-Sure,” Fermat replied, a puzzled look on his face. “I’ll b-be there. G-Got homework to d-d-do.”
“See you soon!” the older boy called as he walked off with Dom.
“Damn, it’s hot!” Gordon groused. He was dressed in a fireproof suit, air tanks connected to his face plate, spraying dicetyline foam at the flames in the path of the Firefly.
“What did you expect, Gords?” Virgil asked from where he guided the machine along. “It’s a forest fire.” He used the bulldozer blade to push aside the charred trees blocking the bumpy, rut-filled, dirt road to the camp. “Thunderbird Five from Firefly. John, how much farther?”
“You’ve got another kilometer, Virge,” John replied, using a series of IR surveillance satellites to bounce the image to his screens.
The camp was deep in the forests of Ecuador, in the Parque Nacional Yaguní, where a forest fire now raged. There were many small villages around the park and a few small camps within, of which this was one. The camp was in the path of the fire; it would soon be surrounded. The small villages were ill-equipped to do more than keep the fire from their own borders, so the sponsors of the camp, a missionary agency in Quito, had called upon International Rescue to pull the campers out.
It was quickly decided the easiest way to take the thirty or so teenagers and counselors out was to clear the access road. The fire had cut across the road at one point; many fallen trees, some still on fire, blocked the way. So Jeff unloaded the Firefly, with its load of dicetyline and two of his sons, at the camp. Three campers who needed medical attention were airlifted, along with an adult chaperone, to Puyo, the nearest town with the necessary facilities. Since no good spot existed nearby to set up a command post, Scott parked his Thunderbird on a larger access road and joined his father in Thunderbird Two for the airlift.
Gordon risked a glance back the way they’d come. Three ancient four-wheel drive trucks, each holding eight to ten people, bumped slowly along behind them. The air, thick with smoke and very hot, cut his visibility. He hoped that the air tank kits they handed out would be sufficient to see the campers and counselors through. Taking a deep breath himself, he turned back and continued to spray his surroundings with green foam.
“Thunderbird One to Firefly,” Scott’s voice came over the communications links in both Virgil’s and Gordon’s helmets. “I’m baaaack!”
“Decided to stop shirking, huh?” Gordon quipped, his voice sounding breathy inside his face mask. “How about coming down here and doing some real manly work? The kind that gets you hot and sweaty.”
“I have different and more enjoyable ideas on how to get hot and sweaty, Gords.”
“Oh?” Virgil chimed in. “What’s her name?”
“Can the chatter boys,” came Jeff’s no-nonsense tone. “Focus on the job.”
A chorus of “F-A-B” sounded from the Firefly and Thunderbird One, while a quiet chuckle could be heard from Thunderbird Two. Unexpectedly, John’s voice, tight and tense cut in. “Firefly from Thunderbird Five. You’ve got trouble. The wind has shifted and picked up speed. The fire’s now ahead of you on your left. I suggest you pick up some speed, too.”
Next, they heard from Scott, who flew along the route over them, “Firefly from Thunderbird One. John’s right. You have a bridge ahead. Wooden from the look of it, over a good-sized ravine. The fire is racing you there.”
“You heard the man, Virgil,” Jeff said. “John, talk to the drivers behind the Firefly and apprise them of the situation. See if they can pick up speed.”
“F-A-B,” John replied. He turned and pressed a button. He could handled this translation job himself; he was fluent in Spanish. He rapidly informed the lead truck of the approaching problem.
Virgil coaxed the Firefly to go faster, pressing the pedal down slowly. The increase in speed meant the machine hit bumps with greater force, which had a decided effect on Gordon’s perch.
“Hey!” he called out indignantly, holding tightly as the dicetyline platform swung back and forth sharply. “Don’t forget I’m up here!”
“I won’t,” Virgil answered through gritted teeth. “Just keep putting out that fire!”
They entered an area where the fire hadn’t been burning long; no fallen trees needed their attention – yet. The fire here was younger, hotter, burning up the tinder of bushes and ground cover quickly. It moved fast as the winds fanned it, sending sparks to ignite more of the dry foliage. Gordon grimly held on, spraying green foam along each side, sweeping back to preserve their remaining dicetyline by avoiding the actual road.
Finally, they saw the bridge. Beyond it, the forest was untouched by flame and beckoned like a cool oasis. Virgil took one good look at the span and groaned. “Firefly to Thunderbirds One, Two and Five. We have reached the bridge, but we’ve got a little problem here.”
“Go ahead, Firefly,” Jeff said. “What’s the trouble? Is the bridge on fire?”
“Negative. The bridge is fine, but – it’s too small for the Firefly.”