"Penny for your thoughts?"
The tall, dark-haired man jumped, then relaxed again as he realised who it was. "Just thinking how lucky we are."
"To live here?"
"To be alive."
"We did everything we could." The second man looked down over the rail, to where someone younger and red-headed was ploughing tirelessly up and down the pool. "We got most of them out. Gordon did his best."
"Gordon could have been killed today. He has to be more careful."
"If he'd been more careful, that last group would all be dead. The chaplain, the ship's captain - he has two small children, by the way - the doctor who helped keep the children calm until Gordon got them out --"
"Okay, already." Scott managed a smile. "He did the right thing, with hindsight. But he can't keep rolling the dice like that. He's our one and only aquanaut, Virgil. I've tried not to give him too many directions, because he's the expert underwater. But he needs to run his decisions past someone, and he isn't doing that."
"What are you going to do?"
Scott considered the swimmer, only now starting to slow down after several minutes of flat-out laps. "I'm going to wait for him to realise it for himself. And hope it happens before we're called out again."
High above the Earth, John Tracy was performing a perfectly routine calibration of Thunderbird 5's sensors. Point everything at the South Pacific, where there was nothing to pick up, and make sure he had perfectly even coverage. He did this daily, when possible, and only occasionally needed to make any changes beyond the trivial...
Today was different. That was one big blip on the high-altitude radar. More than just a slight miscalibration. That had to be a loose connection somewhere. John was mentally steeling himself for a tedious hour or so under the console, when an unpleasant thought struck him, and he cycled the screen to the next function. He'd not have noticed it on this one - Brains' experimental atmospheric sonar, still too full of noise to be much use - but now he knew what he was looking for, it was most definitely there. Out in the middle of nowhere, circling casually at close to a hundred thousand feet. No registered flightpath, too big to be civilian, and definitely not military. Not their military, at any rate. Damn.
John considered briefly, then fired up a connection which absolutely should not have existed into ISO's main early warning system computer, and inserted the data, red-flagged for urgent attention at the highest level. He could be wrong about this - but if he wasn't, the last thing he wanted was some Spectran mecha circling around anywhere near Tracy Island.
"Control, where are we headed?"
"Climb to thirty thousand, then head for the South Pacific," Anderson's voice answered as his image appeared on the upper viewscreen.
"That's a big area," Tiny commented from the pilot's seat, already carrying out the order.
"A huge area. What's up, Chief?" Mark stood up, giving himself a better eyeline to the screen.
Even on the small screen, Anderson's concern was evident. "First reports suggest we have a similar craft to the one in Mission 37. I'm sending you all details through now."
"I think you should read up on this one yourself, Commander," Anderson said, and the screen fizzed to grey, as Jason swore and applied himself to his screen.
Mark sat back down with a groan. "Okay, you remind me, G-2."
"We went to Riga unauthorised, and they shot us out of the sky. Some sort of penetrating beam, and a photonic shield you have to hit pretty much perpendicular to penetrate." What he didn't say, but they were all thinking the moment they were reminded which mission it had been, was that the beam had had a particularly unpleasant effect on Mark. Three days with a confidence-less, indecisive commander had been grim to say the least.
Mark set his jaw. "Then let's not get hit this time. Princess, I want an explosive device we can drop onto them."
"You got it. Keyop, watch the radio for me." She was gone to their workshop behind the flight deck.
Their pilot half-turned. "Uh - Commander, I do need something a little more specific than 'the South Pacific.'"
"I appreciate that. Jason, do we have the early warning data?"
His second-in-command glared at his computer screen. "Sort of. It's incomplete. No origin code. I do hope it's not a software glitch. I'll kill Rick if we're out here on a wild goose chase."
The scowl deepened. "It's real."
"Extrapolate, and give the coordinates to Tiny." Mark sighed, and stretched back in his chair. "It would almost be quicker to go to Riga."
"Quicker, but tougher. Estimate four hours to target." The pilot started laying in a course.
"Unless you want to go orbital."
Mark eyed the data on his own screen. "It's not attacking anything right now. Let's give the Phoenix a good long atmospheric flight to shake out any problems."
"Sure thing, Commander."
"How about a few b...b...barrel rolls?" Keyop suggested. "Loop-the-loop? A proper t...t...test."
Jason snorted. "I vote no."
"In case you've forgotten, G-4, G-3's currently putting an explosive device together. Maybe after this is over. Maybe. For now, let's go splat this mecha." Mark yawned. "Tiny, you're going to catch some sleep. I'll take her for a while. I want you fresh for combat. You too, Jason and Keyop. We'll swap over in two hours."
"Mark? Ten minutes to coordinates."
He dragged his eyes open. "Any further contacts?"
Tiny shrugged. "Maybe. I figure the initial contact was them testing their shield. They're not so easy to spot now."
"I think I have them," Keyop announced calmly.
"No? Really?" Both pilots turned to face him.
Their youngest team member was wearing an ear-to-ear grin. "I have an an...an...anomaly about the right size, which is moving."
"Good work." Mark raised his voice. "Princess? Time to wake up."
"Action?" Jason asked.
"Check Keyop's findings. Princess, start sending some nice loud radio messages. I want them to know exactly where we are."
"Yes, Commander," - but there was clearly a question in it.
"They think we don't know where they are. Let's have them attack on that assumption."
"And then?" Jason queried. "Blow them to bits?"
"We know our missiles are a waste of time with their shield. They'll attack from behind. As they come in, I want a single loop, vertical dive down, drop Princess's explosive device and get the hell out of there."
"Loop..." muttered Jason unenthusiastically.
His pilot grinned. "I can handle a loop."
"Good. We've done this before. Let's keep it sharp and we can be home for breakfast."
"Damn! Phoenix, respond!" Anderson snapped at the screen.
There was no response. There had been nothing since Princess's cut off 'no!' and an obscenity from Jason in a language Anderson had no idea the gunner had even heard of. Silence - and telemetry. A falling ship, in a high speed dive, headed vertically down towards the ocean with nobody conscious at her controls.
"Two hundred feet," Jones intoned from in front of him. "One-fifty."
There was nothing he could do but sit and watch.
To his infinite relief, the screens continued to show data.
"Engines are failing."
Well, they would do, since there was nobody to switch over to underwater mode and close the vents. The whole system would be flooded within seconds.
"Pressure doors have sealed." That was Bradshaw. "Life support is holding."
"They're still diving."
And they would continue to do so, until they hit the bottom. He only hoped there was enough water between them and it to slow their downward plunge to a safe speed, because he knew darn well that with its engines flooded, the Phoenix was so far from buoyant it might as well have been the brick most pilots considered it to be.
"What's the depth there?"
Bradshaw typed frantically. "Eleven hundred feet. Rocky floor, fairly level --"
"Chief," Jones interrupted, an almost unprofessional edge of panic in his voice. "I'm getting failures in structural integrity. The Phoenix won't stand up to the pressure, not right after a photonic beam hit."
Anderson reached for his phone, ready to call in the rescue crews. "How long do we have?"
Jones swallowed. "I'm sorry, sir. Fifty minutes, maximum, at eleven hundred feet."
Anderson stared at him, knowing that he had nobody who could get there in that time. Who could even get close. His team, the five young people who he'd trained from raw teenagers into the finest fighting machine the world had ever seen, were going to die in the next hour, because there was nobody close enough to pull them out of a sunken plane.
Or was there?