‘Approaching orbit of Pluto,’ Captain Jonathon Jordan Jr, known as JJ, commented.
(Fig 1 - JJ on the left, Jesse in TB2)
‘Better call the rest of the team to the TB2 bridge,’ Jesse Rigel grimaced at his co-pilot.
They’d programed the new X15 ion drive carefully before this shake down cruise. The engine should have taken them just beyond the Sun’s heliosphere. Somehow the combined Thunderbird vehicle came to rest several light days beyond the solar system. Using short bursts, it took the team eleven days to reach their current location. Still they’d learnt a lot about controlling the newly developed engine and more about the flux fields which interfered with its operation.
‘Grant,’ JJ called over the internal com, rousing the older man.
‘Are we just about home,’ Senior Captain Grant Hanson asked clearing the sleep from his eyes.
Their vehicles hadn’t been designed for long term missions. The five captains converted the cabins of TB1 and TB3 to quarters in order to sleep in shifts. Living on ration packs and limited water supplies, they couldn’t wait to get back to Acrology and their real lives.
‘Calculating the final jump now,’ JJ offered. ‘Should be ready to go by the time you, Dylan and Kallan get up here.’
‘I can’t wait to get Earthside,’ Jesse chimed in, ‘and find me a real live female type to help celebrate the end of this mission.’
‘Got a hot date in mind?’ JJ teased. His co-pilot always seemed to have an abundance of women to choose from.
‘I’m sure Captain Rigel has more than one contender to choose from,’ Grant’s gravelly voice issued from an opening in the floor. His couch clicking into place behind the pair, he asked, ‘where are Captain’s Beyda and James?’
(Fig 2 - from right Jesse, Grant and JJ.)
Buzzing the cockpit of TB1, JJ called out, ‘you awake, Dylan or has Kallan been keeping you up.’
‘Are we entering the solar system?’ Dylan managed to sound professional and peeved.
‘That’s a rodger,’ Jesse added unable to keep the smile off his face. He could see Kallan needing to place a calming hand on her husband’s shoulder. ‘Get up here so we can go home.’
(Fig 3 - Dylan and Kallan)
‘On our way,’ Kallan’s softer voice acknowledged.
‘Glad you could finally make it,’ Grant added his unique teasing as the pair of couches appeared, one on either side of his.
‘Unidentified ship,’ a metallic sounding female tone demanded the team’s attention. Overriding their communications system, it continued, ‘you are entering Terran Federated Space without authorisation. Please state your destination and purpose.’
Jesse turned to look first at JJ who wore an astounded expression, then Grant for instructions.
‘Open a channel,’ he requested, watching Kallan’s nimble fingers manipulate the communications console. ‘This is Thunderbird Senior Captain Grant Hanson of International Rescue. We are on final approach to Acrology Island after experiencing technical issues with our test flight of the X15. Our ion drive engine is set to fire in ten seconds. Under what authority are you requesting this information?’
(Fig 4 - Acrology Island, home of the IRO.)
‘Starcrusher?’ Dylan asked softly.
He’d spoken the fear running through the teams mind. As far as they knew, the Nitroid Colonies in the asteroid belt signalled the limit of human expansion in the Solar System. The team had encountered this nemesis several times in the past as the entity attempted to take over the Earth.
‘Negative, Captain Hanson,’ the voice ignored the query for information. ‘You are to remain stationary while I communicate with Terra control for further orders.’
‘What do you think is happening, Grant,’ Kallan asked while JJ cancelled the burn. ‘Could it be Starcrusher?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he hesitated, ‘but I have the feeling we won’t have long to find out.’
‘Thunderbird ship,’ the feminine voice commanded a few moments later, ‘you are cleared to proceed to Terra.
Transmitting flight path and landing instructions to your main frame computer now.’
‘Rodger,’ JJ acknowledged the data streaming onto the screen before him. ‘Hey,’ he yelled as the auto pilot took control away from him, ‘why are we landing on the East Coast of America and what it ISO?’
‘That’s nowhere near Acrology,’ Dylan joined the conversation observing the landing site on his monitor. ‘I don’t think I’ve heard of an organisation called ISO. Searching the computer for references now.’
‘Countdown to X15 ion drive firing, in five,’ Jesse brought the team’s attention back to their most pressing problem. ‘Grant, I don’t have control of the engine. Course is set and locked.’
‘These calculations,’ JJ offered, ‘are incredible. They’ve accounted for the flux fields which interfered with our initial burn. We should coast into Earth’s gravitational well in three hours and twenty minutes.’
‘How could they know about the flux issues,’ Dylan asked, intrigued, ‘when we’ve only just discovered the correlation?’
‘I’m thinking,’ Grant calm tone silenced the speculation, ‘we’ll find out when we reach our destination.’