John stood at the observatory window of Thunderbird Five and gazed out at the inky blackness that stretched on for an immeasurable distance before him. Despite himself, he shivered. Staring out into the void, contemplating the known and unknown wonders contained in that vast, whorling vacuum… It had always calmed him before. Not now, though. Not now that he knew.
His eye kept being drawn to the same point; a single, twinkling light, red in hue and larger than the countless others surrounding it. His narrow shoulders jerked violently upwards as he shivered again; whether it was through excitement or fear, he wasn’t sure. What he was sure of though was that at a mean distance of 140 million miles away, on the arid surface of the planet Mars, there were signs of life. Alien life.
Slowly, he forced himself to turn away from the hypnotic expanse, firmly pinching the bridge of his thin nose in order to break the spell. He had to get a grip on himself. The call from the World Space Patrol could come in over the comm any minute now. He needed to be prepared. Collected. Calm. And yet… He, John Tracy, had real, tangible proof that intelligent alien life - oft deemed impossible or improbable by the experts on such matters - was in fact a reality.
It had all begun just over a month ago, just after the anniversary. Even now, as he cast his mind back, John found it hard to believe that for three years International Rescue had been answering hundreds, if not thousands, of desperate pleas for help from all over the globe. Just how many people they had been able to save in that time, John wasn’t sure. They’d made a difference, of course, but had it been enough? Had he done enough?
To mark the occasion, John had made the long journey home. It was supposed to be a happy time; a chance to catch up with brothers that he had sorely missed, to revel in all that they had achieved together. Somehow, though, it hadn’t been enough for him. As his family celebrated the milestone with cake, champagne and laughter, rightfully proud of what they’d accomplished, John had brooded. On an academic level, he knew that his job was important but sometimes… God, sometimes it didn’t feel like it was, especially when compared to his brothers’ escapades. What did you do today, Scott? Oh, gee! Well, I flew through the air at breakneck speed in a top-class flying machine before pulling fifty wailing orphans from a burning building! What did you do today, John? I answered the goddamn telephone…
Looking back on it now, he was thoroughly ashamed of his dour mood during the celebrations. He knew it wasn’t the first time he had felt that way, and he was sure that it wouldn’t be the last either. Still, he could not help but feel more than a little sheepish in retrospect. Luckily for him, his brothers were not the sort to let anyone stew, let alone siblings. Scott and Virgil had plonked themselves down in the corner with him and, somehow, they had known just where to steer the conversation. Virgil had mentioned the successful establishment of another colony on the moon - Lunarville 7 - and Scott had run with the theme. “All that new, untested technology. Plenty of scope for disaster there, don’t you think? ” the eldest Tracy had drawled. “Do you think they’d be able to reach you, John, if they needed our help?” That had done the trick. For the next week, John was consumed with the need to improve the communications technology on Thunderbird 5. With the help of Brains and Tin-Tin, he had managed to successfully design a more reliable system.
After the new comm system had been installed, on quiet nights as the Earth revolved unerringly beneath him, John had delighted in getting to grips with the fresh technology. Degree by degree, he would fine-tune the instruments so that they would be able to capture signals from further and further away. With space travel reaching its zenith, it seemed the prudent thing to do. John’s intention had been to cast a larger net and, late one evening, he snagged something.
The signal had been almost inaudible at first, barely a whisper. He dismissed it offhand as an echo in the radio waves, but within a fortnight of first hearing it the transmission had grown stronger. A never ending stream of oscillating blips, it sounded something like binary code to John’s ears. Something like, but not quite. Was it alien? He had to know.
Excitedly, he had made a recording and sent it to Brains. Just as he had hoped, International Rescue’s resident genius had been just as exhilarated - if not more so - than he was. Between the two of them, they had managed to pinpoint the location of the signal; an unassuming crater on the surface of Mars. That’s when Jeff had gotten involved. Calmly, he had assured them that he would forward the data to his contacts at the World Space Patrol. They were the experts in such matters, after all. In the meantime, they just had to wait...
… Which is what John was currently doing. Perched on the edge of a vast couch that matched the breadth of the observation window inch for inch, John sighed. His eyes jerked towards a digital display mounted above the comm station, his long, pale lashes flickering nervously as he checked the time. The display confirmed what he already knew; it had been well over an hour now and still nothing. Maybe it was nothing, after all, an insidious part of him whispered. A ghost in the machine. An echo in the airwaves. You should have watched, waited, observed. Taken your time.
No, a stronger part of him retorted. He knew what it was he’d been listening to. Brains had too. He knew the importance of what he had discovered, what it could mean for mankind. Absurdly, his mind whirled towards the opening passages of the War of the Worlds, a firm favourite of his childhood. Before he could stop himself, the words all but tumbled out; “... Across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”
With a gasp, he clapped his hands over his mouth, the sharp slap echoing violently off of the thick walls that surrounded him on all sides. No, no, no, he thought frantically, the word whirling around his head. Stop jumping to conclusions! There’s no proof that they’re like that, none at all, stop-
All at once, the shrill siren of Thunderbird Five’s communications system sounded out, unceremoniously careening through his thoughts. Quick as a flash, John launched himself off of the couch, his arms windmilling furiously as he scrambled towards the console. Once he arrived he relaxed. The blinking display showed that the call was coming through on the personal line; hopefully his father had an update. Bony finger outstretched, John pressed the appropriate button and sighed. “John here. Any news yet?” He turned his eyes up to the view screen, expecting to see his father’s face.
It wasn’t his father.
John reeled backwards. Plastered across his viewing screen was the face of a young man he had never seen before in his life. As dark as John was pale, the stranger was dressed in an odd green and black uniform; obviously associated with an organisation that he wasn’t familiar with. As John stared in disbelief, the young man looked at the screen - through the screen, almost - as if he was peering into someone’s window, his hazel eyes sparkling with curiosity.
“Hello, ‘John here’,” the stranger replied in a calm, lilting tone. His voice was level, but John was sure he could detect a hint of a smirk at the corner of the stranger’s mouth. “Am I correct in assuming that I’m through to Thunderbird Five?”
Angrily, John pushed his fringe out of his eyes and stormed forwards. “Well - yes, I -” he blustered in return, white-knuckled fists balled at his sides. He opened his mouth wide, ready to let rip at the stranger who had had the audacity to barge onto his communications system. Firstly, he was waiting on an important call and, secondly, what if there was an emergency? What sort of operation did this smirking interloper think they were running up here? How dare -
The stranger did not give him an opportunity to even finish his train of thought. Excitedly, the young man turned over his shoulder to speak to someone John could not see. “We’re through, Colonel!” the stranger chattered, an obvious note of pride in his voice. “I told you it’d be quicker to cut in through their private line!”
“Yes, yes… Well done, Leftenant Green. I had every faith in you,” came the curt reply. All of a sudden, one stranger was switched for another, this time an older man; white hair, white uniform, piercing blue eyes. Unconsciously, John stood up straighter under the older man’s stern gaze.
“Thunderbird Five?” the second stranger barked, his clipped English accent serving only to add to his air of cold severity. “This is Colonel White speaking; Commander-in-Chief of SPECTRUM.” John’s eyebrows rose several inches. SPECTRUM? No wonder he hadn’t recognised the uniforms. They were an international security organisation, ostensibly concerned with peace keeping missions on Earth. Rather hush-hush by all accounts. What did they have to do with transmissions from Mars?
Colonel White continued. “I apologise for the intrusion onto your private communication channel, but time is of the essence. Am I right in saying that you picked up the signals emanating from Mars?” John nodded. He opened his mouth, ready to explain what had happened but the Colonel carried on with barely a pause, apparently uninterested in anything John had to say.
“Good. Our communications officers at SPECTRUM registered similar transmissions around the same time. I must say though, their recordings were not half as clear as yours. Remarkable quality.” John couldn’t help but smile proudly as the Colonel forged on. “The point of this conversation is to say that the World Space Patrol have handed the case over to us at SPECTRUM….”
John gawked in response. “But you’re a security force… Surely the World Space Patrol is better equipped to deal with this sort of phenomenon?” he managed to blurt out before the Colonel cut across him once again.
“Nothing to worry about there, young man,” Colonel White said, not unkindly. “We have our top field agent on the case. Captain Black. He used to serve in the World Space Patrol, you know. Perfect man for the job. You carry on focusing on the excellent work that International Rescue does, and let SPECTRUM handle this. It was a pleasure to meet you. Colonel White, out.” And with that, he was gone.
John stumbled backwards and plonked himself down hard on the couch, eyes still fixed on the now-blank view screen. Well, that was that, he guessed. Begrudgingly, he admitted to himself that the Colonel did have a point. International Rescue was, at the end of the day, a rescue organisation. Space exploration was just not in their remit. And, besides, at the very least SPECTRUM were sending someone experienced in that sort of situation. It was sure to work out fine.
In the weeks to come, however, John could not shake a vague sense of foreboding, a feeling that things would not work out just fine. Not at all.