Sleep eluded him, the once-familiar lines and angles in his bedroom morphing into strange and somewhat threatening shapes. Long-forgotten monsters from his childhood lurked in every corner and he sat up, rubbing his face with a trembling hand, reluctant to turn on the light. A few paces to the bathroom, taking care not to stub toes on the corner of his desk, a quick slash to empty a bladder that wasn’t really complaining. But it was better than lying there, waiting for sleep that never came. It was nearly four in the morning.
He sat on the edge of the bed and listened. The house was silent. Nothing unusual in that, the rooms were soundproofed, and anyway, his brothers’ rooms were further away, and they were careful not to make any noise in case they woke him. His arm itched beneath the bandages. He wanted to scratch it, wanted to tear off the coverings and dig his nails deep into the skin. Wanted it to hurt. Anything to take away the memory. He couldn’t settle, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t read. Couldn’t even work. He was useless.
In the end he went back into the bathroom, blinking in the light as he opened the packet, popping two of the pills out of the foil bubbles. His fingers curled round the bright pink ovals that beguiled him with their promise of sleep.
Such weakness. He was almost tempted to throw them away, but in the end, need triumphed and he lipped them into his mouth before scooping up a double handful of water and swallowing with a grimace. Light turned out, he made his way back to bed, hoping for some small respite, some sleep before they came to check on him again. The sheets were cold again, even after such a brief sojourn, and he pushed his feet far down, relishing the chill. Then the door opened and he lay still, eyes closed, his breathing even and slow and relaxed though his whole body shrieked to be moving.
He knew who it was standing there, watching. His father’s hand would be moving as if he wanted nothing more than to reach out and comfort the man lying there, but in the end the visitor retreated, closing the door behind him.
Virgil listened as the footsteps faded.
The house was still silent when he woke, but it was an inexplicable sense of emptiness and solitude, as if something was missing. He lay there for a while, thin beams of light forcing themselves through the cracks in the blinds to dance across the room. Morning. The pills had worked; a dreamless sleep for once, though they had left him heavy-headed and stale. He should get up, get dressed, maybe make some effort to face another day, face the quiet concern and the cautious attempts to give him something to do. Painting or playing the piano or even sunbathing. He dug his nails into the new pink skin at the edge of the bandage. A good pain, pushing away the memories. The sunlight brightened. A good day. Perhaps he would go for a walk along the beach. When he got up.
He rolled over, thumped the pillow with his good hand and tried to find a cool spot. Later.
The house was still silent when thirst finally drove him down to the kitchen. There was no one around and he grabbed the milk from the fridge, gulping several mouthfuls from the carton before wiping his lips on the sleeve of his dressing gown. He put the carton down on the worktop. Someone else would do put it away no doubt. And clear up the spill.
The voice startled him and he spun round. ‘Breakfast?’
‘Well, brunch. Too late for breakfast. Sleep well?’ Grandma puttered into the kitchen, opening cupboards and getting out her favourite frying pan, clattering it onto the stove. ‘Bacon and eggs, or …’ she paused, twisting round to smile at him. ‘Bacon sandwich. You always like those. I’ve got some nice smoked slices. Canadian style. Your favourite.’
He gulped. An effort to hold back the memory. Smoked bacon. He couldn’t face that; not since the rescue. ‘No.’ he paused. ‘Thanks anyway.’
‘You could have stayed in bed you know. I’d have brought you something.’ She waved a hand and he moved aside to let her explore the contents of the fridge. ‘Pancakes, waffles or …’ she paused and held up one hand. ‘Scrambled eggs?’
The thought made him nauseous. He picked up a banana. ‘This is fine. I’ll eat a proper lunch later.’ But he knew he wouldn’t; he would find some excuse or other.
The banana skin was tinged with green and difficult to prise open, and he unpeeled it slowly, the flesh squeaky against his teeth, firm and devoid of any sweetness. He forced three quick bites down before tossing the remainder into the bin and then stood there, rubbing the itch on his arm. It was becoming a habit. ‘I’d better see where everyone else is.’
‘They’re not here. Well, Jeff is, of course.’ Grandma wiped the pan with a cloth and handed it to him. ‘Be a love and put that back for me will you? I can’t reach.’ She turned away to wipe down the worktop, clearing away the small puddle of milk and fussing for a moment with a coffee cup and teaspoon that should have gone in the dishwasher.
He stretched up and slid the pan back in silence. Not here? ‘Grandma? Not here? Alan? Gordon?’
‘And the others. Left about four hours ago. Something major from the sound of it, but Jeff didn’t think you’d be needed.’ She turned back to hand him a drying cloth, but there was no one there, just the door swinging on its pivot hinge.
‘Virgil? Didn’t know you were awake.’ Jeff put down his pen. ‘Everyone’s out.’
‘Grandma told me.’ Virgil leaned on the table, hands spread out, ignoring the sting of new skin stretching. ‘Why didn’t you wake me?’
The older man shrugged. ‘I would have done if I’d needed you. But we didn’t. The others took Three up to International Space Station Tango. She suffered a meteor collision a few hours ago. Took out several of the units, they lost all air reserves and she was kicked out of orbit. Rush job to seal the hull and resupply her before they get her back on track.’
‘And Scott? Why did he go?’
Jeff tilted his head, staring at Virgil with an irritated look. ‘Scott’s working with John, monitoring operations, and Brains is busy helping with the re-alignment. He said they may have to tow it back into orbit, but that’s a last resort.’ He picked up the pen and made a note in his journal.
‘So why wasn’t I called?’
‘No need. It’s all gone smoothly so far.’ Jeff put the pen down and laced his fingers together in a rare gesture of exasperation. ‘I’m expecting to hear from them any moment. So relax. Put your feet up.’ He twisted round as Scott’s picture lit up. ‘Scott. How’s it going? Any problems?’
‘Slow work Father. The damage to the modules is more extensive than anyone anticipated and we’re not ready to start pumping air in yet. But the crew are now in Thunderbird Three and Brains thinks it’ll only take a few more hours to repair the micro-boosters and get her back under control.’ The oldest Tracy twisted sideways to reveal his blonde brother standing just behind. ‘John’s concerned about any debris that might still be in orbit. He wants us to do a sweep after we’ve finished and then shadow the station for a few orbits, just to be sure.’
‘Agreed. But only once the mission’s accomplished. Keep me informed.’ Jeff closed the link and looked at Virgil. ‘How’s the arm?’
‘Fine.’ And it was. Itchy and sore but … fine.
‘Tin-Tin says it’s healing well.’
‘Yes.’ The silence was awkward. Virgil ran one hand over the piano keys and wiped dust from his fingers. ‘Will they manage?’
‘You know Scott. Likes to cover all the bases. Takes his responsibilities seriously.’
‘I should have …’ Virgil shrugged.
‘No. I’d have said if they needed you. You know that.’ Jeff stood up, pushing his chair back. ‘I trust your brother.’
‘Sure. I just wanted something…’ Shoulders shrugged again.
‘To do? You can rest. Time to recuperate. Take it easy for a while. I don’t think you’re –’
‘Emergency call, Father.’ John’s voice cut across Jeff’s words. ‘Antarctica. British Territories Halley Base. There’s been an earthquake. Magnitude eight point three. It damaged the ice shelf. Eight of their nine modules are down and the remaining one is only just viable. Several casualties, one critical.’ He paused and took a deep breath. Scott was standing behind him looking worried but keeping out of the way. This was John’s metier: words kept to a minimum, information clear and concise, no hint of panic even when things were desperate. ‘All runways are closed for the winter and even if any were open, the temperature’s too low to allow normal aircraft in and there’s nothing that could get there in time anyway. They need evacuating before they freeze.’ It was impossible to ignore the look in John’s eyes. The determined stare. The obsession.
‘Give me the details. How much time do we have?’ Jeff grabbed the pen again.
Virgil pulled out the detailed charts of the area, spreading them out over the coffee table. He discarded several with sideways sweeps of a hand before he found the correct one. He leaned over, running one finger over the coastline and tapping in triumph when he spotted the tiny station on the very edge of the continent.
A quick calculation. Over four thousand miles and a landing not only in the dark, but on ice and in temperatures close to minus 50C. Not fun. Not easy either. But that was the point wasn’t it. That was why they were here – to save the unsaveable. He scratched his arm again and swore as the edge of one nail dug a little too deep. It would be a nightmare flight over the ocean, a challenging landing at the best of times and almost impossible without a co-pilot. Not much chance of success.
He started planning, half-listening to John’s calm voice in the background. Thirteen personnel, power supply failing, temperature dropping. No chance. Certainly not in the state he was in right now, bone weary and lethargic. His own fault, he’d avoided doing anything for the last few weeks and he was slack and dull from lack of exercise.
He tried to speak, but the words stuck in his throat, just as the dressing stuck to his skin when Tin-Tin peeled it off the first time.
He concentrated on the map. Halley Base. Doable. An hour’s flight at max speed, another ten minutes or longer to find a landing spot. That would be the hardest part. He couldn’t rely on lowering a rescue cage or walking the survivors back to the pod, not with serious injuries. It would have to be a manual landing in the dark and then travelling an unknown distance over packed snow and ice in the worst imaginable conditions. Impossible. No one could do it, even in perfect health. And he was far from healthy. Even the thought of flying made him feel sick. His arm began to burn again and he held it close to his chest in an effort to stop the pain.
‘John. Get in touch with Halley. Tell them…’ Jeff. The familiar voice calm and steady and yet Virgil could hear the despair and regret. And shame. ‘Tell them I’m sorry. We can’t help. Not this time. Maybe one of the other stations can do something. Try to get in touch with one of the big bases. Someone must have a plane available, somewhere.’ He clenched his fingers, the knuckles white. ‘Tell them I’m …. I’m sorry.’
Virgil’s hand clenched, crumpling the edge of the map in his grip. He took a breath. ‘Ten minutes. I just need ten minutes. That’s all.’
Jeff looked up.
‘Ten minutes. Please Father. Let me at least try.’
‘It’s too -.’
‘Dangerous?’ Virgil shrugged. ‘So are most of our missions. Or are you saying I’m not ready?’ He stared at his father. ‘Believe me I know the risks. But we have to try. We’ve never refused before. Ever.’
‘Get a flight plan together for me and co-ordinates of the nearest landing area. I’m going to have a shower to wake me up. Oh and I’ll need something to eat- tell Grandma. Anything’ll be fine.’ He was out of the lounge and hurrying down to his bedroom before Jeff managed to stutter out a reply to the barrage of orders.
The bandage on his arm ended up sodden despite his efforts to keep it dry and he unpeeled it carefully, tossing it away and patting the scar dry. The first time he’d really looked at the damage, the new skin looking better than he expected, smooth and shiny and hairless but it would fade in time. Everything did, eventually.
Grandma was waiting in the lounge when he came back with his hair tousled, t-shirt and jeans pulled on without care, a mismatched pair of socks on his feet and no shoes. She handed him a brown paper bag. ‘Make sure you eat all that young man. I don’t want any of it wasted.’
Brown paper bags. And suddenly he was a teenager again, setting off for school with his rucksack and books and a paper bag containing lunch. For a moment he was tempted to do as he had done all those years ago – open the bag and peer inside, hoping for his favourite sandwich and maybe an added luxury, a bar of chocolate or some other treat. But he didn’t. A quick grin and he turned to his father. ‘Tell John I may need guiding in – depends on the conditions.’
‘He already knows.’ Jeff scooped up the flight details from the desk and held them out. ‘Keep me updated. Every ten minutes. Understand?’
‘FAB.’ The picture tilted behind him and he slid into the cavernous hanger, brown paper bag gripped in one hand, slender datafile in the other. He was on his own now. Too late to turn back.
to be continued.