A Thunderbirds fanfic story by Ltcdr. © 2014
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.
‘Thunderbird Two to Control. Course laid in. ETA Halley Base 58 minutes. Will report again at –, ‘ a pause as he checked the time, – ‘thirteen oh nine hours.’
‘FAB Virgil. John reports wind speed increasing. Will relay further updates when I get them.’ There was a click, and then another as the link re-opened. ‘And Grandma says make sure you eat all your lunch.’
It was like being a child again, but there was a sense of comfort in the words. He switched to auto-pilot and unfastened his seatbelt. The bag was just the same as the ones from his past, and he wondered if there was a secret stash of them hidden away in one of the storerooms on the island, waiting for just such as moment as this. Hundreds of brown paper bags piled on shelves, sorted by size and just waiting to be used for a packed lunch. He shook his head in amusement at his own foolishness, unrolled the top of the bag and sighed with pleasure. Pastrami and cream cheese bagels with gherkins and, tucked in one corner, behind protein bars and a slab of home-made fruit cake, another favourite. A fresh peach. His stomach growled with hunger for the first time in nearly a month and he ate greedily, wiping smears of cheese from his lips and then pausing as fingers encountered rough stubble. Too late to do anything about that.
He bit into the fruit, the soft skin tearing like tissue, the flesh rich and ripe, the juice trickling down his chin until, with a soft chuckle, he was forced to slurp it up or risk staining his uniform. He held the stone in his palm for a minute, looking around for somewhere to put it, then dropped it back in the bag and put it aside, rueing yet again the lack of a waste bin on the control deck. He would talk to Brains later about getting one installed.
They crossed the Antarctic Circle twenty minutes later, turning east and heading for the darkness of the distant ice shelf. Another update: the weather reports as before, the survivors hanging on, the power failing. Fires taking hold of the damaged modules and threatening the only one still habitable. It was like the oil rig all over again. He was going to arrive too late to do anything more than try to retrieve the bodies. His arm itched, an unbearable tingling and he clenched his fist in a futile effort to make it stop. It was too warm in the cabin, he could feel sweat on his upper lip, the unpleasant taste of salt after the thick sweetness of peach flesh on his tongue, and he turned the temperature down a few degrees before putting her on auto-pilot and going to check the pod.
The ice shelf was in darkness, the moon nothing more than a sliver of white in a cloudless sky, the land beneath hidden. Ten minutes to ETA, and he pulled out the datafile and read through the latest updates from John. Temperature down to -55°outside and the wind picking up. Some of the worst conditions he had ever experienced, but there was nothing anyone could do about that.
The cold weather gear was in the pod, along with the rest of the supplies: snowtracker and sledges, hoverbikes, anything that might be of the slightest use. The massive tracker was his real hope, as long as the wind was not too fierce. If he couldn’t see where he was going, then it would be utter foolishness to use the vehicle.
He reduced speed, swinging the giant machine round, her blunt nose pointing into the wind to reduce drag. Lower and lower, the slightest of shivers in the wind despite her size, the proximity alarms ear-piercingly loud as she dropped towards the ice below. He held her steady at 50 above, hanging there while the searchlights and scanners played over the surface and every panel flashed warnings. No sign of a suitable landing site; the ice was fractured and broken by the quake, and the sensors indicated numerous crevasses in the area. It was too cold, too windy, too dangerous. He stretched his fingers, aware of the tightness and tension in each digit. If he had any sense he would turn her round and give up, right now, before things got worse.
‘Virgil? What’s it like down there?’
The voice pulled him back from the dark thoughts. Scott. Calling from Thunderbird Five, controlled and efficient and yet his concern was noticeable, just below the calmness. ‘Fine. Just on final approach. You monitoring?’
‘I’m helping John. Sending you more data now.’
There was no time to reply. A flashing light on one panel indicated a suitable landing zone, less than a hundred yards ahead. He flexed his fingers one last time then wrapped them round the controls, preparing himself for the difficult touchdown. ‘Hold on Scott. Going in for landing.’
He ignored the alarms and the infinitesimal shuddering, focused himself on getting her down in one quick, smooth action. ‘Fifty-seven yards, bearing 132°, altitude thirty-two feet, engines at sixty percent. Braking. Braking. Reverse thrust. Still can’t see a damned thing.’ A flurry of movement, a sudden burst of power and then a metallic thud that rang through the cockpit.
A long silence.
‘Virgil? Are you all right? Virgil?’
‘Fine Scott. Down and in one piece.’ A bark of laughter. ‘Got a bit busy there for a moment, but we’re okay now. I’ll finish up here and head for the pod. Get me a bearing for Halley will you? And the distance?’
‘Sure thing, brother. Weather’s getting worse out there. Ground blizzard from the looks of things. Temperature down to 54 but the wind chill takes it to minus 75. Wrap up warm and Grandma says to make sure you ate all your lunch.’
Typical of Grandma, and yet he was grateful for her concern. He put his ‘bird in sleep mode, grabbed the slice of fruit cake out of the paper bag and hurried down to the pod, stuffing his mouth and swallowing each bite as quickly as possible. He would need the energy once he was outside.
It was a nightmare opening the pod door. There had not been time to turn her out of the wind, and once the ramp started to open, snow flurries filled the space, turning the interior into a full-size snowglobe, infiltrating every crack and crevice within seconds, stinging his face until he managed to pull down his balaclava and goggles. It was easier to go and sit in the snowtracker, blocking out the screams of the wind, at least until Scott got back to him with the information. The silence inside the cabin was nearly as frightening as the noise outside. A thick silence, broken only by his own breathing and the occasional faint chatter from the radio. He wondered why it was taking so long. A simple enough task. He could have done it himself, but Scott had just as accurate a fix on his position and sometimes it was important to make people feel needed.
The radio crackled into life, Scott’s instructions only just audible over heavy static. Another reminder of the dangers out here; the blizzard making communications difficult, if not impossible. But at least he knew which direction to take, and how far away Halley was. Two point three six nine kilometres. No way he could walk there and lead them back here. It was the heavy tracker or nothing.
He climbed out of the cab and went to check the couplings for the multi-person survival pod. Room for ten but it would fit thirteen at a pinch. An uncomfortable journey but better than freezing to death. He wondered if John or Scott or anyone for that matter, had made contact with the survivors since the first call less than ninety minutes ago. It was doubtful. Scott would have updated him by now. He tried not to imagine the scene: the survivors huddling together in the dark, everyone waiting and not knowing if they were going to be rescued or not, the cold creeping in as the power supply failed. He zipped up his hood and made sure the cuff of his parka overlapped his mittens. Everything checked and double checked. And checked again. His responsibility.
And then it was time to go: a throaty roar as the engines started, dissonant squeaks as Kevlar-clad tracks bounced down the steel ramp and onto the ice, the groan of wipers making a valiant effort to clear the screen before creaking to a halt under the sheer volume of snow thrown at them. He watched the radar carefully, detouring round huge blocks of ice thrown up by the disturbance earlier or clambering over smaller protrusions, but each time bringing the vehicle back on its original bearing. There had been no communication with Scott, or indeed anyone, since that last message back in the safety of Pod 3. He was on his own now.
Two kilometres. The bone-jarring vibration of the tracks grinding over packed snow and ice, the static from the radio whenever he turned it on, the ventilation ducts blasting warm air on his face, until he was suddenly too hot and stuffy and trapped.
He unfastened his parka, yanked off the goggles and balaclava. Concentrated on the dials again. One point one, zero point eight three, creeping closer and closer …… he rubbed his eyes, thought about the taste of peaches. His mouth was dry. There was nothing to drink here in the cabin, at least not without stopping and digging a bottle out of the emergency supplies stashed in an overhead locker, and there was no time for such luxuries.
The radar blipped. 110 metres to go. The tracker slid sideways, a heart-stopping and out-of-control slither that seemed to go on for ever before she jerked to a halt, shuddering. The cabin was stifling now, sweat trickling down the side of his face and he pulled off a glove and wiped his brow, before the difficult task of getting back on course, the chassis groaning under the strain of climbing back up the slope, and all the time the survival pod a dead weight dragging behind on its runners.
Somehow they made it to level ground and he pulled to a halt, just to catch his breath and try the radio once more. Nothing.
He flexed his fingers, rubbing them together to ease the cramping after gripping the controls for so long. Only another 56 metres, fifty-five… forty seven… he half-wondered if the tracker would end up crashing into one of the dislodged modules, but he dismissed the thought. Scott had given him the distance and direction. He knew his brother. The surviving module would be exactly where he was heading for.
Another eleven metres, hands on the controls ready to steer into any slide, unable to stop his eyes flickering up to the useless windshield, desperate to see something other than snow and darkness.
Despite the immense size of the modules, the blizzard made seeing them impossible and it was only the proximity alarm and the warning from the sensors that gave any indication he had arrived. If Scott’s information was accurate, he would be somewhere close to the only remaining habitable pod. The wind howled again and then he was jolted sideways as something huge and metal and immovable scraped along the side of the tracker with a deafening screech. The vehicle shuddered to a halt, tracks screeching in a futile effort to make further headway.
‘Damn.’ He punched the emergency shut down, holding his breath as he waited for the first warning lights; a fuel leak or perhaps one of the tracks breaking away. But there was nothing, just the sweeping line on the radar screen, the creaking as the tracker shifted position again and his own ragged breathing. And then he sensed it: the acrid stench of burning, the hiss and sputter of circuits shorting out somewhere behind him. He twisted round, clawing at his seat belt in a frantic effort to escape.
The smell. Dear god the smell. The flames would start next. His arm stung. It was difficult to catch his breath, his fingers fumbling at the clasp, struggling to press the release, then he was falling, slipping from the seat and across the tilted floor until he was pressed against the bulkhead, struggling to get to his feet in the bulky clothing. The extinguishers clicked into action, spraying precise jets of foam at the bulkhead and all the while he was scrabbling against the wall, pushing himself up until, at last, he was upright, clinging to the back of his chair, feet slithering on the thick foam creeping across the floor of the cabin as he tried not to panic, tried to push down the fear and the memory of faces and flames and … failure. He clenched his fists, the new skin pulling tight.
A final sputter from somewhere behind the bulkhead and then the smoke was sucked out and he could breathe again as the stink of hot metal faded. The extinguishers shut down, leaving the cabin strangely quiet and he looked up, surprised. The wipers had resumed their battle, clearing a wide swathe of the windscreen. The wind had dropped.
It took him a couple of minutes to power everything down; motors, purifiers, interfaces. The heaters. Everything. Even in the pod. It would make it difficult coming back, especially with injured passengers, but the risk of further electrical damage was too high to leave anything activated. Then it was back to the basics again: goggles, hat, parka fastened, gloves, backpack and flashlight. No point in getting the sledge from the pod – if he was correct the module was right above him. It was just a matter of finding the survivors. And getting them to safety.
He opened the cabin door, gasping as freezing air filled his lungs and found every chink in his protective clothes. Even the simple task of clambering down the ladder to the ground was fraught with difficulty – the impact with the stanchion had buckled part of the tracker’s shell, twisting the ladder so he was forced to drop the last few feet, landing with a jarring thud on his hands and knees beside the wide tracks.
The sheer size of the module, revealed as the last flakes of snow fell away, was enough to take his breath away. An immense dark shape looming over him so close, that his automatic reaction was to flinch and lower his head. He calmed himself, took a deep breath, and another and then his training took over and he brushed stray snow from his goggles and turned round to survey the whole area.
The tracker’s beams illuminated a line of modules disappearing into the darkness, the next one so tilted it was a miracle it was still standing, the rest nothing but blacker shapes in the already black night, their angular shapes twisted and off-kilter. There were no lights to be seen, but this was where Scott directed him, and so this was where the survivors would be – in the module above him. He just now had to find some way to get to them.
He ventured a few paces further along, out of the headlights of the tracker so that he was forced to switch on his own flashlight, playing the beam over the broken and treacherous surface, looking for a ladder, steps, anything. Huge broken blocks of ice glinting, ice crystals falling in slow motion from somewhere above, the beam of his flashlight reflected in a pane of toughened glass on the next tilted module. He shivered. The quietness was different somehow; this was not the stillness of men waiting by a collapsed building, listening for a voice, a cry, anything. This was a threatening stillness, broken by the soft slur of snow trickling from somewhere above, the faint squeaking as his feet crushed the snow, the quiet tick-tick-tick of the engine as it cooled too rapidly. A dangerous calm, unsettling and threatening.
The tracker groaned behind him as it settled deeper – a warning that time was short. And there it was – a staircase, just in the edge of the tracker’s headlights. Metal open-treaded steps, treacherous with ice and tilting at a steep angle. But it was the only way and he slung the strap of the flashlight over his shoulder, adjusted the backpack, and started climbing.
He cursed as the truth made itself heard in his aching muscles and the sweat beading his brow. His pounding heart and the need to stop and take a deep breath. He was out of condition. Too much time lying in bed feeling sorry for himself instead of getting back to work. His hand missed the rail when he reached out again, encountering nothing but air and for a moment he felt himself fall forwards, could see himself tumble down to the snow below. Then he recovered, grabbed the rail and held on to it for a long moment before hauling himself up the next couple of steps, the ice covered and tilting treads slippery under his feet.
He was at the top of the stairs before he realised the wind had picked up again and the visibility was getting worse. No time to rest; he pulled at the handle of the heavy air-tight door and it opened with ease, too much ease, its seals no longer air-tight. It was dark inside, and he pulled the flashlight off his shoulder and began moving forwards into the unknown.
A narrow, deserted corridor, closed doors with signs: high voltage, radioactive, biohazard. He didn’t waste time trying the doors, no-one would be foolish enough to take shelter there. He carried on, boots loud on the metal floor, his breath a fine cloud of mist despite the balaclava covering his mouth. ‘Hello!’ His voice reverberated down the passage, the echoes distorted and fading. More doors, more symbols. Less threatening ones now, recycling, storage. ‘Hello? Anyone hear me?’
And a faint voice replied. ‘Here! Please, hurry.’
‘Where are you?’ He wanted to hurry, but it was too dangerous. He had no idea whether the internal structure had been damaged and even with the flashlight it was hard to see the darker places in the corridor. If he tripped on something it could be disastrous. But it was so hard not to break into a run.
‘Right at the end.’
Five more paces, six, and then he was at the end of the passage and only one door in front of him.
He shone the beam inside. A cluster of pale, frightened faces in the middle of the room, metal barrels and large plastic containers stacked high against the walls. He could smell scorched wool.
He took a breath. And another. Swallowed. ‘International Rescue here. How many casualties? ’ No time for pleasantries, the room was cold, and getting colder, sapping precious heat from the survivors.
‘Three.’ A woman pushed herself away from the huddle. ‘Two relatively minor, a broken arm which we’ve managed to splint and a dislocated shoulder. But Mark was in the kitchen when it happened.’ She gestured to one side and Virgil played the beam over the huddled figure of a man, hunched against one wall. ‘Severe burns on one arm and he’s only just regained consciousness. The medical centre and the rest of the modules went down when the quake hit us. We had to evacuate and this was the only place with any remaining power. We’ve done our best but the first aid kit in here was pretty basic. Then the emergency batteries packed in as well.’ Ice crystals sparkled on her eyelashes in the chill air. ‘Where are the others, the rest of your team?’
Virgil moved closer, his voice lowered. ‘No one else. But I’ll get you all out, trust me. Now. Can he walk?’ It would be a nightmare getting a helpless casualty out of here without assistance.
‘I don’t know. His arm’s a mess.’
The woman was close enough now for him to see her face, grey with cold and lined with worry. He stripped off his backpack and began pulling out the cobweb-light survival suits Brains had developed from Penylon. ‘I’ll see to Mark in a minute. Help me give these out. They’ll keep you warm for a while, at least until we get to safety.’
The all-in-one garment stretched to fit all sizes, and Virgil busied himself showing the survivors how to make sure the suit fitted snugly and how to pull the hood up to cover the whole head and find the attached gloves that Grandma likened to scratch mitts on a baby-suit, then he turned to deal with the more serious casualty. The man was leaning against one of the banks of computers, injured arm cradled across his body, his face ashen with shock and pain.
Burns. Why couldn’t it be frostbite, or hypothermia? A broken leg even. He took a breath. ‘Let’s see if I can get you more comfortable.’ He knelt down, reached out with one hand then hesitated. The stink of burned flesh assaulted him in a grim reprise of his own injury, but he steadied himself and focussed on his task.
Another item pulled from his backpack. The first aid kit looked small and inadequate but the contents were as surprising and as compact as the survival suits. Bandages, tourniquets, sterile dressings, even splints. He dug through the items, finding the familiar dressings and laying them beside the man in preparation. Alan’s words echoed in his mind with astonishing clarity and he found himself repeating them.
‘It’s going to be okay, trust me. Looks worse than it really is. Now, look at me. That’s right. Now. I need you to hold still, okay? This is going to hurt at first but then it’ll feel a lot easier.’ He picked up the spray, flicked the cap off. ‘Ready?’ He could feel the man try to pull away and he grabbed his wrist and held tight.
A stifled cry as he covered the burned skin with the advanced hydrogel spray, a gasp of pain or was it a sob of relief as the cool gel began to numb the skin. A release of tension, the man sinking back against the wall limp and breathless. It was easy to finish the task without causing any further discomfort– a second thicker layer and a sterile dressing for added protection and then the arm covered in a waterproof casing. ‘How is it now?’
‘Fine. Thank you.’ Despite the British stiff-upper-lipped politeness, the voice was breathless and weak, and even with the sealant he knew the pain would still be there, buried deep below the skin.
He swallowed down the memory. ‘Let’s get you suited up and out of here to somewhere warmer.’
‘Good idea. It’s perishing in here.’ A swift grin, a wave of one hand belying the obvious discomfort.
It took longer than he anticipated, the temperature dropping further until his breath crackled and frost rimmed his eyelashes. But at last the injured man was suited and standing, his face regaining some colour as the survival suit worked its magic. Virgil helped him towards the door, the others following, silvered suits glinting like a string of diamonds in the reflections from his flashlight.
A nightmare trek, the corridor longer than he recalled, the men and women shuffling behind him, the floor groaning beneath his feet and the whole structure shivering. It would be the end if the hydraulic legs failed. There would be no hope of survival. He hurried the group on with calm urgency outside and down to the waiting tracker, one treacherous step at a time, until at last they were all standing on the surface, a little bruised and sore and chilled despite the suits, but alive.
He gathered them all together, his flashlight illuminating the bulk of the tracker. ‘This way folks, it’s going to be a bit of a squeeze, but it won’t be for long. Thunderbird 2 is parked just a couple of kilometres away and once we’re there you’ll have plenty of room.’ He led the way alongside the tracker to the bright orange survival pod.
The lowering ramp scraped on the ice, the interior of the pod bitterly cold and dark, and he hurried to switch everything back on before guiding the survivors inside and settling them in place; the most injured man first and the extra passengers cramming themselves wherever they could find space. A longer task than he intended, but with injured on board and a rough journey back to his ‘bird, he could take no chances. It took longer than he expected for the heaters to kick in and the temperature rise above freezing. It was going to be a cold and miserable journey back but there was no point in waiting.
‘Don’t unstrap until you hear from me. Understand?’ Nods of agreement, his passengers looking uncomfortable in the cramped confines, yet he could see relief in the pale faces staring back at him. ‘We’ll be off in a couple of minutes. It’ll probably be a rough journey back, but you’ll be safe in here and there’s a radio if you need me. I’ll be as quick as I can. Hang on.’
A last look around and then he made his way back outside and closed the door.
In silence he made his way alongside the pod, arm outstretched to keep in contact with the smooth metal exterior, in a surge of fear that he might somehow lose his way. A deafening creak shattered the silence and he spun around, looking up in terror as the module directly above started moving, a faint trembling that sent great sheets of ice and snow crashing to the ground to cover both tracker and pod in a thick layer of white.
There was no time to do anything other than make for it, feet slipping on the snow, his bulky garments hampering any attempt to run. More snow from above, the module now groaning as it fought to stay upright, and he grabbed the handrail and dragged himself up those first few twisted rungs into the cab of the snowtracker by sheer pig-headed willpower, all the time cursing his stupidity in not leaving the machine in stand-by mode.
It would take too long to power up by the book and he initiated the emergency start-up. A rough and ready protocol that forced the engines into action even before he had done the required safety checks. For a moment he thought it had failed but the engine roared into life and, without even buckling his seatbelt, he pushed the controls to full speed and felt the tracks grip bite deep into ice.
And then they were moving, the engine ragged and uneven and the uneven terrain jolting him sideways in his seat but he clung on and managed to reach the restraints and secure himself as the tracker jounced and rattled and thumped in its headlong dash to get away from the menace behind them. A quick glance at the pod monitors showed life support fully operational and everyone huddling in their seats. No time to warn them, it took both hands and all his strength to keep the controls in a straight line.
And then the modules fell, a row of dominoes, each one pulling the next down behind it with thunderous crashes and screams of tearing metal, every violent impact throwing the tracker and pod up off the surface to hang in midair until they fell back with a bone-jarring thud and he held his breath, wondering if this time his luck had run out. A last terrible smash as the final module fell and both vehicles hit the ground, tracks grating against the snow and they were moving again, grinding over snow and chunks of ice.
The engine faltered, coughing and spluttering and he gripped the controls and clung on. He had no idea where, or what was in front of them but that didn’t matter. They were out of immediate danger and he reduced the power back to 80% and ran through the checklist, switching on radar and electrics, heating and lights. Life support was working – just – and the cab lights were dimmer than they should be, but his real concern was the loss of communication with the pod. It was there, still attached to the tracker, but he had no idea what state it was in, or its passengers for that matter.
He had two options. Come to a halt and investigate the pod or continue in the hope the pod still maintained life support. Thirty minutes back to Two if he was lucky and opening the sealed pod would mean a loss of any accumulated warmth although it would give them fresh air if the CO2 scrubbers had failed.
Freeze to death or suffocate.
The last time he’d had to make a decision like this, he’d chosen the wrong one. And people had died. They would have died anyway, even if he’d arrived as planned, but afterwards he blamed himself for stopping off to rescue the survivors who had leapt into the water and were in danger of drowning in the storm conditions. And by the time he reached the oil rig it was too late. The small group of workers had been so close to safety, so very close, until the second explosion tore through their refuge. He’d burned his arm trying to clear the burning passageway to see if there was anyone left alive. Even then he knew it was hopeless.
He rubbed at his eyes with the thick mitten. He would drive on. And hope he was doing the right thing.
The journey back seemed to take an age, detouring round huge blocks of ice thrown at random by the collapse of the modules and the lack of any real warmth in the cab making it difficult to respond to the controls. His fingertips, despite his mittens, were starting to lose sensation and he could feel the temperature dropping minute by minute. He hoped his passengers were keeping warm – the survival suits were not designed for extended periods of severe sub-zero. He would have a word with Brains about improving the ECW gear. It was no fun being this cold.
The radar blipped a warning and he looked up, startled to realise he had been daydreaming. She was less than a hundred metres away and a clear pathway ahead. He eased the tracker to a slow stop, activated Pod 3’s door and drove up the ramp as soon as it had lowered. He was out of the cab and racing to the survival pod even before the ramp had finished rising again behind him.
The pod was a mess, the tough walls scarred by huge dents where debris had landed, and he was forced to use the emergency controls to open the door, pulling off his mittens to punch in the code, his fingers so numb that it took him three tries before he was successful. The door creaked open a couple of feet and then he heard cheering. Ragged, breathless, close-to-tears cheering and he dragged at the door with renewed energy until it surrendered and swung open to let a wave of stale warm air waft out and he saw the survivors, bloodied and battered, but very much alive. He closed his eyes for a moment, locking away the memory of their faces. Thirteen of them. Going home to parents and families, friends and colleagues. Alive.
A good feeling.
Tomorrow he would get up for breakfast, sit outside in the sunshine and let the sun warm his bones, do a few lengths of the pool to start getting back to full fitness again. The arm was long healed if truth were told and he’d been idle long enough.
It was time he became a Thunderbird again.
My apologies for the delay in finishing this story. I was tempted to delete it, but decided that it needed to be completed, if only for my own satisfaction. I think it’s flawed and clunky and uneven but to be honest I struggled to get it brought to any sort of end. I would be very grateful if reviewers go gently on me. <g>
However, this will be the penultimate TB fanfic from me, unless things change dramatically in my life. I have one more story – written a couple of years ago – which needs some more work and then I am going to concentrate on more important things. Thankyou to all those readers who have read/reviewed any of my stuff. It’s been great fun but there comes a time when life demands more.