The birthday gift

Standard disclaimer: My acknowledgement to Carlton plc as the copyright holders of the characters, and my thanks to Gerry Anderson and co. for creating them

All dates and ages based on the Chris Bentley 'Complete book of Thunderbirds'

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Wednesday, 16th August 2059, 3 a.m.

Jeff Tracy surveyed the wreckage of the room as he sipped his whisky. He had forbidden his mother and Kyrano to do any of the tidying-up, having had the foresight to book a squad of cleaners to come in the following morning. An hour ago there must have been nearly a hundred young people here all helping Virgil celebrate his 18th birthday. Now all the guests were gone, and Virgil, still singing 'It's my party and I'll cry if I want to' at the top of his voice, had been helped up to bed by his two older brothers. Jeff smiled, thinking there were going to be a few sore heads round the breakfast table next morning. Even the younger two, who had supposedly been limited on their number of beers would, he suspected, be finding out the penalties of ignoring parental restrictions.

The high point of the evening had been when Scott and Virgil had joined forces at the piano to play the old classic 'Great balls of fire'. Jeff was sure this had not been rehearsed, but the two of them had played it almost as a game of tag, one taking over from the other every few lines without seeming to miss a note, and producing variations of the tune that the original composer had never dreamed of. The performance had lasted almost five minutes, certainly outlasting the stamina of the dancers who were trying to keep up with the music. Well, Scott had always been good at jazz improvisations, and Virgil's skills at the piano would have been good enough for him to pursue it professionally, if he had wanted.

However, the boy seemed to be a born engineer. Even as a child, given a toy, his first inclination was to take it apart to see how it worked. He had been delighted this morning when Jeff had announced that his birthday present was to be a week long cruise for them all on an old paddle-steamer down the Mississippi, but Jeff suspected, knowing his middle son, that he would be spending more time in the engine room talking to the crew than up on deck with the other passengers.

Jeff stretched, and walked outside onto the terrace. He looked up at the crescent moon hanging above him. That seemed to belong to another lifetime, another Jeff Tracy.

Now, if all went well, he would soon be starting a new chapter of his life. The final piece of the jigsaw had fallen into his lap only a few days ago, when he received a call from an old friend. Martine O'Connor had been a civil servant all her life in Washington, and was spending the last years before her retirement working in the Pentagon archives. "Jeff," she had said, "You remember you asked me to keep a look out for details of any deserted military bases in isolated locations? Well, I think I've found just the place you are looking for. There's an island in the south Pacific which Strategic Air Command used as a base in the Cold War, a hundred years ago. It's got a couple of missile silos and an underground hangar that once housed a fleet of bombers. The place was abandoned before the end of the last century, and has been deserted ever since."

"Sounds ideal," he had replied. "It'll make a great research base for my company. Who do I contact to see about buying it?" She had given him the number of the relevant department. "One more favour please, Martine, do you think you can 'lose' these plans in your archives? I'd hate to think of one of my rivals getting hold of them."

The following morning, Jeff had gathered his boys together for a family conference.

He cleared his throat, for once uncertain how to start. "I've called you all in here to tell you something – but before I start you must all realise that it is not to be discussed with anyone outside the family." He looked round at his sons, who all nodded. "For the past few years I've had an idea of something I want to do with my money. I've got this idea of a rescue service, one that isn't bound to any government, one that can help in situations where ordinary rescue services cannot go, or cannot cope. In order to bring this about I needed three crucial elements. The first – the equipment to perform these rescues – well, there's a young man who works in one of my research departments who I've had my eye on for some time. He could earn twice, three times as much if he worked for the military, but he is always adamant that his designs are only used for peaceful purposes. The second – a remote base for operations – it looks like I've just found somewhere. And the third is a crew."

"And that's where we come in?" said John, astute as ever.

"Well, that's what I want to talk to you about. As I see it, I'm going to need five main vehicles, plus some more specialised equipment. Basically I can see we'll need one fast craft for reconnaissance, a heavy duty cargo carrier and a submarine small enough to fit inside the big plane for underwater operations" (here he noticed Gordon's face light up). "Then we'll need a communications satellite to receive distress calls, and a rocket ship to get to the satellite and back. It'll be a hard life, heavy work, often dangerous. You'll be isolated on a small island, and having friends to visit would cause problems – but I can promise you won't be bored." He paused and looked round at his sons' eager faces. "You don't have to give me your answers now. I want you all to go away and think it over – talk it over between yourselves if you want, then let me know your decisions, either separately or together."

This afternoon, just before the first guests were due to arrive, Jeff had found himself facing a deputation, led, as usual, by Scott. "Dad," he had said, " we've decided. Count us in." Jeff had spent the rest of the evening looking at his sons with a mixture of affection, pride and concern, wondering if they fully realised just what they were letting themselves in for. He already had a shrewd idea which boy he was going to assign to which craft, and he would go over their training needs with them all later. One thing was sure – this was certainly a birthday that none of them would forget.

Now Jeff stood on the terrace, staring at the bottom of his whisky glass. Maybe now he could put to rest the demon that had haunted him every night for the past ten years – the one that whispered in his ear that if the rescue crew had been able to reach the site of that remote plane crash in the Andes sooner, then his wife might still be there beside him. He lifted his glass in a toast. "They're good boys, Lucille. You'd be proud of them."

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