Summary: When Scott finds Thunderbird Two abandoned in the middle of nowhere, he knows there is something more mysterious going on than a simple communications failure.
Rating: T (because it is a ghost story)
Author's note: This story won the Tracy Island Writers Forum Halloween Challenge. Thank you to everyone who has already read it (and voted for it - it's the first thing I've won since the posy in an eggcup competition aged seven). I hope those who haven't read it yet enjoy it too.
In case anyone was wondering, I still don't own Thunderbirds.
Finally, as always this is only readable because of the work of two marvellous betas - Jules, who found out why I hated the first draft so much, and freeflow who is exactly what a beta reader should be. Thanks again.
A Rescue Too Late
Life didn't get much better than this, Scott Tracy thought as he flew home for pumpkin pie and a dip in the pool. He whistled and tapped out the rhythm of the ship's engines on the steering column. The sun was shining behind him and the blue sky was clear to the horizon. It was definitely a good day.
The mission in Nicaragua had been text-book; they had saved thirty one people who would have perished without their intervention, and the only injury had been a broken fingernail as one of the miners climbed the ladder. Gordon had managed the Mole superbly after weeks of intense preparation. Even Brains' planned update to the communication relays and protocols didn't seem to be causing any problems on the ground.
And, to top it all off, a pretty girl had given Virgil her telephone number, which took him past the record of twenty-eight in a month and earned him the washing up for a week.
Scott should have known it couldn't last.
"Thunderbird Five to Thunderbird One."
"Thunderbird One, receiving. Go ahead John."
"We may have a problem, Scott."
Scott felt his good mood fade a little. "What kind of problem?"
"Thunderbird Two is over her designated check-in time. I've tried to contact them, but I'm not getting a reply."
"Understood. I'll try it from this end."
"Thanks Scott." John sighed, and, by the sound of things, slapped a console. "This communication update is starting to cause havoc. I'll be glad when Brains puts the whole thing back online."
"I've got to admit you're doing a good job of keeping the big picture though, even if you're relaying the information to Dad. Have you ever thought about the big chair when we finally automate that hunk of metal?"
"I don't think so. And Thunderbird Five is no 'hunk of metal'. She is the most beautiful, high tech..."
Scott interrupted. "That's odd."
"Let me guess, you can't reach them either?"
"There's nothing. It's as if she's vanished. No transmitted data, no locator beacon. And they aren't responding to my signal at all."
"Yeah. I'm getting the same up here. The only thing I'm receiving is the signal from Gordon's radio, and it's faint without a boost from Two's transmitter."
"Is there anything from Virgil's radio?"
"Nothing. It's weird. Those radios should transmit from the bottom of the ocean."
Scott pulled the nose of Thunderbird One a full one-eighty. He allowed the ship her full power and the gee force pushed him back into his seat. "Update me with those co-ordinates and I'll go check it out."
"Thanks, Scott. It's probably just a glitch in Brains' new code, but I'd feel better if I knew you'd seen them."
"No problem. I'm on my way. But if I'm late back for pumpkin pie and have to share with those two, then Brains is on volcano watch for a couple of days, genius or not. Thunderbird One out."
Scott had slipped back into full professional mode. He was angled into the low sun now, and he had to tint the window to combat the glare. The immense power of the engines pushed him deep into his seat, and even moving his arms was difficult.
Because John had to switch transmitters to confer with Brains and Jeff, Scott flew in radio silence. As he did, he calculated a projected position for Thunderbird Two. Given the likely air speed and time since last radio contact, the computer gave a possible location not too far from his current position. As Thunderbird One neared the area, Scott upped the resolution on the scanning equipment, and even tried to peer out of the window.
There was only empty ocean. He was relieved to see no debris, but there was also no sign that Thunderbird Two had passed. Scott resigned himself to having to fly all the way back to the location of Gordon's radio. Hopefully Grandma would keep the pumpkin pie hot.
The flight was uneventful, and when he was nearly at the co-ordinates of the radio, John reported back from his discussions. "We've gone through every remote restart I can think of, and half a dozen we just made up. There's no response from her. Brains swears that it isn't the update. Well, he flustered a lot, but he sounds sure that there wasn't anything in the code that could wipe a Thunderbird off the board."
"Does he think she's just vanished?"
"Who knows what Brains thinks about anything. He's running mad calculations now, and muttering a lot. The good news is that no-one is reporting a great green behemoth in their potato field on any local frequencies."
"Anything from Gordon's radio?"
"Still silent and stationary. I'm beginning to wonder if he's thrown it out of a window."
"That would be a Gordon stunt. And if he's managed to persuade Virgil to land next to some pot-holing caves that he wants to explore, I'm going to skin both of them."
"I'll hold them down while you do."
"It's a deal. I'm approaching the co-ordinates you gave me now."
"Okay. I'll report to Dad, then be back with you."
Scott slowed his ship about forty miles past the coast, close to the co-ordinates that John had identified. Finding Thunderbird Two shouldn't be a hard task. Gordon had once said it was like looking for a combine harvester in a haystack.
Sure enough, large as life, the green craft was exactly on the position of Gordon's radio. She was parked in some fields not far from a old farmhouse.
There was no sign of any damage, either to the naked eye or the sensor data that Thunderbird One could gather. The ship looked whole. It would need a closer inspection before that could be confirmed, but Scott was reassured nonetheless.
He hit the communication button to open broadcast.
"Thunderbird Two from Thunderbird One. Please respond. Virgil, Gordon, if you are receiving me, give me a wave or something." There was no reply. He allowed some irritation into his voice. "Guys, if this is some kind of joke and you're messing with me you are going to be sorry."
Instead of the reassuring sound of Thunderbird Two's occupants, only John answered. "Still no response? I think you'll have to go and knock on the door. I have a landing area for you, about two hundred yards from Thunderbird Two. The area seems geologically stable and it's flat enough for you to get her down without too much trouble."
"Dad wants you to do a detailed sweep before you touch-down. The public database is about fifty years out of date, and probably still written on parchment."
"Does it say 'Here there be monsters?' like Virgil's old maps?"
"A bit like that."
"Okay. I'll do a sweep of five hundred metre radius around Thunderbird Two's location. I'll look out for bears and dragons."
"That should keep Dad happy."
Scott overflew the area with his sensors turned to maximum sensitivity. The area was obviously farmland, but there was no sign that it had been worked in the last ten years. The dilapidated farmhouse with holes in the roof was about fifty metres north of Thunderbird Two and the orchard beyond had grown into a small forest. Otherwise there were only fields.
"That's it, Scott. Take her down."
Thunderbird One lowered to the earth. Scott ran through the shut-down sequence as quickly as he could, then grabbed his kit bag. He gave his ship one last check before heading for the exit.
The first thing that struck him was the silence.
Thunderbird One's engines had stopped, but even the ping of cooling metal was muted. A gentle breeze rustled through the grasses and the leaves, but there was no sound of birds or insects. He wouldn't normally have noticed such a thing, especially with a mystery to solve, but the atmosphere was so odd he couldn't help but feel it. The heady scent of over-ripe apples drifted from the orchard.
John's voice over the radio made him jump. "I've calibrated the data from the sensors. There are no signs of tracks from Thunderbird Two and it's virgin grass that no-one has walked through all year. Gordon and Virgil must still be inside the ship."
"Thanks John." Scott took another breath and chastised himself being an idiot. This was no time to be getting antsy. "Did the sweep confirm that there's no damage to Thunderbird Two? I can't see any from out here."
"Apart from the fact that the internal systems are still a black hole to Five's computer, I can't find anything wrong from here."
"Okay, then. Let's see what's going on."
Scott shouldered his bag and began the short walk through the grass to Thunderbird Two.
If the atmosphere outside Thunderbird One had been quiet, it was nothing to the silence of the bigger ship. She loomed over him, and Scott was acutely aware of how large she was. In the heat of a rescue there was always activity around her, and even on the island she was surrounded by equipment. Here, in the silence of deserted farmland, she seemed even bigger. He felt like he was approaching some vast Egyptian pyramid.
And weren't pyramids just enormous tombs?
The door was closed, but opened eagerly at Scott's command code. Cold air hit him from the shadowy interior and he gasped.
"What's the matter?" John asked urgently over the radio.
"It's cold," Scott said, and touched the metal of the door. It was freezing under his fingers. "The whole ship's cold."
"I have an ambient temperature of twenty three Celsius from Thunderbird One's external sensors."
"I know. It's the ship that's cold."
Emergency lightening illuminated the interior of the ship with a pallid red glow. With a reluctance he had never experienced before, Scott stepped into the big ship. He felt like he had passed from a summer's day into the brink of winter.
As Scott moved through the familiar, yet eerie corridors, John said, "Is there anything there?"
"She seems empty. The emergency lighting is on, but the panels are still functional."
"You know, this could just be one of Gordon's practical jokes."
Scott's footsteps echoed down the passage.
"I mean, it's over the top even for him, but you've got to admit that it does have that lack of style we've come to expect from Gordon. Remember when he hid in the coal shed for three hours when we should have been at Grandma's? And when he stayed on the roof instead of going to his English literature exam. I bet he'll jump out from behind a bulkhead in a minute and yell 'Boo'."
"And I'd bust his ass back to cadet. The biggest rescue he'd be trusted with is spiders from the bath."
But despite his words, Scott knew Gordon wouldn't put International Rescue in danger. Leaving Thunderbird Two unattended was an enormous potential security risk, and now it was worse because her little sister was by her side. If Gordon was to blame, he would be disregarding any number of protocols put in place for their safety and earning himself a one-way ticket off the island. And he would have needed to rope his older brother in too. Virgil had more conscience than the rest of them put together. There was no way he would have gone along with this kind of 'joke'.
"I don't think even Gordon would have done this."
John sighed. "No, I didn't think so either."
"I'm going into the cockpit now." Scott cranked the door and it swung open. Cool light shone through the window and illuminated the empty room. There was no sign of what might have occurred. The seats were both empty, and there was no disarray. It looked as though both Virgil and Gordon just left the room for a comfort break. A neat pile of paperwork rested on arm of the co-pilot's seat. There was even a cup of coffee in the holder next to the pilot's chair.
"What do you see?" John demanded.
"It's empty. There's nothing here."
Scott picked up the cup and was surprised that the liquid was still warm. When he checked the papers he found them finished mid-sentence. The writing was Gordon's usual scrawl, but there was no sign of hurry in what he had written or in the penmanship.
What the hell had happened here? The ship seemed fine, if a little cold. There was nothing to suggest why Virgil would put her down here, and then ignore all requests to communicate. Scott couldn't help feeling that something was badly wrong.
John asked, "Can you synchronise the computer with Thunderbird Five? I'll be able to get access to the ship's flight recorder and find out what they were doing before they landed."
"No problem. Talk me through it."
John rattled through instructions as fast as Scott could type them. Once the computer was rebooting, John muttered to himself. "That was too easy. There's no sign that Brains' new code even integrated with the system." He paused. "Right, I've got access, but it's going to take me some time to process the raw data."
"Understood. Can you give me any sensor information from the rest of the ship?"
"I have basics, but I can't get you any video. The cameras are still offline."
"Any sign of life?"
"Nothing. The ship seems empty, but there are areas where the coverage falls off. I've no idea why. I think you're going to have to check manually."
"Great. While you're trying to find out what happened, can you bring up the lighting as well? And do something about the air conditioning. It's freezing."
"I'm on it. I'll send the data to Brains to see what he makes of it. It shouldn't take us too long."
Scott decided to check the pod first. The access was through the service corridor behind the cockpit. The corridor was cool, and lit in the same red glow from the emergency lights. The cockpit door closed behind him, and left him alone in the shadows.
He hurried across the space, and punched his code into the keypad.
Instead of the quiet whoosh of the door opening, the keypad emitted a frustrated squawk and the door stayed firmly closed. Before Scott could complain to John, a noise caught his attention.
Footsteps. He could have sworn he heard footsteps behind him. He spun round, and saw only empty corridor.
"Virgil? Gordon? Are you there?" he asked.
There was silence.
He realised he was shivering as the temperature dropped another couple of degrees. He had a sick feeling in his gut. He needed to get out of here. Now.
His hand shook as he thumped the same numbers on the keypad, and this time the door responded. He jumped through and onto the gantry. His heart was pounding and his breathing was too fast. Geez, what was this?
"John," he almost shouted through the radio.
John's answer was nearly as frantic. "Scott. Where were you? What happened?"
"I'm in the pod."
"Why didn't you respond? I've been radioing you! Didn't you hear?"
"It mustn't be working."
"It looks okay from my system," John said. "And what happened to you? You sound like you've been running."
Now that Scott was safely in the pod, he felt like an idiot. The air was warmer here, and the large overhead lights were flickering to life. "Nothing." He paused to catch his breath. "This place is just quiet."
"Alright, be careful. You should have lights now."
"They're coming on now. Do you have any idea what caused them to shut down in the first place?"
"Not yet. But I can confirm there's no damage to the ship. All the systems I've rebooted are coming up green. Communication, locator beacon and propulsion are good to go. Brains is still reviewing the readings from the flight recorder. He should have an answer as to why Virgil set her down shortly."
"Thanks John. I'm doing a visual inspection of the pod at the moment. I'll check the engine room and the infirmary, then do a quick sweep of the access conduits. It should take me fifteen minutes, tops. You still think they're on the ship?"
"The only person to walk through that grass within the past month is you. You've left a swath through it that a blind monkey could follow. Thunderbird Two is sitting in the middle of the same grass, and there isn't another set of tracks."
"Understood. I'm keeping an open line at the moment, so let me know the minute you've got something."
The pod was just as it should be, without a sign of either of his brothers. The equipment was carefully stored around the walls and the Mole was in pride of place in the centre of the bay.
"Virgil!" he yelled. "Gordon!"
The sound resonated back from the walls. Despite the size of the space, it felt too loud to be possible.
Aside from the echoes, there was no answer.
He didn't shout again. He moved across the gantry surrounding the pod, aware of the click of his boots on the metal latticework. The noise was loud in the silence.
The engine room was the same. There was no sign that anyone had been there since the routine checks two days ago. There was no response to his calls
On the way to the infirmary, John's voice came over the radio. "Scott, come in."
"Brains has checked the data from the flight recorder. There is no sign of a problem that would have led Virgil to ground the ship. One minute she was in the air, the next the whole system just closes down. There isn't even a record of her landing."
"Is there anything out of the ordinary?"
"I've got a snippet of a garbled message that might have come through the communication grid just before the system shut down. It could be static from the radio, but I'm running it through the processors now. Do you have anything there?"
"Nothing. It's like the Mary Celeste."
"You do know that there is a likely natural explanation to why the schooner was found with no..." John's voice faded out.
"John?" The radio remained silent. "Thunderbird Two to Thunderbird Five. Do you copy?"
There wasn't even static in reply. Scott walked on.
He found himself standing at the door to the infirmary. His breath condensed in the chill of the air and he shivered. A steady feeling of dread had been building up in his chest since the radio gave out. He tried to ignore it.
Without any alternative, he opened the door.
The infirmary was in darkness. The corridor light was bright, but instead of illuminating the interior, it only seemed to intensify the shadows inside. It was impossible to see further than the doorway. For a moment, Scott stood and peered in, hoping that when his eyes became accustomed to the darkness he would be able to see something. Instead, the darkness seemed to grow deeper.
In a low voice, Scott said, "Virgil? Gordon?"
A child whispered in the darkness. It was impossible to understand the words.
Then all Scott could hear was the pounding of his heart.
Stepping from the brightness into the cold shadows was one of the bravest things he ever did in his life.
He grabbed for the emergency flashlight on the wall with more force than necessary. It almost slipped from his grasp, but he fumbled and managed to switch it on. The light was bright and warm when he cast the beam around. The room was empty. There was nothing that could have made the sound. Scott felt sick.
"Scott!" John shouted over the radio.
"Hell, John, am I glad to hear you."
"Likewise. What happened?"
"I have no idea. This place is beginning to freak me out." He decided not to tell John what he thought he'd heard.
"Scott, it's Thunderbird Two. You helped build her."
"Tell that to whatever is messing with the lights and the air conditioning. And whatever it was that took Virgil and Gordon."
"Scott, you can't seriously think that something has taken them?"
"At the moment I don't know what to believe. But I can tell you that they are not on this ship."
"Damn the tracks!" Scott snapped. "I'm telling you something strange is going on."
Eventually John said, "Alright Scott. What do you want to do?" He was speaking slowly, the way one does to a skittish horse, or someone on the brink of insanity. Scott reckoned he knew which of the two John was most worried about.
At the moment, Scott didn't care. "I want to know about those buildings." He took two deep breaths and some of his composure returned. He was field commander of International Rescue, not some excitable teenager. He managed to retreat from the darkened infirmary with a little dignity and began walking quickly back to the entrance.
John came on the radio with nothing to report. Scott suspected he was talking for his benefit rather than the need to say anything. "Dad is looking into the registry of the area, but there isn't much information. I'm going to compile everything we've gathered on the surrounding terrain for your scanner, so you should get some GPS through shortly."
"Scott, catch your breath."
Scott realised he was panting like he had run a marathon, but he didn't walk slower.
He hesitated when he reached the hatch. Part of him dreaded that it wouldn't open and he would be stuck inside the ship.
But it swung open freely when he turned the handle. The sun's heat hit him like a wall. The sound of a gentle wind rippled through the air.
He gazed around at the green land. This wasn't so different from the kind of countryside he had grown up in. Sure, it looked like this place saw more rain than central Kansas did, but it was familiar country. He looked beyond the fields to the farmhouse and its out-buildings. Nature was beginning to encroach upon the ruins. Branches were visible through the tiles of the two-story building, and the smaller of the two barns looked like it was barely standing. It had definitely seen better days.
"You still there?" John asked.
"Yeah." As dearly as Scott wanted to be out of here and back to Tracy Island, he wasn't going without his brothers.
"Dad's done some digging... you'd not believe the curse words coming out of his mouth by the way. I'm thinking of taping some it just so you'll believe me. Anyway, the buildings here reverted to public ownership years ago. It seems that the last resident was an old spinster woman who died in a nursing home upstate. She lived here as a child and worked the farm with a couple of farmhands until she was eighty. Sounds like a bit of a recluse, like Mr Barnaby back home, you remember."
"I remember you were terrified of him."
"He was a scary old man when you were five," John said defensively. "This woman sounds the same."
"Are there any hazards to me walking around and taking a look?"
"Aside from the natural dangers of snakes and the like, I shouldn't think so. The land registry records show a well near the orchard, but it was closed before the old woman was born. I'd be careful where I put my feet though."
"Understood. I'll step carefully."
Scott retrieved the scanner from his bag and flipped it on. An orange light flashed on the screen over the GPS information from Thunderbird Five. He looked at it and swore under his breath.
Why hadn't he checked the scanner earlier? He knew it was because there was no sign that Virgil and Gordon had ever left the ship, but that didn't make him feel better. The display clearly highlighted a location. Gordon, or at least Gordon's radio was among those buildings.
He reported the same to John, who did his own double take. "It wasn't there before," John said, perplexed and a little annoyed. "The co-ordinates were the same as the ship's, and it doesn't look like it's moved, but..."
Scott hesitated to put it down to an error of judgment. It was that sort of day. "Look, don't worry about it. We'll check it out once we get home."
Scott started towards the buildings. His progress was slow, and more than once he thought he was going to trip and break an ankle traversing the long-dried furrows. The grass and small trees were at least hip-high most of the way. He kept the scanner at arm's length as he walked towards the stationary light of Gordon's radio. There was no noise except his own stumbling feet.
The farmhouse was just as dilapidated near at hand as it was from a distance. Time had not been kind to it; the wood was rotting and the stairs were nothing but jagged splinters. It looked like the kind of place where the wildlife should have taken over, but there were no droppings or tracks. The ground was slightly less overgrown here, and he made good time around towards the bigger of the barns.
As he neared it, the scanner flickered a couple of times. He hit it against his thigh, and the light reappeared as brightly as before.
Perhaps it was because he was among the buildings, but the breeze seemed to have stilled. The absence of animal noises suddenly seemed louder than Thunderbird Three's engines. This place was as silent as the green ship. Silent as the grave, Scott thought, and then wished he hadn't.
"Report please," John said.
"I'm making my way to the larger of the two out-buildings now. It seems to be closest to Gordon's signal. Is there a problem?"
"You keep flickering off my screen. It's like there's something blocking the signal, but I've never heard of anything that could do that."
"There doesn't look like any technology here. The place is deserted." He couldn't help chuckling despite the tension, "It's a little too quiet."
"Great, that makes me feel loads better."
"The signal seems to be coming from behind this building. I'll keep in touch."
Then the radio died.
Scott heard the sound of a child whispering again. This time he thought he could here at least one word. 'Dark'. His blood ran cold.
He tried hitting the radio against his thigh too, but it remained stubbornly silent. He was on his own.
With a braver stride than he felt, he walked around the barn towards the location of Gordon's radio. He looked for a sign of them, but there was nothing.
"Gordon?" he called. "Virgil?"
He didn't expect an answer, so when he heard a muffled shout of "Scott?" he jumped.
"Thank God! Am I glad to hear you," the voice shouted back.
"Likewise. Keep talking and I'll find you."
"Alright. What would you like me to say? I can think of lots of words, but I'm not sure would be appropriate right now..."
Gingerly, Scott followed the sound of Gordon's voice to the edge of the apple trees. He watched the ground for signs of instability, but there were no cracks. The voice was louder now.
"I can hear your footsteps and there is a... damn," Gordon swore.
Scott stopped moving. "What is it?" He didn't have to raise his voice any more. The scanner said he was almost on top of Gordon's position.
"You're dropping dirt in here, and," he coughed once, "I'm filthy already. Grandma's going to have my hide for ruining another uniform."
"Understood. Can you give me a clearer idea of your location?"
"There's an opening not far from me. It looks like a boarded hole in the ground. It shouldn't be too far from where you are now. There's a little sunlight getting through."
Scott looked out over the undergrowth. There was no way for him to tell where the hole in the ground was. Gordon's voice was coming from south east, so Scott stepped as lightly as he could in that direction. He felt the ground alter beneath his feet. "I think I've got it," Scott said.
"Yeah. You've also cut out what little light we're getting in here."
Scott knelt on the ground, and with his fingers, soon found the edge of a plank. He cleared off years' worth of dirt and plants. Gordon was coughing underneath him, but offered no complaints. It didn't take long to remove the wood completely.
There was nothing else to call it but a hole in the ground. Scott was glad he still had the emergency light from the infirmary attached to his belt. He swung its beam into the pit.
A dirty, dark figure waved up from the corner. "Hi, Scott."
"Are you guys okay?"
"Virgil's out cold." Gordon said lightly. "Has been since I woke up. I can't see anything wrong, but until you arrived the light's been pretty dim." He giggled and tapped the unconscious form beside him.
"What happened?" Scott asked, even as he began scanning around for a way to get the guys out.
"You know, it's the damnedest thing. I haven't a clue. One minute we're flying and Virgil is trying to convince me that classical jazz is better than guitar rock, which it so obviously isn't, and if he'd ever been to a festival proper instead of one of those stupid recitals that he dragged us to when we were kids, then he'd know that. I tried to tell him that you can't beat a proper mud-fest, but he's all 'no, no it's about the music' and all this jazz... Ha, see, all this jazz."
Scott put his head down the space again. "Gordon."
"But he's just going on about bands playing three chords with lyrics like a Valentine's card. Not got a damn clue..."
"So I threaten to take him to a festival and... Scott?"
Scott spoke slowly. "Gordon. I need to know how you ended up in that hole."
"I was trying to tell you. We were having this argument..."
"I know about the argument. Tell me about how you got down there."
"I am. We had this argument, and then we were down here."
"That doesn't make any sense."
"Not a lot of this does. For example, how did we get down here when there isn't a way in? I looked, and there hasn't been anyone down here in years. No entrance and no exit except for the one you just uncovered and it's been closed forever. There is just me, Virgil and the little girl. Maybe there's a bat or two, but..."
"What little girl?"
"Adeline. She's not here very often, mostly I can hear her laughing, and she says she's afraid of the dark, then she vanishes. To be honest, she is kind of freaking me out a bit."
That makes two of us, Scott thought. "So what happened after the argument?"
"We were just here. I woke up with this cracking headache and there might be some blood, it's hard to tell in this dirt. I've tried to wake Virgil up, but you know how he is in the morning. I've checked his pulse and his breathing, and it's all okay, but really, I think we should be getting out of here."
"I'm working on it, Gordon. I'll need to go back and get the equipment from Thunderbird One."
"Oh no, I don't think you'll need to. She says that there's a rope behind the barn. It's been there all this time, and no-one ever thought to use it then. She's actually kind of angry about the rope, so I'd just do what she says."
Scott shone his torch around the cavern. There was, as Gordon had said, no sign of another entrance. The walls were smooth as though worn by water over the years. Gordon was still sitting beside his brother, and he cheerily waved when the beam of light hit him. His eyes shone bright and feverish. Virgil hadn't moved, but it was obvious that someone had made him more comfortable in the recovery position with a rolled up jacket under his head.
"I'm going to get the rope now."
Scott moved away from the hole with reluctance. He questioned himself, doing the bidding of an obviously concussed brother who was working under the instruction an imaginary child. But at least he would be moving away from the black-spot that was affecting the radio. After a short distance he tried calling John, but was met with silence.
The rope was where Gordon had said it would be. It was ancient, but still rolled up and attached to a rusted ring on the wall. Scott fumbled with the knot. It was so weather-worn that he would have needed to cut the knot off if it hadn't slipped loose itself. In a day of odd things, this was just one more. "Alright," he said to the air. "I'll use the rope."
In response, the wind rose briefly around him, then settled back. He pushed his hair out of his eyes.
Gordon hadn't moved from his position against the far wall. He looked up when Scott put his head back over the rim.
"Hey," Scott said.
"Scott. What's going on?"
Scott took a deep breath. "We're going to get you guys out of there. Do you need me to come down?"
For the first time, Gordon looked worried. "No, Scott. Don't come down. What do you need me to do?"
Scott threw down the rope. "Can you tie this under Virgil's arms? We'll get him out, then you."
"Sure." Gordon stood up, and then fell back again. "Whoa," he said and held out a hand to steady himself against the wall.
"Right, I'm coming down..."
"No!" With an effort Gordon stood again, and although he swayed dangerously, he stayed standing. With one hand on the wall he looped the rope under Virgil's arms the way they had practiced in training.
Now would be a really good time for Virgil to wake up, Scott thought to himself. His younger brother might not be as tall as his siblings, but he was solidly built and no lightweight. And Gordon was going to be no help.
But when Scott took the strain and pulled, Virgil wasn't heavy at all. Even the awkward part of pulling a dead weight over the cusp of the hole was simple. He lay Virgil out on the grass, and was rewarded with a flickering of the eyelids.
"Hi," Scott said.
Virgil opened his eyes, which wasn't an easy task given that one side of his face was developing into a dark bruise. "What happened?"
Scott couldn't help the snort he gave in response. "I haven't got a clue. Are you alright?"
"Yeah, why shouldn't I..." He tried to sit up, but met with the same success as Gordon had a moment before.
"That would be because of the head injury. You've been out cold for who knows how long."
Virgil had closed his eyes again. "I believe you. Hell, that hurts."
"Will you be alright for a minute? I'm going to help Gordon out the hole and then we're getting the hell out of here."
Virgil cracked the good eye open again. "What hole?"
"I think it's an old well. You came down at some old farm in the middle of nowhere."
"I did not come down."
"Well, Thunderbird Two is sitting in a field over there. Someone landed her."
With a supreme effort, Virgil levered himself up. Scott started to tell him to lie back down, and then figured that his body wasn't going to let him sit up for long anyway.
"I did not land that ship. One minute I'm flying home, the next I'm lying here."
"We can argue about this some other time. Maybe over a beer. But right now, Gordon is hallucinating and talking to little children..."
Virgil's face lost all of its colour (and he'd been pale to start with). "A little girl," he said simply.
Scott turned towards the well. "He's bumped his head and I think he's..."
Virgil put his hand on Scott's shoulder and made him turn back around. "You have to get her out of there."
"There isn't a little girl. I looked. There's only Gordon, and he's a bit flaky at the moment, so we'll discuss it later."
"Scott. Her name is Adeline."
"You're not making any sense."
"I saw her."
"You've been unconscious for at least an hour."
"And I swear, I saw her. You need to get her out of there."
"There wasn't anyone else down that hole. Only you and Gordon. Now lie down before you fall over."
Virgil was shaking all over. Through gritted teeth he said. "If you don't get her out, I will."
"You can barely sit up."
"So don't make me do it."
Virgil's determination and his pallor forced Scott to say, "Okay."
Virgil let himself sink back into the grass.
Scott poked his head over the lip of the hole again. Gordon was in his usual spot. "Gordon?"
Gordon looked up. "We're ready to come out now."
"Virgil's already out."
"I don't mean him, silly. I meant us." He waved a hand vaguely towards the corner of the cavern. Scott shone the torch into the darkness, and saw only wall.
"Look." Gordon stood up again on wobbly legs. Using the wall for support, he crept into that corner. "She's around here somewhere," he muttered to himself.
He began digging at the earth. Scott wanted to go down and shake some sense into him. It was only the knowledge that Virgil was in no state to help either of them back up that stopped him. Instead he watched as Gordon dug further into the earth with his hands.
The only sound was the scraping of the dirt.
Then Virgil spoke quietly. "It used to be a well, but it was dried up long before she was born. The kids didn't even know it was there. One year, it was wetter than usual and it must have filled with water. They went out on the first warm day to play, but they had been told not to come into this part of the orchard."
In the cavern, Gordon had found something white beneath his fingertips. He continued to dig.
"She tripped, or she was pushed. Adeline doesn't know. It was a long time ago. The old covering of the well crumbled away. They weren't meant to be here because they'd been told it was dangerous. The other children ran away."
Gordon had uncovered more. It was a skull.
"She was afraid of the dark and she tried to stay alive. She shouted. She screamed so loud, and nobody answered."
Scott turned around to face his brother.
"We answered," Virgil finished.
Finally, Scott said. "Only we were too late."
The bones that Gordon unearthed were small. Scott estimated a child no older than ten. Without speaking, Gordon lifted each bone and wrapped it carefully in his jacket. Once they were all tucked into the material, Scott winched the parcel to the earth.
Virgil put his arm over his eyes in the sun, and sighed with relief. "I'm glad that's over," he said quietly.
There was a moment of silence even deeper than what had come before.
Then Scott's radio burst into life. John's voice said, "...a repeating message. Please respond. Thunderbird Five to Scott, this is a repeating..."
Virgil held out his hand for the radio, and answered while Scott helped Gordon.
"Go ahead John."
"Is that you, Virgil?" John was staying professional with an obvious effort.
"Are you guys alright? What happened? Where's Scott? You have no idea how worried Dad is. Why didn't you answer the radio?"
"John. Slow down. We're alright."
Scott snorted as he helped Gordon out of the hole.
Virgil obviously heard. "We're mostly alright. Just a bit bumped about. Scott's here."
"You know," Virgil said slowly. "I haven't got the faintest idea."
Gordon wasn't much help once he was out of the hole. He reminded Scott of an endurance athlete collapsing at the end of the race. Virgil promised he would stay 'exactly where he was' while Scott took Gordon back to Thunderbird Two.
Gordon's quietness was more of a concern than the delirious ramblings, but aside from a small cut on his forehead and bruising to both his hands, he seemed relatively whole. Scott hoped the problem was just exhaustion after the strange events.
Thunderbird Two felt like a different place. For a start the lights were all on and the temperature was back to ambient. The infirmary was just the infirmary and Scott didn't hesitate to put his brother into one of the beds. Gordon sighed, and curled up. For peace of mind, Scott hooked up a fluid IV, but all of the observations were normal. Then he went back for Virgil.
Virgil had been as good as his word. He cracked an eye to look at Scott as he walked nearer.
"You did as you were told," Scott said disbelievingly.
"Tried to get up. Too dizzy. Guess I'm going to need a hand after all."
"I could bring a stretcher."
With Scott's help, Virgil pulled himself up. He closed his eyes tightly. Scott decided not to ask if he was alright. The truth was obvious, and the reply would be predictable. Once the worst of the dizziness had passed, Virgil opened his eyes again.
"What do we do with..." Scott asked.
Virgil looked at the roll made from Gordon's jacket. "You know, I think she just wanted to be out of there. She was afraid of the dark, but she loved the farm." Virgil's voice was low. "Let's just leave her here."
"Shouldn't we inform the authorities?"
"Who would they tell? The place has been abandoned for years. They all died. Her sister was the last."
"Virgil, how do you know this?"
They made their slow way back to Thunderbird Two. Even with Virgil's arm slung over his shoulder, Scott found the passage was easier. There seemed to be fewer furrows to trip over.
For the first time he heard a bird singing overhead.
Virgil was almost out on his feet by the time they reached Thunderbird Two. He collapsed back onto the infirmary bed. Gordon was snoring already.
"How do you feel?" Scott asked as he hooked up another IV.
Virgil didn't open his eyes. "Like I could sleep for a week."
"You're going to be on neuro-obs until Brains can check you out. I don't like the dizziness."
"I don't care. Knock yourself out." And without further conversation Virgil closed his eyes and relaxed.
Scott watched his two brothers sleeping. They were both pale, but certainly alive. He left the infirmary with the video-feed running up to the cockpit, and went to speak to John.
"Thunderbird Two to Thunderbird Five."
"Receiving you loud and clear. How are they?"
"Sleeping like babies. Virgil's got some pretty impressive bruising, and Gordon's not much better, but their observations are all stable. They could do with Brains to check them out."
"Good. Dad's on his way."
"When did he decide that?"
"When we couldn't contact you. They were in the jet faster than Alan could prep it for launch. I've relayed back to him, and they're thirty minutes out. You should be able to talk to him yourself pretty soon."
"How was Dad?"
"Scared. I've never heard him so worried. Alan will tell you some of the choice phrases he was using, but there were words that I didn't even think Dad knew. When he arrives he'll want to know what happened."
Scott looked out at the farmhouses through the window. "And when I find out, I'll be sure to let him know."
John paused before saying, "I deciphered that last burst of communication on Thunderbird Two's radio. I haven't played it to Dad."
"I'll let you hear."
The sound was crackly, as though being played on a scratched vinyl record. But the voice was clearly that of a small girl. "She's afraid of the dark. She's afraid of the dark. She's afraid of the dark."
"And then I said what?" Gordon asked incredulously.
"Then you launched into this monologue about the two of you arguing whether guitar rock or classical jazz was better," Scott said.
"Right. I remember that."
"The argument, or the monologue," Virgil asked.
"I remember the argument. I think Scott's lying about the monologue."
"Gordon, I couldn't make this stuff up. I swear every word of it is true. You and Virgil landed Thunderbird Two in a field next to an old abandoned farmhouse, left your ship like the Mary Celeste, got into a old well without making tracks through the grass, then found this kid's skeleton because she didn't like the dark."
"You're having me on, after all the jokes I played on you."
"Hey, don't bring me into this. I remember about as much as Gordon does."
They were sitting in the infirmary, Gordon and Virgil cross-legged on the beds. Brains had checked them over and promised they would be let out later that afternoon if the dizziness didn't recur. Then he had left them to check the air conditioning in Thunderbird Two, despite Alan's assurance that it had functioned fine on the way home.
Neither brother had any long-lasting effects of the experience. Virgil's headache had settled, and the dizziness didn't seem to be coming back. The worst thing was a case of amnesia that was sending Gordon around the bend.
"What do you remember Virgil?"
Virgil had been thoughtful since they had woken up back on Tracy Island. "A bit. Sort of images really, but I was out cold when you found us, so it can't have been anything."
"What was it?" Scott prompted.
"It was nothing."
"Virgil, it's got to be better than the blank wall I keep running against," Gordon said.
"Being scared," Virgil said with a faraway look in his eye. "Really scared, and cold. And hearing this little girl crying. She kept saying she was afraid of the dark and that her name was Adeline."
"I wish I could remember."
"I wish I didn't," Virgil said simply.
They sat in silence for a moment, until John's face appeared on the video link in the corner of the room. "Dad said you were all down here. I spoke to a couple of people about that farmhouse. An archivist at the museum sent me a couple of old documents from their records."
He flashed a printed copy of a newspaper story. "From the Courier and Gazette, October 1915. Sheriffs reported the death of a child in an accident while playing at her home in Salis Farm. The child is mourned by her family, and aremembrance service will be heldat the church at 11am on Thursday.'"
Then he produced a photograph of a large family. They were dressed in plain farm clothes and grinning at the camera.
Without hesitation, Gordon said, "That's her." He pointed at one of the children. She had a wide smile with dark hair in plaits.
"That's..." John started to say, and then looked at the picture again. "That's Adeline Martin."
"Yeah, I know," Virgil said.
"But it wasn't her."
"John, I have that little girl's face imprinted in my mind. Trust me, I don't want it there, but it was her."
Now it was Gordon's turn to nod.
"That wasn't what I meant. That wasn't the little girl who died in 1915." He pointed out a slightly older child on the photograph. "Cora Martin died in that well when she was eight. Adeline was her sister. She lived on the farm until she was eighty four, and then died in a nursing home."
In the infirmary, no-one said a word.
"I spoke to one of the nurses at the home where she died. She remembered Adeline because once Alzheimer's took hold she regressed back to her childhood. She used to keep saying that 'they would have to rescue Cora because she was afraid of the dark'."
Virgil lay back on the bed. "She isn't afraid now. Adeline rescued her in the end."