Summary: a tale from Scott's Air Force days that was my entry for the TIWF Halloween challenge
My thanks as usual to Purupuss for her proofreading skills, Gerry Anderson and his team for creating the characters and Granada Venture for allowing me to use them
I was home for the weekend from Denver when the news broke that Scott had been shot down. He was serving with the World Government peace-keeping forces on the border of Bereznik, so it wasn't just a case of Dad getting in touch with his old Air Force buddies to get the full story. There were a couple of hectic hours of phone calls before we learnt that Scott had suffered only minor injuries and two days later we were told that he was being sent home on sick leave.
I went with Dad to collect him from the airport. We'd been told he was a bit shaken up – quite understandable when you've had your plane shot out from under you, but I was still taken aback when I saw him. He was wearing civilian clothes and dark glasses, but he had that tight, wary look about him. I know what that means in my big brother – that he's clamping down real hard on some emotion because he can't afford to let it out.
We tried to keep Scott's homecoming as low key as possible. Luckily John and Gordon were still away at Houston and Marineville (though they had both phoned to send their good wishes). I think Dad had asked Grandma not to make too much of a fuss, though he might as well have asked her to stop breathing.
Scott sat through supper hardly saying a word, responding only when asked a direct question and then in tones that did not encourage conversation. He kept his dark glasses on throughout the meal, explaining that even the artificial light hurt his eyes, but I had a feeling it was because he wanted to hide behind those shades. Alan kept the conversation going most of the time, telling us about his new college project to make a more efficient rocket fuel. I didn't pay much attention, to be honest.
After supper I helped Grandma with the dishes, then went looking for Scott.
I found him where I expected him to be, sitting out on the front porch. The sky was just starting to lose its colour and he had taken off his glasses. I could see his eyes were still red and sore, but made no comment.
Pulling a couple of beers out of the six-pack I had brought with me I offered him one. He gave a grunt of thanks, ripping the tab off and taking a great gulp. Not wanting to crowd him, I settled myself in a chair at the other end of the porch, tipping it back so I could put my feet on the porch rail.
Abruptly, Scott got to his feet and started to pace up and down the deck. "I suppose Father's sent you out here to talk to me," he said, pausing only to drain his beer and toss the empty container into the trash can. Without comment I held out another beer when he reached my end of the porch. "It won't do you any good, you know. You're not going to believe me, any more than anyone else does."
Try me, Scott.
He resumed his pacing while I sipped my drink and watched the stars come out, trying to name the constellations that John had identified for me. It was like sharing the deck with a caged tiger. Boy, he was tense.
"Why should you believe me? Everyone else thinks I imagined it."
Because I'm your brother?
"The silent treatment, eh? Do you really think that will work?" The second empty can hit the trash container and I held out another. I figured he'd be running out of steam any moment now and I was right. This time he came and sat on the porch rail in front of me, his legs stretched out along the rail and his back propped against one of the pillars. It looked a bit precarious, but that's Scott in a nutshell – always living on the edge. He cracked the new can open but only took a small sip before he looked down at me with his old, familiar grin. "OK, little brother, you win. But let me tell it my way, all right? No interruptions."
I nodded and took a swallow of my beer to hide a smile as he started his story.
We were flying a reconnaissance mission into Bereznik territory. We had information that the Berezniks were manufacturing illegal weapons but we needed proof to take to the World Government. The satellite photos were inconclusive so the only solution was a low-level reconnaissance flight – in and out, as fast as we could make it. I was flying the plane and Tom Maynard – I've told you about Tom before, haven't I? The Irish guy? - was operating the cameras.
We were on our way back. I don't know if we got careless or if someone on the ground got lucky, but the first I knew was a blip on the radar then Tom's shout of "Incoming!" There was a bright flash and the plane bucked like a horse that's been stung by a wasp. Next thing I knew was that my eyes felt like someone had thrown hot acid in them. I was blinking frantically to try and clear them and wondering why I should be feeling so dizzy. Then I realised that Tom was shouting over the intercom. "Pull her up, Scott! We're spinning into the ground!"
I felt like saying 'You pull her up – I'm a bit busy here' but even as I formed the thought, I felt my hands reaching for the controls. I managed to kill the spin then pulled the nose back to gain some height, flattening out into what my ears told me was level flight when I judged we had reached a safe altitude.
"Holy Mary and all the saints in Ireland," came Tom's voice from the back cockpit. "That was close. Are you OK?"
I was still blinking to try and clear my vision, but could see nothing but a red mist. I explained this to Tom and asked if he was OK.
"I'm not hurt but I've got another kind of problem back here. That missile exploded so close it must have knocked out all my systems – my displays have all gone blank and the controls aren't responding at all."
I digested this piece of news. "So I can't see, and you can't fly?"
"That's about the size of it." He paused for a minute then added, "want to swap cockpits?"
I had to laugh at that. Tom's cockpit was about six foot behind mine and slightly higher. The only way between them was on the ground. "Now that would impress the spectators if we tried that at the next air show."
He chuckled. "Yeah, we should practice sometime. Seriously though, you think we should eject?"
I thought about this for a minute. "No. Two reasons. First, I don't know exactly where we are, and I'd hate to come down in Bereznik territory in my present state – I'd be a sitting duck. Second, that film is too valuable. We need to get it back to the World Government. It's all the evidence they need to impose sanctions against the Berezniks."
"Yeah, we'll make the Bezzies sorry they took us on!" answered Tom. "I can think of another reason for not ejecting too. The way this plane is behaving we can't guarantee that both seats would work – and I don't want to face your father or brothers and tell them I left you behind."
"I wouldn't want to face your Bridget in the same circumstances either," I replied.
"No, the wrath of an Irish colleen is more than most mortal men can take. OK, we'll have to fly this crate home together then. You fly, I'll navigate."
"Are you kidding?"
Tom's voice sounded full of confidence. "Come on, Scott, you're always saying you could fly a plane with your eyes shut – now's your chance to prove it. Besides, can you think of a better plan?"
Screwy as it sounded, it was the only chance we had, so I had to admit he was right.
"OK, start by turning a few degrees to the left so we'll be heading into the sun. Lose some height, too. I want to be low enough to recognise some landmarks."
Looking back now I don't know how I managed it, but Tom's voice giving me course corrections was a calming influence and before too long he told me we were lining up on the approach to the airfield.
I tried the radio – Tom had been right, I could find my way round a cockpit without looking – but I wasn't surprised to find there was no response.
"Well, we didn't really expect that to work, did we?" came Tom's reassuring tone. "Let's hope we have more luck with the landing gear."
Much to my relief there was a familiar clunk from beneath the craft as the wheels locked into place.
"Just think of this as one of those simulator tests," Tom's warm brogue came over the speaker. "The one where the swine of an instructor has simulated a night landing and a power short in your cockpit, so you have to rely on the talk-down."
In his slow, steady tones he talked me down, giving me course and height corrections all the way. At last he said "Crossing airfield boundary now…start of runway… nose up – touchdown!"
I lifted the nose and felt the back wheels bite into the tarmac then the front wheel thump down. I slammed on the brakes but immediately realised a problem. Tom's corrections were good enough for when we were in the air, but on the ground he didn't have enough time to correct my steering to keep us on a narrow runway. We were still travelling at a fair speed when I felt the nose wheel run off the tarmac and into the soft grass at the side. The change of surface brought us to an abrupt halt and I felt myself hit the webbing of my safety harness with a force that took my breath away.
As soon as I got my breath back I reached out and killed the engines. In the ensuing silence I could hear the sound of approaching sirens. The backlash of adrenaline washed over me at that point and I started to laugh. "Well, Tom, I'll not say that was my best landing, but you were right – I can land this baby with my eyes shut!"
There was only silence in reply.
Just then I heard someone fumbling with the cockpit catch. Fresh air washed over me as the canopy opened, making my eyes sting again. There was an intake of breath – I guess my eyes must have looked as bad as they felt.
"Captain Tracy? Can you stand, sir? Shall I call for the medics?"
I recognised the voice of my mechanic. "I'm OK, Jake, apart from my eyes. But can someone check on Tom? I haven't heard from him since we landed."
He helped me from the plane and guided me down the steps. "Make sure you get the film, Jake, it's got all the evidence we need."
"Will do, sir. You step up here please; someone'll take care of you."
I found myself being helped into a vehicle that my sense of smell told me was an ambulance. I felt hands on my face, then a hiss of a spray and a blessed coolness in my eyes. They were putting a bandage on them when I heard the ambulance door open again.
"Thought you'd want to know, Captain, we've got the film."
I heaved a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Jake. How's Tom?"
There was a pause, then Jake climbed into the ambulance and put his hand on my shoulder. "Sir, we could see the damage to your plane when you came in to land – that's why we scrambled the crash team. The whole back cockpit's been blown away. Tom's not there. He probably never knew what hit him."
Scott had swung round now to face me and was leaning forward, rolling his beer can between his palms. "The psychiatrists are telling me I'm suffering Post Traumatic Stress and are queuing up to give me their theories on what really happened. One told me that maybe my eyes weren't too bad initially, that it was lack of immediate treatment that made them look so bad by the time the medics got to me; another talked about 'survivor guilt' and a third says my subconscious used Tom's voice to talk me down to give me confidence. But I know the truth." He tipped his head back, draining the last of the beer. "My CO says he's going to recommend me for a medal. Someone deserves a medal for what happened out there – but it's not me."
Six months later Scott was awarded his medal at a ceremony with full military honours, attended by the Air Force top brass and all the Tracy family.
What nobody but me knows is that a week later, Scott flew to Ireland, where he gave his medal to Tom Maynard's widow. Did he tell her the truth? That her dead husband had talked him down from beyond the grave?
That's something only the two of them know. Scott doesn't tell me everything.