This story was written for the 2012 Tracy Island Writers' Forum 'Face the fear' challenge. My thanks to Purupuss for proofreading and Gerry Anderson and his team for creating the series. I acknowledge Granada Ventures as the copyright holder and Alan Fennell for writing the episode I used as inspiration for this story.
You'd think living half my life in space would give me enough fears for anyone. I spend a month at a time trapped in a tiny disc of metal and plastic, thousands of miles above the Earth. I'm fully aware that instant death awaits outside the walls of this little bubble and that my life is totally dependent on the machines that supply me with heat, oxygen and power.
But that's never worried me, any more than the idea that a plane could suddenly drop from the skies would worry Scott, or Father. Yes, I know in theory that it could happen, but it's a danger that I understand, one I have been trained to deal with. I helped design and build this craft, my lifeboat in space, and I know all the safety features that we incorporated into her. Without having to think about it, I'm aware of every sound she makes, the hiss of the air pumps, the hum of the motors, the creak of her frame as she warms and cools as we orbit the Earth and pass in and out of its shadow. I'm tuned in to this at an almost subconscious level; hearing the sounds, feeling the vibrations through the deck plates beneath my feet, feeling the air currents on my skin. It's like having a clock ticking in the room that you only notice when it stops.
Living in space doesn't worry me. I know my 'bird and trust her to protect me.
No, the human brain has other ways of scaring itself.
Soon after we started operations, I used to get this dream. In it, I would wake up one morning and know something was wrong. The life support systems would all be showing green, but when I went into the main control room I'd be greeted by silence. The banks of speakers around the walls that monitor every radio frequency for words like 'emergency', 'danger' and, of course, 'International Rescue' and give a constant background hum of conversation in every language would instead only emit the hiss of static. I'd look out of the window at the Earth beneath me and see not the lights of cities twinkling like a jewelled map, but total darkness. Then I would know that I was the last human being left alive.
I'm aware this is completely irrational. Even if the planet had been hit by a meteorite while I was asleep, or a virulent plague had ravaged the entire population in one night, there would still be some people alive. But the subconscious mind has nothing to do with logic, and I would still wake in a cold sweat, my face wet with tears. I'd have to get up and wander through the control room to look down at the Earth beneath me, just to make sure.
It wasn't long before I had more to worry about than foolish dreams.
The first time must have been several months after we started operations. A young mother and her two small children were trapped when a forest fire in Canada surrounded their cabin and cut off their escape route. My brothers were already on their way to the scene, having received a call from the emergency services, but they arrived too late to save this family. I had to stand there and listen to this woman pleading for help, knowing there was nothing I could do for her.
There have been others since; people trapped in burning high-rise buildings, sinking ships or aircraft falling from the skies. Sometimes they only have a few minutes left, far too short a time for us to reach them even with the speeds that our craft can achieve. On those occasions, all I can do is listen, talk to them, let them know that someone is hearing their last words. I've even taken down messages which I've been able to pass on (anonymously, of course) to their relatives and loved ones.
Of course, this is balanced by the success stories, the ones that make the news headlines; the ones that we do reach in time. But it's the failures I remember, the ones that prey on my mind.
It's hard to talk to any of the family about this. Alan's the only one who'd really understand, but he and I hardly ever get chance for relaxed chats together, and this sort of conversation is better over a couple of beers by the pool late at night than over a video link. Tin Tin's a help when I want someone to talk to, or her father, but I'm not sure they really know how I feel.
I managed to find an internet self-help group for emergency call workers. It's a worldwide group (a bit like us in that respect), so there's usually someone online whenever I log on. I wonder how they'd feel if they knew that one of the people they were talking to was from International Rescue? We all use call-names (I'm 'Gemini'; I would have gone for 'Mercury' but it was already taken), so you don't know who anyone is or where they work. It helps - a bit. I've left the details around for Alan to find, but I don't know if he uses it or not.
But repetition can dull even the sharpest fear, and I have learnt to live with the helpless feelings inside me. Even so, whenever the emergency alarm sounds and I reach for the microphone to answer it, I can't help wondering – will this be one of those calls, the ones we can do nothing to help?
Then today I had to face a situation that made my previous fears seem mild in comparison. Earlier in the day I'd relayed a call to base from Western Australia, where an oil refinery was on fire. Father had despatched Scott and Virgil to the scene. They'd dealt with the disaster and were on their way home.
Scott's take-off had been delayed; I'm guessing it must have had something to do with the alert I'd received from his automatic camera detector earlier; but once he had signalled that he was on his way back to base, I'd headed down to the kitchen to make myself a cup of coffee.
To be honest, I only had half an ear on the conversation that was going on between the two of them. My brothers often chat between themselves on the way home from a rescue. On the way out, they are all business, but they tend to use the trip back as a chance to unwind. So I wasn't paying much attention when they started talking about some new ship the US Navy was testing until I heard Virgil's cry of "Missiles!"
I turned towards the speaker on the wall as the unmistakable sound of an explosion came over the radio. Dropping the coffee mug, I ran back to the control room, hearing Scott's voice, clipped and tense, as he gave Virgil instructions.
Meanwhile my fingers were dancing over my keyboards, calling up telemetry from Thunderbird Two and any information I could find on the US Sentinel. I also accessed a direct line to the White House so I could patch Dad through as soon as he contacted me.
Another explosion came over the speakers and half the lights on Thunderbird Two's board changed from green to red as she plummeted towards the ocean. I could hear the stress in Scott's voice as he tried to get a response from Virgil, his tone running the gamut from authoritarian to pleading.
When Virgil's voice, quiet and groggy, came in reply, I let out the breath I hadn't realised I'd been holding.
For the next ten minutes I listened as Scott talked Virgil home: I'm sure he was keeping our brother conscious by sheer willpower. Virgil's responses were getting slower and his tone more shaky – by now he was in no condition to fly.
We had all been trained in emergency landing procedures, so I knew that, back on Tracy Island, my father and younger brothers would be assembling in Landing Control over the entrance to Thunderbird Two's hangar. I had this sudden mental image of Thunderbird Two overshooting the runway and burying itself in the cliff face. I could lose all my family in one fell swoop. I wanted to shout at them to get out of there, to get down to the bunkers buried deep beneath the island, where they would be safe, far away from the incoming, out-of-control juggernaut.
But I knew that even if the same thought had occurred to my younger brothers, that they would still not leave their posts, any more than I would have done in the same situation. So I waited, listening to Virgil's tired words over the speaker as he talked himself through the landing procedure, my fists clenched so hard that later I would find my fingernails had cut into the skin of my palms.
Scott's relieved "He's down" was followed a moment later by Virgil's panicked "I can't hold her; I'm going to crash!" and the agonised sound of screeching, tearing metal as his craft smashed itself against the runway.
If ever I'd felt helpless before, it was nothing to how I was feeling now. I was powerless to do anything but listen. In my mind's eye I could see the wreckage strewn across the runway, the white foam enveloping the stricken plane, extinguishing the fire and bringing the craft to a halt.
I presumed that it would be Alan and Gordon who would don hazmat suits and make their way into the wrecked plane to rescue our brother. Look, guys, I know you're too busy to talk to me, but somebody, please, say something over the radio!
Then Gordon's voice, "It's OK, Dad. We're in!"
Followed by Alan. "Scott, get out of here! You haven't got an oxygen mask!" I had to smile at that one.
A pause while my brothers must have been negotiating their way to the cabin, followed by a series of thumps. "The door's jammed."
"Use the jack." Careful, guys, Virgil won't like you damaging his precious 'bird even more than it is already.
More thumps, then "Where is he? Alan, you look over there; I'll take this side."
"Here he is!" I clenched my teeth. Please be OK, please, please, please. Then Alan's triumphant "I've found a pulse!"
At this point I felt my legs buckle beneath me and I sank into my chair.
My brothers' voices continued to issue from the speakers, "Virgil! Virgil, can you hear me? Where's that stretcher?" but they were just the background noise to the hammering of my heart. I sat there, listening to the exchange between my brothers and Brains as Virgil was extracted from the cabin, while my heartbeat returned to a more normal level.
Once the airwaves went quiet I found it hard to keep still. My nerves were stretched to breaking point, but I knew there was nothing anyone could tell me until Brains had finished stabilising Virgil and assessing his injuries. So I first went back to the kitchen to clear up the mess I had made, then had a much-needed shower and changed out of my sweat-soaked uniform. Psychologists call this 'displacement activity', but at least it meant that by the time Father contacted me with a full report on Virgil's condition, I felt that I once again looked the professional IR operative.
I face my fears in private; I don't need the family to know what demons I've had to wrestle with; I'm sure they all went through something similar. I'm fully aware that next time my brothers head out to a danger zone, I could have to face my greatest fear yet again. But at least I know there will be a next time.
That thought is almost a comfort.