Scott finds himself called out on a very unusual Christmas Eve rescue.

Author’s Notes: This story is based on the television series ‘Thunderbirds’, created by Gerry Anderson, and characters and situations do not belong to the author. Thanks to NORAD for the inspiration, and for their annual efforts to make the world a more magical place.

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There ought to be snow at Christmas.

It didn’t have to be a lot of snow. Scott got to see more than enough of blizzards in the course of rescues, and, besides, even Kansas rarely got much accumulation this early in the winter. But something deep inside Scott, some cultural indoctrination or nostalgia for days long past, insisted that celebrating Christmas under bright tropical skies wasn't quite right. That some of the magic was missing from the holiday. Much as he’d appreciated a Christmas Eve spent lounging by the pool – spared routine work by his father’s decree and rescues by the kind hand of fortune – there was nothing quite like being warm and comfortable while it snowed outside.

Leaning on the balcony railing, he swirled his drink in its glass. The sun was low on the horizon, clouds streaking the sky with scarlet and orange. Already shadows were gathering behind the volcanic peak of Tracy Island, the golden sunlight fading into rose-tinted dusk. Scott knew he wasn’t the only member of his family looking forward to the evening ahead. After dark they could at least pretend. The villa would become a little slice of Kansas, transplanted half a world away.

“Scott?” Virgil, seated at the piano just inside the lounge, called his name softly. The familiar seasonal melodies spilling from his fingers didn’t falter, but he raised an eyebrow, his expression quizzical, as Scott stepped back into the room. His elder brother shot him a smile, sliding the door shut behind him and hitting the switch to close the blinds before coming to stand by Virgil’s side, one hand tapping the piano lid idly in time with the music. Virgil smiled back, just a shadow of a frown behind his relaxed expression. “What’s up?”

Scott took another sip of his drink, letting himself relax. He gave a rueful chuckle, eager to dismiss his brother’s concern.

“Just wondering if I can persuade Brains to give us a repeat of last year’s experiment.”

“Our own personal blizzard?” Virgil smiled, remembering, then shook his head regretfully. “Great idea, but bad for the wildlife. Gordon swears he heard a parrot sneezing for a week afterwards.”

With a reluctant nod, Scott narrowed his eyes. He glanced across the lounge to where Alan and Gordon were turning decorating the tree into a contact sport, apparently engaged in a game of tag over a particularly prized ornament. Gordon had indeed been insistent on that point. Admittedly the aquanaut had used the wide-eyed expression that his brothers tended to view with deep suspicion, but he might even have been serious.

As if sensing Scott’s gaze on him, Gordon hesitated in his pursuit of their youngest brother, and turned to look towards the piano. Scott couldn’t stop his lips from twitching in amusement as Alan gave a cry of victory and clambered onto a coffee table, reaching up to place the Christmas star in pride of place at the tree’s highest point. Virgil struck a few chords on the piano – the opening to ‘Hail the Conquering Hero Comes’ – and Gordon conceded defeat gracefully, raising his hands to shield his eyes as if dazzled by the star’s radiance.

“Alan Tracy!” Grandma’s exclamation from the doorway cut the air like a knife. Alan’s triumphant expression vanished. He jumped from the table as if it were suddenly burning his feet, landing flatfooted with an audible thud. Jeff Tracy, for once in his life buried in an honest-to-God novel rather than a technical or business report, started upright on the sofa, looking around with a guilty expression that perfectly matched his youngest son’s. Scott coughed into his hand to hide his chuckle as he watched his father mentally rehearse rationalisations for just why he hadn’t been supervising his theoretically-adult sons more closely.

Grandma saw it too, and her lips quirked upwards at the corners. Her scowl lasted long enough to be sure her grandson was suitably apologetic before softening. She examined the ornately-decorated tree critically, and then looked around at the tinsel garlands Tin-Tin and Brains were tacking up around the room. The family awaited her verdict with bated breath.

“It looks wonderful,” she declared with a warm smile.

Scott hurried forward, eager to relieve her of the heavy jug of cream she carried in both hands. With a smile for her grandson, the diminutive woman let him take it and stepped down into the room, revealing Kyrano behind her. A rich, spicy aroma of fresh-from-the-oven pie rose from the tray he held, making Scott’s mouth water and his stomach rumble. It mingled with the sharp scent of the specially imported fir tree and with the smoke rising from the candles Tin-Tin had placed on each table, creating a thick atmosphere that summoned memories of Christmas long past. Colourful lights glittered off the tinsel, and reflected from the array of glass baubles that Alan and Gordon had somehow managed to hang with no more than minimal breakage.

The pie was still warm when Scott settled onto the sofa next to his Dad, plate in his right hand, fork in his left, letting the thought of snow fade from his mind. Behind him the windows were already dark, the short tropical twilight come and gone within minutes. He was warm and comfortable, his family all around him. If only John had been home too, everything would be perfect. As it was, it came pretty close.

Scott watched his younger brother with a critical eye. Gordon’s gesture’s were getting more emphatic, but no less comprehensible, with each passing moment. Leaning forward in his chair, Scott shook his head.

“So it’s a television programme, something to do with water and one word.” He watched as Gordon repeated his mime, casting long shadows in the warm lamplight. “Something big and flappy that, knowing Gordon, could well be a fish. But not, apparently, a jellyfish, shark or whale.”

Gordon gave him a wide-eyed look of appeal, obviously bursting to speak but bound not to by the rules of the game. Scott’s father and grandmother were casting hopeful looks in his direction too. Charades might be a family favourite, particularly in the relaxed hours after dinner on a holiday, but Gordon’s turn on the spot already seemed to have lasted a lifetime and none of the guesses his brothers had thrown out had even rated an encouraging nod.

Gordon went into the second part of his mime, apparently prodding something before drawing his fingers back sharply, shaking and blowing on them. Virgil had already run through every variation on ‘burn’ and ‘fire’ he could think of, with Alan throwing synonyms for ‘ouch!’ into the mix.

The chiming of an alarm from the desk came as something of a relief all round. The signal from Thunderbird Five lacked the piercing tone of a full rescue alert, the eyes of John’s picture flashing with a somewhat less urgent rhythm. By the way Alan dived for the desk and the controls there, you wouldn’t know it.

“John! TV series – one word – big, flappy fish-thing?”

The picture slid back and John faded into view, blinking in surprise as Alan answered his call with the urgent query. Comprehension dawned as Scott’s spaceborne brother studied his screen, taking in the arrangement of his family around their second youngest. He gave a quick, thin smile.

“Gordon’s trying to mime ‘Stingray’ again?”

Scott didn’t join in the general chorus of relief. John’s brow was furrowed, a faint frown obvious to anyone who knew him well. The atmosphere shifted, levity falling away, as first Scott’s brothers and then the rest of the family recognised the anxious expression.

Jeff Tracy stood, taking a step forward so he was centred in John’s line of sight.

“What is it, John?” he asked, the worried frown on his face mirroring his distant son’s.

“Well, this isn’t a social call, I’m afraid, Father. We’ve had a request for assistance, but I thought you’d want to discuss it before deciding whether it’s a real alert. I’m really not sure what you’re going to make of it.” John hesitated before going on, obviously searching for the right phrasing. “The thing is… well, you know about NORAD, of course?”

Scott felt his own frown deepen. He moved up behind his father, leaning back against the desk with his arms folded across his chest. “Missile and satellite tracking centre,” he noted. “Used to be North American. World Government-controlled now.”

John nodded. “Well, for the better part of a century now NORAD has spent Christmas Eve publicly broadcasting updates as it tracks the progress of Santa’s sleigh around the world.”

Now it was Scott’s turn to blink in surprise. He noticed the quick glance Alan and Gordon exchanged, and felt a subtle concern from Virgil. He obviously wasn’t alone in wondering whether the strain of being alone on Thunderbird Five over the holiday was finally getting to their brother.

Even Jeff Tracy looked taken aback. “Go on,” he ordered gruffly.

The somewhat dubious expression on John’s face eased some of Scott’s concerns. It was clear John couldn’t quite believe what they were discussing either.

“Well, Dad, Santa’s due to set off just about any time now – midnight at the international date line, and the ‘top secret route’ he’s going to be taking is already programmed into the computers and ready to unwind as they ‘track’ him. And that’s the problem.”

Gordon laughed aloud. “Someone’s hacked in to get the route and is going to ambush Santa!” he guessed, delighted. “And NORAD want us to ride to the rescue?”

Alan laughed along, and John managed another tight smile. Scott and his father just waited for the explanation that had to be coming.

“Unfortunately, Gordon’s probably closer than he thinks. Apparently the course is locked in – the programmers are gone for the holiday and apparently unreachable – which wouldn’t usually be a problem. Except for the fact that a huge system of ice storms and blizzards has developed over Siberia… and in a few hours time Santa will be ploughing straight through it.”

The puzzled expression on Scott’s face was matched by others around the room. John was looking a little miserable, as if he regretted raising the matter in the first place. Scott shook his head.

“I don’t get it. Why is this a matter for International Rescue?”

John sighed, running a hand back through his hair. “Kids all over the world are watching this online or on local broadcasts. NORAD have already been inundated with calls from worried children who want them to warn Santa off of Siberia – and even from Russian kids saying that they don’t want Father Frost getting hurt coming to visit them. The number of calls is going up by the minute and NORAD are afraid they could have a full scale panic on their hands when they send their Santa-detection plunging into that storm front.” The space monitor took a deep breath. “NORAD have officially asked International Rescue if we can send someone to ‘guide Santa through the blizzard’.”

There was a long pause. Jeff Tracy ran a hand across his eyes, breathing deeply.

Virgil broke the tableau. “So let me get this right. They want us to send a Thunderbird?”

“Yes,” John agreed.

“And let them track it?”

“That’s right.”

“To stop a mythical character going astray?”


“Because the reindeer pulling his non-existent flying sleigh might get lost in a snow-storm?”

“Got it in one, Virge.”

Scott struggled not to sound as incredulous as he felt. “Can’t they just tell the children Santa will get through the storm by magic?”

“That might have worked a hundred years ago, Scott.” Of all the people in the room, Brains was perhaps the one Scott had least expected to hear from. “Children now are accustomed to, ah, the miracles of modern, ah, technology. They want to see a more, ah, plausible solution.”

“So they believe more in the weather satellites than in Santa?” Gordon shook his head. “That’s sad.”

“…says the boy who had Johnny rigging up motion detectors around the chimney the year he turned six,” Virgil noted with a smile.

“Let’s just say they really do believe in International Rescue,” John suggested. “They trust us.”

“John!” The sharp tone in Jeff Tracy’s voice cut through Gordon’s reply. “We are a rescue organisation, not some…” He trailed off, lost for words.

John flinched, but he met his father’s eyes boldly across the com link. “Dad, I’ve checked Thunderbird Five’s filters and it’s not just NORAD that are hearing about this. We’ve had a few calls ourselves – kids in tears about Santa getting lost in the snow and freezing. They didn’t get through to me in person, but some of those children have vivid imaginations. I’ve listened to descriptions of Santa with hypothermia and the reindeer suffocating in a snowdrift. If we don’t do this, half a generation is going to have nightmares.”

“Not to mention poor Johnny,” Alan confided to Gordon in a stage whisper. He took a step back, cowed, as Jeff Tracy turned a steely glare on him.

“International Rescue is here to save lives, not protect a few infants from bad dreams – ”

“We made one kid very happy this time last year.” Scott interrupted despite his own scepticism, driven by the instinct to deflect his father’s wrath from a younger brother. “Think how many lives we could brighten up this year.”

“That boy was sick. It was for charity…”

Their father’s protests lacked conviction, his voice softening at the memory of playing Santa for young Nicky. Grandma, hearing the waver in her son’s objection, pushed the point home.

“For shame, Jeff! We stopped that one boy’s tears for a day, but ignore the weeping of all the poor children calling John? And at Christmas too?”

“There must be hundreds of sick children in hospital watching this thing,” Virgil added thoughtfully. “Thousands, even, who are counting on Santa’s journey to brighten a difficult time of year.” He folded his arms across his chest and gave his father an earnest look. “NORAD are putting a lot of effort into this thing and I can’t help thinking we ought to back them up. Dad, I don’t mind taking Thunderbird Two out for a few hours.”

“Thunderbird Two?” Gordon scoffed. “No way that monster could keep up with Santa’s sleigh!”

Virgil glowered at his younger brother. John saved him the effort of answering.

“Figures never were your strong point, were they, Gordon? Santa does the trip around the world in twenty-four hours. Virgil can do it in five at a push. Speed aside though, it’s not really as if Santa needs heavy rescue.”

“Besides Thunderbird Two’s too big,” Alan said, as if it should be obvious. “She’d frighten the reindeer.” His matter-of-fact tone attracted bemused and slightly worried looks from around the room. Scott’s youngest brother flushed. “What?” he demanded. “I’m just getting into the spirit of the thing.”

Jeff Tracy’s brow furrowed into an angry frown as he tried to take back control of the conversation. “Thunderbird Two is going nowhere. I’ll admit I can see some of your arguments, boys, but what if there’s a rescue needing specialist equipment? I won’t have our response delayed – ”

“I agree.” Distance gave John a slightly more sanguine attitude towards his father’s wrath than his earthbound brothers. “Sending Virgil out would be a bad idea. But there is another option that might be more appropriate. After all, there is kind of a precedent for this.” John glanced up at the screen, picking out his eldest brother. For the first time since he called a genuine smile passed across his face, his eyes dancing with an amusement that made Scott suddenly very nervous. “And as NORAD pointed out, they couldn’t help noticing that one of our Thunderbirds has a red nose.”

Scott’s cheeks glowed a scarlet almost as vibrant as Thunderbird One’s nose cone. His eyes narrowed, his sharp intake of breath the only sound as his family braced, waiting for the imminent explosion. When it came though, it was in the form of laughter that bubbled up through Gordon and overflowed, sweeping Alan along in its wake. The two exchanged a look and then both were laughing hard, Alan dropping back down onto the sofa for support. His brothers’ amusement knocked the wind out of Scott’s sails. He gave Virgil a look of aggrieved betrayal as his closest brother joined in, chuckling loudly. Grandma had raised a hand to cover her mouth, and even Scott’s father was struggling, the corners of his mouth quirking upwards despite his efforts.


Virgil shrugged his apology. “You were wishing you could see some snow earlier, Scott.”

“There’s no real reason to keep Thunderbird One at Base, father,” John pointed out. “Scott can respond to a rescue alert just as fast from in the air, if not faster.”

Scott closed his eyes, and counted to ten. He forced himself to think of the hundreds of thousands of children whose nightmares he might be able to spare, and the touch of magic he could bring their lives. He remembered the difficult years when he’d struggled with his little brothers’ growing cynicism about Santa, and the sadness he’d felt when even Alan had started to ask questions. If he did this right, he could help the parents fighting a rear-guard action, and stave off disbelief for just one more year.

When he opened his eyes again, the entire family was looking at him. His father’s expression combined resignation with deep ambivalence.

“It’s your call, Scott.”

Scott looked around the room, a wry smile on his face. Alan and Gordon wore near identical expressions of wide-eyed pleading, although whether they were eager to see the mission itself or just the opportunities for gentle mockery it presented, Scott couldn’t be sure. Virgil raised an eyebrow, his expression expectant.

“No pressure, huh? The weather won’t give me problems, John?”

“Well within specs, Scott.”

Scott sighed.

“I’ll do it.” 

“Thunderbird Five calling Santa’s Little Helper.”

Scott glowered at the speaker on his console. John was just a source of endless amusement today. He steadfastly ignored the hail, concentrating on maintaining his hover against the gusting wind.

“Calling Thunderbird One. Can you hear me, Scott?”

“Loud and clear, John.”

The small screen beside the speaker lit up, John’s expression accusatory. “You didn’t answer.”

Scott glanced away from his weather and wind monitors to raise an eyebrow at his brother. “Oh, you were talking to me? And here I thought you had a hotline to the North Pole and were checking on the big man’s progress.”

“Very funny. He’s closing in on you, by the way.”

Scott looked to the screen just to the left of his com-panel. Thunderbird One’s course was already laid in, but John was relaying the NORAD broadcast as a crosscheck. The red dot that supposedly tracked Santa’s movement across the large-scale map was rapidly approaching both the huge mass of swirling cloud on the screen and the coordinates at which Thunderbird One waited. Scott broke his hover and started a careful acceleration through the outer fringes of the first ice storm.

“I see it.”

John grinned. “And is my reluctant Rudolph ready to begin escort duty?” He took Scott’s indignant expression as his confirmation, flicking a switch on Thunderbird Five before Scott could voice his protest. A new light lit on Thunderbird One’s control panel, indicating that the unsecured radio he used to speak to contacts at a rescue site was broadcasting. A second symbol appeared on NORAD’s screens, following the transponder that Scott carried.

“Thunderbird One, this is Thunderbird Five,” John announced formally. “Confirm status?”

“Thunderbird One on station and ready to assist.” Scott kept both voice and expression serious. “It’s pretty cold and windy out here. I sure hope Santa can find me in all this before we get too deep in the storm.”

His eyes on the screen, Scott had the pleasure of seeing John looking taken aback. He gave Scott a slightly worried look over the video link that they shared, before answering with equal gravity for the benefit of the audio broadcast they’d encouraged NORAD to ‘eavesdrop’. “I’m tracking you both from here. He’s coming up behind you and to your left. Have you been a good boy this year?”

It was Scott’s turn to give the video screen a startled glance. John smiled beatifically, none of his amusement showing in his deadpan voice.

“Santa can always find his way to little boys who’ve been good,” the space monitor explained as if it should be obvious.

Scott shot his brother an irritated look, wondering quite how he was meant to answer John’s question without either sounding arrogant or destroying International Rescue’s reputation.

Thunderbird One’s controls bucked under his hands as the wind rocked her. His eyes once again firmly on his scanner consoles, he was satisfied to note that the sweeping intercept course he’d plotted had brought him to within a few hundred metres of the icon for Santa, Thunderbird One’s velocity perfectly matching that of her ‘rescuee’. Even the children following their track across Siberia on the highest resolution maps wouldn’t question that the Thunderbird and sleigh were now travelling together. He made a show of peering over his shoulder, purely for John’s benefit, before speaking in a relieved and buoyant tone.

“Ah! There he is! Gosh, that sleigh looks heavy. The bag of toys in the back is pretty much overflowing. Santa’s wrapped up nice and snug in that red coat of his. I’ve gotta say those reindeer are looking pretty cold though.” He leaned back from the microphone slightly, raising his voice as if calling out. “Don’t worry, guys! Follow me and I’ll get you through this in no time.”

The storm was getting thicker, hailstones pelting Thunderbird One’s hull and erratically gusting wind making her difficult to control. For a few seconds Scott was forced to concentrate on keeping her steady on the pre-plotted course. With all his attention focused on his controls, the alert from his local airspace radar startled him. He glanced at it, frowning at the weak, indistinct blur registering intermittently on his sensor screen. It was certainly too small for any aircraft capable of matching Scott’s speed, and well below his current altitude. As Scott watched, the blip faded out again, falling below Thunderbird One’s detection limit, and for a split second, the radar map itself fizzled out, the screen blurring into a snowstorm of interference before clearing.

The weak detection was gone when the radar map re-established itself, lost somewhere amidst the low level pattern of responses he was getting from the storm itself. Thoughtfully, Scott dimmed the lights in the cabin before opening the panels that protected his cockpit view ports. Rain streamed across the windows, droplets converging, combining and then separating again as Thunderbird One’s speed drove them back towards her tail-plane. He’d more or less given up hope of seeing anything even before he snapped his Thunderbird through a rapid barrel roll, peering into the murky, moonlit depth of cloud below him. If there was a shadow down there, it was more than likely his own, or nothing more than a dark cloud.

Of course, Scott realised, that could be the answer. At this kind of speed, and in these conditions, a particularly dense patch of hail might, just possibly, register as solid. It seemed a bit of a stretch, but what was the alternative – that something that couldn’t be larger than a family car and barely registered on his sensors was pacing him, almost on the floor, at supersonic speeds? No, better to accept the more straightforward solution, even if it left him with a niggling disquiet.

He re-established his level flight path, still fighting gusting winds, before he looked again at his radar screen. The intermittent contact registered for a brief second, before the entire map flooded with interference once more. When the map returned, the signal was gone. Scott grimaced in frustration. Should he tell Base and Thunderbird Five about the blip? With the sensor grid acting up as it was, they’d more than likely advise him to ignore it, or worse, order him straight back to Base. They might be right to do so. Alsterene reactions aside, it was pretty unusual for Thunderbird One to suffer any kind of systems interference. John had promised that crossing the storm should be well within Thunderbird One’s capabilities, and Scott had checked the numbers on that himself. Loathe as Scott was to back out on even a fantasy rescue, he should at least report the problem.

He’d more than half expected a comment from John on his aerobatics. It came as a surprise when he glanced down at the communications screen to realise that the picture was breaking up, crossed by occasional clouds of static. If the monitor had been a little closer he’d have reached out to tap it. As it was, he could only frown at it, perplexed to find a second system registering the same curious noise pattern. Behind the interference, John was wearing a similar frown, his attention on his console as his hands played across it.

“Thunderbird One to Thunderbird Five.” Scott kept his voice calm, conscious of the red light indicating he was still on public broadcast. He hesitated. He hadn’t forgotten the point of his mission, and, besides, before he said anything that might worry anyone, he wanted to establish the extent of the problem. “Santa’s keeping pretty close, which is a good thing in this weather. He doesn’t want to slow down though. He’s got a lot of good little boys and girls still to visit.”

John had paused to listen to the start of Scott’s call, before shaking his head and turning back to fiddle again with his controls, clearly carrying out an assessment of his own.

“Thunderbird One from Five. I’m glad I’m not down there with you, the weather looks pretty bad.” John matched Scott for tone, his light words belied by the crackles of static that punctuated them and the uneasy expression on his face. “In fact it sounds like we’re getting a bit of radio interference from the storm.”

A surge of white noise all but washed out John’s last words. Scott wasn’t at all surprised to see the general broadcast light blink off, John using Thunderbird Five to override her smaller sister’s communications settings. Instead, lights lit on the console for direct com links to both Thunderbird Five and Tracy Island.

“This signal’s pretty bad, Scott.” John’s voice had lost its professional calm. Insofar as Scott could tell above the roar of interference, he sounded worried and a little annoyed. Scott could understand why. The weather rarely affected their communications at all, let alone this badly. Knowing John, he’d take the failure as a personal affront.

“I’ll be out of this in ten minutes,” he reassured his brother. “You’re still tracking my beacon, right?”

“F.A.B.” Again John was drowned in static, Scott able to guess at his response simply by its familiarity.

He opened his mouth to reply, and hesitated, distracted by the return of the sensor contact. “John, I’m getting some odd behaviour on the sensors.”

There was no reply, and Scott looked briefly down at his com-panel, surprised to realise that he’d lost the connection to Thunderbird Five entirely.

“Thunderbird One to Base,” he called experimentally. “Com check: how are you reading me?”

“Strength one.”

Scott could barely hear his father’s voice. He glanced at the video screen to find it filled with white noise before returning his concentration to his course and altitude corrections. Straining his ears he could just hear his father asking for confirmation that the storm was to blame. He didn’t hear John’s answer at all.

“Dad, I’m getting an erratic sensor contact.” Again, static was Scott’s only reply and he spared a hand from holding the ship steady, reaching out to adjust the radio settings.

“Thunderbird Five from Thunderbird One. John, can you hear me?”

“Thunderbird One calling Base.”

Scott paused for a few seconds before switching reluctantly back from the IR communications network to the more basic broadband radio broadcast.

“Thunderbird One calling Thunderbird Five.”

He scowled into nowhere as his speakers emitted nothing but a squawk of radio noise. With a sigh, he flicked the switch back to the International Rescue settings. On the plus side, without the worldwide audience, he wouldn’t have to watch what he was saying quite so carefully. That didn’t quite offset the unease Scott always felt when he was out of touch with Base. For a few seconds he considered breaking off from his course and taking the shortest route out of the storm. He squelched the thought a little reluctantly. As he’d told John, at the speed ‘Santa’ was doing, Scott only had to put up with a few more minutes of this. His com-link with Thunderbird Five was down, but John was almost certainly picking up his transponder, and was most likely still relaying it to NORAD. The sensor interference was a concern, but the outages were short-lived, and he was at least halfway to convincing himself that the contact was a mere illusion of the weather. It wasn’t enough to send him running home with his tail between his legs.

Gritting his teeth, Scott pointed Thunderbird One’s nose deeper into the storm, course and speed perfectly matching the route NORAD had given him. There was simply no way Scott Tracy would let millions of children watch him abandon Santa to the snow.

It was five minutes before the sensor contact returned. Scott had almost been relaxing, the challenge of flying through wave after wave of snow and hail exhilarating. Thunderbird One was handling with her usual precision and flair. The radio problem could be fixed as soon as he got home and the strange blip on his sensors, well, that had obviously been an unusually dense hailstorm. Nothing to worry about.

Except that it was back.

The contact was still defying Thunderbird One’s attempts to classify it, the radar echoes dull and imprecise. Even so, its size and profile were identical to its previous appearance, as far as Scott could tell. He’d have said it was shadowing his course, if it weren’t for the fact that this time the thing seemed to be weaving erratically, matching his general direction and average speed but somehow less certain and more confused than it had been before.

His lips set in a thin line, Scott drummed his fingers on the arm of his control chair, thinking hard. He didn’t like the idea of anything following his Thunderbird and was more than a little concerned that anything with the kind of radar profile he was picking up even could. He glanced at his course on the navigation console, Thunderbird One’s icon still marginally ahead of the NORAD Santa and pacing ‘him’. The sight made him nervous. With the realisation that he was being followed by something tangible, not just an electronic phantom, the radio failure took on a more sinister interpretation. Suddenly, maintaining a preset course, flying at constant height and speed, seemed like a spectacularly bad idea.

Acting as much on instinct as reason, Scott rolled Thunderbird One over, powering her into a steep dive. With the flick of a switch, bright floodlights flared into life, angled forward so they shone along the rocket-ship’s bright scarlet nose cone before stabbing into the pitch darkness ahead of her. They illuminated little but wisps of cloud, shredded by the Thunderbird’s passage and streaming back in the supersonic windflow over her fuselage. He levelled off less than a kilometre above the ground, well below his normal cruising altitude, peering out through the pelting snow. Thunderbird One’s scanners were once again showing nothing but a fog of static, but if their last reading had been even close to correct, his elusive shadow had to be somewhere nearby.

Scott might as well have closed his eyes, flying blind, for all he could see outside his craft. The night was impenetrable, Thunderbird One’s floodlights scattering off raindrops before fading into nowhere and nothing. Even so, Scott’s eyes kept flicking towards the view-ports, drawn time and again by those windows into pure darkness. Shaking his head, he forced himself to concentrate on checking his navigation screen, satisfied to see that his coordinates were still indistinguishable from the NORAD route, even if his altitude had changed radically. The radar screen cleared and Scott studied it for the few brief seconds before it snowed over again. His shadow, whatever it might be, was close now, weaving back across Thunderbird One’s course. He’d have to be careful, not get too close. More than careful: a crash at these speeds could easily kill them both.

His gaze drifted back towards the windows, straining to see anything as he passed through a brief gap between storms. Thunderbird One chimed a proximity warning, somewhat more urgent than the alert that had started all this, and only just short of a full-blown collision alarm. Instinctively, Scott glanced down at his console before looking up again, hoping more than expecting to catch a glimpse of his elusive flying companion.

“What the…?!”

He’d known the other vehicle was small and close. He hadn’t realised just how small and how close. Scott jerked the nose of his ship up, the desperate manoeuvre throwing his head back against the rest with an impact that left him momentarily dizzy. Bringing the Thunderbird back under control with automatic skill, shaking his head in an attempt to clear it and regretting the movement almost at once, Scott struggled to process the glimpse of colours and textures he had seen. The red had been vibrant, close enough in shade to Thunderbird One’s nose cone that it might even have been a reflection. Similarly the glimpse of white could easily have been a wisp of cloud, or the floodlights refracting through ice crystals suspended far above the ground. The brown, the impression of wood and other, softer, textures was harder to explain away.

The collision alarm was sounding continuously now, Thunderbird One’s sensors certain that something was close by but lacking the resolution or sensitivity to tell precisely what and where. Blinking back his daze and the lingering headache that lay beneath it, Scott searched his interference-fogged scanner for any clue as to his best course. He gripped his controls, white-knuckled, holding his course as steady as he could. Simply put, whatever… whoever was sharing his airspace was a lot smaller than he was, and probably far better able to see him than he was them.

He felt the moment they made contact. The shift in his Thunderbird’s handling registered first. The weight balance was suddenly subtly wrong, the airflow over her wings shifting into unfamiliar patterns. He braced, waiting for the split second of grace to pass, for the supersonic turbulence to kick in and knock his ‘Bird out of the air. He was still holding his breath when he realised, five long seconds later, that it wasn’t going to happen.

He drew in a ragged breath, surprised and grateful simply to still be alive. Cautiously, he angled the ship slightly to his left, trying to get a feel for just how and why Thunderbird One’s flight profile had changed. He froze as a clatter echoed through his hull, aware for the first time that the noise of the wind howling past his cockpit had suddenly abated. The sharp, metallic sound, came again, loud and clear against the somehow muted background. Swallowing hard, Scott brought his ship gently back to level flight.

Whatever was resting on his hull above the cockpit, whatever was deflecting the Thunderbird’s airflow gently around and over itself, moved. Again there was the staccato rattle of something hard striking metal, this time louder, with several sharp impacts against the hull coming simultaneously. Something larger shifted too. There was a drawn out murmur of wood sliding across Thunderbird One’s smooth fuselage, punctuated by the incongruous chiming of dozens of tiny bells.

No. Scott shook his head until stars flashed across his vision, wondering how hard he’d hit it, and then whether being alert enough to ask the question invalidated it.

This was impossible. Fighting past the killer headache now throbbing through his skull, Scott scowled into nowhere, trying to deny the evidence of his own senses. A wave of turbulence rocked the Thunderbird and again he heard that sharp, unexpectedly familiar sound. Scott fought for stability, still adjusting for the way the air was curving over the ship, well away from her hull. Disbelief faded into consternation, and then anxiety, as the Thunderbird tilted and the jingling bells accompanied yet another quick adjustment from whatever was on his hull. It took several seconds to bring her back under control, and Scott glanced upwards towards the cockpit ceiling, putting aside the preconceptions, prejudices and certainties that constituted common sense. He might not be able to see what was going on up there, but he’d spent enough time on a Kansas farm to recognise the distinctive sound of hooves striking metal.

“Hold on,” he whispered aloud. “Hold on, guys, and I’ll get you out of here.”

He couldn’t be sure whether or not his unexpected passengers heard him. He only knew that there was a single, sharp clang against the hull plates over his head. More relaxed now that he’d decided not to fight the situation, Scott aimed a tight grin up at the inside of the fuselage, before focusing back on his controls. Making the promise was easy, now he just had to make good on it.

Somehow, whether through skill, luck or the protection of some more conscious power, Thunderbird One was still on her plotted course, close to the edge of the storm front now. The clouds were thinning, the wind gusts still powerful, but becoming less frequent. From time to time, Scott caught glimpses of clear skies on the distant horizon and a bright moonlight that lent the ice-bound landscape below a silver cast. Then a cloud would engulf them, enshrouding the Thunderbird in cold darkness once again.

Scott had to resist the urge to speed up, conscious both of his passengers and the fact that he might well still be showing up on the NORAD tracking system. Desperate as he was to reach the end of this ordeal, there was no point on giving up on his mission now, even if his pride would allow it.

Finally – finally! – they were shredding the last cloud, weathering the last wave of freezing rain and rocking through the last crosswinds. Scott felt a grin of triumph forming on his face. He glanced upwards, hearing movement against his hull once again, still uncertain whether it was his imagination that provided the footsteps – both animal and human, or something very much like it – that crossed the metal plates above him. He should have been scared, or at the very least unnerved by the strangeness of the situation. He knew that. He certainly should have been concerned that, despite the diamonds now glinting in the crystal clear sky above him, his communications systems remained clouded with interference.

Instead he felt warm and comfortable, the headache he’d acquired when he hit his head faded into a background murmur. Caught in the moment, he couldn’t help chuckling along when a rich, belly-deep laugh floated above him. He had a soft smile on his face as a creak of wood and jingle of small bells echoed through the hull, and hooves clattered above the cabin. With the storm winds passed, there was a tranquillity and calm about his flight. It was like waking up to see a carpet of pristine snow outside, like going downstairs on Christmas morning to find the milk and cookies he’d left for Santa were gone.

He looked up as a loud clang echoed deliberately through the hull, knowing instinctively what it signified. There was a rattle of hooves, a jingle of bells and the scrape of wooden runners over metal. Scott was holding his control yokes tight when the airflow around Thunderbird One shifted again, her nose dipping momentarily before he readjusted. For a second or two he concentrated on steadying his ship. He looked up when he caught a flicker of red and white, vibrant in the floodlights, through the corner of his eye. He wasn’t surprised to find he’d been too slow. There was nothing to see but the clear sky and moonlight streaming through the open view ports. He couldn’t be sorry. Sometimes seeing and believing were two very different things.

The radar screen cleared, a solid blip registering briefly before the last of the interference faded away. Its path diverged from that of the Thunderbird, leaving nothing but a blank screen and a wealth of memories behind it.

“Thunderbird Five calling Thunderbird One! Come in, Scott!”

“Thunderbird One from Base: Can you hear us?”

The two calls overlapped, both urgent and deeply concerned. The communications panel lit up, John’s stronger signal winning the battle for the small video screen in its centre. Scott’s brother looked tired, his face pale and drawn with anxiety. It was hard to believe it was just ten minutes since they’d lost contact. Clearly it had felt like a lot longer for everyone.

Scott took a deep breath, wondering just what to say and how he was going to explain all this. He still felt the warmth that his unusual passengers had left behind them, but his head ached where he’d knocked it, and one look at John’s expression had shattered his sense of contentment. His training, his years of experience kicked back in. He glanced at the screen just to the left of the com panel, noting that the International Rescue icon was still tracking across the NORAD feed. He had a mission to complete, and a report to deliver. With a bit of care, he could accomplish both objectives at once.

Making his decision, Scott reached out for his controls, activating not just the International Rescue com-link, but also the radio transmitter that NORAD would be listening out for.

“Thunderbird One to International Rescue. Mission successful. It got a bit rough in there. I had to give Santa and the reindeer a ride to get them out of the storm, but they’re safely through and on their way again now. Declaring rescue complete. Thunderbird One is returning to Base.”

Scott acted as he spoke, veering Thunderbird One away from the route marked on the screen, and beginning a gradual climb towards a more reasonable cruising altitude. With a flick of his thumb, he deactivated Thunderbird One’s transponder, watching with satisfaction as her icon vanished from the NORAD tracking screen. He didn’t have to deactivate the broadband radio. It flicked off the moment he finished speaking, John’s override leaving only the International Rescue channels open. Finally free of their invited eavesdroppers, his family didn’t hesitate.

“Scott! What happened?”

“Are you all right, son?”

“Do you need me out there, Scott? I can have Thunderbird Two  – ”

“Whoa! I’m fine, Father. John, Virgil, calm down! Everything’s A-OK and I’m heading home now. I know I’ve been out of touch, but I don’t know why you’re so – ”

“Watching Thunderbird One almost drop out of the sky might have something to do with it,” John snapped, running a hand back through his hair. “For a while there, I wasn’t sure you were going to pull out of that dive.”

“What happened out there, Scott?”

Scott hesitated, unsure which version of the story would unnerve his family more. He opted for the simple truth. “I thought I saw something on my scanners below me. I wanted to check it out.”

“You pulled off some pretty sharp manoeuvres, Scott.” Virgil’s voice was far from convinced. “Came through some rough weather. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Scott sighed. His headache was returning and he was simply too tired to come up with excuses. “Well, crashing into Santa’s sleigh would have kind of defeated the purpose of the trip, so dodging seemed like a good idea, and after that, I just had to concentrate on not tipping the reindeer off the wings.”

There was a moment of frosty silence.

“There’s no need to get sarcastic about it,” John accused in an aggrieved tone.

Scott shook his head, too weary to be amused. “Thunderbird One at cruising altitude. All systems nominal. ETA at Tracy Island: forty minutes.”

Jeff Tracy’s gruff voice was frustrated but resigned as it rumbled across the airwaves.

“All right, Scott. I’ll expect a full report when you get back to Base. We’ll be waiting up for you, son. International Rescue out.”

The com-link closed, the console pinging a moment later as Thunderbird Five uploaded her small sister’s flight logs. Scott gave a rueful smile. He was pretty sure the records would tell John little of what had happened here. By all means let him look at them. In the mean time, Scott just had to figure out what he was going to tell his father before he landed.

Clamps locked into place with a dull thud that vibrated through Thunderbird One. The rocket plane came to rest, back in her familiar parking bay. The straight-faced news reports about his ‘rescue’, the grateful calls to Thunderbird Five that John had been relaying, faded into silence as her electrical systems powered down. Scott leaned back in his chair, resting his head against it for a few moments and letting his hands fall from the controls as he listened to his Thunderbird easing back into her sleep. It was good to be home.

The knock against his hull startled him. For a moment he was flying again, lost in the magical memory. Then the dull note registered, quite different from the sharp rattle of hooves against metal. Scott was just sliding down from his control chair as the hatch slid open, Virgil silhouetted against the brilliance of the hangar and the rectangle of warm light beyond. Scott met his worried brother’s eyes, reassuring him with a look. Virgil studied him for a moment before nodding cautiously, smiling a welcome home.

“Good flight?” he asked.

“Interesting,” Scott told him with a shrug. The movement aggravated his headache, and he couldn’t stop himself wincing, lifting a hand automatically to rub the back of his head. Under his fingers, he could feel the tender area where he’d knocked it when he was thrown back against the chair. He felt rather than saw the tension returning to his brother, Virgil’s lips setting into a grim line as if his suspicions had been confirmed. Scott sighed. “Okay, so I took a bit of a knock. I’m fine, Virge, honest…”

He broke off, frowning. Virgil frowned too, following his brother’s eyes to the floor directly between them and the incongruous object sitting there.

A bright red ribbon circled the glass sphere. Inside, silver-white flakes were still swirling, suspended in a clear liquid. As Scott watched, they began to settle, falling in a gentle shower over a perfect scale model of Tracy Island, dusting the Villa and Round House with a layer of pristine white. Scott gave a small cry of delight and disbelief, falling to his knees and taking the foot-wide snow-globe in both hands. He raised it to his face, peering in through the miniature blizzard, almost convinced he could see movement beyond the tiny windows.

“Our own personal blizzard,” Virgil murmured, kneeling beside him.

Scott glanced up, eyes wide. After the straightforward return flight and the familiarity of his homecoming, he’d started to wonder himself whether it had all been a dream or some concussion-induced hallucination. He looked down again at the snow-globe in his hands, giving it a shake.

“A little Christmas magic.”

Virgil reached out, drawing the gift tag out from beneath the ribbon and turning it into the light. “For Scott, With Thanks,” he read slowly. His eyes reflected the same mixture of disbelief and warm joy that Scott felt. “You weren’t kidding about Santa hitching a ride were you?”

Again Scott answered him with a look. Virgil shook his head, still incredulous, but protesting more by reflex than out of any firm conviction.

“You realise Dad’s not going to believe a word?”

Scott stood, heavy snow-globe held in front of him, Virgil’s steadying hand on his back. He turned away from the control chair, leaving the strangest rescue of his life behind him. Ahead of him, the lounge glowed softly with candlelight and glittering reflections from the Christmas tree. He could hear a murmur of voices – his family gathered to welcome him home. 

“I’ll think of something,” he said quietly. “Who knows: perhaps he’ll feel a touch of magic too.” He paused in the hatchway, looking back at his brother with a warm smile. “Merry Christmas, Virgil.”

Virgil grinned back, giving him a shove through the hatch and towards his waiting family.

“Merry Christmas, Scott.”

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