himself called out on a very unusual Christmas Eve rescue.
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.Click here for the full-screen version.
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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,
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
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
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
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?”
“To stop a mythical character going
“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
“…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
“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
“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
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.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Thunderbird Five calling Santa’s Little
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,
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
“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,
“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?”
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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.”