The stretcher shook and twisted with every tortured thrash that the occupant gave. The medics had gone back and forth on the issue of restraint, and in the end – despite it making the boy's frustration worse – he had to be strapped down for everyone's safety, including his own.
Scott paused on entering the medical tent, eyes sliding closed. Every single one of his nerves was raw, and the boy's screaming was relentless and made his heart shiver with fear. He turned to put as much distance between himself and the kid as possible.
Shame made him stop again. He would go home soon and, in time, his shimmering nerves would settle down and he would recover. The teenagers in the medical tent were students at a Special Educational Needs school – a school which three hours ago had been reduced to rubble by a bomber. He didn't even know if it was possible that they could recover at all.
He turned back to the tent, rubbing his tired and grimy face, and pulled the canvas door aside to look in more carefully, The tent was pretty big; there was eight or nine stretchers on trolleys, each monitored by beeping machines, and attended by medics, and containing a confused and uncommunicative patient.
He heard the medics talking quietly amongst themselves, discussing Asperger's, Autism and Down's Syndrome along with the more immediate First Aid considerations. It always made a big different to Scott when they were called to an English-speaking country. Today they found themselves in beautiful rural Ireland, scene of a tragedy.
There was no rhyme or reason to it; some guy with very particular problems of his own had persuaded himself that he was on some sort of mission, and the imposing stone building that the special needs school was based in was – for whatever reason – the focus of his distrust.
The police treated it like a hostage situation, and gleaned what they could from the guy, who was by this point at the end of his mental tether. It didn't take him long to finally disconnect from Planet Earth completely and detonate his explosives. The police were pretty sure that the destruction of the school and deaths of the majority therein were most likely accidental, or not intentional, at least. It all made the whole thing even more sad and pointless to Scott.
The screams escalated, and brought Scott back to himself. The boy in question was across in a corner of the tent, attended closely by a woman, and Scott peered across to see what he could. The kid looked about fifteen, with dark hair and heavy features. Scott thought he remembered seeing Gordon and Virgil carrying his unconscious body from the danger zone earlier.
He definitely wasn't unconscious now. He was writhing against the bands that secured his bulky frame down across his chest, torso and legs. Scott wasn't clear if he was shrieking from pain, or fear, or whether it was something to do with his condition, whatever it was. Probably a little of everything, he thought, looking into the boy's tortured face. He wondered briefly why they hadn't sedated him.
Then the woman with him turned her face towards the door to make some fruitless adjustment to the restraints, and Scott perused her too. In her forties, he guessed, with curly auburn hair slick with sweat, and a long floral dress, ripped and peppered with rubble from the danger zone. Scott figured she was probably one of the teachers.
She turned her back again, perching on the edge of the cot and taking one of the boy's hands in each of hers, leaning her body gently over his and talking down to a face that screamed back at her. Scott could hear her voice reaching for calmness and reassurance which had deserted her hours ago.
Scott's eyes moistened and he blinked distractedly, not looking away from the pitiful scene they made. He occasionally encountered their like when out on a job. On a good day the danger zone could transform into a jubilant, giddy picture, full of joy and life-affirmation. And then there were pictures like this one. Without fail, they always set his mind racing, dissolving down to a furious 'Why?' that bounced around his head, looking for an answer.
Scott was an astronaut; had floated in the weightlessness and stared out into the unfathomable nothingness. And a hint of the comprehension of the sheer vastness of everything there was – and the proportionate size of humanity – had nudged the edge of his mind, and had frightened him with the enormity of the meaningless meaning.
Only at times like this, staring into the face of pointless suffering and insurmountable grief, could he feel that gaping pit of comprehension approach the back of his mind. The unanswered 'Why?' would find it. And the answer to the question would be a sickening silence that would keep him up at night.
A hand landed gently on Scott's shoulder, making him jump out of his skin. He snapped round to find Virgil beside him, looking at him carefully.
"Where were you just now?" Virgil asked, voice indicating that he hadn't yet decided if he should be worried.
"You don't want to know," Scott returned, taking the digipad Virgil had brought him and looking over the new information. "How's it going down there?"
Virgil moved a little closer, speaking calmly against the now intermittent screams from the tent. "Gordon did great with the Mole in accessing where the North Room was. Alan's gone in with the local teams to get the bodies."
A tiny pause, but Virgil heard it. "So, there's definitely no chance of survivors?"
"None," Virgil's face was stony. "The only thing that saved these kids in the South Room was the floors collapsing and letting them fall into the sewers."
Scott pulled a face that might have been a sardonic smile, still checking the digipad readouts. "You know it's been a hell of a day when that's your silver lining."
"Yeah," Virgil sighed. "The drop broke bones, but there was cover that kept the rest of the building off them long enough for us to get in. The North Room's subterranean situation was different, though." He shrugged, distractedly, "It will have been very quick – ."
Scott nodded and closed the pad, handing it back to Virgil. "I guess we'd better get this finished up, then."
"Sure," returned Virgil. "You get the aspirin you came up for?"
"Yep," Scott lied easily, turning away from the medical tent and falling into step beside Virgil as they returned to the danger zone.
The four brothers stood silently with their coffee cups in the late-afternoon sunlight. They were grimy and tired, muscles aching from digging and lifting, dragging people and wheelchairs from out of the ground.
Scott could feel their exhaustion carrying them easily into the miserable funk they got into after a bad rescue. Not that anything in their control could have been done any different. It was just the way with rescues like this; you started with the adrenaline rush, freeing person after person from the buildings that had tried to prematurely bury them. And then you relied on that to get you through the long hours of attempted resuscitation, body bags, and the howl from loved-ones as their lives were irrevocably changed.
It was just that this job seemed to have given them too little of the first part, and too much of the second.
"We couldn't have done any better," he said aloud. He knew it sounded hollow to his brothers, because it sounded hollow to him too. Even though he knew it was true.
"I'm serious," he said a little louder, trying to look them each in the eye. Virgil nodded absently, in acknowledgement only. Gordon and Alan didn't move at all.
Irritated, Scott turned, getting his bearings. Then he saw the medical tents a few hundred yards away, and instructed his brothers to follow him, in a tone of voice they all knew would be unwise to ignore. He trudged up to the tents, intending to convince the team – himself included – that the lives of the twenty-ish people in them were saved because of their attendance and that had to count for something. Despite the fact that they'd then had to deal with twice that amount of corpses.
He regretted it though, when he heard a familiar screaming carrying down from the tents. The kid didn't know, but his wails were perfectly capturing team's mood. And that wasn't what Scott had been going for.
"Who's that?" asked Alan, the sound rousing him from his vacant depression.
Scott had stopped a little ahead of him, undecided on his next move. "One of the kids from the South Room." If he'd been screaming this whole time, Scott was both heartbroken at his distress, and impressed at his determination.
The brothers continued up to the tents. Scott hadn't been sure this was a good idea, but the sound of this kid's misery seemed to have distracted the fellas from their own.
He followed his brothers up to the one where the boy was still strapped. Stepping in, he was surprised to see that he was the only remaining patient in this tent. The helijets must have been making steady progress getting everyone out to hospital.
The woman was still with the boy, and she looked completely broken. Alan, Gordon and Virgil all moved off towards them, while Scott took the opportunity to procure some aspirin from a frazzled-looking medic. He could hear his brothers talking to the woman, to the boy, trying to help in any way they could, even if it was only in listening. It made him proud.
He caught Gordon's eye, and indicated he was heading over to Mobile Control to check in with Base, before he stepped out again into the weak sunlight.
When he returned ten minutes later he expected to be collecting the guys and organizing the packing away of all the gear before heading back to base. There wasn't a lot else they could do that the local authorities couldn't do for themselves.
He was surprised to find his brothers standing just outside the medical tent, still with to the woman in the floral dress. They all seemed to be waiting for him.
"Asking can't do any harm, can it?" Scott heard Alan say quietly to the woman, before stepping forward with her as he approached. "Hey Scott, this is Teagan Moore. She's deputy head-teacher from the school."
"Hey," Scott shook her hand, deciding to let them get to the point in their own time. "How's your fella in there?"
"He's called Connor," she said, with a strong Irish accent. She crossed her arms across her front. She seemed nervous. "He's got high-functioning Autism."
"Okay," Scott replied, unsure what else to say. He didn't know much about disabilities like this. Teagan spotted his lack of knowledge with the ease of long practice, and continued.
"He has trouble with communication and comprehension of social environments. He lives every day to very strict, self-imposed routines and any small variations from this routine cause him immense distress." She paused, wiping her eyes which were suddenly filling up. "So, I think you can appreciate a little now, the toll that a day like this is taking on him."
Scott was fairly sure he couldn't, not really. But the screaming in the tent beside him was dissolving into sobbing, and the tortured noises gave him enough of an insight.
"Is he going to be okay? Is he hurt?"
"We don't think so. He's hypersensitive, so it's hard to tell," her breath dragged as she struggled to keep her composure. "They think he might have hit his head, but he's mostly overwhelmed, because he notices everything, and everything's different for him and there's too much to take in. He doesn't have any of his things…" Teagan broke off, dissolving into tears. Scott put a comforting hand out on her shoulder, but still couldn't see what she was asking for. Alan continued for her.
"Connor's an orphan, he boards at the school. Teagan's worried about how he's going to do without this place; it's pretty much his whole world, where he feels safe. All of his routines are here, and you can hear how he's doing without them."
The snuffling Teagan found her voice through her tears. "He's going to be next in the helijets to hospital. But there's nothing they're going to be able to do for him like this. Earlier they sedated him as much as they dared given that he might have hit his head, but he's coming out of it already and they can't keep doping him. The only thing that'll get him to co-operate and keep him in one piece is something of his from the building."
Scott didn't like where this was going. "Like what?"
"He's got all sorts of things that help him when he feels overwhelmed…"
"But you've got something particular in mind, haven't you."
Teagan wiped her eyes again. Then she took a deep breath, and squared her jaw. "His cat."
Scott closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "His cat," he repeated, mainly because he wasn't sure what else to say.
"He's had Izzy since he started living here five years ago. I've been thinking and thinking about it, and I'm sure if Connor could take her it'd feel less like his entire world has ended. I know it'll still be so hard for him, but…" she broke off again, rubbing her eyes distractedly. "I'm sure. I'm sure it'll help him. I know he'd calm down with Izzy here. Izzy always calms him down. She sleeps on Connor's bed every night. Connor'll get the association and he'll calm down. He might even sleep. And Jesus only knows he needs some sleep…"
Scott put his arm on her shoulder again, to interrupt her gently. She was rambling. She sounded really exhausted.
She got the point, and took a deep shaky breath. Then she raised her bloodshot eyes to meet Scott's. "Your team here said you're the field commander, so I suppose it's your decision. I just couldn't let you go without… without begging you to do this for him. You're the only people who can."
Scott rubbed his hands together, trying to choose the right words. "Well Teagan, the thing is," he sighed. "This isn't something that International Rescue can do for you."
Her eyes closed, pushing tears out to fall down her face, but Scott continued as kindly as he could, so that she'd know why.
"You see, International Rescue has a strict rule that it works by: our only priority is saving people's lives. That's the rule that allows us to go wherever we're needed, without deference to governments or local authorities. And it's the rule that means we have to leave as soon as we've saved all the lives we can, so that we can be ready for the next people who need our help. We can't do anything else." He pursed his lips, uncomfortable. "I'm sorry. But hey, you don't know Izzy's in the danger zone. She might turn up yet…"
"I know exactly where she is," interrupted Teagan. "She's always been important to Connor and his development, and we care about him. We put a locator chip on her collar and I've got the school data sticks. Izzy's definitely in the South Room or in the sewer."
"Well, that's as may be," Scott broke in again, trying to take authority back without upsetting her, "but that doesn't change that this is beyond what we can do – "
He was interrupted again, but by Alan this time. "But Scott, surely it wouldn't take us long to have a quick look."
Scott kept his face as neutral as he could, but caught Alan's eye in what he hoped was a telling manner. "No Alan, we can't. You were under the South Room earlier today, and you remember how dangerous it is. You think it's got any better in the last few hours?"
"All the more reason for us to get in there and pull Izzy out, don't you think?"
Scott's eyes flashed this time. He was going to kill Alan for arguing back in front of the public; it was undermining. "Alan…" he said warningly.
This time it was Gordon who chipped in. "Teagan, I'm not sure that nurse can do much more for Connor without your help. How about you step back inside for a second."
She took her cue and went back into the tent. Scott rounded on Alan immediately.
"What the fuck, Alan! I said we were leaving. We are not going down to the sewers to chase a stray through shit until the ceiling falls in."
"He needs it, Scott! Are you deaf? Can't you see we've only done half a job? If we leave him as he is now we haven't saved his life as well as we could've done."
"Of course we have! He's breathing, isn't he? It's more than he'd have if we hadn't been here, and that's what we do." He stepped in closer to his brother, "And then we go home, thanking God that we all got away with our lives again. Can you imagine the conversation I'd have with Dad if you went to do this and something went wrong? That you'd been killed, over a fucking pet?"
Alan stepped up too, ready to fight the point, but again Gordon stepped in with excellent timing.
"Okay guys, hold it a second. Scott, we know you've got tough decisions to make, and if you absolutely want to leave it then we will. But I really hope you'll think about it first. Alan's right; it feels like we've done half a job."
Scott groaned and stepped back, turning and raking his hands through his hair. Looking back at his brothers, Alan looked fired up, Gordon determined. Virgil's face was neutral, but Scott got the feeling he agreed with the younger ones too.
He opened his arms expansively. "Where would it end, fellas? Huh? The press goes nuts over stuff like this and they'll find out. Years from now, are we going to feel obligated to rescue someone's china cabinet from a burning building, because it's got tremendous sentimental value and they just can't live without it?"
Alan scowled, but this time Virgil got in first. "I get the feeling that this would be more like running back into a burning building to rescue someone's medication."
Stupid eloquent Virgil. Scott growled with frustration, the well-chosen words completely winding him. Connor's misery filled their ears again, and Scott was torn, but still mad. He folded his arms.
"How accurate's that locator chip, huh? Does it register movement, or just general location? Any indication that this cat's even hung onto a life that we can save?"
Silence answered him, but it was a determined silence. They couldn't know if Izzy was alive, but they could sense him wavering.
He turned back to the tent and opened the canvas door wide. Teagan's full attention was back on Connor, trying to soothe him as she had been all day, but he was getting more and more upset as the dope finally wore off fully. It was a completely heartbreaking picture, and Scott was flung back to when he'd watched them earlier that afternoon. The meaningless pain; the unjustness of the boy's agony; that pit nudging his consciousness, showing him the nothingness of the suffering. It was mindless and nonsensical; it was either Everything, or Nothing, depending on how you looked at it.
He was pretty sure if they tried to get that cat, he'd sleep easier tonight. That maybe that silence that answered the "Why?" wouldn't keep him up this time.
Turning back to his brothers, he saw the eagerness and dedication in their stance, in their faces. Despite himself, he was proud again.
He moved across to Teagan as carefully as he could, so as not too distress Connor any more. He caught her arm briefly: "We'll do what we can."
Alan and Virgil were selected to go back into the danger zone. Gordon objected, but Scott vetoed because of the strain that Gordon's back had already taken today without any rest. One look at Scott's face made it clear that this wasn't going to be a talking point, so Gordon sensibly stayed with him at Mobile Control.
Alan was practically gleeful as he and Virgil hurriedly suited up. Scott knew that this was helping him forget about the body count, and he guessed it was fair enough. This job was without compare, but the tough days, well, they were really really tough.
The light was really going now. They lit their helmet lamps as Virgil handed Scott the data stick they had procured from Teagan. He quickly booted up the program, lighting up the Mobile Control screens, and the unsophisticated tracking program highlighted a depressingly large pixilated area where Izzy – or Izzy's collar, at least – might be. If it had been a less dangerous situation, Scott would have shot his brothers very withering looks.
"Well, you know what to do," he said to Alan and Virgil whilst working to improve the locator signal. "And if you die, I'll kill you."
"Inspiring," smiled Alan, clipping the last of his kit to his jump suit. And with that, he and Virgil moved quickly to the borehole that would allow them to crawl into the wreckage that used to be the South Room. It would take them a little time to find their way safely through to the remains of the rooms.
"Gordon, I've got a very important job for you," said Scott, eyes not leaving the monitor he was working at. "It's a biggie. Crucial."
"Getting some coffee?" guessed Gordon, wearily.
"You're damn right."
Gordon and Scott were able to watch the whole scene via the pinhole cameras on their brothers' helmets. They wrapped their hands around the warm mugs as the cold Irish night closed around them. It was biting cold, but soon it became apparent that they had the better end of the deal.
"I've never smelled anything like it!" exclaimed a decidedly nasal-sounding Alan, hanging high above the open sewer.
"You have four big brothers," Scott replied wryly, "are you sure?"
Virgil and Alan were swinging from ropes they'd pinned into the more secure rock and rubble, and were lowering themselves, a foot at a time, into what had been the Special Educational Needs sensory classroom. There was a corner that looked almost undisturbed; through the swirling dust, they could all make out the whiteboard, and some attached electrical equipment which had probably provided an interactive aspect.
If you just ignored the fact that half a foot from there the floor had disappeared, and the gaping sewers were just visible below in the darkness, then it looked almost normal.
"Well Teagan said we're looking for a small, short-haired tabby with a green collar," said Virgil, who also sounded like the more nasal aspects of the job were giving him plenty to deal with.
"I doubt there's likely to be any other cats in there to mix her up with," Gordon commented. "Just work on the rule 'see cat, grab cat, bring cat here', and I can't see how you could go wrong."
Scott smiled as he spoke, "I've cleaned up the signal as best I can, guys, and it hasn't really reduced your search area. Just see what you can do."
There were several long minutes as they descended further into the classroom, helmet lamps illuminating every bit of wreckage. Alan put his feet down first, on a section of floor which was still in place, but was tilted at an alarming gradient, and covered with rubble that used to make up the upper stories. Scott was just warning him to watch his step when Alan shushed him urgently.
He held perfectly still, apparently listening carefully. At first it looked like a false alarm. And then:
"Are you guys seeing this?" Alan whispered incredulously. Sure enough, on the screen showing the feed from his helmet camera – right in the centre of the picture, a few meters off – sat a very unconcerned-looking tabby cat, with a twitching rat held in its jaws.
"What are the freaking odds?" murmured Gordon, clearly delighted.
"Easy fellas, we don't have her yet," put in Scott. But he was pleased too.
Virgil swung down to join Alan as quickly as he dared, and they unclipped themselves from their retractable ropes. Scott tensed, knowing that if they needed to make any kind of quick escape, it would be pretty much impossible unless they were strapped in.
Gordon broke his reverie. "Fellas, can you turn your lamps down? You're probably dazzling her."
The picture dimmed as they made the adjustment, and Scott's anxiety grew further. "Okay guys, wrap this up as quick as you can and I'll only have one heart attack tonight."
"Deal," Virgil replied.
Alan crept forward as gently as he could, trying to keep the light from shining in the cat's eyes. She seemed bored with the two men already, and went back to toying with the squealing rat she'd caught. Alan eased a meaty protein bar out of his back pocket as he moved. "Is she even going to want this food? I didn't figure she'd find her own."
"That's not for eating," Virgil replied, quietly opening the canvas bag they were hoping to use as a makeshift carrier. "That's for playing with."
Alan unwrapped the bar and tore off some of the beef-like substance, as Virgil crept behind where she was sitting, keeping his distance. Alan was on his knees now, a few feet in front of the cat. He pushed the food forward towards her.
"Hey, pretty girl," he cooed gently, "you hungry? You want some of this?"
"Is this how you get all your dates, Alan?" smiled Gordon, but for once his timing was wrong, and Scott scowled at him.
Izzy was feigning disinterest, but was already inching towards the food. If she'd been down there the whole day, she must have been starving. Alan broke off another piece and put it closer to him.
After another moment, she gave up playing cool and ate the first piece, and it was apparently acceptable enough for her to trot onwards to the second piece without much concern.
She was so close, Alan tried offering her the next piece from his hand, but she held back. So he pushed it towards her again, and she inched forward to get it. After happily chomping at it for a moment, she reconsidered the offer of food from Alan's hand, which again he was presenting her with. After one heart-squeezing moment – where she sat and stared up at Alan and could have run without being stopped – she closed the remaining distance and ate the rest of the food from Alan's right hand, while he grabber her around the middle with his left. All four brothers let out a breath they hadn't realized they were holding.
"Okay guys, get her secure and get up here as fast as you can," Scott instructed.
"Well, obviously," Gordon put in, smiling. "What else did you think they were going to do?"
And this time, Scott smiled back.
"Is this even hygienic?" Gordon tickled the purring cat's chin as they walked up the hill. "The moggy had a sewer rat, for crying out loud."
Scott shrugged. "We fished Conner himself out of worse only a few hours ago. They'll be as clean as each other."
Despite the fact that the rescue was Alan's, he generously let Gordon carry the cat up to the medical tent, since he'd been reduced to coffee duty in the meantime. As they got in earshot, they could hear poor Connor's screams still going strong. He was going to have no voice for a month at this rate.
Gordon paused at the door, looking concerned as he listened to Connor. Scott knew what was worrying him; what if this didn't help? He patted his brother's back gently, and after a deep breath, Gordon pushed the canvas door open.
Teagan seemed beyond tears, but the relief that flooded their face gave them hope. She began releasing Connor from his restraints immediately, much to the medic's concern. Teagan held Connor's arms and indicated Gordon get in close with Izzy.
"Look, Connor!" she called over his screams, "It's Izzy! Gentle, remember? Gentle with Izzy."
Connor didn't seem to hear, or to comprehend if he had heard. His thrashing barely paused, and Scott's heart sank.
But Teagan persisted, repeating the same phrase over and over again. Apparently Connor had heard it before, because he started saying it with her, despite his flailing.
"Gentle with Izzy!" he repeated, his voice hoarse, and Gordon took it as a good sign and held the cat right over the prone body, so Connor couldn't help but see it.
A few more thrashes, but his eyes never left the cat. And then he lay still, and reached for the cat eagerly, breath still heaving with sobs. Teagan repeated her instruction for gentleness, and then asked Gordon to place her on Connor's chest. Gordon hesitated, not sure about the safety of either party if Connor was still agitated, but he did as he was told.
Then there was nothing to do but step back and watch. Izzy, enduringly unflappable, sniffed at Connor's nose, before circling his chest and clawing his sweater. It only took a few moments for her to be curled in a tight fluffy coil on Connor's chest. He held his hand flat above her and lowered it gently, letting the palm barely touch her soft fur. He didn't look at her, but he seemed engrossed.
And then through the occasional sob that was pulled from him, Connor asked for: "Pillow," and Teagan produced one and put it under his lifted head. Then "Duvet," and she pulled a thin hospital blanket up to his waist.
Connor gave a long, deep sigh, and Scott didn't think he'd ever heard anything so peaceful. Finally, Connor said aloud, to everyone and no-one, "Night night, sleep tight, don't let the bed-bugs bite." And he closed his eyes, and the silence was unbelievable.
And Connor's silence stayed with them all on their way home. Scott sat back in his chair, with Thunderbird One cruising on auto-pilot, and he marvelled.
Against the odds, Connor had managed to get one of his routines. It wasn't right; it was all different. But it had been close enough to give him some peace.
He wiped his wet eyes absently, and smiled, listening to Connor's peaceful silence. That kid's sleep – long sought and well-deserved – was going to help him sleep sound too.