When Scott responds to an unusual plea for help, things may not be quite what they seem. A story written in answer to the Tracy Island Writers' Forum prompt 'a rescue involving some sort of animal'.
My thanks to Purupuss and IR Stars for their proofreading and feedback, to ITV as the current copyright holders and to Gerry Anderson and his team for creating a world that can still inspire stories more than fifty years on.
Scott sat astride his hoverbike, listening to the hum of its motor as it zoomed across the barren landscape. He was travelling across a flat plain of baked earth and rock, a muted palette of red, yellow, brown and orange dotted with low scrubby bushes and the occasional splash of colour from a small desert flower.
His course was taking him towards a line of red cliffs and, on reaching the rocky barrier, he turned his bike and headed left. His mind was hazy on where he had come from, where he was going or why he was there, but something told him that somebody needed his help, and this was the right way to go to find them.
As he passed along the base of the cliff he could see the wall of rock had been sculpted by wind and weather into strange shapes that a little imagination could turn into fairy castles, mediaeval gargoyles or cubist works of art. At certain points the rock wall was bisected by fissures; some too narrow to admit a body, others far wider and deep enough to form canyons.
He was nearing the entrance to one of these wider openings when a small figure rushed out with arms waving. "Stop! Please stop! We need help!"
The hoverbike settled to the ground and Scott found himself looking at a young girl, he guessed about ten or twelve years old. Her straight, black hair was tied back from her face, and her dark brown eyes and facial features indicated she was of Native American descent.
"What's happened?" asked Scott, crouching down so he was at eye level with the child.
The girl looked up at him, her face distraught. "My friend fell into the canyon; now she can't get up."
"Where was this? Is it far?"
The girl pointed behind her into the dark gap between the rocks. "About half a mile up there."
Scott looked up the rocky defile, then back to his hoverbike. He walked her over to it and indicated the rear seat. "Climb on here. This will make it quicker to get back to your friend. What's your name? I'm Scott."
"Thank you, Mister Scott," the girl replied as she clambered onto the bike. "I am Laughing Water."
As they moved into the shade of the canyon the light level dropped, but at the same time the heat increased and Scott could feel sweat beading his brow. The air was oppressive and he felt as if a band was tightening around his chest, making it hard for him to breathe.
They had been travelling for about ten minutes when the bike rounded another bend and Laughing Water cried, "There she is!"
Scott switched off the motor and, as the machine settled on the ground, the girl slipped down and ran over to a large shape lying close to one of the rock walls.
It took a moment for Scott to realise what he was looking at; a bird, but this had to be the largest one he had ever seen. He did not know what species it could be; some sort of raptor, judging from the hooked red beak, with a body covered in silver feathers that seemed to glow even in this dim light. If upright, he estimated it would have been the same height as himself, or even taller. However, it was not standing as a bird would normally do if on the ground, but lying half on its side with its neck stretched forward, the vicious-looking beak hanging open and its eyes half closed. Scott didn't know much about birds but could see this animal was in great distress.
"What's wrong with it?" he asked. "Is it injured?"
The girl was standing beside the creature's head, stroking its neck and crooning words in her native tongue. She looked up at Scott, tears streaking her face.
"She got caught in a twister that blew up over the desert and it threw her down here. She's been trying to fly out but she can't take off from the ground, she needs to be high up, so she can drop down. Can you help her? Please, Mister Scott, she's exhausted and I'm afraid she'll die if she can't get out of here!"
As a pilot, Scott could understand the problem. He knew many birds with large wingspans, eagles and condors, could only reach take-off speed if they started from a height. He looked up the walls of the canyon rising fifty feet on either side of them and considered the resources at his disposal. The thought of ignoring the girl's plea didn't even cross his mind. International Rescue wasn't in the business of helping animals as a rule, but he couldn't leave this magnificent creature in this pitiful state.
The glimmering of a plan began to form in his mind and he turned to his young companion. "I need to make a sling; I've got some towing straps in the panniers on my bike, but we'll need some kind of fabric."
"How about my bedroll?" The girl pointed to a leather backpack, decorated with beads, that was propped against a rock.
Between them they spread the blanket out across the rocky ground, then Laughing Water encouraged the bird to move onto it. As it moved, Scott could see that the creature's wings were a slighter darker shade, a metallic blue against its silver body.
The bird seemed to sense that something was being done to help its predicament and lifted its head, watching as Scott cut slits in the edge of the blanket through which he threaded the towing straps. Next, while Laughing Water stood beside the creature's head to reassure it, he moved the bike alongside the shining silver body, attaching the straps to the hook on the back of the bike that would be used in a rescue situation for towing hover-stretchers.
Once that was finished, Scott squatted down in front of the girl and began sketching lines in the dust with his finger. "I can't go straight up; the bike isn't designed for that sort of manoeuvre. I'm going to head down the canyon and out across the plain, increasing the height a bit at a time; then I'll make a big curve around and by the time I get back I should be level with the top of the cliff and be able to put her down there."
The girl looked at his drawing and nodded her understanding. "I should ride with her, to reassure her."
Scott was about to protest at the idea of the child putting herself at such risk. He was already worried about the weight the bike would be carrying. Then he reconsidered; the girl couldn't weigh that much, and a panicked bird thrashing around in the sling would be much more of a danger. "OK," he agreed, "you can act as look-out; shout if you see any obstacles at your level because I won't be able to judge distances below me very well."
In response, Laughing Water threw her leg over the bird's neck in a way that indicated she had done this many times before and settled into a seated position, her hands buried deep within the silver feathers. She turned to look at Scott, nodding to indicate she and her mount were ready.
Scott nodded in return and gunned the motor. They rose in the air and, as the straps tightened, he paused a moment to make sure his unusual load was balanced before increasing power. The hum of the motor went up another notch as Laughing Water's voice rang out. "We're clear of the ground, Mister Scott, it's working!"
Muttering about not tempting fate, Scott steered his machine down the canyon, keeping away from the walls and trying to avoid any obstacles, while all the time pulling back on the control yoke to gain height. He spared one hand to use his sleeve to wipe away the sweat beading his forehead. He was looking forward to getting out of this narrow space; once they reached the open plain he hoped the heat would be less oppressive and he would find it easier to breathe.
They burst out of the canyon mouth, causing Scott to blink at the sudden brightness of the desert sun. Glancing down, his view below the back of the bike was restricted, but he estimated that his strange cargo was now at least ten feet clear of the ground. As they moved across the desert, the hot air rising from the rocky surface gave them a further boost and as he began to make a wide turn that would bring them back to face the cliff he could see that they were more than half the height of the rock wall.
They continued to gain altitude on the journey back across the plain but now the hum of the bike's motors had now changed to a protesting whine and the smell of hot metal and singed wiring filled Scott's nostrils. "Come on, baby! You can do it!" he muttered, pulling back harder on the controls as they approached the cliff. The engine note rose to a scream and the smell of burning became even stronger.
As he passed over the edge there was a shout from below. "We're there, Mister Scott! Put us down!"
Scott gently lowered his burden, then moved off to land on one side, relieved to be able to shut down his abused machine.
Laughing Water was already undoing the straps, then stepped aside as the bird stood and stretched its wings, the sun glinting off its plumage. The creature gave a small shake to settle its feathers into place and turned to look towards Scott, bowing its head as if to express its thanks.
"Go now, my beautiful one." The girl reached up and stroked the silver neck. "Fly!"
The great creature moved to the edge of the cliff and unfurled its mighty wings to their full extent. With a giant leap it sprang into the air, swooping down over the open plain then soaring upwards again. The silver body flashed as it turned, riding the thermals as it spiralled higher and higher until it was hovering over their heads. As Scott watched, the bird threw back its head and opened its beak in a triumphant cry, exultant to be back in her true element.
The massive wings began to beat, slowly at first and then increasing in speed. As they did, the sky darkened and heavy drops of rain began to fall, accompanied by a low rumble of thunder. Scott gazed up in awe, suddenly realising just what kind of bird he had rescued.
The rain was dripping into his eyes, and he wiped his hand across his face. His fingers felt strangely sticky and when he looked at them he was startled to see them smeared with blood.
All at once, the scene changed. He was no longer on the cliff top, but sitting in the cockpit of Thunderbird One. The craft was pointing downwards at an angle and he was hanging forwards, his full weight resting on the seat strap across his chest. The cabin was thick with smoke and the smell of burnt wiring; the noise was not the crash of thunder, but someone banging on the metal hatch.
The door slid aside, letting in light and fresh air. There was a confusion of shouts, hands touching him and reassuring voices.
The next thing he knew, he was sitting on the ground and someone was dabbing cool water on his face. He opened his eyes; it took a few seconds for the features in front to him to come into focus, but he found himself looking at an old woman with straight, jet-black hair and a bronzed and weather-beaten face.
There was movement off to his left and he looked round, wincing as the action sent a stab of pain through his head. Two men, younger than the woman, were emerging through the hatch of Thunderbird One. One of them threw down an object Scott recognised as an International Rescue fire extinguisher and looked across to where he was sitting. "You were right, Grandmother. We got here just in time." He crouched down beside Scott. "We saw your craft hit by the twister. Grandmother said you would need help before your friends could get here."
Just then, Scott's watch crackled into life and he heard Virgil's voice, thick with concern. "Scott, can you hear me?"
With an effort, Scott lifted his arm. "Still here, Virgil."
"Thank Pete for that! You had me worried when you didn't respond to my calls. I've got you on my screen; ETA two point five minutes."
"FAB, Virgil. No rush; I'm not in any immediate danger."
Scott glanced back to the woman in front of him to thank her for her help, then paused, his eyes raking across her face. The features might be lined and wrinkled, but there was something about the eyes and the curve of the mouth that looked like it was on the point of laughing...
The old woman smiled, looking years younger. "We helped each other, Mister Scott."
Scott frowned, trying to concentrate through his aching head. "Was that... was that a dream, or did it really happen?"
"Oh, Mister Scott," she replied, shaking her head and smiling at the same time. "Why can't it be both?"