Not long after the start of International Rescue, the boys experience their first failure. A heart-to-heart between Alan and Scott leaves Alan with a new appreciation of his brother's wisdom.

The iciness of the water takes my breath away as I plunge into its depths. Immediately I raise my arms to fight for the surface. The current is powerful – if it weren’t for the safety harness and the line anchoring me from Thunderbird Two (hovering above) I’d have been dragged away downriver by now. I break the surface and suck in a lungful of oxygen and look around quickly to get my bearings.

She is several metres downriver of me, clinging to a branch of a submerged tree. A young girl, maybe eighteen. When she sees me she screams something in her own language, but I understand. I will help her. I will save her.

Alan…” Virgil’s voice crackles urgently over the radio in my ear, “make it quick. Scott says the second dam is about to buckle.”

I don’t waste time replying; instead I start playing out my line so I can reach her. She watches me with dark, molten eyes. The line comes to an end and I curse. Too short, far too short.

“Virgil,” I yell into the radio, trying to make myself heard over the roar of the water, “the line’s too short, get lower”

But I know before he responds that he is already perilously close to the ground. He can’t get lower. I can’t get closer. I stretch out my hand towards the girl, trying to get her to reach for me. She’s frightened.

“Come on!” I holler to her. The strength of the current is increasing and the water is rising. Shakily, she takes one hand from her tenacious grip on the tree branch and reaches out to me. Between out outstretched fingers is a metre of open water. I’ll never reach her like this. With icy fingers I reach for the buckle of my harness. I say a quick prayer as I release the catch and the harness is torn from me. I just manage to grab the straps in my left hand and narrowly avoid being washed away. Now I can get closer. Keeping a tight grip on the loose harness, I reach out to her with my right hand. If I lose my hold on the harness, we’re both done for.

Alan, what the hell are you doing?!” Virgil must have spotted me on the monitors. My left hand is going numb and it feels like the force of the water is going to tear my arm from its socket. But I don’t let go. I realise this may not have been one of my best ideas, but there’s no point admitting that now. Virgil’s voice comes over the radio again, “Put the harness back on, now!”

But there’s no way I can fight against the power of the current and undo my mistake. I ignore Virgil’s ranting in my ear and concentrate on stretching out my right hand to the girl. She responds and our fingertips brush against each other in the water. I’m heart-achingly close. I try to stretch out as much as I dare, I’m worried I’m about to lose my grip but I have to get her. So close, so close…

The second dam’s gone!” Virgil breaks off from his rant to give me that piece of heart-stopping news. “Alan, I have to pull you up.”

“No…” I manage through gritted teeth. The tips of her fingers are enclosed in my hand. It’s not enough. “Virgil, I can’t reach her!”

Al, we’ve gotta go. The water’s rising already – you’ll be washed away too.”

I hear the whine of Thunderbird Twos’ massive engines. Virgil is preparing to climb.

“No, Virg, wait! Pull forward, get me closer! I can still—” The water rises suddenly, choking off my words. I feel her fingers being pulled from my grip. Submerged, I can still see her. Her face is contorted with fear, her black hair billowing out in a stream behind her. My left hand is numb and I can feel the harness slipping from my grip. Virgil is pulling me upwards. I need both hands to hold on or I’ll be lost. Her fingernails are scraping against my palm. I’m being torn in two. I need air. We’re both drowning and I can’t hold her. I meet her eyes under the water. “I’m sorry.” I mouth uselessly. And I let go.

Cold, so cold. I curl up in a ball on the deck of Thunderbird Two, coughing up river water, trying to gulp down a great lungful of air. I’m alive. Virgil is standing over me but I can’t hear a word he says; I can only hear the water rushing through my ears. He gently disentangles the harness from my frozen hands and drapes a blanket over me. My hearing is returning, I hear him say, “Are you OK, kid?” There’s a look of real fear in his eyes. I hear Scott’s voice, tinny and concerned over the main radio.

Thunderbird One to Thunderbird Two: Boys, did you get her?”

Virgil answers because I can’t, “No, Scott, we couldn’t reach her.”

Our journey back to base is a quiet one. I sit in the co-pilot seat, dressed in a dry uniform and sipping scalding hot tea. Virgil insisted. Virgil worries about things like hypothermia. I can’t think of anything. I still feel cold all over.

It’s dark as we approach the island; it must be gone midnight but the light is on in the lounge. Scott will be back already, detailing the whole experience to Father who listen and nod and not interrupt. I suddenly feel I have to say something before we land, I feel like my heart is going to burst from my chest. The words are unpremeditated, unexpected – a cry in the dark.

“I let you down” I gasp, my eyes burning. Virgil turns in his seat briefly and fixes me with his dark eyes. He seems surprised that I’ve spoken but his reply is firm.

“No. No, absolutely not.”

I let her down. I want to say, but I’m afraid of the answer. So I stay silent as Virgil lands his craft with his usual finesse. And I stay silent as we disembark and head for the lift shaft. As the lift doors close and we begin our ascent to the lounge, Virgil drops an arm around my shoulders. Beneath the weight of his arm I can feel I am trembling.

Scott broke off from his explanation at the door to the lounge slid open to reveal Virgil and, following a step behind, Alan.

“Welcome back, Boys,” Jeff greeted, “are you both all right”

“We’re fine,” Virgil answered, “Alan got a bit of a dunking.”

Scott took a second to look his youngest brother up and down; he was paler than usual and still shivering. “Al, go take a hot shower and get to bed. Virgil can fill us in, OK?”

Alan acquiesced with the briefest of nods and darted from the room without hesitation. Scott was somewhat puzzled – since when was Alan ever lost for words?

“Is he OK, Virg?” He asked when the three of them were alone.

Virgil sighed, flopping down into the lounge chair. “I don’t know, Scott, he’s barely said two words. A bit shell-shocked, I think. It was tough, he very nearly had her.”

“What happened?” Jeff queried. Virgil gave him the briefest details – there was no point mentioning about the harness. Both Scott and their dad could yell all day and Alan would apologise, look contrite and do the same damn thing over again.

Jeff listened and nodded along. “Well,” he announced, “as far as I’m concerned you can file a report in the morning. I’m heading for bed and I suggest you boys do the same.”

“Night, Dad.” Scott said, echoed swiftly by Virgil. He moved to join his younger brother on the sofa. Once Jeff was safely out of the room he turned to Virgil, “Fancy a drink?”

“Make it a double”

Scott smiled to himself as he opened the drinks cabinet and took out two shot glasses and the scotch. He poured and handed one to Virgil, then settled back on the sofa. He waited a few beats and then couldn’t refrain from asking a second longer.

“He did something reckless, didn’t he?”

Virgil raised his eyebrows at the question as he downed his shot in one swallow. He sighed with satisfaction as the drink warmed him, “What makes you think that?”

“That fact you haven’t said anything.” Scott replied matter-of-factly, taking a slow sip, “So come on, what was it this time?”

“He took the harness off”

“What?!” Scott closed his eyes for a second with a groan, “He could have drowned, for the love of—”

“He’s fine, Scott. It was stupid and I think he realises that,” Virgil attempted to placate him, their commander-in-the-field.

“He doesn’t think. I mean he really doesn’t think, Virgil. What am I supposed to do? If he were a cadet under my command I’d tear a strip off him.”

“As it is, he’s not a cadet and he won’t listen to you,” Virgil reasoned, “it’ll probably make it ten times worse—”

Virgil stopped as the lounge door opened again and Alan padded into the room, a towel around his shoulders. He seemed surprised to see his older brothers there, but quickly clocked the shot glasses in their hands and the bottle on the table.

“I thought you were going to bed,” Scott said.

Alan ignored the statement, “Scotch?” he approached the living space, “Can I have some?”

Virgil found it quite endearing that their now 21-year-old brother still felt the need to ask, “Sure, why not?”

“Virg…” Scott’s voice held warning. Virgil almost laughed at Scott’s inability to accept Alan’s adult status among them.

“Oh, let him live a little, Scott. It’s not like he’s underage anymore”

“That’s not the point.”

“It’ll warm him up.” Virgil pulled out another shot glass from the cabinet and thrust the drink into Alan’s hands. “You’ll be lucky if you don’t catch pneumonia.”

Alan responded with the ghost of a smile, “Thanks”

“No problem, kiddo.”

“Don’t get used to that.” Scott said, but without much conviction.

Virgil rolled his eyes, “Scott, you were drinking Dad’s scotch when you were seventeen.”

“Well, I was very mature for my age.” Scott relented, finally allowing himself a smile. He watched Virgil pour himself a refill and shook his head when he offered the bottle in Scott’s direction. Virgil moved over to the grand piano, settling himself down with a warm familiarity. He ran his fingers lightly over the keys in a score.

“Play something relaxing, Virgil,” Scott requested, sinking heavily into the sofa, “my nerves are shot through tonight.”

Virgil acknowledged his request with a nod, and launched into something of his own creation, slow and undulating. He felt the tension flow away through his fingers.

Scott hardly heard it; he was quietly watching his youngest brother out of the corner of his eye. Alan stared into space and said nothing at all.

When Virgil sounded the last chord ten minutes later he broke from his trance and heard Scott’s soft laugh.

“Would you look at that?” He said over his shoulder to Virgil, gesturing to Alan who has settled back into the arm chair his chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm.

“Out like a light” Virgil smiled, quietly closing the piano lid.

“Must be the medicinal alcohol” Scott commented dryly.

“You can’t argue with results,” Virgil shot back. “Want me to wake him up?”

“Nah, let him sleep.” Scott stood up and stretched, “I’m heading for bed, Virg. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Yeah, see you,” Virgil took the glass from Alan’s slack hand and set it down, then pulled the throw from the sofa and carefully tucked it around Alan’s shoulders.

Scott clucked from the door way, “You are such a mother-hen.”

Virgil shrugged, “It gets cold in here at night.” He glanced out at the big glass windows, “and it looks like a storm’s brewing.”

I think it must be the distant roll of thunder that wakes me. For a moment I am completely disorientated and then I realise I am in the lounge, curled up in Dad’s armchair. Just for an instant, I imagine I am still a child and I don’t know the things I know now. I pull the blanket around me tightly – who put that there? – and try to comfort myself with my fantasy.

Lightning flashes, briefly illuminating the dark room. It looks a lot more foreboding that I imagined. I see the shot glasses and the scotch still on the table and I am tempted, but I an almost hear Scott’s voice in my head telling me that it’s not the way. Suddenly wakeful, I get to my feet and pad softly over the big window. I can see the palm trees twisting wildly under the force of the storm. The thunder crashes again, closer now, and the rain is lashing against the glass.

I think it is funny how someone can be so alive, so vital for one moment, and then obliterated. I didn’t know her name – for some reason, that really bothers me. I try to get a fix on her face in my mind but even that is fading now, washed away like dust, like rain. Will it always be like this? Will the faces of the people we rescue – or don’t, for that matter – always seem so burned into my memory but then blur together? It confuses me. I feel deflated. Sure, we’ve only just started, but I thought we were going to save the whole world.

“Alan?” The voice comes from the doorway of the lounge and makes me jump. I don’t know how long I’ve been sitting at the window, but I’m suddenly aware my limbs are cold and cramped. “Are you ok?”

“I’m fine,” I lie to Scott (I can’t help it, it’s habitual), “What are you doing up?”

He comes to join me at the window, “Checking on you. You were out for the count earlier; I didn’t want to wake you.”

I would stand up but my legs are dead and don’t feel as if they’d take my weight, so I stay cross-legged. Scott perches down next to me and follows my gaze outside, “Hell of a storm out there.” He comments. I don’t trust myself to look at him. There’s so much I’d like to ask him; about bravery, about sacrifice…about guilt. I can’t find the words.

“What time is it?” I ask, stupidly, because it’s about the only thing I can say. I can feel his cool gaze upon me, working me out. I hate it how he does that.

“It’s about 4am.” He says after a moment. “You know, you did a good job today.”

I can’t answer, my throat becomes constricted. I wish he wouldn’t do this because, whilst I want to hear it, at this moment I feel vulnerable.

“I forget sometimes,” he continues, “that you don’t have the military background. Maybe things would be easier.” He sighs and scrubs a hand through his hair, “What I am trying to say, Alan, is that we can’t win them all.”

“I tried.” I hate the small sound of my own voice. The words hang in the air oppressively.

Scott lays a hand on my shoulder, squeezes it, “I don’t doubt it. Not at all.”

“The stupid line…it was too short, Scott. I couldn’t reach her.” The words are tumbling out now, so fast I can’t stop them, “Then the dam broke and I thought I was going to drown. And I was trying to think what you would do…”

“It’s not about what I would do, or what Virgil would do or anyone else. You did what you could. You went out there to save a life…sometimes that life has to be your own.”

“There must have been a way. Something we could have done?” I finally turn to look at him, desperate, but Scott just shakes his head.

“Al, there’s not always an answer. Come on,” he makes as if to stand, “there’s no purpose to this. All these ‘what ifs’ will drive you crazy”

I hug my knees to my chest, “I’m sorry”

“Sorry?” He pauses, “For what?”

“For letting go.” To my horror I hear my voice break.

“Oh, boy…” Scott’s voice is gentle, a kind of despairing fondness. He puts an arm around my shoulders, “what am I going to do with you? You really do think you can save the world, don’t you?”

It unnerves me how closely his words echo my own thoughts. I shrug and swallow hard, trying to regain some composure.

“You know, Alan, as strange as it may sound to you I remember being twenty-one. And I felt much the same as you do, but I won’t have you driving yourself crazy. You think you can do this all on your own? If you were half as clever as you think you are you’d be running this operation!”

His tone is light, teasing, and despite myself I can feel a smile break onto my face. He squeezes me against him briefly and then ruffles my hair in the way that drives me crazy. He stands up and I let him pull me to my feet.

“And no more dangerous stunts. I’ll be grey by thirty-five at this rate.”

I smile to myself. I think, really, Scott knows this won’t be the last time I do something reckless. But at least he is there, and at least he understands. Outside the thunder crashes but I don’t really hear it. The rain is falling, wiping the slate clean again. It strikes me that Scott has his own kind of wisdom and maybe, as Virgil says, I ought to listen to him more often. Sometimes I’d like to tell him he’s my hero – but I think it would only go to his head.

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