In The Morning Rays
Sally expertly threaded the needle-like shape of Thunderbird Three through the hole in the Round House and back into the launch silo. She had kept a wary eye on nacelle three all the way down, but the closer they got to touchdown, the more confident she was that her makeshift repair would hold. And hold it did, even as the nacelles fitted snugly into their blast duct openings. Sally smiled at Mae, whose mournful expression lifted a bit when she realized that they were finally safely home.
As soon as the heat from the chemical rockets and the toxic fumes from their use dispersed, carried away by the efficient ventilation system of Thunderbird Three's launch bay, the door to the railway that connected the silo to the Villa opened and the car with the hydraulic lift trundled out. The door at the base of the ship irised open, and the business end of the lift rose to attach itself to a piece of flooring under a green couch. The sofa, on which Sally and Mae sat, and Val lay, her head in Sally's lap, was smoothly lowered down and out of Thunderbird Three and onto the car, where a lone figure stood.
"Daddy!" Mae cried out, jumping up and flinging her arms around Jeff's neck.
He smiled, wrapping his strong arms around her and giving her a stout squeeze before releasing her to sit down again. "You did good work, Mae. Welcome home." Jeff turned his attention to his oldest, leaning over to put a hand to her cheek and kissing her on the forehead. "Fantastic job, Sally. I'm glad you're back safe." Then Jeff knelt by the couch as the car moved through the long concrete tunnel. He took Val's hand in one of his own, and reached out with the other to stroke her hair back. She was still on oxygen and wrapped warmly but she was alert and their blue eyes met.
"Hi, Daddy," Val said softly.
Jeff wordlessly pulled her hand to his lips, then stroked her cheek with the back of his free hand and closed his eyes. It was obvious to Sally that her father was trying hard to control himself, and she looked away from the raw emotion on his face. Finally, he composed himself and said quietly, "Welcome home, my brave Valentina."
The couch rose, passing the empty duplicate, and finally clicked into its spot in the lounge. Jeff pulled away from his daughter as Brains came up with an antigravity stretcher. Ruby hovered in the background as the scientist/medic and Jeff transferred the blonde to the floating platform, then she moved in to fuss over her favorite granddaughter.
"You gave us quite a scare, young lady. Now, Brains and I have prepared the sickroom and you'll stay there until you're told you are well enough to go, do you understand?" Ruby admonished her, shaking a finger. She looked over at the other two young women, who were getting up from the couch to stretch and walk around. She opened her arms. "Mae, Sally, come here. You two were very brave and did a marvelous job under very trying and frightening circumstances." Mae smiled as she was embraced and kissed by her grandmother, while Sally accepted a small squeeze and a quick buss on the cheek. "Now, you two get something to eat and I think your father will be wanting to hear all about your adventures and will want to tell you about some of his own." She paused and turned toward the balcony. "It sounds like Christa and Tin-Tin are back. Good. Now all we need is Jerrie and we'll be a family once again."
Sally rolled her eyes at her grandmother's little speech. She watched as Lady Penelope came up on the other side of Val's stretcher. Penelope glanced over at Sally, her blue orbs icy cold. Sally raised an eyebrow in challenge, and watched as the processional of patient, medic, father, grandmother, and aristocrat left the room.
Kyrano came up and bowed. "If you would come down to the dining room, I have prepared a snack to hold you until brunch."
"Thank you, Kyrano. We'll be down in a minute," Sally replied. Kyrano bowed again, and padded quietly from the room.
"Thunderbird Two to base. Requesting permission to land," Christa called over the radio. Sally moved behind her father's desk.
"Permission granted, Thunderbird Two. Welcome back."
"Welcome home yourself. How's the kid?"
"She's been whisked away to the sickroom by the welcoming committee."
"Here that, Tin-Tin? The sickroom. Yes, as soon as we put this baby to bed. Sal, meet me down in my hangar."
"F-A-B. Base out." Sally stretched again, then frowned as she observed the satchel that Mae was clutching so tightly. "What's in the bag, Mae?"
"Uh..." Mae colored and wouldn't meet Sally's gaze.
"C'mon, Mae. Spill it! You've had that hanging from your shoulder all the time since you came off the station." Her eyes widened, and so did her grin. "Don't tell me! It's the pictures!"
"Well, uh, yeah," Mae finally admitted. "I promised I'd give Daddy all the copies I had. I found all the ones in the hiding places I could remember while I was on Thunderbird Five."
Sally sidled up to her sister, and tried to peek inside the satchel. "Can I see them?" Mae clutched the bag tighter.
"I don't know...." she began hesitantly.
"Aww, come on! You've seen them! Tell you what. When JC and Christa come back, we'll go down to the sick room, bring Val up-to-date on the Brit bitch situation and look at the pictures together. What d'you say?" Sally suggested eagerly.
Mae scowled for a moment, her pretty brows knit together. Then she sighed and her face cleared. "Well, I didn't tell Daddy just when I was going to give them to him...." She grinned. "And we were all in this together... Plus, I think it's time for Val to see just what kind of person her friend really is!"
Sally rubbed her hands together and then put an arm around Mae's shoulders. "I knew I could count on you, Mae-Bee. Now, let's go find Christa. She should be back by now."
By the time they arrived in Thunderbird Two's hangar, Thunderbird Four had emerged from the waves and was speeding down the air strip toward them. JC brought her little craft to a stop before the two women who were waiting for Christa to emerge from her Thunderbird. Sally and Mae watched, wide-eyed, as the pincer grab unlocked from its position with an audible snick and extended, exposing a metallic... something for their perusal. The two women came closer to examine it as JC popped out of the hatch at the starboard side of Thunderbird Four and leaned around to speak to them.
"I've got the goods! Where's Brains?"
"I-I'm here! G-Get away from it!" the scientist called, waving, approaching the little group at a run, or as much of a run as could be managed in a radiation suit. Sally and Mae stood back, and JC withdrew into Thunderbird Four as Brains waved a geiger counter over the thing like a magician waves a wand over a top hat. No noise came from the instrument, and Brains sighed in relief, pushing the suit's hood back. "I-It's safe. No radiation. You c-can come, uh, closer."
Mae and Sally moved up to flank the engineer, who was beginning to minutely examine the unidentified object. On seeing this, JC emerged from Thunderbird Four once again. Christa and Tin-Tin also approached, Tin-Tin glancing back and away several times, but still clearly fascinated by JC's strange "catch".
The brown-haired scientist's excitement was all too apparent. Christa winced as her lover's stutter increased. "T-Tin-Tin, g-go get the, uh, a-antigravity float f-from the l-lab...."
"Uh, Tin-Tin? Why don't you go up and see Val?" Christa cut in. "I'll go and get the float and help Brains with... whatever this is."
Tin-Tin frowned. "Are you sure, Christa? I'm more than willing...."
Now Christa cut him off, too. "I'm sure. Go. Brains and I can handle this thing until you've had a proper reunion with Val."
The Malaysian flashed his smile nervously. He glanced over at Mae, then crossed to her and whispered something in her ear. She sighed and nodded and squeezed his hand. Then Brains's assistant left, walking quickly at first and breaking into a run once he was past Thunderbird Two's bulk. Christa turned her attention to her sisters.
"We can debrief a little later, can't we? I want to help get this thing stowed and then go see Val for myself."
Sally nodded. "We probably will since Daddy's tending to Val right now. Let us know when you're ready to go to the sickroom and we'll meet you there for our own little... debriefing." She grinned at Christa, who frowned at her for a moment.
"Whatever you say, Sal. Brains? I'll be right back." With that, Christa set off for the lab at a run, taking the passage that was normally reserved for the pod vehicles when they needed to be repaired. Sal and Mae watched her go, then joined JC and Brains as they examined the metal lump. It was shaped like an elongated football, with a sharp point at one end. The remains of another sharp point were evident in the melded metal at the other end of the ellipse.
"See here?" Brains began to explain, pointing at the melded end without touching it. "This end was p-probably as sh-sharp as the other, uh, end. It folded up like, uh, this on i-impact with the sea."
"It was travelling pretty fast," JC told them. "Created quite a shockwave when it hit."
"Wonder if Christa got the impact on vid?" Sally commented. "JC, I know you need to put Four to bed in the pod. We'll meet you in the dining room. Kyrano's got a snack for us and we're starved!"
"F-A-B," the aquanaut replied with a grin and a jaunty salute. "Meet you later!"
Sally took Mae's arm and hustled her sister off. "Let's put those pictures somewhere safe," she said quietly, "and get that snack to hold us over until... what time is it, anyway?"
"Nearly time for breakfast, I think," Mae said. Her stomach made a most un-ladylike noise, and she giggled. Sally smiled, and the two of them hurried to keep their appointment with the food in the dining room.
As it was, things didn't go quite as planned. Mae and Sally got their snack, and then cleaned up from the rescue, showering and changing into casual clothes. By the time they had finished, brunch was ready. Despite the presence of a coldly formal Lady Penelope and the absence of Brains, who was in the lab, and Tin-Tin, who ate his meal with Val, it was an animated affair. An informal debriefing took place around the table as they discussed the rescue and what could be done about Thunderbird Five. Jeff had the satisfaction of watching Sally's jaw drop as Christa told her about the sudden appearance of Thunderbird One during their encounter with the objects.
"I nearly went into shock when I heard Dad's voice coming from Thunderbird One!" she declared. "You should have seen him! He was awesome in the sky! Took out eight of the bogeys in a matter of seconds!"
"I can't believe it!" Sally gaped as she stared at her father. "What possessed you to pilot my Thunderbird?"
Jeff sipped his coffee and gave his oldest child a bemused look. "Well, Sally, it was the only logical thing to do. Christa needed help. Thunderbird One was the only craft that could provide that help. And I was the only one who could pilot her." He raised his cup to his lips again and winked at her.
"Well, I hope you didn't scratch her, Daddy, or you'd...." Sally's voice trailed off and she blushed as she realized what she was about to say and to whom.
"I'd what, Sally?" Jeff asked, hiding an amused smile behind his coffee cup. Sally's younger sisters glanced at each other, then fastened their gaze on their oldest sibling, daring her with their eyes to complete her thought.
Sally was brave, but not that brave. "Never mind, Daddy. Just... never mind."
Jeff chuckled. The other girls snickered and even Penelope broke forth with a smug smile to see Sally discomfited. Tin-Tin came and joined them at the table. He sighed.
"Val's not in the best of moods," he said. "Could that stay up in space have altered her personality or something?"
Ruby patted the Malaysian youth on the arm and began to get up from the table. "I'm sure she's just tired, Tin-Tin. Let me tend to my poor Valentina."
Jeff looked up, surprised. He caught Sally's eye and raised his eyebrows in a silent signal. Sally nodded, then got up, leaving her linen napkin beside her plate.
"No, Nana. Let us take care of it. We haven't been down to see her since you took her to the sick room." At Sally's verbal cue, the other girls stood and prepared to leave the dining room.
Ruby sat back down. "Yes, Sally. I'm sure she'd be happy to see her sisters and hear about what went on while she was waiting for you to rescue her."
"Please excuse us, Daddy, Nana, Lady Penelope, Tin-Tin," Christa said politely as the girls walked off together.
Once out of earshot, Sally grabbed Mae's arm. "Now's the time." Mae nodded and headed to her quarters. Christa looked after her, puzzled and JC stopped in her tracks to look back at her sisters.
"Let's take care of Miss Val's problem, and then we'll have our own little debriefing," Sally said with a mischievous smile. "C'mon." She strode off in the direction of the sick room. JC and Christa looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.
By the time they got to the sick room, Mae was there sitting on the chair beside Val's bed. The invalid looked up with a scowl and a pout on her full lips.
"What is this? A convention or something?" she asked sourly.
"No, it's a debriefing session," Sally said smartly as she came out of the treatment room. "JC, get the door, please, and lock it." JC did as Sally asked, while Sally approached the bed with two blue tablets and a cup of water in her hand. "Here," she said, handing both to Valentina.
Val looked at the cup, the pills, and then at Sally. "What's this?"
"Midol. Extra strength."
Val sighed, and took the pills. JC pulled up another chair, turned it around and sat on it backwards, resting her arms on the chair's back. Sally sat at the end of the bed, making Val move her feet to accommodate her. Christa went to the head of the bed and muttered, "Scoot over," before taking her place on the bed beside her youngest sister.
"You said this was a debriefing?" JC asked skeptically.
Sally smiled. "Yes. I think Val would be interested to know what we were doing before she called base about the attack on Thunderbird Five."
Christa groaned. "Oh, no. You want to tell her about all that? About Operation Blackmail?"
"And about Daddy catching us at it?" Mae added, her pretty face creased with concern.
Val sat up straighter, frowning. "Hey! What do you mean, Operation Blackmail? You were supposed to wait for me before you confronted Penny about Dad."
"We couldn't wait any longer, Val. She showed up out of the blue and since Mae had the... ahem... blackmail materials with her, it was the perfect opportunity," Sally explained. She began to tell Val all about the bonfire on the beach and the confrontation between the four Tracy girls and the London agent. Each of the sisters took a turn with the story, adding their own point-of-view.
"She had just gone back to the house, and Sal had said something about being glad that Daddy hadn't come back with the blanket when we heard his voice saying 'Who said I didn't?', Christa explained. "I tell you, Val, I nearly jumped a meter when he came up to the fire."
"Yeah, and you could have heard a pin drop in the sand afterwards," JC chimed in.
"What happened next?" Val asked, her frown long gone and replaced by extreme interest in the story.
"A big father-daughter conversation, that's what," Sally told her with a sigh. "He told us that he was disappointed with us and that he wanted the pictures. We told him that we did it for him, that we didn't think she was right for him. That led us on to... other matters."
"Yes, Val!" Mae leaned over eagerly. "Christa told Daddy about her and Brains...."
"What?!" Val exclaimed, glancing over at the sister sitting next to her, who colored pink.
"And we all found out that JC has a boyfriend...."
"You do?" Val asked, an incredulous expression on her face as she turned to JC. The aquanaut muttered, "Tell you later," under her breath.
"And, best of all, Sally told Daddy about... Eddie Houseman!"
"You didn't!" Val cried in utter surprise. Sally sighed again and nodded.
The youngest Tracy sat back. "Wow! That was some father-daughter session." She shook her blonde mane. "So, what did you come up with, Mae? What dirt did you get on Penelope? Do I get to know? Or does my friendship with her exclude me from the group?"
"Only if you want it to," Sally said. She indicated their other blonde sister. "Daddy wants all of the pictures. Mae's going to hand them over, but not before we get to see them." Sally's scrutiny fell on Val. "You up for it?"
Val took a deep breath, and nodded. Mae smiled, and opened the packet of pictures that she had been holding. Passing out a picture to each of her sisters, she said triumphantly, "Here is the dirt."
Eyes widened around the bed and JC let out a low whistle. Mae passed another shot to Sally, who passed hers to JC, and on around the circle until they ended up in Valentina's lap.
"How did they get away with that?" "I know that the French are more tolerant of this kind of behavior... but on a public beach?" "Whoa! That one's a surprise!" "Daddy is not going to be happy if he sees these."
"Who is this guy anyway?" Val wanted to know.
"François Lemaire. The fashion designer," Mae answered promptly. Val closed her eyes and shook her head. She gathered up the pile of photos and handed them back to Mae.
"Part of me doesn't want to believe it, but I do," she said sadly. Christa put an arm around her sister's shoulders.
"I'm sorry, Val," Mae said penitently. "I know that you think a lot of her."
"I did. I still do. But this makes me realize that she is very human. It's knocked her off the pedestal I put her on," Val explained. She smiled slightly and reached out for Mae's hand. "It's okay, Mae. I'd rather know than not know." Mae took the outstretched hand and squeezed it.
"Now we're all on the same page with the Brit bitch sitch," JC said mildly. "But what about the rest of the action?" She turned to Val. "What happened up there?"
There was a long silence. Sally looked at her nails, while Christa squeezed Val's shoulder with her hand. JC gazed steadily at Val, who wouldn't meet her eyes. Mae's eyes flicked from one sister to another. At last, Val took a deep breath and let it out quickly, then, in a soft, hesitant voice, began her narrative.
"I was doing what I normally do, just checking the monitors, putting things on automatic and watching the weather telemetry before hitting the hay. Suddenly, there was this shudder through the station and all kinds of alarms went off. Mostly malfunction alerts. I managed to pinpoint the problem: the space scanners had been holed clean through. Then, as I turned towards the viewport, I caught a flash of something pass by really, really fast. So fast, I thought I'd imagined it. But then there was another shake, and more alarms went off. The deflectors were offline; the outer ring had been pierced. I didn't know what was going on, but thought it was wise to put on a space suit.
"When I came back from getting a suit, I discovered that the medical bay had been holed. Life support was failing, and more and more of those... things were passing through the station as if they were a hot knife through butter. Things were decompressing and the station was losing oxygen. That's when I called home. I knew I had to before I lost power altogether. I think that's when the frequency antenna was hit. I finished with the suit just as a... whatever it was... came through the monitor room. That's when I headed for the duplicate monitor room, hoping that it had been spared. I hadn't been there long when power shut down, and the artificial gravity with it."
She stopped for a few moments, swallowing. Her eyes glistened with tears, and her emotions were evident in the tone of her voice as she finally gathered the courage to continue.
"It was so quiet. All I could hear was my own breathing and the sound of my pulse throbbing through my temples. I could look out the viewport and see the stars, and for a long time I did just that as a way to keep me sane. The cold seeped in slowly and I guess I started to curl up to conserve my body heat. Not that it would help, not in the suit. I kept thinking about home and wondered if I would ever see it again. The lights on my face plate began to fade out and the place seemed to get darker. I think I was asleep when you and Mae showed up, Sal. I didn't feel you touch me but when your helmet bumped mine I startled awake, my heart pounding! I've never, ever been so happy to see anyone or anything in my life as I was to see you two." She looked at Mae then at Sally, tears running down her cheeks. "I thought that maybe you'd forgotten about me...."
Sally got up from the end of the bed and shooed Christa from her place next to Val. Sitting on the edge of the bed nearer to Val, she reached out and gathered her now sobbing little sister into her arms. Gently rubbing her back, Sally whispered in her ear, "We would never, ever forget you. We would never leave you up there, not as long as we had the means to get you down. And you know that Daddy would move heaven and earth to get to you, to bring you home. He'd do the same for any of us. At any time. In any place."
"I know. I think it was my imagination running away with me in the dark and the silence."
Sally continued to hold Val until the younger woman stopped sobbing. JC brought the tissue box over and offered it to Val, and to Mae, whose face was also covered with tears. Pulling back, Sally smiled at Val, and kissed her on the forehead.
"I think it's time you got some rest. We'll be back later, okay?"
Sally gave her a last squeeze before getting off the bed and heading for the door. Mae and Christa embraced Val in turn before following Sally out. JC gave Val a small salute and turned to go, but Val stopped her.
"Um, could you get me some... chocolate?"
JC grinned. "Sure. Dark or milk?"
"Milk. The kind with the little toffee and almond chips in it."
"I'll see what I can do."
"I've got some in my stash. It's in my...."
"I know where it is."
Val raised an eyebrow. "You do?"
Val blinked a couple of times as JC chuckled, winked at her, and walked out, leaving Val to contemplate the ramifications of this latest revelation.