Brains returned in a happy, expansive mood. He had two new pairs of sunglasses, his new aligners (which did not make him lisp nearly as strongly as before), and the treats he had promised to pick up for the Tracys. He insisted on flying back, and his companion didn’t object.
“It is good to know you are ready to resume your duties,” Kyrano said, smiling. “I am certain Mr. Tracy will be very relieved.”
“I thure … I mean, sure am,” Brains said, correcting his slight lisp. “I can hardly wait to, uh, tell Tin-Tin the good news!”
Kyrano’s soft smile widened slightly, but said nothing.
When they finally reached the hangar and slid the jet into her berth, they found they had a welcoming committee. Tin-Tin waited there, standing beside Virgil, who had an anti-gravity cargo float hovering behind him. When the jet’s whine died down to silence, the pair moved forward, Virgil heading for the rear cargo bay, while Tin-Tin hurried to the starboard side, near the boarding hatch. Her fingers twisted around each other; she bounced slightly on her heels as there was a click, then a sibilant hissing. The hatch lowered slowly, the interior panel drawing back to reveal a short set of embedded steps. Kyrano appeared first. He smiled as he saw his daughter waiting there. She reached up a steadying hand; he paused for a moment as if considering her offer of support before accepting it.
“Careful, Father!” she cried, moving closer to assist him. He shook his head a little as he took the final, deepest step from the hatch to the hangar floor.
“Thank you, Tin-Tin,” he said, giving her hand a squeeze as he stepped into her embrace. Behind them, Brains descended, a jaunty spring in his step. He raised a hand in greeting.
“Hello, uh, Tin-Tin. What do you think?”
She peered at him, a puzzled frown making a slight crease between her eyebrows. “I don’t see–“
“The thun … I mean, sunglasses! Wh-What do you think?”
Her face cleared. “Oh! I understand. They’re very stylish, Brains.”
“Yeah, they look good on you,” Virgil said, joining the small group. “How’d it go with your appointments?”
“I’m pleased to report that I’m back on f-full duty,” Brains said, taking off the glasses and tucking them into his shirt pocket.
“Dad’ll be glad to hear that,” Virgil replied, nodding. “He wants to see you right away.”
Brains made a gesture toward the plane. “I have to do p-post-flight checks.”
“Mr. Tracy said those could wait. He’s very anxious to see you.” Tin-Tin moved toward the float. It was already half-covered in boxes and crates. “I’ll help Virgil down here with the unloading. Father, wouldn’t you like to go up to the villa and have a rest?”
One silvered brow rose slightly. “Indeed I would, Tin-Tin, when my duties are finished for the day.” He moved toward the float. “I will assist you here.”
There was a momentary pause. Tin-Tin shot Virgil an anguished look. He shrugged slightly, shaking his head as if to say, “Don’t ask me”. He clapped a hand on Brains’s shoulder, making the slighter man wince. “Better get upstairs pronto, Brains. Dad’s waiting.”
“O-Okay, Virgil.” Brains gave a little sigh and walked off. His jaunty step became a purposeful stride before he broke into a loping run, heading for the nearest elevator.
“He’s not going to be too happy when he finds out just why Dad wants to see him,” Virgil muttered, climbing up into the cargo bay. “Tin-Tin? Crank up the impellers on that baby a bit more, will you? I think it should be closer to the hatch.”
“Welcome home, Brains.” Jeff swiveled away from the communications array behind his desk.
“Th-Thank you, M-Mr. Tracy.” Brains stepped from the study into the lounge proper. He found himself cursing his stutter; it always seemed stronger around his employer. “Virgil said you wanted to, uh, thee … I mean, see me right away.”
“Yes, I did.” Jeff looked beyond Brains to Scott, who was close on the engineer’s heels. “Come in, Scott.”
“Hey, Brains.” Scott said, smiling, as he subtly herded the younger man further into the room. “How did things go?”
“Yes, Brains. What did your doctors have to say?” Jeff moved from behind his desk to perch lightly on its front edge, one foot on the floor. He folded his arms. “I hope you have some good news for us.”
“Yeth … I mean, yes, I d-do.” Brains settled himself on Thunderbird Three’s sofa. “My opthamologist has g-given me a clean bill of health and says I’m fit for, uh, duty. I have my thec … second set of aligners, and I, uh, have to return in t-two weekth,” here he sighed, “for my next, uh, appointment.”
“Well, that is good news,” Jeff said, nodding. His tone, though, sent up warning signs in Brains’s mind so he sat up a little straighter.
“Did anything unusual happen while you were gone?” Scott asked, sounding merely curious. His query and tone now set off positive alarm bells in Brains’s thoughts.
“W-Well, now that you, uh, mention it–” he started.
“We’ve seen what happened, Brains.” Jeff picked up the remote from his desk and turned on the televid.
“And in business news today,” an off-screen anchor said, “Mansfield Aerotech may be gaining the services of one of the world’s most reclusive and highly-sought-after aerospace engineers, Hiram Hackenbacker.”
The vid clip showed Brains and Mansfield shaking hands. It was slightly shaky, as if whoever had been holding the camera had not been steady. The anchor continued, “An unnamed source tells us that the two met in a Wellington optical store where Mansfield’s companion, American actress Dawn Pearson, was purchasing replacement eyewear. Hackenbacker, creator of the ultra-safe passenger jet Skythrust, has rarely been seen in public.” The video showed Mansfield giving Brains his card. “Speculation that this brilliant man may be joining Mansfield Aerotech caused the firm’s stocks to rise–“
“That’s enough.” Jeff turned it off, and turned toward Brains. “Now, please explain all this.”
Brains opened his mouth to speak, and a huff of air came out. Swallowing, he paused to gather his thoughts. “W-Well, I, uh, went to thee … see Dr. Briscoe, and she thu … suggested I get thom … uh, some good sunglasses.” He worked hard to get the last word out without the lisp. “I went to the optical shop next door. Mr. Mansfield and Ms. Trundle … I mean, Ms. Pearthon…” He heard Scott snorting behind him. “…were there. Ms. Pearson was, uh, getting new glasses.” His lip curled as he remembered the scene. “She was being very, uh, rude, and when I p-pointed this out, Mr. Mansfield got all d-defensive. I, uh, introduced myself, and he r-recognized my name. I was terribly thur … surprised. He praised me for my, uh, w-work, and g-gave me his card.” Brains shrugged, holding up both hands. “I had no idea that thum… someone was, uh, recording our encounter, though I should have g-guessed someone would with M-Ms. Pearson there.”
It was Jeff’s turn to gather his thoughts and ask his burning question. “So, it was just a chance meeting? You’re not thinking of jumping ship?”
“That’s what I thaid … said, isn’t it?” Brains’s brows knit together in a frown. “And, no, I’m not thinking of ‘jumping ship’ as you tho … so quaintly put it.” His face softened. “I signed on because I, uh, believed in what you wanted to d-do. I still, uh, believe in it.”
A slight smile crossed Jeff’s face; his shoulders relaxed and he nodded. Glancing at Scott, he made the nod more emphatic, dismissing his son from the room. “I’m glad to hear that, Brains. I was a bit worried there for a moment or two. I’m sure that if you wanted to, you could find something more lucrative or challenging–“
“B-But not as tha … satisfying,” Brains said firmly. He shook his head. “I’ll be glad when this, uh, lisp th … stops.”
“You’re doing better than last time,” Jeff said, his tone one of mild amusement. He circled back around his desk and settled himself in his chair. “Thanks for clearing that up, Brains. Though the incident does hand us a pretty problem. Your face has now been seen on worldwide televid.” He tapped a stylus on his desk. “What can be done about it?”
Brains blinked once, and again. “Oh d-damn.” At Jeff’s slightly scandalized look, he apologized. “I’m thorry, M-Mr. Tracy. You are right, of course.” He shook his head slowly. “If this had, uh, happened before the thur … surgery, there would be l-little, uh, p-problem. The r-removal of the g-glasses might have been all that was, uh, needed.”
“The old ‘Clark Kent’ routine, eh?” Jeff said with a chuckle.
Brains gazed at him with a blank frown. “Clark K-Kent?”
Jeff opened his mouth to explain, then shook his head and made a dismissive motion with his hand. “Don’t worry about that; it’s not important.” Picking up his stylus, he beat a light tattoo on his desk. “I’m at a loss here, Brains.”
“Well,” the engineer began thoughtfully. “I am thup … supposed to see Lady Penelope thoo … soon to p-pick up my, uh, tailored clothing. Our p-plan was for me to have my hair, uh, styled then as well.” He ran his fingers through the still-short thatch on his head. “Perhaps I should, uh, color it as well.”
At this, Jeff sat up straight. “Color your hair? What kind of fool idea is that?”
“I think it’s a good one,” came a voice from the other end of the room. Jeff glanced up and Brains turned to see Eleanor standing at the entry between the study and the lounge. “Land’s sakes, Jeff! You’d think you were born in the last century! Men color their hair all the time these days.” She stepped down into the lounge proper. “You should try it sometime yourself. It would make you look years younger.”
She sat down next to Brains, facing him. With a gentle hand, she took his chin in her fingers and made his head swivel this way and that. “Well, Brains, if you do color your hair, I think you should go for something darker; nearer to black, I dare say. Auburn is also good, but it’s not enough of a change from this shade of brown.”
“Wh-What about blond?” he asked, smiling.
She shook her head. “If you went blond, you’d likely have to bleach your eyebrows, too, so they would match. Bleaching one’s eyebrows is no easy task, even today.” Squinting, she gave his hair another critical look. “No, you wouldn’t do well as a blond. But you could have them relax your hair, smooth it out and give it a bit of wave. Right now it has the texture of steel wool–very stiff and bristly.” She pursed her lips, and ran a hand through Brains’s hair. “You really should be using some conditioner, I think.”
Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “Jeff, the boy needs to hear these things. And if you’re so all fired perturbed about that little bit of vid, then you should send him out to see Lady Penelope right away.” She fixed a baleful eye on Brains. “I dare say his hair is getting long enough to work with.”
Brains gulped. Jeff, clearly peeved, pulled up the family’s schedule on his computer. “I hate the idea of sending him out just when he’s been green-lighted for duty,” he grumbled, half to himself. “Hm.” He raised his head and called, “Can it wait until John goes to his conference? Kill two birds with one stone, as it were?”
“I have already, uh, talked with John about that p-possibility,” Brains said. “I have an appointment in Sydney on the 22nd and one with my orthodontist on the 25th. There’s no way–“
“Reschedule them,” Jeff said, his tone abrupt. “You can go with John on the 21st.”
Brains opened his mouth to protest, but shut it abruptly. I would have to tell him who Dr. Lattimer is and how difficult it is to get an appointment. That would mean revealing my resolution and I don’t want him to know that, not now, at any rate.
So he replied, with a hint of sullen resentment in his voice. “Yes, thir … sir.”
“Make sure you put the appointments into the schedule so I know what’s going on.” Jeff indicated the screen before him. “There’s no notation here about any appointment on the 22nd, and you could have easily sent the orthodontist appointment via your phone.”
“Oh, Jeff,” Eleanor snapped. “He was too busy today to think of that!” She shook her head. “Back on duty for less than an hour and you’re already pestering him!”
“I am not, Mother.” Jeff glanced at Brains, who was standing, ready to flee if the current discussion turned into something stronger. “Brains, you’d better reschedule the appointments, then get those post-flight checks done. You can go over what’s been put off while you’ve been on sick leave; get a start on it tomorrow.”
Brains, holding onto his now-simmering temper with both hands—which were clenched into fists and hidden in his pockets—simply nodded. Without a word, he turned on his heel and stalked out.
Eleanor watched him go, a concerned frown on her face. She glanced over at Jeff, who was scanning something on his computer screen. “Jeff.”
Startled, he looked up. “Yes, Mother?”
“You really need to go easier on Brains. You’re going to make that boy truly angry some day, and when you do, there will be an explosion worthy of Mt. St. Helens.”
“Brains?” Jeff’s face betrayed his puzzlement. “He rarely gets angry. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him get more than just annoyed.”
Eleanor shook her head. “You don’t see it, do you?” she said. “I’ve seen his kind before; they tend to let everything simmer so when it finally all comes to a head, watch out!”
Brains stormed off down the hallway, muttering under his breath. He was both angry at Jeff for his demands, and at himself for not standing up to his employer. “How dare he insinuate that I would jump ship! And why do I have to reschedule? He’s as sensitive as block of wood!”
He stomped right past John, who was just coming out of his room. “Hey, Brains!”
When Brains—deep in his mutterings and mutinous thoughts—didn’t respond, John followed his friend down the hall. “Brains? Hey, Brains!”
It wasn’t until he actually put a hand on Brains’s shoulder that John got a response—but not the one he expected. Brains swung around with a harshly grated, “What!?” When he realized who it was, he stopped, took a deep breath, and put a shaking hand to his brow. Much of the tension drained from his body; his shoulders drooped. “John, it’s, uh, you.”
“Yeah. It’s me.” John hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “I called, but you didn’t seem to hear me. Where are you headed?”
“To the hangars. I thi … still have to do my, uh, post-flight checks.”
John smiled. “Then why don’t I come with you and give you a hand? It’ll go faster and we can talk, if you want.”
Brains sighed. “I g-guess tho.”
On the way down to the monorail, Brains took out his phone. A look at the time on it made him groan. “Dr. Rangihau’s office is closed now. I’ll have to, uh, call t-tomorrow. Good thing Thyd … Sydney is two hours, uh, behind uth … us. I may be able to, uh, catch thom … someone still there.” He opened the phone’s address book to look for Dr. Lattimer’s entry. When he found it, he placed a call.
At such close quarters, John couldn’t help but eavesdrop as Brains, in his lisping stutter, rescheduled his appointment with a Dr. Lattimer. The date he dropped clued John in to who this person was. The 22nd… must be his speech therapist. It was clear to John that Brains was not happy with the alternate date given to him, but in the end, the engineer took the appointment that was available. When he finished the call, he gave his taller friend a slight smile.
“Looks like I’ll be g-going to, uh, England with you a-after all, John.”
They stepped into the monorail. John took the controls, while Brains sat on one of the benches that lined the car. “That’s great, Brains. Why the sudden change of plans?”
Brains scowled and his voice turned sour. He folded his arms, slouching in his seat. “Your father has commanded me to, uh, reschedule my appointments so I can g-go with you. Now that I’m, uh, back on full duty, he d-doesn’t want me going off again anytime thoo … soon.”
“Hey, you’re back to work!” John exclaimed. “That’s good news, isn’t it?”
The engineer shrugged. “I thup … suppose.” He shook his head sharply. “Damn. I hope I get used to these … soon.”
“Again I ask, why the sudden change? I’m sure that if Dad wants you nearby, he wouldn’t be letting you go to England at all.” John kept his eyes up front, resisting the desire to glance over at his friend.
“Your grandmother tha … says I need a, uh, haircut. I’m to w-wait until your trip to have it styled and to p-pick up my, uh, tailored clothes.”
John nodded sagely. “Ah, I see. Two birds with one stone and all that rot.”
They were silent for a few minutes as the monorail took them past the power plant and down the slope past the lab. The long halogen lights brightened as they approached, dimming as soon as they passed to leave them in a perpetual puddle of gloomy illumination. Even the headlights on the monorail car seemed to do little to dispel the darkness; they merely highlighted the pockmarked walls that had been drilled in the long-congealed lava. As they passed the lab, Brains almost asked John to stop; the habit of going to the lab was highly ingrained, but he remembered their destination and settled back.
“I saw an interesting vid clip today,” John remarked.
“The one with m-me and Mansfield?” Brains asked, his tone still sour.
“Yep. That’s the one. So, why did you take his card?”
“It would have been, uh, impolite not to.”
John nodded, an amiably thoughtful expression on his face. “True, that. Too bad the news is making more of it than it was.”
Brains stopped to think over the implications of John’s comment, then gave his friend a keen, calculating look. “Why is it that you haven’t c-come to the thame… I mean, the same conclusion that your, uh, father did?”
“What conclusion was that?” John glanced over at Brains, one blond eyebrow raised.
The engineer became sullen again. “That I was going to—as he tho quaintly put it—’jump ship’.”
“You mean, he thought you were going to quit here and join Mansfield’s company?” John sounded almost incredulous.
“He was afraid I, uh, would.”
“Tch.” John shook his head. “Like you ever would. Dad should know that.”
“You haven’t, uh, answered my qu-question.”
John pulled the monorail car to a halt outside the lift that would take them to the hangars. “Brains, after all these years I’ve known you, do you honestly think I would assume you’d do that? That you’d leave Dad, leave all of us in the lurch? Brains, you’re not just an employee, you’re family. Even to Dad—when he has his head on straight.” He shook his head, his blond mane swaying back and forth. “Seriously! If you weren’t family, Grandma wouldn’t hound you all the time to eat. Gordon wouldn’t pull any pranks on you—” He stepped out of the car, and pressed the call button for the lift. “Hm. What pranks has he pulled? I’ve been up in Five so much that I may have missed them.”
Brains snorted. “He, uh, dressed Braman in one of your grandmother aprons and an old-fashioned mop and, uh, stuck him in a thu… supply closet. When I o-opened the door, Braman fell out. I screamed like a little, uh, girl and he caught it all on vid.” He rubbed his abdomen. “I still hurt thinking about it. Braman is, uh, heavy.” A moment’s thought, and he added, “He also reprogrammed my w-work computer to say thom … something rude when I, uh, closed a file.” A smug look crossed his face as he followed John into the elevator. “He w-won’t do that again, though I still w-wonder how he got my p-password.”
“With Gordon, there’s no telling.” John put a hand on Brains’s shoulder. “But you see my point? If you weren’t family, Gordon wouldn’t feel so free to do that.” He snapped his fingers. “And if you weren’t family, Scott and Virgil wouldn’t have offered to help you with your resolution.”
Brains sighed. “I g-guess you’re right. It just made me tho mad that your f-father—”
“Dad,” John said succinctly, “sometimes has his head up his butt when it comes to IR. But think of it this way; he didn’t pressure you to come back to work early, did he? He didn’t ask you to do him a favor while you were on sick leave, did he?” He kept to himself his father’s request that he ask Brains to start working again sooner, a request that he turned down flat.
The engineer shook his head. “N-No, he didn’t. In fact, he was a-adamant that I get an e-earlier appointment. O-Offered to pull some thri … strings.”
“See. He wanted you to be back to full strength. The vid just gave him a scare, that’s all.”
The elevator deposited them on the hangar floor. They took their time getting to the plane. Brains climbed into the jet and took the pilot’s seat. Pulling out the jet’s netbook, he beckoned John to join him. “Let’s thar … start up here.”
John settled in beside him, grinning. “You’re on, Brains.”