It was well after dinner before the boys returned. Alan and Virgil were tired, but still wakeful. Scott and Gordon, on the other hand, were exhausted.
“Damn fools got their submersible fouled in one of the old fiber optic communications cables,” Gordon grumbled as he took a seat at the dinner table. “It was tough going separating the two without cutting the cable. Some parts of the west African coast still depend on it.”
“I still think they’re a fly-by-night concern.” Scott took a long drink of the water set before him, and asked for a refill. “Might do some good to look at them a little closer. Give the officials in the area a heads up.”
“That’s not our responsibility, Scott,” Jeff said, settling in with a fresh cup of coffee. He had eaten his dinner in the lounge but he wanted to debrief his sons while they ate. Their memories of the events would be fresh and it would get the rescue out of their systems.
“I’m not so sure, Father.” Virgil spoke up from his place at the table. He paused to serve himself a huge helping of vermicelli before passing the bowl to Scott. “If they really are a questionable operation, we could be fielding rescue calls from them again – after the colony is built and settled. Looking into their business practices could save us some grief later.”
Jeff took a sip of his coffee, looking thoughtful. “You may have a point there, Virgil. I’ll take it under consideration.”
Alan ladled a fair serving of meatballs and marinara sauce on top of his pasta before passing that bowl to Virgil. “It was pretty quiet on Europa – after we convinced the military garrison there that we had permission to set up shop.”
“Didn’t they get the message from the Mozambique officials?” Tin-Tin pulled out a chair and sat down, laying her data pad down on the table.
“Yeah, they did, but not before a patrol came out to see what we were up to.” Alan dug his fork into the mass of thin spaghetti and turned it around and around. He then speared a piece of meatball. His cheeks bulged as he put the whole forkful into his mouth.
“That’s what the base is there for,” Gordon said, wiping small splatters of sauce from his cheeks. “To keep people from squatting there, as well as manning the lighthouses and meteorological stations. It is a nature preserve, after all.”
“I think they would have come out anyway, just to say they’d seen a Thunderbird. After the patrol went away, all we had for visitors were the goats,” Alan said with a snort.
“Hey, Tin-Tin?” Scott set down his glass again. “Would it be feasible to alter Thunderbird Four’s gripping arm? Put some joints in it? Make it a pair?” He waved his hands a little. “Maybe give it a hand-like motion that responds to our movements.”
Gordon shot his brother a look. “That might be fine if there are two of us on board, but when it’s just me–”
“Gords, you have to admit that having a more hand-like appendage instead of a claw would have been helpful on this last rescue.” Scott reached for the basket of garlic bread. “Untangling that cable from the submersible would have been a lot easier.”
Virgil cut in. “Why don’t you ask Brains about it? He’d know if it were feasible.”
“Hey, where is Brains, anyway?” Alan asked, glancing around.
“He ate dinner with Mrs. Tracy and me earlier,” Tin-Tin said, making notes of Scott’s request on her pad. “I’m not sure where he went after dinner.”
“He’s on sick leave, remember?” Virgil wiped up the sauce on his plate with a piece of garlic bread. “He’s probably resting.”
“More likely he’s reading one of those books or magazines he brought back,” Gordon said, shaking his head. “Why he’s getting into the Hollywood Report, I’ll never understand.”
“He told me it’s so we can better deal with the media,” Jeff said dryly. “Don’t believe a word of it, myself.” He took a sip of his coffee. “Brains was never very good at lying.”
“Then why is he so interested in it?” Alan asked. He grated some Parmesan cheese over his second helping of pasta. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Tin-Tin frowned, the expression putting a little V between her eyebrows. She didn’t know whether or not to tell the Tracys what she knew about Brains’s actions. Whoever this girl is, she’s interested in Hollywood and celebrities. Does that mean she’s shallow and impressed with looks? Maybe that explains why he’s trying to look less like a… nerd.
Gordon’s voice penetrated her thoughts. She started a little, taking a sharp breath and giving him a weak smile.
“Are you all right? You had an awfully deep frown on your face.”
Now all the Tracys were looking at her, waiting for her answer. She forced a wider smile and shook her head. “I’m all right. I was just trying to think of a reason why Brains would be interested in the Hollywood news.”
“Did you come up with anything?” Jeff asked.
She shook her head. “Not really.”
Gordon frowned a little, remembering what she had told him about Brains’s reason for the changes. He debated mentioning it to his father and brothers, but decided against it. Better let it play out without interference. We’ll know for sure soon what his real intentions are and where his affections really lie.
Virgil finished his spaghetti, and forked up the last bit of meatball. “Great dinner, Kyrano.”
The retainer smiled, inclining his head. “Thank you, Mr. Virgil.”
“Yeah, great food, Kyrano.” Scott wiped his mouth. “Any chance for dessert?”
“Indeed, Mr. Scott. Mr. Gordon’s foray into the kitchen the other morning encouraged Mrs. Tracy to find a new recipe for brownies. I will fetch them.”
“I bet they’re low carb and low fat,” Alan said, grimacing.
“And low taste, too,” Gordon moaned.
“Now, boys, you know that your grandmother wouldn’t serve you something she thought tasted bland. She’s just looking out for our health.” Jeff straightened. “I haven’t had my dessert yet, so I’ll have another cup of coffee and join you.”
Kyrano returned with a tray of deep bowls, each filled with a large slab of brownie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, crisscrossed with a light drizzle of chocolate sauce. A foamy swirl of whipped cream topped each confection, its resemblance to a mountain’s snowy peak marred by the bright red of a maraschino cherry.
“This looks good, Kyrano,” Virgil said, his tone approving. He plucked the cherry off the top of his dessert and pulled it from its stem with his teeth. When he’d finished eating it, he said, “They haven’t found a way to make these low cal or sugar free, have they, Kyrano?”
“No, Mr. Virgil, they have not.” Kyrano beamed at the comment. “And I have not yet found a way to whip cream for such a use without a little bit of sugar. However, Mrs. Tracy approved of both.”
Alan took his bowl from the retainer and looked at it. “I bet the ice cream and chocolate sauce are to make up for the brownies, too.”
“The ice cream is also of a low-fat and low-calorie variety, one that has been popular for many years,” Kyrano explained as he served Scott. “The chocolate sauce was made from a recipe using sugar substitutes.”
“Aren’t you having any, Tin-Tin?” Gordon asked.
She shook her head. “I had some with dinner. It was delicious.”
Scott gazed at the bowl for a long moment, then took up his spoon and cut off a corner of the brownie. He put it in his mouth, tasting it, a slight frown on his face. Virgil and Gordon both watched him, curious.
His face brightened; he made an “mmm” noise and dug his spoon in with gusto. “I don’t know what recipe Grandma found for these brownies, but it’s a really, really good one. Almost as good as the real thing!”
Jeff chuckled. “Well, nice to see this gets Scott’s seal of approval.” The others around the table echoed Jeff’s laugh; after that there was quiet, except for an occasional appreciative grunt. As the Tracy men ate, Tin-Tin slipped away, data pad in hand. But she did not leave unnoticed. A pair of amber eyes watched her leave. Their owner decided to track her down once he’d finished dessert and debriefing.
Tin-Tin found herself back in the lab, which was empty. She’d half-expected to find Brains there, working on something or going over the logs downloaded from each Thunderbird that had taken part in the rescue. It seems as if he’s taking the sick time mandate seriously. With a tap of a key, she brought her own computer to life and transferred Scott’s request. She knew that Brains had actually been researching something similar for use in Braman; it had been determined that the robot needed a finer touch to function properly in Thunderbird Five. Still, it had been a back-burner, look-at-it-when-you-have-time issue, so Tin-Tin doubted that Brains had even touched his research since arriving back from Foxleyheath.
Then again, he’s not really had time to do that, has he? Not between the various doctor visits and all. She sighed, glancing at his computer station. Something white caught her eye. Curious, she left her computer to see what it was. For all his personal inattentiveness – make that past inattentiveness, she thought – Brains was usually a very tidy person. He put things away and kept his workspaces clean.
The item in question was one of the scratch pads that Brains liked to keep around. He used them for sketching out ideas or writing out complex equations that he wanted to ponder. This page had a few odd doodles on it, and a name: “Morgan L. Sydney”. The name was underlined once but the date below it, February 22 11 a.m., was underlined three times.
“Morgan Sydney?” she muttered. “Who is that?”
Her musings were interrupted by the lab door swishing open. Turning, she saw Gordon standing in the doorway, looking around with an uncertain expression on his face. Leaving the pad, she made her way toward him; his face brightened with a smile.
“I saw you duck out and wanted to make sure everything was all right,” he said, following her back to her computer.
“I’m fine. I just wanted to get Scott’s idea into the system so that Brains could have a look at it.” She reread what was on the computer screen, flagging it with a priority tag before saving the file. “It’s a good idea. Right along the lines of something Brains has been looking at for Braman.”
“Ah, okay.” Gordon seemed a bit ill at ease there in the lab. There was a silence between them for a moment as Tin-Tin put her computer back into hibernation. “Y’know, I’m still wound up a bit from the rescue. Would you like to take a walk with me on the beach? Help me get really tired so I can sleep?”
Tin-Tin gave him another smile as she put her data pad into the charger. “Funny, I thought you and Scott both looked ready to collapse into your spaghetti — or your dessert.”
“Yeah, well, the prospect of actually having dessert made me perk up, and having it taste great gave me an added bit of energy,” Gordon said with a grin. He held up his elbow in a show of formal politeness. “What do you say?”
She turned from the charger and slipped her hand under his elbow. “If it will help you sleep better, I’d be happy to take a walk with you.”
Gordon smiled, and patted her hand. He gestured to the lab door. “Then let’s go.”
In his suite, Brains was reading up on the latest musical groups. He had never been much interested in music, even though Tin-Tin usually played some in the lab. The first time she’d done it, he’d found it distracting. However, he soon found that tuning it out greatly increased his focus on the work at hand. He also discovered that, though he’d tuned it out, an impression of it still remained in his mind. He couldn’t tell one artist or band from another and likely couldn’t put a title to a song, but he knew all the words and could sing along – if he dared.
However, he’d never discovered a style of music that he himself liked. So now he was thumbing through the magazine, Musical Variety, searching idly for the names of groups. When he found one that sounded interesting, he went looking for their music on his personal computer and listened to a representative track or two. The list of groups that pleased him was short so far; the list of single songs a bit longer. He was surprised at how many current songs he knew from tuning them out in the lab.
“Hm. Here’s a list of, uh, new orchestral recordings.” He flitted through the reviews, looking for a likely candidate. “This sounds interesting.”
He turned his attention to the web search before adjusting his headphones and sitting back to listen to the samples provided. The music brought him upright again; it was rich and the harmonies were closely intertwined, providing a thrill that ran up and down his spine. It was the strongest response he had ever had to music. It both startled and bothered him.
“Why haven’t I, uh, noticed this before?” he muttered when the piece was over. The next sample didn’t evoke the same level of thrill as the first had, but he found it haunting and beautiful. With a nod, he added the album name to his list of music to purchase. “I’ll ask Virgil t-tomorrow if he’s heard of this orchestra, or this composer.” He shook his head. “It seems I’ve m-missed a lot by burying my head in the, uh, technical side of life.”
The following days found Brains’s lisp disappearing, while his interest in things outside of science and engineering blossomed. He cornered Virgil to discuss music; the pianist was surprised to find that Brains was developing a taste for sweeping, dramatic classical music. He grabbed Alan to learn the finer points of tennis. When next invited to play with Gordon and Tin-Tin, he and the youngest Tracy made it a game of doubles. He sat in on a game of snooker with Scott and Jeff, asking for instruction in playing pool. He even made an appearance in the kitchen, looking for pointers on cooking from Kyrano and Eleanor. He wasn’t exactly a stranger there, having helped out on occasion during holiday meals, but felt he could learn to make more complicated dishes – or so he told them.
“Brains is certainly taking advantage of his sick leave,” Virgil remarked to his father one afternoon. “Tin-Tin says he’s hardly been down to the lab all week.”
“Yes, I noticed that.” Jeff sounded a little bit sour as he put down the latest issue of Kine. “It’s not that I begrudge him the time off, but I was hoping he’d rest more and be back to work after a week or so. His follow up visit with the ophthalmologist isn’t until February eleventh and somehow I don’t think I can require him back to work until then.”
“Maybe you can suggest he ease back in by working half-days?” Virgil opened the piano bench to find a piece of music to play. “We really need his help with the Thunderbirds’ maintenance.”
“I’ll suggest it, or better yet, have John suggest it when he gets home tomorrow. That way it won’t look like I’m mandating his return to work.” Jeff shook his head. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it were anyone else; any other employee would have been back to working full-time already. But since it’s Brains–”
“And he takes so little time off as it is–”
Jeff picked up his magazine again, while Virgil settled himself at the piano, doing some scales and finger exercises to warm up before playing the piece he’d chosen.
“S-So,” Brains said as he waited for John in the latter’s suite. “How was your, uh, flight?”
“It was fine, though I didn’t expect Alan to come up so early,” John called from his bedroom, his voice muffled momentarily as he pulled a polo shirt over his head. “There was a bit of a glitch with the hydraulic couch, though. You might want to look at it.”
“What kind of, uh, glitch?” Brains flipped idly through a magazine from the pile of mail that waited for John.
“A bit of a shudder when the hydraulic arm linked with the couplings. Normally I don’t notice a thing.” John brought his loafers out to the sitting room and settled on his favorite arm chair. “Could be because it wasn’t used at all last month.”
“C-Could be,” Brains agreed. He was absorbed in the article he’d found. John, now properly shod, stood and looked over his friend’s shoulder.
“Ah, yes. Irina Kovaleski, the latest wonder child of the astronomy world. Nice looking, isn’t she?”
Brains nodded absently. “I had, uh, heard of her, of course. The new generation of p-probes she designed are gathering more d-detailed information about our nearest neighbor stars, including whether or not there’s an M-class planet in any, uh, of the nearby systems.”
“Right.” John settled back down into a seat. “The second ten probes are due to be launched soon, and there’s been a lot of debate as to whether or not the information they gather will actually arrive back to Earth in time to be of any use.” He put his hands behind his head and settled back. “This is a very long term project and the first images won’t show up for another five years or more, even though they are transmitted by laser packet.” He cocked his head to one side. “I’ll be meeting her in Edinburgh later this month; there’s a seminar for astronomers that I’m booked for – rescues or no rescues. You could come with me. Put that new wardrobe to use.”
“You think I could?” Brains asked, sounding interested.
“Probably. It would be work related, in a way, so Dad would likely be amenable.” John flipped through his surface mail, discarding what little junk there was and setting the more interesting pieces on his coffee table. “Do you have anything else scheduled?”
“W-Well, I do have to visit Lady, uh, Penelope again,” Brains said, his tone thoughtful. “My c-custom made clothing is, uh, ready. I also have an appointment in Sydney with a sp-speech therapist. He’s highly recommended. When is the, uh, conference?”
“The twenty-second to the twenty-fourth…” John’s voice trailed off as Brains shook his head. “Can’t make it?”
“N-No, I can’t. My first appointment with the, uh, speech therapist is that weekend. Though I was thinking of, uh, visiting Lady Penelope after the appointment.”
John frowned. Setting the rest of his mail aside, he folded his arms. “Brains, be up front with me here: is all this personal improvement for Tin-Tin? Because if it is, you know it’s unnecessary. She likes you just the way you are.”
Brains scowled and looked out the tall windows at the lush jungle growth outside. “I t-told you it wasn’t.”
“And you lied.” John stood and came around to face his friend. “You make a rotten liar, d’you know that? Even if no one else can see through you, I can. So, tell me the truth. Is this all for Tin-Tin?”
Brains held his scowl a moment longer, and then his shoulders slumped. He sighed heavily. “Y-You’re right. It is. But–” He held up a hand to forestall John’s next comment. “I have a good, uh, reason for it. A reason that T-Tin-Tin wouldn’t understand, I think.”
John, his arms still folded, moved to lean up against the glass. “Okay. I’ll bite. What’s your ‘good reason’?”
“You know what kind of woman, Tin-Tin is, uh, John. She’s beautiful, talented, intelligent, caring — you said it yourself: she cares about people without any, uh, concern over h-how they look, or act, or talk. She’s that kind of g-girl.” Brains put his hands in his pockets. “When I’m with her, she inspires me. Makes me want to be m-more than … this.” He took a hand out and waved it vaguely in the direction of his face. “I want to be w-worthy of her. I want people to see us and say, ‘There goes a n-nice-looking couple,’ instead of ‘What does she, uh, see in him?’.”
John’s eyes narrowed. “It sounds to me as if you’re feeling a bit insecure because Gordon’s in the picture.”
Brains scowled again, but said nothing. John raised a fair eyebrow in challenge, until at last the engineer balled up his fists and said, “Okay! Yes! I’m feeling i-insecure. Alan, Gordon … all of you Tracy men are handsome, charismatic, intelligent, fit, wealthy–” He took a breath before loudly huffing out the last words. “…o-over-achievers! No one would look at you w-walking down the street with her and, uh, wonder what Tin-Tin would see in you! It’s, uh, obvious just by looking at you!” He calmed and blew out a long breath. “I can’t compete — except in intelligence, which isn’t prized very highly — and I know it.” His scowl eased, and a slight, wry smile crossed his lips. “But I’d like to t-try. She’s worth it.”
“So, why haven’t you said anything to her?”
“You said it yourself, uh, John. She’d say it, uh, wasn’t necessary. Then what do I do? Feel f-foolish for trying?” Brains moved up to stand beside John, though he was looking out, instead of in. “I did sort of, uh, let it slip that I was d-doing this for a special girl.”
John’s eyebrows rose. “You did what?”
“Tin-Tin mentioned that I must be doing this for a s-special girl.” Brains rubbed the back of his neck, looking sheepish. “I sort of, uh, blurted out that I w-was.”
“Oh, no.” John groaned. “Why the hell didn’t you tell her it was her?”
Brains shook his head sharply. “I d-don’t know! I was caught off-guard! I k-kicked myself all the w-way home for not, uh, telling her the t-truth.”
“Well, hopefully she isn’t thinking what I think she’s thinking.”
Brains stared at John, an uncertain expression on his face. “What do you, uh, think she might be thinking?”
“I hope that she isn’t thinking that you have another woman!”
Brains’s face paled and his blue eyes went wide. “Why d-do you think she w-would think that?!”
John spread his hands. “Why not? You told her you were doing all this for a special girl, but you didn’t tell her it was her. What else is she going to think?”
“I … I never, uh, thought of that.” Brains looked worried now. “What do you think I should, uh, do?”
John folded his arms and began to pace towards the far wall. “Well, whatever you do, don’t go running down to the lab and tell her now.”
“Why n-not?” Brains watched as his friend took ten paces, turned on his heel, and walked back toward him.
“Coming out of the blue like that — it would have bad results, I think. Especially in the lab.” John reached the glass doors again, and turned around to pace back. “I think you need someplace neutral and more or less romantic.”
“Neutral I can, uh, understand. But r-romantic?”
“Well, you’re trying to tell her she’s special to you, right?” John stopped in his tracks and turned to face Brains.
“So, make the experience special. Take her someplace private and quiet and tell her the truth.”
Brains puzzled over this for a moment, then brightened. “Perhaps I can ask her to, uh, fly me Christchurch for my f-follow up appointments. I can’t fly myself there, and last time we went d-dancing–”
“When is that?” John asked.
John did a quick calculation in his head, then made a face. “It’s a Monday – Dad might expect you back the same day. After all, it’s not like you’re having the surgery again, and New Zealand isn’t that far away.” He shook his head. “A nice idea, but hold it in reserve.”
They fell silent; Brains looked down and scuffed his shoe a little, while John stared out at the foliage. The sky was getting darker; a storm was moving in from the sea. Its approach had necessitated the earlier flight to and from Five than usual but with fewer desserts there was also one less cryofreezer to make the trip.
“I appreciate your, uh, advice, John,” Brains said at last. “I n-never wanted to put you between m-me and G-Gordon.”
John snorted a laugh and smiled ruefully. “I think I put myself there, Brains. I’ve seen you and Tin-Tin together and though part of me wants to root for Gords, I just see you with her more clearly. I think you’d have more of a future together. I can sort of see where you’re coming from, too. I just hope that Tin-Tin will understand as well.”
“So do I,” Brains said fervently. “So do I.”