“Hey, Alan! Did you see? The Thunderbirds were on televid last night!” Qaeshon asked at the breakfast table.
Fermat’s eyes widened with excitement. “The Th-Thunderbirds? Where?”
“The Canadian Rockies, rescuing some scientists in a blizzard.” Jason turned to Alan. “Did you see it?”
Alan spooned jam onto his buttered biscuit. “Yeah, I did. Too bad lights out came before they actually showed the crafts.”
Jason leaned forward, motioning his friends to lean in as well. “I’ve got a portable, battery-operated televid,” he said softly. “The craft showed up about ten minutes after lights out. They still had snow on their wings! Man, that Thunderbird One is awesome!”
Ralph nodded. “Yeah! I heard Thunderbird Three is even more awesome than One!”
“It is.” The boys turned as one to stare at A.J., who was cutting up his sausage patty.
“You’ve seen them? In person?” Qaeshon eyes went wide. A.J., his mouth now full of meat, nodded.
“When?” Alan’s tone sharper than he meant it to be.
A.J. swallowed, taking a sip of milk before answering. “In the spring. My dad had business in London and took me with him while I was on break. I was near that big Ferris wheel–what do they call it? Oh yeah! The London Eye. Three of the Thunderbirds showed up. There were these two other things, too: a digging machine and a mini-sub. I wondered how they were going to get that big red rocket up into the air again without scorching the grass.”
“Cool!” Jason said eagerly. He leaned over toward the younger boy. “Just so’s you know, Pinky and the Brain are the school’s biggest Thunderbirds fans.”
“Did y-you see the guys who fly the ships?” Fermat tried hard to keep a touch of apprehension from his voice.
A.J. shook his head. “No, I was actually heading away from the Eye at that point. We were too far away to see anything but the Thunderbirds themselves. Still, those machines were magnificent.”
“Gotta agree with you there, A.J.” Alan grinned. “They’re awesome! Wish I could have seen them on the vid last night.” For more reasons than one!
After breakfast, Alan walked with Fermat to their first class, which was math. “Heard from your dad this morning?”
Alan shook his head. “No, but I hope to this afternoon. I called and tagged him.”
Fermat chuckled. “H-Hope your game of phone tag doesn’t g-g-g… last too l-long. I want to know what h-h-happened last night.”
“Me, too. Smart move there, asking A.J. if he had seen the operatives.”
“Th-Thanks. Don’t w-want j-j-j… don’t want to be a s-security risk.”
Math went well. Alan felt confident enough to volunteer an answer to a question and was pleased when his answer turned out to be correct. He was concerned, though, when Fermat showed signs of drowsiness toward the end of class. He nudged his friend, who had stopped taking notes on his computer, hoping to wake him before the teacher noticed. He was too late. Mr. Graboski came down the aisle to stand and look down at Fermat. “Are you with us, Mr. Hackenbacker?”
Fermat blinked several times, staring up at the teacher while trying to collect his thoughts. Alan jumped in, tapping the teacher on the arm. “Uh, Mr. Graboski? Fermat’s on a painkiller for his arm that makes him really drowsy. I think maybe he should go see Ms. Bell.”
The teacher raised one bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrow; his rheumy eyes flicked from one boy to the other. He jerked his head, indicating the door. “Take him. I’ll want a note from Ms. Bell for both of you Monday morning.”
“Yes, sir,” Alan said as he gathered up his things and helped Fermat with his gear. He took his friend by the arm, propelling him out of the room. “Fermat?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
Fermat sighed heavily. “I’m just s-so… s-s-sleepy.”
“C’mon. Let’s get you to the infirmary.” Alan put a hand on his friend’s back and shepherded him carefully down the stairs.
Ms. Bell was working in the treatment room when the two of them came in. She poked her head out to see who was there. “I’ll be right with you, boys.” A few minutes later, a student Alan knew by sight came out, his forearm wrapped in a bandage. The two acknowledged each other before the injured boy left. Ms. Bell came out, drying her hands on a paper towel. “Now, what seems to be the problem?”
“Fermat’s really sleepy, Ms. Bell. He couldn’t stay awake in math class,” Alan explained as the nurse guided Fermat back to the examining room.
She motioned to her assistant, who helped Fermat onto the examining table. “Who was the teacher?”
Ms. Bell chuckled. “No wonder he’s drowsy.” Removing Fermat’s glasses, she examined his eyes, which caused her to make a “Hmmm” sound. “Fermat? How do you feel right now?”
“D-D-Dizzy. Sl-Sleepy.” Fermat fumbled for his glasses; when he found them he slipped them back on.
“Okay. I think we’re going to have to change medications. You likely have too much in your system right now and your body isn’t processing it well. I want you to stay here to sleep it off where I can keep an eye on you. Alan, I’ll give you a pass for your next class and you can go. Fermat should be all right. Sandy, write up a hall pass for Mr. Tracy here.”
“I’ll need one for Mr. Graboski…”
“Sandy, write that up, too, please. I’ll email it later.” Ms. Bell helped Fermat down from the examining table and guided him to a bed in the sick room. Alan poked his head in to watch as the nurse practitioner helped his friend take his shoes off, covering him as he lay down on the bed. She murmured something to Fermat; he clumsily removed his glasses, handing them to her. She put them in the drawer of the cabinet next to the bed. Once Fermat was settled, she came back out into the hallway to smile at Alan. “Take a minute to put his belongings back there next to the bed please, Alan, while I sign the paperwork.”
Alan did as he was told, giving Fermat’s upper arm a squeeze before he left the room. He knew his friend was out of it; there had been no reaction to the squeeze and he could hear Fermat’s quiet snore, which brought a smile to his face. “I’ll tell Dev about this, sport. He’ll make sure you still get to try out,” he said softly.
Ms. Bell was waiting for him with a paper note when he returned to the waiting room. “He’ll be okay, Alan. I’ll probably release him late this afternoon. Here, take this. It will get you into your next period class. I’ll email your excuse to Mr. Graboski. Better get going now.”
“Thanks, Ms. Bell.” Alan picked up his books and jacket and left the infirmary, heading for his next class.
The rest of the school day went by in a blur, except for strength training and lunch. In strength training, Mr. Beccara quizzed his students on the names of the muscle groups and equipment they had been studying. At lunch, everyone Alan sat with asked where Fermat was. A.J. approached the table where the older boys were settled, looking around hesitantly. Jason waved him to a chair so he sat down. Before A.J. could ask, Alan explained, “He’s in the infirmary, sleeping off his medication.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.” A.J. sounded surprised. He picked up his sandwich, took a bite, and while he chewed, he gazed at Alan with a puzzled expression. When his mouth was empty, he asked, “Alan? Fermat said your last name was Tracy.”
Alan sighed while the others groaned. They had gone through this before: people would hear about “the son of Jeff Tracy” and try to either suck up to him for the sake of his father’s influence and wealth or hassle him because they were jealous. The first were usually found out because they would try to shove the others, especially Fermat, aside. The second were dealt with by Alan’s true friends, those who liked him for who he was, not for who his father was. It helped that one requirement for hanging with Alan was to accept Fermat without reservation.
“Yeah, my last name is Tracy, and yeah, I’m the son of the billionaire ex-astronaut.” Alan grimaced, his tone indicating that he’d heard this all before. “Is that what you wanted to know?”
A.J. straightened, giving Alan a perplexed look. “Uh, actually… no. I wanted to know if you were any relation to John G. Tracy. He’s my favorite astronomy author.”
Alan’s jaw dropped. Jason and Ralph exchanged amused glances as Qaeshon smacked Alan’s upper arm, grinning. Suddenly, Alan laughed and the other three joined in. A.J. glanced from one boy to the other, consternation on his features. “Wha.. what did I say?”
The laughter wound down, but Alan kept grinning. “I like you, A.J. You sure know how to cut a guy down to size.”
“Yeah, and if there’s anyone whose ego needs trimming, it’s Pinky’s!” Qaeshon quipped. Alan feigned outrage, smacking his friend lightly on the head.
“Oookay.” A.J. still sounded wary. “But you haven’t answered my question. Are you related to John Tracy?”
Alan nodded. “Yeah, I am. John’s the second eldest in our family. Sorry about laughing, but most people know me as the son of Jeff Tracy instead of the brother of John.”
“Well, there were a few seniors last year who knew you as brother of Gordon,” Ralph reminded him.
“True.” Alan nodded. “What made you ask about John, A.J.?”
A.J. gauged his words carefully. “Well, you do sort of look like him.”
“I’d better!” Alan quipped. “Dad would be a little concerned if I didn’t.” He took a bite of sandwich. When he was done chewing, he observed, “You look like you don’t believe me, A.J.” Putting down his food, he fumbled around in his backpack to pull out his wallet, extracting a picture from it. “Here. I think you’ll recognize John in the picture. It was taken back in July.”
A.J. took the picture to examine it carefully. It was a group picture of Alan, Fermat, and five other older men, one obviously old enough to be Alan’s father, plus a pretty Asian girl. They were all wearing swimsuits; all but the oldest looked as if they had been swimming. He nodded as he picked out the bleached blond hair and facial features of his favorite author. “Nice family. Is that girl your sister?”
“Who? Tin-Tin? Nah, she’s just a friend.” Alan waved a dismissive hand. He reached for the picture, but Ralph snatched it first and whistled as he saw Tin-Tin.
“Just a friend, huh? She’s hot, Pinky!” Ralph handed the picture to Jason, who responded with a low whistle of his own.
Jason avoided Alan’s grasping hand and sent the snapshot to Qaeshon, who grinned. “Oh, yeah! She is nice! What’s she doing with a loser like you?” Alan rolled his eyes and retrieved the photo, sliding it back into his wallet before stashing the leather pouch in his pack again.
Ralph glanced up at the clock. “Hey, we’d better hurry up. Next period starts in fifteen.”
“Right.” Alan crammed a piece of sandwich in his mouth. He was busy chewing it as he saw Devdan Israni go by. “Ev!” he called, his speech obscured by the food. He finished chewing and called out again, “Dev!”
Devdan started. He glanced around, finally turning to see Alan frantically waving him over. “Yes, Mr. Tracy?” he asked as he approached. He scanned the table, frowning. “Where is young Mr. Hackenbacker?”
“He’s in the infirmary. His medication’s giving him trouble. Ms. Bell said she might release him late this afternoon, so he might not make tryouts.”
“Ah! I understand. I will tell Mr. Feng. We will work around it. Thank you for notifying me.”
“No problem, Dev. Talk to you later!”
“Yes.” Devdan nodded as he turned to go. “Have a good afternoon.”
Alan took a last bite of sandwich. He collected his tray, grabbing his brownie for consumption on the way out. The other boys followed his lead to the tray return before splitting up and going their separate ways.
“Tracy! Get warmed up!” Coach Evans called as Alan jogged toward him. Alan nodded. He joined the small group warming up for the run. After ten minutes, the group joined the coach and Xavion Lewis, the team captain, at track’s midpoint.
“Now, the course is five kilometers long, which is standard for this level of competition,” the coach explained. “It’s been marked with flags and will take you around the outskirts of the campus. You must stay within two meters of the flags at all times. Bear left at red flags, but pass them on the right. Bear right at the yellow. Take care to pass those on the left. Go straight at the blue flags; you can pass them on either side. There will be spotters along the route to make sure you’re following directions. When you come down off the course, you’ll see a roped off ‘chute’ to the finish line. You must stay within the ropes for your time to count. Remember, cross-country is a team sport so more than one of you will be chosen to represent Wharton. Let’s go.”
Alan joined the others at the starting line. The group of roughly ten boys ranged across the track, waiting for the starting signal. Alan glanced over to see that Xavion had an air horn out. Without warning, the horn went off and the gaggle of boys was in motion.
They raced down half one side of the track’s oval before veering off into the grassy area surrounding the field. Blue flags beckoned ahead; the small group passed them on either side. Alan found himself in the fourth position. Not a bad place to be, especially if the others tire. Just make sure you pace yourself like John taught you.
The terrain was different from what Alan was used to. Spongy, short cut grass gave way to leafy forest, and, for a stretch, to a familiar dirt path where Alan had raced motorbikes last spring. He kept up his pace, not falling behind but not surging forward, passing each flag on the proper side as he came to it. They branched off the dirt path into a slightly swampy area where Alan’s running shoes squelched beneath his feet, and then into a pine wood, where his foot slipped at one point on the treacherous needles. He regained his footing and soldiered on.
Alan was used to hot, humid conditions; the air on this course was cool and dry. It felt odd in his lungs as he switched from aerobic to anaerobic breathing. He opened his mouth slightly to increase his oxygen intake and ran right into a floating group of midges. “Bleh!” His tongue worked hard to get rid of the unwanted protein; his face screwed up in an expression of disgust. Still, he had encountered worse in the tropical climes where he, John, and occasionally Scott, had run, so he didn’t falter.
As he passed the next set of blue flags, he stepped up his pace a bit, moving from fourth to third in the lineup. The path wound up a small hillock, making him work hard to keep his new position, much as he did when his brothers raced him up to the transmitter mast. A brief memory flashed through his mind: one of following Tin-Tin up that incline in a race against time. He put it aside. All that mattered was this race, this moment. The flags directed him to the left again. He passed them on the right and kept running.
We’re headed back to the field now. Once we get into the funnel, I won’t be able to pass. I need to make my move soon. Blue flags ahead indicated a straightaway. Gotta do it now, if I’m going to do it at all.
Putting on a burst of speed, he passed the second place runner, taking up his position. He cut back on his stride just a touch, running faster than before but still pacing himself. Looking ahead, he saw there was a rather wide gap between himself and the leader. Don’t think I can pass him but I can close the gap. C’mon, Tracy, just a little harder now.
He did, closing the gap to a few yards as they came down a small hill, in sight of the track once more. The leader put on a burst of speed all his own, widening the gap again. Determined to come in on his heels, Alan did the same. Still, the leader couldn’t be caught. Alan crossed the finish line in second place. He breathed heavily to satisfy his oxygen-starved lungs as he walked around, trying to lower his heart rate while staving off leg cramps. He felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning, he found the first place runner, a boy he knew as Erik, holding out his hand. Alan grinned and took it, shaking it firmly.
“Nice race,” Erik breathed.
“You, too,” Alan panted. Together they walked over to where a large orange cooler stood, pouring themselves water from its spigot. Alan gulped down two cups before crumpling up the paper container, tossing it into the nearby trash can.
He glanced over at the coach, who was gathering the boys together in the center of the field. When everyone had circled around him, he said, “You did really well today, men. No one fell and no one dropped out. That’s the attitude I like to see: perseverance. While you were out running, those who were interested in the hurdles had their tryouts and they had the same attitude. Keep going; don’t give up. Now I can make the selections for the team. I’ll be honest; with the talent I’ve seen this week, it’ll be hard to do. But as I said before, if you don’t make the cut, don’t take it personally. Find another of our extracurricular clubs that could use your skills and never-say-die attitude.” He paused. “The final team roster will be posted on the sports bulletin board in the Student Union and on the school’s sports webpage by tomorrow noon. Okay, you’re dismissed.”
Alan jogged over to pick up his jacket. Xavion stopped pulling up the stakes which created the chute; sauntering over, he ruffled Alan’s hair. “You did good out there, Tracy.”
“Thanks!” Alan grinned. “My brother and I did some cross country this summer. He ran for Harvard when he was in college.”
“Cool. I bet he’ll be proud of you.” Xavion sighed. “Wish Kay would take an interest in a sport. But that’s just not his bag, and I respect it. Especially after the other night.”
“Yeah. He’s got a lot of musical talent. Kinda like my brother.” Alan finished zipping up his jacket. “See you ’round, Zave.”
He jogged off without looking back, leaving Xavion staring after him with a puzzled frown. With a huff, the older boy shrugged his shoulders before returning to his task.