Unknown Quantities

Jeff touched Scott’s shoulder. “Give John a call,” he murmured. “Have him phone Alan using the holographic background. I’m sure Alan’s heard what’s happened and is worried.”

Scott nodded. “F-A-B.” He moved away to make his call, confident their communications equipment wouldn’t disrupt the hospital’s medical devices.

Jeff returned to Gordon, who still lay quietly against the raised mattress, his eyes closed. The EKG showed Gordon’s pulse rate slowing back to a more normal range. The doctor came in, checked the equipment readings and his tablet before speaking to Gordon. Diaz translated.

“I’m still feeling pretty wrung out,” Gordon replied, his voice was rough. A nurse who stood by gave him a smile and offered him a drink of water as Diaz translated his comment to the doctor.

The physician nodded and smiled, patting the young man on the shoulder. He called to Jeff, “Señor?”

“Yes?” Jeff replied, glancing up.

The doctor began speaking in rapid Spanish. Diaz listened, asked a quick question, and then faced Jeff. “The doctor says that Gordon’s temperature has dropped to a level where transport to your medical facilities would be advisable. He hopes that your physicians will continue to monitor the situation. He orders Gordon to rest and be kept off duty for…” Diaz exchanged another few words with the medico before continuing, “… for at least three days, then on light duty for another week.”

Jeff smiled and nodded. “I understand. If you could prepare Gordon for discharge, I would be grateful.”

Diaz passed the message along, and the doctor nodded, consulting his tablet to begin the discharge procedures. Jeff turned to find both Scott and Virgil at his side, questioning looks on their faces.

“Virgil, go power up Two and prepare her for departure.”

“F-A-B,” Virgil said with a sharp, eager nod. He gave Gordon a light, playful punch to the shoulder, grinning as he fastened his helmet and left .

“Scott? Status report.” Jeff glanced over at his eldest son.

“John received your instructions and will carry them out momentarily,” Scott said.

“F-A-B,” Jeff replied. “Get One airborne so the helijet pad will be clear for Two’s rescue basket. The closer Two gets to the hospital, the better.”

“F-A-B.” Scott turned to his younger brother. “See you back at base, Gords.”

“See you,” Gordon murmured as Scott gave him a small salute, picked up his helmet, and left.

Jeff smiled as he watched his sons go off to carry out his orders. He spared a moment to think of his second eldest and youngest sons, who would both need an update before the rescue crew headed home. He moved away from the bed to bring John and, through him, Alan, up to speed.

The tune “Dangerous Game” sounded in Fermat’s room, muffled by the pocket of Alan’s jacket. The teen started and jumped, showing how jittery he still felt just as the two younger boys thought he might have calmed down. Alan fumbled for the phone, dropping his earpiece on the floor as he pulled it free. Scooping the device up, he slipped the business end into his ear before answering the call.

John’s handsome face filled the screen and Alan blinked. His brother was wearing a gray polo shirt, the Tracy Industries logo discreetly embroidered just below the left shoulder. He looked as if he were in an office somewhere, with a wall behind him, painted off-white, and a dark, wooden door frame set into the wall to the right of the screen. There was no sign that John was in a space station orbiting the Earth, and it took Alan a moment to realize just what he was seeing. Is that the hologram?

“Hey, John,” Alan said, nervously running the tip of his tongue over his lips to moisten them. “What’s up?”

John grinned. “The sky, the stars, Dad’s blood pressure…”

Alan groaned, then rolled his eyes, and suddenly, he wasn’t quite so tense. “I like your new digs,” he quipped back. “Very official looking.”

“Thanks, Sprout,” John replied, a slight wry twist to his lips. “They are very temporary.” He paused to see Alan’s reaction. When there was none, he continued. “Dad wanted me to call you and see how you were.”

“Fine. I’m fine,” Alan said, nodding. He tried to come up with a way to ask his vital question that wouldn’t sound too suspicious. He finally asked, “How are you? How is everyone at home?”

“Doing good,” John replied with a smile. “Dad wanted you to know that Gordon got a little overheated. He’s been seen by a doctor, is doing better, and is on his way home now.”

Alan’s shoulders relaxed and he stifled a relieved sigh. “Good to hear.”

“That’s what I said.” John smiled again when he saw Fermat’s head peeking over Alan’s shoulder. He waved a bit. “Hey, Fermat!”

“Oh, hey! Let me set up the speaker. Then you can talk to all of us.” Alan quickly turned off the earpiece, propping the phone on the desk. Fermat crowded in to speak with John.

“H-Hey, John,” he said, peering at the screen carefully. “I like the n-new r-room.”

“So do I. Wish I could stay here longer. It’s a nice change from my usual office,” John replied with a chuckle and a wink. “So, what have you been doing?”

“M-Math homework. Alan and I st-still try to w-work on it t-t-together.” Fermat glanced over at A.J., who was reading, or at least pretending to. “We saw that the Th-Thunderbirds were ou-out and about t-today.”

“Really?” John asked, sounding as if he were weary of the subject, the bland and barely interested look on his face perfection itself. “Where were they this time?”

“Ecuador,” Alan chimed in. “Fighting a forest fire or something.”

“One of th-them got hurt,” Fermat added.

“Oh. Well, I hope that he or she is okay, whoever they are.” John sighed, making it sound as if he were as bored as possible. “Is school going well?”

“Yeah,” Fermat said. “Even d-despite this.” He held up his arm, showing John his cast. He gave his roommate another glance. His eyes widened as a thought struck him. “H-Hey, John! My r-roommate is a b-b-b… huge fan of y-yours!”

“That’s right!” Alan said, a grin spreading over his face. “Hey, A.J.! C’mon over here and meet my brother, John!”

A.J. glanced over at Alan, startled by the invitation. John frowned a little bit at being put on the spot, but as Fermat urged his roommate to join them, he sat up straighter and schooled his face to a pleasant expression.

“Hello, Mr. Tracy,” A.J. stammered, coming up to stand at Fermat’s left. “I’m, uh, Andrew John Trumbull.” He glanced over a shoulder first at Alan, and then at Fermat, nodding toward the latter. “They call me A.J.” He smiled shyly. “I really am a big fan of yours. I’ve read all of your books, and, well, it’s really great to meet you.”

John beamed. “Nice to meet you, too, Andrew. And please, call me John. I always think it’s fun to run across someone who’s as interested in astronomy as I am. Tell me, what are your favorite constellations?”

“I like Orion and Sirius. The story behind them is pretty fascinating and they’re easy to spot. I wish I could have brought my telescope when I came to school. The sky’s been really clear lately,” A.J. said, his shyness forgotten as he warmed to the topic. “I would have joined the astronomy club, but my father said I had to limit myself to one extra-curricular activity and I chose chorale.” He shrugged his shoulders a little. “Want to make the most of my counter-tenor while I still have it, I guess.”

His idol chuckled. “The stars will always be there, A.J., but your voice? Yeah, that’s gonna change.” He sighed. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut this short. Work to do, y’know. Alan? Fermat? You two take care and I’ll be in touch soon. Again, Andrew, nice to make your acquaintance. Have a good night, guys.”

“G-Good night, John,” Fermat said.

“Goodbye, John. It was nice to talk to you,” A.J. added.

Alan picked up the phone and activated his earphone again. “Hey, bro? Ask Dad to call me in the morning? And say ‘hi’ to everyone for me, please? Especially Gords.”

“Sure, Sprout.”

“Don’t call me ‘Sprout’!” Alan groused.

John laughed. “Now I know you’re okay! I was worried when you didn’t growl at me before.”

“Yeah, well…” Alan hemmed, shrugging. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. His voice changed, becoming a bit softer and a little bit wistful. “Hey, take care, John. Talk to you later.”

“I miss you, too, kid,” John replied, reading between the lines of his brother’s words and tone. “Later, Al. Bye.”

“Bye.” Alan paused for a moment, then deactivated the phone. He pulled out his earpiece and stuck both back into his jacket pocket.

John cut off communications, tapping the keys to shut down the integrated holographic background that merged his picture in the signal to Alan’s phone. He leaned back, putting his hands behind his head. His silvery uniform was bunched up around his waist and the gray polo shirt rode up just a bit as he lifted his arms. He sighed, rocked back in his chair for a moment, before leaning forward to open communication with the island.

“Base from Thunderbird Five.”

Brains’s face came into view, wearing an apprehensive expression. “B-Base here, F-Five. What’s the m-m-m… what’s up, J-John?”

John looked and sounded cheerful, a façade hiding the twinge of homesickness he was feeling right then. “Just wanted to let you know that I talked to the boys. Fermat’s in good spirits and helping Alan with his math.”

Brains looked surprised for a moment and then smiled softly. “Th-Thanks, John. I’ll c-call him l-l-later.”

“You’re welcome.” John gnawed on his thumbnail for a moment, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Hey, Brains? Do you know where I stashed some of the author’s copies of my books?”

“Yeah, I th-think so.” Brains frowned, puzzled.

“Can you pull out a volume of each for me? I’ll be coming home in a few days and I want to send some autographed copies to Fermat’s roommate.” He chuckled wryly. “Seems I have at least one fan. Two, if I count Dad.”

“S-Sure, John. No p-p-p… I’ll do it.”

“Thanks, Brains. And please tell my dad I’m waiting to hear the latest when he arrives.”

“I w-will, J-John.”

“Okay then.” John leaned forward again. “Thunderbird Five out.”

He paused for a moment, then got up and stretched. “Time to get something to eat,” he muttered as he headed for the tiny galley.

Back in the dorm, A.J. had settled back down at his desk, looking pleased. Fermat gazed up at Alan, who was putting on his jacket.

“Is e-everything all r-right at home?”

Alan frowned a bit at Fermat’s question; suddenly, his face cleared. He huffed out a laugh, a sheepish expression formed as he realized he hadn’t told Fermat about Gordon.

“Uh, yeah. Everything’s okay. John said that Gordon got a little overheated. Dad took him to a doctor, and they’re on their way home. He’s gonna be okay, according to John.”

“G-Good,” Fermat said, relaxing a little. “You h-heading out?”

Alan nodded. “Yeah. Want to have some time to relax before light’s out.”

“I’ll w-walk you downstairs.”

“Okay. See you later, A.J.,” Alan said, giving him a wave. The door to the room slid open and Fermat stepped through, turning to wait for his friend.

“Yeah, Alan. Later,” A.J. replied, grinning from ear to ear. “Oh, and thanks for introducing me to your brother! That was really great!”

“Hey, you’re welcome! Hopefully, he’ll get out here sometime this fall and you can meet him in person.”

A.J. looked excited at the prospect. “Oh, boy! Maybe I can get him to autograph my copies of his books for me!”

Alan shook his head as he chuckled. “You never know.” He stepped into the hall and the door closed behind him.

“Thanks, Fermat, for helping me keep my head on straight earlier.” Alan propped himself up against the elevator wall, tilting his head back. “I could have blown everything sky-high today if you weren’t watching out for me.”

“You’re w-welcome,” the younger boy replied, leaning next to his taller friend. “If it helps any, I w-was c-concerned for G-Gordon, too.”

“I know. But you thought about the big picture, while I was just thinking about my brother.”

“Hey, that’s wh-what friends are f-for,” Fermat said, twisting his head to look up at Alan, squinting through his thick glasses.

“Yeah. It is.”

There was silence between them as the elevator arrived on the main floor. Alan got out and turned to have a few last words with his friend. “You going to breakfast?”

Fermat nodded. “Have to. M-Medication.”

“Right. I think I’ll be sleeping in. See you at lunch, then.” Alan waved. He stuck his hands into his jacket pockets, pressed his math book against his side with an elbow, and sauntered off.

Fermat sighed and pressed the button for the third floor. He rolled his head around, trying to get the kinks out of his neck, while he adjusted the strap on his sling where it chafed. Once out of the elevator, he stretched his good arm up and yawned. Opening the door, he greeted his roommate with a quiet, “Hey.”

A.J. watched Fermat without being obtrusive, a thoughtful frown on his pale face. Finally, he took a deep breath and asked, “Fermat?”

The older boy turned to him, his eyes bleary. “Y-Yeah, A.J.?”

A.J. was quiet for a moment, studying Fermat, biting his lower lip as if making up his mind about something. Fermat shrugged a little and had just turned back to his desk when A.J. blurted out, “Why did you and Alan lie to me?”

The night was chilly. A slight breeze stirred the leaves, sending them rustling along the grassy quadrangle and skittering along the walkways and road. Alan breathed deeply, enjoying the crisp air. It felt clean, like the air on the island after a thunderstorm cleared out most of the humidity, leaving a wet, sea-scented freshness behind. He thought of how his room had smelled that afternoon and wrinkled his nose. Sugi had better have dealt with that problem, he thought, frowning. If not, I’ll see if I can sleep with Kay or Jason. The floor in their rooms would be better than my bed if it smells like a cigarette butt.

He entered the dorm and made his way over to his door, knocking as he had agreed to. He unlocked the door when he heard a muffled, “Come in.”

Lee lay on his bed, earphones in, a sports magazine in hand. The window stood open just a crack; Alan had to admit the air did feel fresher. He dumped his math book on his desk and hung up his jacket, retrieving his phone and tucking it into his wardrobe. While in the closet, he pulled on the sleeve of a uniform shirt and sniffed. He wasn’t sure if he really smelled smoke or not; he knew his imagination could be made his sense of smell play tricks on him.

“The doors were closed,” came a snide voice behind him. “Your clothes should be fine.”

“Excuse me for not believing you,” Alan answered back without turning, giving tit-for-tat. “But I want to be sure I’m not going to smell like one of your friend Trey’s filters.”

There was silence behind him, and Alan closed his closet door. I guess this is as good a time as any to drop my bombshell. He turned to lean up against the wardrobe, arms folded, staring at Lee. Finally, the older boy glanced his way, then turned back to his magazine while asking, “What’s eating you, Tracy?”

Alan quietly took a deep breath and replied, “Dom Bertoli and I are going to see Belvedere on Monday during lunch to ask to switch rooms. That way Trey can smoke here without having to worry about aggravating Dom’s asthma, you won’t have to worry about me blabbing to the administration, and I don’t have to put up with your friend’s smoking.”

During this little speech, Lee put down his magazine and got up, standing slowly and deliberately to his full height, the top of his head a good six inches above the younger boy. He leaned against the bunk bed, mimicking Alan’s pose, folding his arms across his chest, all but daring the shorter, slimmer boy to defy him.

Alan kept himself very still, controlling his temper in an effort to control the situation, much as he had often seen his father do. Man, he reminds me of Scott, when Scott’s in his “big brother knows best” intimidation pose. Well, Sugi, I’ve been there, had that done, and by a professional, too. Didn’t faze me then and doesn’t faze me now. You just don’t know who you’re dealing with here.

“So,” Lee said in a soft, snide, and dangerous tone, “what do you plan on telling Belvedere? What reason are you going to give her for changing rooms?”

“The same one you’ll give her on Tuesday, when you and Mackenzie go to see her,” Alan replied, his voice flat and cold. “Irreconcilable differences. Personality clashes.”

Lee laughed, low and mocking. “Do you really think that she’ll believe it? Believe it to the extent that she’ll change our assignments right then and there? And what about your precious Hackenbacker? I thought you were going to try to move back in with him?” He closed in on Alan, hands spread now, a wide-eyed sneer on his face as he shook his head slowly back and forth. “It won’t work, Tracy.”

Alan raised an eyebrow and unfolded his arms, pressing his hands against the wood of the closet door, trying to stay in control even though his instincts told him to press the confrontation. However, his voice betrayed his anger; he was seething inside, and he gritted his teeth as he snarled, “Leave Fermat out of this! And it will work—if all four of us go. She can’t say no if we’re all requesting transfers.”

“And what if Trey and I won’t go?” Lee asked, his own voice biting as he stared down at Alan, crowding into the younger teen’s personal space to do so. “What then?”

Hard blue eyes met brown as Alan replied, in a tight voice that would have done his father proud, “Then Dom will tell her the real reason. Belvedere will believe him. And Mackenzie will get tossed.” Back in control, he put his hands into his pockets, a seemingly casual movement. “It would eliminate Dom’s problem, and mine as well.”

Lee stepped back, his eyes half-lidded. “No, Tracy. Oh, no. If that happens, your problems will have just begun. You and Bertoli will wish you had never set foot on campus this year; that I promise you. I will make your lives pure hell.”

There was a heavy silence, and then Alan said, almost casually, “Give it your best shot. Dom and I are going Monday.” He turned his back on his roommate in the small space Lee had left to him and slid to the left, opening his closet again to get at his night wear. He was aware of the older teen’s pressing proximity, of Lee’s breathing practically in his ear, then suddenly, his adversary backed off.

Lee’s cold voice sent an uncomfortable tingle down Alan’s spine. “So be it.”

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