Disclaimer: The characters and settings of Thunderbirds are the property of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson,and CarltonInternational Media Ltd.This story is for entertainment purposes only; no profit will be collected by the author. No copyright infringement is intended here, and none should be inferred.
Author's Note: This story . . . Is about the fallibility of language and the power and dominance of the human spirit. Or, in simple terms, what happens when Gordon decides to play a joke at an unwelcome point in time. For a change, I've written a TV-verse story;the time frame for this tale isn't specifically during or after the show, so feel free to place it where you would like. I've also placed John as the middle child in accordance to old Thunderbirds tradition. Enjoy!
My thanks go out to LMC, who beta read this story for me and assured me that it is indeed not a load of carp (fish pun intended). ;-) Thanks for all your help!
(All translations created using Babblefish; John Tracy, I am not.)
Lost In Translation
John Tracy had learned from hard experience that troublesome events often arrived in pairs or sets of three. Sometimes they came at the same time, bad occurrence upon bad occurrence until a person's head wanted to cave in under the stress. Sometimes they came one after another, completely unrelated except for the fact that they decided to happen at nearly the same time. And sometimes . . .
More often than not . . .
One event was only a repeat of another in rapid succession. John hated those the most, because they generally only occurred when someone had been stupid enough to not realize why the initial event had occurred in the first place. Events like those meant that someone had made the same mistake twice. He generally excepted natural disasters from his philosophy, knowing full well that Mother Nature was exempt from the rule that he imposed on the rest of humanity, but there was no stopping human beings from learning and avoiding Mother Nature's tricks.
Of course, if that happened then I would be out of a job, John thought with a slight smile. He often wondered what the world would be like if humanity finally learned to take care of itself. If a day ever arrived when International Rescue was not needed, he wasn't sure what would happen. Less lives would be lost, he supposed, and people would finally learn not to try and outrun nature or any other natural law of the universe. There would be no accidents from residents building on fault lines. There would be no heart-break when safety laws were thrown aside.
That didn't promise the complete elimination of human stupidity, or all accidents, for that matter, but it would be a decent start. It would mean that he, for the most part, would no longer be needed, that International Rescue could even be shut down if rescues and disasters became a thing of the past. It would mean that he would have to somehow work his way back into society to find another line of work. Yet, what was his contentment worth when placed again so many lives?
When he truly looked at the situation, however, he saw how useless and futile his philosophizing was. People didn't change, at least not overnight. Humanity had it quirks, its faults, and its strengths. There would always be unpredictable accidents.
No, he decided, he was going to be there for the long run, standing alongside humanity as it tried to either run itself into the ground or fly itself to the stars. As long as there were people with ideas and determination, there would always be failures and successes. He was there to watch the latter and clean up the former.
That in itself was Troublesome Event Number One, with capitals letters and all - dealing with those kind of situations in the first place. It was something he was used to, however, and had grown to be very proficient at. He was very skilled at mopping at after human stupidity. Event Number One, though apparently a permanent fixation in his life, was under control.
There was always room for improvement in that area, however. All it would take -
"-Island to Thunderbird Five. John, are you there? Seriously, wake up!"
"Hmm?" Wiping a few locks of blond hair out of his eyes, John turned his mind to the outside world.
Details began to snap back into place in his mind. The interior of Thunderbird Five, International Rescue's communications satellite, hummed quietly around him. Vast lines of piping and machinery powered the most advanced computers and telecommunications equipment on or off the planet, giving the station an odd illusion of life. Where there would be pulsing arteries and charged nerve ends, however, there were instead hydraulic lines and fibre optics. Where there would be brain tissue and thought in a human body there was a large network of super computers and databases linked together in tandem.
The illusion was enough to draw him in and suspend his mind from reality again. Yet, all it took was a real voice, a human voice that wasn't a product of humming power couplings and computer fans, to draw him back out.
Flipping some switches, John activated the station's transmitter down to Tracy Island. The room shuddered slightly as vast radio arrays shifted on the outside hall, directing their power fully in the direction of the South Pacific isle. When a steady signal manifested itself on the monitor screen, John cleared his throat and opened the downward comm channel.
"Hey Scott, what's up?"
The radio crackled, then Scott replied, "Your head, apparently. It's up in the clouds again." A few more flipped switches had the older man's face looming large in one of the computer monitors.
John smiled. "How many times did you try to call me?"
"That's a record then." He grinned as his brother snorted. "Sorry, I was just-"
"Thinking," Scott finished, amusement travelling easily over the comm. channel. "Yeah, I know, you're always thinking." The older man folded his arms across his chest. "So, what is it this time? More quasars on the loose? Or is it a woman?"
Knowing his brother and his teasing well, John didn't give the jab a second thought. Instead, he ignored it and said, "I need your help with something." He hadn't planned on bringing the matter up with Scott, but since his brother had called he felt it only fair to work Scott into his plans.
Scott's reaction was expected. Apparently quite surprised, he raised an eyebrow and leaned closer to the screen so that his eyes loomed large on the display. "Help? What have you done?"
John snorted. Sometimes Scott could be hard to deal with. John knew his brother meant well, but the gentle teasing wasn't always welcome. There were those occasions when John actually needed to talk, and unless he was having a complete mental breakdown Scott didn't always pick up on his hints.
He's about as subtle as a horse with a porcupine on his back.
"What are you going to do, then?"
Resolved in his decision, John said, "I'm going to learn to speak French."
John sniggered quietly to himself. Scott's reaction was even better the second time.
The dark haired pilot fell backwards from the screen, landing hard against the chair in their father's study. Eyes wide, he shook his head in dismay. Every motion seemed to accentuate and highlight a growing expression of disbelief on his face.
"French?" Scott repeated, and John nodded. "French?"
Utilizing what he already knew of the language, the blond shrugged and his grin turned rather sheepish. "Oui."
"Why?" The response came several seconds later when Scott had apparently found his voice again. "Why French? You already speak English. And Spanish. And a good amount of Japanese."
"Isn't it obvious?" Having prepared for the moment several times over in his mind - during which he had convinced himself of the beauty of his plan - John knew just what to do. He quickly opened the receiver channel on Thunderbird Five, an action that filled the room with loud and unending babble in multiple languages. He waited several seconds for Scott's reaction. When his brother simply sat, he shrugged and said, "Get it?"
"It sounds like Gordon when he's talking in his sleep."
"Funny. Listen again." Trimming down the channels, John activated the portion of Thunderbird Five's mainframes that sorted through the data and siphoned it into specific packets. Bit by bit the noise lessened, until only a few distinct voices could be heard. "This is a recording from last month, when that hurricane hit the Caribbean."
"Okay." Scott was suddenly more intent on the sound. "I get it. It's emergency calls. From the hurricane."
"Exactly! And when we put it through the filter," John flipped one last switch, "it sounds like this." The voices changed immediately; they no longer spoke in unknown tongues, but instead in a crude and computer edited version of English. Over and over again they called for help, until Scott looked sufficiently disturbed and John decided that his brother had likely heard enough.
"Damn," Scott muttered as John flipped off the recording, "that's chilling. I don't know how you manage to deal with it."
"I have to. I have no other option."
Scott shook his head and absently rubbed his arms as if cold. "All right, you've succeeded in disturbing me. Now what's your point, other than the computer sounds like Braman?"
"Exactly!" John slammed his hand lightly against the computer desk to accentuate his point. "They're digitally manipulated so that the calls are re-broadcast here in English! Braman uses the same synthesizer and language database to create human speech. The computer can only go so far, though. Brains has been working on the problem for years. Translators can work to a certain point, but our databases are only so comprehensive and the computer matrix is only so intelligent. And it's slow - it takes Five's computers time to work through the transmissions and decipher them. Rescue calls are one thing, but word by word conversations . . . those just don't work."
Several moments passed silently. John waited, hoping that Scott would pick up on what he was suggesting.
He did. Snapping his fingers, Scott grinned suddenly, apparently having thrown off the effects of his 'chill'. "I get it. So you want to speak French so you can do it yourself. It's just the reason you went up on Five in the first place, to sort through some of the signals yourself! Never let a computer do what a human being can do better."
"Exactly! And it'll make things a lot easier." John sighed, and his mind drifted back to the previous month. "Scott, we were really lucky there. So many people spoke English. But you know what happens when we're in, say, Russia? Half the time I can't understand what they're saying because the databases are so slow with the translations, and I sure as heck can't talk to them without sounding like a pre-recorded nitwit myself. There aren't always human translators around, at least good reliable ones. And it takes forever to thumb through my Russian guide to try and decipher what the computer can't grab. I'm as slow as the damn computer."
Scott nodded, then just as quickly shook his head. "Wait. Weren't we just talking about France?"
"France. And Russia. And Germany. And China. And every other place where English isn't a dominant tongue. They get sub-par service, Scott. The bare minimum! We fly in, do the job, and fly out. There's no . . ." he struggled for the word, "humanities involved."
He had already guessed Scott's reaction before his brother said a word. John watched in amusement as Scott seemed to process the information in his head. Though he could pilot a mean ship and was invaluable in the field, Scott couldn't always seem to follow the subtle intricacies of his brother's thinking pattern. While Scott liked to look at things from a more practical angle in terms of what might be possible, John tended to think of things in terms of absolutes that had no relation to real life whatsoever. There was no real place for the word 'might' in his vocabulary; everything was either possible or it wasn't.
And when it came down to those two absolutes, he generally favoured the former.
Scott, still sitting back in the chair, still hadn't said anything. Instead, his gaze wandered about the room, darting to objects in the lounge and study until he finally settled back on the camera pick-up that transmitted his image to the space station.
"So you want to learn French." Scott's words were spoken with more than a touch of apprehension.
"And Chinese," Scott said with a sigh.
"And anything else I might need," John confirmed, nodding his head. "Yeah."
He knew without even asking that Scott thought he was crazy. But that thought alone didn't bother John, because he knew most of his family thought he was a little off the normal walk most of the time. While everyone else sat on the proverbial beach and gazed out in wonder at the water, he liked to walk in the tide pools and get his feet a little wet.
"So how long is this going to take?" Scott finally asked, rolling his eyes. "John, you can't learn every language under the sun."
"I can sure as heck try. It'll be my new hobby."
"Tired of the stars that quickly?"
"That was one language," John replied with a smile. "I've learned it. I need something new." Something, he thought, that would take him a bit longer to study. He hadn't mastered astronomy by any means, but it was now more of an enjoyable pass-time rather than a challenge to keep his mind busy. By taking up new languages he would not only be helping International Rescue out, but he could finally keep himself from getting too bored at the same time.
"So why don't you take up tennis or something? We'll send you up a virtual system. It'll keep you in shape. You versus the wall. How does that sound?"
John simply smiled and continued to stare at his brother.
"I have a better golf swing."
"Not unless you're expecting some unintentional abstractions."
"Crosswords? Chess? No wait, you're already too damn good at those . . ." Scott's expression grew flustered as he tried to come up with something else.
"Give it up," John said quietly with a grin. "You're not going to change my mind."
Throwing his hands up in the air, Scott rolled his eyes again. "Then why do you need my help? You seem to have already figured things out. You want to amuse yourself for the rest of your life until you're too old to hold a book. Fine. I could think of better ways to solve the problem-"
"So you've had a brain storm that Brains hasn't?"
"-But I'll shut up and not comment," Scott finished. "Because I don't think I want to figure out your thought process on this one. It's one piece of insanity that's best not shared."
Your idea of fun is flying barrel rolls in front of an awed crowd of evacuees, John thought to himself with a smirk. But, to each his own, and he wasn't about to pick at Scott's hobbies more than Scott was going to critique his own. They were similar in many ways, but quite different in many more. That would never change with time, and could never be changed be either one's efforts, no matter how noble. They knew that.
The two held each other's gaze for a long moment, blue eyes looking into blue eyes across a gap of ocean and vacuum.
"Okay," Scott sighed, apparently having accepted that nothing was going to change. "If you're resigned to this insanity . . ."
"I guess I'll help you out. What do you need?"
Now that was more like it.
His smile broadening, John reached into a pocket of his blue uniform and pulled out a small hand-held computer. "Let's see, I made a list . . ."
"He wants to do what?" Virgil Tracy asked from behind a long white canvas. "Did I just hear you right?"
"Sure did," Scott muttered, relaxing his head against the back of the lounge couch. "He wants to learn every language in existence. Thinks it will help with things on the job."
"Well, sure it would," Virgil said, taking a long brush stroke so that his hand popped out briefly from behind the canvas. "I mean, we're all right if we're working in America, but that rescue a few months ago in China-"
"Yeah, I heard about that one." Oh, had he heard it all right. After John had given Scott his list of supplies that he needed, he had proceeded to pull up some older recordings in a final effort to completely convince Scott of the necessity of the venture. "All right, I'll admit it. It could have gone better. But we can handle things, Virg. We can deduce the gist of what's happening in the areas. It's not necessary to speak every language fluently. How the hell does he even expect to do that? It'd be impossible-"
"It's a little more personal that way," Virgil interrupted. There was a noise of wood touching the floor as the man set down his paint palette. He appeared at the side of the canvas, his chestnut brown hair covered partially in a white painter's cap, the rest of his clothing carefully concealed with a white smock. "It's not just our job to rescue people, you know. It's a lot more than that."
Trust Virgil to agree with John, Scott thought to himself. He had come to Virgil hoping to find an honest opinion, but he hadn't thought it through enough to realize that the second eldest Tracy would probably agree with his younger brother. Virgil, of any of his brothers, seemed to have an instinctive compassion for the human race about him, one that wasn't focused as much on saving lives at the critical point as it was on making those lives better after the rescue.
When Scott was on duty he saw both the living and he saw the dead; he talked to them, held their hands, directed them to be saved or to be sacrificed. John was at the opposite end of the spectrum, seeing only lists and stark black and white contrasts of human lives; his concern about the victims generally piled up until it came out in bouts of vented frustration, or some ridiculous scheme such as the one that he had just hatched. Virgil was somewhere in between the two, seeming to be able to weigh present circumstances and future concerns in his mind at the same time.
"It's not just about operations, Scott," Virgil said gently, catching his older brother's gaze with a steady one of his own. "We're out there to be rocks for people to lean against, not pieces of cold granite that they can't even talk to."
Scott thought for a long moment, considering Virgil's words. They had a lot of weight that he couldn't easily dismiss. Yet . . .
"I still think he's insane, Virgil."
"Let him be insane, then. A lot of famous philosophers were loopy. Look at Socrates. He was arrested for trying to tell people that they were inherently and incurably stupid."
That sounded suspiciously familiar. "Virg, he's not a philosopher. He's an astronomer-"
"With a lot of spare time." Apparently tiring of the conversation, Virgil had turned back to his painting. Taking care not to step in his paint, he took the easel by its sides and turned it carefully in Scott's direction. "What do you think?"
A large glaring splotch of paint greeted Scott. Red streaks cut across the upper canvas, interspersed with yellow globules that gave the canvas a dimension that suggested orange fire. The lower half, bathed in swarthy shades of yellow, was in much the same style. The entire piece was surrounded by a large black halo that seemed to swoop in from the edges as if it were about to swallow the colours whole.
Scott blinked. John's earlier words about unintentional abstractions suddenly came back to him.
"It's abstract," Virgil offered. "I thought I would try something different. I know it probably looks like a mess. Ah well, maybe I'll have better luck next time."
Maybe, just maybe, if he showed John the painting he could convince him that his talents lay elsewhere . . .
As if reading his mind, Virgil furrowed his eyebrows and shook his head. "Don't dwell on it, Scott. His mind's made up. You know John, when he gets something stuck in his head, nothing can get it out. He'd try to make a hippo tap-dance if he thought it was necessary."
"And that," Scott said, "is what I'm afraid of." They had all seen John on bad days, and knew how angry and frustrated he could get when things didn't turn out or he couldn't make something work the way he wanted it to.
Virgil considered this for a moment, then shrugged. "So send him the books and whatnot and don't mention it to anyone else. That way, if something goes wrong, he won't have to justify it to anyone but himself."
"So," Virgil continued, as if attempting to break the conversation, "what did you call him about to start with?"
Scott relaxed again on the couch. "Nothing much. Father wanted to know if he could translate for him next week sometime. Apparently he's getting a business offer from a Japanese firm." He didn't even have to look to know that Virgil was probably already cocking an eyebrow at him.
"You see, what would have happened if it had been a Russian-"
"Point taken." Scott snorted and closed his eyes, wondering if he would ever find time that day to have a nice, tranquil nap. "Now go back to your painting. It can't be a lost cause yet."
Ear pressed tight against the lounge door so that he could hear every word his brothers were saying, Gordon Tracy couldn't stop a wide grin from spreading across his face. Whenever Virgil suggested that something remain a secret, he considered it his God-given duty to make sure that he helped the individual with their problem so that the secret wouldn't have to be shared with anyone else. John was especially fun to aid, given how much he liked to do things on his own. He was a challenge, too, considering that he wasn't one to fall for snake filled peanut tins.
His mind already soaring with the possibilities, Gordon trotted off in the direction of the lab to see if Brains could help. He knew that the engineer, having tried to solve the language problem many times, would be more than happy to give Gordon something that could ease John's troubles a bit.
"I don't know if I like that look on his face," Tin-Tin commented as she and Alan watched Gordon walk - or sneak, as she more thought the walk to be - in the direction of Brains' lab. "He looks like he's up to something." She shook her head to throw a few loose strands of fine black hair from her eyes. "What do you think, Alan?"
"He sure is," the white blond muttered, already walking as if to follow his brother. "I wonder what he's up to?" When Tin-Tin made no move to follow, he stopped and turned to look in her direction. "Tin-Tin, aren't you coming?"
Shaking her head, Tin-Tin replied, "No, I think I'm going to go see what Scott and Virgil are doing." She didn't mention that Gordon had come from the direction of the lounge and that she knew for a fact that Virgil had been painting in there the entire afternoon. It was just a hunch, but she thought she might find more answers from Scott and Virgil than from Gordon.
"You sure?" Alan looked distinctly disappointed, but he shrugged all the same and moved to continue his trek down to the lab. "All right then, Tin-Tin." He disappeared around the corner that Gordon had just snuck behind.
Shaking her head and thinking all the while that the two young men were bound to be up to something again, Tin-Tin began her own quest to find out what Gordon was up to. Hopefully it wasn't anything serious, though, with the red-head's sense of humour being what it was, the line between serious and funny on Tracy Island was often unclear.
Making some last notes on a pad of paper, Brains pushed his large glasses up back onto his nose and nodded. "Y-y-y-yes, that should d-d-d-do it." He smiled briefly at the young man standing in front of him. "I-i-i-is there anything e-e-e-else, Gordon?"
"Naw, that should do it." The red-head grinned nonchalantly and turned in the direction of the door. He glanced briefly about the lab, his eyes resting on several experiments that Brains had been working on, until he apparently became bored. "Just make sure you send it up on the next load. But don't tell anyone what it is. John's trying to keep this a secret."
"R-r-r-right," Brains replied, making another note on the paper to remind himself of the importance of secrecy in case he forget later. "I w-w-won't tell a soul, Gordon." When the young man finally left, Brains set the notepad down and went about gathering the material that he'd need for the project. He had an idea of how to accomplish it; Gordon's request hadn't been difficult, but given the odd nature of it he wanted to make sure that everything was perfect for when John actually used it. There was no need to cause the astronomer trouble, after all.
"R-r-r-right," Brains muttered to himself. "First, I'll need a disk. . ."
Jeff Tracy, generally open-minded and accepting of any behaviour, always found himself suspicious and vaguely concerned when he found his two youngest sons laughing and chortling in a darkened hallway in the island home. Gordon had a tendency to laugh at anything that was remotely funny, but when he and Alan were together it was generally a recipe for trouble.
Approaching quietly, and quite thankful that he was wearing slippers that dulled the sound of his footsteps, Jeff drew up behind them in enough time to catch the end of their conversation.
"Man, what's he thinking? He's setting himself up."
"That's what I thought," Gordon snickered, and though Jeff couldn't see his face he was sure there was a look of mischief there. "We're just giving him some help, right? Better he learn it now then figure out six months down the line that it's not going to work."
Alan's laugh rang out again in the dark corridor. "Yep. And besides, who can pass up the chance to play a joke on good 'ole-"
Jeff later regretted approaching so quickly, for his presence was noticed by the boys before Alan finished his sentence.
"Hi Father!" The pair said in sudden unison, turning as one so that they faced their parent. Gordon, bright faced as ever, showed no sign of having just been in the midst of plotting something. Alan, however, having a much worse poker face than his brother, looked distinctly nervous.
"Looking for something, boys?" Jeff asked, raising an eyebrow.
"No sir," Gordon replied, smiling sweetly. "Just discussing something."
"Anything important?" It couldn't hurt to try again, Jeff thought, especially given that Gordon was now giving him the innocent eyes that he generally employed when he was trying to get away with something. He might have a decent poker face, but the predictability of his actions was starting to give him away.
Like a man who folds every time after two draws . . .
Gordon looked over to Alan, who quickly put in his own, "No sir."
Jeff raised his eyebrow again, but decided not to push the topic. There was one thing he had learned from raising five boys, and that generally the others could defend themselves just as well as their siblings could terrorize them. "All right, then. Stay out of trouble."
Grinning, Gordon and Alan left the scene very quickly, sprinting down the hallway without bothering to turn the lights on.
Jeff sighed and wondered what his house was coming to. He also hoped, as he set his hand on the door to the lab, that he wasn't about to become the brunt of a carefully planned prank. He had had enough of those from his younger sons to last him a life-time.
Having heard Tin-Tin's report on the goings on in the rest of the house, Scott was left shaking his head at his younger brothers. "I can't believe them. Isn't anything sacred anymore?"
"Ten minutes ago you were saying that John was crazy," Virgil noted. The stockier man sat on a chair adjacent to the couch, his eyes focused on the ceiling as if he were studying the patterns carved in the plaster. "Besides, we have no idea what Gordon is doing. He might be planning nothing."
"Gordon? Are you kidding?" Scott knew his younger brothers too well to even consider that. "He's probably already hatched a plan and has it in motion."
"But what could he do to John? He's out of our reach right now. The only way to get to him is by taking Thunderbird Three, and we can surely check the cargo before we take it up next time. If Gordon sends anything we'll just bag it before it ever gets on board."
That was Virgil, always offering good solid advice. Scott nodded at Virgil, then tipped his head in Tin-Tin's direction. "Watch Alan, see if he does anything."
"I will," she promised, "I wouldn't want to see poor John disturbed."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," Scott snorted, "I think we're too late to stop that from happening." He shrugged when Virgil glanced in his direction. "But we're trying to keep this a secret, so let's try not to get Dad involved. He worries about John enough as it is to have to worry about this. Better to keep it under wraps."
"Oh!" Tin-Tin exclaimed suddenly, her attention drawn elsewhere. "Virgil, what a lovely painting! What do you call it?"
"I haven't given it a name yet," he replied, his gaze suddenly on his feet. "I'm not too sure how to name an abstract work."
Scott gave the piece another quick appraisal. "I don't know if we can help you there, Virge. I guess you'll have to wait until inspiration strikes you."
"Yeah." Virgil shook his head. "I suppose it'll have to wait."
"Anyway, in the meanwhile let's act as though nothing is going on." Scott slapped his knee for emphasis. "Supplies aren't going up to Five for six days, so we have until then to figure out what's going on and try and keep it all under Dad's nose."
The last bit, he thought sardonically, was going to be the difficult part.
For six days Alan and Gordon managed to keep an incredibly low profile on the island. Not only was Scott annoyed to see that they were behaving themselves, but on several occasions the two younger men even offered to help out with some odds and ends around the island.
Watching the ongoing cold-war from a distance, Virgil had commented rather sardonically as he had pushed a pile of wind tossed leaves from the pool deck, "If we knew this would get them helping to do the yard work, I would have let them pie me weeks ago."
And so it went, until the family leader, still apparently oblivious to the entire ordeal, ordered for supplies to be sent up to the space station. It had, after all, been two weeks, and John was expecting some cargo.
Six days had passed, and they had found absolutely nothing.
"I can't believe those two," Virgil commented from over a stack of boxes. Bending over, he took a crate in his arms, breathed in deep, and lifted it to chest height.
"I know, I've never seen a more perfect pair of angels in my life." Following suit, Scott grabbed a box of his own and proceeded to trail Virgil into Thunderbird Three's hanger. The cargo was being placed on a lift pad below the ship, waiting to be taken into the main hold. Several dozen metal crates already sat there - several dozen that had been carefully checked over by Scott and Virgil both.
"What bothers me," Virgil said in between grunts as he lowered his cargo, "is how they've managed to disguise it this time. Normally someone is willing to rat them out. I mean, Tin-Tin did come to talk to us."
"They must be getting smarter," replied Scott, thinking to himself that that wasn't necessarily a comforting thought. "Great, now we can look forward to more pranks from random directions." Dropping what he carried, Scott surveyed the bay and nodded. "That looks like everything."
Both heads turned as Brains Hackenbacker came running into the room, his face flushed as though he had run all the way from his lab. The man's spectacles were skewed on his face, and he waved a large disk around in his hand.
"T-t-t-this is for John," Brains said finally when he arrived at the lift. He handed the disk to Scott, who - after giving it a quick glance - deposited it in a pocket.
Since the launch was only for delivering cargo and not crew, Scott and Virgil had convinced their father to allow them to be the ones to pilot the ship. There was no taking chances; if Alan was in charge, then it would be easy for him to slip something up on the station while he was up there.
"All right," Scott replied. "Want me to tell him anything?"
"J-j-just to have a look at it. He'll k-k-know what it is."
Scott looked sideways to where Virgil stood, catching his brother's eye. He had a feeling that Virgil was thinking the same thing as him. There was no need to be suspicious of Brains. Gordon and Alan had pulled enough jokes on the engineer that he doubted Brains would ever go along with one of their pranks. And since Gordon and Alan combined had about enough skill with programming to program a toaster, he doubted that they could have tampered with the disk.
Satisfied, he nodded to Virgil and said, "All right, let's pack it up. Johnny's waiting for his lunch, and we don't want to keep him waiting."
Six days passed too slow in John's mind, at least when he was waiting for something. Ever since he had called down to the island he had been anxious to get his hands on the books that Scott promised he would procure for him. Computer dictionaries only went so far to teach language, and John was looking forward to making some good solid progress with actual teaching manuals.
Now, though, he was left waiting as Thunderbird Three made its final docking adjustments. He could see the ship out the view port, its trio of particle accelerators still glowing with magnetized plasma. Thunderbird Five shuddered briefly, and a light came on up on the control panel to show that the ships were in contact and that the airlock had been activated.
Unable to contain a grin, John quickly opened the hatch at his end. There was a whoosh as the air pressure stabilized, and he saw his two older brothers appear in the mist caused by the normalization.
"Good to see you guys!" John said, reaching a hand out to help Virgil balance as the big man deposited a large box on the floor inside the habitation ring. Scott followed suit, setting down his own box before going back to grab more.
"Everything been okay up here?" Virgil asked when he returned with another load. "It's been pretty quiet lately."
"It's been great," John lied, not wanting to bother his brothers with his own anxiety. They worried about him enough without being made to feel guilty over the wait for the supply run. "Everything's been great."
Scott, having finally re-entered the room, raised an eyebrow, and handed John a box. The blond took it, nearly dropping it when he discovered how heavy it was.
"Books?" Gasping, John stumbled over to a nearby table and tossed the cargo onto the table's surface. "It has to be."
"Sure you're not just out of shape?" Scott's blue eyes danced with amusement. "Grandma keeps saying that you look more and more like a string bean every time she sees you."
"Sure you're not confusing out of shape with natural litheness?" John bantered back casually, raising an eyebrow. "Seems to me that you have the two mixed up." He grinned when Scott's happy expression faded to one of disappointment. "Don't try to get me, Scott. I know what you're up to!"
For a reason that John couldn't determine, his brothers both turned to each other and shared a concerned look. Neither elaborated on it, however. In fact, neither even acknowledged its brief existence.
"Yeah, I can't pull one over your eyes, Johnny," Scott said finally, a grin returning to his face. "Anyway," he glanced to the boxes, "everything that you wanted should be in these."
"All of them?"
"As many as we could get," Virgil put in.
"We thought we'd start you off slowly," the older boy continued, rather sardonically. "Only a few languages this time. French, as you requested-"
"Merci!" John couldn't help it.
"Some Mandarin and Cantonese for the poor Chinese souls that we rescued earlier . . ."
"And some Russian." Scott arched an eyebrow at John, then snorted when his brother was unable to come up with a suitable response in that tongue. "Ah, there we go. I was wondering, after hearing your previous trained responses, if the books were needed at all."
John, fighting a sudden flushing on his cheeks, gave his brother a light punch to the arm and began to move the books away from the airlock towards the centre of the command room. "Yeah, yeah. Well, just wait. I'll have that Russian for you yet!" He winked at Scott, much to the older man's dismay, who was still busy rubbing at his arm with a distasteful look.
"You never give up." The words were spoken under Scott's breath, but they didn't escape detection by the trained hearing of the space monitor.
"No, I don't," John said simply. He smiled and shrugged. "Thanks for the cargo. I'll see you in a week, I guess. Have a nice day!" He tossed a second wink in Virgil's direction - who simply grinned and nodded - then turned towards the command centre.
Thinking that he had managed to one-up Scott enough that the older man would consider himself defeated, John was surprised to hear his brother speak again.
As the blond turned around, Scott pulled something from a pocket of the blue uniform and tossed it to John. The astronomer caught it nimbly in his hands, turning the disk over so that he could clearly see its non-descript surface.
"It's from Brains. He said you'd know what it is."
"Ah." Looking at the disk, John couldn't remember having asked Brains for anything recently. Then again, Brains didn't always deliver goods immediately, so it very well could have been something that he had asked for months ago and had forgotten about. Shrugging, he set it down gently on the edge of the nearest table. "Okay. Tell him thanks for me!"
Scott nodded, then he looked to Virgil again with the same expression of fleeting worry that he had had minutes before. "If you need anything else," he said finally, his words at John and his eyes on Virgil, "just let us know."
If he didn't know better, John was sure that something was going on that they knew about that he didn't. But, being so removed on the space station, he quickly pushed it from his mind. If there wasn't something in his immediate area that could give him trouble - and they hadn't mentioned anything of the sort - then it was likely that one of his younger brothers was simply pulling pranks on the island again and Scott and Virgil were unsure of what to do about it.
Maybe, John thought, they were even considering asking for his help. Keeping that thought in mind, he waved a hand in Scott's direction and said, "Uh-huh. You know where you can find me if you want to talk."
Whether the words were the right ones John didn't know. Scott however, seemed to be satisfied with them, because he looked at Virgil, nodded in the direction of the air lock, and began to move that way.
"All right, John. We'll see you in a week."
Virgil also nodded and said, "Right, John. See you."
"Sure thing." He gave a second wave at his brothers, who were now in the compartment, then cued a switch on a nearby control board. The air-lock door rolled shut and secured itself with a heavy thud.
John could see his brothers behind the glass as they made their way to Thunderbird Three. Soon the airlock was completely empty, and the station was once again shuddering as the massive rocket pulled away from the docking port into the blackness of space. A dark red colour flashed by the window as it streaked by, on course for a landing back in the South Pacific.
He stood several moments before he moved, a trace of a smile still on his face as he watched his family depart him again for the little jewel of a planet below. He could never tell them to their face - it would hurt too much to say it - but he truly appreciated the time that he could spend with them in person. As much as space was beautiful, and the view he had of the planet below even more so, it was also very empty.
"One week until down time," he finally muttered, turning his attention away from the swirling ball of water, land, and clouds, to the boxes that sat on the floor before him. One of them, a plain cardboard container in comparison to the many steel crates that surrounded it, had a corner lifted just enough that he could see the edge of a book peeking out from inside. It was certainly tempting.
T-minus seven days and counting; it was time to get started.
Three days later found John Tracy, nose in book, seated cross-legged on a chair in front of the sprawling panoramic windows of Thunderbird Five. He was in uniform, but he had casually discarded his hat to the corner of a table, placing it alongside a growing stack of books that had been pulled from various crates. His blue eyes darted back and forth across the page he was on, following words to translations and back again until his mind began to swim with the endless possibilities.
"Scott que . . ." Struggling to find the right word, he flipped several pages in the book until he found what he was looking for. Grinning, he mouthed the phrase over several times until it stuck, then closed the book with a snap. "That should be good enough to have him thinking for several days until he figures of what it is." Setting the Mandarin dictionary down on his knee, he gave a large stretch and glanced out the window. The terminator was beginning to settle over the pacific ocean, and he knew it wouldn't be long before his family back home turned in for the night.
It was probably time for him to crawl into bed himself; he had spent most of his day - which had been quiet, due to a lack of serious rescue calls - in a near yoga position on the chair, trying to decipher some Mandarin. The day before he had busied himself with some Russian, and the day before that it had been French. Mandarin wasn't proving too difficult - the verbal language was simpler than English - but he had had more difficulty with French than he had been expecting. There was something about learning a language as complex as English that made his head swim.
Checking his watch and seeing that it was quickly approaching eleven o'clock, John decided that he had had enough for the night. Standing up from the chair, he groaned as the forgotten dictionary on his leg slid and hit the floor with a thump.
"Damn." Shaking his head at his carelessness, John bent down, picked it up, and moved to set it down on the table along with the rest of its companions. In doing so, he noticed something that had completely escaped his attention.
"Well, look at this," he muttered, leaving the book and reaching for the blue disk that Scott had brought with the rest of the supplies. "I'd forgotten about you." He glanced at it again, then shrugged. He hadn't thought about it since he had set it down on the table, and he was no further along the path of figuring out what was on it.
Eleven o'clock. Checking his watch again, John decided that he owed it to Brains to at least have a look at what he had sent. Three days was a long time to wait, and if the engineer had been wanting to hear back about the state of whatever was on it . . .
The disk fit into the computer slot nicely, clicking as the mechanism fell into place and the Thunderbird mainframes began to access its contents. It whirred for several minutes until John realized that it would likely be several more minutes in loading. He quickly dragged his chair over to the terminal and sat down in it, gazing up at the blank monitor screen in the hopes that something would eventually appear on it.
As time passed, irritation began to build in him. It wasn't like Brains to design something so inefficient. Either the program - or whatever it was - had somehow been corrupted by the flight up, or it was of monstrous proportions.
Seconds passed, then minutes, during which John found his gaze drifting towards the view port again. A dark shadow was beginning to drift over the ocean, casting its residents into the darkness of night. The subtle transition was hypnotic, and he found his eyelids drifting closed to the gentle sway of the shadow and the soft glow of aurora australis that was beginning to manifest over the southern pole.
He didn't even register the soft female voice at first. It seemed to blend in with the atmosphere of the planet. Giving it only a brief thought, he closed his eyes completely with the thought that he would maybe look at it in the morning again.
When his attention didn't waver, the program seemed to grow agitated. Instead of remaining benign, it looped and restated, "Transfer complete," in a louder and more pressing voice.
He sighed. Maybe it was like a car and would tire of creating noise after so many protests.
That was enough to shake John from his self-induced coma. Bolting upright in the chair, he landed hard on the control panel of the computer and swore loudly as his head connected with a set of switches. Rubbing his quickly bruising forehead, he shook his head once to try and clear the sleep from it, then looked towards the computer screen. Sure enough, printed in bright green letters, were the words, 'Transfer complete'.
"I'll be . . . finally. Took long enough." Clearing his throat, he continued, "Five, what is the status of the program?"
Much later on John was able to determine that the program had been arranged to activate once it heard his voice. At the time, however, its reaction seemed both rude and abrupt.
"Commande ne pas comprendre. Redites svp."
Blinking, John thought for a moment that he was still asleep. Never, in his entire time aboard the ship, had the computer ever responded to him in French. He was thankful that he even knew it was French; apparently his time working on the language hadn't been wasted.
Command not understood . . . please restate . . .
"What in blazes . . ." Suddenly very awake, John leaned forward again in his seat and tried to run a basic command into the system. He cued in a few key strokes, then waited patiently. Nothing happened.
That was very strange. Very, very strange. The computer was designed to respond to queries in C+ or a similar form of code, when in fact it seemed to be doing nothing of the sort at the moment. It was almost as if something had . . .
As if something had disabled that part of the database, John thought suddenly, his mind turning back to the innocent little blue disk that was still merrily whirring away inside his computer. It was almost if . . .
"Okay," he said, an idea coming to mind. If his hunch was right, then all he had to do was grab his French dictionary from the table, flip through it until he found the proper phrasing, and then tell the computer exactly what it needed to do. Once he had that finished, he repeated, with careful enunciation, his earlier query.
"Okay. Cinq, ce qui est le statut du programme?"
"Le programme fonctionne," responded Five immediately.
So it is working, John thought, just as it's programmed to. It was just as he thought; something weird was going on. The program wasn't just something that Brains had been working on for him. Somehow or another it seemed to have switched the working language of the mainframe from English to French without asking for his authorization.
"That's easily remedied," he said, cracking his knuckles in preparation for some heavy typing. The mainframe might have flip flopped tongues, but the layout was still the same. At least, it appeared to be at the moment. He couldn't read the languages, but he knew where to click to find what he was looking for.
With the help of the dictionary and his own knowledge of the computer, John was able to navigate the menus until the found the section detailing the computer databases. Sure enough, he saw that the French language base had been swapped with the English one. Only, when he moved to switch them back, the screen suddenly flashed and he found himself -
Back where he had started. The main menu screen glared at him in bright green text from the monitor.
Biting his bottom lip, John moved to start the procedure over again but was stopped dead when he realized that the menu now looked different.
"What the . . ."
The computer bleeped as if in response.
Remembering that it would only respond in French, he muttered, "Cinq . . ."
Just as quickly it chimed in a mechanical drone, "Befehl nicht verstehen. Stellen Sie bitte erneut dar."
John blinked once, then again, at the text that was flashing in front of him on the screen in co-ordination with the spoken voice. It was certainly not French this time. In fact, he was very sure that it wasn't a language that he had even looked at up to that point.
"Computer . . ."
"Befehl nicht verstehen. Stellen Sie bitte erneut dar."
Sinking backwards in his chair, John felt suddenly deflated. The program, or whatever it was that Brains had sent him, seemed to see fit to change the language databases about randomly in the computer mainframes whenever he tried to fix the problem. It wasn't a program, even, but more of a virus designed to irritate him and thwart any attempts that he made to end the problem.
At a loss for ideas, John absently reached for the case that the disk had come in. He flipped open the blue packet - the same colour as the disk itself - and turned it upside down. The shake sent a tiny sheet of paper fluttering down into his palm.
There, on the paper, was a brief note scrawled in loopy and messy handwriting that was, thankfully, written in a language that he could understand.
Your brother asked me if I could work up this program for you; he said you wanted some extra practice using languages. I hope it's what you were looking for. He was very specific in his instructions.
John started at the note, the dotted i's seeming to stare back at him from the stark white paper like little pinprick eyes.
English he could understand, and quite well at that. There was no escaping the hard facts that lay before him written out on the paper.
Brains had stated quite clearly that one of his brothers had given him the request, though John had not asked Scott to talk to the engineer about anything of the sort. In fact, Scott and Virgil had both held up their end of the bargain and had brought him the books that he had wanted with no second thought on the matter.
The image of his red-headed brother jumped into John's mind at that moment, clearly as any of the writing on the computer monitor. Gordon could never resist playing a joke on his brothers, and he always was the first to complain that John was, sadly, out of reach of his pranks most of the time.
He had no idea how his brother had found out, but John had a hunch that the rogue program that was tearing about his computer was a devious little prank designed by his younger brother to frustrate him.
What hurt more than that realization was the second realization that Gordon had in fact succeeded. John was more than ready to unplug the entire system, rip out the databases, and try and start over from scratch. He had no idea where to start beyond that, let alone any idea as to whether or not the program could even be removed without some special command key or another.
That was probably it, he thought with a trace of anger. Gordon wanted him to try and call the island and ask for help. He'd have to call Brains and ask for the command code himself, as if he had either forgotten it or if he couldn't make it work. It would be admitting defeat.
That's what Gordon wanted.
He wanted him to give up.
That settled it.
There was one thing in the world that the Tracy family feared, and that was one of their number when they were angry. John was angry. Quite angry at that point. And most of his frustration was attached to a little glitch that was making his work hell.
"Okay," he said simply, throwing the disk packet to the side. "Fine. I'll play your games."
"Befehl nicht verstehen. Stellen Sie bitte erneut dar," said the computer again.
He wasn't about to be deterred by a little bugger of a young brother who thought he could make a joke out of his older brother's very serious venture. Not if John had anything to say about it. No, if at all possible, he was going to make use of the damn program to do the very thing that was supposed to frustrate him in the first place.
He was going to figure out what it was saying, in every language that it threw at him, until it either decided to stop or -
"Datumanzeige: Sie sollen für Ihren Vater um 10 Uhr morgen früh übersetzen."
That was different than the last gibberish it had served up. Confused, John looked at the monitor screen and noticed that a date reminder had popped up. The language might be unintelligible, but the format of the reminder was the same. It was in a different spot on the screen than normal - which suggested to him that the program was not only corrupting the language databases but also the menu format ones as well - but it was easily recognizable.
"What did I . . ." And then it occurred to him what the computer was reminding him of. "Oh no. No, no, no."
He wondered, then, if the translation problems that were plaguing him would also affect the incoming communications as well. If the language settings had been altered, then all incoming communications would be effectively translated into something very different from English.
When it came time for him to translate for his father's business meeting the next morning, it would prove to be more than a bit of a problem.
I'll bet that he had no idea I had to do this when he sent this to me. Father will kill him if he finds out what he's done.
Whether Gordon had known, however, didn't change the fact that John had just happened to initialize the practical joke at the exact moment when he definitely did not want to deal with it.
And whether or not Gordon had intended it to happen, John knew that his brother had succeeded in accidentally making his brother's life a thousand times more frustrating than he could possibly have dreamed.
Because John Tracy was not going to be deterred; in fact, the sudden deadline imposed on him made his work seem that much more urgent. He wasn't going to give his brother the time of day by calling down and pleading - for he didn't know what the translators would do to an outgoing transmission - for some form of help. No, he was going to pretend that nothing had happened. He was going to be ready in the morning for that meeting one way or another.
That thought, that decision, instantly snapped his mind into work mode. It was no longer a personal matter; instead, the events of the night unfolded clearly in his mind just as they normally did when he was working with a tough rescue situation. The many variables, the constants, all floated about until he was able to settle on a course of action.
First thing - identify the language at hand.
"German," he decided, looking over the letters and noting the various variations in the script. "I think."
Second thing - find the appropriate dictionary.
That was easy, for it was the next in the pile. Taking it in hand, John flipped to the first page and prepared for a long night.
Third thing - brew some coffee.
Deciding that the computer could wait for a few more minutes, he pushed any remaining sensation of sleep aside and trotted off to the kitchen to try and find some caffeine. With any luck, he would be able to sort the problem out by morning. Gordon was good as far as jokes went, and Brains was by no means an incompetent engineer . . .
Fourth thing - set the plan into action.
. . . But Five was his ship, and he knew how she worked. No one, no matter how skilled they were, could mess around with her and get away with it.
Fifth thing -
The most important of all, which could be left until later . . . but would not be forgotten, since a part of his brain had absently identified and labelled it as the so-called Troublesome Event Number Two that he had been thinking about earlier in the day.
Get back at Gordon.
The early morning sun greeted Gordon as he walked out onto the pool deck, swimsuit donned and towel at hand. A crisp pacific breeze drifted across the concrete, ruffling his hair and sending the palm leaves rustling about. The effect was calming and was one of the reasons that Gordon preferred to run his laps before the other members of his family were finished breakfast. Silence was hard to come by in the household and he enjoyed being able to practice his strokes without being disturbed.
He was just getting ready to jump in, having already tested the water temperature with his toes, when the sudden blaring beep of his watch startled him. Groaning, Gordon walked back over to where he had dropped his dry supplies and fished around in his bag until he found the wrist-comm.
"Gordon here," he said, flipping the device on. It crackled briefly, then lit up.
"Gordon!" Alan's white blond hair practically glowed on the screen. "Gordon, we've got a problem."
"Yeah?" Shifting around impatiently on the pool deck, Gordon ran his free hand through his hair in an attempt to keep the wind from knocking ginger-coloured bangs into his eyes. "With what?"
"The signal went off!"
Well, that wasn't much of a problem, Gordon thought. One of the things that he had requested of Brains was for the language program to be fitted with a code line that would set off a private alert at the island if it was used. In fact, if the alert had gone off, that meant that John was probably having kittens trying to figure out what was wrong with his computer.
Gordon tried to suppress a grin and failed. "All right! He fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. I told you . . . it's definitely possible to fool John, you just have to go about it in the right way." When Alan's expression failed to clear up, Gordon asked, "What's the problem?"
If it was possible, Alan became even more miserable looking than he had been before. "I think it went off this morning."
"Isn't there some sort of time reference? Do you know when he turned it on?"
"No!" Alan groaned. "That's the problem. The alert came on, and I have no idea when it was set off."
"Whatever." Unconcerned, Gordon snorted and began to trundle back towards the pool. "Let it run. It's only set to function for something like six hours as it is." He depressed a button on the watch, checked the time, then flipped back to the audio video setting. "Heck, it's already seven o'clock. It'll be done by this afternoon sometime, if John doesn't crack and call in earlier."
"Man, I can't wait to see his face. He's just going to be livid!"
"So is Father," Alan blurted loudly.
Gordon stopped where he stood, all merriment leaving his face. He could take John's anger, because it would be more than offset by the joke itself and all the wonderful hilarity that it had probably caused. His father, however . . .
He had learned the hard way, as a child, that the one person in the family that he didn't mess around with was their father. Having no idea as to how he had angered the older man made the situation seem that much more perilous.
"What do you mean, Father is angry?"
"He's not yet, but he's going to be."
"Why?" Gordon asked, not really wanting to know the answer.
"Because I heard him talking to Scott not even ten minutes ago, and he was telling Scott that John was going to translate for him at a meeting this morning! They were talking about it over coffee!"
That took the wind right out of his sails and all of the fun out of the situation. Deflated and wondering how things had gone so wrong, Gordon trudged back to the table on the deck and flopped down hard in a lawn chair. "You're kidding me."
"No, he's expecting him to be ready at ten. That's three hours from now."
That was very, very bad. "And he can't get anyone else to do it?"
"No, he's running it from home here. John was supposed to translate via radio over Thunderbird Five's network. This is a big deal to him; it could be worth millions for the company."
Gordon cringed as a chill ran all the way from his head down to his feet. "Great. I guess we have to go tell him."
Painful as it was to say, Gordon muttered, "John," turned the watch off, then began to make his way back up to the house.
Well planned jokes ran their course and only involved retaliation from the victim after the fact, if at all. Decent jokes at least still managed to draw a laugh from those watching, even if the general premise of it failed to take hold. Bad jokes, however . . .
This was turning into a very bad one indeed, Gordon decided. He just hoped that he and Alan could rectify the situation before their father decided to give the both of them a good hard swat about the head.
There was a point where physical exhaustion went beyond the realm of human understanding. Eyes blood shot, limbs sore and tired, brain completely fried, John was surprised that he was even capable of making that observation himself. No matter how long he stayed up on the space station, no matter how many night shifts he had to pull when rescues were in need of supervision, he could never seem to adjust to all-nighters.
Groaning, he reached a hand to the computer and adjusted the lighting level in the command room. When the only light left was the glow of the monitor, he sighed, let go of the dial, and let his hand fall back to his lap. Caffeine only went so far towards keeping him awake. He didn't even want to think about the meeting that he was going to have to work through later that morning.
It was a good two and a half hours at least until ten o'clock, however, and he planned on catching at least some rest before that point. Having enough energy to simply groan again and turn sideways in the chair, he had no plan of moving from that spot. The chair would do. It was better than the floor, which he supposed was even better than trying to sleep while standing.
Drowsily, John closed his eyes again and muttered, "I'm going to kill Gordon when I see him."
That thought - that he was going to get very sweet revenge on his brother when he was finally able to stand - brought a tired smile to his face. The red-head had no idea what was coming his way. Oh, he could sit down on the island and wonder what had happened all he wanted; John wasn't about to even mention it. No, his revenge would be silent, swift, and -
"Tracy Island to Thunderbird Five!"
Troublesome Event Number Three, chirped a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like the station's computer. The sudden intrusion in his thoughts almost brought tears to the astronomer's eyes. It just wasn't fair.
Rolling onto his back, John let his head rest against the back of the chair for several moments until he had gained some measure of composure. He knew he looked like hell - though, thankfully, five o'clock shadow wasn't quite as noticeable with his blond hair.
He didn't plan on sounding like it, though. No, if at all possible, he was going to give the illusion of complete calm and control. He couldn't change the way he looked, but he could try to control the way he acted.
"John, are you there?"
"John!" A second voice jumped in, a high tenor that John knew well. "Please, we need to talk to you! Now!"
Even in his state, John was able to discern what was going on from the panic in his brothers' normally jovial voice. Sure enough, his guess was confirmed when Gordon sighed and continued.
"John, we need to tell you something. Please."
So, John thought, taking his time in order to wake up properly, now you're in trouble? He didn't know what was up specifically, but he had a feeling that Gordon had discovered his joke had gone awry. That had to be it.
"John, if you used that disk, you need to talk to us."
Ah ha, he thought. Sighing, John gave a long hard stretch in the air that cracked several vertebrae in his back. Finally deciding that he should talk to his brother, out of concern that Gordon might give himself a haemorrhage if he didn't, he took his coffee in his hand - no matter that it was cold - and activated the video system.
Gordon and Alan appeared immediately on the screen, Alan still in his sleeping clothes and Gordon decked out in a swimsuit. John wasn't sure how they had known he had run the program, but he was under the impression that they thought it was still running. They likely wouldn't have taken the time out to call him so early in the morning, otherwise.
He decided to play it stupid.
Blinking, John gave Gordon a confused look and said absolutely nothing in response.
"It's the disk!" Gordon said again, a touch of panic lacing his voice. "It was supposed to be a joke."
Really, John thought sardonically. I would never have known.
"But it's not set to stop for six hours, and that's not going to be soon enough before Father's meeting."
Ah. That explained it. Grinning inwardly, John evaluated his options. They really thought the program was still running. They thought they were going to get in trouble for disrupting their father's teleconference.
Let them think that.
Smiling, John, in his best Japanese, replied, "Ah, so that's what this is."
The looks on his brother's faces were nothing short of hilarious. Both paled considerably, and as they turned to look at each other John noted that Alan seemed to be sweating slightly around the hair line.
"We're dead," the younger boy said, his voice quiet. "Oh man, Father's going to kill us. Forget about John. We're going to be massacred by the Old Man!"
"Wait, we still have the verbal password."
He lifted a blond eyebrow.Password? There was a verbal password worked into the program? Oh, now you're really going to get it. So it was not only timed, but it was protected by a simple password? I wasted all that time trying to find a hidden command line when it was just a simple verbal . . .
"John," Gordon said, leaning in close to the telemonitor on their father's desk, "there's a voice password to turn off the program. You know, in case of an emergency."
How nice to find that out now, Gordon. The fact that there had indeed been a fail-safe in the case of a real emergency did nothing to ease his annoyance. In fact, it exemplified it, because if he had known that from the start . . .
Gordon was so very predictable with his passwords that John was mouthing along as his brother told him what it was.
As carefully as he could, Gordon said, "Yellow submarine!" with sharp and delicate enunciation.
That was just too easy, John thought, deciding he had every right to play the situation up for what it was worth. He knew that Gordon and Alan spoke enough Japanese to order a bowl of noodles at an American-based Asian food chain; they were hardly capable of understanding a full conversation. He had considered using Spanish at first, but given that the two younger men had been exposed to it in school he didn't want to take the chance that they would actually understand him.
Not with what he planned on saying, anyway.
Bringing a confused expression to his face, John continued to play stupid. He shrugged at his brother and said, still in Japanese, "Gordon, you're an idiot. A complete and total asshole."
It was all facial expressions, he thought. That, and mannerisms. With the proper smile and confusion, John was sure that Gordon had absolutely no idea what he had just said.
Sure enough, the younger man's face fell and he turned to his brother. "Alan, I think it's translating it the other way as well."
"Isn't that Japanese, though?" Alan asked with a trace of confusion of his own. "Doesn't John speak Japanese?"
He hadn't thought of that. Internally smacking himself, John crossed his fingers behind his back and hoped that they wouldn't jump on that and see through his ploy.
They didn't, and were apparently still too worried to think on it further.
"Maybe it's using a different one that way," Gordon offered quickly. "That's got to be it. We're hearing Japanese, he's hearing something else! Wait, let's try this." The red-head reached off screen briefly, then brought a pen and a pad of paper onto the screen. John could see his father's name scrawled across the top of the Tracy Industries letterhead in blue ink.
Taking the lid off the pen, Gordon hurriedly wrote something onto the paper. Alan inspected it, nodded, then Gordon held it up to the screen.
'The password is Yellow Submarine.'
John found it hard to hold back a snort; he managed to do that, however, and keep a straight face at the same time. He studied the paper intently, even transcribed the words onto his own sheet of paper, then turned towards the computer. He counted internally to ten, then turned back, a disgruntled expression on his face.
"Gordon, you do realize that that's the most obvious password in the world, right?" He was glad that Gordon wouldn't actually be able to respond to the remark, because a part of John's gut that was having a nice meal of crow was ready to say, But you didn't think there would even be a verbal password, did you?
The red-head buried his head in his hands. Apparently his brother's expression was again more than enough to do him in. "Alan, it's not working! He's still talking in Japanese!"
"What? It's supposed to!" Pushing Gordon out of the way, Alan took over the entire video screen. "John! It's a password. A. Password."
Now you're being insulting, the space monitor decided. Just darn insulting. "Really, Alan? I'm really impressed that you knew that!"
"You put it into the computer! The. Computer! Speak English, John!"
For some reason that John didn't fully understand, his younger brothers seemed to be under the impression that talking louder would somehow magically fixed the apparently mangled databases. With the right decibel level John wasn't sure what would happen to the circuits, but with the amount of noise that his brothers were producing, all he was getting from it was an even worse headache than he already had.
He checked his watch, briefly, noting that the time was quickly approaching eight o'clock. With any luck, their father would be coming into his study soon for his morning routine and would nip the entire mess in the bud. First things first, though. He had to make sure that Alan and Gordon were ready.
He'd give them a real taste of their own medicine.
"Password, John, password!" They shouted in unison, quite desperate to right the situation before an authority figure entered the room.
Choosing his words carefully, with a hope that they would catch at least some of them, John replied, "I understand exactly what you're saying, you idiots."
Alan and Gordon shut up immediately, their eyes growing wide.
"He's speaking Spanish!" Alan said. "I know Spanish!"
"Great, what's he saying then?"
"Uh . . ."
John turned away briefly to hide a snicker.
"Something about . . . understanding us . . . maybe . . ."
Not as easy as it looks, is it? Especially when you're following a moving target!
"Uhm . . ." Alan yelped as Gordon gave him a hard swat across the back of the head. "What was that all about?"
"Think! I'm knocking your brain back in place in case it's out for lunch!"
"It's not my fault that I can't speak Spanish well enough!" Alan exploded, his expression changing to one of immature frustration that John had seem many, many times before. "I think he said he can understand us now! I don't see what the problem is!"
"Well, if he can understand us, then tell him to fix it!"
"But it's not working!"
"The program. Maybe it won't disengage . . ."
John watched the colourful banter patiently, quite thankful that he was several hundred kilometres removed from the whirlwind. He glanced at his watch again to check the time and was amused to see both Alan and Gordon noting his gesture.
"Alan, Father's going to be down soon!" Gordon hissed. "Go get Brains!"
"To do what? He can't fix it from here! Besides, this is all your fault!"
John thought he might have to put an end to it all when Gordon took his brother by the cuff of his shirt and set to punch him. Verbal abuse he could stand, but he didn't want to be held responsible for a bloody nose. Then again-
He was saved from intervening when the door to the lounge opened and his father and remaining brothers walked in.
Letting go of Alan immediately, Gordon sank low into his seat and focused his attention on the floor. Alan did the same, as if hoping that the problem would disappear if it were ignored. Both were paler in the face than ever.
Inquisitive brown eyes caught sight of the activated portrait feed, and Jeff Tracy's face lit up. "John! I'm glad to see that you're awake."
Gordon cringed as if in anticipation of what was going to come next.
"Just practicing my Japanese, Father," John said innocently and in perfect English, keeping the same smile on his face that he had managed to maintain since he had been woken up. Maybe the coffee was still working . . . he didn't feel it, but at least he looked awake.
"That's good to hear!" Jeff replied, walking swiftly towards his desk. He nearly ran into Gordon, who was looking up at his older brother with a confused expression. "Sorry son, I didn't see you there." He glanced around, noticing that all of his children were present in the room in some fashion or another. "Alan, you're here too! Is there something going on?" He raised an eyebrow.
John waited for a few seconds before responding. The looks that were flitting across his younger brothers' faces were just too good to miss. Besides, he planned on ending the joke here and now, and he had no intention of letting that last little bit of sweet justice slip away from him.
"They've been a huge help, Father," he finally said, catching half his father's gaze and half of Gordon's and Alan's. "They've been helping me work on my Japanese." His next words were chosen very carefully so as to convey the maximum amount of meaning possible. "It's always nice to have something that lets me practice in real time. Sometimes books just don't cut it." And then, very quickly, he gave a quick wink in the direction of the culprits.
He had a distinct feeling, watching his father's gaze focus briefly on the two pranksters, that Jeff Tracy hadn't had the wool pulled over his eyes. Neither had Virgil or Scott, who were shifting uncomfortably where they stood; maybe they had even known about the joke and hadn't told him. That would make interesting conversational material later on.
"All right, John," Jeff finally said, his eyes twinkling. "Alan, Gordon, it's good to see you helping out your brother."
Looking at each other, the two finally managed a dull and almost inaudible, "Yes, sir."
"That's good, then. Boys, if you two could leave us, I need to talk to your brothers. Alone." He gave a quick head nod in the direction of the door. "I think Tin-Tin is helping Grandma bake up some cookies in the kitchen-" He needn't have finished his sentence, for Alan and Gordon were already halfway to the door, apparently not upset in the least that they had been excused.
It was a surprising yet welcome fact that tact ran very deep in the Tracy bloodline. Reacting with little more than a chuckle at his sons' quick exit, Jeff turned back to the portrait and smiled at John. "Well then, I suppose we should get started. I want to make sure that you're completely prepped before the meeting commences. It's no use having you jump around in the dark. I know that I've already sent you some material, but I want you to make sure that you know exactly what is going on."
"That," John replied, thankful that someone finally thought the same as him, "would be wonderful."
"So you knew, then? The whole time you were up on the station you knew?"
"No!" Scott sighed and caught John's gaze out of the corner of his eye. He once again found himself not only sitting on the couch in the lounge, but trying to convince his younger brother of something that he didn't seem to want to believe. "Of course not! If we had known, then we would have told you. End of story."
The blond snorted and shook his head, knocking his blue hat slightly askew. "You could have told me that something was up," he said, righting his head gear with a flick of a wrist. "I deserved that at least."
"No, because then you would have completely panicked!" Ignoring John's annoyed expression, Scott turned to Virgil, who nodded in agreement from behind his canvas. The engineer was still working on his painting, as he claimed that it needed some 'fine-tuning' before it was complete. "Think about it, John. What could be worse than knowing someone has pulled a joke on you but having no idea what the joke is?"
"Staying up all night trying to fight with a viral program that doesn't play nice?" John said with a touch of frustration in his voice. He stood still for a moment, apparently in thought, then finally sighed and threw his hands up in the air. "You're right. It probably would have been worse. I mean, Father could have found out what happened, though I have a feeling that he really doesn't want to know. And the meeting went over well. I just wish Gordon would grow up-"
"When hippos dance," Virgil commented from behind his easel.
"-and stop doing stuff like this. Although," John commented, much to Scott's dismay, "a dancing hippo might be more plausible than our dear brother finally showing some sign of mental maturity."
"Hopefully your little jest will be enough to turn him and Alan off from pranking in the near future." Scott grinned. "I have to hand it to you, Johnny, the look on their faces when we walked in was priceless. No wonder Father never said anything. He didn't need to discipline them at all."
"Thanks. I was going for a suicidal and depressive response."
"Remind me never to get on your bad side," Scott snorted, still grinning. "But all's well that ends well, I guess. The meeting is over with no harm done. Besides, they might have had something going there with that program. I could have Brains have a look at it and make some modifications . . ."
"Thanks, but no thanks," John interrupted quickly. "I think I've had enough brotherly help in the last twelve hours to last me a good twelve years. These books should be good enough."
"Done!" Virgil's voice rang out happily, drawing the attention of both Scott and John.
"Well, let's see it then, Virg," John said as if happy to change the subject. "Turn it around. Scott said it's abstract?"
"It sure is," The older man replied. "I can't make heads or tails of it."
"You might now. I think it's just right!" Making sure that the painting wouldn't tip, Virgil began to rotate the easel on the flooring.
"I don't know about that . . ." Scott looked over to John, who shrugged.
"Beats me, I don't know a thing about art."
"There!" Wiping some paint from his hands with a grease rag, Virgil smiled as if over a small child. "What do you think?"
It looked the same, Scott decided with vast amounts of restraint. Exactly the same. Sure, some of the paint had been smeared over, but that was about it. Nothing else had been moved.
"It's nice . . ." he finally ventured, hoping that his forced enthusiasm would be enough.
Virgil's attention, however, was not on his older brother. It was on John, who was staring at the painting with a powerful look of contemplation. He tapped his chin absently, regarding and evaluating the picture, until he finally smiled and nodded.
"Do you like it?" Virgil asked hopefully. "I'm not sure about abstract, at least not in this sense. It's like a new language to me."
"I think it's amazing," the blond said slowly. "Do you have a name for it?"
"Not yet . . ."
"Then I would suggest, 'Aqua Boy and Speedster Face Doom From Above'."
At first Scott thought that his brother was simply suffering from another case of severe delusion brought about by a lack of sleep. However, when he studied the painting closely for a second time, he saw where John was coming from. There was an odd amount of personality contained in something as simple as orange and yellow splashes of paint. And the imposing blackness at the edges seemed to be showing curtailed yet unlimited amounts of rage.
"Chilling," he decided, drawing a grin from John. "Yet, at the same time, absolutely exact in its description. John, sometimes I worry about you."
"Hey, don't put down an original thinker! You never know what I'll come up with."
"That's what scares me."
"That's a good idea, but that name won't really fit on a name tag well," Virgil lamented, glancing at a small piece of beaten gold that he had readied to be put on the painting's frame. "Any other ideas?"
"Here's your chance," Scott said, wondering what his brother would come up with the second time. Tap-dancing hippos, probably, if he was lucky. From the amount of thought that John seemed to once again be putting into the name, he wondered if he was right.
"Trouble Comes in Pairs." The astronomer's blue eyes seemed to have wandered to some far off dimension that Scott couldn't see. "Troublesome events come in twos and threes. Troublesome people come in sets of two, at least in my life."
Scott looked to the painting, then to Virgil - who seemed to be considering the name himself - then back to John. "I suppose it would work."
"It fits better," Virgil agreed, already eyeing the name plate. "That should work. Thanks, John."
"Anytime." Their brother looked at the painting again, then seemed to drift off into some nether world or another.
"Should I ask this time?" Scott said aloud, wondering just how John had come across the title in the vast and unending thought process that was his mind. He understood the surface details of the name, but he had a hunch that John was seeing more than his brothers' faces in the painting.
"Nah." John shrugged and gave a tiny smile. "Just making an observation. Heck, if I tried to explain it it'd likely get lost in translation or something. It'd probably sound like a hyena commentating a football game."
"Fair enough." Before he could continue, Scott caught a brief waft of a scent that made his nose tingle. "Hey Virgil, I think those cookies are ready."
The other man stopped what he was doing, took a long sniff himself, then grinned. "I think so."
"Ah, well, you might as well go rescue them from those two rascals," John sighed. "Eat a couple for me."
"Will do." Scott gave his brother one last smile, then stood from the couch. "Say, don't get too lost in those books. And if you do need help again, give us a call."
His last remark went unanswered, however, and he immediately saw why. The conversation over, John had absently reached for a language dictionary and was now pouring over the text with an intent look in his ice blue eyes. Shaking his head, Scott flipped off the video link and left his younger brother to his work. Sometimes he wondered about him . . .
"Think they'll be any left?" Virgil asked, too used to John's habits himself to bother to comment on them.
Flashing a smile full of pearly teeth, Scott turned towards the door of the lounge and began the short journey to the kitchen. "There's only one way to find out."
Author's Note 2: If you're thinking, "Look, darkhelmetj is back!" you're probably not alone. Life has been hectic for me as of late. Because of that, this little baby has sat beta read for weeks now without being posted. In addition to that, I have beta reading of my own to do. Plus, classes start for me in two weeks again. Diagnosis? Those of you who are waiting for "The Winds of Advent" will have to wait a little bit longer for the next chapter (more details will come when I post that chapter itself). Please, though, if you'd like to know how things are progressing, check my profile page. I update it when things change so you can find out what's going on with my writing. I have many stories in the works that you can look forward to. Thank you to all who read, and especially those who review, for your patience. :D