A/N: As always, thanks to my super betas Sam and Lynn without whom I would be lousy writer. Many thanks to all who take the time to read my stories, and especially to those who make the effort to review. It is always appreciated.
What A Christmas!
Scott Tracy bent his sooty head to the side, desperately trying to get his neck to crack. There was a tightness that had developed over the course of the long and difficult rescue that rubbing just couldn't relieve.
The fire was finally out, the chemical plant workers finally all accounted for, and all Scott wanted to do was get home and spend a couple of days in the shower. All that was left was to load up and clear out. Scott glanced up from where he was breaking down his Mobile Control console when he heard a soft step.
His brother Virgil, looking even more tired than Scott felt held out his hand with a weary smile, "Merry Christmas, Scott."
Scott's eyes widened in surprise. The sun was still a good handspan above the Mexican horizon. Seeing his confusion, Virgil laughed. "Time zones, Scott. Remember the time zones."
With a rueful grin, Scott replied "Yeah, time flies when you're having fun, right? Merry Christmas, Virg. Let's get home before Alan drinks all the eggnog."
"Not even Alan would leave me eggnog-less on Christmas, Scott." Virgil's mien was totally serious despite a lighthearted tone. From the time they were kids their father had whipped up batches of special eggnog on Christmas. It was a special tradition that was as much a part of the day as the opening of presents. Scott loved the ritual, but Virgil loved the eggnog itself. No eggnog on Christmas was unthinkable to either brother.
Scott laughed, "Just tell him no eggnog, no present. That'll keep him in line."
"Ha! It's more like no eggnog, no Alan." Virgil looked over to Thunderbird Two with a speculative gleam in his eye. "I wonder if I could break my own speed record."
Scott clapped his brother on his shoulder. "You can try, but you'll never beat me."
Eyes narrowed, Virgil turned a steely gaze on his best friend. "Don't think you're exempt from death if you drink all that eggnog."
Scott held up his hands in mock surrender. "Wouldn't think of it! I'm ready to go. I'll see you at home."
"All right. Tell Alan… tell him his death will be painful and slow if he so much as touches my eggnog."
"FAB." Scott grinned then watched as his brother trotted off toward his ship. Scott felt a tickle of anticipation knowing Virgil would be astounded at the gift Scott had gotten him this year. Turning back to Thunderbird One, he did a quick visual inspection to be sure there was nothing amiss, then climbed up through the belly hatch.
He was just getting settled in his gimbaled pilot seat when his wrist communicator beeped for his attention. His eyebrows climbed in mild surprise as Virgil's face appeared. "This is Thunderbird One, what's up, Virg?"
"Scott, would you buzz Gordon for me? Idiot's locked me out."
"Locked you out? Why? What did you do?"
Even the tiny screen of the communicator clearly showed Virgil's irritation. "Nothing, damn it! It's probably some dumb ass joke. Scott, I'm not in the mood."
"Yeah, okay. Hang on a moment." Scott hid his own irritation at the delay, flipping the switch on the ship-based communicator. "Thunderbird One to Thunderbird Two, come in, Gordon."
Scott waited in growing annoyance. Whatever the prank he had in mind, Gordon knew better than to ignore a communication, especially when they were out on a rescue.
Scott reached to turn up his gain, when all of the status lights on his board went dark. He sucked in his breath in sudden alarm when his main communication screen lit up. It was his father looking very angry. "Intruder, all systems are locked out. You aren't going anywhere, so I suggest you tell me exactly what you did with the pilot of that ship."
Surprised and not a little concerned, Scott was immediately serious. The wrong answer, and a radio signal would be sent that would release a cloud of anesthetic gas. Speaking clearly, Scott said "Father, the password is Falcons rule. My identification is one Scott gee seven carpenter."
Jeff Tracy sat back in his seat, relief writ large on his face. "Oh thank God! What happened out there? Gordon contacted John and said you and Virgil had been captured and replaced with imposters."
"Dad, that's the first I've heard of it. Virgil only just now called me saying Gordon had locked him out of Thunderbird Two. I was trying to reach him when you secured my systems."
Jeff's bushy eyebrows came together in a ferocious frown. Practically barking, he called out, "John, release Thunderbird One and connect me with Thunderbird Two. Scott you stay right there."
Scott sighed as his father flipped a switch cutting him off. Gordon was being more than foolish. Christmas was a time for good feelings, and a lot of things would be overlooked, but not something like this. Scott lifted his wrist communicator. "Thunderbird One to Virgil."
"Scott, the hatch is not opening." Virgil's voice was flat and angry. Scott reflected that Gordon might not have to worry about what Dad would do to him. He'd be lucky to survive Virgil.
"You're not going to believe this…"
"He called John up and told him you and I had been replaced with imposters."
Virgil's anger dissolved in confusion. "He got John involved?"
The little niggle that this wasn't some bizarre practical joke flared in Scott causing the muscles in his neck to tighten up. "Yeah. John thought it was for real, so he called Dad."
Virgil did an amazing impression of a fish, his mouth hanging open, his eyes bugged out. "Oh God. There goes Christmas."
"Yeah. Uh, Father is coming through again. Hang on. Better yet, come on over here."
"On my way."
Scott switched gears. "Thunderbird One. Go ahead, Father."
Jeff's face was dark red. Apparently the discussion with Gordon had not gone well. "Scott, I want you and Virgil to go over there and get your brother. Let John know when you are at the hatch and he'll override the locks."
"FAB, Dad. Uh, what happened when you spoke to him?"
"He took one look at me, and said I wasn't his father and cut the connection."
Scott shook his head. "Dad, this is sounding less and less like a joke."
"I agree. I have Brains doing some checking on that chemical plant. Alan is researching who owns the place."
"You think he's been compromised?"
"Son, I don't know what to think. Just go get him, use the knockout darts if necessary, but get him under control."
"Yes, sir." Rubbing uselessly at his neck, Scott climbed out of his seat.
The hatch opened as he approached it, and Virgil stuck his head in. "Dad turn him to stone?"
"No. It's beginning to look like this isn't a prank."
"Yeah. I kind of came to that conclusion myself. So, what are we going to do?"
"For now, we're going to go over there and get him out. Come on."
Scott started walking determinedly toward Thunderbird Two, Virgil trotting to catch up. They were halfway across the parking lot that had served as a landing field, when they were hailed. "Senor Scott! Senor Virgil! One moment por favor!"
Scott turned to see the plant superintendent hurrying forward, an elderly woman in tow. "Senor Morales, what can we do for you?"
"Por favor, this is mi madre. Uh, my mother. When I told her I had met the great Thunderbirds, she wanted to come meet you too."
Scott looked at the diminutive gray-haired lady looking shyly out from behind her son. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was play public relations, but seeing the hope in the old woman's eyes, he couldn't turn away.
Putting out his hand, he smiled at the woman. Her eyes widened, as she put her soft hand into Scott's. He could feel Virgil frozen beside him, but he concentrated on giving the grandmotherly woman all of his attention. "Senor, tell your mother we are very glad to meet the mother of such a fine man."
The gratitude in Morales' eyes as he translated for his mother told Scott that he had struck just he right note. He watched as the woman drew herself up with pride. She nodded graciously, before beckoning Scott to lean down. When he did, she kissed his cheek, saying something under her breath.
Virgil had had enough. "Senor Morales, as much as we would like to stay, we are needed elsewhere. If we may have your pardon?"
"Si. Si, Senor Virgil, thank you for all that you have done." He turned to his mother and saying something in Spanish, led her away.
Scott looked over at Virgil with something like respect. "That was pretty smooth, Virg. I'll have to remember that one."
"Yeah, yeah. Come on, we have things to do."
Virgil walked away leaving Scott to do the trotting to keep up. When they reached the great bulk of Thunderbird Two, Scott lifted his communicator. "Scott to Thunderbird Five. John, we're at the hatch."
John's face came through the communicator. "FAB, Scott. Opening the hatch… now."
Scott and Virgil both looked expectantly at the heavy metal door. Nothing happened. "Uh, Scott…"
"Yeah. John, the hatch is not opening."
"What? Really? Hang on a minute…" John turned away to consult his computer. "Scott, the program says the hatch is open."
"Trust me on this, John. The hatch is not open."
"Uh, running diagnostic now… What the… How did he do that? Son of a… Okay, you asked for it…"
Virgil and Scott listened as John talked to himself. They could hear the sound of computer keys being pounded furiously. The brothers looked at each other. John took a lot of pride in his ability to hack computers. From the sound of it, he was getting annoyed. After several minutes, the clacking of the keys stopped.
When John didn't say anything, Scott prompted him. "John? What's happening?"
"He's got me locked out of the security systems. I don't know how… It's going to take me a while to figure it out. Has he been taking computer classes on the sly? He shouldn't be able to do this."
Scott frowned. This was getting serious. Virgil lifted his own communicator. "Gordon! You open this damn door right now! I'm tired of fooling around here. You open this door or you're going to regret it. You hear me, you little twerp?"
Scott waited patiently until Virgil ran down. "Feel better?"
Virgil threw his brother a dirty look and turned back to his communicator. "John, just shut the damn systems down. Lock him in. Scott and I will have a good Christmas, and come back for him in a couple of weeks."
Scott chuckled, but John wasn't laughing. "I don't think you've got it, Virgil. He's got me totally locked out. I can't shut him down."
Scott and Virgil both frowned at that. Brains had designed the Thunderbird's computer systems with a lot of help from John. The systems were as 'hackproof' as they could make them, and Gordon had never shown much interest in the programming side of things. After a moment, Virgil's frown lightened as a look of speculation came over his face. "Alan."
The moment he said the name, Scott's confusion had cleared up. Alan was not in John's league, but only because he didn't have John's focus and attention to detail. When he bothered to turn his mind to it, he was as good a hacker as anybody.
Scott nodded, lifting his communicator. "Scott to base. Dad, I'd like a word with Alan, please."
"Alan. I should have thought of that. Hold on, son."
Scott saw a look of worry in Virgil's eyes. "Don't worry. He's not going anywhere."
Almost as if in response to Scott's words, there was a loud clicking and the beginnings of a bass rumble. Virgil's eyes flew open. "Shit."
Scott didn't waste time on words, grabbing his brother by the arm and running away from the huge transport as quickly as he could. The two brothers hadn't gotten more than ten yards when Thunderbird Two began to rise from the ground. The power of her mighty jets sent a pressure wave that knocked both Scott and Virgil to the ground.
Both men scrambled to escape, feeling the heat from the powerful VTOL engines wash over them. Then, as suddenly as it began, the engines took on a different lower note, and the great craft settled back down to the ground.
Keeping their distance, Scott and Virgil eyed Thunderbird Two warily. Scott knew they were lucky to escape injury or worse. The brothers got to their feet, Virgil raising a cloud of dust as he swiped at his clothes. "You were saying?"
"Thunderbird Five to Scott. You guys okay? You weren't close to Thunderbird Two, were you?" John's voice had a note of concern.
"Yes and yes, John. What happened?"
"Uh, seems Alan has a backdoor program to the security systems on Thunderbirds One and Two. He told Dad it was for safety's sake in case anyone ever hacked our systems. Anyway, Gordon knew the password into the program. That's how he got the systems to lock me out. I got in through the backdoor in time to shut down everything before he could take off, but he still has me locked out of the security sub-routines, so I haven't been able to get the door open yet." John spoke with his attention elsewhere as he typed furiously at his computer console. "I'm still working on it, though. I should be through within a few minutes."
"What was that?"
"Coal. The both of them. They're getting nothing but coal in their stockings."
"Oh boy, here comes Morales again."
Scott looked up to see the plant superintendent headed their way, an anxious look on his face. Under his breath, Scott muttered, "Not now."
"Senor Scott, Senor Virgil, is everything all right? You do not leave yet?"
For a moment, Scott was tempted to tell the man everything, but his sense of duty and not a little pride prevented him. "No, everything is fine, senor. We are just testing a few things out before we go."
Morales looked doubtful. "Senores, you are all dirty. Would you not like to rest before you leave, perhaps take a bath? Mi madre invites you to our Christmas. She makes the best tamales in the world. Surely you are hungry?"
The offer was kindly meant and Scott could not help but smile. "I thank you for the offer, Senor Morales, but we have our own Christmas celebration to attend. Please, thank your mother for us, but we really have to go."
The man stood unconvinced. Scott could understand why. He and Virgil were covered in the dust thrown off by Thunderbird Two's aborted take off. He said they had to go, but they obviously hadn't gone. And at the mere mention of food, Virgil's stomach had growled. Scott stood his ground, politely staring at the plant official until the man nodded and left.
As they watched him walk away, Virgil muttered under his breath. "Tamales at Christmas. I love tamales at Christmas."
Scott looked at his brother in weary annoyance. "You want to stay, Virg? You can, you know. You can stay right here, and I'll go home alone."
"Naw, I'm over it." Virgil said, grinning.
His brother's smile had an instant effect on Scott. His mood lightened even as the sky grew dark. He grinned back and punched Virgil in the arm. Virgil laughed. And the two brothers turned back toward the looming bulk of Thunderbird Two. "So, how do you want to handle it when we get in?"
"Actually, I hadn't thought that far. It depends on Gordon, I suppose."
"Thunderbird Five to Scott. Scott, when you guys get home, I want you to look under the tree. There's a small box wrapped in that blue snowman paper. It says it's from me to Gordon."
"I want you to take that box and dump it in the incinerator."
Both Scott and Virgil laughed at the tone in John's voice. "Why, Johnny?"
"Well, he knows it's only a matter of time before I get you guys in there, so he's trying to make me crazy. He says he knows I'm only a clone of the 'real' John, but he wants me to look deep into myself and find my 'inner Tracy'."
Scott barked a laugh, "Your what?"
"I swear to God, he says if I just look deep enough, I'll find my 'inner Tracy'. I'd say it was a joke except he's so frantic about it."
"That's not good."
"Yeah, frantic. Scott, he really believes you guys are imposters out to get him. I don't know what he's on, but it's got him bouncing off the walls in there."
"Damn. Thanks for the info, John. Let us know when you've got the locks cleared."
Once John had signed off, Scott signaled his father. "Scott to base. Dad, has Brains had any luck figuring out what went wrong?"
"Actually, son, he was just debriefing me. Go ahead, Brains."
The resident genius fiddled with his glasses for a moment then began. "Uh, yes. As I was telling your, uh father, Zihuatanejo Chemicals supplies mostly liquid boron triflouride to the computer industry, However, their research and development department works with some v-v-very esoteric gases including derivatives of chloropentafluoroethane. I was uh, able to access some of their research and it appears that at least one of the derivatives, choropentafluoroethane three has hallucinogenic properties."
"Okay, so he's high. What do we do, Brains?"
"The uh, properties of CFT3 have not been studied in detail yet, uh, Scott. The hallucinogenic properties were discovered only when a lab accident occurred and one of the researchers was exposed. The man exhibited extreme paranoia for several hours, then f-f-fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, he had no recollection of his behavior, and has since shown no further uh, signs of aberration."
Scott felt a release of tension that he hadn't even been aware of. It was a relief to know that, annoying as he was being, Gordon was going to be okay. Virgil spoke up. "How many hours is 'several', Brains?"
"I believe it will depend on how much exposure there was, uh, Virgil. The researcher was exposed for almost twenty minutes, and his paranoia lasted for sixteen hours, and then he uh, slept for eighteen more."
"The question is, how was Gordon exposed? The HAZMAT suits are intended to prevent just this kind of thing happening."
"Uh, I think I have the answer to that, Dad. He went in to get one of the workers, and when he came out, his hood was back. The man was gasping for air, and Gordon put his own respirator on him. He was only exposed for a minute or two. At least, that's what he told me." Scott knew his answer would relieve a lot of his father's concern.
"Well, we can't wait for him to fall asleep. Aside from security considerations, we need both Thunderbird One and Two available in case of any other emergency. If John can't get that lock open, I want you boys to use laser cutters. Brains, find a good spot for them to cut through so there's the least amount of damage to the ship."
"FAB, Dad." Scott cut the connection to his father after getting a look at Virgil's pained countenance. "Take it easy, Virg. Scott to Thunderbird Five. John? How's it coming?"
"The lock, or my sanity?"
"That bad, huh?"
"He's taken to singing, Scott. He apparently thinks if he sings Christmas carols at me, I'll remember all about being a Tracy, which makes no sense, because if I were a clone, I wouldn't have any memories. I told him that, but he just sang louder. Scott, Gordon can't sing."
John's voice took on a mock pleading tone that brought a grin to both Scott and Virgil. Scott took pity, saying, "Put me through to him, Johnny. Let me see if I can talk some sense into him."
"It'd be a first." Muttered John as he put the connection through.
When Gordon's strained face appeared, Scott felt immediate concern. His younger brother was normally as easy going as they come, but now there was a wild look in his eye, and a tension that hurt just to see. "Gordon?"
"Who the hell are you?"
Tensing up at the tone, Scott said firmly. "I'm your brother, Scott."
Gordon laughed shrilly, "Scott? Buddy, you don't even look like him!"
Scott blinked, "What?"
"For one thing, your eyes are too close together. Your hair isn't even the right color, and damn, that's a vacant stare. My brother never looks that stupid."
While Virgil tried desperately to contain his grin, Scott snapped, "The reason I look like this is because you tried to take off with us standing right next to the ship. You damn near killed us, Gordon."
"Better than you deserve, asshole. What did you do with my brother?"
"I am your brother, and I'm telling you now, I want you to open up the hatch."
"Let me tell you, pal, if and when I open that hatch, it'll be to come out there and kick your homely ass."
"In your dreams, junior. Why don't you come on out here and try it?" Scott held his breath, it was a longshot, but worth the try.
"Geezus, you're even stupider than you look. I wouldn't have thought it possible."
"Hey, Gordon, that's not very smart the day before Christmas!" Virgil blurted it out.
"Who the hell are you supposed to be?"
"Oh, you don't want to go there with me, little man. You're in my ship, keeping me from my eggnog. You're on thin ice as it is."
"I've seen better masks at a kid's Halloween party."
"Mask." Virgil's tone had gone quiet and deadly.
"I can see where it's coming loose, you idiot. My brothers and I are gonna tear you guys apart." With that the connection was cut.
Virgil looked over at his brother, "What did he mean, the mask is coming loose?"
Scott scrutinized his brother's dirty face. Virgil was caked in dirt and at first Scott couldn't see anything amiss. Looking a little closer, he saw where a line had carved its way through the dust along his jawline. "I don't know, you've got some sweat on your face. He may be seeing that. Look, Virg, it doesn't seem like he is going to be falling asleep anytime soon. We're going to have to cut our way in."
Virgil made no effort to hide his dismay. "No, Scott, there has to be a better way!"
"Dad's eggnog waits for no man." Scott knew it was a low blow, but he agreed with his father. They had to get to Gordon as quickly as possible. He didn't want to mention it out loud, but Scott thought there was a very good chance that in his paranoid state Gordon might damage some of the delicate controls in the cockpit of Thunderbird Two. Cutting into the side of Thunderbird Two definitely seemed the lesser of two evils.
The look on Virgil's face was absolutely inscrutable. The family often commented on the almost psychic connection between the two brothers, but at the moment, Scott had no idea what his brother was thinking.
Virgil took a deep breath then said quietly, "You really think my priorities are that screwed?"
"No, of course not. Let's see what John has to say. If he thinks he can get through, we'll wait, but otherwise we'll need to figure a way to get on that ship. If cutting is out, you're going to have to come up with an alternative."
"Fair enough. Virgil to Thunderbird Five. John? Dad is saying if you can't get us in, we're going to have to use the laser cutters and break in. Now, I don't want to put any unnecessary pressure on you, but if I have to damage my ship, I will come up there and hurt you."
"Oh, well, I'm glad you don't want to pressure me, Virg. I think I've got a line on the worm he's using. Give me ten minutes then we'll see."
Scott spoke up, "John, if this is a program Alan made, why doesn't he just tell you how to break it?"
John sighed. "He did, but it didn't work. We think Gordon's made some revisions."
"Gordon? John, Gordon uses his computer for a clothes stand. He plays games on it. How could he revise that program?"
"He knows just enough to be dangerous, Scott. I'm willing to bet he just fumbled around with it. Unfortunately, he has that dumb ass luck of his going for him. Wait a minute… Hah! I think his luck has just about run out! Give me just a few minutes more, and I'll have you in there. Smack him a couple of times for me, wouldja? This isn't how I planned to spend my Christmas Eve."
"Good job, John! We'll head over to the hatch right now."
"FAB. I'll call you when I'm ready."
"Great, let's go." The two brothers trotted back toward the huge transport. Scott lifted his communicator as he ran. "Scott to base. Dad, John says he's pretty much got the lock licked. We're not going to have to break in."
Jeff looked harried. "That's good news, son. I'm not sure I could take much more of this."
"I've been talking to your brother. Or at least, I've been trying to. He's taken it into his head that I have a twin brother. An evil twin brother. An evil twin brother named George."
"George? Where the heck did he get that?"
"I have no idea, but not even your grandmother could convince him it wasn't true. She told him she would have noticed if she gave birth to a second baby, and he said, not necessarily."
Arriving at the hatch to Thunderbird Two, Scott and Virgil just looked at each other. "Not necessarily? What, does he think the baby just slipped out and walked away?"
"He said that under the influence of an epidural, anything could happen. Mother had a few choice words for that, but he cut her off."
"Well, don't feel bad, Dad. He told Scott he was too ugly to be his brother. And he said I was wearing a mask, although where I would get a Virgil Tracy mask is beyond me."
"What a Christmas. Listen, boys, this isn't your brother's fault."
"We know that Dad. We just want to get him and get home."
"All right. He's probably armed, so I want you to be careful. I want you all coming home in one piece, you understand?"
"Yes sir. Leave it to us, Dad. We'll get him home safely."
"I'll hold you to that, boys."
"Uh, Dad, we have company. I'll call you later."
Scott cut the connection just as Senor Morales approached. He was smiling widely and carrying a large grocery sack. "Senores, mi madre insists that you take this as a token of our gratitude."
He opened the sack, and a heavenly aroma wafted out. Scott breathed in the scent of the food, a smile on his face. "Senor Morales, your mother is very kind. We thank you, and please tell her we wish her the best of Christmases."
Morales bowed, backing away. "Thank you, thank you. I will not keep you any longer."
The plant superintendent walked away, his head held high. Scott stood holding the sack as Virgil crowded close. "Virg, you know the rules. These could be drugged. There could be poison in them."
"I know. I just want to smell them."
Both brothers breathed in the aroma. Scott swallowed as his mouth watered at the delicious scent. "Damn. They're pork."
"God, I haven't had pork tamales since college."
"Yes, well, you aren't going to have any now, either." Scott firmly rolled up the top of the bag, trapping the smell inside with the forbidden treats.
"Oh come on, Scott. You really think that little old abuela put rat poison in that food?"
"Doesn't matter what I think. We show up at home with tamales on our breath, and it won't only be Gordon with coal in his stocking."
"Just one won't hurt."
"Tell you what, Virg. You get Dad's permission and you can have two."
"Maybe I just will."
"Be my guest."
Virgil raised his communicator, then lowered it with a sigh. "Fine. Throw them out. It just seems a shame to waste good food like that."
"Thunderbird Five to Scott."
"Go ahead, John." Scott was relieved at the respite. He hated denying his brothers anything. He knew the chance of the tamales being tampered with was remote, but it wasn't a chance he was willing to take.
"Are you at the hatch? I'm ready to open the door, but I'm not sure how long I can keep it open. You guys need to get onboard quickly."
"Great job, John. We're both here, go ahead and release the door."
"FAB. On my mark. Three… Two… One… Now!"
Finally the hatch slid open. Virgil pushed his way in first. Scott barely cleared the hatchway before the heavy metal door snapped shut. "Okay, John, we're in. Are the interior hatches clear?"
"That'd be nice, wouldn't it? No, he's got everything that can be locked, locked. About the only thing I've got complete control over is the number three freight elevator."
Virgil pulled a face. Scott sighed. It was the elevator furthest from the control cabin of the mighty ship, with several hatches to slow them down. Virgil said with disgust, "At this rate, we won't be home until New Year's Eve."
"Sorry, guys, it's the best I can do."
"Not your fault, Johnny. You've done a fabulous job so far. We'll be at the elevator in a minute. Come on, Virg, let's just go get it done."
"Yeah." Virgil led the way to the far side of Thunderbird Two where the elevator awaited them.
Once they were on the elevator, Scott reached to press the button that would take them to the command level of the ship. Nothing happened. The two weary brothers looked at each other in resignation. "John? The elevator is not responding."
There was a short pause before John replied. "Yeah, I see it. He's trying to do something, I'm not sure what, but I think I've got him pretty well blocked. Hold on, I'm sending you up."
As he said it, the doors to the elevator slid shut, and it started its upward climb. After a few moments, it shuddered to a halt, but the doors did not open. With a suspicious frown, Scott lifted his communicator, "John? What's happening?"
When John's visage appeared, there was a steely glint in his eye. "He's trying to flood the compartment with gas. I had to stop the movement to block him. It'll just take me a moment…"
Scott's stomach dropped at the mention of gas. He knew it was a harmless compound that simply caused its victims to fall into a deep sleep, but he had no desire to sleep through the holiday. He and Virgil stood tensely, looking up at the ceiling, knowing that that was where the gas vents were.
Suddenly there was a click. Virgil recognized it as the intercom. "Gordon?"
There was no answer but a soft rustling. Scott opened his mouth to say something when a loud screeching sound came from the speaker. Puzzled, Scott realized it was a guitar solo from one of Gordon's trash rock CD's. He shared a confused glance with Virgil when the screech abruptly grew louder. Much louder.
Grimacing, Scott and Virgil both covered their ears. The cacophonous sound seemed to grow until it was beating them down. Scott uncovered his ear to yell into his communicator, "John! Cut the intercom! You hear me? Cut the intercom, now!"
Scott could stand it no longer, and again pressed his hands hard against his ears. Virgil was bent over trying to relieve the pain. The sound was so deafening, that Scott could no longer make out the individual notes. He stood with his eyes squeezed shut, his hands white from pressing against his ears.
He felt himself shift in place. Scott couldn't tell if it was the elevator moving or he himself losing his balance. Realizing he could fall, Scott cracked open his eyes. There was a sudden reduction in the air pressure as the elevator door unexpectedly flew open. Scott threw his arm over his brother's back and together they stumbled out of the elevator.
As the door slid shut behind them, Virgil sank to his knees, pulling Scott down with him. The both knelt panting heavily. After a few minutes, Scott became aware of an intermittent sound cutting through the ringing of his ears. Still panting, he glanced down at his wrist communicator where he saw John's worried face.
Knowing his brother was most likely asking for a status report, Scott said, "Give me a moment, Johnny. Can't hear properly yet."
His own voice sounded strange to Scott, and if it hadn't been for the situation, he might have experimented with the sounds. As it was, he waited until the ringing had subsided from his ears, and the stars stopped sparking before his eyes.
He looked over to find Virgil yawning wide to relieve the pressure on his eardrums. "You okay?"
Virgil sarcastic reply showed how tired he was. "Oh, just peachy."
"John? You still with us?"
"Scott! Are you okay?"
"We're fine, John."
"Sorry about that. It never occurred to me he'd try sonics."
"Don't worry about it. Can you keep it from happening again?"
"Yeah. It's only effective in an enclosed space like that elevator, but I've locked him out of the communications systems anyway. I don't know why I didn't do it before. He can't sing at me now."
"I'll trade his singing for that damn noise he was playing anyday." Virgil growled.
John blinked. "That was Hypersonic's music he was playing. You don't like Hypersonic?"
"I don't know what that was, but it wasn't music."
"You're such a fogey, Virg."
"And you and Gordon are both tone-deaf."
"Okay, enough you two. John, we're at the hatch to compartment 3F. Open it up."
"FAB." The door slid open at John's word. Scott and Virgil hurried through.
As they proceeded down the short corridor, Scott glanced back. The hatch at their backs had not closed. "John, we're through."
"Uh, yeah, I know. I don't get this. All of the sudden, my board is clear. It's as if Gordon has stopped fighting me. I don't know what he's up to."
Scott and Virgil glanced worriedly at each other. "All right. Let's take advantage of this. Open up all of the hatches except 1A."
Virgil nodded his agreement. 1A was the hatch that led directly into the cockpit. The two brothers reached the next hatch in the corridor, but it remained stubbornly closed. "Uh, John? Hatch 2F is closed."
John's voice was distracted. "Yeah. I know. Give me a moment. I'm piggybacking a thermal image. I want to be sure he's still in the cockpit."
Scott and Virgil stood waiting. After a few moments, the hatch opened. "Scott? I've verified. Gordon is still in the cockpit."
"FAB." The two brothers jogged to the last hatch between them and Gordon. They paused for a moment, pulling their weapons, and checking to make sure they were loaded with the knockout darts.
With hand signals, Scott directed Virgil to go to the right and stay low. At his brother's nod, he reached to his communicator and sent a silent signal to John. The door sprang open, and as one, the brothers rushed in. Scott had taken no more than a single step when his feet flew out from under him. With a yelp, he landed flat on his back.
He looked over to where Virgil was sprawled on his belly. His brother was trying to get to his knees, but kept slipping. The telltale scent told Scott what had happened. Gordon had spread lubricant on the floor inside the door. The super lubricant, an invention of Brains, made the floor as slippery as ice.
Scott knew instinctively that if Gordon were capable, both he and Virgil would have been tranked and tied by now. Scott sat up, being careful not to touch the floor with any more of his body than he had to. Listening to Virgil's frantic scrabbling attempts to get his feet under him, Scott looked around the small cockpit. He could just see Gordon's red hair peeking up over the back of Virgil's pilot seat.
"Virgil, stop before you hurt yourself."
Virgil's eyes were panic stricken. "I can't get up!"
"Yeah, I know. Gordon's got DV92 all over the floor."
"Thunderbird Five to Scott. You get him?"
"Yeah, we've got him."
"Great, Dad wants to talk to you."
Before Scott could say anything, John connected his father through.
"Son? Is your brother all right?"
"Uh, yeah, Dad, he's fine. In the end, he just fell asleep."
The creases in Jeff's face smoothed out. "Well, that's a relief. You boys hurry home. I'll have the eggnog ready."
"FAB, Dad." Scott cut the connection.
After a moment's silence, Virgil spoke up. "Uh, Scott? You didn't mention we're not exactly in control here."
"Uh, any reason why?"
"I'm not about to tell him we got outsmarted."
"Oh, come on. He didn't outsmart us."
"Didn't he? Like you said, Virg, we're not exactly in control."
Sighing, Virgil stopped struggling. "Okay, so how do we get out of this?"
"The way I see it, we have three options. One, we can tell Dad, and have him send someone to rescue us. Two, we can wait for Sleeping Beauty there to wake up, or three, we can figure a way to get out of this ourselves."
"I vote for three."
"I thought you might. Okay, first things, first. Can you rollover onto your back?"
"Dunno, let me try." Virgil made an attempt, but could find no purchase to shift his weight. "It's no good, Scott. I can't do it."
"All right, then, can you take off your sash and belt?"
"Sure." Virgil reached under himself to release the belt at his waist. After several minutes of fumbling, he gave up. "Scott, I've got this crap all over my hands. I can't get hold of anything."
Scott nodded, responding to the frustration in his brother's voice. "Yeah, I was afraid of that. This stuff reduces friction to nearly zero. We've got our work cut out for us. Hang tight while I think."
Scott peered at the floor. The lubricant had a slight pinkish cast, so he could easily see how far it was spread. To his left, the dangerous area ended about two feet away. The problem was, Scott's feet and one hand were already coated with the DV92, and anything they touched would instantly become useless.
It seemed ridiculous to Scott. They were two grown, capable men, and here they sat, helpless. He looked again at the pilot's chair, enticingly situated just beyond his feet. If he could just reach it, he could pull himself forward. With a thought, he used his clean hand to unbuckle his belt.
"What are you going to do?"
Carefully holding his belt high, Scott replied. "If I can snag the seat, I can pull myself over there."
With doubt in his tone, Virgil said, "Okay, then what?"
"Then… I don't know. I'm making this up as I go, Virg."
"Well, I guess this has just about reached the top of my list of worst Christmases."
Scott chuckled. "Even worse than that Christmas Addie Barnes found you necking with Mikayla Witherspoon?"
"I WASN'T NECKING WITH HER!"
Scott chuckled. Virgil's high school problems with the fairer sex were legendary in the family. Realizing he was being goaded, Virgil begrudgingly replied. "I told you, Scott. I was taking a shortcut, and Mickie was just there. She grabbed me and planted a kiss on me and that's when Addie showed up." Virgil shook his head ruefully. "Who would have thought that sweet little thing had a mouth like a longshoreman?"
"It shouldn't have surprised you. Not with Gabe for a brother." Two years older than Scott, Gabriel Barnes was a huge construction worker with a highly developed protective instinct where his baby sister was concerned. Virgil had spent his entire Christmas vacation hiding from the man.
"I could have taken him."
Scott barked a laugh. "Is that why you spent two weeks in a cold barn?"
Virgil sniffed, saying haughtily, "As a matter of fact, yes. I knew if I ran into him, I'd be forced to thrash his ugly butt, then how could I have gotten back with Addie?"
The outrageous statement brought a tickle of delight to Scott. "In the long run, you were better off without her."
"True, but at the time, she had the sweetest kiss. I used to lay awake at night thinking about her."
"Virg, you were fifteen. You would have been thinking of someone anyway. Just be thankful you had an older brother to keep you from making a complete fool of yourself."
"Yeah, you were such a great example. An example of how not to get a girl."
"Hey, anytime you want to compare scorecards, you just whip yours out." Scott was ready to make a try at snagging the pilot's chair. He hoped to catch the buckle on the arm. It was a difficult maneuver, made harder by the fact that Scott didn't dare let the belt fall to the floor. "Okay, here goes nothing."
Scott swung the belt sidearm, the buckle flying out like the end of a whip. It flew over the side of the chair, hitting with a meaty thunk, followed by a mumbled groan. The pilot's seat moved as its sleeping occupant shifted. Scott held his breath waiting for his brother to settle back into sleep, but it was no good. Gordon's arm was suddenly flung out and the belt dropped to the floor.
"Aw, damn it." Scott's soft imprecation was accompanied by a resigned sigh from Virgil.
"You realize coal is too good for him, don't you?"
Scott closed his eyes and spoke as if to convince himself. "It's not his fault. He's just a victim of circumstance. Alan, on the other hand…"
"Yes, Alan. As soon as we get home, I think we need to have a little talk with our dear baby brother."
"Talking is not exactly what I had in mind."
Virgil raised his eyebrows at that remark. It was usually the other way around, with Scott preaching tolerance when Virgil wanted to clobber. "The backdoor idea isn't so bad, you know."
Scott looked over in disgust. "Virg, look at us. We should be kicking back at home surrounded by presents with a bellyache from Grandma's cooking. I want to watch Dad make the eggnog. I want to listen to us fracture a few carols. I want my Christmas, damn it. But no. Instead I'm sitting on a cold floor afraid to move. It's just not fair."
The speech had started out vehemently, but ended in almost a whisper. "Okay, Scott. Okay, I'll get your Christmas for you. Take it easy."
It was Scott's turn to raise an eyebrow. "How?"
"The only thing keeping us here is pride. I'll call John, have him get us some help. Maybe Senor Morales."
"No, Virg, there's got to be a better way."
"Not if we want Christmas."
Discouraged, Scott looked away and nodded.
With a tone of relief, Virgil raised his communicator and called, "Thunderbird Two to Thunderbird Five. John, come in."
"Hey Virg! You know, I forgot to wish you a Merry Christmas earlier. Uh, Virg? You're at a funny angle. What's going on?"
"First things first, Johnny. I want you to swear you won't tell anyone at home what I am about to tell you."
John's face immediately took on a suspicious frown. He glanced away from his screen and checked his monitors. "Uh, Virgil, you haven't left Mexico yet. Why haven't you lifted off? Where's Scott? Is there something wrong?"
"Uh-uh. Not until I know what's going on."
"Fine. I'll talk to you later then."
"Wait! Don't cut me off! Okay, I swear I won't tell! Now, what's going on down there? Is Gordon okay?"
"Gordon's fine. He's sound asleep. But he had one more nasty little surprise for Scott and me before he conked out."
"Oh God. He wrecked the controls, didn't he? I was afraid of that."
"No. He didn't touch the controls, John. He poured a bucket of DV92 on the floor in the control room. Scott and I came in, and we're both down. We can't get up."
John blinked, then started chuckling. Soon he was laughing uproariously, ignoring Virgil's demands that he settle down. With a sigh, Virgil waited for his brother to get himself under control. It took several minutes, but finally John subsided, wiping away the tears that had formed. "Sorry, Virg, but I can just picture you two slipping and sliding around."
"John, we need help here."
"Hey, maybe I could come myself!"
"Yeah, just fly down in Thunderbird Five, right?"
"No, not at all. Little brother Alan is on his way to relieve me right now. Virg, I'm going to be home for Christmas!"
That brought Scott's head up. With a tentative smile, he asked, "So Dad banished the kid?"
"No, actually, it was Alan's own idea. He tried to make it sound like he was doing me a huge favor, but if you ask me, he just realized being in the house when you two got home might be injurious to his health."
"You got that right."
"Anyway, he's due to dock in about ten minutes. I could be dirtside and on my way to you within a couple of hours."
"In a couple of hours I want to be eating Grandma's prime rib. We need help now, John."
"I suppose I could contact the local police for you, if you want to bring in outsiders."
"I don't know what else to do, Scott. John, the plant superintendent is a guy named Eleazar Morales. You think you could find his number and call him up for us?"
"Sure. Give me a minute."
"Do it quick, Johnny. I don't want Alan to know about this."
"Don't worry, Scott. If necessary, I'll just deny him boarding permission."
Sighing, Scott looked up and found himself staring into a pair of unfocused hazel eyes. "Hold up a moment, Johnny. Gordon? You awake?"
Scott was rewarded with a sleep-slurred reply. "Whaddaya doin' on the floor?"
"Waiting for you."
With a grunt, Gordon heaved himself out of the chair. Still half asleep, he scratched at himself. "You're gonna have to wait a little while longer. I gotta go to the head."
As Gordon started to move, Scott called out in alarm. "Gordon, freeze!"
Well trained, Gordon paused, slightly swaying. He looked around and seemed to focus for the first time. "What the… Scott, what's going on?"
"Just don't move, okay? There's DV92 all over the floor. I need you to get a something to pull us out. But be careful, you step in this stuff and you'll be down here with us."
Gordon started looking around the room. "Who spilled the DV92? God, I feel like I've been asleep for a hundred years. Hey! That's just the thing!"
Scott and Virgil followed Gordon's line of sight and saw a fire extinguisher attached to one wall. Scott frowned, the heavy cylinder was smooth, with nothing to get a hold of, but Virgil cried out, "Of course! Good idea, Gordon! Just be careful getting over to it."
"Somebody want to clue me in?"
"Don't you remember, Scott? Brains said the chemicals in the fire extinguishers would interact and break down the DV92."
"When did he say that?"
"Oh, you know, I think it was when you were in England. Anyway, Brains said it would make the DV92 useless as a lubricant." Gordon spoke as he cautiously made his way to wall with the fire extinguisher.
Finally, Gordon had the cylinder in hand. "Okay, lemme just try it on a patch over here."
He directed the nozzle at the floor in front of him and released a spray of foam. As soon as the spray hit the lubricant covered floor, there was a sizzling sound and a cloud of fumes billowed upward. Surprised, Gordon leapt to get out of the way, but his boot skidded on an untouched area of the lubricated floor, and his feet flew out from under him.
Scott instinctively reached to break his brother's fall, but landed up belly down on the slippery floor. Gordon landed hard on his back, and the fire extinguisher rolled away, out of his reach. As he lay there gasping for breath, Virgil hung his head, and Scott rolled his eyes. "Crap."
John, who had been listening to the whole thing, couldn't quite keep the amusement out of his voice as he asked, "Back to plan A?"
Gordon, laying on his back staring up at the ceiling asked distractedly, "What's plan A?"
"I call Morales to come and give you guys a hand."
"Morales? The little geeky guy? No way!"
Virgil said wearily, "Gordon, it's four a.m Christmas morning at home. You want to lie here all day?"
"Four… Oh man, what the heck happened, anyway? The last thing I remember is hanging up my HAZMAT suit."
"Never mind what happened. We need to get home, and we need help to do it."
"Well, why not just call home? Dad could send Alan out here."
The resounding denial from all three brothers caused Gordon to flinch. Frowning, he wiggled his hips. "Hey, wait a minute. I think I landed partly on the cleared patch. Give me a moment here, guys."
Scott watched, hardly daring to hope as Gordon wiggled his way onto a cleared section of the floor. Panting with the exertion, Gordon sat up and grinned. "Made it!"
"Don't get cocky. If you have that stuff on your shoe, you could land up right back on the floor."
"Good thinking." With that Gordon hiked his legs up and pulled his boots off. Being careful to be sure his feet were in the clear, Gordon got up and stepped over to the fire extinguisher. "Okay guys, cover your faces. This stuff really stinks."
With that warning, Gordon let loose with the fire extinguisher, spraying the entire floor and both of his brothers liberally. Given what they had been through already, Scott and Virgil both endured the dousing silently, with their breath held and eyes squeezed shut.
"Okay, guys, I think that's got it. I guess you should give it a moment to clear up."
"Scott? Alan's just arrived. I'm signing off now."
"Okay, John. We'll see you in a couple of hours"
"FAB. Merry Christmas, guys."
"Merry Christmas." The three brothers chorused.
"Uh, Scott? Why is Alan relieving John?"
"We'll tell you later." Scott finally made it to his feet. He held up his dripping arms, and looked over at Virgil. "You look like something the cat dragged in."
Virgil's reply was sarcastic. "Yeah, that's because my mask finally came off."
"Mask? What mask?"
"Well, at least your eyes aren't too close together."
"Huh? What are you guys talking about?"
Virgil slapped his bewildered brother on his back. "I'll tell you all about it on the flight home. For now, let's just go get out of these clothes."
The three brothers, two grinning, and one looking puzzled, headed out the door to the locker room.
Several hours later, on Tracy Island, the family was gathered around the Christmas tree, surrounded by gifts and torn wrapping. Still weary, but happy, Scott and Virgil shared a couch with their grandmother. "Well, if you really want pork tamales on Christmas, all you have to do is say so."
Virgil's eyes widened at the affront in his grandmother's voice. "Grandma, tamales at Christmas are nice, but your prime rib is the best. I was just hungry when Mr. Morales showed up."
Caressing his cheek, Ruth Tracy said wryly, "You're always hungry. But as long as you make it home safely, I won't complain. I'll tell you what. I'll make those tamales for New Year's Eve. They'll be a nice change from pork and sauerkraut."
"Grandma, you're the best!" Virgil leaned over to kiss her soft cheek.
"No sauerkraut?" Gordon's tone was wistful.
"Don't you start with me, young man. I've half a mind to send you off to some city hospital so you can learn what giving birth is really like."
"Aw, Grandma, I don't even remember saying you had twins."
"Humph. Where there's smoke there's fire, I always say."
Gordon sat back with a wary eye on his grandmother. Virgil had told him everything that had happened, and he had been quiet all day, not wanting to raise any undue attention.
Scott sat back basking in the love and attention. His father had indeed had the eggnog ready when they had arrived home, but then, breaking tradition, had made a second batch with all watching. The family had sung Christmas carols loudly to make up for their lack of vocal skill, and gifts he had received were as amazing as the gifts he had given.
Alan had put in a tentative call earlier, and was forgiven in the light of the season. John was just enjoying being home with his family.
Jeff stood in the middle of the room, and called out, "Kyrano?"
The man appeared with a tray of champagne in elegant flutes which were passed around to all. Jeff raised his glass in toast. "Boys, Mom, I want to say thank you all. This Christmas, despite some setbacks, has been the best of all. Merry Christmas, everyone!"
Scott and Virgil clinked their glasses above their grandmother's head, and smiling, chorused "Merry Christmas!"