This story was originally only going to be five chapters long – one for each of the boys. Then it expanded to include Jeff.... Then Grandma... Then...Well, it is a Purupuss story. And each chapter is Purupuss length, so instead of doing my usual thing of uploading daily, on Quiller's advice I'm going to upload every two days. That'll give you time to read each chapter before the next instalment comes along... and still have a life.

A Quiet Year is the sequel to Brothers in Arms, and you will need to remember what happened in that story to make sense of this one. Brothers in Arms is, of course, the sequel to A Quiet Beginning.

I would like to thank Quiller, D.C., BoomerCat and Samantha Winchester for their advice and encouragement. When you want to know something, ask the experts.

I do not own Thunderbirds, any member of the Tracy family, the Kyranos, Brains, Lady Penelope or Parker. All other characters belong to me... Kinda.

Please do not copy or post this story anywhere else, including in C2s, without my permission. Thank you.

And talking of C2s, I've created one called the "A Quiet Series", linking together all stories preceding A Quiet Year, including Quiller's The Deciding Factor, so that it's easy to find them all.

F-A-B

:-) Purupuss

PS: And I forgot to say... For those of you who like to keep an eye out for my regular, sometimes hidden, cameo character, they do appear in this story, but in an obscure way... Very obscure... Very, VERY obscure... As obscure as a polar bear on an ice floe in the middle of an Arctic blizzard.

And no, that's not a clue.

;-) P

---I-R---

---F-A-B---

A Quiet Year

1: A Quiet Beginning

"I've got him this job," Jeff Tracy declared, "but that's the last help he can expect from me. He wants to be treated like any other employee at ACE, and I agree that that's the right thing to do. We've both decided that it would be better if no one knows of our relationship."

Hamish Mickelson looked at his friend and boss, earnestly. "Knowing Virgil as I do, I don't think he'll need your help." He turned to look at the young man seated beside Jeff and his eyes twinkled.

"However if we were talking about your two younger brothers…"

The recent graduate of the Denver School of Advanced Technology was sitting on the edge of his seat. "I'll do my best, Uncle Hamish."

Hamish laughed. "If you're going to pretend that you're not the son of the owner of 'Aeronautical Component Engineering', Virgil, then you'd better stop calling me 'Uncle Hamish'. I can't help it that I've known your father since he was a naive farm boy just starting out in the Air Force."

Virgil gave the other man a guilty smile. "It might take some getting used to."

"Don't worry about it; I don't come down to the shop floor very often. This man here," Hamish pointed to Jeff, "makes sure that I'm kept busy pushing paper about."

"That's why this factory is one of the highest grossing in my engineering portfolio," Jeff growled. "Because you're so darn good at your job and because I trust you implicitly."

"Is that why you're letting ACE manufacture some of the components for these amazing machines you've got planned, Jeff?"

"Yes. And also why I agreed that Virgil should work here until we start operations," Jeff stated. "He'll be able to keep an eye on them as they pass through the plant. I don't need to tell you how imperative it is that each component is made exactly to specifications."

"You don't," Hamish agreed. "And I don't need to tell you that ACE has rigid quality control systems in place." He sat back. "This is an amazing venture you've got planned, and you've got five amazing young men lined up for your operatives." He turned back to Virgil. "Compared to what's in store for you next year, you're going to find it boring working here."

"I want to get some practical experience, Uncle Ha..., Sir… ah… Mr Mickelson…" the two elder men chuckled. "The instructors kept on drumming into us that theory's all very well, but it's nothing compared with actual practical experience."

"Your instructors were right," Jeff agreed.

"How are the rest of the boys?" Hamish asked.

"Scott's arm is better…"

"The one he broke in Bereznick?" Hamish interrupted.

"Yes…" Jeff noted that Virgil was rubbing the arm that had ached until his brother had been found, a subconscious reminder of those frantic hours when Scott's condition was unknown. "He's eager to leave the Air Force and start work on International Rescue's planes…"

"I think he should wait," Virgil stated. "Or else everyone's going to think that he's lost his nerve after the crash."

"I spoke with him about that," Jeff said. "He says he doesn't care if they do. In fact he said that it might be to our advantage; no one would think that someone too scared to be in the Air Force would be brave enough to pilot the world's fastest plane. He also made the point that it'll seem a bit odd if the five of you suddenly drop out of society at the same time. I agree with him. This way it'll seem as if he talks you all into the 'playboy' lifestyle."

Virgil was silent while Hamish barked out a laugh. "Playboys! Your sons? Jeff, really!"

"That's the image we're trying to create," Jeff confirmed.

"And John?" Hamish asked. "How's his space career going?"

"Would 'out of this world' be too much of a pun?" Jeff asked. "He's written a book about some of his discoveries, which is at the printers as we speak."

"I hope I'm going to get an autographed first edition copy for Christmas."

"I'll suggest it to him," Jeff chuckled. "He's heading up to the space station for a month, but he's managed to squeeze in the book launch before he goes. He's disappointed that Gordon's not going to be able to attend."

"When's he finishing his tenure in the bathyscaphe?"

"He's still got two months to go. Knowing Gordon he's probably getting a little stir crazy by now. A year underwater's a long time; even for him."

"He keeps on moaning about missing Grandma's cooking," Virgil said. "She's promising to have all his favourites ready for him when he surfaces."

"I'm sure he can't wait," Hamish smiled. "Your Grandma's cooking is unsurpassed, except for maybe my Edna's… And Alan? Is he still firing rockets into buildings?"

Jeff managed a tight laugh that, to someone who knew him as the other men present did, was without humour. "I see you're not following the motor racing section of your paper."

"No. I read the world news headlines, the local news headlines, and the business news and that's it. Doing well is he?"

"There's talk that he might win the world championship in his rookie year," Jeff said. Then he frowned. "He worries me though. Sometimes he still behaves like he's an impulsive teenager. If I have any doubts about my boys' abilities to make International Rescue work, and in the main I don't; it's Alan's hot-headedness that causes me the most concerns."

Virgil nodded. He had the same fears.

"You don't have to start operations next year," Hamish advised. "It's not as though the world knows International Rescue is coming. Wait until you feel he's mature enough for the responsibility."

"I could," Jeff admitted. "But I'm scared that by then Alan will have killed himself in a car crash."

Virgil glanced at his father. This was the first time that he was aware of that Jeff had openly expressed any fears about the Tracy boys' careers: either present or future.

"Well, we'd better get back to business," Hamish Mickelson said. "It's a little odd for me to be hiring floor staff; that type of thing is usually handed by the Production Manager, Max Watts. He's a good man…"

Jeff agreed.

"…And you'd do well to learn all you can from him, Virgil," Hamish continued. "But we'd better make sure we do everything properly," he handed Virgil a clipboard with some papers constrained under the clip, "staring with filling out an application form." Virgil accepted the 'board and began reading through. "What are you going to do about your name? 'Virgil's' uncommon enough as it is and Virgil Tracy's going to be a giveaway. Everyone's going to know who you are."

Virgil looked up from where he was writing and smiled at the man behind the desk. "We've already talked about that. I'll use the last name of Tancy. It's close enough to Tracy that I won't get confused…"

"And with that scrawl of a signature of yours," Jeff looked at his son fondly, "you'd never know whether you've written Tracy or Tancy."

"Albert Tancy was the name of my first piano teacher. He was a great guy…" Virgil explained as he filled in the required paperwork.

"In that case," Hamish handed over a second piece of paper, "if you wouldn't mind, Virgil, I'll get you to fill in two forms. One with your real name, and one as Virgil Tancy. My boss likes me to be scrupulously honest with my paperwork." He winked at Jeff who laughed. "I'll keep the genuine copy in my filing cabinet and give your alias to the office staff to process."

"Thank you." Virgil handed the clipboard back. "I've left the next of kin blank on the fake one. Is that okay? I don't know what to put."

"That's fine," Hamish grunted. He wrote 'see H. Mickelson' across the next of kin section. Then he quickly read through the rest of the document noting that, as Jeff had said, the signature at the end could indeed have read V. Tracy or V. Tancy. "This looks all in order."

"Good." Jeff stood. "We won't hold you up any longer, Hamish. Thanks for coming in on a Sunday."

"Not a problem, Jeff," Hamish smiled. "How about a game of golf to seal the deal?" Both men laughed and Virgil joined in. They all knew that Jeff Tracy was no more at home on a golf course than he would have been in Gordon's bathyscaphe.

They all moved towards the door. "Well," Hamish was saying. "If you're not keen to head to the links, how about my place for dinner? Edna's got something special planned."

"Love to," Jeff smiled. "Is that okay with you, Virgil?"

"Yes, Sir," Virgil agreed with enthusiasm. 'Aunty Edna's' cooking almost rivalled his grandmother's for culinary delights.

"We won't make you stay up too late," Hamish offered with a chuckle. "You've got work tomorrow."

Virgil's grin broadened. "I can't wait."

"Don't get too excited," Jeff clapped his son on the back. "And make the most of it. It's going to be the last quiet year you'll have for a long time…"

---I-R---

---F-A-B---

Virgil Tracy felt the resistance offered by his crisp new navy overalls as he bent forward to pull on his safety boots. Then he stood and his reflection stared back from the mirror on the back of the locker door, along with a mirror-image of the ACE logo embroidered on the chest of the overalls. He pulled his class-5 earmuffs (with music player connection and external microphone) and protective glasses out of the locker and slammed the door shut.

Someone entered the room. The young man's name, embroidered beneath his ACE logo, revealed him to be 'Louis'. He was about Virgil's age and height, though stockier, with red hair, even redder than Gordon's. "Hello? Someone new?"

"Yes," Virgil admitted and extended his hand in greeting. "I'm Virgil Tancy."

"Louis Fleming." Judging by his faded overalls, scuffed boots and frayed logo, Louis had been working for ACE since the last allocation of protective gear and Virgil wondered how long it would take before he blended in as one of the team.

"Have we got ourselves a newbie?" another man said. His embroidered name revealed him to be called 'Bruce' and he had a white cross with red edging embroidered on each sleeve. He was perhaps a couple of years older than Virgil, tall, wiry and dark in complexion and hair colour.

"We have, Bruce," Louis confirmed his colleague's identity. "We're going to have to get your name sewn on pal. What was it? Virgil…? Um…?" He had clearly managed to forget what he'd been told only seconds earlier.

"Tancy," Virgil said. "I'm starting today," he added unnecessarily as he extended his hand to 'Bruce'.

"Bruce Sanders. I hadn't heard they were advertising for anyone new."

Virgil and Hamish Mickelson had already decided that there were some situations where it was better to stick close to the truth. "My family knows Mr Mickelson's family. My father's looking to start up a new venture in a year so I'm filling in time before I join the family business… Getting some practical experience."

Louis Fleming gave a low whistle. "Boy! Mega's gonna be stewing when he learns ol' Micky's taken to employing his staff behind his back."

"Mega?" Virgil asked.

"'Mega Watts': Max Watts, the Production Manager," Bruce explained. "So you've had no engineering experience?"

"Not a lot of practical experience," Virgil admitted. "I've only just graduated. That's why I'm here. To learn from some of the best."

Louis grinned and buffed his nails on his overalls. "Naturally."

"Where'd you train?" Bruce asked.

"Denver School of Advanced Technology."

Louis gave another whistle. "Top engineering faculty in the country. How'd you do?"

Virgil gave a casual shrug. "I passed."

"Come with us, Virgil," Bruce said. "We'll introduce you to Mega…"

"Thank you, Mr Sanders," an older voice interrupted.

Bruce gave an almost audible gulp. "Ah… Virgil Tancy… This is Mr Watts, the Production Manager."

The slightly built, greying man ignored Virgil's outstretched hand, instead preferring to refer to the clipboard he was holding like the Holy Grail. "Virgil Tancy…" he read. "Graduated top of your year…" Virgil tried not to look embarrassed as Bruce and Louis exchanged glances. "Little practical experience…"

"Ah, no…" Virgil admitted. "That's why I…"

He was silenced by a glare over a pair of grimy spectacles. "Don't think that just because you think you know all there is to know, that you can swan in here and tell everyone else what to do. You'll start where everyone who works here starts. At the bottom."

Virgil nodded. It was what he was expecting, but hadn't been prepared for it to be put so bluntly.

"Your hours will be from 7.30am to 4.00pm, Monday to Friday. Lunch is 12 midday to 12.30pm. There are two ten-minute breaks at 9.50am and 2.50pm. Each of these times is delineated by the bell. Tardiness and slacking will not be tolerated… Understand?"

"Yes, Sir."

Watts frowned. "You will clock in and clock out at each end of every shift, and when starting and completing each break. Furthermore you will clock in when starting every new task, even if it's only cleaning up. You will not clock in on behalf of any other employee, nor will you allow any other employee to clock in on your behalf. To do so means instant dismissal. Understand?"

"Yes, Sir."

Watts frowned again. "Follow me." He led Virgil out of the locker and handed him a long, stiff piece of cardboard. "Here is your clock card for the day. Write your name on top… In future your clock card will have your name pre-printed on. Should you require more than one then blanks are stored here…" Watts was staring at where Virgil had written his first name and stumbled over his unfamiliar surname. "Make sure your writing is legible… Each time you clock in a job, scan the works order card's barcode and the appropriate details will be printed on your clock card and be entered into the timekeeping computer. For costing purposes it is vital that we keep track of the length of time spent on each job… Well…" he glowered at Virgil. "Clock in!"

Virgil did as he was told and felt a sense of satisfaction when he felt the punch go through the card. He was finally out in the paid workforce! Next step his first pay packet!

A siren sounded. "Ah," Watts grunted, sounding pleased. "Seven thirty. I'll call a quick meeting and introduce you to the team."

The Team. Virgil liked the sound of that.

He was less sure when he found himself under the intense scrutiny of a disparate group of people whose sole link with each other seemed to be their faded navy overalls with the ACE logo. They were staring at him with what appeared to be some degree of hostility.

"Mr Tancy…" Watts was saying, "having graduated top of his class from the Denver School of Technology…" people looked at each other at this piece of news, "has deigned to join us here at Aeronautical Component Engineering for one year before moving on to bigger and better things." There was a murmur from the assembled gathering and Virgil, uncomfortable at being the focus of so many stares, tried to appear relaxed, realised that he was fidgeting, and shoved both his hands into his pockets. He decided that this looked too casual, pulled one hand out and held it behind his back as he attempted to appear unconcerned by the unwanted attention.

It didn't work. He saw Bruce whisper something to Louis and both men glanced at the newcomer before stifling their laughter. Virgil felt his face redden with a heat that was nothing to do with the furnace at the other end of the factory.

"I am sure," Watts continued, "that we will all do all we can to ensure that Mr Tancy's brief stay with us is a memorable one…" He glared at his workforce. "Well, don't just stand there! You know what you have to do… Move!"

Clearly used to such abrupt orders, the day shift of ACE dispersed as Watts turned back to his newest recruit. "Now, Mr Tancy, this is a safe workplace with a good safety record. Mr Tracy insists on that and he won't welcome some newcomer spoiling our near perfect record. Your safety boots will protect your feet against solvents and temperatures up to 300 degrees Celsius and you will wear them at all times when on the factory floor. There are signs throughout the factory showing where you must wear earmuffs and safety goggles." He wagged a gnarled finger at Virgil. "I will not tolerate any disregard for personal safety."

"Yes, Sir," Virgil agreed.

Watts appeared to grit his teeth. "All hazardous areas are also clearly signposted. If you are found loitering in an area where you are not currently supposed to be working you will be reprimanded."

"Yes, Sir."

Watts glared at Virgil again. "Your overalls will be laundered once a week. On your last working day of the week you will put your overalls into one of those hampers over there." He pointed at several large hampers that lined one of the locker room walls. "That is in one of the hampers. I will not tolerate almost in a hamper or on the floor near a hamper. Your overalls must go in the hamper."

"Yes, Sir."

There was that glare again. Virgil got the feeling that he was doing something wrong, but didn't know what. Behind Watts, Bruce and Louis were trying to tell him something, but he couldn't read their hand signals without making it obvious that his attention wasn't completely on his supervisor.

"You will be supplied with two pair of named overalls. These overalls will be cleaned weekly by the company's laundry. Any deliberate damage to your overalls by you and you will pay for the repairs and/or replacement of your overalls from your wage packet."

"Yes, Sir."

Watts ground out an exasperated sigh. "You will ensure that your boots are kept clean and cared for. This is a dangerous workplace with dangerous chemicals and hot metal and you do not want substandard footwear…"

"Yes, Sir… ah… No, Sir…" Virgil said. His attention wavered as the two mime artists cringed.

"Would you stop doing that!?" Watts thundered.

Virgil stared at his supervisor and felt his face grow hot again. "S-Sir…?"

"Stop calling me 'Sir'! It's 'Mr Watts' to you and don't you forget it!"

"Yes, S… ah… Yes, Mr Watts." Virgil felt his temperature go up a notch or two. Confused he glanced at Bruce and Louis.

Watts saw the glance. He spun on his heel. "What are you two doing here?"

"Ah… We thought that…" Bruce began and ground to a halt.

"That…" Louis began, trying to save the situation. "That… That you'd want us to show Virgil around." He gave his supervisor a weak smile.

"I will show Tancy around!" Watts scowled. "You have work to do."

"Yes, Mr Watts," both employees chorused. They deserted a bemused Virgil and an angry supervisor.

"Watch those two," Watts informed his newest employee. "They're good at their jobs, but they have a tendency to act the fool." Virgil nodded his understanding, not wanting to risk saying the wrong thing again, and Watts gestured roughly. "I'll show you about."

"Thank you… Mr Watts." As he watched a frown harden Virgil wondered what the man had against being called 'Sir' and whether he'd be able to control an ingrained habit.

They stepped away from the grimy white locker room and into what could have been at first glance a museum to the mechanical dinosaur. Closer inspection revealed that each machine was actually state of the art and it was only their uniform dull green paint and grease lubrication that gave the impression of age. Each piece of machinery was mounted on smooth running tracks designed to move them about the floor so products of all sizes could be accommodated. Gantries, walkways, conveyor belts, and cranes; rooms housing computers and computer technology; offices and open spaces; the factory was structured in such as way as to maximise space and efficiencies without being cluttered. From the ceiling to the floor, the factory was filled with the various devices used in the manufacture of aeronautical components. Aeronautical Component Engineering was capable of manufacturing almost anything from the largest to the smallest item; from mass production to one-offs.

"All through the plant," Watts pointed to a locker on the wall, "you will find gloves and masks to be used when operating the adjacent machinery. When you have finished using the gloves dispose of them in the appropriate container and they will either be cleaned and re-used or disposed of appropriately. Here…" Watts indicated what looked like a shower head over a hand basin next to a green box with a white cross, "and there by the lathes, there by the drills," he pointed rapid fire around the factory, "in the paint bay, chemical bay, crucible area and elsewhere… I'll show you as we continue… are trauma kits and eye-wash stations. You are not to touch the trauma kits unless instructed by a trained first aider; identified by the white and red crosses on their sleeves."

Virgil remembered the signage on Bruce's overalls and nodded. "I've got first aid certificates and I'm going to be doing an advanced course at the weekends if you need someone else," he offered.

"And increase your pay packet accordingly," Watts sneered.

Virgil blinked. "What?"

Watts ignored him. "All injuries, no matter how small, must be attended by a trained authorised first aider. I don't care if you've got a paper cut in your pinky! See a first aider and they will supply you with the appropriate treatment and note it in the 'record of injury' book. No exceptions."

Virgil nodded. Obviously someone who was going to be part of a world-wide rescue organisation didn't qualify as an authorised first aider. Not that Watts could be expected to know that.

"A doctor is on site from 9.00am to 4.00pm daily," Watts was informing him.

Virgil nodded again. He already knew this.

"Each job is assigned a works order number." Watts tapped something into a computer monitor and a screen full of details appeared. "As an example, here we have a one-off item being manufactured for Rimmer Corporation…" his gnarled finger pointed at the name of screen.

Virgil stared at the glowing letters, not really listening to what was being said. Rimmer Corporation! That was the name of the shadow company that was producing some of the components for the rocket plane in International Rescue's fleet. He felt a slightly guilty pride at being able to see part of Scott's craft before even his big brother had the opportunity to clap eyes on it.

Watts, unaware of Virgil's quiet excitement, moved on. "Here," he stopped at where a line, painted in yellow and black diagonal stripes, bisected the floor, "is as far as you go in this factory, unless instructed otherwise by myself or any of the charge hands. Understood?"

"Yes, Mr Watts."

"This area contains the crucible furnace."

Virgil had guessed that. Approximately 50 metres ahead of him and his 'tour guide' was a giant spherical object suspended from a gantry crane; black on the outside but judging by the heat waves above it and the red glow on the ceiling, filled with molten metal. Even from where he was standing, Virgil fancied that he could feel the heat emanating from the furnace.

"Except for maintenance, the furnace is operational 24/7," Watts intoned. "Here…" he pointed at an innocuous black box pinned to the wall just beyond the painted barrier, "is the switch to shut it down. That must never…" Virgil was growing tired of the way this guy always seemed to talk in italics, "never be touched except under exceptional circumstances. But even if it is shut down," Watts continued with some kind of grim satisfaction, "it will still take a minimum of 72 hours before it is cool enough to touch."

Virgil could believe that.

Linishers… Presses… Swagers… Inwards Goods… Outwards Goods… Watts continued the tour, pointing out the various parts of the factory that Virgil would get to know so well over the next year.

Circuit complete they finished up beside the locker room again. "Through there," Watts pointed to an innocuous door as if it were an armed prisoner surrendering, "is the canteen. You may bring your own meals or purchase them on site. We have a variety of foods, but if you have any special needs see the canteen staff the day before you make your purchase. Now, Mr Tancy," Watts turned to face Virgil with a smile that was somewhat predatory. "Let's find something for you to do that should be within your capabilities." He led Virgil over to a linisher. "I presume you know how this operates?"

Virgil looked at the machine. As expected, the sandpaper-like linishing belt ran around the outside of five contact wheels. Turn it on, hold your piece of metal against the belt, and it would grind down to the shape your required. Simple. Eager to please, Virgil smiled at the Production Manager. "Not a problem."

"Don't get too cocky," Watts growled. "Let's see how you go."

Convinced that this was a test, Virgil went through the expected set-up processes, finishing with the donning on his earmuffs, glasses, dust mask, and a pair of gloves. He was about to reach for the 'on' switch when he stopped.

"What's wrong," Watts snarled. "Forgotten something?"

"No," Virgil responded. "But I was wondering if you were going to stand that close while you watch me. And if you are, are you going to put on your own protective equipment?"

Watts gave him a look that clearly read, 'don't push your luck', and donned the appropriate gear.

It took time, but eventually the Production Manager seemed confident enough with Virgil's performance that he let himself be called away to assist another employee. Virgil gave a sigh of relief into his mask and relaxed.

He was so intent in his job that he was unaware of anything around him until someone tapped him on the shoulder. He stopped the linisher and straightened, removing his mask and earmuffs.

Virgil was tall, but this man towered over him. From the tattoo on his forehead, he appeared to be known as 'Butch', and Virgil figured that the man's name or nickname was not one derived from sarcasm. His overalls were open to the waist and tied around his midriff, revealing a torso that resembled an Art Gallery. Metaphorically as Butch was as big as a civic building and literally as every exposed piece of skin was covered by more tattoos, including one just below Virgil's eye level, over Butch's heart, that read 'Lisa', and a picture of a skull engraved on his right cheek.

Butch leant nearer and Virgil got a closer look at his long since broken nose. "Tryin' t' make the rest of us look bad are you?"

"Pardon?" Virgil frowned at the slightly menacing figure, feeling crowded by this solid wall of muscle. "What do you mean?" he asked, inching backwards to give himself more space.

"I mean workin' through ya morning tea break. Might be how ya do thin's at that fancy school, but ya don' get points for showin' off here."

"Working through…" Virgil looked at his watch, which read 10.08am. "I didn't hear the bell. Doesn't it go for tea breaks?"

Butch gave him a contemptuous look before shaking his finger in Virgil's face. "An' keep your hands off my wife!" He stalked off.

Bewildered, Virgil stared after him until someone just as unwelcome stepped into his field of vision. "Finished have you?"

"Ah… uh… Two to go, Mr Watts."

"You mean you haven't finished yet?" There was a satisfied gleam in Max Watts eye. "I guess all that theory doesn't make you work any faster. Any one of these people here…" he waved his arm about, encompassing the entire factory, "would have had that little job done before the tea break." He leant slightly closer and his face tightened into a grim line. "Without having to work through."

Virgil decided not to remind the manager that much of his morning had been taken up with the guided tour. "I didn't mean to work through. I didn't hear…"

Watts wasn't interested. "Finish those two and then come and see me!"

The morning dragged on. Virgil was supplied with one monotonous job after another and his infrequent contacts with the other staff members made him feel like an unwelcome intruder.

He heard the bell for the next break, switched off his machine and dusted it to remove some swarf - the metal dust and shavings that had been ground away by the linisher – and then retired to the locker room to wash his hands and retrieve his lunch.

He entered the canteen and felt a multitude of eyes stare at him as everyone stopped eating. Aware that the company appeared to close ranks and there weren't any obvious places left to sit, Virgil looked at his watch, pretended to remember an appointment, and hurried out to his car. He drove around the corner to a nearby park and sat in the vehicle, eating his solitary lunch and feeling disgusted with his behaviour. All his life he'd been popular, surrounded by groups of friends or close-knit brothers, but now Virgil was aware of being very much alone. It was not a sensation to be enjoyed.

Determined to create a good impression on both his bosses and fellow employees, he made sure he was back at his work station a good five minutes before the end-of-break bell sounded.

He'd been hard at work for another hour, bored out of his brain as he linished yet another component in the seemly never-ending production line, when someone yelled at him through his earmuffs. He looked at Bruce Sanders. "Hi?"

"Mega's got another job for you," Bruce shouted.

"He has?" Virgil felt relief. "Where is he?"

Bruce beckoned. "You're not scared of heights, are you?"

Virgil chuckled. "No."

"Good. Follow me."

Glad of the break, Virgil followed the other man up onto the highest gantry in the building. He was surprised to find, not the expected Max Watts, but Louis Fleming and a couple of other men identified by their overalls as Burt and Paul. He gave them a smile. "What's the job?"

"We need your help to inspect some of the conveyor systems," Louis explained. "Check that they are rolling freely."

This sounded like something more interesting than linishing endless components. Virgil nodded. "I can do that. What do you want me to do? Where do I start?"

"Take a step back," Bruce explained. "There, that's good. You're in position."

Virgil frowned. Something wasn't ringing true. "Where's Mr Watts?"

"Down there," Burt pointed vaguely down towards the factory floor.

"Yeah," Paul grinned. "And that's where you're headed."

Virgil hadn't expected to find himself tipping backwards. His brain had only just registered that he had been pushed on the chest when he found himself sliding, headfirst, along a set of rollers towards the ground. He heard laughter as he fell away from the gantry and he could almost imagine that he could feel the heat from the crucible furnace as he sped past. Designed for the transportation of heavy loads, Virgil had no fears of the conveyor collapsing under his weight, but that same weight helped build up a momentum that was almost frightening and it was only the thought that he might lose some skin off his hands that stopped him from grabbing the guard rails on both sides to try to arrest his rollercoaster ride.

Barely ten seconds after he'd started his unexpected slide Virgil reached the end. He came to rest on his back next to a pair of safety boots and with his own boots still pointing skywards.

Relieved that the trip was over, Virgil looked up at the boot's owner and, despite the laws of gravity, felt his stomach fall. He scrambled to his feet. "Ah… M-Mr Watts…"

"Mr Tancy?" Watts smiled a mirthless smile. He looked up to where the conveyor started on the gantry and his eyes followed its path down. "And may I ask what you were doing?" His voice was low and menacing.

Virgil heard the sounds of running feet, shushing, and abruptly silenced laughter. He didn't look up, preferring to concentrate on his hands that he'd clasped together tightly in front of him. "I… uh…."

"Yes, Mr Tancy…?"

"I…" Virgil squeezed his eyes shut and for once in his life wished that he had Gordon's gift of the instantaneous excuse. "I… um… tripped over my shoelace… and… I… ah… fell… It was an accident." He finished hurriedly and looked at his boss; hopeful that he sounded sincere.

"It was an accident…" Watts intoned and his face showed that he didn't believe the lie. "You tripped over your shoelace…" His eyes dropped to Virgil's feet and Virgil followed his gaze. Once again, this time aided by gravity's pull, his stomach dropped. His boots were elastic-sided, shoelace free, pull-ons.

"Now…" Watts voice sounded even more dangerous. "Tell me the truth."

Virgil couldn't look at Watts and he didn't want to look at the four men who had got him into this predicament. He stared at his own writhing hands. "It was… an accident…"

"An accident…?"

Virgil nodded.

"Come with me."

Reluctantly, but with no other option, Virgil followed his supervisor into the latter's office.

It was much later, well after afternoon tea had been finished, when he emerged, shaken. His first day of work and he'd been given a final warning. One more misdemeanour and he could kiss his job goodbye. The day couldn't get any worse, could it?

The final hour seemed to drag on forever. Enveloped in his misery Virgil continued linishing, the sounds of the factory muffled by his hearing protection. Sure he could have plugged his music into his earmuffs and made this chore more bearable, but he didn't want to risk be accused of not concentrating on his job. And so he continued… Pick up the strip of metal, remove the corners, place it in the container. Pick up the strip of metal, remove the corners, place it in the container. Pick up the strip of metal, remove the corners…

The final bell of the day sounded as good as, if not better than, every piece of music that Virgil had ever enjoyed. He dropped the last strip of metal back into the tin, turned off the linishing machine, and removed his earmuffs. He took his time to brush the swarf off the machine and sweep the area around clear of dirt.

By the time he'd finished cleaning up the locker room was empty. Stripping off his overalls, Virgil pulled on his jacket, hoisted his daypack over his shoulder and headed out through the deserted factory to his car in the empty carpark. He drove home, dropped his bag on the floor of his studio apartment, ignored the boxes that were due to be unpacked, and headed into the shower, hopeful of washing away the memories of this dreadful day.

He emerged, towelling his hair dry, when the phone rang. The caller ID lifted his spirits and the face on the videophone even more so. "Hi, Father."

"Hello, Virgil. How was your first day of paid employment?"

Not wanting to appear too negative, but not willing to lie, Virgil shrugged. "Different to what I'm used to."

"Anything interesting happen?"

"I'm starting at the bottom of the corporate ladder and I spent all day linishing." Virgil grimaced. "That's hardly an interesting job… But…" he brightened, remembering something that had come to him in the shower, "on the plus side I've thought of a great way of getting into Thunderbird Two!" At least, he reflected, he could say something good had come of this horrible day. "But I can't enter the cabin head first. We'll have to think of a way of turning me around…"

"Virgil…" Jeff interrupted his son's train of thought. "Hamish gave me a call." He sounded casual; almost too much so.

Virgil frowned. "Why?"

"He tells me that Max Watts gave you a final warning."

"He did what!?"

"The report says that you were caught behaving in a dangerous manner. That doesn't sound like you. What happened?"

This was too much. After the day he'd had the last thing Virgil wanted was some busybody snitching to his father. "He had no right to tell you!"

"He's worried about you…" Jeff was quietly conciliatory. "I am too."

"He's worried…" Virgil spluttered, more to himself than to his father. "He called you… I don't believe it… I don't believe him!"

"Give me the names of the people responsible and I'll make sure your record is cleared."

Virgil glared at Jeff. "I thought we'd agreed that once you'd got me this job that was the last help you'd give me."

"But I can't believe that you'd do anything reckless. I want to set the record straight…"

"Because I'm your son…"

"And because it's right. What happened, Virgil? I'd like to hear your side of the story."

"You wouldn't bother with anyone else," Virgil accused.

"Yes, I would. You know me. I believe in fair play. I want the right people held accountable."

"If it hadn't been me involved you wouldn't even know there anything to be accountable for! Hamish Mickelson would have kept his mouth shut!"

"Virgil!"

"How could he?" Virgil was still incensed by the betrayal. "How could he?!"

"He's my friend… He's our friend…"

"Friend!" Virgil snorted. "He's not my friend. He had no right to tell you!"

"He had every right..."

"Every right?! How do you work that out?"

"I own the business."

"So?!!! As the owner of the business does that mean he tells you of every disciplinary issue? Every little misdemeanour?"

"No… But I am your father…"

"Not at ACE you're not. We agreed, remember?"

"Virgil!"

"You're the boss and that's all! I'm not a Tracy there! Or are you trying to tell me that he rings up every employee's father when they do something wrong?!"

"No, of course not… But, Virgil…" Anger was beginning to creep into Jeff's voice.

"But nothing! Mr Mickel… Uncle Hami…" The name confusion only served to increase Virgil's fury. "He should keep his sticky nose out of my business!"

"Virgil…"

"And you can tell him I said so!

"Virgil!"

"It may have escaped your notice, but I'm an adult now!"

"I'm aware of that…"

"Or don't you trust me?"

"Of course I trust you!"

"It doesn't sound like it to me if you're checking up on me!"

"I'm not checking up on you! Hamish was worr…"

"If you can't trust me at ACE then are you sure you're going to be able to trust me with International Rescue? Are you going to trust me with all that expensive equipment? Are you going to trust me with people's lives?"

"Of course I trust you! I trust you implicitly!"

"Sure…" Virgil sneered. "Do you have your astronaut buddies ring you every time John slips up?"

"No, of course not…"

"Does Alan's manager ring you every time he cuts a corner?"

"Now don't be silly…"

"Does the Air Force phone every time Scott made a little mistake?"

"Scott never makes mistakes…!"

Virgil hung up on his father.

He stood there, breathing heavily and thinking that modern technology wasn't all it was cracked up to be if it couldn't even supply you with a handset to slam down. "How dare he?" he fumed. "How dare he!?"

The phone rang, revealing a familiar caller ID.

Virgil pushed a button on the phone and the machine ceased its incessant beeping. "Talk to my voicemail," he snarled at the blank screen. "Cos I don't want to talk to you!" He stalked across to his couch and threw himself onto it. "I don't believe it!"

His cell phone played a familiar march and he switched it off and hurled it onto his bed.

Jeff Tracy's smiling face looked down on him, and Virgil launched himself at another button. The digital photo, and all others showing Jeff's likeness, morphed into a copy of one of Virgil's paintings.

The phone rang again.

"Shut up," Virgil told the instrument and it obeyed, sending the caller to the answering service. He sat down heavily on the stool that served his electronic keyboard, but was too uptight to touch the keys.

The phone rang again.

"Get lost."

The doorbell rang.

The sudden change in sound took the wind out of Virgil's sails. His father had flown back to his head office in Kansas this morning to oversee the full Tracy empire; so he knew it couldn't be him. Could it be Hamish Mickelson here to offer an apology… or demand one?

The doorbell rang again.

Grumbling to himself Virgil got to his feet and strode to the door. "Who's there?!"

"Uh… Virgil…? It's Louis Fleming and Bruce Sanders."

"Huh?" Virgil opened the door and was almost surprised to see his two work colleagues standing there. "Uh… Hi…"

"Hi…" They both offered him weak smiles.

"C-Can we come in?" Bruce asked. "If it's not too much trouble?"

"If you don't mind?" Louis added.

"Uh… Sure…" Virgil stood aside and admitted the two men. "Excuse the mess, I haven't finished unpacking… Have a seat… Um… Would you like something to drink? A beer? Coffee? Juice?" They accepted a beer each and Virgil retrieved the cans from the fridge before pouring himself something chilled from a jug. The liquid's colour was that of three-year-old paint that had separated from its pigment.

"What's that?" Bruce asked, eyeing the strange concoction up.

"Fruit juice mixture," Virgil said. "One of my Grandma's secret concoctions. Has the same kick as beer but without the drawbacks."

"Grandma's secret recipe with eleven secret herbs and spices, huh?" Louis asked with a wry smile.

Virgil grinned. "Only three actually. Do you want to try some?"

Louis made a face. "No, thanks."

Bruce was looking around. "Nice place. Must cost a lot."

"I struck it lucky," Virgil said, "The owner's looking at developing the complex, but the other tenants' contracts don't expire for a year, so he's letting me live here on a reduced rental until then." It was, he reflected with relief, so much easier to be able to tell the truth than lie. "What can I do for you guys?"

"We tried ringing earlier," Bruce began, "but we kept on getting this funny answer phone message so thought we'd come around and talk to you face-to-face."

Virgil looked at him. "Funny?"

"Yeah," Louis agreed. "Something about you being unable to come to the phone because you were painting?"

Virgil frowned. "What? Are you sure it was my phone?"

Louis nodded. "Yep. It said that 'Virgil' was unable to come to the phone. It wasn't your voice though."

"That's odd." As Virgil walked over to the videophone, Bruce took the opportunity to have a quick sniff of his host's drink. He rolled his eyes at Louis as he put the glass down.

Virgil replayed the answer phone's message and a familiar voice came out of the speaker.

"Virgil can't answer, he's come over faint.

He's spent too much time sniffing his paint,

But never fear, you can speak to me,

He's bound to come round when it's time for his tea."

"Gordon," Virgil groaned. "I might have guessed. Even when he's a half a kilometre under water he causes trouble." He looked at his guests and saw two confused expressions. "My younger brother. He's spent the last ten months in a bathyscaphe researching underwater farming methods. Even there he can't resist teasing me. He reckons that I had a funny bone transplant at birth and it didn't take…" Virgil shrugged. "The mood I'm in, maybe he's right." He turned the videophone's mute on and sat back down again.

"If he's been half a k underwater for the last ten months," Bruce began, "how did he manage to change your voicemail message?"

"They're still able to phone out. My youngest brother, Alan, helped me move in. He probably pinched the pass code and gave it to Gordon." Virgil indicated a photo of five young men laughing on a tropical beach; one of the few things that Alan had helped him unpack. "The red-head's Gordon and the blonde between us is Alan. The other blonde's my older brother John and the dark one is the eldest, Scott." Aside from Gordon's Olympic triumph, Alan's car racing and Scott's much publicised crash in Bereznick, the Tracy sons had kept out of the public eye, and Virgil felt no qualms in revealing this part of his life. He replaced the photo in time to see the word 'Father' flash up on the videophone's screen and his anger flared up again. "Leave me alone!" he threw a cushion at the phone.

"Uh... Do you often do that?"

For the briefest of moments Virgil had forgotten that he had company. "No," he admitted, shamefaced that his outburst had been witnessed. "Never… But it's been a bad day and he made it worse."

Louis cleared his throat. "That's why we're here… To apologise."

"Yes," Bruce nodded. "We didn't want to get you into trouble. It was just a test… a kind of initiation to see what kind of person you were."

"Oh…" Virgil said quietly. "Did I pass?"

"You scored higher than you did at Denver," Louis replied with a wry grin. "But why didn't you say it was our fault? You didn't have to take the rap."

Virgil shrugged. "Mr Watts would have blamed me anyway…" He sat forward. "What's he got against me?" The phone flashed 'Father' again and he ignored it. "We hadn't met until today."

"We were discussing that on the way over," Bruce revealed. "We think it's because of his son."

"Yeah," Louis agreed. "'Milli', I mean George, has been studying at Tampar Engineering College."

"Tampar's a good school," Virgil noted.

"Thank you," Bruce grinned. "It's my alma mater too. It's not as flash as Denver, but it's still got some great tutors."

Virgil agreed. "But what's that got to do with me?"

"Mega's been hoping that George'll get a job at the factory," Louis said. "The problem is that the kid is absolutely hopeless. He's been doing work experience at ACE and everything he touches seems to go wrong… But still his old man keeps on hoping that his son will follow in his footsteps and work for the great Jeff Tracy." Virgil smiled at the irreverent description. "Then all of a sudden, when no one even knew that there was a job going, you waltz in with your diploma from the best engineering school in the country, no references, and no questions asked."

Virgil sat back. "Ah."

"We think Mega's annoyed with the desk jockeys," Louis continued. "But he can't yell at them so he's taking his frustrations out on you. Don't worry about him. This time next week he'll have forgotten all about it."

Bruce agreed. "If you don't mind me asking, how did you get the job? Like Lou said, none of us knew there was a vacancy."

The ugly word 'nepotism' reared up in Virgil's mind and he looked embarrassed. "My father and Hamish Mickelson have known each other for years. They were in the Air Force together."

"Really?" It was Bruce's turn to sit forward. "Did your father know Jeff Tracy, ACE's owner? Word is that he was in the Air Force with old 'Micky' too."

"He… ah…" Virgil was getting into murky waters and this time was glad to hear the buzzing of the videophone.

"Are we interrupting you?" Louis asked. "You seem to be missing a few phone calls."

"Don't worry about it, that's what voicemail's for," Virgil waved a dismissive hand. "How'd you guys find my address?"

His guests looked sheepish. "Mega had left your file on his desk," Bruce admitted. "Lou snuck a peek and got your address and phone number."

"While Bruce kept watch," Louis added. "If I'd been caught I would have been out of a job… That's something you and I have in common, Virgil. I've got a 'bleeder' too."

Virgil was starting to feel swamped by all the nicknames and colloquialisms. "Bleeder?"

"Red final warning sheet," Bruce explained. "It was on the top page of your file. That's a bit rough; I would have thought that Mega would have let you off with a warning, since it's your first day."

"He didn't," Virgil remembered grimly. "And news of my 'misdemeanour' has gone all the way to the top."

"To the top? You mean Mega told Micky?" Bruce gasped. "Oh, man, that's rough."

The phone flashed 'Father' again.

"Let me guess… Micky told your dad?" Louis hypothesised. "And your dad's called you?" Virgil nodded. "That's why you're not talking to him?"

Virgil nodded again. "I told him to mind his own business, but I don't think he trusts me."

"Oh, man, that's rough," Bruce repeated. "A bit of a tyrant, is he? Your father?"

"No…" Virgil responded. "Actually we have a pretty good relationship." He sighed. "I guess I'm really mad with Hamish Mickelson for telling him. But I can't yell at the boss, can I?" He gave a rueful grin thinking that that was precisely what he had just done.

"What does your father do?"

"He… ah… He's setting up a new business," Virgil prevaricated.

"The one you're joining next year?" Louis asked. "Doing what?"

"I've been sworn to secrecy," Virgil said truthfully. "Business confidentiality. I'm sure you understand."

"Yeah, sure," Bruce said easily.

Virgil looked at his watch. "How about I order in pizza? I wasn't going to cook tonight anyway." He indicated the unpacked boxes. "All my kitchen gear's hidden in those somewhere."

Louis smiled. "Sounds good. But we'll pay."

"You don't have to do that," Virgil protested.

"Are you kidding?" Bruce responded. "We can't let you buy dinner for us on your first day at work before you've been paid! We'll buy the pizza. It's the least we can do after what happened today."

As far as Virgil was concerned, money wasn't an issue, but he accepted the offer with thanks.

It was late in the evening when Bruce and Louis decided it was time to leave. They were holding a muttered conversation when their host returned after disposing of the pizza boxes. "Say, Virgil," Bruce said, "we were planning on going on a skiing trip this weekend. Would you like to join us?"

Virgil looked at him in surprise and pleasure. "Do you mean that? I was planning on unpacking this weekend, but…" he looked around at the unopened boxes. "That can wait. Where are we going?"

"If," Louis looked at his long-time friend with a mixture of wry humour and exasperation, "Buzz can get that jalopy of his to work, we're heading up to the ski field north of here."

Virgil gave a slight frown. "Aren't those places rather commercialised?"

"Yep," Bruce confirmed. "But I daren't trust my old girl any further than that."

"I've got my pilot's licence," Virgil said, thinking quickly, "How about we fly somewhere more private?"

"Yeah?!" Bruce's face brightened. "Now you're talking! I get sick of all those kids running around screaming. What do you think, Lou?"

"Sounds good to me," Louis confirmed. "We can discuss it in more detail over lunch tomorrow. We'll save you a seat, Virgil…" He winked. "That's if you don't have another appointment to go to."

"Was I that obvious?" Virgil groaned. "You guys were laughing at me and no one else seemed particularly happy to see me, so…"

"Don't worry about the others," Bruce interrupted. "You passed the test so you're one of us now."

"Am I? I'm not sure Butch would agree. Why would he think I'd be interested in his wife?"

"Haven't you met Lisa yet?" Bruce asked as Louis gave an appreciative whistle and leered heavenwards. "She's a real knockout. Gorgeous! She could be a model anywhere in the world! She's got brains to burn, yet she works in our factory and has saddled herself with a walking outhouse. No one can quite believe that she's done it, including Butch, so he warns off all other males that he thinks might be a threat… Take it as a compliment."

"Yeah," Louis agreed. "They say opposites attract, but those two, they're the original odd couple, but they seem devoted to each other…" He shook his head. "I often think that ACE could do away with the press brakes and get Butch to fold the metal instead… Now that's a guy that's gotta have a 'bleeder'."

"Nah," Bruce rejoined. "He's harmless so long as he doesn't think you've got your eye on Lisa."

"Is Butch his name or nickname?" Virgil asked, wondering how long it would be before he scored a new moniker of his own. Louis in particular seemed intent on renaming everyone and everything he came in contact with.

"Name," Bruce replied. "Would you be game enough to give a guy like that a nickname? Except 'Sir', perhaps…" His eyes twinkled. "And before you ask, we've got no idea why Mega's so against it."

"But I was brought up that calling someone 'Sir' was a gesture of respect," Virgil said. "He reacted as if I'd insulted him."

"We don't know what his problem is," Louis admitted. "But don't worry about Mega. He'll soon find someone else to growl at."

"Probably us," Bruce chuckled. "For some reason, my friend," he nudged Louis, "he seems to think that you and I are a bad influence on all his other workers… He's right of course. Catch you tomorrow, Virgil."

"Yeah," Louis agreed. "Later, Veggie."

"See ya." As Virgil closed the door behind his two workmates he chuckled. 'Veggie'?

With a heart that was considerably lighter than it had been a few hours earlier, Virgil felt relaxed enough to be able to listen to his answer-phone messages without his blood pressure rising.

5:14pm: "Virgil Tracy! Remember you are a Tracy and you will always be a Tracy no matter WHAT you decide to call yourself! Don't you ever, EVER hang up on me like that again! Tracy or Tancy you are still my son and I expect you to treat me with the respect I deserve as your father…! Answer this phone…! None of your brothers would dream of treating me like this… I know you are there, so pick up the phone…! I'm waiting… Virgil! Answer the … phone!"

5:17pm: "Virgil, if you don't answer this videophone call, I'm coming back there tonight! And when I get there I'll expect an apology and a full explanation from you! I'm waiting… You can't hide from me forever…! If I have to fly out there you'll be sorry and you can kiss any thoughts of keeping your job at ACE goodbye…! Answer this blasted phone!"

5:20pm: "Look, I'll do you a deal. If you tell me who is responsible for getting you into trouble I won't mention it again… Can you hear me, Virgil…? I know you're listening… Virgil! This is your final warning. If you don't pick up the phone, my next call is to the airport to get my plane ready… Pick up the phone!"

5.25pm: "If you think I don't mean it when I say that I'm coming to sort you out then you are very much mistaken. I… What is it, Mother…!?" This message was concluded withan indistinct, unintelligible conversation.

Virgil sighed and looked at his watch, doing a quick calculation. If his father made good on his threat to return he could expect to see him any moment… and Jeff Tracy would be furious at being dragged back halfway across the States: even more furious than he had been between 5:14 and 5:25.

5:54pm: "Virgil? Are you there?" This wasn't his father's voice. "It's Hamish Mickelson… I… I was hoping to talk to you personally rather than leaving a message on a machine... If you are there please pick up the phone… … I guess you're not there… Look, I'm sorry. I had no right to call your father today. He rang a few minutes ago and told me that you were upset and I can understand why. I behaved in a manner inappropriate to the General Manager of a major corporation. It's just… your father and I go back a long way and I've known you all your life. When Max Watts told me that he'd given you that warning I couldn't believe it. I thought that there had to have been some misunderstanding. Or that perhaps you had issues that I, and Jeff, weren't aware of and I wanted to help… This isn't the way to apologise. If you don't get in too late, would you call me tonight? If not, I'll try to apologise to you personally tomorrow… But maybe not at the factory… Edna's already told me off for not treating you like an adult and I would like to apologise to you man-to-man and I guess work's not the place for that. Call me… Whatever the time… I'll be waiting… Good night, Virgil."

6:07pm: "Virgil? It's Edna Mickelson. That husband of mine should not have rung your father and I've told him so. We'd be delighted if you would come to dinner at our place tomorrow. It'll give your dear grandmother piece of mind to know that you're eating good wholesome home cooking. You'd be here as a friend of the family and not an employee: I will NOT let him talk shop… Let me know if you accept and I'll start planning something special."

6:13pm: This message began with a self-conscious chuckle. "You might want to change your voicemail message. I think your brothers have been… Yes, yes, all right, Mother. I know! I'll do it…"

Virgil grinned. He had no doubt who was the real boss in the Tracy household.

"Look… Virgil… … Son… I've spoken to Hamish Mickelson and we both agree that he shouldn't have phoned me. He did it because he was concerned about you, but he… that is, we… now agree that he shouldn't have involved me in what was an internal matter… And I… Well… Well, I shouldn't have carried on the way I did… I've got to remember that you are an adult and I should treat you like an adult and trust your judgement… … Yes, Mother, I'm getting to that… … Virgil, I… I'm sorry I yelled at you…" There was a sigh. "I'd appreciate it if you'd give me a call… Don't worry about the time… Call me… Please…"

Firstly Virgil rang the Mickelsons to accept Hamish's apology and reluctantly decline Edna's invitation to dinner. While he normally enjoyed their company, and the thought of Aunty Edna's cooking made him drool, he had an idea that his relationship with the rest of his workmates was too fragile to risk this early in his career.

Then he rang his father.

Jeff answered the phone almost immediately. His smile of relief quickly morphed into a more rueful expression. "You took a long time to cool down… Not that I blame you. I almost expected you not to ring."

"I had guests." Virgil smiled at his father. "A couple of guys from work. I was almost expecting you to storm in through the door and give the game away."

"I was close to leaving, believe me," Jeff admitted. "Then something stopped me."

"I heard her."

Jeff chuckled. "I'm sorry about earlier; I overstepped the mark. So did Hamish. I've spoken to him and he admits that he was wrong."

"I know." Virgil responded. "I've just finished talking to him. Aunty Edna's told him off."

"He'll be on bread and water for a week."

Virgil raised an eyebrow. "And you?"

"A month."

Virgil laughed.

"Can we start this evening again?" Jeff requested. "Forget everything we said earlier? Forget that I own ACE? I'm only your father and I want to know how your first day of work went. And…" the rueful smile returned. "I'm curious. Don't tell me any names. Don't give away any secrets. But how on earth did you manage to end up with a final warning on your first day?"

Virgil, taking care not to reveal anything that might incriminate anyone, gave him the full story.

"So it was an initiation?" Jeff asked. "They've got a bit more advanced since my days. We only got the new recruit to go down the road to buy striped paint; things like that."

"I know," Virgil said. "I remember you telling me. I'd even put a few of my tubes of paint in my bag in case they tried that one out on me. I wasn't expecting to be sent for a ride."

"What was it you said about getting to Thunderbird Two, this afternoon?"

"Sliding down that conveyor gave me the idea. We're concealing all the access ways to the various hangars in the lounge, aren't we?"

"That's the idea."

"How about a panel in the wall? I'll stand with my back to it, it'll tip me up and I'll slide onto a conveyor. I don't particularly fancy the idea of sliding the whole way down to the pilot's cabin head first though, so we'll have to work in a point where I can turn around."

"That gets you to the hangar," Jeff mused. "Then what? How are you going to get into your plane? Through the upper bulkhead?"

Virgil shrugged, "Why not? I could slide right off the end onto the pilot's seat."

"Or the pilot's seat could be the actual end of the conveyor and it would fold into three and lock onto the seat's pedestal…" Jeff bit his lip. "You'll still have to get out of your seat to get into your uniform though."

"True," Virgil admitted. "But then I could start warming Two up, select the appropriate pod, and get changed while that's slotting into place."

Jeff nodded slowly. "You might have something there."

"I see Rimmer Corporation's got their order in."

Jeff brightened. "Thunderbird One? Scott's going to be thrilled. How did she look?"

"Like an unexciting piece of metal."

"Good."

Virgil laughed. "Can you tell me something?"

"I'll try."

"Why does Max Watts hate being called 'sir'?"

Jeff grinned. "No one told you not to do it?"

"No," Virgil shook his head. "He nearly bit my head off after about the tenth one."

"I'm surprised he was able to hold it together that long."

Virgil looked at his father shrewdly. "You know why, don't you?"

Jeff had a sly grin. "Oh, I know all right."

"Well…? Come on, Father, spill it. Why doesn't he like being called 'sir'?"

"Now, Virgil, do you expect the owner of Aeronautical Component Engineering to tell one of his employees, and one who's only been on the job one day at that, a secret about that employee's supervisor?"

Virgil scowled. "I might have known you'd manage to twist my argument around somehow."

Jeff laughed. "If you haven't found out by the time you've finished at ACE I'll tell you. That's if Max doesn't tell you himself."

Virgil thought that would be unlikely. He yawned. "I think I'd better go to bed. It's been a tiring day."

"Okay, Virgil," Jeff conceded. "But you might want to consider changing your voicemail message first."

"Gordon…" Virgil growled. "And Alan! One day I've got to come up with a way to get even with them."

"Once Gordon's above the high tide mark I'm sure you'll think of something."

Virgil grimaced. "This is me you're talking to, remember. I couldn't even think of a plausible excuse today. I had to say that I'd tripped over my shoelace." He shook his head in exasperation.

"Do you want to fly back home this weekend?" Jeff asked. "Both your grandmother and I would like the chance to catch up with you and hear how your week's gone."

"I can't. I'm going on a skiing trip with a couple of the guys from work. I thought I'd fly them up to your property at Wooden Horse."

Jeff managed not to look disappointed. "Okay then. Maybe the following weekend?"

"I'll be starting my advanced first aid course that weekend."

This time the disappointment showed. "Oh… Okay."

"I'm sorry…"

"Don't worry about it, Virgil. That course is important for International Rescue and once that starts and we're all living together on the island, we'll probably be trying to work out ways to get away from each other."

"Gordon and Alan at least," Virgil said.

Jeff laughed. "Well… I'd better let you go."

"Give my love to Grandma."

"I will. Enjoy your trip this weekend."

Virgil smiled. "I will. I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun…"

To be continued…