As always, the Thunderbirds characters and universe don't belong to me.
Rated for a bit of harsh language.
Thanks to Sam W for betaing for me, and to the folks at TIWF for all their encouragement.
By the time he got back to his quarters at Boyd Air Force Base, Scott was feeling considerably more like himself. Back in control, and knowing what he had to do. The fact that he had little time didn't worry him. He was, after all, a fighter pilot. Quick decisions weren't an issue for him. He took just enough time to drop his coat and case in the bedroom, and sat down at the computer.
The internet was a great resource. A little more digging than he'd had time for back on the island produced hour after hour of unofficial videos of Thunderbirds air displays. Much closer formation flying than he was used to, but Scott knew he was an excellent precision pilot. He'd be good at this. The high-speed near-misses were very impressive, but he wasn't sure he saw a lot of use for them other than making the crowds gasp. Precision, though, was always useful. Test pilots needed precision.
So did rescue team pilots.
Scott sighed, stopped the playback, and wandered over to the kitchen. What would Mach Twenty feel like? Now he wished he'd taken the chance to sit in the cockpit, had a good look at the controls, asked questions about the swing-wing design and the choice of wheel-less undercarriage. What would she be like to fly, that silver arrow?
What would it be like to spend two days a month flying and the rest of it in boardroom meetings, listening and learning at his father's side, getting to know the captains of industry? For every conversation to be with someone for whom a plane was no more than an alternative office where they could work and travel simultaneously? Even the thought of it was an icy hand round his heart. He couldn't face it. Not yet. Not for his father, not for his family. Not until his reflexes slowed and the high-speed technical flying he craved became a physical impossibility. He was doing the right thing.
It still took him several minutes to settle back to full concentration. What he wanted to know, what he wasn't seeing in these clips, was how they formed up. And, of course, that was done out of site of spectators and cameras. Scott went back to the search engine. Somewhere out there, surely, there had to be some cockpit camera footage. If not from the Thunderbirds, then from some other display team.
He was watching a most interesting clip from the Israeli team, footage of a new recruit learning the ropes, and wishing that he understood what he presumed was Hebrew commentary, when there was a tap at the door. He ignored it.
The second knock couldn't be described as a tap. Scott sighed - clearly whoever it was couldn't take a hint - and crossed to the door, ready with a couple of prime sarcastic lines he'd borrowed from Alan. He didn't use either of them.
"Virgil, what the hell are you doing here? This is not a good time."
Virgil walked past him and stopped, staring at the paused image on the computer screen. "I need a half hour of your time. After that you can throw me out."
"Half an hour, I can manage." Scott blanked the screen, sat down on the swivel chair, and spun round to face the sofa, waving Virgil to it. "So, did Father put you up to this?"
"No, Gordon. And he did the right thing. You're making a huge mistake."
"What, applying to Air Terrainean? I agree. I've changed my mind. Civilian airliners aren't for me."
Virgil relaxed somewhat. "That's great! But then why did you come away from the island early?"
"I'm applying to the Thunderbirds display team."
"Oh, no." The tension was back. "Then I did have to come. Scott, I want you to just listen, because I hate having to say this to you. You've missed the point. None of this is about you."
"It's my career. It's about me."
"Father's offered you the best next step your career could possibly have right now. And don't tell me you don't want it, because I know you better than that. You'd be damn good at it, and you'd enjoy it. So what's your problem?"
"What comes with it. Working for Father. And it wouldn't just be piloting, Virg. You know that."
"I know what you think it would be. You've had people pointing you out as Jeff Tracy's heir since you were crawling. And you've always thought you couldn't walk away from that. But think about it…I walked away from a music scholarship everyone expected me to take because it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. The sky didn't fall, the world didn't end. I'm still part of the family and I still play piano."
"There were other people to take that scholarship. If I don't get involved with the corporate side of things, who's going to do it? You?"
Virgil shrugged. "Maybe, if it was only part time. John? Alan? One of Father's current vice-presidents? Somebody who actually wants to? Why does that matter, right now? There are plenty of corporate executives out there. It's time you sat down and figured out what you want to do, Scott."
Scott stared, speechless.
"I'm done. I guess I didn't need half an hour."
Finally, Scott's voice worked. "I figured out what I wanted to do when I was eight years old. All I've ever wanted since then was to be an astronaut. It's not going to happen, Virg, and...nothing else is the same." There. It was said.
Virgil just looked at him, and now the look wasn't exasperation any more, but raw sympathy and understanding.
"I'm a damn good pilot, Virg. I'd have been a damn good astronaut. And I'm sick to death of nobody noticing or caring because they're so busy digesting 'Tracy'."
Virgil frowned. "Of course they notice. I mean, they put you on the front line before. You were shot down, for heaven's sake. They decorated you, for saving your wingman."
"I know. But they didn't like it."
Virgil just looked at him, and Scott sat forward, trying to explain something which was almost beyond words.
"I'm a by-the-book guy. I follow orders. I keep my nose clean. I don't embarrass the family name, or the Air Force."
Virgil snorted, making a face. "Staying with Fred instead of saving your own ass wasn't exactly disobeying orders."
"No, but it didn't make 'em happy. I couldn't leave my wingman, Virg. Not when he couldn't manoeuvre and he was just sitting there waiting for them to pick him off. I took the second missile for him. And I've been paying for it ever since, because that's when they realized that I'd always make sure I was the one in the way of danger. And now they won't assign me anywhere remotely near it. I can't be trusted to keep Jeff Tracy's son safe."
No horrified sympathy. No outrage. Virgil just said, "That sucks," got up, and headed for the kitchen.
It took several seconds for Scott to realise what his brother was doing, and then he was forced to laugh. "Am I really that predictable?"
"Coffee when you're upset? Only for about the last fifteen years."
"So, did you have a good flight down?" It was banal, totally unrelated to anything that mattered - but he needed a change of subject. Any change of subject.
"Fine. Weather's all over the place, though - it's warmer in Denver than it is here, and the wind patterns!"
"Oh? I had a good flight back, and it's calm enough here."
"It is now. Scott, come here a minute."
There was sudden concern in his brother's tone, and Scott stood up and joined him at the kitchen window, looking out towards the ocean.
"What does that cloud look like to you?"
Scott considered it, absorbing the deep, murky yellow-green. "It can't be," he said.
"That's a tornado cloud, or I didn't grow up in Kansas."
"We don't get tornadoes here, Virg!"
Not here, not in San Diego, close to the middle of the city, and coming in from over the ocean. But he'd seen tornados before, growing up in Kansas, and they'd all looked very much like that. Way too dark for an ordinary storm, and with a sight-defying blurriness out towards the horizon. As the base of the cloud dropped visibly, narrowing and forming an evil black funnel-shape, there was no longer any question. Scott went to the phone.
"Tower? Captain Tracy here. You've got a tornado coming in fast from the west."
There was casual dismissal on the other end of the line.
"Yeah, I know this is San Diego. I grew up in Kansas. If I'm wrong, you can have a good laugh at my expense later. For now, get anyone on the runway in the air fast, and have everyone else head north or south. My authority. Do it!"
He put the phone down as the line went dead, hoping that this indicated they were getting on with it rather than considering it a hoax. Certainly the planes he could see were all starting to taxi towards the takeoff end of the runway, rather faster than was usual. They could get lucky here. It looked as if everything standing out had a pilot in it, ready to fly.
And then he froze. He'd remembered what was over just beyond the hangars. Just as the tip of the funnel reached the land, and the blurriness spread exponentially as the whirling air found dust and debris to pick up. Knowing it was much too late to make any difference, he grabbed for the receiver again and dialed a 9 followed by a 1, and then swore furiously as the lights went out and the phone died.
Virgil grabbed him by the shoulder as he tried uselessly to reset the phone. "It's gonna hit us full on! Get in the corridor, Scott, now!"
Scott glanced back towards the window, and the image burned itself on his memory. Whirling blackness, filled with dirt, debris, litter, roof tiles, larger shapes moving too fast for him to identify, and a noise like a roaring freight train heading right for him. He just stood and stared - and was slammed to the wall opposite his own front door as Virgil removed him bodily from his own apartment and slammed the door behind them.
There was a moment of eerie silence. And then the whole building shuddered, and there was a staggeringly loud smash of breaking glass. Two breathless seconds later, the same sound from the other side of the building, and then quiet. Just briefly, before doors started opening and people looked to him for instruction.
"Earthquake?" That from a new transfer.
"No phone signal," Virgil put in quietly. "Power must be out, to the masts."
"Damn. No surprise, though. It was a tornado," Scott told them, glancing around to see who he had here. "Phillips, Watson, get over to the base, report to whoever's senior over there. James, McWilliams, check nobody's hurt in here. Adams, you're with me. Get your medical kit. You too, Virg. It went right through the base nursery."
It would have been a mile or more round the perimeter of the airfield. They didn't need to go round. They didn't even need to open the doors of the accommodation block. The glass from them was now scattered in a million tiny fragments on the sidewalk. Out on the road in front was a complete carpet of glass sparkling in the sun. The tornado blackness was gone as if it had never been there.
Virgil hesitated. "Any chance that's safety glass?"
"Military accommodation this close to an airbase? It's a certainty." Scott crunched his way across the road, walked right through a giant rent in the airfield's security fence, and set off at a not-quite-sprint straight back along the path of destruction.
Four hundred yards took him across the runway to the base's largest hangar, now with a giant rent in its roof. Scott ignored the shocked queries from the technicians just starting to cluster in front of it, and headed towards the path round the side. He could hear the wailing of sirens and see the base's emergency vehicles weaving their way between debris down the runway towards them. These people didn't need his help. They needed him to be out of the way. There were fuel tanks in there, lines, cleaning chemicals, and he could see puddles of who-knew-what on the hangar floor, quite possibly substances which would require special handling. Definitely a job for the experts.
The perimeter fence here was twisted and flattened, but not torn. Scott picked his way through ten feet of chainlink, over the razor wire strands which had topped it, and stood, trembling with the effort, in the nursery playground. Virgil had just reached the fence. Mark Adams, encumbered by his medical kit, was just coming round the side of the hangar. Scott steeled himself and headed for the door.
There was a degree of screaming coming from inside - which, he supposed, had to be a good thing. At least the roof hadn't come down and crushed them all. And the walls, on this side at least, appeared intact. But it also meant that nobody inside paid the slightest attention to his shouts.
Virgil arrived, puffing somewhat, and simply gasped, "Stand back." Scott did as he was told. Eight years earlier, a number of colleges would have been very happy to see Virgil on their football team. Virgil had made his feelings on the matter very plain by opting for an engineering college that didn't even have a football program. He still had the build, though, and hit the door with a shoulder charge that any NFL running back would have been proud of. It splintered satisfyingly around the catch.
It was, Scott realised, fortunate that the door hadn't been fully locked. Even Virgil couldn't have smashed his way through top and bottom deadbolts in a hurry. But at two in the afternoon, the only lock had been a single catch to prevent unaccompanied children from wandering out, or uninvited visitors wandering in.
"Hello!" he called, stepping inside around broken polystyrene ceiling tiles. "Anyone hurt in here?"
The wailing continued, but he thought he heard an adult's voice through it. Down the corridor and to the left. He picked his way to the door, and opened it to find a scene of devastation.
The room was open to the sky. The remnants of a suspended ceiling littered the floor, its metal support beams now held up across child-sized furniture. Cables trailed from one side of the room to the other, some resting on the toys. The glass in the window had shattered here, too - and this had clearly not been safety glass, from the lethal daggers still clinging to the frames in places. Over that side of the room, a young woman worked frantically over another, thankfully adult-sized, figure, both of them covered in blood. The screaming was coming from in here, low down.
Scott waved Virgil past him towards the casualty and crouched down to investigate. Rows of saucer-sized eyes met his from under the tables, and the screaming was replaced with pathetic whimpering. Well, that was an improvement, at least. But this was an awful situation for them to be in. The power was out at the moment - but if it came back on, and one of those kids did something stupid, they'd be fried. Virgil had at least as much first aid training as he did, and Mark Adams was a qualified emergency room doctor trying to make a career jump to flight surgeon, and would be here any second. They could handle the casualty. He had to get the kids out.
"Hey there," he ventured to the nearest pair of eyes.
The blonde-curled child whimpered and tried to burrow into the wall. Not a good start.
"My name's Scott. What's yours?"
No response, but the boy behind her said something like "Siddy."
"Siddy? That's a nice name. Come on out, Siddy."
No response from her, but there were a few snuffles of laughter from further in. Well, Scott could get names wrong with the best of them.
"Okay, Siddy, you stay there for a bit. How about you?" He reached under, towards the next child, who he rather thought he'd seen before. "Are you Middy?"
Almost a giggle, as the dark-skinned boy in question pushed past the other, took his hand rather nervously, and stood up, staring wide-eyed at the debris. "I'm Charlie. And my dad's a pilot."
"I thought I recognised you. Your dad's Mason, right? I'm a pilot too. You go - carefully- and stand right by the door, Charlie." He reached back under the table. "Is there a Tiddy in here?"
'Tiddy' turned out to be Emma, brown plaits with hairs sticking out in every possible direction, and thumb firmly in mouth.
"Is your dad a pilot too?" Scott asked her, lifting her over towards Charlie at the door.
She shook her head and muttered something round the thumb which might have been 'mommy'.
"That's nice," Scott smiled, and crouched back down. "Middy?"
Thirteen children stood by the door in short order, and Scott eventually had to give up on being gentle and go in after the recalcitrant one. She shrieked and yelled, but Scott hadn't had four younger brothers without learning a trick or two about catching small children who didn't want to be caught.
"There now, Siddy," he told her as he extracted both of them, "that wasn't so bad, was it? Now we're all going outside where it's safer."
"Not safer," Charlie told him, the whites of his eyes showing all around in genuine fear. "Hurricane out there!"
"Nado," said another little boy firmly. "Dangerous."
"No tornadoes here," his friend stated.
"It was a tornado, and it's gone now, " Scott reassured them. "We all need to go...to go make sure the ambulance for your teacher knows where to park." He'd vaguely registered Virgil on his cellphone calling for one, the moment Mark arrived and he had a spare hand. Thank heavens for redundant systems and multiple phone masts.
"Missa wanted to shut the blinds so the glass wouldn't hit us," Emma told him, "but it hit her instead."
"That was very brave of her," Scott said, resisting the urge to comment just how stupid it had been.
"Is she hurt?" someone asked.
"Want Missa," the child in his arms whimpered.
"Dr Adams is looking after her," Scott assured them, trying to wipe the image of all the blood from his mind. Thankfully, from child's eye level, it was much less visible. "And my brother, and your other teacher. Now, let's go outside out of their way. Missa will feel much better if she knows you're all safe."
He wasn't sure what he'd have done if they'd refused to cooperate. These, though, were military brats. If their families were anything like his, they were used to the concept of people being given orders. Charlie opened the door and reached for the hand of the child alongside him without a murmur, and the rest of them followed suit and filed away in short order, even if one of them was still scowling and muttering about his daddy saying they didn't get tornadoes here. Scott breathed a sigh of relief as he followed the last of them out of the front door.
He badly wanted to start phoning people. If he'd had any sense, he'd have gone to the bedroom and rescued his cellphone from his coat pocket the moment he'd seen the cloud. Or pocketed Virgil's on his way out of the classroom. It was too late now - he couldn't leave fourteen under-fives outside without an adult, not even if they were all shell-shocked and whimpering, curled in little heaps as far from the building as they could get. Scott was fifteen years away from Alan being this small and unhappy, but he knew this wasn't right. He sat down alongside the most obviously weeping child.
"Now, were you Middy or Biddy?"
"I'm Katie, and I want my mom!"
"Where's your mom now?"
"In a plane!" the child wailed, and almost threw herself into his lap.
"And my dad," another one said.
Siddy was silent, but her eyes were huge as she nodded, bottom lip trembling.
"Then they're fine. They're all fine." Scott put a long arm out round as many children as he could reach. "Look over there. Do you see that big tall building with all the windows at the top?"
Charlie gave him the pitying look which very small children reserve for ignorant adults. "That's called the control tower. It's where they tell the pilots when to land and take off."
Scott smothered a smile. "I'm sure you're right. But - look at the windows. Are they broken?"
Fourteen heads swivelled upwards, as fourteen pairs of eyes squinted against the brightness. "No," thirteen voices chorused.
"See, tornados are very powerful. But they're not very big, at least this one wasn't. It broke your nursery, and the hangar over there, and the fence, and the windows of my apartment block, but that's about all. The tower told all the planes to stay away where it was safe. Now there are bits of hangar roof all over the runway, and I expect your moms and dads will have to fly to another airfield to land, but then they'll be back." He stopped as an ambulance, siren wailing, pulled up on the road outside. "Give me some space, kids. I have to let them in."
Even Siddy let go of him as he stood up and hurried to open the gate into the nursery grounds. The ambulance pulled in, and the driver jumped out.
"Did you make the call, sir?"
"My brother. Through that door, down the corridor, second on the left."
"Do you work here? Are you in charge of these kids?"
He reached back inside the vehicle and toggled the radio. "Dispatch, code twelve, about a dozen preschoolers." Heading for the door with his partner, he offered, "Stay with them for now," over his shoulder, before the pair of them vanished inside.
"Aren't you supposed to be with us?" asked a child whose name he had already forgotten.
"Well, I'm a pilot, and your parents probably want you looked after by proper teachers. I guess that man will have them send someone."
Charlie's face fell. "You could take us to see your plane. We'd be real good!"
"I'm sure you would, kid. But now's not a real good time, with all the mess from the tornado and everything." Scott looked around him at disappointed little faces. "How's this? You've all been so good, I'll see if I can arrange for you to come see the planes when everything's fixed.
They were still cheering when Virgil emerged from the door, followed by a young woman who the children greeted ecstatically as 'Helen'. Both were bloodstained and visibly shaken, but Virgil gave Scott a quick thumbs-up in response to his questioning look.
Mark Adams followed shortly afterwards, looking relieved. He crossed to Scott.
"Captain, with your permission I'll report to base, in case I'm needed somewhere else."
Scott nodded and waved him off, and he disappeared round the corner back towards the hole in the fence.
Helen had a cellphone and a list of contact numbers for the children's parents. By the time the paramedics emerged with Missa on the gurney, five adults had already arrived to collect their children. Two were pilots known to Scott, including Charlie's father, a cheerful man who had to flirt even closer than Scott did with the maximum height restriction on fighter pilots.
"Captain Tracy! Uh - sir, what are you doing babysitting?"
"I saw the tornado touch down, and remembered you telling me what the building behind the hangar was."
"And you came over here to help? Thank you, sir. Thank you."
"And he said he'd take us all to see his plane!"
Scott exchanged amused glances with the other man, not ready to even start contemplating how he was going to manage it. He would, though. He didn't break promises.
Ten minutes later, 'Siddy' turned out to be Sadie, and was handed over to a mother tearful in her gratitude. And that left only three children still unspoken for by the time the ambulance finally left and a large jolly lady showed up from the ambulance station. She was armed with juice and toys for the children, and a minibus to take them somewhere safe until those parents who hadn't been reached could get back to collect them.
Helen saw the last of the children strapped into the minibus before coming back to where Scott and Virgil stood watching.
"I haven't had a chance to thank you. I don't even know your names, or where you came from."
"Scott Tracy," Scott told her. "I'm an instructor at the base here. This is my brother Virgil, he's from out of town. And there's no need for thanks. We were in the right place at the right time."
"Thank you," she said simply, stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek, and hurried back to the waiting minibus. Three little hands waved goodbye through the rear window, and it pulled away.
Virgil smiled ruefully. "And, yet again, the blue eyes have it. Come on, Scott. I could murder that coffee." He walked briskly round the building, while Scott decided he ought to shut the gate and headed briefly the other way. "Uh...Scott?"
Scott changed direction, and found himself faced by an armed Air Force guard, rifle in his hands, on the far side of the flattened fence. "Hi there, Tom."
"Captain Tracy," the man responded. "Sir, I'm sorry, Lieutenant Adams told me you went through this way, but I can't let you back in. Not with a civilian. Sorry, sir."
Scott sighed. "I understand. Come on, Virgil. The walk will do you good."
It would do him good, too. He badly needed to clear his head and think through what had just happened. And, four hundred yards round the perimeter, he decided discussing it with someone else wasn't such a bad idea either.
"I made a right mess of that."
Virgil grunted enquiringly.
"We were lucky nobody died in there. If the power had come back on, there would have been live cables everywhere. You'd have been fried, working on top of them like that. I should have had that woman - Helen - come deal with the kids the moment Mark arrived. I could have called the ambulance and made sure the power was off at the mains."
"I'll remember that the next time we're in a nursery that's been hit by a tornado."
"Come on, Virg. You know what I mean."
His brother stopped walking. "I know exactly what you mean. A situation like that needs somebody standing back and looking at the bigger picture."
"Someone who's on the scene fast, making sure the right thing gets done, not just the first, most obvious one."
"Someone whose instinct is to analyze what he could have done better, even when what he did worked out just fine."
Scott looked sideways, but his brother's face was unreadable. He was quite sure that this whole line of discussion was associated with his father's proposed rescue team, but just how much Virgil knew was unclear to him. And Virgil's conflict of interest was, if anything, even more pronounced than his own. Scott didn't like to consider that Virgil might have been trusted when he hadn't been.
"Of course, they don't have tornadoes in San Diego," Virgil commented a little further down the road.
"They don't. Always a first time for everything, though." Scott indicated the now perfect blue sky. "I don't think those women had ever seen one. Or thought about what it might do."
"And the builders of that nursery should be shot. Safety glass in the accommodation blocks, but not in a building full of preschoolers? That's criminal."
"At the very least, it's negligent. I'll certainly be commenting. I mean, that tornado was what? A one?"
"Just about. It tore some sheets off the hangar roof next door, and that was about it. The nursery was trashed. Bad building, and bad materials." Virgil gestured around him. Undamaged perimeter fence on one side of the road, untouched windows on the other. "It was real local. These folks probably don't know anything happened."
"Nothing should have happened. Tornadoes in San Diego? In spring?"
"Climate change. Too much CO2. It's happening all over."
This time Scott was the one to stop dead. "Yeah. I guess that's one more reason for me to give up on being a pilot, isn't it?"
"I didn't say that."
"No, you didn't." He started walking again, eyes forward and chest tight.
There was an awkward silence for several hundred yards round the road, and it wasn't until they came back into sight of Scott's apartment block that Virgil spoke again.
"I didn't mean to imply that less is the answer. We need a different fuel source. That's all I meant."
"Yeah. Sorry." Scott stopped again, and offered his hand. "My career's a sore point right now."
"I noticed." Virgil pointed to the silhouetted figure on the steps of the building, very obviously another military guard complete with rifle. "They've been quick with the security. Do you think he'll let you in?"
"Since I live here, I'd..." Scott's voice trailed off as he dug in his pockets and encountered only the cloth at the bottom. "I don't suppose you picked up my keys on your way to removing us both to the hallway?"
"Shit. How are your lockpicking skills?"
Virgil dug in his own pockets. "Since I'm carrying a wallet and a handkerchief, not so good."
"In that case --" Scott stopped as he recognised the man coming out to speak to the guard, and took off towards the door. "Hey! Frank!"
Both men turned and waited, as he picked his way rather more circumspectly through the rounded ball-bearings of shattered safety glass.
"Can you let me into my apartment?"
"Forgot your key, Captain Tracy?" the building's supervisor laughed.
"My brother shut the door in a big hurry when we realised the tornado was going to hit us."
"It was a tornado, then? Man, that was scary."
Scott managed a grin. "It was a very small tornado."
"You call that small? Look at this mess!"
"I'm from Kansas. That was small. You still have a roof." He considered adding, which is more than the base nursery does, but decided it would only worry the man, and there was nothing more that needed doing over there for the time being.
Frank West, San Diego born and bred, as he proudly announced to everyone who moved into the building, gulped in some horror. "I'd sure hate to see a big one. Come with me, Captain. I'll get you the spare key - then you'll want to be getting over to the administration block. They're arranging temporary accommodation until we can get the windows fixed, or at least boarded. I don't know whether they'll be able to find anything for your brother, but you can try."
Scott hung back to ensure that Virgil wasn't stopped by the guard, smiling to himself. If only everyone was like Frank West. The man knew full well who Scott's father was, that he could probably put an entire hotel on his credit card if he chose to - and yet he still treated him just like everyone else in the building, telling him the Air Force would find him a bunk. Because Scott was a pilot, and that was what they were doing for the pilots right now.
Off-base accommodation wasn't as restricted as the airfield itself normally, or, indeed, now. Shortly, Scott and Virgil were heading up the stairs armed with Frank's master key and instructions to bring it right back.
"Oh, man," Virgil said as Scott opened the apartment door. "This is some mess."
Scott walked in, bending down to retrieve a picture from the floor. Glass crunched underfoot - but it was from the window. The glass in his picture frames was near-indestructible, on advice from his father, who'd also spent a career moving from one base to another.
"I needed to start packing up in any case. But - yeah. Hell of a mess."
"Out of the window?" Scott considered the bare shelf, trying to reproduce mentally what might have been on it. He'd never used it for much - it got too hot in the sunshine to keep anything important there. He'd left a photo there and it had faded rather rapidly - a bit like his relationship with the girl in it, really. Grandma had sent him a plant, once, a flowering violet, but the poor thing had fried within days. And he wasn't much of a fan of cacti. There might have been a coffee mug or two there, possibly. "I don't think so. Nothing that mattered."
"That's something, at least." Truth be told, Virgil seemed more concerned about the apartment than he was. Scott really didn't care - of all the places he'd lived, this was the one he'd considered most transitory, that he'd wanted out of. And he wanted out of here now, this minute, glass all over the carpet and living room open to the elements notwithstanding. And not to some assigned bunk, either.
"Give me five minutes to grab some clothes. I'm still on leave. I'm going to a hotel." He glanced sideways. "And I'd really like for you to come with me. I'm not thinking straight here, Virg. I need someone to bounce this off, before I do something real stupid."
Virgil didn't so much as raise an eyebrow. Virgil, utterly dependable, non-judgemental. There when he needed him. It was way past time that he took advantage of having a brother like that, laid all his cards on the table, and asked Virgil what he thought. Because he simply had to do something, and right now all he was managing was to oscillate from one poorly-thought-out option to another.
It was another hour until they finally got the mug of coffee Virgil had started making before the tornado hit. By then they'd shifted everything that mattered in his open-to-the-elements apartment into his windowless bathroom just in case the tornado should have had a friend, used Virgil's now-working cellphone to call a cab to take them to the hotel their father generally used when he was there, checked in (the black credit card and surname of 'Tracy' had procured them a more than adequate two bedroom suite on the top floor) and were sitting sprawled in a pair of leather armchairs positioned conveniently either side of a low table holding a coffee percolator. Scott wasn't quite sure what the concierge had made of him saying he didn't care what room he had, so long as it had two beds and a decent coffee maker, but it had worked.
Virgil absorbed his first mug fast enough to make even Scott cringe, refilled it, downed half of that, and then put it down deliberately. "So. I'm here to be bounced off. What's eating you, Scott? You never even mentioned display team flying before. Alan I could see making that sort of decision on a whim. It's not you at all."
"I know, and that's what scares me." Scott took another swallow of coffee, and forced himself to put his mug alongside Virgil's. He hated to think just how much caffeine he'd been ingesting recently, and it couldn't be good for him. "I can't stay here. I can't get an active duty posting. NASA won't look at me. The civilian test pilot jobs all go to ex military test pilots for the fast stuff, and I'm not a big iron pilot. And Father offered me my dream job."
"Test piloting, or the other?"
Scott grimaced. "We've got to stop skating round the point here, Virg. How much do you know, and how long have you known it?"
"I know Dad wants to start up a rescue team, and that he thinks it needs to be secret. And that there are some kick-ass airframe designs involved. One of them's mine - the big cargo lifter I'm working on. Father had to tell me a year or so back, when I asked his advice on some of the patenting, because I was going to lock it to Tracy Aerospace, and it would have been curtains for his team being anonymous. And, for the record, I only didn't tell you because he promised he was going to eventually. But there's something small and fast involved too, and I'm guessing he's asked you to pilot it and lead his team."
Scott breathed a sigh of relief. No subterfuge involved. Just pretty much what had happened with him: Virgil had been told only when not telling him would have been detrimental. "That's about the sum of it."
"And the problem is?"
"That he offered me the job because I'm his son. I've been fighting that my whole life, Virg."
"It never occurred to you that he asked you because you're the best person for the job?"
"What? A flight instructor who couldn't make test pilot?"
"That isn't your fault and you know it. Dad knows it too."
Scott wasn't aware he'd gone back to the coffee until he caught himself putting down an empty mug. He put his hand over the top as Virgil reached for it to refill it.
"I've had enough. Tell me this, then. How come he only offered it when he found out my career had fallen apart?"
"Because he didn't know how unhappy you were before that. You know you never tell him anything unless you absolutely have to. You sure as hell never whine about your problems. And he'd never have asked you to choose between him and something you loved doing."
Scott looked at him, surprised. "You really do think he's right, don't you?"
"This time, yeah. Besides, having you as the boss has got to have a few perks."
"Oh, so that's it, is it? You think you're going to get away with murder on a daily basis with me in charge?"
Virgil just grinned. Scott stared at his coffee mug for a long moment, his own smile fading. "So, supposing I take it. How will I show my face at an airfield again? I'll have proved them all right."
"You mean the ones who aren't jealous as hell because you get to fly the most modern planes Tracy Aerospace builds? The ones who'd cheerfully drag you into a back alley to get this opportunity? To put it bluntly, Scott, things won't change. You'll get the same crap you've always had about being Jeff Tracy's son. Only at least now you'll also get the upside of it." Virgil paused. "The guy who flies that fast response plane, the one with no name? Him they'll respect. You deserve to be him. Not some display team guy who went there because he couldn't make test pilot."
Scott still didn't look up, and found a cellphone being put in his lap.
"When's the last time you discussed Tracy Aerospace with Father?"
He had no answer.
"You never have, have you? Commercial confidentiality and all that? You've never actually sat down and discussed with him what would happen when. You simply assumed you had no choice but to be mini-Jeff."
Scott just sat and breathed. No, he never had discussed it with Dad, not that he remembered. Discussing it would have meant expressing an interest he didn't want to have. Or have made him choose between a career path he really didn't want and disappointing his father. It had been so much easier for all of them for him to ignore the issue and get on with his Air Force career, just as his father had before him. He was now almost the age his father had been when he had gone to the moon. Only a few years younger than Jeff had been when his wife had died and he'd been forced to give up his own military career. By his age, Jeff had been a father of one, with a second on the way. He remembered his father being only a couple of years older than his current age, when John was born. That horrified him.
"Call him, Scott. Please. Tell him what you want and what you don't, and see whether it lines up with what he wants from you. I'm betting it's pretty darn close. If not, what have you lost? He's not going to sever all ties with you because you tell him you don't want to go corporate. Trust me on that one. I already tried it."
This time he did look up. "You told Father you wanted nothing to do with Tracy Aerospace?"
"He asked me if I would consider overseeing a bunch of research projects for him, at board level. I said no, that I wanted to be doing the designing, not approving it. I don't think he was particularly surprised, or disappointed. He just felt he should ask."
"He offered you board level, and you said no?"
"And he wasn't upset or offended? And he still told you about this rescue team of his? And you're designing something for him? And he's not tried to make you give up your civilian work?"
"No. Yes. Yes. No. Scott, I'm going to make a mistake sooner or later. He's not played the control freak at any point, if that's what you're getting at. He never has. That's your conscience doing that. Not him. And before you ask, Father made me promise not to tell you, because he wanted to do it himself when the time was right."
"I guess we'll have to agree to differ on when the right time was. But you're going to come on board later, be part of his rescue crew? Not just an engineer?"
Virgil grinned. "Like you said, you're no big iron pilot. Who do you think's going to fly my cargo hauler, once she's built?"
Scott shut his eyes. "A family team. You, John and Gordon. Alan?"
"Alan knows nothing. He's just a kid, Scott, even if he is so damned talented it's ridiculous. Much younger than Gordon, more even than his age would suggest. Gordon was serving in WASP, at the age that Alan was a freshman partying in Colorado. He'll be told, when it's the right time for him. This time, we'll make sure it is the right time."
Alan would be told - of course he would. By the time he'd graduated, Father's organisation would be up and running, impossible to hide from someone as bright as he was. Alan would end up flying the silver plane at twenty times the speed of sound. They'd all be involved, except him. And he'd have walked away to some job he didn't even particularly want, too proud to ask whether he could have what he wanted above all else, because of a catch which Virgil said he was only imagining even existed.
Scott Tracy was a proud man. But not too proud to admit he'd made a mistake. He closed his hand round the cellphone and stood up, feeling happier than he had done in a very long time.
"Mind if I borrow this for a few minutes? I need to call Dad and ask for a job."