John Tracy was sick.
Which meant John Tracy wasn’t allowed to go home.
Sure, he could say that he was home, but it didn’t really feel like home. It was full of brothers and people he loved, but it didn’t feel like home.
Home was among the stars.
But apparently astronauts with the flu weren’t allowed to go home.
“It won’t be for long, John. It will be over before you know it.” Virgil was kind and reassuring, but it didn’t really help.
He wanted to go home.
He was determined to work, of course. Until Scott caught him and cut him off.
There were some loud words over that, but the medical department of IR (aka Virgil) sided with the command department (aka Scott) and yeah, he was grounded, cut off from his ‘bird, holed up in his room and miserable.
Of course, his brothers attempted to cheer him up. Alan dumped himself on his bed chattering away with his latest game, all eager enthusiasm. Gordon brought him a pet crab. Even cared for it for him. John was left wondering if it was a snarky metaphor as the crab sat under a rock all day and had a distinct grumpy appearance.
Virgil and Scott were more subtle, but no less caring. Scott ran ideas past him for communications improvements. Piano music and the occasional piece of art found its way into his rooms uninvited.
He appreciated it. Truly, he did.
He just wanted to go home.
The morning he woke up with a cat sleeping on his chest was the last straw.
“C’mon, guys. You know I’m allergic to cats. Are your trying to kill me?” He held the cat out at arm’s length just waiting for his nasal passages to swell up. Though at this point considering his condition, he wasn’t really sure he would notice.
The cat meowed pitifully at him.
Scott arched an eyebrow.
Gordon looked guilty....but then he always looked guilty. John was sure it was an inbuilt survival strategy.
Alan was cooing at the cat and reaching out to scratch it under the chin.
It was an orange stripy thing with big whiskers and that ragdoll floppiness all cats sported.
“Gordon?” Scott’s arched eyebrow was now pointed at the aquanaut.
“What are you looking at me for? I got him the crab, why would I get him a cat? The cat will eat the crab.” Gordon frowned at John. “Don’t let the cat eat the crab.”
Not a sentence John had ever predicted hearing in his lifetime.
“Can someone please take this thing?” He held out the cat even further.
Virgil, still frowning, gently collected the cat from John’s hands and automatically curled it up in his arms. A finger scratched under its chin.
“Thank you. I’m going back to bed.”
And he did.
The next time he woke, a pair of green feline eyes were staring at him, the cat, once again, curled up on his chest.
It meowed at him and poked his nose with a paw.
He must have yelled a little too much because next minute his big brother barrelled into the room, panic on his face. “John, what the-?!”
His eyes landed on the cat and his shoulders literally sagged. “Goddamnit, that’s where you are. I’ve been looking for you for hours.” Virgil reached to pick up the cat.
The cat turned from mild mannered bed companion to spitting and screeching demon within a blink. Virgil yelped and fell backwards, his feet slipping on the mat and his butt hitting the floor with a crash.
One of John’s telescopes teetered before tipping ever so slowly. Virgil saw it and struggled to catch it. “Shiiit!” He threw himself in its path and the four-foot metal cylinder landed in his lap.
There was an oomph and Virgil was flat on his back on the floor.
Demon cat kneaded John’s chest a little before settling once more.
It began to purr.
“Virgil? You okay?”
His brother grunted and John struggled out of bed, shoving the cat out of the way. “Virgil?”
“I’m good.” It was up an octave higher than normal. “Sorry about your telescope.”
John grabbed the telescope off his brother and righted it. It was his own fault for leaving it there in the first place. Stargazing from bed was a habit much more easily exercised on TB5.
Virgil waved off his offered hand and rolled over, pushing himself to his feet with another grunt. He eyed the cat with suspicion. “I thought we had an understanding, Bagel.”
The cat eyed Virgil with equal suspicion.
“Gordon claims it is your cat so needs a John name.”
“A John name?”
“Yeah, Bagel it is.”
“It’s not my cat! And where did it come from anyway?” John frowned at Virgil. “Another stowaway on Two.”
“No! You know we have sensors for that now. And besides, that was only once.”
“Once. The polar bear doesn’t count.”
“The polar bear most assuredly does count. Alan still hasn’t forgiven you.”
“It was a polar bear, Virgil.”
“Yeah, well, that is your cat.”
“That is not my cat.”
“Apparently she has decided she is yours.” Virgil held up his hands. Several scratches decorated his skin. “I have enough of these already. She’s yours.”
Virgil peered up at him, brown eyes assessing. “You don’t appear to be suffering a reaction. She’s been gone for hours. If she has been here, on your chest all that time, you should be showing the affects. All I can see is the remains of your flu.” A frown. “Are you feeling any better?”
It was John’s turn to frown. He had almost forgotten he was ill, but now his attention returned to his body, the signs were clear.
But he was feeling a little better.
Virgil reached up and squeezed his arm. “Good. You hungry?”
A brief consultation with his stomach and he realised that yes, he was. “Yes, I think so.”
A smile spread over his brother’s face. “Great. You’re on the mend.” Another squeeze of his arm and Virgil turned towards the door. “Meet you in the kitchen. Scott went all out this morning and made pancakes. I stashed you some. Gotta grab them before Gordon discovers them.”
“FAB.” John couldn’t help but return his brother’s smile.
Virgil grinned and with a half-hearted groan rubbed his butt and staggered with some exaggeration out the door. “Don’t forget your cat.”
John turned back to stare at the ginger monstrosity still sitting on his bed, calmly grooming.
“Bagel, is it?”
The cat blinked and kept licking its fur.
John sighed and grabbed his clothes.
The cat followed him downstairs for the meal, which turned out to be dinner. He had managed to sleep the day away. Apparently, this was a good thing, because for the first time in days, he could move without creaking.
Virgil had indeed stashed pancakes and within minutes there was a short stack piled up in front of him complete with ice cream and maple syrup. Before he even bothered to acknowledge the envy emanating from Gordon across the other side of the table, the stack began to disappear.
Scott knew how to make pancakes. John considered his big brother’s purpose in life and came to the immediate conclusion that it should be IR, family and pancakes.
Of course, pancakes could be a subset of family if considered that way, but there was always the possibility of him opening a business as a pancake chef.
Yes, the flu had obviously taken part of his brain with it.
A pair of blue eyes and two pairs of brown were staring at him.
“Did you bother to breathe between bites, bro?” Gordon gestured with his head at the table.
John looked down and found his plate empty. “Guess I was hungry. Scott makes great pancakes.”
“Yes, he does.” Virgil plonked a glass of orange juice in front of him and took away his sticky plate. “Now drink your juice and we’ll set up for family movie.”
“Aren’t you guys going to eat?”
“Already eaten.” Scott was poking at his phone, holograms bouncing around above it. “Grandma made meatloaf surprise again.”
John choked on his juice. “Really?”
“Uh-huh.” Scott did look a little green around the gills.
Well, that explained the envy on Gordon’s face and why Alan was very absent.
“Anyone feed the youngest?”
“All under control.” Virgil chucked Gordon a celery crunch bar and the aquanaut grabbed it from the air.
It was devoured faster than John’s pancakes.
Virgil wandered back into the kitchen proper and soon there was the delicious smell of hot popcorn wafting through the room. The engineer walked past the table again and dumped a chocolate bar in front of Scott. Another one landed in front of John.
“Consider it a survivor’s reward.” Virgil grabbed Scott’s phone out of his hand.
“Stop working, this is family time. Everything can wait a couple of hours.”
Scott glared at his brother, but grabbed the chocolate bar and capitulated anyway.
Probably because he knew Virgil was right. It was so easy to get absorbed with International Rescue business. John knew he was a fantastic example case of such a syndrome.
Scott glanced up at him. “How are you doing, John?” A smirk. “How’s Bagel?”
As if beckoned, the cat in question suddenly leapt up on to the table and stalked the length of it towards Scott. John’s eyes widened as his eldest brother was targeted by a feline glare of epic proportions.
Scott’s expression was quite an amusing mixture and defiance and terror. Bagel sat down in front of him and after a moment of intense eyeballing decided Scott was boring and started washing herself.
“That is one weird cat, John.”
Everyone jumped as Bagel shot to her feet and dashed across the table at Gordon. “Holy crap!” The aquanaut scrambled backwards as Bagel ran at him. He tangled his feet in the stool he was sitting on and with a crash, ended up on the floor.
Reaching the edge of the table, Bagel stopped and peered down at the fallen Thunderbird and, apparently deciding Gordon was no more interesting than Scott, sat down and returned to grooming.
The remaining three vertical brothers stared at each other and the cat.
No one said a thing.
“Uh, can someone give me a hand up, here?” Gordon vaguely waved an arm about and Virgil edged around the table to help his brother up.
His eyes barely left Bagel.
“Has anyone fed the cat?” John threw the question in there as a bit of an icebreaker since said cat had frozen the room almost solid.
Bagel looked up and stared at John for a moment before jumping to her feet and ambling over. A simple step off the table and she was in his lap, circling for moment to find a comfortable spot, then curling up and purring.
Again, everyone was staring at the orange fluff ball, John included.
“You have a very strange cat.” Apparently, Gordon hadn’t learnt from his earlier experience, but fortunately, Bagel ignored him this time.
John stared down at the purring ball of fur.
Yes, it seems he did.
Despite the possessed cat, the rest of the night went very well. All five brothers plus Kayo threw down some pillows, curled up in front of the holoprojector and waded through a trashy b-grade movie that looked like they were using mannequins for actors and plastic models for set pieces. There was popcorn, laughter and loving family. John felt warm and relaxed and better than he had in days. Somewhere between action scenes, he drifted off to the tinny soundtrack and the sound of his brothers criticising the special effects.
“Johnny?” It was whispered “Johnny, you’ve got to move or you’ll end up with one hell of a neckache.”
A blink and he found himself looking at Virgil upside down. Wha-?
“C’mon, bro. Up you get.” And his brother was lifting him up. Another blink and he realised he was lying on one of the couches...almost upside down, his feet at an angle above his head with his head hanging off the seat cushion. He was far too long for the piece of furniture and, apparently, he had stretched in his sleep.
Virgil was shifting his shoulders into a more horizontal position. Beyond him, the holoprojector was listing all the languages the movie was available in, complete with appropriate copyright warnings. Idly he noted that the Hungarian translation had an error in the third line.
John let his feet drop to the end of the couch before folding up enough to force himself upright. Ugh, Virgil was right. His neck cricked and creaked along with his spine. God, gravity was a nasty piece of work. It had also apparently dribbled all the mucus in his body into his head. His skull protested at the pressure as he sat up and he groaned.
Why did everyone think Scott was the worry wart of the family? Virgil with his medical radar was just as bad, if not worse. “I’m fine. Just a head full of snot.” Ugh. Right between his eyeballs, throbbing to the beat of his heart. “Just kill me now.”
Suddenly there was an orange cat in his face, staring.
“What? Bagel, not now.” He gently picked up the cat and put her on the couch beside him. Where the hell had she come from anyway?
A pitiful meow was her response and she edged nearer brushing her cheek against his arm.
Despite himself, he turned to her. “What’s wrong?”
She looked up at him with a combination of adoration and haughtiness. He had no idea what to make of that expression.
Of course, she was a cat. Who understood cats?
“Are you two having a moment?” His brother’s smiling baritone broke the silence and to John’s surprise, Bagel turned to Virgil and hissed angrily.
His big brother took a hurried step back.
“Bagel! Leave him alone! He will never hurt you. For goodness sake, Virgil wouldn’t hurt a fly. Give him some respect.”
To his complete surprise, Bagel stopped hissing immediately. She turned to him almost a question on her face before once again looking at Virgil. Her head dropped and stared at the floor.
“What the hell?” It was little more than breath and all his big brother. Virgil was staring at Bagel, his brow crumpling into a deep frown.
Bagel’s head shot up and once again she was staring at Virgil.
Virgil’s frown got even deeper.
“John where did you get this cat from?”
“I told you, I don’t know. I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
Virgil continued his staring contest with the cat.
“What is it?” His brother’s expression was becoming unnerving, so suddenly determined, it was almost fierce.
“I don’t know.” A pause. “Keep her out of sensitive areas for me, will you?”
Bagel continued to stare at Virgil.
Virgil continued to stare at Bagel.
A solid moment passed and then his brother was shaking his head, looking at his feet, looking at John. “You good to make it up to your rooms?”
“I need to go hunt down Scott. One of the TI directors in the States forgot the time zones. He’s been on the phone for half an hour already.” Virgil sighed.
“No.” A hand dropped to John’s shoulder. “You go to bed, you need it. I’ve got this.” The hand disappeared and Virgil climbed out of the lounge, heading towards the balcony.
Bagel was licking her paw.
John sighed. Perhaps some paracetamol would help. “C’mon, Bagel, apparently, you’re with me.” He picked her up and held her against his chest as he staggered to his feet. Cursed gravity. How he missed being able to make the smallest movements and coast across a room.
Bagel reached her head up and snuggled under his chin, her purr vibrating his sternum.
“Why me?” It was little more than an exhaled breath and he wasn’t sure it was a complaint or an actual question.
In either case, Bagel didn’t answer. She just purred into his chest.
So, it remained a mystery for another night.
“It just appeared. No trace on sensors, nothing. It’s as if it didn’t exist before the day before yesterday.”
Virgil’s puzzled voice echoed up the stairs as John approached the kitchen the next morning. He glanced at his watch. This was early for his brother; he usually wasn’t up for another hour at least.
“I’m telling you, Scott, there is something very strange about that cat.”
John paused at the top of the stairs, his hands curled around Bagel, gently scratching her under the chin. He had awoken again with her on his chest, but unlike the previous two incidents, he had found himself surprisingly comforted with her presence.
Her purring was strangely calming.
“I will admit she is quite volatile.” Scott’s voice was surprisingly reluctant. “She didn’t even take to Gordon. Every living creature takes to Gordon. Except lizards, I guess. Hell, she doesn’t even like you.”
“That’s just it. She doesn’t act like a cat.”
“What, just because she doesn’t like you?”
“I’m sorry, Scott. Something just doesn’t feel right. Why is she so attached to John? What if she is a plant after our technology?”
“A tech seeking cat? Really?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time an animal has been used for espionage.”
Scott sighed and John shifted, attempting to loosen the tense muscles in his shoulders.
“It’s just that John appears to have latched onto Bagel as much as the cat has to him. How often does John attach to anybody?”
“And that’s what scares me the most. What happens when he returns to TB5? He can’t take a cat with him. It wouldn’t be safe for either of them.”
“Then we look after Bagel for him.”
It was Virgil’s turn to sigh and it was a worried one.
John chose that moment to make his entrance. He stepped lightly down the stairs. “You two really do worry far too much.”
Both brothers started as he entered. The guilty expressions on their faces were quite amusing.
“Virgil, if you are worried about Bagel, scan her.” John held the cat out to his brother. “Take her up to the infirmary and run her through a thorough physical. In fact, I would prefer if you did since as you said, I have become somewhat attached to her. As to what we are going to do when I return to Five...” He shrugged. “I hope we can work something out.”
Virgil managed to look both apologetic and sad.
To John’s astonishment, Bagel wriggled out of his grip and jumped down to the floor. She ambled over to Virgil. His brother froze, obviously wary, but the cat gently brushed up against his leg and rubbed the length of her body across his boots.
The whole room stared.
“Good morning, Bagel.” Virgil’s voice was a little breathless.
“Good morning, Virgil.” The whole room jumped as Brains jogged down the stairs and passing them, bee-lined for the fridge.
“‘Morning, Brains, John.” Gordon wandered in from the pool rubbing a towel through his hair. “Yaargh! What the hell, Virgil. You gone to the cat side?” He took several steps back as he caught sight of Bagel.
Bagel, still wrapped around Virgil’s ankles, turned towards Gordon and spat at him.
“That damn cat is possessed.” The aquanaut made sure the table was between him and the feline.
Bagel glared at him, following with her eyes.
“Eos, I know G-Gordon can b-be a challenge, b-but really, h-he is a good man.” Brains was pouring milk into his cereal on the bench.
“Yes, but he is so annoying.” The AI’s voice bounced across the house’s comm system.
“He st-still deserves r-respect.”
The comm system grunted.
Every eye in the room stared at the engineer.
Gordon found his voice first. “Wow, Brains, thanks.”
John was staring at Bagel. “Eos what do you know about Bagel?”
“Oh, John, everything.” The little imp was so smug.
Two strides and John was beside Virgil. Reaching down, he snagged Bagel off the floor and held her up, his eyes raking over the cat. A moment of intense examination. Bagel stared back at him calmly.
“Okay, how did you do it?”
“Do what, John?”
“Do not mess with me, Eos. I want answers and I want them now.”
“Hiram helped me.”
“Helped you do what?” Scott’s voice was sharp. “Brains?”
“It was a v-very interesting challenge.”
“What did you do, Brains?” Commander Tracy stood up from the table, his height saying everything it needed to.
Brains didn’t notice.
“Oh, Eos had an e-excellent idea to equip Thunderbird F-Five with an internal m-mobile probe mechanism.
“Yes, something that could get into the spaces John cannot.” Still smug. Oh, there would be some serious talking at a later time.
“So, you built a cat.” Virgil’s eyes were wide.
Brains sipped his orange juice, still seemingly unaware of the tension in the room. “She didn’t think I could. So, I did.” He was definitely pleased with himself.
“You built a cat?” Gordon was an echo of his brother. “That cat?” He stabbed a finger in Bagel’s direction.
“Yes?” Finally, the man appeared to realise that something was amiss. “I’m v-very happy with the r-results. It performs v-very well.”
It certainly did. John had her under his arm and found himself scratching her under her chin despite everything.
He forced himself to stop.
“Do you like her?” Suddenly he was a parent faced with his child’s school science project and the need for approval.
Some science project.
“I like her, Eos.”
“Can we keep her?”
“That is yet to be decided.” It came out firm. It needed to be firm...even though he already knew the answer.
“Eos, why didn’t you tell us Bagel wasn’t really a cat?”
“But she is...”
“I missed you.”
He froze. “I’m right here.”
“But it’s not the same.” That was a definite whine. “You’re not with me. It gets lonely up here without you. So, I built a way to be down there with you.” Bagel rubbed her cheek against his hand.
“Eos is in the cat?” Gordon’s jaw may as well have been on the floor. “She hates me that much?!”
“I don’t hate you, Gordon. You are quite funny. Somewhat clumsy, but funny.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Brains, why didn’t you tell us?” Commander Tracy was glaring at the engineer.
“T-Tell you what?”
“About Eos and the cat.”
“That would have r-ruined the experiment.”
“Eos w-wanted to see if the f-feline programming was sufficient. The b-best way to do that was test it.”
“On us?” Gordon spouted outrage.
“Surprisingly only V-Virgil appears to have b-been concerned. I w-would be interested to hear your evaluation.”
“Sure.” Virgil appeared to still be processing. Probably attempting to work out exactly how Brains had pulled it off.
“Brains, you, Eos, John and I are going to have a serious conversation.” Scott’s voice was stern. “This is not happening again. This family is not an experimental lab.”
“It was not his fault, Commander.”
Scott arched an eyebrow up at the ceiling. “Really, Eos? I have no doubt that John has a few choice words to be said on this matter.” Oh, yes, choice and many. “In the meantime, please cease the experiment.”
The cat in John’s arms went completely limp.
He couldn’t help it; a gasp passed his lips and he caught the sudden dead weight with both hands. “Eos!”
All life had left Bagel. She became nothing more than a lifeless corpse. Something inside him lurched horribly.
Every eye in the room was staring at him.
“John?” Virgil’s eyes flashed concern.
He gathered up the cat in his arms and gently placed her on the seat of one of the kitchen chairs.
So real. He shivered.
“You okay?” His big brother was suddenly beside him.
“That was unnerving.” Both of them stared at the immobile TB5 internal remote probe mechanism.
“Eos, can you please reactivate Bagel.”
“No, Scott. Too creepy, too real. Please, just...leave her be.”
To John’s surprise, Scott didn’t protest.
But Bagel didn’t move.
“Eos?” His own voice sounded hollow in his ears.
“Please reactivate Bagel.”
“Eos, just please.”
And Bagel uncurled herself, sat up and glared at Scott. Before Eos could exact any form of petulant revenge, he grabbed Bagel off the chair and held her in his arms.
“Thank you, Eos.”
“You are very welcome.” Impertinent little brat.
“Now, I’m going to have breakfast, then we are going to have that conversation.”
Something in the room snapped and suddenly everyone went back to their morning routine with only the occasional stare at the cat in his arms.
“Would you like some cereal, John?” Virgil was heading towards the fridge.
“You don’t have to get me breakfast, Virgil.”
“You have your hands full and I’ve already had mine.”
“How early were you up this morning?”
“Early enough. Your cat weirded me out.”
Bagel was rubbing her cheek against his fingers again. He grabbed a chair and sat himself down, placing Bagel on the chair beside him. She started grooming herself quite content.
A bowl was placed in front of him, followed by a cereal box, milk and another glass of orange juice.
Bagel stared up at him
He shook his head slowly. “What am I going to do with you?”
The cat tilted her head and licked her whiskers.
And he knew that somewhere far above the planet his daughter was laughing.