The first steps are taken.

There Goes The Neighborhood

1

John never realized how hard McCord had worked to get him approved for the mission. In one of those ubiquitous, vanilla-bland board rooms with the grey-upholstered swivel chairs and acoustic tile ceilings, the battle had been fought, one sunny afternoon..., and won.

Men and women, engineers and scientists in rolled-up sleeves and loosened ties, executive higher-ups in dark suits, and Pete McCord himself, natty as ever in a baseball cap and rainbow suspenders, went a full twelve rounds over John, pulling no punches. The flight surgeon, particularly, had strenuous objections, stating that John Matthew Tracy was too young, untested, and emotionally withdrawn to be a true team player on a long-term mission as sensitive as Ares III. Pete's response was typically blunt, and off-color.

Spitting a huge wad of Juicy Fruit gum into a nearby trash can, he popped in a fresh stick, slapped his hands down upon the long meeting table, and levered himself upright.

"People...," he drawled, shoving his hands into his pockets and rocking back and forth on his heels, "let's cut to the chase, and get home in time for dinner, okay? Look..., I know Tracy's a psychiatrist's wet-dream; he's got more issues than National Geographic... but he's also a certified, goddam genius. I've been up with him, Ladies and germs, four times. Had everything from the O2, to the potty, break down on us out there, and I can tell you for a fact, the man does not crack under pressure. When the shit hits the fan, and chunks 're filling the air, he flies the bird, and puts her down in one piece. Plus..," And here McCord paused to grin around the room at his gathered listeners, temporarily removing his ball cap to rearrange the strands of sandy red hair clinging to his shiny scalp. "...the guy's a legacy. Ya gotta love the potential free publicity! Think of the built-in news angles."

He arranged his hands as though framing a camera shot, drawing his audience of suits, pocket-protectors and bean counters right into his vision.

"Jeff Tracy, first of the next-wave Apollo astronauts to set foot on the moon... and now his son, John, is poised to do the same in the red dust of mars...! Damn, that's got a ring to it! The press 'll eat it up. Guys...," he spread his hands, noting, still, a few dubious expressions, "there is nothing as deadly as being ignored. This is WNN, nightly news stuff I'm handing you..., and we've got to have publicity, if we want funding. Go ahead, tell me I'm wrong!"

One of the launch engineers, Laura Brady, nodded sadly.

"The budget cuts can't get much deeper without turning into amputations," she commiserated, pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. Behind her, visible through a long row of windows, tour buses crawled along and astronaut candidates strode around, just as if NASA wasn't being slowly choked to death around them.

"Every available inch of the space craft is already covered with advertising logos, and packed with industrial experiments... Gene, he's right," Laura went on. Around her, the gathered engineers murmured agreement, tired of being asked to produce miracles from next to nothing.

"Anyone that'll get the public's attention, in a good way, has to be considered. I vote yes."

Gene Porter was the mission director, a man so dedicated, he'd have worked for free. Energetic and kind, he was; with dark hair, a lined face and wistful eyes. Not a tall man, but solid, with a selection of outlandish ties for every occasion. Today's version sported 'Marvin the Martian' in an astonishing variety of poses. Now, he drummed his fingers on the table, already more than half convinced.

"Pete," he began, "You know I trust your judgement... but we can't afford a single mistake. This is a make-or-break mission." His pale blue eyes flashed from the table top to his long-time friend and fishing buddy.

"A month out, six months on-planet, and a month back. No rescue, no resupply, no room for screw ups. We gotta come through with this one, and put someone on Mars, before ESA, or the Japanese... and we'd damn sure better choose exactly the right crew for the job."

Pete nodded briskly, his smile widening.

"Then look no further, Gene, 'cause I've taken the pain out of the process and picked 'em out ahead of time. Yeah... I know there are more experienced pilots... just like I know doctors with more operating time than Linda Bennett... but my gut tells me to go with Tracy, that we're gonna need him."

The room fell silent, only the sounds of the windows rattling in the breeze, the scrape and creak of tossing palm branches, and a chorus of excited grade school students disturbing the air-conditioned peace. Then, Gene glanced around, getting to his feet with a stiffness that he did his best to disguise.

"Okay, then. Cards 're on the table, folks. It's decision time. Do we go with what we 'know'..., or do we listen to Pete's prophetic entrails?"

("They've batted a thousand, so far!" The mission commander put in proudly, grinning again.)

Gene crumpled a sheet of paper, and threw it across the table at his friend.

"Shut up, Pete; you've made your point. Everyone else: What d' you think... Go with Tracy?"

And the votes came back. From engineering, medical, flight and planetary science, one and all voted 'go'.

Gene smiled, reached across, and shook Pete's hand.

"Okey-doke. John Tracy's on board, along with Bennett, Thorpe and Kim. Get your team together, Pete, and let's make this happen."

McCord wrung his friend's hand, the firmness of his grip harking back to their old roommate days, back at the Naval Academy.

"Gentlemen and Ladies," he announced, gap-toothed and crinkle-
eyed, "You got yourselves some goddam Martian real estate! We're gonna get there, plant the flag and, by God, get back with the goods and the science, guaranteed."

Tracy Island:

As for John, himself..., he was stirring up the biggest cup of mixed emotions he'd ever faced. He wanted to go. Hell, yeah, he did!

But the thought of telling the others... especially Penny, and his father... dropped something extremely cold and very heavy deep into the pit of his stomach. Pride wouldn't allow him to just write a letter, or leave a message, though. He'd have to do it like a man, face to face. Except that it was so damn hard to think how.

He was at his very favorite spot on the island, a lonely concrete observation deck equipped with a dome-shielded telescope, a comm unit and a cracked stone bench. Other than a few sensor masts, nothing on the island stood higher than he did, now. Beneath him, mountain and trees and surf unfolded themselves like a colored relief map; vegetation skimpier on the northern, rain shadow side of the island, and dense as Everglades marsh grass everywhere else.

The wind tugged and shoved, first flattening the orange jacket to his slender frame, then ballooning it away from him. Deep in thought, John clenched both hands upon the deck's metal guard rail, and stared at the far-off spot where ocean and sky melted together.

He wasn't quite alone. Through the observation post's electronic displays and sensor readouts, 5 was ever-present, her constant scans and chip-mediated adjustments as much a part of his environment as the salt air, the wind and the pitiless sun. And... maybe... that was another reason for concern.

Removing his sunglasses, John raised his voice to be heard over the rattle of buffeted nylon, and the hum of vibrating cables. He needn't have bothered. His computer was quite capable of reading his lips, so long as he took care to face the deck's pedestal-mounted comm screen. He said, as slowly as if minting a new language,

"You wouldn't lie to me... would you?"

5 considered the statement, perhaps as long as an attosecond, before responding. She fired an ultrasound beam into his head, stimulating the 'Wernicke's area' of her analog companion's brain, so that he heard a voice.

"John Tracy's most recent statement was not understood. Pause between vocalizations and alignment of facial muscles indicate importance of message, however. Please re-input, using altered format."

Women. Couldn't live with 'em... sure as hell couldn't reprogram them. Okay, then; second attempt...

"5, I know what you're technically capable of. If you deemed it safer... more necessary, somehow..., you could feed me any bullshit illusion at all, even Mars... while keeping me in a cell somewhere, hooked up to life support machines, for 'my own good'. I'm not saying that you would... just that you could. So..., for peace of mind, I want to hear it from you, that all this is real. That it's actually happening."

Oddly, this time she paused long enough before responding that he actually registered the passage of a few seconds. She considered the matter important enough to manifest herself before him, forming her usual glowing lavender icon. The computer's vaguely humanoid image hovered just off the ground, flickering and sparking quite independently of the wind.

"The cultural set of reasoning analog life forms, of which John Tracy is a member, has a convention." And she held up an 'arm', bent at the 'elbow', forming two projecting 'fingers'. "Scout's honor."

John laughed, feeling suddenly better.

"You're not a Boy Scout, 5, and neither am I."

"Objection received, and comprehended. Another convention located, common to the subset of all possible John Tracys; I promise."

This time, she held out a glittering hand, as if desiring to shake on it. He wasn't certain how well physical contact would work out, as the icon was holographic, but assumed that she could easily supply whatever tactile data were required. So, relieved, John accepted the small, slightly tingling 'hand', and gave it a brief, warm clasp.

"Understood, and I won't bring it up again," he told her, wondering just when she'd stopped being an electronic device, and turned into a friend. Then, puffing out a long, gusty breath, he released her 'hand', adding,

"Guess I'd better go 'beard the lion'. Care to calculate the probability that he flat-out refuses permission?"

"Working," she responded, shrinking down to a single lavender pixel that sank through the screen of his wrist comm. As equations and diagrams unfolded in his head, John turned and started back down the rocky path, not quite alone.