And, finally, the last edit. Thanks, all; Tikatu, Eternal Density, Cathrl and Agent Five, especially. It's been fun.
72: Wheel Stop
White Sands Space Harbor, New Mexico-
Being run by the US Air Force, the landing facilities at White Sands were just about completely secure; capable of being sealed off from public and press, alike. Set amid bleak gypsum flats and the hard-baked Sacramento Mountains, White Sands was much less frequented than KSC or Edwards AFB, and hopefully safer.
No one yet knew the extent of the Red Path's infiltration into the US government, nor how many sleeper agents remained at large, having scurried like cockroaches into temporary hiding. Too many of those already arrested had committed suicide or died mysteriously in transit for anyone's real comfort.
So, the Ares III crew were to be delivered in secrecy, and sequestered until further notice; allowed limited contact with family and friends, no interviews and just one middle-distance group photo, somewhat retouched. But all that came later…
Thunderbird 3 brought them to the space harbor at the palest hour of dawn, in the midst of Area 51 –type security. A strictly enforced 'no fly' zone had been set up and ruthlessly maintained, for the astronauts were a sorely wounded prize being torn at from all sides at once. Their deaths would have meant red-handed victory for the remaining terrorists. Pictures or an interview would have conferred instant star status upon any journalist able to sneak through with a recording device and faked ID. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization had strenuous objections to allowing a possibly microbe-ridden crew back on Earth.
…And Fox News, as ever, continued to insist that the entire thing was a hoax, nothing more than blue-screened actors and special effects thrown together by a dead broke and ailing NASA. (One of many reasons that they needed John Tracy back before announcing the crew's return.)
Lacking genuine information, people watched the skies and tuned in local broadcasts, wondering when and where Endurance, last tracked approaching the Moon, would make landfall.
Only Thunderbird 3 could have evaded all that scrutiny, swooping in as shadow-silent as a hunting owl. No running lights or comm she used, following a scrambled beacon to an unmapped landing site attended by no one under the rank of major, or GS-6.
Jeff Tracy landed the crimson Bird himself, using more impeller than rocket to reduce her noise and engine glow. A dream of a landing site, White Sands; flat, sheltered and barren. Pale in the rising light as a marble crypt.
He put 3 down on a cracked salt pan, stirring up twilit clouds and hordes of ambulance vans and fire trucks. The transfer itself went so quickly that Jeff had time for no more than a quick word with Pete McCord or the tiny grand-daughter who still wouldn't look at him.
"Guess this is wheel stop," he'd joked, though of course, it wasn't.
Among the last things he heard, before the boarding hatch shut, and they had to launch again, was the child's thin, frightened wail. Earth, to her, was very far from home.
Thunderbird 2 would arrive a few days later, bearing the final, much-abused piece of the astronaut puzzle, John Matthew Tracy.
He could, and probably should have slept again, back in the rear crew cabin; but Scott and Virgil were in a mood to talk and, maybe, so was he. Weird, though… from this angle, the far end of things looking backward… it was hard to think what to tell first. Mars, seen through the prism of distance and memory, was like the Moon's reflection on choppy water; lots of dancing pieces.
Thunderbird 2's deep vibration and muted engine noise made the rhythmic backdrop through which the brothers' conversation wove like smoke. Anyway, they'd stopped giving him shit and started talking shop, wanting to hear his end of things in D.C.
"Damn," Scott muttered, turning round in the copilot's seat so he could better see John.
"Stennis, again? That's the third time that name's come up. Cindy had him pegged as no good, but she didn't have anything solid to give us, so dad decided to hold off for awhile, maybe let you do some investigation when you got back."
In retrospect, a costly error. Virgil, both ears and half his attention on the conversation, said,
"So, a US senator was behind the whole mess…? As in, 'head of the Red Path' behind?"
John, still strapped-up and wounded, knew better than to shrug. Hurt too much.
"There might have been someone over Stennis or ready to take his place… but if so, they kept their head down. And if they know what's good for them, they'll stay that way."
Scott gave his impassive brother a long look. There was a question hanging in the air that he decided not to ask. John had once again done what was necessary; leave it at that.
"You okay?" he asked, though, meaning well.
Okay? John thought of gunshots and burning cyborgs, of terrified girls and dead friends. More lives, shredding an already burdened soul…
"Yeah. I'm good."
…And maybe they almost believed it.
"Well, you're home now," Virgil informed him. "After this quarantine business wraps up, you and the little woman can come back to the island and forget all this ever happened."
John next had a prolonged sneezing fit, which put a temporary halt to their talk. Earth and its damn bacteria were playing hell with his unaccustomed immune system. Scott gave him some cold tablets and a ginger ale, and that helped some, but he refused the microwave pizza. Not hungry… just working at making former things familiar, again: the cloud-streaked view screen, rumbling engines and flickering instrument panel. The play of clear light on stubbled faces. Voices that rose and fell... argued and laughed and interrupted. (No smoke, though; Virgil's exposure to cyanide gas had rendered his lungs too sensitive for cigarettes, it seemed. One less thing, John supposed.)
They arrived at White Sands much as Thunderbird 3 had, in stealth and secrecy, having talked and flown the sun clear out of a gem-blue sky. Great sheets of brittle salt cracked and tilted skyward, powdering like snow at Thunderbird 2's ponderous landing. Virgil taxied her slowly forward to meet a flock of emergency trucks and an astronaut transport van. They met beneath a stippled sky, Thunderbird 2 looming like a prehistoric monster over the fragile vehicles below. Time to go.
At the deplaning hatch they once more shook hands, first Virgil and then Scott giving John's (fairly) good hand a gentle clasp.
"Take care. Don't let them run any suspicious psych tests, and call if you need extraction," Scott told him.
"We'll be in the neighborhood, John. No more than thirty minutes away if anything comes up, promise."
(They'd replaced his lost wrist comm with Brains' latest model, a somewhat gaudy diamond Omega Speedmaster.)
"Okay. Thanks. See you around."
Actually, he hated psych tests, but was very good at passing them, having researched all the correct responses. Anyone who came at him with a pencil and spiral-bound notebook would go away satisfied…
But he had other things on his mind besides government doctors and emotional brothers. The rest of the crew was waiting for him, and John found that time had taken on all the quick-flow capacity of bubblegum.
Out of the cargolifter, then, and into a deepening night of cold, dry air, official orders and flashing lights. He was escorted to the transport van under heavy guard, there given fresh clothes and a thorough examination.
The partly-healed gunshot wounds and separated shoulder caused some consternation, but John refused to explain matters to anyone other than Gene Porter, or the director, himself. There were two scrub-suited doctors, three nurses and (sure enough) a psychiatrist aboard the transport van, and not one of them 'noticed' the beer.
As John trudged from one blood test and paper-covered exam table to another, one set of beeping machines to the next, the Heineken was his constant companion, remarked upon never.
The Omega was locked up, though. (Next time, he intended to ask Brains for some beat-to-hell, not-worth-a-second-look Timex; something he actually had a shot at keeping.)
One of the nurses kissed him, and everyone welcomed him back to Earth, even the guards and drivers finding time to head back for a quick word and handshake. Someone had recalled his fondness for orange and lemon LifeSavers candies, and had brought along several rolls. And that, plus another ginger ale made his first back-on-the-ground meal.
Like Virgil, John had a long memory for such small kindnesses. He thanked the van crew later, in his own fashion, enabling a sudden rash of early retirements.
Back at the Spaceflight Quarantine building, his interview and debriefing were kept to a merciful twenty minutes. Maybe he was getting punchy, or just impatient, but John's replies got shorter as the process wore on, and finally dried up altogether. So, they gave up and sent him on, into the sterile level 4 containment facility where the others were being held.
He had to pass three airlocks, armed guards and a whooshing negative pressure zone, but he got there at last, beer and all. The inside was painted blue, with travel posters, a giant, signed card and some awfully lived-in furniture. He didn't see much else, after that; not for awhile, at least.
"Daddy!" shrieked a high-pitched little voice from a crib packed with dolls and teddy bears. Junior. Supposed to be taking a nap, probably, though the noisy TV wasn't likely to help matters.
Everyone descended at once… almost. Typically, no one had told them he was coming, just in case something went wrong.
Roger managed to get up with Cho's help, Pete pausing just long enough to retrieve and transfer the small girl. Then he was at the center of an extremely vocal crowd, Janey clinging to his neck and burying a wet little face. Her blonde curls smelled like baby shampoo, and for the first time in her life, she was wearing something not cut down and altered. (Managed to pound both injured arms at once, but he dealt with it. Kids, as John understood them, meant sacrifice.)
The mission commander looked pallid as hell and savagely medicated, but he was just as glad as everyone else to see the beer. Managing a tight grin, Pete nodded at the green-and-silver can.
"I see you accomplished your real objective, Tracy," he joked, hitching a blue-striped hospital robe tighter. "Dr. Kim, we need some damn cups."
They were being monitored, of course, and not everyone at NASA knew of his connection to International Rescue.
"Yessir," John replied, taking over Marine support detail as the exobiologist sped off to their little washroom. "It's handled."
Good enough, except that Linda hung awkwardly just outside the group, being very quiet. Didn't look like she was going to make the first move so, with a nudge from Roger, and the chattering little girl as a shield, John approached his diffident wife.
"Mommy, look! Look! Is Daddy! Daddy's here!" Janey called, one hand clutched to his NASA tee shirt, the other groping (spread like a little pale starfish) for Linda. "Daddy, kiss Mommy. She misted you!"
"Hey," he said, to the brown-eyed woman who stood there with hands locked at her back, staring up at him. She looked, he thought, something like angry. "I was just…"
"Out on a beer run," his wife supplied, tilting her face up for that kiss. And then, "Hey yourself, Sunshine."
She closed her eyes and kissed him back, while Junior hugged both of them as tightly together as she could manage. It was nice to know he'd been 'misted'.
By this time the Styrofoam cups had arrived, so McCord popped open the beer and poured everyone a round (even Janey, who made a face at the smell). When everyone had been served, Pete lifted his cup and they touched rims, drinking the best thing they'd tasted in years.
"Now it's wheel stop," said the mission commander, just before Janey spewed warm beer all over her mother, aunt and uncles. (Though not her father, who'd seen the deluge coming in time to hold her away.)
Pete McCord died six months later, surrounded by family, friends and crew. He lived long enough to preside at the Tracy Island wedding of Roger Thorpe and Kim Cho, and the formalizing of John and Linda's earlier vows. Some of his ashes were scattered in Saginaw by his daughter and widow, some on Mars by John Tracy. The rest were released at sea, from an aircraft carrier. Another one of those people whom John never quite managed to file away, nor forget.