Plot bunnies can really get to you. But this ... this was no ordinary rabbit!
The characters aren't mine.The idea of what might be is. AU. Movie verse. And just this one chapter. Hope you enjoy.
Rain pummelled against the high windows and coursed down the glass in long rivers of silvery-white. Flickers of lightning heralded the arrival of the fast approaching storm front and each rumble of thunder seemed ominously closer.
The noise and light show might have proved distracting for some. Certainly in Miss Rawlings' English class a few doors along the ornate mahogany corridor, the year nines were far more interested in the glowing clouds and darkening sky than anything Charles Dickens might have had to say about 19th Century London.
But in the physics lesson, save for the odd interruption courtesy of the storm, there was silence. Awe-filled, mesmerised silence. For the professor was shooting off on one of his many tangents once again.
Forgotten calculations still hung on the computerised screen behind him but he had long since laid down his laser pen. Sat perched on the front of the wide oak desk and smiling fondly at the memory, the middle-aged man held his captive audience in a deep pause.
He often did this. It was a side effect of having so much stored in his brain, or so the students assumed.
"And …?" One of the braver boys at the front of the classroom dared a gentle nudge.
The professor slowly turned to him and his smile grew as his focus returned. "And it was amazing." He responded softly. "More so than I could ever explain."
The whisper of a sigh moved among the group. They nodded in unison, sharing in the wonder of the professor's tale.
The brave boy grinned and leaned over his desk. "Try."
And the professor laughed softly. Of course he would try. He loved sharing his stories. He loved that the entire group of thirty-two fourteen year olds was completely transfixed on his every syllable.
And yet he was no fool. He knew that somewhere beneath their love of his recollected experiences was the sneaky knowledge that they were not actually doing any work. Or so it seemed. For the privilege of hearing another chapter in the professor's life, the class would study all that they needed to in the hours after the school day had ended.
It was a record among the faculty that the professor's students were never tardy in delivering their assignments and there were many theories as to how he achieved it. And the truth was far too ordinary. But none of the staff could see the appeal of his stories or why he would choose to pause well-prepared curriculum matter to reminisce about the past.
And it saddened the professor that his peers held little or no regard for the accomplishments of their generation or generations before them. It was all yesterdays news. Something to be taught in Mr Parnell's history class.
But in the hearts and minds of the students who raced to be on time for his class, Professor Hackenbacker was a hero. And nothing would ever change that.
And the professor never felt more at home than sitting with his students and speaking of the awesome nature of space travel, the amazing experience of being in space and his absolute admiration for the men and women who had made it possible.
And then the bell's shrill tone signalled the end of the day and the professor groaned with as much disappointment as his students. But there was always another day. They would remember where he had paused the tale and he would pick up where he left off. Amid what he needed to teach them and wanted them to learn would come the memories he needed to share and the experiences he loved to speak of.
The students made their slow amble through the classroom and spilled out into the hall. Some eager to get outside and study the approaching storm – despite the concerned warnings of some of the teachers to stay out of the rain – others simply needing to switch off and play.
Professor Hackenbacker closed the display programme and shut down the computer. Packing his data chips and (apparently quaint and old-fashioned) textbooks into his briefcase, he was startled by a sudden flash of forked lightning and stopped for a moment to watch the troubled sky.
"Sure made the landing fun."
The professor smiled and turned towards the voice.
"Thought I might have to turn back at one point." The man continued, "She's one hell of a storm. Never seen the like."
The professor nodded in enthusiasm, "It's what we've been saying would happen."
The visitor stepped inside the classroom and a smile danced on his face. "Oh, here we go. The great 'I told you so' of the scientific community."
The professor shrugged, "Well, can you blame us? Worsening weather patterns and extreme seasonal variances. It's what we've all been predicting since before the turn of the century."
The visitor stepped further into the room and his smile grew. "And none of us petrol-headed jocks would listen. I know." He shrugged slightly, "But I'll take my fossil-fuel based car over your fancy new atomic solar thingy any day."
The professor laughed and collected his bags. Stepping down from the platform behind the desk, he shook his head in dismay. "I'm not even going to start. I gave up with you on that argument a long time ago!" He held out his arms and groaned happily as the visitor stepped into his embrace and hugged him warmly.
"God, it's good to see you."
The professor stepped back and smiled a reply. "It's been too long."
"Yeah. Where the hell did the time go?"
Professor Hackenbacker shrugged in response. "There are other things to keep you occupied now, I guess."
"Ugh! Tell me about it!"
The professor laughed, "No. I thought the plan was that you were going to tell me."
"Yeah! That was it!"
Professor Hackenbacker studied his visitor for a moment and frowned in concern. "And they seriously might give you a seat in the senate?"
"Yup! Who'd have thought it, huh?"
"Aw, come on. I was never that bad!"
"No?" The professor raised his eyebrows and his smile returned, "Y'know there's still a crack in the corner of the chemistry lab where you almost succeeded in blowing out the wall."
The professor nodded, "And some of the teachers still refer to the 'Alan Tracy' principle."
"Yeah. Assume the worst of a boy until he proves otherwise."
"Oh, bullshit! You're making it up!"
The professor flinched slightly as his shoulder received a playful thump. He then watched his friend peering around the classroom in interest.
"It has changed a lot, hasn't it?"
"Hm. It's not how I remember it."
Professor Hackenbacker laughed, "Well, I guess the ceilings are lower."
"Yeah. That'd be it."
The professor chuckled in amusement and grinned fondly. "I've missed you, Alan."
Alan's smile faded and he nodded slowly.
"So." The professor smiled, "You want a tour of the place?"
Alan's face paled slightly, "You are kidding!"
"Man!" Alan sighed, "I couldn't wait to get out of this place!" He headed towards the door and then glanced back. "I never really understood why you were so keen to come back."
The professor made no reply.
"Coming, Fermat?" Alan urged, paused by the classroom door.
The professor smiled and hurried after him.
The noisy restaurant was almost full, merry chatter and the gentle background buzz of that evenings' Red Socks game playing out over the various plasma screens dotted about the place. Beyond the wide harbour front windows and the soaked wooden decking, waves tossed the small fishing boats around and strong winds flicked frothy white surf into the dark sky.
Fermat took a long drink of his beer and picked at the few remaining fries that were scattered on his plate. He watched his friend studying the turbulent ocean for a moment and was sure he knew what he was thinking.
"Hope no one's out in this." Alan muttered to no one in particular.
Fermat smiled. He had guessed right.
"But … still …" Alan sighed and shrugged his shoulders. "I guess Gord will be on the case if anyone gets into trouble." He tore his eyes from the storm and turned to see Fermat grinning at him. "What?"
"Oh, I don't know." Fermat laughed softly, "The phrase 'just like your Dad' springs to mind."
Alan's cheeks reddened and he shot another glance out at the worsening weather. "Well … I can't help it …"
"It's in the blood."
Alan nodded, "Just like you and that damned school."
Fermat shrugged a reply, "It just seemed right. I tried MIT and Harvard and Cambridge … and … well, I like the idea of teaching the younger kids."
Alan smiled, "Trying to recapture your youth, old man?"
Fermat laughed and threw a cold fry at him. "No!"
Alan dodged the potato missile and raised his hands in surrender. "I know. I'm only teasing."
"Yeah … some things never change no matter how much you try."
Alan gasped in mock horror, clutching his hand to his chest and mouthing a horrified 'Moi?'.
Fermat chuckled at the sight and suddenly his friend really was fourteen again. He let the memory wash over him for a moment and then something inside him began to hurt. The tears were unexpected and – without the protection of thick glasses that laser treatment had made obsolete – must have been obvious to his friend.
Alan's smile faded and he swallowed back the lump that had formed in his throat. "Yeah … it's been a tough few weeks."
Fermat won the battle with the salty liquid that had threatened to tumble down his beer-flushed cheeks and nodded in agreement.
"As soon as I got your wave I wanted to shoot over here but …"
"Yeah, the campaign." Alan sighed, "Suddenly not so very important."
"Oh, don't say that!" Fermat frowned, "I think it's wonderful. You're exactly what the government needs right now."
"Yeah," Fermat smiled, "A few firecrackers in their trash cans, whoopee cushions on their congressional seats, funny moustaches on the portraits in the West Wing."
Alan laughed loudly and grinned in delight, "Oh, don't think I haven't been tempted!" he shook his head in wonder, still chuckling at the thought. "But it's crazy, man! I mean, me, running for congress? Nah! It's all some weird dream."
"Yeah. And I bet Cally thinks that each morning."
Fermat grinned merrily.
"Have you heard from TinTin, lately?" Alan asked suddenly, watching his friend shake his head in reply. "Hmm … last I heard she was off trekking through Nepal or somewhere looking for the last tiger pod or something."
"Well … she's one of you crazy science geeks, isn't she …"
"So, I see the plight of the planet features highly in your campaign."
Alan shrugged, "I make mention of it to pull in a few of the greenie crowd, yeah." He smiled and then took a deep breath, letting it out in a long sigh.
"I had thought you would have stayed in ISA." Fermat observed, "Your resignation surprised me."
"I guess … but … I mean … how do you top that, Ferm? How do you go up there and stand inside the lunar base, look back on the Earth and then just go on? That seemed the ultimate to me, man. Like nothing would ever top it." He shook his head slowly, eyes misting at the memory. "And then … on the journey home … it just seemed obvious. This beautiful, fragile world that seems so tiny from way up there … she needs looking after."
Fermat smiled proudly, "Dude, you call that a 'mention' …?"
Alan grinned, "Well, I don't tell too many folks in Washington about my epiphany. They tend to lock you away for coming out with stuff like that."
"Maybe. But it's a shame more people don't feel the way you do."
"Oh, there's plenty more besides me, dude! John, for one …" he trailed off for a moment. "And maybe if they get a representative to speak for them and pass the message on …"
Fermat shook his head in wonder, "Are you really the same Alan I grew up with?"
"Hey? Who said anything about growing up?" Alan laughed, "You just get a bigger playground and have better toys to fool around with."
"I wish it was that easy …"
Alan's smile faded. "I know … mortality has a cruel way of slapping you in the face, doesn't it."
"I'm so sorry for what's happened, Ferm."
Another quiet nod.
"I can't say I know exactly what you're going through but …" He paused for a moment. "I'm here for you. We all are."
Silence fell between them.
"How is he today …?" Alan ventured.
Fermat shrugged. "No change."
Alan considered this for a moment. "I guess I had it easy, in comparison." He smiled at the irony. "Not that anything like that is ever easy but …" He sighed and pulled a hand through his greying hair. "My dad was there, you know … he had all he needed and had done all he wanted … it was okay to go."
Fermat frowned at this and new tears formed. "My dad's hanging on." He managed, "I just wish I knew what for …"
"Have you thought about … well … maybe …" Alan groaned, unable to say the words.
Fermat nodded a reply. "Every day."
"Since the law changed … it would be okay …"
And Fermat laughed suddenly, "Oh god, Alan! How would anything like that ever be okay?"
Alan had no reply.
"No … I just … one day I'll go upstairs and …" He closed his eyes and a lone tear managed a brief escape attempt before his fingers brushed it away.
"What does Georgia make of it all?"
Fermat sighed and shook his head. "She left. A few months back."
And suddenly Alan saw his friend in a new light. And the guilt of not having been there for him when he needed him tasted bitter in his mouth. "Oh Ferm, I'm so sorry …"
Fermat managed a brief nod.
And Alan then understood the need to be in a familiar place, close to his father's friends. To have distraction in immersing himself in teaching and in doing so to have a hundred other lives to worry over and nurture. And to be loved. He had been waiting outside the classroom long enough to see the way the children hung on his every word. And he could understand how wonderful that must feel.
"Don't look at me like that." Fermat husked after a moment. "I don't want you to pity me."
"Oh, as if I would ever …" Alan groaned and leaned in closer to his friend. "I just want to help you." And sudden anger rose up from somewhere inside him and it troubled him to not know exactly why. "I feel awful that I wasn't there for you … after all we've been through … but … you could have called me, Ferm."
Fermat heard the slightly harsh tone of his friends words and swallowed back the instant retort that sprung to mind.
"Why didn't you?"
Fermat shrugged, "You had your lives … you all did … I didn't want to be a burden."
"Oh, for god's sake! We have known each other too long for that to be true!"
"But it is." Fermat insisted. "And it's nobody's fault but my own … I spent too much time on my own and immersing myself in research and … I'm just too much like my dad … before I knew it, you had all moved on and …" He smiled thinly, "I kept up with you all by reading the tabloids or flicking through the science web pages." He regarded Alan for a moment, "And I thought that was enough."
Alan absorbed this for a moment. "It's never too late, Ferm … we've met up now and we'll stay in touch and - "
"And you'll be running the country and TinTin will be fighting to save the last tiny crustacean and I'll be here." He laughed slightly, "Teaching physics."
Alan groaned, "Oh, Fermat. You're not the first person to get to forty and think 'fuck – what the hell have I done with my life?'"
"Yeah! Come on, man! Even John panicked when he turned thirty-nine! Why the hell do you think he shot off the island and rejoined ISA?"
"Because he was becoming obsolete."
"After Scott died and my dad automated everything, you were all out of a job. That's why you all left."
Alan was stunned. His friend had glanced over his beloved older brother's memory without remorse for the sake of an argument. Maybe Fermat was right. Maybe they had really grown apart.
But suddenly Fermat could no longer hold back the emotion and was gently weeping. He mumbled an apology and fled from the table.
Alan watched him leave and took a moment to collect his thoughts. With a sigh he then stood and wandered over to the bar to pay the bill.
Outside was a chaos of gale-force winds and hammering rain. Alan staggered through the car park and found Fermat standing beside the thick iron railing on the edge of the harbour wall. It was only a matter of time before one of the immense waves engulfed him and there was a good chance that he would lose his footing and be swept out to sea.
The thought that perhaps this was his plan made Alan shudder.
"I don't want to be like him, Alan."
Alan hurried closer. Fermat was having to shout over the noise of the storm and the waves crashing at their feet.
"Your family and the Thunderbirds … that was his whole life." He stared out at the angry ocean. It seemed as a mirror. "When that was gone. He was nothing."
"What do you mean? The Thunderbirds are still out there! Gordon is probably - "
"Not like it was." Fermat countered, "Not the International Rescue my father helped to create."
Alan laughed in bafflement, "Fermat, it's your dad's robots that pilot the damned craft!"
"No … it's not the same. There's corporate logos on the side of the craft, new sponsorship deals every year." He shook his head in disgust.
"It was inevitable. We were fooling ourselves to think we could keep it secret forever." Alan countered, "And look at the good that has come of it. Five is a docking station and part of the ISS and lunar projects. There are bases located around the world so that nowhere is more than a few minutes blast away. People are rescued faster and more effectively, there are job opportunities and - "
"You sound like a politician."
Fermat shook his head and turned away from Alan.
"You know the real difference between us?" Alan hollered above the storm. "I'm proud of what my father achieved. And - "
Fermat spun so quickly that Alan had no time to step back. The punch landed firmly where it was intended, cracking Alan's jaw and snapping his head back.
Stunned and disoriented, Alan stumbled and fell backwards. He landed awkwardly on the harbour path and that was when the sea made its move.
Fermat gasped as a wave ten times his height came roaring up over the edge of the harbour wall. He lunged for Alan and caught the belt of his trousers just as the water came crashing down.
As the ocean receded it grabbed hold of Alan and tried to pull him off of the wall and into the dark blue-green chaos below. The wind screamed in fury as Fermat held on tight, shouting to Alan to hold on. The force of the wave slammed him into one of the iron posts and he felt Alan slide under the bottom rung and over the edge of the wall.
All he could do was wait. Hold his breath as the water covered him, keep a tight grip on Alan and wait. The wave soon began to relent and sank back into the ocean. Fermat saw his chance and heaved Alan back up onto the wall.
Fermat dragged his friend clear of the harbour wall and back towards the car park beside the restaurant. Once safely clear of the reach of the waves, he fell to his knees and rolled Alan over onto his back.
At first it seemed that Alan wasn't breathing. Fermat leaned over him and tried to detect even the slightest breath of air. It was nigh impossible in the conditions outside and Fermat decided he ought to drag Alan over to the shelter of the restaurant. He stood and grabbed Alan under the shoulders.
Fermat lowered Alan back down and knelt beside him.
Alan blinked away the rain that fell on his face and smiled up at his friend. "Dude, that was close."
Fermat nodded and his face crumpled with tears.
Alan heaved himself up and pulled his friend into a tight embrace. "It's okay … it's gonna be okay …"
Fermat clutched Alan tight against him and sobbed into his shoulder. "I can't help but think that … if I had gone into the water … the world wouldn't be missing much."
"Oh, Ferm …" Alan groaned. He hugged his friend even closer and then shivered in the sudden chill of the rain soaked evening.
The two friends hurried inside the large Colonial house on the outskirts of the city and shuddered as their wet clothes dripped into the hall carpet. Fermat smiled a greeting as the housekeeper then hurried down the stairs and threw a large blanket around each of them and guided them through to the lounge.
The fire was blazing and the room wonderfully warm. The housekeeper ushered them close to the flames and looked away politely as they stripped beneath their blankets and tossed their sodden clothes onto the floor.
Without a word, the quiet Spanish woman gathered up their clothes and hurried from the room. Esther had made no remark when Fermat had called ahead from the car to ask her to prepare for two rather wet folk. It had made Alan wonder what other requests she might have had that simply made this one seem insignificant. Then he recalled Fermat's father's penchant for staying up through the night and having a taste for odd snacks at all hours; it was whatever his inspiration dictated, he used to argue.
"She stays here all the time, now." Fermat began quietly, pulling his blanket close round him and huddling cross-legged in front of the fire. "I worry that she's away from her family but she insists."
"I guess you are her family." Alan shrugged.
Fermat nodded slightly.
Alan watched his friend for a moment as he huddled towards the fire and shivered involuntarily. Fermat was so very different. Of course, the years had given him height and a solid frame that was so not a throwback from his father's side of the family. Years of speech therapy had removed the stutter and over time Fermat had become confident and brave. But this was not the man that had returned to the island after university and stunned them all. He was gaunt and thin and suddenly very old.
Alan sighed and chanced a gentle prompt. "What is it that bothers you?"
Fermat fell silent.
"Come on … you talked about regret before … what do you regret?"
"You mean, apart from hitting you?"
Alan smiled and idly stroked the reddening bruise on his jaw. "Oh, you've probably wanted to do that for a long time … you just needed twenty years or so to build up the courage."
"And besides, if taking one in the face for the cause is all I need to do then I'm your man. But … dude," Alan ventured again, "If there's anyone you can tell, it's me."
Fermat took a deep breath and stared into the fire. "Not being a part of it all."
Alan waited patiently.
"I mean … I grew up with you guys and your love of flying and speed and adventure and danger." He smiled thinly, "I thought you were all mad."
Alan laughed gently.
"I know I was involved and I loved being there and being among it all but …" He shook his head slowly, "I was never really part of it. I flew the ships only when necessity dictated and I helped dad where I could but …" He closed his eyes, "Then I came back here to finish my studies and then there was the accident - " Fermat paused deliberately, glanced at his friend to indicate that he knew all too well how difficult a memory that was and then sighed. "When the craft were all automated there was no longer a chance to be part of it."
"Why did you never say anything?"
Fermat shrugged a reply.
"If I'd have known - "
"What? You would have asked your dad if I could fly along?"
Alan groaned, "No, I don't mean that …"
"I told you, Alan, I don't want your pity." Fermat sniffed and rubbed his grey-flecked fringe dry with a corner of his blanket. "You have a life. Be glad. Me? I spend my time talking about other peoples."
"All the stories I tell the kids. They're yours."
Alan shook his head in confusion.
"They know I was once part of International Rescue and I can show them my shiny insignia badge and that's about it. The rest is all blatantly robbed from the collected anthologies of the Tracy family." He smiled thinly, "With a few names changed here and there."
"But … you were are part of it all – and you still are!"
"No." Fermat shook his head, "Sure I was there …" He turned back to the fire, "Waiting in the wings for my chance to step onto the stage."
Alan gasped in dismay, "Dude, don't talk like that! What about your theories and your books and everything you've invented."
Fermat laughed gently, "Yeah … what a legacy …" He turned back to Alan. "Seriously. What will be left of me when I'm gone? My dad has International Rescue and – contrary to popular belief – I am damned proud of all that he built." He shook his head slowly. "But what did I ever do …?"
Alan had no more to offer. He was fighting a losing battle. Fermat was even more stubborn than he was at times and this was definitely one of those times. They spent the evening in silence and then, tired and emotionally spent, they crawled into bed.
Fermat may have drifted off the moment his head hit the pillow but for Alan there was no chance of even a wink of sleep. Aware that the housekeeper would probably be monitoring his every move and careful not to wake his friend, Alan crept from the spare room and outside into the calm, post-storm night.
He had done worse in his time than sneak out after midnight in his pyjamas but somehow the cheekily cool factor diminished with age. In fact, he felt quite the fool creeping down the drive and climbing into his government-plated sedan.
There was something touchingly familiar about calling his brother in the middle of the night. And an aching for years long since past brought a lump to his throat. The memories seemed more poignant since the passing of first Scott and then their father (an order which the latter had always declared as simply wrong) and they were even more so now that he knew how unhappy Fermat felt about the whole thing.
"Well, this hasn't happened in a hell of a long time."
Alan smiled at the image that had appeared in the hidden screen on the dashboard. An invention courtesy of Fermat, no less. Alan made a mental note to remind him of this little piece of ingenuity. "Wasn't sure if this thing would work."
"Never turn it off." Came the reply.
"Old habits, huh?"
"I guess. So. To what do I owe the pleasure, Senator?"
"John …" Alan sighed, "I'm not there yet."
John smiled, "It's all but assured, little brother."
"I've got your vote, then?"
"As if you needed to ask!" John laughed.
Alan nodded a thank you.
John seemed distracted by something off screen and looked away for a moment.
"You're tuned in to the IR frequency!" Alan gasped.
John grinned sheepishly, "Don't tell my boss. I don't think they'd be happy if they knew what I'd done to a couple of billion dollars worth of satellite relays."
Alan shook his head incredulously and then suddenly frowned. "Well? What's going on?"
"Couple of storm defences got washed away along the coast. It's okay though. Gord's got TB12 on the case."
Alan nodded slowly.
"So." John turned his attention back to his brother. "How's you?"
"The prof's not doing so good."
John frowned in concern.
"Seems Brains is still comatose."
"Hmm. It was a pretty nasty stroke."
Alan nodded, "And Fermat's very depressed."
John murmured in dismay.
"But I think there might be a way to help him." Alan began carefully, "Help all of us."
"Ooh, I don't know." John laughed suddenly, "I'm always wary when politicians offer 'help'."
John grinned and then leaned back a little from the camera. "Shoot."
Alan paused for a moment, and watched his brother relaxing into his office chair. The fact that his office was a science lab over a quarter of a million miles away was something of a wonder. Alan shook his head to clear his thoughts and then told John his idea.
Fermat had been appalled at the idea at first. Sure that the politicians had simply wanted a poster boy for the campaign and certain that the government were wasting precious money on such a silly venture, he had shied away from the entire project.
But Alan had been somewhat more than convincing and he had relented and applied. There was wary talk among the faculty on the very danger of the venture and many had older relatives who remembered the results of the last time something similar to this competition was held. But, true to form, Fermat was stubbornly determined.
And suddenly more alive than he had felt in a long time.
Now, as far as he was concerned, the children had a real reason to look up to him. He was one of the twelve people chosen from around the world to go up and visit the lunar base. He was going to the moon.
He told his father all about the proposed adventure and there was no reply. Fermat had no idea whether any of his words had gotten through. The bony shell of a man that was once his father had simply lay there in the bed and slept on. No machines supported his still functioning body and there was nothing obvious keeping him there. He just was. Alive and still living. But the mind inside long since gone, irrevocably damaged by the sudden and unexpected haemorrhage. It was perhaps the cruellest fate that could ever befall such a genius.
The journey into space was filled with excitement and fear. There were those – such as Fermat – who had some experience of space flight and they were helping out the other, more terrified members of the group. There was only so far that all the training in the world could go.
Some of the passengers knew that Fermat had something of a connection with the craft that shot them up through the atmosphere and into deep space. Refuelling just once at the ISS and then on towards their target, the self-propelled craft was a more sedate greyish white than her red predecessor but other than that – and her size – the Venturer II rocket was clearly a Thunderbird. Fermat had beamed with pride when he had seen her in the hanger but had kept the knowledge to himself.
It was Alan who had leaked the fact to the press – deliberately, Fermat knew – and there had been a sudden new interest in the quieter of the chosen group. Despite protesting to the contrary, Fermat loved it and lapped up the attention with careful modesty. Ironically, the perfect poster boy.
Landing was almost too much to comprehend. The ship docked with the lunar base and rested for a time, the air acclimatising around the crew and the necessary final checks being made by the quarantine personnel to ensure that nothing except healthy humans was being welcomed aboard the sealed, isolated facility.
It was something of a disappointment at first to disembark onto a new world and be met with nothing but a bare, silvery-grey corridor. Fermat had long imagined space suits and bouncing and moon dust – even though his logical mind had called him foolish for such a notion. But then the group were led along to the reception area/dining hall and what met them quite took their breath away.
Beyond the impossibly large (but well protected) windows, there she was. A greyish-brown expanse of boulders and dust. Fermat stepped forward from the group and stared in open-mouthed wonder. Shielded from the intense rays of a sun able to burn onto a land void of atmosphere, the dark glass seemed to make the vista even brighter. So bright that the stars were lost in the blackness beyond.
But the Earth was there. Hanging in the immense black and seemingly so tiny and helpless. And Fermat understood how Alan had felt. He could see why the sight could have such an impact.
But right then all he could manage to think was 'Wow!'.
The group were led to their sleeping quarters to rest after their journey. A concept that Fermat found completely baffling; there was no chance he would be able to sleep at such a time.
And one of the crew had thought just as much.
Fermat saw him approaching from the other end of the long corridor that ran between the crew quarters. He was the only one of the family that, almost thirty years later, was instantly recognisable. Alan said it was the hair; grey tinges lost amid the most whitest of blondes. But as he neared, Fermat was amazed at how little the man's face had changed. Virgil's face was lined with worry and an almost constant 'head of the family' frown, Gordon simply looked more like Jeff with each passing year. Alan was scarily mature and every inch the perfect advert for the average man: likeable and handsome – utterly photogenic, much to his campaign advisors delight and TinTin's dismay.
John was … well. John.
But the John Fermat once knew would not be now charging down the corridor and colliding into him. With a laughter that seemed thoroughly alien and a tight hug that was more Scott or Jeff, John almost lifted Fermat from his feet in his enthusiasm.
"This is so cool!" John insisted excitedly.
Sure that some of his pupils would have had something to say about a fifty-something year old man using that phrase, Fermat could not help but chuckle.
"Man!" John finally released his hold and stepped back. He studied Fermat's face for a moment and shook his head slowly. "I can't remember the last time we met."
"Scott." Fermat offered carefully.
John's smile wavered a little. "Oh. Of course."
"I tried to make it to your dad's but …" Fermat shrugged off the rest of the explanation. It didn't matter any more.
"Bet you were stoked to hear about this project, huh?" John grinned.
Fermat nodded warily, wondering where the real John was hiding or whether this was what became of a man after six months of Moon living.
"When Alan told me you'd applied I was like 'dude, we so have to rig the voting!'" John laughed and then was suddenly serious. "Not that we did."
Fermat smiled a reply.
John's smile faltered a little. "Something wrong, dude? Oh! The flight, right? Takes it out of you, huh? And me being all 'wa, crazy lunar guy' (get it), can't be helping." He stepped back further from Fermat and held out his arm. "This way to your bunk, sir."
Fermat started to follow him and hoped that the bounce in the man's step was due to lessened gravity.
"Should I call you 'sir'?" John asked merrily, glancing back at Fermat. "Or is it strictly 'Prof'?"
"Fermat is fine."
John laughed, "Yeah. I got sick of 'Dr. Tracy' after a while, myself. It's only a PhD, after all!"
They reached his assigned quarters – shared with three of the other new arrivals, who had apparently succumbed to the required 'take a nap' suggestion – and John gave Fermat a brief hug again.
"You sure you're okay?" John asked quietly.
Fermat couldn't resist. "Are you?"
And John smiled in understanding. "Ah. You were expecting intense, quiet me from way back when. Sorry. Got a life and decided to live it, bro'!" He chuckled softly, "Blame Scott. He inspired me." He seemed to pause slightly at that thought and let out a sigh. "But, rest assured, I make a very serious and conscientious second in command. You're in good hands."
Fermat nodded and stepped into his cabin.
Sure that they had slipped something into the air-conditioning, Fermat did find himself decidedly weary as he lay down on his bunk. He closed his eyes and woke a few hours later to find that he had slept and did indeed feel refreshed.
His bunkmates were already up and he quickly freshened up and followed them through to the main reception hall. John was there among the crew, looking suitably sincere and thoughtful. Fermat joined his fellow travellers and listened to the brief presentation that was mainly for the benefit of the journalist among them.
After a light supper they were free to roam the station. Or as free as having a guide - to ensure you didn't get lost or open the wrong hatch - would allow. Fermat again found himself staring out of a smaller window to the strange world beyond the Plexiglas and was soon lost in thought.
"How you doing?"
Fermat saw John's reflection in the glass and smiled a reply.
"That's an understatement."
"Listen, I kinda pulled a favour and got you some backstage action."
"What?" Fermat spun to face him, part intrigued and part horrified.
John smiled, "The comm. officer is having a break in a few minutes. She said she won't notice if we slip into the office."
Fermat shook his head in confusion.
"Come with me."
And Fermat followed. A little worried and more than a little perturbed.
They snuck into the small office and John indicated for Fermat to sit in the chair before the bank of computers. John opened a channel and an image appeared on the plasma screen in front of them.
"Hey, dude!" Alan grinned up at the screen. "Awesome man, you're on the moon!"
"Yeah." Fermat managed.
Alan seemed not to have heard him.
"There's a 2.5 second delay." John offered helpfully.
"Listen, Ferm." Alan began, "Kinda knew you'd never agree to this as a formal thing in front of others so rigged up this idea with my bro' there."
Fermat frowned and glanced up at John. John shrugged and smiled innocently.
On the screen, Alan stepped back and the camera seemed to pan out. Suddenly the image showed a familiar classroom. And a whole group of kids who were up well past their usual curfew.
Fermat moved back from the screen, startled and a little dumbfounded. "Erm … hello." He then saw Alan turn his attention to something off screen and he watched warily.
"Yes, I'm here with the children of the Wharton Academy." Alan began to recite. "These kids are some of Professor Hackenbackers Physics class and they wanted to wish their teacher – and my friend – all the best on his latest adventure."
The children, on cue, screeched a wave-filled greeting.
Fermat laughed and waved back.
"Now, some of the kids have some important questions for the Professor." Alan turned to the group expectantly.
Fermat held his breath. Questions about toileting in deep space were bound to spring forth and he could feel his heart pounding. But, to his surprise, the questions were sensible and mature.
John slipped quietly out of the office and closed the door. He winked at the comm. officer who was sipping at a cup of surprisingly good fake coffee and waiting patiently in his office for him.
"Is it working?"
John nodded, "I don't dare tell him it's live, though – he's nervous enough."
The comm. officer nodded slowly. "He's the one whose dad helped design all this, huh?"
"Shame he couldn't come."
"You okay, John?"
John smiled and nodded an affirmative. He thanked her again and wandered from the office.
The view really was amazing. Different from Five. She felt closer, more personal. This was isolated and mind-blowingly far.
Five was completely automated now. Run by computers even more advanced than the ones his father and Brains had ever imagined. And it was amazing to now be standing on the moon in a structure that had been born out of the dreams of those two. Of course, others were involved – hundreds in fact. But it was Brains' ingenious design and his father's passion and often maddening determination to get the contract that had won through.
It was simply a shame that his father had not been there to see it finished. Unless you believed – as Virg and Gord vehemently did – that both Dad and Scott were still there with them, watching, listening, protecting even.
John sighed and headed for the main reception lounge to go and find some new visitors to entertain.
And somewhere below them, almost 250,000,000 miles away. Someone else was watching.
The doctors said it was nothing more than a burst of redundant electricity in an otherwise inactive body. But Esther saw something far more. She had abandoned her cleaning at the designated time and switched on the plasma screen opposite his bed, sure that – contrary to belief – her friend was indeed taking it all in.
And when Fermat appeared on the screen, talking to his schoolchildren (and the world) from the Moon, Esther turned to the Professor and saw him smile before he quietly and peacefully slipped away.