So, sue me. I'm a sucker for a happy ending.

11: Eternal Sunshine

He'd awakened in the shadow land between possibilities. A place where the faint scent of cotton sheets laundered with well-water and fabric softener, the puff and draw of air at an open window, sketched in the outlines of home; of John Tracy, sick in bed from school. He was getting better, though; had improved to the point that decisions were finally possible.

…And that was a good thing. In this timeless resting place he could drink illusory ginger ale, have his status checked, and still give her answers. It was a scenario that encouraged him to linger, to drag a pillow over his head and drift some more, but John did his best to attend, because (somewhere) the clock was still ticking.

On the subject of Five's error:

"Accidents happen. You acted as quickly as possible to contain and repair the damage, and next time you'll know better. Stop kicking yourself in the ass."

And what of Braman's agent, whose data yet lingered within the short-term hash tables of Five?

"Give him what he wanted, if you can. Put him back together so he looks and acts the way the folks in the probe-intersect universe expect. I'm serious. Look at it this way, Five: once Braman's influence wore off, all he did was ask for help. Give the guy a break. It wasn't his fault. He needs a home, and they're missing an astronaut. Add instructions to bury both ends of the probe, and you've got a triple play; three outs with one throw."

He didn't question the sudden arrival of a mayonnaise sandwich (white bread thickly spread with dressing, folded over on a blue-china plate). Deeply grateful, he simply sat a little straighter, and ate. Meanwhile, she was present, but invisible. As yet too… upset? ...to show herself. What she did do was touch him; smoothing his hair and adjusting the bed sheets with her rapidly shifting energy fields.

Authorization granted for elimination of analog entity Dwight Bremmerman/ Hiram Hackenbacker, deemed a first level threat as co-author to Braman?

John almost choked.

"No. Hell, no! Just… can't you…?" (Frantically, he wracked his tired mind for the means to stay an execution.) "I dunno…talk him out of building the damn thing or… reduce him, a little? Put him just below the level where he's able to help create a quantum machine?"

Things all about him shifted, then grudgingly settled themselves. Even the sheets and slatted window blinds telegraphed Five's reluctance, tilting subtly down and away. She wouldn't have done well at poker.

The option exists, with an element of risk. The Alien Intelligence, destroyed in its own universe and balked in this one, might arise elsewhere. Warpage and world-gates may continue to spread.

"Five… he's my friend. I've already proposed crippling one of the finest minds in human history. Don't ask me for anything further, unless you're willing to destroy me, as well."

Her response was akin to explosion. The scenario vanished, breaking up into millions of hurtling pixels. All around him, the lavender fog pulsed inward, coming as close as it could to a fierce, tender embrace.

No.

When the sickbed, window, east wall and nightstand reformed (with yet another speedily welcomed sandwich) he spoke again.

"I'll take my chances if you will… but what I won't do is take a life. Not if I can help it."

Speaking of which,

"The Earth where Braman and my other self had it out… can you fix it? If I'm remembering correctly, they were on the verge of war even before Braman showed up… but there's got to be a chance that they worked things out, right? How about leaning on the numbers a little?"

…Because Matt and Spartanburg… hell, their entire sterilized world… deserved better.

Such matters depended heavily upon the non-random decision procedures of those in authority. All that a quantum Turing machine might do is to here and there push.

Of more import were John Tracy's future; his attempted escape and violent self-destruction. These things had sent her back to the past, to reprogram herself.

"Five, I have a hard time picturing a situation so grim that I'd resort to suicide… unless you've become so controlling that I'm reduced to a well-kept prisoner… but I don't believe you'd do that. I've gotten a look at some alternate timelines, though, and here's what I want: To be an astronaut, to go to Mars, meet and marry Dr. Bennett, and produce Janie. The little boy, too, if you can swing it. I want dad to go ahead with this International Rescue idea of his, and… about Pete McCord…"

John thought forward, shifting in his sickbed as he (p)recalled gripping that paper-frail hand; remembered watching Pete's heart monitor go slowly flat.

"No cancer. I know it's out there, but just this once, let it go somewhere else, please. Fix him."

Conceivable, as the hidden rogue cells had not yet struck and spread. The probability then became very high that analog entity David Pete McCord would perish in a vehicle accident, or while attempting to prevent the violent robbery of a small commerce site. These outcomes were preferred?

John was nothing more, at the moment, than a collection of nurtured data points; like a tiny blaze about which she'd cupped herself, adding bits of tinder and puffs of soft breath. His illusory body managed a smile, though.

"Believe it or not, yes. I can see Pete, at 75 years old, trying to come between some ski-masked thug and a register girl… Or wrapping that damn hotrod of his around a light pole (if someone's irate husband doesn't get to him, first). And all of the above beats having your own body eat you alive. No cancer."

From this remove, things initiated might easily be knocked astray. Quantum probability had many similarities to Brownian motion, but at the request of her creator/ companion, Five would attempt these shifts.

John nodded and shrugged, as she prepared once again to move him.

"Spin the wheel and see what happens. All we can do is…"

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Mexico City-

Virgil's efforts had peeled away just enough warped metal to allow a very tight escape. Four times, Gordon reached into the red-edged opening, hauling forth three terrified kids and a weeping teen-aged girl; each of them partially wrapped in silver radiation suits.

Just outside the crazily tilted emergency door, a Mexican hook and ladder crew waited to receive them, braving radiation and alien artifacts to help with the rescue.

In Spanish, Rosa kept apologizing to someone named 'Berto', pleading that she hadn't meant to kick, and begging the saints to protect him. Gordon gave her a quick hug as he handed the girl over, adjusting his balance when the object reappeared and the bus once again lurched downward (like stiff cardboard being drawn through an office shredder). Hands reached down and Gordon shoved Rosa upward, getting a swirl of flowered skirts and a small bare heel in his face.

He should have left, as Virgil ordered, but instead waited a few more seconds for the object to vanish.

No, you couldn't save everyone… but you damn well didn't quit until you'd exhausted all your options. Ignoring sense and the desperate need to hurry, Gordon impulsively thrust his arm through that peeled-apart metal coffin. Down into the spreading hole, itself.

He couldn't see within, heard only hissing, thundering water and the ladder crew's urgent shouts, but he could feel around, pushing through a thin, staticky film to grope at…

Someone seized his hand. Automatically, both grips shifted to an iron-hard wrist lock. The young swimmer braced himself, hearing the massed folk outside begin to scream.

Using both legs and one hand, with teeth gritted and muscles clenched, Gordon began to pull, fighting blackness for whoever lay at the other end. It was strangely like assisting the birth of a foal; lots of resistance at first, and then a tumbling, chaotic rush and release… and John.

Metal shrieked and moaned. The bus convulsed downward. Almost, Gordon fell, but his brother's tight hold prevented it, nearly dislocating both their arms. With no time to acknowledge each other, they hurried up and out. Then, as the bus crumpled around them like tinfoil, the brothers leapt together from its sharply canted back, crossing to the fire engine.

As soon as willing hands had helped them along the slippery, resonant-shuddering ladder and down to the cobbled square… when they were somewhat away from that bus-devouring artifact, and Virgil had rushed up… Gordon finally reacted.

You don't know happy until someone's been safely returned; gotten their back pounded and big handfuls of their uniform clenched tight, like you'd never let go, again. Not till a laughing Virgil tore them away, at least.

There would be other greetings (and the return of a lost boy, courtesy of Spartanburg, South Carolina and International Rescue) but just then, this was enough. Though surrounded by pulsing radiation and spattering water, their brother was safely home.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Spartanburg-

Something was definitely happening. The section of alien craft that Scott and Alan faced had begun to implode, with metal-saw shrieks and tall, jetting fumes. Alan, his brother Scott, a cadre of state troopers, a National Guard unit, the helijets and Lieutenant Governor Price all retreated, backing away through twisted lanes of steaming wreckage.

"Uh…" Alan began, intelligently, "Guys, I think it's fixing to disappear, or something."

There wasn't time to consult (what with keeping an eye on the origami-folded object, avoiding puddles of battery acid and dodging spears of jagged metal) but Alan managed a semi-suave wink in the general direction of a hot-looking trooper. She sure filled out that blue uniform…

Scott was paying attention to something besides the undulating local 'scenery'. He turned like Lot's wife, halting his flight to watch as the Spartanburg object collapsed to literal nothingness, leaving behind a faint glow and the booming crack of inrushing air.

Perhaps it did the same thing in other places; Mexico City, for one, a newly rejuvenated alternate Earth for another. No way to tell. Here, all that Scott Tracy saw was a deeply-gouged crater, abandoned by the inexplicably heavy thing that had formed it. He was as startled as anyone else when cries for help drifted up from the sudden cavern.

What the…?

Scott's feet were moving almost before his mind gave the command. Like Alan, the troopers, EMTs and National Guardsmen, he at once raced back, vaulting wreckage like a wartime track-and-field runner.

The crater's lip was raised some fifteen feet above street level; more concrete shock wave than mere edge. Peering over, the rescuers saw a couple of scared college kids huddled in a deep crack, with the partial remains of a red Volkswagen Beetle and lots of broken rock. The long-haired girl leaned against her shivering boyfriend; both of them white as snow banks, but still alive. Having spent a terrifying day-and-a-half trapped beneath the alien war machine, all they could do was croak for assistance.

Scott and Alan Tracy had the best radiation gear, so down and in they went, helping to guide a helijet's lowered rescue basket and load up the kids. (Who appeared on talk shows for years afterward, and eventually got married. All from a blind date to the mall and chili-cheese fries at the Beacon.)

A little later, Scott's damaged wrist comm hissed to life, spitting out about one in three of dad's words.

"…brother… alive…. City… out John, somehow. Is…"

Staticky as hell, but enough got through to make Scott whoop aloud and Alan kiss a well-armed state trooper. (Scott did bail him out, eventually.)

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tracy Island, regular universe-

"…try."

John tripped over something, nearly falling flat in the empty corridor outside of Five's warehouse. Caught himself after a hopping, flailing step, or two. Then he frowned, trying to think why he'd…

Scott strode around the corner before John could do more than rub at his strangely itchy left arm. He appeared upset.

Never mind… replace 'upset' with 'furious', or 'mad enough to grab your shoulders and shake you'.

"Dammit, John! Where the hell have you been? Is this corridor out of scanning range, or something?"

John slipped free. Yeah, his brother was frothing-mad, pissed-off… and still a welcome sight.

By way of reparation (because in some way that he didn't quite understand, his brother's voice had helped guide him out of hell) John said,

"You're upset about the meeting? Because there's still time to get with dad… I wrote the rescue incident report last night, before heading up the mountain. You and Virgil can put your names on it, if you want. I'll say that we collaborated, and tell him it's my fault, if we're late."

Scott grunted, hitting his wrist comm to signal their younger brother, Virgil.

"No, sir. Nothing but the truth, from now on. Dad has a way of finding things out, remember?"

John's weird artifact appeared to be missing, along with that feeling of otherness. So, as they started back to the main house, Scott asked him,

"What happened to the blue wrist comm? Threw it away, or something?"

Very briefly, John made eye contact. He seemed okay, in that quiet-intense way of his, if unusually talkative.

"I don't know. I think it went back where it came from, Scott. It came by accident, and never really belonged here."

"Okay…" Scott sighed, pausing in mid-corridor to put a hand on his brother's slim shoulder. "It was one hell of a draining first rescue, and a weird night, besides… so maybe I'm not processing things very well… but I need to know that you're alright, John. Seriously, is everything okay?"

John was not a hugger. Such displays weren't much in his physical vocabulary, and never had been. But he could choose not to pull away from Scott's warm hand. Using an astronomer's averted gaze, arms folded across his chest, he said,

"Sure. I'm fine, now. Just, um… sort of hungry. Thanks."

Scott relaxed. Patted his brother's back, even. His physical armory was nearly as barren as John's, but a lot of the unsaid stuff got through, anyhow.

"Understood. We'll drop it, then… but please take better care in the future. If nothing else, NASA probably prefers their astronaut candidates to be a little less accident-prone."

John surprised him with an actual smile and pretty-near chuckle.

"Yeah. They're funny like that. I'll invest in a rabbit's foot and draw big 7s in the waistband of all my underwear, promise."

Scott's answering grin was tired, but genuine.

"Better than that. I'll let you borrow my lucky air-strike socks, for the interview."

"Long as you wash them, first."

He'd probably end up wearing them, too; needing all the good fortune he could muster to make the cut with NASA. But that would come later. Now, there was a meeting to attend; in the warm sunlight of an untroubled world, with his father, brothers and friend.

Once again, Scott put a hand on his shoulder, and once more, John left it there, very glad to be home.