Edits continue.

23: Return

Manhattan, NY, the Four Seasons Restaurant, around lunch time-

The name 'Tracy' precluded reservations. All Scott had to do, once Fermat, Alan and Brains had left LaGuardia for Wharton, was to show up at the restaurant's private, VIP door. Admittance and fawning service were a foregone conclusion.

Cindy Taylor joined him there a little afterward, being in town on the business of chasing scandal. To his eye, she was beautiful; glowing with diffused light, surrounded by soft music, tinkling cutlery and hushed conversations, with a white marble pool and spreading tree just behind her.

Of course, he'd have found his fiancée attractive had she stood knee-deep in rushing mud, toting a heavy rucksack, with twigs and briars in her hair, or fresh-tousled from bed. Having seen her that way, he knew.

She'd taken the trouble to look nice for him, though. Her dark hair was piled up, and she'd put on a silky red cocktail dress. Very pretty.

Scott was conservatively dressed in a tailored grey suit, white shirt and blue tie because… other than his various uniforms… these were pretty much the only clothes he understood how and when to wear. Clothing didn't matter, though; not today.

He had a pricey ring in his pocket, and he wanted to set a date. He wanted to marry her on the island, just as soon as John was released from quarantine.

"It's going to be great, Hon," he told her, all boyish enthusiasm and fighter pilot good-looks. "John and his wife can make things official at the same time, and then we can get started on a family, too. He's one up on me in the kid department, but…"

"Whoa. Back that train up, fella."

Cindy, her expression hardening, pulled her hands free of his and leaned back in her chair, charm bracelet jangling discordantly.

"Marriage, okay. You, absolutely. Kids… no way in hell. I'm not ready to sacrifice my career and figure to enter the wonderful world of Tracy brood mares."

His gut-shot look must have hit home, or something, because she softened a little, reaching across the pale linen tablecloth to pat his clenched hand.

"Look, Scott… I love you, and I want to stay with you (officially, or as a best friend with benefits, whatever works) but… I'm just not mommy material, understand? I have a job and a life. I'd like to keep them."

Scott cleared his throat, gulping two fingers of scotch from a crystal tumbler to buy himself a little time. He felt all at once as cold and perplexed as an orphaned seal cub.

No kids…?

He wanted to talk to her, to explain how important it was that someday, someone of his should climb onto his lap, bursting with excitement, and proclaim,

'Daddy, guess what…?'

He could see it; see teaching his child to fish, to fly, to ride a horse. Could feel a little son or daughter sitting upon his shoulders while he made up silly names for the constellations, and (back at their campsite) a laughing mom prepared supper.

No… she had to understand how important that was; how necessary.

"Cindy, I've always wanted kids. Lots of them. I come from a big family, and…"

"I don't," she cut in, smiling a little.

Giving Scott's hand another brief tap, she leaned away again. Meanwhile, the head waiter glided up, but Scott sent him off. They weren't much interested in food, just then.

"Don't get me wrong," Cindy continued, draining the last of her Long Island iced tea, "I had a great childhood. Bart and Marcy were wonderful parents. They flew all the way to Eastern Europe to get me, for God's sake… but I'm not ready for 2 AM feedings, saggy breasts and diaper pails. I've seen what's happened to friends who caved in, Scott, and believe me, the results weren't pretty.

"I enjoy travel, spontaneous sex, adult conversation and my own identity too much to give them up for a couple of toothless, hair-snatching drool machines. Ever. If this is going to be a major issue, Hollywood, maybe we…"

"Hang on," Scott interrupted, before she could finish brushing him off. "You're getting all excited, Hon, and there's no reason to be. We can work this out, I mean it. People who love each other find a way around obstacles like children, careers and religion. Look…" he dragged forth a sudden example, "John's wife has a job. She's a doctor, an astronaut, and she still found time for marriage and a baby."

Cindy snorted, but smiled again.

"Knowing your brother, he snuck up and drugged her coffee. Or else babies are standard NASA-issue, these days."

She'd relaxed again; that was something. The smile had reached her dark eyes, and she'd let him recapture her hands.

"We'll figure something out," Scott insisted softly, massaging her palms. "One way or another, Hon, we'll find a way to make this work."

Cindy said nothing, but chose to let him believe. That much, at least, she owed him.


I-95, heading north to Wharton Private Academy-

"This sucks," Alan growled, from the very back of the Tracy Aerospace transport van. Not that anyone was listening.

"It blows, it bites and it chews. I'm serious!"

But Brains was deep in conversation, half his mind on the road, half on the 'colleague' he was talking to via hands-free headset.

Fermat was hunched over his new Palm Treo, tapping out boring stuff to Sam Nakamura, his best school friend. Consequently (and, he might add, as usual) Alan was left to his own petulant self. No one wanted to hear his complaints. No one cared that he was about to be imprisoned.

Yeah. Wharton Private Academy for upper-crust snobs and Ivy little-leaguers

No girls, no surf, no rescues, no nothing. Just constant study, raised-pinky manners, high culture and dorm life. Fermat wasn't going to be much fun, either; Alan could tell. 50 miles from Nerdville and the skinny smart kid was already geeking out, despite everything Alan had taught him.

Great. Just, frickin' wonderful.

Alan slouched low in his leather seat and glared through the window at naked trees and hissing traffic. The sky outside was an indeterminate shade of grey; somewhere between 'blah' and 'sucks to be you'.

"Regular families stay together, you know," he announced aloud, unable to contain his frustration. "They don't pack their kids off to Butt-Pimple, New York for re-education!"

No one argued back. Dr. Hackenbacker gave him a swift, rear-view mirrored head shake, while Fermat didn't even look up.

Okay, then… cell phone time.

…Except that all he got from anyone was 'I'm off having more fun than you are, so leave a message, loser'.

TinTin was probably lounging out by the pool, looking all sexy and stuff… Gordon was on his way back to swim training in Europe… and John too busy shaking hands and posing for photographs to pick up the dang phone. Even his mom was off line.

Fine. Be that way.

Maybe he couldn't stop them from sending him away to school, or get any sympathy, either… but Alan Tracy could sure as heck do his level best to get expelled, and in record time, too.

See, private school wouldn't work any better than Ritalin had, because Operation Major Chaos was about to begin.


Madrid, Spain, Barajas Airport, Late afternoon-

He was cleared for landing, after a very long, very tiring flight.

Gordon Tracy cut in low over the sun-warmed city, his heart lifting as the plane dropped. The ground beneath him tilted and rose, providing brief, shy glimpses of bright marble palaces and dark foliage; of cathedrals, plazas and ambling folk.

Tracy Aerospace had its own hangar and landing strip off to one side of Barajas Airport, which saved the tired young pilot a little time. Customs and baggage checks were a mere handshake formality, there (as much because he'd won gold for the European Union men's swim team as because his surname was 'Tracy'… and maybe, too, because his astronaut brother, John, was newly returned from Mars. Every little bit, don't you know…).

Gordon was never smooth when excited, and his landings weren't, either. Coming in steep and fast, the yellow turbo-prop made hard contact with the runway, bounced violently, wobbled a bit, and then touched down again. Her tires smoked and squealed, but this time stayed on the ground, humming along the tarmac toward taxiway bravo. Despite his shaky entrance, Gordon was quite a good pilot. Not in Scott's league, perhaps, or Virgil's, either, but he probably got twice as much fun from it all.

The tower chatter was a warm mix of Spanish and English, welcoming Gordon back to Madrid, and wishing him luck in the upcoming games; like the strong, slanting sunshine and jewel-blue sky, part and parcel of his second home.

He thanked the ground controller and joked around a bit, simultaneously taxing back to TA's business hangar and typing away at his flight log. Just about ran his aircraft into the side of a building when he saw who was waiting for him by the hangar doors, though.

Royce Fellows, he'd rather expected. Anika Peralta, he hadn't. She bounced up and down at the end of the taxiway; slender, green-eyed, tawny-haired and perfect. Royce slouched beside her, hands in the pockets of his blue-and-gold team jacket, grinning broadly. He was a big lad, bald, dark-skinned and sweet-natured. An excellent swimmer and Gordon's best mate.

Not troubling about his bags, Gordon shut the plane's engines down and all but kicked the door loose in order to reach Royce and Anika. The lass crossed the distance between them in two sprightly bounds, at once laughing, crying and calling his name. She was Catalonian, rather than Spanish, and her accent was a bit off, but this hardly mattered, for Gordon's was worse. Anyhow, she'd leapt directly into his arms, and her kisses required nothing in the way of translation or improvement, being warm and sweet as new-spun candy floss.

"Bloody hell… Find a room, can't you?" Royce laughed, sauntering up to the closely braided pair. Gordon released the lass long enough to give his best mate a quick, rough embrace.

"That's sheer envy talkin', so I'll ignore it," he laughed, once he and Royce had shoved each other about the tarmac a bit. "Come t' collect me, have you?"

(They hadn't warned him, you see.)

"Right. Thought we'd surprise you with a prettier face than McMahon's."

Damn. At the mention of their highly-irascible swim coach, Gordon immediately sobered.

"In a mood, was he?" The red-haired young man asked his taller friend.

"Bloody frothin'. It's a week past sign-in, and you're goin' t' die, mate."

Anika scowled up at Royce, her green eyes narrowing to sharp cat-slits. As an Olympic-level gymnast, she had coaches of her own… but hers were far less likely to scream and fling their ruddy clipboards.

"Royce, cajate! You scare him back to the plane!"

Swinging lithely about, she gazed at Gordon, again, both hands twining themselves in his travel-stained Hawaiian shirt.

"Gordon, don't listen. Is fine. All very well with Senor McMahon. He will be very glad for seeing you, but I am more glad."

Leaping upward, Anika wrapped legs and arms around him and resumed her storm of interrupted kisses. Indeed, it was good to be back.


Tracy Island, the office, early morning-

"Zoo-what?" Virgil Tracy inquired, laughing puzzledly. He sat leaning upon his folded arms, gazing into the comm screen which transmitted the face and words of Teena Redfeather, his girlfriend. (One of them, anyhow. Her twin was the other.) She was part Mexican, part Cheyenne, but mostly beautiful… and half a world away, squinting into the screen of a cell phone. He could glimpse mountains, past the whipping dark smoke of her hair.

"Zulayl. From now on, when I'm being professional, I'm going to call myself 'Zulayl Rojas'. It sounds smarter. Shari's picked 'Himilce Rojas'. Whatcha think, Virgil?"

Not much, actually. So long as they answered, Virgil didn't much care what the twins' new names were.

"Works for me," he decided aloud. "Teena's still okay in private, though. Right?"

"Sure," she smiled, dimpling on one side. "Speaking of which… You know I got a temporary job now that school's out, right?"

(She and her sister both attended the local community college.)

Virgil nodded. She'd mentioned it, yeah.

"Okay, so I'm helping one of my professors with a dig site. It's down in Mexico, at an Aztec sacrificial well. There's all kinds of bones and pottery and weapons down there. Professor Roth started an expedition last year, see. Only he had to stop on account of funding problems, and because he had classes to teach. But, uh… someone made a big donation last month, and you could come visit me there, starting next week, if you want." Kind of rushed, this last, but heartfelt.

Sounded wonderful to Virgil, at any rate, whose bluntly handsome face was all at once eager as a hunting dog's.

"I'll have to clear it with dad, first. You sure your boss won't mind me hanging around?"

Teena-in-private grinned.

"Long as you bring your shovel and checkbook, I guarantee ol' Rothie'll be more than happy to see you, Virgil. Archaeologists are always broke."

Virgil laughed. He wanted to reach through the screen and hug her to him, taste the sunshine and salt on her rosy skin.

"Okay, then. Pending dad's go-ahead, it's a date."

"Mexico City, one week from today," Teena/ Zulayl confirmed, brushing back her long hair. "You bring the sun screen. I'll pack the beer and live bait."

They could hardly wait.


Peary Crater, the International Moon Station; 3 AM local time, still in quarantine-

After nearly a year of interplanetary space travel, 1/6th gravity hurt like hell. All of them were suffering to some degree, the baby most of all. She simply wasn't accustomed to up and down, nor her flaccid little heart used to working so hard at pumping blood.

Even in her sleep, Janie twitched and whimpered, perhaps recalling what it felt like to fly, perhaps merely worn and sore. Whichever, it was her father who stood watch over the restlessly dreaming girl, most nights. He never slept much, anyhow, so it made perfect sense that he should be the one to stroke away nightmare and answer groggy questions. Part of the job, as John Tracy understood it.

Junior (for so they usually called her) slept in a crib with a colorful mob of stuffed bears and NASA chimpanzee dolls, thumb tucked into her slack, pink mouth. Probably, he shouldn't have encouraged that, but it had seemed like the thing to do at the time. Kept her quiet, anyway.

Her crib was located in the bleak central 'living room', along with the crew's television screen, couch and dining table. Otherwise, the place was mostly concrete, steel, cameras and observation windows, with a little lab equipment thrown in for variety. By this time, he barely noticed it.

The others grunted, tossed and mumbled around him, each in a nearby curtained alcove (something like the sleep lockers on Endurance). His wife lay in the alcove directly behind. Her curtain was half open. She'd asked him to leave it that way when he'd risen from their bed, so that she could see him, and the baby.

Kim Cho and Roger Thorpe were close, as well; separated from each other by concrete, cloth and honor. Meanwhile, Pete McCord snored like a chain saw, sometimes waking himself in the process. Fell asleep again seconds later, though, muttering scraps of command.

Like his crew, the mission commander had a lot of recovering to do, for Mars had proven as harsh as she was lovely, and they'd come very close to dying there.

John walked around a little, pacing the confines of the quarantine chamber. Thunderbird 5 hadn't been much larger… but at least he'd been able to leave. Here? He had no idea what the hell was going on, or when they'd be allowed to go home.

28 days since making lunar orbit, they were still locked away "for their own good"; tested, questioned and examined, with no release date in sight. And lately, no direct contact with outsiders. Not good.

Hearing a sudden low sound, John pivoted. His wife had awakened. Wearing one of his black Princeton tee-shirts and wrapped in a bed sheet, she stumbled, blinking, from their alcove.

"Good morning, Doctor," he said, reaching out to brush a few strands of brown hair from her face.

"G' morning, Sunshine," she yawned back, leaning into him. "Early?"

"Very." 0420, to be exact.

"How's the baby?"

She sounded funny, with her face buried in his chest, that way. John glanced into the crib, seeing pink terry-cloth, blonde curls and a tiny, gently moving form.

"She's good," he replied, covering all the bases, status-wise. He then led his wife to the TV couch. They sat down together, Linda curling up at his side like a kitten. Before falling asleep, she slid her left hand and arm up the front of his shirt. In space, the habit had helped keep them from floating apart during sleep (that, and the harnesses). Unnecessary, here, but John supposed she'd gotten used to it.

He had.

"Wake me up… if she cries, John… G'night."

The blurry request was broken by deep yawns and comfortable wiggling, and quickly trailed off into mumbled nonsense.

"Okay," John responded.

But when Junior began fussing a few minutes later, he disentangled himself without waking Dr. Bennett, and fetched the baby out of her crib, himself.

Junior didn't understand 'private' or 'out of reach' any better than she comprehended falling objects. So, because she needed to see them, he carried the child around, allowing her to peep into the others' sleeping places. This way, she was reassured that Uncle Pete, Auntie Cho and her Uncle Roger were safe, and still present.

Then, of course, she wanted to inspect the double air-locked lab doors, clinging to her father's neck as he walked from hatch to screen to instrument panel.

"All secure," he told her, eliciting a smile and a sleepy kiss. Then another, more worrisome thought came to her.

"Daddy, is the mens coming for to get blood?" She whispered and signed, anxious that they'd have to place their arms through the collection window again, and let a heavily-gloved technician draw samples.

"No. They're off sticking someone else," he told her, rubbing lightly at the girl's small back.

Kara Jane-Ellen Tracy hated giving blood samples because it stung, and because the collection cabinet's nitrogen atmosphere hissed and squeezed her, whenever she put a hand through. Also, that's where they'd implanted her new ID chip.

John was more concerned about the increasing biohazard safety protocols the WorldGov health crews were applying. That and the fact that he hadn't seen their original lab techs in several days. Very much, not good.

Back to the couch, then, after getting his child a snack of chemically stabilized strawberry milk (her favorite).

"Mommy sleeping," she announced, as they were getting settled. "She tired. Poor mommy. Shhhh…"

"Okay. I'm not the one running my mouth," John protested, amused.

"Shhh, Daddy! You go sleep, now."

Her wide blue gaze was terribly serious, her chirping voice quite firm. Sometimes, Janie acted much less like a daughter than an impatient crewmate.

"That's what I had in mind, Junior. Now zip it, yourself, and go back to sleep."

The girl obediently positioned herself so that she was in contact with both parents, and soon drifted off. John found it harder to rest, though. Had he crouched in a cave, holding a fire-sharpened stick, he'd have faced the same painful question: how to defend his woman and child from that which prowled beyond the firelight.