The end, this time for sure! Thanks, Tikatu, ED and Mitzy, for all of your kind reviews.

26: Epilogue, Part 2

In the following days, many things happened to alter the world's shaken state. Most of the living machines went into hiding, many with a human friend or two to help provide them with cover. Such partnerships might be found on the NASCAR and boat racing circuits, or out in the wilds of Australia or Alaska, flying the mail; anything mobile that allowed an intelligent machine to hide in plain sight. As a rich boy's souped-up Lear jet, perhaps, or a private recreational sub. One way or another, a few here and a few there, the devices found ways to fit in. Though some, of course, went rogue.

But people have much stranger psyches, and the re-created survivors responded in various ways. Some denied that anything had happened at all, while others studied the phenomenon and formed self-help groups, eventually launching a "New Life" religion around their shared experience.

Having been to the other side, communed there and returned, these New-Lifers held sacrosanct the possibility that somewhere on Earth, on the Moon or Mars there existed a secret cache of green energy, a storehouse of power which might be tapped for their blessings and rituals. A harmless bunch, mostly… although they did have a rather unhealthy fixation with those who'd been recreated "perfectly": Captain Scarlet, Captain Black and certain rumored, sought-for, others.

Thanks to Cindy Taylor-Tracy, events at Cheyenne Mountain had been thoroughly covered and widely broadcast, but the Moon and Mars had no such publicity. Their situation was slower to reach the public. Badly damaged and venting atmosphere, the International Moon Station had had to be evacuated. NASA and the World Government called desperately for volunteers to live and work there, repairing the station under the harshest, most perilous conditions imaginable. Former military and astronaut corps personnel were especially encouraged to apply, and John Tracy certainly wished to do so. Unfortunately, so did his wife, Linda Bennett. In the end, (because neither would back down) they got a coin and flipped for it.

Mars was another story, entirely; an active and dangerous Mysteron colony within striking distance of Earth's fragile blue life-bubble. There were hostile machines in plenty there, mutated animals and a few re-created humans, clustered beneath the seething green haze of a rapidly strengthening Over-mind.

Closer to home, there were other happenings. Earth's magnetic field had begun to experience "anomalies", leading to sudden, violent storms and navigation problems. Maybe, scientists reasoned, something had happened to the core? Perhaps those crystals had damaged it, somehow?

Amid all of this steadily boiling chaos, one young woman searched for… and eventually made… the right decision. Destiny Angel had been torn between duty (dispose of the box, or open it before Colonel White, in a tightly secured location) and love (release Paul Metcalfe at once, trusting that he cared for her and would never do anything wrong). She'd had a bit of time to think, as the box was able to shape-shift like a living machine, evading the notice of scanners. Only she knew what it was, and whose life it contained. Only she recalled Paul's warm voice, scratchy chin and strong arms; the rock-steady love in those clear blue eyes.

Later, there might be rings and "I do" s, but the real union took place one night, when Simone opened the alien box beneath an old footbridge on the River Seine. Moonlight reflected off the water's rippling surface, casting sinuous bands onto the slimy stonework above. There were smells of dankness and mud and vegetation. Noises of distant traffic, slapping waves and ambling passers-by, but Lieutenant Girardoux ignored it all and opened the box.

As for the rest, well… genuine love is its own reward, turning hardship into adventure and making the rest of the world utterly, wonderfully superfluous. After a burst of green light and a soft explosion that fanned her blond hair and left dancing spots in Simone's vision, she flung herself into the arms of her re-created love; there, beneath an ancient stone footbridge, in moonlit northern France.

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Tracy Island, on the beach-

When in doubt, have a cookout. That was Jeff's tried and true strategy, and it had served him well in the past. There was something about grilled meat drenched in grandma's infamous "secret ingredient barbecue sauce", (proudly disqualified from county fairs and church picnics all over Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas) creamy potato salad, beans, beer and sticky desserts that smoothed all the lumps out of Tracy family politics. And with five grown sons, plus his elderly mother, a new wife and child, two daughters-in-law and a toddling grandbaby to deal with, Jeff had a lot of politics on his hands.

Thus, the cookout. Listening to booming surf and Alan's carefully rigged sound system… calling out food-service and tablecloth fastening advice… dipping a brush into that dark, head-clearing sauce and painting rows of fragrantly seared chicken and ribs… Jeff Tracy felt himself relax.

Off at one of the picnic tables, Scott and Cindy were deep in hand-holding conversation, leaning toward each other across red-checkered cloth, whispering about the future. Alan was out in the water, meanwhile, using the last of the day's light to cram in a few minutes' surfing. The day before, Alan had asked his father and mother to sponsor his way into stock-car racing, an expensive and risky proposition. Jeff was officially still considering the matter, and patiently fielding Gennine's panicked phone calls.

Gordon was back home, and on the mend. His shoulder would be scarred for life, probably, though he'd regained much of his mobility (swiftly and eerily so). He and TinTin had spent most of the afternoon together, a fact which Jeff and Kyrano were doing their best to overlook. The girl had been enrolled in a French girls' school and would leave for Paris in three days. Not much could happen in so short a time, could it? Between an injured young veteran and a well brought-up school girl (practically a member of the family)?

TinTin was very solicitous of Gordon, Jeff noticed; bringing him drinks and tidbits and glorying in his company, making light of all the things the former sailor was yet too weak to do. Innocent enough; but just like Kyrano, Jeff failed to notice the ring, which TinTin was wearing on a fine gold chain, close to her heart.

Not far away, Virgil was also entertaining a lady; his blonde little niece, Janie. He'd taken her to play in a shallow tide pool (without her usual playmate, because Ricky was still afraid of the water, and preferred to stay on shore with Penelope). Afterward they'd sat down before a canvas and easel, ostensibly to paint the sunset, but mostly to make a smeary, hand-printed mess that would wind up framed and displayed in the family room. In the meantime, Janie sported a dot of bright pink on her forehead, placed there by her doting uncle.

"Permanent Rose," he'd told her. "One of my favorite paint colors." Like the child, it was beautiful and enduring, and brightened whatever it touched.

As for her parents, as Jeff understood it, John had won an important wager, leaving him with an extremely grumpy wife who required a great deal of making-up to (on the nature of which, Jeff chose not to comment). Long story short, they kept disappearing, and Janie seemed likely to gain a brother or sister, soon.

One phone call Jeff was quite happy to receive came from his friend Stavros Valianatos, inviting them all to his June wedding to the lovely Kristal (Carrie Jones, really) on the yacht Amphitrite-2. Smothering a grin, Jeff responded,

"Congratulations! Of course, we'll come, Stavros. What country does the little woman have in mind for a wedding present? Costa Rica? Monaco?"

Valianatos laughed at him, seeming honestly… happy; like a man who'd finally found something he hadn't even realized he was missing.

"Very funny, Jeff. Believe it or not, Carrie doesn't want presents. She says figure out what you would have spent, and donate the money to your favorite charity, instead. And, no… your own wallet doesn't count."

Jeff chuckled, slathering the rack of ribs Kyrano had just turned over with an extra-dense coating of sauce. Thank God for hands-free head sets.

"You're a hard man, Stavros… but genuine charity it is." (Did IR count?) "See you in June, with enough spray paint and paper streamers to turn that yacht of yours into a "Just Married" nightmare. Bet I can get Jim to pitch in."

Following the safe return of his son, James Springfield had decided to travel the world with young Christian on a sort of father-son adventure tour. Currently, the raucous pair was hang-gliding in the Andes.

"I'll have you both strip-searched," Valianatos threatened, laughingly. The conversation ended a few minutes later, with Jeff promising to be there in June, family and friends in tow.

He felt remarkably good. The meat was done to toothsome perfection, so Jeff called the assemblage to order; summoning all five grown sons, his wife and their baby, the bouncing granddaughter, his mother, thorny daughters-in-law, TinTin and Brains. Fermat and Myrna had returned to upstate New York, or they would have been present, too. But it was quite a crowd, anyhow.

Alan parked his dripping surfboard while somebody turned down the music, leaving Jeff with only the sea and wind to shout down. A sprinkling of area lights came on as the sun vanished, bathing them all in a warm, golden glow.

"Dinner's ready," Jeff told them after a moment, "but before we eat, I want to… I just wanted to say that I'm glad everything turned out so well. I'm proud of the courage and strength you've shown so far, and I feel very confident that we're going to make a real difference in the near future. International Rescue may have been my idea to begin with, but you're the ones who brought it to life, and I thank you."

It was Scott… tall and strong in the lamplight… who answered him, saying simply,

"Family sticks together, dad. You need us, we're here. Period. We're also hungry, so... Line forms to the right, people. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghostest, the one who's firstest, eats the mostest. Dig in."

After that, the family fell to with gusto (except for John, who would probably just absorb ambient energy, or something).

They ate, drank and talked far into the night, past the point when two sleepy babies drifted off on their fathers' shoulders. Past the point when a yawning Alan began clearing up, with grandmother's brisk help. Halfway to sunrise, and then some.