Never could leave well enough alone... =) Thanks for reading and reviewing, Silver Bee, Tikatu, Sam, Susan-Martha and Bubzchoc. Herewith (more or less) the end. Edited.

18: Split Decision

Could a silvery river of focused intent trickle like water, down through the twists of a vast quantum web? Could a resurrected super-computer, equipped with many layers of forethought and newly-softened pride, splice a million fresh knots in reality? If not, what is a second chance for?

Gains there were, and unrealized losses. "Back to the first change," Claire Tracy had told Five… unwittingly erasing her grandmother, Lucy. She'd never know, and it was better that way. What could be finessed, very subtly, was the timing of certain events, so that Alan was born and the boys rather older… Ricky already adopted from far-off Sumatra… when a horrible landslide ended the life of their mother. Torn with sorrow, a stern and hard-forged Jeff Tracy would rise from the shards of his love and his life to build something great and enduring.

Gently nudged into roles that would serve them well, later, his sons became skilled at their chosen (and very adventurous) jobs. Scott Tracy excelled at the Air Force academy, going on to become a many-times decorated fighter pilot. What he did not excel at was dealing with wise-ass spitfire news reporters; especially those who persisted in dogging his footsteps, his missions (and bed).

John's mastery of computers and his incredible piloting skills won him a slot in the NASA astronaut corps, eventually placing him aboard Endurance and onward, to horribly dangerous Mars.

Virgil would give up a promising football career to pursue mechanical engineering (and play a little music, on the side). He, too, learnt to fly, though never at war or in space. Too gentle and close to the Earth, was our Virgil, for that.

Gordon remained an athletic wild-child, capable of swinging from one extreme to another with lightning speed. A carousing Olympic champion one moment, he could also chuck everything at once to join WASP and do his bit to defend the seas. There was a very kind, noble heart under all of that swagger, and powerful love that no changes in timeline could douse. Despite all that had and would happen, he still wound up with the girl of his dreams.

Alan Tracy grew up in the long shadow of some highly accomplished older brothers. Possessed of a miles-wide wicked streak and love of theatrics, he romanced many women and won more car races than any other driver alive at the time. It was sheer lack of challenge which drove him to retire from racing, in the end. That... and his father's incredible, awesome idea.

Other turning points remained; most of them hair-trigger quick and knife's blade balanced. Five was extremely cautious, however. This time, when Endurance made her historic flight to Mars, the quantum computer was forearmed and ready. This time, no alien infection or seizure was allowed to take place, at all… though a few small adjustments still resulted in John's union with Doctor Bennett, and the birth of their beautiful girl. They married officially back on the island, along with Roger and Cho. Pete, Jeff and Scott were best men, TinTin the beaming flower girl and Fermat a small, chubby ring-bearer.

More trickles of probability joined up after that, forming a powerful torrent against which Red Path's awful scheme stood no chance at all. Yes, they scouted Alec Morrissey, and placed Louise Coates in his lonely path… But she was a much changed young woman this time out; one who now cherished the truth. Twenty-four hours after "I do", she admited her past to the startled groom, who then went at once to his best friend and comrade, Scott Tracy.

Was everything sunshine and roses thereafter? No, any more than two powerful strokes could rip through his tall body and somehow leave Jeff in perfect health. He'd have his work cut out for him battling back from that crippling damage, just as International Rescue had a dreadful fight on their hands with new foes and old.

The Mysterons continued active in space and on Mars, frequently menacing Earth. Closer to home, Red Path remained a very real threat, despite the wave of arrests which had followed Louise Morrissey's betrayal. Worse, the Hood somehow slipped through all of Five's scrabbling safeguards, emerging alive from all this, where Lucinda Tracy had not. Still, no one but Five recalled any different. How could they?

As for the other small tag-ends and bits... the lives and worlds saved... Captain Matt Tracy distinguished himself with the World Space Agency, eventually heading it up. He and his wife welcomed the birth of a son shortly after his stint in the weather satellite ended (but they called the boy "Peter", not "Ian").

Fantasy realms, meanwhile, have a way of forever renewing themselves, and of being affected by nearby reality. Gawain was back to square one of the virtual chessboard… and strangely untroubled to find himself there. Elsewhere, Nexus struggled to patch itself back into shape; this time without their help-desk answering program, which had found a new home. And of course, Five persisted, in much weaker guise.

You win some, you lose some. But, as to the future… my friend, turn the page.