All but finished, and it feels really weird. So much has changed in my life since beginning his story.

47: Through Dust and Smoke

Darlington, South Carolina, of a very unusual race day-

Dirk Pryce had intended and schemed for car 37 to blow up in the midst of other race cars, triggering a massive chain reaction. Thanks to John's quick thinking and Alan's boldness, this didn't happen. Al had risked his own sunny, star-blessed existence to pull well ahead of the other racers, despite having a tank full of high explosive and an overheated engine. He hadn't turned onto pit road, even, but abandoned the spinning red car in mid-track, below the skyboxes.

After that came explosion and fire and earth-shaking noise, with engine parts, axles and shreds of auto body slashing the sky like fiery blades. Some cratered the track and concrete safety wall. One smashed the contents of a certain luxury skybox to carbonized lumps. Another landed in the packed midfield, demolishing an RV full of race souvenirs and a Budweiser beer stand.

All of this registered vaguely with Gordon Tracy as so much mining and flak noise. He'd been a Skydiver pilot for WASP; darting through giant concussion waves, thunder and smoke was no new thing.

Chucking his cell phone at John (who fortunately possessed excellent reflexes) Gordon began speeding for Alan's blackened and blazing car. Never occurred to him that there might not be anyone left to save. He was a Tracy, and he did what he had to, running in that slightly awkward, forward-leaning way of his.

The track was full of shrieking, hurrying people running this way and that, so his path wasn't entirely straight. Made it at last, though, reaching the twisted and burning skeleton of car 37 a few heartbeats sooner than John did.

The smell was indescribably sharp and lung-searing; something he'd never encountered before but would never forget. Seemed to sink right through one's skin, clothing and eyelids, it did, clawing all the way down.

"Fumes…!" someone croaked rustily. John, at about the same moment that Gordon spotted their prostate and unmoving brother. Alan's racing gear had been brightly patterned with sponsor's logos. Now it was scorched nearly black.

Seeing this, the aquanaut shot forward through blistering heat and poisonous fumes, desperate to reach Alan. John stood in place, frowning distractedly and doing something with the scanner app on his phone. Not what Scott or Virgil would have done, perhaps, but trust John Tracy to be curious about chemical composition in the face of disaster.

Gordon scarcely noticed, navigating a burnt and sticky morass of asphalt and seashell bits to reach his fallen brother. Got there at last, crouched down, took hold and then hoisted Al up into a fireman's carry. John was there an instant later, looking blistered and grim.

"Toxic fumes," he repeated, as sirens began wailing and crash crews arrived. Automatic water jets rose from the track, blasting away at the fire and fumes with a roar like oncoming surf, but John had already recorded his evidence. Putting the phone away, he helped steer Gordon to a newly-arrived ambulance. Then blindness and respiratory collapse claimed him and he plunged into darkness, burning the whole way.

XXX

Much later, Tracy Island, at a patio table on the lower pool deck-

It was not an official "conference", in the sense that Scott hadn't called for a meeting. Just a gathering of the three oldest sons that eventually collected Gordon and Alan like bits of lint on a clothes brush.

Scott, tanned and slouching just a little, was nursing his second beer. He wore blue trunks and an unbuttoned tropical shirt, but hadn't been swimming. Beside him, Virgil was bare-chested, forevermore marked with a trio of bullet scars. No matter; he wasn't a vain young man and anyhow, some women liked it.

To outward appearance, John Tracy was entirely well; sparkling a bit in the sunshine, blond and imperturbable as ever. His skin had healed by this time, but lungs are slow to repair themselves, and he could still become short of breath. Long legs stretched out beneath the table, one arm flung loosely over the back of his wrought-iron chair, John, too, was nursing a beer. His third.

To no one's shock, Gordon was eating. TinTin had brought out a tray, kissed his forehead and then left the boys to their talk. She was working on her master's degree in engineering, and couldn't linger.

Gordon had taken less damage than John from the poisonous fumes of explosion and fire, but then, he hadn't stood like an idiot in the midst of that searing invisible cloud, performing complex analysis with a cell phone scanner.

The evidence had proven valuable in court, but only Gordon had been well enough to appear before a judge. All of that was behind him now, thankfully, and the muscular red-head was free to concentrate his full attention upon a giant sandwich of lunchmeat, butter and marmite. Still damp from hours in the pool, he was, and utterly famished. His contribution to the conference was mostly delivered in grunts, nods and meaningful looks, but his brothers understood well enough.

Alan, though, was depressed and unhappy. Dressed in board shorts and a white tank top, he'd been hungrily watching race coverage on television. Then, furious with the probable winner, he'd come stomping out to the pool deck, hurling the TV remote into an innocent shrub.

"I could've done it!" He'd raged, sinking into a chair at his brothers' light-and-shade dappled table. "I could have won!"

Not the first time he'd opened this argument with fate and a captive audience, but equally successful. The others exchanged glances. Brown eyes, hazel and blue met briefly before Virgil shifted position a bit, saying,

"Al… you were lucky to get out alive. Dad and Brains were lucky to stay out of prison. If John hadn't managed to trace the source of the fuel additive to Eldon Carter and Drake Pleasance… to that lab of theirs in Kansas… we'd have lost the company, and half the engineering team would be doing time in the slammer. You know that."

His gaze was warm and his voice gentle, but very much firm. Next to John and Gordon, Virgil had the most influence with Alan, and far greater tact. Unfortunately, Alan wasn't having any.

"All I wanted was to be Alan Tracy, winning racer. Not Alan Tracy, spoiled billionaire's leftover kid. I just… I wanted to make it on my own. Scott's been a fighter pilot, John went to Mars, and Gordon struck gold at the summer Olympics… Heck, Virge… that joke painting you did for charity sold for two million dollars to the Metropolitan Museum of Art! The art world is still gasping and quivering, waiting for your next awesome masterpiece!"

Virgil grinned and turned red to the roots of his wavy brown hair.

"Shut up," he mumbled good-naturedly. "Sooner or later, they're gonna figure out that 'Cry Against Modern Emptiness' is a portrait of grandma with black paint and ketchup stains on it."

"Yeah… well, at least you're famous!" Al groused, slumping lower into the floral patterned cushions of his heavy chair. "You made a splash in the art world. I'm still just Alan, the almost-ran. The never-was."

"The whiner," snapped Scott, his Indian-dark hair ruffling slightly in a fragrant breeze from the sea. "Al, none of us, ever, is going to escape dad's shadow. No matter what we do… what we've achieved… people will always say, "Well, of course he made it big in pick-your-career. Daddy's got a bottomless checking account." You think the squadron didn't talk? Or NASA? Or the Olympic medal committee? We've all been through it, grown up and moved on." Ever since the trial and Kyrano's funeral, Scott had been extra philosophical. Draining the last of his beer, he went on, saying,

"Look… you won the Super-8, Al. Be happy with that, and focus on the future. Whatever the world may think, you're not playing around, doing the backstroke in dad's money. You're working with International Rescue."

Added John, carefully arranging a row of 'dead soldiers' on the iron-work patio table,

"There aren't a lot of unmixed experiences in life, Alan. Parts of going to Mars I enjoyed. Those are the things I talk about at press conferences and NASA meet-and-greets. Parts, I just endured or nearly pissed myself scrambling to survive. Nobody hears about those. They wouldn't want to."

"All fun and games, it isn't," said Gordon, finishing the last of one sandwich and building another. "They see the medals and flash vehicles… we know the work, and all we've cut loose from t' be here and do this. Besides, who else has Thunderbird 3, or mmff, mmm-fff-fff –ment?"

Alan nodded and even managed to smile; pretending that he'd understood that last mouth-filled mumble of Gordon's. But deep inside, it still hurt. He could have won, all on his own, with no help from anyone. He could have succeeded.

"Let it go, Al," Scott urged him quietly, sensing the drift of Alan's thoughts. "You've got your family, your health and a job almost nobody else could handle."

"Between rescues, you've even got sort of a life," added Virgil, meaning to be helpful. "Plus Grandma's cooking."

Very kindly, he did not mention TinTin Kyrano (still a sore subject). Alan sighed. Resting his chin on his cupped hands, he gazed past the bronzed and broad shoulders around him, sky-blue eyes focused on nothing.

"So… I'm supposed to just pack it all in, pickle my dreams and forget them? Just like that? All because some dude with a grudge screwed up my racing career from a dang skybox?"

"No," corrected John, pushing his own chair back from the table with a skittery, screeching clatter. "You're supposed to do like the rest of us; land on your feet, have a good look around and proceed in the next best direction. Life goes on, Alan, whether you think you're ready, or not."