Part Seven -- by Becky Ratliff
See disclaimers and copyright information in Part One.
(USS Saratoga February 8, 2065)
Alison sat near the hatch of the observation dome and watched Heather kick a soccer ball. She was still too small to do it very gracefully, but she still had a good time kicking it and then toddling after it as fast as her little feet would carry her. After the tiny cubicle in sickbay, having room to let Heather run around was a godsend. She thought how strange it was that they were leaving tomorrow, and how precious the people here had become to her in such a short time.
It made sense that she and TC had become as close as they had. On some level, most In Vitroes were looking for something to fill the void created in their lives by their lack of a birth family. There were a lot of ways to fill that need, and finding a genetic sibling had always been on the list, no matter how hard the IVA had tried to discourage it. She was fortunate in a way to have given birth to Heather so young, she'd never really had that sense of being cast adrift. When she wondered who she was or what her role in life should be, her baby gave her a simple answer ... she was Heather's mother. Whatever other choices she made would always be determined by that role. Now, she was TC's sister, and if he wanted he could define himself as her brother, as Heather's uncle. She would never understand how natural-borns could take that for granted.
But she realized something else. She was going to miss Glen Ross, too ... and she wasn't sure how to deal with that.
Alison glanced at her watch. She'd invited Glen to her cabin that evening. She wasn't sure where they were going with their relationship, but she didn't want to leave without at least trying to find out. She owed that to them both. She wondered if it could go anywhere. For one thing, he was older than she ... much older. Glen had lived more than ten times as long as she had.
She wasn't sure what that mathematical fact meant in practical terms. He had a wealth of experience to draw upon, certainly. At the same time, though, Alison had done her share of living, too ... she didn't feel that her lack of years was in any way a handicap, it was just the way things were. That she had only lived four calendar years had never really meant that much to her before. She'd taken things as they'd come, gone on about her business and accomplished whatever circumstances had demanded of her. No one had ever cut her any slack for being young and inexperienced, and she had never expected them to. Her life experience and Glen's were so radically different that she wasn't sure how they'd found common ground so quickly ... but somehow they had.
With anyone else, the racial differences would have been a question. But she knew without a doubt that prejudice was simply not an issue with Glen. To him, that she was an In Vitro was of no more importance than that she had blue eyes. She had never met a natural-born before who felt that way ... or an In Vitro either, for that matter ... not even herself ... she had to admit that she'd labelled him as an NB before she'd started thinking of him as Glen Ross. On the other hand, she honestly believed that he hadn't branded her with the IV label and all the baggage that went with it, before he'd related to her as Alison Brown.
She took Heather back to the cabin and put her to bed for her nap while she straightened up a little. As usual, Ross was exactly on time ... she was beginning to realize that you could set a clock by him. She supposed that was to be expected of anyone in the service, but it wasn't what she was used to -- very little about life on the farm required looking at a clock.
He had brought a bottle of wine, she set it in the ice bucket and they sat down to wait for the steward to bring their meal. They were surprised when the next knock at the hatch was not the steward but rather McQueen.
Alison let him in. The look he gave them both said volumes. Ross watched Alison react, surprise then indignation flashed across her expression. He asked, "Okay, Ty, what's this all about?"
"Do I need to spell it out in so many words?"
Ross figured he sure as hell didn't. It hadn't taken McQueen long at all to figure out the older brother role! Ross stepped hard on his first reaction, to get mad when challenged ... he had sisters too.
Alison looked back and forth between the two of them and spoke in a very quiet voice that cut through the rising tempers like a knife. "If you want to fight with your best friend, TC, do be my guest -- but please find an excuse that doesn't involve me. Glen is here at my invitation."
"I don't think you do. How dare you assume that I am being somehow taken advantage of ... that I need someone to look out for my interests? And is that really your opinion of Glen after all these years?"
"Of course not," McQueen snapped.
"You two have been friends for fifteen years, I will not be the cause of trouble between the two of you."
Ross watched the two of them lock gazes, an irresistable force and an immovable object. He said, "Alison, Ty knows me very well after all these years -- well enough to know that I am not good enough for his sister. And I suspect I might have had the same reaction if he'd decided to date my sister Elaine."
McQueen shot him a glance. Ty and Elaine had been sparring partners for years, she still referred to him as "that motorcycle riding crazy fool." He knew full well that Elaine was actually very fond of him, but the idea of the two of them together was ludicrous. It was more as if she had adopted him as another younger brother. He and Ross both started laughing at the same time.
They were both still in the doghouse with Alison, though. She said, "Well, if that's all settled now --?" Both of them gave her rather sheepish looks. "TC, why don't you make yourself useful and take Heather tonight? I'll pick her up first thing in the morning."
"Now, wait a minute, my quarters aren't exactly kid proof," he backpedalled. "She could hurt herself if she got into my gear."
Alison said wickedly, "I've heard you're very resourceful, I'm sure you'll think of something."
Heather looked at her mother, then up at TC -- and held up her arms to be picked up. He wondered where in the hell they had found a flight suit sized for a three year old. He swung her up to his arms and set her on his hip. He told Alison, "Pick her up by 0330, I have first watch and I won't have anywhere to leave her. Unless you want her on your bridge, sir--"
Alison laughed. "Don't worry, I'll pick her up in plenty of time." The hatch closed behind him. She asked Ross, "Is he always that --?!"
Ross said, "That was mild, Alison, I've never seen anyone handle his temper as well as you do."
She said, "Well ... I suppose it takes one to know one. My foreman swears he's going to enter me in the fair for stubbornness, he's sure I'd take the grand prize. Are you sure you still want to have anything to do with me?"
Glen laughed. "If I can handle it from Ty for fifteen years--! One thing is for sure -- you are one hell of a lot better looking." He opened the bottle of wine he had brought, and poured two glasses. "Are you sure you're interested in keeping company with an ol' man like me?"
"Ol' man, my ass," she replied bluntly. "You're the most fascinating ol' man I've met in at least a week, and I'm very interested in keepin' company with you for a while." She mimicked his accent perfectly, exaggerating it just enough to make him burst out laughing in spite of himself. "Now, this is the first whole night that I've been perfectly sure I have nothing to worry about where Heather is concerned in much longer than I care to remember. I would like to make the most of it. What do you suggest?"
Ross smiled. "After dinner, may I show you around the Sara?"
She gave him a frank look. "Do you mind being seen in public with me?"
"Not in the slightest, ma'am."
"Then I'd love to."
McQueen took Heather back to officers' country, without the slightest idea what he was supposed to do with a kid until 0330 the next morning. She was a little bundle of energy who showed no signs of settling down for the night. He had hoped he could put her to bed and spend a quiet night at his desk reading. Fifteen minutes of chasing her around the cabin keeping her from picking up anything that might hurt her or get broken scuttled that idea. A computer game kept her occupied for half an hour or so, but most of the games available were too complicated for such a small child.
He could definitely not take a little girl to the Tun. Alison would certainly not approve of exposing her to the kind of language and rowdy behavior that was usual there, much less if a fight broke out ... and it wouldn't be right to expect people who went to the Tun to relax, to have to be on their best behavior for the sake of a child.
When she asked for a drink of water, and almost got into his footlocker while he was getting it for her, that was the last straw. His sidearm was in there, he'd never had a reason before to keep it unloaded or to lock the footlocker. He set her on his lap and punched in Shane's number.
She was awakened from a sound sleep. "Huh... Vansen."
"Shane, it's me. Alison has me watching Heather, but she isn't sleepy--"
"Jeez." She heard the hint of desperation in his voice and fought not to laugh. "Take her down to the break room and give her a glass of milk and some cookies, I'll meet you there in a few minutes." She quickly pulled on sweats, then gathered up a pillow and a blanket. "Two years in the Corps and I'm back baby-sitting again -- go figure!"
Any annoyance she felt disappeared when she came in the break room, to find Ty and Heather sharing a snack of milk and cookies. She paused in the hatch for a moment, Heather was sitting on his lap. The blue tint to her curls made her look like a little elf. Shane put the pillow and blanket on the sofa, and sat beside them, helped herself to a glass of milk and a cookie.
When the last crumbs had been swept away, she washed the chocolate from Heather's face and said, "Past your bedtime, young lady."
"I do' wanna!"
"Did I ask you that, h'mmm? Shoes off, right now."
Heather scowled, but dutifully held up her feet for Shane to take off her shoes. Having slept in her flight suit plenty of times, Shane decided pajamas were a luxury they could forego, and tucked the blanket up around the little girl's chin.
Shane brushed the child's hair out of her eyes. Shane's interaction with the child revealed a gentle, tender side of her that McQueen rarely saw. He listened as she told a story. "Once upon a time, there was a castle where a good king and queen lived. And one day, a little princess was born. There was a big celebration, and the king and queen invited all of the fairies in the kingdom to a great feast. Everyone except a wicked old fairy who lived in the deepest, darkest part of the forest...." Heather, and McQueen as well, listened intently as she told the story. By the time that Sleeping Beauty and the prince lived happily ever after, Heather was sound asleep. Very quietly, Shane touched a switch and dimmed the lights, then she retreated to the other side of the room to sit with Ty.
"No problem," she smiled.
"You're good with kids," he observed.
"It isn't hard, once you show them who's boss."
"She's so little."
"I know. But they won't break if you tell them 'no', and they really want you to set limits." She smiled. "I think she'll be glad to get home where she has room to play. This isn't a good place for a little kid."
"You really love children, don't you, Shane?"
"I used to babysit a lot. I hope I get to see Marion ...."
That was as close as Ty had ever heard Shane come to admitting she might not survive the war. Oh, there had been docking bay jitters, everyone got that ... but this was different. This was a seasoned veteran's simple, frank assessment of the risks. Marion, her niece, was about a year old ... Shane had never been home to see her. The odds were better than even that she never would, and there was nothing McQueen could say to make that fact go away, even for tonight. "Shane--"
She looked up and smiled. "Don't mind me. It's late, I'm tired."
He had always thought of his infertility as his problem, but it wasn't, it was theirs. Motherhood was an important part of her plans for the future ... if they couldn't have children together, she'd have to make a lot of serious adjustments. He put his hand over hers for just a moment. "What if there's no way we can have children, Shane? You're assuming that something can be done in the lab ... it might not be possible."
"For that matter, I might not be able to have babies, Ty! Two of my biological grandparents had the plague. I've never been tested to see if I'm fertile, it's possible that I'm not. Even if there's no way we can have babies of our own, we can always adopt."
He shook his head. "Most states specifically bar In Vitros from adopting children. There are too many NB's on the waiting lists."
"Most but not all. If it comes to that, we'll establish residency in a state that doesn't have that restriction, or we'll go outside the US. Cross that bridge--"
He smiled, and shook his head, touching his fingers to her lips. "I know."
She kissed his fingers. "Mom used to have another little proverb. What's meant to be will find a way."
"Where do you find so much faith?"
"From them. The Heathers and the Marions of this universe give me the faith that there is a future. There's so much misery ... if I didn't believe there would be a good life for us after this war ends, I don't think I could go on. Looking at them, I can't help but believe."
Alison sat down and said, "I didn't realize there were so many people ... there must be thousands just aboard this ship."
Ross nodded. "Several thousand, all told. She's a city in space."
"It seems like it should be more crowded than this."
"Most people describe a carrier as very crowded."
She laughed. "Glen, crowded was twenty pregnant girls in a dormitory. Very crowded was after the babies were born!"
"You've been through so much and you still have a sense of humor about it."
"I've had as much good as bad. I've experienced prejudice, yes. But TC's generation -- they went through hell. Some very bad things have happened to me, but nothing like that. I've never once felt that my life was in danger because I was an In Vitro. When I look at my brother ... even at other In Vitros of my generation who had the misfortune to end up in worse places than I did ... I really can't say that I've been through much at all."
Ross sat beside her. "Maybe Ty had a point about the two of us, Ali. You aren't even five years old yet."
A smile flickered around her eyes. "Am I a kid, Glen? Do you see me that way?"
"No," he admitted. "You are certainly not a kid."
Alison sighed. "Trust your heart. If you don't feel right about this, then I don't want to talk you into anything against your better judgment. But if you want to stay, then don't get all hung up on age differences that mean nothing from my point of view."
"I want to stay."
(USS Saratoga, February 9, 2065)
McQueen watched Ross say goodbye to Alison with a kiss on the cheek, then Ross took Heather for a moment while Alison hugged Ty farewell. McQueen was surprised to see how bright her eyes were. "Be careful," she said. "Be careful, TC."
"I will," he promised. "And you take care of yourself and Heather."
"You have to come stay with us on Ganelon the first chance you get. I want to show you my place."
"I'll be looking forward to it."
She took Heather back, McQueen handed their bags up to a sailor on the transport. Alison gave Glen a fierce hug. "You be careful too, you hear me, ol' man?"
He kissed her on the lips, to hell with the audience, and tasted salt. "I will. I am going to make you keep that promise about that strawberry pie when I come to see you."
She smiled. "You only think you've had strawberry pie. Just you wait."
The transport hatch slid shut, and McQueen and Ross cleared the bay with the rest of the onlookers. The heavy pumps came on, depressurizing the bay, and they watched the lift take the passenger pod up to the landing pad. Ross was exceptionally quiet the rest of the day, and McQueen didn't feel much like talking either. That night they sat up late, drinking a little too much good rum while Ross played the blues.
A few days later, McQueen got an e-mail from Alison to let him know that she and Heather had gotten home safely. When he mentioned it to Ross, something in his friend's eyes told him she hadn't written to him. Ty wasn't sure what to say, but they didn't have to say anything.
Ross finally broke the silence. "I wasn't really expecting her to keep in touch. Alison is an extraordinary young woman with a home, and a business to run, and a daughter to raise. What would she see in the likes of me? It was just a shipboard fling with a friend of her brother's, that's all."
McQueen just made a non-committal noise. But when he answered Alison's e-mail that evening, he mentioned casually that Glen had been asking about her, and included his e-mail address. The next day, she sent Glen some pictures of Heather playing in the front yard.
McQueen noticed that Ross was in an especially good mood the rest of that day.
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