Title: Downtime Curve
Author: marcicat

Fandom: Independence Day, Independence Day Resurgence
Rating: T

Characters: Constance Spano, Mitchell, Chris Mitchell, Julius Levinson, Sam Blackwell, Bobby Blackwell, Felix Blackwell, Daisy Blackwell, Jasmine Dubrow-Hiller, Patricia Whitmore, Dylan Dubrow-Hiller, Jake Morrison, Alicia Cade, Miguel Cade, Troy Cade, Floyd Rosenberg, Catherine Marceaux, Charlie Miller, Rain Lao, Brakish Okun, Milton Isaacs, David Levinson, Matthew Travis, Dikembe Umbutu

Tags: nanowrimo, ignoring the book tie-in, saving the world, phone calls, kids being awesome, found family, secret tunnels, summer barbecue, Epcot

Summary: After the world is saved, what happens next?



*****
CONNIE
*****

The timer ticked past the two minute mark, then three. 

The world didn’t end.  

Again.

She took a breath, and it sounded loud in the stillness of the room.

And then she typed out Congratulations, and sent it.  Someone would see it eventually, when they got around to remembering that the rest of the world existed.

Ten minutes.  She could take ten minutes, to panic in the quiet.  Ten minutes before everything that was going to come next.

She got five before there was a knock on the door.  “Connie?”

“It’s open.”

Mitchell stuck his head in and waved.  “You alright?” he asked.  He tactfully didn’t mention the darkness or the sitting on the floor.

“Are you?”  She should just say yes, let him get on with whatever checks he was doing, but dammit, she was supposed to get another five minutes.

He stepped all the way into the room, and sat down on the floor so he could lean back against the wall.  “Are any of us?” he asked.  “It’s not going to be easier just because we’ve done this before.  But we’re still here.  They did it.”  He made a face.  “Whatever it was.”

She wasn’t going to debate decisions that had already been made, even if they had known enough about them to debate.  “Yeah.  They did.”  The broadcasts had been short on details, but it was clear that whatever had happened wasn’t happening any longer.  “And now it’s our turn.”

“Well, good news on that,” Mitchell said.  “Two words: apocalypse chocolate.”

She waved her bar at him.  “Got it covered.”

“Cheers.  Officially speaking, the med team would like to remind everyone that if you choose to go old school with a victory cigar, they must be smoked outdoors only; the fire suppression systems are currently turned all the way up.  Also, if you haven’t been following their advice to replace your stash yearly, to please check the expiration date on any chocolate you may have been saving since the last time the world almost ended.  I have replacements with me.”

She ate hers every year on December 31st, and replaced it the next day.  Superstitions were a tricky thing, and they all had their fair share.  Some of them more than, really.  On the other hand, it turned out that sometimes a feeling of impending doom really did mean aliens were coming back to try to destroy your planet, so they were probably due for a realignment on the definition of crazy.

“It’s fine,” she said, instead of any of that.  “How did you get tapped for chocolate delivery, anyway?  Isn’t that a little below your pay grade these days?”  

Mitchell shrugged.  “Volunteered.  A lot of people came in from the surrounding towns when the evac and shelter orders went out, so they were looking for extra hands.  It keeps me from watching the g-net lists refresh.”

“I still haven’t checked in.”  He gave her a surprised look, so she added, “I will.  I just — needed a minute.”

Twenty years out from the first time the world almost ended, and Mitchell was still tied for first place for people who knew when not to ask questions.  “Sure,” he said easily, and made no move to leave the room.  Technically, none of them were supposed to be alone.  There were good reasons for it, which didn’t actually make it easier to handle, it turned out.

“You’re not going to leave, are you,” she said.

“Everyone’s being asked to join one of the common areas.  Med and psych are already there.  They can check you in, if you’d prefer.  It’s what I did.”

She looked at the timer, still paused at the five minute mark.  It was five minutes longer than she’d expected, honestly.  She flipped it shut and dropped it into the closest drawer.  Her back complained when she stood up, and Mitchell didn’t bother to hide his wince when his knees popped as he joined her.  Med tech had come a long way, but neither of them were as young as they used to be.  

“Are we ready for this?” she asked, only half rhetorically.  Of course they weren’t.  

“Of course not,” he said, echoing her thought.  “But don’t tell anyone I said that.  We’re ready enough, because we’re here, and there’s things to be done, and we’ll take it one second at a time until we can take it a minute at a time, and we’ll work our way back up.  What else is there?”

“I forgot how crisis situations make you philosophical,” she told him. 

“It’s a closely guarded secret.”

She tucked her arm in his as they headed out.  “They always are, aren’t they?”

*****

The first 24 hours were a blur.  They ran the lists on a screen in one of the common areas, and open strategy meetings in one of the others.  Mitchell had a gaggle of kids around him every time he passed through (usually handing out more chocolate).  One of them kept bringing her coffee, and she didn't notice they'd stopped until she dozed off listening to a report from Lebanon.

She woke up to someone singing, and her coffee supplier sleeping on her lap.  "Hey," she said quietly, putting her hand on their shoulder.  "Should I let someone know you're here?"

"Mom's over there," the kid said, scrubbing at their eyes and then pointing vaguely towards the back wall.  "Is it morning?"

"Not yet.  I just need to stretch my legs -- you want my pillow?"  It was just a sweatshirt someone had tucked behind her, but the kid nodded.  They'd sort out whose stuff was where at some point.  She vaguely remembered making a plan for that, in between other things.  It was possible they'd also created a line item on the budget for throw pillows, but that part might have been a dream. (It wasn’t a bad idea though. She made a note to check on that, at some point.)

In the dark, it was easier to make her way to the search screens.  G-net refreshed every ten seconds, and they ran two lists.  Confirmed living.  Confirmed deceased.  There was a cluster of people talking in hushed voices near the closest screen, but none of them turned her way when she approached.  It was a nod to a privacy that didn't exist, but she appreciated the thought. She took a deep breath before she started typing.

David Levinson -- confirmed living

Julius Levinson -- confirmed living

They were family, still, no matter how long it had been since they last spoke.  She should call.  On the other hand, she wasn't the one with the unlisted number.  The last she'd heard they were both in Nevada, anyway, under media blackout.  It was as much a token gesture as her current privacy, but it would make getting a personal call to either of them slightly more challenging.

Alicia Cade -- confirmed living

Troy Cade -- unconfirmed

Miguel Cade -- confirmed living

Jasmine Dubrow-Hiller -- unconfirmed

She hesitated, fingers hovering over the names.  Troy being off-grid wasn't entirely surprising -- he was off the map more than he was on, it seemed like, but Jasmine should have been at the hospital-- first in, first out.  Med teams were prioritized for check-ins.  Jasmine would have been the first to claim they didn’t owe her anything, but that didn’t stop the ‘unconfirmed’ blinking on the screen from feeling a lot like failure.  

Dylan Dubrow-Hiller -- confirmed living

Patricia Whitmore -- confirmed living

The last two she knew already, but checked anyway.  It was different, somehow, seeing it in black and white.  There was a finality to it.

Thomas Whitmore -- confirmed deceased

Elizabeth Lanford -- confirmed deceased


That, she thought, was going to be trouble.  (They had met, once, before she was President Lanford.  She was allergic to shellfish, and they'd exchanged hellos over bottled water.  Connie had voted for her.)  And now she was gone.  The broadcasts had been unusually quiet about who exactly was in charge at the moment; even their people at Area 51 itself were reporting conflicting information.  They'd had a polite and unspoken non-interference pact with the Lanford administration.  No one who remembered the chaos after '96 expected anything good to come next.  Thank god she wasn't part of admin anymore.


"Anyone here from the strat team?"  The question cut through the quiet, and she cleared out her search before heading towards the speaker.  She didn't recognize them, but they'd gotten a lot of of people coming to ground in the last few weeks.  

"I'm on the strat team," she said.  "What's going on?"

“There’s a meeting in the kitchen."

She frowned.  "About strategy?"


"Pretty sure it's about breakfast.  They said the strat team would know where all the forks are."

Of course.  Eventually, they would need to figure out how to work with the new president of the United States.  But they also needed forks, and only one of those things was going to get them through breakfast.   "Right, I'm on it.  Backup fork supply, coming right up."

*****

"Can dogs eat MREs?"


She pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at the display.  Unknown number.  "Who is this?" she asked.

”Who is this?” the voice replied, sounding suspicious.

It was hard to tell over the background noise, but they sounded young.  A prank call seemed — ridiculously unlikely, given the circumstances.  Wrong number?  “You called me,” she said.  

”Is this the Library of Congress?”

“No, sorry.”  She waited to see if whoever it was would hang up, or keep trying.  

Someone near the phone on the other end said, ”I told you that’s not what it stands for!  No one has the number for the Library of Congress in their phone.”

”You didn’t have any better ideas!”  


“Whose phone are you using?” she said, trying to sound non-threatening.  There weren’t that many people she could think of who would have her private number programmed into their phone, and she had just spoken with most of them that morning. The number of people who would have her number programmed in but not her name was even smaller.

”Don’t tell her!”

”What’s she going to do, tell Mom and Dad on us?”  They must have put the phone down, because the next exchange was too muffled to hear.  And then, ”Hi, are you still there?  It’s Mr. Levinson’s phone.”    


She could feel her eyebrows going up.  “Levinson Senior, or Levinson Junior?”  That got the attention of everyone around her, and she shrugged. She put her hand over the phone and explained, “It’s some kids using one of their phones.”  

”Um.  Senior?  That’s Julius, right?”

How had they gotten ahold of his phone?  There was more muffled talking, and then she could hear Julius — it had to be him — saying, ”What are you kids doing?  I thought you were feeding the dog.”


They must have handed him the phone, because the next thing she heard was, ”Who is this?”


She almost laughed.  “Julius, it’s Connie.  Good to hear your voice.”

”Connie!  Why didn’t you just say so?”  That part seemed to be directed at the kids, and how had he even found kids in the middle of Area 51?  ”How are you?”

“Still here,” she said.  “You?”

”You know how it is; the world nearly ends, David thinks he needs to fix everything.  There’s another alien, did you know that?  Looks like a giant bocci ball; David wants to go to another planet, I think he’s just trying to get out of Thanksgiving again.”  There was a pause, and then he said, ”What do you mean I’m not supposed to tell people that?  It’s Connie; you think she doesn’t know already?  She knows.”

She didn’t know, actually.  Not the part about David, at least; the alien part wasn’t entirely new information.  Interplanetary travel, though — they were certainly keeping that information locked down.  

“Julius, what’s this about a dog?  And why are children making calls on your phone?”  It seemed like the most pressing of the questions that she felt like talking about with a group of interested people listening in.  (At both ends, it seemed like.)

”Ha!  Nobody pays attention to children, did you notice that?  These four, they rescued me from my boat, and then we drove here to find David, and nobody knows what to do with us now.  And so we need to know about the dog.  Hypothetically speaking, can you feed MREs to a dog?”

She took a minute to work through the explanation.  “Is the dog actually hypothetical?”  

”Not exactly, no.”  

She tapped out a message on her tablet and held it up so everyone could see.  “And you called me because — why, again?  I’m allergic to dogs.”

”Because you have access to the largest hard-copy library in North America.  We’re on lockdown here and can’t even run a basic search; I keep expecting someone to storm in with an assault rifle and confiscate my phone.  With all that, you’d think they would have better security.  We just drove right in.”

“How big is the dog?”  She wasn’t sure it mattered, but that’s what Chris was telling her to ask, so that's what she was asking.  

”Small.  Yappy and small.  Don’t give me that look, I’m not the one who almost stepped on him this morning.”


“Small.  Okay.  We’re working on getting a list together, it’s just going to take some time.”  They were running on limited communications ability with so many of the satellites either out of commission or co-opted by the military.  Ground-based wasn’t much better, depending on which coast you were closer to — it worked, but it was an exercise in patience waiting for a reply.

”What, you can’t just — pull it up?  Access it?  Whatever you call it these days?”


“I’m not exactly at the office right now, Julius.  I realize you’re on lockdown there, but you might have noticed the massive destruction to your east?  It’s all hands on deck out here.”

”Wait, where are you?”  

“In a tug, headed for Florida.  They put out a call for aid.”  

”Florida?  I thought it was —“  There was a scuffle, and one of the kids came back on the line.

”What’s happening in Florida?  Our parents are there, they were supposed to be visiting our grandparents.”

"We're not exactly sure," she said carefully.  "The good news is, it looks like the Disney properties were holding on to a lot more shield generators than anyone expected.  They're running short on supplies, though; that's what we're bringing in."

She didn't say what they were all thinking -- that if their parents were safe and sound, their names should have showed up on the list already.  "If you send us their names and pictures, we can ask around," she offered instead.  

"Okay.  That's -- yeah, we have that."  She sounded very young, all of a sudden.  

"I'm going to put you on with Chris, okay?  She's going to take your information and send a list of the MREs that are safe for the dog."  Chris gave her a thumbs up, and she passed the phone over.  

They were moving slowly thanks to the supplies -- the tugs could haul a lot of weight, but they couldn't make that weight more aerodynamic.  She made her way to the front and dropped into the seat next to Mitchell.  "Two hours?" she guessed.

"That's the flight plan -- but we're getting a weird ping from around DC.  How do you feel about a detour?"

Her grip tightened on the edge of the console.  "Weird like we should be armed, or weird like aliens drilling a hole to the Earth's core?"


"Both of those are the bad option, Connie."

"Well, one of them is less bad."

Mitchell shook his head.  "I don't think it's bad.  It's registering like one of our locator beacons, just -- weird.  Like the signal is corrupted or something."

They had a lot of people still unaccounted for in the DC area.  If there was a chance one of them was down there, and needed help...  "Get in touch with Florida," she said.  "Let them know we're going to be delayed.  Let's go find your signal."

*****


"Hello?"  Noises echoed strangely in streets that were lined more with rubble than with buildings.  It was disconcerting, to say the least.

They'd checked in with a search and rescue team a few blocks back and been cleared to investigate the signal.  (With at least a dozen warnings that the area wasn't secure and no one was guaranteeing A) their safety, or B) that someone would come rescue them if they got themselves into trouble.)  It was in an area that had been reported evacuated, so it hadn’t been swept yet by S&R. But finding the source of the signal once they had reached the right general location was proving to be a real challenge. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Or one tiny piece of working tech in a mountain of debris.

"Coming up behind you now," Chris called out.  "We’ve been trying to triangulate for a point of origin, but there's a lot of interference."
  
She stopped.  "Have we at least confirmed that we're getting closer?"

"Yes?"  Chris frowned, and flipped her tablet so it was facing the other way.  

"That doesn't fill me with confidence, you know."

"We're 85% sure we're getting closer.  90%, maybe.  It's around here somewhere; we'll find it. We just want to be a little more sure which building we want before we start picking our way through all of this.“

They’d mostly been skirting around what was left of buildings — every so often they’d pass one that looked mostly intact, but those were definitely the exception, and not the norm. The flicker of hope they’d all felt when they started out was hard to keep up in the reality of what they were seeing.

There was a shout from further down the street, and they hurried in that direction.  She wasn't expecting to see a familiar face -- or at least not one she thought was on the other side of the country.  

"Alicia?  What are you doing here?"

*****
ALICIA
*****


The thing about living through the world nearly ending when you were a teenager was that it was hard to top that as a life-changing experience.  Watching it happen again in her 30s wasn't even close.  (She wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse, though, so she was mostly trying not to think about it.)

And the thing about living through aftermath — the memorials, the political maneuvering that started practically before the dust cleared — was that it had made her damn sure she wasn’t going to lose anyone else in her family.  Russell might not have been the best father figure (or even related to them in any way, though they’d downplayed that as much as possible at the time), but he’d been theirs.  They’d mostly made it work, most of the time, and when it didn’t they moved on.  

Miguel had kept them together, afterwards.  He was always the practical one.  Troy was the sensitive one, until aliens showed up and then he was capital-S Sensitive.  It was really just a shorthand for everyone who got messed up by whatever telepathic crap the aliens were broadcasting everywhere.  No one could figure out how to fix it, so officially it didn’t exist, and unofficially most people just thought they were crazy.  

Once they got him away from Area 51 and its massive amount of alien bodies and alien tech, though, it was better.  So they left.  Mitchell caught up with them a few years later, after he’d made his own break from the military-industrial complex.  They’d met his husband, exchanged phone numbers, and spent the summer dodging back and forth over the US-Canadian border for no real reason except to prove that they could.  Or rather, that Troy could, because he could predict border security down to a thirty-second window.  

So when he turned up missing after the world didn’t end again, she didn’t believe for a second it was because he was caught unaware.  And she certainly wasn’t going to leave his rescue up to anyone else.

“We’re here for Troy,” she explained.  “Miguel’s on the other side of the building, checking if there’s a better way in over there.”  They’d called in more than a few favors to get there before official S&R, too.

“Troy?” Connie asked.  She had that ‘I’m skeptical but trying not to be insulting’ expression. It hadn’t changed a bit since the last time she’d seen it.

“He’s here.”  She held up her phone.  “We’ve been pinging his phone to try to get an exact location.”
 
“I wonder if that’s the signal we were picking up,” Chris said, leaning over to squint at the phone screen.  “It was registering sort of like a locator beacon, but not quite.”

“Could be.  Is that what you’re looking for?  We wouldn’t say no to extra help.”  She locked eyes with Connie in a clear challenge.  They’d fought, many times, about many things.  But she’d admit (under duress) that she trusted her.  

“Of course we’ll help,” Connie said.  “We’ve got a mini-tug following about a block back, it can do some extra structural scans.  Whoever’s in there, we’ll get them out.”

They got lucky, because the building — or what was left of the building, anyway —  was solid.  They put the mini tug to work moving the larger debris, but it was slow going.  No one wanted to risk bringing more of the building down around them, or on whoever was inside.  

Miguel waited with her.  "He's going to be okay," he said.  

"I know."  She was confident in Troy's ability to slip through trouble.  "I'm more worried about what he was doing here."

It was a hospital building in the middle of DC -- she would have said it was one of the last places Troy would ever end up, except that he clearly had.  

Miguel shrugged.  "You know he was convinced something was coming."

Which he had been right about.  "Why would he come here, though?"

"I don't know.  But I can only think of one person we know who works at a hospital and that Troy would drop everything to go after if they were going to be in danger."

"Jasmine," she said, and the sinking feeling that had been lingering around the edges of her brain intensified.  "I didn't realize she hadn't been confirmed."

She hadn't wanted to check.  Jasmine was the best of them.  She'd supported and bullied and advocated for all of them -- the unofficial leader of the inconvenient relatives squad that came together after '96.  She was the one who'd convinced Miguel to go back to school.  

And she was nothing like the hazy memories Alicia had of her mom, but she could rock the cool mom friend vibe.  Troy, who didn't remember his bio-parents at all, had adopted Jasmine as his aunt at age twelve.  She'd laughed, but she'd adopted him right back.  She stared at the building like she could will everything to turn out okay, and crossed her fingers.  "If it's Jasmine in there, where's Dylan?"  

Miguel let out a frustrated sigh next to her.  “I don’t know. I haven't been able to reach him, or Patty."

There was a commotion by where they had set up the robot.  "I hear something!" There was absolutely no benefit to all of them gathering around in a cluster, but they did it anyway.  

"Stop digging!" Connie said.  There were a few seconds of quiet, and then the robot started beeping some kind of proximity alert.


"We're coming out," she heard someone yell -- someone inside the building.  "Don't shoot!"

Half the group backed up a step.  The other half moved up a step.  She saw Mitchell reach for a gun he wasn't carrying, and she had to sidestep Miguel, who kept trying to get in front of her.  

There was a crash, and then two figures climbed out over the piles of brick and debris in a cloud of dust.  She held her breath.  

"Did you miss me?"

"Troy!"  It was him.  It was both of them, Troy and Jasmine, helping each other over the worst of the broken pavement.  She barely beat Miguel to him to grab him in a hug. "Are you okay?  What are you doing here?"

"I had to be here," he said.

"He saved me," Jasmine said, with a sideways look at Troy.

Troy sighed.  "And then she saved me.  It was an eventful day. Days?  Actually, how long has it been? My phone died a while back."

"Almost two days," Miguel said.  "You didn't check in, we were worried."

He didn't look hurt, beyond some scrapes and bruises, but she punched him in the shoulder more gently than usual just in case.  "And what was all that about -- 'don't shoot?'  Who did you think was out here?"

"There were more of you than I expected.  I wasn't sure if it you'd brought the cavalry or if it was someone else."  He waved a hand to encompass Connie's team, who had pulled Jasmine aside and were probably having a very similar conversation.  

She shook her head.  "We didn't bring them; they just showed up.  They're on their way to Florida."

"Florida?"  Troy looked interested.  "We should go with them."

And Jasmine was obviously paying more attention to them then she thought, because she laughed and headed over to stand next to Troy again.  "You just want to get plausible deniability by being far away when the search and rescue crews come through.  It's not a bad idea, though."  She looked back at Connie.  "Do you have room for two more?"

"Four more," Miguel said.  "We got a ride from someone else."

She watched Connie have an entire silent conversation with Mitchell using just eyebrows and head tilts.  "Sure," Connie said finally.  "The more the merrier.  Do either of you need any immediate medical attention?"

Troy shrugged.  Jasmine hesitated, but ultimately said, "As someone kept reminding me, we just spent the last however many hours inside a hospital.  We're good.  Mostly good."

Mitchell nodded.  He looked like he was trying to think of a tactful way to say something.  "Should we -- keep looking?"

"The hospital was evacuated," Jasmine said, shaking her head.  "We were the only ones in there."

No one asked the obvious question of why.  She fell into step next to Troy as they headed back towards the tug.  She said, “Are we ever going to get more of an explanation than that?” The plausible deniability thing sounded — not ideal.  “We should probably know what not to tell anyone official, at least.”

"I borrowed a portable shield generator," Troy said, not anywhere near as quietly as he should have given what he was admitting.  "It didn't make it."

"What?"

"Look, they weren't going to need it, and we did, and I didn't think it would get destroyed in the process. I was planning to bring it back."

Miguel sighed.  "Who did you take it from?"

Troy glared back at him.  "I don't need you try to clean up my messes.  It's done, let's move on."

She ignored both of them.  She got her answer; she was staying out of the rest of it as long as possible.  Personally, she agreed with Troy.  But Miguel had spent years pulling the two of them out of trouble, and it didn't seem likely he'd stop anytime soon.  

"If someone comes looking for it," Miguel said, "or you, then it's not over."

Jasmine cleared her throat.  "The shield generator was destroyed because the tech glitched out.  It would have happened the first time anyone tried to use it."  In other words, it could have been much worse.

"Was it military issue?" Connie asked.  She held up her hands when Troy turned his glare on her.  "Not accusing, just asking.  They're using military shield generators in Nevada to contain the fallout from a cold fusion blast; it would be good to know if it's going to hold."

She tried not to look as confused as she felt.  That didn't make any sense.

"That doesn't make any sense," Jasmine said.  

"Sorry, not actual fallout," Connie explained.  "We're not getting a lot of information out of anyone who's at Area 51, but what we did get sounds like this round of aliens had a few new tricks up their sleeves.  They're not sure what they're going to find in the crashed ships, so they're keeping them isolated until someone decides what to do with them.  Preferably someone a majority of them agree has the authority to make that call."

"Can't the acting President pretty much do whatever they want?" she asked.  That's how it felt the last time around -- the president just decided things and they happened.  It had mostly been in their favor, but it certainly hadn't been a great example of checks and balances.

"Acting president?" Jasmine asked.  


Right.  She'd been out of touch for two days.  "We lost Cheyenne Mountain," Connie said.  "They had to go pretty far down the chain of command to get any acting president at all, and now he's abdicated."

"Which he can't do," Mitchell added.

"Which he can't do," Connie agreed.  "But he did, and now no one is sure what happens next.  It's not like we can hold an election with a quarter of the country without electricity or running water."

There was a break in the conversation when they reached the tug, and everyone loaded inside.  It was a tighter fit than she expected, with seven passengers.  "Is it safe to carry this much cargo in one of these things?"

"They're safe up to about twice this weight; we just have a lot of bulk.  As long as we don't run into any significant turbulence, we'll be fine."  Mitchell grinned.  "Kidding.  We've got this.  Done plenty of crazier things."  (Which was less reassuring than he probably thought.)

"Would you run?" Jasmine was saying, still talking with Connie.  "'I'd vote for you."

It wasn't the worst idea she'd ever heard.  Close, maybe.  Connie seemed to agree, because she shook her head.  "No.  Absolutely not.  I've been there -- you think you can make a difference. Really change things for the better, that sort of thing.  But it’s all so circuitous; it's too easy to have it all get obscured by politics.  Where I am now I help people --real people -- every day.   I sleep better."

"Hear hear," Mitchell called back from the front of the tug.  "All right, next stop Florida."

She remembered, suddenly, how much she hated flying.  She reached for Troy's hand and held on.

*****

"Is that -- what are we looking at?"

They were supposed to be within a few minutes of their destination.  She had been expecting -- something else.  Flood waters, maybe, and destruction.  Another D.C., just in Florida, with palm trees.  She wasn't expecting — whatever that was.

"That's Disney Corp’s answer to the apocalypse," Connie said.  "Thirty thousand acres protected by shields.  It's currently the largest shielded space on the planet, public, private, or military.  I'd love to know how they kept it a secret."

"I'd love to know how they did it, period."  The woman who'd taken the copilot seat was staring out the screen with a frown.  "I didn't think it was possible to create a continuous shield of that size."


She had been distracted when they had been introduced, and now it seemed awkward to ask.  It was Chris, right? Chelsea?  Katy?  It was something short.  She realized suddenly that it was probably Mitchell's daughter.  Had it really been that long?


"Can we worry about the science later and the logistics now?" Mitchell said.  "Connie, where are we supposed to land with all of that?"

When she leaned forward she could just barely catch the sky out of the front screen.  The majority of it was obscured by a giant glowing dome.  It sparkled with reflected sunlight.  It was also enormous, and seemed to be blocking every direction except backwards.  

"It's not continuous," Connie said.  "It's reacting to the tug.  Give it a minute; we should be expected."


She was pretty sure that wasn’t how shield tech worked. But sure enough, after a few seconds the glow in front of them flashed green and faded to a hazy shimmer.  "Okay," Mitchell said slowly.  "That just happened."


The tug eased forward.  She didn't think she was the only one holding her breath, but they passed through without any difficulty.  Connie said, "Now just follow the lights."

The closer they got to the ground, the more people she could see.  There had to be thousands of them, maybe tens of thousands.  And that was just what she could see.  She sat back in her seat, a little overwhelmed by the implications.  "Did they evacuate the entire state into Disney-held properties?" 


"They're still working on a headcount," Connie said, which was about as noncommittal an answer as you could get.  "They have more people than they anticipated, though; I think everyone expected we would have more lead time than we got."

"More than none?" Miguel muttered, and she kicked his ankle.

Troy pointed at something she couldn't see, out the opposite side of the front screen.  "Is that the Epcot ball?"

"They closed it to the public a few years back," Mitchell said.  "Guess now we know why.  It's open," he added, seeming to realize that not everyone could see what he was talking about.  "It looks like it's powering the shield, or at least part of it."


Chris -- she was pretty sure it was Chris, now that she was looking more carefully -- waved a hand at the view.  "Why are we bringing these people supplies again?  It looks like they might be the most prepared people on the entire coast.  We sure as heck don't have a shield that comes out of a massive globe thing."

There was a second of silence, and then she added, “Was that mean?  That was probably mean, sorry."


Connie said, “It’s fine. Yes, they have the shield, but they weren't prepared for everything.  And not for this many people.  The weather has been disrupted all over; they can't keep up with keeping people warm, let alone dry."

Jasmine cleared her throat. “Sorry, did you say the weather?  We've got aliens who control the weather now?  Like we didn't have enough problems with it already."  She looked like she was willing to go take on another round of aliens all by herself.


Miguel shook his head.  “They weren’t controlling the weather; I think it’s a side effect. The military broadcast some kind of announcement that one of the alien ships landed in the Atlantic and was drilling to the Earth's core to steal it.  It sounded like some kind of made up BS to me, but for sure something happened .  There was the tidal wave all up and down the coast, and the weather has been weird ever since.”


Jasmine just looked at him for a few seconds, and then looked around like she was waiting for someone to dispute the story.  No one did.  

"As far as I know that's all true," Connie said gently.  "They're working on a solution now."  

"A solution?  To a giant hole in the planet?"  Jasmine's expression was one hundred percent 'done with your bullshit.'  Connie shrugged.  "But they're gone now, right?" Jasmine asked.  “The aliens. We won?"

"We won," Mitchell confirmed.  


"And now we're in cleanup mode," Chris said. "Again.” (Which was sort of funny, because if she was right about Chris being Mitchell’s daughter, she hadn’t even been born in ’96.) No one called her on it, though, and she waved a hand towards the screen. “Also we've landed, so we should find out where they want this stuff."

A phone rang in the second of quiet after her words, and half the people on the tug jumped.  "It's mine," Connie said.  She looked at the screen and her eyebrows went up, but she thumbed the phone on without comment.  "Hello?"


Everyone stayed conspicuously silent, and she could hear the reply clearly in the quiet.  "It's Patty.  Is it true you found Dylan's mom?"


Connie switched the phone to speaker.  "She's here, Patty.  That news traveled fast.  I thought Dylan would call; is he there with you?"

"He's with Jake, finding us transportation.  Where are you?"


"Florida," Connie said, just as Jasmine said, "He's with Jake? Are you all okay? Did those two finally make up?  I told you it would happen."

"I can't even tell right now.  Half the time they act like they're best friends, and the other half they won't even talk to each other.  They're both determined to come see you, though -- it's the first thing they've agreed on since we won.  Based on how quickly they're bullying their way through the higher ups for permission, we'll be there tonight.  Possibly sooner."


"You don't need to --"

"We're coming.   There was a second of static on the line, and then, more quietly, Patty said, "You're the only parent any of us has left.  We'll see you soon, okay?"

"See you soon," Jasmine repeated.  "You give those boys a hug for me, all right?  And tell them to give you one too."

"We'll be there by tonight," Patty promised again, and the call disconnected.

"How soon do you really think they'll be here?" Mitchell asked.


"I'd give it an hour, tops," Chris said.  "If we start unloading now, maybe we can finish by the time they get here, and we can clear out the landing zone for them.  Connie?"

"I'm on it; contacting the emergency coordinator now."

"Let's get to work, people."

*****

She had never been to Disney before, and it was probably a vastly different experience when it wasn't a tent city for evacuees, but it was impossible not to be impressed.  She might not know Disney, but she knew temporary housing, and this was top of the line stuff.  They had hot food, hot showers, and a surprising amount of smiling people, given the circumstances.  

"It's weird that these people are so happy, right?"  Chris whispered it to her when they were stacking blankets into rolling totes.  

It was a little weird.  She shrugged. “I think it's nice.  And weird, yeah, kind of.  But better than the alternative, I guess."


“That’s what I thought.” More loudly, Chris said, “That's the last of them. We just need to go check in with the others."


She took her arm and led them back towards the landing pad at a brisk walk.  "Look like we're doing something important," she whispered.


"What are we doing?"  They definitely didn't need to check in with anyone -- even if they did, that's what texting was for.

"Don't you want to see them arrive?  It should be any minute now."

She did, actually.  She was only the tiniest bit embarrassed to admit she'd been one of the many people who thought Patty and Dylan made an adorable duo as kids running around Area 51, way back when.  They hadn't exactly kept in touch, but the bond of 'we survived the end of the world together' was hard to break.  It didn't take a long time living like sardines for everyone to be part of everyone else's business.  People talked.


So she knew Dylan had followed Patty into the newly minted Earth Space Defense Academy, and she knew rumors had flown about whether they were more than just friends.  When Jake started turning up in those same rumors, Jasmine had actually stepped in and told everyone to back off.  And then, of course, there was the feud.  So whatever happened next, it was bound to be an event.  

"Good thinking," she said, and Chris nodded.


"It's a feel good, you know?  I like to see them firsthand; makes me remember why we keep trying."  Which was a little more philosophical than she had been expecting, honestly.  And then Chris added, "And I have five dollars on all three of them moving in together by the end of the year."

"Right?  It makes total sense.  Just don't tell anyone I said that, okay?  I don't want Jasmine to yell at me for speculating about her kid's life."  Again, she added silently.

"I didn't hear anything," Chris agreed.  "My lips are sealed."

They arrived back just in time to see Dylan sprint across the landing area towards Jasmine.  Patty and Jake were a little slower, but not by much.  It was a group hug that seemed to involve equal parts laughter and tears.  They had quite an audience, though, and it didn't take long for Dylan to look up at the crowd.  He made a beeline for Troy and grabbed him up in a hug too. 

She caught Patty's eyes across the field, and waved.  Apparently hugging was the theme of the day, because she jogged over for one.  "Thank you," she said.  "Thank you from all of us."

"I didn't do anything; that was all Troy.  I heard we should be thanking you."

Patty shook her head.  "I can't even remember it."  

It sounded a lot like 'I don't want to talk about it,' so she let it go.  "No problems with your ride?  You got here faster than we expected, and we expected fast."

"Jake got us a transport.  It's -- well, we're borrowing it."

She'd heard about that habit.  It was one of those things that circulated through the gossip mill every so often, especially since he kept getting name dropped with David Levinson.  "Good to know some things haven't changed.  You'd think people would learn not to leave their vehicles unattended around him."


Patty flushed.  "This one was legit," she insisted.  "We're sort of--" 

She hesitated, and Alicia filled in the rest.  "Just saved the world and no one quite knows what to do with you right now?"

"That, yes,” she said, looking relieved.  “Everything is a little chaotic right now -- how much have you heard?"  They stepped apart, but Patty stayed close enough to touch.  She looked tired.

"Not much.  We won; there's a big hole in the ocean, that sort of thing.  Connie said no one knows who's in charge right now."  A few more things had made the rounds -- rumors, but repeated by enough people she trusted to make her think they were at least partly true.  That they'd lost the moon base; that President Whitmore was gone; that London Underground had flooded: all of them seemed like the wrong thing to say, so she stayed quiet.

"There's another alien," Patty said, quietly enough that she had to strain to hear it.  "It says it wants to help; Dr. Okun's been staying with it."


"Another--?"  That had definitely not been part of the gossip she'd heard. And Dr. Okun?  "That sounds like a terrible idea.  Just putting that out there."


"It's been mentioned," Patty said. "Right now the potential for fixing the damage to the Earth's mantle is overriding the security concerns.  But it's been tense.  I'm not supposed to be talking to any of you, but I said we had a bond and it was a woman thing."

She shook her head. “I can't believe that still works.  Do you need anything?"


She could practically hear Patty rolling her eyes.  "I know, right?  We're okay right now.  You're not wrong -- no one knows what to do with us, or any of the pilots really, so they're basically ignoring us.  We're supposed to be on media blackout and sticking around Area 51, but no one was willing to make it an order, so--"

"You're still in touch with everyone else, though."  She had to be, if she’d heard about Jasmine.

Patty nodded.  "Always."  She leaned back and put her hand on Alicia's shoulder.  "What about you?  Are you okay?"

"We're still here," she said.  "Still kicking.  Taking it hour by hour at this point."


They both turned when Jake and Dylan started cheering on the other side of he field.  "They're here," Jake called over, and she had no idea what he was talking about.  "All of them, present and accounted for.  I'm calling Julius, he'll know where the kids are."

"You found them?"  Someone she didn't recognize stuck their head out of the transport door.

"Hey!  What are you doing in there?" Jake asked.

The girl jumped down to the grass, and three other kids followed right after.  "We're all here!  We stowed away!"

*****

Connie pulled her aside as the sun was starting to go down.  "We're getting ready to leave," she said.  "We're about to have outstayed our welcome, I think."

"What's going on?"  She'd been catching up with Troy in a quiet corner -- not that anywhere was all that quiet.  As far as she could tell, once the park had decided that evacuation was impractical, they turned all their focus on sheltering people in place.  Every inch seemed to have been converted into temporary housing. 


And while it certainly took the top prize for most organized tent city she'd ever seen, it was significantly over-crowded. Based on some of the conversations she'd overheard while they were unloading the supplies, the parks had been full of guests when the alien ship showed up, and then took in thousands more people when they realized it was going to hit the ocean.  So they were safe, but the accommodations weren’t exactly spacious.


Connie lowered her voice.  "The parks have been requesting aid and then commandeering tugs and transports as they arrive.  There's some controversy right now about where all these people are going to go; they're not sure if they want to make us take people out or make us stay and assist.  We're leaving before they make up their mind, and we’re going to take the kids' parents and grandparents.  You can stay, if you want.  Or we can drop you somewhere."

These weren't exactly the circumstances she had imagined when she'd thought about visiting Florida.  She shook her head.  "Miguel and I need to be getting back.  We only came east to find Troy."

The desire to not get involved fought a brief but ferocious battle with the desire to make sure they weren't about to immediately face a bigger problem, and she hesitated.  "Have you spoken with anyone in Nevada?" she said finally.

"Directly?  Just Patty, on the tug.  And Julius called," Connie said.  "Why?  Did Patty say something to you?"


Like she would answer that.  "Look, you didn't hear this from me.  But there may be another alien there, claiming to be a friendly.  And they're listening to it.  Which is whatever," she said, holding up her hands.  "Not saying there couldn't be good ones out there.   But I'd feel a lot better about it if it wasn't the guns and science squad calling all the shots on something like that."


Connie looked concerned, but not worried, which was one of those talents she'd always hoped she'd figure out.  "I didn't have any confirmation," she said.  She didn't say 'are you sure,' which was nice.  

"Consider it confirmed."  As far as she was concerned, the problem wasn't even that the military was failing to disclose the information -- she was pretty sure everyone expected that.  No, the problem was that it would come out eventually, and the world's governments had spent the last twenty years using an "all of us versus all of them" approach to creating a sense of global community.  It had worked, but it was a risky shortcut, and it might be about to come back and bite them.  "Could be trouble," she offered, when the silence seemed to have gone on for too long.

"Oh, it will be, I'm sure."  Connie gave her a rueful smile.  "I'll make some calls.  Thanks for the heads up."

She shrugged.  "It's the right thing to do."  They all did what they could.

"Sure I can't convince you to come back home with us? Connie asked.  "We'd love to have you."

It was a tempting offer. But she hated feeling like there was nothing she could contribute, and it wasn’t like she didn’t have other responsibilities. “I have my own home to be getting back to."  

Mitchell came hurrying towards them, making completely unsubtle shooing gestures.  "Time to go," he said.  "Quick as we can.  Found a few extra passengers, need to go right now."

In the dimming light, she could see someone official-looking headed their way.  

"Mitchell, what did you do?" Connie said.

"Explanations later, hustling now, please."

They hustled.

*****
MITCHELL 
*****

He thought it was great that the kids stayed in touch.  He also thought it was hilarious that they assumed they were the only ones sending private messages.  The Area 51 crew had been keeping connected on all the same unofficial channels since before some of the new generation was born.  They'd needed to.  Things had changed a lot since '96, but there had been a time when getting assigned to Area 51 was a convenient way to get inconvenient people out of the way.  It was a career ender -- you could retire from Area 51, but you couldn't transfer out. 

And since no one else was going to look out for them -- after all, they worked at a base that didn't exist, who were they going to submit their complaints to? -- they looked out for each other instead.  That didn't change when they suddenly found themselves in the spotlight.  They covered for each other so they could sit by bedsides they had no official reason to visit, and they personally packed up every room of the people who didn't make it.  Afterwards, they met at funerals, until they started being able to meet at weddings instead.  

They moved on; they drifted apart.  But they never forgot.  He was still listed as an emergency contact for at least a dozen people. Just in case.  So when he knew they were headed to Florida, he put the word out.  If anyone wanted him to keep an eye out for someone, he'd do his best.

Jamie had reached back -- she had two girls on a Scout trip.  Their mom was with them, and all three of them were on the confirmed alive list, but she hadn't been able to reach them.  "That's Jones, right?"  He'd danced at their wedding.  He was pretty sure he'd seen the kids' baby pictures.  “Scouts, huh? Hard to believe it's been that long."

"Mitch..."

"I'll find them, Jamie.  They're confirmed; you know they were at the park.  It's like Fort Knox in here, I promise.  Give me two hours."

It only took one.   But he only found them so quickly because Jones was making a lot of noise, having an argument (a “loud conversation means people have strong feelings,” one of the kids told him later) with someone in a park uniform.  “They have to be able to run,” she said.  “They’re kids; they’ve been cooped up in here for two days already.  They’re going to go stir crazy.”

“There’s no running allowed in the park,” the uniformed person said.  “It’s for safety.  We don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

“I don’t either!  But keeping people from moving around isn’t going to keep people from getting hurt; it just makes it harder to see when it happens.  Come on, let them do laps, at least.  A moderate jog?”  

The person in uniform was wavering by that point, and he kept out of it while Jones drove it home.  “Find us a loop, mark it off — people love having something to do; we’ll get volunteers to watch for any skinned knees, okay?”

There was a second of hesitation.  And then — “I’ll see what I can do.  I can’t promise anything.”

Jones just smiled.  “We’ll be ready to go as soon as the sun starts going down; it will be cooler then.”

He waited until it was clear the guy wasn’t coming back right away, and walked around the corner.  The reaction was immediate.  “Mitchell!”  Jones rushed forward for a hug.  He didn’t recognize any of the kids, but they followed Jones’ lead and gathered around him.  

“Hi,” he said.  “Thanks for the warm welcome.”  

Jones clapped him on the back a few times and squeezed before letting go and stepping back.  “What are you doing here?  You haven’t been here the whole time and we missed you, right?”  

“I flew in an hour ago with Connie with blankets and aid supplies,” he explained.  “Jamie asked me to look for you.  Said she hasn’t been able to contact you or the kids?”  

“Yeah, we can’t get any signals in or out.  Whoever science-d this shield didn’t bother to figure out how to make it not block cell service and wireless internet.”  Jones waved her hand at the shield, in a ‘what can you do’ sort of gesture.  “There’s a couple official landlines that are working, but the wait list is — long.”

“Really long!” one of the kids said.


“Bad word long,” added another, and they all nodded.  

“Can I talk to you, for a minute?  Privately,” he said carefully, trying to be mindful of the fact that the kids might not want to let her get too far away from them.

They moved a few feet away and Jones gave him an expectant look.  “So? How bad is it?”

He waved his hand back and forth. “The world didn’t end, that was a plus. And there was no impact in Arizona; Jamie’s fine. Infrastructure damage on the east coast is significant, but the shielded centers kept a lot of civilians out of it. Without the satellite network we’re mostly guessing about Europe and the rest of the Atlantic-bordering nations, but the rumors are pretty equally divided between good news and bad news at this point.”

She nodded. “Can you get us out of here?” she asked quietly.  

“All of you?”  He wasn’t even sure why he asked, since he already knew the answer.

Jones gave him a look.  “I just spent two days telling these kids we’re a team and promising I’d stay with them.  I can’t just take the twins and go home.”

He nodded.  “Okay.”  They’d make it work, somehow.  “How many people total?”  

Jones pointed back towards the kids.  “Just the six kids, plus me.  There was supposed to be another parent with us, but they cancelled at the last minute and we didn’t want to postpone the trip since everything was already planned.”

“We have the space,” he said.  He was mentally rearranging the layout of the tug in his head — it could work.  “We were loaded with supplies on the way down here, so there’s room.  It’ll be a tight fit with everyone we already picked up in DC, but we can do it.”

The kids were slowly creeping closer, but he figured if Jones had been managing all six of them by herself, he was officially leaving her in charge of watching them.  

“You say that, but not with a reassuring amount of confidence.”  Jones gave him a skeptical look.  “Are you sure?  If it comes down to it, I would stay if you could get the kids out.”

“No!” one of the kids said, and then clapped their hand over their mouth guiltily.  Obviously they were close enough to listen in.

He shook his head.  “It’s not the space.  We’re running into some interference with park leadership.  No one can seem to figure out who’s in charge of deciding whether or not we can just pick up some people and leave with them.”  (Although based on what he’d seen so far, he was pretty sure the park would be in full favor of them taking Jones; no questions asked.)  


“I think their shelter in place plan was optimistically hoping for a little more outside support than what they’ve gotten so far.  For a lot of these people there’s not anywhere for them to go, at least not yet.”

Jones had a considering expression that he’d seen too many times before to be entirely comfortable with.  “So what you’re saying is you need a distraction.”

He didn’t think he’d been saying that.  “Maybe?  I was just thinking we could quietly get you all on the tug and then take off quickly before anyone can stop us.”

“A distraction would help.  Give us a minute.”  

He watched her gather the kids into a huddle, talking too quietly for him to hear more than a word or two here and there.  When she stood up again, she said, “Five minutes, on the clock.  Take your buddy, meet back here.  And… go.”

The kids raced off in pairs, completely ignoring the “no running” conversation he’d walked into when he’d first arrived.  “Do I want to know what they’re doing?” he asked.

“Probably not.”  

As the five minutes ticked down, he couldn’t help noticing a significant increase — and then decrease — in noise.  Like a lot of people were talking and laughing, and then they all started moving away from them.  And in the opposite direction of the tug.  

“Jones.”

“What?”  The kids arrived back as quickly as they’d left, not even looking out of breath.  “Okay, we should go now,” Jones said.  “Off we go, let’s move.”

He sighed.  Somehow he just knew he was going to be the one who had to explain this.

*****


“I assume there’s some sort of explanation for this?”  

Connie waved towards the back of the tug, where there were ten people tucked into a space not quite meant for that many.  Half the kids were camped out on the floor, either sleeping or doing a good imitation of it.  

“Well,” he said.  Then he stopped.  He wasn’t entirely sure what had happened himself.  They’d made a quick exit with their passengers, and Patty and the boys had been right behind them in the larger transport.  Jasmine had switched over to ride with them, along with all the stowaways and assorted relatives.  As far as he knew they were all headed back to Nevada.  Both vehicles had gotten the green light from park officials to take off and exit shielded airspace before whatever “distraction” Jones created had reached its peak, and they hadn’t stuck around to see if that would change.

Finally he shrugged.  “They’re family.”  It was close enough to the truth, after all.  And it was an answer that would probably get him out of offering more details.  Family was family.  They were the ones who came through for you when no one else could, and it didn’t matter how many of the same genes you shared.

“Family, huh?”  Connie shook her head, but she was smiling.  “And I assume we’re headed to Arizona to drop them off?”  

She didn’t sound upset.  (Technically, she wasn’t his boss.  But she was calling the shots on the Florida run; he was just supposed to be pilot and general support.  Things like this weren’t exactly part of the original plan, but hey — the world nearly ended, a little flexibility was a requirement.)  


“Unless you need us to detour somewhere else.  You remember Jamie?  Worked in the munitions lab?  She and Jones got married a while back; the twins in the middle there are theirs.”  


“Munroe?” Connie asked.  

“That’s her,” he confirmed.  “They’ve got a place outside Oro Valley.  We can spend the night there and head back in the morning.”  He didn’t mention that Arizona was a stone’s throw from Nevada, and if she wanted to check in there, they could.  She knew her geography and she probably had more information about the situation than most people; if she wanted to see what was going on over there, it wouldn’t be hard to get access.

She nodded.  “Sounds good.  We could all use a chance to rest for a few hours.”

There were a few minutes of silence, and then she said, “Wait, who are the other kids, then?”

“Scout troop,” he said.  “Jones is their troop leader.”

She raised her eyebrows at that, and he shrugged.  Hey, whatever worked.  Parenting was weird, everyone knew that.  

*****

Sleeping was a good plan.  Of course, it only worked if he could actually fall asleep.  He'd given up after an hour and moved back to the kitchen.  

"You want some tea?"  Jamie raised a mug in his direction, and he shook his head.  "You sure?  We have a full range of beverage options.  Hot chocolate, coffee, probably some cider around here somewhere.  Did you know there was a study that showed holding a warm mug has a similar psychological benefit to holding hands with someone?"

"It's 80 degrees outside.  I don't want a hot drink."  He put his head down on the table.  "I want sleep."

He heard the thunk of Jamie putting her mug down.  "Have you slept at all?" she asked.

"Recently?"  He thought he must have.  Maybe not as much as the med teams kept telling them to aim for, but something.  He just -- couldn't quite pull any specific examples to mind.

"Since it happened," she clarified.

His pause was probably too long. “I think so."  

"That bad, huh?  I'm coming over there, okay?" 

He raised his head to squint in her direction.  "Why are you still up?"


She pushed her chair right next to his and sat down.  "You think you're the only one who can't sleep?"  She reached across the table and pulled her mug closer before slumping against his shoulder with a sigh.  "It's chamomile.  The tea.  It's supposed to be relaxing.  It tastes awful."


"Chris keeps trying to get me to cut back on coffee," he said.  "She thinks I don't notice when she switches it out for chicory after four.  They taste nothing alike; it’s horrible."

“You know what,” Jamie said, and then stopped.

Finally he said, “What?”

"We're too old for all nighters," she told him.


She wasn’t wrong. “You know what I was planning to do this weekend? Clean out the refrigerator. We’ve been talking about rearranging the shelves for months. I even got a special cleaner. It’s biodegradable.”

“Nice,” Jamie said. She was running her finger around the top of the mug. “We were going to the movies. It’s our date weekend.”

“Oh yeah?” That sounded nice. “To see what?”

“I don’t know. It’s not my turn to pick. I wasn’t even looking forward to it; I was thinking how much we could get done if we stayed home instead.” She gulped back the rest of her tea and made a face. “We were lucky. We are lucky; I just wish it didn’t take something like this to remind me.”

They both looked up when Jones walked into the kitchen. “Are you both still awake too? I just finished getting Connie to go to bed. Did you drink your tea?”

Jamie shook the mug a little. “Yep.”

Jones plucked it out of her hands and put it in the sink. “Good. All right, let’s go. We’re moving to the den.”

“Mitchell wants to clean his refrigerator,” Jamie said, and patted his shoulder. “You can clean our refrigerator, if you want.”

“Thanks. But I don’t think it would be quite the same effect,” he told her. Plus their refrigerator was really big. He thought that maybe neither of them were making much sense any more. Sleep deprivation would do that to you. Jones shepherded them towards an enormous sofa, and he stopped in front of it.

“All your furniture is really big,” he said, which he thought was probably rude. “Sorry.”

“Hey, you try having two kids who want to have friends over all the time. Bigger furniture is harder to break.” Jones handed him a blanket and waved him closer to the sofa. “Go ahead, sit. You don’t have to sleep, but it’ll be more comfortable here than in the kitchen.”

He wasn’t expecting them to sit down with him, but they did; Jamie still on his right and Jones — after she had pulled another blanket over all three of them — on her other side. She didn’t turn the lights all the way off, but they were dimmed.

“Just pretend to sleep for five minutes, and then we can put in a movie,” she said.

*****

He woke up alone, to sunlight pouring in the windows. It smelled like someone was cooking breakfast in the kitchen. He yawned, trying to assess how he was feeling. It didn’t seem like he was going to be able to fall asleep again, so he sat up — slowly, and without any sort of gracefulness. There might have been a groan involved when he stretched his arms over his head and felt his back muscles protest.

“Hey, are you awake now?” Jamie stuck her head in from the kitchen and waved. “I could use some help with breakfast if you are.”

“I’m awake,” he said. “Give me a minute; I’ll be right out.” He could remember a time when he leapt out of bed ready to go. It felt like it was a long time ago. Possibly that was the lack of sleep talking.

Jamie didn’t seem to think there was anything strange about it, at least. “Sure, take your time. Bathroom’s to the left, porch is to the right.”

He started with the first and winced when he saw his reflection. It had been a long week, and it showed. He took a detour to the porch on his way back to the kitchen, and took a minute to just look. It was beautiful — sunshine, plants growing, a few clouds drifting by. It was hard to reconcile with the destruction they’d been flying over the day before. Here they were, just — going about their lives, while all of that was still out there.

“Here, take this.” He hadn’t realized anyone else was outside. He turned around to see Connie tucked up on the porch swing, holding something out.

It was chocolate. “Chocolate for breakfast?” he asked.

“It’s dark chocolate, so it’s good for you,” Connie said. “Or so I hear. You looked a million miles away.”

“Yeah.” He looked up at the sky again. “I think when we did this the first time, I told myself — it was all worth it, because at least our kids wouldn’t have to go through the same things we did. We were making a better world for them. And now — I don’t know.” He shook his head. “Bad night, I guess.” He turned the chocolate over in his hands. “Did you know this is Christmas chocolate?”

“I didn’t want to ask. Either they’re really early for this year or really late from last year. It’s good, though.” She opened up her fist to show a handful of wrappers. “And —“ She hesitated, and then said, “I know you know this already, but you’re not alone, here. I don’t think any of us had a very good night.”

They all had more practice than he liked to think about in picking up the pieces and moving on. He knew he was supposed to focus on the positive, that even in the worst of it there were good things happening too. It was just — hard to remember sometimes.

“Dad! Connie! You’re missing breakfast!” Chris’ yell traveled easily out to the porch. “They put flowers in this omelet, you should come eat!”

He laughed. That was his kid, all right. “We’re coming!” he yelled back.

Connie was smiling too. “I guess we should go. Don’t tell anyone I spent the last hour eating chocolate, okay?”

He unwrapped the piece she’d given him and crunched through it, then stuffed the wrapper in his pocket. “You got it. No chocolate here, we’re good.”

He held out a hand to help her off the swing, and she kept holding on once she was up. “They’re strong enough for this,” she said. “The kids. We were. And they have something we didn’t.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

“Us.”

*****
CONNIE
*****

She wasn’t panicking. She was just concerned, which was a completely logical reaction to the situation. Communication was bound to be challenging after a major disaster; it was probably a minor miracle they’d managed to keep a connection as long as they had. But she hadn’t heard anything from anyone back home since Florida, and — as it turned out — neither had anyone else.

“We got a check in this morning,” Miguel said. He didn’t look happy about it. “So something’s going through.”

Chris shook her head. “New Hampshire is way more east, though. Without the satellites, everything was going through the relay towers. They took a lot more damage towards the coast; if they’re already working on fixing them, they might have shut down whole grids to get at the components.”

Jones held up her tablet. “Hang on, we’re getting something on live broadcast. Looks like an official announcement, or as close as we’re getting these days.”

“Video?” Mitchell asked.

“Audio only.” It was hard to know if they should read anything into that. Video might mean things were in better shape at Area 51 than she’d thought, in terms of the damage they’d taken. But audio was more accessible in areas without general electricity, so they might just be aiming for maximum coverage.

After the initial burst of static, they heard: "This is a priority broadcast.  As of 1400 hours GMT, all non-essential air traffic within the United States is to be considered grounded.  If you have not already been contacted directly regarding your status, consider yourselves non-essential and do not travel via air.  Repeat: If you have not been contacted directly regarding your status, you are non-essential air traffic and should remain grounded until further notice."

They all looked at each other.  That — wasn't what she'd expected.  Especially the lack of introduction. Who was making the broadcast?

"I bet they're moving the alien," Troy said.  "Or it's moving itself."  Everyone stared at him.  "Sorry, was that supposed to be a secret?"  

"I think we all knew," Alicia said.

Jones shook her head.  "Yeah, no.  I didn't.  What alien?"

There was more static, and then a new voice started talking: "At this point we continue to encourage everyone to minimize their usage of communications networks in order to leave lines open for emergency personnel.  Our current focus is providing aid to the coastal regions of the eastern United States.  Please reach out to local leaders on the ground to request or offer assistance.  We will broadcast every four hours with updates.  In the meantime, stay out of the air, and stay safe out there.  Message ends."

"That's bullshit," Miguel said.  "Their focus is on scavenging as much alien tech as they can, just like it was last time."

"Yes, but can we get back to the actual alien?" Jones said.  “As in, there’s one still here?”

Her phone rang before she could start explaining, and she took it in the other room while Mitchell started explaining what they knew so far.  Another unknown number.  "Hello?" she said.  

"This is Floyd Rosenberg, you probably don't remember me."

The name sounded familiar.  "You follow David around trying to get him to sign things," she said.  "We've met."

"It's a little more than -- yes, fine.  That's what I do.  I was asked to call you, which was surprising, given that I thought you were dead."

"Ah.  Sorry about that; I assumed David would tell you."  In retrospect, that hadn't been the best plan.

"I'm shocked that he didn't," Floyd said.  He didn't sound shocked.  

"There were threats."  After Captain Hillard died, they'd all gotten them.  Many threats, from many people.  "I had security following me everywhere.  Dropping out of the public eye seemed like the best of a bad set of options at the time."

"By faking your own death?  That seems a little extreme."

She shrugged, even though he couldn’t see her. “Well, it was supposed to be a coma, but then the news outlets ended up going with the death story instead.  We just didn't correct them."

"I'm not sure whether that's devious or clever," Floyd said.  "Both, probably."

"Bigger question: who told you to call me?"  She was attracting an audience.  Troy had followed her into the den, and Alicia and Miguel trailed after him.  

"Some kid.  There's a bunch of them running around here, they all look the same to me.  She said you know everything.  Which I assumed was hyperbole, but now that I know who you are, I'm not so sure.  Is it true you convinced President Whitmore to evacuate the White House back in '96?"

"No," she said.  "Have you been reading Julius' book?"  

"There's actually not that much else to do around here right now, unless you're studying aliens or guarding the people studying aliens.  We're not allowed to leave, not that that's stopping some people."

So he was bored, she translated.  She could guess at some of his frustration, but she had bigger problems at the moment.  "Floyd.  Why are you calling?"

"Oh.  Of course.  Catherine and I both had family in London.  Have," he corrected himself.  "Hopefully.  Have you heard anything?"

“Catherine Marceaux?” she asked. What was Catherine doing there?

”Yes, that’s her. We saw London Above when the harvester ship was coming down; it looked bad. Wait, you two know each other?”

“We talk.” They gossiped, really. Mostly about things neither of them were supposed to know about. Or David, sometimes. “The reports out of western Europe are sketchy at best right now. Last I heard was that the London Above memorial to Old London took significant damage, but the evacuations to London Underground were largely successful. There were rumors of flooding that haven’t been substantiated, and some sources are reporting zero flooding. I’m not sure why they haven’t been able to get their people on the G-net lists, but it sounds like they’re dealing with the same weather issues we are, and that may be contributing.”

”They’re working on that here, I think,” Floyd said, and she couldn’t tell if he was deliberately being vague or if he really didn’t know. Either way that was probably the only answer she’d get out of him.

“Is Catherine around?” she asked.

”She’s off learning the aliens’ language; has been for days. Oh look, here comes someone official to yell at me for standing in the only place on this level that gets reception. Got to go. Yes, I see you waving at me! I’m looking right at you!”

His voice got more faint at the end; he’d probably pulled the phone away from his ear. She shook her head. Just in case he could still hear her, she said, “Bye Floyd. Call back when you can.”

*****

After four hours, they still hadn’t managed to connect with anyone in New Hampshire. Even Chris was starting to look worried.

They all gathered back in the kitchen at the four hour mark for the next broadcast. Miguel’s expression was thunderous, but he shook his head when she raised her eyebrows at him. “After,” he said, waving at the tablet set up on the table.

A few seconds after the hour, they heard the expected static. Still no introduction.

”This is a priority broadcast. As of 1800 hours GMT, the ban on non-essential air traffic in the United States has been lifted for all areas west of the Rocky Mountains only. All other regions are still grounded. We are running emergency aid and patrol ships and need that airspace clear. ”

The second part of the message stayed the same:

"At this point we continue to encourage everyone to minimize their usage of communications networks in order to leave lines open for emergency personnel.  Our current focus is providing aid to the coastal regions of the eastern United States.  Please reach out to local leaders on the ground to request or offer assistance.  We will broadcast every four hours with updates.  In the meantime, stay out of the air, and stay safe out there.  Message ends."

Miguel banged his fist on the table. “They’re lying. They’re not patrolling, they’re policing. We just got another message from Green Tree — military personnel and vehicles have surrounded the compound. They’re demanding the handover of all unregulated shield tech.”

“Green Tree?” Jamie said. “I thought that was entirely a civilian resource center.”

Miguel threw his hands up. “It is!”

It was one of the first, if she was remembering correctly. After ’96 there had been a massive push to create more community-based living. When there were only enough generators for one building per town, it just made sense for everyone to gather there for news and meals. Green Tree in Pennsylvania had grown into a full-fledged hub. “Do they have shield tech?” she asked.

“Of course they do; it’s the evacuation shelter for the whole area. But it’s not unregulated; we used a federal grant to get it.”

“It worked, though,” Troy said. He looked like he was trying to figure something out. “The shield. Connie, did yours work?”

“It turned on and off when we flipped the switch.” She looked at Mitchell, who shrugged. “It didn’t go up against an alien ship, but it worked fine against the tremors and the rockfalls. Why, what are you thinking?”

“The one I — borrowed — was military ground tech, and it glitched out on us. Same with Cheyenne Mountain — they were shielded and you said it was a total loss.”

“But the ones at Area 51 worked fine,” Mitchell said.

Troy shook his head. “Those are ESD tech, though, not ground. And now ground troops are being sent out while the Earth-Space teams are twiddling their thumbs?”

She agreed it seemed suspicious, but — honestly, a lot of times departments just worked at cross purposes because their communication was terrible. It didn’t always mean conspiracy. On the other hand — “So what are you thinking? What’s the end game?” she said.

“I don’t know,” Troy said. “It makes no sense.”

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Mitchell told him. “I got out for a reason.”

“So what did they do? At Green Tree,” Jamie clarified.

“Right now the center is still on plan A — pretend no one in the office speaks English and use the translation delay to evacuate everyone into the tunnels. They’ll spread out from there in groups; work their way towards other locations. ”

"And the shields?"

"Oh, they'll take them with them.  In pieces.  Lot of paranoid people over there."  Miguel sounded proud.

Jones projected a map of the United States onto the table.  "Well, that will solve one problem, but it's not going to work forever.  Military Ground can keep moving too.  We need to find out what they're really after.  Just the shield tech doesn't make sense, unless they think the aliens are coming back."

There were a few seconds of silence.  One of the younger kids who had wandered into the kitchen froze in the middle of opening the refrigerator.  "They're -- not coming back, right?" 

"No," Jones said firmly, like she was daring anyone to contradict her.  "Not any time soon, at least."

"Good," the girl said.  "I haven't finished the design for my wormhole generator yet."

"Awesome."  Jones gave her a high five.

"We actually may have another problem," Miguel said, looking at the map.  He tapped the east coast.  "A lot of the other locations are going to be overwhelmed by other concerns right now, which means they may start directing the Green Tree teams north, to Fallback One."

"Which is us," Connie said.  

"Which is you."  

And they hadn't heard anything for more than a day.  "We need to get back there."

That was true. And the faster the better. But they were still facing an air travel ban and no idea what they would find at the other end of the trip. She stared at her phone for a few seconds, weighing her options. Finally she dialed a number by memory and waited.

”Aunt Connie?”

“Charlie,” she said. “How can we make a tug invisible?”

*****

"No, not the thruster controls.  Don't touch those unless you want the tug to catch on fire."

"They all look identical; how would I even know which ones are the thruster controls?"

"Well, in a perfect world they'd all be labeled with pictures.  Here in reality-land, you've got me.  Go two over to the left; it should be blinking."

Charlie was trying to talk Jamie through modifying their tug so it wouldn't show up on the patchwork network of satellites the military was piecing together.  "There's nothing I can do about radar, though," he had told them.  "You'll have to stay low."

"How low?" Mitchell asked.

"How low can you manage?"

"Got it."  He looked at Chris, who shrugged.  

"Sounds fun," she said.  "No problem."

"Apparently that will not be a problem," Mitchell said dryly.  "We're just going to go take a closer look at that map."

They'd managed a fuzzy video connection on the tablet, and she’d held her tongue for almost twenty minutes before she had to ask, "Charlie, are you okay?  You look terrible."

"Thanks, Aunt Connie.  Great to hear.  That's very encouraging, those words of support from my only living relative."

"Oh please," she said, rolling her eyes.  "I heard all about you telling Jake he was your only family.  Do you know he pulled me aside in Florida to grill me on my intentions?"

Charlie flushed.  "He didn't."

"He did." She thought it was sweet, but she didn't think Charlie would appreciate her saying that.  They were still figuring out the whole family thing.  His father -- her step-brother -- had been out of touch with the rest of them for years; she hadn't even known Charlie existed until he was halfway through school.  They worked to keep in contact on a regular basis, but it was still tentative.  A few visits and video calls on holidays wasn’t much to build on — she sometimes thought both of them tried too hard not to push.

"Anyway, I'm fine," Charlie said.  "It's crazy here, you know how it is.  Area 51's not exactly a bed and breakfast."

In other words, he wasn't sleeping.  Or eating.  She had her suspicions about his level of Sensitivity, but it was one topic he one hundred percent refused to talk to her about, so she kept them to herself.

"Hey Charlie, the light that was blinking just stopped blinking," Jamie said.  "Does that mean I fixed it or I broke it?"

"What?  Turn the tablet so I can see it -- oh, hey, Rain."

Charlie put his hand over the tablet on his end, and Jamie flipped hers so it was only showing the floor.

"Who's Rain?" she mouthed, and Connie shrugged.  

They heard Charlie say, "No.  What?  No, it's nothing.  Just a training video.  You know, keeping up my skills?"

A woman’s voice replied. "A training video you talk back to?"

"Yeah, it's the newest thing here, sort of like a -- okay, you could just take it, that's fine too."

"Hello?  This is Rain Lao; Charlie is a very bad liar.  Who is this?"

"I like her," Jamie whispered.  She flipped the tablet back up so it showed her but not the tug.  "Hi there.  I'm Jamie.  How do you know Charlie?"

"How do you know Charlie?  And how are you getting a video connection off of the base?"

"Well," Jamie started.  

Charlie interrupted.  "It's a long story, let's leave it there and never get back to it, because that blinking light is actually going to need you to input a tiny bit of information really soon, which I can give you, if Rain gives back the tablet. Yes, thank you, perfect.”

Charlie came back on the screen, with Rain peering over his shoulder.  "Ready?"

"Go for it," Jamie said.  She set the tablet down and wiggled her fingers.  

Charlie rattled off a string of numbers almost too fast for her to even follow, and Jamie keyed them in just as quickly.  Based on the way Charlie kept glancing at Rain, he was waiting to see if she'd recognize them.  She was willing to step in and throw her weight around if she had to, but she wasn't sure it was going to be necessary.  Rain looked like she was putting the pieces together herself, and she didn't look angry.

"You're changing the satellite ping codes," she said, when Charlie finally stopped talking.  "So someone can fly without getting caught?  Who?”

She stepped forward so Rain could see her, and Charlie sighed. But he said, “Rain, meet Connie Spang, formerly Constance Spano. My aunt. Connie, Rain Lao, member of the Legacy Squadron, representing China.”

”Former Secretary Spano,” Rain said. She sounded surprised. ”It’s an honor.”

“Likewise. These days I work for a community program in the Northeast. We left to deliver aid supplies, then wound up taking a detour to reunite some people out here. We’re just trying to get back home.” She gave her best ‘trust me, I survived an alien invasion’ smile.

Rain studied her for a few seconds.  "You are a better liar than Charlie, at least.  You should change the sixth code to three eights at the end; it's a farm vehicle code.  It would be the least likely to receive attention if you were detected."

She looked at Charlie.  "That's a good idea," he said.  "Thank you, Rain, for aiding and abetting this not at all illegal activity.  Okay, let's back it up two entries."

"Where are you going?" Rain asked.

It wasn't like she wouldn't be able to find out.  A quick search for "Connie Spang" and you could probably see a street view.  Not live, and nothing that would show the underground levels, but enough to get a location.  "New Hampshire," she said.  "Western side of the mountains."

Rain's eyes went wide for just a second.  "You're the library.  Mr. Levinson talks about you."

"We have a library, yes.  And Julius talks about a lot of things."

"That he might do better to keep quiet about, yes.  But he is very good at saying little while talking endlessly.  The children are very loyal to him."

She thought that was probably an endorsement.  "Yes," she said.  He was probably one of the best informed people on the base thanks to those kids.  

"Yes.  Good luck.". Rain nodded to her, and then added, "I hope we have an opportunity to speak again."

She was relatively sure they were having the same conversation.  Charlie was looking back and forth between them, but he kept quiet.  So she said, "You wouldn't have happened to hear anything about something blocking communication signals, would you?  Say, in the New Hampshire area?"  Offer made and responded to.  They'd see what happened from there.

Rain looked intrigued.  "No.  But it is information I would be interested in learning."

"Aaand, on that note you're good to go," Charlie said.  "Just -- stay low, okay?  Be careful out there."

"Back at you.  There's nothing out here that isn't in there too.  Go for a walk, Charlie.  Please."

*****

They headed out with Jamie's blessing and a tote bag full of food a little before noon.  Jones and the kids were all staying.  Miguel, Alicia, and Troy would be catching a ride as far as Pennsylvania.  

"I distinctly remember you saying this sounded fun.  This is not fun."

Alicia did look a little queasy.  They were going far slower than the tug's maximum possible speed, but staying so close to the ground definitely made it feel faster.  A lot faster.

"If you're going to puke, let me know," Mitchell said.  "We can't exactly pull over, but I can offer soothing and/or apologetic comments.  There might be motion sickness pills in the first aid kit, too."

He and Chris were piloting, while the rest of them mostly tried not to distract them. They goal was to hit Tennessee in the first push, then go more slowly up through Kentucky and Ohio.  Their route had taken them close to the no man's land around Houston, and it had been a largely silent trip since then.  The attempts at levity were appreciated, if somewhat half-hearted.  If they could still laugh, they were still living.  

It had been hard, the first time around, to let themselves find humor again, to remember that just because something awful had happened didn't mean nothing good could happen again. To believe that joy wasn’t a betrayal, and that smiling didn’t mean they’d forgotten. If there was one thing she hoped they did better this time, it was that.

“We’re just about at 2200 GMT,” she said. Almost time for another broadcast.

“We can’t land here,” Chris said. “Just play it.” Her voice was relaxed, but she didn’t take her eyes of the screen.

“We land as soon as it’s an option,” she reminded her, and got nods from both Chris and Mitchell. The last thing they needed was one of them drifting off. She wasn’t sure how much sleep Chris had gotten the night before, but it probably wasn’t more than anyone else, which meant almost none.

“We could all use a break,” Mitchell said. “We won’t pass over anything that looks promising.”

They kept the volume down for the static — it wasn’t even real static, just a recording to signal the start of the broadcast — and turned it up in time to catch ”—a priority broadcast. As of 2200 hours GMT, the ban on non-essential air traffic in the United States is reinstated for all regions. Repeat, all non-essential air traffic is grounded until further notice, in all regions. In the East Coast region, a curfew of 2200 hours local time has been instituted for all civilians and non-emergency personnel. Anyone out after this time will be considered in violation of curfew.”

They waited, but that seemed to be it. There was no second part. And — somewhat ominously, she couldn’t help noticing — no description of what the consequences would be for violating curfew. “Was that someone different?” Alicia asked finally.

“It sounded different,” Troy said. “And they didn’t say ‘message ends,’ or that they’d be back in four hours. Like they’re not following the same broadcast script.”

He was right, but there were about a hundred different reasons why that might be, and at least half of them wouldn’t be catastrophically bad. She checked the local time. “2200 hours would give us about five hours, give or take the time zone change. How far should we be expecting to get?” She held up a hand and added, “Assuming the rest break is mandatory, yes.”

“Considering we’re about to slow down? Border of Ohio, if we’re lucky.”

“Do we know anyone in Ohio?” She looked at Alicia. “Do you know anyone in Ohio?” She’d been to the state a few times, pre- and post-’96. Not recently, but they were still one of the primary manufacturing centers for hybrid tech components.

“I know people in Crown City,” Troy offered. “The wildlife preserve near there is a EMF-free zone; there’s a retreat there every year. Can we get that far?”

The tug dipped, and Chris said, “Sorry — one rest break, coming up. Sand pit straight ahead. We’ll take a look at the map when we get down.”

*****
CATHERINE
*****

It was incredibly exciting, of course, from a scientific discovery perspective. Terrifying, if she stopped to think about it too carefully, which was why she was actively avoiding doing that. Given the lack of information available, as well as her current inability to leave the base (which she was also actively avoiding thinking about), the logical choice for an avoidance activity was learning the aliens’ language.

Tracking down Umbutu wasn’t difficult. He was far from a patient instructor, but he did offer a few pointers and give her access to a primer. (With the explanation, ‘This is what we give our youngest children.’ Very nice.) He stayed and watched her study it at first, but it was clear the base — or more accurately the contents of the base — had him on edge, and he eventually disappeared. Presumably to the end of whatever leash they were all on for the foreseeable future.

It was easier to focus when she was alone, so she did. And when she surfaced from that — when reality began twisting little tendrils of questions into her research zone, she began to wonder why no one had come to find her. So she did what any scientist would do. She grabbed a clipboard and a stack of folders and wandered through the halls muttering to herself. No one stopped her. No one even looked twice.

And when she had finished that, she went looking for Floyd.

She found him in a shooting range, eliminating target after target with an alien rifle she was relatively sure he wasn’t supposed to have in his possession. He looked very calm.

She waited until he paused, and hit the buzzer on the door. It lit up on his side, and he waved her in. With the rifle. She raised her eyebrows and tried her best to convey ‘you must be joking’ through bulletproof glass. He put it down and stepped back, hands up.

“That’s really quite alarming, you know,” she said, stepping into the range carefully.

He winced, then shrugged. “I know. To me too, actually. But it’s surprisingly calming, and I need something to keep me occupied. There’s only one book here, did you know that?”

“Did you know the military is staging a coup against itself?” she countered.

“Oh, that.” He frowned. “Yes. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, though.”

She considered the probability that Floyd had experienced a break with reality at some point in the last week or so. It wasn’t as low a percentage as she would have liked. “And why would that be?”

“Well, Area 51 — it’s an ESD base, right? And ESD is an arm of the UN; they’re international; they have jurisdiction basically everywhere. At the moment they’re extremely distracted, which if anyone ever listened to me I could have told them was — anyway, the ground military is national. Cheyenne Mountain was theirs, which looks bad. And is bad,” he added quickly. “Obviously.”

“Obviously,” she agreed, when it looked like he was waiting for her to say something.

“Exactly. So the Military Ground command is looking to regain whatever they can, and they are technically meant to be in charge of coordinating the response if a state of emergency is declared.”

“Which it hasn’t,” she interrupted.

“No, because the only person who could do that would be the acting president, who abdicated.”

“Which he can’t do.”

Floyd nodded. “Which he can’t do, except he did, and that’s led to this. The ESD is nominally in charge, but ground command is here and doesn’t have anything better to do.” He spread his hands. “Eventually the UN will get to us. In the meantime — well, I’m probably going to shoot some more things. I thought you were learning the aliens’ language.”

“Yes, I did,” she said. “Once you understand the basic emotional concepts their communication is framed around, it’s actually quite intuitive.”

“Please let me be there when you say that sentence to Levinson. I will pay you money.”

“He’s not here.” She’d checked.

“Believe me, I’ll wait. Oh, you know who you could tell now?”

*****

“I cannot believe you are working right now! I thought I was dead! And I woke up to these two — Can you even hear me right now?”

Dr. Milton Isaacs, not nearly as dead as he’d thought he was going to be, limped over and tugged Dr. Okun’s earbuds out. “Babe!” Dr. Okun said excitedly. “You’re awake!”

“I was at your bedside every day for twenty years! And I wake up to — who are you again?”

“Dr. Catherine Marceaux,” she said.

“Floyd Rosenberg.” Floyd added. “We’ve met, actually.”

“I’ve been visiting!” Dr. Okun said. “I was just there —“ He turned to the tech next to him. “When was I last there?”

“Three hours ago, sir.”

“Three hours!” He added, “They call me sir now,” in the loudest whisper she’d ever heard.

She’d been warned that Dr. Okun had woken up from his coma with a yet-undiagnosed degree of hearing loss, probably caused by the injuries he’d received from the alien. Given his degree of Sensitivity, she thought it was much more likely that he was perceiving so much telepathic noise from the environment that he was talking louder to compensate. She wondered if he’d ever agree to an MRI.

“That’s nice, Brakish,” Milton told him. “Have you been sleeping at all?” He turned to the tech. “Has he been sleeping?”

“Yes?” the tech said. “I mean, I guess so? I usually work in the other lab; I’m just filling in because Saunders is at the crash site.”

“The crash site. Ha! Can you believe it? Why would they want to be out there, when the real discovery is right here?” Dr. Okun gestured wildly at the orb. It had yet to offer them any sort of identifier, and since calling it “the other alien” was cumbersome, the base seemed to have settled on “the orb” for the time being. It was surrounded by glowing blue data — the rumor was that it was coming up with a solution for the hole the Harvester ship left in the planet, but she wasn’t sure if any of them would be able to tell if it wasn’t.

As always, seeing the orb left her with a vague sense of unease. Whether it was ingrained from years of associating the image with fear, a classic reaction to being faced with a more powerful force, or an actual gut instinct, she couldn’t tell. Her best guess was the first, and she truly hoped it was getting exposure to people other than Dr. Okun, who could easily wind up encouraging it to blow another hole in the planet just because it would be interesting to watch.

“Hi,” Milton said, waving to the orb. “Brakish, Dr. Marceaux has been learning the aliens’ language. I thought you might be interested.”

“Why would I be interested?”

Milton was unfazed. “Because the cultural underpinnings that influence their language also shaped their science and technology. And if you haven’t figured out the solution to your problem by now, you could probably use a different perspective.”

“Perspective!” Dr. Okun shouted. “That’s it! Pass me that — no, not that, the other one, yes.”

The tech sighed, then looked guiltily in their direction. Milton patted his shoulder. “You’re doing fine.”

*****

It hadn’t been obvious that they were missing people when she’d been making the rounds. It wasn’t like she’d searched every room. She’d assumed that anyone she couldn’t find from her mental checklist were simply elsewhere — sleeping, eating, heading in the opposite direction in some other corridor, that sort of thing. Quite a few people were “at the crash site,” a location she found she had zero desire to visit.

So she didn’t blame herself for not realizing that certain people weren’t just keeping a low profile, but had actually left the base entirely. Namely, three of the ESD pilots. Floyd had made a face when she’d asked him. “Officially? I had no idea,” he said. “Unofficially, I’m not surprised. They might as well take advantage of the ‘just saved the planet’ glow while they’ve got it. I’ve washed my hands of it.”

“Really?” Floyd had been following David around for years as a liaison between David’s ESD role and the US government. Rumor had it he was the first one to last more than a month. She hadn’t thought there was any element of ESD bureaucracy that he didn’t have an interest in.

“Really. I’m just waiting until there’s someone shows up with enough seniority to accept my resignation letter, and then I’m done.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and waved it around. “See? I had to trade one of Julius’ kid spies a chocolate bar to tell me where to find a printer.”

“I’m relatively certain they’re just children,” she’d told him. Although she’d been avoiding them as much as possible, so it was possible she wouldn’t know.

“Sure they are,” he’d replied. “Children who are spies.”

But if it had been easy not to notice that certain people were missing from the base, it was impossible to miss when they returned. They weren’t making the slightest effort to be clandestine about it. And, she supposed, it was hard to hide the fact that they’d come back with five extra people. (Only one of whom was even remotely cleared for access to an ESD base.)

It certainly did liven the place up, though. The cafeteria was full of noise when she walked in, and Floyd waved her over to an open seat. “Where have you been?” he said.

“Ladies room.” She sat down and looked around the table and made a significant effort not to act surprised. “Hello. I’m Catherine, lovely to see you.”

“Jasmine,” one of the women said, reaching across to shake her hand. She just barely stamped down the instinctive ‘yes, I know who you are,’ and smiled.

“I’m surprised your son isn’t here,” she said. “I haven’t officially met him yet, but he seems very dedicated.” That was tactful enough, right?

Jasmine laughed. “That’s a nice word for it. All three of them are probably getting yelled at somewhere right now. I can’t say I don’t appreciate it, though.”

She wasn’t sure whether Jasmine was referring to the rescue, or to someone else yelling at her son, so she just smiled again. And then Jasmine added, “Actually, I could use a trip to the ladies room myself. Could you point me in the right direction?”

Well, that was interesting. “Of course. It’s a bit of a maze in here right now with all the damage.” More smiling all around, and she led the way back out of the cafeteria.

They walked in silence until they reached the restroom — not the closest one, but the slightly out-of-the-way one that didn’t get much traffic. Jasmine waited until the door swung shut, and said, “Well, now we can talk. Dr. Marceaux, it’s good to meet you.”

She nodded. “Dr. Dubrow-Hillard. It’s an honor.”

Jasmine crossed her arms. “So. What did I miss? I can tell Dylan and Jake are editing, and Patty doesn’t want to talk about it at all. Did her father—?”

She shook her head. “He didn’t make it. I’m sorry.” Jasmine flinched.

“No, that’s — it’s not unexpected. There’s just some people who have that presence, you know? Larger than life. And you always think you’ll have more time to tell them.”

She thought of her mother, and swallowed hard. “Yes,” she said, and her voice wavered a little.

Jasmine gave her a careful look. “Who—?”

She hadn’t said a word about it since she thought she’d been about to die in the tug. It was harder than she expected to get the words out. “My mother — she was in London. She’s unconfirmed.”

Jasmine handed her a tissue that she seemed to have produced from thin air. “Would you prefer that I ask someone else? You don’t have to talk to me.”

“No.” She took a deep breath and blinked away the tears. “I’d much rather be helpful to someone. What do you know already?”

*****

“Floyd, you have to stay here.”

“I’m coming with you, and that’s final.”

Jasmine gave him a look. “No, you’re not. One of us needs to stay here, and you’re the logical choice. You’re the one who will get the most notice if you leave.”

“I’ve spent the last five not being noticed, and now you’re saying I’m too high profile to sneak out and help?”

“Floyd. Umbutu calls you his warrior brother. He eats breakfast with you every morning. He’ll notice.”

Floyd sat back in his chair. “We could bring him?”

“I’m pretty sure he’s not leaving until he’s personally verified the queen is dead, and he’s on a wait list a mile long just for that. Also, he’s even more high profile than you.”

They were hashing out a plan for a jailbreak. Not that they were technically being confined; they just — weren’t allowed to leave, at least not without permission from someone in charge. And since no one in charge ever seemed to be available, they were stuck. Jasmine was irate that the infirmary wouldn’t let her assist until they got the go-ahead from higher-ups who were all too busy to send over the paperwork, and Catherine was sick of sitting around when there was work to be done. She said, “Look, you’ve already got an in with one of the kids. Hand out some more chocolate, keep your ear to the ground, let us know what you hear. We’ll do the same from our end.”

“Right.” Floyd looked determined. “Wait, where can I get more chocolate?” She raised her eyebrows. “Of course, never mind,” he said. “I’ll just — go work on that.”

He stopped halfway through the door and leaned back in. “Let me know if you hear back from Connie, okay? Did not know she was alive, by the way, had to learn it from one of the kids. She said she’d look into London.”

After he left, she looked at Jasmine. “Are we worried we haven’t heard back from Connie?”

Jasmine frowned. “Maybe. Let me try someone else. They were in Florida with us, just headed in a different direction afterwards.” She dialed a number by memory and they waited to see if it would connect. “Hi, this is Jasmine,” she said after a few seconds. “Is this Tanya? How are you? I wondered if I could speak with your mom, is she around?”

She gave a thumbs up. “She’s going to get her,” she whispered. And then, “Yes, this is Jasmine. Everything okay there? Can I put you on speaker? I have Catherine Marceaux here too.”

”Good to hear from you. What’s up? I thought you were still on media blackout over there.”

“Oh, are we?” Jasmine said. “No one’s had a chance to brief me, I’m afraid, so I hadn’t heard.”

”It’s like that, huh? Everyone okay?”

“We’re fine. It’s a cross between chaos and boredom here; you know how these things go. We were hoping to talk to a mutual friend about a project, but we haven’t heard back. Any idea where she might be?”

”Ah. Well, she’s definitely not breaking the air travel ban. Absolutely not headed to HQ. She probably wouldn’t mind a little backup, if that’s what you were thinking.”

There was a knock on the door. “Just a moment,”Jasmine said.

“Who is it?” Catherine called. Who would be looking for her? Unless they were tracking phone signals — Jasmine seemed to have the same idea, because she grabbed the phone and headed for the bathroom.

“It’s David,” was not what she was expecting to hear from the other side of the door.

“David?” she said. She opened the door but stayed standing in the doorway. “What are you doing here?”

“Can I come in?”

“I’m drying my bras,” she told him.

He flushed, tried to somehow avert his eyes, and wound up looking at the floor. She tried not to laugh. Why did that always work? “You were looking for me?” she prompted.

“Yeah, I — well, I need your advice. I’m sure you’ve noticed all of the —” He circled a finger in a vague gesture that she interpreted as ‘around here.’ “The kids. My dad is collecting them, apparently.”

She supposed it was too much to ask that he wanted her opinion on something even remotely related to her field. “And?”

“I think they hate me,” David said. He looked confused. “I have no idea why.”

“David, I’m terrible with children. You know this. Why are you asking me?”

He hesitated. “You were actually the only one I could find.”

Well, he was honest, at least. She tried not to sigh, and didn’t think she was entirely successful. “Look, just at a guess, have you considered that a lot of them may be angry on Julius’ behalf?”

And, they were back to confusion. “Why?”

“You skipped Thanksgiving, David.”

“You know about that?”

She rolled her eyes. “Anyone who’s talked to Julius for more than five minutes in the past year knows about that. Those kids met him in the middle of an extremely frightening situation, and he was funny and calm and treated them like individuals instead of an inconvenience. He was the parent all of them needed right then, when they had no idea where their own parents were or if they were okay. And then they found out he already had a kid — you. And you don’t seem to appreciate him at all.”

She held up her hand when he opened his mouth to say something. “Not judging, just looking at it from their point of view. “ (She was lying; she was totally judging.) “But does it really surprise you that they resent you?”

He grimaced. “Great. That’s just what I needed on top of the aliens.” Then he looked — somewhat suspiciously, she thought — between her and the still partially open door. “What have you been doing all this time?”

Silently, she berated herself for promising Floyd he could be there when she told David about the aliens’ language. “Oh, this and that,” she said. “Keeping myself out of trouble.”

“Somehow I find that hard to believe,” David said.

“Oh, would you look at the time,” she said, not bothering to look at her wrist. “You probably have something to go do.”

He did look, and swore. “I do. I have to go.”

He jogged off, and she shook her head. “Bye. Nice chat. Keep looking next time!”

*****
ALICIA
*****

Forests were weird at night. All the time, really, but especially at night. She’d grown up in the desert, and it seemed like no matter how long she spent away from it, she still expected to see it stretching out in front of her when the sun went down. Or came up, really, but she was so rarely awake for that part of the day that she didn’t notice it as much. There was an vastness to the desert. Forests could feel huge too, but it was a different kind of huge.

The noise from the house increased as the door opened, and someone walked out to join her at the railing. “You want another water?” Troy asked. He handed her the bottle without waiting for an answer.

“Thanks.”

They were both quiet for a few seconds, and then she said, “Did Miguel send you to check on me?”

“Miguel is playing an intense game of Spoons right now, and managing to only send concerned looks towards the porch every five minutes or so. I came out all on my own; I thought you might want some company. You know, in case the trees start freaking you out.”

She laughed, and knocked her shoulder against his. “The trees do not freak me out,” she insisted. It wasn’t the trees, exactly. It was more the whole — forest package. At night. “It’s just really dark out there.”

“You could always come back inside.”

“I could.” But the inside was filled with strangers who all knew Troy and called him family, and she was having trouble resisting the urge to tell everyone that he was her brother first, dammit. And she knew it was petty, and small, and so she was staying right there on the porch until it went away and she could walk back in with a smile.

“People keep asking me if I knew they were coming.” Troy’s voice was very quiet.

“We all knew they were coming back,” she told him, even though they both knew it wasn’t true. Everyone should have known; they should still know. But it hadn’t taken long for the memories to fade for some people. President Lanford had been elected on a platform of cutting spending on protective infrastructure and relaxing regulations on construction.

Troy leaned on the railing and stared into the forest. “I keep thinking — maybe there was something else I could have done. Figured it out sooner, helped more people.”

She turned to face him. “President Whitmore told them every day for twenty years. He crashed an internationally televised event to tell them. And you know what? Everyone still just said he was crazy.”

“Yeah.” Troy sighed. “He was right, though.”

“Of course he was right. But that’s not what people wanted to hear. They wanted to hear ‘you’re safe, everything’s fine now, go ahead and build your mega-mall.’ And so they found someone who would tell them that.” Honestly, they wouldn’t have been ready either way, and she wasn’t sure what to think of that. But she knew Troy would bury himself in guilt if he felt like he could have done anything to stop it.

She put her elbows on the railing next to him and leaned into his shoulder. “Troy, you know I love you. But in the grand scheme of the universe, you’re not that important, okay? You did what you could, just like the rest of us.”

He gave a tiny laugh, which she counted as a win. She bumped his shoulder again. “And hey. Listen up, because I’m only going to say this as many times as it takes until you believe it. We don’t need you to magically find a way to go back in time and prevent all this; we need you here, now, putting in the work one day at a time to make it better.”

The laugh was better that time, and he bumped her shoulder right back. “Thanks. You too, you know. With the love, and the needing you here.”

“Thanks. Want to stand here and stare at the forest a while longer?”

“Sounds good.”

*****

She woke up to Miguel shaking her shoulder.  "It is not morning," she said.

"What?  No, but we've got to go.  Come on, Troy's getting your shoes."

The habit of following Miguel as he moved them in the middle of the night was so ingrained that she didn't even question it until she stumbled into the brightly kit kitchen and saw Connie and Mitchell.  "What?"  She'd been aiming for 'what's going on,' but that would work.

Connie nodded at her.  "Good, you're up.  Is that everyone?"

"Chris is doing the preflight," Mitchell said.  "We'll be ready in five."  He handed her a travel mug as he passed.  "Don't drink it yet; we just poured it."

She put her hand over the top to remind her, and tried again.  "What's going on?"

"We're leaving," Connie told her, which was less than helpful.  "Sorry we had to wake you up."

Troy showed up the doorway and thrust a pair of shoes in her direction.  "Here.  Did you know there are about ten people here who have the same shoes as you?"

She looked at the shoes.  They weren't that distinctive.  She wasn’t sure even she would be able to pick them out from a set of similar-looking shoes. “Did you guess?" she asked.

"What?  No, I just asked around.  Those are definitely yours."

They looked like hers.  She wasn't entirely sure she'd know if they weren't, though.  "You asked around?"  Connie was starting to look impatient, so she slipped the shoes on while she talked.  "Was I the only person sleeping?"

"No, some people are still sleeping.  But they're doing shifts so someone's always awake at the radio.  And the dogs started barking when the alert went off, so that woke some people up too."  Troy always made things sound so reasonable.  She still hadn't checked the actual time.  

"I slept through dogs barking?"  

“I thought the dogs were very well-behaved," Connie said dryly.  "It was the whisper argument happening outside my door that woke me up."

Troy flushed.  Yet another story to work on getting out of him later. "Are we good?" Connie said.  "Let's go; we can talk on the way."

They had parked the tug a good distance away from the buildings, and the whole place was eerily quiet in the pre dawn.  She thought she was going to have to ask again, but Connie started talking almost as soon as they were outside.

"We're fine," Connie started , and boy was that the opposite of reassuring.  "We're just having a little jurisdictional debate with Military Ground."

Still not reassuring.  She looked at Troy.  He said, "Military Ground seems to be calling the shots at Area 51 at this point. They finally got around to declaring a state of emergency in the last broadcast.”

Connie nodded, and added, “They gave out some information about Florida, and we must have made a few people a little irritated down there, because they accused us of stealing resources and essentially pirating two of their ships."  

She shook her head.  "Nobody would believe that.  You were only there because they asked you to be!"

"Well, we're not the ones with the global broadcast system.  Military Ground seems to have believed it just fine, and they'd like us detained for questioning.  They've requested that anyone with information on our whereabouts contact them immediately.”

"And so we’re…”  She really wished the coffee was cool enough to drink.  Were they running?  Turning themselves in?  She wasn't awake enough for either of those.

"We would prefer to meet them with a home turf advantage," Connie said.  "We're going to make a run for New Hampshire and see how far we can get."

"Miguel and I already volunteered you to come with us," Troy added.

"Thanks," she said.  It was probably fifty-fifty sarcastic and genuinely glad she wasn't going to have to decide on a plan with -- she finally gave in and checked the time -- less than three hours of sleep.

*****

She stayed out of the debate over whether it would be better to sneak back to HQ and act Ike they'd been there all along, or go for the direct route and just fly right up to the door like they owned the place.  Mostly it was a lot of arguing about how things would look later, depending on how it got spun and who was doing the spinning.  It was her least favorite part of being in the public eye.

"Didn't I suggest a farm?" she muttered to Miguel.  "A nice quiet farm in the middle of nowhere, and no one would ever have to wonder how our day's activities would sound on the six o'clock news."

"You hate farming," Miguel said.  "You tried it for one summer and told me to make you move back to the desert if you ever said you wanted to do it again."

That was possibly true.  "Okay, bad example."

Her phone rang. She stared at it -- who would be calling her at not-even four in the morning?  "Who is it?" Miguel asked.

“I have no idea. Wrong number?" she guessed.  It wasn't like she gave her phone number out to tons of people.  And no one who would call instead of texting. She hit accept.  "Who is this?"

"Hi, this is Jake with Earth Space Defense, sorry to bother you this time of day.  Just calling to find out if you've got a tiger on your side."

She frowned, and put her hand over the speaker.  “It’s ‘Jake,’ he says. How likely is it that someone from ESD would come up with a catch phrase from twenty years ago at random?"

"Very unlikely," Mitchell said.  "Who's Jake?"

She shrugged. “The only Jake I know is Patty's Jake."

"Yeah, that's me.". The voice was muffled and she looked at the phone in surprise.  ”Hi, I can still hear you -- the new phones have the microphone and the speaker on opposite sides, so -- anyway.  Patty!  I found her!"

Before she could say anything else, Patty's voice came on.

"Alicia?"

"Yes?" She said.  It wasn't yet the weirdest phone call she'd ever been part of, but it was definitely climbing up the list.

"Oh, good.  I could only remember part of your phone number, so we've been calling all the possibilities. Are you okay?"

She wasn’t sure she wanted to ask how much of the number Patty had remembered. How many people had they called? “I’m good,” she said instead. “You?”

”We heard the broadcast,” Patty said, which at least explained why she was calling. ”We were there; we know what really happened. What can we do to help?”

“Stay put,” Connie said.

“That was Connie. You’re on speaker.”

”See, I’m not sure how that would help,” came another voice. Now that she had a context, she thought it must be Dylan. ”You know what the wise man said: ‘first you show up.’ I think we should go show up.”

”I don’t think any of the Wise Men said that,” Jake said.

”They could have.”

Idly, she wondered if the fact that all three of them were in a room together and not fighting meant they had worked out their issues. Jasmine would be happy. “How’s Jasmine?” she asked, when it seemed clear that the bickering could go on indefinitely.

She wasn’t expecting the hesitation in Patty’s voice. ”Well, that’s the other reason we’re calling. You haven’t seen her?”

She exchanged confused looks with everyone who wasn’t actively piloting. “No? Not since Florida. I thought she was going back to Area 51 with you.”

”She did,” Patty said. ”But she told Dylan that she and Catherine were going to see you for a visit yesterday, and we haven’t heard from her since. We were hoping she was with you — you’re sure she’s not there?”

She made a show of looking around the tug, and Troy choked on a laugh. “Very sure, yes,” she said. “We’re not exactly in a crowded place.”

Connie leaned forward. “We’re on the move, Patty. Do you want us to backtrack, see if we can find them?”

”No, you keep doing whatever it is you’re doing. We would have found a reason to come after you somehow; this is just a really good one.”

In the background she thought she heard Jake say something about Charlie — they hadn’t lost track of him too, had they? But Connie said, “Just be careful. Stay safe out there, all right?”

“Always,” Patty said, which was obviously a blatant lie, and then she added, ”See you soon!”

The call disconnected.

*****

“I can’t believe you don’t have a map of your secret tunnels.”

They’d gotten closer than she’d really expected, but their luck had run out shortly after they’d crossed the border. They’d put the tug down in the back lot of a garage, and proceeded to spend the next twenty minutes arguing about where the closest entrance to the underground tunnel system might be.

“Okay, first, if they were secret tunnels, there wouldn’t be a map.” Chris held up her phone. “We have a map, so they are totally legitimate and non-secret subterranean travel routes. Second, the map is a perfectly good representation of the tunnels themselves. We’re just not sure how to get from here —“ She pointed at the floor of the tug. “To where the map begins.”

Maps were really more of Miguel’s area of expertise. Troy never got lost, so he’d never bothered to learn maps. She had neither skill, and had resigned herself to never being the navigator long ago. Which made it unfortunate that she’d wound up paired with Chris on the “figure out how to get there” assignment, while the others were all off inside the garage trying to find a working landline.

On the other hand, sometimes common sense could take the place of map reading. “We could just ask someone.”

Chris hesitated. “We’re supposed to be keeping a low profile.”

“I was thinking her.” She pointed out the front screen, where a woman was shading her eyes with her hand and trying to see inside.

Chris spun around in her seat. “Who is that?”

She shrugged. “Curious local? She doesn’t look like a cop.” She also didn’t look like an employee of the garage, which meant she was trespassing. Of course, so were they.

“It could be a trap.”

“That — seems like it would be a lot of work.” She thought it was much more likely that the woman was looking for them in order to pass the information on to the military, in return for whatever reward they might offer, but hey, what did she know. It might be a trap.

Chris was silent for a few seconds, either thinking about it or waiting to see if she was going to come up with anything more useful to offer. Finally she said, “I’m thinking we might as well go for it.”

They walked out together, and the woman startled when she saw them come around the corner of the tug. “Hi,” Chris said, all smiles.

“Hello,” the woman said. “I didn’t think anyone was here.”

Chris smiled again. “No, neither did we.” She put a hand on the tug. “Can’t be too safe, right?”

It could, at a stretch, be interpreted as an explanation for why they’d obviously been flying a non-emergency vehicle during an air travel ban. After all, they’d brought it to a garage. Maybe it was malfunctioning. (It could also be interpreted as a weird sort of threat, but luckily the woman didn’t seem to notice.)

In fact, she didn’t seem to think the situation was suspicious at all, which in itself was a little suspect. “Of course,” she said. “Are you local, then?”

“I am,” Chris said, which was sort of true. “A little east of here. We’ve actually just gotten a little turned around, wondered if you might be able to point us in the right direction.”

“East? Where is it you’re trying to get to?” She thought the woman was starting to look a little shifty.

“You know the area?” Chris said.

Definitely shifty. “Only in passing, unfortunately. I’d be happy to take a look if you have a map, though. I’ve been told I’m passable at navigating.”

There was a shout from the direction of the garage, and they all jumped. “Catherine!” someone yelled. “I found them!”

“Is that Jasmine?” she asked, squinting towards the garage.

The woman — Catherine, apparently — looked back and forth between them and the garage. “I should go,” she said.

Chris laughed. “Don’t bother. I’m pretty sure we’re the ones you’re looking for, and you’ll just end up coming back.” She held out her hand. “Chris Mitchell. You must be Catherine Marceaux?”

“Yes. How did you —?”

“We talked with Patty earlier; she mentioned you and Jasmine might be headed in this direction. You should call them; there might still be time to keep them from showing up too.”

She held out her own hand to shake while Catherine was still thinking. “Nice to meet you.”

“You as well,” Catherine said. “So you must be —“

“Alicia Cade.”

Catherine’s eyes went slightly wide at that. “Is it true that you —“

She cut her off. “No. Whatever it is, definitely not true.” She was pretty sure Chris was laughing again, but she got to avoid whatever question came next when the rest of the group arrived back from the garage, Jasmine in the lead.

“Oh good, everyone’s met now,” Jasmine said. “That was easier than I thought it would be.”

*****
RAIN
*****

Charlie Miller was a very strange person. He was good at engineering, though, which was a strong point in his favor. And she was bored; there wasn’t much to do with all the ESD pilots grounded until further notice. So when he knocked on her door and said, “Hey Rain, quick question. Can I come in for a second?” she let him in.

“Was that the question?” she asked.

“What? No, it’s something else.” He held up a piece of paper that said IS YOUR ROOM BUGGED in all capital letters.

"No," she said.  "Not anymore."  The Chinese and American branches of the ESD had a perfectly amenable relationship that was based on mutual distrust and suspicion.  They bugged her room, she disabled them.  It was fine.  "Was that the question?"

Charlie pointed at the sign.  "No question mark, see?  I was ready for that one."

She tried not to smile.  "I see."  She paused, and then added, "Was that the question?"

Charlie laughed.  "All right, you got me.  Five points to you, none to me.  No, the question is about dinner, and whether you still want to go."

He hadn't moved past the doorway, which was nice.  She had little enough space to call her own, and no desire to share it more than she had to.  "And is there a reason you aren't asking it?"  She'd already said yes, after all.  It had been her suggestion.

"Yes."  He looked uncomfortable.  "In the interests of full disclosure, I'm not planning on coming back afterwards."  She tensed, and he quickly added, "Not here, I mean, obviously, I wouldn't be coming back here specifically."  He waved around the room.  "Unless you wanted me to, in which case that would be different, and we would have had an informed discussion about it before coming to an agreement that we both felt comfortable with.  I meant here, as in the base."

She took a few seconds to work her way through the excess of words.  "You are -- deserting?"  It seemed extremely unlikely, but she thought she should eliminate that as a possibility first.

"No! Absolutely not -- are you kidding, after everything I did to get in here?  No, I'm going to Geneva.  I thought about New York, but I think international is better in this case."

She narrowed her eyes.  "You're going to the United Nations.  Why?"

"There's a precedent," he said.  "I did check.  If a member of the ESD witnesses an action they feel goes against the stated mission of the program or that has the potential to increase the vulnerability of the planet to attacks, internal or external, blah blah blah, you get the idea."

"The orb," she guessed.  

"More or less.  The way I see it, the world's governments spent the last two decades telling everyone to love their neighbors and pay their taxes because aliens were trying to kill us all.  Now not only is there a new alien that maybe doesn't want to kill us, but the ESD and the military are covering up its existence.  What do you think is going to happen when people find out it's here?  For that matter, what do you think the orb is going to do when it figures out Military Ground is stockpiling shield generators so they'll be able to contain it if they decide it's necessary?"

That was -- a more complex reading of the situation than she'd expected.  "I'm coming with you," she said.  

He held up one hand.  "There's one more thing."

She raised her eyebrows.  Something else?  

"Do you want to pick the restaurant?" he asked, and she laughed.

"You choose," she said.  "But I want veto power."

*****

“Pizza.”

“Is humanity’s greatest culinary offering, yes,” Charlie said. “It’s versatile, it’s ubiquitous, it can be eaten without silverware — ten out of ten, hands down best food.”

She studied him carefully. He was wrong about pizza, but it was in her top ten, and it was a very nice restaurant. “May I ask you a rude question?” she asked.

He set his slice of pizza down and wiped his fingers carefully on a napkin. “Sure,” he said.

“Do you actually want to go on a date with me?”

It was a serious question, and she appreciated that he took his time in answering. “I think traditionally speaking it’s maybe a little early for dating, since we met less than a week ago, and since then have been through multiple traumatic events and spent less than six hours in each other’s company. And one of those hours I was asleep.”

He looked at her like he was waiting for her to — something. Get angry, maybe. She made a ‘go on’ gesture instead.

“I was also pretty sure you didn’t want to go on a date with me,” he said. “So this is a little bit new territory, but I’m not against the idea. You seem like a great person; I’m also a great person. Honestly, just being seen with you is pretty much a win for me all around. A little less for you, sorry about that, but there’s got to be some residual glow from the three musketeers, at least. And there’s always the networking benefits.”

She piled a recalcitrant pepper back onto her pizza. “You didn’t expect me to say yes, but you asked anyway.” Although she supposed he hadn’t, really. “Are you in love with Jake Morrison?”

Charlie sighed. “No. Look, this story doesn’t really paint me in the most flattering light. We could just enjoy our pizza and go our separate ways instead?”

“I’m coming with you to Geneva,” she reminded him.

“Right.” He sighed again, and pushed his plate away. She felt a twinge of guilt for ruining his meal, but apparently the move had just been for dramatic emphasis, because he picked up the pizza again and took a huge bite. “Keeping in mind that I was an impressionable youth at the time when I first heard this, and that the exact number has been disputed both higher and lower in various studies —“

“You are still an impressionable youth,” she interrupted. He was two years younger than her. “Just tell me.”

He put the pizza back down. “The average person can only remember about five things at a time,” he said. “Numbers, tasks, directions — all that stuff. I figure the same is probably true for people. You usually only remember about five things each about most of the people you know, and the same goes for people who know you. So it’s up to you to control the narrative.” 

"My five things for the majority of people who know me —“ He counted the points off on his fingers as he went. “Talks too much, short and/or young, follows Jake Morrison around, probably in denial about being in love with Jake Morrison, and makes embarrassing overtures to women way out of my league."

That matched up with her impressions.  First impressions, at least.  She nodded.  "And you want people to think those things about you?"  

"I don't mind," he said, which wasn't really the same thing.  "Once people think they have you figured out, they stop paying attention.  When they do pay attention, they're more likely to notice information that supports their beliefs than things that contradict them."

As if she wasn't perfectly aware of how assumptions worked.  She supposed she had been the one to ask.  "I am beginning to think that whatever it is you are trying to deflect attention from is either very embarrassing for you or that you are a serial killer."  She wasn't, but she wasn't in the mood to wait while he danced around something all evening. She wasn’t very good at waiting.  "If it's the second, I should warn you that  killing me would be seen as an act of war by my government, and they would respond accordingly."

Charlie stared at her.  "You're -- are you joking, right now?"  She raised her eyebrows.  "I have no idea what that means," he said.  "Yes?  No?  It doesn’t matter — I am not a serial killer; no one is going to war with China!"

"Then it's embarrassing," she said.

"Yes!  I mean, no, not really.  Look, it would have DQ'd me from pilot training, okay?  How much do you know about Sensitivity?  Like the capital-S kind."

"I know my country's attitudes towards it are considerably less backwards than yours," she said.  "You are Sensitive?"

He grimaced.  "Yeah.  Not that it officially exists over here, but if it gets spread around that you might be, they’ll find a reason to ground you.”

She was only minimally Sensitive herself, but she’d heard all the propaganda. China actively recruited for it. “Sensitives have been proven to have an easier time learning to effectively utilize alien hybrid technology. Keeping them from accessing it would be counter-productive.”

“Well, they’re also proven to sometimes go crazy,” Charlie said. “So there’s that. But it’s a national security thing mostly — it’s not a big jump from ‘the aliens can read minds’ to ‘the aliens can control people,’ especially with the creepy talking thing they do.”

“They can’t,” she said.

He shrugged. “Or they haven’t bothered, or they’re just haven’t figured out the programming code yet.”

She must have looked as skeptical as she felt, because he added, “I’m just saying, if I suddenly received a telepathic message from say, an ant, and it said ‘I’m gonna take you down,’ my first reaction wouldn’t be to try to mind control it into not messing with me. I’d probably say ‘hey everyone, check it out, a telepathic ant.’”

“And now we have a second alien,” she said. “That’s come to see us perform.”

Charlie held up his hands. “Hey, maybe it’s just as friendly and helpful as it says. Maybe it’s going to fix climate change and advance our technology and snuggle babies, I don’t know. But I heard its first plan for us was to evacuate the planet, which — coincidentally or not — would have left Earth completely defenseless against the Harvester ship. I’m just saying maybe we should exercise a little more caution and have a little more open communication before we just let it do whatever it wants.”

“I would work on the conclusion a little when you say that in Geneva,” she suggested.

“Yeah?”

“Solid action items would be better than general suggestions. But overall, very good. Very convincing.” She tapped her fingers on the table. “I think we should borrow a faster vehicle.”

*****

They drove to California, trying to balance reckless speeding against breaking the curfew and mostly failing to avoid either of them. The embassy was a welcoming beacon of light when they waved her through the gates. The building itself was designed that way; solar lighting glowed on the rooftops and trim, and lit up the road and walkways leading in.

She took a minute to remember the last time she’d visited, before her uncle took command of the Moon base. It had been summer then too, and they had eaten outside in one of the formal gardens. Then she took a deep breath. Honor the past, live in the present, plan for the future — it was his favorite saying. She would respect his choices.

Then she looked at Charlie. The ESD was an international organization; all of its members received at least basic diplomatic training. In theory, at least. He looked back. “Don’t screw this up for us,” she said, and he nodded.

“Got it. You’re in charge.”

It was easier than she’d expected, to walk in and describe what they needed. It felt good to be taking action, even if it was a small action.

She met him in the garden afterwards.  “We have a diplomatic courier leaving in an hour, heading west to Zhuhai.  After that it's ours to continue on to Geneva."

Charlie nodded, but he said, "Kind of going the long way around, that way."  He looked out over the paths, and she joined him at the railing.

"It's a very fast courier," she told him.  "And this way we avoid the Atlantic.  It is not a good place to be flying right now, for anyone looking to avoid military or weather interference."

"West it is," Charlie said.  "So — we have an hour.  I can make myself scarce, if you'd prefer."

"The company is good."  She hesitated, and then added, "Would you like to walk?"

They moved further down the path.  "I saw the pictures of your uncle inside,” he said. He didn’t look at her, and that made it easier, somehow.

"He helped design all of this," she told him.  "The buildings as well, but gardens were his passion."

"I'm sorry for your loss.  He was -- I'm sure you know this, but he was a good base commander too."

She wasn't ready to talk about it.  "He hated you," she said instead.

Charlie stuck his hands in his pockets.  "Well, yes.  But that was mostly Jake."

"Speaking of Jake --"  She gave him a sideways look.  If he deflected again, she'd let it go.  

But he didn't.  “Jake is my brother.  We've known each other -- a long time.  He knows about me, obviously; he's covered for me plenty of times.  He's basically an anti-Sensitive -- like a white noise generator, or something.  He's very soothing to be around, actually, if you ignore 95% of what he says and does."

She frowned.  "I've never heard of someone like that.”  She'd never noticed anything particularly soothing about him.  “Is it a conscious ability?  How far does it extend?”

"It's completely innate, at least as far as we can tell.” Charlie shrugged, but he didn’t look uncomfortable.  “And not that far -- less than a kilometer, probably.  It's not like it turns off at a certain distance.  It just gets less, and then you reach a point where you think 'I feel like crap, is it the psychic noise or is it just Tuesday.'"

She stopped and looked at him.  "So how do you feel right now?"

He looked surprised.  "Fine, but that's not Jake.  There's pills you can take -- you guys have those, right?"

She'd heard of them, mostly in association with their potential side effects.  "I thought they were dangerous."  

He raised his eyebrows. “A few days ago we flew fighter jets into an alien spaceship, crashed, fought our way back out, fired cold fusion engines inside the atmosphere, blew stuff up that actually wasn't us, crashed again, and still managed to walk away.  I think dangerous is a pretty relative term at this point."

It was a fair argument, she thought.  

"Besides,” he said, “the ones I take are pretty low key, just generic one-size fits all.  They’re a little like wearing earmuffs, or having a radio playing static in the background.  I can get it up to an effect like earplugs if I double up, but even with earplugs in you can still hear things, right?  It's just that the background noise is more muffled."

She nodded.  She wondered who he was talking with about it, frequently enough that he had non-Sensitive analogies ready to use without having to think about it.  Jake, maybe.  If she'd had a roommate who was taking semi-legal medication on a regular basis, she would have wanted to know as much as possible about it.  

"Now, you look at someone like Director Levinson?" Charlie continued.  "He's got to be on some serious bio-identical high-end shit; that's why he's so -- you know, Director Levinson-like."

She thought about that for a few seconds.  "I don't know what that means."  She'd heard him speak, of course, and been introduced once at an ESD memorial event years ago. But they’d never actually interacted. She had noticed the children didn’t like him, but she thought that was more related to their devotion to his father. 

Charlie said, “So instead of earplugs, think complete noise-cancelling headset.  Most people pick up at least minor amounts of psychic noise from their surroundings -- you walk into a room full of crying people, you're more likely to feel sad.  You walk into a party, you're more likely to feel happy.  It's like -- emotional situational awareness."

"And Director Levinson -- turned his off.  On purpose?"  

"That's what he says.  It has a sort of nails on a chalkboard feel to some people who are Sensitive.  It's probably why he and Jake get along so well; Jake can't feel it at all.  I think that other guy who follows him around is the same way -- Frank?  Floyd?  The suit guy."

Her phone chimed to announce their time was almost up, and they were both quiet as they headed back towards the embassy.  She knew Charlie had said more than he probably would have liked, just to distract her from the things she'd asked not to talk about.  She turned to him at the entrance to look him in the eyes.  "Thank you."

"Any time."

*****

The first leg of the trip was quiet.  The pilot was young -- younger than Charlie, even.  She was excited to be going to Zhuhai, even more excited to have "heroes" in her plane, and it made her feel old.  "What was it like?" the woman wanted to know.  "Were you scared?"

She didn't know how to answer that.  "Yes," she said finally.  "It was very frightening, but we did what we trained to do and we trusted each other."

"Wow."

She kept the rest of the conversation strictly on a review of the ship's flight controls and security procedures, and retreated to the back as soon as possible.  Charlie was sleeping, or pretending to sleep.

"You are not fooling me," she muttered quietly.  

He left his eyes shut.  "Hey, the embassy said I'd better not get any ideas about flying this thing myself.  I'm just removing the temptation.  You should rest too; it's going to be a long trip to Switzerland."  

"I can't sleep in the air," she said.  

"Really?"  He opened his eyes.  "Not at all?"

“Really,” she said. It wasn’t that interesting. Lots of people couldn’t sleep in moving vehicles.

“So what do you do on long trips?”

She shrugged. “Read. Study. Sometimes I pretend to sleep, if a traveling companion is being particularly irritating.” She smiled so he would know she was joking, and he laughed.

“Makes sense. So, maybe I should have asked this earlier, but you’ve been to Geneva before, right?”

“Yes.” The Legacy Squadron had been invited to several events there. She remembered it as being very green, and very mountainous. “I don’t speak French, if that was your next question.”

“No, me neither. Pretty sure we’re going to stand out as conspicuous outsiders either way. That’s sort of the point of the trip, though, right? We’re not trying to blend in.”

She wondered what might be happening back at Area 51 while they were thousands of miles away. With the crash sites, with the orb, with their friends — “What did you tell Jake about where you were going?” He must have told him something.

“Well.” He stopped. That seemed like a bad sign.

“You did tell him, right?”

“Yes! I told him I wouldn’t be there for a few days. Not the whole thing, just that you and I were going out to dinner and I’d be traveling afterwards, and not to worry because it was no big deal and everything’s fine. It was maybe not those exact words, but I definitely told him.”

She didn’t feel very reassured. “And was he listening?”

Charlie waved his hands like he was trying to convey the sheer impossibility of being able to answer what should have been a relatively simple question.

“Charlie,” she said.

“He was distracted! I don’t know if he was listening or not. He’s got his own stuff going on with Patty, and I don’t even know about what they’re doing with Dylan, but I’m staying well clear of it. Learned my lesson on that one a long time ago.”

That sounded like a story. There were plenty of rumors that circulated about the “feud” between Dylan and Jake, but she’d never heard anything from someone so close to the source. “Dylan?” she prompted.

“Yeah, he was there too. I don’t think the three of them have ever managed to be on the same page at the same time about whether they’re broken up or together, and I do not want to know. I mean, I do, because that’s a gossip gold mine, but I also don’t, because Jake is my brother and I know Dylan’s mom and I’m pretty sure Patty’s going to be the President of the United States someday, and I just do not need to have those images in my head. You know?”

“Not really,” she said. “But I’ll take your word for it.”

*****
MITCHELL
*****

“I remember the tunnels being a lot nicer than this.” In his memories, they were more well-lit, for one thing. And less damp.

“Well, maybe if you’d voted for my infrastructure improvement budget last year, they would be,” Chris said. “It’s been more than a decade since some of these were built, Dad.”

They were scouting ahead while the rest of the group stopped for lunch. There was a straight shot back to HQ that would get them there the fastest, but it was a well-known route. Depending on what was happening, it could have been blocked off — from the inside or the outside. They could go around, but it would take longer. They needed information. He hated working in the dark.

“I did vote for it!” he said automatically. He hoped he had, at least. Chris was far better at managing the political maneuverings of the town than he was, but he always voted.

She sighed. “You didn’t. I didn’t either. You and Dad argued about it, remember? It got tied into a bigger budget article that would have taken funds out of the school budget to use on increasing security.” She scuffed her shoe through a patch of dirt that looked suspiciously like mold.

“That one, huh?” He did remember. At the time, it had seemed like the better choice. “Sorry about that. Guess we should have gone with the infrastructure after all.”

“No,” Chris said. “I’m just griping. You were right. Investing in people was the better choice. Isn’t that what just got proved again?”

“Is it?”

“Dad! Yes. It wasn’t the guns or the shields that saved us; it was people, making smart choices and adapting to the situation as it changed. You taught me that.”

He tried to hide his smile. His kid, seriously. The greatest. “I did?”

“You did. Hey, you’ll love this — this is classic people power. You know how we were wondering how they were getting the time estimates on the drilling? I talked with Mom; she said it was a bunch of amateur treasure hunters who ignored the evacuation order, and negotiated for a hundred million dollars to stick around and take readings.”

Chris’ mom still worked at Area 51. Her name had been the first one he checked when it became clear the world wasn’t going to end. They’d known each other for years; they’d tried out a relationship in the post-’96 haze of victory, and nine months later there was Chris. He considered it one of the three miracles of his life that they all managed to get through her childhood. “They didn’t.”

“She says they did. I mean, the way she told it was less negotiating and more ‘we’re all probably going to die so why not,’ but we didn’t, so —”

“A hundred million dollars.”

“Yup.”

He contemplated the stretch of identical-looking tunnel in front of them and decided they could probably go another five minutes before a break. “Do you think they’ll really get it?”

“Mom already gave them Connie’s number if the ESD tries to back out of it.”

Of course she had. “Maybe they’ll give us a cut. We could use it to fix up the tunnels.”

There was an echo of sound from somewhere up ahead, and they both froze. They moved forward silently — there was another junction within sight that would hopefully give them a better idea of what they’d just heard and also give them options for changing direction. Or not; sometimes sounds travelled strangely underground.

But it was obvious as soon as they looked around the corner. Their straight shot back was blockaded by a cement barricade and a pair of soldiers in Military Ground uniforms. So that was happening. The good news was, it didn’t look like they were set up for patrolling further into the tunnels. The bad news was it didn’t look like they were planning on leaving any time soon. He exchanged a look with Chris; she shrugged back at him, but her eyes were wide.

It looked like they weren’t going to be taking that break after all.

*****

“So we go around,” Catherine said. “I thought there was a whole network of these.”

He resisted the urge to ask when, exactly, she’d become an expert on the layout of their town. She was trying to help. It had just been a long day. Week. Whatever.

Instead, he said, “I think we need to go up, actually.”

“Up?” Catherine sounded skeptical, but Miguel and Alicia both nodded.

"We know people here.  They know us.  The tunnels would have been a shortcut and I wanted that as much as anyone, but they're not going to give us any kind of strategic advantage if we run into trouble."

Chris looked up from where she was packing things into a bag.  (When had she had time to unpack them?)  "Which we already did," she said.  

"Exactly.  So we might as well switch it up -- they go down, we go up.  We're not that far out; we should still be able to get there before the curfew."

Jasmine said, "Do you have any idea why Military Ground is even here?"

He looked at Miguel.  "They showed up at Green Tree in Pennsylvania yesterday asking for their shield generators.  And they weren't really asking.  That's our best guess at this point."  

"Shield generators,” Jasmine repeated.  “Well, that makes a certain amount of sense."

"Really?" Connie said, which matched his feelings exactly.

"Well, it looked like Military Ground was trying to cover their bases when we were at Area 51."  

"That's putting it nicely," Catherine added.  

Jasmine nodded an acknowledgement.  "And private shield generators have always been a sore spot for them.  Given the experience we had with a military-issue generator in DC, it doesn't seem all that surprising that they would be looking to amass alternatives.  I'd say it's underhanded to use the current situation to force the issue, but I'd prefer to use a stronger word."

"We haven't been able to get any messages in or out since Florida," Connie said.  "If they've isolated our people as an intimidation tactic to bully us into turning over our resources, they are not going to be happy with the result."

It didn't matter how long she'd been off admin; to Connie they would always be "her people."  Chris zipped up the last bag and said, "I would just like to put out there that this could still just be a misunderstanding." 

"And that is why I think we should avoid direct confrontation if we can," he said.  

"Of course," Connie said.  "All in favor of going up?"  

Everyone raised their hands except for Catherine, who said, "I abstain.  You're the experts, I'll follow your lead."

*****

They split into three groups -- that would keep one person who knew the area with each group, but two or three people traveling together would draw less attention than eight.

He was teamed up with Troy and Jasmine, and he tried not to look like he'd gotten the dream team of the bunch.  (He caught Chris and Alicia rolling their eyes at each other, though, so he probably hadn't hidden it very well.)

"We're headed for the grocery store first, right?" Troy said.  

They were.  There was a corner store on the way into town that somehow held its own against the big chains, and also happened to have the best coffee he'd ever tasted.  Troy had gotten hooked on it during a visit a few years back.  "You are going to love this," he said to Jasmine.  

She looked a little bemused.  "I'm sure I will.  Is there a reason we're stopping for coffee?"

"Other than the fact that coffee is delicious and all we had this morning was instant?"  Troy made a face.  (It really hadn't been that bad.  Add enough milk and sugar and it all tasted pretty much the same, but try telling that to Troy.)  

He held the door for both of them, and nodded.  "Yes. The manager here went to school with Erin, who did a winter internship last year with HQ re-doing some of our indoor gardens.  She should have at least some idea of what we're heading into."

As soon as Katia saw them, her eyes went wide. “Mitchell? What are you doing here?” she said. “No, never mind, it’s so good to see you! Come in and get something to drink!” She threw her arms around him, and then Troy. “Welcome back!” she said.

When she got to Jasmine, she hesitated. “Can I hug you too?”

“Sure,” Jasmine said, and only looked the tiniest bit taken aback at the enthusiasm of said hug. “What’s your name?”

“Katia.” It was a little muffled, and she pulled back. “I was going to write you a letter,” Katia said. “I have a brother. He heard you speak when you were a guest lecturer at Johns Hopkins last fall — it made him want to switch his focus to a different kind of healing. Because of you he was at Bastyr instead of Baltimore this week.” She sounded a little teary, and they went in for another hug. “Thank you,” Katia whispered.

Jasmine’s reply was too quiet for him to hear, but Katia smiled, and her eyes were clear when they stepped apart. “Coffee,” she said decisively. “And then you can tell me just what it is that you did to stir up the hornet’s nest we’ve got going on right now. Connie’s with you? She’s all right too?”

“She is. As far as the hornets go, I wish I knew,” he said.

He gave as quick a summary as he could — Florida, Arizona, their theories about the shield generators, their attempts to get back home — and she nodded. “We’ve had a lot of company the last day or so. Conspicuous company, especially since we didn’t take much damage on this side of the mountains. Weather’s been a bear, but nothing we can’t handle. Kind of made us wonder why they’ve been hanging around when there’s people in need, you know?”

He did know. “Have you heard anything from Erin?”

“Oh yes, they’re fine. I don’t know why none of the phone signals or anything aren’t working, but that’s out here too. We’ve got runners going back and forth a couple times a day to the Center on some of the back trails.”

“They’re running?” Troy said. “Isn’t that a long way?”

Katia shrugged. “Not that far. Depends which way you go.”

She gave him a cautious look as she said it, and he held his hands up. He wasn’t touching the running thing. He thought it was dangerous, but Chris said that was his Dad sense talking and not his common sense, and that the trails were perfectly safe as long as you paid attention.

“Who should I talk to about getting an update from someone who’s been there?” he asked. Then he frowned. “Hang on, your phone isn’t working either?”

She pulled her phone out of her pocket and handed it to him. “It turns on, it lights up, but no connection. I haven’t heard of anyone being able to connect to wireless or any of the phone networks since the MG troops showed up.”

“What about a hard line?” Jasmine said.

“I guess, if you can find one. The only one I know if is at the Center, but it was working last I heard.” Rebuilding a hard-wired telecomm network hadn’t exactly been on the top of the priority list after ’96. They’d switched everyone to wireless, and since satellites were something they had been churning out as fast as possible, it had worked pretty well. Until now, apparently.

“How’s everyone holding up?” he said. Not being able to get news would bound to put a lot of stress on people already on edge from the attack.

“I won’t lie, it hasn’t been great. It’s like the bad old days are back — we’ve been using the school as a temporary gathering spot, but we need our Community Center. It’s why we made them, why they worked and stuck around for twenty years. There’s a feeling like the MG troops are the ones to blame since they’re blockading the place. You guys are here to fix it though, right?”

“That’s trouble,” Troy muttered, and he thought it was in response to the question until he realized Troy was looking out the front window. At a Military Ground truck that had just pulled up.

Katia checked her watch. “They’re early today. All right, head for the back; Erin will be here any minute with the produce delivery and you can hitch a ride with her. “

“You get a produce delivery now?” Troy asked.

“We do this week. We figured you all would probably be showing up at some point, and with the phones down it’s good to have a way to keep people in shouting distance. There’s a few people driving circuits each day, making deliveries, checking on families, that sort of thing.”

She shooed them towards the back with their coffee, and they ran into Erin just arriving. “You’re here!” she said, and then — after they all made frantic shh-ing motions — much more quietly, “You’re here!”

“So is Military Ground,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”

They heard the bell over the front door ring. “Morning,” someone said.

“Good morning,” Katia said politely. “Can I help you find anything?”

“Coffee smells good. Can we get four cups to go, largest size?”

“At least they’re polite,” Jasmine whispered.

“Seen anything unusual this morning?” someone else said. They could hear the heavy tread of boots on the store’s wood floors. “Anyone new in town?”

“Me?” Katia said. “I’m a one-woman operation here; I’ve been grinding beans since five a.m. I’ve got no time to stare out the window and count heads. Only new people I’ve seen are you.”

“Sounds like you’re awfully busy. Glad to hear it, considering the competition you have down the street.” The voice was laced with an unpleasant combination of condescension and suspicion. He could practically see Jasmine bristling.

Katia’s voice was as cheery as ever, though. “We have better parking here. And we sold a winning lottery ticket once. You know small towns; everyone has their lucky charms.”

“I see. I’ll be sure to check into that.” Oh, he didn’t like that one. Jasmine looked ready to fight, and Troy had his eyes closed.

“You definitely should. Look, I have the newspaper article right here!” she said. “Had it framed and everything, right here by the front door.”

He was pretty sure that was their signal to get moving through the back door, and Erin seemed to agree. “Let’s go,” she whispered. “The truck’s still running, go ahead and get in the back. I’ll be right out.”

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

She gave him a look like he was being incredibly dense. “I have to deliver the produce,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Right.

*****

“So I’m not sure if they think we’re nuts, or they really believe we love vegetables that much.” Erin waved a hand at the boxes stacked in the back of the truck. “But there’s a few of us doing trips every day, and it’s perfect, because we can go all over town and also have an excuse to go way out. To the farms,” she explained.

“We have farms?” he asked. When had that happened? They were in a rural area, but not that rural.

Erin gave him the look again. “Well I’m certainly not going to tell the military any different, and neither is anyone else, so sure, we have farms out there.”

"What's really out there?" Jasmine asked.

"A lot of people, right now."  Erin looked at Troy.  "Someone spread the word that our humble town should be considered a fallback point in case of emergencies."

He shrugged.  "That was all Miguel; I tell people to buddy up and stay put."

Erin said, "How's that going to help if there's a natural disaster?"

"How's leaving going to help if the people you're supposed to be offering services for are all still there?" Troy countered.

Sometimes he thought about what he'd imagined his life would be like when he was younger.  It had included a lot less bickering between people who were supposed to be community leaders.   "Okay," he said.  "So what's the plan?"

"With the people falling back?” Erin asked.  “Well, we’re actually in a much better position than we were twenty years ago.  The East Coast centers are all in need, but the rest of the country is primed to help.  We've had a lot of supplies coming in, a lot of offers for volunteers."  She merged onto the highway and sped up.  He tried not to make it too obvious that he was hanging onto the door handle with a white-knuckle grip.

Erin didn't seem to notice, but Jasmine gave him an amused look.  Erin waved her hand in a direction she probably thought was west.  "Cypress out in Illinois is actually coordinating all of that, since they're far enough inland that they didn't take any damage and they're not dealing with power grid issues."

"I've been there," Troy said.  "The Ohio River was nice."

"Right?  Great kayaking out there.  Anyway, so when people show up here as a fallback, we either send them on to Cypress, or we have Cypress send us a support crew and they go back where they started from, with backup."

He frowned.  "Are they driving?"  There was still an air travel ban in effect, as far as he knew.  Not that they'd followed it themselves, but he didn't want people winding up in trouble with the military police, either.  

Erin hesitated.  "Ah, no.  Too slow.  But it's fine!  Cypress has a pair of tugs that they got certified as emergency rescue vehicles.  They've been doing all the flying."

He was pretty sure she actually meant "all the flying we think might get noticed," but that was good enough for him.  

"And what's the plan with us?" Jasmine asked.  "We'd really like a chance to check in with a few people."  

Erin met his eyes in the rearview mirror.  "Connie's here too, right?"  He nodded.  "Good.  We're going to do a thing, this afternoon.  We just need to keep you out of sight until then."

"Why this afternoon?" What were they planning?

"You'll see," Erin said.  "Seriously, I know you guys are all about feeling responsible for everything that happens up there, but really -- don't worry about it; we've got this one.  We'll get you there." 

*****
PATTY
*****

They'd gotten permission for the trip in the loosest sense of the word -- Jake had tracked down Director Levinson at the crash site, handed him a tablet, and walked away with an emergency authorization for a flight to the east coast.  She tried to feel bad about it, but she figured he would have authorized it if he knew what they were really doing.  This way just saved them all the time of explaining things.

Dylan was ready to leave immediately, but there was no way they were going to take a tug to a disaster zone (or close to a disaster zone, at least) and not bring supplies.  Besides, it gave Floyd something to do; he was starting to look twitchy.  He hadn't heard anything from Catherine either -- she thought she was going to have to argue him out of coming with them, but he said he already had plans with the kids.

Finally, though, they had everything loaded and ready to go. She heard Jake before she saw him, coming around the corner into the hangar.  He was juggling two bags and his phone, and she rolled her eyes at him when he tried to wave and dropped one of the bags.  He grinned and turned his attention back to the phone.  "Charlie, is that you?  Where are you?  I've been looking for you everywhere."

She was too far away to hear anything on the other end, but Jake's expression went weird.  "You're where?" he said.  "With Rain?  Please tell me you're not eloping."

She raised her eyebrows.  Rain?

"Yeah, no, that's not any better.  What are you going to Geneva for?"

"Who's he talking to?"  Dylan strode down the ramp of the tug to stand next to her.  

"Charlie, I think," she told him.  

Dylan made a show of checking his watch, but he took Jake's bags without a word.  She thought -- she hoped -- that they were doing better. They had talked, all three of them, finally. But she knew that sometimes the things you could say in the middle of the night in a locked room were miles apart from things you could say in the morning. She’d been in the public eye as long as she could remember, and it could be a harsh spotlight.  She wanted to say she wouldn’t blame either of them for trying to avoid it, but she wasn’t sure she was that good of a person.

"Charlie, I've got to go," Jake said.  "We're going to figure out what's going on in New Hampshire.  And I'm telling Connie to call you, so be ready for that."  He paused, listening, and then laughed.  "That doesn't sound like me at all.  Yeah, you too.  Good luck."

He hung up and shook his head.  "Charlie's with Rain, headed to Geneva."

"Not to elope, I assume," she said.

He shook his head.  "I don't think so -- it wasn't a good connection, but I'm pretty sure he said 'not' before elope."

"But they're okay?"

"I guess.  Charlie seemed excited about it, anyway."  He still looked a little weird about the whole thing, but he strapped himself in without hesitating.  "So are we going, or what?  I thought you were in a hurry."

*****

“I thought you said something was blocking communication signals from the area.”

“That’s what we heard. Why?” She looked over towards the panel Dylan was pointing at. It was blinking.

“We’re getting something from someone down there,” he said. “But I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to mean.”

She yawned, and tried to cover it up. She tried to remember the last time she’d gotten something like eight hours of sleep in a row. She couldn’t — maybe on her last day off? It felt like that was years ago, but she was pretty sure it had only been a few weeks. “Sorry.”

“Long night,” Dylan said. “It’s fine. Jake’s sleeping. I thought you were awake, or I wouldn’t have said anything.”

She yawned again, then stood up and stretched — ignoring the fact that she was didn’t think Jake was actually sleeping, and switched to the front seat. The blinking had stopped. As she was staring at it, it started up again.

“See?” Dylan waved at the panel. “It starts, it stops, it starts again. It’s not any code I recognize, but it’s too regular to be random, and I can’t watch it carefully enough while I’m flying.”

She stared at the light, willing her brain to kick into gear. “It’s orphan morse,” she realized. “It’s one of us.”

Dylan looked confused. “What?”

“What? It’s orphan morse; did you really never learn that?” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, and she could have kicked herself. Of course he hadn’t. By the time they’d come up with it, he’d been living off-base with his parents.

“I’ve never even heard of it,” Dylan said.

It was — possible they’d hidden it from him. She winced at the decisions of her seven-year-old self — he must have been just as lonely and freaked out as the rest of them, but at the time all she could see was his mom and dad, and she’d been so angry.

She heard Jake groan from behind her. “Come on man, it’s right there in the name. You weren’t an orphan. It’s fine, we love you anyway.”

Dylan just looked confused. “Neither was Patty?”

“She was an honorary member,” Jake said, coming up to lean on the back of her chair. “Since it was her idea. What are we looking at, anyway?”

She pointed at the panel, with its blinking light. She was trying to parse it out, but she didn’t remember as much of it as she’d like. “Someone’s planning something, it’s happening today — this afternoon, I think. They’re — in the mountain?”

“Under the mountain,” he said. “Maybe in the tunnels? Or the evacuation shelter itself.”

“Have you been there?” Dylan asked. He sounded skeptical.

Jake straightened up. “Yeah, I have. Because some of us have a life outside of the ESD; maybe you should try it sometime.”

She’d resolved to be done playing peacemaker between them, but she couldn’t help feeling like this one was partially her fault. “I’ve never been here either, okay? Maybe let it go while we figure out who they’re actually sending this message to.”

Because it couldn’t be them. No one knew they were coming, except for Connie’s group, and none of them would have known orphan morse. Troy had been too old, and Chris had been too young. (Thinking back, the rules didn’t make that much sense, but not much had at that point.) And then they had all started to leave, when it felt like the world was — just maybe — going to be able to piece itself back together.

“They’re coordinating something,” Jake said. “We’re picking up back and forth messages from at least three groups.” He frowned. “I can’t tell if they actually mean ‘party’ or if that’s code for something else. They’re talking about — a lot of people, though. Hundreds, at least.”

They all jumped at the sound of a ping from Dylan’s controls. “New question,” he said. “Are we going for the subtle approach, or —“ He trailed off, and looked at them questioningly.

“We have nothing to hide,” she said.

Jake laughed. “You know my vote’s never going to be for subtle. Do your thing.”

The ping came again, and Dylan flipped a switch. “Hi there,” he said.

”Unidentified vehicle, be advised you are violating an air travel ban. Request that you identify yourself and prepare to land immediately.”

“Unidentified caller, this is Commander Dubrow-Hillard of the Earth Space Defense Legacy Squadron, flying an authorized emergency rescue mission and supply run. Transmitting authorization scans now. Please acknowledge.”

There were a few seconds of silence on the line, and then a different voice came on. ”Did you say Commander Dubrow-Hillard?”

She raised her eyebrows. Who was in charge down there? That wasn’t anything like an official response.

“That’s right,” Dylan said. “Who is this?”

More silence. Finally a third voice, slightly out of breath, came on. ”Commander, you are cleared. Go right ahead. Uh, please let us know if there’s anything we — uh, anything we can do to assist you.”

The connection cut off abruptly. “Thanks,” Dylan said dryly. “I’ll be sure to do that.” He sat back and threw his hands up. “What the hell was that?”

She shook her head. “I have no idea.”

“Oh man,” Jake said. “I think we just got punked.” He was still watching the flashing light. “’DH is here,’” he translated. “‘Be advised. Headed for HQ. Say hi for us.’” He pointed at Dylan. “That’s you, buddy, Designated Hitter. I think it’s safe to say that wasn’t Military Ground you were just talking to.”

*****

If they hadn't been speaking to Military Ground before, she wasn't sure what they were doing, because they weren't contacted again through their entire approach.  It wasn't until they were within sight of the community center's main complex that the radio pinged again.

"Tug DH, this is Maple Two, welcome to the Grove."

"Maple Two, this is Commander Dubrow-Hillard.  Any chance we can get a parking spot down there?"

There was a landing pad, but it was occupied by three mini-tugs already, plus a picnic table.  A full-size tug was sitting off to the side, ramp down.

"We'll wave you in, Commander.  Pick a spot and head for it; just don't land on the gardens."

It sounded friendly enough.  There was no Military Ground presence in sight, and she wondered if it was possible that the rumor mill had gotten it wrong.  

"Not on the gardens," Dylan muttered.  "It's all gardens; that's why you have a landing pad."  It was true -- there wasn't much free ground that wasn't already taken up with gardens, buildings, or various assorted equipment, but that's why Dylan was piloting.  She and Jake had a terrible track record with landings lately.

Louder, Dylan said, "Sounds good, Maple Two.  Everything all right down there?  We had some chatter on the radio on our way in."

"Everything's green here, Commander.  We'll fill you in once you're on the ground."

They were met on the lawn by a couple of familiar faces.  "Alicia!" she said.  "Chris!"

Chris started laughing when Dylan walked out of the tug.  "You beat your mom here," she said.  "She's still in town."

"She's okay, though?"

Alicia nodded.  "She's fine, yeah.  She's with Troy and my dad.  They'll all be here a little later; we're doing a thing."

Chris and Jake exchanged a complicated handshake-high-five combo, and Chris said, "We met up with her and Catherine early this morning, but we ran into some company, so we split up.  Alicia and I just took the direct route back; the others are taking it slow."

From the ground, there was still no evidence of any kind of military presence. The whole place had a surprisingly festive air, actually. “So what's going on?” Jake said.  “We heard Military Ground was all over you guys; we get here and it looks like you're planning a barbecue, and no one seems to know why there's no signals going in or out."   

"Yeah," Chris said.  "Funny story on that one."  She paused.  "You know, I think Alicia would probably do a better job explaining it than I could."

"No, really, you do it," Alicia said.  "It would just sound so much better coming from you.  I'll just forget people's names; I'm terrible with names."  

Dylan crossed his arms.  "How about someone just tell us."

Chris sighed.  "Right.  So, after we left for Florida, a couple of people on the tech team were trying to boost our signal power so they could get a town-wide resource list shared.  And they decided to hook it up to the generators instead of the regular grid, because we're still having regular brownouts.  And somehow -- believe me when I say no one seems to know exactly how -- they managed to create a communications blackout field instead."

"They're still working on fixing it," Alicia said.  

Chris nodded, although her expression didn't convey a huge sense of confidence in it actually getting fixed.  She said, "As far as anyone can tell, Military Ground was already on their way here to try to confiscate the shield generators, and then Disney Corp. starting tossing accusations around, and so when they got here they weren't inclined to listen to any explanations."

"I don't see any around here now, though," Jake said hopefully.  "So everything's worked out?  Just a big misunderstanding, everyone's good now?"

"Well, not exactly," Chris said.  

"Keep in mind that we just got here an hour ago," Alicia said.  "So we had nothing to do with any decisions that may have been made before that time."

Oh, this did not sound good.  Based on their expressions, Jake and Dylan were thinking the same thing.  "What happened?" she asked.

Chris looked like she wanted to sigh again, but she didn’t. “When Military Ground showed up here, they were told that most of the staff had gone with Connie to Florida, and the rest had taken the shield tech and disappeared into the tunnels. They said everyone who was still here was town residents and visitors simply using the center for its intended purpose — to support the community, and that they clearly weren’t doing anything wrong, so —“

“And they believed that?” Dylan looked incredulous.

“They’ve been searching the tunnels ever since,” Chris said. “We almost ran into some of them earlier. And apparently the only hard-copy staff list they had was names only — they were counting on having a satellite connection for pictures. So they couldn’t really prove anything. They searched the complex, but there was clearly no shield tech to confiscate, and everyone agreed that none of the people they were looking for were there, so they left again. There hasn’t been a road block since the first day. Some of them are still wandering around town alternating between being helpful and making people nervous, but most of them — yeah, they’re in the tunnels, looking for us.”

“How many more tunnels are there other than the ones you showed me?” Jake asked.

Chris looked up at the sky. “A lot?”

“Chris!”

“What? You wanted to see the tunnels; Charlie didn’t want you to get bored. He gave our mini-tug infrared scanners in exchange for getting you back in four hours or less — it was a good deal!”

She was still trying to figure out how many laws they’d broken, and if it would be possible to spin it as a community in shock, coming together in a quirky but positive-spirited way — it might be, although she guessed it probably depended a lot on how things resolved themselves. “So where are the shield generators now?”

Alicia said, “Oh, they’re back here now. Seemed like the safest place for them.”

*****

It took another ten minutes to feel like she had even a vague timeline of everything that had happened. And they still hadn’t talked about what was being planned for the afternoon. ‘We’re doing a thing’ sounded a little more worrying once she knew some of the other things they’d done.

They were definitely expecting more company, though, and Jake and Dylan went with Chris to work on moving vehicles around to make more space. She stayed back with Alicia to try to get some more information.

“It’s been a little more challenging to coordinate since the only thing we can seem to get in or out from the blackout area is radio signals,” Alicia explained. “The kids have been handling that part. I was hoping the landline phone here would work, but no luck.”

Which explained the morse code, probably. It would keep them from being overheard by any Military Ground teams that happened to be using the same frequency. “We’re not kids any more, you know,” she said.

Alicia made a face. “Don’t remind me. Do you know how Chris and I got here today? We ran. I thought I was going to die, and there’s Chris, looking like she was just out for a leisurely stroll.” She waved her hand at Chris like she was exhibit A. “But 'kids' is a relatively neutral word and is mostly not offensive to people -- plus it represents both that I feel a certain sense of responsibility for people in that category and that I am implicitly offering my protection and support.  There's also the fact that you knew exactly who I was talking about, which makes it at the very least an effective shorthand.  And also I can't remember their names."

She laughed.  "All right, all right, kids is better than 'you guys,' I'll give you that one.  So."  She looked at Alicia seriously.  "What's the party and how much backup and or cover up should we be calling?"

"It really is a party," Alicia said.  "I know; I'm as surprised as you are.  It's a tradition apparently, they borrowed it from hurricane parties.  It's an apocalypse party — the world didn't end, so they're having a party.  Barbecue, yard games, stargazing -- like a block party in the country, I guess."

She frowned.  "How can it be a tradition?  How many opportunities have they had to have one?" There had been a few close calls since '96, sure, but nothing she would have really called an apocalypse-level situation.  

"Yeah, I asked that too.  Chris says that technically any year the world doesn't end is an apocalypse-free year, so they've had plenty of chances.  I guess it's an annual thing."

"And it just happened to be this week?"

"What a coincidence, right?  But it's on their calendar and everything.  It is close to the anniversary, so it's not the craziest thing I've ever heard."

"Not even the craziest thing today, unfortunately."  But it was a good story, and it was a good excuse to create a lot of activity in a small space, and that meant plenty of distractions.  "I'm guessing the goal is to have enough chaos created by the party that no one notices Connie and the rest all suddenly being here again?"

"No, the goal is to foster a sense of community and gratitude by sharing a celebration of being here together.  The rest of it is definitely a bonus that they are not unaware of, though."

She figured that was probably as good as it was going to get. “What can we do to help?"

"Honestly?  Just stay out of their way.  They were happy to see Chris, but I was just a party guest who showed up way too early.  I'm mostly trying not to be a nuisance until they need me to carry some chairs or cut up some fruit or something. It was a relief when you arrived; gave me something to do.“

She nodded slowly.  “So we should just -- stay out of the way," she said, just in case she'd heard that part wrong.

"That's it.  There is a very detailed plan, or at least a very nicely decorated plan, that was waved in my face when I got here.  I know saying 'don't worry about it' isn't the easiest advice to follow, but really, don't worry about it."

She thought about all the sleep they hadn't been getting.  "For a few hours? Any chance there's a quiet corner we could close our eyes in?" she asked.  "I'm not sure any of us could fall asleep, but we could use a break."

Alicia looked like she was trying not to smile.  "I know just the place."

*****
CONNIE
*****

“So you just want us to sit here for a few hours?” Catherine sounded suspicious, which was probably fair. It sounded like a big part of the reason she’d wanted to leave Area 51 was because people kept telling her to sit around and not worry about anything, and now she was getting essentially the same answer from a new set of strangers.

Libby — clearly distracted, if she was missing all the warning signs Catherine was putting out — said, “You don’t have to sit. That’s why we brought you to the school; it’s where all the activities are.”

Yeah, she didn’t think that was going to help. “Catherine,” she said, before she could start shouting at anyone. Probably Libby, who definitely didn’t deserve it. “You’re not trapped here. If you want to go out and see the sights, you can. If you want to heckle a few Military Ground troops and see if you can get any more information out of them, well — I don’t exactly recommend it, but no one’s going to stop you. As far as we know, no one is looking for you.”

They hadn’t even seen any Military Ground troops for the longest time, as they’d tried to wander inconspicuously towards home. Libby had spotted them on their way towards the grocery store and snapped them up. They’d gotten an abbreviated version of whatever plan was being carried out that had amounted to, essentially, ‘We need to get these groceries back home and we’re not ready for you yet, so stay here at the school while we prepare.’

Libby had given her a written outline that was significantly more comprehensive than that — Catherine had been less convinced by the written plan, but she did seem to settle back a little once she knew she could leave. She stepped back, at least, and it didn’t look like it was a precursor to making a run for the door. (She would stay, Connie was sure of it, because staying was the most likely option for something exciting to happen. Catherine hadn’t bothered hiding her adrenaline junkie habits for years.)

Honestly, the plan seemed perfectly reasonable to her, if a little needlessly complex. She thought the medical and psych teams must have had a hand in it — there was nothing like giving people a goal to help them get through the immediate aftermath of a disaster, according to them. And she was glad they were having a party; she was pretty sure they could all use it. She was a little worried about all the Military Ground troops that were apparently still searching the tunnels, though.

“Libby, where in this plan does it explain how you’re going to get Military Ground back out of the tunnels? Is anyone keeping an eye on them to make sure they don’t get lost?” Everything got regular maintenance, but there was no way they’d had time to do a thorough inspection after all the tremors. What if there was a rockfall somewhere?

Libby took the paper back and looked at it, like maybe the answer was on there. (It wasn’t.) She looked back at Connie.

“I have no idea,” she said. “I think I might have, at some point, but I can’t remember.”

“You could go find out?”

“Yes,” Libby said. “Absolutely. Getting them out of the tunnels. How are we doing it. I’m on it.”

*****

"Where's Miguel?" Catherine asked, while they waited for Libby to return. Since she had zero desire to navigate herself into one of the cafeteria-table benches, she was sitting on the floor. Catherine was still standing up, but she was eyeing the floor carefully. It was probably only a matter of time before she decided it was the best of the current options and joined her.

She looked around. He’d greeted Libby when they’d come in, but hadn’t stuck around to hear her report. “Pretty sure he's networking," she said.

"What?"

She pointed towards the far side of the room, where Miguel was surrounded by kids.  Without any electricity in the school beyond emergency lighting, there was nothing to drink except bottles of water and juice boxes, but he was handing them out with enthusiasm. She said, “Come on, you didn't think he volunteered to come out here instead of one of his centers just to help us out, did you?  He's a born networker."

Catherine gave her a sideways look.  "He's networking with children?  Why?"

She shrugged.  She had never understood Catherine's reserve when it came to kids, but it didn't seem to be the time to bring it up.  "Why not?  Start 'em young.  Children have to live in the world we build; it makes sense to listen to what they have to say about it."

"Is he taking a survey or giving a recruitment speech?” Catherine didn’t look like she was going to be impressed by any of the answers she might get.  “And why are you letting him do either?"

She raised her eyebrows.  "There's not always as much of a difference between those two as I used to think," she said dryly.  "And I don't let Miguel do anything.  I'm not in charge of these people; we work together, that's how this works."

It was the only way it could work, she didn’t say.  They'd all seen the alternative, played it out on the world stage and in their own backyards. And now maybe they were going to do it all again, with a new alien, a new disaster. She sighed.  "People are smart, Catherine, even kids.  Maybe especially kids.  We need to tell them more, not less.  That way they can make their own decisions, with the best information we can give them."

"I'm getting the feeling we're not just talking about Miguel handing out juice boxes anymore," Catherine said.  She sat down, and then put her hand out carefully and laid it on her shoulder.  "What else is going on?"

She shook her head.  "I'm just -- I'm tired."  She remembered after '96, feeling like if they had managed that, they could do anything.  Now she kept thinking of things like -- she was going to have to clean out her refrigerator after this.  They were going to have to rearrange the entire fall internship program.  The coastline was a mess; they should have started fundraising already, and instead they were wrapped up in this ridiculous standoff with Military Ground troops over technology none of them even understood, and they didn't even have a Commander in Chief anyone could negotiate with.

"It's a lot,” she said finally.  “Maybe too much, this time.” She honestly wasn't sure how she'd held it together as long as she had, except that it had been easier in an unfamiliar environment.  Back on home turf, where it was so much more obvious that things weren't okay, it was hitting her all at once.

"No, it's not," Catherine said fiercely.  "I don't believe that."

Catherine moved to grip her hand, and it was surprising enough that she could practically feel the wheels in her brain slowing down to take notice. She was pretty sure the last time Catherine had held her hand was — never. They had never held hands. Although she wasn’t sure this really counted.

“Do you know how many times I’ve heard people say that to me?” Catherine asked. “Dozens. Hundreds, maybe. People who looked out at the world or up at the stars and thought ‘this is it, what have we done,’ or who woke up every night terrified of a threat they thought no one would believe them about if they shared it. It feels overwhelming because you’re only looking in one direction — you’re looking at the problem. But there’s not just you facing it down. Look around, Connie.”

She tugged on their clasped hands. “Look at everything else, too. All these other people standing with you. That’s your solution, right here. It’s too much for one person, but it’s not too much for everyone, together.”

“I know that,” she said automatically, even as her brain was trying to catch up to the idea of Catherine giving her a pep talk. “I was just talking about working together, remember?”

“I remember you talking about not being in charge,” Catherine told her. “But you still feel separate.” She smiled, barely. “I do have a degree in psychology, you know. A lot of this —“ She gestured around the room, or possibly at the world in general. “Is outside of my realm of experience, let alone my expertise. But believe me when I say I do understand how you feel. Generational divides tend to be particularly strong in when one generation experiences an encompassing defining event — a World War, for instance.”

“Or an alien invasion?”

“Or an alien invasion,” Catherine agreed. “ The people who live through the event feel more connected with others who did the same, and increasingly disconnected from the generations that come after, who did not. Frequently, they feel a strong sense of responsibility to protect those generations from the experience, despite the evidence that a greater shared understanding of it would decrease their feelings of isolation.”

“That’s a lot of big words to tell me I should talk about my feelings more,” she said, only half joking. She wasn’t looking to be psychoanalyzed.

Catherine just shrugged “You should talk about your feelings more,” she said. “You should, I should. Mitchell, Jasmine. Floyd. All of us. And not just to each other. You’re the one who said we should be giving the children more information — when’s the last time you actually talked with one of them?”

“I talk with Charlie,” she protested. Then she winced. That was probably not the best example. Their list of things they didn’t talk about was probably longer than the list of things they did.

“I have no idea who that is,” Catherine said. “But your expression makes me think you know exactly what I’m talking about.”

It was a fair point. And, as she looked around the room and saw groups of shared laughter and shared tears, a good reminder. She could hold out a hand to any of them, and they would take it and share what comfort they could. They weren’t starting over, and maybe they never had been. They had always been moving forward.

“Maybe. Yes. I’ll think about it, okay?”

*****

Catherine let it go, because she was a good friend, and they had shared too many late-night calls about political bullshit and David’s bullshit and how generally shitty the world could be sometimes when it wasn’t being frustratingly beautiful and awe-inspiring. She got her a thermos of coffee instead, and a bag of cookies someone had apparently handed her to go with the coffee.

“They’re good,” she said, holding the bag out to share.

“You know, it seems strange that my phone hasn’t rung a single time since we got here. I might be able to get used to living in a signal blackout zone.” Only being able to receive and transmit radio signals was inconvenient, sure, but it had some serious side benefits.

“Connie!” Libby’s voice carried over the crowd.

Catherine laughed. “I don’t know, it looks like they’ll find a way regardless. Probably not worth it to live without the internet.”

“Connie!” Libby was only a little out of breath by the time she reached their corner, and she waved excitedly at the group following her. “I knew we must have had a plan for the tunnels!”

It was the admin team, led by Terra. They were all inexplicably covered in dirt.

“What?” she said.

Catherine raised her hand. “I’m officially confused.”

Terra threw herself down on the floor next to them. “Ugh, don’t ask. Are those cookies?”

She handed the bag over, and Terra carefully shook one into her hand before passing it to the next person. “If anyone asks, we were all with you on the Florida mission,” she said. Then she frowned. “What happened in Florida, anyway? We should probably know in case we have to talk about it at some point.”

“I’ll get you the clifs notes version,” she said. “Nothing nearly as exciting as you, it looks like.”

“I’m sorry, I know you said not to ask —“ Catherine cleared her throat. “But you’re tracking mud everywhere; it’s very hard not to notice. What exactly have you been doing?”

“We,” Terra said, gesturing at the rest of the team. (Half of them gave tired waves.) “Have been keeping our friendly Military Ground invaders occupied underground, and conducting an extremely thorough survey of the tunnel system at the same time. You’re welcome. We finally have an up-to-date map of what’s down there, and Military Ground had a chance to do some much-needed orienteering practice. They’re all headed for a perfectly innocuous exit point that will put them oh-so-conveniently close to the Grove, just in time for the party. Win-win.”

“And you’re all okay? No injuries? No one got lost?” Orienteering practice sounded — potentially ominous. She remembered the last time she’d heard the phrase, and it brought back memories of police sirens and and a very long, very embarrassing explanation at the ER. Not everyone was meant to be a navigator.

“We’re good,” Terra said.

“No we’re not,” called one of the team. Possibly the one lying down. “I need a shower more than I’ve ever needed anything in my life, and I’m too tired to move.”

“Right. Duty calls,” Terra said, pushing herself back up to her feet. “How long do we have?” she asked.

Libby checked her clipboard, or possibly she was just trying not to laugh at the person-shaped outline of dirt that had been left on the floor. It did look pretty funny. “About an hour till we need to get moving,” she said. “We’ve got towels and clean clothes for everyone in the first locker room, and food coming for you after that.”

Terra gave her a thumbs up. “I would hug you, but I don’t think it would be appreciated just now.” She pulled the person next to her up too. “Hear that, everyone? Grab your buddy and get moving. Showers, food, party. Let’s show ‘em how it’s done.”

“I’ll be back for that hug later,” Libby told her, and Terra waved.

“Count on it.”

After they left, Libby sighed. “Now I have to find someone to clean this up.”

*****

The party — or The Party, depending on who you were talking to, was one of those annual traditions that everyone vaguely remembered someone else starting. Sort of like the apocalypse chocolate — people seemed to enjoy exaggerating the mystery of its origins. But honestly, it wasn’t like they hadn’t celebrated the 4th of July in the United States long before the UN declared it a global holiday. Just about everybody recognized the day in some way, whether they spent it celebrating, mourning, or serving. And the community center program had been created as a direct result of the ’96 invasion, so it only made sense for the center to play host to what was, essentially, the ultimate community event.

“It’s like a ‘hey, we made it through another year without being annihilated by aliens or wiping ourselves out; kudos to us and best of luck for the future’ thing,” Libby said. “Everyone goes. And there’s no fireworks or anything, but that’s okay. We do food instead.”

Libby was offering the explanation to a Military Ground officer who’d happened to be patrolling near the school as they were loading up the cars. She sounded so sincerely cheery it was hard to believe she was stalling for time. Luckily, half the vehicles were parked in the back, and anyone who might attract extra attention was quietly being diverted that way.

Except for her. She’d been helping load a stack of folding lawn chairs into one of the vans when their visitor arrived. She’d never been a big fan of tinted windows, but she was rapidly coming around to their benefits.

“Isn’t that what New Years is for?” The officer didn’t sound suspicious, but he didn’t sound like he was really listening, either. He was studying the cars carefully, although it wasn’t going to do him much good to memorize license plates without any access to a database.

“Have you ever been in New Hampshire in January?” Libby asked. “No offense intended, but it’s usually flipping cold at here New Years. Snowstorms, ice storms, horrible road conditions — it’s a lot nicer to have a big get-together in July, and you don’t get everyone’s coats and mittens mixed up.”

She thought that was laying it on a little thick, but it seemed to work well enough to get Libby classified as ‘not threatening.’ “And you say everyone in town attends?”

“Oh, definitely,” Libby told him. “Hey, you should come too!” she enthused, like the idea had only just occurred to her. “Everyone is invited; there’s always way more food than we manage to eat. We’re all eating leftovers for days after this, usually.”

“Any out of town-ers come to these things?” the officer asked. He sounded like he was fishing for an excuse to show up. “Are you expecting the remaining staff of the community center to be there?”

“Wouldn’t that be great? I hope so,” Libby said. “I haven’t heard anything, but I guess they could make it driving, couldn’t they? It’s been tough not to be in touch with everyone — you just get so used to texting, I think I took it for granted. But surprises can be good too, you know?”

“Yeah. Sure. When did you say this thing is going to start?” The officer didn’t sound like he thought surprises could be good.

Libby powered through anyway. “We’re headed over right now — you can caravan with us if you want. The official start time is really just sort of the middle of the afternoon? But it’ll run till dark. Lots of people sleep over; there’s plenty of space. And there’s a breakfast thing in the morning, too; nothing fancy, but sometimes it’s better not to be alone.” After a second, she hastily added, “And of course we don’t want anyone out after curfew.”

There was a pause, and she held her breath. That might have been too far. But when the officer spoke again, it was just to say, “We’ll meet you there.”

Libby was smiling when she climbed into the van. “We’re good,” she said. “He asked if he could bring anything.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I said yes, obviously. The more the merrier. It sounds like we’re going to have a whole troop of Military Ground showing up, so we could use the extra. But I also said not to worry about it, because probably just about everywhere is closed by now.”

She tried to keep her mouth shut. She really did. But it had been a long week, and she was maybe feeling a little stress about the whole situation. “That was risky,” she said, and then winced. “Sorry. Not your mom, not your boss; I know.”

Libby just laughed. “Ha! You know I’d be honored to call you family. Mike might have something to say about the boss part, though.” She twisted in her seat to meet Connie’s eyes. “It was a calculated risk. That guy’s been a jerk, yeah. But it’s like that story with the rock stew, and the townspeople who hid all the vegetables — someone has to trust first. And it might as well be us, because we have a lot more than just hidden veggies.”

She nodded, and Libby turned back around, and they were on their way. And then she frowned — she really wasn’t sure that was the message of that story.

*****
JASMINE
*****

She wasn’t ashamed to admit she’d fallen asleep while they were waiting. A little embarrassed she’d done it in the kitchen, with a half a dozen strangers milling around, but that’s what medical training would get you — a finely tuned bullshit meter and an ability to sleep absolutely anywhere.

Of course, sneaking in a nap meant that she absolutely wasn’t going to be able to blame sleep deprivation for what she was hearing as Erin drove them back towards town. “Communication has been a little bit of a challenge,” Erin was saying. “But I think we’ve got just about everybody on the same page now.”

“Wait, go back.” Mitchell held up a hand. “So, I was following for a while — that was good thinking moving the party a week earlier. Did you —?”

“Remember to change it on the posted calendars? Of course. And the one in your office, since you won’t switch over to digital. Mike did that one, don’t worry.”

She thought Mitchell was probably more worried about Erin’s driving than who had been in his office, but it didn’t seem like the time to mention it. “Great,” he said. “That’s great.”

“I think it was the part about the UN getting involved that we’d like a little more information about,” she said, and Mitchell gave her a grateful look.

“I’d like to hear more about my sister running somewhere,” Troy offered. “Because that is the least likely thing I can imagine right now, and that includes alien orbs trying to fix the weather and the UN being invited to a barbecue.”

“Well, obviously there’s been a lot more going on that just what’s happening here,” Erin said. “And we’re not sure they’re coming. But it did seem rude not to invite them, since we’d been talking to them about it.”

“How?” Mitchell asked, echoing her own thoughts. “We haven’t been able to get in touch with anyone here in days.”

Erin shrugged. “Anything wireless isn’t working, sure. And we couldn’t use regular radio to call you, because it’s not like you guys just have a radio receiver with you, plus that would have given the whole thing away to Military Ground. But we could talk to other people. Lots of people still have radio set-ups from when they were in circulation after ’96.”

“Couldn’t Military Ground listen in on all of that?” Not that she was trying to imply they were doing anything that would get them in trouble. It was just that she was pretty sure they were doing at least a few things that would raise eyebrows, if nothing else.

“We’re using Patty’s code,” Erin said. “Which isn’t un-crackable or anything, but we don’t think they’ve bothered yet. It’s close enough to Morse Code that it probably just scans as that — badly done, but basically that — as long as you’re not listening too closely. And none of them are the right age to know it.”

“The right age?” she repeated.

Erin suddenly seemed to realize that no one knew what she was talking about. “Oh. Well, yes? It’s — well, it was Patty’s idea.”

She was still confused. “Recently?”

“No, no — back when we were kids. It was — it gave us something to do while the grown-ups figured out what to do with us.”

Troy said suddenly, “You’re talking about orphan morse.” Erin gave him a surprised look. Everyone gave him a surprised look, actually. “What?” he said. “Just because I was too old to be in the club doesn’t mean I didn’t hear about it. I spent a lot of time in the infirmary back then; there wasn’t much to do except listen to other people’s conversations.”

“Right,” Erin said, like that had explained everything. “So we’re using that, and we’ve been in touch with people from all over. A little while ago we started getting messages from Geneva, and I guess Charlie’s there?” She waved her hand out the window, probably indicating a direction she thought was Switzerland. “You know, Jake’s Charlie. And Rain, she’s part of Legacy Squadron; I didn’t know she had learned the code, but she’s really good at it. It’s mostly Charlie we’ve been talking to, though, because Rain’s busy being diplomatic.”

“Why are Charlie and Rain in Geneva?” Mitchell asked.

“They’re talking to the UN about the orb,” Erin said, like it was obvious. “We might have asked them to mention the Military Ground action going on here in the States too. Oh, and did you know Disney Corp. withdrew their claims about you? That wasn’t us. I’m not sure who got involved on that one, or if they just spontaneously changed their minds. Happy to hear it, though.”

Mitchell was looking a little smug, so she thought he must have had a hand in it. “That’s good news,” she said, since that was clearly the response they were both waiting for. And then — “What claims?”

*****

Her head was still spinning when they pulled up to the community center, but that could have been the driving. Even Troy was looking a little unsteady after the last set of turns. “Here we are,” Erin announced cheerfully. “Door to door service. I’ll drop you all off and then figure out where they want me to park this thing. Feel free to flag me down later if you need a ride anywhere.”

“That is absolutely not ever going to happen,” Mitchell muttered, as he waved away the cloud of dust left in the truck’s wake.

“I’m going to find Alicia,” Troy said. “Miguel’s not here yet.”

The door swung open and Chris burst out, all smiles. “Dad!” It was impossible not to smile back.

Mitchell said, “Good to see you, kid.”

From inside their hug, Chris pointed back through the door. “Alicia’s to the left, in the kitchen,” she said. “Dylan and company are to the right, in the quiet room.”

It was as good a place to start as any, and she headed down the right-hand hallway with a ‘thank you’ she wasn’t sure Chris even heard. She’d already started talking about who was organizing the grilling, going a mile a minute.

It was a larger building than she’d expected, with doorways every few meters. She wasn't sure what a quiet room would look like, but hopefully she would recognize it when she saw it.  She wound up recognizing Katia first, coming down the hallway towards her.  "Good to see you again."  

"You too!  How was your morning?"

She really wasn't sure how to answer that.  “Good, I think. A lot of information in a short time," she said.  "I'm looking for Dylan -- Chris said he's in the quiet room?"

"That's this way," Katia said, reversing direction.  "I can show you; it's not far."

It wasn't -- just a few doors further, and marked with a helpful sign that said "QUIET ROOM" in big block letters.  

Katia flipped the sign over to show her the other side, which read "KIDS TIME OUT ROOM."  "It's dual-purpose.  Chris said they looked like they needed it; she's been trying to keep traffic down in the hallway, even.” She made a face.  “Changing time zones always makes me sleepy.  And that's not even considering all the stuff they did before that, with the aliens."

She looked through the window in the door.  Dylan was curled up on the floor, right beside Patty and Jake.  They were covered with a stack of child-sized blankets, fast asleep.  They looked adorable.  She couldn't help smiling.  That was her kid in there, safe and sound and surrounded by his friends.

"Does someone have a picture of this?" she asked.

Katia looked like she was trying to figure out what the right answer was.  "Maybe?”  She raised her eyebrows.  "Okay, yes, definitely yes.  A lot of pictures."

She nodded.  "Good.  I want copies."

She knocked on the door, and tried not to laugh at the scramble that ensued.  It only took a minute for all three of them to get to their feet, and Dylan quickly moved to open the door. She tried not to check if his shirt was on backwards.  "Mom!  How are you?"

She put her hands on her hips.  "Didn't I tell you we didn't need you flying out here to check on us?"

"You knew we would, though, right?" He shuffled his feet a little just like he had when he was six, and she laughed.

"I figured I'd see you at some point, yes.”  She hadn't been so sure about the other two, but she wasn't going to be the one to open that can of worms.  On the other hand, maybe she was.  "Don't you three have something better to do than come all this way for a visit?"  

Patty gave her a hug, and then pushed Dylan forward to do the same.  She said, “These two, they heard there was free food, and there was no stopping them after that."

"You better not have showed up empty handed.  I know I taught you better than that." 

"We brought food, Mom, don't worry.  Healthy stuff and desserts.  We already handed it over to the kitchens."  

Jake was lurking in the background, folding up the blankets with extreme precision.  He looked like he was prepared to keep folding for as long as it took for her to forget he was there.  "You might as well come over here," she told him.  "I'm not leaving till I get a hug from all of you.  You managed it in Florida, you can manage it here."

He flushed, and she was pretty sure the difference between Florida and New Hampshire was directly related to the whole 'cuddling in a pile on the floor' situation.  Those three had been dancing around each other for years.  She'd done her best to keep the meddling to a minimum, but there wasn't much she could do about the gossip except ignore it.  And keep telling them she wasn’t on anyone’s side; she just wanted to see them all happy and treating each other right.

People had mostly figured out not to ask her about it by the time the fight over Legacy Squadron had happened, but anyone with eyes could see that was just the tipping point for a falling out that had been brewing for a long time. The problem was that none of them had seemed to know how to fix it.  Maybe they had finally figured it out. She knew as well as anyone that surviving saving the world together didn't guarantee forever, but she hoped they grabbed ahold of whatever peace they could find and held on tight.  

Jake still looked a little nervous, but he presented himself for his hug without any actual objections, and she figured she could grant them the grace of a subject change.  They did remember to bring food, after all, and she knew that wasn't Dylan's doing.

"I heard Charlie's in Geneva," she said.  "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

"He didn't say he was getting married, did he?"

Apparently he did know something about it. “I didn't hear anything like that, but I didn't talk to him directly.  I heard it second-hand, possibly third-hand, from Erin. What’s Charlie doing in Geneva that’s not getting married?“

But Jake just looked confused.  "Who's Erin?"

Patty nudged his shoulder. “Erin, you know -- GTLF.”

“Oh.” Jake nodded.  "Got it.  She would know, then," he said.

It was Dylan's turn to look confused.  She was glad she wasn't the only one.  "Who?" Dylan said.  "What's GTLF?"

Patty said, ”That's Erin — it’s her online name.  GTLF, that’s 'green thumb, lead foot,’ I think.  Depending on where you’re following her she uses the full phrase.” She narrowed her eyes at Dylan. “She posts like twenty pictures a day of plants; you always like all of them. How do you not know that?”

Dylan coughed. “It’s — possible, that Rain might have showed me how to automate that. At least on some of the sites. I’m busy! I don’t always have time to keep up with them!”

Patty stared at him for a few seconds. “That is possibly the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” she said.

“Yeah, Rain might have said something like that too.”

Jake just clapped him on the shoulder. “At least this explains why you never know what’s going on. Mystery solved, man.”

*****

The smell of grilling food got stronger the closer they got to the back of the building, with Dylan trailing behind with Patty and Jake. “I didn’t see anyone out in the front,” she said, trying not to sound like she was prying. It hadn’t looked deserted, but she hadn’t gotten the sense that it was full of people, either. Lots of vehicles, but not much else.

Katia shook her head. “There have been years when we’ve spread out over the entire area — people would be setting up tents everywhere there was a free patch of ground. This year — well, people are nervous. Some of them wanted to cancel the entire event. They look at the troops, and the sky, and they listen to the radio, and they say ‘of course I trust it’s safe, I just don’t want my family there.’ Which is not the same thing at all. So we compromised.”

It was getting warmer as they walked too, like the building’s air conditioning had been turned down, or off entirely. Actually, she hadn’t considered how they were managing to power air conditioning with limited electricity. AC was a power hog at the best of times. Dedicated generators, maybe? Or they were circulating air from underground, where it was cooler.

Katia stopped them in front of a door posted with a large ‘Keep This Door Closed’ sign. “All of the buildings are open,” she explained. “The doors with these signs are just in this one. We have air conditioning in a few areas for people who need it, and we’re leaving the doors closed to keep the cool in. Have any of you ever been to one of these before?”

She shook her head. “No. First time. If you don’t mind me asking — I thought you worked in town.”

Katia smiled. “Just about all of us moonlight here on occasion, especially if there’s a big event going on like this. This is good, I get to give the welcome speech.” She waved a hand towards the door. “So, welcome. Help yourself to food; there’s plenty for everyone. If you’re planning to stay overnight, tell someone in a hat and make sure they write it down. If you’re headed out before then, it’s the same — tell someone in a hat, make sure they write it down. In the event of an emergency, follow someone in a hat; they’ll make sure you get in, out, up, or down, depending on the situation. If you would prefer to see a hard copy of all the contingency plans, we can do that too, but it’s back inside.”

“I think we’re fine,” she said. “But thank you.”

Her first thought when they walked through the door was that there were a lot of people in hats. “That’s a lot of hats,” she said. She wasn’t in the habit of biting her tongue, and if they were only supposed to be looking for certain hats in an emergency… Not that she thought there would be one, of course. But better to be prepared and not need it, than to hope for the best and regret it later.

Katia just laughed. “It is a lot of hats. There were — a lot of people, who wanted to help out. And of course we were trying to be convincing when we said that the permanent staff had all gone to Florida or were otherwise absent, so we put out a call for volunteers, and now we have all of them here too. I think they look good.”

They were nice hats. Very bright. “I like them,” Jake said.

“Thank you,” Katia told him. She checked her watch. “I hate to just run off —“

“Go ahead, I’m sure you have plenty of better things to do than babysit us. Is Connie here yet?” The more she filled in the picture of what was going on, the more she thought she needed to check in. And — she thought very, very privately — at least Connie was a grown-up. She loved the kids, each and every one of them, but sometimes she just wanted to look someone in the eye and say ‘they’re exhausting, aren’t they,’ and know they were thinking the same thing.

“If she is, she’ll be wearing a hat,” Katia said. Which wasn’t all that helpful. But better than nothing. “I think she was at the school, and they were bringing all the lawn chairs. So if there’s a bunch of chairs out there, she should be here too.” And she raced off, probably to do whatever she’d been headed for when they’d run into each other in the first place.

After a second, Patty stage whispered, “Is there a reason we’re still standing here?”

“Go, go.” She waved them off and watched the crowd swallow them up. She took a deep breath, and took a moment to acknowledge that a week ago, this was not in any way how she had been expecting to spend her weekend. And then she let it go. It was what it was. Time to move forward.

*****

Connie wasn't wearing a hat.  But she'd staked out a lawn chair in a shady spot and she had a cooler full of water bottles, and it was easy to spot her once she got close enough.

"You look like you have the best seat in the house," she said.

"Pull up a chair," Connie said.  "I've been officially told not to worry about anything, which I think was probably code for 'don't help; we've got this.'"

She looked her in the eye.  "They're exhausting, aren't they?"

"Right?"  Connie laughed, and then shook her head.  "I feel like we must have had that much energy at some point, but I honestly can't remember when."

She took a water and sat down.  "Pretty sure we were saving the world at the time."

"We thought we were.  Too bad it couldn't stay saved."  She held up a hand.  "I know, I know; I've had the whole pep talk from Catherine already."  

"I got one too, from Troy.  He was very sincere about it; I thought he was going to pull out a slideshow presentation.  I think he would have if there had been a working computer nearby."  She held her water bottle out for a toast.  "To saving the world.  And pep talks."

"To pep talks and saving the world," Connie said.

The chairs were surprisingly comfortable, and she wondered if she could convince Dylan to bring them some food so they wouldn't have to get up.  There was a breeze; she felt justified in doling out a little mom guilt to keep enjoying it.  Of course, she'd have to find him again first.

For a few minutes she just let herself breathe.  They were at the edge of what could be a lawn, or possibly a courtyard if you wanted to be fancy about it.  Someone was handing out water balloons to the younger children, and they were all well on their way to wearing themselves out chasing each other around the grass.  She glanced sideways at Connie, who was smiling.  "So, where's your hat?" she said.  "We got the welcome speech on our way in.  I was specifically told you'd be wearing a hat, so I would know to run in the same direction as you if something happens."  

"I actually look terrible in hats," Connie said.  "It's a little-known fact about me."

"I find that hard to believe."  

"One hundred percent true.  Also, the speech wasn't kidding about in, out, up, or down.  Anyone in a hat can fly you out of here.  I'm behind on my flight hours for pilot certification; I was supposed to catch up on them this week.  No flight certification, no hat.  I can absolutely make sure you run in the right direction, though."

"Not that there's going to be an emergency," she said automatically.

"Right.  Of course not."    

They exchanged a look.  

"So, hypothetically speaking, where would that direction be?"

*****
ALICIA
*****

"If you throw that water balloon at me, we're going to have a big problem."

The kid -- Bobby?  Felix? she couldn't remember which one was the older one, and she wasn’t positive whether she was even talking to the older one -- looked at her suspiciously.  "What problem?" he said.

"Well," she said, and tried to think of something that would be convincing.  "It would get this secret stash of marshmallows all wet."  She held up the bag.  "And I would be really sad about that."

The hand holding the balloon wavered.  "Can I have some?"

"You can have one," she told him.

"Two."

She took a careful step closer and held out two marshmallows.  "Deal," she said.  "And I think I saw Sam over by the chips, if you were looking to use that balloon."

Felix -- or possibly Bobby -- ran off in the direction of the chip table, but he did shout a 'thank you' over his shoulder.  She looked back at her chair.  “We’re good now, you can come out."

Sam climbed out from behind the chair, where she'd been hiding under a draped towel.  "Thanks.  He's gonna figure out I'm not where you said I was."  
  
"Sure he is.  But not before he runs into Julius, who actually is by the chips, and will distract him from coming back in this direction."

She wasn't entirely sure how Julius had gotten to New Hampshire in the first place, let alone gotten there accompanied by four children, various adult relatives, and a dog.  But it was good to see him again -- she'd let it go too long.  It seemed harder to remember what she'd been so angry about, knowing he'd almost died -- that they'd all almost died, really.  (It was the book.  That stupid book, and obviously she hadn't forgotten it as much as she wanted to think.)

"That was smart," Sam said, sitting cross-legged on the chair.  It was the only chair they had.

"Thanks."  She spread the towel out on the grass instead, and opened the bag of marshmallows again.  "Snack?"

Sam made a face.  "No thanks.  Is it true you were at Area 51 when the aliens came before?"  

"Sort of."  It wasn't something she talked about a lot.  Or ever, really, if she could help it.  But Sam was about the same age she'd been back then, and she could remember wanting someone to just sit still and answer her damn questions and not treat her like she was going to freak out at any second.  "I was there, but we were inside the base the whole time, and the aliens never got in there.  We weren't right in the middle of it like you were."

"Do you think we'll have to go to a new school?" Sam asked, which -- really wasn't where she'd thought the conversation was going.

"I don't know.” She shrugged.  “It was different, then -- the damage was a lot more widespread."  And they hadn't exactly been enrolled in school anyway, but it would have been true either way.  "Miguel went back to school eventually; Troy and I did equivalencies."

"I don't want to go back."

She bit her tongue on her automatic response (“okay”) and her second thought (“you’re probably not in any mental state right now to be making big decisions”). After taking a minute to think about it, she went with, “It’s going to be your decision, but there are going to be a lot of people who want to encourage you one way or another. It’s okay to tell all of them you need more time to think about it, or more options.”

Sam shook her head. “Our parents won’t let us choose.”

“You might be surprised.” Sam gave her a look only a teenager could manage, so she added, “Or maybe not. But look at it this way — something like this happens, and at first it feels like you’re all alone. But you make it through, and all those people who were there with you, they feel like your family afterwards. You just gained a whole lot more brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and all of that. So if you want someone to talk to your parents with you —“ She waved her hand around. “Take your pick.”

“What about you?” Sam said.

Her brain blanked out for a second, and she said, “My parents are gone.”

“I meant would you talk to my parents with me.” Sam bit her lip. “And — I’m sorry, about yours.”

“It was a long time ago, but thank you. And sure, I can go with you. Right now?” She hoped not. She had the ability to look like a respectable adult, but it hadn’t exactly been the look she’d been dressing for when she got up that day.

“Not right now. I’ll — I’ll think about it.” She looked out at the crowd around them, but she looked more thoughtful than overwhelmed, which was a nice change. “Thanks.”

*****

Eventually they were going to have to eat food that wasn’t marshmallows. Puffed sugar was all well and good, but it wasn’t exactly filling. Or nutritious. “I’m hungry.” Sam flopped back in the chair and declared her statement to the clouds.

“Yeah, me too. I’m going to brave the grills.” She stood up and stretched, pretending she wasn’t already feeling the running from that morning coming back to bite her. “You coming? Want me to bring you something back? Keeping in mind that I only have two hands.”

Sam bounced out of the chair like she’d just been waiting for an invitation. “I’m coming. I should check on Baxter too.”

She was pretty sure that was the dog and not one of the kids. She said, “I’m been meaning to ask — how did you all end up out here, anyway? Not that you’re not welcome, because you are. But you flew, right? Who was piloting?”

“Mr. Umbutu flew us,” Sam said, like it made perfect sense.

She blinked. “What?” The warlord?

“Mr. Umbutu,” Sam repeated. “He said he had diplomatic immunity. Plus Floyd doesn’t know how to fly a tug.”

She barely stopped herself from saying ‘Who’s Floyd?’ The name sounded vaguely familiar; she could wing it. “Okay,” she said instead. “And was there any particular reason they came along, other than the flying and the diplomatic immunity?”

Sam shrugged. “Well, Julius wanted to see Connie, and Floyd wanted to see Catherine, and we didn’t want to be stuck at Area 51 without them because then no one would talk to us, and Floyd asked Mr. Umbutu if he would come too to make it official, so he did.”

As an explanation, it lacked a certain depth, but she supposed it did technically answer her question. She thought Area 51 must be looking pretty empty, although maybe everyone still there was too distracted to notice. Or maybe they’d moved the orb like Troy thought and cleared out most of the base to go with it. “Did you tell anyone you were leaving?”

“Of course we did. We told Floyd.”

Who had apparently taken it as an invitation, if the whole thing hadn’t been his idea in the first place. On the one hand, that seemed potentially like a very bad plan. On the other hand, it wasn’t going to help anything to yell at Sam for it, and she was willing to put the whole chain of events firmly into the ‘someone else’s problem’ category. Once you got a warlord tossing around phrases like diplomatic immunity, she would happily pull out her ‘just a civilian’ card and leave them to it. Troy would no doubt stick his nose in and figure out what was going on, and he’d let her know if he needed help.

Sam took off once they reached the food tables, and she focused on piling her food as strategically as possible for maximum stability. “I should have worn something with more pockets.”

“Right? It’s way too hot for a hoodie and cargo pants, but that would be the perfect outfit for this situation.”

She spun around and saw Jamie behind her. Mitchell was right next to her, bracketed by the twins. “Hey!” she said, and tried to balance her plate on one hand so she could wave. “How are you? I thought you were in Arizona.”

“We were,” Jamie said. “But we heard there was a party going on, and it just so happened that we’d been authorized to bring some disaster relief supplies in this direction, so we decided to stop by and see everyone.”

"The more the merrier," she said, because everyone else was saying it, and it seemed like a safe answer.  "Are you staying over tonight?"

Both kids cheered.  "Just try and stop us," Jamie said.  "These two heard about the famous breakfast fruit pie from Mitchell and haven't stopped talking about it since."

"Hey, it's a good pie," Mitchell said.  "Well worth traveling two thousand miles for.  I'm not sure anyone's ever done it before, but I am fully in support of trailblazing." She raised her eyebrows.  So, there was more to that story — maybe they didn’t want to talk about it in front of the kids.

Jamie just laughed.  "We staked out a spot right near the food, if you want to join us.  We figured walking any kind of distance with kids and plates of food was probably a bad combo."

Good food, good company -- "Thank you," she said.  "I'll take you up on that."  She could see Sam had gotten absorbed into Julius' group, so she probably wasn't coming back any time soon.

"I heard Chris had you running this morning," Mitchell said.  

She groaned.  "Let's not talk about it.  We got here, that's about all I can say that was good about it."

"Well, we wound up going all the way out of town and then back here with one of the interns.  I thought I was going to have a dad moment; I kept pushing my foot on the floor like it was the brake pedal."  

She’d heard the story already, from Troy — his version had included a full-out impression along with sound effects, so she was prepared to just nod in a generally sympathetic way.  “Sorry about that. At least everyone got here in plenty of time for the party."

Mitchell hesitated.  "It's great, yeah.  It's nice to see everyone having a chance to relax together.  Are you kind of getting a -- calm before the storm feeling, though?"

"As in, it's not the weather, it's us?"  She nodded again.  "Little bit.  Troy too."  She thought she might have been imagining it, but Troy didn't usually get things like that wrong.  "Not much we can do right now that hasn't been done already."  She'd seen the contingency plans.  They were numerous, and thorough.  

"So we should eat, drink, and be merry?" Mitchell asked. He didn’t sound upset, though, and he was smiling when he said it. She thought maybe they’d all exhausted their reserves of worry for the moment, and were just going to roll with whatever happened.  

"You have a better idea?  I mean, we could panic and freak out, but I ran an unknown number of miles this morning and just ate about half a bag of marshmallows, so I feel like option number one is a little more manageable right now."

She gave him a push towards the food.  "Grab some food.  If everything's going to go to --"  She stopped herself just in time as Jamie and the kids wandered back into sight, plates loaded with food.  "--heck, then we might as well be well fed when it happens."

*****

The feeling seemed to ease up a little as the sun got lower.  The crowd ebbed and flowed, and she got pulled into a chalk-drawing group that maybe had more enthusiasm than actual artistic talent.  The walkways were definitely more colorful once they were done, though.

She grabbed Chris when she saw her passing by.  "I thought we were expecting more company at some point -- did Military Ground get lost?"  Again, she didn't say.

Chris rolled her eyes.  "They're slow.  But still on their way.  Get this, though -- we got a call from Charlie and Rain.  They're on their way here too. Soon.”

“Here? Across the Atlantic?  How's the weather looking?"  The last she'd heard, between the environmental havoc from the harvester ship and the ever-growing military presence, it was basically a giant no-fly zone.

"They switched ships to something space-worthy, so they're doing the up and down route.  Much faster.  And they have news from London, apparently, but they're keeping it hush-hush until they get here."

Which typically meant everyone knew, but was pretending they didn’t. “Hush-hush like it’s bad news and they don’t want to ruin the day, or hush-hush like it’s good news and they want it to be a surprise?”

“Good news, I think. Charlie seemed excited.”

Whatever it was, it was spreading fast through the crowd. The noise level was going up, and people were starting to move towards the front of the building in a restless sort of group fidget. “I hope so,” she said. “Someone must have told Patty and the boys?”

“They’re already out there,” Chris confirmed. “Connie too. You know Charlie’s her nephew, right?”

She did the shrug and nod combo that was shorthand for ‘I sort of knew, but wasn’t sure if I was supposed to know, or if it was something we talked about.’ “I was at the meeting, when she called him,” she said, trying to think back. “Mostly awake,” she added.

“Same. It’s been a long week.”

“Is it going to be a safety thing if we all go out there?” She wasn’t sure there was anything they could do to prevent it, but it would be good to know, at least.

Chris waved it off, though. “Nah, it’s fine. You saw the plans — half of them cut through the buildings anyway. Encouraging people to stay in the common space here was I think mostly a psychological thing, and maybe a little bit because the planning team didn’t have enough recycling bins.”

The low rumble of a ship on approach started to become audible, even over the rest of the noise. “I guess we should go take a look,” she said.

“Come on, I know a shortcut.”

It didn’t feel like a shortcut, but it did get them close enough to the landing pad to actually see what was going on, which was probably a minor miracle given how many people were there. (It also probably had something to do with Chris moving through the crowd yelling at them to back up and get behind the yellow lines until she happened to be at the front. Very convenient.)

She found herself next to Connie. “Hey,” she said. “Nice party.”

Connie gave a small laugh. “Thanks. I’m glad you like it. Sorry about pre-empting your plans.”

She shrugged. It was fine. You never really got out of the habit of dropping everything to help out your family. “I like to imagine they actually need me there, but they’ve got this covered.” Miguel was the one who tended to hover over the Centers he helped build; she usually helped with the start-up and then moved on.

They both watched the lights of the approaching ship get closer. “They do know there’s still an air travel ban, right?”

“It doesn’t seem to have stopped anyone else,” Connie said. “I think they’re putting forward the same diplomatic immunity argument that Floyd used.”

“You don’t sound too happy about it.” She knew virtually nothing about diplomatic immunity. Probably what you saw in movies wasn’t all there was to it, right?

Connie hesitated, and then said, “This is going to sound crazy, but doesn’t it seem a little too easy? We showed up expecting to see barricades and a significant military presence, and instead we got a town-wide party and nothing but good news coming in from all directions. I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

The noise of the incoming ship took away any need to reply. It wasn’t nearly as big as a tug, but definitely big enough for a couple of passengers, if they had any.

It was hard to believe that just twenty years back the thought of a personal plane that could get you into space and also land essentially in your backyard was unheard of.  She still didn't like flying, but even she could admit it was an amazing bit of technology.  Ridiculously expensive, of course -- they were still a long way off from the Jetsons -- but it existed.  The little ship in front of them screamed diplomatic shuttle.  The real question, she thought, was whose embassy it had come from.  She still hadn't heard any explanation of what Charlie and Rain were actually doing in Switzerland.

The first person off the ship wasn't either of them.  Instead it was an older woman, who scanned the crowd in front of her with a no-nonsense expression.  Catherine -- standing on the opposite side of Connie -- strode forward.  "Mom," she said, and her voice was full of relief.  

The older woman's face broke into a smile.  "Cathy!" she said. "There you are!"

Rain was next, escorting an even older woman carefully down the ramp.  Connie made a surprised sound next to her, but it was Floyd who stepped up to take her hand and give her a gentle hug.  "Your mother couldn't get away," she said.  "She's so busy these days.  She wanted to be here -- as soon as she heard you were here, she was working on getting us on a plane."

"I can't believe you're here," Floyd said.

Last off the ramp was Charlie, unless they had really packed people in.  It looked smaller up close than she'd thought at first.  He waved to Connie, or possibly to everyone, and then stuck his hands in his pockets and looked remarkably pleased with himself.  Jake was at his side almost immediately, grabbing him up in a hug.

She leaned closer to Connie so she could be heard over the noise.  "So London is still there, I'm guessing?"

It seemed like a safe bet -- neither of the women had the look of just being out of a disaster zone.  Stiff British upper lip or not, she didn't think they could fake that.  

"I'm sure they could tell the story better than me, but yes.  Still there."  She shrugged.  "It's hard to say whether they're being deliberately vague or actually aren't sure what happened, but the basic explanation seems to be that London Underground came through just fine.  Rumors of flooding were apparently greatly exaggerated."

Catherine picked that moment to walk over with her mother.  "Mom, this is Connie; I've talked about her with you before.  Connie, this is my mother, Louisa."

"Very nice to meet you," Connie said.  "I was sorry to hear about London Above."

Louisa shook her hand.  "Psh, I wasn't.  A monument to our losses, and not our successes.  Personally, I’m glad to see it gone.  It's not building museums of past relics that makes up England.  It's the people.  We got the people safe, that was the goal."

"And are we ever going to hear more than that?" Connie asked.

Louisa smiled.  "Not if we can possibly avoid it."  She leaned in a little closer.  "How about this -- get another 1600 years or so under your belts, and then we'll talk."

Connie just laughed.  "I'm holding to that, you know.  It's going on the calendar."

She officially had no idea what they were talking about.  Luckily, Charlie had extracted himself from Jake by that point, and he made his way over to their group.  "Glad to see you finally got to one of these," Connie said.  "No problems on the way?"

"Well, you keep inviting me," Charlie said.  "I was bound to have a free weekend one of these years.  I brought a few extra friends along ; hope that's okay."

Something about the way he said it made Connie pause.  "You're family, Charlie; you're welcome anytime and with anyone you bring with you."  She gave him a long look.  "Having said that -- more friends than what I'm seeing here?"

Charlie coughed, and looked about two seconds away from shuffling his feet in the dirt.  "Maybe a few more.  They may not be here until tomorrow morning; the time zones were giving us some trouble.  Is there somewhere we can talk?"

Louisa made a disapproving sound at him.  "No need for dramatics about it.  What did you think was going to happen when you asked the UN for help?"  She waved her hand back towards the shuttle.  "You think I don't recognize a UN diplomatic courier when I see one?"

In the dim light, it was hard to tell if Charlie was blushing or rolling his eyes.  Possibly both.  "Yes, we were at the UN headquarters in Geneva. No, we didn’t ask them for help.  They're very curious how you managed to create such an effective signal-blocking field, especially by accident, so they're coming to visit.  First they needed to deal with Director Levinson and the orb, though."

"They weren't involved with that before?" Connie asked.

Charlie shook his head, but before he got a chance to say anything, a shout went up from the far side of the building, closest to the trees. It was a ripple of noise that spread across the crowd and left silence in its wake. Military ground had arrived.

*****

Miguel and Troy practically materialized at her side. Suddenly it looked like a sea of hats around her — even Connie seemed a little surprised to see them all. She saw a lot of nervous-looking parents taking kids by the hand or kneeling down next to them. Everyone she’d talked to said they were hoping for the best with the Military Ground troops — they weren’t doing anything wrong, there was no reason to think things were going to escalate — but they were preparing for the worst.

(“It’s like driving,” Chris had explained. “We take a huge number of things on faith when we drive — that nothing will run out in front of us, that the cars in the other lane won’t veer towards us, that the road is intact around the next corner — and we just get out there and go. But we still wear seat belts.”)

“This is basically the most suspicious thing we could be doing,” Troy muttered quietly. “Just standing around silently like they caught us doing something wrong.” They were too far away to get any idea of what was going on, unless someone starting yelling or a bunch of people started running. (She was really hoping neither of those things happened.)

Miguel frowned. “I don’t hear anything. What are they doing?”

“How would I know?” Troy said. “I can’t see them any better than you can.”

“I thought you might be able to —“ Miguel wiggled his fingers near his temple. Military Ground did tend to have pretty significant amounts of hybrid tech with them, which might make them easier to get a read on. But that tech was usually weapons, so not having it might be a better sign for all of them.

“It doesn’t work like that,” Troy said, sounding frustrated.

“They’re just standing around too. I don’t think they were expecting this.” It was Charlie — when she looked over, his eyes were closed. He frowned, then shrugged. “That’s all I can get.” He actually swayed a little when he opened his eyes again, but he gave a sheepish smile. “It kind of works like that. They’re probably trying to figure out who’s in charge, though.” He looked at Connie.

She put up both hands. “Not me, you know that. The admin team is handling it, trust me. Or trust them, really.”

What felt like a very long minute passed without much change. And then the whispered conversations around them started to get louder. Someone laughed, and she noticed the family closest to them had switched from tense hand holding to a quiet clapping game. Charlie gave a frustrated sigh. “Can I —?”

Troy seemed to know what he was asking, because he stepped closer. “Sure.” She and Miguel automatically moved to block him from as much of the crowd as they could.

Charlie put a hand on his shoulder and closed his eyes again. That was — she’d never actually seen Troy do his power-up trick with anyone before, but she’d heard about it. “They’re talking,” Charlie said. “Some kind of story about rocks? No one’s shooting anyone. You didn’t really give your shield tech to Disney, did you?” When he opened his eyes, his fingers were tight on Troy’s shoulder, and Troy edged a little closer. “I think it’s going to be okay,” he said.

Connie gave him a look. “I am pretending I didn’t see or hear that,” she said. “But if I had, I would say it sounds like someone negotiated with Disney Corp. on our behalf and may have worked out an agreement regarding distributed shared resources under the Emergency Rights Act.”

“May have,” Charlie repeated.

“Definitely did?” Connie offered. “I heard about it earlier, from Mitchell.”

She wondered if that was the missing story behind Jamie’s presence in New Hampshire. She thought someone in their family might have gone into law. Maybe it was one of the Scout troop parents; that would make sense, in a complicated sort of way.

“So we’re not evacuating?” Catherine said. “Just to be clear.”

Everyone looked at Charlie. “No?” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to need to.”

She started looking around to see if she could figure out where Chris had gone, and almost missed Troy stepping in to put Charlie’s arm around his shoulder. “We’re going to go find somewhere to sit down,” he said. And then, much more quietly, “Hey, congratulations, by the way.”

*****
DYLAN
*****

“I still can't believe they sent us to the kids' time out room.”

“Man, you have got to let that go.” He held back a joke about Jake acting his age that was maybe a little more mean-spirited than he wanted it to be. That was going to be a hard habit to break, and he could practically hear his mom scolding him for it. She’d warned him that he shouldn’t let himself get so wrapped up in what other people said about the three of them. He thought he had never been so happy that she was going to get the chance to tell him ‘I told you so’ face to face.

Jake just laughed. “No way, that is never not going to be funny. I’m going to be bringing it up forever.”

They were waiting for Patty to finish talking with Matthew, and politely pretending that they couldn’t hear Matthew giving her an earful for ditching her unofficial-official security detail. Jake kept glancing towards the door that Charlie and Troy had disappeared behind — an actual quiet room, as it turned out, as opposed to a re-purposed time-out space.

“Is he going to be okay?” he asked finally, because it seemed like the answer to that would determine if he was going to be able to ask anything else.

“Yeah,” Jake said. “I think so.”

“I didn’t realize he was —“ He trailed off, and Jake made a face.

“Yeah. I assume I don’t need to threaten you into not telling anyone?”

He held up both hands. “Nobody’s going to hear anything from me. Is it always like that?” And then, what he really wanted to ask: “Is that how he — on the alien ship?”

Jake shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe.” He gave him a sharp look. “It’s not like there’s a manual. And believe me, what’s been going on this last week has been nothing like the last twenty years. You saw the president, and Dr. Okun. Having the aliens so close turned it into a whole different ballgame.”

That was certainly true enough. He nodded, and Jake leaned back against the wall. “So,” Jake said, clearly intent on changing the subject. “Rain. What can you tell me?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Why are you asking?”

“You don’t need to sound so suspicious. Charlie’s my brother, I’m just looking out for him. He would do the same for me.” He paused, and then added, “He did do the same for me, actually; it was incredibly embarrassing. So —“ He held out both hands, palm up. “Now it’s my turn.”

He couldn’t be serious. Right? “They visited the United Nations together; that’s hardly first date material, let alone ‘quiz the friends’ material.”

“You don’t know Charlie.”

“You don’t know Rain!”

“Which is why I’m asking about her,” Jake said. “See? Perfectly logical.”

Rain picked that moment to walk around the corner. She stared at them, and put her hands on her hips. “You could just ask me,” she said.

Jake smiled — it was his actual smile, too, and suddenly he was feeling much more suspicious about the whole situation. He was missing something. “Thank you,” Jake said. “But that would really take out the whole element of surprise when I’m picking your gift.”

“He told you,” Rain said.

“He didn’t have to.” Jake held out his hand. “Jake Morrison. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” She leaned in, whispered, “I hate surprises,” loud enough for both of them to hear, and then walked off again.

Jake’s eyes went wide, but he was still smiling. “Good to know!” he called after her.

There was silence for a few seconds. And then — “Okay, I’m lost. What gift?”

*****

He headed towards the kitchen for water at exactly the wrong moment, and wound up getting volunteered to help set up tents in the courtyard. Mostly he was just supervising, and lending a hand if one of the kids couldn’t get the poles to extend all the way. The weather looked like it was going to hold overnight, so the younger kids were “camping out” on the lawn with some of the more adventurous (or unlucky) volunteers. He reminded himself again that he liked kids, and then winced at a particularly loud shriek from one of them.

“We usually do it earlier,” the woman had told him, when she’d grabbed him from the kitchen. “But with all the excitement, well — and before that there were the tunnels, of course!” She laughed, and then stared at him curiously when he didn’t immediately join in. “What did you say your name was?”

He hadn’t. “Dylan,” he told her.

“Huh. You look really familiar. Did I mention I’ve been awake for —“ She started counting on her fingers, got to seven, and said, “I don’t know, actually. A long time, I think.”

“You didn’t, actually.”

He was about to offer to call someone for her, or maybe just ask if she wanted to sit down, when she said, “You, though — you took a nap earlier! That was you! In the picture!”

Of course someone had taken pictures. Probably his mom. “Yeah, that was me,” he said.

“There were three of you.” She looked around, like she was only just then noticing that he was alone. “Are you fighting again, then? I’m so sorry.”

“We’re not fighting,” he said, trying not to smile. He wasn’t sure exactly what they were doing, and they were probably wondering where he was, but they weren’t fighting.

“Oh, good.” The woman — who still hadn’t introduced herself — nodded seriously. “You know, love is an infinite victory. I read that somewhere.”

She looked incredibly sincere about the whole thing, so he nodded back. “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.” He headed further out to the edge of the lawn when it looked like a couple of the tents were about to go wandering off, and by the time he got back to the porch she had dozed off in one of the chairs. It didn’t look very comfortable, but he had no idea where she was supposed to be sleeping.

He stuck his head back inside and breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Connie. She laughed when he explained what had happened, but she also sent the woman — Terra, it turned out — off to an actual bed, and made sure that everyone who was supposed to be volunteering to watch the kids was actually there, and then she sat him down at the kitchen table and said, “How are you holding up?”

He took a breath. It was on the tip of his tongue to say fine, or good, or looking forward to getting back to work, or any of the other pat answers he’d been giving to everyone who asked. But it was Connie. “I don’t know,” he said truthfully. “I’ve mostly been trying not to think about it.” He wasn’t even sure any more whether he meant the aliens or the thing with Patty and Jake. Both, maybe.

Connie nodded. “Join the club. It’ll work for a while. If you want some completely unsolicited advice, though — it won’t work forever. When you’re ready to start thinking about it, just remember you have a lot of people who’d be happy to listen.”

“Thanks.” He poked at a dent in the table. “Actually, can I ask you a rude question?”

He thought she probably looked surprised, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to look at her to check. “Sure,” she said.

“What happened with you and Director Levinson?”

“With David?” She didn’t sound upset. “What didn’t happen, might be an easier answer. We wanted it to work, but not more than we wanted other things. We were never the right people for each other at the right time. We could never quite manage to want the same things at the same time. People change, and unless you’re willing to commit to making those changes work for both of you, they won’t. Take your pick, really.”

She pushed a bag of chocolates towards him, and he took one automatically. “When you’re in a relationship, there’s a ‘you,’ singular, and a ‘you,’ plural,” she said. “And as much as we cared about each other, we were never really willing to put the plural first. Or even equal, most of the time. We were better off letting it go and just being us. Individually, I mean.” She unwrapped a chocolate. “But,” she said, pointing at him. “There are many, many people who will tell you I’m no expert. So take that with a grain of salt.”

*****

They sat in silence after that, for — he wasn’t sure how long. He thought he might have dozed off at some point, but the idea of moving anywhere else seemed overwhelmingly complicated.

“Here you are. You know, there’s a point at which it gets difficult to believe someone when they say ‘I’m just going to get a drink of water.’” Jake leaned in the doorway. “We passed that point a few hours back, I think.”

He had said that, hadn’t he. He winced. “Yeah. Sorry about that. There was a —“ He waved in the general direction of the lawn. He wasn’t even sure how to describe the chain of events. Connie stepped in to save him from trying to explain.

“Terra grabbed him to help with the kids’ tents,” she said. “I’m not sure she even knew who he was at first.”

“She figured it out. She said she’d seen a picture of the three of us taking a nap together,” he said.

Jake frowned. “We look great in that picture. Are you saying she blackmailed you into helping?”

When had Jake even seen the picture? Had everyone seen it except for him? He shook his head. “No, the picture thing was later. She was just really tired; it seemed like she needed the help.”

“That was nice of you,” Jake said. “You are allowed to say no sometimes, you realize that, right?”

“Yes, but —“ He felt like it was important to explain that he had been trying to make a gesture, but he thought explaining it might take away the gesture-ness of it. It was possible he had hit the wall of his own tiredness. His brain felt slow. “These are your people,” he said, waving vaguely. “You’ve been here before. You like them. I didn’t want to say no to them.”

He thought that was about as clear as he could get in his current state, and Jake seemed to follow well enough. He walked closer, at least; that had to be a good sign. “You’re exhausted,” he said. “Connie, do you mind I take him off your hands?”

She waved them off. “Go, get some sleep. Say hi to Patty for me; remind her I want to check in with her before you leave.”

They maneuvered down the hall slowly. It looked different in the dark. “Do you know where you’re going?” he asked.

“Literally, or metaphorically?” Jake slowed even further and turned to look at him. “Pretty sure I do, yeah. Do you? Are you tracking at all right now?” Jake held two fingers up in front of his face, and he batted them away.

“I’m awake.” Mostly. “What time is it?”

“Late enough that if it was ten years ago, I’d suggest just staying up. But Patty’s finally sleeping, so we might as well catch a nap so we’ll have some kind of chance at keeping up with her tomorrow.”

He grabbed Jake’s arm. “I do know where we’re going,” he said. “You know that, right?”

“I’m not sure you even know where you are right now, and I’m not holding you to anything you say at this point. I’m not even sure how you made it this far past tired. You need to sleep.”

He did need to sleep. That was a good idea. “You have the best ideas.”

Jake laughed. “That, though, I will definitely be reminding you of tomorrow. Come on, we’re almost there.”

*****

He woke up and couldn't remember what day it was.  He had the sinking feeling that he had slept too long and forgotten something important.  He was alone, though; the room was empty.  He snapped upright when he heard the door open, and Rain walked in without waiting for an invitation.  "Are you awake now?” she said.  “Jake says you should come see.  I told him I'm not a messenger."

He scrubbed a hand over his face.  "I'm up,” he said.  "Sorry about Jake."

He could feel her staring at him. “You're not responsible for him — you don’t need to apologize for the things he says.”

He flopped back onto the blankets.  "It's too early for me to figure out what that means.  You're my friend, and you're in my squadron.  Jake is --". He blew out a breath.  "Anyway.  You're here, though." He tried to make it sound like a question without it actually being a question.

Rain shrugged. “He offered to show me three new ways to circumvent security protocols on tugs if I would come get you."  She tossed an apple at his head, which he barely managed to catch.  "I like him."

"Yeah, me too."

"And that's a problem?" Rain asked.  "I heard what he did for you on the Moon base.  This — whatever it is — it isn't new."

“No. We can't just start over," he said. That much he was sure of.

"Given how badly things went the first time, I would have thought that would be reassuring."  It sounded like there was probably an eye roll included with that statement, but when he looked, Rain was staring intently out the window.

"It probably should be,” he said.  He eyed Rain more carefully.  "How was Geneva?"

"Geneva was fine.  Are you getting up?  You're missing breakfast."

No answers there, then. He jammed his feet into his boots and followed her out the door.  "Is that where everyone is?” He asked.  "Breakfast?"

"Some," she said.  Which wasn't exactly a reply bursting with information.  

The hallways were suspiciously quiet, though, and not the quiet of everyone being gone already.  More like the quiet of everyone still being asleep.  If he hadn't woken up in an empty room that he knew had been full when he'd fallen asleep, he would think someone was playing a practical joke.

Even the kitchen was only sparsely occupied.  Someone gave him -- or possibly Rain -- a sleepy wave as she led him through, and it was only when they reached the courtyard that there was an actual group of people to be seen.  It was quite the group, though.

He blinked, and tried to figure out exactly what he was looking at. The tents he’d helped set up the night before were still there, but all of the kids were out of them and scattered around the various picnic tables and blankets, eating. Apparently a couple hours of sleep was all they needed, because they looked ridiculously awake. They were being watched (and/or entertained) by the Military Ground troops, who were — as far as he could tell — grilling breakfast foods.

“Is that the Military Ground troops?” he said, just to make sure. He tried to be quiet about it. (But not covert, because that would looks suspicious.)

“Yes. Their pancakes are very good.”

He’d been too far away when they’d showed up the night before to get much of a handle on what was going on with them. After the first few tense minutes, everyone seemed to think the situation was resolved, and he was willing to go along with that for as long as he could get away with it. ESD and Military Ground had a tenuous working relationship at the best of times, and the current situation was definitely not the best of times. The smart course of action was to avoid them entirely — the authorization for their “aid mission” couldn’t be revoked if no one knew they were there. Apparently they’d stayed the night, though. He blinked again. “Is there a reason why they’re all wearing t-shirts that say Camp Coral on them?”

They were steadily working their way closer to where he could see the others — they’d staked out a table and a couple of chairs, and it was Charlie who answered him. “The summer programs have a tropical seas theme this year.”

“Okay.” He waited for more, but either that was all the information there was or everyone thought that answered the question. He tried again. “Why are they wearing them?”

“It’s great, right?” Jake was perched on the back of one of the chairs. “They showed up covered in dirt; no one will say why. But there’s not enough power to run the washing machines, so they’re all borrowing shirts. The kids are loving it.”

“You mean you’re loving it,” Patty said.

Jake just nodded. “That too. I think we should get matching shirts.”

It seemed like it would be pointless to remind him that — given they had all been part of the same ESD training class — they already had matching shirts. They had matching everything. “No,” he said instead.

“Ha! That’s not what you said last night. Last night you said I have — and this is a direct quote — the ‘best ideas.’ Consider yourself reminded.”

“I still can’t believe you told him that,” Patty said.

“It was the lack of sleep talking?” he offered. He was still carrying the apple, so he handed it to her, and she pointed to a plate of food on the table.

“We got you breakfast,” she said. “I think the food’s going to go quickly as soon as more people realize what’s going on.”

He was finally starting to feel more awake. “So this wasn’t planned,” he said, waving towards the grills.

Patty shrugged. “A breakfast was planned. This particular scenario was not the plan, as far as I know. It’s nice, though. I’ve actually never had a grilled fruit kebab before.”

“And it keeps Military Ground occupied doing something that’s good for their image. It’s pretty difficult to make any nefarious plans when you’re trying to keep track of a bunch of kids,” Charlie said. Everyone looked at him. “Not that I would know. Obviously.”

“Obviously.”

“Hey!”

He ate his breakfast — Rain was right, the pancakes were good. He traded Patty the fruit kebab to get his apple back, and was almost done with it before a thought occurred to him. “Didn’t you say the UN was going to show up at some point today?”

*****
MITCHELL
*****

“You couldn’t have woken me up five minutes earlier? I can’t believe I’m going to meet representatives of the UN while I’m wearing my pajamas!” Libby ran a hand through her hair and took what was clearly meant to be a calming breath. He wasn’t sure it was working.

Terra frowned at her. “You’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I thought you were dressed.”

“I would have put on actual clothes to meet the UN. I’m not even wearing any shoes.”

“It’s July,” Terra said. “No one’s wearing shoes.”

He, actually, was wearing shoes. Connie was wearing shoes. Floyd’s mother was wearing shoes, although he had no idea what she was doing there. Terra had gathered a small group on the front lawn to welcome the team from the UN when they arrived. Her actual words had been ‘to look like responsible adults who would never intentionally misrepresent information to mislead a military troop,’ but welcome was the general idea. He thought she might have just grabbed anyone who looked like they could potentially be in charge of something and also seemed vaguely awake.

“Almost everyone is wearing shoes,” Libby said. “Do you think I have time to go change?” He reminded himself — again — that bickering was a sign of affection, and if it was keeping them from worrying, they were welcome to keep doing it for as long as they wanted.

Jasmine (also wearing shoes, he couldn’t help noticing) said, “No.”

“You look fine,” Connie told them. “You’ve met people who worked for the ESD before; this isn’t that much different.”

Libby’s expression said she wasn’t convinced, but Terra nodded firmly. “Exactly. Look, hold this clipboard.” She’d been holding one herself, and she passed it to Libby. “Now you look like you have a reason to be here. Better?”

It was going to have to be, because the UN shuttle was making its approach. Privately, he thought the landing was flashier than necessary, but it had been — for all of them — a very long week. It was possible his patience was at less than an all time high.

When the doors opened, he could feel himself standing up straighter. He didn’t recognize any of the four people who exited the shuttle, but they all carried themselves like Very Important Personages — they weren’t in uniform, but it was clear that was a deliberate choice and not because they didn’t have them.

Terra took a step forward. “Welcome,” she said.

One of the women mirrored her and stepped forward as well. Her eyes took in the group, and he was suddenly sure that not only did she notice the lack of footwear, but also the fact that he’d forgotten to brush his hair that morning and that the clipboard Libby was holding didn’t have anything clipped to it. But she smiled politely, and said, “Thank you.”

And then they all just stood there for a few awkward seconds, while he wondered if there was some special UN greeting protocol they should have read up on, and how they could possibly have done that without the internet, and then Terra rallied and said, “It is such an honor to have you here. I apologize for the lack of formality; you’ve arrived during our annual freedom celebration. We’re currently operating with only solar and generator power after the events of this week, but we would be happy to share what we have with you.”

The woman’s smile edged towards a more genuine expression. “We appreciate that. You don’t need to impress us; this isn’t a test.” She waved a hand back towards the shuttle. “It was, however, a very long flight. Perhaps we could stretch our legs?”

“Of course,” Terra agreed. “Would you prefer a guided tour, or —?”

“Oh no, I’m sure we can manage,” the woman said. “Unless there are any objections, we’ll just see ourselves around.” Her tone made it clear that there were to be no objections.

“Right. Of course.” Terra stepped aside and waved expansively towards the buildings and grounds. “Please, feel free. Ah, we do have quite a few guests who stayed overnight for the celebration. Quiet hours won’t end for another —“ She checked her watch. “Thirty minutes or so, but breakfast is being served in the courtyard — through this building, or around to the left. Anyone would be happy to help with any questions you might have.”

*****

After that there didn’t seem to be much point to hanging around out front, so they all trooped back inside. He’d expected the arrival to take longer — with some unexpected free time on his hands, it was a toss-up between finding breakfast and finding out what kind of mess had been made of his office while he’d been away.

On the one hand, without the ability to email, he was pretty sure he was going to find a tree’s worth of post-its piled on his desk. On the other hand, Military Ground was at breakfast, and he’d promised Chris he wouldn’t make any trouble. Office it was, then.

He wasn’t expecting to find it occupied.

It was, though, and Patty looked up when he walked in. She was sitting on the floor, knees tucked up, and she gave him a small wave. “Sorry I stole your office,” she said.

“I would have offered it if I knew you wanted it,” he told her. “Steal away.” He wasn’t sure if he should ask if she was all right — they’d been trying to avoid that question all week, since it was clear the answers were all going to be some combination of ‘no, not really’ and ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ But she must have picked his office for some specific reason; it wasn’t like it was the only empty room in the place. Even with all the extra guests, enough of them were staying outside that they hadn’t had to convert any of the offices over to other uses, and it wasn’t like anyone was doing office work at that time of day.

Except for him, he supposed. Which brought him back to the question. “I was just going to sort through some of the mess, maybe scrounge some food from my desk,” he said. “Were you — looking to get some peace and quiet? I don’t actually have to be here right now.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s fine, I can go. I just wanted to take a minute. I figured your office was somewhere no one would think to come looking for me. Did you know people here think you have it booby-trapped?” She didn’t make any move to actually leave, which was fine by him. Med and psych had gotten that message across loud and clear: better alone together than alone by yourself.

“You’re welcome to stay,” he said. “It’s not actually booby-trapped, obviously. I don’t know where anyone would have gotten that idea.” He paused, and then added, “Unless it was from me, because I told them, but I swear I thought they knew I was joking.”

Patty laughed, which was what he’d been aiming for. He waved a hand at his desk. (As anticipated, covered in post-its.) “I’m just going to see if I can get these into some kind of order. There’s granola bars in the cabinet, if you’re hungry.”

“I ate, thanks. We all had breakfast together.”

He carefully kept his eyes on his desk. It wasn’t prying if she’d brought it up, right? “You and Jake and Dylan?”

“And Charlie, and Rain. And a few dozen small children. And an entire Military Ground unit all wearing neon camp t-shirts.”

“A little overwhelming?” he asked. Something had to have happened, to have sent her looking for a quiet corner.

“Surreal, is the word I would use.” There was a sigh, and he looked over to see she had leaned her head back against the wall. “Do you know what I was supposed to be doing this weekend?”

“Mike and I were planning to clean the refrigerator,” he offered.

“I was going to have lunch with my dad. He was — he heard about this restaurant, where they grill everything; he wanted to go try it. We were supposed to go last weekend, but I got caught up working on the speech and we rescheduled.”

He heard the hitch in her voice, and when he looked over there were tears streaming down her face. He took half a second to be grateful for summer allergies as he grabbed the box of tissues and moved to sit next to her on the floor. She took one, and then just sat there, clenching it in her fist. “He was back, Mitchell. He was my dad again. He was right there. And now he’s gone.”

He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and she tucked her head into his side. “I didn’t know where else to go,” she said quietly.

They’d sat like this before, although he hadn’t known she remembered it. Twenty years ago, after the service for her mother, she’d gone missing, and there had been a brief but frantic search to find her before the president noticed. He hadn’t rated anything close to an office back then, but she’d been a lot smaller, and she’d hidden under his desk. He’d sat with her until she cried herself out, and neither of them had said a word.

He kept his silence this time too.  What was there to say?  They were all far too familiar with grief.  There would be a time for words later, for honoring memories and moving forward.  But there was a power in the quiet as well.  He could sit this vigil with her.

*****

He half expected someone to come looking for them -- if not him, then Patty.  But it was quiet, and eventually she sat back. They both took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.  He offered her the box of tissues again. “Thanks," she said.

"Any time."

"I guess I have to go back out there at some point."

"Well, we could probably find enough snacks to cover us through dinner, but eventually, yeah."  He wasn't entirely sure about the snacks, actually.  It looked like someone had been making some serious inroads on them while he'd been away.  He supposed there was nothing like the world almost ending to encourage them to replenish the apocalypse supplies, though.  

"We definitely have juice boxes, at least.” The sugar would probably help.  He reached out with his foot and pulled open the door of the mini-fridge hidden in the bookshelf.  They both stared at it for a few minutes.

"Hey, Mitchell?"  

"Yeah?"

"Did you know you have a shield generator in your refrigerator?"

"I did not know that, no."

He kept looking, but it never changed into something that wasn’t a shield generator, broken down into pieces and hidden in his fridge.  

"I guess we know what the admin team did with them when they brought them back," he said finally.

"There's more than just the one, though, right?"

He nodded.  "There was a sale on mini-fridges last year.  Everyone has one."

"Huh."

There was a knock on the door, and they both jumped.  He pushed the refrigerator door shut again, and Patty wiped her eyes -- with her sleeve, despite the perfectly good box of tissues.

"Just a minute," he called.  He stood up and offered Patty a hand.  "Good?" he said quietly.  He could send whoever it was on their way again if she wasn't ready.

She gave him a thumbs up, and raised her eyebrows at the refrigerator.  He shrugged.  It had been fine so far.

If he'd had to guess, he would have thought it was one of the boys coming to look for Patty, or possibly Chris, wondering why he had never showed up at breakfast.  He wasn't expecting one of the UN representatives to be standing at the door.  "Hi," he said.

"Good morning," the woman said, handing him a paper business card.  "I wondered if I could have a moment of your time."

*****

"We found that any time we scheduled a meeting, people were always a few minutes late because they were grabbing something to eat, or making a cup of tea or coffee.  So we just moved the conference room to the kitchen, and things run a lot more smoothly now.”

"I see."

He waved her into the room ahead of him.  They'd all been encouraged to have their meetings in public places if at all possible -- not that anyone thought the UN was going to try anything underhanded, but accountability was always easier when it was out in the open.

"So what can I help you with?" he said.  

She consulted a notepad in her hand.  "You are Captain Mitchell, correct?"

He smiled.  "Just Mitchell, now."  It felt like it had been a long time since anyone called him Captain.  He didn't miss it.

"First name?"  

"No, it really is just Mitchell.  Just the one name."  

"Can I ask about that?"

He was pretty sure she just had.  "Sure."  He stopped there, and smiled again.

"Thank you," she said dryly.  "Why just the one name, Mitchell?"

"I changed it after '96.  It's a reminder to me, of what we lost then, and what we still have."  There were a few other reasons, but that was the one he was willing to talk about with a stranger.  

He heard footsteps running towards them, and then Tanya burst into the room and threw her arms around him.  "Uncle Mitchell!  I found you!"  She let go and yelled, "Chris!  I found him!"

"You found me," he told her.  "Tanya, this is Ms. Lagarde, with the United Nations."  Tanya looked back and forth between then and then stuck out her hand to shake.  "Were you looking for me?" he asked.

"We were all looking for you," she said.  "Me and Tamar and Mom and Uncle Mike and Chris."  

Which was everyone, in her mind. Chris followed her in at a much slower pace.  "Sorry to interrupt," she said.  "You missed breakfast."

"I had a meeting," he said.  He repeated the introductions.  "Chris, this is Ms. Lagarde, with the United Nations.  Ms. Lagarde, Chris Mitchell, my daughter, and one of the team leaders here at the Center."   

"Nice to meet you," Chris said. She sat down.  "We're still a little on edge after this week, and the kids were nervous when they didn't see you, so I figured we'd track you down and show them you were fine."

He found that extremely hard to believe.  Tanya and Tamar were probably the least anxious people he'd ever met.  He raised his eyebrows, and Chris shrugged.  Probably Patty had gone to find her, and she'd come looking to see if he needed backup.  

"It's a pleasure," Ms. Lagarde said.  "You're on my list as well, actually.  Both of your names come up repeatedly, in association with this symbol."  She tapped her notepad and flipped it around so they could see it.

"A tiger?" Chris said.  They exchanged a look.  "You're joking."

"I assure you, I'm quite serious.  Since the second alien incident, this symbol has been identified with increasing frequency all over the world.  The highest concentration is in this country, with the epicenter here."  

He frowned. “And is that a problem? It sounds like a good thing to me.” Thinking back, he could remember seeing tiger pictures in a lot of the storefronts they’d passed. At the time, he’d been focused on other things, but they had definitely been there.

“We’re trying to be cautious, Mr. Mitchell. After the last time we ignored a recurring symbol, I’m sure you can understand the need for that.” She sighed, and put the notepad back down on the table. “Although based on your expressions, we’ve missed something again. You might as well tell me.”

Chris leaned forward. “No, I understand caution, that makes sense. But — you didn’t just ask someone what it meant?”

She raised her eyebrows. “I’m asking you.”

“It’s the tiger on your side,” piped up Tanya, who had settled into the chair next to him and was peering across the table at the picture.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s an acronym —“ She looked at him, and he nodded. “An acronym, because we say it as a word. It’s for tolerance, inclusion, gratitude, empathy, and respect. Tiger. We learned it in Scouts.” Tanya gave Ms. Lagarde a skeptical look, like she wasn’t sure she believed anyone wouldn’t know that.

“Maybe Ms. Lagarde wasn’t in Scouts,” Chris said. Not helpful.

“We didn’t make it up,” he explained. “I think someone paraphrased it from one of the local elementary schools around Area 51, way back when. The kids liked it, and it was an easy way to remind people to make an effort when everyone was crowded into the base. We rolled it into the community center program when people started looking for ways to put those sort of core principles into the spotlight.”

Ms. Lagarde didn’t look impressed, and he tried to think of something else to add. “There’s probably a lot of stickers and other promotional stuff still floating around out there; I think there was a campaign a few years back to incorporate it into the international exchange programs.”

“I think it’s nice,” Chris said. “When something bad happens, it’s natural for people to focus on themselves and the people closest to them. Tiger reminds people to think in terms of a community, whether it’s local or global — we’re all connected.”

“I see.”

He wondered if it was a good sign or a bad one that she was repeating herself. He was pretty sure she was trying not to smile, though. “So you’re saying we have misinterpreted an an international symbol of goodwill and traveled thousands of miles to investigate something we could have simply asked any passerby displaying a tiger badge?”

He really didn’t want to answer that. Sometimes the big leagues got so caught up trying to communicate to leaders that they forgot how much everyone else had to offer, but that was really a conversational minefield he’d prefer to avoid. “Yes?”

“It’s a beautiful time of year to visit New Hampshire?” Chris offered.

Tanya raised her hand. “Can I have a tiger badge?”

*****
SAM
*****

She wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t supposed to go anywhere alone, so she didn’t. She took Baxter.

And Daisy, but that was more because Daisy had woken up as she was sneaking out of their room and demanded to come along than a real commitment to the buddy system. (“I’m not sneaking, I’m being respectfully quiet so everyone else can keep sleeping.”)

“Where are we going?”

“I just told you two minutes ago, I don’t know.” She knew what she was looking for, she just wasn’t sure she’d be able to find it. But everyone kept talking about tunnels — like, a lot of tunnels. Secret tunnels that led to a hideout under a mountain? Yeah, she wanted to see that.

So she headed for what she thought was the most likely corner of the courtyard, and turned in a slow circle.  "If you were hiding a secret entrance, where would you put it?"

Daisy looked around.  "In the sky?  Or maybe under water."

"If it was in the sky, how would they have gotten us all up there?" she said.  They were supposed to evacuate to the tunnels if there was an emergency; Floyd had told them.  Under water, though -- there was a fountain off to the side that she'd been ignoring, but it did have an archway.  And a door.

It wasn't locked, and dim emergency lights came on when she pushed it open.  Baxter stuck his head in right away, wagging eagerly.  

She took a deep breath, and grabbed Daisy's hand.  "Okay, let's check it out."

Daisy stopped in the doorway.  "What if we get lost?"

"We won't.  That's why I brought this."  She held up the bag of chalk she'd grabbed the night before.  "Here, which color do you want?"

Daisy picked blue, which left her with orange, and they headed inside.  It wasn't as cool as she thought it might be.  Or as quiet -- she could still hear sounds from outside, and smell the breakfast foods they were grilling on the other side of the courtyard.  

After a few minutes, though, the tunnel started to curve to the right and slope steadily downwards.  

"How much farther is it?" Daisy asked.

"We've only been walking for five minutes," she said.  "Farther than that."

Daisy tugged on her hand.  "I'm tired of walking."

She stopped, and put her hands on her hips.  "You're the one who wanted to come with me.  You can go back if you want, but I'm going to keep going.  We haven't even found anything good yet."

Daisy stubbornly stood her ground. It wasn't like she could get lost going back the way they'd come -- there was only one path.  But sending her back by herself would definitely be breaking the buddy system rule.  And she'd be sure to tell someone where they'd been, and then they might get in trouble.  (Technically, no one had told her she couldn't go in the tunnels.  She just didn't think that would hold up against the 'you let your baby sister wander off alone' argument.)

"Look, there's another turn up ahead," she said.  "How about we walk for five more minutes, and then if we still haven't found anything, we can turn around."

Daisy nodded.  "Okay."  

Her eyes had gotten used to the emergency lights, so she was surprised when they turned the corner and brighter light flared up.  From somewhere in front of them, Baxter barked, and she squinted through the glare.  

"Whoa."

It was a huge room -- room was maybe the wrong word, it was that big.  She couldn't even see the back wall.  Near the front was a bunch of sofas and chairs, and then tables, and bookshelves all along the walls.  They went back as far as the light did, and she could feel her eyes going wide.  

"Did you know this was here?" Daisy said.

She shook her head, and then realized -- "We did know there was a library, I guess.  It had to be somewhere."  

Daisy ran for the nearest couch and climbed onto it, all the way up to the back.  "I'm tall!" 

"Don't fall off," she said.  "I'm not carrying you back out of here."  She thought Baxter must have headed towards the books; she couldn't see him, but she could hear his toenails clicking on the floor.  He barked again.  "I'm going to find Baxter."

The lights followed her as she moved through the room.  She thought they must be motion activated, except they didn't seem to be illuminating Baxter at all, so maybe not.  Daisy came running after her.  "How big is it?" she said.

"I don't know.  Big."

They found Baxter with his nose to a door that was just barely making space for itself -- books crowded either side and climbed up the wall above it.  "What is it?" Daisy asked.  "What does it say?"

She read:  "'Planetarium, Solarium, Projectorium.  Do not enter if door is locked.'"

*****

It wasn't locked.

"What's a projectorium?" Daisy asked.

She frowned. “I don't know.  I don't think it's a real word."

"Can we go in?"

“I guess.  It's open."  She'd been to a planetarium with her school class once.  It had a gift shop, and you could make pennies with a picture of the Moon base on them.

She remembered there being a sort of podium thing at the front, and someone stood there talking before the show started. This one didn’t have even have a front — it was just a dome with really comfortable looking chairs. The weren’t even all facing the same direction, and when she sat down in one, she realized that was because they swiveled. “Hey, check it out!” She spun the chair in a circle, and Daisy laughed.

She looked up at the dome when her chair stopped spinning. “How do you turn it on, do you think?”

The dome lit up, and a voice said, ”Please select a program.” That was easier than she’d expected. A list of titles started scrolling across the screen. She looked at Daisy.

“Do you want to pick?” Daisy’s eyes were wide, and she shook her head. “Okay, how about ‘Armchair Astronomy: Tour the Universe.’”

”Program selected.”

The lights dimmed and then went out, and stars began lighting up the dome. A different voice said, ”It took roughly 400 million years for our universe to turn the lights on and get to work on the thousands of stars we can see from planet Earth, along with the billions of other stars that make up what we simply call space. So what’s out there? Over the course of this presentation, we’ll take a look through the telescope, and what we find just might surprise you.”

It was long, and during a quiet moment she looked over and realized Daisy was asleep, with Baxter curled up in the chair next to her. With the night sky stretching out above her, she suddenly felt very alone.

She jumped when the door opened, but it was just Julius — and her brothers. “How did you —?”

“These two were following you,” he said. “I was following them. Chocolate bar?”

“I haven’t had breakfast,” she said.

“Well, then you should definitely take it,” he told her. “Eat quietly, you’re missing the show.”

The next time the dome brightened enough to look around, Alicia waved at her from the door. She could see Floyd and Mr. Umbutu on the other side of the room, and Jasmine talking quietly with Dylan. They were in a little group of people — it looked like they might all be wearing matching shirts, but it got dark again before she could read them.

The room was filling up — she wasn’t sure why, but no one asked her why she was there. She got a few more waves during the brighter parts of the show, and every once in a while the quiet murmur of voices would get loud enough that someone would shush them and someone else would giggle.

And when the narration wrapped up, and the lights went back to normal, she wasn’t alone. Not even a little. Her phone chimed in her pocket, and she pulled it out in surprise.

“Oh yeah, they got everything working again,” Julius said, looking over her shoulder. “There was some kind of a doohickey.”

It was a text from her mom. ”Everything okay? We’re a few rows over. <3”

She sent back a thumbs up, and then a heart, and then she waved just in case. Maybe they weren’t quite okay, but they were getting there.

.

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