One: Fixing the Centre
The first phone call had been the most nerve-wracking.
“Hiya, Pete. How’s it goin’?”
“MacGyver! Where are you? Are you all right? What’s happened?” The words had spilled out in a rush, tumbling out from the mountain of worry Pete hadn’t been able to wish out of existence. Pete felt embarrassed at the outburst, but couldn’t stop it.
“Whaddya mean, what’s happened?”
“Well, are you in any kind of trouble? Is everything all right?”
It had been hard, incredibly hard, not having MacGyver around, even harder to stop thinking about it. No Mac to drop by the Phoenix building and grumble about a new assignment, or the lack of a new assignment. Or bug Pete about exercise or his eating habits, or bully him into another overambitious trip into the mountains – hiking, skiing, fishing – or simply show up at Pete’s office and chivvy him homewards, to order pizza or Chinese and grouse about how unhealthy it was before sprawling on the sofa to watch a rented movie. Or simply pace up and down, talking energetically about upcoming projects at Phoenix, or the latest promising street kids to wash up at the Challengers Club, his face shining with unquenchable optimism, flickering hands gesturing as if he was catching fireflies.
“We’re fine, Pete.” MacGyver sounded faintly injured at the suggestion that they might not be. “We’ve seen some real nice sunsets, Sam caught a whopper of a trout – and I came up empty-handed – and we managed to hit Death Valley right after it rained and saw the flowers. I think Sam took about a million pictures of them. You shoulda seen it – he went totally nuts.”
It had been brutal. The first week or so had been easy – Mac was often gone for longer than that – but by the time three weeks had gone by, Pete had grown testy. No Mac hanging out in the research labs, talking opaque technical nonsense with Willis, or teasing Helen at her desk, or sitting rapt at the computer terminals with his keyboard clicking like a forest of cicadas, or turning up in the Phoenix day care centre, fooling around with the staffers’ kids when he was supposed to be working.
“You’re sure you’re okay?”
“Whoa! What’s the big deal? Can’t I pick up a phone without bein’ in trouble?”
“You never have before.”
But more than anything else, it had been just plain impossible to stop worrying about him.
Even though it was damned foolish. And selfish. Pete had wanted MacGyver to take this road trip; he and Sam had twenty years of missed opportunities to make up for. And Mac had always been restless, always torn between the need for a fixed centre and the push to go find something new. For years, there had been enough interesting field work at Phoenix to keep him reasonably absorbed and contented . . . but even at the best of times, there had always been a tug from the rest of the world.
Sam had turned Mac’s life upside down, and staying still wasn’t Mac’s way of handling the change.
“You’re a trouble magnet, MacGyver. You both are. What am I supposed to expect?”
During the first call, it had been difficult to believe, even as Mac rambled cheerfully on about the road and the scenery and the odd people they’d met or seen, that there actually wasn’t some kind of trouble or problem. But when the call ended several minutes later and the other shoe hadn’t dropped, Pete sat looking at the receiver in his hand with a smile of fond wonder.
The next call came two weeks later, from the Grand Canyon. Mac was almost burbling with delight.
“Pete, can you believe I’ve never been here before? It’s practically in our backyard! And I missed it!”
“Where are you headed next?”
“Up to Utah, to the rock country around Moab. Sam’s never done any real rock climbing. He’d never seen the Grand Canyon either – heck, he really hasn’t seen that much, period. He’s spent most of his time in cities since making it out of China.”
“You’re not planning on hiking all the way to the bottom and back, are you?”
Mac’s answering laugh made Pete smile, but at the same time he felt his eyes growing moist – those maddening, unreliable eyes that were slowly shutting him up in a prison of inability.
“Way too late, Pete! We did that yesterday – it was amazing!”
* * *
After that, the calls grew more frequent, and eventually became fairly regular. It wasn’t until the sixth or seventh call that MacGyver actually asked for help with anything – they’d met someone on the road, a runaway kid who needed help from a more discreet source than social services. The operative Pete sent out cracked a teen prostitution ring; but by that time, Mac and Sam were in Yellowstone, and Mac was more interested in talking about Sam’s newest experiments in photography.
“Waaaay too much time in cities, Pete. He’s hardly ever even looked at scenery, and he’d never even thought about photographing it before. Can you believe that? You know what he said? ‘I always thought it would be boring, but it sure is easy to work with.’ ”
The sounds of a friendly tussle, and it was Sam on the line instead. “Well, it is easy! It just sits there and lets you pick your shot. And it never complains afterwards that you got its bad side.”
“So you two aren’t driving each other crazy yet?”
“Aw, I think it’s years too late for that.”
“Well, let me know if you need anything, okay?”
Pete’s offer had been almost a reflex, but the pause that followed on the other end had him sitting up, alert.
“Actually, Mr. Thornton – ”
“Please, Sam, just Pete will do.”
“Um, yeah. Anyway, there’s something . . . I mean, I’ve got my own network for selling my usual stuff . . . actually, they’re kind of pissed off at me right now ‘cause I haven’t sent them much lately, but I figure that’s their problem. Anyway, now Dad’s got me to try this nature shooting, and I don’t have any contacts for that kind of material. If you know anyone who could give me a lead or two, that’d be great.”
A warm glow burned through Pete at the casual word ‘Dad’. He felt his face relax into a broad smile. How long had it been since he’d felt like smiling? “Sure, no problem. I’ll ask the head of our photography staff here – I bet she knows half a dozen people in the right part of the business. We can – ”
Sam interrupted. “One thing – I’m not asking for a free trip. It’s a whole new market and I just don’t have the contacts yet. But I don’t want any favours, understand? At this rate, I should have a portfolio ready for presentation in another month or so, and if the work isn’t good enough to stand on its own, I don’t want anybody propping it up. Okay?”
Pete tried to keep the catch out of his throat. Over the phone, the voices were very similar, but the personalities were even more alike. “Don’t worry, Sam. No matter what your father tells you, I really do know when to stop meddling. Which is more than he usually knows. And you can tell him I said so.”
Sam laughed, comfortably and easily. “Anyway, here’s Dad again. Thanks, um, thanks, Pete!”
Pete heard Mac pick up the line again, but he didn’t wait for him to start talking. “Nature photography, huh? Is he any good?”
The pause before Mac replied might have meant trouble brewing – another man might have been fumbling for a tactful evasion, but Pete knew Mac too well to make that mistake. He sighed with relief, then smiled at his own anxiety. How could MacGyver’s son be anything but talented?
“He’s beyond terrific, Pete. You know his mom was a photojournalist too. He’s just got this amazing eye. You know he’s been doing newspaper work all this time – he said he learned to look for the right instant and catch it. And somehow, he’s got this knack of taking a picture so it feels like everything’s alive and moving. Almost breathing. Even when it’s just, y’know, rocks.”
“That sounds great.”
“We’re gonna be going up into the back country tomorrow – he wants to try out wildlife shots. We had to sidetrack all the way to Denver first so he could get another lens.” Pete could hear how bright Mac’s smile must be. “We’ve, um, been playin’ kind of a catch-up game . . . the lens was his birthday present.”
“Yeah? Which birthday?”
“All of ’em. You know how much those things cost?”
* * *
The first call from Sam was precipitated by the first real fight. That call didn’t actually go to Pete; Sam and Helen had hit it off strongly during the restless weeks of waiting for Mac’s broken arm to heal. The call went to Helen, but she was in Pete’s office five minutes after ringing off.
“Just don’t tell me either of them jumped on a motorcycle and roared off in a fit of temper.”
“No, it sounds as if they’re simply avoiding the subject and snapping at each other with every supposedly unrelated sentence.”
Pete ran a hand over his aching eyes. “Anything we can do to help them?”
“Not unless our research department’s cooked up a cure for pride, or stubbornness. Or youth.”
“Oh, we’ve got a cure for youth. The problem is, it’s too damned slow to be of any help.”
Helen laid a hand on Pete’s shoulder. “They’ll work it out. Give them time. MacGyver’s never been any good at carrying grudges. He gets bored too quickly to go on sulking. We knew it was bound to happen sooner or later.”
“Well, you did. Thank you for not saying ‘I told you so’.”
Helen smiled grimly. “It took my youngest son an extra five years before he decided to go to college after all. And he had to decide it for himself – which meant he had to find out, the hard way, that the degree he didn’t have was actually worth something. You can pull all the strings you like – line up a dozen colleges, call in favours, arrange scholarships – but in the end, nothing really matters unless Sam decides that he want it himself.”
Usually, striking camp was quick and easy; both of them were used to traveling light. But even the most relaxed style of travel calls for cooperation. The running argument had been running on and off for three days now, mostly running in circles.
“I don’t need a damned college degree. I have all the work I want – sometimes more than I really need! I’ve been doin’ fine for almost three years now.”
Sam still had to watch himself, so he didn’t slip into juicier language. At first, it had annoyed him that his father was so touchy about swearing – between Viet Nam and the Los Angeles slums, MacGyver must have heard every foul word in several different languages hundreds of times over. You’d think he’d be immune to it . . . but he wasn’t. And somehow, Sam found that his father’s attitude mattered to him. Instead of breaking out into really serious obscenities to gain the upper hand, he found himself holding back firmly from scoring such an easy point.
“I don’t owe anybody anything, and I can damned well take care of myself!”
“Okay, fine. You don’t need one now. Later – ”
“Then I’ll get one later!”
In the end, they agreed not to discuss it for a while. Just how they were supposed to figure out how long ‘a while’ might be wasn’t discussed either.
Privately, late at night in his office, Pete caught himself wishing that the rift wouldn’t close – that MacGyver would abandon the road trip and come back home. He scowled at the oversized images on his computer screen. No. He didn’t really want that. Wherever they were going, they had to get there before there could be any thought of returning.
And they might not come back at all; or come back irretrievably changed. Pete remembered some of his own trips, including a particular one, years ago, into the deep desert of the Empty Quarter. He almost hadn’t come back from that trip . . . and he hadn’t even realised at the time that his life had taken its most important turn on that journey, out there under the blazing sun.
It was some time before the next call came, and by then the tension seemed to have eased, or at least been set aside for the time being. Mac and Sam were in Banff, and Mac was mostly interested in telling Pete about Sam’s inexplicable preference for snowboarding over skiing.
“Just tell me you aren’t riding those blasted motorcycles in the snow, okay?”
“C’mon, Pete. I’m not actually crazy – ”
Even though I’ve had colleagues from half the intelligence services on the planet insist that you are . . . Pete dismissed the thought.
“ – we left the bikes with an old college buddy of mine when we hit the snow zone. We were gonna rent a Jeep, but Matt insisted on lending us his.”
“So how’s it going?”
There was an exasperated sound from the other end of the line. “Turns out Sam really doesn’t like cold weather. He says he had enough of it growin’ up in Chicago – that’s part of why he made a beeline for California when he headed out on his own.”
* * *
“You mean you never even really finished high school? You just dropped out?”
“You don’t understand! I was bored!”
“Sam . . . ” Mac hunted for words. He did understand, all too well – if it hadn’t been for two of his own high school teachers, who had gone miles above and beyond the call of duty to keep an intractably inquisitive student challenged and focused, he would have cracked himself. As it was, there had been plenty of days when the only thing keeping him in school was the fear of disappointing his mother. Sam hadn’t had that motivation – or that restriction.
“Anyway, I didn’t just drop out. I got my GED, and I went to work.” Sam was bent over the map, running a finger along the dotted line of the Forest Service road they were hoping to follow . . . assuming it hadn’t been snowed in yet.
“What about your foster parents? Didn’t they try to stop you?”
“Your foster parents. The couple you said raised you. Your mom’s friends. You never talk about them, you never call them.” MacGyver tugged at the edge of the map, and Sam’s eyes followed the dotted line off the edge of the page and up to meet his father’s eyes. “Sam, are they dead?” Aw, man, did you lose them too?
Sam’s face had set into a mask of stubbornness. “They’re still alive.”
“Then what is wrong with you? All this time we’ve been on the road – I’ve been callin’ Pete, and you haven’t called anybody but your editors.” MacGyver let go of the map and studied his son’s face. “They leaned on you to go to college, didn’t they? Your foster parents?”
“Dad, would you stop doin’ that?”
“What? Makin’ guesses?”
“Getting them right.” Sam pushed the map away, stuffed his hands into his pockets, hunched his shoulders, turned away. Mac dropped the subject.
It was five days before that part of the conversation resumed. They’d fallen easily into that pattern – they could be silent together for hours, or just talk about the immediate needs of the moment, or discuss some unrelated item – and then pick up the thread of a conversation from days before, as long as it was important enough.
This one was as important as it got.
“They weren’t really my foster parents.”
“What?” They were sitting in a diner somewhere east of Crowheart, Wyoming, waiting for breakfast. Mac had been studying the surface of his orange juice; Sam had been wondering if he’d ever get used to the way all the waitresses ogled his father when they thought no-one was watching. Or how he never even seemed to notice they were doing it.
Mac set the orange juice down. “But you said – ”
“I said they were journalist friends of my mom’s. They wanted to adopt me, or at least, you know, get formal court custody, but they couldn’t.” Sam found himself examining his coffee, fighting the flush he was sure was creeping up his neck. “We just kinda laid low for a lot of years, so the courts wouldn’t interfere . . . they were always afraid I’d be taken away. We moved around a lot, too, but I didn’t mind that. I was used to it.”
He glanced up at his father uneasily, and saw simple puzzlement on Mac’s face.
“I don’t understand.”
“Dad – ” Sam looked pained. “They were both guys. Okay? Now do you get it?”
“Oh.” Mac picked up his drinking straw from the table, twiddled it between his fingers. “Yeah, that’d be a real problem when it came to adoption.” He ran a thumbnail along the straw, opening up a slit, picked up another straw and threaded it through, bent the ends to form a wobbly platform with legs. He began to add toothpicks as triangular braces. “Do they know you found me?”
“Well, yeah, of course . . . I haven’t been totally out of touch, I just . . . ”
“You just made sure I wasn’t around when you called them.” Mac started to add another level to his platform.
“Um, yeah.” Sam picked up one of the straw wrappers and began to fold it in his fingers, his thumbnail making sharp creases in the paper.
“You figured I’d freak out?”
“Well . . . yeah.”
Sam bent over his improvised origami, adding more straw wrappers, weaving them into a small square, then crimping the square into a flower shape. It was a long moment before he looked at MacGyver’s face again. When he did, he met a matter-of fact, expectant look.
“So when do I get to meet them?” When Sam couldn’t answer, Mac picked up the woven paper flower and balanced it on top of his drinking-straw tower as he continued. “Or are you afraid we’ll all gang up on you over the college thing? Three dads all lecturing you at once – no wonder you didn’t want to tell me.”
* * *
From Banff, they had turned south again; in mid-December, they left the motorcycles with another one of Mac’s apparently inexhaustible supply of friends, and boarded a plane for LA. For the first time ever, MacGyver attended the Phoenix Christmas party.
It had been an impulse, and he started to regret it before he’d rung off – but Pete had seemed so delighted, and had dived into the arrangements before MacGyver could start having any second thoughts. He’d called Helen in to his office while Mac was still on the phone, sworn her to secrecy, and set her to work. This close to the holidays, it took some of Pete’s best string-pulling to get airplane seats for Mac and Sam; and when the seats turned out to be first class, MacGyver felt uncomfortably embarrassed.
“What’s the big deal?” Sam wanted to know. “It’s not like you conned anyone out of these seats.”
Mac smiled faintly. “I’ve done full-blown con jobs before without feeling like this.” He regretted the words the moment they left his mouth and he saw Sam’s face light up with fascination and excitement.
“No kidding? Real cons? I mean, like, the Sting and all that?”
Mac shrugged and nodded sheepishly. For the rest of the flight, he had to fill Sam in on the details. So what’s your old man do for a living, kid? Oh, he lies, cheats, steals, smuggles, gets into fights, breaks into anything that’s got a lock, and dabbles in sabotage on the side. Once in a while, for variety, he blows stuff up. What a great role model.
But the legroom in first class had been, well, first-class. And he owed Pete for it. Which meant he couldn’t say ‘no’ to what Pete and Helen had planned for the party.
“Just one question, Pete – do you always dress up as Santa for these?”
Pete adjusted his ill-fitting white beard and patted the oversized stomach. “I’ve been telling you for years that you ought to come. If only for the laughs.” Pete lowered his voice to a whisper. “But you know the best part?”
“After I’ve worn this get-up for an hour or two, I get to take all the padding off, and I actually feel thin for a few minutes.” Pete winked and bounded out onto the stage in the huge main auditorium at Phoenix, haranguing the crowd about their past misdeeds.
“Don’t let the white cane fool you – I see you when you’re sleeping. Especially when you nod off during staff meetings. Speaking of which, somebody better wake up Willis. It’s time for his nap.”
When Pete made a grand gesture with his cane to summon the ‘elf’ with his sack of presents, MacGyver picked up the bag – a huge prop item filled with foam, light as a feather – and Sam helped him position it just right.
At first, all the crowd saw was Santa’s giant toy bag, carried onto the stage by some poor sap in faded jeans and sneakers, his body completely hidden by the bag. When Mac dropped it at Pete’s feet and the rest of the Phoenix staff saw who it was, pandemonium broke out.
As the crowd surged up on stage to engulf him, Mac swore he could actually hear Pete shouting, “Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas!” Pete, I am so gonna get you for this one.
In the end, it wasn’t too bad. MacGyver was hugged and squeezed, pummeled and pounded, and kissed repeatedly – and that part mostly wasn’t bad at all. There had been holiday punch and other indulgences, but most of the Phoenix crowd weren’t the type to get stupidly drunk at parties, although one of the women on Willis’ research staff kept trying to tell him her life story.
Sam had come in for his share of the attention as well; and to Mac’s surprise, he didn’t seem especially comfortable in the large, cheerfully affectionate crowd either – he was at least as antsy as his father. Eventually, Mac sought refuge in the cozy waiting room off the main lobby of the Phoenix building, and found Sam already there, studying the photos of Phoenix personnel that decked the walls.
“Wow. They sure missed you.” The reception at Mac’s surprise return visit to the Challengers Club had been just as enthusiastic, but at least the crowd had been a lot smaller, and mostly composed of kids.
“Aw, they’re just havin’ a tough time adjusting to the need to hire a real plumber when things break down.” MacGyver settled into the overstuffed sofa beside the bookshelf that covered one entire wall.
“Dad . . . ” Sam had spent most of the last half-hour studying the big map on the wall, wondering how many of the flagged Phoenix projects that dotted its relief surface marked his father’s achievements. “I hadn’t really thought about it – the road trip and everything. I’ve been taking you away from your work – ”
Mac cut him off. “Sam, you’re my work right now. Don’t you get that?”
His heart sank when Sam looked at him with narrowed eyes. “So once I agree to go to college, your work’s done? And you can get back to your life?”
“That is not what I meant!” Mac started to pull himself up from the sofa. That’s why I hate parties. People fight at parties. Or afterwards.
They both turned their heads with sudden relief when they heard the tapping sound just outside the doorway. Pete’s white cane appeared, followed by a jovial Pete. He had changed out of the Santa costume but still wore the smirk. “Well, here you are! I wondered how long it would last before you found some place to den up.”
Mac looked sheepish. Sam glanced at the wall map and wondered what it would take to get Pete to really start talking about it – or, better yet, the illuminated wall map display up in the Operations centre. The markings on this map were sanitised, only showing the projects on the public side of Phoenix. The Ops map, on the other hand – that would be worth hearing about.
Pete easily located the armchair nearest the door and settled into it. “MacGyver, it’s so good to see you again. I’m really glad you made it.” Underneath the joy, Pete was sharply alert. With the ever darker fog shrouding his narrowed world, he was learning to understand people’s expressions without seeing them clearly – sometimes without seeing them at all. He was certain that Mac was bracing himself against expected pressure to come back to Phoenix. Instead, Pete asked, “Where are you two going next?”
There was the barest hint of a moment’s catch before Mac answered, and Pete knew he’d read it right. “Well, we haven’t really decided yet – ”
“Somewhere warm,” Sam said, very decidedly.
“ – somewhere warm, I guess.”
“No kidding? I can’t blame you for that, Sam – I’m not that fond of ice and snow myself. Have you thought about Hawaii? You can’t exactly drive there, but I bet you could rent motorcycles once you’d arrived.”
Sam’s face lit up at the thought, but Mac raised an eyebrow. “Pete, I sure hope you’re not about to mention, casually, that there’s a job you need done in Hawaii, if I just happen to be going that way . . . ”
“MacGyver!” Pete looked injured. “Would I do that?”
“In a minute.”
“You know what really amazes me? All these months and you’ve actually managed to keep out of trouble. It’s hard to believe. No, scratch that – it’s almost impossible to believe.” And there it was: Pete felt the shift, and looked from one set of dark, suddenly opaque eyes to the other. His own eyes took on a look of exasperation. “MacGyver . . . is there something you haven’t told me about?”
“Um . . . ” Mac chewed his lip. Sam broke in.
“Dad, that’s his totally-not-buying-it-face, right?”
“Yup.” Mac tucked his thumbs into his pockets and gave Sam a rueful look. “That’s the one.”