Chapter 1: Trager Dinner
The Trager Family was just finishing dinner. There had been pot roast with carrots and onions, mash potatoes and gravy and a large salad, usually a favorite meal at the Trager household but tonight there were still plenty of leftovers.
"Lori, you've barely touched your dinner," Nicole said. "You need to eat."
Lori stared glumly at her mostly full plate of food, "I don't really feel like eating."
Nicole gave her a sympathetic look, "It's normal to suffer a period of depression when you're dealing with a loss. It's still important to keep your energy level up."
Kyle glanced down at his plate which still contained a significant portion of his dinner and then at Jessi's plate as well. She had demonstrated a similar lack of appetite. Their eyes met and they exchanged a grim smile.
"Mark isn't so much lost as discarded, "Lori said, "the jerk."
"Well, you've lost the trust and companionship you had," Nicole glanced around the table, "Everyone seems to be down, no one's eating. Is there something wrong with dinner?"
"I'm eating," Josh reached for more mashed potatoes.
"I don't think anything would spoil Josh's appetite," Stephen said with a smile. "This whole thing has been stressful for all of us. I had to tell Mark that he needed to get a new job."
Lori looked up, "You didn't have to fire him, Dad. Not on my account."
"I most certainly did," Stephen said, "I can't have someone I don't trust working as my TA. I thought we had an agreement, a form of trust. But he was working against Kyle and Jessi. He was dishonest with you. He can't work against my family and work for me."
"Is he going to be able to get another position?" Nicole asked.
"Probably," Stephen said. "My problems with him don't have anything to do with his actual work. He did a fine job as my TA." He shrugged, "If I'm asked to give a recommendation, I'll just say we had a personality clash."
Kyle glanced at Jessi and then said, "There's something we have to tell you."
The seriousness of his tone even stopped Josh from eating, he had their attention. Nicole asked, "What is it, Kyle?"
"Tom Foss is dead."
Lori looked up in surprise, and Nicole looked stricken, tilting her head as she did when uncertain as to what to say.
"What happened?" Stephen asked.
I told them how we had used Mark's cell phone to track Cassidy's location. I explained how we had gone with Foss and Declan to search his place to see if he was starting the experiment again. I told them what we had found and that while we were looking at the pods Cassidy had burst in upon us and tried to kill me and how Foss had placed his body in the way of the bullets and died. I explained how Declan had then shot Cassidy to save my life.
"Declan killed Cassidy?" Lori raised her eyebrows in surprise.
"What did you tell the police?" Nicole asked. "It was clearly a case of self defense. Are there going to be any charges?"
"The police weren't involved," Kyle said.
I told them how we had cleaned up the blood and wrapped the bodies in sheets from Cassidy's house. I told how we had driven them to Adam Baylin's estate and had buried them there.
"You three kids took two dead people and buried them by yourselves?" Nicole asked with a combination of shock and concern. "That's highly illegal."
"It's what Tom Foss did with the man who was going to kill me," Jessi explained. "He and Declan buried him in the woods. Foss showed Declan how to bury a body."
"We couldn't involve the police, Nicole," Kyle said. "The place was full of pods. The whole experiment would have been public and everything about us with it. We would have been on international news."
"What if someone finds the graves on Adam Baylin's estate?" Nicole asked.
"Who owns Adam Baylin's estate now, anyway?" Stephen asked.
"I do," Kyle said.
I explained how Foss had given me my inheritance from Adam, the property and other assets that Adam had left for me when I became 'of age'.
"So, no one's going to be looking closely," Kyle explained. "And Foss did show Declan how to bury a body so that no one would notice." He added reassuringly, "It would be hard to see the graves if you didn't know where to look."
"Isn't someone going to be looking for Cassidy?" Nicole asked. "Won't that cause an investigation?"
"Cassidy worked very hard to disappear," Jessi said. "He wanted to be invisible. No one is going to notice he's gone."
"Grace will know," Nicole objected. "Trust me. A mother is going to notice her child is missing."
"That's true," Kyle agreed grimly. "But they haven't been in communications lately. They didn't want us to find him through her. We'll have to deal with Grace eventually, but we have some time. And Grace won't want the police involved either."
"What about the other members of 'Dark Latnok'?" Stephen asked. "With Foss gone, who's going to watch over the two of you?"
"Robert Lukeson has been arrested by the FBI," Kyle said. "He's going to prison. He pled guilty and gave them information about Paul Milworth in exchange for a shorter sentence." Kyle sighed, "Paul Milworth committed suicide rather than be arrested."
"How do you know all that?" Stephen asked, perplexed. "I haven't seen anything about this on the news."
"We monitored the FBI communications," Jessi explained in a matter of fact manner.
"You monitored the FBI communications," Stephen said, shaking his head. "If I hadn't watched the two of you crack high level encryptions in minutes I would find that hard to believe."
"So all that's left is Grace," Kyle said. "We don't think she wants to harm either of us, especially not without the others."
"Declan will help keep us safe," Jessi assured them. "Tom trained him. He saved Kyle."
"How is Declan?" Lori asked.
"Yes," Nicole added, "How is Declan? This has to have been a very traumatic experience for him. How's he dealing with it?" She paused and expanded her question, "How are you all dealing with it?" She added, almost to herself, "I don't even know how I'm dealing with it."
"It's hard, Nicole," Kyle admitted. "It all happened so fast and then we just did what we had to. It might be good for you to talk to Declan, maybe you could help him. Jessi and I are worried about him."
"It would be unethical for me to treat him," Nicole said, "with all the connections to our family." She added, thoughtfully, "I could recommend a therapist for him."
"I don't think he can talk about this to anyone outside the family and a very small number of people who know about us," Kyle objected.
"A therapist has a professional obligation to maintain confidentiality," Nicole assured him.
"I think this may be too big of a secret to fit into the normal rules of confidentiality," Kyle objected. "Either they wouldn't believe him and then try to 'cure' him of his delusion, or they would believe him and decide they needed to contact someone."
Nicole thought for a moment and agreed, "I'm afraid you might be right. I can't see him formally, but I can talk to him as a friend of the family." She smiled and shrugged, "I'm fudging a bit there, but it won't be the first time."
Stephen asked, "You said you found a warehouse full of empty pods. So, Cassidy hadn't started the experiment again after all?"
"He'd started it on a much smaller scale than last time," Kyle said. "Jessi was able to hack into his computer and find the records. He had another small facility here in Seattle with two functioning pods."
"More clones of you, Kyle?" Nicole asked.
"One of each of us," Kyle said. "He cloned Jessi this time too."
"How far developed were they?" Nicole asked.
"Seven months," Jessi answered.
Nicole looked deeply concerned. She hesitantly asked, "Did you..."
Kyle smiled, "They're fine Nicole. They're too far developed for us to shut down the pods. We're letting them continue to develop."
"What are you going to do with them," Stephen asked.
"In two more months they'll have full normal development," Kyle said. "We intend to take them out then." He looked at Nicole, "We want to have them adopted by families, to have normal lives. Can you help us arrange that?"
"Of course, I'll be glad to." Nicole frowned, "We'll have to build a paper trail, so that they have the documents they need to be legally adopted."
Kyle nodded, "That shouldn't be hard. Adam Baylin put together the Petersen's documentation for me, including faking a DNA match. It will be much easier to document a newborn baby than a sixteen year old with amnesia."
"Will they be super geniuses like you and Jessi?" Josh asked.
"They'll be normal, like Jessi and I would have been if we had been born normally," Kyle answered with a smile. "They're duplicates of our genetic makeup."
"Although we would probably have been highly intelligent," Jessi observed. "Adam and Sarah were incredibly brilliant and Brian and Grace have high IQ's as well. The babies will probably be very smart."
"But no moving water with their minds," Kyle said with a smile.
Nicole smiled, "It'll be good to have something positive come out of this. There are a lot of people who would make wonderful parents for healthy, intelligent babies." She looked pleadingly at Kyle, "Will this family ever have a normal life again?"
Kyle smiled, "I was asking myself that the other night." He glanced at Jessi and made momentary eye contact. "I think that Jessi and I are always going to be doing something unusual. We aren't really going to lead 'normal' lives." He looked at Nicole earnestly, "But I think we have finally dealt with the dangerous people who were part of Latnok. We have a few issues to clean up, but I think the future's looking bright."
Chapter 2: Lori's Room
Lori was lying on her side on her bed, looking out her bedroom window when Jessi knocked gently on her doorframe.
"What do you want?" She asked in a grumpy, depressed voice.
"To come into your room," Jessi said. "You like it when I knock first."
"Come on in, Jessi," Lori turned over to look at her, "although I have to warn you, I'm terrible company right now."
"You haven't been working on your songs," Jessi said, sitting down.
"Every time I pick up my guitar, I think of Mark and then I start to cry."
"You should put those feelings into a song." Jessi suggested. "You started playing the guitar when you broke up with Declan. You put your feelings about him into your songs."
"I started playing the guitar because it was something different than what I had been doing," Lori explained, "something that I hadn't done when I was with Declan. I needed a change. The songs have always been what Mark and I did together. I can't do it without him."
"Why not?" Jessi asked. "You wrote songs before you met Mark."
"I suppose I did," Lori reluctantly agreed. "But I've gotten used to having him give me advice."
"I could give you advice," Jessi offered.
"Thank you," Lori said with a smile, "but songs ..."
"Songs are about people and their feelings." Jessi nodded. "I don't understand people well."
"You're getting better," Lori assured her.
"But you've always been good at it," Jessi said.
"I've had more years of practice." Lori thought for a moment and added, "It's just that everything I've done with my music since I met Mark has been because he helped me. He got me the chance to play at 'Pockets'. He recorded my first demo disk."
"But you are recording demo disks at a studio now. And Gary Baker would still want you to play at 'Pockets', even without Mark."
"Are you sure?" Lori asked. "Mark arranged it with him, that's why he invited me."
"The audience likes you," Jessi assured her. "Their reaction gets stronger every time you play. I can tell."
"Do you really think that?" Lori asked. "You're not just saying it just to make me feel better?"
"I always say what I really think," Jessi responded, puzzled.
"I suppose you do," Lori agreed with a chuckle. "I guess I could call Gary."
"You should. I'm sure he wants you to come back," Jessi stood up and picked up Lori's guitar then held it out to her, "You should practice. The family misses your music."
Jessi just smiled at her and held out the guitar.
"You do say what you really think," Lori nodded. She reached out and took the guitar. "It is a nice instrument," She commented. She tentatively strummed an E minor and listened to it as the melancholy sound echoed off her walls. She pursed her lips and strummed a firm D. She looked up to Jessi and shrugged, "I have to get the anger out first; we can do the minor key songs later."
Jessi smiled and then left her as she concentrated on finding the chord sequence that matched her mood.
Chapter 3: Kyle's Room
Kyle was sitting at his computer when Jessi came into his room. She stopped next to him and looked over her shoulder at the door then bent down to kiss him before sitting in the chair next to him.
Kyle guiltily double checked to make sure no one was watching. Something caught his attention. He listened for a moment and smiled, "Lori's playing again." He looked at Jessi, "Did you say something to her?"
"I told her that the family missed her music," Jessi said.
"I did," Kyle admitted. "The silence reminded me how unhappy she's been. It's been hard for her since we found out about Mark."
"What are you working on?" Jessi pointed at the screen in front of him.
"I've been looking at the fusion idea," Kyle said, "using the atomic lattice structures that we designed for the quantum battery. I've been looking at ways of using the same approach to building a structure that would facilitate fusion. I think this might work."
"You're constructing funnels which will allow you to multiply the pressure applied by several orders of magnitude as the flow narrows to the size of our battery channels," Jessi observed, looking at his diagram. "You're planning on putting the hydrogen in under pressure and using that multiplication to override the natural repulsion?"
"That's essentially the idea," Kyle nodded. "The fusion would take place in the small channels and the heat and products would go out the exit channels, right here," he pointed to a part of the diagram. "The neutrons will, of course, go in all directions so it would need shielding."
Jessi frowned, "I think the compression will be close but not sufficient for significant fusion."
"That's what these perpendicular channels are for," Kyle pointed at another place on the diagram. "These are more like the channels in the quantum battery. By charging them we can slightly move the wave form of the channel walls adding further compression. This would have to be pulsed rapidly."
"And the fusion would occur on the pulses," Jessi nodded. "It might work. We should model it on our computer system. We haven't been using it for anything since Madacorp got their quantum battery pilot program in production."
"It should be much faster to model," Kyle suggested. "We understand the lattice structure much better now that we've built the batteries."
"I can write the model if you'd like," Jessi offered. "I'll get started on it tomorrow."
"That would be great," Kyle said. He met Jessi's eyes and they leaned toward each other and kissed then suddenly separated and sat back, "Nicole," Kyle said, turning toward the doorway.
Nicole was standing, hesitantly in the doorway.
"Nicole, I'm sorry," Kyle apologized. "We didn't know anyone was watching."
Nicole tilted her head and smiled, "Kyle, I know I've asked you to be discreet, but I don't want you to be paranoid, either. By now we've all gotten used to the two of you being a couple." She shrugged, "Just don't have a make out session on the couch, Ok?"
"Ok," Kyle agreed with a smile. Jessi looked happy at Nicole's acceptance of their kiss as well.
The smile on Nicole's face faded and she began, "There's something I need to ask you."
"What is it, Nicole?" Kyle asked anxiously.
"Two more people who were your enemies have died, Kyle," Nicole said. "I know that Jessi wanted Cassidy to be punished for her mother's death, and the Latnok guy -- Milworth -- he was potentially dangerous." She took a breath, "Did you arrange that too?"
"No, Nicole," Kyle assured her. "We gave the authorities the information we had on Paul Milworth and Robert Lukeson. We expected that they would be arrested and probably go to prison for what they did. Robert Lukeson has. We were surprised by Paul Milworth committing suicide."
"And Michael Cassidy?" Nicole asked, looking at Jessi.
"I'm glad he's dead," Jessi said firmly. "He killed my mother." She opened her hands, "If we had arranged it, Tom wouldn't be dead."
"He just surprised us," Kyle added, "and started shooting."
Nicole took a breath, "I just had to know. It was bothering me. I know both of them were killers and the world is better off without them, but I don't like the idea of the two of you taking the law into your own hands."
"We didn't, Nicole," Kyle said. "All we did was to tell the authorities about Paul Milworth. Cassidy was an accident. We didn't plan that at all."
Nicole nodded and then sighed, "I'm still having a hard time wrapping my head around the three of you burying two people. It's not the kind of thing I ever thought I would have to deal with in my family."
"I'm sorry I brought this into your family," Kyle said. "We didn't know what else to do."
"It's our family, Kyle," Nicole said. She glanced at Jessi and added, "All of us." She hesitated, "I don't know what else you could have done either. I'm just worried about where this is all going to take us. There's so much you've had to do, things that teenagers should never have to face."
"We're not normal teenagers," Jessi stated.
"That's certainly true," Nicole agreed with a wry smile. She looked at Kyle, "Never think that I am unhappy that you and Jessi are here. Life just isn't as simple as it used to be. We can all cope, I'm just trying to figure out what to expect."
"You should have less to cope with from now on, Nicole," Kyle assured her. "I promise."
"I hope so," Nicole said. She shrugged, "I guess I'll let you get back to what you were doing." She turned and left the room, closing the door behind her.
Jessi smiled at the tacit permission and leaned over and kissed Kyle. He enthusiastically returned the kiss.
Chapter 4: Kesdet Consulting
Jessi keyed the password into the Kesdet entry keypad while Kyle stood waiting next to her. He commented, "Declan's already here, his car's over there." He pointed at Declan's SUV.
She opened the door and they went inside carefully locking it behind them. They climbed the stairs to the place where, until recently, Tom Foss had lived. Declan was sitting at the monitors fast forwarding through the recordings of the outside of the Trager and Bloom houses.
"I thought I'd catch up on reviewing the video," Declan explained.
"I don't think we have anything to worry about," Kyle objected. "I doubt Grace is going to do anything threatening and everyone else is accounted for."
"Brian is still hiding something," Jessi reminded him.
"Yes, but I think he sincerely wishes us well," Kyle said. "I don't know what he's keeping secret, but I don't think that he's a threat to us or the Tragers."
"It's my job to keep an eye on things," Declan said with a tired voice. "When things were quiet, Foss wouldn't watch the monitors real time, just review the record to make sure nothing suspicious was happening. It doesn't take long to review exterior views looking for anything suspicious."
"How have you been?" Jessi asked.
Declan sighed, "It's been hard to sleep. I keep seeing the surprised look on his face, the blood on his chest." He looked down at the floor. "I know it was necessary."
"It's supposed to bother you," Jessi assured him. "It's the price you have to pay. Tom told me that it means that you're still human."
Kyle advised, "You should talk to Nicole. She's worried about you. She said that she would be willing to talk with you informally. She's good, Declan, she can help you."
"She is good," Jessi agreed. "You should talk to her."
"Maybe I will," Declan agreed. "The sleeping pills aren't doing it for me." He sighed, "Let's get this done."
Kyle glanced around the room at the few possessions that Foss had left behind, his eyes coming to rest on the picture of his wife and daughter. "Erica and Sara," Kyle said. "He never told me their names, not until the end."
Declan's mouth turned down, "I haven't wanted to touch his things. When they're gone, it will really feel like he's gone." He pointed to a pile of boxes in the corner, "I've got some boxes to put them in. I was just waiting for you two to get here. It will be easier with help."
"What are we going to do with his things?" Kyle asked.
"We can just leave appliances, tools and things like that in place and use them," Declan said. "They weren't personal. The rest we can store. He never had many things." He glanced at Kyle, "I'll keep his gun, if you don't mind." His voice broke slightly as he added, "It's just like mine."
"Of course," Kyle said.
In a short time we were able to sort through Tom Foss's small number of possessions. He had few of them. As Declan had said, some of them were simple tools and utensils which we left for us to use in the office, there were his clothes and a small number of personal items which we packed. There was also a surprising amount of ammunition and a couple of other guns that Declan hadn't known about. He took possession of them as well.
"I've saved this for last," Declan said, picking up the picture. "This was probably the only thing he owned that he really cared about." He put it into the last box and started to close it. He stopped and looked at the box for a moment, then opened it and took the picture back out. "I think I want to leave it out." He looked at them and shrugged apologetically, "I'm not ready to put it away, yet." No one commented. He sealed the remaining items in the box and put the picture back on the console, "That's it."
"There's still his safe," Kyle said.
"Do you think you can open it?" Declan asked.
Jessi smiled and went to the keypad and tried combinations for a few moments. The safe opened. She looked inside, "There's just this folder." She pulled out a thin manila folder. On the front it said, 'Declan', inside were a small number of papers and a DVD. She handed Declan the DVD and handed the folder to Kyle.
"There are signed documents transferring a couple of bank accounts into Declan's name," Kyle said. "Here's one for his car as well." He looked at Declan, "He obviously intended for you to have his assets."
Declan sighed and put the DVD into the computer. As it spun up, the video player appeared and Tom Foss's image appeared on the screen.
Foss's image spoke, "Declan, if you're watching this, I'm probably dead." He took a breath, "Don't feel sorry for me, I don't mind. The real Tom Foss died years ago in that crash. I'm just what's left, a man stuck with a gift that he didn't want who couldn't bring himself to throw it away. I only hope that when the time came, I did something useful with it." He swallowed, "I guess you know the answer to that."
Declan glanced at Kyle, there was a tear running down his cheek. Declan rubbed his own cheek to erase the matching one.
"You've been a good student and studied hard. You're far more than a failed basketball player. You're a promising young man and I'm proud to have been able to work with you. I've tried to get you started on learning all the things you'll need to learn. With me gone, you'll have to seek out other teachers, spend time on the range and learn all you can. What you learn in your classes will matter too. If you face difficulties, you may have to hire people with backgrounds like mine to help. But remember, you have the most important thing already, you're loyal to Kyle. Loyalty is everything. You've always watched his back. You can't trust anyone to care as much as you do."
"I've left papers to transfer the few assets I have to you. Most of that is what's left from the funds Adam Baylin left me to look after Kyle. Use them to look after Kyle and Jessi. I'm counting on you to keep them safe. They're going to change the world." Foss smiled, "Remember what I said about the trophy." He paused for a moment and then added, "Good luck."
The screen went blank and they sat looking at it. Kyle broke the silence by asking, "What trophy?"
"Foss told me that when the team won, everyone got to hold up the trophy, not just the stars of the team," Declan explained.
Kyle nodded, "Is that what you want to do, Declan, spend your time watching out for us, helping us?"
"Of course, Kyle," Declan assured him, "I've always had your back. I've always asked you to just keep me in the loop."
"I will, but I think the threat is much less now that we have dealt with Latnok," Kyle said. "I'm not sure how much security we're going to need."
"Good," Declan said. "I'll get to learn and practice before you stir up your next hornet's nest."
"I'm not sure there are going to be any more hornets," Kyle objected.
"Zzyzx, then Madacorp, then Latnok?" Declan asked. "You always seem to find another one. I'll just keep reviewing the monitors every couple of days. If nothing happens it won't take long to do." He thought for a moment, "But I'm not sure what I am going to do when you go off to school. Are you going to live in the dorms?"
"We haven't decided," Kyle said. "Why?"
"It's easy to watch the perimeter of a house like the Tragers," Declan explained. "I'm not sure how to monitor a dorm room." He glanced at Jessi, "I'm sure you won't want cameras inside your rooms."
"If it's easier to protect a house," Jessi observed, "maybe we should buy a house near the campus." She smiled at Kyle, "I'd like living with you in a house, our house."
Kyle reddened and agreed, "It would be nice." He glanced at Declan.
Declan smiled and said, "It would make my job easier."
"We can think about it," Kyle said. "I'm not sure Nicole would approve."
"Part of going off to college is establishing your independence," Jessi said. "That's what Nicole told Lori."
"That's true," Kyle agreed.
Chapter 5: Trager Kitchen
Nicole was sitting at the kitchen counter sipping tea and looking at a journal. She looked up as Kyle and Jessie came into the room with concerned looks on their faces. Without saying anything they sat at the counter across from her. She set her tea down and looked at them questioningly.
"Nicole," Kyle began hesitantly, "We're having a disagreement about something and Jessi suggested that we ask for your advice."
"The two of you are disagreeing?" Nicole asked in amazement, "That's unusual. What do you think I could help you with?"
"It's an ethical issue," Kyle explained. "It came up when we were discussing approaches for extracting the babies safely from their pods once they're fully developed."
"Extracting them safely?" Nicole asked with a hint of concern. "Is there any risk? I thought it was a simple procedure."
"Adam Baylin was unable to extract his subjects from their pods successfully," Kyle said. "All of the subjects before me died when he tried. That's one of the reasons he delayed so long before attempting to extract me. While he was researching approaches to safe extraction, Professor Kern decided I was worth more in the pod as a human computer and forced Adam out of the project."
"I didn't know that," Nicole grew more concerned. "I thought he intended to keep you in the pod for years on purpose."
"No, that was Kern," Kyle explained. "He would have kept me in there indefinitely if my mind hadn't rebelled. Then he wanted me terminated. Foss took me out and saved me."
"So Foss was able to safely extract you?" Nicole asked. "How did he do it if Adam couldn't?"
"It was difficult," Kyle admitted. "My heart stopped and he had to resuscitate me. I almost died."
"But you told me that Jessi was released from her pod when Zzyzx was firebombed." Nicole said. "Who resuscitated her?"
"No one," Kyle said. "It's possible that the shock of the explosion, cushioned by the fluid in the pod was sufficient, but we have another theory."
"We think that Kyle did it." Jessi said.
"Kyle did it?" Nicole asked. "Were you there, Kyle?"
"I guessed that Foss was going to blow up Zzyzx," Kyle said. "I went there to try to stop him. He knocked me unconscious and pulled me out of the building before the explosion."
"What does that have to do with Jessi," Nicole asked.
"I've accessed my memory from that visit and just before he knocked me out I was at a door. I sensed something beyond it, a contact." Kyle opened a hand, "It was the same sense that I felt when I first met Jessi, although I didn't recognize it as my reaction to her for some time."
"We believe that my pod was behind that door," Jessi elaborated. "We think that his mind, in contact with mine, prepared me to be 'born'."
"So you think that Kyle jump started your mind telepathically?" Nicole said in astonishment.
"We think that's what happens as part of the normal gestation between a mother and her child," Kyle explained. "The mother's mind links on a subconscious level with the child's mind and prepares it to function independently."
"But we aren't telepathic," Nicole objected, shaking her head in disbelief. "We can't do that."
"You have the same minds that we do," Kyle responded. "We have fuller access to its capabilities, but the physical brain is basically the same. We believe that there's a very low level communication, almost a diagnostic routine. We think that the connection is what was missing in the earlier experiments."
"So how did you survive?" Nicole asked, still somewhat reeling from the concept.
"Foss had spent a lot of time in the room with me, thinking of me as a person, not an experiment," Kyle said. "He regularly played music for me. We think that helped. It was still very close in my case."
"So how are you going to do this with the babies?" Nicole asked.
"Jessi and I will contact their minds before we're ready to take them out," Kyle explained. "We will also have to be ready to resuscitate them. We have some other things we can do if it comes to that. We think we can get them out safely."
"I didn't know you could contact anyone but each other. Is it because they're in a pod?" Nicole asked.
"We can sense a little bit of how someone is thinking," Jessi said. "It's a faint and vague signal, just a feeling." Nicole looked concerned and Jessi assured her, "It's not really mind reading. A trained observer like you can probably do the same by looking at body language and other clues. We could also project an impression, something that you might perceive as a 'nagging feeling'. A baby has less normal mental activity so the influence would be stronger."
"All right," Nicole nodded slowly. "This is certainly something to think about. The idea that a mother is in telepathic communication with her child is intriguing." She smiled, "A mother likes to think she has a special connection with her children." She shook her head wonderingly then looked at them, "But what is the ethical issue you want my advice on?"
Kyle gestured toward Jessi who explained, "I want to leave them in the pods longer. Instead of taking them out at nine months, I want to leave them in for thirteen months. That's the length of Adam Baylin's gestation." She looked earnestly at Nicole, "They would emerge being physically four months old. That's still an infant for adoption purposes. They could have parents and normal lives, all the things that we want them to have, the things that we missed. They would just be as smart as Adam and Sarah."
Nicole looked stunned. She sat for a moment and then said, "I did tell you to come to me with anything." She grinned wryly and added, "Couldn't you have started with something easier?" She took a breath, "I hadn't considered the possibility of anything besides either a normal gestation or years like you two spent in the pods -- and I know you don't want that. What effect would it have? Would they be able to move things with their minds like you can? Adam could."
"Adam couldn't do it until he spent twenty years of effort as an adult," Kyle said. "If Jessi or I helped we could probably speed that process up but it would be best to wait until they were at least in their teens." He opened his hands, "As babies and children, they would probably move from being gifted to being prodigies."
Nicole nodded and commented thoughtfully, "There are prodigies naturally, of course. It's not clear that prodigies or even gifted children are happier than children whose abilities are closer to the mean. It's almost the opposite." She smiled and explained, "I've done a lot of reading on gifted children, not that it's helped much with the two of you." She thought for a moment and then asked, "What are you trying to achieve? Do you want happy children or people who can change the world?"
"Can't we have both?" Jessi asked.
"Maybe not," Nicole said. "Of course being born with a normal IQ is not a guarantee of happiness either. A lot of it has to do with the person's childhood and even then it's often a mystery." She looked at Jessi, "Why do you want to do it?"
"It's what Adam Baylin intended in the first place," Jessi said. "To make children as capable as he was without sacrificing a human mother." She looked at Kyle and added "And also what Kyle and I wish we'd been able to have, a normal life growing up in a family with a mother and father." She paused, "I want her to be as smart and capable as Sarah was."
Nicole nodded. A small smile touched her lips as she noticed the pronoun shift. She said, "At the very least, it would make the adoption process more complex. The potential parents would have to have some clue as to what they were in for. Raising a prodigy can be a difficult task." She looked at Kyle and asked, "You said you two were disagreeing. Obviously you don't think that this is a good idea. What are your concerns?"
Kyle glanced at Jessi and said, apologetically, "I don't think we should be experimenting with human beings. We shouldn't be playing God, Nicole."
"We didn't start the experiment," Jessi argued. "Cassidy did. We just have to figure out where to end it. She looked at Nicole and explained, "Kyle has always wanted to be more normal. I've wanted to make the most of our abilities. I want the babies to get the most out of this opportunity."
Nicole looked at Kyle and observed, "Jessi has a point. If you had asked me if I approved of starting this experiment I would have told you definitely not. There are many bioethical concerns about the ethics of cloning. There are protocols which should be followed when you are dealing with human experimentation. It was a reckless thing to do." She shrugged, "But that isn't the decision we are facing. The decision is when to 'induce labor'. Normally you would consider the health and wellbeing of the child and balance it with the mother's safety. Since there is no mother, then the children are our only concern. What effect on their health is an extra four months likely to have?"
"They will probably be slightly stronger," Kyle admitted reluctantly. "It won't make much difference to their bodies. Their bodies should have the nine months for optimal development although we could probably take them out now."
"So it's just their intellectual ability that we are concerned with?" Nicole asked, "Whether to stop at 'gifted' or go on to 'prodigy'?"
"Do we have the right to make decisions like that?" Kyle asked. It feels like playing God."
Nicole nodded and stared into her tea for a moment. She picked it up, took a sip, and then set it back down. She said thoughtfully, "Stephen and I made two children together. I felt them growing inside my body. We went to the doctor, saw them on the ultrasound, and listened to their heartbeats. As they grew, I felt them move inside of me, kicking at odd moments." She smiled in thought, "If you're right, we communicated as they grew. I certainly felt connected to them on a very basic level." She sighed in memory, "After they were born, we've done our best to teach and guide them into being the kind of people that we would hope for them to be." She looked at Kyle and explained, "That's, in a way, what being a parent is, Kyle, a chance to play God. Or at least to participate in the creation of life which certainly seems like a miracle."
Kyle asked, "So you think we should leave them in longer, Nicole?"
"I didn't say that," Nicole cautioned. "That is your decision. You asked me about ethics. I don't see an ethical problem with either choice. I think the two of you have the right to make that decision for them. You are best equipped to understand the consequences. You are also as close to parents as they have at the moment. Until they get their new ones, that is. Then their adoptive parents will be stuck with the hard choices."
Kyle took a breath and looked at Jessi, "You still want them to be in for thirteen months?"
"I want them to have it all," Jessi said, "brilliance, creativity, and a real childhood with a real home."
"Then that's what we'll do," Kyle agreed. "We'll leave them in until October."
Chapter 6: Trager House
Lori had just gotten home from school and was sitting in the kitchen drinking a soda without much enthusiasm when the doorbell rang. She looked around and didn't see anyone else so she went to the door and opened it to find Declan standing on the doorstep.
"Lori," he said in a mildly surprised voice.
"It is my house," Lori said. "You rang my doorbell. Are you here to see Kyle? He and Jessi are out."
Declan looked embarrassed, "I'm actually here to see your mother."
Nicole had heard the doorbell and was coming as well. She saw Declan and said, "Lori, I'll take care of it." She turned to Declan, "Declan, welcome. Come on in."
Declan hesitantly came though the door, "Thank you for seeing me, Mrs. Trager." He glanced at Lori, who was standing to the side with an expression of curiosity on her face.
Nicole said, "Let's go where we can have some privacy." She glanced meaningfully at Lori. "I gave up my office for Jessi's bedroom, but Kyle said we can use his room." She led him through the house into Kyle's room and closed the door behind them. "Why don't you sit over there," she indicated a chair, "and I'll sit here."
Declan sat in the indicated chair and looked apprehensively at Nicole. "What do we do?"
"Mostly we just talk," Nicole explained. "I should start by saying that I am not your therapist. It would be unethical for me to formally treat you because of all the interactions you have with members of my family. I am your friend and we can have a friendly conversation about the things that are troubling you. Everyone needs someone to talk to from time to time. If that helps, fine. If not, and we think you need actual therapy then I can help you find an appropriate therapist. Is that all right?"
"I suppose so," Declan was still nervous. "I'm not sure what good just talking will do." He sat for a moment and added, plaintively, "I just want to be able to sleep."
Nicole nodded and picked up her notebook and pen. She said, "You'd be amazed how much good just talking can do. Frequently trouble sleeping results from your subconscious trying to tell you something. Let's find out what it is." She noted something on the pad.
Declan looked at the pad with consternation.
Nicole noticed him looking, "Since this is not an actual therapy session, I'm not going to keep any records. I'm used to noting things as we talk that I want to come back to without interrupting the conversational flow. I'll destroy them afterword."
Declan nodded, "So what do we talk about?"
"Well, anything you want to, of course," Nicole said. "But I suspect that what's most on your mind is Cassidy and Foss. Kyle and Jessi told me about what happened, so you don't need to worry about what you can tell me. You can tell me everything."
Declan looked away for a moment and then said in a small voice, "Do you think I did the right thing?"
"Of course I do," Nicole said with certainty. "From what I've heard if you hadn't acted decisively Kyle would have been killed. I'm very grateful for what you did."
"Then why does it feel so wrong?" Declan asked.
"We operate on many levels," Nicole explained. "Logically, we are able to balance choices. We are able to logically decide that doing something that would normally be terrible, such as killing another human being is preferable to the consequences. But on another level we just know that we've done a terrible thing. That part of our subconscious can't do the calculation and exacts its own punishment."
"It certainly does," Declan agreed.
"Why don't we start by you going through what happened, step by step," Nicole suggested.
"All right," Declan thought for a moment and began, "When I looked out of Cassidy's house and saw him go into the building following Kyle and Foss ..."
In the kitchen, after Lori had finished her soda she went up to her room and brought her guitar and her song notebook down to the living room and sat on the sofa with her notebook in front of her. She then proceeded to play softly, quietly working on her latest songs. As she did, she kept an eye on the hallway.
About an hour after he arrived, Nicole and Declan came down the hallway. Declan was saying, "I think that helped. I certainly feel better at the moment; let's see if I can get some sleep tonight."
"Don't be discouraged if you still have trouble," Nicole cautioned. "One conversation is probably not enough by itself. We should get together again in a few days. Let me know when you're ready."
"I will," Declan promised. "Thank you for taking the time to talk to me."
"Declan, we all owe you a debt of gratitude," Nicole assured him. "I'm willing to do anything I can to help you deal with the aftermath."
"I'm grateful for your help," Declan glanced into the living room and saw Lori sitting with her guitar. He said to her, "Hi, Lori. It's good to see you playing your guitar again."
"Well I have to get ready," Lori explained. "I'm going to be playing at 'Pockets' on Friday night. You should come and hang out with us, bring Jackie."
Declan glanced at the floor for a moment then said, "Well, I'll be there. I try not to miss your performances." He turned back to Nicole, "I'll call tomorrow and let you know how tonight goes." Nicole opened the door for him and he left.
Nicole closed the door and turned back to the living room. She smiled at Lori, "You don't usually practice your guitar in the living room."
"I just wanted a different scene," Lori said, transparently. "Is Declan all right?"
"You know I can't talk about that," Nicole said. "Sometimes it's just good for people to talk. You know you can talk to me too." She gestured toward the guitar, "I'm glad to see you playing again too."
"I had a talk with Jessi," Lori explained. "She got me to call Gary Baker. I was afraid he wouldn't want me to come back. He was glad to hear from me, he had a cancellation and wanted someone for Friday night, so I agreed."
"Well I'm not surprised," Nicole assured her. "You're popular with the audience. We'll be there of course." She walked over to Lori, bent down and kissed her on the forehead. "I'm sorry about Mark. We can talk about that if you want."
"I don't think there's anything to talk about," Lori said. "It had nothing to do with me. There's nothing I could have done about it." She sighed, "I just have to get used to him being gone."
"I'm sorry, honey," Nicole said.
"Yeah, me too," Lori agreed. She strummed an E minor slowly, letting the sound resonate.
Chapter 7: UDub Latnok
Brian Taylor looked up from behind his desk when Kyle and Jessi entered his office through the open door.
"Kyle, Jessi, is there something I can do for you?" Brian asked.
"We'd like to go out for some coffee," Kyle said. "There are things we need to discuss."
Brian raised his eyebrows, "All right." He got up and came around from behind his desk. As he approached, he gestured for them to lead and followed them out the door and up the stairway. As they left the building and were walking through the pleasant spring afternoon, Brian commented, "I've heard rumors that Lukeson is under arrest and that Milworth killed himself when they tried to arrest him."
"How did you hear that?" Kyle asked.
"I go back a long way with the Latnok people," Brian said. "I still have a couple of friends who feed me the gossip." He shrugged, "Is it true?"
"That's what we've heard, too," Kyle agreed.
"It's just as well," Brian nodded. "That's less to worry about."
"You were worried about them?" Kyle frowned.
"I worry about anything that could be a threat to Jessi, or to you," Brian said. "Although that's primarily Tom Foss's job, I guess."
Kyle and Jessi exchanged glances. After they had gotten their beverages, they found a table in a patch of shade and sat down. Brian looked at Kyle expectantly.
"You're right," Kyle began. "That is less to worry about. Jessi and I are trying to clear up some of the things that are still troubling us."
"And how can I help?" Brian asked.
"Jessi and I want to know why Adam made you leave Latnok," Kyle said bluntly. He opened his hands questioningly, "We've asked a number of people and no one knows the exact reason. Just that he insisted on it. Adam told me that you had been 'acting in your own interest for years'."
Brian Taylor's heart rate increased and his perspiration level rose. I could sense a feeling of guilt, distress and dismay from him. We were clearly talking about something that he didn't want to talk about. We were asking the question that we needed an answer to. The one he had been avoiding.
"I suppose that's a fair assessment," Brian admitted. "Kyle, I wronged him deeply. He was my best friend and he had every right to be angry with me. Can't we just leave it at that? He's gone, there's nothing I can do to make it better now."
"We think it had something to do with Sarah's leaving," Kyle said. "And with how Jessi came to be." He glanced at Jessi and added, "I think that Jessi has a right to know."
Brian looked at Jessi for a moment and asked, quietly, "Do you want to know, Jessi? I've done things that Adam couldn't forgive me for, things I can't really forgive myself for." He looked into his coffee for a moment and then added, "But I'm still glad I did them."
"I want to know everything about Sarah," Jessi frowned and bit her lip, "And I need to understand what happened, how I came to be."
"I suppose you do," Brian agreed with a sigh. He looked into the distance for a moment, gathering his thoughts and then began, "I first met Adam Baylin when we were in high school together. I was really bright, one of the 'smart kids' in the school. Adam was so much more. He dazzled me, he was brilliant. We grew to be friends, best friends. He could have gone to college anywhere, but he wanted to go to University of Washington, and I followed him." He smiled in memory, "My parents had their hearts set on Caltech."
He stared into his coffee for a moment, rotating his cup and watching the waves, "The university environment was incredibly stimulating. Adam gathered bright people around himself. His gentle demeanor and brilliant mind made him our guru." He looked up, "One of the bright people he attracted was Sarah Emerson. She was stunning. She was brilliant, impulsive, and beautiful. She was the only one who came close to having Adam's mental abilities."
"My mother was incredible," Jessi said with enthusiasm. "I've read about her in the school papers from the time."
"The stories don't do her justice, Jessi," Brian smiled. "Almost the instant they met, they fell deeply in love. They were inseparable, always planning and dreaming great dreams. They had the idea for Latnok, made up the names the symbols, everything. I hung out with them a lot while this was going on." He glanced at Jessi, "It was during that period that I took that picture you have." He smiled at the memory then shook his head and sighed. "Of course I fell in love with her."
"You were in love with my mother?" Jessi asked, surprised.
"How could I not be?" Brian was almost indignant. "She was the most amazing woman I had ever met."
"Did you tell her?" Kyle asked.
"Of course not," Brian answered as if the question were absurd. "She was my best friend's girl. What a cliche!" He shrugged, "I guess that's because it happens so often. They were soul mates. I didn't have a remote chance with her. I was smart enough to see that. And, Adam really was my best friend. I just worked as hard as I could to help them make their dreams a reality. I loved them both, just in different ways."
"Is this when Latnok got started?" Kyle asked.
"Yes," Brian nodded, "We moved from dreams in diners to prospectuses and closely held corporations. We got investors and started Madacorp. There was quite a group of brilliant people around Adam by then and some of the ideas were lucrative. They started to gather money and influence."
"I've heard that money and power was the beginning of the trouble," Kyle said.
"It was," Brian agreed. "But another factor was the fact that Adam was becoming obsessed with the project to create children with extended gestation times such as he had -- without risking a mother's life." He looked at Kyle, "You know that his own mother died in the experiment that created him?"
"Yes, he told me. He said he didn't want to risk a mother's life again. That he invented the pods to take the place of a mother."
"Sarah wasn't as convinced that it was a good idea. Experimenting on human beings troubled her." Brian said. "She was also troubled by some of the things that were happening in Latnok. Keels was starting to get some really strange ideas and Milworth was beginning to be fascinated by pathogens. There were outsiders, some of the investors, who were eager to encourage those activities. Sarah tried to warn Adam, but he was so focused on the pod experiment, he didn't pay attention. He viewed it all as a distraction." He sighed, "And he didn't want distractions. They fought about it. Their first fights."
"Is that why Sarah left?" Jessi asked.
"Oh, no," Brian shook his head. "Every couple has fights and they were deeply in love. But it did start to drive a wedge between them. At this point, Adam had created the pods and, with Professor Kern's assistance, brought several subjects to term. But when he tried to extract them, something went wrong and they died. He was devastated."
"We think we know what happened," Kyle interrupted. "At least we have a theory."
"Really?" Brian looked surprised, "You'll have to tell me about it." He paused for a moment to regroup and then continued his story, "Adam was running out of ideas. It hurt him deeply when they died, and Sarah was very unhappy about it as well. Adam got the idea that if he and Sarah created an embryo it would be strong enough to survive the process."
"And Sarah didn't want to do it?" Kyle asked.
"No, Sarah didn't want to have her child be an experiment," Brian agreed. "She told him that she would be glad to give him a child in the traditional way, that their child was likely to be brilliant on its own. But he was obsessed with making the process work and eventually persuaded her." He shook his head, and observed, "Adam could be very persuasive. In the end, she reluctantly agreed to furnish the eggs."
"But isn't Grace my egg donor?" Kyle objected.
"I'll get to that," Brian said, then continued. "For a man to make a donation for in vitro fertilization is a relatively simple process. For a woman, it's a more complex medical procedure. It's still routine, of course, but it's more personal. When the procedure was finished, Sarah had changed her mind. She said that it had become real to her and that she couldn't go through with it. She refused to let him use the eggs they had harvested. That's when they really fought. The next morning, she was gone."
"That's when my mother left?" Jessi asked.
"It was. We had no idea where she was," Brian sighed. "Adam had them put her eggs into deep freeze, which was a well established procedure, while he looked for her. Sarah was smart, if she didn't want to be found, even Adam couldn't find her. The experiment was on hold while we looked. Eventually we found a newspaper account of her being killed in an automobile accident."
"Some people have told me that they thought Brad Keels was involved," Kyle said.
"I thought it was possible, he had been heard to say that it would be simpler if she stayed gone and he was starting to hang out with some unsavory characters, mercenaries," Brian agreed. "But that was just a rumor. Adam was devastated by the news. I was too, but I had to hide the depth of my sorrow." His face reflected despair as he remembered.
Jessi reached over and, hesitantly, patted his hand comfortingly. He smiled at her in gratitude.
"Once Adam recovered somewhat, he never completely did of course, he started looking for another egg donor that he could combine his DNA with. He still felt that if he were part of the next subject it would have a better chance. I urged him to use Sarah's eggs. I said that she was dead and that her only chance of living on was through creating the child he wanted. He was adamant. He said that she had refused her permission when she was alive and that to use them after her death would be like violating her." Brian shrugged, "He was right, of course."
"This is where Grace came in?" Kyle asked.
Brian nodded, "Grace wanted Adam. Many of the women in Latnok were enamored with him to one degree or another. Grace probably most of all. She saw this as her chance to win his affections. She offered to be the egg donor for his experiment. She thought that if they had a child together, even in a pod, it would tie them together. Adam reluctantly agreed, Grace was brilliant and a good candidate. So Grace underwent the procedure to harvest her eggs and after the successful IVF combination, the most promising result was transferred successfully to the pod." He looked at Kyle, "That was you, Kyle."
"But Grace didn't get Adam," Kyle said.
Brian shook his head, "No, it had the opposite effect from what she had hoped. Instead of being grateful to her, he resented the fact that he had been forced to use her as the donor instead of Sarah." He opened his hands, "It was unfair, it wasn't Grace's fault, but people are often not logical. He pushed her away and rejected her advances. She felt betrayed and increasingly bitter." Brian shrugged, "I can't really blame her for feeling that way. She increasingly resented Adam and began spending more time with Keels and Milworth and the others. She started trying to gather her own power and undermine what Adam was doing." He nodded and added, "I can blame her for that."
"A woman scorned," Kyle said.
"Exactly," Brian agreed, nodding. "While Adam was preoccupied with watching you grow, I became preoccupied with Sarah's eggs, frozen in cold storage. They represented the only chance for the woman I loved to continue to exist, at least in some manner." He took a breath, "I knew Kern was becoming increasingly interested in pursuing aspects of the project other than what Adam wanted. I made a deal with the devil. With his help I arranged to have some of Sarah's eggs go through the IVF procedure with me as the father and we transferred the result to a pod that Kern had set up for me in a part of the facility that Adam didn't know about."
Kyle glanced at Jessi then looked at Brian, "Adam was right, using Sarah's eggs against her will was wrong."
"Of course it was," Brian agreed with some heat. "I know that. Look, I could live with the woman I loved being in love with my best friend. They were happy, she was happy. I could not live with her simply being gone with nothing left. Not when there was an alternative. So, all I had to do then was wait while the child developed and hope that Adam could figure out how to safely get you out of your pod."
"Then Kern kicked Adam out of the project," Kyle said.
"Yes, I did my best to dissuade him from doing more than that," Brian said. "But now I was stuck. The only one who was likely to be able to solve my extraction problem was the one man I didn't dare tell about Sarah's child. Years went by. I worked with Adam and hoped that he would eventually get control back and figure out how to get Kyle out."
"But, in the end, Foss did," Kyle said.
"Yes," Brian agreed. "I didn't know about it for a while, Adam was secretive about things, even from me. Finally, Kyle came to stay with Adam and I hoped to find out how he had safely gotten out of his pod. Then Adam was shot and Foss went off and firebombed Zzyzx even though Kyle told him not to." He sighed, "I thought it was all over then."
"But I survived," Jessi said.
"Yes and showed up at Madacorp," Brian said. "I got involved to try to get both you and Kyle out of there without that idiot Ballantine damaging your priceless brains. Once you were out, I claimed you as my daughter. When I had to go to Latnok to stop Ballantine, Adam found out about Jessi."
"He was angry with you?" Jessi said.
"I have never seen him so angry," Brian said, shaking his head. "He said that I had violated Sarah. If he didn't have the right to use her eggs without her permission, I most certainly didn't. Of course my deception had been going on for years by this point. He felt utterly betrayed. He demanded that I be thrown out of Latnok and they all went along with him." He picked up his coffee and took a drink, "And that was the last time I saw my best friend."
"So you pushed me to prove that you hadn't made a mistake," Jessi said.
"Yes, I pushed too hard, Jessi," Brian admitted, "I'm terribly sorry. I'm afraid I was thinking about you as proof that it was the right thing to do and not as a young girl. At first you wanted to push hard too, I just missed the point when we went too far. I should have taken better care of my daughter."
"And then Sarah came back and Foss told you to leave," Kyle said.
"It was more than just Foss telling me to leave," Brian protested. "The only excuse I had to give myself was that Sarah was dead. Here she was alive. How could I face her after what I had done? It was a violation.' He shook his head sadly, "My one chance to see her alive and I was too ashamed to face her. And now she's really gone."
Jessi said, "Sarah told me that she had been angry with you for what you had done. But she said that after she had met me she couldn't be angry any more. She forgave you."
Brian looked at Jessi, tears starting to flow and asked, "Sarah forgave me?"
Jessi nodded gravely and held his hand while he sobbed.
I had monitored his heart rate and other physiological signs throughout the telling of the tale. While he had been emotionally stressed by many of the events he had related, nothing indicated that he had been untruthful. The pieces fit. I understood why he felt ashamed and guilty. I understood why Adam had turned so strongly against him and thrown him out of Latnok. He had been wrong to use Sarah's eggs without her permission. It had been highly unethical. But as I watched Jessi hold her father's hand, I, too, was glad he had done it.
Chapter 8: UDub Pockets
Lori sat in the Corvette next to Jessi staring at the sign for 'Pockets'. It said 'Lori Trager: 8:00 p.m.'. She complained, "This is harder than I thought it was going to be."
"You'll be fine," Jessi assured her. "Gary wanted you to play tonight."
"And I foolishly said yes," Lori sighed. "Well, I guess I've got to get out of the car some time." She opened the door and went to the trunk to get out her guitar. As she was getting it out, the rest of the Tragers along with Andy came up to join her. Together, they headed toward the door of 'Pockets'.
In previous times, Jessi had hung back to be able to hold hands with Kyle as they walked but this time she walked next to Lori. Kyle came up to walk on the other side of her. She glanced from one side to the other and commented, lightly blushing, "You guys don't need to worry about me. I can walk up to the door by myself."
Kyle smiled an encouraging smile, "We're just being part of your entourage."
Lori smiled at him. Her smile faded slightly as they passed the spot where Mark had usually been waiting for her, but then they reached the door. Kyle opened it for her and she went inside.
As they went through the doors Gary Baker spotted Lori and came toward them. When he was close he said, "Lori, I'm glad you could make it tonight. I've saved your table." He pointed to their usual table with the 'reserved' sign on it. "Is eight o'clock ok?"
"I'll be ready," Lori assured him. She led the group to their table and they settled around it.
Stephen and Nicole stopped by the table and Stephen said, "Your Mom and I are going to go find our own table, as usual."
"You can sit with us," Lori offered. "We won't mind."
Nicole glanced at the uncomfortable look on Jessi's face and smiled, "I don't think you really need us cramping your style."
"Hey, what about them cramping my style," Stephen said. "I'm out with a beautiful woman."
Nicole laughed and asked, teasingly, "Oh, so do you have plans for the evening?"
"I thought I would start with a couple of beers," Stephen responded with a smile. "Then see what happens."
"Dad!" Josh said. "There are impressionable young people around."
"See," Stephen pointed at Josh, "Cramping my style. Let's go." They went to a table on the other side of the room and sat down.
Gary had sent a waitress over to get their drink orders, she took them and left.
Lori looked around and smiled, thoughtfully, "I think it's going to be all right. This feels familiar."
"I told you that it would," Jessi settled happily back into Kyle's arm.
Lori looked at the door and pointed, "There's Declan." She waved and Declan came over to the table. "Sit down," She pointed at one of the chairs.
Declan sat in the chair she was pointing at. He was clearly in a melancholy mood. "Hi guys," he said, looking around the table, getting nods in return.
"Where's Jackie," Lori asked.
"Texas," Declan answered. "Working on her plant project."
"When's she coming back?" Lori asked.
"Maybe the fall," Declan said, "maybe never."
Lori looked surprised, "Did you two break up?"
"Sort of," Declan admitted. "She's following her dreams. They took her to Texas, and who knows where next."
"That's a bummer," Josh said. "Not as far as Cleveland, though."
"You never know, it could work out," Andy said encouragingly. "I didn't think it would, but here we are. She kissed Josh.
"Maybe," Declan said with a lack of enthusiasm. He looked around the table and added, "I'm sorry I don't want to be a downer and spoil everyone's mood."
"That's Lori's job," Josh said, "She's the pro."
Lori punched him lightly in the shoulder, then glanced up and saw Robin standing next to the table. "Robin, sit down, join us."
Robin sat down next to Lori, "Thanks for giving me a call." She glanced around the table and turned to Lori, "Where's Mark?"
"Mark is no more," Lori explained. "We are unfortunately done."
"I'm sorry to hear it," Robin said. She noticed Declan sitting on the other side of Lori.
"I'm Declan," He introduced himself, noticing her attention. "Just think of me as 'Thursday'".
"Oh," Robin nodded then smiled. "Well, I guess I'm glad to meet you then, Declan."
Lori noticed Gary arranging things on the stage and glancing in her direction. She said, "I think it's time for me to get up there." She took one more drink from her soda, stood up, and picked up her guitar case.
"Break a leg," Kyle said as she headed up to the stage.
After Lori had sat down and the microphones had been positioned, Gary stepped to the side and announced, "Tonight we have singer-songwriter Lori Trager back with us." The applause was clearly more than simply polite.
The audience quieted in anticipation and Lori strummed a hard D and began one of her new songs. As she played, her feelings of anger and betrayal washed over the audience with the song leaving them slightly stunned at the end. After a beat, there was hearty applause.
At the table, Robin observed, "That's new. Whew, peels the skin right off."
Declan pointed at the stage, "That's Mark up there."
On the stage Lori slowly strummed an E minor, letting each string speak in turn. As the last one's voice faded she began to gently strum and another new song emerged, this one inspired by the sorrow and loneliness that followed the anger. She had the audience with her and together they visited the sad places in her heart until she finished it with another slow strum mirroring the opening. The applause was a release for both her and the audience.
Lori took a deep breath and then began 'Thursday', by now it was a familiar friend, not only to her, but to some in the audience as well. With Willow's album out the song had been getting played on the radio and for the first time she had the experience of some of the people in the audience quietly singing her words along with her. At first she found it disconcerting but then she drew energy from it and finished with confidence.
The rest of the set went well, only the first two songs were new, most she had done previously, one of them she had written earlier but hadn't performed before. When she finished she ended to hearty applause and returned to her seat flushed with energy.
"That was amazing," Lori said after she took a drink from her soda, "especially when they were singing 'Thursday' along with me." She looked at Jessi, "Thank you for talking me into doing this." She took a long breath, "I can still do it."
Robin said, "The first two songs were obviously new. I liked them both, especially the second. I'll definitely want to get them recorded."
"I'm not sure they're ready," Lori objected. "I'm still trying changes on a couple of the lines."
"We don't have to do it right away," Robin assured her. "Play them a while and let them settle in." She frowned, remembering, "Oh, and I have something for you." She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a small pile of plastic badges. "Willow's coming to town in three weeks. Here are six VIP passes to her concert, including backstage. She wants to meet you after the performance." She shrugged, "She's too hyped beforehand to talk to people."
"I'm going to get to meet Willow?" Lori was incredulous. "That's incredible. Do you think she'll sing 'Thursday' at the concert?"
"I'm pretty sure she will," Robin assured her with an indulgent smile. "I'm going to want to get some pictures of the two of you together. Clint, my boss, likes for us to have pictures of our success stories. We'll try to get one into the entertainment section of the paper as a local tie-in to the concert." She shrugged, "You don't mind, do you? We have to do promotions, after all."
"Not at all," Lori said. "I'll be thrilled to get my picture taken with Willow Hendricks."
"Good," Robin said. "It's been great hanging out with you guys, but I've got to get going." She looked at Lori, "Be sure to let me know next time you are playing. And when you think those two songs have settled down let me know and I'll book an hour or so in the studio for us." She stood up.
"Thank you for coming," Lori said. Robin nodded and left.
"Did I ever tell you that you were my favorite sister," Josh asked, eyeing the pile of passes. Then he noticed Jessi's frown and backpedaled, with concern, "Um, Jessi, I didn't mean..."
Lori said, "I'm sure I'll exact a price of some sort." She yawned. "That's amazingly tiring now that the adrenaline is wearing off. I think I'm ready to go home."
Kyle said, "Stephen and Nicole are getting up. I think we're all going home."
Everyone got up except Declan who sat looking into his soda. Lori asked, "Are you coming?"
"No, I think I'll sit here for a while," he looked up at her, "You were great Trager, really."
"Thank you," Lori said and as they headed for the door turned back and said, "Later McDonough" with a smile.
Declan smiled briefly then watched them go and sat drinking his soda.
Chapter 9: Kyle's Room by Moonlight
As I lay in my tub that night I checked on the members of my family. Stephen and Nicole were deeply asleep as was Josh. Lori was more deeply asleep than usual, tired and happy from her performance. Jessi was asleep as well, but lightly. The moonlight streamed through my window and I remembered the night Jessi had come to me in similar light and how beautiful she had looked. As I thought of her and my body reacted, pulse increasing, I sensed her stir and waken. The images in my brain had slipped into her dreams as I had unconsciously sent them to her. I sensed a feeling of happiness and anticipation and heard her rise and head toward my room.
Jessi came though the door to Kyle's room. She closed the door behind her, locking it and then went to his tub. She stood looking at him in the moonlight, pulled her shirt off then climbed into the tub and Kyle's waiting arms.
"You like the way I look in the moonlight," Jessi said happily.
"I really do," Kyle agreed. "You're beautiful."
She stretched against him pressing her upper body against his and kissed him. After a long kiss, she put her head on his chest. She said, tentatively, "You've seen me completely naked."
"It was just for a moment in the shower," Kyle said.
"You have a holographic memory," Jessi countered. "A moment is all it takes to have a complete image."
"That's true," Kyle admitted, slightly embarrassed.
"I've never seen you naked," Jessi said. "I think it's only fair."
"You want me to take my clothes off?" Kyle asked. "I don't think it's a good idea here in my tub."
"I can wait until the next time we're in my apartment," Jessi said. "But I think I deserve to see you too. I'll let you look again." She smiled, "your heart is really pounding."
"So is yours," Kyle answered. He wrinkled his forehead in concentration, then looked into her eyes and said in wonder, "You're synchronizing your heart rate with mine."
"Two hearts beating as one," Jessi smiled. "I thought it would be interesting to see what happened."
I looked into Jessi's eyes. They were rich dark pools in the moonlight. As I looked I sank deeper and deeper. Jessi had synchronized our heart rates and the simultaneous beating of our hearts enhanced the blending of our consciousness. It became ever harder to tell where one of us began and the other one ended. I could simultaneously feel the softness of her skin and how my hand felt to her as it touched her. I could feel how my body felt to her as she ran her hand over my chest while simultaneously feeling her hand brush over me. I wondered what it would be like when we finally made love. In our blended consciousness, I knew that she, too, was wondering the same thing.
They lay looking into each other's eyes, gently touching each other for several minutes until they simultaneously slowly closed their eyes. Their hands stopped moving against each other. They lay together slowly breathing for perhaps a minute and then opened their eyes and looked at each other once more.
"That was amazing," Jessi hoarsely whispered, swallowing. "It was all I could take."
"Me too," Kyle whispered. "I love you, Jessi."
"I love you, too," Jessi said. They kissed once more and then, holding each other, drifted off to sleep.
Chapter 10: Trager Breakfast
Jessi took another pancake off of the griddle and added it to the growing stack of golden pancakes. Nicole was at the stove making scrambled eggs.
"How much longer are you going to be?" Nicole asked, "These eggs are almost ready."
"One more after this," Jessi said.
"We'll be done at the same time," Nicole said. Jessi looked at her and smiled. Nicole chuckled, "You planned it that way, of course." She raised her voice and announced, "Breakfast is ready."
In moments the family was enjoying Saturday breakfast.
Nicole said, "You were really good last night, Lori. It's amazing how much more confident you look performing on stage than the first time."
"It was all right once I got started," Lori said. "When the audience started singing 'Thursday' along with me it gave me goose bumps. It was really a rush."
"So what do I have to do to get a couple of those passes," Josh said. "I'd love to take Andy."
"We'll see," Lori said. She warned, "There will be a price."
"What passes?" Nicole asked.
"Willow Hendricks is doing a concert in Seattle in three weeks," Lori said. "Robin gave me some passes to the concert and to go backstage and meet Willow. Robin wants to get a picture of us together. She's going to try to use it to promote 'Music Seen'."
"I'd like to see the concert," Jessi looked uncertain, "Do you want me to pay you for passes for Kyle and me?"
"You won't have to pay. I want the two of you to come," Lori pointed at Josh, "I'm just going to make Josh suffer for a while first. He'd do the same to me."
Stephen finished his pancake and looked longingly at the shrinking pile, "I have to stop now. I'm stuffed. Your pancakes are good, Jessi, I'm going to miss them when the two of you go to UDub."
"We could come over and make pancakes on Saturday mornings," Jessi looked concerned.
"I don't know of any college student who would willingly get up early on Saturday morning to go make pancakes," Stephen said.
"We're not going to be normal college students," Jessi objected. "We could do it." She thought a moment, "You could come over to our house and I could make them for you there."
"Your house?" Nicole asked with a look of surprise.
"Kyle and I are thinking of buying a house near the campus instead of staying in the dorms," Jessi said.
"Declan said that it was a lot easier to provide security to a house," Kyle explained. "All he would have to do is to monitor the outside."
"Is there something you're worried about," Nicole looked concerned.
"No, we don't think there's anything threatening us," Kyle assured her. "Declan just thinks we should continue to monitor for safety. He says that we keep finding new problems and he wants to be ready if we do."
"That's probably a good idea," Stephen agreed. "They're involved in a lot of unusual activities. It would give them more privacy. They can certainly afford it."
Nicole nodded, "I can't see them being able to keep their secrets safe from roommates." She frowned, "Are the two of you ready to live together?"
"We live together now," Kyle said.
"You are both part of a family here," Nicole said. "Are you talking about being roommates or something more intimate?"
Kyle blushed, "We haven't talked about that part, yet. Either way, it's probably a good idea to own a house."
"I guess so," Nicole agreed, reluctantly. "I hadn't really thought through the problems that the two of you would have living in a dorm with people who don't know your secrets."
Josh finished mopping up his last bite of pancake, "I'm going up to my room to play G-Force for an hour before I have to head off for work." He left the table.
Lori said, "And I need to work on my songs. Robin wants me to record my two newest ones and they aren't quite ready yet." She sighed, "I miss having Mark to bounce phrases off of."
"Maybe you should try working by yourself at the Rack," Nicole suggested. "You might find changing the venue affects your word choice."
"I've been avoiding that because it's what Mark and I used to do," Lori said. "But it might be worth a try." She got up from the table, "I think I'll start in my room for a while and see if anything looks different this morning." She headed upstairs.
"And Jessi and I have a project that we're working on," Kyle said. "We should probably go and check on it."
"Another project?" Stephen asked. "What's this one?"
Kyle smiled, "I think it's too soon to talk about. We're still doing some modeling." He and Jessi headed off toward his room leaving Stephen and Nicole alone.
After they had left, Nicole reluctantly said, "The two of them are getting pretty intimate, Stephen. Do you think you should have a talk about 'protection' with Kyle?"
"They know the entire encyclopedia, Nicole," Stephen said. "I'm sure they both know more about the subject than we do -- at least on a theoretical basis. I'm not sure about their practical experience." He shook his head, "I really don't want to have that kind of talk with Kyle. Do you want to talk to Jessi?"
"Not really," Nicole admitted.
"Exactly," Stephen picked up his newspaper and started to read it, obviously finished with the discussion.
Nicole picked up her tea and sipped it. "The house is going to seem empty with the three of them gone. We'll just have Josh left."
"You'll be able to get your office back," Stephen said. "And I could have a workshop again." He turned a page, "Although I don't feel a great need for one. If I need to putter, we have a nice lab at school."
"It's been quite an adventure having them join our family, hasn't it?" Nicole observed.
Stephen agreed, "We've done things I never thought we would be doing." He sighed, "I won't miss the fear, though."
"I won't either," Nicole shook her head. "We'll still be involved, of course, but inevitably to a lesser degree."
"Are you starting to have 'empty nest' feelings?" Stephen asked.
"I suppose so," Nicole nodded. "It's been coming on since Christmas." Nicole sat staring at her tea. After a long silence she asked, "Stephen, are we too old to be dealing with diapers again?"
Stephen set the paper down and looked at her in consternation, "Nicole, you're not...?"
"Pregnant?" Nicole laughed, "No, don't panic." She looked at him, "But I know two babies who are going to need parents in the fall, parents who are used to dealing with very bright children."
"You want us to adopt the babies?" Stephen raised his eyebrows.
"I'm just thinking about it," Nicole said. "They're going to pose interesting challenges to their adoptive parents. I think we're uniquely equipped to handle them."
"It's a big commitment, Nicole," Stephen warned. "It will be almost twenty years before they're ready for college. Is that how you want to spend the next twenty years of your life?"
"They'll probably be ready for college early," Nicole said. "I don't know, it just feels like it's something we should do." She shrugged, "I want to at least think about it, if you're willing."
"I can imagine us doing it," Stephen nodded. "We raised Lori and Josh starting with infants. We could do it again. I need some time to get used to the idea, though. It's a major decision."
"That's certainly true," Nicole agreed. "It would be interesting to watch them grow up, though."
Chapter 11: The Rack
The Rack was lightly filled in the middle of the afternoon. Amanda was cleaning the counters and Josh was at the end of the counter chatting with Andy while she did her homework, or at least pretending to do so.
"When's your shift over?" Andy asked.
"In another hour and a half," Josh sighed. "You want to do something afterword? We could go ..."
"No, we couldn't," Andy interrupted. "We could go over to your house for some G-Force for an hour or so before we have to break for dinner."
Josh shrugged, "that would be fun. Do you want to play as a team or do you want me to kick your ass."
"Dream much?" Andy scoffed. "Let's play teams. It's harder to cuddle when we're shooting each other."
When Lori walked in the door, Amanda glanced at Josh and went over to take her order, "Hi, Lori. I haven't seen you here in a while." She looked down at the papers Lori was carrying and added, "Are you here to work on your songs with Mark?"
"I'll be working on my songs," Lori added with emphasis, "Not with Mark."
"Oh," Amanda said, with dawning comprehension, "I'm sorry. What would you like?"
"I'll have a strawberry smoothie," Lori ordered.
She waited while Amanda mixed the smoothie then paid for it and carried it and her papers over to a table. She sat sipping it from time to time while she worked on her lyrics.
After almost an hour, Declan came in and ordered a cup of coffee. While he was waiting for Josh to pour it, he noticed Lori sitting at her table and they exchanged waves.
After Josh had given him his coffee, he walked over to her table and said, "Hey, Trager. Working on songs again?"
"The change of scenery helps." Lori pointed to the seat across from her, "Sit down for a while." Declan hesitated and then pulled out the chair and sat down.
"You were really good last night," Declan said. He tilted his head and nodded, "And, I have to admit, it was nice that someone else was getting roasted instead of me. Your first song was brutal."
"It was, wasn't it," Lori smiled. "There's something liberating about just pouring it out like that." She shrugged, "It took me a while to work up the courage first, of course."
"Well, you're certainly turning into a professional up there," Declan sat for a moment and then remembered, "Hey, I heard 'Thursday' on the radio the other day. It feels weird to hear Willow singing it."
"It does, doesn't it?" Lori said. "It's nice, though." Her brow furrowed, "I'm sorry to hear about Jackie. Why didn't you tell me?"
"There's been a lot going on," Declan shrugged, "And I think I'm in denial."
"I've spent a lot of time on that river," Lori nodded in sympathy. "Maybe she'll come back." She shrugged.
"I don't think so," Declan shook his head. "She told me to find someone else. She didn't sound like someone who expected to come back. She's following her dreams." He sighed and pointed to her papers, "Making any progress?"
"Some," Lori said. "I'm playing with a couple of word variations on the second song. Mom suggested that it would be good for me to get out of the house for a while."
"I just came from there. I had another session with her."
"I thought she had an ulterior motive," Lori nodded with raised eyebrows. "She didn't want me hanging around." She smiled at him, "She has this thing about privacy when she has a client, which you sort of are."
"Sort of, I guess. I don't mind if you're there," Declan sipped his coffee which was still too hot to drink. "What happened isn't a secret from you and the rest of your family."
"We heard the whole story," Lori said. "Declan, you saved the day, you're a hero."
"Lori, I killed a man," Declan's face became anguished, "I don't feel like a hero. All I can think of is him lying dead on the ground. I dream about it, bad dreams."
Lori reached out and put her hand on his forearm and leaned forward earnestly, "You are a hero to me. You saved Kyle. If it hadn't been for you, Kyle would have been killed too."
"I suppose so," Declan admitted. He sighed, "It still bothers me anyway." He took another sip of his coffee and then drank more deeply. He heaved another sigh then stood up, saying, "I'd better get going. I need to go and check the recordings." He took another drink from his coffee and then said with sad smile, "Later, Trager," turned and walked out the door.
Lori watched as he left and then got up and hurried to catch him. When she got out the door he was twenty feet away walking toward his SUV. "Declan," She called.
He stopped, turned around and stood looking at her, curious. "What?"
"Last year after the Prom," Lori said hesitantly, "you said everything was in my hands, right?"
"Yes," he said nodding cautiously.
"So, was there a time limit on that?" Lori asked.
Declan tilted his head and looked confused, "What do you mean?"
"Never mind," Lori put her left arm around his back and her right hand behind his head. She pulled him toward her and kissed him enthusiastically. After a moment of hesitation, Declan put his arms around her and returned the kiss. As they kissed, Lori pressed her body firmly against his, squirming against him.
After a moment they separated, catching their breaths. Declan said, his eyes bright, "That's pretty passionate for out here in the middle of the street, Trager." Then he added, "Not that I minded."
"That wasn't passion," Lori said, "You were pouring coffee down my back."
"Oh, sorry," Declan looked at his hand with the cup in it.
Lori teased, "I pepper sprayed the last guy who poured coffee on me."
Declan objected, "It was an accident, you surprised me."
"But then I wound up sleeping with him," Lori admitted with a twinkle in her eye.
Declan paused. He blinked and said with a wrinkled forehead, "Is the pepper spray an essential step?" He opened his hands, "I mean, I'm willing to have you pepper spray me first if you need to, but is it really necessary?"
"I suppose I could cut you some slack," Lori said judiciously, "If you promise to do better than last time."
"That's a pretty low bar," Declan said. "I think I can manage it. We weren't ready then."
"We'll see," Lori said. "If not, there's always the pepper spray." She put her arms around him and he put his around her, careful not to spill the coffee and they kissed once more.
Chapter 12: Lunch with Abby Hawkins
Jessi parked her Corvette across from the restaurant. She got out and crossed the street toward it. The building was unexceptional with a facade of vertical grey wood strips capped with white over an awning extending out over the white trimmed windows that made up the front of the building. Opening the red door Jessi went inside.
The interior was small but warm and elegant with the small tables set with crisp white tablecloths and wine glasses. The space was warmly lit with long lights hanging from the ceiling, and was divided by sheer fabric hanging from the ceiling in various places throughout. A large wine rack was visible in the back.
Jessi told the host, "I'm meeting Abby Hawkins."
He said, "Yes, Ms. Hawkins has already been seated. Let me take you to her." He guided Jessi to where Abby sat waiting, a glass of wine in front of her, and an open menu. There was another menu sitting at the place across from her. The host gestured toward the table.
Abby half rose from her seat, "Jessi, I'm glad you could make it."
"Thank you for inviting me," Jessi moved to sit across from her. The host held her chair and then returned to the front.
"I hope you like it here," Abby said. "It's small but nice. They do some interesting things with the cuisine." She indicated the menu in front of her.
Jessi opened her menu as well. When the waiter came, she ordered the Oregon venison ragu with porcini. Abby ordered the Squab with Piquillo pepper.
As the waiter left, Abby said, "I thought it would be nice for the two of us to get together, just us 'girls'."
"Kyle and I are a team," Jessi looked guarded.
"I know," Abby smiled, "and an amazingly capable one. The two of you have renewed Latnok. It's what we wanted it to be back in the beginning. I feel rejuvenated." She explained, "When I suggested that you and I have lunch, I wasn't trying to keep Kyle out of our conversation, I think I was hoping to recapture some of the feel of the times when Sarah and I got together and brainstormed."
"You specialize in medicine, in diagnostics," Jessi said. "Was my mother interested in medicine?"
"Sarah was interested in everything," Abby smiled. "You could have a great conversation with her about almost any subject. Adam was the same way." She took a breath, "At our dinner, when we were talking about Latnok politics, you and I were also talking about systemic approaches to diseases. I'm really interested in your thoughts on the subject."
"The human body is a complex system with a large number of feedback mechanisms," Jessi explained.
"Some are molecular at a low level, some are hormonal, and there are also neural connections. Many of the chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol may all be interrelated symptoms of a systemic failure."
"We currently diagnose and treat them as separate conditions," Abby said. "There's a presumption that they are disorders of individual organs, or alternatively the result of lifestyle choices."
"It may be more complex than that," Jessi said. "Our understanding is still not complete. It may be better to think of the nervous system as an interconnection of autonomous systems rather than a single system. There are multiple, redundant intercommunication mechanisms. It's possible that there are synchronization errors between them that, with feedback loops, push the system out of normal operation."
Abby smiled, "It's almost like the old Greek theory of Humorism where they thought the balance of the four humors was essential to health and that disease was a result of an imbalance between them."
"It's nothing as simple as that," Jessi smiled. "But it may require looking beyond a single failing organ."
"In the Twentieth Century, medicine had good success dealing with infections," Abby observed, "especially bacterial, with less success with fungal and not particularly good with viral. Things that had been frequently fatal became almost easy to cure or to prevent with vaccines. Our success may have biased us in favor of the concept of single causes to diseases. But how would you go about doing systemic analysis?" She smiled, "Since my specialty is diagnostics, obviously I'm looking for something in the diagnosis realm."
Jessi smiled in response, "Well, we don't know that the theory is actually true, or if it is, what the actual signs of miscommunication are and how they could be adjusted. We could start by probing a wide number of diagnostic values, hormone levels, blood chemistry, neural activity and building a matrix of data points to trace."
"Do a regression analysis on the data to find the key variables?" Abby suggested.
"Because of feedback, I'm not sure regression will work properly," Jessi disagreed, "certainly not linear regression. And it may be better to use a pattern matching approach than to attempt to isolate key variables."
"Falling into the single cause trap again," Abby nodded.
Jessi smiled. They continued to explore ideas animatedly as they ate their meals.
Some time after their plates were empty their waiter hesitantly approached and asked, "Would you care for a dessert?"
The question brought them down from the heights of theory back to the menu. Jessi looked at the menu, "Chocolate Cake. I'll have the Theo Dark chocolate cake with the pomegranate red wine syrup." She smiled in anticipation.
"Ah to really be young again," Abby sighed. "I think I'm going to have the cranberry sorbet. I have to watch my calories."
The waiter went for their deserts. The conversational thread broken, Abby said. "This has been more fun than I hoped. I'm very interested in pursuing some of your suggestions. If they pan out it could yield some important breakthroughs."
"I enjoyed talking as 'just us girls'," Jessi said. "Was it like it used to be when you talked to my mother?"
"In a way," Abby said judiciously. "But Jessi, you're so much smarter than anyone I've ever met, including Adam and Sarah. Well not counting Kyle, of course."
Chapter 13: Grace's House
Grace Kingsley sat in a chair reading, a cup of tea at her side. The room was well lit by the large windows that afforded a view of her well manicured flower garden and the grassy expanse beyond it.
The doorbell rang. She froze for a moment, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She deliberately set the book down placing a bookmark in her current position and rose, squaring her shoulders as she went to face whoever had come.
She opened the door to find Kyle standing on her doorstep. She let out a sigh of relief and relaxed at the sight of him. "Kyle, I certainly didn't expect to see you. Would you like to come in?" She waved him in and he came through the door past her. She closed the door and led him back to where she had been sitting.
"Have a seat," she indicated a chair near hers. "I'm having some tea. Would you like anything?"
"No, thank you," Kyle said, sitting in the indicated chair.
She sat back in her chair and held up the book she had been reading, it was a book speculating about future human development. "I've had a lot of time to catch up on my reading lately," She added with a smile, "It's amazing how many of the author's predictions have already happened and he just doesn't know about them." She set the book back down and leaned forward, "I suspect there is a reason for this visit? Not that it's unwelcome, of course."
"Grace," Kyle began somberly, "I'm afraid I have some bad news." He paused for a moment and then said, "Michael's dead."
Grace closed her eyes while she absorbed the news. She took a long breath and then opened them again, "What happened?"
"We found out about the experiment he had started again with the pods," Kyle began.
From Grace's heart rate and other physiological data, it was obvious that she had been involved in the new project as well.
"That you and he had started again," he corrected. "He came upon us unexpectedly. He had a gun and tried to kill me. He was shot instead."
Grace sat for a moment, "The stupid boy always was too eager to use violence. I told him that it would be his undoing." She thought for another moment then observed, "Since you're here instead of the police, I assume this is being handled quietly, in the traditional Latnok fashion?"
"I'm not sure what the traditional Latnok fashion is," Kyle said. "But we couldn't involve the police with the pods and everything."
"I suppose not," Grace agreed. She sat a moment, and then asked, "What did you do with his body?" She sighed, "That's the kind of thing a mother needs to know."
"I understand," Kyle nodded. "We buried him respectfully in a nice place. I'm sorry I can't tell you where, at least not at present."
"Without a body, it's my word against yours," Grace observed.
"Yes," Kyle agreed. "It's a problem that Jessi and I have been on the other side of."
"Sarah," Grace nodded. "Well, I guess Jessi got the justice she was demanding."
"We didn't mean for it to happen, Grace," Kyle opened his hands. "He just started shooting."
"I'm not surprised," Grace said. "Don't worry. I'm not going to pursue a vendetta on my only surviving son."
"I'm not your son," Kyle objected. "I'm Nicole's son."
"Emotionally, that's certainly true," Grace agreed. "But it's my DNA in your cells, Kyle." She shrugged, "There's no point arguing about it, we are whatever we are."
"That's certainly true," Kyle agreed.
Grace looked out the window for a moment, "When you rang the doorbell, I expected that it was going to be the FBI. I know what happened to Robert and Paul. When is it going to be my turn, Kyle?"
"You don't have to have a turn," Kyle said. "You closed down or sold most of the things you were involved in. Your remaining investments appear to be passive. I don't think you're threatening anyone." He looked around the room, "This is a very nice house." He gestured out the window, "And a beautiful garden." He smiled meaningfully at her, "I think catching up on your reading is a good thing to do."
Grace nodded, "So if I stay out of the game, I'll be left alone? I should relax and enjoy my forced retirement?"
"It looks very pleasant to me," Kyle said. "I can't guarantee that the authorities won't find something, on their own, to pursue but we won't feel the need to encourage them."
"That's reasonable," Grace agreed. "I can certainly live with that." She paused for a moment and asked, casually, "Out of curiosity, what happened to the pods and their contents?"
"We've taken care of them," Kyle said.
"That's a shame," Grace said. "Adam's experiment deserves to be successfully completed." She sighed, "But not, apparently, this time. It will be some day, you know. Science never really goes away."
Kyle shrugged, "I guess time will tell." He took a breath, "I should be going now," and rose from his chair. Grace did so as well. He added, "I just wanted you to know."
"Thank you, Kyle," Grace led him to the door and opened it. He went through and turned back toward her. She asked, "Am I going to see you again?" Her composure wavered briefly and she added, "You're the only family I have left."
"I don't know, Grace," Kyle said. "As you say we have a connection of some sort. I suspect our paths will cross. Let's hope it's on a happier basis."
"I hope so too, Kyle." Grace agreed. Kyle turned and walked back toward his car. Grace watched him leave, then closed the door and went back to her chair, sat down and looked out toward the garden. There was glint of tears in her eye for a moment and then she sighed and picked up her book again, opening it to the place she had marked.
Chapter 14: The Rack
The Rack was busy with the after school rush when Amanda saw Nate come up to the counter. She finished giving the smoothie she had made to her current customer and then turned to Nate.
"Could I have my usual?" he asked, smiling.
"Sure," Amanda gave him a big smile. She glanced around and added with a tone of disappointment, "It's really busy; I can't get a break for a while."
"I can wait," Nate said, "I don't have to be anywhere for a couple of hours."
"That would be great," Amanda said, then set about making his Latte. When she handed it to him, he rested one of his hands over one of hers while taking it and they exchanged smiles.
"I'll be right over there," he nodded in the direction of his usual table.
"I'll join you as soon as I can take a break," Amanda sighed and turned to her next customer.
For the next twenty minutes or so, Amanda and Josh were busy taking care of the crowd. From time to time she would glance over and make eye contact with Nate. After one of these exchanges, she turned to her next customer and saw Jessi standing there. "What do you want?" she demanded.
Jessi frowned slightly, "I'll have a pineapple orange banana smoothie."
"Kyle's favorite," Amanda observed with a hint of scorn.
"I like them too," Jessi said defensively. "Kyle and I like a lot of the same things."
"Yeah, I get it, you have a connection," Amanda said and set about making Jessi's smoothie. When she finished she set it on the counter in front of Jessi, took Jessi's money and then turned to the next customer. Jessi watched her for a moment with a slight frown and then picked up her smoothie and headed toward the back patio.
On her way there, as she came to where Nate was sitting, she paused for a moment and then abruptly sat down at his table.
Nate looked at her in surprise and sat up, "What do you want?"
"Kyle doesn't like you being with Amanda," Jessi said. "He doesn't trust you to take care of her."
"And he sent you to tell me this?" Nate asked in a hostile voice. "You're trying to get me to stay away from her?"
"No," Jessi said. "I want you to be with Amanda."
Nate frowned for a moment at this response and then nodded, "So that you can be with Kyle."
"But you didn't take care of Amanda," Jessi said. "You hit her, and held her in your room."
"I didn't hit her," Nate protested, "I just pushed her. I had to keep her there, Cassidy told me to. I didn't know what was going to happen when he found out that she had seen my papers. I wasn't supposed to have had those papers."
"It's wrong for you to hit her or push her," Jessi said. "Don't do it again."
"Or Kyle will come after me?" Nate responded with a hint of derision.
"No," Jessi answered in a cold voice, "I will come after you." Her eyes burned into his and he paled in response.
"Jessi," Amanda said angrily coming up to the table, "Are you going to go after all of my boyfriends?"
Jessi looked up at Amanda standing angrily next to the table and said, "No." She looked back over and met Nate's eyes, "Nate doesn't want me coming after him." She gave him a thin smile, picked up her smoothie and stood up, saying to Amanda, "He's all yours."
She walked away from the table heading toward the back patio.
Amanda sat down at the table in her place. "What did she want?"
Nate, visibly shaken, slowly answered, "I think she wants you and me to be together." He took a breath and collected himself then he smiled and looked at Amanda, saying, "Boyfriend?"
Amanda blushed, "Well we do kind of like each other."
"I very much like you," Nate reached out and took her right hand between his hands. He raised it up to his lips and kissed it.
Amanda blushed and smiled. Then her face turned more serious and she said, "I've just had a bad time for the last year or so. I thought I had a great boyfriend, someone I could count on, but it turned out Charlie was cheating on me. Then it was really confusing being with Kyle, with all his secrets." She glanced at Nate and he nodded. "When he told me everything that had been happening it was too much." She glanced toward the patio where Jessi was sitting and added, "And I couldn't compete with Jessi."
"Well, I'm not interested in her," Nate assured her. "You don't have to worry about that."
"I'm not," Amanda smiled, "Then you and I went out a couple of times and it all got tied up with Kyle and Latnok and everything." She shook her head, "I just want to go slow."
"I can do slow."
Amanda smiled at him and rested her left hand on his forearm. "Thank you," she said. Then she looked down at where her fingers rested on his tattoo and frowned.
Nate followed her gaze, "You're wondering about my tattoo."
"I am," she admitted. 'It's just that I'm so tired of secrets. Latnok really bothers me. I don't mean to pry..."
"But you want to know why I have a Latnok tattoo," Nate nodded. "That's a reasonable question. I don't usually talk about it. It's supposed to be a secret."
Amanda frowned and sat back slightly.
"But I don't want to keep secrets from you," Nate continued. "Kyle told you about Adam Baylin and his experiments with extended human gestation?"
"Kyle was in a pod for years," Amanda said. "It made him very smart."
"That's an understatement," Nate said ruefully. "Well, I'm sort of the result of an experiment one of Adam Baylin's followers organized."
Amanda looked concerned, "You were in a pod too?"
Nate smiled and shook his head, "Nothing nearly so dramatic. My mother volunteered to have my gestation extended an extra month. It meant that she had to spend the last month and a half of her pregnancy in bed on drugs to prevent labor. She also had to have a C-section, but she had already had one of those with my older sister, so she was likely to have had another one anyway. It was pretty much the same technique they use with women who are starting to go into labor too soon."
"Why did your mother volunteer to do that if she didn't have to?" Amanda asked.
"She and my father are both brilliant. They wanted their child to be as bright as possible. They heard about the study and wanted to be a part of it. There were a couple dozen of us that were a result of the study. We were all given these tattoos. I'm not sure why, I guess they wanted to use them to help track us as we grew."
"Did it work? Did an extra month made you smarter?" Amanda asked.
Nate shrugged, "Probably. Who really knows, though? I'm in the top half of a percent on IQ tests, but I was probably going to be really smart anyway because of my parents."
"The top half percent is very smart," Amanda was impressed.
"But by no means unique," Nate pointed out. "In a country of three hundred million people, a million and a half of them are in the top half of a percent. That's a lot of competition. I still have to work very hard."
"You're very competitive," Amanda frowned. "I noticed that about you before."
"My whole family is," Nate said. "My mother spent a month and a half in bed on drugs to try to have a smarter son. She expects a lot of me."
"My mother expects a lot of me, too," Amanda said. She leaned forward and asked, "So you're really like everyone else? You can't use your mind to levitate or anything?"
"Kyle can levitate?" Nate said, incredulous. "I wonder if that's how ...?" He smiled and said, "No, I'm really just a normal guy."
"I think that's what I need," Amanda said, "someone that doesn't see me as a helpless child."
"Oh, I don't see you as a child," Nate assured her.
Chapter 15: Jessi's Room
Jessi was working at her computer when Nicole came hesitantly into her room. She turned with a frown, "Nicole is something wrong?"
Nicole sat on the bed and took a breath. "There's something I need to talk to you about."
"What is it?" Jessi asked, concerned.
"You and Kyle have been getting closer together, lately," Nicole said. "Anyone can see that you are both very much in love with each other."
"We've been discreet like you asked us to be," Jessi said defensively. "We don't kiss in front of the rest of the family or 'make out' on the couch."
Nicole held up a hand, "I'm not here to complain. You've done what I asked you to do." She took another breath, obviously struggling with how to continue, and continued in a slight rush, "I don't know how intimate the two of you have become and I thought I should have a conversation about birth control with you."
Jessi's level of defensiveness relaxed, "Kyle and I aren't having sex yet." She smiled at Nicole, relaxing further, "We want to, but we are taking our time, enjoying the steps on the way."
"How far are you...," Nicole started to say then stopped herself, "No, that's none of my business. I just need to be sure that you know to use some form of birth control when you do decide to have sex." She smiled nervously, "I know you probably know more than I do about the subject, but I feel it's my duty to talk to you about it anyway."
"I do know all about it," Jessi smiled. "I don't mind talking to you about it. You don't need to worry, when Kyle and I decide to have sex we'll use birth control."
"You know, Jessi," Nicole cautioned. "Having sex is a big step. It really would be best to wait until you are ready. It's a very intimate connection between two people. It's not something to rush into."
"We're not 'rushing'," Jessi said. "We decided to take our time. We're on second base that's when..."
"I know what second base is, Jessi," Nicole interrupted with a smile.
"It feels good to have our skin touch," Jessi said. "The last time we did that I synchronized my heartbeat with Kyle's and we linked our minds so that I could feel what touching me felt like to him and what my touch like felt to his body. We were completely connected." She smiled happily in memory.
Nicole flushed slightly, "That's... that's pretty amazing." Her eyes were wide, "It must have felt incredible."
"It did," Jessi agreed smugly.
Chapter 16: Madacorp
Kyle and Jessi entered the glass atrium of Madacorp and went through the metal detectors, waving their 'UNRESTRICTED' badges at the security guards. They passed under the displays announcing 'Technology, Science, Art, only one company integrates all three for the benefit of mankind, Madacorp, building foundations for tomorrow', and went directly to the private elevator off to one side of the main elevator bank. Kyle leaned over for the retinal scan.
While we waited for the elevator, I thought about the first time I had come here. Madacorp had been a hostile organization, my enemy. Now, there were just friends here, people really working for the betterment of mankind. Jessi and I had been very successful at converting old enemies to new friends. There had been costs, though, and we were still saddened by them. Foss had been with me on that first encounter.
When the elevator arrived at the executive floor, Kyle and Jessi went directly to Emily Hollander's office, by now a familiar place. As they entered the outer office, Tiffani smiled at them, "Mr. Trager, Ms. Taylor, go right on in. They're waiting for you."
"Thank you, Tiffani," Kyle said. They went through the wooden door with the rectangular glass windows inset into Emily Hollander's office. As Tiffany had said, Emily and Mike Kasperson were seated at the coffee table near the windows of Emily's office. As Kyle and Jessi entered the room they both stood up to greet them.
Emily said, "Kyle, Jessi, it's good to see you again." She shook hands with each of them as did Mike Kasperson.
Mike said, "I haven't seen the two of you since the board meeting. Congratulations on your new positions, both of you. I'm really happy with the direction you are taking Latnok."
"It's the direction we all wanted," Kyle said. "What Latnok was supposed to be."
"Shall we sit down?" Emily suggested. "Mike and I were just going over the latest production figures on the quantum battery project."
As they sat down, Kyle pulled a DVD out of his pocket and handed it to Emily. "Here's our review of the latest Madacorp financial data that you sent us. We didn't find as many problems as we did last time."
Emily took the disk. "My staff will be relieved," She chuckled. "They're still working on some of the insights you gave us last time. We're certainly getting our money's worth from our consulting contract."
"We're glad to help," Kyle said.
Mike smiled, "That was definitely one of my better ideas."
Emily passed them each a stack of pages, "Here's the latest report on the Quantum Battery project."
Mike and Emily watched in amusement as Kyle and Jessi quickly flipped through the pages. Jessi finished a second before Kyle and looked at him triumphantly. When he finished, Kyle smiled at her, "Is everything a competition?"
Jessi just smiled in response.
Emily summarized, "As you can see, we're expanding our production capacity as fast as we can. We have people working twenty-four seven on this. All of the major auto manufacturers have purchased samples for their research and development and want more." She smiled, "They are desperate for everything we can give them."
"You are charging twenty thousand dollars for each of them?" Kyle asked. "I thought we were going to charge less."
"I know you want to keep the price down," Emily acknowledged. "And we've been telling them that our production prices will be much lower, but we might as well recoup some of our startup costs. It's certainly not inhibiting their interest."
"As long as the mass production price is in the range we talked about," Kyle agreed. "Jessi and I want this to be something that everyone can afford."
"It will be," Emily assured him, "But it's going to be a long time before we can begin to make enough of them to go around. They're happy to pay whatever we ask for the sample quantities they're getting."
"It looks like it's going well, then," Kyle nodded. He looked at both of them and then began a new topic, "Jessi and I have been looking at other things that can be done with the new technology. Not only with the barriers formed by the interweaving of the electron waves of the atoms in the lattice, but also the construction techniques that we designed to build the structures.
"Do you have something else?" Mike leaned forward.
"We think so," Kyle said. "We believe that we've been able to design a structure utilizing these techniques which can be used to overcome the repulsion between hydrogen atoms and allow fusion to take place at low energy levels."
"Cold fusion?" Mike raised his eyebrows.
"We think so," Kyle agreed.
"The potential for that would dwarf the quantum battery," Mike said.
"They go together," Kyle said. "Our design would require a significant amount of shielding. Hydrogen fusion would generate a dangerous neutron flux, so it's not suitable for transportation."
"You actually have a design?" Mike said.
Kyle pulled a disk from his pocket and set it down on the table. "We have a design, but we haven't tested it, except by computer simulation."
Jessi explained, "The necessary shielding as well as the rest of the supporting hardware makes it too large to do at our Kesdet offices."
"So we were thinking that our joint subsidiary could handle the testing," Kyle said. He tapped the disk. "Those are the plans for the necessary mechanisms."
"We are already building the first reaction core at our Kesdet offices," Jessi said. "It uses the same technology as the battery, just different programming to construct a different structure."
"It sounds like you're pretty confident it will work," Mike said.
"Our modeling indicates it will," Kyle assured him. "But we can't be sure until we actually test it."
"I lack your engineering background, Mike," Emily said, "But I do know people and if I'm reading you right, you're more excited about this than you were about the battery."
"Absolutely," Mike agreed. "It's the potential for virtually unlimited power. And Kyle is right, you put the two together and you can generate power to charge the batteries and use the batteries anywhere."
Emily looked at Kyle, "What type of financial arrangements are you considering."
"We want to add it to the mission of the subsidiary on the same basis as the battery," Kyle said. "It's really just an expansion into another part of the energy sector and it uses the same basic technology. There's a lot of synergy between the two inventions."
"Would we be willing to go along with this, Mike?" Emily asked.
Mike nodded, "Absolutely. It will increase our investment, but we're already generating a revenue stream from the battery so it will just push back the break even point. We can certainly look at their design and start putting together the plans to test this idea." He looked at Jessi, "You said you're building the reaction core already?"
"Yes," Jessi said. "It's very similar to the battery in size and construction."
"Then let's get started," Emily said.
Chapter 17: Willow Hendricks
Declan parked the SUV in the parking structure and glanced at Lori in the seat next to him. He frowned slightly, "Are you all right?"
"I'm kind of nervous about meeting Willow," Lori admitted. "I'm afraid I'll say something stupid. I don't want to make a fool of myself."
"You'll be fine," Declan assured her.
"I suppose so," Lori said. She took a breath, "Well let's do this."
They piled out of the SUV and Lori handed out the passes to Kyle, Jessi, Josh, Andy and finally Declan. Declan took her hand as they started toward the entrance to the theater. They bypassed the ticket booths and went straight to the doors. Declan opened the door and they went in. Inside the lobby, they came to a halt and looked up at the high ceiling with its rich red color, the gold leaf accents, the chandeliers and the broad stairways to the upper levels.
"It's beautiful," Lori said. "They don't build theaters like this anymore. I wonder when it was built."
"It was built in 1928," Kyle said. "It was just after 'talkies' came out."
"Kyle's the man," Josh laughed. "Who needs the internet when you have Kyle?"
"The design is French Renaissance style like the palace in Versailles," Jessi added. She exchanged smiles with Kyle.
"And now in stereo," Josh commented. Andy grinned at him.
Declan looked around, "We can't stand here gawking, we're holding up traffic."
"Look who's all about 'taking charge'," Lori teased.
"I just think we should ...," Declan said.
"I like it," Lori assured him. She kissed him lightly then led the group forward to an usher and showed her badge. The usher said, "Through the door on the left and all the way down to the third row. You're in the center section."
Once inside the main theater they stopped for a moment and gawked at the enormous, ornate space with the cream and red theme carried out with curtained arches along the sides. They moved down to the third row and moved across to the block of seats indicated on their passes. Robin was already sitting in the adjoining seat to the right.
"Hi, Robin," Lori said. "Thanks again for the passes, this place is amazing."
"Thank you, Lori," Robin said. "I got the passes because of you. Willow really does want to meet you." She indicated a dark haired gentleman to her right with a neat beard, "This is Thomas. Thomas, this is Lori, Kyle, Jessi ..." she paused.
"Declan, Josh and Andy," Lori finished.
"I'm pleased to meet you," Thomas said. "I really like 'Thursday', Lori, it's a great song."
"Thank you," Lori said. They sat down and settled in to wait for the performance.
Finally, the curtain rose and the band began a dynamic number, Willow entered from the right of the stage singing one of her more energetic songs, an old favorite. The crowd's applause was suitably energetic as well. The second song was also upbeat and full of energy and got the audience moving with the music. It was from the new album and it, too, ended in enthusiastic applause.
The band shifted into a minor key and the lighting dropped into blues and greens. Willow moved into something more melancholy, also from the new album, the mood shifted and the audience swayed slightly with the song not as familiar. At the end there was the release of applause.
Then on almost the first note, Lori recognized 'Thursday' and sat up, her eyes glistening as Willow sang the song that had come from her despair over her breakup with Declan. Willow's take was slightly more open and heartbroken than Lori usually sang it but still clearly the same song. By the time she finished, tears of remembered sorrow and the new recent joy were starting to run down her face. The audience responded strongly and she turned and kissed Declan.
The next song was more upbeat, changing the mood once more. Willow continued to play a blend of favorites that the audience could sing quietly with and material from the new album. The concert lasted almost two hours, including two encores, but seemed over all too soon. It ended in thunderous applause.
As the audience began to file out, Robin pointed at a door along the wall to the right of the stage. "We go through that door." They worked their way through the exiting crowd and reached the door. Going through it they were suddenly backstage. Robin led the way through the controlled chaos as the various pieces of equipment were being packed. A couple of security people checked that they had passes and pointed them in the Willow's direction.
Finally they reached Willow who was leaning against a pillar, drinking water, her hair damp with sweat. She looked up at the group's approach with a pleasant smile.
"Hi, I'm Robin Benson from 'Music Seen'," Robin said. "We spoke on the phone last week. You wanted to meet Lori Trager." She pointed at Lori who stepped forward uncertainly.
Willow shifted her focus to Lori and her expression from pleasant to enthusiastic, "Lori," she said, "It's great to meet you." She reached out to hug her and Lori returned the hug in a state of semi shock. As they separated, Willow continued, "I really like 'Thursday', it's one of my favorites in the album. The audience responds well to it."
"I love the way you sing it," Lori said. "Actually, I've been listening to your music for a long time."
"That's probably why it fit's into my style so well," Willow nodded. "Robin tells me that you have a lot of other material. That you're performing regularly in a local club?"
"Nothing like this," Lori said. "I don't know how you do it. Forty five minutes in front of a couple hundred people and I'm drained."
"We all started out that way," Willow smiled. "Like anything else, you have to build up to it."
Robin asked, "Can I get some pictures of the two of you together?"
"Sure," Willow agreed. Lori moved to stand next to her and Robin took a couple of pictures.
"And now looking at each other," Robin directed.
"I think we're supposed to be discussing songs," Lori commented as Robin took a couple more pictures.
"That's not a bad idea," Willow said. "We should do that when I have more time."
Robin took one more picture, "Thank you. I appreciate it."
Willow took a long drink from her water and looked at the rest of the group. "Who're your friends?"
Lori pointed, "These are my brothers Josh and Kyle, my sister Jessi and Josh's girlfriend, Andy." Willow nodded to them as they were introduced, Lori pointed at Declan, "This is Declan, he was sort of 'Thursday'".
"So all was not lost after all," Willow laughed. "Look, guys, I'd invite you to party with us, but the truth is that after this I sleep, as soon as possible. I have to do it all again tomorrow night in San Jose." She smiled at Lori, "It's not all glamour." She thought for a moment, "I'm going to be on tour for the next six weeks then I'm going to take a month off and rest. After that it's back to work. You're only as good as your last album. Would you be interested in getting together for a day or so late this summer? Maybe we can work on some things together?"
"I'd love to," Lori said.
"Good," Willow nodded. "I'll have someone get in touch with you." She turned to Robin and said, "Thanks for sending 'Thursday' to me. I do want to see more of Lori's work." She turned back to the group, "It was really nice meeting you all." She nodded to Lori, "See you later this summer." And then headed off, calling after someone who was carrying a guitar.
Lori watched her go and said, mostly to herself, "Work on some things together!"
Chapter 18: Trager Kitchen
Stephen was sitting at the kitchen table with his laptop closed in front of him when Nicole came into the room. She said, "I told Kyle and Jessi that we wanted to talk to them." She paused and added, "You're sure about this?"
"Yes," Stephen nodded. "We both want to do it."
Nicole sat down and nervously picked up her tea. Kyle and Jessi came in close behind her with concerned expressions on their faces. They sat down at the table across from Nicole and looked at her, questions obvious on their faces.
Nicole began "Stephen and I have something we want to ask the two of you." She hesitated and added, "I know you have other plans and it's all right if you want to do it differently."
"What is it, Nicole?" Kyle asked.
Nicole looked at Stephen then back to Kyle and Jessi, "We would like to adopt the babies when they get out of their pods." She went on in a slight rush, "We've had experience with the two of you and we understand what we would be getting ourselves into. We know all the background secrets so there would be no problem with that."
Kyle smiled, greatly relieved, "We think you'd make wonderful parents for them."
"We know what you sacrificed to give us a home," Jessi said. "We didn't want to ask any more from you."
"Nicole and I have gotten used to being part of the adventure," Stephen said. "We were beginning to feel that our part was over. This way we can stay involved."
"We are always going to be a part of this family," Kyle assured him, sincerely. "We are always going to stay connected to you." He paused for a moment, "But it would be very nice for us to be able to keep track of the babies. They'll need our help when they reach their teens."
"They'll have to know the truth someday," Nicole said. "Their similarity to the two of you will be obvious."
"But not until they're older," Jessi said. "They'll need to have normal childhoods."
"And parents who'll love them," Nicole agreed. "Stephen and I will."
"So I guess we'll have to get a nursery ready for October then," Stephen said.
"More children without belly buttons," Nicole smiled. "We're used to that too."
"I've been thinking about that," Kyle said. "It should be a simple procedure to create a fake naval. You'd want to wait until they were at least a couple of months out of the pod, first."
"We'd have to find a doctor who would be willing to do that," Nicole cautioned.
Kyle smiled, "I could do it." At Nicole's look of concern he added, "I'd practice first."
"Not on Jessi," Nicole objected.
"No, not on Jessi," Kyle assured her. "Jessi's body is perfect exactly the way it is." He and Jessi exchanged smiles.
Chapter 19: Beechwood Commencement
The evening was pleasant and the weather cooperative as the seniors of Beechwood high gathered for graduation. The ceremony was held on the football field with chairs on the field for the graduates and staff and the bleachers filled with their parents and guests. Stephen and Nicole sat with Josh and Andy to one side and Brian Taylor on the other.
"Thanks for inviting me, Nicole," Brian said.
"You're part of Jessie's family," Nicole assured him. "It was her idea, anyway."
"With all the things that they've accomplished, it seems incongruous to be proud of the fact that they're graduating from high school," Brian observed. "But strangely I am."
"It represents a rite of passage," Nicole said. "It's a step on the way to being an adult." She smiled and added, "That's even true for self made millionaires who are on the board of large secret organizations. It's also a link to our own past and experiences."
"I'm just glad they both made it to this point safely," Brian said. "It's been a difficult year for them."
"For all of us," Nicole sincerely agreed.
The names were called and the graduates took turns walking up onto the stage to receive their diplomas. Long after 'Bloom, Amanda' and 'McDonough, Declan', it became time for 'Taylor, Jessi'. She walked up and took her diploma, shook Principle Hooper's hand then moved on to sit back down.
Brian audibly breathed a sigh of relief. He turned to Nicole, "I was worried she might do something 'interesting'."
"She certainly might have," Nicole agreed. "But Kyle asked her not to."
"At least she listens to him," Brian said.
Nicole gave him a commiserating smile and turned her attention to watch 'Trager, Kyle' get his diploma followed immediately by 'Trager, Lori'. She sighed with satisfaction and sat back with a smile on her face. She squeezed Stephen's hand and they exchanged smiles.
A short time later, the ceremony over, the graduates joined their families. Kyle, Lori and Jessi received enthusiastic hugs from Stephen and Nicole. Brian gave Jessi a tentative hug and she kissed him lightly on the cheek. He shook Kyle's hand and said, "I'm surprised that the two of you weren't battling it out for Valedictorian."
"Principle Hooper said that it had to be someone who'd been here all four years," Kyle explained. "Jessi and I have perfect grades of course, but we weren't eligible. Besides, Cindy worked hard and earned it. It wouldn't be fair for us to take it away from her with our abilities. It would be too easy for us to win."
"You wouldn't have found it easy to beat me," Jessi objected, raising an eyebrow.
"It would have been a tie," Kyle answered with a smile.
Nicole said, "We need pictures." Kyle stood in the middle with Jessi to his right and Lori to his left. Nicole snapped a number of pictures then noticed Declan standing nearby, watching. "Declan," she called, "let's get you in the picture too." Declan stood next to Lori and Nicole took more pictures.
Her desire to document the event satisfied, she asked, "Declan, are your parents here? I've never met them."
"They couldn't make it, Mrs. Trager," Declan said. "Dad's away on a business trip."
"I'm sorry," Nicole said. "We're having a celebration at our house tonight. Do you want to join us?"
"Lori already invited me," Declan said. "I wouldn't miss it."
"You're coming, aren't you, Brian?" Nicole asked.
"I'm looking forward to it," Brian said.
"Well, are we ready to go?" Stephen asked.
"I just want to say goodbye to a few people," Lori said. "Declan and I will be home soon."
"I suppose you need to say goodbye to people too, Kyle," Nicole said.
"Not too many," Kyle said. "We have to take off these gowns, though. We'll be along shortly."
"Don't take too long or Andy and I will eat up all the snacks," Josh warned. Andy elbowed him in the ribs. "I'm just saying," he objected.
Stephen and Nicole headed for their car trailed by Josh and Andy. Brian looked uncomfortable, "I guess I should head over to your house too."
Kyle held up a hand, "Just a moment, Jessi has something she wants to give you."
Brian smiled, "Usually it's traditional to give gifts to the graduate, not get them."
Jessi smiled and held out a small box. Brian furrowed his brow slightly in puzzlement and opened it. Inside was a Latnok ring with the traditional blue stone. He looked up, not quite willing to believe, "A Latnok ring?"
"We understand why Adam took it away," Kyle explained. "But I'm glad Jessi exists. I can't have you punished for something that I think is so wonderful." He exchanged smiles with Jessi.
"Thank you," Brian took a breath, hesitantly took the ring out of its box and put it on his finger. He looked at them with a glint of tears in his eyes, "I didn't think I would ever get to wear one again. This means a lot to me."
Jessi hugged him and kissed his cheek once more. This time his hug wasn't as tentative.
Kyle warned, "You're going to have to work for it, though. There are three open board seats. We want you to take one of them. We'd also like you to take over management of the student program. You've spent years helping Adam make his ideas reality. You can do the same for the Latnok students. We want to increase the emphasis on that program."
"Will the board approve this?" Brian was still uncertain.
"We've talked to them," Kyle assured him. "It will all be officially approved at the next meeting. Gabrielle will be contacting you so that you can be there to take your seat after we vote."
"I guess you're the boss," Brian said with a smile. "I'll see you at your house, then?"
"We'll be along soon," Kyle said.
They went into the school building to drop off their gowns. After they had done so, they walked through the emptying hallway hand in hand. Kyle reminisced, "I remember when Nicole brought me here for my first day of school. It was all so strange. I didn't even know what to do when the bell rang. So much has changed since then. I'll miss it."
"The best thing about this place for me has always been you, Kyle," Jessi told him. "I'm glad to be done here. I'm looking forward to next year," She kissed him, then added, "and living with you in our house."
"It's time to move on," Kyle agreed. They walked down the hallway toward the door.
As they passed the stairwell, Jessi hung back. Kyle looked back at her and noticed her looking up the stairs. She gave him a mischievous grin and he smiled back, "The last hurrah?"
"The last hurrah" she agreed.
"We probably shouldn't be jumping off the roof," Kyle cautioned. "There are a lot of people around."
"I'd just like to go up there one last time," Jessi said. "The view is nice."
"It is," Kyle agreed and they headed up the stairs.
Chapter 20: The Last Hurrah
The evening had progressed into a clear late spring night as they exited the doorway onto the roof of the school. They walked to the edge of the roof and stood with their arms around each other, looking over the lights of the city. Jessi rested her head on Kyle's shoulder.
"A lot has happened since we were here on the night of the prom last year," Kyle said, remembering. "That night Latnok kidnapped Amanda and me."
"And Cassidy killed my mother," Jessi added.
Kyle squeezed her consolingly with his arm, "I'm sorry to make you have to remember that."
"It happened," Jessi said. "And Cassidy is dead." She smiled slightly and said, "But I had a few days with her." After a moment she added, "You didn't make me remember it, I never forgot it. We never forget anything, you and I." She sighed, "I will always have those few days with my mother, in every detail." She looked at Kyle, "You got that for me. You convinced her to meet me."
"I don't know how she could have stayed away," Kyle said. "I always want to be with you. You're my soul mate. I love you."
"I love you, too."
They kissed deeply for a long moment and then turned back to look over the city once more, happy smiles on their faces. Kyle said, "Some changes have been very nice."
Jessi said, "Last year Latnok kidnapped you and now you run Latnok. That's a change."
"We run Latnok," Kyle said. "It was your idea back in the park when you looked at your Latnok ring and said 'We are Latnok'. You said that Latnok was our birthright." He sighed, "It has been a difficult job but we have rid Latnok of its dark side, three dead, one in prison, and one retired. Latnok's going to be what Adam and Sarah wanted it to be, a group of visionaries, scientists and humanitarians."
They stood for a moment and Jessi said, "I wonder what the babies will be like. How their lives will turn out."
"Nicole and Stephen will give them a great home with all the love and experiences a child is supposed to have growing up." Kyle assured her, "All the things that we missed." He thought a moment and added, "They'll be different than us, even though they are clones. They won't have sixteen years in the pods, and they'll have a normal upbringing."
"I suspect that they'll stretch the meaning of the word 'normal'," Jessi smiled. "They'll be very bright. Nicole might need our help, especially if she's like Sarah."
"We can help them," Kyle said, "but we should wait until they're our age before we start their real training."
They stood silently for a while and then Kyle observed, "All those lights are people's houses, and beyond what we can see is a whole world full of families. We can make a difference in their lives. Tom Foss asked me to 'be worth it', I think we will be."
"We already have been," Jessi said. "With Keels no longer stirring up trouble, things are more peaceful in the region for a start. Fewer people are dying."
"Your solar cells have expanded solar usage and made it more cost effective, our quantum battery is just starting to become available, that is going to make a big difference all over the world, especially in transportation," Kyle said. "And, of course, if the fusion experiments work, the world will have enough energy to raise standards of living everywhere.
"Jackie's new food crop will make a big impact in the next couple of years," Jessi added. "A lot of people will finally have enough to eat."
"You helped her a great deal with that," Kyle said, "The work you are doing with Abby Hawkins will open up new ways to deal with chronic disease. Energy, food, health and peace, we are making a difference."
"It's amazing what we can accomplish when we work together," Jessi said.
"And we are just getting started," Kyle concluded with a smile. "This is commencement day."
Jessi looked up into the sky and said, "The stars are beautiful tonight."
Kyle looked at her and smiled, "Especially in your eyes."
Jessi smiled happily at him then looked back up, "I wonder what it's like out there?" She mused. "I've read that they've found Earth like planets not far away." She pointed into the night sky, "Gliese 581g is only twenty light years away, up there in the constellation Libra."
"Twenty light years is still a long way away," Kyle said with an indulgent smile. "Even with fusion power you'd still have the limitation of the speed of light ... Einstein ... the Lorentz transformation. It would take far too long to get there."
"I suppose so," Jessi agreed then added thoughtfully, "Maybe not ... I have an idea."