There were only a few steps up to the podium, but it felt as if the climb was a hundred meters high. My feet seemed to move with excruciating slowness as I shuffled forward, my skin itching inside the uncomfortable wool suit I wore. Despite the cool air of the early autumn day, sweat beaded my forehead, and my fingers tugged anxiously at my collar. After what seemed like an eternity I finally reached the top, gulping shallow breaths of air, desperately grappling with my stage fright as I looked out upon the sea of somber faces, every pair of eyes focused on mine. I wasn't used to speaking to large groups of people; the brashness I had possessed when I was younger had long been replaced by an innate shyness and reluctance to associate with others.
Yet today I had a duty to perform once again. I glanced over the crowd, my eyes falling on the faces of my brothers and sister. I could almost feel their strength reaching out to me, and it was just enough to tip the scales: just enough to give me the courage to speak.
"Robert Anderson was my father." I began, my heart pounding in my chest. "He raised me, of course, along with my foster brothers and sister, yet it wasn't until a few years ago that I discovered that he was also my biological father. All the same, I had grown up loving him as a parent… my only parent. He was my mentor, my teacher, my guardian… but his most important role was that of being there for me when I needed him. Isn't that what being a father is all about?"
I looked up from the crumpled paper in my sweaty hands, checking to make sure that no one had fallen asleep, or had left the area. What I saw was Princess' eyes brimming with tears, and Mark's encouraging smile as he wordlessly urged me to continue.
"To the world, Robert Anderson was Galaxy Security Chief: a post he held for more than half his life. He was as dedicated to his job as anyone could be: unable to sleep at night if he felt that the Federation was at risk. I recall many mornings when he would look as if he was carrying the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders. Yet he would have a cup of coffee and head on in to his office as if he had had a full eight hours of rest. That was Chief Anderson, the man that we all knew."
"My father's end was what he would have wished for, had he been able to do so. In the few days before he passed on, he had concluded the signing of a peace treaty with the government of Planet Urgos, presided over the opening of the new Space Academy building on Riga, and helped to welcome three new worlds into the Federation. Two days ago he had just concluded a meeting with President Juniko and had closed his eyes for a moment of rest. According to medical reports, he suffered a heart attack, dying quickly and painlessly at his desk, doing the job he loved. The Federation will remember his accomplishments and his dedication. But for me… I'll just remember that he loved me."
I had more written on the ragged paper clutched in my hand, but somehow, my eyes couldn't focus upon it. The words blurred before my eyes, the ink running and smearing into a blue blur. I took a deep breath, attempting to compose myself enough to continue, yet doubtful that I would find the inner strength to do so.
As it turned out, I didn't have to. I felt a hand on my arm, and looked up to see President Juniko at my side. He was holding something out to me… a small black box.
"Keyop Anderson, it is my honor to present to you, as a representative of your father, the Galactic Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the Federation can bestow. Robert Anderson will be sorely missed, and we share your sorrow at his untimely passing."
"Thank you." I mumbled, my last shred of courage gone. Blindly I made my way down the steps, paying no attention to where I was headed until I heard another voice in my ear.
"You did well, Keyop." Mark told me, and instantly I was brought back to the times when I was younger and he would say the same thing. Back then, there had been nothing more I had wanted than to please my Commander. Now, I felt an instinctive stirring of that same pride in his praise, but I pushed it aside. I wasn't that boy anymore. I would never be that boy again.
"We're all going back to Camp Parker." Princess whispered to me. I looked up, suddenly realizing that the memorial service was over. "Will you come too?"
"I…" I wanted to say no, but realized that it would just make things worse. I had to put in an appearance. Beside which, I still lived there… whenever I was in town.
"Yeah, I'm coming." I shrugged. "I'll see you there."
"I'm looking forward to catching up with you." she smiled.
"Sure. Whatever." I turned away, already regretting my decision, but knowing that it had been the right one. I had to talk to them sometime. It had been years since we had all been together, and now was a time when we needed each other's support.
I moved away, looking down, not wanting to catch the eye of anyone else present. Since this had been the Chief's official memorial, many important guests were in attendance, and I didn't want to have to put up a brave front while they offered me their insincere condolences. Skirting the edges of the crowd, I made my way toward the parking lot where I had left my car.
I almost ignored the voice that called from off to my right, but there was something familiar about it… yet not quite right. I paused, glancing up to see who had spoken.
"Keyop!" A woman moved toward my position, her short blonde bob bouncing as she hurried over to meet me. "It's so good to see you again."
"Julie?" I asked, my eyes squinting as I attempted to reconcile the sophisticated person in front of me with the girl I had known more than fifteen years ago. "Julie Leslie?"
"You remember!" She appeared pleased, a small flush rising to her cheeks. "I had been hoping that I might see you here. Not… uh… not that this is the best of circumstances. I mean, I… Could we talk?"
"Not right now." I told her. "I have to get back to Camp Parker. My brothers and sister are waiting for me."
"Oh, I see…" She appeared disappointed, but only for a moment. "I'm here with my father. I have some obligations this afternoon, but can I call you later?"
"Sure…" I replied, confused. Why would she want to talk to me? We hadn't spoken since her family had moved off-planet following her kidnapping. I was surprised that she even remembered me. My eyes narrowed in suspicion as I watched her move off into the crowd of black-garbed mourners. What would I have to offer her? There had to be something else going on here.
It had been a long time since I had been anyone of importance, and almost as long since I had possessed any critical information that would be valuable to others. Whatever it was Julie wanted, it couldn't be…
"Mr. Anderson!" Too late, I realized that some of the people passing by had recognized me. I was forced to spend the next half hour politely accepting murmured platitudes and expressions of condescending pity. By the time I finally got to my car, the parking lot was nearly empty.
The drive out to Camp Parker was a familiar one. I had lived there for the twelve years following the war, as I had finished my schooling and gone through my graduate work at Center City University. Then three years ago I had received an incredible offer from the Entomology Research Laboratory in Vermont. I had wanted to turn it down, but the Chief had insisted I take it. I had felt badly, leaving him alone, but he had reminded me that between my research and his travel schedule, we barely saw each other anyway.
Still, it had been painful, leaving the Chief. I had been the last one: the one who had stuck by him all of the years after the war had ended. Of course, at first I hadn't been very excited about it.
The years after the war had been a difficult time for me. The G-Force Team had decided as a group not to let our identities become public knowledge, lest we lose our chance at having normal lives. And we had dived headfirst into those 'normal' lives… but of course mine hadn't lived up to my expectations.
I had been struggling in school, between my piecemeal education at Center Neptune and my stuttering speech. I was ridiculed and ostracized, although thankfully not bullied, since my fighting skills were adequate to counteract such physical abuse. In the midst of this personal crisis, Mark and Princess had become engaged. Things had moved quickly after that, and before I knew it, they had been married and living out at Mark's shack at the airfield. Jill hadn't wanted to take on the responsibility of caring for me, and Mark's place was too small, so I had ended up with Chief Anderson at Camp Parker. As it turned out, the Chief had been glad to have me. Within that same year, Jason had moved out to Daytona, to join the racing circuits there, and Tiny had left town to go to (of all things) the Saubiton Culinary Academy. Neither of them had ever moved back. Jason had gotten married to one of his mechanics, and Tiny had used his new gourmet skills to open up a small chain of burger restaurants in the southwest.
The last straw had been Mark and Princess. About eighteen months after the war had ended, Mark's work as a test pilot had led to an offer from a prestigious defense contractor in Seattle, and now he designed airplanes for military and civilian use. Princess had quit her job at Jill's and gone with him, of course. I could still remember the day they had left. They had come to say goodbye, and Princess had hugged me, telling me that she loved me. But it hadn't mattered. She was leaving me alone. I had always known that she preferred Mark's company to mine, but this final betrayal had been too much. She hadn't cared (or perhaps hadn't even known) that I had no friends. She hadn't cared that I was still struggling to control my stutter. She hadn't cared that I was being left alone.
Everyone else had grown up… except me.
On some level I knew it was petty of me to still carry this childish grudge. And yet… it had hurt. As an adult, I now understood why Princess had made the choices she had. Perhaps she hadn't actually known how much she had meant to me… and still did. She was the closest thing I had ever had to a mother, even if we weren't actually related.
Of course, the strangest thing of all was that I had been left with the one person to whom I actually did have a blood bond. When I had been about to finish graduate school, the Chief had taken me out to dinner one night, and had revealed his relationship to me. It had been his DNA that had been the primary donor for my creation in a Center Neptune laboratory. Of course, there had been other donors as well, but the majority of my physical makeup had come from him. For all intents and purposes, he really was my father. He had apologized for holding back this information for so long, and had told me how proud he was of what I had accomplished. It had been then that he had urged me to accept the position in Vermont.
After that it had been impossible to refuse. The Chief had been the one person in my life who had always been there for me, and he had wanted me to move on, doing what was best for my career, my life.
And now he was gone.
What did I have left? Three brothers and a sister I barely knew anymore. People who were waiting for me, even now.
I turned into the long driveway up to the villa at Camp Parker just as a light rain began to fall. The grey clouds suited my mood, and I didn't mind the cool misty air that came in through my open window. Carefully I parked my car in the large garage, which was now more crowded than I had ever seen it before, and walked into the house.
The garage door led through a small mudroom and down a hallway into the kitchen. When I entered, I saw that everyone was gathered around the large table there.
"Oh, Keyop!" Princess smiled, her hands full of plates. "I'm glad you've arrived! We were just about to start dinner. Have a seat!"
"Sure." I mumbled, tossing my jacket aside onto an empty counter space and pulling up a chair. I purposely chose a place between Mark and Tiny, hoping that this would prevent Princess from focusing too much on me. Yet as I sat down, I realized that this wasn't likely in any event: Princess was sitting between Mark and a highchair containing their two year old son, Robert. They had named him after the Chief, and I remembered how touched he had been to hear of this honor.
"How's Alexandria doing?" Mark asked, as Princess passed him a tray full of lasagna.
"She's napping, poor thing." Princess replied. "The babysitter was a nice girl, but Alexandria didn't know her. She wasn't able to sleep the entire time."
"How old is she now?" Tiny asked, even as he was digging into his food.
"Four months." Mark smiled.
"You look pretty good for people who can't sleep at night." Jason remarked, with the smugness of someone who has never taken care of a young child.
"Actually, Alexandria's been sleeping through the night for two months." Princess replied as she wiped Robert's mouth and gave him some Cheerios to eat. "Sometimes I can barely wake her up to eat. It seems she takes after her father." She grinned as she ducked an elbow from Mark.
"You always did have the most trouble responding to those middle-of-the-night calls, Mark." Jason laughed.
"Unlike you, Mr. Party Animal." Tiny needled. "No matter what time of night it was, you were always out somewhere."
"I had a reputation to protect!" Jason protested.
"He's more of a homebody now." Lori, Jason's wife, put her arm around his shoulders. "But he still likes a good time now and again."
"You bet I do." Jason teased, poking her so that she jumped and blushed.
"It's hard to believe that the Chief isn't going to be joining us." Mark noted, and the mood at the table suddenly darkened, matching the play of storm clouds visible through the outside windows. "This place is… was… so much a part of him."
"I can never picture this house without him being here." Princess admitted. "I can't believe he's gone… he was so young."
"He was sixty." Tiny pointed out. "Not so young."
"But too young to die." Lori countered. "Most men live much longer."
"Most men have jobs that are a lot less stressful." Jason pointed out. "Like Keyop said in his speech, the Chief was always working… usually on very little food and very little sleep."
"Still, I had hoped that his job would be less demanding after the war was over." Princess said wistfully.
"Peacetime is stressful too." Mark replied. "There's always someone who wants to cause trouble and rock the boat. It's sad to say, but our defensive aircraft are the most profitable product lines right now."
"So work's going well, then?" Tiny asked, clearly eager to change to subject.
"He just got promoted." Princess smiled proudly. "Youngest vice-president the company has ever had."
"Congratulations!" Jason crowed. "I always knew you'd make it big, Mark."
"What about you, Princess?" Lori asked. "How are you doing?"
"The second version of my software is scheduled to be released next month." Princess revealed. "I haven't had as much time to work on it, what with the kids taking up so much time, but somehow I got it done."
"That's great! I'll have to check it out." Lori smiled.
"Why? Are you interested in children's educational software, Lori?" Jason asked suspiciously. "Is there something you're not telling me?"
"No." Lori shook her head. "But you never know what the future will bring."
"I can just see Jason as a father!" Tiny laughed at the expression on his brother's face. "Cleaning up vomit and wiping up after a diaper mess."
"And rocking your kids to sleep and watching them grow." Mark added.
"Sounds too 'white picket fence' to me." Jason grumbled. "I'll leave it to you, Mark. And maybe you, Tiny."
"When's he going to get the chance?" Mark saw a chance to take some of the heat off of himself. "How many wives have you had now, Tiny? Four?"
"Three." Tiny shot back. "And the last one doesn't count. It only lasted a month."
"A month?" Princess appeared horrified.
"Yeah, we met in Vegas." Tiny smiled, a dreamy expression on his face. "But you know how what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? Well, when we left, the romance stayed in Vegas."
"So what happened?" Lori asked, her face alight with curiosity.
"We went back to Vegas." Tiny shrugged, digging into his third helping of lasagna. "Only this time we got a divorce. It doesn't mean that I'm not on the lookout for the next Mrs. Harper."
"Well let's hope four times is a charm!" Princess mock lectured, much to everyone else's amusement.
"Hey, we haven't heard a word from you, Keyop!" Jason noticed. All eyes turned toward me, just as I was raising a forkful of lasagna to my mouth. "What's going on with you?"
"Not much." I mumbled, stuffing the food in my mouth and hoping he would get the hint. It was weird enough sitting at the table and listening to all of them, catching up as if we were strangers passing in the night. In a way, I supposed we were.
"Keyop just published another paper." Princess announced proudly, as if it had been her accomplishment, and not mine. "He developed a process to combine Aquatican gorok DNA with Terran silkworms, to create an entirely new type of thread. It's extremely resilient, yet still soft and silky."
"How did you know?" I asked, surprised. My paper had only been published the previous month, in one academic journal for scientists in the same research field.
"Ever since your thesis was published, Princess has been a subscriber of the Journal of Entomology." Mark revealed in a loud conspiratorial whisper. "She loves to tell the kids about their uncle, the famous bug scientist."
"Bug man?" Robert asked loudly, his eyes growing wide. "Bug man?" He pointed at me, a huge grin on his face. For a moment he looked exactly like Mark, as his bright blue eyes widened.
"Yes, Robert, that's the Bug Man I was telling you about." Princess cooed. "Uncle Keyop."
"Oooh!" Robert shouted and clapped his hands, sending a spray of partially masticated Cheerios onto Lori's and Jason's plates.
"Do you see now why I don't want kids?" Jason complained as everyone else laughed.
"I don't know; it seems like he's pretty smart to me." Tiny chuckled.
"So, Princess, if you're subscribing to the Bug Report, I don't suppose you subscribe to Racing Monthly?" Jason attempted to change the subject. "I'm featured in there quite often, you know."
"He's telling the truth." Lori backed up her husband. "I suspect he's bribing the editor."
"I'm just winning races." Jason huffed.
"Why doesn't anyone write an article about me?" Tiny moaned. "I'm a successful entrepreneur. Ultimate Spaceburger was just voted the number one small chain restaurant by !"
"I'd like to read an article about the Ultimate Spaceburger!" Mark replied. "They're delicious, Tiny! Even better than the Ready Room machine used to make. What's in them?"
"Professional secret." Tiny smirked.
"That's code for, 'I don't want everyone to know that the secret ingredient is ketchup!'" Jason laughed.
I smiled weakly, feeling as if I was on the outside, looking in. These people were the family I remembered… and yet, they weren't. Who were these responsible adults with children and careers and marriages?
Where did I fit in?
"Bug man!" Robert demanded imperiously. "Want bugs!"
"Does he… want me to give him a bug?" I asked, surprised.
"No." Princess smiled. "He wants to show you his bugs." She wiped Robert's mouth and hands one last time before lifting him out of the high chair, moving over toward me. Too late, I realized what she had in mind.
"Uh, I don't think that's such a good idea…" I protested, but she had already dropped the kid into my lap.
"Hold him." Princess instructed, before moving away and exiting the kitchen.
"What…?" I goggled at this small child squirming around, tentatively placing my hand on his back. But the light touch seemed to motivate him, and the boy jumped down, moving to run after his mother.
"No, Robert." Mark said, deftly reached out and snagged the kid by the back of his overalls. He scooped him up and deposited his son back into my lap.
"Hold him, Keyop." he repeated, more firmly than Princess had.
"Sure…" I mumbled, grasping the kid around his waist. Robert struggled, whipping his head between me and his father, in between wiggling and generally doing his best to find a way out of his predicament. I didn't blame him. I wasn't exactly thrilled to be in this position either. Didn't kids this young still wear diapers? My mind rebelled at thoughts of what might be about to happen on my lap.
"I've got them!" Princess announced, coming back into the kitchen, waving two small toys, which she placed into Robert's eager hands. He grasped them tightly, waving them about with glee.
"Ant!" he declared, thrusting one of the toys into my face. "Beetle!" This insect immediately vied with the other toy to see which could poke out my eye first. Awkwardly I leaned back in my chair, unwilling to subject myself to this degree of torture in the name of politeness.
The toys pulled back, then began moving up my arms and shoulders, toward my face, where they immediately began squishing my cheeks.
"Kiss you!" Robert laughed, smushing the hard, plastic toys into the side of my face. I attempted to fend him off, but wasn't very successful, given that my hands were still wrapped around his waist. I was just about to push him away, child or no, when Princess' voice cut through the commotion.
"Robert, you need to be gentle with Uncle Keyop! He doesn't like that!" she remonstrated. Amazingly, the boy complied with her patient instruction and pulled the toys away. He grinned at me, and began to play with the bugs in his lap. He started out running them up and down my arms, then began crashing them together.
"Fight!" he shouted happily. "Bugs fight!"
"Is that what they're doing?" I asked sarcastically. I'm pretty sure he didn't understand my meaning, but still, he stopped and looked at me curiously.
"Ants are very strong, but not as good at fighting as beetles, unless they fight in large groups." I pointed out. "Beetles have armor. A hard exoskeleton."
"Ant strong." Robert repeated seriously. "Beetle… ex-kel-on…"
"Exoskeleton." I repeated. "It means that its skeleton is on the outside. Technically the ant has one too, but it's not as tough…" But the boy wasn't listening anymore.
"Beetle ex-kel-on!" he announced to Mark.
"Good job, Robert." Mark smiled indulgently. "See how smart your Uncle Keyop is?"
"Beetle!" Robert grinned, placing the toy into my hand. The gesture surprised me, and for a brief moment I no longer regretted having been forced to entertain the child on my lap.
"Thanks." I replied. "But you keep it. I already have plenty of beetles."
"You have beetles?" Robert asked, apparently impressed. He reached up, attempting to peer into my shirt pocket.
"Not on me." I clarified. "In my lab."
"Oh." Robert appeared disappointed, as if he had truly expected me to pull a variety of beetles from my shirt pocket. I couldn't help but be amused by his response.
"I once had a beetle just like this." I said, tapping the toy in the boy's hand. "I found it in a construction yard while hunting for butterflies. I brought it home, but that night, it grew three meters high and ate me."
"Beetle eat… you?" Robert's eyes grew wide.
"It was a Spectran beetle robot." I explained. "But it turned out okay. Your Mom and Dad saved me." I smiled to myself. I had all but forgotten about that particular adventure.
"I don't think I've heard about that one." Lori observed softly.
"The Spectrans were attempting to use children as an energy source, to power their ships." Jason explained to her. "Keyop and three other boys were kidnapped for experimentation purposes. Fortunately, it never got past that stage."
"Mommy… Daddy…. save you?" Robert asked, his face relieved.
"Yes. They're real heroes." I confirmed. I found myself thinking back to when Zoltar had had me prisoner. I had been strapped to some kind of table, and he had been talking about an experimental 'procedure'… I was glad that I had never had to endure that… whatever it had been. I certainly owed a lot to Mark and Princess.
And not just Mark and Princess. I recalled a wounded Tiny coming to save me when my Space Buggy had crashed underwater and was in imminent danger of being destroyed by a Spectran missile. And then there was the time he had rescued me from being roasted on a spit amongst a group of mastodon worshipers on the Planet Leucadia. And there was the mission that had gone horribly awry on Arcturus, when Jason had pulled me out of a coffin, after Zoltar's Agent S-9 had imprisoned me there. And another time Jason had shot a missile to save the rest of us from plunging to our deaths into the core of Planet Spectra…
I owed all of these people my life. And to be fair, there had been times where I had been the one helping them out as well. We had been a Team, working together, helping each other, accomplishing the impossible…
It had been fun. I had almost forgotten how much fun.
I looked up, seeing the faces of my teammates, but also recalling them as they had been fifteen years ago…
"Keyop, there's a call for you." Princess interrupted my thoughts. I hadn't even heard the phone ringing.
"You can take it in the living room." she smiled, handing me the phone as she picked up Robert from my lap. Slightly dazed, I left the kitchen.
"Hello?" I said, expecting one of my fellow students from graduate school, calling with condolences.
"Keyop? It's Julie."
"Julie?" I was completely taken aback. "Uh…"
"I'm sorry, is this a bad time?" she asked. "You said I could call. I got the number for Camp Parker from my Dad."
"It's… it's okay." I replied. "I can talk."
"I was hoping that we could talk in person." Julie admitted. "There's something I've wanted to tell you for a long time. Could we… could we meet?"
"Sure, I guess. When?"
"Are you free tonight?" she asked. "There's a diner on Fourth Street, at Hacienda… Jackson's. Do you know it?"
"Yeah, I do. I can come." I confirmed, seizing the opportunity to get away from the swirl of emotions being generated by interacting with my former comrades. "I'll see you there in thirty minutes."
"Great." Julie sounded almost… relieved? I didn't have time to analyze her reaction before she said goodbye and ended the conversation. Fifteen years ago I might have been suspicious, but for now I was just thankful to have an excuse to get away. I went up to my room, changing from my shirt and tie into something more casual.
"Who was that on the phone, Keyop?" Princess asked curiously when I returned to the kitchen. I could see her eyes taking in my change of clothing.
"I'll bet it was his girlfriend." Tiny guessed, a huge grin on his face.
"Naw, nothing like that." I replied, doing my best to prevent a flush from rising to my cheeks. "It was just Julie."
"Julie Leslie?" Princess asked in surprise. "Do you still see her?"
"No." I shook my head. "I hadn't seen her in years. But she talked to me after the memorial service today, and wants to meet up tonight."
"Well then, you should go!" Jason winked. "I'd tell you to have a good time, but I suspect Princess would kill me if I did."
"And I'd be fully justified!" Princess retorted. "I know what kind of 'good time' you mean, Jason!"
"He's a grown man, Princess." Lori pointed out. "Keyop's not a kid anymore."
"Just be safe, Keyop." Mark advised, momentarily ignoring the others as the dinner table conversation became more lively.
"Yeah." I pulled on a coat and ducked quickly out the door. "Bye."
It had been painful going through that, but at least it was over. Hopefully I could stay out late enough that they'd be otherwise occupied when I returned. They'd be leaving in a couple of days, and then I could go too. I wanted nothing more than to return to my quiet, orderly life in Vermont.