by David McLeod
"Alex? I know you and your dad want me to—somehow—claim the throne of Russia. I've learned enough about you and your dad to know that he could make that happen."
Jonathan paused, to think or to give me a chance to say something. I wasn't sure what to say, but I had to say something. "You're frightened; I can tell. Are you afraid of my father?"
"Oh, no!" Jonathan said. "The first time he hugged me, I felt that he was a good person and that he would not hurt me. And he's adopted me into the family. No, I'm afraid of what will happen afterwards."
"You are our family," I said. "You know we would never abandon you—even though . . ." I could not complete that thought, the thought that our relationships had changed, that Jonathan and Davey, Nicky and I . . .
"No," Jonathan broke into my thoughts. "I know you will always be my friend and brother. So, I think, will Nicky and Davey, and the boys we met in the Grove.
"But we're talking about one of the largest countries in the world—almost twice as large as the USA? Nearly 30 different ethnic groups—that I know of? Seventeen languages besides Russian? Skirmishes in the streets between Cossacks and the remnants of the KGB? Fighting on the border with half-a-dozen neighbors? Starvation? Environmental pollution? A crumbling infrastructure?
"Alex, I wouldn't know where to start!"
This was going to take more than a hug. "Jonathan, please, sit. Let me get you some coffee—"
"I think they only drink tea in Russia," he said. There was just the hint of a smile in his voice.
I poured coffee—that and a hug were all I had to offer. They seemed to help.
"You said once that I was going to be very rich," Jonathan said. "How much are you willing to pay me, lump sum, for my share of micro fusion?" That was his first question.
"Jonathan? There isn't enough money in the world to pay you a fair amount. However, Anconia Industries will underwrite as much as a hundred billion dollars against future earnings." I was sticking my neck out here, but I was sure Dad and the family would back me up.
"You've got a hundred billion dollars?" he asked. This time there was a definite smile in his voice. He thought I was teasing.
"Not me, but the family," I said. "Some of it is mine, in my trust fund. The family expects me to do something worthwhile with it, and I will have control of it on my next birthday.
"But it's going to take a lot more than that to rebuild Russia," I said. "I'm pretty sure I can talk Dad into offering Becker's services at a zero profit margin against my share of the earnings from micro fusion. It may be harder to convince the Russian people that Anconia isn't ripping off Russia, than it will be to rebuild the country. They're accustomed to being ripped off for the past five hundred years."
"I think we need Davey in on this," Jonathan said. "He's got the head for numbers. And Nicky. He's the gestalt among us, I think."
I knew what he meant: Davey was the detail guy: he saw the trees. Nicky saw the forest; he was the one who understood how things fit together, and how to navigate through complex problems.
We talked for a couple of hours. When we finished, I was pretty sure Jonathan was on board—in agreement, that is. Before we went to bed, I sent a private, coded message to Dad.
Dad arrived three days later. Jonathan got misty-eyed when he unpacked the samovar I had asked Dad to bring. The heavy, ornate brass device was so much more than a teapot, and this one was electric, rather than being heated by charcoal or woodchips as was traditional.
"Mom had one of these," Jonathan whispered, almost too softly for us to hear.
The silence that followed was filled by my father. "She still does, Jonathan, and it's been a big hit at the levees she's held. I think half the people think she's Anastasia's granddaughter or something, although she's been very careful to deny any relationship, to protect you.
"Someday, she will be known as the mother of the Tsar of Russia."
Jonathan nodded. I felt his happiness, but I also felt his fear. Then, he shook both off and insisted on setting up the samovar in the conference room and not allowing us to start our meeting until he could serve us tea.
As soon as he had, I kicked off the meeting. "Dad, would you make Aunt Elizabeth the CEO of Becker? I'd like to be Chairman of the Board, but only for planning and policy; she would run the company."
Dad looked at me over the top of his reading glasses.
"Alexander, this may be the first time in—well, quite a long time—that you've truly surprised me."
"Am I that predictable?" I asked.
"Don't change the subject," he said. And laughed.
"Why?" he asked. When Dad said, why it was not a demand for justification, but a request for understanding. Big difference.
"She speaks Russian," I said, "and she and Uncle John lived in Moscow for three years when he was the Naval Attaché at the embassy and she was holding all those parties."
Dad frowned when I said that last, but I was the only one who caught it, I think.
"And it's going to take Becker to rebuild Russia when Jonathan takes over," I said.
Dad looked at me, again.
"No, you are not at all predictable, and that's another time you've surprised me." He stood. "Come here."
I stepped into a bear hug. "Alexander, I'm so proud of you. Now, what's the plan?"
"You are going to have to help us with that, Dad," I said. "After all, we're just kids."
I giggled, but Dad knew what I meant. I had always operated with the advice and consent of the Board of Directors of HyperSki and later of Becker. It was time to get them involved.
The bridge was relatively quiet. One of Dr. Brewster's cadets had the conn, and was watching the sensor array's sweep. Bobby and one of his mates were monitoring Lt. Harding's USA Fleet SATCOM terminal and a handful of other comm systems. Everyone on the bridge heard Bobby's loudly whispered, Yes, and saw him pump his fist into the air.
"What, Mr. Bell?" Captain Izzard asked.
Bobby became very official when he replied. "Secret message relayed from Her Royal Majesty's Naval Base Clyde, sir. The attack submarine Horatio Nelson has departed and will intercept us in mid-Atlantic to assume escort duty."
We all stared at Bobby. What was the excitement about?
"That's Tommy's dad's ship!" Bobby said, as if we all were brain dead. "Can we invite Tommy's dad aboard, and can we keep it a secret from Tommy until that happens?"
Captain Izzard thought quickly. "Yes, we will keep it a secret from Tommy and everyone else until we've had a chance to run the question through the operations security guys at both US and British commands." He looked around, and got a 100% agreement.
The British were reservedly enthusiastic (i.e., typically British) about the prospect of getting video of one of their submarines alongside the Explorer. Opsec on both sides of the Atlantic agreed it wouldn't hurt for Russian imagery satellites to see it, either. A rendezvous point was computed. The British sent an ELF signal to the Nelson to surface for a lengthy HF message, and the deed was done. Bobby intercepted and decoded the British message, and assured us that he would make sure Tommy's dad would be as surprised as Tommy would be.
We had plenty of time to plan: there were three weeks before the rendezvous. Bobby was put in charge of surprising Tommy—and his dad. Meanwhile, we needed to plan a coup, a takeover of a country.
The Anconia Aircraft Company had built four-engine versions of the Clippers, and suggested that a mid-Atlantic rendezvous with the Explorer would be good publicity for them and for us. When Tom assured my two Boards of Directors that they would not have to suffer carrier landings, he was able to get them all, plus a few others, on the two planes that would meet us somewhere in the horse latitudes, about halfway between Europe and North America.
"Davey?" I asked. "Would you be aide-de-camp to my uncle, Retired Admiral John Pershing? He's a four-star, but he'll be in civilian clothes. And he doesn't wear his rank—except when he needs to chew me out for something."
Davey giggled, and agreed.
"Nicky? Would you escort Uncle John's wife, my Aunt Elizabeth? She actually outranks her husband, protocol-wise, but she always defers to him in military situations—and we'll be doing military honors."
"How does she outrank him?" Nicky asked.
"She's British nobility," I said. "That's why I want my favorite Irishman to be her escort."
Nicky drew himself up and sniffed. "British nobility? Huh! Alex? I'm Republic of Ireland," he said.
"I know, kiddo." I hugged him. "But you've kissed the Blarney Stone, and you're going to need that." Nicky grinned until his dimples popped into his cheeks when I said that.
In answer to Nicky's unspoken, but very obvious question, I explained. "She was in Gaziantep, Turkey, helping evacuate Anconia employees and their families when ISIS forces crossed the border and seized the town. She found herself behind enemy lines, but our people helped her—gave her one of those bags the Muslim fundamentalists require women to wear, for instance.
"The ISIS army moved faster than anyone thought they could. Several USA and allied units were cut off. That includes a British Commando unit commanded by—well, that's a secret I really shouldn't know, and one I'm definitely not entitled to share.
"Aunt Elizabeth learned about it, risked her life to find them, and then used her satellite phone to call Uncle John for airstrikes and US Marines for a rescue mission. There's never been any question that she saved their lives—and the lives of our people, too.
"Queen Elizabeth made her a Lady of the Order of the Garter. It's the highest British honor, and one of only three that the queen can award without consulting with the prime minister or parliament—although she often does. Since it was a secret who was rescued, the citation simply reads, service to the Crown in time of war and at great peril."
"Swmpus!" Nicky said. "I remember that. It was, what, three or four years ago? That was your aunt? I think the queen pissed off the PM, too, and he said so, in public, according to the tabloids. He was going to ask her to give it to someone—a politician or a greengrocer, according to the tabloids. And the queen exercised her right to summon the PM and chewed him out, according to the tabloids. And you're right. No one ever knew exactly why she got it. They said she spied for British forces, though. The tabloids did."
"Tabloids? Do you read that crap?" Davey asked.
"They have them at the checkouts of every market," Nicky said. "It's impossible not to see the headlines."
"You mean like President Clinton and Bat Boy," Davey said, "and Bigfoot living with Elvis in Montana, and—"
"And how would you know?" Nicky said. He grinned at Davey. "Busted!"
Davey laughed. "They're in American grocery stores, too."
Crew members were on the landing platform to help people to the ladder, and to handle luggage offloaded from the seaplanes. Captain Izzard was busy trying to ensure adherence to all the protocol required for two retired admirals with seven stars between them on the first plane, and an ambassador on the second. And I'd not even told him about Aunt Elizabeth. I figured the admirals and an ambassador were enough for him to worry about. I did try to encourage him to relax. I don't think it worked.
A score of former Sea Cadets, now members of the UN Science Corps, were lined up on the quarterdeck when the first plane water-taxied_ _into position and was secured to the landing platform. Uncle Admiral Pershing was entitled to ten side boys, even though he was as thin as a rail, and was first up the ladder.
I was prepared to introduce one of the former Sea Cadets, now white-uniformed members of the UN Science Corps, to each of my relatives as his or her escort and—for the retired military members—aides de camp, during their visit.
Davey and Nicky, their eyes nearly as bright as their new, golden ensign bars, were first and second in line. I introduced Davey to Uncle Admiral Pershing and then turned back to the ladder. Aunt Elizabeth stepped onto the quarterdeck.
"Couldn't you afford an elevator, Alexander?"
"I'm happy to see you, too, Aunt Elizabeth. May I introduce Ensign Nicholas O'Brian who will be your escort during your visit? Mr. O'Brian, this is my favorite aunt, Lady Elizabeth Pershing."
Aunt Elizabeth glared at me, looked at Nicky, stared at me, and said, "Alexander, you will see me as soon as this rigmarole is over."
Before I could answer, she turned to Nicky. "Nicholas?" She emphasized each syllable, making it sound like, nick-ol'-ass. "Nicholas, if you call me Lady Elizabeth, they will be the last words you ever utter. They wouldn't let me light my pipe on the airplane. Where's the smoking lamp, or whatever you sailors call it?"
Nicky spoke before I could. "Ma'am, we sailors are members of the United Nations Science Corps. There is no smoking lamp on this ship, since no one smokes. And I will be happy to address you as hey you if you will use my grade, which I have earned, and which is Ensign."
As soon as Nicky paused for breath, Aunt Elizabeth spoke. "You may address me as hey you unless we become friends, at which time you may call me Aunt Elizabeth. Will you please take me to my quarters so I can light my pipe?"
I managed to inject myself in the conversation. "Ensign O'Brian, there's a bench and an ashtray for Mrs. Pershing on the deck outside the conference room and a bottle of single-malt scotch on the bar in the conference room. Mrs. Pershing likes her scotch neat, but with a teaspoon of water added to two jiggers in an old-fashioned glass. Admiral Pershing and Mrs. Pershing will be in the second and third bedrooms of the owner's suite." I had converted the second bedroom into a sitting room.
I hoped that I'd clued Nicky to call Aunt E Mrs. Pershing, and not hey you.
Aunt Elizabeth knew exactly what I was doing. She glared at me again, took Nicky's offered arm, and walked away to the wide-eyed stares of Captain Izzard and the rest of the escorts. Uncle Admiral Caruthers, who had been waiting at the head of the ladder, received honors and side boys, although that was anticlimactic after Aunt Elizabeth's arrival.
Uncle Luce, a career ambassador, was the only person on the second plane who received honors, and we were able to get everyone onboard and settled in time for supper. I was prepared to wait until the next day, after breakfast, to conduct any business, but Aunt Elizabeth captured me, after supper, on the smoking deck.
"Nicholas is your boyfriend. Who is he, and what happened to Jonathan?" she asked. "And don't give me any crap about how happy you are to see me, either."
"No, Aunt Elizabeth. I think I made that clear earlier. And I think Nicky made even more clear." I giggled.
"Stick to the point," she said.
"Jonathan and I have found two boys. You have seen Davey—he's Uncle John's escort. And you've met Nicky, who will be shadowing you until you leave this ship."
"Hmph," she said. "Where did you find him, anyway?"
I sat and took Aunt E's hand. "He and Davey are orphans. They became boyfriends before they joined this cruise, although they didn't know it, really. Davey is from Boston; Nicky's from the Republic of Ireland by way of university in Wales. They're really smart, and they've helped Jonathan and me make this expedition successful.
"It took a while for things to shake out, but we're bonded, now. Seriously and, I think, forever. Davey and Jonathan; Nicky and me."
"Have you told your father?"
"Didn't need to," I said. "He's visited us a lot, and he's seen . . . he knows. Daddy's okay with me being gay," I said. "I think Mommy is to, but I've never talked to her about it."
"Your mother would understand," Aunt E said. "But you mustn't rub her nose in it."
I had told Nicky that Aunt E would have only coffee and her pipe for breakfast, and suggested that he sleep in, and call on her sometime late morning. He demurred, and I watched as he served her coffee on the smoking deck. I heard their conversation from the conference room, but felt only a little guilty about eavesdropping.
"Alexander said you were an orphan. How did that happen?" she asked.
"Ma'am, I'm not sure that's included in my duty to you," Nicky said.
"Ensign O'Brian, I ask only because I care very much for my nephew, and I believe he cares for you." She sat back quietly, giving Nicky time to think.
After a moment, he spoke. "Accident on the N1 in Drumcorda. A lorry from a side street. They said my Dad had been drinking . . . but he hadn't! I knew, but they wouldn't listen to me, and the lorry belonged to the biggest employer in Dublin. Nobody wanted to challenge them. I was twelve.
"What do you mean, you think Alex . . . Commander Anconia cares for me?"
"Mr. O'Brien, I know that my nephew is gay, and I know that he has found in you a new boyfriend . . .
Before she could finish, one of the youngsters—too young to transfer to the UN Science Corps, and still a Sea Cadet—approached, saluted Nicky, and held out an envelope. "Message for Mrs. Pershing," he said. "Would you like me to wait for a reply?"
Aunt Elizabeth looked at the thick envelope, grimaced, and shook her head. "No, no reply. Thank you."
When the boy had left, she took a large folding knife from her pocket and cut open the envelope. At that moment, a gust of wind tore several pages from her hand.
"Get them!" she said.
Nicky rushed to obey, and scooped up the papers. TOP SECRET NK INTSUM? As in intelligence summary? He wondered.
"You saw?" Aunt E asked.
"Yes, ma'am," I didn't read anything, though. Except . . . except the top secret part . . . and the intelligence summary part."
‘Ensign O'Brian, I know that in addition to loving you, Alexander trusts you. You know, don't you, that those are two separate things?"
"I have never thought of it, ma'am," Nicky said. "And I am still not sure this is part of my duty to you."
"No. It is not." she said. "However, it is part of your duty to Alexander. He will confirm, when you ask him, that you are not to speak of this. He is on the bridge, and my coffee cup is full. Please go ask him. Now."
I knew something was bothering Nicky, and followed him from the bridge to the conference room. He told me what had happened.
"She's asking me about you . . . about us. And she just got some secret papers, an intelligence summary . . . and she said I had to talk to you about it."
"Alex, I think she doesn't like me . . . "
Nicky needed a hug, and I was happy to give him one. "Nicky," I whispered. "You know I love you, so whatever anyone else thinks doesn't mean a thing."
Then, I giggled. "But Aunt Elizabeth does like you. She just has a hard time relating to people. She's seen too many bad things in her life. She's seen too many people hurt. She's seen too many people die. I think she's more afraid for you—and me—than anything."
I thought for a minute. "I knew she got a secret message this morning. It was so secret, we had to wake Lt. Harding to decode it, and he was the only person who saw it."
"Then it's really secret—and military," Nicky said.
"That, my handsome and beloved ensign, is something neither you or I should know."
That earned me a kiss, and an unspoken promise from Nicky. I pushed him toward the door that led to the deck.
After breakfast the second day, Dad assembled the convocation—everyone had been given enough time to have adjusted to the time change and to living onboard a ship. With both Boards of Directors present, there were more than 40 people; the convocation was held in a larger conference room.
After helping Aunt Elizabeth to her seat, Nicky stood behind her. Davie stood behind Uncle John. They were the only non-family present until Jonathan, who had followed me into the room, arrived. I felt questions in the minds of nearly everyone. This was supposed to be a family convocation, and the presence of people they didn't know was a little disconcerting. I hid my smile. It was Dad's show, and his right to pull people's chains.
Dad came in. I closed the door behind him.
He looked around, counted heads, and then said, "Everyone in the room is family," he said. "Including Mr. Jonathan Romanov, and Ensigns Nicholas O'Brian and David Jones. They understand what that means. Gentlemen, please be seated."
Jonathan, Davey, and Nicky sat in the seats that had been reserved for them. I smiled when I saw Nicky sit beside Aunt Elizabeth, turn to her, and grin until dimples appeared in his cheeks.
Everyone heard Aunt E snort, but I think I was the only one who felt her bite her tongue to keep from smiling back.
What Dad had just said was that the aunts, uncles, and cousins could be completely open in their discussions with the assurance that nothing except what was agreed to would leave the room.
His words also meant that he had adopted—not under civil law, but by our customs—three new members into the family. This wasn't the first time people had been adopted into our family, but it was the first time in years, and the first time three people had been declared at the same time. Jonathan knew already that he was one of us. Nicky and Davey were more than surprised a few days before when I had asked them if they wanted it, and were nearly dehydrated when they'd stopped crying happy tears. Yeah, eighteen years old and they cried. So did I, actually. But I'm younger. Like, six months younger.
Dad quickly brought us to the purpose of the meeting. "Jonathan is the only living patrilineal descendant of the Romanov Dynasty that once ruled Russia. Some of you already know that. With the help of this family and his—the Romanov Organization—although they don't know it, yet, he is going to reclaim the throne of that country from the corruption that has ruled for the past 100 years. With the help of this family, he will rebuild that country.
"Key funding will come from the royalties Jonathan and Alexander will share for the development of micro fusion power. There will be other sources that we will discuss."
I knew at least one of the other sources: we were already finding commercial applications for the neutrino signaling devices. So far, we'd restricted that to Anconia companies, but they paid for what they used. We were negotiating with the USA and Great Britain to put a system on some of their attack subs. Since they were protecting us, we would probably not charge for that. We'd already agreed that Nicky would get 52% of the royalties, with the rest split evenly among Davey, Jonathan, and me. Davey immediately had pledged his share to help Jonathan rebuild his country. Naturally, Nicky and I had done so, as well.
Dad dealt with the few questions that arose—mostly procedural. There would be more, and I knew that he would expect Jonathan and me to address them. For now, we needed to plan.
The biggest shock of the meeting—bigger than three new family members, one of whom would become Tsar of Russia—was Dad's frank discussion of the dryads. Everyone knew about them; almost everyone had met one or more, usually when they were children. But many had forgotten, and no one talked about it.
"Francisco? This family has always followed the tenets of the Enlightenment," Uncle Carlos said after Dad announced that we would receive help from the dryads who inhabited the Grove and from their Russian brothers. "Greek gods and dryads don't seem to fit." What he said was not a challenge, it was a plea for understanding.
Dad put me on the spot. "Alexander? You know some of the dryads better than anyone. Would you address this?"
"Uncle Carlos is right," I said. "The magic of the dryads, even without ancient gods—and we've not seen any of them, anyway—doesn't fit my worldview, either. On the other hand, I firmly believe that we can and will someday understand the source of their power, and that when we do, we will have uncovered a scientific principle that does fit my worldview. Until we do . . ."
I paused and looked around the room. "Until we do, there is a place in my mind and in my heart for magic."
Aunt Elizabeth was the first. What she started was a tradition at family convocations when someone said something well. She patted the table with her right hand, rhythmically. Not hard, not fast, but the rhythm was picked up by everyone. Nicky, Davey, and Jonathan were quick to understand, and joined in.
After the family's applause had died down, Aunt Elizabeth spoke. "You know, don't you, Alexander, that we're going to hold you to that. The discovery part, I mean."
"Yes, ma'am," I said.
Dad asked Uncle Ambassador Luce to talk about what was going on in Russia.
Ambassador Luce concluded his briefing with, "A rump KGB controls most of the military as well as their own paramilitary forces. Our first task will be to remove the remnants of the KGB."
I felt Nicky desperately try not to giggle at hearing an ambassador say, rump.
Next, Uncle Admiral Pershing talked about how we'd clean out that nest of vermin.
He described how military teams: SEALS, Army and Marine Rangers, others from the USA and allied countries, mostly from the British Empire, would infiltrate and, with the help of Russian dryads, identify and execute the bad guys. "I want it to be clear," he said. "We will be killing them.
"We are fortunate," he concluded, "not only that the country is close to a state of anarchy, which will allow us easier entry, but also that the dryads of Russia have been awakened and, once again, will guide the destiny of their country.
"Jonathan? Until you take the throne, I will address you informally. However, the decision is yours. Is this what you want?"
I was incredibly proud of my former boyfriend when he said, "Yes, Admiral Pershing. I understand that the people we face are ruthless, and have killed many times and in many ways. I consider their own deaths to be justice and the beginning of the salvation of my country.
"I know that the death of King Richard III of England was treated by some as divine retribution for his participating in the death of an English king who was crowned with the assumed blessing of their god. I also know that there are some who think that the murder of my family by the communists brought divine retribution upon my country."
I knew he meant the Russian Orthodox Church, which had made saints out of the murdered Tsar and his family, and which was growing rich on the worship of those new saints.
"I do not believe these things; however, I do know that my country has suffered for the past 100 years, even more than it suffered for the previous hundreds of years of Romanov rule. It is my wish that we can change all this. I thank you for your support. This could not happen without you, my family." Jonathan looked around the table, making eye contact with each person.
No one present missed Jonathan's saying, my country. It was the confirmation we needed.
There were a lot of boring details that kept us through a working lunch, but we broke up in time for people to change for supper.
"Nicky is still hurting from his parents' death. Even being adopted into our family didn't erase that." Aunt E and I were alone on the smoking deck that evening after supper.
"How do you know this, anyway?" I asked.
"Alexander," she said. "You're not the only one who has been changed by the dryads. Your father did not speak of that. It has happened to only a few of us. It is still something to keep close to your chest.
"However, all of our family has, in some way been influenced. Your many-greats-grandmother was right to worship the old gods. Somehow, I think that through the dryads, they have helped the Anconia family feel more deeply and see much farther than most people. I think they may also be responsible for our collective conscience. They are not only the reason we've been so successful but also the reason the family sacrifices its own safety and wealth for the common good."
"You seem to know the dryads better than the others," I said.
Aunt E's voice softened. I had to strain to hear. "You were only three years old. You probably don't remember when I buried my infant child—the one who would have been Tom's younger brother—in the grove," she said.
I hadn't remembered until this moment but when she spoke, the breeze brought a whiff from Colin's oak tree and the earth from the nearby planter, and of Aunt E's lavender powder. My mind was filled with scenes, voices. It is said that smell evokes the most powerful memories. In my memory, I smelled the must of the earth, the acrid bark of the oaks, the lavender of the lilacs—and the old women. In a flash, it was nearly fifteen years ago. I was a toddler, holding my mother's hand. She was pregnant with Francesca, but I didn't know it, then, and wouldn't have understood it, in any case.
In my mind, I was in the grove. It was my favorite place on Grandpa's ranch. When I visited in the summer, I ran and played among the trees, and had adventures with my imaginary friends.
I pulled myself from that memory into the present. "I do remember, Aunt E. Truly, I do remember."
She smiled before continuing. "Your uncle was allowed only a few days for the funeral. It was during one of the many wars in the Middle East, and his leadership was important. He had left almost immediately after the funeral. I understood. I knew that his leadership might mean that other women's children would survive that awful war.
"That night, I returned alone to the grove. I was visited by three little boys.
"They comforted me." She smiled. "They also told me that they were your playmates and that you knew them."
What Aunt E said triggered more memories. I had forgotten, even after seeing Colin, Hansel, and Alberto in the laboratory with Jonathan. Only at that moment with Aunt E did I remember the imaginary friends, the ones with whom I played, the ones who visited Aunt Elizabeth. Were they the same three boys? I chased these memories in my mind, looking for their faces, but could not find them.
Aunt E gave me a minute to think before she continued. "They promised me that my children would help save the world. You know that Tom is my only child. And I know how important are the things he does. But the dryads said children. I have always wondered what they meant, but never questioned what they said."
Her thoughts shifted faster than I could follow.
"Alexander? If he will have it, will you help me convince Nicky to let Uncle John and me adopt him? I've already spoken to John and to your father, and they agree."
"Nicky, but not Davey," I said. "And I understand. You and I, and probably Dad, know that Davey will follow Jonathan to Russia. The world cannot know he is a member of our family."
That evening, I went to Nicky and led him to a secluded spot on the flight deck. We leaned against a part of the ship's superstructure, and watched the stars for a moment. Then I spoke. "Nicky? You know that I love you. You know that Dad has brought you into our family."
Nicky nodded, and I felt his happiness.
"What Dad has offered is at one level. Aunt Elizabeth would offer something much deeper. She and Uncle John want to adopt you as their son, as Tom's younger brother. Not to replace the one they lost"—I had to say that, because I knew he would learn of it—but for yourself."
"The one they lost?" Nicky asked. I told him of Aunt E's loss, of the funeral, and of her evening in the grove with the dryads.
"She's not trying to replace you, and she's not trying to replace your parents," I said. "She simply wants to bring you closer to her, to nurture you, even though you are nineteen years old, and to seal you to our family even more closely than you already are."
Nicky agreed, and Tom was very happy to handle the paperwork that gave Nicky a family, and gave Tom a little brother.
Davey was happy for Nicky, and understood why he would not receive the same opportunity.
"Davey?" I said. "You and Jonathan could not be closer to me if we were blood relatives. But that is not possible. Jonathan has a destiny, and I think you have one, too—to follow him and be his love and his, well, his brain. Jonathan is brilliant in one way, and you in another."
The Clippers returned to pick up the Boards of Directors. The first persons down the ladder to the boarding dock were Uncle Admiral Pershing and then Aunt Elizabeth. Uncle Admiral Pershing shook Nicky's hand.
Nicky turned to Aunt E. "Hey, you," he said so softly that only Aunt E heard.
Aunt E embraced Nicky. "Take care of yourself and Alexander," she said.
"I will, Mommy. I most surely will," Nicky said, and embraced her. And then handed her his handkerchief so she could wipe tears from her eyes before trying to navigate the ladder. Stairs. Whatever.