Castle Roland

Book I - Global Explorer

by David McLeod


Chapter 13

Posted: 25 Jun 15

Global Explorer

by David McLeod

Inequality for All

Dr. Purdom had invited me to attend Tommy's formal initiation as a member of the black gang. At first, I was afraid that the initiation might involve blackface and create an un-politically-correct situation, even though Dr. Purdom himself was black. So, I asked Dr. Purdom. "What will it involve?"

"Do you remember the party the Navy men threw when we crossed the equator?" he asked.

I blushed when I remembered having to kiss the belly of one of the retired Chief Petty Officers, and then try to climb one of the masts—liberally coated with black, used shaft grease, to retrieve a flag while wearing nothing more than a Speedo swimsuit and Reef Walkers, before being declared not to be a slimy Pollywog but a trusty Shellback. I had asked Captain Izzard how that fit in the "separation of classes" and "discipline" of the ship.

"Because it's tradition, and traditions that bind us together are often more important than those that separate us," the captain said. I had thought about that a lot.

"Yes, Dr. P. But Tommy is already a Shellback."

"It's not the same, but it is a rite of passage," he said, and then chuckled. "That's something that a lot of modern cultures lack. In the USA, a Sweet Sixteen party for poor girls, or a debutante ball for rich ones, and a driver's license for boys of all classes—that's about all that is left."

I thought of the underclasses, the ones for whom liberty and justice for all and created free and equal didn't seem to apply. The ones whose rite of passage was an arrest, a conviction, a stint in prison, or, more horribly, the killing of a rival or an innocent in order to join a gang.

Dr. Purdom pulled me back to the present. "My crew has its own ritual. It has elements of fun, but it's also pretty serious."

He explained that, and I agreed to take part, and I agreed to keep secret the ritual. However, I can say that Tommy's eyes were moist, but that he kept his cool, when Dr. Purdom pinned on the most coveted of specialty insignia in a nuclear navy: a gold circle embossed with a fanciful Bohr atom superimposed on an anchor.

Only those on the Explorer knew that the reverse of their badges also bore a symbol: a spider with alpha particles emanating from its body—a radioactive spider. That part of the initiation generated a lot of humor, although I did not understand it.

Tommy sent an email to his father with the news, but he knew it wouldn't be delivered until just before Christmas, when the sub would surface to receive and send family greetings. By that time, our first year mission nearly would be over. Tommy would be home shortly after that, and could tell his dad in person.

At least, that's what Tommy thought. Bobby had been able to keep secret his plan to surprise Tommy.

First, Tommy worked with Lt. Griggs to juggle the watch rota in a way that affected the seating at the Captain's Table, yet made sure that Tommy would have enough time to get into his new, UN dress uniform for Saturday supper. Then, just before mealtime, Tommy would be summoned to the quarterdeck to see his dad's boat surface.

Tommy barely passed his "I am an unemotional Brit" test when the OOD rang the bell four times (actually, eight times, since each ring was doubled) and announced, "HMS Horatio Nelson arriving." It was only then that Tommy realized that the sub that had surfaced next to our boarding platform was his dad's, and that the man in whites climbing the ladder was his father. Tommy did manage to get his act together before his dad stood at the top of the ladder to be piped aboard.

We had decided on full honors, including playing the British Royal Anthem ("God Save the Queen"—what we Yanks knew as "My Country, 'Tis of Thee") by the military band that had come together since we first sailed. All of Tommy's mates had been alerted, and at the last minute had turned out in their new UN uniforms. Someone had dug out an ancient book of naval protocol—or a book of ancient naval protocol. Lt. Griggs provided a British Naval ensign, and explained what a "courtesy flag" was. We raised that flag to the top of the mast alongside the UN flag while the anthem played.

It may have been improper to fly the British ensign above the flag of the USA which flew from the stern of the ship, but we were still making up our own rules, and no one, including Captain Samson and our largely USA Navy crew, had any problems with that. Certainly, Tommy didn't. And everyone saw Captain Samson's eyes light up when he saw on Tommy's uniform the nuclear specialist insignia that matched his own.

After supper, Dr. Purdom invited Captain Samson to inspect the reactors—with Tommy as tour guide. I think Tommy'd dad did fail his "unemotional Brit" test when he saw the confidence the reactor chief had in Tommy.

I thought a lot about that day. Tommy had been given a gift that millions of boys would never have: seeing his father honored as a representative of a great and ancient empire; and being his father's guide on a tour of humanity's most advanced technology—even though it would become obsolete as soon as micro fusion became widely available. Tommy knew that, and knew not to share it with anyone, including his dad and Dr. Purdom for that matter.

Millions of boys and girls. Children of third world countries. Not only will they never see something like this, they would not understand it if they saw it. Many of them will die before they can even dream of something this grand. What is wrong with this picture?

I knew the answer, but I wasn't sure it was good enough.

The children of the Sahel who were at this moment dying of starvation and dehydration would not understand. The children of the underbelly of West Africa who were dying of malaria for want of a mosquito net to cover their beds would not understand. Children in refugee camps across the Middle East who were starving while soldiers seized the food donated by well-meaning Western organizations would not understand.

I was reminded of the Ebola outbreak of 2014. The USA had an experimental vaccine, but was afraid to make it widely available. If they did, they'd be accused of experimenting on the poor black people of Africa. If they didn't, they'd be accused of saving it for the rich white people of the world. A no-win situation orchestrated by whom? I wish I knew. Whoever it was, was only one of our enemies.

"Alex? What's bothering you?" Nicky asked.

We were cuddled, naked-body-to-naked-body, eye-to-eye. Nicky could feel that I was unhappy; I could feel that he was unhappy because I was unhappy.

Before we could heterodyne those emotions into an uncontrollable slough of despondency, I poked Nicky in a spot that I knew would elicit giggles.

That broke the mood, but it didn't answer Nicky's question. He demanded an answer.

I described my feelings after Tommy's Dad's visit, about how things were so much different for us than for billions of children.

"Nicky? I don't understand why it has to be this way. It's almost as if someone were nurturing the greed, the stupidity, the willful ignorance that I think is at the root of it."

I was right, earlier, to think of Nicky as being able to see the forest, how things fit together, and how to navigate through complexity. This, however, had him stumped.

"Alex, you're right," he said. "There is a pattern, but I can't quite see it. The congress of the USA is gridlocked on the climate issue, no matter how much data we offer. The religious right, the Christian fundamentalists, are trying to force their views on everyone while crying that they're being discriminated against. Islamist factions are fighting all over the Middle East, claiming religion but it's really about oil and power. As soon as one African country manages to create a stable government, someone stages a coup or a new disease breaks out. South America is overflowing with drugs. So are Afghanistan and Pakistan. And that's just today's news."

I was afraid that I'd pushed my worry onto Nicky, but I needn't have been.

"And that's something we'll have to think about. But not now. All work and no play makes Nicky and Alex very dull boys." Nicky reached for me and I moved into his embrace.

Saturday brunch was a time for informality, for conversation, for lingering over coffee and pastries for those who didn't have watch. Jonathan, Nicky, Davey, and I, with a group of UN Science Corps members and a few of the boys who were still Sea Cadets, had gathered around a table. Most of them were still fearful of asking me embarrassing questions. But not all of them were.

"Alex? My dad sent me an email link to an article in Forbes® magazine," Hans said. "They say that your dad has enough money to wipe out poverty in the third world on his own, and they wanted to know why doesn't he?"

"That's a good question," I said, partly to keep Raphael from having a stroke. Raphe was the only Spanish Sea Cadet—rather, the only Spanish member of the new UN Science Corps—and was Hans's boyfriend.

"A lot of people think my Dad is the richest man in the world. He may be, but not in money. Anconia Industries owns a lot of land, buildings, factories, and equipment all over the world, and Dad owns most of Anconia; family members own the rest.

"We—the Anconia family—keep a capital reserve to cushion against currency fluctuations, the ups and downs in the world economy, but most of our money is put back into the company, to buy more means of production. And, our profit margin is very small, because we pay fair prices for raw materials, pay employees well and provide good benefits, and charge reasonable prices for the goods and services we produce.

"Of course, even a slim profit margin on a multi-trillion-dollar industry rakes in a lot of money. Anconia Industries is probably the tenth largest economy in the world." Actually, we're definitely the largest economy in the world, but we don't ever say that, I thought, ever.

"Family members do live pretty well—way better than billions of people in the world, but we work for what we have. There's no one in the family who just collects money—everyone has a job."

"I read that malaria could be wiped out with only a couple of million dollars for mosquito nets," one of the boys said.

"For one year, yes," Azisa interjected himself into the conversation. He was from a dry part of Africa, where malaria wasn't quite the problem that it was in the sub-Saharan regions. However, he was smart and he knew his continent. "Those nets only last about a year," he said. "Then the mosquito repellant wears out, the nets get torn, and another million or two is needed to replace them."

I changed the subject, sort of. "Did you know that sickle cell syndrome evolved as a protection against malaria?" I asked. I got a lot of headshakes from everyone but Azisa. He knew where I was going.

"Malaria attacks red blood cells; but it doesn't attack those that fold making what are called sickle cells. Someone with one gene for sickle cell is usually pretty healthy, and pretty resistant to malaria. A gene for sickle cell is a survival trait in a place where malaria is common. It's not so good in places where malaria isn't common. And, a person with two genes for it is often not healthy, no matter where he or she lives. It's something within us that is still evolving—if we were ever to let it.

"My family funds genetic research to find ways to create a natural protection that doesn't have the horrible side effects of sickle cell syndrome. When we find an answer, if it's possible, we'll try to make money on it . . . and put that money into more research, to make more money, to fund more research into another disease.

"Anconia has a lot of businesses in Africa. We don't make much money, because most of Africa is poor, and what's not poor is being run by dictators and kleptocrats—thieves. It's hard to deal with them and impossible to keep them from stealing—from their people and from us.

"Nearly every penny we make in Africa goes back to that continent.

"And actually, we do buy mosquito nets, but we have a hard time getting them to people who need them. And we try to convince some of the overpaid athletes in the major sports franchises in the USA to contribute, as well. So far, we've not been very successful."

We were steaming west toward Barbados, where the science team would take samples of the coral reefs that made up that island. They were like tree rings, providing both the historicity of climate change and easily interpreted evidence of it.

Afterwards, we would turn toward the Gulf Stream. As soon as the word of our mission track got out, the invitations started coming in. By now, the entire world was following our progress, so I wasn't completely surprised by the number of people who wanted to meet with us. The shipyard at Newport News where the Explorer had been built, begged us to visit. Actually, they didn't beg, but they sure sent invitations through every channel they could think of. When one came through Uncle Admiral Pershing with a note from Aunt Elizabeth that she expected to see her son and her favorite nephew in Norfolk, we accepted.

Son, first, and then favorite nephew, I re-read the message_. I guess Nicky has replaced me as first in her heart . . . And I'm really not disappointed by that. Nicky needs this happiness_.

It wasn't long before I began to suspect that Aunt Elizabeth had a private comm link to Nicky. I felt as if he were hiding something from me. That was pretty much confirmed when Nicky began to huddle with Captain Izzard in meetings to which I was not invited. It was okay; I trusted them. I should have thought more about what Aunt Elizabeth might be planning, though.

Our orders, forwarded from Atlantic Command by Uncle Admiral Pershing, were an invitation to berth at Naval Station Norfolk rather than at the shipyard. Thinking of the security the naval station would be able to provide, I readily agreed.

I should have known something was up when I saw that our course would take us north of Rip Rap Island, but I was too busy watching Davey as he conned the ship. He was almost wetting himself in his excitement.

I knew I'd been had when the rest of the UN Science Corps and the remaining Sea Cadets, the off-duty Merchant Marine crew, plus anyone who'd ever been honorably discharged from military service, lined up in dress uniforms along the starboard rail. As soon as they were assembled, something that looked like howitzers began to fire from Fort Monroe. I counted a 17-gun salute. Not the highest number allowed by protocol, but pretty damned impressive for a civilian ship. Also impressive was the salute held by all the uniformed crew as we passed Ft. Monroe.

"Captain?" I looked at him.

"Alexander? You and this ship and its crew have done something unique in the annals of the sea. Your country is proud of you. There are a lot of people who are unhappy, though. They are people whose ox has been or will be gored by the results of this voyage and the next one."

He paused. "There will be a next one, won't there?"

"I promise," I said. "And you will be the captain, if I have to tie you to your chair."

We grinned at one another, and I knew we had an understanding.

Captain Izzard welcomed the harbor pilot aboard, but made it clear that Davey would have the conn as we docked at the Third Street Pier, the only quay that was long enough, and that, barely. The harbor pilot agreed, although I felt his discomfort until a nineteen-year-old former Sea Cadet, now an ensign in the UN Science Corps, conned the ship to a perfect stop.

The lines had been attached to bollards and we were about to lower the gangplank, which we were supposed to call "the brow," when the steam whistle sounded, followed by a ship-wide announcement to stand by for flight operations.

Three huge, dark green helos circled for a moment, then one separated from the others and landed: the call sign to the tower was Marine Air One. It was the president.

And Dad. And the triplets, dressed in shorts and Global Explorer T-shirts. And Francesca looking like a young Amelia Earhart in a jumpsuit. And the Secretary General of the United Nations.

Demetrio? I thought as soon as the three boys deplaned (or, would that be "de-heloed?"). Do you remember where we put the tree that Colin sent? Would you guys like to show Francesca?

My little brothers all heard. They grabbed Francesca's hands—well, two of them did—and scampered away. I think they were all happy to escape the protocol that accompanied a visit by their father. And the President of the United States and the Secretary General of the United Nations.

I had met the president before—he'd been Dad's roommate in college. Still, he seemed impressed to be greeting me. I took advantage of the situation to make sure he knew Jonathan, Nicky, and Davey. Davey was a USA citizen, and was pretty impressed at meeting the president; Nicky was a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, and was actually more impressed to be meeting the UN Secretary General.

It was the president who first grasped the situation. "Gents? We're holding a lot of people in starched uniforms at attention. Captain Izzard? Would you conclude any ceremonies you think appropriate, and let your people relax? Alexander? Would you then lead us to a place we can talk, privately?"

I waited for the captain's nod before saying, "Yes, sir. If you and Mr. Manning would please follow me, we have a secure conference room just off the bridge."

When we reached the door to the conference room, the president signaled to the two secret service men who had accompanied him, and they stepped aside. They weren't entirely happy, but they both knew the kind of security Anconia Industries could provide. And the president had earned their trust.

The conference room, originally the owner's salon, had a large window that looked onto a private deck. The oak tree that Colin had sent was there, secure in a planter attached firmly to the ship. The triplets and Francesca stood beside it. They were talking, laughing, and—probably—plotting. I could hardly wait.

"Nigel, Frank, Alexander," the president began, addressing the UN SecGen and my father. And me. In the same breath. Way cool!

"First, thank you all for agreeing to this meeting and for what you have done to make it possible for the Global Explorer to accomplish her mission to this point and for what you have done to make sure that mission will continue. It took a great deal of courage.

"Frank? Would you take it from here?"

"Thank you, Todd. I ask you all to keep what we will discuss from this point forward secret."

The President and their friend, Nigel Manning from their days as Oxford Scholars, now the SecGen of the UN, were quick to agree.

Dad explained who Jonathan was. The depth of trust between him and his friends was deep; they accepted his explanation without question.

"You know what we must do," Dad said. The two men nodded.

"Alexander? Would you bring Jonathan to join us?"

Jonathan wasn't going to come in without Davey; I was unwilling to continue without Nicky. That was, actually, okay with everyone.

Before he died, Jonathan's father had given him a packet of papers, and explained what they meant. The packet included originals of birth and marriage certificates of Jonathan's ancestors, going back to Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich, patrilineal grandson of Tsar Nicholas I and great-grandson of Tsar Paul I, who was Jonathan's many-greats-grandfather. Everywhere else, the line had died out, with the exception of much more distant relatives, including the current pretender.

"Jonathan, you know what's happening in your country, don't you?" I asked.

It had been five months since the premier and his chief of staff had been executed. The Russians were still disorganized. There had been at least one new government formed each month. None of them were able to accomplish anything. Most of them were not in existence long enough to be recognized by the international community.

The Italian Mafia had made significant inroads, fulfilling their dream of getting a piece of the action in what the press was finally recognizing, and was calling the Rape of Russia. The "stans" along the southern flank were trying to expand their influence and territory. West of the Urals, the former vassal states of the Soviet Union were doing the same. China was massing forces on Russia's eastern border. The country's infrastructure was collapsing. Jonathan knew all this.

"I do," he said.

It took only a little encouragement on my part, and a promise of unlimited support from my father to bring the President and the SecGen of the UN to agree. Especially when Dad and I explained what unlimited meant.

After the president and SecGen had left, Dad asked for a meeting with Francesca and me. Jonathan and Davey joined the triplets, and I became worried at what that critical mass of minds might produce. I should have been more worried about Francesca.

When Francesca came into the conference room, I reached for her, to grab her and swing her around as I usually did.

She demurred. "Mama says I'm a young lady, now." She took my hand, and pecked a kiss on my cheek.

I laughed. "I'd never argue with Mama—or you," I said. "Or Dad—and he asked for this meeting."

"Alexander, I trust you know about Francesca's blog for the children of Anconia?" Dad asked. He meant the children of Anconia employees, but that's what he called them—the children of Anconia. Dad's definition of family was pretty broad.

"Yes, sir. I read it every week. I don't read the responses, though. It looks like there are an awful lot of them. I hope you don't mind, Francesca."

Francesca's grin signaled Dad, who continued. "Then you know," he said, "that she has thousands of kids all over the world who are following the Global Explorer's mission."

I had never thought of it that way, even though I'd been behind Bobby's recruiting of the amateur radio community. I knew it was because I still thought of Francesca as my baby sister. But, at nearly 16, she was growing up.

That thought led to a long conversation among Dad, Francesca, and me, and some long-range planning that would take the Explorer, Anconia Industries, and me several years even to begin. It also led to some new orders for the refit that was to take place while the Explorer was in Norfolk.

After we'd said what needed to be said, and done what needed to be done, Dad said, "Alex? Norfolk is an old city, and there's a park that is shaded by some ancient oak trees. The triplets need to run around a bit; let's all go there."

Ancient oak trees? "Sure, Dad. I'd like for Jonathan, Nicky, and Davey to come, too."

Dad didn't blink before he agreed—and, I don't think that he was really surprised. Like I said, he's pretty smart.

Francesca hadn't seen Nicky until he joined us at the foot of the gangplank. Brow. Boarding ladder. Whatever. She stared at him. Her eyes widened, but she said nothing. I knew she had played in the Grove, and wondered what she'd learned—and just how telepathic she was.

The park might have been crowded on a weekend, but it was Tuesday, and we were the only people there, except for a security detail who sat on benches and fed the pigeons but kept their eyes on us. I wasn't surprised when Colin appeared. He seemed a little unsure of himself, until I offered a hug.

"Colin, thank you for the oak tree you sent," I said. "And thank you for coming to visit us."

I felt something, and added, "There's more to it than just checking on the tree and getting a hug, isn't there?"

Colin nodded, and explained. It turned out that the dryads knew something that no one else knew: the existence of some very large vaults deep under several Swiss banks, as well as the codes and passwords required to open them.

Colin had told me long ago that the dryads had lived in Greece and then Russia before coming to North America. Now, he told us that some of them had been in the forest where the Tsar and his family had been murdered by the communists, and then buried.

"The Tsar and his family are Jonathan's family, and therefore, they are our family," Colin said. "The dryads of the forests of Russia are our brothers; therefore, they are your brothers. They have seen what has happened to the land, the air and the water in the past 100 years. I have promised them that Jonathan would change this.

"Jonathan? I hope I have not done the wrong thing."

Jonathan hugged Colin, and wept for his country.

"No, Colin. You have not done a wrong thing. You have done the most right thing I can imagine. I know only a little of what has happened since my family were murdered, but I know about Chernobyl, about the cesspits of industrial waste and slag that are poisoning the Volga and the rest of the country."

As soon as Colin disappeared, the triplets swarmed me. "You should see the horses! They're beautiful . . . Mine's fastest, his name is Nimrod . . . Nuh-uh, Achenar is faster . . . Nuh-uh—"

"Guys! Guys! I'm happy that you like the horses. But you know it was Dad's idea, don't you? And what's with the T-shirts?" I had seen the registered trademark symbol next to the image of the ship.

"It's our college fund," Alberto said. "We've already made over a hundred thousand dollars. And Uncle Ragnar intercepted two whole containers of knockoffs from China that they tried to sneak to Wallyworld on one of his ships.

"We've got T-shirts, iPad® cases, iPhone® cases, and other stuff."

"That's wonderful," I said. "I'm so proud of you." That earned a group hug that left me breathless. They were getting big, and strong, and I remembered that I needed to talk to the dryads about the boyfriends thing.

We had already decided to leave the Explorer in Norfolk for IRAN: Inspection and Refit, As Necessary. It was, after all, getting close to the holiday season. Everyone except a skeleton crew—and a lot of Anconia security forces brought in to safeguard the ship, the sensors, and the submersibles—was given leave. The Navy travel office people didn't blink when we asked them to help 500 people get to destinations all over the world. I was happy, and to hell with the cost, when everyone asked for round-trip tickets. The crew of the Explorer was a team, and one that I wanted to keep intact.

Tommy was one of those who had elected to remain. I captured him and brought him to the conference room.

"Tommy? Are you sure you want to stay here?"

"Someone has to babysit the reactors," he said. And then grinned. And then sobered.

"Dad's still at sea," he said. "They'll surface a few days before the 25th to send and receive family messages. I've already sent mine, and his will be emailed to me. My mother . . . she has a boyfriend, and I think she and Dad will divorce after this cruise."

He saw my pain, and said, "Alex, it's okay. Dad and I understand. No one can have two masters. Dad's master is the sea. I think mine will be, too. Especially after you build a ship with fission power!"

I remembered what I had said earlier about fission people and their knowledge, jobs, careers.

"It's a deal, Tommy. And as soon as I return, we're going to start planning."

Jonathan and Davey flew with Dad to the Middleburg Compound where Jonathan's mother lived. I flew with Nicky to the Montana enclave. Aunt E met us at the airport. Nicky's gait was a little unsteady, almost as if he were unsure what to say or do.

"Hey, you," she said, and held out her arms to hug Nicky.

"Hey, you," he whispered back.

It was Nicky's turn to be embarrassed when we were wakened by the triplets . . . naked, of course. I had not warned Nicky, and he caught my amusement before he became embarrassed. And then retaliated by joining the triplets in tickling me.

"Pax!" I called, after thoroughly enjoying the experience. "What do you want?"

Nicky was puzzled by that, until Demetrio explained. "We won, so Alex has to give us something or do something for us." He added, "You should pick since you're his boyfriend, but you helped us."

Oh, crap, I heard from Nicky. What have I gotten into?

Tell them I have to give you all a shower and wash you, I thought.

????? Okay, I guess.

"How about he has to take a shower with us and bathe us all?" Nicky said.

"Okay," Carlito said.

"As long as you don't do boyfriend stuff," Alberto said.

Nicky got an erection in the shower. The triplets commented, but used polite language. Nevertheless, Nicky blushed. Given his complexion, it was pretty obvious, and spurred giggles and even more comments from the boys.

The triplets got erections, too, but I felt it was reflexive, and decided that today I would talk to the dryads about the boyfriend thing. And a few other things, as well.

The Grove was not fenced or posted, but everyone knew it was off limits to all but family. I parked the four-wheeler in the path, signaling to family that something private was happening, and took Nicky's hand to lead him deep among the oaks.

When we reached the center of the Grove, I said, softly, "Guys? We know you're here." Three dryads stepped from behind the trees, and accepted hugs from both Nicky and me.

"Colin?" I said. "I think you're like the boss dryad, so I'll ask you my questions. First, what do the triplets know about boyfriend stuff? Are they gay?"

Colin's answer matched the seriousness I tried to put into my question. "No, Alexander, they are not. In fact, I think they'll show you that, soon."

He would not answer me when I asked when and how, so I moved to the next topic.

"Have you changed the Anconia family?"

"Alexander, I understand your question, but I do not know the answer. I know that members of your family who have visited the Grove are changed, some more than others. So far, only a few have the—the thing you think of as telepathy. All who visit, even briefly, seem to be better for it in ways we do not understand.

"Is it we who do this or is it something else in the Grove? I'm sorry, Alexander, I do not know."

Once again, he refused to answer my questions about who had been changed, and who had telepathy. I saw then a strength of character, but also another mystery to be solved. Which led to my next question.

"What is the source of your power? Is it the ancient gods?"

"I do not know. We do not know," he said. "Once, I think, we knew the gods, but we have not seen them in many, many years. We do not know if they still exist."

"And your power?" I pressed.

"I do not know that, either," he said. "When we move into and out of our trees, when we move from place to place, when we speak with our minds, we see a bubbling foam of energy from which we draw strength. That is all I can say. Not because I am prohibited, but because that is all I know."

Quantum foam? I heard Nicky wondering.

"Were you my imaginary playmates when I was a child?" I asked. It was my final question, and the one I was most afraid of asking.

Colin hugged me. "Yes, Alexander, we were, and we were so happy to find you, again, when you brought Jonathan into the Grove. And we are happy to meet Nicky, for we see the bond, the love between you.

"Um," Colin paused and blushed. "Are you too closely bonded to—"

I knew exactly what he meant, and conveyed it to Nicky.

Alexander, I love you more than life, Nicky thought_. I love you so much that it spills over from my heart. I know of no reason we cannot share that love with these boys, who I am sure—even though they are not—have done so much for us_.

My parents insisted that I attend their New Years Day reception, even if it meant that the Explorer wouldn't sail until the following day. Even though I was now eighteen, controlled my trust fund, and could vote, Dad was still head of the family. Any thought of protest was stifled when Aunt Elizabeth let us know that she was going to present Nicky to the gathered, extended family.

Francesca, looking like the young lady she was becoming, was there with a boy I recognized as the son of one of the SWAT members. However, nothing surprised me more than seeing the triplets come into the gymnasium—where the "under 21" part of the party was held—with three little girls on their arms.

The boys were at the age when most boys were turning their noses up at girls, and I wasn't entirely sure that they were entirely happy, but they understood that they had a role to play, that they, too, were hosts, and proud of that this year. They seemed to enjoy the girls' company, and even danced with them a couple of times. Actually, I was pleased to get this confirmation of what Colin had told me.

Nicky disappeared with Aunt E after the reception. I was a little concerned, because he and I had a "red-eye" flight on the B757 to Norfolk to catch the Explorer, scheduled to set sail on the next day.

When Nicky returned, he carried a large, navigator's briefcase which he insisted on keeping with him.

"Hmmm?" I asked.

"Mother said you'd understand," he said, and told me what had happened.

"Nicky, I want you to give this to Davey. It's too much for Jonathan to digest, and he has so many other things to worry about. Ask Davey to guard it carefully, and destroy it after he's read it. He should never say where he got it.

"You may show it to Alexander."

Aunt E. had given Nicky a huge volume of information about Russia, from a history of the Romanov dynasty, from details of the communist regime to more current information. It was marked Top Secret NK, and bore the logo of the CIA on the cover.

Nicky's mouth opened and his eyebrows rose.

"What better cover than a dotty old woman, who made herself obvious by flouting tradition and smoking a pipe, and what better way to travel than as the wife of a military officer on assignment around the world?"

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