Planet of Wishes
- Earth is a Nice Place to Visit, But...
They shrugged off their packs near an old rail fence and walked along the path at the edge of the graveyard. Stopping within sight of the old church, the pair looked up at the majesty of the Smoky Mountains. "Even in the winter, with the trees bare, itís absolutely beautiful," Maureen commented. All of the mountains were capped in a light dusting of snow.
"Maybe thatís because of the solitude, Mo," John said quietly, enjoying the serenity of the rolling meadow and not so distant mountains, while at the same time conscious of cars slowly passing by on the narrow one-way road that ran a circular route through this part of the national park. "It looks as though some of the trees are coming back from the acid rain days." He paused and they both leaned against the fence, gazing around in rapture. "Look, Mo. Do you see the deer?" He pointed toward the peacefully grazing animals. Every once in a while, one raised its head in mild interest before continuing to graze on the dry grass. The sun began tingeing the eastern mountains a golden color as it journeyed westward.
A light breeze blew through the tiny cemetery, causing them to shiver slightly. Ignoring the passing vehicles, the couple continued to watch the animals, including an inquisitive raccoon which was pawing among some trash that missed making it into a garbage can. John put his arm around Maureen, drawing her closer to him.
"Johnny? Maureen?" a soft voice broke through their reverie. Pivoting around, John was startled to realize that his dad had driven up and approached them without his knowing it.
"Dad," John murmured, and before he knew it the older man had grabbed him in a fierce and possessive hug. The son reciprocated. "I never thought I would see you again," he whispered.
Holding him at armís length, Frank Robinson just stared at his youngest child for a moment. "Youíre looking wonderful, John, considering what Penny said you had been through. And you even look more self assured, if thatís possible," he added with a chuckle. "I am so proud of you, son. I always knew you could pull it off. I always knew that you would return someday." Then he hugged Maureen and motioned them toward the cars parked near the old church. "We need to leave soon, before the rangers get aggravated. The gates close at sunset."
As he approached the vehicles, Johnís eyes widened in shock, because in the two cars were his four brothers and sisters. An extremely boisterous reunion took place, with emotions running high. Frank Robinson was finally able to convince his children that leaving was the better part of discretion, especially when he saw an oncoming park service vehicle approaching in the deepening twilight. An hour later the group was gathered in a large rental cabin in nearby Townsend.
"I still canít get over how you were able to arrange all of this in such a short time, Dad," John said as he lit the fire in the fireplace. Maureen and Roberta were cooking steaks in the kitchen. Everyone else was relaxing in the large living room.
"Uh, John, you were the one who got the Ph.D., and youíre asking a question like that of the grand wizard of finaglers?" Randy chided his younger brother. "Shame on you, little brother."
Laughing, John felt the joy almost as a tangible thing; so wonderfully present that it could be touched, felt, tasted, experienced almost more than could be borne. "Watch who you call little," he growled the old retort good-naturedly. John had been taller than his oldest brother since early high school days.
The bantering and conversation continued well after midnight, when by mutual consent, the group voted that John and Maureen should have the master bedroom. After experiencing the tiny cabin on the Jupiter II for over three years, this room looked positively monstrous, and the couple stared in awe for a moment before shutting the door.
The next morning, John woke up to the sound of birds greeting the sun, hawks preparing for the hunt, woodpeckers in the pines, crows cawing to one another and a cardinal tapping at its reflection on one of the windows. Quietly sliding out of bed, he waved his arms to get rid of the myopic pest and then he threw on his pants and shirt. A squirrel stared at him from a branch that swayed just outside the window.
Maureen was still sleeping soundly and had not been aroused by the noise, so he slipped noiselessly out of the bedroom and into the living room. The fire was only a pile of smoldering coals, sending out a minimum of heat.
Pulling on his coat, John decided that he would surprise the family and have a nice fire going when they all woke up. He stealthily went out the front door to the woodpile that had been restocked only the day before and began gathering suitable sized logs. Hearing a slight noise that most likely heralded the approach of an individual, John quickly dropped the logs in the muddy drive and grabbed a stick left for kindling- and then chided himself for his paranoia. The man only looked to be an early morning jogger.
"Dr. Robinson?" the jogger asked. "Colonel John Robinson?"
"Who are you?" John hissed. Irritation rose like the flames in last nightís fire, as John realized that his paranoia was becoming justified.
"David Morrison, freelance journalist and photographer." The newsman kept glancing at the stick in Johnís hand. "Uh, Colonel, Iím not here to annoy you...." Morrison had stopped about a dozen feet from John, who had noticed the camera hanging off the reporterís shoulder.
"Too late, Mr. Morrison. Youíre here. Iím already annoyed," John retorted. "And I know how my family and my wifeís family have been annoyed lately, too," he added.
"Believe it or not, although Iím interested in earning a bit of money off this, I have a family, too, and Iíll leave if you are that adamant about it," David said soothingly. "I was also freelancing right before the launch and interviewed your son, Will. It was my understanding that you were annoyed then, too."
Furrowing his brow in concentration, John tried to remember the incident. "Yes, I vaguely recall that. I believe you had figured out a way to talk to him when security was lax. It was right before a farewell party, and I was annoyed. But you also faxed me a transcript of the interview before submitting it for publication." The professor tossed the stick back on the woodpile and approached the journalist, hand out in greeting. "Iím still not happy about this, but I suppose if Iím going to be cornered, I should be grateful that itís by someone with some scruples."
Morrison winced. "You know, Colonel, not all paparazzi are sneaky, unprincipled and evil creatures."
"Touchť. It just seems that way," John replied. "Letís walk, Mr. Morrison, and Iíll try to answer what I can. But be aware that Iím spending the day with my family, not with you. And if you ask me something I refuse to answer, then donít push. And donít call me Colonel. Iím a scientist and a teacher, not a military man."
"Sounds fair, uh, Professor," Morrison agreed with a smile. "And just call me David."
And then began a series of questions that seemed to John to show a great deal of forethought and preparation. Despite himself, he was impressed with the journalist and tried to be as up front and honest as he could without getting too deep. Finally, when he figured that an hour or so had passed, John declared an end to the interview.
"One last thing, Professor, and answer me honestly. Now that you have the capability of returning to Earth, are you coming back? Permanently, I mean?" David asked.
That was a question that John had also been asking himself. As desperately as he and his family had been making the attempt to find their way back, he wondered just how much he wanted to return to Earth. His home planet seemed to lack the call that Kartrm had right now. "Coming from the point of view of one who digs for answers, too, Iím impressed with your astuteness, David. Iím not sure that there is anything here anymore. Itís been a terribly hard journey at times, but I donít regret going, and the discoveries weíve made have been astonishing." John laughed at a thought that struck him as ludicrous. "And we arenít pioneers in the sense of those frontiersmen of the nineteenth century. We can find a nice planet but still have the amenities of the Jupiter II."
"Well, I disagree with your reasoning because I do think youíre pioneers, but I wonít argue about it. We are almost back to your little chalet. Iíd probably better leave now before I wear out my welcome. Iíll send a copy to the email address you gave me, and I want to wish you good luck, Professor Robinson. It really has been a pleasure." The two men shook hands. "And by the way, I saw some of my colleagues as I passed through Townsend. So you might have more company," David warned him.
John saw that someone else had gathered the wood, so he simply went inside. After several hours, Michele looked out the window and reported a vehicle driving up and down the narrow road. "Well, David was right," John commented. "Letís make the most of the time that we have before they get too bold."
"And then I promised Colleen that we would see her briefly this afternoon," Maureen stated, leaving no room for argument. "She and Joan were worried about you and wanted to see you as well."
"Of, course, I want to see Colleen and Joan as well, but I still donít trust that thing," he quipped.
"Then keep your mind focused, mídear," she replied with a smile. And a little later, after emotional farewells, that is exactly what John did. The couple found themselves in Colleenís den, with Joan looking at them in amusement.
"A person could get a hefty dose of jet lag doing this too often," John said with a laugh.
By early evening, the couple had returned to Scottís apartment, happy but thoroughly tired and missing their children. John got on the young manís computer and contacted Ben Mitchell again as he had promised he would.
This time, Ben wasnít alone. "Congressman Bowman?" he asked, incredulous.
"Colonel Robinson!" the politician exclaimed. "If Ben didnít have the reputation that he has, I wouldnít have given him the time of day, much less come over to his house. He gave me the barest of details, just enough to pique my curiosity."
John told him the events leading up to his arrival back on Earth. "I just want a chance to talk to the committee, Congressman. I think Iím qualified to talk about space colonization, donít you?"
Martin Bowman laughed. "I believe so, Colonel. Even though we politicians like to say we abide by set schedules, I havenít seen a meeting yet that stuck to one. And I for one would like to have you there because otherwise Iím afraid that this is dead in the water."
"Thatís a hefty load youíve just tossed on my shoulders, sir, but Iíll do my best," John told him.
"You were a college instructor for a few years; just pretend they are your less than bright students," Bowman quipped.
John laughed with him. "Mr. Bowman, I will treat them as though they were my less than bright students who are genuinely interested in learning. And weíll see what happens." Bowman just nodded and they signed off.
"This evening our itinerary includes seeing one of Ben Mitchellís friends as well as Ben and Lisa," he told Maureen, when he had finished talking with Ben. "Now are you sure youíre not being inconvenienced by shuttling us around town?" John asked Scott.
"Absolutely not," Scott told the pair. What he didnít say, but figured John already knew, was that he wouldnít miss tomorrowís meeting for anything; even an offer to do his residency at Johns Hopkins wouldnít have budged him. He had been extremely excited to have been invited to attend.
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