3rd November 1978
On the jaunting pad, the man slowly solidified into view. Elizabeth looked up from a table where she was helping Andrew with his homework as if to say something, then appeared to think better of it when she saw his face and the stains on his jacket.
Mike, sitting on a couch, also seemed about to speak but a glance from Elizabeth silenced him. His eyes followed John's movements as the older man stepped down from the pad, turned to his right and walked rigidly towards his cabin.
Once in there, out of view, he pulled off his jacket and his tie and slung them over the back of a chair. He fell back onto his bed.
"Damn." He breathed out the word, very quietly, almost a whisper. "Damn." He said it again just slightly louder. He closed his eyes for a moment, and to his shame and distress felt tears prick at the back of his eyelids. Tears of humiliation and utter frustration.
The young man breathed in deeply through his nose, expanding his lungs, and brought his emotions under control. He sat up and put his head in his hands for a few more moments making sure that he was calm and thinking rationally and then began to analyse the problem.
Why did it always hurt so much? Why, whenever he opened himself up to the possibility of a relationship, did it always end in pain? It was as if there was something lacking within him that meant he didn't have the skills needed to maintain anything more than a friendship with another person and only a very few of those. He sensed Elizabeth's probing thoughts flowing into his mind.
*John? Are you all right? What's wrong?*
He sent back a message.
*I'm fine. There's nothing wrong,* but as he cut off and set up blocks against the telepathic communication he could tell she didn't believe him. He waited for her to override his blocking - it was never totally effective and Liz was good at breaching the shields of all the other Tomorrow People - but no such attempt was forthcoming.
Hsui Tai walked into the lounge from her room and looked at Liz quizzically.
"What is wrong with John? Why is he in his cabin?"
Elizabeth looked at the younger girl and shook her head. "Just give him some time alone. Goodness knows he gets little enough of it. If he wants to talk, he'll talk."
In his cabin, John was examining his jacket. It hadn't been cheap - pure wool never was - and now it was almost certainly ruined. The money wasn't a problem, he had more than enough, but it really annoyed him to have to spend it when it shouldn't have been necessary - if only he hadn't let Liz and Mike try and convince him to be something he was not . . .
Earlier that evening
"That was lovely." Sara was wiping away traces of food from the corners of her mouth.
John signalled the waiter, "Coffee, please." He was slightly perplexed. For some reason, Sara was quiet tonight - much quieter than on any previous occasion. He knew that something was upsetting her but he couldn't tell what it was. She saw him looking and smiled at him but the smile was not as warm as it might have been. He cast around trying to find a way to ask her what was wrong. Just as he was about to speak the waiter returned with two cups and a small pot of coffee. John waited until he was gone. The he poured from the pot into the cups and handed one to Sara. He had decided to go for the direct approach.
"Sara, what's wrong? I know something is."
"It's nothing, John."
"It can't be nothing. You've been quiet all evening. Something is definitely wrong."
She put down her cup. "All right, John, I'll tell you. I want to know why you've never asked me home - why every time we go out you escort me in a taxi to my front door and then walk off. I don't know anything about you - what you do for a living, where you live, anything. And it's getting on my nerves."
He'd been worried about this. "It's not exactly easy, Sara. There are things you don't understand. I can't just take you home."
"Why not? Are you ashamed of me? Are you ashamed of your home?" she leaned forward so only he could hear her. "Is there someone else?"
He was flustered. "Well, no, not exactly. I don't know how to explain, precisely."
"All right. I live with some friends."
"A woman and three kids . . ."
"What?!" this was louder - people at the nearby table might be able to hear. John raised his hands trying to calm Sara down. She subsided, slightly, and spoke more quietly.
"Who is she?"
"Her name's Elizabeth. It's not how you think, Sara." He knew that this had been a bad idea.
"How is it, then?" Her voice had gone deadly calm - even John's limited experience of women suggested that this was a bad thing. He had to keep things calm.
"She's just a friend, nothing more."
"And the kids - are they hers?"
"No, of course not."
"Of course not? They're not yours, are they?" Louder again. John began to think he had preferred the deadly calmness.
"Then why do they live with you?"
How was he going to explain this? He didn't have a clue. It was one of the few times in his life when he hadn't had a definite plan in mind. Sara continued.
"Well, John. I want an answer."
"I don't know exactly how to explain it."
"You'd better work it out, quickly. Because I want to know. This seems very fishy to me, John. What am I, just your bit on the side?"
"Of course not - there is nothing going on between me and Liz - she's just a friend. And the kids live with us for a few reasons." He cast around for a plausible explanation. What he came up with was not brilliant but it might pass. "Elizabeth's a teacher and the kids live with us while they are at school - their parents live too far outside London for them to get to school." It was partially true after all. He looked at Sara to see if the explanation had worked.
Not totally, he judged. She wanted to believe him but just wasn't sure. Her next words were not unexpected.
"If she's just a friend, there's no reason I can't go home with you to meet her - I'd like to meet her."
"It's not terribly convenient, Sara."
"John! Take me!" People looked at them from around the restaurant and John felt colour rise in his cheeks. She realised what she had said and spoke more quietly. "John, take me to your home so I can meet Elizabeth. Or I never want to see you again."
He had known this would happen - it was one of the reasons he had been opposed to Elizabeth's suggestion that he go out and meet people. But it had happened. He didn't want to lose Sara. So he decided to do what Elizabeth had suggested he should do in this situation - tell her the truth.
"All right, Sara. But first there are some things you must know."
She sat listening.
"I don't know exactly how to explain this. I, Elizabeth, and the others who live with us, are not normal humans. We aren't Homo sapiens, but a newer, more developed species of human. We are Homo superior, we have powers beyond those of normal people - we're telepathic for one thing and there's more as well.
"We live together for protection. And we don't just take people to our home. We have to be very careful. That's why I haven't taken you there before. Do you understand?" He waited for her to speak.
"I understand perfectly, John." She stood up and as she rose from the chair, her voice rose in volume as well. "I understand that you aren't prepared to tell me the truth and so you make up all these ridiculous lies." Everyone in the crowded restaurant was now looking at their table and John tried desperately to calm her - but there was no way of doing that now.
"It's bad enough that you insult me by lying to me. They're not even good lies. John. You don't just insult me, you insult my intelligence as well - what do you think I am? Some sort of idiot?"
John knew he had lost all control of the situation, all hope of calming her down and so he let her go on, hoping that when she had finished he would be able to explain again, explain properly.
She didn't give him the chance.
"I despise you - you don't even have enough moral fibre to tell me the truth. Telepathic!" She gave a small, bitter laugh. "Hah! Telepathetic is more like it." She grabbed her purse from beside her chair with one hand and the coffee pot with the other. "Good bye, John!" She hurled the coffee at him.
It hurt - it hit him directly in the chest and the boiling hot liquid poured all down his jacket - only the thickness of his clothing prevented him being badly scalded. He sat there dripping as she stormed out of the restaurant.
His head was swimming. Everyone was looking at him and he had a searing headache. The looks on their faces were many and varied. Some were shocked, some had expressions of pity or sympathy. The majority, though, looked nothing but disgusted.
He had to fight to maintain control - he wanted nothing except to get out of there, to jaunt away to safety. Only his iron discipline prevented him from doing so - from disappearing in front of an entire restaurant of people, all of whom were staring directly at him.
He climbed to his feet, his pulse racing in his ears and fumbled his wallet out of his pocket. He emptied it onto the table and ran from the dining room.
By the time he arrived on the street, she was gone - she had leapt into one of the legion of anonymous London taxi's and ridden away. He stood there for a few moments bringing himself under control and then started to walk.
He walked for hours, trying to clear his head, before he finally jaunted back to the Lab.
It was a measure of his state of mind that rather than folding or hanging the jacket neatly upon his return, he had just thrown it over the back of a chair. An untidy room was the mark of an untidy mind and at the moment, despite his best efforts to remain calm, his mind was full of images and sensations that were jumbled and erratic. He hung the jacket carefully, folded his tie, and then sat down to think - again attempting to order his thoughts.
It wasn't fair to blame either Liz or Mike - it wasn't their fault, anymore than it was Hsui Tai's or Andrew's. Both of them had only his best interests at heart when they had suggested that he didn't need to sit around the Lab, night after night, that there was no reason he couldn't go out and meet people. But they also seemed to have a total lack of understanding about what his problem was.
*So tell us, John.*
The thought came unbidden. While Elizabeth had resolved not to interfere, Mike was not as reticent. John was annoyed at himself for allowing the thought to leak so it could be heard and strengthened his barriers. In Mike's case it wasn't a problem - he wouldn't be able to breach them.
He was probably being unfair to both of them again. But he didn't see how they could help. Elizabeth, while old enough to understand, was female and Mike was just too young - despite his belief and protestations otherwise. John had always felt isolated from the other Tomorrow People - the only ones who were ever close to his age were female and there were some things he couldn't talk to them about.
Or could he? He knew Elizabeth would listen. He knew that she would give him good advice. No, he had to be honest. The problem was within himself - he couldn't talk about it because of the way he was, and not because of any other reason.
So he was left with the same problem - and he had to deal with it.
In its essence the problem was simple enough - John simply couldn't get along with women. He was in his twenties but he'd somehow missed out on developing the skills most men learned in their late teens. He could talk to people easily enough - talk to woman on that level. But when it came to anything approaching romance he was still a babe in the woods. And there was the problem. He had the normal human desires and he wanted desperately to have a chance at something more than friendship.
Stephen had sensed it. For a moment John wished that Stephen was nearer than 800 light years away. He could have talked to Stephen about this - not that Stephen was really that much older than Mike, but he was an adult in fact as well as self-opinion. And John knew that Stephen had often thought he should have taken more interest in women. He even suspected that Stephen had hoped something would grow out of his meeting Elizabeth.
That, however, had always been an absurd idea. Besides, at the time, Carol had been too near in the past . . .
The Galactic Trig
Earth Date: March 12 1974
John stood waiting impatiently for Carol. The reception had gone on for hours and he needed to discuss a few details with her before they returned to Earth from the Trig. It had already been decided that Stephen and Kenny would remain as Earth's first representatives and also that they would be educated at the Trig School. Kenny was keen. Stephen was less enthusiastic but it was necessary for two to remain and so the decision had been taken.
But there were many details still to be worked out. They had to determine whether or not it was practical to move the younger TPs parents up to the Trig. Carol seemed to assume that this was an absolute necessity ("They need their parents, John"), but while he understood the desirability he wasn't sure of the logistics involved. He'd had his first taste of the bureaucracy of the Transport Section and realised that getting a Kalinar to Earth might be a problem.
There was also another reason why John needed to see Carol. He had something to tell her and he needed to say it before he lost his nerve. Since he had known her, he had always considered Carol to be a friend - his best friend. Now he realised that there was more to it than that. In the months they'd spent on the Trig he had realised that she was a lot closer to him than a friend. She was the only person he had ever been able to talk to and know that they understood exactly what he was saying. She was the only person he had ever revealed his deepest secrets to, his fears, the things he was ashamed of. And she had never, not once, never let him down. He marvelled at that for a moment. He realised that he trusted her absolutely - the only person whom he had ever trusted in that way.
He had come to the realisation slowly. He had been too afraid to see it, too scared to acknowledge the way he felt. And even when he had, he'd been too nervous to tell her - too frightened of rejection or of destroying what they had. But now as she walked across the floor towards him, he was ready. He was going to tell her how he felt.
Carol stood before him. Next to her was a tall young man, dressed in strange almost translucent fabrics. He had blue, electric blue, eyes, and was a good six inches taller than John.
Carol had a radiant smile on her face as she stood between the two young men. As, she introduced the two of them, her smile grew even broader.
"John, I'd like you to meet Narscissa - he's part of the Adonisian delegation and he's been showing me around the Trig for the last week or so." She turned towards the tall figure and spoke in a peculiar birdlike language. John read the thoughts behind her speech and knew that he was being introduced: *This is my friend, John.* She turned back to face him, her eyes bright and happy.
John looked at Carol, into those eyes, looking for a clue as to what she was thinking. And he knew. He saw love there - deep affection for him, love in a way, but far more profound was the love that she obviously felt for Narscissa. There was something else there too - a deep and all encompassing desire for John's approval.
His chest went tight and he could feel heat draining from his body. He wanted to scream - desperately wanted to grab Carol and get out of there - or at least to run away from this place. But he continued to look into Carol's eyes knowing what she wanted and what she needed from him. And knowing that if she had felt the same way for him that he felt for her no words would have been necessary - she would have known. With all the willpower he could muster he slammed down locks on the feelings that rose within him. With every ounce of his self control he brought a smile to his face and leaned forward with his hand extended towards the Adonisian.
"I'm very pleased to meet you."
And he knew that Stephen, not Carol, would be returning to Earth.
3rd November 1978
There was a knock at the door. He stood, opened it and saw Liz standing there.
"John, do you want to talk? Is there anything I can do to help?"
Elizabeth - always there for anyone who needed her. Always there for the younger ones but, at the moment more importantly, there for John as well when he needed help. And John realised something.
That what she offered was far more valuable than anything Sara could have given him - and perhaps more valuable than what he had wanted from Carol. Many men find a person that they can love - but how many have the good luck to find, not one, but two best friends in their lives. People who understand absolutely and instinctively what a person needs and are always there to offer it.
Behind her he could hear the others. He couldn't see them, but just from the noises he knew that the three younger Tomorrow People were talking to one another - it sounded like Mike and Hsui Tai were trying to persuade Andrew to go shopping with them for new clothes. And John knew that he had all the love and all the family he could ever need right here - and if he ever needed more it was up there among the stars, more people who would do anything for him at anytime, just as he would for them.
Maybe different feelings would come later. Maybe one day he would find that other sort of relationship. But for the moment he had all he needed. And it was far more than he had any right to expect. He smiled at Elizabeth.
"No, I'm fine." This time he meant it.