“Uncle Mikey!” the four-year-old girl shouted, throwing herself at her uncle.

Michael dropped his duffel to catch her. He swung her around once before hoisting her on to his shoulder.

“Didya bring Rocky?” she asked, eagerly.

“Sorry, sweetie,” he told Carol.

“Awwww,” she pouted. “How come?”

Michael took a deep breath. “Regulations prohibit the transport of high grade robotic materiel on civilian transport systems.”

Carol, of course, didn’t understand any of that, but she thought official-sounding speech was hilarious, and she burst into giggles.

“Hey!” his sister, Laura, said in a mock-chiding tone. She had been watching from the elevators, but started towards her brother and daughter. “No military talk in front of the kid. You’ll get her hooked. One family member in the army is enough.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I’ll endeavor to communicate according to civilian guidelines until I receive further orders.”

She punched him in the shoulder, even as Carol began to laugh again. He grabbed his duffel with his free hand, and they walked across the hotel lobby back to the elevators.

“Mom’s going to flip. She thinks you’re still up there, fighting rebels.”

“Technically, Mars is more below us right now.”

“Quiet, you. You should hear her going on about the Greenies. You’d think…” She cut herself short. “Sorry. Almost forgot. No talking about Mars while we’re here.”

Michael frowned as the elevators rose. “Mom and Jeff still aren’t getting along?”

“Jeff is firmly of the opinion that the mess on Mars is everybody’s fault. I don’t think Mom would care so much normally, but since you’re there… she’s taking it as a slight against you.”

“He still thinks she likes me better?”

Laura shrugged. “You know how Mom is. If any of us does something she can be proud about, she won’t stop talking about it. Between you running a TIGER squad, and me with Carol here… I think Jeff is more upset at himself than anything, but he’s always had a gift for deflection.”

“Uncle Jeff says I’m his favorite niece,” Carol piped up.

Michael smiled, wryly. “Good to know he hasn’t stooped to using new material yet. Didn’t he use that joke at your wedding?”

“I forgot about that,” Laura said with a laugh. She impersonated their brother’s voice. “’Michael’s always been my favorite brother, but now that Luke’s joining the family, I’m going to need to re-evaluate his standing.’ He repeated that to everyone who would listen to him.”

Carol started to squirm the moment the elevator doors opened, and Michael set her down. She immediately ran out into the ballroom towards an older, but still vibrant woman.

“Nanna!” she called out. “Nanna! Guess what! Uncle Mickey’s here!”

“So much for seeing how long it would take her to notice you,” Laura muttered.

A look of confusion passed over their mother’s face at Carol’s words. But when she saw Michael, it was replaced with pure elation. She ran to his side, embracing him with surprising strength.

“Michael,” she said, not letting go. “it’s so good to see you.”

“I couldn’t miss your seventy-fifth birthday. Not when the entire family is here.”

When she finally released him, she turned to her daughter. “And don’t tell me you weren’t in on this. It had to be your idea to keep it a secret.”

“Why, mother!” Laura said, in an overly-shocked voice. “How could you suggest such a thing?”

“Because Michael hasn’t got a deceitful bone in his body, but you and Jeff take to mischief like a duck to water.”

“I don’t get in nearly as much trouble these days.” A wistful smile crept over Laura’s face.

“That’s because Luke’s a sensible man.”

Laura laughed a full hearty laugh. “Luke was worse than Jeff and me put together, Mom. If Carol didn’t keep us busy all the time, I’m sure we’d be on the news at least once a week.”

“On that note…” their mother said, turning to Michael.

“Not now, mother,” he said.

“It’s my right as a mother,” she insisted. “I haven’t seen any articles on futuretech.com about your cat robot lately. Are you and Miss Schialla going through a dry spell?”

“You read futuretech.com?” Michael asked, incredulously.

“Only Miss Schialla’s articles. I know as long as she’s still writing about you and Rocky, the two of you must be doing well.”

“There’s only so many fluff pieces she can write about the TIGER squad, and the military is even clamping down on those lately.”

“Whatever. I want grandkids. Plural.”

“Cliché much, Mom?” Laura said. Michael noted, however, that one of her hands went to her stomach. Either she wanted another child, or maybe she had a second surprise for their mother today.

He smiled and turned away. Only to see a boy, not much older than Carol, staring intently at him. It was his cousin Jamie’s son.

“Tommy, right?” he said.

“Robby!” the boy said, clearly offended. “Tommy’s my brother! Are you really an alien?”

“I didn’t say that!” another boy shouted, running up. This was Tommy. He had to be almost ten. The brother’s bore a strong resemblance, but Michael mentally kicked himself for forgetting that it had been four years since he’d seen Tommy.

“I said he was fighting Greenies on Mars. I never said he was an alien. There aren’t any aliens on Mars, dummy.”

“Oh,” Robby said, looking a little disappointed. Then his face brightened up. “Did you bring anything from Mars?”

“That’s rude, Robby,” Tommy said. But his eyes went to the duffel at Michael’s feet.

Michael grinned and knelt down. He made a big deal about rummaging through the bag. “I don’t think I have anything you’d be interested in here. No, it’s just a bunch of robots.” He lifted out a small bundle of bubble rap removed the model TIGER unit from inside. “You guys don’t like robots, do-”

“It’s Rocky!” Carol shouted, racing over to him. “Can I see? Can I?”

He was suddenly surrounded by pretty much every cousin he had. Even the oldest, Bethany and Daniel, both teenagers, lingered nearby.

“Calm down. I’ve got one for every kid here,” he said. “But there’s a condition. My friend spent a lot of time on these, and she wants a holo-pic of everybody with them. So no running off.” He handed the first one to Robby, and started digging more out. “One at a time!” he said, as the children began to rush him. It had little effect.

Taking a deep breath, he barked, “AT-TEN-TION!” with as much authority as he could put in his voice. The kids immediately fell silent, and some of the older ones even stood more or less at attention.

Bethany helped line up her cousins as each of them got their model, and accepted her own with a gracious smile.

“Okay everybody,” Michael said, holding up the camera. “On the count of three, say ‘Thanks, Warrant Officer Lance.’”