"No, Mom. Not that one. Put it on the one next to it."
Traci stared at all of the dots of light projected on the ceiling, not seeing any real difference between them. One hand clutching the top of the ladder, she held the glow-in-the-dark sticker up with the other hand, about to press it onto the projected "star" she had chosen. "Which one? They all look the same to me."
Her daughter stood on the other ladder, also pasting stickers while she kept an eye on her mother's progress. "Two inches to the right of your hand."
"This one?" She touched a dot with her middle finger.
"No, that's left. Wait, that's my left. Your left. Go to your left."
"I'm just going to put it here."
"Mom!" Katie heaved an exasperated groan. "You can't put it there. The big stars are for constellations and if you put it there, it won't look like Auriga. Just a little bit more to your left. Yes, that one there."
Traci pressed the sticker onto the indicated spot, then sighed and climbed down. "Okay, I'm too old for this. You want the stars in the right place, you put them there yourself." She rolled her eyes and sighed. "Okay, maybe I'll help again later."
Katie laughed as she also descended. "Thanks so much, Mom. You're really making this room come along. I might actually get it done before the baby arrives." She patted her no-longer-so-small baby bump.
Traci shook her head at her daughter's preoccupation with the decor of the baby room. "You really should spend more time putting some shelves up or expanding that closet, instead of creating a galaxy on the ceiling. You're going to want more storage space in here, especially once she reaches four or five."
Katie dismissed her mother's comment with a wave of her hand. "That's still quite a ways away, and by that time, I'm sure I'll want to redecorate this room."
Traci threw her head back and laughed. "Oh, the enthusiasm of new parents! Take it from me, you'll have a four-year-old you'll be chasing around, and maybe another, not to mention your work. You won't have the time or the energy to redo this room."
"We'll see." Her daughter obviously didn't believe her. Katie had always been so motivated, so driven. Perhaps she would prove her mother wrong. "Anyway, I doubt we'll still be in this house in five years. If I don't get tenure, we'll be off to another university. And if I do get it, we'll probably want to move to a better part of Ithaca. But," and she wagged a finger to stop her mother's interruption, "who knows, right? This house is nice enough and we might not want to move while she's still young." She patted her stomach again.
"I'm telling you, it'll be a lot more work than you think." Grinning at her daughter, Traci sat down on the floor and looked up at the ceiling. "The constellations are really coming together. It's very pretty."
Katie's eyes shone with pride as she joined her mother to look over their work. "It'll be even better when I put in the tiny background stars. Then I'll do a different part of the sky in our room. I always loved this area, though. That's Auriga. Perseus. We haven't done Orion yet, but it'll be over there. Cassiopeia. Camelopardalis. I just like saying Camelopardalis."
"Who's Camelop- Camel- Um, Camel-person?"
"Not a who. A what. It means 'giraffe'."
Traci cocked her head to the left then the right as she studied the group of stars. "How does that look like a giraffe?"
Katie snorted. "How do any of these look like what they're called? How did they even choose which of the billions of stars to form the picture with?"
Traci mumbled, "How do you choose stars?" On impulse, she asked her daughter, "Do you think, if you had the chance, you'd go there?"
Katie cast a sidelong glance at her mother. "Go where?"
"To the stars." She amended her statement so that it wouldn't sound so silly. "They're sending out probes and rovers all the time. It's only a matter of time before people go to Mars, and then what's to stop them from going to a new star? It might be in your lifetime."
Katie was naturally a calm and serious woman, so much more like her father than her mother, but Traci could see her fascination with that idea in the way her eyes shone as she stared up at the ceiling. "I'd almost have to, wouldn't I? I'm a planetary scientist. Setting foot on an alien planet orbiting a distant star... that would be my ultimate dream. Though, now I've got Sam and baby makes three. I would never leave them."
"For that kind of trip, I'm sure you'd be able to bring them along."
"They'd have to let me, because that's going to be a slow, one-way trip. We just don't know how to make it reasonable, so we could get there within one lifetime." She bit her lip as she thought. "I mean, the technology's got to exist. Aliens come here all the time. We just need to figure out how they do it."
"Some kind of faster-than-light drive?" Traci suggested. "Maybe even some way of teleporting from one point to another across the galaxy. Otherwise, you'd have to use cryostasis or something like that to make it there yourself." Traci bit back a smile at her knowledge of the possibility of such things, especially the second one.
Katie began to laugh. "Cryostasis? Where'd you hear that? You avoid science fiction like the plague."
"Oh, I've seen a few shows. With all the aliens invading Earth all the time, you have to keep up with that kind of stuff." She looked back up at the ceiling. "I wonder if they come from any of those stars?"
Leaning forward, Katie crossed her legs and peered at her mother. "What's gotten into you, Ma?"
"You've never wondered about anything like that before, at least to me."
Traci wasn't sure herself what exactly she was thinking. She hadn't thought about anything beyond her life and her little corner of the planet in a long time. Avoiding her daughter's gaze, she continued to stare up at the stars. "You know how it is. You get older and look back on your life, and wonder if you've lived the life you should have. If there's something that you just missed because you had your head in the sand. I just sometimes wonder if I made the right choices. If I should have gone out there." A distant memory of a glowing nebula teased her, and she shivered to clear it from her mind.
"Gone out where?"
Glancing at Katie, Traci hastened to cover up what she really meant. "Oh, you know. See the world. Or at least kept on with my career. Maybe become a judge or go into politics. I could have done anything." She reached over and squeezed her daughter's arm. "I don't mean I regret my life, you know. I wouldn't give you and Jason up for anything. But I wonder what the other road would have been like, if I had chosen another path. What's out there. What I missed out on."
Katie nodded. "Everyone wonders that, Ma."
"Oh, I don't know about that. You've always known exactly what you wanted to do." A nostalgic smile spread across her mother's face. "Remember when you were seven, you asked your father every day to move to out to the country so that you could set up a telescope. You wanted to be the youngest person to ever discover a comet." As they laughed, she knocked her daughter lightly in the arm with a fist. "And now you're a professor of astronomy.
"As for me," Traci shrugged, "well, law was always interesting, but I really didn't set my mind to it until I had to choose my major in college. It could have easily gone in another direction. I could have gone into teaching, maybe." Gazing at a particularly interesting spot on the carpet, she bit her lip. "But I've had other opportunities, offers to change direction in life. I didn't take them, but I've always wondered what would have happened if I had."
"Really? What kinds of opportunities?" Katie had never seen this side of her mother, and she crossed her arms as she waited for the tale, biting her lip to conceal her piqued interest.
Realizing that she didn't really have anything earthly in mind, Traci scrambled to make something up. "Oh, well, there was this exchange program, with a school in West Germany. The lady at the office, she liked me, and she said she'd push me through, but I chickened out. I even got the application filled out, but I never sent it in. And after college, a couple of friends of mine did some work in Africa, but I was too scared to go with them." Trying to seem wistful, she leaned back on her hands, propping herself up to stare at the stars more. She wasn't completely lying - she really had had the opportunity to go to Africa - but the stories paled in comparison to the most important choice she had turned down. "I could have seen the world, did some good, you know? I even thought about doing international law, but again, I was too scared that I was going to be in over my head."
Katie gaped at her mother, her jaw dropped in astonishment. "I never knew! I just thought you went to college and got a job after, and then left it to have your family like everyone else."
Traci laughed. "Well, honestly, no one's like everyone else, when you really look."
"Yeah, but you're my mom! You're supposed to be boring and normal, you know?" She nudged Traci with an elbow, and the two women laughed.
"I am boring and normal," Traci finally replied. "That's the whole point."
"No, you're not. Not really." Katie gazed at her mother for a moment. "Sometimes I feel like you've got some secrets you've never told us."
Traci smirked, daring to make the obvious confession. "Oh yeah. Big ones. You see, I'm an alien, hiding among all you humans, waiting for my time to go back out into space and go home." She pointed up at a light point on the ceiling. "My planet orbits that star right there."
Katie reached over to push her mother for the joke, making her rock where she sat. "There you go again with the science fiction stuff. But hey, when you go back home to that star, take me with you, okay?"
"I promise that if I go out into space, back to my home planet, you'll be right there with me." Traci laughed airily and looped an arm around her daughter's shoulders to give her an affectionate squeeze.
Katie scooted over to lean back against the nearby wall. "You still can go out there and see the world you know. I know Dad left plenty enough for you to travel on, wherever you want. Or you could do volunteer work. Red Cross or something."
"At my age? Pfah!" She waved a dismissive hand at her daughter.
"Yes, at your age. You're not that old. Dr. Cramer, remember him, back in Boston? He's retired now, and he's in Asia six months out of the year teaching English. And he's five years older than you. You could do that, too." She grinned encouragingly at her mother. "You don't have to choose backbreaking work. I bet you'd love it."
As interesting as it sounded, Traci couldn't imagine doing such a thing and shook her head. "Nah. I couldn't just run off to another country like that. Your father would say that's just me being impulsive all over again."
"Dad's not here to stop you."
"No," Traci murmured, gazing at her toes. "No, he's not."
Smiling sadly, Katie ducked down to peer under her mother's bowed head. "I miss Dad, too, you know."
"Of course you do, sweetheart. It's just that..." She bit her lip, then shrugged. "You know what they say, that you never know what you've got 'til it's gone? I really loved every day with him, but all of a sudden, he was gone, and I had no idea what to do. And you know, he was always so healthy, compared to me with my blood pressure and cholesterol problems and all that. I just always assumed he'd outlive me - you know, that I'd never be without him - so now, well... I really thought I'd never have to live a day without him."
"You remember how he always would leave the TV on too loud? I hated all that noise. And now the house is too quiet." She snorted softly, a sad smile playing at her lips.
"You know, you could come here. That offer's still open." Katie thumbed over her shoulder. "You've seen the back rooms. You'd have all of that. And you've never lived on the East Coast."
Traci glowered at her. "You just want a cheap babysitter."
"Well, the thought did cross my mind."
As she laughed with her daughter, Traci wondered if she could actually abandon the life she'd led for the past thirty-five years - quit her job, sell her house, leave her friends - and move across the country to a strange town, where the only people she knew were her daughter's family. And she knew it was the same question she'd been asking herself all her life - could she leave everything behind and accept the destiny that the Doctor had shown her out among the stars? - just on a smaller scale. With both Katie and Jason comfortably settled and Alex gone, there was so little left for her in San Francisco, and, truthfully, here on Earth.
"Mom? You okay?"
Traci hadn't been aware that her thoughts and attention had wandered off. "Hm? Oh, yeah. Just thinking. You know, I probably will take you up on that, just not quite yet. I'm comfortable where I am. I do still love my job, taking care of that office. And my friends are all in SF. I don't think so, sweetie, not right now. Maybe in a couple of years. I've got too much going on."
"You know, I'm so glad that you're keeping busy."
"Busier than I'd like, sometimes." Traci shrugged. "But I suppose that's better than having nothing at all to do."
"I hope you won't be too busy to come out here to visit." Katie wiggled her eyebrows at her mom.
"And miss my beautiful granddaughter? I'll be out here as often as I can." She crossed her arms in a petulant pout. "As long as you don't require me to spend my time sticking stars to the ceiling without even a decent cup of coffee."
"Oh!" Katie jumped up as quickly as she could and offered her mother a hand up. "Why didn't you say so? Come into the living room. I'll go start the pot." Switching off the projection machine, she trotted out.
As she wandered to the door, Traci placed a hand on the jamb and turned to look up at the star stickers on the ceiling again. "Maybe I'll take you up on that, too. Not just yet, though. Not just yet." Smiling, she shook her head and disappeared into the hallway.