Michelle Pinchette

Chapter 12



* * *

     Beka hadn’t slept, not since before Harper had been taken a day and a half ago.  Harper was still missing and she couldn’t close her eyes.  Part of her family had been beaten practically before her eyes and taken away to a life of slavery and she had done nothing, could do nothing.  She paced the Andromeda, her whole being raging impotently at the fact that she wasn’t out looking for him or beating alien heads together to make them bring him back.  Tears blurred her eyes and she punched a bulkhead as she paced the Andromeda.  He hadn’t done anything!  The reigning king of ill-timed, smartassed comments hadn’t gotten to say a word.  Beka kicked the bulkhead this time, which only succeeded in hurting her foot.  She turned to put her back to the wall and rubbed at her aching toes, letting the tears blurring her vision fall.  A memory came unbidden.

     It was just after she’d thrown Bobbie off the Maru, just after she’d acquired a small, sickly, hyperactive mudfoot that she really didn’t want to deal with, so she hadn’t.  She ignored him for three days, then decided that she’d better make sure he hadn’t starved to death or anything.  She couldn’t even remember his name.  She kept calling him Hooper but she knew it was Harper or something with some other ridiculous nonsense in front of it.  How old was the kid anyway, she wondered as she searched the Maru for him.  She could only hope he wasn’t as young as she thought he might be.

     She found him in the engine room, poking at something with some tools.  Her eyes started to water when she got within a couple of yards of him.  Didn’t this kid know what soap was?  Just as she was having that thought, he looked up at her with those big, innocent, blue eyes of his and smiled as he quickly said, “Oh, hey, Boss!  Just... uh... fixin’ stuff.  You know all the stuff that got broken when the Drago-Jerkoffs were shooting at us.  I had to improvise on a couple of...”

     “Beka,” she stated as she stood over him with her arms crossed over her chest.  Confusion wiped the smile off his face.


     “Beka.  Beka Valentine.  And I’m not your boss.  Look, there’s this place that I think would...” she started, deciding that she’d better be firm about things so the kid didn’t get any ideas.  She knew Earth was a hell hole.  He was probably glad to be gone from there.  She’d been asking around and she’d found a Wayist mission that would take the kid in, educate him if he needed it, and find somewhere decent for him to live.  He was young enough to make a new life for himself.

     “But... but you said I got to stay if I helped with the muscle guy!  You know, the twice my size, liked grabbing me by the throat guy?  Besides, you need me!” he cut her off as he sprang to his feet, emotions playing as swiftly over is face as the words left his mouth.  He probably thought she was going to dump him back on Earth, but she wouldn’t ever do anything that heartless.  “You need a mechanic!  I mean, your engines are barely holding together, your antiproton generator hasn’t been maintenanced in ages, and you don’t want to know what I found in the air recyclers.  I can fix all of it, honest, and I hardly need any parts or anything.  I work real cheap and... and you won’t even know I’m here.”  Desperation currently shown on the kid’s face, a dirty, pale, far too thin, far too young face.  Beka felt twinges of conscience hitting her, maybe even maternal hormones stirring.  She didn’t need either at the moment and tried to shrug them off as she felt the hard expression she’d put on her face soften a little.

     “Look, kid...” Beka tried to tell him about the Wayist mission idea again.

     “I’m not a kid,” he protested.  “I’m twenty and I’m a genius and I can make your ship better than new if you’ll give me a chance.  Don’t take my word for it.  Check the repairs I’ve done.  Look at the air quality reports that the computers generate.  I fixed air recyc and I can fix all the other things that are broken.  Please?  Give me a chance, Boss.  I’ll be the best thing that ever happened to your ship.  Really.  You won’t be sorry.  I promise.  I...”

     Beka frowned, then marched up to the cockpit.  Hesitant footfalls padded behind her, so she knew the kid was following, but keeping his distance.  He was most likely worried about what she was going to do.  She went to the main computer and pulled up internal sensor logs, specifically air quality.  What had been laced with some interesting contaminants that were just bordering on dangerous was suddenly reading near perfect.  Beka glanced at the pathetic bundle of rags cowering at the door.  He was most likely the source of anything the scrubbers were having problems with.  “Okay, so you fixed air recyc.  How do I know that you’re not going to blow up my ship if I let you mess with anything else?” she asked as she turned to face him.

     A hesitant smile lit up the kid’s face.  “I won’t, Boss.  You’ll see.  You’ll wonder how you ever lived without me.”

     “Right now, I’m wondering how I’m going to breathe with you around,” Beka told him.  Again, confusion wiped the grin off the kid’s face.  “You stink,” she said bluntly, grimacing at him. “If I let you stay, and that’s a big ‘if’ at the moment, you need to bathe.  Hell, you probably need delousing.  I think some of Rafe’s old clothes are in storage.  You can wear them for now.  We’ll get you something at the next drift, if I don’t decide to leave you there, but you’re working off whatever money I have to pay out for clothes or other personal needs.”

     That brought the smile back, only now it lit up the kid’s whole face.  “Okay,” he agreed, but Beka didn’t let him say anything else.  Damn, but the kid could talk if you let him.

     “And I have rules.  I am the boss.  Never forget that or I can and will toss your skinny butt out at the nearest place with a breathable atmosphere.  You work when I tell you to, doing whatever I tell you to do.  If you don’t like that, you can leave.”  Harper nodded, his smile still firmly in place.  How did such a pathetic scrap suddenly light up like a sun just because he was smiling?  She was nuts.  He wasn’t as young as she’d feared he was, but he was practically a child, one that admitted to never having been off Earth before Bobbie had all but kidnapped him.  Did he have family that was wondering where he was?  Did he have the slightest clue what he was getting himself into or did he just want to get away from the Drago-Kazov so bad that he’d do anything anybody asked of him?  What if it hadn’t been her?  Heck, Bobbie had been ready to stiff him for his ride in the first place.  Beka shuddered mentally at what some people would do to the wide eyed innocence smiling at her.  This was going to be a lot of work, she thought with an inward sigh, but if he could do with her engines what he’d done with air recyc, maybe it would be worth it.

     “Whatever you say, Boss.  Do you want me to go back and work on the damage some more or the engines or...” he started, then shrugged a little helplessly, probably because she had stopped talking and hadn’t actually given him any orders.

     “No,” Beka said, then marched over to him and looked at the rags he was wearing with disdain.  “These,” she picked gingerly at what could only laughingly be called a shirt sleeve, “have got to go.  They are not salvageable and there will be no debate on the matter.  You need a major scrubbing so I can see if there really is a person under all that filth and odor.  Damn, you smell worse than a Nightsider.  Then you need to eat something.  Have you eaten anything since you’ve been here?”

     The kid shrugged, discomfort clouding his features as he looked down.  “A little.”  Now Beka just had to figure out if the sheepish look was because he’d taken some of her food without asking permission or because he was lying.  She supposed it didn’t matter at the moment.

     “Fine.  As soon as you’re clean, you’ll eat.  That’s the next rule.  You stay clean, you eat, you sleep.  You have any nanobots or have you ever gotten any vaccines?”  The kid looked a little nervous about the subject and shook his head.  Earth was not exactly a health spa and the scabby cut on his forehead looked like it was infected.  She’d take care of that once he was clean and she would bring him to a doctor and have him checked out when they docked somewhere.  Something else he’d owe her for.  Damn, she was going to be stuck with him for months just so that he could work off being brought up to normal human standards of existence.  “If you get sick or hurt, you tell me so we can fix it.  If I have to yell at you about stuff like that, you can stay someplace else because I am not your mother.  That also means I don’t want to see any girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever you’re into on my ship.  Your personal business doesn’t interest me.  Got it?”  There was a another nervous nod, but Beka wasn’t going to give him a chance to comment on any of this because nothing he said was going to change her mind.

     “Next rule, no drugs.  Not ever.  I even think you’re using, I’ll space you.  No drinking either, unless I’m the one handing out the booze.  I don’t need you wrecking my engines because you’re high or drunk.”  There was another timid nod and Beka let out a little sigh as she once again asked herself what she was doing.  Saving a life, she supposed.  Her good deed for the year, maybe the next several.  “So, I guess I should assign you a bunk and show you where to stow your stuff, at least for now.  Do you have any stuff?”

     She’d meant back on Earth, but the kid pulled a double hand full of little trinkets and odds and ends from somewhere in the trash masquerading as clothing.  There was a whistle, a little vid recorder, a slingshot, some other little bits of metal that Beka couldn’t identify and little lump of fur that wasn’t moving.  A dead mouse, maybe, she thought with a grimace.  “Oh, yeah.  No pets,” she said, praying that the lump wouldn’t decide to wake up.  She couldn’t believe how pitiful he looked standing there, able to hold everything he treasured in his two grubby hands.  “You got any family that’s going to wonder where you vanished to?”

     The kid looked down as he tucked his things back into his clothing, murmuring, “A cousin.  He knew I was going with the Spacer.”

     With Bobbie, Beka thought, the thought making their recent breakup hurt again.  Bobbie had lied to her, she told herself firmly.  She’d been lied to enough by people that were supposed to care about her.  She wasn’t putting up with it anymore.  She looked back at her newest addition to crew.  He stood there, looking pitiful as he shuffled his rag bound feet nervously on the deck.  He was right.  She had promised him a place and he had been trying to earn his keep.  She couldn’t be as mad as she was at Bobbie if she turned around and did the same thing at the first possible opportunity.  “What’s your name again, kid?”

     Suddenly the kid was standing straight and proud with that sunny smile of his back in full force.  “Seamus Zelazny Harper.”

     Beka winced.  Yeah, that was what he’d said before so it was probably true, unfortunately.  “I think we’ll stick with Harper.  It’s a week to where my next job is waiting.  Don’t do anything stupid and maybe I’ll keep you on.”

     She kept telling him maybe, but somehow, that glowing smile brightened even further.  “You won’t be sorry, Boss.”

     “I’d better not be sorry or you’ll know it.  Now, march!  It’s going to take hours to peel all the filth off you,” she ordered, pointing back toward the crew’s quarters and the nearest shower.  Suddenly, she had a smelly mudfoot wrapped around her, giving her the most enthusiastic hug of her life.  Yuck!  Now she needed a shower, too.  “Hey!  Kid!  Harper!  Aaurgh!  Next rule time.  No physical contact with the boss!”

     Beka sat on the floor crying.  She had been mean to him then and plenty of times since, but he still gave her that big, sunny smile more often than not when he saw her.  She’d give anything for a hug from Harper now, even if he was filthy.  He was the last part of her family.  Everyone else was gone or changed.  She needed him, she realized.  She needed him to smile at her and call her ‘boss’ before he started to babble about all his techno geek stuff and ricochet around the room with all that nervous, Sparky Cola imbued energy of his.  She needed him to be there, proving that no matter how terrible the universe was and how many times it kicked you when you were down, it was possible to be not only survive but be relatively happy.  She needed her baby brother, her genius engineer, her best friend.

     She wiped her face and stood up, about to go to the Maru and take her to Barris’ ship and demand they give Harper to her when Rommie’s voice rang over the intercom, telling all hands to report to the Command Deck for a briefing.  Hope lit in Beka.  Rommie or Dylan had found something.  Why call everyone together otherwise?  She was the last to arrive and Dylan gave her a thin smile as she looked to him for news.  “Well?” she asked, still ready to go through with her original plan if Dylan didn’t have anything better to offer.

     “I know this took a while, but we think we know what Barris is,” Dylan told those gathered before him.  “Or what he was.”

     “I was scouring my memory banks for any information about Barris or something like him when I came across an ancient entry, one from years before I was constructed, and this image,” Rommie said, calling an image up on the front view screen.  It was of an alien that Beka wasn’t familiar with.  She looked closely at the smooth faced, sickly looking thing as Rommie continued.  “This is a Lechak Bon, a Broken One.  Their race was plagued with terrible infirmities and physical deformities, but every member of their people had a different, amazing gift.  The examples in the log were of Lechak Bon with healing powers that had malformed limbs, others with incredible strength with the minds of children, or blind or deaf or crippled geniuses.  The thing was, they didn’t trade outside their own world because they got tired of telling other races that they didn’t need cures for their ills.  The Broken Ones viewed their physical shortcomings as balance to their abilities and their religion preached that disrupting this balance would have terrible repercussions.  The rest of the known worlds viewed the Lechak Bon as harmless eccentrics and left them pretty much alone.”

     “And what does any of this have to do with Barris?” Tyr asked, sounding bored.

     “The entry continues that after repeated exposure to outsiders, a group of the Lechak Bon began to question their religious beliefs.  They felt that their people should throw off their disabilities and take a more active roll in the running of the Universe,” Rommie continued.

     “Meaning they thought their people ought to be in charge,” Trance assumed out loud for all of them.

     “Exactly, however the leaders of the Lechak Bon rejected this idea and warned the group that if they left to follow this course, they would find only heartache.  The group left all the same and made a deal with some dark power.  This entity gave them everything they wanted: physical perfection, immunity to disease, the ability to share their powers, the ability to cheat death.  The only problem was the price.  This dark power expected eternal servitude.  The group rose up and slaughtered their would be master, but it cursed them as it died.  It somehow made the group unable to kill anyone else, unable to take the roll of leadership anywhere, unable to be anything but wandering outcasts or slaves.  The only way to break the curse was to be accepted somewhere as equals.  Then they would be free to do as they willed.  The group returned to their home world, thinking they would find easy acceptance there, only to find themselves shunned.  Their own families, their entire people saw them as irrevocably tainted and would have nothing to do with them.  They decided to destroy their own world, but couldn’t, only managing to somehow cut it off from the rest of the universe.  They found the curse was real, that they could not kill or conquer or persuade, only wander the universe for eternity.”

     Now Beka was growing frustrated.  “So?  I mean, cute story, but what do alien fairy tales have to do with Barris and what he did to Harper?”

     “We’re getting there,” Dylan assured her with a calming motion.  “There were one hundred members in the group in the entry’s story, just like Barris and his crew, and if you alter the only picture anyone has of the Lechak Bon ever so slightly,” he nodded to Rommie.  The picture on the screen grew ridges and the complexion darkened a bit and suddenly Beka was looking at Barris.  Her breath caught in her throat for a second.

     “There is no such thing as curses!” Tyr declared, obviously getting fed up.  “And I’m certain the ship could make any one of us look like Barris with a little image manipulation.”

     “That manipulation was done within careful scientific parameters,” Rommie informed him.

     “And we all know about dark powers and their promises,” Dylan said.

     “The Abyss?” Beka asked, knowing that it had certainly been tempting members of the Andromeda’s crew.

     “Or something like it,” Dylan replied.  “And Barris called Harper ‘broken.’  Think about it.  Harper is like the Lechak Bon.  Physically, he’s got problems, but he is gifted.  He left his home world, Earth, looking for something better, but instead of winding up cursed, he found acceptance and was able to return home without being shunned there, and he could, arguably, be considered one of the architects of the new Commonwealth, albeit a minor one.  That was the sort of power that Barris and his crew were looking for, and Harper didn’t have to sell his soul to get it.”

     “Or change himself,” Beka murmured.  At least she understood why Barris hated Harper.  Barris probably felt like Harper was mocking him by merely existing even though the poor kid didn’t have a clue what was going on.  Now she was really worried, though.  Where had the other alien sent Harper to punish him?

     “But Barris and his crew can’t kill anyone, so they didn’t kill Harper,” Trance said.  “They couldn’t, could they?”

     “No, but the crewman that sent him somewhere did say that even though he was forbidden to kill anyone, others could,” Dylan pointed out.  “But they would probably want to make him suffer, force him into the servitude and solitude that they had to endure, so I don’t think he’s in immediate danger of being killed.  Barris said as much.  The problem before us is how to get rid of Barris and his crew after we get Harper safely home.”

     “Barris won’t give Harper back,” Tyr said, finally seeming to accept, at least partially, what Barris and his crew were.  “Not while he is in a position of power.  He’ll demand that you give him what he wants before he’ll do any such thing.”

     “Only if we give him what he wants, he’ll be free to kill us and whoever else has annoyed him through the eons,” Dylan said.

     “We can’t do that,” Trance said urgently, sounding a little afraid, which creeped out Beka in turn.  “We can’t give him what he wants.”

     Dylan set a hand on her shoulder, saying, “I wasn’t planning to.  I was, however, thinking that we might want a little talk with the Lechak Bon.  If anyone can help us with this, they can.  Rommie tracked down their planet.  Now we just need to go there and ask them if they can help.”

     “Even if you’re right about this, which I still have doubts about, the planet would be cut off,” Tyr reminded him.

     “Cut off to most,” Dylan said, calling up a star chart.  The planet that was highlighted had to be the Lechak Bon home world.  It was in the center of a maze of dangers and near impossible navigational problems, but Beka was already working on ways around them.  If getting to this place was going to get Harper back safe and sound, she was going to get there.  “However, I have the best pilot in the galaxy standing right here, don’t I, Beka?  I’m betting you already have a route in, don’t you?”

     “Close,” Beka said as she continued to scan the chart.  “There’ll be a couple of tricky bits.  And I can’t get the Andromeda there.  She’s too big.  The Maru might be a tight squeeze, too.  I’d better bring one of the shuttles in the cargo hold, just in case.  I’ll go alone and talk to them while you distract Barris.  I don’t think it would be a good idea for him to know what we’re up to.”

     “You aren’t going alone,” Dylan told her.  “Barris wants to alter Rommie and I don’t want to give him the chance, so she’s going with you.”

     “So am I,” Trance piped up suddenly.  Everyone turned to look at her.  “I can’t do anything here and if the Lechak Bon give us a way to Harper, I want to be there to help him.  Barris and his crew might not be able to kill anyone, but they hurt Harper.  He’ll probably need medical attention.”

     Beka didn’t want to think about that too much, but she didn’t mind having Trance around just in case.  “Fine.  Let’s just go.  It’s going to take days to get there as it is,” Beka said impatiently.

     “As long as you’re planning to let Trance take the helm for the first leg of the journey,” Dylan told her with that ‘I’m a High Guard Captain and I know what’s best’ tone of his.  “Beka, you need to get some sleep or you’re not going to be any good to anyone.”  She squared off in front of him, ready to give him hell about telling her what to do on her own ship.

     “That’s a good idea,” Trance said before Beka could speak.  Beka turned to her, about to turn her fury on the alien girl, but Trance put a thin smile on her face, adding, “That way you’ll be nice and fresh when all the tricky piloting has to be done.  I just have to grab a couple of things from Medical and I’ll be ready.”  And without another word, Trance strode purposefully off into the Andromeda.

     Beka reigned in her temper, thinking that at least now they were doing something to tangible to find Harper.  “I’ll go prep the Maru, then,” she muttered, about to walk away to do so when Dylan caught her arm.  She turned to glare at him, but when she saw the exhaustion and worry in his face when he met her eyes, she knew that he hadn’t slept either and that, much as her thoughts had accused otherwise, he was just as worried as she was.

     “We’re going to find him,” Dylan said with the same amount of conviction he used when he told everyone that he was going to resurrect the Commonwealth.  “He’s going to be fine and we’re going to bring him home.”

     Beka felt her anger bleed off a little.  “I’d feel a little more confident about that if we weren’t down to chasing fairy stories in order to do it.”

     Dylan gave her a thin smile.  “Be careful.  The Lechak Bon probably haven’t had visitors for a long time.  About twelve thousand years, if the age of the entry is any indication.  Coming in making demands with guns blazing would probably be a bad idea.”

     Beka’s brow knit.  “That entry was pre-Commonwealth?  How did Rommie have it?”

     “Remember the All-System Library files incident?  It was one of the files we got,” Dylan said.

     Beka remembered quite vividly what Dylan was talking about.  An injured Perseid attacked Harper, downloaded an entire library worth of files into the unsuspecting kid’s brain, then died.  Harper went a little crazy with all that information knocking around in his head and finally had to get rid of it.  On the first attempt to do so, they had only managed to get a relatively small amount of information out before Harper began having seizures and they had to use other means.  Apparently, this was one of those files.  “Leave it to Harper to turn something totally useless into just what we need,” Beka said, but she couldn’t bring herself to smile.  “We probably shouldn’t contact you about what we find.  Who knows if Barris can intercept transmissions.”

     “Rommie will send messages directly here if she feels she has a secure channel,” Dylan told her.  “We’ll know where you are, in any case.  Be careful.  I don’t want to have to rescue you too.”  He was trying to lighten her mood, but it was an impossible feat.  Beka simply nodded and went to the Maru, concentrating on the fact that she was finally doing something that might get Harper back.  This time, she wouldn’t wait for him to hug her.  She would squeeze every last bit of air out of him the minute she next saw him.

* * *

     Saturday had been wonderful for Harper.  Dom had enjoyed the sandwich he’d made for her, which had made him terribly pleased for no reason that he could explain.  After that, they had gone bowling, something he had never done before, but he actually managed to do well.  They got a hamburger at the bowling alley and then played air hockey at the little arcade there.  They watched a movie at Dom’s house and played cards.  For the whole day, his entire goal had been to make her smile.  He’d done better than that.  He’d made her laugh, and not just some little snicker or one of those fake laughs that you got from someone that was humoring you.  Dom had tears rolling down her face because she was laughing too hard and Harper had sat there grinning at it, unable to believe how well he was doing with her.

     Since Harper had come to an uneasy understanding with himself that there was absolutely no chance of any romance between them, of course he was doing well.  It was pretty much the story of his life.  He could make Beka laugh.  He could make the old Trance laugh, though he wasn’t real sure about the new one.  Other women, women he wanted to be a little more intimate with, those women slapped him or rolled their eyes at him or just plain ignored him.  Romantic thoughts began forming in Harper’s brain, but he still talked himself out of doing anything about them.  If things were different, his brain persisted in arguing, if they were on the Andromeda, he wouldn’t hesitate.  However, as he thought out that line of reasoning, only depressing things lay before him.  Dylan would have charmed the socks off Dom ages ago or Tyr would have decided that she was worth sharing his genetics with and that would have been it.  Harper decided to bask in the glow of the fact that he had reduced Dom to hysterical giggles instead of dwelling on any of those thoughts.

     They hung out together until they were both yawning.  The day had been better than most and Harper had fallen asleep to dreams of he and Dom sharing far less innocent associations rather than his usual nightmares.  He still woke up before Dom and managed to download the program he’d made the day before on some highly experimental data storage he’d cobbled together and then worked some more on the operating system he’d promised himself that he would make for her.  When Dom had come down stairs, he had made sure that a news site was up on the computer screen, since she didn’t seem to mind him checking on current events.  Dom had told him that she was going to church services and asked if he wanted to come along.  Harper had never felt that he belonged anywhere religious with his irreverent personality, so he had declined and gone into the garage to work on her surprise some more the minute she left.  It was coming along nicely, though he still had to work out a few technical details that were made interesting by primitive levels of technology he had to work with.  He’d done some creative improvising.  He was good at that and it made him smile to think how this might be daunting to a lesser man.

     Harper had only been working for a little while when something brushed across his data port.  Alarmed, he swiftly reached up to snatch at whatever it was and turned to face it, finding himself looking at Ro, her hand tight in his grip.  She pulled at him, giving him an affronted look and saying, “Let go!” as if he’d started this.

     “What do you think you were doing?” Harper demanded as he released her.  “Do you think you can just sneak up on a person and poke at them?  No one was supposed to be here but me.  You scared the hell out of me!”

     Ro glared at him as if he’d done something wrong.  “I didn’t poke at you.  I just touched that thing on your neck.  What is that, anyway?  Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to put something like that so close to your brain?  Of course, if you would go to a doctor, he would tell you that.  You’re lucky this isn’t infected, you know.”  She began to reach up to touch the wound on his forehead and Harper had to catch her other hand to stop her.  The cut was still butterfly bandaged closed, but he hadn’t bothered about putting a larger bandage over the wound for the last couple of days.  Now he was regretting it, because he absolutely didn’t like Ro’s sudden interest in his health.

     In the most reasonable tone he could manage, he said, “What is it with all the touching?  I thought you didn’t go for shorter men.”  Ordinarily, Harper didn’t mind women, especially women as beautiful as Ro, touching him, but the mention of doctors and Ro sneaking up on him had put him on the defensive.  He let go of her hand when she tugged against his grip.  “Dom’s at church,” he told her, uncomfortable with the assessing look she was giving him.  Maybe she didn’t realize Dom wasn’t here.

     “I figured that she was when I saw that her jeep was gone,” Ro told him, her eyes still boring into him.  It was starting to make him extremely tense.  “You’re not Catholic, then?”

     Harper shrugged, trying to force himself to relax since Ro didn’t seem to be going anywhere and she seemed determined to talk to him.  “I think my family was once upon a time.  I’ve never been the pray in a group sort.  The stuff between me and the Divine stays pretty much between me and the Divine.”

     Ro smiled quizzically, still looking at him as if he were some scientific specimen.  “The Divine.  Hmmm.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard that word used quite that way before.”

     “I’m a unique kind of guy,” Harper told her as he tried to figure out what she wanted from him.  She’d called a couple of times yesterday, so she obviously still didn’t trust him.  Why was she here talking to him by herself?

     “So I’ve noticed,” Ro replied, then favored him with the sort of smile that gorgeous women gave out as incentive to do as they asked.  “You didn’t say what the thing on your neck is.”

     Harper made his brain stop thinking about sex that he knew he wasn’t going to get, and he stammered out, “N...nothing.  It’s nothing.  Just a stupid piercing I got.  So, what’s up?  You and Dom doing something when she gets back or something?”

     “Would that bother you?” Ro asked in return, that look still there, like this was some sort of a test that she expected him to fail.  Then something dawned on Harper.  Ro was the Seaview’s chief engineer, but Dom had said something about a psychology degree.  That’s why Ro was here.  She figured she could ask him anything and Dom wasn’t around to intercede if she got too personal.  Harper let a knowing smile ease onto his face as he leaned back against the workbench casually.  He’d been tortured for information before and hadn’t given in.  This was nothing.

     “No, no.  You girls have a great time.  I’ve got plenty to keep me busy.”

     Ro raised an eyebrow.  Was it the answer or the fact that he obviously wasn’t ill at ease anymore that caused that?  Harper didn’t care.  He didn’t like being played for a fool.  “Really?  Like what?”

     “Oh, I’ve got all this stuff to fix,” he said, nodding toward the pile of broken appliances.  “And Dom has a bunch of books I’ve never read.  I noticed a couple by her.  I don’t know much about Marine Biology, so those would be pretty interesting.  Really, have fun.  I won’t be bored.”

     An indulgent smile formed on Ro’s face.  She was humoring him.  “And what did you do for fun on the... Andromeda, didn’t you say?”  So, now he was going to get pumped for information about his past.

     “Oh, pretty much the same thing.  Read, talked to the other crew, did my work.”

     “The ship’s name was the Andromeda, then?  And you mentioned another one.”

     “Yeah, the Andromeda Ascendant and the Eureka Maru.”

     “You worked there for a while?”

     “Five years between the two of them.”

     “You’ve been at sea since you were twenty?  Working for room and board?  You didn’t get tired of it?”

     “Nah.  I like fixing things and the captains let me do a little bit of upgrading.  You know, I guess I was sort of an engineer too, huh?”  He took delight in the miffed expression that she got for a second.  She didn’t like his comparing himself to her.  He’d have to keep that in mind.  She might be beautiful, but that didn’t make her better than him.

     “You did well in school in Math and Science, then?”

     “I never went to school.  I’ve always been homeless.  All my genius is totally self achieved.”

     “Genius,” Ro said with a scoffing laugh.  Harper smiled thinly.  She didn’t think he was that intelligent, plainly.  She would learn different.  “If you’re as smart as you seem to think you are, you’d see a doctor.”

     Again with the doctors, Harper thought, unable to keep from trembling a little.  He wished she’d stop talking about it.  “I don’t need a doctor to tell me that I’m fine.”

     Ro shook her head, the assessing look back.  “You don’t look fine.  You look like somebody that could use a couple of stitches on his forehead and I hesitate to think what internal injuries I can’t see might need.  I’ll tell you what.  I know this free clinic not too far from here.  You don’t have to give them your name or anything if you don’t want to.  They’ll just look you over and...”

     “No,” Harper cut her off.  She looked way too eager about the whole prospect and he wasn’t going anywhere near anything like what she was talking about, especially after reading all the stuff he had on the internet the other night.  Then Ro laughed at him, right to his face, but he didn’t care.  There was no way that she was shaming into doing anything against his will.

     “What, are you afraid or something?” she snickered at him.

     “Yes,” he said, not trying to hide the fact.

     Ro shook her head at him.  “Of what?  No one’s going to hurt you there.”

     “Yeah, well, if you’re so enchanted with the place, be my guest, go right ahead and spend the day there.  I’ll be right here,” Harper told her firmly, waving her on her way.

     “Don’t be silly,” Ro admonished him.  “What are you afraid of, exactly.  Let’s talk about it.”

     “You wouldn’t understand, so why bother.  Dom hasn’t made an issue out of it.  I’m fine.  I’m not going,” Harper said, trying sound firm and determined about the matter, but there was a pesky quiver in his voice.  He was starting to feel a little sick with fear.  Why wouldn’t she just drop it?

     Ro pursed her lips and did a visible mental regroup.  “I have a little bit of medical training.  How about if I take a look at you?”

     The sick feeling in Harper intensified.  Ro was a doctor, or almost a doctor?  Great, that was all he needed, for Ro to figure out that he wasn’t from this time.  She wanted him out of Dom’s house and Harper couldn’t be sure that handing him over to the very people he was trying to avoid was beneath her.  “No thanks.”

     The smile was back, the one that would normally melt his brain and make him easily and happily led.  It wasn’t working this time because he was just too scared.  “Come on.  Just take off your shirt and let me look,” she said sweetly as she reached out toward him.  Harper ducked from her and moved quickly around her toward the door to the house, but she turned with him, seeming intent on getting him out of his shirt.  Why did hot women never want him out of his clothes for the right reasons?  How much trouble would he get into if he made a run for the door and locked Ro out in the garage?  No, he couldn’t do that, but he had to think of some way of making her back off.  Well, when in doubt, rely on the tried and true, he told himself.

     He stopped moving, forced what he hoped was a cocky smile onto his face and said, “You first.”

     That made her pause and ask, “What?” as if she was sure that she couldn’t have heard him properly.

     “You first,” Harper repeated, trying to swallow down his fear and sound like his normal self-assured self as he took a casual step backwards.  “You take off your shirt and let me look, then I’ll...”

     “Not in your wildest dreams, Mister Harper,” Ro interrupted him, her tone full of warning.

     “Well, maybe there,” Harper said, still backing into the house.  Ro gave him a murderous look and he went quickly in the door and straight to the refrigerator to get a cola, hoping Ro would think the mad dash was because he was really thirsty.  Ro didn’t come right in and he was a little nervous that she was figuring out which tool she could use to knock him cold so she could drag him off to the clinic she’d mentioned.  Or maybe even, he thought with a grimace, what would do the most damage to him because he’d royally ticked her off.  Nothing happened right away, so he sat down at the far side of the kitchen table and started drinking his cola, watching the door, ready to run for it if he had to.  Ro finally came in, fortunately without any tools in her hands or tucked away anywhere that was readily visible.  He couldn’t read the expression on her face and wondered, briefly, if she took lessons from Trance, or visa versa.

     “I’m sorry.  I was being pushy,” she said, sitting across from him.  Harper didn’t know if the apology was sincere because it came out a little flat, but he shrugged as if nothing was wrong, covering his own uneasiness with a long sip of his drink.  “It’s just that Dom’s my friend and she’s worried about you.”

     Ah, the guilt attack, Harper thought as he fought to keep a grin off his face.  “Yeah, I know, but I’m fine, really.  I’ve been kicked around plenty of times before, lots worse than this.”

     Ro’s expression resolved into that of concern.  “Not on the ships you’ve been working on, I hope.”

     “One of the guys I worked with, your basic six foot plus mountain of muscle, he liked to intimidate me, but he never actually hurt me,” Harper told her.  “Usually, he protected me from other guys who did want to hurt me.  Once we got in this really rough situation and we kind of had each others’ backs.  It was cool that he trusted little, scrawny me to do that.”

     Ro’s expression eased and she grinned.  “So, I guess that was one fight that you actually came out on top of.”

     Harper gave her a pained look.  “Not really.  We both nearly got killed, but the captain of the Andromeda came after us and eventually everything was okay.”

     The concerned look came back.  “Meaning that was one of those times when you got hurt more severely than this time.”

     “Yeah, well, I got better.  That’s all that matters in the end, really.  If you come out of something bad with all your major body parts working, count your blessings and move on, I say,” Harper replied with another shrug.  The concerned look did not go away as expected.

     “You know, most people do not spend their lives being pummeled on a regular basis,” Ro told him.  “There are laws...”

     “Most of which don’t apply to someone without a permanent address,” Harper cut her off.  He’d figured that out on his own by the way people were treating him and by the little bit of research that he had done on the internet.  “In fact, unless a member of the press finds you dead with incriminating evidence that someone important did you in, the authorities would just as soon forget that people like me exist.”

     “That’s not true,” Ro said, but discomfort was trying to edge concern off her face.

     “Sure it is,” Harper told her, then sipped some more of his soda.  “Let’s take, for example, my recent trip with Dom to the police station.  They wanted to arrest me because I don’t have any sort of identification, completely ignoring the fact that I had been on the receiving end of a very undeserved butt kicking.  If Dom hadn’t been there with me, I’d be in jail, probably for a very long time.  Only after she told them that I was staying with her and told them that my attorney was the Assistant District Attorney of Boston did any of them care that I was all bruised and bandaged.  Not that it matters all that much.  Pretty soon I’ll be a nice, fully papered citizen, thanks to Dom and her sister.  I was thinking I ought to get her sister a present to thank her for helping me out.  Do you know what she likes?”  Harper was quite pleased with himself.  He’d steered the conversation completely away from injuries and doctors.  He could only hope that would be the end of it.

     “And what money are you going to buy this present with?” Ro asked with another smirk.  Harper had forgotten that she knew he was dead broke.

     “I’m working on that,” he muttered, then thought maybe Ro would be the right person to ask about something that had been bothering him.  “I was wondering, if someone offered to do an oil change for your car for two dollars and supplies, would that be reasonable?”

     Ro raised an eyebrow at the question.  “Actually, it’s really cheap.  Why?”

     “No reason,” Harper said.  “I was just wondering is all.  Two dollars.  That’s not much money I guess.”

     “Not really,” Ro replied, still giving him a quizzical look.  She was probably wondering what he was talking about, but at least he had an honest answer as to whether he was getting too abused by working on whatever cars Mister O’Donnell brought around.  A little, it seemed, but some money was better than no money and he figured it was only temporary.  Considering what he had seen of what things cost, he had already known this, but had been trying to convince himself that he wasn’t going to have to work like a dog to start making a decent contribution to Dom’s expenses.  It wasn’t as though he was a stranger to hard work.  It looked like that wasn’t going to change.  “Look, I’m sure Toni isn’t looking to get paid, at least not until you find work.”

     “Dom says she’s doing it pro bono and she keeps waving me off when I ask her about how much Toni would charge somebody else for this sort of thing.”

     “Pro bono means Toni is doing this out of the goodness of her heart,” Ro told him.  He rolled his eyes, wondering exactly how stupid she thought he was.  “And you probably don’t want to know what another lawyer would be soaking you for the same services.  The present might be a good idea after all.  She likes emeralds.  What do you know about jewelry?”

     “That I shouldn’t look at it because there’s no way I could afford anything that isn’t junk,” Harper replied honestly.

     “I’ll help you pick out something nice once you get on your feet,” Ro offered.  “I wouldn’t suggest buying Dom jewelry.  She doesn’t wear any as a rule and might take it as something other than a thank you gift.  That would bring a whole new brand of trouble down on you.”

     Harper felt his eyes narrow.  Had Ro just warned him, pretty much point blank, against his ever making any romantic overtures toward Dom?  Who was she to tell him he wasn’t and would never be acceptable boyfriend material for Dom?  Wasn’t that up to Dom?  What could Ro do to him if he ignored her warning?  Nothing, he decided, not that he was ready to sweep Dom off her feet just yet.  He mused briefly about dancing with her in that purple dress.  He was going to make that little daydream reality somehow and Ro was going to find herself sadly mistaken if she thought she could stop him.  “I’ve noticed that she doesn’t wear much jewelry.  I’m making her something I hope she’ll like even better.”

     Again, that condescending smile graced Ro’s face.  “Really?  And what would that be?”

     Harper returned Ro’s jibing grin, deciding to get a little of his own back.  “It’s a surprise.”  Ro looked like she wanted to question him further on it, but before she could speak the garage door began to thump open.  “Dom’s home,” he stated the obvious, leaning on his elbow, wondering if Dom knew that Ro was coming over this morning.  He kind of doubted it, because Ro looked a little flustered.  Of course that could be because he hadn’t been very cooperative concerning her agenda and she’d just run out of time.  “Hey, Dom,” he said cheerfully as Dom came in, lifting his other hand to his chin, waiting for the show to begin.

     “Hey yourself,” Dom replied, also smiling, but in a puzzled way.  “Ro, I didn’t know you were stopping over.  I hope you weren’t waiting long.”

     Ro’s lips thinned a moment in consternation, but then Harper saw an evil glint in her eyes and he wondered what was up.  “No, not long.  I was just telling Seamus about this clinic I know about.  That cut on his forehead worries me.  Doesn’t it worry you?”  She cast a sly, sidelong look Harper’s way as his smile fled and his hands dropped from his chin as he sat up.  Damn, he thought in a panic, Ro was cheating!  She wasn’t supposed to do that!  His eyes snapped to Dom, sure that his face was a mask of dread.

     “Ro, Seamus is a grown man.  He is perfectly capable of making his own decisions concerning health care,” Dom admonished her friend as she went to hang her car keys on the hook on the wall.  She smiled at him, which calmed him a little, then she moved next to his chair and tipped his head back a bit, obviously looking at the cut in question.  Harper let her move him without a struggle.  Her touch was soothing and he felt safe with her near him.  “Actually, it looks a lot better.  Is it hurting you, Seamus?”  She looked concerned and gently stroked his hair once, turning his insides to goo with those big, brown eyes of hers.  He would have done almost anything for her in that moment, even braved Ro’s clinic.  “Seamus?” she prompted him when he continued to stare up at her.

     “Huh?” he murmured dreamily, then realized she was waiting for him to answer her question.  “Oh!  No, no.  It feels fine, honest.  Doesn’t hurt a bit.  You did a great job with it.  Nope, no need for further medical attention there.  Or any place else.  Totally in good health here.”

     “Yeah, right,” Ro scoffed.

     “Ro.”  Dom squeezed Harper’s shoulder and gave him another soft smile, before she took a seat by him, saying, “I thought you had plans with Lee.  He cancel out on you?”

     Ro looked displeased about the change in subject, but she replied, “Until tonight.”

     “Navy stuff or Institute stuff?” Dom asked with a smirk.

     “Navy stuff,” Ro sighed.  “Something classified, apparently, because he wouldn’t say what it was about.  That drives me crazy sometimes.  So, what did you have planned for today?”

     “Nothing in particular,” Dom said with a shrug.  She turned to Harper and said, “Seamus and I went bowling yesterday and I got my tail whipped.  Good thing we weren’t playing for money.”

     “Like I have any money to play for,” Harper said, returning her grin.  Ro was starting to give him evil looks, probably because she thought he was being too chummy with Dom.  He decided not to push his luck anymore for this morning, so he got up, saying, “And on that note, I’m gonna go grab a book and sit out on the back porch or something.  That’s if you don’t need me for anything, Dom.”

     “I told you, no working on Sundays.  And you don’t have to leave, Seamus,” Dom told him sincerely, but by the look on Ro’s face, he figured he did.

     “You gals don’t need a third wheel,” Harper said as he moved toward the door.  “Besides, I wanted to read that Charles DeLint book you were talking about yesterday.  Since there’s no working on Sundays, I’ll have plenty to do tomorrow, so I won’t have time after today.”  He ducked into the dining room, then kept going into the living room.  He looked for the book in question, thinking he better make a good show if it or Dom wouldn’t buy his excuse.  He found the book easily, then sat on the couch and started to read it.  He could already hear Ro’s voice, hushed this time, off in the kitchen.  Harper tried to convince himself that whatever she was saying was none of his business, but he was feeling a little paranoid, so it was hard to concentrate on the book.

     He’d finally settled into it when Dom was suddenly next to the sofa, saying, “We’re going out for some brunch, then maybe a movie or some shopping.  Wanna come with?”

     Harper smiled up at her.  “Thanks, but I’m okay here.”

     “You sure?  I made Ro promise to quit with twisting your arm about things.”

     “Yeah, but I bet she will the second your back’s turned,” Harper commented, shaking his head.  “It doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t bother me.”  A doubting expression crossed Dom’s face and Harper looked down sheepishly.  “Okay, it does, but don’t tell her that, ‘cause she’ll probably take it as a sign that I’m weakening or that I need psychiatric help too.  I think I’ll just skip the whole thing, so go enjoy yourself.  I’ve got a good book and a refrigerator full of food and cola.  What more could I ask for?”

     Dom reached out and stroked his shoulder.  “I could think of a couple of things.  How about I call Toni when I get back and ask how things are coming?  I meant to do that yesterday, but someone kept distracting me with his effervescent company.”

     That made Harper smile again.  She always had nice things to say about him.  She was still touching his shoulder.  Should he take it as a sign?  Should he test the waters a little?  “Better watch it.  I might take that as encouragement and work on making you laugh all night again tonight.”  It was very minor flirting by Harper’s standards, and could be easily confused as teasing.  Would she flirt back?  He wanted her to more than he’d wanted anything in a long time, short of a cure for Magog infestation.

     Dom chuckled softly, squeezed his shoulder gently, then took her hand away as she replied, “Please, no more.  My ribs still ache from yesterday.”  No flirting, but she didn’t exactly shoot him down in flames either.  He’d had way worse reactions.

     “No promises.  See you when you get back,” Harper told her.  She ruffled his hair before walking away, something he usually grimaced at, but he found he didn’t mind it this time.  He was so hopeless.  There was a few more moments of muffled conversation in the kitchen, then Dom called good-bye to him.  The garage door rumbled after another minute or so and Harper knew Dom and Ro were gone.  He smirked, put the book aside, then went back to work on his surprise some more.  Even though he knew he could finish it, he wouldn’t give it to Dom until tomorrow night, since he wasn’t supposed to be working on anything today.  He wondered what Ro would think when she saw it, and he was fairly certain Dom would show it to her.  He was willing to place odds that she wouldn’t think he was stupid after she got a look at it.  And Ro might not like it, but Harper was going to endear himself to Dom in every way he could think of.  He was going to stay here, where he felt safe and cared about, no matter what it cost him.  There wasn’t a threat out there that could change his mind about that.

     * * *



Chapter Thirteen
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