Belonging

by

Michelle Pichette

 

Chapter 16

 

 

* * *

     After going home to change and looking more closely at the cd player dragon, Nelson knew that he would kick himself if he let such an inventive mind slip away from the Institute without some attempt at luring the creator into his employ.  He also hoped sincerely that Miss Simmons’ fears were unfounded.  He reminded himself that many intelligent people seemed odd to others because they had a different way of looking at the world.  Judging by the workings of the dragon projector, this man had a very different view of everything.

     Harper had used electric components in ways Nelson had never thought of, in ways that quite frankly shouldn’t have worked, but they did.  Nelson, like his Chief Engineer, had not taken the thing apart as much as he wanted to because there were wires trimmed so thin that Nelson was amazed that they still functioned and he didn’t think he could replicate the delicate connections Harper had somehow made.  Some of the wiring and solders were all but invisible to the naked eye.  The man must have the steadiest hands in the world, Nelson mused, and he was a master of miniaturization, for he disposed of every superfluous bit of matter in the player and on the components he used so that he would have room for what was necessary.  Where the program that made the dragon was in all that tiny clutter and how the projector exactly worked was beyond Nelson and it more than intrigued him.  He wanted to know how the thing was made and he wanted the person that had made it at his disposal to make more impossible, wonderful things for him.

     Talking to Antoinette Babin had been interesting.  The elder Babin’s fingerprint check had turned up nothing, no prior arrests or anything else for that matter.  There were no birth records, no Social Security records, no school records, no health records, quite simply nothing at all to be found.  As Miss Simmons had said, as far as the world at large was concerned Seamus Harper didn’t exist, despite his presently taking up space at Doctor Babin’s house.  Antoinette was currently discussing the mysterious Mister Harper’s future in the country with the INS.  Since there was no record of his birth, Harper couldn’t prove he was an American citizen.  Nelson had told Miss Babin that he might be able to help her with that little problem, but first he had to talk to the man and see if he would accept that help.

     As he pulled his car up in front of Doctor Babin’s house, he noted that a strange car was in the drive.  Two men were by the car, one an older man who was standing a pace or two away, holding what looked to be a beer bottle, the other leaning under the hood, his legs and backside pretty much the only parts of him that were visible at the moment.  The person working on the car was most likely Seamus Harper.  “Two dollars for an oil change,” Nelson mused as he got out of his car, wondering if Doctor Babin was aware of the cottage industry blossoming in her driveway.

     “... and Hennessy was so drunk that I doubt he felt the punch that laid him low until the next day!” the older man was laughing in a thick Irish brogue as Nelson approached.  Another soft laugh came from behind the car hood, Nelson still unable to see the person there yet as he walked toward the front of the car.  “And it looks like ya’ve got another customer, Seamus, so I’ll be off for now and let ya tend to business.  Promised the wife I’d take ‘er shoppin’.  Probably be stuck doin’ that the rest o’ the day,” he said with distaste.  “I’ll come by tomorrow, talk to ya then.  Ya take care, lad, hear?”

     “Okay, Mister O’Donnell.  Thanks for the beer,” came a voice from behind the car hood.  Nelson moved to the front of the car to see a short, slight, very young man working on the car’s engine, a full but opened beer bottle on the bumper at his elbow.  He looked up and smiled quite amiably, his face full of dimples, blue eyes twinkling, a breeze ruffling his already tousled blond hair.  He also looked far younger than Nelson had expected, in his early to middle twenties somewhere.  For some reason, Nelson had expected him to be far older.  He hadn’t thought to ask about Harper’s date of birth when he’d spoken to the elder Miss Babin and Doctor Babin had never mentioned her houseguest’s age or Nelson might have been more concerned about him living in her house.

     “Hiya.  Be with you in one second.  Stubborn sparkplug.  Having trouble with your car?  Did you see the ad that Mister O’Donnell posted at the Knights of Columbus Hall?” he asked cheerfully.  For all the world, Harper seemed perfectly lucid and quite friendly, but Nelson knew that first impressions could often be very deceiving.  After all, he was currently being greeted as a potential customer.

     “No,” Nelson replied to both questions.

     Before he could speak further, Harper got the sparkplug he’d been struggling with free.  “That’s got it.  I don’t think anyone has been under the hood of this thing in the last decade.  So, word’s getting around the neighborhood, huh?  Cool.”

     “Actually, I don’t need any car repairs.  I came to talk to you,” Nelson said, then paused, wondering if he should introduce himself or not.  How much more guarded would Harper become if he knew who he was talking to?  At the moment, the young man seemed to have no clue whatsoever and he appeared totally at ease.

     “Talk away, as long as you don’t mind me working while you do.  Mister Wallace said that he’d give me an extra five dollars if I finished tuning his car before ten.  He said that he had an appointment, but I think he just wanted his car back fast.  He was kind of a crabby guy,” Harper said, lowering his voice when he spoke about his customer’s temperament and looking around as if he expected the man to materialize because he was being spoken about.  Nelson glanced at his watch.  It was nine twenty eight.  “I would have finished it by then anyway and five dollars is five dollars, right?  If he wants to throw money at me, who am I to complain?”

     “And does Doctor Babin know about your business dealings?” Nelson asked, thinking that she probably didn’t.  He tried to make the question sound casual, not accusatory.  He didn’t want to put Harper on the offensive so soon in their association.

     “No, and don’t squeal on me, okay?  I want to surprise her at the end of the week.  Two days, well, a day and a quarter, sort of, and I’ve got forty eight dollars.  Sixty three after this job.  I’m hoping I’ll have a couple hundred by Friday.  I wish it was more,” his voice took on a wistful tone, but he seemed to shake it off, “and maybe Mister O’Donnell’s ad will keep bringing people in.  That would be great.  I don’t know if he’s put it up yet, actually.  I guess I should ask.  For now, he sure seems to have no shortage of buddies that need car repairs.  It’s all good.”

     “And what percentage is your take?” Nelson questioned, thinking that Miss Simmons was right about Harper not knowing anything about the value of money if he thought he could get by on even a large fraction of his hoped for earnings.  Still, fifty dollars earned two dollars or so at a time meant that Harper had been a busy young man.  At least he didn’t seem to balk at the idea of a little hard work.

     “Hey, Dom’s giving me a roof over my head and three meals a day, not to mention that she actually bought me some clothes.  She said they were from the second hand store, but I don’t know.  They look okay, right?”   He indicated what he was wearing, a pair of cotton pants and a loose, button down shirt, which had its sleeves rolled up and hung open, displaying a plain white undershirt.  He was wearing black work boots, but they looked scuffed, water stained, and ancient and were probably his own.  Aside from a little grime, probably gleaned from while the young man was doing car repairs, and negligible signs of wear, the clothing seemed serviceable enough.

     “They look fine,” Nelson agreed aloud.

     “And that’s just the stuff that’s costing her money.  She’s done more for me than most people would do.  I just want to pay her back, you know?  I was thinking maybe I’d take her out for a nice dinner, but then she might think I was coming on to her and get all uncomfortable around me.  I wouldn’t want that.  Not that I wouldn’t like to come on to her.  I mean, what guy wouldn’t?  But like I said about the whole discomfort factor.  So I’m gonna go to the bank where her house loan is and give them the money to put against it.  Pay for part of the roof I hope to keep over my head.  Then she has to take it, ‘cause I don’t think banks do refunds and she told me no way was she taking actual cash from me ever.  Mister O’Donnell was saying that there are lots of decent paying jobs for good mechanics, and since I am the best, I figure when I start making real money on a regular basis...”  He shrugged, grinning brightly, “...maybe then for the whole romantic dinner thing, right?  For now, I’ll settle on making enough money so that Dom doesn’t think I’m trying to live off of her.  Definitely don’t want that.”

     Miss Simmons was right.  Harper seemed more than willing to talk.  Nelson had been a little worried about getting him to open up.  Now he was wondering where the off switch was.  As he was talking, Harper had put in the replacement sparkplug and continued with the car’s tuneup.  Most people slowed down when they were talking, but Nelson was surprised to see that Harper’s hands actually seemed to keep pace with his mouth.  Harper was never still, always fixing, wiping, fetching, generally moving.  Nelson was getting exhausted just watching him.

     It spoke well for Harper’s character that he felt grateful for Doctor Babin’s generosity, but it also sounded as though he planned to try to stay in her company for the foreseeable future.  If this was the first time Harper had ever had a decent place to live, Nelson didn’t blame him for wanting to hang on to it.  At least the boy seemed willing to work hard to earn the privilege, which was more than could be said for some people he had known.  Harper also showed some ingenuity in his little plot of how to get Doctor Babin to accept the money he wanted to give her.  And Harper had the good sense not to attempt a romance while in his current circumstances.  He was a little odd, though Nelson could not seem to place exactly what was giving him that feeling, since Harper seemed rational enough and he wasn’t saying anything that sounded outlandish.

     Nelson also caught glimpses of the metal disk Miss Simmons had spoken of imbedded just behind and below the boy’s right ear, visible almost plainly from time to time as he moved around.  It didn’t exactly glow with malevolent intent, but considering it’s location, Nelson could understand some concern.  Since he every intention of hiring Harper, he wouldn’t worry about it unduly until Doctor Jamieson had a chance to look at it in the very near future.  In fact, aside from some fading bruises and cuts on his face and neck, the boy seemed quite healthy, considering everything that Nelson had been told about him.

     “So why not apply for one of these mechanic positions rather than working out of Doctor Babin’s driveway?  Or are you more used to a ship’s setting for your mechanical endeavors?” Nelson asked as he shrugged away other thoughts.  Nelson wondered if Harper was the sort of person that viewed automobiles as his life’s calling or if he was just doing this to get by.

     “No, not really, no.  Just kind of wound up working on ships is all.  Kind of like what I’m doing now, really.  I’m good at fixing stuff.  Or making stuff.  Basically, anything that involves tools or machinery, I’m good with.  Oh, and programming!  I can work magic with computers.”  Nelson raised an eyebrow.  Certainly young Mister Harper had a high opinion of his abilities.  The question was, did he deserve to?  The dragon hologram seemed to indicate that he did.  Nelson struggled to keep a wry grin off his face at the boy’s brazen boasting.  He couldn’t wait to see if Harper could back up his bravado or if he was a one trick pony.

     “And if you’re asking me why I don’t get off my lazy ass and get a real job, it’s because I can’t just yet.  First off, Mister O’Donnell says he’s scouting me out a good one, that he won’t see another son of Ireland earning slave’s wage in some hell hole.  I haven’t had the heart to tell him that hell holes would be a step up from most of the places I’ve worked.  He’s a sweet old guy.  Came over to grill me as to my intentions when Dom first took me in, but as soon as he heard my name was Seamus Harper, he figured I couldn’t be all bad and he’s been coming around to shoot the breeze ever since.  I think he’s trying to escape his wife a lot of the time, and it’s not like he’s bothering me or anything.  Second, Dom says I need a Social Security Number to get a real job, the kind with actual, regular money and taxes and dental plans and stuff.  She’s been talking to her sister the lawyer about how to get one when you never had a Birth Certificate or things like that,” Harper replied with an unaffected shrug as he bustled about.

     “If your parents never filed for a birth certificate, the hospital you were born at would have the records needed, surely.”

     Harper let out a short, nervous sounding laugh, glancing briefly at Nelson.  “I wasn’t born at a hospital.”

     “Then the attending doctor...”

     “Wasn’t one of those either.  It’s okay, though.  Dom took me to the police office a couple blocks over and they took a DNA sample and my fingerprints and shipped them off to Boston to her sister.  Once everyone checks them out and is sure I’m not some wanted criminal or foreign terrorist or something, everything else will be a piece of cake.  At least that’s what they both keep telling me,” Harper said.  He seemed totally unconcerned about people poking into his past.  That was encouraging.  It seemed that whatever he’d been forced to do to survive to this point in his life wasn’t anything that he was ashamed of.

     Harper wiped his hands on his pants, grabbed his beer, took a swig, then he walked around the car, leaned into it through the open driver’s side window and started it up, smiling as the engine purred into action.  “Damn, I’m good.  Sounded like an asthmatic dinosaur before.  What time is it?” he asked.

     “Nine forty seven,” Nelson replied as he checked his watch.

     “Awesome.  Another fifteen dollars for the ‘keep feeding the Harper’ fund,” Harper said with a gleeful smile as he turned off the engine, the went to close the hood.  After setting his beer back on the car’s bumper, he picked up the tools lying near the car, cleaned them quickly and put them away in the garage before closing the garage door.  In less then five minutes, Harper had erased all evidence of what he’d just been up to.  No wonder Doctor Babin hadn’t known about the car repairs he had done the day before.

     Harper came to stand before Nelson, putting his hands in his pockets and shrugging a little.  “So, besides regaling you with tales from my less than spectacular life, what should I be talking to you about?  You did say you came to talk to me about something, right?” he asked as he gave Nelson his full attention.

     Now Nelson would bring all his diplomacy to bear.  Harper not only wasn’t going to know what hit him, he was going to be at the Institute having lunch before he even got a chance to think about it.  A lunch with a lot of protein and carbohydrates, the Admiral decided as he looked at the boy’s thin body.  Nelson took an educated guess that Harper had been seriously ill recently and had lost weight, too much weight.  He’d seen it happen to the men working under him often enough to recognize the signs.  Was that why his last employer had left him behind, so that they wouldn’t have to provide medical attention to the young man a second time?  He would have to ask about that later, once he had the boy’s confidence.  Certainly, he was going to have Harper’s former employers investigated.  The comment about having worked in ‘hell holes’ had not gone unnoted.  Who knew what other people even now served pretty much as slave labor on the vessels in question.

     Nelson didn’t think winning Harper over would be hard.  The boy seemed as guileless as they came, almost too innocent for his own good, really, the way he was willing to bare himself to a total stranger as he had been to Nelson since he had arrived.  Nelson began to feel like he was about to lure a child into his car with the promise of candy.  At least he didn’t mean Harper any harm, he told himself, and wouldn’t take unfair advantage of the boy.  Quite the opposite, Nelson had taken a liking to Harper and intended to start him properly on the road to a new, much less hazard strewn life.  Best of all, he didn’t see how Doctor Babin could be angry over it.  It really was the best solution to everything, his taking charge of the boy.

     However, before Nelson could begin to speak, the afore mentioned Mister Wallace appeared from seemingly no where.  “Is it done?” he asked abruptly, alerting both Nelson and Harper to his presence by startling both of them.  Harper actually jumped a little, but composed himself quickly.  Wallace was giving his car a leery look when they turned to him.

     “All done and purring like a big, fat contented cat,” Harper said proudly.  The car had sounded in good repair to Nelson, so if it had been in half as bad a condition as Harper had said, the boy had every reason to be proud of his work.

     Wallace huffed, his sour expression still in place, and got into his car to start it, listening as if he expected to hear something amiss.  He gave Harper a narrow look, then said, “I suppose you did a decent job.  Ten dollars, right?”

     “Fifteen for ready by ten,” Harper reminded him.

     Wallace checked his watch, frowned, then pulled out his wallet, glancing within.  “All I got is a ten and a hundred.  Either you gotta make change or settle for ten.”

     Nelson began to see red.  The boy was being more than fair, for his services would have cost this man far more in a garage, especially for a rush job, but here the old tightwad was trying to shortchange him all the same.  He was almost surprised the man hadn’t tried to undercut the boy further, since Wallace had to know he had Harper at an extremely unfair disadvantage.  Harper looked crestfallen and like he was about to take what he could get, so Nelson pulled out his own wallet and quickly fished out eighty five dollars, glad that he had the denominations needed.  “Here’s your change.  Give him the hundred dollar bill,” Nelson ordered, thrusting the money through the car window at the disagreeable man.

     That didn’t sit well with Wallace, but he produced the bill and gave it into Harper’s eager hands.  “If my car has any problems, I’m coming back and you’re going to fix it for free or I’ll call the cops on you and have you tossed in prison,” he threatened.  “It’s probably where you’re used to living, anyway.”  Nelson scowled.  Such venom over five dollars was ridiculous.

     “You won’t have any problems,” Harper replied, his breezy, dimple filled smile back now that he had money in his hands.  “You’d better go or you’ll miss your appointment.”  Wallace huffed at him, backing the car from the drive without regard for Harper or Nelson, almost catching them with the front bumper.  Harper had to snatch up his beer before it was smashed to pieces, but he gave Wallace a jaunty wave, muttering, “Don’t drive off a cliff or anything, you cheap, old bastard.”  Nelson fought down a laugh, especially when Harper turned to him, suddenly very serious.

     “Thanks, really, but I think this is yours.  It was worth fifteen dollars to see you stick it to that guy.”  He was handing the hundred dollar bill toward Nelson with a dejected expression, ready to give it up despite his desperate need.  “Maybe... maybe you could come back in a day or two, huh?  I’ll have the change then for sure and... and I’ll give your car the once over for your trouble, okay?”  Nelson made up his mind right then.  The boy didn’t seem crazy to him.  In fact, Nelson agreed with Doctor Babin that he not only wasn’t dangerous but was actually a decent person despite the harsh hand that life had dealt him.  A little too trusting, perhaps, Nelson mused, but naivety wasn’t exactly dangerous to anyone but Harper.

     “I’ll tell you what,” Nelson said, reaching into his jacket pocket and taking out the cd player that Miss Simmons had given him.  “You keep the money.  I came to ask you about this.  I’d like to know how it works.”

     Harper looked confused as he stuffed the money almost absently into one of his pockets so that he could he take the player, then he opened it and realized what it was.  “Oh!  The toy I made for Dom.  You must work at the Institute with her, huh?” he said, his good humor seeming to return a little.  He pushed the play button and the dragon did a little spin in mid flight, the reverse and forward button producing other effects.  That amazed Nelson.  It did more than repeat the cycle?  Why hadn’t he thought to push the buttons?  Harper looked back up at him with a waiting look and Nelson shook off his surprise to nod at the boy’s question.  He also wondered how it was that Harper hadn’t figured out who he was.  Hadn’t the boy ever picked up a newspaper or watched the news?

     “Can you tell me how you made that?” Nelson asked him.

     Harper closed the cd player and took another swig of his beer.  “And I get to keep the whole hundred?” he asked, giving Nelson a wary look.

     “That is what I said,” Nelson said patiently.  He really didn’t blame Harper for being cautious considering what had just happened to him.  Maybe Harper wasn’t totally naive after all.

     “Okay, but it’s just a lame toy.  If I had better tools and materials, I could build a really cool one, an interactive one, in bright, living color.  You could give it commands and have it fly all over the place and do all kinds of neat stuff.  Or a little robotic dragon that you could give commands to, though I don’t know if the breathing fire part would be a good idea on that one.  Flying might be tricky, but I bet I could work it out.  I wanted to make something like that for Dom, ‘cause she’s been so good to me and she has all these fantasy books and I thought...  Doesn’t matter.  Just me being stupid.”

     Suddenly Harper looked depressed, his eyes turned from Nelson to the ground as he closed the player.  Nelson thought he was being unduly hard on himself.  He was also all but reeling with the information that the technological wonder in Harper’s hand was, according to what he’d just said, not the best he could do.  Whatever else Harper was, he also appeared to be a mechanical genius and Nelson was not going to let him fall into a life of drudgery in some garage where he would never achieve anywhere near his full potential nor be given even a faction of the respect he deserved.

     “Not at all, Mister Harper.  And Dominica liked the one you gave her.  She showed it to her best friend, Miss Simmons, as soon as she got to work,” Nelson told him, thinking a little self-esteem building was called for at this point.  Praise had probably been rather thin in the boy’s life.

     Harper looked up, smiling hesitantly.  “Yeah?”

     “Yes, and Miss Simmons showed it to me because it mystified her, which is no easy feat.  And now you’re telling me that this isn’t your best work.  How would you like to come with me to the Institute and show me how you would build a better one of these?” Nelson asked.  Suddenly, Harper’s smile disappeared.

     “Uh... I don’t know about that,” Harper said nervously, then took a swig of his beer in an attempt to cover his fear.  “I mean, this Admiral Nelson, he might not like you dragging some loser, homeless guy into his high security, government base.  I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble and I know I don’t want to get me in trouble.  I promised Dom that I’d avoid the big ‘t’ like the plague, especially while she’s vouching for me so I won’t get locked up for vagrancy.  Remember when I was telling you about how great she’s been to me and all?”  Nelson was about to reassure the boy that he wasn’t going to get anyone into trouble by accepting his invitation, but Harper seemed to jump to his own conclusions before he could get a word out.  “But... but, I didn’t mean that I wouldn’t tell you all about the toy, though.  Heck, you’ll be able to make some for your kids or whatever by the time you leave, honest.  We can go in the house and I’ll draw you up some schematics and...”

     “Mister Harper,” Nelson cut him off sternly, silencing the boy, then continued a little more gently, “First of all, you never give away inventions, even ‘lame toys,’ which this is not, I assure you.  You patent them and make sure that someone pays you well for using your ideas.  Understand?”  Harper nodded silently, looking a little cowed.  Finally, he had found Harper’s ‘off switch,’ but considering what he was about to say, he didn’t want Harper to think him a harsh person.  Nelson let the grin he had been fighting down almost since meeting Harper claim his face as he laid a companionable hand on the boy’s shoulder, chuckling deeply.  “And I am Admiral Nelson, so I can bring whomever I wish to my Institute.  If you can do what you claim you can, I plan to give you a job that will make you a lot more money than your backyard auto repairs possibly could.  A hell of a lot more, with a dental plan and such, as you said.”

     There was a moment of silence in which Harper stood there, looking totally stunned.  “You’re Dom’s boss?” Harper finally asked, sounding a little afraid of what Nelson would say next for some reason.

     “Yes,” Nelson confirmed, wondering if the boy was worried that he’d embarrassed Doctor Babin.  Actually, he’d done the opposite by proving to Nelson that her faith and trust in him hadn’t been misplaced.

     “And... and you want me to make dragon toys for you?”  The poor boy now sounded terribly confused along with being a bit frightened.  Nelson took advantage of his confusion by wrapping an arm loosely around Harper’s shoulders, turning him and gently guiding him toward his car.  He hadn’t expected a potential job to act like a stun ray, but he’d take it.  He also reminded himself that this was a person that had probably not been treated kindly by the world until he stumbled upon Doctor Babin.  Harper might need a little gentle handling to start with, but Nelson was eager to see what other ‘toys’ were dancing around in the boy’s head, so he thought that a small price to pay.

     “We’ll start there, then we’ll see if we can’t give that inventive mind of yours a little direction,” Nelson told him, patting him on the shoulder for effect.

     “B... But I don’t have a Social Security Number,” Harper murmured, sounding utterly overwhelmed.  They had just reached Nelson’s car, but Harper was floundering under the sudden onrush of what Nelson hoped was thought to be good news and was swaying slightly on his feet.  Nelson just wanted the boy in the car.  He took the cd player from Harper’s hand and put it back into one pocket as he fished for keys in the other.  Why hadn’t he had the foresight to unlock the passenger door?        

     “Don’t concern yourself with that.  There are few people I can call in Washington to have that all straightened out.  For now, let me show you the Institute.  You should have everything you need to build whatever you want there, and if you don’t, we’ll get it.  There are sleeping quarters there that you can use until we can arrange other, more private living accommodations.  And there’s a cafeteria, one that will be open to you without cost, so you don’t have to worry about food.  Does that sound acceptable to you, Mister Harper?” Nelson asked as he held the eyes of his newest charge.  It was probably for the best to make it known that a job was not in question.  Nelson could only imagine that the knowledge would come as a relief.  In a worst case scenario, if Harper wasn’t quite the genius that Nelson more than suspected he was, they always needed good mechanics and machinists at the Institute, so Nelson didn’t worry about cutting the boy’s legs out from under him just when he got on his feet.

     “Dom’ll think I disappeared.  I told her I wouldn’t go anywhere.  I promised,” Harper murmured, concern adding itself to the emotions threatening to overload the young man’s brain.

     Nelson smiled and let out a chuckle and patted him on the shoulder again.  “We’ll go tell Dominica what’s happening first, all right?”  Harper nodded, but he didn’t look at all relieved.  In fact, he’d started to shake, most likely struggling against a fight or flight response by the look of him, though the Admiral couldn’t imagine what was causing that reaction.  Nelson moved to unlock the car door, thinking to sit the boy down before he fell down or fled.  “Then we’ll take a tour of the Institute, perhaps even the Seaview.  We’ve been having trouble with the guidance system of the Diving Bell and yours might just be the fresh pair of eyes I need to spot the problem.  You seem to be very good with electronics and I think that’s where the trouble lies.  Then I’d like our doctor to take a look at you, just to...”  He was interrupted by the sound of a bottle smashing on the pavement and he turned to see Harper backing from him, looking terrified.

     “I... I can’t... I... I...I... ” Harper whispered, his voice quaking with fear.  He looked as though he were about to bolt for cover and was, in fact, backing slowly toward Dominica’s house.  Harper was struggling not to break into a run, Nelson could see it.  He was also trying extremely hard to regain his composure, but it wasn’t going to happen.  “Ma... maybe I’ll wait for Dom and talk all this over with her tonight, huh?  It’s not that I don’t really appreciate the job offer... at your big, government installation... I... I just promised that... that I wouldn’t go anywhere... Yeah, really shouldn’t go back on your promises, right?  And th...there’s that whole Social Security Number thing... and... and...”  Miss Simmons had been right about one thing, Nelson realized too late.  Someone in the medical field must have done something terrible to this young man to make him so afraid of the mere mention of seeing a doctor.  Nelson hoped it wasn’t too late to salvage the situation.

     “Oh, the job offer still stands, Mister Harper,” Nelson cut off the faltering flow of excuses as he approached the boy in as nonthreatening a manner as he could.  “I thought it wise for you to see a doctor, considering your recent misadventures, but you seem in good health.  If you’d like to wait until all your other paperwork is completed before you have a physical, that would be fine.  There’s so much to do today, I doubt we would have gotten to it in any case.  We’d better get going or there won’t be enough time for you to build any of the other toys you were talking about.  Interactive, you said.  What would the control system be like?  A wireless remote or something of that nature?”

     Harper had stopped, but he was still shaking.  He didn’t appear to know what he should do.  “I... I don’t...” he stammered weakly.

     “It would probably be easier to show me,” Nelson said, carefully putting an arm around the boy’s shoulders again and leading him back to the car.  Harper hadn’t run off, thankfully, because he looked pretty nimble and Nelson didn’t think he could have caught him and he couldn’t begin to think of how to explain things to Doctor Babin had it happened.  He was also glad that Harper was a few inches shorter than he was and more slight of build, because that let him assume physical control their movements with relative ease.  The Admiral was going to do his best not to terrify him again.  He also planned to enlist Doctor Babin’s help, if necessary, in seeing to it that Harper had a very thorough examination in the near future.  The thing on the boy’s neck, was it part of some experiment that had been preformed on him?  What else had been done to Harper, Nelson wondered grimly, and who was guilty of whatever had just turned the gregarious, amiable young man from a moment ago into the frightened child shivering next to him.

     “Can... can we call Dom now?” Harper asked in a small voice as Nelson opened the car door.  The poor boy was still terrified.  Nelson didn’t even have to look at him to know that, but a quick glance found Harper shivering pitiably and pale with fright.  It seemed that very gentle handling for Harper would be in order for the rest of the day at the very least.  Nelson didn’t try to move Harper, and, instead, reached into the car to grab up the phone resting on the center console.  He handed it to Harper, who hadn’t moved from where he’d been left, standing rooted to the curb.  That was good.  Nelson was still a little concerned that Harper would bolt when given the slightest provocation.

     “Do you know her number?” Nelson asked, giving the boy what he hoped was a reassuring smile.  He doubted that he’d get Harper into the car without a struggle before he spoke to Doctor Babin, and the Admiral didn’t want to resort to that.  Beating the boy into submission was hardly the way to start off Harper’s employment at the Institute.

     Harper dug quickly into his pant’s pocket, saying, “She gave it to me for emergencies.”

     “Not quite an emergency, I hope,” Nelson said as Harper retrieved a small piece of paper and began to punch in the number.  Nelson decided to give him a little space and stepped off the curb to nudge the broken glass from the smashed beer bottle into the storm drain.

     Harper gave Nelson a panicked grimace of a smile as he finished dialing and then turned his attention to the phone, saying, “Oh, hi.  It’s me...”  There was a pause, probably because Doctor Babin was speaking.  Harper’s face eased a little toward relaxed.  Good, Nelson thought, talking to Doctor Babin was having the desired effect.  “No, I’m okay.”  He paused, half muttering to himself, “I think I’m okay,” then continued more clearly into the telephone, “Anyway, Admiral Nelson is here and he... Older guy, reddish hair?... Yeah, that’s him.  He wants me to come to the Institute to show him how I made your dragon toy...  No, he didn’t say anything about that...  No, nothing about that either...  No, no, he said that maybe he had a job for me if he liked what I showed him...  Yeah... Uh huh... Yeah... Sure, hold on.”  Harper handed the phone toward Nelson.  Though his expression was more at ease, his hands were shaking.  “She wants to talk to you.”

     Nelson muted the phone and said, “Thank you, Mister Harper.  Why don’t you get settled while I have a word with Dominica?”  Harper nodded and then got into the car without any further encouragement.  As he closed the door, Nelson sighed in relief.  He was glad that the engineers he typically tried to recruit weren’t this skittish.  He then turned his attention to the telephone and started around the car.  “Doctor Babin, you neglected to tell me that your houseguest was a mechanical genius,” he scolded her, then grinned, adding, “And that he’s young and seems rather taken with you.”

     “You brought up doctors, didn’t you?” came the immediate impatient response.  Doctor Babin was not in the mood to be teased.  He could imagine what she thought his motives were for being here in the first place were.

     “I mentioned that I’d like Doctor Jamieson to take a look at him.  He was beaten rather severely not that long ago, after all.”

     “We don’t use the ‘d’ word around Seamus.  It makes him freak out.  Ro tried to twist his arm about seeing one, now she makes him twitchy too.”

     “Well, since I have every intention of having him with us at the Institute from now on, we’ll see if we can ease him into the idea of regular physicals.  I didn’t intend to frighten him, but that certainly seems to be what happened.  Would you mind meeting us at the Security Station when we arrive at the Institute?  It would probably be good for him to see a friendly face sooner rather than later.  We’re leaving your driveway now.”

     “No problem.  Should I talk to Seamus while you drive, or has he calmed down?”

     Nelson glanced into the car.  Harper looked tense and was running his hand through his hair while he appeared to talk to himself.  “That might be advisable.  Are you on your cell phone?”

     “Yes.”

     Nelson opened the driver’s side door, and immediately handed the phone toward Harper, saying, “Dominica would like to talk to you again.  And fasten your seat belt.”

     Harper fumbled with the strap as he all but dropped the phone.  He was still shaking and Nelson wished he had something to calm the boy with.  Too bad the beer he’d been drinking was now all over the street.  “Hi?... No, in his car... That close?  Gee, I could’ve walked to... No, not yet... ‘Cause I wasn’t hungry...”  Harper let out a soft laugh, saying, “I feel fine.  Really.  I just wasn’t hungry,”  and he began relax visibly as he and Doctor Babin carried on their conversation.

     Nelson smiled a little to himself as he eavesdropped on the half conversation going on next to him.  He’d heard many others like it in his day and seen the expression now on Harper’s face often enough to know what was going on in the boy’s head.  It seemed Mister Harper’s comment about wanting to date Doctor Babin wasn’t so much lip service.  If Nelson hadn’t known better, he would have sworn that they were already romantically entangled.  Provided that everything went as Nelson hoped it would for the next few days, he didn’t have a problem with Harper as a suitor for the good doctor.  After all, she was attracted to intelligent men and Harper was giving Nelson the impression that he fit that description nicely.  Another little laugh came from next to Nelson and a quick glance at Harper found him looking almost content and smiling once more.  Nelson had to fight down a chuckle as he turned his attention back to the road.  Apparently, it wasn’t the title ‘doctor’ alone that set Harper off, because it was pretty obvious that he was anything but afraid of Doctor Babin.

* * *

     Harper was glad that he could talk to Dom while Admiral Nelson drove toward his Institute.  He was pretty certain it was the only thing that had kept him from fainting.  He had thought that the Admiral was another of Dom’s neighbors, there at her house to give him another stern warning that he’d better be on his best behavior.  Harper had chatted away, hoping to show that he wasn’t trying to hide anything and that he had nothing but respect and appreciation for Dom.  Then Nelson had shown him the dragon toy and Harper had thought he was one of the other Marine Biologists or some other sort of scientist from the Institute.  When Nelson had introduced himself, Harper had been shocked, then terrified, then confused in such quick succession that he didn’t know how to react to the man’s presence in Dom’s driveway.

     He’d been happy for about a split second, then worried about the Admiral’s job offer.  The job was a good thing.  Money on a regular basis, a place to live that was at his place of work just like on the Maru or the Andromeda, a chance to use his skills, those were all good things.  The source of the job offer worried him.  It had come pretty much out of the blue and while Nelson’s base wasn’t secret, Dom had talked about classified experiments going on there.  He was certain that she wouldn’t ever hurt him or anyone, but what if she didn’t know everything that went on there?  What if the Admiral’s job offer was a clever ruse?  What if he went there and was never seen again because he got brought to the secret, sub basement that Dom didn’t know existed, the place where the mad scientists worked on alien autopsies that they talked about on the internet?

     When the Admiral brought up his seeing a doctor at the Institute, he had become utterly terrified.  He’d almost bolted for the house to lock himself inside and pray that he could get Dom on the phone before someone evil came for him.  Then the Admiral had told him to forget about the doctor.  Harper no longer knew what to believe at that point.  He didn’t want to lose a good job because he was too terrified to leave Dom’s house, but he didn’t want a swift, terrible end to his life either.  Then the Admiral had let him talk to Dom and everything became sort of all right.  She was going to meet them at the Institute.  If Dom was there, he’d be okay, he told himself, and after talking with her a little while about mundane things, he began to relax.  That was until he saw some intimidating security gates loom up in front of the car as Dom told him goodbye and the phone went dead.  She stepped out of the guardhouse at the check point, though, and waved with a cheery smile, so Harper didn’t have a chance to get really panicked again.

     “Hi!” she said as she climbed into the back of the car when Nelson stopped.  Harper smiled hesitantly as he looked back at her.  She wouldn’t let anyone do anything bad to him, that much he knew for sure, but what if they dragged her out of the way first?  The horror movie he’d been watching flashed up in his mind and his imagination substituted Dom for the eldest daughter and him for the hapless boyfriend, except he hadn’t gotten all the kissing and groping that guy had gotten before he went to his messy, painful end.  The security guard opened the gate for them and Harper closed his eyes for a moment as worry pressed in on him again.  “So, Admiral, you decided that you needed to check up on my houseguest,” Dom declared with a tone that rang of ‘shame on you for doubting my judgement.’

     “Not at all.  Miss Simmons merely showed me this,” Nelson handed the toy back to Dom, “and I wanted to scoop up the person that made it before someone else did.”  Nelson liked the toy that much?  But he was a grown man, a scientist, an military officer.  What did he need a lame toy for?

     “So that’s where this disappeared to!  I’ve been searching everywhere,” Dom said, sounding pleased to have her toy back.  “And if you think that’s cool, you should see what Seamus did with my computer.  It’s never been so fast and less annoying.”

     “High praise indeed, Mister Harper, considering that it is coming from the person who declares a hate/hate relationship with all things mechanical on a regular basis,” Nelson said as he pulled his car to a halt in a space marked with his name.

     Harper began to feel downright good again and he managed to stop dwelling on terrifying, negative possibilities.  Dom did like the dragon toy and she was talking him up shamelessly in front of the new potential boss!  He looked back at Dom and she smiled warmly at him and leaned forward to lay a hand on his shoulder.  It was meant to be a gesture of reassurance, but he let his imagination have it’s way finally.  She could touch him any way she wanted to from now on and he fully intended to flirt brazenly when she did.  He put one of his hands over hers, stroking her fingers gently, thinking that if the Admiral came through with everything he’d promised back at Dom’s house, he would take her out, someplace nice with music and soft lighting and romance in the air.  He was going to dance with her in that purple dress yet.

     “Well, they should have called the operating system ‘Big, Gaping Holes In Performance’ instead of Windows,” Harper said, feeling courageous enough to be himself for the moment because Dom was touching him.

     “Really, Mister Harper?” Nelson asked as if he found what Harper had just said intriguing.  “Then I suppose I should give you a chance to show me how much better you can do.”

     Harper held onto his self-assured grin and said, “Point me at a computer and prepare to be amazed.”  The Admiral actually chuckled, and they all got out of the car.  Dom got out on his side and he cozied up next to her and quickly whispered, “Just so you know, I am right now bobbing between having fun and having heart failure, so stick close in case I need resuscitation or something.”

     “You’ll be fine,” Dom said, but she took his arm and gave him another smile and they followed Admiral Nelson into his Institute’s main entrance.  If she was with him, Harper knew he would be.  He had just about convinced himself that if Dom worked here at the Institute, it was a good, safe place.  “I should have thought of having the Admiral come talk to you.  I should have known he’d offer you a job.  The way you are with machinery, it was almost a given.  This is great!”

     “Yeah,” Harper agreed, but not for the same reason she was saying.  They would be working in the same place, able to see each other whenever they wanted.  That was so cool.  He wondered if Dom had any clue at all how hung up he was on her.  Probably not, but why would she?  It wasn’t as if he’d given her any reason to suspect how smitten he was.  Of course, Harper would be the first to admit that he fell in love at the drop of a hat, that all a girl had to do was not spit on him and he’d fall at her feet.  Heck, even if they spit on him, he’d argue that they were just trying to cool him off because they thought he was overheating.  He’d had so many women treat him poorly over his dating history that he had come to expect it, to almost look upon verbal abuse and disparaging looks as foreplay.  But this was different.  Dom was nice to him all the time!  She couldn’t possibly know how it was making him feel.  Or maybe this was the next form of torture he was destined to suffer at the hands of women, the kill’m with kindness ploy.  Frankly, he didn’t care.  As long as she smiled at him and said nice things to him and about him, he would follow her around like a faithful puppy.  Hell, he’d even wear the collar and leash with a smile.

     The Admiral showed him around the Institute.  Knowing what little he did about Earth’s current, primitive technology levels, Harper had to admit that Nelson did have what seemed to be the best and most advanced here at his fingertips.  Of course, from what Dom had told him about the place, Harper wouldn’t have expected any less.  He was also beginning to suspect that Admiral Nelson was the same Nelson that had founded the Nelson Science Consortium that still existed in his time, which made him even more impressed and a little afraid that he wouldn’t pass muster job wise.  The Nelson Science Consortium was a prestigious place, where a mere single Doctorate degree was looked down upon as insufficient credentials to gain acceptance.  Maybe they weren’t as hung up on that sort of thing this far in the past, but it was still worrying to him. 

     Harper was sure he looked awed as he took in the Seaview where it rested in dry dock.  He wasn’t used to submersible ships and this one didn’t look like any that he’d seen before.  Then, as he scanned the damage being worked on, he wondered how the vessel hadn’t sunk.  Then again, it might look worse than it was.  That was how it was a lot of times with exterior damage, he knew from experience.

     Nelson rested a hand gently on his shoulder and commented, “Isn’t my gray lady beautiful.”

     “Sure is,” Harper agreed softly.  He liked her lines and the flow of her design.  She was an old time, planet locked vessel, sure, but she was nearly as pretty as the Andromeda in her own way.

     Nelson let out a soft, good natured chuckle, giving Harper’s shoulder a friendly squeeze.  “She’s had a few rough patches, but she always sees us home.”

     Harper nodded, still taking in the submarine.  All his years of fixing things started his mind running in another direction, though.  “You... you noticed the structural damage?  Just there.  Kind of near the...” Harper started as he pointed toward where he meant, his mind going into damage control mode as he took in the vessel.  No one seemed to be working on the area he was pointing out, but that didn’t mean they didn’t know about it.

     “Miss Simmons has everything well in hand,” Nelson told him before Harper started spitting out a full visual diagnostic. “You have a good eye for troubleshooting, I see, but I had a position in research and development in mind for you.  You won’t be getting your hands dirty down here on the docks very often, if at all.”

     Harper nodded silently.  But he liked getting his hands dirty, he thought wistfully, remembering his days as the Maru, then the Andromeda’s sole engineer.  He’d felt so important, even if he rarely got treated that way.  That was over, he thought with resignation as Nelson lead them back toward the elevator to the Institute’s buildings.  Why did it seem so long ago?  It had only been a few days since...  Harper shrugged off the melancholy starting to build in him, especially when Dom took his hand and pointed out something they were passing.  The present certainly wasn’t anything to be unhappy about, he decided as he squeezed Dom’s hand and smiled warmly at her.

     The Admiral paused his tour at the cafeteria that he had mentioned earlier and they all had lunch.  The food was good and it was plentiful, both of which sat well with Harper.  In fact, Nelson kept pointing out new things for him to try, encouraging him to eat more than his fill.  Finally, Harper just couldn’t eat another bite and he sat back, drinking a cup of coffee, hoping the caffeine would keep him from even thinking about the sleepy feeling he got whenever he was overfull, knowing it wouldn’t be appreciated if he asked for a nap just then.  Harper wasn’t a glutton, but having to fight for every mouthful as a kid had made him appreciate it when food was readily available.  And, on top of everything else, the coffee was great and actually came in new and exciting flavors!  The Institute was shaping up to be a really good place.

     Next they went off to the dorms that Nelson had spoken of.  Apparently, some of the sailors from the Seaview didn’t bother taking apartments or getting houses in Santa Barbara because they had family elsewhere, so Nelson was kind enough to provide a place for them to stay free of charge on a temporary basis.  The individual living quarters were small and Spartan, but they were also clean and some had their own showers.  One such unit was the one that the Admiral had picked out for him.

     “This is only temporary,” Nelson stressed as Harper looked at the room.  “Doctor Babin and I will help you find far nicer accommodations as soon as you have an established identity.”  There was a bed, a dresser with a clock on top, a small table with a lamp, and the bathroom.  Dom’s house was nicer by far, but he had stayed in lots worse places in his lifetime.  Those places hadn’t been clean like this room was or as large and he had barely slept in most of them for fear of coming to physical harm if he closed his eyes for too long.  There was no sense of threat here, no sense of anything really.  It was, quite simply, a clean, quiet place to sleep, not a home, but Harper was already thinking of little touches he could add to make it a little more his style.  He didn’t like temporary.  He liked to dig in and make a good thing last.

     Besides, he didn’t think Dom would go out with him while he was her houseguest, so some simple living was a small price to pay.  He thought about her being religious and how some religions frowned on sex outside marriage.  Suddenly he understood, at least partly, why Dom had held back all those times he’d thought she was about to give him a hug or a kiss.  Maybe those times he’d thought she was checking him out she actually had been, but she didn’t want to tempt him only to push him away when they were sharing the same house.  Maybe that would change now, he thought, glancing at her.  Maybe his changing quarters changed a whole lot more.

     Trying not to think too much of that at the moment, Harper shrugged, saying, “Beats fighting with rats for a warm spot under a bridge.”  He had meant it to be a joke, though it hadn’t been at all funny when it had happened too often in his past, and he hadn’t thought anything about saying it until Dom suddenly stroked his arm and he looked at her to see pity on her face.  A quick glance at the Admiral found the older man pushing a similar expression off of his.  Stupid, Harper chided himself.  This was not the Earth he grew up on and he did not like being the focus of a pity fest.  He had to remember to talk to these people like they were Dylan, who also had given him the ‘poor Harper’ face a few times before he started censoring himself.

     “Not that the rats were all bad.  Some of them were like little, squeaky teddy bears once you got to know ‘em,” Harper said with a grin.  Dom’s expression jumped from pity to horror.  The Admiral started rubbing the back of his neck, plainly uncomfortable in the extreme.  “Kidding,” Harper added, but he knew it was too late, and his voice dropped volume, “Kidding.  Just kidding.  Uh... so... I was wondering, when do I get to wow you with my unparalleled genius?”

     “Right now, Mister Harper,” Nelson said, pouncing like a big cat on the opportunity to exit the uncomfortable place the room had become.  He lead a quick pace out the door and up the hall, saying, “I would like to see this other toy you were talking about.  How long do you think it would take to make?”

     “If you have all the stuff I need, not long,” Harper said with a shrug.

     “Ah, finally.  Something spoken like a true engineer,” Nelson said with a little chuckle.

     Harper smiled, knowing that he was being kidded about his vague time frame.  He didn’t mind because it meant the Admiral wasn’t dwelling on the whole rat thing that he’d brought up.  He looked at Dom, hoping she had put it out of mind too, but she was still had the same expression as back in the dorm room.  Harper slowed his pace a little, leaned close to her, and whispered, “Better close those big, beautiful eyes when I dazzle’m with my brilliance.  I wouldn’t want to blind you or anything.  Of course, I wouldn’t mind leading you around on my arm until your vision came back.  Or for as long as you’d like afterwards.”

     Harper lingered close to her cheek for a moment, breathing in the scent of her.  Dom smelled like the raspberry pie that he’d eaten at one of Dylan’s diplomatic things, not flowery like most of the women he’d gotten this close to after leaving Earth.  She had smelled like that in the garage, too, when she had let him hug her, and in her kitchen.  It had made him almost dizzy with hunger, but not for pie.  He almost kissed her as he breathed it in again while they walked, but decided against it.  He wanted their first kiss to be memorable and for Dom to call for encores, lots and lots of them.  Soon, he promised himself.  He’d kiss her soon.

     Dom’s face shifted into a confused expression, then she smiled a little and took his arm again.  He liked her touching him so casually.  He liked her touching him period.  “When did you turn into such a flirt?” she asked back, also at a whisper, the twinkle in her eyes telling him he was being teased.  She hadn’t let go of his arm, though, and that was all the encouragement he needed.

     “I’ve been killing myself not to since I woke up and found myself in your tender loving care, angel.  Here you are, still taking care of me.  I owe you big for being so wonderful to me.  I’d love to return the favor,” he stroked her hand, but he knew trying to woo her into bed would be a huge mistake, so he smiled apologetically, continuing, “But I’m afraid even my genius fails me when I try to come up with how to thank you.  Maybe you can think of something I could do for you to pay you back, huh?  You can tell me over dinner when I get paid the first time.  That way you have a chance to think really carefully about what you’d like the most from me.”

     What was he doing?  That sounded hokey even to him.  It wasn’t as if he were actually risking rejection, he thought with a mental sigh.  Now that the moment was here, it became a forgone conclusion in his mind that she’d tell him she wasn’t interested in him that way.  No woman who was sober or nice ever was.  Would he get the ‘but we’re such good friends’ line or would he simply get shoved away from her?

     To his utter amazement, Dom let out a soft, closed mouth laugh and she actually looked amused as she squeezed his arm affectionately for a moment.  “We’ll see.”

     We’ll see?  What did that mean?  He had a shot?  At dinner?  The purple dress?  Even nicer hugs and kisses?  “About the paying back or dinner?” he asked quickly, his heart wanting to know if it could start beating again.

     Dom stroked his arm, and she gave him a soft, almost shy smile, but there was something in her eyes.  It was the same thing he’d seen after he’d given her the dragon toy, like the attraction he was feeling wasn’t all one way.  Of course, that couldn’t be true, Harper told himself.  Then Dom said, “Dinner sounds lovely.”

     It was all Harper could do not to jump up and let out a whoop of triumph.  Instead, he squeezed the hand that rested on his elbow and gave her the biggest smile of his life before he hurried their pace so they could catch up with the Admiral.  Suddenly, his future was looking bright in all kinds of wonderful new ways!

* * *

 

 

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