Michelle Pichette


Chapter 18



* * *

     Andromeda’s hologram was trailing the two bickering Perseids as they shuffled swiftly in front of her toward Machine Shop seventeen.  As she monitored them, she found herself annoyed that they were here at all.  Couldn’t they see the menacing ship hovering just starboard of the her?  As a warship, Andromeda was constantly amazed at the stupidity of what were supposed to be highly intelligent biologicals.  Her captain had warned them that this wasn’t a good time, so anything that happened wasn’t Dylan’s fault.  Of course, she doubted that the Perseids would see it that way if anything did go awry.

     The Perseids stepped into the Machine Shop, they came to a halt and looked around.  Andromeda’s hologram frowned at the room.  It was still a disaster from when Harper had been attacked and taken.  She was incredibly angry about that.  She had been violated, blinded temporarily, and one of her crew had been harmed and stolen away.  Her internal defenses would have helped Harper to escape his attacker if she had only known what was happening.  She missed him, the way he looked after her well being before his own, the way he talked to her like she was a biological and not a ship, the way he treated her like she was the most wonderful thing in the universe.  Because Barris had harmed him, because he had taken her engineer, she would destroy his ship and she would take joy in doing it.  As soon as they had Harper back, she was sure that Dylan would give her permission and she blast the ugly vessel just out of her reach into atoms.

     “What happened here?” the senior of the two Perseids, Rollan, asked, sounding a little shocked.

     “I was invaded by hostile forces and this room was damaged,” Andromeda informed him levelly.  Maybe he would be frightened and leave.  That would make things easier.

     Rollan glanced at his compatriot and they exchanged a tense look.  “When was this?” Rollan asked.

     “Two days, eleven hours, seventeen minutes ago,” Andromeda replied, thinking he probably didn’t want the tally of seconds.

     Rollan looked around in surprise.  “Why didn’t you clean this up?”

     Andromeda frowned.  Why hadn’t she?  She could have had Maria bots in here to clear away everything after they had gathered everything that would help them in their search for her missing engineer.  She hadn’t, she realized, because looking at the scene of the assault kept her as furious as the moment she had realized it had happened.  She intended to harness that fury when she was finally turned loose on Barris.  “We’ve had other concerns,” she replied instead of telling the Perseid that.

     “I... see,” he said, then seemed to shake off his unease, at least enough to step further into the room.  “And where is the device?” he demanded, trying to sound imperious.

     “The device you are referring to was turned over to the Council of Directors at Sinti shortly after the incident there,” Andromeda told him.  Dylan had told him the same thing.  Maybe this time he would believe it.

     “Then you won’t mind us searching for any parts that were... inadvertently left behind,” Rollan said, casting a suspicious look at her.

     “There weren’t any, but feel free to,” Andromeda told him.  The Perseids looked at each other then went into the room and began to search around.  Andromeda’s hologram moved out of the door, into the room, looking at the things scattered around the room.  An empty Sparky can lay in a mostly dried puddle of what had been its former contents.  A few feet away lay the partly completed sensor array enhancement that Harper had been building for her, a gift he hadn’t had a chance to complete.  Andromeda felt cold fury building in her.  She longed to release it.  She hoped it would be soon.

     “I am sorry to have sullied you with the trivial matter my crewman dealt with here,” came a harsh voice as a figure resolved near her hologram and Andromeda wished her avatar was here.  The hologram couldn’t touch anything or she would have attacked Barris, who now stood near it.  Channeling her rage into the hologram, Andromeda shrieked at Barris, cursing him, internal defenses firing at him, blasting him backwards out of the room.  She never stopped firing at him, never stopped screaming at him in inarticulate fury, driving him back and out into the corridor and slowly down it with heavy weapons fire.  He was trying to speak, but all she heard was the anger boiling through her every circuit.

     “Rommie stop!” came her Captain’s voice, and she paused, her internal weaponry falling silent.  It was the only thing that could have stopped her at that moment.  Dylan came and stood between her hologram and Barris as she tensed, ready to open fire at the alien again.

     “He...” she started, knowing that Dylan would be as furious as she was about what Barris had said.

       “Stand down!” he ordered firmly, then turned to Barris.  “I want to know why you keep coming here.  I’ve told you I don’t want you or your crew on my ship.  You don’t belong here,” Dylan stressed the word, glaring intently at Barris as he did, “Why don’t you belong anywhere, Barris?”

     The question seemed to catch Barris flatfooted for a moment, then he tried his toothy smile on Dylan.  “We could belong here.  You have only to say the word.”

     “Harper belongs here, not you, not your crew.  You didn’t change that by taking him away.  You can’t change that by calling him names or telling me this nonsense about how he’s defective.  Why do you keep doing that?  Are you defective, Barris?” Dylan asked, still giving Barris a narrow, assessing look.

     Again, Barris’ smile faltered, and he scowled.  “Don’t compare us to that little thing.  We are not broken, we are not property.  It is.  You should have returned it to its owner on Earth when you realized it had stolen itself.”  The words made Rommie’s mind whirl for a moment.  Was Barris calling Harper a slave?  She had never thought overly much about it, but she supposed that Harper might have been a slave on Earth, that he might have escaped slavery when he had joined Beka’s crew.  It didn’t matter to her, but it seemed to matter to Barris.  Is that what he thought Harper was now?  “You should have beaten it when it was disobedient.  That’s what its previous owner did, beat it and more, yet it still refused recognize its rightful station.  It is a foolish, worthless thing.  You are well rid of it.  I’m certain its new master will teach it to show proper respect.”

     Dylan scowled at Barris’ tirade and his hand twitched close to his force lance, but he didn’t draw it yet.  “I want my engineer.  I want him now,” he demanded instead, anger making the words cold and hard.  Obviously Dylan didn’t like what Barris was saying about Harper any more than she did.

     “Your new team is...” Barris started, smiling again, looking eager.

     “You and your crew will never, ever serve on this vessel,” Dylan told him, his voice ringing with the same fury running through Andromeda’s circuits.  “You will not touch or speak to any of my crew from this moment on.  You will return Mister Harper to this vessel and you had best pray to the Divine or whatever gods you worship that he’s all right when you do.”

     “You don’t seem to...” Barris tried again.

     “NO!” Dylan shouted him down.  “That wasn’t a request!  You come onto my ship uninvited and you harm my crew, then you have the audacity to think I’m going to welcome you?  That I would ever willingly allow you or any of your crew to serve under me?  Return my engineer, Barris.  Now.  Right now!”

     Barris smiled at Dylan, the same horrible, evil smile he’d given Dylan on the Command Deck when he had first come aboard what seemed like so long ago.  “I can hurt it again,” he said with a chuckle that matched his smile.  That Dylan actually let out a roar of rage shook Andromeda.  When he leapt at Barris, she silently cheered him on, standing ready to aid him if necessary.  Barris disappeared in a puff of black smoke as Dylan reached him, reappearing behind her hologram.  She swung at him, her arm passing harmlessly through him, but he moved again, this time reappearing just up corridor.  “Your pet is worthless to me,” he snickered.  Andromeda sited her internal defenses, ready to unleash them, but Dylan had regained his composure and stopped her a gesture.  “I can hurt it again and again, worse and worse until it begs for death, a release I will not grant it.  I can make it suffer for eternity,” Barris taunted.

     “Touch him or any of my crew again and I will hunt you down wherever you go,” Dylan warned him, his voice so low and cold that it actually made Andromeda feel a shiver pass through her frame.

     “I can run forever,” Barris laughed.  “How long can you chase?  You will take us as crew.  You will not ask for your pet again or I will show you what it sounds like when it screams.  Even that you will only have for a moment before I cast it away again.  You will never have it back.  Never.”  With that, he vanished again, this time not reappearing. Dylan stood there, staring at where Barris had last been his jaw tight, hands curling into fists then uncurling, over and over.  Andromeda watched him, wanting to say something but she didn’t know what.  She was not used to feeling helpless.

     “What was that?” came Rollan’s voice from the Machine Shop doorway.  Andromeda turned her hologram to him and gave him the iciest glare programmed into her.  Rollan swallowed hard and backed away from the door.  When he was gone, she turned her hologram to Dylan.

     “What do we do?”

     Dylan closed his eyes for a second, both hands clenched tight, then he let them fall loose and said, “We wait for Beka.  She’ll find something.  This isn’t over.”  His voice was steady and sure.  He would not fold before Barris’ threat.  That was why Andromeda loved him.  Dylan Hunt never surrendered.

* * *

     “You know, this would be a lot easier if you weren’t on the verge of hyperventilating,” Doctor Jamieson muttered so softly that Nelson barely heard it.  Jamie was standing behind Harper, attempting to listen to his lungs and was plainly having no luck at all doing so.  Jamieson frowned but said a little more loudly and far more gently, “I promise you, son, no one here is going to hurt you.  Would you like something to calm you down a little?”

     “No,” came Harper’s barely audible reply, and Nelson was sitting not five feet away directly in front of the boy.  Harper was shaking visibly and looked as though he were going to faint or flee the room in terror.

     Jamieson had tried to take Harper’s pulse first, but it had been an exercise in futility, because the boy’s heart was already racing.  Nelson had considered calling the whole thing off and trying another day, but then Jamie had asked Harper strip to the waist.  Harper had tried to argue his way out of doing so, which concerned Nelson enough to see that things continued at least that far.  Finally, Harper gave in when pleading looks cast at Nelson didn’t get him any support.

     Nelson had to force himself not to react as the boy pulled off his undershirt.  Harper had large, painful looking bruises all over his chest and abdomen, plainly from the severe beating he’d recently suffered through.  There were more on his sides and on his back, the boy’s entire body pretty much black and blue.  Nelson had winced at the thought of how much those bruises must hurt even now that they were starting to fade.  However, that was far from the worst of it.

     Harper’s body was covered in scars, most of them old, some looking almost as old as he was.  The poor boy, Nelson had thought, reading a life story of torture and torment in the lines covering Harper’s torso.  Harper had kept his eyes down for a few moments after taking off his shirt, shame making his face blaze red.  Jamieson didn’t touch the boy right away and everyone was silent for a few moments.  When Harper finally looked up into Nelson’s eyes, the Admiral had given Harper an encouraging smile and had thanked him before telling Jamieson to continue the examination.  Nelson hadn’t wanted to take a chance that there was more damage to Harper than that which was visible and he wanted the injuries he could see treated properly.  Not that Harper seemed to feel the same way.  They were a mere three minutes into the exam, Harper was pale with terror and the only things that Jamie had touched him with were his hands and a stethoscope.

     “All right, but you need to calm down.  I’m not trying to hurt you, son, but we need to be sure that those bruises aren’t part of internal injuries.  I know you’re feeling tender and it’s probably a little painful when I touch you in some places, but I’ll do my best to be quick about it so it won’t hurt too much.  I need your help to do that, all right?”  Jamie asked, his voice gentle and reassuring.  Harper nodded, but he wouldn’t look directly at Jamieson and he was still shaking like he was freezing though the examination room in the infirmary was quite comfortably warm.  “Try to take deep, even breaths and, if you could, sit up a little straighter,” Jamie said as he went back to listening to the boy’s lungs.

     “Yes sir,” Harper murmured and looked to Nelson, his expression pleading.  He wanted out of the room and away from Jamieson, but the Admiral was going to make him stick it out.  He would keep his word and stay, too, though it was almost torturous to watch Harper’s distress.

     Nelson gave Harper another smile, hoping it didn’t look as forced as it was, and then mouthed the words, “Chin up,” while tapping his own chin upward.  Harper nodded, his expression still bleak, and tried to sit a little straighter and slow his breathing down, effort visible on his face.  Nelson wished he knew a way to make things easier, but Jamie was being kind and patient with Harper and there wasn’t a doctor alive that could be more considerate.

     After a few moments, Jamie seemed to concentrate more and moved his stethoscope to a different spot.  “That’s better.  I know you were recently ill.  Was it some sort of chest cold or infection?”

     “Just a virus.  I get sick easy,” Harper murmured.  Nelson fought to keep a frown off his face.  The boy had most likely never had any sort of regular medical care.  That ended now.

     “Have you felt like you were coming down with something like that in the last day or two?” Jamie asked as he continued to place and replace his stethoscope on Harper’s back.

     “No,” came the feeble reply.

     “Hmm.  You’re sure?”  There was a trembling nod.  “Hmm.  You sound... not congested exactly, but...  It’s probably nothing, but I’d like to take a chest x-ray, just to be sure,” Jamie said, looking to Nelson for confirmation.

     Nelson nodded to Jamie, saying, “Mister Harper is here to let you check him out thoroughly, aren’t you, Mister Harper?”

     “Yes sir,” Harper sighed out, resignation in the words.

     “Good, because this worries me,” Jamie said, tilting Harper’s head slightly and gingerly touching the metal disk on his neck.  Harper flinched, but otherwise stayed still.  “What is this supposed to be?”

     “A piercing?” Harper asked more than replied, his voice higher than usual and straining a little.  Nelson frowned.  An obvious lie, which was strange, since Nelson hadn’t picked up on any other ones in his short association with the boy.  Why lie about this?

     “Mister Harper,” Nelson said reproachfully, not about to let it go.

     Harper cringed a little, looking even more pathetic somehow.  “It’s nothing, honest.  It doesn’t even do anything here.”

     “Here?  What does that mean?” Jamie asked, probing the disk carefully with some forceps.

     “Here... On my neck... It doesn’t bother me or ...” Harper tried to explain, shaking even harder, then yelped in pain as Jamie poked at it directly in the center.  Harper shot to the far end of the examination table, looking downright terrified.  In response, Doctor Jamieson started to move to him, but Harper turned from him, starting to curl up on himself, letting out of little sob.  “Please don’t...” he whimpered, cowering from Jamie as if he expected the doctor to harm him in some way.  Jamie gave Nelson questioning look.  Nelson shook his head to Jamie, not knowing how to answer that unasked question.  He rose quickly, moved to the table, half afraid Harper would fall off, then laid a comforting hand on Harper’s upper arm.  Harper looked to him, wide-eyed with fear and started to cringe from him as well.  It took all of Nelson’s resolve to keep a frown from his face and not to demand who had harmed Seamus, who had hurt him so badly that the poor boy was reacting this way to simply being touched.  He pushed all those thoughts from his head and gently squeezed the arm he held.

     “Seamus, Doctor Jamieson won’t touch it anymore if you don’t want him to,” he assured the boy.  Harper nodded, then began to slowly uncurl himself from the ball he had half drawn himself into.  He had put his left hand protectively over the disk and was hugging himself with his right arm, his head hunched down and knees drawn up as he trembled violently.  Again Nelson remembered Miss Simmons words to the effect of the disk seeming sinister to her and he began to share her opinion.  He didn’t want to pump Harper for information about it at the moment, thinking it was more important to get the examination completed.

     “It’s just that something that close to your brain is a concern.  There is a danger of infection to consider.  You understand?”  Harper nodded again and seemed to be pulling himself slowly together.  Nelson patted his arm gently.  “Good.  Then let’s have Doctor Jamieson move on.  I’ll stay right here unless I’m in the way,” Nelson said, standing next to Harper at the table.  The poor boy, Nelson thought as he got a closer look at the bruises and horrible scars on Harper because of his new vantage point.  There had obviously been little kindness in Harper’s life.  No wonder he was frightened that everyone was going to hurt him.  Harper was certainly no stranger to pain and abuse.

     True to his word, Nelson stayed next to Harper for the majority of the rest of the examination, though he had to quit the room with Jamie when the doctor took some x-rays.  He was strangely relieved when the disk on Harper’s neck was the only odd thing on the boy’s body and Jamie had carefully checked every inch of Harper and taken a lot more samples than Nelson ever remembered him taking from anyone else, obviously looking for anything else that might cause concern.

     Harper had not been thrilled about being asked to totally disrobe, but he had done it without argument.  He was not at all happy when Jamie examined certain portions of his anatomy, but he bit his lip and managed to stay still and conscious despite how pale and terrified he looked.  Jamie had the good sense not to try to make small talk or ask Harper any questions unless he absolutely had to, already knowing that conversation was a lost cause.  No amount of comforting by the Admiral or Jamieson did anything to calm Harper, but he didn’t argue about anything after the incident with the disk either.  He just did as he was told, silently shivering in terror the whole time.  Nelson couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and he was pretty sure that he saw Jamieson wincing in sympathy from time to time.  It was a mercy to everyone involved when the examination was finally complete and Harper was told he could dress again and that they should talk in Jamieson’s office.

     Fortunately, Jamieson didn’t find anything seriously wrong in these preliminary stages.  The quirk in Harper’s breathing bothered him a little and he wanted to do some more tests as soon as he had a chance to look at the x-rays.  Harper’s look of near mortal dread told Nelson that the boy had taken about all he could, so the Admiral said that tomorrow or the next day would have to be soon enough for him to return to Jamieson’s office.  Harper had plainly been badly abused as a child, not that he was much more than one now, and he was probably terrified that he might be harmed again.  Nelson wasn’t going to make Harper feel any less in control than he likely already felt, even if it slowed his medical care down a little.  Jamieson wasn’t happy about it, but Nelson would not be swayed and Jamie knew arguing would get him nowhere.  Harper wanted to be able to leave Jamieson’s office so badly at that point that he probably would have agreed to anything anyone asked of him.  He actually got a twitchy smile on his face when Jamieson sighed and waved him on his way.  He was out of the room so fast, he was almost a blur.

     “Admiral, I need a detailed medical history on that kid,” Jamieson said firmly as Nelson rose to follow Harper out of the Institute’s infirmary.  Jamieson stood with him, ready to dog his heals if necessary.  “When he was injured and how, serious illnesses, drug usage, family history, the works.”

     “You think he’s been using illegal drugs?” Nelson asked, for that in particular concerned him.  Harper didn’t seem like a recovering junky, but Nelson was no expert in that area.  He didn’t want to think that Harper had more problems than those that were easy to see.

     “I didn’t see any outward indications, but a lot of homeless people are exposed to them.  I’d also like to know his sexual history.  You’d be surprised what a desperate person might submit to in order to get some food or a roof over their head on a freezing night.  And I hate to say this, but he’s not a big person and he could have been forced against his will.  Again, I didn’t see any signs of sexual assault and I’ll run an AIDS test, but...” Jamieson paused meaningfully and Nelson nodded.

     “Give me some time and I’ll talk to him about all that.  You saw the scars and how easy it is to frighten him.  I used every ounce of trust I’d built up in him yesterday to get him in to see you this morning, so I don’t want to push him too much right now.  I think he’s had enough terror in his life and I want him to feel safe here at the Institute,” Nelson replied.

     “I know, Harri.  That poor kid,” Jamieson sighed.  “If it makes you feel any better, I think whoever was hurting him as a child has been out of the picture for a while.  He seemed just as terrified of taking off his shirt as he was of those dreams you were describing, afraid that something terrible would happen because we were going to find out how badly he was abused.  He doesn’t think anyone here would do those things to him, does he?”

     Nelson frowned.  “No, at least I hope not.  I told him that I wouldn’t let anyone harm him and he seemed to believe me for the most part.  Jamie, I know I put you off from seeing Harper again today, but I am worried about him, especially now.  All those scars...  How could anyone do that to a child?  And you saw how he reacted to when you touched the thing on his neck.”

     Jamieson mirrored Nelson’s frown, saying, “Yes, whatever it is.  It’s not some bizarre piercing.  I’ve got a bad feeling about that disk.  I agree with Miss Simmons.  I think someone besides his childhood abusers might have been doing things to him.  You’re going to check out those ships he said he worked on?”

     “I’ve tried a little already, but so far I’ve been coming up blank.  I’ll talk to Harper, see if he knows where these ships might be found,” Nelson told him.  If someone there had been harming Harper, they would not be at all happy when Nelson got hold of them, no matter how well Harper spoke of them.

     “He might not be very forth coming.  As abused as he was, he might have fallen victim to the lie that he deserved what had happened to him, that it was, in some way, all his fault.  He might still think he deserves to be hurt, demeaned.  I mean, it was pretty obvious that he didn’t want to be in that examination room, but he didn’t stand up to you, didn’t refuse you because you hold a position of power over him.”  Nelson started to protest, but Jamieson cut him off, “I’m not implying anything about you by that, Harri, but think about it.  You’re his employer, someone keeping him off the street and fed.  He might very well think you’d toss him out or hurt him if he refused you anything, no matter how kind you’ve been to him so far.  If that disk is something that was done to him, he might not have fought against it.  It could be that the person who beat him wasn’t a stranger at all, but someone from the ship he most recently served on.  We might never know because he might never tell us the whole truth.  As terrible as it is to say, the physical pain he’s suffered might not have been the worst of it,” Jamieson replied, his face grim.

     More oaths of well deserved and terrible justice ran through Nelson’s mind, but the punishing of guilty parties would have to wait.  Nelson had a new employee to look after and his previous estimate of a day or two of gentle handling for Harper was now looking to be falling very short of the mark.  “Whatever he’s been through, I want to help him recover so that what happened today in your office does not happen every time a doctor gets near him.  He certainly shouldn’t be belittled by anyone, especially himself, over what’s been done to him or feel like he has to let others control him.  He’s a brilliant young man and he could have a very bright future ahead of him.  I don’t want fear or self depreciation ruling and ruining his life.”

     Jamieson looked a little relieved.  “I’m glad you’re not feeling put out by what we’re dealing with here.”

     “Anything but, Jamie.  What do you think we ought to do?  Call in a counselor or...” Nelson left that thought dangling.  He’d had men that were severely injured on the Seaview counseled,

but Harper’s situation was different from those instances.  Nelson had never had to deal with the aftermath of child abuse before and didn’t know what the right steps to take at this point might be.  Harper seemed fine most of the time.  Maybe he’d already put whatever demons had haunted his past to rest and bringing things back up would only make matters worse.

     “I don’t think having him talk to a counselor or a psychiatrist is going to do anything for him because, quite frankly, I don’t think he’d trust them anymore than he trusted me.  I think you probably have the right idea, though.  Like you said, give him some time, let him get used to the idea that he isn’t in danger, that no one here wants to hurt him or take anything from him.  He has you to talk to:  a protector, a mentor.  That probably means more to him than you know.  And Doctor Babin isn’t a fair weather friend.  I’m sure she’ll be there for him as well as he adjusts to his new life, ready with cheerful talk or a shoulder to cry on if necessary.  The two of you might be all he needs.”

     Nelson nodded.  “I hope so.”  He smiled a little, saying, “He’s probably run off to Doctor Babin’s office for a little comforting.  He has quite a crush on her and she isn’t exactly discouraging him.”

     Jamieson grinned back at him.  “Even better.  Nothing like a little romance to give a young man huge amounts of self-esteem and courage.”

     “I’d better go chaperone.  Thank you, Jamie.  I’ll stop by tomorrow morning and you can tell me if you need to see Harper again in the near future,” Nelson said, then went off in search of his newest employee.

     As it turned out, he didn’t have to go far because Harper was sitting on the floor just up the hall, his head resting on his arms, which were supported on his bent knees.  Apparently, Harper hadn’t heard him approach, because he didn’t look up.  Nelson looked at him from a few steps away, thinking about how young and vulnerable Harper looked and about everything he and Jamieson had just spoken about.  Nelson wanted the truth, but he didn’t want to hurt Harper to get it.  The boy had been hurt enough for one lifetime.  Closing his eyes briefly and drawing a deep breath, he convinced himself that everything would come out eventually and all guilty parties would meet with their just deserts.

     “Seamus, are you all right?” Nelson asked as he took the final few steps to the boy and stood over him.

     Harper looked up at him, seeming far more relaxed than he had been just a few minutes ago.  “Yeah, fine, really,” Harper said with an embarrassed laugh.  “It’s just, I forgot to ask where Dom’s office is.”

     Nelson smiled.  If nothing else, Harper seemed to be the embodiment of resilience.  “Why don’t I show you?”

     “Great,” Harper said with a big grin as he sprang up, then got the sheepish look back on his face.  “Sorry to be such a total wuss in there.”

     The Admiral thought, very briefly, about asking about the disc again or about the ships Harper had served on or who was responsible for the scars hidden by Harper’s clothing, but he decided against it again.  He shouldn’t rush.  Harper would be at the Institute from now on, protected from any more harm.  There was time.  “That’s all right, Seamus.  It’s done with for the time being.  I’d like you to eat a good breakfast and then come see me in my office.  I have some papers I need you to fill out, then we can get to work,” Nelson said, patting Harper on the back, gently, mindful of the bruises he now knew were there.  Harper smiled at him, looking eager and happy, the frightened child that had been in the examination room gone, hopefully never to return.  Nelson walked with the young man that had reemerged, chatting casually, sincerely hoping that this morning would be the worst moment of the rest of Harper’s life.

* * *



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