Michelle Pinchette


Chapter 19



* * *

     Portman stood at the door of the Institute cafeteria, unable to believe what he was seeing.  Doctor Babin was sitting at a table with the little, scruffy, disreputable looking individual that Admiral Nelson had brought around to Engineering yesterday.  She was paying attention to him, laughing softly at something he was saying, putting her hand on his.  Portman sneered.  How could she bring herself to be near such a low creature, much less touch him?

     “Can you believe it?  That’s what the Institute is coming to,” Lawton said in disgust as he appeared at Portman’s elbow.

     Portman glanced at Lawton, then back at Doctor Babin.  “What do you mean?” he asked, thinking he would go and rescue the good Doctor in a minute.  She was a kind person, he knew, and she was probably trying to make what Portman was sure was a new addition to the maintenance staff feel welcomed.  She was noble like that, sacrificing her time to make people she shouldn’t be bothered with feel better about themselves.  Look at all the time she spent with that group of grunts on the Seaview rather than the officers.  Portman wondered if they appreciated her kindness half as much as they should.

     Portman had nodded at Harper yesterday when Nelson had brought him into the computer lab.  He hadn’t wanted to touch Harper, afraid of what he might catch or have crawling on him afterwards if he even shook hands with him, so he had made certain his hands were very busy when Nelson got to him.  That Harper had given him a narrow look of annoyance didn’t bother him a bit.  Stinking of beer and oil, Harper was plainly destined for the life among the mechanics or the cleaning staff.  Portman saw no reason to even pretend friendliness toward such people.  Perhaps Harper was related to Admiral Nelson in some way or he was a relative of one of the Admiral’s friends, whose parents had sent him here in an effort to straighten him out.  The bruises on his face and the still healing cut on the boy’s forehead told volumes of the sort of trouble he obviously no stranger to.  Yes, Admiral Nelson had hired Harper as a favor to someone.   Portman certainly couldn’t think of any other reason.

     “How could Admiral Nelson hire... that as an Engineer?” Lawton sniffed, sounding as affronted as he looked.

     Portman’s eyes went wide and he turned to Lawton again, saying, “WHAT?!!!”  Lawton looked startled and glanced past Portman into the cafeteria.  Portman looked back into the room to see people staring at him, Doctor Babin included.  That Harper was giving him a look of contempt was almost too much for Portman to bear in silence, but he turned his back on the room and grabbed Lawton’s elbow, escorting the other engineer away from the doorway.  “What are you talking about?” Portman demanded once they were away from the room.  “That’s no engineer.  A sanitation engineer, maybe.”

     “It’s worse than that,” Lawton told him.  “You remember the rumor about Doctor Babin having taken in a homeless man?  Well, it wasn’t just a rumor and Harper is that man.  Admiral Nelson has him staying in the sailor’s dorms now.  Living here!  Can you believe it?!  A homeless person, here at the Institute!”

     Portman was at a loss for a moment then pursed his lips and nodded sagely.  “The Admiral is protecting Doctor Babin from her generous nature.  Obviously, he couldn’t leave her in danger and so he took this Harper person off her hands and brought him here, where security can keep an eye on him.  When the Seaview has been repaired and ships out again, I’m sure Harper will be shown the door and told never to return,” he said, confident that was the case.

     “No, not entirely, anyway,” Lawton replied, frowning deeply.  “You weren’t there when the Admiral introduced Harper to Fletcher over in the electronics lab.  Neither was I, mind you, but Fletcher said that Nelson showed him some sort of hologram that Harper supposedly made.  The thing is supposed to be years ahead of anything that Fletcher has even heard of.  The Admiral was very excited about it.  Fletcher says that he even talked about putting Harper on the problem with the Diving Bell.”

     Portman felt his mouth tighten into another frown, angry that he hadn’t been able to definitively find the virus he knew was causing the Bell’s problems.  Little programming issues he’d found, but nothing more, try as he might.  He felt a little foolish over the whole thing and the thought of the disheveled boy that had been in the lab yesterday out doing him, that didn’t sit well at all.  Then Portman had a very clear vision of what would happen if Nelson did assign the Bell’s electronic issues to Harper.

     “Good,” Portman said with a vicious grin, “It’s not as if Harper is going to be able to do any better with it than we have.  He obviously stole the hologram you’re talking about.  The pathetic, little street rat can’t even comb his own hair.  Let him ruin the Bell and Admiral Nelson will toss him out like the trash he is.”

     Lawton didn’t look convinced.  “What if he finds something we all missed?  What if he did make the hologram?  Fletcher said it was pretty impressive.  Maybe Harper is like that person in Good Will Hunting.”

     Portman snorted.  “Please.  That’s fiction.  Harper is a fraud.  Let him out himself with the Bell and he’ll be gone before he can pollute the air at the Institute with his stench.”  Lawton still didn’t seem to fully believe that was what was going to happen, but Portman did.  “Trust me, Harper will be gone by the end of the week,” Portman assured him.

     “And if he’s not?” Lawton asked.

     Portman felt the smile on his face spread.  “Then we make him wish he’d never heard of the Nelson Institute.”  In fact, he thought to himself as he glanced back into the cafeteria and saw Harper holding Doctor Babin’s hand, he would make sure the little weasel knew exactly what his place at the Institute, or lack thereof, was sooner rather than later.

* * *

     Harper felt a lot calmer after having breakfast with Dom.  He’d been out and out terrified of what might happen during his physical, afraid that knives would suddenly appear or something equally gruesome would happen.  However, aside from a tense moment when Jamieson had breached the seal of his cerebral port, everything seemed to pass pretty much without incident.  Whatever Jamieson had poked into his port had hurt like hell, but Harper was almost sure it wouldn’t happen again.

     The worst part of the whole thing was the embarrassment.  He’d been so totally freaked out by the thought of what could have happened that he’d spent the whole exam whimpering like a baby.  Then there were the looks that Nelson and Jamieson were giving him after seeing the ‘body decorations’ the Drago-Kazov had given him.  He could only imagine what they were thinking about that.  When he had been pulling himself together in the hall outside Jamieson’s office, Harper had been dreading what Nelson would say about it.  He was pleasantly surprised when Nelson hadn’t said anything at all.  It was probably too much to hope that they’d forget all about it, but Harper would hold on to that hope just the same.

     After Nelson had shown him where Dom’s office was, Harper felt lots better and he’d been chatting with her for a while.  He held her hand, which she didn’t seem to mind, while he asked about where she might want to go to dinner that night.  In all the turmoil yesterday, he had totally forgotten about the hundred dollars that Nelson had given him.  Between that and what was stashed in Dom’s house, he felt confident that he could bring her out somewhere fairly nice.  Maybe not purple dress nice, but better than the bowling alley nice in any case.  Dom was vague about where she’d like to go eat, so Harper thought he’d ask for Admiral Nelson’s advice or wing it.  He was just happy to be sitting with Dom, holding hands, talking, thinking he wouldn’t even mind doing this tonight in a more private setting.

     Now that he was fully calm again and fully full of coffee, pancakes and sausages, Harper supposed he ought make his way to Nelson’s office.  “So, I don’t know where I’m going to be today, so how do we meet up at tonight?” he asked Dom, picking up their dishes.

     Dom slapped his hands, taking them from him, shaking her head at him.  “You can stop cleaning up after me.  You’re gainfully employed now,” she laughed.

     “Aw, and I was planning to come ‘round your place this weekend and scrub all the floors.  What am I going to do with myself now?” Harper asked with a grin as they cleared their table.

     Dom smirked.  “I’m sure we’ll think of something.”  Harper liked the ‘we’ part of that statement.  “Need directions to the Admiral’s office?” she asked as they walked to the cafeteria door.

     “Nope, I’m good to go.  I’ve got this map of the Institute going in my head,” Harper told her.

     “So put a big ‘X’ on the lobby and I’ll see you there tonight,” Dom told him with a smile, then stretched up to give him a kiss on the cheek.  He grinned and waved after her as she went off toward the wing where her office was.  Administration, which was where the Admiral’s office was, was in a different direction, and Engineering was down yet another corridor.  Harper turned toward Administration, knowing he’d have the whole floor plan worked out soon enough.

     He stuck his hands in his pockets, feeling good, then had a flash of terror.  Wait, what were Doctor Jamieson and the Admiral going to think about his neural implant?  He’d been too panic stricken about Jamieson sticking something really damaging into it earlier to think the whole thing through.  He stopped dead in his tracks, terrified thoughts of being strapped down in one of the labs and having his head hacked open making his surroundings blur.  Harper slapped himself mentally and told himself to get a grip.  The Admiral had promised no one was going to hurt him.  He was sure that this was the same Harriman Nelson that was pretty much venerated in the future and Harper couldn’t picture that Nelson ever hiring evil, sadistic scientists.

     Looking up the corridor toward where he knew Nelson’s office was, Harper squared his shoulders, told himself that this was it, and started marching forward.  He was going to come clean about everything, first to the Admiral, then to Dom tonight.  It would be all right, he assured himself as he forced himself to a more casual walk.  They both cared about him.  And he hadn’t actually lied about anything anyway... well, nothing except what year he was born in.  They couldn’t get too mad, right?  It really would be okay and he wouldn’t have to keep freaking himself out about the truth coming out at the worst possible time and somehow hurting him.  He nodded to himself.  Yup, the truth will set you free and he was about to become a free man.

     That was when he tripped over something and fell flat on his face because his hands were in his pockets.  Papers rained down over him.  “Clumsy idiot!” someone shouted at him.  “Aren’t you used to being around civilized people?  We walk around others here, not through them!  Clod.”

     Harper winced, embarrassed beyond belief, and started to pick himself up, saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.  My mind was totally somewhere else.”

     “You have a mind?” the snide voice asked and Harper looked up seeing a tall man sneering at him.  Harper’s brain took a quick inventory of the names and faces that he’s been introduced to yesterday and the angry one looming over him was attached to the name ‘Gregory Portman,’ systems engineer for the Institute.  “Look at this mess!  Do you have any idea how long it took me to put that report together?  Simpleton.”

     “Sorry,” Harper murmured again, only rising to a crouch.  He started to gather up the papers strewn around him, thinking that he certainly knew how to make a first impression, shame making him blush.

     Suddenly, a pretty young lady was next to him, helping him pick up the papers scattered before them.  “Are you all right, Mister Harper?” she asked.  He blinked and looked full at her.  He didn’t know her, he was sure, but she smiled warmly at him.  “That was some spill you took.  Admiral Nelson asked me to keep an eye out for you in case you got lost.  The Institute can seem awfully large and intimidating when you’re new here.  Guess I dropped the ball.  Don’t worry about this.  Let’s get you to his office, shall we?”

     “I wasn’t paying attention...” Harper tried to explain, but she took the papers from his hands and stood up and faced Portman without fear.

     “The Admiral is tied up for the day, Mister Portman.  He said that you should bring any of your findings concerning the virus to Mister Morton,” she said stiffly, all but stuffing the papers they had gathered into Portman’s hands.

     Portman frowned and looked down at Harper, who straightened up quickly, saying, “Sorry, really.”  Great.  Now Captain Crane and Portman hated him.  Way to make friends, Harper, he chided himself.  “No hard feelings, huh?” he asked, extending a hand toward Portman with a sheepish smile, hoping it wasn’t as bad as all that.  Portman looked at his hand as if it were something slimy, sniffed, then strode away without another word.  Harper glanced at his hand, wondering briefly if some of his breakfast was on it.  No such luck.

     “Oh, don’t worry about him, Mister Harper,” the young woman told him, drawing his attention back to her.  She was looking up the hall at Portman’s back, shaking her head in obvious disgust.  “I swear, that man has a permanent pole up his backside.”

     Harper let out a laugh, then stopped as the woman turned back to him.  “Seamus Harper,” he said, offering her his hand.  To his infinite relief, she took it and gave him a firm, friendly handshake and another smile.

     “Katy Winslow, Admiral Nelson’s executive assistant.  He’s expecting you, Mister Harper.  This way,” she told him, then started to lead the way to Nelson’s office.

     “I just hope I manage not trip over my own feet in front of him,” Harper sighed, thinking that today seemed to be the day for it.  “Thanks for picking me up off my face.”

     “Oh, don’t think a thing about it,” Katy said, then she frowned.  “You know, I was just starting to go look for you when I saw Mister Portman almost appear out of nowhere, then I saw you, then... I don’t know how, but you were on the floor and papers were flying everywhere.  I could have sworn you came no where near Mister Portman.  It was so odd.”

     Harper felt his brow knit.  Had Portman tripped him?  Why would he do that?  Portman had barely met him.  Then again, the guy was sort of weird.  After all, he’d stood shouting in the cafeteria door a little earlier this morning.  Who knew what a guy like that would do?  Harper shrugged it off saying, “It’s a good thing my middle name isn’t ‘grace.’  Don’t tell the boss I’m so hopelessly accident prone.  He might rethink the whole hiring thing if he thinks the medical bills are gonna stack up too fast.”

     Katy laughed quietly and said, “Oh, Mister Harper,” as if he amused her to no end.  That cheered him up immensely.  Katy showed him into a large office, then Harper realized it was only the reception area to Nelson’s office, because Katy ushered him up to a second door.  She knocked, then opened the door, saying, “Would you like coffee, sir, or will you and Mister Harper be going down to the labs?  Oh, Captain Crane, I didn’t realize you were here.”

     Harper entered the office and Crane gave him a less than friendly glare.  “I’m just leaving, Katy,” he said, then turned back to the Admiral, who was seated at a large desk.  The room was full of models and computers and plaques.  Harper didn’t know where to look first, everything seemed so interesting.

     “Coffee would be very nice, Katy, thank you,” Nelson told her, then nodded to Harper, saying, “Come in, Seamus.  Let’s get all these papers signed and dated so we can start getting you settled in.”  Now he looked up at Crane, saying, “Tell Miss Simmons to take the extra few days, Lee.  We certainly don’t need electrical problems haunting us when we finally get the Seaview back into the water.  First the Diving Bell, now the Seaview.  I’m almost starting to believe in Portman’s virus.”

     “I’ll have Chip look into it, sir,” Lee said, turning to go.

Harper gave Crane a grin as the Captain turned toward him and hoped for that there would be no hard feelings.  Crane paused to give Harper a long, withering look, then left the office.  Harper sighed.  Crane hated his guts, all because of a stupid accident with a toy.  What else could he possibly mess up?

     “So, what do I need to sign, Boss?” Harper asked, beginning to wonder how he should broach the topic of his real birth year now that the moment was on him.  He’d just write it on the forms, but he didn’t know what Earth year he had been born in.

     Nelson waved him to a chair in front of his desk, then pushed a stack of papers over to him.  “I know there are going to be some areas that you won’t be able to complete on these, so don’t concern yourself with things like school dates and the infamous Social Security Number.  I’ve spoken with a friend of mine in Washington about that and he’ll be speaking with Miss Babin’s sister soon.  We should have that all taken care of in no time,” Nelson assured him with a kind smile.

     Harper returned the smile with a grateful one of his own.  “Thanks, really.  I’m sorry to be so much trouble.”

     “It’s no trouble,” Nelson told him and he seemed sincere about it.  Harper flipped through a few of the papers before getting started on them, wondering what they all were.  “There are some medical history papers to fill out.  Just give as much information as you can, all right?” Nelson asked, looking a little concerned.  It was probably over his scars, Harper knew, but he figured that if he told Nelson where he was from and a little about his life, maybe the Admiral would know that he wasn’t exactly in danger of getting more added to the collection.

     Just as he was about to launch into the subject, there was a knock on the door and Katy came in bearing a heavy looking tray with a glass coffee pot, some smaller containers, and two mugs.  Harper got up to take the tray from her, garnering himself another smile and a, “Why thank you, Mister Harper!  I could have managed.”  She looked to the Admiral and asked, “Will there be anything else, sir?”

     “No, Katy.  Please hold my calls for the next hour,” Nelson replied as Harper set the tray on the edge of Nelson’s desk.

     “Oh, Mister Mendleson from NASA called just a few minutes ago.  He asked if you would mind going over that information on the Scorpio cluster alien again,” Katy said.

     At the mention of aliens, Harper looked up and saw Nelson frown.  “Yes, that.  If he calls again, tell him everything we have was in the report.”

     “Yes, sir,” Katy said cheerfully enough and so Harper knew the frown wasn’t aimed at her.  She let herself out as Harper poured out some coffee in the cups.

     “Aliens?” he asked, thinking this might just be the ice breaker he needed.  He didn’t know about any aliens from the area of space Katy had described, but maybe Nelson would clarify.

     “Yes, we run afoul of them from time to time on the Seaview.  Miss Babin didn’t talk about that, I take it,” Nelson said taking the mug Harper offered him with a nod of thanks.

     “Uh, no.  Probably one of those classified deals, huh?” he asked, wondering if the Perseids had shown up.  They were the race that had first contacted the Earth on behalf of the Commonwealth and acted at the planet’s mentor in dealing with races from far off worlds and getting humans integrated into the Commonwealth itself.  Harper began to feel a little better.  Maybe he’d been stressing over nothing.  “Still, that’s pretty cool.  Real aliens!  They... uh... they just kind of pop in, say howdy, and take off, huh?”

     “Not exactly.  If one should ‘pop in’ on you at any point, get yourself to a safe place and call for Security,” Nelson told him with a dour expression.

     Harper felt tension stream back into him.  “I guess the aliens you’ve met, they aren’t so nice?” he murmured, wondering if the Kalderans had put in an appearance.

     “Frankly, I don’t know which is worse: aliens or time travelers,” Nelson sighed.  That got Harper really tense.

     “Time travelers?  W...well, they’re just Earth people, right?  Th...they probably aren’t all bad,” Harper stammered, trying desperately to convince himself that this was not all turning really bad really fast.

     Nelson frowned and drank some of his coffee, looking down at the cup.  “You would think that, wouldn’t you?  However, it seems that every time someone from the future has darkened our door here at the Institute, they mean nothing but trouble.  As with the aliens, Seamus, should someone claiming to be from the future show up in your vicinity, get yourself to somewhere safe and summon Security.  They’ll deal with matters.”

     “D... d... deal with...” Harper stuttered out in terror.  He didn’t want to be ‘dealt with!’

     Nelson nodded, still frowning, saying, “Much as I wish it weren’t the case, I’m afraid that past experience has shown us that a ‘shoot first’ mentality is usually called for in these cases.”  Nelson looked up from his coffee at him and his brow knit.  “Seamus, are you all right?”

     “Yes!  Yes!  Fine!  Great!  Awesome!  Forms!  Filling in forms now!  Yessiree, totally fine!” Harper babbled out, but he was thinking no no no no no no no no!  Why was this happening?!  Shoot first?!!!  He wasn’t here to hurt anyone.  Would anyone even listen if he told them that?  He couldn’t believe it.  What future jerks had just totally screwed up his entire life?  Harper was doing his best not to hyperventilate as he fumbled a pen off of the desk.  What should he do?  The Admiral or Doctor Jamieson would figure things out sooner or later.  Were they going to shoot him then?  He didn’t want to get shot!  Or dealt with!

     “Seamus...” Nelson started uncertainly.  Harper was afraid to even look up and continued to scrawl illegibly on the paper in front of him.  Had Nelson put together things already?  Please, please, please, please, I just want to be a good, hard working employee, not somebody to be‘dealt with,’ Harper was thinking frantically.  “Seamus, that sort of thing will probably never happen to you.  Those problems are much more of an issue on the Seaview than here at the Institute,” Nelson said in what was probably meant to be a reassuring tone.  Harper felt like crying.  He wasn’t a problem!  He was the opposite of a problem.  He was the solution to any problem Nelson wanted him to be the solution to!  The room fell silent except for the soft scratching of pen on paper, then Nelson said, “You know, we never did finish that program last night.  I think we’ll put off paperwork for the moment and work on that some more.”

     Harper’s head jerked up as he shot a terrified look at Nelson.  Did the Admiral just want him out of his office so there wouldn’t be a mess in here when somebody got called in to shoot him?  Nelson gave Harper another kind smile and Harper grasped at the hope that the Admiral was still totally unaware of things.  “Good idea!” Harper said, standing up quickly, almost dropping the papers that had been on his knee.  That’s what he needed to do!  He needed to make Nelson think he was too valuable to kill indiscriminately.  “And... and the robots!  Remember I was talking about the robots that you could use for close quarters repairs on the Seaview?  Or underwater repairs where it would be dangerous for divers.  I could maybe build one of those for you too!”

     Nelson came around his desk and put a companionable arm around his shoulders, still smiling.  “Yes.  That was a good idea and one of the ones I’d like you start work on sooner rather than later.  Don’t feel rushed though.  It would take you months, or more likely years, to build everything you were telling me about last night, even without proper development, and I don’t want you to burn yourself out.  We’ve got plenty of time,” Nelson told him as he started them in the direction of the door.

     “Oh, yeah.  Sure wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to me before I build all those things for you,” Harper agreed, nodding enthusiastically.  He racked his brains for more things to bring up while they worked on the program and he built the little bot he had talked about.  If he was too valuable to shoot or ‘deal with,’ maybe he’d be all right.  And if Nelson or Jamieson asked about his neural interface, Harper was prepared to lie like he had never lied before.  Something in his head?  No!  Really?  How did that get there?  Must have been those pesky aliens.  Yes, absolutely.  He wasn’t anything but a hard working, loveable, harmless, little grease monkey.  No need to call in security or anything like that.  Harper was pretty sure he could pull off making that story sound believable.  He swallowed down his terror and convinced himself that telling the truth was overrated anyway.

* * *



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