Michelle Pichette


Chapter 22



* * *

     Nelson had finally emptied his in basket and was closing his office door when Doctor Jamieson entered the reception area.  “Working late, Jamie?” Nelson asked.  Then he caught the doctor’s tight expression, his ‘I’ve got the worst possible news in the world to tell you’ face.  To Nelson’s knowledge, Jamie had only seen one person that day.  The Admiral felt his back stiffen as he prepared himself.  “How long has he got?” Nelson asked quietly.

     Jamieson clutched the new file in his hand so tightly, his knuckles went white.  It couldn’t be easy, having to declare that a patient was beyond his ability to help.  “It depends on how aggressive a treatment he’s willing to undergo,” Jamie replied after a moment.

     “Best case?” Nelson asked, knowing he did not want to hear the answer.  This wasn’t happening, a small voice whispered in the back of Nelson’s head.  Harper was only twenty five years old and wasn’t sickly or frail.  He was a strong, healthy young man.  Nelson had been in his company all day long.  He could see that Harper was healthy.

     “A year, maybe two if we’re lucky,” Jamie answered, the words obviously paining him.

     Nelson scrubbed a hand down his face, trying to grasp what he was being told.  Harper had looked so alive and happy just a few hours ago as he twirled Doctor Babin around the Institute lobby, proclaiming this had been just about the best day of his life.  Nelson couldn’t let it end with a death sentence.  There had to be something he could do, someone who could help the boy.  “Well, we’re just going to have to be extremely aggressive with whatever we’re dealing with,” Nelson declared, “because two years is not enough time for him to accomplish all the things we’ve talked about together.  What is wrong and how do we fix it?”

     Jamie shook his head, his expression remaining grim, and he motioned for Nelson to sit with him on the sofa.  “I barely know where to start, so I guess the beginning is probably the best idea,” Jamie sighed, opening the file and looking down at it.  “As near as I can tell, from birth until fairly recently, Harper has suffered from severe malnutrition and repeated exposures to dangerous amounts of toxins and radiation, on top of the physical abuse that was evident in the scarring you saw on him.  All this has left his lungs severely weakened and scarred and his immune system badly damaged and haphazard at best.  I’m surprised that he isn’t gravely ill, because I doubt he could fight off a simple infection.  A cold would hospitalize him.  Anything worse would probably kill him.  He’s been lucky to have somehow stayed well as long as he has.  And how he’s breathing without assistance is beyond me.  I can only imagine that somehow his body compensated for a severely diminished lung capacity and general ability.  Don’t you dare smoke anywhere near him.  His lungs are barely able to do their job as it is.  Not that you should be smoking at all.”

     “This isn’t about me, Jamie,” Nelson reminded the doctor, his voice at a whisper.  He didn’t want to talk about himself at the moment.

       Jamie nodded, then went on.  “There are chemicals in his blood that I haven’t been able identify yet and so I’m not sure what they are doing to him.  I need to run more tests as far as that.  There were no needle marks on him and he doesn’t act like a junky, so I’m thinking the chemicals might have been something that was in the food or water where he most recently worked.  I’m worried that they’re carcinogenic and that makes possibility of cancer a real worry.  He’s clean for the moment, but there are signs that he had some masses recently removed from his abdomen, though there are no surgical scars, so I’m not sure how it was accomplished.  There was minimal damage to some of his internal organs from whatever was removed and if he’s had problems, he very well might have them again.  I want to run screenings regularly to catch any cancer in its early stages so we can deal with it quickly and gently.  I don’t think he would survive an aggressive treatment.  Oh, and there were trace amounts of silicon all the samples I took from him, so I can only imagine its all through his system.”

     “Silicon?” Nelson questioned, confused.

     “I can’t explain it, Harri.  It’s just there.  Then there’s the thing in his neck, only it’s not just in his neck.  Look at this,” Jamie said, pulling out a paper print of an x-ray.  There was a front view of what Nelson assumed to be Harper’s skull.  The disk behind his ear was clearly visible, but even more disturbing were the long, thin sheath and tendrils that ran from it up to and into Harper’s brain.  “I don’t know who put this into him or how they did it, but I don’t know of anyone who could take it out without lobotomizing the kid.”

     “What does it do?” Nelson asked as he stared at the x-ray.

     “As near as I can guess, it’s meant to link his mind to a machine, but what it was meant to work with, if it works at all, or how it works are more questions for you than me.  No wonder he got so agitated when I poked at it, especially in the center.  I probably opened the seal in the center briefly and, while I don’t know if it did anything else, the metal of the forceps scraping on the metal of the disk vibrating up through those tendrils probably wasn’t very pleasant.  I don’t like all that wiring in his brain, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting him at the moment, so we’re probably best off leaving it alone.  It’s been in him a while, judging by the scar tissue on his neck, I’m guessing about two or three years, but with his body’s healing abilities as diminished as they are, it could be longer.  Nothing looks to be rusting or other wise breaking down.  It might never bother him,” Jamie said.

     And there it was, Nelson thought grimly, solid proof that someone had been experimenting on Harper.  Who better for some morally bankrupt scientist to use than some homeless, orphaned child, someone who wouldn’t be missed?  And Jamie had said that Harper had been operated on before and had suffered from radiation poisoning from an early age.  Nelson felt a sick sensation growing in his gut.  Where could Harper have suffered through that sort of thing if not in someone’s lab?  No wonder Harper was terrified of doctors.  It looked like he had been tortured by at least one, probably from almost since he was born.

     How long had he been someone’s lab rat?  Did Harper remember what had been done to him?  No, Nelson decided, or Harper would probably be even more skittish than he already was.  Most likely the boy’s tormentors had erased the knowledge from his mind somehow, most likely with whatever they had plugged into Harper’s brain.  So how much of what he remembered to be his life was real and how much had been put into his head by whoever had been using him and didn’t want to be found out?  Had he been released or had he escaped?  And whether Harper been lucky or unlucky to have survived at all was still in question.  Nelson shrugged the final thought away.  He would find out who had done this and he would see them punished, but for now, his first concern was making sure that Harper didn’t pay the ultimate price for having been a helpless victim.

     “How do we fix this, Jamie?  Harper seems very strong at the moment, so let’s take advantage of that and do what needs to be done so that he has a long life ahead of him,” Nelson said.  “The cancer screenings, we’ll have them done weekly, daily if need be.  Harper is an intelligent young man.  He will do what’s necessary once we explain the importance of the tests.  What else needs to be done?  Can we strengthen his lungs and immune system with some sort of therapy?  Steroids, something like that?  Do we need to flush his system to get rid of the chemicals you were worrying about?  What do you need?  Tell me and you’ll have it.”

     Jamie shook his head.  “Admiral... Harri, listen to me.  No matter what I do, I can’t fix all the things that are broken in the kid, his immune system most specifically.  The next time he gets ill or contracts anything more than a minor infection, he is going to die.  Appearances aside, he’s not strong enough to win a fight again either of those eventualities.”

     “Damn it, Jamie,” Nelson cursed, pounding a fist into the sofa arm, then rising to pace.  “I promised Harper that he’d be safe here, that I’d protect him from whatever it was that he was terrified of, help him make up for all the things he’d missed out on earlier in life, and now you’re telling me I came into the picture too late?”  Nelson had seen plenty of young men die in the course of their duties, but this was worse.  Harper hadn’t volunteered for what had been done to him.  The sort of tortured existence that Jamie’s medical report intimated was not supposed to be part of anyone’s childhood.  “There must be something we can do, some specialist we can call in.  Something!”  Jamie sighed, but he didn’t say anything right away, giving Nelson a glimmer of hope.  There was something, only Jamieson wasn’t very enthusiastic over whatever it was.  “What, Jamie?  Anything.  I’ll convince the boy to submit to whatever you suggest, just don’t let him die before he’s had a chance to live.”

     Jamie sucked in a deep breath, rubbing the back of his neck.  “That’s the problem.  I don’t see him doing much living either way,” he said finally.  “Harper should be placed in a sterile environment as soon as we can establish one.  The decompression chamber would probably serve the purpose until we can make something more comfortable and more permanent.   And it would be permanent, Harri, unless some major medical breakthrough happens.  The problem is I don’t think he’ll tolerate it.  You know how he feels about doctors, not that I blame him now, and he’d be locked in a room, almost constantly under the supervision of one.  It would mean a life sentence living out what’s probably close to his worst nightmare.”

     “Death or life in solitary confinement being poked and prodded,” Nelson summed up.  He could understand why Jamie had not been very forthcoming with that option.

     “I don’t know how to talk to him about this, Harri,” Jamie admitted as he closed the file and rose.  “You saw how he reacted to me, not that I blame him after seeing what he’s been through.  He could barely stand being in the same room with me.  I don’t want to be responsible for giving him a nervous breakdown on top of everything else.”

     “I’ll tell him, Jamie,” Nelson said softly.  “I brought him here to the Institute.  I forced him to go see you.  I should be the one to give him the bad news.”

     Jamie gave him the medical file and raised his other hand to Nelson’s arm, squeezing it gently.  “You didn’t do this to him, Harri.  It isn’t your fault,” Jamie consoled him.  “If nothing else, at least the kid won’t die alone somewhere, with no one knowing who he was, another John Doe at some morgue.”

     Nelson nodded, but he wasn’t at all comforted.  He took Harper’s file from Doctor Jamieson, saying, “Thank you, Jamie.  I’ll tell you what he decides in the morning,” then he saw Jamie to the door.

     Once he was gone, Nelson closed his eyes and squeezed them with one hand.  He didn’t see how prolonging things would help matters, so he went to the dorm room that he’d set Harper up in.  A knock produced no results and after everything Jamie had said, Nelson threw the door open, expecting the worst.  The room was empty, the bed not having been slept in.  Nelson went to the labs, wondering if the boy had gone back to work rather than bed after his outing with Doctor Babin as he’d said he might.  Nelson felt something tighten in him again.  The two young people were just starting to grow close.  It would make it even harder for Harper to do the intelligent thing and isolate himself as Jamie had suggested.  Nelson’s visit to the labs and workrooms of the Institute proved fruitless and Nelson began to worry when he returned to Harper’s room, which was still empty.  A quick check with Security gleaned the information that Harper had not returned to the Institute at all.  It was now after one in the morning.  Doctor Babin was a strict Catholic and did not entertain suitors overnight.  Nelson was at a loss.  Where was Harper?

* * *

     Harper woke up to an unfamiliar, male voice talking about horrendous conditions somewhere.  He blinked his eyes, feeling something solid pressed against him, holding him in place.  The something turned out to be Dom, who was asleep, cuddled against him, the voice was the television, on which they’d been watching the movie Dom had rented when they both had fallen asleep.  They had curled up on the couch together and he had been so pleasantly tired that he had just drifted off.  Harper smiled.  This wasn’t so bad.  Sure, he hadn’t gotten laid, which would have been very nice, but he wasn’t going to talk down the feeling of waking up with someone who cared about him snuggled up all cozy with him.  Harper felt his lazy smile spread across his face as he relaxed, gently squeezing Dom in his arms.  No, given the choice between cheap, meaningless sex and this, he’d take this.

     He didn’t know where the remote for the television was, and couldn’t really move to look for it without waking Dom, so he dozed, half watching as a man talked about how a small donation would feed a hungry child in some poverty stricken, third world place for a year.  Harper looked at the kids being shown and remembered seeing the same lost, desperate look on too many of his friends growing up.  Had he looked that pitiful as a child?  Had he looked that pathetic when Dom had taken him in or when the Admiral had taken him under his wing?  He hoped not.  He didn’t think he could live with being an object of pity rather than intense sexual arousal or, in the case of the Admiral, an intellect to be admired.

     Dom woke up as he was thinking that he was going to send the people on the television some money as soon as he had some to spare.  She stretched up to kiss him before all but purring, “Good morning,” and laid her head on his shoulder and cuddled up with him again.  In the rare instance when a woman had woken up with him in the past, they usually gave him a ‘Oh, no!  How much did I drink last night?’ look and got out of the room as quickly as possible.  Yup.  This was way better then cheap sex.  Not that he would sneer at meaningful sex, though he knew that was way off yet.  He found that he wasn’t in a particular rush, though, and he was going to enjoy having the time to slowly discover what Dom liked as they spent time together.  Cuddling seemed high on her list and he didn’t mind that at all.  “What time is it?” she asked after a while as she sat up, brushing her hair back out of her face.  Harper enjoyed watching her and stayed where he was for the moment.

     “Says six eighteen on the VCR,” Harper offered as he stretched his arms over his head.

     “So it does.  Sorry about the movie.  It was supposed to be an action film, not a sure cure for insomnia,” Dom joked as she got up and turned off the television.  He worried for a moment that she was just a little slower about rushing off than the others, but she turned back to him, smiling at him and holding his eyes with hers.  It was just time to get up, he told himself, no need to get up tight.

     “I didn’t mind.  Got to wake up with a beautiful woman in my arms,” Harper said, smiling right back up at her.

     He expected something along the lines of, ‘You’re so full of shit, Harper,’ to be her response, but Dom’s smile brightened and she said, “Flirt,” before bending down to kiss him again, this time on the cheek.  “Hungry?”

     “Maybe a little.  I wouldn’t say no to coffee,” Harper replied.

     “Ah, yes, the caffeine addiction,” Dom said slowly with a big grin.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Want eggs or pancakes?”

     “Whatever’s easiest,” Harper said, then got up to use the bathroom.  Once he was finished, he paused to look at himself in the mirror over the sink, thinking he ought to shave before starting work.  He smiled as he thought it.  He had a job, a good paying job where he got to fix things without it being a matter of life or death and invent things that didn’t blow people up.  He had the job because a powerful, wealthy, well learned man respected his intelligence and natural ability, despite his lack of schooling.  Best of all, he had a girlfriend, one who thought he was sexy and funny and brilliant and kissable and so many other things that it gave Harper a feeling that he couldn’t quite identify.  He felt good about himself in a way he never had before.  He chuckled to himself.  Life was beyond freaking wonderful.  Turning his attention back to the mirror, he was suddenly glad that mussed up hair didn’t look that bad on him, because he never seemed to be able to get it to do what he wanted it to do anyway.  By the time he came back out and went to the kitchen, Dom was setting some eggs and toast on the table, a large glass of orange juice already there.

     “I’m going to go grab a quick shower.  Coffee should be done in a few minutes,” she told him, giving him another quick peck on the cheek.  Harper caught her in his arms before she could go and kissed her full on the mouth.  She didn’t pull away from him and didn’t slap him when he finally broke off the kiss.  He couldn’t believe how happy that made him.

     “I wouldn’t mind joining you in the shower,” Harper said, resting his forehead against hers and smiling, still holding her close.

     Dom smiled, but said in no uncertain terms, “I don’t shower with men after a first date, or a second or third for that matter.”

     “Aw, come on,” Harper pressed, but did it with a smile and a little laugh in his voice.  “You already slept with me.”

     “Hardy har.  Go eat your eggs.  I’ll be down in a few minutes, then we should get you back to your place so you can change,” Dom said, gently removed herself from his arms.  Harper didn’t mind.  She wasn’t mad it him for suggesting they shower together, even though he had been pretty sure that she’d tell him to go to hell and slug him for it.

     “Change?  Why would I do that?  My clothes smell like you.  I’ll have nice thoughts all day,” Harper said, beaming at Dom.

     Dom’s smile became tinged with suspicion.  “Is that what you call dirty thoughts in polite company?”

     “Oh, those too, but mostly I’ll be thinking of kissing on the beach and waking up with my gal,” Harper said, still smiling grandly.  He had a girlfriend.  He just couldn’t get over it.

     Dom laughed softly, shaking her head at him, but not in a disparaging way.  “You’re so incorrigible,” she said, but she gave him another kiss before she went off to get ready for work.

     Harper watched her go, saying quietly to himself, “She loves me,” unable to stop smiling as he ate his breakfast.

* * *



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