* * *
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.
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
“What does it do?” Nelson asked as he stared at the
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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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