Belonging

by

Michelle Pichette

 

Chapter 23

 

 

* * *

     Nelson woke up on Harper’s small bed when Security finally paged him that the boy had returned to the Institute.  The sun streaming through the window told the Admiral it was morning.  Nelson glanced at his watch as he stood up and straightened his clothes.  It was a little before seven.  Where had Harper been all night?  It didn’t matter, Nelson supposed.  It was likely to be the young man’s last taste of freedom.  Nelson sighed.  He wasn’t looking forward to the task that lay before him any more than he had been last night.  There simply wasn’t an easy way to do this.  Nelson knew.  He had wracked his brains for hours trying to find one before sleep had finally taken him.

  After a few minutes, the door to the small dorm room opened and Harper entered, whistling happily. He stopped half in on seeing Nelson, the smile fleeing his face, and he asked, "Am I fired or something?"

     “No, no, Mister Harper, but I did need to talk to you about a serious matter,” Nelson said, barely able to hold the boy’s eyes.

     Harper was suddenly smiling again and he came into the room, happiness seeming to radiate off of him.  “I wanted to talk to you about something, too, Boss.  See, at breakfast this morning, I was feeling so good about how life has been for me lately and I got to thinking about how improve living conditions around the world so that it could be a happier place in general.  Share the joy, right?  So, I’m thinking, what if it was cleaner?  Cleaner is good, especially cleaner air.  Everyone benefits from cleaner air.  And I thought about clean energy, and I started working on this.”  Harper had been moving around the room, grabbing clothing out of the small dresser, tossing it into the bathroom, pulling off his shirt and undershirt and tossing them into a corner, finally pausing only long enough to stuff some paper into Nelson’s hands before going into the bathroom.

     “It’s a hydrogen reactor,” he called from within as Nelson began to uncrumple the paper he’d just been given.  “You put water in, you get energy out.  You could make big ones to provide electric power to cities or small ones for cars and houses and stuff like that.  Heck, I might even be able to make a tiny one for those robots we were talking about.  I don’t know about that yet, but maybe.  Anyway, it’s nice, clean energy from a renewable source.  I bet I could even make one for the Seaview.  Just as much power as a nuclear reactor with no more meltdowns!  Gotta love that.  Dom said the oil companies would have a hissy fit when I talked to her about it on the way to the Institute, but I’m thinking they could convert all their resources into water purification and maybe desalinization.  More clean, nobody loses their jobs, maybe rich guys don’t get so much richer, but so what.  Pretty great, huh?  Did you hire the most ingenious engineer around or what?”

     Nelson looked at the plans in his hands.  It was easy for him to see that they had been quickly drawn and not by an expert draftsman, too many details missing for him to accurately judge exactly how the machine worked, but idea was ingenious and Harper seemed so enthusiastic about it that he could probably build what he was talking about.  Nelson looked at the half closed bathroom door, feeling the same deep ache that he had last night.  The medical report resting on Harper’s bed only proved that life wasn’t fair in its choice of people to punish.  “It’s a very interesting proposal, Mister Harper, but...” Nelson started as he folded the plans in his hands carefully before putting the paper in his own pocket.

     “I know, it needs lots of work and lots of politicking,” Harper said as he stepped out of the bathroom.  He was in clean slacks and an undershirt and was finishing up shaving with a disposable razor while he spoke.  “I stink at politicking, but I can make you a working model of that reactor.  I just need... Ow!”  Harper hadn’t been paying very close attention to what he was doing and had nicked himself.  Nelson felt panic rise in him, everything that Jamie had told him the night before making it plain that this was just the sort of thing that could end Harper’s life if it wasn’t tended to properly.  Thank goodness Doctor Babin had been there after he’d been beaten.  If she hadn’t found him and taken care of him, Nelson was horrified to think of what might have happened to the boy.

     Nelson forced himself remain calm then said, “Let’s get that cleaned up and put some disinfectant on it.”

     Harper gave him a sheepish smile, dabbing at the spot with his fingertips, and said, “It’s nothing.”

     “No, it could go septic.  Let’s take care of it,” Nelson pressed, not about to be swayed.

     “Really, Boss, it’s okay.  It’s already stopped bleeding.  Like I was saying about...”

     “Mister Harper, we need to talk about Doctor Jamieson’s findings from your physical right now, while I see to the cut,” Nelson declared firmly.  He hated being abrupt, but he wasn’t going to let the nick go unattended.

     A look of dread formed itself on Harper’s face as Nelson all but shoved him into the bathroom again and he quietly said, “You know about my crappy immune system already, huh?”

     “Yes, but I’m surprised that you know about it,” Nelson said as he opened the first aid kit from the medicine cabinet.

     “Hey, I take it with me wherever I go,” Harper replied, trying to make light of the subject.  Knowing how dire the situation was, Nelson didn’t know how he managed it.  Maybe Harper didn’t understand how vulnerable he was.  Harper rinsed his face off and let Nelson treat the nick on his jaw line with some disinfectant.  “You really didn’t need to bother.  It would have been all right,” he murmured, looking ashamed.

     “You could have told us.  You should have told us,” Nelson chided him, but not too strongly.  “Did you believe Doctor Babin or I would have thought less of you because your body’s been abused by circumstances beyond your control and it’s left you weaker than most?  That, Mister Harper, was a very unfair assumption.”  The shamed look intensified and Nelson found himself regretting his words.  Harper had told him, he realized suddenly.  During his medical examination, the boy had said that he got sick easily.

     Harper wouldn’t meet his eyes.  “I know.  I’m sorry.  It’s just... I didn’t know who I could trust, then you were giving me a job and a place to live, so I didn’t want you to think I was weak or nuts or...”  He looked up and searched Nelson’s face for a moment, then looked away again, appearing saddened by whatever it was he’d thought he’d seen.  “...or for you to only be letting me stay because you feel sorry for me.  I don’t need pity.  I’ve been taking care of myself since I was a kid and... and even though there were a lot people that were bigger and stronger than me back then, I’m still around and they aren’t.”  Harper started off sounding defensive and was swiftly working his way up to angry.  He pushed out of the bathroom and grabbed a clean shirt out of a half opened drawer, plainly preparing to leave.

     “I didn’t mean to insult you, Seamus,” Nelson said sincerely as Harper went to the door.  The last thing Nelson needed was for the boy to race off and get himself hurt or worse.  He moved after Harper, meaning to stop him.  “Where are you going?” he asked, then winced at how the question must sound.  He didn’t want Harper to feel like a prisoner, though what Jamie suggested would turn him into one soon enough.

     “I don’t know!” Harper yelled back, as he ripped the door open, then stood there, holding the knob, trembling with rage.  Or at least Nelson thought it was rage until Harper half turned to face him.  He looked like a lost child.  “I really don’t know, so I’d sort of appreciate it if you’d tell me you don’t want me to leave so I don’t have to.”

     “I don’t,” Nelson said, approaching Harper and setting a hand on his shoulder.  He was glad that the anger that had been in the room a moment ago was gone and he could talk to Harper quietly and calmly.  “And we need to have a serious talk about what Doctor Jamieson has reported to me.  I don’t think it’s a conversation we should have in a hallway.  Come back in and sit down, please.”

     Harper nodded and Nelson pushed the door shut.  The two of them sat on Harper’s bed, since there wasn’t anywhere else in the room to sit.  Nelson handed him the medical file and opened it to Jamieson’s report, which summed up the tests and their results and his conclusions.  Harper read everything in silence and slowly closed the folder, seeming lost in thought as he looked down to where it rested in his hands.  “Would you like anything explained to you?” Nelson asked quietly after a while.  Harper shook his head, still not moving otherwise.  Nelson set a hand on his shoulder, saying, “We’re not going to take this lying down.  I’ll help you, if you’ll let me.  We’ll find a way to beat this.  And the people who did this to you, if you know who they are you need to tell me so I can stop them from hurting anyone else.  I promise you, they will be punished.”

     Harper finally looked up at Nelson, plainly struggling with something.  Nelson half feared that Harper did know who had hurt him but was too afraid to tell him or Beka Valentine was in some way involved and that he wouldn’t tell the truth out of a misplaced sense of loyalty.  Harper’s mouth tightened for a moment as he seemed to come to a decision and he said, “I lied about when I was born.  Where too, a little, but mostly when.  But that’s the only thing, I swear!  Everything else was the truth!”

     Nelson shook his head slightly, not understanding what that had to do with anything.  So Harper was a little older, or more likely a little younger, than he had professed to be.  It didn’t change what was in his medical file, much as Nelson wished it did.  “That doesn’t really matter at the moment.”

     “Yes it does.  I’m not from here... I mean now, and things are different in when I am from,” Harper said, opening the file again, pointing at a line in the report.  “See that, the traces of silicon?  It’s not a chemical... well it is... actually it’s an element, but that’s not all it is.  What’s in me is nanobots.  They’re why I wasn’t worried about the cut before... Well, honestly, I probably wouldn’t have worried about it anyway but... nanobots, right, like I was saying... They help my wreck of immune system to do its job.  Dylan got worried about me getting sick after...  That doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I’m okay around most simple stuff, Earth type stuff.  It’s weird alien germs, ones the nanos aren’t programmed to recognize and destroy that’ll kill me.  And the people that hurt me, they haven’t even been born yet, so there’s not a lot you can do about them.”

     Nelson sighed and rubbed the back of his neck, beginning to have sudden doubts about Harper’s sanity after all.  Harper stood up and pointed an accusing finger at Nelson.  “See!  See!  That’s why I didn’t tell you before, even though I wanted to.  Yesterday you were saying how no one good ever comes from the future and I didn’t want you thinking I was some sort of evil... future... evil person... or something... I don’t even know what I thought you’d think I was!  I’m not!  I’m still just me!  And you’re sitting there right now thinking I’m crazy, that I slipped a cog because I got some bad news.  Trust me, I’ve had way worse news than this.  Try being infested with something that’s going to eat it’s way out of you and nobody can do anything about it except kill you so that the stuff that’s going to pop out of you doesn’t try eating everything around you when it does.  That’s bad news!”

     “You mean like in the Alien movies?” Nelson asked, trying to show Harper how he sounded.

     “You’ve seen movies made by aliens?” Harper asked in return, a dubious look forming on his face.  He obviously had no idea what Nelson was talking about.

     “No,” Nelson said, shaking his head and pressing the bridge of his nose.  This was getting ridiculous.  Maybe Miss Simmons was right.  Maybe Harper did need a psychiatrist.  Considering that he had just been told that he would very likely die in the not too distant future, counseling was a given.  He regretted talking to the boy about the visitors from the future and aliens because that was probably responsible for what Harper had just ‘confessed’ to.  “Seamus, nanobots are science fiction.  They don’t exist,” Nelson said, hoping he wasn’t making matters worse by saying it.  He’d done enough damage already.

     “Not yet, but they will,” Harper told him.  “And I’ve got tons of them in me.  If you don’t believe me, let’s go to the most powerful microscope you’ve got and I’ll show you.”  He sounded as though he believed every word of what he’d said, the poor boy.  Nelson couldn’t let him think this fantasy was real, not when he needed real medical help.

     “Fine.  Let’s,” Nelson agreed as he rose and led Harper to one of the labs.  Thankfully, it was early and no one else was there and they managed to avoid Doctor Babin on the way.  Nelson didn’t want her drawn into this, not yet, in any case.  Maybe later, if Nelson needed someone else to talk sense to Harper, then he might bring her into the situation, but he rather hoped he could avoid that.  She would be upset enough about the whole thing.

     Harper stabbed himself in the finger before Nelson could stop him and smeared some blood on a slide.  Nelson didn’t like watching the boy suck his finger to staunch the flow of blood rather than giving it proper medical treatment, but he took the slide and ran it through the electron microscope at the highest magnification possible, thinking that would mollify Harper and hopefully get him to admit he needed help, both physically and psychologically.  Since he was expecting nothing out of the ordinary, when the computer bleeped that it had detected an unknown object, he was a bit surprised.  When it flashed a picture of the unknown object on its screen, Nelson actually felt his mouth fall open.  There on the screen were a group of tiny machines, barely visible even at the highest magnification of the microscope.  Nelson stared in shock, because what he was seeing couldn’t exist.

     “Told ya,” Harper said quietly, reminding Nelson that he was in the room.  Nelson turned to face him, but he didn’t know what to say.  Harper was looking at the floor and more than a little afraid.  “So now’s when I go from lab guy to lab rat, huh?” he asked in a small voice, seeming resigned to that fate.

     Nelson shook himself from his stupor.  What had he done?  He had all but forced the boy to lie to him by all by telling him that all people from the future were evil and should be handled with extreme measures.  No wonder poor Harper had looked so terrified in his office yesterday.  He’d probably thought if anyone found out that he was from the future that he would be shot on the spot.  Nelson realized that Lee would feel vindicated by this revelation and happily slap the boy in irons simply because he was from the future, but it wouldn’t be fair to do so.  Little as Nelson knew of Harper, he did know one thing with absolute certainty: he wasn’t here to harm anyone.  Nelson genuinely liked the boy, but Harper obviously thought that no such feelings were possible now.  Nelson took a deep breath and prepared to find out the truth, the whole truth, once and for all.  He didn’t think Harper need to be terrified any further to accomplish that, though.

     “No, of course not, Seamus,” Nelson assured him, gently setting a hand on the boy’s upper arm and trying to meet his frightened blue eyes.  Harper was shaking and looking down, refusing to let him.  “I’d rather this,” he nodded toward the picture of the nanobots, “not be common knowledge.  Let’s continue our discussion in my office.”  Harper nodded, but he still looked like someone being marched to his execution.  After their conversation yesterday, he might be thinking that was what was about to happen.  Nelson sighed.  He’d better straighten everything out quickly.

     Nelson started to leave, then stopped, took the slide with Harper’s blood on it and wiped out the computer record of what the microscope had just been looking at.  He escorted Harper to his office, sat the boy down, then poured them each a large, stiff drink.  Harper took his with trembling hands and knocked it back with practiced ease.  Nelson sipped his, wanting to remain lucid.  “So, when were you born?  A thousand years from now?” Nelson hazarded a guess.

     “A few thousand.  Don’t know for sure.  I suck at history,” Harper said, his voice meek, his manner extremely subdued.  It didn’t sound like the scotch had done anything at all as far as taking an edge off things.

     Nelson could understand why he hadn’t been very forthcoming even before their conversation yesterday, which now had whole new meaning.  Harper was on his own in what he most likely viewed as an extremely hostile environment.  The sad thing was, Nelson knew of several scientists, reputable ones, that would fight each other to have Harper at their disposal for even a few hours.  He didn’t want to think of what the disreputable ones would do both to get him and what they would do to him once they had him, a thought that was probably no stranger to Harper’s mind.  Some of the other people from the future that had troubled Nelson might have deserved what they got, but Harper hadn’t done anything to indicate that he wanted to steal the Seaview, rule the world or do anything else unsavory.  He only appeared to want to avoid becoming a test subject, a torture victim or a dead man.  That was why Harper had told his white lie and why he looked so frightened at the moment.  Finally Nelson understood Harper’s comments about his ‘big, government installation’ the day they met and why that would hold so much fear for him.

     “Seamus, I promised you that no one was going to hurt you here at the Institute, didn’t I?” Nelson said, sitting on the edge of his desk and trying to meet the boy’s eyes again.

     “Yeah, well, that was before,” Harper replied, suddenly finding his empty glass terribly interesting.  “I was just some homeless guy then, not a scientific oddity, not some future person to be ‘dealt with’ or shot.”  Nelson barely kept himself from sighing.  He probably could have explained that how security would deal with intruders wouldn’t necessarily be harmful, but whole ‘shoot first’ comment made that next to impossible.

     “I made a promise and I intend to keep it,” Nelson said, but Harper didn’t look at all convinced.  In fact, he looked like he was downright terrified.  “Is that what you’ve been so frightened of?  That someone was going to find out that you were from the future and they would do you harm in the interest of science?”

     “Or for what I could tell them if they poked me with enough sharp objects,” Harper replied, glancing up at Nelson briefly and cringing, obviously afraid that Nelson might think it was a good idea and start in doing just that right away.  Maybe that was how he had gotten some of his scars.  Honestly, Nelson wasn’t certain yet how he wanted to respond to any of this.  “I was what passed for the engineering staff on a battle cruiser in the distant future.  I’ve built plenty of weapons, even a bomb or two in my time.  I don’t want to be responsible for screwing up the Earth worse than it was when I was born here.  I thought maybe I wouldn’t have to make destructive things anymore if I worked here.  There were so many other things that you were interested in and...”  He stopped talking, looking down again, his face a mask of misery.

     Nelson began to see Harper’s point, not that he like hearing that the Earth was ‘screwed up’ in the future.  The boy was probably giving himself a good mental kicking around for having said as much as he had.  After all, Nelson did have a lot of destructive power at his command.  How could Harper know that he didn’t need or want more?  “I see.  So you can blow up the Earth, I take it?”

     “Hell, I can blow up the Sun,” Harper murmured.  He wasn’t bragging.  In fact, he sounded ill at the thought of what he’d just told Nelson.

     “And you can’t get back to your own time?” Nelson asked, thinking a drastic change in topic was called for.  Harper shook his head.  “Maybe we can recreate whatever brought you here.  Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

     Harper sighed, not raising his head, and said, “I was in machine shop seventeen on the Andromeda working on some sensor enhancements when this alien guy I’d never seen before appeared out of no where.  He grabbed me, kicked the crap out of me, then threw me through some kind of little wormhole or something.  I came out this side, landed in the ocean, barely managed to swim to shore, staggered up the beach, Dom found me, and here I am.”

     “Yes, here you are.  And this alien?” Nelson asked.

     “He hasn’t made any appearances.  He probably figured I’d drown.  Kept telling me I was a weak, little nothing.”

     “Then we all are fortunate that you are a good swimmer.”  Harper shrugged as if it mattered very little.  Nelson began to put pieces together, but some things still needed clarification.  “The people serving with you, the Captain of your ship, they wouldn’t try to find you?”

     “Oh, they’d try,” Harper sighed.  “Beka’s probably freaking out, thinking I’d land myself straight in trouble and wanting to come rescue me.  She...”  He stopped and swallowed hard.  Nelson could easily see that Harper was worried about Captain Valentine and what she was going through.  “And... and Dylan’s real big on lost causes and he wouldn’t give up on me without a fight.  It’s just this is beyond even him.”  Harper sounded like he admired this Dylan and Nelson wondered if that was how he might draw Harper out of the defeated posture that he’d adopted.

     “And who is Dylan?” Nelson asked.  He remembered Harper saying the name before in his room.

     Harper sighed.  “Dylan Hunt, Captain of the Andromeda Ascendant.  Just your normal, average, godlike hero.  He’d look for me, but how’s he gonna find me?  I mean, I got thrown through time and across the galaxy, and... well, the odds of him figuring that out, discovering time travel, and then hitting the right year and the right place would be tough odds to beat, even for Trance.  They’re not coming.  They’re not.”  Harper’s words were full of resignation.  He hadn’t wanted this to happen.  He’d been happy where he had been in the future.

     “And who is Trance?”  Maybe she had been his girlfriend in this other time, Nelson mused.

     “Alien girl.  Likes plants,” Harper said.  A friend then, Nelson decided.  There didn’t seem to be anything romantic in that description.  Harper glanced up at Nelson again but was still avoiding his eyes.  “So I’m stuck here and I... I just want to live out however many years I have left not being tortured for how to make things that shouldn’t exist in this era and would make life hell for people.  I’m not here to make trouble.  I’m not.”  His words were pleading and tinged with desperation.

     Nelson inwardly sighed at what he’d told the boy yesterday.  Now that he thought about it, Harper had probably been leading up to telling him everything, but Nelson had knocked the wind right out of his sails with a few careless words.  He sincerely wished that he could step back to that moment and redo things, but he would simply have to make things right today.  “That sounds quite reasonable to me.  So the hydrogen reactor and other little things you’ve made, they are things you remember from history books?”

     “No.  Like I said, I suck at history.  I just figured that if the technology for making the stuff I cooked up existed, I couldn’t be fouling things up too bad,” Harper murmured weakly.

     The same question kept nudging Nelson’s mind ever since he had realized that Harper’s health problems were from growing up in an unhealthy, abusive environment rather than having suffered as the victim of experimentation.  The boy’s childhood tormentors were well out of Nelson’s reach, much as he wished otherwise, so, as Harper had said, there was nothing he could do about them.  Harper had also said that he had only lied a little bit about where he had been born, so it was probably somewhere near Salem if not in the city itself.  “And the Earth when you will be born, how did it get so bad?”

     Harper looked down at the floor, seemed to think things over, then said, “The ruling body in the Universe fell under an assault by these genetically modified humans.  I guess they decided that it was better to rule in hell than get along with everybody in heaven.  They killed off a lot of people in space.  With the Commonwealth gone, Earth got bombarded from space, which killed a lot of people and wreaked general havoc.  Most of the people left were enslaved by the Drago-Kazov.  A couple of alien invasions and lots of pain and suffering later, I was born and barely grew in Dunwich, then in Bunker Hill, then Beka took me off planet, then we rescued Dylan from the event horizon of a black hole, we all fought the good fight for a while trying to reestablish the Commonwealth, and like I said before.”

     Nelson listened to Harper’s short version of the future’s time line, knowing that even though everything sounded like a science fiction movie, it was most likely true.  “And the Commonwealth was the ruling body that was destroyed?” Nelson asked only to get another silent nod.  He never thought that he would think this, but he suddenly found that he liked it better when Harper was nattering on in excited aplomb about anything and everything.  “Could we do anything to keep that from happening?”

     “I tried once.  Turns out I was supposed to do what I did because nothing changed,” Harper murmured.  His gaze had fallen to the vicinity of his knees again and Nelson decided that this line of questioning was getting them nowhere.

     Nelson stood up and went behind his desk, dropped into his chair, and started to think of what to do now.  He couldn’t help but see Harper’s medical file, which now lay in the center of the blotter.  It was strange how the thing he’d been fretting about all night had become so unimportant.  He glanced from it to the young man sitting, trembling and looking at the floor just on the other side of the desk.  It was obvious that Harper thought he was trapped and had given up.  Even if he had someplace to run to, Harper knew that there was no escape for him if the Admiral had decided to keep him here against his will and he’d probably assumed he was a prisoner even if he believed that he wasn’t going to be physically harmed.  Nelson wondered if that had been the case on the Eureka Maru, then the Andromeda, but decided it couldn’t have been, not the way Harper had spoken about Beka Valentine and Dylan Hunt.  No, more likely they had seen what Nelson had and had taken the boy in.

     Nelson set a hand on the file, still thinking about what its contents said about Harper’s life.  Harper had known suffering, abuse and want for most of his life, yet he still displayed a playful, gregarious, and overly trusting nature in spite of it.  Or perhaps because of it, Nelson mused as he sat back and looked at the boy.  Who would better appreciate every small thing that came his way than someone who’d had known nothing but misery for years on end?  Harper was probably used to making the most of every decent thing that was presented to him, never knowing when he would be hurt or hungry again.  That thought made Nelson decide that he wasn’t going to let Harper sit there a moment longer believing that everything he’d had yesterday was gone because he’d told the truth.

     Harper was still a technological genius.  He had to be to have built the things he had already made with technology that he probably viewed a primitive.  It didn’t escape Nelson’s notice that all the things Harper had made and talked about were benign, though he plainly knew how to create destructive things.  Nelson had a thousand new questions to ask him now that he knew the truth of things.  He didn’t worry overly about the boy’s overall mental state.  Harper had proven himself to be quite resilient.  Even though he had been ripped away from all things familiar, he seemed to have come to grips with it quickly and had been trying to move on.

     Nelson couldn’t get the boy home and he felt that Harper would be safer at the Institute than anywhere else in the present.  By all appearances, Harper had even been happy here up until the moment that he’d made his confession, a confession he had made to keep Nelson and Jamieson worrying over his health.  Nelson still wanted Harper working for him, now more than ever, but he didn’t want Harper to think he had no choice in the matter.  He had lost his old life.  From what Nelson had just been told, it didn’t seem like that much of a loss.  It was time to remind Harper of what he’d gained.

     “Well, then, it seems there’s just one or two things to clear up, then you should get to work.  I’m not paying you to slouch in my office,” Nelson said, then took a sip of his drink.

     “Y... you’re still paying me?” Harper asked, looking up to him halfheartedly, not seeming to believe what he was being told.  Had he expected to be thrown in irons and forced to work, Nelson wondered.  Probably that or taken out back and shot, and Nelson knew he was at fault for that.  It was now past time to put those fears to rest.

     “Yes, Mister Harper.  Slavery was outlawed in America a long time ago,” Nelson said.  The comment about slavery made Harper blanche and his eyes go large with renewed fear.  Nelson suddenly remembered what Harper had said about the Drago-Kazov and knew without doubt where Harper had gotten all his scars.  He had been a slave and not a well treated one.  From what Harper had just said, the boy likely thought he was doomed to be one again, at the very best.  Nelson forcibly kept a look of pity off his face.  He and Harper would have to have a long talk about his past, but later, when the boy wasn’t so frightened.  For now he had to reassure the young man, not depress or terrify him further.  Harper had to know right now, in no uncertain terms, that he would never, ever be someone else’s property again nor harmed with impunity by anyone, especially because of when he had been born, at least not if Nelson had anything to say about things.

     “You can leave here if you want to,” Nelson told him, his words sincere.  “No one will stop you and if you go, I hope you will still think of me as someone you can count on, someone who will protect you if you feel you are in danger.  I would like you to stay, Seamus, but I won’t force you to.  I think we could do great things, you and I.  Maybe together, we can change the way things turn out for our lovely blue planet.”

     Harper finally looked fully at him, blinking as if he had just stepped from darkness into bright light.  “Really?” he asked, his voice still meek and shaking, but a hopeful look was trying to form on his face.

     Nelson smiled a little.  “Really.  And if you stay, I will keep my promise to you.  No one will hurt you, Seamus.  I won’t let them.  What you’ve told me will never leave this office and there’s no reason for anyone to ever know when you are from.  As you yourself said, we are all just people from Earth after all.”

     “But... but Doctor Jamieson, he knows... sort of... because of my neural interface...” Harper said worriedly, putting a hand over the disk on his neck.  Neural interface, Nelson thought, cataloging that tidbit of knowledge as one of the things he and Harper would have to talk about.

     “Yes, Doctor Jamieson,” Nelson said with a nod.  “I intend to tell Doctor Jamieson about your... microscopic helpers so that he’ll stop thinking that you’re in danger of falling ill and dying the next time someone sneezes on you.  We’ll discuss any questions he has at that time, together.  I plan to shade the truth a little.  It’s very important that you remember that you were born in nineteen seventy one, just as it says in your file, and were the subject of experiments conducted by less than scrupulous parties.  You understand a little bit of what was done to you, but you don’t know who put the nanobots in you or the process for creating more.  The same for the thing in your head.  Understand?”  Harper nodded hesitantly, some of the pall lifting from his features.  “I’ll tell Jamieson that this is a classified matter and that he isn’t to even make notes in your file about it and that other things need to be removed from that file and destroyed.  He can be trusted.  And you are not to tell anyone else what you’ve told me.  Not anyone, Seamus.”

     “Not even Dom?” Harper asked with a wince.  “I don’t like lying to her, especially after last night.”  Nelson gave him a sharp, narrow look and Harper quickly added, “Nothing happened!  Really!  We went dancing and then fell asleep watching a movie at her place.  I mean, there was a little kissing and it’s not that I didn’t want something more to happen, but only if she wanted it too, you know?”  He gave Nelson a very uncomfortable, questioning look, but fortunately for the boy, Nelson did understand what he was saying, knew he hadn’t been taking liberties, and nodded to the question.  Harper looked relieved, acting almost like a teenager that had just come clean to his father about why he hadn’t come home the night before.  Nelson didn’t mind Harper looking to him as a father figure.  It was actually rather flattering, considering the other options the boy had probably considered moments ago were slave master, jailor, or executioner.

     “It’s just, I’m starting to really more than like her and I hope she’s starting to really more than like me and I don’t thinking lying about my entire life, well sort of, is any way to start a meaningful relationship.  You know, something that would last past the ‘I have so much fun when I’m with you’ stage to the ‘being with you gives my life meaning’ stage.  I almost told her everything last night, after we went back to her place, but then we fell asleep.  I keep almost telling her, but something always happens and I don’t and then I feel rotten about it for a long time and I don’t want to keep doing it.  So... maybe I could tell her?  Just her?  She wouldn’t rat me out.  I know she wouldn’t.”

     Nelson took another taste of his scotch to keep himself from smiling about what Harper had just blurted out at him.  It seemed Harper didn’t do anything halfway if he was already planning out a long term relationship with Doctor Babin and trusted her with his life, or at least his well being, after only one date and a few days in her company.

     “If things get serious between the two of you, and by that I mean serious enough for you to propose marriage, then you can tell her about everything and lay the blame for not doing so before that time squarely on my shoulders.  Dominica is a very understanding person.  I doubt that she would stay angry with either of us for very long considering the inherent danger in this information becoming too widely known, both to yourself and the Earth as a whole.  And Seamus, I wouldn’t suggest trying to move things along too quickly.  Dominica is an old fashioned Catholic girl.  They don’t like to be rushed.”

     Harper nodded, but looked worried and nervously asked, “You don’t think she’s mad about the whole sleeping over thing, do you?  I didn’t try anything.  Well, I sort of asked about it and she said ‘no,’ which I was cool with, but... we did sort of wake up all cuddled up.  You don’t think she thinks I’d... I wouldn’t!  Not if she didn’t want me to!”  Harper was looking to him for reassurance.  Thank goodness, Nelson thought.  That meant the trust that the young man had showed him for the past two days hadn’t been destroyed by this morning’s turmoil.

     “Did she seem upset this morning?” Nelson asked in return.  Harper shook his head.  “Then I doubt she thought anything along the lines you’re worried about happened.  It sounds as though the evening was quite innocent.”

     “Good.  Last night was so great.  I got worried that I wrecked it without meaning to,” Harper sighed out, sounding relieved.  Nelson smiled because Harper was calm and talking to him again just like before.  He didn’t want that to change.

     “Seamus, I need to know.  Should I be concerned about anything in this file?” Nelson asked, laying a hand on Harper’s medical file.

     “I’m okay.  Really.  I’ll probably get sick, but I’ll get better.  I did even before the nanobots, but it usually wasn’t fast or pretty,” Harper told him.  Nelson nodded, thinking that Jamieson had been wrong about how strong Harper was, despite his physical shortcomings.  The Admiral didn’t want the boy upset again for the moment.  They would talk about everything, but Nelson wanted Harper to know that nothing had changed between them.  The quickest way to do that was to put him to work.

     “We have a lot to still talk about, but for right now, I’d like you to make detailed schematics for this.”  Nelson pulled out the hydrogen reactor designs and handed them toward Harper.  “This is not an example of acceptable work, Mister Harper, but I’ll let it go since you did it on your own time.  Actually, do that later.  I’d like you to look at the guidance system on the Diving Bell first.  I’d like to have it in working order for our next cruise.  Miss Simmons is too busy with other repairs to address it currently and I have other things demanding my attention.  Everyone else has tried and failed to find the problem.  I think it has something to do with the circuitry, but I haven’t had the chance to do anything with it yet.  Go see Mister Morton, tell him that I’ve assigned the Diving Bell to you and have him show you the logs of what has already been done so you won’t be repeating others’ efforts.  After that, we’ll sit down and make up a schedule for what you’ll be working on and go over developmental procedure.  You have a lot of work to do.  You’d better get to it.”

     Harper stood swiftly with a twitchy smile, taking the plans and saying, “Sure thing, Boss... uh, Sir.  Whatever you say.  Consider the Diving Bell fixed.  And... and the schematics... I’ll have them done too before I go to bed, okay?  I’ve got more great stuff to show you, too.  Really, lots and lots.”

     Harper was, and had been yesterday, trying to buy his safety with his abilities, Nelson realized.  He hoped that the boy would believe sooner rather than later that it wasn’t necessary.  “I don’t want you to rush the schematics.  They’ll take however long they take.  Time isn’t an issue, legibility is.  Concentrate on the Bell first, Seamus.  Put everything else out of your mind,” Nelson reiterated, wanting Harper focused, not frantic.

     “I’m on it right now.  It’ll be all fixed before you know it.”  He made a sloppy attempt at a salute then started out of the room, realized he was still holding the glass from his scotch, turned back to Nelson, let out a short, uncomfortable laugh as he placed the glass gingerly on the edge of the desk.  He didn’t look afraid anymore, which did Nelson’s heart huge amounts of good.  A little nervous, perhaps, but Nelson got the impression that huge amounts of nervous energy were normal for Harper.  Harper did take on a sheepish expression as he stilled for a moment and said, “Thanks... for everything, Admiral.  You won’t be sorry for not... for... for letting me stay.  I promise you won’t.”

     Nelson offered him a thin smile and shooed him on his way.  Harper grinned then rushed from the office.  Nelson smiled fully and let out a short laugh once he was gone.  Considering what usually happened when someone from the future or outer space landed on the Institute’s doorstep, this was a most welcomed change of events.  He savored a little more of his scotch and chuckled again as he thought of what Jamie would think of his indulging, much less plying Harper with alcohol, so early in the day.  He looked at Harper’s file and wondered what Jamieson would say about a lot of what he was going to tell the good doctor.

* * *

     Chip didn’t know what to make of Seamus Harper when the little man appeared in his office, telling him that the Admiral had assigned him the problem with the Diving Bell.  Everyone had been in such a tizzy over the homeless man now standing in front of his desk, reading through the repair logs.  Lee wanted him gone, first from Dom’s house, now from the Institute, convinced that the young man was pure trouble.  Chip had been willing to side with Lee because this sort of situation usually didn’t turn out well.  Looking at him now, though, Chip was having doubts.  He might be really intelligent, as the Admiral seemed to think, but he certainly wasn’t intimidating.  Short and battered, Harper was the least threatening man Chip had seen in a long time.

     “And things get crazy with the guidance system when things have been running a while?  When the wiring’s hot?” Harper asked, stirring Chip from his own assessing.

     “Yes, but we’ve replaced all the wiring.  Twice now, like it says.  Portman seems to think it’s a virus and I’m looking into that, but I haven’t found anything yet,” Chip told him.

     “Okay.  Virus.  No.  Not a virus,” Harper was muttering, still reading the papers he was holding.  He looked up suddenly, saying, “The wiring, can you show me what you’re using?”

     That confused Chip.  “It’s heavy gauge copper wiring that we use for almost everything on the Seaview.”

     “Where did you get it?” Harper asked, seeming intent.

     “From our regular supplier,” Chip replied, no less confused.

     “Have they had issues at their foundry?” Harper asked.

     Chip gave him a funny look.  “What?”

     Harper’s lips went thin for a moment, then he said, “Could I see some.  Please?”

     Chip sighed and got up from his desk.  “Fine, but it’s just standard copper wiring.  We tested the system after we rewired it and all the readings came back good.  It’s something that’s happening over time in the system.”

     “Or in the wiring.  It’s burning out,” Harper stated, as if Chip weren’t already painfully aware of that fact.

     “The Institute engineers seemed to think that something in the programming was making the Bell run hot and that’s what’s burning everything out,” Chip told him, but lead the way out of his office toward stores.

     “I’ll look at the programming you’re talking about if you want, but the Admiral told me that he thought it was something to do with the circuitry.  After looking at these logs, I think he’s right,” Harper said.  Chip frowned.  Great, a ‘yes’ man trying to curry favor with the Admiral.  As if they didn’t have enough of that with Portman.

     “It’s the same wiring we use on the Seaview,” Chip repeated.

     “And you’re not having burnout issues there?” Harper asked.

     Chip frowned, glad the man trailing him couldn’t see his face.  They were having problems, but the Institute Engineers didn’t know that as yet.  It seemed that whenever a system was running for any length of time, everything burnt out.  Since the wiring was the same that they had always used, Chip and Ro had been trying to figure out what would be causing power surges strong enough to overheat the stuff.  “That’s classified,” was all Chip told Harper, his tone warning.  Maybe Lee was right if Harper was going to be nosing around classified areas.

     “Hey, you don’t need to tell me.  It’s all good,” Harper replied, obviously not concerned about being told to mind his own business.

     Chip brought him to stores and nodded to some spools on a rack.  “Wire,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest.

     “And this is what you used to rewire the Bell?” Harper asked, pulling a length free and looking at it.

     “Yes,” Chip replied barely keeping from rolling his eyes.

     Harper put the end of the wire in his mouth and pulled off some of the plastic casing with his teeth.  Chip grimaced, about to offer the little man his Swiss Army knife, thinking that Harper wanted to look for visible imperfections or test for brittleness.  That was when Harper did something really strange.  He put the bare wire in his mouth and sucked on it, obviously tasting it.  “This is supposed to be pure copper, not an alloy?” Harper mumbled around the wire after a few moments.  He was looking up and plainly thinking rather than looking at Chip.

     “Yes,” Chip said rather uncertainly, wondering if everything was all right in Harper’s head.

     “Well, that’s your problem, then.  This has iron in it,” Harper said, taking the wire out of his mouth and looked at him with a very serious expression.  Otherwise, Chip might have thought he was making a joke.  “Maybe a little Chromium, but definitely iron.  Have you checked your supplier’s impurity standards recently?”

     “What?” Chip asked, totally confused by Harper’s odd behavior.

     “We can test it, but I’m guessing this wire has something like, oh, maybe, a point zero seven or higher impurity problem.  You can taste the iron if you really concentrate,” Harper said, handing the wire that had been in his mouth toward Chip as if he expected Chip to give it a try.

     “I’ll take your word for it,” Chip said, grimacing at the thought.

     “Anyway, the iron, even at that level, is knocking down your conductivity, because it was probably introduced as a solute rather than an oxide.  The resistivity is probably, um, like, something near two and a half by ten to the negative eight ohm meters,” Harper told him as if he could figure all that out by putting some bare wire in his mouth for a few seconds.

     “So, you’re saying there’s a problem with the wire’s makeup?  And you know this by how it tastes?” Chip asked, certain that he sounded dubious about the whole thing.  This was the same wiring from the same supplier that they had used for years and had never given them trouble.

     “I didn’t have access to a junior chemistry set when I was growing up,” Harper told him, with an unconcerned shrug.  “You learn to work with what you’ve got.  Not that you can work with this wire.  It’s flawed.”

     “Uh huh,” Chip said as he remembered Lee saying something about how Harper claimed to have been homeless his entire life.  Maybe that was why he seemed so unconcerned about putting strange things in his mouth.  Still, what Harper was saying made a lot more sense than Portman’s virus, despite the Institute’s history with this supplier.  He and Ro had discounted the wiring itself as the cause of their troubles because of that history.  So had everyone else, apparently, except for the Admiral, as Harper had pointed out.  “Look, maybe we ought to take this to a lab and actually do an analysis,” Chip told the little man, not about to proceed on ‘taste bud’ assessment alone.

     “Okay,” Harper said with a sunny smile, picking up the wire spool, and leading the way.  That surprised Chip again.  The spool was heavy, but Harper, who was maybe five and half feet tall at most and skinny as a rail, hefted it up with just a little ‘oof’ and toted it off without a word, though his legs bowed a little under the weight.  Why he took the whole thing was beyond Chip.  Maybe he thought they were going to test more than just a small piece of the wire.  Chip decided to see what Harper was going to do, what the short blond had done in front of him so far making predicting what he had in mind near impossible.

     They went to the Engineering wing and Chip watched as Harper cut a sample of the wire and prepared it for computer analysis.  Chip was watching the entire process, not wanting to double check everything that Harper was doing.  Harper was new and unknown to Chip.  The Admiral might think the kid was bright, but Chip needed to see it with his own eyes.  Harper, for his part, whistled absently as they waited for the results to come back.  If he was worried that the computer wouldn’t back up what he had said, it certainly didn’t show.

     Chip snatched up the results as the printout came off the computer and he found himself surprised yet again.  Harper had been off by four one thousandths on his oral estimation of iron impurities in the wire and, to Chip’s continued amazement, there was also a negligible amount of chromium showing up in the report.  He glanced up from the paper at Harper, who was leaning up against a counter still whistling tunelessly and looking around the lab, then back at the analysis.  The wire was flawed, just like Harper had told him it was.  The flaw was small, at least in the part of the wire they had just tested, but enough to make its performance substandard over time.

     Chip cleared his throat and Harper looked to him with a waiting expression.  Chip looked back at the report and said, “I think we should run a few more checks on various places on the spool to see if the problem runs throughout or if its spotty.”

     Harper nodded, adding, “And we should probably check the other spools too.  If all of it came out of the same lot, it would all be flawed.”  Chip groaned mentally as Harper said it, knowing he was right, but not wanting to think about the work that would be entailed if that turned out to be the case.  They had been doing a lot of repairs on the Seaview.  If the wire was all substandard, no wonder all the electrical systems were starting to act up.  They’d have to get new wiring and replace everything they had already done, perhaps even more, depending on how long the ago the problem had begun.

     “You start on this, Harper.  I’ll go to stores and pull samples from the other spools,” Chip said.

     Harper gave him a grin, saying, “You’ve got it,” then turned to the spool to get his own samples.  Chip was surprised yet again by that reaction.  Maybe Harper was merely new and trying to give a good impression, but Chip couldn’t see any of the Institute Engineers being happy about being asked to do something outside what Nelson had assigned them, especially something like this, that was bordering on grunt work.  Finding out how far the problem with the flawed wiring went was important, but Chip didn’t think that any of them would feel that way.

     He went to get his samples and after testing quickly came to the conclusion that they were pretty much sunk wiring wise.  The impurities were present consistently throughout the wiring they had gotten in the last shipment, which was almost all the wiring they had in stores.  The impurities were in small amounts, but enough to give them the problems that they had been experiencing.  “We’d better take this to the Admiral,” Chip told Harper, gathering up the reports.

     Harper winced.  “It’s pretty bad, huh?”

     “Like I said, we use this wiring all through the Seaview,” Chip said with a sigh.

     “Ouch,” Harper commiserated, following him to the Admiral’s office.

     Nelson took the analyses and read them through quickly, then glanced up at Chip and Harper.  “Mister Morton, I’ll be having a serious talk with the Institute’s lawyers about liability.  This problem could have resulted in deaths.  We’re lucky it didn’t.  How badly is this going to set back repairs?”

     “I haven’t showed this to Miss Simmons yet, Sir, but this is all through the Seaview.  We’ll have to go through repair logs and do some tests on the wiring in system to see when the problem started.  It would explain a lot,” Chip told him. 

     “So it’s going to set us back,” Nelson surmised, nodding.  “It can’t be helped.  At least it was caught before something truly disastrous happened.  Thank you, Mister Harper.  You just saved us a lot of time, if not lives.”  Chip glanced at Harper, who was smiling happily at Nelson’s praise, but standing back out of the way.  “Talk to one of our other local suppliers, Chip, and see if you and Sharkey can take a team out to get us some new wiring this morning.  Make sure it’s tested extremely thoroughly before you put any of it into the Seaview.”

     “Want me to do that, Boss?” Harper chimed in.  Chip looked at him, then the Admiral in confusion.  Boss?

     “No.  You go ahead and start on the Bell with the good wiring we have.  There’s not enough for much of else anyway,” Nelson told him.  Harper nodded and trotted off obediently without a word.  Chip watched him go, sure he had a confused expression on his face.  That supposition was confirmed when he turned back to the Admiral, who was grinning slightly and leaning back in his chair.  “Comments?” he asked, raising an amused eyebrow.

     “He’s... odd.  He found the flaw in the wire by tasting it,” Chip said, still baffled by that in itself.

     “Our Mister Harper is a unique individual,” Nelson agreed.  “Don’t let that color your perception of him, Chip.”

     “No, no.  He seems like a hard worker, not one to complain.  While we were running tests on the wiring I was wishing that some of the other Institute Engineers were a little more like him.  You know, team players,” Chip admitted.  “He didn’t balk at being given orders.  Worked quickly and efficiently.  I’m wondering a little if you were thinking about adding him to Miss Simmons’ team.”

     Nelson shook his head.  “Mister Harper’s talents are better put to use here at the Institute.  Maybe he can set a good example for our other Engineers.  Right now, though, we need to straighten out these wiring problems.”

     “I’ll talk to Ro, then get Sharkey and we’ll go scrounge up some supplies,” Chip said.

     “Thank you, Chip,” Nelson said, then pushed his intercom button.  “Katy, I need to speak with Mister Wallen.”  Chip let himself out of Nelson’s office and went to tackle the task at hand.  Harper might be a strange little man, but Nelson was right.  He had quite possibly saved lives.  Certainly, he had saved them all the time it would have take to find the problem with the circuitry on the Seaview.  Lee might not like Harper much, but Chip didn’t have a problem with him because of those facts alone.  He had to have to talk to Lee about it.  Maybe this would help to put some of his friend’s fears to rest.

* * *

 

 

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