Belonging

by

Michelle Pichette

 

Chapter 24

 

 

* * *

     “What are you trying to do?” Lee asked as he stood in front of Dom’s desk, at a total loss.

     “Write a paper for the Journal Of Experimental Marine Biology And Ecology on newly discovered cephalopod variants, but someone is standing at my desk, distracting me,” Dom said, facing her computer rather than him, plainly trying to ignore him.

     “How could you go out on a date with Harper?  You don’t know anything about him!” Lee admonished her, tired of trying to be tactful about this situation.

     “Didn’t know much about the last twenty guys I went out with either, hence the dates rather than leaping straight to the altar with them.  Lee, I’m working.  Don’t you have things to do other than obsess about my boyfriend?” Dom asked, still not looking in his direction.  If she had been, she couldn’t have helped but see the appalled expression that formed on Lee’s face at the word ‘boyfriend.’

     “Look, I know trouble when I see it.  He’s trouble, Dom,” Lee told her.

     “He’s a great kisser,” Dom said, a soft smile forming on her face as she obviously reminisced about just that.  Lee’s stomach lurched at the thought.  “And he didn’t trouble me for more than kissing after I told him ‘no’ the first time, which is more than I can say about your buddy Paul.”  Dom’s smile faded and she gave Lee a sidelong glare.  Lee was about to rise to Paul’s defense but Dom finally turned to him and scowled up at him with a look that would have done the Admiral justice.  “I’m not having this conversation with you anymore, Lee Crane.  Stop picking on my boyfriend and let me get my paper done.  My private life and who I spend my free time with is none of your business.”  Lee opened his mouth to argue, but Dom cut him off, saying, “Don’t go there, Crane.  You truly, truly do not want to go there.  Now get out.”  Dom firmly pointed his way to the door, her angry expression unfaltering.

     Lee’s lips pressed flat in consternation and he said, “He’s lying to everyone, Dom, and I hope that when the truth comes out that you’ll remember that I tried to warn you.”

     OUT!!!” was her only response.

     Lee left, but he wasn’t happy about it.  Barry had respected Lee’s misgivings about Harper and had happily agreed to see if he could find out anything about the little man.  Lee could only hope that he was quick about it.  He went to his office, only to find some more annoying paperwork had surfaced from somewhere.  Grumbling, he finished it, then decided that he needed to do something that wouldn’t annoy him.  Going down to the Seaview to help with repairs seemed a likely task, if it weren’t for the frustrating problem that had cropped up in the boat’s electronics recently.  It seemed like everything was out to annoy him lately, Lee thought with a frown as he headed down to the Seaview.

     Lee got down to the dock only to find Harper on top of the malfunctioning Diving Bell, working at something with a welding torch.  Lee ground his teeth.  The mechanics and engineers at the Institute had been unable to repair it and Ro had been busy with other repairs on the Seaview and hadn’t gotten to it yet.  Now Lee was going to have to have her and Sharkey go over the thing with a fine tooth comb when Harper was finished doing whatever he was doing.  Lee wanted to order him to leave, but knew the Admiral wouldn’t be at all happy about that, since he had probably told Harper to do what he was doing in the first place.  He had to have another talk with the Admiral.  He simply couldn’t understand how Nelson was being taken in by whatever con game this kid was running.

     “Morning, Captain.  What can I do you for?” Harper asked cheerfully as he shut off his torch and lifted his mask.  Lee supposed that the kid was talking to him because he was standing there glaring at him.  Harper didn’t seem to mind and had always seemed cheerful and friendly, but Lee wasn’t buying it.  He certainly didn’t care that Harper knew that he was keeping a very close eye on him.

     “You can explain what you’re doing for a start,” Lee said, trying to keep his tone civil.

     “Just finishing up rewiring the Diving Bell’s observation lamp here.  Actually, working on rewiring the whole thing.  The wiring was faulty.  That’s why the guidance system didn’t work right.  I’m amazed that anything worked.  The Admiral thought that might be the problem.  He’s always right, isn’t he?” Harper replied, still smiling and oblivious to Lee’s poor humor.  Lee fought to keep his face neutral, thinking that the Admiral hadn’t been right when he’d hired Harper.  “The main problem was that even though it got rewired before, the same faulty wiring was replacing the old faulty wiring.  It looked okay to the naked eye, but if you check it out... well, let’s just say I’m sorta surprised that you didn’t get electrical fires whenever anyone sneezed near this thing.  I think the Admiral is gonna sue whoever sold him that stuff.  I’ll be done with this part of it in a couple of minutes if you’ve got something else you need me to look at right away.  I can always finish the rest later.”

     Lee ignored Harper’s offer.  “You might be interested to know that I’m having the ONI run a very thorough check into your past,” Lee informed him, watching for a negative or nervous reaction.  There was none.

     “Good for you.  So, what’s the ONI?” Harper asked as he leaned forward onto the cable housing, totally unaffected.

     Finally, Lee scowled at him.  “I don’t like you.”

     Harper actually laughed.  “You and most of the rest of the universe.  I really am sorry about the whole dragon thing.  It was an accident.”

     “That doesn’t have anything to do with it.  There’s something not right about you and I’m going to find out what.”

     “So, do you want an alphabetical list or would you rather have it in order of importance.  I suppose that’s relative, though.  You probably have different priorities than I do,” Harper replied, still looking more amused than anything else.  Lee wanted to throttle him, wishing the younger man wasn’t well out of reach.  How could the Admiral like this annoying person?  How could Dom be attracted to him?

     “You’re not funny and you’re not fooling me.  I don’t know why the Admiral tolerates you or what Dom sees in you, but...”

     “Me neither,” Harper interrupted him, his demeanor finally growing serious as he straightened back up.  “She’s way too good for me, but even a mudfoot like me has to get lucky every once in a lifetime.  Anyway, I have a lot to do, so if you’re not done letting me know that you’re the Alpha Male on the Seaview, can you save it for later?”

     Lee could not believe what he had just heard.  “Excuse me?”

     “I already know I’m at the very bottom of the pecking order around here, but if you like you can prove your point by pounding it into me.  You wouldn’t be the first.  Just so you know, I’ll fight back and I’ll fight dirty.  I’ll still lose, but I’ll get in a couple good shots before I go down.  Just... later with all that.  I’m busy right now.”  With that, he put his welder’s mask back down and he set back to work.

     Lee could not believe the audacity of this person.  Who did this punk kid think he was talking to?  Lee was about to verbally tear into him, when Chip appeared from the direction of the Institute, shouting, “Harper!  The Admiral wants to see you in his office!”  Why did he look unhappy?  What trouble was Harper causing now?

     Again the welder’s torch died as Harper replied, “On my way!”  A moment later, he was down off the Bell and headed in toward the Institute at a quick walk.

     “Poor kid,” Chip commented, sounding like he actually meant it.

     Lee took shameful glee in the comment.  “Why?  Did the Admiral finally come to his senses and decide to get rid of him?” he asked, thinking he would be more than happy to propel Harper out the front gate himself.

     Chip looked a little shocked.  “No.  While I was going over some revised repair estimates with the Admiral, the Doc came into the office wearing ‘the face.’  The Admiral seemed to know what it was all about and asked me to send Harper up.  I don’t think his physical turned out how anyone expected.”

     That stunned Lee to silence for a few moments.  Harper was sick?  Sick enough to warrant ‘the face?’  He seemed perfectly fine.  “Are you sure?” he asked finally.

     “Lee, we both know ‘the face’ better than we’d like.  I’m sure,” Chip replied.

     Lee stood, not knowing what to do or say.  He’d just been tempted to take Harper up on his offer and beat some truth out of him.  Now Chip was telling him that the young man was critically ill, probably dying.  Was that what had been setting off Lee’s internal alarms?  Had he misread everything that badly?  “But... Harper looks fine,” Lee murmured with a shake of his head.  “Not sick at all.”

     “The kid’s been living rough on the street his whole life.  Who knows what he picked up,” Chip replied.

     Lee had to admit there were an uncomfortably large number of possibilities, nodding to Chips’s comment.  And Harper had called himself a kludge before, something poorly made.  Had he known that he was dying?  Was that why he was always straightforward and joked about any harsh words directed his way?  Was it because he knew that he didn’t have time to waste on negative emotions and beating around the bush?

     “I can’t believe this.  He’s rubbed me the wrong way since I first met him and I haven’t been at all pleasant to him despite his trying to...”  Lee ran a hand up over his hair, embarrassed and frustrated.  Now that he thought about it, aside from the comments a few moments ago, Harper had been friendly toward him.  Lee winced, thinking about how he had been hostile since the moment they’d met and had only managed to get a rise out of the kid by questioning Dom’s affection for him.  “What was wrong?  Did Jamieson say anything?” Lee asked.

     Chip shook his head.  “No.  Like I said, the Admiral already seemed to know.  Maybe Harper is sick but it’s something that can be fixed.  Jamie looked awfully grim, though.  If whatever Harper has isn’t fatal, it’s long term and it’s bad.  I hope he’s going to be all right.  He solved the Seaview’s electrical issues without breaking a sweat.  He’s a little weird, I’ll grant you, but he seems like an all right guy.”

     “Wait, I thought that the Admiral had figured things out.”  Wasn’t that what Harper himself had said?

     “No,” Chip said, shaking his head.  “The Admiral told Harper that he thought it was something to do with circuitry.  Harper’s the one that figured everything out.  I was there when he did it.  He seems pretty smart and, unlike Portman and his crowd, Harper was willing to pitch in and help when I asked.  It was kind of nice not having to go through the Admiral for once.  Lee, I really think you might be wrong about him.”

     Lee was at a loss.  Just thinking about Harper made the misgivings he’d been feeling since he’d met the kid rise up again.  Chip seemed to actually respect him and usually he was the first one to pick up on the same vibes as Lee did.  Even worse, Harper had some sort of serious medical problem and Lee couldn’t imagine how he was going to find out details about that any time soon.  Harper wasn’t under his command.  The only way he was going to find out how serious Harper’s health issues were was to ask the Admiral or Harper himself.  The Admiral would most likely tell him to talk to Harper.  Of course, if he apologized to Harper then asked him, the younger man would know that Lee was only being civil towards him because he was ill.  Not that Lee wanted to apologize to him anyway.  He was still certain that Harper was, if not lying, keeping some dangerous secret from everyone.  What a mess this whole thing was!

     Deciding that he would wait for Barry to call him back before he did anything as drastic as apologizing to Harper, Lee said, “I think maybe people are a little too willing to accept Harper at face value.  A friend of mine at ONI is checking into him.  I’ll reserve judgement until I hear from him,” Lee told Chip.

     Chip shook his head.  “Whatever you think you need to do to set your mind at ease, Lee.  I’ve got some new wiring to pick up, then a sub to rewire.  It’s going to be a long day.”

     Lee nodded to that statement.  “Very long,” he agreed, looking off in the direction that Harper had vanished.

* * *

     Harper sat very still in the Admiral’s office and waited for Nelson and Jamieson to actually need him for something.  He was sort of glad they didn’t, because being here and listening as the Admiral told boldfaced lies to the doctor to protect him was making him feel twitchy.  He was still rejoicing the fact that he hadn’t been shot or strapped down in one of the labs to be picked apart or in chains in the detention area being questioned under hot lights.  Nelson was an honorable man and lying was probably not easy for him.  Yet there he was, coolly telling huge fibs to keep Harper’s scrawny neck out of a noose.  The Admiral was the best boss a guy could be lucky enough to have and Harper was going to be the hardest working engineer that Nelson had ever seen so that he would know it was appreciated.  He just hoped that Doctor Jamieson would buy into the whole ‘victim of illicit experiments’ thing and decide not to sell him off to the highest bidder so that he would have a chance to do it.

     “So, these nanobots function like white blood cells or antibodies?” Jamieson asked, turning to look at him finally.

     “Sort of,” Harper said, glancing nervously at the Admiral, who nodded for him to go on.  “They’re... uh... programmed to... recognize certain bacteria and viruses and destroy them.  That’s what they told me, anyway.”

     “They who?  Who put the nanobots in you?” Jamieson asked.

     “I...” Harper started, then looked to the Admiral for help.  Should he say Dylan did?  It wasn’t like anyone here knew who Dylan Hunt was this far in the past.  He didn’t like making Dylan sound like a bad guy, though, because Dylan had never done anything evil as far as Harper was aware.

     “Jamie, he woke up tied to a table.  No one shook his hand and introduced themselves,” Nelson said.  Harper shuddered as he said it.  Listening to the Admiral almost made Harper believe the story was true.  He had lived through something very similar once and it still gave him nightmares.

     “And the thing on your neck, the wires in your brain?  Were you conscious when they put all that hardware into your head?” Jamieson asked, looking a little disturbed at the thought of it.

     “No, out cold, thankfully,” Harper told him.  Dead drunk was more like it.  He’d really wanted the cerebral port, but he’d been scared to death when the moment finally came to have it put in.

     “What does it do?” Jamieson pressed.

     Harper glanced to the Admiral again, but Nelson just raised an eyebrow at him.  He supposed that the Admiral was curious about his port too.  “It... uh... It’s a... They called it a neural interface... the exterior part is a port... for plugging things in.  A lead gets put into it and I can look at and modify a program from inside the computer... sort of.  Not any computer.  I mean, I couldn’t do it with the Admiral’s computer there.  It was for these other ones... special ones they had.”

     “Did it actually work?” Nelson asked, sounding intrigued.  Harper nodded, thinking maybe he’d talk to the Admiral more about it later.  He didn’t want to go too much into detail with the doctor right there.  After all, he was supposed to be playing dumb.  “And were you aware of your surroundings when this was going on?”

     “It sort of depended on how deep into the program I was.  Sometimes I wouldn’t need to be too deep into the program and I’d be just like I am now.  Lots of time, if I was deeper into things it probably looked like I was asleep to anybody watching because I couldn’t split my awareness between the program and the outside world.  Sometimes I’d get really involved and forget I wasn’t in the real world, you know?  Or I’d pass out in system and be all disorientated when I woke up,” Harper said truthfully.

     “But it didn’t hurt?” Nelson questioned him.  He actually sounded a little concerned, which Harper found touching.  He shook his head again.  It usually didn’t, unless Rommie was ticked with him about something and gave him a shock or somebody went poking at his port in ways it wasn’t intended to be poked at.  He would make sure that Doctor Jamieson kept all his medical instruments well away from his port from now on.

     “Was there anyone else there, where you were held?  Anyone else being experimented on?” Jamieson asked.  Harper shook his head again.  “And these people, they just let you go?” Jamieson asked, sounding rather dubious about that.

     Time to break out the pathetic face and the big lies and hope the for best, Harper thought.  He had been taken by some Nietzscheans one time and they’d experimented on him.  He’d draw from that, even though he hadn’t had his link back then.  “I woke up after one of the times I passed out.  I must’ve had lost circulation or something because I was out of the restraints.  Usually, when that happened, someone was there, guarding me, but this time there wasn’t.  Somehow, I got a vent opened.  They probably thought no way could anything human fit through it, but I was a real skinny kid.  I crawled out, up into an old subway tunnel, I think.  It was dark and I couldn’t see anything.  I just kept walking for as long as I could.  I think I was in shock or something, because I don’t remember exactly what happened.  I passed out at least twice while I was running, but the rest...”  He shrugged.  The real event was a dim blur, which was probably for the best.  “When I woke up all the way, I could see light and hear voices calling my name, so I made for them.  It turned out to be my cousin and some of his friends looking for me.  I’d been missing for more than a week and he’d been worried sick.  I told him that I didn’t know what had happened.  I was afraid Brendan would go after them and get hurt or killed.”

     “How old were you?” Jamieson asked, though he looked like he didn’t fully want to hear the answer.

     “Thirteen,” Harper told him, because that was how old he had been when the Nietzscheans had grabbed him and experimented on him.  He shuddered, certain that he was now pale and looked frightened.  It had been a truly terrifying time in his life.  He still wasn’t entirely sure how he’d escaped or how Brendan had found him.  He was sick with fear for weeks afterwards and had bad dreams about it almost constantly for months.

     “And what about the masses in your abdomen?  The ones that were removed recently?  How was that done?” Jamieson asked.

     “I don’t... Masses?”  Harper didn’t understand what the doctor was asking.

     Jamieson leaned over, setting a hand just below his rib cage.  Somehow, Harper managed not to cringe back much.  It had only been a few weeks since a touch like that would have started the Magog larvae in him squirming.  He kept expecting it to happen, even though he knew they were gone.  “Here.  They were here and somehow removed.  How was that done?  Some sort of lazar surgery?  There are no surgical scars.”  Jamieson had to be asking about the Magog larvae.  Harper realized that he must have seen some of the internal scarring from his unwanted passengers in the x-rays.  Harper didn’t know how to answer that one at all.  This time, the Admiral came to his rescue.

     “Seamus confessed some blackout periods to me,” he said, leaning back in his chair.  “Perhaps the people that were holding him have some sort of tracking device in him and would come for him from time to time to perform more experiments on him.”

     “Why not just hold him like they did the first time?” the doctor asked, turning to the Admiral.

     “Maybe they were feared he’d escape again and compromise another lab,” Nelson suggested.  “Maybe they wanted a field test of the nanobots and letting Harper ‘escape’ was the best way to conduct those tests.  Who could say?  You didn’t find anything in him, did you, Jamie?  Some sort of transmitter?”  Harper was glad the scenario being laid out wasn’t real.  He didn’t know if he’d sleep right ever again if that was going on.

     “There could be one in the nanobots or part of the neural interface in his head for all I know,” Jamieson replied with a shrug, then turned back to Harper.  “Are you sure that doesn’t hurt you at all?  I could see about removing the exterior part, at least, if it bothers you.”  Harper shook his head, putting a hand over his port, certain he looked as terrified as he felt at the thought of a twentieth century Earth doctor messing with it, no matter how good that doctor might be.  Jamieson didn’t look convinced, but he seemed to have moved on because he asked, “And you haven’t gotten ill since these nanobots were put into you?”

     “I have, but I get better fast.  Well, faster anyway.  I... I got lots sicker for longer before... when I was a kid...” Harper stammered out, his voice trembling.  He really didn’t want to be quarantined for the rest of his life and he knew that was where this was leading.

     “Jamie, the boy’s managed to survive far less sanitary conditions than he’ll be living in now without becoming deathly ill.  If nothing else, these people that took him did him a favor with the nanobots, since they do seem to be providing him with some protection from what his immune system wouldn’t be able to cope with,” Nelson said.  “I really don’t think we need to put him in a bubble, do you?”

     Harper cast a pleading look Jamieson’s way.  He wished he could wake up every morning as he had this morning, with Dom in his arms.  He didn’t want to be cut off from her, from everyone, for the rest of his life.  The doctor sighed heavily, saying, “Not right now, but I reserve the right to change my mind later, if the situation changes.  And you need to eat better, young man.  Lots of fruit and vegetables and some good solid protein.  I’ll bring you a diet that I expect you to follow and I want you to take a vitamin supplement I’m going to prescribe.  If I see any signs of malnutrition returning, I’m going to take more drastic action.  And you need to get six to eight hours of sleep every night.”  Harper made sure to look properly cowed at Jamieson’s scolding, nodding in agreement to all his demands.  His pride was grumbling that he should complain about being treated like a kid, but he knew that to Nelson and Jamieson he was just a kid.

     “I’ll keep an eye on him, Jamie.  Mister Harper has a lot of hard work ahead of him here at the Institute and I want him fit enough to do it,” Nelson said, rising from his seat.  “Is there anything else we should address at this time?”

     Jamieson looked as though he was trying to come up with something else, but he said, “No, that’s it for now.  Remember, if I see any negative trends starting...”

     “I’ll be good,” Harper said sheepishly.  He certainly didn’t want to get locked in some sterile room under observation like some lab specimen, which was what Jamieson had initially wanted.

     “All right,” Jamieson said a little begrudgingly.  “I want all those medical history forms filled out and in my office by the end of the week.”

     “Okay, Doc,” Harper said as he started to get up, thinking he could go back to work.  Anything that would be away from Doctor Jamieson would be good at the moment.  All the talk about what the doctor wanted to do about Harper’s childhood injuries was making him incredibly nervous, bordering on totally freaked out.  He didn’t like talking about that stuff.  He thought he’d left it all behind when he’d left Earth, his Earth anyway.

     “Mister Harper, I’d like a word,” Nelson said, waving him back into his seat, then showed the doctor to the door.  Harper was a little confused.  What had he done now?  He didn’t think he could take much more stress at the moment.  “Doctor Jamieson, I’ll stop by for those vitamins and the other things you mentioned later.”

     “Of course, Admiral,” Jamieson said, then they stepped out into the outer office and spoke for a few minutes.

     Harper sat playing with the hem of his shirt nervously until the Admiral returned.  “The Bell should be done in no time,” Harper offered quickly.  “I was just...”

     “I’ll have someone else attend to it.  Thank you for doing as much as you did and for finding that flaw in the wire.  No one thought to examine it quite that closely.  However, working on the Diving Bell or the Seaview isn’t what I hired you for,” Nelson told him and sat facing him where Jamieson had been rather than back behind his desk.

     “I don’t mind.  I like being useful and anything I can do to make your life easier just keeps me employed longer, right?” Harper said, trying to sound up, though he felt like cringing.  He knew the Admiral had kept him here for another serious talk.  After the one they had that morning, he could only imagine something bad was about to happen.  Maybe the Admiral had decided that he needed to be on a leash or shot after all.

     “I know, but you heard what Jamieson said.  Nanobots or no nanobots, I don’t want to expose you to unnecessary hazards, like the Seaview’s reactor, or anything else that could cause health troubles.  I know you’re used to being in the thick of things, son, but you’re riding a desk from here on out,” Nelson told him, almost sounding as though he was apologizing for it.  Harper hadn’t really thought much about working on the Seaview.  It would have been nice.  He would have gotten to be with Dom all the time that way, but he knew Nelson had hired him for research and development, not for the engineering staff on his submarine.

     “Then I should probably start up on those schematics and...”  Harper started as he began to rise, still a little worried about being slapping into chains, since the Admiral didn’t seem to want him dead.

     Nelson waved him back down into his seat.  “We need to have a long serious talk, you and I, about your past and your future.  This morning you were upset, and quite understandably so, and a lot was left unsaid.  First of all, I want make it very clear that you aren’t a prisoner here and that you won’t be forced to do anything that you don’t want to do, even by Doctor Jamieson, much as it may have seemed otherwise a few moments ago.”

     Harper gave Nelson a sheepish smile.  That was all this was about, he thought in relief.  He could deal with this.  “I know.  He just wants to keep me healthy.  Trance used to do that, too.  I still drank Sparky Cola and didn’t eat or sleep right, but she tried.”

     “She was the Medical Officer on the Andromeda?” Nelson asked.

     “Sort of.  We were civilians trying to run this big warship the best we could for Dylan’s sake.  He was military, a High Guard Captain through and through.  He tried to steer us toward some semblance of being a High Guard crew, but Trance was the only one that went at that wholeheartedly for any length of time.  I used to tease her about it, but I tried my best to make Dylan happy that I was around.  I wasn’t good at the spit and polish.  I’m still not, but I’ll try if you want me to.  You kind of need to tell me what I’m doing wrong, though.  I don’t know all the rules and it’s not like I grew up around culture or manners or anything,” Harper replied, giving Nelson a pained look.

     “I understand that, Seamus.  I want to try to understand exactly how it was for you growing up.  The story you told Doctor Jamieson, I’m guessing that was at least partially an actual event from your past,” Nelson paused, giving him a questioning look.  Harper just nodded and Nelson’s expression became grim.  “It doesn’t sound as though it was at all pleasant, the place and circumstances you grew up in.  You had lost your parents before you were thirteen?”

     Harper forced himself not to look down, not to look away.  He could trust the Admiral.  Nelson wouldn’t judge him, wouldn’t think less of him because he’d lived such a pathetic life.  “I was eight.  They got killed by the Nietzscheans, trying to protect me.  I had taught myself to read by then, so my parents knew I was pretty smart and other people were starting to realize it too.  Nobody in the camps knew how to read except for me for a start and I managed to fix a few things that really helped make life a little easier.  Everybody liked that and I felt like maybe it made up for me being sick and in the way a lot of the time.”

     “It wasn’t your fault,” Nelson assured him.

     “I know that now, but I was a kid then and you know how kids are about stuff like that.  Anyway, these slavers came around, looking for some mudfoots with a little intelligence to use in some kind of scheme they’d cooked up.  Usually, they didn’t care about that, but this time they did and it freaked my folks out.  They hid me and when the slavers came asking for me specifically, they lied and said that I’d died the last time I’d gotten sick.  The slavers were angry about it and they killed my parents because... I still don’t know why.  I was huddled there, hidden, watching my parents die to protect me and afterwards no one could tell me why.  My aunt and uncle told me to just forget about it, but how?  How do I forget?  It’s been almost twenty years and I still remember every scream.”  Harper’s voice broke.  He had never talked about this, not to Beka, not to anyone, ever since his uncle had told him to stop bringing it up.  Harper looked away a little and quickly rubbed the corner of his eye, telling himself firmly that he was not going to cry in front of the new boss, even though that’s what he felt like doing.

     Nelson reached out and laid a hand on his arm, meaning to comfort him.  “I’m so sorry, Seamus,” he said, offering him more sympathy than his own family ever had over the incident.

     Harper swallowed down the pain and shook his head, looking back at the Admiral.  Nelson wanted to understand who he was and where he had come from and Harper would do his best to tell him, no matter how much it made him hurt and feel ashamed.  The Admiral could take it.  Dom had told him about some of the rough missions that Nelson had weathered.  He knew from experience that sometimes life wasn’t pretty.  “It’s not like that was strange at the refugee camps in Boston.  There were a lot of orphans running around.  I was lucky.  At least I had family.  Some kids, they had nobody.”

     “And the Nietzscheans, they were a gang of some kind?” Nelson asked.  He had not moved his hand, keep it there as if steadying Harper with it.  He didn’t need it physically, but emotionally, it helped.

     “They were the ones that brought down the Commonwealth, the ones that tore Earth apart,” Harper told him, hatred in his voice.  They had turned this green, beautiful place into the wasteland he grew up on.  It hurt too much to think about.

     “The Drago-Kazov.  The ones that experimented on you,” Nelson said, his tone cold with anger.  “Were they the ones that gave you the... what did you call it?  A neural interface?”

     “No, they wanted to test a tissue regenerator.  They caught me in the ruins of a university, thinking I was scrounging around for food or tech that was still working.  They would’ve killed me on the spot if they’d known I was looking for books, that I could read.  But they didn’t know, so they tied me down and cut me with their bone blades... these boney spikes that stick out of their forearms, and used the regenerator on me and see how long it took the wound to heal.  I had a reputation of being sickly and a slow healer, so they figured if it worked good on me, it would work great on them.  They tried all sorts of different wounds to see if it behaved differently on different types.  They had me all hyped up on stimulants, I guess because they also wanted to see my reaction to the regenerator, whether it hurt or not.  I don’t know how long they kept me awake.  It all became a blur after a while.  Then I think they got tired of hurting me or I passed out and they couldn’t get me to come to and thought I was all used up, because they just left me on the table I’d been strapped down to.  At least one of them was decent enough to untie me.”

     Nelson looked appalled.  “You were a child.  How could they do that to a child?”  He couldn’t continue, shock and outrage choking off the words before he could get them out.

     Harper looked down, swallowing his own emotions.  “I was just another kludge as far as they were concerned.  That’s all any of us were to them, kludges, mudfoot slaves, things to use up and throw away.  Actually, I was something they hated.  I was a smart kludge.  That made me dangerous to them.  If Beka hadn’t taken me off planet, they would have found out about me being able to read and build things for resistance fighters like Brendan to use against them.  Then they would have killed me slow in public so that the other mudfoots would see that it was bad to want to know things.  Better to be a nice, obedient slave.  Then you might get to live a little longer in hunger and poverty than the stupid kludges that stood up against them when there was no way they could win.  Brendan stood up.  He got a lot of people to fight back, to stop being slaves.  I don’t know if he was even still alive when I...”  He didn’t have any more words left in him, so he just stopped talking and sat there trembling and looking down.

     Nelson’s grip tightened momentarily on Harper’s arm.  “Don’t give up hope,” he said when Harper looked up at him again.  “Your cousin, he might very well still be carrying on his fight.  If you’re any example of your family’s fortitude, he is not an easy man to kill.”  Harper looked at him, not knowing what to say.  No one had ever treated him with this much consideration.  Even Beka told him to lighten up when he got going on Earth rants.  He’d never told her a lot of the personal stuff he’d just told the Admiral.  When he’d first joined her crew, he was still too guarded to talk about anything that deeply personal to him and later he’d established the ‘happy Harper’ image and didn’t want her to see all the pain and anger behind it too often.  He let out little hints, but they never got very positive results, so he tried not to slip very often.  “And you are not a kludge,” Nelson said after a few moments of silence.

     Harper managed a little grin.  “I think Doctor Jamieson told you different.  I bet he came into your office last night and said, ‘You know that wuss guy?  He’s broken and I can’t fix him.  Don’t get too attached,’ or slightly nicer words to that effect.”

     Nelson finally let go of his arm, giving him a tight lipped look.  Yup, Harper told himself, he’d nailed it.  “Well, Doctor Jamieson has had reason to revise his diagnosis since last night, so I would appreciate your not referring to yourself in that manner again.  Or as a mudfoot.”

     “That just means...”

     “A native of Earth.  Yes I know.  It’s the derogatory tone of the word that I object to,” Nelson told him.

     “How about Seamus Zelazny Harper, super genius?” Harper asked with a much brighter grin.  There had been enough gloom Harper decided.  He’d lighten things up and go back to work and on with his life.  Now that Nelson knew who he was and where he was from, he could stop stressing and get things done.  Nelson was going to be really, really happy that he was around.  He was going to make very sure of that.

     Nelson raised an eyebrow at him.  “I see humility is not a problem.”

     Harper gave an expansive shrug.  “It sort of depends on what you’re talking about.  I know that I’m short, I get sick easy, I’m not real brave on my own, I have terrible fashion sense, and my hair tends to stick up whether I want it to or not.  On the other hand I’m smart, I make up from not being strong by being quick on my feet, I don’t abandon my friends in rough situations, and if I sign on somewhere, like I did with Beka and Dylan and now with you, I give my work all I’ve got.  Oh, and I talk too much, which comes from thinking too much and letting some of what’s whirling around in my head constantly get out to make room for other stuff.  Just tell me to shut up when I get on your nerves.  It doesn’t bother me and sometimes that’s the only way I will be quiet.  Heck, I talk even when there’s no one around to hear what I’m saying.”

     Nelson smiled a little.  “I have heard that talking to one’s self is a sign of intelligence.”

     “Or schizophrenia.”  Nelson chuckled.  He seemed to have forgotten about all the torture and general abuse that they’d just been talking about, which suited Harper just fine.  He didn’t like to dwell on his past, but he supposed he’d have to talk this all out again with Dom eventually.  He wished he could do it now, have it all out in the open and move past it.  Then he could really settle into his new life.

     “Perhaps you’re just uncomfortable with silence,” Nelson suggested.  “Many people are.  Do you like music?”

     “Sure.  Who doesn’t?”

     “It would depend on the type of music you’re talking about in some cases,” Nelson told him.

     “I like all kinds of music, even the depressing opera stuff that Tyr likes, not that I’d tell him that.  Music is like listening to being alive and even if you’re sad or angry or hurting, being alive is always a good thing,” Harper said.

     “A worthy sentiment, Mister Harper,” Nelson told him as he rose from his seat.  “Have you made plans for lunch?”

     Harper shook his head.  “Not yet.  I don’t actually eat lunch every day.”

     “Well, you do from now on,” Nelson told him, motioning for him to get up.  “I know a good restaurant near an equally good music store.  You can tell me who Tyr is on the way and I can introduce you to what I hope you find to be some of the better music available in the twentieth century.”

     Harper stood, but he gave Nelson a sheepish look.  “You don’t have to keep doing things for me.  The job and a place to live was more than generous and I didn’t tell you about my folks and things to wring more stuff out of you.  I just wanted you to know that I’m not trying to be disrespectful with you or anything when I screw up.  When Beka got me, I was this feral thing.  She managed to make me a little more civilized somehow, but there’s still a lot of undomesticated Harper in me and it doesn’t always come out at the best times and...” 

     “Seamus,” Nelson cut him off, then set a hand half on his neck and half on his collarbone.  He squeezed gently, plainly organizing his thoughts, probably trying to decide what to do about him.  Harper wanted to tell him again that he didn’t need to do more than he already had, but he stayed quiet.  “You don’t have to feel indebted for every little kindness someone shows you.  Sometimes doing things for others simply to do it makes a person feel better about themselves and that is all the reward they want.”  Harper nodded, but still felt uneasy, certain it showed.  Nelson gave him another tight lipped look.  “Do you know what a mentor is?”

     “Somebody that shows you what to do and how to act and stuff,” Harper replied softly, wondering if he was about to be handed over to one of the other engineers so they could try to whip him into shape.  None of them seemed to particularly like him when he’d been introduced around, so he could only see frustration and humiliation down that road.  He could only pray it wasn’t Portman he was about to be shoved at.

     “I’d like to act as a mentor to you for a little while, until you’ve adjusted to this time and place and your new life here,” Nelson told him, then waited for a response.  Harper blinked back at him, not able to make any words come out.  He felt honored that the Admiral wanted to give him more personal attention.  After all, Nelson was an important man.  He didn’t have to waste his time doing as he’d suggested.  He could easily order someone else to do it.  “Please understand, Seamus, I’m not criticizing you.  You haven’t done anything wrong, at least not glaringly so.  It must be very confusing and daunting, having to face all the changes that you do and I don’t mind helping to make the transition a little easier.”

     “I... I’m okay.  You don’t need to,” Harper protested, the words sounding feeble even to him.

     Nelson smiled again, this time far more sincerely.  “Ah, but you see, I do.  You’ve made it fairly plain that you intend to be a loyal, hard working employee here at the Institute and I take personal pride in everyone and everything under my command being the absolute best there is.  As an engineer, you’ll excel.  I have no doubts about that.  I simply don’t want the changes I mentioned getting in the way, so guiding you a bit only makes sense.  A little time and attention are a small investment to make, really, considering the return you seem willing to give me.  I’m sure that Captain Valentine and Captain Hunt felt the same way.”

     “They were both kind of desperate for an engineer when I made an appearance in their lives,” Harper admitted sheepishly.  “And I sort of pushed myself on Beka, told her how great I was and how much I could do for her ship.  Okay, to be fair, it was just short of pathetic pleading not to be tossed back where she found me, but still, it worked.  And it’s not like I didn’t surprise the heck out of both of them by actually being good at what I do, because I really am amazingly talented with anything mechanical, but back then it was just me saying so.  I guess it sort of still is.  Anyway, it wasn’t like they went out of their way to hire me or anything and that they didn’t smack me off the back of the head for being totally annoying every so often.”

     Nelson patted him on the shoulder, shaking his head at him.  “It’s amazing how you manage to be self effacing and boastful at the same time,” he said, then nodded him toward the door.  Harper went willingly enough, accompanying the Admiral out of his office.  After giving Katy a grin and a little wave while Nelson told her that they were going out to lunch, Harper walked with Nelson toward where his car was parked outside.  As they strolled along, he was wondering once again how he could have possibly gotten so lucky, first with meeting Dom and then the Admiral.  “So, Captain Valentine also acted as a mentor to you?” Nelson asked once they left the reception area of his office and they were alone again.

     “More like a surrogate mom, though she’d prefer that I say big sister so that no one makes the mistake of thinking that she’s actually old enough to be my mom,” Harper replied with a little grin.

     Nelson chuckled.  “And let me guess what her first lesson might have been.  Shipboard etiquette?”

     Harper shrugged uncomfortably, certain he was blushing, and said, “Actually... uh... it was personal hygiene.  I’d never... um... actually seen a working shower before the Maru.”

     “I see.  Well, I’m pleased that isn’t an issue any longer,” Nelson replied, plainly fighting down a laugh.  Harper didn’t feel insulted.  It was funny, after all.

     “So’m I,” Harper said sincerely.  “I mean, what chance would I have had getting Dom to go out with me if the first thing she had to do for me was push me into a shower and threaten to kick my butt if I didn’t come out clean like Beka had to?  It took me three tries to pass her inspection.  Talk about embarrassing.”  Nelson chuckled this time and Harper half hoped that if was because he thought it was a joke rather than the painful truth that it was.  Harper shrugged off his discomfort.  It was okay, the Admiral knowing how incredibly pathetic he’d been once.  He knew that Nelson wouldn’t hold it against him and that felt great.

* * *

 

 

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