Belonging

by

Michelle Pichette

 

Chapter 25

 

 

* * *

     “I don’t see why you don’t just toss them out.  I wouldn’t have let them aboard in the first place,” Tyr commented as he and Dylan watched the Perseids remotely from the Command Deck.

     “With the Magog Worldship coming, we need all the allies we can get.  We can’t afford to have the Perseids angry with us right now,” Dylan replied.  He was furious with himself over losing his composure with Barris a few minutes ago, but he had been so angry and frustrated for so long that he’d just snapped.  The thought of Barris harming Harper with impunity still enraged him.  If he could be absolutely certain that Harper wasn’t on Barris’ ship, he would have blasted the vessel and its sadistic crew into atoms.  “That’s why I want you to go guard those two.  We don’t need Barris taking any more hostages.”

     Tyr scowled.  “I abhor Perseid scientists,” he snarled.

     “Maybe your presence will speed them on their way.  And if Barris shows up, feel free to break him into as many little pieces as you’d like,” Dylan said.  Tyr let out a little growl that Dylan thought might be of pleasure at the thought of ripping Barris apart, but the Nietzschean left the Command Deck without saying anything else.

     Dylan closed his eyes briefly once Tyr was gone, gathering the shreds of strength he had left so he could carry on.  “You should go and sleep, Dylan,” the Andromeda told him.  “It’s quiet right now.  Barris probably won’t come back for a while and Beka is still a day away from the Lechak Bon’s home world.  You haven’t slept more than a few hours in days.”  Dylan found he could actually smile at the ship’s concern over him.

     “I’m fine, Andromeda,” he assured his ship.

     “No, you’re not,” she corrected him.  “You’re exhausted and under an incredible amount of stress.  Much as I was happy about it at the time, you would never have attacked Barris if you were in full control of yourself.  You aren’t because you’re spent and that’s dangerous to all of us.  I’ve had a Maria bot bring a very mild sedative to your quarters so that you can actually get some sleep.  We need you at your best, Dylan.  Harper, all of us, need that and right now, you aren’t.”

     Dylan wanted to argue the point, but he knew that Andromeda was right.  “If anything happens...” he started, not fully ready to give in yet all the same.

     “I’ll wake you and you’ll handle it.  You always do,” the Andromeda told him.  Dylan let all the tiredness he had been trying to keep at bay settle in on him a little as he nodded to the ship’s words and started toward his quarters.  He passed hydroponics as he walked casually up the corridor, seeing his basketball lying on the makeshift court there, a memory coming unbidden as he saw it.

     “Instead of just sitting there watching me shoot hoops, why don’t we play a game?” Dylan asked his new engineer.  Harper was sitting a little way away on some grass, silently watching him.  He had been there for a while, Dylan knew, but for how long he couldn’t be absolutely sure.  For someone that could outtalk a Perseid on a roll, Harper could be disturbingly quiet when he wanted to be.

     “Nah,” Harper said with a little shake of his head, drawing his knees up to his chest and setting his chin on them.  “I’ve seen you play Tyr.  I don’t feel like being one big bruise today.”

     Dylan grinned.  When he and Tyr played basketball, it was as much about dominance as points.  He supposed it did look pretty brutal to a casual onlooker.  “No personal fouls, I promise,” Dylan told the kid, moving to dribble the ball in front of him.

     Harper gave him a little grin, saying, “Basketball is not for the vertically challenged, thanks anyway.  Never was much of one for sports outside surfing, really.  You ever try surfing?”

     Dylan caught his ball and spun it between his hands a few times.  “No.  Considering the state of the Earth’s oceans, I’m a little surprised that you know how to swim, much less surf.”

     Harper didn’t lose his grin, but it changed, something dark lingering in the corner of his eyes.  “Magog can’t swim.  Sink like rocks, in fact.  Given a choice between diving into some questionable water and Magog infestation, I’ll take treading water any day.  My dad taught me how to swim.  My mom was furious with him for weeks about it, because I got real sick afterwards.  It annoyed her to no end that I liked swimming despite that and that I was good at it.”

     Dylan turned from Harper and shot a basket, not sure if he wanted to go where this conversation was leading.  Harper seemed to genuinely want to open up to him about himself, but Dylan was a High Guard Captain.  Harper was his Engineer.  There was a professional distance that needed to be kept there.  He had almost lost Harper to radiation poisoning already.  The incident had let Dylan know that Harper’s health was far more fragile than appearances seemed to indicate.  He had begun to take steps to rectify that, but he knew that of all his new crew, death was most likely going to come for Harper first.  Dylan knew he couldn’t afford to get too attached, not with the monumental task of reestablishing the Commonwealth before him.  Then Harper would say something like he just had or Dylan would see the naked hero worship or an almost desperate desire to please him on kid’s face and his resolve would waver.

     “Have you ever tried basketball?  Maybe you’re good at it too,” Dylan said as he recaptured the ball and tossed it lightly in Harper’s direction.  Harper uncurled himself a little and caught the ball easily.

     “No.  The things I threw on Earth usually were heaved with deadly intent at Nietzcheans, not to score points.  Well, not primarily anyway.  Me and my cousins and our buddies did kind of keep this unofficial tally,” Harper mused with a wicked little chuckle as he tossed the ball back.

     Dylan didn’t like to think about what Harper might have gone through on Earth.  He occasionally felt a little guilty for having a safe, happy childhood on Tarn-Vedra when he looked at Harper.  “So, you going to give this a try or not?” he asked rather than dwelling on it.

     Harper got a calculating look on his face.  “If I give the whole basketball thing a try now, will you give surfing a whirl when we get in the neighborhood of Infinity Atoll?”

     Dylan chuckled and shook his head, saying, “I’ve seen the waves on Infinity Atoll.  What have I done to you lately that has you wishing me dead?”

     “Aw, come on.  I’ve surfed there a couple of times.  It’s awesome.  Is a big, tough guy like you afraid of a little water?”

     “No of large, sharp rocks hiding beneath monstrous waves.  I don’t know how you aren’t, frankly,” Dylan replied with a good natured laugh.

     Harper drew up one knee, resting an arm on it.  “I’ve spent most of my life being afraid, but I’ve lived long enough to know that some things are worth swallowing down your fear to grab at.”

     “Like surfing,” Dylan surmised.  “Anything else?”

     “I’m here, aren’t I?” Harper asked back, raising an eyebrow at Dylan.  “I even talked Beka into being here.  You really need more of a testimonial?”

     Dylan wanted to chuckle, to say nothing could harm them on the Andromeda, that there was nothing to fear, but he couldn’t.  He was too honest for that.  Instead, he nodded and said, “Thank you for taking a chance on me, Mister Harper,” the words totally sincere.

     “There’s no chance involved,” Harper said dismissively as he got up and faced him with one of his trademark, dimple filled smiles.  “You’re Dylan Hunt.  You can do anything.  Opposition to the new Commonwealth just hasn’t realized how totally beaten it is yet, especially now that you’ve got us to back you up.  So, fine, you gonna stand there all day or are you gonna smoke my ass at b ball?”

     The memory stung.  Harper had shown Dylan unquestioning trust in him from his first day on the Andromeda and now Dylan felt as if he had betrayed the poor kid.  He should have kept his temper under control earlier and gotten more information from Barris.  He should have been able to figure things out more quickly, both before Harper was taken and after.  When Dylan got to his quarters, he thought about sitting at his desk and reviewing the logs of Barris’ visits again, but when he took a few steps in that direction, one of Andromeda’s holograms appeared before him, drawing him up short.

     “Dylan, bed,” she said firmly.

     Dylan felt his shoulders sag and he nodded, turning to the private area of his quarters.  “I just feel like I should be doing more,” he muttered, feeling helpless and hating it.

     “You said it yourself.  Beka will find something.  We just need to be patient,” Andromeda said.

     “I’m not feeling very patient anymore,” Dylan told her.

     “And I want my engineer back,” Andromeda commiserated.  Dylan could agree with the sentiment.  As undisciplined and totally unrepentant about it as Harper was, Dylan couldn’t picture anyone taking his place.  He’d been looking forward to the day when Harper had staff and how he would deal with it.  Try as he might, Dylan couldn’t stop the smile that always came to his face when he imagined a group of High Guard engineers having to take orders from Harper.  It was something he had been looking forward to immensely.  Now it might never happen and that was almost too much for Dylan to bear.  “Get some sleep, Dylan.  When you wake up, we’ll be that much closer to what we want.”

     Dylan nodded and took the sleeping pills that were sitting on his night stand, pulled off his boots and uniform, then climbed into bed in his underwear.  “Harper told me once that Magog sink like rocks in water,” he commented to Andromeda as he settled down, suddenly finding that incredibly funny.

     “Considering their dense muscle mass, that’s probably true,” Andromeda replied.

     “I’ve got this picture in my head now.  Harper’s sitting on his surf board in some deep water and he’s taunting Magog to their doom,” Dylan almost giggled out.  That made him wonder if the sedatives Andromeda had given him really were as mild as she’d said.  Or maybe he was so tired that he was getting silly.  Certainly, his eyes were already refusing to stay open and he could feel sleep pressing in on him.

     “I wouldn’t put it past him,” Andromeda replied.  Dylan could swear he heard amusement in her usually no nonsense voice.  “Good night, Dylan.”  He didn’t even get to respond before sleep took him away.

* * *

     Nelson watched from a dozen paces away as Harper flipped through a section of cd’s in the swing section of the music store.  He was smiling and seemed happy.  That was good, because Nelson was feeling good himself as he waited, making plans for his new protégée.  He had decided that he was going to treat the entire matter of Harper being from the future as though the young man were from another country.  There were different languages, different customs, different life experiences in their pasts, but they were both just people.  Actually, they had a lot in common and Nelson found that he had grown quite fond of the boy.  The truth of when Harper was from really didn’t change that at all.

     As impressed as Nelson had been with Harper’s mechanical abilities from the beginning of their association, he was all but made speechless by what he had learned over lunch.  The boy had taught himself to read.  That had always impressed Nelson, but he had thought that there had been little helps to him, people that might have given him guidance without his realizing they had.  However that was not the case.  Harper had taught himself almost everything he knew because there had been no one else to teach him.  He had fought to learn everything he could, all the while knowing that if he were discovered by the Nietzschean thugs, the Drago-Kazov, that ruled the area, he would meet a painful, demeaning death for it.

     Nelson wondered, had anyone else in Harper’s past ever fully appreciated the difficulty of that achievement and the courage it had taken?  Nelson doubted it because Harper himself didn’t seem to place any real importance on it.  The boy had even said over lunch how Captain Valentine had repeatedly told him how hopeless he was because when he’d gotten into space he’d attempted to teach himself other languages and kept mixing up the words.  Why hadn’t the woman been astounded that Harper had managed to learn anything at all or that he would even try?

     Nelson would not be so careless about Harper’s education.  He would attempt to send the boy to college.  Harper was nervous about being on his own, not that Nelson blamed him really, or he would have planned to send the boy out East to his own alma mater as Doctor Babin had said jokingly.  Still, there were excellent schools right here in California and Nelson would encourage individual classes even if Harper didn’t want to go full time.  If the boy shied from a classroom setting, Nelson would arrange private lessons.  The Admiral was curious just how much Harper could learn if someone took the time to teach him.  Nelson wouldn’t rush things, though.  He would ease the idea of higher education in gradually over the next few weeks, starting with recommending books to see what sparked the boy’s interest.

     What Nelson found even more amazing than Harper’s cognitive abilities was his ability to adapt and forgive.  Certainly, the Earth Harper was trapped on wasn’t as hostile as the Earth of his childhood, but it must seem primitive and strange to him all the same.  Somehow, though, Harper didn’t seem to be suffering overly from culture shock.  Perhaps his experiences with space travel had helped.  When Nelson had been told that Tyr was Nietzschean and that Harper still accepted him as a friend, albeit one that made him nervous and fearful of betrayal, he was shocked.  This was a member of the race that had enslaved and tortured the boy and had murdered his family, yet Harper didn’t hate Tyr for the actions of those others.

     Despite the fact that Harper had pretty much grown up in hell from the sound of things, there was still an innocence about him.  He wanted to trust people, but seemed resigned to being hurt continually for making the effort.  Nelson didn’t know how the boy had the inner strength not to have given up on others long ago, but he would make certain that the trust Harper had placed almost blindly in him wasn’t repaid with more pain and loss.

     A salesperson approached Harper and asked him if he needed any help.  Harper offered the young woman a smile and shook his head, watched her appreciatively for a moment as she walked away, then turned back to what he’d been looking at.  Nelson smiled.  Harper was quite unabashedly attracted to women, but he had his heart set on winning over Doctor Babin’s affections specifically.  Over lunch, childlike joy seemed to claim Harper as he told Nelson about his date with her.  She was very much the center of Harper’s universe at the moment.  Nelson was glad that this unconditional devotion was directed toward someone that at least felt some affection for him and would do her best not to hurt him.  Harper deserved a little happiness and he would be good to Dominica.  Nelson wouldn’t be surprised if Harper did end up telling her all about his past in a few months and found the thought making him quite pleased.

     Harper was holding a few cd cases as he walked toward the front of the store, fishing in front pocket for something.  When Nelson realized that Harper was heading for the checkout counter, probably to spend some of his meager funds to buy the things in his hand.  Nelson started to move to intercept him.  The Admiral had intended to purchase some music for the boy to make up for the stress and worry he’d put Harper through with Jamieson and for his comments about how people from the future should be dealt with.  Even more than that, he felt a little guilty about what he had spoken to Jamieson about outside his office.  Nelson had asked Jamieson how much time he thought the nanobots were going to buy Harper.  Jamieson didn’t trust the nanobots, but he had said that even with the equivalent of a fully functioning immune system, Harper probably wouldn’t live more than twenty years.  His body had simply taken too much abuse during his childhood.  Parts of him, like his lungs, were already worn thin and couldn’t stand any more harm and keep functioning.

     Nelson didn’t know how to talk to Harper about this and ultimately decided not to unless some new problem made it more immediately necessary.  It wasn’t as though there was anything to be done about it other than trying to start some healthy habits in the boy’s life and hoping that would be enough to keep his abused body going.  Doctor Babin already seemed to be monitoring at least some of his diet and Nelson intended to protect him from as much physical harm as possible.  Then there was Harper’s romance with Doctor Babin to consider.  Sometimes personal happiness was the most powerful drug of all.

     “Mister Harper,” Nelson said as he drew near.  Harper drew to a halt and smiled at him.  Harper’s smile was like the sun coming out from behind clouds, bright and pure.  That smile astounded Nelson now that he knew something of Harper’s past.

     “I found a couple of names I actually knew,” he said, sounding quite pleased.  “Classics.  Can’t skimp on the classics.”

     “May I see?” Nelson asked, extending a hand.  Harper gave them over without hesitation and Nelson looked at what he had.  Benny Goodman, Nelson saw and smiled.  Ah, something they both liked.  Then there was the Brian Setzer Orchestra and a group called Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  They also seemed to be swing bands, although more contemporary ones.  The last cd surprised him a little.  “Elvis?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at the boy.

     “Hey, gotta love the King, baby,” Harper said, then seemed to think better of it and hastily added, “I mean sir.”

     Nelson smiled and patted Harper gently on one shoulder.  Harper would need a lot of direction where social graces were concerned, but the Admiral knew he meant no disrespect.  Before he could respond, a familiar voice said, “Harri, I didn’t know you shopped here too.”  Kensington, the very last person Nelson wanted to see at the moment, was coming up to them when Nelson half turned to him.  “Friday night was memorable.  Just don’t invite Barnett the next time and a repeat would be perfect.

And who might this be?” Kensington asked, his attention squarely centered on Harper.

     Nelson fully meant to make a vague response and a quick exit, but Harper held out a hand saying, “Seamus Harper, newly hired engineer.”  Nelson felt like clapping a hand over his face.  That was the last thing Kensington needed to hear.

     Kensington took Harper’s hand as he looked the boy over with a sense of amusement.  Nelson was actually pleased that he hadn’t gotten around to getting Harper out of his baggy, secondhand clothing as yet.  Maybe it would deter Kensington from his usual course of action whenever Nelson hired someone new.  “Philip Kensington,” he said, giving Harper one of his winning smiles.  “Harri hadn’t said that he was in the market for anyone new for the Institute.  I didn’t leave a gap when I won the round over Randall, did I, Harri?  Sorry about that.”  The smug little laugh made Nelson frown.

     Suddenly, Harper’s smile became tinged with something else, suspicion maybe, but something more.  He drew his hand away from Kensington and said, “Yeah, well, nice to meet you and all, but we’ve got stuff going on, y’know?  Gotta go.  Right, sir?”  Harper looked to Nelson and nodded his head pointedly toward the door.  He didn’t look frightened exactly, but he wanted to be away from Kensington, which was what Nelson wanted, so he wouldn’t complain.  He also hadn’t missed that ‘sir’ had taken the usual place of ‘boss.’  Was it the little slip a few moments ago or Kensington that was responsible for that?

     “Oh, Harri and I are old friends.  You have a minute, don’t you, Harri?” Kensington asked, but didn’t look away from Harper or wait for a response.  “You didn’t say what sort of engineering you specialize in, Mister Harper.”  He gave Harper another smile and his body language spoke of openness and welcome.  Kensington didn’t even know what Harper did and already he was ready to pounce on him.

     Harper didn’t respond well to the smile at all.  He actually got an angry look on his face, though Nelson didn’t have the foggiest notion why.  “The loyal to my boss kind,” he replied, then turned from Kensington and marched away from him to look at something well away from the technology magnate.

     Shock wiped the smile off Kensington’s face, but he recovered quickly.  “What have you been telling your new employees about me, Harri?” he asked with a grin.

     Nelson was at a loss over what had just happened.  “I don’t think I’ve said anything at all about you to Harper,” he replied.

     Kensington didn’t look angry.  In fact, he looked intrigued.  “A real challenge, then,” he commented, looking eager to do battle over Harper, despite not knowing a thing about the boy.  “I’ll look forward to it.  We’ll talk, Harri.  And I’m sure Seamus and I will be talking too.  And soon.”  With that, Kensington strolled away, chuckling to himself.

     Nelson wasted no time going to where Harper now stood with his back to where Kensington had been.  “That was rude, Mister Harper,” he said quietly, though he was sure he sounded more puzzled than angry about what had just happened.

     Harper looked up from the tapes he had been idly flipping through, the expression from a few minutes ago still there, the anger perhaps a little more defined if anything.  “Yeah, well, he was lucky I didn’t punch him in his dirty, underhanded, pretty boy face,” Harper snarled, but kept his voice down.  “What’s he think, I’m gonna just drop you like nothing when you’ve been nothing great to me since the second you met me?  All for a little money?  Probably thinks I’d hand Dom over to him on a silver platter for a couple more dollars.  Rich bastard.”

     It was the comment about Doctor Babin that made everything make sense.  She had most likely told Harper about Kensington and his competition over employees.  Nelson doubted that she had been too rough on Kensington judging by the amusement with which she usually spoke about him at the Institute.  Harper, however, seemed to have come to his own conclusions concerning the technology magnate and seemed to like him not one bit.  “Seamus, Philip Kensington is one of the Institute’s financial supporters,” Nelson started to explain, hoping that Harper would understand that Kensington wasn’t an enemy, that he just had an odd way of competing with Nelson.

     “A pirate is a pirate, no matter how he dresses himself up and tosses his gold around,” Harper told Nelson, still plainly wound up over Kensington.  “Sooner or later, they’ve got a sword at your back while they march you out to the sharks.  Trust me, boss, he’s bad news.  You don’t need him.  The Nelson Science Consortium is going to be around long after some other pirate does away with him.”

     Nelson was about to try to calm the boy down and tell him to be civil to Kensington as a favor to him, then Harper’s final comment hit home.  “The Nelson Science Consortium?” he asked.  His Institute had lived on to Harper’s time, at least in some form?  He didn’t know how to respond to that at all.

     Dismay knocked the anger firmly off Harper’s face and the boy cringed a little.  “I... I probably shouldn’t have said anything about that, should I?  I mean, future stuff, it could be bad to know about it, right?  Too much information and all that, huh?”

     Nelson looked at him silently for a moment, thinking about what he wanted to say.  “I will only ask you one thing about that, then I will never ask you anything else,” he told the boy.  “Has someone twisted my name and Institute to the cause of evil or do we both stand for and with the side of good?”

     Harper blinked, seeming stunned, then said, “Oh, boss, every scientist on every world I’ve been to honors you like... well, like a bunch of alien guys you wouldn’t know even if I told you their names.  The Consortium is firmly on the good guy side.  Heck, that’s part of why I came clean with you back in my room earlier.  I knew, deep down, that you couldn’t be that Nelson and ever hurt me for no good reason.  I’m almost speechless that somebody who is and will be as important as you are would spend so much time being kind to me.  I mean, me, speechless.  That’s how amazed your standing there looking at me like I’m actually someone worthy your time just about has me.”

     Nelson felt a little speechless himself for a moment.  He had always hoped that history would be kind to him, but what Harper was saying was more than he had ever dared dreamed.  He cleared his throat and rubbed at the back of his neck, shaking off the feeling as he said, “Well, it seems I have a lot to live up to.  I hope you’re ready to help me do it, Mister Harper.”

     Harper got a sheepish look on his face.  “You don’t need me, boss.  There aren’t any Harper Science whatevers in the future.  I’m just some fix it guy who’s lucky he’s managed to live as long as he has.”

     “Maybe we’ll change that right along with Earth’s formerly dim future,” Nelson told him with a smile and a gentle pat on the shoulder, sincerely hoping both things would be true.

     Harper grinned at him a little.  “I kinda doubt it, but on the outside chance that’s at all possible, I’d better get to work drawing up those reactor plans, huh?”  Nelson nodded, not feeling anything more needed to be said.  However, he did accompany Harper to the store’s checkout counter and along with the disks he bought a nice radio/cd player for the boy to thank him for the unexpected but wonderful news from the future.  Kensington was in for the fight of his life if he thought he had any chance of wrestling Harper away from him. 

* * *

 

 

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