* * *
Portman had spent a frustrating day going through the code of the
Institute’s computer system, still unsuccessful with finding the virus
he was beginning to have doubts existed at all.
Frowning, he decided he had to get out of his office for a while
and get some air and coffee. He was half way down the hall when he heard Nelson’s
secretary in one of the labs behind him, saying, “Of course it’s not a
bother. The Admiral told me
to look after you, Mister Harper.”
That turned Portman’s frown into a scowl.
Why would anyone want to look at Harper, much less after him?
And what was the little street rat doing here in the labs instead
of working on the Diving Bell? That
got rid of his scowl. Portman
snickered to himself, going in the direction of Winslow’s voice, ready
to catch Harper goofing off.
“Thanks, really, but I don’t mind getting my own
coffee,” Harper was saying.
“Well, then, maybe there’s something else I could do for
you. Like show you around
Santa Barbara a little tonight?” Portman
came to a screeching halt, certain he was the picture of disgust at the
moment. Had Winslow actually
just asked Harper out on a date? She
didn’t give the time of day to any of the Engineers, too good for them
because she was Nelson’s secretary.
As if a secretary was anything lofty.
“Not that it still isn’t surprising the heck out of me,
but I’ve got a date with my girlfriend tonight and kinda every night.
Thanks for offering though, really.
It’s nice to know somebody besides the Admiral and Dom don’t
mind me being here.”
Portman edged closer to the lab door and heard a heartfelt
sigh. “Well, you know where
I am if you need anything at all, Mister Harper.”
told me to call you Katy after all.”
Again, Portman couldn’t believe his ears.
When he’d called Miss Winslow ‘Katy’ in the past, he’d been
sternly corrected. Why would she bestow that honor on a scruffy little homeless
man? “Seamus, then, but not
around the Admiral. Military
decorum, you know,” Winslow said with a soft, affectionate laugh, her
voice growing closer to the lab door.
Portman wiped all expression off his face, not wanting her to know
that he’d heard anything.
“I’ll never tell. Thanks again for the coffee.”
Portman was there at the lab door when Winslow came out
saying, “You’re most welcome.” She turned and almost walked into him, having to pull back
the empty cup she was holding. “Oh,
Mister Portman. I didn’t
see you there,” she said, then started to move around him.
Portman decided to give her a thrill, since she was
desperate enough to proposition Harper of all people and stepped lithely
into her path. She stopped
and gave him a questioning look, to which he said, “You know, Katy,
I’ve got tickets for Phantom Of the Opera this Friday.
Shall I pick you up at five for a light dinner, then...”
“I’m so sorry, Mister Portman.
I have plans. And it’s Miss Winslow, if you please,” she interrupted
him and then scurried off. Portman
glowered in her wake, then knew the exactly perfect way to improve his
mood as music began to play in the lab.
He turned into the lab to see Harper scribbling something at
a drafting table, his back to the door.
Portman smiled, knowing he was going to enjoy this, then shouted,
“Harper! What do you think
Harper practically jumped over the drafting table, which was
a pretty satisfying start to things. “Sheesh! Give
a guy some warning, huh?” he had the nerve to complain, then caught
sight of the thick tear that his pencil had made up the center of whatever
he had been scrawling. “Aw,
man...” he moaned, probably because whatever he had been doing, it
looked pretty far along. It
was ruined now. Served the lazy, little hobo right, Portman thought with
“Well, what do you think you’re doing?” Portman
demanded again, making sure to stand over Harper and let him feel how
small he was. “You were
given an assignment, weren’t you? Why
aren’t you tending to the Diving Bell?”
“Because it’s fixed?” Harper asked in return, giving
him a look as if he were the one that was mentally deficient.
Harper would pay for that.
“Impossible,” Portman snarled at him.
“Hey, I’m forever telling people I can do the
impossible. I’m glad
someone is finally recognizing it as fact,” Harper said with an idiotic
smile. Portman wanted to slap
it right off his annoying little face.
It was obvious that someone had done that quite a bit in Harper’s
past, judging by the still healing bruises and cuts on him.
“Not that the Bell was any kind of monumental task.
All anybody needed to do was listen to the Admiral’s concerns
about the circuitry, look at the logs and bingo!
Substandard wire. Nothing
else it could be. Some idiot
was telling everyone it was a virus, but, come on, it was pretty obvious
that wasn’t the problem.”
Portman barely kept himself from snarling at the little
fraud. So Harper hadn’t
solved anything, the Admiral had, though Harper certainly seemed willing
to take credit. “Then you
should be tending to your other intern duties, not wasting time in here,
trying to pick up the Admiral’s secretary of all people.
The Admiral would be appalled,” Portman scolded Harper.
“Trying to what? No, I wasn’t...” Harper started, sounding a little
dismayed. As well he should,
Portman thought, letting the smugness he felt ease onto his face.
“I know what I heard.
You’ll be lucky if she doesn’t bring you up on sexual
harassment charges. Get to
work and hope she has pity on you. The
electronics lab is a shambles and all of the computer screens in the
simulation room need a good cleaning.
After that, come to my office and I’ll tell you what else needs
doing. And don’t keep me
waiting, Harper,” Portman ordered, looking down his nose at the little
man. Harper had the audacity to stand there, confusion all over is
face, not moving. “Get a
move on, Harper! Do you think
you’re being paid to stand here wasting time?”
“Look, I don’t think...” Harper started uncertainly.
“Which is why new hires start as interns,” Portman cut
him off before he could get anything else out.
“Things move pretty fast here at the Institute, and if you expect
to keep up, you’d better get used to how things work around here.
Where did you get your degree from anyway?
A community college?” That
was most likely the only sort of college that would have him.
“No, see, I haven’t ever been to college because...”
Harper started, probably about to launch into his life story.
Portman couldn’t be bothered.
Hearing that Harper had never been to college just proved the
little street rat had no right calling himself an engineer, much less one
the Institute’s valued employees.
“Then be grateful that the Admiral is giving you a chance
at all. He doesn’t hire
lazy, little nobodies. Every
member of the Engineering Department holds multiple degrees. Only
the best of the best are even considered for permanent hire, so if you
want any chance at all of remaining here, you’d better do as I say and
get to work!” Portman commanded, pointing a finger at the door and
hoping that Harper had the intelligence to follow simple orders.
Harper looked at him, seeming to think something over, the
confused expression never leaving his face.
“Okay... I guess,” he said uncertainly, but he started to walk
towards the door. “Uh,
interns... they, like, do stuff for the other engineers while they’re
going to school or something? The
Admiral talked about college, but...” The poor, stupid boy sounded to be totally at a loss, Portman
thought, relishing it. He
would keep Harper so spun around that he wouldn’t question anything he
was told to do.
“I have more important things to do than explain every
simple thing to you. Just do
your job, Harper,” Portman said, making certain that he knocked solidly
into Harper’s shoulder as he went past, almost knocking the pathetic,
little vagrant over when he did. Best
to let him know his proper place right from the start, Portman mused,
going to his office, chuckling to himself.
So what if Harper stayed? Portman
planned to have him so turned around and demeaned that the idiot would be
nothing more than a servant to the rest of the Engineering department.
It wasn’t as if Harper had enough wits about him to do anything
about it or as if someone of his social class deserved better. Portman rubbed his hands briskly together, looking forward to
have his own, personal slave.
Harper couldn’t believe it.
This day had him up and down like a slipstream cord, and he hated
flying through slipstream. One
mistake and you’re lost forever. Harper
had enough problems navigating regular space, never mind the tricky stuff,
which he’d always happily left to Beka.
Today was a slipstream sort of day and Harper’s nerves were just
about shot. Waking up with
Dom cuddled up to him? A
definite up! Emergency truth
telling, back on down. Finding
the Diving Bell problem in seconds flat, score! Soaring high!
People all freaked out about his health, plummet to the bottom
again. Admiral Nelson
treating him like he was somebody, back up. Portman telling him that he was everybody’s whipping boy,
well, couldn’t get much lower than that.
He had been cleaning up the electronics lab, thinking how
careless and inconsiderate he had been on the Andromeda.
Rommie or the Maria bots had always been picking up after him
there, trying to put order to the chaos he left in his wake.
Harper looked at the volt meter in his hands and sighed.
Demoted to maintenance bot, Harper thought as he looked for where
the meter belonged. Just
freaking great. What else
could happen today?
“Uh... Harper? What are you doing?” came Morton’s voice uncertainly from
the vicinity of the door.
Harper looked over to see the tall Executive Officer standing in
the doorway, giving him a look that matched his words.
Harper knew Morton hadn’t decided about him yet, but seemed
willing to give him a chance. Harper
didn’t want to blow it. Enough
people were giving him looks like he wasn’t supposed to be here.
“Just cleaning up a few things in here...” Harper started,
wondering how he should address the imposing blond.
The Admiral called him ‘Chip,’ but everyone else called him
‘Mister Morton.’ He wished he’d listened better when Dylan had been going
over all the military etiquette stuff because he didn’t know where he,
as a civilian, fell in the order of things.
He decided to just avoid the entire problem by not calling Morton
anything at all. “It was
kinda messy in here and, well...”
Morton’s uncertain look didn’t waver.
“We have a cleaning and maintenance staff.
And if the other Engineers have been in here working, they should
be picking up after themselves. The
Admiral likes a tight ship and he’s talked to them about being
That drew Harper up short.
Wait a minute, Portman and his cronies were supposed to take care
of their own disasters? “What
about interns?” he asked, since Portman going on about that was what had
gotten him in here cleaning in the first place.
He knew that Admiral wanted him to go to school, to actually earn a
degree that said he was an engineer so that people wouldn’t look at him
funny when he said that’s what he was.
Then he had told Portman he hadn’t gone to college yet and
Portman had gone on about how things worked.
The Admiral had been telling him how important it was to follow
procedure and Harper hadn’t wanted to buck the system of Institute
hierarchy, even if it had seemed a little strange at the time.
After all, the Admiral had never called him an intern.
“The Institute doesn’t hire interns,” Morton informed
him, still giving him a look like he thought Harper had lost his mind.
Harper closed his eyes and cursed under his breath in the foulest
Nightsider he knew. Portman
had played him, had played him big time, and he had fallen for it like a
total idiot. Portman was probably in his office, laughing his pretty boy
ass off at him right now. What
was with that guy, anyway? “Uh,
look, I was just wondering if you were all right,” Morton said, actually
sounding a little concerned.
Harper shook off his annoyance with Portman.
“I’m fine,” he said, putting the volt meter down, trying to
shake off feeling like a total fool as he looked down at it.
“Second day... not knowing what the hell I’m supposed to
actually be doing issues. I’ll
work it out.”
“All right,” Morton said, but he didn’t sound like he
was totally buying it. “I
just wanted you to know, if you need to ask about anything, or just talk,
my door’s always open.” Harper
looked up at him, thinking that had actually sounded sincere.
“Uh, thanks. Really,” Harper told him, thinking that Morton wanted to
talk to him about something, but wouldn’t broach the subject himself.
Whatever it was, Harper hoped it could wait.
He’d had enough serious talks for today.
Morton gave him a thin smile and a little nod.
“You’re sure you’re all right?” he asked, the concern still
“Yeah, yeah. I’m good. Long
day, not enough coffee,” Harper said walking to the door, rubbing his
neck. He needed some caffeine
“I’m with you on that one,” Morton agreed, his smile
easing a little. “Let’s
hit the cafeteria and I’ll buy us both some.
You saved us a lot of trouble with that call on the wiring.”
“Just following the Admiral’s lead,” Harper said with
a shrug, but was secretly happy that Morton seemed okay with him being
around. Another up for the
day. Harper walked with
Morton, who started to talk to him about some of the other repairs they
were doing on the Seaview. He
seemed like a really decent guy, Harper thought, but frowned to himself.
In the wake of this particular up, he was afraid of what the next
down might be.
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