Michelle Pichette


Chapter 26



* * *

     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.”

     “Seamus.  You 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 you’re doing?!”

     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 gleeful malice.

     “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 disorderly before.”

     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 there.

     “Yeah, yeah.  I’m good.  Long day, not enough coffee,” Harper said walking to the door, rubbing his neck.  He needed some caffeine bad.

     “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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