* * *
Portman had been miserable for days.
Trust the irritating little hobo to come up with the one way to
thwart all the work that he had done to have him shunned.
The vagrant had gone and done something selflessly heroic that had
nearly gotten him killed. Now
most of the Institute and all the crew of the Seaview talked about him
like he was Crane or, worse still, as though he were a younger version of
the Admiral. That was the
absolute last comparison that Portman wanted drawn, not that he dared to
say a word against Harper since the incident.
A few of the other engineers still scowled and shook their heads at
all the fuss over Harper, not that it mattered.
Lawton had been daring enough to say in public that Harper
hadn’t been a hero, that he’d merely been lucky not to die and destroy
the Institute while trying to kill himself with untested technology, all
for self aggrandizement. It
had taken half a dozen strong men to drag Kowalski off of him, and that
was after they had plainly let the sailor get in a few blows.
The Admiral had swept the entire matter under a rug because
Kowalski had told Lawton to take back what he’d said and Lawton had
poked the sailor in the chest while arguing his point.
As if that little prod excused a beating, Portman thought in
Portman had been in ill humor ever since it had been made
clear that Harper was going to live and would be returning to work before
long. Worse yet, rumors were
circulating that Harper was being given some huge, important project to
head. Portman was going to
make sure that he was as far from that debacle as possible. At the moment, he had something else he was working on to
make sure he stayed in the Admiral’s good graces.
He stepped into the electronics lab to find Fletcher there, looking
worried and a little desperate. Portman
smiled. Yes, things were
“Hello, Andrew,” Portman said as he approached the
older, frantic looking engineer. Fletcher looked up to Portman and seemed to get even more
“Oh... Greg... How is the computer upgrade coming?”
Fletcher asked, moving the communications array he was working on to the
side nervously. Portman knew
Fletcher was stuck, behind schedule and floundering. He also knew how to work around the problems Fletcher was
having and had for some time. Of
course, he wasn’t going to give that information away.
No, he wanted credit for rescuing the project and Fletcher’s
“It’s going very nicely,” Portman said with a smile.
“I’m ahead of schedule. How
is your communications array coming along?
Have you worked out that snag yet?”
“Oh... ah... I’m sure that something will... come to
me,” Fletcher stammered out nervously.
Portman shook his head.
“I thought the project deadline was next week.
Aren’t you supposed to have something to present to Admiral
Nelson by Friday?” he asked, knowing all these things for a fact.
Fletcher looked down and ran a shaking hand up through his thinning
hair, but didn’t respond. Portman
walked over to the table where Fletcher was working and made a short
humming sound, shaking his head as he looked over the litter of wiring and
components. “I just don’t see how you’re going to finish this
alone, Andrew. Maybe you
should think over my offer again,” Portman said as he patted Fletcher on
the shoulder. Fletcher still didn’t answer, but Portman knew he was going
to crack. Dropping his hand
and moving unhurriedly back to the lab door, Portman said, “Just don’t
leave it too long. Even I can
only do so much in limited time.”
With that, Portman walked out of the lab.
Now he smiled broadly. Fletcher
would be coming to him before the end of the day, ready to give him
whatever he wanted. Portman chuckled, thinking that having credit for saving the
project would be a very nice feather in his cap. It wasn’t as if Fletcher had any alternatives, he thought
smugly as he strolled to his office to wait.
He would work a little more on his upgrade, not that he needed to.
He was so far ahead of schedule that he could take a month off and
not fall behind. He would
have Fletcher’s problems all worked out by the end of tomorrow at the
latest. Portman sat at his
desk to wait. Yes, Fletcher
would be coming through his office door any time now.
Fletcher sat with his face in his hands, not knowing what to
do anymore. He had thought he
was a competent engineer. More
than that, really. He had
made major breakthroughs in the communications field over the years,
things that had gained him patents and notoriety.
Lately, however, he’d been having serious doubts.
The youngsters in the field now, they just seemed so much brighter
than he’d ever been, could ever hope to be.
He’d been thrashing with the improved divers’ communication
array that he’d been working on, desperate to finish it and show the
Admiral that he still had something to offer the Institute.
Then Harper had shown up with his hologram and Fletcher had been
devastated. Harper and young
people like him were the future of engineering in the country, not some
old man like him that simply couldn’t keep up with all the new ideas and
developments that seemed to happen hourly.
Portman had been circling for a few days now, offering to
bail him out of his difficulties, but not for free.
No, Portman wanted half credit on the completed project and all
patents that came from it. At first, Fletcher had been insulted by the offer, but now it
was starting to look like he had to take it or all his work would have
been for nothing. Fletcher
scrubbed his hands down his face and looked at the litter of parts in
front of him, wondering how he had gotten so lost.
“How you feel about pie?” a voice intruded on his
thoughts, making Fletcher jump a little in surprise.
He looked up to see Harper standing in the door, holding the item
in question. The young man
smiled at him, saying, “Fletcher, right?” Fletcher nodded, not knowing what to do.
He hadn’t known that Harper had returned to work, not that it
mattered. Harper was the
Admiral’s new favorite and Fletcher would be lucky to have a job at the
end of the week. It wasn’t
as if Harper needed to bother with him.
“So, pie. How do you
like pie? Cherry pie,
specifically,” Harper said, coming into the room, lifting the pie to his
eye level and regarding it with thin lips.
“Uh... It... It’s fine.
You... don’t like pie?” Fletcher asked, not having a clue why
Harper was now standing next to him with a pie, of all things.
Rumors were circulating about Harper being unpredictably violent,
but Fletcher would almost welcome an injury.
Anything that would give him some sort of excuse for missing his
next deadline would be good at this point.
Certainly having a pie driven into his face would be no more
humiliating than having to crawl to Portman for help yet again.
Harper put the pastry being discussed on the table and
smiled. “Oh, I love pie.
All kinds of pie. Apple,
blueberry, banana cream, mincemeat, strawberry, chicken.
Don’t get me started on how awesome Dom’s chicken pies are.
The thing is, much as I love pie, people have been feeding me
pretty much nonstop for days now and I am in deadly danger of becoming as
wide as I am tall. I’ve had
like four full meals today and it’s barely past noon and I just can’t
eat anything else. Not that
anyone is listening to the fact that my stomach has reached its limits.
Doctor Lorn just brought this over to my lab and she expects me to
put a huge dent in it before she and Dom finish some tests with Olivia or
I have to go back to the infirmary and have Doctor Jamieson shake his head
at me and probably get flung back into a bed to rest despite the fact that
I feel fine and have for days now. So,
what do you think? It looks
like a mighty tasty pie, right? You
wouldn’t mind eating a piece or two, would ya?
It would help me out a lot. Really.”
“Uh...” Fletcher let out helplessly.
He didn’t understand half of what Harper was talking about, but
the gist of it seemed to revolve around the fact that Doctor Jamieson,
Doctor Babin and Doctor Lorn all wanted Harper to eat the pie currently
sitting on the table. The
young man had just been very ill and had always been very skinny, at least
in Fletcher’s opinion, so most likely everyone wanted him to put on some
weight. Fletcher looked down
at the pie. It was a large
pie and did look quite good, but he didn’t know if he should interfere
with anything to do with Harper. The
Admiral was very protective of the young man and Fletcher knew he was
going to be in enough trouble with Nelson before the week was out.
When Fletcher looked up again, he found that Harper was
looking over the communications array on the table with a quizzical
expression. “You’re never
gonna be able to fit all that hardware in that housing like it is,”
Harper observed, making Fletcher’s shoulders droop a little lower.
“I know,” Fletcher sighed out.
“I was supposed to give this talk about miniaturization
techniques, but I got squashed by a squid monster before I could.
Want the abridged version? You
could listen while I show you with this stuff and you eat pie,” Harper
said, looking up with a big smile.
Fletcher sighed, slouching and looking down again.
He supposed that having Harper take credit for pulling his fat out
of the fire was no worse than having Portman do it.
At least he’d get some dessert out the making a deal with Harper.
“All right,” he sighed out.
“I’ll make sure your name is on the documentation as a major
“Why would you do that?”
Fletcher looked up to see Harper giving him the same quizzical look
he had just been giving the array and a grin.
“I’m just giving you a little hand.
I’m sure you’d do it for me if I needed some help.”
“As if you would ever need my help with anything,”
Fletcher said, sounding as defeated as he felt.
“I need your help with this pie,” Harper pointed out,
then held up a fork. “What
Fletcher searched the boy’s face for a moment, but Harper
seemed to be sincerely offering to save his job and all his work and all
he needed to do for this minor miracle was eat some pie.
“Done,” Fletcher said, taking the fork and sliding the pie over
to himself. While he ate, he
listened to Harper talk and watched Harper work, fascinated.
It was only after half a pie that Fletcher began to ask questions
and work with Harper rather than watching dumbly.
Two hours later, they were talking about Doctor Babin and
Fletcher’s wife, with the divers’ mouthpiece of the communications
array nearly completed and Fletcher feeling better than he had in months.
“This is a sweet piece of technology,” Harper commented
with a beaming smile as Fletcher sealed up the last of the seams.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” Fletcher
admitted, not feeling half as bad about saying it as he thought he would.
“Aw, you were nearly there.
You would have worked it out whether I showed up begging you save
my sorry ass or not,” Harper said with a chuckle.
“Oh, yes, the pie,” Fletcher said, having almost
forgotten about it. He looked
up at Harper, who was still a skinny kid no matter how much food people
had been throwing at him recently, and thought he’d help in the effort
of fleshing the boy out a little. “How
about I go get us some milk and we run a few tests after we both make
Doctor Lorn a little happier?”
Harper chuckled again.
“Now you’re gonna feed me too, Andy?”
Fletcher fought down a wince.
He preferred being called Andrew, but Harper had definitely earned
the right to call him whatever he wanted to.
“Since I don’t know a way to take some of the fat off me
and stick it to you, I suppose I am. I used to be as skinny as you when I was your age, believe it
or not. Ever since forty hit,
this is what I have to live with,” Fletcher said, jiggling his middle
age spread with both hands and a little laugh of his own. Harper joined
him with good natured giggle. He
was a nice kid, Fletcher thought, smiling at Harper.
Why were people saying so many terrible things about such an
obviously nice kid? Fletcher
didn’t understand it, but he would set the record straight the next time
he heard such talk.
guess I could eat a little.
I’m gonna take a load off until you get back,” he said,
then moved to a nearby chair. Fletcher
grew a little concerned to see Harper’s legs wobble a bit just before he
took a seat. Harper was
looking a little pale and tired, now that Fletcher looked closely at him,
and he had just been seriously hurt and ill.
Fletcher would make sure that the boy ate his pie seated and
resting. He would hate to
think of Harper getting sick again because he had been generous enough to
rescue him when he had been in such desperate need.
Fletcher headed off to the cafeteria and returned quickly
with milk, plates and cutlery, only to find Harper slouched back in his
chair, fast asleep. Setting
down the things he’d gotten, Fletcher shook his head as he smiled fondly
at the sleeping boy. Why had
he been so terrified of Harper? He
was a brilliant kid, sure, but he was just a kid, a nice kid at that. Fletcher could see why Doctor Babin, who was the embodiment
of sweetness and graciousness, would date him when she’d turned so many
others away. Certainly,
Fletcher could understand why she would chose Harper over Portman. With a smug smile, Fletcher relished the thought of Portman
dropping in again with his insulting demands.
From now on, when he hit a stumbling block, he would go talk it
over with Harper and be sure to bring something nice of a pastry nature
with him when he did.
Harper let out a soft murmur and shifted in the chair, then
began to visibly shiver. Fletcher
frowned worriedly, then pulled off his suit jacket and laid it over
Harper, not seeing the sense in waking the boy but not wanting him to be
chilled. The lab was kept
quite cool because of all the computer equipment in it.
Harper let out another soft murmur, cuddling the jacket to him,
then settled quietly back to sleep. Nodding
in satisfaction, Fletcher turned around, meaning to start tests on the
completed array while Harper slept, only to find Admiral Nelson standing
in the room, looking at him, his expression unreadable.
“Uh... Admiral... I...” Fletcher stammered, suddenly
fearful of what Nelson would think and not knowing how to explain what had
“Was the milk for Harper?” Nelson asked quietly, nodding
to the two glasses sitting on the table.
“Uh, yes sir,” Fletcher said feebly.
surprised he didn’t ask for coffee,” Nelson commented offhandedly, his
voice still hushed. He moved
to the table and took one of the glasses and drank some of the milk while
lifting the divers’ mouthpiece. “He
was working with you on the array?”
“Yes. He got
me over a major space issue I couldn’t resolve,” Fletcher admitted,
also keeping his voice low. Harper
might not care about getting it, but he deserved credit for what he’d
Nelson nodded, then glanced over at the sleeping boy.
“He’s a brilliant engineer.
Terrible with documentation, but brilliant all the same.
How did you find him to work with?”
Fletcher shrugged, thinking about all the negative things
being circulated about Harper. Did
the Admiral think he was involved in that? Fletcher certainly hoped not.
He wasn’t one to spread rumors.
That was more Lawton’s speed.
“Not bad at all. He
talks a lot, but so does my Helen.”
Nelson smiled a little and nodded, but then Helen had bent his ear
at the last Christmas party for a decent length of time and the Admiral
had born it with good humor. “He
did start calling me Andy,” Fletcher said, but took a sip of his own cup
of milk rather than frowning about it.
“Just tell him you prefer Andrew or Mister Fletcher.
He’s not an unreasonable or meanspirited person,” Nelson
commented, then helped himself to some pie.
“I know, at least I didn’t get that impression from him.
In fact, he seems like a nice young man.
He’s all right, isn’t he?” Fletcher asked, glancing a little
worriedly over at the sleeping boy.
“Oh, he’ll be fine.
He’s still got a little more recovering to do, so the sleep will
do him good,” Nelson replied. He didn’t seem at all concerned, so Fletcher relaxed again.
“Andrew, as you know, I’m away quite a bit, both with the
Seaview and on other matters for the Institute.
Seamus is going to be heading up a large new department, one that
is going to be very important both to the Institute and to the scientific
community in general. I’ve
been thinking, he’ll be needing guidance from an older, more experienced
individual on a regular basis. Someone
who is good with documentation and who will need to help him to keep
focused. I thought I might
have to recruit outside the Institute to fill the position, but you might
be just the man for the job. How
would you feel about working with Harper on a regular basis as Assistant
Chief of Technical Operations of the new department that Harper would be
Fletcher stared at Nelson, not knowing what to say at first.
“I’d be honored, but... are you sure, sir?
I mean, maybe someone younger and more... adaptable might be a
better choice. Someone like
Portman,” Fletcher said, though he didn’t think Portman would work
very well with Harper at all. Now
that he thought about it, Portman had been a major source of the negative
words circulating the Institute about Harper.
“Or Miss Simmons?” he quickly added, thinking she might be a
“I need Miss Simmons on the Seaview and Mister Portman,”
Nelson paused and shook his head with a frown, “That would be a very bad
idea. And you are an
innovative engineer, Andrew. Don’t
sell yourself so short.” Nelson
looked over at Harper and smiled indulgently.
“I know that some of these new, young engineers can seem
intimidating with how quickly they grasp and improve things, but they
don’t have our experience, the knowledge that only years of doing
something and doing it well can bestow.
No, I think you’re just the man to keep Harper focused and on
task, keep him out of trouble. When Harper wakes from his nap, why don’t the two of you
come over to my office and we’ll discuss the entire thing in more
detail,” Nelson said, then took pie and milk and walked back out of the
Fletcher stood there dumbfounded for a few moments.
He’d been afraid of losing his job and having nowhere to go a few
hours ago. Now it seemed like
Nelson not only wanted him to stay, but seemed willing to give him a huge
promotion. Fletcher smiled
and let out a soft, hesitant laugh, then glanced over at Harper.
He was still sleeping, looking very young and angelic, though
Fletcher had the feeling that was an illusion, that Nelson had actually
meant it when he said that part of Fletcher’s duties working with Harper
would be keeping him out of trouble.
Nodding at the thought, Fletcher decided that was a fair enough
exchange. His whole life had
just changed for the better in the matter of hours because of the boy.
Fletcher found himself wanting to do something nice for Harper in
return. Helen wasn’t much
on pies, but she could bake a pretty decent cake.
As he beamed over at the sleeping boy, Fletcher wondered if Harper
felt about cakes as he did about pies.
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