Belonging

by

Michelle Pichette

 

Chapter 60

 

 

* * *

     Harper woke to people talking near him.  He felt groggy and weak and vaguely remembered something about a sedative that he didn’t want.  He lay still, trying to make the world make sense and figure out where he was this time.  “You keep dismissing his faith.  Faith can be very powerful,” Dom’s voice came softly.  That made the tension trying to build in Harper ease away.  If Dom was close, he wasn’t anywhere bad.

     “It can, but one man’s faith cannot win a battle,” Tyr’s deep voice responded.  Okay.  So he hadn’t dreamed about being back on the Andromeda before.

     “One man’s faith can shake the universe,” Dom said.  She had faith, Harper knew, faith in her religion, faith in Admiral Nelson, faith in him.  It was that last one that made him tense sometimes.  He decided that now would be a good time to sit up and let people know he was awake, but his first attempt to do so barely lifted his head and he groaned at the sick, empty feeling that formed in his stomach.  A soft, gentle hand caressed his face and Harper opened his eyes.  Dom was sitting by him on a bed, his bed in his quarters on the Andromeda as it turned out.  She smiled warmly at him.  “How are you feeling?” she asked, giving him a lingering kiss on the forehead.  “You don’t feel as warm as you were.  Does your arm hurt?”

     “Arm?” Harper asked feebly, then remembered Barris breaking his arm.  The pain had made his vision go white and his mind had forced unconsciousness on him to escape the pain at the time, but his arm didn’t hurt now.  He looked down at himself.  His chest where the Magog had clawed him was bandaged, his arm immobilized in a cast and resting on the bandages in a sling, probably to give his shoulder a rest.  That had hurt too, getting his arm wrenched from its socket, but for the moment everything was pleasantly numb.  “No, my arm’s good.  I’m good,” he told her.  He didn’t feel right, exactly, like he couldn’t focus fully on anything, but that was probably the drugs.

     “I thought you would sleep for a few more hours,” Tyr said, confirming that suspicion.

     “Thought you’d have more time to put the moves on my girl, huh?” Harper sniped at him.  Dom smiled warmly, shaking her head at him, but he’d earned it.  This time he was being silly.  Tyr probably thought Dom was a primitive because of when she’d been born and Dom would never hurt him like that.  He looked up at her and lifted a hand to her face, stroking her hair back a little, glad she was here.  She cupped his hand for a moment, still smiling at him.

     “We were merely talking,” Tyr said, sounding suddenly bored, though he hadn’t a moment ago.  “It was actually rather pleasant.  Your lady is well read and has a sharp mind.  And I meet so few people actually skilled in the art of conversation.  I found it quite... stimulating.”  That last word came out almost as a purr, the bored tone having disappeared a lot earlier on.

     “Almost as much fun as Magog slaying, huh?” Harper asked, not liking the way Tyr’s tone had turned sensual.  Tyr was probably teasing him, but he didn’t want to take that chance.  Best to steer talk to something as far from sexy as possible.  “I’m sort of glad I’m paranoid.  I was making some gauss guns for the Admiral and they came in handy when those alien creeps dropped a bunch of Magog into the middle of the Institute.”

     “You killed them all?” Tyr asked.

     “I had help, but, yeah, they’re all dead,” Harper replied with a nod.

     “Did anyone else get hurt?” Dom asked a little worriedly.

     “A couple of the security guys got slaughtered.  I think that the Magog materialized or whatever in their office.  They never had a chance, but it was probably over quick,” Harper told her softly, stroking her face again.  He knew that news would upset her, but didn’t know what to do besides tell her something less depressing.  “Me and Mister Fletcher and Angie got banged up a little, but everyone else was pretty much okay.  Just scared mostly.  They still have the guns, so if at least they’re not defenseless if anything else happens.  And I’ll be okay.  If I hadn’t been kicked around so much lately, this would be nothing, honest, so don’t worry.  What about you?  This Barris dude is nuts and he obviously doesn’t care about getting nasty to get what he wants.  You’re not hurt, are you?”

     Dom shook her head.  “No, Tyr found me before any of the aliens had and he took me here right away.  He’s been sort of standing guard over me ever since.”

     Harper looked past her over to Tyr.  “I owe you, man,” he said, sincerely grateful that Tyr had taken it into his head to be so protective for some reason.

     “You already owe me quite a bit,” Tyr reminded him, giving him a pointed look.  Harper nodded sheepishly.  Yeah, that was true enough.  Tyr’s features softened, though, when Dom turned to look at him.  “In this instance, my service was not disagreeable.  You should eat something and sleep some more.  If you continue to abuse your body the way you do, little professor, your health will fail you entirely.”

     “I don’t think I can make it to the dining room.  I’m too wiped,” Harper admitted.  “I think I have some ration packs in here somewhere, unless Beka tossed’em out.”

     “Ration packs,” Tyr growled in disdain, rising from where he sat.  “If you think you can manage not to get damaged while I’m gone, I’ll get us all some decent food to eat.”

     “No promises.  I’ve been minding my own business the last few times stuff’s happened to me, so I’ve pretty much given up on having any clue what’s going to come at me next,” Harper said.

     Dom shook her head at him again, then looked up to Tyr and said, “Go.  We’ll be fine.”

     “Yes.  I’m sure that baring your teeth would be enough to terrify Barris should he dare to show his face,” Tyr said, looking suddenly amused.  Dom’s eyes narrowed at him and Tyr chuckled at her annoyance and left the room.  What was that all about, Harper wondered a little worriedly.

     “So,” he said as Dom turned back to him, “You met the whole gang, huh?”

     “Just Tyr and Dylan and the Andromeda,” she replied.  “Beka, Trance and Rommie are off in the Maru, apparently coming back from Barris’ home world in an effort to find you.”

     “See, I’m pure trouble,” Harper made a feeble attempt at a joke.  He was feeling nervous, though, so his heart wasn’t in it.  “So... so you’ve been here... alone... with Tyr and Dylan.”

     A knowing look formed on Dom’s face.  “Yes, Tyr took me from the Seaview to here and never once attempted to... how did you put it?  Ah, yes, share his superior genetics with me.  And then I met Dylan, but I just seemed to confuse him, then he wanted me to talk a Perseid scientist into going away.  After that, he went after the Admiral and came back with you.  Somehow through it all, I managed to stay fully clothed and out of his bed.”  She looked like was struggling not to laugh.

     Harper frowned because she was so amused by his seemingly unfounded feelings of inadequacy when compared Dylan and Tyr.  “It’s not funny,” he pouted, thinking that meant she didn’t take his concerns seriously.

     “Yes, it is.  I’m sure other women find them attractive, but I’m not other women,” she said with a smile as she stroked his face and moved closer to him.  “There is only one man aboard this ship that I find desirable, even flat on his back and all banged up again.”  She kissed him softly on the lips, but he deepened the kiss, suddenly feeling a lot more secure.  Dom stroked his face again as she straightened up and asked, “Are you sure you aren’t in pain?”

     “No.  A little woozy, but I’ll probably sleep that off,” Harper told her.

     Concern filled Dom’s face.  “Tyr said that you were about ready to collapse from exhaustion even if you hadn’t been wounded.  Haven’t you slept at all since I left?”

     “Well, yeah, of course, but not as good as the night before you left,” Harper said, then reached up and stroked her arm.  He wasn’t going to tell her that the week before she had left he’d run himself ragged and that when he’d pretty much collapsed at Mister Fletcher’s house had been the only time he slept for more than a couple of hours after the Seaview had shipped out.  “Maybe you could cuddle up close here with me and then I’ll sleep like that again and recharge.  I’m sure the next disaster won’t take that long to rear its ugly head.”

     Dom’s mouth went flat and she plainly thought something over quickly, then said, “Actually, it’s already in progress.  Barris has the Seaview trapped in his ship and the Admiral and Dylan don’t know how to get her free.”

     “What?!!” Harper blurted out, sitting up, all his injuries forgotten for the moment.  The movement pulled the wounds on his chest and made them ache, not to mention that he was suddenly, painfully reminded that Barris had kicked him around a while before deciding to break his arm.  He folded a little forward, wrapping his uninjured arm around himself, murmuring, “Ow.”

     “I knew I shouldn’t have told you,” Dom said worriedly.  “It’s not like you can do anything.  Lie back and rest.”

     “When our friends are in trouble?  Would you?  Rommie, give me the particulars on the sitch?” Harper asked the ship, willing the discomfort and dizziness that was assailing him for simply sitting up to go away.

     “Harper, you’re on medical leave,” the Andromeda informed him.  Harper felt like growling in frustration, but he was barely able to stay upright even with Dom carefully supporting him, so he didn’t want to waste the energy.

     “C’mon, Rom-Doll, give me a break, okay?  I won’t be able to rest knowing that a bunch of my buddies are in danger.  Give already,” Harper exhorted her.  He sounded whiney.  He hated sounding whiney in front of Dom.  Arrgh!  He was getting distracted!  It was so hard to think.  Damned sedative!

     “You’re shaking, sweetie.  You need to lie back down,” Dom urged him gently.

     “No.  I’m okay.  I can do this,” Harper tried to argue, but his words sounded pathetic even to him.

     Dom frowned at him.  “You’re not okay.  You’re hurt and sick and exhausted and I could probably shove you back onto those pillows without any real effort, but I’d be afraid of hurting you if I did.  You’re going to lie down, right now,” she told him crossly.  Harper blinked in surprise at the forcefulness of her words and let her guide him carefully back onto his bed without a fight.  “There,” Dom said, the anger slipping from her features as she pulled his blanket back up over his chest, then seemed to see something in his eyes.  “What?”

     “Damn, you’re sexy when you take command.  Order me around some more,” Harper said with a little grin, bringing her fingers to him lips so he could kiss them.

     Dom rolled her eyes.  “You’re incorrigible.”

     “Absolutely.  Can I look at anything Rommie has if I lie still while I do it?” Harper asked, hoping maybe she’d give him that much.

     Dom shook her head at him.  “Really, really incorrigible,” she scolded him.  “You’re not getting up.”

     “Nope.  Parked here for the foreseeable future,” Harper agreed.  “Rommie, could you send in whatever you’ve got?”

     A hologram appeared by Harper’s bed and crossed her arms over her chest.  “Harper, what part of medical leave isn’t sinking in?”

     “But I’m resting!  Look!  Totally prone!  All wrapped up in bed!  Give me a break!  I’d just be looking at stuff!” Harper complained.  Dom laid a hand on his shoulder and gave him a tight lipped look, letting him know that she thought he was getting too worked up.

     “It always starts that way, but it never ends there.  You never take care of yourself.  You’re right about him, Doctor Babin.  He is incorrigible.  I’m surprised you put up with him,” the hologram stated, giving Harper a vexed glare.

     “Oh, he’s got endearing qualities, too,” Dom replied, giving him a soft smile and stroking his temple.  That cheered him up a little.  At least she wasn’t really mad at him, just worried.

     “See Rommie?  I’m adorable and you’ve been missing out,” Harper said, gently taking Dom’s hand again.  “Dom’ll keep an eye on me, make sure I behave.  She’s got a vested interest in me not killing myself, after all.”

     “Let’s leave it up to Dylan and Admiral Nelson, They wanted to know when you woke up,” the hologram said, dropping her arms.  “I’ll talk it over with them.”  With that, she disappeared.  Harper grew alarmed for an instant, then realized there was no need.  Either way, he was staying where he was and Dom would stay with him.  He wanted to help rescue the Seaview, but if both his bosses vetoed him, it was out of his hands.  He wouldn’t be happy about it, but that’s the way it was.

     Before he could do more than smile halfheartedly up at Dom, the entry chime on his cabin sounded and the two people that controlled his life at the moment entered the room.  Wow!  Rommie didn’t waste any time!  “Well now, we didn’t think you’d be awake just yet.  How are you feeling, son?” Nelson asked with a hesitant smile as he and Dylan came over to his bed.

     “Lot’s better, thanks, Boss, except for feeling useless,” Harper replied with a sheepish expression.  Dom stroked his head gently, trying to reassure him, but much as he appreciated the attention, he didn’t feel any better.  “Is anyone hurt on the Seaview?  Do we even know?”

     “We’re going over soon to take care of things, thanks to you, Harper,” Dylan told him with any encouraging smile.  Harper didn’t understand until Nelson handed him something that looked sort of like the force lance that he’d made for the Admiral at the Institute.  “You look that over and tell us if it’s the same as the one you built for Admiral Nelson just before he left port.”

     Harper sat up a little with Dom’s help and looked the weapon over.  “Now, it won’t be exactly like the one you made for me,” Nelson cautioned him.  “We’re only concerned about the beam being the same.  So far it seems to be the only thing that hurts Barris or his people.  If I managed to duplicate your work, we’ll make a couple more and go retake the Seaview.”

     “Is it still trapped in that other ship?” Dom asked as Nelson opened the weapon so that he could look inside.

     “Yes, I’m afraid it is, but there’s no way for us to get them out of there,” Dylan told her.

     Harper looked up from the weapon.  “What kind of weapons and shields does Barris have?” he asked.

     “None that we’re aware of,” Dylan told him.  That confused Harper.

     “Wait.  He hasn’t opened fire on the Andromeda?  Not ever?  Hasn’t got anything standing in between us and them to keep us from blasting them?  Why didn’t you blow him apart ages ago?” he asked, utterly baffled.

     Dylan gave him a look of concern, then seemed to shrug it off.  “We didn’t know where you were.  We couldn’t be sure that you weren’t on his ship.  We were worried about you.  It really is good to have you back, Harper,” he said, offering a tight smile.

     Okay.  This was getting weird.  Why was Dylan so tense?  Harper glanced over at Nelson, who was waiting patiently and didn’t seem all worried like Dylan despite the Seaview’s situation.  Then something dawned on Harper as he looked back towards Dylan.  Barris and the Seaview and all the other stuff wasn’t bothering Dylan, it was where he’d been and what had been going on with him that was.  Harper looked back down at the weapon so that Dylan couldn’t read what he was thinking on his face.  Everybody was worried, but worried about what exactly?  Were Dylan and Beka worried about him or about their only engineer going permanently missing and maybe having to put some effort into finding a new one?

     Sure, people had seemed concerned when he’d gotten sick right before he’d been kidnapped, but it hadn’t been like the concern he’d gotten at the Institute when he’d had the lung infection.  Beka had been nice until his fever had broken, then had yelled at him a lot about how if he had taken better care of himself that maybe he wouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place, effectively telling him that everything was his fault, even though she was the one that had messed up when she hadn’t followed proper decontamination procedures.  Trance had made him feel like he was putting her out whenever he didn’t do exactly what she told him to do exactly when she told him to do it.  Dylan had been visibly worried, but that stick had stayed firmly up his butt and he’d stayed emotionally aloof.  Tyr had been apathetic, but that had been expected.  Rommie had griped about being damaged for longer than she liked.  So, what did that tell him, that his family was dysfunctional or that he’d never had a family here?

     Beka said that he was family because he was part of her crew, but Harper had seen first hand how the Valentine family treated each other.  There was also that time she had gotten herself hooked on flash and lost control because of what the drug was doing to her.  Harper had caught her using and had told Dylan, not knowing what else to do, how else to keep her from killing herself with either the flash or with how she had been pushing herself with it.  When Dylan had confronted her and she’d figured out who had ratted her out, she’d been furious.  Harper had been ready for that.  She was messed up.  Anger over what she probably saw as a betrayal was to be expected.  What he hadn’t expected was what she had said.  Calling him names, hey, par for the course, no problem there, but the threat, Beka declaring him worthless and telling him that she’d toss him back on the garbage heap that Earth had become, that had ripped his heart out.  She had never said she was sorry for that, never said she was sorry for any of it when she got straight again.  Maybe that was how she saw him, Harper thought, pain forming in his chest, as someone who was ultimately disposable.

     Harper glanced up briefly at Dylan.  What was he to Dylan?  The guy who fixed his ship and nothing more?  Harper remembered all too clearly the aftermath of the Magog attack on the Andromeda that had left him the only one infested with the hateful things.  Who had gotten to clean up all the dead Magog bodies littering the ship?  Harper closed his eyes briefly, biting down the hurt that made surge in him.  Everyone knew how twisted up he was then, but Dylan had left him with all those dead reminders of what he had to look forward to having rip their way out of his stomach and Harper had very nearly killed himself.  He’d stood there with his gauss gun driven into his gut, into his temple, thinking Dylan could find somebody else to clean up the mess, his body included.  Offing himself would just save Tyr the bother of having to do it later when the drugs keeping the Magog larvae in him inactive stopped working.  Rommie had talked him out of it.  Maybe she wouldn’t have been able to if he hadn’t been almost falling down drunk at the time.  He’d thought about committing suicide a lot then, but he had been too much of a coward to go through with it.  Would anyone have given it more than a passing thought if he’d been man enough to do it?  Dylan probably would have gotten himself a new engineer within days and forgotten him entirely by now.

     Harper felt momentarily disloyal for having these thoughts.  He admired Dylan and he loved Beka.  Why was he thinking such awful things about them?  Then he felt Dom’s hand gently pressed against his back, supporting him, the other stroking his shoulder with unspoken affection.  He glanced up at the Admiral, who offered him a soft smile.  He was leaving the Andromeda, he realized as he looked down again, and he was trying to make it easier on himself, to rationalize it.  He was running out on Beka and Dylan like he’d left the Earth of his youth the first chance he’d gotten.  The Andromeda wasn’t hellish like that Earth had been.  Why did it feel like he was doing the same thing?  Would Dylan and Beka hate him for leaving?  Brendan had been angry with him, called him a coward for leaving Earth, for abandoning what was left of his family.  Would Beka and Dylan feel that way too?

     “So, how does it look?” Nelson asked, breaking that line of thought.  Harper looked up at him again only to find the older man was still giving him an encouraging little smile.  Nelson had been kind to him from the moment they’d met.  Harper had never fully understood why he had.  The only people that had ever been as good to him as the Admiral and Dom had been his parents.  Everyone else had always held him at a distance, as if he weren’t worth getting close to either because they were afraid he was going to die on them or that he simply unworthy of the effort of knowing.  He had always told himself that it was all right, that he could take being neglected if it meant not being physically abused anymore.

     Harper had known nothing else since his parents had died, though.  Now that he seen the other side of things as an adult, he found himself addicted to it, that acceptance and the feeling of happiness and self worth it had kindled in him were worth any price.  He didn’t care if he had to suffer physical harm for it or that it would cost him his old life.  What sort of life had it been anyway?  Since Brendan had probably been killed during the recent uprising, he had no more family.  All he had was a hand full of friends here on the Andromeda.  Would they hate him for leaving?  If they were really his friends, it wouldn’t be that way.  They’d understand that Dom couldn’t stay here.  It wasn’t her home.  She couldn’t even speak Galactic Common.  She had no family here, knew no one but him.  What kind of life could she have here?  No, they had to go back to her time.  If Beka and Dylan and Trance were really his friends, they would understand that he had to leave.  They would let him go and wish him well.

     “I couldn’t have done any better,” he responded finally to Nelson’s question, thinking that he’d better handle the problems in front of him before worrying about any of that.  “But... you said Barris’ ship was an airless derelict.  Is the Seaview built to stand up to the vacuum of space?”

     Nelson frowned worriedly for a moment.  “No, but we believe Barris is shielding it somehow.”

     “So if you kill Barris, that protection disappears.  We need to get the Seaview somewhere safe before you do that,” Harper said, worrying about Chip and the sailors that he had gotten friendly with and the possibility that they might come to harm if he didn’t do something to help them.

     “How would we even start to do that, Harper?” Dylan asked.  “Even if we get them free of Barris’ ship, we need to get the Seaview into water immediately.  If we somehow got Barris near to a planet with a workable body of water on it, getting the Seaview into the atmosphere to that water would destroy her.  It’s impossible.”

     “As impossible as pulling a battleship out of the event horizon of a black hole with a small freighter, say?  You’re talking to the Harper here.  I warm up with the impossible on my way to acts of gods,” Harper told him with a cocky grin, the wheels in his brain already spinning wildly.  “If you and Tyr have both been aboard Barris’ ship, you know exactly where the Seaview is.  This is what we do.  Tyr makes a precision attack, blasting out whatever bits of Barris’ ship that are between us and the Seaview.  We move in close and grab the Seaview, gently, with some emergency grappling cables, then reel her over to us.  The Andromeda can throw up shields around her once we have her on sensors by extending one of the hanger bay atmosphere shields.  One of the smaller bays, like hanger bay seven.  Yeah, seven is good.  We pull the Seaview into the bay while simultaneously flooding it so that the Seaview will be back in water.  Once the Seaview is in place, we close the emergency hanger doors, then stabilize pressure to that of the surface ocean norm of Earth.  That’s when you go wipe out Barris and his buddies.  See?  Easy!”

     Dylan’s eyebrows were trying to rise into his hair and the Admiral had a hand over his mouth, his eyes glittering as he thought things over.  “Can they do that?” Dom asked, sounding uncertain.

     “I’ll work with the Andromeda on her part in the computer.  I know Tyr can be really specific with his destruction when he wants to be.  Dylan and the Admiral can be at the hanger, ready to board the Seaview as soon as she’s here and Tyr won’t be that far behind them.  It’ll work fine,” Harper told her confidently.  He felt so much better suddenly.  Maybe that stupid sedative was finally wearing off.  Of course, Dom was giving him a look like she was finally ready to throw him down on the bed and start their marital relations early, which was really getting him inspired to mental greatness.  Much as his libido hated him for even thinking it, that would have to wait until everything was done, though.  Once the Seaview and her crew were safe, Dom could reward him however she saw fit.

     “The grappling cables, they wouldn’t harm the hull of the Seaview?” Nelson asked.

     “No.  They’re typically used to retrieve damaged fighters or shuttles, so it should be all right,” Harper replied.  “The trick will be getting the shields around the Seaview as quickly as possible so we aren’t relying on that jerk Barris any longer than necessary.  Usually when we’re pulling in another vessel like this, it’s in open space, not stuck in another ship, but we can do it quick enough.  I know we can.  Rommie’s fast and with the two of us working together, it’ll be a snap.”

     “It’s not a bad plan per se, Harper, but what if Barris just teleports the Seaview into a different hold of his ship?” Dylan asked, playing devil’s advocate.

     “He won’t.  I mean, he hasn’t grabbed me and shipped me somewhere else since you and the Admiral brought me here, has he?”  Harper asked.  The Admiral and Dylan exchanged a look and Harper got a sudden feeling of dread.  “He tried, didn’t he?” he asked, then thought about Tyr being in the room when he woke up.  “Damn.  Something else I owe Tyr for,” he groused.

     “He wasn’t very committed to that course of action,” Nelson said, then turned to Dylan.  “Nor did he send Seamus somewhere else when I didn’t react the way he expected.  I assure you, there are... or were, as it happens, plenty of scientists on Earth that would have carved the boy apart to get at the neural interface in his head, or drained him of every last drop of blood to having functioning nanobots in their possession.”

     “Eeeww!” Dom said softly.  “There are sick people in the world.”

     “Yes, there are.  Barris misjudged us in that regard, but thankfully never corrected his error.  Or he didn’t want to,” Nelson said, then got a contemplative look on his face.  “At the Institute, he only showed himself to me.  He could have made his offer of service to several power hungry people I know and they would have gladly taken him up on his offer, consequences to others be damned.  So why didn’t he?  Everything he’s doing, it’s for a reason, but he can’t or won’t tell us what that reason is.”

     “I’d sure like to know what he’s got against me,” Harper grumbled.  He was well and truly tired of getting the snot kicked out of him for no reason.

     “He said everything that’s happened is your fault,” Dylan replied.

     “My fault!  But I don’t even know the guy!” Harper sputtered out.  “I never saw anything even remotely like him until that guy came and beat me up, and I was minding my own business when that happened.  How is any of this my fault?”

     “Are you sure you’ve never seen Barris’ race before, Harper?  Are you positive?” Dylan pressed.

     “Yeah, I’m sure.  He’s kinda memorable.  For once, I am totally innocent of... whatever I was supposed to have done!  I swear to you, Dylan, I have never, ever seen Barris or anything like him before.  This is not one of those times when sudden recognition is going to strike and I’m gonna say, ‘Oh, yeah.  Him.’  I absolutely, positively don’t know him or anyone like him,” Harper protested.  He looked to the Admiral, worried that everyone thought he was lying.  “I don’t!  I really, really don’t.”

     Nelson gave him a reassuring pat on the arm.  “We believe you, Seamus,” he said, then looked to Dylan for confirmation.  Dylan’s mouth went flat for a few seconds, then nodded his agreement.  Harper felt something sink in his chest and he felt suddenly cold.  Dylan didn’t trust him to tell the truth about something as important as this?  He hadn’t done anything and Dylan didn’t believe him?  His eyes snapped back to Nelson, who gave him another little pat on the arm and a soft smile.  Warmth flooded back into his blood and he wanted to hug the Admiral for not having doubts.  At least one of his bosses believed in him.

     He looked to Dom and she kissed him softly on the cheek, saying, “Don’t worry.  The Admiral will solve everything.  He always does.”  She believed him too, he thought in relief.  She didn’t doubt him either.  Everything was all right.

     His entry chime sounded again and Tyr came in with some food, giving Nelson and Dylan a mildly curious look as he passed them.  “You eat, son, and rest while I build a few more of these.  We’ll all be busy when I finish,” Nelson said as he and Dylan started to go.

     “But I could...” Harper started, thinking he could put together a few of the simple lances in no time.  The quicker they were ready, the quicker the Seaview would be safe.

     “You can rest until we’re ready or you’re not part of this operation, Harper,” Dylan told him in no uncertain terms.  His hard expression faded and he looked concerned.  “We can take care of the prep work, Harper.  Just rest so that you’ll be up to helping Rommie when the time comes, all right?”

     “Okay, Dylan,” Harper said, though he wasn’t sure how he felt about it.  Was Dylan worried about him or worried about him messing up?

     Dylan gave him a nod and a tight smile.  “We missed you, Harper.  It’s good to have you back,” he said, then left with the Admiral.  Harper felt so confused.  Did Dylan think he was staying?  Would it actually matter to him one way or another?

     “What operation?” Tyr asked.  Harper told him about his plan as Dom moved something around behind him.  As he was finishing with his quick recap, Dom settled him back against some pillows so that he could sit up comfortably and eat the food that Tyr had brought.  She smiled at him and brushed back his hair once he was settled.  The confusion in Harper failed in the light of her smile.  For once in his life, he knew exactly what he wanted.  He wanted to be with Dom.  Where he was, when he was, nothing else mattered.  He only wanted to be with her.

* * *

     Once they were out of Harper’s quarters, Dylan said, “Andromeda, you were monitoring Admiral Nelson when he built the... well, I hesitate to call it a force lance?”

     “Yes, Dylan,” Andromeda asked.  “The energy beam it fires is actually very much like our standard issue force lances, but the crystalline matrix is different, more primitive.  We can modify a few lances fairly easily and quickly.”

     “Good.  How automated can we make the process?” Dylan asked.

     “I can produce the new matrices, then they’ll need to be installed,” Andromeda replied.  “It’s a simple procedure.  I should have a few dozen matrixes done by the time you reach main engineering.”

     “A few dozen?” Nelson asked, sounding curious.

     “Back up and armament for your crew and mine.  Once we get everyone free of Barris, I don’t want to leave anyone vulnerable to another attack from him or his crew,” Dylan replied.  Nelson nodded and they walked along the corridor silently for a little while.  “Do you believe Harper?” Dylan asked after a while.

     “You don’t?” Nelson asked, lifting an eyebrow to him.

     “All of this, it just seems so random and it’s my experience that very little actually is.  Barris said that he’s here because of something Harper did, that Harper caused all this some way.  The problem is that Barris keeps popping around in time, so there’s no way of knowing if what he’s talking about is something that Harper’s already done or something he will do,” Dylan said.

     “If what Barris is saying is true at all,” Nelson replied.  “Seamus managed to come up with a weapon, accidentally as it happens, that can actually keep Barris and his crew at bay and now Barris wants him dead, not just out of the way.  I’d call the timing of that a bit suspect, and I think every time he lashes out at Seamus it’s merely a distraction away from what Barris is really after.  Even after he told me to kill the boy, he was still trying to barter his way into my employ.  Barris wants you or I to accept him and his crew.  That is what he’s after, though I don’t have the foggiest notion why.  That’s what we should concern ourselves with.”

     Dylan frowned, but at himself, and nodded.  Why had he been so willing to distrust Harper on something Barris was ranting about?  The poor kid had just been badly beaten for the second time in a short period of time and seemed genuinely confused about why that kept happening.  Even if Harper did do something to Barris in the future, the alien had more than earned it.  And even flat on his back, Harper had come through for them, thinking up a way to get the Seaview away from Barris.  Dylan had pulled in disabled fighters before, but he had never thought to use the Andromeda’s shields in the way that Harper was describing and certainly wouldn’t have thought of flooding a hanger to harbor an aquatic vessel.  Since the Andromeda hadn’t corrected Harper on anything he had been saying, Dylan could only assume that everything he’d outlined could be done.  Dylan should have been happy that he had such a quick thinking innovative engineer, but instead, he’d almost verbally attacked the poor kid.  No wonder Nelson was so sure Harper was better off in the past with him.  Maybe he was.

     “You’re right of course, sir,” he told Nelson a little ashamed that he had to do so.

     “I only wish I knew more about Barris.  After his stunt with the Magog, he’s proved he can be violently unpredictable.  Who knows how he’ll respond to our retaking the Seaview.  You said your crew has been to Barris’ home world.  Did you find out anything from going there?” Nelson asked.

     Dylan felt like kicking himself.  Instead of bickering with the Admiral over Harper, he should have been telling the man everything he’d found out or figured out about Barris.  Nelson was a legendary strategist, but the man was only as good as the information that he had at his command.  Dylan started telling Nelson about Barris’ previous visits to the Andromeda and what he had said during those intrusions, then he told him about their own computer records about the Lechak Bon and what Beka had learned on her mission to their home world.  By the time he finished telling Nelson everything, they had been at Engineering for a while and half a dozen force lances had been modified.

     “Both stories carry one common theme,” Nelson said after a few moments of contemplation.  “Barris decides to embrace evil and is shunned by his people and cursed by some supernatural or divine power.  He obviously thinks that being accepted somewhere will break this curse and he wants that more than anything else.  He thinks it will free him to act however he pleases and that there will be no one to stand in his way.  In the mean time, he and his crew won’t directly kill anyone, but they are still incredibly dangerous.  The thing is, at first, Barris was very passive with his requests.  Aside from his actions towards Seamus, he hadn’t actually done anything to hurt anyone.  That changed suddenly, first with the squid creature and escalating from there.  Perhaps this was because his people are on their way to your ship.  Whatever the cause, he feels like he’s running out of time to get the acceptance he wants.  What I want to know is why he feels like he needs this acceptance from you or me.  I could list dozens of powerful men that would leap at the chance of having someone as indestructible as Barris on his team.  So why is Barris trying to convince two men who plainly want nothing to do with what he’s offering?”

     “I think it has something to do with all his time traveling.  He said that I was a man of destiny and I’m betting he’s said something similar to you.  He seems to think that we can change the flow of events that we have a hand in.  I think there is something in his past that he wants changed,” Dylan said.

     “Or something in the near future that he wants us to affect,” Nelson said, then seemed to think on it some more as he paused in his work on the lance before him.  He shook himself and went back to what he was doing, saying, “Whatever it is, I have no intention of doing it.”

     “Neither do I,” Dylan agreed.  “The problem is, Harper is the one that keeps paying the price for our refusal.”

     “Yes,” Nelson said, his tone growing grave.  “The one part of Seamus’ plan that I don’t care for is he and Dominica being here aboard your ship with no protectors.”

     “He’ll have to come to Main Engineering or the reactor core to link in when the Seaview is retrieved,” the Andromeda said.  “He could modify my internal defense systems in whatever area he’ll be in and I’ll stand guard over them.”

     “So long as he doesn’t blind you to his presence again,” Dylan murmured, wondering what sort of shot Doctor Babin was.  He would arm her and Harper before they left, regardless of her level of expertise with firearms.

     “How long away is Captain Valentine?” Nelson asked, obviously hoping for reinforcements.

     “I don’t think we should wait.  If people from his home world is what’s setting off Barris, I want the Seaview safe aboard the Andromeda before they get here,” Dylan replied.

     “Yes, that is probably for the best,” Nelson said, with a distracted nod.  Dylan didn’t blame him.  After all, Nelson had the most to lose if anything went wrong.  Dylan frowned at himself again.  Nothing would go wrong.  The Seaview would get home with her crew intact.  History said as much.  For some reason that wasn’t reassuring at the moment.  Dylan moved to take the finished lances and pack them carefully for transport to the Seaview.  This operation couldn’t be over soon enough for him.

     Nelson altered thirty lances, then lost patience for it and declared they had enough.  Dylan didn’t argue the matter, simply taking Nelson to stores and getting him some body armor.  He would guard Nelson, but it didn’t hurt to take extra precautions.  They brought breathers to the airlock of Hanger Deck Seven, just in case the umbilical couldn’t hook up to the Seaview’s airlock, and left them and the spare lances there.  All but three of them, one each for Tyr, Doctor Babin and Harper.  Once they were as ready as they ever would be, they returned to Harper’s quarters to find Harper sitting up and wearing one of his loud Hawaiian shirts, seemingly ready for action, though his injured arm hung in a sling against his chest.  The shirt hung looser than usual on the kid and Dylan worried a little over how pale Harper was in contrast with the bright colors covering him.  A quick glance at his modified lance confirmed that Harper’s temperature was normal.  That didn’t reassure Dylan all that much when he looked back at Harper’s too thin, tired face.

     “You’re sure you’re up to this, Harper?” he asked, wishing that he didn’t have to.  He wished he had a whole engineering staff so that Harper’s chief assistant could do this and let the poor kid get the sleep he plainly needed.  He wished he had some Marines waiting ready to back him up on the Seaview rather than putting Nelson at risk.  He wished he had security forces to rely on to guard his noncombatants rather than sticking a force lance into the hands of an untrained girl and hoping that she wouldn’t have to use it.  All of this, it shouldn’t be this way, but Dylan didn’t have any options, so he could only pray for the best.

     “I’m good to go,” Harper said confidently as he got out of bed.  Doctor Babin was by him as he rose, wrapping an arm around him and looking up at him, her features tight with worry.  He smiled brightly down at her, wrapping his uninjured arm around her shoulders and squeezing her gently to him.  “We’ll hold down the fort with Rommie once the Seaview is here.  You guys just be careful with your end,” he said as he looked back to Dylan, then to Nelson.

     “I’ll be at Command waiting for the go signal,” Tyr said, taking the modified lance that Nelson held out to him and letting himself out of Harper’s quarters.  The big Nietzschean would meet them at the hanger airlock as soon as he was sure the Seaview was free of Barris’ ship and he wasn’t needed at Command anymore.

     Dylan handed a force lance to Harper, who slipped it into one of his pockets without comment, then offered the second towards Doctor Babin.  “Harper is going to be totally defenseless while he’d in system with the Andromeda,” Dylan said when she hesitated taking it.  She was a legendary pacifist.  He hadn’t expected her to touch the weapon without an argument.

     “No big deal, Dom, really,” Harper said, taking the lance from Dylan and showing her the activation sequence.  “See?  Simple.  Not that you’ll have to use it or anything.  Rommie’s got us covered and she’ll kick me out to the real world at the first sign of trouble.  Besides, Tyr said that these guys are dead, so you’re not hurting anyone if they decide to show up and get all menacing.  They’re just big, ugly, mobile Halloween dummies begging to be targets, that’s all they are,” he told her with an encouraging little smile.  Doctor Babin begrudgingly took the weapon from him and Harper smiled warmly at her and gave her a rather thorough kiss, which she returned without hesitation.  “Thanks for havin’ my back, Babe,” he murmured practically into her mouth.  Dylan felt a blush rising up on his neck at seeing Harper actually have a woman return his affection.  He was so used to seeing Harper ignored or slapped that this seemed wrong, embarrassing for some reason.  “Let’s do this,” Harper declared as he turned from Doctor Babin.

     They walked together back to Main Engineering and Harper pulled a link wire out of one of his pockets and sat at one of the consoles, attaching one end of the wire there.  “You be careful, Bosses.  We’ll be okay here.  See you on the flip side,” he said, then inserted the other end of the lead into his neural interface.  His eyes rolled back into his head and he began to fall limply forward.  Dylan and Doctor Babin both caught him and then carefully eased him back into his chair.

     “Is that supposed to happen?” Nelson asked sounding alarmed.  “Is that hurting him?”

     “He’s fine,” Dylan said, but he had to admit, watching Harper sink mentally into Rommie’s systems could be pretty alarming.

     Doctor Babin stroked Harper’s hair gently.  “He told me to expect this, told me that it didn’t hurt,” she said softly, then looked up from Harper.  “I’ll be here with him until he’s finished, then bring him back to his quarters.  We’ll be all right.”

     “Harper is with me and we’re ready.  Tyr is moving us into position,” the Andromeda’s voice announced.

     “We’d better get to the hanger,” Dylan said to Nelson, who gave Harper one more look of concern, then nodded and followed him off.

     “Be careful,” Doctor Babin called after them as they left.

     They marched along silently for a while, then Nelson asked, “Is there a way to remove all that hardware from Seamus’ head without harming him?”

     “Of course.  I’m told it’s simple,” Dylan said with a shrug, then actually thought about it for a moment.  Harper did so great with the tools he had that Dylan had never paid much attention to what he was using.  Harper’s interface, it wasn’t likely to be the best available.  Dylan didn’t like to think about what the kid might have done to get the one he had.  “I ought to get his gear upgraded.  He probably couldn’t afford the best tech out there and...”

     “I want it taken out before we go back to the Institute,” Nelson declared somberly.  “He won’t need it anymore.”

     “If he goes,” Dylan stated for the record.

     Nelson glared up at him.  “He’s usually alone when he uses that thing, alone and defenseless.  Why didn’t you ever initiate some sort of safety procedures before this?  Just now, if we hadn’t been there, he would have fallen forward onto his broken arm.  He could have been badly hurt.”

     “Harper’s all right,” Dylan assured him, but he had to admit, if only to himself, that Harper tended to not be very secure when he patched into the system.  Often, he was in the access tubes, alone and not near any help if he needed it.  There had been one particularly frightening time in a battle when the Andromeda’s hull had been breached dangerously close to where Harper’s body lay while his mind was occupied in the ship’s computer.  They’d nearly lost him to asphyxiation that time.  Dylan remembered thinking they had when Harper wouldn’t wake up for the next two days and one of his lungs, which had collapsed, refused to get back to the matter of breathing for the kid for much of that time.  Harper had been fine in the end, much to everyone’s relief, but Dylan had thought that they needed better emergency procedures than Harper being in some random, remote location like that every time trouble hit.  Why hadn’t he ever acted on those thoughts?

     Nelson scowled.  “Because Dominica is watching over him,” he muttered.

     “I watch over him typically, Admiral,” the Andromeda told him.  “And I’ll guard them both until you return.”  Nelson didn’t look reassured, simply speeding up his pace.  Dylan sighed.  He liked Harper, needed him to keep the Andromeda in tip top condition and didn’t want to lose him anymore than Beka would, but at every turn, it seemed like the kid was better off gone.  Dylan shook his head and turned his thoughts back to the matter at hand.  He would be facing the dilemma of Harper’s future soon enough.

* * *

 

 

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