Storm Surge

Part 14

“Okay.” Kerry led the way through the visitors entrance to their offices.  “Dar, I’m going to have to sign you in.”  She could feel her partner silently snickering.  “Do you know what a pile of paperwork that’s going to be?”

“Sorry.” Dar said, with not a lot of sincerity. “Hey, if they won’t let me in, we can go work out of the nerd bus.  Dad’s there, and I hear the foods pretty good.”

“Dar.” Kerry eyed the receptionist as they approached. “How about we get you a loaner laptop and just push your image down to it? I’m sure we’ve got one in this place that can handle it.”

“Bet they don’t.”

“Good morning, Ms. Stuart.” The receptionist greeted her with a smile.  “A lot of people were asking after you inside. I’m sure they’ll be glad to see you.”

Kerry set her briefcase down and removed her sunglasses. “Yeah, it’s been that kind of morning.” She agreed. “I need to sign in a corporate employee that doesn’t have a badge with them.”

The woman glanced past Kerry at the tall, lanky figure behind her. “That’s no problem, ma’am, I just need to see some ID and I can process that for you.”

“She doesn’t have that either.” Kerry said. “And we haven’t installed integrated biometrics here yet, have we? Everyone needs a card.” She took the visitor form that had been held out to her and passed it back. “Fill this out, hon.”

Dar took the form with it’s clipboard and started obediently scribbling.  “What’s my purpose for visiting? Anarchy and general disruption of the business?”

The receptionist frowned. “If you mean the government handprint thing, no ma’am. But I can’t issue a visitor pass without seeing some identification.”

“You’re just going to have to take my word for who this is.” Kerry told her.  “I’ll authorize it.. no wait.” She turned and glanced at her partner. “I’m the requester, I can’t also authorize. Shoot. I think you have to authorize it since you’re my upchain.”

Dar chuckled and kept writing. 

The receptionist caught the clue. “Oh.” She said. “Sorry, Ms. Roberts. We weren’t expecting you.”

“No one ever is.” Dar produced a reasonably sexy grin. “I’m the Spanish Inquisition of ILS.” She handed back the clipboard and the pen. “There you go.”

The receptionist took it and studied the paper, then she pulled out a visitor pass and punched in the programming for it. “One of the people from the NSA was here yesterday looking for you, Ms. Stuart, after you left.”

“I know. We found them.”  Kerry said, leaning against the counter as she watched Dar wander around the lobby examining it.  “I think we got that all sorted out. Hopefully they won’t be bothering us again.”

“Okay, here you go ma’am.” The receptionist handed over the visitor badge. “Should I let them know you’re here?”

“And spoil my fun?” Dar took the badge from her and winked. “Nah.”

“Thanks.” Kerry smiled at the woman and led her troublemaking spouse towards the inner door.  “We can use that office they assigned to me. It’s big enough to party in.” She scanned the door open and held it as Dar went past her.   “So what’s the plan?”

“Whats the plan.”  Dar sighed, as they walked down the hallway side by side. “I wish I knew what the plan was. I need to sit down and think for a few minutes and try to figure out where the hell to start.” She said. “Want to stop in at ops first? You said they were a little rattled at my locking them down.”

“Good idea.” Kerry led the way to the security door and swiped through it, leading Dar into the inner operations center.  Their entry caught the group by surprise, and voices fell off as people’s heads turned as they spotted Kerry.

Kerry watched their eyes, as they shifted to her companion and stayed there, putting two and two together a lot faster than the receptionist did.  “Good morning folks.” She said. “As you can see, I called in the cavalry.   Dar and I have just gotten back from the White House, and I think we’ve gotten a few things worked out that will take some of the stress off you all.”

No one said anything for a very long moment.  Then the shift supervisor, a different man than the previous day, came over. “Oh, well. Wow. That wasn’t’ expected.  Ms. Roberts, it’s an honor.’ He timidly extended a hand, which Dar clasped in a genial manner.  “Don Abernathy. We’ve been on conference calls a few times.”

“We have.” Dar agreed. “Someone want to vacate a seat so I can check things out in here?”

Kerry took a step back and amused herself in watching the staff as they scrambled around to make space for Dar on both the government and commercial side of the monitors.  They had all been extremely respectful to her the previous day, but their attitude towards her partner was one of utter awe, and completely different in scope.

People usually did react to Dar differently.  Kerry expected that. But she spent so much time around her at their Miami office that she often forgot how the rest of the company viewed her since everyone in Miami was pretty much used to having her around.

Dar slid into an emptied chair and rested her long forearms on the console surface, pausing a moment to review the screen before she logged the user out and logged herself in with a patter of rapid keystrokes that sounded ridiculously loud in the suddenly quiet room.

Dar seemed to realize it. She stopped, and looked slowly around, first one way then the other. “People, sit the hell down. They don’t pay me to teach typing.”

Kerry chuckled under her breath, as the staff sidled back to their seats, save Don, who had an excuse to remain standing near the front of the console. “Dar, be nice.”  She remonstrated her. She walked over and put her hands on her partner’s shoulders.  “I’m going to go get some work done. Come get me when you’re done showing off.”

Dar leaned back, her head thumping gently against Kerry’s chest. “Get me that laptop if you can. We’re also going to need a video conference with Hamilton and his friends about what contacts we have in New York.”

“Okay.” Kerry just barely resisted the urge to give her a kiss on the top of her head. “I’ll get that set up and let you know when it’s ready.”

Dar winked at her. 

Kerry squeezed her bosses shoulders and then she stepped back and headed for the door, leaving a lot of bemused faces behind her.

She was used to that too.    She made her way through the hall to the office she’d been issued and shouldered her way into it, crossing the carpet and putting her briefcase down on the desk.  Before she opened it though, she went over and used the hot water dispenser tucked in one corner, getting a cup and a teabag sorted and steeping in short order.

A soft knock came a the door. “C’mon in.” Kerry looked over her shoulder as the door opened, and Nan’s dark head poked itself in. “Good morning, Nan.” She greeted the woman.  “How are you doing today?”

“Oh, hi. You are here. I’m doing okay, thanks.” Nan slipped in. “Everyone’s looking for you, though.”   She told Kerry.  “In a bad way.”

“Not the NSA again?” Kerry slipped her laptop out and opened it.

“No. Everyone but them.” Nan said, frankly.  “We’re getting pounded for resources from all sides.  I’ve been here since six and the phone hasn’t stopped ringing off the hook.”

That sounded a little strange. While the center did house a lot of systems, both government and civil, Kerry didn’t really understand why the overall need would have surged now.  “Okay.” She said. “Let me get booted up, and I’ll get on the bridge.  You can also have them transfer any real trouble to the phone here.”  She circled the desk and slid into the chair. “And if it gets too scary, we’ll throw Dar at them.”

Nan cocked her head. “Literally?”

Kerry glanced up and grinned over the top of her screen.  “She’s in the ops center. If they all know what’s good for them, they’ll just be understanding and reasonable.”

“Wow. I didn’t realize she was here.” Nan said. “I don’t think anyone did.. er, does.”   She put her hands in her pockets. “I’m sure I’d have heard if they did.”

“We just got here.” Kerry logged in as her laptop finished booting.  She reached for her ear buds as she waited for the desktop to launch and key in the conference bridge. “We had a meeting we had to go to earlier.” 

“Okay, well, I’ll let everyone know you’re here then.” Nan said. “I know they’ll be glad to hear it. Anything else you need?”

Kerry paused before hitting the mic. “Matter of fact there is.” She said. “I need to get my hands on whatever the highest end laptop you’ve got here is.” She said. “Biggest hard drive, biggest chunk of ram, highest screen res.”

Intrigued, Nan removed her hands from her pockets and crossed the office, taking a seat in the visitor chair across from Kerry. “Okay.” She said.  “Most of the staff use the standard type.”

“I figured.” Kerry started scanning the screen.  “But that won’t do, unfortunately.  What else do we have here?” She read down the list of requests posted on the desktop, grimacing a little at the blinking red lines that had moved from requests to demands.

“Well.”  Nan frowned. “You want something like what you’re using? I think we have one or two of that model around, maybe in the test center – I’d have to check on the RAM though.  Mine’s last year’s model and it’s got a gig.”

Kerry glanced at the opposite wall briefly. “No. Has to be more horsepower than this one.” She said.

“Would a server work?” Nan suggested. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have anything even close to that in a laptop.”

Kerry imagined her partner tucking one of the big suitcase size items under her arm to walk out with. “Ah.. no.. hang on. “ She clicked the mic on. “Miami ops, this is Miami exec. You on?”

“Go ahead boss.” Mark’s voice answered. “You still with the goons?”

“In Herndon.” Kerry answered. “You have any laptops with you?”

“Sure.”

“Big enough to take the Godzilla image?”

“Miami exec, this is Newark Earthstation.” A voice broke in.  “We’re maxed here, and I have the city of New York on the line demanding we give them priority on the birds.”

“Hang on Newark.  Mark, do you or not?” Kerry repeated.

“Yowp hang on one sec, Boss, we’re checking the back tank.” Mark called out, his voice obviously away from the mic.  “Big Kahuna’s box take a dive?”

“It’s in Miami.”

“Crap.”

“Newark, this is Miami exec.” Kerry said. “What traffic are they asking for priority for?”

“Boss, we don’t have anything close.” Mark said. “Not that’ll take the image for that beast without rolling over and crying, even mine.”

“Miami exec, this is Newark.  Some kind of telecommunications relay.  City business they said.” The Earthstation informed her. “They’re getting pretty pushy, even for New Yorkers.”

Kerry tapped on the desk.  “They’re under a lot of stress, guys. Cut them a little slack.” She glanced at Nan and cut the mic off. “Where’s the nearest hard core gaming shop?”

Nan blinked. “What?”

“Miami exec, we are, we are.” Newark answered. “I told them we could only give them maybe 256, and they went off on me.”

“Yeah?” Kerry said. “Okay, well get them on the line, and I’ll conference.” She put the mic on hold again. “A gamer shop. You know, PC games.  First person shooters?  3 D gaming world sims?”

Nan stared at her. “You mean, like video games?” She queried. “ Sonic the Hedgehog? That stuff?”

“Okay, Miami exec, hold on a few.” Newark clicked off.

“Miami exec, this is Miami ops.” Mark broke in. “Nego on anything we can give big D outside maybe my setup server.  They got anything there?”

“They don’t Mark. Can you find me a gamer hack shop around here?”  Kerry said. “I’ll send someone to get whatever their top of the line is.”

“Sweet. Hang on.”

Kerry picked up her tea and sipped it, taking advantage of the moment’s lull.  “Okay, while that’s going on, Lansing, how’s it looking there today.”

“Miami, we have a lot of cellular backhaul hitting us today.” Her hometown local office said.  “Also, it looks like VOIPs getting hit pretty hard in the Northeast. I’m running hot across the board.”

“Confirm that, Miami, this is Herndon ops.” Another voice added. “We’ve seen building traffic since about seven and..eh? Oh, ah yes. Ah, someone’s looking at it.”

Kerry muffled a grin, knowing full well who the someone was.  “Thanks, Herndon. Lansing, keep the shaping in.  We don’t know what we’re going to be called on to move today with all that’s going on.’

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Miami, this is LA Earthstation.”

Kerry checked her watch. “Good morning, LA.”

“Ma’am, we’ve got Intelsat on the line. They’ve got a software issue on one of their control systems and they want to know if we’ve got anybody there that can look at it.  They’re tapped for resources.”

“Okay poquito boss, I got a place for ya.” Mark came back on. “Got a pencil?”

Nan quickly grabbed a pad and a pen. “How do you keep up with all this?”

“Acquired attention deficit disorder. Comes with the job.” Kerry was scribbling something herself. “Hang on LA.  Miami applications support, you on?”

“We’re here.”  A male voice answered. “I think we’re the only ones not that busy today, Ms. Stuart.  Would you like us to call Intelsat and engage them?”

“I would. Go ahead Mark, we’ve got a pen waiting.” Kerry said. “Apps, see what you can do to back up ops there too, I know folks must be pretty tired in the center.”

“Will do.”

Marks voice rapidly recited an address that Nan just as rapidly copied down.   She finished and looked at it. “You want me to go get the biggest thing they got, right?” She asked. “Max RAM, max storage, max pixel.”

“You got it.” Kerry said, busy making notes. “Shoot, we’ve got some stuff hitting the fan here.. damn it, I can’t get deliveries in freaking Iowa. How in the hell are we supposed to go fix New York?”

“Any particular color?”

Kerry looked up and over her laptop screen for a long moment of silence. Then her eyes twinkled a little. “Not.  Pink. “ She enunciated very carefully.

“You got it.” Nan got up and headed for the door.  “Be back in a flash.”  Behind her, a burst of chatter erupted, as issues suddenly scaled over each other, and the tempo rose.

“Miami exec, this is Lansing, we just got an alert from Citibank they’re spooling backups from Buffalo.” Lansing broke in. “They’re pushing the shaping profile.’

“Miami, exec this is Newark, I have the Governor of New York on the line for you.”

“Miami exec, this is the Air Hub, we’re seeing a lot of congestion, we’ve got packets dropping here.”

A loud whistle suddenly cut through all the chatter. Nan paused at the open door and stared back at the desk, but Kerry merely smiled.

“All right.” Dar’s voice briskly followed the whistle.  “Thor, god of the internets is here.   Kerry, go handle the Governor.  I’ll  start squeezing the pipes.   Everybody just relax.  This is where we earn our reputation.”

“Dar, what about..” Kerry paused, the time limit and the commitment they’d made weighing on her suddenly.  Yes, they told the government they’d go try and fix their problem but what about all of their own?

“Already doing the prep.”  Dar answered. “I”ve got about a dozen reports running that’re going to need my algorithms. Hope you find that laptop.”

“Hope you find room in your pipes for me to pull your image.”  Kerry remarked wryly.

“First things first.”  Her partner said, with easy confidence. “See what we can do over at Newark. We’re going to need the leverage.”

Ah. Kerry punched in the conference line for the Earthstation.  Complications.  “Will do, boss., will do.”

**

Dar leaned against the console, bracing her elbows on the surface and folding her hands together as she studied the screen.   She was aware, in a disconnected way, that there were a lot of people watching her but her attention was absorbed by the thin tracing lines and flickering statistics in front of her.

The barebones diagram she was studying was a scaled down version of what she was used to looking at in her office, with fewer colors and sketchier details.  It was enough, though, for her to see the imbalances caused by the outages and the need to route around them.

Any individual outage, was no problem.  Dar had built more than enough redundancy into her design to cope with that. In fact, multiple outages were usually not a problem either.   But the combination of multiple outages of their own, and the suddenly heavy demand from everyone trying to route around outages themselves was giving her usually robust network fits.

Giving Dar fits. “Damn it.” She put her hands back on the keyboard and rattled off a few commands.  “We need to get those damn nodes reconnected north of the city.” She muttered. “I”ve got everything coming south and it’s crunching the hell out of us.”

“Ma’am?” One of the console techs timidly leaned closer. “Are you talking to us, or just to you?”

Dar glanced up, watching everyone quickly pretend to look at something else.  “Well.” She drummed her fingers. “I was talking to myself, but if you’ve got any good ideas cough em up.”  She waited, but the crowd remained respectfully silent.  “C’mon, people. I don’t bite.”

Don came forward, with a air of martyred bravery. “Well, uh, ma’am…”

“Whoa.” Dar held her hand up. “First of all, I’m going to be around for a while. Stop the ma’am crap and call me by my name, please.”

Don’s eyes widened, and his nostrils flared visibly.  “Uh.” He said. “Okay, Ms. Roberts. If you say so.”

Dar gave him a wry look.

“Anyway.” Don glanced at the big board behind them.  “Um, what exactly are you doing? It’s hard for us to make suggestions when we don’t’ really have a clue what’s going on.”

Everyone held their breath when he finished, but Dar merely chuckled. “Good point.” She agreed, settling back in her chair. “The network’s imbalanced, because of the outages. We’re pulling too much, especially on the commercial side.” She pointed at the big board. “That’s why all the lines are purple tending to red, instead of blue like they usually are.”

Heads swung towards the board, then back to her. “That makes sense.” One of the techs said. “But what can we do about it?”

“I think a lot of people are using more data bandwdth than usual too.” One of the female techs added. “Sending emails, and listening to the internet with all that streaming video going on.”

“Agreed.” Dar said. “Same thing we’re doing, since some of the traffic is us, on the big bridge.” She said. “That global meetingplace isn’t a text screen and a bunch of black and white pixels.”

“Wow.” The woman said. “I never even though of that.”

“Can we ask our customers to not do that?” Don spoke up. “How can we? This is something where people really need to communicate with each other, like what we’re doing. That global meeting is an amazing thing.”

Dar folded her hands. “Very true. So no, we really can’t ask them not to reach out to each other. So that’s why I’m rooting around in the bits and bytes to see if there’s anything I can do to optimize what’s going through.” She went back to the screen and reviewed the results of her last command.  “Let’s see…”

She focused on the black screen again, studying the flows.   Then a memory surfaced, and she cursed to herself, flipping through parts of the configuration, searching through the code with rapid, impatient flicks of her mouse.

“Boy it’s really getting stuffed.” Don remarked.  “I bet we get calls any minute.”

“You’d think folks would just remember what’s going on.” The female tech on Dar’s other side muttered.

Ah. Dar found what she was looking for.  “I’m such a jerk sometimes.”

“Ma’am?” Don turned and looked at her.

Dar sniffed and rattled her keyboard, muttering under her breath. 

“Air Hub, are you picking up the feed from the ATC? They’re on the line here saying you’re dropping it.” Kerry’s voice crackled over the speakers.  “And, LA Earthstation, stand by, I managed another 24 transponder channels for you from Hughes.”

“Miami exec, this is LA Earth. We’re standing by. We’ve got a half dozen requests for upgrades from the government side.”

“Miami exec, this is the Air Hub. Stand by please we’re checking.”

“LA Earth, this is Newark Earth, save a few for us, please.  We have two dozen to your half.”  A harried voice answered. “Miami exec, any extra for us?”

Kerry’s voice sounded apologetic. “Newark, we’re trying. They’re absolutely saturated The only reason we got west coast space is the airlines are moving again and the requests from Vancouver have slacked off.”

“Miami exec, understood. Also be advised we were asked about our power trucks. The City wanted to know where we got them from. I told them they would need to talk to you.”

Dar kept typing, one ear twitching as the flow of complaints.  She could hear the strain starting again in her partner’s voice, and resolved to attend to that critical issue next.

“Miami exec, this is Roosevelt Island.”  A new voice interrupted. “I have a cross-connect request here for new service? They said it was priority.”

“Roosevelt, it is. Please provide them service at my request.” Kerry’s voice answered. “We’ve provisioned a ten meg slice for them. It’s data services for ATT.  Tunnel them through to our common carrier point in Philly, please. They’re expecting it.”

Dar looked up at the big board, her eyes lifting a little.

“Okay, ma’am, will do.”

Dar wrenched her attention back to the screen, a set of changes already inputted, waiting for her confirmation.  She hesitated, then she saved the changes without executing, and stood up. “Be right back.”

**

“They thought I was crazy. “ Nan set a large cardboard box down on the desk Kerry was using, as it’s occupant was retrieving another cup of tea. “They were saying,  “But what are you going to play with it.. is it for a LAN party? Can you tell us where?”

Kerry chuckled as she returned, dropping back into her chair and rocking her head back and forth to loosen the tightening muscles in her neck.   She glanced at her screen, then shifted her attention to the box and watched as it was opened releasing the scent of new computer equipment into the air.

Plastic offgassing mostly, but also a hint of the chemicals inside.  As distinctive as a new car, and occasionally as expensive.  “Bet they did.” Kerry said. “If they only knew.”

“If only.” Nan agreed. “I told them I was buying it for my brother for his birthday.” She admitted. “They wanted me to adopt them.”

Kerry chuckled. “Nerds.”

“They were glad for the sale.” Nan opened the Styrofoam bag the machine was carefully encased in and slid it free, lifting it with both hands and placing it on the desk.  “I was the only one in there.”

Kerry folded her hands together and peered at the laptop. “Sexy.” She said. “I think she’ll like it.”

“Like what?” A voice at the door surprised both of them.

Kerry looked across the room to see Dar entering, a cup in her hand.  “Hey boss.” She said. “How’s it going?”

“It’s going .” Dar’s nose twitched and she made a beeline for the desk as she spotted the boxes.  “What do we have here?”

Nan’s eyes widened and she stepped back from the desk , picking up the boxes and wrapping and getting hastily out of the way.

“Hm. I like the color.” Dar hitched one knee up and took a seat on the desk, handing her cup over to Kerry as she reached over to take hold of the laptop. “Drink that. You’re froggy again.”  She picked up the laptop with one hand and set it on her thigh, opening the latch and lifting the screen.

“Thanks.” Kerry accepted the cup. “I’ve been drinking tea but it’s not helping.” She sipped the cold chocolate milk as she watched her partner.  Then she shook her head a little, and glanced up at Nan. “Sorry.  My manners went south there for a minute. Nan, this is Dar Roberts.”

Nan cleared her throat. “Hello.”

“Nan’s been nice enough to run around for us the past two days.  She went out to get your new toy, hon.” Kerry unobtrusively gave her partner a nudge, distracting her from an apparently fascinating encounter with the laptop’s BIOS.

Dar’s eyes lifted and met the woman’s. “We’ve spoken on the phone.” She said after a moment. “You do the inventory recaps.”

Nan blinked. “Um.. yes, Yes I do. Nice to meet you in person finally.” She stammered a little. “I hope the machine’s okay. It’s pretty much the best they had.”

Dar bent her head to study the machine’s screen briefly. “I think it’ll be fine.” She said. “Good choice.”  She added, with a smile. “Thanks for doing my shopping for me. “

Nan smiled back. “Anytime.”

“Okay.” Dar got up and circled the desk, dropping to her knees and peering under it. “Got a cable, Ker?”

“Oh, wait, hang on..  I can do that..” Nan scrambled forward, hauling up as Kerry lifted her hand and waved her back.   “But…”

Dar’s head popped up over the desk’s surface, and her eyebrows hiked. “What?” She rummaged in Kerry’s briefcase and disappeared again, with a grunt.  “I hate these kind of jacks. What moron had them installed here?”

Kerry scooted out of her way a bit, and leaned on the top of the desk. “Miami ops, this is Miami exec. How are those transfers coming?”

“Miami exec, this is Houston Ops.” Another voice broke in. “We have a bulk backup request from Cheyanne Mountain to secure storage, and a database parse. “

“Acknowledged.” Kerry said. “Are you mentioning it just because it’s out of time range?” She almost bit her tongue when she suddenly felt a warmth against the side of her knee and realized it was Dar’s breath.

“Yes, ma’am.” Houston answered. “We can give them their standard bandwidth but if something comes up while it’s transferring we’re tapped.”

Kerry glanced down, to see twinkling blue eyes looking back up at her. “What do you think?”

“What do I think.” Dar drawled, pressing her cheek against the outside of Kerry’s leg. “Hm…..”  She watched the light blush climb up her throat before she relented, moving away and coming back up from under the desk with the end of an Ethernet cable in her fingers.  “Houston, let them go for it.  I’ll keep an eye on the pipe and if you start stressing it I can throw some compression on it.”

“Okay,  uh.. ma’am.” Houston said. “Will do.”

Dar remained on her knees, plugging the laptop into the Ethernet cable after she scribbled some numbers off the bottom of it.   “Let me get at your session for a minute.”  She told her partner. “Miami ops, this is Miami exec.  Stand by for a high speed  encrypted image transfer. You’re going to redline. No one freak out please.”

“Copy that, Miami exec.” Mark’s voice broke in. “I tanked the alerter.”

“All yours.” Kerry slipped out of her seat and took her milk, retreating around the side of the desk to where Nan was somewhat awkwardly standing.  She took up a spot next to the woman and sipped from the cup. 

“Thanks. So’s the computer.”  Dar dropped into the chair and flexed her hands, cracking the knuckles of her fingers before she started typing on Kerry’s laptop.   “Hope to hell this thing isn’t different enough hardware for the image to choke.”

“Dar’s machine image is a one of a kind.” Kerry said, conversationally to Nan. “She goes through laptops like popcorn, so we always have a snapshot ready. “

“Oh.” Nan murmured. “What’s so different about it?”

“Programs.” Dar answered without looking up. “A handful of cranky, self written piles of code that do analytics on pretty much everything.”  She glanced at the paper, and then back at the screen.  “Along with consolidated control consoles for the majority of the infrastructure.”

“And Gopher Dar.” Kerry commented.

“And Gopher Dar.” Her partner agreed.  “Okay, Mark, here it comes, I ran it by mac.”

“Gotcha.”

“I’m going to clear out my inbox.” Nan said. “If you all need anything, give me a ring.”   She backed away from the desk and escaped out the door, closing it quickly behind her.

Kerry watched her go, then turned back to her partner.  “I think you’re scaring her, hon.”

Dar’s brows twitched. “Me? I didn’t do anything.”  She protested. “I thought I was being nice.”

Kerry gave her an affectionate smile.

Dar hit a few more keys, then turned to watch the newly purchased laptop. It blinked, then the screen shivered and blanked out, replaced by a spinning  pirate flag. “Nice touch.”  She drummed her fingertips on the desktop.  “This snap is from before I left for London, but I didn’t have time to do much with it there so it should be all right.”

“Holy crap!” A voice echoed on the line through Kerry’s laptop.

“Didn’t I tell everyone not to freak out?” Dar frowned, and tapped the mic. “Hold tight, people.  This wont’ take long. “ She muted. “I hope.”   She leaned on the desk and tilted her head, peering over at Kerry.  “We’re going to have an issue.”

Kerry blinked mildly at her. “Another one?” She asked. “Dar, we’ve got a metric ton of them now, you’re sitting there thinking of more?” She perched on the edge of the desk, swirling her milk in it’s cup.

“Paradox.” Dar said, succinctly.  “We’re going to need to be in lower Manhattan to make things happen.”

“Sure.”

“There’s no damn comms or cell service in lower Manhattan. How do we make things happen if we can’t communicate?”

“Ah.” Kerry frowned. “We have to bring comms with us then, I guess.”

“Miami exec, this is Miami ops, we just got a call from the banking center. They’re saying they’re seeing degraded response.”  A voice interrupted them.

“Shoot.” Kerry leaned over and hit the mic.  “Miami ops, tell them we’re aware, and we’re working to clear space. Please remind them we have a lot going on.”

“Yes’m.”

‘We’ve moved big chunks of data before, and not caused that.” Kerry looked at her partner. “Is that you, really?”

“Me, really.” Dar admitted. “I prioritized the stream. Sixty more seconds and we’re done. It would have taken a half hour otherwise.” She drummed her fingers on the desk again.  “I need those damn programs.  I have structure diagrams from New York in one of them that might help us.”

“Do we have anyone local we can call…” Kerry let her voice trail off. “Boy, that was stupid. Sorry.” She muttered.  She got up and went around the desk, coming to kneel next to Dar so she could see the laptop screen a little better.   There was a black window open, full of Dar’s cryptic typing and she rested her chin on her fist for a minute, releasing a long sigh.

Dar’s hand immediately settled on the back of her neck, the strong fingers kneading the skin there with gentle sureness. “God, Dar. There’s so much to do.”

“I know.” Dar responded. “I just feel like taking off and going to the beach when I think about all the crap we’ve got to get through.”  She kept rubbing Kerry’s neck, feeling the bones move under her fingers. “Not looking forward to it.”

“Me either.”

Dar reached over and hit a few keys. “Done.” She said, keying the mic. “Miami ops, Miami exec. Transfers complete.”  She draped her arm over Kerry’s shoulders, then she leaned closer and kissed her on the back of her neck, just above her collar.  “Let’s hope I don’t have to do that again.”

“Honey, you can do that whenever you want.” Kerry was content to remain where she was, one elbow resting on Dar’s thigh as she listened to the chatter on the bridge call.   To one side, she could hear the laptop rebooting and she struggled to gather her thoughts and go back to work as soon as she knew the machine was ready.

“That’s not a bad idea.’ Dar said, suddenly.

Kerry paused, then cleared her throat gently. “What isn’t?”

“Getting someone local.” Her partner replied. “We need someone really local. Someone who knows people.”

They were both quiet. “I think Bob probably really knew people.”  Kerry said, finally.

“Yeah.”

“Hello, hello, Miami?” Sherren’s voice broke in.  “Are you there?”

Kerry reached over and hit the mic. “We’re here. How are things there, Sherren?”

“The phones came back on.” The woman said. “We were all sitting in the boardroom just keeping each other company, and all of a sudden the phones started ringing off the hook in here. It’s a madhouse now.’

 “Sorry about that, Sherren.” Kerry sighed. “I did ask ATT to try and work us into their priority schedule.”

“No, hey, it’s great.” Sherren protested. “You don’t know, we couldn’t make calls here or nothing, and now everyone can talk to their families. It’s.. that’s the calls.  People trying to talk to us, find out if we’re okay.”

“Oh.”

“It’s good. We’re okay.” Sherren said. “And oh my gosh. Oh, look.  Mr. McLean just got here.  I didn’t know he was coming!”

Dar leaned forward. “He wanted to be with you all there.  He thought you could use some support, Sherren. He knows you all have had a terrible time.”

There was a long silence. Then Sherren’s voice came back on, she was clearly in tears. “Oh” She gasped. “Oh, that’s so wonderful.  It’s so wonderful people care about us.” She sniffled. “We’re trying to take care of each other.”

 Behind her, Dar could faintly hear Alastair’s voice, sounding quiet and sad. “Sherren, tell him we’re doing fine here, okay?” She said. “You all just hang in there.”

“We will. We will. We’re tough people.” Sherren said. “I’ll tell him. I’ll be back.”

“Miami exec, this is Combus 2.”  A low, deep voice took advantage of the break in the chatter.  “We’re in bound from Albany and I have Combus 3 about two miles behind me.”

“Will they let them in?” Kerry whispered.

“From the north, maybe.” Dar murmured back. She keyed the mic. “Combus 2, you and 3 try to get as far down towards the Rock as you can.”

“Roger that, Ms. Roberts.” The deep voice said. “Anything we need to stop and pick up?”

Dar glanced over at the monitor, which was showing desperate scenes of men digging in debris, a pall of smoke hanging over the air.  “Find a medical supply warehouse.” She said. “Get breathing masks. Filters, whatever you can. Suits.”  She added. “Miami exec, Miami Financial, you on?”

“Right here, my friend.” Duks answered. “I will have my purchasing people find such a place, and let the good drivers know where it is. We will handle the payment for it.”

“Thanks Duks.” Dar said. “Combus, see if you can pick up bottled water or Gatorade, too.”

“Will do ma’am.”

Dar signed into her new laptop and got up, clearing Kerry’s chair for her.  “Let me get out of your way.. I think I can..” She stopped, as Kerry put a hand on her arm. “What?”

“Stay here.” Kerry said. “Just bring that chair around to this side.” She said. “I want you here.”  She got up off her knees and settled into the chair. “Please?”

Dar studied her for a moment, then smiled. “Works for me.” She dragged the other chair over and settled back down.  “Let’s get back to business.”

**

The RV and bus had, in fact, become the social center of their piece of the parking lot.  Dar was glad enough to stick her hands in the pockets of her jacket and head towards the crowd,  shifting her shoulders to settle the weight of a company issued backpack that held her new laptop in it.

It was almost dark. The lot was bright with emergency lights, though, and activity was plentiful and obvious.    Kerry walked quietly at her side, speaking in an undertone to Nan, her own briefcase slung over her shoulder.

Dar was tired. It had been a long day, and she hadn’t quite caught up to her jet lag, her body grumbling at her and wanting that soft hotel bed they’d left so early that morning.  She glanced at the bus, seeing a swarm of activity around it and found herself resenting the need to be in the middle of that.

“Dar?” Kerry put a hand on her elbow.

“Hm?” She turned her head and peered at her partner.   She noted the furrow in Kerry’s brow, and realized she wasn’t the only one tired. “What’s our plan here?”

“Our plan.” Kerry mused, distracted. “That’s a damn good question.” She sighed. “Have you heard from Justin? I know that’s the first question I’ll get when we reach the bus.”

“Maria said he hadn’t called me back when I talked to her before we left the office.” Dar said. “Gimme your cell and I’ll call him again.” She waited for Kerry to fish her phone from it’s clip on her belt. “He might actually answer the phone if he sees your name.”

“Not after what I did during that whole ship thing.” Kerry handed the device over. “He hasn’t forgiven me for that one yet.”

Dar paused to recall the number, then she dialed it, putting the phone to her ear as they walked between the parked trucks towards their little compound.

The bus was in the back, it’s extended sections fully extended, and it’s roof thick with antennas and the satellite dish that provided the transport with television and data.  In front of it was a work area, tables covered with various bits of technology on one side, and tables covered with various bits of daily living on the other.

There were camping chairs scattered around, and the busses integrated barbeque grill was out and being used.

On the far side of the bus was the RV and Mark’s truck, with the big satellite trailer parked in a clear spot nearby with it’s dish fully extended.  There were thick, black power cables snaking everywhere, and a large LCD television was fixed to the side of the trailer, showing CNN.

Their techs were busy around the tables, but they were mixed with a plethora of military in several different kinds of uniforms and the combination of high tech and post Apocalyptic camping made Kerry’s eyebrows twitch.

“Justin, don’t give me that.” Dar was saying.  “I’m not asking for extra equipment, just what you have scheduled for us. What’s the damn problem?”

“Uh oh.” Kerry muttered. “That doesn’t sound good.”

Nan glanced past her at the scowling CIO. “Who’s she talking to?” She whispered.

“Our network equipment account manager.” Kerry said, as they crossed the last line of cars an entered their space.  “Hey guys. How’s it going?”

The techs looked up, and their eyes brightened immediately.  “Hey, Ms Stuart..  Mark was just asking for you.” One said, “Lemme go get him.”

“No need… we’re heading for the bus ourselves.” Kerry demurred. “We’ll find him.”

“If you don’t cut the crap, I’m going to … what? No, you idiot,  I’m not going to threaten you with pulling the contract I’m just going to tell my customer here you’re sitting on his god damned gear for no good reason!” Dar’s voice lifted into a familiar bark.

Kerry patted her back comfortingly, and gave the staff a smile.   She spotted Andrew crossing between the RV and the bus, and waved to him as he saw them and changed direction.   He had on an ILS sweatshirt and dark carpenter pants with tools poking from every pocket and just seeing him made Kerry feel better.  “Hey dad.”  She opened her arms and gave him a hug that he returned warmly. “What a day, huh?”

“Justin, stop being a moron. Where in the hell do you think I am?  Did you even look at what order I was talking about?” Dar said. “Don’t give me that crap! He did? Then let me talk to him. Put his ass on the phone!”

“lo there kumquat.” Andrew greeted her, giving his growling offspring a wary look.  “Dar got problems?”

Kerry gave him a wry look.  Then she half turned. “Nan, this is Andrew Roberts, Dar’s father. Dad, this is Nan, she’s from our Virginia office and she’s been giving us a big hand in getting things done.”

“Lo there.” Andrew greeted Nan amiably.

“Nice to meet you.” Nan said.

“Got some folks inside I think want to talk to you two.” Andrew informed Kerry, as Dar stepped to one side and half turned, lowering her voice. “Seems like they got some kinda issue they just come up with. That Mark feller just kept saying Dardar’s name over and over again.”

“Uh oh.” Kerry winced.  “Well, let’s go see what that’s all about while Dar straightens out our gear issues.  She touched Dar’s arm and pointed to the bus, waiting for her partner to nod before she started off in that direction.

Andrew paused, then followed her, evidently figuring his daughter didn’t need any help in yelling.

The bus was a beehive of activity, and they had to dodge a flurry of moving bodies in uniform until they finally made it to the steps and up into the courtesy bus.  Kerry almost stopped short at the mild chaos inside, but after a brief pause she edged her way in and got into enough of a corner space to turn and look around.

Mark was in one corner with three techs, and four or five military men. Others were spread around the inside of the bus, working on clipboards, standing over the fax machine in the corner, and munching on some of the snacks laid out on platters in the service area.

One whole wall had been taken up by a whiteboard covered in scribbles.  Kerry was glad to see so much apparent progress, but slightly overwhelmed at the amount of people stuffed in the bus.  “Evening everyone.”

Heads turned. “Hey, Kerry. Glad you’re here.” Mark said at once. “I hope you brought  big D with you, cause we need her like crazy.”

Know the feeling. Kerry nodded. “She’s outside yelling. What’s up?”   She edged to one side a little to give Andrew room to stand, as Nan plastered her slim figure against the back wall.  “This place is nuts.”

“Tell me about it.” Mark said wryly. “They got me power in the comms space. I got a truck with the racks due in like six hours, and what equipment I have I can throw in there since they got me aircon too.”

“Good job.” Kerry said. “Did you get the demarc installed?”

“If that’s them plywood things, I done it.” Andrew spoke up.  “That’s some damn hard concrete in that room I will tell you that.”

“Yeah, I can still hear you drilling in my head.” Mark said. “But that’s the problem, poquito boss.  We got the blocks installed and we’re ready to punch down.”

“Great.” Kerry smiled in relief. “So that’s a problem?”

“Nu uh.” Mark shook his dark head. “I could tell you, but it’s gonna be easier to show you. Can we grab big D and go look?”

“Well..” Kerry turned as the door to the bus opened, and Dar entered, her powerful charisma clearing space for her as she made her way over to where they were standing.  She was juggling the cell phone in one hand, but looked moderately triumphant.  “How’d it go?”

“What a moron.” Dar said. “They put a hold on everyone’s damn orders because they’re scared to death they’re going to get a call from the government asking for all their inventory.”  She lifted her hands and let them drop. “I had to yell at some executive vice president of something or other and threaten to put Gerry on the phone before they got it  through their heads where I was calling from.”

Everyone nodded in agreement. “And?” Kerry added, after a pause.

“Truck’s leaving Chicago in ten minutes.” Dar replied, glancing around and spotting a tray nearby. She reached one long arm over and snagged a brownie.  “I told him if they better be flooring it all the way here.” She bit into the brownie and chewed it.  “So how are things going here?”

They all looked over at Mark, who grimaced.

“Uh oh. Maybe I should have some milk first.” Dar saw the expressions.  “What’s wrong?”

“Let’s go take a ride.” Mark said.  “That’s what me and the dudes were just talking about before you guys got here.  We just found out.”

“Found out what?” Dar grabbed another brownie as she followed Mark out the door.

“C’mon. I’d rather you just see it. Maybe you can tell me it’s not as bad as I think it is.”

Dar snorted. “If you’re looking to me for optimism we’re seriously in the weeds.”  She handed Kerry half the brownie.  “This could require more than chocolate.”

They trooped down the steps to the bus and around the side, where there was a six seater golf cart parked somewhat haphazardly, draped in cables and other bits of nerd paraphernalia. Dar cleared a termination kit out of the way and slid into the front passenger seat, setting her backpack down between her feet.  “Let’s go.”

Mark took the wheel and started off, turning the cart in a tight circle and nearly flinging them out in all directions. “Whoops. Sorry.”

“Wow. This has got a hell of a lot more kick than the one at our place.” Kerry grabbed hold of the sides of the cart. “Jesus!”

“Gas powered.” Mark threaded the cart through the parked cars and headed for the side of the damaged building.  “Pretty cool though. I never realized how freaking big this place was until we had to hump all our crap out to that room.”

They rode around the side of the building,  the cool night air making them blink a little as Mark maneuvered through the grounds.  There was still smoke smouldering up from the destroyed area, and erratically as they moved along, the air would bring shocking hints of death that made them all go silent.

Save Andrew.  “Big ass place.” He commented. “Built like a damn brick.  Ain’t nothing left of what hit it.”

There was an awkward silence. “Airplane’s just an aluminum shell.” Dar eventually commented. “Dangerous part was the aviation fuel. “

“Did you hear what people were saying though?” Nan spoke up from the rear seat. “People were saying that there wasn’t any airplane that hit the building. That it was a bomb, or something else that the government was lying.”

Andrew turned around and peered at her. “Gov’mint’s always lying.” He said.  “But that’s just foolish talking.  People don’t know squat yapping on the television. I heard that.”

Kerry frowned. “Why in the heck would they lie about that?” She wondered. “I mean yes, I agree with Dad,  but sheesh.  There’s a hole in the side of the building. What difference would it make what made it?”

Dar cleared her throat as Mark aimed for a square of light. “Probably because it’s easier to excuse not being able to get out of the way of an airplane than allowing some bunch of jackasses to plant a bomb in the biggest military office building in the continent.”

Mark pulled the cart to a halt and put on the parking break. “You think that’s what happened, boss?” He asked, hesitantly. “I mean, that’s a pretty big hole.”

“No.” Dar got out. “I think a god damned plane hit the side of the building.  I just can see where the tin foil hat brigade pulled that rumor from, that’s all.” She shouldered her backpack and followed Mark between two huge personnel carriers and over to a door in the side of the building.

It was open, spilling a bright yellow incandescence out across the ground and there was motion and voices obvious just beyond it.  Mark walked through without hesitation and turned to the left, moving along a hallway filled with boxes to a brightly lit space that smelled of concrete and plywood.  “Here we go.”

Dar entered the comms room, pausing to look around before she cleared the doorway and let the rest of them follow her.  Inside, the big, square space was lit by hanging florescent lamps, and the floor was obviously freshly swept.

Power cables were hanging everywhere from the ceiling, and the entire back wall had been covered in sheets of treated, three quarter inch plywood surmounted by rows and rows of circuit patch down blocks.  “Nice.” Dar commented.

The floor was already marked out for racks,  and the floor tiles were half missing, most of holes containing a tech and a spool of cabling. The smell of plastic and copper were sharp in the air.  “Mark, you made amazing progress.  “ Kerry added, “Great job.”

“Thanks.  My guys did most of the humping.” Mark led them to the corner of the room, which had a large cabinet set in one wall.  “And speaking of humps, here’s my problem.” He opened the double doors to the cabinet and stepped back, clearing the way for the rest of  them.  “That.”

There was a long moment of silence. Then, as if by common accord, everyone looked over at Dar, who was standing closest to  it, her hands planted on her hips.

Dar studied the huge mass of cabling, all a uniform, dull gray and terminating in an absolute hairball of multicolor strands. “I take it none of this is tagged?”  She asked, finally.

“Nope.”  Mark shook his head. “I guess they had a project planned to come in here before the room went live to straighten it all out.” He glanced around at the little group. “Sucks, huh?”

Dar rubbed her forehead. “Shit.” She said. “There’s a thousand pair there at least.”

“Wow.” Nan murmured.

“Some’s phones, some’s data, some’s wan… “ Mark agreed. “I had the local telco guys here but they say most of it’s not theirs so they’re not touching it.”

Dar turned and looked at him.  Mark shrugged.

“Let me see if  I can leverage our relationship with the local.” Kerry pulled her phone out. “At least they can give us a list of the circuits in here other than ours.” She paged through her directory. “It’s Verizon, isn’t it?”

“And Qwest.” Nan murmured. 

“Doesn’t really help us find our stuff though.” Mark commented. “Man, I’d hate to break my ass for two days and get this space up only to have to stay on that freaking sat.”

“We can’t handle the traffic they’re going to ask for over that.” Dar said. “How many WAN people do we have here, Mark?” She shrugged her pack off her back and set it on the floor.  “We’re going to have to do this the hard way.”

She looked over at him, after he didn’t answer for a moment. ‘Well?”

“You mean, besides you and me?” He answered wryly.  “Dar, the two WAN techs I had up here are in the missing group.”

The room was now conspicuously quiet, as the techs busy wiring in the floor turned to listen.  Dar leaned back against the punch down, letting her hands fall to her thighs. She was quiet for a long moment, then she exhaled. “Going to be a long damn night then, I guess.”  She said, at last. “Do we have kits?”

“Yeah.” Mark responded glumly.

“Break them out. Let’s get started.”  Dar shoved away from the wall and flexed her hands, turning to face the mess with an air of grim determination. “Bring all the punchdown kits you have. Might as well do some on the job training while I’m at it.”

“You got it boss.” Mark turned and trotted out, shaking his head a little.

“Bring some of that damn barbeque with you!” Dar yelled after him. “And all the Jolt you got.”

**

“Kerry, the governor of New York is on the line for you again.”  A quiet, apologetic voice broke into the chatter.  “I told him you were working at the Pentagon but he wants to talk to you anyway.”

Kerry rested her head against her fist, her body curled up in one of the buses leather chairs, finally vacated by one of the busy military officers. “No problem, give me a minute.” She clicked her mic on, resisting the urge to rub her eyes.  “Believe me, Newark, we’re going to the wall here to pull the Pentagon traffic off your grid and put it  back where it belongs.”

“We know that, ma’am…  I tried to explain that. I just.. “ The satellite supervisor sounded as exhausted as Kerry felt. “He just doesn’t want to take that answer.  I think he’s as frustrated as we are.”

Kerry reviewed the status on her teams. “Maybe he’ll let me send the remote sat trucks in then.” She mused.

“Would you like some coffee, ma’am?”  One of the buses seemingly tireless attendants stopped by with a tray. “We have some fresh cookies baking too.”

“Sure.” Kerry checked her watch, wincing a little at the time. “Strong as you’ve got it. Thanks.”  She rattled at her keyboard, then settled her ear buds more firmly. “Okay, go ahead and call my cell, Newark. Patch me into the governor.”

“Stand by, ma’am.” 

Nearly midnight.  Kerry leaned against the chair arm, glad it was big enough for her to curl up in, tucking her tired legs up under her in relative comfort.   She knew herself to be far luckier than her partner – Dar was half buried in cables in that dry and dusty room faced with an almost neverending task before her.

Kerry felt a little abashed, in fact, that she was here in the bus instead of at Dar’s side, but there wasn’t any way for her to connect to the conference in there and there was just so damned much to do.

So damned much.   Her cell phone rang, and she closed the mic off to open it up. “Kerry Stuart.” She announced quietly, turning her head a little as the attendant came back with a big, steaming mug that smelled of hazelnut.

“Hello, Kerry?”

Poised to deal with an annoyed politician, Kerry had to rapidly ratchet through her mental gears to deal with another one altogether.  “Hello, Mother.” She said. “Sorry, I was expecting the governor. “

“Oh. Well, of course, I’m sorry I disturbed you, ah..”

Kerry smiled, and picked up her coffee cup. “No problem. I”d rather be talking to you since you probably aren’t going to ask me to do something impossible in a pretty rude way.”

Dead silence for a moment. “Ah, well, yes, I see. Of course.”  Cynthia spluttered. “My goodness, that sounds terrible. Are you still working? It’s so late. I just wanted to find out where you and Dar ended up this evening.”

Was I supposed to call her? Kerry suddenly wondered.  “Right now, we’re at the Pentagon.” She said. “Dar’s hip deep in cables and I’m still working on issues from our bus.”

“Oh my!” Her mother said. “Kerry, it’s midnight!”

“I know.” Kerry acknowledged. “It feels like it’s midnight.  But we don’t really have a choice. We have to get things fixed here, so we can get things moving for the governor, so we can get out of here and head to New York where apparently we’re needed to save the Western world.”  She paused. “Or something like that.”

“My goodness.”

“By Monday.”  Kerry added. “So anyway.  How was your day? When do you head back home?”

Her cell phone buzzed a second incoming call.  She briefly toyed with the idea of letting it go to voice mail, then sighed. “Hold on a minute, okay? I think that’s the governor.”

“Of course.”

Kerry put the call on hold and answered the second. “Hello?”

“Ms, Stuart, I have the governor for you.”  The sound of the Newark ops manager’s voice echoed softly in her ear. “Okay to conference?”

“Sure.” Kerry sipped her coffee and waited for the click. “Good.. “ She checked her watch. “Morning, governor. What can I do for you?”

“Yes, Ms. Stuart, good morning to you too. Now listen, I know we spoke earlier but things are getting fairly critical here and..”

“Governor.” Kerry interrupted him gently, but with force in her tone.   “Things are critical here, too.”

“I do understand that.” The governor said. “But here’s the situation. Our emergency command center was in 7 World Trade.    Never even been used.  We’re working to set up a center to replace it but without being connected to anything we might as well be setting it up on a boat on the Niagira River.”

Kerry closed her eyes in frustration. “I know.. please understand sir I do know you need to.. “ She stopped and took a breath.  Stop, think, then act, Ker.   “Where are you setting up a command center, sir?”

“Pier 92. “ The governor said. “It’s the old passenger cruise terminal. Right on the Hudson.”

On the Hudson.  Kerry racked her brains for a long moment. “I don’t think we… “ She paused. “Wait. That’s right next to the Intrepid Air museum, isn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it is.” The Governor agreed.  “Just down from there. Does that help? Is there something you can do?  Come on, Ms. Stuart. We contracted with you because you people were supposed to be the best. Now, I need the best. We don’t have a choice.”

“We might be able to.” Kerry said, after a pause. “I need to pull up our schematics in that area. I will have to get back to you on it.”

“I need an answer, Ms. Stuart.”

“You need an answer that’s meaningful and correct, Governor. Not bullshit I’m pulling out of my ass just to  make you get off the phone.”  Kerry could scarcely believe she’d just said that. “I’ll do my best. That’s all I can give you right now.”

The man sighed. “When can I expect to hear from you?  We’re running out of time.”

“As soon as I have the answer, you’ll hear from me. That could be in ten minutes, or it could be tomorrow morning. Depends on how much detail I need, and if I can get hold of someone on the ground there.” Kerry said.  “You may need to clear some obstacles for us.”

“Obstacles?” The governor said. “You mean people?  Ms. Stuart, you find obstacles, you call me.  Understand?”

“I do.”

“Hope to hear from you soon. Goodbye.”  The governor hung up .

Kerry took another sip fo her coffee, before she clicked back to her call on hold. “Hello, mother.”  She looked up as a wonderful scent of fresh cookies came close, and found a platter almost at eye level to her.  “Thank you.” She mouthed at the attendant, capturing three of the cookies, their warmth stinging her skin a little.

“Dear, I don’t mean to keep you. I hope things are going better.” Cynthia said. “I have a flight back to Michigan tomorrow. Is there anything I can do for you here before I go?”

“Hold that thought a minute, mother.” Kerry motioned to the attendant, taking a bite of the warm cookie as the woman came back over. “Could you please have a tray of those, and a gallon of cold milk with cups taken to the work site?”

“Absolutely, ma’am.  Let me get one of the guys to ride me over.” The attendant said. “Not a problem at all.”

“Thanks.” Kerry smiled at her, then shifted her attention back to the phone. “Mother.” She said. “Thanks for hanging on. It’s a little crazy here.”

“I can hear that.” Cynthia said. “Are you going to get some rest? What about poor Dar? She must be exhausted after all that traveling.”

Dar must be.  Kerry felt faintly abashed. “I’m going to go see if I can get her to take a break right now, matter of fact.” She said.  “But we’ve got a lot on our plates.. and getting more every time the phone rings.”

“My.”

“Anyway.” Kerry sighed. “Thanks for offering. Just travel safe, and give Angie and Mike a hug for me.”

“Well, I’m sure they’d be happier if you were coming back with me, but I will give them your best wishes. Try to get some rest.” Her mother said. “If there’s anything I can do to help, just call.”

“I will.” Kerry said. “Good night, mother.”

“Goodnight.”

Kerry closed the phone and gazed at it, as she broke off a cookie half and chewed.  That had ended pretty much all right, she figured.  If one reasonable thing had to come out of the disaster she was living, maybe it was that she, and her mother, could at least talk again.

She wasn’t ready to let it all go.  But she also didn’t feel like she wanted to hold the rage inside her so much anymore, and she was content to think that if things hadn’t really moved forward, they also hadn’t moved backwards, and she was in a place where she actually wouldn’t mind having her mother visit their home.

She chewed her cookie, getting up and making her way through the much smaller crowd to the galley area to find herself some milk.  She spotted Nan curled up in a chair near the back of the bus sleeping, and she felt a little bad about keeping the woman around so long.

“Hello, Ms. Stuart.” Danny appeared, his sling covered in concrete dust.  “Boy, we’re sure getting things done here today, aren’t we?”

Kerry leaned against the counter as she poured her cup of milk. “You know, we are.” She admitted. “It doesn’t’ seem like that to me, because there’s so much left to do, but you guys are doing an amazing job.”

Danny took a root beer from the small refrigerator and opened it, sucking down half the bottle in a gulp before he answered. “It’s dry as heck in that room.” He explained. “But let me tell you, Ms. Roberts is amazing.”

Kerry felt a smile stretch her face muscles out.  “She is.”

“I mean.. I know you know that.” Danny blushed, just a little. “But we never got to work with her before, and you hear all kinds of stories from people but in reality, wow.”

“Dar is an amazing person.” Kerry said. “And I’m not just saying that because she’s my boss, or because we’re partners.  She really is. In fact, I was about to head over there and see if I could get her to take a break for a few minutes. I know you guys have been at it for hours.”

“It’s tough work.” Danny agreed mournfully.  “I just came back to pick up more zip ties. The other guys don’t want to take a break while Ms. Roberts is there cause she hasn’t.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake.” Kerry drained her milk and set the cup down in the small sink.  “C’mon. Let’s go back over there. Those poor guys.”   She dusted her hands off and wiped her lips on a napkin, as Danny hurried to finish his root beer.   “I’m going to tell the bridge I’m going offline.”

She walked back over to her laptop and put her earbuds in again.  The chatter had faded off the last hour or so, only a few sporadic voices coming back on at intervals.  Kerry keyed her mic and cleared her throat a little. “Folks, this is Miami exec.  Just want to advise I’m going offline for a little while. I’ll have my cell if anything’s urgent.”

“Noted, Miami exec.”  A soft voice answered. “This is Houston night ops.  Everything’s pretty quiet right now.”

“Great. Check in with you later.” Kerry unplugged herself and shrugged her jacket on, then she met Danny at the door and they exited the bus into the chilly night air.

**

Dar was pretty well convinced she’d actually died and gone to Hell.  She braced her tester with it’s one attached wine  and reached for yet another dangling strand, bringing it over to touch it against the probe.

The tester lit up, surprising her.  “Son of a bitch.” She muttered, unclipping the wires and twisting them together. “Gimme a tag.”

Mark handed over a piece of cardboard with a string.  “Here you go.” He said, his voice slightly hoarse. “Hey, that’s ten, isn’t it?”

Dar shook her head, reclipping the wires and reading off the identifier.  She scribbled it on the tag, then tied the tag firmly to the twisted cables.  “First person who gets our circuits gets a 200 percent raise and a month vacation.”

A soft chorus of voices answered back.  Dar glanced to either side of her, where techs were almost covered in the prickly, copper mass of wiring, testing patiently cable by cable looking for a match.

It was like finding a bird feather, and catching each one you saw to see if it was the one who lost it. Frustrating, maddening, aggravating, uncomfortable…  if Dar had possessed a machete the chances were, she decided, that she’d have just gone amok with it and ended the problem in a mass of copper fragments.

There was no place to sit, no place to relax. You had to stand almost inside the cabinet to reach the  wires, and the ones you weren’t testing were poking through your clothes like tiny needles.

She and Mark had started off doing the testing. They’d managed to show three other techs how to use the testing sets, but though there were four other units, there wasn’t any more space in front of the cabling cabinet so they’d just started plugging through it.

Dar knew she could get someone else to take over her set, and do the testing. She was, after all,  their ultimate boss.   But she felt all the eyes on her, and understood she was having to live up to her reputation, and so she kept slogging.

Her eyes burned. She blinked a little, then a very different odor penetrated all the concrete and plastic and she turned to look over her shoulder as a woman entered the room with a tray and a pitcher.  “What do we have here?”

“Cookies and milk. “ The bus attendant smiled.  “Ms. Stuart told me to bring them over here.”

Dar could smell the chocolate all the way in the back of the room.  “Are those just baked?”

“They are.” The woman affirmed.

“Is that cold milk?” Dar asked, as she saw the techs all starting to turn around, faces covered in smudges of dust and eyes exhausted.

“Yes, it is.”  The attendant said.

Dar held her hands up, letting the tester fall against her thigh. “Did you bring towels?” She displayed her grunge covered palms with a wry expression.

“Ah.” The attendant had to admit to being at a loss. “Well, we can go get some.”

“Cookies’ll get cold.” Dar eased away from the cabinet, carefully extracting her boots from the snarls of cable.  “Take a break, boys.  Let’s not waste good, warm cookies.”

The techs needed no further prompting. They laid their tools down and scrambled out of holes in the floor, stretching out sore backs and shaking out stiffened fingers.  “Man, what time is it?” One asked. “I feel like I”ve been doing this for three days.”

Dar wiped her fingers on her shirt to get the worst of the dust off, before she selected a cookie from the tray and accepted a cup of milk from the smiling attendant.  “Thank you.”

“You should really thank Ms. Stuart.” The woman chuckled.

“She’ll get hers later.”  Dar responded, with a somewhat rakish grin, which grew even more wry as a short, blond woman appeared in the door way, leaning against it as she looked inside. “Well well. Speak of the devil.”

Kerry entered, waving at the techs who all called out greetings back.  “How are you guys doing? Is Dar running you into the ground yet?”

“Hey.” Dar seated herself against the bare wall, extending her legs out as she took a sip of her milk. “I’m working here too.”

“I know.” Kerry sat down next to her, the entire reason for her coming over now moot, but she didn’t care in the least.  “I came over to see how you were doing.”   She glanced up at the crowd, but they were clustered around the cookies, moving away once they’d gotten their share and settling down on the other side of the room.

Or wandering outside in the hall.  Kerry wondered if they were being given space out of courtesy or just coincidence.

“I’m doing complete and utter suckitude.”  Dar gazed down at her now empty hand, it’s palm scraped and reddened. “We’ve found ten circuits out of a thousand in six hours.”

“Jesus.”

“If he was here, I’d give him a phone tester and tell him to get his ass working.” Dar said. “Ker, this is insane. “

Kerry took hold of Dar’s hand and stroked it, clasping her fingers around her partner’s. “Can I help?” She asked. “I’m tired of yapping on the bridge. Why don’t you go yap for a while, and I’ll do this.”

“And make me feel like a total zero for sticking you with this night mare while I lounge in the bus?” Dar eyed her. “I don’t think so.”

“Are you saying that’s what I was doing?”

Dar saw the quirk of Kerry’s eyebrows, and the sudden bunching of her jaw.  The last thing she really wanted to do this late in this crappy a situation was trigger her partner’s temper. Kerry was tired. She was tired.  No way she wanted a squabble.  “No, hon. I sent you to the bus, remember?” She replied. “Is there any sense in both of us being miserable?”

Kerry studied her face. “Yes.” She laced her fingers with Dar’s. “Because I was just in that damn bus thinking I was a creep for not being out here with you.” She admitted. “I’m tired of people telling me all their problems, and politicians calling to yell at me. The governor of New York wants his new office connected.”

“You have got to be kidding me.”

“Well, it’s their disaster response office.” Kerry said. “Long story, and anyway, we can’t even look at that until we get through this. So teach me to use one of those things and let me suffer here with you like the sappy lovestruck goofball I really am.”

Dar sighed, looking across at the cabinet with it’s morass of wires. “I feel like just quitting and going to bed.” She admitted, in a soft voice. “Ker, I don’t want to sit here and do this. It’s going to take days. We don’t have days.”

Kerry gently rubbed the side of her hand. “Is there any other way to do it?”

“No.”

“Can we get the vendor in here to do it? It’s really their hairball.”  Kerry asked, reasonably.  “Let me call them again.”

Dar was silent for a moment, then she nodded. “Call them.” She said. “I’ve had enough of this.”

Kerry leaned over and rested her head against Dar’s shoulder for a brief moment, then she straightened up and pulled her cell phone out. “You got it, boss.”

 “Ten freaking lines in six hours.” Dar sighed, letting her head rest against the wall. “Most moronic thing I’ve ever done.”

**

Continued in Part 15