Kerry braced her hands on the sides of the doorway leading from the main part of the bus leading into the driver’s compartment. Ahead of them the road was relatively clear, though the sky was hazy with smoke and the dusting of ash remained on almost every surface.
There was still an air of desolation present. Here and there, she could see where a car had been removed, or boxes were now piled on the sidewalk, and scattered here and there were people walking slowly, looking around as though in disbelief.
“Just opened the east side here to people.” The driver remarked. “Just this side of Broadway.”
Now that he’d mentioned it, Kerry started noticing figures moving around in the distance, activity that had been absent the last time they’d been in the area. She could see flashlight beams in windows, and it brought back the memory of the big power outage they’d suffered in Miami not that long ago.
She’d used a similar flashlight to stumble through the darkness of the condo, the stuffy closeness driving her outside and down to the Dixieland Yankee’s cabin where the boat’s batteries and a solid charging from the engines kept her and Chino comfortable through that very long night.
So many people hadn’t been nearly as lucky. She’d heard the stories at work the next day. Just like so many people here now weren’t lucky, were rooting through dust covered belongings and cleaning out putrid refrigerators while they cruised by in their powered and air conditioned bus.
“What a mess.” Dar had come up behind her, and now Kerry could feel the warmth along her back as her partner came into her space. “These people are coming back to Hell.” She leaned back into her partner’s chest. “What a nightmare.”
“Reminds me of Hurricane Andrew.” Dar let her hands rest on Kerry’s shoulders. “We sent a bunch of people down south to help clean up. Some of our staff lived down there. Total disaster.”
“Did you go?”
“Sure.” Dar replied. “Ended up puncturing my hand with a rusty nail and getting hauled off to the first aid station. They have picture of me sitting there with two guys hanging on to my paw with a three inch piece of iron sticking out of it.”
Kerry turned her head and stared at her. “You didn’t pass out?”
“Only by a whisker.” Dar overturned her left hand and flexed it. “Only my ego kept me upright. I wasn’t going to take a dive in front of half the company.” She looked up to find Kerry gazing indulgently at her. “It was damn close though.”
Kerry could imagine it. She knew how squeamish her partner was about injuries and she could just picture the stubborn set of Dar’s jaw as she fought to remain unfazed. It had nothing to do with courage – Dar had more of that than most. “You poor thing.” She leaned over and gave Dar’s palm a kiss. “Too bad I wasn’t there to take care of you.”
“Mm.” Dar glanced past Kerry, as the bus came to halt, the air brakes blasting out a hiss. “Here we are.” She drew in a breath, and then let it out. “Time to pay the piper.”
Kerry turned all the way around and bumped Dar lightly with her fists. “I’m right with you, tige.” She followed Dar down the aisle to the center of the bus, where the team was getting their masks together and testing radios.
Dar took up a position near one of the doors and folded her arms over her chest. “Folks, listen up.”
Kerry stuck her hands in the pockets of her jumpsuit and stood just a half step behind her boss, underlining her support. She watched the faces of the techs as they stopped what they were doing and turned towards them, attentively.
“We’ve had a major screw-up.” Dar got right to the meat of the matter. “Those guys running the cable are running the wrong kind.”
The techs all blinked in surprise. Mark put his backpack down and leaned on the bar. “Huh?”
Dar nodded. “We found out after they’d already started rolling it. “ She said. “The right stuff won’t be here until Tuesday at the earliest.”
The techs looked at each other, then at Mark, then at Dar.
“How wrong is it?” Mark asked. “The wrong micron?”
“Multimode.” His boss answered.
“Oh no.” Kannan groaned. “That will not be good.”
“Shit.” Mark looked nonplussed. “What are we doing down here then? We’ll just have to do it again on.. like on what, Wednesday? You going to tell them to stop?”
“No.” Dar shook her head. “We’re going to make the connections as though the cable was the right kind. I knew they were using the wrong type yesterday, and told them to keep going.”
Even Mark looked at her with confusion and disbelief. “Bu..” He started then stopped. “Bu..” He started again. “Boss, that’s not gonna work.”
Kerry decided to keep quiet. She edged a step closer to her partner and leaned against the wall, looking steadily from face to face, mildly wondering what Dar was going to tell them.
“There really isn’t any option.” Dar said. “They expect this to work tomorrow. I know it won’t work until Wednesday at the earliest, if they can get that other cable run. But at least we’ll have all the connections in place and ready to go.”
“But..” Mark hesitated. “Won’t they be pissed? I mean, I heard them talking, boss. This is serious shit.”
“They’ll be pissed.” Dar agreed. “But that’s not your problem. That’s mine and Alastair’s problem.”
“Mine too.” Kerry piped up. “I’ll walk the plank with you, Captain Roberts.”
That got a nervous smile from the techs. “And.” Dar shrugged lightly. “We’ve got some people looking at the technology to see if there’s anything to be done.”
“That will be very interesting if they discover anything.” Kannan said. “It will be very difficult I think.”
“Very interesting.” Dar said. “So just go in there, and make like everything’s normal. Set up the connections and put the patch in. Don’t talk about the cable being a problem. Let’s get in and get our part of this done, and get out of here. “
“Right.” Mark nodded. “Sounds good, boss. You guys got all your gear? Let’s get moving.” He shouldered his pack and slipped the smaller of his two masks over his head to nestle under his chin. “You think we need the full ones?” He asked Andrew, who was lounging nearby.
“Figure you should take it.” Andrew held his up. “Sure as hell if you don’t you’ll need it.”
The techs trooped out the door and down onto the sidewalk, all with laden backpacks and leg pockets stuffed with tools and water bottles. The bus driver came up behind them as Andrew started to follow.
“I’m going to park it here. The cops say that’s all right.” The driver said. “I’ll pop out the sat dish and see what I can pick up in the way of news.” He held up a radio in one big hand. “I’ll let you know if anything stirs up.”
“Thanks.” Dar glanced out the door, where the techs were gathering. “Hopefully this won’t take long.” She patted Kerry on the hip. “C’mon pirate. Let’s get this done.”
Kerry followed Dar down the steps and blinked, her eyes already stinging a little as she drew in a breath of dusty air. “Ugh.” She slipped on her mask and adjusted it, hoping it would block out the stench an errant puff of air brought her.
Dar adjusted her credentials and edged through the crowd. “Let’s go.” She started for the steps to the Exchange, aware of the armed guards at the top of them. “Ker?”
Kerry dodged around Mark and joined her. “They took that pretty well.” She uttered, in a low tone as they trotted up the steps to the building.
“There’s an advantage to having everyone too scared to disagree with you.” Dar remarked dryly. “Sometimes, when you really need it, they just shut up and do what you tell them to.”
“Dar.” Kerry patted her side. “They always do what you tell them to. If you told them to wrap our building in twisted pair cabling and paint Alastair’s car pink they’d do it.”
“You wouldn’t.” Dar gave the guards at the top of the steps a brisk nod, and went right past them, reaching out to open the door and hold it open.
“Paint Alastair’s car pink? I might.”
“Ma’am? The guard moved to intercept her. “This is a restricted area.”
“Damn well should be.” Dar presented her credentials. “If they didn’t put us on the access list they will as soon as we get in there. Excuse us.” She motioned the crew through. “Kerry, go in there and find whoever’s in charge and get them to give this gentleman the right data.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Kerry marched past without hesitating, watching the guard try to untangle his tongue as they slipped past and into the building. “I’ll get right on that.”
“Ah. But.. ah.. “ The guard glanced at Dar’s credentials. “Oh, well, okay, I’m sure that’s fine.” He said. “I think I remember some people from your company here earlier, right?”
“Right.” Dar agreed. “Thanks.” She pointed at the bus. “There’s hot drinks and snacks in there if you get tired of holding the wall up out here.” She went past into the building and let the door shut behind her, catching sight of Kerry waiting patiently not far away.
“See?” Kerry commented to the techs, who were likewise waiting nearby. “It’s like having a beautiful animated can opener sometimes.”
Dar stopped in her tracks, both eyebrows shooting up. “Excuse me?”
A loud argument down the hall distracted them, and Kerry was saved as they turned and looked towards the noise, seeing a group of men coming out of a room all talking at once. They were dressed in business shirts and slacks, most carrying jackets.
“Move!” The man in the front ordered them. “What in the hell are you people doing up here? Get back to where you belong!” He was relatively short, but had bristling gray eyebrows and hair, and a pair of what would be extremely shiny patent leather shoes that were currently covered in dust.
Kerry saw her partner’s eyes narrow, and she instinctively put a hand out, catching Dar’s arm as she moved back against the wall to let the men pass. “Dar, hold on.”
She could feel the tension as Dar stood her ground. “Dar, c’mon. These people aren’t worth it.”
The man pulled up short, since Dar was standing in the middle of the hallway effectively blocking it. “Did you hear me?”
“Listen, sir, we’re doing all we can.” The man behind him caught up to him and grabbed his arm. “You don’t understand what’s gone on here. What these people have been through.”
“I don’t give a shit what these people have been through.” The man in the lead turned around, throwing the hand off his arm. “This place has half the liquidity of the planet tied up in it. You fed some bullshit to CNN but if it doesn’t open tomorrow morning, everyone’s head’s gonna roll.” He turned back around. “Move out of the way or I’ll toss you on your ass, lady.”
Dar grinned with absolutely no humor, and a good deal of delight.
“Lord.” Andrew shoved his way back down the hallway. “Can’t leave you for a minute, can I?” He took the man by the shoulders and shoved him past Dar. “G’wan, blowhard. Git your ass out before you done get hurt.”
“What? Get your damn hands off me! Police!” The man yelled, thrashing around.
Andrew gave him a final shove then he put himself between the angry figure and Dar’s tall form, his bigger body blocking the hallway with even more effectiveness. “Git!”
“Sir!” The other man dashed after him, taking hold of his arm. “Whoever you people are, you better get lost. Now!” He hurried the man past, before he could recover and say anything at all, and they disappeared around the corner towards the door.
Dar sighed. “There goes my fun for the day.” She turned back towards the rest of the men, who were standing there gaping. “Who is that?” She indicated the now vanished man.
“Marcus Abercrombie.” The young man nearest her answered promptly. “The second richest man in the world. He’s just really upset about the market. We just heard they’re having problems with the systems.”
“We’re the ones trying to fix it.” Kerry told him “We don’t appreciate being yelled at.”
“Well, sure. No one does.” The young man agreed. “Hi. I’m Barry Marks.” He offered Kerry his hand. “I’m the trading floor coordinator.” He glanced past her. “Are you the technical people? Our director said they were expecting some people here to look at the computers.”
Dar joined Kerry, now that it appeared the excitement was over. “We’re working on the problems, yes.” She said. “I heard the CNN report too – that guy didn’t buy it?”
“Nope.” Marks shook his head. “He came in the back and started snooping around, and figured out that it wasn’t working. He said he’d keep it to himself, but I bet we see it on CNN in ten minutes. He’s probably telling his chauffeur about it right now.”
“Great.” A man behind him sighed. “Like we don’t have enough problems. I don’t’ want all those damn Federal guys shouting at me again.” He looked at Dar. “Can you fix it?”
“Ultimately? Yes.” Dar said, with quiet confidence. “There’s nothing in technology enough time and money can’t fix.”
“By tomorrow morning?” Marks asked.
“That’s an open question.” Dar pointed down the hallway. “Let’s go downstairs, team. We’re wasting time.”
They filed past the brokers, who looked dubiously at them, and shook their heads. “Tomorrow’s going to suck.” One said.
“No matter what happens.” Marks agreed. “Let’s go get some coffee. My mouth’s dry as a bone from the damn dust.”
They headed in the opposite direction. Dar was glad to be rid of them, as they walked down the hall and headed down the steps to the lower level of the building. “Did you call me a can opener?” She asked Kerry, about halfway down.
Kerry chuckled under her breath.
“Manual or electric?”
Another dusty, concrete room. Another raise floor. Another long stretch of time between humming black racks of equipment that gave off the faint scent of ozone and plastic.
Kerry lifted herself up off the floor, pulling her head out of the space under the floor and resting her weight on her elbows as she waited for the blood rush to fade. “Can’t see anything.”
Kannan and Shaun were over by the wall, against a sheet of plywood that was as age worn as Kerry felt at the moment. They had a black box partially assembled; their heads bent over thin strands and tiny posts, their tools gathered neatly around their feet as they sat there cross-legged.
“They had the end right there.” One of the techs from the Exchange was sitting on a desk nearby. He pointed at the hole in the floor. “Then those guys pulled it back, I guess. It disappeared.”
Kerry folded her hands, and studied her knuckles. “Didn’t occur to anyone to anchor the cable?” She inquired.
“It’s not our stuff.” The tech shrugged. “No one told us what they were doing.”
Kerry silently counted to ten. “Boy, that’s a shame.” She shifted her flashlight and inched herself forward, extending her head down under the floor again. It smelled dank and musty, and she had to keep convincing herself she didn’t smell anything worse than mold.
It was uncomfortable, and it gave her a headache hanging upside down as she was. She pushed that aside and extended her arm down into the space, turning on her flashlight and examining the underside of the floor.
It was full of trays and pipes, the cabling so dense she could barely see past it. She squinted hard, peering past a clump of metal and dust and spotted a stretch of the cabling that was scraped free of the grim. “Ah.”
“Found it?” Shaun asked.
“Found where it was.” Kerry pulled her head back out and moved down two squares, picking up the aluminum floor puller and thwacking it down against the surface. She wiggled it then she leaned back, hauling the floor tile up off its frame and sliding it out of the way.
She got down on her belly again and continued her investigation. She could see the scrape marks traveling over the piping and squirmed further into the opening, shining her flashlight under the next section of floor.
Eyeballs reflected the shine. Kerry stifled a yelp and somehow kept herself from scrambling out of the opening by sheer will.
“Something wrong ma’am?” Shaun looked up.
“Um. No.” Kerry bravely resumed her search. She looked for the eyes, but there was nothing in that back corner now except some hanging cable.
She was about to move on, when her eyes registered something unusual, and she looked back at the spot, carefully craning her neck to one side and narrowing her eyes. “Oh crap.”
Kerry got up and crawled over two more squares to where she’d seen the eyes, and then she slapped the floor puller into place and settled back, both hands on the device. “You might want to get back.” She told the tech. “I saw something move under here and it’s too small to be one of us.”
The tech didn’t need to be told twice. He jumped off the desk and went around it, backing away from Kerry. “ You’re crazy to be opening that up. Could be anything under there. Someone one said there were snakes.”
Kerry took a deep breath, and yanked her shoulders back, pulling the tile up off it’s seating. She rocked back onto her heels and pulled the tile with her, tensing her thighs a she prepared to have to jump clear just in case.
Nothing stirred. She slid the tile to one side, and shone her light on the cabling underneath. “Look at that.”
The tech got up on the desk and peered over it into the space. “Holy crap.”
Shaun and Kannan scrambled to their feet and approached, staying cautiously behind Kerry’s kneeling form. “Oh wow.” Shaun said. “That’s all chewed up!”
Exposed now in the light, a thick bundle of cabling was exposed, a lurid blue color that was marred by a huge clump in the center that was chewed all the way almost to the bottom of the bundle, resulting in tangle of butchered wires. “Sure is.” Kerry examined the hairball. “Well, this didn’t happen in a week, did it?”
The tech circled the desk and knelt next to her warily, looking at the cables. “That’s new.” He said. “For sure, because I know where that bundle goes and that stuff was working before all this happened.”
“Wow.” Shaun said again. “That’s a.. what a mess.”
“For sure.” Kannan agreed. “That will take many hours to fix.”
“Guess you guys better get started then.” The tech said. “Cause this stuff’ll never work if that’s not connected.”
“Us?” Kerry looked up at him. “This isn’t our wiring.”
The tech shrugged. “It’s not our wiring.” He responded. “We just do server management here. That’s all. We don’t touch any of the infrastructure stuff.”
“Who does?” Kerry asked. “And where are they, by the way? “
The tech shrugged again. “Some company that some big guy here owns a part of.” He said. “They got a couple of guys and a truck, and the come in when we need new cables run and stuff like that. They monitor everything remotely.”
Kerry counted to ten again. Then she counted to twenty. Then she gave it up and started to put the tile to one side, her temper flaring.
A bang issued from the space. It put a cap on her reaction, and made everyone jump. “What the..”
Another bang, and she started to get up and get away from the hole, which suddenly started to issue flashes of light.
“Oh my god.” The tech jumped back, bumping into the desk and falling into it, then bouncing off and lunging back across the open hole, his arms flailing. “Ahh!”
Kerry succumbed to latent heroism and grabbed him, throwing herself into him and taking them both to the other side of the open floor just as a loud sound emerged and the hole erupted with a flurry of brown forms.
“Holy shit!” Shaun let out a yell, jumping back wards and grabbing Kannan by the shoulder as rats boiled out of the floor scattering in every direction.
Kerry hit the floor with a painful jolt and rolled clear of the tech, unable to place the sounds and hearing the alarm in her people’s voices as she smelled a deep, raunchy stench emerge into the room. She wrenched herself around and got her hands under her, shoving her body away from the floor and nearly pitching herself right back onto it when a rat ran over her hand towards the server cabinets.
She bit her tongue, and got enough command of her body to get her feet under her and stand up, fiercely resisting the urge to jump up onto the desk. “Nice.” She croaked. “What the hell brought that on?” She grimaced a little, as her ribs protested her impact with the floor.
The tech jumped onto the desk. “That’s it. I’m getting out of here. All that OT ain’t’ worth it.” He said. “That’s a freak show. “ He walked to the end of the desk and hopped off, then disappeared out the door without a backwards glance.
“Nice.” Kerry looked around. The rats had all disappeared. She walked cautiously over to the hole and crouched down at a respectful distance, peering inside. As she watched, the end of the cable she’d been searching for inched into view, with a loud scraping sound and a clinking of the metal ends that protected it. “Ah.”
“Hey. It’s the cable.” Shaun had eased warily up behind her. “Where’d that come from?”
“Someone has found it.” Kannan came over and knelt right next to the opening, reaching down without hesitation and taking the end of the cable in one hand. “I am going to pull this now.” He called down. “Be relaxed.”
He braced one foot and pulled gently on the cable end.
“Don’t’ pull too hard.” Shaun advised. “We have to get it back under the floor over to the wall.” He came out from behind Kerry and knelt down by his teammate’s side.
Kerry eased slowly upright, as a sudden motion caused a jolt of pain. She bit off a curse and stepped back, getting out of the tech’s way and moving back over to where the desk was.
“Got it?” A voice echoed softly up to them.
“Got it.” Shaun called back. “Was that Mark?”
Kerry perched on the edge of the desk, pressing her elbow against her side. “I think it was.” She agreed, removing the radio clipped to her shoulder. “Mark, this is Kerry. You there?”
She heard a crackle of noise on the speaker, then Dar answered, her deep tones roughened with the radio’s interference, but comforting to Kerry’s ears nonetheless.
“We’re here.” Her partner said. “They get the end of that damn cable? We had to push it up back through a bunch of garbage and through a damn access pipe.”
“We got it.” Kerry acknowledged. “You chased a bunch of rats up here with it.”
“And, we’ve got another problem.” Kerry went on. “Dar, you better come up here and look at this.” She paused. “And I think I.. “ She stopped, aware of the techs listening. “If you’re done there, come on back.”
“Be right there.” Dar’s voice had taken on an edge, and Kerry exhaled, as she clipped the radio mic back on her shoulder.
Breathing hurt. She figured that meant nothing good, but she decided to remain where she was, watching the techs work the cable under the floor towards the wall. She saw Kannan examine the end closely, and nod, but neither he or Shaun said anything about it.
“That was crazy, huh?” Shaun looked up. “This place really is crazy.”
“It is.” Kerry agreed. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with that cable mess in there. We keep having everyone else’s problems dropped in our lap.”
“That’s a mess.” Shaun agreed. “That’s probably a hundred cables that need to be fixed.”
“Not too good at all.” Kannan said.
There were footsteps in the hallway, and suddenly the door was filled with Dar’s tall form. The ILS CIO stopped in the opening and looked around, focusing on Kerry after a split second. “Hey.” She crossed the floor to her partner’s side, ignoring the open sections, the mass of screwed up cable, and the two techs.
Her jumpsuit was covered in dust and grime and she brushed her hands off as she arrived in front of Kerry. “You okay?”
Kerry managed a brief smile. “What makes you think I’m not?”
Dar moved closer. “You’re white as a sheet. What happened?” Her voice dropped, taking on a concerned tone. “Ker?”
“Sorry.” Kerry waited for the pain to ease. “I did something stupid crazy. When you were pushing the cable back in here a bunch of.. I guess those big rats? They came up through the floor.” She took a shallow breath. “Anyway, the other guy that was here was falling into the open hole and I grabbed for him and we both landed on the floor.”
Dar put a hand on her knee. “And?”
“Caught my ribs on the edge of the tile.” Kerry admitted. “Think I cracked something.” She saw Dar’s reaction start as she was saying it and she reached over to grab her hand. “Not bad, at least I don’t’ think so.”
“Cracked anything isn’t good.” Dar glanced around. “C’mon. I’ll take you over to the hospital. They can take some X-rays.”
“No, c’mon. I don’t think it’s that bad.” Kerry protested. “I just got the breath knocked out of me.” She amended her diagnosis. “Just a bruise. Chill.”
Dar’s brow arched sharply.
“You would say the same damn thing.” Her partner accused.
“So, because I’m an idiot, you have to be an idiot?” Dar asked.
Kerry thought about that. “Yes.”
Dar gave her a dour look. “Go back to the bus, and catch your breath.” She said. “I don’t want you to bruise anything else.”
“That wasn’t a request.” Dar’s voice sharpened unexpectedly.
Kerry tilted back a trifle and studied her companion, seeing the storm in the blue eyes glaring back at her. “Okay.” She responded quietly. “Boss.”
Dar stepped out of the way to let her leave, and she did, swallowing against the lump of unease in her throat. Dar didn’t pull rank on her often, and even less so in situations like this that crossed into their personal lives but it stung every time, and this was no exception.
Even if she knew Dar was in the right, and she was being stubborn. It didn’t help. She kept her elbow near her side as she made her way down the steps; the hallways eerily empty, as were the sidewalks when she emerged.
The bus door opened as she approached though, and she climbed inside, to find a quiet oasis waiting for her completely bereft of staff or visitors. As the door closed shut behind her, the air even cleared and she felt her shoulders relax. “Thanks, Alan.” She called into the driver’s compartment. “Quiet today huh?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The driver called back. “I’ll just be here reading my paper. Let me know if you need anything.”
Kerry removed her mask and tossed it on the table, wincing as the ache in her side started throbbing uncomfortably. She walked over to the courtesy kitchenette area, and opened the small refrigerator. Inside there were milk chugs. She took one out and opened it.
“Ow.” The twisting made a jolt of pain go all the way down through her groin. “Stupid idiot.” She went to her pack and fumbled out the bottle of Advil, opening it and then tossing down the handful of pills with a swallow of the milk.
It tasted good, soothing against the roughness in her throat. Kerry took the chug with her and carefully sat down in one of the leather chairs, leaning a little on her good side to take the pressure off her ribs.
The pain eased. She exhaled, reaching up to unclip the radio mic and pausing.
Call Dar? Find some excuse to reach out and make that contact? She felt the urge to do that, to smooth over the moment’s anger between them before it festered and yet, she didn’t want to interrupt Dar in front of the rest of the staff for something silly.
Something she knew Dar knew would have nothing to do with what she was calling for.
“Ugh.” Kerry let her hand drop, and sipped her milk instead. “Dear God I wish it was tomorrow already.” She decided she’d rest here for a few minutes, and then go back to the data center and make her amends in person.
Her side did hurt. A lot. She concentrated on breathing shallowly and put her head down on her arm as she waited for the medication to kick in. “Rats.” She muttered. “What in the hell else is going to happen to us here?”
Her radio crackled softly, it’s speaker right near her ear. Then it clicked off, much as she had only moments before.
Kerry closed her eyes, and managed something almost close to a smile.
Dar knelt beside the open floor, working hard to focus her mind on the problem in front of her. She stared at the cable mess for a long minute, before she glanced over at Mark, giving him a half shrug. “Our options are fix it, or tell them to fix it.”
Mark nodded. “Shaun said the guy in here said their network people are somebody’s cousin.”
“Great.” Dar rested her elbow on her upraised knee. “All right.” She finally said. “Get a couple of the LAN guys down here with a kit. I’ll go find the idiots running this place and see if I can get them to take responsibility for it.”
“Think they will?”
“No.” Dar said. “But I want them on the record refusing to.” She stood up and stepped carefully over the open space. “Stupid bastards.”
“This is a lot of crap.” Mark got up. “Crap on top of crap if you know what I mean.”
Dar looked past him, silent for a moment. Then she looked back. “Yeah.” She answered briefly. “I’ll be back.” She ducked out of the computer room and looked both ways, and then she turned right and reluctantly headed further into the building.
Reluctant, because her conscience was really driving her the opposite direction, back to the steps, and the door, and the bus where her partner was supposedly resting.
She felt bad about ordering Kerry out. Even if she was right, and even if she knew her partner knew she was right, it put her guts in a knot remembering the imperfectly hidden hurt in Kerry’s eyes when she’d left.
Stupid, really. Dar prowled the hallways, poking her head into the doors on either side. Most were empty, given that it was Sunday and getting late, and she suspected finding a responsible person who’d be willing to help her was going to be unlikely.
Also stupid. Really.
She paused before a barred window and stared out of it. Maybe Kerry was really pissed at her for what she’d done. She watched the shadows move past the glass. Her partner knew her well enough to give her ten minutes to chill, and then usually she’d be back around her, nudging and poking and putting her in a better mood.
She’d expected that this time. But an hour had passed, and her partner had remained in exile, and Dar was starting to feel very unhappy about it.
“Shit.” She turned and put the window behind her. “Grow the hell up, would you?”
She climbed up the steps towards the large inner doors and pushed them open, emerging into the trading floor, which now was dark, and silent and empty.
It smelled. She wrinkled her nose. Not of dirt and decay as the basement below had, when she’d worked with Mark to push the cable back up, but of wood and paper, oil and dust, with the scent of stale perspiration just at the edges of everything.
The room was vast, but seemed far less so with the strips and outlines of cable supports that criss crossed over the endless series of kiosks and connected them with miles of wires.
Without the clutter, it would have been grand, reminding Dar just a bit of the Grand Central terminal she’d visited on her last trip to the city. But with all the machinery and trappings of modern technology it seemed more like a cyber junkyard.
Dar studied it, reflecting on how much her life had been influenced by the goings on here. Then she shook her head and turned, walking out and back down the stairs.
“Oh, Ms. Roberts?”
Dar paused, and waited, as a young man caught her up. “Yes?”
“Hi.” He said. “Barry Marks. We met earlier?”
Dar turned and faced him. “Yes?”
“Listen.” Marks looked both ways, then back at her. “My boss just called me. “
“I don’t care.” Dar said. “I’ve had it up to here with everyone’s bosses calling everyone’s bosses trying to make people kiss their asses. I’m over it.”
“I don’t care who your boss is, or who he called, or what he’s threatening, or what he says some other jackass is threatening.” Dar continued on placidly. “I just don’t care. Either the damn thing will be fixed tomorrow or it won’t. Not a jack thing you can do about it.”
Marks stuck his hands in his pockets. “Boy, you’re a tough cookie.” He said. “Okay. I just wanted to pass along a warning, that’s all.”
Dar rolled her eyes.
“The governor’s on his way here.” Marks added. “I guess he’s spoken to Abercrombie.” He gave her an apologetic look. “Sorry about that. Everyone’s kind of losing their mind about tomorrow. Any idea what we’re going to do?”
“Postpone the opening.” Dar leaned against the wall.
“We can’t do that.”
“Better figure out how to do this the old fashioned way then.” Dar indicated the doors to the big room. “I’m not going to tell you it’s going to be all right, buddy. It’s a clusterfuck. There’s parts of this thing ripped up and I can’t even find someone from here to go fix it.”
“You know whose cousin does the wiring here?” Dar pressed him. “Maybe you can have him call me, since no matter what we do with the uplink it’s not going to help with the piled of cable chewed up by rats in there.”
“Can your boss find whoever’s cousin it is?” Dar persisted. “Because that would help a lot more than sending me some ridiculous warning.”
Marks held his hand up. “I’ll call him.” He said. “I’ll call him. He knows the guy who’s in charge of the facilities here. Probably some friend of his. Want him to come see you?”
Dar turned and started walking. “Have him see Mark Polenti, in the computer room. He knows what to do.” She called back over her shoulder. “I’ve got a… “ She paused. “Something more important to take care of.”
“Right.” Marks shook his head and headed for a small office nearby. “Knew I should have just taken the train up to Niagara this morning. Screw this.”
Dar heard the echo, and felt certain sympathy with it. But she kept walking, down the hall and down the stairs to the street, ignoring the guards and the people walking down the side walk as she focused on the bus door.
It opened as she approached and she waved a hand in the direction of the driver as she climbed inside, glad when it closed behind her and she was sealed inside the quiet peace of the bus.
Very quiet. Dar found herself stepping cautiously as she went through the front part of the bus to the back, spotting the flash of Kerry’s pale hair against the leather fabric of the furniture immediately. She circled the chair, finding her partner fast asleep against one arm, her breathing slow and even.
So that was the reason she hadn’t come back outside. Dar felt both relieved and a touch embarrassed. She went over to the storage compartment and removed a small lap blanket from it; opening it up before she returned and settled it around Kerry’s sleeping body.
She waited a moment, to see if that would wake her. When it didn’t she knelt down and carefully loosened the laces on her partner’s hiking boots, un looping them from the top stays and easing them off her feet.
She set the boots down, then straightened up and went to the refrigerator, removing a chocolate chug and leaning back against the counter to drink it.
It was very quiet. Even the sounds outside had fallen off, except for the beeping of cranes and the sound of heavy machinery in the distance. She could also hear a fading siren, but around the bus there wasn’t much going on.
She felt her PDA go off, bringing a welcome distraction. She put the chug down and pulled the device out of her pocket, opening it and reviewing the messages. “Ah.” She muttered softly, taking out the stylus and touching the top one.
Hello Dar. Good news and bad news. Bad news first. They’ve looked at all the existing optics and nothing we’ve got can be altered to work over MMF at that distance, even with some classified stuff they have here
Well, that was bad news. Dar found herself shrugging over it, having expected the message. She had decided they were going to have to wait until the new cable got here.
So now the good news. They have an experimental optic here they’re putting together for the space station and they think maybe they could see if it could be adapted. My guys are working on building an enclosure for it, so if they hit pay dirt we’ll be able to fit it in the chassis you guys have there. It’s a pretty slim chance.
Dar blinked at the message. Pretty slim? It was a hell of a lot more of a chance than she’d considered possible.
So anyway, that’s the news. We’ll be burning the midnight oil – let you know if anything looks promising. Hope it’s worth something by the time we’re done.
Wow. Dar tapped the screen to respond.
We’re burning the midnight oil here too, just in case. Slim chance or not, this is the only hope we have, so whatever you come up with will be better than what we’ve got now. Whatever the costs turn out to be for this – bill me for them. If you come up with a solution, name your price. DR.
She sent it, then folded the PDA cover down and slid the device back in her pocket. Could they do it? At least they were trying. Dar picked up her chug and drank it slowly, the cold, sweet beverage easing the ache in her throat.
What next? She glanced over to where Kerry was still soundly sleeping. With a sigh, she set her empty chug down in the garbage and retreated to the door of the bus, opening it and emerging outside quickly, shutting the door behind her.
No sense in waking Kerry up, after all. Better she get some rest. Dar was glad of the decision a moment later when her cell phone rang, making her jump a little. She glanced at the caller ID, and then opened it. “Hello, Alastair.”
“Dar. Where are you?” Her boss sounded exasperated.
“At the Exchange. Outside.” Dar replied. “What now?”
“Well, do me a favor lady, and take all those people you got down there and pile them in that bus and take off.” Alastair said. “The governor’s on his way down, and I just told him to kiss my ass.”
Dar leaned back against the bus, finding a smile somewhere. “You did, huh?” She said. “What happened?”
Alastair exhaled. “Jackass.” He said. “Someone got wind of their little game with the test yesterday and says they’re going to tell the press. So the bastard told me he was going to cut them off and tell them we screwed something up and now we’re trying to fix it.”
Dar blinked. “Fuck him.”
“Pretty much what I said.” Her boss admitted frankly. “So gather the troops, Dar. Put em on the bus and head back up here. We’re out of this.”
“Just like that?” Dar asked.
“Just like that. I told him he could tell the press whatever he wanted, but then again, so would I.” Alastair said. “I’ve had it up to my eyeballs. I already told the board.”
It occurred to Dar suddenly that she wouldn’t want to cross Alastair, not in this mood. “You got it, boss.” She responded. “I’ll go get the team and tell the driver to get ready to move. I don’t want to be here when that jackass gets here to start yelling at me.”
“Damn right.” Alastair said. “See you back here in a little bit.”
Dar closed her phone, and exhaled. “Well.” She tossed the phone up and caught it. “So much for that.” She headed for the door, then halted, turned, and went back to the bus. She keyed the door open and trotted up inside, heading over to where Kerry was napping.
The blanket was now tucked around her, her fingers clasped lightly in it, and there was the faintest of smiles on her face.
Dar knelt, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Ker?”
The green eyes fluttered open at once, and the faint smile grew into a real one.
“How are you feeling?” Dar asked. “Sorry I was a bastard before.”
Kerry drew in a breath, and then grimaced. “Ow.” She muttered, sheepishly. “Don’t apologize. I should go get this checked out. It’s killing me.” She extended her hand and clasped Dar’s. “Thanks for the blanket.” She added. “I figured you were the only one who could have done that and not woken me up.”
“Well, we’ve got time to go do that now.” Dar said, wryly. “Alastair just pulled us out. I wanted to wake you up before I got the rest of the crew in here rattling around. We’re going back uptown.”
Kerry blinked. “Really? What happened?” She asked, startled.
“Long story. Tell you when I get back.” Dar stood. “We could be heading home sooner than I thought.” She stroked Kerry’s head as she circled the chair. “Hold down the fort, okay?”
“Sure.” Kerry eased to seated position as the door closed again behind Dar. She wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and tried to find a comfortable position, wiggling her toes as she blinked the sleep out of her eyes. “It’s over?” She looked over at the television screen, which, muted, was showing scenes of the Pentagon. “Wow.”
She felt a sense of relief. Her head fell back to rest against the leather surface and imagined herself stepping off a plane into Miami’s muggy heat. “Awesome.”
Dar rested her elbows on her knees; glad she’d sent the bus on ahead back to the office. The medical examination was taking longer than she’d expected it to, and she was starting to get flutters of nervousness in her guts.
Not that it was her guts being examined, but still. . She was hoping Kerry’s injury was nothing serious, but experience had taught her that the longer they poked, the more they generally found. It was the reason she avoided doctors when she could, and even though her better sense insisted that Kerry’s ribs had to be looked at, her animal anxiety wished they’d just kept driving by.
Dar lifted her head quickly, turning to find a nurse at her side. “Yes?”
“Could you come with me please?” The woman asked, pleasantly. “Your friend asked to see you.”
Friend. Dar took a breath, and then she merely stood and waited for the nurse to move forward so she could follow her. There were places, she reasoned, where making the point about their relationship wouldn’t have gotten a second’s hesitation from her.
Here, in the waiting room of St. Vincent’s hospital, surrounded by dozens and dozens of people who were sitting there, in crisis, waiting in vain hope that a loved one who had gone to work on 9/11 would come straggling in – this wasn’t a place to make a personal point.
She followed the nurse down the hall and past a set of sliding doors, the floors that supernaturally clean linoleum common to hospitals. There were rooms on either side, with old wooden doors and wooden sills, and the desks were age worn Formica when they weren’t buried under paperwork.
The nurse paused before one of the exam rooms, and gave her a brief smile. “In there.” She stood back so Dar could enter, and then left.
“Hey.” Kerry was lying on an examining couch, halfway reclined. She had her boots and her jumpsuit off, but was fully clothed otherwise.
“Hey.” Dar glanced around, finding them alone in the room. She crossed over to her partner and studied her. “You okay?” She found the lack of blinking and booping machines, needles, or other medical equipment encouraging, so she took Kerry’s hand in hers and clasped it, feeling the chill under her fingers quickly warm.
“Yeah, I will be.” Kerry looked more than a little chagrined. “I did crack a stupid rib on that damn tile. Dar, that’s freaking embarrassing.” She complained. “How am I supposed to explain to everyone that I hurt myself escaping from a bunch of rats while falling into a raised floor?”
“You want me to tell them you actually saved me from falling off a balcony or something?” Dar asked. “I’m cool with that. After all, you told everyone I saved you from a shark.” She chafed Kerry’s hand, seeing the unusual pallor of her skin. “Hurts?”
Kerry nodded briefly. “They wrapped me up, and they’re giving me a pain prescription. Not much else they can do. The doctor said it was just a hairline fracture, and that I was lucky as hell.” She drew in a cautious breath. “Pain’s making me sick to my stomach though.”
“Does that mean I get to take you back to the hotel and put you to bed?” Dar’s eyes twinkled gravely. “Now that we’re not on the hook anymore?”
“God, that sounds like heaven.” Her partner admitted. “It’s so hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that we’re just walking away from this. What about you?”
Dar shrugged. “You want to know the truth?”
“You want to go home.” Kerry studied her face intently. “The guys want to go home. I heard them talking. They don’t’ really like being here. The only thing that’s been keeping them on the job is you.”
“Me?” Dar looked honestly surprised.
“Oh, honey please.” That brought a smile to Kerry’s pale face. ‘We’d all walk over hot coals for you and you know it.”
Dar’s brow creased. “Do you seriously think I’d let you walk over coals?”
Kerry was prevented from answering by the return of the doctor. “Hey doc.”
The doctor, a middle-aged man with curly gray hair and a kind face, bustled in with a clipboard and a folder. “Well, hello there again, young lady.” He said. “I think we’ve about got you wrapped up here. This your friend?”
“Yes, it is.” Kerry nodded. “Dr Ames, this is Dar Roberts.”
“Hi.” Dar responded warily.
“Hello, there.” The doctor gave her a smile. “Well, here’s what I’ve got.” He handed Dar a big envelope. “These are her x-rays, for her doctor at home.”
Dar took possession of them. “Okay.”
“Here’s her prescription. It’s pretty strong. “ The doctor handed over a smaller square of paper. “If you want my advice, don’t let her sleep lying down. Find a recliner, and use the arms for support until the bone starts healing.”
“Okay.” Dar repeated, feeling slightly bewildered. “I’m sure we can do that.”
“Good.” The doctor said. “Take care of her, she’s a cutie.” He patted Dar’s shoulder and left the room, whistling softly under his breath.
Dar turned and looked at a bemused Kerry. “Does he think you’re my lover, my kid, or my puppy?”
Kerry started laughing, then immediately regretted it. “Oohh.” She held her side. “Honey don’t make me laugh, please. It hurts like hell.” She moaned.
Dar set the envelope down, stuffed the prescription in her pocket, and carefully got her arm around Kerry’s shoulder. “You ready to go be coddled unmercifully?” She could feel a chill under her touch, and put her other arm around her partner, cradling her gently.
Kerry relaxed, and exhaled. “They gave me a muscle relaxant.” She said. “I’m a little loopy. I think that’s why the doctor was letting your brain do the work for me”
“No problem.” Dar kissed her on the top of her head. “Let’s go. We’ll grab a taxi outside and be back at the hotel in no time. I’ll call them and have them buy a recliner while we’re on the way over.”
Kerry chuckled faintly. Then she swung her legs off the couch and got up, helped by Dar’s firm grip. “Want to hear the good news?”
“Sure.” Dar left her arm around Kerry as they made their way to the door.
“My blood pressure was on the low side of normal.” Kerry didn’t quite manage to keep the smug tone out of her voice. “Even after all the crap we’ve been through.”
Total shock, when the nurse had glanced up and patted her shoulder, releasing the cuff and taking the stethoscope from her ears. “Perfect.” The woman announced. “I love to see nice, healthy women.”
Amazing. Kerry had almost forgotten about her damn ribs in her delight. The injury was painful, and annoying, but finite and her blood pressure wasn’t. She was glad to hear the recent stress hadn’t resulted in a reading that would guarantee to cause her far more of it.
“Now that’s awesome.” Dar agreed. “I’ll take that news any damned day.” She looked both ways as they emerged from the room, and then eased out into traffic. “Probably a good thing they didn’t take mine while I was waiting for you.”
“Aw.” Kerry was content to shelter in Dar’s arm, as they dodged the quiet crowd in the waiting area on the way out. “Why were you so stressed? I think we both pretty much knew what they’d say.” She glanced to either side as they reached the door.
“I hate hospitals.” Dar muttered.
Kerry patted her stomach. “I know, hon.” She caught the eye of a woman standing just outside the hospital entrance, her hands full with a stack of colored paper. The woman came forward, and held out one of the sheaves.
“Oh.” Kerry took it instinctively. She looked at it, seeing a round face looking back at her, with a fringe of dark hair.
“This is my husband.” The woman said. “Have you seen him?” She asked. “He went to work on Tuesday. I know he must be here somewhere. Please look at it. Have you seen him at all?”
Kerry felt Dar’s body shift, and she stopped walking,
touching her partner on the arm as she bent her head to study the page
seriously. “Dar, look. Did you
remember seeing anyone like this?”
Thus called, Dar tilted her head and focused her eyes on the sheet. The man’s face was ordinary and unremarkable. He had a golden skin tone, and in the picture, he was smiling broadly at whoever was taking the picture.
Could have been anyone.
Dar put her photographic memory to work, flicking through pictures of the last couple of days, above ground and below, going along streets, and standing on the steps of the Exchange, riding in the subways, walking around their hotel.
Down in Battery Park.
‘I don’t think I have.” Kerry said finally, in a regretful tone. “Dar?”
“I didn’t see him.” Dar lifted her eyes and met the woman’s squarely. “I’m sorry.”
The woman wandered off without answering, going up to the steps to greet the next people to emerge from the hospital, with her colored paper, and her eternal hope.
“Jesus.” Kerry murmured. “My god, Dar. These people have no freaking closure.” She watched the woman plead. “Did you hear the news? I was listening while I was waiting for my x-ray. They think four thousand people are missing, and they’ve only found a hundred and eighty bodies.”
‘Yeah.” Dar guided her to the curb, and turned to watch for a cab. “You don’t have closure.”
Kerry turned and looked up at her. Then she leaned into Dar’s body. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Dar signaled a cab. “My father’s waiting for us at the hotel. If ever I had to have it beaten home to me what a lucky son of a bitch I am, you just did it.”
They got into the cab without further conversation. Kerry leaned against Dar’s shoulder and watched the streets go by, feeling a sense of separation from the world around her.
She wished they were home already. She was tired of the crowded chaos of the city. She no longer wanted to help out, or deal with the problems, or face the impatient antagonism they’d been subjected to by pretty much everyone they tried to help.
She’d just had enough. She felt bad for all the people here, she felt bad for their customers who were in the affected area, and she felt bad for her country and about the future that had suddenly become very, very murky.
But she’d had enough. It was time to let someone else step up and take care of things, and respond to the government’s demands. They had done their part. She had done her part, and had a cracked rib to show for it. “What time’s our flight tomorrow?”
“I have Maria trying to change it for the morning.” Dar said. “It’s one something right now.”
“Wish there was a flight tonight.” Kerry mused. “I’d love to be home right now, on our comfy couch, petting Cheebles.”
“Me too.” Dar agreed. “I miss my milk dispenser.” She added, in a mournful tone.
Kerry snorted softly, trying to stifle a laugh. “You’re so bizarre sometimes.”
The cab pulled up in front of their hotel. Dar paid the fare, and they walked inside, not really surprised to find the rest of their team gathered in the bar. “Let’s say hi.” Kerry nudged her partner in that direction. “And I’d love a beer before I start taking those drugs.”
Dar hesitated, and then she surrendered. They walked into the bar, crossing past the service area to the pit of chairs filled with their staff. “Hello, folks.” Dar said.
“Hey!” Scuzzy waved. “How are you guys?”
“How’s the ribs, boss?” Mark was seated next to Scuzzy, a frosted beer mug in one hand. “You look kinda washed out.”
“I feel washed out.” Kerry eased into a seat. “I have a cracked rib.”
“Ooh.” Scuzzy made a face. “Man, that hurts, huh?”
Dar rested her hands on the back of the chair. “Someone please order Kerry a beer. I’m going to go arrange for her drugs.”
“Hey. I’ve got a cracked rib. Not broken vocal cords.” Kerry reminded her. “Scoot. I’ll get you a Kahalua milkshake.”
“Mm.” Dar patted the back of the chair, and then she headed off towards the concierge stand. The lobby was relatively empty, and she found the concierge ready and willing to help her. “I have a prescription.” She produced it. “Can you get it filled for me?”
“Of course.” The man said, immediately. “May I ask what it’s for?”
Dar studied the paper. “Painkillers?” She handed it over. “My partner has a cracked rib.”
“No problem.” The man accepted the slip and briefly looked at it. “Do you have a preferred pharmacy?” He asked. “We’ve got one right around the corner, but it’s local, might not take your insurance.”
“Just get whatever’s fastest.” Dar waved her hand a little. “I don’t care what it costs.”
The concierge smiled at her wholeheartedly. “Now, there’s a woman after my own tastes.” He said. “Ma’am, just leave it with me. I’ll have it brought to your room as soon as it’s filled. You’re in 1202, correct?”
“Correct.” Dar said. “And while you’re at it, I could use a few other things up there. Got a pad?”
The man whipped a pen and paper out faster than her eye could follow.
“So, that’s what happened.” Kerry cradled the mug of beer in both hands. The twinge of holding it, she decided was worth its cold comfort. “I can’t figure out what the rats were doing there.”
“I got that cleared up.” Scuzzy held her hand up in the air as though she were in class. “I was talking to these guys here, in the hotel? They got a place down near where the towers was. They said it was all full of rats, when they went down there today. They came up from the sewer.”
“From the sewer?” Mark cocked his head. “For what?”
“They said, from all that stuff that happened down near the towers.” Shaun spoke up. “I heard the guys at the Exchange talking. They’re in all the basements.”
“Ugh.” Kerry grimaced.
“I am glad we are not going back there.” Kannan spoke up. He was seated in one of the big chairs, his slim form almost swallowed by it. He had a steaming cup in his hands that he’d been sipping from. “That place disturbed me very much.”
“Me too.” Kerry said. “I think I have too much of an imagination.”
“The big cheese has big brass ones to pull us out of here.” Mark said. “Those guys down there couldn’t believe we were just leaving. They thought we were bullshitting.”
“No bullshit.” Kerry shook her head. “They finally pushed Alastair too hard.”
“Someone call my name?” Alastair entered the bar and went over to the service area, taking a seat on a barstool. “Ladies and Gentlemen, you have my greatest admiration and gratitude for the work you’ve done here.”
“Include yourself in that, sir.” Kerry told him. “Teamwork gets you nowhere without good leadership to go along with it.”
Alastair looked exhausted, but that made him smile. He lifted his newly poured beer in their direction. “To being homeward bound.”
“Yeah!” Mark lifted his mug. “Café con leche at the airport’s on me!”
Dar returned and perched on the arm of Kerry’s chair, picking up the cup on the table in front of her and taking a sip from it. She let her free hand rest on Kerry’s shoulder, and listened to the chatter of the group around her.
It felt good. They had done their best.
Now they could move on.
Kerry paused and leaned her hands on the back of the room’s chair, staring at the bed. “Dar.”
“What in the hell is that?”
Dar wandered over and stood next to her.
“If you say it’s the bed, I’ll bite your arm.” Kerry warned her. “What did they do to that bed?”
Dar studied the piece of furniture in question. The top of the bed was literally covered in pillows, some stacked against the back, some arranged long ways down the mattress, a few dotted around apparently as decoration. “Well.” She cleared her throat a little. “They said they didn’t have time, or the space to get a recliner.”
Kerry turned her head slowly to look at her partner. “Did you actually ask them to?”
“Yes, I did.” Dar responded in perfect seriousness.. “So anyway, this was what they came up with. G’wan up there and see how good they did.”
“Let me get undressed first.” Kerry demurred. “Because I have a feeling once I sit down in that nest of feathers, I’m not getting up again.” She went over to her bag. “Did you say the drugs got here?” She unfastened her pants and let them drop off her.
“They did.” Dar opened a bag lying on the dresser and removed a bottle, examining the label. “Ready for some?”
“Oh yes.” Kerry exhaled, wincing as the throbbing got a little sharper. “I’m glad we spent some time with the team, but I’m paying for it.” She removed her sleep shirt from her bag, and draped it over the chair. “Be right back.”
“Yell if you need help.” Dar patted her on the hip as she eased by. “I have some goodies here too.”
“Thank you, Doctor Dar.” Kerry had to smile, as she made her way into the bathroom. “Have we gotten paged for anything?” She called back. “It seems too damn quiet.”
“Well, it does.” Kerry carefully washed her face, trying not to move around too much. The water was startlingly cold, and she let it run a moment, turning on the warm water until it was bearable. In Miami, she never had that problem. The cold faucet produced, at best, lukewarm water in all but the coldest weather.
She brushed her teeth and rinsed, then studied her reflection in the mirror. “Ugh.” She put her toothbrush back into it’s glass and returned to the room, finding Dar already in her t-shirt, standing there with Kerry’s shirt bundled up in her hands.
It felt amazing to know she could just change, despite the relatively early hour, and then go sit quietly for as long as she wanted. “Thank you.” Kerry unbuttoned her shirt and let Dar strip it off her, then she stood as her partner got her into her sleep garb with careful, gentle hands. “You make me almost forget how much of an idiot I feel like getting hurt the way I did.”
“I popped my knee falling in a sinkhole, got smacked with a baseball bat, and got bitten by a fish. You want to have a dumbass injury competition with me?” Dar inquired. “Go sit on the bed, Kerrison.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Kerry went over and sat down on the soft surface, carefully squirming into the nest of pillows until she was leaning against the ones in the back, with her elbows tucked into the ones down the middle. “Ah.”
“Comfortable?” Dar was busy at the tray.
“Yeah. Matter of fact.” Kerry crossed her ankles. “I am.” The support took the pressure off her ribs, and the pain eased. She leaned back and relaxed, letting out a long sigh of relief. “So no calls?”
“No.” Dar brought a tray over. “I have our phones forwarded.”
“Oh. I see.” Kerry tilted her head so she could see what was in her immediate future in terms of edible items. “Wow. What is that?”
“This is lobster.” Dar regarded the tray. “Cut up in nice bite size chunks with appropriate things to dunk them in.”
“These are corn fritters.” Dar went on. “These are green beans because I knew you’d yell at me otherwise, and this is a chocolate fondue.”
“With cheesecake to dip in it along with strawberries.”
Kerry had been pretty sure she’d entered the hotel room convinced she wasn’t hungry, but at the moment, her body wasn’t buying that. ‘This is for both of us right?”
“Yes.” Dar confirmed. “Hang on. Let me get the bubbly.”
Kerry folded her hands over her stomach as Dar got up to retrieve a bottle and two glasses. Despite the long day, and her aches and pains, the solicitous attention could only make her smile and she did, tilting her head a little again to take a sip from the glass her partner offered.
A little sweet, a little fizzy, a little spicy. The champagne tickled her tongue and she settled back to enjoy as Dar squiggled herself into a comfortable position on the bed and commenced delivering lobster to her.
Perfectly cooked, chilled just right. Kerry licked her lips. “I think I know why emperors had servants now.” She commented, accepting another bite of lobster, neatly dipped in butter sauce and a touch of lemon. “This is lovely.”
Dar chuckled softly, taking a piece for herself before she offered Kerry a bite of corn fritter. “I just wanted something simple I could handle with my fingers.” She explained. “I’m too tired to mess with silverware. Ready for your pills?”
“Just my luck.” Kerry sighed happily. “You know what?”
“What?” Dar delivered a sip of champagne to her.
“Save the pills for tomorrow when we fly.” Kerry leaned on her pillows and accepted a mouthful of lobster. “Right now, I feel great.” She gazed lovingly at the angular face next to her. “Thanks.”
Dar kissed her. “Anytime.”
Kerry took another sip of bubbly to clear her mouth. “Dar, how do you really feel about us walking out like that? Do you regret it?”
Dar sipped her champagne, set the glass down, then picked up a piece of corn fritter and bit into it. She chewed slowly, thinking about the question. Then she handed over the other half of her fritter to Kerry’s waiting lips. “Yes.”
Kerry chewed, and swallowed. “Yes, you regret us backing out?”
Dar nodded. “I hate quitting. You know that.” She said. “I don’t blame Alastair for a minute for what he did, but yeah. I do regret it, a little. But on the other hand…” She offered Kerry more lobster. “Now if it doesn’t work we don’t have to stand there looking like jackasses either.”
“You think that’s why he did it?”
“Maybe.” Dar allowed. “I might have. He knew what the deal was. Might have been a calculated decision. This is going to cause a huge wave, but from that standpoint, better than public failure.”
“Hm.” Kerry cautiously reached for her glass of champagne, and took a sip. “That actually makes sense.” She admitted. “You really don’t think we’d have been able to do it?”
“No.” Dar answered. “Ultimately we’d have gotten everything in place, but there’s no way they could have worked the optics. We’d have been standing there when that bell rang with a lot of egg on our faces. That’s why I didn’t say anything to Alastair when he told me. He’s right.”
“That really sucks though.” Kerry selected a green bean and ate it. “It sucks that they put us in that position.” She paused. “Or did we put ourselves in it?”
Dar extended her legs along the bed and stretched out on her side. She lifted her glass in Kerry’s direction in a wry toast.
“Mm.” Kerry took a sip of her champagne and set the glass back down. “Can you reach me a bug bit?”
“Sure.” Dar produced a chunk of lobster. “So tomorrow, let’s work on wrapping up things here, and get a task list we can throw at ops in Miami. See what we can do for our customers aside from letting them camp at our doorstep.”
“Sounds good.” Kerry chewed and swallowed. “I can start looking at the capacity we have here. We can find out what we need to do if we need to start mounting sat rigs on people’s roofs.”
“With solar panels.” Dar suggested. “Maybe we can have the gang down at integration start putting together mobile kits.”
Kerry settled back and licked her lips. The pain in her side had subsided to a mild throbbing, and she was perfectly content to lay here nestled in her pillows, enjoying the chance to just sit and talk to her partner.
She hoped the rest of the team was having as quiet an evening as she was.
Alastair sat down in a leather chair in the empty floor lounge, glad the rest of the team was off resting – he hoped- or enjoying some time off. He glanced over at the door, where a secret service agent was standing, his attention fixed on the hallway rather than inside the room.
He thought he perhaps should be more nervous than he was, having been called out of his room for this meeting on just a few minutes notice. But he’d discovered he was just too tired, and too over it to be anything more than mildly thirsty.
Fortunately, the lounge was equipped for that. He got up and went to the sidebar holding a self-service beverage station, selecting a teabag and setting it into a china cup. He poured water over it, and let it steep, even when noise behind him indicated he was no longer alone in the lounge.
“Hello, Alastair.” A voice sounded behind him.
“Hello, Dick.” He added a touch of cream, and a cube of sugar, stirred, then took the cup and returned to his seat. “If you’re here to either yell or threaten me, give it up.” He sat down, and regarded the man standing across from him. “I’m not in the mood.”
The Vice President took his hands from his pockets and sat down. “Won’t waste my breath.” He responded. “We’ve known each other too long. When you tell someone to fuck off, it’s usually for a reason.”
Alastair took a sip of his tea. “So what are you here for then?”
“I want to understand.” The man across from him said. “What the fuck you think you’re doing, putting everything you worked half your life at risk here. This is big, Alastair.” He said. “There’s no going back from this. Either you’re with us, or you’re not, and those that are not, might as well move to Japan.”
Alastair regarded him benignly. “Y’know, funny thing. Tried sushi for the first time just the other day, matter of fact. I liked it.” He remarked. ‘Why don’t you tell me something? Why are you letting all these jackasses scrambling around like idiots treat people like me like a hired hand?” He continued. “I’ve spent the last week being smacked around by your lackeys and threatened with everything from jail time to being taken into a back room somewhere all because we’re here doing you a fucking favor.”
The Vice President pursed his lips. He was dressed in a pair of dark slacks, and a dark windbreaker, in an apparent pitch to avoid notice. “People are tense. You can’t blame them.”
“I sure as hell can blame them.” Alastair shot back. “Just because every jack one of you got caught bare assed is no reason to take it out on me.”
“Alastair.” The man shook his head. “You’re not doing yourself any favors.”
‘I’m not looking for any favors.”
The Vice President exhaled. “You were always such a hard ass.” He complained. “Al, this needs to happen.”
Alastair shrugged. “Maybe you shoulda thought of that before you told everyone it was working yesterday.”
“Figured I was safe. They told me you were handling it.” His visitor responded. “We have to show how little this affected us. You know that.”
“I know that.” Alastair said. “So back to my original question. “
“Oh for Pete’s sake.” The man said. “Give me a break, Al. Every single department in the whole government was thrown into a high speed reactive mode and told to not let anything stand in their way. This was no joke. This was not some half assed tornado we were responding to. People died”
“Some of mine did.” Alastair said, quietly. “I lost a good friend down there.”
The Vice President sighed. “So you won’t do this?”
Alastair took the time to sip his tea again. “No.” He said. “We’ve done what we could.”
“You know you’ll get blamed for this. You’ll have to stand there and explain why you walked out on helping your country in this time of disaster.” There was a perceptible touch of irony in the words. “You really want to do that? Do the people you work for really want that spotlight? You’ve got a lot of contracts with us, Al. More than most companies.”
“The board’s been advised.” Alastair shrugged. “They agree with my decision.”
His visitor looked surprised. “Would your stockholders?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Maybe I just don’t like being pushed around.” Alastair gazed steadily at him. “I’ll be there. I’ll be glad to stand by my decisions, and my people. If that frustrates you, Dick, sorry. Nothing personal. For what it’s worth, I think we did a damn fine job for you through this.”
The Vice President nodded slowly, shrewd eyes watching Alastair’s face with sharp intent. “Nothing personal, Al. I know our wives are close. But we’ll bury you for this. “ He got up and waved, then headed for the door, zipping his jacket up as he gave the secret service man a nod. “Let’s go.”
Alastair lifted a hand and waved back. Then he let his hand fall to his knee as the door emptied, lifting the cup to his lips to sip his tea.
After a long moment’s silence, the doorway filled again, and he looked up to see Dar’s tall form leaning against the sill, arms crossed, pale blue eyes watching him with intent question.
“Tea?” Alastair raised his cup in her direction.
Dar crossed the room and went to the credenza, opening the refrigerator and removing a chocolate milk. She brought it back over and dropped into a chair next to him, extending her long legs and bare feet across the carpet before crossing her ankles. “We in trouble?”
Dar opened the milk and drank from it, swirling the liquid around in the container as she waited him out in silence, one eyebrow fully hiked.
“Nah, we’ll be fine.”
Dar’s other eyebrow hiked to join its mate.
Alastair toasted her wryly with his tea, his face creasing into a rueful smile.