Storm Surge

Part 23

Dar wasn’t sure what made her wake up.   She lifted her head off the pillow, looking around in the darkened room.  The clock on the bedside table blinked a ruddy four AM; she cocked her head to listen to see if some sound had broken through her dreams.

Nothing. It was quiet, some soft mechanical sounds evident, the cycling of the air conditioning, and the working of the elevator down the hall, but nothing else seemed to be stirring.

Dar turned her attention to her sleeping partner. Kerry was propped up half sitting against her nest of pillows, with the blanket tucked around her, her face relaxed in slumber.

Seemed like a good idea. She started to compose herself to go back to sleep, when the dryness of her mouth annoyed her just enough to spur her to get up and do something about it.

With a soundless sigh, she eased out of the bed, getting her feet under her and standing up, and then moving quietly across the room to the credenza.  She sorted through the choices there, not finding anything to her liking.

Being a milk fanatic sort of sucked when you didn’t have ready refrigeration.  She picked the room key up off the counter and palmed it along with her PDA, giving herself a cursory glance at her dimly seen reflection in the mirror, before making her way to the door, opening it and slipping outside.

The hallway was, not unexpectedly, empty.  She crossed it and went down to the lounge, where the big screen television was playing mutely the audience of couches and chairs.   

They’d left the sports on, but at this time of day it was soccer.  Dar glanced idly at the screen as she headed for the service fridge, opening it and retrieving a bottle. She took it back over and sat down on the couch, the leather unexpectedly cold against the backs of her thighs.  “Urg.”

She opened the milk and set it down, then turned her attention to the PDA, which had displayed the stuttering red light indicating she had messages.  She flipped the top open, wondering if it was her mother sending one of her infrequent notes.

Her eyes scanned it, and then scanned it again, more slowly.  Then she took a deep breath, and released it.  “Son of a bitch.”

Hey Dar! Just a got a second to drop you a note before I head for the airport and a flight out there! Tried calling, your phone went to voice mail. But they did it!  Those boys worked until their eyes were bleeding, and got that thing working. Couldn’t believe it!!! Still can’t!   Got some special refractive diamond mirrors in the damn things, but I saw it myself, saw it link up at over a mile!

Shit.  Dar knew a moment of total dismay.

Figure to land there around 8, realize it’s cutting it close as hell, but it’s the best they could do for a flight.  Anyway, see you then, and I can’t wait to see this thing work!

Dar set the PDA down on her leg and rested her elbow on the arm of the couch, leaning her head against her hand.  Then she looked up, and tapped her fingers against her lips, staring blankly at the silent screen.

There had been very few moments in her career when she’d been caught in so complete a quandary as she was now, faced with a situation she hadn’t really believed was going to happen.   Of course, she could simply do nothing.

Let it all be for nothing. But she knew she should have called when Alastair pulled them out and told them to stop working on it and she hadn’t. Hadn’t even remembered, focused as she had been on Kerry’s injury and taking care of her.

On a human level, she knew that was the right thing. Even if she told the men that, they’d agree. Family did come first, and Kerry was her family.

Didn’t make it any easier to take though.  Dar rubbed her eyes, and exhaled. “Shit.”  She opened the PDA and tapped the reply key, pausing with the stylus held between her fingers as she tried to compose an answer.

“Couldn’t sleep, boss?”

Dar’s head jerked up and she looked at the door as Mark entered.  The MIS chief was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, and he’d obviously also been sleeping.  “Got thirsty” She held up her milk. “What about you?”

“Ops woke me up.” Mark trudged over to the counter and took out a can of Coke, returning to the seating area and dropping into a chair with it.  “Freaking accounting jobs didn’t run again.  I hate those damned scripts.”

Dar gave him a wry look. ‘Want me to rewrite them?”

He paused in mid sip. “Those are yours?”  He asked, his eyes going wide.

Dar let him wait for it, and then she smiled. “Nah.  But if you want I’ll redo em anyway.”

Mark relaxed. “Man, you had me.” He admitted. “I should have figured they weren’t. They suck.” He took a swallow of his soda.  “They crap out at least once a week and we have to restart them. This time they tanked Duk’s reporting and he bitched out ops.”

“Reporting shit definitely rolls downhill.” Dar commiserated.  “Speaking of which.” She held up her PDA. “C’mere.”

Puzzled, Mark got up and edged over, joining her on the couch. “What?”

Dar opened the message and showed it to him, watching his face for a reaction.  His eyes widened again, then his body shifted, as he turned to look back at her. 

“Are you kidding me?” Mark said. “Is this guy for real? “

Dar sighed. “Apparently he is.”  She leaned back. ‘So now this guy’s on the way here, ready to save the world and he’s going to run right into a pissing match he had no part of.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, wow.” Dar closed the PDA.  “Guess I’ll wait until he lands then call him.”

“Ouch.” Mark murmured. “That’s gonna suck.”   He glanced at his boss.  ‘You didn’t’ think they’d do it.”

“I didn’t think they’d do it.” Dar confirmed, nodding.  “Not only that, I didn’t bother to tell them to stop trying once we did. “ She sighed again. “So I suck twice.”

“You were kinda busy.”  Mark objected. “I know if it had been my wife who’d broken a rib I wouldn’t have thought a half second about work crap.”  He paused. “So how’s Kerry feeling, anyway?”

“Right now, hopefully she’s not feeling anything since she was asleep when I came out here.” Dar said. “Probably a good thing, since I know she’d be as freaked as I am about this note.”

Mark remained silent briefly, sipping his soda. Then he cleared his throat a little, and watched his boss out of the corner of his eye.  “We could go do it, if you want.”

Dar looked at him.

He shrugged.

“Alastair pulled us out.”  Dar stated.  “I respect that decision.”

“Yeah.’ Mark agreed. “But we can do it. I know he had heartburn with the governor and all that stuff, but man, if those guys went to the wall for us, it sucks if we can’t get it done.” He said.  “And it’s really gonna suck for him tomorrow when that bell goes off and nothing happens.”

‘He knows that.”

Mark shrugged again. “He’s pretty cool.  He’s been all right to have with us here. I wasn’t sure about it, at first, but he’s a good guy.”  He considered. “So we could make his morning, if you catch my drift.”

Dar thought about that.  It put the question into a different light than she’d been looking at it in – and she felt herself becoming attracted to the idea.  “Alastair’s good people.” She finally said, in a quiet tone.

“He really likes you.” Mark spoke up, unexpectedly.  “He was talking to me and your pop yesterday and he was telling your pop how lucky he was to have a kid like you.”

Dar blushed mildly.  “I’m sure my father loved hearing that.” 

Mark laughed. ‘Yeah he did.” He admitted.  “He’s a great guy.”

‘My father?”

“Yeah.”

Dar took a sip of her milk.  “We’re surrounded by good people. You know that?” She mused, and then fell silent for a long moment.  “You want to go do this?”

“Yeah.” Mark said, without hesitation.

They both half turned at a sound at the door, to find Andrew entering.  He was dressed for the outside, unlike the two of them, and he slid the hood down on his hoodie as he crossed the carpeted floor. “’Lo, there. You people never heard of sleeping?”

“Hi, dad.”  Dar watched as he went to the refrigerator, retrieved a milk, then came over and sat down across from them.  She lifted her own milk and toasted him with it.  “Mark and I were just going to grab our tools and go fix the damn cables. Wanna come?”

Andrew paused in mid sip, and lowered the milk. “Excuse me?”

Dar stretched her bare legs out and crossed her ankles.  “Our vendor and his friends came through. They duct taped something together that’s going to work”

Her father blinked.  “I thought you all said you weren’t doing this no more?”

“Me too” Dar acknowledged. “But they did it, and I don’t wan to waste that. Those guys wore their asses to the bone for us.”

Andrew studied his daughter’s profile, despite the difference of age and gender very much like his own. “So you all going to go do this thing, no matter what that flannel feller says?”

“Mmhm.”

“What about all them gov’mint people?” Andrew said. “They were some pissed off at you all.”

“I don’t care.” Dar was now at peace with her decision. “These people have been shoving us around since we got here. Maybe they have a good reason, maybe they don’t, but I’m just going to take my team, and go do what we do, and in the end of it someone else can decide if it was the right or wrong choice.”

Her father produced a wry grin  “Paladar, do you know ah once said something just like that” He said. “Turned out all right, I suppose, so ah will surely be going along with you to do this crazy thing.”

“Thanks, dad.” Dar smiled at him “Sorry to make your retirement so contentious.”

Andrew studied her, and then he burst into laughter, genuine and real, a happy sound the echoed off the walls of the lounge. 

“Well, I’m gonna go wake the troops up.” Mark got out of his seat, taking his coke can over and disposing of it.  “Meet you back here, boss?”

“I’m going too.” Dar got up.  “Let me let Kerry in on what’s going on and see if I can talk her in to staying here.” 

Andrew snorted.  Mark shook his head. “Good luck with that, boss.” He escaped out the door ahead of Dar’s reach. 

Dar tossed her milk chug and tucked her PDA in her pocket.  “Don’t tell Alastair if you happen to see him, Dad.” She paused at the doorway.  “He’s setting himself up to take a fall for us, and damned if we’re going to let him.”

Andrew smiled at her.  “G’wan, rugrat.” He stretched his legs out.  “Ah couldn’t sleep fer nothing no how.  Too noisy in this here place.”

Dar waved briefly, then she ducked out of the room and crossed the corridor, spotting Mark down the hall knocking on a door.   She keyed her own open, and slipped inside, closing the door behind her and walking over to the bed.

Kerry was still sleeping.  Her breathing was slow and deep, and Dar lowered herself to perch carefully on the edge of the mattress, reluctant to disturb her.   She knew in the long run that it would be better for her partner to stay here, comfortably resting.

However.  Dar reached over and took Kerry’s hand, squeezing it gently. “Ker?”

After a moment, Kerry’s fair lashes fluttered open, and her fingers returned the pressure.  She blinked a few times, and then focused on Dar, taking in the darkness of the room with some alarm. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing” Dar leaned over and let her head rest against Kerry’s thighs.   “But something unexpected happened.”

Kerry blinked a few more times, clearing the sleep from her eyes. “Like what?” She asked, her voice still husky.   “Are you okay? Did something happen to one of the staff?”

“No.”  Dar squeezed her fingers gently. “Those guys who were trying to help us?  They did it.”

“Huh?” Kerry’s brows creased. “What guys?”

“Our network vendor.”

Kerry was momentarily silent, and then her eyebrows lifted sharply. “They did it?  They came up with something that works?”

“That’s what they say.”  Dar nodded. “So they’re on their way here.”

“B.. “ Kerry started to sit up then bit off a curse, her eyes going wide. “Oh shit.”

“Easy.” Dar got up and reversed her position, putting her arm around Kerry’s shoulders and supporting her until she could get upright again.  “Forgot about that, didn’t you?”

“Ooof. Yes.” Kerry recovered her breath. “Stiffened up I guess.  So … but Dar, why are they coming here? We didn’t do the runs. They’re going to do that for no reason.” She paused, and then looked up at her partner, seeing the grave look in the pale eyes. “Uh oh.”

“I told Mark about it.” Dar said. “He wants to go for it. He’s waking the guys up.” She put her hand against Kerry’s cheek. “You do not have to get out of this bed. I just wanted you to know what’s going on.”

There was a curious mixture of emotions on her partners face.  “That’s not fair, letting you guys do all the work.” Kerry predictably protested.  “I don’t want to just sit here wondering what’s going on.”

“Honey.” Dar stroked her cheek. “Please don’t be an idiot.”

“I’m not.” Kerry frowned. “Give me those drugs.  Let’s see if they do anything useful.”

“Ker.”

“Don’t Ker me.” Kerry said. “I’ve been through this whole thing with you. Don’t ask me to sit out now.”  She took a cautious breath. “At least I can just go and be with you. I won’t pick anything up.” 

“You’re going to make it impossible for me to concentrate.” Dar objected. “C’mon, Kerry. This isn’t anything to joke about. You could get really hurt.”

“Don’t give me that.” Kerry reached up and took hold of Dar’s jaw. “Please don’t even try that after what I’ve seen you go through in some of the crap we get into.”

Dar sighed. “Now we’re back into that if I’m an idiot realm again, huh?”

“Dar.”

“Kerry, we’re going to be crawling on the floor splicing cable. Is that something you really want to be a part of?” Dar asked, practically.   “Tell you what.”

“You’re right.” Kerry interrupted her. “I don’t want to be on the floor splicing cable.”

“Okay.” Dar regrouped.  “Well then..”

“I want to be with you.”  Kerry cut her off again. “Can I just go and watch?”

Dar sighed again.

“Besides, you never know.  You may need someone to make a phone call, or type a message, or call a relative who happens to be in Congress.” Kerry negotiated skillfully.  “Besides, now that you woke me up, there’s no damn way I can get back to sleep again.”

Having known beforehand the argument was going to be moot, Dar was relatively satisfied with the compromise. “Okay.”  She kissed Kerry’s shoulder.  “Can’t blame me for trying.”

“I don’t.” Kerry responded with a smile.  “Dar, I’m glad.”

Dar rested her cheek against Kerry’s arm. “Glad? That we’re doing this?”

“That we’re not just walking away.” Her partner responded softly.  “Even if it was for the very best of reasons.” She patted Dar’s cheek, and then kissed her on the nose.  “Thanks for waking me up.”

 Dar gave in, nuzzling her and exhaling – enjoying a last moment of peace before the craziness started up again.  “I’m glad too.” She confessed. “Which makes us all nuts.”

“Cashews.”

“Gesundheit.”

**

Kerry climbed up the steps to the bus, its engine idling in the quiet of early morning. She paused just inside, spotting a familiar figure behind the wheel.  “Hi dad.  You driving?”

“Yeap.”  Andrew said.  “No sense getting that feller up out of his bunk. I know where that place is right well by now.” He pushed a button, jerking a little as the windshield wipers turned on. “Whoops”

“Have you ever driven a bus before?” Kerry asked, curiously.

“Naw.” Andrew pushed another button, resulting in the bus’s hazard lights coming on with an orange blare.  “Drove me a tank a few times though. Cant be that different.”

Kerry studied him. Then she walked over and gave him a kiss on the cheek, straightening carefully and retreating to the midsection of the bus before he started experimenting with anything else.   Kannan and Shaun were already there, the two of them dressed in dark jeans and navy blue hoodies, with equipment belts buckled over the top of them filled to the brim with nerdish jewelry.

“Hello, ma’am.” Kannan looked up from stuffing cable ties in a pocket.  “How are you feeling?”

“Not too bad, really.” Kerry went over to the far side of the bus and opened the door to the small office in the back. Her laptop was already inside, set up and she walked around behind it to find a handful of chocolate kisses on the keyboard, along with two bottles of green tea and her bottle of drugs resting nearby.  “Aw.”

“Something wrong, ma’am?” Shaun called in.

“Not a thing.” Kerry sat down slowly in the chair, testing her ribs reaction to the motion.  The chair had nice, padded arms just like her bed cushions had, and she rested her elbows on them in relative comfort.  “This’ll work.”

The door opened again, and she heard Dar’s voice trickle back into her little haven. With that as a reminder, she unwrapped one of the kisses and put it in her mouth, humming softly under her breath and she booted up the laptop and waited for her login screen.

 On the desk she also had a radio, and her PDA, and she grabbed for both as the bus lurched unexpectedly into motion.  “Whoa.”

“Everyone hang on.” Dar said. “Dad’s driving.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Mark’s voice cut in.

“Let’s put it this way.” Dar said.” If my mother were here, she’d be calling in an airstrike on the bus to stop us from getting hurt.

Kerry pinched the bridge of her nose and tried not to laugh. She made a note to relate the conversation to Ceci when she saw her, as she knew her mother-in-law would find it worth a chuckle knowing well her husband’s method of driving.

Such as it was.  “Glad you didn’t inherit that part, Paladar.” Kerry remarked in a voice loud enough for her partner to hear.

“So’s my mother.” Dar responded. ‘She threw a party when I got my driver’s license.”

“Wow.” Mark said.  “All righty then.  Everyone got all their gear?  Shaun, you concentrate on that Ethernet rats nest and I’ll help Kannan finish the fiber uplink.”

“What about the stuff on this end?” Shaun asked. “Those guys weren’t finished running the cable, were they?”

“First thing’s first, since we’re done on this end with the connectivity.” Mark said. “That rats nest’ll take us longer than our end will.”

“Not only that, the later it gets on that end the more people we have to contend with.” Dar said. “I want to get in and get out and then we can deal with the rest of it.”

“What if they just quit and left it there?”  Shaun asked. “Under the ground in that tunnel?”

Kerry wondered the same thing herself.  She had no idea if the workers had been told to stop what they were doing, or if, like their vendor, they’d just kept working in ignorance. 

“We’ll deal with that when it comes to it.” Dar answered, her voice coming closer to Kerry’s little den.  “I don’t want to split up at this point. It’s dark and we don’t know what we’re going to run into.” She appeared in the doorway, studying Kerry intently. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” Kerry held up a kiss. “Thank you Dr. Dar.”

Dar grinned unexpectedly. Then she shrugged and turned back to the rest of the team, presenting Kerry with an attractive view of her bare shoulders emerging from her tank top as her partner lounged in the doorway, resting a hand on either side of it.

The bus lurched into motion again, rocking back and forth alarmingly as its tires apparently climbed up onto the sidewalk as Andrew got them underway.   “Dar, do we have insurance on this bus?”

“Not my area.” Dar glanced over her shoulder. “Should I rig seatbelts in there?”

Kerry settled back in her padded chair for the ride, the motion making her a little seasick when she looked down at her keyboard.  She rested her elbows on the chair arms and looked past Dar, seeing the first hint of gray tingeing the windows of the bus.

No sense in looking at the laptop anyway.  There was either too much or too little for her to do, especially at this hour of the morning, so she abandoned any pretense of work and simply relaxed as best as she was able for the ride.

A blaring horn and a sudden lurch of the bus made her close her eyes for good measure; glad she wasn’t up in the front.

**

Dar swung the door open and flipped the lights on, not surprised to find no one else in the area as she stood aside to let her team in.  “Where was that pile of cabling?”

“There.” Kerry walked over and tapped the toe of her hiking boot against a square. “I won’t forget that any time soon.”

“Got it.” Mark grabbed a tile puller and thumped to his knees on the floor.  “Lemme get this up. You get ready to start clipping, Shaun.”

“Watch out for the rats.” Kerry said, just as Mark pulled the tile up.

He froze, and then he peered cautiously into the opening he’d just made.  “Thanks boss.” 

Kerry backed away from the space, taking up a perch on the desk.   Dar had circled it, and was kneeling down next to Kannan, plugging the configuration cable from her laptop into the router resting on the floor.

Mark carefully shone his flashlight into the opening, and then he pulled his kit over and settled on the floor. “C’mon, Shaun.  No critters.”  He removed a set of cutters, an Ethernet crimper, and a handful of ends and mounded them on the floor near his knee, studying the mess to see where to start.

Shaun sat down on the other side of the open tile and removed his own tools.

“Who the hell prepped this router?” Dar asked.

“Uh oh.” Mark eyed her. “Why?”

“It’s the wrong damned image. “ Dar said. “Would have truly sucked if they showed up here and we didn’t have the right code to support an optics module, wouldn’t it?”

Mark made a face, but he kept his mouth shut, his eyes focused on the task at hand.

Dar sighed “Kerry, would you..”

“Mind using the buses satellite hook up to download you the right image? Of course not, hon.” Kerry gazed fondly at her partner. “Which one do you need?”

Dar handed her up a slip of paper. Kerry took it and headed for the door, glad she had a task to take care of. Sitting there watching everyone work, while it fulfilled her promise to Dar, wasn’t really to her liking.

She walked down the darkened corridor, past the closed doors in the nearly silent building.  As she came close to the door though, she could see an outline of gray light, and hear the sounds of the city waking up around them.

Not much time.  She eased out the door, surprising the guard standing there. “Sorry.” She gave him a brief smile. “Need something from the bus.”

The man nodded. “All right, Ms. Stuart.” He said. “But I have to tell you, my boss isn’t going to be happy you people are in there. I know you got those passes and all, but no one’s supposed to be near this here building at this hour. Got a lot of important people showing up soon.”

Kerry didn’t even feel annoyed. “I understand.” She patted his arm. “We’ll try to do what we need to do and get out of here, before we can get ourselves and you in any trouble. “ She walked down the steps and crossed over to where the bus was parked, it’s door already open. 

She entered, grimacing a little as she felt a jolt in her side  “Hi dad.”

“Hey kumquat.” Andrew appeared from the back of the bus. “You all doing all right?”

“Yeah, just getting something for Dar.” Kerry made her way to the small office and sat down behind the desk, carefully leaning forward and trying not to breathe deeply.  She put the piece of paper on the desk, and logged in to her laptop, waiting for it to give her desktop.

“Had some fellers come by here.” Andrew had followed her inside.  “Think they were them secret service type people.”

Kerry kept her arm on her injured side tucked against her side, and typed one handed on the keyboard.  “What did they want?”

“Ah do not know that.” Her father in law said. “But they were asking a lot of questions and ah do think they will be back here.”

“What did you tell them?” Kerry pecked out a website, waiting for the slow satellite link to return the page to her.  Then she logged into their image repository and slowly typed Dar’s request into the search box.

“Told them ah was just a tour bus from Japan.”

Kerry stopped typing, and looked up over the laptop’s screen at Andrew.  His scarred face tensed into a grin, which she returned. “You did not.”

“Naw.  Just told him you all were doing some work for the gov’mint in there. That’s all.” Andrew relented. “You all want some water or something?”

“Do we have any coffee?” Kerry clicked on the result of the search, and watched it start downloading.  She fished in her pocket for a thumb drive, and plugged it into the side of her laptop.  “My drugs are making me a little sleepy.”

“Ah think we might.” Andrew moved away, rattling around in the kitchen area of the bus and leaving Kerry to watch her creeping progress bar. 

While she was waiting, Kerry clicked over to her mail program, which was sorting itself out in the background. She scanned the new items, relieved that nothing seemed really urgent, and her cleaning of the box on Friday hadn’t resulted in a cascade of new mail over the weekend.

In fact… She clicked on one, a rare personal note from her sister.  

Hey sis.

Mom said you were right in the thick of everything as usual. I hope you’re safe, and Dar’s okay. I thought it would be better to send you a mail because I didn’t want to call and interrupt you.   I have some good news and I wanted to share though.

Kerry perked up. Good news?  “Damn. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten good news in my email I’m not sure what to do.”

Brian proposed.

“Holy molasses!” Kerry blurted, straightening right up and then regretting it. “Ow!”

Andrew ambled in at a deceptively high rate of speed given his bulk. “What’s the matter, Kerry?” He asked, his eyes flicking over her in concern. “You doin all right?” He put the cup of coffee he was holding down and rested his big hands on the desk.

“Oof.” Kerry tried to catch her breath, closing her eyes as the stars faded.  “Wow.” She exhaled. “Who’d have thought a little crack would hurt this much.”  She eased her eyelids open, to find Andrew looking at her with an expression so familiar it made her smile.

Dar’s image, that concerned glower facing her, right down to the twitching fingertips resting on the wood surface.   Kerry reached out and patted one hand. “I’m okay. I just got a surprise from my sister, that’s all.”

“Uh huh.”

Kerry relaxed as the pain faded. “No, really.’” She said. “Brian proposed to her.”

Andrew studied her for a moment, and then he hitched up one knee and perched on the edge of the desk.  “That the feller who’s the daddy of that little boy?”

‘The one named for you? Yes.” Kerry nodded.

“Took him long enough.”

Privately, Kerry agreed. “Well, you know that was complicated.” She demurred.  “I mean, Angie was married and all that.”

Andrew snorted. “I’d a been her daddy that feller woulda stepped up a lot sooner.”

Kerry got lost in a moment of wondering what her life would have been like if Andrew had been.  Then she shut that out deliberately, as a pang stung her chest.   “I bet he would have.”  She admitted. “But I’m just really glad he did, no matter how long it took.”

“Hmph.” The ex-seal grunted. “Let me go see what’s going on out side. Heard me some noises out there.” He nudged the cup.  “Made that like I do Dar’s. Figured it would do.”

“Absolutely. Thanks dad.” Kerry turned her attention back to the mail as he wandered out, leaning forward cautiously again and studying the screen.

I can hardly believe it.  He came over last night and after we put Sally and Andrew to bed we were just talking and we ended up in the solar, and the next thing I knew he was kneeling down and taking a box out. I almost freaked!

Kerry smiled quietly.  “Good for you, Brian.”

He said what happened this week made him realize the world isn’t a sane place.  That you have to do the right things at the right time and not worry about the future.  Maybe he’s right.  You know, I thought I didn’t care, but I found out last night I really did.

So anyway.  Will you be my best lady? Maid of honor sounds so stupid.  I want you and Dar and Dar’s folks to be there. We’re planning for a Christmas ceremony, but mom’s freaking out because it’s so short on time.  She’s glad though.

“Sure.”  Kerry rested her chin on her fist.  “I’m sorry I didn’t ask you to be mine, but I don’t think you were in a space where that would have happened then, Ang.”   She flipped over to the download, then back to the mail.

“Thanks for making my morning a lot brighter, though.” She clicked the reply button, and started to type.  “And if it’s any consolation to you, Dar freaked when I proposed to her, too.”

**

Dar closed her laptop. “That’s it.” She watched Kannan finishing up the delicate task of fusing the fiber ends to the patch panel.  “Mark, how are you guys doing?”

“Sucky.”  Mark grunted. “My eyeballs are coming out of my head keeping track of these damn cables.”

Dar studied him for a minute, and then she slid over across the floor. “Got a spare set of crimpers? Let me in there.”

Mark handed over a tool without comment, and Shaun squirmed out of the way as Dar joined them at the hairball, pulling her legs up crossed underneath her as she settled down.   “You just putting.. oh, okay. I see.”

“Terminating them male and putting couplers in.” Mark said. “Easier than me trying to put a splice rack in there, no space.”

“Good thing they didn’t chew them completely apart.” Dar muttered, as she sorted out one set of mangled wire, and clipped out the chewed parts.  She tightened a zip tie against one end of the cut wire, and started working on the other. “What a pain in the ass.”

“Ms. Roberts?” Shaun cleared his throat somewhat timidly.  “Can I ask you something?”

“We’re sitting on the floor over a hole that could throw rats at us at any minute. You can call me Dar.”  Dar didn’t look up form her task, as she pulled the insulation off the wire end and separated the pairs, sorting them with expert fingers.

Mark muffled a smile.  “You still remember how to do this?” He asked his boss.

“Do you still remember how to do this?” Dar countered, clipping the wires off and inserting them to a clear, plastic end. “How in the hell can anyone forget?”   She examined the work critically, then clipped the end into a coupler and went on to the other part of the cable.

“Okay. Uh. Dar.” Shaun said. “Is this really going to work?”

They could hear voice in the corridor outside, but so far no one had come inside the room.  Now, two, loud, angry male voices erupted just outside, the words so stumblingly fast they could hardly make them out.

“Damned if I know.” Dar said, after a moment’s listening.  “But I think we better get hustling.”

Mark checked his watch. “Kannan, if you’re done there, wanna give us a hand?”

“Surely.” The fiber tech was packing up his gear. “I would be most glad to.”

“I find it very hard to believe.” Dar stripped the end of the cable. “That this all happened between Tuesday and Friday.”

“I don’t know.. I heard those rats can chew through a car tire in a day.” Mark replied, dubiously. “I saw them down in there Dar. They’re big as your dog.”

“Mm.”

Just then the door opened, and Kerry’s blond head poked in. “Hey.” She said, looking a bit harried. “Dar, you need to hurry up. They’re evacuating this lower level because they’re bringing some big shots in.”

“Give me a break.” Dar was clipping the other wire.  “We have authorization to be here.”

“No, we don’t.” Kerry said. “They specifically told them no one, especially our company, was allowed in here. They’re coming back in ten minutes and they said if we’re not out, they’re arresting us and taking us to the federal prison.”

“That again?”  Dar rolled her eyes.  “C’mon.”

“This time it’s no BS, Dar.”  Kerry stated flatly. “This isn’t those bozos were we were dealing with before. They scared the hell out of me.”

Dar looked up, and saw in the set of Kerry’s jaw, and the tension in her posture how serious the situation really was. “Okay.” She said, in instant decision. “Everyone just do as much as you can in nine minutes and then we’re out of here. “ She looked up. “Can you stall them if they’re early?”

“Do my best.” Kerry promised. “We got that ten minutes because of dad. “ She ducked back outside the door.

“Great.” Dar sped up her motions, as Kannan slid into place next to them, already reaching for cables with his slim fingers.

“Wonder what that’s all about.” Mark snapped a cable into place and reached for another one. “Shit I wish these people would make up their damn minds.”

“You must realize.’ Kannan spoke up, after a moment’s quiet. “We must come to this place, once again, when the technical people we are expecting arrive. We must install the optic unit.”

‘Worry about that when it happens.”  Dar reached for another coupler. “Let’s just get this done. Or as much of it as we can. If some things don’t’ come up, well,  they’ll just have to deal with it.” She snapped the coupler in place and selected her next target.

Focused intently, her eyes fastened on the cables, her hands making the motions of stripping, and sorting, and ordering automatically. Kerry’s warning still ringing in her ears, she crimped the ends on then coupled them and reached for the next set.

“Jesus, boss.” Mark eyed her with respect. “You really didn’t forget how to do this did you?”

“Shut up and cable.”

**

Kerry eased her hands carefully into her pockets as she emerged into the pearly gray of an early dawn.  She looked quickly in both directions, relieved not to see the black SUV’s pulled up onto the sidewalk anymore.

Her nerves were wracked. More because she’d seen Andrew’s nerves wracked by the agents than by what they’d said to her.   Dar’s father was one of the most unflappable, bravest people she knew, and to see him shook up by mere humans scared the poo out of her.

“They coming?” Andrew dropped out of the bus, seeing her.

“Nine minutes.” Kerry checked her watch. “Seven now.”

“The hell.” The ex seal exhaled. “Ah do not want any of us to be here when them fellers come back, Kerry.”

“I know, dad.” Kerry bumped him very gently with her shoulder. “Dar knows. She’ll get back here.”

There were already some people on the sidewalk. Not many, several policemen in their distinctive black uniforms, and cars were beginning to park along the street, shadowy figures busy behind the wheels.

They were running out of time. Kerry felt a prickle go down her back. Not only because of the government agents.  “C’mon Dar. “’

‘Them people are trouble.” Andrew said, unexpectedly. ‘Them are the kind of people who don’t have to account to no one for nothing, you understand me, Kerry?”

Kerry studied his face. “You mean they’re above the law?”

“Yeap.”

“My father thought he was too.”  Kerry spotted motion in the distance. “Uh oh.”

Andrew turned, and saw the trucks coming back. “Shit.” He looked up at the entrance.  “Let me go get them people.”

“Dad.” Kerry caught his arm. “Get the bus started.  I’ll stall these guys if they get here.” She nudged him towards the bus. “Dar said she’d be here. Two more minutes.”

“Kerry, you do not understand.” Andrew protested.

“I do.” His daughter in law insisted gently. “It’s okay. They’re part of the government, dad. I’ve lived with part of the government most of my life. I know where their buttons are. Please. Just leave it to me, and let’s get ready to go.”

Andrew studied her for a brief moment, and then he nodded and disappeared back up the steps to the bus, leaving Kerry standing alone on the sidewalk.

Kerry took a careful breath and released it, hoping she hadn’t pissed her father in law off too much. She then turned and watched the approach of the black SUV’s that appeared to be heading directly for them.

She checked her watch and leaned against the bus, feeling the rumble as it’s engine started up and nearly scared out of her wits as the air brakes hissed suddenly. 

The lead SUV pulled into the next block, and the one behind it continued on towards her.  She could see the man behind the wheel, and the one in the passenger seat, both in black jackets, neither of whom were smiling.

The passenger pointed at her, and looked at something.

Oh boy. Her heart started to race. She kept her calm posture though, her ear cocked for the sound of her partner and their team approaching.  “Maybe I should call my mother sooner rather that later.”

A weak card, and she knew it. “You may think you’re outside the law, but I bet your boss really hates to be embarrassed.” 

The SUV pulled into the curb just behind the bus, and the men prepared to get out. One was talking rapidly into a radio, glancing at her all the while.

“Here we go.” Kerry prepared herself for the confrontation, deciding a gentle approach to start would be a good idea. “I don’t understand officers. What’s going on?” She muttered under her breath. “We’re just here taking care of a problem, I’m sure this is just a misunderstanding.”

The men got out and headed her way.  One took a baton out and was holding it.

“On the other hand, screw you asshole works too.” Kerry readied a retreat route, and pushed away from the bus, getting her center of balance over her boots.  “And so does calling for help.”

Loud voices suddenly erupted. Kerry half turned, then turned all the way around as the door burst open and Dar rapidly took the stairs two at a time, the techs right behind her with their eyes wide.

“Get in.” Dar ordered Kerry. “Dad, get ready to move.”

Kerry didn’t waste any time.  She climbed onboard just a whisker ahead of Dar’s rapidly moving form and moved inside to make room for the rest of them.  Just as she got to the far wall, the bus surged into motion, the air breaks releasing and the door hissing shut almost in the agent’s faces.

Dar grabbed hold of her as they lurched to one side, cradling Kerry against her as they swung around a corner and lots of things went flying, including the techs and a fair assortment of hand tools.   Dar had a good grip on the doorway into the back office and didn’t.

“They are laughing at us.” Kannan was looking out the back window. “Those men.”

“Nice.” Kerry had no intention of protesting the hold.  Her chest hurt, and the thought of holding herself in place made her grimace. “Did you guys finish?”

“Not quite.” Dar braced herself against the doorframe as the bus swerved again. “The building infrastructure people finally showed up.”

“Oh, that somebody’s uncle company?”

“I think it’s Uncle Guido’s company.” Dar said. “They jumped all over us. They were pissed we were touching their stuff, not that we were in the building though.  I wasn’t going to stick around to argue about it.”

“Yeah.” Mark had gotten himself and his gear into one of the armchairs. “Lucky for us big D was there to kick their asses.”

Kerry glanced up at her partner. “Did you?” She muttered under her breath, watching Dar’s face take on an almost adolescent expression that held it’s own answer. “Oh boy.”

“Yeah, especially since we’re going go need to get back in there when the module shows up.” Dar said. “Or else this is just a pointless waste of a morning.”

“I’ve never seen anyone kick someone like that.” Shaun looked up from gathering his scattered supplies on the bus floor. “That was pretty cool.”

Kerry looked back up at Dar, her eyebrows lifting in question.

“They were blocking the door and not letting us out.” Dar explained. “Not sure that was intentional, but you said ten minutes and I didn’t have time to explain to the stupid bastard…. Whoa!”

The bus was turning completely around now, leaning over to a scary degree as the horn blared. Both Dar and Kerry were thrown against the doorsill, and Kannan kept his feet only by the slimmest margin. 

“Holy crap!” Mark yelped. 

“Hang on back there.” Andrew yelled. “Got to get this thing heading back straight.”

“Jesus.” Kerry tucked her elbow against her sore ribs and tucked her other hand around Dar’s waist. ‘Maybe we should go sit down.”

Then the bus straightened up and started going forward, settling down into a more regular movement.   “We back on the main road, Dad?” Dar called out.

“Yeap.”

“Okay.” Dar cautiously released her partner.  “Everyone get your gear together. We’ve got a lot of work to do when we get to the office. Kerry, can you arrange for Skuzzy to pick our guys up at the airport?”

“Already did.” Kerry stayed where she was, tucked along Dar’s side.  “I sent her and Nan the flight details. She’s tracking them too, she’ll let us know if they’re late.”

They rolled along in silence for a moment.  Then Dar sighed. “This is insanity.”

Mark looked up from zipping his tool bag. “Yeah, but in a good way, right?”

Dar leaned back and put her arms around Kerry again, leaning back as the sun started to rise and flash through the curtained windows of the bus, splashing them all intermittently. “We’ll find out soon enough, I guess.”

**

“Where did they leave it?” Dar had her hands on her hips.

“It’s below in the tunnels.” The building manager said.  “The guy with it said it wouldn’t reach any further.”

“Oh crap.” Mark echoed the words sounding in Dar’s skull. “You gotta be kidding me.”

The building manager shrugged. “I wish I was. He left the message with me, said he didn’t have time to wait for you guys to wake up.”

Dar snorted. “Yeah. Thanks.” She let her hands drop. “Okay, let’s go see where they left it. Maybe they were lying.”  She motioned Mark and the others to follow her, unclipping her radio from her shoulder as she walked. “Ker?”

The radio hissed, then crackled. “Right here, go ahead.” Kerry’s voice answered.  “Scuzzy reports the flights on time, Dar.”

“Everything else isn’t.” Dar said.” Cable’s still down in the subway.”

“Jesus.”

“And they think it’s too short.”

“Oh, man.” Kerry’s voice reflected the frustration she was feeling.  “Dar, I don’t t… “ She stopped. ‘What’s your plan?”

“I don’t think we’re going to make it either.” Dar turned and headed down the steps. “Just… could you grab someone, maybe two people, and see if you can find a pipe, something, anything, in that damn hole our dmarc’s in that I can shove a cable through?”

“You got it. On the way.”  Kerry clicked off.

“This is gonna suck.”  Mark tugged at the collar of his jumpsuit. “I knew we shouldn’t trust those guys. They gave off bad juju.”

Dar rolled up the sleeves on her own jumpsuit as she trotted down the steps. She dodged past the hurrying figures of people coming up out of the subway, and paused only when she got to the ticket turnstile.  “Damn it.”

“Machines over here.” Mark had started towards it.  “What do we need, four? I’ll get em.”

“Thanks.” Dar put her hands on the bar and peered through them. “Kerry has my wallet.”   She ignored the stream of people coming out of the turnstiles, studying the wall and stairwells on the other side of the gates until Mark came over with four squares of cardboard.

She took hers, and they passed through, walking past the fare booth and going down the steps to the level where the trains were.   There was a train on one side of the platform, so Dar went to the other side, and looked up and down it. “Which one would it be in?”

“Um.” Mark went to the map in the center of the platform and studied it. “They’d have to be in the tunnel from… here?”  He traced a line with his finger uncertainly.  “Man, where’s that native woman?”

“Fetching our world savers.”  Dar went over to the map and looked at it. “Yeah, this is the cross over from that other line so it has to be this way.” She pointed up the tunnel the train was in. “Let’s wait for this thing to leave and go look.”

Mark eyed her. “Go into the tunnel?” He asked. “Boss, that’s sorta dangerous. We touch that live rail and we’re all toast.”

“They had to be in there.” Dar reminded him. “There’s a ledge along the wall here. We can walk on that.”

“Oh, my goodness.” Kannan murmured.

“Dar?” Kerry’s voice crackled faintly on the radio. “You there”

“Yeah.” Dar keyed the mic. “What’s up?”

“The secret service was just here.” Kerry’s voice sounded tense. “They asked Alastair to go with them down to the Exchange.”

Dar glanced around . “Just giving him a ride?” She asked.

“Well.” Kerry exhaled audibly. “They made it sound like a polite request.”

“That sounds kinda crappy.” Mark muttered softly.

“Yeah.” Dar clicked the radio a few times. “All right, Ker. Thanks for telling me.  See what you can do to find me that pipe.”

“Will do.” Kerry clicked off.

The train hooted, and the doors shut, then it pulled out of the station, disappearing down the tunnel with a whoosh of dank air behind it.  

Dar walked immediately to the edge of the platform and climbed over the rail, getting her boots on the small ledge and walking along it with stolid confidence.  She didn’t look behind her to see if anyone was following, leaving it to their individual conscience. 

It was dark in the tunnel, but this close to the station there were lights against the wall just barely glowing from the layers of soot and grease covering them. She climbed up a few steps onto a platform that faced set of closed doors, the faint hum from behind them audible to her.

The platform had steps back down to the ledge, and then she paused, as the wall dipped into a darkened angle as though a wedge had been cut into it. 

Dar pulled out her flashlight and turned it on, flashing it down to the tracks to see a set of them diverging from the main ones and heading directly into the wall.   The gap they made was far too wide for her to jump, and she wasn’t really sure which one of them was live in the dim light.

Jumping down seemed like a bad idea.  Dar turned her flashlight to the wedge instead, playing it against the walls.  There were old pylons there, branching off to go with the tracks but it all ended up in  bricked off wall.

“Over there, boss.” Mark voice spoke up right behind her. “See the cable? It’s coming down… where the hell does it go?”

Dar flashed her light over to the edge of the tracks and spotted the thick cable. “Yeah.” She examined the ground beneath the platform she was on, seeing piles of litter and eyeballs reflected back at her.  With a sigh, she gathered her courage and stepped off the concrete, falling through the air for a few seconds before she landed in the trash, sending cracklings and squeals in every direction.

“Yow.” Mark stayed where he was.

“You know something?” Dar said.  “I went into information technology so I’d avoid crap like this. I should have stuck with the damn Navy.”   She edged carefully along the platform into the shadows,  spotting a much bigger bulk in the darkness in the very corner of the wedge.

“Careful, boss.”

Dar lifted her light and moved forward into the gloom, pausing when she heard a frantic rustling just near her right foot.  “Oh boy.” She muttered. “Glad I have boots on.”  She scuffed her feet forward, and felt her toe impacting something soft and moving. 

Expecting a squeak, she was shocked at a hiss instead, and froze in place, her senses on momentary overload.. “Holy shit.” She yelled. “I think there’s a damn snake down here!”  She trained the light down at her feet and searched the litter.

Then she felt something strike at her boots and instinctively she kicked out with one of them, impacting a body and sending it flying.

“Boss! Dar!” Mark scrambled off the platform. “Hey!”

A loud yowl made them both freeze. 

“That’s not a snake.”  Mark said, after a nervous silence.

“No.”  Dar felt her heart about to come out of her chest.  “I think it’s a cat.”

“Kitty cat or wildcat?”

Dar heard motion again and prepared herself to be attacked, but a furry form dashed past her, eyes glinting in the flashlight, and disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel.   “Okay.”  She moved a little further, and then stopped as her thighs bumped into something big. “Oh.”

“Wh.. oh.” Mark peeked past her, at the big spool blocking the way. “Hey, good job, boss. You found it.”

Dar leaned over and examined the remaining cable, and then she straightened. “They’re right. Not enough.” She said, briefly.  “Barely get to the damn stairs in the station.”

“Shit.”  Mark peered at the cable. “Now what?”

Dar started searching the walls with her light. “I don’t know.” She said. “I honestly don’t’ god damned know.”

**

Kerry stood back as they opened the door to the old storage closet that they’d used as a demarc.  “Thanks.” She told the custodian. “We really appreciate it.”

The man grunted, and walked off, shaking his head.

“What a nice guy.”  Scuzzy said. “A real New Yorker.”  She looked inside the room. “So what are we lookin for?”

“Wow. What a place.” Nan entered, shining a big flashlight around. “Good grief, Ms. Stuart. Don’t’ tell me this is an actual telecom demarc.”

“Kerry, please.” Kerry poked her head in. “Unfortunately, yes, it is. Here’s the problem.  They have the cable for this thing down in the subway tunnel, and it’s too short for us to bring up the steps and across the floor there. Dar wants us to find a pipe or conduit that might go down there so she can bring the connection up.”

“Oh. Wow.” Nan peered around.  “Are we still trying to do this? I thought we were giving it up last night.” She looked back at Kerry. “It’s almost eight o clock.”

“Yeah.” Scuzzy looked at her watch. “I gotta get going to the airport, yeah?  Bring this guy right back here?”

“Right back here.” Kerry agreed. “Okay, Nan, Robert, let’s see what we can find.” She entered the room cautiously, with the office applications support specialist behind her.  “We’re looking for a pipe.”

“Plenty of them in here.” Nan said.

“Keep clear of that one, its steam.” Kerry pointed. “And don’t touch that panel, it’s live electrical.”

Nan stopped, and turned around to look at her.

“Dar found out the hard way.” Kerry took a careful breath, and edged along the wall, inspecting everything within reach of her flashlight.   She’d passed on resuming her jumpsuit, since the idea of struggling into it was just too much for her at the moment.

Dar had insisted on her boots though, going so far as to put them on her in a moment of exasperating over protectiveness in front of the staff standing there waiting for them.  

Goofball.  She found a pipe and tapped on it, shaking the rust off the outside and exposing the old lettering.  “Water. No, that wont’ do it.”

“These are huge pipes.. steam you said?”  Nan was moving around the other side. “They’re big.”

“We have steam heat.” Robert supplied diffidently. He was kneeling on the floor near the front of the room looking at the pipes protruding through the concrete.  “What are we looking for, Ms. Stuart? Will they be labeled?  I think these are electrical, they say Edison.”

“What we’re really looking for is an empty pipe that might go down.” Kerry stepped carefully over their router and the fiber patch panel Kannan had just finished with.  “Something that might be going down into the subway from an office building.”

“Well.” Nan slid between two of the bigger pipes, her slim form almost obscured by them. “This one says fire alarm system.. it’s going down.”

Kerry abandoned her search and made her way to the other side of the closet, easing her head between the pipes since she was pretty sure the rest of her wouldn’t fit. “Okay..oh.” She turned her head sideways. “Telegraph conduit. Telegraph?”

“There used to be fire boxes on the street.” Robert explained helpfully. “Connected to the fire department. It worked by Morse code or something.”

Kerry unclipped her mic. “Dar? You there?”

A loud rushing sound answered her and she pulled the mic away from her ear. “Yow.”

“Sorry.” Dar clicked in a minute later. “Train going by. What’s up? You find anything?”

“Are you in the tunnel?” Kerry asked. “Where the tracks are?  Holy crap, Dar!”

“That’s where the cable is.” Dar reminded her.

“Be careful.” Kerry felt her stress level rising.  “We found a pipe that is supposed to be for the fire alarm system – it says ‘telegraph’ on the outside. Can you find one down there?”

“Bang on it.”  Her partner said. “Get something and keep banging on it and we’ll look.”

Nan nodded. “Good idea.”  She looked around.  “There’s a piece of brick.. maybe that 'll work.”  She squeezed over near the wall and retrieved it, and then she came back over and started banging on the pipe.

“Hear that?” Kerry asked over the radio.

“Hang on.” 

Kerry held the mic with one hand, keeping her other elbow pressed against her side that had started to ache again past the fuzziness of the medication.  “Good catch, Nan.” She complimented the woman. “Last thing we needed was to be stuck in here for a long time.”

“Ker? I can hear it.” Dar answered back. “Just keep banging, we’ll try to find ya. Good job.”

“Thank Nan.” Kerry backed away from the pipe. “Robert, can you find a brick and spell Nan when she gets tired?  I don’t’ think my ribs are going to be up to me whacking something.”

“Sure.” Robert agreed instantly.   “Boy, that took a lot less time than I thought it would.”

“How are we going to get the cable inside the pipe up here?” Nan asked over the pounding. She whacked the pipe at one-second intervals; making a low, gong like sound that wasn’t quite pleasant.  ‘There’s no hole in the pipe.”

No, of course there wasn’t.   “Hey Dar?” Kerry keyed the mic. “I’m going to need someone up here with a hacksaw.”

“Send them up when they’re done here.” Dar answered, her breathing sounding a bit strained. “Get back to you in a minute.”

Kerry released the mic, trying hard not to turn tail at once and go chasing down the stairs to see what her partner was up to.  “Boy, that was a lot shorter than I thought, too.” She commented. “We may make this if Dar can find that pipe.”

“They’re making a big deal out of the Exchange this morning.”  Robert straightened, with a small section of pipe in his hands.  “The Vice President’s going to be there, and a bunch of other people. I hear they’re going to have one of the firemen ring the opening bell.”

The underlying hypocrisy made Kerry’s eyeballs twitch.  She turned and looked around; searching out a path for the cable to come up once it came out of the pipe.  The floor was crowded with mechanics but she traced out a route with her eyes, taking the cable along the floor and past the dangerously humming electrical panel.

Yes, that would work.   She eyed the bend the cable would have to make to get to the router, and while it was steeper than Dar probably would have liked, beggars in this case certainly could not be choosers and they’d just have to try and make it work.

She was just relieved they’d found a solution.   She checked her watch. Quarter past eight. They had, really an hour to get everything hooked up and tested before the exchange opened at nine thirty.  If the modules got here in time, it was do-able.

Just.

“Ker?” Dar’s voice crackled through, sounding tired and irritated.

Uh oh.  “Here.” Kerry answered. “What’s up?”

“We can’t get at that damn pipe.”  Dar answered. “It’s inside an equipment room behind some locked doors.”

“Well…”

“Which Mark already picked.  Someone decided to dump a load of unwanted concrete in the closet and it’s covering the pipes. They’re inside the concrete.”

Shit.  Kerry clicked the mic, looking over at the others, who were looking back at her in dismay.  “All the pipes in that area?” She looked around.  “They’re all on that wall, Dar.”

“All of them.” Dar confirmed. “Every last god damned one of them buried in side a pile of rock with construction worker’s graffiti marked all over it.

Nan stopped pounding, and let the brick fall to her leg. “So, now what?”

“Good question.” Kerry exhaled; slowly letting her eyes wander over the inside of the room. “Damned good question.”

**

“Quarter to nine.” Kerry wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. She was kneeling on the dirty concrete, as Nan squirmed under the consoles looking for something, anything they could use to solve their current problem.

“I don’t see anything.” Nan said.  “Just a lot of dirt.”

“Son of a bitch.”  Kerry exhaled. “This stupid piece of shit room. If I had a stick of dynamite I’d just blow a damn hole in the floor.”

Nan eyed her, a trifle nervously.

“Is there anything I can do other than hold this flashlight?” Robert asked. “I feel a little useless standing here letting you ladies do all the dirty work.”

Kerry lowered herself carefully down until she was lying flat on her belly on the ground. She slowly moved her flashlight around every inch of the floor, ignoring the throbbing pain in her chest.

“Ker, I think we’re about out of time.” Dar’s voice crackled softly over the radio.  “I can’t find a damn thing down here.”

Kerry cursed under her breath.  “Hang on.” She keyed the mic. “I’m going to have one last look here.”

“Okay.” Dar responded. “Good luck. We’re not having any.”

“Thanks hon.” She released the radio and continued her inch-by-inch search, running her flashlight over the back wall past the electrical panel, over the painted over wooden half door, over the brick….

Wait.

Kerry moved her flashlight back.  She focused on the long sealed half portal, her eyes flicking over it with startling intensity. ‘Robert?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Get me a sledgehammer. Immediately.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Nan squirmed over to see what she was looking at. “What are you going to do?”

Kerry pointed.  “That was a door once.” She said. “It went somewhere.”  She rested her flashlight on the ground and her chin on the flashlight, trying not to breathe too deeply. ‘It’s lower than the level of the floor.”

“You think it goes somewhere?”

“Haven’t a fucking clue.” Kerry keyed the mic. “Dar, I found something. Give me two minutes, and then see if you hear me knocking.”

“Will do.” Dar responded.  “Got my damned fingers crossed.”

Nan studied Kerry. “You people from Miami curse a lot.” She commented. “No offense. It just sounds weird.”

“We have a lot to curse.”  Kerry edged forward, now regretting that she’d declined the jumpsuit. She could feel the chill of the concrete against her belly as she angled herself under a large metal shelf towards the door.  “It’s either hot and steamy, or it’s a tropical storm, or it’s bad drivers, corrupt politicians, and roads under perpetual construction.”

“Oh.” Nan watched her. “You want me to do that? You must be hurting like crazy crawling around like that.”

Kerry turned her head and looked at her. “Can you swing a ten pound sledge hammer underhand?”

Nan blinked. “Um… you know, I never tried, but I’m more into marathons than weightlifting.”

“Well.” Kerry squirmed a last few inches. “I can, and I’m short enough to get in here.”  She arrived in front of the door. There was an alteration in the floor there, a pour of concrete that had settled into a depression, three feet wide. It made the floor in front of the half door a good twelve inches lower than what she was laying on. She ran her fingers over it. “Stairs?”

“Hard to say.” Nan looked up over her shoulder at the door. “Found one?”

“I did.” Robert came forward. “The custodian was there. I just paid him twenty bucks and he handed it right over.” He edged towards where Kerry was. “You want it there, Ms Stuart?”

“We must be in New York.” Nan said, in a wry tone.

“Like Washington doesn’t know anything about bribes?” Robert jibed back.

“Can you get the head of it here, next to.. yeah.” Kerry curled her fingers around the shaft of the sledgehammer and steeled herself, tucking her right arm up against her side to support her ribs. Then she lifted the hammer and smacked the head against the door, making a loud cracking boom

“Whoa.” Nan squirmed back out of the way. “Let me get outta here before splinters start flying.”

Kerry smacked the door again, then again, and again.  It didn’t seem to be moving, but she could see the paint cracking along the sealed edges.  “Hope Dar can hear that.”

“Ker. “ As though in answer, Dar’s voice sputtered near her ear. “What the hell are you do… where is that?  Mark! Mark! Where in the hell is that coming from?”

Kerry felt a jolt in her side, and she took a quick breath against it. She kept up her attack, feeling some of her rage at the situation coming out as she swung against the door harder and harder. “Stupid.” Bang “Piece” Bang “Of crap.” Bang.

“I think the edge is breaking there.” Nan had slid over under the back section of piping to get a better look. “Yeah, it is.”

“Should be.” Kerry grunted, slamming the hammer against the wood as she felt the burn in her triceps.  “Glad for all those hours in the gym now.”

“You guys actually have time for the gym?” 

“We make time for it.”  Kerry paused and studied her target, and then she selected a different spot and slammed the hammer against the edge of the door near the frame, seeing flecks of brown wood under the black paint.

“Nine o’clock.” Robert said. “Ms. Stuart, they’re back with that part, upstairs just paged me.”

“Go down into the subway and get Kannan and Shaun back up here.” Kerry felt her breath coming fast, and her heartbeat hammering against her chest.  “Tell them to get ready.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Robert disappeared again.

“C’mon. C’mon.” Kerry closed her eyes and just concentrated on the hammer, blocking out the pain and the burn in her arms. She banged the tool against the wood again, and again and again and again

Faster.

Slam.

Slam.

Slam.

“KERRISON! STOP!”

Kerry almost jumped and smacked her head against the pipes, the voice so loud in her ears it hurt.  She dropped the hammer and let out a gasp as the surface she’d been pounding disappeared into a black hole and gust of cold, oil scented air blew hard against her face.

She stared at the opening, until Dar’s upper body appeared, her arms resting on the depressed floor. “H… hi.”

“Sorry I yelled.” Dar said. “But one more smack and you’d have gone through the damn door and knocked me off this stack of crates and old railroad ties I’m standing on.”  She disappeared. “Hang on.”

Kerry was very glad to stay completely still, blowing her hair out of her eyes with a puff of relieved breath.

“Wow.” Nan said. “Just, wow.”

“Here.” Dar reappeared, with something her hand. “Feed this in.” She got a good look at Kerry’s face, and then shifted her focus. “Nan, grab this please. Pull it forward to the rack.” She had a cable end in her hand and now she fed it through under the rusted iron pipe work.

“Got it.” Nan took hold of the cable and squirmed backwards. “Got it, got it… whoa!”

“Hey!” Shaun skidded to a halt, breathing hard. “There’s the cable! Kanny! Move it, buddy!!”

The cable slithered forward as Dar fed it up, past Kerry’s shoulder.  “That’s enough.” Dar called back. “Tie it off for strain relief, Mark.”

“Doin it!” Mark’s voice called back. “Dar, for Christ’s sake don’t fall, okay?  I don’t think I can catch you and we’re both gonna end up across those freaking tracks!”’

“I’m all right.” Dar leaned on the sill again. “You okay?”  She focused on Kerry. 

“Absolutely not.” Kerry reached over and extended her hand, which Dar clasped.  “We’re not done. The part’s here, Dar. We’ve got to get it down to the exchange.”

“I know.” Dar said. “And I’ve got to be here to configure this end of it when the traffic starts coming down I told the router on that end to send me everything. I’m going to split it up here.”

“We’re insane.”  Kerry rested her head against her arm.  “I’ll get the part and go to the Exchange. If the wont’ let me in, at this point, I’m going to start biting and kicking people so get the bail money out.”

“Ker, we can send someone else.” Dar said. “I’ll send Mark.”

“Who do you think has the best chance of getting in there?”  Kerry kept her eyes closed.  “Honestly.”

Dar sighed.

“You’re taking me to dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab tonight, Paladar.”

Dar pulled her hand closer and kissed her knuckles. “Ker, I’ll buy Joe’s Stone Crab for you if you want., but.. ah…. can you move back out of the way?”

“Huh?”

“Gotta jump up here.” Dar looked behind her.

“Boss! Watch it!” Mark yelled suddenly.  “Watch it!”

Kerry’s eyes popped open. “Honey you’re not fitting through here.” She said.  “Dar, wait.. no wai.. Dar!”

With a sudden surge, Dar hauled herself through the opening. “Mark!  Move!”

“Outta here boss!”

There was thundering huge crash behind her, and far off, the sound of alarms going off. “I think we just blocked the tracks.”  Dar reviewed her options in the tiny, cramped space.  “I think I’m gonna end the day pissing a lot of people off.”

Kerry was wriggling backwards as fast as she could, trying not to kick Shaun and Kannan who had descended over the cable and were working furiously. 

“Guys?” Dar said. “Stop.”

Shaun looked up. “Ma’am?”

“Pull Kerry out of there.”  Dar pointed. “Just grab her legs and pull gently before she passes out.”   She looked up, then jumped and grabbed a pipe, pulling her body up and over the top of it.   “C’mon people, we’re out of time.”

**

Kerry boarded the subway train with Andrew right behind her, her hands pushed into the front pocket of her hastily donned hoodie.   One hand clutched the optic device as she was shepherded to a seat by her tall companion.

“This is a crazy thing.” Andrew sat down next to her in half full train.

“It is.” Kerry was aware of every minute ticking by.  “But Scuzzy said it would be faster to do this, than try to drive down there with everything going on.  I trust her to know New York.”

“Some right.”  Andrew acknowledged. “Lots of traffic now, up there.”

“Lots.” Kerry sat back, feeling utterly exhausted.  Part of that was the drug she was taking for her ribs, she knew, but there was a bone deep tired along with it she hadn’t felt for a long time. “You know, I said to Dar I was glad we were doing this.”

“Not so glad now?” Andrew asked, watching her from the corner or his eye. “Y’don’t look so hot.”

“I don’t feel so hot.” Kerry admitted.  “I think besides my ribs I’m coming down with something. I’ve got that ache all over feeling.” She exhaled carefully.  “Just my luck.”

Andrew patted her shoulder. “Hang in there, kumquat. This here thing’s about done ah think.”

“I’ll be glad to get on that darn airplane, that’s for sure.” Kerry agreed.  “Bet you will too.”

Andrew let his big hands rest on his knees. “That is a true thing.” He said.  “Place here’s got some of the same things I saw some places I been.”  He continued, in a reflective tone. “A lot of fussing with folks haids.  Mad. Crazy. Sad.  Hating.”

“You mean places you’ve been deployed?” Kerry asked, after a pause.

“Yeap.”

The train rattled through the tunnel, and pulled into a station.  A few people got off, a lot of people got on. Most were quiet, as they settled in seats, or took hold of the bars.  Andrew scanned them, and then he remained seated, pulling his boots in a little to keep them from tripping anyone.

Kerry checked her watch, and then shook her head.

**

“Well, Dar, we knew it would be down to the wire but…”

“Sh.” Dar staked out a spot on the floor behind where Kannan and Shaun were feverishly working.  “Don’t’ get me wrong.” She paused and looked over her shoulder. “I am deeply grateful to all of you for doing this but if we don’t get finished, it’s not gonna mean much.”

“Sure.”  Don found a spot near the wall. “Mind if we watch?” He indicated his companions, two men in khakis with tucked in short sleeve shirts and actual, real pocket protectors.  They had glasses, and that intense look that rocket scientists do.

“No.” Dar plugged her laptop into the router and started it up.  “Sit down, it’ll be a while.” It was already stuffy inside the room without the extra people in it, and she felt the sweat gather under her jumpsuit adding to an already significant discomfort.  “Hell.”

“Dar?” Mark’s voice erupted near her ear.  “I’ve got good uplinks.. you want me to.. what do you want me to do up here?”

“Hang on.” Dar unzipped her jumpsuit and pulled it off her arms and shoulders, exposing her tank top covered upper body to the sluggish air. She tied the sleeves off around her waist and retrieved the mic. “All right, listen. We’re taking the whole stream from down there so when it starts up I’m going to have to parse it by IP and set up sub interfaces to route it.”

There was a long moment’s silence. “You’re going to do that on the fly, boss?”

“Do you have another suggestion? Cough it up.”

“Um.”

“Aside from not trying this at all?” Dar exhaled. “I just hope we’ve got existing gateways to where this stuff’s going.” She scrubbed the hair out of her eyes with one hand.

“Wow.”  Mark said, after another long pause.  ‘You want me to…”

“Capture everything so we can put it all back if this tanks? Sure.” Dar logged into her laptop.  “Wish me luck? Sure. “

“Okay, will do.” Mark responded.  “I feel kinda lame up here. “

“Just hang tight.” Dar said. “It’s all in Kerry’s pocket right now anyway.”   She setup her monitoring tools, opening a console to the router in one window and several sessions with the routing systems in the Miami office in others. 

“Think we can get a case study out of this when we’re all done, Dar?” Don asked, as he clasped his hands around his knees.

Dar gave him a sideways look.

“How about you keynote our next tech convention?”

**

“One more stop.” Kerry stood up as the train lurched into motion.  “Ready, dad?”

“Right with you, Kerry.” Andrew stood behind her, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder.  They waited for the train to stop, then were the first ones out of the door, dodging the rest of the travelers as they reached the steps and headed up them two at a time.

It was loud and bustling under the ground, and Kerry got through the exit turnstiles yearning for a sight of the open sky again.  She evaded crashing into two men rushing for the entrance and got to the steps to outside, running up them and emerging into the open air.

It was gritty and dusty, but there was no time to worry about a mask as Kerry broke into a run towards the exchange.  The jolting of her own footsteps sent shocks up and down her side, but she ignored them and focused on the gothic front of the now familiar building a short distance away.

There were people clustered in front of the main entrance.  She saw police there, and military.   The streets were blocked off.

Men were yelling.  There were two people being held by their arms.   

“Kerry, that does not look good.” Andrew was keeping pace with her.  “Gonna be a fight.”

It was.  Kerry could see it. She glanced at her watch and knew they had no time for it.  Twenty after nine.

A policeman spotted them running, and pointed.   Two military men reacted, and started forward.    Kerry took it all in a series of vivid impressions.  She realized she had no time to make a decision; her forward moment was taking her towards the main steps as fast as she could run.

Soldiers ran towards them.  “You.. have a card you can show them dad?”  Kerry felt her breath coming shorter, and the pain made flashes of black and red on the backs of her eyeballs.

“Lord.” Andrew didn’t sound happy.

Kerry prepared to haul up as they were intercepted, when a motion caught her eye and she looked down the street to the back entrance, spotting a cluster of suited figures shuffling from a set of black cars.

One moment. One view. Instantly, Kerry changed course. “Dad, hold em off. “ She called back as she bolted down the side street. 

“Lord.” Andrew dug in his pockets for his identification as he came to a halt in front of the military men. “Whoa there, fellas, Hang on.”

Kerry kept going. She ducked between two wrecked cars, her boots tossing up puffs of ash dust as she powered along the sidewalk towards the group of people.    The guards at the top of the steps spotted her and turned, and the group on the steps turned to see what was going on.

“Watch it! Stop her!” One of guards yelled. A policeman standing nearby lunged at Kerry, but missed her as she ducked past.  “Hey! Stop! Stop!”  

The guards pulled their guns off their shoulders, one hopping over the railing and falling to the ground with a grunt as he tried to get in between this oncoming threat and the people on the steps. “Stop!”

“Kerrison!”  Cynthia Stuart blurted in surprise, as Kerry closed on them. “What on earth!” She pushed to the front of the crowd. “Wait, stop. That’s my daughter!”

The guards hesitated, just long enough for Kerry to slide past them and get to her mother’s side.  “Wait… ma’am!”

“Mother.” Kerry got hold of Cynthia’s arm. “I have to get inside. There’s no time to explain.”  She uttered. “Trust me, please.”

Cynthia stared at her for a long heartbeat as their eyes met.  Then she blinked. “Well, of course.” She said. “We must go.  Excuse us gentlemen. Sorry for this disturbance I’m sure Kerrison just didn’t want to be late for the opening.”

Nine twenty five.  Kerry barely held her impatience as they filed in the door among the group of senators, most of them looking at her with varying levels of surprise and distaste.

No time.  Kerry broke from them the minute they cleared the inner door, past the guards, past the security in black jackets, past the secret service stationed carefully long the walls. She dodged a set of outstretched hands and went down a hallway, hearing yells behind her.

Ignoring them.   Down a set of stairs, around a corner, and she was in the lower level again.  Two doors down on the right, and she was throwing her shoulder against the surface as her hands turned the knob, almost falling inside.

Men inside. Startled, they turned, hands outstretched.

Kerry avoided them, her eyes focused on the setup in the corner, the one they’d left there, blinking quietly untouched.

Untouched. 

The men were yelling at her, but all she could hear was her heartbeat thundering as she dropped to the floor and slid the last few feet, her hands wrenching at the static wrapping around the module she’d brought.

Footsteps.  “Don’t touch me!” Kerry yelled in warning, as she felt people closing and her fingers felt cold steel instead of plastic. She got the optic out and shoved it into place, then grabbed for the patch cable as hands grabbed her.

Digging her boots in she leaned against the yanking, almost blacking out as a jolt of fire went through her chest.   “Ahhhh!!!!”

The pull relaxed, for an instant, just enough for her to fall forward on to the router and get the end of the cables into place, shoving them home with a set of soft, unremarkable clicks. 

So close to her eyes, she couldn’t make out the features.  For a moment, nothing happened.

“What the hell is that crazy woman doing?’

Then a soft, green light came on.  It lit her face up, and as she blinked sweat out of her eyes, she swore she could almost taste the green on the back of her tongue.

“Leave her be.” Andrew’s voice cut in, loud and uncompromising. “Let her loose for I rip your damn arms off and choke you with me.”

Nine twenty seven.

Kerry felt the grip come off her, and she rolled over to sit on the floor, legs splayed, breathing hard, flashes of red in her vision timed with her heartbeat.  There were three men in the room aside from Andrew, and they were in logo’d shirts and pressed chinos.

“It’s that crazy lady.” The tech who’d been in the room when she’d gotten hurt blurted. “What in the hell are you doing?”

Kerry licked her lips. “Finishing what we started.”  She got to her knees, and then had to stop. 

Andrew came over and held his hands out. “Here.” He took her hands and lifted her up.  “You done now?  This thing working?”

Kerry turned to look at the router, which was now flashing with a lot of activity lights on the front. “Something’s going through. Whether it works or not ‘s in Dar’s hands now.”

“Wait.. are you saying you’re fixing this thing after all?” One of the other men stepped up. “They told us you weren’t.  Some guy came in here and said…  there was an FBI agent here asking questions, said they were.. that you…”

The tech was looking at something on his screen. ‘Well, something’s happening because all of a sudden this stuff’s trying to work.” He said. “So if those guys are going to arrest these people they probably should wait a few minutes.”

“I should call them.. “ The man hesitated. “But if you’re fixing it…”

Kerry held her hand up. “Spare me the details.” She said, exhausted. “We’re doing what we can.”  She turned to Andrew. “Let’s go find my mother again.  She’s going to kill me for using her like I just did.”

“Wait, you can’t leave.” The supervisor started to block the door, then found himself against the wall, pushed there by Andrew’s big fist.  “Okay. Maybe you can.”

“Smart feller.” Andrew opened the door and guided Kerry out. 

**

“LINK!!!!!”  Shaun bawled, shocking everyone in the silence that had fallen as the minutes ticked away to nothing.  “LINK!!! We got a link!!!!!!!”

Dar felt like a bucket of cold water had been dumped on her head. She took a steadying breath and then dove into the console session, seeing the port come active and quickly surge with a stream of traffic.

Many streams of traffic.  Dar threw a flow filter in place to sort it, searching for the largest ones first.   She clipped and pasted into a notepad file as she found them, her mind registering the networks involved.  She dialed her cell phone and put it into speaker mode. “Mark, you there?”

“Here boss.” Mark answered the phone. “We got data?”

“We got.” Dar rattled the keys. “Get ready for a set of IP’s, see if we‘ve got gateways.  I’m setting up the interfaces.”

“Dar, we’ve only got like two minutes.”

“You’re wasting them.” Dar concentrated fully on the screen, blocking out the distractions of the room, and the men watching, the heat, and the pressing of the ticking clock against her shoulder blades.

“Okay ready.” Mark answered, in a chastened tone.

Dar quietly uttered a set of addressing. “That’s going to be interfaces zero one, zero two and zero three.”

“Got it. They’re starting the speech up there.”  Mark answered. “Got gateways.”

“Clear the ACL’s for it.”

“Done.”

‘Bringing the interfaces up.” Dar muttered.  “Ready for the next set?”

“Ready.”

**

The buzz of voices was almost overwhelming. Kerry emerged onto the gallery, pausing in the entrance and looking around to see if she could spot her mother.

On the floor below, the kiosks and stands were filled with traders, the atmosphere frenetic and with an air of almost desperation to it.   She spotted her mother on the far side of the gallery, and then, on the other side, she saw a group of men clustered tightly within the confines of heavy security.

Alastair was there.  Outwardly as calm and composed as ever, seeming to ignore the presence of the security agents spaced around where he was standing.

“Kerr…y.”

Kerry turned to find her mother approaching. She walked forward to meet her, Andrew right at her heels.  “Sorry, mother.” She said, as they met. “I had to get something done.”

“Good grief!” Cynthia whispered. “What on earth are you involved in?  Someone just told me the FBI has your company under investigation? What’s going on?”

Kerry held a hand up. “Give it five minutes, mom.” She said. “Then I’ll explain everything.”

Cynthia looked at her, and then glanced at Andrew. “Oh. Hello, Commander.”

“Lo.” Andrew responded.

“Well.” She turned back to Kerry. “I’m sure there must be an explanation. This is all so.. “ She fell silent as the speaker went to the gavel across from them, and rapped for attention. “But I agree. Let’s see this through, then we can discuss it.”

They moved to the rail to listen.  Kerry rested her hands on it, so tired it was hard to concentrate on what was going on. 

Hard to stand there, and not know what was going on at the other end of the cable. No way was she going to call Dar, and break her concentration, or cause any second’s more delay in what had become the worst of her worst nightmare of a circumstance.

She could feel Andrew behind her, and her mother came to stand at her side, the other senators and dignitaries clustering around them.

“May I now have two minutes of silence.”  The speaker said and bowed his head.

It went absolutely silent. The only sound was the air conditioning and the soft squeak of a chair moving, somewhere in the distance.

An American flag fluttered lightly in the fan breeze, rustling against the stonewall.

Kerry kept her head up, and she let her eyes slowly scan the crowd, watching the traders below, heads dutifully bowed but anxiety for the trade showing in the shifting of shoulders and clenching of fists.

On her level, the dignitaries all were standing in solemn silence, the men with hands clasped before them, and heads bent, the women mostly clasping their hands just over their hearts, some with lips moving in silent prayer.

Behind the pedestal, a group of firemen in their turnout coats waited, too tired to pray.

Kerry turned her head a little and found her gaze caught by a pair of gray ones in the cluster of business suits to one side of the podium. Alastair cocked his head just slightly in question, and she managed a tired grin in response.

What was he thinking?

One more minute. Kerry looked down at her hands, rubbing her thumb across a scrape she didn’t remember getting that stung as she touched it.  

One more minute.

**

“Sixty seconds, boss.” 

Dar barely heard him.  She focused completely on the screen, instinct driving her typing more than conscious thought.   Flows and errors flashed in front of her, and she forgot where she was, and who was watching.

Focus.

She typed, and exported, and filtered and watched results as she fought to make the data streaming into her monitor go where she wanted it to go, alerts and warnings flashing by so fast they hardly registered.

“Forty seconds.”

Routing. Rerouting. Redistributing directions from the machine under her hands to the big routers sitting quietly in the first floor of the Miami office, which Dar would have teleported to if she could have.

Protocols stuttered and skewed, probably affecting traffic across the breadth of their network.  Dar didn’t have time to worry about it.

“Thirty seconds.”

 Too much data, trying to get to too many places, all of it critical.  Dar muttered under her breath as she recycled the router for the nth time, and waited for it to boot.  “Cross your fingers.”

“Got everything including my eyebrows crossed.” Mark said, nervously. “Twenty seconds.”

They waited.  Dar gazed at the blinking cursor as the boot screen scrolled across her laptop, checking ROMS and ASICS in a process that seemed glacially slow.

“Ten seconds.”

Router prompt. Dar rattled in a command, reviewed the results.

“Five seconds.”

Another command, and a refresh. Then five keystrokes and a slamming of her enter key so loud it startled everyone watching.

**

Ding, ding, ding.   The fireman released the striker, and let his hand fall, as a burst of noise suddenly exploded through the tall space.

Chattering.  People’s voices.  Traders. The rattle of printers.

An LED sign burst into action, spewing out ticker symbols.

Everyone clapped.

Kerry felt her hands start to shake on the ledge, feeling lightheaded.  Anxiously, she searched the crowd, but the traders had gone to work and blocked out their watchers, busy at kiosks, busy in clusters, busy at terminals, busy at the business of making money.

Completely anticlimactic.   Like nothing was wrong at all.

“All right, now Kerry.” Her mother turned to her.  “What is all this about?”

“Excuse me.” Alastair’s voice intruded, now close by.

Kerry turned and faced him. “Hi.” She started to take a breath, then paused as she was enfolded in a heartfelt hug by her ultimate boss.  She could feel the catch in his breathing, and felt the sting of tears in her own eyes, and it was all just so crazy and stupid.

She blinked a little .”We couldn’t let it go.” She whispered. “We just couldn’t.”

“Meant a lot more than you think it did.” Alastair uttered back.  “Tell you all later.”

“McLean?”

Alastair released her, and they turned to find the vice president there, with several of his retinue.  “Well, hello Dick.”  Alastair’s voice was calm, but it’s usual amiable tone held a distinct edge.  “Nice moment there, with the fireman.”

“Beautiful. “The politician responded, aware of all the watching and listening ears.  “Real testament to the resiliency of the American spirit.”  He said. “Can’t keep us down.”

“Absolutely.” Alastair agreed. “I couldn’t agree more.”

The vice president turned and put his hands on the ledge.  “Everything’s in good working order I see.” He studied the busy floor. “As it should be.”

“Why yes, it appears that it is.”  The ILS CEO said. “As you say,  you just can’t keep us down.”

The politician turned back to him, eyeing him sharply.  The he straightened up and fixed his tie, notching it a bit closer to his neck.  “Glad to see everyone pulled together to make it happen. “ He dismissed them. “Excuse me.” He moved past them and joined some of the senators standing nearby, trying to catch his attention.

Alastair and Kerry both exhaled at the same time.   Then Kerry leaned back against the wall, as her knees started to shake.  “Wow.”  She said, and then fell silent.

Cynthia cleared her throat.  “Is… everything all right?” She asked.   “I’m sorry, is it.. “ She peered at Alastair.  “Mr. McLean? I believe I have seen you on the business news.”

“Ah. Yes.” Alastair nodded. “You must be Kerry’s mother.” He held hand out. “It’s good to meet you.” 

Kerry let it all go past her.  “I need to go make a phone call.” She finally said. “Excuse me.” 

Alastair took her arm gently. “I think we all have to make that same phone call.” He said. “Senator Stuart, would you care to come with us? I’m sure you have some questions about all this.”

“Absolutely.” Cynthia looked around to where her colleagues were clustering around the vice president, and the press. “I’d be glad to.  Let’s go, this way.  It’s shorter, and I believe, with less people.”

“Damn good idea.” Andrew finally spoke up.  “Bet you got one of them limo cars outside there too.”

“Well, yes, actually… it’s shared but..”

“S’allright, we’ll just borrow it.”   Andrew said, firmly.  “Excuse us.”

Kerry let herself be guided to the stairs, completely spent and wanting nothing more than a chair, her partner, and a drink; too tired to even feel triumph or satisfaction at a job well done. 

**

Concluded in Part 24