By the time they climbed down the forward staircase and approached the dining room, it was well into twilight and the air conditioning had finally started making inroads into cooling the ship down. Dar felt comfortable in her short sleeved shirt and jeans, and after their improbably shared shower she felt refreshed and ready to take on the night.
Trotting along beside her. Kerry appeared to have recovered her energy as well and was in a good frame of mind as they crossed the threshold and entered the dining hall. Instead of jeans, she’d chosen a pair of carpenter’s pants complete with a hammer loop that Dar found almost too cute for words.
A buzz of sound made them both look up, and they realized they were joining a larger crowd than anticipated, in surroundings that almost upheld the ship’s tarnished glamour.
Dar slowed, and looked around, mildly surprised. The huge room was in better condition than she’d expected, its ceiling reaching up through two decks and the back wall entirely made of glass windows that showed a nice view of the receding Port of Miami behind them.
The carpet was new, apparently freshly installed, and the tables were covered with linen and neatly set with silverware. Along the back side of the room a large buffet line had been set up, and behind that the caterers were busy setting up to serve the food they’d brought with them.
The room was filling up with crew, most of them fairly young, all of them dressed casually and the atmosphere was relaxed and far more friendly than it had been up until now. They had been treated with courtesy while they were onboard, but the crew had made it obvious that they were encroaching on their space.
The ILS staff were in small clusters, mingling warily with the crew and attracting the attention of the women especially. Dar nudged Kerry as Mark was surrounded by a pair of blonds and brunette. “Think we should rescue him?”
Kerry chuckled. They started walking towards the small group, but then they were spotted and the ILS team started heading towards them at the same time.
It was interesting. Kerry watched the eyes of the crew follow the techs, detecting a touch of envy there. In a way, she could almost see a parallel between the two groups – like the ship employees, her techs had their own hierarchy and like the officers of the ship, her team looked to their leadership for direction, protection, and reassurance.
The big difference of course was that the ship’s senior officers were all men. She and Dar were decidedly all women.
“Everyone get settled all right?” Dar stopped on the last step down into the hall, waiting as all the techs gathered around her.
“Yeah, pretty much.” Mark answered for them. “It’s pretty cool. We all got windows.” He sounded agreeably surprised. “But man, those bathrooms are tiny! If you had your family with you, showers would freaking take all morning.”
Dar looked at him, and cocked an eyebrow. She glanced at Kerry, who studiously gazed off into the distance. “Ahem. Right.” She cleared her throat.
“Anyway, it’s all cool.” Mark assured her.
“Good.” Dar put her hands on her hips. “Here’s the plan.” She said. “Everyone get a good dinner, relax, and then we start distribution.”
“We’ve got everything lined up in the lobby.” Mark agreed.
They turned to see Kerry’s old friend Talley standing there. He coughed and blinked self deprecatingly. “It’s the atrium. We don’t have a lobby.” He explained. “We don’t have bathrooms, we have heads, and we don’t have rooms, they’re cabins or quarters.”
Some of the crew had drifted over, and were listening.
“Okay, the atrium.” Mark amiably corrected himself, then returned his attention to Dar. “We unboxed everything before we went and changed.”
“Um.. excuse me.” Talley interrupted again. “Can I ask a question?”
Dar leveled her gaze at him. “Sure. Shoot.” She said. “But if you want to have a jargon contest, I’m willing to bet I can beat you at it, especially since I grew up on a Navy base and know more names for the gear on one of these damn things than you have short hairs.”
Talley blinked at her. “Uh.”
“You had a question?” Dar pressed him, raising both eyebrows meaningfully.
“Dar.” Kerry bumped her gently. “What is it, Talley? Dar’s just grumpy because she hasn’t been fed.” She ignored the outraged look from her partner.
Encouraged, Talley turned to her instead. “What is all that stuff for?” He asked. “It looks like a CompUSA warehouse in there.”
Kerry laughed softly. “Well, it’s for you.” She said. “It’s new computers for the ship.”
The crew glanced at each other. “For real?” One of the women asked. “Even at reception? We’ve used manual manifests for twenty years. You’re saying we’re getting one of those too?”
Kerry nodded. “That’s what they asked for.” She said. “A lot of things will change.”
“Wow.” Talley murmured.
A clatter of footsteps behind them made Dar turn, to see the ship’s officers entering the hall. Unsurprisingly, her father was accompanying them, with Ceci strolling along beside him with a very droll expression on her face. “Hi.” Dar issued a general greeting as they stopped on the top landing with them.
The captain paused, regarding her briefly before producing a thin lipped smile. “Ms. Roberts, good evening.” He replied. “I see you have kept your end of the bargain.”
Dar glanced at the food line, and the rapidly being set up bar, and half shrugged. “It’s not the Waldorf, but it beats McNuggets.” She ignored the glare from the staff captain. “Shall we?”
The captain gestured towards the buffet graciously. “Please.” He said. “You have met my officers, I take it? Some of them, anyway?” His eyes fell on the staff captain, and a faintly amused twinkle entered them. “And you also know, I believe, ah..” He glanced at Andrew. “Commander..”
“Oh yeah, we’ve met.” Dar drawled.
“Heh.” Her father snickered. “Yeap. A few times.”
Ceci rolled her eyes. “Obvious who genetically contributed to that sense of humor.” She observed. “Can we eat now? I hear cole slaw calling my name.”
They walked down the steps and into the room. The crew quickly separated to let the officers proceed unhindered, but as they approached the food line, several of them shyly joined up again. “Sir, may we take your plates?” One asked the captain respectfully.
“Certainly.” The captain nodded. “We will be using that table, there.” He pointed to one a little aside, with conspicuously finer service on it. “Please have a bottle of red wine, and a bottle of vodka taken there.”
“Sir.” The man who had spoken ducked his head, then turned and walked purposefully towards the bar.
Mark approached Dar. “Uh… boss?”
“Don’t you even think about it.” Dar thrust her thumb over her shoulder. “Get in line, all of you.”
The techs scuttled over obediently, muffling grins as they joined the growing string of bodies waiting to hit the chow.
Kerry craned her neck, then turned to Mark. “Tell you what.. I’ll grab your roast beef if you find a couple of bottles of Corona.” She offered. “Deal?”
“Deal.” Mark headed off towards the bar, with a grin.
“We brought on a case.” Dar eyed her partner.
“Not taking any chances.” Kerry put her hands behind her back and rocked up and down on her heels a little. “I know at least our part of this crowd.”
“Mm.” The line started moving, as the captain finished perusing his choices, and Dar ran her eyes over the buffet critically. Given the short notice, the caterers had actually done pretty well. Besides the roast beef, they’d gotten hold of a roast pig, several turkey breasts that were being carved, some legs of lamb, what looked like pans of broiled white fish of some kind, pans of lasagna, some miscellaneous parmagiana, and tubs of assorted vegetables.
There were also mashed potatoes. Dar licked her lips in satisfaction, and nodded. She was hungry, and she knew Kerry was also, since neither of them had brought along any protein bars to snack on and they’d just used up quite a bit of energy with each other.
“My goddess, is that asparagus?” Ceci remarked. “Honestly I thought I was going to have to troll for seaweed.”
Kerry chuckled. “Mom.”
“Well, I did. I’ve been on ships visiting where they thought meatballs were a vegetable because they had chopped parsley in them.”
“I see lots of vegetables.” Kerry observed. “Look – there’s carrots.” She looked again. “Or maybe they’re sweet potatoes.”
“Long as they aren’t barbequed pig livers.” Her mother in law sniffed. “So, are you feeling better now?”
Kerry took a plate and handed one to Ceci, Dar having similarly equipped herself and Andrew. “Huh? Oh..” She cleared her throat. “Yeah, I had a chance to relax for a while up in our cabin.” She virtuously placed a piece of bright green broccoli on her plate. “Sorry I was so grumpy before.”
“I’ve got Mark’s beef.” Dar turned her head to advise Kerry. She had two plates, and was dexterously juggling them while adding items, something Kerry wouldn’t have dreamed of trying.
“Okay. Thanks.” Kerry bumped her gently with one shoulder. “Careful.”
Dar chuckled and continued her balancing act.
Ceci piled her own plate with flora. “Well, to be perfectly honest, Kerry, if I’d found out I’d been lugging hundreds of pounds of gear up a set of metal stairs when there was a perfectly good elevator to ride instead, grumpy would have been the least of what I’d been.”
Mildly vindicated, Kerry merely grunted, as she served herself a little of everything, saving space for a few grape tomatoes before she followed Dar towards a nearby table. She took a seat next to her partner, who neatly delivered Mark’s plate in front of him before she settled gracefully into her chair, setting her own plate down at the same time.
Ceci sat down next to Andrew, eyeing his plateful of meat and potatoes with wry resignation. “Thought they had peas.”
“Ah do believe they did.” Her husband allowed. “Did you want some of them?”
Ceci sliced off a bit of asparagus and bit into it. Of all the differences she had with Andy, this one usually caused the most need for workarounds in their daily lives. In the years he was in the Navy, she really hadn’t had to worry about it since he ate in the mess, or was aboard ship, and she pretty much was left to her own vegetarian devices and could cook as she wished.
So, of course, she’d been chagrined when her daughter, who after all had more experience eating her cooking than the Navy’s, turned out to hate vegetables just as much as her father did.
Genetic? Ceci seriously doubted it, but there were two plates on the table, pretty much identically laden and neither her husband nor her child had ever seemed to suffer physically because of it. Kerry, on the other hand, was much more vegetable friendly and in fact she kept cutting off bits of her flora and depositing it on Dar’s plate when Dar wasn’t looking.
Dar, of course, carefully navigated around the intruding bits of color. Ceci could have told Kerry that was a lost cause, since she’d tried it along with every other trick she could come up with. However, she noticed Kerry kept at it, and eventually Dar ate one of the chunks just to get it out of her way.
Maybe she just hadn’t tried hard enough. Ah well.
The boat moved gently under them, and slowly the line cleared the buffet and the low rumble of conversation started up around the room. The bar was getting good action, and everyone seemed happy with the food selection.
Some of the ILS techs had mixed in with the crew, and Ceci watched the reactions as the two very different groups mixed. Given their ages were pretty close, she figured they’d be able to find something to talk about, especially since though the crew had been on the ship for a while, they weren’t quite seafarers in the sense that Andy’s shipmates had been.
They were still a little civ. “Hey, Andy?”
“Yes, ma’am?” Her husband peered at her.
“We should go on a cruise.”
One grizzled eyebrow rose. “We live on a boat.” He said. “Ya’ll want to go o a bigger one?”
“Mm.” Ceci nodded. “One of those huge floating monstrosities where they put mints on your pillow and you can play golf on the top deck.”
Well, maybe not. Ceci went back to her vegetables. Or maybe she could find one where they’d let you fish off the fantail. Andy’d like that.
Now that everyone was seated, the captain stood up at his place and tapped his knife against his water glass. The room quieted, and all eyes went to him. “I am glad we have this opportunity to enjoy a good meal together.” He said. “You all have been working very hard, and it is good that we have seen progress, and that we have an evening free of the sound of jackhammers, yes?”
The crew clapped immediately, but said nothing.
“So get a good rest tonight. Our guests will be unfortunately working, but I am thinking they do not make as much noise as the metalworkers, is this not true?” The captain looked at Dar.
Dar was glad she’d just taken a sip of beer to clear her mouth out. She swallowed it quickly. “We can make noise if we have to.” She said. “But we generally don’t.”
“Excellent.” The captain turned around. “And let us hope the government finishes their investigation quickly, as we cannot return to port until they do.” He sniffed. “How ever long that will take. So enjoy this meal as best you can.”
Dar blinked, and looked at Kerry.
The captain sat down, and picked up his wine glass, sipping from it with a calm expression.
Ceci scratched her jaw. “I hope I didn’t just throw us into a bad Flying Dutchman nightmare.”
“Yikes.” Kerry covered her eyes. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Wall.” Andy continued plowing his way through his dinner. “Ain’t life just one little kick ass after t’other.”
Wasn’t it just? Dar almost started laughing. Wasn’t it just.
Kerry leaned against the granite fountain in the center of the atrium, checking off items on her clipboard. It was very quiet around her, since it was well after midnight and her team was all out delivering gear to various parts of the ship.
She could hear the faint slap of water against the outside of the hull, and she could feel the motion under her legs, but the silence around her otherwise leant a timelessness to the moment.
The ship creaked, a little. Metal plates under long strain from holding back the water protested the surge of the waves, an old woman of the sea indeed very apparent to Kerry as she stood in her solitude.
The crew had vanished after dinner. To their quarters, or to some other place on the ship, she figured, someplace they weren’t welcome. Which was fine with her, since they had a lot of work to accomplish and it was much easier without everyone underfoot.
And yet, the emptiness gave the ship a ghostly quality she wasn’t entirely comfortable with. Another creak made her look quickly around, and then she mentally slapped herself for being over-imaginative. “Okay.” She spoke aloud. “So that takes care of all the pc’s. Now we have the POS systems to do. Right?”
Kerry jumped, unable to stop herself in time even though her ears readily recognized the voice. “Yow.”
Dar sauntered down the central steps, brushing her hands off against her dust besmirched jeans. “We are talking.”
“Ah.” Kerry put a neat check on her checklist. “Got the satellite going, huh?”
“Yeap.” Dar seemed very satisfied with herself. “Took some persuasion, but we got it going. They’re surfing the web up there.”
“Oh really.” Kerry said. “Bet that’s a new experience for them.”
“Mm.” The dark haired woman leaned against the marble column next to Kerry. “It’s slower than hell, but it’s something.” She peered at Kerry’s list. “Not bad… all the pc’s out there?”
“Hm.” Dar pulled out her PDA and keyed it on, watching as it’s wireless card picked up the signal from one of the devices she’d installed. She started her analyzer and observed the results. “Servers are up.”
“Finally.” Kerry groused. “Have I mentioned lately how much I hate picky whiny server OS’s?”
“I hate picky whiny server OS’s.”
“Can’t you write a better one?” Kerry asked, tucking her clipboard under her arm and giving Dar an inquiring look.
Dar’s eyes opened up wide. “ME?” She asked. “I haven’t finished writing your network security robot yet.” She bumped Kerry with her shoulder. “Why don’t you write one?”
“Uh uh.” Kerry thumped her back against the column. “I’ll stick to messing with your gopher, thanks.”
Kerry looked at her. “You know what I mean.”
“I do.” Dar agreed. “But anyone else around probably doesn’t.”
Kerry peered around the vast emptiness of the atrium. “There’s no one here. But even if there was, I bet no one would ever question me about your gopher, Dar.”
Dar snickered again.
Slowly, Dar slid down to the ground, snickers evolving into almost silly giggles.
Kerry only hoped the tech team wouldn’t come back for their next assignment for a few minutes. She slid down next to her partner and stuck her legs out, tapping her pen against her thigh as she waited patiently. “Dar.”
“Ahh. Sorry.” Dar stifled a last chuckle. “It’s just too damn late.”
After midnight, in fact. Way too damn late. Kerry slid over and pressed her shoulder against Dar’s. “Want to stop for tonight? We can put out the POS systems tomorrow.”
It was very tempting. Dar was tired. She knew Kerry was tired, and she suspected the rest of the crew was equally tired though none of them would admit it in front of their bosses. Could they risk waiting? They didn’t know when the ship was coming back in, and while they were out here, they had the advantage.
But it was also true that the later they worked, the more tired they’d be, and the more mistakes they’d make. Now that all the computers were delivered, really the major part of the work was done and the delivery of the dumb POS terminals could be performed early in the morning, couldn’t it?
Dar gazed at the dark sky visible in the windows on either side of her. She acknowledged silently that her decision was being influenced by her own desire to break off, but as she looked up and saw the first of the techs coming back, weary and dust covered, she bowed to her gut inclination and gave Kerry a brief, decisive nod. “Let’s can it.”
“I love you.” Kerry rested her cheek against Dar’s shoulder. “Have I told you that lately?”
If she needed an exclamation point to that decision, well, she’d gotten it. Dar clasped her hands together and rubbed a bit of adhesive off her index finger as she waited for the crew to finish trudging up to them. “Time to take a break, folks.”
Mutely delighted eyes fastened on her. The crew looked exhausted, and to top it off the ship had started moving a lot more, pitching a little and rolling from side to side. More than a few faces were a touch green. “Boss, those are magic words.” Mark said. “But hey, we got a ton of stuff done tonight. All that’s left is to dump those things out there and run them up.”
Dar nodded. “Right. So we do that in the morning.” She said. “Go and get some rest.”
“Everyone did a great job.” Kerry added. “You guys are superstars.”
Their eyes brightened, despite the late hour. “IT was pretty cool.” Carlos said. “Especially with everybody out of our way.. man, I was tired of tripping all over those guys with the welders.”
“Yeah.” Several nearby techs agreed. “We should work at night all the time.”
“Hey!” Mark objected. “Speak for yourself, dude! Some of us have a life!”
Everyone started chuckle. Dar got up and extended her hand down to Kerry, hauling her up as well. “I don’t know what the story’s going to be tomorrow, if we’re going back in, or what. So let’s meet here at nine, and play it by ear.”
“You got it, DR.” Mark was covered in IT grunge and dust. “Man, I wouldn’t care if that bed were a plank, I’d sleep on it right now.”
The group dispersed, heading off towards their assigned cabins. Dar and Kerry strolled along behind them, taking their time in mounting the stairs and climbing up to the level where their relatively palatial digs were located.
“Wonder where your folks were all night?” Kerry commented, as she nudged the door open and they went inside. “I didn’t see them after dinner.”
“Maybe they went to bed.” Dar suggested.
“They went to sleep that early?” Kerry seemed skeptical.
“I didn’t say that.”
Kerry turned from where she was peering out the closed balcony door. “Oh, this is one of those ‘think of that and go blind’ things, isn’t it?” She slid the door open and walked outside, surprised at the force of the wind. “Whoa.”
Dar joined her, the balmy night air now tasting only of sea salt and a whiff of diesel. As they leaned on the balcony, the moon came out and painted a stripe across the tossing waves, showing up whitecaps as the ship ploughed through them. “Hm.”
“Rough.” Kerry noted, grabbing hold of the rail as the ship pitched sideways. “Dar, you didn’t..”
“In my bag.” Dar said. “You feeling it?”
“No.” The blond woman said. “Just a precaution. The one time I got really seasick was on the Staten Island Ferry.”
Dar looked at her. “You’re kidding.”
Kerry shook her head solemnly. “Calm day, barely any waves, Statue of Liberty in the background, me sick as a dog over the railing. Pathetic.”
Dar chuckled. “Figures.” She poked Kerry and pointed back inside. “C’mon. View from our aft deck’s better, and it’s hot out here.” She herded her partner back inside, where the air conditioning had grudgingly reduced the humidity and provided a relatively comfortable temperature for sleeping.
Around them, on this upper deck, they could really hear the creaking. Kerry listened for a moment as the ship rolled and groaned, and then she turned to Dar. “Is this thing going to fall apart? It sure sounds like it.”
Dar peeled her t-shirt off, examining the stripe where her sleeve had been. “Nah.” She turned the shirt inside out, and then folded it neatly, setting it to one side. “It’ll last… at least another night or two.” She removed her jeans and did the same thing to them, rolling her socks up in a ball an setting them on top of the folded clothing. “Now.”
“Now.” Kerry had been leaning back enjoying the show. “Shower?”
“Mmhm.” Dar extended her hand. “Get the duds off, Yankee. Been a long day.”
Yes, it had. Kerry agreed, pulling off her shirt. But now it was over.
Dar winked at her.
Well, almost over. Kerry shed her jeans and joined her partner at the door to the incredibly small bathroom. “If the ship rolls over, does the shower go sideways?”
Dar turned on the shower and pulled her inside.
“Just a question.”
She was riding a horse. Kerry could feel the motion under her, and the exhilaration rush of wind against her face. She was sitting in the front of a big, strangely crude saddle with the security of a warm body behind her and a strong arm looped around her middle.
A long, long road stretched out before her, seemingly without any end she could see, and on either side, a beautiful forest spread out with no signs of human habitation.
It was beautiful.
She was filled with a simple happiness that wanted nothing else but the warm sunshine and the two sets of laughter rising up into it.
Then the horse bucked.
Kerry’s eyes popped open, dragged from a sunny day into pitch blackness with whiplash suddenness. The ship moved violently under her again, and tossed her up off the bed and back onto it. “Dar?” She yelped.
“Yes.” Dar sounded tolerably awake.
Kerry grabbed hold of the edge of the bed as the ship tilted alarmingly to the right. “Is this normal?”
For an answer, Dar wrapped one long arm around her and a leg for good measure, pulling her closer. “Well, it’s open water.”
The creaking had grown quite ominous, and they could hear thunder rolling outside. The pitch of the vessel had become pronounced, and the cabin was moving sharply from side to side as the ship rolled in the waves.
“Ah.” Kerry swallowed audibly.
Dar lifted her head and peered through the darkness. “You okay?”
“Uh, sure.” Kerry said, inhaling sharply as the ship tilted to one side again.
“Sure about that?”
Her partner swallowed again. “Well, possibly not.”
“Hang on.” Dar carefully disentangled herself from both the bedclothes and Kerry’s grip and eased off the bed, grabbing hold of the bathroom doorlatch as she was almost pitched right back down next to the blond woman. “Whoa!”
“Woah.” Kerry repeated in a subdubded voice. She clamped her jaws shut after that, and tried not to think about how her stomach felt.
Dar hit the light switch. Nothing happened. She hit it again, then in a fit of unreasoning technical mindlessness, flipped it back and forth rapidly. “God damn it.”
“Mmph.” Kerry wasn’t inclined to add anything useful. She was just glad that if the lights weren’t working, at least the AC still was. The thought of the room being clammy and warm and… “Ohgodthatwasstupid.”
Dar felt along the wall until she found the desk, cursing as she almost tripped over her backpack, fallen to the floor in the pitching. “Ouch.”
Dar dropped to her knees and unlatched the pack, yelping as a rolling motion knocked her offbalance and sent her tumbling across the carpet to land near the bed. “Son of ..” With a growl, she crawled back and grabbed the pack, sitting down on the rug with her legs sprawled out.
That seemed to solve the motion problem for the moment. Dar untied the top flap and dug inside the bag, yelping a little as she poked herself with a pair of diagonal cutters. “Damn dykes.”
Silence. Then Kerry cleared her throat. “What did we do now?’
“Not us.” Dar dug further, and discovered a small vial. With a satisfied grunt, she drew it out.
“You have some other damn dykes in your backpack? Wow.”
“Hah, hah.” Dar scooted over to the bedside and reached out, searching for Kerry’s hand. “I have something for you.” She blinked as warm fingers curled around her wrist, a little startling in the darkness despite her knowing how close Kerry was to her. “Think you can swallow a pill?”
“Gimme a minute.” Kerry muttered.
Dar waited, pressing her back against the bed and grabbing hold of the frame as the ship moved up and down again.
Kerry made a small groaning noise.
“Easy.” Dar grimaced in sympathy. She’d been relatively lucky so far in life with her experiences of seasickness, but the few times she’d suffered from it had convinced her never to travel with out medication for it. “Ready?”
Dar frowned. “Need some water?” She felt the grip on her wrist tighten, and Kerry’s forehead came to rest against her shoulder. “Hon, if you can get this down, it’ll help. I promise.”
Kerry merely stayed there for a moment, then she exhaled, warming Dar’s skin. “Move.”
“You’re not going to throw up.”
Dar grabbed the bottle of water and got up onto the bed, hauling Kerry up to a sitting position mostly by feel. “Breathe.” She felt her partner’s body jerk, and she steeled herself to deal with being thrown up on, but Kerry’s jaws locked shut and she could feel the tension in the muscles of them as she laid her hand along her cheek. “It’s okay. Just do what you need to do, Ker.”
For a long set of pitching rolls, Kerry just stayed where she was. Then the ship settled a little, and as it did, she straightened up. “I think you got ten seconds.” She inhaled sharply. “But don’t hold me to that.”
Dar felt out Kerry’s lips, and put the seasickness pill against them, feeling them part as Kerry trustingly accepted it. Then she applied the squirt nozzle of her water bottle to the same place, and squeezed gently. “Incoming.”
Kerry made a somewhat strangling noise, making Dar wince and close her eyes, despite the darkness. Then she heard the sound of over-exaggerated swallowing. “Please.” Dar addressed the ship. “Stay fucking still, okay?”
“Gurph.” Kerry protested faintly.
“Not you.” Her partner growled. “This godforsaken piece of rusted metal held together with duct tape and old piss we’re floating in.”
A shudder went through the vessel. Dar growled again, almost as though a battle of wills was being conducted.
Kerry reasoned the thought alone was ridiculous.
But the ship, as many had before, bowed to Dar’s will and cruised along peacefully for a time, until Kerry finally relaxed and slumped against Dar’s body. “Ugh.”
Dar stroked her arm gently, leaning back and easing Kerry with her until they were both half reclining. Wind blew rain against the balcony doors, startling them, but the ship’s course remained, at least for now, relatively steady. “Hmph.”
Kerry wasn’t ready to unlock her jaws just yet. The queasy feeling, though it had subsided, was out there on the fringes and threatening to recur at any moment. Throwing up now would not only be extremely yucky, it would also eject the medicine Dar had given her and if there were two things she didn’t want to do, those were them.
Dar seemed to sense that. She shifted her grip and gave Kerry a comforting light rub on her belly. “Just take nice, deep breaths.”
Kerry tried a few. “You’ve gone through this before?” She guessed. “I can’t believe it.”
“Mm. A few times.” Dar admitted. “First time I took the Dixie out was one of them, matter of fact. That damn thing’s a bitch to drive when you’re tossing your cookies, let me tell ya.”
Kerry chuckled faintly. “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.” She accused.
“Yes, you are.”
Kerry could barely see the outline of Dar’s face in the dim light from the window, but her imagination filled in the angles and planes without effort. “Yes.” She let her head rest against Dar’s collarbone. “Oh, that sucked.”
“What time is it?” Kerry asked. “Were we sleeping long? I didn’t think it was raining before we went to bed.”
“It wasn’t.” Dar confirmed, reaching over and picking up her cell phone. It showed no signal, which she expected, but also provided her with a clock. “Four am.”
“Ugh.” Kerry winced. “Two hours. No wonder I feel like something a cow stepped on.”
Dar wondered if the ship was going to begin pitching again. Being out here in the dark, not knowing where they were heading didn’t exactly make her comfortable and the fact that parts of the ship seemed to not be working well made it all the worse. “Wonder what the deal with the lights is.”
“AC’s on.” Kerry commented.
“Hm. Yeah.” Dar felt the ship roll a bit, and she glanced at Kerry. In the faint light, she could see the pale lashes fluttering a little, but her partner’s body remained relaxed. Not surprising, since the industrial strength pill she’d given her usually knocked Dar out in fairly short order. “Doing okay?”
“Uh huh.” Kerry closed her eyes. The sick feeling seemed to be receding further, and she was getting sleepy again. The ship started to move, but the motion was slower and less violent now, and rather than make her queasy, it seemed to be relaxing her.
Dar cradled Kerry against her, finding a smile somewhere as Kerry snuggled up willingly. She let her fingers comb through the disheveled blond hair and knew a moment of ridiculous contentment despite the circumstances.
Thunder cracked outside. As though in signal, the ship started pitching again, but one quick look confirmed that Kerry was now safely asleep and oblivious to it. Dar braced her bare feet against the wall and the bedframe to keep them in place and hoped sincerely the damn captain was steering them out of the storm instead of into it.
It was still dark, it was still raining, and it was still rocking like a hammock when Kerry woke again, in a fuzzy disorientation that had her blinking her eyes a few times before she could make them focus on the gray shadows surrounding her.
How long had she been asleep? Beneath her ear, she could hear Dar’s heartbeat, steady and even and she remained still so she wouldn’t wake her partner up. After a few seconds staring at the inside of the cabin, she let her eyes close again and tried to compose herself back to sleep.
Problem was, now she could hear all the creaking around her again. Outside the cabin in the hall, she could also detect the sounds of someone moving around, crashing against the walls as the ship moved restlessly in the waves.
Despite the size of the ship, it felt very fragile, it’s bones screaming and complaining as the sea pressed in on all sides.
Paradoxally, however, here in the loose circle of Dar’s arms Kerry felt completely safe, regardless of the ominous clatter around her. The ship could fall apart, she mused, and as long as she and Dar were together she was sure they’d come through it just fine.
How did she know that? Kerry didn’t really understand how, but she knew at some deep level that it was true. She’d known it since they’d been trapped in that hospital together, when Dar had brought them both out from under the collapsed wall refusing to allow mere concrete and metal to stop her.
At the time, she’d been stunned and overwhelmed, in pain and a state of high anxiety over what was going to happen to them as well as what might have happened to their friends and family. But one thing she hadn’t been was afraid though she hadn’t realized that until much later.
Kerry listened to the noise in the hallways, a muffled drone slowly resolving itself into a pair of voices, male ones, obviously upset. One had a heavy accent, and she couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, but the other had a clearer, sharper tone.
“Bloody bastard, I’m not hiding you no more!” The voice said. “No wonder you had to shut the bitch up.. she probly got sick of you as I am!”
Kerry’s eyes opened. She glanced up at Dar, to find the faint glitter of her partner’s eyes looking back at her. “You hear that?”
“Shaudup.” The other voice growled. “Put you inna trunk and toss you over.”
Kerry’s nostrils flared. “Oh no.” She whispered.
“We’re in a bad television movie.”
Dar chuckled soundlessly. “Probably drunk.” She uttered softly.
A loud crack made them both jump, then something impacted against the outside of their door, followed by the sound of a violent scuffle.
They both sighed simultaneously. “Excuse me.” Dar disentangled herself and got out of bed, heading for the door as she pulled her t-shirt somewhat decorously around her. She slapped at the light on her way, grunting when it stubbornly refused to produce anything but a sodden click.
Kerry hesitated, then scrambled out from the sheets and followed, getting behind Dar as she yanked the cabin door open and glared out into the dimly lit corridor.
Two figures were struggling, having swung across the hall and slammed into the door across from them. Far down the corridor, there was a sound of a second door opening as well.
“Hey!” Dar let out a bark. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
The two men stopped fighting, and turned, staring at her. “What are you doing here?” The smaller of the two demanding. “What are you doing on this ship? Get out!” He advanced on her. He was burly, and had had a rough, scraggly beard along with an un-pretty face.
Dar straightened to her full height, easily eight or nine inches over his, and braced her arms on the doorframe, not backing down an inch. “Buddy, if you know what’s good for you, just stop.” She warned him. “Who the hell are you, and what are *you* doing up here?”
The other man stayed back in the shadows, wiping a sleeve across his mouth, but saying nothing.
The men turned at the sound of the captain’s voice. He was standing at the end of the corridor, near an almost hidden panel half obstructed by his body. “Captain.” The smaller man backed off, and half ducked his head. “I found these women here!”
Kerry was now peeking out from behind Dar. Her eyes fell on the other man, who was starting to edge his way back down the corridor. Something familiar in his profile caught her attention, and she leaned forward a little, sliding her arm across Dar’s back to keep her balance.
He was taller than his companion, and thinner, but he had an air of general seediness that reminded her of the backwater carnival workers she’d occasionally see when the church yearly fundraiser was on up in Michigan.
Which reminded her of something she hadn’t thought about in years.
The man caught her looking at him, and scowled, ducking his head and heading off at a more rapid pace, half shielding his face with one arm despite the darkness making him nearly invisible anyway. Kerry watched him go with a very thoughtful expression.
“You did not find anything here but trouble, Estavan. Please go to your quarters, or take yourself down to the engine room where you belong. Do not bother our guests, or myself with your noise any longer.” The captain stated firmly.
“Go.” The captain let his voice raise slightly.
“Aye.” The man turned and trudged off after his erstwhile adversary, disappearing into the darkness as he turned the corner.
The captain glanced at them. “My apologies. He is my senior engineer, and has been on this ship a very long time. He does not like strangeness and changes.” He turned to go back through the portal. Then he paused, and turned, peering back at them curiously. “They did not assign your private quarters?”
Dar looked him right in the eye. “We don’t need them.”
Surprisingly, he merely sniffed, and nodded. “Very well. Good night.”
“Captain.” Kerry spoke up. “Are they lights not working for any particular reason?”
The captain reached out and flipped a switch in the hallway, apparently surprised when nothing happened. He flipped the switch a few times, much as Dar had done earlier, then grunted and shook his head. “I will find out. They are functional where the officer’s quarters are.” He turned and disappeared through the portal, which closed behind him with a definite snick.
There was a sign on the door, but it was too far for them to read and too dark in any case. Crew only, Dar suspected. With a sigh, she glanced down at Kerry’s head, which was tucked under her arm. “Bed?”
“What, and miss all the excitement around here?” Kerry asked in a whimsical tone. “Dar, did you see that other guy?” She pulled back as Dar turned, and they shut the door, leaving the darkened hallway behind them. “The one he was fighting with?”
“No, not really.” Dar said. “I was too worried the little skunk in front of me might start grabbing.”
“Hm.” Kerry latched on to the back of Dar’s shirt and followed her back to bed. “Yeah, he looked stupid enough.. scary considering he’s the ship’s engineer.”
“Explains a lot.” Dar muttered.
They collapsed into the mussed bedclothes again and sorted themselves, the sheets and the pillows out. Dar stretched her body out and rolled half onto her side, as Kerry did the same, both of them facing towards the balcony windows. Dar wrapped an arm around Kerry’s middle and they put their heads down at roughly the same time.
It was briefly quiet, and the sound of rain lashing against the window sounded very loud.
“That guy’s bothering me.” Kerry spoke up suddenly.
“That other guy. I’ve seen him before, and I’m trying to remember where.” The blond woman explained.
“Um.. not to be a smartass, but maybe it was here on this ship we’ve been working on for days?” Dar suggested. “Chances are, you’ve seen him, Ker.”
“Mm.. yeah, I know.. but..” Kerry exhaled. “He was acting really funny.. sneaking away like that when he saw me looking at him.”
“Sneaking?” Dar asked. “Did he really?”
“Yeah. He put his hand over his face and walked off.”
Now, that was a little strange. “Well.” Dar mused. “Maybe he buys into that ‘looking at gay people causes blindness’ theory.”
“Dar.” Kerry snickered. “But yeah, you’re probably right. I probably saw him on here.. maybe down in the loading bay.” She settled down, enjoying the warmth of Dar’s body tucked up behind her. “Or on the dock. But what do you think they were talking about?”
Dar shrugged. “Sounded like they were just talking bs to me.” She admitted candidly. “Guys do that.”
“Girls do it too.” Kerry agreed. “Yeah, maybe.” She pondered further. “The captain didn’t seem whacked out at all about us.”
Kerry turned her head and peered at her partner. “Does that mean I need to send my gaydar back into Sears for retuning AGAIN?” She asked. “Jesus, I feel so clueless sometimes.”
“No.” Dar gave her a little squeeze. “It’s just that I think it’s more accepted on these kind of ships than maybe what we’re used to. I saw some of the guys up near the bridge having a little party when I was working on the sat dish.”
“I looked at them, they looked at me, we all sort of went, yeah..” Dar lifted her hand and waggled it.
“I get the picture.” Kerry in fact did, and it made her smile. Gay women and gay men were so different at so many levels, sometimes. She’d talked to some of the people at their church about that, and found to her bemusement she often knew less about other gay people than she’d imagined. “Oh well. It’ll come to me.” She finally decided. “Where I’ve seen him.”
“Uh huh.” Dar pulled her a little closer. “After all this, I’m gonna be toast tomorrow.”
Finally, it really was quiet. Even the rain found something else to hit other than their windows.
Morning found them out at sea, with gray skys surrounding them and the water a sullen dark blue. Dar leaned on the balcony railing and looked down, noting the whitecaps ruffling the surface and the forbidding appearance of a world she usually found so welcoming.
Maybe seeing it from a higher perspective did that. When they were on the Dixie, the surface of the water was mere feet away, and she always felt far more a part of it than she did now, towering so far above.
The sound of the cabin door closing behind her made her turn, and she leaned on her elbows as Kerry crossed the interior and emerged on the balcony next to her, carrying two steaming cups. “Ah.” Dar observed. “You found coffee.”
“I found coffee.” Kerry handed her one. “I found the crew mess, actually. It was pretty empty.” She peered at the sky. “So much for that sailors rise at dawn thing.”
Dar chuckled, sipping cautiously at the beverage. It wasn’t good, and it wasn’t bad, the mediocre norm of bland hotel coffee, but it was hot and caffeinated, and that really was what counted. “It was probably quite a party last night. Did you happen to bump into the caterers?”
Kerry joined her at the rail, the wind ruffling her blond hair. “Matter of fact I did. They’re slightly freaking.”
“I told them to just try to reuse the stuff they brought as much as they can, and put out little buffets for our folks at least. But I hope this doesn’t last long.”
“Me too.” Dar agreed. “I just want the whole damn thing to be over.”
Kerry studied her over the rim of her coffee cup. “You really do, don’t you?”
Kerry slowly took a sip and swallowed it. “Know what I want?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Dar gave a half shake of her head. “What?”
“Nothing.” Kerry leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the lips. “I have everything I need right here.”
“Aw.” A charmed smile appeared on Dar’s face. “You say the nicest things to me.” She returned the kiss, easing back to look into Kerry’s eyes and finding the most pleasant mix of passion and affection there. “So.”
“So.” Kerry recalled the time with some regret. “Guess we better go get our job done, huh?” She let her hand rest against Dar’s hip. “Get those POS machines out, then we can certify the system.”
“And after that…”
“After that, it just is what it is.” Kerry finished for her. “C’mon.”
They left their cabin together, and walked down the empty hallway, seeing no one until they were halfway down the stairwell where they bumped into Mark. “Morning.” Dar greeted him. “Sleep okay?”
Mark stifled a yawn. “I’m not a great sailor.” He admitted. “Man, I’m freaking lucky I ran into your dad last night boss. He fixed me up.”
“Hm.” Kerry dropped down the steps two at a time. “Must be a family trait.”
Several other techs came out of the hallway on the next landing and joined them heading down. Most still looked tired, a few still looked a little green around the edges. The ship wasn’t moving nearly as badly as it had been the night before, but there was still a perceptible rocking and everyone held on to the handrails with the exception of Dar.
They entered the atrium, which appeared to be as they’d left it, boxes neatly stacked near the walls and machines lined up in rows awaiting deployment. A few of the boxes had tumbled across the floor during the night, but otherwise everything seemed undamaged.
“All right.” Mark cracked his knuckles. “Let’s check out the plan, dudes.” He walked over to where a blueprint had been tacked up on one side of the elevator stack, which was still taped off and out of service. The print had deck plans of the ship along it’s length, and there were blue and red dots to indicate where the equipment went.
Dar drew Kerry to one side and they listened quietly, allowing Mark to do his job without interference. Kerry looked around, noting the lack of crew. “It’s so quiet.” She whispered.
Dar nodded in agreement. “Not much for them to do I guess.” She uttered, then paused as Talley appeared from behind the front desk and headed their way. She nudged Kerry, who turned and spotted him. “Here comes your buddy.”
“My buddy?” Kerry gave her a poke. “Hi.” She greeted Talley.
“Hi.” The young man gave her a brief smile. “Did you guys hear the news?’
Uh oh. “No.. what’s up?” Kerry asked. “Don’t’ tell me we’re being hijacked to Cuba. If we are, I’m swimming home.”
That got a smile from Talley. “No.. they cleared the port. We’re headed back.” He glanced at the techs. “So if you guys need to finish stuff, you probably better do it fast. From what I hear, the builders are on the docks waiting to jump on soon as we tie up.”
Dar frankly didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. “Short vacation for you all, I guess.” She commented.
Talley snorted. “It’s all a big crock anyway.” He said. “We all know the truth. Soon as Quest finishes with his scamming, they’re going to scuttle her, and we’ll all be dumped somewhere. So give me a break.”
Dar and Kerry exchanged startled glances. “You know that for sure?” Dar asked. “He’s putting a lot of money into these ships.”
Talley stared at her. “You’re joking right?” He asked. “You don’t think he’s laid a dime out yet, do you? Everything’s contingent on all you people finishing. He hasn’t risked a cent.. and he won’t!” The man put his hands on his hips. “He’s just playing you people to the hilt, and you all fell for it.”
Kerry was aware of some of the techs listening surreptitiously. “Don’t sell us short.” She looked directly at him. “You don’t’ think we haven’t thought about that?”
Talley looked around, then at her. His expression was plainly skeptical.
“Maybe we’re playing him.” Kerry suggested. “Maybe we’re using this project to advertise ourselves to the real ship companies who are watching… ever think of that?”
‘Besides.” Dar interjected. “Think about it.. what if he’s looking to get these hunks of junk bought by one of those real ship companies… you might want to clean up your acts.”
Talley looked warily at them. “They won’t touch her.” He indicated the ship. “She’ll end up in a scrap heap. We all know it.”
Dar shrugged. “You don’t know it until it happens.” She shook her head. “So I wouldn’t try to sink her yet.”
The man stiffened, looking around quickly before he stared intently at Dar. “Where did you hear that?” He hissed. “Did they tell your old man? Those…” The sound of a door slamming filtered into the atrium, causing Talley to turn and look. With a last glance at Dar, he headed towards the sound, breaking into a trot as he disappeared behind the front desk again.
“What in the hell..” Kerry blurted. “Dar, did you he..” She stopped, her lips stilled by Dar’s fingertips.
“I heard it.” Dar murmured. “Stay here. Let’s get this damn equipment out. I’ll go find Dad and see if he’s got any idea what’s really going on.”
Kerry frowned, a protest bubbling up. Dar cocked an eyebrow at her, and she squinted, triggering a rakish grin from her partner in return. “Okay.” She reluctantly agreed. “But if you’re gone more than fifteen minutes, I’m coming after you.”
Dar ruffled her hair. “Deal.” She pushed away from the staircase and headed towards the front of the ship, reasoning the bridge would be a good place to start looking for both her father and the truth.
Kerry watched her disappear, and then she turned her attention back to the group of techs. They all were carefully looking ahead, not at her, but she knew at least some of them would have heard Talley’s conversation.
She reviewed their response, and decided it wasn’t something to worry about at the moment. Or at least, it was something to worry about, but it had to take it’s rightful place after the other things she had to worry about.
“Boss, you got anything to add?” Mark asked. “We’re gonna start on the bottom floor and work up for a change.”
“Sounds good to me.” Kerry moved towards the lines of equipment. “Don’t know if you all heard, but we’re headed back into port, and we’ve got to really get moving with this stuff. I want to certify it before we tie the ship up.”
The techs started moving faster, a buzz of noise arising as they reacted to Kerry’s statement. “Man, that’s sorta too bad.” Carlos said. “Those guys on the ship were gonna invite us to a party tonight.”
Kerry eyed him. “They were?”
Carlos nodded. “Yeah.. they got a bar downstairs.” He explained. “That’s where they all went last night.” He picked up one of the POS systems, then appeared at a loss as to how to juggle it’s attendant printer and assorted cables.
Kerry resolved the problem for him by picking them up. “C’mon.” She said. “There’s sixty of these things. If we go in pairs, it’s only four trips for each team, and we’re done.” She started towards the steps, glancing at the chart on the way. “And see? You’ll get to see the crew’s bar anyway. That’s where we’re going.”
Carlos trotted after her, carrying his armful of POS station. They went to the stairs and started down, going past the last passenger floor and entering the crew spaces. It was still quiet, and their footsteps sounded very loud on the linoleum, Carlos’ sneakers even squeaking a little where Kerry’s hiking boots merely scuffed.
On either side of the wall, aged bulletin boards carried notices and announcements, and lining the inside of one long space was a map of the ship, marked off into cryptic zones. To either side, doors marched past, labeled with chipped and peeling name plates.
They continued on down the hall towards the front of the ship, going down another half staircase and then down a narrower corridor. Ahead of them was a steel, gray door without a nameplate that had a very worn handle and a chipped and scarred surface that had been painted over many, many times. “That it?” Kerry asked.
Carlos nodded. “They showed me last night.” He explained. “So I could find it again. They seemed pretty nice about it.” He added. “We got to talking about computers and stuff.”
Of course. Kerry tucked the printer under her arm and reached out to grasp the door handle, turning it and pulling the door open. She stood back to let Carlos enter, then realized the room was occupied. She followed him inside and looked around, spotting perhaps twenty crewmen in various states of repose around the room, all of them turning to look at them. “Hi.”
Two men were at the pool table. They straightened and turned, looking her over brazenly. One of the men sitting on a threadbare couch near the wall whistled.
Oh boy. Kerry continued across the room towards the small bar. Her shoulderblades itched, feeling the eyes on her and she was glad she’d put on a relatively staid blue t-shirt instead of anything more revealing.
Carlos put the POS system down and went behind the bar, oblivious to the men around them as he searched for a place to plug it in while Kerry concentrated on connecting the receipt printer. She removed a small screwdriver from her back pocket and connected the cables, aware of some motion around her and the fact that several people were coming closer.
Carlos looked up. “Oh, hey.” He remarked casually. “So how are you guys? Did you have a good party last night?”
One of the men slipped onto the barstool next to where Kerry was standing. “You shoulda come.” He answered. “And brung your lady friend here. Hey honey, what’s your name?”
Kerry didn’t even look up. “Eleanor Roosevelt.” She finished tightening the screws on the cable.
“Sokay if I call you El?” The man didn’t miss a beat.
“Hey, chill out man. That’s my boss.” Carlos protested. “Don’t talk like that.”
“You work for a woman?” The man laughed, and his friends joined in.
“Sure.” Carlos responded, cheerfully unruffled.
The man leaned on the counter, and tried to get Kerry’s attention. “Hey, can I buy you a drink? C’mon, look up beautiful.” He tapped on the surface, right next to Kerry’s arm.
Kerry obliged, straightening up. The man sitting next to her was around her age, with short, cropped dark hair and honey colored eyes. He wasn’t unattractive, and there was a brazen sensuality about him that she suspected some women might be attracted to. “Thanks.” She tried the polite route first. “But I really don’t drink anything but orange juice before dinner.”
The two pool players came closer, leaning on their sticks. None of them seemed threatening, but they were definitely interested in her. Kerry accepted the flattery of the notion, but she didn’t much care for the assumption that she’d welcome it.
Belatedly, Carlos seemed to realize things were sliding into the uncool zone. He stepped around the bar and came to Kerry’s side, a little unsure of what to do next.
“We’ve got some orange juice.” The man said. “We’ll just add a little something to it.. how about it? We can get the music going here, start the party early.”
“Sounds good to me.” One of the pool players said.
“Well, not to us.” Kerry added a touch of firmness to her tone. “We’ve got work to do. So, have fun with your party, gentlemen.” She pocketed her screwdriver and started to move away from the bar. “C’mon, Carlos.” She was suddenly aware that the room had no windows, and only the one door visible, and the walls seemed to close in on her as more bodies started to move her way.
“Yes, ma’am.” Carlos stepped back out of her way and turned to follow Kerry.
“Pussy.” The man at the bar laughed.
“Hey, c’mon.. what’s the rush?” The brazen pool player moved to get in Kerry’s way. “We’ve got time before we hit port.. and I like my ladies a little on the spicy side.”
“Really?” Kerry didn’t even stop to think. She planted her left leg and half turned, whipping her right up in a roundhouse kick that took the pool cue out of his hands and sent it clattering to the ground.
“Hey!” The man yelped, and lifted his now empty fingers. “What the hell!”
The man came off the barstool. Kerry lifted her hands up into a defensive posture, curling her fingers into fists.
“Dudes, you should like back off.” Carlos advised them. “She’s like a black belt kickboxer.”
Kerry’s brows jerked up.
The men looked at Carlos, who looked back at them with devastating earnestness. “No shit.” He added. “She’s got like a hundred trophies.”
Kerry almost laughed, biting the inside of her lip as the men backed off a little, watching her warily. She relaxed her pose and started towards the door again, this time unimpeded. “Gentlemen. Have a nice day.” She called back over her shoulder, as she opened the door and saw the blessed light of the empty corridor ahead of her.
Carlos followed her out and pushed the door shut behind them. “Was that okay?” He asked. “I didn’t know those guys were such ass..er..”
Kerry stopped and turned, putting her hands on her hips and regarding him with mildly twinkling green eyes. ‘Trophies?”
He shrugged sheepishly.
“C’mon.” Kerry turned and headed for the stairs up. “Dar has trophies, y’know.” She made a mental note to find something nice to do for the unexpectedly resourceful Carlos.
“And she really is a black belt. I’m just a blue.”
“Yeah.” Kerry got to the top of the steps and continued up the hallway. Her knees were shaking, and she made a mental note to warn the other female techs to watch out for trouble. The ship chose that moment to roll to one side, and she was caught offbalance, her shoulder smacking into the wall as the floor pitched under her.
Carlos hit the paneling next to her, and they hung on, waiting for the ship to steady and right itself. Kerry became suddenly aware of the fact they were below the waterline, and just as suddenly, she wondered where Dar was.
A low rumble sounded, along with the hooting of horns.
She could see a flashing light down the corridor. The ship was still listing. “Carlos?”
Kerry grabbed his arm, and started for the stairs.