Winds of Change

Part 12

The sun was just thinking about peeking over the horizon as Dar was closing the door to her truck, clicking the lock on the door before she shouldered her backpack and started for the building.

Hers was the first car in the lot, as she'd expected it would be, and she paused at the front of the walk just to look up and regard the sign on the wall for a moment.

Her face scrunched up into an unapologetic grin. Then she shook herself a little and continued up the path towards the door, reaching into her jeans pocket for the hard key as she walked. A bird started warbling in one of the olive trees on either side of the walk, and she pursed her lips and warbled back, the sound fading off as she came around the last bend and saw the figure crouched on the front porch.

Ah. Nice way to start the day.” Dar muttered under her breath, as the figure heard her boots on the path and straightned up a little in his wheelchair. “Morning.” She said, in a normal tone as she climbed the few steps up to where he was seated.

He blinked at her, bruises evident on his face, one hand wrapped in a makeshift bandage. “That other lady coming?”

Dar put her backpack down on the small wrought iron table and sat down on one of the little chairs next to him. “If you mean my partner Kerry, she's taking our puppy for his checkup at the vets.” She answered. “Something I can do for you instead?”

He avoided meeting her eyes. “I'll wait.”

Dar rested her elbows on the chair arms, glad she had a hoodie on when the chill of the metal transferred even through the cloth. She laced her fingers together and studied him from the corner of her eyes, knowing a moment of unexpected compassion for him. “Your buddy came to see us last night. He was trying to sell all of you as a package.”

Yeah, I know.”

That your idea?” Dar kept her voice light and mild. “That's not how civ works, generally.”

He peeked up at her briefly, then looked away. “Wasn't my idea. I showed Joe the jobs. He thought maybe it would be good for all of us.” He shrugged. “Told him you all'd say no way.”

We did.” Dar acknowledged. “He said it was all or nothing... he change his mind or did you?”

The disabled man stared dourly at his hands for a long moment. “Told him I was going to come back anyhow. No one else round here will even talk to any of us.”

He hit you for saying that?”

He looked up again, more sharply. “Nah, we just scrapped.” He said, this time keeping eye contact with her. “Not on your fucking sidewalk either.”

Dar smiled. “Thanks. I really do appreciate that.”

He looked away again, a flush rising up his neck up to his ears.

So. You here on the porch waiting to ask us for something particular?” Dar said, after a moment of silence. “Whatever it is you're going to ask Kerry for, she'll tell me before she answers anyway.”

The man studied her in silence. Dar sat there waiting, returning his gaze in mild neutrality.

He shifted in his wheelchair, his face old before it's time, lines of pain etched across it. He pulled out a folded piece of paper and offered it over to her. “Wanted to ask about this here.”

Dar unfolded the paper and studied it. “One of our tech support positions. Okay.” She said. “This something you do? You do that in the service?”

He shook his head. “Infantry.” He responded. “I did that before I went in. In high school. I was the guy who messed with all the computers, in the lab and all.” He shifted again. “I used to set up the machines from scratch, reload them after all the classes, you know?”

Yes, I do know.” Dar said. “You fix printers and that sort of thing too?”

He nodded. “I can take apart and fix a laser fuser.” He remarked. “And solder components, that stuff.”

Dar's eyebrows lifted a bit. “Why didn't you stick with that instead of the army?” She asked. “You can make a living with that. Or why not specialize in it? Army uses tech.”

He looked at her. “Went with my buddies. They all wanted to go into the army, and I went too. Stayed with them when we all got picked for grunts.” He scowled a little. “Guess you think that's stupid.”

Dar folded the paper and ran her fingers over the edges. “Not really, no.” She said. “I was a signature away from the Navy myself, mostly because my dad was in and I grew up on a base.” She cleared her throat. “So no, I dont' think that's stupid. But I bet you think so now.”

He flushed again. “Didn't think about coming back like this.” He indicated his lower body, one leg missing mid thigh and the other below the knee. His pants legs were drawn closed with twine, dirty and ragged. “Dead's one thing. This?”

No you don't think of that when you're going in. I saw people coming back with half their guts missing, and saw my dad hurt, and I still didn't think about it. When you're that young, you think you're invincible.”

She saw his neck muscles relax, and he straightened up, looking at her. “Yeah.” He studied her briefly. “What made ya back out?”

Dar smiled briefly. “They wouldn't let me get a berth where I wanted it and I wasn't going to settle for anything else.” She said, honestly. “I'm a hard ass that way, and always have been even back then.”

He considered that. “Ballsy.” He said. “You want intel or something?”

Special forces.” Her eyes twinkled a little at his reaction. “So I ended up doing technology instead. Worked out better for me in the long run.”

Fuck.” He snorted a little.

Dar pulled her Handspring out and studied it, then tapped out a message. “Are your friends going to be pissed off by you coming here to talk to us?” She glanced up at him.

For a moment he didn't answer, then he took a breath. “Yeah.”

That going to be a problem for you?”

For a very long moment he didn't answer, his eyes going past her and unfocused. Then he looked back up at her with his most straightforward, honest expression yet. “Don't care.”

She glanced down at the phone, as it's message light stuttered red. “Well, we'll try to make it worth the hassle then.” She looked back up at him. “Let's go inside.” She stood up and went to the door, keying in the alarm code and opening the door with her hard key.

For what?”

Dar's brows lifted and she held up the folded paper. “You want a job? I'll give you a try at one.”

He looked around with a stunned expression. “Dont you have to talk to that other lady?”

I did.” Dar held up the Handspring as she pushed the door open and held it. “C'mon Let's get the ground rules settled before everyone comes in and freaks out.”

He stared at her for a very long moment. “Sorry I was such a jackass then.” He said, as he swiveled the chair and started rollling in the door.

Dar smiled. “Takes one to know one.” She closed the door after them and indicated the right hand turn down the hallway “Let's go to the HR office. You can start filling out paperwork.”

You're really going to hire me?”




Ho boy.” Kerry tucked Mocha under her arm, and got the door open to her SUV. She put the puppy down on the seat and hopped inside, getting the door closed before Mocha could get any clever ideas in terms of jumping out. “C'mon, Mochie. Let's go to work and see what trouble mommy Dar's gotten into.”

Yap.” Mocha sat down on the passenger seat, his tongue hanging out.

It hadn't really surprised her in the slightest that her partner had hired their crippled veteran troublemaker. She had sensed a sympathy in Dar for the guy, and it had been she, herself, who had handed him the list of open positions. She was a little surprised though, that he'd showed up after the grandstanding play by his buddy last night.

She navigated the busy city streets carefully, not wanting to spill Mocha on the car floor with a sharp stop. They'd been the first ones at the vets, and Mocha had passed his exam with flying colors, happy to be the center of attention even when that center meant various things being stuck in him and in unpleasant places.

So now this new employee. It hadn't surprised her, but her mind had started to count up the issues she figured they would need to face which would start with, did this guy actually have a place to live?

Did he have a place to shower? Did he have clothes to wear to work? If he stayed around with his buddies, would he be reliable?

Was she being a little too WASPy about it?

Kerry pulled into the office lot and parked, sticking her sunglasses up in the visor and opening the door. “You hang on there, Mocha. I'll come get you.” She got out and shut the door, walking around to the passenger side as the puppy raced around inside, barking excitedly.

Relax!” She chuckled, as she got the other door open and collected the bouncing furball.

Hey Kerry!” Mark appeared at her side, two cups of coffee in his hands. “Crazy morning already huh?”

Kerry put Mocha down and looped his leash around her wrist. “You mean our new employee?” She grinned. “Hey I never argue with Dar's hiring.”

Mark chuckled too, as he walked alongside her up the path. “He kinda surprised me. He's got some skills.” He admitted. “I thought Dar was just being.. like she was humoring him. But he knows what end of a cable to plug in stuff.”

Dar sees things in people.” Kerry acknowledged. “Sometimes she sees things other people don't and sometimes she sees things the people she sees them in don't”

Mark grinned, as he pushed the door open for her with his elbow and stood aside to let her enter. “I had you pegged the second I saw your file.”

Kerry eyed him. “You did, did you?”

Mark nodded. “Yup.” He winked, and headed up the steps to his office.

Good morning, ma'am.” The receptionist greeted her. “Only one dog today?”

Only one. Chino was very upset I left her behind, but if she'd known we were going to the vet, I bet she would have laughed.” Kerry headed up the steps herself, carrying Mocha since his legs were still a little short to handle the stairs well. She got to the top and waved hello to Maria, then ducked through Mayte's office towards her and Dar's. “Hey Mayte.”

Good morning, Kerry.” Mayte grinned at her. “I have some messages for you, on your desk.”

Thank you!” Kerry went in and put Mocha down in the puppy playpen Dar had constructed, which had a plethora of toys and bones and a dish of water and one for kibble inside. “There you go, little man. Chill out for a while so I can get my phone calls done.”


Kerry paused in the middle of sitting down to look up and find Dar in the inner doorway. “Hey hon.”

Hey, beautiful.” Dar responded amiably. She came over to the play pen and leaned over to give Mocha a pat. “Our new employee is going through the typical orientation routine.” She commented. “His name's Scott Brewer, by the way.”

Kerry leaned back. “So how did that all come about?” She asked. “Did you know he was going to come back here?”

Dar stepped inside the playpen at Mocha's urgent, paw scrabbling request and sat down with the puppy. “He was on the porch when I got here.” She glanced up at Kerry. “Had one of your job requests on him. I wasn't expecting to see him there, but I wasn't surprised either.”

Isn't that going to piss off his obnoxious friend Joe?”

Dar nodded. “He said it was, but he didn't care. That's why I hired him. That and the fact he actually was his high school nerd with the projector, and knows how to dissassemble and reassemble a laser printer.” She grinned briefly. “Naturally he also brings complications.”

Of course.” Kerry agreed. “At least the tech support office is going to be on the first floor, though he can use the freight elevator.”

He wants to use the stairs.”

Both of Kerry's brows shot up. “Our liability insurance is going to skyrocket.”

Dar chuckled. “No kidding. If he looses his grip halfway up he's going to take out our reception desk on the way back down. I said I'd see what we could work out.” She gave Mocha one last scrubble and got up, stepping over the fencing. “Sorry buddy, gotta to back to my programming.”

Does he live at the halfway house, or under our hedges?” Kerry asked. “He kinda does need to come in with relatively clean clothes and all that Dar. Not fair to the rest of them otherwise.”

He has a room at the church house, but he doesn't like going there.” Dar came over and sat down on the bench behind Kerry, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. “He says maybe after some paychecks he can get his own place, but I had an idea.”

Of course you did.” Kerry reached out and gently ruffled her partner's dark hair.

I threw in a membership for that little gym around the corner.” Dar said. “It's got showers and all that. Told him until he got everything sorted out, he could go there in the morning, and get ready for work.”

Kerry thought about that, honestly impressed by the suggestion. “So it's not like charity.” She hazarded. “You could have offered to get him a place.”

Didn't want that.” Dar shook her head decisively. “He's tired of begging for handouts and getting the government runaround. He wants to try and make it himself.”

You like him.”

Dar smiled briefly. “I could have ended up just like him.”

No, never. Your parents would never have left you to live on the streets, Paladar Katherine Roberts.” Kerry put her fingertip on Dar's nose. “There is nothing in the world you can say that would make me believe that.”

When you met me, I could have been living on the streets and they would have never known.” Dar gently refuted her. “Don't color my childhood in rainbow snow cones, hon. There was a time, after we thought Dad was gone, that I was just as alone as this guy is, even more so since at least he thinks he has friends.”

Hm.” Kerry grunted softly after a long pause unable to refute that because she knew it was true.

So anyway.” Dar went on. “We'll have to put up with his ratty clothes until he gets his first paycheck. Mark checked him out and he says he'll be okay on the tech side.”

Good enough for me.”

Dar nodded, and glanced around before lowering her voice. “Now on another subject.”

Uh oh.”

A soft knock interrupted them. “Yes?” Kerry projected her voice towards the door. “C'mon in.”

Zoe poked her head in. “Miss Kerry, your ten am appointment is here.”

Kerry sighed. “Rats. Yeah. Can you get them a cup of coffee and give me five minutes?”

The junior admin nodded positively and backed out, closing the door behind her.

Kerry turned in her chair and scooted closer to Dar “So.”

Mark talked to his buddy today. They're on the verge of doing something idiotic.” Dar said, quietly. “I don't think they're going to call me.”

Good.” Kerry said, seriously.

Dar nodded. “But I feel for those guys. I don't think it would be a good idea to contact them.”

Good.” Kerry said, again, with a faint smile. “So far, we're in one hundred percent agreement.”

Here's the deal. You know that network forum I mess around in sometimes?” Dar asked. “The one where people post questions and all that crap?”

Kerry frowned. “No, I.. .oh. “ Then she nodded. “Yeah, you showed me that once. Nerdfest.”

Nerdfest.” Her partner agreed. “Everyone posts there, engineers, and nerds, and wannabe nerds, and trolls and interested onlooker.s I don't post often, and not under my real name, but every once in a while I throw a hat in.”

Ah. I am beginning to see the light.”

So I told Mark, if his buddy wanted to, post a few questions in that forum, and if I can answer them, I will. He doesn't have to give his name, and I don't, and he can make them general enough not to identify ILS.”

Kerry was silent for a moment, thinking. “Will it stay anonymous, though?” She asked. “Dar, I really think they'll use any excuse they can find no matter what it is to make you responsible for whatever bad's going on there.”

Now it was Dar's turn to be quiet for a bit. “I don't know.” She answered finally. “But it's the only way I can think of to give them help if they want it, without causing a riot.” She said. “I don't necessarily know who this guy is, and I do occasionally give answers on there.”

Kerry watched the planes of Dar's face shift, as she looked briefly away, then back at Kerry. “You really are a crusader, you know that?” She smiled, leaning forward to touch her head to her partner's. “Be careful, Dar.”

I will be. And anyway, the guy might not want to go that route. It's a risk for him too, maybe he just wants to wait it out and see what happens.”

That was true. “Okay.” Kerry patted Dar's knee. “But you might want to..”

Go through a proxy, so they can't track the IP back here?” Dar's eyes twinkled. “Good idea.”

They both laughed, then Dar got up and sauntered back to her office, turning to give Kerry a wink before she disappeared.

Kerry pressed the intercom button. “Zoe, please bring my visitor in.” She released the button and shook her head. “Crusader Dar. Boy did that woman nail her.”


All right Roberts.” Bridges voice sounded bemused. “So remember that conversation we had about smoke and mirrors?”

Dar leaned back in her chair. “I do.”

Senate Intelligence Committee wants to see this thing before we go any further with it.” The president's advisor said. “Now, understand this doesn't change anything between us and you. It's going forward regardless.”

Uh huh.”

But we have to show these mental midgets something so they'll shut their yaps up and go mess with something else, like voting themselves a raise.”

Dar pondered that. “When?”

Soon as you can.”

She sighed. “I can mock up a prototype by next week. That soon enough?”

There was a brief silence, then Bridges chuckled. “That'll do. Will it show them what they expect to see?”

Will they understand what I show them?” Dar countered. “I'll lay out for them how it's going to work, and what the agents on the other end will see when they make a query.”

No internet snooping? By the way.” Bridges said. “You nailed that with George.”

It'll be rough.” Dar warned. “Just command line. But it should be enough to give them an idea.”

Good.” He responded firmly. “Now, a completely different subject. Your old friends are screwing things up.”

Dar looked at her phone with a puzzled expression. “What?” She said. “Are they still making waves about the contract?”

Hell no. Something's screwed up over there, and things aren't working, according to what I hear from the Pentagon. Got a bunch of pissed off medal pushers out there yelling about it.”


Know anything?”

Dar drummed her fingers. “I had heard some vague rumors there was some kind of incident.” She answered carefully. “But I dont' know any details about it.”

They haven[t called you?”

No.” Dar said. “I don't expect them to.”


She smiled in reflex. “Last thign they want is to have to call me in to fix something.” She said. “Embarassing all the way around.”

Bridges cleared his throat. “Might not have a choice. If you catch my drift.”

Dar grimaced. “Don't do that. Not good for them, and not for me.”

No offense, Roberts, but we don't really care if it's good for you, or for them, because it's screwing up stuff for us.” Bridges said, bluntly. “Know what I mean?”

Dar sighed again. “Yeah.”

Anyway if you hear from them, grudgingly, might be because someone here told them to get their heads our of their asses and get some real help.” He said. “Or, alternatively, you might get a call from someone at that rockpile wanting you to take over the contracts.”

We're not setup for that.”

Well then, put on your big girl panties and get a move on getting set up.” He said. “Because this is serious stuff, Roberts. We don't have the time or people to be running around doing things the hard way because their crap isn't working. Got me?”

Yeah, I get it. But I hope they can straighten themselves out without my interference.” Dar said. “I dont really want to get back into that arena.”

Bridges grunted. “My gal will set up a time next week for your cat and donkey show. Stay by the phone. Answer it if it rings. Later.”

Dar released the line and exhaled. “Well, shit.” She half turned and looked out the window, where the sunset was splashing a deep gold light along the window. “This is going to be a huge pain in the ass.”

What's that, hon?” Kerry came in with Mocha in her arms. “You ready to go home?”

Dar told her the latest.


Yeah.” Dar got up and put her laptop into her backpack. “I'm going to concentrate on doing the mock up. ILS is going to have to let their chips fall as they may.”

You think Bridges will actually force them to call you?” Kerry already had her messenger bag over one shoulder. “Holy crap, you think they'd make them give us those contracts? Dar we can't handle that.”

I know.” Dar slung the pack onto her back. “I'm sure they won't end up doing that. It's far too intrusive, and proabably illegal.” She shut her desk lamp off, and bumped Kerry towards the door. “C'mon. I need to chill out. Mark said there's no sign of his buddy posting.”

They walked down the stairs, waving at the people still left working. Mark was standing in the lower hall, his helmet in his hand and he waited for them to reach the bottom.

Hey.” Kerry shifted Mocha to her other arm. “How's our new guy doing?” She asked, as they headed out the front door. “I think I got the HR people to stop freaking out about him.”

Not bad.” Mark said. “He's still back there, reading manuals.” He looked and sounded surprised. “Left field pick, boss. How'd you see any cells under all the grunge?”

Just a hunch.” Dar said. “His fast pass come through all right? Since we left him in that room?”

Oh, yeah sure.” Mark said. “Just waiting for his military records to come back, but his civilan stuff's okay, what there is of it. He went into the Army at like 18.” He tossed his helmet up and caught it. “Know what he told me? Said he was digging in that garbage container for manuals and crap, thought we would toss them with the boxes.”

You think that's true?” Kerry asked.

Mark shrugged. “He's in there reading manuals.” He said. “He said he knew we were a tech company, when he saw the deliveries.”

Well, that could be true enough.” Kerry admitted. “But I told Carlos to just keep an eye on things, because I don't want him bothering people.”

Yeah, he said.” Mark agreed. “My other guys are going in and talking to him too. I told them to give him some room, but make sure he knew the rules.”

Mark's cycle was parked next to Dar's truck, and Kerry's SUV was right behind that. So they paused and stood a momnet, watching the sun go down as the cool breeze rustled the leaves over their head. “Pretty night.” Mark commented.

Kerry got Mocha into her SUV and tossed her messenger bag in after him. “It is.” She said, turning around and leaning on the car door. “Mark, the problems at our old place are starting to affect customers we have in common.”

Mark paused, taking a seat on his bike sideways and regarding her. “Yeah?”

Dar opened her truck door and hopped up onto the seat. “Yeah. Apparently the Pentagon isn't happy with whatever's going on.”

Wow.” Mark put his helmet on his lap and rested his arms on it. “I tried to call Pete twice, but he's not answering his personal cell. Maybe because its me. Didn't want to get in any deeper.”

Dar sighed. “Wonder if I should call Alastair.” She mused.

I”m really kind of surprised he hasn't called you.” Kerry said. “Unless, like we suspect, he wants to keep you as far out of it as he can.”

Damn it, I don't want to get in the middle of this.” Dar exhaled. “At first it was just dumbass on their part. Now it's getting serious.”

Crazy they haven't gotten it fixed yet.” Mark said. “I just can't figure out what the hell they did, you know? I mean, even if the repository's tanked, we had hard copy of the configs in the files. Even if they restored a 30 day out copy, it would bring everything back. “

Unless he's determined to make it work his way.” Kerry said. “The new guy, I mean.”

They all stood there, thoughtfully, for a minute or two. Then Dar cleared her throat. “It won't work any other way.” She said. “The metrics.. they're all balanced based on the mesh of those routing protocols.”

Mark and Kerry stared at her.

Convergence, hop count – it's all predicated on using the protocol metrics I designed.” The dark haired woman added, folding her arms. “It's in the architecural diagrams and overview.”

And that thing you put in.” Kerry spoke up at last. “When we were getting hacked.”

Dar nodded. “It's a crude kind of artificial intelligence. Something like what I'm going to use for Bridges.”

Shit. I should tell Pete that.” Mark said. “They probably have no clue what all that is. Hell, I had no real clue of what all that was.”

I documented it.” Dar protested.

Sure, big D, you put all the words in there but how many people could understand them if they read them?” Mark asked, seriously. “You're like a little rocket scientest y'know?”

Ooh boy.” Kerry exhaled. “That's all proprietary and you probably are the only one who can fix it, aren't you?”

Dar spread her hands out. “They're ILS's patents!” She said. “They have all the paperwork on it.”

Yes, hon, but it's your name on those patents. I saw them.” Kerry said. “Actually, I kept a copy of them so you could look back at them sometime and chuckle.”

I'm not chuckling now.” Dar responded dourly.

No me either.” Kerry sighed. “You know, that's probably what happened. That jackass decided he wanted to put his stamp on the system and wanted your stuff taken out.” She gave Mark a shrewd look. “You think?”

Mark scrunched his face up. “Crap.”

Dar exhaled. “We're not going to solve it here in the parking lot.” She said. “Let's go home, Ker. Maybe I'll get a brainwave on the ferry.” She slid around in the seat and closed the door. “Maybe I will give Alastair a call. I'm really surprised he hasn't given me one. Maybe he walked out and doesn't know what's going on.”

Ugh.” Kerry got in her SUV with Mocha, who was scrambling all over putting tongue prints on everything.

Is it okay for me to tell Pete about that custom stuff?” Mark asked, as he straddled his bike. “I'll text him.”

Sure.” Dar started up the engine. “But if they really did take all that out, it probably won't help.”

Ugh.” Kerry put the SUV in reverse and started backing out of her spot. She caught motion in the corner of her eye and turned her head, to see a group of figures standing in the twilight on the road watching them. “Double ugh.” She glanced forward at Dar's pickup, seeing by the angle of her partner's head that she saw them too.

Yap.” Mocha sat down on the passenger seat.

Yap.” Kerry repeated, shaking her head. “Not going to be a good night, Mocha. I can just feel it.”


Dar exhaled, watching the screen refresh on her computer as she pondered again what to do. There'd been no answer on Alastair's cell, and her message hadn't been returned yet. Mark said, he hadn't gotten a response from his buddy, so she was left to drum her fingers on the desk, and listen to Kerry's stir frying from the kitchen nearby.

Well. She got up and circled the desk, going out into the living room and passing the big, new, double sized dog bed with it's snoozing occupants. “Ker?”

Yees?” Kerry half turned, briefly shifting her attention from her wok to her partner. “Nothing yet?”

Dar shook her head, and came over, peering over Kerry's shoulder at the stove. “Yum.”

Well, maybe they did figure it out.” Kerry went back to stir frying. “I sure hope so.”

Mm.” Dar moved aside her hair and kissed the back of her neck. “Me too.” She moved away and went to the cupboard, removing a pair of plates and setting them down on the counter. “What I don't want is them turning this around and blaming their screwup on my design.”

Kerry glanced at her, then back at the stove. “Could they do that?”

Dar added two glasses to the plates. “Well, it's unconventional.” She admitted. “But that was the whole point. I wanted to make something that set us apart from the rest of the pack.”

Hon, you did document all that.” Kerry said, as she added a pile of cooked rice noodles into the wok and tossed them with the rest of the ingredients. “It was part of the sales portfolio. I think if they want to bitch about it, they also have to go back and discount all the money they made selling your design.”

Yeah, I know.” Dar got a bottle of sparkling cranberry apple juice from the refrigerator and poured both glasses full. “But it can make for some really bad press right when I'm up on Capitol Hill showing off another unconventional design.”

Kerry sorted the stir fry out and divided it across both plates. “We've survived bad press.” She remarked. “We survived your vice president of global operations being exposed as your lover who threw her father to the wolves. On national television.”

Dar paused, then chuckled wryly. “Good point.”

C'mon, Dixiecup.” Kerry picked up the plates and carried them into the dining area, putting them down at the two places closest to one end of the table. “Just let it roll.”

Dar put the glasses down and took her seat on the short end of the table, while Kerry took the chair to her right. “Not much choice in the matter. Balls in their court right now.” She picked up her chopsticks and maneuvered them into the stir fry, which seemed to have shrimp and scallops in it, along with sauce covered vegetables of some kind.

Baby corns and bamboo shoots, Dar decided, munching on them. They both tasted more or less the same, with the sweet and spicy sauce on them. “This is really good.”

I'm glad you like it. I threw some different things in this time.” Kerry smiled. “They had fresh scallops at the market.”



Dar looked down, to find Mocha standing on his hind legs, his front paws scrabbling at her leg. “Excuse me, buddy. You got dinner already.” She tapped him on the top of his little dome shaped skull. “Get down.”

Chino came over, tail wagging. “Growf!”

Neither of you get any of this.” Dar said. “You'll be sick all over the tiles.”

How about a walk down the beach after dinner?” Kerry suggested. “It's nice out.”


And so they did, getting Mocha's little puppy harness on him, but letting Chino free as they walked across the garden and let themselves out the back gate, and down the rock lined path to the water.

It was a nice night. Dar looped the leash over her wrist and slowed her pace, gazing out at the dark Atlantic ahead of them. There were lights on the horizon – a cargo ship, maybe – and the sky overhead was brilliant with stars. They strolled along the beachfront in companionable silence, only the snuffling of the dogs and the soft hiss of the waves to be heard.

After a while, Kerry cleared her throat. “So, you saw those guys in the lot before we left?”

Yeah.” Dar agreed. “I don't think they made any trouble, or we'd have probably heard.”


They're so angry.” Kerry remarked, in a thougthful tone. “Isn't there anything the government can do for them?”

Dar exhaled, and walked along for a few paces. “You know, the problem is they don't like to showcase the fact that people who go into the military can come back in pieces. Either physically, or in their heads. Screws up recruitment.”

Kerry peered at her in some astonishment.

They want their funding to go to great new weapons, and sexy hardware.” Her partner continued. “Not paying medical bills. That's why it's so hard to get them to admit to being responsible for things like PTSD. It's also why they dont like to admit stuff like that happens, because watching a soldier break down in tears and not be able to shoot is embarassing to them, and, really bad for morale.”


Crappy. Sure.” Dar agreed. “But it's universal. Look at New York. All those people, those workers and first responders having health issues and absolutely no one wants to say it's because they were down there breathing asbestos and ground glass for months.”

Kerry thought about that for a few steps. “Your dad was so insistent we wear those masks.”

He knows.”

Kerry sighed. “Humanity sucks sometimes.”

So I think they could and probably are doing some things to help those guys.” Dar spoke up again. “But I think maybe it's not what they want to have done for them. Or not what they expect.” She clarified. “I think they want what they see everyone else have, a home, a car, a job.. whatever – but there's no way to get them from where they are to there.”

Long speech, for Dar. “So they come from having this job.. I mean, the military is like a job, right? You get paid, and you are valued for what you're doing, and they feed you and house you, then you come back here and...” She lifted a hand and let it fall. “It doesn't translate.”



I mean, there's the GI Bill, and programs like that.” Dar said. “But you go in and you're infantry, like those guys were. What do you do with that when you come back here? Even if they'll pay for you to go to college, you're' starting from scratch, and you still need to live when you're in school.”

Wow.” Kerry said, again. “I never thought about that.”

I saw that, when I was growing up.” Her partner admitted. “Me.. I always had skills.” She said, straightforwardly. “I knew that. I had a technical aptitude, and I was smart. For me, coming back woudn't have been that much of a problem. I could find a job.”

You started working when you were what.. fourteen?” Kerry said. “So I get that. I was talking to my mother once about you, and going into the Navy, and she was just puzzled as to why you'd have wanted to, since you were so smart.” She looped her arm with Dar's. “But maybe these guys didn't have any other options but either go into the military, or flip burgers?”

Maybe.” Dar said “But really, if you're skilled like I am, the military can be a good career. It's not a dead end, not for everyone.”

Like Gerry.”

Like Gerry. Or even my dad.”

Dar's Handspring rang, and she fished it out of her pocket. “Hey.” She said, after glancing at the caller ID. “What's up, Mark.”

Okay, so I'm here at Dave and Buster's with Pete.” Mark said. “I ducked outside to call you so the noise wouldn't kill the reception.”

If you're at Dave and Busters, is he celebrating? Everying squared away?”

Mark sighed. “I wish.” He said. “What a fucking mess. So, he met me here because he was afraid to even text me. The maniac over there told everyone if anyone leaked what went on they'd be fired, and then arrested.”

Not really possible, on being arrested.” Dar said.

No, I know, but you know?”

I know.”

Anyway, so, of the two hundred people in ops IT, a hundred and fifty quit.”

Dar's eyes popped wide open. “What?”

That's who's here at Dave and Busters. They all just walked out.” Mark said. “Its like old home week here – they saw me and went nuts.”

Holy shit.” Dar covered her eyes, then glanced at Kerry. “Most of the IT department at ILS Miami walked out.”

Jesus!” Kerry sucked in an audible breath.

Not only that.” Mark said. “The dipshit told everyone that this whole mess was your fault.”

Dar sighed. “That was expected.”

That's why people walked out.” Mark said, a smile evident in his voice. “My whole old gang just said fuck you and wrapped their creds around that guys neck and left.”

Wow.” Dar wasn't sure really what to say to that.

And, they booted out the big cheese.”


Yeup – told him to take a hike, and he said he was more than happy to.” Mark said. “That's why, I guess, he hasn't called ya.”

Holy shit.” Dar repeated. “What the hell are they going to do?”

Beats me. Beats Pete. He's the only one who stuck it out and he only did it because he's got this hard on to prove that jackass wrong and make the thing right”

Uh huh.” Dar thought a moment. “Does he want me to help?”

Mark muffled the call. “Yeah, I”m here.. hang on I'll be right back in there.” He uncovered the mouthpiece. “Sure he does, but he's scared.”


He's got a wife that's nine months preggers, and about to pop. They're living on his salary – he said that was the only reason he agreed to do my gig, it gave him a bump.”

Mark. If something happens to this guy because of something we did together, i'll take care of him.” Dar said.

I know. I told him that.” Mark said. “But he's scared they're going to see that online forum thing. He wants to talk to you in person, see if there's something you can tell him to do.”

Oh. Sure.” Dar said. “You want to bring him by the office tomorrow morning, early? I don't seriously think there's surveilalnce watching us.”

Can I bring him by your place tonight?”

Dar glanced at Kerry who was plastered to her chest listening, watching the blond head nod. “Sure.” She said. “I”ll leave your name at the ferry.”

Great. See ya soon.” Mark said. “All right! I hear ya! I”m coming back!” He closed the line, and Dar hit the release button on her end.

Holy crap.” Kerry commented. “This is nuts.”

Total nuts.” Dar exhaled, shaking her head. “Let's just hope I can give him some useful advice.”



Dar was back in her office, with Kerry perched on one end of the desk, and Mark and Peter sitting on the couch. She leaned on her elbows, mostly just listening as the young, tow haired man in jeans and a hoodie talked.

So.” Peter exhaled, taking a sip from the glass he held in both hands. “That's how it happened. Nobody really.. I mean, we looked at what he wanted us to do, but no one realized what it would.. I mean, do.”

Uh.” Dar grunted softly.

So then.” Peter continued. “He made us reload all the routers from scratch. So we didn't have anything left to roll back to, and he said, he wanted to make this work, so he dumped the repository so we could'nt reload from backup.”

Kerry leaned forward a little. “That is criminally idiotic.”

Yes, ma'am.” Peter nodded. “I tried to argue with him.”

What you shoulda done is copy the repository off to an offline storage before you dumped it.” Mark said. “What a fucking moron this guy is.”

Well.” Dar spoke up for the first time in a while. “If what he thought was, that the configs were so proprietary he coudln't wrap his head around them, it would make sense to do it from scratch so he knew everything.”

The other three in the room stared at her.

Dar folded her hands. “I”m guessing he thought he could put his own configuration in, and it would work.”

Uh.. I suppose, ma'am.” Peter said, meekly.

I might have done the same thing.”

Yeah, but the difference is your stuff would work.” Mark said. “Because you actually know how to do this.”

That's true. But I'm guessing he thought he did too, because though I think he's an idiot in terms of management, no one is stupid enough to take down their whole company and put all their clients at risk a couple weeks into a new job.”

Peter nodded. “What pissed everyone off is, he tried to blame us first, then you.” He said. “He refused to man up and say it was him that caused the problem.”

Dar pondered that. “So. What does he want to do now? He want this fixed, or he want to sit there and have his ass on fire until he ends up having to redo everything which is going to take probably a month?”

Up till today I'd have said he wanted to rig it.” Peter said, promptly.” But after everybody walked out, I saw him in ops and he was really freaked out. He told me I wasn't supposed to tell anyone but he needed to get this stuff working because some big customer was yelling.”

Okay, that's good.” Dar said. “Because if he was going to stick to his orignal plan it would have never worked. The layout's not designed for anything but the metrics we had.”

Peter exhaled, and nodded. “I sorta thought maybe that was it.” He said. “That guy thinks you did something.”

Well, I did.” Dar said, with a brief smile. “But everything I did is written down in the design documents. He didn't erase those too, did he?”

Peter shook his head. “No, he said he read those, that's why he wanted to make that change, said it would make things better.”

Dar studied his face, then she sighed. “All right. Ker's on the money. He's a moron.”

We're you really trying to give him the benefit of the doubt?” Kerry gave her a puzzled look.

Yes.” Dar leaned back in her chair. “If he had half a brain, then I could call him up and we could maybe just get this taken care of. But that kind of idiot doesn't back down – at this point, he can't. He has to go all the way with it or he's done.”

Mark nodded strenuously.

Yeah.” Peter agreed. “But at this point he's freaking. I think he'll let me get in there and try to fix stuff if you can tell me how.”

Should you?” Kerry asked, seriously, half turning to face her partner. “I know there's the issue with the military contracts, Dar, but honestly, should you go in there and make this right? Considering that they already are trying to blame you?”

Dar hitched her knee up and circled it with both hands, pondering in silence as the rest of them waited. “It's a valid question.” She finally said. “I dont feel like I owe them anything, at this point.” She took a breath and released it. “But I will be damned if my legacy at that place is going to be a collosal fuck up they're trying to paint my name on.”

Everyone nodded in agreement, even Kerry. “I get it, hon.” She said. “So let's figure out how to get it done.”

That's the hard part. I don't have any copies of the configs.” Dar said. “I left everything in the repository so we'll have to depend on my memory to rebuild them.”

Sorry about that, ma'am.” Peter looked glum. “Mark's right. I should have copied everything off before I deleted it.”

You guys really just made those changes without copying the config on a notepad at least?” Mark sounded incredulous. “What the hell, man?”

Notepad.” Dar muttered, suddenly, her eyes shifting off to one side. “What did that remind me of?”

Well, let me go make some coffee. I'm guessing we're gonna need it.” Kerry got up off the desk and headed for the kitchen, with Chino trotting behind her.

You know, all of us probably did.” Peter was saying mournfully. “But with all the crazymaking, stuff was moving and systems got rebooted, and you know.”

Mark got up. “Let me get my lappie. Maybe I did something illegal and crazy like left some copies on my personal external.”

Dar made a clucking noise with her tongue.

Hey boss, I know where that code repository came from.” He gave Dar a wry look. “Even if it was all yours.” He ducked out, and that left Dar and Peter alone in the office.

Peter looked profoundly uncomfortable.

Dar leaned forward again and rested her chin on her hand. “Weird, huh?”

He made a face. “Yes ma'am.” He admitted. “Too much strange for me.”

Yeah, I can imagine.” She responded, though she really couldn't. “Listen, let's start off by you calling me by my name, okay? I never was much for the ma'am stuff.”

Peter smiled, uncertainly. “I sort of feel like I'm stuck between that rock and a hard place.” He said. “I don't want to be a troublemaker, you know? I just want to go in and work and go home and enjoy my family.”

Dar nodded. “I get that.” She said. “You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

He nodded vigorously.

You could get nailed here, doing this.” Dar went on. “But you don't have much of a choice. At least not until things start working again.”

Peter relaxed visibly. “You get it.”

Dar smiled at him. “Sorry, Peter.” She said. “One way or another, I'll make this right for you. Promise.” She watched his expression become more open. “I made things there the way I did so it would give the company an advantage. Not to be a jackass.”

Now he smiled. “Yes ma.. I mean, yes. We all knew that. Even Mr. Jose said that, in the big meeting we had yesterday. He said no matter what that guy said or what he thought, you did the right things.”

Ah, Jose. Dar felt a little tickled. “He should know, because no matter how much he and I disagreed he did the right things too, for the company.”

Peter nodded. “The guy said Mr. Jose was stupid, then everyone started yelling, and we all just left.”

That, unfortunately, Dar could easily imagine. She'd been in enough of those meetings. With a sigh she leaned back, and her knee bumped the desk drawer, nudging it open. She reached over to shut it, then paused, when she saw the edge of something inside the drawer and pulled it all the way open.

Huh.” She took out the old Palm inside, and examined it, then fished around in the drawer for the charger. “Now I wonder.” She plugged it in and waited for it to start up. “Wonder if I left any notes in there from last year.”

Kerry came back in with a thermos and some cups, setting them down on Dar's desk. “Whatcha got there, hon?”

My old PDA.” Dar said. “I might have saved some of my notes from when I was doing the rig at the Rock.”

Mark came back in with his laptop and a small case hung around his neck. “I think I've got the mesh diagram.” He said, sitting down and opening the laptop. “I was gonna have it printed out and laminated.”

Dar looked up at him and frowned. “What?”

Keep surfing.” Kerry nudged her.

Peter got up and timidly started fixing himself a cup of coffee “Been a really long day.” He said, by way of explanation. “It's really nice of you all to let us come over here. It's a really pretty place.”

No problem. Dar would tell you most likely that she prefers our cabin down south” Kerry said, handing over a small ceramic jug of creamer. “And, actually, so do I.”

Dar focused past the conversation and started to root through the PDA as it finished booting up. She took out the stylus and tapped around, looking at the mail, then closing that and calling up a note program she remembered using. There were several folders, randomly named and she clicked on one.

After a moment, she blinked and closed it. She shook her head and opened a second, tilting the screen so she could read the text. She closed that, and clicked on the next. “I keep the weirdest crap.” She muttered. “Ah.” She sat back and regarded the PDA. “I think this might be... yeah. The config for the two big routers in Miami.”

Cool.” Mark came over and looked over her shoulder. “Yeah, that's them.”

Mm. I saved a copy before I did the changes to make the reroute at the Rock work.” Dar gave him a droll look. “So at least I can't feel hypocritcal about it.”

Those were a lot of changes.”

They were.” Dar sent the note to her private email from the PDA and waited for her desktop to pick it up. Then she regarded it, and sent it to the printer. “Okay, let's see what this gets us.”


Kerry was laying on the couch, her head resting on the arm and her legs extended out and crossed at the ankles. Mocha was sleeping on her chest, and Chino was curled up just past her feet, and she was listening idly to Dar giving Mark and Peter some last instructions at the door.

Then the door closed. She turned her head and opened one eye, to see her partner heading her way. “Think it'll work?”

Probably not.” Dar came over and paused, as Kerry sat up and she slid into the empty place on the couch then pulled the blond woman back down on top of her. “If they let him make the changes, there's probably even more changes in there that I havne't seen that'll screw things up.”


I need to just go in there and do it.” Dar acknowleged mournfully.

You need to concentrate on making that demo for Congress.” Kerry objected. “Dar, I know you want to make this right, but there's only so much you can do.”

Ugh.” Dar sighed. She put her arms around Kerry and hugged her. “Well, we'll see what happens. Maybe he'll work it out, He's a bright kid.”

Kerry patted her leg. “Then lets go to bed. It's two am. Tomorrow is going to suck.”

Dar remained in place. “You pissed off that I'm doing this?” She asked. “You seem like it.”

Her partner sighed. “I”m not. I mean, I'm not pissed off at you.” She clarified. “I'm just pissed off that ILS can't seem to let go of us. I want out of it. I don't want to worry about them sending lawyers after us, and blaming us for stuff, and.. you know.”

Mm. Sorry.”

It frustrates me.” Kerry admitted. “I just want that part of our life to be over, and it seems like all they want to do is suck us back into it.” She looked up at Dar's profile. “But I get it, Dar. I know you spent a good part of your life there, and you can't just let it go so easily.”

Dar smiled at her, with open and sweet affection. “I love you.” She said. “I'm glad you get that because I don't want us to fight with each other over it.”

I don't want us to fight over anything.” Kerry responded.

Yeah, that's no fun.”

They untangled themselves and got up, Kerry carefully letting the sleepy eyed Mocha down on the ground. “There you go, little man. You want a piddle stop before we go to bed?”

Growf.” Chino jumped down and yawned, stretching her paws out. Then she trotted over to the dog door and through it, with Mocha galloping behind her.

Kerry wandered into the kitchen and leaned on the counter, watching the dogs in the garden as the motion sensitive lights came on. She turned her head as Dar entered, coming over to stand next to her, gazing outside with her arms folded over her chest.

Kerry edged over and let her head rest against Dar's shoulder, pausing to give the skin there a kiss. “Can I come with you to Washington?”

Want to come with me to DC?” Dar asked at the same time. They looked at each other, then started chuckling.

We're sappy useless poster children for bad romance novels, you know that?” Kerry sighed. “I sometimes feel like our lives are set to Disney princess music.”


Though, I'll keep you company right up to the door to the senate chambers. I don't think my presence will win you any points at all in there.” Kerry leaned on the counter with her elbows. “I'd like to talk to Bridges team about implementation.”

Sure.” Dar agreed. “Let's get the pooches, and sack out. Maria can make the arrangements tomorrow.”

Back in the bedroom, Kerry put Mocha down on the floor after wiping his dew drenched feet, watched him march over into Chino's bed and curl up in it, then did the same as she listened to Dar humming in the bathroom.

It was really late, and she was tired. Kerry got under the covers and turned out the bedside lamp, putting her head down as Dar came back in and joined her, making the waterbed rock a little. She waited for her partner to settle, then she eased over and curled up against Dar's right side.

They had three hours to get some sleep and... Kerry paused, sliding her arm across Dar's stomach. “Hey.”

Hey.” Dar replied, her resonant tones making Kerry's ears tickle just a trifle.

Can we be late to work tomorrow?”


We own the company.”

We do.” Dar agreed. “Once you teach Mayte how to handle your stuff, you can spend the day with your feet up on your desk writing poetry and no one's gonna say word one to you.”

Kerry had to stop and think about that for a minute. “Except that someone I know taught me one of the golden rules is to lead by example.” She felt Dar chuckle silently. “So I really can't do that unless you're going to use those poems as the basis of a new client offering.”

True, but we can still go to work late tomorrow.” Dar said. “It's not always a bad thing to let the staff work things out on their own. Y'know.”

Kerry lifted her head and gave her partner a wry look.

Yeah, okay, let's wait to see how we feel when the sun rises.”


As it turned out, the morning wasn't nearly as painful as Kerry had feared. They woke only a half hour later than the alarm would have normally sounded and with mutual shrugs, they got up and got about their usual routine.

C'mon kids.” Kerry zippped up her light jacket, waiting for Mocha and Chino to come trotting over. “Let's go in the car, for a ride to the office. You ready?”

Chino twirled around in a circle and barked, while Mocha eyed her warily.

Dar got her backpack on her shoulder and joined them, her head bent as she texted a message on her Handspring. “Asking Mark if he heard anything.” She picked up Mocha and followed Kerry out the door.

They were taking Kerry's car and she hopped up into the driver's seat, after letting Chino up into the back seat where she curled up on the fuzzy dog blanket attached to the leather that conveniently kept her from sliding around.

It's fun taking these guys with us.” Dar commented, as Mocha stood up on her knee and looked out the window. “You know what I was just thinking? For the demo I think I'd like to tie in to a simulated internet node back here.”

Like, fake traffic?” Kerry asked.

Yeah, we don't really have any way of tying in for real yet.”

I have a call in to AT&T and Level 3. They aren't happy, but they knew this was coming.” Kerry remarked. “Do we know yet where they're going to want the private circuits dropped, and who's paying for them?”

Dar let her head rest against the seat. “They're paying for them, but that's a good question. I have to find out who's supposed to order them, and make sure they're the right size.” She glanced at Kerry. “Good thing you're going with me.”

Kerry grinned.

Same thing for Gerry's project, but that will be a mesh. We already talked about it. They're going to house the central database in the Pentagon.”

Good.” Kerry headed west on the causeway. “I'll work with them in a remote support circuit for you.”

Dar grunted in contentment, then glanced down as her Handspring buzzeed. “Ah.”

Hey boss. Petes in with the big dude now, he's going to text me when he gets out. He told him he found an old config saved to a switch NVRAM.

She reached around Mocha and typed a response. If the dickwad kicks him out, have him come over.

You got it.

Dar thumbed through her messages, and frowned.

Now that it was the light of day, Dar realized her attitude towards the problem had changed a little. Maybe Kerry's uncertainty had affected her, but she had to acknowledge that there was a sense of irritation in her when she thought about having to dedicate her personal resources to a company that now really held very little affection in her heart.

It felt fickle. She wasn't entirely happy with her motivations. She felt caught between guilt and outrage and it was giving her a stomach ache. “Hey Ker?”

Yes, o love of my life?”

What do you think about us just getting a datacenter for test systems? Not ever hosting clients there?” Dar asked. “I don't know that I want to be in the services side of the house.”

Kerry considered that as she turned into Coconut Grove, and headed for the office. “You mean, just do what our web site claims – custom systems and solutions?” She asked. “Deliver it, and the only support we do is for the software itself?”

Uh huh.”

Hm. Let me think about it.”

If we did that, there's no way ILS could ever come back at us, because we're really not doing anything they do.” Dar continued. “Matter of fact, I don't really want to do any of the stuff that they do, because I”m kinda tired of being on the hook for everyone's bottom line.”

You're just deciding this now?”

This router thing is pissing me off.” Dar admitted. “I was thinking about it since we got up and its just getting me madder and madder when I think about that warthog trying to weenie waggle to make his bones and then becoming a neuter when it comes to taking responsibility for it.”

Kerry pulled into one of the parking spots. “Colorful.” She said, as she put the car in park and turned it off. “Let's just get past the next seven days, then we can talk about it, okay?” She patted Dar's leg. “I am going to call Richard though and let him know what's going on.”

Dar got out and put Mocha down, then retrieved her backpack and got it settled. “Maybe we'll get lucky and it'll all go away.”

Really think that's going to happen?”



Dar rolled her trackball a little, moving the wireframe diagram across the screen and observing the results. She switched over to a command line session and pecked out a few commands, then switched back, issuing an approving grunt and rerunning the process.

It woudln't be an elegant demonstration. Dar looked at the plain screen, which was a simple black background with fields in magenta, green and yellow. It used very straightforward instructional text, and the boxes and outlines around it were only there to make it look relatively functional.

She typed in a query and ran it against the test repository in the server room, and the screen chewed over it for a minute, then spit out a response.

Hm.” Dar went back into the command line screen and revised some of the lines, then recompiled it, and tried the query again. This time the results were more acceptable, and she moved on to her next task.

She could hear Kerry talking with someone next door, and after a moment, she recognized the other voice in the room as Colleen's, their relaxed tones and the crinkle of paper meaning that lunch was probably going to be delivered to her any minute now.

Hey hon.” Kerry entered, carrying a bag. “Tacos.”


Making progress?”

Yep.” Dar slid her chair sideways and moved over to the open area of her desk. “Ive got the query engine working at least. I still have to figure out how to demonstrate the autonomic parser.”

Oo. Sexy.” Kerry sorted out her tacos and put her drink down. “That small business conference called back. They already have a keynote speaker, but I think this guy must have seen that Miami Herald piece because he told me he'd like you to do a half hour presentation on anything you want if you want.”

Dar chuckled.

Do you want?”

I want.” Dar said. “Tell them I”ll do.. “ She pondered a minute as she unwrapped a taco. “Thiry minutes on using B to B networking to boost business between small business owners.”

Kerry eyed her. “Really?”

Sure.” Dar licked a bit of sauce off her fingers. “C'mon, Ker. It's a small business convention. I can't go in there and start talking about routing tables or database structures.”

No, that's true.” Kerry said. “But I think that's more a speech I would give.”

Dar's eyebrows twitched. “So then you give it?” She suggested. “Think up a topic for me and just let me know what it is.” She swallowed, then chased the mouthful down with a sip of ice coffee. “I can do one that's IT related, but I think general's better.”

Let me think of one.” Kerry reached over and ruffled her hair. “It's next Monday and Tuesday, then Maria has us flights booked for Wednesday for DC.”


I've got a project management meeting with two clients this afternoon. I'm going to have Mayte sit in with me, and see if I can let her run with them.”

Dar lifted one hand with her thumb pointed up. “You should see if we can get her PMO certified, and then get her some baby PM's to work with her.”

Kerry smiled, then she waggled her fingers good bye and went back to her own office.

Dar finished her tacos and sucked the last of her coffee down, disposing of the wrappers in her cobalt blue garbage can before she turned back to her screen and started up her program again.

White on black or black on white? Dar pondered the difference, calling up an image in her head of doing a presentation. For the military guys, white on black. For the politicians? “Hey Ker?”

Yes?” Kerry stuck her head in the door opening.

What's your mother's favorite color?”



Dar set her backpack down near the receptionist's desk and diverted around the hall, walking around to the side corridor and past the closed door to the HR department. She went a little further, and slowed, pausing at the door to the tech support office and sticking her head inside.

Scott was there, at his desk. He was still the only support person on staff, so the other cubes were empty, but there were a few things on the shelves of his, a cup, and a little canteen, and a rock. He didn't hear her stop, his head was bent over an open PC case and he was carefully assembling the parts inside.

Mark so far had been reasonbly satisified with his new guy. Scott had performed the several maintinance tasks he'd been given with competence, and he'd been on time every morning.

More than on time, actually. Mark said he'd been on the front porch waiting when the first person had gotten there, freshly showered and ready to work.

Even more than that, Dar leaned against the doorframe, folding her arms. Watching him work on the pc, there was a sense of contentment she couldn't have imagined seeing before.

Not wanting to disturb that, she silently pushed off the frame and stepped back, turning once she'd gotten past the accounting office and heading back to the empty receptionist's desk where she spotted Kerry and their pets waiting for her. “Hey.”

Potty break?” Kerry asked.

No.. wanted to see how our new tech was doing.” Dar picked up her backpack and slung it on her shoulder then took Mocha from Kerry's arms. “Seems okay.”

Col said he doesn't talk much.” Kerry opened the door for her. “Just comes in and sits there and fiddles with things.”

Exactly what you want a tech support guy to do.” Dar closed the door behind her. “Mark said he was working on something, that he'd close up.”

Any word from Peter?”

Nope.” Dar opened the back door of the SUV for Chino, and then got in the passenger seat with Mocha. “He knows how to get in touch if he needs to. I don't want to push it.”

Wise woman.” Kerry opened the driver's door and paused, as she caught motion from the corner of her eye. She turned and hopped up onto the seat, half closing the door against her legs. “Dar.”

I see.” Dar was already putting Mocha in the back seat and opening her own door, sliding out and coming around the front of the SUV to stand between Kerry's door and the oncoming figures.

Who said chivalry was dead?” Kerry leaned her arms on the doorframe.

Dar cleared her throat. “What can we do for you, folks?” She addressed the group of veterans, who had come just close enough for her latent defensive instincts to prick, making her hands flex.

Got the cops on the speed dial.” Kerry commented. “So don't get too spunky.”

Okay, so look.” Joe, the group leader aka pastor said. “We're not gonna hurt you.”

No, you're not.” Dar agreed readily. “I'm not in the mood for you, you're standing between me and a romantic dinner with my spouse, and I'm going to kick you in the head if you don't clear out.”

The pastor put his hands on his hips. “Look, lady, cut the crap, okay I just got a question for you.”

Kerry saw it start to happen and debated closing her eyes. She heard Chino bark in outrage just as Dar moved, and the next moment the Labrador squirmed past her and out the door, racing over to get in front of her partner with a growl.

Joe jumped back and held his hands up, and Dar made a grab for their unexpectedly ferocious pet. “Chino!”

Growf!” The large blond dog bared her teeth, and the thick fur along her spine lifted up.

The other men just blinked at her. “Holy shit you weren't kidding.” The one who had been fighting in front of the office said. “Keep that dog away from us.”

I'm not kidding.” Dar said, as she warily watched them. “I'm tired of you all messing with us. Leave us the hell alone.”

You're the one who keeps screwing with us!” The man said, edging in front of Joe. “What did you do with Wheels, huh?”

His name is Scott.” Kerry spoke up from her perch in the driver's seat.


His name is Scott.” She repeated. “And what we did with him is we hired him.”

That little son of a bitch.. he crossed us.” The man said to Joe. “You said he was going to hold out.”

Dar got her hand on Chino's collar and backed up, until she hit the front of the truck with her butt and stopped. “He didn't. No reason for him to. This is a right to work state. I can hire whoever I want.”

He said...” Joe started, then stopped. “We aint seen him for a few days.”

Dar shrugged. “Not my problem.”

The other man eyed her. “You really hired Wheels?”

Joe stepped up and got in front of him. “Never mind that, Cliff. If he screwed us, he did. Just let him know not to come back around looking for us, lady. He wont' get anymore help.”

Great.” Kerry said. “I bet that'll make all of us happy.” She grabbed Mocha, who had climbed up onto her lap to see what was going on. “But in answer to your question, Cliff, we really did hire him to do tech support for us, and so far he's done a good job.”

Let's go.” Joe turned and shoved him back, and pointed back the way they'd come. “We found out what we come to.”

Dar stayed where she was until they disappeared, then she turned and regarded her partner. “They made our dog growl.” She looked down at Chino, who had seated herself on the tarmac, tongue lolling. “I never heard her do that before.”

Chino looked up with innocent brown eyes.

They did.” Kerry said. “And you know, I think we might have done some good this time. Maybe these guys'll leave him alone now.”

Mm.” Dar didn't sound convinced, but she opened the back door again. “Get in there, madam ferocious.”

Chino jumped up and sat down, wagging her tail, and sniffing at Mocha who scrambled back to join her.

Dar had gone around and gotten in the passenger seat, her head bent as she texted. “Just want Mark to know what happened, so he can tell his newbie to watch his back.”

You think they'll do anything? I think they're all talk.” Kerry started up the engine. “Just like that guy was when he broke into our office. All bullshit.”

That could be.” Dar said. “Let's get out of here before something else happens.”

You got it.”

Ker, they made our dog growl.”


Dar walked to the bow of the boat, using the freshwater hose to rinse off the fiberglass as the early morning sun bathed her. She whistled softly under her breath, glancing around at the crowded marina as she continued to work.

In the winter season, a lot of residents brought their boats in – or – more accurately, had their boats brought in from the Mediterreanean, or from South America and almost every slip was filled. That made the docks crowded, and Dar was glad she'd gotten out early before everyone started moving about.

Seas looked good offshore, and after she finished cleaning, and stocking the boat she and Kerry planned on a reef trip off Key Biscayne and a picnic lunch on the water.

She finished rinsing off the deck and stowed the hose, walking around the side and down into the back section of the Dixie. Their gear was already out on the bench seats, and there was a basket of grapes and apples sitting on the waterproof table awaiting her attention.

She worked a grape off it's stem and popped it into her mouth, enjoying the crisp coolness of it as she bit into it. She paused to take a second, then stood quietly as she noted a man walking down the dock with a purposeful stride coming in her direction.

Wasn't someone she knew. He had a pair of dark blue sweatpants and a white sweatshirt on and he came right up to the slip and put his hand on one of the piers, leaning in towards her. “You Roberts?”

A number of answers occurred to Dar, who didn't feel like she wanted her Saturday morning to start with an asshole. She sighed inwardly, though. “Yes.” She answered, briefly.

He nodded. “My name's Roger Post. I know you've got no idea who I am, but a friend of mine who works for AT and T said he knows you, and said I should talk to you.” The man said. “And coincidentally, I was in the market and heard you call in for supplies so I asked them where I could find you.”

Well, that could be damn near anything. “C'mon aboard.” Dar said, in a genial tone, indicating the two chairs on the deck. “I'm going to head out in a while, but I've got a few minutes to talk.”

The man nodded, and stepped over onto the transom, then onto the deck with the skill and ease of someone well used to boats. “Thanks.” He held a hand out. “Sorry to just barge in here. Thanks for being decent about it.”

Dar took a seat and he did also. “What can I do for you?”

Here's the thing.” Post said. “I won't waste your time, or mine. But I'm bankrolling a startup who's going to offer private networking, and internet surfing, to high end clients.”

Okay.” Dar said, slowly. “For what purpose?”

Avoid the snoopers.” Post said promptly. “You've seen the headlines, people wanting to be able to watch where people are going, snoop into their business. I want to make systems that let people go where they want on the internet, and not be afraid of someone watching them.”

The irony made Dar smile. “I can see there would be a market.” She said. “Why hunt me down? In case you missed the story in the Herald, the government's one of my clients.”

I know.” He said. “That's why I wanted to talk to you. I want to hire you to tell me how to get around things.”

Dar studied him. “Around what things?”

C'mon.” The man smiled at her. “We all know they're tapping the internet. My buddy at ATT told me they've got those big black boxes looking at everything.”

Dar was almost shocked until she remembered who had suggested that to the government “Well.” She laced her fingers. “If they have big black boxes inline at the ISP level, you can't get around it.”

Post gazed at her. “Can't?”

Dar shook her head. “Can't. If the datastream goes thorugh those boxes, you can't avoid your traffic going through them. The only way to get around that is buy point to point circuits between your clients and whatever they want to connect to.”

That's expensive.”

Yup.” Dar said. “And not very practical if you want to surf the internet.”

Damn. That's what Chuck said.” He sighed.

Even if you encrypted the channel.” Dar said. “A good hardware based decrypt encrypt card with spoofed certificates could get around it. My advice to you, and your clients? If you want something to stay private, don't let it out of your control. Don't use the internet to send it.”

He frowned.

Dar studied him for a moment. “Or have their porn or pirated stuff delivered on a hard drive. I mean seriously.” She said with a smile. “Just don't do it.”

'The'yre not doing illegal things.” He said. “They just don't want anyone to see what they're doing. They think that's a right, you know?”

I do.” Dar agreed “Why not talk to my former employers? They can set up a private net if they're serious about that, and can pay for it. With a proxy out to the internet, on their own backbone.”


ILS.” Dar said. “They absolutely can do that.”

The man thought about that for a minute. “Would they want to do that?”

Dar lifted her hands and then let them fall. “Depends on what the project scope was. There's nothing illegal in setting up a private internet. They would want common carrier protection though. They wouldn't want to know what you were running over it.”

He paused and thought again. “Can't we just do... what do you call them, a virtual private thing?”

Dar's eyebrows twitched a little. “Sure. You can make a VPN to a specific end point. That encrypts the traffic from you, to that endpoint, but then you still need to go out onto the internet.”


Mm.” Dar's eyes twinkled a little bit. “Most of the time, people we... I mean, that I used to deal with when doing projects for ILS were more concerned about not letting their people surf things on the internet than protecting them while they were doing it.”

He nodded. “There's just not a lot of trust out there these days” He said. “People want their privacy and they don't want anyone in their business.”

They both heard footsteps and the patter of dog toenails approaching, and Dar looked over to see Kerry heading their way. “I'm not sure you can have it both ways.” She said. “All the freedom of the public internet and privacy too.”

Post sighed. “There has to be a way.” He said. “Some way to make just looking around anonymous.” He got up as Kerry neared the boat. “But I know you've got things to do, so thanks for the chat at any rate.” He offered his hand, which Dar took and pressed. “Have a good morning.”

You too.” Dar agreed, as he hopped off the boat onto the dock, and gave Kerry a brief smile as he passed her.

C'mon, Chi.” Dar got up and walked over as the dog gathered herself and hopped onboard. “Glad you showed up.” She added to Kerry.

What was that all about?” Kerry stepped over onto the deck, putting Mocha down to go sniff. “New neighbor?”

Something like.” Dar opened the door to the cabin, stepping back as Chino bustled inside ahead of her. “Guy was looking for someone to build him something that lets people internet surf without being evesdropped on.”

Kerry stopped and regarded her in surprise. “Really?”


Interesting coincidence?”

Dar shrugged. “I”m going to get the hamsters going. Untie us?” She headed up the ladder onto the flying bridge and got herself settled behind the the controls. She started up the engines and checked the gauges, listening to the sound as they rumbled to life.

Okay, we're clear.” Kerry climbed up and sat down next to her as she gently applied power. “I locked the dogs inside in case they get any funny ideas about jumping overboard.”

So I hear.” Dar swung the bow out as she got clear of the dock and started out of the packed marina. “Here we go.”

Kerry put her feet up on the lower shelf of the console and leaned back, as the breeze picked up around them. “So that was an interesting visit.”

It was. Not sure if it was a legit question, or something someone's floating out because of the press we just got, or someone fishing me from inside the CIA.”


Dar smiled. “You never know. I told them to go talk to ILS about building his clients a private network.”

Kerry started laughing. “You didn't'”

I did. Why not? They do that.” Dar replied. “I figured regardless of the reason for the question, that won't get me in too much trouble. He said someone from ATT sent him. Think that was your buddy?”

I think I should ask him.” Kerry said. “I don't really like the timing of that, Dar. Maybe it was someone from ILS wanting to cause us trouble.”


You never know, right?” Her partner said, pointedly. “Frankly, I would rather it have been the CIA, testing us to see if we were going to spill some details on the project. That, at least, would make sense to me.”

This guy said he knew about the black box they've got tapping everything.” Dar said, after a brief pause. “I told him there's no way to get around that.”

Kerry frowned. “Is that really true?”

The box being there, or not being able to get around it?”


Dar nudged the throttles forward as they cleared the entrance to the marina. “I think the first one's true since you told them to go do that.” She eyed her partner, who made a face. “Yeah, I know. As to the second? From a technical perspective, given that it would be an inline tap, there is no physical way to avoid it.”


Dar remained silent for a moment, as she adjusted the engines. “Should I be looking for a way around it?”

Kerry merely looked at her.

Good point.”


Continued in Part 13