Tropical High

By Melissa Good

Part 3

Dar woke just before the alarm went off, and silenced it before it had a chance to ring. It was still dark outside, and by the scant starlight coming in the window, she could just barely make out Kerry’s features, peaceful in sleep.

For a moment, Dar debated not waking her up. They’d meant to go to bed early, since she knew she had to leave for the base first thing, but somehow they’d ended up watching a Croc Hunter special and before she knew it, two am was staring them in the face.

Whoops. Dar rubbed her eyes, wishing she could close them, and go back to sleep.

The movement, however, woke Kerry and she gazed up with half opened eyes at her, a smile sketching its way across her face. "Can I come with you?" She said.

Dar spoke at the same time. "You want to come with me today?’

They both stopped, and blinked.

"Wow." Kerry remarked mildly. "The invisible psychic fiber hub’s up and working, huh?"

A laugh escaped from Dar. "I guess." She rolled over onto her back and stretched. "I was just thinking I’d like to have an outside opinion while I go through there. I know I’m biased." Was that just an excuse to have Kerry along though? Dar examined the thought carefully and decided it could go either way, but the fact that she wasn't impartial was incontrovertible.

Kerry reviewed her schedule. "Well, I’ve got a marketing meeting I can reschedule, two conference calls that are just follow-up, and some small odds and ends.. yeah, I can clear my day." She decided. "And, come to think of it, since you're going to be allocating my resources right and left to Uncle Sam, I think I'd better be there to see how much trouble you're going to get me into."

Dar turned her head and regarded the dimly seen profile in bemusement, remembering not so very long ago the agony Kerry had gone through wondering if she was qualified to do the job Dar was asking her to. Since her promotion, Kerry had blossomed into the position, exceeding even Dar's admittedly biased but high expectations for her. She felt briefly like a mother bird, watching it's offspring soar proudly. "You don't seriously think I'd overextend you, do you?"

A soft chuckle came out of the darkness. "No.. c'mon, Dar. You know our systems and infrastructure better than anyone else, including me. I was just kidding."

"Mm.. you're pretty close." Dar told her. "I'd say, if I had to judge both of us, you're doing a better job than I was as VP."

There was absolute dead silence from the other side of the waterbed for several long heartbeats. "I think my brain just exploded." Kerry finally spluttered.

"Good thing this is a waterbed, then." Dar rolled up out of it, and stood. "C'mon.. I know I need the run this morning or I'm not going to be awake enough to drive south."

"Start the coffee. I'll just suck up my neurons and be right with you."

"You got it." Dar agreed, as she headed out of the bedroom and through the living room with Chino frisking at her heels. She opened the back door for the dog, then started the coffee running. By the time she turned around, a sleepy Kerry was trudging into the kitchen. "That was quick… use the vaccum?"

"Sucked them up with a straw." Kerry pulled open the refrigerator and removed a jug full of juice, sloshing it around a few times before she popped the top open, and poured herself a large glass full. "Can we stop talking about brains while I drink this? It's got pulp in it."

Dar slid both arms around her and rested her cheek against Kerry's head . "Sure." She listened to the soft, distinct sounds of swallowing as their bodies touched through two thin layers of cotton and swore she could feel the cold juice as it traveled into Kerry's stomach, under where her hands were resting. She rubbed the spot, and Kerry gurgled as a chuckle interfered with her drinking. "Ah ah ah.. don't you dare bring that in here."

Kerry glanced over to see Chino in the doorway, a big stick in her mouth, and a guilty expression on her face. "Honey.. where's your toy? Where's Hippo? Play with that instead, okay?"

Chino dropped her find immediately and dashed off, to return with a stuffed fleecy animal in the vague shape of a hippopotamus. "Growf." She dropped it expectantly at Kerry's feet.

"Oh. So now I guess you expect me to play with you?" Kerry put the glass on the counter, and her hands on her hips. "How about you running with me and mommy Dar, hm? That should tire you out." She reached behind her and patted Dar's thigh. "I'll get your gear, if you fix the coffee."

Dar released her. "Go for it." She nudged Kerry towards the door, and busied herself in pouring.


As luck would have it, they hit rain halfway to the base. "Figures." Dar drummed the fingers of her right hand on the padded console next to her. "Hope you like mud."

Kerry looked up from her laptop, which she'd been busy working on. "Mud." She regarded her pristine, nicely starched white shirt. "You did tell me not to wear this, didn't you?" Her eyes studied the wash of heavy rain hitting the windshield, then a smile appeared. "But you know, this reminds me of the first time I rode in your car."

Dar's lips twisted into a wry smile. "I'm sure that's not one of your fondest memories."

"Au contraire." Kerry objected. "It most certainly is, Dar. That was the start of everything… that was one of the biggest turning points in my life. You know that."

It was quiet except for the rattle of Kerry's keyboard for a little while, as Dar indulged herself in memories as she drove. "You know what I remember the most from that night?" She commented, after about fifteen minutes.

"Huh?" Kerry looked at her. "Oh.. no, what?"

"Getting home, sitting down on the couch, and not being able to stop thinking about you."

Kerry tilted her head back and smiled. "Oh yeah." She sighed. "If you'll remember, I sent you an email at one am…I hate to tell you because I know you'll laugh, but I slept in your sweatshirt that night." She admitted.

"Did you?" Dar did, in fact, laugh.

"Yeah… I really liked the way it smelled." Kerry leaned over and sniffed Dar's shoulder, emitting a low hum of approval. "I’m not sure I remember what bs I fed myself to explain that." She paused. "Actually, I don't think I even bothered trying."

"I woke up the next morning, hired you, then conked out with the laptop sitting on my chest." Dar recalled. "I got your mail asking about the clothing and answered it before I was actually awake."

"Ah. That explains the shopping." Kerry teased. "You have no idea how nervous I was waiting for you in the mall."

"I was pretty rattled too." Her lover murmured, steering carefully around a large puddle. "I’m not exactly a social butterfly."

Kerry nodded. "I know.. you were fidgeting during dinner." She remembered watching Dar's long fingers play with the table tents restlessly. "But I felt really comfortable being with you." She added. "Especially after you shared your dessert with me."

Dar laughed. "Oh, so that was the big icebreaker, huh? I should have known."

Kerry shook a finger at her. "Now that I know you the way I do, I know you sharing a plate with someone is a big deal, Dar, not to mention you actually gave me a bite of your dinner."

"Mm." Dar's face took on a curious expression. "I should have realized right then." She slowed the car. "Okay, hang on. Here we go."

Kerry closed her laptop and tucked it into her briefcase as they turned into the base, the road blocked by gates, and an impressive set of armed guards. "Dar, that man has no neck."

"Don’t' start me on interservice jokes, okay?" Dar muttered, as she pulled the Lexus forward. "Damn place hasn't changed much." She waited for the car ahead of her to be admitted, then drove on.

"I don't think the military is known for being avante guarde, hon." Kerry watched with interest as Dar rolled down the window, and slipped on her attitude like a pair of sunglasses.

"I have an appointment with Commander Albert." Dar stated, in a crisp, no nonsense tone as she handed over her identification badge.

The guard studied the badge, then studied Dar as though comparing the picture. Then he consulted a plastic covered clipboard. His eyes lifted, and peered into the Lexus. "Commander Albert is expecting one person, ma'am."

"Lucky him. He gets two." Dar replied. "This is my associate, Kerrison Stuart." She offered him Kerry's badge, which the blond woman had helpfully passed over.

"I don’t' have clearance for her, ma'am." The guard said.

Dar kept herself from smirking by sheer will. "Then I guess we'll be blocking your gate until you get it, or turning around and going back to Miami and billing you for our time." She said. "What's your name again? Williams, is it?"

"Ma'am, this is a secure base, and we don't just give people clearance because they show up at the gate." The guard replied stiffly. "I think you need to understand.."

"Son." Dar leaned on the doorframe. "I used to eat breakfast every day with someone a lot scarier than you, so put your attitude up in your side pocket, and either let me in, or tell me you won't, and I'll do what I need to do."

The man stared at her for a moment, then retreated into his hut. Dar leaned back and crossed her arms, shaking her head slightly. "Some things just really never change." She sighed.

"I don't think I can quite picture you doing this, Dar." Kerry observed. "'d look really cute in those uniforms." She fell silent as the guard returned, a look on his face that made her think he'd been sucking key limes in the interim.

"These are your passes, ma'am." He handed two clip on badges to Dar, and their identification cards back. "Wear them at all times when you're on the base."

"All right." Dar took one, and gave Kerry hers. "Thanks."

"Commander Albert is in the Huntingdon building. Drive straight through the gates here, turn left, turn right, turn left, second stop on the right." He opened the gate, and ducked his head in a semi respectful salute.

Dar finished putting her badge on. "That's the long way." She gave him a grim smile. "But thanks."

Kerry waved at the guard. "Dos Vedanya." She told him cheerfully, as Dar drove past. Then she settled back into her seat and looked around curiously, as they made their way along a somewhat weatherbeaten road. It was so different than she'd expected, Kerry mused, taking in the long rows of sturdy, but plain concrete buildings. Everything was neatly kept, and there were columns of men and women doing various military type things, like running, and chanting, drilling in a nearby field, and some were just walking about.

To one side, through a stretch of tall trees, she spotted a large cluster of small houses. She glanced at Dar, and saw her lover's eyes on them as well, a curious mix of regret and nostalgia on her face. "Was that home?"

"Yeah." Dar gave her head a little shake, and returned her attention to the road. "Wasn't much…I think my room was the size of the back of this car. " She fell silent for a beat. "I spent my first.. five, six years here, I guess. Then we moved up to Virginia, year or two after that to North Carolina, two years later to Baton Rouge, then we came back here for a while."

"Sort of tough on you moving to different schools all the time, hm?" Kerry half turned in her seat, watching Dar's profile. "Making new friends and all."

Dar laughed shortly. "That was the least of my worries." She turned down a side street. "I never bothered much with friends. " She parked the Lexus and turned her head. "You ready for this?"

"Me?" Kerry allowed an easy laugh to escape. "Dar, you forget how I grew up. It would take more than a bunch of hunky sailors and marines to spook me." She put a hand on Dar's arm. "Thanks for asking me to come along, though. I'm glad I’m here."

Dar smiled. "Me too." She gathered up her briefcase and opened the door. "C'mon. Let's go see what trouble we can get into."

Kerry followed her as they walked along the sidewalk, and turned in to go up a short flight of steps to a guarded doorway. She tried again to imagine Dar as one of these stern, earnest professional warriors.

Ow. It made her brain hurt. She gave the guard a smile, and entered the portal to another world.


Dar's nose twitched as she walked along the hallway, memories gently buffeting her from all sides. The air was thick with familiar scents, wool and brass and wood polish, and floor wax she knew came in five gallon gray cans. The merest hint of gun oil trickled through, tickling her senses and bringing a faint smile to her face.

It was quiet as they passed closed doorways, a faint clatter of honest to goodness typewriters leaking through but not much more. Kerry gave her a look. "Multipart forms." Dar murmured. "Eight layers at least, sometimes ten."

"Ew." Kerry winced. "They ever consider donating part of the government's operating budget to saving the rainforests?"

"Mm." Dar led the way up a flight of double stairs that swept up to a landing, with a door guarded by an armed Marine. "I tried to convince them to go thermal, but they held onto those Selectrics like they were worth actual money, and wouldn't give them up." She gave the Marine a brisk nod, and turned past him, into a smaller, closer hallway with doors on either side.

"Dar?" Kerry watched her bemusedly. "When was the last time you were here?"

Dar thought about it. "Jesus.. has it been ten years?" She shook her head and took a left, then put a hand on the first right hand door and pulled it open. "I can't believe it."

Kerry glanced at the door plate, which said 'Computer Operations - Do Not Enter.'. "You're telling me they haven't moved anything in ten years?"

Dar looked at the plate, then at her. "Ten years? Kerry, there are some government offices that haven't changed in over two hundred. C'mon." She followed her lover into a suite of offices, which had a darker shade of carpet, and colder air.

Now it was Kerry's turn to twitch her nose. "That's not mimeograph fluid I smell, is it?"

Dar chuckled, and walked past her, towards an office with a thick wooden doorframe, and a scarred wooden door.

A small desk was perched outside it, occupied by a dour looking woman with curly dark hair and an attitude three times larger than she was. She intercepted them as they walked forward. "Ms. Roberts?"

Dar regarded her soberly. "Yes."

"Commander Albert is in a meeting. He asked me to fill in for him. " The woman stated flatly. "My name is Perkins, and I’m the Data Center manager." She stood up. "We have a full schedule, so if you'd like to give me a list of what you want, I'll see what I can do."

Dar flicked her eyes over the much shorter woman, and simply walked past her, heading down a small corridor towards a set of double doors.

"Ma'am?" The data center manager bolted after her. "Ma'am… that area's off limits."

Dar just kept walking, stiffarming the doors open and letting them close behind her, almost slapping her pursuer in the face. Kerry sighed, and followed, catching the door as their naval guide blasted through them. Inside was a large room filled with mainframes, some of which, she realized, were perilously close to being an older vintage than she was.

"Ms. Roberts, I need to ask you to leave, or I"ll have to call the guard." The data center manager stated fiercely.

"Go ahead." Dar turned abruptly and faced her, showing her edgier side. "You call the guard, I call the Pentagon." She took out her cellphone and opened it. "Because frankly, Lieutenant, I've had about enough bs for one morning, and I just got here."

"This is a secure area." Perkins shot back. "You are a civilian, and this is offlimits, I don’t care how many generals you know." Pause. "Ma'am."

"Look." Kerry eased between them. "Lieutenant Perkins.. I know this is seriously messing up your day." She smiled kindly at her. "And I know that Commander Albert probably told you to be as big a pain the ass to us as possible, but that's okay, because Dar and I are used to that."

The Lieutenant eyed her warily.

"Most of the time when we're doing this, the people we're working with are scared silly we're going to fire them, and sometimes we do." Kerry went on. "But you'd do us, and yourself a favor if you just relax, and let us to our jobs. Things will go much faster, and we'll be out of your hair before you know it."

The woman stiffened a little, bringing her head just slightly above Kerry's. "We have a job to do here. Everything works, and we don't need a couple of outsiders coming in and changing things." She told her. "I don't have time to explain these systems to you. So why don't you do yourselves a favor, and just get the hell out of here."

"Because we're being paid to be here. Just like you are." Kerry explained gently. "And frankly, lieutenant, you don't have to explain anything to us. Between Ms. Roberts and myself, we've got enough certifications to plaster every square inch of the walls in here, so why don't you just go over there, and sit down, and stay out of our way."

The three junior operators who were in the room had become silent, radar eared statues, staring at their screens and watching the reflections of the three women behind them.

Dar put her briefcase down and unzipped it. "If we're done with the first round of jousting, I'm gonna get the analyzer up and connected, and start running first and second level tests." She pulled out a coil of network cable and booted up her laptop. "If you'd like to do something other than stand there gaping, Lieutenant, you can get me a list of subsystems and running job streams."

Without a word, the woman turned and walked out, letting the doors swish shut behind her with a vindictive sound.

"I'll take that as a no." Dar continued her task. She looked around and caught one of the console ops staring at her, a look of mixed awe and admiration on his face. "Would you like to run that for me?"

The sailor grinned at her wholeheartedly. "Yes, ma'am, I would."

Dar grinned back, and winked at him. "Smart boy."

The other console operator turned in her seat, and folded her arms over the back of it. "Who are you people?" She was a willowy thin woman with straight, russet hair and an innocent face. Her voice was soft and thickly Southern.

Kerry, who was closest to her, held a hand out. "Kerry Stuart, and that's my boss, Dar Roberts." She shook the red haired woman's hand with a firm grip. "Our company's been asked to come in and see what we can do to make your lives easier."

"You just did." The third operator drawled softly. "Lieut's been on the warpath all week, driving us half crazy."

"Well, that's probably our fault." Kerry told him. "I know your leadership isn't too happy we're here, because they think we're going to find all kinds of things they're going to get blamed for. But that's not what our plan is."

"It's not?" The girl asked.

"Nope." Dar studied the results on her laptop screen. "The government's looking to spend some money here, we're gonna help them." Her brow creased.

"Why're they all freaking out, then?" The tow headed man closest to Dar asked.

The lines of data flashed before her eyes. "You know, that's a good question." Dar looked up at Kerry.

"People get comfortable with things, Dar. They don't like change." Her lover reminded her. "Even if the change is good."

"Mm." Dar finished her capture and closed her laptop. "That's all I need here for now. Let's see if we can get into the command and control center." She gave the operators a half wave. "We'll be back."

Kerry heard the whispers and muffled laughs as they left, and she shook her head. She had a feeling this was going to be an all the way uphill battle.

And they were wearing roller blades.


Dar put her briefcase down on the scarred wooden conference table, and sat, folding her hands together. Kerry took a seat to her right, and the two Navy offices settled opposite them. "We've finished our initial review." Dar said. "I've identified thee main systems that need replacement of hardware, and I'm going to recommend installation of a new infrastructure to support that."

Albert and Perkins exchanged glances, but didn't comment. Kerry could almost read their minds, which were buzzing along the lines of 'not as bad as we thought.' "I'll have the proposal transmitted to the Pentagon by tomorrow." She told her boss. "And an estimated timeline for install."

"All right." Commander Albert said. "You can coordinate with Lieutenant Perkins for that."

Dar nodded. "That was the easy part."

Both officers stiffened. "You're not finished?" Albert hazarded.

"No." Dar met his eyes. "General Easton has forwarded us status and analysis reports on the existing processes you have in place here for training and implementation. He wants them reviewed."

Kerry thought the two of them were going to implode, right there at the table. She'd never seen someone turn that red that fast, and her eyes widened a little as the veins appeared on the side of the Commander's temples. "It'll go faster if you just cooperate." She told them. "He's not saying you don't do a good job here, he just wants to see if there's a way to make things easier and better." She leaned forward. "Sometimes you need an outside pair of eyes to look at things - you get too close to the situation otherwise. Really."

"Lieutenant, Ms. Stuart, would you excuse us please." The commander bit off his words.

Kerry glanced at Dar, who cocked an eyebrow at her, then she stood and pushed her chair in. "I'll go find some coffee. " She waited for the glowering lieutenant to join her, then walked out of the room, closing the door behind them. "Would you like to tell me where it is, or do I have to go ask the Marines?"

The woman was grimly silent for a beat, then her shoulders perceptibly relaxed, and she shook her head. "Follow me."

They strolled along the corridor, and Kerry took the opportunity to study their erstwhile adversary more closely. They were about the same size, she realized, and more or less the same age. She'd also detected a familiarity in the dark haired woman's speech. "Where in the Midwest are you from, Lieutenant?"

Brown eyes flicked to her in wary attention. "Ann Arbor."

Kerry nodded. "You sounded local. I’m from Saugatuck." They stopped at a coffee station, and busied themselves in silence for a moment as they poured cups. Kerry was aware she was being covertly watched, and it made her ears twitch. "Want to sit down for a minute, until they finish yelling at each other?"

Without answering, the other woman lead the way to a utilitarian table, with two bench seats. She put her coffee down and straddled one, resting her elbows on the table and keeping her gaze firmly fixed on the beaten formica top.

Kerry took the opposite seat and composed her thoughts briefly. "We're not as bad as you think."

"Do you know how often we have to go through this?" Perkins lifted her head and glared. "Everyone thinks they know how to do our jobs, so they come waltzing in here, change things all around, and two months later we've got to go back to doing it the old way because it's the one that works."

Kerry's eyebrows lifted. "They send in consultants every two months?"

"No." The other woman sighed. "Every god damned newly made admiral they put in charge of this place."

"Oh." Kerry took a sip of the coffee, and held back a wince at the pungent strength of it. She was abruptly reminded of Andy Robert's affection for tar sludge, and now knew where he got it. "Well, we're not admirals."

"No, you're even more clueless about what we do." Perkins snapped.

"That can be a plus." Kerry answered mildly. "And as far as I’m concerned, yes, you're right. I'm clueless about the Navy. But I've got a good understanding of the government, and how it works, because my father's a Senator."

The lieutenant grunted, tensing muscular forearms as she lifted her cup.

"Dar, on the other hand, couldn't care less about the government, but she's got a good understanding of the Navy." Kerry told her, hiding a smile as the other woman's head jerked up in surprise. "She was born here, on this base."

One of Perkin's eyebrows lifted, very much like Dar's often did. "She's a navy brat?"

"Yep." Kerry agreed. "She sure is… her father just retired, as a matter of fact." Should have told them that first, her mind analyzed. Might have made the day a lot more pleasant. "So between the two of us, we're not that clueless."

"Commander Albert know that?" The lieutenant asked. "About her?"

"I don’t' think so, no. Not unless Dar mentioned it before, and I don't think she did. " Kerry replied. "Why?"

For the first time, a smile appeared on the other woman's face. "Just wondered."


Dar went to the window and looked out, ignoring the man behind her who was yelling into his telephone. She let her eyes wander over the familiar confines of the inner courtyard, noting the new sheds and walkways that dotted the grassy area. A smile appeared on her face as she eyed a thick hedge, remembering times spent huddled inside the center of it, in a tiny space she'd dug out for herself hidden from adult eyes.

How many hours had she spent in there? In the leafy warmth, green filtered sunlight trickling through the leaves and spilling over the ragged pages of whatever book she'd been pouring over that week. Reading had opened the world to her, a love she shared with her father, but a skill only reluctantly displayed to her peers on the base.

You didn't get any points for being a bookworm in her childhood world.

So she'd saved her books for that little private space, absorbing the words greedily, reading years ahead of her age from almost the very start.

The phone slammed down behind her, and she reluctantly left her memories behind and turned, leaning back against the windowsill. "Done?" Albert looked about as frustrated as anyone Dar had ever seen. His face was beet red, and there was a small tick jerking the side of his mouth upward in disconcerting rhythm. "Look, Commander…"

"No. You. Look." He got out from between gritted teeth. "I am not going to have some half assed civilians coming in her and telling me how to run my operation." He slapped his desk. "The base commander's on his way here, and let me tell you, lady, he's not going to put up with it either."

Dar exhaled. "Commander, I think you're overreacting." She told him.

"No ma'am, I am not." The naval officer shot back. "To have you come in here and evaluate our computers, well, I don't like it, but no doubt you know your business." He pointed at her. "But the Navy's my business, and madam, I don't need you telling me how to do it."

Dar sighed, and shook her head. "This is a waste of time."

"That's what I've said all along." Albert responded. "That's what I told the commander, and he agrees with me."

They heard heavy footsteps approaching, and a low gruff voice that seemed more a growl than anything else. "That's the commander." Albert looked relieved. "He'll get this straightened out."

Dar folded her arms and watched as the door swung open, admitting a very tall, extremely burly man with thick, grizzled silver hair and a full, well trimmed beard.

"All right." The newcomer boomed as he closed the door behind him with a solid crack. "Let's just get this cleared up right… son of a fucking bitch." His eyes had fallen on Dar, and he stopped in mid motion.

Albert glanced between his commander and Dar. "Sir?"

Dar blinked as a surprised smile spread across her face. "Uncle Jeff."

The man covered the space between them with startling rapidity, and engulfed Dar in a pair of very large arms, hugging her and lifting her completely off her feet. "Son of a bitch.. son of a bitch… I can't believe it." He gave her a squeeze, then released her and took her by the shoulders, studying her intently. "Tadpole, what the hell are you doing here?" He rumbled, then glanced at the dumbfounded Commander Albert. "Oh.. hell.. don't tell me you're the posse the Pentagon siced on me?"

"Fraid so." Dar caught her breath, her mind still spinning with the shock of being reunited with a long lost part of her past. "I didn't know they put you in charge of this place."

"Lord God yeah… three months back." Jeff Ainsbright said. "Look at you… damned if you didn't grow up gorgeous!" He cupped her cheek with an easy familiarity. "I can't believe it."

The door behind them opened, and Dar was aware of Kerry and the Lieutenant entering, her peripheral vision catching the shift in body language as Kerry absorbed the stranger in the room with his hands all over Dar. She gave her lover a reassuring smile and caught her eye, then met the tall commander's gaze. "Feels like it's been forever since I saw you…wish I'd known you were in charge here. We could have avoided a lot of yelling."

Jeff pulled her into a hug again. "Tadpole, if I'd known you were behind this, I'd have just handed the keys off to you and gone fishing."

Dar watched Kerry bite the inside of her lip to prevent a smirk from appearing. "Well, that's not what I was hired for." She told the tall man. "We're just here to give our best advice."

"Damn straight." The base commander agreed, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Albert, you give this lady whatever she wants, whenever she wants it, however she decides she needs it sliced and diced, you got me?"


"What part of that was in something other than English?" Jeff growled, turning his head to glare at the younger man. "Or are you developing a hearing problem?"

"No, sir." Albert braced. "But I'd like to remind the commander of the discussion we had…"

"Forget it." The answer came back. "I've got a whole different picture now. So you tell your staff to cooperate, or I'll have every last one of you scrubbing the heads with a box of Navy issue Kleenex, understand?"

"Yes, sir." Commander Albert got the words out from between clenched teeth.

"Good." Jeff turned and slung a long arm around Dar's shoulders. "C'mon lemme give you the top brass tour… well, hello there, young lady." The commander found a slim, blond woman planted firmly in his path.

Dar cleared her throat gently. "This is my associate, Kerry Stuart. Kerry, this is Jeff Ainsbright. He's an old friend of the family."

Kerry stuck a hand out. "Sir, it's good to meet you."

"Same here, Ms. Stuart." Jeff cordially enveloped her hand in his much larger one, and shook it. "Let me take you both to lunch. I think we got meatloaf today. You still like meatloaf, Tadpole?" He gave Dar a grin. "C'mon."

"Sounds good to me." Dar agreed, allowing herself to be hauled through the door, as she guided Kerry before her, leaving a glowering silence behind them.

Commander Albert waited until the footsteps had receded down the hall, then he looked at his data center manager. "Son of a bitch."

Lieutenant Perkins grunted. "This could be trouble."

"Yeah." The muscular, blond man tapped a pencil on his desk. "Get me a report on Roberts. Find out who the fuck she is, will you? I never figured her for military."

"She's a brat." Perkins picked up a pad and scribbled on it. "She's from here. Shouldn't be too hard to figure out who she is.. her dad was Navy."

"Find out." Albert nodded. "Find out everything you can. This could fuck up the whole project."

"Big time." The woman agreed. "She ain't stupid. Neither is the other one, what's her name.. Stuart."

"Hm." Her boss pursed his lips. "See what you can get on her, too. " He exhaled in consternation. "We could be in trouble. I need to call Scrooge."

"Give him my regards." Perkins took her pad, and left, closing the office door behind her.


Kerry found herself seated at a comfortable, if spartan table in the noisy cafeteria, listening to her partner and the commander catch up on old times. She cut neat squares of meatloaf and nibbled them, surprised at the agreeable taste. A rakish smile spread across Dar's face as the commander talked, and Kerry smiled too, charmed at the uncharacteristic, almost adolescent expression it gave her lover.

"So what's old Gerry's beef, Dar?" Jeff asked around a mouthful of mashed potatoes. "He got a surplus he needs to spend somewhere?"

"Nah." Dar replied. "From what he told me, it's more a matter of the Joint Chief's getting crap about making sure the military keeps ahead of the private sector in technology." She took a swallow from her glass of milk. "They told him to make sure it happened, he figured he'd hire me to do it and save himself some time and heartache."

"And me." Jeff grinned, poking his fork in her direction. "I was fixing to toss your civilian butt off my base, y'know, till I walked in that office and found out who it was that was putting a mine in old Albert's pants."

Dar sighed. "I should have just come to see you first." She gave Kerry a rueful look. "It would have saved both of us some time, and half a bottle of aspirin."

They ate in silence for a few moments, then Jeff leaned forward, fiddling with his knife a bit. "How'd your daddy doing? " He asked in a curiously gentle voice. "I tried to track him down, after I heard they'd found him over there, but I never could put a finger on him."

"He's fine." Dar reassured him. "He and mom are living on a boat nearby my place, if you can believe it."

"Aw." Jeff smiled. "He got back with your mamma? Damn, I am so glad to hear that, Dar. It about killed him to leave that last time with her so mad." He stopped awkwardly, and glanced at Kerry. "Pardon me, Dar.. I didn't mean to bring all that up here… "

"It's okay." Dar's blue eyes twinkled gently. "Kerry knows my parents very well."

"That's right." Kerry spoke up for the first time. "We have their phone number if you'd like it.. I bet d.. Mr. Roberts would love to hear from you."

"I bet he'd kick your butt for calling him mister." The commander laughed. "I'd love it… hey, Dar, listen.. Chuckie's coming in end of the week, why don’t we all get together and have a night out? I know he'd love to see you, and me and Barbara would give up a month's pay to see Andy and Cec."

Ah. Dar's memory pricked her suddenly, as she recalled Charles Ainright, Jeff's son who was her age, and growing up one of her closer friends. Tall, cute Chuckie, with his blond crewcut, and snub nose, who had wanted nothing more than to captain a navy ship. "He finally get his command?"

"You bet your ass." Jeff beamed. "Wait till I tell him you're here.. he's gonna float home. He still talks about you."

Oh boy. "It'll be good to see him." Dar allowed. "I'll see what I can arrange for Friday.. how's that? I think mom and dad'll be glad to come down."

"Great." Jeff placed his utensils precisely onto the plate he'd scraped clean. "Tadpole, you let me know if the pinheads down in ops give you any trouble, all right? I've got a staff meeting I have to go kick some asses at.. you about done here for today?"

"I think so." Dar nodded. "I was just going to show Kerry around the place."

"Good deal." The commander gave Kerry a friendly nod, then walked past and clapped Dar on the shoulder. "See you tomorrow, Dar. Drive safe, y'hear?"

"Thanks, Uncle Jeff." Dar replied, turning her head to watch him make his way through the tables, threading through a forest of salutes and stiffening bodies as he headed out the door. Then she turned her head to see curious green eyes watching her. "Hm. That was a surprise."

"Mm.. yeah. I gathered." Kerry cupped her chin in one hand. "He seems nice, though."

Dar leaned back and exhaled, scratching her neck with one hand. "He is… his wife's a sweetheart. They were pretty good friends of my folks.. dad and Jeff used to fish together at night."

"Uh huh… and Chuckie?" Kerry teased, having noted the faint blush that colored Dar's face at the mention of the name. "Sounds like he liked you."

Dar's face scrunched up into a half amused, half embarrassed scowl. "Yeeeahh… he um… "

"Another crush?" Kerry laughed.

"Not exactly. " Her lover admitted. "My first boyfriend. He was my high school prom date."

Kerry's blond brows shot up in silent amazement.

"I was young, and still pretty clueless." Dar folded her arms, and sighed. "But we had a good time together." She added. "I know my folks'll be glad to see them."

Kerry sipped her ice tea thoughtfully. "He's pretty Republican, isn't he?"

Dar nodded, her lips twitching.

"Want me to find something else to do that night?" Kerry offered with quiet grace.

Dar gazed sightlessly at the center of the table for a long moment, her brow lightly wrinkled in thought. Then she drew in a breath, and met Kerry's eyes. "No. I really don't."

"Fair enough." Kerry accepted the answer. "C'mon… as long as I'm here, I want to see this BX thing you mentioned, and get some souvenirs. " She changed the subject. "Maybe a cap, since I've got enough Navy sweatshirts to outfit the entire Florida Marlin baseball team."

"You got it." Dar stood, and they put their trays away, then left the cafeteria, aware of the curious eyes that followed them.


"Good morning, Ms. Kerry." Mayte looked up as Kerry entered her office, giving her boss a bright smile. "Did it go okay yesterday?"

"Sort of." Kerry replied, pausing before Mayte's desk. "It started off pretty rocky, but it turns out the officer in charge of the base is an old friend of Dar's, so things smoothed out after lunch." Remarkably so, in fact. Dar had gotten all the data she needed or asked for, and they'd retired early, heading back up the long, lonely road home while the sun was still a decent angle in the sky.

That meant they'd had time for a nice long workout in the gym, a walk on the beach, and dinner at the club before Dar sat down to digest the information they'd gleaned. Kerry stretched her shoulders out a little, still tight from the climbing wall, and wished briefly she could repeat the day. "What's going on here this morning?"

"You have two of the marketing sessions, at nine and ten, and the operations meeting at one." Mayte answered promptly. "Mrs. Anderson, from the new company we are buying cable from is also to be here at three."

Kerry exhaled. "Okay." She spared a moment of envy for Dar, who had ambled out early, dressed in jeans and hiking boots, then tucked her laptop case under her arm and headed for her desk. "Can you print me the meeting minutes for this afternoon, and remind me what we're fighting with marketing about this week?"

"Of course." Mayte's voice floated after her. "Would you like some cafecita? I was just about to get some."

"Yes." Kerry called back. "I'd kill for a large café con leche. Thanks."

It was quiet then, for a bit, and she settled down in her large, leather chair, it's cool surface warming against her legs as she nudged her computer on, and investigated her inbox. "What have we here?" She mused, pulling over a folder and flipping it open. "Ah." Requisitions for new computers for the accounting department. After a moment's studying, she nodded, and picked up her pen, signing off on the papers and checking the totals carefully.

Duks didn't ask for new hardware often. She'd talked to him last month about the depreciation on the systems they'd last bought for his department, and he showed a studied reluctance to changing what he viewed as perfectly acceptable workplace tools. Kerry had disagreed, considering 386 DX systems that still ran Windows 3.11 to be something along the lines of what she'd use as a door stop.

But Duks had said no.

So Kerry had reviewed the accounting software they were using, and called the vendor, discovering a new, upgraded version with lots of nifty new things and reports they just couldn't live without. She'd told Duks, and he'd agreed. "Great. "She'd said. "Now you can put in your order for new systems, because this software only runs on a Pentium III."

"Heh." Kerry put the folder into her outbox. "Accountants… fastest way to their heart is through their report writers." She turned and opened her mail program, watching as the screen filled quickly with black lines of new messages, a good percentage with red exclamation points next to them. She sighed, and propped her chin up on her fist, waiting for the download to end.


Lieutenant Perkins tucked a folder under one arm, and knocked lightly on the door. She paused to listen for the voice inside, then opened the door and slipped inside. She crossed the wooden floor quickly, and put the folder down on her bosses desk, her eyes meeting his as he sat behind it. "I found her."

Albert raised an eyebrow. "And?"

"Not good." The lieutenant shook her head. "Take a look, sir." She waited for Albert to open the folder. "Her actual name is Paladar Roberts. Her father was in for twenty years, he just retired a few months ago. She was born here, spent fifteen years on and off on the base. Left after she graduated from UM." She paused. "BS in Computer Science, top in her class. Been with ILS ever since."

"Mmph." Albert studied the contents of the folders, flipping through transcripts and documentation. "Wonder why she never… oh. Did you see these ASVAB scores?"

"Yeah. Did you see what program she was qualifying for?"

His eyes flicked over the papers. "Ah hah. Wanted to follow in daddy's footsteps, but he was a SEAL. I get it. She's probably got a grudge the size of a flat top." He chuckled dryly. "She seems the type."

"She passed the physical." Perkins commented.

"Mm." Her commander prowled through the papers, then selected a black and white photo, examining it curiously. An adolescent Dar Roberts stared dourly back at him, dark hair half obscuring the pale eyes, her lean body encased in a tight, sleeveless black shirt and well used fatigue pants. "Scary." He flipped the picture over to her.

Perkins picked it up and studied it. "Very." She tossed it back. "What are we going to do about her?"

The commander sorted through the papers. "Can we keep her out of the inside systems?"

A shake of her head. "Probably not. Based on the questions I was getting, I'm going to guess she actually knows her way around a programming language. I could try to throw a pile of code at her, but I don’t' know how long that would hold her up."

"Give it a try." Commander Albert sighed. "I'll see what else I can do.. .get everything you can and stick it behind the number six firewall. We need to find something to distract her." He closed the folder and pushed it back across the desk. "The timing just sucks."

"You told Scrooge you had it under control." Perkins reminded him, in a worried tone.

"That was before I found out she grew up with Dudley Do Right's kid." He snapped back. "I didn't figure it'd be a problem getting her thrown out of here.. now we have to find another way." He sighed. "What about the other one?"

"We got lucky there." The lieutenant smiled. "She's Roger Stuart's daughter."

Their eyes met. "No shit?" The commander's eyebrows lifted.

"No shit, no sir." Perkins said. "I thought you'd be glad to hear that."

Albert leaned back in his chair, and laced his fingers behind his head. "I guess we don't need to worry about her, then. I don't think she's coming back here anyway." He exhaled. "But that might be the leverage I need… I'll have to call Scrooge. He'll know if we can use it."


She was early. The guard let her in without comment this time, and Dar drove slowly through the base, allowing her memories to surface without interruption this time. She parked on the far end of the lot, and got out, locking the doors to the Lexus with a negligent flick, then turned around and leaned against the side of the car, just letting her gaze travel across the scene.

Damn. It looked different, but in some ways the same. The buildings had been altered, new construction changing the outlines subtly, and everything had fresh coats of paint on it. But as she stood there and looked, older images floated before her eyes, and without much conscious thought, she started walking towards the neatly trimmed pathway that wound it's way around the base.

Of course, there was activity. Unlike most of the rest of the city, the day here started before dawn, and she listened to the familiar chants as groups of men and women jogged by her, some sparing a curious glance as they moved past. Dar regarded their backs thoughtfully, and wondered for the hundreth time if she'd have ever had the internal fortitude to get through training if she'd chosen to join the Navy after all.

Physically, she knew she could have. She'd been all whipcord and iron back then, strong and tough and more than up to whatever demands the Navy would have chosen to dump on her shoulders. Even now, Dar glanced down and considered her tall form with a touch of conceit, even after all the years of desk-bound work and a plush lifestyle she'd never imagined back then, even now if she really pushed , she could probably force herself through the basic course.

On sheer stubbornness, if nothing else, she wryly conceded.

Mentally, though? Dar sighed, pausing and leaning against the fence to peer at the tiny houses just beyond it. She had the self discipline, but she hadn't had the ability to accept taking orders from anyone just because they had a stripe on their arm, or a collar insignia. Not then, and, her lips pursed into a slight smile. Certainly not now.

Her eyes found that one small house, third one on the fourth block. She examined the neatly painted outside, then she circled the fence and walked down the sidewalk, stopping as she came even with the front door. It appeared vacant, and she walked up the small driveway into the carport, putting out a hand and touching the cement brick surface. It felt rough under her fingertips, and a familiar scent of dust and sun warmed tar filled her nose as the breeze puffed through the enclosure.


She walked through and out the back into the yard, over to a ficus tree still firmly entrenched near the side of the house. Her eyes lifted, and found the old, rotting bits of wood held by rusty nails that once, long ago, might have been the outlines of a tree house. She looked between the branches, into a blank window, seeing the faint outlines of a plain, small room inside that had once been hers.

It felt very strange. Dar leaned against the tree, and tried to remember what it was like being a small child looking out of that window. She found she couldn't. Too much time had passed, and she was too different a person now to feel a link here.

Hell. Her face tensed into a scowl. She hadn't even wanted to bring Kerry here to see this. Not that her lover would have laughed, in fact, Kerry would have been interested, as she was in everything Dar had to tell her about her childhood. She wasn't ashamed of the house, either. It was just that it was so unremarkable a place, and she could no longer feel any kind of connection to it.

With a sigh, Dar pushed back from the tree, then she glanced up, and moved her head, shifting a hand to part a thick branch full of leaves. Her eyes fell on her own initials, carved into the bark of the tree, and even after all these years, plainly visible.

Then her brow furrowed, and she leaned forward, blinking as her eyes tried to make sense of the freshly cut markings right next to her old ones.

Kerry's initials. Dar's jaw dropped in open shock. When in the hell had she… Then Dar recalled the long stretch of time her lover had been gone, on one of their breaks from the endless data gathering. She'd returned, cheerfully claiming a walk to clear her head. Dar remembered the smell of warm skin as Kerry had brushed against her, and now knew were it had come from. A silly smile appeared on her face as she gazed up at the letters.

Yesterday's date, with a plus sign joining the old and the new, all carved in slightly awkward, but competent letters into the gray bark. Without looking, she fished her cell phone from it's holder clipped to her belt and speed dialed a number. She waited for a voice to answer, then she closed her eyes. "You are the most incredible person I've ever known." She heard the slight intake of breath. "I love you."

Then she closed the phone, and tucked it back into it's holder, and walked away from the house, headed back towards her waiting job, humming softly.

Kerry glanced at the roomful of marketing executives, all intently focused on her, and folded her phone back up. "That was a…um… a Status report." She smiled weakly, knowing her face was a red as a boiled beet. "I'm sorry, what were you saying about fourth quarter projections?"

Eleanor cleared her throat. "We were talking about the South American emerging IT market."

"Right." Kerry rubbed her face. "Sorry. Go on."


Dar leaned back in the hard, wooden chair and rubbed her eyes, closing them for a moment as she reloaded data for the hundredth time. She listened for the hard drive to stop spinning, then sighed, and rocked forward, scanning the results with a tiny scowl on her face.

"Damn it." She checked and rechecked the figures. "Something's just not adding up." Dar paged through the reports sprawled over the desk and shook her head. She'd taken the performance data of the base first, and dumped it into her analyzer, letting the custom built scripts she'd written sort through the columns of figures, matching dollars spent with viable product, in this case, qualified personnel who were assigned out to various Navy installations around the world.

Something just wasn't matching. Her scripts kept returning errors, finding discrepancies between the list of expenses and the lists of demands for payment, and so far she hadn't been able to put her finger on the reason why. It was almost as though parts of the data were misplaced, not missing, because the end result balanced, but in the wrong areas so that the orderly progression of bookeeping went every which direction.

Hm. Dar scratched her jaw. Maybe that was why her data parse on the base hadn't brought back snips of relevant data, like who the new base commander was. Her eyebrows hiked, and she dove into her briefcase, retrieving the case study she'd done before starting the project. Impatiently she flipped through the already ruffle edged papers, her eyes darting back and forth until she found the spot she was looking for. "Ah."

She leaned back and rested the report on her knee, as a warm draft of air entered through the window and stirred the pages, bringing a scent of fresh cut grass and the sound of rugged chanting to her. Dar had requested, politely, a small office space for her use, and Commander Albert and Lieutenant Parkins had, equally politely, lead her to this tiny room with it's one single, scarred, wooden desk and unpadded chair.

And no air conditioning. Dar had given them both a smile, then simply taken off her denim overshirt, leaving her comfortable in a very light tank top as she sat down and kept them standing there, answering questions in their full uniforms until they'd both turned red as beets and started sweating.

Dar chuckled to herself, and glanced out the window, watching a training group go through an obstacle course, clawing their way up a tall wooden wall and flipping over with strained grunts she could hear all the way where she was sitting. It wasn't too different from when she and the rest of the base brats used to sneak over after dinner, and try the course themselves, ending up with splinters and cuts as they struggled along.

She remembered the first time she'd made it all the way through, at age fourteen. Almost without a scratch until she came to the last hurdle, the rope ladder she'd swarmed up, sweating and almost yelling with exultation as she grabbed the top and flung herself over.
Completely forgetting the ditch on the other side. Ow. Dar winced, even all these years later, and reached down to rub her ankle, which she'd twisted so badly she almost didn't make it home. Fortunately, her daddy had spotted her limping down the sidewalk and pulled over in their sturdy pickup halfway there.
"What in the hell happened t'you, young lady?" Andrew Robert's rugged, crewcutted head had poked out the window.
Dar had grabbed the doorframe gratefully and hung on, catching her breath. "Nothin.. I just fell offa something."
Andy had leaned closer. "Were you over at that monkey pit?" He'd accused.
Dar had chewed her lip. "Yeah." Lying to her father was never a good idea. She'd learned that the hard way.
"After I told you not to go there?" The low growl had made her flinch.
"Yeah." She'd looked back up into his face. "Got through this time." She hadn't been able to help grinning, just a little, but she'd stopped at the scowl on his face. .
"You are just a pile of trouble, ain'tcha, Paladar?" Andrew had shaken his head. "Git your ass into this here truck."
So she had, limping around the front and getting in on the other side, glad of the chance to sit down and get off her aching ankle, as he'd pulled away from the curb and started down their street. It had taken her a moment to realize it when he passed the house, and kept going, and she'd given him a startled look. 'Where're we going?"
"Git you some ice for that leg, and some water to wash the mud off yer face." Her father had told her. "Cause I an't bringing you in the house looking like that, little girl. Your mother'd kill me."
Dar had scowled, and looked down at her mud stained hands, her momentary happiness fading. They'd only recently returned to Florida, and the adjustment back had been tough for her. Friends were very few, and far between, and Andy was facing another six month tour in just a few weeks.
"'Sides… you can't eat ice cream with all that dirt down there." Andy had muttered.
Dar had looked at him sideways.
"Figure anyone stubborn enough to get through that monkey pit deserves an ice cream cone, don't you?" Andy had stopped at a stop sign and turned, reaching over and wiping a bit of mud off Dar's cheek. "I know I went and got me one first time I got my butt through it." He'd patted her face. "Good job, Dardar That's a tough thing you done."
Dar remembered smiling so hard it hurt, making her forget her ankle completely. "Thanks, daddy."

Hm. Dar licked her lips thoughtfully. Ice cream. Now there's a thought. She decided to take a side trip during lunch, and resettled her attention on the report she held. The date was current, as of two weeks ago, as she'd thought, but the name of the base commander she knew now was wrong.

So, what else was wrong, and why? Dar switched to the laptop and typed in a query. It came back, this time with the correct information. Was the reporting that far behind, and she just got caught in the lag? She checked another bit of data, and frowned. Okay, that came up all right now too. So maybe she did get caught between updates. "All right.. let me just run these suckers all over again." She typed in a request and watched a long bar start across her screen. "Note to self. Self, upgrade this damn base to 100 base T before you do anything else. Jesus. At ten I could walk to the blasted server and get this faster."

Her cell phone buzzed, and she flipped it open. "Yeah?"

"Morning boss." Mark's voice came through. "You let me a voice mail to call ya, so here I am."

"I need a T1." Dar flipped through another set of reports as she talked. "Even a fractional would do if we can't get a full… I’m gonna need the big boxes to run the specs on this place, and they don't have a pipe big enough for me to hook into."

"Hang on.. I'm GPS'ing you." Mark muttered. "Yeah.yeah..yeah.. shut up… stop with the error messages, willya… ah. Shit, Dar. You're in bumfuck."

"I am not." Dar protested.

"You most certainly the heck are, boss… the nearest CO to you is freaking Marathon." Mark replied. "I'd have to piggyback on the National Defense circuits… Bellsouth's not gonna go for it, that's for sure, they don’t' have crap anywhere in the area." He paused. "What in the hell are you doing out there in the scrub, anyway?"

Dar felt stung, irrationally, she realized, but stung none the less. "I'm on a project out at the Naval base here." She answered slowly. "The one I grew up on."

There was a very awkward silence on the phone. "Uh… sorry, Dar." Mark finally stuttered. "I didn't meant to dis the place."

Dar sighed. "It's okay." She glanced around. "It is bumfuck."

"Well, it must be a pretty cool slice of bumfuck if you're from there." Mark rallied faintly. "But I gotta tell you, even if I cross my legs and squeeze I can't really imagine you as a kid."

No. Dar tossed the report onto the desk. "That's probably a good thing." She told her MIS chief. "When can I get my T1?"

A silence filled with clicking followed. "Best I can do is Thursday."

Dar's eyebrows lifted. "After all that griping? You're a damn fraud, Mark."

Mark chuckled softly. "Yeah, well… I was checking the commercial availability - I went back and checked the governmental - they've got a big POP not far from there. We can zap in a pipe there. I'll ship you down a Cisco and a mini hub."

"Good." Dar responded. "I want to hook up when it gets a completion and suck everything in their main systems out and over to the mainframes. I ran an analysis on my laptop, but there's something not jibing, and I don't have the cpu cycles to rip it apart."

"Sounds good to m… oh, hey." Mark's voice altered, and warmed. "I was just talking to the big kahuna."

"The big kahuna who nearly got my ass nailed to the table in a marketing meeting? That big kahuna?" Kerry's voice echoed through the circuit. "Gimme that phone." There was a fumbling noise. "Paladar Katherine Roberts."

"Uh oh." Dar started laughing. "You sound like my mother."

"You are so busted." Kerry joined her in laughter. "Oh my god, Dar…you knocked me for a such a loop in that meeting… how's it going?"

"Eh." Dar reviewed the report now running on the laptop's screen. "All right, I guess. There's so much to do, I cant' decide where to start." She sent the report to print. "How's it going there?"

"Well." Kerry exhaled, an audible rushing sound. "I've got a session with Jose in about an hour. Wish me luck." She perched on Mark's desk and winked at him "Other than that, it's been fine, with the slight exception of me being rendered speechless earlier. What was that all about?"

"Someone's initials." Dar replied succinctly.

Kerry smiled. "Oh." She murmured. "Yeah.. I don't know what got into me.. I got to use the Leatherman you got me, though." She'd circled the small house and tried to imagine her lover and her family living in it. "Well, I've got to get to my meeting - here's Mark back. See you later at home?"

"You bet."

Kerry handed the phone back, and stood, picking up the handful of requisitions she'd come to collect. She gave Mark a pat on the back and walked through the MIS command center, with it's semi circular desks and racks of seriously blinking lights. Just as she hit the door, an alarm went off, and she paused, looking back over her shoulder to where two techs were scrambling towards a monitor. "What is it?"

"Shit." One tech slapped buttons, then glanced up. "Sorry, ma'am."

Kerry returned to the desk and peered over it. "What's going on?"

"Crap..crap..crap.. we just lost the southeast." The other tech was furiously rattling his keyboard, and now Mark approached, leaning over them. "Mark, something big just took a dump over Georgia." He looked at Kerry. "You know what that means."

Kerry smiled. "It means I get to cancel my meeting." She set her papers down and rolled her sleeves up. "Okay… Mark, you start checking the access routers.. I'll call Bellsouth."


Dar made her way through the labyrinth of corridors and pushed open Commander Albert's door without ceremony or even a knock. She found the data center manager just getting off a call and she paused, giving him a look. "You wanted a conference?"

Albert took in a breath visibly, and released it. "Okay, look." He held out both hands. "Can I raise a truce pennant, here?"

Bout god damned time. Dar folded her arms, but relaxed her posture at the same time. "Depends on what your terms are." She said. "This can be just as tough as you want it to be."

"Okay." The man sat down, and motioned her to do the same. "Look, Ms. Roberts, I really don't mean to be such a bastard, but.." He paused.

"But I'm stomping all over your territory with spike heels." Dar finished for him. "You think I don't know that? Listen, Commander, if I were in your shoes, I'd be just as pissed off as you are, believe me."

Albert relaxed a little. "Have you ever been? In my shoes?"

Dar considered the question. "Not really, no." She admitted. "My company was taken over by ILS, but I was just a programmer then. I remember resenting the hell out of having to explain to clueless githeads what my code was, though." She crossed an ankle over her knee. "So I do understand, but you need to understand that I'm not your enemy."

He watched her closely. "You were hired to do this, I know that."

Dar nodded. "That's right. The brass is looking for two things. One, to make themselves look good, by hiring in the biggest, most well known IS firm around to come in and evaluate them, and two, they're wanting justification to spend billions in improving infrastructure. If it comes to a question, they point to our analysis, and it's right there, in black and white."

Albert grunted, his brows twitching in thought.

"So do yourself a favor, Commander, just let me do what they're paying me a fortune for, okay? " Dar said.

He leaned forward, and rested his elbows on the desk surface, clasping his hands together lightly. "All right, Ms. Roberts. I'm just going to be my butt chewed up one side and down the other if I don't." He exhaled. "So. Do you have everything you want? Lieutenant Perkins told me you were pulling down statistics most of the day."

Dar got up and walked to the window, leaning both hands against the sill and peering out the dusty panes. "That's right." She watched a squad of men carrying huge logs move past. "But I've got programs to analyze all that. I want to start looking at facilities, first hand. " She turned, and faced him. "You can let me wander by myself, or give me someone who can answer questions."

A faint grin crossed the commander's face. "I think we can arrange for a guide, Ms. Roberts." He hit a button on his desk. "I was anticipating the issue. " His voice got louder. "Send in Chief Daniel."

After a moment the door opened, admitting a short, very stocky woman with ginger hair peppered lightly with gray. She gave Dar a brief glance, then turned her attention to Albert. "Sir?"

"This is our senior operations staff, CPO Daniel, Ms. Roberts. She's in charge of implementing and supervising all our overall processes." He gave the newcomer a brief nod. "Chief, this is Ms. Roberts. She's here on orders from Washington to do an evaluation on us, and recommend improvements." The base commander said pleasantly. "Please take her where she wants to go and answer any questions."

In her spare moments Dar often played a little mental game where she tried to match people up with what breed of dog they would be if they'd suddenly morphed before her eyes. She'd often amused herself in meetings by imagining Eleanor as an Afgan Hound, discussing sales with Jose the Sheepdog, for instance. She'd even drawn a sketch of it, which had sent Kerry into a fit of hysterics and made her leave the room.

The bulldog in a naval uniform gave Dar a once over, then nodded briefly. "Yes, sir, I'll be glad to do that. Would you like to start now, ma'am, it's a big base."

"Absolutely." Dar responded, recognizing the aggressive stance with an internal sigh. "Let's start where they come in. After you?" She gestured towards the door. "Thank you, commander."

"My pleasure." Albert gave her a pleasant, albeit vicious smile. "Let me know if there's anything else I can do."

Dar followed the woman out of the office and organized her resources for this new challenge. Given how Albert had phrased her assignment, calculated to offend the petty officer as much as possible without actually coming out and accusing her of not doing her job, she had to wonder which one of them the data center manager disliked more.

She eyed the shorter woman plowing along beside her.

"Would m'am like to stop at supply and pick up a pad and pencil? " Daniel asked suddenly. "I’m sure you'll have notes to take."

"No thanks." Dar replied mildly. "I usually work at a macro level. I leave the micro details to the people who actually implement the designs." Hmm. What would Kerry do? Dar sorted through her options. "Look, Chief. I've got no intention of spending days wading through your attitude. Let's go get a cup of coffee and get the fistfight out of the way, then maybe we can get something done."

The petty officer stopped, and turned, and studied her with a ferocious intentness. She had a strong presence, and an air of fierce competence that almost matched Dar's own. "I don't know what you're real purpose is here, m'am, but I'm not one of those data center fluffheads who wander around with printouts tucked up their butts all day. I have a job to do, and I do a damn good one. So if you want to tell me what your agenda is, maybe I can save us both time and sweat."

"Problem is, I don't have one." Dar replied. "So if you're doing a good job, you've got nothing to worry about, right?"

"What makes you think you can walk in here and judge us?" Daniel moved a step closer. "You think I have an attitude? What did you expect, coming in here an outsider like this, walking into a world you can't possibly understand?"


"You think we don't know what you people out there think of the military? You think it's easy getting that attitude from people who couldn't last a day through basic training, who think we're a bunch of mindless idiots?" Daniel stabbed a finger at Dar. "Don't talk to me about attitude, lady."

Dar cocked her head. "You like the Navy, chief?"

That threw the petty officer right off her tracks. "What?"

"Do you like the Navy? You're a career in, right?"

Warily, Daniel backed off a pace. "It's a job." She answered slowly. "You take a lot of shit, but it's like a family. I've gotten used to it. Why?"

Unaccountably, Dar smiled. "You just gave me an answer to a question I've been asking myself since I was eighteen. Thanks." A flock of what if's took off and left her shoulders lighter. "You're right, Chief. I am an outsider." Now she met the shorter woman's eyes. "You need to pick if you want me to be a hostile, or a friendly one."

They stared at each other in silence.


"Okay, so how are you guys today?" Kerry pulled both legs up under her and sat cross legged, leaning on the arm of her chair as she regarded her small group of teens. "Did you have a good Thanksgiving?"

Five sets of eyes rolled. "I hate holidays." Lena groaned. "We had the whole family, my grandparents, the cousins, everyone at our house. I had to dress up. It sucked." The tiny, blond girl made a face.

Kerry chuckled. "Oh yeah.. I remember those days." She said. "Thanksgiving was always big at my parent's house. We had thirty, or forty people there sometimes."

"Did you like it?" Lena asked, doubtfully.

Kerry thought about that. "Sometimes." She answered. "When I was really young, I did, because all my cousins would come over, and we were too little for anything really formal. They'd let us loose in the solar with a couple of the nannys, and we'd have a ball."

"Oo." Erisa pushed a lock of dark hair back off her forehead. "You were, like, super rich, huh?"

"My parents are well off, yes." Kerry replied.

"So, what did you do for Thanksgiving?" Lena asked. "Did you cook that turkey you got?"

How did we end up talking about me? Kerry wondered. "Yes and no. I did get to cook it, but it was a few days late. I was out of town for the holiday."

Casey sat up. "You took off? What'd your SO think of that?" Everyone's ears perked up visibly, and they watched Kerry with interest.

"Mm… well, Dar knows my job entails a lot of traveling, so she understood." Sort of . "But as it turned out, she was traveling too, and we both ended up in Chicago together. So, it worked out." Time to change the subject. "Anyone seen Barbara? She usually doesn't miss a group meeting."

"Oh.. yeah, I forgot to tell you." Lena slapped her head. "Shit man, my brain is like, not even here. She got promoted." She snapped her fingers. "Like to an assistant manager, you know? She had to work a little late tonight. I went by there on my way."

"That rocks." Erisa clapped her hands. "So, like, Kerry, I guess you were right, you know?"

Kerry smiled. "I guess I was." She agreed. 'I’m glad to hear that. It's good to know that Barbara took a chance, and she really got something out of it." Her body shifted and she straightened up a little. "That's a good message. Sometimes you do have to take risks, and those risks turn out to be some of the best things in your life."

"I dunno." Lena sighed. "I had to listen to my folks for two days tell me how I should get a boyfriend. They're so clueless, I mean, like.. hello? Those are not pictures of Leonardo DumbasaFishio on my wall, okay?" She twisted her limbs in the chair, moving into a position that made Kerry wonder if she had bones or plastic rods in her body. "You think they'd know, you know? Do I have to paint , like, my whole room in friggen rainbow stripes?"

"They'd probably think you were just doing that retro seventies thing." Casey snorted. "My freaking father finally caught a clue when I dumped a box of friggen condoms he'd left in my room in his cereal bowl and told him I wasn't innnerested in letting anything that fit in them fit in me."

Kerry bit back a snort of laughter. "What did he say?"

Casey shrugged, and laughed without humor. "He said thank fucking god, at least I wouldn't go out and get stupid and pregnant, and make him pay for it."

"Yo… he'd rather you be gay than a slut, right?" Lena remarked. "My folks would rather I be dead than gay."

Kerry sobered. "You don't know that."

"Sure I do." The slim blond looked directly at her. "My mom told me that, right to my face, after she watched some fucking Oprah shit about gay kids." A snort. "She said if she ever found out I was gay, she'd shut me up in my room and gas me."

Holy crap. Kerry took a breath to steady herself. "I don't think she meant that." She reassured the girl. "Parents say things like that to scare their kids sometimes."

Lena shrugged. "Yeah, maybe, but I know why so many gay kids pretend they ain't. You get so sick of people thinking you're just so fucked up."

"Yeah." Elina nodded. "I was thinking the other day, is it even worth it?"

Kerry sat up, and put both feet on the ground, clasping her hands between her knees as she leaned forward. "Listen." She spoke slowly, and quietly. "My parents don’t like me being gay either, and that hurts, because I love my family very much." She sorted through her feelings. "I hated having to make a choice between them, and the truth about myself."

"They just don't get it." Elina remarked softly. "It's like they don't understand it, so they have to hate it."

Kerry nodded. "That's true, and believe me, I was scared after I realized I was going to have to face that. I didn't want them to hate me." She paused, and collected her thoughts. "You know, I never knew what it would be like to fall in love. So when I fell in love with Dar, it was all so much of a surprise to me. How good it felt, and what an amazingly powerful emotion love is."

They all looked at each other, then back at her.

"It's worth it." Kerry stated simply. "I wouldn't give up Dar for all the money, or the approval of my parents, or anything else in the world."

There was utter silence, and she glanced from face to face, as they stared. "C'mon, it wasn't that profound." Kerry chuckled, then realized they weren't staring at her, they were staring past her. She turned her head, to find Dar leaning in the doorway, her arms folded, and a quiet, pleased smile on her face. "Ah. It's you."  

"Yes, it is." Dar agreed.

Kerry was aware she was blushing. "C'mon in. Guys, this is Dar."

The tall, dark haired woman entered and circled Kerry's chair, perching on an arm of it as she regarded the circle of young faces. "Hi." She greeted them briefly, then turned her attention to her victim. "You're late."

Kerry found herself flailing bewilderedly in that sea of blue. "I am? For what?"

"You have an appointment with me, some of my stone crab friends, and a tall bottle." Dar told her, watching the startled delight creep into Kerry's features. "With lots of bubbles in it." She turned her head and peered at the girls. "You'll excuse her, right?"

Five heads nodded.

"Good." Dar turned her attention back to Kerry. "Well?" She held a hand out, palm upmost, and a lifted an eyebrow. Kerry put her own hand up and clasped it, their fingers curling warmly around each other. Dar stood, and tugged, and waited for Kerry to join her.

"Um." Kerry faced her group, who were now smiling and giggling at her. "I guess I'll see you guys next week, huh?" She flashed them a rueful grin. "See? She's definitely a keeper."

They walked out of the meeting room and out through the church, still clasping hands, respecting the peaceful silence until they pushed the large outer door open, and went from the slightly close air into a cool fall night and a gusty breeze tinged heavily with salt. "Wow." Kerry turned her head to regard the profile outlined in stars next to her. "That was a surprise."

Dar nodded. "I know. I had a tough day, and ended up getting through it by planning the night with you." She admitted. "C'mon…let's go count stars."

Kerry smiled and turned her face to the wind as they walked towards the small, seaside restaurant nearby, it's table candles fluttering in the breeze. Her hand felt warm in Dar's, and the concrete sidewalk seemed to turn into a soft cloud.


The ocean rolled in nearby, a rhythmic shush and roar followed by a faint tinkle of shells. Dar and Kerry were sitting braced against a tree with their legs extended out along sand still holding the day's warmth. Or, to be more precise, Dar was leaning against the tree, and Kerry was leaning against Dar, as she was seated between her lover's legs in a blissfully comfortable sprawl.

"So, I’m a keeper, huh?" Dar drawled, a hint of a chuckle in her voice.

"You bet your boots, Dixiecup." Kerry lifted one of the hands clasped loosely around her waist and kissed it. "How long were you in that doorway, anyhow?"

"Not long." Dar said. "I heard what that little blond haired girl said, then what you said back."

Kerry exhaled. "I can't believe her mother said that. How could a parent be that…" She paused, and reflected. "You know, I don't think even my parents would have said something like that to me."

"You think the mother was serious?" Dar sounded doubtful. "That sounded like one of those 'if you don't behave, I'm going to cut your hands off' kind of parental things."

"That's what I thought too, then." Kerry agreed. "But the more I think about it, the more I wonder why someone would say that to a child, even if it wasn't serious."

"Well." Dar shifted a little, then gave Kerry a squeeze. "I don't know. You get frustrated, I guess. When I look back on when I was younger, I know my mother said things to me that came from her being so at a loss with how to deal with things that I did." She paused. "I think maybe you want your kids to be perfect, so when they're not, and you can see all the things you want to be different in them, it gets you crazy." Another pause. "But even when she said things, I never remember feeling afraid of her."

"No.. but if you're really upset about something, and scared, you take things like that to heart, Dar." Kerry sighed. "When I had my confrontation with my parents, I was an adult at least. I knew who I was, and I was old enough to have developed a mind of my own."

Dar chuckled. "I'd certainly agree with that statement."

Kerry stuck her tongue out at her. She found it caught between Dar's teeth an instant later as it was gently nibbled and tasted, then lips brushed hers and disappeared, restoring the view of the ocean to her. "Oo." Kerry enjoyed the tingling. "That was erotic." She turned her head. "Can we do it again?"

"Only if you're interested in making the front page of the Lifestyles section of the Herald." Dar indicated the strolling passersby. "On the other hand, I know a hot tub that might be willing to look the other way for us."

"Eeoorwl" Kerry emitted a contented gurgle and stretched. "I could go for that. You can tell me more about this petty person who's giving you such a migraine. Do I need to come down to the base again and have a chat with her?"

Dar stood, tugging Kerry up with her, and they started back towards the church parking lot. "No. The Chief's all right. At least she knows what she's doing, and understands base ops. I just get the feeling she'd like to bump me into the two hundred pound hamburger grinders and give herself a mark for reducing chow costs." She said. "I feel like I'm walking around with a slightly rabid dog trotting around after me, ready to clamp on at any second."

"Hm." Kerry's nose wrinkled up as she smiled. "I think that's how people feel about you sometimes, you know."

A sigh. "I know."

"Not really nice, huh?" The green eyes twinkled.

Dar gave her a look. "Are you laughing at me?"

Kerry pulled her closer, tucking her hand around Dar's arm. "I'm not laughing at you. I was just thinking that it must be strange for you to be faced with the kind of challenge that you usually present to other people." She felt Dar sigh again. "Why don't you try making friends with her? I'm sure you two have something in common."

They approached Kerry's car, and she power unlocked the door, then muffled a smile as Dar opened it for her. She got in and paused, as her lover leaned on the window and watched her get settled. "Meet you at the ferry?"

"Drive careful." Dar told her, then closed the door. She walked around the back of the Mustang and got into her own car, starting it and pulling out after Kerry onto the main street. They drove along the beach road and turned right onto the causeway that lead home, navigating the relatively sparse traffic in tandem. They reached the first bridge and rolled over it, reaching the top and starting down the other side.

It took Dar's mind a frantic second to confirm the headlights coming towards them were really in the wrong lane, a half ton of truck barrelling down towards Kerry who was starting to react, throwing her wheel hard to the left and sending the Mustang bolting towards the green center island.

For a second, Dar froze, her eyes caught in the glaring headlights bearing down on both of them. Then she reacted in pure instinct, gunning the engine of the Lexus and roaring past Kerry, putting herself between the oncoming four by four and the skidding Mustang as she slid into a sideways block.

The blue vehicle jerked to the right, then suddenly made a hard turn, skimming Dar's front bumper as it clawed it's way over the center island and bounced into the eastbound lanes, missing a taxi by a hair and roaring off down towards the beach.

Dar slowly unclenched her fingers from the steering wheel and pushed back, her heart slamming so hard in her chest it threatened to squeeze between her ribs and escape. She jerked the door open and tumbled out of the car, hanging on to the edge of the window for a long moment as her shaking legs refused to hold her up. Then she took a breath and forced herself into a run to where Kerry's car was half up onto the center island, her engine off, and her headlights shining wanly into the tropical foliage.

The door opened as Dar reached it, and she yanked impatiently, dropping to her knees beside the seat as Kerry leaned halfway out. "Hey." She hugged Kerry to her in mindless relief, feeling the shaky breath as Kerry buried her face against Dar's neck. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Kerry nodded. "Just scared the holy pooters out of me."

"Me too."

Kerry released her, and got out of the car, leaning on Dar's shoulder as she glanced around, and examined the damage. Though the other car hadn't touched her, climbing onto the center island had done evil things to a car not intended as a four wheel drive vehicle. "Erf."

Dar got to her feet and regarded the apparently broken axle. "Well, that's it."

"That's what?" Kerry was leaning against the side of the car. She turned and gave her lover a puzzled look. "I’m sure they can fix this."

"You're getting a new car." Dar responded matter of factly. "If that thing had hit you, this would have folded like a used piece of tin foil."

"Oh, I don't know about that, Dar.. it always seemed pr.." Kerry got a good look at Dar's face, and cut her sentence off in mid word. "Well, I was thinking about a new one the other day. Maybe it's a good idea." She walked over and leaned against her partner. "Can we call a tow for this, and go home? "

"Good idea." Dar took out her cell phone as they walked towards the balefully crouching Lexus, it's hazard lights flashing as traffic drove cautiously around it. "We can go car shopping on the web when we get there."

Kerry let out a slightly hysterical chuckle. "Honey, we don't have to do that.. besides, I think I want to check out one of these for myself." She patted the SUV. "It's nice and solid, right?"

Dar glanced up from her conversation. "I was thinking maybe a Hummer." She went back to the phone, and gave directions.

"A what?"

"Unless maybe Dad could get a Humvee." Dar closed the phone, tapping it against her chin thoughtfully, her face completely serious. "He probably could."

Kerry knocked on her chest. "Hello? Earth to Dar? I'm not driving an armed personnel carrier around Miami, so I hop you're joking."

Dar nudged her into the car, then closed the door and got in on the driver's side. "Deny that it wouldn't be handy in afternoon traffic." She started the car and moved cautiously into drive. "Maybe a tank."


"What? They come in surplus, and dad loves tinkering with the engines."


"Hell to park, though."

"You are joking, right?"

Pale blue eyes regarded her, as they waited in line for the ferry. "Yes." Dar finally smiled. "I tend to say stupid things when I lose my mind."

Kerry lifted a hand, and they interlaced fingers, a gesture that always brought a sense of warm familiarity to both of them. "Well, I was completely safe. I had this huge Lexus between me and the kamikazi wackos. They'd have probably bounced off and ended up in Biscayne Bay." She was rewarded by another smile. "Crazy people."

Dar nodded, leaning back in her seat in quiet relief. The draining of the adrenaline that had raced through her body left her almost sleepy in it's absence, and she didn't feel like moving, even when the ferry docked, and she had to maneuver the Lexus onto it's lightly shifting deck. She kept her eyes half closed, and rubbed Kerry's fingers with her thumb as they rode over to the island. Then she turned and gazed at Kerry's profile. "You sure a Hummer's out of the question?"


"They come in nice colors."

"Blue, gray and green." Kerry regarded her bemusedly. "And black. I'd like something a little lighter."

"Hmph." Dar leaned her knee against the steering wheel. "The tank comes in desert camo.. that's light."

"Dar." Kerry started laughing. "Would you just cut that out? I’m not getting a tank."

They were both quiet for a few minutes.

"Can you imagine the gas mileage those things get?" Kerry finally spoke up. "It'd cost a fortune."

"No problem. I'll give you a raise to cover it." Dar responded instantly. They looked at each other, then they both burst out laughing in relief. "Think of the impression you'd give, pulling up to a consolidation in THAT." Dar got out.

Kerry just kept laughing.


Thunder rolled sullenly in over the ocean, lightning flashes outlining the whitecaps which scurried up the beach and ruffled the water's dark surface.

Most of the island was still dark, the condos squatting on the edge of the land silent and brooding, their windows blank and featureless in the predawn hours.

From one outward facing window, however, a faint light poured. Anyone insane enough to be walking out along the beach in the storm would have seen a profile outlined in it, as someone stood inside the dry, safe building watching the surge of the waves.

"Wow." Kerry leaned against the counter, feeling the cool surface thorugh the thin cotton of her tshirt. "Glad I'm not out there." She turned her head as the toaster released four slices of fragrant cinnimon raisin toast. "Ah." A moment later the toast was resting on plates, and she was spreading softened butter over it. They were so used to waking up early, that even today, when their usual morning run was out of the question they both were up and rambling around the condo.

Dar was in her study catching up on mail, and Kerry set the plates of toast and scrambled eggs, along with two glasses of orange juice and coffee onto a tray before heading in that direction. For a moment she paused in the doorway to watch her lover, hard at work behind her desk, before she continued on and set the tray down on the small table nearby. "Anything catastrophic?"

"Hm?" Dar looked up, her face outlined in luridly ghostly phosphor light. "I got a compliment on you from Intratech… whatever you did with Bellsouth yesterday got them back up and running."

"Really?" Kerry looked pleased. She set the plate of toast and eggs down then handed Dar her orange juice. "Bottoms up."

Dar took the glass and leaned back, hitching her knee up to rest against the desk's edge as she sipped at the brightly colored beverage. "Nasty out there, eh?"

Kerry took a seat on the couch and tucked her legs up under her, leaning on the broad, padded arm as she selected s lice of toast and nibbled on it. "Very. I hope it calms down before we have to get out of here."

Dar looked thoughtfully at the window as a lightning strike hit somewhere close, causing a wicked cracking sound. She picked up the phone on her desk and dialed a number, listening for several seconds before it was answered. "Morning, John. This is Dar Roberts. How's it looking?" She cocked her head as the lightly accented voice answered, then grunted. "That’s what I thought. Thanks." She hung up and eyed Kerry. "Ferry's not operating."

"Oh gosh. You mean we're stuck here?" Kerry asked ingeniously. "I'm devastated."

Dar smiled. "I can see that. I'm not sure the company would feel the same way, though." She gazed at her inbox. "I can just imagine what yours looks like if I"ve got three pages."

"Eek." Kerry got up and circled the desk to peer at Dar's screen. "Well, some of those are from yesterday, Dar..I cleared my box before I left work last night." She scanned the headers. "Some of them are duplicates of mine, too, I can tell you what h…Dar?" Teeth were nibbling on her hip, and she glanced down to see mischievous blue eyes peeking up at her. "Do you give a poo about the mail?"

"No." Dar responded cheerfully. "I just wanted you to come over here." She chuckled. "It's not like either of us can do anything about the weather, Ker."

Kerry leaned over and kissed Dar's head. "That's true. I'll call Ops, though. We might have staffing issues if people can't get to work, and I think I just heard they've got power outages in the southwest." She felt Dar's arm circle her leg. "Hey, after that, maybe we can go car shopping."

One of Dar's arms moved, and her hand curled around her mouse, clicking on a closed window and opening it. "Funny you should say that." The new window revealed the Lexus website, snazzy and sleek looking with various models of the auto maker's wares appearing and disappearing. "Look what I found?"

"Oo." Kerry nudged her. "Move back so I can sit down."

Obligingly, Dar scooted back in the huge leather chair and gave Kerry room to perch on the edge of it, wrapping herself around her lover's body and peering over her shoulder as she took possession of the mouse. "It's pretty cool. You can choose your model, pick a color… tell it what you want inside, and send an order to the nearest dealership." She paused. "And get it delivered."

A grin split Kerry's face as s he pointed and clicked. "Now this is my idea of car shopping." She nodded in approval. "There we are.. the little SUV."

"It's cute." Dar mentioned. "Like you."

Kerry paused, and glanced over her shoulder so they were nose to nose. "Thank you. I'm glad we're not mentioing the Hummer then, this morning."

Dar's nose twitched, and then wrinkled up into a grin. "They don't have as neat a website."

Kerry bit her playfully, then returned her attention to the screen. "Let's see.. pick a color first. Hm." She scrolled through the possibilites. "Crimson, green, blue, black, white, silver or gold. What do you think, Dar? The black is kinda snazzy."

"Not in Florida. I'm not into poached partner." Dar remarked. "Go light."

"Okay." Kerry clicked. "How about white?"

"Not living out here. You'll be washing it every day."

Kerry eyed her. "Is this why you ended up with that gold color?" She resumed clicking. "Oh, I like the blue, Dar. I don't care if it's dark. I"ve got a dark car now, and it's not so bad." She admired her choice. "Yeah, I like that."

"Hm." Dar cocked her head.

"Now, what's next… ah. Interior." Kerry reviewed her choices. "Oh, leather, definitely." She selected it. "I've really gotten into this stuff since I've met you."

One of Dar's eyebrows lifted sharply. "Me? Why?"

"Leather car seats, leather couches, that leather vest, those leather boots you got me…" Kerry murmured. "I have nightmares of being visited by PETA sometimes and having to escape out the back." She clicked on the added options. "Hm…what do we have here? Heated seats? No thanks."

Dar was still snickering over her comments. "I never thought about that. I just like the feel of leather, especially in stuff I"ve gotta sit on."

Kerry laughed softly. "Me too." She paused, and gave her lover a look. "Hm. Could I talk you into a pair of leather pants?"

"Sure." Dar settled both arms around Kerry. "As long as you wear them." She amended quickly, hearing the chortle. "I had a pair, long time back. I only wore them once."

Kerry paused, and turned again. "Once?"

Dar nodded. "They squeak." She explained. "I scared the crap out of myself every time I moved." She felt Kerry start to laugh and she held on as her lover dissolved into helpless chuckles. "Ahem. Weren't we discussing heated seats?"

"Mine's plenty warm." Kerry gave her a sultry, over the shoulder smirk. "Oh, you mean for the car. Right." She returned her attention to the screen. "CD Player, check. Sunroof, check. Four wheel drive, check. Extra electrical package, check."

"It'll be nice when they do integrated satellite cellular." Dar commented. "And put in a laptop mount." She peered over Kerry's shoulder. "Air bags and ABS? Good."

"Yep." Kerry reviewed her selections, and had the website provide her with a three dimensional view. "Looks good.. I like it." She investigated further. "Lease, you think? Yeah… okay, here we go." She sent her request in, and added a digital wallet and signature with her personal information. "Oh yeah, I like this, Dar. Much more fun than getting a car the old fashioned way."

"Oh, I don't know." Dar freed a hand and took a swallow of coffee. "It's sort of exciting to go to the a sleezy, carnival kinda way." She chewed on her toast. "I remember the first new car I got.. I'd been saving up for months, and I just decided to go one night, and not tell my parents."

"Oh boy." Kerry took a bite of the toast held so invitingly nearby. "What'd you get?"

"I traded in an eighty five Malibu." Dar smiled in memory. "It was paid off, so that, plus the down payment I had pretty much guaranteed me just about anything I wanted on the lot.. I felt like a kid in a toy store."

Kerry pulled the plate over and started sharing forkfuls of eggs with Dar. "Uh huh."

"I looked at little ones, big ones, musta driven that salesman nuts." The dark haired woman said. "It was such a weird feeling. I finally narrowed it down between this little sports car number which was really cute, and a pickup truck."

"A pickup truck?" Kerry fed her some eggs.

"Mm. I was such a little redneck." Dar admitted. "Besides, daddy had a pickup truck." She leaned back and drained her juice glass. "So I ended up with a charcoal gray pickup with racing stripes and a roll bar."

"And fuzzy dice?" Kerry muffled a smile. "Hey, don't give me that look. I used to have a pair of trolls hanging from my rearview mirror. I had to settle for something a lot more conservative though. My parents allocated cars to us every year. Whatever manufacturer was trying to woo my father." She got up and retrieved her own coffee, standing before the window and gazing out. "The first time I got to pick my own car was when I moved down here." A smile crossed her face. "I was so damn sick of teak panels and snooty hood ornaments. I remember passing by a Ford dealership and seeing the new Mustangs, and boy… I was right there." She laughed. "Vroom vroom… a convertible muscle car. Damn that felt good to drive off the lot in." Kerry sighed. "I felt like such a rebel. My parents almost had a heart attack when I told them." She turned and looked at Dar. "How did your folks react?"

Dar grinned. "Well, it was one of the few decisions I'd made that we all agreed on." She related. "It was an extended cab, with space in the back for mom, so I became the official driver in the family. Dad loved the truck, and mom loved not having him drive, so for once, we were all on the same page."

Kerry tried to imagine what it would have been like to have had that kind of relationship with her parents. She couldn't do it. Her mother had been horrified when she'd told her about the Mustang, and her father had told her in no uncertain terms that the car would be left behind when she came home from Miami. Thoughtfully, Kerry wondered if it was at that moment when she'd decided she wasn't ever going back. Certainly she'd gone a little over the line after that, staying out and breaking all the rules she'd lived under for such a long time.

She'd actually been lucky, now that she looked back on that wild period. She could have gotten herself into a lot of trouble, and not just ended up suffering a few hangovers and barely remembered near misses, the last of which had scared her so badly it finally knocked some sense into her. She'd been more careful after that, but she was still aware of that potential wild side, something she doubted she wanted Dar to ever see.

"Well. I'm going to go work on my inbox, so I don't feel completely guilty about being trapped here in my underwear with you." She winked at Dar. "Come visit me?"

Dar responded with a frank grin, visible in Kerry's mind's eye as she left the study, and headed upstairs, with Chino trotting at her heels.


"Jesus." Kerry tugged her hood closer, and bolted for the front door of ILS, crossing from the drenched air into the climate control of the lobby with a sense of being slapped in the face with the chill. She lost her footing as she hit the tile, and slid, yanked to a halt by the frantic grip of the security guard as she passed the station. "Whoa! Thanks."

"No problem, Ms. Stuart." The guard patted her arm. "Careful there.. it's the Lord's own rivers raining out there."

"No kidding." Kerry shook herself, scattering droplets of water over the tile, which she correctly assumed would be easier to clean than the carpet upstairs. "Much more of this, and we'll have to close the parking lot. The water's up to some hubcaps out there." She turned, getting a brief glimpse of Dar's taillights as she turned out of the lot and headed south. "Hope Dar doesn't run into trouble driving." She glanced at her watch and sighed, turning to walk across the cold lobby towards the elevators. The rain had let up a little, the winds just enough to allow the ferry to commence operation, and they'd reluctantly decided that playing hooky from work the week after they'd both been gone for days was probably not the best idea in the world.

Rats. Kerry punched the elevator button and waited. It wasn't that she didn't like her job, she did. The door opened and she entered, turning and hitting the button for the fourteenth floor. She just liked spending time with Dar more, that was all.

"Morning, Ms. Kerry." The doors had opened at the tenth floor, and Brent edged on, behind a rubber wheeled AV cart.

"Morning, Brent." Kerry replied politely. Brent had been avoiding her for a few months, since the night he'd found out about her and Dar's relationship. She suspected he didn't approve of her lifestyle, and she felt a little sad about that, since she'd developed a fondness for the young tech. "Who's that for?"

Brent had been staring intently at the wall, and now he glanced briefly at her. "Requisition 23343, ma'am." He returned his eyes to the wall.

"Well." Kerry exhaled. "I hope the requisition enjoys it." The doors opened, and she held them while Brent moved the cart off the elevator. "Did the equipment for Accounting come in?"

"I don't know ma'am. Thank you, ma'am." Brent turned and wheeled his cart away, keeping his head down as he walked.

Kerry made a mental note to talk to Mark about his tech, then headed for her office. She heard raised voices halfway down the hall, and raked a hand through her still damp hair as she readied herself for another fractious day.


The camp was positively gray when Dar got there. The heavy rain had turned the ground into a slew of sheeting ripples of water, broken by heavily rutted areas of mud where marching recruits and heavy vehicles had passed.

The guard didn't even blink at her this time, he just waved her through, and she navigated the puddles cautiously as she made her way into the main parking lot. "What a mess." She regarded the steady rain with a critical eye, glad she'd brought her all weather gear. She pulled her hood up and fastened the front clasps, then opened the door and slid out, her booted feet sending a respectable splash out in all directions. "Glad I remembered these, too." She closed the door and started towards the command building, ripples moving away from her towards the edge of the lot as she walked.

The Marine beside the door opened it as she approached, and she gave him a nod as she went inside the building, taking in a breath of the brass scented air with a renewed twinge of nostalgia. She took the stairs up two at a time and walked briskly through the upper hall entrance, turning right and crashing headlong into Chief Daniel who had been headed just as quickly in the other direction.

Dar hopped back a step, reaching out in pure instinct as the shorter woman bounced off her and slammed against the wall. "Hey. Sorry about that."

The chief ripped her arm out of Dar's grasp and glared at her. "You really should watch where you're going, ma'am."

"Well, I would, but my eyeballs don't extend out on stalks and reach around corners." Dar replied. "And I left my handheld radar at home. So either accept my apology, or just get the hell out of my way."

The chief wrestled her best stiff upper lip into position, and dusted herself off. "We didn't expect to see you here today."

"I bet." Dar smiled engagingly at her. "We left off at battle operations yesterday, didn't we?"

The chief's jaw jerked and her lips twitched, but she merely extended a hand in the direction she'd been originally going. "After you?"

They passed through the halls, going through offices, then the chief turned and went through a door into a stairwell. "It's on the top floor." She informed Dar, with a brief smile. "We don't have elevators." The chief started up the stairs without further word and Dar shook her head and rolled her eyes before she followed.

The six flights served to give her a nice little workout, and she was in a better mood by the time she beat the chief to the door at the top of the stairs and pulled it open, sweeping her arm forward in a courtly flourish. "After you."

The chief eyed her narrowly, then sighed, and walked past into the hall.

Dar undid the catches on her trench coat and let the edges flap free as she strode down the center of the woven carpet floor. On either side of her the walls were lined with bulletin boards, and this area had the look of a working space. It was more spartan than the floors below, and she could just detect the scent of sweat and old wool on the air. The boards held notices of classes and rotations, she caught glimpses of platoon names and the personnel assigned to them, uniformly typewritten with a first initial and surname. She smiled at a brief memory of running up here when she was very young, and searching for her father's name, hoping against hope he'd been assigned to a base unit and not a ship one for the next six months.

She'd usually been disappointed. But every once in a while, there'd been a break and she'd gone back home in giddy high spirits, looking forward to six months of piggy back rides and Saturday morning games in the backyard.

"Ms. Roberts."

The Chief's voice broke into her memories, and she looked up, to face the sailor's dour expression. "Yes?"

"I don't care what you think about what you see in here. Do not voice your opinion in front of the recruits, or my sailors." The ginger haired woman's jaw moved. "Is that clear?"

Dar let her wonder what her response was going to be for a few seconds. "Agreed." She finally replied. "Even if it's a good opinion." She met the chief's eyes steadily. "Let's go."

They entered the doors and went into another world. Here, the quiet hallways were left behind, and a bustle of activity surrounded them, chiefly moving bodies in blue denim with serious faces. To one side, a small group of recruits was getting bawled out, their bodies stiffened against the tirade and their eyes strictly to the front. To their left, a row of closed, gray painted doors with rubber seals on them called to mind the watertight doors on a ship, and enclosed simulators, Dar knew.

They kept walking, past the open doors of a large open room, where a class in hand to hand was being taught, the hoarse yells and dull splats of bodies hitting the floor distinctive in the air.

"Chief!" A male voice hollered from just in front of them. A young man with bright red hair was leaning half out a doorway and gesturing to Dar's reluctant guide. "That damn sim program's down again!"

"Wait here." The chief ordered, heading in that direction.

Dar ignored the order, following the sailor with a look of mild amusement.

Chief Daniel stopped and turned. "Don’t you ever do what you're told, Ms. Roberts?"

"No." Dar walked past her and ducked around the redheaded sailor. "One of the major reasons I never joined the Navy." She evaded a hurrying tech carrying a piece of hardware, and let a brief grin cross her face. "This place hasn't changed." Three men were gathered around a computer console, and as she watched, one reared back and slapped the side of it in frustration. She walked up behind them and peered over their shoulders, as the chief hurried up on the other side. Lines of code were scrolling across the screen, and Dar studied them, head cocked just slightly to one side, blue eyes intent.

"What's the problem?" The chief pushed one of the sailors out of the way and sat down, punching buttons rapidly. "Did you reset it?"

"Twice." The displaced sailor told her. "Stupid thing keeps going out. Piece of crap."

The chief managed to get the display to steady, and she started a reset of the equipment. "Is there anyone in this thing? I don't want to cycle it if I'm gonna douse a furkin admiral or something."

"No. It's empty." The sailor glanced over the equipment thorugh a one way mirrored window into the simulator. "We took the class out the second time it dumped and told em to dry off."

"All right. Let me just.." The chief muttered.

"Hold it." Dar's voice cut through the crowd suddenly. She moved the sailor in front of her aside and leaned over the chief, ignoring the look of outrage. "Move."

"Ma'am.. now you just.."

Dar's tone deepened, and went cold, snapping with an authority they hadn't heard from her yet. "I said move!"

The chief obeyed purely by instinct, sliding out of the chair as Dar dropped into it, her eyes on the screen as her fingers sped over the keys with practiced sureness.

"What are you doing?" The chief demanded.

Dar didn't answer. She was too busy racking her brain for codes and logic, as she called up the simulator's program and studied it, her brows knitting tightly as she searched the lines of green letters and symbols.

"Ms. Roberts, what are you doing!" The chief yelled, almost into Dar's ear. "You do not have the authority to be touching this equipment."

Dar called up another screen. "Someone's altered the program." She moved the system into an editing mode, and started to make changes. "Someone who didn't have half a damn clue as to what the hell they were doing."

The chief's eyes almost came out of her head. "Hold it. I said, hold, ma'ma. That is a state of the art system and you can't just.."

"Sure I can." Dar's hands moved in a blur. "State of the art? Gimme a break, chief. Figures the Navy'd still be using a system prototype designed by a half baked sixteen year old code jockey with an affinity for Cobol." She made a last change, then saved and recompiled the program. "There." She reset the system with a set of keystrokes, and watched as it reinitialized. She was rewarded by a steady login screen, and a slate of green lights, which flickered across the top of the machine with a set of satisfied clicks. "Hoo yah." Dar muttered softly, for the first time in a very, very long time. She got startled looks from the sailors, but she ignored them as she stood up and relinquished the terminal. "All yours."

"Ms. Roberts." The chief's voice was very cold. "A word with you over there, please." She turned and walked into the nearest simulator and waited for Dar to follow her, then she shut the door, and spun the wheel, locking them both inside.


It was an engine room, Dar realized, as the door slammed shut, and she felt the air compress around her. Her pulse jumped, and she went still, grabbing hold of the sudden panic that gripped her guts. "Was that necessary?"

The chief studied her intently for a moment. "Who in the hell do you think you are?" She barked, advancing on Dar and making the small space even smaller. "I thought I told you to keep your mouth shut in there!"

Dar felt her temper rising. "Back off, Chief." She warned, edging away from the angry woman.

"I will most certainly not back off." Daniel poked her sharply. "I've had it about up to here with you, Roberts, and I am not going to put up with one more minute of your kiss my ass attitude!" Her voice got louder, ringing off the metal floor and walls as she backed Dar against the wall.

The room closed in on Dar, and a wash of blood and energy swept over her, warming her skin with startling rapidity. "Back off!" She repeated, her voice dropping pitch.

"You listen to me! You either decide to keep your damn mouth shut, " Chief Daniel forged on. "Or I'll…"

She never really saw it coming. One moment her civilian victim was pressed against the wall, the next moment the chief was on the ground, her skull ringing with the contact against the grill floor, with Dar Roberts forearm pressing against her chin and a pair of wild, blue eyes boring into her like searchlights.

The chief was no coward. But she'd seen that look before, and she had the sense to realize the dangerous situation she'd initiated was going rapidly out of her control, so she did the only prudent thing left to her. She let her body go limp, secure in her own tough condition, but not stupid enough to challenge the youth, and strength she felt crouched over her.

"Back off." Dar whispered, seeing red for the first time in a long time.

"All right." Chief Daniel answered, just as quietly. "Easy." Slowly, the pressure on her throat lessened, and Dar eased back away from her, the taller woman's body rising to a balanced stance, her hands balled lightly into fists that looked fully capable of doing some damage. It was not the reaction she'd been expecting, having figured Dar for the loudmouthed type that turned into a puffball when blown on hard enough. Her angular features, now settled in darkly savage lines, struck a sudden chord of familiarity but the chief knew she didn't have time to figure out where from. "Okay, just relax, all right?"

Dar leaned back against the console, the intense surge of adrenaline still making her heart race, and causing faint twitches to shiver up and down her arms and legs. It was the closest she'd come to losing control in half a lifetime, and it scared her a little, to know just how easily the chief had triggered that. "That was a very stupid thing to do." She told the sailor, who had slowly sat up and was rubbing her head. "I'm not one of your recruits, and if you ever do that again I'll knock you right through that damn bulkhead, you got me?"

"Think you could?" The chief asked softly.

"Yes." Dar answered, with utter sureness. "When my daddy taught me to fight, he made sure of that."

Daniel studied her for a long moment, then she sighed, and got up, rubbing her elbow where it had impacted against the floor. She turned a console chair around and sat on it, resting her arms on the back and gazing at Dar. "All right." She nodded slowly. "I thought we had an understanding that you wouldn't spout off in front of my staff."

Dar let her hands rest on her thighs, her heart finally slowing to it's normal pace. "I said I wouldn't give an opinion." She skirted the issue. "I didn't."

The chief snorted. "Saying a kid designed the sim wasn't an opinion? Bullshit."

"I was the kid." Dar replied simply. Then she got up and walked over to the hatch, taking a breath before she spun the wheel and released the catches, allowing it to swing inward. The air outside rushed in, and she stepped out of the simulator with a sense of relief, to face round, wide eyes that rapidly found other objects to look at.

Then she realized they'd all been watching everything on the monitors. She walked past them without a word, and into the hallway, desperate for a moment of peace and quiet and a cup of Navy coffee.


Continued in Part 4