Standard Disclaimers - I don't need any for this story. All the characters are mine. (laugh) I should probably disclaimer my use of my own company, but I won't, unless temptation gets too great, and I name the big boss "Les." Whoops.. I did that, but any resemblence to anyone real is coincidental. (the real one is one of the nicest people I've ever met, honestly)

What this is: This is an Uber story. (Oooo… that Uber stuff!) You get a general physical description likeness of the two gals in the story that will remind you of two old friends we all know well, but that's about it. The time period of this Uber is right now, and the place is Miami, Florida.

Why Miami? Well, I live here. Not only do I live here, but I've lived here for thirty years. That means I know all the stupid little quirks of the area, and since I'm going to give this Uber a stab, I might as well not overstress myself with doing research on an area I don't know. (Right? Right.)

The world my Uber darlings inhabit is my personal world - not that I'm a dungeon master or anything silly like that, but I do work for a company called EDS, and we do Information Technologies - we outsource IS to other companies, and absorb their own IS facilities and staff. In other words, we are the EDS Borg - you will be assimilated - Resistance is Futile. (I'm not making this up) The two characters will work and play in an area that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole however - so they're not autobiographical. I do technical and network support - I stay away from the business end of EDS, because that's the end you get stuck with, and not in a friendly place, if you know what I mean.

This isn't specifically EDS, but I've tried to maintain the flavor of our hierarchy though…and the goofiness that sometimes goes on behind the running of a megalithic corporation. The descriptions of our mainframes, however, are fictitious, along with any names of persons involved, and the various office locations with the exception of Plano. EDS does have it's corporate hq there.

Fisher Island, the place where Dar Roberts lives, is a real place. I used to work there. The descriptions of it are circa 1990 though - it's been built up a lot since then with more condos and stuff. All the places, and restaurants, and streets, and causeways are real. I didn't see any need to make them up, when Miami is a colorful enough place in real life without me doing that. It's kind of a tribute to my hometown - because I happen to really like it here.

Dar and Kerry are not super spies, or undercover agents, or renegades of any kind. They're not running from the law, or taking over third world countries (EDS runs a few, though) or anything like that. You might find their lives boring… I can't help that.. there's not going to be a lot of car chases, or gun battles, though this is Miami, and we're a pretty tough city, so anything can happen.

It's just a story about two people, who meet under very usual circumstances, and happen to change each other's lives.

Tropical Storm - Part 1

By Melissa Good

The alarm went off softly, nudging the somnolent figure sprawled over the water bed towards wakefulness. One long arm reached over and slapped the snooze bar, then moved back into place, even though the pre dawn gloom reflected off pale eyes that were already open, and gazing at the dull white of the ceiling.

The condo was quiet, tiny clicks and hisses pinpointing the ice machine in the kitchen, and the soft hum of the central air cycling being the only sounds that stirred the darkness, save the soft breathing of the occupant of the bed. Finally, that breathing expanded into a sigh, and the waveless mattress rustled as a tall figure rolled up out of bed, and padded across polished teak wood floors into a pale salmon , marble floored bathroom. The light flicked on, causing a audible groan, then the water ran in the marble sink, splashing loudly as it hit warm skin.

The victim finished wiping off the excess water with a soft towel, then faced its reflection. "Morning." Pale blue eyes set in an angular, high cheekboned face looked back., framed in dark, shoulder length hair that just now was lying in disordered layers above a high, strong forehead. The voice was a warm contralto, slightly hoarse from sleep, and the lips that formed the word quirked into an ironic smile as it got no answer.

The light from the bathroom streamed across the wooden floor, and guided her way as the tall woman moved through the bedroom, and into the living room beyond, stepping across the soft Berber rugs scattered over the warm ceramic tiles barefoot, and ending up in the kitchen.

Another flick and the recessed lighting came on, bringing the rich blue and white room to life, gleaming dully off the royal blue tile countertops and the rippled surface of the white appliances. Only the refrigerator was out of scheme - it was stainless steel, as befitted its commercial origins.

On the countertop, next to a sleek coffee machine and a well used blender, was a computer terminal, darkened, except for a blinking box in the lower right corner. "On." She told it. "Mail."

"Mail." It obediently responded. "Dar Roberts, six messages, two urgent."

"Read." She yawned, and moved to the coffee machine, punching the on button and watching as the slow stream of water impacted the grounds, prepared the night before. In the background, the computer patiently read her messages.

"Urgent. Sent by John Dierhdohl. Time: 4:32AM. Hey Dar, the Associated Synergenics deal went through.. they passed diligence late last night, so we need to get a pirate squad in there. Lucky for me it's in your neck of the woods - let me know how the raping and pillaging goes, all right? John D."

"Mmm.. ." Dar turned around, and leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms over her chest. "Not bad… not bad…Next."

"Urgent. Sent by Lou Draefus. Time: 2:53AM. Dar - the preliminary budgets are in - we're counting on your talents to make them fit. Call me when you get in the office. Duks."

"Damn.. " The tall woman sighed. "Dukky, you know I hate budgets.. just give me a damn number, and I'll fit it in.. don't make me argue all morning over how many pencils to allocate to the damn SBU."

"Do you wish to send, reply?" The computer inquired, having caught her keyword. Dar checked the transcript of what it had just recorded. "Send."

"Thank you." The computer replied. "Next message… " It continued on, going over more ordinary matters while she grabbed a bowl, and poured cereal into it, then opened the refrigerator and held the bowl under a milk dispenser, listening to the pleasant crackle as the liquid infiltrated the dry flakes. She applied a spoon to her breakfast, and leaned back against the counter again as the messages finished playing. "Only six.. not bad."

The computer chimed. "Incoming meeting request, Video, Les. A"

Dar silently cursed under her breath, then sighed. "Go." A light popped on the small, egg shaped camera on the top of the monitor, and a picture window opened up on the screen, displaying a cherubic, round faced man in his mid fifties, dressed immaculately in gray pinstripe with a dark blue tie perfectly knotted around his thick neck. His hands were folded on the mahogany desk in front of him, and when his eyes shifted to his own screen and saw her, a smile edged his fatherly features.

"Now.. that's the way I like to start MY morning.. Dar Roberts in her underwear." The Chairman of the Board chortled.

Dar merely continued to eat, and just gave him a look. "You just broke EEOC, Les.. we're gonna have to do something about you someday." It was a joke and they both knew it. EEOC was strictly adhered to in the company, up to a certain level. Once you got beyond that, you became 'one of the boys' and you were expected to develop a thick skin along with it. Dar, as a corporate vice president, was beyond that level, and so had to put up with remarks about her looks from the upper echelon all the time. Fortunately, she considered, at least they were compliments. She'd heard the cruel remarks directed towards a few of the other senior women execs… especially Eleanor Evans in Finance, who was battling a weight problem among other things.

Les chuckled. "You can do anything you like to me, sweetheart.. anytime. Just call Julie and have her schedule you up here, all right?"

The tall, dark haired woman crossed her legs. "Careful, Les… your age, you gotta watch your heart.. I don't think you could handle me." This kind of verbal sparring was something she almost enjoyed with the CEO.. and she suspected he did as well.

The chairman grinned. "Don't you worry.. I'll have a Viagra milkshake beforehand." Then he cleared his throat. "All right.. enough fun, though I'm enjoying both the view and the conver…that Associated deal." Now his hazel eyes went serious, and almost predatory. "I need it in at fifty percent, Dar."

Dar stopped chewing for a minute, and stared at him. "Fifty? Do you want to also continue to do business, or just scrap them?" The company acquired accounts by offering to outsource their business at a lesser cost. When they took over, it was up to Dar, and other execs at her level to scour the resources they took over and find a way to meet that cost, the usual method being to cut staff which was always the biggest expense in the IS field. Ten to twenty percent was their average, though Dar was famous for pushing the line, and had achieved thirty five percent in her last two accounts. "If it's scrap.. I'll just turn it over to my hounds, and forget about it."

Les shook his gray head. "I need it, Dar… we've got the stockholders meeting coming up in two months, and I have to post third quarter before that.. with the budget the way it is, and that fiasco with United Telecom, either you give me Associated at fifty percent, or we're not going to show doubled digit growth, and you know what that means." He gave her a smile. "C'mon.. I know you can do it.. and when you do, I've got a little surprise for you."

Dar sighed. "No more surprises, Les, huh? The last time you almost killed me when you made me drive that damn GM car down here."

"Tch tch… grumpy this morning, aren't we?" The CEO laughed. "No.. it's better than that…I promise."

"I'll see what I can do." Dar sighed.

"That's my pretty pirate… you know Dar.. you set such a good example for everyone else.. " Les leaned back and regarded her. "What a poster child you are.. beautiful, healthy.. crunching on your granola there.."

Dar glanced up at the blue cereal box, with the lurid tiger waving a spoon at her and smiled. "Oh yeah."

"You have to come out to Plano one of these days, and teach my wife some of your tricks."

"I hate Plano, Les." Dar commented, finishing up her bowl and setting it into the stainless steel sink, then turning and grabbing a cup for her coffee.

The CEO grinned. "I'll forgive you for saying that just for that nice ass shot, Dar."

Dar lifted her cup and gave him a wry look. "Nice seeing you too, Les."

"Fifty percent, Dar." The older man stated, with a wave. "See yah."

The screen went dark. "End meeting." She sighed, and watched the computer close the session down. "Happy Monday." She muttered, as she took her cup, and opened the sliding glass door that lead out to her second story balcony. The wind was coming in from the east, blowing her hair back and her t-shirt against her body. She set her cup down on the small stone table and went to stone railing, leaning on it, and looking out over the rock filled jetty to the endless expanse of the Atlantic ocean.

The air was full of salt, and thick with moisture, and she breathed it in, letting the familiarity sooth her as she listened to the rhythmic sound of the surf against the coral rocks that made up the base of the island she was standing on. In the east, the horizon had gained a gray, cloud studded line over the still darkened sea, and it was so quiet, she could hear the soft clanging of boat tie downs from the nearby marina. A gull swooped over head, its feathers whipping the thick air as it soared along the coral, searching for food.

Dar reached behind her and picked up her mug, curling her hands around the ceramic surface, and taking a sip of the flavored, pungent beverage. She enjoyed the peace of early morning, especially out here on Fisher Island, where traffic didn't exist, and if you didn't turn your head to see the long Miami Beach skyline rising to your left, you could imagine you were out in the Caribbean somewhere, viewing the sunrise.

Her condominium was a split level townhouse, sharing a cluster with four other residents here on the outer eastern shore of the small island. The outer walls were reinforced steel and concrete, neatly designed and landscaped to simulate quaint adobe, but meeting current hurricane codes as was mandatory here in Dade County, Florida. Fisher Island was an exclusive community, offering large oceanfront residences for those who could afford to pay unbelievable prices for them. Dar had inherited hers, thankfully, having seen the price tags for them, and finding it hard to believe someone would spend three million dollars for what amounted to an apartment. Even a really, really nice apartment, with five bedrooms and three bathrooms, and a gorgeous kitchen, which she seldom used.

"Thanks, Aunt May." She toasted her departed, but much beloved Aunt with her coffee. May Roberts had been something of a sensation in the family, marrying four men and burying them all, all the while adding to her considerable bank balance. She'd bought the condo as an investment, and rented it out occasionally, but had willed it to her niece on her death correctly figuring it was better Dar lived there, than in 'that horrible Grove.'.

It had taken some getting used to, after several years of residing in the middle of the eclectic artist's community to the south, but Dar had finally decided she liked the island. It was accessible only by car ferry, and she could get away from the city here, and spend some time in quiet solitude without fights, and crime, or even noisy neighbors.

Three million dollar apartments had thick walls.

The maintenance fees were outrageous, and accounted for all the island's amenities, but the were less than the rent she'd been paying in the Grove, and she didn't get paid badly, so.. it worked out. She found herself enjoying a lifestyle she'd never considered attempting, and even had fun watching the upper crust socialites, which populated the island at their strange social rituals.

The sun turned the horizon coral pink, and the sea slowly moved from inky black, to fluttered dark gray, to a deep, rich green before her eyes. The offshore current was lightly choppy, breaking the surface up into ripples, and she took a breath of the sea air with a sense of pleasure. "Well, time to get moving." She finished her coffee, then slipped inside the glass doors, moving from the warm humidity to chill air conditioning with a tiny shiver. The tile floor was cool against her bare feet, and she went quickly to the walk in closet, shedding her t-shirt and exchanging it for her work out gear, which consisted of a pair of running shorts, and a snug sports top. She pulled her hair back and put a band around it, then sat down to put on her shoes, tugging the laces and tying them with efficient fingers. "I don't think your wife would like my secrets, Les." She remarked to herself wryly. "They involve sweat, and lots of it."

With a sigh, she stood and walked over to the small closet just inside the alcove where the stairs came up, and ducked inside to pull out a set of wrist and ankle weights, which she applied carefully. Then she slipped down the stairs, and unlocked the front door, locking it behind her as she emerged onto the small porch outside the condo. A dozen stairs led down to the ground, providing the building with underground parking, and she dodged underneath, ending up on the path which meandered down towards the water.

The island was about a mile across and roughly round in shape, and she made it her habit to circle it four times, rain or shine, even in the wicked downpours subtropical Miami sometimes provided. With a sigh, she broke in to a jog, and headed off around the path.

It paralleled the Atlantic, at first, going on in front of clustered of condos much like the one her own was in. The architecture was mellow Mediterranean, with barrel tile roofs and adobe style walls, and the buildings seemed to blend in to the surroundings. The landscaping, rich with salt tolerant bushes, was neatly kept and perfectly trimmed, and she could see where beds of winter flowers were being planted to give a bit of variety to the scene.

Once past the condos, she was moving in front of the beach club, with its rustic style restaurant, and the small, if pristine white sand beach, which bordered it. Chaise lounges were already set up, the beach boys sweeping sand off their surface, and the dark haired workers waved a familiar hello to her as she passed.

Then up onto the coral deck and past the old mansion, once owned by the Vanderbilt's, which housed the main restaurant and club bar, its coral surfaced salt water pool glinting in the dawn light. Peacocks wandered over the pool deck, and ruffled at her as she passed, letting out an occasional startled cry which split the air at odd intervals.

More condos next, then the triple slipped marina, at this time of year crowded with boats bobbing gently on the waves. Some were sailboats, their sales furled under cover, and some were large motor yachts, ships really, which had multiple decks edged out in polished mahogany.

The back side of the island wasn't so glamorous, since it faced the long series of piers that made up the Port of Miami, where trade from all over the Caribbean and South America docked long barges and cargo ships, and the towering rows of unloaders clanked gently in the breeze, as yet inactive.

That lead around to the side, which faced Government cut, the main shipping channel into the Port, where the car ferries had to cross to get to the terminal on McArthur Causeway. It was also the main entrance for all the cruise ships, and as Dar rounded the corner, she found herself racing with Sovereign of the Seas, one of the largest of the floating cities on it's way out of port.

It was all familiar, all part of her routine. By the time she hit her fourth lap, Sovereign was steaming out the channel, and the sun was peeking over the horizon, painting the sky in peaches and cream, as the clouds hung over the ocean. Dar slowed as she ended up where she started, and as she halted and paced slowly around to cool off, a boy with curly blond hair skimmed up in a golf cart, the words Beach Club blazoned on its fiberglass front. "Morning, Carlos." She said, between breaths.

"Morning, Ms. Roberts." The boy hopped out, straightening his white linen short sleeved shirt neatly, and lifting a gently steaming cup from a tray on the front seat. "Here you go."

Dar gave him a half grin, and took the cup of café con leche. "How do you manage to time this just right?"

The boy smiled. "Not me, ma'am.. it's you… like clockwork, six forty five, here you are." He paused. "Unless it's raining, of course, and then it's six fifty five."

The tall woman laughed, and took a sip of the beverage. "Mm… lots of sugar and cream… just how I like it." She complimented the server, who sketched a quick bow in response. "Thanks." She started up the stairs, as he turned and scooted back into his cart, turning the vehicle deftly, and zipping back up the path. Carlos was a pre med student, working his way through one of the local colleges by waiting her during the early hours, and going to afternoon classes. He was a friendly kid, local, as most of the day servers were, and Dar liked him a lot. He took extra effort to find out things his regular customers, and Dar certainly was that, liked, and gave it to them, no questions asked.

She finished the coffee as she padded around the condo, pulling out clothes, and starting the shower running. Fifteen minutes later she was drying her hair, and pulling on the tailored gray skirt suit and black blouse she'd chosen to wear, buttoning the cuffs and laying the top button open which exposed the thin golden chain holding up a tiny teddy bear, her only jewelry save the diamond studs perched inconspicuously in her ears.

Company dress code. No danglies. Dar gave her reflection a once over, running her fingers through her neatly cut and feathered hair to settle it and adding the barest touch of makeup. Her skin was already sun darkened, a legacy of a lifetime in the subtropics and she hated the mess of putting on and taking off the stuff, so it was a bit of gloss, a hint of eyeshadow, and that was that.

No one ever noticed anyway.. she wryly admitted. Her most striking feature was her pale blue eyes, when most people expected hazel or brown to match her coloring. Some people suspected she used colored contacts, others openly speculated about her having Irish or Danish somewhere in a Hispanic ancestry.

Dar wished they'd find something more interesting to speculate on, but everything was fair game in office gossip. She sighed, and picked up her briefcase, slinging it over her shoulder, then headed for her car.

She waited until they'd loaded the Lexus LX470 onto the ferry before she dialed the office, leaning back in the leather seat and waiting for her secretary to answer.

"Dar Robert's office, how may I help you?" Maria's precise, Castillian accented voice issued from the cellular speakerphone mounted in the dash.

"Morning, Maria." Dar commented, watching the waves of Government Cut splash over the low deck of the ferry.

"Aie! Good morning, good morning.." The middle aged woman replied. "Dios mio, Dar.. half of the earth is here looking for you already.. did something happen this weekend?"

"Associated Synergenics happened." The tall woman explained. "The boys have their rocks in an uproar."

"Tch… aie, no wonder." Maria rustled some papers. "I have three folders with tons of things in them, and a stack of phone messages for you."

"Great." Dar sighed. "Schedule me out this afternoon to Synergenics, and call a staff meeting of the prelim account team for ten am, all right?" That would toss her schedule out the fourteenth floor window her office was on. "This is a hot one, Les is sitting on it."

"Ayeyiyi… " Maria made some quick notes. "You had a doctors appointment this afternoon." Her voice held gently chiding touch.

"Cancel it." Dar replied, and got the expected silence. "Can't help it, Maria… a checkup can wait a few days, this can't." The headaches that had prompted the appointment had tapered off during the weekend anyway, and with any luck, it would stay that way for a while. "Don't worry.. I took it easy this weekend.. I feel great."

"I'll call that secretarita of your doctors, and get another appointment." Maria replied stubbornly.

"All right." Dar relented. "Gotta go.. I need to call Mark."

"Oy." Even through the phone, Dar could sense her assistant's rolled eyeballs. "You tell him, okay for me, Dar.. no more little pink rabbits on my screen, all right?"

The tall executive stifled a chuckle." All right… talk to you in a bit." She disconnected, and dialed another number, watching idly as the ferry nestled into its dock. The phone rang twice, then a gruff voice answered. "Yeah?"

"Good morning, Mark."

"Who in.. oh..uh.. yeah. Right.. Monday morning… who else would be calling me at seven thirty.. hi, Dar."

"I need Synergenics, Mark." Dar released her parking brake, and eased the Lexus four by four up the metal gangplank, as the dockers washed the car down with fresh water to remove the salt spray from the ocean. "Now."

"Aw… for chrissake… Dar, it was closed last friggin night!"

"I have a meeting there this afternoon, and I need the info, Mark.. get in there, and get it, no whining." She crisply told the manager of information services. "They have a bullshit system.. it shouldn't take you more than fifteen minutes to get in, if your reputation is up to it."

Mark Polenti had been, in his younger years, both a hacker and a cracker. That is, he both raided computer systems, and cracked security codes in devices such as long distance boxes. Now, he served as part of Dar's advance team, which went in and got information on an acquisition, information that the new account usually didn't want Dar to have. Things like personnel reports, workman's compensation claims, insurance statistics… things she need to base her slice and dice decisions on. Only good, low maintenance people would be candidates for transitioning, and that kind of information was usually kept back.

For good reason. But Dar's job was to incorporate the new account into the infrastructure as economically as possible, thereby making the account as profitable as possible. It was a simple formula, and relied on her ability to shift work from the new company to existing agencies within the corporation, thereby rendering the newcomers superfluous. They never saw it that way, though.. they viewed her swooping in as a shark circling defenseless fish, and tried to hide in any nook and cranny they could to escape her teeth.

They never did. She had the ability to strip resources to the bone, and trim down an operation with a lightning speed that had gained her a justifiable reputation for savage, precise decisions . It was what had landed her the VP position, and what kept her as Les' favorite girl, the one he handed the tough ones to.

She'd never let him down yet, and had no intention of starting on this one, especially since Synergenics was local, their offices were right off Kendall Drive, and she could get to them without having to send the team on ahead by air. "Get going, Mark.. I need the prelims by the time I hit the office."

"Where are you?" The IS chief queried, a rapid-fire clicking transmitting through with his voice.

"McArthur, about to pass Star Island."

"Tch tch tch.. you're slowing down, Dar… I'm in.. I got the database, which printer you want it at?" A definite smug tone floated through the airwaves.

Dar chuckled. "Mark the Shark… you are something else. AdminP2 will be fine."

"Okay… sending… man, this security is bullshit.. no wonder these losers got inhaled." The mutter was interspersed with clicking. "Oh.. well, no wonder… Novell 3.11…oh, man.. and unsecured gateways… Jesus, Dar.. they don't even have a frigging firewall!"

"Pathetic." Dar agreed. "Who's responsible for this mess?"

More ticking. "A… well, I'll assume here, cause you never know, but a lady by the name of Kerry Stuart." Mark informed her. "Hmm……. ah.. yep.. bingo assumption.. ooo… hm… hey, Dar… she's cute."

Dar rolled her eyes and sighed. "Can it, Mark… "

"Mm mm… nice.. blond hair, pretty green eyes… Jesus.. she's just a friggin kid…. Twenty six… not married… nothing on her medico side….oh wait.. heh.. she had a pregnancy test just after Christmas last year.. negative…"

"Mark… "

"All right.. all right… IS degree from Michigan State.. she's from somewhere up there in the boonies.. last job was for Edutech as their regional coord up in that neck of the woods…oh hey.. her father's Senator Stuart."

"Hm… yeah?" Dar inquired, as she turned onto Brickell Avenue, and headed south towards the high rise than housed the company. "He's been courting the Troy office for some contribs… I remember hearing Lou complaining about it." She directed the Lexus into the parking lot and up to the security gate, nodding to the guard as he opened it for her. "All right.. can you give me a folder on her, too?"

A chuckle from the phone. "Do seagulls crap on your windshield? I'll be nice.. and add a color picture to it."

"Not necessary, Mark… that's more your line." The executive warned.

"Who said I was doing it for you?" The IS chief chortled. "Bye."

Dar chuckled softly as she turned into a spot, and shut the car off, grabbing her briefcase taking a quick look in the rearview mirror before she got out, and locked the car. "Another day, another gutting." She commented to a passing cat, who gave her a look and dashed off.

"They're gonna fire all of us." Charles stated, for the sixth time in five minutes. "My cousin worked for Allied when they took over, so forget it… we're toast." He was sitting on the small desk in his cubicle, with his headset dangling around his neck and a styrofoam cup in his hand.

"You don't know that." Elaine protested, glancing at her phone pad, which had several lights blinking on it. "Who knows.. maybe it'll be better… maybe we can get pencils now." She jiggled a small barrel on her desk, full of writing implements. "Instead of having to go steal them from banks."

The large room was more than usually noisy, most of the staff being occupied in talking about the merger, which was being referred to as a hostile takeover, really. Associated Synergenics was a company of about two hundred employees, dedicated to providing software and hardware solutions to the hospitality industry. They had a core of programmers and engineers who designed systems for restaurants and hotels, to manage their points of sale, their accounting, and other areas where computers were used for record keeping and analysis. Of course, they also had a group of support staff to answer questions, and a small department of hardware technicians, who installed the equipment, and went out to provide service on it.

They were local, in the tri county area of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach, which provided enough customers for a slowly growing business to be gained, and everyone had been very optimistic about this year especially after they'd landed a huge contract with Publix supermarkets, the major grocery retailer in the state of Florida.

Now this. Everyone was upset. It was like all their hard work was going to be swallowed up by this monolithic company, who didn't care about them, and certainly didn't care about the customers they'd been so careful to attract, and retain. It didn't seem fair, really.

Charles sucked down the contents of his cup, then sat down with a grunt, and put his headset on. "Guess I'd better at least pretend to work… where the hell is everyone, anyway?"

Lana, a tall, thin brunette who sat on the other side of his cube looked up. "Big meeting… the brass called all them up there about an hour ago.. I guess to give them the bad news." Her eyes focused on something. "Uh oh.. here they come.."

They all turned, as the doors to the front of the support center opened, and a group of managers filed in, ranging from the support manager, Ray, to the lead programmer, Susan. All of them looked really grim. The last one in was Kerry Stuart, who leaned back against the closed door for a minute, before she straightened her shoulders, and nodded for everyone to move on ahead of her.

At twenty six, Kerry looked hardly old enough to be a junior manager. She was about average height, and had a slender build, with lightly tanned skin that contrasted with her blond hair, and green eyes. Her face held a stamp of youthful innocence, that belied her six years of experience in IS management, and she often surprised people both with her insightful knowledge of the business, and her skill at handling conflict.

Right now she carefully got up onto the printer table at the end of the huge room, and held up a hand. Since everyone there was looking at her anyway, it got its intended effect, and calls went on hold immediately. "Okay, folks.. listen up." She had a clear voice, but she was shaking a little, and they could all see it.

Silence fell, and she paused, as one of the programmers loped up to her, and handed her a small microphone. "Does this w… oh, I guess it does." Kerry cleared her throat, her voice suddenly magnified. Heads popped out of the offices surrounding the large central area in curiosity. "Okay… I'm sure you all know by now that as of last night, we were officially bought out." She paused, and took a breath. "Some of the people who belong to that company are going to be around here, starting this afternoon, and I think we all know that we're going to see some changes."

A low murmur rose up, and Kerry put a hand up to still it. "I don't know what kind of changes, or what they're going to do, or what this really means for any of us, we'll just have to wait and see. What I'm going to ask you to do is just go on and do your jobs, and take care of our customers. Let's not overreact until we know what's really going on."

"Get your resume ready." A voice uttered, in a disgusted tone.

"Bet they find some way not to give us benefits for six months." Came another. "If they do bother to keep anyone."

"All right.. come on, people… just let's wait to see what happens." Kerry stated again. "That's all I have… if someone from them comes in here, be nice, answer what they ask, and just keep it cool." She handed the microphone to the programmer and gingerly got off the table, smiling at Ray, who held her elbow to prevent her from falling off. "Thanks." She moved on towards the end of the big room, passing through the small labyrinth of offices until she reached her own, buried in the back corner. Most of the managers had trailed her there, obviously wanting a private word with her, but she put a hand up as she entered her sanctum. "Give me a few minutes, guys, okay? Go get some coffee, or check your email, or something."

"Call my headhunter." Susan snorted, shaking her silvered chestnut head. The short, stocky programmer stalked over to her tiny office, piled to the ceiling with printouts.

Kerry watched them disperse, before she entered her own office, and circled the desk, sitting down in her chair and putting her head in her hands.

What a mess. And it had all been going so good, too. With a sigh, she leaned back, letting her hands fall on her denim covered thighs, the fabric reminding her of yet one more change they'd have to face, as Robert Mayabera had warned her that morning. Dress codes.

"I didn't think we'd done that badly." She said, in shock, as Robert told her the news. "I thought it was just rumors."

The company founder, a short, pugnacious Cuban immigrant had laid his immaculate hands on his desk. "Chica, you did nothing wrong, okay?" His brown eyes had been a little sad. "It came down to money, that's all, they made me an offer, like you say in the movies, I cannot refuse it." He'd lifted a hand. "I've got six kids, all getting to the age where I have to now do quinces, and cars, and college, and I love the company, but the buyout, my friend, the buyout makes me able to do right by my family."

"No.. Robert.. I don't… " Kerry had sighed. "I don't blame you.. I just… we were like a family ourselves, here."

"Chica, I know." Robert had gotten up, and crossed around his desk, hitching up his trousers to perch on the arm of her chair and put a hand on her shoulder. "I tell them how great you are, every chance. You did a fantastic job with everything, really turned it around here the last year, all that…give them an opportunity to see that."

"I don't care about me." The young director had stated quietly. "Robert.. these people work really hard.. I don't think those guys are going to care about that.. I think they're just going to come in here and tear us apart."

"Hey…come on now.. let's wait for the boat to sink before we start thinking of drowning, okay?" He patted her cheek. "Let me see that Michigan thing.. what is it, a badger?"

Kerry smiled a little at that. "A wolverine."

"What kind of an animal is that for a college? It's ridiculous." He was trying to cheer her up, with an old argument.

"Better than a alligator." She replied dutifully, his alma mater having been University of Florida, in Gainesville. Then she sighed, and stood. "Okay.. I'd better go tell the staff.. I'm sure they heard already though."

And they had, Kerry thought, as she played with a cup on her desk, glancing around her little office. It wasn't much, a few file cabinets, one plant in each corner which she took obsessive care over, a picture of Michigan in winter on one wall, and her wraparound desk, with its recessed computer well.

It was hers, though, earned by dogged determination, and her own skills, not bought by her father, or given to her for some favor. She was proud of that, and proud of being in charge of this diverse group of people, even if they were sometimes infuriating, and the programmers could never meet their deadlines, and she had to keep nagging the supervisors to keep their answertimes down.

She'd felt like she was accomplishing something, especially when they'd won the new contract, and the reps from Publix had told Robert it was mostly because they felt so comfortable dealing with her.

Wow. That had felt great… she'd gone out with a few friends that night and celebrated, for the first time in a few months, at Dave and Busters, and had ended up winning enough tickets to get herself a huge stuffed panda bear.

Now, she was just one of the hundred thousand employees in the new company. Nothing special. In fact, they'd probably laugh at her credentials, or find something in her performance they didn't like and take her out of her position. And then what? Daddy only was letting her stay down here because she could show him her growing career, pointing to her steadily increasing responsibilities.

A slip in that, and he'd call her home.

She took a breath, and rubbed her eyes. "Come on now.. think positive." She reminded herself.

The phone rang, and she pushed the speakerphone button. "Kerry here."

"Ker, it's Alex." That was Alejandro Cruz, their MIS chief. "I've got some puta on the phone demanding I give access."

Kerry closed her eyes. "Don't tell me what that meant, okay?" She pleaded. "If it's from them, just give them access.. they probably can get it anyway.. we don't want to start off being obstructionists."

"Jefa, okay, I give them mail server transfer, and got a postbox dial in going, and I set up an admin account for them.. what else?"

"That should keep them busy for a while." Kerry sighed. "I'll try to get some ground rules set when whoever it is that's coming here after lunch arrives.. maybe they'll be reasonable."

"Merde." Alex snorted.

"Don't tell me what that is either, okay?" The director exhaled. "But in Michigan we'd say.. 'this sucks."

She spent the next few hours putting things in order, studying the latest statistics their reporting system had generated, and clearing her inbox. She had her head bent over the last performance review when a light knock came at the door. She looked up, to see Ray Rameriez standing there, holding up a coke in one hand. "Oh.. hi."

"Lunch?" The tall, lanky technical supervisor raised a dark, inquiring eyebrow. "I hear they have pico de gallo in the café."

Kerry made a face. "Ew." She put her task down, and stretched, working a kink out of her back. "Two years, and you'd think I'd be used to that stuff by now… but every time I eat it, I go right to sleep under my desk." She fiddled with a pencil. "Besides, I'm not really hungry."

"C'mon, c'mon… don't let them get you down, Kerrisita… come, I'll get you some flan, I know you like that." Ray coaxed, waggling his brows invitingly.

She smiled, but shook her head. "No thanks.. maybe tomorrow, okay?" She opened her drawer and pulled out a bag of miniature carrots. "Besides, I brought."

"You'll grow floppy ears one of these fine days." The dark haired man laughed. "You and your little carrotas." He sighed. "You sure?"

She nodded. "Yes.. go on, get out of here for a while.. I'll probably need you when those guys show up."

He lifted a hand, then let it drop, and surrendered. "I'll be back soon." He promised, then ducked out the door.

Kerry gazed pensively at the door, then sighed, and tossed her pencil down, bending her eyes towards her evaluation again, and propping her head up on one hand. What was the use anyway? The evaluations wouldn't be worth anything to the newcomers.

A soft knock interrupted her again. "Look, Ray.. I told you.. " She glanced up, slightly annoyed, then stopped.

There was a stranger in her doorway. A tall, golden skinned woman with midnight dark hair looked back at her, the lean body arranged against her doorway in a posture of confident arrogance. Kerry blinked, and looked again, and was captured by the bluest, clearest eyes she'd ever seen, that drilled right through her with a blast of cool intensity, and a strange, almost haunting glimpse of something familiar. "Um… sorry.. I thought you were someone else." She managed weakly, getting to her feet.

The woman pushed off the doorframe, and entered, putting a thick leather briefcase down on her visitor's chair and extending a hand. "Dar Roberts." The voice was low, and pleasant, and seemed to rumble in her ears, and as she moved to take the woman's hand, a soft scent of musky perfume mixed with leather reached her.

"Kerry Stuart." She took the taller woman's hand and gripped it, feeling the strength in it as the woman returned the squeeze. "Are you.. um… " She paused. "I mean, you're from the new headquarters, right? I'm sorry.. I must seem kind of daft to you.. I wasn't expecting anyone until after lunch."

Dar studied her quietly for a moment. "Yes.. I am.. I suppose my lunch doesn't quite match yours." She answered coolly. "Sorry."

"Oh.. right." Kerry answered awkwardly. "Well.. that's okay, because I… I finished lunch already myself…but my staff is still out. What.. I mean, can I get you some coffee, or something?"

"No thanks.. I've got things scheduled." The tall woman answered briskly. "Let's just get started… it won't take long." She motioned to the desk. "Sit down." Dar watched the younger woman step back around her desk, and seat herself, laying her forearms on the surface and looking back at her with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity.

She'd briefly studied the picture Mark had so kindly provided, but the static personnel print gave no hint of the gentle presence the woman projected, or the clear steadiness of her eyes, whose color uncannily matched the ocean Dar saw out her window every sunny morning. There was also something familiar about her, that Dar couldn’t quite put her finger on. No time for that, though. She sat down in the visitor's chair. "You know why I'm here, right?"

Kerry's fingers twisted a piece of binding tie. "I know you people are taking over.. they really didn't tell us much about what was going to happen, no."

Dar cursed silently, making a mental note to send a mail ripping whoever was on the account team for this cluster a new butthole. "They were supp.. okay." She put a hand out. "I’m not going to play games or beat around the bush. Bottom line is, what we purchased was your business."

The blond woman took a breath. "Okay…but what does that mean… we report to different people.. or you want things done differently.. I have reports.. "

A hand silenced her. "It means we're interested in the services you're providing. Not in how you provide them, or who does it." She replied firmly. "There's nothing you do here we can't do better, and cheaper, which is the whole point."

Kerry stared at her. "What are you saying?" She asked softly. "You're saying you don't need us, is that it?"

Cool, blue eyes met hers. "Yes."

"You can't just come in here and fire everyone.. we've been doing this for years.. you can't replace us just like that." The director protested.

"Yes, I can." Dar replied. "It's what we do." She gestured towards the door. "I have a programming group in Huntingdon, a support group just west of the airport that can take your calls, and a hardware installers division all who already work for me." She stood, and walked around the back of her chair, leaning against it. "Your people are inefficient, they take two sick days a piece every three weeks, half of them are late every day, your programmers haven't met a deadline in two years, and you've had eighteen workman's comp claims in the last four months."

Silence. Kerry just looked at the surface of her desk, and concentrated on breathing. Her chest hurt from the sudden, unexpected attack, when she realized she had no answer for the charges. She knew they were true, but it was a good staff.. they were good people.. just a little lazy sometimes, like everyone was. Her eyes traveled up to the hawklike profile watching her, and she felt a quiet despair. Not everyone. Not anymore. "I guess John was right." She finally said, in quiet defeat.

Dar eyed her, slightly disconcerted. The usual reaction to her speech was anger, indignant protests… not… "Right about what?"

Those sea toned eyes lifted. "You are here just to rape us."

The taller woman flinched inwardly, not expecting that. "That's not an appropriate way to refer to it."

Kerry shrugged. "What are you going to do, fire me?" She took a breath. "Is there something else I can do for you, Ms. Roberts? You seem to have all the information you need." She studied the clip in her hands. "And. I've got a lot of paperwork I need to get started on, I guess." She tried, but couldn’t keep the hint of hoarseness from entering her voice, and she refused to look up and give the older woman the satisfaction of seeing how much she'd upset her.

Dar felt a sudden twinge of shame. She could see the anguished tension in the slim shoulders across from her, and she bowed her head for a moment.

"They're not really that awful." Kerry said softly. "Our customers like us…we do a good job.. I don't… see why we need to be thrown away like garbage." She still kept her gaze on her hands.

"Look." Dar found herself uncharacteristically at a loss for words. "It's a business… there's nothing personal, understand?" The blond head moved in a nod, then she looked up, her face closed, and wary, green eyes darkened with a quiet anger. "You have a week… I need a list of your senior people, so we can arrange sessions with them to start going over exactly what you do, and when and how you do it."

Kerry swallowed. "You're saying you want us to train the people who are going to take our jobs away."

Dar looked quietly at her. "Yes."

The anger dissolved into something else, and the blond woman clenched her jaw. "All right." She got out, her fingers clenching on the pencil that had been sitting on her desk. "I'll see what I can arrange." Arrange to get every damn one of them out of here before they can tell anyone anything, that is.

"You want to tell me to go to hell." The dark haired woman remarked. "Don't you."

Kerry licked her lower lip. "No, ma'am, I don't. I wasn't raised that way."

Dar sat down in the chair again, and leaned forward, tilting her head to gaze into Kerry's lowered face. "Sure you do." She disagreed. "I did.. when we were assimilated back in '84."

Green eyes slowly raised to meet hers. "These are people, whose livelihoods you're about to take away from them. It's not funny."

"And any one of them would gladly wave you goodbye, if the guy down the street offered a buck more an hour." Dar replied. "This is a business, Ms. Stuart.. it's not a charity."

Kerry's chin lifted. "Your people won't be able to do half the job mine do." She stated, flatly. "So when you lose all these accounts, I'll be there laughing."

Dar leaned back, studying her. She hadn't had this kind of challenge in a long, long time.. most of her accounts were fresh faced MIS majors, who scurried around and tried to get on her good side, just long enough to realize she didn’t have one. One of her side tasks, besides stripping companies, was finding new talent for the corporation. Sometimes, she reflected, she found potential in the weirdest places. "All right… prove it." She purred, watching the startled look ease onto the young face across the desk. "I can do this for half the budget you're currently doing it with. Come up with a plan to do it for that, in a week.. and I'll look at it."

Kerry's jaw dropped. "Fifty percent? It's impossible."

Dar shrugged. "Your choice… see, we can leverage out the costs because we use less overhead per account.. if we've got someone who needs support, for instance, we just add them to the current load over at the MTC, and we don't have to pay for rent, a phone switch, the consoles..desks.. all that crap again." She smiled. "You can't do that." Would she take the bait?

"No.. but that means… " Kerry stopped, and exhaled. People would have to go. It was the biggest cost factor, she knew. Looking at the closed, chill face across from her, she knew this damn iceberg woman knew it too. But maybe she could save some of them.. it was worth a try. "All right.. you'll be hearing from me." She told her, coldly.

Well, she hates me. Dar sighed. One among many. "All right… you can send it over in email - you should be added to our postoffice by now." She lifted her cell phone and dialed a single code, holding it to her ear until she heard a gruff voice on the other end. "Mark.. you all done?"

A short laugh came through the phone. "Lock, stock, barrels, monkeys, hairdryers, and their accountant's latest lunch list." He advised her. "Mails up, servers locked down.. anything else I can do for you today?"

"Thanks." Dar folded the phone up. "You're up on mail.. tell your people not to do any administrative changes to your servers, and you can expect a team here tomorrow to start going over procedures."

Kerry folded her hands over her desk. "How did you know all that about our personnel statistics?"

Pale blue eyes lanced into her. "We broke into your server database this morning and extracted it." Dar smiled. "Your security sucks.. you might want to start your review there." She felt a sense of quiet triumph, which faded as Kerry returned her look with one of stony dislike. "Nothing personal."

"No." The blond stated quietly. "I can see that." She stood. "Would you like to look around?"

The last thing Dar needed was the nickel tour. She reminded herself she had six or seven conference calls to take care of back at the office, so she was very surprised when she heard her voice answering "Sure."

Kerry had just nodded, and stepped around the desk, running a hand through her pale hair and pushing it back off her face. She was wearing a pair of fairly snug jeans and a short sleeved white lace shirt that displayed an outdoor tan, which tightened against her body as she took a deep breath. "All right.. follow me."

It had, Dar later mused, been a very hostile afternoon. She'd gotten the feeling that word had spread quickly, since they'd only made it to the programmer's nests before she was starting to get those dagger in the eye looks from the inmates. She half expected her car to be keyed by the time they finished up, but apparently no one had figured out which one it was, not surprising, since an LX470 sport utility truck was hardly what they expected a VP Ops to be driving.

The head programmer had possibilities, she conceded, if you could dig her out of her shell long enough to talk code with her, which Dar had. The support and IS managers were useless, and listening to the calls as she passed through seemingly oblivious had allowed her to catch at least two individuals telling customers complete lies, and two others were using the opportunity to make social arrangements. Stuart had heard that last one, Dar realized, as she'd seen the look of dismay in the woman's startlingly open face.

Kerry Stuart. Dar leaned back against the leather and allowed herself the luxury of a few minutes of quiet thought. The kid wasn't stupid, and she was gutsy.. but damn, was she an innocent. She really hadn't been ready for this, but all in all, had handled the shock pretty well, after all.

What Dar couldn't get out of her mind was that nagging sense of familiarity… did they shop in the same place or something? No.. Kerry lived in Kendall, just past the Turnpike in one of the mazes of suburban rental clusters frequented by white collar workers in the area. Maybe she came down to the beach a lot? Not that Dar spent a whole lot of time on South Beach, but she did get down there from time to time, and stroll along the boardwalk.

Oh well. She gave up, knowing it would come to her eventually. Her watch meeped softly, and she glanced down, surprised to see how late it was. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, then tapped her console mounted cell phone. A moment later it was answered by Maria's sing song voice. "Hello, Maria."

"Dar.. where are you?" Her secretary lowered her voice.

"In my car, on the way back from Associated.. why?" The executive replied, a touch puzzled. "You knew where I was."

"Stay away.. stay far, far away, Dios Mio.. a man, he backed a truck into the facilities room downstairs, and took out all the controls for the air conditioning." Maria replied, with a groan. "It must be like an oven in here, Dar… my head is roasting."

The executive winced. "Oh.. boy." She considered. "Did they down the servers at least?" She asked, then she slapped herself on the head. "What am I thinking.. Maria, get out of there before you pass out."

"Aie.. I have my little fan, but it is like I am cooking.. turning crispy." The secretary told her. "Thank you very much.. I will pack up my things, and be on my way."

"Any ETA for restoral?" Dar asked, with a sigh, as she got off onto State Road 836, which would take her cross town to the office.

"No no.. they're arguing.. who is to blame, that is first." Maria sounded disgusted, unusual for the Spanish woman.

"All right… call in first tomorrow, Maria… I don't want you coming in if it's still out, it'll only get worse." Dar decided, as she rubbed her temples. "Get out of there."

"I don't care what anyone says, Dar, you are an angel." Maria replied warmly. "They can all kiss my. . how you call them? Grits. "

That got a smile from the dark haired executive. "Thanks, Maria… nice to hear that after getting out of Associated.. they don't much like me right now." Her mind conjured up the parting look she'd gotten from Kerry, which had been as full of disgust as any she'd had the misfortune of getting in a while. Normally, she could have cared less, but that… "Anyway, good night, Maria."

"Good night, Dar.. drive carefully, please." The secretary reminded her. "There are crazies out there."

Dar smiled quietly. It was nice, sometimes, to have someone be concerned about you, even if they were doing it as part of their job. "I will." She disconnected, and settled back to negotiate the traffic, putting on a low, new age CD and rubbing her neck to try and relieve the nagging soreness that had developed during her drive.

Kerry walked back into her office, after watching her unwelcome guest leave, and closed the door. She stood silently in the middle of the floor for a minute, then looked around. Pale blue carpet, light gray walls, woodgrain desk.. it wasn't a whole lot, but…

"I worked so hard for this." She whispered, sitting down in her visitor's chair. "Damn it.. this isn't fair." She let her head sink into her hands, bracing her elbows on the chair arms.

The soft sound of the door opening in back of her. "Ker?"

"Yeah." She replied, not bothering to move.

An arm slipped around her shoulders and she looked up, to see Ray's concerned face. "Jefa, don’t let it get to you like that… blow her off, the big bitch." He clucked at her, rubbing her neck. "What a scary person.. I think she's related to Cruella DeWhatever from that doggy movie."

A tiny laugh escaped from Kerry. "Ray.. John was right.. they want to get rid of all of us." She looked up at him. "She's giving me a chance to come up with a plan.. if I can cut the budget in half, she'll consider it, and maybe some folks will get to keep their jobs, but… "

Ray put his hands on his hips. "She's giving you a chance to do that? " He repeated, his voice surprised. "That's like.. unheard of from what I understand.. how did you manage to get her to do that?" He lowered his tone.

Kerry paused, and thought. "Is it?" Her brow creased. "I don't know.. I just… I guess I wasn't very nice to her, and you'd think that would make her mad, but it didn't.. I think she kind of liked it." She made a wry face at him.

He snorted. "Oh yes.. she seems that type." He remarked snidely. "I see the leather, and the whip cracking around that one, you bet."

The director sighed. "I don't know if I can come up with anything close, but I'm going to try, Ray… try to save as many people as I can." She gave him a tight smile. "But I think you better give Mona at Alternative Resources a call.. tell her we might have some prospects for her pool."

"Manana." Ray patted her on the shoulder. "Come on.. we're going down to Fat Tuesdays and doing the happy hour.. come with us."

A knock. "Ms. Stuart?"

They looked up. "Come on in, Anita." Kerry watched the short, slim accounting clerk bustle over, her arms filled with fanfold printouts. "That the stuff?"

"The budget, yes, and payroll, accounts payable, and receivables." The woman replied, setting them on her desk. "Anything else you need right now?" She pushed her horn rimmed glasses up, and sniffed. "I have to reload the lineprinter if you do.."

"No.. thanks.. that'll keep me busy for a while." Kerry smiled at her wearily. "Go on, Ray.. let me get started on this stuff."

The tall man blinked at her. "You can't do this all night.. why don't you just get a fresh thing in the morning going?"

"Go on, get out of here." Kerry repeated, rising and going to her desk, where she started pulling the various reports apart. It was going to be long, long night, she could see that. "Wait… Ray, can you get me a paper box?" No sense in sitting here and doing the initial review. Her couch would be much more comfortable.

The car ferry was very quiet, as Dar sat in solitary splendor on it, her car placed neatly in the center of the deck as the vehicle bobbed over the waves towards the island. The wind was blowing into her face, so the sound of the engines was muted, and she rested her pounding head against the door as the black waters slipped under the keel.

She was hot, and exhausted, and more than a little fed up, having spent the preceding ten hours in a high rise building with no air conditioning, doing what she could to get things fixed. Which was considerable, granted, and when she'd finally browbeaten a contractor into obtaining a replacement panel, and installing it at midnight, the few people left in the building had cheered and clapped for her.

All three of them, two cleaners and the security guard, their uniforms sticking to them and drenched with sweat. Just like she was. She'd sent the rest of the staff home, and stayed there, propping the fourteenth floor emergency doors open to get a hint of a humid breeze in the place. Calls to the building managers, to her own facilities department, to infrastructure because the security panel links had been blown… no results, so she'd finally called the building contractors, and gotten the owner on the phone at 10pm.

Thank god, they only had a five year contract, and it was up for renewal. That had been enough threat leverage to get him off his ass, and get a part out, with five grumbling technicians. Her glare behind them had done the rest, and by 1am, a low shudder passed through the building as the huge roof units hummed to life.

Now it was 2am, and she was finally going home. Business would go on as usual tomorrow, with no interruptions, and that was the important thing, since they couldn’t run the huge server cascades unless the air was on. She'd made a note on her desk to find out about a back up air unit for the computer room, for the next time. She sighed, and closed her eyes, letting the air conditioning in the Lexus hit her full blast. Another problem solved, and she was fairly sure not one person would thank her for it tomorrow.

Save maybe the cleaning ladies, who had timidly appeared at her office door when she was hollering at the contractor, bearing a pitcher of cold, home brewed ice tea and a plastic cup.

It was the only thing that had made her smile all night.

Well, almost. She'd waited for the building to cool down a little, then gone into the secured server room, and walked the boards, flipping the power switches on that would provide current to the six IBM mainframes, the two AS400's and the twenty seven NT servers that made up the core of their computing center.

Then she sat down at the console operators desk, a long, arced wooden desk, covered with eight different monitors, and four keyboards, attached to a cybex autoswitcher that let the operator get into any of the systems from one location. A long finger flipped the switches on the equipment up, and she waited while the various systems went through their startup process.

Idly, she flipped through the junk clustered on the desk, reading the Dilbert cartoons with an amused grin, then bending close to catch the tiny captions, where the console ops staff had penciled in names of upper management to match the cartoon characters.

"So.. I'm Catbert, huh?" It caused a wry chuckle. "Better than Ratbert, and definitely better than Dilbert… I woulda liked Dogbert, though." She picked up a pencil and tugged the cartoon free, then scribbled a note in the margin. Haven't hacked up a furball in a long time, thanks guys. DR

"That oughta get their attention." She stuck the cartoon back on the monitor, then logged into the main system and started initiating sessions. It took over twenty minutes to get everything moving again, and she smirked as she imagined the con ops staff running their startup reports tomorrow morning and finding her login all over everything.

"They forget who designed this thing in the first place, I think." She chuckled. Normally there would have been two mids operators here, but she'd called Mark and had him cancel the shift, since they had no idea when the system would be coming back up, and there was no sense in Pedro and Celeste sweating all over the floor.

With a sense of relief, she punched the speakerphone button and dialed Mark's home number, drumming her fingers lightly on the desk as she waited. Three rings, then four, then a grunt. "Good morning."

"Whathefu….oh shit." Mark very obviously dragged himself awake at her voice. "Dar… do you ever goddamn sleep?"

"Not when I have things to do, no." Dar answered shortly. "You're up."

"Of course I'm up… you're talking to m… oh.. you mean we're up?" Mark cleared his throat. "Thought air was down until tomorrow noon, at least."

Dar snorted. "Nope.. new switching panels in, Plano has security up, and I just booted the servers." She checked an activity monitor. "Jesus.. the mail server just kicked in… where are we picking up an eight hundred meg transfer file from? Your people downloading naked penguins again?"

"Shit." Mark sighed. "I'll dial in and check it.. g'wan and get outta there.. it's two am, for chrisssake."

"Night." Dar replied, rubbing her eyes. "See you in the morning." Then all she had to do was lock up, and take the eerily silent elevator down to the front door, where the security guard was waiting for her, to walk her to her car, standing lonely in the parking lot.

With a gentle clank, the ferry docked, and she waited for the deck hands to remove the chocks around her wheels before she shifted the car into drive, and carefully eased it up the sloping ramp, and onto the island. A few minutes later she was tucking the Lexus into its spot under the condo, and pulling herself up the stairs and through the door, her key unlocking the tumblers sounding very loud in all that quiet.

She was exhausted, but not sleepy, even after a long, warm shower and four Advil for her headache, so she trudged into the kitchen, grabbing a mug and filling it with milk from the dispenser before adding a spoonful of honey, and sticking it in the microwave. She gave the computer on the counter a glance, then her brow furrowed as she saw the blinking box in the corner. "Thought I cleaned my inbox out before I left the office… Mail?"

"Mail, Dar Roberts, one." The terminal answered, connected via its ISDN link directly to the office.

"Read." Dar crossed her arms, and leaned against the counter, waiting for the microwave bell to ring.

"Sent by: Kerry Stuart, Time 1:20AM"

"Well, well." Dar muttered softly to herself. "What do you know?" She saw the length. "Don't read."

 The bell went off, but Dar remained near the screen, reading the long, detailed message with interest. It started off with "I need some details clarified." And ended with "Please forward this information as soon as possible due to the deadline you imposed."

"Well, I'll be damned." Instead of being upset, Dar smiled. The questions were literate, and though a touch on the naive side, intelligent and thoughtful. Just like that kid is, I guess. She pulled one of the tall kitchen stools up next to the computer, and retrieved her warm milk, sipping on as she composed a detailed answer to the mail.

"That'll have to do her…at least for now." The tall woman commented, and paused, with her mouse over the send button. She studied the message, then added a single line to the bottom, and her initials. A click, and it was gone. She took her milk, and wandered into the living room, dropping down onto the soft, leather couch that faced the floor to ceiling glass windows. Her view was of the Atlantic at night, black waters bisected by a silver lance of moonlight, and the tiny, colored lights of the sea buoys. On the horizon, a cruise ship was gliding silently past, a patch of sparkle against the darkness, and briefly, Dar wished she was on it.

Kerry stifled a yawn, as she checked her front door lock, a habit before going to bed. Her apartment looked like a paper mill had attacked her, stacks of white sheets lay everywhere, but she was moderately satisfied with her first night's work. Not that she'd gotten anywhere, but at least she knew what questions to start asking, and to prove it, she'd shot off a list of ten of them to Cruella, her pet name for the overbearing Dar Roberts.

"Nice surprise for her in the morning, huh?" She commented to the panda, who was sitting with his arms outstretched on the second of two stuffed chairs in the small living room. The rest of the space was taken up by a cloth couch, a small table that seated four people, two large bookcases overflowing with books, and a small desk that held her computer. The room was bright and cheerful, pastel fabrics and Indian style throw rugs brought in a touch of color, and the walls were hung with scenes of her subtropical surroundings. Her favorite, a sunset over Key West, was above the TV stand, and was flanked by two small embroideries, a dolphin her aunt had made her, and a teddy bear from an old friend of her mothers.

"Oh… heck." She sighed, remembering she'd forgotten to send mail to the staff regarding the visits by procedures people the next day. She walked over and flipped on her PC again, flopping down in her desk chair and pulling one leg up under her as she waited for it to boot. After her desktop was presented, she went into mail, and composed a quick note to the staff, telling them to cooperate nicely with the people coming in, and told the system to send the mail.

It dialed up and connected to their office mail server, and she watched as the message transferred, then blinked in surprise as the system indicated it was downloading a message. "What idiot is up at this time of the morning, sending mail?" She wondered. The message finished downloading, and popped into her inbox.

Roberts, D Re: Your Questions Time: 2:55AM  

 "Oh… that idiot." She muttered, hesitating before she clicked on the message, surprised at the nervousness she felt. "Well, that explains's obvious she's an alien who never sleeps, and who has a port in her head she plugs things into." She decided, then took a breath, and opened the mail. She read through the sections, noting that the executive hadn't bothered responding to the admittedly snarky comments in her note. "Well, okay..I think she's wrong there, but… " She found another item. "Oh.. I hadn't thought of that."

Dar's writing was strong, and to the point; she could almost hear the words coming from the older woman, and surprisingly were lacking the condescension she'd half expected. Her final point answered, she let her eyes drop to the sign off and blinked. "What?" She read it again.

"Corporate policy states that all personnel achieve a reasonable amount of sleep in every twenty four hour period. Please adhere to the regulations from now on. DR"

"What's that supposed to mean? What is she, some kind of lunatic? She gives me a crazy deadline of one stupid week to do something in then says to make sure I sleep????" Kerry let out a vexed sigh, then she set up a reply, and cut most of the message out, except the header, and the last line. "Okay, Ms. Wise Guy Alien from Mars, take that." She highlighted the time on Dar's header, and made it boldface, then dropped down below the executive's last line and typed in a comment. "I'll keep that in mind."

With a smirk, she sent the message, then turned off her monitor, and trudged over to the lamp, shutting it off and heading into her bedroom. It featured a neatly made double sized bed against one wall under the small window, which was covered with a striped comforter in southwestern colors, a five drawer dresser against one wall, and a long, three drawer dresser with a half height mirror all in white wood. The carpet was a pale blue pile, and she wriggled her toes into its softness with a contented sigh as she crossed the floor, and got under the covers.

She could see the stars from there, and she watched them twinkle, trying to dispel the awful feeling of doom that had sat on her chest since Dar's visit. For her people, sure, she felt horrible, and hoped she could help them. But for herself… She glanced around the neat bedroom, and swallowed, remembering how good she'd felt when she finally got things just how she wanted it, and how proud she was of how nice everything looked. She liked it here; her neighbors were nice, and the complex was friendly, there was a mall close by for shopping, and she even had a little grill on the porch for when a few friends came over and barbecued.

It was so nice to be out on her own. No one questioned if she stayed up late, or stayed out, not that she ever did, of course… or questioned how she dressed, or who she talked to. She was… very happy here.

Now this.

Part of her hated the corporation. Part of her also wanted to hate Dar Roberts, but she was intelligent enough to understand that the woman was probably only carrying out policy, though it would be easier if she didn't look like she enjoyed it so much. It was obvious Dar was smart, and she had an air about her that made Kerry believe she didn't get crossed much, and when she did, the results were unpredictable. But on the tour, she'd asked some very sharp questions, and those incredible blue eyes hadn't missed much.

Whoa. Incredible? What am I thinking here? Kerry firmly closed her own eyes, and pulled the blanket up around her chin. The only thing incredible about Dar Roberts was her incredible arrogance.

So there.

"Morning." Dar nodded at her companions on the elevator, as the doors slid shut and it started on its way up. She got polite murmurs back, from the mostly junior staff who came in at this time of the morning. 8 am was the start time for most of the data entry clerks, and the administrative staff, and they all were somewhat in awe of her and not inclined to chatter in her presence.

She left them at lower levels, and proceeded up to the fourteenth floor in solitude, waiting for the doors to open then stepping out onto the executive level. Her office was on one corner, the windows wrapping around to give her a view of both the ocean, and the skyline, and she pushed her way through the door to the outer office with a sigh. "Morning, Maria."

Her secretary turned, and smiled. "Good morning, Dar.. it is much nicer in here today, let me tell you.. I don't know what miracle from Our Lady happened last night, but… it is good." She finished sprinkling a little water on the plant near her desk, then went to the small counter nearby. "I'll get you some coffee.. I'm glad you weren't here yesterday."

Dar smiled quietly, and went into her inner office, setting her briefcase down and powering up her desk system. After three hours of sleep, coffee was definitely a good idea., she decided, sitting down with a sigh, and running her fingers through her hair. The machine beeped, then requested her logon, which she provided impatiently, pressing the keys with a smooth motion. Her mail came up, and she scrolled through the morning's messages, stopping when she saw a response from an almost familiar name by now.

She read it, then smiled. "Short but sweet." And the kid had a sense of humor, too, she noted, seeing the boldface. She was still smiling when Maria walked in, carrying a small tray and putting it down on Dar's desk. "Ooo.. what do we have here?" She arched an eyebrow at the secretary.

Maria looked at her with a severe frown. "Carisita is telling me Gerardo in the cleaning staff is getting these for you special, because you stay here all last night to fix everything.. is that true, Dar?"

Dar deftly snagged one of the brown, layered pastries on the tray, and bit into it. "Mm… " She loved pastiltos, the Cuban specialities that could contain almost anything, but usually featured flaky layers stuffed with cheese, or meat, or minced ham… these were the latter, but Dar had also spotted some guava and cheese, which were her second favorites.

"Dar?" Maria tapped her fingernails, neatly manicured and painted a startling shade of red on the desk top.

"Someone had to, Maria." The executive shrugged, finishing one treat and selecting another. "Besides, these made it worth it… where does he get them? They're great."

The Spanish woman sighed. "You are too much, I think." She pushed the tray over. "Here.. I have to type up those letters about the service changes." She bustled towards the door, closing it behind her and leaving her boss in private with her treats.

Dar read the rest of her mail while finishing the pastries, and draining the large coffee Maria had added with it. She muttered as she answered most of it, sending back terse replies, and one instance of just a single word of bullshit.

The phone buzzed. "Dar… I have Les on numero uno for you."

"Oh.. numero dos." The tall woman rolled her eyes. "All right. " She punched the button. "How's things in Plano, Les?"

"I have no idea." The cheerful voice answered. "I'm in Troy… I hope they're sweating their asses off down there. How's it going with Associated?"

"Not bad.. I broke the news to them yesterday, and I'm waiting for the fallout." Dar replied. "I figure a quarter of them will just take off voluntarily, and solve half my problem for me."

A low chuckle emerged from the phone. "That's my Dar… I hear we had a problem there?"

"Minor." Dar shrugged it off. "Some idiot backed a fork loader into the switchroom back entrance, and took out six punch down panels, along with the hardware for controlling the air conditioning." She leaned back, crossing her arms. "I had to raise a little hell."

"I heard." Les replied. "I had the president of the building association on my line this morning. He's an old classmate of mine."

Connections. Dar sighed. They never ended… whatever you did, you eventually had to hear about it somewhere down the line. "And?" She waited for the reprimand.

"And I told him he was lucky you didn't personally come and get him and kick his ass." The CEO told her cheerfully. "You did the right thing, Dar… good work."

Dar absorbed the compliment with a quiet smile. "Thanks." It didn't happen often. In fact, she could remember hearing those words exactly six times in as many years, from this man. Les was a pain in the ass, a bigot, and a chauvinist, but he had a certain personal charisma that even she wasn't immune to.

"Now.. I got a little problem." Les' voice dropped a little. "I need you to go to the DC office, shake them up a little… Peter Weyhousen is botching the contract talks with the Pentagon.. can you take them up for him?"

Damn. "I thought you wanted me to concentrate on Associated?" She objected. "Can't do that from DC."

"Sure you can… you've got the most testosterone laden laptop in the entire corporation, Dar.. " Les chided her. "National's a great place to get work done while you're waiting.. I should know." He shifted the phone, causing it to crackle. "He's going to lose that account, Dar.. and we need it. A few days away will give Associated a chance to settle down, anyway."

True. "I've got someone working on a budget plan for them…might be good to give them a few days to work things out." She conceded. " When are the talks?"

"Can you fly out tonight? They're scheduled for tomorrow early…I'll mail over the pertinent account facts, and where I think Weyhousen is screwing up. He doesn’t know you're coming, by the way."

Great. "All right." A bag was already packed and ready in the Lexus' trunk, for just this purpose. Peter Weyhousen was.. not a friend of hers. It would be a wild meeting, that was for sure. "You owe me one for this, Les."

The CEO chuckled. "Honey, see me at bonus time, all right?" He sighed. "Gotta go… I'm speaking at the engineer's conference in five minutes."

"Good luck." Dar told him.

"You too." Came the reply, before a click indicated the CEO had hung up.

Dar put her arms on the desk, and blew out a breath. She pressed the intercom button. " Maria… I need a flight to IAD late afternoon, coming back open."

"Dios Mio." The secretary replied. "He doesn't let you live." A rustle of paper. "I will take care of things, Dar."

"Thanks." Dar released the intercom, and sat back, nibbing a fingernail. Then she pulled her keyboard over, and typed in a request to the database lying open on her desktop. A moment later it came back with a reply, and she picked up the phone again, dialing a number.

"Kerry Stuart." The voice on the other end of the phone sounded harassed and upset.

"Well. Good morning, Ms Stuart. It was nice exchanging mail with you." Dar replied evenly.

A momentary pause. "Oh." Kerry cleared her throat. "Hello…I um… thank you for answering, the information was very helpful." Her tone was guarded, and borderline hostile.

Dar's brow furrowed. "No problem. What I called for was to tell you I'm going out of town for a few days.. if you have any more questions you can go ahead and mail them, but it might be a few hours before I pick them up and address anything."

A long silence. "Why don't you address the bastard you sent over here?" The frustration evident in the woman's voice spilled over into anger. "You know, I don't know who you people think you are, treating human beings as some kind of dirt you can rub under your heels. "

"Whoa." Dar's tone was stronger than she'd intended. "Hold on." A ragged breath whispered through the receiver, and Dar could almost feel the emotion. "What's going on?"

Another silence. "What's going on? What do you think is going on.. your goons are going through here ripping the place apart, and disrupting everything.. if you wanted to just trash the company, why didn't you just do it?"

"Ms. Stuart… "

"Opening people's personal possessions, locking my network people out of their offices… "

"Ms. Stuart.."

"Telling me I can't have access to my own payroll records??"

"Kerry." Dar spoke forcefully, almost a bark.

A breathless pause answered her. "Only my friends call me that."

It was, Dar realized, ridiculous. She was the vice president of operations for a worldwide major corporation, and here was this two bit manager of a half rate single city service provider telling her off.

What was really surprising, though, she admitted, was how much it hurt. "Let me talk to Brady Evens."

The phone was thrown down on the desk, and she had to wait, counting to a hundred under her breath before she heard two sets of footsteps coming back, and the receiver was picked up. "Here." She heard Kerry's voice snap, then the phone rustled.



"Velvet glove."

"Aw shit.. you're kidding my ass." The growly voice of her security team leader tickled her eardrums.

"Nope.I mean it." She stated flatly. "Stuart gets vip."

"Dar, you don't know what…. There's holes in here as big as my butt, and Mark's already put a link in, for god's sake."

"I.. don't… care." Dar barked. "Just do it!" Her voice dropped to a deep snarl.

"All…all right..okay." Brady answered, in a chastened voice. "Okay.. sorry.. I didn't know.. my papers said a regular sweep."

"Change the papers." Dar replied, her voice still furious.

"Yes, ma'am." The team leader quietly replied. "Hold on." He clicked something. "Team lead to crew." A splurt of static answered, along with a soft clamor of voices. "Stop what you're doing - we need to go to gold mode, over."

A soft cacophony of protest. "Orders from the top." Brady overrode them. "Just do it." Then he exhaled and spoke into the phone again. "Done."

"Thank you." Dar growled.

The phone rustled softly. "Ms. Stuart, I apologize. " Brady's voice had modulated from rough to cultured. "We'll try to stay out of your way." His footsteps receded, and the phone jostled, a soft breathing becoming audible.

Dar waited, slowly letting out a breath of air. She still felt the warm rush against her skin from the anger, and she closed her eyes, letting it seep out of her. Her temper was legendary, and Brady knew it.. knew he could push only so far before she'd snap, and get him into more trouble than he was capable of dealing with. A story still circulated about a board meeting, where a senior VP had challenged her, pushing every one of her buttons at the end of a very long day, and found himself pressed up against the wall, pinned by Dar's weight while she yelled at the top of her lungs.

It was the reason she spent most evenings at the Island's well stocked gym, working with the resident martial artist, Teddy, and perfecting several different flavors of black belts.

"Um." Kerry's voice came on, hesitantly. "Thank you."

Dar took a breath. "Some places, when we come in, you have a lot of people trying to either destroy, or make off with proprietary information." She explained quietly. "I know it's hard to think of your co workers that way, but we do this from experience, not because we just decided to be hardasses."

"I.. I understand that." The blond woman replied. "It's… it's just so humiliating."

Dar paused, disconcerted. She'd never thought of it that way. "I guess it is….I apologize." She remembered Kerry's eyes, at first willing to trust, then so quickly disillusioned. "But it's.."

"Nothing personal, I know." Kerry replied flatly.

They were both silent for a moment. "Fifteen people gave notice today." Kerry finally said., not really sure why. "The rest said they were going to stick around and see what happens."

Dar stared out her window, hardly seeing the clouds drifting by. "That's pretty good." She murmured. "You've got a loyal staff, there."

"They're depending on me."

Aw, kid… The tall, dark haired woman slowly shook her head at the sky. Don't put that on your shoulders. "All right."

"I'm not going to let them down." The voice was very steady. "No matter what you do or say."

Dar sighed. "Ms. Stuart, I'm not your enemy."

"You're not my friend." Came the flat reply.

"No." A pause. "I guess I'm not."

Now it was Kerry's turn to be silent. "Well, thank you for telling him to stop, I really appreciate that a lot." She exhaled. "… I'll send any more questions."

"All right." Dar hesitated. "Listen.. write this number down." She waited until she got a soft 'go on' from the phone. "305-975-6647"

"I have it." Kerry said.

"If you have any problems with him, just call that number."

Probably her guard dog or something. Kerry thought. "All right." She paused. "Have a… um.. have a safe trip." Wishing she crashed would be politically incorrect, she supposed, and besides.. she had just done Kerry a big favor. No sense in alienating a woman who could make a six and a half foot tall, 300 pound man turn white as Casper's Ghost and practically piddle on her carpet, right? Right.

Dar's voice dropped a pitch as she replied. "Thanks."

It was a warmer tone, that forced an unexpected smile to the younger woman's face. "You're welcome." Kerry answered softly. "Good bye." She hung up the phone, and remained there for a long moment, staring at the instrument and wondering what on earth was going on with her. Then she sighed, and seated herself behind her desk again, rubbing her face wearily. She looked up as a knock on the doorframe alerted her to a new presence. "Come in, Ray."

The support manager glided across the carpet and slipped into her visitor's chair. "What happened?"

Kerry stared at him. "We got taken over by the Merry Mongols Megolithic marching band, remember?"

"Aye.. chica.. no.. with the gorillas." Ray looked around, then back at her. "Who put on their leashes? They are being so nice now, it's alarming."

"Oh." The blond woman folded her hands. "Well.. I kind of complained "

"To the Cruella?" Ray inquired.

 "Yeah." Kerry nodded. "So she talked to that head goon, and he told them to take it easy.. I think it will be better now."

"Our hero." He grinned. "You go, girl. "

The blond woman looked down at her hands and smiled. "Yeah, that was pretty good.. I don't know what she said to him, but he looked like a puppy that had just been spanked."

"Tch.. he would probably like that." Ray laughed. "Maybe she's you call them.. his mistress.. you know, with the whips and chains thing. She probably puts on him a collar, with a bell."

Kerry covered her face with one hand, and stifled a giggle. She was so tired from her late night tasks, the picture of the burly, gruff Brady in a belled collar was almost too much for her. "God, Ray.. don't do that to me…what a picture."

He stood up. "Teresita is going to Laurenzo' want her to bring you back a colada?"

The woman blinked. She tended to view cuban coffee with a wary eye, a cross between black goo and rocket fuel, but the way she felt today, maybe it was worth a try. "Okay… sure. That might be a good idea.. I'm pretty tired." She picked up the piece of paper with the phone number, and looked at it curiously, then folded it and tucked it away in her shirt pocket

She turned back to her computer, rereading the dozen or so questions and clarifications she'd come up with for Cr… for Dar Roberts. "All right.. you asked for them." She sat back, reflecting on what had just happened, tapping her pencil on her lower lip. Dar had called, apparently to let her know she could keep sending things, and she'd ended up going off all over the executive.

No way around it, that was exactly what she had done…and instead of telling her off, or firing her, which Dar certainly was capable of doing, the corporate VP had… fixed her problem.

Weird. Very weird. She certainly hadn't given Dar any reason to be nice to her, in fact, she'd been rude, to the point of insubordinate twice now, and the older woman had simply ignored her comments as though she hadn't made them.

No.. that wasn't true. That last time she'd said Dar wasn't a friend of hers, she had answered, agreeing with that. It has almost been.. Kerry drew her denim covered knee up, and circled it with one arm and sighed. She didn't know what it had almost been, but now she was feeling a little bad about being so rude. She wasn't usually like that, and she had no idea what about Dar Roberts brought it out in her.

She turned to her screen, where a dozen or so more questions and clarifications were typed, and reviewed them. She'd left out the snide comments this time, since she'd gotten such reasonable answers the last time, and now she hesitantly typed a final line on the bottom, before she hit the send key, doing so quickly before she could change her mind.

There. It wasn't much of an apology, but… after all, she was the one being screwed over here, her and the rest of her staff, so… Dar Roberts could just like it or not, she really didn't care one way or the other.


 Continued in Part 2