The First Law of Thermodynamics
by Jules Mills
Part One – When the temperature rises thermocouples develop an electromotive force
“You did what?!” Dana pushed her lunch tray down the rollers of the Yale cafeteria. She was staring at the back of Grace’s head, admiring the silky blonde strands that had grown quite long over the past year and a half, so long that it hung three quarters of the way down the shorter woman’s back. Dana had found that she loved to tangle her fingers in it, and resisted the urge to do so at the moment.
“I told her we would be happy to watch Nate for them. It’s the least we can do for our friends, Dana. They never had a honeymoon–”
“And that’s my fault? I wasn’t even around when they got married and I sure as hell didn’t get anyone pregnant.”
“No, its not your fault…geez. They’ve been working so hard on the project…it’s the least we can do.”
“Who’s we? You got a mouse in your pocket?”
They both stopped in front of the desserts. Grace reached up and snagged a piece of Boston creme pie and then took an apple off the shelf and placed it on Dana’s tray. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” she sang with a smile.
Dana took the McIntosh into her hand, stared at it a moment, and placed it back on the shelf. “Well that would defeat ninety-five percent of my extracurricular goals.” She helped herself to a large piece of chocolate cake with sprinkles on top. “I had plans for this weekend.”
Grace turned and looked at Dana in shock. “Really? What kind of plans?”
“Well, you are going to be away the rest of the week, so I thought when you came home we could …um…well, it has to do with you and me and a gallon of ice cream. ”
Grace stared at her lover for a moment, a cool image flitting around her cerebral cortex.
Dana wiggled her eyebrows. “Cassandra suggested I do the things I enjoy more often,” the nano tech commented and watched the blush climb up Grace’s cheeks. “And Friendly’s always has peppermint-stick out around this time of year.”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” the doctor said, continuing to hold up the line. “You, me and Nate this weekend…you, me and the peppermint-stick next weekend.”
“No. Cassandra says I have to put my foot down and stop letting people decide things for me.”
Grace sighed and pushed her tray forward. This whole Cassandra thing had become a power tool for Dana, and, frankly, the vibrations irritated Grace so much sometimes she wanted to start with the pills again. “Fine.”
How come I don’t think this is over? Dana asked herself. They rolled up to the beverage center. Grace helped herself to a bottle of water and a cup of ginseng tea. Dana also grabbed two bottles of water and a large Mountain Dew.
Grace pushed past the register. “She’s got the bill today,” the doctor said to Hali, the register attendent.
“Okay, Dr. Wilson. Have a good day.”
Dana grumbled and reached into her front pocket for her money while she slid her tray forward. She watched Grace weave her way to the back of the room to find a seat.
“Hi, Dana,” the young student said. Dana had found out through light conversation that Hali was a scholarship/work-study student of dance and hopefully physics. Sometimes when Dana came down to the cafeteria in the afternoon for coffee or to take a mental break she would help Hali with her mechanical physics homework. Dana enjoyed the girl’s enthusiasm for science and the questioning, skeptical approach, never accepting an idea until it had been proven to her. Dana felt like the teacher instead of the perpetual student of life, and it made her feel good in the purest of ways.
She handed Hali a five and a ten and received a nickle back. “She always makes me pay when she’s really hungry,” she mumbled.
Hali laughed. “By the way, I got an eighty-five on the test.”
Dana gave the young woman a brilliant smile. It was quite a feat considering the student had barely scraped by with seventies on the last two tests. “Good job, Hali. You should be proud.”
“I am. And thank you for all of the help.”
“Anytime,” the nano tech offered and walked toward Grace a slight spring in her step. That was satisfaction.
She weaved her way to the corner of the cafeteria where Grace was already seated, talking to Minnie and Sylvia. A new organic tech, whom Sylvia was training was also seated at the table, picking at her tunafish salad.
Dana sat down in the open chair next to Grace. Grace looked at her and smiled, a nefarious smile. Uh-oh. “So what are you three talking about?” Dana asked…stepping in it.
“I was just telling Grace about these champagne-glass-shaped jacuzzis they have in the brochure.” She looked at Grace and began to giggle with the blonde.
And then Grace became serious. “Minnie, I meant to tell you…um…Dana has something to tell you, I mean.”
All four women at the table looked at the nano tech. Be tough, she told herself, you can do this. “What does Nate like to eat for dinner?”
Minnie smiled, as did Grace. “Yellow foods. He’s Jack’s son. Macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, Cheetos…and sometimes pizza. That’s the only thing of color I’ve been able to get him to eat besides chocolate cake.”
“Okay,” Dana replied feebly, giving Grace the faintest leer of irritation, and turning to Lola who was still picking at her tuna. Dana really did not want to talk to anyone at the moment, but the poor woman looked miserable.
She picked up her sandwich and ignored Grace’s triumphant smile. The three women resumed their discussion about packing and all of the outdoor and indoor activities that Jack and Minnie could partake in. It was obvious that Grace had at some point had done the Poconos, but Dana was too miffed to even inquire about it.
“Lola, I think you are ready to do some work with real-material processing today.”
The young woman looked up startled. “You…you think I’m ready for the manipulator?” a nervous voice asked. Dana looked up from her grilled cheese, surprised to see it was the young woman sitting next to her who was questioning her. The voice was soft and insecure, nothing like the body would have indicated. She was more blonde than Grace, a little bit taller, and somewhat buff, and her eyes were large, chocolate-brown…cookies.
“Dont you think so?” Dana asked.
The girl looked positively scared.
“We can postpone a couple of days, but your training scores were right on, and I think you are ready now.”
The girl smiled at her, gaining confidence.
“Sylvia will spend the afternoon with you, overseeing your work,” Dana said absently. Dana returned to the business of eating and was nibbling her ham-and-cheese when Minnie, Sylvia and Lola excused themselves to return to work.
Dana could see Lola chattering excitedly to Sylvia as they rounded the corner out of the cafeteria.
Grace was amazed at how Dana could instill such confidence in her people with a sincere observation, not flattery or fraudulent praise. She was about to tell her how proud she was of her when Dana held up her hand for her to be quiet.
“Don’t you say a word,” Dana said as she began to eat the frosting of her cake. “You were setting me out to fry with Minnie.” Grace let her hand wander under the table to the soft, worn denim of Dana’s thigh. She slid her hand up the thigh to Dana’s hip and squeezed. “And don’t promise me anything you cannot fulfill,” she said without acknowledging her with her blue eyes. Grace chuckled and removed her hand.
“You are such a baby.” She dug into her pie.
Dana refused to look at Grace as they road back to the laboratory in the elevator. Grace thought her friend’s brooding was cute, and the reason was even cuter: Dana was pouting because she wanted her ice cream. When the elevator doors opened the nano tech was down the hall before Grace even stepped off the elevator.
Grace spent the afternoon tracking down acronyms for her latest grant application, which was the reason she was going to Washington in the morning, while Dana supervised the latest generation’s simulations.
Over the past year they had tried ten different ways of trying to kill the tumor cells. They started with attacking the cellular membranes with laser basts and recently finished with chopping up the malignant cell with mechanical arms. They had finally come to a point where they were satisfied by the method of destroying the cancer. However, they did not have a way to safely extract the dead, diseased bodies without spreading the tumors or causing larger cell death by clogging arteries or organs with the dead cells as they filtered throughout the body. Dana was discussing the low rate of success of the latest removal method with Rachel when Lola came bounding down the hall, still dressed in yellow protective gear and booties.
“Ms. Papdap!” she screamed.
Doc jumped out of her chair, her hackles raised at the sheer sound of alarm and the mispronunciation.
“It’s Sylvia…she collapsed in the lab, and I don’t know the code to the door.”
Part Two – Heat
Dana sprinted past the young woman, her sneakers squeaking as she sped to the Organic Laboratory entrance. As soon as she opened the door to the outer laboratory area, she was bombarded with the noxious fumes of the ether. Dana pulled her shirt collar up over her mouth and nose and walked through the noxious fumes to the door of the manipulator room. Through the glass viewing windows, she could see Sylvia passed out on the floor. She pushed the numbers as quickly as her fingers would allow and barely waited for the steel door to unlock before barreling into the room. Dana placed her fingers over the pale woman’s lips and felt the faintest sensation of warm air running over her skin. She hoisted Sylvia over her shoulder and carried her out of the lab, finally laying her down on the hard tile floor of the hallway. Rachel removed her sweatshirt and rolled it up to form a pillow for the tech’s head.
“I called down to the ER, and Lolita’s getting Grace.”
As if on cue, the doctor came running down the hall toward the huddled group. “What happened?” she asked.
Dana wiped her burning eyes. “The whole lab is filled with ether. She was passed out like this when I found her.”
Grace felt for a pulse and put her ear to the woman’s mouth to listen to her breathing while watching her chest rise and fall.
“She’s breathing,” Dana said.
They were interrupted by the sound of the hard rubber tires of a gurney and the heavy footfalls of two orderlies racing toward them.
“How long has she been out?” Grace asked, lifting the woman’s closed eyelids one at a time to check for pupil reaction.
Dana looked to Lola, who was still dressed in her protective clothing. “I have no idea. She was lying on the floor in the back room when I came back from the bathroom.”
“How long?” Grace said sternly.
“Did you smell the ether when you left?” Dana asked.
“Just the stuff I was working with, but that was under the hood.”
Dana was furious, as was Grace. The number-one safety rule was that no one worked alone in the lab.
The tall nano tech leaped to a standing position and peered through the glass into the Organic Lab, looking for a broken or spilled bottle of ether. Then she looked up at the display panel outside of the manipulator room. “The manipulator is on,” she mumbled into the window. She contemplated the amount of ether she had encountered and the fact that the manipulator was still running…”Get everyone out of here as quickly as possible!” Dana barked, turning to the small crowd of people that had gathered in the hallway.
“Why?” Rachel asked.
“Because that manipulator is going to reach 1000 degrees Kelvin pretty soon, and when it does, that machine is going to be practically 180 degrees and that stuff is going to auto-ignite–that ether is going to flame, that’s why. Now get everyone out of here!”
Sylvia had already been lifted and strapped onto the gurney, a monstrous oxygen mask covering her dainty face. Grace had turned when she heard the alarm in Dana’s voice. Dana was hastily pulling on a yellow protective jumper and gloves from the safety station in the hallway.
“What the hell are you doing?” Grace asked, yanking on the nano tech’s arm to gain her attention.
Dana put on her glasses. “I’m going to turn that thing off and turn on the room circulation. That’s ethyl ether vapor filling that room, which is going to explode if I don’t stop it, Grace.” Meanwhile, the orderlies were speeding away toward the elevator with the patient.
“Are you crazy?”
“Yep!” Dana slipped a small, New Age, self-contained breathing apparatus with a five-minute oxygen tank over her mouth and nose and opened the steel door to the lab just enough for her to slip inside. Grace was blasted with a sweet, pungent cloud of ether.
Dana ran quickly over to the emergency vacuum controls and began typing in commands. Slow down, she told herself. The last thing you need now is to create static electricity. She tried to calm her breathing down, but the sound of the respirator reminded her of atime a year and a half earlier. Concentrate, you big, stupid nano tech!
“Grace! Sylvia’s convulsing or something! We need you!” she heard Rachel scream from the corner of the hallway.
“Oh, my God!” Grace said, sprinting down the hallway toward the loud ruckus.
Dana looked up at the large overhead vent that should have started blowing fresh air into the room once she typed the command into the console. But nothing was working. She checked the air vents on the walls that should have been sucking the bad air out. She removed her glove and placed her hand on the vent, but instead of suction she felt a breeze coming into the lab. Her eyes were watering profusely from the etherized air.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” she cursed into the respirator. Now she only hoped like shit she could manually turn off the billion-dollar manipulator before it reached critical temperature and set off the highly flammable ether. She ran over to the manipulator control panel outside the small room: 998 degrees Kelvin. “Oh, shit!” But it was too late. The temperature hit 1000 degrees within two seconds, radiating just enough external heat to cause the ether molecules that filled the small room to burn. A chain reaction of external events from the combusting air ultimately
destroyed the protective layer of metal of the manipulator, frying the internal chips that maintained the stabilized high pressure of the machine. The machine began to pressurize uncontrollably until the degraded seals could no longer sustain the environment. Within five more seconds the machine exploded with a deafening boom, blowing out the windows of the small cuby, sending shards of glass toward the nano tech as she dived over the laboratory bench. The outer lab burst into a huge fireball, roaring along the floor, the pressure blowing the viewing windows into the hallway.
Dana crashed hard to the floor, landing on her right shoulder, and then her hip came crashing down. She quickly rolled until she was nestled into the workbench, her hands and face hidden as she curled as much of herself as possible into a ball for protection from the heat and burning vapor. The protective clothing melted off her back, the intense heating scalding her skin.
She barely felt the flame burning her, she was too busy trying to process the sharp, spearing pain that split through her side. She lay huddled against the bench, the world burning around her, her body numbing, along with her mind, as she labored to breathe. A whiteness seemed to drift down onto her from above, cooling her, enveloping her before she drifted off into nothingness.
Grace was running alongside the gurney through the glass gerbil tube that joined the research facility and the Yale-New Haven Hospital when she felt and heard the deafening explosion that shook the entire building. As the windows around them rattled, ice-cold fingers of fear clenched her heart and held tight. The orderlies and the gurney crashed through the swinging doors to the hospital and rolled into the waiting hands of the emergency staff.
“Dana,” Grace whispered, turning from her patient and the new doctors. She began to run back up the incline to the research facility. Rachel grabbed her from behind, holding her tightly and preventing her from reentering the building. The doors to the research facility, which were automatically timed to lock when the fire alarms exploded with sound, suddenly released from their locked positions against the wall. Alarms screeched all around Grace. Screaming her frustration, she could not even hear herself above the relentless din. Tears washed down her face as she desperately struggled with the strong hacker.
“Let me go!” she yelled at Rachel. Rachel could not hear her but released her grip when she saw her friend’s agony. The doctor ran toward the doors that were now only working in the direction for those who wanted escape. Most people were likely using the stairwells and the stairwell exits. Unfortunately, the tube was accessible only via the elevators, which were probably now locked on the first-floor level. Grace yanked on the door handles and pounded desperately.
Part Three – Thermal Properties or Hot and Cold
The fire alarms bellowed their warning throughout the research building. Grace turned away from the doors and stomped her way down the ramp to where the hacker was standing. Her tears from fear had transmuted to ones of fury.
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” she screamed at Rachel.
“Stopping you from making a mistake.”
“Stopping me….” She looked away, exasperated. “What about Dana?”
“You can’t help her, Gracie,” the hacker explained.
“You don’t know that,” the blonde doctor said defiantly and brushed past her.
“I know that all you could have done going through those doors would have been to stop and stare at the elevator doors,” she said sharply.
Grace continued to walk, ignoring the truth to that statement, and burst through the doors to the Emergency Room. She moved quickly through the ER until she whooshed outside and then ran toward the main doors of the sister building. Techs and doctors, secretaries and administrators mingled in the park across the street, huddled for warmth and companionship as they watched the firefighters charging into and out of the building. Grace scanned their faces, hoping, while she trotted toward the entrance of the building.
Rachel roughly caught the doctor’s arm and spun her around.
“They’ll never let you in,” she said angrily, worried for her friend’s safety.
Grace yanked her arm away and squinted her green eyes at the hacker.
“You ladies will have to move across the street,” one of New Haven’s finest men in blue said, ushering them away.
“My…my…friend is still in the building!” she explained.
The cop looked at her and touched the microphone on his chest. “What floor?” he thought to ask.
“Second, in the lab,” Grace said breathlessly.
He paused for a brief second and then spoke into the air surrounding his thick chest. He pressed the earpiece further into his ear so that he could hear over the shouting and mayhem surrounding them. When he was sure that he had heard the message correctly, he gently took hold of Grace’s arm and began to walk her toward the hospital entrance, a look of concern in his brown eyes. “There are people checking it now,” he said soothingly.
“Oh, my God!” Grace muttered, losing all hope that the explosion just might have been a coincidence. “Have they found anyone?”
The cop shook his head. “No one yet.”
Jake Marr loved being a firefighter. It made him feel butch and heroic, and he looked so good in the uniform that he rarely went home alone. And now adrenaline and testosterone were racing each other through the veins in his body. He was pumped.
He tore around the corner, aching to have the heat scalding his face, the dark mystery and silent danger of the smoke calling to him, seducing him. He clunked his way in his thick-soled rubber boots and flame-retardant pants, spraying the remaining fires with his dry-chem extinguisher, unsure of what kind of chemicals might be present in the building. He moved forward, toward the next lingering fire, and doused it with white. Turning the next corner, he discovered blackened walls that still glowed orange. He shivered with a need and then leapt through a narrow break in two small fires, turning to douse them. He liked the way the flames had licked and lapped at his legs.
Through the dark smoke and the visor of his respirator he found the laboratory, residual fires still burning. He let loose a stream of the powder into the room through the holes in the wall, and then he climbed through.
“Never use a door if you don’t have to,” he chuckled to himself. Across the glass and powder he crunched his way into the room. White, slippery powder sheeted the floor, and he nearly fell, catching himself by placing a gloved hand on a lab bench. The room was still warm. He scuffed his way around the large room, spraying smoldering fires. Red lights blinked and alarms continued to blare. His eyes swept the floor as he walked, and then he found it, a yellow form huddled against a lab bench. The body was covered in the white residue of his dry chemical. As he brushed some of the powder away, he saw the darkened, melted material of the protective suit and mottled patches of burned flesh across the person’s back.
“I found one,” he reported huskily into his mask microphone. He rolled the body over, noticing a pool of blood underneath, and a metal test-tube rack protruding from the hip. It made him cringe. The face mask on the body was crooked, and the vacuum seal was broken. Kneeling down, he removed his helmet and rolled the warm body across his shoulders. He groaned at the weight as he powerlifted himself to his feet. Hefting the body across the room, he tried the door handle, which was still warm through his glove. Carefully, he carried his load down the smoldering hallway, the sprinklers having extinguished the flames, careful not to slip and fall. At the stairwell Jake was met by his partner, Ruth Wanes, a five-foot-five firefighter built like a pit bull. Together they maneuvered the stairwell, lit only by emergency lighting, until they reached the street, where they were met with a gurney and a crew from next door.
Rachel felt the skin on her forearm tearing as she and the doctor watched Dana’s body being rolled past them. Rachel had no idea what the nurses and doctors were shouting. A moment later Grace released her and fell into the wake of the gurney.
Dana was wheeled directly into the operating room, where what was left of her clothing was removed. She was placed on her belly while the nurses and doctors surveyed her burns and wounds. Grace washed her hands and slipped into a set of scrubs, but Nurse Sydney would not allow her to get in the way of the doctors. She led the blonde around and made her hold Dana’s limp hand while the doctors tended to her hip and the major burns on her back and the back of her thighs.
Grace watched the steady heartbeat spike across the monitor screen but did not believe it until she actually felt the pulsing of blood through the hand she was holding.
Six hours and a couple of shots of a morphine derivative later, Dana was conscious, lying on her good side, covered with fresh skin glue and skin patches, and with no intention of staying in the hospital another minute. When she realized that she was alone in the small room, she pushed herself off the table, slipping her bare feet to the floor.
“Ouch,” she moaned as the movement tugged the new skin across her back. She smelled of antiseptics and cleaners, as did the whole hospital. She pulled the IV from her hand with a hiss and a pain that shot up her arm into her heart.
“Sit your ass back down!” Nurse Sydney yelped as she entered the room.
Dana startled and found herself instinctively climbing back onto the examining table.
“Get on your bloody belly,” the nurse clucked. “No goddamned common sense.”
Dana rolled onto her stomach. Sydney began examining her, checking for any oozing or bleeding on her bare back and thighs, and then examined the hip.
“You’re mean,” Dana said.
“And if you get up again, I’m going to tell Dr. Wilson you’re being a pain in my ass.”
Dana shot her a look that was half mean, half pout.
“Oh, cut that out,” the nurse said. “You don’t scare me, Dana Papadopolis. Never did, not even as a punk convict. Now lie down and rest until I say you can get up.”
“I think you missed your calling. You should have been a dictator.”
“Kiss my ass!”
“I would if you had one, flat-butt,” Dana replied testily. The nurse left. She slid off the bed again.
In walked Wonder Doctor, looking mighty peeved.
“Get back up there.” Grace could not believe what she was seeing. Dana had found a pair of green scrubs and was trying to get dressed.
Dana growled angrily but climbed back onto the bed. “I want to go home,” she huffed.
“Not until we’re sure the grafts have taken. Where’s your IV?” Grace looked around and saw it on the floor, clear liquid spilling in a little pool on the tile. “Jesus, Dana. What kind of sense is that?” Grace walked purposefully over to a cabinet and removed a small bottle, then unwrapped a sterilized needle. “That was antibiotic, so that you don’t end up with an infection.” She walked back to the bed, stopped, and filled the syringe with liquid. Gently she nudged Dana onto her belly.
“More antibiotic.” Grace swabbed a spot on Dana’s butt and quickly jammed the needle into the flesh.
Dana hissed at the burn. “Geez, Grace, are you angry with me?” she asked after the needle was removed.
Grace turned and disposed of the needle and syringe.
“No,” she said with a cold professionalism that did not convince her lover. “I mean, the fact that you ran into a laboratory, knowing it could blow up and kill you, leaving me to worry about you until you were carried out half an hour later unconscious and toasted on one side. No, I’m not mad, I’m furious.”
Dana looked away, ashamed.
“Now lie on your side, be quiet, and stop harrassing the nurses, and do not ask to leave again. You will leave when I say you can.” But Grace’s voice was not its steady bravado; it was trembling, as was her whole being, betraying her as she walked out of the room, trying not to break down again.
“I’m glad to see you too,” Dana mumbled into the white sheet.
She had not thought about why she had gone into the lab alone, or the chance that she would not come back out, or how it all had affected Grace. She lay quietly waiting for her caretakers to revisit her.
When Grace finally returned, she was unhappy to find Dana on her back.
“I thought I told you to stay on your side.”
Dana ignored her, looking away. And she was not going to tell her how much her body ached; she would suffer in silence. “How’s Sylvia?” she asked coolly.
“Stable, conscious, and listening to her doctor’s advice. She was lucky you got her when you did. It took her a few hours to come to, and she’s still suffering from the toxicity, but she’ll likely be fine.”
Green eyes looked down into blue, and a soft hand reached out and brushed hair to either side of her forehead. “Don’t ever pull a stunt like that again,” she stated softly and kissed her.
Then Grace pulled away, withdrawing her touch. Dana pushed herself to a sideways sitting position to try to reclaim the touch. All Dana wanted was the physical comfort of Grace’s hand on her, but she could not get it.
Grace stepped backward and scribbled something on a chart. Dana slung her feet over the edge and jumped to the ground. Grace shot her an angry glare.
“Mother, may I?” the nano tech asked super-sweetly, trying not to grab her now-throbbing side.
Grace scribbled something else on her sheet.
“I hope those are discharge papers, because I’m not staying here another minute,” Dana threatened, plucking at her scrub pants.
“Don’t get snippy with me.”
“Where are my glasses?” she asked, frustrated. Grace reached into her pants pocket and handed her the wire rims. Dana went to reach for them but accidentally knocked them out of her hand. They fell to the floor with a crack, popping out a lens. Dana tried to stoop to pick them up but stopped at the stabbing pain in her side.
Grace watched her from under her golden bangs as she pretended to write discharge notes. Eventually she leaned forward and picked up the frames and lens and handed them to Dana.
“Are you going to take me home, or should I call a cab?” Dana asked as she snapped the lens back into the frame. She cleaned them on the fabric of her shirt, looked at them in the light, and cleaned again with a hot breath, repeating the process until she was satisfied.
“Let me see my chart,” she demanded, reaching for the clipboard.
“Let me see my chart. I’m going to get stuck with the big-assed bill, and I want to know what I’m paying for. Now hand it over.”
Grace could not believe her ears. A patient had never had the audacity to ask to see a chart she was working on.
“I have a right–now give it.”
Grace handed it to her and watched as Dana ran her finger over the list of treatments she had received.
“The program will pay for the hospital care, Dana.”
“Yeah, right. I’ve heard that before, two hundred fifty thousand dollars and one sailboat ago.” She handed the clipboard back to the doctor. “That’s gonna cost me at least four thousand pounds of fish.”
Grace tried to hide her smile. Dana equated money to how many fish she hauled in when she worked the boat during the summer, her vacation. This was the only source of money she actually spent; what she did with her salary from the program was a mystery.
“I’m going home, so you should give me my papers, Warden.”
“Don’t talk to me like that,” Grace said, not liking the reference to Dana’s incarceration. “I expect you to stay home from work all week, at the least,” the doctor finally said.
“Anything else, Doctor?” the nano tech snapped.
“I’m prescribing a painkiller, and I expect you to take it.”
“Aren’t you taking me home tonight?”
“No, I have to finish the grant, start the process of hiring a contractor to rebuild the lab, contend with the fire marshal’s investigation, prepare for tomorrow morning’s visit from OSHA, and still go down to Washington for the grant proposal and that training.”
She handed Dana the discharge papers. Dana hesitated a moment, stunned, and then took them.
“Rachel said she’d take you home. She should be out there. I’ll be home late.”
Dana leaned against the bed and sulked. “You know, Grace, there are enough people in the world who think I’m not worth a damn…I don’t need you blowing me off around every other corner too.”
“No, I’m not going to excuse you. When you care about someone, especially someone that you’re supposed to be in love with, you don’t just squeeze them into your busy schedule. You want to be with them more than you want to be with anyone else, not just because they’re convenient or they’ll gain you something.”
“Is that what Cassandra says?”
“No, it’s what I say,” she said and looked away, angry that she had even bothered trying to explain what she felt, “because you make me feel like…like…like the last freakin’ duchess.”
“Hunh? You lost me.”
The two women stared at each other, having no idea why they were so far apart. Dana hated herself for being stupid enough to discuss her feelings, and Grace wished she knew how to state her own without getting angry or frustrated.
Dana left the room without saying another word. “Fuck that!” she mumbled as she walked straight out of the lobby to the street and down to the corner, where she hailed a cab to drive her all the way back to the house.
Dana was feeling rightly sorry for herself when she arrived at home, the cab having cost her more than she wanted to pay. She had to go into the house to get money for the driver. After reentering, she fed and watered the dog, swallowed several generic acetaminofen tablets with a glass of orange juice, and stretched out on the couch with the soft quilt over her body. The house was cold, so she got up and turned the heat way up, then settled in to listen to the pictureless sound of the jazz satellite channel on the television. Within minutes she was fast asleep.
“Hey, Gracie,” Rachel said, popping her brown head into Grace’s temporary office in the hospital administration wing. “Is Dana going to come find me, or should I find her?
Alarmed, Grace looked up from her electronic presentation at her free-spirited computer administrator. “Rachel, she left hours ago. Are you telling me you didn’t take her home?
“Maybe my evil twin took her.”
“I swear I’m going to wring her neck,” Grace said angrily, hitting the speaker phone and dialing her home number.
Dana had been sleeping so soundly that her throat was sore from snoring and the burning heat. Of course, she had not had the forethought to place the phone near her, so when it rang she had to walk across the room.
“Dr. Wilson’s answering service,” she said testily, knowing it was either Grace or for Grace, considering she rarely received calls for herself.
“How did you get home?” Grace replied, miffed at the way Dana had answered.
“Do you even know what a salutation is, Grace?”
“You wouldn’t be there yet if you’d walked.”
“Well, then, I must have flown.”
“You didn’t hitchhike again, did you?”
“I really can’t remember–these painkillers are messing with my memory path.”
“Dana, you’re really beginning to anger me.”
“Beginning to anger you, now that’s a good one. I’m home–safe–and I was sleeping when you called, so go back to work and forget about me.”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. No one told you to go into that lab.”
Now Dana was angry. How many times had her mother told her, “Don’t feel sorry for yourself” when she had broken her leg falling off her bicycle? Or when her father had died? “I’ll talk to you later, Grace,” she said coldly and pressed the off button. She drank a glass of water, took another few Tylenol, and climbed back under the covers, where she brooded until she fell asleep again.
Grace stared at the speaker, which was buzzing from inaction.
“She hung up on me,” Grace said incredulously.
“Well, at least we know she’s home. I’m out of here myself,” Rachel said, trying to slip away nonchalantly. There was no way she was going to get in the middle of this tete-a-tete. She knew from Dana’s sudden coldness that the argument had gone past banter. Grace had struck a nerve.
Grace sensed this too, and caught Rachel at the elevator.
“Can you talk to me for a few minutes?” she asked the hacker, her eyes pleading as a friend.
Rachel took one look at the tears beginning to well in the green eyes and sighed.
“Oh, Gracie, what are you two doing to each other now?” she asked, putting her arms around the smaller woman as she began to cry. “Come on, let’s get back to the office before one of your subordinates thinks you have a weakness they can prey on.”
“So, why are you so angry with Dana?” she asked, once they were behind closed doors.
“I don’t know. I just…she…God, she could have been killed, and for no good reason.”
“Maybe. But she could have been killed getting Sylvia out too.”
“She didn’t even think once before jumping into the fire.”
“She spent a long time where no one cared what happened to her, not even she herself. You can’t expect her to start now, especially when you send mixed messages.”
“Yeah, like telling her to stop feeling sorry for herself. How would you feel if you were almost charcoal, and the one person you cared about acted like it was no big deal, put work ahead of you? I doubt she feels very significant right now. A brush with death, in itself, makes you feel pretty insignificant. How do you think she feels?”
“Barbara expects me to go.”
“Barbara is a bitch.”
“She has no life outside of this place. You do, sort of.”
“You’re not making me feel any better.”
“Sorry, kiddo,” Rachel said, offering her shoulder. “I know how hard it is to worry about her. I used to every night, especially when she was a few minutes late to the common room.” Grace buried her face in the hacker’s shoulder. “Look, I know how terrified you were today, Grace.” The doctor began to weep. “Can I give you a word of advice?” she asked in a whisper.
Grace nodded a small movement the hacker felt in her shoulder. “I have never seen or heard Dana cry or complain about anything. So if she’s telling you now that she’shurting, don’t invalidate it or brush it off. Because when you shut off your feelings, it’s awfully hard to be connected to anyone or anything, and we all know Dana can be out of reach.”
Grace looked up at the older woman and wiped her eyes. “I’m going home too. Walk with me to my car?” she asked while gathering up her discs and her laptop rather hastily. Rachel waited by the door, and together they proceeded to the parking garage.
Part Four – Uses of Heat
“My God, it’s hot as hell in here,” Grace said, a wave of dry heat smacking her dead in the face when she stepped into the house. Rip barreled out the door in search of cool waves at her first opportunity, knocking Grace backward in the process. She dropped her briefcase, shucked her coat and shoes, and moved over to the environment control on the wall. Then she walked over to the entertainment console and turned off the television.
Dana was still in a very deep sleep on the couch. Grace crossed over to the perspiring woman.
“I don’t know why you sleep on the couch when I’m not home,” she whispered to the sleeping woman and pushed the damp bangs away from her lover’s eyes. “It’s too short for you.” She leaned forward and gently placed a kiss on her forehead, feeling for fever.
Dana’s blue eyes flickered open at the moment the soft touch disappeared.
“What time is it?” she asked, barely able to speak from a parched throat.
“You missed your flight,” the confused nanotech said.
“No, Dana, it’s still nighttime.”
Dana was in that I-went-to-bed-too-early-and-lost-concept-of-time state of confusion. “I thought you’d be home later,” she finally said, lifting herself to a sitting position. Oooh, it hurt.
“I couldn’t work knowing you were hurting,” she said, running the back of her hand across Dana’s clammy cheek.
“Who says I’m hurting?” Dana replied defensively, pulling herself to her feet and walking to the kitchen for a drink, determined but unable to keep the stiffness out of her walk.
“This is nothing. You should have seen the shape I was in after I was stabbed three times. Now that hurt.”
“And I bet you never let anyone know how much.”
“Right fuckin’ on,” Dana said proudly, then guzzled a bottle of water.
Grace sighed, realizing damage control was going to take quite a deal of effort. She followed her into the kitchen and cornered her by the refrigerator.
“So you’re feeling no pain?”
“So if I poke you right here…” she reached toward Dana’s hip, “…it won’t bother you?”
Dana suddenly grabbed Grace’s moving hand. “If you poke me right there, I’ll…I’ll….”
“You’ll what? You couldn’t hurt me if you wanted to, Dana.”
Dana gave her a nasty look.
“I want to know when you hurt.”
“That’s not what you said earlier,” Dana explained tensely.
“I know. I wasn’t handling what happened today very well, and I’m sorry. I do care what happens to you, so much that it frightens me.”
Grace watched a moment of indecision flicker in the blue eyes, the hesitation of someone who has been hurt so deeply that she can never again make a personal choice without having it affect the response time. Grace stepped in to speed up the process, sliding her arms around the larger woman’s warm torso and carefully hugging her. When the nano tech did not push her away, she leaned her head on the cushy bosom.
Slowly Dana’s arms crept around her as well, and a face nuzzled the soft, spicy hair.
Less than a minute later the two lovers were wrapped in a deep, life-affirming kiss that was bound to lead them to a horizontal position, likely in the bedroom, had both bodies been physically capable. As was the situation, one was not.
“Yes, I can,” Dana argued as they sat down together on the couch. “We’ve done it before, when I had the stab wound.”
“That wasn’t a good idea, and I thought you were dying. We could have torn the injury wide open, and you could have bled to death. Plus, these injuries are more serious, and I guarantee in another ten hours you’ll be hurting even more.”
“We can pretend I’m dying.”
“That’s not funny.”
“You know, Shakespeare called orgasms ‘little deaths,'” she continued, caressing the light down on her doctor’s arm.
“No,” Grace said, stifling a laugh and pulling her arm away.
“Then how about some heavy necking and groping?”
“Like you would be able to stop once we started.”
“Like you would.” A nip at Grace’s earlobe forced the doctor off the couch.
“Do you want something to eat?”
“Well, yeah,” Dana replied adamantly.
“I’m going to make spaghetti,” the blonde explained, moving out of arms’ length and heading for the kitchen.
Dana disappeared into the bathroom for quite some time while Grace banged the pots around and browned the hamburger.
When Dana reappeared she had showered and was wearing baggy, sky-blue sleep pants and a white, sleeveless T-shirt, a long scar cutting down like a brand on her shoulder. Grace watched her creep slowly toward the kitchen, thinking about how many times she and Dana had played Name that Scar and, of course, not stopping at the shoulder punctures.
“Cold shower,” the tech explained. Then Dana smiled and slid gingerly onto a cushioned stool at the counter to watch Grace cut onions. Tears were slipping from Grace’s tear ducts and running freely to her chin.
“Put a piece of bread in your mouth,” Dana suggested and reached for a “Laser World” magazine.
“It stops the tearing. Or try a piece of ice in your mouth.”
Grace eyed her skeptically.
“Go on, try it.” Dana put her glasses on and opened her magazine.
Grace placed her knife on the counter and reached into the freezer for an ice cube. She placed it into her mouth and began to suck. Sure enough, the tears stopped.
The water was boiling, so Grace added the noodles after breaking them in half.
“Why did you do that?”
“You’re not supposed to break the noodles.”
“The pot is too small.”
“So, use a bigger pot, Grace.”
Grace stirred the noodles. Dana went back to reading.
A few minutes later Dana looked up. “How long have those noodles been in there?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re supposed to time them, not wait until all the water boils out.”
“Be quiet. I know what I’m doing.”
“Your noodles are always either soggy or burned.”
“You don’t have to eat them, Dana.” She dumped a ton of onions into the sauce that was bubbling wildly.
“You have the heat too high and you’re getting splatters all over the wall,” Dana complained.
“It will clean up.”
“You mean I will clean it up.”
“Do you want salad?”
“Will you actually wash the lettuce this time?”
“Look,” Grace said, lazily pointing the chopping knife in the tech’s direction. “If you don’t be quiet, I’m never going to cook again.”
Dana bit her tongue to hold back a smart retort. It was rare to get Grace into the kitchen, no matter what the damage was. She turned her attention back to her magazine article.
“What time does your flight leave?”
“Seven. I should be back around nine tomorrow night if I can catch a flight.”
“What about the training? You were looking forward to that.”
“It can wait.”
“Didn’t Babs have to pull in a few favors to get you into that class?”
Grace grunted. “I’m not leaving you for a week.”
“I’ve been much worse, Grace,” Dana said. “Besides, I’m going in to work tomorrow to try to clean up some of the damage.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Like you can stop me,” Dana chuckled.
” ;I’ll revoke your ID while I’m gone.”
“And I’ll hack into the system and make a new one. Besides, you should go just to keep yourself from having to reject all of my sexual advances while I’m healing.”
Grace found herself relaxing and smiling at her friend’s comment. “It would make things with Barbara easier. I mean, after the explosion, throwing away her favors may not be a good idea. I’ll think about it. But I’m hesitant because you’ll be hurting as soon as the analgesic we coated your burns with before we applied the grafts breaks down.”
“You mean that you covered me with numby stuff on the inside?”
“Yeah, otherwise your nerves would be screaming out right now and you’d be crawling out of your skin.”
Dana nervously flipped the page, dreading ten hours from then. “So, are Sylvia and Jack still going away this weekend?”
Grace looked up at the brunette, remembering the earlier spat that seemed ridiculously silly in comparison to the other events of the afternoon. She nodded yes.
“You’d better not get stuck in D.C., because I’m not taking that kid on by myself.”
“Now, would I do something like that to you?” the doctor said, leaning up on the counter and kissing her on the mouth.
Part Five – Uses of Cold
On Friday, at three minutes to five, Grace called Dana from Dulles Airport.
“Papadopolis,” Dana answered the phone in her new office on the third floor of the research building. She handed Davenport, who was hovering over her, a purchase requisition to take to Dr. Barbara Buchler for signature. She had spent most of the week trying to find a company that had equipment to refurbish the new lab within a deadline of three weeks. She had finally found a German company that could deliver.
“Hey, Baby,” Grace said in her deepest, sexiest voice.
“If you’re snowed in, I’m going to kick that perfect little ass of yours >from here to Toronto.”
“I was hoping for a spanking, actually.”
“Say that when you’re within spanking distance, Grace,” Dana growled at her. “I am not amused. Aroused now, but not amused.” She picked up a stack of techs’ timecards that Davenport had placed in front of her three times that day and began signing recklessly. Then she tossed them in the outbox.
“I have a flight scheduled for first thing tomorrow morning.”
“You planned this,” the tech accused.
“I do not command nature, Sweety. And who would have thought it would snow like this in March?”
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?”
“The airline is putting us up at the Marriott. What time are they bringing Nate?”
“Jack said they should be here around six. They’re going to pick him up from daycare and then feed him first. What the hell am I supposed to do with him?”
“You’re the genius, Dana. You’ll think of something. Besides, you did gr eat with my nephews.”
“I was trying to impress your family and get into your pants then.”
Grace chuckled. “I’m going to go grab a bite to eat and then take the shuttle to the hotel. I’ll call you once I’m checked in to see how it’s going. I love you, Dana.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the grumpy nano tech replied. “You’d better call me later.”
“Are you sure you’re up for this?” Minnie asked Dana. She hesitated and then handed over Nate, a small suitcase, a soft blue blanket, a stuffed whale, and Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.” Dana was feeling an awful lot like Uncle Buck.
“Oh, yeah, sure, no problem, we’ll be fine,” she heard herself saying. “Hey, Nate. Remember me?” She turned the small, dark-headed boy in her arms to face her, her strong hands gripping him by the pits, his short legs and heavy Lugz hiking boots dangling. He used a leaden boot to kick her in her right breast.
“Nate!” Jack said sternly as Dana bit her tongue and held the boy outside of striking distance.
“He’s not usually so aggressive,” Minnie explained, embarrassed. Dana handed the boy back to his mother and opened the back of the Jeep to place all of the boy’s belongings within. Jack handed her the car seat, and she hooked and tied it to the seat.
She watched the trepidation in the parents’ eyes as they looked over the small vehicle Grace had affectionately named but always spoke to in a whisper so that Dana could not hear.
“We won’t drive much,” Dana promised. Jack’s monster truck was parked in the space next to hers, imposing and impressive in that big-wheels way. “We’ll play at the beach, and I’m all stocked up on food and milk.” Then she held out her arms for the boy again.
Jack peeled Nate’s arms from around his mother’s neck and handed him to Dana. With a shrill cry the boy protested and kicked, but this time Dana had enough distance, or so she thought. She tried to shake the ringing out of her right ear. While she was preoccupied with her aching eardrum, he landd a steel-toed, tiny boot on her healing hip, causing her to yelp.
“Hey, Little Buddy,” she said softly through gritted teeth. “Next time you do that I’m going to drop you to the….” She pretended to let him fall and then caught him, causing his eyes to widen but wiping that evil little grin off his face. He seriously contemplated crying for a moment and then let out a large belly laugh when she smiled at him and let her long, dark hair tickle his face. While he was still giggling, she placed him in his car seat and restrained him.
“Hurry, go,” she said, shooing the parents away. Minnie looked over her shoulder as Jack pressed her in the direction of the truck.
After Dana had a chance to eat a quick dinner of macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets, she and her new little friend sat down in front of the television, downloaded several Disney movies from the satellite, and set about getting to know each other’s quirks. Dana liked the fact that Disney still told stories that were hundreds or thousands of years old, with a little taste–or distaste–of pop culture. Nate liked the funny animals. This version of Hansel and Gretel was quite interesting on many, many different levels. Nate didn’t give two hoots about the levels. This is a kids’ movie? Dana thought as the boy lay back against her on the couch, sans boots. They were getting along nicely as long as Dana got up and refilled his milk bottle every ten minutes and grabbed a new Corona for herself. Where he packed it away, she had no idea, until in the morning she found the cot he was sleeping on soaking wet and his diaper unable to hold the two gallons of liquid that had gone into him and since come out.
In the morning, Dana found taking a shower something of a challenge. She finally decided to barricade Nate in the bedroom and let him run rampant over Grace’s collection, still in the box until Nate got to them, of once-cheap plastic Disney toy sets. After she took a quick shower, they settled down for Cheerios. He ate his dry, she ate hers–only a quarter of the bowl–with a banana and milk. Then he messed his pants.
“Grace, you’d better get home soon,” she grumbled to herself as she tossed the diaper in a plastic bag, wrapped it and tossed it into another bag, then disposed of it in the outside garbage can.
She forwent the morning paper and settled in to play make-believe with him. The television ran what seemed like an endless loop of children’s programs and cartoons.
By noon Dana was exhausted. She had played Ursula the Sea Witch–he, interestingly enough, insisting on being Ariel; Cruella De Ville–she got tired of the incessant barking really quickly; and the witch from Hansel and Gretel. They snacked some more. After lunch she tried the nap thing, but he would have none of that. Dana spent the afternoon waiting for Grace to call and teaching the boy how to dance to the soundtrack from “Zorba the Greek,” for culture. By four they decided to brave the cold wind and spent an hour walking on the beach, tossing the ball for the dog while he chased seagulls. When that became boring, they hunted up sea shells, pretty rocks, and sea glass to offer Grace when she finally came home.
Eventually, Dana grew tired of keeping the boy from following the dog into the water and brought him into the house, his small body soaked, his booted feet kicking, and his not-so-little voice screaming bloody murder. During his bath, he peed in the tub, and she had to rinse it out and refill it with clean water. She dressed him in clean clothes while she washed the others, and made him a dinner of chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese, which he threw more than he ate. At six, Grace finally called from the air and said she had managed to get a flight and would be home by eight. Dana cried with joy.
Nate sat proudly as he rode high on Dana’s shoulders while they wove their way through the Bardley International Airport terminal against the sea of commuters. They arrived at her gate a mere five minutes before the plane landed. A sense of relief and joy washed over the nano tech when she saw the small form of her deliverance walking toward them down the ramp.
“Hey, guys,” Grace said as she smiled exaggeratedly and carefully hugged the big babysitter. Dana lifted the boy from her shoulders and handed him to her partner, opting to take the carry-on bag instead. Happy to hold something that didn’t throw up, poop, or pee, she felt free at last.
Grace and Nate took right to smiling and talking, Grace’s ease with people extending to even little people.
She’s smiling now, but wait until she sees her Mulan set and the juice stain on the carpet, Dana thought, with a hint of devious pleasure.
The exhausted almost-two-year-old fell asleep on the forty-minute drive home. The two women barely spoke a word, Dana for fear of waking the boy, and Grace unsure of whether Dana was angry with her. When they finally pulled into the gravel drive and parked, Dana carried the sleeping boy into the house and placed him on the cot in the bedroom. She then went back out into the front room while Grace was in the kitchen, pouring two glasses of white Zinfandel.
She handed one to Dana. Dana took a sip, enjoying the easy bouquet, and smiled at Grace suggestively to let her lover know that there really were no hard feelings and that she had missed her. Grace smiled back, relieved, and stepped closer, and then…the baby cried.
Dana spent the next hour rocking the little man back to sleep while Grace unloaded her belongings and showered. By the time she returned to the room, Dana and Nate were fast asleep on the couch.
Carrying the fussy baby for the third time that night, Grace followed the stream of curses into the kitchen, where she found Dana making the bottle.
“What are you doing, Dana?”
“Making a bottle. What the hell does it look like I’m doing?” the tech said crankily.
“It looks like you’re trying to put a nipple on a gallon of milk, Dana,” Grace laughed. “How much do you think this kid can drink?”
Dana looked down through bleary eyes at what she was doing. “Shit! Shit! Damn!” she said and corrected her mental processing. She handed Grace the bottle and began to walk to the bedroom.
“Don’t forget to put the milk away,” Grace reminded her. Dana cursed some more, slogged back to the kitchen, and placed the plastic carton in the refrigerator.
Nate was up at the crack of dawn and insisted that Dana and Grace be present for the viewing of cartoons with him. Dana lounged on the couch, flipping through the channels while Grace made breakfast.
“We don’t eat in the sitting room,” Grace said firmly.
“We do now,” Dana replied, setting up her breakfast on a tray next to Nate’s in front of the couch.
“Dana,” she warned.
Dana scowled, lifted the two plates of pancakes, eggs, and bacon, and set them on the dining table next to Grace’s plate.
Nate began his screaming immediately.
The brunette returned to the living room, picked up the screaming boy, and sat him in the chair across from her, his head barely visible above the edge of the table. Dana looked over at Grace, pleading with her eyes.
“No,” the doctor mouthed.
Dana heard the crack, saw the flash of light, and felt a sharp blow to her nose, all at once. Then her face was covered with sticky liquid. She looked around, a bit stunned, and finally caught sight of a juice glass coming to a rolling stop at her feet.
“Geez, Sweety! Are you okay?” Grace said, circling the table and placing a cloth napkin firmly against the bridge of the tech’s nose. “You’re bleeding,” she whispered, looking down into watering blue eyes. The cut was beginning to sting from the acid in the tart orange juice.
“No, no, Nathaniel! We don’t throw things,” Grace rebuked the little brown eyes peeking over the edge of the glass table. He began to cry harder.
Dana retreated to the bathroom to clean up and bandage hernose, leaving Grace to deal with the latest temper tantrum. When she returned, Grace and Nate were sitting on the couch with their food trays, watching “Xerxes the Wonder Bear.”
Dana did her best to deadpan, “I thought we didn’t eat in the sitting room.”
Grace answered with her middle finger.
The late winter storm that had crippled Dulles Airport had blown out to sea on a cross-country puff instead of traveling up the East Coast into New England. The weather on the Connecticut coastline was slightly warmer than the previous day, and the three people and one dog spent that Sunday afternoon casting lines off the slanted beach into the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of snaring dinner. Nate thought fishing was great, and Dana spent as much time as he could stand teaching him the art of casting. She made the mistake of telling him he was even better than Grace, and that earned her the other middle finger.
When Grace grew cold, she ventured down to the corner pizzeria and picked up dinner. Dana eventually dragged the snotty-nosed tyke into the house and readied him for evening pick-up. After dinner the wait began. Dana and Nate made forts with the cushions of the couch and played warrior and the sidekick, while Grace read her email concerning the forensic findings on the explosion and the OSHA reports. When she was completely depressed, she ventured over to the sitting room, where she found both the warrior and his sidekick sacked out and sprawled across the cushions strewn across the floor. Nate was lying facedown on Dana’s chest, his head resting comfortably between her breasts, his arms dangling down her sides. They remained in that position until Jack and Minnie arrived.
Dana tried to wipe the sleep from her eyes as she climbed to her feet after the sleeping boy was gently lifted from her chest by his father. She could not help feeling that something was missing, kind of like the way that guy must have felt when the alien finally fell off his face but before the baby alien burst forth from his guts. Dana rubbed her belly in discomfort. She took a few minutes to resituate herself in the suddenly quiet, if disheveled surroundings, and then began to place the cushions back on the couch.
“Don’t put them back yet,” Grace said, catching Dana’s arm and throwing the cushion she was holding back to the floor with her other hand. “Lit down,” she commanded in a sultry voice.
Dana took one look at the forest-green eyes and sat down without question. A giddiness began to travel through her nervous system with the efficiency of light through an optical fiber.
Grace took her time moving through the room, flipping the televison on to Dana’s favorite station–the pictureless Jazz station, turning down the lights, and then, finally, kneeling down facing her lover. “How’s your back?”
“Perfect,” Dana answered, looking around at the dimly lit room and taking in the smooth sound waves of Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green.”
“And your hip?” Grace slid forward into Dana’s personal space.
“Fine,” Dana answered. Oh, yeah, Baby! she thought as she felt the heat >from Grace transfer to her through the still air between their bodies.
“Really? When’s the last time a doctor looked at it?” she asked, running her hands over Dana’s legs to the tie that held up the blue cotton sweat pants.
“I can’t remember,” she gasped in reply.
“Tsk-tsk. You should arrange to see your doctor more often.” She continued to stroke the tech’s legs and hips through the soft fabric. “May I?” she asked in a deep, husky voice.
Dana gulped and nodded, knowing well that she would only be able to squeak out a “yes” if she tried to speak now.
Slowly Grace untied the pants and began to slip them down the hips, pulling the injured side far enough to expose the bright-red scar. She ran her nimble fingers gently over a mark which was turning blue from a recent bruising.
“Nate,” Dana choked out an explanation to the questioning green eyes. Grace nodded and returned to her study of Dana’s flesh. She looked first at the injury, and then she unabashedly allowed her eyes to wander up the strong muscles hinting through the tight white shirt. When she reached Dana’s face, she saw how keenly her lover was aware of her.
Still holding her patient’s gaze, the doctor bent over and kissed the bruised hip. Dana’s body tensed with desire.
“Grace,” she gulped.
“Shhh.” Grace began to kiss a path across her lover’s lower belly, slowly pushing the white shirt up the flat stomach, over the breasts. Dana groaned when the soft lips and tongue found her nipple. She then reached down and pulled the shirt over her head.
“Grace,” she said a little more urgently this time..
“Ummm, what?” Grace murmured, her mouth full.
“Get off a second.”
“I am, Baby, I am.”
“No, I mean get off me for a second.”
Grace groaned, released the hard nipple she was working, and rolled to the side. Dana lifted her butt off the pillows, reached underneath, and pulled out a plastic winged horse.
“Hey! That’s my Pegasus,” Grace said, snatching the white horse-thing out of Dana’s hand. “You didn’t get into my collection, did you?”
“Nope, I didn’t.”
Grace kneed her way over to the end table next to the couch and carefully placed her plastic toy down. Dana watched and prayed that she had not jeopardized her chances of a little much-needed attention.
Instead of returning to the cushions, Grace stood and walked into the kitchen.
“Aw, fuck a duck,” the tech cursed quietly and fell back on the cushions, all hope lost. And then Grace returned with two Coronas.
“We need to buy some Sam Adams,” the doctor said quietly, handing Dana a bottle and reclaiming her seat next to her lover. “Did I tell you how impressed I was watching you with Nate?”
“Impressed that neither of us ended up in the hospital?” Dana asked, taking a long, deep drink. “Ahhh, that tastes good.”
“No, really. Kids take a lot of work and patience.”
“No, just good planning. Like birth control.”
“How come you can never accept a compliment?”
Dana shrugged. “When I do something spectacular I will. Right now, I’m just trying to be a regular, decent person.” She took a long swig.
Grace studied her, wondering if the dark woman would ever view herself without self-loathing and disgust. “Is that what you think about what we’re doing with this project, that it’s just the decent thing to do?”
Dana finished her beverage and gave her a crooked smile, a nod, and a tiny burp. “Pretty much. We have the skills and knowledge, and we’re making the best use of them.”
“You call your genius a skill?”
“I’m no genius, Grace. I know how to solve problems by looking at the relationships between parts or systems. It’s a methodology, or, better yet, an understanding, not a genius.”
“If it’s a methodology, then a computer would be able to develop the cure, but obviously a computer cannot do what you can. I swear, I’ve never met such a modest person in my life.”
“That’s because you hang out with egomaniacal doctors all day.” Dana placed her empty beer bottle on the floor next to the chair. “I’ll tell you what I am proud of.”
“That you chose me to spend your time with.”
Grace found herself nearing tears. Dana always made her feel like the desired, special one with her words and her actions. She served her breakfast, made her dinner, did her chores for her as favors, and always let her know that she cared about her on every level: comfort, safety, and pleasure. And Grace knew she was failing miserably at returning the love, always wrapped up in some project or her own fears of revealing her deepest feelings or emotional needs. She felt incredibly selfish–correction–was incredibly selfish. It was as if for the past two years she had been sleepwalking with tiny bursts of wakefulness when she would realize, but only for a moment, how truly wonderful what it was that they shared.
“My God,” Grace said, as the realization dawned on her with succinct clarity.
“What?” Dana asked, suddenly concerned.
“I just realized something.”
A worried look.
“I’m absolutely in love with you.”
Dark eyebrows arched. “You just realized this now?”
“I mean, I know I really care about you, lo…love you, but this feels so much more intense, and…and….”
“Are we playing tag now?”
Grace giggled nervously. “No, I mean you’re it for me. The end of the line, the one I want to spend forever with.”
“Oh,” Dana sighed.
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic,” Grace said, suddenly fearing that she was needing more than Dana could give.
Dana sensed the blonde’s withdrawing. “It’s just that I’ve known for a long time, Grace.” She lay back and placed her hands behind her dark head. “I guess I’m a little disappointed because I thought you were right there alongside me when you dumped that police chick and sailed away into the sunset with me.”
Grace thought back at how spontaneous and insane that had been and how good it had felt. “Is that when you knew?”
“Yep. But youknow what’s really ironic?”
&q uot;No,” Grace said, sipping her beer and looking down at the soft blue eyes.
“That you would ever use the word ‘forever’, being an atheist and all.”
“I’m an empiricist.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “Do you believe in forever and souls?”
“In some form or another. The basic law of the universe: energy is never destroyed, it only changes form. Matter is made up of energy, we are matter, so we are energy, so how can we be destroyed? You know, come to think of it, I could probably incorporate your atheistic–I mean ’empiricist’–belief system into my theory if I tried hard enough. That’s what I think the spirit is. Yeats said energy was the soul of the universe.”
“I would love to be convinced,” the doctor admitted quietly.
“Really?” Dana glimpsed a vulnerability in her lover’s eyes that she had never been allowed to see before. “Okay,” she whispered, sitting up for the challenge, realizing how important this really could be. “You contend that religion, morality, and all that stuff that allows us to believe that there are these natural laws existing independently of our brains are actually only beliefs that exist only within our thoughts, our brains, our nerve cells. And what and how we believe things to be is determined by our genes or DNA, what lays down the physical links of our nerve structure. Which means that if I believe in God, it is not because God exists external to me but because a certain arrangement of my neurons, based on my genetic makeup, makes me think God exists. So to you, the existence of God would be driven by the order of chemical and electrical reactions taking place within my brain?”
“What drives a chemical reaction?”
A half-grin. “The desire for the electrons of one molecule to gain or share electrons of another molecule, filling their molecular orbitals, stabilizing themselves but gaining energy. Why do molecules try to gain energy?”
“It’s intrinsic, Grace, the one, true, natural law that exists which has absolutely nothing to do with the way my nerve cells are linked. Why do species try to survive?”
“A genetic urge. The ones in the population without the desire to reproduce do not pass on their genes, and eventually that gene is weeded out of the population.”
“You can’t claim that’s genetic.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Not unless you go back to the beginning of life, you can’t. Because the very basis for any kind of action, thought, or impulse is driven by that one basic, intrinsic desire of electrons: energy, or the spirit. It is what has guided you to me and me to you. All of our choices leading to our relationship have been this electrical path that caused me to accept your help that Saturday night so long ago.”
“Friday night, Dana.”
“Yes. But what does this have to do with an afterlife?”
“We’re already together forever, have been together in the past. We have shared our molecules, our energy, our spirit through taste and touch and breath. We will always be one now.”
“Give me your hand.”
Grace reached her hand to her partner. The warmth of the long fingers stroking her hand gave her the shivers..
“What do you feel?”
Dana turned the small, soft hand over and kissed the palm. “And now?”
A hot tingle erupted in Grace’s body, and she could not speak.
“You need to trust me, Grace,” she whispered and began to tenderly kiss her way to the inside of her arm. She scooted closer to her doctor so that their heat intermingled and warmed them both. Dana placed her hands on her lover’s hips and lifted her to a kneeling position, turning her to face the couch. She placed a cushion in front of Grace. “Lean forward.”
Grace rested her head on the pillow and Dana stretched the arms out above her resting head. She lifted up the long, silky hair from Grace’s neck and began to taste the delicate skin on the back of her neck. Grace shivered at the sensation of moist heat and sucking against her sensitive skin. The tech let her hands run up and down the outstretched arms, slowly sliding to the front of Grace’s shirt and unbuttoning it from top to bottom, slowly. Fingers brushed against her nipples and tickled down her stomach. Grace arched backward into the naked body beneath her, but the warmth was pulled away. Her shirt was removed, the cold air raising goosebumps across her flesh. And then a sudden rush of heat covered her, soft skin pressing against her. “Close your eyes,” her lover commanded.
Grace did as she was told.
“Don’t move.” And then the warmth disappeared again.
Grace listened to the movements of her lover, wanting to know what was going on. She listened to the opening of the freezer and then the rustle of her return. She felt the warm hands return to her body, her relief and need revealed in a moan. Fingers worked the button of her pants and then slid the khakis over her hips and off her body entirely, her silk underwear quickly following. She needed to control this but needed to trust her lover as well. The confusion echoed through her body as a sudden jolt.
“God, you’re sexy, Dana,” she whispered.
Grace gasped at the sudden sensation of her back burning and then realized it was not heat but cold, ice cold, and it was running down the valley of her spine. A hot tongue began to lick and suck the same path. Grace squirmed in delight. Strong hands lifted her hips. More coldness was added to her lower back and then thoroughly warmed again. Her body was burning. And then she felt icy fingers touching her heat and reaching into her.
“Oh, God!” she groaned and jerked. A torturously long moment later a hot mouth was warming her again, stoking her heat. Her body began to move unconsciously with the fire, and quickly and uncontrollably she went over hard.
Dana finally released her lover after the shaking had subsided and covered her smaller back with her own body.
“Are you convinced in forever yet, Grace?” she whispered and nipped the back of the gracious neck.
“Mmm-hmmmm,” she replied and opened a lazy eye. “Do I smell peppermint?”
Dana began to chuckle.
Part Six – Thermal Expansion
Dana awoke to the most delicious sensation of a wide, soft tongue extensively cleaning her shoulder blades. It worked her skin with quick, strong drags, wide and steady. It took Dana a few minutes to come out of her heady twilight daze, a warm, naked body half under her own, moving with a breathing that matched hers. Her own head rested in the crook of a shoulder, the steamy scent of perspiration lingering in her nostrils. She opened her eyes to the bright morning light streaming through the kitchen windows. Her knee brushed the carpet, and she discovered that her hand was cupping a firm breast. She looked down at the relaxed, creamy face of her snoozing lover, lips slightly parted and a little pink ice cream still on her right cheek. She lightly squeezed the breast, watching a smile curl Grace’s lips. She looked so damned cute that Dana simply stared at her in wonder, her body beginning to prickle in arousal. Then she thought, What the hell is licking my back? She spun around, startling Rip from a feast of leftover sweet peppermint.
“Friggin’ dog!” she exclaimed, pushing herself to a kneeling position on the strewn cushions. “That’s nasty.” She wriggled her slobbered shoulders.
The dog looked at her a moment with browner-than-milk-chocolate eyes and then wandered into the bathroom for a quick drink from the toilet. Stupid humans, her doggy mind thought, my mouth is ten times cleaner than blondie blonde’s ,and she let her lick her everywhere and then stick her tongue in her mouth. When her thirst was quenched, she belched and walked into the kitchen to explore the garbage can.
Grace moaned and rolled over, away from the commotion. Sopping wet with dog spit, Dana decided a shower was in order and padded her hickied, naked body to the bathroom.
The hot water felt good on her skin. Her back was a mixture of mottled pink patches of new skin and old–she had seen in the mirror–and the new sections felt strange because they had no nerve cells or feeling in them. However, the blood vessels and capillaries seemed to be growing and feeding the grafts well. She had gone to see Sydney in a moment of weakness. Grace had been correct; she was crawling out of her skin the next day when the anesthesia wore off. After Rachel told her she was on the verge of being labeled a bitch by the staff, she had ventured down to the ER, found Nurse Sydney, and begged her to help her.
Sydney had the hospital pharmacy fill Dana’s prescription and checked her wounds for her, then scolded her for going to work. Dana was off the painkillers now, but there were some strange twinges and confusion where the open-ended nerves pressed up against the new skin. Her back was still a little tight and a little tender where the water was pelting it.
It had turned out to be quite a weekend after all. She had watched after Nate and had her ice cream too. She chuckled smugly. Boy, that kid had been a terror. Definitely no little people for her, she reiterated. She traced a Bic under her arm because Grace liked her smooth, and then did the other pit. They had never been given razors in the pen, and for very good reasons. It had been a pleasant, soft surprise to Dana when she discovered women shaved their legs and other parts. It was sexy as hell. She did her legs with a softening cream made just for women and then washed her hair. She was applying her three-minute Aussie conditioner when sheheard the bathroom door open and then felt the cold breeze whip around the shower curtain.
“Close the door.”
“Sorry,” slurred a sleepy voice. A few minutes later the toilet flushed and Dana was scalded..
“Jesus, Grace!” Dana yelped as she jumped to the far side of the tub, mashing her body against the wall, out of the line of spray.
“Sorry.” A moment later the water cooled again and the shower curtain was pulled back. Grace stepped over the tub edge.
Dana asserted her ownership of the shower stream again. “Wow! Those eyes don’t want to open, do they?” she said, amused, and then began to rinse the conditioner from her hair.
“Grrr,” Grace growled, too tired to think of a word. Dana chuckled at her and moved sideways to let her into the water. One whiff of the Irish Spring and those green eyes popped open.
Dana admired her lover, watching the water run down the muscular back and wash away any remnants of peppermint-stick ice cream.
“Have you lost more weight?” she asked Grace.
“A little. Why?” The blonde worked her hair into a lather, the movement making her shoulders and biceps bulge slightly.
“You look good.”
“I thought you liked me plump.”
“I do. I like you a lot of ways and in a lot of positions,” Dana replied, stepping closer until their two wet bodies were barely touching. “Tired?”
“Yes, and I ate way too much ice cream.”
Dana reached up and pulled the wet hair from her lover’s neck and began to nibble that spot she had found so delicious. Her hands slid around to grace the defined abdominal muscles.
“God, I missed you, Chipmunk,” she moaned. “I can’t seem to get enough of you.” Her teeth nipped their way across sensitive, raw skin to a hickied collarbone. “So did I really convince you of forever?”
“No, but I think you made my mind leave my body for a while, and I may have caught the gist of a few cosmic truths,” she groaned as teeth nipped her skin harder. She pressed backward into the body behind her, knowing that Dana found the contact erotically maddening. She was not surprised when Dana quickly turned her around and forced her back against the tile.
“What will it take?” the nano tech asked as her rough mouth bit and sucked a sternomastoid and then nibbled down to a pectoralis major. Her eyes were heavily lidded and dark in that unmistakable look of desire and hunger. Grace felt her own body tensing at the potency that Dana commanded and kept under control–most of the time. “God, Grace, you taste even better without the peppermint.”
Green eyes rolled to the back of Grace’s eyesockets as sharp, white teeth nipped lower to devour each rectus abdominus muscle in turn while strong, long fingers plied at adductor muscles, opening Grace for more attention.
She whimpered when teeth found their final destination.
“Say it!” Dana growled, sending vibrations through Grace’s busy nerve network.
“Say what?” Grace whimpered again, confused. Dana stroked her with her tongue, tantalizing, yet not satisfying.
“Say you believe in forever.”
“Or what?” the blonde panted. “You’ll torture me until I do?”
A nefarious laugh that further aroused the doctor.
“Oh, God.” Grace took a deep breath as Dana worked her. “Just a caveat,” she panted. “I may end up lying to you about it because of your coercive methods.”
Dana looked up. “Who the fuck uses a word like ‘caveat’ during sex?”
“Shut up!” Grace whispered. “It’s a sexy word.”
“I don’t even know what it means.”
“Look it up,” Grace replied with an evil grin.
Dana returned her smile and then mumbled, “Freakin’ intellectual chicks…you’d take over the world if you could,” and then resumed her lingual torture of the blonde, having forgotten about that whole “forever” thing. Her only thoughts were of how wonderful experiencing this brainy chick always was.
“We already have, Dana,” she groaned. “We just don’t let you know it. Oh God!”
“I bought something for you while I was in the Underground,” Grace said, wrapping a towel around her head and tying her terry robe closed. She walked over to the dresser and picked up a neatly folded, pink paper bag.
“Really?” Dana smiled and walked over. “What did you get me?”
Grace handed the bag to her. Dana read the name of the store printed on the outside and looked at Grace skeptically. She reached in and pulled out a pair of silky, black underwear. She automatically raised an eyebrow at her lover. “I don’t think so.”
Grace began to laugh. “Come on, Dana, try them on, please–for me. I guarantee they’ll make you feel all sexy and hot at work. And by the time you come home you’ll want me sooo badly you won’t be able to breathe.”
A long moment passed as blue eyes surveyed the panties. “Grace, do you want me to spontaneously combust or something? Because I couldn’t be any hotter for you, unless maybe you were wearing these, or you were straight.” She held them up in front of her face and scrutinized them. “Not exactly designed for comfort, are they?”
“They’re called tangas.”
“Ooookay. But I would have called them wedgies.”
A devilish smile crossed the pink lips of the blonde as she thought about Dana in a thong. “Fine.” She reached over for the panties and tried to snag them back.
“No. Mine!” Dana stated matter-of-factly. She removed the towel from her body and slipped the panties on. “At least you got the color right.”
In retrospect, Grace was not sure if she had picked up a bug in D.C. or if it was the overexhaustion of a night filled with passion, but she took one look at her leggy lover in black silk and then hit the floor with a thud.
Dana donned a black turtleneck sweater to cover the series of love bites that wrapped around her neck like large plastic children’s beads. She also wore very uncomfortable underwear and sported a Band-Aid across her nose and had slightly black eyes from Nate’s direct hit with the orange juice glass. Nonetheless, she was in a very good mood. Neither woman was really sure about whether or not to mention the true intensity of the previous evening and the return of the trust that had been missing for the past year, but aside from the teasing and humor, whatever had happened seemed to be acknowledged by stares and smiles during the car ride into New Haven.
They walked together past the heightened security to the office they were temporarily sharing. It was still early, and most of the team were off for the two weeks that Dana had insisted it would take to reestablish the lab. It was going to take even longer than that, she had discovered on Friday.
“I wonder if we’ll hear anything today about the investigation.” Grace was thinking out loud. Dana closed the door behind her.
“Hmm,” she answered, a little dreamily at the sound of her name.
“I know you don’t like intimacy at work….”
The doctor smiled at her previous foolishness and bit her lip as she looked at her dark-haired lover. She was caught off-guard by the sudden embrace and the searing, thorough kissing that left the smaller woman breathless, her skirt askew, and very, very aroused again.
“I’ve wanted to do that every morning I’ve walked into this building with you,” Dana said quickly.
Grace simply grinned back at her with a silly smile, still reeling from the afterglow.
Dana released Grace. “I doubt the detectives will come up with anything, and if they do they won’t share it with us,” she said, taking a seat in a cushioned tweed chair.
“I’m afraid it’ll happen again,” Grace replied. “And I think Lola has something to do with it.”
Dana flipped a mechanical pencil through her agile fingers. “Why? Because she’s new, or because she was conspicuously absent when the room was gassed?”
“I’ve asked Rachel to do a more thorough search on the girl.”
“You think she may be hiding something too?”
“No. I want to rule out any possibilities. I chose the girl myself, and the last thing I want is Babbs trying to dictate how we hire people because of this incident.”
“Do you think it may be Reichert getting us back?” Grace had finally asked what she, Rachel, and Dana had all been thinking.
Dana’s brow creased as she frowned at the thought of Karl Reichert insinuating himself into their lives. “I hope not.”
“Who do you think it might be?”
“Greer! Greer is teaching freshman physics in the SUNY system.”
“He hates us, Grace.”
“Hating someone and trying to kill innocent people are two very different things, and I doubt that Sam Greer has the psychopathic personality for that. I think it’s Reichert.”
Dana walked across the room to the door. She did not want to talk about Reichert with Grace. The fact that they had no idea where he was only heightened the discomfort. “If it were Reichert, Grace, we would all be dead,” she stated and walked down the hall to the new computer center.
Grace did not see Dana again until the brunette showed up around lunchtime and asked her to join her for lunch in the cafeteria. Monday was pizza day, and Dana loved pizza day. And it was the perfect situation for Grace. She needed to ask her technical administrator something very important.
The two women were rolling their trays down the cafeteria line just as they did most every Monday. The cafeteria seemed to Grace to be the best place to ask a favor; she had had quite a bit of luck here before.
“Dana, I need you to do me a favor.”
“For you, Chipmunk, anything.”
“I want you to join me at the meeting with Barbara and the board tomorrow morning.”
“I’m sorry. Let me rephrase that. For you, Chipmunk, anything except for your 8:30 board meeting.”
“Please, Dana. They want a full report on the status for refurbishing the laboratory and how long it’ll take us to get back on track. I don’t want to spend all night trying to comprehend what you already know.”
Dana sighed, then took one look into those sparkling green eyes and sighed again. “Okay.”
Grace stopped in front of the desserts and stared at her nano tech. “What?”
“I said yes.”
“Really? Just like that? Why?”
“Why do you think?” Dana wiggled her dark eyebrows and leaned forward lecherously.
“Because I let you do kinky things with food.”
Dana chuckled. “No, Grace,” she said, lifting a piece of chocolate cake off the shelf and placing it on her tray. “Because your friendship makes me happy–and your love has helped me purge myself of these demons that have controlled me for so long.”
Grace stared at her for a moment and then frowned.
“What’s the matter? You–you seem disappointed. I was trying to be romantic.”
“Dana, you just likened me to a laxative. That’s not romantic–that’s geriatric.” She grabbed a vanilla pudding, placed it on her tray, and resumed a steady pace toward the beverage center. “I like the kinky-sex-and-food reason better.” But she turned to her stunned partner and gave her a genuine smile to let her know she was kidding. When Dana caught up to her, she leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on her lover’s lips in front of the entire cafeteria crowd, homophobes and all.
“I think you should wear your gray wool slacks and the gray cashmere turtleneck I gave you for Christmas,” Grace suggested as they walked back to the new office.
“I didn’t say I would dress up. I only agreed to tag along.” Dana popped a piece of cinnamon Dentyne into her mouth.
Grace rolled her eyes at her technical administrator/love machine. “You can’t go in blue jeans and a T-shirt.”
“Then I’ll wear black jeans and a sweatshirt.”
“Ha! You will not.”
They rounded the corner and walked smack into two men with cropped, brown hair and matching brown, three-piece suits. They were standing just outside of Grace and Dana’s office.
“Excuse us,” Grace made her apologies and entered the room.
“Doctor Wilson?” One of the men asked. He had extremely dark-brown eyes, and a small scar extending from his upper lip to his right nostril.
“Yes,” she answered. “Can I help you with something?”
Barbara Buchler was sitting at Grace’s desk, using the phone. “Finally you’re back from lunch. I hope Ms. Papadopolis is with you,” Grace’s supervisor said rather haughtily.
Dana had begun to inconspicuously retreat around the corner when the men stopped her with their questioning stares.
“What do you need, Barbara?” Grace asked, a bit perturbed that the administrator had been picking through the mess on her desk.
“These gentlemen are Mr. Ryan and Mr. Spinnelli from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They want to ask Ms. Papadolpolis and Dr. Jones a few questions.”
“About the explosion?” Grace asked, completely taken by surprise.
“I talked to the detectives last week,” Dana replied, her face emotionless.
One of the men smiled, a crooked tooth showing under the scar. “Because of the technological importance of the nature of your work, Ms. Papadopolis, we have been asked to pursue the investigation and categorize it as terrorism until we can determine otherwise.”
“Which one are you?” Dana asked, her voice having dropped an octave.
“And who asked you to pursue this investigation, Mr. Spinosey?” Dana asked. She and Spinnelli stared at each other for a moment and then his smile returned.
“It’s Spinnelli. The Contagion Agency.”
“Let’s take this across the hall into the conference room, shall we people?” Dr. Buchler commanded with a sweep of her arm.
The agents began to move across the hall to the room while Barabara held the door open for them. The ex-con did not move. Last week the time she spent with the New Haven police and the Fire Marshall had been bad enough. But flunkies sent by the Contagion Agency were worse.
Grace gave her lover a look of apprehension. “We’ll be fine,” she mouthed and smiled, then walked into the conference room after Dr. Buchler. Dana looked both up and down the hallway for any sign of Rachel Jones, and then followed the group into the room.
“We won’t be needing you, Dr. Wilson,” Barbara said as she sat down at the head of the long table.
“I’m sorry, Barbara, but considering this is my project, I have to insist on being here.” She sat down and gave Barbara a regal smile. The two agents sat on the opposite side of the table.
Dana took her place next to Grace.
Each detective opened a laptop. Spinnelli set out recording hardware while Ryan went on-line.
“So, Dr. Papadopolis…” Ryan began.
“It’s not ‘Doctor,'” Barbara Buchler interjected.
Dana’s expression did not change.
“Right. Sorry, I’m used to people in your position having Ph.D’s. Now, Ms. Papadopolis, would you please tell us your version of the events last Monday?”
“Which one are you?”
“Which events do you mean, Mr. Ryser?” Dana replied evenly.
“Anything you feel is important,” Ryan clarified.
Grace could sense from Dana’s lack of animation and little name game as well as the pulsing of the brunette’s jaw muscles that she was fighting to retain control. The blonde cleared her throat. “Don’t you have the New Haven detective’s reports? Because I believe her statement in there is pretty thorough. I have an email copy on the server if you need one.” Grace looked directly at Ryan at smiled. “I think we can save a lot of valuable time if you look that up.”
Dana folded her arms across her chest.
Ryan looked at Grace and then back at his computer. “Have it right here.”
“Good. I hate repetition–it’s such a waste.”
“When did you start with the Nano Research Division?”
“About a year and a half ago.”
“Dr. Jones and I recruited her,” Grace added. “That information is in the personnel file. Would you like to peruse it?”
“Have it right here,” Ryan repeated.
“Oh, more repetition. Do you doubt the accuracy of our records?”
Dana relaxed a little and began to chew her gum again. She enjoyed watching Grace assert herself, and she could tell the doctor enjoyed the little power trip.
“What were you doing at the time you were approached about the position?”
“Your father was a fisherman?”
“He was a Greek immigrant?”
“No. He was a Greek immigrant’s son.”
“And during the time before you were ‘fishing’?”
“And before that?”
“You mean between prison and the time I was sailing?”
“Yes, we can start there.”
“I worked for the Nano Division of the Weapons Agency for a while developing the Alpha and Beta viruses.”
The agents looked at her with matching emotionless faces.
“Tell us about that work.”
“I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you.”
“We are aware of Ms. Papadopolis’ previous nano experience,” Grace explained. “And it is the reason we hired her. Unlike the government, we were able to offer her a project where the beneficial possibilities were worthy of her capabilities.”
“You mean instead of creating nano viruses that decimate communities?”
“Exactly. We’ll leave that to you.”
“We don’t work for the Weapons Division, Doctor.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. It must have slipped my mind, not having actually seen your identification. Would you mind? This is a secure floor, and with what happened last week and the sensitive nature of our research here, I would like to make sure you really are who you claim to be.” Grace smiled sweetly at the men.
“For God’s sake, Grace,” Barbara Buchler whispered.
“You do have identification?”
Both men retrieved their leather-bound ID’s from their coat pockets and slid them across the table to the blonde doctor.
She opened the wallets and then recorded the personal identification numbers in her electronic organizer. She slid them to Dana to scrutinize.
“Did you get a chance to see these?” Dana asked Dr. Buchler.
“I’m all set,” the administrator clipped back.
Dana slid them back to the agents. “Mr. Spackle–Mr. Rhinal.” This was becoming quite interesting.
“So, gentlemen, do you have any real suspects in this investigation besides my technical administrator, who, by the way, risked her life to save not only a stricken technician but also the entire laboratory?” She began to laugh. “Because unless you do, I quite frankly think you are wasting our time. And I think it would be a good idea for me to run these identification numbers through the on-line identification system. There are a lot of imposters out there nowadays.”
Jesus, Grace was good at this. Dana chuckled silently.
“I mean, you could be terrorists yourself.”
Dana did her best not to laugh.
“We are trying to investigate the sabotage, Doctor.”
“Uh-uh. You are insulting the most important member of our team and wasting our time.” Grace stood up and walked over to the door. “You gentlemen will need to wait outside on the other side of the security door until we can clear you properly. If it hadn’t been for Dr. Buchler, you would most definitely not have made it past our security without being properly screened. Unless, Barbara, you did that and are holding their badges.”
“No, we bypassed security,” Dr. Buchler admitted, her face tense from the affront.
Ooooh, Grace, you are going to pay for that one, Dana thought, wincing at her lover’s brash remark.
“Well, luckily, we are not conducting any real research at the moment. Barbara, would you mind escorting them out? I will let you know when they are cleared.” The men removed their belongings and followed the steaming administrator out of the secure area to a small lobby.
Grace and Dana looked at each other with raised eyebrows and then walked straight down to the computer center to find Rachel and to find out exactly whom they were dealing with.
“So what are we dealing with here?” Grace asked nervously. She paced the room while Rachel ran the identification numbers directly through the Federal Bureau of Investigations personnel database.
Dana played with an electro-magnetic-almost-perpetual-motion machine on Rachel’s desk.
“Definitely Federal Weenies.”
“Yes, Rach, but tell us what brand,” Dana mumbled. She was nervous but did not want to show it.
“Definitely not store brand. Maybe Oscar Mayer, maybe Ball Park.”
“Ball Park?” Dana asked surprised.
“That’s who put their information in the database three days ago. I can tell by the footprints.”
“What the hell are you two talking about!” Grace yelled.
“We can find out for sure,” Rachel said, ignoring the pugnacious doctor. “See if they plump when we cook them.”
“She’s saying she thinks they may be National Security Agents, Grace,” Dana explained.
“Yep,” Dana replied.
Part Seven – Thermal Stresses
The doctor walked purposefully down the corridor toward the steel-reinforced security door. She checked the button on her blazer, then swiped her badge throught the kiosk. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
Looking up at her from the lobby were three pairs of brown eyes, and one pair of hazel ones belonging to Ned, the security guard.
“Dr. Buchler, we have a problem,” she stated firmly.
“This is ridiculous!” Spinnelli complained. He walked over to the blonde, hostility oozing out of every pore. “What the hell is the problem?”
Grace counted to five slowly. During that time she memorized the wrinkles of his forever-lengthening forehead. She frowned at the man and turned her attention back to her supervisor. “I need to speak privately with you.”
“You are obstructing an investigation, Dr. Wilson,” Ryan commented, rising from his chair. He joined the threesome.
“Gentlemen, I realize you believe the world revolves around you; however, I am speaking to Dr. Buchler. We are trying to rebuild our laboratory and return to the business of finding a cure for cancer. When we have a chance, we will make time for you.”
“Have you checked our credentials?” Spinnelli spat out.
Okay, Dana, I found the one with the temper. Now what? “We are still working on that,” she lied.
“We need to speak with Dr. Jones,” Ryan said calmly.
“That is simply not possible right now.”
Spinnelli grimaced and quickly shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “Why?”
“She’s left for the day.”
“Then we will try her at home,” Ryan said.
Like they could even find out where she really lived. “Suit yourself,” Grace answered. “Barbara, I do have a few questions for you about tomorrow’s board meeting.”
“We want to review Dr. Jones’ computer files,” the balding man demanded.
“Not unless you have a subpoena, boys.”
Ryan looked over at his partner and made a decision. “We’ll be back in a few hours, Doctor. I expect cooperation when we return,” he said evenly.
“Of course, gentlemen,” Barbara Buchler said diplomatically. “When you return with the proper paperwork, I am sure that Dr. Wilson will be able to show you everything that you need.”
Both men gathered their briefcases, temporarily ensconced by the chairs, and made their way to the elevator without so much as a glance at each other. Grace and Barbara swiped their badges and hands through the security mechanisms and then entered the secure area.
“What the hell are you doing to us, Grace?!” the administrator screamed. Her head was very close to blowing completely off her shoulders.
Grace had known this was coming but had failed to brace herself for the raised voice. What to tell Barbara was the wild card, and she and Dana did not share the same opinion on the matter. Hell, Dana trusted no one except Rachel, Grace, and Cassandra. But Barbara had helped protect Dana from the Feds after the Beta infection. That should have increased her trustworthiness in Dana’s eyes. But the NSA was a different deck of cards. To Dana they were the Tarot.
Dana slid the Wrangler keys into the coat pocket of her leather jacket and followed Rachel Jones from the foyer of the elevator through the New Jersey penthouse apartment.
“When was the last time you were here?” Doc asked her hacker friend.
“Last month.” Rachel sighed and threw her leather coat on the floor.
Dana walked over to the floor-to-ceiling windows and admired the blue skies and fluffy white clouds.
“Ugh! It’s hard coming here, for some reason,” the hacker complained, letting herself fall on the pillowed couch. She grabbed the remote control and flipped on two of the three big-screen televisions.
“Why’s that?” Dana asked without turning from the window. If she squinted hard enough, she thought she could see the Connecticut border, and immediately she thought of Grace and missed her.
“It’s lonely.” She flipped the channel of the screen in the center.
“You aren’t lonely in Connecticut?” Dana asked, turning to the remote controller.
“No. I have friends there.” Click.
Doc studied the older woman’s profile. She was by all lengths and measurements attractive–the slightly upturned nose, the long dark eyelashes, the shoulder-length dark curls, the dainty lips, and the solid chin. Dana opened her mouth to ask Rachel more about her personal life and then thought better of it. Rachel had not spoken much to her in terms of anything personal since San Francisco. “Do you think it could be Reichert behind this?”
Click. The hacker hesitated. “It’s definitely possible.” Click.
“Do you think he might be in with Spinnelli and Ryan?”
The hacker sighed. “Probably.” Click.
“Shit!” Doc exclaimed, turning back to the window.
“Or they could be trying to find him,” Rachel offered.
“Do you think they’ve always known?”
The hacker shrugged. “Who knows–and would it matter? We have no control over these people. I’m not going to worry about what they might have known.”
“Would they have something in their database that you could–”
“–No!” Rachel turned to Dana. “Look, Doc. There’s no way in hell I’m hacking the National Security Agency system for you. I don’t want their computer geeks crawling up my ass with an orthoscope.” Then she turned back to her televisions.
“Are you suggesting that we cooperate?”
“Not if there’s a chance Reichert has something to do with them,” the hacker replied. Click.
Dana’s cell phone vibrated against her hip. This new situation was as confusing as hell. She pressed the talk button and listened. “Hiya, Sweets,” the nano tech said into the phone.
Rachel stuck her finger down her throat and gagged. Dana turned away from the demonstrative hacker and listened to the caller. Rachel ignored her and turned on the third television.
When she was finished with the call, Dana sat down at Rachel’s feet and grabbed the remote from her hand.
Dr. Jones grabbed it back. “How’s Grace?” Click.
“She’s fine. The wienies left but promised to return.”
The hacker shrugged. “I expected as much.”
Dana cleared her throat. “They were pretty adamant about speaking to you, and they want all of your project files.”
That caught her attention. “What? Why? This isn’t a technology investigation.”
Dana looked at her friend. “You tell me.”
The hacker swallowed nervously and turned away. “I hate the fucking Feds.” She climbed off the couch and walked over to the windows. “I could hide here for a while.”
“You can’t hide forever, Rachel.” Dana turned the televisions off.
“I can destroy the files.”
“Duh. We need them to finish this project.”
“I can’t turn them over.”
“We could make dummies.”
“That could take a while.”
Rachel crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Like I have anything better to do here.”
“How can I help?”
“Get all of the files out of the safe and off the server and then send them to me.”
“How long will it take you to copy and alter them?”
“A couple of days. Grace should be able to stall them that long.”
Dana looked at her watch.
“You have a shrink appointment?”
Dana nodded. She had missed last week’s. “I have an hour and a half to get there.”
“You should go, then.”
“Do you need me to do anything else?” Dana hated giving up control, but this was Rachel’s career at stake as well, and she needed to learn to let the hacker make decisions.
“If all they want is the files, then they should go away once we give them to them,” Rachel said.
“What if they want something more?”
“It’s possible.” Then Doc realized the unlikelihood of that and shook her head. “No, the NSA would have already taken me if they wanted me. I don’t think they’ll touch me. I’m too unbalanced for them.” Steely blue-gray eyes studied the hacker. “They may want you.”
“Oh, please, like I’m a nano physics genius.” She laughed. “Or I’m balanced.”
“You know everything I know about the project so far. And like it or not, convict, you are sane.” Dana looked at her watch again. “I have to go if I want to make Cassandra.”
“I hope you don’t say things like that in front of Grace.”
“Don’t worry. I contend that you are just as loopy as I.”
“Fuck you. Go. And send me my files as soon as possible. And keep a copy locked away somewhere safe.”
“Are you okay with this?”
“No. But I don’t have a choice.”
“If you want to hide…or go somewhere…I understand.”
“Go to your appointment, Doc.”
After a little prodding and a lot of negotiation, Dana donned her gray wool slacks, gray cashmere sweater, and black dress boots, and pulled her raven hair neatly back from her angular face. She sat silently at the oblong table, dotting her notepad with her pencil, making an impressionistic picture of a sailboat in greyscale. She listened to Barbara Buchler semi-publicly berate Grace about the proposed rebuilding schedule and cost analysis. Dana knew there was much more to Babbs’ vicious diatribe than days and dollars. And Grace was taking it like Ghandi, in silence, although Dana was sure that the belitting and caustic deconstruction in front of the board hurt. She counted to ten, several thousands of times, to rein in her own impulse to throttle the executive. And then Babbs made a bigger mistake–she turned her fury on Doc.
“Why is this taking so long, Ms. Papadopolis?”
Dana looked up from her drawing into malevolent eyes. She was not used to Dr. Buchler even acknowledging her presence. A direct question was an anomaly. “Why is what taking so long? The rebuilding or the whole project?”
“The whole time line. We’re way past initial projections of cost and time.”
“Well, we tried the sheep-guts-and-eye-of-warthog cure you gave us, Barbara, but it didn’t work.” Barbara’s mouth tightened into a flat, lipless line. “So unless you can share a new spell with us, you old witch, we’ll just have to stick with the slow but trusty old scientific method.”
Dr. Buchler took a long moment to comprehend that she had just been openly insulted, while the members of the board looked on in stunned silence.
“You completed the Beta cure in three days.” Hillary Speigel, a normallyquiet member, broke the silence.
“This is a very different situation.”
“Your life is not at stake,” Barbara said snottily.
Piercing blue eyes promising destruction settled back on Dr. Buchler.
“No. They are pathologically very different problems.” Dr. Wilson asserted herself. “The Beta was a systemic infection, affecting every cell in the body, whereas the cancer is, in most cases except for the severe ones, a localized event. We have to detect in a much larger, three-dimensional area, then track, classify, target, neutralize, and remove the cells. With Beta, all we really had to do was detect the nano machines in a two-dimensional area, track, and and neutralize the nano virus. Location and removal weren’t issues.”
“At the nano scale the human body is a hell of a lot bigger than a single cell.” Dana abruptly pushed her chair away from the mahogany table and grabbed her notepad. “You can think of it like this if it helps, Barbara: hoofing yourself to the Eddie Bauer store in the mall, or hoofing it to one across the Milky Way Galaxy. Which do you think would be easier in those three-inch pumps you’re wearing?” With those words she walked out of the room. Grace got up quickly and followed her without excusing herself. It took her a few long, quick strides, but eventually she caught up to the fuming nano tech.
“Jesus, Dana. Remind me not to take you to another meeting.”
“Does Barbara treat you like that all the time?” Dana asked angrily and then pushed the button for the elevator.
“Not, not all the time.”
“Well, if she ever bullies you like that in front of me again, I’m doing to deck her.” The doors to the elevator swished open with a hydraulic hiss. She stepped sideways between the doors to allow the doctor into the elevator.
“I’m not a victim here. I choose to let her bully me,” Grace rationalized while she settled against the back wall. She reached past Dana and hit the number for their floor.
“Then why did you want me there today? You could have answered every one of those questions yourself.”
“Ha! You didn’t need that management training, Grace. You went because you didn’t want to disappoint Barbara. No, I take that back. You went because you were afraid of disappointing Barbara. You have this tough I-can-take-anything-it-just-rolls-off-me persona, but I can tell that what she does to you eats you up inside. That’s why you use the pills, and that’s why you torture yourself.”
“Are you a psychologist now?” Grace replied just as angrily.
“No, I just know you.” The elevator made a whirring noise. “And you talk in your sleep.”
Grace grabbed Doc’s arm. “Really?”
“You call Barbara nasty names all night long.”
Grace went pale.
“And you argue with me about the pills.” The doors opened and Dana walked out. “Cassandra says that it’s a manifestation of your frustrations,” she remarked over her shoulder.
“Wait a second!” Grace ran up to the tech and caught her arm again, stopping her. “You told Cassandra?!”
“She’s my therapist.”
“She’s not mine! Oh, my freaking God!”
“Have you thought of getting help, Grace?” Dana commented as they passed through the security door.
“I don’t need help!” Grace shot back, determined to deter any further thoughts on the matter. “Why would you even talk about me to Cassandra? I’m not your problem.” She stopped, and her green eyes grew darker and pinched in thought. “Am I your problem?” she asked, more softly.
Dana stopped and sighed, then walked back to the doctor. “No. I talk about you because you’re the most important thing in my life, Grace.”
“Oh.” They walked together toward the office. “I’m not doing pills.”
“You were talking about them.”
“I think about it, but I haven’t–not for a long time.” The doctor sat behind her desk and placed her face in her hands. “Barbara is going to be impossible now. You realize that?” she mumbled into her sweaty palms.
“She’s not stupid. Yale has more invested in this program than any other research project. She won’t screw it up by doing something hasty. Barbara is a lot of things, but hasty isn’t one of them.”
They were interrupted by a knock on the door. “Come in!” Grace commanded.
The door opened and Davenport stood in the doorway, his thin frame barely taking up half the space. “The men from yesterday are back. Ned in Security is waiting for you to give him the okay.”
“It took them longer than I expected,” Grace said as she rose from her seat.
“Let them come to you,” Dana recommended.
Dr. Wilson reseated herself. “Want to escort them back here?” she asked Davenport.
He nodded and disappeared.
Several minutes later the sound of several pairs of leather shoes and one pair of heels could be heard coming down the hallway. Dana rolled her eyes. “Good God, they have Babbs with them.”
Davenport reappeared at the doorway with Ryan and Spinnelli. Dana acknowledged the doorway first. “Agent Spumoni and Rhine, isn’t it?” she asked without leaving her seat..
Grace walked over to the doorway. “Gentlemen.”
“We have the subpoena you mentioned,” Spinnelli said. “And we have Dr. Whitley, who is a special agent from the FBI, with us as well to make sure we receive all the information we need.”
“Dr. Wilson.” A robust woman’s voice. In her seated position Dana could not see who had introduced herself to Grace. All she could make out between the bodies was a gray-suited arm extending toward Grace’s outstretched hand. A solid handshake.
“Dr. Whitley,” the blonde acknowledged her. Grace turned sideways to expose Dana to the entire group huddled around the door. “This is Dana Papadopolis.”
Dana was already standing and walking to the doorway.
“Lena Whitley.” The statuesquewoman leaned forward and firmly grasped Dana’s hand. In heels the two were exactly the same height. Without heels, Lena was only an inch shorter, and her grip was as powerful as Dana’s. Lena’s skin was a dark bronze, her cheeks polka-dotted with dark freckles, and her hair hung around her strongly-featured face and firm jaw in black ringlets. Eyes–dark and intelligent eyes–seemed to the nano tech to be assessing her. A tailored, gray pin-striped suit hung expertly from her curvy figure, and conservatively painted fingernails graced long hands. “I have heard a great deal about you.”
“All good, I bet,” Dana remarked, releasing the strong hand.
“Hmmm. Right,” she answered and moved back into the hallway.
“At least she’s honest,” Dana whispered into Grace’s ear.
“We would like to see Dr. Jones,” Agent Ryan said.
“Dr. Jones is out sick. I thought you were going to visit her at home yesterday anyway,” Grace said.
“She wasn’t there.”
“Where is she?” Dr. Whitley turned to Grace.
Grace shrugged. “The doctor’s, perhaps.”
“Then we will simply have to rely on Ms. Papadopolis to show us the computer center and find the files. You have programming experience, correct?”
Dana nodded slowly. This was a brilliant move by the NSA or Reichert or whomever. “Do you?”
A rich laugh from the African-American beauty. “A little.”
“She’s the manager of the Bureau’s takedown division,” Spinnelli gloated.
Grace felt her head begin to ache..
“Takedown? What the hell does that have to do with our nano program? I thought this was a sabotage investigation,” Doc stated. Things did not look good for Rachel. What was going on here?
“It is,” Ryan replied quickly. “But Dr. Whitley also has the expertise to understand your programs. We felt we needed some assistance, considering the uncooperative nature of yesterday’s experience.”
“I would hardly define validating your identification a failure to cooperate,” Grace snapped.
“What are you looking for in our program files that could possibly tell you about sabotage?” Dana addressed Whitley.
“I’ll tell you when I see it,” she said enigmatically. “Dr. Jones would probably understand.”
Oooh, she just took a personal-capabilities shot at me. Dana’s hackles were standing on end, and she fought the urge to bare her teeth at the woman. “This way,” she growled, leading Dr. Whitley down the hallway to the computer center.
Grace rubbed her chin as she watched the two women leave. Her job was to decide what to do with Spinnelli and Ryan. And she could not help wondering if Rachel was in some other mess they knew nothing about.
Part Eight – The state of the system can be caused to change by a flow of heat
Lena’s head ached–throbbed–and the clicking of her own shoes down the tiled hallway was aggravating it almost as much as the jarring of her steps. She had fifteen high priority take-downs on the verge of coming to closure and she’s called in on a sabotage case? And to look at technical files for what? And whose files–Dr. Rachel Jones? The prospect of meeting Dr. Jones would have been the only highlight of the trip, and now Dr. Jones was not even going to be there.
She ran her tongue over her teeth to try to wipe off the residue of the coffee that was keeping her awake. She had been briefed on her escort’s file. A long history of violence, several murders, IQ over 200, and supposedly living in a lesbian relationship with Dr. Grace Wilson. Spinnelli had mentioned that little fact with a slight tone of disgust in his voice, the basic “two good-looking women, why do they waste it?” attitude which was, in this day and age, uncommon among the agents she knew. One look at the two women herself and she could tell they were very, very, very close.
Her escort was attractive, however, she was obviously not happy with Lena’s presence and the request to see the computer files. Her lips held a grim line, and her dark brows pinched in a frown as well. The lanky nano tech unlocked the computer room with a swipe card and held the heavy door open for the agent. Given the chance, Lena locked onto her with her own dark, penetrating eyes. If she trusted her instinct she would say they were hiding something ,and this was not simply technology paranoia.
Lena walked over to the user-interface station and made a mental list of the equipment. You can tell a lot about a person by their equipment, and, not surprisingly, Dr. Jones had pieced together a system almost as good as her own. The sharp clang of the doorlock ‘s resettling startled her.
“Anything in particular you are looking for?” The dark nano tech stepped around Lena and sat behind the desk.
Lena took a seat in the swivel stool against the wall. She waited a moment before she spoke, just observing the tech’s minor hand fidgets. Then Dana Papadopolis picked up a mechanical pencil and began to flip it through her fingers with the expertise of a carnival knife-tosser. Lena had been charged with finding any sorts of inconsistencies in Dr. Jones’ programs, such as creation dates that would indicate unusual copying or editing. Also, they wanted her to look at any e-mail transactions that appeared out of the ordinary.
“I’ll tell you when I find it,” Lena Whitley finally replied after several cycles of the pencil.
The tech chuckled and smirked. Lena was sure that the woman was not going to offer her any assistance and that this was going to be like removing a pacifier from a baby’s mouth–noisy and messy. She crossed back over to the computer interface. “Want to boot this up for me?”
A moment passed and then Lena heard the creak of the chair and two loud claps. The machines then clicked and the screens emitted a familiar surge of light that always gave her a little tingle in her belly. The nano tech leaned forward and toggled the voice/manual control to manual. She reached over to pull the rolling stool over to the station but was stopped by Lena’s hand on he shoulder. The touch was met with an immediate flinch, and the shoulder was jerked away. The tech turned on the agent with the stone-cold look of a killer which quickly transformed into a look of indifference.
“You want to sit here?” The tech’s voice was strained.
Lena nodded as the tech slowly moved the chair a little closer to her. It was at this moment that Lena knew without a doubt that Dana Papadopolis perceived her as an immediate threat. Lena sat on the cushioned stool and studied the keyboard for a moment. She was not used to using one, but the system would no recognize her voice commands. She typed in the source command code for the system software and began to direct the gopher to find and retrieve Dr. Jones’ e-mail files on the three hard drives and through the LAN server to any nodes her system was connected to as well. A few seconds passed and nothing came back. She spun to face the emotionless tech and bit her lip for a moment before she spoke. “Where does she keep her files, Ms. Papadopolis?”
The tech’s eyes flicked over to hers, and she shrugged. “Damned if I know, Agent Whitley.”
Lena sighed and turned back to the screen. “Do you think she might have them hidden?”
“Never know with Dr. Jones. She trusts no one.”
“It appears she’s not the only one.”
“It appears some people have good reason not to.”
“Only if they have done something illicit.”
“Or the wrong people are snooping around.”
The agent placed her hands on her hips and turned to the tech. “What could the FBI possibly want from your program other than for it to succeed Ms. Papadopolis? Hmmm? Do you think we want to destroy one of the most promising avenues of cancer research? That’s ludicrous and paranoid!” She turned back to the computer and punched in the back door code she had discovered as a junior in college and reran the search for the files. She was instantly rewarded by the nano processor with megs and megs of mail files. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the blue eyes grow wide and then spring back into an irritated squint. “Something wrong?” she asked with a knowing little smirk toward the computer.
“Good.” She turned to where she had placed her briefcase on the floor and pulled out a soft case for holding Roms. She pulled out a Rom and loaded it into the driver.
“What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” she sighed again. “I’m making copies of Dr. Jones mail files.”
The nano tech scowled at the side of Whitley’s head but the action was not missed in the reflection of one of the monitors.
What are you all hiding? Lena asked silently as the files quickly copied. She inserted another Rom and scratched an itch on her cheek. She could tell the tech wanted to move–to bolt–she had seen it plenty of times during a take-down. She filled yet another Rom and reached for another when the door opened and Dr. Wilson walked in. The doctor raised her eyebrows in a non-verbal expression of “So how’s it going?” to Dana Papadopolis. Lena watched the silent exchange and the softening of the tech’s expression as the doctor moved closer to them. She was hit with a strange sensation of familiarity.
“Is Dana helping you find everything you need, Ms. Whitley?”
“No, but I don’t really need her help,” she said as she shook off the surreality that always accompanies a good deja vu.
“She’s copying Rachel’s personal mail files.”
“Why?!” Grace asked in shock.
Dana shrugged. “Where are Sputnik and Rigormortis?”
Grace hesitated a moment. “They are with Davenport reviewing all of our funding documents and purchases.”
“This is so fucked!” Dana muttered with disgust.
Potty mouth, Lena could hear her mother saying to the nano tech. What would mom think of these two? And then it clicked for her, who they reminded her of, except the dark haired women was different. She exhibited the same raw strength as Helena Perean, her mom’s best friend–her namesake for goodness sake–but she was so different in so many ways. Helena Perean would never find herself on the wrong side of the law. She realized she was staring at the two women and that the two women were staring back. The blue cold, the green warm.
The uncomfortable showdown was disbanded by the opening of the door and the entrance of a woman, dressed in faded blue jeans, a MIT sweatshirt that was living well past it’s projected lifespan, and white-leather NIKE sneakers that squeaked on the floor.
“Hola ,” Rachel Jones greeted the women with glee in her step. “Jesus, Doc, didn’t recognize you in real clothes. Looking kind of ‘suitish’ if you ask me. I’m for the sleevless T-shirt and blue jeans look on you myself. Have to love those biceps. But then you’re here to make Queenie happy and not me, right?” She slapped Dana on the shoulder. “Hi, Queenie,” she gently acknowledged Grace with a touch on the shoulder.
“Rach,” the doctor replied with what appeared to be a smile of relief.
“And someone’s been sitting in my seat,” Rachel said as she studied the curvacious form sitting in her spinny chair. “Been eating my porridge too…most definitely haven’t been sleeping in my bed–I would have noticed you.”
Lena spun around and climbed to her feet. “Lena Whitley. You are Dr. Jones I assume?” she asked, extending her well manicured hand graciously.
Rachel took it absently. “Guilty.”
“She’s with the FBI, Rach,” Dr. Wilson explained.
Rachel studied the dark attractive face, the profile catching her attention and sparking cognitive recognition in the form of an old memory from her pot-filled college days–memories that usually needed pot to be remembered. “Ooo, not Cyber Cop Junior, daughter of the the infamous Cyber Cop Inez Whitley.”
“I’ve never heard it put quite that way,” Lena said, trying to pull her hand away in defense.
Rachel smiled and eased her grip but not before she added. “I met your mother once, a long time ago, when she lectured. She is a very cool lady. She must have retired by now.”
“Ha! She hasn’t retired. She works from home now. I don’t think a day has passed since 1990 that she hasn’t logged on to go after some slimeball.”
Rachel turned away from the agent and began to unzip a small pocket on her purple backpack. “Here are those country music discs you’ve been nagging me to make for you, Doc.” She handed Dana four small CD Roms. Dana grunted her thanks.
“Country? You hate country,” Dr. Wilson said.
“I don’ hate country, Grace. I like some of it. I’m not that narrow-minded.”
“Whois it?” Grace asked taking a disc out of her hand.
“Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lyle Lovett.”
“Pshaw,” Grace said, pursing her lips. “Lyle Lovett isn’t country. He’s Tex-Mex.”
“Pshaw,” Dana replied, mimicking Grace’s look with exaggeration. “He is country,” she argued, pulling the disc out of her lover’s hand, “and pshaw, Tex-Mex is a style of food, not music, Charlie Pride lady.”
“You’re never going to forget that, are you?”
Lena and Rachel watched the exchange between the two women. “I don’t even want to know,” Rachel finally said and turned back to the federal agent.
“So you’re trying to take me down, are you?”
“No,” she replied defensively. Then she grabbed a corner of the sheet of professionalism that had blown off from her proverbial clothes-line and added with a touch of spring-breeze coolness, “Why? Have you done something wrong?” Still, she could not help smiling at the icon.
Rachel smirked at her, and laughed. “Haven’t you?”
“Well, I’m no saint, Lena.” She gave the agent a soft smile and then walked over to her desk and placed her backpack on the blotter. “So, have you hacked into my files yet?”
“I have accessed your mail files and copied them.”
“Sweetheart, you did not access them, you hacked them. You can say the word, it’s not a four letter one, and your tongue won’t fall off.” Rachel sauntered closer to the monitor, took a look at the information displayed on it, and gave a sidelong glance to the tall tech who was no longer bickering about music, having apparently won.
“Ask her how she did it,” Dana replied to the unspoken question.
“I know the back-door command,” Lena offered proudly. “I figured it out when I was a junior.”
“Hmmm, not a freshman, though. Too bad. Thought you had promise, kid,” she said with a smile. Lena could not help smiling back.
“Up, up, out of my chair,” Rachel commanded with a few flicks of her hands as well. The agent stood up and straightened out her skirt while Dr. Jones claimed the seat. “Are you trying to take me down, Lena?” Rachel asked again with a charming directness as she toggled the commands to voice.
“I’m not targeting you personally for take-down.” The agent grew serious. “Would I have reason too?”
Rachel grew serious as well and then winked. “Not that you could catch me if I have been naughty.”
Doctor Wilson interrupted them with a loud, guttural throat-clearing. Rachel spun on the stool to face her. “Yes?”
“We’re going to take off if you don’t need us.”
“See you,” Rachel replied with a dismissive wave. The brunette almost smirked at Dr. Jones. “So, Lena, what would you like me to show you?” the computer administrator asked just as the door closed behind the nano tech and the doctor.
“My, oh, my, we are in big trouble,” Grace muttered as they walked down the hallway.
“Don’t worry about it, Chipmunk. It’s under control,” Dana said, pulling Grace by the hand into their office and closing the door. She turned on a small radio on her desk, pulled her glasses from her pants pocket, and then inserted all four discs into the computer. One by one, she downloaded files to the secure nano project server.
“Those aren’t music discs?”
“Ha! What do you think?”
“I think I won’t get those tickets to Lyle at the Oakdale Theater now.”
“I’d go if I could suck on your neck during the slow songs.”
“What slow songs?”
Dana used the back-door code, one that was becoming too well known, to change the file creation dates. “Hey Chipmunk, hand me the notepad from your briefcase.”
Grace pulled out a spiral notebook and handed it to Dana. Doc began to reenter the creation dates to match the notes she had scribbled when she removed the files from the server the previous day.
“How did she change the data so quickly?”
“Probably wrote a program to do it and then sat eating Cheetos and drinking moonshine all night.”
“I still don’t understand what they want with the files,” Grace said, looking over the gray cashmere shoulder. “She’s definitely legitimate FBI. So what could she want?”
“My guess is that they’re using her.” Dana twisted so that she could look at the woman who smelled so intoxicatingly delicious and who’s breath was wetly warming her ear. “And they’re going to try and show that we caused the explosion to cover for a failing program.”
“To disgrace us, and in doing so, destroy us. Reputation is everything when in comes to funding research.”
“Doesn’t seem Reichert’s style,” Grace said.
“No, it doesn’t. But then the man is a chameleon.” Dana typed in another date. “What do you think of Agent Whitley?”
“She seems to worship Rachel,” Grace replied with a chuckle.
“Do you think she’s attractive?” the nano tech asked as she typed.
“Do you?” Grace asked a bit hesitant.
“She’s arrogant. Turns me off. I like sweet girls.”
“Then why are you with me?”
“You’re a sweet girl, Grace. You just pretend not to be.”
Grace laughed. “You have me confused with Joy.”
“No, I don’t. Do you find her attractive?” she asked again.
“Hmmm.” That was not the answer Dana wanted.
“I find lots of people attractive, but I know exacty which one I want.”
Dana turned her head to look at her lover.
“You’re the one that has only tried one brand of bottled water,” Grace said.
Dana chuckled. “I’ve found the crispest, cleanest one and stuck with it. The Poland Spring of bottled water.” She typed in the last date and time, then signed off. “Want to go to lunch?” Doc asked her companion. “I’m thirsty for some reason.”
“I can’t eat. I’m too stressed.”
“A walk then? Maybe feed the squirrels some Cornuts?”
Dana smiled that crooked smile. “I’ll get a bag from the vending machine, you grab some waters.”
Part Nine – Removing Heat from a System
Rain was blowing sideways between the concrete pillars of the parking garage as the sun set behind black clouds. A flash of lightning brightened the parking level, and three seconds later the steel girders rattled from a thunderous scream. Dana Papadopolis folded her long legs up as she climbed into the passenger seat of the Jeep Wrangler. Grace climbed in behind the steering wheel and slipped the key into the ignition. But instead of starting the Jeep, she stared out at the downpour, watching the wind whip the rain into waves. March weather was as schizophrenic as it came, balmy and clear in the morning, with torrential storms in the evening.
“You think we should wait this out?” Grace asked her friend, who was still shifting, trying to get comfortable.
“I think I need my own freakin’ car,” the nano tech complained, trying to stretch her legs. “A big-ass wagon…one that I can toss my fishing pole, my doggie, and a cooler of Coronas into, then head to the mountains.”
“What mountains? There aren’t any mountains around here.”
“Any mountains, at this point.” The dark woman sighed. “Even those little speed bumps called the Appalachians will do.”
“And you prefer Sam Adams to Corona.”
“Whose fantasy is it anyway?” Dana snapped, blue eyes faking irritation.
“A fantasy with your dog and beer, but I’m not in it. How goddamned masculine.”
“If I put you in it wearing a garter and black hose, then it would be masculine, Grace. Right now it’s just a Thoreauian escapism deal.”
“You’re just sooo deep,” Grace shot back, starting the engine.
“Ummm…yes. But I think adding you as a snuggle-mate in a sleeping bag could enhance the whole image.” She closed her eyes as Grace watched her through the lenses of her driving glasses. “Oh, yeah, definitely an improvement.” Dana smirked and stretched. “And I wouldn’t be averse to the idea of your trying out for the role of sex kitten either, Dr. Wilson.”
“I do like camping, by the way,” the young doctor offered, ignoring the remark.
“Really?” Dana was genuinely surprised at that tidbit.
“Yep. Mom and Dad used to send Joy and me to Camp Chimney Corners and Dickie to Becket every summer.”
“Chimney Corners? I knew a few kids that went there in the summers. It’s a freakin’ rich-kid camp, Grace. Five-course meals, chauffeurs to the lake and back. I hardly call it camping.”
Grace backed out of her spot, the tires whirring. “I can’t win with you, can I?”
“You already have my heart, Chipmunk–what else could you possibly want?”
“What’s the booby prize?” the doctor asked, sliding the gear into first.
Dana’s half-smile made an appearance in response to her partner’s wit. “I could go for some fruit tonight,” she remarked as they left the garage. Rain pelted the thin car-shell like a gaggle of geese let loose overhead.
“Do we have any fruit at home?” the doctor asked while making a left turn across two lanes.
The doctor navigated the Jeep a few blocks to the interstate, then drove the little vehicle into the current of water rushing down the on-ramp. The traffic into which she merged moved slowly, the constant flicker of red brake-lights illuminating the highway for miles ahead. “Jesus, you dumb fuck!” she grumbled under her breath as she tried to switch lanes. Dana had unconsciously braced her body with her arm against the ceiling of the Jeep. Grace slammed on the brakes. “You see that? She cut me off!” she yelled, causing Dana to flinch. “That freak cut me off!”
“Grace, take the next exit.” Dana’s voice had dropped an octave.
“Why?” Grace replied, unable to take her eyes off the jerking traffic.
“There’s a little Italian groceria at the next exit with great fruit and veggies.” Which was basically true. That, and the fact that Grace’s driving was making her as tight as a high-E string.
Grace complied, a bit relieved to leave the highway. She slowly maneuvered to the off-ramp, following Dana’s instructions until they were in front of Bartolucci’s Groceria. “Want anything special?” Dana asked.
“Please, no asparagus, not tonight. Okay?” the blonde asked as she leaned over to give her dark-haired lover a quick kiss.
“Be right back,” Dana replied after her smooch. Long legs slid out of the Jeep, large feet landing in a puddle. A curse followed as she sprinted through the hard, cold rain across the sidewalk into the grocery. Wipers beat back and forth, a rhythm completely off from the back-beat of the Ella Fitzgerald tune playing on the audio system. Headlights and the spray of water from the cars passing by washed the car window. A young woman and a man hurried by and darted under the cover of a storefront awning. Grace watched through the cascade of water as their blurry shapes embraced and kissed. The woman accidentally knocked the man’s Angels baseball cap off his head and then replaced it. They laughed. Grace sat in shock, watching Sam Greer and Lola Lysom kissing in the rain.
After a few minutes, the couple moved out again quickly, then sprinted down the street past the groceria. Grace slid the Wrangler into gear to follow the lovers for three blocks to a brownstone apartment building. Making a mental note of the building number into which the lovers had disappeared, she circled back to the grocery store.
A moment later Dana darted out from under the groceria awning, her arms loaded with two plastic sacks of fruits and vegetables. Giving the doctor a wary look, she slammed the door closed, her dark hair soaked, her gray sweater and slacks black with dampness. “I’m wearing wool, Grace” was all she said. Dana could feel the clothes shrinking around her skin. The blonde reached into the back seat and pulled a towel out of her gym bag and handed it to her wet friend.
“Have you been waiting long?” she asked innocently.
Dana frowned. “Uh…ye-ah.” She tossed the wet towel playfully at the doctor.
“I think Sam Greer tried to blow up the lab.”
Pale blue eyes peered out from behind wet bangs. “Nice subject change. But the fact remains, you abandoned me in the rain.”
“I left because I saw Sam Greer and Lola Lysom not more than five minutes ago and followed them to a building down the street.”
Dana adjusted her wet body in the seat. “Lola lives down here. Rachel and I dropped her off one day last week. That’s how I discovered this place.” She shifted again. “Sam Greer, though–are you sure?”
“I would recognize that shit anywhere. We have to tell the police.”
“This could screw up Spinnelli and Ryan’s plan.”
“But if Reichert is behind this, he’ll just find another angle and use it to his advantage.”
“Then we have to take them all down at the same time,” the nano tech stated.
“Lena Whitley–she’s the take-down queen,” Grace suggested.
“I don’t want to use her.”
“‘Use her.’ That sounds so ugly. We’ll enlist her help, Dana.”
“I think we should give her a chance. She’s brilliant and honest, and Rachel adores her.”
“Rachel likes everyone who idolizes her.”
“No–I think Rachel is really impressed with her. And it takes a lot to impress Rachel.”
“I don’t trust her.”
“You trust hardly anyone. And we need someone on the inside, someone who’s respectable enough to convince the NSA to back off. And if it is Reichert, we need to get him out of our hair now.”
Dana folded her arms across her chest and pouted. “We can’t just walk up to her and say, ‘Your partners are working for the criminally insane.'”
“Because she’ll think we’re fucking nuts.”
“We are nuts.” Grace pulled out into traffic.
“She’ll hightail it back to Spinnelli and Ryan, and whoever they’re working for will know we’re on to them.”
“What do we do, then?” Grace asked.
“I’m thinking,” Dana replied, a dark look of concentration clouding her eyes.
Lena Whitley wanted to kick herself–hard–as she walked down the carpeted hallway to her hotel room. She had wanted to meet Dr. Jones for years. And now that she had come into contact, she had acted like an awestruck groupie. She could feel herself still smiling that stupid grin, and the muscles in her face were hurting from it. Endorphins still coursed through her body, and her stomach quivered.
The challenge of trying to follow all of the loops and functions of the nano applications, even with Dr. Jones’ help, had exhausted her both mentally and physically. She had wanted desperately to impress the politically-incorrect woman. She sighed and let herself into her hotel room with a swipe of the keycard. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked herself as she flopped back on the puce, flame-retardant bedspread. Clutching a pillow to her chest, she closed her eyes. Images of Rachel Jones and that wicked, childish glint floated into her daydream. She took a deep breath and scolded herself, “Get a life, girlfriend! You’re a professional and she’s a suspect.”
A shower and food was what she needed, not an erotic fantasy. She had turned down the offer of late dinner with the programming guru, but she could not help wondering what the evening could have been. What was it about quirky professor-types that drew her? Brains and affectations sucked her in every time. “Brainy chicks,” she mumbled, forgetting the fact that she was one of them. She walked over to her suitcase and unbuttoned her gray suitcoat, hanging it up neatly in the closet. She reached around and unzipped her matching skirt and flung it over the back of a nearby chair.
A few minutes later and she was ensconced in a steaming hot bath, the rushing water from the faucet drowning out the sounds of the people in the room next to hers. Lena closed her eyes and let the heat bring relief to her body and soul.
Two intruders moved silently into the room, the electronic lock barely slowing them down. The smaller of the two moved quietly across the carpet and grabbed the agent’s suitcase and briefcase, then loaded them onto a luggage cart while the other held the door. When the belongings were loaded, the two directed their attention to the bathroom door. Slowly the taller intruder twisted the knob and cracked the door enough to see the handgun resting on a washcloth on the back of the toilet. The first assailant touched the other on the shoulder and made black-gloved fingers into the shape of a gun. The other nodded acknowledgment.
Lena reacted even before the door crashed against the door pad, the door springing back and knocking the second intruder into the vanity and then to the floor. But she was too late. The gun had been knocked to the floor by the first masked assailant, who was already upon her, the leather gloves claiming her with a vice-hold around her biceps. The agent’s feet were pulled out of the soapy water as she was lifted, a gloved hand covering her mouth, muffling her scream. She raised her legs and, planting her feet on the tiled walls, pushed off, forcing her captor across the room and into the other assailant, who was now sitting up. All three lay in a pile, but the strong arms had not released her. The woman tried a heel to the attacker’s knee, the solid crunch eliciting a yelp. Then, in a violent flipping movement, Lena found herself jerked face-down, her nose pressed hard into the carpet, her arms pinned tightly behind her, and a leg trapping her knees on the floor. A washcloth was shoved into her mouth. She heard more movement behind her, the door opened and closed, and then she felt the prick of a needle in her naked buttock. A warm rush of liquid flowed into her skin. The only sound besides her grunting was the ragged breathing of the intruders as they waited for the drug to send Agent Lena Whitley into dreamland, where she was much less detrimental to their physical well-being.
When she awoke she was swaying, literally, the stench of fish seeping up through the floor mixing with ethanol fumes, and the constant hum of a powerful inboard droning in her ears. A wave of nausea rushed over her, and she thought she was going to vomit. It felt like a hangover, a tequila hangover. Lena was lying on her right side on a blanket in a small instrumentation room, her arms bound with cord in front of her. She was no longer naked but was dressed in her blue jeans and a white T-shirt.
The world dipped, then undulated sideways several times, jiggling her already quaky stomach.
“So you kidnap her?! You attack her in the bathtub, knock her out with God-knows-what, and then zip her up into a duffel bag and transport her across three states, and that’s your idea of dealing with the situation?!”
Lena immediately recognized the angry voice as belonging to Dr. Jones.
“What do you expect, given three hours to plan it?” an even, deep voice replied.
A loud, sarcastic laugh. “You have fucking lost it, Doc! She’s a federal agent. You don’t kidnap federal agents and get away with it, no matter how good your reason is. And I don’t care what your plan is. This is never going to work. If I had known this was why you wanted me to meet you here, I would have driven in the opposite direction.”
“Will you knock it off!” Grace Wilson interrupted. “Jesus, Rachel. It’s the only way we could get her away from Spinnelli and Reichert’s influence long enough to talk to her.”
“Don’t you even start with me, Queenie! I’m pissed at you too. You know better! And she’s still out cold, Grace. I thought you said you used a mild sedative.”
“Then why is she still unconscious?”
“Maybe she was exhausted from warding off all of your sexual advances yesterday,” Dana growled.
‘I guess I could have tried your approach–drugged her and dragged her off to my cave. Did you even consider talking to her first?”
Dana began to yell as well. “We’re dealing with Karl Reichert, Rachel, not something we can take a chance with. Desperate times call for–”
“–Don’t give me that shit! This is you losing control again, just like San Francisco. This is you saying ‘Fuck everyone.’ Or–don’t tell me–Cassandra told you to do it!”
“Rachel!” Grace’s voice had grown deep and strong. “What do you think would happen to Agent Whitley if Reichert knew that she was on to him?
Lena took mental notes as she lay there. Who was Karl Reichert? Yes, they had made a mistake by kidnapping her, and once the nausea subsided she was going to make them pay for the transgression. Hell, she was going to make them sorry now–by spewing. And she did. The noise of her retching brought Grace Wilson into the stuffy room, Dana Papadopolis and a still angry, but concerned Rachel Jones flanking the doctor.
Lena rolled up onto her knees. “You three are in so much fucking trouble!” she threatened on a groan, and then a wave of dizziness hit her with a swell. She closed her eyes hard to blanch out the sickness.
Dana knelt down beside her and quietly untied Lena’s hands and feet while Grace wiped the spit-up from the woman’s face. Firmly grasping the agent’s hands, the nano tech lifted the woman to her feet. “Why don’t you come topside and get some fresh air,” she said quietly, practically carrying the agent out the door. Dana set her down on a padded bench and released her hold.
The bright sun stung Lena’s eyes, but the fresh, chill air rushing in and out of her lungs felt good and reassuring. Squinting, she looked out across the expanse of choppy blue sea but could not see land in any direction. “What time is it?”
Dana Papadopolis looked up at the sun. “Ten-thirty.”
Rachel came over to the captive, cautiously, and sat down next to her on the bench. “Are you okay, Lena?” she asked, concerned expressed both by her tone and by her shaking hand as she handed over a can of Ginger Ale.
“No!” Lena replied angrily, furious that Dr. Jones was involved with Papadopolis. But she took the proffered pop anyway and guzzled it down. It burned as it quenched, then made her burp. She sighed, exhausted, hungry, and sore. That’s when she noticed the black labrador snoozing on a corner of the deck. Dr. Wilson emerged with a pail full of vomit-soaked paper towels and a sour look on her face. She tossed the contents into a large barrel.
The agent took another gulp. The tingle on her tongue felt good.
“You should slow down on that,” Rachel said softly.
The woman ignored the hacker, directing her attention to Dana, who was flexing and massaging her right knee.
I did that, Lena thought, and snickered, and she felt good about having made the nano tech pay for attacking her. She finally broke the silence. “Where exactly are we?”
“We’re off the coast of Maine,” the doctor answered, sipping a can of Coke. She looked a little green herself.
“It’s a ten-mile swim thataway,” Dana replied, pointing west. “In case you get any ideas.”
“Where did you get the boat?”
“None of your business!” Dana snapped. The doctor walked over to the tall, fierce woman and whispered something to her. The tech’s look softened as they watched the doctor find a seat on a hard bench.
“As far as I’m concerned, you’re all going away for life for this.”
Dana rolled her eyes and picked up a heavy-duty fishing pole lying on the edge of the deck. She baited a large hook with stinky fish and cast her line off the back of the boat. The black dog climbed to her feet and stretched and then took a seat at the nano tech’s feet.
“Figures you would fish when the rest of our lives are at stake, Doc!” Rachel remarked. A moment later the whiz of the fishing reel cut through the air, then the click of the lock. Dana worked the fish for several minutes before landing it.
“Feel better?” the hacker asked sarcastically.
“Much,” Dana answered, tossing the fish at the hacker. It bounced off her and flopped around on the deck until the dog pinned it down with her front paws. Dana turned her back to the hacker, baited, and cast her line back into the water.
Rachel rushed over to the tech. “What the hell is wrong with you?” She spun Doc roughly by the shoulder to face her. In a nanosecond Grace had inserted her body between the two women.
“What are you so spun up about, Rachel?” Dana hissed through clenched teeth. “This woman is trying to take the project down, maybe even you. What makes you think she’s not working for them? I’m giving her a chance. I don’t have to do that.”
“She’s right, Rach.”
“Don’t start with me,” Rachel said roughly. “I expected more from you.”
“Excuse me. But who would I be working with? I work for the FBI.”
“Karl Reichert,” Rachel explained.
“Who is Karl Reichert?”
“No wonder Spinnelli picked you,” Dana commented wryly.
“Do you remember the nano virus in California?” Rachel received a nod from the federal agent. “He released the Beta in California. Dana used to work for him. We think that Spinnelli and Ryan are working for him now. They aren’t FBI.”
“They’re NSA,” Grace explained.
“I thought the person responsible for LA was dead. That’s what the news reports said.”
“He’s very much alive. We had a situation last year with him in San Francisco, and we think he may be trying to even the score.” Rachel’s voice was gentle with the woman.
“You think he exploded the lab?”
“No, that was probably Sam Greer, Dana’s predecessor.”
“Mm-hmm. You all sound paranoid to me.”
Dana laughed again.
“How do you know Spinnelli and Ryan are NSA?”
“Their employment records were created only a few days ago by someone with an NSA account,” the hacker explained.
“So you have been in our personnel database. That’s a felony, Dr. Jones.”
Dana shook her head knowingly as the hacker gave herself up to this woman, and reeled in her line. Rachel scowled at the tech and then turned back to Lena. “What do you call what they’re doing, Lena?”
“You have proof that they’re working for this Reichert person?”
“No. We need help with that.”
“Aha! You want me to help you conspire against the United States Government. You’re just as crazy as those two!”
“Crazier, actually,” Rachel said with a tiny smile, but then she waved her hands as if that were not the point. “Lena, I need you to trust me.”
The bedraggled agent was about to laugh, but something in the hacker’s soft eyes and voice was so genuine and so different from the amused easiness she had seen and heard the previous day that she knew the woman was being honest, or so she hoped.
“What could I possibly do that would help you, Dr. Jones?”
Grace was assisting Lena with setting up the agent’s laptop and a cellular link in the instrument room while Dana and Rachel were trying to work out their differences on deck.
“Why do you do it?” Lena asked the doctor.
“Do what?” the doctor asked absently, flipping on a power switch on the wall. Nothing happened.
“Do whatever she tells you to do.” Lena leaned around and turned on the power switch on her laptop. “Try it again.”
The doctor flipped the switch into the “on” position again, and the little machine powered up.
“Because I trust her more than I do myself.”
“Wow” was all that Lena could reply, taking a seat on a metal chair in front of her machine. A screw loose in that blond head, she thought.
“You don’t know her very well, Ms. Whitley. There’s an honor code that governs her actions.”
“Honor code? She’s the violent sociopath who kidnapped me. That tells me a lot about her honor code, and a hell of a lot about her character too.”
“Umm…kidnapping you was my idea.”
The brown eyes grew wide.
“She didn’t want to have anything to do with you at all.”
“Tell me. Did Rachel have anything to do with Karl Reichert’s work?”
“Not until after Los Angeles. She helped Dana destroy the lab and helped us out in San Francisco. Is that important to you?”
Lena looked into the green eyes and admitted more than she had ever expected she would with one word. “Yes.”
“I don’t think I could accept her if she had been part of that virus project.”
“Hey, you two,” Rachel said, coming into the cabin, rubbing her hands together earnestly. “Are we ready?”
“How’s Captain Bligh?” the agent asked.
“She wants you, Grace. I think her knee hurts.”
The doctor’s face tightened, clearly showing her concern as she tried to leave the room without running.
“Lena, I want to apologize for the way you’ve been treated. Sometimes things with these two can get a little strange, and, well, we find ourselves in places that maybe we wouldn’t normally find ourselves in.”
“What are you saying…that you’re just a normal group of people? Sorry, but I don’t think so. You are not ordinary, Rachel Jones, whether you’re mixed up with Frick and Frack or not.”
“I’m not that different either.”
The two sets of brown eyes regarded each other with the tenderness of the kindred. “Do you think you can convince Spinnelli and Ryan that you found what they need?” Rachel finally asked.
“I don’t know.” Lena swallowed, knowing that if she did this she would be breaking several major laws, but if these crazy women were really telling her the truth, it was the right thing to do.
The two sat side by side in the metal chairs, going through the mail files until they finally found something they could use.
“These files came up on the search when you sent the program to fetch my mail files?” Rachel asked the take-down specialist.
“Yes. And only after I accessed the server on the God level.”
“Those are planted files,” she explained, rubbing her chin, clearly perplexed. The files were a series of text e-mails between Rachel Jones and Sam Greer detailing a conspiracy to destroy the laboratory because of a failing project. She stroked the keys until the true creator of the files was revealed through the scrambled electronic footprints. “Fucking NSA.”
“Shit! Well, I guess that doesn’t leave me many doubts as to your story.” Lena could see the NSA electronic dog-tag, the files only a week old. “These will be easy to show as plants.”
“Be careful not to finger them specifically.”
Dr. Jones linked into the project server and downloaded all of Lola’s files. It took them only ten minutes in her electronic recycle bin to find incriminating evidence connecting her to Greer. “Dumb kid,” Rachel said, shaking her head in disgust.
“How do we deal with Spinnelli?” Agent Whitley asked.
“We give them the applications. I’ve altered them already, so they won’t do him any good.”
“You mean they don’t work?”
“Not anymore they don’t.”
“What if it’s not Reichert?”
“It’s probably the warfare department. No harm, no foul.”
“Except that you kidnapped me for no reason.”
“At least you got to go on a cruise,” the hacker joked.
“I would have preferred dry land.”
“Doc brought you here because she suspected you might have a LoJack implant, and this is out of range.”
“A LoJack implant? Geez, she’s paranoid.”
Rachel chuckled. “She also said that if you didn’t believe us after all was said and done, she would turn herself in to the authorities.”
“Aren’t you afraid that one of Reichert’s techs may discover the changes you made and recreate the working applications?”
“Nope. Not a chance.”
“You’re overconfident, Rachel.”
The hacker liked that Lena had called her by her first name and not the stuffy title “Dr. Jones.” “I used the butterfly pattern.”
“The butterfly pattern. That’s chaos–there’s no pattern in chaos.”
Both women turned at the sound of Grace yelling to Dana to “turn right.”
“It’s ‘port,’ Grace!” Dana yelled back from the tower. The two women in the room began the shutdown macro for the laptop and packed up. A few minutes later they emerged from the cabin, just in time to watch Grace toss a line to a dock hand.
“Hey, there, Spider!” Dana greeted the young man tying the boat to the dock. She cut the engine and then there was a loud thud and yelp as she jumped from the tower to the deck.
“Goddammit, Dana!” Grace scolded the nano tech, who was now rocking back and forth, clutching her knee to her chest in extreme pain. Lena still took a little pride in having done that after the humiliation of having been shoved naked into a duffel bag and driven to Maine. Spider finished tying off while Grace attended to her fallen nano tech. Eventually Grace was able to help her to her feet, the tall brunette using the smaller woman as a crutch.Rachel and Lena carried the belongings off the boat to the wharf parking lot.
“What happened, Skipper?” Spider asked Dana. “One of them fish finally get the best of ya?”
“Not a fish,” Grace said as Dana faltered when she stepped onto the slippery dock.
“Tell Booger thanks for lending me the boat,” Dana said, wincing when she placed weight on the knee.
“Ayuh, will do.” Spider had let his curly blond hair grow long, and he was wearing a “You’re not from ’round here, are ya?” red baseball cap on his head to control the unruly hair.
“I think you tore something,” Grace whispered to her lover.
“No, just twisted it. A little ice will cure it.”
Rachel and Lena were loading Kev Grinchgold’s borrowed Explorer with the suitcases and cooler, a fish lying on top of the sodas. “Ick!” Rachel said and decided to pass on another soda. The dog climbed into the back, next to the cooler. “You smell as bad as that fish,” Rachel told the dog and closed the hatch.
“I hope this truck can haul ass, because someone is going to be looking for me,” Lena remarked caustically to the injured Dana.
“It will if I drive,” Rachel said with a smirk.
“No!” Grace and Dana replied quickly in unison. Dana climbed into the passenger seat. “Grace will drive,” she decided, handing the blonde the keys. A few minutes later they were headed back down I-95, next stop New Jersey.
Lena had easily explained her disappearance to Spinnelli and Ryan. She told them she had spent the day at the FBI computer lab in New Jersey to use some diagnostic software she needed. She also mentioned on the phone that she had found some “strange files” on the server that she needed to talk to them about. She invited them to the FBI facility across the street from Gate’s Tower.
She now sat across from the two agents in a strategy room, a detailed written report of her findings lying in front of both men.
“Do you know who planted the files?” Ryan asked her.
“No, just that they were placed on the server less than a week ago. I’ve sent a full report to my group manager and my division manager. My suspicion is that it was Ms. Lysom.” This was for her own protection; they did know who had planted the files. She and Rachel had spent the evening tracing the electronic identification to a computer technician in Mclean, Virginia. Now for the trump card. She directed the men to the section of the report that detailed the correspondence linking Lola Lysom to Sam Greer. “The local police obtained and put out warrants for both individuals after I notified them of my findings.”
Ryan flipped through the pages. “Good work, Whitley.”
“What about the other files?” Spinnelli finally broke his silence.
“You mean the technical files?”
“What about them?”
“I would like to take them back to our specialists. Do you have them?”
She could see the sweat beading on Spinnelli’s forehead. He was panicking.
“Do you have them?”
Lena waited before answering. She knew now she had made the right choice. She slipped her hand into the pocket of her computer case and withdrew several CD Roms. She slid them across the table to the two NSA agents. “These are all of the applications that the nano project claims to be using. I’m no specialist when it comes to nano technology, so I could not determine if they’re in fact worth anything, but I would assume that Sam Greer’s desperate action is a good indication that they’re close to completing the project.”
“We’ll take them to our specialists and have them take a look,” Ryan explained, taking the discs from the table.
“Great! If you’re finished with me, I have several cases I left dangling that I have to take care of.”
Ryan and Spinnelli thanked her again for her help before she left them alone with their booty.
Rachel Jones was waiting for her when the elevator doors opened. Together they walked into the main room of the apartment, where three televisions were playing three different college basketball games. The nano tech had her leg propped up on the doctor’s lap, an ice pack on the knee, and the two women were sharing a package of Oreo cookies. Grace was opening a sandwich cookie, holding it out for the nano tech to take the creamy filling, and then eating the chocolate part herself.
“I hate Duke,” Lena said as a Blue Devil hit another three-pointer. She had gone to UNC and played basketball for them.
“Want a Corona?” Rachel asked her.
“I would love one,” the agent replied, following the hacker into the postmodern kitchen.
“How did it go?” the hacker asked nervously once they were alone.
“Perfectly. They left with the altered software, and Spinnelli almost broke.”
“We’ve corrupted you,” Rachel said with a sly smile.
“What will your mother say?”
“I’m not sure I’m going to share this with her. Some things moms really don’t need to know, especially my mom.”
Rachel handed the cyber cop a Corona and a lime wedge. “Want to stay for the weekend to watch the games?”
“If you want,” the hacker said hesitantly.
“I…I do. Are they staying all weekend?”
“No, they’re going home tomorrow with their smelly dog. You really messed up Doc’s knee, by the way.”
“She grabbed my breast.”
“Ha. Don’t tell Queenie that.” Rachel poured moonshine into her large glass mug. “Do you do that to anyone who grabs your breasts?”
Two voices hooted in the other room, breaking the sexual tension. “Go change your clothes and come watch the games.”
A few minutes later Lena joined the fold, a fresh Corona awaiting her on the cocktail table. Grace welcomed her with a smile and then offered Dana another cookie.
“Who’s winning?” she asked, taking a seat next to Rachel.
“UNC,” Dana answered quietly without looking at the agent. “By two.”
Lena nodded and picked up the fresh beer. “Who are you rooting for?”
“UNC. I hate Duke.”
Okay, maybe Lena could learn to like the nano tech after all.
Continued in Nano 7 – Work and Energy