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"Good morning, Jack. Is that a molecular detector in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"
The voice that called out as I passed was female, soft, and sultry as hell. I paused to toss a grin at one of the two women who were occupying the big kidney-shaped desk that graced the front lobby of the Nordic Tech building. "Morning, Karin. Would it be against human resources policy if I was to tell you how much I liked that top?"
The red-haired receptionist giggled and leaned forward, giving me a better-than-normal view of her cleavage in the skimpy tank top that she liked to wear on casual-dress Fridays. "Probably, but I'm not going to tell anyone. You know my rule, Jack."
"What happens in reception stays in reception?" I asked, winking.
She giggled again. "You're so naughty. You look really yummy yourself in khaki. Is that the new Airship Pirates shirt?"
"It is. Saw them last night at the Foundry," I answered, naming a local hot spot favored by bands that were a bit out of the mainstream. I turned around so she could admire the design on the back of the T-shirt.
"Oh, and I was hoping you would ask me to go see them," she said, pouting just a little, and leaning over a bit farther. She traced a finger down my arm as I turned back to face her. "We had such fun the last time we went out. Well, until I got sick and had to go home, but I just know we would have fun again."
She paused, clearly waiting for me to do my duty and ask her out again, but the memory of her lying in a drunken stupor in the back of my car—not to mention the money I had to pay to have the vomit cleaned up and the car deodorized—was enough to warn me against any such thing.
That wasn't the Jack Fletcher she wanted, however. It was the fake Jack she was appealing to, the fictional Jack who had somehow garnered a reputation as a wild ladies' man. I did what was expected and slapped a quasi leer onto my face as I leaned in close. "You know I would snap you up in a minute if it wasn't for your boyfriend."
"Oh, him," she simpered, brushing my hand with her fingers. "Jerry's jealous of everyone."
"He threatened to rip my head off and spit down my throat the last time he saw me," I said, dropping my voice. "I think he meant it, too."
"I don't for one minute think you're scared of Jerry," she said, looking both pleased and coy. "Not you. Not the famous Jack Fletcher. Oh, Jack, this is Minerva. She's going to take over for me while I'm in Cancún for two weeks."
A girlish face hove into view, her eyes wide and somewhat vacant. "Hi, Dr. Fletcher. I've heard so much about you from Karin."
"Don't believe a word of it," I cautioned, giving her a wink, as well. I had a reputation to maintain, after all. "I doubt if any of it is true."
"Of course it's true," Karin said, squeezing my arm as she heaved herself a little farther over the counter so her breast could press against my arm. "Everyone knows you're a hero! You're just too modest to admit it."
Or perhaps resigned to people's determination to ignore the truth in favor of more attractive and entertaining fiction that had started several years back.
"Karin said you tracked down a notorious ring of industrial spies in Cairo," Minerva said, breathless with excitement. She started to lean toward me over the counter, but a gimlet-eyed glance from her friend warned her off.
"He didn't just track them down—he beat the crap out of them, and got secret plans back for the government."
Minerva ooohed appreciably, her eyes filling with hero worship. Honesty prompted me to correct that particular fallacy. "I didn't actually track anyone down so much as accidentally ran into a meeting of some folks selling proprietary information. They thought I was following them, but I was really just lost and trying to find my way back to my hotel so I could rejoin my tour. In fact, I wasn't even in danger from them, since Interpol had them under surveillance, and the Cairo police were hidden around the bazaar, but it was exciting for a few minutes until everything was straightened out."
"And then there's Alaska," Karin said, ignoring the boring truth just as everyone did when I tried to explain what really happened in Cairo.
"Alaska?" Minerva asked her. "What about Alaska?"
Karin turned to her friend. "It was so amazing! It's all over the Greenpeace Web site."
I groaned to myself and prepared to explain that incident, as well.
"What happened?" Minerva repeated, a rapt expression on her face.
"I was on vacation, doing some fishing, and my rented boat had engine trouble. I got picked up by some animal-activist people, and they—"
"He hijacked a whaling ship!" Karin interrupted, a triumphant note in her voice as she beamed at me.
"Ooooh!" Minerva breathed.
"I wasn't even part of the group," I said quickly, wondering why no one was ever willing to believe that I had been the victim of odd circumstances. "My engine had died and the Greenpeacers picked me up on the way to attacking a whaling ship. It was just the purest of coincidences that I was even on the ship at the time, and that picture of me holding a gun on the captain was totally misleading. He'd dropped it and I was going to hand it back to him when a photographer took a picture of us—"
"You went to jail for that, didn't you?" Karin asked, squeezing my arm a little more insistently now, her face filled with sympathy.
"Three months," I said, resigned. "It took that long for my lawyer to convince the judge I had nothing to do with the whole whaler fiasco."
"But the really amazing thing was in Mexico," Karin told Minerva.
"I love amazing things," she said, grasping my other arm. "What happened? I'm dying to know!"
Oh, Lord, not Mexico. "It's really not worth talking about—"
"Jack was in Mexico City with Mr. Sawyer on some business matters, and Mr. Sawyer was kidnapped by radical Mexican antitechnology fanatics!" Karin said, her gaze earnest and fervent as she told the story to her friend. "Jack rescued Mr. Sawyer right as the fanatics were about to sacrifice him on a Mayan altar! He saved his life!"
"Saved Mr. Sawyer's life!" Minerva gasped.
The addition of the Mayan altar to the whole crock of bullshit was too much for me. "There was no altar, Mayan or otherwise," I said firmly.
"Mr. Sawyer totally swore his undying gratitude," Karin answered her, nodding vehemently.
"And it really wasn't so much a group of radical fanatics as it was a couple of people who had been unemployed and took Mr. Sawyer's limo for that of the labor secretary."
"He told Jack that he would have a job at his company for the rest of his life," Karin added in a confusion of pronouns.
"They drove us straight back to the hotel after they realized their mistake," I said, a hint of desperation entering my voice. Why the hell did no one ever listen to me?
"Well, I would promise that, too," Minerva told her. "Being sacrificed on a Mayan altar would scare the bejeepers out of me! That was so brave of Dr. Fletcher!"
"The whole thing got blown out of proportion when the police had a report of a kidnapping, and brought in some military troops to try to find us, which was ridiculous because by then we were back at the hotel safe and sound, having margaritas next to the pool. It wasn't until the next day that we realized they were looking for us," I finished, but I knew my breath was wasted. People, I have frequently noticed, hear what they want to hear.
"Well, you know, Jack was in the military," Karin said, her voice dropping to a confidential level, apparently forgetting I was standing right there. "Secret military research."
"Wow," Minerva said, her eyes huge. "What sort of research?"
"I don't know, but it has to be something pretty juicy because Jack never talks about it."
I sighed, gathered up my leather satchel and the morning's paper, and headed for the stairs.
"He's just like Indiana Jones, isn't he?" I heard Minerva say as I started up the stairs to the fourth floor, where my office was located. "Right down to the hat. I wonder if he has one of those long whips he could wrap around his waist?"
"He should totally get one. . . ."
"Hey, Jack." I entered the first in a connected set of rooms that were our research labs, unloading hat, satchel, and newspaper onto my desk. A tall man with curly black hair emerged from the far room. "You're late."
"Had a late night." I slumped into the chair behind my desk and pulled out my laptop.
"Foundry?" Brian, the graduate student who was interning for a year, plopped down on the corner of his desk.
"Yep. Airship Pirates were playing last night."
"Airship . . ." His face screwed up in thought for a few seconds. "Oh, that goth band?"
"Part steampunk, part goth, part industrial." I frowned as the e-mail started loading into my in-box. "You should go sometime."
"Like I have time to go hang out at the Foundry? You may, but I have work to do." He nodded toward the clean room behind him. "If I don't get those dots set today, I'll be out of an internship. Speaking of that—Dr. Elton's been asking for you. He says that latest version of the quantum gate you sent him refuses to reverse, and could you fix it by noon so he has a working model to show Sawyer."
"It's on my list of things to do today," I murmured.
"Feeley called and said if you don't get that budget to him by the end of today, he'll sauté your balls in garlic and wine sauce."
I made a face. I hated dealing with the yearly budget.
"Oh, and a woman was here to see you."
"A woman?" I looked up in surprise. "Who?"
Brian shrugged and picked up one of the small canisters of liquid helium we use to cool down the computer equipment. "Didn't say. Said she'd be back, though."
"I wonder who it could be." I wracked my brain for any female acquaintance who would be willing to brave the geekified air of Nordic Tech.
"Someone you met last night?" Brian offered as he headed for the clean room.
"Doubt it. I went with a couple of Friends last night."
He paused at the door, his eyebrows raised. "You went with Quakers? To see a goth band? Isn't that like a sin or something?"
"Of course it's not a sin," I said, giving him a quick frown. "It's not like they decapitated a bat."
"Yeah, but Quakers! At a goth concert! It's just so wrong!"
"Hardly. I've been a part of the church my whole life, and I assure you, there's nothing anywhere in the Bible that says goth concerts are on the forbidden list," I answered, quickly scanning an e-mail from the CEO, Jeff Sawyer.
"I know you're one and all, but you're kind of like Quaker Lite, aren't you? I mean, you drink, and you swear better than my old man, and he was in the merchant marines. You go out with women. And you were in the army. I thought that was, like, totally anti-Quaker."
"Many of us are conscientious objectors, but still manage to be useful in ways that don't compromise our beliefs."
"That's right. Karin at reception said you did research in the army in lieu of seeing action in the Middle East. High-tech stuff, huh? Spy technology and all that?"
I looked up and cocked an eyebrow at him. "I could tell you, but then I would have to kill you."
His jaw dropped a smidgen.
"You don't see the irony of that statement, do you?" I asked, unable to keep from smiling.
"Well, I see the irony in you threatening to kill me when I'm the only intern you've got," he answered quickly, edging closer to the door.
"Tempting as it is to explain, we both have work to do. If you expect to get those quantum dots down before the afternoon, we'll have to forgo a discussion of my personal philosophy for another time."
He glanced at the clock, uttered an expletive, and bolted into the changing area for the clean room beyond, where we did the bulk of our construction on the quantum computer we were building.
A half hour later, when I was doubled over a minute circuit board, soldering on a tiny circuit, the door opened.
"Good morning, Indiana. What adventures have you had this morning? Rescued a damsel in distress? Saved a priceless amulet from being stolen by ruffians? Smuggled innocent baby seals from a fur-processing plant?"
"Hallelujah," I said, looking up and waving a small soldering iron at her by way of greeting. A minute piece of silver solder flew toward her. "What are you doing here?"
"Avoiding internal injury, evidently," she said, sidestepping the solder. "And don't call me that. You know I hate it."
"Not nearly as much as I hate being called Indiana."
"He who weareth the hat shall be calleth by the name," she said, grabbing a stool and hauling it over to my worktable. "At least you haven't gotten a bullwhip. Yet."
"You've been talking to Karin."
"Bah," my sister said, waving away the subject. "I hope you're not serious about her, because she's totally the wrong type for you."
"I'm not serious about anyone, not that it's any of your business," I said, looking through the microscope for placement of a minuscule part.
"Ah, but it is, big brother. I am here in my official capacity to hook you up with an absolutely terrific woman."
I set down the soldering iron. "Not another blind date, Hal? You promised me you weren't going to set me up on any more of those hellish experiences."
She picked up a piece of circuit board and toyed with it as I went across the lab to grab some wire. "Trust me, you're going to like Linda. She's different. She likes all the things you like."
"Such as?" I took the piece of circuit board from her. Absently, she picked up a pair of forceps meant to position small pieces, and used them to poke at my notes.
"She has a laptop that she takes everywhere, so she's clearly a computer geek, just like you. And she likes reading, and you always have your nose in a comic book."
"Graphic novel. They're called graphic novels."
"Whatever." She forcepped a piece of muffin left over from my breakfast and popped it in her mouth. "She likes those—she was reading one that she said was a retelling of a Jules Verne book, and it sounded just like something you'd read, what with all those Victorian rocket ships to the moon, and people marching around with ray guns and goggles."
"I'm delighted that you have a friend who enjoys steampunk and computers, but I fail to see why you would want to match her up with me. I'm perfectly happy as I am."
She slid off the stool and moved around the lab, tidying papers, rearranging boxes of computer components, and generally doing what she referred to as "straightening up." "It's . . . well . . . you see . . ."
"Spit it out, Hallie," I said, squinting through the microscope as I wrapped wire around a semiconductor.
She took a deep breath, then said very quickly, "I promised you to Linda."
I looked up at that. "You did what?"
"I promised you to Linda. That is, I sold you to her." She held a small canister of helium in her hands, absently twisting the top as she watched me with anxious eyes.
"You sold me? Like a slave or something?" I asked, completely confused. "What do you mean, you sold me?"
"No, not like a slave, don't be stupid," she said, biting her lip. "It was an auction. A charity auction."
I closed my eyes for a moment before shaking my head. "Which charity?"
"Now, don't you get that tone of voice," she said, adopting a defensive attitude. She shook the canister at me as she spoke. "I know what you think about my charities, but this one is fabulous, Jack, just fabulous. It's for care and rehabilitation of released parakeets."
I was so surprised by what she said, I stopped worrying about whether the top had been loosened on the helium. "Released what?"
"Parakeets! Do you have any idea how many parakeets each year are shoved out of their homes and left to fend for themselves? Hundreds, Jack! Hundreds and hundreds of poor little innocent birdies just tossed out the window, and they have no idea how to forage for food, or where to sleep, or even where to live. It's a horrible, senseless tragedy, and we at the People for Humane Treatment of Parakeets are doing what we can to try to rescue parakeets, and rehome them with good people who will take care of them."
Hallie always had a cause. Ever since she was a little girl, she had been a joiner of causes. When she grew up, she had taken to throwing herself wholeheartedly into whatever cause appealed to her at the moment.
"What happened to that group you belonged to that was supposed to knit sweaters for hairless dogs who lived in animal shelters?"
"Oh, that fell apart months ago," she said, twisting the lid of the canister again. "We couldn't decide on whether mohair or acrylic yarn was best. This group is totally rock solid, Jack. And you like animals!"
"That doesn't mean I want to be sold into slavery on their behalf. What did you sell me for?"
"Five hundred dollars! Can you believe it? No one else's husband or brother went for as much. It was a shame you couldn't be there to model yourself, but I took that picture of you that was in the paper that time you and Jeff Sawyer were in Mexico, and you rescued him from being disemboweled by crazed Mayans."
I sighed to myself again. It was pretty sad when my own sister refused to listen to me.
"Anyway, everyone loved that picture, and lots of ladies bid on you, only Linda won, and that's so perfect because she's just the woman I would pick out for you. She's smart and she likes the things you like, and she paid five hundred dollars just to spend some time with you."
"I wasn't asking how much she spent; what services of mine has she won?" I asked suspiciously.
"Oh, well, that's up to Linda," she said, waving the canister at me.
"Stop shaking that!" When I realized what she was doing, I jumped to my feet and lunged toward her in the hopes of getting the canister before it blew up.
"Now, I know you're a bit peeved that I sold you without telling you, but really, it's for a very good cause—" Hallie skirted the lab table, keeping just out of my reach as she pleaded with me.
I cut her short, worried about her safety. "No, you idiot! The lid is off and you're shaking the canister. It's very volatile!"
"This?" She looked down at the helium. "It's just a thermos of coffee. How can coffee be volatile?"
"It's not coffee—it's liquid helium."
"Helium?" She held the canister up as if she could see through the stainless steel walls. "What on earth are you doing with helium?"
"We use it to cool the core of the chip when it's being tested. Now set it down very carefully."
"Oh, like canned air? I use that all the time at home on my stereo. I like the way the bottle frosts up when you use it for a while. You're not mad at me about the auction, are you?" she said with sublime unawareness of what she held. She reached for the lid, jamming it down on top of the canister.
"My emotions at this moment are rather indescribable," I said, moving around to take the canister from her.
"Stupid thing won't go on," she grumbled, trying to force the lid on, but the inner valve had been jostled and was out of position enough to keep the lid from screwing on properly.
"Just set it down, Hallie, and I'll deal with it."
"Maybe it's got an air bubble or something that's keeping it from closing properly." She tossed aside the top, right on top of the circuit I had been finishing. Several tiny LED lights lit up, indicating the computer's brain was receiving power.
"No!" I yelled, lunging for her. Just as my hand closed around hers, she flipped up the valve, sending liquid helium boiling out to the circuit below. Hallie snatched at the precious circuit, obviously to save it from being harmed, but it was too late. A brilliant silver light filled my mind as she grabbed the circuit board. In the dim distance, I could hear voices talking, but couldn't make out what they were saying. The light expanded until it seemed to fill the room, filling me with a soothing, calming presence.
Hallie screamed as the light erupted around and through and inside me.