Part Eight - The Equal Arm Analytical Balance.
By late October the acid rain had long since stripped the trees of their leaves, and the woodland lining I-95 slipped by in a blasé blur. Dana and Grace were well into their fourth week of remapping each other's bodies, a rather intense process, as one can imagine. And when the two were not waist-high in geography, topography, or whipping cream, they worked closely on modification number two of the nano project, where they happened to be heading that Friday morning.
"Barbara wants you to come to the meeting today."
"Babs wants me there? How genuinely intriguing." Dana rolled down the Jeep Wrangler's window and spit into the wind.
"You want me to swallow it?" she replied, rolling the window back up.
"Do you want to swallow it?"
"Stop it--you're making me nauseous."
Dana grinned evilly. "I think I'm coming down with something."
"Did you get your flu shot like I asked you to?"
"No way, Grace. I'm not going to play into the hands of some government infectious-disease experiment."
"You're so paranoid."
"It's not paranoia if--"
"--Yeah, yeah, yeah, if they're really out to get you."
They both shared a silent exchange of a very real concern. "And I'm not going to a meeting so that a bunch of rich people can bitch at me and ask me why there isn't a cure for cancer yet."
"Why not? I do it every week."
"That's because you have to. I'm a technical person. The only other person's opinion I care about is yours, and we have meetings every night."
"You don't care about my opinion. If you did, you wouldn't be launching loogies from my car window. I'm waiting for one of those to fly back in and hit you in the face."
"Never gonna happen, Sweetcheeks." P-tew.
"Ah, gross. Jesus, Dana, at the very least roll the window down next time."
"Okay, quiet down, everybody." Doc walked around the circular conference table where all of her techs were seated for their Friday afternoon recap and planning meeting. "Due to the fact that nobody has come up with an imaginative solution to our current dilemma, I suggest we try another approach." She sat in her own cushioned seat, leaned back in her chair, and planted her long legs across the tabletop. After stretching, she clasped her hands behind her head. "Everyone, feet up and head back!"
The guys were the first to follow her command, some of the women in skirts quite hesitant. Eventually, though, all fifteen techs and their unique leader had elevated their feet above their heads. "Now maybe we can get some blood to those Ivy League brains of yours. Close your eyes."
Someone began to giggle.
"Knock it offf!" Rachel barked. "I'm trying to sleep."
Doc climbed out of her chair and went over to the giggling grad student. "There's nothing funny about this," she said in her best ex-con voice. Several people began to chuckle. "Knock it off!"
Dr. Wilson was sauntering down the hall after her board meeting, grateful to be released but dreading being the one to tell Dana that they expected a new projection report for the project's remaining timeline. After Sam Greer's delays, the board had cut the budget for the next modification by half. Hoping to catch the tail end of the group's Friday meeting, she peeked in the window and found the entire staff taking a siesta. Dumbfounded, she watched for a moment and then knocked on the door.
Dana popped up from her reclined position and answered the knock.
"What in the world are you doing in there?" she asked.
"I need your input on something."
"Hold on a second," Dana said to Grace and leaned back inside the room. "Every person in this room stays exactly the way they are, and I don't want any of you to come up until we have at least one epiphany." She closed the door to the sound of Rachel singing "Just the Way You Are" and joined Grace in the hallway. "What do you need from me, Grace?"
"Come," the doctor commanded and began walking down the hall toward her office. "Given the fact that you're some kind of nano miracle worker, I'm not even going to ask why you have those people acting like kindergartners." Dana responded with that silly half-grin. "I need to know how many man-hours by category you expect the new generation to take."
"Ah, Grace," Doc complained as they entered the cluttered office. "I hate doing this stuff." She fell down into the cushions of the couch.
"It's all part of the job. We can't spend all our time napping in the conference room."
"You keep making fun of my methods and we'll see how much help you get with your projections."
Grace sat in the leather chair behind her desk. "Don't threaten me, Dana. I need those numbers, and if I have to, I'll resort to more drastic methods."
A black eyebrow arched.
"Come on, Babe. Give me some numbers and I'll let you get back to circle time."
"Only if you join us."
"No deal." Doc climbed off the couch.
"All right! I'll participate." She wanted to anyway. It seemed that she was always kept away from the Friday meetings by a board or budget meeting. Now this way she would get the numbers she needed without owing anything she was not willing to give. It was mesmerizing to watch Doc with her people; she had enjoyed seeing the transformation of the unhappy, faltering group into an effective team within four weeks.
"I'll give you the numbers tonight. The team can't wait too long."
The team was upright and jabbering when the two women returned. "I guess I lucked out," Grace commented.
Dana clapped her hands. "Okay, who's our genius today?"
"Sylvia," Rachel stated.
"Sylvia, how refreshing. And what is your idea?"
Doc looked around the room at all of the concurring faces.
"Pepe's?" Grace asked in confusion.
"Pepe's for pizza and beer it is. Grab your coats and your picture IDs, kids. We're going to party tonight." She winked at Grace.
The spirits of the Yale group were higher than the cost of living as they scrambled to hunt up their car keys and headed for the elevator. Dana followed Dr. Wilson to her office, a triumphant bounce in her gait.
"You're a good leader, Dana."
"Come on, Chipmunk, let's go get drunk on suds and stuffed on the best pizza in the world."
The blonde sat in her chair. "I have to work."
Dana flipped off the lights to the office and dragged her out from behind her desk. "You need to be with your coworkers. Now bond!"
"Shhhh. I mean it. Plus, you promised me you'd come."
Half the group was waiting for the next run of the elevator.
After half an hour of waiting on the downtown sidewalk for entrance into the small restaurant, the group ended up with the right half of the dining room. They pulled all of the loose tables together and conquered several booths as well to make it homey. Somehow Grace and Dana ended up at opposite ends of the large table, which probably bothered the introverted Dana more so than her gregarious roommate. Grace was pleased to find out that the young techs surrounding her were extremely friendly and had a million questions for her, some of which centered on what she had gone through with the Beta Destroyers.
While Grace was busy socializing, Dana ordered the pitchers of beer, ten assorted large pizzas, and several salads. By the second round of beer, Grace had warmed to her new friends, and they were singing lewd versions of Cole Porter songs and laughing hysterically.
Rachel rolled her eyes at Doc. "This has to be Yalie humor." Dana nodded and sat back to observe the glowing doctor. For a moment she was transported to an earlier time, a year prior in a blues bar, where she had first noticed the easy spirit of the beautiful woman, her easy touch and smile, and the wonderful, deep, melodious laugh. The events of the past year had transformed Grace into a serious, gray creature as of late, but at that moment she seemed young and vibrant and colorful again. Or had Dana changed Grace, sucked the happiness from her to claim it as her own?
A sudden jolt of discomfort settled in on the ex-con as the noise level rose. Dana took a long swig of her beer and returned her attention to a conversation about a theory on circuits with Rachel and Ernie, her computer assistant. Then she was reminded of why her attention had wandered in the first place. She poured herself another beer and downed it quickly. After she put her empty glass on the table, her eyes wandered back to the object of all her desires, the very same person whom she could not reach at the moment unless she were to climb on top of the table and crawl down to her.
"What do you think, Doc?" the thick-lensed, red-headed computer programmer asked.
"I think that you should write up a proposal for Grace and see if she'll fund you."
"You think she would help me?"
"Um-hmm." She poured another tall glass.
Ernie beamed from ear to ear, his wild, curly hair and freckles making him appear so youthful it left Dana wondering if he was old enough for the beer he was sipping.
"Excuse me," Dana said, pushing herself away from the table. On her way to the bathroom she ordered another five pitchers and paid for the meal with her seldom-used credit card, which was not in her real name. Paranoia was definitely a hard habit to shake. She lingered in the bathroom longer than was necessary because, except for the occasional flush, it was quieter than the rest of the restaurant.
When she returned, she discovered that the entire group was plastered, lit, snockered out of their gourds. Grace was standing on her chair, reciting in her best bardic persona all of the dirty limericks that Fuzzy had told her. Sometimes a good memory was not always a good thing to waste. Rachel was on the other end, yelling, "Bring it on, Queenie!" and offering her own, very natty rhymes. The drunken students were laughing and cheering their leaders on.
The tall ex-con felt lucky to be able to watch two of the people she cared for most in the world having a good time and knowing that she had played some part in putting them there, in making them happy. This gave her the rare feeling of being whole, much like the gratification she felt when she brought her lover physical pleasure.
Grace began to sway immediately after downing an offered glass, and several hands went up to spot her. Rachel was doing her own weaving, but Dana was not too worried about the hacker, who had more lives than a cat.
The energy level in the restaurant was so high it made the hair on Dana's arms stand on end. She decided not to force her way back to the table when she realized a very lovely undergraduate had infiltrated the party and was in her seat, eyeing Rachel suggestively. Instead, she wandered to the back of the floor and hid in a dark booth to ride out the rest of the evening. Seeking solitude, Dana dreamt of the calmness of the ocean, the sun on her skin, the salty breeze, and the occasional action of battle with the seagulls dive-bombing her grill for the day's catch.
A passing waitress offered her a cup of coffee, which she gladly accepted. By the looks of things, she was going to be driving several people home or back to the hospital. Grace was no longer on her chair, but she was involved in the happy chatter. More people were filtering in the door for late pizza, and the restaurant was crowded again, so much so that Dana could no longer see her lover.
The busy waitress refilled her coffee during a hasty pass and then disappeared into the crowd to take orders. A busboy brushed noisily by her while bringing in extra chairs from a storeroom in the kitchen, distracting her.
"Hello, Dana." A man she thought she recognized slid into the vinyl bench across from her. Another man towered over her, blocking an escape and covering her reaction from anyone else's view.
A shiver of panic traveled down her long spine. In reaction, she palmed the coffee spoon from the table and slipped it up her coat sleeve. "Let me guess. You're here to give me another nano virus," she said dryly. She lifted her cup to her lips and sipped.
"No, we're here to see if you would like to go for a ride with us."
Scorching coffee burned her tongue and the roof of her mouth. "I have other plans."
"You will have to change them," the seated man replied calmly.
"And why would I want to do that? You guys can't be half the fun that my friends are."
"Your friends, or that little blonde over there that you're living with, splashing around naked with in the ocean at the most ungodly of hours? Hmmm?"
"How fun will she be when she's dead?" boomed the creep next to her.
Dana tried to lie. "I don't go for blondes."
The man across from her laughed at her attempt. "Then you wouldn't mind if Rob and I introduced ourselves?"
"I doubt you're her type."
"We have a lot in common."
"I don't think so."
"Sure we do. For instance, I know some things about the Beta's creator that she is not aware of, things that may not make you welcome in the facility where you work...or in her bed."
Dana mentally picked that card up from the table and squirreled it away for later. "Are you trying to blackmail me?"
Rob was beginning to feel conspicuous and opened up his leather jacket to reveal his sidearm. "Get up off your ass--now."
Dana lifted her cup to her lips and played it cool. It was a public place, and she doubted they would try to use an aerosol with themselves present. She was sure that her last assailants had died undocumented after spraying her. "Make me, Uncle Fester."
His fat, muscular hand jerked her upward, making her spill her coffee on the table and her leg. "Hey!" she yelled. "I told you I don't dance." Several people in the surrounding booths looked up to find out what the commotion was about.
The man who was seated across from her stood up and waved for his overbearing friend to join him, and they then walked to the rowdy side of the dining room. The thinner man, whom she now remembered as the pre-dawn jogger, pointed out Dana's favorite blonde to the brute.
"Fuck!" Dana began to panic. Action was necessary, but she was unsure of what kind. Her instinct was to lure the two men outside and try to beat them senseless, or be beaten senseless. All that mattered was that Grace be safe. The other option was to try to make a break with Grace and run, but that would not solve anything, and it would leave other friends in jeopardy. Neither option gave her much hope.
She left a few dollars on the table and made for the door, hesitating long enough to indicate with a flip of her dark head that they should follow her.
Stepping out into the cool air normally would have given the nano tech a sense of relief, but Dana felt her body shaking with alarm. She admitted to herself that she most likely would not survive whatever it was the two men had in store for her. Her luck had finally run out, she thought.
A few feet of air and a glass window separated her from Grace, whom she watched laughing and conversing with a group of very beautiful people.
The wiry man managed to find his way out of the restaurant first and came to stand beside Doc.
"Do you have a cigarette?" she asked. She knew he smoked by the yellow stains on his hardened fingertips.
He reached into his pocket and handed one to her, then reached over with his lighter and held out a flame to her mouth while she sucked on the stick until the end was glowing orange. Probably because she had not smoked since she was seventeen, the nicotine was soothing her nerves.
Fester joined them. A long exhale. "So where are we going?"
"Someone in Washington wants to talk to you."
"I was afraid you were going to say that." Doc turned to the larger man to size him up against herself, now that she was standing. He still had four or five inches each way on her. She took another long drag. Out of the corner of her eye she watched Grace still chatting happily. God, she looks so beautiful tonight, she thought. A group of undergrads stumbled out of the restaurant and passed them.
"So what's the overall plan here? Frame me, kill me, and now talk to me. I hope I don't sound too ignorant, guys, but the order seems a little out of whack. And you guys aren't exactly tech material," another drag, "so what's the deal?"
"Let's go," Fester said, grabbing her roughly by the arm and trying to pull her to the side street where the car was parked.
"You're making a scene, Gorilla Man," Doc growled, yanking her arm away. It took every ounce of self-control not to start a fight right there, but Grace was still too close.
The smaller man stepped between them, facing Doc. "The car is this way."
"Rach, do you see Dana anywhere?" Grace interrupted the conversation between the large-pupiled hacker and a gorgeous blond undergraduate.
"She probably made some new friends and ducked out on us. She hates crowds."
"But Dana doesn't make friends."
"Oh, yeah? Then who are the two guys she's walking away with?" she asked, indicating the three forms moving away from the window.
"That's weird. Dana doesn't smoke. She thinks it's disgusting." Grace turned back to Rachel and grabbed her shoulder for emphasis. "Something's terribly wrong. And shit, I'm drunk. Help me find someone who can drive."
"Jack's the most sober one of us all."
Grace wove her way around the chairs until she reached the handsome man. However, he could not find his car keys, and by the time he realized he had not driven, Grace had run out onto the sidewalk in search of Dana. Rachel and Jack followed her out of Pepe's just in time to see the blue Sable turn right and disappear.
"We need to get on-line, Rachel."
Rachel blinked, having missed a major link in the chain of events.
"Give me that pen, Jack," the doctor said, snagging the ballpoint from his pocket. She scribbled down the license plate number on her palm.
"That's indelible, Dr. Wilson."
"Hurry up, you two," Grace said, breaking into a run toward her Jeep. Thank you, she thought, checking her coat pocket and finding she still had the keys. She tossed them to Jack. "Where's the best place for this, Rachel? Your place or the lab?"
Rachel was still trying to slice through her drunken haze and walk at the same time. "For hacking?"
"Yeah, for freaking hacking. I need to get into the DMV database to track this number down."
"For hacking, my place, most definitely."
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