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Episode 3: Summer's End

Chapter Text

Saturday morning found the extended Trager family sitting around the breakfast table. The big pile of golden pancakes was rapidly disappearing.

Nicole sopped up syrup with the last of her pancake. "Our Saturday pancakes are so much better with you making them," she said to Jessi.

"You used to say that my pancakes had character," Stephen objected, jokingly.

"I was protecting your male ego," Nicole said. "Hers are perfect, and you like them too."

"I do," Stephen said. "You really can't compete with Jessi when she's making pancakes."

Even in the pleasant Saturday talk around the breakfast table there were reminders of the accusations that Nate had made at the Rack. Stephen didn't really feel bad about Jessi making great pancakes, we all liked them. But Nate had felt my ability to surpass him unfairly deprived him of the prize he had sought. Everyone had urged me to use my abilities to the utmost. Brian Taylor had been training Jessi to be as powerful as she could be. How could we balance the importance of using our abilities with the impact they would have on other people's efforts?

"There's just a couple more weeks until school starts up again," Nicole said. "This will be Lori's senior year. And Kyle's and Jessi's as well," she shook her head with a smile, "although it's getting harder to think of you two as high school kids, especially after this summer."

Lori said, "I don't know why you guys want to go to high school for another year. I'm sure you could arrange to skip your senior year, Mark went to college at fifteen."

Kyle smiled in response, "It's not really the school lessons we need, it's being with people and learning how to interact with them that's our biggest challenge at the moment. I realized that when I said I didn't want the personal tutor that Nicole had arranged."

"But it does seem like you're wasting your time in high school classes," Nicole frowned. "At UDub you'd still be interacting with people and the classes would be more challenging, you could learn things."

"Not really, Nicole," Stephen said, "Last year they dropped by my top computer class and were able to break through the best security my students were able to devise. The only one who gave Kyle any challenge was Jessi, who got in, and blocked his access. They don't really need the formal classes at college either. They really are on their own."

"We need to live in the world as normally as possible," Kyle said, "That's what I told Latnok and that's what I believe. That means interacting with normal high school kids as well."

"I'm just worried about wasting your time," Nicole said. "Grace has made me aware of how valuable it is."

"It's the most important thing for us to do now," Kyle assured her.

"What do you think, Jessi?" Nicole asked.

"I have a hard time talking to people," Jessi said. "Kyle is right. It's something I have to learn. I always seem to say or do the wrong thing."

"While Super boy and Super girl discuss how important it is to spend time with us mortals, some of us are going to be struggling to pass our courses," Josh observed.

"I'll help, if you want," Jessi said.

"Oh no, not that again," Josh protested. "My arms were sore for days after your last tutoring session."

"You did well on your test," Jessi pointed out.

"I guess I did," Josh admitted. "OK, if I get in trouble I may take you up on that."

Chapter Text

It was late morning at the Rack, the traditional quiet time after the morning rush before people started coming in for lunch. Amanda was cleaning up with an eye toward the door. It was about the time Kyle usually came in. She stopped when she saw Nate come in and walk up to the counter.

She took a deep breath and asked, "Why are you here now?"

"A latte," he said and pointed at the menu, "it says you make them here."

"I thought you were going to be getting your latte's at Udub," Amanda said.

"Once in a while I like a change of scenery," Nate said with a smile. Amanda stood looking at him indecisively. "Are you out of milk?" He asked, prompting.

"No," she said with annoyance, and then shrugged, "Ok, I'll make you a latte." She went to the espresso machine and poured the milk into the pitcher and steamed it to the proper temperature. Then she pulled two espresso shots and poured the froth into the cup. She put it on the counter in front of him. "Here's your latte," she said.

"Thank you," he said, handing her the money. While she was making change, he sipped it. "You make good latte's," he said. "I was afraid that I was going to have to order a smoothie to get service here."

"You don't like smoothies?" She asked.

"I'm more of a coffee than a fruit person." Nate admitted. "Although, I must confess, I was prepared to order a smoothie if that was the only thing you would serve me."

"Why did you have to get served something here?" Amanda asked.

"Because this place has the prettiest barista," Nate smiled, "And it's probably healthier for me to tell my troubles to a barista than a bartender."

"I don't think I can help you with your troubles," Amanda said, discouragingly.

Nate shrugged, "Well, truth be told, a bartender can't either, although they often seem simpler when intoxicated."

"I think that all that can give you is a caffeine buzz," Amanda said, pointing to his latte, her mood beginning to lighten with the banter.

Amanda looked back at the door and her smile faded, Nate followed her gaze and saw the source of the problem -- Kyle had just entered the Rack and wasn't looking pleased. Kyle came over to where they were and confronted Nate, saying, "What are you doing here?"

Nate held up his latte, "Drinking a latte." He nodded to Amanda, "and chatting with the pretty barista."

"Well, I don't think you should be around Amanda," Kyle said, "I don't trust you."

"Kyle, let's be civilized here, I'm just having a morning latte and a little idle conversation. I don't think this is a big trust situation," Nate said. "And actually, I think I should have more concerns on that account then you do." He smiled at Amanda, "I think I'm safe, though, Amanda doesn't look like she is going to hit me today." He raised an eyebrow at Kyle, "Are you going to hit me, Kyle?"

"No," Kyle said.

"Then let's just have a pleasant morning, ok?" Nate asked.

Amanda turned to Kyle, "Kyle, I'll make your smoothie for you. Why don't you go sit at your usual table and I'll bring it to you."

Kyle said, "But..."

"Go sit down," Amanda insisted. Kyle looked at Nate, then back at Amanda and nodded. He went over to his normal table and sat, watching them with a scowl on his face.

Amanda turned to Nate, "I'm going to make Kyle his smoothie and take my break. Do you need anything else?"

"No, this is fine," he said raising his latte, "I'll just sit here and drink it. Thank you." He smiled at her.

"You're welcome," she said automatically, then mixed two smoothies and carried them over to Kyle's table. She set his down in front of him and then sat across from him with her back to Nate. "Kyle," she said, "that was rude. There is no reason to start a fight in the Rack. Nate wasn't threatening me or anything. He was just buying a latte."

"I don't like it," Kyle fumed, "he wants more than a latte, you know."

"I know," Amanda said, "but it's you I am with." She leaned over and deliberately kissed him. When they finished, Kyle was smiling. "So, now that we have that clear," Amanda said. "Can we just get along peacefully? I don't need the stress."

"Ok," Kyle said sheepishly, "I was just trying to protect you -- it's my job."

"I know Kyle," but I don't think there's a threat here." Amanda said.

"I suppose not," Kyle admitted, "I am still going to keep an eye on him."

"And I thought you came to the Rack to watch me," Amanda said, smiling.

Chapter Text

Foss was sitting at his monitors with a book in his hand and his gun on the table next to him when Declan walked in. "Declan, right on time," he said.

"So, what are we going to work on today?" Declan asked.

"I think it's time to start some physical training. I thought we could work out together this morning," Foss said.

"I'm not sure how much physical training I can do," Declan objected, "my ankle has its limits."

"Well, it's not going to stand up to the type of training you do for basketball," Foss said, "with all the starts and stops and directional changes. But I think you can still build up your strength within the limits it allows. Anyway, today we'll be working on upper body strength, so your ankle won't be an issue."

Foss set his book down on the table and led Declan over to where he had a bench press and some weights set up on an area with a mat. "I don't generally use a lot of equipment, we can certainly get started with this stuff," Foss said. "Let's start with the bench press -- I've got it set for my current weight level, so I'll go first. You spot me."

"Ok," Declan said and moved behind Foss's head to assist if necessary. He eyed the amount of weight with concern.

Foss did a couple of sets of a dozen repetitions. Then he got up and said, "Your turn. How much weight do you want to start with?"

"Let's see if I can lift that," Declan said. He lay down on the bench, grabbed the bar and pushed up -- without effect. "Well, that didn't work," he said sheepishly.

"I've been doing this for years," Foss consoled him. "Let's get you to a starting place." He started removing weights, and having Declan try until he found the weight he could handle.

After he had done a couple sets, Declan said, "That was pretty light compared to what you can lift."

"That's not important," Foss advised, "no matter how little you start with, as long as we add some regularly, you will increase your ability -- that works pretty much without limit."

They spent another half an hour doing various exercises. At the end of the time, Foss said, "I think that will be enough for today. Why don't you get us a couple of beers and we'll sit for a while."

They sat in front of the monitors, drinking their beers. Foss asked, "So were you good?"

"Good?" Declan frowned.

"At basketball," Foss elaborated, "before you hurt your ankle."

"I was pretty good, probably the best on the team. I had an excellent chance at a basketball scholarship at UDub before my ankle gave out." Declan sighed.

"And it can't be fixed?" Foss asked.

Declan shook his head, "Not good enough to be competitive at the college level. I've had surgery but it never recovers its full strength."

"The same thing happens after you've been shot," Foss nodded. "They can patch you up and you can do therapy but it's never really 'as good as new'."

"I don't think I want to find that out," Declan frowned.

"We all hope that!" Foss agreed. "If you hadn't been hurt and had been on the college team, how far do you think it would have taken you? Do you think you could have made it to the NBA?"

Declan took a drink and looked at the bottle, "Not really, I'm not tall enough and I wasn't that good. The best I could really hope for was a college career. It would have been fun, though."

"You know what I think," Foss asked rhetorically, "I think that ankle," he pointed with the bottle, "has done you a favor."

"It's done me a favor?" Declan asked. "How is that?"

"It's making you face up to a future beyond being a basketball player. You just said that you were likely to spend your college years focused on basketball and then have to figure out what to do with your life," Foss shrugged. "You can just get started sooner."

"Some favor," Declan said sarcastically.

"Declan, it's time to stop moping about what you used to be and start thinking about what you are. You are a capable, reliable, young man. I picked you to be my backup in a potentially life and death task. I take that very seriously," Foss said sternly. "If you are going to play this game, you have to take it seriously. Losing can mean someone dies, maybe you."

Declan thought for a moment, then said, "You're telling me I need to get my head in the game?"

"Exactly," Foss agreed.

Declan drained the bottle and set it down on the table, "All right, what's next?"

"Good," Foss said, "Tomorrow I think we'll go through some shooting scenarios -- with unloaded guns, of course. We don't need to attract attention. We are going to need to keep up a physical component from now on, though."

Chapter Text

Jessi was sitting at her workstation at the UW Latnok office, staring intently at the screen as she rapidly paged from view to view. She was so focused on her task that she didn't notice Jackie patiently waiting for her, watching in awe at the speed at which Jessi was working. After a couple more minutes, she suddenly stopped and looked over the top of her screen, obviously deep in thought. Finally, she sat back and noticed Jackie, "Do you want to ask me something?" She asked.

"That was pretty amazing," Jackie said with a hint of awe. Then she remembered why she came, "I wanted to ask you to take a look at the changes I'm planning. I'm trying to implement the ideas that you gave me, but there were a couple of places where I wasn't sure how to proceed."

"It should be obvious," Jessi said with a frown.

"Obvious to you, perhaps," Jackie smiled, "but the rest of us don't work like that." She gestured at Jessi's screen.

"I suppose not," Jessi said. "I'll look at your work."

They went over to Jackie's workstation where she had the genetic patterns of her plant genome displayed. Jackie said, "I am making this insertion here," she pointed, "and the other one you suggested here."

"I think it would be better farther down the sequence. This is a quiet spot," Jessi pointed, "If you put it where you intended it might interfere with the protein expression from here," she pointed at another place. "It will also be an easier match for a splice."

"I can see that," Jackie nodded thoughtfully. "I'll do it that way. Do you see anything else I should change?"

"No," Jessi said confidently. "This will work, go ahead and do it."

"Thank you," Jackie said. "I really appreciate your help."

Jessi looked around, "No one else seems to."

Jackie smiled, "Everyone's afraid of you, Jessi. You're so incredibly smart."

"Kyle is smart too," Jessi protested, "and people aren't afraid to talk to him."

"There's something about Kyle's smile and cheerful nature that makes people more comfortable with him. I think the people who hesitate to ask you for help are missing out, though. I certainly appreciate your help."

"I like being able to help," Jessi said. She then went back to her screen and went back to calling up displays rapidly.

After a while, Kyle came over and watched. "You're looking at quantum energy levels in specific atomic lattice structures," Kyle observed, "a quantum electrical storage mechanism?"

"Yes, it's good to produce more solar power, but the real problem is storage," Jessi explained. "I've been trying to store energy by raising the quantum levels of the relevant electrons but maintaining stability with the interaction of a mixed element lattice."

"And do you think you have something?" Kyle asked, leaning closer to the screen.

"I don't have a solution," Jessi admitted, "the interactions can be incredibly complex, more than I can see. I'm not sure if there is really anything I can use or not. Do you want to take a look?"

She moved to the side and Kyle sat at the computer. With her guidance, he called up screen after screen. After a while he stopped and stared into space. "I see what you mean," he said, "it seems like there might be a combination that works using the variations in the lattice to shepherd the electron wave functions but there are too many variables."

"I think this could be important," Jessi said. "Do you want to work on it together?"

As they continued to explore various displays and data lists, some of the students around them were beginning to surreptitiously watch them. No one had ever seen them work together at full concentration. After a while they stopped and sat side by side staring at the screen.

Kyle said, "You're right. I think this has a lot of promise. I'm out of ideas for now. I'm going to have to come back to it later -- if it's all right with you."

"Of course," Jessi said, "I think this may take both of us, if it can be done at all." She smiled at him, "This could be a joint project if you want."

"If you don't mind me intruding on your idea," Kyle said.

Jessi smiled, "We're a team."

They pulled themselves away from the problem and looked around. The watching students turned back to their own work. They saw that Grace had been standing nearby watching. When she saw that they had noticed her, she said, "That was impressive. Are there any amazing new breakthroughs?"

"No," Kyle shook his head, "we seem to be stuck for now. Maybe it's not solvable."

"Well, I'd like to have a short discussion with the two of you," She looked around, "let's move to my office for a moment."

They walked into her office and she closed the door behind them. When everyone was seated she began, "We are going to be having a regular Latnok board meeting in a couple of weeks. Since you share a board seat, at least one of you should attend - although I would strongly encourage both of you to do so."

"We've been looking forward to that," Kyle said. "We'd like to see a normal meeting."

"It won't be nearly as exciting as the last one," Grace said. "We are going over annual expenses, budgeting, revenue etc. It is all the business aspects for managing several billion dollars in assets. It's just the drudge work, not the fun science part."

"What will we need to do to get ready?" Jessi asked.

"Gabrielle will be emailing you an information package giving the time, the agenda along with an executive summary and all the supporting documentation. It's usually a rather large file, I'm afraid," Grace said. "I will admit that most of us read the executive summary and spot check relevant data."

"We read pretty fast," Kyle said.

"I'll bet you do," Grace chuckled. "Anyway, Ben Crossgate asked me to advise you that the way he wants to deal with the split seat arrangement is that one of you should sit at the table and speak for the pair. The other can sit behind and be available for consultation. It's going to be a bit awkward, but we'll work through it." She smiled, "Some of the members are touchy about maintaining a maximum of twelve at the table. A shared seat was what everyone agreed to."

"Kyle should take the seat at the table for us," Jessi said.

"The first time," Kyle said. "I'd like Jessi to do it next time. I want them to get used to dealing with her."

"I think that after they've seen the report on her invention, there aren't going to be as many concerns about her inclusion as there used to be," Grace observed. "Anyway, that's really all I wanted to say. When you get Gabrielle's email, if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask."

Jessi had said 'we are Latnok' and urged us to guide Latnok toward Adam and Sarah's vision. As we left Grace's office I reflected on how well this was working. I enjoyed helping the students, most of them, anyway. Jessi had made a major invention and was seeing the rewards. We were working together on an idea that was really promising. Now we were going to be meeting the board again, not as a subject for discussion but as part of the organization, guiding the future of Latnok. There were dangers to be explored but we were no longer reacting to threats, we were working to control our future.

Chapter Text

It was late morning when Lori entered the Rack. The shop was mostly empty and she immediately saw Mark sitting at their usual table. They exchanged waves as she went to the counter to order her smoothie. Amanda took her order and said, "I'll bring it over to your table when it's done." Lori paid and went to join Mark.

She leaned over to kiss him as she set her papers down on the table. "I've been making some progress on the songs you wanted me to focus on," she said.

"Good," Mark said, "Because Gary Baker is serious about you coming back. It seems he had a couple of people mention you to him after your last time, asking if you would be back. He wants you to do another three song set next time. After that he wants you to be able to do a forty five minute set."

"I thought the open mic night had a three song limit," Lori said.

"This would be on one of the other nights," Mark said. "You'd split the evening with someone else; get billing and everything -- a featured artist."

"Am I going to be ready for that?" Lori asked with a frown.

"Of course you will," Mark assured her, "you are going to have to work at it, though."

"Here's your smoothie," Amanda said setting it on the table.

"Thank you," Lori said. Noticing Amanda's expression, she asked, "Are you all right?"

"It's just been a bad morning," Amanda sighed. "I'll be all right." She shrugged and went back behind the counter.

Lori watched her with a small frown, and then turned back to Mark. "Well, I enjoy working on songs but school is starting up in a couple of weeks and I'm going to be a lot busier with that. Unlike all of you brainiacs, I have to study to pass my classes. Kyle and Jessi are going to 'get the High School experience'. I think the whole High School experience is overrated, myself."

"Well, I thought so too. I was eager to get out of it and get on to college," Mark said. "But I did miss out on parts of it."

"And that lack left you lusting for high school girls?" Lori asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Only a certain high school girl," Mark laughed.

"I should hope so," Lori said.

"I can see what they're trying to do, though," Mark said. "It's not like college classes are going to challenge them any more than high school ones do. They rather unnerved some people this morning."

"What did they do?" Lori asked.

"They were working on something together at their full speed, not having to slow down for bystanders. It was pretty impressive," Mark shook his head in amazement. He looked up at Lori, changing the subject, "You're graduating this year, what are you going to do after that?"

"I haven't really thought much about it. My mother insists that I go on to college. It might be nice to go to UDub if I can get in, although it would be weird with Dad teaching there," Lori said.

"He's pretty popular," Mark said, "I like working for him. Unless you are planning on taking computer science, though, I doubt you would even see him on a daily basis unless you wanted to. It's a big campus."

"Well, that's not happening," Lori said. She opened her folder and said, "So look at what I did with this one."

Mark read through it and said, "It reads well, I'd have to hear it, though."

"I can't play in here," Lori said, "Perhaps we could go over to Jessi's apartment and play there."

"Jessi's apartment, would we get any work done?" Mark asked with a smile.

"All work and no play makes Lori a dull girl," Lori said.

"That's true," Mark agreed.

"But interestingly, it doesn't have the same effect on you," Lori said causing Mark to blush embarrassedly.

Chapter Text

The late afternoon sunlight came though Josh's window filling the room with light as he sat in front of the computer with Andy's face on the screen. "So, how was dinner?" Josh asked.

"It was pretty good," Andy said, "we had eggplant parmesan."

"I think I can smell pot roast," Josh said. "We have a few minutes before dinner here." He sighed, "School is starting in a couple of weeks."

"Same here, we had to go down and pre-register me because I was new to the district," Andy said. "I'm going to be taking Algebra II, Biology, History, Economics and Composition."

"I got my classes scheduled at the end of last year," Josh said. "I've been dreading school starting again, our schedules will be much tighter and the three hour time difference will make it hard to even have time to talk."

"This will probably still be a good time," Andy said, "after my dinner and before yours."

"I had really wanted to come and see you again before the semester started," Josh sighed, "but I just couldn't get the money together in time."

"I told you that my mothers didn't like the idea, Josh," Andy said, "wasn't happening."

"Yeah, I tried to borrow the money, but my parents said no," Josh said. "Dad said that I would come back and still miss you. I suppose he's right. What are we going to do?"

"Katie's a cool girl," Andy suggested.

"I know, but it's you I want," Josh insisted.

"Cleveland," Andy said.

"There has to be a way to make this work," Josh said.

"I don't see how, Josh," Andy said. "We are just starting our junior years. We're stuck in high school for two more years before we go to college. We could go the same place, if we both got in, but do you really want to spend the next two years 'dating' someone you can never touch?"

"But we're great together," Josh protested.

"Yes, and you've helped me through a lot," Andy admitted. "We can certainly play G-Force regularly and talk, but it isn't going to be enough. You really should ask Katie out."

"Last time I did, you and I got into a food fight," Josh said. "It wasn't pretty."

"Cleveland wasn't real yet," Andy said. "It is now."

"It certainly is," Josh said glumly.

"I put a lot of work into finding Katie for you," Andy said. Don't let it go to waste, ask her out."

"I don't want to let go of us," Josh said.

"We will be, what we will be," Andy said. "You can't spend the next two years in your room looking at me on a computer monitor."

"I'll think about it," Josh said.

Chapter Text

It was twilight when Amanda walked up to the Trager house and rang the doorbell. Kyle opened the door, "Amanda, come in," he said.

Amanda said, "I was hoping we could go out for a walk. We need to talk."

'We need to talk.' When Amanda had come back unexpectedly from the conservatory, she had told me 'we need to talk'. Everyone in the Trager family had told me that it was the sign of an impending end to our relationship. Instead it had simply been an expression of her need to talk about the problems she was having. As Amanda stood on the doorstep, I could see her saddened expression. Her heartbeat, which had led me to the door, was depressed. Amanda was sad, and I feared that I would soon be sad as well.

"Of course," Kyle said, "It's a nice evening. Let's go for a walk." Kyle closed the door behind him and stepped next to Amanda. "Which way should we go?" He asked.

"How about toward the park," Amanda pointed.

"All right," Kyle agreed. They started off together.

They walked in silence past a couple of houses until Amanda said, "Kyle, you know I love you."

"I love you too," Kyle said with a smile.

"This summer has been very hard on me," Amanda admitted, "I keep having nightmares about being kidnapped and things put in my brain. Every time I hear a noise, I'm frightened. I imagine monsters in my neighborhood."

"You know I'll protect you," Kyle said earnestly, "We've made sure that Latnok won't try to threaten you again."

"I know you'll try to protect me," Amanda said, "But, Kyle, you were right there at the prom. We were together having a wonderful night, you stepped away for a moment and they took me. You can't be by my side all the time." She frowned, "What if I need to go to the ladies room? Are you going to have Jessi go with me?"

"We've talked to Latnok, they promised to leave you and the Tragers alone." Kyle said.

"And do you trust them? I know the whole story now, there was Zzyzx, Madacorp ... who knows what other group will want what you can do. That night on your patio you told me that there were people who would want to use those close to you to get to you. I didn't understand it then, but I do now, and I am afraid."

"I'm sorry that I burdened you with all of this," Kyle said. "Maybe Foss was right. Maybe I should have kept my secrets to myself, and then you would be able to sleep at night."

"No," Amanda said firmly, "I had to know the truth. I should have known it sooner. Maybe if I had known all along it wouldn't bother me so much. You were wrong to keep it from me." She continued somewhat accusingly, "You didn't think I could help you. At least Jessi, who doesn't even like me, thought I could help."

"Jessi shouldn't have sent you into a dangerous situation," Kyle objected.

"Would you have sent her?" Amanda asked.

"Well, she could ..." Kyle began.

"You would have," Amanda concluded. "Because you know she can take care of herself. She's like you. She can do everything that you can do. The gypsy woman was right, Kyle. Your soul mate was in danger that night you saved Jessi."

"But you're the one I want to be with," Kyle said.

Amanda said, "I know you do, Kyle. But I can see that Jessi wants to be with you. Everyone can see she does. And I can tell that you have feelings for her." As Kyle opened his mouth to object she asked, "How could you not? She's the only person in the whole world who's like you. She's the only one who can do the things you can do. She's the one who helped you rescue me. How can I compete with that?"

"Amanda, it's not a competition," Kyle said. "I've always loved you."

"I know you have," Amanda said. "But I don't even know who I am anymore. I've done things that I would never have thought I could do. I used my friendship with Nate to steal things from him. I need some space to find myself again." She paused to gather courage and said, "I'm going back to the conservatory in New York for the fall semester."

"You are going back to the conservatory?" Kyle asked, stricken.

"I need to get away from all this and think about my music, to find myself again. To go back to being the girl you saw when you first came into my room to hear me playing. Music brings me clarity," Amanda said. "I asked my mother help me get back in for a semester. It took a lot of work, but she managed to talk them into it. She told them that I was more mature and ready to focus on my music now. My recital recording helped a lot. We just heard today that they had a last minute opening and I can go."

"You'll be coming back, won't you?" Kyle asked with dismay.

"It's just for the fall semester," Amanda said. "I'll be back at Christmas and then spend the spring semester at Beechwood High. I'll be graduating with the rest of you. But, Kyle, I had to promise that I would stay the whole semester this time. I won't be making any unplanned trips back before then."

"I'll be here for you when you get back," Kyle said. "I promise."

"No, Kyle," Amanda said. "I don't want you to promise that. I need to get away from all this and just play music. I can't promise that I will be with you when I get back, so I can't let you make that promise to me. It wouldn't be fair." She looked down at the ground and added, reluctantly, "Maybe you should take Jessi out."

Kyle stood in silence for a moment and then asked, "When are you going to leave?"

"I'm leaving tomorrow," Amanda said. Noting Kyle's reaction, she explained, "The students have already started to arrive, I'm late -- it was a last minute cancelation that got me in. I'm sorry, Kyle, I would have said something sooner but I didn't think it was going to be possible. I didn't want to upset you for nothing."

"I'm going to miss you," Kyle said.

"I know. I'm going to miss you too," Amanda said, putting her arms around him. He put his arms around her as well. They stood for a minute holding each other. Finally, she said, "Kyle, you're going to have to walk me home now. I've got to finish packing."

They turned and started back toward the Bloom house, Amanda with her arm around Kyle and her head on his shoulder. Kyle held her tightly.

As we had started out it had been twilight, but as we had spoken the light had left the sky and my heart. We walked back to Amanda's house in the gathering darkness.

When they reached Amanda's porch she turned and put her arms around his neck and kissed him gently, then put her head against his chest. "My flight is at two in the afternoon. I'll come over in the morning and say goodbye before I leave."

"I'll be home, I promise." Kyle said. He kissed her again and said, "Good night."

Amanda answered, "Good night," released him and stood at arms length looking him in the eyes, taking him in. Her eyes brimmed with tears. Then she turned and went into her house. The door closed behind her. Kyle could hear her crying as she climbed the stairs to her room.

'We need to talk'. The Trager's warning had been months premature but now I knew the depths of despair that those words could bring. I crept back into my house, not wanting to speak to anyone and went to my room to take refuge in my tub. I lay there listening to Amanda pack, punctuated by sobs. Eventually she finished and went to bed and I could hear her troubled heart attain the comfort of sleep. Sleep eluded mine until I suddenly found myself remembering a time that Jessi had hugged me -- she had sensed my despair and was trying to make me feel better. I sighed and drifted into sleep.

Chapter Text

Nicole knocked on Kyle's door and announced, "Breakfast is ready, Kyle."

"I'm not hungry," Kyle said, "eat without me."

"Can I come in?" She asked with concern.

"Ok," Kyle said. Nicole came into the room. Kyle was slumped down in his tub, an unhappy expression on his face. His eyes were red.

"What's wrong, Kyle?" Nicole asked.

"Amanda's going back to the conservatory for the fall semester," Kyle said, the depression obvious in his voice.

"I hadn't heard that," Nicole said, "when is she going?"

"Today," Kyle sighed. "She told me last night."

Nicole moved Kyle's chair to the foot of his tub and sat where she could see his face, "That's rather sudden. You seem quite upset." She tilted her head slightly, "There's more to the story, isn't there?"

"She says she needs to get away from me, Nicole," Kyle said, despair creeping into his voice. "She's still afraid from the kidnapping and ... the other things. She hasn't been sleeping well. She said she wants to have some space to concentrate on music, that music gives her clarity."

"Well, I can understand her still being afraid," Nicole nodded. "I'm still afraid." She held up her hand as Kyle began to speak, "Don't worry, I can deal with it. Parents spend a lot of time being afraid of things. A child with a fever of a hundred and four in the middle of the night can be just as terrifying as Latnok can. But Amanda is still a young girl, this is hard on her." She opened her hands, "I told you that it would take her time."

"I thought she was getting over it and things were getting better," Kyle said plaintively.

"It's normal for someone to get over an immediate shock and appear to be better but have long term post traumatic stress to deal with," Nicole explained. "Actually, it's pretty much expected."

"She says she needs to have space to think about whether she can handle being with me," Kyle said, "Nicole, I think I'm losing her."

"Speaking as your mother, I want you to be happy and to have your heart's desire," Nicole told him. "Although I have to admit that they aren't always the same thing. Speaking as a psychologist, though, I have to say that Amanda seems to have found a good way to deal with the problem. Reduced stress and concentration on music may well be the very best thing for her. If I were treating her, and of course I couldn't do so ethically, I might have recommend something like that myself."

"What if she doesn't want to be with me when she comes back?" Kyle asked.

"When I brought you home, we quickly found you to be a brilliant boy with a kind heart and some incredible abilities. That's the boy Amanda fell in love with. As we've learned about you, the truth is far more complex and brings with it risks. We've come to terms with that and accept you and all that comes with you as part of this family. We can't imagine life without you. Amanda has just learned the full story. You are not the boy she fell in love with, but a powerful young man with a serious role to play in the world. That's a lot to adjust to."

"Do you think she will, Nicole?" Kyle asked.

"I'd like to tell you that everything will be all right," Nicole said. "But the truth is that I really don't know. At the core, you are still a brilliant boy with a kind heart. If Amanda can get away from the stress for a while she may be able to focus on that."

"Amanda's coming," Kyle looked toward the doorway.

Nicole followed his gaze and saw Amanda appear. She got up and left the room, nodding to Amanda who returned the nod and then came into the room, closing the door behind herself.

"I only have a few minutes. My mother is anxious to get to the airport. She doesn't want me to miss my flight," Amanda said.

Kyle got up, wiped his eyes and said, smiling, "The last time you missed your flight we spent the night together in my tub."

Amanda blushed, "I remember, that was very nice. But I do have to catch my plane this time."

"I know," Kyle said. "Listen, Amanda, I just want to say..."

Amanda held up her hand, "I know Kyle. This is really hard. I want you to hold me, and kiss me, and tell me that you'll see me at Christmas. The rest will have to wait until then, can you do that for me, please?"

Kyle agreed, "Of course I can." He held out his arms and she buried her face in his chest as he held her. They held each other for a while and then she looked up to him and they kissed. She let go and stepped back. Kyle took a deep breath and said, "I'll see you at Christmas."

"I'll see you at Christmas," Amanda answered, then turned and left the room, closing the door behind her.

I listened to her beating heart as she left the house and got in the car with her mother. I tried to follow it as long as I could; straining to hear over the engine noise, but finally it was fainter than even my ability to track and was gone. We would see each other at Christmas. I hoped that we would be together then, but I had felt a wall beginning between us and feared that she was building it to protect herself from all that I brought with me. There had been problems between us in the past but I had always thought that if Amanda knew the whole story they would be resolved. Now that Amanda did know the whole story there was nothing more I could do except hope. I held onto that hope as hard as I could.

Chapter Text

The afternoon sun shone through the upper windows lighting most of Foss's warehouse. He was sitting at his makeshift console, in front of his monitors reading when he heard a sound. He dropped the book and turned toward the sound, gun in hand. When he saw the intruder he said, "Jessi, what are you doing here? How did you find this place?"

"I followed Declan the other day," Jessi said.

"Damn it," Foss said. "I told that kid to be careful. His carelessness will get someone killed."

"He was careful," Jessi said. "I'm good at being able to follow someone without being seen." She added challengingly, "I could follow you."

"I suppose so," Foss agreed with a slight smile. "It's hard hiding things from either you or Kyle." He looked at the gun in his hand and set it back on the table, gesturing toward the other chair, "Sit down." As Jessi sat down he picked up his book, set it on the table and sat down as well. "Why did you follow Declan here?"

"Kyle says you spend all your time watching out for us," Jessi said, "protecting us."

"Most of my time anyway," Foss admitted, gesturing toward the monitors displaying angles of the Trager and Bloom houses. "Lately I'm mostly catching up on my reading -- not that I'm complaining."

"I wanted to know if you needed money," Jessi said. "I have a lot."

"I heard all about that. Congratulations, that's a cool 'Vette'," Foss said with a laugh. "Jessi, you don't need to pay me. Why do you think I need money?"

"If you're spending all of your time doing protecting us, you don't have time to have a job," Jessi explained. "How do you make money to live?"

"I don't spend much," Foss waived his arms around at the decrepit environment. "But Adam left me with a fund to cover expenses to watch over him -- and Kyle. It's pretty large. I don't need any money. Thank you, though, for thinking of me."

"Was Adam Baylin rich?" Jessi asked.

"Well, he wasn't as smart as you and Kyle, but he was very smart. He came up with a lot of ideas that made him money. He didn't have to worry about it." Foss said.

They sat for a moment in silence.

"There's something else I wanted to talk to you about," Jessi said hesitantly.

"What's that?" Foss asked.

"Kyle has told me that you've killed people," Jessi said. She tilted her head questioningly, "How do you live with that?"

Foss's smile faded and his expression turned hard. He looked away.

Jessi continued in a small voice, "I killed a man."

Foss looked back, comprehension dawning in his eyes. He spoke softly, "I know. I've read the records. You were just out of the pod, completely lost. It wasn't your fault, Jessi. I remember how Kyle was at the beginning, totally confused. I don't know how he would have responded if someone had attacked him."

"But Kyle didn't kill anyone, I did," Jessi said, "It still makes me feel bad. How do you make it stop bothering you?"

"You don't," Foss said simply. "If it stops bothering you, you stop being human. You live with what you've done as the price you have to pay. It keeps you from doing it unless you really have to."

"I wanted to kill Cassidy for killing Sarah," Jessi admitted. "I still do. But I didn't."

"There's a difference between wanting to kill someone and having to do so," Foss said. "That difference is important." He smiled at her reassuringly, and said, "I think you're doing just fine, Jessi."

"I would kill someone to protect Kyle," Jessi said, with a glint in her eye.

"So would I," Foss agreed, nodding slowly. "I have." Foss looked down at the ground for a moment and then looked back at Jessi. "Jessi, there's something I want to tell you about the night I blew up Zzyzx."

"The night I was 'born'," Jessi said.

"I saw you in your pod for the first time that night," Foss told her. "I hadn't known you were there, you hadn't been in an area I had access to. I don't think Adam knew about you either." He paused, took a breath, letting it out with a sigh, and continued, "I had already set the explosives when I found you. I was trying to figure out if there was a way to get you out when I saw Kyle on the monitor. I rushed to pull him out and the place exploded." He looked away and said, "I left you behind. I thought you had died too."

"You had to save Kyle," Jessi said.

"Yes, but I left you behind," Foss said. "I'm sorry."

"It was necessary," Jessi paused for a moment and elaborated, "I would be willing to give my life to protect Kyle."

"So would I," Foss said, their eyes met.

"Then it's what you had to do," Jessi said. "I understand."

They sat for a moment, then Foss said quietly, "Thank you, that helps some." He took a deep breath, and continued, "I really appreciate your coming. You probably shouldn't come here very often, but don't hesitate to call me anytime you need anything. I'll be there for you."

"Thank you, Foss," Jessi said.

"Call me Tom".

Chapter Text

The Rack was relatively quiet in the mid afternoon. Katie came in and Josh made her usual smoothie.

"Sorry I missed our G-Force game today," Katie said. "My mother and I went clothes shopping for the new school year."

"That's all right," Josh assured her. "We didn't play, mostly we just chatted on line and I moped about the fact that I wasn't going to be able to visit her in Cleveland before school started."

"How did she take it?" Katie asked.

"She wasn't surprised, she had said that she didn't think it was practical," Josh answered. "I wanted to try anyway."

"Andy said you were stubborn," Katie said with a smile.

"It's one of my most endearing qualities," Josh said, 'except when it annoys the heck out of you."

"So what does Andy think?" Katie asked.

"At the moment, I think it's annoying the heck out of her," Josh admitted. "She told me that I should take you out."

"Take me out?" Katie said with mock concern, "Is that like in a date, or a commando raid?"

"Oh, a date," Josh assured her.

"So what did you tell her?" Katie asked.

"I told her I would think about it," Josh looked at her speculatively, "What do you think about the idea?"

"Are you asking me on a date?" Katie asked, puzzled.

"I guess I am," Josh announced, "there's a new zombie movie coming out this week, want to go this Friday night?"

"Sure, that would be fun," Katie agreed.

"It's at eight, how about I pick you up at seven?" Josh asked, "Assuming you give me your address."

Katie took a napkin and wrote her address on it and handed it to him. "Don't use it to clean up a spill," she advised.

"You're as bad as Andy," Josh said, "and, yes, it's probably the kind of thing I would do."

He looked up to see Kyle coming in. Kyle walked over to the counter. Josh said, "Just a moment," to Katie and went over to Kyle. "How are you feeling?" Josh asked.

"You heard about Amanda leaving?" Kyle asked.

"She had to officially quit so that she could leave on good terms," Josh told him. "We're short handed now. I don't suppose you want a job."

"No, my job is over at UDub," Kyle said. "Maybe Lori would want to work here."

"I don't want Lori bossing me around," Josh shook his head.

"Wouldn't you have seniority?" Kyle asked, "You could boss her around."

"You really are from another dimension, aren't you," Josh said. "No one bosses Lori around."

"That's true," Kyle said with a smile.

"So how are you holding up?" Josh asked. "We aren't going to have to take you out drinking again, are we?"

"I'm never doing that again," Kyle said, with sincerity. He shrugged, "It's still a surprise that I'm getting used to. I am going to miss her."

"Well, at least you know she is coming back at Christmas," Josh said. "Andy isn't coming back at all."

"I'm sorry, Josh," Kyle said. "That must be hard."

"Yeah, so what do you want, your regular smoothie?" Josh asked. "I can make them too."

"I know you can," Kyle smiled, "Sure, I'll have a smoothie."

Josh went over to make the smoothie. While he was doing so, Katie came over to Kyle and said, "Hi, I'm Katie."

"Hello, Katie," Kyle said, he thought a moment. "You were at the Latnok party with Josh."

"Yes, I was," she said, surprised.

"I remember things," Kyle grinned.

Josh returned, "Here's your smoothie."

Kyle paid him and then went to his usual table. He was sitting there drinking it, when he saw Declan come in the door. He waved to Declan who waved back. Declan got a coffee and came over to join him.

"So where was Amanda going?" Declan asked.

"How did you know that Amanda was going somewhere?" Kyle asked.

"Foss and I are still watching your houses," Declan said. "He saw her load a bunch of luggage in the car and drive away with her mother."

"She's going to the conservatory in New York for the fall semester," Kyle said glumly.

"That's tough," Declan said. "I'm surprised her mother could pry her away from you."

"It was Amanda's idea," Kyle said. "She is still bothered by the kidnapping and my story, Zzyzx, Madacorp, Latnok ... the whole thing. She wanted to get away for a while and think. She's still scared."

"We are working to keep her safe," Declan assured him.

"Me too," Kyle said. "She's still troubled by Jessi. She thinks Jessi and I may be destined to be together, even though I tell her I love her."

"Well, Jessi certainly thinks so," Declan nodded.

"I'm sorry, Declan," Kyle said.

"I only went out with her a couple of times," Declan shrugged. "Her head was in a really strange place then. As soon as she got focused on you, I was invisible. Don't let it bother you. You really ought to give that girl a look, Kyle. She's pretty amazing, and really stuck on you."

"I have," Kyle admitted. "I do have feelings for her, but I still want to be with Amanda."

"Foss would certainly like it," Declan laughed.

"Why would Foss like it?" Kyle asked, slightly puzzled.

"Because Jessi would be a lot easier to protect than Amanda, and Foss is all about keeping his job simple," Declan said.

"That's true, but if I listened to Foss, I wouldn't have a life at all," Kyle objected. He looked at Declan, "So you are still working with him? He told me he was teaching you to shoot."

"Yes, he bought me a gun and is teaching me how to use it." Declan said. "It's kind of fun, if you forget his reminders that it might be used for something other than target practice."

"I don't like the idea of shooting people," Kyle frowned.

"Neither do I, but I don't like the idea of getting shot either," Declan said.

"Are you 'packing'?" Kyle asked with a smile and a hint of concern.

"No," Declan said. "I can't get a concealed carry permit until I'm twenty one. Foss doesn't want me to carry my gun unless we have a clear threat. He says there's no point in risking getting arrested without a good reason. I don't get it out unless we are practicing."

"I don't like the idea of putting you in danger, Declan," Kyle said.

"Kyle, you know I always have your back. I just don't want to be closed out, keep me in on what's going on and I'll be happy."

"I will, I promise," Kyle said.

Chapter Text

Kyle was sitting in his room, working at his computer when Jessi knocked on the door frame of his open door. He looked surprised and turned to see her, "Jessi, come in. I didn't hear you coming."

Jessi smiled, "You weren't paying attention. Usually I can't get to the door without you hearing me."

"I was looking at possible lattice geometries for your storage project," Kyle pointed at the screen.

"It's our project now," Jessi reminded him, 'are you making any progress?"

"This approach has been looking promising," he called up several displays. "I'm trying to use the barrier atoms to create quantum level boxes."

Jessi nodded, "I've been doing something similar with a channel strategy. Let me show you." She pulled up another chair and paged through a number of screens.

Kyle suggested, "Possibly some combination of the two approaches would work. If we built channels feeding into box structures it might facilitate the load and unload process."

"I still don't know how we are going to actually construct the lattice," Jessi said.

"It has to be self assembly, possibly electromagnetically driven, but until we know the goal there is no reason to work on that," Kyle said.

"As long as we don't design something that can't be built," Jessi smiled.

They took turns modifying their models until they reached an impasse. Kyle frowned and sat back, "We're just not there yet, but I think we are making progress."

"Yes," Jessi agreed, "but that's not why I came in here. I got my email on the Latnok meeting and thought we should take a look at it together. Have you gotten yours yet?"

"I haven't looked," He checked his email, "Yes, here it is." He opened up the display and they scrolled through several hundred pages of material as fast as the computer was able to do so." When they got to the end, Kyle said, "After all this time it's good to have access to so much real data. Latnok certainly has its fingers in a lot of places."

"Can we trust this data?" Jessi asked.

"Probably not completely," Kyle cautioned. "But it's a starting point. We are going to have to track all of the subsidiaries and check the numbers against other publicly available data. There are lots of places that someone could hide a lot of suspect activity. This is still highly abstracted. The devil will be in the details."

"There is also a lot of waste," Jessi observed. "Some of the drug development programs seem excessively expensive. There are certainly simpler ways of getting to clinical trials -- at least from the summaries."

"That's going to be one of our tasks," Kyle said. "In any organization this large we are going to be able to see lots of opportunities for improvement. We can help improve the processes at a lot of places. This will take time."

"Our highest priority is finding out what Grace and the others want to hide from us," Jessi said.

"That's true," Kyle agreed. "I got caught up in all the numbers and the interesting problems. We got involved to try to find out who Latnok was and what they were planning. That still remains our most important goal."

"There are a lot of things here that Adam and Sarah would approve of," Jessi said, "Latnok isn't all bad."

"But someone killed Adam," Kyle said. "Maybe he was aware of parts of Latnok that someone wanted to keep secret."

"Keep secret from whom?" Jessi asked.

"Maybe the rest of Latnok," Kyle suggested. "I think that some of the board members genuinely want to do well. I think we are dealing with a group within Latnok that has a separate agenda." He sighed, "Of course Latnok could be what Adam said they were, 'a group of visionaries and humanitarians'."

"Not all of them," Jessi reminded him. "Sarah didn't trust them. We don't trust Grace."

"And some of the others as well," Kyle nodded. "If there is a separate group within the board then their activities will be hidden from the full board. We are going to have to examine these numbers further."

"We can do it," Jessi assured him. "We're a great team." She smiled at him with eyes bright.

Kyle smiled at her, "We certainly are. I don't think they realize just how much we can do with the information that they've given us."

"We have a week before the meeting," Jessi said. "That's plenty of time."

"Even with going back to high school," Kyle agreed.

Being on the Latnok board had given us a real opportunity to see what Latnok was doing, to 'follow the money'. I don't think even Grace realized what we could do with it. As Jessi said, we were a great team. Jessi still wanted us to be more than a team and Declan was right, she was amazing. Part of me wanted to take her in my arms and kiss her, and was sure that she wanted me to do so. The other part of me said that if I did, I was never going to be able to be with Amanda again. It was the stronger part and I just smiled at her. Amanda had feared that Jessi was my soul mate. The fortune teller had told me that I had missed the signs. Was she right, was I ignoring my soul mate? One thing was certain; Jessi was the only person in the world who was like me. What that would mean for us only time would tell.

Chapter Text

The ebb and flow of customers had reached its afternoon ebb. Lori and Mark were huddled together over a table in the Rack spread with papers.

"It's coming together well," Mark said. "You should be ready this weekend."

"I'm still not sure about the wording on the second verse," Lori frowned, picking up a page.

"It's fine," Mark assured her. "You've changed it back and forth. It's time to leave it alone. I think we have your three songs." He tapped three of the spread out pages in sequence. "Practice them a few times and you're good to go."

"You're sure?" Lori said, "They are all starting to seem like drivel."

"That's common in the creative process when you overwork the piece," Mark said. "It's time to put it aside and just get ready for performance."

"If you say so," Lori gathered up the pages, putting the selected songs on top of the pile in the proper order. She looked at Mark with a smile, "Do you want to go over to Jessi's apartment for a while?"

Mark hung his head, "I really can't. I have some programs to grade. I have to get them done today. I really didn't have time to come here."

"Can't you make up some excuse?" Lori asked.

"Or, I could just tell my boss that I spent the afternoon in a romp with his daughter," Mark said. "I think I'd better get my work done."

Lori shrugged, "Your loss." She looked at him a moment and said, "So am I your secret vice?"

"What do you mean?" Mark asked, "Your father knows I'm dating you, perhaps not about Jessi's apartment, but..."

"I'm a high school senior dating a college boy," Lori said. "It's almost the holy grail of high school girls. But you never take me to anything on campus, except the Latnok party -- and my whole family was there. Why don't you take me to a dance or something, are you embarrassed to be seen with me?"

"I don't really do dances," Mark said with a hint of embarrassment.

"What do you mean you don't do dances," Lori asked. "You are a semi-legendary D.J.; you do dances all the time."

"As a D.J., not as one of the people at the dance," Mark admitted.

"So you hide behind the microphone and audio equipment?" Lori teased him.

"That's pretty much the case," Mark admitted. "I'm much more comfortable there than out on the floor. I don't dance very well," he said sheepishly.

"Well, it's time we do something about that," Lori assured him. "You need to take me to a dance where you can be on the audience side of the sound system. I'll dance with you. It will be fun."

"Well, there will be a number of dances after the semester starts," Mark said. "It could be fun -- if you're dancing with me."

"We will party." Lori announced.

"Not excessively," Mark said hesitatingly.

"Where's your sense of adventure?" Lori asked.

"Hiding behind my sense of self preservation," Mark said.

"Go grade your programs," Lori said.

Mark got up and bent over to kiss her, then hurried out. Lori sat sipping the rest of her smoothie. Declan came in and nodded in her direction as he went to the counter.

After he had gotten his coffee he wandered over to Lori's table and asked, "May I join you."

Lori waved at the seat, "Be my guest."

Declan looked at the pile of papers, "More music? How's that coming?"

"I'm going to do a set over at UDub this Saturday -- at 'Pockets'. I was just working with Mark on some of this."

"I'd like to hear you," Declan said, "I'll see if Jackie wants to go listen too. Saturday? About what time?"

"Sometime between 8:00 and 10:00," Lori said. "It's not tightly scheduled."

"I'll try to be there, if Foss doesn't come up with something," Declan said.

"Kyle says that both you and Foss have been watching the house," Lori said. "I'm being careful with my window, so no peep shows."

"Foss would probably be the audience anyway," Declan grinned. "He generally does the evening and night. I just get called in if he needs to do errands in the afternoon."

"No night life for Foss?" Lori asked.

"No, as far as I can tell, the man is a monk," Declan said. "He pretty much lives to protect Kyle. He used to do that for Adam Baylin."

"How do you get along with him?" Lori asked. "He seems like he would be a demanding task master."

"Well, it's not so much demanding as expecting," Declan explained. "He's worked with elite military people before and has a certain expectation that you are going to come up to his standard. I don't want to disappoint him so I try harder."

"You do seem more relaxed and confident," Lori observed. "It seems to be doing you good."

"Maybe. I'm still finding my way," Declan checked the time, "I have to get going. He's expecting me. It's been good talking to you, I miss that."

"I do too," Lori agreed as he got up to go.

"Later, Trager," he said with a wave and went out the door.

Lori smiled and raised her glass to him in a salute as he left.

Chapter Text

When Declan arrived at Foss's warehouse he found Foss moving barrels around.

Foss looked up, "Good, you're here, help me move these."

Declan put the small case he was carrying on the table and walked over, "What are we doing?"

"Setting up a modified version of an 'El Presidente' drill," Foss said.

"What's an 'El Presidente' drill?" Declan asked.

"It's a common combat pistol drill routine," Foss explained. "Move those barrels to the spots I've marked on the floor." He indicated 'x' chalk marks on the floor. While Declan was carrying the barrels to the indicated spots, he went and got some clips off of the workbench.

"Did you bring your Glock?" Foss asked.

In response, Declan went over and opened the case, taking out the gun. He held it out to Foss who did not reach out for it.

"Check the chamber," Foss instructed. Declan nodded, and then worked the slide and verified that the chamber was empty. He handed the gun to Foss who took it and repeated the process.

"Now, what we are going to do is a 'dry fire' drill," Foss began. "You are going to be going through the process without using real bullets. It's not really the same as shooting but you can get some of the movements down and we won't have to go out to the woods. It will save us a lot of time."

"So I'm just going to be saying 'bang bang'?" Declan asked skeptically.

Foss smiled, "It does seem silly, but it is a serious practice." He pulled one of the clips out of his pocket and pulled the top cartridge out -- it was bright yellow. "This is a dummy round," he held it up. "It has the same size and weight as an actual round but no powder charge. It's colored differently to stand out. Having a clip of these in your gun will give you the proper weight and feel without shooting holes in the wall and attracting the police."

Foss put the cartridge back in the clip and then handed it to Declan. "Load it, but don't chamber the first round. Then put the gun in your right jacket pocket." After Declan had followed his instructions, Foss handed him a handful of the clips and said, "Here are some more clips, verify that they are loaded with yellow dummies and then put them in your left jacket pocket."

"Ok," Declan checked the clips, one at a time, and put them into his pocket.

"Now competition 'El Presidente' drills involve three equally spaced targets. We are doing a variation. I've got five randomly spread targets. I am going to want you to start facing away from them. When I say 'go', turn, chamber the first round, aim at the first target and 'fire' twice. Move to the next target and so on through each of the five barrels. Then eject the clip, pull another clip out of your pocket load it, chamber another round and repeat the process. Your goal is to do this quickly and smoothly." Foss paused and then shrugged, "Obviously without shooting we won't be able to work on accuracy. We'll do that the next time we go to the woods. Are you ready?"

"I think so," Declan said, turning away from the targets.

"Go," Foss commanded. Declan went through the drill, somewhat awkwardly. When he was done, he looked at Foss, questioningly. "That was pretty good," Foss nodded. "It will get smoother with practice, of course."

"I hope so," Declan frowned. "It seemed to take forever to get the first 'shot' off."

"Here is a common technique for chambering the first round and setting up for the first shot: As the weapon leaves your pocket bring it up at a forty five degree angle, meeting it with your left hand. Rack the slide and then straighten the gun braced between your hands. If you do it smoothly, you can chamber the round as the gun is coming into line with the target. It shouldn't take much longer than simply aiming." Foss demonstrated. "Now you try."

Declan repeated the process and nodded, "That feels smoother."

"Ok, get set up and we'll do it again," Foss said.

They repeated the drill a number of times until Declan's moves were starting to get smooth. "All right," Foss said. "However, the bad guys don't always stand in the same place. We are going to vary the exercise. Turn your back to the targets and get ready." He wrote numbers on each of the barrels. "I've numbered the barrels randomly from one to five. When I say go, turn and fire at them in sequence. This will force you to think and not simply get into a repetitive pattern. Got it?"

"Yeah," Declan said.

"Go," Foss said and Declan went through the exercise. They repeated it several times with Foss renumbering the barrels between. Finally Foss brought the exercise to a close, "That should be enough today, I think that's all we can productively get done. Now it's time to go lift some weights."

"Weights," Declan objected. "Are you serious?"

"I told you that we were going to do physical training as part of the process from now on. I didn't want to get your muscles jumpy before we did the gun drills. You spot me, I'll go first."

After they went through their exercise routine for about a half an hour, Foss called a halt. "That's enough for today, get us a couple of beers and we can rest."

He sat down and picked up his weapon which had been sitting on the table. He checked the clip to assure it was loaded and put it back into the gun, then put the gun into his pocket. "I didn't want to be carrying a matching gun with live ammo while you were using dummies," he explained.

"That makes sense," Declan said, handing him a beer and sitting down.

Foss said, "I'll send you home with a couple of clips of dummies. You can practice in your bedroom. You want the act of chambering a round and changing a clip to be as automatic to you as dribbling a basketball. It needs to be something that just happens while you are focusing on the opposition."

"I can see that," Declan said.

"We'll practice dry firing a few more times then we can head out to the woods and do it with real ammo," Foss said.

"That's kind of fun," Declan said. "I'm looking forward to it."

Chapter Text

Josh and Katie came out of the movie theater chatting about the film.

Josh observed, "Not your usual scenery for zombies."

Katie agreed, "It was actually quite beautiful in places. I'm more used to zombies in rural cemeteries 'The Creature from the Crypt' and all that."

"Or abandoned urban slums," Josh agreed. "There were plenty of zombies, though."

"And the effects were nice, not the best, but certainly respectable," Katie said. "I did like some of the desert scenery."

"Definitely worth seeing," Josh glanced at her, "So, would you like to go somewhere to get a bite of something?"

"Where do you have in mind?" Katie asked.

"Anywhere except the Rack," Josh said, "These days it seems like I'm living there."

"We can get ice cream over there," Katie pointed at a nearby shop.

"Ice cream it is," Josh gestured toward it. Katie caught his hand as he brought it down. He looked at her and she encouraged him with a cheerful smile.

As they entered, the person behind the counter asked, "What would you like?"

Josh looked at Katie and asked, "Strawberry? You always order strawberry smoothies."

Katie smiled, "Of course."

Josh said, "Rocky Road for me and Strawberry for the lady."

When they got their ice cream they went outside and sat at one of the tables.

Katie said, "I used to play G-Force by myself. It's fun to play with a team, you're really good." Josh seemed slightly confused and she asked him, "Did I say something wrong?"

Josh explained, "Andy usually tells me I'm terrible and that she can kick my butt." He mused, "She usually can."

"You like someone to tell you that you are no good?" Katie asked, puzzled.

"No, that's just Andy and my 'thing', the special way we interact," Josh said.

"I don't think we have a thing," Katie said, thoughtfully, "other than I'm not Andy. I guess that's our 'thing', the way we interact."

Josh looked at her embarrassed. "I guess you're right, I'm sorry," he said.

"That's all right," Katie said. "It's no secret that you and Andy love each other and that you would rather be with her. But I do like you and I like hanging out with you. Maybe our 'thing' can be having a nice time together from time to time. I'm having a nice time."

"I am too," Josh said, "but ..."

"But you feel guilty about it because I'm not Andy," Katie observed. "That's silly, Andy told you to take me out. She expects you to have a good time. You are not cheating on her."

"But it feels like it," Josh admitted, "especially when I think of kissing you, like we were about to do at the Latnok party."

"Are you thinking of kissing me?" Katie asked raising her eyebrows.

"Well, the thought has crossed my mind, I can't help it," Josh admitted.

"So try it and see what happens," Katie leaned forward. "Just a small one in case it makes your hair catch fire or something."

Josh laughed and leaned forward, giving her a gentle kiss. After they separated, she gently stroked his temple with her fingertips.

"I don't think it's even singed." She said with a smile.

Josh ran his hand though his hair, "I guess not."

"So it's safe," Katie announced, "at least in moderation."

"I still feel guilty about it," Josh admitted.

"I know," Katie said.

They finished their ice cream and as they got up to go back to his car, he held his arm out for her and she took it, smiling. She rested her head on his shoulder as they walked back to his car.

Chapter Text

Open mike night at 'Pockets' was more crowded than the previous time that Lori had performed. She was sitting at a table in the back with Mark. Kyle, Jessi and Josh were all sitting with them as well. Stephen and Nicole had their own table once again, a discrete distance away.

"There's a bigger crowd," Lori said, nervously.

"The fall semester is about to start, the campus is starting to fill up," Mark said. "Next time we'll need to have Gary reserve a table for us."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Lori cautioned. "I have to survive this one first."

"You'll do fine," Kyle gave her his reassuring smile.

"Declan's here," Jessi pointed. "He's sitting over there with Jackie."

Lori looked over and saw him looking in her direction. She waved and he gave a small wave in return. Mark watched the exchange with a slight frown.

"Does it bother you that Declan is here to see Lori?" Jessi asked him.

"No," Mark blushed slightly, "I was just thinking about something."

"That doesn't seem right," Jessi frowned, "It looked like ..."

Lori held her hand up and said, "Jessi, when two people are with each other they like to imagine that they are always going to be together. Seeing an ex reminds you that it might not be so -- and you sense that they may still have a special relationship."

"Do you have a special relationship with Declan?" Jessi asked.

"He's a big part of my past. He was important to me. He's still a friend," Lori said, "But it is my past and I'm with Mark now." She patted his hand reassuringly, and then kissed him for further reassurance. Mark still looked slightly uncomfortable.

"Do you think Amanda still has a special relationship with Charlie or Nate," Jessi asked Kyle.

"I suppose so," Kyle conceded. His expression indicating he didn't like to think about it either.

"When you've been close to someone, it never completely goes away," Mark said. "They stay a part of you."

"Oh ho, is there a story here?" Lori asked.

"Not one we are going to be talking about tonight," Mark assured her, "I think there are enough bruises to go around already."

They were interrupted by Gary Baker coming over to their table, "Lori," he said, "you are going to be up after the next act."

"Ok," Lori said. Gary nodded and then went toward the stage to make the next announcement.

"Break a leg," Kyle said. Lori smiled, gathered up her guitar and moved toward the stage.

Jessi's question had troubled me. Amanda rarely spoke about Charlie, except using him as an example of someone I wouldn't want to have her talking to all the time. They had been together for two years. Was Mark right? Did she still have a connection with him, even though he had betrayed her? Did she still have a special connection with Nate? They had only been together for a couple of dates but was that enough to form a lasting link? She had felt comfortable enough to go to his room where she found the papers on Adam's experiment. Even though we had never been together, my special relationship with Jessi made Amanda uncomfortable.

Over at their table, Nicole said to Stephen, "It looks like Lori is getting ready. I feel like a stage mom. Are we being silly to come to watch her play?"

"Of course not," Stephen assured her. "We are supporting our kids -- and keeping an eye on them at the same time. I'm betting Josh tries to snag a beer before the night is over."

A vivacious brunette carrying a beer came up to the table, and said, "Hello Professor Trager, it's good to see you here after hours. Are you enjoying the music?"

"I'm here to watch my daughter play, Sharon," Stephen said. He indicated Nicole, "I don't think you've met my wife, Nicole. Nicole, this is Sharon, she's one of my students."

"It's nice to meet you, Sharon," Nicole said. "You're in one of Stephen's classes?"

"Advanced Structures and Algorithms," Sharon said. "He's an inspiring teacher." She took a drink of her beer. "It's nice to meet you, Nicole." She looked back at Stephen and said with a big smile, "Well have a nice evening." She strolled off into the crowd.

"So how inspiring of a teacher are you?" Nicole asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Nicole, she's our daughter's age." Stephen objected.

"A bit older than that, I would say," Nicole observed. "I guess you are here to keep an eye on our kids, I'm here to keep an eye on you."

The singer finished her set to applause and left the stage. Gary Baker came to the microphone and said, "And now, some of you may remember from last month, we have Lori Trager."

Lori came onto the stage with some applause and the room quieted a bit. She strummed a D minor and began a song inspired, as many of her songs were, by Declan, although she didn't use his name, of course. The recent comments and the fact that he was in the audience lent an extra edge to the words and at the end, the applause was strong.

She followed this with one in A major, the ringing sound of the open strings added a bit of cheeriness to ease the mood from the prior song. This one was more about hope and dreams of the future. Although she hadn't told him, it was inspired by the excitement of her new relationship with Mark. It was restrained more than enthusiastic.

At their table, Kyle commented to Mark, "You have a different strategy this time."

"Yes," Mark nodded. "This time she has more confidence and there are some who remember her. She can focus more on the type of song she does best."

The third song shifted to E minor which had the eeriness of a minor key but the stronger sound of the open strings. This one was sad with a bit of anger, it built to a statement of strength and determination and, when it was done, the applause was strong and sustained.

Lori returned to her seat flushed. "That felt like it went well," she said.

"It went very well," Mark agreed.

"I liked your performance," Jessi said, drawing a look of astonishment from Lori.

"You were very good," Kyle agreed.

With the next act in progress, Gary Baker returned to their table. "Lori, that was very good. It's time we got you away from the open mic format. Do you think you could have a forty five minute set ready in about a month?"

Lori looked hesitantly at Mark who said, "I don't see why not. She can repeat some of these and add a few more. She has a number of things that just need a little polishing." He looked at Lori, "Are you up for it?"

"If you think I am," Lori said.

"I think she'll be," he said to Gary.

"Ok," Gary said, "I'll pencil you in for a time next month. We'll split the evening between you and someone else whose work I think will fit in well with yours. Great job, Lori," he said and then headed back in the direction of the stage.

"Tonight, at Pockets, featuring Lori Trager," Mark said in his D.J. voice.

"Don't do that," Lori said, "I feel faint."

"You'll be fine," Mark said, "it's really more of the same, just a little longer."

At their table, Jackie said to Declan, "Lori was quite good. Did she sing and play like that when you two were dating?"

"No, she picked it up after we broke up," Declan said. "I think some of those knives were intended for me."

"You're strong, you can take it," Jackie said. She leaned against his arm and squeezed it, "Getting stronger, too," she commented. "I'm glad we could get together tonight, I've been so busy with my project that I haven't really been able to get out."

"I know," Declan said. "How's it going? Are you making progress?"

"It's really working," Jackie said enthusiastically. "With the changes that Jessi helped me make we have good growth and a strong nutritional profile in the test plot."

"So what do you do next?" Declan asked. "In simple words for us dumb jocks."

"I document it, and start writing grant applications," Jackie said. "Hopefully someone will fund scaling it up from the test plot to a pilot program of a few acres and we can see if it can be practically grown in a larger scale. This could make a real difference."

"I hope you can still find time for me," Declan said. "I've missed you."

"I'm sure there's time for a few vices," Jackie said.

"Am I a vice?" Declan asked.

"A very pleasant one," Jackie said, kissing him.

Chapter Text

When Kyle came into her room Jessi was busy working on her computer, she looked up smiling, "I think it might work."

"What's that?" Kyle looked at the screen.

Jessi explained, "I've combined the two approaches we were using, the lattice structure has channels to load and unload the chambers that are built into the array. I believe the field strengths are sufficient to support a high quantum energy level until we release it. It looks promising."

Kyle looked at the screens she had built and paged through them, "It seems good to me, too. We are probably going to have to model this to be sure. That will take some significant computing power."

"I was thinking of buying some computers and setting up a computing grid." She looked around the room, "I don't have enough space here."

"Do you still have your apartment?" Kyle asked.

"Yes," Jessi said. "I haven't wanted to let it go, it's the place I spent with Sarah. I can afford to keep it."

"Perhaps you could set up some computers there," Kyle suggested, "you could still port in from here and run them."

"I don't think the apartment power would support the number of computers we would need," Jessi said. "Do you think we could get room at the Latnok office?"

"It might be better to have some separate resources of our own," Kyle suggested.

Jessi nodded, "We might have to rent some industrial space with higher power capacity. I'll look into it. Maybe Stephen can help me."

"That could work," Kyle agreed. "Anyway, I've been looking at the Latnok data to get ready for the board meeting. There is a lot more we can do later, but I've done about as much as I can with what we've got. Getting more data will take time once we're sure where we want to focus."

"You're better with that than I am. Probably because they fed all those global simulations into you when you were in the pod," Jessi smiled. "They didn't do as much of that with me since I was the spare."

"You can do it all as well as I can," Kyle protested.

"I think you like it better, though," Jessi said.

"Maybe," Kyle admitted. "I think we should tell Nicole and Stephen what we know. We're really good at processing the data but sometimes we miss human interaction issues. I could use Nicole's advice. And, they worry. If they know more it might help them worry less."

"I'll shut my computer down. Let's see if they have time to talk," Jessi said.

Kyle and Jessi went into the kitchen where, as expected Stephen was working on his laptop and Nicole was putting away the breakfast dishes. Since they had given up their shop and study respectively, they tended to spend time in the kitchen as a natural 'hang-out'.

Kyle said, "Do the two of you have some time to talk? Jessi and I would like to talk to you about the Latnok board meeting."

Nicole said, "Is something wrong?"

Kyle assured her, "No, we just thought we should tell you what we know so far and see if you had any suggestions."

Stephen said, "I could use a break. The romance of being a teacher starts to fade as you grade your thousandth beginner's program."

"I thought you had Mark for that," Jessi said.

"With the semester starting up, he has to cut his hours back," Stephen said. "I don't have funds to hire another TA."

"I could help you," Jessi offered. "You wouldn't have to pay me, I don't need money."

"Be careful what you volunteer for, I may take you up on it," Stephen smiled.

While Stephen and Nicole acted normally, their heart rate and respiration had jumped when we mentioned Latnok. They still felt threatened and uneasy when the subject came up.

Kyle got some orange juice for himself and Jessi and sat down next to her. Nicole sat down with her tea and a concerned expression.

Kyle began, "So we received a large packet of financial information as part of the materials for this meeting. It has given us quite a bit of data about how Latnok works as an organization. Probably a lot more than they realize."

Jessi said, "Grace said that they only read the summaries."

Stephen said, "We're still having a hard time realizing just how much the two of you can process and we've been living with Kyle every day for a year. I can see them underestimating you." He smiled, "That might be a good thing."

"You think we shouldn't let them know our full potential?" Jessi asked. "Brian was always pushing me to prove myself to them. He wanted them to be impressed with what I could do."

Nicole said, "I think Brian had his own agenda, Jessi. I think they would be very impressed with half of what you can do. Stephen's right, it might be good to keep some in reserve."

Kyle continued with his explanation, "For the most part, Latnok acts as a holding company. They have some legal and financial staff and have some wholly owned research facilities, but mostly they have investments in a wide variety of technologically based companies. They own enough of Madacorp to have control as well as a number of other operations. There are of course subsidiaries with subsidiaries and so on. It's a very complex web. I am still untangling the network."

"I saw some of that when you went out to find Jessi," Stephen said. "I was able to track links from Madacorp to the company that bought my old software firm and put me out of a job."

"I think that was deliberate," Kyle said.

"I thought so, too," Stephen agreed. "I have to say it concerned me for them to have that much reach.

"To some degree, Latnok has a reach everywhere, although it gets weaker as you move farther away. For the most part, all of this is what Adam led me to believe. There is a strong investment in research and development and producing things to make the world better," Kyle said. "Of course a lot of it is devoted to making the various divisions profitable, and there are certainly some things in the controlled subsidiaries that could be done much more efficiently."

"I suspect that if you two looked at any large company, you could really improve its operation," Stephen said.

"That's probably true," Kyle said.

"You haven't found anything sinister?" Nicole asked.

"There is quite a lot of military production," Jessi said. "And some of the biological subsidiaries look like they might be doing bio warfare research. We can't be sure without more data. There is nothing overt, we will have to track down all the papers published by the principals to get an idea of the types of things they are doing."

"There also is a thin trail that leads to mercenary activities in the Middle East and Africa," Kyle said. "Although some of that is normal to provide security to companies doing legitimate work in those areas. There's more than I think is necessary for simple security."

"That's pretty serious," Nicole frowned. "Are you sure?"

Kyle said, "We're concerned. We are going to raise some of these issues at the meeting and see what kind of reactions we get and from whom. It's our working hypothesis that some of the board members are still engaged in the fulfilling Adam and Sarah's dream, although perhaps tempted by the amount of money involved."

"And others are less interested in the betterment of mankind and more interested in wealth and power," Jessi concluded. "Sarah spent her life running from them and when she came back, she died."

"We won't forget that, Jessi," Kyle assured her. "We just have to sort the good from the bad."

"Sometimes I'm tempted to 'kill them all and let God sort them out'," Jessi said.

"Let's try a less destructive approach," Kyle said.

"We'll do it your way," Jessi agreed. "But if things go badly we may have to do it mine."

Kyle took her hand, "It will work."

Nicole looked on with an expression of consternation.

I could feel that Stephen and Nicole were reassured by the information but still concerned. There were dangers to be faced. If there were powerful people with their own agenda within the board and outside of it, they would not give up that power willingly or easily. I was fearful at Jessi's eagerness for confrontation. I wanted to find compromises. But Adam had retreated until he was alone at his estate in the woods and still someone had shot him. In the end, both he and Sarah had died. Safety for Jessi and me, and our loved ones, lay in facing the danger and working our way through the maze that Latnok represented. Having Jessi with me gave me much more confidence. She had been the one who had declared that we had the right to Latnok. It was reassuring to be part of a powerful team. There was a lot at stake.

Chapter Text

It was late in the afternoon and Josh was at his computer battling electronic foes on G-Force. His three person team was moving through the terrain in search of the final surviving member of the opposing team. "There he is," Andy's voice said. "I'll go left."

"I'll go right," Katie's voice said.

"And that leaves me in the middle," Josh concluded.

"In your dreams, Trager," Andy commented. "Let's go get him."

They closed in on their opponent and lay down withering fire. The victory screen came up. "GG, their opponents typed and then logged off."

"Well, that was in the nick of time," Katie said. "My mother has been calling me to dinner for the last few minutes. I really have to go. Talk to you later, Andy. I'll see you tomorrow at the Rack, Josh."

Katie logged off. Josh said, "I don't have time for another game either, our dinner is almost ready. Do you want to go to video chat for a few minutes?"

"Sure," Andy replied. Josh logged off of G-force and activated his video cam. In a moment Andy's image appeared on the screen.

"Katie seemed very cheerful today," Andy observed. "Did you take my advice?"

"Your advice?" Josh asked.

"Did you take her out on a date?" Andy asked.

"Um, sort of, we went to the new vampire movie," Josh said sheepishly.

"Sounds like a date to me. So, did you have a good time," Andy asked. "Enquiring minds want to know."

"It was nice, I suppose, but you weren't there," Josh said.

"I would have noticed that," Andy said. She looked at him, "You're feeling guilty. Don't feel guilty, I told you to do it. I almost had to beg you."

"I am feeling guilty," Josh admitted. "It's one thing to talk about it, but it's another thing to actually do it. I still don't feel good about the whole thing."

"It was just a movie, Josh," Andy said, and after a pause continued, "Wasn't it? You didn't go base running, did you?"

"No," Josh said firmly then continued in a quieter tone. "I kissed her."

Andy's smile faded momentarily then she resumed her cheerful demeanor, "Of course you did, it's what I taught you to do if the signals were right. You remember my dating lessons. You're a better student than I thought you were."

"I remember our actual dates better," Josh said.

"Cleveland," Andy sighed.

"Don't remind me," Josh said. "It was ok thinking of going out with her as a placeholder for you. But the thing is Katie is a real girl. She could tell that I wished I was out with you instead of her. I felt bad about that. It didn't feel fair to her."

"It was just a first date," Andy said. "You'll feel better about it next time, give her another try. Maybe you'll get to run some bases."

"I'd rather run bases with you," Josh said.

"We've been over that," Andy said. "We can play G-force, we can talk, but there's no base running. We're both stuck at home."

"I guess that will have to do," Josh said. "I'm not giving up on us."

"I'm not asking you to, Josh," Andy said. "But give Katie another try, OK?"

"I suppose so," Josh said.

"That's my boy, slow learner but you're making progress," Andy said. "I have to sign off now. Talk to you tomorrow, love you." Andy logged off, leaving her image frozen on the screen.

Josh reached out and stroked the image of her face and looked into her glittering eyes. "I love you too." he said.

Chapter Text

When Kyle and Jessi arrived at the location for the Latnok Board meeting, they found Gabrielle, the familiar tall thin blonde woman, waiting for them.

"Mr. Trager, Ms. Taylor, I'm glad you're both here. You're almost the last to arrive. Let me take you to the reception," Gabrielle said.

"Reception?" Kyle asked.

"There's always a reception for the Board members to chat informally before the official meeting. It's this way," Gabrielle said. She led them down the corridor and into a richly furnished room. They recognized the various board members spread around the room, some standing in groups, some seated around coffee tables with documents in front of them.

Ben Crossgate saw them and came over saying, "Welcome, Kyle, Jessi." He shook hands with each of them then turned to Gabrielle. "Who else are we waiting for?"

"Mr. Milworth and Mr. Keels," Gabrielle said.

"All right, let me know when they arrive," Ben said.

"I will, Mr. Crossgate," Gabrielle turned and went back the way she came.

"It's good to have you finally here on a more casual basis," Ben said.

"This is a very nice room," Kyle observed, looking around.

"You mean instead of that austere room we meet in?" Ben laughed. "We may be innovative thinkers but we have the same weakness for tradition everyone else has. Adam set up that room when we first started and now we're stuck with it -- at least for our formal meeting. We call it 'the tank'. This is a more comfortable place for people to talk informally. There's a small buffet over there withhors d'oeuvres, there's also a bar where you can get whatever you would like. Wander around and talk to people. Everyone is eager to meet both of you. We've been looking forward to it for years - literally."

"Thank you," Kyle said. "When is the formal meeting?"

"We'll move into 'the tank' in about a half an hour. As you heard we are still waiting on two more board members," Ben said. "I have some organizational things to do or I'd try to take up your time myself. Talk to people. Be sure to talk to Mike Kasperson, he has something he wants to discuss with you and Allana Sellars has really been hoping to talk to you, Jessi." He turned and went over to where Grace was standing.

"Do you want anything to eat?" Kyle asked Jessi.

"We better just get something to drink," Jessi said. "I'm too nervous to eat."

"Me too," Kyle agreed. They moved across the room to the bar feeling eyes on them from all directions.

The bartender said, "Mr. Trager, Ms. Taylor, what can I get for you?"

Kyle asked, "Do you have any orange juice?"

"Of course," the bartender filled a glass with orange juice and handing it to Kyle. "And what for you, Ms. Taylor?"

"Orange juice would be fine," Jessi said.

He filled another glass for her and as he handed it to her said to them, "If you tell me what you normally like to drink, I can be sure to have it on hand for your next meeting.

"Thank you," Kyle said, surprised. "Orange juice will be fine. I drink a lot of it."

"We'll be sure to have plenty," the bartender assured him.

Kyle nodded to him and then he and Jessie turned to face the room, "So who do we talk to first?" Kyle wondered.

A tall man with thinning brown hair caught their eye and solved the problem by walking over and introducing himself, "Ryan Melland." He shook Kyle's then Jessi's hand. "I've been really looking forward to talking with you and now I find myself tongue tied." He smiled, "There really isn't anything of substance that we can talk about in this venue. I'm just really glad you are with us. It's like having Adam," he paused, looking at Jessi, "and Sarah back with us." He shook his head wonderingly, "but you must be as far beyond Adam as he was beyond us."

"There's no way to know," Kyle said. "Adam was very impressive to me. He taught me a lot. I think he could do much of what we can."

"I assume you can do his thing with moving a glass of water? He showed me that once," Ryan said.

"We can," Kyle said, "But I have to admit it's easier to pick it up with your hand." He grinned disarmingly.

"I suppose so," Ryan agreed, "It took a terrible toll on his body. We lost him far too soon. I was with him from time to time in those last months."

"He warned us about that," Kyle said.

'I hope you can take steps to protect yourselves," Ryan said. He looked over Kyle's shoulder. "It looks like Mike is about to cut in. Maybe sometime we can arrange to have dinner? It would be great to really talk."

"That would be nice," Kyle said. "It may be some time before we can manage it, though." He turned to see a large man with short brown hair approaching.

"Hello, Kyle, Jessi, I'm Mike Kasperson," Mike said. He looked at Ryan Melland, "I'm sorry Ryan. I'm going to have to steal them away for a while." Ryan nodded.

"I remember you from the last meeting," Kyle said.

"So do I," Jessi said with a hint of displeasure.

"I hope I didn't offend you with my doubts," Mike said. "With your new invention making such a splash, I'm having to eat a bit of crow."

"That's all right," Jessi said. "I wasn't offended."

"There is a matter that I want to discuss with the two of you, can we sit over there?" Mike pointed to one of the small discussion areas with comfortable chairs arranged around a coffee table.

"Sure," Kyle said and they followed him over and sat down.

Mike began, "I'm not sure if you know it but Latnok holds about thirty two percent of Madacorp's stock. That gives us effective control."

"How does thirty two percent give you control," Jessi asked, "I thought you had to have fifty one percent."

"Well, that would give you absolute control. But with a block of thirty two percent you can usually count on at least some of the other shareholder's votes. You would have to do something really terrible to get everyone else to vote against you. And we generally do a good job of managing it."

"Not recently," Kyle said. "Someone should have managed Julian Ballantine."

"That unfortunate event was very embarrassing to me," Mike said. "I'm the Latnok representative on the Madacorp board and I should have caught on to Julian Ballantine's activities. Unfortunately they slipped by me. I didn't dig past the surface of his reports. It's a big operation and everything looked normal on paper."

"What they did to Jessi was terrible," Kyle said. He looked at her and took her hand, then turned back to Mike. "They tried to break up my family as well."

Mike assured him, "That was Julian Ballantine's idea, not Madacorp itself. When Brian Taylor alerted me to what was going on, we put a stop to it. We removed Ballantine and put Emily Hollander in his place temporarily to clean up the mess." He took a breath, "It's my job to evaluate how good of a job she's doing of cleaning it up and decide if she gets to keep the position. The two of you have interacted with her, especially you, Jessi. I would like to hear your impression of her."

"I didn't have much to do with her," Kyle said, "I know that she tried to disrupt my family, but I believe that was Ballantine's instructions. She seems to have been on both sides at various times. Jessi knows her much better, of course. Jessi?"

Jessi said, "She pretended to be my sister after Madacorp installed a fake personality in my head. She was doing what Ballantine told her to do. I know she was afraid of what would happen to her daughter." Jessi thought for a moment, "I think she tried to take care of me as much as she could in the situation. I agree with Kyle, she does seem to have been on both sides. I don't dislike her, but I don't trust her either."

Mike nodded slowly, "So there's no clear disqualification." He thought for a moment then said, "That's really all I wanted to ask. I'm sorry to have dredged up unpleasant memories." He rose and Kyle and Jessi followed. He shook their hands and said, "Thank you again for your help."

The next person to capture their attention was the Asian woman who had sat next to Kyle at the first Latnok Board meeting they attended. "I'm Allana Sellars," she said and shook their hands.

"I remember you," Kyle said. "Thank you for supporting Jessi for the board."

"It was my pleasure. I'm really happy to see you here, Jessi," Allana said. "Sarah was a good friend of mine. Having her leave Latnok was probably one of the reasons we haven't always been true to Adam's vision. I've often wished she had stayed and helped us fight for it."

"Sarah said that she didn't trust Latnok," Jessi said.

"She had good reasons. There were people jealous of her close relationship with Adam. As our organization grew in power, the jealousy became more threatening. Sarah could see it, but not Adam. He always tried to see the best in people."

"You're saying that there were people in Latnok who couldn't be trusted?" Kyle asked.

"There still are," Allana warned. "Be very careful, trust no one."

"Does that include you?" Jessi asked bluntly.

"Trust has to be earned," Allana said. "I hope to do so. Here's my card with my private number." She handed it to Jessi. "I'd like to get together with you and Kyle sometime and talk privately."

Jessi put the card in her pocket and said, "Grace says she was Sarah's friend too."

Allana chuckled, "After a fashion, I think she saw herself more as a rival, though."

"A rival?" Jessi asked.

"Adam was our guru. We all had some attraction to him." She smiled fondly at Kyle, "You look just like he did then." She looked back at Jessi, "It was more serious for Grace. Of course Adam only had eyes for Sarah."

"Why did Sarah leave?" Jessi asked.

"I don't know the whole story, but I'll be glad to tell you what I do know. It really should wait for another time, though." She looked around the room and continued, "This is too public of a place to be pulling out the old laundry. Give me a call sometime and we can meet."

"I think we will," Kyle said nodding to her. They turned to move away and found a tall light haired man standing with his hands on his hips looking at them.

"The two super geniuses," he said. "I wish we could get the two of you to hold still for a proper evaluation. We put a lot of effort into you and we still don't know exactly what we've got."

"I'm sorry," Kyle said. "I remember you from the last meeting, but I don't think I've heard your name."

"I'm Robert Lukeson," he said.

"Well, Mr. Lukeson," Kyle continued with a slight frown, "I'm not sure we're something that anyone 'has'. We are, in the end, people like everyone else."

"Well, not really like everyone else -- which is the point. We are missing the opportunity to see what you are."

"You'll just have to make do with seeing what we can accomplish. We're not interested in being laboratory animals," Kyle said. "We have lives to lead."

"But we are missing out on science," Robert objected. "Don't you care about science?"

"I think Kyle made himself clear," Jessi said with a glare.

Robert looked at her and paled slightly, "I guess this is an argument for another day." He turned and walked away.

Kyle commented to Jessi, "I think he's on the 'not to trust' list."

Jessi said, "Yes, did you track his pulse and respiration, especially when I put pressure on him? That man is hiding a lot, and he doesn't think much of us."

"I did, and I agree. That was a bit unnerving," Kyle said.

At this point Ben Crossgate raised his voice and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we're all here now. I think it's time to move to the boardroom and get the meeting underway."

Everyone gathered up their papers and moved toward the door.

Chapter Text

When they arrived in the round meeting room, there was a single chair at 'their' seat as well another against the wall behind it. Kyle sat at the table with Jessi behind him. The other board members took their places.

Ben Crossgate said, "I want to thank everyone for attending and call this meeting to order. Our agenda is fairly straightforward today. I don't think we can expect any fireworks." He smiled glancing in Kyle & Jessi's direction. "We'll start with our student outreach program. Grace monitors that as well as personally overseeing the University of Washington office. Grace?"

Grace Kingsley said, "Now that things have settled down, I'm hoping to find a suitable successor for the University of Washington office, I need to cut down on my time there, some of my other responsibilities are suffering." She looked down at her paper and began reporting, "Overall we've had a good year in our student program. The number of grants that we are winning is up fifteen percent and we are in the black this year, which is unusual. There are a number of promising students who will be getting their doctorates in this coming year." She looked around the table and continued, "You should have their profiles in your information packet. There are several that our various subsidiaries should be looking at, we can make the appropriate recommendations. I would like to comment that the University of Washington office has become a star performer. We have increased our grant level by over fifty percent and are the main reason the program is in the black this year. This is, of course, not due to my efforts but the presence of Kyle and Jessi. As most of you know, Jessi has invented a new approach to solar cell production which is already making a splash in the marketplace. We expect that the five year licensing to be conservatively in the twenty million dollar range, quite possibly higher. The increase in grants is primarily due to Kyle's work. He has inspired the students in the office and they are all significantly more productive. Jessi has been involved as well, particularly in a very promising genetically modified agricultural product. Based on this increased revenue I am recommending an expanded budget for the entire program next year. You all have my recommendation."

Ben Crossgate said, "Do we have a motion to approve Grace's recommendation?" Ryan Melland nodded in his direction. "And a second?" he asked. Paul Milworth raised a hand. "All in favor?" Everyone raised their hands, including Kyle. "Clearly approved. I would like to thank Grace for her efforts. I think it would also be appropriate for us to take formal notice of Jessi's contribution. We expected a lot from her and Kyle, but not this fast."

I could sense Jessi's pleasure behind me. Brian Taylor had instilled in her a desire for Latnok's approval which had not been completely quenched. The night she had carried Amanda out of this room, she had been disappointed that they had shown no interest in her. That they were interested now was a double edged sword, it increased our ability to affect Latnok, but it also attracted attention from those who would use us. We were just beginning in our search to find out which members that included. The meeting continued, going over the various completely owned subsidiaries and then moved on to the companies in which Latnok had significant investments, with recommendations as to whether they should change. My research had made me familiar with them and the recommendations generally made sense. Soon in the process we got to Madacorp.

Mike Kasperson reported, "As you all know, the former head of Madacorp was running some off-the-book projects, involving Jessi and impacting Kyle and his family. The termination of those projects and his removal left a void in the management which we have temporarily filled. We are looking at assuring appropriate management moving forward as well as doing a full review of Madacorp's activities to determine if there are additional questionable activities. Madacorp is a very important part of our overall strategy so we need to stabilize it. Until we finish, I do not recommend any changes in our investment level."

"Noted," Ben Crossgate said, "Anyone want to comment further?" He looked around, "Ok, let's move to ..."

The meeting progressed, assessing the various companies that Latnok had significant direct investment in. This was all familiar now based on our study of the financial data that had been provided. No effort was made to go into subsidiaries of these companies and their investment networks. On the surface, everything looked fine. The research that Jessi and I had done went much deeper than what the board was reviewing and was far more troubling.

Ben Crossgate said, "I believe that that finishes the review. Does anyone have anything to add?" He was surprised when Kyle raised his hand, "Kyle?"

Kyle said, "Jessi and I have done some preliminary research based on the information that was provided and there are a number of activities that Latnok is supporting that we find not in keeping with Adam's vision as I understand it. There is a stronger investment in military research than we are comfortable with. We also have subsidiaries working on autonomous weapons systems, biological warfare and we may be funding some mercenary activities destabilizing countries in northern Africa."

There were expressions of surprise around the table. Paul Milworth said, "Military research is often the source of many useful civilian applications. I think it's important that we have a connection to that to be able to tap into that information. There is a lot of money being expended by governments on military research, more than we can afford to devote on our own. We have to be positioned to take advantage of it."

"I understand that," Kyle said. "Our involvement is higher than I think is necessary to be able to do that, but that is certainly debatable. Our concern is more in the area of research that we would rather not have succeed at all. Researching biological warfare agents is probably the most concerning in that area."

Abbie Hawkins said, "Kyle, I'm not sure where you are getting your data. I've read over the report and at least skimmed the material and I see nothing about all of that."

"You have to go farther than that to see it," Kyle explained. "Jessi and I read all of the material that we got from Gabrielle. We also read all of the SEC filings from the direct and first level subsidiaries. We've done literature searches for papers published by the principal investigators at those institutions looking for civilian applications which would indicate underlying areas of interest. We've done some financial tracking but there is certainly more to do."

Mike Kasperson said, "You've done all that in two weeks?"

Kyle said apologetically, "We've not been able to devote as much time to it as we would like. We have a research project we are working on and there have been a number of things in our lives which have taken time to deal with. There is still much more to do."

This announcement was greeted with general silence around the table. Ben Crossgate finally broke the silence by saying, "Clearly what you say concerns us, Kyle. None of us have been able to look into the reports in the depth that you obviously have. Without a clear trail and documentation, there really isn't anything this board can do at this point. I suggest that you and Jessi prepare documentation on the issues that concern you and provide it to us in advance of the next meeting so that we can have time to review it. I can put it on the agenda and we can take it up then. You're going to have to walk us through it, we are all intelligent people, but we clearly don't operate at your level of detail. Will that be acceptable?"

"Of course," Kyle said. "We just want to be sure we are focusing on the positive things that Latnok can do."

"I think we can all agree on that," Ben Crossgate said. Then somewhat hesitatingly added, "Does anyone else have anything they want to put on the table." He looked around and sighed in obvious relief. "Well it wasn't as exciting as last time, but Kyle and Jessi have managed to provide some intellectual fireworks this time. I'm going to declare this meeting adjourned. Thank you all for attending. As usual, Gabrielle will be in touch with you in advance of the next meeting."

Members started to file out of the room. Kyle noticed a glare from Robert Lukeson. Everyone seemed troubled to some degree. Ben Crossgate handed Kyle a card, "Here is my phone number and personal email. Send any information you have on questionable activities to me and I can help you get it ready for the board. I've suspected some of the things that you mentioned, but I've never been able to get any evidence."

"We will, I promise," Kyle said.

Ben Crossgate said, reassuringly, "We'll get them taken care of, now that we have 'Adam' back again." He gestured at Kyle and smiled, then nodded to them and moved off to talk to someone else.

Mike Kasperson came over next and said, "I'd like to talk to the two of you for a moment, I have a favor to ask. Do you mind?"

Kyle looked at Jessi, and then said, "We have some time."

"Good," he said, "let's sit down." They sat back down.

"You really did all of that research in two weeks?" Mike asked.

"We weren't lying," Kyle said defensively.

"That was just an expression of amazement, not an accusation," Mike said calmingly. "It gave me an idea, though. I thought you could help me out. I told you that I had to evaluate whether Emily Hollander should remain as head of Madacorp and to audit the ongoing activities."

"What does that have to do with us?" Kyle asked.

Mike said, "I would like to ask the two of you go in and make the evaluation for me. There aren't many people who know all the details, and for obvious reasons we don't want to tell anyone else. You both already know it all, you are personally involved, and it would probably be reassuring to you to have complete access to make sure that nothing outside their normal mission is going on. It works on a number of levels."

"We would have complete access to Madacorp?" Kyle asked.

"Yes, you will be Latnok board members evaluating their operation. They will hop if you say frog," Mike said.

"Why would I say frog?" Kyle asked with a puzzled frown.

"It's an expression," Jessi said with a smile. "You want us to decide if Emily Hollander gets to keep her job?"

"Well, technically it will be the Madacorp board which does that," Mike said, "But they will almost certainly follow my recommendations and I will almost certainly follow yours."

"Almost certainly?" Kyle asked, skeptically.

"There is still free will," Mike chuckled, "But if you two make recommendations I doubt I will have any reason to do otherwise. While you are at it, if you have any suggestions for operational improvements, please feel free to make them to Ms. Hollander. I suspect she'll listen, she's no fool." He looked at them and asked, "Will you do it?"

Kyle looked at Jessi and asked, "What do you think? Do you want to?"

Jessi smiled a predatory smile, "It sounds like fun. And he's right. It would certainly help remove any further concerns we have about Madacorp."

"Then we'll do it," Kyle said. "What's the first step?"

Mike said, "I'll notify Ms. Hollander that you are coming and that she is to give you full access. I'll copy you on the memo so that there are no misunderstandings." He rose and Kyle and Jessi followed. He shook their hands and said, "That was a really impressive display of analysis. I think you'll be able to assure that Madacorp is back on track."

As Mike walked away, Jessi said, "This could be a lot of fun."

"Don't have too much fun," Kyle cautioned. "Looking into Madacorp's activities was on my list of things to do. This will make it much easier."

Our second Latnok board meeting was over. It had not been as dramatic as the first one. I sensed that we had stirred up potential danger by looking into areas of Latnok that the board normally didn't notice. The board members were starting to come into focus as individuals. Some of them, like Allana Sellars I was inclined to like and thought might become allies. Some, like Robert Lukeson were less friendly and could become hostile. We were building contacts with the board other than though Grace. Jessi's plan to move Latnok back toward Adam and Sarah's dream was bearing fruit. I hoped that none of the fruit would turn out to be poisoned.

Chapter Text

Lori was sitting on her bed, strumming her guitar, with her open notebook in front of her when Nicole came hesitantly into her room. "Are you working on another song?" She asked.

"I have to get enough songs ready for a forty five minute set next month," Lori explained. "And with school starting tomorrow I am going to start having homework again. I have to get some songwriting in before that gets started."

"I love your music," Nicole said. "But you know that your schoolwork has to come first."

"I know, Mom," Lori sighed. "Mark is pushing me to do my best. I don't want to disappoint him."

"Mark seems to be good for you," Nicole commented, thoughtfully. "It's good to have a partner who encourages you to expand what you can do." Nicole looked slightly nervous as she changed the subject, "I've noticed that you and Jessi are getting along better."

"I guess so," Lori agreed. "She still drives me crazy from time to time, but I know her well enough now that I know that she doesn't mean to. She just blurts things out."

"Jessi and Kyle had their brains develop to an incredible degree while they were in those pods," Nicole said. "But their emotional control and understanding of other people didn't get a chance to develop at the same rate. In some ways they're still like young children emotionally. It's a confusing mix."

"You can say that again," Lori smiled. "I'm getting used to it though. I've learned to not let it bother me as much. It's obvious how much Jessi wants to be a part of our family and to fit in. Once you see that, you want to cut her some slack."

Nicole said, "Tomorrow, you're going back to school. I wanted to ask you to keep an eye on Jessi, help her out if you can. She wants to do well but she is still confused in dealing with people. That's not just because of their time in the pod. Highly intelligent people often have the same troubles. Teen aged girls live in a very complex social environment. You seem to have a handle on that, maybe you can guide her through the minefield."

"On good days, I think I do. Mark has talked about the problems he had in high school and at the beginning of college because his age and mental ability didn't match," Lori nodded. "It's helped me understand Jessi and Kyle better. I'll try, Mom, but Jessi doesn't always listen." She rolled her eyes, "Sometimes I think Jessi never listens."

"If there are problems, you can always talk to me about it," Nicole said. "I'm not asking you to 'nark' on her, just let me help her if you think she needs it."

"You're her therapist," Lori conceded.

"No," Nicole corrected. "I am not her therapist. That would be inappropriate with her living here. But I am her foster mother and the job is often quite similar, especially given my background."

"You know, Mom, she still has it really bad for Kyle," Lori said hesitantly.

"I know," Nicole sighed. "With all of us living together under the same roof as a family, it's awkward to consider them being romantically involved. I could tell she was attracted to him, but long as Kyle was entirely focused on Amanda, I didn't think we would have to deal with it. But he has begun to notice Jessi romantically and now Amanda is away for a semester. I'm worried about how this is going to develop."

"They aren't really brother and sister," Lori said. "It wouldn't be all that wrong. I told her that, as far as I was concerned, it was between her and Kyle and that all I wanted was for them both to be happy."

"You are probably wise," Nicole said. "My desire to be a good parent to each of them doesn't imply that they have to have a brother and sister relationship with each other. It would certainly be a lot easier to deal with, though. I'm not convinced that Jessi is ready to hold up her side of that mature of a relationship. And she really hasn't looked into alternatives."

"I've told her that. If Kyle and Jessi decide to get into a relationship," Lori said. "I don't think any of us will be able to stop them. I certainly wouldn't want to be in the way." She rubbed her cheek.

"I don't want to be in the way of their happiness," Nicole agreed. "I just want to try to keep them from blundering into something that could disrupt their lives, especially if it didn't work out right.

"That is frightening to contemplate, isn't it," Lori agreed, shaking her head. "Jessi in a messy break up could be dangerous. I rather saw that personally."

"I hope she's progressed beyond that," Nicole said. "But that's one of the reasons that I would rather not have things develop that way. They just need time to grow up."

"Something tells me you're not going to get your wish," Lori warned.

"Maybe not," Nicole shook her head slowly.

Chapter Text

Jessi and Lori pulled into the BeechwoodHigh school parking lot in Jessi's shiny red Corvette convertible attracting quite a bit of attention.

Jessi glanced up at the sky, "I'd better put up the top, it looks like rain."

"This is Seattle," Lori said. "We were lucky to be able to drive here with it down."

As the top was coming up, a tall, dark haired, athletic young man came up, obviously admiring the Corvette. He looked at Lori and said, frowning, "Um ..."

"Lori Trager," Lori prompted, amused.

"... Lori Trager. Who's your friend with the nice car?" He looked at Jessi.

"I'm Jessi Taylor," Jessi said.

He held out his hand, "I'm Raymond Osgood. You can call me Ray." He laughed and Jessi looked at him, puzzled. He blinked and continued, "Do you go to school here? I don't think I've seen you before."

"Yes, I'm a senior," Jessi said, taking his hand. "I was here for some of last year, but I don't think people really noticed me."

He shook her hand and held on to it for a moment, "I'm not sure how I missed a pretty girl like you," he said, eyes twinkling.

"I didn't have the Corvette last year," Jessi observed, frankly.

Raymond let go of her hand and laughed, "That might be it. Well ... Jessi, I have to run, but maybe we'll bump into each other later?"

"Maybe," Jessi said, puzzled.

"I'll look forward to it," Raymond turned and strode off at a quick space.

Lori watched him leave in amazement. "Do you know who that was?" Lori asked.

"Raymond Osgood," Jessi said, puzzled by the question. "He told us."

"He's the quarterback of the football team," Lori said.

"Is that important?" Jessi asked.

"Definitely, Lori assured her, "and I think he likes you."

As they walked toward the school, Hillary Shepard came up to them and said "Lori and Jessi together," that's a surprise.

Jessi frowned started to hang back. Lori said, "That's so last year. We're over all that now." She smiled at Jessi and said, "We're a sister act." She looked back to Hillary and said, "So what's the story on Raymond Osgood? I though he and Cynthia Westbrook were inseparable."

"That was also so last year," Hillary informed her, "Apparently there was a big break up last week and he's on the rebound. There are lots of nets in the water fishing for this one." She looked suspiciously at Lori, "Why do you ask?"

"Who do you suppose just came on to Jessi in a big way," Lori raised her eyebrows. "I wouldn't be surprised if he asked her out."

"Raymond Osgood?" Hillary asked astonished.

"I think he likes my car," Jessi said. "I don't want to go out with him anyway."

"My poor clueless muffin," Hillary said. "A catch like Raymond doesn't come along every day. If the opportunity presents itself, don't let him get away. Say yes."

"But I don't want to date him," Jessi protested. "I want to be with Kyle."

"I know," Lori said. "But you've never really tried going out with anyone except Declan a couple of times, and your mind was in a strange place then. You should give it a try. How do you know you won't like it? And Hillary's right. Raymond is at the top of the social network. If he asks you out, tell him yes." Jessi looked dubious and Lori suggested, "Maybe it will make Kyle jealous."

Jessi's expression brightened. "Do you think it would?" She asked.

"Of course it would," Hillary assured her. "Nothing makes a fish take the bait like the presence of another fish. It focuses the attention. And besides, Ray's really good looking."

"I suppose so," Jessi admitted. "But he isn't Kyle."

Chapter Text

Grace Kingsley walked out of the afternoon sun into the restaurant and encountered the Maitre'd. The room was classically elegant, wood paneling everywhere, lit with art deco lights. The walls and ceiling were a warm mustard color. She introduced herself to him, saying, "Grace Kingsley".

He said, "Yes, Ms. Kingsley, the rest of your party has been seated. Will you follow me, please?"

She followed him past the mostly empty tables -- they were at the late end of the lunch seating. As she came up to their table Robert Lukeson and Brad Keels rose to greet her. They sat down and she looked pointedly at the empty seat."

"He sends his regrets," Lukeson said. "He had a plane to catch. I'll brief him later."

"All right," Grace nodded.

Their waiter was presented her with a menu, "Hello, I'm Thomas, I'll give you a chance to look at our selections and be back in a moment."

She looked over the menu for a moment then set it down with a grim expression. "The meeting did not go well."

"That's an understatement," Keels said. "We should never have let them get on the board. I thought you said you could control them."

"I'm working on it," Grace assured him. "I just didn't see them moving so fast."

Lukeson looked over her shoulder and she paused as the waiter returned. She glanced at Lukeson and Keels. "We've already put in our orders," Lukeson told her.

Grace looked at the waiter, "I'll have the Caesar Salad and the Bouillabaisse. I'd like a glass of the Jordon Chardonnay as well."

"Thank you," he noted her order.

Grace explained, "I think we got caught up in the mental tricks and abilities they have. We forgot that they also have an incredible ability to gather and process information. We were interested in the things they can do that we can't. We forgot how much better they are at doing the things that we can. As Stalin said, 'quantity has a quality all of its own', they can do a lot, fast."

Keels said, "We've spent the better part of the last twenty years building up our operations hiding them behind layers of ownership. We thought they were well hidden but the two of them glimpsed them within two weeks -- and apologized because they weren't able to devote full time to the effort."

Lukeson protested, "They haven't really unraveled it and laid it out, they just have hints. Maybe they won't be able to see through it all. No one else on the board has, I think Crossgate has had suspicions, but he never got anywhere."

"You're fooling yourself," Grace shook her head. "Our work isn't all that well hidden. We were counting on no one looking hard. And no one has, until now." She looked around the table and continued, "They are going to be looking hard. Maybe it's time we close up shop, liquidate the enterprises and take our profits. Between us there's probably over a billion dollars. That should be plenty, do we really need more?"

"We'd wind up with a dime on the dollar if we try to do it in a hurry, and some of my assets view the word 'liquidate' in an entirely different light," Keels said. "No, we have to deal with this threat, not cave in to it."

Lukeson looked warningly over her shoulder and they paused while the waiter, with assistance, gave them their lunches. After the waiters had left, he said, "You called off the effort to threaten his girlfriend and family. That worked for some time. Maybe we should try that again."

"No, that will simply focus their efforts on removing the threat," Grace said, "and on us. At first, Kyle lacked the confidence to be pro-active, but he has learned that he can directly take on the source of threats. With Jessi working with him they will put all their efforts into removing any threatening agents. I don't want to be on the receiving end of their attention."

Keels suggested, "It may come down to taking them out."

Grace objected, "They are irreplaceable assets. We can't do that."

Keels leaned forward, "Grace, I think you're letting your interest in the boy cloud your judgment. As far as I'm concerned, I'm an irreplaceable asset and I'm not going to roll over or give up twenty years of work because of a couple of teenagers with stars in their eyes. I didn't let Adam Baylin dictate my future. I'm certainly not going to let them do so."

Grace sat back and thought for a moment, "As I see it, there are three approaches we might take in decreasing degrees of desirability. The first one is to persuade them that it would be better to leave us alone, to ignore our activities in exchange for a free hand with the rest of Latnok's activities. We help them use Latnok to make 'a better world', they leave us alone."

Lukeson said, "Could you negotiate something like that with them?"

"I couldn't," Grace admitted. "Even attempting it would be opening the box for them. I do have a player I can put on the field who may be able to encourage that conclusion. I'm not all that confident that it would work, but at lest it has the benefit of doing the least damage."

Keels objected, "It seems unlikely to succeed. What's your second option?"

"Good old fashioned board politics," Grace said. "We have four votes, two more that we can usually count on. We can block any board activity. We may not be able to successfully use threats against Kyle and Jessi, but we can certainly do so against some of our fellow board members if necessary. I know of a few opportunities for blackmail myself. We don't even have to get to the point of physical threats, although we could use that as well."

"That could work," Lukeson agreed. "We could block them at the board level so that the board decides to study things until hell freezes over. Crossgate and some of the others would fight, but as you say six votes and the board becomes impotent."

"Would they accept board inactivity?" Keels was skeptical.

"That's the problem," Grace agreed. "They've already shown themselves capable of mounting extra-legal operations. If the board doesn't go along, they are likely to move on to creative approaches to the problem, especially if some of the board members encourage them." She snorted, "They can be very creative."

"What is the third option?" Robert asked.

"Taking the girl out," Grace suggested. "I said that the two of them are irreplaceable, and that's true but we would have almost as much to study if we had just one of them. After all, the original plan was just to have Kyle. Jessi is spare. It's good to have a spare, but it might be too expensive."

"I should think, then, that Kyle would be the one to take out," Keels objected. "He's the obvious leader of the pair." He took a breath and continued, "I know you're attached to him, Grace, but it's us on the line here."

"Kyle may be the leader, but Jessi provides the drive," Grace disagreed. "There was a reason I volunteered to run the University of Washington group, I wanted to study them. And I have. I understand their dynamic. If Jessie were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth without a trace, Kyle would drop everything and search for her. He could easily be convinced that she ran away like Sarah did. He would expect that she would be capable of hiding from him. He would eventually give up and, I expect, settle into an existence much like Adam did. I think we could work with that."

"That makes sense," Keels nodded, "Why not have Kyle disappear?"

"While Kyle would believe that Jessi ran away, Jessi would never believe that Kyle abandoned her and the Tragers. She would be relentless and bring down fire and brimstone on all of us. There would be nothing left standing when she was finished. If we take one out, it has to be Jessi, and it has to be done expertly, without a trace."

"I have lots of experts on tap," Keels said. "That should be easy to accomplish."

"If it comes to that," Grace cautioned. "But let's see what we can do with option one first. It doesn't close out any of our other options."