The Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity
Summary: While away on a mission, Harper is infected with an insidious virus that may just spell doom for the crew of the Andromeda Ascendant.
Warnings: angst, angst and more angst
Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence
"Harper is missing."
Beka swung around, staring incredulously at the Captain of the Andromeda Ascendant. "Missing? What do you mean he's missing?"
Dylan cleared his throat. "I sent him on a mission "
"Alone?" Beka interrupted.
"Yes, alone." Dylan glared at the interruption. "And if you'd let me finish, I would tell you about it!"
"Sorry," Beka mumbled.
"I sent Harper to Minas 7 to retrieve some information."
This time, the interruption came from Rhade, who was clearly not happy at being left out of the loop as far as Harper's mission was concerned. "What kind of information?"
Dylan stood and went to look out of the view port, deliberately turning his back to his crew. "Apparently, Gerentex has resurfaced and is salvaging any and all relic High Guard ships he can find."
Dylan steeled himself for Beka's rant, which he was sure would follow that outburst. When it didn't immediately come, he turned back to face the room --- and what was left of his crew. He wasn't surprised to see that Rhade was more confused than angry --- just as he wasn't shocked to see that Beka was furious.
He nodded to Rhade. "I suppose I should explain."
Rhade nodded and Beka merely grunted her disapproval.
Dylan continued. "Gerentex is a Nightsider. He had hired Beka and her crew, namely Rev Bem, Trance and Harper, to salvage the Andromeda from where we were stuck on the event horizon of the black hole in the Hephaestus system. His plan was to strip the Andromeda of her weaponry and sell it --- the ship, probably for parts, the weapons, most notably the nova bombs, for a handsome profit. What he didn't count on was me. Once I put up a fight, he left Beka and Trance --- along with his Nietzschean mercenaries --- on the ship, took the Maru and Harper, and tried to force us into the black hole. His plan backfired and here we are today."
Rhade nodded, but was clearly still confused. "What did you do to Gerentex?"
"We knew there wasn't a court on any planet that would convict him of anything, so we took our revenge the only way we could short of killing him --- which I was not going to do. Instead, we left him stranded and penniless --- with a buyer that he'd stiffed hot on his tail."
Beka snorted. "I told you we should have just killed him."
Dylan spun around to stare at her. "And I told you I wasn't going to stoop to his methods. Stranding him was all I was prepared to do at the time."
"And now Harper is missing! For all you know, Gerentex caught him snooping around and killed him --- or worse!"
"Beka --- calm down. I'm just telling you this because he is overdue."
Beka sighed loudly. "So how did he get to Minas 7 anyway?"
Dylan bit his lip. "I let him borrow a slipfighter."
"You sent him alone?" Beka was fuming now, furious that Dylan would allow such a misguided adventure.
"Look, Beka. Harper's a big boy --- and he's been begging for a 'mission'. This seemed to be the perfect opportunity to let him have his moment of glory."
"And it backfired on you!" Beka sneered.
"We don't know that for certain."
Rhade interrupted, certain the current conversation would lead only to trouble. "Well, we know one thing. Harper can find trouble in the most innocuous of situations. Hopefully, the child is heading back to the Andromeda as we speak --- but I think we would be further ahead to sent out some feelers --- just in case."
Dylan nodded. "You're right, Rhade. See to it."
"Aye." And with that, Rhade left the briefing room, glad to be away from Beka's smoldering rage.
Dylan sighed. "Beka?"
"What?" Her answer was short and curt.
"Anything more you want to say to me?"
She stared for a moment before shaking her head. "Not now. But you'd better hope he gets back in one piece, Dylan." With that, she stomped out of the room, leaving Dylan to stare out at the vast expanse of space.
"Oh, I do, Beka --- I do." He sighed loudly. "Where the hell are you, Mr. Harper?"
"Permission to dock, Andromeda?"
The request came out of nowhere, startling the crew of the Andromeda. By the time the captain and bridge crew realized who was calling, she was already docking in the hangar bay. Dylan turned command over to Beka and left the bridge, hurrying to where the small ship was docked.
"Trance?" Dylan was surprised to see the golden being approaching the hangar bay. "What are you doing here?"
She shrugged. "I got a request from Andromeda. Apparently someone on that ship needs a medic."
Dylan's heart fell and he gasped in a breath. "Saoirse?" He turned to face the ship in the hangar bay.
"I don't know. Andromeda didn't say." Trance could tell how upset Dylan was and smiled gently. "Come on, Dylan. We aren't doing anyone any good out here." And she activated the automatic door to the hangar bay, opening it and stepping inside quickly.
Dylan followed Trance across the large room, beating her by a few strides to the hatch of Saoirse's ship. The hatch activated as they approached and Saoirse appeared in the opening.
"Come in, Trance. It's Harper "
"Harper?" Dylan and Trance said together.
Dylan was first through the open hatch. "Where did you find him?"
Saoirse looked up at Dylan and shrugged. "A ways out, I guess." She didn't want to discuss her mission with Dylan. "I was on my way to Tarn Vedra and noticed the slipfighter just drifting in space with minimal power. I recognized it as one of yours --- and went to check it out. My sensors picked up life signs and I pulled it in. When I saw it was Harper, I brought him straight here."
Dylan frowned, knowing Saoirse was holding something back from him. Right now Harper was his priority though, so he let it drop. "Thank you for returning Harper to us." He looked up as Trance approached. "How is he?"
She frowned. "Feverish --- confused --- but other than that, he seems okay. I'm having him transported to the medical bay so I can run some tests. He isn't too happy about that, by the way."
Dylan smiled. "I doubt he would be, Trance. Just let me know how he is."
Trance nodded, and they all stepped aside to allow two bots to push a stretcher past. They waited in strained silence until the bots reappeared with the stretcher, which now held Harper. Dylan immediately noted his pallor and the fine sheen of sweat that adorned his brow.
"Harper?" Dylan stepped up to the stretcher as Harper opened his eyes. "How are you feeling?"
Harper licked his lips. "I'm fine, Boss. Tell Trance I don't need to go to medical --- okay?"
Dylan smiled and ruffled Harper's unruly hair. "Not a chance, Mr. Harper. You know what she's like when she makes up her mind about something! You go to medical, let her run a few tests. When she is finished, come find me so we can talk about what happened to you."
"Aye, Boss." Harper sighed and let his eyes close again. If truth be told, he was much less nauseous if he couldn't see the deck sway under him.
Once the stretcher was off the ship, Dylan turned to Trance. "Well, he looks like crap. Check him out. Let me know how he's doing."
Dylan watched Trance walk away before he turned to face Saoirse again. "Are you going to stay awhile?" he asked softly.
She looked down, not meeting his eyes. "No, Dylan. I --- I have to go. I'm expected on Tarn Vedra. After that, I have to pick up some supplies for New Earth. I'll be --- busy --- for quite a while."
Dylan nodded and took a step back. "Well then. I guess it's good bye --- for now."
Saoirse looked up into his eyes and smiled sadly. "For now." She took a deep breath. "Good bye, Dylan."
Dylan took a quick step forward and drew Saoirse into his arms. Bending his head he captured her lips in a long, gentle kiss. He then kissed her gently on her forehead before letting her go and, turning, he walked off her ship and out of the hangar bay. As the door closed behind him, he gave the okay to Andromeda to allow the ship to depart.
Two hours later, Trance met Dylan on the Obs Deck. Hearing the door open, Dylan turned.
"Trance --- how is he?"
Trance pondered her reply for a moment, unsure just what to say. "I'm not sure, Dylan." She sighed.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, he has a low grade fever, just enough to make him a bit queasy and dizzy. But nothing seems to be physically wrong with him to cause this fever. I can't find anything 'wrong' with him!"
Dylan frowned. "Nothing wrong --- but running a fever? That doesn't sound right."
"No --- it doesn't. I'm completely baffled, Dylan."
"Do we need to take him to Tarn Vedra? Let them check him out?"
Trance thought about that suggestion. "I don't think he'd go, Dylan. He insists he's fine."
"He'll damn well go if I tell him to!" Dylan sputtered.
Trance laughed. "Try telling him that and you'll never get him to go. Why don't you go talk to him --- debrief him on his mission --- ask him what happened. Maybe you can find out exactly what happened to him. Then we can make a decision about whether or not to take him to the hospital on Tarn Vedra."
"Good idea, Trance." He patted her on the shoulder and walked out, intending to find Harper and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Harper stood in his quarters with his eyes closed, leaning his head against the wall. A low moan sounded and he shook his head. "The Divine save me. What have I done?" He rapped his head gently against the wall, just enough to feel it but not enough to really hurt. "Stupid. Stupid, Harper. What were you thinking? I know it's been a while --- but Saoirse of all people. Dylan will kill you!"
Just then his door chime sounded and he spun around, pressing his body back against the wall. "Who --- who is it?" he called out.
"Harper, it's Dylan. We need to talk."
"Oh crap," Harper whispered. "Did Saoirse tell him? I - am - so - dead." He looked around frantically as if to find a way out without having to speak to --- or even see --- Dylan. Finding no way out of his current dilemma, he shouted, "Um, Dylan? I'm not really up to talking right now. Okay? Can we do this later?"
Dylan frowned at the closed door. He paused, knowing he could just order Andromeda to open the door for him and she would do it. But, somehow, he knew that was not the way to get Harper to open up to him so he hesitated. "Okay, Harper. But I want to see you later --- in the briefing room. Let's say 1800 hours."
Harper swore softly under his breath. That didn't give him a lot of time --- a mere five hours. Five hours wasn't going to be enough for him to come up with a plausible story for Dylan --- one that he would believe. "Okay, Boss. 1800 hours it is. See you then!"
Dylan grumbled and turned away from the door. Trance was right --- something was definitely up with Harper.
When the doors to the briefing room whisked open at 1805 hours, Dylan breathed a sigh of relief. Not that he really thought Harper wouldn't show --- but the five extra minutes really had him on edge.
"Mr. Harper, how nice of you to join me." Sarcasm might not have been the smartest choice but it seemed to work at putting Harper at ease as Dylan watched him start to relax.
"Yeah, well the invitation sounded too good to pass up." Harper let the doors whisk shut behind him as he walked further into the room.
Dylan noticed when Harper tensed up again. Damn, he thought. "So, Mr. Harper, were you able to obtain the file containing Gerentex's business transactions?"
"Um --- yeah --- I think."
Harper was looking everyplace but at Dylan, which was quite disconcerting when trying to carry on a conversation with someone.
Dylan sighed. "You think? What do you mean 'you think'? You either got the file or you didn't!"
Harper rubbed the back of his neck as he studiously avoided making eye contact with Dylan. "Yeah --- well." He sighed. "Look, I downloaded a file --- a big file. I think it's what you --- we --- were looking for, but it's encrypted or something. I --- I'm having trouble accessing the data."
Dylan leaned back in his chair. "Oh." To say he was surprised was an understatement. Harper had never had trouble opening the files he'd downloaded through his data port before. "So --- have you tried Rommie yet?"
Harper stopped fidgeting long enough to ask, "Huh?" He looked up just long enough to meet Dylan's eyes before looking away guiltily again.
"Rommie --- Andromeda. Try interfacing and see if she can help you read it." Dylan leaned forward, elbows resting on the table. "Harper, you know how important this information is. I need that file!"
"Yeah? Well, maybe you should have just taken care of Gerentex when you had the chance instead of letting him go --- huh? Maybe then we wouldn't be in this mess!" And with that Harper turned and stormed out of the room, leaving a stunned Captain Hunt staring after him in disbelief.
"What the hell just happened here?" Dylan asked of no one in particular.
Harper leaned his head against the view port, looking out into the vast expanse of space, but not seeing the beauty of the stars.
** (memory) **
"I love that you shared this with me," she purred in his ear.
Harper shivered as her tongue trailed the rim of his ear. "Yeah --- I love it here," he said as he looked around.
The pair was currently sitting on the shore of a vast ocean. The waves were lapping the beach gently and the breeze caressed their skin. Birds wheeled overhead, their raucous cries making them laugh.
"This place is where I come when I need to get away from things. I've always loved the ocean. No one else knows about this place so we're safe."
The woman looked around again. "Like I said, it's perfect, Seamus." She leaned forward and kissed him. "Just perfect."
Harper wrapped his arms around her slender body and pulled her onto his lap. He leaned forward slightly and captured her lips in a gentle kiss, a kiss that soon became more, their tongues dueling for dominion. When they parted, both were breathing heavily. They leaned against each other, foreheads pressing together.
"Thank you for today, Seamus."
He smiled, trying to calm his ragged breathing. "Hopefully we'll have many more days like this, Saoirse."
** (end memory) **
Harper pushed away from the view port and looked around his quarters. He knew he couldn't hide out in here forever, but right now, it seemed like the safest place he could be. At least Dylan wouldn't be barging in on him, determined to rip him to shreds for sleeping with his girlfriend.
"What the hell am I going to tell Dylan?" He barked a short grudging laugh. "Hey Dylan --- Saoirse and I --- we kinda vacationed together --- you know, got it on. Hope you don't mind sharing." He winced at his decided lack of humor. "Yeah --- and then we can plan the funeral. Think, Harper. What the hell happens now? 'Cause if Dylan finds out you slept with Saoirse he'll kill you and no one will ever find your body."
Dylan looked up as the hologram of Andromeda's AI appeared in front of his desk. "Has Mr. Harper contacted you since he got back from his mission?"
The hologram looked confused for a moment. "No, Captain."
"Hmm." Dylan sighed. "Please contact him and see if you can help him access the file he downloaded on Minas 7."
The hologram dissolved and Dylan frowned. What the hell was Harper up to? He set about putting the puzzle pieces together. First, Harper went to Minas 7 to download a file from Gerentex about illegal arms dealing and salvaging of High Guard ships. Second, Harper downloaded the file but was currently unable to access it, which was a first as far as Dylan knew. Third, Harper had to be rescued from deep space when he had left in a slipfighter that was in perfect working order. Fourth, Harper now appeared to be suffering from an unknown illness, the symptoms of which included a low-grade fever. Trance, however, could find nothing physically 'wrong' with him except the fever. It was just too curious.
Suddenly Dylan smiled. There was at least one piece of information that they could research. He activated his com link.
"I need you and Rommie to examine the slipfighter that Harper was using. Find out what went wrong. The slipfighter was in perfect working condition when he left for Minas 7. I need to know why he was drifting in space and had to be rescued."
Right. We'll get on it immediately"
"Thanks, Rhade. Keep me informed." With that, Dylan deactivated his com link. At least they had one piece of the puzzle that they could work with.
** (memory) **
The sheets were silk and they teased his senses as he lay against them. Sighing contentedly, he pulled the warm body into his embrace. A soft exhalation against his neck told him she was still slumbering and he smiled against her hair.
The night was dark, painting the room in deep shadows. Harper thought that he'd never been so content --- never felt quite as alive as he did at that moment. And then she lifted her chin and kissed him and he knew he'd been deluding himself. This was what he was here for --- this wonderful woman who, in a matter of moments, became the most important thing in his universe. He lowered his head and gave himself over to her, lips pressing against hers. He felt it when she smiled against his onslaught and gave him the tiniest of openings to exploit and he plunged ahead, taking her mouth with bruising force. He swallowed her soft growl as he rolled with her, pinning her under his body and rubbing against her.
This time, when they made love, it was fierce and almost frenzied. It was as if they both knew it couldn't last --- as if they were trying to squeeze every emotion into the few hours they had left together.
** (end memory) **
Harper jumped as if he'd been scalded. "What is it, Andromeda?"
Andromeda's hologram shimmered into being in front of him. "Dylan asked me to check in with you."
"What for?" he snapped.
The hologram's eyes opened wide and she frowned for a moment before visibly settling herself. "He said something about a file that you were having trouble with."
Harper scrubbed his hands through his hair. "Yeah --- that. Um, look. Can we do this later, Andromeda? I'm really busy right now."
The hologram frowned again. Something wasn't right. She sighed and nodded. "Sure thing, Harper. Call me when you have a free minute. But remember, Dylan wants that information and he won't wait forever."
"Right. I'll talk to you later then. Now --- shoo!" He made a 'go away' motion with his hands and the hologram huffed and winked out. Harper looked around his quarters and sighed loudly. "Finally. Alone at last." Just then he lost his balance and leaned heavily against his bureau. "Damn." He was breathing heavily through his mouth, trying to stave off the encroaching nausea. "Gotta lie down --- just for a few minutes. Get my space legs under me again. That's it --- I musta spent too much time planet-side." He nodded, trying to convince himself that was indeed all that ailed him.
Harper crawled into his bunk and curled up into a ball. "Just need to rest and I'll be as good as new," he murmured as his eyes drifted closed. The thin sheen of sweat that coated his furrowed brow belied those words and he shivered slightly in his sleep.
"Yes?" Dylan inquired and looked up as the hologram of Andromeda's AI appeared in front of his desk. He sat back in his chair. "What can I do for you, Andromeda?"
The hologram hovered in front of his desk, looking decidedly uncomfortable and Dylan thought, not for the first time that day, that things were getting very strange on board the Andromeda.
He waited a moment before acknowledging her. "Yes, Andromeda?"
"Andromeda? What's wrong?" Dylan asked, concerned. He'd never seen Andromeda at a loss for words before and her behavior was startling, to say the least.
"It's Harper," she finally blurted.
That statement alone made Dylan sit up straighter. "What about him?" He'd known in his gut something was off with the young engineer. Now, maybe, he'd find out just what that something was.
"Well --- he's acting really weird."
Dylan rolled his eyes. "Tell me something I don't know, Andromeda."
Andromeda drew her shoulders back. "Well, I went to him to ask about the file and he just said he didn't have time for me! And I think he might be really sick."
"Trance checked Harper out when he first returned to the ship and, other than a slight fever, she couldn't find anything wrong with him."
"I know," the hologram answered quietly, "but he isn't himself, Dylan. Something is definitely wrong."
Dylan nodded. "I feel the same way, Andromeda, but what can we do without knowing what the problem is?"
Andromeda nodded sagely. "Then I guess I just wait for him to come to us about the file then?"
"No." Dylan shook his head. "No, I think you need to approach him again. Give him an hour and then seek him out. Tell him we need the information in that file and we can no longer wait for him to unlock it himself. Don't give him a way out."
"But if he is really ill "
Dylan stood and braced his hands on his desk. Speaking softly, he said, "Andromeda, let's think here. Trance says Harper is running a fever but is otherwise healthy. Harper has downloaded a file from someone we know to be extremely anti-Commonwealth. Now Harper is acting weird, even for Harper, and says he can't access this file. It all stinks as far as I'm concerned. And we can't forget the fact that Saoirse found Harper adrift --- in a perfectly good slipfighter!"
"So, you're saying something just isn't right about the whole situation."
"Exactly." Dylan walked around his desk and sat on the front edge. He thought for a moment before suddenly activating his com link. "Rhade?"
"What have you and Rommie come up with? I need answers and I need them now!"
We're still analyzing the data we've collected, Dylan. I also want to go over the ship one more time. I'll let you know when we're ready.
"Great, Rhade. Just hurry. I need to know what's going on with Harper."
Right, Dylan. Rhade out.
Dylan looked at Andromeda. "Let's leave Harper alone for a while, Andromeda. Monitor him --- make sure he's okay, but don't pester him about the file again until I've had a chance to talk to Rommie and Rhade."
Rommie nodded once and then shimmered out, leaving Dylan alone again.
"Just what have you gotten yourself into this time, Mr. Harper?" Dylan asked softly.
It was nearly two hours later when Rhade caught up with Dylan on the Command Deck.
"Dylan? May I have a moment?" he asked softly, looking around at the crewmembers who were nearby as if daring them to try to eaves drop on his conversation.
Dylan looked up quickly and nodded. He motioned for Rhade to follow him, after handing command over to a nearby crewmember. As they walked down the corridor, he activated his com unit. "Beka? I need you to assume command."
Beka's voice was tinny over the com link. I thought you were on duty, Dylan.
He smiled. "I am --- and I need you to relieve me for a while. Something has come up that requires my presence elsewhere."
He heard a distinct sigh before she assented to report to the bridge.
"Thank you, Beka."
Yeah, yeah --- you owe me, Dylan.
He smiled and continued down the corridor, matching his stride to that of the Nietzschean walking with him. "So, where are we heading?"
Rhade glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "To Hangar Bay 7."
Nothing more was said until the pair reached the hangar bay. To Dylan's surprise Trance, as well as Rommie, was waiting for them.
Dylan frowned. "Trance? What are you doing here?"
Trance opened her mouth to answer but Rhade interrupted. "Rommie and I thought we needed her --- expertise, so we called her."
Dylan ran his hands through his hair. "This is about Harper, isn't it?"
"Beka is going to be pissed that we left her out, you know."
Rhade nodded and then grinned. "Yeah --- but she'll get over it. You can fill her in later."
Dylan sighed. "Sometimes it sucks to be in charge."
Rhade laughed and pulled Dylan forward.
It was Rommie who filled the silence. "We have found the reason that Harper was found adrift."
Dylan waited --- and finally sighed. "Well? Are you going to tell me? Or is this some huge secret and you brought me here just to tantalize me with the knowledge that you know something that I don't?"
Rommie looked flustered for a moment before continuing. "Well, as I was saying, Rhade and I have examined the slipfighter and have found evidence of tampering."
"Yes, Dylan. If our scans are correct, the fuel cells were tampered with so, when Harper entered slip stream for the first time, the fuel cells overloaded the navigation system and burned through nearly all the available fuel, leaving just enough for a few hours of life support."
"Amazingly like the escape pod we set Gerentex adrift in," Dylan murmured.
"Exactly," Rommie affirmed. "Now, it only stands to reason that, if Gerentex knew Harper was stealing from him, which is evidenced in the way the slipfighter was sabotaged, then possibly the file Harper stole was also tampered with."
Dylan frowned. "I don't follow that logic, Rommie."
Trance stepped forward. "Let me, Rommie. Dylan, the slipfighter was tampered with to mimic almost exactly the conditions Gerentex was left with when you set him adrift."
"I got that part, Trance."
Trance smiled. "It only stands to reason then "
"That, if Gerentex knew to rig the slipfighter in that manner then he knew one of my crew was stealing from him," Dylan interrupted excitedly. "He probably made Harper shortly after he landed on Minas 7 and he set him up."
"Exactly. And if he rigged the slipfighter, how far-fetched is it that he also rigged the file?"
Dylan shook his head. "But how do you rig a file? What could he have possibly done that would prevent Harper from opening the file once he downloaded it?"
Rommie chimed in next, after looking around at Trance and then Rhade. "We think Gerentex infected the file with malicious code."
"Malicious code --- as in a computer virus?"
"But --- how would that harm Harper?"
Trance piped up. "Well, he is exhibiting signs of a simple virus, namely headache and fever."
"Okay but what about the computer part?"
"I think that, when Harper tries to interface with me, the virus will be unleashed and will try to take control of the Andromeda," Rommie offered.
Dylan mused. "I agree with that summation, and agree we will need to set safeguards, but what else? Harper is acting really strange --- and the file hasn't even been opened."
Trance nodded. "Dylan is correct. Something else is happening and it very well could be from the same code. When he was in medical before, I noted some abnormal readings on his brain scans. It's as if he was having very elaborate, very vivid, hallucinations. I didn't understand those readings until just now. If he has downloaded a computer virus, for lack of a better analogy, then there is no telling just what else could have been implanted at the same time."
Dylan paced. "Knowing Gerentex, it would be something devious --- probably designed to tear the crew apart. Having us at each other's throats would distract us while the virus was taking over the ship."
Rhade nodded. "Of course. So now what?"
Dylan stopped pacing and stared around at his crewmembers. "First, I think we need to include Beka in on this. Rhade, go get her and bring her to the briefing room. Turn command over to the most senior of the bridge crew. We'll meet you there in five minutes."
"Right." Rhade hurried out of the hangar deck.
"Rommie, I need you to check on Harper. Where is he right now?"
Rommie's eyes closed briefly. When she opened them again she frowned. "It looks like Mr. Harper is taking a nap, Dylan."
"A nap? Well, that will at least keep him out of our hair while we set things up. Trance, I need you to work with Andromeda. She is monitoring him. We'll discuss your findings in the briefing room when we're all assembled."
Exactly five minutes later found them all assembled in the briefing room. Dylan was pacing as Beka and Rhade, the last two to arrive, joined them.
"What's going on here?" Beka demanded as she took a seat at the long table.
Dylan wasted no time filling her in on Harper's situation.
She pushed to her feet. "Harper's been what?"
Dylan nodded. "Just what I said. We believe Mr. Harper has been infected with a computer virus, designed to not only take over the Andromeda, but to tear the crew apart at the same time. We just need to find a way to isolate it and to remove all traces from Harper."
"Just --- only --- hell, Dylan! Harper is my crew! He's my responsibility! And you're only now telling me this?"
"Calm down, Beka. Harper is a member of our crew and is our responsibility. And he's a big boy. He wanted this mission. Now that he's in trouble, we all need to work together to salvage the mission as well as the man. Do you think you can reign yourself in enough to do that?"
"Right, I can behave myself if it will help Harper," Beka grumbled.
"Good, then to the matter at hand." Dylan turned to Trance. "Trance, what can you tell us about Harper?"
Trance pulled up a schematic on the computer screen. "This is a replica of what I can accomplish with a medical scanner in the medical bay, with a few minor variations. It isn't nearly as detailed, although it still gives us much information." She took a deep breath as she looked around at her audience. "Harper is still running a fever. He has been asleep for over an hour now and is having very vivid dreams, as evidenced by the neural scans we were able to obtain. He is also suffering from headaches, which seem to be increasing in intensity as time goes on. They are much more severe now than when I checked him out in medical when he first came back on board the Andromeda."
"What does this tell us, Trance?" Dylan inquired.
She shrugged. "Not much, I'm afraid. It would be better if we could isolate him in the medical bay and interface with his data port. Then we might be able to discern exactly what his dreams are about and see about removing the virus from his system."
"But wouldn't that put the Andromeda at risk for infection?"
Trance nodded. "And that's just what Gerentex would want. Andromeda would be vulnerable to attack then and we could, theoretically, be ambushed and defeated."
Beka frowned. "So what now? We can't just leave him like this."
"And I want that file," Dylan added.
Beka pushed away from the table. "You and your damned file! This is what got Harper into this mess in the first place."
Dylan sat back, knowing she needed to blow off steam. "You're right, Beka. But the file isn't doing anyone any good stuck in Harper's currently overtaxed brain now, is it?" He leaned forward. "Like it or not, we're stuck with this situation. We just need a way to get the file," he looked to Beka, "and the malicious code, out of Harper's brain without frying him or the Andromeda in the process." He looked around the table. "I'm open to suggestions, people."
Trance flipped the monitor to a visual of Harper's quarters. Everyone was stunned into silence by the sight of the slight engineer writhing on the bed, muttering in his sleep.
"What's he saying, Trance?" Beka asked softly.
"Well, most of what he's muttering is indistinguishable," she hedged.
"Go on," Dylan prodded, unable to tear his eyes from the horrible sight of his friend.
"Well, one word keeps repeating."
Dylan finally looked at her. "What word?"
Trance looked down, away from Dylan's eyes. "Saoirse."
"Saoirse." The name echoed in the now silent room and everyone suddenly looked uncomfortable. Dylan watched their faces as they tried not to look at him and he stood, pushing away from the table. Before he could say anything, Harper cried out and jumped from his bed. Everyone spun around to watch the view screen again.
"Trance, go to him. See if you can keep him calm."
Trance nodded to Dylan and walked quickly from the room.
"Rommie, use your judgment on this --- but be sure to keep yourself, and the ship, safe from harm. Set up a safety zone in the matrix before you let Harper interface with you. Don't let him in so far that whatever this file is can contaminate the entire system."
Rommie nodded slowly. "Like using a firewall --- a buffer between Harper and the rest of the system. It might work."
"Good." Dylan nodded. "Now, I'll give Trance a chance to calm Harper down a little and then I'll go check on them --- find out just what's been inserted into that slightly demented brain of his."
"Very funny, Dylan," Beka groused.
Dylan raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, but you have to admit, this could only happen to him! Now go --- cover command for me. Rhade, help her. If anything happens to Andromeda when Harper interfaces, I'll need my best people at the helm."
"Right, Dylan," they both said together and then walked out of the briefing room, heading for the Command Deck.
"Okay," Dylan murmured in the empty room. "Let's get this show on the road."
"Um --- go away!" Harper called out as his door chime sounded.
"It's me, Harper. I need to see you," Trance called.
"Are you alone?"
"Come on in then," Harper answered, not answering her question.
Trance walked in the room, not surprised to see Harper standing uncomfortably on the far side of the bed, his arms wrapped around his body as if to shield himself.
"How are you feeling, Harper?" she asked cheerfully.
Harper shook his head slowly, looking over her shoulder as if expecting someone else to walk in. Trance turned, looking behind her, before looking back at Harper.
"What's the matter, Harper? Who else were you expecting?"
Harper took one step forward before hunching in on himself again. "Did she tell him?" he hissed fearfully, as he wiped the sweat from his face with one sleeve.
Trance frowned. "Did who tell who what?"
Harper looked around fearfully. "Saoirse. Did she tell Dylan?"
Trance took a step forward and Harper jumped up to cower against the far wall. "Tell Dylan what, Seamus?"
Harper slid down the wall, crouching into the corner. "Did Saoirse tell Dylan we slept together? Does he know that I --- that we --- betrayed his trust? Tell me, Trance. Is Dylan gonna kill me? Kick me off the Andromeda?"
Trance sighed softly. "Oh, Seamus. Nothing like that is going to happen."
Harper laughed, a mirthless little barking sound. "How can you be so sure?"
Trance stepped forward again. "Because nothing happened between you and Saoirse."
Harper shook his head vigorously. "You don't know, Trance. You can't know." He sobbed once and then put his hands over his face. "The memories are so vivid. It's like I'm reliving them --- over and over again." Harper looked up at Trance then, his eyes bright. "I can feel her --- taste her. By the Divine, Trance --- I can't get the past week out of my head! How can you tell me it's not real?"
Trance smiled sadly and sat on the edge of Harper's bed. Just then the door chime sounded and in walked Dylan. Harper squealed and hid his head, cowering in the corner.
Trance stood and faced Dylan. "Great timing, Dylan," she scolded gently.
"What?" he asked, clearly confused by her reprimand. He then looked over to where Harper was cowering. "Harper?"
Harper was mumbling something under his breath, hiding his head from Dylan. When Trance stepped closer she could just make out the litany. "Don't kill me. Don't kill me. Don't kill me," he repeated over and over again.
Trance turned to Dylan. "I think you should go, Dylan. Your presence seems to be upsetting Harper."
"Upsetting him? Whatever for?" Dylan demanded.
Trance walked over to the captain of the Andromeda Ascendant and leaned up, whispering in his ear. "The computer virus has convinced Harper that he and Saoirse spent the last week together --- having a torrid affair. He's positive you're going to kill him."
Dylan was stunned and could barely choke out, "How? How could a computer virus do that --- something so specific and personal?"
Trance shrugged. "How isn't really important, Dylan. Harper has only been gone a few days so we know the memories he is reliving are false ones. Right now, what's important is making him better." Trance placed her hand on Dylan's arm and he looked down at her. "Dylan, in the last hour alone, his temperature has risen three degrees. If we don't act now, we could lose him."
"Lose him?" The confusion on Dylan's face was almost comical in its sincerity.
"He'll die, Dylan."
Trance nodded sagely and turned back to face the young man huddled on the floor. Dylan's gaze followed hers and he growled softly in frustration.
"I'll send Rommie in, Trance." He sighed, as if struggling with what to say. Finally he ground out a simple, "Fix this." He then walked quickly from the room.
By the time Rommie joined Trance and Harper a few minutes later, Trance had at least coaxed him up off the floor and had him sitting on the edge of the bed. Rommie was distressed to see him rocking slightly, arms hugged tightly around his body.
He huddled deeper into himself, curling over his lap.
Rommie sat next to him on the bed, not touching, but clearly in his personal space. "Do you remember a conversation we had a while back, Harper?"
He peered up at her from under lowered lids but didn't say anything.
Rommie continued. "It was just after our battle with the World Ship and you had been infested with Magog eggs." Rommie watched as Harper shuddered slightly. "You wanted to end it all and I convinced you to stay. We agreed to something that day, Harper. Do you remember what it was?"
He whispered something then, too low for Trance to hear, but Rommie's enhanced hearing was able to discern the words.
She smiled. "That's right, Harper. I'll fix you --- and you'll fix me."
"Can't fix this, Rommie," Harper whispered. "I did something horrible. I've ruined my friendship with Dylan and when he finds out what I've done, he'll kick me off the Andromeda."
"I heard what you told Trance, Harper --- and I'm here to tell you that it didn't happen."
Harper looked at Rommie for a full minute and then turned to Trance. She nodded and he frowned as he looked back at Rommie again. "How can you say that? I have these memories --- wonderful memories."
Rommie took Harper's hand in hers and looked him in the eye. "Harper, you have only been away from the Andromeda for four and a half days."
"Four --- four and a half days?" Harper pulled away from Rommie. "That's not possible. We were at the beach for a week! I taught her to surf. We made love in the sand. We " he trailed off and looked around with wounded eyes. "It didn't happen?" He sounded so lost that Trance yearned to take him into her arms and soothe the heartache away.
"No Harper. It didn't happen."
"Then --- how?" he asked.
"Rommie?" Trance pleaded.
"Well, it seems that, somehow, Gerentex found out about the Commonwealth wanting to put an end to his 'business' so he was waiting. He not only sabotaged your slipfighter, leaving it drifting in space, but also attached a computer virus to the file you stole."
Harper shook his head. "A computer virus? No way. A computer virus can't infect a human."
"Well, this one did. The initial scans indicate that this virus has been modified. It was designed for you, Harper. Gerentex knew the Commonwealth would send Dylan on this mission, so he had a virus designed that would infect the human who tried to steal his information --- you. He then sabotaged your slipfighter, hoping you would die in space."
Harper shook his head. "I just don't get it."
"He infected his entire database, knowing that, should you actually get in, any file you downloaded would kill you. He was counting on his security system stopping you before you got that far, so the file you got should be the real thing. We should be able to track his movements and stop him once and for all. And if you somehow managed to get past the security system, he figured you would die --- adrift in space."
"But --- my memories. How?"
"We'll have to study it further, but we believe the virus zeroed in on the first person you saw after it started to affect you --- and that person was Saoirse. Your --- subconscious --- merely took over and put her into your most treasured fantasies."
Harper hung his head. "How am I going to face Dylan --- or Saoirse?" He looked up at Rommie. "Can we get rid of this --- thing in me?"
She smiled. "We're going to try. I need you to interface with the ship's computer. We've set up a controlled environment so the computer virus can't disable us. I'm hoping that we can download the virus into the controlled space behind the firewall and isolate it from the rest of the matrix --- and, eventually destroy it, after we retrieve all the information we need, of course."
Harper nodded. "Okay --- let's do it."
Trance stepped forward. "I think we should take this to the medical bay. That way, I can monitor Harper adequately during the interface."
Rommie stood and reached her hand out to Harper. He looked up at her and, at her nod, put his hand in hers and let her pull him to his feet where he swayed slightly before finding his balance.
Rommie smiled. "Let's go, shall we?"
Harper nodded and let Rommie and Trance lead him from the room.
Once in the medical bay, Trance had Harper lie under a scanner. She watched the screen, monitoring the readings from the scanner while Rommie brought a computer monitor closer to the gurney Harper was lying on.
Rommie stood by the bed, looking down at Harper. "You ready for this?"
He nodded, looking from Rommie to Trance and back again. "Let's just get it over with, okay?" He pulled a cable from his pocket, plugged it into his dataport and handed the other end to Trance. "Want to do the honors, gorgeous?" he quipped.
Rommie looked down at Harper, placed her hand on the screen and smiled at him. "Follow me in, Harper. I'll be there with you the entire time."
He nodded and Trance plugged the cable into the computer console. His eyes fluttered shut as his consciousness was transported into the matrix.
Harper was in the Obs Deck, sitting on the ledge in front of the large view port, his knees drawn up to his chest and his arms wrapped around them. He'd spent two days in medical under Trance's care and had just been let loose the evening before. This was the first time he'd been out of his quarters since then, preferring to lay low and keep to his own company for a while.
The sound of the door whisking open and then closed again startled him out of his reverie and he turned to see Dylan walking across the room toward him. Harper quickly swung his legs over the side of the ledge and prepared to jump down.
Dylan held up his hand. "Stay, Harper."
Harper hesitated and then pulled his legs up again. He watched Dylan warily as he approached.
Dylan stopped a few feet away from Harper and leaned his elbows on the ledge. He stared out at the surrounding stars for a few moments before speaking. "So, how are you feeling?"
Harper hadn't taken his eyes off his captain. He licked his lips nervously. "I'm --- I'm good, Dylan," he said softly.
Dylan nodded. "That's good, Mr. Harper. You've been missed."
Harper watched warily, wondering why Dylan had sought him out.
"I'm sorry for putting you in danger, Harper. I should have sent someone with you."
"No! Dylan --- I'm sorry I screwed this up. It was my fault," Harper stammered.
Dylan turned to face him as Harper dropped his head into his hands.
"I knew it! You don't trust me."
Dylan took hold of Harper's shoulders. "No. Harper, that's not it at all." He sighed and Harper looked up into his eyes. "Harper, you didn't screw up --- and I trust you. Hell, I let you take care of Andromeda, don't I? And she is the most important thing in my life. I screwed this up --- not you. I should have realized Gerentex still held a grudge against me --- against us. I never should have sent anyone in there alone."
Harper nodded. "Even Rhade?"
Dylan smiled and let go of Harper, turning once again to face out the view port. "Even Rhade. No one should have gone in alone. I'm sorry for that, Harper."
"It's okay, Dylan." He turned to look out of the view port also. "Are we good, Dylan?" he asked softly after a few minutes.
"Yes we are, Harper. We're good."
Harper nodded. "Good."