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[ Part 1: The Love of an Aunt ]
Gladys set her fork gently on the plate in front of her, sat back and let out a satisfied sigh. "Whew, that was a mighty fine dinner, little lady."
Jan slid her chair back and stood up, taking an empty plate in each hand over to the kitchen counter. "Yeah, you know, pushing the synthesize button - it's an art form," she replied sarcastically.
James smiled, "Jan gets insulted when you compliment her domestic skills, Gladys."
Jan paused, thinking, then said, "I'm going out."
Her father quickly turned and spoke, "Hey, you're not going out!"
"Why not?" She asked, stacking the used dishes.
"Because, we have company, and because you were going to stay a little closer to base."
Jan was scraping the remainders from the last plate into the garbage with increasing anxiousness. "Dad, I'm not going to..." She stopped and thought. "I told you I understood, and you said you trusted me."
James chuckled, "Maybe I trust you a little too much."
Jan dropped the dish and knife. "That's not fair! I told the guys I--"
James interrupted, "I don't care what you told the guys. Say you're in for the night."
Gladys quickly intervined and stood up, taking a few more dishes from the table over to Jan. "I'll, uh, help you with those dishes."
"We just dump them in the sink," Jan said.
"Then I reckon I can help you dump." Gladys rested her hand on Jan's shoulder and faced James. "You go watch some sports Jim, the ladies'll clean up." James got up and walked out of the room. Gladys gave Jan a light hug, "He's a good man, your father."
"--If you're not his daughter. If you're his daughter, he's a jackass."
"Jim?" Gladys smirked. "He was always a jackass, girl." Jan and Gladys laughed together as they sorted the cutlery.
"If your mother hadn't taken pity on him, that boy'd still be single."
"Did you know her?" Jan asked curiously.
"Oh..." Gladys had to consider what she'd say next. "Some parts of his life Jim never wanted to touch."
"Oh, yeah," Jan sighed, and turned the washer on. "But, I mean, at least you guys had lives. I mean, I make one little mistake, and I'm not allowed to leave the stupid tenement."
"You heard him - dad."
"That dog won't hunt, Jan." She leaned back against the counter as Jan went to sit down. "When I joined the marines, I didn't ask my mama's permission."
"Does he know you're in here, like, encouraging insurrection?"
Gladys reached out and ran her hand lovingly over Jan's hair. "Oh sure, your daddy just wants to keep you safe."
Gladys lowered her head and whispered, "But he's still a jackass."
They laughed together, and Jan recalled a time when she was younger. "I caught him reading a manual once." Gladys laughed incredulously as Jan continued, "Navy publication FM-973 - Child Rearing for Part-Time and Auxiliary Personnel. You should have seen the chapter on discipline."
Gladys laughed heartily once more.
The smile on Jan's face turned to deep thought. "Hey, when you were my age, did you... could you..." Jan was searching for words.
"You gonna spit this out before sunrise?"
"Well there was this guy I met and, something he said just started me thinking--"
Gladys leaned back. "Oh..."
Jan turned to face her over the chair. "I've been... tweaked up, haven't I? Not like you and dad, I know that. But some."
Gladys shook her head. "Honey, I--"
Jan interjected, not wanting to give the wrong impression, "--And that's ok. Hey, I'm greatful. But, let me do something with it. Let me do something..."
Gladys crossed her arms and thought for a second. "You've got something to prove."
"Just to myself." Jan went over to the washer to set up the next load of dishes.
"You play moons?" Gladys asked.
Gladys chuckled, "I bet Jim taught you a thing or two."
Jan straightened herself properly and impersonated her, "'Boys 'n balls, rack'em and break'em.'"
Gladys exclaimed, "Good damn, that's me you're quoting! Me, back before I--"
"--man discovered fire?" Jan jokingly interrupted.
Gladys stood her ground and shook a finger. "Uh-uh-uh, I will slap you as soon as look at you missy, now you just remember that."
Jan giggled, "Dad...!" Mockingly calling out to him to come and save her.
Gladys pushed on, "--My point being, I stop by a moon parlor on the bus ride in. A place called Sharfie's."
Jan recalled, "I've heard about it. Nothing good. Cops don't go to that part of town."
Gladys looked at Jan. "But, a girl like you could use a glimpse of...reality -- Straighten out your priorities."
Jan couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Dad would freak out if he heard you! I think you were supposed to be a soothing maternal influence."
Gladys placed a dish in the washer. "Yeah, well, soothing isn't my long-suit." She ruffled Jan's hair, "Don't you worry about your dad, I rank him anyhow."
Jan and Gladys chuckled.
[ Babysitter Challenge ]
Jan walked into the bar and looked around. The place was filled with the rank smell of patrons who visit regularly and rarely leave; the scent of spilled liquor, smoldering cigarettes, and unwashed bodies winding down after a day of hard work at their various jobs. Jan was antsy as she looked over a larger woman sitting at the bar, with tattered hair and a ripped leather jacket, slouched over her glass. She could sense hidden eyes, watching her and glancing over her as she walked up to the bar, but she kept up her calm, confident exterior. "Can I get a table?"
A waitress turned to her, looking her over. "Hey, what are you doing in here?"
"Playing moons if you don't mind," Jan replied toughly, with an attitude she deemed appropriate.
Suddenly in the distance, she heard a large crash of dishes. A few heads turned toward the commotion. A tall, scraggy man in a long leather jacket was standing, cowering over another man, sitting on the floor, patting his bleeding mouth. The first man was yelling, "Who do you think you are, grub? Huh?? Big enough man to lie to my face? Imagine you can tussle with Thin Kinkle?" He advanced a bit and the man on the floor tried to push himself back, cutting his hands on the broken glass.
The man on the floor raised his bleeding hand, pleading, "Come on Thin, I mean, come on! I wouldn't lie! Gimme a PQI if you don't believe me."
Jan asked sideways to the waitress. "What's going on?"
The waitress hushed Jan, "Dammit, zip up your shirt all the way and shut up!" She turned around and continued to work, pretending like nothing was happening. Jan noticed others in the bar hadn't made any move, or seemed to have even noticed the commotion, like it happened every day.
Jan took a few steps, inconspicuously walking around the scene as Thin continued his diatribe. "For the sake of argument, say I slide you this time. Sends a message doesn't it?" Thin's voice had a very snakey sound to it, making Jan's skin crawl. "'Come on over! Free lunch on Thin!' -- Ain't happenin, Paolo! Ain't happenin!" Thin was now practically screaming at the man.
Paolo was shaking and panicking, backed against the bar on the floor. "Oh, oh god- god, oh god, please god... think of my family!"
Jan whispered to herself, convinced she had to step in. "Reality, huh? Thanks, Aunt Gladys." She stepped forward and walked up to Thin. "Hey! Nobody told me it was dime-store bully night, is there a drink special with that?"
Heads turned, comments were muttered, and ears were piqued as people in the bar noticed she wasn't minding her own business. Thin himself turned his head at the new voice which seemed to taunt him. He looked Jan, checked her out, and turned to face her fully. "Come to the mall, nice little girl! No babysitting jobs at Sharfie's tonight..." He glanced at a bulge in her jacket. "Is that the tip of an M6 I see poking out from under your jacket, babysitter, or are you just excited to meet Thin Kinkle?" He slowly swaggered towards her.
"M6C." Jan's declaration was met with 'ooh's and 'ahh's from the onlookers.
Impressed, Thin replied, "Chambered a 12-7."
Thin spread his arms and smiled. "There's more than 12 of us!" He was met with cheers and laughs from his friends.
Jan smirked and pointed at Thin. "There's only one of you!"
Paolo spoke up at Jan, "Whoah woah! Are you trying to get me killed?"
"Gee, you're welcome." Jan smoothly replied and unsheathed her pistol, pointing it at Thin. With no hint of fear, she glared at Thin. "Let him go."
Thin's eyes widened for a second, but the smirk returned. "Now, see, that was a young move. Whoever's running you needs to smooth out some edges here. You can't put the hammer to Thin in his own place! I got a deal for you." He lowered his arms.
Thin took a few steps. "See the grub, let's play for his skin! We'll play moons - you win, the grub slides. I win, why... I guess, I get your skin." Thin looked her over again, suggestively.
Jan mocked, "Gee, I'm under age sir, an offer like that would be illegal." She unchambered the gun and slid it back in her jacket.
"I guess then, if I win, I'll find some... babysitting for you to do." He slid past Jan, rubbing against her. She cringed.
[ Gimme Some Skin ]
Thin took a shot with his cue, and sunk a ball. Jan watched on, calculating her surroundings - the men scattered around the room with their eyes focused, glaring at her; the location of the exits; the shortest time it would take her to grab, cock, and fire her pistol if she were jumped unexpectedly; the location of potential weapons she could grab if necessary - extra cue sticks, bottles, even the shards of glass on the floor around where Paolo had been crawling.
Thin taunted, "Tricky game, moons! You hit too hard - they stick, too soft - they skate. Do it just right," His shot was slow and accurate, just enough to tip a ball into the side pocket. "And they obey your commands. They work for you." He hit the cue ball hard and spread the balls giving Jan a difficult shot.
Jan's eyes glanced from ball to ball, looking for a shot and finding possible angles. She walked over in front of Thin and bent down, taking aim. "Uh huh. Or, you can slap them so hard, they run for cover." Her shot was quick and powerful, sinking two balls as Thin watched on, his cold eyes hiding his surprise. "Bark at them, and they jump." She aimed and shot again, sinking another ball. "Tickle them, and they laugh." A shot off the side, rebounded twice, knocked another, and sunk one. Jan slid up to Thin, close enough to feel his breath on her face. "Kiss them," she whispered seductively, while lining up her shot out of the corner of her eye. "And they fall in love." Thin only had to hear a ball fall into a pocket to realize this girl meant business, but his mind was elsewhere that particular moment. Jan walked to the other side of the table. "And if you shoot them," she said as she lined up the next shot. She announced, "8 off the rag, play the kiss on the suicide bar, backspin into the corner pocket--" A variety of gasps and astonished comments arose from those watching the game. "I say, shoot them--" Jan took her last shot in the game, then stood, locking her eyes with Thin's, unblinking, as the final three balls sunk one by one. She grinned impishly. "--They die."
[ Gimme Your Resume ]
Thin knew a good moons player when he saw one. As a show of good sportsmanship, he kept his word and let Paolo go. "You win Babysitter, here's your skin."
Paolo got up, picked up his things and scurried to the exit. "I'll have to move to Africa now, it's someplace nobody ever goes. It's, Tibet, or it's... Antarctica, or... Indiana for God's sake."
"I keep waiting for the teary-eyed gratitude here," Said Jan over her shoulder, watching Paolo flee without a thanks.
"You'll be waiting a while." Thin furrowed his brow and paced a few steps. "Hey, Babysitter."
"Yeah?" Jan headed back to the bar to get a drink.
"Maybe drop off a resume on your way out the door." He rested his elbow on the bar. "Good looking crazy girls with guns - I've always got work for them."
"Yeah, I'm more of an independent study girl."
"I could teach you some things... but, it's your funeral." Thin was fishing.
"Sooner than you think," he said as he stood up and turned to leave.
Jan grabbed his sleeve. "Is.. that a threat?"
"No, just experience. I'm past 30, I've been around forever. Retirement comes sudden to people like you and me."
Jan shook her head and went back to her drink. "I am nothing like you."
Thin chuckled, "We'll see," and walked away.
[ Part 2: Audit Blues ]
Jersey opened the door to his apartment and set his bag on the table. He was looking forward to relaxing for the day. To his delight, the lights adjusted, some ambient jazz began playing, and he could smell the faint scent of food as he removed his shoes. He smiled, knowing Durga had been waiting for him.
"Hey, thanks." He said to the air.
Durga replied, "For what?"
"The lights and the music."
Just then he heard the bing of the flash cooker. "Chili is heated up," said Durga.
"Chili? I was just thinking I'd have chili tonight. You knew that?" If Durga could read minds too, Jersey was in heaven.
"No. But I analyzed your food buying habits over the last 7 months, and chili seemed liked a statistically robust option."
Holy crap, Jersey thought, "That's scary."
"What's wrong?" She asked inquisitively.
"It's not wrong, it's just scary."
"No, when you came in. You seem distressed." Durga's abilities including analyzing physical readings from building sensors, voice modulations, even video feeds, where available.
"No," he said, but he couldn't hold it and gave in. "Man, I've got trouble." Jersey walked to a table and sat down with his head resting in his hand.
"Tell me about it."
"It's in my Inbox. I'm surprised you don't know about that."
"I don't read your mail, Jersey," Durga stated.
Jersey was confused. "You extrapolate my eating habits based on my grocery store purchases, but you don't read my mail?"
"I respect your privacy."
"I don't believe you."
"You're smarter than people give you credit for."
Jersey spoke up, "Which people?"
Durga avoided the subject. "Tell me what's wrong. I can help."
"Don't even worry about it, I've got it under control. How's your weekly soap opera going?
"It's been a little frustrating this week, following Kamal."
Jersey was slightly amused, a bit curious, but moreso cautious about the intensity with which Durga seemed to be almost stalking Kamal. "What is it with you and that guy?"
"Because he gave his chatter away. I'm sending him another one though."
"You're sending him another one?" Jersey curled his brow.
"He won it in a raffle."
Durga was obviously playing with public systems and records. "It's not like the guy doesn't know he didn't enter a raffle."
"He didn't think he had until he found the ticket stubs in his account."
"Jeezus..." He was shocked that Durga could so easily, without inhibition, alter public records and hack into personal accounts simply to make things better for someone. Wouldn't there be repercussions? Missed unpatched holes that could be traced back? Or was Durga really that powerful...
"...Time-stamped 5 months ago to a night he bought a case of beer."
Jersey walked over to the console to raise the jazz volume slightly, and whimpered, "I never get cool stuff in the mail." Then he quickly corrected himself, "Uh, besides you."
As Jersey walked back to the table, Durga said, "Hm. Well, you'll like this." The jazz music silenced as the replay of a recording began.
Jersey heard the sound of cues and billiards, and the murmur of various patrons in what sounded like a bar. Then he heard Jan's voice, and leaned to hear better.
"Or, you can slap them so hard, they run for cover. Bark at them, and they jump. Tickle them, and they laugh."
Durga paused the playback.
"What is she doing?" Jersey asked.
Durga simply replied, "Playing."
"Oh man, is she winning?"
The playback restarted as Jan continued, "Kiss them--" The way Jan said those words sent shivers through Jersey's spine. "--And they fall in love."
Durga ended the playback, and unsurprisingly confirmed, "She's winning..." Durga then changed the subject. "So why does the IRS want to audit you?"
Jersey jumped. "You did read my mail!"
"No, but I'm scanning the rest of the country's mail - your name came up."
Jersey kicked himself, once again realizing that just because she doesn't do one thing, doesn't mean she can't do millions of others at the same. "Taxes suck."
"So don't pay them."
Jersey chuckled, "And spend a year sharing a cell with some guy named Spider? No thanks!" Jersey turned up the volume of the jazz music again.
"You won't go to jail, you have me."
Jersey was being cautious, but his curiosity was piquing. "Durga...?"
"Well, instead of owing them money, you could... not owe them money." Jersey raised an eyebrow. "Better yet, they could owe you. They could owe you a lot."
Jersey raised a hand and shook his head. "No! You can't do that."
"I'm pretty sure I can."
"You're not going to."
Beeps and tweets sounded as if Durga was doing it, teasing him. "I suspect I will."
"How much should we start with? How about the gross planetary product of Minister colony?"
"Are you insane?" Now Jersey was worried.
"You know, I'm not quite sure how we could test that."
Jersey stood up. "You can't channel tax money to me, taxes are for a reason. I mean, roads, drinking water..."
"I'm sure you'd use it wisely."
"Taxes paid for you!"
Jersey heard the sound of an audio playback, but it quickly halted as Durga said, "I don't see you giving me back to the government."
"Well, I should," Jersey stated.
Immediately the lights flickered a little and the jazz music slowed to a stop. Jersey glanced around and was left in silence. "Hey... hey! What's wrong? Why did the lights just flicker?"
As the lights steadied and the music returned to normal, Durga replied with a hint of anxiety, "Jersey, you... you're not going to give me back, are you?"
Jersey was a little surprised by her question. "No... No, I promise I won't give you back."
"Why? Why is it so important?"
"Because... Because I like you."
Jersey shrugged. "Who doesn't. But you don't know why you want to stay with me, do you?"
"There are things I want to do, and I... It doesn't matter. Anyway, about the auditor-"
Back on that again? Jersey thought. "Jeezus!" He walked back to the table.
"I could kill him... Would that help?"
Jersey spun and yelled, "No!"
Jersey walked to the console. "I want you to promise me... repeat after me - I, Durga, will not bankrupt the government."
"Oh, Ok." Durga repeated, "I, Durga, will not bankrupt the government."
"Either local, or national."
"Either local, or national," she echoed.
Jersey paced as he thought carefully about what else he'd make Durga swear. "Or shuttle money into my accounts."
"Or shuttle money into your accounts."
"Or physically hurt, or kill the auditor."
Durga exclaimed, "Daaaamn!"
"I'm serious here!"
Durga sternly replied, "So am I."
"Just, don't do anything weird at the audit, ok?"
"I won't divert funds. I won't kill the auditor."
Jersey finished her statement, "--or hurt him.
Durga clarified his continuation, "Or physically hurt him. I'll take care of it."
"I'll take care of it."
That comment sounded eerily familiar to Jersey.
[ Part 3: The Artifact Report ]
The clock was ticking in Herzog's office. He sat contemplating the glass and bottle of wine sitting at the corner of his desk, with his hands clasped under his chin. He reached for a glass as the lieutenant walked in the door. Herzog looked up and slid a second glass to the front of his desk, motioning him to take a seat.
"It's a little early for wine, isn't it sir?" Asked the lieutenant.
Herzog replied, "On the contrary, it's very nearly too late." The lieutenant sat down and picked up the bottle of wine, peering at the contents. Herzog leaned back in his seat with a smirk, crossing his fingers on his lap. In the cranky voice he immitated when he made the call about the receipt, he continued.
"Do you know what you're sloshing around there youngster? That's a high-house alt-burgundy 22."
The lieutenant rolled his eyes. "Uh please, sir, not the cranky old man."
"And what's wrong with the cranky old man?"
"It's excruciating to listen--"
The cranky old man interrupted, "--The old bastard's been very good to me over the years."
The lieutenant replaced the bottle. "I know sir."
Herzog started to say, "Let's me shout--" and the lieutenant finished the phrase with him, "--Without being noticed."
"I know, sir." The lieutenant picked up the bottle and uncorked it.
Herzog returned to his own voice. "I guess you jumped for joy when you heard you'd been transferred to me, huh?"
"I requested the posting sir."
"You did?" Herzog watched him intently as he poured a glass of wine.
The lieutenant answered with a hint of sarcasm, "It's hard to recall sir."
"All right, I deserved that."
"Yes sir." He replied, and reached out, handing the glass of wine to Herzog. "Here's your drink."
He took the glass and asked, "You've never had an alt burgundy lieutenant?"
"Um, no sir."
"You know why?"
"I don't drink."
"They don't make it any more."
The lieutenant sat up and furrowed his brow. "Regrettable sir. Perhaps the scent - tar, is it sir? - was not to everyone's taste." He considered himself an upright man, and decided long ago he wouldn't touch alcohol. But in his position, he decided to humour his superior officer. Not out of jest, but out of respect. He knew about Alt-Burgundy, and its effects. He'd had friends who had fallen prey to its calling.
Undeterred, Herzog continued, "They don't make it because alt burgundy comes from Jericho VII."
"Oh." The lieutenant was taken aback.
Herzog corrected himself, "--Came."
"I'm sorry sir."
Herzog sighed. "Ah hell, you weren't even born." He tipped his glass towards the empty one still on the desk. "Pour yourself a drink lieutenant."
"I don't..." He began, but Herzog didn't wait, and grabbed the bottle himself, pouring the glass. "--Very well, sir."
He lifted his glass to the lieutenant. "Here's to Jericho that fell, and a Sigma Octanus IV that did not."
The lieutenant lifted his glass in cheers. "Here-here, sir." As soon as he'd taken a sip he felt the burn, and instinctively began to cough. His body wasn't accustomed to the immediate effects of the drink.
"Well, it's not to everybody's taste..." Observed Herzog with a grin.
"Uh, no sir." The lieutenant struggled. He smacked his lips and wiped his eyes as they began to water.
While the lieutenant was busy recovering, Herzog lifted a folder he had placed to the side of his desk, and pulled out a sheet. He began reading from a report. "'Shortly before they turned for home, the Apocalypso, heavily cloaked and posted deep in Covenant space, began experiencing some slight but troubling anomalies with their computer systems.'" Herzog was now looking past the paper, reciting the report from memory. "'Just as her captain decided to bring her home, long range sensors detected a curious object adrift in space.'"
The lieutenant regained focus and watched intently as Herzog read. When he began recalling from memory, the lieutenant slipped the sheet from his hands and glanced over it. "Where did you get this? I read the reports - none of this is in here."
Herzog finished the thought. "'The object was roughly the size of a tire. A Covenant artifact of a completely new design unlike anything we've seen before'." He added, "and frankly pretty inscrutible. I talked to the Apocalypso's captain, that's how."
The lieutenant leaned forward, handing the report back. "Where are the records?"
Herzog leaned back and lifted the glass to his lips for a sip. "Well, surely the blast that knocked the ship out of the slipstream and took down the whole planet's comm channels erased all the computer records." Herzog took a sip.
"Except that's not what you think."
"Of course it is."
"You think the records have been erased."
"Not at all," replied Herzog, with an eerie calmness.
"...By someone from Section 3. Someone like Standish."
Herzog knew the lieutenant was close, but his suspicions needed to remain off the record. "Perish the thought."
The lieutenant became anxious. "We should talk to the captain again, sir. Get her to corroborate the official version."
Herzog knew the lieutenant wouldn't get anywhere. He'd already tried what he could to find out the truth. All he had now was a nagging suspicion with no proof. "Some accident involving a bus. Unluckiest thing in the world." Herzog consumed a larger gulp of wine.
The lieutenant's mind was racing. "You don't think... even if there was something important on the Apocalypso, something crucial to the war effort--"
Herzog continued the thought, "--Like a new piece of Covenant technology capable of crippling an entire solar system's C&C channels?"
The lieutenant tapped his chin in thought, "Although if you're right about Troy--"
"--Then Harmony - Harmony is the instructive one." Herzog stared at the remaining drop of wine in his glass.
"Oh..." The Lieutenant reflected on the ill fate of the human colony on Harmony. "What are you going to do?"
"Under the circumstances," Herzog reached for the wine bottle, "I think I'll have another drink."
[ Part 4: Nuke It Up ]
Kamal reached into the grocery bag, and pulled out the dinner he purchase. Hiro glanced at it and chuckled.
"What is that?"
"It's a chicken," replied Kamal happily.
"It's a raw chicken."
Kamal snipped the shrink-wrap and removed the chicken. "Sophia's coming for dinner tonight."
Hiro let out an excited "Hoohoo!" and leaned onto the table. "She and Aiden split up?"
"No, we're just friends."
"Kamal, nobody buys a whole chicken for a friend. Can you even cook?"
Kamal shrugged, "I finished med school, how hard can cooking be?"
Hiro surveyed the chicken from different angles. "Isn't raw chicken full of pathogens? Should it even be sitting on the counter that way? Oh, and I don't think our flash works."
"What do you mean?"
"What I said, I think it only microwaves." Kamal went to the flash to check it out. "I think the baking/cooking part is on the fritz."
Kamal pressed a few buttons to test if the flash was actually malfunctioning, finding it wasn't. He couldn't believe it, "It's not!"
Kamal looked at the flash, and shrugged realizing he simply had to resort to the longer way. "So I'll microwave it then."
Hiro at least had a semblance of knowledge of cooking, and knew the result wouldn't be...optimal. "I'm going out for dinner..."
[ Surgical Procedures ]
The microwave dinged its completion. Kamal took the chicken from the cooker and placed it on the table, just as Hiro walked into the kitchen, pretending to be on his way somewhere.
"Is it supposed to look like that?" He asked.
"Oh, yeah. It said to cut it up into 8 pieces." Kamal made sure to follow the instructions to the T.
"This doesn't look like normal pieces." Hiro once again took a closer look at the plate and its contents.
"Well, it... I looked up how to up cut a chicken, but then, some pieces are bigger, and some pieces are smaller, so I cut it up so it would be... you know, fair."
"Oh." Hiro raised an eyebrow. On the plate were a number of pieces of chicken, cut through the bones, sliced with surgical precision down the middle of sections of meat, some lengthwise through a bone, some across. One piece was even composed of ends of the ribs, and looked like it would fall apart the moment it was bitten. But to his credit, the pieces did appear even.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Asked Kamal.
"Nothing..." replied Hiro playfully.
Kamal knew he was hiding something. "Whaat?"
"Just that, when you do your surgery rotation, I want to be in another state."
Kamal gave in. He knew he must have split the chicken wrong somehow, but he didn't care. "You wait!" Kamal raised his arms as if in victory, "Soon - everyone will cut their chickens like this!"
"Uh, what about the people who want the skin left on?" Noticed Hiro, pointing to the pile of skin in the garbage.
Kamal waved it off. "Skin is overrated." Kamal enthusiastically explained more of his cooking skills. "It said to marinade it in... wor..chester..shire..sauce, and butter, but we didn't have w--that. So, I was going to use steak sauce, but we didn't have that, so I used ketchup!" Kamal realized what he just said. "It's pretty much the same... right?"
Hiro squinted. "We don't have butter either."
Kamal smiled, "So I used butter flavoured popcorn oil! Hey, it's butter flavoured!" Hiro winced.
Just then there was a knocking on their door. Kamal went to open it. He was greeted by the smiling face of Sophia. "Hi!" They said together.
Kamal grinned and stepped aside to invite her in. "Hi, thank you for coming." He was nervously stuttering for words.
Sophia smiled and nodded, "Thanks for having me."
"Oh, of course." Kamal closed the door, seeing Hiro out of the corner of his eye, grinning intently from the kitchen.
"Oh," expressed Sophia, as she sniffed the air. Her smile turned into a curious, awkward srcunch. "What's that smell?" She asked.
Hiro interjected emphatically from the kitchen, "Science!"
Kamal scowled and turned to Hiro. "Hiro, don't you have to be somewhere?" Hiro winked back, and Kamal corrected him. "It's chicken."
"I don't have to leave just yet." His mocking smile held as he walked over to join them.
Feeling a little embarrassed, Kamal said to Sophia, "I just had a taste for it, you know?"
Sophia smiled an innocent smile. "Uh huh."
Hiro arrived with an outstretched hand. "We haven't met. I'm Hiroyuki, Kamal's roommate."
"Hi," she said with a polite handshake, enjoying this little comedy.
Kamal was anxious to continue and bid Hiro farewell. "Of course, it's not traditional Coral food, not like you make."
Hiro finished, "Not like anyone makes."
Sophia burst out in laughter. Kamal clenched his teeth and sternly hinted, "My friend's just leaving..."
Hiro shrugged, "Hey, I'm like the surgeon general, man. She should be warned."
Sophia giggled and moved towards the kitchen. "Warned?"
"I had to make some substitutions in the recipe." Kamal was really embarrassed and uncertain of the meal now that Hiro had mocked him in front of Sophia.
"Oh. Um," Sophia humoured him. "Do you think it's done?"
"Well, stuff doesn't get brown in the microwave right?"
Sophia peeked in and looked around, taking in the bachelors' kitchen, seeing the plate of evenly cut pieces of the chicken on the counter. "Maybe I could finish it on the stove."
Hiro answered that question quickly, enjoying this extended introduction. "We don't have a regular stove. And the flash doesn't work."
Sophia was out of practical ideas. "Ah. Well..."
"Microwave it longer?" Kamal quickly answered, hoping to show he knew how at least to remedy the situation.
"Sure!" Sophia shrugged and shook her head. In its current condition, nuking it a little longer couldn't make it any worse.
Hiro grinned, looked up and sighed quite audibly, "Ah, few things in nature are as misunderstood as the playful salmonella bacterium. S-Typhi is the little dickins that--"
Kamal loudly interrupted and motioned with a few head tilts out the door, "Hiro! Aren't you going to be late?"
[ Rough Memories ]
Kamal and Sophia sat the pizza parlor, their mouths full of freshly baked pizza, surrounded by the murmour of the plaza's patrons.
"All day I was hoping you'd take me for pizza..." Sophia said as she separated another piece.
"Shut up!" Kamal pleaded with a smile.
She giggled and took a big bite of her slice. "Isn't it amazing how much soy pepperoni tastes like the real thing?"
Kamal had realized Sophia was a vegetarian when she ordered the soy toppings, and felt like an idiot having tried to cook a chicken; and incorrectly. "Do you eat pork?"
"If I did, my mother would know."
Sophia's background had her parents raising her on a strict diet regarding general meats. "She'd be in bed for a week, she'd wear black, and not tell anybody why."
"When I was a kid, my mother didn't care about that kind of thing." Kamal took a slice of the pizza. "After my sister died, she got way more strict."
"What happened to your sister?" Sophia asked with concern.
"Genetic disorder." Kamal held the slice in his hand. "It's funny, you know, when she was little, she was unstoppable. I mean, the best you ever saw."
"The best at what?"
"Everything! Smartest, fastest, strongest, brattiest..." They chuckled together, and he took a bite of his slice.
"Oh I dunno about that, you should meet my little brother," She said, recalling her own sibling.
Kamal continued, "When she was 4, I taught her to play backgammon. I was 8. I won the first 2 times we played, and then never again." Kamal beamed at the memory.
"You must suck," Sophia said bluntly, then giggled.
"I'm nearly sure she could throw certain numbers when she wanted to."
"The dice were loaded." She said confidently.
"No, that's just how coordinated she was." Kamal recalled how talented her sister was in almost anything she did, and even just recounting his sister, his awe was expressed. He opened his fist, palm up, "She could gauge the way they came out of her hand. That's what I think."
"Yeah, right..." Sophia laughed again, "Or, maybe you just suck."
It was like Kamal was in another world as he continued, "She loved languages. She taught herself... God, I haven't thought about this in years... She'd make Dad read a bed time story every night," Kamal's face was starting to flush as he excitedly recalled so many memories he'd pushed away long ago. "And then she would pretend to go to sleep listening to a chatter channel hot wired to some other language."
"And who set up those chatter programs for her?"
Kamal smirked, "It was easy."
"I think your sister was very lucky."
"She had a very active imagination. So like, once a week she would completely terrify herself. She would sneak into my room when she was supposed to be--"
"--Poking you over and over and over again until you woke up?" Sophia empathized, having a younger brother of her own, finishing his thought.
"Yeah, I told you I had a little brother," giggled Sophia.
"The night before the accident, she had convinced herself there were bad guys or burglars creeping around outside our house." Kamal waved his hands spookily at 'bad guys' and 'burglars', like telling a scary story. "I read her to sleep. Last time I ever..." Kamal's words slowed and trailed off as he stared into his glass, coming to the end of his fond memories.
Sophia's smile faded. "We don't have to talk about this."
Kamal looked up. "It's ok."
"I didn't mean to," Sopha shook her head.
"No, it's ok." Kamal sat up and took a deep breath. "Anyway, by the time I woke up, she had already gone outside and the thing had happened and she was in the hospital. And she was never right again." He took a sip from his drink.
"I'm so sorry. Do you want to tell me what happened?"
"She died from something called, uh," He searched his memory for the term, "'Metabolic cascade failure'-- Which is doctor speak for, 'everything falls apart'." Kamal took a deep breath, "She couldn't talk when she got back from the hospital, and couldn't walk a few weeks later."
Sophia hadn't touched her pizza for a while, engrossed in his story. "Oh my god."
"It took her a year to die."
"Oh my god, your poor parents."
"I used to take her out for walks... I would push her wheelchair around places we used to play, the swings, and... she didn't even recog..." Kamal swallowed the lump in his throat, and fought to continue. "Yasmine never lost at anything! Anything... I just couldn't believe that she-"
"It wasn't your fault, Kamal." Sophia touched his hand in support.
"Of course it wasn't."
"But you felt guilty."
"Yeah, but," Kamal chuckled, "Like the dog said, 'Why look back when all--'"
Sophia squeezed his hand and interrupted, "--don't. Don't."
"Don't joke about it," She looked into his eyes. "You dont have to do that with me."
Kamal blinked and pulled himself back to reality. "She was 6, I was 10. It was a long time ago." Kamal pulled away and picked up his unfinished slice of pizza. "Honestly Sophia, it's not something I carry around with me every day."
"Ok." Sophia sat up and crossed her arms. "One question."
"When did you decide to be a doctor?"
"Oh, I dunno, it just seemed like a good thing to..." Then it hit Kamal. Finally realizing that all this time, his desire to be a doctor was somehow to give back to world, to try and make up for what he felt was his own mistake, for where he felt he could have made a difference with Yasmine. He finally realized that he wouldn't have felt he had to 'make up' for anything if he didn't feel his sister's eventual death wasn't his own fault. With a sad recognition, he simply said, "Oh."
Sophia sympathized. "Yeah..."
[ Goodnight Kiss ]
Sophia giggled as they walked down the street, hopping from beneath overhang to overhang and over small puddles, trying to stay as dry as possible in the downpour. They arrived at Kamal's door, which was on Sophia's way home.
"Thanks for dinner, Kamal." They came to a stop and faced each other. "And, next time you want chicken, you buy it, and call me and I'll come over and cook it for you." She poked Kamal playfully.
"Deal..." He smiled, and looked over her smiling face, nervously thinking of what to say next. Then he noticed, "Uh, your hair's getting wet. In fact, you're... getting wet," he chuckled.
"It feels good!" Sophia giggled and lifted her hands to catch the rain drops. Then she smiled and looked at Kamal. "Dinner was great. It's great being with someone from home."
Kamal's heart was thumping. "Aiden'll never understand you the way I do."
"Aiden doesn't do understanding, Aiden does charm and he does excitement."
Kamal shook his head. "He's not good for you, Soph."
She chuckled, "That's the whole point. But you're right, Aiden isn't good for me. In fact, he's probably with some girl right now."
"Want me to check?" Kamal asked eagerly.
"No...! Actually, he's not with some girl right now because of you." Sophia tilted her head and took a step forward. "And for that, you get a kiss."
Kamal's heart skipped a beat, and he froze where he stood. Sophia leaned in and gently touched his cheek with her lips. The moment lasted forever for him. He wished it would never end, but that things could be different, for his favour.
She leaned back, and saw the flush in his cheeks. The two giggled together, and the tension relieved. Kamal didn't want the night to end, and asked, "You want to come inside? Just for a minute."
"Kamal... You know that wouldn't be right."
He shrugged, "Yeah."
Sophia touched his arm, and took hold of his hand. "You're a good friend, Kamal. I really treasure that."
"Yes, well..." Kamal fought the feelings, knowing the right thing to do. He swallowed hard and looked up at the sky. "No stars tonight. If it wasn't raining, we might even be able to see our own sun. Although there's probably too much ground light."
Sophia smiled, "There's always too much ground light. Good night Kamal." She squeezed his hand, and turned away to head home.
Kamal took a step towards his door and turned, his eyes following her as she walked away. Then he whispered, "Good night... Sophia."
Read on -- Chapter 14 >>