Even in this complex, challenges come and go.  The  question is, who is ready to face and take on the challenge? Who is prepared to do whatever it takes to win the challenge?



By:  M. J. Cogburn and C. E. Krawiec

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"Yes, sir," she said then yawned tiredly.  Snuggling down into the blankets and her pillow, she couldn't help but think of the one factor that has been here her entire life.  Lothos had been the one that had talked with her when she needed help, walked her through tough passages in her life, and the one who punished her when she went astray as well.  Closing her eyes, she swallowed hard knowing that his warning was enough to keep her straight as an arrow.  "Goodnight, Lothos," she whispered even as she fell asleep.

Even as he responded softly, "Good night, Tala," Lothos noticed Dr. Hugen, in his office and shifted his focus there.

No longer shackled or impeded by the frailties of mere humanity, but rather being in his opinion, vastly superior in his present form of a quasi-living hybrid supercomputer, Lothos was able to observe and do countless operations with speed, flawlessness and efficiency.  Now as he focused and conversed with Dr. Peter Hugen regarding the physician’s prognosis and somber speculations about the future ramifications of Zoe Malvison’s health and physical abilities, Lothos also maintained an uninterrupted vigil over Tala as she slept.  He knew it would have stunned Tala to know that he had done so from the moment of her birth some twenty-three years previously.

        With the effortless ease of a computer, Lothos zoomed the focus of one of the two cameras affixed high on the walls of Tala’s bedroom bringing *her* face into closer, sharper focus. Adjusting the camera lens to an infrared setting, the darkness of the bedroom was no hindrance to Lothos’ viewing as he studied his youngest daughter’s sleeping countenance.

*Ah, my precious daughter* he mused silently, studying every nuance of her face, noting how her long, dark auburn hair spilled across the pillow.  On a whim, Lothos imposed a picture of her mother beside the view of *their* daughter.  The similarities were there but only he and a handful of others knew about the relationship of the two women.

But there were also certain things about Tala that he was gratified that she had inherited from him.  Her tenacity about completing whatever she started and, though it didn’t surface often, her temper was more like his own, than Zoe’s.

He intensified the close-up on Tala’s face and increased the hypersensitive listening device until he could hear the whispering of her steady breathing.  From somewhere in the vague and fragmented memories left over from his humanity, Lothos ‘smiled’ when Tala sighed then shifted a bit.

*You are as lovely as your mother* he thought to her.  *And I know how you’ve wondered through the years, Tala, about your family…who they were,* he pondered silently, *…your longing to belong.  But before you knew of your heritage, your family, I deemed it best and more important that you learn self-sufficiency and independence., first, and you have made me proud, my child.  Even in your mistakes and failures, Tala, you have made your father proud.*

Lothos paused in his silent monologue to just watch his second born as she slept.  *Soon…. Very soon, Tala, we will talk and you will learn that which you’ve yearned for these many years - you will know your heritage.. But for now, rest, my child.* As that thought ended, he totally shifted his viewing to Zoe Malvison’s room where she, too, slept, keeping vigil over them as he had always done.




"You were arguing with her, weren't you?" he demanded more than questioned.

"No, sir," Trevor responded instantly, his tone just barely respectful, not dropping his eyes for an instant.  "She…" he glanced at Siren's draped, prostrate form on the floor, unable to hold back the bit of a smile as he added, "She… might have overheard something that lit her fuse…"  

Trevor's not quite smart-ass remark got him Peter Hugen in his face

along with the rough edge of the doctor’s tongue.  "Give me another answer like that, Mister Conroy," he snapped, "and you'll find yourself on the wrong side of a whip!  Now, wipe that smile off your face and answer me!  What was going on here?"

There was such a thing as pushing the envelope; after that, if a person didn’t realize when it was time to shut up, or just didn’t care what happened, came reckless stupidity.  Neither applied to Trevor Conroy, and he complied instantly.

"To the best of my knowledge, sir," he said, his tone more professional and the smile gone. "I think she was listening…eavesdropping at the door when I was talking to Allen McAllister just before he left for the day. " He paused to take a deep breath, noting that Dr. Hugen hadn't budged, his gaze still pinned on him.  "What happened to her?"

Still not caring for his amended attitude, Peter took one step closer to the senior logistics technician and informed him, "She had a diabetic seizure."

Involuntarily Trevor’s gaze went instantly to the woman still lying quietly on the floor.  "What?"

"You heard me," Peter snapped at him.  "Lothos just confirmed that Siren took her medication this morning."  Looking steadily into Mr. Conroy's light blue eyes, he continued.  "She's never missed a dose of insulin since she was put on it.  So that means that one of two things happened." He took another step at him, watching as Trevor moved back a step.

"First, she maxed out on sweets, and that's extremely unlikely.  Or second…" Peter’s eyes flashed a warning, cutting the other man off when he started to interrupt.  "… she lost her temper.  Siren's got a hair-trigger temper to match her father's," he said bluntly.  "And there have only been a couple of times since she was diagnosed with diabetes, when something…or someone…" he cocked a eyebrow at him, "has tripped that temper.  And both times she had a seizure."  Now the doctor moved steadily toward Trevor Conroy, forcing him to move steadily backward and out of the office until he backed against a desk.  At that point, Peter Hugen got up in Trevor’s face.

"Now, Mr. Conroy," he demanded once more, holding the fury in his voice in check, his eyes boring into Trevor’s.  "_Exactly_ what happened here?"

I'm not taking the rap for something that's half her fault, and that's for damned sure! Trevor determined barely before the doctor finished breathing fire and brimstone in his face.

"I bumped into her in the cafeteria at breakfast and caused her to drop her tray of food," Trevor responded in a blunt but respectful tone, lifting his chin slightly as he met Hugen's gaze without blinking.  "She took my offer to help clean up the mess…wrong, and basically tried to intimidate me with her position as the new supervisor of this sector.” He couldn’t stop the indifferent shrug of his shoulders as he added, "I told her to send the bill for getting her uniform cleaned to me, but when I didn't 'kow-tow' to her, she followed me out into the hall and screamed at me as I was heading back here to work.  I… told her, as politely as I could, that if she was going to chew my ass out for something, it wasn't going to be on my time, and my breakfast hour is _my_ time," I say firmly.

"Then when she finally got into her office," he continued, standing up straighter and thus forcing the doctor, by the action, to step back, "she proceeds to try the intimidation again." He lifted his chin a bit again.  "Not once did I raise my voice to her, Dr. Hugen.  I gave her the respect that her position demands.  If she got hot over something she heard while eavesdropping on a private conversation… that's her problem."

Peter listened carefully to him, but knowing Siren as he did, he couldn’t help but question this young man and his actions.

"I doubt that it was just a private conversation, now, was it, Mr. Conroy?  I know how Siren has a way of getting under some people's skin, but that doesn't mean that talking loudly to another person would constitute a private conversation, would it Lothos?" he asked aloud, knowing that Lothos, as always was listening, keenly noting the subtlest of nuances in every word spoken, especially since the present situation dealt with one of his daughters.

His response was pithy. "Your intuition is uncanny, Dr. Hugen."

Hearing Lothos’ response, Peter’s gaze narrowed as he maintained eye contact with the technician.

"Now, Mr. Conroy, try again.  And this time tell me what you said, exactly, from the moment that Siren came to the office until now.  And, I do hope that you answer correctly."  The glare he leveled at Trevor indicated exactly what would happen if the absolute truth wasn’t forthcoming and right now.

Peter Hugen’s attitude was such that Trevor wanted nothing more than to ignore him and walk out of the office, but that was not an option in any way, shape, form or fashion.

‘Lothos may be watching and listening,’ the tall, dark-haired man mused silently as he looked into the doctor’s steady gaze.  ‘And I know you’re one of the few human beings that Lothos trusts, doctor, but I will not be intimidated.  Not even by you.’  One other thought traversed Trevor’s mind as he took a slow, steadying breath.   ‘Thank God for a near photographic memory.’  Without batting an eye, he proceeded to repeat every word spoken between Siren and himself from the first time she hit that intercom button about thirty minutes ago.

As he neared the end of his recitation, a soft sound distracted Trevor, and his eyes flicked in its direction, toward Siren, still laid out on the floor and hiding under the doctor's lab coat.  But a glance back to the doctor revealed a trace of indecision in his eyes.  His attitude hadn't changed... much... but there was a little bit of difference there.  Finally....

"And that, Dr. Hugen," Trevor finished up, "is _every_ word that she and I said to each other since she...got to her office."  He paused then added in a very respectful tone and, though difficult, schooled his eyes to quietness.  "I'm sure that Lothos also has audio and visual records of all of it, too."  Stepping back, Trevor added one last opinion.

"I'm not saying that she's totally at fault in this matter, sir," he said clearly.  "But neither am I admitting that it's all my doing.  She is as much at fault for... unprofessional behavior as I am.  And if correction is warranted, I dare say that she ought be up for the same punishment that I get."  Lifting his head to look up at the camera that affixed above the door in this office, Trevor dared to add.  "I'll take my punishment, but I don't believe that I should be the only one to bear the brunt of this whole situation."

"Silence!" Lothos pronounced decisively.  "I will decide who deserves and receives correction, as well as who bears the brunt of the situation.  Do I make myself clear?" he snapped, not waiting for an answer.  "Hugen, if Siren is able to stay to continue her work, then she may.  As for you, Mr. Conroy, you are required to stay until eight o'clock and you will report for work at seven thirty tomorrow.  Is that clear?"

"Perfectly, Lothos," Trevor responded with utmost respect.  It wasn’t possible to see Siren from his present position, as he for all intents and purposes, faced Lothos.  But that didn't stop him from adding another black mark against her name on his private 'opinion list'; in fact, he could foresee a lot of very deep silent days ahead. She might be his supervisor, but that didn’t mean that he had to be buddy-buddy with her.

Having observed every aspect of the situation between Siren and this senior logistics technician from its unexpected initiation in the cafeteria several hours earlier to this moment, Lothos could easily imagine what the plainly annoyed yet determined Trevor Conroy was thinking about his daughter.  ‘Likely calling her every name in the book.’  But though he didn’t like how he had been discussing his older daughter with his fellow office worker, Allen McCalister, Lothos drew up a memory from his own former life, keenly understanding of how the man must feel.  ‘I have been in your shoes,’ Lothos considered silently, closely scanning Trevor’s determined expression. ‘Only it was with her mother...Zoe.’

Lothos dismissed the musing summarily, focusing his attention on Siren when he observed her slowly sit up, her back turned away from the door so that she could move the coat from her head.  Shifting his view to another of the several cameras in her office, he watched as she moved her hair away from her face to fall over her left shoulder then just sat there in a stunned state. 

"I know what will be an appropriate correction for the both of you."  He paused, letting the words sink in, to let them grasp his displeasure with each of their conduct while working.  "For the next two weeks, both of you will be required to eat both lunch and dinner, together.  You will be pleasant with one another, and you will get to know each other.  If at any time I see that there is any disrespectfulness from either of you, it will be two days in correction.  Period.  Do I make myself clear?"

Feeling as if a Mack truck had slammed into her, Siren, nonetheless, sat up straighter, listening to Lothos talking to the insufferable technician under her supervision before addressing both of them.  She nodded to his statement, responding respectfully, "Yes, Lothos.  Lunch and Dinner."

There was no not listening to and hearing Lothos' pronouncement of 'appropriate correction'.  And, at Lothos' demand, "Do I make myself clear?" Trevor, too, simply nodded, giving the requisite reply, "Yes, Lothos."  His tone was correct and calm but even as he answered, he made a decision to do something that he knew he might not live to regret.  The acknowledgement was barely fallen from his lips when he turned around, and before Peter could stop him or even Lothos could react, he moved determinedly past the doctor, stepping around him then looked down at Siren's unmasked face.

He noted but didn’t react to her startled, almost frightened expression as she looked up at him, thinking ‘If mom could hear me now, she'd say butter wouldn't melt in my mouth.’

"I will escort you to lunch tomorrow precisely at twelve thirty, ma'am," Trevor told her with careful cordiality.

Before this moment Trevor had, like other guys, thought Siren was attractive.  Her not having on the mask to hide behind now, had just confirmed what all the young men had suspected, that she really was quite pretty.  He couldn’t deny that, but seeing the expression in her eyes just now, Trevor was under no illusion that if hate could kill with a glance, he would, at this moment, be twitching in death throes at her feet.  But he wasn’t so, having accomplished his impromptu mission, Trevor turned to face the camera again. He had no option but to accept Lothos’ decision, though he would have preferred any other correction/punishment to the two weeks he now faced with her.  Internally he steeled himself, deciding that Siren would never see anything but that which Lothos had just ordered of both of them.  Sparing a glance down at Siren, he smiled at her then returned to where he had been standing.

When Trevor Conroy moved around him to enter Siren's office, it was something that didn’t happen often to Peter Hugen; he was caught off guard by the unexpected action.  It caused him to hesitate a split second too long before he rushed after him to try and stop him.  Yet by the time he caught the technician’s arm to stop him, it was too late; he had seen her face.

Peter held his breath, closing his eyes then opening them again. ‘The shit's about to hit the fan!’ he thought, watching Trevor as he spoke cordially, telling Siren that he would pick her up precisely at noon.  A moment later when he passed, returning to the outer office, the doctor glanced at Siren.  There was no mistaking the signs that said she was beginning to stress again.  In the next instant Peter dove toward her as fell backwards as she passed out, barely catching her head and preventing it from bouncing on the floor.  Carefully, he lowered her to the floor.

When he was certain she was breathing normally, Dr. Hugen stood up, and marched into the outer office to confront Trevor, this time backing the younger man literally into a corner.

"Are you quite satisfied with yourself, Mr. Conroy?” he said furiously. “What possessed you to think that you had to talk directly to her? You were not asked nor required to do so.  But now, thanks to your stunt, I have a patient that just had an anxiety attack, albeit, thankfully, a very mild one.”  Hugen’s expression darkened as he snapped, “I hope that you are well and thoroughly satisfied in your actions."

Not for an instant did Trevor’s gaze drop for a second, nor did he say a word when the doctor came at him, at least not until Peter had him backed into the corner; he allowed Peter Hugen to finish his rant.

‘I may not live to see the next hour, but I'll be damned if you're going to lay that guilt trip on me...doctor!’ he thought hotly.  When Peter paused to catch a breath, Trevor spoke, making no attempt to disguise the sarcasm in his voice as he challenged him.  "So what am I suppose I'm supposed to do?  Talk to the back of her head, or through the paper sack she'll be wearing when we're dining?  Is that how it will be, Dr. Hugen?" he demanded.  Being almost nose to nose with him, Trevor saw the line of Peter’s jaw tighten, heard his teeth gritting together, but that didn’t stop or slow him down.   "I don’t know about you, Dr. Hugen, but when I dine with a woman, I like to see her face…all of it," he forged ahead, glancing past the doctor’s shoulder to Siren, still on the floor in her office then back to him. "She's nothing special.  So why the mask?"

Lothos had heard all he intended to hear. 

"Enough!" he said suddenly, his voice booming in the room.  Silence descended.

From the first insolent word out of the technician’s mouth, Lothos instantaneously altered what he had been about say.  His first inclination was to order this man to the correction facility and let Xavier himself have at him, with anything that he chose to do, for the next two weeks.  But Lothos saw beyond the obvious, knowing what it was Mr. Conroy was trying to accomplish, namely trying to wiggle out of being with Siren.  The tone and volume of his voice when he spoke left no doubt that the attempted subterfuge was useless.  Moreover, it told one in particular that it would have been better if he’d just kept his mouth shut and accepted the first correction.

"From this moment on, there will be no more questions about the mask or about anything,” Lothos stated, his tone clearly indicating that to do other than listen, accept and obey what was said was not only vastly stupid but, where he, Lothos, was concerned, could be fatal if he so chose. It was a fact of complex life that had been set in stone almost from the beginning, that Lothos’ word was absolute.  The two men waiting before him, knew as everyone in the complex had learned at some point in their lives, that Lothos had destroyed many over the years for infractions far less than that the insolence just exhibited by one Trevor Conroy.

“What you have seen was not for your eyes,” he informed him. “Make no mistake, I know exactly what you are trying to wiggle out of, Mr. Conroy," he continued more softly, letting his tone drop to a level so low that the object of his focus had to strain to hear it.  "And since you don't want to have anything to do with her, let me change your part of the correction."  Lothos paused for effect then lowered the boom on him.

"You will spend all of your spare time away from work with Siren for the next two weeks, and you will continue to have dinner and lunch with her until I tell you otherwise.  If I hear any sarcasm or observe the slightest disrespect toward her, or vice versa, I will take whatever action that I deem necessary to correct the offender, promptly.  If you have any questions, ask them now."  

        ‘I'm probably going to meet my ancestors momentarily’ was the only thought that filled Trevor’s mind as he opened his mouth to speak.  It was plain that Lothos was trying to force him to like Siren, but as far as Trevor cared, Lothos had just hopelessly lost that intent.  Trevor forced himself not to react in the slightest to the gasp that came from Siren in the office, when he looked straight at the camera affixed above the door and all but demanded, "Does that mean I'll share her quarters…and her bed, too?" 

In the deafening split second of silence that followed, Trevor held his breath, wondering if he would still alive a moment from now.




"Is there any possibility at all...however slim... that Zoë will ever regain the use of her lower body and legs?"

Peter didn't have to think about his answer. He had seen the mess that her spinal cord was in.  Even the best of surgeons couldn't have repaired it any better than what he had.  "No, Lothos.  Not by human means."  He knew that he had stepped out on a limb with his statement, but it would be the only way that he could see that anything could be done.  Any other way would never work.

"Very well," Lothos responded to Hugen plainly blunt reply.  "See to it that she gets the best of care." As he moved toward his desk, Peter couldn't help but pause in his steps as he heard the malice as Lothos stated quietly "Calavicci's and Beckett's days have just become numbered." 

Sitting down in his chair, he scooted himself up toward it and swallowed then arched an eyebrow with a slight tilt to his head before he picked up his pen and started to work.

Having returned to his office after making sure that Siren was out of danger and able to work, Peter had returned to his office, and now waited a moment to be certain that Lothos had ended their conversation.  When there was no further comment forthcoming from Lothos, Peter remained at his desk for another hour dictating further meticulous notes concerning Zoe’s surgery. He also dictated an order for the procurement of the specialized wheelchair with oxygen bottle attachments that Zoe, would need should she survive –and at present there was no sign she wouldn’t do so.  When that was done, Peter got up and went to prepare for the three surgeries –two new implantations and one gallbladder removal – that were scheduled for the afternoon; all three were completed without any unexpected problems. After changing after the last surgery – the gallbladder – he checked in on each of the three patients in recovery.

Exiting the third surgical patient’s room, he told the nurse who followed him out, “Standard orders for an implantation.  No talking or loud noise in the room, and keep the lights dimmed for the next twelve hours.  When Ms. Royal wakes and you’re sure she is alert and coherent, she can have clear fluids for the first six hours.”  Glancing at Sheila as she jotted her notes, he asked, “Who’s on afternoon-evening rotation?”  To the nurse’s prompt reply of, “Dr. Maury,” Peter nodded.  “Call him if there anything comes up with any of them.”

Sheila Whelch nodded yet again then added, smiling up at him, “You need to get some shut-eye, doctor.  You’ve been on duty since six this morning.”

Peter returned a tired grin.  “Is that all?  I thought it was only twelve hours.”

Doctor and nurse parted ways, she toward the nurses’ station for the Recovery Area, and Peter toward the elevator and ultimately, his quarters.  In spite of the adrenaline-driven hours of the first six hours of doing everything in his power to keep Zoe Malvison alive –and succeeding- it had been a normal day on the complex’s twelfth level where the infirmary was located.  Now, all he wanted was to lock the door to his quarters, take a very long and very hot shower and then log about twenty-four hours of uninterrupted sack time …but he would settle for eight or nine hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Yet with those simple goals before him, Peter Hugen had no intention of thinking of himself before his most critical patient, even though she had always been nothing less than a royal pain in his ass since he’d first met her.  To that end, he walked past the bank of double elevators and continued to the I.C.U. situated at the opposite end of the long hall he was presently in.

The duty nurse, behind the Intensive Care Unit’s nurses’ station desk, Hazel Anderson, an experienced surgical recovery nurse of twelve years, looked up as Peter Hugen entered the area.

“How’s Dr. Malvison?” he asked, pausing at the desk,

“Stable and, at the moment, sleeping quietly,” Hazel responded.  “Do you want her chart, Dr. Hugen?”

Peter shook his head.  “No.  I just want to take a look at her before going off duty.”   Hazel nodded, watching him enter I.C.U. Unit #2 situated directly across from where she sat.  She watched for a moment, and then returned her attention to what she had been busy with prior to his arrival.

Standing at the foot of the bed, Peter Hugen’s expression was unreadable as he noticed the machines that were attached with leads and tubes to Zoe’s body.  Each lead, each tube, every monitor and gauge….the ventilator ceaselessly pumping oxygen into the severely injured woman’s lungs… all of it necessary to her survival.  And of that outcome, there was not the slightest doubt in his mind that she would do so.

Moving around to one side of the bed, Peter glanced at the bank of monitors, reading each with ease then, for another moment just stood, watching Zoe’s face as she slept a drugged sleep.  Privately, were he so inclined, and someone offered him the bet, Peter would have readily put money down that Zoe Malvison would stay alive just to spite the man who shot her, as well as to be in the thick of planning and implementing his death.  Considering how her life had been so utterly and irreparably altered by his actions, at this point, ruination of his life and that of his family would, he was certain, no longer an acceptable outcome of her next encounter with one retired Rear-Admiral Albert Calavicci.  There was also no doubt whatsoever that Zoe’s angry, gasped demand for Admiral Calavicci’s head on a platter was what she wanted more than anything in the world; possibly even more than the ability to walk again.

After a few more minutes, Peter exited I.C.U. Unit 2, took his leave of Hazel and the other nurses just coming on duty for the evening, and went to his quarters.  Only when his front door was actually locked and he was standing in his shower being pummeled by the sharp needle-like spray of hot water, did he at last begin to relax.  And when he at last toweled off then crawled immediately into bed, Peter Hugen’s last waking thought was, “Please… no emergencies… at least until tomorrow.”




In the moment it took the elevator doors to close, Thames just stood and daydreamed a dream that not only had as its star the redhead he’d winked at but was also several "x's" beyond triple before turning to continue in search of Johanna Royden’s quarters.  Moving along the halls, he soon found door marked 733, he pressed the doorbell and waited for it to be answered.  A moment later he heard soft footsteps inside approaching the door, then the door opened and... my, my, my, my, my!

It was one thing to have to work all hours of the night in her interim job as a logistic aid while waiting to be called up for a leap, but for Johanna Royden it was absolutely another to have someone ringing her doorbell at 7:30 in the morning.  She whimpered slightly in her sleep and turned over, but she knew that there was no such thing as just not going to see who it was.  'Drat!' she thought sourly and climbed out of bed, the silky red long nightgown slipping back down her long legs.  Walking toward the door, she ran her hands through her long brown hair.

During the short trek she stretched her arms high over her head, paused in her steps and yawned, one of the spaghetti straps of her nightgown sliding down her arm, dipping low and exposing her cleavage.  Reaching out, she took hold of the doorknob and opened the door.  Blinking at the brightness of the hallway, her gaze fell on the form standing in her doorway -- the one and only Thames.

"Johanna," Thames purred softly, unabashedly enjoying the sight before him, surveying her up and down quickly before locking gazes with her.  "I hope I didn’t catch you in the middle of...something."

Hearing him purr her name as his eyes roamed over her body up and down, his suggestive tone wasn’t lost on her.  "You did... dreams of you, Thames," she said with a wink, smiling sleepily at him as she leaned against the doorway.  "What can I do for you?"

Every hormone in Thames’ body shrieked, demanding that he answer her, "Invite me in and lock the door!"  But the last thing Thames’ didn’t need, the very last thing he didn’t need would be for Lothos to hear and watch him using this assignment to his private advantage. Still he couldn’t help surveying Johanna's luscious curves and...’oh sweet Aphrodite...that …ummm….that fine cleavage’.... before he very unwillingly, and to the extreme disappointment of his hormones, reigned in his thoughts and re-focused them.

Meeting Johanna’s dark eyes again, in spite of sleepiness, there was no missing the fact that she knew what he was thinking…well, for the most part.  When he at last got to the point of his early morning call, he watched the sleepiness fade from Johanna's eyes.

“Zoe Malvison's been shot in the back.  She's in surgery now, and it's highly unlikely she'll ever leap or observe again."

‘Ohh geez…just another half inch!’ he whimpered silently when Johanna straightened up suddenly, the movement causing the bodice of her red silk nightgown to shift minutely, tantalizingly downward.  When it came to women, Thames was always the first to admit that he wasn’t always the strongest of men when it came to will.  That point was proven as he battled what he wanted with what he had to do, namely prying his gaze from Johanna’s bosom that was *this* close to being 'open for public viewing'.  But he did it.

"Lothos has charged me with finding a new senior leaper and senior observer," he told her, keeping his eyes on hers.  "You wouldn't be interested...would you?"

There was no way Johanna could not notice the way that Thames kept looking her up and down. She had known from the moment that she’d met him over five years ago that he appreciated her curves, a fact that was only confirmed by the catcalls, the "ohhh baby" calls and the long stares.  But when he came straight out with the reason for his visit, that Zoe Malvison had been shot, she immediately came up from her lounging position against the doorjamb.

She felt her nightgown shift but didn't care.  If it should happen to slip off right there in front of him, it wouldn't have mattered to her.  He had her attention and nothing else mattered.  You just don't go up to a leaper and hand out the information to them, especially information such as he’d just given her; there was more to it than that, and she had been around long enough to know it. 

Johanna’s heart jumped up into her throat as she even thought about it.  There was no question that she’d have a competitor for the position of senior leaper and would have to work hard to earn it.  Hell, she’d had to work hard to earn what she did get, but neither had she slept her way up to the top of the lineup.  It had been and continued to be grueling hard work, but Johanna enjoyed every little bit and loved her job.

As soon as Thames began by saying that Lothos had given him the order, her eyes locked with his.  To his question, she toyed, for a second, with the notion of just jumping toward him and hugging him tightly, thanking him for the opportunity, maybe even giving him more thanks in her bed. Instead, she stopped herself, only stepping toward Thames, licking her lips and blinking as she swallowed down the excitement that was coursing through her veins. 

"Any leaper would be interested in such a position, sir," she responded respectfully.  "Name the time, the place, the game... I'll be there.  Thank you, sir, for thinking of me."

If she had taken one step closer, Thames wasn’t sure what he would have done, but she didn't.  Johanna's response though clear that she knew the importance of the opportunity just offered to her, was very respectable and respectful.  ‘Pity,’ was the only silent response he permitted himself. 

Thames knew all the superior-ranked leapers by name, having had to review each one's record from time to time, especially after completion of a leap for the purpose of rating his or her performance and level of success.  Johanna Royden, however, was the only one who had achieved the rank of superior purely on her own merits, no hanky panky, though she knew and used skillfully all the ways and methods in which all the leapers were trained.  But for a moment, that very thought gave Thames a fleeting doubt.  He almost didn’t voice that thought but then decided to give her the benefit of it.

"Understand, Johanna," he said at last, keeping his voice and tone even, all thoughts of other things fading as the reason for him being there regained his total focus.  "This is not a temporary fill-in assignment. This is for all the marbles."  He watched her blink but her gaze remained steadfast.  "IF you win this competition, you're going to step into Zoe Malvison's boots.  And girl, you better realize…you better know right now that you've got big boots to fill."  He watched her nod again.  "There's no punches gonna be pulled in this competition tonight.  *Are* you up for it?  Are you ready to do *whatever* it takes?"  Before she could answer Thames filled in the details of when and where the competition would take place.  "It's all or nothing time, sweet cheeks," he finished, maintaining a level gaze with hers.

Johanna understood every word that came out of Thames’ mouth... in more ways than one way.  She knew without doubt that the competition was going to be the hardest thing that she had ever come across to win the right to fill Zoe's shoes, but she had to at least try.  No way could she or would she just not do it.

Taking one more step up toward Thames, putting them toe to toe, face to face, she saw Thames look down at her chest; but when he looked back up at her, she locked gazes with him.  "No punches... all or nothing?"  She watched him barely nod.  Unwaveringly, she told him, "Try to keep me away, Thames."

They stood just about nose to nose for two of the longest minutes of Johanna’s life before each at last took a step back, Johanna letting her eyes roam slightly over his body.  Seeing a slight rise in his pants, she met his gaze, saying, "You never know when you might get to fill something other than your shoes, Thames."  Giving him a wink, she turned and went to her door.  "See you tonight," she said smoothly, flashing him a smile as she began to close the door.

In spite of what many in the complex might have thought about him, at that moment Thames’ body reminded him of just how human he was.  When Johanna had stepped up to him, toe to toe and damn near nose to nose, there was no way that his body wasn't going to let him know just *how* close she was.  He also made no pretense of not looking down at her chest. Seeing the not quite sheer silk of her gown quiver with each breath she took, he began to wonder if she was the right superior leaper to have chosen to put against Vaughn.  But then he looked up and saw in her eyes that the delightfully curvaceous brunette watching him knew exactly what she was doing.  He had to look even closer, and twice, to see the ever so minute shade of a smile touching the corners of her mouth.

‘Dammit, she's playing me like a concertmaster with a Stradivarius!’

Stepping back from her, Thames took a calming breath as he watched her finish giving him the visual once over, her gaze lingering well below eye level long enough for him to know she saw the effect she was having on him.  But he didn't move, made no move or suggestion about taking the bait ..."You never know when you might get to fill something other than your shoes"… that she was dangling subtly before him.  Yeah, he wanted her.  He wanted her so badly that it literally showed.  But wanting ten minutes with her wasn't worth losing what he had fought just as hard to attain as what she was going to fight for later that night.

Waiting until she had just about closed the door, he called her name, watching her stop, opening the door so that she was framed tightly between it and the doorjamb.

"Don't promise what you can't deliver, Johanna," Thames warned softly, knowing that she understood both meanings to those words. He nodded to her again then turned and left.  He had something to take care of...now.

Hearing Thames call her name, Johanna had opened the door and framed herself in the narrow space.  Hearing his words, she smiled at him and then watched him leave.  As he walked down the hallway, she leaned outside the door and peered around to look at him, calling out sweetly, "I always keep my promises, Thames.  Always."  She didn’t move, watching him stop in the hallway and turn his head back toward her, awe in his expression.  Then, she lowered the boom, adding, "It's if you get a promise... that you may want to watch out for."  Giving him a smile, she looked down then withdrew back into her quarters. It was difficult to make herself go back to sleep, but she finally managed it.

Having watched as Thames made his two stops, noting and recording both candidates' responses, Lothos focused on the always ready to make points observer for a few moments.  It amused him to 'follow' Thames until he found a place where he attended to his need.

His close observation of Thames’ interaction with Johanna Royden, left no doubt for Lothos that at some point or other in the not so distant future there would come a time when Thames would find out how seriously to take that one’s promises.  The observer had only read her records, and spoken with instructors and some of her close friends.  But Lothos had literally watched Johanna Royden from the moment of her birth in the complex and thereafter all through her life.  He had seen what others hadn't.  Johanna Royden was truly an example of the saying that 'still waters run deep.'  The quasi-living hybrid computer considered that an even better description would be that of a riptide close to the shallow waters on an ocean beach.  As she grew up, many had learned, often belatedly, not to take Johanna’s calm, even nature for granted.

As the day progressed, Lothos checked various times on the two candidates vying to become the new senior leaper and observer.  Eventually the time for the competition drew close.  In less than an hour, he would watch to see which of them, Vaughn Rickar or Johanna Royden, was hungrier, which of them was ready to serve him without qualm or hesitation regardless of what he would demand of them.

At six forty p.m. Lothos observed Thames, now much calmer and in control of himself, make his way to the lecture hall.  The hall was empty, his steps echoing in the large room as he walked to the center of the room and assumed a stance to wait.




After having little sleep due to the fact that her mind was busy going over things that she might have to accomplish tonight, Johanna had spent the rest of her day awake and on edge.

Getting dressed in her black junior leaper skin-tight Fermi suit, she pulled on her boots and started toward the meeting at six thirty.  Moving slowly and determinedly, in order to reach the meeting at precisely six forty five. 

Moving to the elevator, she pushed the call button then stepped into the empty elevator car and pressed the button for the tenth level. Straightening up to her full height, she waited for the car to stop.  As the doors opened and let on some other passengers, she moved slightly to the side, nodding respectfully to them. But she had no time for them, and so cleared her mind, thinking only about what she was about to do. 

When the car came to another stop, she glanced up then moved toward the doors with her 'excuse me's’ in order and exited the car.  Moving toward the lecture hall, she took a deep calming breath before putting her hand on the knob and opening the door.

Seeing Thames in the middle of the room, she saw him turn his head toward her.  She let a small smile appear on her face as she glanced around the room, finding it empty.  Taking a chance, she moved toward Thames in the middle of the room.  Coming about ten feet from him, she stopped and stood at attention.




It was 2:28 p.m., a full two minutes before the alarm was set to go off when Vaughn woke up.  For a few moments he just laid in bed, his thoughts focusing once more on what awaited him in about four and a half hours.  Knowing that physical as well as mental sharpness would be amongst his best 'weapons' in the one of a kind competition that he was confident he was going win, he got up and pulled on work out clothes then made his way to the fitness center two levels up. Vaughn knew that what he needed to get himself mentally and physically sharp for the competition was one of Ivan Davies’ kick-ass two-hour, one-on-one workouts.

Ivan Davies was one of most senior of the leaper physical trainers, and Vaughn was well aware that there wasn’t a leaper trained in the complex in the last ten years that hadn't had his or her nose bloodied, or an arm or leg broken at some point, by Ivan. He himself had learned, the hard way not to take Ivan Davies lightly, having suffered a viciously given bloodied nose for cocky insubordination during his first class with Ivan two years earlier.

After the workout and a hot shower, Vaughn returned to his quarters where he prepared himself a sandwich and a glass of milk.  For the remaining hour or so, he remained alone in his quarters, pacing slowly and mentally reviewing all he had learned, often the hard way, during all of the training that had brought him to this point in his life.

At five forty-five he took a cold shower, more to add another fine edge of alertness to his mind, then toweled off and dressed in his black, junior leaper’s form-fitting Fermi suit.  Pulling his boots on, he checked his appearance one last time in the full-length mirror on the inside of his closet door, running his fingers through his hair to comb it.

"You are ready!" Vaughn informed his reflection with sharp confidence. That said, he turned and left his quarters, pausing long enough to flip off the light switch off by the front then stepped out the door and then close and lock it.

Heading for the elevator, he got some strange looks from a couple of guys he passed. He ignored the looks but did ask one what time, exactly what time it was.

"Six thirty-three."


Fortunately for Vaughn, the remainder of his ride was solitary, giving him a few more moments to finish clearing his mind in order to focus on what was about to begin shortly.  When the elevator doors opened on the tenth level he stepped and headed down the long, main corridor to the lecture hall directly ahead of him.  Reaching the double doors, he opened one quietly and stepped inside.

Moving toward an aisle that allowed him to walk out to the center of the room where Thames stands, though he didn’t allow it to show on his face, Vaughn was more than a little pissed to see that his opponent was already standing off to Thames’ left.  Seeing that his opponent was none other than Johanna Royden just made him all the more determined to win this competition.  He refused to allow himself to consider for even an instant that Miss ‘Goody White Panties’ was going to get what he already considered to be his, namely the right to follow in Zoe Malvison's steps.

Approaching Thames from the right, like Johanna, he stopped ten feet from him and came to attention.  Turning his head slightly, he slid a look at her.  Their gazes met and locked.  Anyone looking at them would have clearly seen the determination in the two competitors’ gazes.  What no one could see or know was what each of them was prepared to do to come out the victor.

When she had entered and took a position near Thames in the lecture hall, Johanna hadn’t expected Thames to say even one word to her, and he hadn’t.  She kept her eyes on him at all times until at last she heard her competitor enter then move to take his stance approximately five feet away from her.  A moment later she locked gazes with Vaughn Rickar.

‘Damn.  He's not only strong but determined as well.  I should have expected as much.  But then again, he also thinks too highly of himself, which could be his downfall.’  Inside she steeled herself with the reassurance that she could outdo him then returned her attention back to Thames when he cleared his throat.

Though the start of the ultimate competition for promotion wouldn’t begin until the stroke of seven, there was no doubt in Thames’ mind from the moment Vaughn and Johanna set gazes on each other that the competition began at that moment.  They had trained together, knew each other's strengths and weaknesses.  But this competition was winner takes all.  Once he declared a winner that would be it; there would be no appeal.  Whoever won would get the title of senior leaper.  The runner up would become the new senior observer.

The competitors had arrived early, fifteen and fourteen minutes early, respectively.  Thames didn’t utter a word or move a muscle, instead allowing the large silence and the two competitors’ own tension to be the first unofficial test between them.  In the business of leaping, patience was more than a virtue.  As a leaper it was sometimes, many times the difference between success and failure.

At last Lothos' voice filled the room, uttering one word:  "Time."   But Thames allowed Johanna and Vaughn another moment to set their minds to what now faced them.  The minute passed and Thames, at last, began to speak.




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