I feel considerable guilt asking Devi if I can borrow her Tahoe, but she once again dismisses my concerns.  I express my anxiety at putting her out so much.  For once, she turns deadly serious.

"Listen, I've been lucky.  I've been given everything in life.  I've been more fortunate than anyone ever deserves to be.  Well, maybe not with DC Metro parking, but we won't go there.  But I was taught, what you have, you share."

That's what I was taught as well.  I've just felt I never had much I could share.

"My sister's happy.  These guys are my friends," she continues.  "Don't you think I can forgo a couple sales at Nordstrom's for that?"

I've never been inside Nordstrom's—I'm more of a Walmart shopper myself.

"We really do appreciate it,"  I mumble as she hands me the car keys.

She waves me off.  "There's beer and sandwiches in the fridge for when you get back.  And quit worrying.  I'm not.  Except for maybe one thing."

"What's that?"

"How I'm going to explain all this to my husband."

The night air is warm and humid.  It smells as if there could be rain coming on.  I have directions from Mapquest which Devi printed for me to get to the Fry's in Towson.  The Tahoe is a nice piece of machinery—we Texans appreciate big cars—but I'm not enjoying the drive as much as I thought I would.  I keep peering in the rearview, trying to make sure no one is following me.  A little time underground and my thinking has definitely changed forever.  I keep wondering how my life will change when this is over.

Assuming these guys come out of it. There's no guarantee on that one.  Their spirits may have taken a leap, but their bodies are ravaged.  I'm worried.  I can also see the toll it's taking on Sari, Deborah and me, and even on Devi.  She's under a lot of pressure with us there, and keeping it secret is probably wearing her out.  Not to mention that, despite her protests, we are heavily denting her bank accounts.

One thing I will definitely do when I get back is slip something special into Deborah's ever-present Diet Coke.  Something along the lines of a large dose of Ambien.  I'll spare Sari; she seems better since visiting upstairs.  I will make her take a break tonight.

Filling the order is no problem.  I take a moment to linger over the portable DVD and MP3 players.  I'd buy one but I'm not shopping on my own dime.  The clerk looks even more tired than I feel, and ten times as bored.  He couldn't pick a dinosaur out in a lineup.  The irony of Fry's is that for a high tech warehouse, their checkout system is stuck somewhere sucking in the 70s.

Now for the trip home.  I wonder what it will be like to be always looking over my shoulder.  I wonder if there will come a time when I won't have to.

Maybe Mel can give me some pointers.

The scene is peaceful when I return.  Buffy has long since ended.  Mel and Ringo are asleep.  Deborah is off in the other room where she can still hear the monitors but is reading an immunology text.  The only sound is the soft voices of Sari and Byers in the backlit room.  I feel as I'm an intruder, but my curiosity gets the better of me.

"I hope going on line is not going to put you in more danger,"  I hear Sari whisper to Byers.

"It'll help us get an answer.  We are really sick, Sari.  We need answers.  And the fewer people we involve, the better.  I know that none of us are really up to snuff, but I think we've proven we can work under pressure."  He chuckles a little.  "I don't want to sound melodramatic, but if I have to go out, I don't want to do it without a fight.  And I don't think we have to.  Somebody devised this virus."  He interrupts with a long coughing spell.  "The parameters of it are out there somewhere.  And we're going to find them."

"I'm still scared, John."

"I am, too,"  he admits, cradling her close.  They're lying side by side in his bed.  If they got any closer, it would probably be illegal in at least 38 states.  "It's one of the reasons we have to do this.  We can't just lie here and worry."

"But you yourself have said it's so easy to make a mistake."  Her voice is soft, but tinged with anxiety.  My thoughts exactly, girl.

"It is critical that we be careful and not make mistakes.  But the most important thing to me is that you're here with me, and you're safe, and we're together.  We'll get through this, Sari.  We'll be together, no matter what we have to do."

"What are we going to do?"

"I'm not sure yet.  Let's take this one step at a time.  Just like we took us."

Sari sighs quietly in the dim light.  "Part of me wishes that it had happened sooner…and in another way, I wouldn’t have changed a thing."

"Now you know how I feel."  I can feel Byers' smile from across the room.  "I love you, Sari.  All that's really important to me is in this house right now.  And the most important is in my arms."

"We'll get through this."  I can hear courage in her voice.

"We will.  Get some sleep, love."  I watch as he embraces her tightly, her eyes gently closing, and the two of them temporarily removed from the problems surrounding them.

It's nice to be reminded of what matters.

"Want a diet Coke?"  I ask Deborah, who is still immersed in reading.

"Yeah, I could use one."

"You need some sleep."

"I need to study.  Once the guys get on line, I need to get on PubMed."

I head for the portable fridge and grab two diet Cokes.  I take the liberty of doctoring Deborah's with a little something extra—namely, 20 mgs of Ambien.  If she won't sleep voluntarily, then I'll make her.

"Thanks."  She doesn't look up as she grabs the can.

"Why don't you go check on the guys?"  I suggest, not indicating in any way my master plan.

"Sure, I'll do that."

She heads for the guys' room.  I peer in.  She checks Mel first, listening for heart rate, vitals, the works.  Satisfied, she moves on to John, still  entwined with Sari.  He stirs lightly but settles back against his lover's breast, seemingly content for the moment.

She saves Ringo for last.  Mr. Twitchy, of course, is awake in a flash when she leans over to listen to his heart.

"Where were you?"  He demands hoarsely.

"Ssh, don't wake the others."

"Did Mel get the stuff?"

"Yes, she got it.  You're supposed to be sleeping."

"We gotta get to work.  Guys, wake up, we've got the stuff."

Mel arouses first.  "Stuff?  Oh yeah.  We got work to do.  Byers?  Either get a room or get up."

Deborah sinks into the chair next to Ringo's bed.  "God, I'm tired,"  she mutters.  Good.  The drug is starting to work its magic.

"Get some sleep already.  We're gonna work, babe."  Ringo, far from being as snarky as he was earlier in the day, is tender with her, stroking her hair, pulling her ponytail scrunchy out.  She starts to protest but she's so tired, the next thing I know, she's face planted on Ringo's bed.  It isn't the first time it's happened—residents train themselves to sleep as soon as they're reasonably comfortable anywhere—so he suspects no malfeasance on my part.

Sari gropes for her glasses.  "What's going on? Is it morning?"  We've really lost all sense of time down here.  It's very strange.

"We've got the goodies,"  Byers says to her.  "Langly  Telnet'd while Mel was out, and he got email and did an FTP session for some Windows tools."  He must have just hooked directly to the phone.

"You'd better have used a secure shell,"  Mel wags a finger at Langly.

"Duh, do I look like a moron?"

"Don't make me answer that."

The three are all trying to pull themselves up, but Sari raises her hand in a stop motion.

"Whoa, guys.  Langly did the hard part.  And you need to take it easy.  Mel and I can set up the hardware."

"Oh sure,"  Langly sneers.  "Like we're gonna let a couple of girls do our work."

This invites a furious glare from all of us.  All I can say it's a good thing Deborah is oblivious to it all, or she'd be all over him like flies on manure.  If she didn't slug him first.

"Okay, okay, I didn't mean it like that!"  Langly knows he's cornered.

"We know what you meant, and I don't appreciate it.  I'm not completely computer illiterate.  Besides,"  Sari smiles at John, "I've had a very good instructor."  She winks naughtily at him.  He blushes slightly, but he is very patently pleased.

"You're amazing, dude.  Open mouth, insert foot, every time."  Mel shakes his head. "You're nothing if not predictable."

"Shut up, Doohickey.  At least it's more likely to work if they do it than if you get even close to it."

"Oh, like it's so hard to do it."

"I got bounced around all over before I finally got in  and downloaded my messages."

"You get mail?"  Mel shoots back.

"Guys, this is getting us nowhere,"  John points out correctly.  "And having Sari and Mel do the work would make more sense.  For one thing, my butt is so sore I don't think I can move."

"Oh, tell me about it, and Mr. Fashion gets out of being sliced  and diced!"  This elicits a smirk from Mel.  All I can say is that I'm immensely relieved he didn't have to endure the procedure.  After doing Ringo, I think we'd all had it.

"Tell us how to set up the LAN."  I'd like to get this over with, as peacefully as possible.

On the other hand, hearing them bicker again gives me hope that someday, sometime, we will beat this.  Sooner would be better.

In the end, we ignore them.  Sari has set up LANS before and we simply nod at the bickering theesome.  A lot of 'yes, dears' went down on that one.  The computers are already running Windows XP, so no OS setup necessary.  The guys grimace at  the idea of using Windows, but right now, it's the only game in town, and since they're not running on all cylinders, it's more foolproof.  That's important right now.

"I set up ghost accounts for us,"  Ringo says.  "I used Elron's server."

"Elron was at our funeral.  Don't you think he's likely to become suspicious?"  John asks.

"Elron? Only thing he ever hacks for are Quake cheats,"  Ringo retorts back.  "Which, if he ever figures out it's me on there, I'm gonna owe him all my tricks."

"Not to mention that Elron is normally too stoned to notice much of anything,"  Sari comments dryly.

"Well, yeah, that too."  Ringo is engrossed in his new toy, but he's yawning heavily, and every now and then, lets one of his hands off the keyboard to stroke Deborah's hair or arm.

"When is Maggie supposed to call?"  Mel asks me.

"She won't.  Jimmy will contact us in the early morning.  That was the plan last time."  Let's hope nothing has gotten in  the way.  I don't know Maggie, but knowing the position we've put her in, the plan could go haywire at any moment.

"I don't like the idea of putting Jimmy in harm's way,"  Sari says, "but we're risking too much by contacting Maggie directly.  And I hope Anndie is holding up all right."

"We'll find out."

I check Mel out. I've noticed a jump in blood pressure, but I'm attributing that to excitement.  And fear.  If anything, the smell of fear in the room has taken on a new pungency.

Or maybe we're just not showering enough.

"We need to get some spidering going on,"  Ringo says.  "We'll get some spiders out there, let 'em spin their webs, then we'll unleash the Rude Ones."

"Langly, get some sleep," John admonishes him.  "You've been yawning the whole time we've been at this."

"I'm not tired."  He snaps back like an irritable child.

I rub Mel's shoulders.  He murmurs lightly in appreciation.

"Are you feeling all right?"  I whisper to him.

"I've been better,"  he admits.  "But at least my ass isn't sore.  Too bad everything else is."  He sighs.  "I don't like saying this to you," he lowers his voice, "but I'm starting to get scared."

Starting to?  I've been there, done that, and gotten the T shirt.  I'm well into the race.

"I'm getting weaker. It's hard to type.  Could you maybe do some typing if I give you the commands?"

I think the only reason he conceded to this is because Sari's already doing it for John.  Ringo, not surprisingly, has dozed off.  I glance over at him.

"He's got a habit of doing that when there's work to be done,"  Mel says to me, his tone light.  He then turns serious.  "I think just the Telnet session probably fried him to a crisp.  It's not taking much.  And he's actually a good typist.  The way this thing is affecting us, we're all getting these weird tremors and weakness, which is bizarre, since we've cut back on the number of loogies we're blowing."  He eyes me, his expression like that of a young, frightened child.  I don't recall ever seeing fear in those soft green eyes before.

"We're spinning a web,"  John says softly to us.  He gives Sari some more commands to type.

"You sure you trust me to do this?"  I confess to being a bit apprehensive about taking part in something I know nothing of and where there's no room for error.  One could argue I've spent most of my adult life in that situation, but usually, I have a little more information and basic knowledge to work with.

"You're my weapon of choice,"  he smiles at me tenderly.  How could I possibly resist?

We surprisingly last three hours.  By that time, John and Sari are once again curled around each other.  Ringo remains conked out, leaning on Deborah's arm, which her head is plastered against.  She'll be lucky to have any nerve endings left by morning.

Mel says it's time to put it away.  I've learned a few things tonight.  First and foremost, hacking is a lot like a slow night in trauma care—long periods of boredom punctuated by having to move at adrenaline rush speed.

"You don't linger,"  he tells me.  "Get in, take the loot, get out as fast and as quietly as you can."

I found it nervewracking but strangely thrilling, actually.  Not surprising if you think about it.

We quietly boot down and disconnect the laptop.  I make sure that all three laptops are detached and silent.  Then I snuggle up next to Mel.  He tries to put his arms around me, but I can feel the tremors as he reaches for me.  As much as his touch comforts me, this aspect is disturbing.  The feel is almost Parkinsonian.

"I hope Maggie and Anndie are finding what they need,"  I say hopefully, and very softly, so not to wake the others.

"Hmm."  He contemplates  this.  "I'm thinking the information they need is somewhere else.  What we need to do is get at the original source, the original spec for this."

"Schneider's records?  They were destroyed in a fire, according to Anndie.  And she's working from memory."  Not a comforting thought, really.

"Schneider may be dead, and his computer nothing but melted Silly Putty, but someone's got that information.  And we're going to find it."

"And then?"

"Maggie Rose, according to what I pulled up on her, there's no one better for dealing with what's never been defined in the world of viruses before.  She's at the top of her game.  Word on the otaku boards is that she's gunning for a Nobel."  He sighs.  "Problem is, since she's doing this unofficially, unless she can transform it
into something legit, she'll never see it.  And we've already stipulated that this can't get out.  I think she knows it as well.  Which is why no more direct contact with her."

"I hope Jimmy calls soon."

"Jimmy's a stupid lunk—and I can't believe little Anndie would even let him within miles of a lab, much less teach him to work in one—but he's reliable, he's discreet, and he's committed.  He'll call."

"I hope he has some good news for us."

"If he tells me that Maggie and Anndie and  he are all right, that'll work for me.  We'll try to supply her with what she needs.  Believe me, she hasn't found it yet."

"I know.  And I'm worried, Mel.  The respiratory problems were bad enough.  This newest development is scaring the hell out of me."

"Me, too.  But we are going to get out of this.  No way are we letting this beat us."  He turns sober, and his breathing becomes more labored.  He looks weary and older  than he is.  I hold him close, feeling his slightly uneven heartbeat.  "We don't win every battle.  But we will win this war."

"I'll take your word on that."  I'm not completely convinced.  I won't share that with him.  But he is a determined and stubborn man.  He will not go gentle into that good night, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, whom Sari was reading to John earlier.  "Mel?  What are we going to do when this part is resolved?"

He doesn't answer me right away.  "I think we'll have to go into hiding.  You, too.  They know of you.  You've been under FBI surveillance ever since we hooked up."

"What?"  I'm unnerved and more than a little appalled.  "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because we have friends there, and the purpose at that point was protection.  Everyone was behaving themselves.  Of course, the rules of engagement have changed now."  His face grows grim, then lightens up.  I'm puzzled.

"What are you saying?"

"How do you like the tropics?"

A couple hours pass.  I have to knock myself on the head and load up on diet Coke periodically in order to stay awake.  I almost wish I hadn't whapped Deborah with drugs, but she needs the sleep.  Sari woke up and kept me company for a short time, but has since returned to snuggling with John.  Deborah remains face planted in Langly's bed, still in her chair.  Fortunately, she's accustomed to sleeping in less than optimal places.

Mel awakens first.  He doesn't cough as violently as he's done in recent history. His vitals look better.  I'm hoping the shaking is only a temporary effect.

"Okay, you bums, it's work time,"  he calls out, waking up  the others, Sari included.  Poor kid.  She just got back to sleep about 15 minutes ago.

"Like can we get some coffee going on?"  Langly barks between coughs.  His vitals are better, but being asthmatic is complicating his return a bit.

Coffee would be good, I decide. I just hope it will have no ill effects.  We're all worried about everything we put in their lines, everything they take in their mouths.  We haven't lived down what could have been fatal in our earlier treatment.  I'm wondering if we had avoided the initial treatment, they would not have had such severe symptoms, nor developed the tremors.

Deborah is unresponsive.  This is fine.  She'll need to be awake when Jimmy calls.

Langly nudges her a bit.  "Deb?"

"Ringo, leave her be.  She needs sleep,"  Sari chides him gently.

"Let's get booted up,"  Mel orders.

"And who appointed you Napoleon?"  John asks sharply, but then smiles a bit—until he tries to pick up the laptop lid.  He's not coordinated enough to do it.

"Better make that decaf,"  I mutter to myself, not announcing it.  There'll be a riot in here if they even suspect I'm going to make decaf.  Of course, I'm going to have to head upstairs to find some.  No doubt Devi has some.  Probably some Seattle's Finest or Peet's, knowing her.

Devi is of course asleep—on the sofa in the living room—and I have no wish to disturb her.  She's opened up everything in her home to us.  The day help is all gone now.  I find a large unopened Seattle's Finest Decaf in her freezer.  I tiptoe quietly.  The only people around are the night shift guards, whom I suspect are aware of our presence but have been instructed by the lady of the house to ignore us.

Coffee on, I return to the guys.  There's grumbling aplenty.  Mel looks irritated, and Ringo is cursing wildly.  I suspect there is difficulty in typing.

Mel signals to Ringo.  "Go help the boy,"  he instructs. "He has to make the first pass."

I'm a bit more nervous helping Ringo.  Not only is he more volatile  than Mel, but what he's about to do requires nerves of steel.  Mine are a lot more like jello at this point.

He isn't happy about my doing his typing, but he gives instructions, only changing his mind about every 15 seconds.  I'm ready to whap him with his laptop, but John will call over and clarify every so often, and when I do it right, Ringo actually expresses pleasure.  "You go, girl."

"You're lucky to have me,"  I joke back. "I'm assuming you've seen Deborah's typing."

This makes Ringo cackle a little.  "Oh yeah.  But she does okay with Mad Libs.  They're short."

"Ready to let the Rude Boy out?"  John asks.

"Just about."  He instructs me to type in a few more lines.

"Let's let her rip,"  Mel nods.

As I said, hacking requires patience.  The spiders make their way through the standard search engines, into the more obscure ones, all the way down to a place that must be comparable to where we are in terms of being concealed underground.  Every once in a while, Sari or I will be instructed to type in a command or string to get them to where they want to go next.

"Okay, this looks interesting.  Let's pay a little visit,"  Ringo suggests.

"Where are you?"

"Inside the CIA,"  he says, as casually as if he were talking about the weather.

Sari and I become mildly alarmed.  "What are you doing inside the CIA?  How's that going to help you?"

"Well, it's not, but it's the best pathway to get to the NSA,"  Mel says calmly.  I don't feel my blood pressure going down.

"And you're sure no one can see you?"  I'm really worried now.  I'm expecting at any moment
for someone to arrive with guns blazing and wiping us all out, once and for all.

"Everyone leaves a footprint,"  John explains.  "But in this case, we've made sure the footprints can't be traced back to us."

"Who then could they  be traced back to?"  I'm not liking this as much as I thought I would.

"Well, it wasn't that hard, really,"  Ringo explains.  "See, we set up a ghost server.  In the name of our old buddy Kenneth Soona."

"That's going to make them even more suspicious,"  Sari is becoming agitated.

Ringo  guffaws.  "Kenny died six years ago.  You seriously think anyone's gonna remember him?  It was him or Fletcher.  We might do Fletcher yet."

"Then they'd find you for sure."  My earlier exhiliration has completely disintegrated. All I feel now is fear and worry in the pit of my stomach.

"Well, they know Fletcher's a moron,"  Mel explains.  "It's not Fletcher we're worried about.  It's his boss."

"And his boss is?"

"Lois's daddy,"  Mel spits.

"I'm confused here."  I sincerely am.  "Forgive the senior moment, but I'm not making the connection."

"He's an arms dealer.  And Fletcher's boss,"  John explains.  "He's the one we really have to worry about."

"I thought Fletcher, from what  you'd previously said, was a government worker."

"He's married, too, but do you think that ever stopped him from getting a piece of action on the side?"  Mel snorts.  I've gotten a fair glimpse into how he feels about betrayals of any kind, and apparently matrimonial betrayal is no exception in his book.  I'm a lucky girl.  I think.

"Spidering to NSA,"  Ringo says.

"We'll going to head for the chemical and biological weapons database,"  John explains.  "Once Langly gets us in, I'll do the search, Frohike makes the grab, we're gone."

"They probably have hundreds of projects in their databases,"  Sari reminds them.

"No doubt.  But Jimmy will call soon.  And with some information from Dr. Rose, we can narrow our search paramaters,"  John explains, trying to soothe us, although I think he's probably nervous as well.  I think anyone with a few functioning neurons would have to be edgy in this moment.

It's tense and quiet as Sari takes over, following John's instructions for typing.  She's looking a bit pale herself.

"Okay, Frohike.  Go in and get the goodies,"  John finally says. I go back over to Mel's bed.  His hands are shaking, and I don't think it's just nerves.

"Do you do this often?"  I ask Mel furtively as I type.

"Nah, usually we make Kimmy do this kind of dirty work.  But he's not around, and quite honestly, I'm perfectly happy to let the little twit think we're dead for a bit longer."

"Kimmy has helped us,"  John reminds him, a bit sharply.  They're all looking exhausted now.

"Doesn't mean he's not a twit."  I've heard Mel complain about Kimmy and seen a few photos.  I really don't much about him, except that Mel regards him as a major pain in  the butt.

"How much longer?"  John asks, getting more nervous.

"We're at 56K dialup, remember?" Mel retorts.

"God, that is so 1995,"  groans Ringo.  "Nobody's seen us, have they?"

"Doesn't look like it.  We may just get lucky this time.  Wish we had more information to go on, we're probably gonna blow up the hard drive on this thing if it doesn't finish soon because we can't narrow the search parameters yet, but so far, we look invisible."

"Try staying that way.  I'm tired,"  Ringo yawns.

"So go back to sleep.  We like you when you're quiet,"  Mel taunts him. "Okay. I think we're done here.  We'll have to burst it all, since it's all compressed, but that shouldn't be a problem.  We might need a couple more computers."  Devi has indicated that there's a fairly good supply in the consulate and that we're welcome to them.

"We got out clean?"  John checks one last time.

"Looks that way,"  Mel says as he instructs me to disconnect.

An audible breath is released by everyone in the room when the disconnect is complete.

I look at Mel.  "Mel...dear heart…isn't what we just did a criminal offense?"

He smiles a little.  "Doing what we do best.  Welcome to the dark side, love."

 Go To Chapter 8