Alternate Universe Strange Days
This story is the first follow-up to Kat Morgan's 'Strange Days' and was written with her blessing.
JD lay on his bed, his hands tucked under his head, staring up at the illumination panels that ran across the ceiling. The rest of the team was out on a retrieval and he wasn't yet cleared to go with them so he had to remain behind. He was seething with anger. Chris had been succinct in his denial."No. You aren't ready," the Marshall had said."But I've been stuck in here forever!" JD protested, waving his arms to indicate the residential part of the facility."You've been here five days," Chris countered calmly."But I can't do anything! I can't have a computer! I can't work on my bike! They won't even let me have my game system! I'm bored!" JD shouted. Overhead, the lights in the common room flickered before going dark. An instant later, the alert claxon sounded, accompanied by red, strobing lights. Several members of the security team rushed into the room, wild-eyed and heavily armed."That's enough, JD," Chris commanded firmly, holding out his hand in a gesture that told security to stand down. "You can't go and that's final." He stared at the younger man until the alarm faded and the lights slowly returned to normal.
JD's leg twitched and he flung himself off of the bed. He glared at the flat-screen TV that Vin and Buck had brought him. It immediately came to life, volume blaring, the colors wildly off kilter. JD stood there for a minute before sweeping from the room, jerking the door open so quickly that the panels in the drop-ceiling made a muffled 'whump.'
As he walked along the hall, the light panels overhead darkened ominously, only to return to normal the instant he passed. JD entered the large, communal dining room and glared at the expanse of empty tables. His anger faded in the face of no one to confront and he sighed. Deciding that he could eat, he opened one of the cabinets and grabbed a can of chili.
~ ~ ~
The retrieval had gone smoothly, after a fashion. Nathan had a new xlox to add to his collection of exotic dead bugs. Josiah had a fragment of a control crystal that he was sure he could do something with, and didn't the thought of that make Chris' jaw ache.
The only problem occurred when Ezra accidentally dropped a cage of crickets. The little, leaping vermin immediately sprang into action, jumping and climbing up his legs. After emitting a scream that would have done a movie heroine proud, the Savnahan began swatting at the bugs. In his panic, he knocked over a tank that held several mice, which then scurried away. He now sat with Vin in the third row seat of the suburban, fairly glowing over the way he had behaved.
In the awkward, uncomfortable silence, Vin's stomach rumbled loudly.
"Dang, boy, don't you ever feed that critter?" Buck asked, turning to look at Tanner. "Hey, Chris, maybe we should have him scanned again. Just to make sure he hasn't picked up anything that's catching."
Ezra cast a slightly worried glance at Vin and pressed himself closer to the window, creating a few inches more space between them. For his part, Vin jabbed Buck in the shoulder and exclaimed, "Hell, I'm just a growing boy! Hey Chris, can we stop up here at the taco place? I got a hankerin' for one of their super burritos."
"Mmm, nachoes!" Josiah added with a grin.
In the end, Chris agreed to stop and allow them to get food, only because he was going to get a cup of coffee at the Starbucks across the street.
Twenty minutes later, the team leader got back into the suburban and slammed the door. The entire vehicle was redolent with the smell of spicy, fattening food, which didn't improve Chris' disposition.
"Thought you were going to get coffee?" Nathan asked.
"Their machine was down," Larabee growled, throwing the suburban into reverse and backing up with a squall of tires.
"Better take it easy, you know what Travis said about you getting another ticket," Buck cautioned. When he caught the venomous glare in the rear-view mirror, he slumped down in his seat and checked that his seatbelt was fastened properly.
Arriving back at the base, the team quickly evacuated the vehicle and made a dash for the elevator, not wanting to be around a caffeine-deprived Larabee a moment longer than absolutely necessary.
JD was just finishing his chili when Vin and Buck entered the dining room, dropping an assortment of bags from a fast-food place on one of the tables. They were laughing about something as Vin opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of sliced jalapeños. Buck was pulling things out of the bags, pulling back the wrapping to examine the contents and setting them on the table.
"Hey, JD, you want a taco? I got plenty," Vin called out, still grinning.
"I just ate," JD replied. That was another thing, they got to go out and get fast-food and he was stuck here eating canned chili!
Chris Larabee swept into the room and made a bee line for the coffee maker. He grabbed his cup and settled it, none too gently, on the plate beneath the dispenser nozzle.
"Now, Chris, you know you and that machine don't get along. Do you want me to make it for you?" Buck offered. The look Larabee gave him nearly singed his mustache and Wilmington held his hands up in front of him. "It's your stomach," he mumbled softly.
Standing in front of the chemistry experiment Ezra built to make his coffee, Chris took a slow, deep breath. It was a collection of valves and spigots and steam chambers, all carefully connected by copper tubing and coils reminiscent of a still. He carefully lifted the lid on one of the chambers and checked that there were enough coffee beans. Next, he carefully turned a knob and pressed a button. The sound of the grinder indicated that he was on the right track. When the grinder stopped, he pulled a lever that allowed the fresh grounds fall into another chamber. Immediately, a red light appeared and he saw the filtered water flowing through a glass tube.
JD carried his bowl to the sink and turned on the water to rinse it out before loading it into the dishwasher. Behind him, he could hear Buck and Vin arguing over the last taco and it made him angry!
All of a sudden, the spigot above his coffee cup began to emit steam and Chris smiled, he would finally get his cup of coffee. A plume of steam burst forth and he could hear something trickling into the cup.
When the steam cleared, Chris reached out and slid his cup off of the plate. He lovingly drew it closer and inhaled, expecting the bouquet of fresh-ground, expertly brewed coffee. What he got was something that smelled like rotten eggs!
"Ee-uch!" Chris exclaimed, drawing all eyes in the room to him. "This isn't coffee!" he announced, crossing to dump the foul brew into the sink. He nudged JD out of the way and grabbed the bottle of dishwashing liquid to squirt into the cup.
The unpleasant odor wafted around the room and Buck's mustache twitched. "Damn, Chris, that's awful! What did you do to her?" he asked, looking toward the coffee machine.
"What did I do to her?" Larabee asked, advancing on his oldest friend. "What - did - I - do - to - her?" he repeated, enunciating and emphasizing the pronouns distinctly.
"Now, Chris," Buck said, smiling brightly, "You know that Ezra is the only one who can make truly great coffee in that machine. He understands it!"
"It's a coffee maker, it is supposed to make coffee!"
Wilmington went to the cabinet and took out a clean cup. He walked over to the counter where the coffee maker sat and gently ran his free hand along the stainless steel control panel. "Here now, darlin', let's just try this again," he said, placing the cup on the plate. "We just want a nice, strong cup of coffee." He turned a valve, very slowly, then turned the knob beneath the coffee bean chamber. The machine immediately began dropping beans into the grinder, which purred loudly.
Chris propped his fists on his hips and glared balefully at the machine. He still couldn't understand how a collection of copper and other inert materials could be so damned cantankerous.
When the purr of the grinder stopped, Buck smiled over his shoulder and pulled the lever to allow the grounds to fall into the brewing chamber. "So far, so good," he murmured. A green light came on and he could see the water flowing through the tubing. A few seconds later, there was a hiss of steam. Buck turned another knob and patted the coffee bean chamber. "There you are, you're doing just fine," he crooned.
An irritated snort burst from Larabee's lips and his eyes closed as his head shook slowly. "It's a coffee maker, not a 'Saturday night special'," he whispered, referring to the nickname they gave most of Buck's conquests.
JD leaned against the sink counter, his arms folded across his chest, his chin set defiantly. He had made coffee just that morning and it turned out fine, he couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
Vin gathered up the detritus from his meal and stuffed it into one of the bags. He slurped up the last bit of soda in his cup, then popped the lid off and used the straw to dig out a chunk of the crushed ice. He slouched back in his chair and continued to suck on the straw, making an annoying noise against the bottom of the empty cup. Chris fired a 'Larabee glare' in his direction and he stopped.
The coffee maker continued to make soft hissing noises as Buck turned another knob and pressed yet another button. The green light began to blink slowly and he relaxed, a smug smile on his face as he waited for the ambrosia to flow.
Josiah and Nathan arrived, carrying on two completely different conversations, seemingly unaware that they were not on the same topic.
" - then I can try to hook it up to the xytomatrix and run a charge through it," Josiah explained.
"- Xlox in the database. They are a destructive species that feed on liquid nitrogen, so it would likely have starved to death," Nathan said as he moved to the refrigerator and took out the leftover salad from the evening before.
Josiah pulled out a chair next to Vin's and dropped his take-out bag on the table. He took the bottle of tea from Nathan as the medic joined them.
Finally, a slow trickle of brown liquid flowed into the cup and Buck rocked back on his heels. He had a way with machines, he knew it and was proud of it. When the trickle ended with a soft plume of steam, he carefully slid the cup off of the plate and offered it to Chris, who nodded for him to try it. Buck blew on the hot liquid and took a tiny sip.
A look of horror spread across Buck's face and he spat the liquid back into the cup. He stared in disbelief at the coffee maker, betrayal shining in his intensely blue eyes. "It tastes like motor oil," he announced with disgust.
"Let me have a try at it," Vin suggested. He stood up, grabbed the wadded up bag of trash and fired off a perfect jump-shot into the waste can in the corner of the room. "Nothing but net," he crowed.
JD continued to watch as Vin went through many of the same motions, turning knobs and pulling levers and pushing buttons, though in a completely different order. The lights blinked and steam issued from various relief valves for a full minute before the spigot began to disburse something that certainly smelled like coffee. Tanner bent down to look more closely.
After rinsing the motor oil taste from his mouth, Buck joined Vin to stare at the liquid flowing from the coffee maker. "Damned if that doesn't look like the coffee Lisa used to make," he announced.
"Lisa who?" Vin asked.
"You know, on Green Acres? Her coffee always looked like that," Buck replied.
Just then, Ezra swept into the dining room, freshly showered and dressed in his preferred manor, a smartly tailored jacket and matching pants. Pristine starched cuffs showed at his wrists and the crisp collar lay over the perfectly tied Windsor knot in his tie. He reached the coffee machine just as the plume of steam indicated that the brewing cycle was complete.
Everyone in the room stared at the cup, yet none of them moved to take it from the machine. "Would one of you kindly claim your coffee? I would like to brew an expresso," Ezra explained. Still no one moved to claim the mug that boasted 'It just isn't morning until I've had my coffee!' on the side.
"Is there a problem?" the Savnahan asked.
"Coffee machine's broke," Vin answered.
"Broken," Ezra corrected.
"Yeah," Vin agreed.
"Yeah," Buck agreed.
"Yes, it is," Chris agreed.
"I have tried and tried to explain to each of you that this is a delicate piece of machinery but it isn't difficult to use. You must be doing something incorrectly if it isn't brewing a proper cup of coffee," Ezra said in that tone than one uses when speaking to an unbalanced person or a homicidal maniac. He picked up the cup and gave it an experimental sniff. "It smells like coffee." He took one of the stir-sticks from the dispenser on the counter and stuck it into the cup and his expression became one of concern. Crossing to the sink, he tipped the cup and the thick viscous liquid sluggishly flowed over the lip of the cup and fell at a gravity-defying rate into the waiting basin.
Five of the other six men stared in horror as the thick sludge poured from the cup. They had all seen Ezra have a hissy fit before … JD's expression was one of amusement. Finally, Ezra set the cup in the sink and schooled his face so as not to show how incredibly irritated he was at the moment.
"Very well, I shall demonstrate the proper way to operate the machine once more. If you would all be so kind as to pay attention," Ezra said, striding over to the coffee maker. He checked the amount of beans in the chamber, surprised that it wasn't overly full. "First you must indicate the strength of the brew you desire to make," he explained.
The overly patronizing tone of voice tickled JD and his facial muscles twitched as he struggled not to bust out laughing. The way the other 'extra-terrestrial' member of the team spoke, the overly patient tone of voice, even the words and gestures he used, all struck JD as hilarious.
"And that is all that is required to make a simple cup of coffee," Ezra was saying when the red light began to blink. Josiah and Nathan slowly came to their feet, sensing perhaps that something awful was about to happen.
"Ez, maybe you ought to step away from there," Buck urged, eying the pressure gauge above the steam chamber.
"I assure you, Mr. Wilmington, that I am in no danger. I simply cannot fathom why you can't follow a set of directions so clear that any child could follow them," Ezra replied smugly.
Vin interjected anxiously, "Yeah, Ez, we got it. Now you just step back over here-"
Even as Vin managed to take hold of Standish's arm, the machine began to rumble ominously. The lid on the coffee bean chamber jiggled, tapping out a warning. The copper tubing rattled and the lights blinked in colors none of them had ever seen before. Suddenly, there was a loud 'pop' and cold water began to spray from one of the tubes, while a fine mist blossomed from two or three of the valves.
Nathan and Josiah peered cautiously from behind the table they had upended. Jackson stared in disbelief at the plate of nachos that Sanchez had grabbed before they ducked.
With as much dignity as he could manage, Ezra pulled a fine linen handkerchief from his breast pocket and mopped the water from his face. "What just happened here?" he asked, pinning each of them with an almost-Larabee-esque glare. When his gaze landed on Dunne, it finally clicked.
JD pressed back against the counter as Ezra came to stand in front of him. In that moment, JD realized that his anger was the cause of the problem and he felt a wash of shame. "That was uncalled for," the Savnahan growled.
In the back of his mind, Ezra realized that the boy could not help it, he was still learning to control his abilities, but it still rankled that he would sabotage the one thing that made Ezra's confinement bearable. The coffee machine's unique ability to read the emotions of the people around it allowed Ezra to keep on top of his teammates' moods. He was just about to let the matter drop when JD's expression changed, going from a hint of fear to something like defiance.
"If nobody claims it in 30 days, it's yours," JD offered smoothly. He then turned sharply, bumping Standish with his shoulder as he strode away.
In the stunned silence that followed, Chris turned with military precision and announced, "I'm going to buy a Keurig. That's all there is to it!"
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