paced erratically around his office, following no particular path. Sometimes
he'd stop and look out of the thick Plexiglass windows at the ocean outside,
while at other points he would stop, pick up one of the photos that decorated
his desk, sigh, and then replace it before starting his pacing once more.
He'd been restless for almost three days now, ever since the accident.
His son, his intelligent, courageous, too curious for his own good son, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time during a security breach. Now Josh had been infused with an experimental nanotechnology, one that had integrated with and augmented all of his physical systems. While the technology had made Josh nearly superhuman, it came at a price. The probes had a voracious appetite for transphasic energy, and they supported all of Josh's systems. Without power, they would fail and Josh would go into total systemic collapse. Worse, there was no way to remove the probes from Josh without killing him.
If that wasn't bad enough, Josh had decided, out of the blue, that now HE wanted to be a part of N-Tek, the private side. Jeff had tried to talk him out of it-- had gone so far as outright refusing to allow Josh to join. The CEO winced; that had been quite possibly the loudest argument the two of them had ever had. Agents four floors up had been complaining about the noise.
In the end, Jeff had relented, provided Josh (or "Max Steel" as he was known here) underwent all the procedures normal for a prospective agent. That included a set of skill tests,-- Josh had passed with flying colors,-- a full physical, modified to fit Josh's circumstances by Berto Martinez, and a psychiatric evaluation. Given the security clearance required for anything related to the MX project, the task of the evaluation had fallen to Dr. Margaret McAllister, the head of N-Tek's battery of psychiatrists.
It had been Dr. McAllister, or "Maggie," as her friends called her, who had touched off this latest bout of physical restlessness in Jeff. Not twenty minutes ago, he'd received a call from her, fresh out of her evaluation session with Josh. The normally irrepressible, almost bubbly woman had sounded dead serious telling Jeff, "We need to talk." Now he was pacing around his office, waiting for her to show up. The anticipation was killing him.
"Stop that, Jeff, you're going to wear a hole in the carpet," a low female voice scolded from the door. Jeff looked up to see Maggie leaning against the doorframe, watching him with a studied casualness that generally meant she was sizing him up.
"Come on in, Maggie," he replied, gesturing to one of the chairs. As he sank into his own seat, he scrutinized the psychiatrist across his desk. She didn't look… frazzled, exactly, but her long red hair had slipped out of the roll she usually wore it in, and a hint of worry gleamed in her gray eyes. Jeff groaned inwardly. He wasn't going to like this.
Once the two were settled into the chairs, Smith fixed the woman before him with a serious gaze. "You said we had to talk?"
Maggie sighed. "Yes. It is, as I'm sure you've guessed, about the results of Josh's psychiatric evaluation." She hesitated. "Jeff, do you want Dr. McAllister's opinions, or just Maggie's?"
He knew what that meant. She had something he wasn't going to want to hear. The question was, did he want to hear it from an employee, couched and cushioned in technical terms, or did he want it from a friend? Jeff rubbed his forehead.
"Maggie," he answered. He needed to know what the problem was, and he didn't have the energy to try and translate the technical terms for himself.
Sighing, she shifted in her chair, folding her hands across her lap. "Your boy's a time bomb, Jeff," she began bluntly. "Just looking for a place and time to go off. And to be frank, he has been for a long while."
"What, exactly, do you mean by 'time bomb?'" Jeff asked, trying to remain calm. Pulling a bottle of Maalox out of a desk drawer, he poured himself a small dose and drank it down.
"Jeff, Josh has some serious emotional issues, specifically abandonment. His mother, his father… two of the most important people in his life left him, and when he was still in the process of developing an identity. He was two when Molly died; old enough to feel the pain and the loss, but too young to have any memories that might blunt the grief. He doesn't remember her… just the pain that not having her brings. As for Jim…" Maggie shook her head. "All Josh remembers of him is watching him walk out the door… and one night never came back.
"The boy is terrified of being alone, Jeff, and terrified of losing the people he has. You told me yourself he was the life of every party in high school, the center of the social scene. But how many close friends does he have, really?"
Jeff massaged his temples. "Just Laura and Pete," he admitted.
"He surrounds himself with people, but people that it won't hurt him to lose. No strong ties, no close relationships… except with the few people who refuse to take no for an answer."
"God, why didn't I-"
"Don't," the redhead cut him off. "You've been a better father to that boy than most people could ever ask for. Jeff, you are the only constant thing in his life. You've been there for him from birth, and you have never let him down. You're his anchor. That's why he wants to join N-Tek."
"Jeff, you're everything to Josh. You're all he has in this world that hasn't left him, that has always been here. He can't stand losing you, too. Now he finds out you're a secret agent, defending the world against terrorists, and you think he's just going to accept it?"
The older man blinked. "But I'm not the one who'd be in danger. I'm the boss, for heaven's sake! Why would he possibly think that anything would happen to me?"
Maggie folded her arms across her chest. "Jeff, this job killed his father. It almost killed HIM. And as I recall, being the boss didn't save Marco Nathanson from that explosion."
"That was an accident," Jeff replied weakly.
"Reports say the cause was undetermined. Damn convenient accident, if it was. The point is, Jeff, to Josh's mind, you ARE in danger. And that is a situation he simply cannot abide."
"I see." Taking the bottle of Maalox, Jeff downed another dose, this time not bothering to measure quite as accurately. "So, do you think he's stable enough to be an agent?"
The psychiatrist nodded. "Oh, heavens yes, Jeff. In fact, it might be the best thing for him. He's got a lot of unresolved anger to work out, and N-Tek is the perfect outlet."
Jeff stared. "Anger?"
"At his parents, for dying… at his father for leaving him to work… at a world that can give him so many THINGS, but take away all the ones that matter… and, of course, at that… creature that broke in here and changed his life." Maggie's voice softened. "He still has nightmares about that, you know."
"No," Smith shook his head. "I didn't know. But it doesn't surprise me. You don't think this anger of his will interfere with the job?"
Maggie shook her head. "Josh has a history of channeling anger into physical activity; why do you think he loves extreme sports so much? But he won't be able to compete again… you know that. It's only a matter of time until Josh realizes it, too. Without N-Tek, Josh might not have any outlets whatsoever… and he could very well end up self-destructing."
"God." Jeff dropped his head into his hands.
"On the bright side," the woman continued briskly, "I think he'll be a PHENOMENAL agent, not just a good one. Enhancements aside, he's intelligent and courageous, and most importantly very selfless. He's not doing this for himself… he's doing this because NOT to would be to stand by and let other people be hurt. And despite the blows he's been given, he's still an incredibly resilient young man. He's not fragile, Jeff, for all that he's been hurt in the past. Scarred, perhaps, but scar tissue is incredibly strong." She grinned. "You should know that, right?"
Smith rubbed ruefully at his left side. "No argument there, Maggie. So in your professional opinion?"
"Max Steel is perfectly capable of fulfilling the duties of an N-Tek agent, and I'd clear him for duty in a heartbeat. And on a personal note… Jeff, if you don't do this, you may lose him. Permanently."
For a long moment, Jeff said nothing at all. Then he picked up the bottle of Maalox and, ignoring the dose cup, simply swigged down a large swallow. Then he sighed.
"Better lay in a supply of this, then…" he muttered. Maggie grinned, rising to her feet.
"I think you've made the right choice, Jeff. And remember… my door is always open." And with that, she was gone, making excellent time for someone in a suit and two-inch heels. Watching her go, Jeff shook his head, then took another swig of Maalox for good measure. What was he getting himself into?
And did he really want to know?