Water spits up from behind the tyres as they drive; if he listens carefully, he can hear the sound of it spattering back down, onto the hard, slick surface of the road; against the undercarriage of the speeding car.

The engine isn't loud; it's a sort of thrumming hum: not like a car, at all, he thinks. No, it's actually more like the hum of Tech Space, of a room full of computers; a photocopier when it's been running too long, too hard.

He can listen to that sound all day. He remembers four lane highways on the way to some conference somewhere, memories out of the past, grasping at unrealities. All that's gone now, everything's different.

The light's strange, not blinding the way it sometimes gets; it's as though it's still half asleep, as though it's just waking up, blinking eyes and squinting to peer across some distance. The heater's on inside the vehicle; it's warm. The warmth is comforting and disturbing, all at once; it gives him the constant feeling of wanting to close his eyes and maybe sleep. Even the motion of the car moving makes his eyes want to close. He can't let them; they'll be stopping soon to fill up on petroleum; he'll get a coffee then, maybe wake up a little.

He fights it; can't fall asleep on the job, what'll that look like?

Beside him, the glass of the car door window vibrates with the rhythm of rubber on bitumen, tyres against road. He wonders that the light doesn't look any different for it; cars and 4WDs move past outside, larger vehicles, too; trucks, rigs.

Sesqui-, his mind digs up some suitably obscure word element; meaning 'one and a half,' he thinks. He's looking forward to that coffee; he'll probably have a seat inside in the roadhouse's dining area; the seats won't be the most comfortable, but the coffee might be from a coffeemaker if he's willing to pay more than the regular make-it-yourself instant-type costs. His hands would rattle too much; he'd spill freeze dried coffee granules over the countertop, he'd annoy the person taking orders at the register; if he spilled the hot water from the urn over his hands he'd scold them, he'd annoy someone else with that, too, he imagines.

It's not that he's like this often; this tired. He hasn't been getting the best sleep, he reflects. It seems to be a thing he's going through; he tells himself it'll pass. He tries to take comfort in Michelle, sleeping soundly beside him, but it never works; he just ends up monitoring the sound of her breathing patterns for hours rather than drifting off to sleep himself. He wonders if there's something he's waiting for: Jarod to phone, perhaps? It's impossible to pin down.

The vehicle starts to slow; they change lanes. There's a service station up ahead; it gets larger by the seconds that pass. He watches it for a long moment; he watches it becoming real, suddenly, as though, before, from a distance, it'd been nothing more than a picture from a magazine or an image from a television set screen, momentarily stilled.

There's a bump – not really a jolt – as they pull into the service station from the highway; there's concrete under the tyres, replacing the bitumen; it sounds different, the tyres move more smoothly over its surface. He's thinking of that coffee.

Broots is counting his loose change; the coins tinkle as they touch, warmed in his palm.

The sound of the engine and the tyres is replaced, abruptly, by Lyle's voice, declaring as to the amount of money Broots is holding in his hand.

Broots counts it again with his eyes and mumbles, "Oh, yeah."

Lyle looks away from him, around to Sydney.

Sydney hadn't noticed that he'd been asleep, but he notices it now. There's something bleary about his eyes, or maybe it's their gaze, slightly out of focus, not quite right.

"This is cheery," Lyle says; he's looking out the window on Sydney's side of the car, not at Sydney himself.

"I'm having something to eat; I'm starving," Broots tells them both, or neither of them. "I didn't get to have breakfast this morning." He doesn't explain why this was; he's staring out the windshield, out of one window and into another, inside the restaurant, maybe wondering, already, what'll be on offer: what they'll have up on the board, and what they'll have in stock.

"I should get a coffee," Lyle replies, "I'm falling asleep."

"Yeah," Broots mumbles in agreement; it's almost like a real conversation; Sydney is mildly surprised.

From the front, comes Miss Parker's voice: "Oh, look, it's Jarod!"

To her credit, they all look; Sydney included. It's not that she'd said it with conviction; it's that she'd said it at all: she's the leader of their little team, her word means something deep in their subconscious.

Before they catch on, she nudges them up to speed: "Ha, ha," she intones dryly. It's more of a joke to herself: she doesn't expect it to be that easy, and it never is. "The other side!" she yaps suddenly. "No – the other side! Sam, go to the one on the other side!"

Sam's driving, but it's not his car; it's a company car, he's not used to anticipating that the fuel cap will be on a different side to his own car.

"Oh, get out of the way!" Miss Parker bristles to another car, who slips in and takes their place before they can make their move; she settles a glare on their back window when they've pulled up behind them. "I need a cigarette," she mutters, long moments later.

"I thought you'd quit," Sam remarks quietly.

"I did," she replies blandly. It's not a need she's going to give in to; it's one of those needs that aren't really needs, at all, or are falsely constructed needs; needs bought into too easily, needs that spring their trap but, as if that's not enough, aren't all they're cracked up to be; that are actually downright obnoxious. She's not that needy! Or, at least, she's working around her needy side, give her some credit.

She pulls a face when Sam opens the car door and gets out to fill up the tank. "God, that stinks!" she mutters; it's the fumes. "What are they putting into that stuff these days? It's disgusting!"

Nobody says anything; they're too tired or they just don't want to start an argument; if they agree, she could go on like this for hours.

An impatient driver behind them honks, Miss Parker turns in her seat to give them the finger but doesn't go through with it; she's suddenly as tired as they are. She wonders if Sam is, too. Yeah, probably. She wonders if she should offer to do some of the driving.

Lyle says, "He's not that tired, he's just… hoping for something more; it's boring, just driving; nobody says anything, it'd be peaceful, but it's not; not like this, not when there's work to be done, then it's just dreary on dreary."

"You would know," Miss Parker mutters. She's forgotten, he's so good at knowing everyone else's business before they even know it themselves! Sarcasm flashes in her eyes.

"It is kinda anticlimactic," Broots agrees.

Sydney frowns at him. Now he's backing Lyle up? That was amazingly fast. Sydney wonders why: he's usually Parker's man, through and through. He wonders what Broots sees in it for himself; this new alliance.

Sam sighs; he's finished with the filling of the tank. "Now, did I hear someone mention something about coffee, earlier?" he asks. He pulls away from the bowsers; heads towards the restaurant parking.

"I'm about to nod off," Broots puts in. "I think I have enough…" He's still unsure; he can't, after all, be sure of the prices he'll encounter when inside; it's more of a rough estimate.

"I'm paying," Lyle adds.

Broots frowns, looking at him strangely for a moment. "Why?"

"Why not?"

Broots sighs; it's probably some ridiculous competition between he and Miss Parker again; he probably doesn't want to know, he thinks. "The photocopiers aren't working in Tech Space, either," he says, as though this piece of information is vital for what happens next.

"Did you let Maintenance know?"

Broots frowns. "No," he answers finally. "I supposed that someone else had."

"They probably did; you need to keep reminding them."

Broots shakes his head. "Why?"

"Their filing system for work orders is all over the place. Have they come around yet to check things out, how the photocopiers are?"

"No."

"You need to keep at it."

"Why? I don't get why, though."

"Their head of staff doesn't like techs. That's all I'm going to say."

Sydney follows the conversation vaguely until it's time to get out of the car; the air is unexpectedly bracing; it's started to spit; he's suddenly cold. It's chilly.

"There's a reason behind this sudden spur of animosity towards the IT department, I suppose?"

Lyle sighs. "Alright, her husband was a tech. They're not together anymore. It's not proper work practise, but there it is: reality isn't always rational, and it's not always according to 'the rules.'"

"Well, still…"

"Still nothing. She's higher up than you. You'd best not start an argument until you've made damn sure you can win it!"

"It's not about arguments; it's about her doing her job."

"Not to her, it's not," Lyle replied.

"Of course it is."

"No, it isn't. Don't make that mistake. You may think like that, but she doesn't. She likes her job because it means she can stomp on anyone lower than her; it's only fair, she thinks, she's been getting stomped on long enough. She's not invested in her job, there's a difference. Once upon a time, a person got a job and they kept it; once upon a time there was a certain amount of a person's pride that went into doing their job; your job kept you safe, it gave you money to pay off your house and feed your family; you did what you could, you did your best; now – who cares!"

"Rubbish! There are still people who care about their jobs!"

They're inside now: it's warmer, Sydney notes. He's starting to feel better; except for Broots's conversation with Lyle, things aren't looking too badly.

"Yes, there are; but she's not one of them."

"How do you know?"

"I've spoken to her."

"And just because you've spoken to a person means, sure, it's all fine and dandy to pin every belief you have about them on one or two words you might have had!"

"I'd hardly say they were one or two words!"

Miss Parker turns back to regard them; they're not looking at her. "What are you having?" she asks.

"I haven't had a chance to look, yet," Broots replies, but he's still not looking at her.

"Well look!" she grouses.

Sydney tells her what he's chosen; he's already looked over the menu boards.

Broots sighs and takes a look at what's on offer, then, glancing over at Lyle, says, "Are you sure you're not just being-"

Lyle laughs. "Well, obviously, I hate all women!" he mutters.

"What are you having?" Miss Parker asks again, annoyed.

"Just a black coffee, no sugar," Lyle replies.

"Same here; two sugars," Broots adds.

"That's it?" Miss Parker frowns. "He's paying! Get yourself something to eat."

Lyle nods; it'd be a good idea.

Broots sighs; glances at the boards again. "Something with chicken," he says, "you decide. Surprise me."

Miss Parker doesn't look impressed. She turns back to Sam with their orders.

When he looks back, Lyle is smiling. It's probably the idea of Miss Parker choosing something for him to 'eat' that's done it; she hardly eats herself; she's as thin as anything.

Sydney finds them a table; he's been looking around and chosen one that's not too close to any groups of kids, however large or small. In his experience, they're loud and they like to throw things when it's something their parents have chosen and they're actually, surprisingly, not all that keen on.

"How long is more than one or two words?" he asks, as they sit down.

Broots looks at him; he's getting in on the conversation now? Well, it mightn't be all that bad; it might actually turn out to be a good thing.

Lyle shakes his head. "It's not important; a half hour, forty minutes, something like that. The point is: she's not too happy about techs, people she sees as below her in ranking or importance to the company, or men. Not even Fulton's that… damaged! You can't bargain with someone like her; you have to get to a position where you're able to say, 'Enough is enough,' and then put the law down."

Broots makes a face: that is ridiculous. "That's extreme!"

"Well, if you don't want to hear the truth, then don't. No one's forcing you!" Lyle simply replies.

Broots shoots Sydney an appealing glance for help.

Sydney says nothing: this isn't his conversation, he didn't start it.

Returning from the counter, Miss Parker interjects, "The woman's a menace, that's all there is to it. I don't know why you're still arguing this?" She takes a seat beside Lyle, then pulls a face. Great, now what's she got herself into? The look on her face says it's all Broots's fault: if he hadn't been distracting her like he had been, then she'd have chosen a different seat without so much hassle.

Broots is frowning at her.

"You know why Lyle gets her so well – because he's just like her! You should take his word on it. She's a bitch."

"I didn't say it quite like that; certainly, I never said she was a bitch," Lyle interrupts, glancing at her shortly.

"You were thinking it," Miss Parker tells him, just as shortly.

"You read minds now? How wonderful!"

"Piss off."

Sydney frowns; such language is neither necessary nor called for when in a public place; in fact, he finds it quite uncouth.

Miss Parker says nothing. Fine, she won't say it again in front of him; she'll say it when he's not listening, or not around to listen, either way!

Their hot drinks are brought out by a woman in her thirties.

Sydney sips his coffee; it's started to rain in earnest now outside, it's going to be a real treat making it back out to the car when the time comes.


Work-worthy pursuits by planet p

Disclaimer I don't own the Pretender or any of its characters.