"It is work," he shot back automatically as the emotional undertow took hold. "How many times do I have to tell you this? The only reason the Port of Chicago is still viable is because I'm constantly tweaking the feedback systems to keep pace with changes that break the underlying model? Dad's on the front line of those changes. Reports from the maintenance yard are what tells us where the model breaks down. Dad would be out of work, without me, and he knows it!"
She glared at him for a moment, breathing hard through a half-open mouth.
Victor knew that look. He'd only met members of the Angolan side of her family through vid calls when he was a boy, but it was enough to realize that the flashes of anger she let slip from time to time were no accident.
"And you'd be out of work," she said darkly, "if Rolff's team weren't out there getting you that precious data of yours. You need each other, Victor, and the sooner you get that through your bullheaded skull, the better off you'll be." With that, she turned her back on him and crossed her arms.
"What's going on out there, Katrina?"
Victor winced at his father's acquired German accent. The man was born in Cleveland, but he'd traded in his family's solid Ohio inflections in the course of a foray into the cultural history of his more distant forebears. For the past two years, Rolff had stayed up nights, poring through all the German books, art, music and videos that the Internet had to offer. It was an obsession as all consuming as his mother's life-long passion for ferretting out the so-called 'truth' behind the rock-solid historical events on which the nation was founded, and which have shaped the world for centuries, except that Rolff's new accent had caused Port Security to start questioning Victor's patriotism. His mother's foolishness was more circumspect, but her interests were no less hazardous to his security clearance than was his father's recent behavior.
"Your son is here, Rolff," she said as she entered the room, the words exuding displeasure. "He didn't get your salve."
Victor followed her in, and flinched when he saw his father laying on the bed, propped up with pillows, "I couldn't, Dad. They didn't have any. And I don't think they will. The police shut them down. Who are those people anyway?"
She rounded on him. "It doesn't matter who they are, Victor. They could be convicted murderers for all I care. What's important is that they make a salve that eases your father's itching, and it's the only thing that helps."
Whatever it was that Rolff suffered from didn't turn up in any of the tests that the insurance company's doctors had run, so they wrote him off as a chronic complainer and told him to report back to work. Katrina didn't buy it, and eventually discovered the Thandri's salve, which at least made the condition bearable. Had it been simply a matter of a skin rash, any of a dozen over-the-counter treatments might have helped. But it wasn't. The itching went far deeper, to the point where Rolff couldn't stand it any longer. He'd been out for the past two weeks, complaining of an itch that was so pervasive that he couldn't even eat or drink without making it worse. He said it felt like his whole inside was one continuous itch.
Rolff slowly and painfully turned his head so he could face Victor directly. "They're good people," he whispered. "Eshana is risking a lot to help me. Her salve isn't on--."
"Yeah, I know, Dad," Victor said impatiently. "It isn't on the formulary. But there's a reason why the insurance company vets the drugs people are allowed to take. You don't know what's in that salve of hers."
"And those company doctors," Katrina said with thinly veiled contempt, "claim to not know what's wrong with your father. But I'm pretty sure they do."
"Oh, really? Is that the latest conspiracy theory you're following?"
She glanced at Rolff. "It's no theory. And you've been helping them. This is partly your doing."
"My doing? What are you talking about?"