"So he's gone, then?" Sandra asked, leaning against the doorway to Simon's office and watching Simon fuss over his violated desk like a mother hen. Watching Simon reclaim his nest was almost worth all the extra hassle she'd gone through as acting team leader.

      "Yeah, he left this morning, since I never once needed him to be there and need him even less now," Simon said, pulling out one of the desk drawers and scowling at it. "Christ, look at this dent."

      Sandra smiled. "It adds character," she said.

      "It adds dent," Simon said darkly. "What'd you use to open it, a crowbar?"

      "Yes, actually."

      Simon shot a glare in her general direction, then sighed and trundled the drawer shut again. "Yeah, okay, that was a stupid question. Guess I'm lucky there weren't explosives involved."

      "Hey, it's one of the first lessons you ever taught us, boss: explosives are always an option." The main door opened and Sandra glanced over her shoulder, waving at Nate as he edged into the room. Nate waved back. "Right after 'there are no problems that can't be solved via the judicious application of fire'."

      "I like fire," Nate offered, trotting over to join them. "It burns things. Pretty much by definition. Where's Jeremy?"

      "Gone," Simon said impatiently. "Back to England or Fairyland or wherever guys like him come from. I neither know nor care."

      "Oh," said Nate, sounding a little dejected. "I hope he'll be okay."

      Simon made a face. "Guys like him always are."

      "Guys like him?" Nate said. "English ones?"

      The saferoom door slammed open again. Mike came barreling in, Johnny in his wake. "Yo!" Mike said happily, bounding over and making a shameless grab for Sandra.

      Sandra shifted neatly aside and stomped on his foot hard enough to make him yowl. "That's what you get," she said sweetly.

      "Man, I ain't missed that any," Mike complained, leaning up against the wall and grabbing his offended foot in both hands. "So where's Macavity?" he said, with ominously good cheer. Sandra froze.

      Simon paused. "Macavity?"

      "You know, Archer," Mike said, rubbing his foot.

      "Macavity?" Simon said again.

      "My mother bought me that poster when I was in junior high," Sandra said through gritted teeth, "and it is still on my wall for sentimental reasons only. Got it?"

      "You bet," Mike said sunnily.

      "Macavity?" Simon asked Nate, now sounding downright plaintive.

      "Um," said Nate, shifting uncomfortably. "Cats. Uh, the musical, not the animals."

      Simon's gaze switched back to Sandra. "You have a Cats poster on your wall and I've failed to notice and give you hell about it all this time?"

      "I was twelve!" Sandra said, a little desperately. "You are allowed to have crap taste in entertainment when you're twelve!"

      "Well, yeah, that's true, not that it ought to save you from ferocious mockery," Simon said. "Where the hell are you hiding this poster that I haven't managed to see it? Your apartment's not that big."

      Caught, Sandra hesitated. For just a fraction of a second, but it was enough: Simon's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, flicking from Sandra to Mike and back. Mike, of course, was oblivious to the bomb he'd just dropped. Sandra barely resisted the urge to stomp on his other foot and make him fall over.

      The saferoom door opened again and Sandra gratefully seized the opportunity to derail the conversation. "Morning, Mr. Brassoff," she said.

      "Um," said Dave, letting the saferoom door slam closed behind him. "Morning."

      "Oh, hey, are we all here?" Simon said, mercifully distracted from that line of questioning. "Great! In that case, let's get to work!" This announcement precipitated a minor cascade of groaning, which Simon ignored. "Cleanup detail today, folks: write and file your final reports, then burn and/or print off all the Farraday-related materials and delete 'em from the active files. You too, new guy: if you don't know how to write an Ops report, get someone to show you. We'll start putting together the case against Diana Fontaine—"

      "Bitch," Mike said happily.

      "—this afternoon," Simon finished. He reached over and punched the power button on his own machine. "Go, go. I want to hear computers booting, stat."

      Grumbling a little (and occasionally punching at each other) Sandra's teammates found their way to their usual seats. Sandra pulled her own laptop out of its bag and set it to boot up and connect to the server while she fetched herself some coffee, which was why she was right outside the door to Simon's office when the metaphorical bomb went off.

      Music—no, it was too loud and distorted to even properly be called 'music'—boomed out of Simon's office, deafeningly loud, making Sandra reel back a step and nearly spill hot coffee on her hand. Simon yelped in shock, the sound almost completely lost under the torrent of noise, instinctively kicking his chair back away from his computer. "Christ!" he bellowed. Sandra could only barely hear him. "What the—Sandy, what did you do to my computer?!"

      "What—?" Mike yelled, putting his hands over his ears and already starting to laugh, which made Sandra come within an inch of accusing him of being behind this. Half a second later his own laptop started screaming a different song at the top of its tinny little speakers, nearly drowned out by the almighty ruckus coming from Simon's office but still adding to the confusion. Mike yelped and started hitting keys at random, trying to turn it off.

      Two seconds later a third and a fourth song joined the almighty discord—Johnny's laptop and Sandra's own both wailing like mad—and by that point Team Hall was definitely pounding on the wall and yelling, although Sandra could only barely hear it. Johnny slapped his laptop shut reflexively, although it failed to go to sleep for some reason. "Nate!" Simon yelled. "Goddammit, Nate, make it stop!"

      "I—" Nate started to say, and then the enormous speakers racked under his own computer went off like twin bombs primed with disco. The racket redoubled, something Sandra had not thought possible. Nate shrieked and nearly fell out of his chair, wrapping both arms protectively around his head.

      "Make it stop!" Simon howled.

      "Just a sec!" Nate yelled back, diving under his desk and grabbing for the manual volume knob on his speakers. Sandra saw him twist it all the way down, but it did not so much as put a dent in the cacophony. Nate popped back up like a jack-in-the-box, his face panicky, and grabbed for the keyboard.

      Simon staggered out of his office, hands over his ears. "Nate!"

      "I can't stop it!" Nate screamed, hammering at his keyboard. Windows opened and closed and the din did not lessen a bit. "The music files and the player aren't on our machines, they're stored on the server! I can't get to them! They're behind some kind of password!"

      "Then shut it down!"

      Nate swallowed, nodded, and hit the power button on his tower. After five seconds in which nothing happened, he blinked, let go of the button, and hit it again. Still nothing. "It's not working?" he said, mostly to himself, and grabbed the mouse again. Five seconds later he went white.

      "Well?" Simon yelled.

      "The server downloaded and installed something on my computer before starting the music playback!" Nate yelled back. "It won't shut down or let me access the volume controls!"

      "Then unplug it!"

      Nate stared at Simon, horrified. "That'll damage the machine!"

      Simon threw up both hands, stomped to the main door, threw it open, and bellowed "SORRY!" down the hallway as loudly as he could. Letting the door slam shut behind him, he whirled on Sandra. "What the hell is with these... fucking... computers..."

      He trailed off there, realization belatedly dawning, then turned slowly on his heel. One by one the rest of them followed suit, staring like deafened and hypnotized owls at Rich's old corner and the only computers in the room that weren't blaring music at top volume; Dave Brassoff, his face utterly calm, reached into his bag and pulled out a huge pair of orange noise-cancelling headphones. Ignoring them all he put the headphones on before kicking his chair around and getting to work.

      Mike was the first to crack up. Johnny followed suit. The wave of hysteria hit Sandra a moment later and she slumped weakly back against the empty desk at the front of the room, putting a hand over her eyes. "Ma'am," she heard Johnny shout a second later, "may I have this dance?"

      "Why not?" Sandra yelled back. "Just not the hustle, I don't care what Nate's computer is playing—oh Jesus, Texas, not the hustle!"

      Johnny, pretending he hadn't heard her, grabbed her hands and dragged her out into the open space in the center of the room. Simon only put up with the impromptu disco for a couple of seconds before stalking over to the apparently oblivious Dave, grabbing the back of Dave's chair and forcibly spinning him around. "Turn it off!" he yelled.

      "I'm sorry!" Dave yelled back, tapping one of his headphones. "I can't hear you!"

      Mike whooped and collapsed face-first onto his screaming laptop. Simon made a face, grabbed the band of Dave's headphones, and yanked them off, dumping most of Dave's hair in his face. "I said, turn it off!"

      "What?" Dave yelled back, flipping his hair out of his eyes.

      Simon threw up both hands, utterly frustrated. "PLEASE!" he bellowed.

      Dave flung out a hand and blindly hit the space bar on the nearest computer. The music, all of it, cut off instantly, leaving Sandra's ears ringing in the sudden silence. She and Johnny hustled on for a few more steps before coming to a slightly embarrassed halt. "What do you know," Dave said, his voice quivering just a little even though his face was still extraordinarily calm. "It is a magic word."

      For a long moment Simon glared down at Dave, his hands in claws, like he was very seriously considering disemboweling the guy and depriving them of yet another computer tech. Mike was nearly strangling himself trying not to laugh, though, and Johnny and Sandra were leaning on each other and snickering, and finally even Simon couldn't hold out: his shoulders shook, once, and then he put a hand over his eyes and cracked up.

      Once Simon was laughing, none of them had a chance of resisting; Mike very quickly melted under the table, and Sandra's throat was sore by the time she made herself stop. "Okay," Simon finally said, wiping his eyes. "You do whatever it takes to clean up after this little stunt of yours. I am going to go back into my office and very carefully not say or do anything else that Team Hall might construe as an apology. The rest of you, get back to work as soon as your computers have been put back to normal."

      "Will do," Dave said, sheepishly holding out his hand for his headphones. Simon bopped him lightly over the head with them, then gave them back.

      "Man," Mike said, scrambling out from under the conference table. His face was bright pink. "Did you see that? Dave's-Fine didn't even crack a smile! Face like a stone wall, swear to God!"

      "Stonewall, huh," Johnny said, raising a significant eyebrow at Mike.

      "Yeah, Stonewall Davey," Mike said happily, and two seconds later it dawned on him. His eyes went wide. "Hey, yeah," he said, voice full of wonder.

      Sandra shrugged and gave in to the inevitable. "Stonewall," she agreed.

      Simon slapped his forehead. "You guys," he said, pained, or pretending to be. "Don't give the new guy a nickname. If you name him we'll never get rid of him."

      "I don't think the pet store's going to take him back anyway," Sandra said, clearing her throat. "He's obviously imprinted on us."

      "Ain't that right, Stonewall," Johnny said, glancing in Dave's direction.

      "What?" said Dave, blinking madly. "Oh. I mean. Woof?"

      After the adrenalin rush of the music bomb, even that was enough to set them off all over again, and they didn't stop laughing until someone from Team Hall pounded on the wall and started screaming for quiet.

The End

to be continued in Book Four, HIGH FIDELITY