Steve was stretched out on a couch in Rudy’s lab, resting his eyes while he waited for the results of his last physical. Although he appeared to be in perfect physical condition, the strain of the last five consecutive missions had taken their toll on his sanity. The last few nights were plagued with recurring nightmares in which he relived the explosion that killed two of his friends and nearly send him to an early grave. He was nurturing high hopes that his trusted physician would provide him with a debilitating ailment that could grant him a leave from work for a good solid week.
“Steve! Good news! The results are all negative. You’re in perfect physical form.” Rudy closed the chart and glanced Steve’s way. “Steve?”
“I heard you.” Steve’s voice was dripping with aggravation at Rudy’s cheerfulness. Keeping his eyes closed, he heaved a heavy sigh and swallowed his deception. “What about the psyche? Can you scan my subconscious for any loose screw?” Even though he strived not to vent his frustration on his friend, Steve could not prevent his scathing cynicism from spewing forth.
“For that you’ll need to consult with a psychologist.”
Steve turned to Rudy with an annoyed expression. “Rudy, I don’t a need five-hundred-buck-an-hour shrink to tell me that I’m at the end of my emotional tether.” He huffed out an exasperated sigh as he hauled himself out of the sofa. “Can’t you give me a disability of some sort, one that could land me a temporary discharge from duties?”
“Did you talk to Oscar about getting some time off?”
“Why do you think I’m asking you to slap me with an ailment?” Steve answered sarcastically.
“I see. No luck.”
“I can understand that his hands are tied. The NSB outranks him. If they need me, I have to answer the call and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. However, you have power of authority over them. What you say goes.”
“Steve you know I’m impelled to produce medical evidence of any injury, disease, disorder that you might have sustained or are suffering from. And for the love of God, don’t ask me to doctor your results.” Rudy’s heart was aching for his friend but in all good conscience, he could not bring himself to resort to devious practices.
“I’m not asking you to, Rudy. Maybe loosen a bolt, cut a wire here and there, just…” Steve clipped his sentence when it dawned on him that his suggestion was absurd. “Forget it.” He shook his head in dismay and walked out of the lab.
Steve drove to his house, smiling at the thought of indulging in a hot bath before partaking of a gourmet dinner that his friend Cassandra had offered to cook. He chuckled as he pictured her with fists on hips in a defiant stance, with an eyebrow raised in incredulity saying: ‘What’s this I hear about you being in the doldrums?’ She’d be using her infectious sense of humour to kick him out of his dejection. He treasured the abiding friendship he shared with her. Only she could reach him in times of personal crisis; she’d draw him away from the edge before he could sink into a slough of gloom.
He parked the car in the driveway and walked up the flowery path up to his front door. As he put the key in the lock, he felt the barrel of a gun being pressed against his lower back.
“No sudden move or you’re a dead man,” the deep voice instructed. “Open the door and get inside.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve could see a second man standing to his left, gun in hand. After quickly weighing his options, he opted for inviting the two men in where he could easily subdue them without any witnesses around.
Once inside, Steve tossed his keys onto the table and waited for a safe opportunity to kick the guns out of their hands. As he swirled round to disarm his captors, the man behind stabbed him with a needle that sedated him instantaneously. The room started swimming and within seconds, Steve was slumping to the floor unconscious.
The two men tucked their weapons inside their belts and rolled their victim onto his back to take his pulse and check his eyes.
“Yeah, he’s out good.”
“The boss will be pleased.” spoke the voice dripping with malicious glee, a contended grin spreading across the face.
An hour later, Cassie drove to Steve’s house to get an early start on the gourmet dinner she promised her Blue Eyes. Knowing that a bachelor’s refrigerator is often bare, she dropped by the grocery store to purchase necessary items in order to provide for all contingencies.
With her bag of grocery in one hand, she rapped on the door with the next. When no answer came, she peeked through the window to see if Steve was napping on the couch. Strangely, her friend didn’t appear to be home and yet, his car was in the driveway. She shrugged, believing Steve had stepped out to the convenient store around the corner. She rummaged through her purse for the set of house keys Steve had given her and unbolted the door.
“Steve? Are you home?” She put the bag onto the kitchen counter and searched the rooms. She then went back to the kitchen to do the inventory and just as suspected, Steve’s cupboard was missing several of the needed ingredients. “I swear I don’t know why he’s got meat on his bones.” She shook her head in disbelief while she began pulling out the fresh produces and canned goods from the bag.
Another hour elapsed and still Steve hadn’t shown up. Cassie was stirring a sauce at the oven when the phone rang. She lowered the heat on the burner and went to answer the call.
“Cassandra, is that you?” the stunned voice asked.
“Oscar! Yes it’s me. I’m feeding Steve some good wholesome food tonight.”
“Can you put him on the phone?”
“Ah sorry. He’s not here. I think he stepped out for a few minutes,” she glanced at her wristwatch with a worried frown, “but that was over an hour ago. Must have gone farther than I thought.”
“But he is coming back?”
“He should. He knows I’m cooking dinner for him tonight. Why do ask that?”
“He was in my office this morning threatening to leave the country if I didn’t grant him a few weeks off.”
“Well if he planning to run off, it won’t be tonight I can assure you.”
“You tell him to call me when you see him.”
“Will do.” Cassie hung up the phone and walked to the window to cast an eye out. “Steve, where are you?” Her subdued voice carried a genuine deep concern for a friend she feared might have landed into trouble.
A small green van was joggling on a country road in Annapolis with on board, Steve’s abductors who were keeping a watchful eye on their listless passenger lying on a padded cot.
“We’re almost there, Paul,” the driver said to one of the two men sitting in the back.
Alan glanced Steve’s way and noted that the eyelids were fluttering. “Heh Paul,” he nudged his partner in the side. “He’s coming around.”
Paul moved closer to Steve and leered at him. “Colonel Austin?”
Steve opened his eyes at a crack and tried to establish focus on his abductor “Whhhhhhhh…what?” was all he could manage to utter in his haze. He waged war with his sagging eyelids long enough to get an answer to his question.
“We’re taking you to see an old friend.” A vicious grin crossed Paul’s face at the heavy-lidded eyes that closed back. “Sweet dreams, my friend. It will all be over soon.”
Upon their arrival at their boss’s hideaway, Paul and Alan carried Steve inside the abandoned factory that fronted Jeffrey Dolenz’s new state-of-art laboratory. Since breaking out of jail, he’d been actively seeking to perfect his robots with the aid of Rudy Wells’s creation. He was compelled to maintain a low profile until the G men were no longer on the hunt. He had been privy to Steve’s threat to leave the country if he were denied a leave of absence, which provided him with the perfect opportunity to kidnap his precious cyborg without attracting too much attention. Unfortunately his scheme didn’t allow for a subversive element: Cassandra Miller.
“Put him on the table over there,” Dolenz instructed the two men.
They carelessly dropped their load onto the examination table.
“Easy! He’s not a piece of meat!” Dolenz scolded the two men who simply shrugged off his reprimand. “He’s a work of art.” Dolenz revelled in the knowledge of finally having captured Wells’s revolutionary achievement. He approached the table to check Steve’s eyes. “He should be waking up soon.”
He reached underneath the table for magnetic induction coils. He handed two to his men with his instruction to fasten them securely around Steve’s ankles. He proceeded to do the same with the right wrist. He then connected them to a small generator. Thereafter, he bound Steve’s left wrist to the table with a leather strap.
Dolenz adjusted the light at an angle that allowed him to better study Steve’s bionic eye reflexes. As Dolenz parted the eyelids, Steve flinched at the intense light beaming directly into his eye. The mad scientist smiled crookedly, while waiting for his subject to fully regain consciousness.
“It’s so nice to see again Mister Austin. You remember me, don’t you?” Dolenz’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
Steve blinked away to fog in his eyes. They widened in numb horror at the figure emerging from the haze. “Dolenz,” he whispered groggily. He tried to sit but met with resistance.
“It would be useless to try to escape, Mister Austin. You’re legs and arm have been neutralize by magnetic induction.”
“What do you want?” Steve asked acridly.
“Why you, of course. On our last occasion, my studies were interrupted on account of some friends of yours. Rest assured that this time, there won’t by any interferences from the outside.”
“You’re going to send my robot to infiltrate the OSI like you did for Oscar Goldman?” Steve’s tone was bitter and scathing.
“No. I’ve learned my lesson the last time. However, if you should happen to die during the study, I might have to build one long enough to keep your friends occupied while I safely go into hiding.”
Steve closed his eyes in despair and gulped down the bile rising to his throat. He strived to maintain a brave stance in front of the man who held the power to end his life with one wrong twist of the screwdriver.
Back at the OSI HQ, Cassie and Rudy were pacing Oscar’s office as they awaited their boss’s return with news on Steve’s whereabouts. Barely had Oscar turned the doorknob that they rushed over to him.
“Any news?” Cassie asked with eager anticipation and yet with a tinge of fright.
Oscar walked over to his desk with his folder. “Nothing!” He angrily tossed the file onto his desk and flumped into his chair. “It’s like he vanished into thin air.” He leaned his elbows against the desk and rubbed his strained eyes.
“I’m starting to wonder if he didn’t plan his disappearance. He was adamant about wanting a vacation.”
“Oscar, I’m one of his closest friends. If he had intended on giving you the slip, he would have told me.”
Oscar lifted his head up. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Cassie was unwavering in her belief that Steve would have shared his intentions with her.
On first ring, Oscar twitched the phone off the hook. On the other end, an agent informed him of their failure to pick up a lead. “I see,” Oscar answered dejectedly. “You stay on it, Whelan.”
“Craig Whelan?” Cassie asked.
“Yeah. He and his men haven’t turned up anything.”
Cassie turned to Rudy. “Where could he be?”
The next morning, at his laboratory, Dolenz prepped Steve for his study of his bionic components. To obtain accurate results, the subject had to be mildly sedated, enough to keep him sluggish without rendering him unconscious.
Steve had resigned to his fate with the first cut of his arm’s synthetic skin. He suffered in silence, lost in a drug-induced haze that held him at bay during the experiment. Memories of his accident and his suicide attempt came flooding back and flashed before his eyes, taunting him as Dolenz’s implements continued to explore his bionic parts.
Dolenz tilted the light away from the arm to take a respite. He removed his surgical gloves and mask and stretched his back. “It’s coming along fine, Mister Austin. Was there any pain?” he asked his subject with his brand of sarcasm that Steve has become all too familiar with.
Steve threw him a weak glare that as self-explanatory.
“I let you rest for a while before we start on your legs.” Dolenz gave Steve a tap on the shoulder before he left the room.
Steve waited until the man was out of sight before he tried an escape. He had managed to loosen the leather band during the operation and was now able to slide his wrist out of the bond. He breathed away a dizzy spell before he worked at untying his numb right arm, one that was cut open from shoulder to wrist. He then removed the cables from his ankles and holding his right arm, he heaved himself off the table, threw a shirt on and fled the place.
The strong sedative coursing through his veins hampered his movements and vision. Short-winded, he momentarily leaned against a tree to catch his breath before he drudged onward to the woods.
Dolenz returned to his lab only to find Steve gone. With eyes blazing murderously, he ordered his men to search the premises. “With the sedative I’ve administered him, he won’t go very far.
In mid run, Steve’s knees buckled and his body slumped to the right to land on his right arm. Though the pain was minimal, the spark that the fall ignited left him with a sense of foreboding that his minutes of consciousness were numbered. He tottered to his feet and pressed on, aware that Dolenz had already unleashed his bloodhounds after him.
He scrambled up a hillock to reach a deserted road where his telephoto lens caught sight of a small gas station a few yard up. He swallowed hard and inhaled deeply to summon his last speck of strength to wobble onward. As he neared his destination, his heart quailed at the realization that the station was closed. He scuffled over to a phone booth standing on the side of the road. He picked up the receiver and, sighing with relief at the dialling tone, he contacted the operator who put him through to the OSI.
Cassie was in Oscar’s office, on the phone with a lab technician conveying her the results of the analysis of the fingerprints taken at Steve’s house, when Oscar’s secretary buzzed his desk.
“Mister Goldman. It’s Colonel Austin on line two.”
Oscar sprung out of his chair and twitched the phone off the hook. “Steve!”
Cassie reacted to the name. “Hold on a second, Harry.” She muffled the mouthpiece with her hand and turned to meet with Oscar’s agonized expression.
“Steve, where are you?”
“I…I…” Steve gasped, “I…I,” he scanned his surroundings, “I don’t…don’t know.”
“Steve, are you all right?” Oscar’s concern grew with every of Steve’s gasp.
Cassie hung up her phone and walked up to Oscar’s desk.
“No. Dolenz. He…he had me drugged and…and taken to his lab.”
“Dolenz? As in Jeffrey Dolenz? The mad scientist?” Oscar flashed an air of terror at Cassie.
“He cut my…my…arm open. Can’t move it. He gave me..a…a sedative. Oscar, I ca…can’t keep awake much longer.”
“Where are you calling from?”
“Abandoned gas station…middle of nowhere.”
“All right, just keep the receiver off the hook to enable us to locate you.” He beckoned Cassie to get on the phone to Danny to have him trace the call.
“I’ll try to hold on as long as I…I can.” Steve shook his head when his vision became blurred.
“Okay. We’ll be there as soon as we can.” Oscar switched lines and asked his secretary to notify Rudy to meet him in his office.
Once Steve’s location was established, Oscar and Rudy got on a mede-vac while Cassie drove to the medical center to await the patient’s arrival. She pined her hopes upon Steve’s strong constitution to carry him through this ordeal.
She stopped the car at a light change. She closed her eyes, tightened her grip on the steering wheel and pillowed her head on her hands. “34, you’d better be fine. I still own you that dinner.”
A few hours later, Steve was resting his eyes inside the gas station when the sound of an approaching car startled him awake. He cast an eye out the window to see Dolenz and two of his men step out of the car. Overtaken with panic, Steve scurried out the back door and made a mad dash for the woods.
“There he is!” pointed one of the men.
All three took off after Steve
The effects of the sedative having worn off, Steve was able to engage in a bionic sprint. Just as he was nearing the edge of the woods, a painful electrical surge radiated through his right arm, making him twist in pain and lose his balance. His fall cost him crucial seconds and allowed the three men to close in on him. He quickly picked himself off the ground and pressed on.
“Hold it Mister Austin!” Dolenz commanded with a tranquilizer gun trained on him. When Steve failed to acknowledge his warning, Dolenz fired his dart, but missed his target.
One of his men whipped out his revolver from his belt, aimed and shot a bullet into the fugitive’s back. Steve’s back arched at the burning sensation shooting down his spine and crumbled to the ground.
“Idiot!” Dolenz angrily slapped the gun out of his man’s hand. “I told you, no gun! He’s no good to me dead!”
“He was getting away,” the man defended.
“We would have caught up with him eventually.”
As they hastened the pace toward the listless form, a buzzing noise caught their attention. They looked skywards to see the chopper drawing closer.
“We need to get out of here.” Dolenz’s voice was thick with urgency and a tinge of fear, knowing that if caught, he would be tried for murder. He waved his two men to run back to their car. They sped away just as the helicopter landed in the field. Oscar and Rudy hopped down and with their backs arched, they hurried toward Steve sprawled on the ground.
Both men dove to their knees beside their senseless friend.
Rudy took Steve’s pulse and nodded to Oscar. “He’s alive, but his pulse is racing.” Rudy winced in disgust when he caught sight of Steve’s mangled arm. “Ah, what a mess.”
“Can you repair it?”
“I don’t know. That all depends what Dolenz did to it.”
The corpsman hurried over with a backboard and a blanket that he handed to Rudy. With it, he gingerly swathed the damaged arm. Oscar kept his eyes fastened on Steve’s face to detect the slightest flinch. They widened in alarm when they caught sight of bloody blades of grass.
“Rudy, look.” Oscar gulped nervously as he motioned to his discovery.
Rudy ran his hand underneath Steve’s shoulders. Once he felt a viscous substance, he slid his hand out to find it covered with blood. He asked for Oscar’s assistance in rolling the body over on its left side.
“My God, he’s been shot!” Rudy exclaimed in horror at the blood still oozing out of the bullet hole. He beckoned the corpsman to hand him a wad of gauze that he unfurled and then balled up to apply pressure on the wound. “We’ll need to keep him in a prone position,” he instructed the corpsman as they both lifted Steve onto the backboard. They secured him with straps before carrying him to the helicopter.
At the Medical Center, Cassie was wearing a hole in the waiting room floor when the gurney carrying her friend was wheeled down the emergency room with Rudy and Oscar in tow. Oscar stood traumatized as the doors slid close on his face.
“Oscar, how is he?” Cassie’s mind whirled with the worse possible prognoses after witnessing that dash down the emergency room.
Cassie’s query shook Oscar out of his daze. “His right arm has been cut open. Rudy assessed the damages in the chopper and believes he can easily repair them.”
“But his arm can’t be the reason why he was rushed to the ER?” she probed with a confused frown.
Oscar slowly turned to her to meet her inquiring stare. “He was shot in the back.”
Cassie raised a hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp. “Bad?”
Oscar nodded dejectedly.
Following five gruelling hours in surgery to remove the bullet as well as to repair the bionic arm, a weary red-rimmed-eyed Rudy slouched out of the operating room. He lazily removed his surgical mask and hat as he treaded heavily toward the waiting room where two careworn friends were plying themselves with coffee.
Cassie tossed her half-emptied foam cup into the trashcan when she caught a glimpse of Rudy. She jumped to her feet and rushed over to him with Oscar’s close on her heels.
“Rudy? How did it go?” Cassie asked with an edge of apprehension.
“Good,” he suspired. He laid a hand on her shoulder and strained a reassuring smile. “His arm will require a few additional adjustments but otherwise he’ll be fine.”
“In the chopper, you said that the bullet was lodged in his spine.” Oscar reminded, surprised at the encouraging news he never anticipated hearing.
“From the entry angle, that was more than a probability. But as we explored the area, we found that the bullet had missed the spine by just a few inches. There shouldn’t be any permanent damage. Hopefully in a few days this will all be distant memory,” he paused to weigh his next thought before voicing it in a rueful sigh, “the bullet wound that is.”
Cassie and Oscar exchanged a concerned stare before turning to Rudy.
“Could you elaborate on that last part?” Oscar’s tone of voice was bordering on sarcasm.
“I was referring to the psychological repercussions of Dolenz’s experiment. It’s always been a struggle for Steve to accept the fact that he was part human, part machine. He managed to slowly labour up the hill, gradually overcoming his aversion, but I’m afraid this ordeal might just send him spiralling downhill”
“What can we do to prevent that from happening?” Cassie asked.
“I’d say you being there is a first step. You’re his friend, his confidant. He trusts you with his innermost thoughts. You’ll need to listen.”
Cassie bit her upper lip to curb the emotions she felt rushing to her throat. “Can we see him?”
“They are just settling him in ICU. I’d prefer you wait for another hour. In the meantime, why don’t you and Oscar go down to the cafeteria to grab a bite to eat. When you come back, go to room 314. But don’t stay in too long.”
“I won’t. Oscar, are you coming?”
Oscar glanced down at his watch and followed Cassie down the hall to the elevator. The doors parted open and she pushed the ground level button. He politely nudged her aside to press the parking one.
“I need to get back to the office to supervise the search for Jeffrey Dolenz. I trust you can handle everything here?”
“I’ll drop by to see him tonight.”
She exited on the cafeteria level, turned round and threw her harried boss a compassionate smile. “You let me know what you find out?”
“You’ll be the second one to know” He threw her a friendly wink just as the door slid shut.
Cassie was by Steve’s bedside exactly an hour later. She kept a steady one-way conversation with her insentient friend, attempting to sow reassuring words into his subconscious and thus start the healing process.
She scooted her chair closer to the bed when she heard a faint moan. She placed her hand on his left arm and leaned in closer to his face. “Hey Blue Eyes.” Her sweet whispering voice reached within the innermost depths of his conscience. He responded to her calling with a weak grunt. She smiled. “I hear ya, 34. It’s hard. But you can do it. Come on! Swim up!” Her gentle coaxing was rewarded by the opening of two glassy blue eyes that roved around in search of her voice. “I’m right here.” She guided his confused eyes towards hers with a light tug on his arm.
“A…ali..alive?” he breathed out in a whisper, closing his eyes and moistening his parched lips.
“Of course you’re alive. If you weren’t you w…”
“I know, I wouldn’t…be tal…talking to you,” he finished teasingly in three gasps.
“You said it. I didn’t,” she chaffed back.
“Oscar and his team are still on the lookout for him.” Her brow knitted with worry upon seeing Steve’s face contort. “What’s the matter? Are you in pain?”
He shook his head. “Why couldn’t he…” he caught his breath, “why couldn’t he just kill me and be done with?” Steve wailed in a voice spoken barely above a whisper.
Tears welled up in Cassie’s eyes as her heart ached at her friend’s agony. She could only imagine what Steve must have experienced in that lab as he was being dissected like a corpse at the morgue. The only comfort she could provide was a soothing rub on his arm.
“I’m tired of being used as a guinea pig,” Steve lamented, his emotions getting the better of him in his weakened state. His tears subsided at first touch Cassie’s hand on his cheek. “I’m sorry to be so emotional.”
“Hey, remember whom you’re talking to,” she scolded amicably. “You’re the best friend I ever had. My heart skips a beat whenever I get word that Steve Austin is missing. This time was no exception.” She leaned in closer to gaze into his tear-filled eyes. “I’ll be right here if you need me, friend. Through thick and thin, 34 and 35 stick together.”
He flashed her a weak lopsided grin before slowly closing his eyes and whispering,” Thanks.”
Two weeks later, following a strict routine of physical therapy to strengthen his back and work out his right arm, Steve was up to his old self. Cassie’s presence help erase the lingering traces of his ordeal. She helped him purge his demons, healing the mind while Rudy handled the physical part of Steve’s recovery.
On Rudy’s recommendation, Oscar wangled a two-week vacation for his top agent with the stipulation that someone be allowed to accompany him for medical reasons. Oscar’s condition belied his true intentions of not wanting to leave Steve alone while he was still in a semi-depression. Cassie read between the lines and accepted to be the chaperone.
Steve turned to his friend with a sultry smile. “Guess this means I’ll be treated to some Cassie Miller Specials?”
“I’ll bring the artillery, 34,” she teased back with an elfish wink and a nudge in his side.
“Cassie Miller Specials? 34?” Oscar heaved an exasperated sign. “Are you two finally going to tell me what the heck it means?”
“It’s gnawing at you, isn’t it?” she asked with a satisfied grin and a tone of voice that twisted the knife in the wound.
“Good! Let’s keep it that way.” She stifled a maniacal laugh as she tucked her arm in Steve’s and turned to the door. Both exited the office, leaving a miffed Oscar in their wake.