Rubbling cattle wagons pulled by a steam train gathered speed again as it completed the turn through the town. It continued to descend further down eastward in the Urals, through dark shadowy forests.
A solitary young figure leapt from the accelerating train as it passed. A stout middle-aged man withdrew from a grimy window in an opposite alley, which surveyed the scene. He rose and threw another log into the fire, poured himself another vodka, contemplating the glass, before glimpsing back out to watch the former stow-away intently.
His squinting eyes followed him to an abandoned barn. He watched him glanced both ways as to ascertain that no curious onlookers were watching his every move before he entered the barn.
The man scratched his head in puzzlement. ‘That’s the eighth one this week,’ his mind whispered as it traveled back to the first staidly clad man to hop down the moving train and walk directly to the barn.
Mikaïl Kulikov quaffed down his vodka, put on his coat and boots and stepped outside. As a former KGB agent for the Soviet Union, his enquiring mind was spurring him to investigate the dubious comings and goings of those aliens, who looked typically like American Caucasians.
He footslogged through puddles of mud left by that last torrential downpour to the mysterious rendezvous place. He cast a cursory glance through the broken window before he pushed forward the creaking barn door to proceed inside with extreme caution. It was nippy and drafty, nothing uncommon for a decrepit wooden barn. He focused on finding a small trap door, conceivably located underneath a saddle blanket. His keen sense of observation led him to a corner of a horse stall where he noticed some freshly trampled hay. He sat on his heels and neatly brushed the twigs off the mouldy boarding to uncover a tiny trap door with a latch.
The discovery of a likely terrorist hideout jerked awake the KGB agent who had been lying dormant within for over five years. He had been relieved of his duties following a serious injury that robbed him of the use of his left arm. He was already reveling in his success of single-handedly dismantling an enemy underground organization. With this feat he was sure to reintegrate his functions with high honors and prove to his compatriots that his handicap had not decreased his mental awareness.
He stealthily rushed back to his house to elaborate a strategy. He dithered whether or not to notify his former superiors, aware that they would appropriate themselves the accolade for breaking the spy ring, which he refused to bestow. As he began drumming his fingers on the table, he picked up a moving shadow in the corner of his eye. He got up and walked over to the window to cast a hawk eye out for a glimpse of the loiter. He went to his bedroom and pulled out a colt revolver out of the top drawer of the nightstand that he checked for bullets before walking back out to the living room. He heard a knock at the door.
On his guard still, Kulikov slowly moved to the door and opened it at a crack. “Yes”
“Sorry to disturb you, sir. My name is Steve Austin. I’m a Federal agent.” Steve flashed his I.D. at Kulikov who squinted at the smaller prints. His eyes darted between the I.D. photo and the face to establish a resemblance. “I’ve seen your face before.”
“Perhaps on television.”
“That’s it! You’re the famous American astronaut! Well, come on in, please!” He invited by opening the door all the way.
“Thank you.” Steve stepped inside and made a quick sweep of the room before turning his attention back on Kulikov.
“You’re a little out of your way, Colonel Austin? What happened? your space capsule landed off target?” he bantered as he beckoned Steve to take a seat, which he declined with a slight wave of the hand.
“I’m here on government business.” He took out a picture of Federal Agent Christopher Lewis and showed it to Kulikov. “Have you by any chance seen this man? He was reportedly seen in this vicinity.”
Kulikov took the picture and studied it intensely. “Can’t say that I have. Nevertheless I…. “
Kulikov sighed heavily and sat on a chair. The man’s face was strikingly similar to the one he glimpsed at a few hours ago. He had a gnawing hunch that he was the same one he saw entering the barn. “I’m not absolutely positive but I believe I saw this man a few hours ago.”
“Out there,” Kulikov said with a motion of the head towards the window.
Steve surveyed the pointed area with a puzzled squint. “Where did you say?”
Kulikov brought Steve closer to the window and pointed to the barn across the field. “There! That’s where I last saw him. He hopped down the moving train and went straight into that decrepit barn.”
“What’s in there?”
“Nothing much but wood, hay and a mysterious trap door.”
“How do you know all that?”
“For the past week, I’ve observed close to a dozen train stowaways sneaking inside that barn. So I did a little ferreting and stumbled upon the secret passage.”
“Do you know where it leads?”
“I haven’t gone that far, yet. Need to devise a strategy. It’s my training. I’m a former KGB agent.” Kulikov studied Steve’s countenance. “Hum and I sense by the eagerness etched on your face that you’re raring to do a bit of nosing around yourself.”
“If you say you saw that man we’re looking for, I need to find out where he went and why?”
“Do you have backup?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I just need you to direct me to the trap door and I’ll do the rest.”
“And let you take all the credit for dismantling what is expected to be one of the biggest covert underground organizations? I don’t think so!” Kulikov hissed sarcastically.
“Then come with me. I just want to find out what’s out there and why one of our top agents would be involved.”
Kulikov eyed Steve warily before he pulled the gun from his belt and handed it over to him. “You might need this.”
“ Keep it. I have my own weapon.”
”Which is? “
“Never mind. Let’s go.”
Kulikov nodded and followed Steve out of the house. They both headed toward the barn and climbed down the tiny rope ladder that led to a maze of tunnels.
“Which way?” Kulikov asked, dithering over which of the six tunnel entrances to choose from.
“Let’s take that first left. Any objection?”
Kulikov hemmed and hawed over the other five for a few seconds but realizing how they were all the same, decided to follow Steve.
As they cautiously proceeded down the narrow corridor, the walls suddenly started to close in on them. No time to double back or run forward. Steve used his bionic arm and leg to stop the mechanism. Kulikov was dumbfounded.
“My Goodness, you’re a cyborg?”
“You know about bionics?”
“Yeah, a bit,” he replied, a trifle overwhelmed. “Our organization got word of such a project being developed by the Americans but I never imaged that…. How does it feel?”
“Now, either we stepped on a triggering mechanism that set the walls in motion or….”
“They know we’re here.”
“I suggest we go back.” As Kulikov turned around to retrace his steps back out of the tunnel, he saw a mountain of acid foam began filling the tunnel by which they came in. “Bad idea. Let’s go forward.” He looked the other way and saw another foamy wave rolling in. Steve zoomed in on an opening in the ceiling a few feet ahead and hurried toward it. It was another tunnel entrance with a tiny rope ladder hanging above out of reach.
“Jump on my back,” Steve instructed Kulikov.
“Just hop on my back.”
Kulikov did as he was told and just as both foamy mountains collided with one another, engulfing the tunnel, Steve jumped high enough to reach the rope. He told Kulikov to grab a hold of it and climb up the ladder, which he did with great difficulty on account of his cripple arm.
Once arrived at the top, they were soon overcome by a gas that rendered them unconscious.
Steve laid unconscious on a table in a complex laboratory. He gradually regained his senses and blinked his eyes into focus. A twinge of dizziness overcame him as he sat on the table. He breathed it away and inspected his surroundings with an eyebrow raised in suspicion. He hopped down the table just as a door slid open and in came the missing agent Christopher Lewis with a hand casually held behind his back.
"Lewis! What are you doing here?"
"Steve, how did find this place?"
"I had help. I came looking for you."
"I’m so sorry, pal," Lewis said with genuine sympathy.
"Sorry for what?"
At that moment, a man of imposing stature stepped into the room. "For getting caught. Nice to have you here, Mister Austin. You saved us a trip to Washington."
Steve squinted at the stoutly man standing before him. "I know your face."
"Dr. Alan McCormick at your service," he stated with a mocking bow of the head.
"You were the first physician employed at the OSI before...."
"Before Rudy Wells took over, that's right," he continued with an edge of sarcasm in his voice.
"You disappeared without a trace. They listed you as dead."
"And I'm glad they did. Otherwise they would have moved heaven and earth to try to locate me. I was elaborating a revolutionary project when I smelled them breathing down my neck. All their legal red tape was distracting. It was only a matter of days before they discovered the true nature of my work. So I vanished and went into exile." He stepped closer to Steve. "It was rather foolish of you to come here without any backup."
"Who says I don't have any?" Steve replied snidely, staring square into the man's eyes.
McCormick cracked an amused grin. "I'll take your work for it. Anyhow you won't be missing that long for them to start worrying about your absence."
"What have you done with the man who was with me?"
"Him? We killed him,” McCormick informed offhandedly. “We have no need for him whatsoever, unlike you."
Steve's eyes darted between the two stone-faced expressions. "What are planning to do with me?"
"Don't worry, it won't hurt a bit. And then we'll let you go."
"Aren't you afraid I might reveal your location?"
"Not one bit. Because once we're finished with you, you won't even remember being here."
"Much better than that." McCormick carved a contented grin and nodded to Lewis to stab Steve with the syringe at the back of his neck. Steve barely had time to react that the needle broke the skin. He tried to struggle but fell unconscious almost immediately.
They carried Steve and laid him down on table.
"We'll wait a few minutes for the drug to take hold and then we'll begin the experiment."
“We’ll have to double check the blueprints of his bionic parts to make sure they match”
“Everything’s been taken care of.”
In a small village outside of Kemerovo, Barney paced the floor of his motel room, glancing at his wristwatch every thirty seconds. Steve's lateness was pricking at his conscience, chiding him for listening to his partner’s suggestion to split in their search for the missing agent.
Just as he picked up the phone, Steve entered the room.
"Finally! Where have you been? You're two hours late!" Barney admonished.
"Sorry Barney. I thought I had a lead."
"Dead end." Steve plonked himself down on the armchair and rubbed his strained eyes.
"Same for me, buddy. Oscar called. He wants us back in Washington."
"Mind as well go back since there's nothing more we can do here."
"I’m surprised at you, Stevie boy. That's not like you to give up so easily. I thought you'd be all over me to convince me not to listen to the O mighty Oscar. Are you sure you're alright?"
"Yeah. Just a bit tired,” he said as he rubbed the back of his neck. “When's our flight?"
"At five thirty. We have to catch the bus at four.”
"Great." Steve rose from the chair and crawled into on one of the beds. "I've got to catch some shut eyes. Wake me in an hour, will you?"
"Sure." Steve’s unusual lack of energy worried Barney, but shrugged it off as jet lag.
Back in Washington, Barney and Steve both reported to Oscar's office for their mission debriefing. They each took a seat in front of the boss's desk and as Barney began exposing his findings, Steve sat quietly, twiddling his thumbs. His eyes slowly took on a hunted look as though he was reliving a traumatic experience.
"So was it the same for you, Steve?" Oscar asked after concluding with Barney. His brows creased with concern when he noted Steve’s terrorized look. "Steve, something wrong?"
"Steve are you alright?" Barney asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Yes I'm fine. Stop asking me! I'm okay!" Steve lashed out with a snarl that took both men by surprise.
“Sorry I asked.”
"Are we finished here?" Steve asked sullenly.
“I need your report, Steve,” Oscar calmly explained.
"Nothing significant. Only dead ends."
Steve gave a peevish sigh, rose and stamped out of the office.
"What was that all about?"
"I'm not sure, Oscar. He's been acting weird since late Monday.”
"I'll ask Rudy to run a complete medical check-up." Oscar picked up the phone and dialed the lab while Barney left the office to catch up with Steve. "Rudy? It's Oscar. Do me a favor and ask Steve to come by your lab for a thorough examination."
"What's wrong with him?"
"That's just it, we don't know, but he's acting awfully strange."
"Alright. I'll see to it."
Steve was walking briskly toward the exit when Barney shouted at him from down the corridor. "Hey Steve, wait up!"
"Barney, what do you want?" Steve asked rudely in a sigh thick with petulance.
"What's with the attitude, Stevie boy?"
"Just leave me alone."
"Not until you tell me what's bugging you?"
"Nothing is troubling me, I just need some space."
"Is that a pun?"
"Barney, just leave me be. I'm alright. Stop fussing." Steve pressed on, leaving a stunned Barney in his wake.
As Steve drove back to his house, he strived to steady his concentration while the world swirled around him. He entered through the front door, closed it and leaned against the doorframe for a brief moment to regain his bearing.
He suddenly experienced a painful twinge and grabbed his head with both hands. A fleeting image of him lying in a foggy glass cylinder flashed before his eyes. As the smart dwindled, a metamorphosis occurred, unleashing a diabolical character that until now had been alien to his persona. Hellfire danced in his eyes and a satanic grin crossed his face. He summoned all of his fortitude to quell the demon emerging, but his efforts were worthless. He clenched his fist and smashed it through the wall.
Following a sixth consecutive fitful and nightmarish night, Steve dropped by Rudy's lab for a second check-up. While anxiously awaiting the lab results, another fleeting vision of a misty glass cylinder taunted him. He clamped his eyes shut as his nose crinkled at the onset of a painful smart. He grabbed his head, his fingers clawing at his wrinkled brow. His breathing grew heavier as the pain intensified. After a minute, the pang dissipated. Steve took in a lungful of air just as Rudy returned with the results.
"Good news Steve. Your test results are still negative. You're in perfect health," Rudy informed cheerfully.
"Then explain to me why I keep having these shooting headaches? I can't sleep nights because of recurring nightmares. I eat less, feel drowsy all the time, I CAN'T be okay Rudy," Steve emphasized to hint the doctor that he disagreed with the results.
"Nightmares? What are they about?" Rudy queried.
"I'm lying in what appears to be some sort of glass cylinder. I'm aware I'm trapped inside but can't move or scream. Then I begin to suffocate and that's when I start out of sleep." He heaved a sigh of despair before continuing his description with a faraway look in his eyes, "It's the strangest thing but when I walk around, I feel out of place, as though I didn't belong." A panic attack swept over him as he turned to Rudy in a desperate search for answers. "Rudy, what's happening to me? Please, tell me?" he begged with a horrifying fear in his eyes that sent chills down Rudy's spine.
"Do you want to consult with Doctor Winslow?"
"No!" Steve answered briskly. Then he closed his eyes and let out a dismal sigh while he rubbed his hand against his forehead. "I don't know, maybe."
"I'll make an appointment with her tomorrow."
Steve’s face distorted.
"What is it, Steve?"
Steve attempted to breathe away the pain, but to no avail. His body broke out in an uncontrollable shudder. "I...I...have to go," he stuttered as he hopped down the table and started for the door.
"Steve, you're shivering."
"There's something I...I...need to do." He fumbled with the doorknob.
"Steve you're not leaving here. You're sick."
"You...you just told me I was fine."
"Well obviously we missed something, so we’ll run the tests again." Rudy placed his hands on Steve's shoulders and guided him back to the examining table. "Here, lie down."
Steve brusquely flung his arms in the air. "Please...let me go. Don't make me hurt you," he warned with a flaming glare before he doddered out of the lab.
Rudy was flabbergasted by his friend's queer behavior. He chased after him and caught up with him just as he was leaving the building.
“Steve, I beg of you, come back to the lab.”
Rudy seized Steve by the arm and swung him around to face him square in the eye. “Steve, please.”
Steve wrested his arm out of Rudy’s grasp and glowered at him. “Let me go, Rudy!” he warned waspishly.
Both men locked stares before Steve finally conceded and collected his thoughts. He fashioned an apologetic smile at Rudy who was still reeling from his initial outburst. “I’m sorry, Rudy. I don’t know what came over me. I’m fine now, really. Look,” he held out his hands, “no more tremors. Must have been an anxiety attack.”
“Yeah,” Steve mollified with a tap on his worried friend’s shoulder. “You can iron out those wrinkles, I’m fine.”
Rudy qualmishly watched Steve walked out of the building with an unsteady gait. He treaded back to the lab to double-check the test results.
Steve drove to his house. When he entered, he was surprised to find Agent Lewis slumped in an armchair. Steve’s eyes raked the living room before they set on Lewis. “How did you get in here?”
Lewis dangled a key on a chain “I have a double, remember?” He rose from the chair and took one step toward the coffee table where he scooped up a plain brown paper bag containing C4 explosives that he handed over to Steve. “I came by to give you this. Don’t forget: nine o’clock tomorrow,” he instructed with a malicious glee. He laid his hand on Steve’s shoulder and wished him luck before he crossed to the front door.
Steve’s eyes took on a hunted look as his mind quickly reviewed the ugly deed he had been tasked with. “I won’t do it,” he hissed with a crushing tone.
“Yes you will, Steve,” Lewis replied offhandedly without upsetting his gait, “or they won’t let you live,” he bluntly informed as he gave the doorknob a swing. He ushered himself out, leaving Steve in complete turmoil.
Steve clasped his arms around his tremor-racked body. The shudders degenerated into involuntary spasms that progressively affected his breathing. He plonked down on the sofa where he frantically gasped for breath. A smart invaded his mind. He grasped his head with both hands, digging his fingernails into the scalp as the searing pain drove him to the brink of insanity. He grabbed a porcelain sitting on the coffee table and hurled it into the fireplace hearth. His eyes darted maniacally, searching for the phone. His knees buckled just as he picked up the receiver. An involuntary spasm caused his bionic arm to squash it. He crumbled to the floor and wailed Rudy’s name before losing consciousness.
As the night wore into early morning, Steve awoke, puzzled as to why he was lying on the living room floor. He rubbed the haze out of his eyes, heaved himself up and headed straight for the bathroom. With no recollection of last night’s neurotic episode whatsoever, he tidied himself up to go meet Oscar for the next assignment’s briefing. On his way out, he unconsciously grabbed the brown paper bag with the explosives and drove to HQ.
He entered the establishment on ground level and walked confidently toward the security clearance check post, where the guard just waved him through without crossing the scanner. Steve cast him a grateful smile and touched his forelock in a convivial salute as he pressed on to the elevator.
Steve treaded his way to Oscar’s outer office. Callahan was to absent from her desk for another hour, which granted him plenty time to set the explosives. He pushed forward the glass door and made his way to the filing cabinet behind the reception desk. In one bionic tug, he moved it just enough to conceal one C4 behind and pushed it back in its original place. With stolidity, he walked into Oscar’s office and made his way to the safe, unaware that Oscar was on the phone with his chair facing the window. He swivelled it around to hung up the receiver.
“Oscar!” he exclaimed in surprise. “Kind of early on the job, aren’t you?”
Oscar threw Steve an amused frown. “I guess I could say the same for you. The meeting is at eleven.”
“I know. I have a job to do,” he answered tonelessly.
“Oh, what is it?”
Steve stood motionless as he attempted to breathe away a malaise washing over him. Oscar’s presence at the office played havoc with his plans. “I…I can’t tell you.”
“Oh!” Oscar displayed a broad smirk as he stood from his chair and walked around the desk to where Steve was standing. “I know my birthday is in two months,” he hinted with a tease, putting his arm around Steve’s shoulders.
“I have to go.” Steve shrugged Oscar’s arm off his shoulders and crossed to the door. He left the office only to get smacked with another surprise. “Callahan? What are you doing here so early?”
“Oh, hello Steve. Well, the thunderstorm startled me awake at four this morning and since I couldn’t get back to sleep, I decided to drive to work and catch up on some filing. What are you doing here? Has the meeting been moved up?”
Steve clamped his eyes shut, his face distorting with disgust at the mere notion of having to kill his friends.
“Steve, what’s wrong?”
“You were not supposed to be here,” he stammered with a rage he vainly tried to quell.
“I’m sorry,” she answered penitently, hurt that Steve would address her in such a rebuking manner.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” He turned to Oscar who was coming out of his office. “I don’t want to hurt any of you.”
“Why would you want to hurt us?” Oscar temporized to detain his troubled friend, pending Rudy’s arrival.
Steve inched backwards at each of Oscar’s step taken towards him. Without warning, a pang radiated through his brain, causing him to drop the paper bag to grasp his head. He hurled himself at the entrance door and smashed his fist through it, shattering the glass into shards. Just as he was making a run for it, Rudy and Barney showed up, blocking his way. He returned to the outer office, feeling like a persecuted man, a hunted fox seeking shelter from the bloodhounds. His eyes zoomed in on a letter opener. He snatched it off the desk, seized Callahan by the throat and pressed the tip of the blade against her hip.
“Steve, buddy, have you gone completely bunkers?” Barney chastised.
“I’ll call security,” Oscar said.
“Don’t Oscar!” Rudy advised with a wave of his hand. “We’ll handle it.” Keeping his eyes fastened on Steve, he turned to Barney who was concealing a tranquilizer gun behind his back. “You’re ready?”
“Yeah,“ he sighed.
“Steve, I had the lab run your test results again and you were right. There’s a slight problem,” Rudy pretended in order to pacify the madman.
Rudy inched towards Steve with his hand out.” Just put down the letter opener. Step away from Callahan and I’ll fill you in.”
“Don’t come any closer, Rudy,” Steve warned as he unconsciously tightened his grip around the frightened lady’s neck.
“Steve, you’re hurting me,” she whimpered pleadingly. Her hands clawed at Steve’s arm to release some of the pressure on her throat.
“I’m sorry, dear,” Steve repented, brushing his cheek against her head. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he cried. He was waging war against a formidable foe with a stranglehold on his behavior.
“Steve. You’re hurting we can see that. Let us help you,” Oscar beseeched.
Steve managed briefly to hold the demon at bay, enough to allow him true persona to emerge. “Oscar, Rudy…what am I doing?”
“It’s okay, pal. You’ll be alright,” Oscar mollified, all the while feeling his blood pounding at his throat. “Let her go, gently.”
Steve slowly released his hold on Callahan who instead of dashing towards the others, remained by Steve’s side. She agonized over her dear friend’s torment. She brushed a soothing hand against his tear-bedewed cheeks “You’re going to be fine.”
He gently rubbed his hand at the back of her neck and pulled her close to him. He then whispered in her ear, “There’s a bomb behind the filing cabinet set to go off at exactly nine o’clock.”
Staggered, she disengaged the embrace and stared at him wild-eyed with terror. A smile flickered on Steve’s lips before he pushed her aside and drove the letter opener right through his chest.
“Nooooooooooo!” Her deafening bloodcurdling shrill ripped through the tension-filled atmosphere as she watched with numbed horror Steve’s lifeless body slump to the floor. Oscar bolted to her and clenched her in his arms while Rudy hurried over to Steve to check for a pulse. He looked up at Oscar with a forlorn expression and shook his head.
In the early afternoon, a heavy-hearted Barney wandered aimlessly through the park. He stopped at a picnic table in front of a tennis court and sat. He pillowed his head on his folded arms and let his mind drift along to nature’s soft melody.
Callahan extended her lunch break to maunder through the park, Steve’s stomping ground. A part of her felt closer to him just by walking the path that had been so often throdden by her late friend. She noticed Barney and slowly walked over to him. “Hi.” Barney jerked back into a sitting position and focused on the petite woman wearing a mournful smile. “It helps, doesn’t it,” she asked rhetorically with the mere expectation of a solemn nod of the head.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he affected his understanding of the question as he wished to remain aloof from the subject.
“Coming here, I mean. It was Steve’s favorite place to think.” When Barney failed to acknowledge, she queried, “Are you alright?”
“Am I alright? Well, let's see... I just helplessly witnessed the sight of my best friend stabbing himself in the heart. Gee, I don't know...what do you think?” he quipped.
“I'm sorry,” she said contritely and lowering her eyes in remorse.
“I swear I'll throw up if anyone else says I'm sorry to me once more,” he said scornfully.
“Hey! Don't take this out on me! You are not the only one who's hurting!” she lashed out.
“I apologize. That was inconsiderate of me.” He scooted over on the bench and beckoned her to sit by him. “I just can’t believe he’s gone, Callahan. It all happened so fast.”
“There was something different about him.”
“Gee, you think?” he snorted sarcastically.
“It wasn't the same body odour.
Barney’s eyebrows arched in stupefaction. “Come again?”
“Well, perhaps he switched aftershave lotion,” he mocked. “Since when are you in the habit of smelling people?”
“Each individual exudes a body scent that is as unique as DNA or finger prints,” she explained calmly to a baffled Barney.
“I didn’t notice,” he said with a shrug.
“I have, when he was grasping me by the neck. I remember feeling a bit...unsettled.”
“What are you implying here? That the guy who stabbed himself was an impostor?”
“Not according to the autopsy results.”
“A body scent?”
“Silly, isn’t it?”
He squinted as the seed of doubt burgeoning in his mind. “I’m not sure yet.”
Barney and Callahan drove back to HQ where they learned of Agent Lewis’s return. Oscar and Rudy had been directed quickfire questions at the man when he suddenly lapsed into catatonia. Rudy was squatted beside Lewis, checking his eyes, when Barney breezed in.
“Lewis! Where the devil have you been?” Barney bellowed, thrusting his fists against his hips. “We’ve been raking the Soviet Union looking for you!” His face quickly registered concern at Lewis’s stoicism. “What’s wrong with him?”
“We don’t know,” Oscar replied, shaking his head in bewilderment. “One minute he was answering our questions and the next he shut himself out.”
“Oscar. I have to bring him to the lab.”
“No!” Lewis barked with his eyes blazing with an anger that gradually dissolved into a terrorized look.
Barney crouched down beside Lewis’s chair. “Chris, it’s me Barney. I’m your friend. You can trust me.”
Nervous twitches spread across Lewis’s face before it twisted in pain. Clamping his eyes shut, his brows furrowed deeply and his hands balled into fists. He gnarled his teeth and gulped air furiously in an effort to deaden the throbbing pangs invading his mind.
“Chris, what is it?” Barney asked in a panic.
“Sub… subterranean com…complex. Kemerovo. Field…field with white…white daisies. Barn..barn…trapped door. Stall 2. Code 459245. Tunnel 5,” he sputtered angrily before another wave of pain washed over him. He clawing at his head, his eyes bulging out of their sockets, raring to explode. “Get him…get him out. Tak…take over govern…government. Not much time.”
“What are you talking about Chris? Take who? Where?”
Lewis dug his fingernails in his scalp as the pain increased to an unbearable level. “Go” Bef…before too late,” he snarled in agony before his head slumped forward.
Oscar was in utter consternation. Rudy groped the agent’s wrist, then his neck in search of a pulse. He checked his eyes before he shook his head in dejection.
Barney momentarily hung his head in dismay before rising and sighing heavily. “Oscar, permission to return to Kemerovo.”
Still reeling from the shock, Oscar stared vacantly at Barney. “What?”
“I want to get to the bottom of this. First Steve, then Chris. Their deaths are definitely not the result of manic depressions.”
Oscar flumped in his chair and gave Barney a resigned look. Barney leaned forward with his palms flattened on the desk, and ruthlessly stressed the importance of unravelling the mystery behind these dubious deaths. “There’s something nasty in the woodshed, Oscar, and I want to sniff it out.”
“Rudy, do you know what he died of?”
“I won’t know until the autopsy, Oscar. At first glance, it appears to be an aneurysm.”
“Is it idle to speculate to an abnormally high level of serotonine in the brain like with Steve?” Barney ventured his own conclusion.
“At this point, no.”
Barney turned back to Oscar and with wrathful eyes, said, “Oscar, let me go. I won’t find peace in burying my two best friends if I don’t put my suspicions to rest.”
Oscar glanced impassively at Rudy standing by Barney who smiled his approval.
Oscar assigned top agent Pete Marteen as Barney’s partner. Both boarded a chartered military plane to Moscow and thereafter, continued by ground transportation to Kemerovo. After checking in at the same motel Barney and Steve last stayed at, they began outlining their course of action. First on the agenda was to locate that field of white daisies with the barn Agent Lewis had spoken of.
The OSI field base in Moscow had been notified to provide assistance to the two agents if needed. So not to arouse suspicions, it was agreed that Barney and Pete, alone, would proceed to the suspected location.
After scouring a fifty-mile-radius area, Pete convinced an overwrought Barney to stop at a roadside diner for a quick bite. Barney’s appetite was nonexistent and instead of watching Pete stuff his face, he wandered outside for a cleansing walk. He meandered away, lost in his thoughts, until he stumbled upon a rock that broke his concentration. He picked himself up and as he brushed the dust off his trousers, he noticed a tiny white daisy at his feet. He bent down to pick it up. His eyes were riveted on the short-stemmed flower as he twirled it between his fingers. He looked up. The most spectacular and rewarding view of a profusion of white daisies unfolded before him. Every cell in his body was screaming: ‘Jackpot’. He knew he’d found the spot.
Barney rushed back inside to get Pete who was paying the bill at the cashier’s counter. He gripped his arm and dragged him outside to show him his discovery. Pete went to the car to contact Oscar to relay the exact location of the field and to have men on standby for an hour, just in case. He pulled out a gun from the glove compartment and thrust it in his chest holster.
They two ploughed through the field to reach the small barn, glancing both ways to spot any prying eyes before they made their way inside.
“Chris spoke of a trap door in stall number two,” Barney thought out loud.
“Number two from which end?”
“We’ll check them all to make sure.”
They proceeded to check the first stall. Nothing. Barney stepped up to the second stall while Pete took the third. Both squatted down and brushed the hay from the mouldy boarding. “Pete I’ve found it!”
Barney lifted the board up and climbed down ahead of Pete who pulled out his gun before heading down the rope ladder after Barney.
“Okay, Chris said tunnel five.”
“Taken from the left or right?”
“He didn’t said.”
“You have the code?”
“Yeah.” Barney reached inside his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. They both stepped closer to what they believe was the right tunnel and stopped at the entrance to enter the coordinates on a wall panel. “It’s four…five…nine…two…four…five.” Barney punched in the numbers as he spoke them.
They waited for something to happen. Barney turned to Pete and with a glint of apprehension, asked, “What do you think?”
“I think I’m glad I asked Oscar to have the men on standby,” he admitted in mortal fear for his life.
“You did what?” Barney chastised.
“You didn’t expect us to waltz in here without the OSI knowing about it? What if we get caught?”
“This is a delicate operation, Pete. If our men charge in here, all hell could break loose.”
“I was just following protocol.”
“Yeah, just like a damn bureaucrat. I’m happy I ain’t one of you. Alright, let’s press on.”
They trod carefully down the tunnel with Barney leading. They arrived at a steel door where Barney punched in the same code. The door grumbled open and closed seconds after they’d gone through. They continued down the narrow passageway to reach a tiny lift. They stepped in and pressed ‘ground level’. The elevator shot down fifty floors below the surface.
When they reached bottom, the elevator door slid open to this grand room where throngs of people went about their business, oblivious of the two agents’ presence. Barney and Pete stuck close to each other, trying to appear inconspicuous among the crowd of seemingly clones.
“Do you see what I see?” Barney exclaimed in astonishment.
“No. I think they’re clones.”
“You’re not serious?”
“Something that Callahan said about Steve that stuck with me. She said he had a different body scent.”
“I had the exact same reaction when she first told me. But it kept gnawing at my conscience. Steve Austin a killer? No way? Much less suicidal, unless that wasn’t him.”
Pete was appalled by Barney’s assumption. “Why didn’t you let me on your hunch before?”
“Because you would have thought I was bonkers just like Oscar did. To be quite candid, up until a few days ago, I would have thought I was screwy myself for entertaining the possibility. But now that I see this…”
“I’m having trouble believing it.”
“Come on. Let’s not stand here like corn cobs or we’re liable to attract attention.”
“Where do we go?”
“Let’s just mingle with the crowd and see if we can spot Steve or anyone that looks like him.”
“This is nuts.”
“Humor me Pete, and hide that gun for God’s sake.”
Keeping their eyes peeled and ears open, Barney and Pete ambled through the torings and froings of the stolid carbon copies, scanning their faces for the likeness of Steve.
Barney became intrigued by the ins and outs of several clones through a door that slid up automatically once they flattened the palm of their hands on a glass panel. He counted the seconds before the door came down once they’d passed, and figured he and Pete had plenty to sneak through.
“Come on, Pete. I want to check out something.”
Barney stepped up the pace toward the passage in question as he saw another clone activate the panel. He hooked Pete’s arm and dragged him across the opening before it sealed close.
“Where are we heading, Barney?”
“I’m not sure. I’m going on a gut feeling.”
“That’s reassuring,” Pete cracked sarcastically.
They continued down the endless corridor. In his haste, Barney came close to knocking down a woman who was exiting one of the chambers. After apologizing, he and Pete seized the moment to slip inside.
“What is this place?” Pete asked in bafflement as he looked around the impressive chamber where dozens of foggy glass cylinders were lined up, each containing a human being kept in liquid nitrogen.
“I’d say it some sort of cryogenic chamber,” Barney answered, equally dumbfounded. He wiped the fog off the glass of one container and peeked inside. He reacted in shock at what stared back at him. “That’s Agent Lewis.”
Pete rubbed the misty vapour off the second cylinder. “Wrong, he’s right here.”
Barney repeated the process with the next two containers, in which he uncovered two other staggering likenesses of his friend. “There are two more.”
“You were right, Barney. They’re clones.”
Barney’s brows furrowed deeply as he tried to recall a warning that Agent Lewis had left with him before he died. “Chris said something about taking over the government. I think I know what he meant now.”
“Barney, I don’t like this. We’d better get out of here quick and wait for our backup.”
“Let’s see if we can find Steve first.”
“This is insane! We can’t tell which one’s the original.”
“Take your pick,” a voice dripping with spite called them to attention.
Barney and Pete swirled around to face McCormick standing with an unyielding jaw, flanked by two armed Steve Austin clones. “Drop your weapon, slowly, and kick it towards me.”
Without unfastening his glare from McCormick, Pete bent down to lay his gun on the floor. At the man’s request, he kicked it at his feet. One of the clones picked it up and trained it on the two shellshock agents.
“McCormick! I never would have guessed you’d be the mastermind behind this.”
“Hey Petey! Pretty impressive, don’t you agree?”
“That’s Agent Marteen to you,” Pete rebuked sternly.
“Ah, come on Petey! We were never big on formalities,” McCormick sneered.
“Who is that guy?” Barney asked Pete, puzzled as to the man’s identity that his partner appeared to be acquainted with.
“That’s Doctor Alan McCormick. The physician assigned to the OSI before Rudy Wells took over. He vanished from the face of the earth, never to be heard from again.”
“That’s right comrade.”
“What have you done with the real McCoys?” Barney asked in a crushing tone.
“I’m sort of keeping them…on ice for future experiments.”
“I believe we’ve seen two of your experiments in action.”
“Have you? Colonel Austin not accompanying you?” McCormick asked sarcastically.
“You mean one of these?” Barney motioned to his two bodyguards. “That was a clone, wasn’t it? The one that traveled back with me to Washington?”
“Now how can you tell?”
“Easy. The real Steve Austin would never have intentionally hurt anyone, much less willingly stabbed himself to death.”
“Ah, that explains why you’re here. The flaw is that the clone tends to absorb the personality of the original. I cast Colonel Austin’s mould to hastily and my eagerness proved to be my downfall. I realize now that my creation wasn’t perfected to the point of having him duly carry out his assignment until the end.”
“No doubt you’re referring to the cute explosive gadget powerful enough to blow Washington off the map?” Barney quipped.
“Now, now, you’re exaggerating. My only target was the Pentagon.”
“It’s safe to assume you weren’t going to stop there?”
“Quite right. I plan to mould several obedient servants out of you two. And this time around, there won’t be any imperfection.” McCormick nodded to his two clones who instead of turning on the two agents, fired at their creator. Blood gurgled out of the wounded man’s mouth as he stared goggle-eyed at his attackers before he slumped to the floor.
“We’ve been aching to put him out for good,” admitted one of the clones who handed the gun back to Pete. “What took you so long, Barney?” he teased with a wink.
“Funny,” Barney breathed out, a hand clutching his chest in shock.
“What made you come back to Kemerovo?” queried the second clone.
“A lady with a keen sense of smell. Your clone apparently smelled funny to Callahan.”
Both Steve exchanged knowing smiles.
“She’s quite a lady, isn’t she?” The first clone admitted wistfully.
“How many clones have already infiltrated the government?” Pete asked.
“None. We can assure you that Chris Lewis and Steve Austin were they only two. Trial runs as he called them.”
“We will help you get back to the surface. Afterwards we’ll activate the auto destruct that will asphyxiate all the clones. Don’t worry, our originals will not be incommoded by the fumes. When you come back with the reinforcement, you’ll find them all dead, and the originals will be thawed out and released from their containment.”
“It doesn’t seem right.”
“It has to be this way, Barney, and you know it.” The clone extended his arm to shake Barney’s hand. “Good luck friend, and thank that little lady for us.”
“I won’t forget. So long friend. I’ll be back to get you, so to speak.”
Soon, the underground complex was no more. The clones were incinerated and the real McCoys airlifted to the OSI medical center based in Moscow for a complete examination. Rudy was called to consult on Steve’s condition.
“It’s incredible. Both Steve were identical to the core. Blood and tissue type, organs, endocrinial system, fingerprints, DNA and the bionic parts. Aside from a few scars that were easily overlooked, they were a perfect match. The only difference was their behavior. A dual personality, one fighting for control of the other. The clone must have been genetically conceived to act vindictively, but McCormick was unable to alter or altogether delete the genuine Steve Austin.
“A flaw in his otherwise perfect creation,” Oscar stated.
“A flaw that saved us all,” Barney added. “Can we see him?”
“Sure. Go right ahead.”
Oscar and Barney walked into Steve’s room. They tiptoed over to the bed, seeing how he was resting. Steve slowly opened his eyes.
“Stevie boy. How you feeling?”
“Glad to hear you’re your old self again,” Oscar smiled.
“I absolutely have no recollection of what happened down there. All I remember is that they injected me with a drug, then everything went black until I woke up here.”
“I think it’s better that you don’t remember.”
“Rudy explained that they extracted a few epithelial cells lining the stomach area to create copies of me. Scary, isn’t it?”
“Moreso for us, specially when we saw you stabbed yourself to death. It was weird seeing two of you side by side,” Barney explained with a frown of disgust.
“Aside from that, did my clone behave properly?”
Barney and Oscar exchanged knowing glances. “A real pussycat,” Barney chaffed.
“I guess we know now what happened to McCormick?”
“Yeah. We can permanently close the file,” Oscar said.
“All’s well that ends well. Is there anything you’d like us to bring you?” Barney asked.
“Yeah. A tall glass of COLD water.” Steve teased.
Barney and Oscar rolled their eyes and walked away.