Rumbling cattle wagons pulled by a steam train gathered speed again as it completed the turn through the town. It continued to descend further eastward in the Urals, through dark shadowy forests.
A young solitary figure leapt from the accelerating train as it passed, but did not slow, at the empty starkly light platform.
An stout-seventy-ish man withdrew from a grimy window in an opposite alley, which surveyed the scene. He rose with difficulty and threw another log on the fire, poured himself another vodka, contemplating the glass, before glimpsing back out to watch the former stow-away intently.
The boy entered the house.
« Ivan, you have the passports? » asked the man.
« I do, » he replied as he handed him the passports. « They’re in order. You won’t have any problem. »
« Good. I’d hate to get caught. »
« And once you’re in Washington, call this number. » he gave him a piece of paper. « He’s a friend of mine and he’ll provide you with everything you need. »
«Great. I owe you big. »
« Yes, you do. But I do not understand. Why are so so doggedly intent on going to America? »
« I want to look up an old friend of mine, Dr. Rudy Wells. »
« I thought you two weren’t on speaking terms after you accused him of stealing your project? »
« That’s right. I let it go thinking he could never build the prototype by himself, but I learned that he succeeded and that the man was still alive. »
« Who is he? »
« Colonel Steve Austin. »
« The American astronaut? I was under the impression that he perished in that plane crash two years ago?»
« So did I. He would certainly have died had Rudy not used my cyborg technology on the poor lad. » He drained his glass and poured himself another.
« Okay, so you want to find Dr. Wells. Then what? »
« I’m looking forward to seeing Steve Austin up close and in action. »
« Then why do you need magnetic induction coils? » He paused for a few seconds to study the old man’s facial expression. « You don’t intent to kill him, do you? »
« Of couse not! I’m a scientist, not a killer. I only want to use him to force Wells to set the record straight about the project’s rightful inventor. »
« Good luck. That Steve Austin must be guarded like a fortress. »
« A fortress with a back door through which I will sneak in with the help of my good friend Rudy Wells, » he crowed with his eyes squinting sadistically.
For months, Boris Krishkow had been unrelentingly plotting his revenge against a man he once considered the greatest mind of our times. Rudy was his protégée, a student thirsty for knowledge that only he could provide. The cyborg project was his brainchild, one he openly shared with Rudy, but never had he expected the student to supercede the teacher. Every possible glitch in his scheme had been anticipated and assigned a contigency plan.
The plane landed safely at Dulles airport. Boris passed customs without so much of a wary glance from the officers and then drove his rental car to the hotel. After settling in his room, he got on the phone to the OSI with the number he had been given.
Rudy was in his lab doing exploratory surgery on Steve’s bionic arm, which had been misfiring sporadically in the last few days. Steve was clad in a hospital gown, sitting comfortably in a chair with his arm outstretched, palm outwards. It was strapped to a flat panel to hold it steady during the delicate procedure of cutting through the synthetic skin.
« Okay Steve, you tell me if you feel anything, » Rudy asked as he brushed the tip of a screwdriver against a wire. He glanced up at Steve to gauge his reaction. When none came, he proceeded to tighten a bolt and repeated the test. Again, no reaction. To ascertain that the neuro link had not been altogether severed, he brushed against a parallel wire, which sent a jolt through Steve’s arm.
« Aie! that I felt, » Steve heaved out with a sting of discomfort.
« The problem’s more complex than I originally anticipated. I’m going to have to sedate you for the procedure. » He unstrapped Steve’s arm and helped him out of the chair while holding his arm still. « Come over to the table. » he assisted Steve to the examining table. « Lie down. »
While Steve stretched himself on the table, Rudy went to prepare the injection that he administered in the left arm to dull the senses. Within seconds, Steve was lost in a haze with his eyelids hanging heavily. He tried to focus on Rudy’s misty figure hovering over him. «Steve, you can let go. It’ll be easier on both of us,»
Steve gave a weak nod of the head and surrendered to the effect of the drug.
« Dr. Wells, you have a phone call, » said one of his assistants.
Rudy gave Steve one last glance before walking to his office desk. « Rudy Wells. »
« Rudy Wells, how nice to hear your voice after all these years, friend, » Boris exulted.
« Who is this? »
« You do not remember me? I am your old teacher Boris Krishkow, » he informed on a slight cynical tone.
« Boris? How about that! » Rudy didn’t really know how to interpret this call after the rather acrid conversation they had before parting ways a good fifteen years ago. « How long has it been? »
« A good fifteen years, my friend. Listen I am in Washington at the moment and I called to invite you to dinner tonight. We can catch up on old times. »
« Sure, but unfortunately I can’t tonight. How about tomorrow? »
« Great! I am staying at the Embassador Hotel. Meet me at eight o’clock in the restaurant. »
« I’ll be there. »
« Looking forward, my friend. » Boris hung up and carved a maniacal grin.
On the other end, Rudy was at the grip of mixed emotions. Was Boris in Washington to bury the hatchet or did he have an ulterior motive? He took a lungful of air to steady his nerves before proceeding with the operation.
Following the two-hour surgery, Steve was settled in the recovery room. With his arms folded against his chest, Rudy stared at the sleeping form behind the glass window, his mind roving back to Boris’s disturbing phone call. He was swimming in speculations when Oscar interrupted his train of thoughts. «Rudy, is Steve alright?»
« Oh yes. He’ll sleep until the drug wear off. »
« What’s that about this Kirshkow character you were telling me about? »
« My former mentor. »
« What? »
« In 1954 I went to Russia to study physics. Krishkow was a professor at Moscow State University. He was a brilliant teacher with high kudos under his belt for his work in the field of cybernetics. He was pleased by the fact that one of his students was actually taking a high interest in his work and he therefore took me under his wing. He shared some of his theories on bionics.
« Bionics? » Oscar’s reaction was one of disbelief.
« He was intent on building the first human cyborg. »
« So it was his work? » he inferred, expecting Rudy to deny the assumption.
« He started it and I finished it. There came a time when he would consistently undermine my theories at every chance he’d get. He became obsessed by the fact that I was succeeding where he was failing. One day, his overbearing attitude towards me just got to be too much. So I took my notes, packed up my things and came back to America. I continued working on the project until Steve Austin came along. »
«Does he know about Steve? »
« I can’t say, » Rudy sighed in dismay. « I’m having dinner with him tomorrow night. Guess I’ll know then. »
« If he is privy to Steve’s nature, we’ll need to keep a watchful eye on both of them. »
Steve was seen stirring in his bed. « I think our patient is waking up. »
The next evening, Rudy met with Boris at the hotel restaurant. Rudy entered the vestible and was escorted to Boris’s table by the Maitre D’. Boris stood to properly welcome his former student.
« Rudy, my friend! » Boris greeted in a customary Russian embrace. « Long time no see. How are you doing? »
« Just fine, just fine, » Rudy choked on his reply, stunned by Boris’s ebullient clench.
« Please, sit down. Would you like a drink? »
« Sure. »
« Dry Martini, right? »
« You remember? »
« But of course!»
Boris beckoned the waitress over « Darling, would you be so kind to get this gentleman a dry Martini? »
« Right away sir, » she answered with a wonted smile.
Boris ogled her arresting figure tread its way to the bar before he turned to Rudy. « So I hear you are working for the American government? They must be paying you well? »
« I can’t complaint. »
« I happy for you, Rudy. I knew right away when I took you under my wing that you would go far. »
« What brings you to our nation’s capital after all these years? Not to pick up where we left off I hope? »
« Na, that is ancient history. There are no heartfeelings. I am here because of my son, Petrov.»
« Petrov! I remember you talking about him. He must have been, what? Four, five years old? »
« He is all grown up now and a brilliant biophysicist. »
« Like father like son. »
« He has been called to Mount Palomar to work on some top-secret project that he was not allowed to discuss with his old man. Since the plane was going to make a short stop over in Washington, I decided to accompany him on this trip and look you up. »
« You’ve always been very close to him. »
« He is my pride and joy. » Boris took a gulp of his vodka, then stared vacantly at the glass he twirled between his fingers as his mind roved back to his wife’s tragic death when Petrov was just a toddler. That boy was his whole life, a treasure that her smothered with love and shielded from harm, until an American Army soldier accidently shot him three months ago. The news of Petrov’s death unshackled a ghoul who had been raring to spring from beneath the surface even since Erica’s untimely death in a car crash, one that was caused by an American tourist. Thenceforth, Boris swore vengence on that people, starting with the man whom he accused of appropriating himself the merit for his brainchild, and if it meant destroying his greatest achievement in the process, he was prepared to do it. « Tell me about Steve Austin. » Boris asked boldly as he took another sip.
Rudy frowned. « Steve Austin? The astronaut? What do you want to know? » he asked suspiciously.
«To begin with I am curious as to how his body was able to accept the bionic parts without rejecting them.»
« You know about him? » It stumped Rudy how Boris could be cognizant to this confidential information, though a doubt had subsisted that the true reason of his presence in Washington was to enquire about Steve. Rudy’s inner alarm sounded a warning. His first order of business was to notify Oscar of Boris’s knowledge of Steve and get the bionic man under round-the-clock surveillance until Boris’s genuine intentions were revealed.
«I have my sources. I came to Washington to offer my sincere apologies for having relentlessly tried to debunk your theories on bionics. »
« No need. I revised them and realized they comprised several errors. But I didn’t get discouraged. I kept at it. That’s how I addressed the problem of the body rejection. »
« And you succeeded. I am proud of you. It would please me to meet this miracle man and see him in action. »
« Perhaps it could be arranged, » Rudy said unconvincingly, knowing Oscar would never consent to this meeting. « I’ll confer with my boss. Will you be in town long?
« For the next two weeks. »
« Great. I’ll get in touch with you. »
The waitress brought Rudy his drink and they both clung glasses. They sat in restrained silence while they looked over their menus until Rudy caught a glimpse of Steve escorting his date to their table. Quickly, Rudy raised the menu to conceal his face, unaware that Steve had already spotted him. After gallantly seating the slender brunette, Steve excused himself and walked over to Boris’s table.
« Rudy, fancy seeing you here. »
« Steve! » Rudy exclaimed with feighed surprise and stood from the table to shake his hand. « What a coincidence. We were just talking about you. »
« Really ? »
« Boris Krishkow, this is Steve Austin. »
« The famous American astronaut! » Boris enthused as he stood to pull Steve into a hearty Russian clench.
Steve was taken aback by the stranger’s expressive embrace.
« Nice to meet you, son. »
« Likewise, I’m sure, » Steve coughed and turned to Rudy with a quizzical look.
« Boris is my mentor. »
« Sit down and join us, » Boris invited with a gesture of the hand.
« Maybe some other time. I have a lovely lady waiting for me at our table. »
« Oh really? Who is it this time? » Rudy asked teasingly.
« Valerie Stanton. »
« Not Valerie from down at security? »
« The same. You know the security breach we had a week ago? »
« Yeah. »
« What can I say, I liked the way she searched me, » Steve confessed with a smirk and a puckish wink.
« Oh you! » Rudy’s infectious laugh beckoned Boris to join in, making the blood mantle over Steve’s cheeks.
« Nice meeting you again, Mr. Krishkow. »
« Please, call me Boris. »
« Have a great dinner. »
« You too, » Rudy said. « Oh and Steve, try to drop by the lab tomorrow morning so I can check that arm. »
« Will do. »
Both men resumed their seats, with Boris keeping a covetous eye on Steve walking back to his table. «Amazing. He looks human. I cannot distinct the human flesh from the artificial, » he marvelled.
« That’s the beauty of it. The synthetic skin owns similar thermochemical and pigmentary properties as the real, down to the number of hair on his right arm and legs. »
« Really?! » Unbeknownst to him, Rudy had divulged crucial information Boris required to carry out his plan. He never anticipated the opportunity to present itself so soon but since it has and that his contact was standing by with the requested equipment, he intended to spring into action tonight.
After a copious dinner, Rudy and Boris left the restaurant and had the parking attendant fetch their cars.
« Boris why don’t you come by my house for a night cap? We could continue our conversation. »
« I appreciate your invitation old friend but I must decline. My son promised to call tonight and besides, I am kind of tired. »
« I understand. »
« Would it too forward of me to ask for a tour of your facility, sometime this week? »
« That I don’t know, but I’ll see what I can do.»
« Much obliged. Keep in touch! »
Boris stepped into his car and drove away. He looked in his rearview mirror and spotted Rudy’s car steering in the opposite direction. He made a sudden U-turn and drove back to the hotel where he parked his car across the street and patiently waited for Steve to exit.
About an hour later, he observed the chivalrous knight escorting his princess out to his car. Boris followed them to the woman’s house where Steve dropped her off. After escorting her safely to her front step, he kissed her goodnight and returned to his car. Boris then tailed Steve to his house.
He alloted Steve a few minutes to settle in before he walked up to the front door and rang the bell. « Colonel Austin, I am sorry to disturb you so late, but I need you to come with me to the hospital, » Boris said, affecting a deep concern.
« What’s wrong? »
« It is Dr. Wells. I am afraid he has had a terrible car accident on his way to his house. »
Without a moment’s hesitation, Steve made a grab for his jacquet spread on the back of the sofa and as he reached for his car keys on the table, he felt a prick in the back of his neck. His eyes swivelled back to Boris who stood, impassive, with a tranquilizer gun in hand. Steve yanked out the dart and as he lurched at Boris, his vision became blurred and passed out on the floor.
Boris dragged Steve listless body across the floor to his bedroom where he lifted him onto the bed. He picked up the phone to call the man hired by Ivan to supply him with the needed magnetic induction apparatuses designed to neutralize the bionic mechanisms. Boris asked for an additional high-voltage generator used in psychiatric wards for electro-shock treatments of psychotic patients.
When the man showed up with the implements, they proceeded to strap Steve down onto the bed using magnetic induction coils around his legs and right arm. They clamped his head down on the mattress with a leather band and plastered tiny electrodes on his temples and forehead. When everything was to his liking, Boris produced a brown envelope from inside his shirt pocket and handed it over to the man. It contained the agreed sum of money for the material and his silence. The man had no intention to get involved and with the money, he planned to skip the country.
At his house, Rudy had barely finished genning Oscar up on the latest developments regarding Boris that the phone rang. « Hello. »
« I am sorry to disturb you so late, friend but it is urgent. »
« Boris? How did you get my number? »
« Your friend Steve Austin gave it to me, » he pretended. « I need you to come over to his house right away »
« What are you doing at Steve’s house? » Rudy kept probing, irking Boris.
« Please do not ask so many questions and come alone or Steve Austin will DIE, » Boris threatened, laying emphasis on the last word.
« What’s going on? »
« I said no more questions, friend. No police, no nothing. Just you or your precious cyborg will be dismantled. »
« I swear Boris if you hurt Steve I… » Rudy warned, too incensed to finish his sentence.
« I will not lay a finger on him if you follow my instructions. You come alone. This is a personal matter than you and I need to settle. »
Rudy slammed the receiver on the hook. He felt the vials of wrath pouring out of him. He collected himself and contacted Oscar to inform him of the hostage crisis at Steve’s house. Then he grabbed his coat and car keys and jumped into his car.
While speeding down the road, Rudy silently berated himself for not anticipating Boris’s actions. Inwardly, he wanted to believe the man had turned a new leaf, but his instincts had been telling him otherwise. When he arrived at Steve’s house, the front door was unbolted. Rudy carefully nudged the door open and was welcomed by Boris’s gun.
« Welcome, my friend. Please, join us, » he beckoned by waving the barrel of his gun toward Steve’s bedroom.
When Rudy entered the room his heart leapt to his throat at the sight of Steve strapped down on the bed, hooked to machines he knew held deadly powers in the hands of a psychopath like Boris. Steve was semi-conscious and hovering in a drug-induced haze.
« What have you done to him? » Rudy asked menacingly as he gave Steve’s body a quick assessment.
« I administered him a mild sedative to keep him docile while we talk. »
Rudy turned to face Boris and asked bluntly, « What do you want? »
« I want your solemn promise that you will reveal to the world that your cyborg was achieved using my notes. You will confessed to having appropriated them. »
« I can’t do that! Boris you don’t understand, this project is classified top secret. It’s a matter of the utmost security. It’s held incommunicado, even from the Army. I’m even surprised you found out about it. » Rudy frowned inquisitively at Boris. « How did you come across that information? »
« I already told you, I have my sources, » Boris admitted with a sly grin. « If I am aware of this cyborg’s existence, surely many others must be privy to him as well. »
« They don’t, believe me. »
Not satisfied with Rudy’s answer, Boris switched on the HV generator that sent shockwaves through Steve’s brain.
« What are you doing? » Rudy yelled in complete shock.
« Do not touch him! » Boris warned with his gun trained at Rudy. He beckoned him to step away from the agonizing Steve who was desperately gasping for air.
« You said you wouldn’t hurt him. »
« I lied. I will keep sending him electrical surges, increasing the voltage with each, until you agree to my terms. »
« Okay suppose I reveal you were the inventor of the project. Then what? Do you honestly think we’re going to let you get away with it, especially after you hurt an innocent man? »
« That is something I already figured out, my friend. I ask that do you part and I will do mine. »
« It is imperative that we conceal Steve Austin’s existence or this country’s enemies will be seeking him to study his bionic mechanism in an endeavor to build their own. »
« I do not believe that. » Boris sent another surge of electricty throughout Steve’s body.
« It’s the honest to God truth, » Rudy blared out in a futile attempt to convince Boris of the veracity of his statement. He stared at Steve whose breathing was ragged and coming in gasping pants.
« One last time, Rudy, » Boris threatened with his finger on the switch.
Rudy huffed and puffed, caught between a rock and a hard place. He was about to yield to Boris’s wish when Steve suddenly went into cardiac arrest. As Rudy rushed to his side to try to resuscitate him, Boris shot a bullet at his feet, prompting him to take a few steps backwards.
« Let me revive him, » Rudy begged.
« Too late my friend. »
« What kind of monster are you? You just killed an innocent human being! »
« He’s not human. He’s a machine. »
« PART machine. »
« Too long have I lived in the shadows of you Americans who appropriate yourselves the credit and glory for many inventions. No more! This is my project and I want the world to know that a Russian achieved THIS, » he lashed out at Rudy, jabbing his finger at Steve for emphasis.
At that moment, federal agents broke into the house, taking everyone by surprise. They ordered Boris to drop his gun and step away from Steve. Rudy rushed to Steve’s side and started CPR. When Oscar came in, he assigned him to the cardiac massages while he removed the electrodes to apply them onto Steve’s chest. He calibrated the correct voltage and shocked him once, then twice with Steve’s body arching with each jolt of electricity. Still no response. He increased the voltage and shocked Steve a third time. His chest bulged out as he gasped in a long shuddering breath and gradually, his respiration resumed a normal rate. Both Rudy and Oscar heaved sighs of relief and proceeded to remove the straps.
When Steve’s eyelids fluttered, Rudy gently tilted his head toward him. « Steve, can you hear me? »
Steve feverishly blinked open his eyes and a weak smile flickered on his lips as he gave a slight nod of the head. Then Rudy gingerly turned Steve’s head toward Oscar standing on the opposite side of the bed. « And this fellow here, do you recognize him? »
Again Steve acknowledged with a smile.
« You scared us to death, pal, » Oscar breathed out.
Steve moistened his dry lips. « What, what happened? » he asked in a whisper.
« We’ll talk about it later. Right now just relax. »
« I feel queasy. »
« Don’t worry. It’ll pass. »
Steve made eye contact with Boris who was being hauled away in handcuffs. « What’s he doing here? »
« You don’t remember? » Rudy asked with great concern.
Steve’s brow knitted slightly at Rudy’s question and he shook his head.
Oscar glanced up at Rudy with a disquiet look etched on his face.
«There’s bound to be some short-term memory loss but I’m confident it’s only a temporary condition, » Rudy assured, knowing Steve recognized them both.