“Alright Oscar. I’ll see you tomorrow at ten,” Steve said as he crossed to the door of the office.
“Make it nine. I might have further information to convey you,” the boss requested as he joined his golden boy by the door.
“This is the real first assignment I’m really looking forward to. Why is that?” Steve asked rhetorically with a hint of humour.
“You know perfectly well why, pal,” Oscar mocked, rolling his eyes. “Ladies. Lots of ladies.” He followed Steve out the door and tossed a folder onto Callahan’s desk.
“Nah! That couldn’t be, could it?” Steve taunted with a smirk and a mocking wink directed at both Oscar and the blushing secretary.
“Just remember that some could be lethal. Don’t let your guard down.”
“You know me Oscar. I’m a professional.”
“Yeah and that’s what worries me.”
“I’ll see you at nine.” He fired a smoking gun at his boss then pushed his way out of the reception area.
“He’s in a very cheerful mood today,” remarked Callahan with a thoughtful smile. “Usually when you summon him for a mission briefing he leaves here in a churlish mood.”
“I know,” Oscar agreed in a sigh fraught with concern, his eyes taken on a distant look. “Maybe I made a mistake.”
Steve was driving down his avenue, whistling a happy tune, totally unaware of the Sedan that had been tailing him since leaving the OSI parking lot. The driver was careful to put some distance between the two vehicles as they engaged in the quiet suburbia road leading to Steve’s house. He parked a few yards away from the residence and waited for Steve to walk up to the front door before addressing his passenger.
“Is that him?” asked Johnny T., the professional gunman, to his employer sitting in the back.
“That’s him. Colonel Austin; a thorn at my side for five years,” he grinded out between clenched teeth. “I want to make him pay the three last years I spent in jail.”
“How do you want it? Accident? Or I bury the body?”
“Anyway you see fit to execute your contract. I just want him dead. And no mistake,” he warned with steely eyes that failed to distress the hit man whose record was flawless.
“I’ve got me some business to conduct and I don’t want him under foot. Is that understood?”
“It is Mister Crane. And I trust the money will be deposited in my Swiss bank account?” Johnny demanded on the same stringent tone.
“Half of it today and the rest when the job is done.”
The next morning Oscar was in his office getting restless by Steve’s lateness. “Callahan, any word from Colonel Austin?” he asked through the intercom.
“Not yet sir. I’ve called his house three times. All I get is the answering machine. My guess is that he might have run into car trouble on the way.”
“Still he would have called,” Oscar countered, his secretary’s explanation failing to reassure him. “Keep trying.” He glanced down at his watch for the umpteenth time and sighed. “Steve, where are you?”
A few blocks down the Austin residence, a car lay at the bottom of a ravine with its unconscious passenger still strapped securely in his seat with the steering wheel applying crushing pressure against his sternum. A mere minute after impact the man groaned awake, blinking away the haze to assess the situation and establish his surroundings. “How did that happen?” he muttered weakly, as he slowly and painfully raised a hand to his forehead to feel the bleeding gash. He remained in his seat long enough to regain some of his bearings before removing the hindering wheel from its socket. Once free to move his torso he twisted one leg to the side to apply pressure to the jammed door. Several painful attempts later the door came off its hinges and Steve managed to slither himself out of the wreck. He leaned against the car to take a breather before inspecting the damages to the car.
“Oh that’s great!” he grumbled, shaking his head in exasperation. “Oscar will have my hide for sure.” He closed his eyes to quell the wave of nausea. “Come on Steve, nothing’s broken. You can make it home on your own two feet. Pick yourself up boy!” he emboldened, drawing a deep breath to summon his strength to make it up the slope.
Pushing the front door open, Steve paused to swallow the rising bile. He then slouched over to the couch where he flumped down on the cushions and closed his eyes.
When he reopened his eyes, two hours had elapsed. He inhaled a few cleansing breaths, after which he painfully hauled himself out the sofa to drag his aching body to the kitchen to fix himself a glass of milk. Opening the refrigerator door he was troubled to find to it practically bare of food. His brows creased in puzzlement. He picked up the carton of milk and went to the cupboard to retrieve a glass. Instead he found a set of China plates. “That’s not mine,” he wondered out loud. He rummaged through other cupboards until he finally found the glasses. After pouring his milk he let his eyes roam around the kitchen. A frown wrinkled his brow at the many altered items. “What the…” He made his way to the livingroom to find various ancient artefacts that he didn’t recall having acquired. More troubling were the books on astro-physics that he never purchased. “This isn’t my house.” He groped his pockets and pulled out his set of keys, then walked to the front door where he inserted one in the keyhole. When the door unbolted easily he stepped back to note the street number on the beam and studied the house architecture.
“I think I need to have my head examine,” he mocked, shaking his head in disbelief. “My mind’s playing tricks.” He dismissed his ‘visions’ and went back into the house to call the tow truck to have his car hauled out of the ditch.
In early afternoon he drove to the lab to visit with Rudy, bearing hopes the good doctor could shed light on his increasingly annoying hallucinations. “I had a little accident. Nothing serious.”
“Maybe not but you have deep gash in your forehead” Rudy informed upon examining the wound. “Luckily it stopped bleeding. It’s going to require a few stitches.”
“I was worried about you when you didn’t show up for your tests this morning.”
“Tests?” Steve queried quizzically. “Was I scheduled for tests?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Sorry Doc. My mind’s a little fuzzy right now.”
“That’s to be expected. I assume you were on your way here when you had your accident.”
“Guess so. I’m seeing things too. Weird stuff that I can’t explain.”
“Good morning Doctor Austin,” greeted Rudy’s faithful secretary Linda as she entered the other office to settle at her desk.
“Good morning, Linda.” He turned to Rudy with a bewildered expression. “Doc I think I’m more screwed up that I thought. Did she just call me Doctor?”
Rudy tossed his head back and laughed. “You are really messed up, Steve. I’m going to run a CAT scan to determine the breadth of that concussion.”
“Good idea,” Steve readily agreed.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
Steve shut his eyes tightly together to focus on the last vivid recollection. “I remember driving over here when…” He shook his head and sighed in despair. “Nothing.”
“Do you recall how long you were unconscious?”
“Not a clue. Couldn’t have been that long.” A painful twinge caused his face to crumple. He reached up to this forehead where Rudy had applied a temporary bandage over the gash.
“Well I’ll know more after the results of the head scan. I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.”
“No likely, Rudy,” Steve sighed heavily with leaden eyelids about to concede defeat to his exhaustion.
Once that the battery of tests concluded Rudy recommended against sleep for the next twelve hours to ward off any possibility of complications. “Do you trust yourself not to steel a nap if I allow you to return home? Or would you rather idle the time away helping me with the project?”
“And what project is that?” he asked innocently with eyes still closed to quell the pounding in his head.
Rudy smiled amusedly. “Bad suggestion. I think I’ll wait till you get your bearings back before proceeding to the last stage of the project.”
“What project?” Steve insisted.
“Never mind. Lie back.” Steve did as instructed with Rudy’s hand smoothing the contact with the pillow. “This won’t take long. Just a few stitches and you’ll be home free. Just relax. I’ll be back in a minute.” Steve nodded and closed his eyes.
Rudy made his way to the outer room to gather his instruments, unaware that a shadowy figure was spying on his every move. “Why are you here?” Rudy asked offhandedly, bristling up at the man looking over his shoulder.
“Heard Austin had a little accident?”
“News travel fast around here,” Rudy sneered as he went about his business.
“It is imperative if we are to keep our adversaries at bay. How bad is he?”
“It’s a mild concussion, though he’s extremely disoriented.”
“They could have gotten to him. We’ll keep him under surveillance for the next few days.”
“As you wish.”
“And Doctor Wells, I would advise you to keep him away from Level 29 for now until we clear him.”
“I thought you wanted completion done by the end of the week?”
“We’d rather delay it for a few days then risk having it falling into Russian hands. We’ll watch Austin closely to determine whether he is under enemy’s clout. We cannot afford any leak at this crucial stage of the project, especially with our friend,” he spit out sarcastically, “who just defected to the other side.”
“I’ll suggest he spends the night at my house tonight.”
“Good idea. Meanwhile we’ll comb his residence for any clue as to possible treason.”
“Steve would never…” Rudy hissed, swinging round to face his boss standing defiantly with an unyielding jaw. “Don’t you go spreading false rumour about him or I’ll swear I’ll personally run your project into the ground.”
“Don’t make threats you cannot carry out Dr. Wells. For your sake and your friend Doctor Austin’s, don’t make waves. We despise insubordination,” The man warned with dark seething eyes before ambling out of the room with a contended grin plastered on his face.
Less than ten hours had elapsed when Rudy received a call from Steve.
“Rudy, something’s really weird.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the house. I look around and…” Steve’s wary eyes roamed over the room as he spoke, “I don’t recognize half of it. It’s changed.”
“Are you feeling all right? Any dizzy spells?”
“No, nothing. I’m fine. Well at least I think I am. Oh I don’t know anymore Rudy,” Steve finally conceded, massaging the bridge of his nose in hopes the hallucinations would vanish. “When you have a minute would you drop by my house? I need a second opinion about the visions I’m seeing.”
“I’ll finish up at the lab and be right there.”
“Thanks.” He hung up the phone and paused to suck in a few deep cleansing breaths before rousing from the couch to edge up to the wall of diplomas.
Rudy arrived at Steve’s house barely an hour later and found the man in a complete daze. “You all right, Steve?” Rudy’s first question upon noticing Steve’s bewilderment.
“No I’m not all right,” he answered bluntly. “What are those?” he queried quizzically, pointing to the wall of diplomas.
“What do they look like? Diplomas,” Rudy humoured, puzzled as to the extent of Steve’s confusion.
“My name is on those.”
“Yes. Why wouldn’t they?”
“Rudy, I’m a test pilot for NASA. A former astronaut. I have Masters in Engineering and Astronomy, but not this! Unless I was presented with honorific titles that I don’t recall.”
With a worried frown, Rudy edged up to his bemused friend and steered him towards the couch. “Let’s sit down and talk.”
“Yes, let’s,” Steve readily agreed. “What’s going on here, Rudy?”
“Steve, being an astronaut was indeed a dream of yours. You did study to go into space but you got sidetracked when you caught a documentary on black holes. You became fascinated, even obsessed by the phenomena that you decided to make studying wormholes your life’s work. You received your PH. D in astrophysics at MIT.”
“What is this? What are you doing to me? I’m asleep is that it? I’m at the hospital right now. That’s it. The accident. It was worse than I thought. I’m in a coma,” Steve tried to rationalize to give credence to his hallucinations.
“What year is this?” Steve asked curtly.
“March twenty-third. Why?”
Deep in thought Steve stood from the couch and began examining the odd occurrence as to offer some sort of tangible explanation.
“Sit down Steve. I want to check something.”
Steve resumed his seat by Rudy. “What?”
“Give me your left hand.” Steve complied with an edge of apprehension. “What are you looking for?” His eyes widen in horror at the sight of the pocketknife that Rudy pulled out of his pocket. “Hey!” Steve cried indignantly, jerking his hand away. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“It won’t hurt.”
“The hell it won’t! May I remind you that this is,” he waved his hand in the air to emphasis his point, “my good hand? Use the right.”
“Why would…” his eyebrows jolted up and his breath caught in his throat and at the remote possibility that crossed his mind. “Wait a minute.” He grabbed both of Steve’s wrists to check the pulse. “That can’t be,” he gasped.
“Could it be that you did it?” he enthused, “That you actually succeeded?”
“What? What did I do? Rudy for God’s sake!” Steve griped, visibly annoyed by the crossed signals.
“Now I understand your confusion. You’re not from this universe. Somehow you switched places with your alter ego.”
“Now you’re scaring me Rudy. Stay with me here.”
Rudy excitedly roused from his seat and walked off the excess enthusiasm before exposing the current situation. “You’re in a parallel universe. You’re twin if I may call him that is a renowned astrophysicist on this planet. I’m his assistant.”
“His assistant?” Steve quipped with a marked incredulity.
“Steve and I are working on a classified governmental project in the field of transdimentional travelling. The EPR Paradox. The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Bridge. I won’t disclose all the intricate details for I have yet to medically determine whether you’re under enemy clout or not. If you’re here then that means our Steve succeeded in activating the vortex. You’re here and he’s in your universe as we speak.
“This is crazy,” Steve condemned.
“Then you explain all of this,” Rudy said sarcastically, waving his hand around.
“I can’t. Not yet anyway. Rudy, I had an accident plain and simple. I didn’t go through any vortex as you say.”
“You might not remember,” Rudy insisted. “Look, I know it all seems far-fetched to you.
“Phrrrrr! That’s an understatement,” Steve scoffed, instinctively reaching for his bandaged gash he held accountable for his visions.
“I won’t try to convince you. I’ll just wait for Steve to return and he’ll explain. Maybe if you see it with your own eyes…”
“My eyes are definitely closed at this moment. And when I do open them I expect to see a blurry hospital room,” he barked assertively, tossing his head sideways as a hint to table the discussion.
“All right,” Rudy conceded, flinging his arms in the air in defeat. “I’ll go back to the lab and wait for Steve’s return. In the meantime I strongly advise you not to wander outside.”
“Am I under house arrest?”
“No. It’s for your own protection. This universe may not behave like yours and we wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
“Don’t worry. I have the necessary tools to defend myself. You ought to know. You’re the one who fitted me with the apparel.”
“Your Rudy did, obviously. But in our universe, cyborgs are a very common entity and some are much more sophisticated and intricate than you are. You might meet your match,” Rudy cautioned on a hint of tease.
“All right I’ll humour you and heed your warning, but only because I’m still a bit fuzzy and believe this whole thing is pure figment of my imagination.” Steve stood from the couch and politely saw his visitor to the door.
“Have it your way. It is a bit disconcerting and I assume I’d feel the same if I were in your shoes right now.”
“When will your guy show up?” Steve asked cynically.
“I don’t know exactly. Could be hours.”
“Meaning I’m stuck here until he does come back? Wait a minute!” Steve shook his head in disbelief. “What am I talking about here? I’m not falling for that. No way!”
“I’ll keep in touch.”
“Yeah, you do that,” Steve muttered petulantly as he closed the door behind Rudy.
It wasn’t long after Rudy’s departure for Steve to dismiss the doctor’s warning. Instead of idling his time away inside four walls he decided to take a walk outside, hoping the fresh air would clear away the cobwebs. With a wary step and a scrutinizing eye he ambled down the street toward the small park where he sat at a picnic table to study the surroundings. “Seems pretty much the same,” he thought to himself as he focused on a curvaceous young woman in a tennis mini skirt. “Yep! Everything’s looking mighty good,” he purred sultrily.
“He’s here. Sitting on a park bench,” one undercover agent reported to his boss through a hidden microphone.
“Watch him closely, but discreetly. We don’t want him to get suspicious. Let me know if he meets with a contact.”
“You were right. He’s here,” reported the stunningly beautiful tennis player to his partner dressed in a similar attire. “He’s pretty punctual.”
“Told you. Whenever he can get away for work, he comes to the park during early afternoons to take in the sights,” he eyed her curves, “if you know what I mean?”
“Do I go in for the kill now?”
The male operative stole a cursory glance at Steve whose eyes bore down on the divine beauty with a lusting grin on his face. “The bait worked like a charm. I think he’s ready to bite the hook.”
“I’m the best lure in the organization. I’ve got the right stuff in case you haven’t noticed,” she teased, flinging her shoulder-length hair aside.
“Well be careful. Reel him in gently or we’ll lose him. Use your code name as a precaution.”
“I’m a professional,” she boasted with an elfish wink to her partner who blushed slightly.
Agent Karen Prescott aka Amy Randall proceeded to catch her game by seductively twisting her curves as she walked past Steve’s table. The intoxication was instant; ensnaring the dazed prey that giddily followed the scent with the hopes to quench its thirst. Amy smiled inwardly at her success and feigned a pebble in her shoe to allow Steve to catch up with her.
“Something wrong?” he asked innocently as to avoid giving the impression that he’s interested.
“Got a stone in my shoe,” she grimaced, reaching for Steve’s arm for leverage. He assisted her to the nearest picnic table where he offered to remove her shoe. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure.” So entranced by her beauty was he that he didn’t notice the phantom stone she pretended to remove from her shoe. “I haven’t seen you around the park before. You’re new around here?”
“No. I’ve been here for two years. Only my last job didn’t allow much time for leisure. It’s different now. I have more leeway and can actually indulge in my hobbies.”
“One being tennis.”
“How did you guess?” she jested to set the mood and pave the way for the obvious question. Being late at coming, she broached the subject herself. “Do you play?”
“Occasionally I do. Like you my job doesn’t grant me much free time. Today is an exception on account of a small incident involving a car,” he informed, pointing to his forehead.
“Oh, are you okay?” she cooed exaggeratedly to convey a sympathy she deemed crucial for the final kill.
“Yeah I’m all right. I get to stay home today. Were you on your way somewhere?”
“Yes. To my car. It’s parked over there,” she indicated with her hand.
“Don’t mind if I walk with you?”
“I’d love to Mister….”
“Austin. Steve Austin.”
“Please to meet you,” he smiled as he shook her hand.
Karen’s partner smiled triumphantly, relishing the sizeable bonus promised upon delivery of the coveted bird. He waited for the couple to disappear out of sight before contacting his superior through his concealed microphone. “That’s it boss. Austin’s caught in the noose.”
“Good,” crowed the gruff voice on the other end. “I’ll drop by her apartment tomorrow night. I trust she she’ll have him there waiting?”
“If I know Karen she’ll have him at her apartment tonight.”
“Yeah, well, warn her to keep a leash on her lust. I know Austin. He’ll get suspicious if she comes on too strong, too fast.”
“I’ll tell her.”
Back in the other universe the search for the missing Steve was in full spin. Oscar had dispatched a good dozen men to comb the city within five hours of Steve’s disappearance and more rallied in as the day progressed. Hard as they tried to find clues as to Steve’s fate, they would come up dry.
“Keep looking,” Oscar said dryly over the phone. “He’s out there somewhere.” In a fit of rage Oscar smashed the receiver down on its cradle, startling Rudy standing beside him at the desk.
“Oscar, simmer down. This isn’t the first time Steve’s been missing and I expect it won’t be the last either.”
“This is different Rudy.”
“How different?” A chilling silence was his answer. With a puzzled frown he slanted his head sideways to read the terrorized expression mirroring in the director’s eyes. “Oscar, something you’re not telling me. What is it?”
Oscar risked a glance up at Rudy but chose not to dwell on his stare for fear of loosing countenance altogether. He stood, thrust his hands in his pant pockets and rounded the corner of his desk to stand next to Rudy. “Douglas Crane, that’s who.”
“What about Douglas Crane?”
“I received news that he established a corporation right here in Washington. He was cleared of all embezzling charges three months ago after spending three years in jail and the FBI closed the case. Steve was one of the jurors on his trial. There’s no doubt in my mind the man is guilty but he was clever enough to destroy the incriminating evidence.”
“And you believe this Crane guy is here and gunning for Steve?”
“Most likely. He swore vengeance on all the jurors, Steve being the most famous of them all. I have a bad feeling that,” Oscar’s thought were abruptly interrupted by the phone buzzer. He returned to his desk and pressed down the button. “Yes Callahan?”
“I have Sergeant Hoffman from the local police department on Line 2, sir. He says it’s important.”
Oscar flashed a baffled look at Rudy who reciprocated with a similar air of perplexity.
“Mister Goldman? Sergeant John Hoffman here. Sir I would appreciate if you could come to Pier 4 on 6th and Water Streets,” he asked grimly, his grave tone portent of tragedy.
“Why? What’s going on?”
“It’s about Colonel Austin.”
Oscar’s face blenched at the name. “I’m on my way.” He hung up peeled off his jacket from the back of his chair. “It’s Steve.”
“What is it?”
“Don’t know yet, just that we need to get to Pier 4 right away.”
Rudy picked up Oscar’s brisk pace; both flustered men barely addressing Callahan as they headed out the door.
Oscar and Rudy drove to the shipping dock just as the authorities were hauling a wrecked car out of the water. The area had been cordoned off to keep the curious onlookers at bay. Oscar and Rudy hurried to the man in charge supervising the operation. “I’m Oscar Goldman. Can you tell me where I can find a Sergeant Hoffman?”
“I’m John Hoffman” Both men exchanged a brief handshake before returning their attention to the dripping carcass being lowered onto the dock.
“Anyone in there?”
The two officers nodded dejectedly. “Yes sir,” answered one of the two as the second man checked for a pulse on the victim. Seconds later a heavy sigh and a downcast look confirmed their fear.
Oscar and Rudy approached the car and gasped in horror at the sight of the dead driver pinned behind the crushed steering wheel. With breath caught in their throat, they edged their way closer to the car to make a positive identification. Beleaguered with emotions, Oscar chose to look away while Rudy proceeded to examine the body.
“He was shot,” he informed Oscar whose eyes dropped like lead at the news. “Straight to the heart. The death was instantaneous, Oscar. He didn’t drown.”
That was little comfort to Oscar who felt the woe of the world bearing down on his shoulders. Laden with sorrow and assailed by guilt he turned away from the gruesome sight to try to recover his composure.
“Have the coroner bring the body to the National Medical Center in Georgetown were we’ll proceed with a post-mortem.”
“As you wish Dr. Wells. The Medical Examiner has been notified and should arrive shortly.”
Rudy conveyed his gratitude through a weak smile. “Thank you.” He turned to Oscar who was leaning over a rail, prostrated with grief. With his own shattered heart bleeding dry he ached for his friend he suspected was shouldering the blame for this tragedy.
“They got to him Rudy. I couldn’t protect him,” Oscar wailed, with tear-glistened eyes staring into nothingness.
“Oscar you couldn’t have possibly known this would happen,” Rudy attempted to reason but will little success.
“Didn’t I?” Oscar retorted with a crushing cynicism. “I told you I was privy to Crane’s release and knew he would come after Steve.”
“And you’re positive that Crane is responsible for Steve’s death?” Rudy countered with sarcasm, eliciting puzzlement from the bereaved man. “I hate to say it but Steve has more than one enemy gunning for him. It could have been anyone.”
“Doesn’t matter now, does it?” Oscar scoffed, walking away to snub any form of sympathy that would only rub salt in the wound.
Steve returned home to find an anguished Rudy attempting to pick the front door lock. “What are you doing?” he asked insolently.
“Steve! Lord sake where have you been?” Rudy rebuked, meeting with him halfway down the driveway.
“I went for a walk in the park to clear the cobwebs.”
“I thought I’d specifically instructed you not…”
“I know, I know,” Steve offhandedly brushed off Rudy’s reprimand. “But I just couldn’t stay locked up in that house with all those odd things around.”
“No one saw you?”
“Of course people saw me and life is following its normal course, doc. Trees, tennis courts, park benches, people… Everything’s pretty much the same.”
“Naturally. You encounter slight variations in parallel universes. Most remains basically identical.”
“I’ll say,” he drawled with a giddy grin. “Women especially.”
“What do you mean?” Rudy asked warily with a creased brow as he followed Steve inside the house.
“I met someone. Very nice and beautiful. I made a date for tomorrow night. See any objection?” he challenged icily.
Rudy met his leer with a similar intensity and with steely eyes on his own, shot back, “Yes I mind. You are not to rub shoulders with any strangers, do I make myself clear?”
“No!” Steve hurled back, tossing his keys onto the table. “No I won’t follow any rule until you explain what kind of game you’re playing with me. I mean it. I won’t cooperate,” Steve warned with an evil glare that coerced Rudy to forfeit.
“All right. You win,” he sighed in frustration, throwing his hands up in the air in defeat. “You come with me and I’ll show you.”
“Where are you taking me?”
“To see the Big Wheel.”
“You’ll understand once we get there.”
Much to Steve’s annoyance Rudy chose to remain tight-lipped regarding the baffling Big Wheel until they reached their destination. Eager as he was to find answers to his questions Steve reluctantly clammed up and sat on his hands for the rest of the trip to the OSI building. Barely had he stepped out of the car in the underground parking lot that Steve began besetting Rudy with questions that he’d kept penned up for the past half-hour.
Rudy held his hand in front of Steve to ward off the verbal onslaught until they were safely inside the building. “Precautionary measures, Steve. We can’t be too careful about listening devices,” he explained to mollify the hair-trigger temper on the verge of erupting. He pressed the elevator button to level 29.
“This is new,” Steve observed with an arched eyebrow. “The building never had underground facilities this far below the surface.”
“In your world, perhaps,” Rudy mocked. “In less than five minutes your questions will be answered.”
The elevator might have been sliding down to Level 29 but to Steve it felt as though he was descending in hell where he feared he would meet a maker of a different kind. His heart pounded hard against his chest as tension rose with each passing minute. Looking back on the odd occurrences of the past hours, it suddenly dawned on him that Rudy might be part of a plot to infiltrate the OSI; using him as a pawn.
He gasped in a silent breath as the elevator door slid open to reveal an impressive complex equipped with state-of-art computers. Rudy beckoned him to follow him through this maze of sophisticated apparatuses that boggled the mind. Steve struggled to contain his amazement as he focused on his guide’s every move to detect the slightest faux-pas.
They arrived at an iron-clad door that stood a imposing 20 feet tall. Rudy pressed the palm of his hand against a thermoscan panel that instantly lit up, setting the opening mechanism into motion.
“This is it! The Big Wheel. You’re baby, or rather your alter ego’s creation.” Rudy pointed out proudly to a dazed Steve who could only gape at the gigantic wheel of fortune erected before him.
“What is that?”
“Doctor Wells!” a waspish voice hailed from behind. “What is Doctor Austin doing down here?”
“Why not?” Rudy replied brazenly. “It’s Doctor Austin’s pet project. The inventor. Why shouldn’t he be here?”
“Cut the insolence Doctor Wells. I want to see you in private.”
Rudy acquiesced with a nod of the head and turned to Steve. “Do you require my assistance Doctor Austin?” he asked with a discreet wink hoping Steve would play along.
“Euh no, not right now. You may go.”
“I won’t be long,” he assured with a knowing wink that received a contrived grin in return. Rudy followed the irate boss into a secluded office where behind closed doors all hell broke lose.
“I specifically instructed you to keep Doctor Austin away from Level 29 until we’ve cleared him as a security risk.” the man scolded with veins throbbing at his neck.
“He’s no security risk, Spencer,” Rudy hurled back with a matching vehemence. “But he is the result of years of research.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This man over there,” Rudy said, motioning to Steve through the glass window, “is the ultimate achievement. It worked. Doctor Austin went through the wormhole and out came Colonel Steve Austin.”
“Could you elaborate on that?” Spencer sighed with annoyance.
“Simple. Doctor Austin set The Big Wheel into motion and proceeded to go across the wormhole. Somehow he crossed path with his alternate on a parallel universe and HE landed here while our brilliant scientist is roaming his earth as we speak.”
“Are you positive?”
“Oh yes. I checked the instruments. Besides you only have to converse with him to know that he’s not from around here. He has no clue as to what’s happening.”
“Then why bring him here?”
“He wouldn’t comply with my warnings not to roam outside his house. He is confused and disorientated by some of the things he’s witnessed and bringing him here was clearly indicated under the circumstances to prevent further wanderings…that is until Doctor Austin returns from his journey to the alternate universe.”
“Can you positively identify him as an alternate? For aught we know he could be an enemy operative.”
“If he is then the Russians did a botched job,” Rudy scoffed, prompting Spencer to cock his head in puzzlement. “This Steve Austin only has one bionic arm. If our enemy wanted their agent to infiltrate our organisation, they would have created a perfect replica not to arouse suspicions.”
“You have a point.” With the aid of his cane Spencer hobbled closer to the window to study the bemused man below. “What do we do with him?”
“Wait until Doctor Austin returns from his journey; thereafter we’ll send him through to his own world.”
“Providing he does return.” Spencer’s reflection sparked a doubt in Rudy’s mind about the actual success of this leap through parallel worlds.
“Oscar, can you come down to the lab? I have something to show you,” Rudy asked forbiddingly over the phone.
The sombre request made Oscar drop his reading and remove his glasses. With a creased brow, he hazarded, “Is it the autopsy?”
“Yeah. I found something disturbing. You’d better get down here. It’s important.”
“I’m on my way.” Oscar hung up the phone, pushed his chair back and grabbed his jacket from the coat rack before heading out of his office.
He greeted Linda with a strained smile that masked a tangible anguish over Rudy’s news. He then made his way to the lab where Rudy was waiting. “Okay, what is it that is so troubling?”
With a toss of the head, Rudy motioned Oscar to follow him to the other room where Steve’s corpse laid on a surgical table. Out of deference for both the dead and the living, a sheet had been placed over the face but the legs and arms were cut open and widely exposed.
Oscar’s step faltered as he neared his friend’s corpse. He swallowed the lump forming in his throat he suspected was vomit raring to spurt out.
“Do you notice anything out of the ordinary?” Rudy quizzed to a puzzled Oscar who struggled to eye the cadaver from head to toe in search of the flaw. Eyebrows sprung up as the focus shifted onto the left arm.
“The left arm.”
“That’s right. It’s bionic as well.”
“Meaning,” sorrow rapidly turned to exultation, “it’s not him? It’s not Steve?”
“I wish to God it weren’t but I performed a DNA test and it’s a perfect match. There’s no doubt that man is Steve.”
“But, what about…that?” he said, pointing to the left arm.
“That, I can’t account for. You must know that this isn’t my doing. Steve was never hurt badly enough for me to fit him with another bionic prosthetic. Besides I would have had to square it with you first to get the necessary funds to build that other limb.”
“Naturally. Surely if anyone had proceeded to operate him he would have known about it?” Oscar speculated, obviously grasping at straws as to a plausible theory that would lend credence to the extra bionic limb.
“Possibly, but if he did, why didn’t he say anything to us?” Rudy implied with a questioning stare that pricked Oscar’s indignation.
“A double agent? Is that what you think Steve is?” Oscar rebuked, insulted by the very notion of treason.
“I don’t want to believe it, but how do you explain this?” Rudy reasoned, motioning to the left arm.
“I don’t. Not yet anyway. I won’t brand Steve a traitor until I have solid proof that he did defect to the other side,” Oscar hammered resolutely. “I won’t bury him as a enemy, but as a friend.” On this harsh statement laced with undertones of sorrow, Oscar turned on his heels and marched out the door, leaving a disconcerted Rudy in his wake.