The fish were on vacation, too.
That was the conclusion Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman reached as they climbed the path from the river to their campsite. They had spent the last eight hours in the water, patiently fly-fishing for trout in the secluded Montana wilderness. Everything was perfect: blue skies, fresh air, warm temperatures, solitude. The only thing that hadn’t cooperated were the trout – neither of them had even seen a fish all day.
The path wound through the forest, up steep hills and past boulders. Steve, loaded down with their fishing equipment, glanced over at his friend. “You’re not having trouble keeping up, are you?”
Oscar smiled. “Not all of us are atomic-powered, Steve.”
“Ouch. I guess if I spent all day sitting behind a desk, I’d be cranky, too.”
“It’s not the sitting behind the desk,” Oscar replied. “It’s the putting up with wiseass cyborgs.”
Steve chuckled as they made their way up a steep hill. “Wanna race?”
“Only if I get a three-day head start,” Oscar said.
Heedless of the fishing gear he carried, Steve dug in and sprinted up the path at bionic speed. Oscar could only shake his head as his friend leaped a dozen feet straight up to land atop the huge boulder next to their campsite. Steve shot Oscar a jaunty salute, then turned to look down upon their tents.
Oscar looked up sharply at Steve, noting the shocked look on his friend’s face. “What is it?”
“Get up here and take a look.” Steve dropped off the far edge of the boulder and out of sight.
Oscar pushed himself up the path as quickly as he could. “There had better be a huge case of Scotch waiting for me when I get there!” He called ahead.
Flushed with sweat, Oscar reached the top of the path. He took a second to wipe the moisture from his eyes, then he froze when he saw what was left of their campsite.
It looked like a tornado had been there. Their two tents were piles of slashed nylon and shattered poles. One sleeping bag lay in a pool of exposed stuffing; the other smoldered in the remains of their campfire. The contents of their packs were strewn all over the ground. The cooler holding their food was missing both lid and supplies.
Oscar’s hand slipped to the snubnose Smith & Wesson revolver holstered behind his right hip. “What in the world…?”
Steve was standing in front of the Jeep they had driven to the campsite, which now squatted on four slashed tires. He raised the hood and peered down at the ravaged engine before shaking his head. “Ruined.”
Oscar knelt and scooped up what was left of the unburned sleeping bag. “A bear, maybe?” he ventured.
Steve let the Jeep’s hood drop with a bang. “That was some bear.”
The two men looked at each other, then Oscar sighed. “Well, I guess this is the end of the vacation. We can’t stay out here like this.”
Steve nodded glumly. “Call it in.”
Oscar knelt by the remains of his backpack and withdrew a small briefcase. Inside, Oscar kept a tiny satellite phone he could use to keep in touch with OSI headquarters from anywhere in the world.
“Steve!” Oscar held up the briefcase. The case was held shut by what looked like a common snap lock, but Steve knew it was actually sealed with a series of industrial-grade vacuum seals. To open it, Oscar had to press his thumb to a sensor and turn a key in the lock.
Now, the lock was gone, replaced by a shallow hole. The leather around the hole was curled and singed. “Blowtorch?” Steve asked. Oscar nodded, then he carefully opened the briefcase. It fell open easily, with none of its usual resistance. Inside, the compact liquid crystal display and keyboard were smashed. The pocket that normally held the satellite phone instead contained a rolled-up piece of paper.
“Either these are some really smart bears,” Steve observed, “or we have much bigger problems than I thought.”
Oscar gently withdrew the paper and spread it on the rough ground. It was a faded color photograph of a young man in a royal blue graduation cap and gown, grinning up at them.
Oscar looked up at Steve. “Does he look familiar to you?” he asked warily.
Steve studied the picture for a moment, then shook his head. “No, sorry. You?”
“I don’t know. He looks familiar, but… I just don’t know.” Oscar rolled up the photo and slipped it into his pants pocket. He stood and the two men surveyed the wreckage of their campsite again. The whole scene now took on an ominous feel, and the threat hung over the two of them like a cloud on the verge of rain.
Oscar looked at his watch. “It’s three o’clock. How far is it back to town?”
“Forty miles.” Steve studied the woods around them with his bionic eye, searching for their destructive visitor and finding nothing.
“The terrain’s pretty rough, but you could probably get to town in about two hours,” Oscar said. “You could bring back the sheriff.”
“Oscar, all this,” Steve gestured to the campsite. “is a warning.”
Oscar grimaced. “I can take care of myself, Steve.”
“I’m not leaving you.” And that was that.
He peered through the spotting scope, watching the two men search the ruined camp for supplies and load them into a small backpack. Beads of sweat ran down the observer’s face, over the thick cake of his camouflage face-paint and into the fabric of his fatigues, but he ignored them. Instead he took a slow sip of water, never taking his attention off the scene in the scope’s eyepiece.
He let the scope center on Oscar Goldman as he worked. Every so often Oscar would pause and scan the woods around him, obviously wondering if they were still being watched. The observer’s hands curled as if cradling a rifle; he imagined pulling the trigger and extinguishing Goldman’s life here and now…
No. Too quick, too easy. Goldman deserves to suffer for what he did!
The observer shifted the scope to the other man and frowned. He knew Steve Austin, the famous astronaut, was a friend and associate of Goldman’s, but he hadn’t expected him to accompany Goldman on vacation.
He shrugged. It made no difference. If Austin got in the way, he would be easy to deal with.
The observer’s hand drifted down to his side, to stroke the sun-warmed steel and plastic of the assault rifle at his side.
No, he thought, Austin will not be a problem at all.
Night was falling, and Steve was getting worried.
It would be different if he were alone. Normally, Steve operated solo in the field. His bionic eye would not have a problem penetrating the night, and his limbs allowed him to set a pace that would kill a normal human being.
But he wasn’t alone this time. Steve glanced back slightly at Oscar as they worked their way through the dense forest. He knew Oscar was in excellent shape for a man his age – he ran, played tennis, and retained the steely discipline of Ranger and paratrooper training from years ago. Plus, over the years, Steve had developed a strong appreciation for Oscar’s ability to handle almost any situation, from dealing with international dignitaries to planning a counterterrorist strike to getting them a good table at the best restaurant in Washington.
But this time…
They found enough food and supplies in the remains of their camp to get them back to Mustang Rock, the nearest town. The only way back, though, was one trail that snaked through woods and mountains. It was a challenge in broad daylight, insanely treacherous in the approaching night. But, since neither Steve nor Oscar were familiar with the area, they knew they couldn’t blaze their own trail without getting lost or fatally wounded in the deep forest. So, they pushed on. Steve carried the sole backpack containing their supplies; he slowed his pace to accommodate Oscar and kept a close watch on the woods around them.
“This is probably a trap,” Oscar said.
Steve spared a glance at his friend. “What makes you say that?”
“Everything. The camp, my satellite phone, the photograph inside my briefcase, the Jeep…” Oscar shook his head. “We’re being herded, Steve. Somebody out there wants me.”
Oscar nodded. “I know that face from somewhere. I’m been trying to remember every since I saw the picture. Whoever wrecked the camp and stole my phone left it for me, all right. I just need to figure out who.”
They walked for a moment. The only sounds were the dull thud of their boots on the trail and the quiet noises of the wilderness around them.
“Made any enemies lately?” Steve asked.
“Lately, that’s all I’ve made,” Oscar replied. “You know all the things OSI is involved in. Your boss is a very valuable man.”
“You’re popular, all right,” Steve agreed. “And getting more popular by the minute.”
The ravine gaped ahead of them, an open wound in the rough terrain. Steve used his bionic arm and legs to scale a tree, scanning ahead while Oscar sat and rested, all the while keeping his eyes moving and his hand on the Smith & Wesson at his hip.
Steve landed with a soft crunch of dead leaves and twigs. “Looks pretty clear from here on out. It’s a lot more flat, less forest and rocks. Once we get to the other side, we can make a lot better time.”
Oscar eyed the ravine, an empty abyss almost fifty feet wide. “How do you plan to get across?”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Steve said. “It’s a little far for me to jump, especially if I have to carry you across.”
“We didn’t bring a rope, so we can’t shimmy across,” Oscar said.
“Exactly. So, we improvise.” Steve glanced at the trees lining their side of the ravine. He studied them from top to bottom, then smiled. “Perfect. Get ready to do some more walking.”
Oscar watched as Steve walked up to one particular tree, a thin, tall pine. He stood behind it so the tree was between him and the ravine. Placing the palm of his bionic arm against the tree trunk, he braced his feet in the rocky soil and began to push.
The top of the tree began to sway and tremble. Then, with an ear-splitting craaacck, the base of the trunk fractured.
“Timber!” Steve called as the tree fell across the gorge, slamming into the ground on the far end.
Oscar stood and looked at their newfound bridge, then at Steve. “Six million dollars of taxpayer money, and we end up with a lumberjack.”
“You wanted versatile, you got versatile.” Steve stepped up on the tree and gave it an experimental bounce. “Perfect.”
“Are you sure that thing will hold us?”
“Everyone here with a masters in Engineering, raise your hand.” Steve raised a hand in response to his own question and smirked at his friend. “It’ll be just fine, Oscar. Let’s get moving.”
Grasping branches for support, Steve made his way across the tree trunk. After a few yards, he glanced back at Oscar. “Coming?”
Oscar sighed and stepped up to the fallen trunk. “Well, here goes…” He reached for a branch…
… Which immediately vanished in a spray of splinters, following up a sharp crack. Oscar dove backward as another burst of bullets chewed the end of the trunk. Steve, stuck near the middle of the trunk, dropped into a squat, his bionic eye probing the forest for the source of the gunfire. “Oscar!” he called. “Are you okay?”
Oscar rolled behind a small boulder and yelled back at his friend. “Get out of there, Steve!”
“Not without you!” Steve gathered himself, then made a bionic leap, twenty feet to the edge of the ravine. A third spray of bullets made him duck and roll for cover, coming to rest behind another tree. He looked over at Oscar, who now had his Smith & Wesson drawn. “Are you okay?” he asked again.
Oscar nodded, his eyes sweeping the forest around them. He gestured with his revolver. “It came from over there.”
Another burst of automatic fire. Steve and Oscar ducked again, but now Steve triggered his bionic eye’s infrared sensor. He traced the warmer air the bullets had created, back to a small bloom of heat atop a large boulder forty yards down. He pointed. “He’s on top of that rock.”
Oscar squinted. “Which one?”
Steve pulled a cantaloupe-sized rock out of the soil. In a flash he went up on his knees and fastballed the rock at the boulder, where it exploded on impact like a massive snowball. “That one! Cover me!”
Oscar raised his revolver and began shooting as Steve got to his feet and charged the boulder. The shooter kept up his fire, blasting away branches and rocks as Steve hurled over the rough ground towards him.
A thick grove of trees blocked Steve’s path. He altered his course, taking him out of cover as he charged down the edge of the ravine towards the source of the gunfire, picking up speed with every second.
Then the grenade hit the soil right in front of Steve and detonated. He was conscious of a bright flash, an eruption of dirt and rock, and then darkness.
Oscar watched, his eyes wide in shock as the explosion lifted Steve up and hurled him into the ravine. “Steve!” he cried, his heart pounding as his friend disappeared from sight.
Instinct propelled Oscar’s hands; he opened his revolver’s cylinder and dumped the empty casings, then fitted fresh bullets into the cylinder with numb fingers. All the while he kept his eyes on the boulder where the shooter lurked, squinting through hot tears.
He clicked the cylinder shut, took a deep breath, and charged forward. The shooter opened fire again, blasting soil and trees. Oscar pushed himself as fast as he could, willing himself not to fire until he had a clear shot.
There. Movement on top of the boulder, probably the shooter reloading. Oscar stopped, braced the Smith & Wesson in both hands, sighted and squeezed the trigger. The little revolver bucked in his fist. From the rock came a bark of pain, and then a man-sized shape flopped off the top of the boulder.
Oscar leaned against a pine tree for a second, trying to get his breath. He glanced at the top of the rock, then at the edge of the ravine where Steve had disappeared. He knew the smart thing to do would be to check on the shooter, to make sure he was out of commission, then go after Steve. But, Oscar reasoned, Steve is a friend, and I don’t have too many of those. After a second of indecision, Oscar pushed off from the pine and went to the ravine.
The sun was setting. The bottom of the ravine was lost in shadow and darkness. Oscar started to reach into his pocket for the flashlight, then he remembered it was stowed in the backpack Steve had on his back, which was now God-knows-where.
Oscar holstered his revolver, then dropped to his knees at the edge of the ravine, peering deep inside but only seeing more shadows. “Steve!” he called down. “Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you.” A voice… from behind!
Oscar wheeled, his hand dropping to his revolver. Before him rose a dark figure in dirty, sweaty camouflage fatigues. He raised his assault rifle and smashed the weapon’s metal butt above Oscar’s ear. Thunder sounded inside the OSI director’s head as everything faded to black.
It was a sensation Steve Austin was familiar with. During his flight to the Moon on Apollo 17, he had reveled in the delicious zero-g, doing endless somersaults and spins. He had experienced similar sensations underwater, both during astronaut training in underwater tanks and during scuba dives for recreation and on missions.
Now more sensations. The gentle caress of a breeze, the prickling sensation of… of what?
Steve Austin opened his eyes, his memories flooding back. He remembered the shooter, the bursts of gunfire, the explosion, the sensation of flying through the air…
With a silent nerve impulse, Steve engaged his bionic eye’s night vision and looked around. He was in the ravine he and Oscar had tried to cross, sprawled on a small ledge of stones jutting from the soil. His clothes were torn, his face scraped from his fall.
Steve sat up and looked around. Aside from a slight headache, he felt fine – some of the side benefits of his reconstruction were unbreakable metal ribs and cesium plating around his skull, so he could take ten times the punishment of his plane crash and still function. A glance around showed him his situation: perched on a rough stone ledge the size of a pool table, thirty feet below the edge of the ravine, eighty feet from the ravine floor. He took note of how the floor was covered in jagged rocks and jutting tree branches. He probably could have survived a fall down there, but he was just as glad not to.
It was quiet. Steve’s watch showed seven-thirty in the evening; he and Oscar had arrived at the ravine shortly before seven. He realized he couldn’t hear any noise from above, no gunfire or Oscar.
Steve got to his feet, then crouched and sprang. His bionic legs carried him to the edge of the ravine, where he landed on the rocky soil. He looked around: no Oscar.
He switched his bionic eye to infrared and did another check. Now he could see the faint glow of warmer objects, noticeably a small irregular shape near the edge of the ravine. He knelt and touched it gingerly – blood.
“Not a great sign, but a sign,” Steve mused. He swept the ground and noticed now a pair of heavy boot prints that appeared out of nowhere and headed off to the east. He studied the tread pattern and frowned. “Not Oscar’s boots, either.”
He stood, studying the scene through infrared, then night vision. The prints sank fairly deep in the loose soil, indicating that whoever made them either weighed a great deal…
“… Or is carrying someone else.” His mouth set in a grim line, Steve began to follow the trail of boot prints through the deepening dark into the east.
“Wake up!” the harsh voice barked. A splash of water caught Oscar full in the face, making him cough and gasp. He shook the water from his eyes and looked around.
He was in a small log cabin, ill-lit by a pair of kerosene lamps. Camping gear was piled in one corner, next to a small cooler. Oscar sat in a rough wooden chair, tied down with multiple loops of rope at his ankles, knees, waist, wrists and elbows. He could barely even squirm. Before him stood the man in the camouflage fatigues, his face coated in green and black face-paint. He was of average height and build, but the eyes that burned out from behind the face-paint were feral, ferocious. He dropped the now-empty bucket with a loud clang. “Good, you’re awake now. Now we can start.”
Oscar glowered at the man. “Who are you? Why are you holding me prisoner?”
“Shut up!” The man’s back rocketed out in a brutal backhand to Oscar’s cheek, rocking him back in the chair. “You will speak when I tell you. You will answer all of my questions, understand?”
Oscar shook his head to clear it, then resumed glaring at his captor.
The man laughed. “Don’t worry, Mr. Goldman. I’m not an enemy agent after any national secrets. I want information, but not about any of your experiments or prototypes.” He leaned in closer. “I want to test your memory, Goldman.”
Oscar continued to glare.
The man reached into a pocket and withdrew a picture, which he held up in front of Oscar. “Does this look familiar?”
Oscar managed to keep his eyes from widening. It was either the same photo he had found in his briefcase, or a duplicate. “Who are you?” Oscar demanded again. “What is this all about?”
“This is all about this young man,” the captor said. “You should know him; he worked for you. His name was Albert Darrow.”
Now Oscar’s eyes narrowed. “Darrow… No, doesn’t ring a bell.”
The hand holding the photo clenched slightly, then relaxed. “Of course, playing dumb. Don’t reveal anything. Very good.” He pulled up another chair and sat facing Oscar. “Albert Darrow joined OSI as a field agent eight years ago. He was assigned to the American Embassy in Moscow.”
Oscar fought to keep a straight face. Now he remembered the short, chunky agent, fresh out of school when he joined the agency. Oscar recalled how eager he had been to serve his country, to contribute something. When he had learned he was going to Moscow to represent the United States, his shout of joy echoed through OSI headquarters and brought a smile to Oscar’s lips.
“He was my brother, Goldman.”
Oscar allowed his eyebrows to raise. “Anthony Darrow. Albert’s older brother. Army Special Forces.”
Anthony Darrow smiled through his makeup. “I’m impressed that you remembered me.”
“Albert talked about you a lot.” That was true; Oscar remembered overhearing Albert many times in the OSI commissary, telling his friends about his older brother, the war hero. “He worshipped you. He thought you could walk on water.”
Darrow got back up from his chair and walked over to one of the cabin’s tiny windows. He stared out into the night. “He was a good kid. I did my best to take care of him.” When he faced Oscar again, his eyes were red with tears, hot with rage. “You killed him.”
Oscar said nothing.
Darrow crossed the cabin and pulled a manila file folder out of a backpack. He flipped it open and read. “Does the name Pavel Ryskhov mean anything to you?”
Oscar continued to sit there, his face blank.
“He was a Ukrainian astrophysicist who wanted to defect to the West six years ago,” Darrow read from the file. “He claimed to have secret information on the Soviet space and ICBM programs, so you made arrangements for him to come to America. My brother was his liaison.”
“Where did you get that file?” Oscar asked. “That information is classified!”
Darrow took two steps forward and launched a low, vicious kick. Oscar gasped in pain as the toe of Darrow’s boot buried itself in his thigh.
Darrow glared down at his captive. “You sent Albert to a small farm outside Moscow to pick up Ryskhov and bring him back to the Embassy so he could request asylum. Only Ryskhov panicked and went directly to the Embassy, but the KGB still arrived at the farm to arrest him. They found Albert instead.”
Oscar closed his eyes.
“You know what they did to my brother?” Darrow asked. “They tried to arrest him. Albert fought back and they shot him like a dog.” Darrow reached out and grasped Oscar by the hair, jerking his head back and staring into his eyes. “Like a dog! They put two bullets in his head!” He tapped Oscar above each eye. “Here and here!”
He let Oscar go and took a deep breath. “Nothing ever came of it, though. Ryskhov was lying. He didn’t know anything about the Russian space program that you hadn’t known a long time before. The Soviets didn’t press the issue, since Ryskhov wasn’t important enough to go after. Rather than start a big diplomatic incident, OSI and the State Department swept the whole mess under the rug. They told my family that Albert had been killed in a car crash, and his body was too badly burned to bring back to the States. It took me six years of digging and favors to learn the truth.”
Darrow and Oscar stared at each other, neither man blinking. The silence was a heavy blanket that covered the whole cabin.
Finally, Oscar sighed. “I am sorry about your brother, Anthony. I wanted to tell you all the truth, but that just wasn’t possible.”
“You’re sorry.” Darrow’s voice was flat, emotionless now. “My brother died for nothing, but at least you’re sorry about it.”
“He knew the risks,” Oscar said. “We all do. You’re Special Forces, you know that sometimes we have to make sacrifices. Your brother would not have wanted us to start a war over Ryskhov’s lie.”
Darrow shook his head. “You ordered him there. You killed him.” He tore off his camouflage shirt and tossed it in the corner. Next off came the t-shirt underneath. He hurriedly wiped the t-shirt across the side of his face, clearing away half of his face-paint while leaving the other half of his face covered. At another time and place, it would have looked comical. Here and now, it reminded Oscar of a werewolf caught in mid-transformation.
Darrow reached to his belt and drew a heavy-bladed hunting knife. The blade gleamed in the lantern light.
“Now, you and I are going to have a talk about what happens to people who send others to do their dirty work.”
At least the trail is easy to follow, Steve told himself. He swept the forest floor with his bionic eye, picking up another of the deep footprints. A glance up showed a series of broken tree branches, clearly shoved aside by whoever passed by them. However this guy is, Steve continued, he’s either in a big hurry, or he doesn’t think anyone is following him. Or both.
Steve made his way through the dense trees and brush, studying the trail through infrared and night vision. There had been no more blood after a hundred yards, but the footprints were still deep and clear. There had been no other clues like dropped watches or torn pieces of clothes. That detail bothered Steve a little; he knew if Oscar were held prisoner, he would do anything he could to leave a trail for a potential rescuer. No trail could mean that Oscar was dead… but why lug a corpse through the woods at top speed at night?
The trail went straight through the woods, obviously headed someplace definite. Steve glanced at the trees overhead, then leaped onto a nearby branch. He scanned ahead in the direction the trail was leading, searching for…
There. A small cabin in the middle of a rough clearing, half a mile away. Faint light shone through the dirty windows – even with his bionic eye, Steve couldn’t make out details of what was going on inside. But, he reasoned, it’s the most likely place.
He landed on the forest floor lightly and began running towards the cabin at bionic speed.
Darrow brushed the flat of the blade against Oscar’s cheek. Oscar sat motionless, staring straight back at Darrow.
Darrow grimaced. “No begging or pleading? I’m surprised, Goldman. You have more backbone than I gave you credit for.”
Oscar continued to stare up at Darrow, his eyes flinty, his expression blank.
Darrow abruptly lowered the knife and grabbed Oscar by the throat. “Say something! Beg for your life! Beg me not to kill you!”
The cabin door exploded inward. Darrow spun, transferring his knife from right to left hand as he reached for the pistol on his hip.
Steve Austin stepped through the destroyed doorway. “Is this a private party, or can anyone come in?”
Oscar, who had been half-expecting something like this, closed his eyes and said a silent prayer of relief.
Darrow’s eyes were wide and wild. “No! I killed you back at the ravine!”
“You failed. Don’t take it personal, a lot of people have failed at it, too.” Steve took a step forward. His eyes narrowed as he took in the scene. “Who wants to tell me what’s going on here?”
Darrow drew his pistol, an ominous black Colt .45 automatic that he leveled at Steve. “Don’t come any closer. My argument is not with you, just with Goldman.”
“That didn’t stop you from shooting at me before, or using grenades.” Steve took another step forward, then stopped as Darrow thumbed back the .45’s hammer.
“Get out of here,” Darrow warned. He lifted the pistol and aimed at Steve’s face. “You’re fast, Colonel, but I don’t think you can dodge a bullet this close.”
They stood there for a eternal moment – Oscar tied, Darrow aiming his pistol at Steve, Steve not moving. Steve flexed the fingers of his bionic hand – he remembered when he first became bionic, how they had implanted a tiny air gun in his middle finger that shot poison darts. It never worked properly, so Steve had Rudy Wells remove it after a few weeks. That would be so useful right now, Steve mused.
Oscar finally sighed and shook his head. “Albert would be ashamed of you, Anthony.”
Darrow’s knuckles whitened on the Colt’s grip. “How dare you? How dare you even mention his name like that? What gives you the right, Goldman?”
Steve held his breath, waiting for his opening. Darrow suddenly smiled. “I see. Trying to distract me so Colonel Austin can save the day. Very clever, but useless.”
“You’re nothing like the way Albert described you,” Oscar continued. “He loved to tell people about his brother the war hero, the good soldier who always fought for what was right.”
“Shut up, Goldman…” Darrow growled through gritted teeth.
“Do you think this is what Albert would have wanted? For you to kidnap me, for you to kill an innocent man like Steve?” Oscar shook his head. “He wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“What do you know about what he wanted?” Darrow turned and glared at Oscar. Steve lunged forward. Darrow realized his mistake and started to aim the pistol at Steve again, but the astronaut was already on him. The Colt and knife flew into opposite corners, and Darrow was in a bionic headlock.
Darrow struggled; Steve increased pressure on his neck until Darrow slumped, motionless. Steve let up the pressure and looked up at Oscar. “Are you okay?”
“Don’t I look okay?” Oscar asked.
“You’re the only guy I know who looks worse after his vacations than before.” Steve lowered Darrow to the dirty floor and stepped towards Oscar. “Let me help…”
“Steve!” Oscar shouted.
Steve whirled to see Darrow jump back to his feet, his eyes wild. There was a loud click as the folding knife in his hand opened, displaying a short, wicked blade. He lunged at Steve, who barely had time to step aside as the blade hissed past his left ear.
Darrow advanced and lunged; Steve dodged and weaved. They worked their way around the dimly-lit cabin, a deadly dance of move and counter-move. Steve quickly found that the close quarters were keeping him from using his bionic speed to the fullest, and Darrow’s own speed and skill made him a lethal opponent.
“Why are you defending him?” Darrow asked as he slashed at Steve’s belly. “He sent my brother to his death!”
“He’s a good man!” Steve replied, leaping out of the blade’s reach. “He does what he has to! You ought to understand that!”
Darrow scooped up an open sleeping bag off the floor and hurled it at Steve; Steve barely evaded the enfolding nylon and brushed it to the floor. “He uses people as pawns!” Darrow’s voice had climbed to a hysterical scream now. “How can you even stand him?”
Steve lunged forward now, trying to grab the hand that held the knife. Darrow pivoted out of the way and shoved Steve’s shoulder. The extra momentum propelled Steve onto the sleeping bag on the floor. Steve’s boots slipped on the slick nylon and dumped him flat on his face.
In a flash, Darrow leaped towards the downed astronaut, his knife poised. Steve threw himself over on his back and bent his knees, planting the soles of his boots in Darrow’s stomach. He pushed up with a bionic thrust that propelled Darrow to the ceiling, where he slammed against the sooty rafters with a sickening crash. He fell to the floor in a broken heap, crying out on impact.
Steve climbed to his feet, keeping an eye on Darrow. He went over to where Oscar was tied; a series of bionic tugs separated the ropes so Oscar could stand. The first thing Oscar did was to scoop up the fallen Colt .45 pistol and aim it at Darrow. “How are you doing?” Oscar asked over his shoulder.
Steve wiped the sweat from his forehead. “He gave me a real workout.”
“You needed some exercise anyway. It took you way too long to bring him down.”
“Fine, next time you fight the knife-wielding maniac.” Steve stepped closer to Darrow, who lay on the floor and stared at them with enraged eyes. “Now, what are we going to do with you?”
Darrow spat blood at Steve’s boots. He lay curled in a fetal position, his hands clasped over his stomach. “How… did you do that? No… one is that… strong…”
“I eat my vegetables.” Steve glanced at Darrow’s wounds. At the very least, he had a chest full of broken ribs; probably spinal injuries as well. Somehow, Steve didn’t feel the least bit sorry for him. “If you’ve got a Jeep or a radio nearby, I can get you to a doctor.”
Darrow laughed, a wheezing, gasping noise indicative of a punctured lung. “Go… to… hell…” He withdrew his hands from his stomach, and Steve and Oscar both saw the dull green metal of the hand grenade in his fist. The grenade’s spoon fell to the floor, the sound lost in Darrow’s sobbing laughter.
Steve moved. He grabbed Oscar and threw him over his shoulder as he bolted out the door. Darrow’s eyes widened in shock as the two disappeared from the cabin; Steve was already doing forty miles an hour as he went through the doorway and was still accelerating.
Darrow looked at the grenade in his fist. “Albert…” he whispered before the roar and the flash erased everything.
Thirty yards distant, Steve Austin and Oscar Goldman crouched behind a stand of trees and watched as the cabin erupted. The blast of the hand grenade was quickly joined by muffled pops as cans of kerosene detonated.. The two huddled behind cover and watched as a plume of flame rose high into the night sky.
Steve glanced at his friend. “What was that all about?” he asked.
“Unfinished business.” Oscar rubbed his wrists where the ropes had burned them raw. “His brother died on an assignment for OSI. He blamed me.”
Steve stared back at the fire. “I guess everyone has a soft spot for family, huh?” In his mind’s eye, he saw a Himalayan mountain and a set of dog tags around a skeleton’s neck.
Oscar reflected on a rusted-out destroyer and a similar skeleton. “I know.” he said softly. He got to his feet. “Well, it’s about twenty-five miles to Mustang Rock, so we’ve got a lot of walking to do. If we start now, we should get there tomorrow afternoon.”
Steve likewise stood up. “Okay, but I’m not in any hurry,” he said as they started down the trail.
“After all, I’m on vacation.”