Steve woke slowly, his mind muddling through the recent memories, trying to figure out if they were memories or simply nightmares. As he drifted toward wakefulness, he heard his name.
“Come on, Steve. Time to wake up,” Rudy said, gently urging his patient awake.
Steve slowly opened his eyes, glancing at his friend. He then glanced quickly around the room, moving only his eyes. “What? Spencer isn’t lurking in the corner, ready to send me out on another suicide mission?” Steve said dryly.
Rudy slowly raised the head of the bed to a slight incline. Steve had been under electro sleep for three weeks, so Rudy didn’t want to cause a sudden wave of nausea by raising the bed too quickly.
“Whoa, enough doc,” Steve said, feeling the blood drain from his head.
“We need to talk,” Rudy said, pulling a chair to the bedside. “A lot has happened while you’ve been under.”
“Three weeks. I kept you out longer than necessary, saying you needed more time to heal. Actually, I did it to keep you out of the power struggle which took place shortly after your return,” Rudy said. He stopped, waiting for Steve to ask questions. He wasn’t sure how much to tell his friend at the moment.
“What kind of power struggle?” Steve asked, curious.
“Let’s just say the President caught wind of the little stunt Spencer pulled and put his foot down on the O.S.O.” Rudy had managed to lay low during the battle, letting upper management duke it out.
“So this power struggle was over me?”
Rudy considered how to answer Steve’s question since it wasn’t simply a yes or no situation. “Let me explain. Spencer overstepped his authority with sending you out on your mission. He was responsible for this project, for lack of a better word. His peers were unaware of Spencer’s true intentions when they sent you overseas. They had no idea he meant it to be a suicide mission.” Rudy paused, letting Steve absorb the information. When Steve didn’t interrupt, Rudy continued. “When they realized what transpired, a battle broke out between them and Spencer. The battle spilled over far enough that the President caught wind of it. He was briefed on the project, and your mishandling on the mission. By the time the smoke cleared, the O.S.O. had been shut down.”
“Shut down? All this in three weeks?” Steve was astonished, still not believing it.
“Contrary to what the general public thinks, events in Washington can move quickly if needed,” Rudy replied. He, too, was surprised at how quickly it all happened, but was pleased with the outcome.
“So what now? Someone is footing the bill. Which organization is it now?” Steve questioned. Although he didn’t like Spencer or the O.S.O., he had at least learned what to expect. “F.B.I? C.I.A.?”
“O.S.I.,” Rudy responded. “The Office of Scientific Intelligence, Oscar Goldman, director.”
“Never heard of them.”
“Me neither. I had to do a little research when I heard they were taking over the project. They, we, are an independent agency that reports to the President. The N.S.B. acts as a watchdog group for the organization, making sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed.”
Steve quietly considered the change in organization, wondering if he could opt out of the intelligence community and return to NASA. He suspected the answer would be a resounding ‘NO’ and decided not to even ask.
“What about this Goldman character?” Steve asked. “I certainly hope he’s better than Spencer.”
“If I had to choose between the two, I’d take Goldman any day. Yes, he’s the typical Washington bureaucrat, but at least he can be reasonable. Respect is the key; you respect him, he’ll respect you. Needless to say, he already knows everything there is to know about you, right back to the third grade spelling test on which you cheated,” Rudy chuckled. “Are you hungry?”
Steve nodded, deep in thought. Rudy left the room to order up a light lunch for his patient.
As Steve ate his sandwich, he heard a knock at the door. “Come in,” he called, taking another bite from the sandwich. Steve looked up to see a tall, well-dressed man enter the room. Steve estimated he stood approximately six foot, maybe an inch taller, had neatly combed black hair and wore the typical squared off glasses, metal rims of course.
“Colonel Austin?” said the man.
Steve nodded, swallowing his food. “And you are?” Steve knew the answer, but decided to ask just in case he was mistaken.
“Oscar Goldman. Dr. Wells said I could drop by to introduce myself,” he said, taking the seat early occupied by Rudy.
“Rudy told me about the coup that occurred while I was out,” Steve said. “It’s the first time I’ve changed employers without my knowledge.”
Oscar smiled, “Yes, well, it was a nasty bit of business, but we feel the change is for the best. Mr. Spencer misused his authority and has been dealt with.”
“So where do we stand?” Steve asked.
“You’ll be working for the organization as a special agent, reporting only to me. Assignments will be well researched prior to your involvement, so we’ll know if your special talents are required.”
“And in-between assignments?”
“During the week, you'll check in daily, via phone or in person; weekends are your time. Unlike the O.S.O., we try to take the person into account and not just think of them as agents,” Oscar said. "We may not always succeed, but we try."
Steve nodded, as if agreeing with the idea, but he didn’t believe a single word. “So if I wanted to take a vacation?”
“We’d discuss it,” Oscar said, not wanting to get into too many details of his contract, nor mention the fact that the N.S.B. has taken a serious interest in him.
“Let’s discuss it now. I haven’t been home since my accident. My parents are worried sick, even though I try to reassure them over the phone. Only seeing me in person will allay their fears.”
“You want to spend some time in Ojai?”
Steve nodded, “Yes, I do. And by the way, I did not cheat on that test in the third grade. My friend copied off of me,” Steve said with a lopsided grin.
Oscar laughed, “So Dr. Wells told you about that, eh?”
Steve nodded. “He filled me in on current events.”
“Okay then, now that we are on the same playing field, the answer is yes. Once you are given a clean bill of health, take two weeks at your parent’s ranch. Just call when you get there. You’ll then return to Washington and report to me,” Oscar said. Rudy had filled him in on how to treat Steve to get optimum cooperation out of him.
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Oscar excused himself, allowing Steve to finish his lunch. When Rudy entered a short time later, he was surprised to find his patient completely relaxed, with a smile on his face.
“You met Mr. Goldman?” Rudy asked, curious for the good humor.
“Yup. When can I get out of here?” Steve asked, staring off into space.
“Why the hurry?”
“I’ve been given a two week vacation, starting as soon as I leave here. I’m going to Ojai to visit my parents,” Steve replied.
“Physically, you’re fine. Once we get you back on your feet, I want to run a couple of tests and then you can head home,” Rudy said.
“Why do you say physically?” Steve questioned, curious to hear the answer.
“Well, we haven’t had much of a chance to talk. How are you doing?” Rudy had been concerned about his friend’s psychological welfare for quite some time.
“For the most part, I’m okay. I have my moments. Getting to see my parents will be a big help,” Steve replied. He’d fought depression on and off for the past year and seemed to have it under control. "I'm no longer suicidal, if that's your main concern."
Rudy ignored the comment. “What are you going to tell your parents?”
"I don't know. I've considered telling them the truth, but I'm not sure if they can handle it yet. I'll play it by ear." Steve figured his parents would just be glad to have him home, and for that matter, he would be glad to see them.
Once on his feet, Steve pushed Rudy to get the tests out of the way. Two days later, he was on his way home. By late afternoon, he arrived at the ranch. He left his bag in the car, anxious to see his Mother. Checking the side door and finding it unlocked, he entered the kitchen, finding it empty.
Walking into the living room, he found his parents looking through a scrapbook of his former life.
"Mom, Dad, I'm home."