Here I was at home, typing up the report on my last assignment when suddenly, the computer jammed. I punched in ‘escape’ and about a dozen other keys but nothing worked. Then finally, the system heaved one last breath before shutting down completely. I was fuming. I had to sit on my hands to prevent myself from hurling that laptop out the window.
I may have been an expert in computer programming but was lacking skills when it came to restoring a system. “Why couldn’t this have happened on a weekday when the computer shops are opened?” I blustered, pouncing my fist against the table. I inhaled a deep breath to allay my anger before rising from my chair to go fix myself a glass of grape juice. I sat on the stool and leaned an elbow against the counter; then propped my head in the palm of my hand. I set the wheels into motion as I sat there, taking sips after the sips until it came to me. I bounced down my seat and made my way to the sitting area where I picked up the phone and dialled my friend’s Doreen’s house.
“Doreen? Hi it’s Cassie. I’m hoping I’m not disturbing you?”
“No, not at all. In fact we were just talking about you.”
“Uh-oh! Good or bad?”
“What do you think?” she teased back. “By the way I got that case you ordered.”
“That’s great! My friend will be thrilled. I’ll pick it up this week. Say, is Jason there by any chance?”
“Yes he is.”
“Ah thank God,” I exhaled loudly, feeling a huge relief. “I’m in desperate need of his help. My computer just crashed on me and I must finish my report for tomorrow or my boss will have my hide. Do you think he’d be willing to come to my rescue this afternoon?”
“Ask him yourself.” Doreen beckoned over her seventeen-year-old son sitting on the living room sofa playing X-Box racing on TV.
“Who is it, mom?”
“It’s Cassie Miller. She wants to ask you something.” She handed him over the phone and stepped back to allow him some privacy.
“Cassie?” Hi!” he exulted, his eyes shining with excitement at the prospect of his ‘girl’ coming to him for advice.
“Jason. I need your help. My computer crashed and I was wondering if you can come this afternoon and fix it? I would really appreciate it. I’ll pay you for your trouble, of course.”
“No need, Cassie. It’ll be my pleasure. At what time do you want me there?”
“Say around one? Is that okay?”
“That’s fine. I’ll be there.”
“Thanks Jason. You are a lifesaver.”
Jason lowered his head shyly to conceal his blushing cheeks from his amused mother. He hung up the phone and without so much of a glance at his mother, swivelled on his heels and headed up the stairs to his room.
“Jason?” He stopped in midway and turned to his mother motioning towards the television. “Your game.”
“Oh yeah. Forgot.” He retraced his steps to the living room to turn the set off before heading back upstairs. He was tinkled pink at the knowledge that the woman of his dreams would rely on his skills to help her out of a jam. Wanting to make a good impression on me he gathered as many books and brochures on trouble shooting as he could in the event of a mental block. He was mortified at the thought of failing in his task.
I busied myself in the kitchen to allow Jason room to work at restoring my system. Between two vegetable chops I would occasionally glance at him, deep in concentration, fingers gliding over the keyboard. That kid was a past master in his field. A computer genius that was unmatched. If anyone could revive my laptop, no doubt it was Jason.
“It’s all done,” he announced proudly, leaning leisurely against the back of his chair.
“What? Already?” I glanced up at the wall clock in astonishment.
“Yep! You do have backup discs for all your files, don’t you?”
“That I do.” I leaned over his shoulder to stare at the monitor, a smile flickering on my lips at the sight of the screen saver, evidence that the system was back on.
“Good because they’re gone from your hard drive. I was able to boot the system but not retrieve the lost files.”
“That’s okay. I have a habit of saving everything onto two separate discs.”
“That’s wise. That way if one doesn’t open for some reason, you always have the other.” He risked a sidelong glance at me and stole a whiff of my hair fragrance when he thought I wasn’t paying attention.
“Precisely. Oh Jason you truly are a genius. I’ve got to pay you for your trouble.”
“Oh please, don’t Cassie. It was my pleasure, believe me. Besides it’s good practice. I am shooting for a scholarship at MIT in computer engineering.”
“Your mother told me. You’re a shoe in.”
“I hope so.”
At that moment there was a knock at the door. I fashioned an amused grin at the trademark code I recognized as Steve’s. I opened the door to find him leaning casually against the doorframe, gesturing a smoking gun at me. “35”
“34. Come on in.” As I bade him enter I noticed he was holding his tennis racket in a protective sheath.
“Oh, I didn’t realize you had company,” he apologized, seeing Jason working at the computer.
“It’s alright. I want you two to meet.” I clasped his arm and led him to the sitting area. “Steve Austin, meet Jason Albright.”
Jason stood up, flabbergasted at the name of his hero. “Steve Austin?” he gulped nervously, his heart pounding against his chest. “The astronaut?”
“The one and only,” I answered proudly.
“It’s…it’s an honor to meet…meet you, Mister Austin,” Jason stuttered.
“Likewise, Jason. And please, call me Steve.”
“Alright,” the star-struck boy heaved out. “Steve.”
“Jason restored my system,” I motioned to my laptop, “It crashed on me while I typing up my report for the boss tomorrow.”
“Oh, well, than I guess you’ll be pretty busy. I won’t disturb you any longer.”
“I have all night to do that. Why did you come by?”
Steve brought his tennis racket into view and began twirling it in his hand. “I thought I could interest you in a game or two of tennis this afternoon. I want to test out Rudy’s new gadget.”
“Well thanks to Jason here,” I placed a hand on the teen’s shoulder, “I can. Just give me a few minutes to change and I’ll be right with you.”
“Jason, you want to join us?” Steve asked.
“Ah...euh…thanks but I need to get back home. Got a lot of studying to do.”
“Maybe some other time.”
“You mean it?”
“Sure. Any friend of Cassie’s is a friend of mine.”
“Thanks,” he exulted with a broad smile. “Well I’d best be going.”
“Thanks again for all your help, Jason,” I said as I walked him to the door. “Say I was thinking. Since you won’t accept money for your trouble how about I treat you to a fancy dinner next Saturday night?”
“I’ll have to ask my mom.”
“Naturally.” I turned to Steve. “Blue Eyes, want to join us?”
The nickname Blue Eyes sent a chill down Jason’s spine. He became concerned that his favourite girl was already spoken for. He was grateful for the opportunity to dine with the famous astronaut but resented the idea of his having a romantic hold on my heart.
I was on a losing streak. Steve was unbeatable. After four straight exhilarating matches, I called it quits. Panting and drenched in sweat, I walked over to my tennis partner to congratulate him on four consecutive wins.
“I can’t understand this. I usually win one game. What did you eat?” I queried curiously as I dabbed the beads of sweat off my face with a towel.
He flashed a teasing smirk at me. “Would you believe me if I said transistors?”
“Okay, what’s the joke?”
“It’s the newly improved mechanism Rudy implemented in my arm. Before I had to adjust my aim, not anymore. It’s done automatically when I zoom in on a target. It’s based on the same principle as the homing device used in warplanes to shoot down the enemy.”
“It works like a charm, believe me. Guess I’m the one who’s buying dinner tonight,” I whined with a grimace.
“No. That wouldn’t be fair. I knew you were no match for me. It’s my treat,” he said obligingly, wrapping an arm around my shoulders to escort me out of the tennis court. He took a hold of my duffel bag sitting on a bench and opened it so I could stick my racket in it, after which I tucked my arm into his and we ambled over to his car.
“I’ll drop you off at your apartment and drive back to my place to shower and change and I’ll meet you at Henri’s in let say…two hours?”
“Why not shower at my place and pick up something from your wardrobe in the guest room. That way you won’t have to shuttle back and forth,” I suggested, already knowing this arrangement would please him.
“You don’t mind?” I rolled my eyes and heaved out a sigh thick with annoyance that elicited an amused grin. “Stupid question, heh Steve?” he chided himself.
I untangled my arm from his long enough to give him a friendly clap on the back. “I’m glad you said it.”
Back in the apartment, Steve grabbed a glass of juice from the frig before heading for the shower while I checked the answering machine.
“Cassandra, it’s Oscar. I need to see you right away in my office. It’s urgent. Please call me back as soon as you get this message.”
Steve’s shoulders sagged at the boss’s voice. He plonked his glass down on the counter and sighed sullenly. “What is so important on a Sunday afternoon?”
“He said it was urgent. Shall I call him right now?”
“And ruin our evening?”
“Looks to me as if he already has.”
“Alright,” he huffed. “Let’s get this over with.” He quaffed his juice and came to sit by me on the sofa.
“Oscar. It’s Cassandra. I hope you have a good reason for calling me on a Sunday,” I warned with a voice dripping with spite.
“Yes it is. I was just informed of a major breach of security. Someone gained illegal access to the data bank.”
I turned to Steve with a worried frown. “What is it?” he asked quizzically, slightly troubled by my disquietude.
“What does that imply?” I asked Oscar.
“Is Steve with you?”
“No games, please. You two get here on the double. It’s a matter of national security. Lives can be at stake, including yours.”
“What are you talking about?”
“One hour,” Oscar said authoritatively before hanging up.
“It’s urgent alright. Someone broke into the OSI’S computer system.”
“There goes our evening.” Steve scoffed.
Steve and I drove to the headquarters and met with Oscar in his office for a briefing on the current situation before we all went down to the computer room. I set out to work on MARK 9 to dissect the memory core. I reviewed all fifty-one terminals linked to the main management information system, cross checking each one with the numbers already on file. I typed in my personal access code to allow me to delve deeper into the LAN (local area network) and try to locate the illegal entry but came up empty. Frustrated I handed Steve the reins but his attempts equally came to a naught.
Rudy made eye contact with Oscar and beckoned him to retreat in a corner of the room. “Rudy what is it?”
“This break-in. What if it’s not limited to the data processing network?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the Cyborg Project.” Oscar’s worried frown told Rudy he needed not elaborate on his thought. “Don’t you think you should assign agents to ensure his protection until we find out who’s behind this?”
“Should we tell him?”
“I wouldn’t because I know for certain he won’t consent to having an around-the-clock surveillance regardless of how crucial the situation may be. I’ll instruct my men to keep a low profile.”
“Steve is trained to recognize them.”
With eyes fasten on his subject Oscar wore her customary look of abstraction when he’s deep in concentration. He smiled in triumph at the idea that sprung into mind. “Not all of them,” he motioned towards me standing behind Steve sitting at the computer with both hands on his shoulders.
“She’s perfect. Out in the open. He won’t suspect a thing. She’ll have him occupied so he won’t notice the agents around the premises.”
“Cassie won’t be a party it, Oscar. You know she can’t lie to him.”
“She won’t be lying. I’ll tell Steve that in view of the break-in it’ll be better for him and Cassie to keep an eye on each other.” He turned to a sceptical Rudy. “And it’s true. It’s likely that whoever is behind this has gained access to our agents’ personal files.”
“I can’t argue that she’s the best man for the job, but somehow I fear this arrangement might shake the foundations of an abiding friendship.”
“No chance of that ever happening. They’re solid as rock.”
“I wish I had your confidence,” Rudy said resignedly.
“Trust me, Rudy,” Oscar assured with a sly grin as he made his way to the twosome.
“Why is it that I shiver whenever he says that?” Rudy mumbled sarcastically underneath his breath.
“Cassandra, may I have a brief word with you?” Oscar asked.
“Sure,” I turned to Steve busy at the keyboard. “Keep with the loop, Steve. I’ll be right back.” I waited for a nod of acknowledgment before following Oscar and Rudy. “What is it?”
Oscar glanced back at Steve to ensure he was not eavesdropping; then took a cleansing breath before speaking in a hushed voice, “Rudy brought to my attention the possibility that the hackers might have tapped into the lab mainframe, and therefore they may be in possession of classified information regarding Steve’s special nature.”
My eyes widened in alarm. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“It’s a likely possibility; not a certainty but we can’t take any chances.”
“I agree. What are you planning to do?”
“Until we address the problem we’ll need to place him under heavy surveillance. Though I doubt Steve will comply.”
“You’re telling me?”
“That’s where you come in.”
“We figure on relocating you both in one of our organization-owned houses in suburbia Georgetown until we nail the intruders. Steve won’t object to surveillance if he knows it applies to you as well.”
“I guess not,” I said unconvincingly.
“We don’t want him to know that he’s our main concern.”
“I understand. I’ll try my best not to let anything on, though he’s come to read me like an open book. I doubt I can keep the charade very long.”
“Hopefully it won’t be for long once we discover who’s pulling the strings.”
“Okay. I’ll keep an eye on him.” I let out a titter at the thought of being Steve’s guard dog. “It might actually be fun.”
Steve would normally be opposed to the new living arrangements, arguing that he had the tools to handle himself, but this was different. He willingly complied with Oscar’s demand knowing this was deemed necessary to ensure not only his protection but his friend’s as well.
On the morning of the move two OSI agents were already stationed at their posts. Sitting in their respective car parked across the street from the Austin’s residence they kept their hawk eye peeled on any unusual activity or dubious characters loitering about. Thus far only regular Joes and couples with children walked past the house, casting occasional uninterested glances at Steve seen putting suitcases in the trunk of his car.
Labelled as yet another harmless middle-aged couple were Tim and Kathy, codenames: Squirrel and Dove. Hand and hand the two double agents casually ambled past the two surveillance cars, their trained eye recognizing the likely secret G-Men on duty. Tim and Kathy looked across the street to spot the subject of the agents’ attention. No sooner had Steve closed the trunk that both OSI men put the key in the ignition.
The undercover couple headed a few miles down the street to step out of sight before contacting their boss.
“Yeah. It’s Squirrel. Dove and I spotted only two surveillance vehicles parked across the street from the house. Nothing more. Austin put a heap of suitcases in the trunk of his car, leading me to surmise he’s leaving on a long vacation.”
“That’s not surprising. It’s safe to assume they are relocating him after discovering that we cracked their system,” told the raspy voice at the other end.
“Can they trace the terminal?”
“Not a chance. Besides we’re severing the link as we speak. I don’t need to tap into their computer data anymore. I have what I want: the cyborg prototype,” the man crowed in triumph, already savouring his victory.
“They just drove past us. Austin and his two escorts are heading south on Pinewood.”
“I’ll have Jerry tail them for about ten miles. Then he’ll switch with Peter so not to arouse suspicion. You two come back to base.”
At the apartment, I cast one last look around the premises to ensure that all appliances were unplugged before heading to the door with my luggage. I set the suitcases on the floor upon noticing the note taped to the doorknob. “Oh that’s right. Can’t forget Jason.” I went to the kitchen counter to pick up the phone and dialed my friend Doreen’s number.
“Doreen? Hi it’s Cassie. Is your son still around by any chance?”
“You missed him by three minutes. He left for school.”
“Shucks! Could you give him a message for me?”
“Could you tell him that I’m real sorry but I won’t be able to cook dinner Saturday night. I’ll be on special assignment. In fact I’m leaving right now and I have no idea when I’ll be back.”
“No problem. He will be sorry. He was so looking forward to spending time with Steve Austin. By the way you never said that you both were so chummy. Is there something you’d like to tell me?” Doreen asked teasingly.
“Steve Austin and I are good friends. We work together. Naturally we’re chummy. What exactly did Jason tell you?”
“Only that you seem very close.”
“Appearances can be deceiving.”
“Uhn uhn.” Doreen scoffed. “You wouldn’t lie to your best friend, now would you?” she taunted amicably. Although she was not one to spread unfounded rumours, she did however like to keep abreast of the town’s gossips.
“Lie? Not me. I respect too much for that. When I’ll get involved in a steady relationship you’ll be the first one to know. Well aside from my mom of course.”
“I promise,” I chuckled at her childlike enthusiasm. “Be sure to tell Jason that I will call him the minute I get back from my assignment to reschedule.”
“I’ll give him the message. Get back soon!”
“I hope so.” I hung up the phone and made my way to the door. I picked up my luggage and headed out to the underground parking lot to get my car and drive to my new temporary abode.
I parked in the driveway and as I stepped out of the car, I waved to the two agents posted across the street. I could see them both returning my signal with a nod of acknowledgement. Little did we know that the young mother sitting quietly on a park bench with her two-year-old child was discreetly spying on our every move.
Entering the house, I placed the suitcases down by the door and began searching the main floor for any sign of Steve. Instead of calling out to him, I quietly made my way down the corridor to poke my head through the door of the first bedroom. Steve was busy folding his shirts into a drawer and seeing how his back was to me, I decided to play a joke on him. I crept inside and padded up to the bed, heedful to keep a safe distance between he and myself in case he should react violently.
“Don’t turn around and raise your arms, slowly,” I affected with a hoarse voice.
Steve cracked an amused grin and played along. “What do you want with me?” he gulped nervously.
Biting my lower lip to stifle a giggle I stepped up to him and pulled out his favourite chocolate candy from my jacket pocket. “I want to give you,” I produced the bar in front of him, “this.”
“Where did you get this?” he gushed, snatching the bar from out my hand to study the wrapping. “I can’t find it anywhere.”
“I know. I’m the one who bought them all,” I teased.
“Come on, 35. Level with me.”
“My friend Doreen works in a candy store. I asked her to order me a case of those just for you, Blue Eyes. I know how much you crave them.”
“You’re right. I’ve been told they’re too expensive to hold in inventory.” He began tearing hungrily at the wrapping.
“Hey!” He chastised with a slap on his hand. “It’ll spoil your lunch.” I twitched the bar from out of his grasp. “If you’re a good boy and eat all of your vegetable I might give you one for dessert.”
“Okay, Mother,” he griped with a feigned pout. “Incidentally did you notice the two agents posted in front of the house?”
I became nervous at the question but managed to maintain a stone facade, avoiding eye contact with Steve for fear he might uncover the truth behind those lying eyes. “Yeah. It’s Oscar’s idea. He didn’t want to take any chances of his two best agents being targeted by enemy organizations.”
Steve raised a suspicious eyebrow and slowly stepped up to me. “35, look me straight in the eyes.” He placed his fingers underneath my chin to raise my head. “In the eyes.” He narrowed his eyes to study mine to find clues as to the authenticity of my statement. “The truth now.”
“Argh! I hate it when you do that,” I groused, rolling my eyes in exasperation. “Alright! Alright! It’s you. Oscar and Rudy are worried that something might happen to you so they asked me to be your watchdog.”
“They suspect the lab computer may have been broken into as well and you know what that means?”
“I think I do.”
“Oscar knew you’d never agree to be put under round-the-clock surveillance unless we convinced you that it was also for my own protection.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, 35. You’re indispensable too.”
“I doubt it.”
“So if I want to go out I’ll need to bring either Spanky or Fido with me?”
“Or you can choose to go with Philomena here,” I followed on the same bantering tone. Following a short beat in the conversation I cocked my head sideways and with a crooked grin I dared asked, “You’re not too upset with me?”
“Never,” he assured with a heartening smile. “To be honest I like this arrangement. Something tells me I won’t get bored with you around the house.”
“Hummmm was that remark meant as a compliment?”
“You figure it out,” He said with a teasing wink.
“I’ll go unpack my suitcases and meet you back in the kitchen. You can help me whip up some grubs.” We exchanged a friendly smile before I exited the room and traced back my steps to the living room to pick up my suitcases. As I made my way to my room, the phone rang. It was Oscar enquiring about our safe arrival.
Meanwhile at enemy headquarters…
“Is everything ready?” the head honcho enquired of his henchmen.
“Just about. Jim is filling up another tank, just in case.”
“Not too much. We don’t want to kill him,” he warned with a piercing glare.
“Don’t worry, boss. It’s only a back up. We won’t use it unless there’s a problem with the first tank. I have just enough to render him unconscious, that’s all.”
“You’d better. My client specified that the merchandise be delivered unscathed or there’s no deal. Which mean you don’t get paid.”
“The job’s a cinch. I don’t foresee any glitch,” Jim assured before beckoning his second to take the tanks out to the van.
“I trust you to do a good job. By the way Roz reported a woman in the house. She saw her bringing suitcases so we assume she’s moving him with him. We don’t know who she is. Could be another OSI agent.”
“She won’t be a problem. We’ll leave her there. By the time she regains consciousness, Austin will be gone.”
“Good. Don’t forget to silence the watchdogs posted in front of the house.”
“Good luck, men.” The boss clapped his two henchmen on the back. “I’ll see you later with the load.”