By: Tami (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Hand shaking with pain and fear, Connor reached up to push in the last button. He felt the thing moving inside him, and waited for the blackness to come. He could hear the roars of the explosions above him,
coming closer, and closed his eyes. Then, from one second to the next, everything changed. The pain vanished, and his body felt weightless. "So this is what it's like," he thought, as he lost conciousness.
Something was strange. He was aware–of sounds, of something beneath him–of another presence nearby. With effort he opened his eyes, and was shocked to recognize–his boss, Elsinger! He tried to speak, and couldn't. The man above him laughed dryly.
"Well! At last you're awake. For a while I thought this experiment was doomed to failure. Ah! I see you're confused. Then I will tell you that you have been in a coma for about a week. And don't try speaking or moving. You can't. I've seen to it you can't–for now. Those nerves have been blocked until we're finished here."
The man put his hands behind his back and wandered away, then came back.
"I'm sorry, Connor, I really am, but you just wouldn't let go of that nanite case–the one that caused the spontaneous human combustion. I tried to make you back off, but you wouldn't, so I–well, I had to take steps." He shook his head. "You were getting too close, and I knew this Russian thing was much more dangerous than I told you. But let me go back a little. First, do you have any idea where you are?"
Connor's eyes swept the room, then shot a puzzled look at Elsinger.
"Mmm. Right now, we're approximately 100 miles above the earth, cloaked from radar, etc. A special device in radar screens, added to make this–"he gestured sideways–"invisible.We used the apporation device–by the way, those people had to disappear, just like you did–" to ‘beam you up’ his fingers make the quotation gestures–"just before it was too late. Your little ‘friend' was no problem for them to remove, and you did us all a big favor by getting rid of the others. Quite the hero you are, and very much missed." His voice was heavy with sarcasm. "But I have put a friend of mine in your place, and he knows nothing of this. It must remain a secret, so you had to ‘die.' And since you are so interested in the nanites, I thought you should know more about them."
He smiled, and Connor stared helplessly at the cold, hard eyes looking down on him. "You see, our ‘associates' have been more than generous over the years. The nanites were one of their gifts. So handy, these little things. They can be programmed to do so much–destroy that thing that was in you, and destroy–other things."
Connor paled. "Things like memories; they can also, and are, in the process of altering your appearance. When we're through, you will be alive and well–but Connor Doyle will no longer exist. When we are through, you will become one of our ‘men in black.' All you are, or all you were, will no longer exist. You will look different, you will be provided with different memories–" he shook his head. "So stubborn. I told you to back off, but you wouldn't. Goodbye, Connor. It was nice knowing you. I wonder if I will like you in your new life?" His laugh came low, from deep in his chest, and he walked away.
Connor was wild with panic. He knew Elsinger was telling the truth. He could feel his mind going, and the physical changes. Then he remembered something, and in desperation, he sent out a thought.
Lindsay tossed and turned in her bed, unable to sleep or even rest. She knew Anton was seriously worried about her, but she didn't care. Grief overcame everything else. No one had even guessed how much she had loved him. He had only just told her that he loved her, too, and now it was too late. The loss of hope was the worst.
At last she lay quietly, exhausted, and in that moment between sleeping and waking, she heard it! Connor's voice! "Lindsay! The man in black! Look for–the man in black!"
She bolted upright. "Connor! Connor!" she gasped, and listened, but nothing else came. At last she lay back, wondering if she had really heard it at all, then let out a sigh. "I love you, Connor," she whispered, as she drifted into a deep and healing sleep. The next morning she would not consciously remember it, but her heart would, and now there would always be this thread between them–this fragile, slender thread–of hope.
The dream had come again. Fire, explosions, pain–and a silhouetted figure in the foreground. It was speaking, he knew that, but he couldn't hear it for the explosions. He woke up, frightened, as always, and with a screaming headache, as always.
He stumbled out of his bed and almost reeled to the bathroom to rinse his face. Inadvertently, he caught his reflection in the mirror and flinched, dropping his head quickly. It was enough he had to look at it when he shaved.
The pain had been getting worse, but he hadn't told his superiors. He didn't know what they would do to him if they knew.
In a few minutes the worst of it had passed, and he dressed and reported for duty.
Three years had passed. Frank Elsinger was gone, taking his secrets with him, and Anton was now Director of Operations.
Lindsay knocked on Anton's office door, then entered.
"Hi, Anton. Here's my final report on our latest case," she said, putting the manila folder on his desk.
"Thank you, Lindsay." He looked up at her, and frowned a little. She was looking tired. "Sit down a minute."
She sighed and sank into one of the comfortable chairs in front of the desk. "I shouldn't do this," she smiled. "I just might fall asleep."
Anton laughed a little. "What's wrong?"
"I'm–just not sleeping well, Anton, and it's making me tired. I've been having these dreams I can't remember and–"she leaned back and closed her eyes, sighing. "And I just don't know what's the matter with me."
She was silent a minute, then looked down at her hands. "No, that's not true; I do know." Her voice was barely audible.
Anton got up and came around the desk, settling in the other chair and taking her hand. He had a grey fringe and a neat goatee, and his gentle, caring manner inspired confidence in all his clients. "Is it the same thing?" He was using his "doctor" voice, and her lips twitched a little.
"You read people too well. Does anyone have a secret from you?" She continued without an answer. "You know it is. Everybody thinks I've gotten over it. I've had to hide it, but–it's always there, and it
always will be there." She lifted her eyes and blinked back the beginning of tears, and nervously hooked a strand of honey-colored hair behind her ear. "Anton, don't ask me how, but I know he's still alive." She interrupted his protest. "I know it's impossible, but I_know_it!" The last words were said through clenched teeth.
Anton leaned back. "How long has it been since you've had a vacation? And don't dismiss me; I can't remember the last time, and we've been working together all these years. You're tired, because you work too hard and too much. Take some time off. That–" he added, standing up, "is a prescription from your doctor, and a recommendation from your boss!"
She looked up at him, amused. "Well. How can I argue with the both of you?" She blinked rapidly, and smiled at him, and he smiled back. "Actually, I got a call from a college roommate last night inviting me to go hiking with her and some friends in the Nevada desert."
"There you go. As of now, you are officially on a leave of absence. And don't come back until you have those cobwebs blown away."
They hugged each other and she left to call her friend.
The flight was smooth, and Lindsay slept most of the way. For once the dream didn't come, and she was bright and well_rested when the plane landed. She greeted her friend with enthusiasm, and they checked into a hotel, eagerly making plans over dinner for their hike.
"They told us that we should take at least a gallon of water per person per day." That was Jenny, a small girl with short, curly black hair and greenish-blue eyes, whose tiny stature hid a Ninja attitude. Lindsay had liked her at once. The other stranger was a pretty redhead with large, deep- brown eyes, named Megan. She was grave and quiet, but friendly. Lindsay's friend was Colleen. Shorter and blonder than Lindsay, she had laughing grey eyes, and was the life of the party.
"I'm so glad you could join us at the last minute, Lindsay. I was afraid that you wouldn't when I first called you."
"Oh, my boss figured I needed a rest, and–I guess he was right. I have been working too hard."
"It must be a fascinating job, from what Colleen tells me." Jenny propped her elbows on the table they had covered with maps, and rested her chin in her palms. "Anything you can tell us?"
Lindsay opened her mouth to answer, but Colleen broke in. "Oh, come on, Jen.This is her vacation! She's supposed to forget about all that."
Lindsay laughed, and looked at Jenny. "Maybe later. Colleen's right. I'm sorry, but I really am tired. Forgive me."
"Sure. Sorry." She smiled disarmingly, and Lindsay smiled back, then addressed Megan. "What time do we leave in the morning?"
"As soon as we can. About six, if possible, because we'll want to get as far as we can before the sun gets too high. We'll have to make camp before noon, so we can rest. They say there are some really great petroglyphs out near where we're going; a whole cave full, so I hope we can see them. It's a special interest of mine."
"Mine is rocks," put in Jenny. "Everyone says that's because I have them in my head–pun intended."
Everybody laughed, and they returned to making their plans.