It was one of those days, one of those storms that would inspire W.C. Fields to stand in the doorway and say, "It isnít a fit night out for man nor beast."
Nor cargo van for that matter. But the rusted F&G van slipped and slid its way along the mountain roads of the Colorado Rockies anyway, narrowly missing embankments, ditches and guardrails.
"We should have flown," Darien Fawkes muttered, taking the scraper out for the fifth time to hack at the frost on the inside of the windshield.
"Weíre lucky we got this little excursion at all," said Claire, zipping her parka up as far as it could go. The meager heat pumping from the vanís defroster did little to erase the white frost on the windshield, let alone warm up its occupants. "It was good to get away from the Agency headquarters. I enjoyed myself."
"And I thought I needed to get out more often. If you think spending three days with a group of eggheads is a good time, thenÖ" he trailed off. "The next time we go through the Rockies, letís ask for a sled and some dogs. It might be more comfortable."
"Yes, a science conference is my idea of a good time. I found it relaxing. You got a chance to get away from Hobbes and the Official for a while, and I got a chance to discuss elements of my research with some very intelligent people. It was a nice change of pace." She said, tugging on her gloves.
"Nice change of pace," Darien mouthed her last sentence mockingly. "I donít know why I had to be there."
"It worked out perfectly. The Agency wants both of us to be secure. I needed bodyguard and you needed the counteragent. It worked perfectly."
"Except now weíre stuck in a blizzard that could be the start of a new ice age," he pumped the vanís archaic brakes as they slid around a corner.
"You should slow down. Youíre going too fast," she said.
"I want to get away from here," he said.
"Itís surprising youíre in a hurry to get back to the Agency," she mused. "After all that fun at the conference wet bar. The doctor from Berkeley thought it was funny I had a bodyguard with only one arm."
"Well, I gotta have fun with this invisibility thing at some time or another," Darien said. "Besides, he was drunk enough I could have just told him about the gland and he wouldíve believed me. If this project is so hush-hush how come you went to a conference to discuss it?"
"I didnít openly discuss the QS project. I inferred to your brotherís research and the subject of biosynthetic implantation. I didnít have to divulge in specifics to glean from other scientistsí research, just as they donít have to tell me what they are working on. We can learn a lot from each other through general principles, rather than specifics," she said, squinting in the lights of an oncoming car. "One of the basic principles in science is to share what you have learned with others. But today, science is just as competitive as the stock market. Everyone has secrets they would rather not share."
"Convenient," Darien said.
"They were very impressed at the morsels of your brotherís theories and introductory work I threw in front of them,"
"Hmmm," he responded.
"You donít talk about him a lot, your brother" she said.
"Iím not an egghead, and Iíve had all of his research that I can stomach,"
"Donít tell me your still bitter. How can you be angry at him. Heís dead," she said.
"And weíre both still here dealing with his lifeís work, arenít we," Darien said, grabbing for the scraper again. "This frost is driving me nuts. Do me a favor and stop breathing for a while. Maybe it will go away." His gloved hands couldnít grip the tool tight enough and it fell at his feet. "Crap," he reached down for it.
"Youíre drifting into the other lane," she warned.
"Where is that thing?"
The flash of the headlights of an oncoming semi illuminated the cabin of the van as they came around the corner. Claireís scream brought Darienís attention back to the road. He turned the steering wheel violently to the right, but overcompensated. The semi flew past them as they skirted towards the shoulder and too close to the railing. Darien wrestled with the wheel and pumped the brakes, trying to exercise sanity over the crazy flailing of the vanís back end. It was no use. The brakes locked up and he lost control. The van punched through the railing, burst through a line of pines and into a snow covered clearing. Momentum kept the van careening through brush and shrubs and into a deeper grove of trees. Darien remembered yelling to Claire to hold on, but his voice sounded foolish and powerless as they slammed into a tree, drove up an embankment and tipped over.
After those few seconds of violence there was complete silence. Claireís seatbelt had saved her from flying through the windshield. But the seatís legs had come off their poorly welded supports and thrust her up against the dash, still strapped to the seat. She could feel an intense pinching pain in her neck, which might mean a fractured collar bone, and she was pretty certain that her leg, trapped underneath the seat, was broken. She mentally cursed herself for being so methodical about her self-diagnosis, so doctorly. I am in serious shape, she thought. I can afford to be emotional. Every gasp brought a new signal of pain from somewhere in her body, and she let herself cry a little bit. It was soothing.
The van had come to rest on its right side. She felt the coolness of the passenger window against the side of her face. She was alive, and had hopefully escaped internal injuries. No blood in her mouth, no ringing in her ears. She gingerly turned her head as much as she could to the left and caught a glimpse of Darien.
He was still strapped to the driver chair, and gravity was making his arms hang lazily towards her. Right below the hairline of his forehead was a small gash, bleeding slightly. He was so tall his forehead hit the windshield she thought, and saw the spider-web of cracks in the glass that proved the hypothesis.
"Darien?" she mustered, raising her left arm towards him and wincing, "Can you hear me Darien?" No response, not even a shudder. He was too far away to reach and she couldnít bear the thought of leaning over to search for his pulse. There was too much pain. He could be dead, she thought. He could be dead or dying and I canít do anything about it.
Another thought drifted through her mind: special order sixteen in the QS project files. If she was in the vicinity of Darien Fawkes when he should happen to be mortally wounded or compromised, she was to remove the gland from his skull using whatever means necessary. Was this one of those situations? Right, and if he is dead what I am going to use to perform surgery? A shard of glass? These morbid thoughts made her weepy again and she pushed them out of her mind.
"Darien, please wake up. If you can hear me, please say something," she cried loudly. "I need to know you are all right!"
No response. She moaned in pain and frustration, and then saw it, a little puff of vapor, come from his mouth. Then another cloud expelled into the air above his face, and dissipated. She smiled in triumph. He was alive, thank God. He was probably unconscious from the bump on his head. If it wasnít serious he might wake up within minutes.
"Okay, you sleep for right now," she said, relaxing as much as she could. Her eyelids were growing heavy and she was starting to shake. She could feel shock settling in. Keeping her eyes open was becoming a Herculean effort. No, no sleeping. She willed herself awake. "No sleeping," she said aloud. "I will stay up and then when you decide to awake, then Iíll consider a nap."
She awoke when a great twinge of pain hit her like a punch to the face, her chest, her kidneys. She could feel someoneís hand holding her left shoulder tightly and pulling her away from the dash. "Dear God, stop!" She shouted.
"What? What?" Darienís voice dragged Claire from her stupor completely.
"Darien, donít move me anymore," she said, gasping. "I probably have a broken leg and collar bone, maybe internal bleeding. You shouldnít move me."
"You canít stay in here like that. I think I can get you out if you help a little bit," he said, his face was lined with concern. "Are you with me?"
She shuddered, realizing she had been falling back into that pit of exhaustion and shock. She willed herself awake again. "What do you want me to do?"
"Can you push against the floor, with your good leg, and maybe move the chair back a bit?" He asked. "Iíll pull and you push."
"I donít have much to push with," she groaned and braced her right leg against the dash. He pulled and she managed a slight push with a yelp of pain. The seat slid back, releasing her trapped leg from underneath.
"Iím going to pull you into the back," he said, reaching under her armpits and pulling her up. She bit her lip to keep from screaming as he pulled her from the seat, and dragged her through the small enclosure into the back of the van. She nearly blacked out again before he set her down on a pile of clothes from their suitcases.
"Iím sorry," he said as she cried a bit.
"No, it was a good idea. I would have cramped up in that position," she said between whimpers. "This is better."
"For a while I thought you were dead," he said, draping a blanket over her.
"The thought had occurred to me when I first saw you," she said, gratefully taking the blanket from him. "Well, weíve established that weíre both alive," she said and managed a weak laugh. "What kind of shape are we in?"
He brushed at the frost on the back window. "Iíve stuck my head outside. Itís still snowing and visibility is only about a foot in front of my face. I canít see the road. I think we went pretty far from the highway. The snow has already covered our tracks so I donít know where exactly we are in relation to the road. Iíll have to wait til it stops snowing or the sun comes up to see anything."
"My cell is in my briefcase."
"I tried that all ready. Weíre too far out. Thereís no service. I tried the emergency channel on the CB, but I donít know if anyone heard me," he grinned. "I though I-Man would be an appropriate CB handle. What do you think?"
She nodded towards the electronic devices that were strewn about everywhere. "What about that equipment?"
"Itís mainly meant for surveillance, not long distance calls. I donít think itís powerful enough," he picked up one of the headsets. "Weíre striking out here."
"So weíll wait. What about provisions? Food and water?"
He held up the brown doggy bag they took from the deli. "I have the half of Reuben and a bag of chips left over from lunch and you still have about five bites left of a Caesar salad. Believe it or not, there are some candles in the glove box that we can use for melting snow. But maybe more important than food is medicine. Youíre obviously in a lot of pain," he said.
"I do have some ibuprofen in my bag, and it will have to do," she said.
"Iím also going to need a little medicating myself," he said, pulling up his sleeve. About one third of the scales on his snake tattoo were reddish-orange colored.
"The vial of counteragent and the syringes should be in the same bag,í she said. He opened up her suitcase, looked through it, then took out a little black purse.
"Thatís it," she said. He opened it and found the ibuprofen bottle. She dry swallowed four of the little red capsules as he pulled out the counteragent vial and a plastic wrapped syringe.
"Hmm, maybe Iíll be sucking on it, instead of getting it in my arm," he said, holding the vial up to the light.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Itís frozen," he said, handing to her. "The vial is cracked, see?"
Her eyes widened and she took it from him. "This is not good."
"Why? Canít we just thaw it out?"
"I donít know. I told you before that the agent doesnít keep well. Itís very unstable. I have no idea if it will work if itís thawed out. I donít even know if it will be safe to give you."
"We have to try something, right? I need to take that risk," he glanced down at the tattoo. "You need to take that risk."
"Fine, get that candle going and weíll see what happens. How do you feel otherwise? You might have a concussion."
"Beside a little headache and light headedness, Iím fine."
"Good. Why donít you try the CB again too."
"Why, yes maíam. Wake the woman up and already sheíd giving orders," he said and looked at her with a smile. "Iím kidding."
"Good," she said, without smiling back. "Do you know how long I was out? Asleep, I mean."
"I woke up about an hour after the crash I guess. I didnít actually get up for another 15 minutes. I tried to move you about an hour later and thatís when you woke up," he placed a candle on the floor and lit it with a lighter. He looked back towards the rear windows. "I donít know the exact time." The ceiling light next to Claireís left shoulder flickered.
"Itís going to get rather cold in here," she said, reaching back and snapping the cover off the light. "Do the same to the other light. Itíll give us a little more radiant heat, not much but some."
"Yeah, and it will probably get colder as the night comes on," he opened his suitcase and pulled on another shirt, then zipped his coat up again. "I wish we had a deck of cards or something."
"Hopefully someone will see us from the road," Claire said, pulling the blanket up to her chin. The ibuprofen was kicking in a bit, but she didnít want to sleep. ĎIt shouldnít take long for a rescue."
"Nope, not long," he said and settled in. The candlelight flickered in his eyes as he placed the counteragent vial close to the flame, as well as a Claireís water bottle from lunch that was turning icy.
Claire looked down at that little bottle of counteragent and caught her breath. The tattoo was nearly one third red, and if this batch of counteragent was spoiled in anyway he could reach the madness point in a matter of hours, maybe less. She watched his movements as he folded up a pile of clothes from his suitcase to lean on.
"Comfortable?" he asked her in a jovial tone.
"As good as can be expected," she said. He was so kind at this moment, and willing to cater to her needs. What would happen in a few hours if he turned into a red eyed maniac, like when he attacked Hobbes in the phone booth?
She had faced him in this situation before. He had been helpless, stuck in a padded room and restrained by a straightjacket. But this time she was the helpless one. She felt so weak right now she wasnít sure she could even raise her good arm, let alone fend off a crazed attacker.
But no, she shouldnít think like that about him. For all she knew, the counteragent would work and he would be fine. If not, he might have more control than she knew, and the madness was a gradual process that took time to overcome his sanity. She watched as he busied himself putting on extra clothes, looking out the window and checking the counteragent vial to see if it had thawed any yet. After a few minutes near the flame there was enough fluid for an entire dosage. He handed her the bottle and the syringe.
"I donít know if this is going to work," she said, filling the needle.
"It canít hurt, can it?" He asked, removing his coat and rolling up his sleeve.
"I donít have gauze. I want you to put your fingers over the spot and hold it there when Iím done," she said. She withdrew the needle and he pressed the spot and bent his arm.
"So whatís next?" she asked, putting the bottle away and rubbing her chilly arms. Darien pulled down his sleeve and put on another layer of clothes.
"I donít know. Iím not sure how cold itís going to get in here. Weíre out of that wind, at least," he said as the howl of the storm outside made them both jump.
"The candle will help," she said, leaning as far as her bad shoulder would allow her towards the small flame.
Darien let out a scoff.
"If weíre missing the fat man will probably think that I kidnapped you and headed out on my own. Either that or weíve skipped the agency together. A whirlwind weekend romance that is turning out to be something from ĎRaising Arizona,í he said.
"I donít think you give the Official enough credit. He let you come on this trip didnít he? That shows some semblance of trust. Quit being such a martyr."
"Iím not being a martyr. Iím telling it like it is. No doubt theyíll have my picture on every post office wall from here to Florida," he said, taking out the last half of his sandwich and biting into it. He pulled a piece off and handed it to her, which she took and ate.
"No, I donít think so."
"Because if you ever ran off the Agency has more discreet plans to round you up."
The smile on his face disappeared. "What do you mean?"
"Surely you donít think that the Official doesnít have a plan in case you go crazy and really disappear."
"I knew it. Youíre all plotting against me."
"Oh, come on. I was at the meeting, thatís all. And you need to remember that we have your welfare in mind. We donít want anything to happen to you when you have one of your episodes."
"Somehow that doesnít make me feel all that confident," he handed her another piece of sandwich and took a drink of water. "Paranoia sounds crazy until you realize that they really are out to get you. That kind of thinking certainly did me good in prison."
She put the piece of sandwich in her mouth and chewed. "Do you mind if I ask you about that?"
"The time you spent in prison."
"Grey walls and metal bars. The occasional celebrity sighting. Not much else to say."
She took the water bottle from him and drank. "How about the company?"
"Well, you learn to stay away from the really bad guys," his face fell and averted his eyes.
"I was just thinking," he muttered. "I met a lot of people in prison I didnít really want to be around. The pedophiles, the multiple murders, the rapistsÖpeople I knew belonged in there. And I thought that hey, I might be occasionally stealing someoneís life savings, but at least I wasnít out there killing people, or abusing them. I wasnít one of them. But I am now, thanks to my buddy here," he patted the back of his neck.
"You arenít a murderer," she said. "Donít over-react."
"Not ever. The system we have now will prevent any rash behavior," she insisted, and groaned a bit as shoulder ached. "You donít have to worry about QSM. Those episodes are in the past."
He pulled up his sleeve to look at the tattoo. "Maybe you should be concerned about one of those Ďepisodesí right now." She saw the red coloring of the snake still dominated the green.
"It didnít work," she said, catching her breath.
Claire reached out and grabbed Darienís wrist to get a better look. According to the tattoo the dose of counteragent hadnít made a dent in his quicksilver saturation. She looked up into his eyes.
"What does this mean?í he asked.
Before Claire could answer a loud squawking coming from the cab startled her into dropping Darienís wrist.
"The CB," he said with a hint of relief in his voice. He climbed back into the cab and pulled out the CB mike after fiddling with the volume knob. "Ah, hello? Anyone hear me?"
A burst of loud static made him wince, yet through the noise came a barely audible voice.
"Heyya, Pop-Gun here, off the side of the I-9 at the Gas Ďní Gulp in Chaney, waiting for the snow to deep six. Gotta haul my ass and about a ton of cargo to the Springs. How dee do?"
"Hey, hey weíre stuck out here. Thereís been an accident and weíre hurt. I need an ambulance quick." Darien said, holding down the mike with his thumb.
"Whatís your twenty, Stucky?" said the voice.
"Stucky?" Darien intoned. "Weíre somewhere off the I-9, south ofÖ I donít knowÖCanada."
"That ainít much help son."
"Yeah well, Iím not from around here. I need help. My keep-" he paused and started over. "My friend needs medical attention."
"Not likely to come soon. Blizzard and white out conditions are keeping travel to the bare. That includes ambulances, rescue vehicles and what not. If I wereÖ" the static overcame the manís voice.
"Hello? Hey!" he turned up the volume. "Hey, guy! Pop-Gun, hey. Can you hear me?"
The truckerís voice came crackling back. "-can tell someone youíre out there," came the end of his sentence.
"Get an ambulance here, as soon as they can get through. And I need you to do another thing. My friend and I are employees of the Department of Fish and Game in San Diego. I need you to call them. Ask for the Official. Tell him Darien needs his medicine. Hello?" The static became unbearable and Darien shut the archaic machine off in disgust.
"Who knows if that did us any good," he called to Claire, turning on the AM radio and flipping the dial around. A few static-strained chords of the Pearl Jam song, "Immortality" filled the cabin. Darien turned it off and climbed into the back. "How you feeling?"
"Somewhere between fine and dead," she answered, shivering a bit.
He pawed at the frost on the window and looked out. "Itís getting dark out now. And it isnít letting up." He rubbed his arms, trying to get some heat back into them. "Are you glad you came to Colorado now?"
"Iím just sorry I let you drive," she said and when he frowned she laughed at him. "I have a sense of humor too you know. How cold do you think it is?"
"Damn near freezing," Darien said, rubbing his hands in front of the candle flames. He pulled the towel out from under him he was leaning on and tossed it at her. "Cover up.
I donít think youíve got enough on to keep warm."
"Thank you," she wrapped the towel around her shoulders with her good arm. "Did you take this from the hotel?" she asked.
He reached into his suitcase and pulled out four more. "A matching set."
"Darien," she chided.
"So when you go on excursions like this, who watches your dog?" He was trying to make small talk and get their minds off of the rather dire situation they were in. And she appreciated it. Her leg and shoulder throbbed, but would feel worse without the company to keep her distracted. But this small talk served another purpose. They hadnít yet discussed the little problem of the apparent counteragent shortage and she hoped he wasnít evading the topic deliberately.
"I have a little neighbor girl, quite responsible for 11 years old. She stops by, takes him for walks and feeds him."
"Youíre good with kids," Darien said. "I mean, you seem like you would be."
"Why do you say that?"
"The dog and all. Ever put any thought into having some of your own?" he asked as he flicked the candle flame with his finger.
"Of course. Itís something Iíve considered. My line of work wouldnít make me the most available mother."
"I think thereís room in the lab for a playpen."
"No, I donít think so. Work comes first. And youíre part of that. So I donít think youíd want me slinging a child around while you need your shots," she grinned. "I donít dismiss the possibility of a big house with a picket fence in my future someday."
"Two cars in the garage, hubby waiting at the doorstep as you come home, two point three kids playing in the yard," said Darien, verbally picturing her family. "The husband walks up and gives you a peck. ĎSo how was being a mad scientist today honey?í"
"Stop it," she said.
"Yeah, I will," he stood up, as much as he could in the cramped space and went to the back. The rear doors of the van opened, letting in a blast of wind and snowflakes. Darien stuck his head outside, then shut the door. "Itís not any better out there."
"I want to give you another dose of the counteragent."
"Will it do any good?"
She picked up the bottle. "It seems to be completely thawed out."
"What about building up a tolerance to it. Two doses back to back seems like a bad idea."
She filled the syringe. "Let me be the doctor. We know the first dose didnít work. So a second dose canít do too much damage." He pulled up his sleeve and looked away as she stuck the needle into his vein.
"All done," she pulled the needle out.
"Thank you," he said, and let out a curt laugh.
"Whatís so funny?"
"Me saying Ďthank you.í It just seems odd." He said, leaning back.
"Itís odd that I would thank you. Kind of like a junky thanking his drug dealer."
"Donít be crude. Itís not like that," she said putting the syringe away.
"Isnít it? See, thatís the thing I donít get. You make the counteragent that helps me survive what the gland is doing to my body. But you also make the counteragent to keep me in line, keep me coming back for more and keep me working for the Agency. I donít know what to think. Should I be grateful to you for saving my life, or do I want your head on a platter for keeping this monkey on my back? Iím angry at myself for being grateful."
It seemed his true feelings about their odd relationship were bubbling to the surface. "I guess thatís something you have to decide for yourself. But you need to realize that I am trying my damnedest to figure out how to take the gland out," she said.
He didnít answer. Instead, he took a drink of water and then handed her the bottle, which she declined. He put it back near the candle, which was burning down to the end of the wick. Darien put the meager flame out with his thumb and forefinger and started up the other one.
"I believe you," he finally admitted. The two them sat in silence, listening to the wind howl.
"Nature calls," Darien said. He made his way to the rear and climbed out. When he was out of sight Claire pulled her black bag towards her and pawed through it. She brushed the ibuprofen bottle and the few spare syringes aside. Besides that she had a bottle of shampoo, a toothbrush, mouthwash and a travel hairdryer. There was nothing of any use. She looked around the floor of the van. Besides the cords and cables from the surveillance equipment, there was nothing long or heavy she could swing in self-defense. She put her hands in the pockets of her parka and pulled out a pen. A pen, that was it? She gripped it like a knife and wondered if she could swing it hard enough to actually do some damage, then dropped it in her lap in disgust. She had to consider defending herself, but this seemed ridiculous. At the moment Claire and Darien were both partners in this ordeal, just trying to survive Mother Nature and get out alive.
But she had to consider that scenario when he just might lose the ability to discern right from wrong. It had certainly happened before. She glanced at the cables along the floor. Could she tie him up with those, maybe while he slept?
She laughed out loud at the absurd thought. I only have one good arm and no way to move around. As if to punctuate the point, her leg sent out a jolt of pain that made her yelp. She grabbed the ibuprofen and dry swallowed a couple more pills.
I have to rule out defending myself as an option. If I try to hurt him it might only make him more belligerent. Tying him up was a good idea, but would he ever volunteer for that? He might, if she was still able to reason with him.
She shuddered and felt an incredible sense of injustice. "This isnít fair. This isnít fair to him or me. Why did this happen?" she said out loud. Her voice reverberated off the metal body of the van and sounded hollow.
Claireís only option now was to somehow contain Darien, or be rescued. Neither looked like it was going to happen.
Where was he anyway? She craned her neck to try and see out the window, but it was too frosted over to see anything outside clearly.
"Darien?" She called out loudly. "Darien, can you hear me?"
Nothing but the wind responded.
Would he just leave? He was the one with the watch, so she wasnít sure how long it had been. But it seemed like he had been gone for ten of fifteen minutes.
But where would he go? she wondered. If he was in a poor state of mind, perhaps he might think he could go for help.
The rear door opened and Darien climbed back inside, covered in snow from his chest down. He coughed violently as he closed the door.
"What happened?" She asked, watching as he brushed snow off of himself.
"I tried to see if I could find the highway," he said, beginning to shiver. "But the drifts outside are about six feet. I couldnít get anywhere." He folded his arms around himself and let out a long puff of frosty breath. "Damn, Iím cold."
"Youíre going to be soaked," she said and handed him the towel. As he wiped off more snow he had a miserable look on his face. "You shouldnít have tried that."
"I didnít want to just sit here and wait forÖI donít know what," he said, pulling the towel around his shoulders and then cupped his shivering hands around the candle.
"You have to get out of those wet clothes," she said, pointing to his suitcase.
"Yeah, yeah," he said, taking off his jacket. He grinned sheepishly. "I can do this a little slower if you want," he joked as he pulled off his sweater.
"Hurry up, before you turn blue," she said, offering a coy smile and turning away for modestyís sake.
"I wonder if the Agency has any regulations against this?" he said as he unbuttoned his pants.
"Iím sure I can find one somewhere," she was staring hard toward the front of the van. He coughed a few times as he undressed and quickly changed into dry clothes.
"I had a little bit of an episode while I was out there," he said. "It was just the pain, mostly. I wasnít even sure I was going to tell you."
"So why did you tell me?
"Youíre the doctor. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Iím going to go crazy. What are we going to do?"
"I donít know," she admitted in a quiet voice, guiltily glancing towards the pen.
"Well, I have one solution," He pulled on his parka again and announced, "Iím done."
"Whatís that?" She asked, turning back to look at him and smirked. "Your fly."
"Thanks. When I was out there it was hard to tell, but I think I saw lights on the southern horizon. I donít know if itís the highway or a town or something. But thatís where Iím going to goÖsee if I can get you some help."
"Is that such a good idea? I thought you said there were six foot drifts."
"Yeah, but I think I know which direction the road is. And I donít want to just wait around for help. It might never come. Iíll wait for the storm to break and then head out. How much longer can it last anyway?"
"And what if QSM comes on when youíre out there?"
"I handle it as best I can. I think this is our only choice at the moment."
"Youíll wait for morning if the storm is over?"
"I donít know."
"Fine, you think it over. But if the storm breaks by morning, Iím heading out."
He wasnít going to be convinced otherwise. And she had to admit it certainly put her in a better position.
"All right. You can go out, but I want you to time yourself. And if you donít see anything within 45 minutes I want you to come back. You should take something with you to mark your trail so you can find your way back," she said, looking around at the floor for such a something.
"Fine," he agreed.
Claire had been dozing during a spare moment when the medicine had silenced some of the pain from her injuries. But the nagging aches always came back and woke her with a groan. She sat up as best she could and saw Darien sitting over lit two candles. He had quicksilvered his right hand and was holding his fingers over the flame.
"How do you feel?" She asked.
"Bit of a headache," he muttered. "Itís not the madness headache, if thatís what youíre thinking. I know the difference." He made his right index finger disappear and then swirled it around in the wax. It cooled along the edges of his invisible finger, like a mold.
The sun had completely gone down since she had first dozed and the only illumination was coming from the meager candlelight. They had two candles left and once they were gone their only source of heat and light went with them. The van battery had long since died.
"Are you sure it isnít a QSM headache?" She asked.
"No, not one hundred percent sure," he said, rubbing his neck.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Shoot," he said.
"Can I ask youÖ" she trailed off, trying to pose the question as delicately as she could. "What does the madness feel like? Do you feel it coming on?" She asked and saw his face shift into an uncomfortable look. "Iím asking for scientific reasons of course."
"Of course," he pursed his lips. "You ever play with R/C cars when you were younger? You know, remote controlled cars, or airplanes?"
Where was this leading? she wondered. "No, never."
"I used to, all the time. In fact, it was the one thing that Kevin and I did together. Weíd get these silly little racing cars and drive them all over the neighborhood, running along behind them. Weíd race each other for bragging rights, and occasionally for baseball cards." He smiled at the memory.
"Kevin, being the science nut that he was, like to pull the cars apart. Heíd grab a little junior tool kit of his or something and take the cars apart, pull on the wiring and then try to put everything back together. Sometimes he put one of the cars back together and it would run for a while, but then it would die or fall apart. It was usually my cars that wouldnít work after his operations. Iíd have my hand on the little steering wheel and be turning this way and that," Darien mimicked the movements with his hands. "But the car kept going. Kevin has put all the gears and wiring back, but something wasnít right and it wouldnít obey the controls. It would just keep driving.
"One Christmas my parents went all out and got me with awesome r/c airplane, a miniature Sopwith Camel that I had to put together myself. I spent months putting this thing together, gluing and painting and what not. And it flew like an eagle. It was a thing of beauty. But of course Kevin got into its innards once and messed everything up. And on one afternoon I took it out to show some friends. I got it up into the sky and then all the control just cut out. So I got to watch as the plane went out of control and crashed into a million pieces."
He looked up into Claireís eyes. "Thatís what itís like. At one minute I have a hand on the controls and everything is working the way I want it to. Then, the next second, things are out of control and all I can do is just stand back and watch as I crash. It scares me, more than anything. My conscience takes a vacation, and takes all my rational thoughts go with it on a buddy flight."
She let that sink in. No conscience and no rational thought. Any appeal to his rational side while he was stuck in the throes of QSM would be pointless.
"So you think instinct is the thing that determines your actions?"
"That and emotions, whichever one gets to the surface is the one that judges what I do next. And my brain gets a front row seat as the rest of me runs around like a puppet. The only question is who is controlling the strings. Just call me Pinocchio."
"Instinct and emotion," she repeated. "You know, Pinocchio didn't have any strings."
"Um hum," he rubbed the back of his neck and went back to playing with the candles. He quicksilvered his hand and held it over the flame.
"If youíre trying to avoid the madness, then I donít think casually using invisibility like that is a good idea," Claire chided him.
"Whatever," he muttered.
"Iím serious Darien."
"Who do you think you are, huh?! My mother? Kevin?!" In a sudden outburst of emotion he swept his hand across the floor and one of the candles went flying, sending hot wax all over the floor. The extreme action caught Claire completely by surprise. Darien leaned down on his knees, an infuriated look on his face, and took a step towards her. The horrified expression she sent him must have registered in his brain, because his own face blanked and then wrinkled into sadness. He flung himself violently backward against the side of the van and slid into a sitting position with his face in his hands.
"Here it comes," Darien muttered mournfully and his hands dropped to his lap. Claire shuddered in dread when she caught sight of his extremely bloodshot eyes.
"Why didnít the counteragent work?í Claire asked herself out loud.
Darien shook his head, completely forlorn, and ran his hands through his hair.
She took a couple of deep, cleansing breaths. There had to be a way to deal with this, a logical way. The counteragent didnít work, but science could still provide a solution.
"We have to determine the length of the intervals between your outbursts, or when you feel like you are losing control. If we can time them and if they occur with any regularity then maybe we can predict when the next one will hit. Then maybe weíll know when the next one comes. Weíll have some control over-"
"Donít you get it?" he interrupted. "Iím not going into labor. Iím about to go insane! I have to get out of here." He stood up, promptly hit his head on the ceiling and groaned.
"Where are you going?" She demanded.
He rubbed the top of his head, then pulled on his stocking cap. "Iím going to head south toward those lights. Maybe I can get somewhere while I still have some sanity and get you some help and get someone else to lock me up before I go crazy." He took a few steps toward the rear of the van.
"You're crazy already. It's freezing out there, and pitch black. You'll never get anywhere."
"Yeah, but I won't be here."
"No, Iím not going to let you do this. There has to be some alternative. "
"I don't know what it would be," he opened the rear door. "I might not enjoy your company all the time, but I'm not going to put you in harm's way."
"And I don't want you to kill yourself."
"Well, maybe if they find my frozen body you can still get the gland out," he said morbidly. "The Agency won't lose its investment."
"Damn the gland. Darien, you are giving up on yourself too quickly!"
"What do you mean?"
"You are rushing out of here as if losing control is the only option you have left. I know thatís not true."
"And how could you know that?"
"I've read all of your brotherís project files. I know what happened at the compound. In your brother's notes he wrote about the time you first experienced the quciksilver madness. He says the two of you had a confrontation in the women's showers."
"What about it?"
"He wrote that you had him down, defenseless on the floor and were about to stick him full of the tranquilizer he planned to inject into you. But you pushed that needle into your arm Darien. He said you pushed the syringeÖyou did. The madness had taken over, but you still knew the right thing to do and you did it. That's what matters."
"And what about the time I attacked Hobbes in the phone booth?"
"You were under the influence of Scarborough, a man who already had the habit of forcing people into violent situations. What about that case with the little girl? Your quicksilver saturation was almost the highest itís ever been, but you didn't attack Hobbes, or the FBI agents, or the girl. You went after the sniperĖthe person who was threatening you. Darien, don't you see? You can exhibit some kind of control."
He sat down on the floor, a look of desperation on his face. "You don't understand. If I have control, it is completely based on emotion. My conscience disappears."
"You might think and feel that, but your actions prove otherwise. This pattern canít be denied. You can control yourself."
He rubbed the back of his neck again. "Youíre willing to bet your life on that?"
She didn't answer immediately. "If it means saving your life then yes, I am willing," she said, trying to gauge his emotions.
He stared at the floor for a long moment, the wind blowing snowflakes into his hair.
He pulled the door shut. "All right. I'll stay. But I'm not sure which will drive me crazy first, the quicksilver or cabin fever."
He crawled back toward the cab, took a pair of handcuffs out of the glove compartment, then climbed back into his spot. He latched on end onto the exposed metal frame of the vanís body and the other to his right wrist. "Insurance," he said. "Just in case Iím not as composed as you think I am."
They both sat in silence and Claire was about to doze off when Darien suddenly convulsed. He grabbed the back of his neck with his free left hand and gasped.
"Darien?" She said as he bent over in pain. He looked up at her--his eyes getting redder. "Can I help you in any way?"
"You've helped me enough," he panted, waiting for the episode of pain to subside. "I'm not sure what's worseĖthe pain, or you staring at me."
"I'm sorry, but I don't really have anywhere else to look," she said after downing a couple more ibuprofen tablets.
He visibly relaxed as the pain went away, but his eyes stayed the same. How long? She wondered and glanced towards the window. How long would it take for someone to find them? And if they did have to wait much longer, another day or maybe more, how salvageable would his mind be after such a long time without the counteragent?
She felt a sense of regret. They were just starting to blend as a team, starting to get a grip on how to work with each other. And if he died or was shuffled off to some Agency asylum she'd probably be reassigned to another position, either within the Agency or back to the Department of Defense.
Please, not the DOD, she silently prayed.
"How long do you think it is before I completely loose my mind?" he asked with a strained smile, pulling her away from her own thoughts.
"That's not going to happen."
"I wish I was as sure as you are," he said, rattling the cuffs.
"I want you to try and sleep. I think it would help your quicksilver saturation levels. You need to relax."
"Weíre in a life and death struggle with Mother Nature here and you want me to relax?"
She offered him a comforting smile. "Please, consider it. The more relaxed you are, the more control you have, remember? Biofeedback is the name of the game."
"All right, Iíll try," he said, reclining on the floor. "Claire?"
"If it takes them a while to find us, and I really lose it-"
"I will do my best to make you well again," she finished his sentence.
"And if you canít, youíll come visit me in the Agency nuthouse?"
She pursed her lips. "God forbid, but yes I would."
He appeared comforted by this and closed his eyes.
Claire relaxed slightly herself. She reached down and fingered the pencil that she had placed near her leg for an emergency. He was securely handcuffed to the opposite wall now, and although there was only a couple feet between them, she doubted he could do much violence in that position.
She had convinced him that he could control himself, now she had to convince herself that he could. She had no laboratory-derived evidence to suggest how he might behave in QSM. There had been little to no research conducted on him since the destruction of his brotherís lab in the desert. She had made a request to the Official to run experiments on him--stress tests and the likeĖbut he had refused her plans. He couldnít afford to have a multi-million dollar experiment wasting away in a lab. He needed Darien in the field.
Besides, he had said, did she think Darien would agree to sitting around her lab all day, like an animal?
There was no evidence, just the proof of his past behavior. She touched the pen again and laughed internally. The pen wouldnít do her any good. She glanced towards Darienís hushed form. His chest was raising and lowering slowly, indicating that he either might be asleep or very close to it.
Iím convinced, she said to herself. He never would have locked himself up like that if he didnít have some kind of control. Iím convinced.
Claire awoke feeling colder than normal and, after a few sleepy blinks she saw that the meager blanket of towels was no longer covering her. In fact, they werenít laying on the floor next to her either.
It took her another second to realize that Darien was not in his space by the cab, but was sitting next to her. She turned her head and saw just his silhouette only inches away, back lit by the meager candlelight.
She sucked in a quick breath of cold air in surprise. She couldnít manage to make a sound, because she wasnít sure what sound to make. Should she be frightened, alarmed, or relieved? She flicked her eyes in the direction of the opposite wall, where the handcuffs were still attached to the van.
"WhatÖwhat happened to the handcuffs?" She finally asked.
He didnít answer for the longest time. In fact he didnít even move. She could feel her pulse rise because she couldnít see his face, just that dark silhouette. It was almost worse than invisibility.
"You forgot to ask for the keys," he whispered, tossing them into her lap. Claire glanced at them and then back towards him. He picked them up, put them in the right pocket of her parka and patted it with his hand. "You can keep them for later."
"What about now?" She asked. He had to make the next move, and he did.
"Iím trying to decide whether to kill you now, or have a little fun first," he said, knocking back the hood of her parka with a flick of his hand. He fingered a lock of her hair as she shivered more from fear than from the cold.
"What good would killing me do you?" She asked, but wasnít sure if it would do any good. The rational side, the intellectual part of his mind was gone and in its place was instinct, desire, or maybe even blind rage. Only he knew.
How could she be sure such parts of him could be reasoned with? She would have to. It might be the only way to leave this place alive.
"Darien, I want you to think back to the discussion we had earlier about-"
"Shhhh," he shushed her and he leaned closer into her face, his red eyes glinting in the light of the candle. As he started to unzip her jacket she grabbed his hand to stop him, but he pulled away and grabbed her good wrist. "Shhhh," he admonished again and continued to unzip her coat.
He dropped his head against her chest, right between her breasts and breathed in deeply.
"You smell good enough to eat."
Claire struggled against his grip but she had little strength and every move seemed to agitate her tender wounds.
"Iím just wondering how I should kill you. What would be the most ironic death for a doctor?" he muttered. He held up one of the syringes from her bag. "I could bleed you." He held up the bottle of ibuprofen. "Overdose is an option, but I think an old fashioned strangulation would work just fine," he ran his fingers from her chin down to the base of her neck.
She shook off his touch. "You wonít profit in any way from my death."
"Iíll have one less government bastard on my back though, wonít I?" He smiled wickedly. "Looks like Iím not keeping the keeper."
"Then Iíll never get my picket fence," she said, trying to wrestle her right hand from his grip. "Or the two point three children."
"What?" he paused.
"Like you said earlier. If we donít survive this, I wonít get the chance to have a family," she said, tears of fear falling from her eyes. Her voice broke with emotion. "No big house in the suburbs, no husband."
He glared at her.
"All those possibilities for my future depend on youÖright now."
"All those things can go to hell, right along with you," he said and carefully unbuttoned the top buttons of her blouse. He pushed aside the collar and ran a finger along the lace trim of her bra.
His touch made her shudder. This impetuous intrusion into her modesty and femininity seemed like the worst violence of all, even though his touches were gentle. If this were any other situation his actions might seem seductive and sexual, but it was against her will and she was powerless to stop it. It was at this moment that the word rape flashed through her mind.
She struggled against him. His grip was like iron, but still not harsh. He was strong, but not abusive, at least not yet. Maybe what she said earlier was true. The prevailing emotion was ruling his actions, but he was still Darien Fawkes behind those red eyes. Could she use this somehow?
"Iím sorry," she whispered.
"For what?" he asked, pausing from his intrusions.
"Your airplane, the one that Kevin took apart. I had a favorite toy too, when I was youngerĖa magnifying glass. I carried it with me everywhere. I was always looking at things like bugs and dirt through it. It was my key to the world around me. But one day a schoolyard bully who wasnít fond of me grabbed it away and stomped it to pieces."
He let her arm go. She felt her lip quiver, but continued. "Maybe worse than losing the glass was the feeling of regret that I had--regret that I had let something I cared about be ruined."
"Be quiet," he muttered.
"And I know that inside of you somewhere is the Darien Fawkes who would have to regret what youíre about to do."
"You think I care about what happens to you?" He scoffed and laughed out loud.
"Maybe you donít, but I know Darien cares about who he is. Despite his past, he has convictions heíd never compromise like this."
"Yeah, Iím the perfect Boy Scout," he gave her the scout salute and put his fingers under her chin to lift her face. "But things have changed now, havenít they?"
"Darien told me once that heíd rather die than be forced to act against those convictions. And I donít think youíve changed that much that youíd do something that he would regret for the rest of his life." She reached out to touch his shoulder, but Darien slapped it away and shoved her back against the wall of the van. She gasped from the sharp stab of pain from her collarbone and erupted into fresh tears.
"Iím sorry, Iím sorry about your airplane," she said between her tears.
"Iím definitely going to kill you," he said.
"Iím sorry it broke," she cried.
"I told you to shut up!" he clamped his hand over her mouth and nose. It smelled of soot and candle wax. She clawed at it with what little strength she had left but her fragile grip on consciousness was disappearing.
Is this the way the ordeal was going to end? she thought, glaring into his eyes and trying to breathe. He just suffocates me in the middle of QSM and then gets stuck in a mental institution for the rest of his life? Underneath her terror she felt a twinge of pity for him, and her vision started to falter. She could feel the panicked, intense need for oxygen in her chest, but couldnít fulfill it.
A memory of the broken magnifying glass lying on the ground--the plastic casing broken and glass shards all over the sidewalk--passed before her eyes before the darkness overtook everything.
Claire awoke with a gasp. She took as deep a breath as she could, relishing its chill against her throat. The smell of car grease and petrol raked her nostrils before her vision cleared. Iím still in the van, she thought. She blinked a few times and looked down. Her body was blanketed with towels, her parka was zipped and completely undisturbed, just as it had been when she had first fallen asleep.
She was terrified, but she forced herself to look over towards Darien. He was sitting motionless, still handcuffed to the wall. Her slight movement caught his eye and he looked at her.
"You snore," he complained. His pupils were scarlet.
She was speechless. Had it been a nightmare? Did her preconceived notions about him create that frightening fantasy? There was no physical evidence of the confrontation--only her too recent memories.
But were they memories? It looked like he had never left his position by the wall. Should she question him about it?
But if I did, and his attempt to kill me had truly been a dream, what would he think of me?
"Have you slept?" she finally managed.
He shook his head. "Insanity can do that to a person."
This was the Darien she knew--the smart-ass underneath a relaxed exterior. He scratched his nose with the handcufffed hand and sat up. "Why donít you go back to sleep?" He rattled the cuffs. "Iím not going anywhere."
Claire nodded and looked toward the flickering candle. "Is it too early to say that I want to be found?"
"Iím not in a conversational mood right now," he said, pulling a towel around his shoulders.
"I want to be found," she repeated and let herself cry tears of relief.
A knock on the rear door of the van and the rusty squeak of its hinges woke them both.
"Knock, knock. Itís the Good Humor Man," came the deadpan voice of Bobby Hobbes from outside. He leaned into the van and took at look at its two haggard and shivering occupants.
"Well, hello there. Wakey wakey," he held up his gloved hand. In it was a syringe full of blue liquid--the counteragent. Darien nearly licked his lips in anticipation.
Hobbes pointed towards Darienís cuffed hand. "She knew just what to do with you, didnít she? Thatís why they call her the Keeper."
"Hurry up," Darien said, pulling up his sleeve.
"How did you find us?" Claire asked as Hobbes injected Darien.
"The Agency got a call from some guy who called himself ĎPop Gun.í He said you two had been in an accident and were stranded out this way. He also said you needed your meds," he gestured to Darien. "So we figured you were a few Fruit Loops short of a balanced breakfast. I called in a favor from a friend at the CIA. He fired up a satellite and triangulated on the Keeperís cell phone. And, voila, here I am."
He looked Claire over. "Looks like you need a stretcher," Hobbes said and poked his head outside. "Bring two stretchers guys. And hurry it up, will ya?" He leaned back in.
"Had to do my best saving the world without you for the past 24 hours. Wasnít easy, but I did it," he said, wiping his dripping nose. "Damn, itís cold out here! So whatís new with you two? Our invisible friend go wacko here?"
Two EMTís climbed into the van and lifted Claire onto a stretcher. A large plow vehicle and two ambulances were parked outside. Claire blinking in the bright light of the morning. The entire countryside was bathed in a beautiful blanket of white snow.
The rough, jarring motions ended as her stretcher was rolled into the back of an ambulance. The heat inside felt so reassuring. All the tension and anguish that she had pent up in the last day melted away. The EMT closed the door and looked her over.
"Iím going to take some breath sounds. Can you sit up?" He asked and she nodded. He unzipped her jacket while breathing on his stethoscope to warm it up.
"Uh, it looks like these fell out of your pocket," he said, handing her a jingling metal object. She took it from him and gasped, nearly dropped it.
"Whatís wrong?" he asked.
"N-nothingÖnothingís wrong. Go ahead," she leaned forward a little as he placed the scope on her back. In her tightened fist were the handcuff keys.
The annoying banter of a daytime talk show awoke Claire from a peaceful sleep. She wrinkled her nose in disgust at the TV and fumbled for the controls. The screen switched off with a bright flash and she settled in against the soft hospital pillow. The clock on the wall said it was two in the afternoon. She had been sleeping for four hours, but she still felt fatigued.
There was a cramp in her thigh but she didnít want to chance the pain that might come from shifting her bound up leg. Along with a broken leg, she had a fractured collarbone and one broken rib. The resulting day and a half-long ordeal had taken so much out of her. She could feel a burst of emotion welling inside her, dominated by relief, but she swallowed it. No need for that here.
It took her a moment to see the large bouquet of flowers sitting on the windowsill. The card was signed by multiple names, including Ebertís small efficient signature and the officialís scrawl. She smiled at the gesture and breathed deeply to see if she could catch any scent of the bouquet.
The blinding sunlight streaming in from the window had obscured her vision when she first woke. But it was clearing now and she noticed the corner just beyond the window was occupied. She squinted a bit at the figure that was blurred by her sleepy eyes.
"Hi," said Darienís voice. He was leaning against the wall. His left hand was wrapped in gauze and his right foot was bandaged up with brown wraps.
"Hello," she managed to say softly. She wasnít sure if she was happy to see him or not. She had not yet been debriefed by the Official or Eberts, but she was sure that Darien had probably given his report of yesterdayís events.
Did he know that she remembered everything?
"Iíll leave if you want me to," he said.
He sat down in a chair near the foot of her bed. "They managed to salvage the van."
"That will save the Agency a few thousand dollars," Claire commented, making an internal vow never to ride in it again. "Iím sure the Official is happy."
"I think good old Charlie was just glad to see that I hadnít taken off with it and you," Darien said, scratching his nose with his gauzed hand.
"Whatís that for?" she motioned to his bandages.
"A little frostbite, on my foot too," he sat down in a nearby chair and crossed his left leg on his right. "Nothing serious."
"Uh hum," she responded. An awkward silence filled the room as they both did their best not to make eye contact.
"Whatever happened last night happenedÖand I donít blame you for anything," she said.
"I canít forgive myself that easily."
"Fine, but I can forgive you. I just donít want to talk about it, ever again. And I donít care to share it with anyone else, be it an official report or only small talk."
"Same here," he nodded and stood up. "I better get going. Iím sure if I donít get back Hobbes will start thinking Iím letting him down on the job."
He handed her a small packaged wrapped in pink paper that said in white letters, "Itís a girl!"
"Got you something, but this was the only wrapping paper they had left in the gift shop," he apologized.
"Thank you," she said, holding it against her chest. "Iíll see you back at the lab."
Darien stood and started limping towards the door.
"Why did you stop?" she asked before he could leave. He paused, but didnít turn around. "It wasnít a dream. You could have killed or raped meĖwith no conscience to hinder you. Why did you stop?
He turned to face her, a pained expression on his face. "You were my conscience," he said and shrugged his shoulders. He walked out before she could say more.
An emotional weight lifted off her shoulders and she relaxed into the comfortable bed. There were tears in her eyes, although she wasnít sure why. Claire wiped them away, embarrassed even though she was alone.
She ripped apart the garish paper and opened the small box. Inside was a pocket magnifying glass. She put her hand to her mouth to stifle a sob.
"How are you feeling?" asked a nurse as she stepped into the room. She noticed Claireís wet face and handed her a tissue. Claire closed the box and placed it in the pile of wrinkled paper in her lap.
"A little shook upÖthank you," she dabbed at her eyes with the tissue.
"Is this garbage?" the nurse asked, pointing to the pile of paper.
"Yes, all of it," Claire handed her the paper and the box, with the glass still inside.
It was one of many regrets she preferred to leave in the past.