I watched as Nan punched her pillow, fighting the tears that would fall again tonight. They fell every night since it happened. She was torn apart, lost and grieving. And, there was not a thing I could do about it.
Not if I wanted to keep her safe.
She screamed, and buried her head in the pillow she’d been beating. Her shoulders hitched and I knew she was sobbing, again.
I felt my chest burning. My heart ached in a way that should probably kill me. I only wished there was some way I could comfort her. But, she couldn’t know I was there, watching her. Alive. There was no way I could tell her what had really happened.
I’d been watching her for the last month. She seemed to know I was around, soundly refusing to believe that I was dead. Even when they found the burnt out shell of my Beechcraft, she fought against them.
I knew she wouldn’t give up easily. She believed in me.
I thought about our last morning together.
“Be careful, Slate,” Nan said, smiling as she stood on her toes to kiss me goodbye. She ran her fingers through my unruly hair and sighed.
“You know I’m always careful.” I wrapped my arms around her for a final embrace, lifting her tiny frame off the ground. She was so light, so fragile.
“Hurry back. We have wedding plans to work on.” I moaned playfully.
She smiled at my phony protest.
“Keep up the act, Slate, people might start to believe I’m forcing you to marry me.” I laughed and kissed her again.
She knew that I was as excited as she was about the wedding. My business had finally taken off. The deal I would make today could keep my company busy for the next ten years. We could get married and finally have real time together. She’d put up with a lot in the last three years.
I flew for the next two hours, smiling to myself about the good things in my life, singing along with Linkin Park. I didn’t have a care in the world.
Until the white flash.
It came out of nowhere. The light was so blinding that I was completely stunned, unable to see my instrument panel. I felt around the panels, trying to come up with some way to control the aircraft.
But, I could feel the Beechcraft shuddering, could hear the metal screeching beneath me. I concentrated on what I had been trained to do in an emergency. Nothing had prepared me for this.
For some reason, the last thing I remember doing was lifting my wrist to my face to look at my watch.
My life was measured in seconds, but the second hand seemed to be slowing.
Burning white heat enveloped my body and I lost all sense of self.
I woke up on the ground, groggy and unsure of what had happened.
I was far enough away from the burning wreckage that I couldn’t feel the heat, but I could see the flickering of the fire on the rocks by my face. It took me a minute to realize where I was and what had happened. There was no blood, no searing pain. I seemed to be in one piece.
I had no idea why I was still alive. I didn’t know then what I had become.
She sighed and I was brought back to the present.
She was finally falling into a restless sleep. Her breathing steadied and I wanted so badly to touch her that I was reckless for a moment.
I climbed in through the window, my vantage point on her life, and walked slowly to the bed.
She looked so peaceful in sleep. Her long blonde hair fanned out over the pillows, silk spun across the bed. Her lips pouted as she spoke lightly in her sleep, making no sense. All of it was so familiar to me, but so far away from the man who stood here now.
I needed to touch her face, feel her skin, and smell her hair. I had to be close to her again.
I reached, hesitant, but aching to touch her.
My fingers swept her soft cheek. It was still wet from her tears. I leaned down and kissed her forehead, whispering all the things I wanted to tell her, apologizing for the promises I couldn’t keep.
I swept a finger across her tear stained cheek, trying to remove the evidence of her agony.
Kneeling next to the bed, I laid my head next to her body, inhaling deeply. The selfish part of me begged to wake her, tell her I was here, living and breathing. The rational part of me won and I bit my tongue, beating back the selfish creature.
Her arms were wrapped around the framed engagement picture we had taken just weeks before my ‘accident’. I tried to move her hand to look at the smiling, beautiful couple.
This was the perfect couple. Two people who were made for each other. The man was tall and dark in a black Armani suit. The woman petite and fair, a deep blue Versace dress flowing over her curves.
Opposite, but equal. The smiles were real, the enthusiasm honest. Ideal.
I stroked the magic couple in the glass with my fingers, regret eating at my guts.
Her eyelids started to flutter. She was on the verge of waking.
I knew what she would see when she opened her eyes. The same eyes, ice-blue she called them, the same messy black hair fanned over my forehead, the same jaw line, the same dimples when I smiled. It was still the face she knew. But, I wasn’t the same. I was a different person now, changed, lost forever.
I couldn’t do this to her.
I looked at the clock on her nightstand, willing time to move more slowly. The seconds started to creep by, and her eyelids moved in slow motion. I kissed her cheek one more time.
“I’m so sorry, Nan,” I said as I ran for the window.
I had a few seconds before the effect would wear off after I left, and I couldn’t allow her to see me.
I was all the way down the tree, running to the street when I heard her.
“Slate, come back to me. Please, come back. I need you.” Her sobs ripped at my soul, and I rushed to the corner, fighting every instinct that called me back to her window.
I fell to my knees as I turned to the next street. I don’t know why my heart didn’t explode. I’d never been in so much pain.
The city was the same as every other night; quiet, sleepy, lonely. It was still a small city, not as big as New York or Los Angeles, and that was comforting in so many ways.
A few 24-hour convenience stores hustled what little business there was to be done at this time of night. Only a few people walked the streets, a few cars rumbled past. Airplanes flew overhead. Almost everything was the same as it had always been.
A woman walked past me, taking in my form as she passed. She looked into my face, obviously trying to get a good look, but gasped at the pain she must have seen there.
“Hi,” she stuttered.
I wandered for a while after that, lost in my own thoughts, fighting the loneliness that pulled me back toward that window.
A man’s startled voice coming from a parking structure ahead of me grabbed my attention, bringing me back to reality.
The lot belonged to the Urobloc Corporation, the biggest business in town.
I ended up at this building every night, looking for a way in, anxious for some answers. But, tonight was different, something was happening.
The man sounded frantic, “Stop, now!”
I heard his feet as he ran across the pavement, fear thick in his movements.
I don’t know why I felt so compelled to see what was happening, it wouldn’t have anything to do with me. But, before I could contemplate what I was doing, I was standing at the entrance to the lot.
The night guard, a short round man with chapped cheeks and very little hair, was shuffling next to his booth, his gun drawn, waving it at a figure lurking at the other end of the parking garage. I could hear the noise of a distant alarm, coming from somewhere inside of the building.
The dark figure was attempting to get into a car.
“Don’t move, I’ll shoot you,” the guard said, his voice quivering.
The person in the garage was leaning into the backseat of a car, stashing something. As they stood, I saw a flash of light on the metal in their hand.
They were holding a gun.
The figure didn’t say a word, but signaled with the gun for the guard to move.
“Stay there,” he yelled again.
A shot rang out, echoing through the concrete structure. I had to act now.
I glanced at my watch, feeling the waves of time slowing as I did so.
I controlled the speed of the bullet as it neared the booth. I ran toward the pitiful man in his Aames Security uniform.
I could tell when I reached the booth that the shot had only been a warning. It wouldn’t hit the guard.
Switching direction while still holding time in my grasp, I ran toward the figure.
As I got closer, I sized up the person lurking in the dark. They wore designer black leather pants and a trendy biker jacket, and black boots with three inch heels.
What kind of thief wears heels? An inexperienced woman, that’s who, I told myself.
It was indeed a woman. She was slender with strands of dark hair trailing out of her black stocking cap. Her face was darkened by make-up, an attempt to conceal her identity, no doubt.
She was shaking in slow motion. The gun in her hand was shivering from side to side. She hadn’t wanted to shoot at the man.
I reached over and took the gun from her hand, engaged the safety and stowed it in the pocket of my jacket.
I looked at her face. She was pretty under the dark makeup. Her features were delicate. And, she was truly terrified. Her eyes were wide and her pupils dilated.
Why was she doing this? She obviously didn’t really know how to be a thief. What was so important that she would risk this?
I looked in the back seat of her car. A large white box with blue writing and trim sat on the floor. It appeared to be a filing box from an office. ‘Hendrickson, Inc. /Confidential’ was written across the top in big black letters.
My heart stopped. Time jerked at my reaction.
“Hendrickson, Inc.?” I asked myself.
I’d been researching the small company for the last month. I knew everything I could possibly find out about their President and CEO, which was little. The Board of Directors was a silent and murky crowd, the members hiding behind aliases.
Their parent company was Urobloc.
I knew, with a surety that made my heart kick into double time, that it was while I was flying over the laboratory of Hendrickson Inc. that I saw the blinding white flash. That event had caused me to crash my plane.
That day Slate Randalls had officially died.
I was breathing hard. I could feel the waves of time swimming around me and I knew that I didn’t have a grip on my control of the flow. The woman next to me was moving in slow motion, speeding up, and then slowing down again.
“Calm down,” I said out loud before taking several deep soothing breaths.
Good. I had maintained enough control. And, I had a plan.
I grabbed the small woman and moved her toward her car door, angling her into the driver’s seat. I reached around her and started the car, and hoped she would have the good sense to drive like a mad woman when I allowed time to resume its normal pace.
Pausing for only a moment, I reached into the back of the car and grabbed the file box. I lifted, noticing her purse hiding under the corner of the seat.
“Amateur; taking your personal crap to the scene of the crime!”
I slipped my hand into the bag, fishing for a moment and came up with an ID tag from Urobloc.
“Good luck, Dr. Jessica Chase, Mechanical Engineer.”
I dropped the tag back into the bag and stepped out of the car, shifting the box to my side. I looked at her license plate; at least she had the sense to cover it.
I jogged back to the opening of the parking structure, stopping long enough at the guard shack to take the gun out of the security guard’s hands. I dropped it inside the shack and bolted for the street, aiming for the alley next to the structure.
The box sat on the bed in my grungy little hotel room. This was the place I now called home; this dark little hell-hole in the middle of the city, normally a stop-over for vagrants and nomads. All mine, as long as I paid their weekly rate, in cash.
I took a deep breath before I removed the lid. I wasn’t sure why I felt uneasy, I only knew that I did.
There was something about Hendrickson, Inc. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I knew they were involved in some way with the accident. I knew there was something unnatural about what had happened to me.
But, I still wasn’t sure I wanted to know what it all meant. And for some reason, I felt like the contents of the box would tell me.
Maybe it was the small, delicate woman who had risked her job and her life to smuggle the box out of the company. Maybe it was because there were fences that surrounded the Hendrickson compound in the desert, fences that were six feet tall and electrified, with barbed wire running around the top. Perhaps it was the fact that there were security guards walking around the perimeter with assault rifles, looking for any survivors of a plane crash.
I had been lucky enough to find a hole under the fence, probably created by a hungry fox. I’d slipped through the tight spot, the wire tearing my shirt and slashing the skin on my back as I’d escaped that day. Who knows, I’d most likely be dead otherwise.
Or worse, a lab rat.
I shuddered at the thought.
The box was full of files, tabs sticking up. They were color coded and I tried to make sense of the order. Each tab contained a name, last name first, first name, middle initial.
“Who are all these people? What did Hendrickson want with them?”
I fingered the tabs, lifting the files, then dropping them back into the box. Adams, Jacob C., Denver, Camilla A., Grover, Cybil T., Lyman, William H…the names bounced around my head. Some of them were vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place them.
With a start, I realized the tab I was holding contained a name I would know anywhere. Randalls, Slate C.
“What the hell?”
It was time to delve into the files a little further. What was going on here? What did they mean? And why on God’s green earth did they have a file with my name on it?
I lifted my own file out of the box. Fear was a stone in my gut. It mixed with the strange sense of excitement and I felt slightly nauseated.
If the answer was here, I may be able to live again.
I couldn’t help picturing Nan’s face as I walked in the front door, listening to her screams of joy and relief, wiping the tears she would spill out of happiness rather than pain.
I opened the file.
It was disappointing. A picture of my burned Cessna, a copy of my flight plan, a police report, a coroner’s report – No Bodily Tissues present, and Nan’s name and address. A final page was stapled to the back cover, an investigators report: Whereabouts Unknown.
That threw me for a minute. Not deceased. ‘Whereabouts Unknown’. Were they looking for me?
I threw the file across the room, pissed at myself for allowing hope to seep into my heart, and suddenly scared to death for Nan.
Angry, I picked up the first file I touched, Lyman, William H.
This file was large. The inside of the folder had a glossy black and white photo of a man who appeared to be in his mid-forties. He was average looking, wore glasses and had thinning hair.
The first page in the file was a profile. I skimmed it, looking for interesting details about the man.
Single, never married, no immediate family members listed, worked at Hendrickson Labs in Connecticut for ten years before becoming a ‘volunteer’.
The pages that followed contained health information: volumes and volumes of health information. Everything – his blood count, his sperm count, his DNA results…I could write a book about the guy.
I continued leafing through the pages, becoming bored with what I was reading. There were pages of journal entries by someone other than Willy boy.
Day 1: William is cooperative and happy. He understands the experiment and fully agrees to participate.
Experiment? They were experimenting on humans?
I was suddenly wide awake again, anxious to read the rest of the file. The journal entries went on for ninety days, ending on the morning of the ‘experiment’.
Day 90: Will is ready to go. He’s excited to help science in any way.
My stomach rolled; anxiety and anger boiled in me.
I turned to the final page.
FINAL REPORT. I gasped.
Status of experiment: Failed
Status of volunteer: Deceased, disintegrated by laser
Recommendation: Reduce strength of laser, increase distance to target
I couldn’t read any further. The file fell from my fingers, pages spilling on the floor.
Nausea grabbed me, hurling me toward the garbage can in the corner. I puked. I sat up for a moment and then puked again.
Holy shit! What were these people doing?
After a few minutes, I calmed down and began taking care of myself. I stripped off my sweat stained t-shirt and wiped my face.
I had to face the rest of the box. I needed to know.
The room was stifling at this point. Claustrophobic. Too small.
The box seemed to vibrate, calling to me. I answered, grabbing another file.
Denver, Camilla A.
A photo of a shy woman with a pony tail and big, dark-rimmed glasses stared at me when I opened the cover. I ignored the details and flipped to the end of the file.
Status of experiment: Failed
Status of volunteer: Deceased, reconfigured distance from laser did not prevent disintegration
The file fell from my hand. I reached mindlessly for the next one, and the next one. The faces melded together, becoming a crowd on my floor. A few loose papers scattered through the room.
Each final report was a dagger through my heart.
Failed. Deceased. Disintigrated. Not enough distance. Change of laser doesn’t appear to affect the outcome. Body parts found. Charring. Organs burned. Dead.
And here I sat. Alive. My only visible scar was on my back, from the fence. I was able to manipulate time. And I was stronger than I used to be.
What else was there? What else had they done to me?
I couldn’t process it. My head could not get around the idea of a lab that took lives over and over. I couldn’t fathom a laser that just happened to go off when I was flying over their compound.
Who had died in that experiment? What volunteer was used on that day?
I had to walk away for a minute.
Breathe, I told myself, just breathe.
And then I saw the leather binder that had been hidden under the files. It was zipped. J. Chase was embossed in gold letters on the black leather.
I sat down on the edge of the bed and worked up the courage to open the innocuous little book.
Each tooth of the zipper snarled as I moved it, sending chills down my spine. The book fell open and I could see a pile of documents: Inter-office memos, hand-written pages, copies of legal documents.
My heart raced as I looked at the papers in my hand.
In my grasp was a full listing of the Board of Directors of Hendrickson, Inc., complete with home addresses and phone numbers.
The next document was a memo stating the intentions of the project: bullet points…To redefine human DNA, Enhancement of natural abilities, Increase muscle strength, Refine normal senses, Define new senses…
The papers shook in my hands. I’d come to the last document.
Extermination Order – Randalls, Slate C.
Object is on the loose. Abilities remain undefined. Threat to project - significant.
And so, here I sit, in a grungy hotel room. My old life washed away by the men named on the paper in my hand.
I was no longer Slate Randalls, man with a dream, a company and a beautiful fiancé.
Who would I become?
Slate the killer, seeking revenge on each of the people on the list. Should I do the thing to them that they had done to others - disintegration, dissolution and death?
Or, would I be Slate the whistle blower, the unknown bearer of documents that would bring down a huge corporation and the government agents involved with it?
Maybe, I could just be Slate the man, a person who used his newly discovered abilities to help people and save lives.
I walked to the sink and filled my hands with water, splashing my face.
I looked at the man in the mirror, his blue eyes sparking, and smiled.
“Good morning, Slate.”