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Author's note: This action-adventure novel was written to explore the far reaches of moral ambiguity and power of corruption.
“I loved you, you know.” I told her, struggling to find my voice. The cold steel of a pistol pressed to the back of my skull was nothing new to me, but this time things were different. Things had finally become personal.
“I know you did,” she said as she lowered the handgun. “I’m sorry things have to end this way.” She cocked the gun and brought it back into position. I closed my, preparing for the inevitable.
And that’s where the memory ends. When the bomb went off seconds later, the scene in the apartment building came to a fiery end. In a bizarre twist of fate, the woman and I were the only two survivors. According to the nurses, my name is John Lange. I take their word for it, because I can’t remember anything about my old life, except for those brief moments before the explosion.
It’s a curious thing, to your reflection in a mirror for the first time in your life. I don’t know who I expected to see staring back, but the man in the mirror wasn’t him. My black hair was cropped short in a military grade haircut, and my skin wasn’t pale, but it wasn’t tan either. My arms were covered in scars that had long since faded away, but the faint lines could still be traced. Most striking of all was my eye color, so pale blue that they appeared grey. I’d never seen anyone else with eyes this shade, and I studied them silently for a long time. The look they cast on others could only be described as war-ravaged, a desperate longing to escape a lifetime of suffering.
But curiously…I was happy. After all, I’d been given a fresh start. I had the rest of my life ahead of me, and there was an entire world out there to re-discover.
They say I am a private investigator, operating in New York. Or I was, at least, before my last case took a turn for the worse and I ended up in the care of Project NOVA. The woman was…is…Fiona Callahan, my ex-wife.
It took me two months to come out of the coma, and I was damn lucky to be alive. My memory was hardly a small price to pay, but it seemed the higher ups at the Project preferred me this way. In their eyes, I was the perfect operative; a blank slate to train, a blank slate who owed them his life. Poor Fiona hadn’t yet regained consciousness, but I hadn’t given up hope.
I couldn’t explain it, the strange sympathy and attachment I felt to a woman like Fiona. I mean, physically, she was beautiful. Her hair was a deep red, which she kept just past shoulder length and straightened. I couldn’t remember ever looking her in the eye, but some how I knew her eyes were a bright green.
How Fiona had ever married a guy like me, I’ll never know. No, what I didn’t understand about my attraction to Fiona was that my only memory of her had been an attempted homicide. The closest thing I could attribute my feelings for Fiona to would be the deluded idea of love at first sight. Obviously, I had once been in love with this woman, and without the memories of whatever happened to drive us apart, I had nothing to hinder the same head over heels feelings we once shared. As a result, I visited her room in the hospital wing every day, just before I hit the bar with my partner, Morty. The doctors said her condition was improving, but I couldn’t tell.
“How’s the wife?” Morty asked as I took my usual place next to him at the bar, which was located on Project NOVA’s grounds. The Project spared no expense when it came to the luxury of its operatives.
“Ex-wife,” I reminded him. “She’s doing well, I suppose. As well as someone who’s comatose can do. But it won’t be long before she’s joining us for field missions.”
“We’ll see,” he replied.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked curiously. Samuel “Morty” Mortimer was my only friend, but even he was a mystery. He had been with the Project for two years already. He rarely talked of his personal life, only once slipping up to mention he had a wife back home. He had gotten even more flustered when I asked him where home was, as if it would even make a difference.
“All I’m saying, John, is that we don’t know what she’ll be like when and if she awakes. She’s been in a coma for six months now.” Morty said as he took a sip of his drink. I followed suit, enjoying the refreshing taste of whatever concoction Morty had ordered for me.
“Alright, you win. What’s on the agenda tomorrow, Mort?” It was pointless to ask, considering the next day was a Saturday, which is a big deal when it comes to the Project.
“Another civilian mission, and after that I think we’ve earned some R&R on lazy Sunday.” Morty had this tendency to use phrases like ‘lazy Sunday’, which he claimed was a reference to something that I wouldn’t understand. Either way, Sundays were the closest any operatives got to a normal day.
In normal cases, it can take months to fully adjust to Project NOVA’s way of life. That was never the case for me, considering I had no life to leave behind. Black suits and white ties every day, limited to no internet access or contact with the outside world, and military grade hair cuts were the ingredients to a normal life for me.
Yes, I was still mostly in the dark about what the Project actually did. Their purpose, along with whatever role I played in it, was on a need to know basis. Apparently, I didn’t need to know.
“Mr. Lange?” I turned around to see Doctor Rovin holding a file with my name on it in his hands. Rovin, who was only a couple of years older than me, was one of the higher-ups in the Project. I don’t know a lot about him, but it’s a safe bet that Rovin wasn’t a medical doctor. I’d never seen him in the hospital wing any of the times I’d visited Fiona, that’s for sure.
Rovin wore glasses; I wasn’t quite sure I believed he needed them. His silvery-grey hair clashed with his otherwise youthful appearance, and he had a reputation among Project NOVA operatives to be the constant bearer of bad news.
“Hey, Doc,” I said cautiously, unsure as to what ill news he could have for someone like me. “What’s going on?”
“Well, John…do you mind if I call you John?” Without waiting for an answer, Rovin opened the folder he was holding and skimmed it as he continued. “It appears we’ve had a change in scheduling for you and Mr. Mortimer. Tomorrow you will be joining Mr. Westfield on a high profile mission in Manhattan. An important Presidential candidate will be doing the keynote speech at the International Economic Summit and it will be your squad’s duty to ensure everything goes according to plan.”
“And what is this ‘plan’, exactly?”
“Let’s just say that we’ll make the headline of Sunday’s paper,” Rovin laughed in an unsettling way. He began to stride down the hallway, still laughing.
One of the more peculiar things about the Project was the lack of alarm clocks. We were given standard issue digital clocks that displayed military time in a number of time zones, but we were not permitted to attach or utilize any sort of alarm system. Nine times out of ten, our superiors would use this to wake us at any ungodly hour of their choosing in an effort to keep operatives on their toes.
My quarters were spacious, even for a place as enigmatic as Project NOVA headquarters, which seemed to have no limits to its size. Plain white walls and fluorescent lighting aside, the room was cozy. I was its only occupant, and as such the king sized bed always seemed out of place.
That night, just as every night I could remember before it, I slept soundly without even the slightest hint of a dream. After what felt like ages, I was aggressively shaken by a man in a black suite with a white tie, who I recognized as Agent Markus Westfield, the high ranking operative who would be commanding the day’s mission.
“Wake up, Lange. Mortimer is already in the locker room prepping; get whatever you’re going to need for the mission and meet me at the airstrip,” he ordered. Westfield was calm and collected, and looked the part. He had cold, ice blue eyes that never betrayed whatever emotions he harbored within.
“Yes, sir,” I said as I followed him to the locker room where Morty was already adjusting his tie. Westfield waited at the door, and I hurriedly gathered my supplies.
“You think you’re going to handle this, John?” Morty asked as I pulled on jacket. I glared back at him, because I was still completely in the dark about what we were going to do. Morty has been on five Class-Three Operations and two Class-Two’s. If anyone was going to offer me any advice for what was about to happen, it’d be Mortimer.
“Johnny, we’re walking straight into the mouth of Hell with this one. This is a Class-Two Operation, pal. With a squad of only three men, one with almost no field experience, let’s just say we’re going to come out of this one a little messed up.”
“And you’re okay with that, Sam? You’re going to put your life on the line for nameless, faceless suits? For a cause you aren’t allowed to know about?” I knew my questions were out of line, but I desperately wanted Morty to slip up and tell me something I shouldn’t know about, The Project had saved my life and I owed them, but my blind loyalty had its limits.
“I’m a soldier, John. We both are. And you know what soldiers do? We save lives. And that’s what we’re doing today. Me, you, and Westfield over there, we’re going to be saving innocent lives. Besides, man, don’t worry. You’re just the lookout.” And with that, Samuel Mortimer handed me two fully loaded magnum pistols.
“Some lookout,” I muttered as I slid the two angels of death into their holsters and exited the locker room.
Westfield had gone ahead to the airstrip, where a small private jet was waiting to take us to Manhattan. The jet was windowless, as to conceal the location of the island Project NOVA called home. While the temperature suggested somewhere tropic, the uneventful flight to New York was surprisingly quick.
I felt a little squeamish as I sat adjacent from Morty and behind Westfield on the flight. I found myself lost in thought until I caught a bit of my teammates’ conversation, which grabbed my attention enough to listen.
“…and you make sure that you set up the fall guy in the right place at the right time. If this job isn’t handled perfectly, it’ll be your ass on the line, Mortimer. Not mine, and not Lange’s.”
“I understand, sir. And as for our evac?”
“You’ll regroup with Lange and ride the subway aimlessly until you’re approached by a man with two briefcases. You’ll know him when you see him,” Westfield said cryptically. At this point, I was more than a little confused and had to get some clarification.
“How will I know when it’s time for us to regroup?”
“Oh, trust me, rookie. You’ll know, you’ll know.” I heeded Westfield’s words with a silent nod.
A few minutes later, Westfield began to unbuckle his seatbelt and gather his belongings. He nodded towards us and we followed suit. Mortimer and I each slipped on a nondescript pair of black sunglasses which were outfitted with an electronic audio receiver and microphone in the right earpiece. With these, we’d be able to stay in touch during the mission.
Each of us placed our weaponry in black briefcases as the jet landed in a private airstrip just north of Manhattan, the majority of which was underground. Ordinarily for civilian missions we would be air-dropped a short distance from the site of the mission, but for something as high profile as a Class-Two Operation, we needed to be as hidden as possible.
Above ground there were three black sedans waiting for us, each with a New York license plate and tag. To the untrained eye we appeared to be nothing more than out-of-state business men in the city for a conference.
“Alright boys, I’ll see you after this is over and done with. Rest assured, we will make history today,” Westfield declared. Morty and I saluted our leader and entered the back seat of our respective sedans. Though we were all going to arrive at the same building, it was necessary we ride in separate cars for security reasons. Project guidelines dictate that in the event of a sabotaged operation, any agent captured by an enemy and unable to escape was charged with the duty of disposing of themselves. Not one to go against Project NOVA policy if I could avoid it, I kept a cyanide capsule in the heel of my right shoe, just in case.
When the trio of cars pulled up at our temporary headquarters, an office building conveniently closed for construction, I tried not to look nervous. Westfield and Morty could tell from my clenched fists and somber expression that I was starting to get an idea of what we were taking part in, and though I found it unsettling, I understood we had to do it.
We had to assassinate the future President of the United States.
Westfield led us up a winding flight of stairs to the penultimate floor of the former location of Charter National, Inc. To my surprise the floor was empty except for a wooden chair in the corner of the room, where a young man was bound and gagged.
“Ah, this must be our fall guy,” Morty said, breaking the silence. He went over to the chair and released the captive, but gripped his shoulder tightly and prodded him in the back with a silenced pistol. I watched the scene carefully for a moment before Westfield motioned for me to guard the staircase. I didn’t feel the need to point out that should a squad of policemen arrive, the measly Kevlar vest I wore beneath my suit would do little to protect me.
Westfield opened his briefcase and began assembling his bolt-action sniper rifle behind a curtained window. At a public event as large as the one we were crashing, the scope of the gun would have to remain hidden as long as humanly possible before we poked our heads out for the kill.
“What are you doing?” Our unfortunate guest managed to mumble through his gag. Morty dug the barrel of his pistol further into his back before answering.
“Why, Mr. Allen Stevenson, you are about to assassinate Presidential candidate Luther Jameson. You’re a deranged, sick man. You’ve been missing for a week now, you know. When the police searched your apartment they found a number of unregistered firearms, illegal drugs, and eleven copies of Alice in Wonderland, all disturbingly annotated. I daresay you’ve got all the makings of a serial killer,” Westfield informed him.
A shiver went down my spine as I listened to Westfield break down the entire framing of the operation. Project NOVA was notoriously thorough, and the operation would undoubtedly end in Stevenson’s death. I wondered how the Project chose its victim. It certainly couldn’t be by chance, and the sheer amount of information that Westfield had on our fall guy was ridiculous.
“Allen Edward Stevenson, age 26. Born and raised in Trebuchet, New Jersey, moved to Manhattan eleven months ago after being fired from your job at Pizza Plaza. You dropped out of Trebuchet High when you were sixteen after you were accused of molesting another student, a charge you were later acquitted for. Police records note that you’ve been charged twice with possession of illegal narcotics. Parents are deceased; your father was a deadbeat who left when you were four, your mother was a drug addict and a prostitute who left you in the care of a foster family at age seven. Unsurprisingly, you’ve had a history of mental illnesses ranging from paranoid schizophrenia to an uncontrollable obsession with birds. Need I go on?”
Tears welled up in Stevenson’s eyes as he shook his head and looked away. Westfield shook his head and returned to his rifle. I checked my wristwatch; we were a mere fifteen minutes away from show time. From another window, I looked down at the streets below. The roads had been blocked off to accommodate the crowd, and Luther Jameson’s face had been plastered everywhere. Having lived the past four months as a shut in from society, I didn’t know his political stances or particularly care. I took note that the campaign photo painted the man as particularly cunning, emblazoned with the slogan “Take Charge for America”.
Markus Westfield clapped his hands together and a devilish grin lit up his face.
“Alright, boys, it’s time for our friend Allen over here to make history. Now if we assume that the Alice in Wonderland books were the trigger in some sort of wild conspiracy, what would be a fitting one-liner?” Westfield said snidely as he trained his sites through the curtain, readying his arm to pull it aside at the last second. His process was meticulous, the sign of a true trained professional.
“Through the looking scope,” I provided. Westfield and Mortimer both shot me concerned looks, which I mirrored in confusion.
“How do you remember anything about Wonderland enough to make a reference, John?” Morty asked as he held close to our hostage.
“We don’t have time for this psychological bullshit right now, fellas,” Westfield said sternly. “Take our guest to the roof, please.”
Morty grabbed Stevenson as I led the way up the staircase. Not fully aware of what was going on, I voiced concern for the plan’s completion.
“And what are we going to the roof for, Sam?”
“To tie up our loose end,” he replied coldly.
Morty ordered Stevenson to stand at the edge of the roof, facing us. He removed the mouth gag, but we kept our guns aimed at his chest to avoid having our victim give away our position. In a hoarse whisper, Allen Edward Stevenson asked me a personal question.
“Why are you doing this?”
I thought about the answer for a split second before two shots rang out and the crowd below erupted into screams of terror. This was, after all, New York, the prime target of foreign and domestic terrorist attacks. Within seconds, Westfield had joined us on the roof and tossed his now empty rifle towards Stevenson.
“I’ll clean things up,” Mortimer announced as he went to reach for his second sidearm. I heard an audible gasp when he realized it was not in the holster where he’d left it, but instead it was produced from the hoodie being worn by Stevenson.
“I’m sorry,” he croaked as he fired at Morty. The shot connected solidly in his left arm, and I instinctively fired back with my magnums. As practiced on civilian missions, I purposefully missed my target, so as to not damage our fall guy. In his sudden fear and alarm, Stevenson stumbled backward, tripping over Westfield’s sniper rifle and tumbling from the roof of Charter National.
As Allen Edward Stevenson and the sniper rifle he didn’t use came to a sickening crash on the sidewalk below, Westfield and I were bandaging Morty’s arm. We didn’t have the means or the time to remove the bullet, so he would have to do without medical attention for some time.
As we rushed out of the building and into the tumultuous swarm of panicking sheep, our weapons now safely stored in our briefcases, we went our separate ways. Morty took off the fastest, not wanting to draw attention to his bullet wound. I continued south towards a subway entrance, but I was caught off guard when I was yanked into the back of a parked van by a stranger. My captor knew to immediately relieve me of my briefcase and had me restrained before I had any idea what was happening, and I was unfortunately at his mercy.
“Dammit, John Lange, I never thought I’d live to see the day you were working with Project NOVA,” the man said.
I studied the man seated across from me very carefully. Large aviator sunglasses hid most of his face from view, and he was dressed somewhere between formal and casual. He wore khaki slacks with a button down shirt and tie, but his sleeves were rolled up and he looked disheveled. His sandy brown hair hung over his sunglasses and scruffy five o’clock shadow completed his image.
“Who are y—” I started before being cut off.
“I’m sure you have plenty of questions as to who I am and how I know about Project NOVA and its individual operatives; everything will be revealed in due time,” my captor said as he opened a briefcase facing away from me. It’s always ‘in due time’ with these kidnappers, isn’t it? Nothing can ever just be laid out for their victims.
As I watched him crack open the case I instinctively went towards my briefcase, which he had stowed just out of my reach. The man watched my futile efforts and laughed callously before he produced three sheets of paper from his own briefcase.
“You thought I was going to pull a gun on you, didn’t you?” He laughed once more before handing me the sheets of paper. “These belong to you, John. I hope they serve you well. I’ll be in touch.”
I hadn’t realized, but in the time we’d been talking the van’s driver had pulled out of its parking spot and began driving, the streets having been cleared for the convention. The sandy haired man opened the back doors to the van and tossed my briefcase out of the moving vehicle, and I cringed as it collided with the pavement.
“I suggest you follow your briefcase. Goodbye, John,” said my captor. With that, the driver pulled the van over and I was thrown onto the sidewalk.
Slowly, I stood up and tried to regain my bearings. When I could see straight, I realized that the van had already sped off. Swearing, I dashed after my briefcase. As I neared the case, I could hear the static in my earpiece fade away. The van had jammed my signal somehow, but something told me I shouldn’t give away all the details of my strange encounter too quickly.
“Westfield, Morty, do you read me? This is John, I…” I stammered, trying to explain my absence from the squad’s communications link. “I made a wrong turn, sorry. Where are you?”
“On the subway, John,” Morty buzzed in. “We’ll be stopping at your location in a few minutes. Get your ass down here or you’re going to be in some deep shit!”
A few grueling minutes later, I was catching my breath on the subway, having been reunited with my partner. Samuel hadn’t seen the “two-briefcase man” we were told to wait for, so I was in the clear. Morty and I felt uncomfortable being the only two calm passengers on a train packed with panicking lost souls. From what I knew of modern history, New Yorkers tended to be resilient towards terrorist attacks, and those not within the immediate radius of the assassination only heard whispers of Luther Jameson’s untimely death.
In the rush of passengers getting on and off the subway, I almost failed to notice the thin man who had boarded the train carrying two briefcases. The man was an albino, his pale skin and red eyes were alarming. His gaunt eyes sank so deep into his face that he looked skeletal as he strode towards us. I nudged Mortimer, and we both nodded towards the man. He acknowledged us and handed us the briefcase in his left hand.
“Please place this under your seat, John Lange. When we exit the subway, you will forget this briefcase,” he instructed in an accent I assumed was Russian.
I did as I was told, and waited patiently for the order to exit the subway. I wasn’t sure what was in the suitcase, but the day’s events had taught me to always expect extreme measures.
Since our lanky guest had arrived, Morty had fallen suspiciously silent. The look in his eyes showed a very distinct emotion; fear. I dared to catch his eye, and he looked as if he had seen a ghost. I shuddered as a chill ran up my spine; would I really leave my life in this man’s hands?
Before I could contemplate our options, the man indicated it was time to leave. I grabbed the briefcase containing my sidearms and, as instructed, forgot the other one. Morty remained deathly silent; only nodding to the skeletal man. After a few minutes of walking briskly through street corners and alleyways, I saw the familiar sight of three black sedans waiting for us.
The albino opened his remaining briefcase and removed a small, black device, reminiscent of a Rubix cube. After a few rotations, he pressed the center square in like a button, and then stopped. In the distance, a small series of explosions erupted.
“Did you just blow up the subway?” I whispered harshly, not wanting to be overheard.
“No, John Lange, you did. It was you, as you recall, who planted the explosives. Well done,” he laughed. His laughs had a strange wheezing aspect to them, but it was not quite the same as a chronic smoker or someone who suffered from asthma. No, this man’s ragged breathing was almost more mechanical. Without another word, he entered his sedan and it drove off.
“Morty, who is that guy?” I asked my partner. Morty, still horrified at whatever had happened, simply shook his head and entered his own sedan. Reluctantly, I followed suit and entered my own sedan. I took advantage of the long return trip to the airstrip to peruse the sheets of paper that the mysterious man in the van had said were my property.
The sheets were diary entries, and from what I could tell they were unaltered from their original forms, except for the dates, which had been cut out with scissors. I immediately recognized the handwriting used in the entries, for it was my own. With renewed curiosity, I skimmed the diary pages for hints of my past. While two of the pages merely described everyday life and problems with coworkers, a passage on the third page stuck out from the rest.
Tonight, I proposed to Fiona, and she said yes. The scene was perfect, we had a romantic candlelit dinner and I proposed to her during a late night stroll on the beach. It took a while to find an empty stretch of beach, but damn, was it worth it. Spending the rest of my life with her is the best decision I’ve ever made. Fiona, Paul, Emily and I, we were finally going to be a family. I know Mom and Dad are looking down on Paul and me, prouder than ever.
Not the best way to find out that your parents are dead, and you have a brother you never knew about.
I went through the next few days in a daze, providing what little answers I could to my superiors’ questions. Everyone wanted to know what happened on our last mission, and I had nothing to tell. I was still trying to understand what the journals meant myself, and I wasn’t about to turn them over to Rovin and who knows who else. I told the interrogators the same thing I had told Morty and Westfield; I made a wrong turn. The story was full of holes, and everyone knew it, but I was questioned no further. Maybe the suits at NOVA knew something or two about privacy.
Just as I was keeping silent about my abduction, neither Morty nor anyone else was willing to spill the beans on the mysterious albino man. It was obvious he was part of Project NOVA, but somehow I’d never seen him around or even heard of him for that matter. I’d never seen anyone scare Morty so much by their mere presence, and his sharp, mechanical voice still rang through my thoughts, as if it had permeated my skull and sank deep into my subconscious. Upon our next visit to the NOVA bar, I attempted to probe Morty again. I waited until we were a few rounds in, and all the other patrons had left the bar. In between shots, I took a shot of my own and began questioning.
“Sam, you’ve got to tell me who that man was,” I announced, interrupting an animal-filled anecdote my partner was telling. Sam fell silent and his expression became very somber.
“I do not want to talk about him, John. All I’m going to say is that he shouldn’t be here,” Morty whispered harshly. He looked at me intensely and waited to see if I was satisfied. I tried to just let that settle the matter, but curiosity got the best of me.
“But who is he, Mort?” My partner sighed and shook his head, looking as if he was finally going to open up.
“Fine, do you want to know the truth? Nolan is…an enigma. I don’t know what happened that day, but I know what I saw, John.” Sam took a deep breath and refused to look me in the eye. “I saw Nolan Thomas die.” Without another word, Mortimer left me at the bar and, presumably, retreated to his quarters.
I downed my second shot glass quizzically. Surely, there was another piece of the puzzle here. Feeling a little influenced by my alcohol, I decided to press my luck with the only person still at the bar – the bartender.
“Hey, barkeep, you got a minute?” I called. The bartender approached, and I got my first good look at him. He wasn’t too old, maybe early sixties at the latest, and he had a somewhat chiseled, almost James Bond-esque to him. His once black hair was now tinged silver, and he was dressed far classier than one would expect a bartender to be. Adorned in a tuxedo, a gold cross around his neck and an expensive watch on his wrist; first class all the way.
“Sure thing, kid, and you can call me Mac.” I raised an eyebrow at the nickname, but let it slide. Mac was being personable enough to let me ask the questions I’m sure he was expecting, because this late in the night Sam and I were the only two at the bar.
“So, you want to know about Nolan Thomas, eh?” I was grateful that the bartender was bringing the subject up first, indicating he would be willing to talk about things. “Kid, your friend told you the truth; Mortimer did see Nolan die.”
“That can’t be all there is to it, Mac. Why would this be a touchy subject for everyone at NOVA? What the hell is going on?”
Mac laughed and took my drink from me, taking a sip himself. “I’m cutting you off for the night, kid; I think you’ve had a little too much to drink, talking to your elder like that. Shame on you, John,” he chuckled, although I wasn’t quite sure he meant everything in jest. “I think it’s best you hear the whole story from Nolan himself, when the time comes.”
I began to protest, doubting I’d ever see the albino again, but Mac interrupted.
“Believe me, you’ll see him again. And you’re right, there certainly is a lot more to the story than you know. And because I enjoy watching this little mystery being unraveled for you, I’ll point you in the right direction. Sam Mortimer didn’t just watch Nolan Thomas die, kid. Mortimer killed him.”
Mac left me with this food for thought and disappeared in the back room. I headed back to my room a little worse for the wear, unsure of everything that I had learned. It seemed like the situation had already been spelled out for me; Sam tried to kill Nolan, and failed, though he didn’t know that until they met again on our mission. But why would both Sam and Mac tell the story with Nolan’s death as a fact? Of course, it wasn’t that Nolan didn’t look dead, with his lean stature and deep, sinking features.
In all of the commotion, I had forgotten the other subject of the journal entries – Fiona. My ex-wife remained in a steady coma, but I made sure I would see her tomorrow before embarking on my next mission with Morty. I collapsed in a heap on my bed, still fully clothed, and passed out. Maybe it was from the long day and the confusion and frustration I was experiencing, or maybe it was from one shot too many. True to form, I slept soundly and didn’t dream. When the morning came, I was more hung-over than I’d ever been, as least as far as I could remember, which given the circumstances wasn’t much.
The Tuesday morning sun trickled in through the glass skylight windows as I examined myself in the mirror. I look disheveled and thoroughly ravaged by the night before. My head was pounding and I found myself struggling to form coherent thoughts. After wasting a few minutes trying to get everything together, it was off to the hospital wing to visit my ex-wife.
“John?” A voice caught me in the hallway. As luck would have it, Doctor Rovin came around the corner, clipboard in hand. “Listen,” he started, “we have to perform an emergency procedure on Miss Callahan, immediately.”
“What’s wrong, Rovin? What did you do to her?” I had to resist the urge to seize the good doctor by his throat. Rovin took a step back and cleared his throat, surprised at my sudden show of loyalty.
“What’s gotten into you, John? You don’t even know her.”
Something inside me cracked. I leapt towards Rovin and within seconds he was pinned against the wall, his clipboard crashing to the floor. Strangely, I saw no fear in his eyes, just an odd sneer. I put more pressure on his throat, and he began choking out a sickening laugh.
“You don’t even know her, John,” he repeated between breaths.
“She was my wife, you son of a bitch!” Without hesitation, I socked the doctor in the face, and my fist connected solidly above his right eye. Rovin slumped to the floor before looking at something over my shoulder and laughing harder. I readied my fist.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t, John Lange,” said a mechanical voice from behind.
“I implore you to let go of Doctor Rovin,” Nolan Thomas ordered. Experiencing the same fear Morty must have experienced just days before, I backed away from Rovin breathlessly. I looked instictively towards Nolan for another command.
“Doctor Rovin, if you would please take John Lange to his wife.” I blinked in surprise; Nolan was taking my side? I had adjusted to his odd standard of using my full name, but his presence still unsettled me a great degree. I didn’t even bother to point out that Fiona and I were legally divorced.
Rovin stood up, fixing his lab coat and adjusting his glasses. He shot me a look that I couldn’t quite read. Was he gloating? Was he scared? I shook it off and followed him down the hallway. The slender albino followed closely behind me, and I could feel his red eyes pressing into the back of my skull.
“To answer your question, Lange,” Rovin addressed me, dropping his friendly pretense and our one-sided first name basis, “Fiona is fine.”
“You said it was an emergency procedure, Rovin.” I wasn’t going to play his games; not today.
“Ah, it is, you see. Fiona has been in her coma an awfully long time, and we’re going to begin a series of psychotherapeutic attempts to bring her out of her coma. Should these attempts fail, there is little we can do for her but wait.”
Nolan Thomas said nothing, and I found his silence to be more threatening than the good doctor’s verbal taunts. Left alone to my thoughts, the rage that had manifested itself in my assault on Rovin quickly subsided, and was replaced by a new emotion; a strange and inexplicable fear of myself. There was no simple way to explain my outburst; the flow of raw emotion simply took control. I had little doubt in my mind that without Nolan’s intervention, I would have killed Rovin.
I shuddered. Our line of work at NOVA left more corpses than I cared to count, but there is something fundamentally different between a hired hit and killing someone with your own two hands. The line between my newfound career and cold blooded murder can only ever be crossed once; there is no going back.
“We’ve arrived at the hospital wing, John Lange.” I flinched at the clicking and whirring behind the metallic tones of Nolan’s voice. On that note, Doctor Rovin shook his head and continued down the hall, leaving me to speak with the Albino in private.
“Thank you, Nolan,” I said, finding my voice. “What you did back there…I appreciate it.”
The ghostly figure of Nolan Thomas merely nodded. Silently, he opened the door and entered the hospital wing and I followed shortly behind him. I watched his silhouette take long strides down the hallway, passing nearly all of the occupied rooms. Eventually he disappeared behind a door marked simply with an “N”. I stared at the door a long while after it closed behind Nolan. I could faintly hear a mechanical whirring being emitted from somewhere beyond the door. I assumed the room had something to do with Nolan’s peculiar condition, but there was no way to be sure.
I ran my hand through my short, cropped hair and wandered the hospital wing until I found myself at Fiona’s bedside. I sat down beside her and poured myself a tall glass of ginger ale from a bottle I had left at her bedside the last time I had visited. I finished off the glass in one long swig, watching my ex-wife’s steady breathing.
“Fiona, Fiona, Fiona,” I sighed. “You’ve got to come out of this coma. I’ve got so many questions; I could really use a familiar face.” I then leaned forward and kissed her gently on her forehead.
I sat there, holding the cold, limp hand of my unconscious ex-wife for God knows how long. There is something deeply perturbing to think of losing her twice, and I can’t shake the thought of it from my mind. I’ve been given a fresh start here at Project NOVA—I potentially have a new future with the woman I once loved.
I’m not sure how or when I fell asleep, but when I awoke it was half past six in the evening. Did I really sleep away an entire day with a woman in a coma? Someone among the Project’s higher-ups must have done me a favor, as I had no missions scheduled until Friday, when our new recruit would arrive.
Morty and I had been assigned to Westfield’s squad until further notice, and as such a new recruit was in order. Friday we will set out on a civilian mission with the new recruit to show him the ropes. It will nice to cut loose for a change after everything in the past week. I poor myself another glass of ginger ale and bid my silent, unmoving ex-wife adieu.
In a twisted cry of absolute desperation, I returned to the bar, hoping to enjoy a nice dinner. At this time on a weeknight, the bar was alive with the hustle and bustle of various agents of Project NOVA shuffling in and out, enjoying anything from a fancy first class gourmet meal to fast food-like burgers and fries. I took my usual seat at the bar and ordered the first thing on the menu—pancakes.
“A little late for breakfast, kid,” Mac joked. “You just wake up from that hangover of yours?”
“No, Mac, I was visiting Fiona in the hospital. Have you seen Westfield recently? I spoke to him briefly after we got back from our mission, but I haven’t even seen a glimpse of him in days.”
“Markus swore off all sorts of alcohol eight months ago,” Mac said as he polished an empty glass; typical bartender behavior. “Lately I only see him on official business.”
I raised my eyebrow at my wise friend. Mac using the term “official business” caught me off guard; wasn’t he just a bartender? My interest was doubly piqued that he was on a first name basis with Westfield—I’d have to pursue this subject at another time.
“Let me know if you hear from him, Mac. He’s due for a mission later this week.”
“Can do, kid. Now, Johnny, listen for a second—word around here travels fast and eventually any and all information finds its way back to the bar.” Mac paused and gave me a stern look; I could tell what was coming before he even said it. “Just what the hell happened today with you and the good Doctor?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but instead bit down on my lower lip. I’d been asking myself the same question all day, and I hadn’t come any closer to the answer. I looked into Mac’s eyes and was surprised to see the bartender staring right through me. I watched as he looked intensely at something inside of me, scrutinizing and judging. Was he trying to find an answer to his question by x-raying my skull? Finally, I spoke up.
“Mac, he struck a nerve. Fiona, she’s…we…she’s off limits. You can threaten me, you can insult me, you can take everything from me—but I won’t lose her again.”
Mac quizzically stroked the small patch of goatee on his chin and nodded.
“And that, my friend, is what it all boils down to—protecting those you hold dear.”
By the time Friday rolled around, I was looking forward to a vacation that would never happen rather than training a new recruit. Despite the fact that Westfield was still for all intents and purposes a-wall, Morty had taken the liberty of checking out the rookie’s psych file from the Department of Operatives and we were learning what we could about our new squad mate. Should our superior not join us for the day’s mission, Morty would be the de facto leader in his stead, and he was enjoying the idea of a little power.
“So, let’s hear about the new guy—does he have a name?” I asked as we suited up for the mission. Civilian Missions required a slightly less classical approach to uniforms; the usual black suits and white ties were swapped out for more inconspicuous clothing. In my case that meant a casual jacket, aviator sunglasses, and a Yankees baseball cap.
“Nikolas Karrigan the Third, age twenty-three. Native of the Florida Keyes, the Project picked him up after a very successful string of Miami bank robberies,” Morty read as he thumbed through Karrigan’s files. Morty was wearing a button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up and slacks, very much looking the part of a middle class businessman.
“The Project picked up a petty thief? What’s the rest of Karrigan’s story; what am I missing?”
“He’s more than just a bank robber, John. It says here that our friend Nikolas used the bank’s security systems to wire more than three million dollars in government assets to various accounts. The government lost all trace of him, but Project NOVA scooped him up.”
“And today we’ve got a heist to pull off; how fitting. Ah, this must be young Agent Karrigan now.”
The young man standing before Morty and I didn’t look a day over eighteen, despite what his profile may have indicated. Buzzed blonde hair, with blue eyes and a freckled face; Nikolas had an almost eternally youthful look about him.
“Agents Mortimer and Lange I presume? It’s a pleasure to be serving with you, sirs.” The slightest hint of a southern accent crept into his voice, and the youth looked slightly downtrodden upon seeing my bemused crooked grin.”
“You can call me John, Nikolas. This here’s Morty,” I introduced my partner to the new recruit, who eagerly shook our hands.
“On that note, you can call me Niko. ‘Agent Karrigan’ was my father,” he said, laughing nervously. I had to hand it to him; Niko had a sense of humor.
We filled the rookie in on the details of the mission as we got ready for deployment. The plan was simple – we just had to accidentally run into a famous inventor on the streets of Los Angeles, swap briefcases with him, and make our escape. The briefcase left with our target would be filled with enough cold, hard cash to keep him quiet, and the Project would have enough information on the Sanford Corporation’s next fiscal year and elusive product blueprints to fund the next year’s worth of missions.
Our target was Liam Sanford, the youngest acting CEO and President SanCorp had ever seen; owed in part to the questionable circumstances surrounding his father’s death. According to Morty, putting Louis Sanford out of his misery was his first Class-Two Operation for Project NOVA, nearly two years earlier.
No one said a word on our helicopter flight to Los Angeles, which surprisingly enough took no longer than our flight to New York the week before. West had predictably remained off the grid for our final pre-mission checkpoint and Morty assumed control of the squad.
Morty and I would be wearing radio-communications sunglasses, albeit in aviator fashion to blend in on the L.A. streets, but Niko would be wearing unnecessary prescription glasses. Project NOVA went all out to avoid tipping off the target and that meant our heist man wasn’t allowed to hide his eyes. Niko fidgeted in his seat, looking uncomfortable with his three piece suit and matching briefcase.
“Niko, relax. This is a Civ Mission – nothing’s going to happen to us. Trust me,” I added, “we are going to be fine.”
“It’s not the mission I’m worried about,” Niko said quietly. “Project NOVA Headquarters is allegedly the most secure place on the planet. If that’s true, how did Agent Westfield go missing? And why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?”
“Are you suggesting that it’s some kind of set up, Karrigan?” Morty asked inquisitively. At first I thought he was testing the rookie, but Sam seemed genuinely interested.
“No, I just don’t think we’re anywhere near as safe as they tell us we are.” Niko’s words rang out loud and clear, and the silence that followed was unsettling as we all chewed on those thoughts.
If Project NOVA was as secure and all-knowing as they claim, how was I abducted in the middle of a Class-Two Operation? How did Westfield just disappear out of the blue? Maybe I was overanalyzing, but what if they did know the truth about both of those incidents? I wouldn’t put it past the Project to let its operatives think they had the upper hand.
I cleared my mind of its conspiracy theories and prepped myself for landing. There was no sense asking questions I couldn’t answer, and paranoia would be the death of me if I let it take hold.
Upon our arrival just outside of Los Angeles, Morty and I got into our black sedan. Niko would have to ride separately; Morty and I were strictly to make sure things run smoothly. It would be up to the rookie to ensure the bump and swipe went as planned.
“So, Johnny,” Sam asked as we approached the drop off point, “what do you make of the recruit?” I thought it over for a minute or two, not keen on the idea of judging Niko before I could properly assess his skill in the field.
“From what I can tell, Karrigan has a good eye for danger, Mort,” I declared to my partner. “And maybe it’s just me, but I get the feeling we’re going to need that talent sooner or later.”
Apparently satisfied with my response, Mortimer twiddled his thumbs and gazed out the tinted windows of the Sedan. It was not as if I didn’t feel nervous as well, but after the strange circumstances our previous mission fell under, a Civilian Mission would be a cake walk.
The driver tapped the glass window separating the two sections of the car as he pulled into a Los Angeles parking garage. Morty, as the de facto leader of our squad, gave the starting signal. Niko buzzed in his confirmation over the communications link, and just like that it was time for a good old fashioned highway robbery.
“So, let me get this straight, we’re just going to be watching Niko steal from Liam Sanford and then going home?” I was puzzled; surely the Project requested the attendance of both Mortimer and me for more than just watchdog duty. Morty gave me a glance once-over and chuckled to himself as we set up shop in our top floor Los Angeles hotel room.
“Not exactly, John. We’re also evaluating Karrigan, making sure he’ll be a worthy addition to our squad,” Morty, much to my surprise, was taking his role as our acting leader with some degree of seriousness.
“I don’t remember being evaluated on any of my missions, Sam.” Morty averted my gaze, but then returned a smirk.
“Exactly, Lange; we’re not supposed to let Niko on that we’re evaluating him. We’re just going to make sure everything runs smoothly and that the rookie can handle Civilian missions with little to no interference.”
“Target acquired,” Niko buzzed in on the headset, spotting billionaire Liam Sanford on the other side of the busy street. The young man had cropped sandy hair, a designer suit and sunglasses. He was alone, a sign that he was a little overconfident and a little out of touch with reality. A perfect target for Project NOVA. Finding Sanford was the easy part; the bump and swipe would be the challenge. Luckily, Niko was a professional at his craft.
Morty watched attentively as the rookie agent walked straight into the CEO, swapping briefcases as they fell. The C-list celebrities and wannabe rock stars of Los Angeles walked straight past the collision, not even stopping to check if anyone was hurt.
“I am so sorry, that was completely my fault,” Niko said to Sanford as he helped him up off the ground. “Wait a second, have we met before?”
I shot Morty a sideways glance. What was Karrigan doing? He shouldn’t draw any unwanted attention to himself, especially now that the job was over. Morty pressed a finger to his lips and continued to watch our new teammate.
“You may have seen me on the news, I’m Liam Sanford,” he introduced himself. How ironic, I thought. Then another thought occurred to me; the dummy briefcase had a fatal flaw.
“Morty,” I whispered to my teammate. “What the hell are we doing handing a billionaire CEO a briefcase full of money? This kid has all the money in the world!” Morty stifled a laugh and watched as Niko finished crossing the street with Sanford.
“Lange, you don’t think the Project already thought of that? It’s more than just money in that briefcase; we also included a little…insurance. In case there was any doubt in little Liam’s mind that his father was part of something bigger than their measly company. “
“Louis Sanford was a member of Project NOVA?”
“He was a private contractor, and when he exceeded his usefulness he threatened to go public, so I kept him quiet. If anything, Project NOVA knows how to plug leaks.”
“Does that mean if any—“
As if my luck could get any worse, I was cut off by an explosion. Of course, a freaking explosion in the middle of Los Angeles, of all the days it could have happened.
Niko hit the deck, diving towards the pavement and bringing Sanford with him. Protecting the mark, I noted, he’s certainly resourceful.
“What the hell do you think is going on out there, Mort?” Sam was already bolting down the stairs of the hotel, and I was following on his heels. We were careful to conceal our sidearms, but I was hyper-alert. Two missions in a row sabotaged by…someone.
“Six different cars exploded, all civilian vehicles,” Mortimer acknowledged. “…Likely rigged with explosives before we ever arrived on the scene. Niko, you need to get the hell out of there, now!”
We emerged from the hotel to meet the sounds of blaring sirens and mass hysteria. Two domestic terrorist attacks in one week; the media was going to have a fit, to say nothing of what the higher ups at the Project would do to Mortimer and I when we got back. That is, if we got back in one piece.
“Niko, can you hear me?” Mortimer called again. Something was playing havoc with our equipment, and we needed to make sure we rescued our rookie.
“Jo—I have the –vrrr-- where—can’t—kzz—kzzzzz…” Niko faded in and out on the comlink before it died completely, and we had no chance of spotting two businessmen in the sea of tourists and L.A. adventurers.
“Morty, what are we going to do? Whoever set this trap set it for us, and we can’t let them take Niko!” Even I was surprised at my sudden attachment to the new recruit, but I wasn’t about to lose a man on our first mission without Westfield.
Thinking on his feet, Morty pulled two small, wallet-like objects from his briefcase and tossed one to me. I flipped it open and realized it was a Los Angeles Police Department badge. I tried to figure out what exactly Morty had planned when he began firing his gun in the air without warning.
“Jesus, Mort, you’re going to give me a heart attack!”
“LAPD, clear the area! Repeat, this is the LAPD, clear the area!” Morty shouted, waving his gun and his badge around to thin the herd. He took off at as much of a run as he could manage through the crowd, and I followed.
We made it half a block before someone grabbed Sam and pulled him into a back alley. I crept behind him and pulled my gun on Niko, who had ducked into the alley with Sanford to escape from the mayhem on the streets.
“John, put the gun down!” Niko yelped in alarm, not realizing my mistake. I lowered my weapon and breathed a sigh of relief. I expected to come face to face with my abductor, but luck was on my side today.
“Sorry, kid, I thought we were under attack,” I explained.
“In case you didn’t notice, sir, we are under attack! The street blew up!” Sanford piped up.
All three of us shot the billionaire dark looks, and he quickly quieted down. He mumbled an apology.
“Karrigan, our communications are jammed. We need to arrange for an escort, do you have any ideas?” Morty inquired.
Niko shook his head, and suddenly we were back to square one. To my surprise, Sanford’s face lit up and he excitedly pulled a cell phone from his pocket.
“Here, sir, you can use my cell phone and call for a ride. It’s the least I can do to thank you for saving me out there,” Liam Sanford jittered. I had a feeling that the addlebrained inventor had no idea what was going on.
“Listen, pal, we’re not the good guys.”
Chapter Nine: Last One Out
“And what, exactly, do you mean by that?” Sanford asked, throwing his hands up. Apparently the news that he wasn’t exactly in good hands was something the billionaire found rather unsettling.
“Ah, there’s the signature Sanford hostility…I was wondering if it skipped a generation. Your father was quite infamous for it, you see,” Morty supplied. I beamed; namedropping the elder Sanford seemed to both quell Liam’s animosity and pique his curiosity.
“You knew my father?” Liam Sanford inquired hesitantly.
“You knew his father?” This came from Niko, who had yet to be filled in on most of Project NOVA’s history. In that respect, we were in the exact same boat.
“Yes, Liam, I did. We were very close towards the…end of his life,” Morty detailed. Sanford studied him carefully before yelling and throwing his fist at the agent. Morty crashed to the ground, and I pulled a gun on Sanford.
“Don’t move a damn muscle,” I growled.
“Damn, you’ve got some fight in you,” Morty said as he spat blood and stood up. “Too bad your father didn’t,” he continued.
“Who the hell are you people?” Sanford asked, unable to mask the escalating fear in his voice.
“You don’t have to answer that,” called a sharp voice from behind. Two figures entered the alleyway, and there was no mistaking it, they were members of Project NOVA; their outfits were dead giveaways.
Morty rolled his eyes and swore. Niko and I watched in equal bewilderment, unaware as to the identities of the operatives. I felt a brief pang of guilt; somehow I felt responsible that Niko’s first mission was going horribly wrong.
“I should have known they’d send the two of you,” Morty lashed. “What do you want? I’ve got this situation handled,” he aimed his gun at Liam, whose brief bout of bravery had all but evaporated.
I studied the man and woman carefully, memorizing their faces and mannerisms as they approached us. The man was a bit unkempt, slightly animalistic in his demeanor, and he had the curious look of someone who had gone without proper nutrition for far too long. His black hair was thin and short; his dark eyes were sullen and lonely, with a hint of something cold and calculating behind the heir of aloofness.
His partner, the woman, was another story. Her eyes were a steel blue, reminiscent of my own irises, and her dark hair was beginning to grow back after being shaved. She immediately had my attention, as if there was something more to her. I almost knew for certain that I hadn’t known her in my past life, but somehow, I wished she did.
“Mortimer, how did you not realize this was a setup?” She asked. I noted her British accent, confirming that Project NOVA was definitely an international organization.
“Cassidy, this isn’t the time for games,” Morty said cautiously. He lowered his weapon slowly, and then pointed the gun at the man who arrived with Cassidy.
“You keep that monster away from us,” He growled.
“Come on, Sammy, Riley doesn’t bite,” She hissed, as her partner cracked his neck and began to approach me. I steadied my weapon and looked towards my partners for advice. Morty stepped in front of me, brandishing his weapon to ward off the other agent.
“Command asked us to step in and bring Mr. Sanford home with us,” Riley announced. His voice sounded deceitful and slithering, as if had been layered upon itself.
“Does command have any idea what’s been happening down here?” Niko demanded bravely.
“Of course they do, you little runt,” Riley sneered. “Don’t let it go to your head, rookie, you weren’t the target of the attacks. For that matter, neither was Mr. Sanford.”
“It was me, wasn’t it? Whoever did this…they did it to get my attention,” I wasn’t quite sure what was really going on, but I knew it had to be connected to my abduction.
“Ah, so you are learning,” Cassidy said as she searched my eyes for signs of life. “Someone is very adamant to get their hands on you, Lange.”
“John, what the hell is she talking about?” Morty asked.
I stood my ground in silence, addressing the situation. Whoever these two operatives were, they were dangerous. Morty didn’t trust them; that much I knew for sure. Niko had his gun on Sanford, and Morty and I were at a standstill with our own guns drawn.
“Lower your weapons,” Cassidy commanded, “and let us take it from here.”
Mortimer faltered for a second before lowering his weapon. I could tell he was considering the possibilities; would it be worth it to simply shoot them both?
“Stand down, men,” he holstered his gun and stepped aside. We followed suit.
Riley slid past Morty and I and attempted to restrain Liam Sanford, who leapt back in alarm.
“If you guys think for a second that I’m going with you, any of you, you’re crazy! I have enough money, and enough lawyers, that you can’t lay a hand on me!” Sanford began babbling in fear, the realization that he was being abducted having dawned on him.
“We weren’t supposed to kidnap him, only rob him!” Niko complained, attempting to restore what little integrity to the mission he could.
“You robbed me!?” Sanford cried out.
“Change of plans, rookie,” Cassidy said as she pulled out a small, blue pistol and fired directly at Sanford. The gun fired a small dart, which connected square in the victim’s chest, and began to emit a small amount of purple smoke.
Determined not to lose our charge, I rushed to Liam’s aid, and my recklessness was rewarded with another shot from the blue pistol. The dart connected with my left arm, and though the purple smoke was scarce, I felt as if it were all around me. It blurred my vision, deafened my hearing, and suddenly I felt as if I were underwater.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Morty roared as he attempted to catch me before my skull collided with the cold concrete.
“Morty, I think I’m dying,” I called out as I collapsed in the alleyway. “Don’t tell Fiona,” I coughed before passing out. Unfortunately, whatever drugs were in the tranquilizer were enough to override my own mental issues, and for the first time in months, I found myself dreaming.
“I loved you, you know,” she told me, struggling to find her voice. She clasped my hand in hers, leaned in and gently kissed me on the lips. Her red hair spilled just over her shoulders, and for a moment I simply held her. She was Fiona Callahan, my ex-wife, and none of this was really happening.
Thanks to the toxins in the dart I was hit with, I was experiencing some bizarre form of lucid dreaming. It felt somewhere between dreaming and hallucinating, but whatever bizarre scenes I found myself reenacting, I had no control over my actions. Were these my memories? Why were they returning now?
The scene changes and I am running down a city block; somehow I realize I am late for a final exam. A young girl, whom I immediately recognize as a younger Fiona, giggles and waves as I stop to catch my breath. I wave to her, and she begins to stroll casually toward me.
I close my eyes and try to recapture the absolute bliss this memory must have held for me, but I can’t. There’s something not quite right about the entire situation, something feels off.
“Don’t worry, Agent Lange,” I hear Niko’s voice echoing through my head. “We’re going to get you to the hospital; you’re going to be fine.”
I see myself as a child, no more than five years old. I am playing in a tree house alone; my older brother is nowhere to be seen. I look happy, not bothered in the slightest that I have no one for company. Time passes, and I see myself at thirteen, sitting alone on a swing beside the tree house. It’s certainly starting to bother me that I have no companions, and Paul is still suspiciously absent.
Suddenly, Fiona and I are riding a Ferris wheel; fireworks light up the night sky above our heads. I have an arm around her shoulder, and I am excitedly telling her about my plans for the future. Her stunning green eyes watch me intently, as if she is planning her next move.
“John,” she calls in a voice just louder than a whisper.
“Yes?” I ask earnestly.
“Shut up,” she says as we share our first kiss. At this moment everything around me melts. The fireworks, the Ferris wheel, even Fiona melts away into darkness. I stand alone against my own shadow, and I’m dimly aware that I’m falling rapidly, but it doesn’t seem to be of any concern.
“I know you did,” I hear my own voice echo through my head. “I’m sorry things have to end this way.”
Silently, I crash into an imaginary ocean, sending ripples in every direction. I continue to sink into the dark waters, not moving a muscle, until I hit some sort of ocean floor. I open my mouth to scream, and I can feel a bizarre sensation, not quite drowning, but not quite breathing.
The water evaporates around me just as quickly as it arrived. Now it is midnight, and I am on a beach with Fiona. I’m on one knee, offering her an engagement ring. I realize this was the happiest most of my life, and I cling to it. Things would only go downhill from here.
Fiona is speechless, and I see the glint of tears of joy in her emerald eyes. The light from the moon reflects across the water and illuminates her fiery hair. She is breathtaking. I slide the ring on to her finger and she embraces me. When we touch, the scene shatters around me like broken glass, slipping into a new memory.
A soft beep can be heard, reminiscent of an old fashioned answering machine. Fiona’s voice crackles into the speaker, she sounds concerned. I see myself sitting half passed out in a chair, at a time that could have only been a few years ago.
“…You’re self destructive, John, and I’m sorry, but I’ve done everything I can to save you,” Fiona pauses to catch her breath; I can hear that she is only seconds away from bursting into tears. “I can’t let you ruin both of our lives like this; I want to know that you can at least try to change.”
The scene changes again. It is my twenty-first birthday party, and once again, Fiona is here. A blonde girl is seated beside her, and I recall that her name is Emily. A man has his back turned to us, and I recognize it as my brother Paul. He turns and smiles, passing me a drink.
“Happy birthday, Johnny,” he laughed. His voice felt so familiar, as it should, but it was almost as if I had heard it recently.
The memories continue at odd intervals, but I never feel truly a part of them. It’s as if I’m simultaneously acting on screen and watching my own performance. These are the genuine memories of John Lange, but I am not the John Lange of these memories. I am a new John, and I have been ever since I woke up in Project NOVA’s hospital wing.
“Perhaps you shouldn’t, John Lange,” Nolan Thomas’ mechanical voice booms through my head, recalling our encounter in the hospital wing.
It’s a bizarre occurrence, to feel disassociated with memories that are very clearly yours. While what little insight I was receiving to my own life was enlightening, it did little to quell the mysterious circumstances leading up to the accident.
“John, can you hear me? Damn you, Cassidy!” Morty’s voice sounds distant, and I barely perceive that he’s actually speaking to me, and not a memory.
I feel years of my life pass before my very eyes, and now I am sitting at a kitchen table. I have a mug of coffee and a rolled up newspaper on the table, but I am disinterested in both. I look disheveled, washed up and I’ve positively hit rock bottom. Fiona has her suitcases at the door, and with tears in her eyes she leaves my life.
“Run to her!” I call out to myself in vain. “Stop her; don’t let her leave you like this!” It’s no use, and the John of my memories continues to stare pitifully at the paper. I cry out in anguish, attempting to smash everything around me in frustration, but just as before, I can do nothing.
“Rovin will have a field day with this one,” I hear Cassidy’s sophisticated voice this time.
The door slams shut, and for a few moments, the earth is still. I watched myself with a twisted, morbid curiosity; what does a man do when he has lost everything?
I watch as the memory of John Lange’s eyes light up, and begin rapidly filling in the newspaper’s crossword puzzle, as if it were a matter of life or death. I realize that I wasn’t actually solving the crossword, instead I was solving some sort of mental puzzle, one that Fiona’s exit must have triggered. When I finish with the newspaper, I toss it aside and stare blankly at it. Only two scrawled words are legible – “Project NOVA”.