Soon I was down on the pebbles beside the water, losing my footing on the slippiest bits of stone. Although I knew I could turn myself into anything, it seemed that whilst as Lila I was limited to her physical strength, so whilst I wanted to lift a rock and throw it at the gunmen who were following me, I wouldn’t be able to do so unless I transformed myself again.
But there was no time for that. There was nowhere to hide beside the river; I could have become a fish and swum away, but I didn’t want to find out too late that I had no idea how to breathe in water so I turned to face the two men as they neared. The largest of them threw his weapon down in anger and, gasping from the exertion of the run, he threw himself at me and dragged me to the ground. I wasn’t quick enough to avoid his heavy punches, and his companion grabbed my ankles and dragged me to the water, and together they started to hold me beneath the waves.
I gasped and choked for air, thrashing about and trying to fight them off. Suddenly I was fighting a losing battle, and I realised, upgraded strength or not, I was no fighter. One of them smashed my head against a rock, and I felt the air rush out of my lungs. Water rushed in. I drew my breath in, in a desperate attempt to take in air, but only more water rushed in. I screamed, but it was surreal, the scream was not my own, it was Lila’s, hampered by bubbles that escaped in a rush. I struggled but it was no use, and I felt myself overpowered as they held me down beneath the waves.
I felt the struggle leave me, and I knew it was the end, because the bio-nanites weren’t offering me the strength to get away. I gulped and gulped and waited for the awful death of drowning to whisk me far away – to where my Lila was, my fading senses hoped – but instead, I felt a new power racing through my veins. I thought it must be the euphoria of death, but it grew stronger, and I could tell the bio-nanites were re-configuring my lungs, like evolution in real-time, and I realised with a rush of exultation that I could breathe.
Breathe the water. I could breathe …
The men were busily pounding me, knocking my head against the sandy bottom of the shallows, and one of them took the chance to have a feel of me, head to toe. Was he looking for something? Was he just looking? I vowed to take vengeance on him for his act. But fighting wouldn’t achieve that now. Only my defeat would allow me to make him pay his debt. So I let Lila’s body go limp beneath the thrusting blows of their fists, and when they were satisfied that I was murdered and out of the game, they finally seceded, pulling themselves out of the water to the shore.
“She won’t be troubling us again,” said the man who had spoken English in the street, and his comrade replied, all oily intonation in that European tongue. I heard them wading up the river to where they hastily fled into the night. When I was sure I was alone, I slowly lifted my head from beneath the water and spat a jet of ice cold water at the waves.
I had survived. I crawled on all fours to the river’s edge, and it was only when I had risen to my feet and wrung some of the freezing water from my clothes – my women’s clothing – that I saw the figure behind me in the dark. I spun around and saw that it was Lila. Well – not exactly …
“You … you’re alive,” she breathed and quickly moved towards me. It was strange, for her as well as me; though I knew what I normally looked like, whilst as Lila I recognised that the woman before me was a mirror image of my present self. It was like looking in a mirror.
“We have to leave quickly,” I said, “before others arrive. We’ve work to do.”
“I have to get into hiding,” Not-Exactly-Lila said and checked the shadows for assailants. “They won’t stop coming for me until I’m dead. We have to find those two and stop them.” She indicated the men who had escaped. “Preferably with a bullet to the brain.”
“We have to let them go,” I said, and her brown eyes eyed me as if I was totally crazy. “Don’t you get it?” I explained. “I’m you now – they think they killed you. It’s me they’re after now. Caleb.” Realisation dawned in her like a new day, and a beautiful smile broke out on her mouth, tugging it into that smirk I had so often yearned to kiss, those lips that had impregnated me with the bio-nanites in the first place. I smiled too. “And there’s one thing that’s for certain,” I continued. “I won’t be looking like Caleb for a while.”
“You can’t stay as me,” she told me brusquely. “That’s … wrong.”
“I have a better idea. That guy who clubbed you with his pistol? He won’t be needing his face for the foreseeable.”
She eyed me in dark questioning, afraid to ask. “We’re going to steal his face?”
“No,” I said. “We’re going to be him.”
I issued specific demands to the bio-nanites in my brain, and then I leapt at Not-Exactly-Lila. She tried to recoil but I wrapped myself around her … completely around her, until she wore me like a second skin. She stared in shock at her reflection in the water at her feet, but it wasn’t her own face that stared back at her, with piercing eyes and a slightly stubbled chin. It was the attacker from the street, the man who had threatened to separate me from my ear. The guy who Genevieve had shot.
Not-Exactly-Lila and I were now effectively a gestalt entity – two people melded into one – at least to an observer. In reality she was inside of me, and I was the exterior that the world would see. That man with the mission to return the bio-nanites to the Senator (if that was indeed his mission). And we had the controller box to use as proof.
Not-Exactly-Lila felt her face with shaky fingers, drew them back when she realised she couldn’t feel her skin. Her own skin was behind the face, hidden away inside the perfect disguise. “Where is Genevieve and the case?” I said, my own voice issuing from her mouth.
When she replied, it was from the same mouth, but this time her own voice said uncertainly, “She’s with the doctor, to keep him safe.”
“Then we need to find them,” I told her and started us walking to the roadside. “We get the case, we find the gunmen. It’s time to infiltrate the enemy. They’ll never know it’s us.”