Exploits of a Midnight Traveler (Part 24)

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I wondered if I could do what I was going to try, but willed myself to attempt it despite my reservations. Arms erupted from what used to be my hips and stabilized me against the tight vertical passageway.

“Moment of truth,” I whispered with a voice that was mine, but not mine.

I could turn the hatch-wheel quickly, roughly, if I wanted to, but with the extra possibility came a need for more thoughtfulness. I couldn’t see the hatch perfectly. If I was rough with it, and if the hatch was at all creaky or rusted, the noise it would make would alert my pursuers to my exact position.

No.

Breathing evenly and doing my best to stay as calm as I could, I felt the arms I was holding the hatch with tense, and I turned the wheel with a half-anxious caution.

As soon as I opened the hatch, a dim light streamed in, and I climbed through it, reconsolidating myself back into an acceptable form. I slammed my entryway shut below me and looked ahead to see a barely-lit stairwell. There were no other places to go. I moved in the only direction I could, sprinting up flight after flight of stairs. Secret passageways and staircases were never unwelcome so long as they were getting me away from the people behind me.

I heard stomping, staccato steps below me, and kept up my speed, purpose in my mind. I was jumping two stair-steps with each movement now. Three. This was a good pace, but I could feel myself tiring. Not good. Not-quite-Lila, LI57, Julie, whatever, because of her I had an awareness that, however impressive my control over my own being, the physical limits of a body were still enough to slow me down.

To slow us down.

The longer this chase lasted, the worse off we’d be. Then again, those behind me were only human as well. The problem with that line of thought was that they held guns, and with my mounting exhaustion I wondered if I would still have the ability to effectively resist being shredded with gunfire.

I saw a red door in view now, and with a clenched fist, I slammed through it with the back of my arm, breathing harder, faster.

I’d emerged into a long white hallway with branching side paths. I was glad for the lack of light — it’d have hurt my head like hell. At the end of it was a glass window, and what looked like the outdoors beyond it. I took a pathetic breath and kept moving, slower now. Nanites could do wondrous things, but they couldn’t just give me energy I didn’t already have. For a moment, my entire being worried. Even Julie. And then it was overridden by simple awareness, expressed as one chaotic unit within my consciousness.

We can’t outrun bullets. There is a gun cabinet in the neighboring hallway. We can bring down furniture to create cover. Will we live? There is a chance. A chance? A chance is better than none at all. I’m a better shot than you. Allow me more control. How? I don’t know, ideally we relax into the shift, this is still strange for me too. We have knowledge, they don’t.

PART 25

Exploits of a Midnight Traveler (Part 21)

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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.”

“We?”

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.”

PART 22

Exploits of a Midnight Traveler (Part 11)

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The sight of it snapped me out of the trance I was starting to fall into. “Not exactly.” What did she mean by that? Lila hadn’t mentioned siblings.

Not-Exactly-Lila reached into the car and unlocked the door. Just then, another figure appeared. Standing next to her was a younger version of Ms. Cold Smile. Except, her smile was warmer, flirtatious even. She couldn’t be older than 18 or 19. “Get ready, kid,” Not-Exactly-Lila said to her. The girl winked at me as she made her way to Mr. Mercedes’ side of the car. I turned back to Not-Exactly-Lila, just as she nodded to someone in the distance.

The sound of mumbling whipped my attention to my right. Mr. Mercedes was stirring in his seat, the pain in his movements obvious. His eyes opened slightly, but looked like they were rolling back. Panic started to rise within me. Before I could say something, the car lurched back into an upright position, the sound of groaning metal making my head throb.

Not-Exactly-Lila calmly walked to Mr. Mercedes and said, “Looks like you’re still conscious. Shame.” She bent down, and as she straightened her spine, I saw a shard of glass in her hand. “You could’ve gone more peacefully.” Without wasting another second, she jammed it in his neck. Mr. Mercedes’ body spazzed as blood gushed from his throat. My breath quickened as the contents of my stomach threatened to make a messy introduction of its incomplete marriage with bile.

With eyes widened in fear, I trembled as the girl approached me. She flashed a quick, reassuring smile. Confused, I looked on with furrowed brow. I watched as she tore the door open, and cut me free from the seatbelt. “Can you move your neck?” she inquired. Before I could try, she gently held my neck and slowly moved it side to side. “You’re a lucky guy, Caleb.”

“I believe this is as lucky as he’ll get,” said Not-Exactly-Lila, her voice void of emotion. She reached into a pocket and took out a piece of black fabric. “I’m going to blindfold you.” A rush of energy flowed through me, allowing me to shift away from her. I winced in pain at the sudden movement.

“Why?” I asked. “You don’t want to see where we’re going. That way, you’ll have plausible deniability should someone question you,” she answered. She gave me an impatient glare as she held up the blindfold. I stayed put, not wanting to relive the pain I had felt when I moved before. As if she could read my thoughts, she redirected her eyes to the girl. I followed her gaze to see the girl step forward. She held out her hands to help me out of the car, and I hesitantly let her. Not-Exactly-Lila got behind me, and securely tied the surprisingly soft blindfold in place.

After a minute of standing in complete darkness, the girl guided me to their vehicle. I felt the soft interior of the car as I sat. The warmth of another person’s body hovered over mine for a second until I heard the click of the seatbelt.

“Have you left all personal effects in your hotel room?” Not-Exactly-Lila asked.

I swallowed, my throat feeling suddenly dry. “Yes.”

“Good. Give him some water,” she commanded the girl.

“If you’re not Lila, who are you?”

“Open up,” the girl’s polite voice rang. I did as I was told. Small amounts of water flowed into my mouth in intervals. “Good?” I nodded in response.

“Are you going to answer me? By not exactly, did you mean that you lied to me about your identity all this time? If so, did you not trust me?” I pushed, trying to keep the hurt from being evident in my voice.

Minutes passed until Not-Exactly-Lila gave an answer. “I’m a duplicate. I was created in a lab. No further questions until you are given permission. Understand?”

I felt a sensation akin to whiplash from being hit with her answer, but managed to say, “Yes.”

The rest of the ride to this mysterious destination was silent, save for my ragged breaths. When the purr of the engine ceased, I knew we were here.

PART 12

CLICK HERE TO HEAR A NARRATION OF THIS PART

 

Exploits of a Midnight Traveler (Part 10)

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He shoved the barrel of the gun into my lower back, directing me towards the waiting Mercedes just up the street. Blaring sirens and flashing lights overwhelmed my already shaky senses as I shuffled forward like a man walking the long mile. For all I knew that was exactly what I was, a dead man just waiting for the bullet in the back with my name on it.

Mr. Mercedes casually opened the drivers side door and motioned me to sit.

“Would you believe me if I said I can’t drive?” I asked wryly, momentarily surprised at the calmness of my own voice. Shock. Had to be.

“I’m afraid not,” he replied. “Get in.”

I did as I was told sitting down behind the wheel, wondering for a moment if I could speed off before he entered. I hesitated too long and felt the car shift as he sat across from me, his gun leveled at me as he held it casually just in front of his stomach. He seemed to be scanning the scene of chaos up the road, possibly looking for something in particular or just surveying the scene. I couldn’t tell which.

“Drive,” he said, tilting his head towards me. “Carefully. Do nothing to attract attention.” Gone was the mirth in his voice from moments before when he laughed at the mention of the sexy assassin’s death. I felt an involuntary chill, not just from the prospect of being in such close proximity to an armed man in a strange country, but the uncertainty of what lay ahead of me.

I put the car in drive and slowly edged it past the emergency vehicles and onlookers who were pointing and speaking amongst themselves. The hotel visitors shuffled about in the cool night air with looks of confusion and panic on their faces as emergency responders rushed to inspect them. How I would have loved to have been standing with them at that moment instead of sitting behind that wheel.

Once beyond the scene he told me to speed up and we started to put distance between ourselves and the hotel. It occurred to me that sitting in the car with a gun pointed at me was the most peaceful moment I had experienced since it all began.

“I don’t suppose you would like to tell me what this is all about?” I said, my knuckles white as I tried to keep the vehicle moving in a straight line. The streets were thankfully quiet leaving few obstacles for me to avoid and the orange glow of the street lamps gave the city a haunted look as we drove through the night.

“Not particularly,” he replied, still scanning the night. “Unless, of course, you want to tell me where it is?” I knew he must have meant whatever it was that Lila had possessed.

“I don’t know, honestly,” I replied, keeping my voice calm and hoping I sounded convincing. I shuddered to think what the man would do if he suspected I knew something, which of course I didn’t.

“She didn’t have it,” he said casually. “My guess is it’s either on you… or in you.”

“What?”

“Take the next left.”

I did as he asked and brought the car around into a poorly lit street. Is this it? I thought to myself. Is this where I die? Sure seemed like a likely place to get murdered.

“Pull over…” he started to say. There was a bright flash of light through his window from an adjacent alleyway. The world erupted into a chaos of broken glass and numbing pain. I felt myself become momentarily weightless, then blackness.

As I came to all I could sense was a sharp throbbing pain in my neck and pressure on my chest. It wasn’t long before that pain was joined by others all over my body. Disoriented, I dared to open my eyes. The car was on its side, passenger side down, leaving me half slumped half hanging from the seat belt that held me fast in place in the drivers seat. I groaned as my body shifted waking a whole new batch of painful sensations.

I glanced over and saw Mr. Mercedes, his head bloodied and eyes closed. His chest was rising and falling causing small fragments of glass to tumble clinking to the ground. The gun was nowhere to be seen, but the scrap of paper with the address lay partially crumpled on the cement showing through the shattered window. I felt an urge to reach for it.

Headlights faced me through what remained of the windshield forcing me to squint. Through barely open eyelids I saw a figure approach, backlit by the white glare. It was a tall lean figure moving with grace and confidence but I could not make out any fine details in the silhouette as it approached.

As the figure came closer I began to make out more. It was a woman, that much was sure, in a long coat and high heeled boots. Whoever she was she closed the distance quickly and finally stood before me, her face just hidden by the rim of the window shield. She leaned forward and looked at me with a face ringed by red locks of auburn hair.

“Lila?…” My heart skipped a beat. It was her. The face of the woman I loved. In every detail the same. Her full, red lips. Her skin like silk.  All of it the same. Except for the hair… And the eyes. The eyes were cold, like those of a predator.

“Not exactly,” she replied, a slender blade appearing in her black gloved hand.

PART 11

 

Exploits of a Midnight Traveler (Part 9)

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Everything in me, wanted to jump over the barrier that separated the walkways from the water. If only to drown away the emotions from the day. I could still smell the acrid stench of smoke hanging on my clothes. I could still see Ms. Cold Smile’s grin taunting my subconscious, as she fell to her death.

Just what the hell had Lila been hiding? Peering down at the paper I noted the address, which may have been in a foreign language, for all my knowledge of the area. The bustling of people around me hadn’t slowed, though it was near nightfall. Perhaps, if I could manage to be brave enough, I could find someone willing to help me.

The faces around me all had the same thing in common. They were unfamiliar, and I knew one thing. I was low on money, and I had nothing to prove I was who I said I was. Damn. I turned to face the water, resting my elbows on the wall, and buried my face in my hands.

“What the Hell am I to do?” I said aloud. I felt something hard jab into my back, and Mr. Mercedes voice slithered like a snake to my ears.

“Well, you can start by coming with me, and not making a fuss… You see… Killing a man in broad daylight is minuscule compared to setting off a bomb in a building full of innocent people. Have I made my point?”

“Damn.” I muttered, and nodded my head up and down. “How the Hell did you find me anyway?”

“Wasn’t hard. You came running from that building like ants from an ant hill. Did you really think it would be that easy to be rid of me?” I shook my head ‘no.’ “Which leads me to ask…” He glared at me.

“What?” I responded indignantly.

“Was there a lady assassin in there with you? Sexy? Lethal?”

“Yeah.” I paused. “She didn’t last long.” The look on his face was one of total surprise.

“You mean, they got to her?”

“Actually, I would say ‘you‘ did. That nifty little bomb you planted sent her plummeting to her death.” I waited to see the look on his face. He stepped back from me at that moment and then, for no reason at all, started chuckling.

Mr. Mercedes laughed and laughed, tears coming out of his eyes. His cheeks reddened from the blood flow. Had he absolutely lost it?

“Oh, oh… I’m sorry. What a way to go…” He paused for a minute, regaining his composure. “Well, that takes care of that, I guess. One less person for me to deal with.” He was still chuckling, and without warning, yanked the paper with the address out of my hand. He quickly flashed the barrel of his gun at me. I nodded my understanding. “Well then, let’s go, shall we? Things to do and people to kill,” he said jovially.

Hot damn, what was about to go down? 

PART 10

Exploits of a Midnight Traveler (Part 3)

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It was only when the door clicked shut behind me did Lila’s death start to sink in. I’d walked into a dream when I’d entered her room, all of it a numb, morbid nightmare. But, now her body was behind me, my shoes scuffing the hallway carpet in an aimless ramble, and the sense welled up in my brain that the vibrant patterns in the rug were about to open into a deep, dark sinkhole.

I wasn’t crying. Why wasn’t I crying? I’d loved Lila so much, it made me dizzy.

The man who’d stuffed the paper in my hand was gone. The address between my fingers had a dark red smear across it now. Lila’s blood was on my fingers.

Yesterday I’d been thinking about asking her to ignore the return date on our airplane tickets, just wander Europe with me. Us. Together.

I threw up in the trash can by the elevator.

Panting, a hazy fog of self-preservation made me pause. What was I going to do? Call the Polizei? What if they thought I’d killed her? I didn’t even speak more than a few words of Swiss German, or French, or… or…

Bubbling up under the fear was anger. What the hell had Lila been involved in? How could she not have told me? We’d known each other for years! Then again… what if she hadn’t been involved in anything? What if that man, that dressed-up, moustached bastard, had the wrong woman when he’d run his hands all over her dead body?

Blood. Sickness. Fear. I was paralyzed, gripping the trashcan, about to scream.

Ding.

The elevator door clicked, swishing open. I turned my head away, dread rising, crumpling the note into my fist so no one could see the red stains. There was a steady stride behind me. A whisper floated to my ears, something polished and soft from a refined gentleman’s throat. “Fühlen Sie krank?” I didn’t know what he said. It wasn’t the Swiss dialect that had been bouncing around my head all week. Perhaps he’d just think I was a dumb, hungover American tourist. Perhaps he’d leave me alone if I waved him away.

I turned.

It was the man Lila had spoken to downstairs. Her old friend. Mr. Black Mercedes. His cold gun barrel pressed against my forehead. “Did you take it?” he hissed. It was perfect English.

I felt the sweat on my neck freeze. “N-no.” My fingernails dug into my palms, helpless fists. “You.” He stared, expression hard. “Did you have Lila killed?”

His eyebrows raised in surprise, the stony look vanishing. The gun lifted, and with a smooth motion, he hid it in his jacket, like it had never been drawn. “No. Why would I?”

“Who the fuck are y—”

“Did you see anyone else?”

His interruption was calm, far too calm for the seething anger and pain I wanted to unload in his face. But something in his gaze… “…No.” It was his eyes. They were cold little beetles.

“Don’t lie.” His hand was quick, a hook around my wrist, snapping it back, making me gasp in pain as he wrenched my fingers open. The paper was in his hands, and I could do nothing to stop him. “Ah. There we are. I thought I smelled them about, the reason why I came back, you know?” His other hand made a careless wave in the air. “But they didn’t take it either, did they?” I guess he saw the despair and confusion in my face, because he smiled. “Good. Lila was always good at hiding things when she needed to. And, I know exactly where she left it.”

“Who are you?” I demanded again. “What do you even want? Why did someone kill her?”

His mouth quirked downwards. “Maybe you’ll find out. You’re coming along.”

“Fuck you. I’m not going anywhere.”

“You try anything else, and I’m just going to shoot you, you know?” He shrugged. “Don’t make me be unpleasant. We don’t have to be enemies. In fact, I need your help.”

There was a hard lump in my throat. Could I get the pistol from his jacket? I’d barely seen where he’d stashed it; his hands had flurried like a magician’s.

“See, what you’re going to do,” he continued lazily, “is help me get the item Lila hid. And then, you and I, we’re going to go to that nifty little address they gave you. And we’re going to kill them all.”

PART 4

 

 

Exploits of a Midnight Traveler (Part 2)

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Shocked as I was I answered it. My mind screamed a warning, but with the love of my life dead in front of me, I didn’t heed it.

Another man was at the door. He had dark short hair and a handlebar moustache. He seemed to be well-dressed, but at the moment details were not at the forefront of my mind.

With no hesitation this new man raced around me to Lila’s corpse. Although he had a grim look on his face he rifled through her clothing, her fingernails and her hairline as well.

Based on his scowl and deep grumbling he didn’t find what he was looking for. “It’s not here … maybe, I hope, it never was.”

He turned to me. He took a small piece of paper from his shirt, and a pen from the desk in the room. “Remember this address, and then destroy it. Go here and tell them that Lila is dead and she did not have it. You will be told what to do next by the people there.” He made a quick phone call.

“I’ll need a cleaning crew at –“he gave the address of our hotel and room number, and then hung up.

“You are in what are likely very unusual and sorrowful events for you, my friend. I am sorry for your loss and wish you luck. Goodbye.” He opened the room door, and after looking to each side, rushed out, closing the door behind himself, so that no one could see in.

Before he fully closed it, he reopened it to turn to me. “I nearly forgot: leave your passport and any personal IDs, and your phone if you have one. You should not be traceable.” Now he left – his destination unknown.

I was now alone with Lila’s body and an address on paper. I read it, but couldn’t get rid of it just yet. She was the one who knew Zurich, not me. I would have to keep it until I had something better to work with.

I took my papers from my pocket then looked at Lila’s form again. With a shaky voice, I said goodbye to her, then left.

PART 3