Frances took a deep breath and forced herself to sit upright in spite of her throbbing headache. Her purse, overcoat, and hat were still with her. Memories slowly came back: the men in dark suits, the sedan sent to take her to her new ballet company, and Jean-Paul waving farewell. The memory of a white handkerchief pushed over her nose and mouth shocked her into awareness.
She balanced on her feet and glanced around. Her foggy vision was clear enough to see she was in some sterile hospital room. There were several men in white lab coats tending to equipment she didn’t recognize.
“Where am I?”
Only one short, balding man turned towards her. He glowered and marched towards her. Frances couldn’t help but notice a young, teenage boy walked behind him with slumped shoulders and a downcast expression.
“Get back on the table!” His French was passable, but he had a harsh accent she couldn’t identify.
“No! I want to go back home! My brother...”
“Silence! You’ll do as you’re told from now on! Ivan, put her back to sleep.”
“Please... Father... the American isn’t doing well, and she doesn’t want to be here either. I can feel it. This isn’t what you promised me.”
“This organization will take us to new heights. You’ll stop being so resistant!”
Frances saw the thin teenager pale and tremble. The man grabbed the front of the teenager’s shirt and shook him slightly. “Do as you’re told if you want to see your mother!”
The teenager stepped forward and stretched his hand towards her. “I’m so sorry,” he said. She gasped when his right, blue eye started to glow. Frances' legs gave out; she slumped forward, and her vision grew dark.
Frances heard waves in the background as she woke up again. This time everything had an unreal quality to it. Now she was on a beach at sunset. The teenage boy sat next to her; his heterochromatic eyes were fixed on the gently lapping waves.
She sat up and turned towards him. “Who are you?”
“My name is Ivan Gamo. You’re, technically, inside my consciousness. I brought you here so I could talk to you. Alone. They have ears everywhere, but they still can’t figure out how to pry into my head.”
“What? That’s... incredible,” Frances murmured. No, this was a dream, and this boy was a manifestation of her fear. She was kidnapped and drugged, nothing more.
“I’m not a figment of your fears or the drugging you suffered.”
Frances startled at the echoing of her thoughts. “I’ve been kidnapped, but by who and why?”
“The Black Ghost.”
“Yes. They’re a science and research organization that’s funded by a group of ruthless men that call themselves the ‘Merchants of Death.’ Those men have tremendous influence over several world governments. Their goal is world domination.”
“But...” Frances felt her brow furrow. She looked down at her bare feet. The cool, wet sand clumped as she dug her toe into it.
“You’re still not convinced?”
“I’m a ballerina. What would they want with me?”
“You’re an experiment to them, just as I am. They were looking for someone that wouldn’t be missed by a family. Someone from the streets, but they chose wrong with you. Your brother, Jean-Paul, will be looking for you.”
“Yes! How did you know about him? They told you?”
“No, I read your mind. They don’t allow me any access to our files. They... they’re... afraid of me. They made me, and now they don’t trust me.”
“So... you really can read my mind?”
“Everyone’s mind, and I can do a lot more. I’m keeping a close telepathic link to the other one.”
“There’s someone else here?”
“Yes. He’s an American. They have him under a deep sleep right now.”
“What for? What are they doing to him? You haven’t told me what they’re doing to us.”
Ivan turned his face to her. His grim, tense expression elicited a sense of dread. “They’re surgically altering us into prototype weapons. They’re augmenting our bodies with mechanization and electronic enhancements so we can be sold to countries bent on world domination. Once the planet is engulfed in total warfare fought by altered people, the Black Ghost will take over the weakened countries and rule. They'll keep the secrets to our weaknesses for that time.”
“This is not real. It can’t be real! I don’t believe any group of people could be that evil!”
“There must be evil in most men. It’s what keeps the Black Ghost alive.”
Frances flinched at Ivan’s bitter tone. She looked over at him again and laid a hand on his shoulder. He felt real and solid, not like a dream.
“Please don’t say that. We have to have hope.” She slowly released his shoulder. “So when is this going to happen to us?”
“It’s happening right now. Jet is almost finished. They’re prepping you for surgery. Pretty soon... you’ll not be the same. You won’t be entirely human any more.”
“You have to stop them!”
“I can’t! They have my mother hostage. They’re very careful to not let anyone on the island know where she’s located. Not even my father knows her whereabouts. Besides, they keep me medicated just enough so I can’t concentrate to use the rest of my abilities.”
“That man is your father? Is he...”
“One of them? Yes. He’s the reason I’m here.”
Frances took a deep breath and shook her head. She slowly absorbed what she had been told and then glanced at Ivan. “You look very young, but...”
“But I sound old? I may appear fourteen, but I’m actually...” He gave her a rueful smile and shook his head. “...a lot older.”
“I wish you would stop finishing my sentences. It’s convincing me you really can read minds.”
Ivan let out a sharp gasp and leaped to his feet. His eyes were trained to some far off point in the deep, blue sky. Frances got to her feet and gave a slight shake to his shoulder.
“What is it, Ivan?”
“Jet is waking up in pain. He needs me. Also... my father... he’s up to something. I have to go.”
“No! Don’t leave me! Please...”
“I’ll do what I can to help you, but I can’t do much of anything right now.” Ivan turned towards Frances. He placed his hand on hers and squeezed. “I swear I’ll be back after I check on Jet and see what’s going on.”
She squeezed his hand back. Slowly, his hand felt cooler and cooler. Frances watched the teenager’s presence fade away into a shade of gray, then nothing. She took a few steps and glanced around. She was now alone on an empty, unfamiliar beach.
Frances sank to her knees and let tears flow. She crossed her arms and murmured, “Jean-Paul,” over and over. Her voice carried over the waves, but no reply came.
:Jet! I heard you.:
The lanky New Yorker looked up through his haze. His dry throat was painful. A man in white surgical garb was laying aside a large serrated knife. It had a dull, crimson liquid with a blinding gleam peaking through.
He looked over towards another surgeon at his other side. Jet raised his head to see better what the man was doing. His tights had deep crimson grooves on them. The surgeon grabbed Jet's left tight and slid his leg away smoothly. Horrified nausea hit as he struggled to scream out.
:Jet! Don't look any more! Sleep again.:
:My legs! They're taking my legs! What the...:
Jet felt a cool wave hit him. Blackness hit him. He felt as if he were floating again, and then, as if he were being tugged downwards. The smell of grass creped over the pungent antiseptic. His hands felt cool and good. He slowly sat up and realized he was now in a deserted park during an evening. The grass felt slightly damp under his hands.
It unnerved him to see an empty park. New York had people everywhere; now he was totally alone. A slight panic hit as he jumped to his feet. He waved his fist in the air and shouted, “I know you're here! Show yourself, kid!”
Jet swirled around and glared at the short, skinny kid looking up at him with those eerie eyes: one blue, one brown. “There you are! What the heck is this? Where were you? I dreamed I lost my legs.”
“This is the dream. That was the reality.”
“What? You mean...”
“You woke up during the surgery to alter you. It won't be over for several more hours.”
“So you mean I was really kidnapped?” Jet shook his head and forced a laugh. He flopped down on the grassy ground and gave Ivan a lop-sided smile. “Get bent kid. I probably drank too much and this is my hallucination in the drunk tank. Damn, why couldn't it be pink elephants?”
Ivan crouched before him with a stern look. It only made Jet laugh harder. He gasped suddenly as his legs felt like searing fire hit them. He grabbed at them and stifled a cry of pain. He bit his bottom lip, hard, as Ivan slapped his palm against Jet's clammy forehead.
Minutes later the pain lifted. Jet regained his breath as Ivan's hand dropped. He watched the boy stand on shaky legs. “I must go check on the others.”
“What others?” Jet shouted after Ivan's fading form.
She got to her feet and swirled around; she met Ivan’s heterochromatic eyes. Frances gripped his shoulders, he was solid once again.
“What is it? Why do you look so grave? What’s happened?”
“They’ve taken someone else. A man from East Germany this time, but he was severely injured in an auto accident. They’re stabilizing him now. But... he wants to die... if he wakes up, altered like they plan, he will.....” Ivan’s took a deep breath and adopted a grim expression. “You see, his wife was murdered as they were trying to escape to West Germany. He’s in psychological pain as well as physical. It’s a strain just to absorb and release it.”
“You’re taking all of his pain?”
“Everyone’s,” Ivan whispered, pulling away from Frances' grip. She jogged up to Ivan as he retreated down the beach. She fell into step with him and looked down at his face. His brow was furrowed, and he had deep circles under his eyes. “You see, I was in a baby’s body for a long time. Years. They only granted me a teenager’s body so I could be of more use, but I still get tired over long periods of time.”
“Oh, Ivan, you’re protecting us, aren’t you? More than you’re letting me know.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can handle it.” Ivan’s pale face suddenly flushed; he wouldn’t quite look her in the eye any more. “You’re like me now.”
“You mean I’m changed? Like you said?”
“Yes. You’re cybernized. Pretty soon they’ll wake you up. They’ve enhanced your senses a great deal.”
“Why aren’t they being stopped by police? Someone... anyone...”
“The Merchants of Death have enough money to bribe police or anyone else they need.”
A wave of dizziness lapped at Frances. She rubbed her temples and shook her head. Ivan gripped her arm and said, “They’re trying to wake you up. Go with them for now. We’ll cooperate until the time comes. Right now, Albert... 004 as they call him... is still in shock and I’m still on heavy medication to keep me under control.”
“No! I don’t want to see them!”
“Listen, I’m working on persuading one of the doctors to cut my medication down. Please, Frances! You have no choice except to trust me. Please... please... I swear we’ll leave this place as soon as I know how. I promise you’ll see your brother, but you have to trust me. You’re brave and sensitive. We’ll need you.”
She nodded and let a thick cloud of dizziness take over. Blackness, numbness, and coolness.
Frances glared at the old man, Ivan’s father, Doctor Gamo, who stood over her. She looked at the dinner tray beside the stiff hospital bed. It was soupy oatmeal and orange juice.
“Where is Ivan?” she asked, not looking at Doctor Gamo.
“He’s asleep, not that it’s any of your business. I should have never let him bring you food,” he snapped. “You better find a way to choke that down. We have a test coming up after 004 wakes.”
She looked over to her left, where the German man was in a deep sleep. He was still wrapped in bandages and still had a callow complexion. What horrified Frances was that the man no longer had a normal right arm or his legs.
“What test, you sick bastard!” Frances flinched at Jet’s, or 002 as they made her call him, sharp voice. She could barely understand his English words, she knew so little of it. Ivan had warned both she and Jet to not let them know they could communicate. The Black Ghost wanted their subjects to be isolated from each other, but didn’t trust them alone in separate cells. “You’ve had us here for three damn days!”
“Oh... and where do you think you’ll go? Back to New York?” Doctor Gamo declared in English accented with thick Russian, strolling over towards Jet’s hospital bed across the room. Frances watched the man lean over Jet’s scowling face. “Be grateful for what we did for you, you brat! Now keep your mouth shut. You don’t need to keep your tongue for our purposes.”
With that threat, the man turned and stormed out of the room with a flourish. Frances met Jet’s smoldering brandy eyes. He turned his face away with an abashed expression. Frances felt embarrassed for him. Once Jean-Paul had tried to explain the male ego to her, but she laughed when he got flustered and declared, “Men have pride.”
:Frances, Jet?: Ivan’s telepathy pressed into Frances' mind.
:Ivan, your father...: She formed the words clearly in her head.
:You mean Dr. Gamo. I’m still asleep. Albert will be awake soon. It’s then that we can make plans to leave.:
France picked up her orange juice and glanced at Jet. He was now lounging back on his stiff bed and gazing at the ceiling. Frances wished the three of them could have a direct conversation for once. She knew nothing of the lanky, redheaded American, and Ivan refused to tell her anything about him other than he was a year younger than her.
:The oatmeal is drugged. Eat only part and hide the rest. In three days they’ll take the three of you out to the woods, a testing ground. It’s then I think we have a chance. I’ve been communicating with Albert. He’s agreed to come with us. He’s stronger than I first thought... All of you are... both of you need to rest, and Frances, do not let them know you know the slightest bit of English.:
:Of course, but... how are we to escape. What about your mother?:
Several long minutes passed. A chill ran through her body; she looked to see Jet shivered too. Jet turned wide eyes towards her. She clearly thought, :Ivan? What’s wrong?:
:My mother is no longer a concern. We’ll leave now.:
:Ivan, tell me what happened? Did they kill her?:
:No, she... betrayed me. Gilmore told me she left me with my father so she could continue to be a Russian secret agent. She’ll be here within a week. We need to leave before then because she’s a very powerful psychic. I’d rather not confront her. On the positive side, Doctor Gilmore, is willing to help us escape. He’s cut my sedatives down so I can start to use some more of my psychic abilities.:
Frances felt her stomach sink with anxiety. :We’re family now, Ivan. When we leave here, Jean-Paul and I will take care of you. Count on it.:
:Get some rest. We’ll talk tomorrow.:
Frances laid back in bed as a scrawny nurse came in. She drew a drape between Frances and the two male cyborgs. The lights dimmed, and the nurse left. Frances tried to work on relaxing.
To be continued.