"The test results of the Paridium-9 as a molecular human diagnostic tool have failed miserably. The pinpointing of the specific nucleic acids in the DNA sequences is still too complicated for an agent like Paridium-9 to be effective. It is my considered opinion that we are about 20 or 30 years too early for the development of a laser-based fluorescence detection instrument; there is much groundwork still to be done before this phase of such an ambitious project can be carried to fruition. This entire experiment has been a complete waste of my time...."
In frustration, I stab my finger at the "stop" button on the tape-recorder, and throw the microphone down on the lab table. A moment later, I pull the eye glasses off my face, angrily tossing them aside. I close my eyes and lean back in the chair. My eyes hurt, but rubbing them doesn't really help, because the pain is coming from the pounding in my head. I look at my watch, but have to put my glasses back on in order to see the hands on the face. It's long past time for me to head home; and yet, I feel so tired, the idea of moving out of the chair seems almost insurmountable.
I glance around the lab, and instead of seeing the tools of a scientist, I see the components of my life. It leaves me feeling cold and hollow inside, like a two-dimensional figure that doesn't really exist outside of this room. There is nothing personal here. It is simply a collection of microscopes, computers, notes, electronic equipment, and other sterile instruments which lay testimony to a barren life. I shake my head at the direction in which my thoughts have turned; it's maudlin to say the least. But still, what have I to show for all of the years I have spent in this building? In this room? Oscar would tell me that I've dedicated my life to the good of mankind, in the service of my country; but that's not how I see it in this moment, alone.
And that is just it: I am alone. I have spent most of my life locked up in labs, researching some obscure concept or theory, looking for the next breakthrough in cybergenics, or genome technology. I'm still the same "geek with the glasses" that I was in junior high. On some level, I suppose that should be comforting, but late at night, when the world has become quiet enough to hear my own truth, it's anything but; instead, it fills me with an anger that I'm not sure I can assuage. All scientists must sacrifice in order to remain diligent and impartial, but sometimes I feel as though I've been asked to give up everything. And I'm tired, so very tired.
When Oscar first brought me to the OSI, I was filled with hope. I thought there was finally a government agency that was dedicated first to science, and second to intrigue and espionage. But that was many years, hard realities, and several regrets ago. I never dreamed that my life would turn out this way; but then, I'll bet no one ever does. When we were young, we could not have anticipated that the OSI would take everything from us, body and soul. And now, having reached an age where I long to have family around me, it is far too late.
I can feel my anger dissipating as quickly as it emerged, and I realize that I'm just reacting to exhaustion. Guilt fills me: for as tired as I know I am, Oscar is so much more stressed and pushed to his limits than anyone else in the OSI. Oscar: an enigma of a man. For all the years that I've known him, I still can't say that I really know him. He has always been quick to inquire about others, and to lend a helping hand when and where he could; but he has never been one to ask for anything, nor allow people to get too close. What little I do know about him, had to be carefully extracted over the years, and those moments of opportunity did not present themselves often. Yet I feel close to him all the same. But it isn't the kind of emotional bond that Oscar has with Jaime and Steve; they've always been closer to him than they are to me. On some level, I suppose that's bothered me a bit over the years, especially where Jaime's concerned, but I've managed to hide whatever jealousy occasionally befalls me. At least I hope that I have.
A slight chuckle escapes my lips: I wonder if Oscar would be surprised to hear that I consider him to be my best friend. It has gone verbally unexpressed all the years we've known each other, but when it comes right down to it, that's how I feel about him. In that exclusionary way that two men can be close as friends, we are, and outside of Jaime and Steve, he's the only other person I love like family. A slight twinge of hurt surges through my chest as I think of Jaime and Steve, for they are the only two people I've given life to - albeit in an unconventional way - and some small part of me will never understand why they prefer Oscar: and I hate myself for even being capable of thinking that. I close my eyes against the guilt and the jealousy, and know that while I might have dedicated my life to the OSI, and to bionic research, the outgrowth of such devotion cannot be given with strings. And such is not my intent.
But at the end of the day, even I am human.
I sigh heavily and stand up, slowly moving toward the door. I cannot bear to spend another moment in this room, where I have lived my desolate life; and yet I can't imagine where else I would go. And it is then that I realize that in this room, in this building, surrounded by these people, I have come home. Smiling, I shut off the lights and gently close the door.
As I stand on the darkened airstrip in Iraq, waiting for a plane to fly in under radar and pick me up, I stare at the array of stars stretching out before me for as far as my eyes can see. The lack of light for miles around lends itself to the twinkling bodies in the sky above; it is a sight that I've never grown tired of, and as I draw in a long breath of cool desert air, I can feel a smile creeping onto my face. In less than ten minutes, I'll be able to put another mission behind me, and know that the OSI has once again beaten the odds. A slight butterfly flits through my stomach: one day that luck might run out. I shake the thought free from my mind; it is thoughts of this nature that get agents killed, and I know it. It's no different than bein' a test pilot. You have to keep your mind clear, and narrowed on the mission, and only the mission. One second of distraction could mean the difference between life or death. And I would know.
My mind turns quickly to Jaime. Even staring into the pitch black of the desert, I can picture her golden hair and hazel eyes, and the smile that lights my very soul with its charm. She's supposed to be seeing Rudy for some tests in Washington this week.... my chest feels warm at the prospect of seeing her; it is a glow that burns through me like a fire moving through a dry forest. It has been too long since we've spent any real time together, and the emotional separation is far more painful to me than any physical stress I could endure. At this moment, I only know I will be able to breathe again once I'm with her...
The infrared laser in my bionic eye zooms in on an object it detects behind some clouds about five miles to the North. It could be the plane I'm waiting for, but it could also be something I'd rather not know about. A slight shiver runs up my spine. This is the loneliest moment in any mission. You're on the home stretch, but you're not out of the woods yet; it could still go either way. I shake the thoughts of gloom from my mind, and once again think about beating the odds. A warm feeling rolls through me as I contemplate the reality of my very existence as proof of the OSI's ability to go beyond hard science, and straight into the realm of creative winning. It so reflects the vision of the man at the helm. But then, Oscar, no matter how bureaucratic he can sometimes appear, is an out-of-the-box thinker who lets his heart lead him in most decisions of consequence.
And no one is more glad of that than I am! But I'd be lyin' if I pretended that I haven't wanted to knock his block off more than once over the years, however. When Webster defined the word "paradox" in the dictionary, he simply drew Oscar's picture. I've seen the man insist that a mission be carried out "by the book," only to turn around and violate every last procedure ever created, at the risk of losing his job or worse, if an agent's life was at stake. I think it's that very conflict within him that makes him such an interesting person; at the least, he's a loyal and trustworthy friend. I know when the chips are down, Oscar always has my back. And I've got his.
My eye picks up another speck of movement in the East, and I concentrate on it. I think this one might be my plane, but it needs to be closer before I can identify it positively. As I stare through the infrared lens of my left eye, I have to marvel at its complex design, and the simplicity of the scientist who created it. I have to stifle the laugh that rises in my throat, for I'm not at all sure that Rudy would appreciate my description of him as somehow "simple." But I don't mean that in the conventional way; only that he is simple in his wants and needs. Give him a fishing rod, some tackle, and a nice lake, and Rudy's happy as a clam: at least on the surface. There has always been something else there; an undercurrent in Rudy Wells that has intrigued me, and at the same time, kept a distance between us. I don't know if it's intentional on his part, but knowing Rudy, I'd doubt that. I suppose it doesn't really matter, the result is the same; Rudy's difficult to get to know, and impossible to get close to.
He is in his way, a caring man, but the emotion is guarded. I feel very grateful toward him, as anyone in my shoes might, but I think on some level, Rudy finds that galling. As open a human being as he is to new ideas and concepts, he is closed down emotionally; especially to me, and to a lesser extent, Jaime. But then Rudy has spent most of his adult life in a lab, surrounded by technology and....rats. Another grin twists my lips, and I shake my head at the mental picture. But a moment later, I am sobered by the comparison that jumps into my mind. Like the caged rodents, Rudy has been at the whim of a government that has not always been capable of understanding his brilliance. It suddenly hits me that his has been a very solitary life. My brow furrows at that thought, and the realization that my own arrogance and insecurity resulted in my treating Rudy quite differently than Oscar. I have always accorded Rudy with great respect as a scientist, but often shown him little affection as a friend.
And in the middle of the Iraqi desert, in the quiet and dark of night, it is something I deeply regret. For the truth is, I would travel to the ends of the earth to protect Rudy, and if need be, give up the life he gave me in order to save his; I just wonder if he knows that. I hope he does.
I stare into the night sky, concentrating on the dark metal object flying toward me. It's too low for radar, and isn't using running lights. It must be my ride. The plane is on the airstrip before I know it. I quickly run to the open door, and jump into the cargo bay. The door is slammed shut, and before I can breathe, we're airborne. I close my eyes momentarily, and a smile tugs at my lips; we're headin' home. Home. When I think of home, I don't think of Washington D.C., nor the OSI, nor air bases, planes, Oscar or Rudy; when I think of home, I think of Ojai. I think of Jaime.
The dinner was better than the movie, but with only myself for company, neither was as much fun as I'd have liked. However, all my men were otherwise engaged: Steve off on some mission in Iraq; Oscar working late, as usual; and Rudy.....well, he just seemed uncharacteristically moody. I decide to walk home from the movie theater; it will do me good, and give me time to just think. Whenever I'm here in Washington, it seems as if the days are longer than anywhere else in the world. I shake my head in wonder: how do Oscar and Rudy put up with it day in and day out? I know that I sure couldn't. A warm love spreads through me when I think about the two men who saved my life. I am still here, and able to live a mostly normal existence, filled with teaching, and Ojai, because they dared to do the impossible. The depth of gratitude I feel toward the two of them can't be adequately described in words. I am thankful, indebted, and I love them both very much.
A strand of worry flutters through my mind. Over the past three days, during routine tests on my bionics, Rudy has seemed distracted and distant. It's not overt, but it is still palpable. He smiles at me, but it never reaches his eyes. He runs tests, notes his findings and recommendations on pads, and interacts with me only when necessary. There is no friendly chatter, and little of the warmth that I've grown to expect from him. I replay the past few days in my mind, and I can't find a reason for it; I'm fairly certain I've neither said nor done a thing that would have upset him. But then, I'm not his only concern. I know from past experience that he's usually overworked, expected to create miracles on every project he leads, and the pressure occasionally gets to him. My heart hurts for Rudy because I suspicion he's far from happy, and I don't know what to do to help him.
I decide to have a conversation with Oscar, and see if he can't ease the stress for Rudy, even if it's just a little. A confident smile curves my lips, because I know that Oscar will agree to help. Oscar is nothing if not one of the most loving friends to everyone around him. While he is a man reticent to openly discusss his feelings, he is demonstrative in many other ways. Over the years, I've grown to trust and count on him the way I did my father when I was a little girl. If I'm to be truthful with myself, then I have to admit that I'm closer to Oscar than anyone else; I lean on him for emotional support, advice, and above all for the strength that emanates from deep within him. Oscar is the foundation that holds not only the OSI together, but also Rudy, Steve and me; without him, I sometimes think the rest of us would wither away into nothingness. The love I feel for Oscar is complex. He is like a father to me, but he is not, and I suppose my love for him reflects that.
And then there's Steve. A different feeling rises within me when I think of Steve. Our lives have been entwined since we were children, and now, as adults, it is more bewildering than either of us could ever have imagined. I am still not entirely clear about my feelings toward him. I love Steve as a friend, and more; yet committing to him has not come to me. Guilt floods my soul. I have caused so much pain and hurt to him, and the regret I feel for that is immense. It seems funny to regret something that you can't even remember, but I do. I stop walking for a moment, and close my eyes as I picture Steve's smiling face. The sight in my mind's eye fills me with warmth, love, and a swirl of deep emotions, but at the same time, there is fear. I deem it an irrational fear, yet it remains nonetheless. There is an emotion buried deep inside me that keeps me from getting to close to him. If I could have a wish, it would be to eradicate that fear, and once again feel what I must have felt when we were engaged. I open my eyes and shake my head. I am nothing if not realistic. Steve will always be in my heart, but I can't say that I'll ever feel for him the way I once did. I don't know. Perhaps in time, it will become clear.
I begin walking again, and realize that instead of heading toward my apartment, I have turned toward the OSI building. I chuckle softly to myself: I was going home, and wind up at the OSI. I am not going to try and figure out the deeper meaning of my subconscious, for that won't change the facts. Home is Ojai, and I miss it. I miss Helen and Jim, my students, even the airbase itself. I glance at my watch; it's terribly late, and I need to get home to bed. I pick up my pace. As I pass the OSI building, I look up toward the corner office, and stop. The desk light is still on, and I know damned well it isn't because the occupant carelessly left it that way. I look toward the entrance and make a decision: heading home will have to wait awhile longer....
The yellowish glow of my desk light irritates me after so many hours of trying to catch up on paperwork. I pull the glasses from my face and rub my eyes, and for a moment, I allow myself to lean back in my chair, eyes closed, exhaling a long breath of air. I glance at my watch; it's late, and I'm tired. But the work on my desk can't wait. There is always more work, and not enough hours in which to get it all done. I smile at that thought. The Secretary could care less at what time of day or night it's finished, so long as it gets done. I can't help but sigh: I've spent my entire career in government service, allowing no time for a spouse, much less a family, and all for a goverment that more often than not seems unaware and ungrateful of the sacrifice. That thought causes me to look over at the couch in my office, to check the sleeping figure laying there. I shake my head; the poor man was so overtired when he dropped by earlier, one hit of scotch knocked him out, and he fell asleep right where he sat.
My brow furrows as the truth inserts itself into my mind. Rudy didn't just "drop by" my office, and I know it. Something was bothering him, although he chose not to tell me about it. Instead, he talked about fishing, Steve and Jaime, and the garden of roses at his townhouse that are dying from lack of attention. I knew from the conversation that he was feeling lonely. It's a sensation with which I am intimately familiar. He kept apologizing to me for taking me away from my paperwork, and I had to reassure him that it was okay. It strikes a sad chord within me that Rudy doesn't realize he's far more important to me than my damned paperwork; even if it means staying up all night to get my work done, I'd rather be there for him if he needs me. I look at the ball he's huddled himself into and realize that it's become a little cold in my office. I quietly walk over to a wall cabinet and pull out a blanket. Carefully I cover Rudy with it, and while he stirs slightly, he doesn't awaken.
Confident that he's sleeping soundly, I head back to my desk and the endless files waiting for me. I loosen my tie and roll up my sleeves further; I need to get a move on if I'm going to finish the work in front of me before my 8am meeting. I slip my glasses back on my face, and notice the small framed picture on my desk. It was taken last year at the Secretary's annual reception. I pick it up and examine it. Rudy is holding Jaime tightly, his smile is one of great pride; Jaime is smiling contentedly, one arm around Rudy's shoulders, and the other around my waist; I'm holding Jaime in one arm, and Steve in the other. If a stranger looked at this picture, I'm quite certain he'd think we were family. And in any way that matters, he'd be right.
The grin on Steve's face almost makes me laugh aloud. He looks like he just told an off-color joke. I chuckle to myself, because if I have a best friend, it's Steve, and I'm sure he was at least thinking about an off-color joke. And while he's a man with an off-beat sense of humor, I trust him with my life, and count on his intelligence, skill and outstanding instincts to help me protect our country from its enemies. We have an easy relationship, filled with a lot of laughs, and plenty of good-natured ribbing. I've often imagined, that it's the sort of kinship I would have had with Sam, had he lived long enough for both of us to reach adulthood. A pang of sadness runs through me as the ache of my brother's loss pushes itself into my heart. It doesn't matter how many years have passed, I still miss him, but I have thanked God many times for sending me Steve, his presence in my life has made the void left by my brother slightly less painful.
I shake my head at having allowed such a line of self-pity to insinuate itself into my mind: I must be more tired than I thought. I glance at the snapshot in my hand once more before placing it back on my desk, and my eyes linger on the young woman pictured there. She means more to me than I can admit aloud. Jaime's smile soothes my soul like a balmy wind on a hot day; she is the one who brings me the most joy, along with the most pain. The strength of my love for her frightens me, and I know that if I could, I would keep her near to me, so that I could be sure that she was always protected. But life isn't like that, and loving means caring enough to let the winds of freedom breathe between you. My eyes fill with the passion that this train of thought has ignited in me, and the soft knock on my door startles me from my stupor. I quickly wipe my eyes on my sleeve, embarrassed by the emotion on my face.
"Come in," I call softly.
Jaime appears in my doorway, with a look of concern coloring her features.
"What are you still doing here? Do you know what time it is?"
I quickly stand, and walk over to her. "I know what time it is, do you? What are you doing here, babe?"
She leans into my embrace, returning the kiss I gently place on her cheek, then she pulls back, the concern on her face growing.
"Are you all right?"
Embarrassed, I look away. "Of course, I'm fine. Just a little tired."
"Why are we whispering?"
I nod toward the sleeping man on the couch. "I don't want to wake him."
Jaime looks over, and then back at me. "Did something happen?"
I sit on the edge of my desk, and pull Jaime over to sit next to me, holding her hand. "He's just overtired, Jaime," I hesitate for a moment, searching her hazel eyes for understanding. "I think he simply couldn't bear being alone tonight."
She looks over at Rudy once more, and I see not only understanding, but also a deep compassion filling her eyes. She turns back to me.
"I had a feeling something was bothering him. He's been a little distant the past few days."
I nod. "Give a little extra attention tomorrow, will you Jaime? He's been under a lot of strain.... I think it's getting to him a bit."
She strokes my face lightly with her hand, and I lean into the touch more eagerly than I should.
The timbre of her voice is light, "What about you?"
Embarrassed, I pull away, smiling nervously. "What do you mean?"
I feel her hand stroking the back of my head, and I close my eyes. She leans in closer to me.
"It's almost dawn, you know... you haven't had any sleep, have you?" I shake my head, so she continues, "You're always so worried about everyone else, Oscar, do you ever think about taking care of yourself?"
I shake my head at her. "I can take care of myself just fine, thank you, Miss Sommers." We share a quick grin, and I reach for my phone, dialing the security desk, "Frank, this is Oscar Goldman, can you please get a car for Miss Sommers? Tell the driver to see her safely inside her apartment, understand? Thanks."
I hang up the phone, and Jaime has an annoyed look on her face. "I don't need a babysitter to take me home, you know."
I smile at her, taking her hands in mine, pulling her up from the desk. "Just think of it as a favor to me, all right?"
I walk her to the door of my office, and open it. Before she turns to leave, I pull her to me, holding her close.
I whisper softly into her ear, "I love you, and I'll see you tomorrow, babe."
She squeezes me tightly, sensing that I need it. "It's tomorrow already, Oscar, but you wouldn't know that because you never sleep, and it probably all seems like one long day to you."
She pulls away and kisses my cheek, and I smile at her.
I gently tap my index finger on the end of her nose. "You remember to do something nice for Rudy tomorrow, hmm?"
She nods and kisses me softly on the lips. "You worry too much about everything, Oscar, but I love you anyway." She fingers the material of my shirt, looking at the buttons, then up at me. "Get a little sleep, and I'll see you in a few hours." She turns and heads out the door, with a final warning, "You'd better change that shirt, Oscar, or Callahan'll know you never made it home!"
Chuckling softly, I close the door to the office gently, and walk back to my desk. I glance once more at the picture upon the wooden top, and smile: I love the three of them more than anything else in the world, and know that as long as I have them in my heart, I am home.