This time the festivities were much more rambunctious and it was not until Walter and Elisabeth were placed in their station wagon, dragging beer cans and streamers behind them along with a "just married" sign that Nina was permitted to remove her shoes and escape. William went to check them out of the hotel and left her to pick up their room, changing into more comfortable clothes and throwing everything into their suitcases. He came to assist her in taking them downstairs and they did not stay in the room any longer than needed, sneaking downstairs in the hope of avoiding attention.
"Nina," said a familiar voice as Bell placed their things into his car, "you are leaving so soon?"
Gritting her teeth and forcing a smile, Nina turned around to address Walter's new mother-in-law. "I'm afraid so," she said, approaching for an air kiss, though she despised them. "William has responsibilities at the college and I am on babysitting duty for my goddaughter tomorrow, so we need to get back. But it was a lovely wedding and I am so happy for them. I am sure we will see much of one another."
The beautiful brunette nodded faintly, her attention lingering on Nina's companion as she said, "I hope so. Walter tells me Professor Bell is quite a promising young scientist. He must be persuaded to join our social circles, I am certain he would find interested investors."
"I am certain that would delight him," said Nina and slid into the car. She waved merrily as they pulled away from the curb and once out of eyesight, her smile faded and she said, "Horrible woman."
"You have a way with her, as you do with everyone. Perhaps I should employ you as my goodwill ambassador, for I have far less patience for such people than you seem to." Bell glanced sideways at her and she smirked, drawing her knees up and leaning against the open window, watching as cars and streets faded into familiar territory. The majority of the drive was made in silence and both of them were comfortable in it, neither one much of a social butterfly, their most contented moments of isolation together. Nina placed her hand on the seat between them and after a time he reached for it, his fingers molding around hers as shadows deepened and darkness descended, the warm spring evening enveloping them as they descended into the city.
He pulled up in front of the dorms and shifted into park, waiting for her to get out. Nina had been lost in thought for the last hundred miles and her hand hesitated on the door handle as she asked, "William, if all that remains is Lauren's energy, would she be bound by the laws of physics as we are or capable of transcending them?"
"You mean in traveling from place to place? Theoretically, she would not be bound as we are. Why?"
Lowering her fingers, Nina looked at him in the partial light, her eyes unusually dark in the gloom. "I want to know why she remains, if indeed she does. I want her to show me what it is about Olivia that is important. I want to give her control. Will you help me?"
Disbelief registered on his face and he shook his head. "Nina…"
"I cannot live like this, not knowing, and if you will not help me, I will do it alone."
She tugged at the door handle and he reached across and put down the lock. "It will kill you."
"But you can bring me back. I will only remain dead if you are not there." Nina pleaded with him in her gaze, both of them knowing she made no empty threat; she was as ruthless as he was, as determined, had just as few qualms. How many times had she hooked up test subjects to the machine without concern, flipped a switch and sent pulses through their minds? It was a kind of madness in her that reflected his own impish desires, and in that moment she knew he understood her better than ever before.
William stared at her for a lingering moment and then shifted the gears, pulling away from the curb and driving around the campus building, parking in the shadows of the corner lot nearest the door that led to the underground research laboratories. Resignation was in him as he got out and accompanied her downstairs, removing a key from his pocket and unlocking the door. He flipped on a switch and let her inside, locking it again behind them. Dim bulbs came to life and Nina went to their machine, the one they had been working on for months, on a theory of communicating with the mind in the after-effects of death. William had always been fascinated with the concept of life after death; it was a distant sort of realization as he removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. "Lay down," he commanded, and threaded a hypodermic into a bottle of hallucinogenic drugs.
Her heart rate increased as she accommodated him, settling onto the table and permitting him to strap her down. From the intensity on his face she knew he did not like it, was reluctant to do it, and she felt a flicker of fear as she considered what she was about to risk on a hunch. Her theory was that Lauren remained, lingering until she had fulfilled what she wished Nina to do, and if both their energies were released from her body, Lauren would take her wherever she needed to go. She would have to die, temporarily. Bell had mastered the technique months ago; he had put rats to sleep only to wake them minutes later, an experiment the military was interested in as an interrogation method. "If Lauren does linger, Nina," he said, strapping down her ankle, his fingertips resting on her bare skin, "she will not like this."
Lauren had been similarly held down, her life also ended. She indicated he was to continue and he was quiet for a time, placing the machine over her head and turning the knobs. His back was to her and she watched him, remaining still as he satisfied his own curiosity. Bell turned and, taking her wrist, closed the strap over it. Nina flinched, an involuntary reaction, and he quickly turned to the machine. The needle measuring her brain waves was fluctuating wildly. He reached across and did the same to her other arm, the machine keeping track of her vital functions quickening its beeps. "I would say our theory is correct," he said. "Your brain pattern is unusual. I am going to give you something, to subdue your mind in the hope she emerges."
Whatever concern he had was overcome with fascination and she trusted him, knowing he would not endanger her unnecessarily. She felt the sting of a needle and her tension abated as she gave way to one of Walter's drugs; it spread through her system and caused her to relax into a state of drowsiness. He was speaking aloud and she realized he had turned on the audio recorder, words floating in and out of her mind that were meaningless but that excited him, for his tone altered in its pattern. Everything around her drifted and then she felt a stronger presence, one within her that caused her arms and legs to tinkle, almost to vibrate.
"Lauren," he said as if across a great distance, putting his hand on her arm, "listen to me. Trust me. Speak to me."
Her mouth moved and it was her voice that emerged though it was not her speaking; another had taken control. "Let me go. Please, you must let me go!"
The machine was lit up, its knobs and dials fluctuating wildly. Bell had never seen such strength radiating from it before, his hand remaining on Nina's arm, her one comfort against the fear spreading over her. It was not her fear but Lauren's and she realized the consciousness was not rational. "You do not want to do this," Lauren pleaded through her; "please, Garret, I have done nothing to you. Please, I must live! I must live for Olivia! She needs me…"
Ghosting—that was what William called it, an energy force with the last violent memories of death. It was not Lauren but her echo, a faint hint of what she had once been, trapped within Nina and fading. Even in her state of drowsiness she did not know whether to rejoice or feel sorrow, for she was not possessed, merely had a hitchhiker.
Bell looked from the dials to her face, his hand moving to her shoulder. "I am not going to hurt you, Lauren," he said gently. "I am going to help you."
Nina shuddered; even subdued her consciousness was stronger than that of her friend and subconsciously she was attempting to take control. He assisted her, injecting her with an anecdote that would bring her out of it. Her self-awareness returned and with it, Lauren faded into the background. "There is a theory," he said as he shut off the recorder, "that memories of death are contained in the psyche, that it is possible to communicate with the last few functioning brain waves. It was the premise of this machine, why it was built, but we have only had nominal success with it. Lauren is not a ghost and she is not in you; her energy merely transferred into you, leaped into you, and you are experiencing its after-effects. With time it will fade completely."
She knew what he was asking her to do, to remain as she was, to permit him to continue testing it, to discern how it had happened and if it might be replicated. In one instant his theories and hopes for the future had faded but he was not yet convinced it wasn't possible. Lauren had given him proof that energy remained, dispersed, but hers contained not her soul so much as active fragments. "Maybe there was not enough of whatever hold she had over you, of whatever you shared, to draw her into you fully. Maybe what is needed to succeed in such a merging is a similar energetic source programmed to respond that particular entity."
"How much of her influence remains?" she asked.
Nina felt the pressure of the instrument on her head until he switched it off and removed it, brushing the hair away from the side of her face. He unstrapped her right arm and then the left, permitting her to sit up. He shrugged and crossed his arms, something he did whenever confronted with a decision that was not his to make. "She is weakening. There is a chance we can learn from her if you do not ask me to do what I know you want me to do."
"I do not want to let this chance pass without using it. What you might learn from her cannot be more valuable than what I might learn from her. Please, William." She did not reach out to him, but it felt as if she had, for she was keenly aware of his nearness. He looked at her in silence and she could tell he intended to refuse, but if nothing else he was forced to admit this was her choice. It was she who lived with the nightmares, the memories, she who had become a traveler. "There is a chance her energy will carry me further than I could ever manage on my own," she said. "You have told me many times that science must come before personal gain, that if a chance comes we must take it. You can bring me back and what better way to prove your theory about life after death? Let me try it."
Quiet surrounded them and she reached out to rest her palm on his chest, drawing him into the depths of her blue eyes. "Trust me," she said.
"It will hurt," he answered.
He was not afraid of losing her; he trusted his methods, but still there was reluctance in him. Nina curved her mouth upwards into a smile and answered, "The truth usually does."
"I might not be able to revive you," he said.
Lifting her brows, Nina said, "I doubt that. But just in case…"
She leaned forward and kissed him. His free hand slid up her back as he responded, lingering for a long moment over her upturned lips. There was an urgent sensuality in them both, a deeper realization that this might end what they had forever. Nina felt excitement mingled with trepidation as he went to his table, filling a hypodermic. He took a moment over his calculations, knowing that a rat was different from the woman he loved. Intensity rushed through her as he returned, holding the needle in one hand, looking to her once more for assurance. She nodded. Bell reached out and touched the side of her face tenderly, his eyes softening as he looked at her. Then he plunged the instrument into her neck and sent the drug coursing through her veins. Nina gasped, shuddered, and fell back onto the table, flat-lining. The room around her receded and then disappeared.
Flashes passed before her eyes as Lauren's energy took her forward, flickering in and out of time. Images passed before her so quickly she had no time to process them: tears and laughter, headstones and towering buildings of chrome and glass; she saw Massive Dynamic and Walter and Bell; she saw a small blonde child scream and cover her ears, such tremendous power radiating outward from her that she incinerated the room and blew the power for miles; she saw a field of white tulips and bald-headed Observers; she saw a flicker and a transition, a room in a distant building, a cup of tea, a golden bell on the desk; she saw William and what he had become, how time had changed him; she saw Olivia scramble away from a raised hand, the man's face a blur as the child dug into the bottom of a drawer and pulled out a gun; it went off; she felt pain and emptiness and strength; death, destruction, and love; the flashes were no longer only of Lauren's travels but her own life; she saw herself standing at Walter's side, her arm around Elisabeth as they watched dirt fall onto a small coffin; she heard heavy breathing, William's face visible for just an instant as he made love to her in a darkened room; she saw William's death, for Olivia was there, standing in the midst of a great, darkened theater on the stage; the machine was powered by his energy, and he was very old, his body giving way into a continuous flow of light that surrounded, enveloped them and then…
Nina felt an explosion of agony in her mind that caused the images to evaporate in a rush of wind, carrying her consciousness back into her human body and returning with a gasp. Her eyes flew open and she half-lifted up from the table before collapsing back onto it with shuddering breaths. She felt his hands against the side of her face as Bell looked at her, shining a light into her eyes and making certain she was wholly conscious. "I left it as long as I dared," he said. At her shiver he placed his coat around her shoulders, assisting her in sitting up.
The memories were still in her although she could not sort them out, for there were too many and some she was not certain she wanted to fully explore. Massive Dynamic, the most powerful scientific foundation in the world, all marbled corridors and glass and chrome; Olivia entering her office for the first time, acting as if they had never met, for they hadn't, not that she would remember. Bell had remarked on Olivia as being an unusual child from the first moment he had seen her. It would occur to him in time, if he were not already aware of it, that she might possess the same genetic abnormalities as her aunt. Olivia might be capable of even greater power under the right experiments. He would use her, him and Walter. But none of that mattered.
His hand lingered at the side of her face, his fingers woven beneath the soft waves of her hair; never had she felt so close to him in the knowledge of what he might one day become. He was not that man yet, for he was hers now, hers and no one else's; their world had not been shaken, their resolve not shattered, his presence surrounding her in its warmth as he did not press for information so much as wait for her to give it to him. Her concern that his departure from Harvard would cause their relationship to deteriorate faded and she reached up to touch his face also, her fingertips gentle. "I nearly lost you," he said.
"But you didn't. You will never lose me."
Wrapping her fingers around the back of his neck, she drew his mouth to hers. She had much to tell him of what she had seen, what she knew and a few things she could never reveal. They were but shadows of the future, memories of things that had not yet happened. He could wait to hear them. And this time, he did not resist.
It was fitting they should consummate their love beneath his sketch of Massive Dynamic, the moonlight shining on it through the open window of his apartment. He kissed her gently, restrained at first, but as her arms went around his neck he put his hands at her waist, maneuvering her beneath him. Nina allowed him to take control, his mouth opening hers and teasing her with his tongue. She could feel every response in his body and hers, straining against one another between the sheets, warmth spreading through her at the exploration of his fingers. Though she had never done this before, the knowledge was instinctive and her responses encouraged him. There was no urgency in his caresses, in the lips that sent delighted shudders through her as he kissed her neck, his teeth barely closing around her earlobe. He was content to take his time, as curious about her as she was about him. His hands wandered and awakened reactions in her, unfamiliar but exciting. Her fingers ran up his back and her breath caught sharply in her throat as he joined them. He paused at her reaction, not having realized it was her first time. She had never trusted him more than in that moment as he allowed her to gather composure in the warmth of his arms, his deep voice whispering into her ear soft reassurances. He waited until she relaxed again to continue.
Gradually, there was less pain and in its absence came different sensations. She had not made a sound until now and he delighted in her faint admission of pleasure, moving them together between the sheets. She was aware of nothing outside him other than the moonlight and their labored breathing. Months of waiting, of restraint, of desire flowed between them in their mutual relief, months of unspoken intentions and ignoring one another in public, months of secrecy and frustration. She was not his student anymore and it was not her mind he most wanted or took the greatest satisfaction in. Tilting her head back in the pillows, she bit down on her lip to prevent from moaning, their bodies sliding against one another as his breath hitched in his throat. His body tensed and he tightened his grip on her, their hearts still beating in unison before he eased against her. Sweat glinted in the curve of his neck, her skin damp with exertion. His hand touched the side of her face and he lifted up his head to kiss her.
She loved him. More than he would ever believe, more than she could say, more than either one of them would admit. It was an unspoken agreement that they wouldn't say it, even though everything he did for her was an admission; every time he had looked at her in the classroom, every time he had refrained from touching her, every time he had touched her. Lauren had once asked her if it was love or lust, and Nina had not answered. But now she knew it was not lust, as lust could not be so gentle, so tender, so meaningful, or leave her with such happiness in its aftermath. She would love him no matter what he became, and she would do her best to hold him back, to attempt to prevent him from changing too much, just as she would protect Olivia as best she could; to be a ghost, to be a distant memory, to be of significance without a mortal presence in her life… perhaps that would be the greatest scientific challenge of all.
It was ironic, she thought. Lauren had come and gone, leaving Nina with more than memories but an instinct of the storm that was to come. She could not stop it, so much as prepare for it.
And she would do it only as a Ghost; a Recollection Olivia would never have… an Imprint.