LIFE IS BUT A DREAM
All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.
For the first time Steel materialized alone in his mission's site. He was warned that he would not work with Sapphire, but he kept wondering why. As usual, the details on the mission were extremely scant: he only knew he was to help a person who probably knew about the existence of time agents and who was threatened by ruthless criminals who wanted to extort her secrets and exploit them for their own profit.
He looked around: he was in some sort of huge basement, maybe an ex-warehouse, dark and damp. He soon heard some voices in one of the nearby rooms: two men speaking in a threatening tone. He thought he also heard a female voice, but it was very weak. Then, all of a sudden, a shout of pain tore the quiet of the place. Steel sprang into action, ready to face any threat. He stopped just short of rushing into the room where the shout came from, and cautiously peeped into the room. He was surprised by what he saw: the two men were standing in front of a woman handcuffed to some pipe running over her head. Her feet barely touched the ground, so most of the weight was probably supported by the wrists, which skin was badly torn. Her head was dangling, and one of the men held a strange remote control. For once, Steel wished Silver were at his side: he would know what that device was. But he was all by himself, and he needed to know what was going on before interfering.
One of the two men spoke: "Come on, honey, if you make up your mind and talk, everything will be over just like that. We'll bring you home and soon you'll be brand new."
Even though she was clearly in pain, the woman lifted her head and looked defiantly at her jailers. Steel was impressed by the resolute look in her eyes and by her firm voice. "Who do you think you're fooling? As soon as I give you the information you want, you will get rid of me without thinking twice."
"We've got time, baby: a few more hours of this special treatment, and you'll sing just like a bird." After saying that, the man pushed a button on his remote control, and the woman's body immediately jerked as if electrocuted, and another shout of pain escaped her lips.
Steel wanted to intervene, but he controlled himself: he needed to know exactly what information they wanted to pull out of that woman. Although he never particularly cared for human beings, he was disgusted by the treatment inflicted upon her, and at the same time he was admiring her stamina and temper.
The torture went on for another half an hour, then one of the men finally let out the nature of the information he was looking for.
"Come on, hon, make up your mind: you just have to tell us how these time agents work and where we can find them. That's all we want to know, then you'll be free and you won't feel any more pain."
The woman was barely conscious, but she somehow found the strength to reply, although in a very weak voice: "I don't know. You can torture me to death, but I don't know. I just see them in my dreams. I know their names, I know their powers, but I don't know how they work and where they come from. They're just dreams."
"No, baby, they're not just dreams, and you know it. They're elements, aren't they? You said that. Well, so how do they appear in our world? Where do they get their powers from? Where do they live? What are their names?"
Another shock made her body shudder. She wouldn't resist much longer. She resolved to disclose the least dangerous details. "Their names are Silver, Gold, Sapphire, Jet, Lead, Radium…"
"What about the others? Who is the most powerful? Isn't there a leader?"
"The leader is an entity I know nothing about. The most powerful is probably Steel."
Steel was astonished to hear his name: how could that woman know them all? Now he needed that piece of information, but he couldn't let the two criminals get it from her through torture. He refused to admit he was moved by her sufferings and he convinced himself that he just wanted to prevent those two criminals to know about the elementals' nature. It was decidedly time to take action. He entered the room firmly and stealthily and the two men never realized he was behind them. He hit the closest one with a clean blow on the back of his neck, knocking him down. The other man reacted rapidly and attacked Steel with a big knife he extracted from a sheathing he was wearing on his side, and he drove it into his assailant's stomach, but Steel managed to harden his core, thus preventing the blade from entering his flesh. By taking advantage of the other man's surprise, he hit him with an exceptionally powerful blow to the arm, making him drop the weapon, then he knocked him down with a backhander that would have stopped a horse. After getting rid of the two criminals, Steel approached the woman. Her eyes were closed and her resistance was probably at the end. He surveyed the handcuffs immobilizing her and he unlocked them with a skilful movement of his fingers. While he was releasing the woman, he whispered in her ear: "Don't worry, my little human friend, you're safe now."
He wasn't certain the woman heard him: once released, her body sagged like an empty bag. Steel had to support her and carry her outside.
The house was isolated and surrounded by woods. Steel didn't want to follow any beaten path to avoid being easily found by the two men, who would certainly follow them, and he started in a random direction, trying not to leave any revealing trails. In order to move faster he decided to carry the woman on his shoulders. She wasn't petite: she was tall and athletic, but she was a light weight for Steel.
He walked quickly for about 15 minutes, when he suddenly felt her body jolt and he heard a moan escaping her lips. He laid her down to see what had happened. He thoroughly checked her, but he couldn't find the cause of that spasm of pain. Maybe a delayed effect of the torture, he thought. He loaded her up his shoulders again and he started at a quick pace.
After precisely another 15 minutes, the incident happened again: the woman writhed in pain and made a louder moan, as if she had awakened. Steel laid her down again with care and he saw that she had opened her eyes. They stared at each other for a long time, than she said, with a shaky but relieved voice: "Steel."
"Do you know me?" The agent was amazed.
"I saw you in my dreams. Why are you here?"
"Your dreams are drawing a lot of attention. I was sent to find out what you know about us."
The woman's relief faded: "You too? Are you going to torture me, too?"
A hurt expression crossed Steel's eyes for a moment, but it was so fleeting that the woman thought she just imagined it.
"This is not our way. You will give the information that you want, if you want. But first I must understand what's happening to you: why is your body still feeling a shock every 15 minutes? Can that remote work from long distances?"
"I don't think so. I don't know what's going on. At any rate, I can walk now: we can move further, if you want."
"I think we should. Let's go." And, stretching out a hand to help the woman up, he started again at a slower pace, supporting her.
15 minutes later the shock hit again. The woman doubled over, then fell to the ground.
"Please, Steel, make it stop. I cannot stand it anymore, this is killing me."
The time agent tried to figure out what could be the cause of those shocks. Again he wished Silver were there, but he knew he had to manage the situation alone. He tried to image what Silver would do: he would certainly look for a hidden device able to continue the torture autonomously.
"Undress." He brusquely ordered the woman.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Take your clothes off, I want to see if they implanted some sort of device on you."
"No way." The woman looked at him so defiantly that Steel's lips creased in an amused smile."Don't get the wrong idea: I just want to get rid of the thing that's causing you all that pain."
"Why do you think they put it on me? I don't feel anything."
"They might have implanted it under your skin. It could be detected only through a very thorough physical examination."
"Well, you won't make that examination, if you don't mind. I'll go to a doctor and ask him to do that."
"We don't have all that time. Soon those men will be on our tracks. Moreover, do you really think you will bear it long enough to return to civilization? Look around: there's just trees for miles, and none of us has the slightest idea where we are."
The woman didn't even have the time to think: another shock hit her, this time so strong that it stunned her.
Steel grabbed her before she fell to the ground. He laid her down with care and immediately started to undress her, taking advantage of her unconsciousness. He laboriously removed her sweater, then unbuttoned her shirt. He removed her shoes, followed by the trousers and the socks. He decided to leave her underwear on to respect her modesty, which was clearly very important to her.
He allowed himself to briefly linger on her remarkable body. For some reason she reminded him of Sapphire, although she was more muscular than his partner: she probably practiced some kind of sport. She looked quite attractive, too: long black, curly hair framed a regular face lighted up by two deep-blue eyes, same color as Sapphire's.
Steel reluctantly recovered from such unprofessional thoughts and started to touch every inch of her skin, in search of the dreadful device. He didn't find anything in the feet and in the legs, so he turned to the upper part of her body. While he was touching her arms, he noticed that the woman's eyes were open and she was silently observing him. Another smile escaped his lips, while he commented: "I'm glad you accepted the situation. As you can see, I am no pervert. It makes no difference for me whether you're dressed or undressed."
Now it was the woman's time to smile. "You're a terrible liar, Steel: do you think I didn't notice how you looked at me before starting your search? You liked what you saw."
"I was merely thinking that you remind me of Sapphire, my partner."
"I know who she is: I often see her in my dreams. I like Sapphire, she's much more empathic than you. By the way, why isn't she here with you? I thought you always worked together."
Steel's eyes darkened. "I don't know. As usual, I was given no explanations. I suppose she's busy with another mission. But you're right: this is the first time we don't work together. Tell me about your dreams." Steel didn't stop searching her while he was speaking.
The woman smiled again, showing two pretty dimples around her mouth.
"After the search, now also the questioning? All right: your methods are much better than my torturers'. And I must admit your touch is quite pleasant: I didn't think you had such delicate hands, Steel."
The agent looked positively embarrassed. "Don't let my name mislead you: I'm not as hard as it seems."
The woman had no time to answer: her body was overwhelmed by another shock. Steel supported her, feeling helpless and not knowing how to alleviate her pain. He was beginning to sympathize with that human, and watching her suffer so was getting quite distressing.
She lost consciousness again, so Steel laid her carefully on the ground. That allowed him to realize that an area of her right side was reddened. He examined it more closely and touched it, detecting a hard mass which shouldn't have been there. He found the device! Now he had to remove it. It wouldn't be a piece of cake: he had to tear her skin. He searched the woman's clothes, looking for a suitable tool. In a pocket of her jeans he found a steel watch. Perfect! The agent disassembled it, removed the strap, gripped it in his hand and briefly concentrated. When he opened his hand, the strap had been turned into a thin, sharp metal sheet. Without hesitation, Steel cut open the woman's side, which started to bleed profusely. He didn't expect such a big loss of blood: he tried to stop the bleeding with her shirt, since the blood prevented him to clearly see the object. When he finally removed it, the blood flow slowed dramatically, and the agent sighed with relief: at least he didn't have to worry about her bleeding to death.
Since he had no way of suturing the wound, he just tightly fastened the shirt around her waist. To do that he had to lift her upper body from the ground, and the movement made her come around. When she opened her eyes, they were so full of pain that Steel felt his heart break. He helped her down and looked at her, puzzled. What was in that woman that caused such uncharacteristic reactions in him? He never felt pity for humans, let alone attraction or appreciation, but now he realized he felt all that for this woman. She wasn't just a means to reach his goals or complete his mission: she was a person he was feeling compelled to protect and help.
Her voice, hoarse and shaky with pain, roused him from his thoughts. "Steel, I won't hold on much longer. The next shock could be the last."
"There will be no more shocks: I just removed the device that was tormenting you." He said in an unusually tender voice, also allowing himself a slow caress on her face.
She rested her head on the ground with a long relieved sigh. "Is this the soreness I feel on my side, then? Was that blasted instrument of torture there?"
"Yes. They implanted it to make sure it destroyed you after they released you. So you were right: they never meant to let you go, even if you talked."
"I'm glad I didn't, then."
"You have been very brave: you did not disclose important information."
"But I have no important information, Steel, believe me."
"You know our names, you know how we operate and what we are."
"I only know that you are agents in charge of handling time irregularities and that you embody the elements with medium atomic weight, but I know nothing about your origins and the place you come from."
"You know enough to be a danger for all. I must think about what I shall do with you."
The woman looked away. "I realize that. If you believe I must be eliminated, I will not fight you. I know that one single human life is less important than the time continuum."
Steel looked at her, astonished: such a brave little human!
He smiled at her. "You know everything about me, but I don't even know your name."
"My name is Lorelei."
"Very well, Lorelei, I don't think I will eliminate you for the time being, so what if I help you getting dressed again, we look for a road and we find a place to stay? Can you walk?"
"I think so." The woman cautiously stood and while she slowly dressed, bracing her side, she looked around.
"I know these woods. I just realized it, but I think I know where we are. Let's head west until we meet a beaten path, then we'll head south. We should end up on the state road: there we will ask for a ride to my place. It's not far, actually."
"All right. Lean on me."
They slowly made their way, while Lorelei heavily leaned on Steel, thankful for his solid and reassuring presence.
They walked for about two hours. The woman was feeling more and more tired, and her body was already worn out. Steel was aware that her resistance was almost over, and he was about to propose a break, when he suddenly saw a strip of asphalt in front of them.
"We have reached the road. Now rest while we wait for a vehicle to pass."
They didn't have to wait long. Approximately ten minutes later a truck stopped and the driver accepted to carry them to Lorelei's village. The woman was so exhausted that she fell sound asleep right after she got into the uncomfortable back of the truck. Steel was cradling her head on his lap and, while she slept, he allowed himself to stroke her black hair. It was soft and silky, and his fingers occasionally got entangled in the thick curls. Despite the physical differences, that woman still strongly reminded him of his partner. He wondered where she was now and why she wasn't sent with him in this mission. Could she be hurt? Sick? He could not remember much of their last mission. He just remembered that they were tricked and trapped by the transients in a service station that turned out to be a pocket of nothingness lost in space. But he could not recall how they got free. His last conscious memory was being back at the base, and then being immediately sent to fulfill the current mission. His thoughts were cut off by the sound of screeching brakes. The driver yelled that they had arrived. Steel woke Lorelei up and helped her down the truck. A few minutes later, they reached her house. Once inside, she said: "Make yourself at home. I don't know if you need to drink or eat, but you can help yourself in the kitchen. If you don't mind, I go taking a nice, long shower and licking my wounds."
"Do what you have to do. I'll manage."
Steel didn't even consider eating: that was a purely human activity that many elements enjoyed, but not him. Nevertheless he decided to fix something hot for the woman, to reinvigorate her. He often observed Sapphire cooking, since she enjoyed that pretty much, and he believed he could fix a complete meal.
When Lorelei came back to the kitchen, feeling much better now that she was finally clean and had disinfected the wound and the wrist abrasions, she smelled a delicious smell of food.
"Steel! You cooked! I can't believe it!"
"Why are you surprised? Don't you think I can fix a human meal? It's not that hard, you know."
"Cooking is easy, doing it well is much more difficult."
"Then judge for yourself." He said, helping her sit at the already set table.
The woman wolfed down the food, realizing that she was quite hungry. At the end of the meal, satisfied, she looked at Steel with a warm smile. "Everything was real tasty. I must congratulate you."
"I'm glad you liked it. Can we talk now?"
"Sure. What do you want to know?"
"I want to know what you see when you dream."
Lorelei got up and went sitting on the sofa, and Steel did the same. When she started speaking, her gaze was unfocused. "I see you agents operating to solve time anomalies. I see Lead, so big and so kind, I see Silver, always nice and always wooing Sapphire. And Sapphire who enjoys making you jealous. I see Jet and Gold, Diamond and Radium. And, above all, I see you, Steel"
The agent was surprised, but he did not interrupt her.
"Every night I see your face, I see your hair, I see your eyes, I hear your voice. Just like you were always beside me."
"Why do you see me more than the others?"
Now the woman's eyes focused on Steel's face and she gazed intensely at him.
"I don't know. But in my dreams I feel admiration for you, respect, affection… maybe love."
"Love?" Steel was astonished.
"The eyes that I set upon you are full of love, I'm sure of that: when I look at your hair, I want to stroke it; when I look at your body, I feel like hugging you; when I look into your eyes, I would like to kiss you."
Steel pondered. "So you are looking at me with somebody else's eyes."
"Probably. Because I never met you before and I'm not in the habit of loving a man I only see in my dreams. Although…" She did not finish her sentence.
"Now that I know you, I understand why I feel so attracted."
Steel did not answer and Lorelei teased him. "Aren't you curious about my reasons?"
"Not particularly, no."
"Are you scared of my feelings?"
Steel seemed embarrassed. "I'm not very good with human emotions. That's Sapphire's territory."
"But Sapphire's not here now: there's just you and I, and if you want to know about my dreams, I must describe my feelings."
"Very well, then, tell me what you feel."
Looking straight at him, the woman sat closer to Steel. "I admire your courage, your resolve and your strength. I know you can be ruthless, but also incredibly tender. I know you cannot feel hatred, but you can very well feel love. And today you were moved by what those men were doing to me. You sympathized with my situation. You saved me, your freed me and you protected me. And now you're making me feel safe. And I long to kiss you."
Steel looked positively scared and she laughed. "The cold, reckless Steel fears a woman's kiss!"
"I don't fear your kiss, I fear what could happen."
"And whatever might happen?"
It was Steel's turn to intensely look at her. "I might enjoy it."
Lorelei moved closer, until the two faces were just a few inches apart. "Let's find out, then, shall we?"
Steel surprised her by placing a hand on the nape of her neck and filling the short distance between their mouths. They kissed tenderly for a long time. They didn't even realize they were hugging and now were half-outstretched on the sofa.
Lorelei was amazed by Steel's tenderness, while Steel was astonished by his own reactions: he had never kissed a human before, nor desired her so much. The only woman he wanted so badly was Sapphire, but now it wasn't in Sapphire's arms that he was feeling such deep emotions.
And yet, he was smelling her perfume, he was drowning in the blue of her eyes, he was brushing against her body, he was kissing her mouth, he was stroking her fair hair.
Steel abruptly parted from the woman in his arms and looked at her: it was Sapphire!
The woman was looking at him in bewilderment. "Steel?"
"Sapphire! It is you! How can that be? What happened to Lorelei?"
The woman shook her head, puzzled, while Steel moved away from her.
"Lorelei is here. I am Lorelei. I cannot explain it, but it is so."
Steel tried to think.
"That's how you escaped from the transients: you turned, or were turned, into someone else. You did not trigger the trap because it was adjusted on Sapphire, not on a different woman."
"But how did you manage to escape, then?"
"I don't know, I can't remember anything. But now I understand why I was sent here and why I was alone. Your memory was clearly blocked and I was sent to unblock it."
The woman smiled lovingly at her partner.
"I must say you chose a very unique way to do it!"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that your kisses roused my memory of you, and that consequently released all the other blocks. Although I'm pretty sure you never kissed me like that, before."
Steel looked positively uncomfortable.
"I didn't know it was you."
"You mean that, had I been her, you wouldn't have kissed me so passionately? You were attracted to Lorelei, but not to me?"
"That's not what I meant."
"So what did you mean? You are walking a very dangerous territory, Steel, be careful."
The man couldn't understand whether his partner was joking or was talking seriously.
"I meant that I would never dare kissing you like that, because I wouldn't know your reaction. I don't know what you feel for me, Sapphire, whereas Lorelei clearly showed that she was attracted to me. She felt love for me in her dreams. Were you the one she was dreaming of?"
Steel managed to overturn the situation impeccably. The woman chose to show her hand in the game they were playing.
"Could be. It is indeed true that when I look at your hair I feel like stroking it, when I see your body I would like to hug you and when I gaze at your face I would love to kiss you. Is it attraction? Love? I don't know, but I do know that I would very much like you to kiss me again, Steel. Kiss me as Sapphire."
Steel didn't need to be told twice. He drew her near and he embraced her, eager to taste that fruit-savored mouth and to stroke that lithe body again. This time the kiss was much more passionate and, while they were exchanging it, the two time agents teleported away.