Nikita heard the brash klaxon along with everyone else inside Section One, but until Birkoff paged her a few moments later, she had not known it was Michael's alarm.
"Oh, no, God no," she cried aloud to Birkoff, as she threw down her cup
of tea and ran from her standby quarters.
Sylvia Damico, who was about to enter their shared quarters, jumped back to keep from being knocked down by Nikita's headlong rush from the room. "It's Michael," was her only word of explanation to Sylvia, who joined Nikita in her run down the hall.
When she reached Michael's office, Nikita could not believe her eyes. Michael's lips were blue, and he was unconscious. He had a tube down his throat, and they were bagging him as he was being transported out of the office to MedLab. Nikita sought Doc's eyes, and saw that they were very troubled. Nikita began to breath rapidly, too rapidly. She began to hyperventilate and was on the verge of fainting, when Doc motioned for one of the nurses to check on her.
Sylvia nodded gratefully as Martinelli eased Nikita to the floor as she said. "She's only hyperventilating. We need to find a paper bag so she can rebreathe her CO2.
Sylvia rushed into Michael's office and rummaged until she found the needed item in Michael's trash. "I don't know what came in this, but it looks okay to me."
Within five minutes, Nikita was breathing normally, but straining to follow Michael. What happened, Marti? Is he still alive?" Nikita's blue eyes filled with tears as she imagined the unimaginable.
Martinelli answered truthfully, "Someone tried to poison him, Nikita. Doc injected him with some new anti-strychnine drug. Once the convulsions stopped, he quit breathing entirely, but he's intubated and sedated now. That's all I know."
Nikita tried to rise to her feet, but was a little wobbly. "I feel so stupid. I've never done anything like that before."
"Ever seen Michael so nearly dead before?" Sylvia asked.
"No, not since he was left behind in Klodno," Nikita admitted. "Let's go. I've got to see if he's all right." Nikita shook off the restraining hands of Martinelli and Damico, and headed in that direction.
Die you Bast@#$. Die you Bast@#$.
Die you Bast@#$. This was the chant that went through the mind of the killer.
Nikita looked through the window of MedLab and watched as Doc and the other well-trained professionals did their best to save Michael's life. The only improvement that Nikita could note was that his face and lips were no longer blue, but he made no movement or sound. He looked like a corpse as he lay there with tubes and telemetry wires protruding from his body. Nikita wondered how long they would keep him like this.
A gentle hand on her shoulder startled Nikita, and she turned to see Madeline standing beside her. "Doc says there's hope. He looks bad now, but he's young and he's strong, and most important of all, they reached him quickly. Another minute, and she says he wouldn't have made it."
Nikita's eyes, already filled with tears, gave Madeline a grateful look. "Thank you, Madeline." As Nikita considered further, she asked, "Will he be under guard? May I stay with him for a while?"
Madeline with unusual show of mercy said, "He will be under twenty-four hour guard, and yes, I am sure Doc will allow you to stay with him. I'll speak to her." Madeline turned and left to find Doc. Sylvia joined Nikita's vigil at the window and placed an arm around her shoulder.
An hour later, Nikita was allowed into Michael's room. Martinelli told her, "I'm spending the night here on duty, but ‘you' need some rest." She pulled a chair to Michael's side. "Here, sit down before you fall down." Nikita sat.
Operations paced in his upper level office. He still found it difficult to reconcile the images of Michael convulsing on the floor of his office with the supremely controlled operative he had known for fourteen years. He had seen Michael shot, bruised and even one grisly compound fracture, but he had never seen anything to compare with the ferocity of the poison-induced seizures. He finished one brown cheroot and immediately lit another.
His feelings for Michael were mixed, to say the least. For years he had held Michael to the highest standard of any operative in his command. Michael's blazing intelligence, tactical skills and technical performance had amazed Operations as they had developed early in the training of the former young student dissident.
No, he could find no fault with Michael's performance. The mixed feelings had developed when Operations and Madeline had disagreed over Michael's training in the Valentine Operations scenario. Madeline had overseen Michael's training herself, and the resulting quarrel had ended the ‘close' relationship that Operations had enjoyed with Madeline for several years. He knew it was illogical to blame Michael, but he did.
Operations did not, however, want to lose Michael. While Michael might in the future present a threat to his position, Operations still had a need for Michael's superior talents. Now, Michael lay close to death in MedLab, and there was no one, other than Madeline, that Operations trusted the way he trusted Michael. He depended on Michael to be there when he needed him.
"Birkoff," he called over the speaker system. "Pull up the surveillance from Michael's office. I want to know who did this, and I want to know now."
"O'Brian and Hector already have the tape, and it's being analyzed now.
I'm sure you will hear the second they have something to report," Birkoff
answered. He also wondered where the disc was that he had given Michael
before his poisoning.
Birkoff knew he would have a difficult time explaining his action in giving the file to Michael, if it were ever discovered.
It was not in Operations' power to wait passively while O'Brian was reviewing the tape. He walked from his office to the investigation room with a determined stride. "Okay, let's have it. What's on the tape?" Operations demanded as he opened the door to Marco's office.
O'Brian looked up with chagrin, "Nothing, the tape has been erased. It looks like a high-powered magnet was used, probably after the poison was added to Michael's coffee. I'm going to have Birkoff try a recovery, but it's probably useless."
"Damn! I'm tired of excuses. I'm running out of patience, and Section One is running out of Class Five operatives. I want answers! This situation cannot continue. This killer has to be found and stopped." Operations would have gladly canceled Marco and Hector, but he needed their services too badly. He contented himself with slamming the door as he left.
Marco huffed and loosened his collar. He was angry and offended by Operations words, but at the same time, he knew they were true. The killer had to be found before anyone else was hurt or killed. "Hector, run the tape to Birkoff. See if there is any magic he can work on it."
Hector sighed and complied, but he was tired of being ordered around by
O'Brian--the cop who wasn't smart enough to catch a serial killer on the
outside. What did Marco think he could do here, where everyone was
a killer at one time or another.
Nikita looked at Michael's still form. His wavy hair was brushed back from his pale face, and an endotracheal tube distorted his usually handsome features. The sigh of the mechanical ventilator and the beep of the cardiac telemetry told Nikita he was still alive, but she was desperate for other signs that Michael still lived inside the pale shell of a body before her.
She took his hand and held it to her lips, remembering another time she had done the same--another time when he wasn't the Michael she knew. The sheer sweetness of being able to touch him overwhelmed her senses and emotions. He had to live. There could be no other option.
She could not face life in Section One without him. He had given her hope and courage during times when she had needed it the most. He had broken her heart more times than she wanted to remember, but somehow beneath the doubts and manipulations, she had come to understand that she and Michael were soul-mates. As unliberated as it might sound, they needed each other, and they completed each other. Their one plus one equaled more than two.
"Don't leave me, Michael. Please don't leave me," she begged with
tears rolling down her cheeks.
In another dimension, Michael had an awareness of swirling through a black tunnel. Bright light filled both ends of the tunnel, and his soul felt a wrenching pull between the lights. As he neared the distal end of the black tunnel, he sensed a tremendous feeling of peace.
He entered the light and felt the presence of his parents. "Michel," they called. "It is time, come to us." As much as Michael wanted to go to them, he still felt the tug of the light at the other end of the black tunnel.
"Where am I?" he asked.
"Where do you want to be?" came the mellifluous voice inside his head.
"Is this Heaven?" Michael asked. It must be Heaven, for the blissful feeling of peace, the radiant light and his parents were all here, he thought.
"If you ‘want' it to be," responded the voice.
"Why am I not in Hell?" asked Michael.
"If you ‘need' it to be, it can be," replied the voice again.
"I deserve to be in Hell. I have hurt countless people, and I have killed. I am a murderer," he said in judgment of himself.
"And is the Hell you have lived in for these last years not enough suffering for you, Michael? Do you really wish to suffer more? Life is a lesson for the learning. What have you learned, and what is there left for you to learn? Are you not curious, Michael?"
"I have learned that I will do anything to survive."
"If you do not survive, you cannot continue to learn, Michael," countered the voice.
"I do not deserve life, and I do deserve to be punished. That is all I know," was Michael's plaintive response.
"Review your life, Michael. Perhaps, there is more to be learned."
Michael tried to shut his mental eyes, but could not. The visions came quickly in a kaleidoscopic fashion--growing up with his parents, caring for his younger sister, the bombing, prison, Section and finally Nikita. Instead of horrifying him, he seemed to find a thread of purpose running through them all. Michael's self-loathing and doubt began to ebb, and a strong sense of renewed purpose began to fill his life force anew.
"You are not finished, Michael. Someone calls you. You must return."
A dozing Nikita awakened and saw that there had been no change in Michael's condition. "Marti, how long before we know? she asked the nurse who had been there all night, checking Michael's vital signs and monitoring the life-support equipment.
Marti paused, "It's a synthetic drug with an unknown half life. He was treated quickly, but truthfully, Nikita, I don't know. We just have to wait." Michael was a favorite of all the women operatives, whether cold ops or nurses. His tragic past and his haunting eyes certainly appealed to the nurturing side of nurse Martinelli.
Nikita had held Michael's hand through the long night. She had bathed it with her tears and anointed with her kisses. She refused to surrender Michael to death.
"Michael, please, come back to me. I can't make it here without you. Please, Michael, please come back.
A loud gasp was Michael's first spontaneous respiration since the poisoning. As his right arm flailed, he extubated himself and was caught in a paroxysm of coughing. Nikita and Martinelli held their breaths as they waited to see if Michael would continue to breathe on his own. He did.
Michael looked around with wild disbelief in his eyes. "Nikita?"
"Yes, Michael, I'm here. You're in MedLab. You were poisoned, but it looks like you're going to be okay now. Right, Marti?"
Marti was busy rechecking Michael's blood gases to determine if he needed more oxygen. "I think he's going to be okay, but I'm calling Doc to let her know. She'll want to see him right away."
Vague memories of the tunnel, the light and the insistent voice filtered through Michael's consciousness. He looked at Nikita in wonder. "I was dead."
"No, Michael, you weren't dead. You were very ill, but you're going to be okay now," Nikita protested.
"No, Nikita, I was dead, but I had to come back--to you."
Nikita looked into Michael's eyes, and she could tell that he was serious. She lifted his hand to her lips again and pressed a kiss into the palm. "Then I'm awfully glad you did," she managed to say before dissolving into tears of relief and joy.
Nikita's tears prevented her from seeing the tears in Michael's eyes
as he pulled her face to his for a tender kiss.
Madeline disconnected her link to Doc in MedLab and smiled at Operations. "You will be glad to hear that Michael is conscious and will apparently make a full recovery."
Operations stopped his incessant pacing and said, "Why do I feel there is a ‘but' looming somewhere ?"
Madeline paused and managed to nod in assent. "Yes, Marie tells me that Michael experienced what is termed a near-death or after-death experience, complete with the black tunnel, light, images of his parents, a voice that told him he had to come back."
"A what?" Operations sputtered.
Madeline assumed her scholarly demeanor and instructed, "These types of phenomenon have become more common, or at least reported more frequently, since the improvements in technology have made it possible for physicians to bring people back to life after life-threatening injuries or illnesses. They are documented in many forms, but they have the basic features I mentioned before."
"Okay, so what's the big deal? So Michael went through a tunnel and came out in the light, and now he's back with us. Michael is still Michael, and as long as he is alive and able to perform, I don't care if he danced with wolves on the other side."
Madeline smiled again as she looked directly at Operations, but the smile did not reach her eyes. "The problem is that nearly all who remember these experiences say their lives are changed forever in a positive way. I haven't talked with Michael yet, but if he reacts in this way, it could present a problem with his performance."
Operations threw his hands in the air, and sat on the leather chair across from Madeline. "I have a vision of two like Nikita--trying to save the innocents at all costs."
"It could be worse than that," Madeline warned. "Michael might not be willing to remain in Section. We have to face that. Also, his bond with Nikita appears to be even stronger. He was heard telling Nikita that he came back because of her."
"I want you to evaluate Michael as soon as possible. I don't want another loose cannon here in Section. If he's not able to perform as before, I want him canceled."
Madeline took a deep breath and said, "You might want to reconsider that. Including Michael, there are now only five Class Five operatives left in all the Sections. This not the time to be canceling your best and brightest operative."
Operations knew the wisdom of Madeline's words, but he remembered the operative who had threatened to go over his head and report the instance of his and Madeline's absence to oversight, only a couple of nights ago. Michael would always be a threat to his position, as he had been to Adrian's, and he knew how that evolved.
He decided to remain adamant. "I want your full evaluation on Michael on my desk in twenty-four hours."
Madeline took another deep breath and protested. "A full evaluation will of necessity require a performance debrief after a mission, and it is not likely that will occur in the in next twenty-four hours. I can give you possibilities and probabilities, but until Michael is in the field, there can be no ‘complete' evaluation."
Operations hated it when Madeline was right. "All right, give me all you can on Michael, but I will be watching for the least alteration in his performance or attitude."
A civil, "Fine, was her only response. Madeline hated it when Operations
was being stubborn. She thought Michael worth saving.
Mandelita Lopez drummed her fingers on the desk as she read the toxicology report in front of her. She wanted coffee, but given Michael's recent experience, coffee was not high on her list of desired beverages. Bottled drinks had suddenly become de trop in all of Section One. Somehow bottled water was not doing the trick, and a pounding, caffeine headache had plagued her since the early morning hours.
The report stated the drug used to poison Michael was a synthetic strychnine derivative, as lethal as strychnine, but slower acting with a longer half life. It was strictly regulated and not used outside the governmental security agencies. The only source inside Section One was the MedLab, and it was supposedly under lock and key. Unfortunately, there were several people who had access, as well as the authority to use the drug. There were no medical indications for the drug. It was clearly and simply a poison and was occasionally used in cancellations.
A quick rap at the door forced Lopez to interrupt her reading. O'Brian's face appeared in the doorway. She was shocked to see that he had shaved. Not bad, she thought.
"Tox report back?" he asked. He noted that she looked tired and pale. He supposed she had been up all night, while as ordered by Madeline, he had finally slept for a few hours.
"Yes, no surprises. It was what I expected. We're no further along than before. Whoever is doing this is jerking us around like puppets. I've never seen such a puzzling case. No clear MO, just kill them any old way seems to be the plan." Mandelita placed her elbows on the desk and lay her face in her hands, then pulled them back through her long dark hair.
"Hold on there, Doctor. I have a theory and a plan to catch him."
"You do?" Mandelita said in surprise.
Marco leaned over her desk and began elaborating his theory and plan.
He understood the frustration that came with a difficult case, and he felt
a little confused about the feelings he was beginning to experience in
the presence of the arrogant forensic pathologist. His heart beat
faster as he inhaled hte lingering fragrance of her perfume.
I don't know if I'm just tired, or if you have grown new brain cells, but I think you could be right, O'Brian. It's the only thing that makes any kind of sense. I still don't understand ‘why', but the ‘how' certainly is falling into place." Mandelita looked into O'Brian's eyes and noticed for the first time that they were a very clear blue. She held her breath and Marco held his. They realized that there was more than a briefing in the air, but both also looked quickly away in embarrassment before the unfamiliar emotions could be acknowledged.
"We'll need to catch him in the act," O'Brian said. Duh, he thought. That was a ‘brilliant' statement of fact.
"Before, someone else is hurt or killed." I am losing my edge, she thought. I need sleep.
"Right. Uh, you look like you should get some rest," he said softly as he resisted the impulse to stroke her cheek.
"Yeah, but there never seems to be anytime. Maybe later," she replied as she struggled with the urge to snuggle with the man in front of her. I must be losing my mind, she thought. I must ‘really' need sleep.
Once it was evident that Michael would survive, Doc had been able to convince Nikita to go to her standby quarters to rest. Michael dozed, but with fitful muscular contractions. A concerned Doc prescribed more sedation which finally allowed him to surrender to a restful sleep.
When Michael awoke he felt rested, but was still somewhat anxious. His near death experience weighed on his mind. While he was able to understand that his life had a purpose, it was not easy to accept that his place in Section One was part of a higher purpose. Before Nikita, Michael had only wanted to survive, and after Nikita, Michael had accepted that the rebellious Nikita brought out the humanity in him and made him ‘feel' alive again.
Now, he felt--no, he ‘knew' that his life in Section was altered forever. The problem would be to keep Operations and Madeline from realizing this. In addition to not betraying the vision he had be fortunate enough to experience, he would have to continue his flawless performance as a Class Five operative. Michael sighed and closed his eyes. It was too difficult to conceive a plan that would enable him to do both. Another troubling thought crossed his mind. Whoever had tried to kill him would surely try again.
The harsh clank of the steel door to his guarded room caused Michael to open his eyes. Madeline stood there, in a dark brown pant suit, her auburn hair waving softly to her shoulders. "Well, I see that you are awake. How are you feeling?" she asked.
"I'm fine," was Michael's expected response. Madeline was the last person Michael wanted to see. She knew him too well, and he felt far too vulnerable after his experience for one of her emotionally intrusive interviews.
"Yes, Doc tells me you'll be fine physically, but your mental status is of more concern. She tells me you had a near-death experience. I want you to tell me all about it."
"Near-death experience? I had a very vivid dream while I was unconscious, but I'm not sure that it would qualify as anything so mystic. I don't necessarily believe in an after-life, in spite of what I was taught as a child," Michael said as he attempted to downplay the experience and any effect it might have on his future performance.
Madeline smiled at Michael's attempt to belay her suspicions. "It is my understanding that you repeated the classical formula of a near-death experience and even told Nikita you came back because of her."
Michael gave Madeline his coldest stare and shrugged his shoulders. "I'm not really certain what I said when I first regained consciousness. I may still have been confused."
Madeline gave a small smile and nodded in agreement as she said, "Of course.
I will need to do a formal evaluation as soon as possible. As soon
as Doc agrees, I need to see you. Today, if possible. Do I
make myself clear?"
"Of course." Michael wearily closed his eyes, hoping Madeline would allow him another moment or two of peace.
Again, the clank of the steel door told him the answer.
On to Part XII