Being another section of the novel-in-progress: TICKS.
By James Robert Smith
He sat silently in the car, his seat tilted back, restraints holding him securely and safely in place. He had punched in the code and the vehicle was on autopilot, gliding smoothly on an electric motor and its fuel cell power source. If not for the false murmur of sound, generated by a simple noisemaker in the rear axle, there would have been complete silence. The steering wheel had retracted efficiently and he was alone and warm in the soft glow of the instrumentation panel. He considered prompting some music, but his pulse was still elevated and he didn’t think he could take the sensory input at just that moment.
The phone purred. It was Loraine, his psyche counselor. He spoke, prompting the connection.
“Hello, Ms. Gaskin,” he said to her.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“My pulse is a bit high. I probably have a slightly elevated blood pressure, but that will pass,” he told her.
“I heard there was a child involved,” she said.
The car slowed and took a left turn. Through the darkly tinted, bullet-proof windows he saw other vehicles waiting for the light, some pedestrians out for a stroll, a couple walking their beagle.
“Yes,” he admitted. “A little girl. Six years old. I’m not sure what she saw…but certainly violence. I think she may have seen her mother die.” He hesitated. “Probably not die, but near death. She ran. It’s why I was called in. She alerted the neighbors.”
“Not routine, then?” There was genuine concern in the psychologist’s voice. The Agent was good about things such as detecting the quality of emotions in the voices of Normals. “I mean your target.”
“No. Another tick,” he told her.
The car slowed once more and took a right, then accelerated as it merged onto a northbound freeway. The vehicle was inserted easily into the relatively slow stream of traffic.
“More of those are turning up,” she said. “You told me that they produce a particularly violent response in you.”
“They do,” he admitted. He stretched, and the seat altered its angle to accommodate his movements.
“Look…are you leading up to something? Because I’ll be home in a few minutes and all I want to do is…wash the blood and stench off of me.” Then, almost forgetting, “and spend time with the wife,” he added.
For a second or two there was just silence from Gaskins’ end. He wondered if he should have used the term ‘wife’, instead of her name. These psych types were always looking for a reason to make work, to drag him in for sessions when he didn’t really need them. The Agent knew, because Loraine was his fourth psych counselor in six years. Now the Doctor would want to know how things were going at home. She would ask prying questions about his schedule. How often they ate together. How many times a week they went out. How their sex life was going. This was, after all, his fourth wife.
"Well, let’s schedule you for 8:00 am tomorrow morning. Is that a good time for you?” Gaskins was only asking out of a sense of courtesy. An Agent really had no leeway concerning such matters, and he knew it.
“Eight in the morning is fine,” he told her.
“Very well,” Loraine replied. “I’ll see you then. Goodbye.”
And with that, the connection was broken. He peered at the readout for the phone and the little green dot turned to red. The little light was red, but he always suspected they were still listening end, perhaps even watching. But there was nothing he could do about it, if they were. If so, he knew their reasons were good ones. He closed his eyes and relaxed, thinking he could even doze, meditate, and bring his blood pressure down a notch or two. But of course there wasn’t much time for that. Within minutes he would be at home and.
As he sedan pulled into the garage bay he looked into the well-lighted interior. The place was pretty bare. He’d once referred to it as his ‘reverse-batcave’ when speaking to one of his earlier counselors. The joke had not gone over well and so he’d never repeated it to anyone. But, it was the truth. It was big and garish and absent of just about any clutter: a high ceiling and roughly 500 square feet of tile walls and a concrete floor that concaved down into a shallow drain. Just the opposite of all of those images of the comic book sanctum of the old superhero character. And everyone knew where it was. Even his neighbors. His neighbors loved the idea of living on the same block as an Agent.
When the car came to a complete halt he depressed the off-switch, noting that he’d left a tiny dot of blood there. He never knew how much blood he spilled in these encounters. But it didn’t matter. Soon enough it would be all washed off and the interior of his vehicle would be carefully cleaned and disinfected. He climbed out, unfolding his enormous frame from the seat. The car gleamed black in the blinding lights, the yellow racing stripes standing out on the ebony paint job.
As soon as he had closed the car door he straightened, almost seven feet tall with those hobnailed boots, and the high pressure water hit him from every direction but the floor. Nozzles in the ceiling and in the walls opened up. A smaller, less heavy person would have been sent tumbling. But Agent 67 stood his ground, head down, watching the water hit his dark-suited body and stream to the floor, seeing reddish gussets flood down his limbs and into the drain at his feet. Sure enough, there had indeed been more blood than he’d thought. Such was his hatred toward anything that would threaten the people he was bound by both intent and genetics to protect at all cost.
As suddenly as the cleansing torrents of warm water had appeared, they ceased. The Agent then immediately began to unbuckle and peel off the suit of protective fabric armor that he wore. As he pulled back the collar he saw the silver numeral ‘6’ inside, that had lain next to his tanned chest, just below his collarbone. Well, if this is suit six, this must be Saturday, he thought.
Quickly, he unbuckled and peeled the rest of the suit off and tossed it into a chute at the bottom of the staircase that led up to his house. Without the boots he was now reduced to a little over six feet and nine inches tall. Still roughly the same weight, though, a combination of a heavier than normal skeletal system and muscle tissue that was far denser than those of a normal human. Denser and more powerful by far than even the most well-conditioned human. ‘More powerful than a locomotive’, he mused. ‘Able to leap tall buildings.’ He reached the top of the stairs and opened the door.
The wife met him there. She all but leaped toward him, her arms hugging his neck, her athletic bulk sticking to him with an enthusiasm that impressed even an Agent as jaded as he had become.
“Home at last,” Erica said.
The Agent smiled and responded in kind with a gentle bear-hug of his own, pulling her even closer, dipping his nose into her thick, brown hair. “You smell great,” he told her.
She said only “Mmm.” And continued to cling to his neck.
“You missed me” he said, some surprise in his voice. “I wasn’t gone that long.”
“Only all day,” she said as she finally released her grip on him and settled gently to the floor, polished oak beneath her bare feet.
“Well, sometimes I’m gone for a week,” he reminded her, leaning forward to give her a kiss, a light one. He disengaged quickly and smiled at her. “I need to shower. It was…a messy event,” he said. “I’ll tell you more about it after I get out.”
She watched him pad away. She hadn’t yet been able to get over how such a large person could move so lightly and walk so silently. Before he vanished down the hallway and into their bedroom, she called out. “I cooked supper.”
“I know. It smells great,” he yelled just as he closed the door behind him.
Erica had been chosen from a list of volunteers. And not just volunteers, but from a number of women who had scored statistically high in a number of areas. All being scored for a life as a companion to what was, for want of a better term: a superman. The tests and statistics and information gathered on Erica and all of the women who had been ushered into the program had been taken, of course, completely without their knowledge. No modern western woman would have willingly sought out a career as what some considered nothing more than a concubine or a courtesan to an Agent. Others were even less polite in terminology, as she well knew.
There were any number of qualities the folk in charge looked for when doing an appraisal for women such as her. They had gone over the facts with her when she’d initially been approached. It was as if her entire life had been geared to becoming the wife of an Agent, and Erica was smart enough to understand that they’d let her think just that. Among her many special qualities was her intelligence. She had an IQ of 136. Her education level was good—in another year she’d have her M.A. in American History; specifically the final westward push of Europeans against the Native population.
Turning, she headed toward the dining room to finish setting the table. She passed a mirror in the hallway but did not turn to look at herself. That was another thing they looked for: a certain lack of selfishness. Women such as Erica had to give themselves up to the task, and to the Agent to whom they were assigned. She knew without looking at her image in that sheet of polished glass that she was very attractive. Her hair was long, glossy, full. Her face was pleasing to look upon for any heterosexual male, even if that male were superhuman. She was very tall herself. Just under 72 inches in her bare feet.
As she went to the kitchen and then back to the dining room, she carefully placed the utensils with the plates, making subsequent trips to gather the food that she’d left warming in the oven and on the stovetop. The scents were enticing and she realized that she was hungry. Her stomach actually growled and she patted her midriff, feeling the taught muscle through the cotton fabric of the light blue shift she was wearing. In addition to her intelligence, her attractive feature, and her measurements, Erica was about as physically fit as a person could be. All of her life she had been athletic and had excelled at sports; she had put herself through college through a combination of both academic and athletic scholarships.
Straightening, she left her hand there on her stomach, wondering if he would realize, or if she’d have to tell him.
Erica thought then of the others who’d tried to be wife to this Agent. Had they left him because they couldn’t love him, or out of fear that they would and didn’t want to bear a family with him? She didn’t know because she was forbidden to know anything about the women who had preceded her—only that there had been three others and that none of the marriages had lasted more than two years. She was less than a year into her marriage with him, and while she couldn’t honestly say that she was in love with him, she was fond of his company and she did look forward to their time together. That was almost like love, wasn’t it?
Soon, though, if he said nothing to her, she would tell him. His handlers would likely ask him about it as soon as they knew, and that moment would come the next time she saw her physician.
Standing at the table, musing, lost in thought; she did not even hear him approach.
Suddenly, the Agent was behind her. His great arms encircled her, his nose rested again in the thickness of her dark brown hair; and she could feel him sighing deeply, as if breathing Erica in, pulling her essence into him.
His enormous, gentle fingers settled on the area above her belly.
“You’re pregnant,” he said.