Main Characters: Vin and Chris
"Are we there yet?" Vin asked around a huge yawn knowing he was pushing Chris' buttons.They were driving through Utah on a long stretch of road that cut straight through the desert. It was, by far, the fastest route home, but it was also the most monotonous. The only thing they saw were miles and miles of shimmering desert.
"You ask that question one more time, and you can walk home!" Chris growled.
"Yeah? Well don't forget this is my Cherokee," Vin returned, with a grin.
"You were the one who insisted we use it!"
"Because your air- conditioning died. You really want to drive through hundred degree weather without air?"
"No," Chris admitted in defeat. "Look, we've got about six hours before we hit Denver. Why don't you get a couple hours sleep?"
"Sounds good. I can't wait to get home. Damn, I'd rather face a dozen gunrunners than a room full of so called weapon's experts. Not one of them has ever been in the field! What do they know about being a sniper, sitting in a tiny space thirty feet above a warehouse or on a water tower for sometimes hours just to be in place before the sting?
Chris chuckled." I think you put them in their place, Junior. I thought when you goaded that young know- it- all to climb the balcony in full gear with a rifle and scope he thought he was really going to put you in your place. He lasted half an hour and the place was air conditioned."
The memory brought a smile to Vin's face.
He was about to adjust his seat back when a sudden flash of light engulfed the car. He screamed in agony as the light pierced his eyes like daggers.
For a split second he saw blackness so oppressive that he could barely breathe, then he lost consciousness.Next to him Chris slumped in the driver's seat, motionless.
Alexander Rieger sat back in his chair and smiled smugly. So far his plan had gone off without a hitch. Vin Tanner was recovering well from the procedure, and would be ready to begin the experiment in a couple of days. Chris Larabee would be ready as well.
It had taken four long years to prepare for this, all from the confines of his six by eight foot cell at Lancing Correction Facility in Colorado… thanks to Orrin Travis and his ATF agents from Team7.
First a suitable site had to be found: Something large enough to accommodate his lab, and it had to be somewhere isolated, safe from prying eyes and local authorities.
And this, he thought, as he looked around the room, was made to order. Built in the Cold War days of the 1960's, it was once home to an elite Special Forces unit. Here they secretly trained for missions that no one but the upper echelons of government knew about. Abandoned after the Cold War, it was literally forgotten, by some; but not all.
Making sure he kept to himself at Lancing, making no friends and more importantly no enemies, he made only one contact, Harry Brewster, nicknamed Bruce, scheduled to be released in three days and Rieger needed someone to coordinate the operation on the outside.
Once stationed at a secret facility when Bruce was in Special Forces, he convinced Rieger that this would be the perfect location for his lab.
Not only was the building perfect, the surrounding area was just what he needed for his experiment. Open desolate land, visited only by the wildlife, and even they tended to shy away. One hundred and fifteen degrees during the day, some nights bitter cold, others never dipping below the nineties. So, no one saw Bruce on the lonely road bury the shoebox-sized container in the road with an explosive charge not much larger than a hand grenade, its impact was minimal, but the effects were staggering. Tanner and Larabee were instantly rendered unconscious. Two helicopters were brought in, one to carefully transport Tanner and Larabee to the lab and the other to hoist the Jeep Cherokee away. No tracks, no evidence, except for a small dent in the ground left by the explosive almost too small to notice.
He looked through the glass partition that separated him from Larabee and smiled. The day he was released from Lansing and walked through the gates to freedom was the day that Vin Tanner and Chris Larabees' lives, as they knew it, would be forever changed…
One minute he was sitting in the Cherokee screaming in agony and now he found himself strapped in a straight backed steel chair. He squeezed his eyes closed against the huge white sterile room. Banks of monitors lined the walls in front of him. A dozen speakers hung from the ceiling.
Frightened for himself and Vin, he looked around the room but didn't see his partner anywhere.
Two IV bags hung from a pole attached to his chair dripping fluid into the veins in each arm.
One of the many monitors on the wall popped on. He saw his own image on the screen. Dread spread through him. He wore a black tank top and black sweat pants. Heavy leather straps with buckles secured his biceps and wrists. His legs were equally secured with straps around his thighs and ankles.
Another monitor popped on.
"Welcome, Mr. Larabee, allow me to introduce myself. I am Alexander Rieger."
Chris saw the face of a man in his late sixties smiling benignly at him and cold fear seeped from every pour in his body. He knew that face, but couldn't remember from where with his addled mind.
"I hope the accommodations aren't too uncomfortable, Mr. Larabee. You are, after all, a force to be reckoned with."
"What do you want?" Chris demanded.
"You." The man on the screen said simply. "And your partner Vin Tanner."
"What have you done with Vin?"
"You will find out in time. For now, just know that from this moment forth every decision you make, every thought you have will have a direct impact on him."
"If you hurt Vin..." Chris warned.
"Mr. Larabee... Mr. Larabee…." The man on the screen chuckled, "Please refrain from the histrionics."
"Why are you doing this?"
"Because I am curious. I have been following you and Mr. Tanner for the past four years. I have learned how close you two have become. You are such a good team because you implicitly trust each other, needing no more than a look to know what each other are thinking. It goes beyond friendship, beyond brother ship. It is as if you are two parts of a whole.
"Trust. It is what drives you both. Mr. Larabee I want to know just how much Vin Tanner trusts you. How much you trust yourself."
"I don't understand."
"Allow me to demonstrate." Another monitor popped on. Chris saw a close-up of Vin's face bathed in bright sunshine. Dread coursed through him.
Still another monitor popped on. This camera panned around in a 360-degree sweep showing a desolate terrain of hot desert sand and towering sandstone cliffs. It zoomed back in revealing Vin, lying motionless with his hands beneath him atop a small mesa only inches from the edge.
"Your partner should regain consciousness within the next hour or so, depending on how fast his system assimilates the drug. When he does..."
Another monitor popped on. The camera slowly panned around in a 360- degree sweep showing a desolate terrain of hot desert sand and towering sandstone cliffs. It zoomed out revealing Vin lying atop a small mesa only inches from the edge.
"There is a two hundred foot drop on his right to the valley floor below. Certain death for Mister Tanner if he falls."
"What do you want?" Chris asked in a sickening voice.
"It's simple. You are going to guide Mr. Tanner out of there. It will not be easy. There are traps and dead ends. It should take four days. You must cover five miles in each twenty- four hour period or one of the monitors, your lifeline to Mr. Tanner, will be cut off. If you lose too many monitors you will simply not be able to help him. I have provided eight bottles of water. However only six are fresh. Two have been tainted. So choose wisely."
"I can't..." Chris said, staggered by the thought of one wrong move costing Vin his life.
"If you don't he will die there. It's up to you. When he awakens he will be confused, scared and... profoundly blind."
The words sliced through Chris like a knife. "Permanently…?"
There was no answer.
"How will I communicate with him?" Chris asked.
"I have attached a com-link to the front of Mr. Tanner's shirt..." the camera zoomed in on the broach with a camera lens attached to Vin's shirt pocket. The speakers are sensitive enough to pick up the sound of a beetle crossing the sand. You have everything you need here to keep your partner alive... Now it's up to both of you to trust each other enough to survive."
Vin dragged himself up through the depths of drugged sleep. He knew the feelings: The groggy mind, the dry pasty mouth. He was lying on his back, his wrists bound behind him. He could feel the hard ground and the warm sun baking his face plastering his shirt with sweat. A light hot breeze tugged gently at his hair. A bird screeched somewhere above him and the sound disappeared in the distance. He didn't hear anything else. Where ever he was he was alone.
Vin tried to remember what had happened. Why and where he was. But his mind was still foggy. What he did know was that he was outside somewhere, desolate from the sounds of things, and it was at or near noon by the feel of the sun blasting down on him. He took a deep breath steeling himself for the glare of the bright sun and opened his eyes. Blackness. He slammed them shut, his heart racing. Now he remembered... The searing light that exploded around them and Chris's scream of agony as he lost consciousness.
He rolled over onto his right side, the shackles digging deep into his flesh, but he didn't care. He curled up into a fetal position and laid very still... feeling his heart beating inside his chest, listening to his clipped breathing.
He lay there, too afraid to move. He was alone. And he couldn't see. Time passed. Now the sun was not directly overhead. It still burned his skin but not with the same blistering strength. Fear crept over him like a living entity. If he opened his eyes would he see blue sky? Or blackness?
Slowly he opened his eyes again... and stared into blackness. He whimpered silently. The heat of the sun still burned his face, his eyelids. The air he drew into his lungs was hot. Sweat plastered his shirt to his chest.
"Vin. Don't panic," he heard Chris' voice nearby, but it sounded tinny.
Vin grabbed on to the voice, scared.
"Chris... Am I blindfolded?" Panic broiled up inside. "Chris... Am I blindfolded?"
He rubbed his face across the hot sand trying to scrape the blindfold off.
"Vin!! No...!! You're hurting yourself."
He collapsed, his cheek lying on the dry hot sand feeling graduals of sand tickle his nose with every breath.
"There is no blindfold..." Chris said gently.
Warm tears welled up in Vin's eyes. He was blind. He was completely blind.
Vin took a deep breath. "My eyes?"
"I think its flash burns from the light. It burned the retinas of your eyes."
"That's good... Right? Retinas heal right...?"
"Yes. That's good," Chris said. What he didn't say was that most severe flash burns never healed. But Vin needed to have something to hang onto. He needed a will to live.
Rieger watched Vin regain consciousness on one of the many monitors that sat on his desk. He saw his subject's first initial reaction to the blindness, frantically trying to rub the blindfold off, then he had simply rolled onto his side and remained motionless. Rieger expected more from the great Vin Tanner.
He reached back and grabbed a soda from the small fridge that sat next to his desk. He had water, food, and soda, everything he needed at his fingertips. He could sit twenty-four hours a day there and not be in want of anything, except the occasional pit stop. He didn't want to miss a minute of Tanner and Larabee's interaction. He specifically made it so Tanner would be forced to rest once the sun went down. He had cameras with night vision lenses but planned to cut off the com-link and cameras between Larabee and Tanner during the night. That way they could get a little rest. Four days was going to be a marathon no matter how you looked at it. But one of the most important things was that he remained in complete control. Larabee and Tanner were strong. They could easily do things he was not aware of during the night if he was not careful. He would record every moment throughout the night just in case.
But for now, he had a full day planned ahead for his lab rats. He sat back and watched and listened.
"Where are you?" Vin asked hesitantly.
"I don't know. In some kind of lab."
"What?" The warm wind tugged at his hair. "I don't understand. Where am I?"
Rieger cut the connection between Larabee and Tanner, keeping his line open to Larabee only.
"He doesn't need to know that, Mr. Larabee" he warned and reopened the line between Larabee and Tanner.
"I don't know, Vin. But you have to trust me."
Vin didn't answer for a minute. He was scared. He didn't understand what was happening to him.
"Are you hurt?" he asked and waited for an answer.
"Chris…what's going on?"
"We were abducted by Alexander Rieger."
Vin knew that name. He had heard it before, somewhere.
Rieger nodded his head on the monitor. Chris hesitated before answering." We are his experiment."
"What...?" Anger began to replace the fear.
"He has designed an obstacle course. If I can lead you out, we will live. If I can't..."
Vin heard the fear rise in Chris' voice.
"What kind of course?"
"I'm not sure yet. He wants to know how much we trust each other."
"Perhaps I can explain," a new voice startled Vin and he tried to scoot away from the voice.
"No!" Chris screamed. "Don't move!"
"You see." Rieger sounded excited. "You trusted Mr. Larabee without question. It is a requirement in your profession. But you two have taken it to a new level. It is like you know what each other are thinking. I want to know just how much you truly trust each other."
"Yes, Mr. Tanner? "
"Go to hell…"
Rieger chuckled. "I fear it is you and Mr. Larabee who are about step into hell. Now," he cleared his throat, "you will have four days to transverse the course. And your first test starts now."
Chris' heart beat so hard in his chest he could barely move. But he had to start now. He didn't want to lose a monitor. "I'm sorry, Vin…we have to begin. Do you think you can stand up?"
"One question: Will I bump my head?"
"No, Vin." There was just a hint of a smile in Chris's voice. "Your head will be fine."
Vin struggled to climb to his knees, the blackness affecting his equilibrium. He swayed, nearly pitching forward on his face.
Rieger watched Vin struggle to stand up without the use of his hands, balancing and counterbalancing every movement.
"Can you do anything about these cuffs?"
"I'm sorry, Vin."
Vin felt and smelled the hot breeze caress his face, burning the side of his face. "North West, right cowboy?" Vin asked with a slight smile.
"How did you know?"
"Remember I spent three years on the Reservation. The sun always sets in the West, and this time of year that would be North West."
"I'm impressed. Can you tell what time of day it is?"
The light banter helped them both. It was something that came naturally to them.
Rieger decided to put an end to the small talk. "Mr. Larabee it is time to begin. Here is your first destination."
A map appeared on one of the monitors on the wall. It showed a route outlined in red with symbols indicating places and objects along the way. "As you can see," Rieger continued, "the first part of your journey takes you down through a natural sandstone tunnel which leads to an open tundra."
"He needs water. He is beginning to dehydrate."
"There is water waiting at the end of your destination. If you can find it, it is his."
Rieger's monitor turned off as well as the map. He was left with Vin's monitor, his friend looking lost and scared.
"Vin, did you hear that?"
Vin nodded. "How long is the tunnel?"
"I don't know. I only saw the beginning of the tunnel."
"Ok. I guess we better get started."
"Ok. You are standing on a small plateau. Take four steps forward."
Vin took small shuffling steps, listening to Chris' precise directions. Instinct fought against reason. Instinct told him to stay still, not walk into the unknown blackness. Reason told him if he stayed there he would die, either of thirst or exposure. Probably both. But in the end it was Chris that gave him the courage to move forward.
"Good. Now you need to get down off that plateau. I want you to sit down and scoot forward until I tell you to stop. "
Chris watched Vin follow his directions without hesitation.
"There's a thirty percent grade in front of you. If you take it slow and brace your feet in front of you, you can make it to the bottom."
Vin nodded; his mouth too dry to answer. Slowly he slid forward until he felt the drop off and anchored his heels in the dry ground. He said a prayer to anyone who was listening and began his slow decent.
Chris kept his voice calm as he constantly spoke to his partner, guiding him down the steep hill.
Half way down he slipped and decide the best way down the rest of the slope was on his backside.
Finally he was at the bottom and he struggled back to his feet. He moved his head from side to side, feeling the differences in air currents and heat. His audio senses seemed to be more acute than they had ever been before. He took a step forward and heard the crunch of sandstone.
"Where am I Chris?" He called out. He heard his voice echo off walls that were only a few feet away, traveling up and over him to disappear in the air above.
"You've entered a narrow sandstone ravine. From what I can tell from the diagram I think it's about two hundred feet long."
"Can you see me?"
"Yeah, Vin, there are cameras all along the route. You are doing fine. Just keep walking."
"I'm getting awful thirsty here cowboy..."
"There is water waiting at the end of this leg," Chris promised.
Vin felt the ground begin to slant downward beneath his feet again.
"It's alright, Vin. There is a gradual decent to the tundra below. It doesn't look too steep."
Suddenly something tripped Vin. He tried to whip his hands out in front of him to break his fall but the shackles bit deeply into his wrists and he staggered forward, his momentum sending him sprawling toward the ground.
"Vin!" Chris screamed, struggling against the straps that held him prisoner in the chair.
Tanner's shoulder slammed into the ground and he slid down the ravine on the loose sandstone on his stomach as if he were on a luge run. His shoulders and hips banked off the sides of the tunnel until he came to rest, sprawled face down in the sand.
He lay there breathless, trying to make his body stop trembling. He felt the sunlight full on his face again.
"Chris...?" Vin's voice trembled with fear.
It seemed an eternity before he heard Chris' anxious voice.
"Vin, are you okay?"
"I'I think so," Vin answered, his voice husky from lack of water.
Chris watched him slowly pull himself together, struggling to get back on his feet. He saw him sway a bit, the blackness playing with his equilibrium.
"That was some E Ticket ride." Vin grinned.
Tanner never seized to amaze him. With all the obstacles in his life, he overcame them and became stronger while never losing his sense of self.
Three more monitors came to life and Chris got his first look at the next challenge ahead. Each one showed a different angle of a flat dry riverbed. At one time, eons ago, water rushed through this canyon leaving it scarred and rippled with deep gouges some three feet wide and hundreds of feet long.
Vin moved his face into the slight warm breeze and listened carefully. It was deathly quiet. The only sound he heard was the wind passing by his ears. Where in the hell was he?
As if he could read Vin's mind, Chris began to relate what lay ahead for the blind man. "Vin, you are standing at the edge of a dry riverbed a quarter mile wide. It is covered with channels dug out by ancient rushing water, some are only a few inches wide while others at least three feet wide."
"Can we go around?"
"No, Vin. There is no other choice, you have to cross it."
"How?" Vin felt a new dread seep into his tired body. He couldn't keep this up. He was exhausted already. The mental strain of tying to envision what Chris was relating combined with the terrors he felt walking into the blackness threatened to overwhelm him.
"Vin... you can do this. I will be with you every second."
Chris watched Vin on the screen. He looked like he was ready to collapse. He started to shuffle forward. Small plumes of dust billowed around his ankles. No human had stepped foot in this part of No Man's
Land in many years. The sun continued to beat down relentlessly.
Another angle popped up on the number three screen in front of Chris.
Vin stood stone still, panting in the sweltering heat.
The screen showed his partner standing six feet in front of a channel carved into the desert floor. Five feet wide and unknown depth. Under normal circumstances Vin could leap over it with ease. But this was far from normal circumstances. If he miss- stepped, if he panicked in the middle of the jump he could fall into the crevice. With his hands shackled behind his back there would be no way of getting out. He would be trapped.
"What's wrong, Mr. Larabee?" Rieger's monitor clicked back on. "Is Mr. Tanner doubting you already? Oh, don't worry, I've cut your partners audio. He can't hear our conversation."
"This has gone far enough," Chris snapped. "End it, now."
Rieger chuckled. "I'm afraid, for your friend, it's just begun."
Chris felt a shiver surge up his entire body. "What does that mean?"
"You will find out soon enough. Now you better start directing him again before he loses his nerve."
Rieger's monitor blinked off. He looked at Vin's monitor again and saw him standing there, looking so lost and helpless. His hate for Rieger was growing more intense by the second. He forced himself to control his emotions. Vin needed him to stay focused.
He saw Vin's head snap up.
"I'm back, Vin. Rieger cut us off," he explained.
"Don't ever leave me alone like that again," Vin pleaded.
"I won't. I promise. Listen, Rieger says there is water across the riverbed. It will be waiting for you. Are you ready?"
Vin nodded. "I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be. But Cowboy, tell me, how hard is this going to be?"
"There are four crevices carved in the ground before you. They are each five feet wide, but I can't tell how deep. It's the only way to the water."
"What are you not telling me?"
Chris hesitated. "You have to jump over them."
"If you fall into one of the crevices you will have no way of getting out. But that's not going to happen because I'm going to get you across."
"Can I walk around them?"
"No. Too long."
Not giving Vin time to digest what he had just said, he plowed on. "You ready Vin?"
Vin nodded, "Piece of cake."
Chris took a deep breath. "OK… I want you to do exactly what I say when I say it."
"Starting on your left foot take three running steps then leap as far as you can. You should be able to clear the ditch by at least a foot. Ready?"
Vin took a deep breath, his mouth dry from the lack of water and the ever-present fear. "Ready."
"Now!" Chris shouted.
Vin pushed off with his left foot and ran as hard as he could leaping into the air on the third step. It felt like he was in midair for an eternity. Without his arms to balance himself he came down on his feet then toppled onto his right side, but it was firm ground. He'd done it.
"How was that, Chris?" Vin grinned.
"Perfect. Although I think the landing could use some refining. We'll work on that on the next one."
Vin stopped grinning. "How many are there?"
"Three more. But you can do it."
Vin struggled back to his feet, swaying with fatigue.
"Let's get this over with," he growled. "I'm thirsty."
"That's the spirit, Vin. The next one is three yards ahead."
Vin negotiated the next two with little difficulty. But it was beginning to get late and he was at the point of sheer exhaustion. His body and mind were fighting him at every step. The fatigue intensified his fear of the blackness and the unknown. He trusted Chris with his life, and so far today he had proven that.
But now he was beginning to wonder if this was all worth it. If he survived today what was ahead for him tomorrow…And the next day? And if they got out of here what would life be like without his sight? He couldn't work for Team7 anymore. What was left? Overwhelming fatigue suddenly swamped him and he corkscrewed down to the hot sand and didn't move.
"I can't, Chris... I can't do this anymore. I can't." He didn't care anymore. He stared into the blackness. Who would care anyway if he was gone? Chris and the rest of Team7, but beyond them, who? The kids in his apartment building came to mind, the other residents who depended on him to keep them safe. The times he worked with Josiah at the youth center. Would they miss him? Maybe. But for how long?
"Leave me alone Chris... Please, just leave me alone," he begged.
"You're tired, Vin. You'll feel different tomorrow. You have one more jump then you can rest. I promise."
Vin shook his head. "No..."
Fear and anger rose in Chris. "Vin, I won't let you die. Do you hear me? You are going to get back on your feet and you are going to jump that last crevice. I will not have your death on my conscience. Now get up!"
Vin obeyed the voice. He was too tired not to. He stood up, swaying, nearly pitching forward. He took a step to balance himself and he felt the toe of his shoe slip off the edge.
"Vin, carefully take five steps back. Good." Chris had to be precise. Vin's gait would be different, slower, shorter, because of his fatigue. If he under estimated his jumping distance... "Now just like before take four running steps and leap."
Chris watched Vin take the five steps back, but his movements were lethargic.
Vin began to run, his legs feeling like fifty pound weights. He jumped into the blackness. He came sprawling down on his stomach, the air punched out of his lungs, with his legs dangling over the edge. He felt the loose sand begin to break away beneath him. Panicked, he dug his chin into the dirt to anchor himself and began dragging forward with his shoulders…One inch at a time. It took him an eternity before his knees were on solid ground and he could wiggle his entire body to safety.
He lay there panting, fighting the desire to just let his mind float off into peaceful sleep. But he still needed water.
"Water..." He croaked.
"Two hundred yards ahead of you, Vin."
Two hundred yards: It might as well have been two hundred miles. He struggled to his knees and sank back on his haunches. The sun in his face was nearly gone, and there was a new stillness to the land.
He began to move toward the promised water on his knees. Slowly, painfully he followed Chris' directions.
"Two more feet, Vin."
"Above you there is a leather pouch hanging from the limb of a dead tree. It has a canteen with a shunt that you can open with your tongue."
Chris watched Vin stare into black space. This was the first big test. Vin had to gather his strength and his will to live.
"You have to stand, Vin. It's right above your head."
Vin struggled to his feet, falling back on his knees twice when his legs gave out. At last he was standing, his legs trembling. He searched the air with his face looking for the bottle.
"To your left," Chris guided him, "forward, just an inch."
The bag brushed Vin's chin and he grabbed it with his teeth and coaxed the cap open with his tongue. Cool fresh water spilled down his throat. He gulped at it.
"Vin! Slow down. You'll make yourself sick. Save some for the morning."
Vin couldn't hear him, the only thing that mattered was the water that filled his stomach, splashed over his mouth and down his chest. He sucked on it until it was dry.
Mental and physical fatigue enveloped him and he spiraled to the ground, face down in the sand, unconscious.
Chris watched his partner sink into a deep exhausted sleep. And then the monitors died. He was alone in the lab, strapped to the chair, helpless to help his friend. He wasn't sure how much more Vin could endure. He'd been driven to the point of exhaustion, and this was only the first day. He cursed Rieger at the top of his lungs, not caring that it was just what the demented man wanted. "I'll kill you! Kill you, you God damn fucking bastard. I'll kill you!
He wondered if their friends were looking for them. Of course they were. Orrin would bring in as many ATF agents as he needed. They must have been missing for days now. They would find Vin's Cherokee, if it survived the blast. J.D. would be glued to his computer looking for any trace of his friends, checking hospitals and morgues across the country. Buck, third in command after himself and Vin, would run a tight ship keeping everyone on tract. Ezra would be hounding all his contacts looking for any clues.
Nathan would most likely drive the route he and Vin had followed from Las Vegas. Lastly, Josiah would do what he did best…pray. If God listened to anyone, it would be Josiah.
He stared at the blank of monitors willing one of them to come to life to show him how Vin was doing. But finally fear and fatigue overwhelmed him and he slid into a troubled sleep. He didn't feel Rieger change IV bags or insert a Foley catheter.
Vin's tortured muscles jerked with spasms and his stomach cramped from drinking the water too fast. He waited for Chris' voice, but heard only night sounds surrounding him.
Vin moaned softly and changed his position just a little, letting his right cheek rest against the sand. Exhaustion and depression overwhelmed him and he slipped into sleep.
It was toward early morning when Vin snapped his eyes open. He held his breath waiting, hoping that what he had just gone through was a terrible nightmare, but his heart sank when he realized it was all too real.
"Chris...? Can you hear me?" He whispered into the blackness.
No answer, just the sound of the night insects.
He wished he knew if the stars were visible tonight. He loved the outdoors. The wide open spaces, the spectacle of the morning sunrise and the evening sunset. Would he ever see their beauty again?
He felt so overwhelmingly lost. Exhaustion soon lured him back to sleep.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee." Rieger' grinning face appeared on every screen before Chris. "I trust you had a restful night. Are you anxious to talk with your partner again? It must be very disconcerting to know that he is out there all alone in the dark, yearning for the sound of your voice."
Chris remained silent. He would not give Rieger the satisfaction to know that the night had been hell.
"Today, Mr. Larabee, you are left with a quandary: Which way to go."
Rieger' grinning face disappeared and was replaced with two separate images, each one repeated on four screens. Chris studied the monitors.
Four showed a rugged path up the side of a mountain. Boulders, some as big as houses looked as if they would continue to slide down the mountain at the smallest provocation. Loose shale and rocks littered an almost non-existent trail up to the top of another plateau. The other screens showed a desolate desert rutted with potholes and dried shrub.
"One leads to water and an afternoon of rest for Mr. Tanner. The other leads to a dead end, at which point he must backtrack and start all over again." Rieger's mocking voice filled the lab. "It's your decision Mr. Larabee... Make the correct one."
The speaker clicked off and Chris stared at the monitors. Which way? He analyzed both routes. The one leading to the plateau was treacherous with loose shale and stones. But it did afford some shade from the unrelenting sun. Vin was already badly burned and dehydrated... But if he fell he could be injured or killed. The desert was easier, but without shade of any kind Vin would be subjected to heat exhaustion and possible sunstroke. Either way it would be hell on earth.
Vin lifted his head opening his eyes, stunned by the complete blackness. He expected it, but it wasn't something he thought he could ever get used to. His arms ached from being shackled in their awkward position and the cuffs had cut deeply into his skin. And he knew that infection had already set in.
"Vin," Chris' voice startled him. "Vin…can you hear me?"
"Yeah." He was surprised how gruff his voice sounded. His throat was dry to the point of gagging from the lack of water and the pit of his stomach had a hole the size of Texas from not eating, in how long, he had no idea.
"How do you feel?"
"Better," Vin lied. He hoped Chris couldn't see just how awful he really did feel. His wrists ached from the cuffs digging into his flesh, the muscles in his legs were bunched up into tight painful knots and the sunburn on his face and chest, where his light shirt did little to protect him, felt as if his skin would rip right open with every movement.
"Good," Chris said, not believing his partner for a moment. He could see how exhausted Vin looked, how pale his face looked beneath the fiery red sunburn.
"Rieger just presented us with his next challenge."
Vin heard the hesitation in Chris' voice.
"He has two routes set up. One takes you up the side of a mountain to a plateau and the other across the desert. At the end of one of those routes is water and rest for the remainder of the day. At the other end is a dead-end, no water, and you have to start over again."
"Which one do you think Rieger pick?"
"I don't know. He's just too insane to predict."
"Which one is harder?" Vin asked, trying to visualize what Chris was telling him.
"The climb up to the plateau is steep and covered in shale. But there is shade. The desert gives you no protection from the sun."
"I think he will assume that I would think he would put the water at the top of the plateau, then do just the opposite leaving it on the other side of the desert."
"Which means it is probably at the top of the plateau."
"That would be my guess," Chris agreed.
"Chris… No matter what happens this was a joint decision. Remember that."
Chris nodded. But he knew the cards were not stacked evenly. No matter what happened, it was ultimately his decision.
"Do you think you can stand?"
Vin struggled, his legs not wanting to obey his mind and it took him several attempts to finally climb to his knees.
"Chris, I need food. I'm starving. I can't continue without something in my stomach."
"I'm sorry, Vin. There is no food. Not yet. But there is water. You can make it up the plateau by noon and rest the rest of the day. But you've got to start now or you'll be climbing during the hottest part of the day."
Vin used every ounce of energy he had left in his wobbly legs to stand. It took precious time for him to find his balance in the blackness. He could already feel the heat of the day start to shimmer off the hot sand. He wasn't sure if he could endure another day. But he knew he had to. For Chris' sake. If he were to die out here, with Chris as his guide, it would destroy his friend.
Chris studied the mountain. It had been well traveled years before. A narrow path was still visible, although overgrown by clumps of weeds and layers of loose shale. It made its way up to the top of another plateau.
At points the trail narrowed to a foot or less, dropping off to the rock strewn ground below. One wrong step, a patch of loose shall, could spell disaster. Chris wondered if he had made the right decision.
"Let's get this show on the road," Vin said, the levity in his voice sounding false to Chris' ears.
Chris carefully directed Vin to the base of the plateau.
"Vin, the trail is covered with rocks and stones. Listen to my instructions carefully and follow my every command."
Vin nodded and waited for his next set of directions.
"Vin, rock climbing is a piece of cake for you."
"There's a little difference here, Cowboy, I'm handcuffed and can't see a damn thing."
"How many times have you said you could climb a mountain with your eyes closed?"
"Cheap shot, Chris." Vin grinned.
"Are you ready?"
Vin took a deep breath. "Yeah. Okay, tell me what I'm looking at here," Vin said.
"The first fifteen feet has about a ten degree incline. There is a narrow path overgrown by clumps of weeds and loose shale. You have to stay to your right all the way up. The path drops off steeply to the left. Toward the top it looks like the incline gets steeper."
Vin shuffled his way forward kicking away small rocks. It would be too easy to step on a rock and sprain an ankle or worse.
"You are doing fine, Vin. You are four steps away from the beginning of the incline."
Vin felt the ground begin to slant upward. He took his first step and waited.
"I'm alright. I'm just trying to get my balance." He had learned through experience that all climbing depended on a sense of balance. He had to find his center of gravity. Leaning forward just a bit and raising his shackled hands up a little higher on his back he took another cautious step, then another. Each time he dug his shoe under the loose shale, feeling for solid ground. He'd climbed in this type of terrain before. It was the most dangerous kind of climb. Every part of his mind, every muscle was honed in on only one thing: Making it up the mountain.
The climb was hard. For every four steps he took he would lose one from loose shale. Chris spoke only when necessary. He knew Vin was an expert climber and he had to trust Vin's instincts. He only spoke when the path veered in a different direction or an obstacle stood in Vin's way.
The path was becoming steeper and Vin's energy was failing. When he could, he leaned against the sandstone walls of the mountain, drawing hot air into his already parched lungs. Sweat poured down his face, stinging his eyes.
"How much further...?" he panted.
"Another thirty feet, Vin. You're doing fine."
But thirty feet proved to be more than Vin could handle in the searing heat. His legs buckled and he fell hard against the sandstone wall.
There was no response...
"Yes you can. You're so close."
Chris saw the top of the plateau. Vin was so close...
"Get up!" he commanded. "Get up now!"
Vin's body obeyed.
"Listen to me, Vin. You are going to make it to the top."
Vin nodded... He couldn't fight both the mountain and Chris; and Chris was so much stronger. He took a step and then another...
Vin was only aware of Chris's voice, nothing else. His mind had shut down. Step after painful step was only taken because Chris ordered it. He slipped on loose shall and feel to his knees again and again. But Chris pushed him on. He obeyed his partner because that was all he had to survive on.
Chris was barely able to hang on himself. He was driven to the brink of mental exhaustion. He forged ahead, pushing and prodding until Vin was just feet away from the plateau, always with that nagging fear that he had picked the wrong direction.
He saw the monitors on the wall shift. One remained on Vin while the other two slowly panned the top of the plateau. Vin stood waiting, his head bowed, his shoulders stooped, his mind huddled in a small corner while Chris guided him up the mountainside.
Suddenly Chris froze. He felt as if his world had suddenly collapsed. In front of Vin was nothing more than a wall of rock jetting into the sky, a dead-end: With no water bottle in sight.
A small cry escaped his throat. The top right monitor flickered and Rieger' face appeared, gloating.
"What happened, Mr. Larabee?" he asked, reveling in Chris's anguish. "You picked the wrong direction?"
"Noooo!" Chris screamed.
Vin heard him and his legs buckled.
"I'm sorry, Vin," he cried. "I'm sorry. There's no water."
Vin collapsed to the ground.
"No more," Chris pleaded. "Please, make this end."
"Are you giving up so soon?" Rieger panned the number three camera down to Vin's face. Tears ran down his burnt face etching lines through the caked dust. "Are you giving up on your partner, after you were the one to make the wrong decision?"
"Leave us alone."
"If that's what you really want. But are you prepared to watch him die? He will you know. No one but me knows where he is. You will remain here a prisoner while you watch his body being torn apart by the vultures and mountain lions. His bones will turn to dust beneath the hot sun, and you will have a front row seat to see all of it. Are you prepared for that, Mr. Larabee? Death is not pretty in the desert."
He saw Vin flinch. He'd heard every horrible word.
"Vin... I'm sorry..."
"You made a tactical error, Mr. Larabee. You tried to outsmart me. But I analyzed and reanalyzed. And in the end you did exactly what I expected you to do."
"You have your experiment," Chris cried. "Vin trusted me. He trusted me... " A strength born of hatred and revenge filled his very soul. If he ever got his hands on Rieger he would pull him apart limb by limb.
"Don't listen to him, Chris," Vin said coldly. "He's a Goddamn madman. He's trying to destroy us. He's trying to destroy you. Don't let him."
"He's right. I made the wrong decision." Chris' voice trembled. "I made the wrong decision..."
He watched Vin slowly struggle to his knees, his face looking up into the sky knowing, for Vin, there was only blackness.
"Listen to me, Rieger," Vin shouted, venom in his raspy voice. "I will kill you with my bare hands for what you have done to us."
"Powerful words," Rieger said, "for a man so near to death."
"You're a sick bastard..."
"Perhaps, but I still hold all the cards."
"What more do you want?" Vin demanded. His tongue was nearly too swollen to talk. His dry lips cracked with each word. He smelled blood and knew it came from his lips but his face was warmer than his body so he couldn't feel it. He had to have water and this madman was the only one who could provide it.
"I want to see if you can finish the course."
"And if we do?"
"Then Mr. Larabee will be set free."
"Is that a promise?"
There was a long pause. "That is a promise."
Chris staggered back mentally, digesting the implications. "And Vin?" He asked hesitantly.
Silence hung between the three. Chris' heart broke, unable to accept the truth as Rieger saw it.
"Listen to me, Chris," Vin implored, his voice almost too scratchy to understand now. "We will survive because we are together."
Vin forced his trembling legs to stand and he turned until he felt the hot breeze flow over his face again. He could smell the desert below. He took a blind step, then another, waiting for Chris.
"Chris... I could use some help here..."
"I can't." Chris muttered.
"Yes you can. Now, where the hell am I?"
"I can't do this alone!"
"Rieger was right."
"To hell with Rieger. It's just us now. I'm getting down off this God damn mountain with or without you. With your help I have a good chance of making it, without... I'll probably be food for the scavengers. It's up to you now, Cowboy."
Chris watched Vin take his first hesitant step. The loose shale rolled beneath his shoes.
"No! Two steps to your left, Vin." Chris directed, his voice still shaky. "Secure your footing on the clump of weeds in front of you."
"It's good to have you back, Cowboy." Vin smiled.
"Tell me that when we're crossing the desert later today." Chris said bitterly.
Chris settled back in as watcher and guide. He knew that Vin's new found strength was just the result of a spurt of adrenalin. It wouldn't last long. And there was still more than half a day's hike ahead of them. But they had survived and they would continue to survive.
Half way down Vin slipped on more loose shale and his feet flew out from beneath him. He landed hard on his back, screaming with pain as the shackles bit deep into his wrists. Panting he stayed there...
"I'm alright, Chris..." Vin grunted, his words slurred by his swollen tongue. "I need rest... just for a second."
"Just a second, Vin..." Chris agreed.
Chris watched Vin carefully. He couldn't allow him to lose the edge he had gained at the top of the plateau. If he rested too long his muscles would stiffen up. He had to keep moving. It pained Chris terribly to have to keep pushing.
"It's time, Vin." Chris said softly.
Vin levered himself back up to a sitting position and slid the rest of the way down on his butt.
Four hours after they began their trek up to the plateau, they were back where they started. Chris studied the images of the desert that lay in front of Vin. It was dry and barren and littered with potholes and dead shrub.
Vin stood, swaying, waiting for Chris' next instruction. His legs felt like jello. He slowly moved his head back and forth in the blackness feeling the hot breeze on his face as he changed direction, listening for the minutest sounds.
"Vin... you've got to follow my directions exactly. Do you understand?"
"OK. Take three steps forward and one step to your left." Chris' voice felt strong and assured.
Vin did exactly what he was told. Hour after hour. Two steps forward, one step to the right. Four steps to the left one forward. The combinations were endless. The sun was now directly overhead making it hard to breathe in the hot, dry air. It was hard to think. If not for Chris' constant voice he would have collapsed long ago. But he needed water desperately...
Suddenly, miraculously, his vision cleared. A hundred yards away he saw a lake. The sun glistened off the deep blue water as it lapped lazily along the banks.
"Water!" Vin said in awe and started running toward it.
Chris screamed, "NO! Vin stop!"
Vin could feel the air temperature cool as he neared it. He stood on the bank, tears flowing down his face. He had never seen a more beautiful site. He took a deep breath and plunged in....
Fiery pain exploded over his body. He tried to scramble back up but thorns were catching at his clothes, burning his skin like white-hot match heads. He opened his eyes, blackness. Chris' voice was calling him to stay calm. The more he fought, the more he was stung.
Vin struggled to his knees, his body on fire. Insane with fear and pain he tried to yank his wrists free of the shackles but they just dug deeper into his skin.
"Vin... listen to me! Vin. Stop thrashing around, you are making it worse. You're lying in Star Thistle. I know it hurts, but you have to stop moving around."
Vin scrambled to his feet but lost his balance, falling backwards into the fiery thorns again.
"Vin... Stand up!!"
He rolled over onto his stomach, the star thistle burning every inch of his skin, even his clothes couldn't protect him. He pushed himself to his knees again only because Chris was there him coaxing him. He made it back to his feet, swaying, fighting to keep his balance.
"Thirty feet, Vin. Just thirty feet and you'll be clear of the weeds. Thirty feet. You can do it. One step…then another."
Chris could only imagine the agonizing sting of the thistles on Vin's skin. Monitor number six suddenly flickered on showing a water bottle hanging from a post sunk into the dry ground.
"Vin...water! I see water! Twenty feet from you!"
Vin's pace quickened.
The Star Thistle dropped off his clothes as he walked, but the stinging remained.
"Where...?" Vin gasped.
"To your right. Six feet..."
Vin followed Chris's directions, his need for water overwhelming every other need.
"It's two feet in front of you, hanging from a post: Another foot to your left."
Vin's cheek brushed the cool bottle and it swung away.
Rieger's voice suddenly overrode his.
"It might be a good time now to tell your partner that the water is tainted." Rieger chuckled.
"No!!!" Chris screamed in disbelief. "…You promised!"
"I told you in the beginning that there were eight bottles of water and only six were good. You forgot that, Mr. Larabee. Another blunder on your part. How are you going to tell him, huh? How are you going to tell him that the water YOU promised him is poisonous?"
Chris dug his fingers into the armrest's chair, envisioning Rieger's throat in his hand as he strangled the bastard to death.
"You better hurry, Mr. Larabee. If he opens that water nothing on God's green earth will stop him from drinking it. And the game will be over."
The monitor suddenly changed from Vin to Rieger's face. "Or is that what you want?" he asked mockingly. Vin's face reappeared, hunting for the water filled leather flask hanging from the tree. "It could all be over in a matter of hours. Mr. Tanner could be put out of his misery. You just have to let him drink. What is better? This torture or death? You decide, Mr. Larabee."
"Vin..." Chris's voice shook with emotion. Guilt, hatred, despair... "Vin... there is no water. I was wrong..."
Vin froze, not believing what Chris had just said.
"I'm sorry Vin, there is no water..."
"Goddamn you, Rieger..." Vin exploded in rage. "Where's the fucking water?!!" He screamed into the blackness. "I'll kill you, you Goddam fucking sonofabitch! I'll kill you!"
Vin's legs buckled and he sank to his knees.
Chris watched as Vin's body gave out and he collapsed into the dirt, curling up into a tight ball, his arms stretched to their limits behind him. Guilt, like a dagger stabbed at his guts, his heart. He'd let Vin down.
The monitors and lights suddenly went out leaving Chris in absolute blackness.
Slumping in his chair, Chris closed his eyes and cried silently.
"Damn it! It's as if they fell off the face of the earth," Buck yelled. "Two days and nothing. Absolutely nothing!"
Josiah looked up from his desk. "Nathan has at least a dozen agents searching every inch of road between here and Las Vegas and they came up empty, except for a small crater in the road. Nat says it looks like there was an explosion of some kind and the hole was filled in."
"If that was them, that means they were only on the road for a couple of hours," J.D. said while he typed urgently on his computer. "I'm checking to see if there was any report of an explosion in the last two days."
"Good idea, Kid," Buck said.
"You mean little green men from Mars kidnapped them?" Buck laughed. They needed the levity.
"I don't understand how they could have missed the hole," J.D. said, once the nervous chuckled died down.
"It might not have been visible right away until the dirt settled," Josiah offered. "Of course we can't be certain that it involved our brothers Chris and Vin"
Buck felt a knot in his throat. "If that was them, and they were in the middle of that explosion, they could be gone."
Silence filled the room.
Ezra cleared his throat. "I have ascertained from one of my informants that an Alexander Rieger was released from Lansing Corrective Facility in Colorado one month ago. And it appears that Mr.'s Larabee and Tanner's testimony led to his incarceration."
"I remember the bastard," Buck snarled. "Seven young men suddenly disappeared from the University of Colorado in Boulder. You were undercover at the time Ezra, but the rest of us were right in the middle of the investigation."
"An unusual case for the ATF. Kidnapping usually falls under the auspices of the F.B.I.," Ezra said.
Buck nodded. "We were brought in by the feds when they discovered a warehouse filled with contraband weapons."
"They found the boys…nearly tortured to death. Only one victim survived, but never recovered mentally.
Rieger got a hot-shot lawyer and pleaded down to accessory. The weapon's charge was dropped when someone else confessed. Everyone knew Rieger had paid the guy to cop to the charge."
"Ezra, call Travis' secretary and tell her we need to see him down here right now. And don't take no for an answer."
"No worries, Mr. Willington, I can be very persuasive when needed." Ezra smiled, his gold tooth glinting. Now if you will excuse me, I believe I will deliver the message in person."
Ten minutes later the door suddenly opened and Ezra followed a very concerned Orrin Travis.
Ezra filled me in," he said, holding up a file. "This is Rieger's file…you will find that his file has been redacted…this is the complete and unchanged one."
J.D. jumped at the sudden voice that invaded his computer.
"I am sorry, Mr. Dunne, I hope I did not startle you."
The monitor suddenly went black only to flip on again with Rieger's grinning face.
Everyone rushed over to J.D.'s desk to see the monitor.
"Alexander Rieger," Travis spat the name out.
"Orrin, it's been a long time. Four years, plus three months and nine days for time served. I have been keeping count. Not much else to do in a six by eight foot room."
"What do you want, Rieger?" Travis asked coldly, bending over J.D.'s shoulder.
"My, my, such animosity."
"Get to the point," Orrin ordered.
"You and your agents robbed me of four years of my life," Rieger accused.
"You stole those innocent boy's lives."
"They were part of my experiment. Sometimes progress often requires sacrifices."
Travis sighed, "What do you want Rieger?"
"Nothing from you actually. I have what I want. I just thought I would ease your minds a bit by letting you know that Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee are still alive."
"What have you done with them?" Buck demanded.
"Four years in prison gives a man a lot of hours to think. I watched and analyzed partnerships, wondered how deep their trust went. Then I started hearing two familiar names, Larabee and Tanner. I remembered how coordinated their testimony had been. Without my very good, and very expensive lawyer I might have spent the rest of my life in prison."
"It's a shame justice was not served," Ezra jeered.
Rieger ignored him. "I wondered how deep their trust ran. How strong was Tanner's trust in Larabee? Would Larabee trust himself enough to guide his best friend through hell? Interesting questions, no?"
"Get on with it," Josiah barked.
"I made plans. Hired the right man to carry them out. And the rest, my friends, is history."
"What have you done with Vin and Chris?" Buck demanded
"See for yourselves..."
Rieger's laughing face was replaced by a split screen. Everyone's stomach dropped. The left showed Chris strapped in a straight backed metal chair with two IV lines running into each arm.
The right showed Vin walking across a desert. His clothes were tattered and blood stained. His face, beneath a growth of beard, was violently sunburned and blistered. His arms were shackled behind his back. But what was most disturbing, what made Buck weak in the knees, was the way he was walking. Each step was hesitant. His head slowly moved from left to right as if he were trying to pick up sounds around him.
"Dear God..." Josiah gasped in disbelief, "...he's blind."
"Very astute, Mr. Sanchez. What better way to test a man's trust? Larabee is Tanner's only chance for survival. Will he trust his friend enough? Better yet, will Larabee trust himself enough to save Tanner?"
"You are a manic." Travis seethed.
"Great men were called crazy, but time proved them wrong. My experiment will be used as a bench mark for all neuropsychology."
"But at what cost? A man's life?" Ezra asked.
"There have been many sacrifices throughout history. It's inevitable when man strives to learn, there will be consequences. Good-bye for now. I will contact you again tomorrow with an update on their progress. Oh, and Mr. Dunn, don't try to trace this call. Any attempt will unleash a virus that will totally disable your systems. And, remember," he warned, "I can do it..."
The screen went blank. The men looked at each other in stunned silence.
+ + + + + + +
Condemned to the same blackness Vin was forced to endure, Chris sat alone in his prison. Rieger had shut off the monitors and all the lights surrounding his chair leaving him in virtual limbo.
Vin was dying out there in the desert and Chris was helpless to help him.
Suddenly, anger flared up in Chris so fierce that it scared him. He hated Rieger, like no other human being in the world. He wanted to punish him. Subject him to the same hell he was putting Vin through. He wanted the man to suffer. He could see his face, laughing, mocking.
The image haunted him as he slipped into a troubled sleep.
Vin snapped his eyes open, disoriented. It was still night. He could tell by the wicked chill in the air. He shivered. His face and chest were still fiery hot from the sunburn, but the rest of his body felt cold and achy. He listened. There was a strange quietness to the land. Something had awakened him. He felt a shiver run down his spine, apart from the chill of the night or the blistered skin on his face and chest. There was something else.
Suddenly the ground beneath him rumbled and shook from an earsplitting explosion right over him. He instinctively tried to crawl into a tight ball to protect himself.
"Chris..." he screamed. He could feel the electricity in the air and the smell of ozone.
There was no answer and he began to panic.
Another explosion ripped through the air pounding inside his chest and his head.
He heard the crackle of lighting as it split through the air followed immediately by a peel of thunder so loud that the concussion felt like a physical blow to his chest. He crawled to his knees ducking his head to his chest for protection. Again and again the lightening crackled so close he could feel the hairs on the nap of his neck stand on end. And the thunder continued to relentlessly explode around him, his ears ringing from the concussions.
"Oh, God, Chris, help me," he pleaded.
He needed shelter, but he was afraid to move. Another enormous boom shook the ground beneath him.
"I've got to ride it out," he told himself. "I've got to ride it out."
A bolt of lightning struck so close he could feel the heat.
The wind picked up, swirling sand into his face.
"How big is this storm?" he screamed into the blackness.
"I've been in storms like this before." He tried to convince himself, but it was hard to concentrate through the noise. He knew it could last for hours.
Then as suddenly as it started, it stopped. Vin listened. Everything was deathly quiet. Creatures of the night holed up under rocks and in burrowed beneath the ground, waiting out the storm. He could still feel the electricity in the air.
A drop of rain hit his hand, then another. He heard the drops hit the sand around him. A few drops at first. He rolled over on his back not caring that the shackles dug deeper into his wrists. He opened his mouth and gasped in relief as the rain began to fall harder. Drops of cold fresh water stung his tongue, bit at his sunburned face. He began to laugh like a child. The rain pounded his face and he swallowed mouthfuls, feeling it slide down his parched throat and into his hollow stomach.
"Rieger to go to hell!" he shouted into the night, "I've got water!!"
"We're going to make it, Chris," he thought. "We're going to make it!!"
The rain tapered off leaving Vin wishing for more.
But it was enough. His thirst was quenched. He lay there shivering in his soaking wet clothes and he didn't care. He could go on. He relaxed closing his sightless eyes. He was going to make it.
Five minutes later the wind picked up, ripping at Vin's clothes, blowing in his face making it hard to breathe. The skies opened up again in a crescendo of fury and noise. Huge claps of thunder rocked the ground, again and again. Hail poured from the sky, pummeling the desert floor, pelting Vin with marble sized ice. He clambered back up to his knees ducking his head trying to protect his face from the stinging pellets. A bolt of lightning hit so close he felt the hairs on his neck stand straight up. Then he remembered the metal cuffs again. The temperature dropped thirty degrees in five minutes leaving him shivering violently. He felt like he was in the middle of a war zone. Another thunderous explosion above him came so close it smashed into his body like a fist.
The hail built up around him, freezing his knees and elbows. He was running out of strength. His knees buckled and he fell onto his face, his cheek freezing in the hail.
And then it was over. Silence. Vin waited for his ears to stop ringing. Light rain began to fall. The ice melted and sank into the parched earth. The thunder rolled off into the distance.
He rolled over on his side panting, his heart still pounding in his chest, his skin bruised from the hail.
"I guess from now on I better be more careful what I wish for, huh?" He chuckled as he drifted off into semi-consciousness.
Lights flickered then came to life in the lab. Rieger was ready for another day. Chris dreaded what the insane man had in store for Vin today?
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee." Rieger's face appeared on the screen. "I hope you had a pleasant night. I understand it rained quite hard early this morning. But I forgot, you wouldn't know about that. You must be anxious to get back in touch with your partner."
Chris' heart skipped a beat. He knew nothing of the rain. While the rain last night would provide some of the precious water Vin needed, it wouldn't be nearly enough. Plus he was suffering from sun poisoning and exhaustion, two life-threatening conditions. He needed rest, food, medical attention and water.
Two middle screens flipped on and an image of Vin, huddled into as tight a ball as possible with his wrists cuffed behind his back, appeared. His wet clothes still clung to his body, but had already started drying out in the hot morning sun.
Anger threatened to engulf Chris again. He had to stay in control. Rieger would win if he didn't. And that was not going to happen.
"The weather forecast is calling for another scorcher today," Rieger said, "therefore, water is going to have to be your paramount concern. There are four water bottles on your route today: One before and one after each obstacle. It is exactly ten point three miles from Mr. Tanner's current position to the end of the course. You have until nightfall at eight thirty tomorrow night to complete your journey. But first you must get through today. There is another storm predicted for tonight, this one is expected to be three times stronger than last night's. There is a cave that will provide shelter for your partner if he finishes this part of the course. Without shelter he will not survive."
"You're providing shelter for Vin tonight?" Chris asked, astonished.
"I am not the monster you think I am, Mr. Larabee. Everything I do is for the sake of science. To know more about you and Mr. Tanner, to understand the bond you have formed. I will continue to provide what is necessary to keep him alive. And therein lies the crux of the problem... You must decide if there is a time when keeping him alive is crueler than just letting him simply give up. You have not reached that dilemma yet... But you will."
Rieger's words stunned Chris to the core. What did he have planned that would require a decision like that?
Another monitor flickered on showing a crudely drawn map. It had a red circle at the top left hand corner with two lines jetting out in different directions but merging back together at a blue dot at the bottom right of the page.
"As you can see, Mr. Larabee, I have prepared a map, crude as it may be, for you to study. Each line signifies a different route."
The map disappeared and then reappeared in the top left hand monitor. Another monitor flicked on showing a deep, jagged gorge snaking across the desert floor at least thirty miles long. Sections were not more than twenty feet wide, while at other sections it was a hundred feet or more.
"Struthers's Gorge, Mr. Larabee. It is one of two obstacles standing between you and your final destination. You fail to guide Mr. Tanner to the other side he dies. It is as simple as that."
Another monitor flickered on with a split screen. Two aerial cameras panned down giving Chris his first look at two bridges.
The left side showed a simple three-rope bridge, no more than a tightrope with rope railings, spanning twenty feet.
The right side showed a rope and wooden plank bridge, spanning a hundred feet.
"You must guide Mr. Tanner across the gorge, using one of these two bridges.
"Each route has two obstacles; one you can see on the screen, the other will be a surprise. It is up to you to decide which one you want to guide Mr. Tanner across."
Chris felt as if he had been physically punched in the gut as a wave of fear shot through him.
How could he make that kind of decision? Either way, Vin was in mortal danger. Could he live with himself if he picked the wrong direction?
"So, I will leave you for now. Study the maps, make your decision. I hope it is better than your last debacle."
Chris squeezed his eyes shut, trying to gather his thoughts. His job often required him to make split second life and death decisions, so why was this decision so difficult? Because it was Vin Tanner, his better half…Damn it, Chris! Pull yourself together.
Struggling to gather himself, Chris began studying both bridges.
The tight-rope bridge would be hard for a sighted man without his wrists handcuffed behind his back. Vin would never stand a chance.
The second bridge was longer, but with Vin's sense of balance he had a better chance.
Rieger reappeared. "It is time to awaken Mr. Tanner."
Nothing. No light. No sound.
Vin floated in a vacuum.
Snippets of memories played tag with his mind, darting in and out…teasing and taunting.
Then suddenly pain assaulted him, every muscle screaming with cramps, boring into his body like a living entity. A bone chilling ache shook his fragile frame.
He heard a feeble sob and knew it came from him.
The smell of wet earth filled his nostrils, seeping into his mouth.
Vin heard a vibration in the dank air and tried to listen past the thrum of pain. A faint voice curled softly around him and with a mind that felt like mush, he finally recognized the voice.
"Chris…" he gasped, needing to hold onto the voice, but afraid of letting more pain in. So he fought it. He felt so utterly exhausted that he couldn't move an inch.
"….Vin….Come on, Junior. It's time to wake up."
"No…" he gasped.
"Vin, listen to my voice. You have to wake up. Our lives depend on it."
Tendrils of memories floated back and he pushed them away, not wanting to believe what he knew was true.
"Vin Tanner! Get up off your ass! There's no time for self-pity."
Vin tried to push himself off the ground and everything that had happened to him came hurtling back…his blindness, his shackled wrists.
"No, I can't."
"Yes you can, Vin! One more day. Tomorrow it'll be all over. We'll be heading home. Just one more day, I promise…I promise."
Vin trusted Chris with every fiber of his being. But he didn't know if he could do this.
"Get to your feet!"
Chris watched Vin struggle, first to his knees then to his feet, swaying in the blackness that surrounded him.
"Ok, Vin, you're doing good, Pal."
"Thirsty…" Vin croaked.
"I know, Junior, but we get through this part of the course and water will be waiting for you."
"Promise?" Vin asked, his voice sounding childlike.
Chris slammed his eyes shut. Damn it, how could he promise something he wasn't sure of himself? But if Vin didn't try…
"Yes, Vin. I promise. Now you have about a two hour walk to get to our next target."
Vin nodded his head and staggered away, following his partner's directions.
Two hours turned into three as Vin shuffled over the blistering sand. The morning's respite from the heat gave way to shimmering heat again.
Chris watched Vin on one monitor and Rieger's hand-drawn map on another. He knew his partner was getting close.
Suddenly another monitor blinked on and Chris saw the open gorge just two feet in front of Vin.
"VIN!" he screamed. "STOP!"
"Step back! Step back!" Chris shouted and watched Vin back up as quickly as his body and blindness allowed.
Chris stared at the bridge, or what was left of it, spanning the sixty- foot gorge before Vin. The main posts sunk into the ground were splintered and bone dry from the heat and termite infestation. Heavy ropes, now frayed and split, sagged under the weight of the narrow wooden planks placed at two- foot intervals across the gorge. There was no way of knowing the condition of the posts on the other side.
"Chris..." Vin called, picking up on his partner's panicked voice. "Talk to me, Chris. Talk to me. What do you see?"
Chris's mind reeled. He had to think. He had to make a decision. Would the bridge hold Vin's weight? And what was the alternative? Make their way back to the other bridge? Vin would never be able to cross the other one. It took strength and balance. Vin had neither.
Vin slowly tracked his face back and forth, feeling for differences in the air, new sounds, new smells, anything to give him a clue what stood before him.
"Talk to me. Chris..." Vin urged. In the blackness, fear was his worst enemy. He could fight through the heat, the pain. But he couldn't fight the fear of the unknown. Every step took all his will power. Without Chris he was a dead man. Chris was his eyes. He was only strong as long as Chris remained strong.
Vin waited. The effort was almost too much. His knees buckled and he fell to the ground, the hot sand burning his skin. He couldn't continue without Chris by his side.
From the moment this ordeal had started, Chris had been his strength, had given everything of himself. Now Vin knew his partner needed him to get past this latest obstacle.
"Don't let Rieger win, not now. Not after all we've been through," Vin pleaded. "Chris."
The words wormed their way into Chris's mind. Vin's need overrode his fear and he struggled to clear his mind.
"OK," Chris said, seeing the relief in Vin's shoulders.
Studying the terrain, Chris saw a bottle of water sitting on the ground next to the right post. He would get Vin to the water then decide the best way to cross the bridge.
"Vin... There is a bottle of water on the ground about six feet ahead. The path is clear."
Vin struggled back to his feet, his legs buckling beneath him again.
"Vin... Just six feet ahead of you."
Vin drove himself to his feet, his legs shaking beneath his weight. He started taking small steps again, one at a time, demanding his body to obey him.
"You're almost there Vin. Just a few more feet."
"Can't ..." He breathed, but he continued to take step after painful step.
"You're almost there, Vin" Chris's uncontrolled fear was displaced by his need to get Vin to water.
"That's it. Right there. It's on the ground beside you."
Chris watched Vin drop to the ground, searching for the bottle with his shoulders and face.
Vin's chin brushed the bottle. He squirmed himself around until he had the top of the bottle in his mouth. With his tongue he flipped the spout open and felt the warm water slide down his throat. It didn't matter that it wasn't cold. It was water he desperately needed to face the rest of the day.
He laid there for a long time, motionless, satisfied, for the moment.
Monitor five panned in and gave Chris his first up-close up view of the bridge, and gasped.
Vin heard the gasp and lifted his head. "Chris… talk to me!" he shouted
"Damn it', Chris. Whatever it is, tell me. You can't leave me in the dark here. No matter what it is we'll
get through it... Together."
Chris had seen the bridge from a distance and knew it was bad. Knew the bridge was unsafe to say the least. But he was not prepared for this.
"Five yards before you is a bridge crossing over a sixty foot gorge." Chris said, his voice trembling.
"What kind of bridge?"
Chris reeled at the sight of rotting timbers and sagging rope. How was he going to send Vin out onto that? If he fell it would be to his death. He couldn't do it. He couldn't make that kind of decision.
"Chris, you're my eyes. You've got to get it together. What kind of bridge?"
"A wooden suspension bridge, Vin," Chris answered, trying to control his trembling voice. "It looks old, really old."
A shiver went down Vin's spine. "Can I cross it?"
"How deep, Chris?"
"It looks like it's about four hundred feet."
There was something more. Chris seemed to be terrified.
"Chris... can I cross it?"
"I don't know, Vin." Chris's voice sounded so lost…defeated.
"Can we turn back?"
"No," Chris said miserably. "You'd never survive the night ahead."
"Tell me everything, Chris. Everything."
Chris gathered his courage. If they were facing a cartel of gunrunners he would be confident in his decisions. He knew the animal, knew how they thought. But here, shackled to this chair, a dozen computer monitors his only contact to Vin, he felt helpless. If he was wrong, Vin would fall to his death.
The guilt would kill him.
"It's old, Vin. The timbers are rotting away. The rope that secures the planks are frayed and splitting. Most of the guardrail is missing, just bare rope."
As Vin listened to the description of the bridge ahead he suddenly realized where Chris's fear was coming from. He had to make the decision whether to send him across the bridge or not. If he made the wrong decision it would cost him his life.
"Chris, listen to me," he said gently, "whatever the decision you make will be the right one, no matter what happens."
"Answer this question... What happens to me if we stop here and wait for help? Does anyone know where I am? Where you are?"
"Chris, I'm tired. I'm so tired. But I'll be damned if I'll let that bastard Rieger win. Not while there's still an ounce of hope."
"What are the odds of me making it across the bridge?" Vin demanded.
"I can't give you odds on your life," Chris said incredulously.
"But that's exactly what you do. Every time we're on assignment you test the odds."
"Not without first compiling all the information I can. Ezra with his connections…J.D. with his computer."
"We buck the odds every time we face another gunrunner."
Chris stared at Vin sitting Indianan style…waiting.
Chris felt the anger surge through him. Powerful...pulsing through every vein. He shoved away his fears and stared at the bridge, analyzing and reanalyzing every inch of it. He could get Vin across. It wouldn't be easy. But he could do it.
Exhausted, Vin let himself relax. The sun was searing hot, directly overhead. It would only get hotter from now on. He needed to rest. The confrontation with Chris had taken its toll. But he didn't regret a word he'd said.
"Vin, are you ready?"
"In a few minutes, Chris. I need to rest a little more."
"Five minutes," came back the answer. Forceful and confident. Vin grinned to himself. He had Chris back.
Chris was true to his word. In five minutes he had Vin back on his feet and ready to attack the bridge.
"Listen to every word I say," Chris instructed.
Chris had carefully mapped out a crossing in his mind, taking into consideration all the stress points on the ropes and fragile wooden planks.
"Take two steps forward and sit on your butt."
"Vin, if we are going to make this work you've got to do everything I say. Don't question it. Do it."
Vin nodded. He took the two steps and dropped down on his butt.
"Slide forward until you feel your legs dangle over the edge."
A wave of fear washed over Vin. "How far down is the bridge?"
"It doesn't matter. You're following my directions, right?"
"Then slide until you feel your legs dangling over the edge."
Vin did as he was told. He felt nothing beneath his feet. He instinctively thrashed against the shackles on is wrists.
"That won't help, Vin." Chris warned. "You can't free your hands. You know that. Now listen to what I say. Are you ready?"
Vin nodded despite his fear.
"Slide off the side until you feel your feet touch the first slat below."
Vin wasn't sure he could do it in the blackness.
"The first step will be the hardest, but you can do it."
Vin took a deep breath and slid off the edge within his blackness. His feet immediately felt the first plank below him.
"Good. Now, carefully stand up."
Vin pushed himself away from the side of the mountain and he was suddenly standing in the middle of nowhere. He could feel the hot air moving beneath his feet. The bridge swayed and bounced. He nearly lost his balance. Fear, so strong, it cut off his breathing, overpowered him.
"Vin... I won't let you fall. Trust me."
Frozen in absolute terror, Vin couldn't draw air into his lungs.
"Listen to me, Vin. You can do this. Trust me."
Trust. It wasn't an easy thing for Vin Tanner. Life had been hard since he was five years old and over the years Trust became a dirty word. But not now…not after meeting Team7. He trusted each one of them with his life…But Chris…he trusted Chris with his soul.
"The planks are approximately four inches wide, spaced at two foot intervals." Chris kept his voice steady, controlled. "Each plank has a two-inch hole at each end where a rope has been threaded through and knotted underneath. That rope is then attached to another rope, waist high that acts as a railing."
As Vin visualized the bridge beneath him his heart raced faster. Chris was describing a rope bridge, one that took strength and balance even for a sighted man, not a blind one with his hands shackled behind his back. He now knew why Chris had been so terrified.
"I don't know if I can do this Chris."
"You have no choice. Do you want Rieger to win?"
Vin nodded imperceptibly.
"Then let's get started…Take one medium step forward," Chris directed.
Vin lifted his right foot off the plank and the bridge immediately started to sway. He quickly stepped back and froze again.
"It's all right, Vin. It's meant to sway."
Vin strained to hear Chris' voice over the beating of his heart and his ragged breaths.
"Feel your center of gravity, Vin. Concentrate. You are in control. Each movement you make will make the bridge move. Anticipate it."
He tried again, carefully planting his foot on the next board, waiting until he felt balanced before bringing his left foot up.
"Perfect." Chris watched him, his stance revealing the terror that he felt inside. But he took another step then another, each time fighting to keep his balance on the swaying bridge.
"You're doing fine, Vin."
Vin didn't feel that confident. He couldn't remember ever being this terrified. A hot wind picked up, tugging at his hair and clothes. Below he could hear what sounded like rushing water, but he knew that it was just the wind swirling around in the canyon four hundred feet below.
He took another step. Each plank sagged beneath his weight making the rest of the structure undulate. The sound of rope being pulled past its limit hummed all around him.
Another step, balance, rest. He did that again and again. His legs were knotted with cramps. Each one felt like it weighed fifty pounds.
"You're doing fine. You're almost half way there."
"Do I get a present if I make it across?"
"Tied with a big red bow…" Chris promised. Then he too froze. The next plank in front of Vin was splintered in half.
Vin stood stone still, feeling the suffocating heat rising up from the valley floor below. He tried to quash the fear, blank out the images of him tumbling over the rope railing and plummeting to his death.
"Talk to me...!"
When it came, Chris' voice sounded unsure. "Vin. The board in front of you won't hold your weight. You'll have to jump over it."
"How...?" Vin's mind reeled. He was barely able to keep his balance at two-foot intervals. How in hell was he supposed to cross four feet?
"You can do it."
"I can't," Vin gasped. He was suddenly exhausted. He couldn't take another step. The hot days in the unrelenting sun, the cold nights, the torrential downpour this morning. All of it in total blackness. He couldn't do anymore.
Chris saw Vin's despair and pushed it aside. He was Vin's only chance for survival. He had to remain focused.
He forced himself to study the monitors on the wall, the same monitors Rieger was watching and it suddenly made him angry. Rieger was doing this to his friend, the man who was closer than a blood brother.
"Vin, listen to me. You can do this. You've come so far already. Rieger is losing the game... We're winning."
Vin felt the hot wind tug at him, making the bridge beneath him sway more. This was too much. He hit his wall, too high and too wide for him to fight. "I'm blind, Chris. I can't see a damn thing. I may never see again."
"Then I will be your eyes. Vin... you mean too much to me to let you give up. Rieger said there would come a time when I would have to ask myself if it was not better to just let you give up and end all your misery. That time will never come. I will not let you simply die because it would be easier. You will fight. I will make you. And if you hate me for the rest of your life for what I am making you do, then I will accept that. But I will NOT let you give up!"
The words buoyed Vin, giving him the strength he needed.
"Trust me, Vin."
"I do, Cowboy... I do..."
"Are you ready to get this damn bridged behind us?"
Vin nodded, taking a deep cleansing breath. Chris' determination fueling him with renewed energy. "I'm ready."
"Remember the distance between the planks and double it," Chris ordered.
Vin steeled himself, knowing his next step may send him plummeting four hundred feet to the valley floor below.
He took the step, stretching his right leg as far as he could. His toe touched the edge of the plank and the bridged swayed madly.
"You're doing fine. Bring your foot forward."
Slowly he moved his foot forward until it was secure on the plank, the bridge undulating beneath him.
"You're Ok, Vin, just wait for the swaying to settle."
The blackness was suffocating him. He stood there, his legs straddled over the broken plank, his muscles screaming in pain.
The bridge quieted down. The swaying diminished to a gentle rocking in the wind.
Carefully, balancing his weight on his right leg he slowly pulled his left leg across the abyss and settled it securely next to his right. It took all his will power not to collapse on the spot.
"You did it!!!" Chris' joy was infectious and Vin started smiling. He had done it. Damn Rieger to hell, he did it!
"No... we did it." Vin whispered.
"Fourteen more steps and you will be on solid ground again. Are you ready?"
"No... But let's get this over with."
Vin took two more steps. Balancing was becoming easier. He developed a feel for the swaying and undulating. Without his sight his other senses seemed heightened. He could feel the brittle planks beneath his shoes, but they were holding. He could hear the rope stretch with every movement.
He took another step. Something behind him snapped and the bridge shook violently.
"It's all right. It's all right. One of the strands of rope broke. There are still three more on the left and the right is holding. Keep going. Keep going."
Chris studied the last monitor. It showed a gaping hole at the end of the bridge. The last two planks were missing.
"What now, Mr. Larabee?" Rieger's taunting voice suddenly filled the room. "You've taken him so far. What to do... What to do? You had better make a decision soon, before he loses his nerve."
"What is it, Cowboy...?"
"Talk to me, Chris. I have a right to know."
"Are you losing your nerve too, Mr. Larabee?" Rieger's leering face appeared on the top monitor.
Chris tried to ignore the mocking voice.
"Does he trust you enough to take that finale leap of faith?"
"There's another gap between the planks," Chris told Vin. "This one is between the next to last plank and the edge of the gorge."
"Can I can't jump it?"
"No. The end of the bridge is hanging a foot lower than the edge of the gorge."
Vin's legs nearly buckled. How was he going to make a jump like that? He had barely made the last one.
"What's it going to be Mr., Larabee?" Rieger demanded. "He's waiting..."
Chris fell back on his rage. Rieger was not going to stop them now.
"Listen to me, Vin. I want you to visualize a spot four feet in front of you and two feet high. That is what you will be aiming for when you jump."
"Scared, Mr. Tanner?" Rieger's voice suddenly echoed from the com link attached to Vin's shirt startling him. "It's a long drop if you miss the jump."
"Go to hell, Rieger!" Vin shouted into the blackness.
"One wrong move and... It's a long way down."
"Don't listen to him, Vin"
"They say a person is dead before he hits the ground when he falls from great heights. What do you think, Mr. Tanner? Will you feel the impact when your body slams into the bottom of the ravine? Or will you die in midair? Interesting question."
"Don't listen to him, Vin. Listen to me," Chris ordered.
"I can't do this…"
"You've already done the impossible. You've crossed the gorge. Just one more step and you can rest. Just one more."
"You better hurry, Mr. Tanner. That bridge is old. It was never meant to be used again."
"He's right, Vin. You've got to hurry."
Vin heard the sound of cracking wood.
Monitor three switched to a close-up of the left post splitting away from the ground.
"Now, Vin! One of the posts is breaking away. Jump... Now!"
The right side of the bridge suddenly lurched. Vin fought to keep his balance.
The plank beneath him snapped... He felt the bridge giving way beneath his feet.
He dug deep and jumped into the blackness. It seemed to take an eternity. He could feel the heat from the sand come up to hit him in the face. He landed hard on his stomach and didn't move.
He couldn't answer. He could barely breathe. But he made it.
"Yea..." he gasped, "I'm still here."
"I knew we could do it. And Vin... If you move your head to the right six inches you will find a bottle of water."
Vin followed Chris's directions and his chin hit the water bottle.
The effort was almost too much. His mind and body were wasted. He opened the spout and felt the water trickle down his throat, then he just laid there, hugging the ground, too exhausted to move another inch.
"Rest for now Vin..." Chris whispered.
Rieger's disappointed face disappeared from the top monitor.
They had won another round.
Chris allowed Vin to rest for a few minutes before gently calling him.
"You still have to get to the caves before nightfall, Vin."
"No... Let me stay here."
"No can do. There is another storm headed this way. It will be worse than the one last night. You need shelter."
"I can't take anymore, Chris..." Vin's body shuddered. "Rieger has got all he's going to get," he mumbled.
"You can't give up now. Not after all this."
"I don't have anything left...." Vin felt sand coat his mouth and nostrils with each breath.
"You have me," Chris said simply.
The words were so simple. The meaning so complex. "I'm sorry, Chris."
"There's no need to be sorry, Vin. As you said before, it's all part of Rieger's plan. We can talk about it more when you reach shelter."
Vin swayed to his feet, listening to the cracking of wood as the bridge continued to disintegrate to the valley floor below.
Except for bathroom breaks and the occasional walk around the office to stretch his legs, J.D. had monitored the computer day and night.
Ezra continued to follow leads. No bit of information was too small: Everything was checked and rechecked.
Buck continued to man the phones, coordinating the search. Every law enforcement agency was involved. And still nothing.
Josiah reached out to churches across the states hoping a parishioner heard something: Still nothing.
Three beeps on the computer had J.D. yelling for Buck and Josiah. "It's Rieger," he said.
Rieger' face appeared on the monitor, a satisfied grin on his face. "Good afternoon, Gentlemen. How is your day?"
"What do you want, Rieger?" Buck growled.
"I was going to let you take a look at Mr. Tanner. But if you are going to be this inhospitable…"
"We are sorry, Mr. Rieger." Josiah's voice was as humble as he could make it. "We are under a great deal of stress."
"Understandable. But I assure you, Mr. Tanner is under a great deal more stress." Rieger chuckled.
J.D.'s computer screen suddenly went blank and a second later replaced with a video that tore a gasp from the three men.
"Dear, God," Josiah whispered.
The video showed Vin, hands still shackled behind his back, trying to keep his balance in the center of a suspicion bridge strung over a deep gorge.
"Why?" Buck asked helplessly. "Why?"
"A good test of a man's fortitude and trust. Don't you think?"
"When will this end?" Buck groaned.
"When Mr. Tanner reaches the end of the course…that is, of course, if he can make it," Rieger taunted.
They watched Vin take a tentative step then wait for the bridge to slow down it's swaying before taking another step.
The video suddenly stopped and Rieger' grinning face reappeared. "Sorry, gentlemen, that is all the entertainment for today. As they say in show business parlance… ‘Always leaving ‘em wanting more.'. Perhaps there will be more tomorrow…Until we meet again…" Rieger's laughter faded away.
"Damn him to hell!" Nathan raged.
In less than an hour, Vin was standing before the sandstone mountain with a series of small caves cut into its face. Chris counted seven in all. Rieger had said there would be water in one of them. Not the top, not the bottom, but somewhere in the middle. That narrowed it down to five choices. Rieger wanted Vin to have the water, he also wanted him rested for tomorrow's test. Chris studied the mountain like a map. It told of millions of years of erosion. Small changes in color told of the floods that had inundated the area when Earth was just in its infancy. And it showed much newer scars. There was a distinct water line four feet up the face. Chris remembered the horrific storm the night before and realized that storms of that magnitude were not at all uncommon in the area. Signs of flash floods could be seen everywhere. If the approaching storm was any worse than last night's then there would surely be a flash flood. Rieger knew it, he knew the area. He would keep Vin high enough off the ground to keep him out of harm's way. He spotted a cave two feet above the water line. That would be the cave that Rieger would leave the water. Chris was sure of it.
"I found the cave, Vin." The tricky part is getting him inside. It was too high off the ground for Vin to crawl into and he couldn't climb with his hands cuffed behind him. He needed at least a foot more height.
Chris spotted a boulder a foot to Vin's right. It appeared to be lying on top of the ground rather than partially buried like the rest of the boulders strewn around the base of the mountain.
"Vin... There is a bolder to your right."
Vin inched his way over until his right foot hit it.
"Now, try to move it with your foot..."
"I'm very serious, Vin. Try to move it."
Vin shoved it. It didn't budge.
"Try again, Vin."
Another nudge and the rock slid forward.
"That's right. Now start moving it to your left."
Vin nudged it and pushed it with his right foot trying to keep his balance in the continuing blackness.
"This damn thing must weigh sixty pounds..." Vin huffed.
Chris chuckled. "Maybe next time Nate gets on your case about lifting those leg weights you won't make such a fuss."
"If there's a next time," Vin thought bitterly.
At last Vin felt the boulder slam into the face of the mountain.
"Now, Vin, if you stand on it you will find the opening to the cave at waist level. You can easily make your way inside."
Vin stepped onto the rock and leaned into the cool cave. It was not, however, easy making his way inside. He squirmed and kicked until he was far enough in to use his legs.
Chris could no longer see Vin hidden in the safety of the cave and he wasn't sure if he had even picked the right one. He was almost afraid to tell Vin about the possibility of flooding. If he was wrong, would Vin drown tonight?
Vin scooted himself as far back into the small cave as he could and relaxed his head against the cool rock wall. He stared into the blackness, taking some solace in the fact that even a sighted man could not see in the darkened cave. In the distance he could hear the first rumblings of another storm heading toward him.
"You'll be safe here tonight, Vin."
"What about you?" A pain of guilt stabbed his heart. He had been so obsessed with his own terrors he had forgotten the danger Chris faced, wherever he was.
"I'm fine as long as Rieger wants to play with us."
Vin snorted. "I guess Rieger's the cat and we're the mice."
Chris grinned…leave it to him to find the humor in the worst of situations. "You better get some rest while you can, Junior."
Feeling safe for the first time since the ordeal started, Vin settled into the confines of the cave. This was a familiar place for him. On the reservation he often sought out a cave to ride out a sudden storm or just needed to seek solace in the darkness.
He let himself dissolve into the night not caring what he might face tomorrow.
Hours later the full force of the storm hit overhead and the mountain shook with the sound of thunder. First the rain began to beat down. Vin rolled over on his back, despite the cuffs and carefully squirmed toward the opening of the cave until his face was bathed in the cold fresh rainwater. He gulped it down until his stomach was full and the first pellets of hail began to fall from the sky.
Back in the safety of the cave he relaxed again. He had gone past the stage of gnawing hunger. Now he only felt emptiness in his stomach which the water quickly filled.
He closed his eyes and let himself slip back into a deeper sleep, one that even the monstrous storm outside could not disturb.
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee." Rieger's grinning face appeared on the top screen again. "I hope your partner is well rested. Today is the last day. You make it through the cavern and you both are free."
Chris felt a surge of anticipation and fear at the same time.
"You two are quite amazing. I never would have thought you would make it this far. But today will be the real test, for both of you."
Chris waited for the rest of the monitors to switch on so he could see what was ahead of them for the day. But as each screen popped on, it displayed another image of Rieger, and another and another. Every screen showed him grinning down at him, mocking.
"Three quarters of a mile West of Mr. Tanner's position, he will find a large cave that leads to the other side of the mountain, and freedom for both of you."
Rieger smiled from the monitors, "But…there are only three cameras inside. One at the entrance, one at the exit and one in the center. You must guide Mr. Tanner through the labyrinth. There will be sections where you will be as blind as Mr. Tanner and you will have to rely on each other. This is a true test Mr. Larabee. Everything else up to now has been in preparation for this final test."
"How can I lead Vin to the cave entrance if I can't see where he's going?"
"That's up to you and Mr. Tanner. Remember it is three-quarters of a mile due West of his position."
"This is insane. It can't be done..."
"Then he will die out there. Good luck, Mr. Larabee. If Mr. Tanner makes it all the way, you will be released and told where to find him...Oh, and by the way... You dodged one last night. You picked the wrong cave, there was no water in that one..." The monitors flipped off and Chris was left to stare at the blank screens.
J.D. jumped back in surprise when his monitor went dark for a split second then revealed Chris shackled to the chair. Buck, Josiah and Nathan gathered around and listened to Rieger in stunned silence.
Buck's knees nearly buckled. It was over. There was no way Chris could lead Vin through the desert, even if Tanner wasn't already half dead from dehydration and sun poisoning.
"Don't give up on them just yet, Brother Buck," Josiah said, seeing all the color drain from his face, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Those two don't give up easily."
"But how? How is he going to lead..."
"Our brothers have already showed us how much trust they have in each other…they will find a way. Trust them as much as they trust each other."
Vin struggled out of the cave. His body one huge hurt. Sleep had helped a little and so had the rainwater. But the day was already sweltering hot and he was beginning to feel the full effect of the infections in his wrists. This had to be the last day because there was nothing left in him.
An hour ago he awoke to the sound of Chris and Rieger talking about what was ahead for them. He could tell by the sound of Chirs' voice that his partner was faltering. Vin was exhausted, his body driven to its limits…but Chris. Chris was emotionally exhausted. A body could heal faster than a soul taxed to its limits and beyond.
Chris was forced to make life and death decisions for the past four days. When would he simply shut down?
"Vin…? Chris asked hesitantly.
"I'm Ok, Chris."
There was silence.
"Come on, Partner. We can do this. Which way today?"
"I don't know," Chris sounded defeated.
Vin began to turn, feeling the sun on his face, the direction of the breeze. "I'm facing south, Chris. Which direction is the cave? We're so close, Cowboy, we can beat him!"
Tanner's words startled Chris and he forced himself to steady a crudely drawn map that led to another mountain.
"Ok, Vin. Turn until you feel the sun on your left cheek."
Vin slowly turned, feeling the sun begin to burn his face.
"I feel it."
"That is due west."
Vin took a cautious step forward, testing the ground first with his toe to make sure it was solid ground. He did that again and again.
"You're doing fine, Vin."
Chris watched Vin struggle to put one foot in front of the other.
"Keep talking to me, Vin. Let me know what you feel."
"The ground is getting harder. I can feel small cracks. There's a light breeze. Maybe four miles an hour coming from my right."
"You're doing fine."
Vin stopped and waited. He could smell the desert air heating up.
"Turn to your left until you feel the sun on your right ear."
Vin turned slowly. His hands throbbed with pain from his infected wrists.
"I have to rest, Chris..." Vin's slow pace nearly came to a stop.
"Not yet, Junior. Not yet. You've gone a half-mile, another quarter mile, then you can rest."
Vin shook his head, his thirst growing in proportion to his dwindling strength. His body could no longer fight the ravages of the broiling sun and heat.
"Just a few more steps," Chris urged. "Then you can rest."
Fatigue began to make Vin careless and he forgot to check the ground before he committed to another step. His toe caught a clump of sagebrush and he stumbled forward. Somehow he caught himself and stood stone still, waiting for his heart to calm down.
"Vin, you've got to concentrate. You have to stay alert. You're almost to the caves..."
"How much farther?" Vin stared up into the black sky knowing the sun was blazing down on him. Would he ever see it again?
Chris read pain and frustration play across Vin's face knowing he was falling back into despair. If he was allowed to linger there Rieger would win.
"Vin! You only have a short distance to go before you reach the cave. You have to keep going. One step then another."
Vin took a deep breath, the hot air searing his lungs and stepped forward.
Twice more Chris instructed him to change direction, just slightly. Then the screen went dark.
"Vin! Vin can you hear me?"
"I've lost the video…you've got to tell me what you feel."
The direct sun suddenly stopped burning Vin's skin. "Chris, I'm in the shadows."
"Tell me what you feel...exactly"
Vin opened his mind up to take in everything around him. He was never so aware of the little things before. "I smell something different, cool air. I can hear the wind behind me."
"You smell the air from the cave. Start walking forward slowly."
Vin took hesitant step after hesitant step. "Chris, the ground feels softer."
"You're getting close. Keep going."
Vin's foot hit something hard. He took another half step and bumped into the sold wall of the mountain.
"I'm here, Chris."
"I knew you could do it."
"Feel the air, Vin. The cooler it is, the closer you are to the cave entrance."
Vin shuffled to his right. The smell grew fainter. "It's to my left."
He shuffled back in the other direction. The smell grew stronger. Suddenly a blast of cool air engulfed him.
"I found it!" he yelled. "I found it!"
One screen suddenly popped to life on the wall in front of Chris.
"The monitor is back on," Chris reported. "I can see the entrance from the inside."
"Can see me yet?"
"No. You will have to be inside for the camera to pick you up."
Vin carefully stepped forward expecting to slam into the wall of rock again, but instead he was suddenly surrounded by cool air blowing in his face.
"I can see you, Vin!"
From the camera view Chris could see the cave entrance was large, at least fifteen feet high, but it quickly sloped down to a mere four feet. A layer of sandstone sand covered the floor. As Vin shuffled forward clouds of untouched sand billowed around his ankles.
"How deep does this cave go?" Vin asked. He could hear his own voice echoing around him in the hollow cave.
"I don't know, Vin. There's a light on top of the camera but it only reaches a few feet."
"Turn to your left, Vin. That's it. Stop. Now, walk forward. The ceiling slopes. You'll have to start ducking very soon."
"How low?" An old fear suddenly gripped him. He didn't like tight spaces.
"About four feet from what I can see."
Vin took a deep breath. He started walking... slowly, feeling the air change around him as the ceiling dipped down. His hair touched the ceiling and sandstone powder filled the air, making it hard to breath.
"Drop to your knees."
"Jesus, Chris, how low is it?"
Vin felt the walls closing in tighter. His shoulders were touching either side.
"Vin, you're out of the sight of the camera. I can't see you anymore. You have to tell me what's going on."
"It's getting too low, Chris. I don't think I can get through."
"You have to try."
"What if I get stuck?"
"That won't happen. You have to go on, Vin."
Vin crawled forward, his head skimming the ceiling, his shoulders brushing the sides. He suddenly lost his precarious balance and fell forward on his stomach. He began to crawl on his belly, his shackled hands behind his back scrapping the ceiling.
Suddenly he heard a loud click from behind him, then the unmistakable sound of a metal door sliding into place.
"What's happening, Vin? I can't see you…I can't see you."
"It's a trap...!" Vin squirmed his way back until his feet hit the metal panel. He kicked at it, heard it reverberating through the cave. It wouldn't budge. "It's a God damn fucking trap!!!" Fear gripped him. He was trapped.
"Vin, you have to stay calm!"
Vin scrambled forward. The cave was too narrow.
"Vin... You have to stay calm. There's a way out, if you stay calm..."
Vin felt the sudden terror of being trapped in the darkness. Fears that were ingrained in every man, from the time of the Neanderthals, were brought to the surface and magnified by Rieger's tests. And that was what it was all about. The days spent in the desert, without food, with precious little water,
deprived of his sight. Driven beyond his endurance just for this moment. Too exhausted, to beaten to fight back. Terror griped him like a powerful cold hand, squeezing his heart until it threatened to burst.
Chris recoiled. He heard the terror in Vin's voice. They'd been through so much. The canyon, the bridge, the storms. Vin had held on despite the blindness. But he couldn't fight this. Not alone. And with a grim realization, Chris knew that he might not be strong enough to get him through.
Vin herd Chris' voice fading in the distance. The blackness suffocating him.
Chris could only imagine the feel of the cool sandstone walls closing in around Vin's shoulders. He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to get a grip on his emotions.
"Vin, listen to me... Crawl forward... There's room to move, not much, but there's room." There had to be.
"I'll be trapped..."
"No you won't. You can squeeze through."
Vin couldn't move. Fear held him like an iron claw. Nothing else existed.
"Don't give up, Vin... you've come to far."
"Yes you can! I won't let you give up like this... Crawl forward! "
"I'll be trapped..." Came the frightened cry again.
"No you won't!"
"No... Leave me alone..." Vin sobbed. "Just leave me alone..."
"I can't, Vin."
"Please... I've had enough. I can't..." Vin laid his cheek against the sandstone sand staring into the blackness. He wanted it all to end. Now... He had nothing left to fight with.
"Vin!" Chris shouted. "Push forward, damn it! You have room."
"Vin... If you die, so do I..."
Silence hung in the blackness... Vin raised his head up. Fear of a different kind suddenly swamped him. If he didn't make it, Chris would die in both mind and body.
"I'm here, Vin. I know you're tired, I know you're hurting, but it's almost over."
Vin squirmed forward, prodded by a fear that was stronger than his fear of the darkness and the unknown. The fear of failing Chris.
It was too tight. He felt his shoulders constricted. He was stuck.
"Vin, you can do this. There is no turning back."
Vin stared into the blackness, trapped, wedged tight on all sides.
"Blow all the air out of your lungs," Chris ordered. "Blow it all out. It's the only way."
Vin pushed the air out of his lungs and lunged forward.
"Push through... Push through!"
Vin pushed and he felt the cave walls loosen their grip. He was propelled forward and then there was nothing beneath him. He tumbled into space until he hit the hard floor six feet below, landing on his left side. He felt the agonizing pain and heard the unmistakable sound of a bone snapping. He broke a rib... maybe two.
Shocked, he laid there panting, trying to draw air back into his lungs. Each breath brought a searing pain to his side.
Chris heard Vin cry out in surprise than the sound of a body hitting something solid…then nothing
"Vin…" he called urgently. "Vin can you hear me?
A second monitor flipped on and Chris saw Vin lying on the cave floor. His shirtsleeves were torn and bloodied from squeezing through the cave, his hair coated in white sandstone dust. But he was alive.
The camera revealed a large grotto. A light mounted on the camera afforded the only illumination in the cave except for a dim outline of another opening. It appeared to be taller than the one Vin had just squeezed through but just as narrow. What did Rieger have in store for them next? Exhausted, Chris felt himself drift away.
J.D. stared at the monitor, looping the bridge scene over and over. There was something there, something that was catching his attention. He tried to ignore Vin, fear etched on his face so deeply that he could feel it himself. But it wasn't Vin, it was something else.
Rieger went to great lengths to show the area with revealing too much. The camera panned from the bridge to the valley floor four hundred feet below. J.D. felt sick.
Josiah walked up behind him. "Torturing yourself won't bring him back any sooner, Brother."
"There's something there. I know it. I'm just not seeing it."
Josiah grabbed a chair and dragged it over to the console. "Maybe two heads are better than one."
J.D. nodded gratefully.
"Tell me what you see," Josiah said.
"An old suspension bridge strung over a gorge. The mountain and surrounding areas looks like sandstone. There's not much vegetation, I would say it was somewhere in the South West."
"I agree. Rieger was very careful in what he showed us. There is nothing extraordinary about..."
"Yes there is! Look, beneath the bridge." J.D. pointed to movement on the valley floor.
"What is it?"
J.D. typed a command and the image zoomed in on a dozen small animals milling around a mound of red sand.
"A colony of Utah prairie dogs."
"Utah prairie dogs are on the endangered species list. You can only find them in Southern Utah."
"Well done, Kid. We may have our first solid lead. But how…?"
J.D. shrugged. "I read."
Chris jerked his head up, disgusted with himself for falling asleep. For how long? If Rieger didn't want to tell him, he might never know.
He saw Vin laying exactly as he was when Chris passed out.
He called, nudging Vin awake with his voice. "Vin... it's time."
Vin moaned and drifted back to the comfort of unconsciousness.
"Get up, Vin." Chris commanded. "Get up, now."
Vin groaned. "No..."
"Yes. Listen to me, Vin, we can't let Rieger win. He doesn't think we can make it. He doesn't think trust would give us the strength to survive."
Vin heard the words, and while his fragile mind could not decipher each one, the meaning was clear. Chris was not about to let him simply give up.
He struggled to his knees, swaying. His shackled arms pulling at his cracked ribs. This was impossible.
He stumbled forward until his shoulder hit the cave wall.
"Move two feet forward, Vin." Chris ordered.
Vin shuffled his feet, dragging his shoulder along the sandstone wall. The wall gave him a sense of safety. Suddenly the wall was gone and he fell on his side landing on his injured ribs ripping a scream from his parched throat.
Stunned, he lay there and waited.
Where was Chris?
Josiah rushed into the office crossing to the conference table and slamming a hard-bound book down
Buck, J.D. and Nathan followed him in.
"What's this?" Buck asked, looking down at the book.
"I spent the last three hours at Lansing Correctional Faculty."
"Rieger spent four years there," J.D., said.
Josiah nodded. "And for those four years he religiously spent the first day of each month in the Prison Library, first in line to look over the new books. The library recycled a certain amount of books each month for the avid readers. He would check-out one book and return it the next month. I checked the library records and found that Rieger was interested in only one author: Stephen King."
"Doesn't sound like the kind of books Rieger would read." Nathan mused.
"No, it's not," Josiah agreed. "Read page 231," he suggested.
Intrigued, Buck pulled a chair out and flipped through the book to page 231.
"Read the last paragraph," Josiah ordered.
Buck shivered. "I'll be lucky if I don't have nightmares tonight." He passed the book around and everyone had the same reaction except for J.D. "The man's a genius."
Josiah chuckled. "To each his own. Now read the first paragraph on page 232."
Buck turned the page and shrugged.
J.D. pulled the book away from Buck and quickly read the paragraph. "I don't understand."
Josiah nodded. "Feel the paper," Josiah directed.
J.D. ran his fingers over the stock. "It feels dry." He quickly closed the book and saw the slightly warped page at the top and bottom of each page. He sniffed the book a sudden look of astonishment spreading across his face as he ran out of the conference room with the book.
Confused, Buck, Nathan and Josiah raced after him into the men's room.
"Jesus, Kid, can't ya wait ta take a piss?" Buck asked.
J.D. tapped the hand dryer on the wall and held the book under it. "Look."
Slowly invisible writing appeared on the page.
"Well, I'll be damned," Buck chuckled. "This is how he communicated with the outside world."
J.D. nodded. "Urine will disappear after it dries, but if it is heated it reappears. Rieger was sending and receiving messages every month, thanks to Stephen King.
"Stephen King wrote more than fifty novels," Josiah reflected. "In the four years he could have sent and received forty eight messages."
"We need to get our hands on all those books," Buck said. "I'll ask Travis to draw up an emergency warrant for all the King books that went through the Lancing Library."
The four men looked at each other and for the first time since Chris and Vin's abduction, there was a ray of hope.
"Where the hell am I?" Vin yelled, his voice echoing back at him in the darkness.
"Chris…?" Vin tried to push the panic away.
Laying on his side he stretched his legs out, feeling for anything but sand beneath him. His left foot hit a solid wall and he anchored his other foot deep into the sand, shimmying himself across the ground until he was hugging the wall. Using every ounce of strength he had left, he slowly pushed himself up until he was leaning his right shoulder against the wall, using it for support and balance. His legs were barely holding him up.
"Chris...?" Vin called, afraid he would never hear Larabee' voice again.
"I can hear you, Vin, but Rieger cut the video."
"What do I do now?"
"I saw another opening about eight feet in front of you. Start walking forward, hugging the wall."
Vin took one step after the other. He felt the temperature start to rise. "Chris, I can feel a rise in air temperature. I must be getting closer to the exit." He felt a small twinge of hope.
Suddenly his foot hit something hard. He ran his shoe along the object and realized it must be a railroad tie.
"Chris. This must've been an old mineshaft."
"Can you follow it?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, I think so."
Carefully, Vin straddled the left tie between his feet and began to shuffle forward. It felt like he was walking for miles, the slight upward slope making his calves burn.
Without warning, he slammed into a heavy metal object, grunting at the pain that lashed through his broken ribs.
"Vin...?" Chris heard Vin's startled gasp.
"Something is blocking my way."
"Can you tell what it is?" Vin leaned against it, sliding his body back and forth, feeling it's shape. It felt solid and square, waist level. He carefully balanced himself on one foot and tapped it with his knee. It sounded hollow.
"I think it's a mine cart. They must've been mining sandstone, it's all over the place."
"Can you get past it?"
"Its tight, but I think so."
Slowly he squeezed between the cart and the rough walls of the mine shredding the skin on his hands and pressing against is burning ribs.
Once free, he took a cautious cleansing breath and shuffled deeper into the blackness.
+ + + + + + +
Assistant Director Orrin Travis' warrant for the prison library books was swiftly fulfilled and twenty two Stephen King books sat on a makeshift shelf over the bathroom sinks. The smell of urine was overwhelming as each book was opened to page 231 and 232 and held under the hand dryer until the invisible writing appeared.
As they worked through the volumes from first novel to the thirty-third, Rieger's plans took shape. The name Harry Brewster appeared more than once. With each new clue J.D. entered it into his IPad's search engine and an intricate plan took shape.
Huge generators, computers and monitors were ordered and delivered to a decommissioned Special Forces Unit in Utah's Escalante Desert. Only a handful of legislators knew about it, and most of those delegates were retired or dead.
J.D. suddenly let out a yelp. "I know where Rieger is!"
"Josiah, tell Travis we need a jet to Utah and two ATV's," Buck ordered.
"J.D., contact Ezra and tell him he has thirty minutes to meet us at the airport."
No one questioned Buck's orders. If J.D. was right, they were very close to finding Chris and Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stared at the blank monitor screens before him. It had been an agonizing ordeal, leading Vin across the open desert, and across the bridge. But this was far worse. Not being able to see what lay ahead for him. He felt as blind as his partner. Fear crept deeper into his heart.
Vin felt the heat building around him, smelled the hot sand. He was getting closer to the opening.
"Chris... I think I'm almost there" he yelled, his voice almost giddy with excitement. He increased his pace.
Chris knew Vin's condition was deteriorating. Just by the sound of his voice he knew that his partner was on the verge of collapse. If he didn't slow down, conserve what little energy he had left, he'd never make it to the end of the mine.
"Vin! Stop...!"Vin obeyed without thinking. He stood in the blackness, panting, trying to draw gulps of air into his tortured lungs, each breath grating against his ribs. He could feel his heart hammering in his ears. He swayed, fighting to keep his knees from buckling.
"You've got to slow down," Chris ordered.
"I know. But it'll mean nothing if you die of exhaustion before you reach it."
Vin nodded. He felt the heat radiating off the tunnel wall. He was so close. Maybe only a few feet.
He continued to shuffle forward. The tracks veered to the right and Vin followed them. The sounds of his footsteps changed. The echo was returning. The tracks were leading him deeper into the mine.
He took four more steps and felt the cool dampness of the cave return, felt the slight incline in the ground beneath his feet.
"Chris, I'm heading back into the mine."
Chris fought the restraints. He needed to get to Vin. He needed to help him before his partner headed back into the mine, never to be found again. "Damn you, Rieger! I hope you rot in hell!"
"Chris?" Vin asked hesitantly, his shoulders sagging in defeat. He was lost... again. He had come so close... He could feel the back of his pants soak up the blood as his wrists began to bleed harder. He felt nauseated from the pain. If he didn't find a way out now....
"Which way, Chris?" He whispered. "Which way...?"
Chris panicked. Which way? He didn't have the answer. He was as blind as Vin. This is what Rieger wanted. This was the hell he was going to face the rest of his life if he made the wrong choice... Vin was too tired and too injured to go on if the wrong decision was made.
"I don't know," was the honest answer.
Vin slid bonelessly down the rough wall and sat forlornly in his black prison. "Chris..." His throat was raw from the lack of water. "I need you."
"I know…I know…"
"I'm…I'm supposed to be leading you, helping you," Chris said dejectedly.
"And you are. God, Chris, you are. You have been my eyes, my life, for the past four days. I would've died out there a dozen times without you."
Vin felt warm tears slide down his cheeks. "I trust you, Chris. No matter what happens, I trust you."
Chris nodded, pulling himself together. He calmly started to think... to analyze. It had been a working mine at one time. It would have a system of tracks, presumably winding in and out of the mountain. It was possible that the tracks could weave in and out for miles. If Vin was at the beginning of the tracks it could take him days to return to the exit.
"I think you should backtrack."
Vin sighed as he painfully struggled to his feet. The rest had brought his heart rate down, but he was dangerously close to collapsing. He hoped to God that Chris was right, because this was it.
Not realizing that he had turned himself around, he headed deeper into the mine.
Buck squinted into the sun at the labyrinth of six square windowless buildings shimmering in the heat. Each cement building was the size of a football field and connected by cement tunnels.
"Damn, it's huge," he said.
J.D. nodded. He'd researched the installation finding it was once owned by the military during the cold war era, since abandoned and left to rot.
Buck grabbed his cell phone and hit speed dial for Nathan's phone.
"Nathan," the paramedic answered. He waited in a helicopter in the Monument Valley Visitor's Center fifty miles away with two more paramedics, and a doctor from Salt Lake City and an array of medical equipment.
"We're at the installation," he reported. "As soon as we find anything we'll let you know."
"Understood," came Nathan's curt reply.
Buck drew his gun and turned the doorknob on the single metal door, surprised to find it unlocked. He silently stepped into the stifling hot, pitch black room. J.D. switched on his pen flashlight and searched the wall to their left and right until he found a light switch. Josiah flipped it on and nothing happened.
"Answers why Rieger needed three generators," Ezra whispered.
Everyone flipped their flashlights on and searched the vast gun metal gray room. Nothing.
Buck pointed his light to the metal door on the other side of the room. One down, five to go.
Checking three more buildings they found nothing but empty rooms. As they walked through the tunnel to the fifth building, they suddenly stopped. A soft hum came from the other side of the metal door.
With their flashlights off, Buck turned the doorknob, surprised to find it unlocked. If Rieger was in there he certainly felt safe from intruders.
Brilliant light and cool air poured through the door as the M7 agents slipped inside.
Unlike the other buildings, the gun metal walls were replaced with white sterile walls. On a twelve foot section of wall banks of monitors lined the wall to their right. A dozen speakers hung from the ceiling. A plethora of electrical equipment surrounded a high backed chair. Two IV bags hung from a stand next to the chair.
"What the hell…" Buck whispered, taking a step toward the chair.
Josiah tapped Buck's shoulder and motioned to the right. Buck's blood ran cold when he saw Rieger standing in a glass enclosed room smirking at them.
"Welcome, Gentlemen," Rieger taunted. "I knew you would ultimately locate my little laboratory, but truthfully, I did not think it would be this fast."
"You're a dead man," Buck seethed.
"Yes, a fate that awaits us all." Rieger chuckled. "Sooner for some. Please, allow me to demonstrate. Direct your attention to the bank of monitors in front of Mr. Larabee."
"Shit! Chris," Buck cried and ran toward the chair.
No one was prepared for the sight of Chris Larabee strapped wrists and ankles to a straight backed steel chair even though they had seen a video of him. His wrists were raw and bloody from fighting the restraints. His face was drained of all color beneath a four day old beard. He had lost weight, his face drawn and his shirt hanging off his hunched shoulders. An IV dripped into each arm.
Buck dropped to one knee and gently pressed his fingers against Chris' neck to find the carotid artery while J.D. and Ezra quickly unbuckled the straps. "Weak but steady," Buck reported.
Josiah nodded. "The IV's kept him hydrated."
Chris' eyes fluttered open.
"Chris… Chris it's me… Buck."
Larabee glanced at Buck with glazed eyes.
Josiah moved closer laying his hand gently on Chris' shoulder. "Chris…its Josiah."
Again Chris opened his eyes, looking at each face.
"We'll have you out of here real quick," J.D. promised
Chris suddenly realized he was not hallucinating. "No, not me," he cried, "find Vin. He can't last much longer."
"Gentlemen," Rieger said, "Allow me to show you… As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words."
Three monitors flipped on.
"You God damned bastard..." Buck growled as he watched Vin stagger deeper into a mineshaft, away from the light from the exit
"He's headed in the wrong direction," J.D. cried.
"Vin... Stop!" Chris shouted. There was no reaction.
"You can't reach him, Mr. Larabee," Rieger gloated, "I shut off his mic. He can't hear you. Now you will have to watch him die like a lab rat lost in a maze. Alone, sightless."
Chris struggled to stand but his days of being strapped to the chair left him too weak.
Rieger began to laugh. "Watch..." he said and flipped a switch.
Monitor 4 blinked to life and showed the mine cart Vin had passed earlier, now behind him as the tracks he was following circled back and merged together leading toward the exit.
Chris watched the cart disengage its' brake and begin to roll backward gaining speed on the slight slope.
"Vin...!" There was barely one foot of space on either side of the car.
"He can't hear you..." Rieger reminded Chris, his voice high pitched in excitement.
Vin stopped and listened. He felt the ground beneath him begin to rumble and the sound of steel grating on steel. The sound grew louder. Something was coming from behind. Sandstone dust snowed down on him from the ceiling.
Buck leaned down close to Chris' ear. "Talk to him."
Chris looked desperate. He was going to watch his best friend die right before his eyes.
Josiah slipped around to the other side of the chair.
"Listen to me, Chris," Josiah whispered. "You and Vin share a special bond. I've seen you communicate with each other without saying a word, knowing what the other was thinking. Use that special bond now! If you believe, Vin will hear you."
Chris watched Vin stagger and nearly fall. He reached into his deepest core. //Vin…//
Vin shuffled to a stop, searching for the voice.
//I'm here with you, Vin…trust me.//
"Chris!" Vin's voice almost too weak to hear.
// Vin… Don't say anything. Rieger will hear you.//"Tell him we're all here." Josiah whispered.
//Buck, Josiah, J.D. and Ezra are here with me. Trust us//
Vin swayed dangerously. If he went down now he would not be getting up again.
//Vin, listen to me//
Vin hesitated... Confused.
Shit! Buck watched the monitor over his shoulder." He doesn't know what the hell's going on. Tell him what's happening, Chris!"
//Vin... That mine cart is moving down the tracks behind you. I want you to jump to the left, but only when I tell you to. Do you understand?//
//Do you understand, Vin?//
Vin nodded. He was so confused. So tired. So close to collapsing. But he trusted Chris with his life.
//That's right, Vin. Now sidestep to your left until you feel the wall//
Vin felt the ground shaking beneath him like an earthquake as he stumbled over the tracks. He could feel the heavy cart gaining on him.
Rieger watched the drama unfold before him and was stunned. Things were happening that he didn't understand. Wilmington and Sanchez were whispering into Larabee's ears and unbelievably Tanner was reacting, lifting his head searching for…what…
My God... He slammed his face up against the glass wall not wanting to miss a minute of what was going on. They were communicating. All of them. Tanner was reacting. He'd staggered to his left. How did he know?
Vin tried to pick up speed but his depleted body and sightless eyes betrayed him. He nearly cried out as the track beneath him vibrated faster and the squeal of the cart filled the mineshaft.
The cart was just inches away from him. The heat from the exit suddenly touched Vin's face.
"Now!!!!" Buck hissed into Chris' ear.
//Now, Vin!!!// Chris commanded. //Jump to your left… Now!//
Vin hurled himself to the left, the heavy cart brushing his right leg.
The monitor showed Vin jumping at the last second, rolling down the slight embankment out of the shadow of the mineshaft, into the bright desert sun and out of the camera range.
Everyone but Chris stood in stunned silence. It was impossible that Chris had reached Vin, but the evidence was before them and it could not be denied.
"Did he make it?" Chris gasped, his strength finally deserting him.
Buck looked up at the monitor shaken to his core. He hated to lie to Chris, and would most likely lose a good friend, but Chris couldn't take another blow. "Yes, Chris, he made it," he said gently.
Chris nodded and slipped into an exhausted sleep.
Josiah closed his eyes and prayed for all of them.
Ezra looked toward Rieger watching them through the glass walls of his office. "I detest physical violence, but at this moment I want to draw and quarter that son of a bitch!"
J.D. wiped the tears that glistened in his eyes. "You'll have to wait in line."
"Josiah, you stay here with Chris," Buck ordered. "Ezra, if I know Rieger, that glass will be bullet proof."
Ezra nodded pulling a set of lock picks from seemingly nowhere. "I think these will suffice."
Buck nodded. "J.D., when we get inside access his computer. Let's find out exactly where Vin is."
Rieger watched Buck charge toward the glass door and saw Standish hold up a set of lockpicks smiling viciously, then heard the hum of the lock disengage. He dropped to the ground scrambling beneath his desk. Buck kicked the door open, murder in his eyes. Rieger cowered under Willington's hate filled eyes. Ezra yanked the drawstring from the blinds that covered one plate glass wall and handed it to Buck.
Buck dragged Rieger out from beneath the desk and shoved him face forward into the opposite glass wall grabbing his arms and tying his wrists behind him with the drawstring. "We don't want you running out on us now, do we?" Buck asked yanking the restraints tighter before shoving him down into a chair using the extra length of drawstring to tie him to the chair. It took all his resolve not to pummel the man to death. "You'll be lucky if you ever see the light of day again. And you won't be staying at Lancing. I'll make sure your new address is Rykers Island," he promised.
Buck grabbed his cell phone and hit speed dial again for Nathan. "Nate, Vin is outside the entrance to an old mineshaft somewhere. We don't know if…" his voice caught in his throat, "We don't know if he's still alive. He was in bad shape."
"We're standing by."
J.D. grabbed a chair and started typing furiously, shaking his head as he was denied access again and again.
Rieger grinned. "You will never get past my security."
The tension was thick enough to cut with a knife. Ezra had returned to Chris to help Josiah in any way he could.
J.D. continued typing for an hour before a small smile twitched his mouth. "I'm in!"
"Impossible," Rieger stuttered. "How?"
"I wrote an algorithm," he answered over his shoulder as he began searching through programs and files.
He finally found a sophisticated video program, racing through cameras positioned along Rieger's hellish course. How Vin had survived was a miracle. "I found him!" he shouted.
"Where?" Buck demanded.
"Monument Sandstone Mine south of Moab, Utah."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan sat in the copter willing his cellphone to ring, praying that he got directions in time to save Vin.
Dr. Henry Strathmore, head of the trauma department at Utah Medical Center, was not a patient man. Whether working on a critical patient or training his team for the next trauma, he was always in action.
Nathan couldn't leave, not when one minute could mean life or death for Vin…if he was still alive
Another half hour and there was still no word. The longer it took the less chance that Vin would survive. And what about Chris? His mental condition worried him as much as his physical condition. If Vin didn't make it and he did it would crush Chris Larabee.
The sound of his phone signaling that he had a call nearly stopped his heart.
"Did you find him?"
Buck's voice sounded strained. "Monument Sandstone Mine south of Moab, Utah."
The pilot slapped him on the shoulder as he started revving up the copter. "I know where that is," he shouted.
Nathan jumped out of the copter," I'll get Strathmore!"
Five minutes later they were in the air.
+ + + + + + +
Buck made sure Rieger wasn't going anywhere then chased Ezra and J.D. back to Chris.
"How is he?" he panted.
Josiah stood up. "I don't know. I contacted Travis and he's sending a local medical team from the nearest hospital and an F.B.I. team from Salt Lake City for Rieger. They'll make sure the bastard never sees the light of day again."
He let out a haggard sigh. While J.D. scanned through the videos searching for Vin's location, the images appeared on the monitor before Josiah. He couldn't tear his eyes off the screen as he watched Vin blindly follow Chris' directions. He marveled at the young man's trust in his best friend and cried when he saw his strength weaken only to dig deeper from somewhere and continue on. Josiah felt sick. How could a human being do this to another human being?
"Nathan is on his way to Vin," Buck reported.
Josiah lowered his head in prayer. "Please Lord, watch over our young brother."
A chorus of "Amen," followed.
+ + + + + + +
Traveling at one hundred miles per hour, the helicopter made the sixty mile trip in in less than two minutes.
"I see him!" the pilot yelled over the thumping sound of the blades and swooped down to get a closer look.
Vin lay prostrate, his hands handcuffed behind him. There was no way to tell if he was alive until they were on the ground.
Landing twelve feet away to keep the rotor wash from hitting Vin, Nathan was the first man to jump into the hot desert, carrying the oxygen tank and defibrillator. Heat like a blast furnace nearly sent him to his knees. How had Vin survived even one day in this hell?
Strathmore followed, carrying the medical case, with the two other paramedics carrying a stretcher and long backboard and a pair of bolt cutters for the handcuffs.
Nathan reached Vin first skidding to a dead stop. Rieger's' video didn't prepare him for what he saw lying before him.
He'd seen third degree burn victims with less damage. Vin's face, hands and arms were a deep scarlet and covered in blisters. Nathan noticed right away that there was no sign of sweat on his body indicating severe dehydration.
Strathmore dropped to his knees searching Vin's neck with his two fingers looking for a carotid artery.
"I've got it, weak and thready, but it's there. Doug, cut that chain, we'll worry about the cuffs later."
Nathan gently lifted Vin's wrists away from his body trying to avoid the ravaged hands as Doug cut one link and he carefully lowered his friend's hands beside him on the hot sand.
"Jess, Nathan, log roll him onto the backboard keeping his neck and back straight. We have no idea what damage's been done."
Vin didn't make a sound as he was rolled onto backboard and then lifted into the stretcher.
"Doug, give me a set of vitals," Strathmore ordered.
Jess pulled Vin's shoes and socks off his badly swollen feet and ankles and began cutting his pant legs and shirt sleeves open.
"BP 64/42, pulse 32 and respirations 8," Doug reported.
"Nathan, start two IV's, one D5W TKO and the other lactated ringers. Use large bore needles wide open. Put them in his feet. I don't want to traumatize his hands and arms any more than they are."
Strathmore ripped Vin's shirt open and drew a stethoscope from his pocket and started listening to Vin's heart and lungs. "Congested and I'm hearing rales. Jess, establish an airway, let's give this guy all the help we can."
Nathan sat back on his heels, the staggering amount of trauma to his friend overwhelming.
"Stay with me, Nathan!" Strathmore yelled, not without some compassion.
Strathmore checked Vin's eyes with a pen flashlight and gasped. "What the hell!"
The startled physician handed the light to Nathan. Nathan didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The black lenses covering Vin's eyes explained his blindness…but it could still mean Vin would face permanent loss of his sight.
Strathmore sat numb for a moment. No one spoke trying to come to terms with the horrors Vin Tanner had faced.
"Let's get him out of this sun!" Strathmore ordered. Doug and Nathan lifted Vin's stretcher and quickly but carefully ran for the helicopter.
Once inside the air conditioned cabin Strathmore and the three medics began hooking Vin up to the EKG monitor and the onboard oxygen.
Soon the sound of the heart monitor and swish of the oxygen filled the sound proof cabin. Like a well-oiled machine the men of the specially equipped Medi-evac helicopter worked to bring back a life on the brink…
+ + + + + + +
Vin vaguely remembered waking up to chaos. Warning bells ringing, hands pushing and prodding him. Something was stuck down his throat and he knew he would soon strangle to death if he couldn't remove it but his hands were too heavy to lift.
Distant pain nagged him, but he didn't have the strength to fight it and he drifted back into drugged sleep.
Orrin Travis slipped into Vin's hospital room silently, not wanting to wake his young agent. He came once a day to relieve Nathan or J.D. He didn't want Vin to awaken alone. It was two weeks ago when, against all odds, J.D. tracked down Vin's location. But most of the time he was working with Josiah and Ezra to put together an iron-clad case against Rieger. No way was he getting off on a technicality.
Orrin thought back on how close they had actually come to losing Vin. The Life Flight helicopter had arrived as Vin simply succumbed to his injuries and his body gave up. But Strathmore and the paramedics jolted life back into him. Three times they had lost him and three times he was brought back. Even in death he was a fighter.
Now he was somewhat stable. The doctors were still concerned about the massive infection in his wrists. After they healed, plastic surgery would hide the cruel evidence of his ordeal.
He reached his hand out and touched Vin's shoulder. What would go through his mind when he first awoke? The thick bandages that covered his eyes would have to stay in place for several weeks. It had taken an Ophthalmologic Surgeon several hours to remove the lenses that covered his eyes. The doctors were fascinated by the paper-thin lenses that had been surgically applied. As they were painstakingly peeled away they left scar tissue. But with time his eyes should heal themselves. And that was the operative word... time. After everything Vin was forced to endure he still had to face weeks of more blindness.
Nathan gently tapped on the door before entering Vin's room. He was not surprised to see Orrin Travis sitting at Vin's beside. He stared down at Vin, his face glistening with salve to ease the pain of the severe sunburns. Although still connected to I.V. lines to replenish his body fluids and deliver antibiotics to fight the infections in his wrists, EKG wires attached to his chest and oxygen saturation clip on his finger, he was off the vent and that was a big step forward.
"Any change?" he asked, gently touching the thick bandages wrapped around Vin's hands and arms.
"He's still drifting in and out. He hasn't been fully consciousness yet."
"That's not a bad thing. The more rest he gets the more strength he'll have to fight back."
Nathan dropped in the second chair facing Vin's bed. "How is Chris?"
"He's worried about Vin and is placing all the blame for Rieger's actions onto himself. His doctors are waiting for him to get strong enough so he can come up here to see him."
Travis had faith in all his agents. But these seven men had become family to him. "He'll be alright," he promised. "They both will."
"I wish I could believe that," Nathan muttered.
"Believe it," Travis avowed, "I never make idle promises."
Nathan leaned back resting his head against the back of the chair. He had seen too much to have that much faith. Yet, these six men who had become his friends…his family… possessed a strength he had never been a part of before. He knew in his heart that they would all be back together again. No matter how long it took.
+ + + + + + +
Vin sat on the edge of his bed swinging his legs nervously. It had been five weeks since he regained consciousness and at last the bandages covering his eyes were about to be removed. The doctors had pressed that there was no guarantee that he would regain the 20/20 eyesight he had. Travis promised him that reduced eyesight would not jeopardize his position with the team, but Vin knew if he was not one hundred percent he would not remain on the team. He would not put an assignment or his fellow agents in jeopardy.
Chris sat on the bed next to Vin holding his bandaged hand careful not to hurt the still healing burns. This was their moment. They had been through so much together.
"Are you ready?" Nathan asked.
Vin nodded. "More than ready."
//We both are...// Chris thought as he saw Vin react to his thoughts. He was still not comfortable with the idea that he and Vin could commutate without words. But with time he hoped they would learn to use it with ease.
"We're going to take this nice and easy," Dr. Shepard, the ophthalmologist, said.
Vin could barely breath he was so nervous. He knew everyone was there. Chris, Buck, Nathan, Ezra, Josiah and J.D., even Orrin Travis was there for morale support.
"You understand, Vin, there are no guarantees." Dr. Shepard, began the slow task of cutting away the bandages. "There is no way of knowing what kind of permanent damage the lenses may have caused."
Vin's voice shook, "I understand. Let's just get this over with."
Everything hinged on this very moment.
"What if he can't see?" J.D. whispered to Buck.
"They'll adapt," Josiah whispered back, "they have each other."
Vin thought back over everything he had been through. The ordeal in the desert, the painful recovery that still wasn't finished. Rieger was back in jail, facing kidnapping, attempted murder and torture charges. He would be behind bars the rest of his life. But it would never be enough to pay back the damage he had caused.
//No matter what happens...we go on from here. I don't want to ever look back//" Chris thought.
//We won't, Chris,// Vin avowed gently. //We won't.//
Vin still didn't understand the commutation between him and Chris, but he would never question it. It was something special between them.
Vin held his breath as the bandages were cut away.
"Now, take it slow. It will take time for your eyes to adjust," he heard Dr. Shepard say, but already the smallest of smiles touched Vin's lips. The oppressive blackness was gone. There was light on the other side of his eyelids.
Slowly he blinked his eyes open...
He saw colors and shapes, then images. Buck and J.D. grinning and high fiving each other. Nathan and Josiah to his left their grins equally wide. Ezra stood next to Orrin Travis shaking hands. He turned to Chris and nodded.
"Welcome back, Vin..." Chris said, his voice cracking with emotion. He felt safe and complete for the first time in a very long time. //Welcome back//
Nothing else needed to be said. Everyone in the room felt the relief after so much worry and pain. They were a team again. Team7.
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