Sleeper

by Jack Curtin

        Curled up in bed against the screaming blizzard outside, Valerie tapped the remote control and the television cast a pale light across the dark room. As the screen warmed into focus, she sat upright and gasped. It was him! On television! Reds Tolbert-a man she'd watch die a terrible death during the Gulf War, ten years earlier!

        The image was fleeting, a few seconds during a newscast, but she knew it was Reds, impossible as it seemed.

        Valerie's training kicked in. She raced to the telephone and dialed the number only she and eight other people knew. As soon as the phone was picked up at the other end, she started speaking, ignoring protocol. "I've just seen something on the local news…"

        Her superior was just as brusque, interrupting her. "I know what you've seen. You must come here, now."

        Valerie glanced out the window at the raging snow. "Nothing could stop me," she said.

        The office was so deep inside the Pentagon that no one who didn't know it was there could ever find it. Valerie rushed through the door to face the familiar hulking figure sitting behind his obscenely large desk. This time there was none of the formal structure which they generally employed. No salute, no standing at attention. Instead, General Ohlmer waved his hand toward the other side of the room. "There's someone here you need to see."

        Valerie turned. Reds Tolbert stepped out of the shadows.

        "Hi, doll," he said.

        Stunned, she staggered to the chair in front of the desk and collapsed into it. Ohlmer began speaking even before she'd settled in.

        "I know this is confusing to you, Lieutenant. Seeing Captain Tolbert has turned your world inside out. I'm sorry for that. It was never meant to happen." He paused, then leaned forward.

        "Incubus," he said.

        The memories came rushing back. The intriguing offer from then Major Ohlmer in a tent somewhere in the Kuwait desert, the secret training, the relationship with Reds Tolbert, especially that, days and nights with the man who was not only the exquisite lover she remembered, but so much more. He was her sensei, her controller. The man who prepared her for her role as the general's aide in this secret military unit.

        "That's your control word," continued Ohlmer, " a way to awaken you to your duty…."

        Tolbert stepped forward, stood in front of her and took her hand. "You're a sleeper agent, Val, a very special agent who helps keep our country free. And you and I…well, you remember about us now."

        "But…?"

        "You were the best we ever found, the perfect agent." Reds said, his voice soft and soothing. "You were so important to our mission that it was decided you had to break every bond with your past, so you could do your job with no emotional hang-ups. In the end, they said that you had to believe I was dead for that to happen."

        Valerie shook her head fiercely, trying to understand. "What job? Why me? What have you done to me?"

        Before Reds could reply, the General broke in. "You are programmed to kill, Lieutenant, that's what you do." He rose from his chair and leaned across the desk. "You are a weapon who kills the people we tell you to kill. You destroy the enemies of our country."

        More memories. Valerie closed her eyes and saw herself swearing an oath to stern, grim-faced men in uniform. She heard herself agreeing to the hypnotic suggestions that blocked out her memory. She gasped and shook her head again, coming to grips with it all.

        The General pressed on. "We all agreed, you included, it was best if you remained unaware of what you had been trained to do. No guilt, no responsibility, no way to betray those you worked for. It is the perfect cover. But then Captain Tolbert," he paused and glared at his subordinate, "stupidly permitted himself to be captured on camera and that caused you to partially override your programming. This is a most unfortunate situation. But the timing, at least, is excellent."

        As Ohlmer stopped speaking, Valerie opened her eyes and looked up to find him offering her a photograph. She took it in hand as he resumed. "This man is an enemy of everything we stand for. We need you to remove him. It will be a complex matter, given his prominence, but we will find a way to put you in position to carry out your mission."

        The photograph in her hands was of a well-known United States senator. Valerie looked at it, open-mouthed. "No," she said at last, "no. There is no way…."

        "There is," Ohlmer said sharply. "There is another control word, the ultimate command, which you will not, and cannot, override." Valerie stared down at the photo again as he continued. "You will carry out your assignment," he said, "and afterwards you won't remember a thing."

        Valerie turned toward Reds, her once beloved Reds, who looked on impassively. She turned back to the general, whose demeanor made it clear the discussion was over. "Go home," he said, "and wait. We will call you when we're ready."

        Valerie stood, almost dizzy from the wave of revelations. She looked at Reds, smiled sadly and moved toward the door. As she opened it, she paused and tried one last time. "What makes you believe that this will work, that I will actually kill for you?"

        Ohlmer leaned forward out of his chair, his massive bulk dwarfing the imposing desk. "Lieutenant, you have been our agent for a decade. You have been subject to our control words for every minute of every hour of every day of that period."

        And he smiled the most terrible smile she had ever seen. "You don't really think this will be the first assignment we've ever given you, do you?"

Copyright © 2003 Jack Curtin

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