The Last Bastion of the Living
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“I will show you to your room, and then you will be summoned for the examinations to prepare you for the inoculation,” Mr. Petersen informed her.
“I don’t understand. What do you mean ‘prepared’?”
“Though your recent medical examinations reveal you to be in perfect health, we will be taking one last look at your vitals before administering the antidote,” Mr. Petersen explained. “Nothing too invasive. Just a simple physical exam.”
Her hands felt clammy and she realized she was far more afraid than she had believed she would be. “And you’re sure this will work?”
“Of course,” Mr. Petersen responded confidently. “We wouldn’t want to imperil one of our best, would we?”
After several turns, he finally opened a door that led into a much shorter corridor. Doors lined both sides in regular intervals; security cameras rotated slowly overhead.
“This one is yours. I advise you to quickly unpack and change into your fatigues,” Mr. Petersen said as he swiped his wristlet and the door opened.
The room was long and narrow with the shower, sink, and toilet stall at the far end. A simple bed was tucked into a recess in the wall, and a small desk with a matching chair fit into a corner next to a narrow wardrobe. It wasn’t much smaller than her flat.
Maria stepped into the room and slung her bags onto the bed. The door hissed shut behind her and she was grateful to find herself alone. Mr. Petersen unnerved her far more than she cared to admit.
Before slipping out of her uniform, she quickly stowed her personal effects utilizing the bins tucked under the bed. Taking great care, she hung the charcoal-colored trousers and matching jacket in the wardrobe. She tried to smooth out the slight wrinkling with her hands and was careful to make sure the jacket was hanging correctly so it would retain its shape. The Roses had always done such a great job caring for her uniforms. As she thought of her sweet neighbors, she felt a twinge of regret that she had not visited them one last time.
A small black box that held her medals and her miniature Bible, a gift from her father, was placed on the top shelf of the wardrobe. Inside the Bible was a folded photo he had given her on her sixteenth birthday. It was a snapshot of a ten year old Maria dressed up in her father’s uniform. A wide smile graced her tiny face that was dwarfed by his helmet and the sleeves and trouser legs were rolled up with a belt cinching the jacket. Being an old-fashioned sort, her father had not only printed the photo, but had scribbled a message on the back. As a teenager she had not understood why he hadn’t just transmitted the image to her wristlet, but ten years later, the tattered, wrinkled photo was a treasured possession.
Once her personal effects were tucked away, she washed her face and freshened up. The lighting over the sink was quite bright, and as she peered into the mirror, she studied the faint scars decorating her neck and cheek that were clearly visible in the harsh light. Thankfully, the marks were not nearly as noticeable as the thick keloids decorating her stomach, side, and back.
The wristlet hummed on her arm, alerting her of an incoming message. For a moment she hoped it was Dwayne, but it was from Mr. Petersen informing her that he would be escorting her to the lab, and was on his way.
When he arrived exactly ten minutes later, she was dressed in her casual trousers, t-shirt, blouse, and heavy combat boots. The journey to the lab was short and silent after his initial greeting. Again, she noticed the disturbing lack of people and noise in the long corridors.
At last, they entered an examination room filled with various types of medical equipment. A large vid-screen took up one whole wall, and a very tall blond woman stood before a work station studying the data scrolling across the surface of the monitors before her.
“This is Dr. Beverly Curran. Beverly, this is Vanguard Maria Martinez,” Mr. Petersen said by way of introduction.
Beverly Curran glanced at Maria briefly before returning to her work. “Good evening, Vanguard Martinez. Please take off your blouse and get on the treadmill,” the doctor said, gesturing toward the exercise equipment nestled amidst the monitoring machines. Her eyes didn’t stray from the screen before her.
Obeying, Maria couldn’t help but wonder what was holding the doctor’s rapt attention. After hanging her blouse from a hook set into the wall, she stepped onto the treadmill.
Finally pulling her gaze away from her readouts, the doctor strode over to the treadmill, quickly activated it, and set the controls.
“You’ve done this before, you know how it works,” Dr. Curran said simply.
“Yes, I do.”
Dr. Curran nodded, then returned to her station. Mr. Petersen didn’t leave the room as Maria had expected, but lingered at the doctor’s side.
The large screen flickered to life, readouts beginning to scroll as a thermal image of Maria’s body appeared. Maria glanced at it briefly, then concentrated on her breathing, finding her running rhythm. Having endured countless tests before she had been allowed to return to duty, she was a little bored by the whole process, but not particularly worried. Except for her scarring, a missing kidney, and damaged reproductive system, she knew she was in good health. As the treadmill’s speed increased, she easily matched its pace.
“She’s in perfect health despite her past injuries,” Dr. Curran murmured.
“Her readings are superb,” Mr. Petersen agreed.
“Excellent readings on her cardiovascular system,” Dr. Curran noted.
As Maria listened to the two people discuss the status of her health as if she wasn’t even in the room, her thoughts began to drift. She could see the image changing and at one point was fascinated to see her internal organs animated on the screen.
Sweat trickled down her spine and between her breasts as the pace continued to accelerate. The heavy thud of her boot heels against the belt was a steady beat.
The doctor lowered her voice as she spoke to Mr. Petersen and their hushed conversation lured Maria’s attention to them. They both appeared excited and pleased with the data scrolling across the large screen.
After the treadmill, Maria submitted to a variety of tests and watched as samples she provided were examined and evaluated. As the hours wore on, Dr. Curran appeared increasingly pleased with all the results. The blond woman’s stern expression even broke into a smile a few times.
“Excellent, excellent,” she muttered to Maria.
“So I’m a good candidate for the serum?” Maria finally asked after being instructed to don her blouse.
“Absolutely,” Dr. Curran responded, giving her a slight smile.
Up close the doctor appeared older than Maria had first thought, with fine lines around her eyes and strands of white mixed in with the blond. The woman’s face was narrow with high cheekbones and a long nose. Her gray eyes were striking, but her thin mouth tended to frown, already forming lines in the corners.
“Good. I’m ready to do this,” Maria assured her.
“Let’s have a talk, shall we?” Dr. Curran suggested, gathering her pad and striding toward the door.
Mr. Petersen walked behind Maria as she followed the doctor. Dr. Curran moved with a quick gait, her long hair flowing behind her. She led Maria through several thick doors, moving her deeper into the SWD facility through lab areas, offices, and corridors filled with doctors and nurses. The noise and bustle was welcome after the disquieting silence upon her arrival.
Dr. Curran entered a small room with a table set in the center and several chairs circling it. The metallic walls were highly reflective and Maria noticed her form was a fractured image on the surface.
Taking a chair, Maria rested her hands on her lap. The sterile environment and grueling tests had worn on her nerves. She was uncertain what she had expected once she had reported for the mission, but her level of discomfort surprised her. She felt as though she were being kept in the dark about something. That some important bit of information was not being divulged.
The doctor and Mr. Petersen sat across from her. Mr. Petersen folded his arms over his chest, his bland face expressionless while Dr. Curran entered some final notes into her pad.
“May I ask a question?” Maria asked as she finally grasped what was bothering her.
“Of course,” Dr. Curran answered, not looking up.
“This is a safe procedure, this serum…what you’re giving me. It’s safe for me to take?”
“It is,” Dr. Curran assured her.
“And it will make me immune to the Scrags, correct?”
“Then why aren’t you giving it to everyone in the city?”
Dr. Curran lifted her eyes to scrutinize Maria, then folded her hands on the table. “The serum we’re giving you and the other volunteers requires a healthy body. It’s a vaccination that uses a modified version of the Inferi Scourge Plague Virus. You will become very ill for a short period of time before your body builds up a sufficient immunity. You’re in superb physical shape whereas many in the city are not. There would be a good chance that a lot of our citizens would succumb to the serum and become Inferi Scourge.”
“And there is no danger of that happening to me?” Maria asked, rubbing her suddenly damp palms over her knees.