The Last Bastion of the Living
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“Can you?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“For us, for the city,” Maria replied sorrowfully, “I can do it. But it’s going to hurt like hell.”
“I’m sorry, darling. I never thought about that aspect of this mission.”
“Neither did I.”
“You can do this though, Maria. You can make it through. I believe in you. And if you want out, I will find a way to get you out.”
“No, no. I’m in this for the long haul. I can do it, Dwayne. I just need to get my focus and not be afraid. When I said yes to this mission I was just so desperate to do something I really didn’t think through all the possible ramifications of that decision.”
“Our time is up,” Dwayne said regretfully. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“I love you,” Maria whispered, her fingers from her other hand touching his image lightly.
He touched his screen, too. “I love you.”
The screen flashed black then returned her to the main menu.
This was going to be the hardest part of being on the mission: being away from the man she loved.
Rolling onto her back, Maria covered her face and fought back tears. She could almost feel his presence nearby, comforting and loving. Her body yearned to feel him pressed against her side. Closing her eyes, she pretended he was laying next her, his breath matching her own as they fell asleep together.
The next morning she awoke to a call from Dr. Curran informing her that she would be sent for in two hours’ time. Crawling out of bed, she pushed her body through her morning exercise routine before taking a hot shower. Breakfast was delivered to her room on a tray by a young male nurse. He stared openly at her scars as she took the tray.
“Thank you,” she said, dismissing him before he asked any stupid questions.
He backed out of the room and the door slid shut.
Uncovering the tray, she was surprised to see eggs and bacon, toast, orange juice, and a thermos of coffee. She was certain the meat and eggs weren’t the real thing, but the food smelled amazing. Picking up a slice of bacon, she nibbled on the end curiously. It didn’t taste at all like flavored tofu. Suddenly ravaged by hunger, she dug into the meal, eating each bite with great relish. Nothing she had ever eaten had tasted quite so amazing. When she finally finished, she poured herself a cup of coffee and sipped it slowly. It was the best she had ever tasted.
After she finished, she retrieved a second set of fatigues from her locker and took a shower. The water was hot and helped ease her aching legs and arms. As she soaped her skin, she studied the scars that had so fascinated the nurse. She supposed she had grown used to their appearance. The knots of hard flesh were a part of her now and she could barely remember what it was like not to wear them as a badge of honor. Her fingers traced over the especially savage wound over her lower belly. This was the injury that had robbed her of any chance of motherhood. It didn’t do any good to mull over the possible future children she could have had with Dwayne if she hadn’t been hit by the flying shrapnel, so she pushed those thoughts away.
Once out of the shower, she dressed and braided her hair. Despite her fabulous breakfast, her stomach was fluttering. For the thousandth time she reminded herself that she had no reason to be afraid.
Dr. Curran came for her personally. Today her long blond hair was wound in a bun on top of her head and she was clad in a white jumpsuit. There was a much more official air about her and her voice was clipped when she spoke.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Maria answered, trying to not sound like she was lying.
“Very good,” Dr. Curran said briskly and led her down the hall to the wing with the labs. Her heels clicked against the floor as she strode swiftly ahead of Maria. “Did you sleep well? Did you eat all your breakfast?”
“Yes, yes. It was all good,” Maria answered.
“I arranged your breakfast. Real eggs and bacon. A rarity in the city, but obtainable for special purposes.”
“Like last meals, huh?” Maria joked.
Dr. Curran gave her a sharp look that gave Maria pause. “Something like that.”
Outside the lab, there were four SWD special officers on duty. The previous day there had been one. Dr. Curran and Maria were quickly waved through security, but the nurses preparing to enter behind them were immediately stopped. Glancing over her shoulder, Maria saw the guards scanning the wristlets on the nurses, their expressions grim.
“More security today,” Maria pointed out.
“Today is an important day,” Dr. Curran answered.
When they entered the lab area, Maria noted that even more doctors, nurses, technicians and the like were bustling about than the day before. A few threw curious looks her way before hurrying on. Dr. Curran took hold of Maria’s arm and pulled her down a new corridor, moving her swiftly past the onlookers.
“Why are they staring?” Maria asked in a low voice.
“They know who you are. This is a big day for the SWD. This is the first step in our push against the Inferi Scourge. The success of your mission will ensure the continuation of humanity. You’re very important, don’t you realize that?” Dr. Curran shot her a curious look, obviously surprised that Maria hadn’t recognized this on her own.
“I’m just a soldier doing her job,” Maria answered.
“You’re more than that now,” Dr. Curran assured her. “Much more.” She swiped her wristlet over a control panel set in the wall, and a set of doors hummed open. Entering, she motioned for Maria to follow.
Inside was another disturbingly white room. An examination table surrounded by monitors and equipment was the center of attention for several technicians. A few stole peeks in her direction, but most were fiercely concentrated on their tasks. Several robotic arms extended from the ceiling, swiveling about as they obeyed the commands of the technicians below. Satisfied, a technician pointed upward and the arms retracted into their bay in the ceiling.
“What’s all this for?” Maria asked, intimidated by the sight.
“You’re going to be extremely ill for about ten hours. We’re going to have to monitor you closely. Because of the raging fever that you will experience, we’re going to sedate you.”
“And this is safe? You’ve done it before?”
Dr. Curran turned and gazed into Maria’s eyes. “Yes, we have done this before. You will be safe in here.”
Maria’s misgivings didn’t fade with the doctor’s assurances. Though she discerned sincerity in Dr. Curran’s expression, she felt as though the entire truth of the situation was not being revealed.
Striding over to the technicians, Dr. Curran motioned for Maria to take a seat on the examination table. “Please remove your blouse and boots.”
Complying, Maria took deep, discreet breaths, steadying her nerves. The tension between her shoulder blades was starting to be a burning pain. With a quick roll of her shoulders, she focused her concentration on exorcising any anxiety while keeping her goal firmly in mind. A technician took the discarded blouse and boots when Maria sat at the edge of the examination table.
“Everything is looking very good, Vanguard Martinez,” Dr. Curran assured her. “Please lie down and get comfortable.”
As Maria swung her legs up onto the table, her gaze swept over the faces of those gathered around her. Their white jumpsuits and austere hairstyles made them appear cold, remote, and just as robotic as the mechanical arms retracted into the ceiling overhead. She pulled her braid over one shoulder as she lay down. A technician touched the table and a small panel lit up. Guiding Maria’s wristlet over the panel, the technician gave Maria’s hand a gentle squeeze.
“You’ll be alright,” she said. Her green eyes flicked toward Maria’s face before she returned her attention to creating a link between Maria’s wristlet and the monitoring equipment.
“We’ve established a connection,” the technician informed Dr. Curran after a minute or two.
“Excellent,” Dr. Curran replied.
Another technician said, “Data is in the stream.”
Dr. Curran rested her hand on Maria’s shoulder. Her fingers were icy cold. Maria realized the Doctor was far more nervous than she had let on.
“It’s almost time,” Dr. Curran stated, her gaze locked to one of the screens. “Everything is going just as we’d hoped.”
The door hissed open and Mr. Petersen appeared in Maria’s peripheral vision.
“We’re almost ready,” Dr. Curran said in a voice that was surprisingly curt.
Mr. Petersen inclined his head. “Very well. Everyone has arrived and is waiting for you to proceed.”
Frowning, Maria searched the corners for cameras, then her gaze settled on a wall to her left. It was bare of any equipment and the technicians were careful not to linger on that side of the examination table. She wondered if it was a hidden window.
“Someone is watching?” Maria asked. “Why?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Mr. Petersen replied.
“It’s just a few of the higher ranking officers of the SWD. You don’t need to worry about them,” Dr. Curran assured her, but the glare she cast in Mr. Petersen’s direction was tinged with anger. “Mr. Petersen will be joining them now.”