The Last Bastion of the Living
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The young man gave the dummy an irritated kick and attacked the next one with gusto.
This time he registered a direct hit.
“We cannot leave any of the Scrags even remotely animated. The brain stem must be destroyed,” Omondi reminded everyone in his booming voice. He glanced over at the readouts, surveying the stats.
“A few are hitting with one hundred percent accuracy,” Maria assured him.
“We have a few below fifty percent,” he noted.
“Newer recruits,” Maria said. “Those from the SWD.”
The Constabulary soldiers had undergone rigorous battle training, but SWD Security Officers had been taught to guard and detain people, not slay the Inferi Scourge.
“How’s our medic?”
Maria pointed to the score next to the photograph of their newest member. His name was Michael Denman and he was one of their one hundred percent accuracy crew.
Omondi grinned. “I knew I liked him.”
The Inferi Boon Special Ops were being deployed in three days and Maria was worried about a few of the squad members. Though there had not been any more adverse reactions like Gideon, a few were having trouble adapting. The lack of sensation and the inability to eat, sleep, or drink was a big adjustment for a few of the soldiers. A psychiatrist was meeting on a daily basis with the handful of people that were struggling. Maria envied them for the help they were receiving. She had been left to acclimate on her own and it hadn’t been easy.
Thanks to Omondi’s adamant appeal to the powers that be, all the soldiers now had the ability to control the timers on their wristlets. The SWD could still override the alarms if necessary, but Maria found it comforting to know that she could determine her wake cycles. Also, they were finally able to track time on their wristlets again. Dr. Curran had actually interceded on the matter. The faceless beings making decisions for the SWD had originally believed it was best if the Boon had no idea how much time they were losing. It was Dr. Curran’s appeal that it was better for the psychological well-being of the Boon if they did know. Maria liked being able to track time. It was strange how knowing the time and date made her feel as though she was connected to the world and not apart from it.
Denman successfully maneuvered through his obstacle course, scoring perfectly, before pulling out his own monitoring equipment and examining all the soldiers exiting with him. Though the soldiers were immune to the Inferi Scourge now, they could be injured in other ways. Denman would have to patch them up and keep them in top physical condition when out on the mission. Omondi and Maria had both sat in on his briefing when he was informed of his duties.
One aspect of the mission that Maria never considered was that one of the soldiers might experience what could be considered a life-threatening wound. Though it wouldn’t kill the soldier while they were Inferi Boon, once they were restored to life any injury sustained during the mission would impact their health. It would be up to Denman to decide the course of action. Denman’s credentials as a medical doctor was a comfort, but Maria wondered what would happen if someone needed emergency surgery.
“Those lower scorers need another round through the course. We can’t afford any Scrags remaining alive out there,” Omondi said in his proper tones. “Absolutely none.”
“Good thing we don’t get tired, huh?” Maria cracked a grin before returning her gaze to the action in front of her.
The soldiers wove through the crowded course filled with dummies. Each one carried a bolt weapon. It was a simple device with a long barrel and a trigger. The soldier just had to place the end of the weapon against the skull of the Scourge and fire. A bolt would slam out of the barrel, punching through the skull and obliterating the brain stem. The end of the bolt would expand, exposing sleek, razor sharp blades that whirled about like a fan before retracting, destroying as much of the brain as possible.
Since ammunition stores were running low, the weapon had been specially created for the operation. It was different from their rifles, so a few of the soldiers struggled with the mechanics of the device at first. The dummies also acted like the Scourge, moving side to side, whipping their heads about, not always staying stationary. It made hitting the target correctly a little more than difficult.
Omondi’s dark eyes narrowed as Dr. Curran and Mr. Petersen appeared in the observation deck above the course. “I’ll be glad when we’re out there doing our job and not trapped in here being observed like lab rats.”
The last of the soldiers finished the course. Leticia Cruz was one of the last and was one of the higher scorers. Though smaller in frame than some of the others, she was heavily muscled and could easily hold her own. Her dark skin was slick with sweat and she playfully slugged Mikado as he tried to rub her head for luck. The taller Asian man with the devilish grin and high-cheekbones laughed. They were always teasing each other. It wasn’t hard to see the attraction between them.
Most of the squad was bonding, but a few seemed to keep themselves apart. Jonathan Coleman only spoke when spoken to. He had already undergone two psych exams since being revived. He was one of the ones that Maria was worried about. Though he was scoring high, he avoided being too close to the others. He had been declared mentally competent for the job, but Maria wondered if he had found a way to fake his way through the tests.
McKinney, tall, blond, and powerfully built, was another one she was worried about. Not because he avoided the others, but because he was constantly trying to get affirmation from the others that everything was fine. Maria had caught him studying his cloudy dead eyes in a reflective surface one time and his expression had concerned her. But his jokes kept the mood light, so perhaps she was overthinking the situation.
Two soldiers she was not worried about were Ebba Holm and Jes Cormier. Both women were Constabulary veterans of the last push.
Cormier had been decorated for crashing her fuel-exhausted tiltrotor into the Scourge and buying time for another tiltrotor to airlift soldiers. Maria felt personally grateful for the woman, remembering the incident well. Cormier was of average height, with short black hair, green eyes, and a cocky grin. She always scored one hundred percent in her kills. Though she wasn’t piloting a tiltrotor, she would be the driver of their personnel carrier.
Special Sergeant Ebba Holm had pale blue eyes and white-blond hair that were distinctly Nordic. She looked like a Valkyrie with her twin braids resting on her shoulders, and was six feet tall. She was an expert mechanic that had studied the schematics of the gate and was ready to do repairs. She was also a high-scorer and didn’t seem the least bit phased by becoming Inferi Boon.
As for herself, Maria was ready to do the mission. She and Dwayne talked every night and despite what the SWD higher ups thought, having a connection to him gave her strength. Maybe that is why the other soldiers in the squad seemed a little desperate for affirmation from their superiors and comrades at times.
Omondi and Maria quickly reviewed all the stats, then ordered a few of the soldiers through the course again. There was no worry about physical exhaustion, just mental boredom.
“Think they’ll be ready?” Omondi wondered aloud.
“Without a doubt,” Maria assured him. “We can train them day and night if we have to.”
“It’s good to be dead,” Omondi joked.
* * *
Dwayne maneuvered through the late night crowds on his way to his flat. It was Friday night and most of the citizens of The Bastion were out and about searching for something fun to do. Most of the bars were illegal, but the authorities looked in the other direction. He’d dropped by the pub for a sip of the latest moonshine, not really caring what was in it. He had a nice little buzz going and it was a relief after the long hours he’d worked. Exhaustion ate at him and he wanted to just lie down and sleep late.
Before Maria had left, he would have been looking forward to a long day with her, prowling through the markets looking for hidden treasures, or a day in bed reading and making love, or maybe a day sitting at the local pub watching the sports vids. It seemed like an eternity since she had left. He knew he was overworking himself in an attempt to mask her absence in his life. But when he was tired his loneliness was even more pronounced.
It was hard to love someone so deeply and yet watch them leave when duty called. It was the thing that had delivered a final death blow to his marriage to Barbara. She couldn’t stand his long hours for years, but when he had been wounded in battle she had not been able to cope. Instead of drawing them closer together, his convalescence had been the end of his marriage. And the beginning of his new life with Maria.
The last details of the divorce had finally been settled upon and he would finally be free. The kids were doing a little better now. Hopefully, time would bring them healing so when he introduced them to Maria upon her return they would accept her.
Turning the corner onto his much quieter street, his apartment building came into view. It was just beyond an old subway station. The windows in the buildings lining the street were darkened in the late hour. Only a few were illuminated with the glow of a vid screen or lamp. It seemed unusually dark and it took him a second to realize all the street lamps were out. Stopping in mid-stride, he studied his surroundings. The stairways to the apartments were all drawn up and several SWD security cars were tucked into the shadows with their lights off.