by Allen Stroud
“Name and rank?”
“Corporal Isaiah Thomson.”
“Please take a seat, Corporal.”
The woman sat in front of me is wearing a hazmat suit. She’s the first person to come and see me since I was isolated. I guess this is what I have to get used to now. I was the jailor, now I’m the inmate.
I sit down and stare at the face under the plastic hood. I have concussion from the fight with Lieutenant Petyaeva and I’m struggling to focus. She’s white American I guess, and wearing glasses. I can’t remember her from the canteen or anywhere else on the base. On her chest is a small camera, its active recording light winking at me.
“Corporal, firstly, I’d like to apologise to you on behalf of this facility. Your exposure to what should have been a contained subject is something we take very seriously.”
“Yeah, I know.” She means what she says. I did, when I said the same words to people we kept down here, but I didn’t understand what they meant from the other side.
I do now.
“How long has it been?” I ask.
“Approximately seven hours,” the woman says.
“And who are you?”
I’m staring at her and she flinches. “Please don’t make this more difficult than it already is, Corporal,” she says.
I nod, understanding immediately. Personal connection with people who are infected is discouraged. It’s probably why no-one I know has been down here. They’re already pulling away, trying to insulate themselves from me. “Okay, why do you need to talk to me?”
“This is a preliminary assessment of your condition. I need you to let me know how you’re feeling.”
“Like shit. I was betrayed by Lieutenant Petyaeva. You know that right?”
“Yes, she betrayed all of us.”
“You’re the one in the suit, Doc, not me. I get to stare at the concrete walls.”
She flinches again at the casual use of a title, as if she’s going to deny the label, but I know it’s accurate. She has to be from the core research team, shipped on the train I heard arrive earlier. One of the junior members I guess, that’d be why she’s been given this task. “So what number do you have for me, Doc?” I try to keep the question casual. Am I seventeen? eighteen?”
“Twenty-two, Corporal Johnson. Now if we could get back to the—”
“You want to know my symptoms? Right now, I’m sweaty, stressed and dehydrated. After the containment protocols were applied, I had the shakes for about an hour, pretty much the same as when we get back from a mission. Usually, we’re issued pills, but down here, I guess I missed out.”
“So, nothing unusual then?”
“Not at the moment, Doc.”
She picks up a piece of paper from the table. I can see a list of handwritten notes. I know they’ll incinerate anything that’s been exposed to me after the meeting is over. They’ll probably burn the suit too.
“Are you suffering from any memory problems?” she asks.
“Sure. I struggle to remember my kid’s faces, but then they died twelve years ago in the war. Some days I don’t want to see them again; not the way they looked, all broken and twisted when I found them.”
“Corporal, that isn’t what I—”
“Yeah, I know.”
I could get angry with her, but there’s no point. She’s doing the task they’ve given her, that’s all. I know what I am, what the lieutenant turned me into.
I grew up in Hyattstown, Maryland, in a military family. My Dad, Private Ben Thomson, served in Afghanistan. My grandfather, Sergeant Louis Thomson, fought in Vietnam. My grandma said he didn’t talk about what happened. When I was a kid, a couple of his war buddies would come around and they’d all sit on the porch together while I played with my toy cars. I remember them sitting in silence, drinking beer and staring down the street. At the time, I thought it was weird. When my friends came around, we talked a lot, catching up on stuff, telling stories, all sorts. These old men just sat together. What was the point in that?
I asked my grandfather about it once. “Sometimes you just need people to be there,” he said to me. “Reminds you what you shared and why you keep going.”
Right now, there’s no-one here for me.
“When was the last time you ate, Corporal?”
I shrug. “They pushed a tray through the door a while back.” I point to where it is on the floor. “I finished it off. No point in missing a meal when it’s offered.”
Stuck in the suit, the woman has to turn her whole body to see what I’m looking at. She stands up to make things easier and to ensure the camera gets a picture of what I’ve gestured at. “Your test results haven’t come back yet, so in the meantime, we have to take every precaution. A team will be in shortly to organise all this,” she says. “It really should have been done by now, but we’ve had some problems.”
“What kind of problems?”
She looks at me. “Containment problems.”
I nod. “It’s okay, I can wait.” Truthfully, I can. Right now, I’m not a priority, if Harlson and his people haven’t managed to lock down the base. I’ve stewed in my own shit before, sitting around the blood, guts and stink of my mission team whilst waiting for vehicle extraction. You die a little inside in moments like that; in moments like this.
“We need to get you wired up,” the woman says. She hasn’t sat down again and edges out from the chair, leaving the questionnaire on the desk between us. She reaches into a pocket and pulls out a pen. “Take a look through the rest of this and answer anything you can. A clean up team will be along shortly, please follow their instructions.”
“Sure thing, Doc.”
“Thank you for your time, Corporal Thomson.”
“It was my pleasure.”
I believe in the mission.
Twenty-five years ago, I was an eighteen-year-old kid with a pretty good GPA. My mother did not want me to enlist like my father and grandfather, but we couldn’t afford college. She got me odd jobs helping out around a kindergarten. Miss James, the principal, must have seen something she liked in my work, because gradually she gave me more responsibility.
Back then, people were worried about gun crime. Staff like me went on emergency response courses, taking us through what we should be doing if some crazy guy showed up and started shooting at the kids. I was pretty good at all the tasks and afterwards, the instructor told me I was wasted working in a school. He gave me a card for Vanadium Inc, Tobias West’s company, and said “People like you are going to be needed. Really needed.”
A couple of weeks later, I rang the number and after a short phone interview, accepted a new job. I never went back to Miss James and the school. Instead, I packed a bag, left home and got picked up by a guy in a black SUV down the street.
I never went back, or saw my family again. Sure, I checked in on them, using Facebook and shit to find out what they were up to when I could, but I didn’t pick up the phone, write a letter or make a trip. If I had, they would have tried to talk me into coming back home. I wasn’t ready for that, so I just avoided the conversation.
Maybe that’s running away from my problems, eh? Thing is, being here, being part of Vanadium and New Jericho means something. Sure, back then I could help kids, watch them learn and grow up, taking opportunities I never had, but here? People live or die based on what I do.
Besides, I’d never have survived the civil war, the mists or any of it, if I hadn’t been part of the plan.
Back when I joined, Vanadium was a smaller company, not small, but smaller. I met Tobias West a few times and got put on his security detail for a couple of years. He always struck me as a guy trying to do the right thing. He had a way of taking complex problems and breaking them down, so we could all work out what we needed to do.
In the worst days, we needed individuals with a plan; a vision for how to make all this right. People came to the Vanadium facilities looking for answers. They stayed, because they found them.
For me, it was always a simple equation. This is our world. It doesn’t belong to aliens. We have to defend it for our grandchildren, in the same way previous generations sacrificed themselves for us.
I got to play with toy cars on the porch because father and grandfather did what they did. Sure, you can argue about that if you want. I mean, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Germany weren’t exactly on the doorstep, for any of us, but we knew the enemy then and we know the enemy now.
Except, now, at the moment, I’m the enemy.
The clean up team comes in. They’re all wearing the same bulking anti-contamination gear. I can’t tell how long its been since the woman was here, but enough time has passed for the girl’s body to stink out the whole room. I’m pretty used to the smell you get from dead bodies when the bowel muscles relax. They don’t put that in the books or the films.
They lead me out into the corridor. The whole place has been lined with a flexible plastic tunnel, to keep every bit of me away from anyone else. It’s overkill, but necessary. At this stage, the majority of pandoravirus infections are not contagious and unless there’s significant biological interaction, I’m unlikely to infect anyone else. I can’t see any of these folks looking to get naked and dirty with me any time soon.
The probability of me having caught the virus from this containment breach is almost zero, I know that from experience. We go on away missions all the time and when we do, we take precautions when we encounter the enemy, but we’re still breathing air and coming into contact with plants, rocks, and stuff.
The aliens don’t care about us unless we make them care about us. When they do want you, they take you. To them, infection is a weapon, just like a gun. Sure, we fight to survive, but we don’t pick on the creatures we can’t handle. To the biggest land predators, or whatever lurks in the oceans, we’re less than nothing. We survive by staying that way. The minute they think we’re an itch to be scratched, we get wiped out.
Something must have made them target us, using that girl, Subject 16.
Something Colonel Harlson is doing. Or something Tobias West ordered him to do?
I’m placed in an empty cell; a small box in a bigger room, with transparent walls, a single chair, a bucket and a mattress. The same conditions the girl had. Once the door is locked, the clean-up team disappear quickly, leaving me alone.
My head really hurts. I sit on the chair and stare at the bed. I’d like to sleep, but I know I won’t – I can’t, not with a concussion. I need to do is sit here and go through quarantine. Eventually, things will settle down. They’ll test my blood and saliva and when it comes back negative, they’ll let me out.
I’m thinking about Lieutenant Petyaeva. Instinctively, my hands ball into fists. Why did she do that? Why risk both of us and the rest of the base?
I’d love to ask her those questions, but I don’t trust myself to be in a room with her, not after what she—
I look up. Colonel Harlson is standing in the guard post, twenty feet or so away, leaning over the microphone, his grey hair making him instantly recognisable. I stand up and salute. He returns the gesture with his artificial hand. “At ease soldier, you’ve earned a rest today.”
“Not sure I can take the opportunity, sir. I took a pretty hard hit to the head.”
“Yeah, I heard.” Harlson limps out of the room and up to the glass wall in front of me, favouring his mechanised leg. He looks up at the ceiling and I follow his gaze, noticing the cameras…
The red recording light isn’t on.
That means cameras are switched off.
“I need you to do something for me, Corporal,” Harlson says. “It’s kind of a special mission.”
“Of course, sir.”
Harlson nods. “Yeah, you might not have joined the U.S. Army, but it’s in your blood. That’s why I need you. I need someone I can trust implicitly with this.”
“You can count on me, Colonel.”
“You know we were recruited by the same person? The guy who spoke to you on the phone was Albert Siennes. You were his last just as I was his first. Al worked for Vanadium all his life before the cancer got him. Just think, if you hadn’t talked to him, you’d be dead.”
“I didn’t know Mr. Siennes, sir. We only spoke once.”
“Yeah, well, we’re connected.” Harlson looks down and shifts his feet awkwardly. “Your test results will come back shortly. They will indicate you’re infected with the virus. I’m really sorry, but we need you to be declared infected.”
I frown and walk around the table, closing the distance between us. “Declared infected? Sir, what does that mean I—”
“It means you have a special mission, Corporal, like I said.” Harlson raises his hand. Metal fingers touch the glass in front of my face. We’re inches apart, but separated by the screen. I can see he’s sweating. He’s asking for something that unsettles him, something that goes against his nature. “You’ll be kept in quarantine, following the usual protocols, just like the others, but you won’t be interviewed, I’ll see to that.”
“Sir, I don’t understand—”
Harlson taps on the glass. “You’re not supposed to understand. Just do as you’re told. Something will happen, and you’ll be let out and given instructions by me, along with the other inmates. If you complete the task assigned to you and there’s any other survivors, your orders are to terminate them, got it?”
“Terminate… the survivors?”
“The other infected subjects, yes.” Harlson steps back and runs a hand through his hair, composing himself. “Once that’s done, you are to travel three klicks due west of here to Colby’s Break. Follow the stream for another two K’s. There will be a retrieval team waiting for you. They’ll take you to a secure facility, you’ll be retested, and everything will go back to normal.”
I stare at him. At face value, these orders don’t make a lot of sense, but he’s right in a way, do I need them to make sense? This is a way out – a way to get back to my life. All I have to do is trust the base commander, something I’ve been doing ever since I came here.
Will he betray me?
An alarm sounds and Harlson turns around, walking quickly back to the guard post. He presses the microphone. “Our time is up, Corporal. Remember what you’ve been told.” He flips me a salute. I hesitate, but then return the gesture.
A moment later, he is gone.
I need to decide what I’m going to do.