The tower basement was musty, but the power arrays were still generating enough power for them to get the lights on and power up the single recovery chamber embedded in the concrete wall. Dekker, a detail of three Marines and the senior corpsman stood facing the contraption. The sound of footsteps coming down the staircase echoed around the room as Lt. Simmons lead two of her men dragging the handcuffed pilot into the room. His face was bloodied and swollen, but he was conscious. The two men marched him into the center of the room and let him drop to the floor. The man grunted as his knees smacked the concrete. He looked tired and worn down by pain, but he didn’t look scared. His eyes were too vacuous to be defiant, but whatever he knew was hidden too deep for the claws of pain to get at.
Dekker glared at Lt. Simmons. “What’s this?” he asked.
“Sir, this is our freighter pilot.” She stood as straight as she could, despite the fatigue Dekker could see creasing her face.
“Go on,” Dekker said.
“Sir, he’s some kind of tough guy. He won’t talk.”
Dekker lifted a brow and approached the pilot, deliberately thumping the concrete with the heel of his left boot as he walked. “Is that right?”
“I need to get him back home for a sequenced debrief. We’ll get it.”
The pilot stared at the floor as Dekker paced in a circle around him. “Yeah, we don’t have time for that.” He nodded at his detail. The three armed Marines stomped over to the pilot and hoisted him to his feet. Dekker moved to the console on the wall next to the chamber and pounded the hatch release with the back of his fist. The steel latches holding the door in place clunked open and let it swing open. His Marines threw the pilot into the chamber and he crumpled to the floor.
Lt. Simmons took a step forward and blurted out, “Colonel.” Dekker shot her a glance. She didn’t say anything more, but she held her position. Dekker turned back to the pilot and crouched down in front of him. “Look here, tough guy. I get it. Major Walker, he’s -” Dekker tilted his head to the side. “He’s one of those men people are willing to die for even when they finally realize just what that means.” Dekker cupped the man’s chin, forcing him to look up. The eyes were glassed over, but not in the way of defeat. Whatever was left of him was buried deep inside, locking out the world around him. Dekker let go and the man’s chin fell to his chest. “I know what it’s like. I was his Foot Guard at one time. Did you know that? I would have died for that man without a second thought. But you and I know it’s more than that. It’s not about the dying. It’s like you’re sacrificing yourself on an altar to the last thing about us that makes any of it matter.”
Dekker stood up and walked back to his detail. “Yeah, I get all of that.” The armed Marines pulled the man back out and lay him on his back. Dekker shut the chamber door, then caught the corpsman’s eye and nodded. He resented the sense of defeat settling into his heart, but he knew words would never work.
The corpsman knelt down and placed a recovery transmitter on the pilot’s chest. The pilot whimpered and his eyes flared. The corpsman slapped the top of the transmitter and a thin veil of orange light spread out over the pilot’s body. A pop filled the room as the light flashed and then vanished. The pilot was gone.
The coils behind the chamber filled the room with a growling hum as the chamber flooded with cold steam and the millions of microscopic cells scrambling to assemble themselves. A form began to coalesce as the steam gathered into the vortex that preceded every re-assembly. The form gurgled and then, just as it became recognizable as a human being, let out a screeching wail that drowned out the coil’s hum and the vortex slashing at the sides of the chamber. It reached through the thick plastic of the chamber door and filled the room as if it were the only sound in the universe. Dekker clenched his fists, forcing himself to keep his eyes open and remain standing even as his knees started to buckle.
The steam receded and the latches holding back the chamber door slammed open. The door swung open and the pilot tumbled out onto the floor, gagging. Dekker turned the man over on his back and saw stark terror staring back at him as the man worked his jaw, gasping for air. He coughed and reached up to clutch at Dekker’s chest. Dekker waited for the man to recover and said, “About now, you would normally receive a post-construction sedative. They say it’s to ease the discomfort. But it’s really to keep you from losing your mind. In the early days, they didn’t have the sedative. Four, maybe five rounds, was all anybody could take.” He signalled for the corpsman to re-attach the transmitter. The pilot hadn’t recovered control of his own muscles and weaved his hands through the air as if he were in a drunken stupor as he tried to push it away. The corpsman lay the transmitter on the pilot’s chest. Dekker grabbed the pilot’s hands and said, “Then they just went off the deep end.”
He stood up and told the corpsman, “Scan him this time.” He pulled a gray box from a cargo pocket and handed it over. The corpsman gasped, jerking his head back. Dekker shoved the box closer. “Scan him.” The corpsman frowned and then reached out to take the box, cradling it in his hand as if it were a bomb ticking down the last seconds of his own life.
“Colonel!” Lt. Simmons yelled from across the room. “This is not a sanctioned protocol. We do not do this sort of thing anymore.”
Dekker held the corpsman’s eye for a moment longer before turning to face Lt. Simmons.
“Lieutenant,” he said, striding towards her. “You need to calm down.” He stopped close enough that he could feel her breath as she jutted her chin out, fuming. “Or I’ll put you in a tube myself.”
“You’re threatening a commissioned officer of the MEF S-2 division?” she asked. He probably would have said the same thing in her position. “Interrogation is my jurisdiction. Me. Bravo One Nine,” she said.
“And if you had done your job, we wouldn’t be standing here, Lieutenant!” he yelled. He stared at Lt. Simmons, burrowing his gaze into her until he detected a quiver run along her cheek. In a low voice, he said, “I told you to get him to talk so it wouldn’t come to this. Remember?”
“You failed to follow my orders, Lieutenant. Do you want me to allow the mission to fail because of that?”
Lt. Simmons glanced away. “Of course not, sir.”
“Then step back and let me do your job.” Her eyes flared, but she said nothing. He stepped aside so she could see the pilot writhing on the floor. He was giving her a choice. Her eyes fluttered and she stepped back.
Turning back to the corpsman, Dekker said, “Again.”
The pilot scrambled to get to his feet. “No!” he shouted. The Marines wrestled the pilot back to the ground as Dekker knelt down next to him and looked into his eyes. “We’re going to scan you this time. You can try to block it. And then we’ll do this a third time. After that, it gets dicey. You know, forcing me to do it the hard way – that’s honorable. They’ll whisper about you for generations. The man who tried to save the Paladin. While we’re in there, in your mind, looking for what we need, I want you to think about this. When we get to the point where you’ve lost your mind and all you have left are the nightmares that never let you go – when we get there, I’m not going to sedate you. I’m not going to kill you. No. I’m going to strap an IV to your arm and make sure you never go back to sleep. And those nightmares will be there, rampaging inside your head. And you’ll never be able to run away from them.” Dekker pointed at the corpsman, who planted the transmitter on the pilot’s chest and slapped the device, triggering the next veil of light to consume the pilot and start the chamber coils rumbling again.
Dekker clenched his teeth so hard they hurt. An ache welled up inside and seized his chest, straining to gush out of him like an erupting volcano. He pushed it back down with the force of his own will and felt it recede, but not nearly far enough. He turned his head away from the others as a single tear found its way onto his cheek. He shook his head, flinging the drop away. He had orders. Like his outnumbered Marines holding back the Second Brigade, his own will seemed to look back at him and ask a question.
How long would orders be enough?
©2016 Michael J Lawrence