PRICE TO PAY
Sentinels of his nightmares, the chambers stared back at him. Steel encasements choking the air inside them, with convex plastic windows so he could see the dead space trapped within, they whispered to him even as they sunk a dagger of futility into his heart. Stand there. Witness what the soul of no man can endure. And I will show you who you truly are.
Dr. Sall had long given up trying to determine which came from his nightmares and which were real – the difference between them wasn’t enough to make either a solace from the other. What strength he had to endure came from knowing that the nightmare for the Marines who would soon writhe within the clutches of the chambers was far worse. They would need his help. If he didn’t run, he could save them from their agony. If he stayed, he could bring the comfort of unawareness and pull them from the claws of suffering that was torture just to watch, but impossible for the man inside the chamber to endure. Thirty seconds was all he needed. If he could stay for that long, ease the victim to the gurney standing next to him so his technicians could flood the victim’s body with sedatives, he could save them from what the chamber had done to them. After that, it would be a simple matter of life or death.
He clenched his fist, counting his own pulse by habit as his heart rose up to his throat. One of the technicians stared at the floor. Another quietly checked the portable monitoring equipment fastened to the side of the gurney. The yellow housing was faded and scraped from years of use. The small screen still worked, but many of the red LED readouts flickered or displayed only partial segments as some had burned out and there were no replacements. A faded white sheet, frayed along every edge, was draped over the gurney’s thin pad. A needle dangled at the end of the tube from an I.V. bag hanging on a flimsy infusion pole. The rails, made from the green resin common in so much of the equipment brought by the MEF, were sturdy but scratches and deep grooves had been dug into it from the countless trips where technicians had scraped the gurney against walls and doorways running it frantically from the chambers to the recovery bays.
A deep hum filled the room as the chamber in front of them activated. Deep inside the concrete walls behind it, coils surged with current and the hum rose until it became a steady vibration he could feel crawl from his feet and through every bone in his body. Behind the thick plastic windows covering the thick steel chamber door, cold steam started to seep into the interior with a hiss. The green LED counter above the chamber door flickered to life : 153. One of the technicians whispered, “Oh my God.” Sall clenched his teeth as an unseen mechanism squealed and then filled the room with a loud clunk. A grating buzzer started to sound at one second intervals.
“Alright people,” Sall said. “Incoming casualty.” A loud purge of steam jetted into the chamber, filling it entirely with a thick white cloud. The hum rose in pitch as another mechanism beneath the floor slammed into place with a clang. The chamber now glowed with a pale green light as a form began to emerge inside the steam. Sall closed his eyes when he heard the gurgling of something that wasn’t yet a man struggling to breathe. The hum leveled off and the form coalesced into something that looked vaguely human. The form wretched and coughed and then a hand slammed against the the chamber door window. A man screamed from both somewhere far away and just inside the chamber. A pair of eyes appeared from behind the steam.
The steel latches on the chamber door thumped open and it swung out on screeching hinges. The technicians reached in to grab the man, dragged his limp body out of the chamber and lay him on the gurney. Disoriented and swimming in panic, his eyes darted around the room. His feet flailed and his legs began to spasm as his mind remembered how to work the muscles of his body. A technician grabbed the I.V. needle and slipped it into the man’s arm while another pushed in the plunger of a syringe fastened to the I.V. tube. The man stopped flailing almost immediately, but his eyes still fluttered with panic.
Dr. Sall inspected the body. A wide swath of bandage stretched across his torso was soaked in blood. A technician grabbed another bandage from the resin shelves slung underneath the gurney and unrolled it over the old one, pulling it tight and tying it underneath his back.
“Let’s go,” Dr. Sall said.
The withering squeak of the the gurney’s wheels echoed off the concrete walls as one of the technicians pushed the gurney as fast as she could without losing control. While clear liquid dripped from the I.V. bag, the man’s head lolled as consciousness started to elude him.
“Hit him,” Sall said.
One of the technicians clutching at the rails of the gurney reached out with his hand to give the casualty a hard smack on his cheek. The man grimaced and then wailed in pain as he became aware of his surroundings again.
“Stay on point, Marine,” Sall instructed.
The man gasped, held his breath and then blurted out, “Sir.” He writhed on the gurney and started methodically punching his leg, lurching in pain each time. Suddenly aware of his surroundings, he asked, “You can fix this, right?” Dr. Sall didn’t respond as they swung around a corner and down the passageway towards the recovery bays.
As they approached the metal door to the medical bay, Sall eyed the camera above the frame and the door slid open. As they crossed the threshold, Sall’s team yanked the gurney to a halt and backed it into a recovery bay. One of the technicians pulled a stretched headband from a metal peg above the casualty’s head. Wires snaked from the headband to a yellow console filled with monitors, dials and switches. The technician lifted the man’s head and carefully slid the band over his forehead. The man’s head had gone limp and he did not react to the movement.
“Dammit,” Sall muttered. He gave a quick look to the technician, who then turned and hit the casualty again. The man coughed and gagged, then sucked in a gurgling breath.
“You still with us Marine?” the technician asked.
“Four oh” the man grunted back.
Colonel Dekker walked deliberately down the passageway that Sall and his team had been running down just moments before. His field utility blouse was smeared with smoke and blood and the sheen on his boots, made from a black resin fabric resembling leather, was covered in scrapes and scratches between patches of gloss from where he had shined them before the battle. He marched stiffly and carried his cover in his left hand. A short brush of hair sprung from his scalp, almost as if called to attention. As he approached the door, he stuck his right arm straight out in front of him. As the door slid open he slapped his palm against the cool metal frame and the door receded into the wall behind him. He stopped in the bay, looking right then left until he found the casualty recovery team that was already checking the telemetry from their scans of his wounded Marine.
“Dr. Sall,” he said. The doctor looked up with a flat stare.
Dekker moved next to the gurney and looked over the Marine stretched out in front of him. His eyes stopped at the bandage. Blood had soaked through both layers almost to the point of dripping. He shifted his gaze back to Sall, but the doctor ignored him, instead focusing on the monitors as the head band extracted information from the casualty so they would know every condition that needed attention.
“Wait,” Sall hissed. He poked at a button on the telemetry console and shook his head. “He was 153, Colonel. He shouldn’t have been brought back.”
“It was on my orders, Doctor.” Dekker said.
“Meanwhile, Marines we can save are waiting on a man who is already dead.”
“Doctor,” one of the technicians said softly.
The Marine’s eyes shot to Dekker. “Sir?”
Dekker moved around to stand next to him while Sall continued to jab at the monitor, switching between displays, all of which told him the same story. Finally, the main display lit up with a final message: INOPERABLE.
“Doctor,” Dekker said. When Sall turned to look at him and shook his head, Dekker’s shoulders slumped. “Is there anything you can do for him?” he asked.
Sall’s jaw tightened. “General, it’s not a guideline. It’s policy. There’s nothing I can do.”
Dekker closed his eyes and let a thin frown tug at the corners of his mouth.
Everyone watched the I.V. in silence as the diagnostic system automatically mixed a cocktail of drugs and sedatives to ease the Marine’s pain and induce rest. A virtual rainbow of liquids flowed through the tube and Dekker felt his heart sink.
All eyes shot to the patient’s face when he grunted, “No.”
“Dammit, why is he still up?” Sall asked. Nobody responded. There was nothing any of them could do about it now.
The Marine looked at Dekker and said, “Sir. You don’t have to do this. I can still fight. I’ll get through this.”
Dekker looked into the man’s eyes. They glistened with despair and a plea. Dekker’s face sagged and he suddenly felt the weight of his own aching body.
The Marine started muttering, “No no no no no.” Dekker eased his expression and looked at the man as if he were his own son.
“That’s fine, Marine. You’ve fulfilled your duty and have earned the right to retire from battle.”
“No sir, no. I can fight. You’ll see.” A technician reached into the cabinet beneath the diagnostic unit and pulled out a long black tube. She discretely inserted it into the I.V. valve and then pulled out a black grip with a squeeze trigger that regulated the tube’s flow. She held it out to Dekker, waiting for him to take it.
Dekker reached down to touch the Marine’s forehead and said, “You have fought valiantly, in keeping with the highest traditions of honor, duty and service to your people. You reflect great credit on yourself and the Colonial Marines.”
Dekker reached out for the trigger grip as if it were a coiled snake.
“No sir. please.”
Dekker squeezed the valve trigger to start the flow of fluid through the black tubing. “Remember, Marine. So that they shall not perish.” The man blinked at him as he started to fade. “Say it, Marine. Tell me your oath.”
The Marine’s eyes fluttered and his breathing grew shallow. He took in a last breath and whispered, “So that they shall not perish.”
Dekker dropped the grip on the gurney and closed his eyes.
In a sterile voice, Dr. Sall said, “Time of death: 29.17 colonial zone time.”
Dekker swung around and pounded towards the door without looking back. Once on the other side, he leaned against the wall and stared at a flickering light fixture anchored in the concrete ceiling. Around the corner, the hum of a chamber’s coils reverberated through the floor and the clang of steel filled the air as it assembled another casualty. Dekker felt a shudder when he heard a man scream. He slumped down against the wall and buried his face in his arms. He wanted to stand up and run. He wanted to keep running until his legs gave out or the acrid air of Shoahn’tu seared his lungs to the point that all they had left was his own scream of agony.
Instead, he forced himself to listen as another chamber rumbled to life while his Marines screamed out against the darkness.
©2016 Michael J Lawrence