Preston politely greeted the receptionist seated behind the sliding glass, informing her of the reason for his presence, though he got the impression she was already well aware. Marcy inviting him to take a seat in one of the waiting room chairs, Preston turned from the registration desk and found one next to an end table piled with magazines. He knew he was unlikely to find one that interested him much but thumbed through them anyway. He stopped as he came upon one covering current events topics, a photo of a uniformed man, an American soldier, standing next to a Humvee in a landscape familiar to Preston. Pulling the magazine from the stack, he stared at the cover for a moment before thumbing through it to the article and skimming it.
He felt his muscles tightening,his jaw clenching, the heat of irrittation bordering on anger rising in his chest as he read. The article conveyed to the reader the usual half truths...or maybe not half truths so much as only telling half the story. Upon further consideration however, Preston acknowledged the limits of letters, though an expert in them himself, to accurately portray the situation. Words on a page, no matter how complete and factual, could never substitute for being there in the midst of it. Unless someone had been, unless they had seen with their own eyes they could never fully comprehend. As the article related the number of deaths of those that had been deployed into that hellscape, Preston thought how meaningless were those numbers on the page. He’d seen death up close and in person. That number didn’t include all those who had returned home maimed and scarred, both physically and mentally. In the time that both American, British and troops of other nations had first put boots down in the sweltering mountains and deserts of Afghanistan to today, he had gone from a brash, impatient and cocky kid attempting to put on the airs of being a man to a mature, even tempered, circumspect intellectual and academic.
Anne had said many times that she wished the two of them would have met far earlier in their lives but he had to wonder if they had whether she would have felt the same about the man he was then. Would he have felt the same about her? He had been more narrow minded in those days and as was true of many young people, perhaps most, had confused lust with love.
He thought of Whitby, one of that number of the cumulative deaths of coalition forces stated in the article, how he had been the last thing the young man had seen, the last person Whitby had spoken to before the soldier’s life had been unexpectedly snuffed out in an instant. He had most likely been the last person his grandmother had spoken to shortly before her passing as well. It was not an honor he relished. The last person Whitby’s eyes should have fallen upon before departing this life should have been his girl...the one he had oft spoken of, almost to the point of obsession, Evelyn if he remembered the name right, or his mother who had brought him into the world and whom he also had spoken highly of on many occasions, usually while pining to be back home, remembering family meals around the table and his mother’s cooking.
Preston had been unable to relate unless he substituted his grandmother for his mother, his own mother having been found dead of alcohol poisoning when Preston was eight. Actually it had been Preston that had found her upon rising that morning and curious as to why she wasn’t in her usual place at the kitchen table, a bottle of whiskey next to her coffee mug, sought her out, entering her bedroom to find her cold and dead in her bed, though he hadn’t realized it right away. He had made his own breakfast, as he often did even at that age, and watched the tele until lunch time. When she still hadn’t risen and he found her in the exact same position as before, he then knew something was very wrong. He had picked up the phone on the bedside table and called the only number he remembered...Nan’s. She had been there almost before he could hang up the phone it had seemed to him, though he knew that wasn’t possible.
He wondered what would have become of him if not for her. There had been no one else. It was almost like something from a Dicken’s novel, Preston had often thought. His mother and father had both been only children, his father dying from an aneurysm shortly after Preston had turned four, two years after his parents had separated and divorced, and he hardly remembered the man, though Nan had told him several times that he greatly favored him and from the photographs he had seen, it was an accurate statement. His mother had taken the split with his father hard and he had often wondered if seeing a child version of him everday in her son to remind her of the loss had fed into her descent into alcoholism.His father’s parents had died before his birth, killed in a road accident caused by a drunk driver. His maternal grandfather, ten years Nan’s senior, had died only a year before his mother, suffering a massive stroke while at the kitchen table eating soup, falling forward face first into the bowl. Was his number the next one up he couldn’t help but think as he sat waiting to be called back to meet with Dr. Waller.
Placing the magazine back into the stack, he attempted to refocus his mind on more positive thoughts, thinking of how Nan often told him as a boy when he was down or had suffered some sort of disappointment or setback to keep his pecker up, which led him to recall the time he had offhandedly and without thinking used the phrase with Anne not long after they had first met and she had failed to win a commission for her paintings which had also been not long after he had first arrived in the U.S. He couldn’t help but smile remembering the shocked and confused look on her face followed by her laughter as he quickly realized his mistake and explained the meaning of the phrase.
“Alan? Dr. Waller’s ready for you. I’ll take you back now.” Marcy, the receptionist said as she stood at the open door that led back to the exam rooms and offices. Standing, Preston attempted to examine her facial expression and demeanor without it being too obvious, looking for any hint or clue as to what he was about to hear. Marcy, however, was a professional with years of experience, keeping the same friendly and neutral tone and expression with all patients no matter the situation.
Preston entered Dr. Waller’s private office, Dr. Waller rising from his chair behind the desk as he entered as Preston thanked Marcy, she giving him a smile in return as she closed the door.
“Mr. Preston...Alan...please have a seat.” Waller said as Preston approached the desk, Waller extending his hand, Alan taking it before following Waller’s instructions, Waller returning to his seat as well. A short silence fell over the two, Preston looking to Dr. Waller expectantly. “Well…I won’t keep you waiting any longer, I’m going to just get on with it. You have a condition called myelodyplastic syndrome. I’ll keep it simple and you can research the finer details later and of course I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have. I’ll also be referring you to a specailist.It’s a type of cancer of the blood. Blood cells don’t mature so you have a shortage which is why you’ve been experiencing the symptoms you described.”
Preston felt his body freeze up as his brain went numb at the mention of the dreaded ‘c’ word. He struggled to make his mouth move and form words.
“Is there a cure? A treatment? What will….is it...how long….” Preston struggled as he spoke.
“It’s rare in someone your age, especially the type you suffer from. There are treatments that can help with the symptoms, for awhile anyway. You may have two or three to even five years left where with treatment you’ll feel pretty decent, almost normal but after that it will almost certainly progress to AML, acute myeloid leukemia. When that happens, it’s months...sometimes weeks. There’s been some success in putting people into remission with stem cell transplants but I’m not hopeful we’ll find a match and with no living close relatives, it’s even less likely, but I’ll get you on the list.”
“I’m dying?” Preston asked,barely able to bring his voice above a whisper. His entire body felt as if he’d just been dunked in a vat of ice water. He had a similar sensation to what he had experienced in the seconds after the mortars had exploded, sending the jagged shard of shrapnel into his chest that he had recently relived in his dream.
“Unless a match is found and soon and then it’s only about a 30% chance of remission, it’s a terminal condition, yes. I’m sorry, Alan. This is the part of my job I hate. I wish I had better news.” Dr. Waller paused for a moment as what he had told Preston continued to sink in. “You were in the military back home, am I right? Did a stint in Afghanistan?”
“Yes….do you think something there...that I could have been exposed to something...that it caused this?” Preston said, still fighting to put his thoughts together into coherent sentences.
“Possibly, There’s no way to know for sure. There’s a plethora of things one can be exposed to that can bring it on along with genetics and just being exposed to any of those things is no guarantee one will come down with it. There’s a lot that’s still unknown. There’s someone I’d like you to meet, if you’re willing, they may be able to help you make the most of the time you have left. Would you be interested?”
“I suppose at this point I’ve nothing to lose…” Preston replied. “Are they in town? Will I need to travel-”
“Actually, they’re here now. They’re in the conference room. I’ll introduce you.” Dr. Waller said, standing up and moving around the desk. Preston stood up unsteadily, obviously in a state of shock. Waller moved to stand before him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I am sorry, Alan, I really am. I wish there was more I could do. After you’ve talked to them I’ll meet back up with you and we’ll get started on the treatments, get your meds squared away.”
“Please, don’t tell Anne...I’ll do it.” Preston pleaded, Waller being her doctor as well. He knew that she would be seeing him soon to renew the prescription for her own meds for her condition.
“I couldn’t tell her if I wanted to...privacy laws and all that...but I suggest you don’t wait too long. It’s sort of like what they say about deciding when to have children...if you wait for the ‘right’ time, the ‘right’ time will never come. Follow me…” Waller said, walking to the door of the office and opening it, Preston trailing behind him.
Leading Preston down a long hallway, Dr. Waller reached a door at the end of it and opened it, holding it and stepping aside as Preston, who continued to look stunned and almost zombified, entered. Two men in military uniform stood up from where they’d been seated at a conference table, a laptop computer on the table in front of them, a chair placed across the table from them, briefcases leaning against their chairs.
“Mr Preston?” the taller of the two uniformed men asked.
“Yes…” Preston responded. Dr. Waller quietly exited the room, closing the door behind him.
“I’m Colonel Andrew Crewson and this is Lieutenant Colonel Scott Stillwell. We’re sorry to have to meet under these circumstances. You have our sympathy. Please, sit.”
“Thank you.” Preston said, languidly moving to the chair, his legs feeling as if they were weighted or there had been an increase in the strength of the pull of gravity. The two men patiently waited for him to reach the chair and seat himself before they finally sat back down.
“You were deployed to Afghanistan, am I correct?”
“I did my bit...three tours, eighteen months...I would likely have been sent back for a fourth but I’d been wounded. I recovered and served out the rest of my time back home before leaving the service.”
“We’ve looked over your service records. You received more than a few awards and commendations over the course of your service. I’m sure you’re well aware of what they are and your time is obviously valuable so I’ll save the trouble of listing them.” Preston sat somewhat stunned. How had they gotten hold of his records so quickly with such short notice, especially foreign service records? “You’re now a college professor?” Colonel Crewson asked.
“Yes...I studied at King’s College London, English Literature. I earned my-” Preston began as if he were sitting for a job interview. He’d been through so many before landing his current position that it was almost habitual even more than five years later.
“Yes, I see all that in your file. Let’s cut to the chase. This is the first time we’ve recruited a foreign service member but there’s not a huge difference between the way we and the UK do things.”
“I’m sorry….what are you recruiting me for, exactly? This all seems somewhat strange….”
“I’m sure it does. If you decide to join us you’ll be seeing a lot more strange. A year ago there was an accident in one of our research centers in the western U.S., outside a small town called Kirkstown, Nevada.. Research was being done on what we called A-T or Alternative Transport. Essentially we were attempting to develop a method of moving troops from one place to another almost instantaneously regardless of target location and distance and bypass enemy defenses.”
“Instantaneously?” Preston asked, puzzled.
“Yes, essentially we were attempting in a manner of speaking to ‘dig a tunnel’ through spacetime from one location to another.” Lieutenant Colonel Stillwell explained. Preston looked at the two officers in astonishment.
“Like a wormhole.” Preston said. Anne’s painting came to mind.
“You’re putting me on. Is this some sort of sick joke? When is some twat going to jump out with a camera?” Preston said.
“I assure you Mr. Preston, everything we are about to tell you is true. As I was saying, this accident inadvertently brought about an event we were in no way prepared for or could have foreseen. It led to a rip in the fabric of spacetime, creating a link or portal I guess you could say between our dimension and another, releasing creatures whose natures we don’t yet fully understand with devastating effects. We were finally able to gain control of the situation, but our hold on it remains precarious. I’d like you to see something.” Colonel Crewson said, turning the laptop screen to face Preston. A video began to play, Preston watching attentively.
The video was a series of surveillance camera footage. In it people attacked others without warning or seeming provocation on the streets, in businesses, outside homes, the attackers animalistic and in a frenzied state of rage, practically tearing their victims apart. Some of the attackers fell in a hail of bullets after being shot by police as they attacked them as well. Preston listened to the screams of the victims, a chill going through him and not from the effects of his newly diagnosed condition this time. He was sure he had just watched many people meet their end in a most horrific, bloody and violent manner.
“Bloody hell….” Preston said quietly. Colonel Crewson stopped the video and called up another.
“All of that took place within the span of an hour after the rift had opened. We were able to use our cover of a chemical manufacturer to explain the actions of the aggressors as being due to exposure to a chemical leak. This next video...we sent some of our people into the rift on a recon mission, hoping to discover a way to close it or at least contain whatever was entering our world from it. Within twenty four hours of their return, a few within minutes...well, you can see for yourself.” Crewson explained, playing the next video. It was a collection of footage from cameras in what appeared to be jail cells or cells of a mental institution.
The soldiers being held in captivity shrieked and howled like banshees or lunatics. One threw himself against the concrete wall of his cell repeatedly, his face now scraped, bruised, lacerated and bloody as were other parts of his body. Another sat on the floor of his cell, pulling huge hanks of hair from his scalp, blood running down his face. A third man looked directly at the camera as he dug his fingernails into the flesh of his own face starting above his eye and moving downwards,practically tearing that side of his face off, the flesh hanging in strips.
“Alright...I’ve seen enough.” Preston said. Colonel Crewson stopped the video. “I don’t understand...you have a whole military full of much younger people with more recent training. Why would you want someone who’s dying?”
“We’d sent men in in every sort of protective equipment out there but nothing made any difference until we discovered, by accident really, that the answer was to block out sound. We also screen all those returning and place them in a short term hibernation for twenty four hours afterwards, monitoring their vitals and brain waves for any signs they’ve been effected. Though we’ve solved that problem, there’s another. After repeated exposure to the environment inside the rift the body begins to show signs of deterioration. By only going in every two weeks, that process will take longer before the symptoms become debilitating, for most anyway. How long did Dr. Waller say you have left?”
“So you’re looking for people who are going to die anyway. I suppose that makes sense. Three to five years but it could be a little shorter or longer than that. I suppose it depends on how my body responds to the treatment. What is it you need people to do in there?”
“Aside from protecting the researchers who are studying it and attempting to find a way to close it, we’ve erected a series of ‘nets’ to prevent these entities or creatures from reaching the rift and crossing through. The problem is though that something about that place drains batteries far faster than usual so they need to be replaced. We usually send in teams of four or five, one or two to do the change-overs and the rest to cover them as they do their work and protect them from whatever might be lurking nearby and become attracted.”
“What’s in it for me?” Preston asked.
“You’ll be given housing, a vehicle and medical treatment and you’ll be paid very generously. If you have a partner they will be provided for for the remainder of their life and quite generously as well. They’ll never have to work a day again if they don’t wish to. Any children will receive an education at any university they are accepted to tuition free all the way through a Ph.D if they wish to progress that far and preference when it comes to considerations of employment for which they’re qualified, in either the public or private sector. When the time comes, your final expenses will be covered. You’ll only be required to be on site for five days every two weeks, leaving you with plenty of time to spend with them. As long as you report for duty on your assigned days you can do what you wish with that time. Travel,see the world, take up a new hobby, all the things you always wanted to do but never had the time or money. Are you married? Do you have a family?”
“No, I don’t have a family. No children. I have a girlfriend. Her name’s Anne Tuley. She’s a professor at the university as well...department of fine arts. We’ve been together five years and lived together for nearly four. What about Anne’s position at the university if she’d want to return…..after….” Preston asked.
“That can be arranged.” Colonel Crewson answered. Preston was silent for a moment, processing all the information that he’d been given in such a short span of time and after such a shock to his system. “If you agree, we can have you and Anne moved and settled within the week.”
“There’s still two weeks left of the semester. I would want to finish it out.”
“Understandable. I respect a man who sees things through.”
“What if I say no?”
“You have that option. This isn’t a draft. You have no obligation to agree. This information is of course highly classified so if you decide to decline our offer…” Colonel Crewson placed his briefcase on the table, removing a small black case. Opening it he revealed a pre-filled hypodermic needle. “It’s completely safe. You’ll only be unconscious a couple of hours and when you wake up you’ll recall nothing from the past twelve. Dr. Waller has a cover story in that event...a reaction to an injection I believe….which in a manner of speaking is true. Of course, we need your answer before you leave. If you do accept our offer, you’ll be required to sign a confidentiality agreement. You will be given a cover story to tell Anne about the new position you’ll be taking and what you’ll be doing. I think that about covers all the bases.”
“I know this is a lot to take in at one time and not much time to make a decision. There won’t be any medals, no parades, no one will know nor will they likely ever know….you won’t have single handedly saved the world and everyone in it, but you will have done your part to keep it safe in the time you have left.” Lieutenant Colonel Stillwell added.
Preston sat silently, contemplating, folding his hands on the table in front of him, his head bowed. He had once thought he was doing the same when he had gone to Afghanistan. Instead he had left there feeling as if he, and the British army as as a whole along with the rest of the coalition forces hadn’t accomplished anything, or at least nothing that was worth the lives that had been lost or forever altered. Two decades later it was clear from the article he had read in the waiting room that was the case.
His mind drifted back to something Robert had said in the room of the Bell and Candle. He had a handful of students every year that were invested in the subject matter, who truly seemed to care and be interested and it was those few that allowed him to derive satisfaction from his work...but the rest were as Robert had described. Just as he had after returning from Afghanistan, he often felt like he was accomplishing little to nothing. Anne enjoyed teaching but not nearly as much as painting. She had expressed a wish several times to someday open her own gallery, to give up teaching and paint full time. He had promised her he wasn’t going anywhere and now he was going to have to break that promise, though of course not willingly. He had planned to spend the remainder of a much longer life with her, he had envisioned the both of them someday retiring to some quiet place together, travelling, just enjoying what was left of their lives and each other. After all she had been through she had finally found happiness only for it to be wrenched away. He had to make that up to her somehow. Preston raised his head.
“Where do I sign?”