A year later….
Preston’s eyes fluttered open as he squinted, adjusting to the overhead lights, much as he’d done his last night at Nan’s upon switching on the bulb in the bathroom. The heaviness he had experienced right before succumbing to the drugs had lifted and he felt almost as if he were floating for a few moments as his mind and body worked to reconnect. It was a pleasant feeling. Awakening was always pleasant for those few moments before his brain spun up to full alertness, reminding him of reality.
He turned his head to the right to see Branson had still not regained consciousness. Kelly, however, was fully alert and out of bed already, he was usually the first, and was at Branson’s bedside, a marker in hand, a sly grin on his face, looking down at Branson’s hand that he had positioned palm up, doodling something into it. The medic nearby, seeing Preston open his eyes and move his head, moved swiftly to his side, removing the IV from his arm and the electrodes from his head and chest.
Preston sat up as the medic moved away, attempting to discern what exactly Kelly was doing. Approaching the other side of Branson’s gurney Preston saw that on Branson’s palm Kelly had doodled female eyes with long lashes and a set of full lips...his version of ‘Ms. Palmer.’
“You must be off your trolley, Kelly. Branson’s going to knock you arse over elbow when he sees that.”
“I don’t care. It’ll be worth it.” Kelly said as he added a few more details to his illustration. Preston walked back to his gurney and looked to the stand that had once held the tray upon which had rested the hypodermic. In its place now sat a stack of neatly folded clothing of the same green shade every other article of clothing seemed to be dyed. Preston grabbed the pants, slipping them on over his shorts and pulled the shirt over his head. Sitting on the gurney, he pulled on the socks and grabbed the boots that sat under the stand, putting them on and tying them tightly. Rising once again, Preston glanced once more at Kelly as he replaced the cap on the marker before Preston turned, walking away, making his way around the screens, unable to help grinning. He’d played more than his fair share of similar pranks on his comrades after a bender when he was Kelly’s age. He’d also been the victim of about an equal number.
Preston made his way down a sterile looking corridor until reaching a closed door with a nameplate attached and knocked.
“Enter.” Colonel Crewson’s voice called out, muffled by the thick metal door. Preston turned the knob and stepped inside, closing it behind him. “Preston. Good to have you back with us.”
“Speaking of being back with us, any news about Wells?”
“He won’t be rejoining us. He’s at Samaritan. I’m afraid he’s about to get his ticket punched. They’re keeping him comfortable but that’s about all they can do. I know….he’s only been with us half as long as you have. They didn’t think it was that aggressive. Looks like they were wrong. Going in might have hastened it some but I doubt it was that much. If we’d known we would have classified him 4F and not wasted our time. I know...that sounds harsh, but we have a job to do”
“I understand which is why I wanted to speak with you. If I’m to do that job I need the men to do it and to do it right. It was a close call with Branson yesterday. I only have two eyes and unfortunately none in the back of my head. Four’s not enough, not anymore. We’ve gotten lucky so far.”
“We have two more coming up, they’ll be completing the training next week. One’s going to your team and the other to Beta. Believe it or not it’s hard to find men with military training who are terminal yet young enough and going to be on their feet long enough to be of any use to us. Wells is a case in point. Then they have to agree to do it. Even with the money, it’s not an easy sell, for obvious reasons, especially to the ones that have a family. They feel like they’ve done their time, it’s someone else’s turn to ‘save the world’ and want to spend all the time they can with them. I don’t blame them. And if they don’t have anyone they think, ‘who gives a shit?’ You can’t take it with you and they won’t be here much longer so why should they care?”
“Wells...does he have anyone? Is there anyone with him now?” Preston asked.
“No, I’m afraid not. I went and saw the poor bastard this morning to verify his final wishes. Lifelong bachelor. He had a sister but she drowned in the pool when she was three. His father passed from the same cancer when he was a teenager so obviously it was genetic. His mother’s living but in a home somewhere, doesn’t even know who she is let alone anyone else. She’s not that old, at least by today’s standards, early sixties...guess it was the early onset type. That was his reason for joining up, to make sure her expenses would be taken care of until she passes. They weren’t all that well off, especially with the breadwinner clocking out early. That kind of care, especially in a top notch facility like we found for her, isn’t cheap. She could linger for another twenty years or more.”
“Hard lines...seems like that’s the case with most of us. Sometimes I wonder if-” Preston said before cutting himself off..
“Wonder if what?” Crewson asked.
“So how are you holding up?” inquired Crewson.
“Alright I suppose. I’m feeling pretty good actually. Maybe being forced to sleep for a whole day...”
“Sometimes I envy you...that part of it anyway.” Crewson said. “You’re a good man, Preston. I’m glad you’re with us. One more trip down the rabbit hole then you’re on your way home to your wife for the next two weeks. Any plans?”
“Not sure yet. What room is Wells in? I’d like to drop in on my way home.” Preston asked.
“He’s in 203 if I remember right. Check at the information desk. Not sure he’ll make it that long. He was in a bad way.” Crewson informed Preston. “If that’s all, I’ve got a report to finish up.”
“I won’t take up any more of your time.” Preston said, turning and taking the few steps to the door.
“I know it’s been rough. You’re doing a hell of a job. I’ll do all I can to get you the men you need but it’s going to take time. We get new ones and lose others...one step forward, two steps back. It’s just the nature of the beast.” Crewson said.
“I’m sure you’re doing what you can.” Preston said, opening the door and stepping out, closing it behind him.
“Kelly, you rat bastard! Where is that little prick?! I’m gonna have his balls on a platter!” Preston heard Branson roar from down the corridor. Turning back to face the door, he opened it again, stepping back inside, Crewson looking up from the report in front of him.
“Something else I can do for you, Preston?”
“Actually there is...”
Anne pulled her car into the parking lot of a grocery store and found a spot that faced the tan brick building that sat across the street. In front of the building on the sidewalk were lined what looked to be fifty or more people holding signs and chanting slogans. Patrons of the establishment looking anxious, some intimidated and frightened, made their way past the protesters as if running the gauntlet. Others waited a distance away or in their cars in the parking lot to the side of the building for one of the group of men and women to make their way to them that were charged with escorting those too wary to make the trek inside past the shouting, chanting sign wavers.
Anne stared at the building and the protesters for a few minutes looking conflicted as well as sad and discomforted at the sight through her windshield. She put a hand to her forehead as she closed her eyes. A tapping came on the driver’s side window. Startled, she dropped her hand and turned her head to see an older man, his brown hair streaked with gray and wearing a polo shirt standing there with a warm smile. Anne rolled down the window, sure from his demeanor that he was not one of those causing a ‘kerfuffle’ as Alan would have put it.
“Would you like an escort, m’am?” the man outside her car asked.
“Oh! No...no. I’m just going to the store. I was just curious as to what was going on.” she said, “Do they do this everyday?”
“Not usually quite this many, but there’s almost always at least a handful. They must have had the day off work today and couldn’t find anything better to do.” he jested.
“Who are they?” Anne asked.
“Oh, they’re members of different groups but they’re all self righteous enough to think they know what’s best for everyone else. If someone changes their mind and decides against it, we’re fine with that, but that should be their choice. We don’t coerce anyone either way.”
“My husband would call them nutters. So many other, better things they could be doing that would actually help kids and other people that are already here.” Anne said, thinking of the abuses she had suffered, and not just at the hands of her mother, no one ever having spoken up for her or lifted a finger to help her, as well as students she’d had in her classes that had spoken to her of their own abusive or neglectful or impoverished upbringings.
“I always want to ask them how many kids they’ve adopted themselves since they think that’s the answer for everyone. I doubt it’s very many.” he replied.
“Likely not.” Anne replied.
“Well...if you ever have need of our services we’re always here. Don’t worry about them. We offer more than just that. We’d rather prevent the need for it which they don’t seem to understand. You have a nice day.” the man said, stepping back from the car.
“You too.” Anne told him, beginning to roll up the window as the man started to walk away. “Thank you...for what you’re doing.” she said to him. He turned his head back to her with another smile before making his way back across the street. Anne rolled the window the rest of the way up before grabbing her purse and opening the car door. Stepping out, she stood watching for a few more moments before she turned and headed in the opposite direction across the parking lot.
Preston, Kelly, Fielding and Branson lounged around the common room near their quarters later that evening. Having already slept for twenty four hours, though drug induced, they were rarely ready for sleep until long after midnight, hence their third of five day stay usually saw them given no assigned tasks. They had been provided different amusements and activities to occupy their time in the form of a game room and a library as well as a small gym and exercise room with various fitness equipment.
“Take a look at this. Thar she blows.” Fielding said, tossing a magazine to Branson. On the cover was a woman in a one piece swimsuit. She was of a larger size than the typical swimsuit model but hardly morbidly obese.
“For fuck’s sake!” Branson said. “Can’t even enjoy the swimsuit edition anymore. What are guys supposed to jerk off to now?” Kelly began to open his mouth in response, “Shut the fuck up, Kelly. You’re already on my shit list. You’re lucky I didn’t string you up by your balls.” Branson turned his attention back to the magazine.“Damn...you’d have to roll her flour to find the wet spot.”
“You must have went through enough flour to supply a bakery.” Preston said as he sat in front of the television. The three other men looked in his direction not aware he had been listening to their conversation as he had remained silent the entire evening. Preston stood up, pulling something from his pocket. Walking over to Fielding, he handed him a photograph, then over to Kelly, handing him the other.
“Meet Mrs. Branson number one and Mrs. Branson number two. I couldn’t find one of number three.” Preston said to them. Kelly and Fielding looked at the photographs of two rather large women, far larger than Anne or the model on the cover of the magazine. Kelly and fielding began to laugh.
“Holy shit, Branson! Where’d you meet her, Sea World? How’d you get her out of the tank?” Kelly said as his laughter continued.
“Yeah, Jesus, Branson. Captain Ahab hunted whales, he didn’t marry ’em.” Fielding said, laughing.
“What the hell?!” Branson said, jumping up and grabbing the photo from Kelly. “Give me that!” Branson stormed over to Fielding next, snatching the photo from his hand. Looking at them, Branson then looked to Preston, his face red, teeth clenched in rage. “You bastard!” Branson exclaimed, dropping the photos to the floor and clenching his fists, taking a menacing step towards Preston. Before he could take another, Preston swiftly closed the space between them, grabbing Branson by the front of his shirt and pushing him violently against the wall going almost nose to nose with the man.
“Now you listen to me, you fucking tosser! If I ever hear the words ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ or anything else disrespecting a woman out of that fucking hole in your face again, you’re going to be choking on your bloody teeth before I rip your blooming head off and shit down your throat! Do I make myself clear?” Preston threatened, seething. Branson stared at Preston wide eyed unable to hide his shock and fear at Preston’s unexpected exhibition of rage, Kelly and Fielding looking on in stunned silence as none of the three had seen Preston on anything but an even keel in the time they’d known him
“Yeah, man….whatever you say.” Branson said, the arrogance and brashness gone from his voice and demeanor. “I was just joking around. No need to get pissy about it.” Preston, still gripping Branson by the shirt front, turned his head to look at Kelly and Fielding.
“The same goes for you two wankers.” Preston said. Both Fielding and Kelly held their hands up.
“We’re good, man. We ain’t sayin’ jack shit.” Fielding said.
Preston pulled Branson forward by the front of his shirt and slammed him into the wall one more time before releasing him and walking from the room.
“Holy shit…” Kelly said.
Preston sat in his quarters on a chair in front of a small desk, the room lit only by the small desk lamp, his eyes closed, leaning his head against his fist as he rested his elbow on the table. A soft knock sounded on the other side of the door. Preston ignoring it. Finally the door opened enough for Kelly to stick his head into the room.
“Hey….Preston? You alright, man?” Kelly asked meekly.
“You mind if I come in?” Kelly asked.
“No, come in, Kelly.” Preston answered, Kelly slipping into the room and closing the door, standing in front of it.
“You sure you’re ok?” Kelly asked, noticing that Preston’s face looked slightly pale.
“Yes, I’m fine. What do you need?”
“Nothing...I just wanted to say sorry…the things I said…Fielding and me...we’re no better than Branson.”
“Would you like to see her...Anne….my wife?” Preston asked Kelly.
“Sure.” Kelly said, taking a few steps forward into the room. Preston opened a drawer of the desk, pulling out his wallet and opened it, rifling through it and removing a picture, turning towards Kelly he held it out.
“I only have a couple. She doesn’t really like to have her picture taken.. That was on our wedding day about a year ago.” Kelly took the picture from Preston, examining it. In the picture Preston stood wearing a dark blue suit and tie, Anne in a vintage white lace dress reminiscent of the style of the 1930s, resting her head against his shoulder, Preston’s arms around her.
“She’s pretty.” Kelly said, handing the picture back to Preston.
“You’re just saying that so I don’t kick your ass.” Preston replied.
“No...she is, really. I mean, she’s no Miss Universe or anything…”
“Her whole life people have said things...done things. In there...out here...it’s not that different, it’s just here it’s hidden, like a box of shit wrapped in pretty wrapping paper and a bow. She’s happy now, for the first time in her life she’s happy...she thinks we’re going to grow old together...she doesn’t know...it’s been a year and I still haven’t told her...I can’t.” Preston said, tears beginning to well in his eyes.
“Don’t you think it’d be better if she knew it was coming? So she could kinda be ready for it?”
“I’m not sure it would matter. She’ll never be ready for it. I don’t think anyone’s ever ready. Sometimes I think….I think maybe next time I go home...I should just end it and take her with me...spare her the pain, from being alone again. She’s been through enough already.” Preston said, Kelly looked shocked and concerned hearing Preston’s words.
“You wouldn’t do that. You love her, right?”
“Of course I love her...I love her more than anything...that’s why I think sometimes maybe I would.”
The next day, Preston, Fielding, Kelly and Branson had entered the rift for the second mission, this time to replace the power source of the second array of ‘nets’ that had been set up around fifty yards behind the first. Smooth metal posts stuck up from the gray, dusty, rocky surface a few yards apart from each other. If the men had not been wearing headsets to block out whatever it was in that realm that had driven their predecessors mad, they would have heard the electric hum emanating from them. They could feel the charge in the air however as they neared their destination.
Branson and Preston, large rifles in their hands, took the places in front of Kelly and Fielding, standing watch, Kelly and Fielding assisting each other in extracting the tubular battery from a compartment in one of the posts
“Let’s try to be quicker than last time. We don’t want Branson’s face fucked up any more than it already is...or was.” Preston said, the other men hearing him through their headsets.
“Fuck you.” Branson replied tersely, the three gashes still evident on his face.
As the two men worked, Preston scanned the areas to the front and sides of him with his eyes through the thick, gray, pea soup fog, the vapors of it visible swirling by and around them. Suddenly Branson spied movement to his right, bringing his rifle around and aiming it in that direction. Peering into the fog, Branson could see nothing.
“Preston…” Branson said. Preston looked over as Branson pointed to his right. Without warning, out of the fog bounded a creature none had encountered before. It appeared to be a mixture of human like traits and those of a large dog, werewolf like, but hairless. It’s skin a gray almost blue tone. It made a hissing sound as it moved which changed to a ravenous shrieking as it closed the gap to attack, though none of the men were able to hear it. Both Preston and Branson raised their rifles towards it, Kelly and Fielding glancing over, their hands freezing in the position they had been in that moment. Preston quickly glanced back at them, seeing their attention had been diverted.
“Get going! We’re on it.” Preston assured them.
Branson fired first as the creature neared their location, The creature screeched in pain, writhing as it seemed to sink, disappearing into the fog.
“What the everloving fuck was that?” Branson asked.
“How’s it coming along?” Preston asked Kelly and Fielding.
“Last one is tricky. Gets stuck a lot. One reason I hate this particular detail.” Fielding said.
Preston’s hopes to avoid another confrontation were dashed as from the same direction as the other appeared another creature, not of the same type, large as an elk or moose and also on four legs. Its head and snout was long and flat covered in what appeared to be a bony plate, almost in the shape of an anvil.
“Faster gentlemen” Preston said anxiously. “Otherwise we’re going to be snookered”
Fielding produced a small wrench like tool and began the process of disconnecting the power source.
Branson raised his rifle at the approaching creature and pulled the trigger to no effect, his rifle having jammed.
“Shit!” Branson exclaimed, the creature almost on top of them. At the last second, Branson stepped aside like a bull fighter, the creature barreling into Preston with the front section of its head making contact with his chest
Preston felt himself flying backwards before his back smashed against a long, tall, rock formation that seemed to almost be growing from the ground. Sliding down it like a rag doll, Preston lay on his back, staring up into the grey nothingness above, watching the swirling patterns of the dense fog, his chest heaving as he struggled to draw air into his lungs as he made a loud gasping sound.
Preston now thought he knew what a fish hauled from the water and left to lie on the bank felt. As hard as he tried, he could not get air to completely fill his lungs. His whole chest felt as if a large hand was wrapped around his rib cage, squeezing.
Kelly tossed the rifle that had been slung over his shoulder to Branson who began to pump bullets into the creature until it slumped heavily to the ground. Kelly and Branson rushed to Preston as he continued to loudly gasp for air, his eyes wide in panic. Kelly moved Preston up to lean against him, hoping being more upright would assist his breathing. Preston eyes open and round, coughed a deep, barking cough, then another, blood spraying from his mouth and trickling down the side of it.
“Oh, Jesus!” Kelly said in fright. Fielding rushed over after having finished installing the last of the replacement batteries.
“We have to get him back!” Fielding exclaimed, draping Preston’s arm around his shoulder and pulling Preston to his feet, Preston barely able to move them as he continued to struggle to get a full breath, coughing and expelling blood a few more times as the four moved along as quickly as they could.
“Fucking piece of shit!” Branson said, tossing his rifle angrily away where it disappeared into the fog.
The four men finally reached the exit of the rift, stepping out of the cave like opening into the first chamber, the door sliding closed behind them, where they sat their weapons on a shelf, pulling their head sets off, Kelly removing Preston’s and tossing them into a bin.
The four made it through all three exit chambers, Preston losing the strength to stay on his feet rapidly as they progressed, Fielding struggling to hold him up, Kelly draping Preston’s other arm around his shoulders to assist Fielding. Practically dragging Preston from the last chamber, other soldiers waiting outside called medics over who rushed to them with a gurney, Fielding and Kelly moving Preston onto it. One of the medics put an oxygen mask over Preston’s nose and mouth. After inhaling the oxygen deeply, Preston coughed once again, blood misting the inside of the mask. The medics wheeled him off behind a separate set of curtains as more medics ushered the remaining men to prepare for their twenty four hour hibernation.
“Wait!” Kelly called out, pulling away from the medics and scurrying across the large room to the screens Preston had been wheeled behind. The other two men watched him go before allowing the medics to lead them to their own gurneys.
Behind the curtains, medics inserted an IV into Preston’s arm while another wheeled over a portable X-ray machine, quickly aligning it over his chest, another man looking at the monitor as an image of Preston’s ribs appeared on it. It was obvious that three were broken. A dark spot could be seen where Preston’s right lung would be near the broken ribs in nearly the same area as the scar he bore from his earlier brush with death.
Kelly took Preston’s hand, gripping it as he looked down on him, Preston’s eyes still appearing stunned and frightened. A medic removed the oxygen mask, replacing it with another. The man who appeared to be a physician who had studied the X ray moved to the other side of Preston’s gurney from Kelly.
“Go with the others. He has some broken ribs and some bruising in his lung, that’s where the blood’s coming from. We’ll drain it off and he should be fine. Sore as hell, but he’ll live. Morphine…” the physician said to one of the medics who nodded, moving to a tray and grabbing a long hypodermic and squirting its contents through a valve in the IV bag. Another medic handed him a long needle and a much smaller hypodermic. The physician cut away Preston’s green shirt, exposing his chest,revealing a large purple and maroon bruise. Sticking the needle of the smaller hypodermic into the right side of Preston’s chest, he set it aside, waiting a few moments before feeling for an area between Preston’s ribs and sliding the large needle into Preston’s flesh, between the ribs, into his chest cavity, drawing the blood that had collected within it. Preston took a long, deep breath, his chest expanding, the panic draining from his face as oxygen again freely filled both lungs and the morphine began to take effect.
“Whitby?” Preston said, his voice muffled by the oxygen mask, as he looked up at Kelly.
“We’ll give him a little while to stabilize then we’ll put him under with the rest of you.” The physician told Kelly. Kelly nodded, releasing Preston’s hand and moving away, back towards the other set of curtains across the expansive room. Laying himself down on one of the two open gurneys, a medic injected him then inserted the IV before attaching the electrodes to his head and chest.
Preston stared upwards as he felt the morphine’s effects, feeling as if he were floating in a pool. As his eyes began to close, he saw another figure step to the side of the gurney, her fingers lacing themselves with his.
“Anne…..?” Preston said, his voice fading out along with his consciousness.