WARNING: NIGHTMARE, FIRE, BURING BUILDING, CHILD IN PERIL, SURGERY, UNETHICAL MEDICAL PROCEDURES
Pain. Throbbing, stabbing and urgent. Heat. White-hot, blistering and consuming. Her eyes snapped open. Fire, everywhere. Ignoring the pain in her legs, she pulled herself up.
I am on fire.
Her ankle screamed in protest as she dragged herself away on hands and knees. She remembered falling. Looking up, the beam she fell from was no longer there.
Where is Thomas?
Heat scorching her palms and knees reminded her to get going. Shakily, she stood and tested her ankle. A sharp pain shot up her leg, it felt like a dagger of ice twisting at the joint. But she could manage an awkward shuffle with much panting and hissing. There was no time for hesitation or second guessing. The fire was coming and she had to move. Picking the direction that looked the safest, she started hobbling.
There was one silver lining despite the fall, it meant she was now on the ground level. If she could get herself outside, and away, she would be safe. Her stomach churned as she coughed, her lungs trying to expel the white dust that just seemed to be everywhere. She covered her nose and mouth with one hand, while the other acted as support, reaching out and bracing against walls or furniture that were still safe to touch.
It wasn’t just her ankle. Her back was sore, the burn across her chest angry. She had picked up a whole bunch of scratches and scrapes across her arms and legs. Still, she couldn’t allow them to slow her down. One foot in front of the other, step by step, she moved down the hallway.
The fire burnt brighter, hotter behind her. She couldn’t see beyond the devouring inferno. There was only one way forward really. The teachers’ quarters were above, she didn’t know what was below. Maybe it was more of the same? There was only one way to know for sure.
The hobble-step gait she had was slow, but it was the best she could manage. Tentatively she tested the door knob. It wasn’t hot and unlocked. Relief washed over her. Pushing through she realised it was an infirmary. She had never been in before. Most of the scratches she picked up from daily life in the home were treated with a pat on the head from the teachers and little else. She never had needed anything more. She hardly ever got sick. But now, she prayed she could find something to ease the pain.
She stumbled through, hands fumbling at drawers. Most of them were locked. Eventually she tried the cupboard at the back. The doors swung open and she pulled at the boxes on shelves she could reach.
There was a first aid kit. Inside she found a single use pack of medi-gel. She tried to tear the pack and the plastic wasn’t giving. Sweat dripping down her face, a combination from exertion and heat.
There was no telling how much time she wasted, she was close to tears. When the packaging tore, the tube flew out of her hands. “No!” she shouted as it landed a distance away.
The contents oozed into the ground. Teeth gritted, she hobbled as quickly as she could over. Stifling a sob as she applied what was left inside liberally over her ankle. The skin was weeping in parts and blistering in others. Tears pricked her eyes as the coolness of the medi-gel numbed her ankle. She spread whatever was left over her chest and arms.
She sighed, wishing she could rest a little, but the crackling outside forced her to her feet again. The infirmary was large, but it was also a dead end. Her original plan to climb through the ducts was unnecessary since she was already on the ground floor. All she needed now was out.
She glanced around the infirmary. Windows! If she could get one of them open, she could climb out. Wincing, her ankle bore her weight a little better than before, she staggered to the windows. The muscles on her arms corded and shifted as she worked the handles. Most were locked. Still, she tried all of them methodically. Then the window nearest the door swung open without trouble. Fresh air swept into the room. She took a deep breath and savoured it. It was her first breath of untainted air in hours.
Was it hours?
She was tired, dirty and hungry. Shaking her head to clear it, she eyed the opening. It wasn’t wide. With a grunt, she gave the window another hard shove, it wouldn’t budge any further.
Can I get through it?
It didn’t matter. She had to try. There was no way she was going to hang around any longer than she had to. She shoved a stool against the window. The metal legs squeaked against the tiled floor. Grimacing she pulled herself up onto the ledge. She leaned out and sighed with relief. The drop wasn’t high.
Crunch - an echo of a memory. A body hitting the concrete pavement with force.
Her breath hitched. Her knuckles white from the intensity of her grip. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself. With one more backward glance at the door behind her, she slipped off the ledge, heat and flames chasing her.
She landed feet first with a cry. Pain lanced up her bad ankle despite the medi-gel. She laid on her back for a while, trying to let the pain ease a little before moving.
“There!” someone shouted.
Before she registered what was going on, hands large and small were helping her up. They were half dragging, half carrying her. When they finally let go, she struggled to her feet. A small cluster of kids both older and younger than herself were staring back at her. There were no more than 20 of them. Among them there were no grown ups.
“Did you see Emma?” one asked.
“Did you see Thomas?” another asked.
Each of them had names they asked after but she had no answer for most. The words were caught in her throat. In the end she just shook her head, her lips pressed into a firm line. Turning back, she faced the only home she ever knew and watched the fire consumed it.
It wasn’t just burning. Now that she was outside, she realised parts of the building had collapsed. The entire rear of the structure had fallen in on itself. There was nothing but a raging inferno. Smoke and fire spewing from the crater. But a white haze that didn’t belong hung in the air, coating both her home and everything surrounding it.
She coughed. The white dust was everywhere, falling from the sky like snowflakes. It was a scene she had only seen in vids. Lifting her hand up in wonder, she realised everyone were mostly coated in white. She was the only one soot smudged. They must have been standing out in the open for a long time.
The wind picked up. A howl rose from the concrete jungle around them. It was a moan, low and high in turns, a dirge for the dying carcass of her only home. Despite the heat, she shivered. The smoke parted and behind it, she saw a transport craft. It wasn’t a large one but enough to cause the damage she saw. She hadn’t learn many words and flames had charred most of them from the side of the aircraft.
What was left were four alphabets. She spelt it out in her head.
Her eyes wouldn’t look away, she was determined to commit it all to memory. It wasn’t merely the destruction of her home, it was a loss of something core to her, but she couldn’t find the words to mourn it. Her heart ached and she didn’t understand why.
Someone behind her called out, “Hey, I think you should sit down and get those burns looked at.”
She didn’t hear them. She blinked, wavering on her feet. Her vision tunnelled and her legs gave out.
Pain. Lancing, piercing and hot. Nike’s eyes snapped open expecting to see fire, but it was cold. She shivered. Everything was unfamiliar, cabinets crammed with bottles, trays filled with bloody instruments. The scent of iron was overwhelming.
Where am I?
Her jaw clenched tight to hold the misery at bay, but her guts heaved. She opened her mouth to retch but there was nothing except air. A groan clawed its way up her throat regardless. It was low and agonising sound of a wounded animal.
Her head throbbed. The worst of it concentrated where her head met her neck. Gingerly, she reached behind to touch. The slightest of brushes against the bandage sent shooting pain into her head. Tears streamed unbidden from her eyes.
Memories came back to her in bits and pieces. Frank made her chase Burger away, a talk about implants and amps, Stitches making her sleepy. She jerked upright and cried out. Her eyes searched for help from someone, anyone. The room spun dangerously and her guts clenched. She dry heaved, still nothing came up. She remembered she had not eaten that morning.
Is it still the same day? Where is Scars?
She squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to keep a lid on her nausea. The door squeaked open and she flinched away from the sound.
“You’re awake!” Stitches said, relief evident in his voice. “I thought…”
She opened her eyes and glared at him. It lacked the intensity her green-yellow eyes usually have. “What did you do to me?” she demanded hoarsely.
He held his hands up placatingly. “I know you’re in pain. Anyone would be too after the procedure. Don’t worry, it is a minor one and it went well.”
Nike narrowed her eyes, catching Stitches’ furtive glances at everything else in the room but her. Before she could call him on his bullshit, he approached. “Let me check the wound. Some medi-gel would help,” he assured.
She stiffened as she felt the wet bandage lifted from her skin. Her jaw tightened, despite her efforts whimpers broke through. Stitches hissed at whatever he saw.
“It looked fine, healing well,” he hurriedly said.
Nike stuffed her wrist into her mouth as she listened to Stitches bustling behind her. Drawers were slid out and slammed shut. Boxes opened and items retrieved then discarded. Plastic packaging rustling and ripped open. Then something cool hit her skin right at the pulsating raw spot. She cried out. Her teeth bit down on her wrist, hard.
“Almost done, just a little bit more,” he cooed.
As much as she wanted to shrug off Stitches’ attention, as much as she was pissed off at the situation, Nike knew she needed his supplies. Working for the Reds only meant a safe place to sleep, regular showers and food, some kind of camaraderie with the others. She wasn’t paid, that meant she had nothing but the clothes on her back and the omni-tool on her wrist. Though Nike was more than happy to use threats and her blade to get what she needed from shops within the Reds’ Dowager sanctioned territory, medical supplies still came at a premium.
The cool sensation spread, seeping into her skin, numbing the spot. It took the edge off her pounding head. Her shoulders relaxed a little, the tension her body held eased. Gingerly, she pulled her wrist from her mouth. There was a perfect imprint of her teeth. A couple of the marks were bleeding. She wiped spit from her wrist on the medical gown she was wearing.
Stitches covered the wound with bandages again before walking out. Nike straightened her neck and back as much as she could. With a fresh application of medi-gel she managed if she moved slowly. Vaguely she wondered if she was supposed to follow him. As soon as the thought occured to her, Stitches came back.
He had a couple of white pills in his hand. “Swallow these,” he said.
Nike took them and gave him the best glower she could muster under the situation. “These are painkillers,” he said, rattling the bottle in her face.
She popped them in her mouth and choked them down.
“Ahh, sorry. I don’t have anything but booze here,” he said. “Take this bottle and take the painkillers two tablets each time, twice a day. Ice the spot and change bandages everyday if you can. Keep the site dry.”
Stitches rattled off instructions after instructions. She was barely listening. It was close to midday when Scars turned up.
“Nike!” he called.
She could barely keep her eyes open. Hungry, thirsty and tired, it was the worse she had ever felt. It was more horrible than the time she ate mouldy food. She threw up for days on end for that. This was worse, way worse.
Scars blanched when he saw her. “Are you ok?” he asked.
She just blinked in response from her hunched position on the medical table. The doctor shoved her clothes to Scars and said, “She will need help while she heals.”
Nike didn’t how they got back to base. It was all a haze. The pain was muted, far away with the medication, but it made her mind foggy. She floated rather than walked. Cotton candy was stuffed between her ears. Hours blended into days. Vaguely she knew Scars and Cutter looked in on her. Sometimes one of them would shake her awake to eat, other times they would help her with changing of bandages. But most of the time they left her alone. The wound started to stink, she smelled because she laid for days on end in her sweat. Movement meant straightening, it meant pain and it was too much trouble. Other than peeing she never moved from her spot. When she was awake, it was agonising pain that made her threw up what she managed to force down. So sleep was her only escape but it was hard to fall asleep. With her back pressed against the wall, the only way she felt safe without Burger, she dozed. Time ceased to have meaning.
“How long is she going to be healing?” someone shouted.
“Boss, I don’t know. The wound is still raw,” another replied. “And it stinks.”
“It has been more than a week. I am losing credits like this. I’m feeding her and she isn’t working.”
Footsteps, heavy and loud strode towards her. The gait was long and loping. It was Frank.
“Nike,” he called.
She kept her eyes shut, willing him to go away.
“She is asleep, boss. Just leave her be,” the other said. She recognised Cutter’s baritone voice. “I think we should get some medi-gel. Maybe Stitches should look at her.”
There was no reply for a while. She knew this silence. It was razor sharp and dangerous. One wrong word, the powder keg would blow. She wanted medi-gel too. She wanted anything to stop the pain.The painkillers had long ran out, it wasn’t aiding in the healing. She shifted in her sleeping bag, curling up and whimpered, peeling her eyes opened to glance at them.
Nike knew she was a liability, all input and no output, worse than useless. Frank wouldn’t stand for this long, but she couldn’t just will her body to heal. She didn’t want to be back out on the streets or worse sold to the Snatchers. Will Frank really do that?
Frank stared at her. She would have flinched if she had the energy to. Cutter was rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably.
Eventually Frank sighed. “Speak to Tenner, get Stitches here,” he said.
As Cutter left, he called after the younger man, “He owe us. He botched the job!”
“Boss,” she rasped.
“You had better be worth it,” he muttered as he left.
Nike winced, shielding her eyes from the sun. She took a deep breath and exhaled in one big explosive breath, trying to push all the soreness out. Her fingers reached behind, questing for the tender wound. It was small and red but no longer swollen. It was still a little wet from the medi-gel she applied before she left the base.
She sighed and started walking again. It took her twice the time to cover her usual distance. Frank kicked her out to do her rounds two days after she got back from Stitches. “Earn your keep!” he shouted.
Stitches came and took one look at her and said, “Her wound is infected.”
And that began a shouting match over her little corner. Frank demanded to know why Stitches botched the job. Stitches pleading for his life and repeatedly telling Frank he was just a general practitioner not a specialist. In the end, Cutter carried her to Stitches’ clinic.
“Damn, girl,” Stitches said as she whimpered when he pulled the soiled bandages away. “I have to make you sleepy again.”
“Will it hurt more?” she asked.
He stiffened and forced a smile. Nike would shrink back if it didn’t set off flares across her neck and head.
“No it wouldn’t. You will go to sleep and you will be better.”
Cutter grunted. “That had better be true, doc. She is one of ours.”
After Stitches put her to sleep again, she woke up in considerably less pain than before though extremely woozy. Cutter was perched precariously on a tiny stool snoring loudly. She spent days in Stitches’ clinic, lying on the table where he put her to sleep on. Steadily she got stronger and better. The wound was still sore, but it wasn’t hot to the touch and it didn’t stink and ooze pus.
She could hear Cutter arguing over on omni-tool with Frank.
“She was a good team member before. You made Stitches put a fucking chip into her head and fuck her up!”
Some silence. Nike figured he was getting yelled at. Frank never liked being talked back to. Everyone had a fist to their face if they stepped out of line.
“But she is still healing,” he said. “If she is so important to you as your investment, you need to let her heal.”
When Cutter returned to the room, she shut her eyes and pretended to be sleeping. She didn’t know how to take his overt concern towards her. All of them were hovered in the grey area of not quite friends, not quite enemies. But Nike trusted all of them to watch her back. She was one of the Reds. Stitches’ warning was the only lingering doubt that niggled at the back of her head.
Eventually at the end of the week, no matter how guilty Stitches felt whenever he looked at her, they had outstayed even that. Cutter walked her back to the base, back to Frank’s baleful glare.
“Girl, you better hope you are worth it. You cost me a lot,” he growled.
He hadn’t spoke to her or Cutter till he put her back out on her rounds.
That first day was rough. Nike still tire easily but she was relatively pain free. She stopped at the usual spot looking for Burger. The mutt was nowhere to be seen. The worry weighed heavy against her chest. But she had a job to do, her place in the Reds was hanging by a thread.
Eventually Nike trudged on feeling incredibly vulnerable without Burger flanking her. She expected everyone to put up a fight giving over their credits. She shuffled with a scowl and her blade ready in her hand. In the end, nobody gave her trouble.
It got easier after that. She wouldn’t admit it if anyone asked but being up and moving helped her feel a little more normal. By the end of the week she was almost herself, albeit still very sore. Though she missed Burger intensely, she knew he was safer without her, especially against Frank’s unreasonable anger.
Just be safe out there. I know you’re safe.
Nike didn’t want to return to the base. The atmosphere back at the base was oppressive. She felt like she was walking on eggshells all the time. One wrong move would set Frank off. Cutter was already in the doghouse thanks to her, she didn’t want to be responsible for more shit raining down on anyone else.
Nike sighed and her legs took her to her happy place - the cinema. She glanced at the posters Meg posted outside. “Moulin Rouge is still up?” she muttered, remembering the chat she had with Meg. “But it has been more than a week.”
She had arrived way too early for a showing but there was nowhere she wanted to be. Her head was throbbing a little and the heat was taking a toll on her. She had to get out of the sun. Walking up to the projector room, she found it locked and empty. Meg wasn’t in yet. Nike went to work picking the lock. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t done before. Vaguely she wondered if this meant she wasn’t welcomed anymore. That thought made her sad.
Burger, first. Now, Meg too.
She exhaled, her jaw set as she went on picking the lock. As the lock clicked as it disengaged, Nike couldn’t help the grin that tugged at her lips. Even though it took longer than usual, she got it done in the end. She made a grunt of satisfaction as she sank into her usual chair, and propped her feet up on a nearby desk.
The sore spot at the base of her skull started twinging. She rubbed the back of her neck uncomfortably, unable to rid herself of the strange sensation. Since the procedure and after most of the throbbing had subsided, there was a near constant low grade buzzing. It wasn’t something audible. It was more like a vibration under her skin emanating from her core. Nike wondered if she should be worried, but she pushed it out of her mind.
If it didn’t hurt, it didn’t matter.
Instead, she started searching the extranet for those strange words Stitches talked to her about. Maybe it was the heat that did it, maybe she wasn’t as strong as she thought she was, but it didn’t take long before she dozed off.
A shuffling sound made Nike jolted upright. The door opened and something rushed towards her. It bowled into her, pushing her clean off the chair. A delighted bark and her fingers found fur instead of danger. “Burger!” she cried.
Happy licks coated her face with saliva, but she didn’t care. She had missed her friend. “Where have you been? I looked for you!” she said.
Glancing up she found Meg looking down at her. “What happened? I didn’t see you for days!”
Her eyes met Meg’s. All she found there was concern, fear and relief. Meg sat down on the floor and pulled her into her arms. Nike was stiff and confused. “I thought you were taken!” Meg went on. “I heard some kids went missing again. Then there was a raid on another Snatcher hideout. When I saw your dog wandering without you for days, I was so sure that you were gone.”
Nike felt the tightness of Meg’s hug. Burger was still pushing his snout against her ribs, his tail swinging back and forth like it was never going to stop. She relaxed in parts. Her body went limp against Meg, then her arms fell loose on her lap. Her shoulders and jaw released the tension she didn’t know she was holding on to.
Meg pushed her away a little. Hands cupping Nike’s face and eyes roving over her. “Say something girl,” she said.
Nike didn’t know quite know how to explain it to the older woman. She could barely understand it herself. All the hurt, both physical and emotional, confusion and fear was released in a single exhale. A lump grew in her throat as she tried to hold it in. But it was too much, too quick. She didn’t understand the welling of emotions even as tears pricked her eyes. Meg pulled her close again, arms enclosed around her.