The wind howled.
It always howled. Even through the high concrete walls surrounding the field, the wind howled over top of it, through the razor wire, through the cracks in the electrified gate, and through the crooks and nannies of the thick wall itself.
Crooks and nannies, she thought to herself. Crooks and nannies. Where did that phrase come from? What would crooks and nannies be doing spending time together? Of course, she knew, she was not one to talk.
She wiped her hand across her apron. There was a shard of bone among the blood and flesh.
“How’s yours?” someone asked her.
She turned to her colleague who, like her, was attending to an injured person. When they met eyes, her colleague straightened to his full height and, before she could answer his question, shook his head and gestured with an upturned palm.
“Mine’s gone.” He kicked the body at his feet.
It didn’t move in agreement.
“These ones put up a good fight, huh? I’m heading back in,” he added. “It’s picking up,” he said of the wind. “You want some help with yours?”
She shook her head then turned back to attend to the injured man laying in the dead grass.
“Okay. The cart’s yours. Come see me when you’re done. There’s obviously something on your mind.”
She nodded without looking and her colleague began to trot back to the giant building in the centre of the compound. Like the tall wall surrounding the grounds, the building was made of a bland, unpainted concrete with metal wind deflectors stabbed into its side and in the ground around it. Whoever had devised those deflectors probably never spent any time up here They were wretched things which the wind loved to screech through and they did very little to abate its force. They were just another instrument for the wind to play and remind everyone who was boss.
The building itself barely stood a full floor above the ground. The majority of it lay underground. The main entrance was an enclosed ramp which rose up, putting the door above the building. An open ramp went back down to ground level. It used to served as a preventative measure against being snowed in. Like a runway, tall posts with orange lamps flanked the down-ramp. This entry also had paths leading to the rooftop landing pad. Machines didn’t fly around here any more, though. Nothing did.
She glanced back and saw her colleague climbing the ramp. One of the large, agitator mechs lumbered between them, obscuring her view. A disposal bot rolled on its treads toward the dead person nearby. Everything had a purpose around here.
She returned to her own task.
The man had lost an ear and suffered several deep lacerations. However, she had staunched the bleeding and field-sown the deeper cuts. The one in his shoulder had been the worst. It had shattered the collarbone in the front and stopped only where it nicked his shoulder blade in the back.
Nook! Nooks and crannies, she remembered, not crooks and nannies. She smiled at her mistake.
Her patient, filled with local anesthetics and general painkillers, mistook her smile for something else and he smiled back. It caused the gash in his cheek to reopen and blood began to spill from it. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Am I … am I going to live?”
She had already stopped smiling and might have said something but her headphones blared at her. They were the big kind which covered your ears both for protection and, she mused, so you would never miss a word they said to you.
“L-73 is your subject ambulatory?“
They insisted on overly-technical terms. Can he walk? would have been fine.
“Affirmative,” she responded. The microphone in her helmet was voice-activated, like those dancing Santas they used to sell back in the day. “He should have full use of his legs, although he has lost a lot of blood.”
There was no immediate response from her earmuff headset. It remained quiet for the moment. The wind continued howling, of course.
“What happens now?”
It seemed like a simple question but the man’s one good eye held a swirl of fear and concern for the answer. The disposal bot rolled over to them and awaited instructions. The robotic vehicle was like a golf cart, a tank, and a dump truck combined. It had two spiraling radio antennae protruding from its fore section, although one had been bent away at an unintended angle and — since all its communications worked fine — it had never been repaired. She could have requisitioned a repair but, secretly, she thought the bent antenna gave it character.
“Back to base, Bug,” she told it.
The single red light above the bot’s forward camera flickered as it processed the voice command. It tucked its triple-jointed robotic arms into its side and pivoted in place by rolling one tread forward and one tread back. Then it rolled off with the corpse of the other man in its storage bed. A trickle of blood escaped from the bed’s drainage hole. She knew she’d have to hose the bot down later.
The man still in her care wanted his answer.
“Take it easy, sir. You need to rest for a minute.”
He closed his good eye and turned his head away. “But I want to know what happens next,” he muttered.
She didn’t hear him and, before she could decide whether or not to ask him to repeat himself, her headset yelled at her again.
“L-73, take another radiological of his chest.”
She reached for a small spray bottle which was attached to her belt by a stretchable cord. Two full spritzes of the bottle ensured the nerves around the man’s sternum were anesthetized. He opened his eye soon enough to see her now wielding a handheld medical device with a relatively thick needle.
“No,” he weakly objected.
“It’s okay, it won’t hurt,” she soothed.
“Say again, L-73. Did not copy last.”
“Disregard, Control. Stand by.”
She pushed the needle a half-inch into the man’s chest, just to the right of the sternum — his left. An inch further and she would pierce his heart. He tried to look down but it was hard for him to see where the device was stuck into his chest. Instead, he fixed his good eye on ‘L-73′ and tried to discern what he could through the shaded visor-plate of her helmet.
“You’re just a girl,” he said more to himself than her. “You’re not even twenty years old. You’re not even old enough to drink.”
The device beeped.
“Transmitting,” she told the headset.
“Copy that,” it replied.
“You’re just a girl,” the man continued, though now his eye was roaming around peering at everything and nothing. The dead grass, the ugly gray building, the ugly gray wall, the black metal wind deflectors, and the gray sky above. “Just a girl.”
Was that amusement she heard in his voice?
“Now they’re starting them young! Ha!”
He started laughing in a sickly way and the damage to his lungs meant he had to heave his chest to do it. The severe laceration in his shoulder threatened to split open again. He couldn’t feel it but if it was further aggravated the damaged artery beneath would burst and he would bleed out. She pressed down on the previously applied bandage (which caused the material to secrete more of its antibiotic coagulant) in an effort to reduce his movement and prevent exacerbation of the wound.
She quickly tapped a button on her control bracelet, shutting off the voice-activated feature of her headset mic. The control centre wouldn’t hear her. And Santa wouldn’t dance.
“Easy. Easy there, mister,” she urged her patient.
The moment passed and he stopped heaving his chest. One final chuckle escaped his lips. Then he looked at her again, taking in the landscape of her face.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
The headset blared again. “L-73, bring the subject back to base for now. They need a minute to assess the readings.”
She held down a different button on the bracelet. It was a temporary transmission button. “Copy that, Control.” She took her finger off the button and surveyed the man’s injuries once again. She made some effort at tightening the bandage she’d wrapped over the man’s shoulder and under both his armpits.
“Okay, look, mister-“
“My name is Thomas,” he interjected. “Or, Tom if you like.”
“Mister I need to get you back inside so we can patch you up.”
“Tom,” he insisted.
She realized he would be uncooperative until she gave in. “Okay, Tom. Tom, I need you to sit up slowly. There you go. Just stay like that for a minute. How’s your head?”
“I’m a little dizzy.”
“Alright. Take some short, shallow breaths. That’s it. Okay, now we’re going to get you to your feet but don’t bend your back too much. I’ll help you up. Easy. Easy. Okay, now up.”
Before she stood with him, she grabbed her kit from off the ground with her free hand and then slipped under his good shoulder. He was taller than her so it was easy for him to lean on her for support. As she had reported, his legs were bruised but fine and he could walk — or was ambulatory as the control centre preferred. Twice, a gust of wind almost knocked them over but she braced them against it. She walked him over to her own motor cart and sat him gently in the rear flatbed. He was positioned with his back to the passenger seat, and his feet hung off the end. She drew a thermal blanket over his upper torso, secured him with two straps across his chest, and then climbed into the driver’s seat. Before they started off, she reached back with her right hand and pressed it against his chest, just to be sure he remained upright.
She could feel his heart beating.
She drove the electric-powered cart at a medium speed. The man needed to get to full medical facilities soon for any number of reasons. He had topical anesthetic in his bloodstream, by now, mixing with the anti-shock stims and general painkiller, his right lung may collapse if any of his ribs worsened, and he needed plasma. By the same token, she couldn’t drive too fast. The new agitator mechs were lighter and faster but their feet were murder on the ground. They tore up great swaths when they were in combat mode and so she had to be mindful of where she was driving in order to avoid any jarring of the vehicle and her patient.
“So, what happens next?” he asked again.
She did not answer.
“They’re going to poke and prod me again, aren’t they? See … see what happened to their work. Kill and dissect me? Maybe not even in that order.”
He was becoming agitated and, in his state, that was dangerous. Increased heart rate, spiked adrenaline, careless actions … she needed to calm him.
“They call me Elle.”
“You asked me my name,” she explained. “They call me Elle. Sometimes Ellie.”
It worked. She could feel his heartbeat with the right hand she’d pressed against his chest. It wasn’t getting any faster and would soon slow to a safer rate.
“Elle,” he said slowly, letting the single syllable linger on his tongue. “I’m Tom.”
“I know. You told me earlier.”
“Right. Yeah. I did.”
They didn’t speak for a minute. She drove around one of the ruts made by an agitator.
“So,” Tom started, “what is it for?”
“What is Elle short for? Elizabeth? Elle … Elisa?”
She considered not answering but between the day’s trauma, the drugs in his system, and …
“L-73,” she said. What did it matter at this point?
“Yes, I heard you but…” He thought about it for a moment. A snide remark threatened to escape but he stifled it. “I like Elle better,” was his only comment.
They were nearing the building. As they passed one of the fifteen-foot tall wind deflectors, an agitator was revealed to be on the other side. It was in an at-rest mode, hunkered down like a dormant beast, but the sight of it clearly upset Tom. Elle could feel him flinch away and heave a deep breath — which was dangerous for him to do.
With her left hand she steered straight for another deflector and then swerved a little in order to put the nearby agitator out of view. Her med-kit tumbled out of the cart’s passenger seat. She kept driving. She could get it later. With her right hand, she pressed Tom’s chest a little more. It was a gesture of assurance.
He relaxed somewhat and pressed his own hand atop hers as if to help her calm him. Once the agitator was safely out of view, she realized he was also gently squeezing her hand. Neither of them spoke but the contact was nice. It was small and would be imperceptible to anyone looking but that brief connection held a warmth neither had felt for a long time.
When he realized what he was doing, he stopped squeezing. She glanced back to make sure he hadn’t passed out. He thanked her for that small kindness by way of a faint, almost bashful smile. She half-nodded only once and resumed watching where she drove, more careful to spot and avoid any concealed agitator mechs. A large gust of wind wailed through the garden of deflectors.
Elle gently slowed the cart to a halt. Tom assumed they were approaching the base’s ramp and allowed himself a brief rest. He squeezed Elle’s hand ever so slightly and let his heavy eyelid fall shut.
Elle withdrew her hand.
The headset was talking to her but, over the wail of the wind, she hadn’t clearly heard what it was saying. She thought she knew but it hadn’t been clear. Something like that needed to be clear.
“Say again, control? Repeat last transmission.”
“Subject is to be PBD’d. Did you copy? PBD the subject.“
She did not answer. Instead, she glanced at the back of Tom’s head. Was he asleep?
“L-73, did you copy?“
“Affirmative, Control,” she responded, albeit quietly.
“Make it fast. Lab wants his metabolics transfixed.“
Elle looked at her empty passenger seat. “Control, I don’t have my kit with me. It’s in the field somewhere. So I have no Kayzan. You want me to just drive to the lab and they–“
“L-73, you know the procedure. You don’t need Kayzan for non-cranial subjects. Enact PBD immediately or this goes in your file, which is already … problematic.“
“Copy that, Control.”
She stepped out of the cart, drew her sidearm, and aimed it at the back of Tom’s head.
“I think it’s a thrush.”
Tom wasn’t asleep. He was, perhaps, delirious. Elle tilted her head to get a slightly better angle on his good eye. He was looking at something. She forced her feet to take a step to the right but when she could see more of his face she remembered his faint, thankful smile. The memory of that moment caused her hand to tremble.
She returned to her original position.
Tom pointed to the far side of the compound and over the wall, toward a line of leafless trees.
“There,” he said. “Don’t you see it? It’s a thrush by the sound of it.”
Elle looked but she saw nothing aside from a dark clutch of jagged branches through the razor wire atop the ugly gray wall. Besides, nothing flew up here anymore. No helicopters, no planes, and no birds. The sky was a constant, murky, windswept wasteland.
“It’s okay, Elle. I know what PBD is. Preserve By Death.”
He knew? How did he know what…?
“Just … don’t give up. You’re young, Elle. The world can change again. Thank you for your kindness. I’d forgotten what that felt like. Please, be kind one more time … don’t make me wait any longer.” He never turned to face her.
It was his kindness to her.
She squeezed the trigger and Tom’s body went slack. She would have to wipe down her cart, too. The echo of the small caliber shot rattled between the high walls of the compound and bounced off the wind deflectors until it finally escaped and was swallowed by the wind. For a moment, just a moment, the mix of wind and gunshot might have sounded like the shrill cry of a bird. She looked again at the tangle of barren branches beyond the wall. She saw nothing.
“He’s … Subject terminated, Control.”
“Good. Take it to Lab 3 and then scrub down. Requisition a hot chocolate or something. I know it’s been a long detail. You did a good job today, for God and Country. Control, out.“
Elle climbed back into the driver’s seat and headed for the main ramp. At the top of the ramp, the massive doors yawned open and just inside were two agitator mechs in guardian mode. She would have to drive between them. Before she got to the top of the ramp, she carefully reached back and pulled the thermal blanket up over Tom’s face.
After the doors clenched shut, in that stand of trees, the thrush sang out once more.
The robots in the field stayed silent.