And the adventure continues with four chapters of action and intrigue. I originally ended at chapter 7 feeling happy with how the story was developing and then I realized I’d completely forgotten to end at a story fork. No problem, just needed to write another chapter to get to one. If you want to help make the decisions, come join us in the group by tapping the link below.
Last week’s story fork…
1. Should I accept the donor blood?
2. Should I refuse the blood but still go for the brain scan?
3. Should I grab Doctor Tanaka, put the pistol to his head and demand some answers?
4. Should I refuse to do anything until I get some answers? Keep the gun close, but don’t use it.
The group chose #4 and here is how that played out…
TDDR – Chapter 5
Unfortunately for Doctor Tanaka, and perhaps for the both of us, I was in no mood for confession. I was in the mood for answers. Anything that might shine a light into the surrounding darkness. Anything about the girl who colored the folded up picture in my pocket.
“The blood can wait. The scan can wait. I want some answers first.”
Tanaka frowned. “This is not the time for catching up. That can come after we’ve diagnosed your injuries and stabilized your condition.” He took the tube from McKenzie’s hand. “Now, we’ll have to get you another one as this one is potentially contaminated.” He closed the port on the bag and lifted it off the hanger.
“I don’t care about the damn bag! I want answers! Now!”
Tanaka passed the bag to McKenzie. “Dispose of this and instruct the nurse to get another one ready.”
McKenzie looked at me for confirmation.
Tanaka snorted. “That is, assuming you think keeping the president alive is a good idea.”
I nodded at McKenzie. “Go ahead. I’m not going anywhere.”
McKenzie gave us each a hard look, thought about refusing, and then complied. He walked out and Tanaka closed the door behind him.
I had my first question ready before he let go of the handle. “Who is Hannah?”
Tanaka’s shoulders slumped and his posture crumpled over. He turned and his glistened. Not crying. No tears. But sadness? Yes. Grief? Definitely.
“She was your daughter.”
The confirmation of my own belief was like a leg placed under a table. There were still three missing and it didn’t function like it was supposed to, but it was something. It was a tangible improvement over the status before.
He’d said was.
“What do you mean was?”
“She’s no longer with us.”
The fleeting vision of her cherub face skipped across the surface of my mind. To think that sweet face no longer lived twisted my insides up. “How did she die?”
“I don’t know. I’m not privy to that information.”
“It was a top secret mission. The kind of thing only a select few know about. I am not one of them.”
“Who would know?”
Tanaka pushed his slipping glasses back up. “I would’ve expected you to know, Sir. The fact that you don’t is worrying. We need that scan immediately.”
“It can wait a few more minutes.”
“I sincerely hope so.”
I needed to know more about her. My daughter. Someone I should already know everything about. The next question rose above the morass swirling in my mind. “When did she die?”
“A year ago, today.”
I hadn’t seen that angelic face in a year?
Why couldn’t I remember her loss?
Why didn’t it feel true after Tanaka said it?
It wasn’t that it felt like a lie. It just didn’t carry a feeling either way. It was an impartial fact with no emotional grounding. Like a body stripped down to the skeleton. There was nothing hanging on to the statement that gave it substance.
The next thought in line hit me with a slap.
Why was the girl I remembered on some kind of top secret mission?
Elementary school kids weren’t typically doing any missions more secret than raiding the cookie jar or trying to get out of doing chores.
“Why was Hannah on the mission?”
“I don’t have access to–”
“I’m not asking for a mission brief. You knew her. I’m asking for your opinion.”
“Oh. That part isn’t difficult. She was the most talented hacker anyone had ever seen. At six-years-old, she hacked into the bunker’s security system and did some things that ruffled a few feathers.”
“Pranks, mostly. And always played on the highest ranking citizens. Members of the previous president’s cabinet were a frequent target.” He stared into the distance and smiled. Then coughed a few times to regain composure. “One of my favorites was when she inserted a subroutine into the mechanical operations code base. It targeted an old blowhard named General Covington. Anytime he used his keycard to get through a security door, the door opened like usual but then closed on him halfway through.”
Tanaka laughed. “Caught like a fat walnut in a nutcracker. It went on for months. He had to be extricated by maintenance personnel a couple of times. It got so bad that he started thinking the whole bunker was possessed by an evil spirit that wanted him dead.” He chuckled as the memory played out in his mind.
It was a good story. Sure, there was an element of rebellious mischief. But it was still the kind of story I’d be proud to hear as a parent. The problem again was that it didn’t feel real. It felt like a pitch-perfect performance where every note was hit, but the artifice of the act couldn’t be avoided.
It didn’t feel like reality.
Maybe there could be no truth, not until I remembered more. Maybe I was the disconnect, the unneeded extra.
Maybe everyone else had parts in a grand play that they all moved through and accepted without question. And if I remembered more, I could rejoin the performance and truth would again be clear and simple.
No. It wouldn’t be that easy.
It never was.
Besides, there was something to being on the outside. An outsider saw things the others didn’t. The unique perspective shifted the lens and revealed a different part of the picture.
“I’ll share something with you,” Tanaka said. “Something she made me promise never to tell you. But her passing makes the promise no longer binding.”
Disorientation crept around the edges of my consciousness. I fought to steady myself, to keep control. Something trickled down my upper lip and into the crease of my mouth.
I licked it away and tasted blood.
Tanaka’s eyes went wide. “Your nose is bleeding! That’s another indicator for edema or possibly an intracranial hematoma!”
The door opened and McKenzie held the new bag up and then noticed the trickle of blood leaking out of my nose.
Tanaka hit a red button by the bed and an alarm in the hallway went off.
The nurse from earlier appeared in the doorway.
Tanaka eased me down onto the bed as he shouted over his shoulder. “Get a surgical team together right now!”
“In the OR?”
“No! Here! Now!”
The nurse rushed out.
I tried to resist, but Tanaka overpowered my weak limbs and blurred focus. The stirrings of my body felt like a distant thing. Something not altogether interesting. Something that existed over there and drifted farther away with every passing second.
I remembered the pistol on my lap. That it was important. With the feeble sensation remaining in my fingers, I tried to close them around the grip.
The cold metal slipped away.
I glanced up to see McKenzie check the chamber and then slide the pistol into a holster inside his coat.
He secured it and caught my eye.
A chorus of voices and action exploded behind him.
“Out of the way! Move!”
McKenzie skirted to the side as a team of medical personnel crowded into the room.
The rush of bodies and the staccato burst of chatter between them. All fading echoes that didn’t interest me, even though they discussed the body I used to feel so attached to.
“We need to relieve the pressure. I need a bone drill with a perforator bit.” Tanaka said.
Blood poured out of my nose and gathered in my mouth. I coughed on some puddling at the back of my throat and blew out a spray of red mist.
“Strap him down! Get the skull clamp set. We don’t have time for anesthetic,” Tanaka said in a voice thick with tension.
Wide bands went across my chest, hips and calves. They tightened, compressing my body into the bed.
“Give me the drill!”
A high-pitched whirring drown out the voices. It reminded me of getting a cavity filled at the dentist’s office as a kid. The horrible promise of that sound.
It started as a pinprick of pain. A curious thing seen from a distance. Like the flicker of a candle in a distant window.
“Get that clamp set!”
The perception started that way, but it quickly changed.
A raw grinding vibration jerked the sensation close in an instant.
A blinding dagger of pain on the top of my head.
The cutting vibration blurring my vision.
An electric torture shot through my torso and limbs. Growing in waves as the drill continued grinding through thick bone.
I realized with a shock my role in the play.
My part was pain.
And I sang it with pitch-perfect agony.
TDDR – Chapter 6
A city of endless ruin.
Stretching to the horizon in all directions. Devastation draped over the surface like a camouflage net. A drab gray filter sucked the life out of everything within view. No movement to be seen. No breeze to ruffle leaves. No trees to have leaves.
No living thing anywhere.
And the silence.
The impossible, unbearable silence.
A graveyard of decayed buildings occupied the center of the city. Their skins long turned to dust. Only the metal bones still stood. Misshapen and scarred black. Some sheared in half. Others bent over and almost graceful in their final repose.
Every structure hugged close to the ground, fearful of rising and reaching for the bleak sky above. The sky itself a hazed reflection of the monochromatic landscape below.
A wasted city bled dry of contrast and definition.
In all places but one.
A single skyscraper standing tall in the center.
Black as night with its top hidden in the suffocating blanket above.
A column of shadow that seemed to inhale the surrounding light.
And yet, there at the center of that building in the center of the city, the smallest flicker of flame appeared.
A weak and unsteady thing, whipping back and forth in a non-existent wind. Glowing orange then yellow then orange again.
Refusing to be snuffed out.
A tendril of warmth. An invisible current of connection.
Pulling me forward. Faster.
Silent rushing. Blurring speed with no wind.
The connection stronger. An expanding bubble of recognition about to pop.
The flame a torch burning into the shadows, fighting to survive.
The bubble popped and a warm knowing arrived.
Speeding closer to the flame!
And then a sudden stop like hitting an invisible wall as the building shifted. Subtle at first as if only an illusion. Then obvious and physical and undeniable.
The flat column of featureless shadow shattered.
Millions of shards first fell and then swooped into flight.
Black wings and beaks.
Too many to count. Millions. More.
Flapping and cawing and filling the air. The wings buffeting and driving me back.
Surrounding the flame, pecking and tearing at it.
Their numbers overwhelming and irresistible.
They swallowed the light and the impenetrable cold returned.
TDDR – Chapter 7
I dreamed after that.
But they were dreams of a different quality.
Pale. Distant. Forgettable.
Clues perhaps to the life I’d forgotten, but nothing vital enough to remember.
The darkness began to fade.
At first slow and imperceptible, but then faster until all that remained was a diaphanous sheet separating me from the world.
“Scout? Are you awake?”
A familiar voice.
The sheet sliced apart like a samurai sword through silk.
My eyes opened.
At first blurry, but then clearer.
Tanaka stood above me. A look of guarded relief contorting his face. “Welcome back. Can you understand me?”
I nodded and flinched from the movement as a network of sharp needles pricked my scalp.
“I should’ve said not to move. Then again, I didn’t yet know if you would have the capacity to understand. If that part of your brain sustained damage or not. In any case, I’m pleased to see it did not. Can you speak?”
The word struggled out of my mouth like a toad from under a heavy rock. “Yes.”
“Good,” Tanaka replied as he scratched notes onto his ever-present clipboard. “Visual and auditory systems promising. Your reaction tells me you experienced pain from the surgery so the nervous system is at least minimally operational. Promising news, altogether. Especially considering what happened.”
“We lost you. You flatlined for a few minutes.”
He nodded without looking up. “Technically, yes. For a few minutes. But then you came back.” He continued scratching notes while I surveyed the room.
It was different from the one before. Designed to be the same as was typical in institutional settings, but subtly set apart by its unique history.
A four-inch long dent in the metal door by the door knob. Like the arm of a chair hit it.
The blue cover on the bed. The first had been closer to royal blue where this one was older and faded to a dull baby blue.
A clock on the side table that showed 17:28 with a small part on the lower half of the eight burned out.
Twins only looked the same from afar.
A closer inspection always revealed a history of the marks left by life.
And it always left a few.
The fortunate ones got only a few.
Everybody else got more than they asked for. Often more than they could handle. Some marks disfigured bodies and minds. Some marks made death look like a better option.
Depending on the mark and on the person, sometimes that happened.
But most soldiered on, accepting the anguish and scars and deformities.
“The pain you felt are the wounds from the burr holes.”
“You don’t understand,” Tanaka said as he waved away the obvious. “I had to drill through your skull to relieve pressure. I suspected swelling of the brain. We scanned you while you were out so we’ll know more on that soon. Anyway, I found a subdural hematoma. Bleeding in the tissues between the skull and the brain, basically. Bleeding that can lead to permanent damage and death in short order. I had to find the spot without access to any diagnostic scans. So, it was kind of like how they used to find water. Dig one place and see what you find. Dig another and do the same. Keep going until you find the gusher.”
How many holes did it take?
“Sorry for the terminology,” Tanaka said as he saw my face. “I’m just pleased you are alive, awake, and seem to be functioning well.”
“How many?” I asked.
“Holes? I found it on the third try. I stitched the first two up and left a drain in the third. We’ll be able to remove it in a few days. After you’re sufficiently healed, we’ll need to schedule a bone graft to fill the holes.”
I had three holes in my head?
And a drain sticking out one of them?
I tried to reach up to feel them, but my hand jerked to a stop. A strap around the wrist. I tried the other hand and found it the same. I tried to arch my back off the bed, but the strap across my chest prevented it.
I glared at Tanaka. “Why?”
“You were restrained during the surgery for your own safety. I’m sure you understand that brain surgery is a delicate business. A sudden movement could’ve ended up with a drill bit hollowing out your hippocampus. That’s an injury you wouldn’t want to survive.”
“Afterwards, I told them the restraints were unnecessary. I tried to have them removed, but was overruled. They were worried about your behavior. You know, carrying a gun in here and the whole time looking like you were half a second away from using it.”
He wasn’t wrong about that.
“It made people nervous, Sir.”
“I’m the president and I order you to remove these restraints.”
Tanaka flipped the cover paper back into place on the clipboard. He set it on the side table and pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Scout, there’s been a—”
The recovery room door flew open and two men walked in. Rather, one marched and one slunk. Neither was familiar.
“Scout,” the man in uniform with a chest full of bars and ribbons said, “you’re awake.”
He must’ve been a captain.
Or maybe Captain Disappointed because he didn’t appear to enjoy the good news.
A thin man in a dark blue suit stood behind him, looking around the side like a child behind a parent.
“Who are you?” I asked before realizing my error. Better to keep quiet and let them guess what I did and didn’t know. Not a mistake I would’ve made if I’d been more alert.
His eyes narrowed as he replied. “General Curtis. And this,” he dragged the thin man out and shoved him forward, “is Speaker of the House Tuckerman. We have a document for you.”
Tuckerman’s eyes dropped to the folded paper in his hands. He stared at it.
“Give it to him!” the general barked.
Tuckerman jumped like he’d been zapped with a cattle prod. He stepped forward and dropped the paper onto my chest.
“Hard to read in my current condition,” I said with simmering anger in my gut.
The general grabbed the paper in a wad and held it up, crumpled and unreadable. “This formally declares you medically unfit for the office of president and passes the title to the next in line of succession… which is Mr. Tuckerman.”
“Umm, President Tuckerman now,” the thin man said. “Technically.”
The general flashed a glare that shut him up. The relationship couldn’t have been any clearer. Not if there was a leash and a choke collar involved.
Curtis turned to me and a grin slashed across his face. “You are no longer the president.” He pivoted in a sharp about-face toward Tuckerman. “Mr. President, may I advise you to lock this man up as an enemy of the state.”
It wasn’t a question.
President Tuckerman looked away. “I don’t think. I mean. It’s not really necessary to—”
“I strongly advise it, Sir,” Curtis said. The Sir got tacked on like an afterthought.
Tuckerman nodded. “Sure. Of course. Okay. Let’s do that.”
“Corporal Martinez!” Curtis called over his shoulder.
Two soldiers in dark gray cammies carrying service rifles marched into the room and took up positions on each side of the bed. The smaller of them, a woman, snapped off a smart salute. “Yes, Sir!”
“Throw him in the brig!” Curtis said. “No visitors without my personal consent.”
“Yes, Sir,” she replied.
She reached for the bed rail, but Tanaka swatted her hands away. “He’s not going to the brig! He’s my patient and he’s done nothing wrong!”
General Curtis stepped into Tanaka’s personal space and leaned into him. “Unless you want to join him, I suggest you move aside.”
Tanaka stepped away. “Fine. But I want these restraints off. He needs full mobility to maximize his recovery.”
The general’s lip curled up. My recovery obviously wasn’t a priority for him.
“I’ll also require hourly check ups with him,” Tanaka said. “And if his time in your care results in harm of any kind, I will bring it to the attention of everyone who you’ve ever stepped on or stepped over in your unprecedented meteoric rise to power.”
The general’s gaze hardened to steel. Hard metal with a cutting edge. “Be careful, doctor. You may be the best we have, but you are not untouchable.”
“Are you threatening me, general?” Tanaka swept a hand around the room. “In front of no less than five witnesses?”
“Witnesses?” The general looked at each person in the room, ending on Tanaka. “I see you and a man who barely remembers his own name.”
Tanaka swallowed hard.
“We’ll remove the restraints when he is secured. You can check on your patient twice a day.”
Tanaka opened his mouth to object but the general cut him off.
“This isn’t a negotiation. Marines, move out!”
Corporal Martinez pulled the wheeled bed away from the wall. Her counterpart guided it and me into the hallway.
I turned my head as the door closed and saw Tanaka silently mouth a message. His lips curled around the words.
TDDDR – Chapter 8
The elevator rose two levels and dinged. A pleasant female voice announced, “Third floor. Administration level.”
The doors slid open and General Curtis and President Tuckerman stepped out. The latter headed down a corridor of polished marble tiles and elegant indirect lightning that somehow came from nowhere and yet evenly illuminated everything.
Curtis snapped his fingers and the president froze like a chastened dog. The general turned back to the three of us still inside the elevator. “Corporal Martinez, take him straight to the brig. No visitors. Nobody. I want it taken care of. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sir!” Martinez said.
“Good, because I’ll have your head otherwise.”
“Understood, Sir!” she barked again. The two soldiers snapped a salute as the doors slid shut.
As soon as the car began to rise, the atmosphere changed. Like air flooding into a vacuum. The soldiers exchanged a look.
The man spoke first. “Did you see that?”
“What? What are you talking about, what?”
Martinez shrugged. “What?”
“You really think President Tuckerman is going to be making the decisions?”
Martinez leaned over me and grabbed him by the collar. She yanked him over the side of the rail until they’re noses nearly touched. “General Curtis is the only thing that stands between us and total annihilation. So shut your mouth and do your job,” she said between clenched teeth. Her eyes darted up to the corner of the elevator where a dark half-sphere lens concealed a security camera.
He nodded. “Copy that!”
She let him go and he straightened, his gaze sliding over security camera before looking away.
The elevator dinged and the pleasant voice announced, “First floor. Security level.” The doors slid open and they wheeled me out into a noticeably different space than the Administration level.
It looked like the inside of an old Naval ship. All metal plates with riveted seams. Painted the same drab beige color as the walls in the exam rooms. There must’ve been a big surplus of it at some point.
Martinez pushed me down a long hall with numerous closed doors on either side. The other soldier walked in front, making sure the path was clear.
The hall opened into a room with a long counter with several soldiers seated behind it. Different than my escorts. Pencil-pusher types.
Martinez ignored them and headed toward a hallway on the right.
A man with wobbling jowls jumped out his seat and hurried around the counter to block their path. “Excuse me!” he said as he grabbed a rail and forced them to stop. “You know the rules! All prisoners must be signed in upon arrival and signed out upon departure.”
Martinez sighed. “Yeah.”
He hurried back to the counter, grabbed a data access pad and started tapping on the screen. “I assume this is the prisoner we were expecting,” he said as he looked down at me. “Hard to tell with all the bandages around his head.”
“Affirmative,” Martinez replied with more sarcasm, derision and disgust than seemed theoretically possible to fit into a single word.
The clerk smiled, either oblivious or used to the abuse, and held out the DAP to Martinez. “A thumb print will suffice.”
Martinez smashed her thumb onto the screen and it beeped.
“You’re all set,” the clerk said with an upbeat voice like he’d just done Martinez a favor. “You can thank me later.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Martinez replied as she shoved the bed into motion.
A wheel rolled over the clerk’s toe as we passed. He yelped and jumped away.
“Owww! That was unnecessary!”
She chuckled as we continued down a new corridor. “Negative. That was totally necessary.”
We approached a closed door on the right and Martinez slowed the bed to a stop.
Custodial was spray-painted in black letters on it.
“What are you doing?” the male soldier asked.
“Just wanted to grab him a few extra blankets. The circulation ducts don’t push much heat all the way back to the cell block. It always feels twenty degrees colder in there.”
“Ain’t that the truth. I hate pulling shifts there.”
“Can you tap it open?” Martinez asked.
“Sure,” he said as he pulled the badge off his chest and touched it to a sensor by the door. It beeped and slid open. “How many you thinking?”
“A couple extra should do it.”
He stepped inside and out of view.
Martinez hurried around the bed and went inside.
A sharp smack and then a dull thud and she reappeared. She grabbed the foot of the bed and rotated it around before dragging me inside.
When the bed cleared the doorway, she pressed a button and the door slid shut.
I looked through the side railing and saw the soldier crumpled up on the floor.
Martinez pulled a vicious-looking knife from the sheath at her hip. Ten inches of black blade with sharp teeth down the spine opposite a razor edge. She twisted it in the air between us. “Do you know who I am?”
I shook my head. “No.”
She leaned over the rail and slid the blade under the strap across my chest. The point dug into the thin hospital gown.
One hard thrust would do it.
And there was nothing I could do to stop her.
She twisted the blade and sliced through the strap. “My big brother, Sergeant Fernando Martinez, went with you on your last mission. He was so excited to be serving under your command. He didn’t think there was a higher honor. I remember the last day I saw him. I remember it like it was yesterday. I lost my brother just like you lost your daughter.” She got the last restraints free, secured the knife, and helped me sit up.
The lancing pain in my head was distracting but bearable. “I’m sorry but I don’t remember him.”
She locked eyes with mine. “General Curtis will never let you leave the brig. I doubt he intended to let you live through the night.”
“You think he was going to murder me?”
“Personally? No. That’s not his style. But have one of his underlings pay you a visit with a syringe filled with something that stops the heart and can’t be traced? Yeah, that’s his style.”
“Why would he do that?”
She gave me an odd look. “Because you two have never seen eye to eye and he doesn’t like the concept of competition. That, and you stole his spot as Vice-President.”
“I don’t know. I’m just a grunt. But I know he hates you and wants you dead.”
I rubbed circulation back into my wrists and hands. “Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because you refused the general’s orders to leave my brother behind. You tried to save his life. I won’t let them get you. Not if I can help it.”
“If I’m in that much danger, you’re putting your own life at risk.”
“Affirmative. My choice.” She helped me stand up and scanned me from head to toe. “Taller than I thought. I should’ve brought along Ericsson.”
She knelt beside the unconscious soldier and started stripping off his uniform.
“These cammies are gonna be a tight squeeze. The seam’s probably gonna friction saw your sack in half.” She looked up over her shoulder with a grin. “You don’t need testicles to survive, right?”
I stood like a statue.
As much out of concern for my testicles as out of confusion about what the hell was going on.
“Help me out here!” she said. “We don’t have much time. Once the alarm is raised, the whole bunker will turn into a frenzied anthill of activity to find us. And we don’t want them to find us.”
“Haven’t you been listening?”
I thought I had.
“Because it won’t be a confront to capture mission. It’ll be a shoot to kill mission. General Curtis wants you dead and a prisoner on the run offers an easy excuse to make that happen.”
1. Should I choose to be taken to the brig, knowing I need to rest and heal, and then worry about the next step later?
2. Should I stick with Martinez and try to escape together, knowing we may both end up dead?
3. Should I go with Martinez for now, but dump her as soon as possible in order to protect her from the consequences of aiding in my escape?
4. Should I turn Martinez in and look to take advantage of the favor that giving up a traitor would bring?
And #2 won the day. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t even close. I thought I had presented a tough set of choices. Not so much. Can I come up with something that will stump the group? Make them split the vote and force a run-off election? No because it’s not an election and there are no run-off redos! Haha. But can I manage to come up with something that will at least make it a harder decision? That’s what I’m aiming to do. Tune in next week to find out if I succeeded!
Was #2 the obvious choice for you? What do you think about the story thus far? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!