“You’re going to make us into Scrags?” Jameson said with disbelief.

“Thinking Scrags,” the young woman with the short cropped hair amended.

“You have twenty-four hours to decide,” Dr. Curran continued.

“I don’t need twenty-four hours,” a man said in a clipped accent. He stood up, his broad shoulders and height impressive. His closely-cropped hair was lightly beaded with sweat and despite his imposing looks, it was obvious he was uncomfortable with all he had been told.

“Chief Defender Omondi, I would like to hear your thoughts,” Mr. Petersen said in his bland voice.

Maria glanced at the black man and saw his eyes narrow dangerously.

“I am ready now for the procedure,” Omondi responded.

“So am I,” a woman with white-blond hair and pleasant features said.

“I see,” Dr. Curran said, a little surprised.

More hands and voices were raised, while a few holdouts remained quiet and pensive.

“I know you’re afraid,” Maria said, directing her eyes away from those who wouldn’t look at her. “I know that everything we showed you is frightening, but this is our last chance. I am Inferi Boon Special Ops. I feel, think, and crave the freedom from the Scrags. When I enlisted in the Constabulary I knew that I may one day put my life on the line to protect this city. I never dreamed that I could continue to protect humanity beyond my death. I died over two weeks ago and yet I stand before you. I still care what happens to every citizen of this city...to you...to my family. I don’t want any of us to face starvation and death. If you decide not to do this, so be it. I get it. I understand. My body feels foreign to me now. I don’t feel alive. But I am still a soldier. And I will fight for my city.” Her last words were raw with emotion as her air ran out and she had to force more air to her lungs so she could speak. Anger was pricking at her nerves and she suddenly couldn’t see any damn reason why her fellow soldiers wouldn’t do the right thing.

“Are you with me?”

Every soldier in the room stood up and let out a war cry.

Unexpectedly, Dr. Curran offered to escort Maria to her quarters. Maria was relieved when Dr. Petersen didn’t follow. Chief Defender Omondi shook hands with her before she left the debriefing room. His wide smile said it all.

The two women walked in silence, their footfalls echoing through the long white corridor. Maria wanted nothing more than to lie down on her bed and wait for Dwayne’s call. She wasn’t tired physically, but emotionally she felt drained.

“I thought you were against the hard sell,” Dr. Curran finally said.

Maria glanced toward her and grinned. “I was...I am.”

“You basically called anyone not volunteering a coward and a traitor,” Dr. Curran pointed out. “Not in so many words, of course, but the sentiment was there.

Lifting her shoulders, Maria slowed her pace.

Dr. Curran stopped and faced Maria. “Do you wish to tell me something?”

Maria set her feet apart and set her hands on her hips. “When I was in there, I think I finally believed we can have a successful mission. Looking at all of their faces and knowing what they’re capable of, I felt this surge of hope fill me. Give us the right weapons and training and we can do this.”

Dr. Curran laughed slightly as she rested her hand on Maria’s shoulder. “I never doubted that for a second.”

Once tucked away in her room, Maria showered and let her hair down. The alarm in her wristlet kept her alert as she settled onto her bed to study the file Dr. Curran had downloaded onto a pad for her. It contained maps of the valley and the pinpointed locations of importance, including the gate. The major obstacle to their mission was just the sheer number of Inferi Scourge filling the valley. They formed a massive wall of flesh that was going to be difficult to penetrate, or maneuver through.

After an hour of studying, her wristlet indicated that Dwayne was calling. She brought up the program and smiled as he came into view.

“Still at the office I see,” she teased.

“I’m a workaholic. Besides, now I don’t have you to rush home to,” he answered, his eyes crinkling in the corners as he smiled. “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing fine. The other recruits are going to undergo the procedure soon. I get to guide them through their transition, then we start training for about two weeks.”

“You sound excited.” Dwayne’s voice barely gave away his worry.

“I am. Today I think I finally believe that this is going to happen. We’re really going to clear the valley. I think I believed it in theory, but now it feels real, tangible, possible.”

Dwayne lowered his eyes as his smile grew bittersweet. “I hope you’re right. I want nothing more than for you to return to me.”

“And I will,” Maria promised. “I love you.”

“I love you. Until tomorrow night. I’ll dream of you.”

“I’ll dream of you, too.”

His face vanished and Maria felt a pang of loneliness cut through her. If she could cry, she would have for she realized that she had lied to Dwayne for the first time in their relationship.

She no longer dreamed.

Chapter 12

“So this is what it feels like to be dead,” Chief Defender Obuya Omondi muttered.

Maria stood over him, her hand on his shoulder as Dr. Beverly Curran studied the various readouts pouring into her pad. “Kind of strange, huh?”

 Omondi’s brow slightly puckered as he lifted his head and studied himself. “I feel really odd.”

The man’s very dark skin and black eyes spoke of an African ancestry, but his voice was tinged with a rather posh accent. Most likely his family was from the British Isles. The refugees of the dead world tended to live together in enclaves reflective of their countries of origin. Not all the survivors of the great fall of humanity were interested in retaining the old world cultures, but enough did that languages were still being preserved despite English being the primary language of The Bastion.

“You get used to it eventually,” Maria assured him.

“Feels a bit like I’m wrapped in a blanket,” Omondi decided.

Dr. Curran looked more than pleased with the readouts. “Things are looking very good, Chief Defender. We’re going to do a variety of tests just to make sure the transition was smooth,” Dr. Curran said.

Maria’s smile slightly faded at the doctor’s words.

“How is the rest of the squad?” Omondi’s brow was lightly furrowed with concern.

Maria was slightly jealous that the rest of the volunteers had been housed together while she was doing her duty as Dr. Curran’s test subject. They had been able to bond as a unit while she had been isolated.

“Ready to follow in your footsteps,” Beverly replied. She added with a slight smirk, “They’re eager to join you.”

A large smile spread across Omondi’s lips. “I would expect nothing less. They truly are the best of the best.” He flexed his large hands and wiggled his feet. His smile faded and he slowly exhaled. “This really does feel very peculiar. Do you really get used to it?”

Maria flexed her numb hand and drew a breath to speak. “Absolutely,” she lied.

“How long before I will be ready to train?” Omondi asked. He forced himself to lie back, but Maria could see him flexing his muscles.

“Once all the tests are done. Thanks to Vanguard Martinez, your tests will go a lot faster and much more smoothly.”

“I am grateful for that. I won’t lie. I am very anxious to get out there and begin smashing Scrag heads.” Omondi grinned at Maria.

“I feel exactly the same way,” Maria responded.

Dr. Curran wore a look of amusement on her face as she stepped away from the table. “There will be time for that.”

“I want to be there when my people wake up,” Omondi informed the doctor.

“I’ll see if I can arrange that,” Dr. Curran answered.

Omondi’s good-natured expression vanished as his eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. “I was told I am in charge of this operation. It’s my responsibility to make sure my people come through it safely. I will be at their awakenings. Is that clear?”

Dr. Curran’s mouth dropped slightly in surprise, but then she regained her composure. “As I said, I will see what I can do. Come along, Vanguard Martinez.”

Maria gave Omondi’s shoulder a quick, reassuring squeeze then followed the doctor out of the room.

“There are too many heads to this beast,” Beverly muttered angrily.

“Isn’t the Chief Defender in charge of the operation?” Maria asked. “Isn’t he the one calling the shots for our mission?”

“The line is blurred between where his mission begins and where mine ends,” Dr. Curran confessed.

Sighing, she kept a brisk pace as they traveled the corridor toward the testing rooms. “Once this project was approved by the president it was no longer just an SWD project. I used to answer to my superiors. Now I answer to a committee consisting of every branch of the military and the government. Nothing is simple anymore on the bureaucratic end. Luckily for you, you don’t have to deal with any of that. Your job is simple. Kill the Inferi Scourge and come home to your new life.” Dr. Curran forced a smile onto her tightly-drawn face, as if to reassure Maria.

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