Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Ten


Chapter Ten

She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

The Dance Ends

Lena stood very still. She balanced on her good leg, putting no weight on her sprained ankle, looking at the clone. It was a boy, barely any different in age to her boy, to Max. She wondered where Max was now, if he was frightened, whether she would manage to rescue him, whether she would ever see him again. Her eyes filled with tears. She wiped them roughly away. Now was not the time for thinking, she had a job to do, she needed to be quick, before someone arrived.

Lena reached into the cloth bag at her side and felt the vials. They appeared to have survived her crash landing from the ceiling hatch, seemed to be intact. She withdrew the first one, depressed the end button and the needle shot out—long, glinting in the light, cruel. Then she looked again at the clone.

It—he— was surrounded by machines and tubes. The air was warm, filled with the noise of those machines as they breathed, cleaned, fed, the body on the bed. Lena watched the chest rise and fall. Was it a person? It looked like a boy. Was she about to murder a child?

Until this moment, Lena had not really considered what her task entailed. She wanted to rescue her son, she had been sent along the electricity ducts to the room of clones, ready to inject them with poison, to stop them functioning. But were they alive? They might be inconvenient to the plans of the people who had sent her, destroying them might improve the life of others, but did that make it right? What actually constituted a human? Just how human did someone have to be, to be counted as a person, to have rights? To have the right to live. She knew the clones were brain dead, could not function at any level without the aid of the machines, had no opinions, no thoughts, no personality. But did that give her the right to destroy them? Were they just a collection of cells, an inconvenient physical form—or were they people? When is a person a person?

Then she thought of her family. Her husband, hounded for his beliefs, her daughter, wrenched from her home, her son, kidnapped and taken for treatment on his brain. They were surely more important, the only thing she should be worrying about. Lena shook her head, reminded herself again, she had no time to think about this.

Feeling uneasy, she inserted the syringe into the neck of the clone. She shuddered as it pierced the skin, glided in. Then, turning away, not wanting to see, she pressed the second button, forcing the liquid into its—his? — body, slowly counting to five as instructed. Trying not to think. She turned back. Nothing looked different. The machines still hummed. The clone lay still, apparently sleeping.

Unseen, the poison surged through its body, destroying cells, damaging systems. Each pump of the heart sent it further, deeper, spreading its destruction. But the outside, what people could observe, would remain unaltered for many hours. By tomorrow the first tinge of grey would be visible at the extremities. By evening, the clone would be rotting.

Lena hurried to the second and third clones, repeated her injections. Now she had done one, it seemed easier, she wasted no time injecting the poison, did not pause to look at the clones. She held the three spent syringes in her hand, not knowing where to put them. If she disposed of them in the room, they might be found, an antidote used, her efforts would be wasted. The needles were sharp, she had nothing to cover them with, no way to retract them back inside the tubes. She carefully placed them back in the cloth bag; it was the best place for now. One point pierced the material—shining, evil. No, she decided, that was a bad plan, if they pierced her she might also die. She took them out, held them where she could see them. Then she looked around, her eyes skimming the room, searching for inspiration, must be quick, must be quick.

There was a medical trolley next to one of the beds. Lena swept everything off, the equipment fell to the floor with a crash, she was already wheeling the trolley, pushing it over to below the vent. She put down the syringes, climbed onto the trolley, then reached for them, threw the syringes into the vent, as far away from the entrance as she could. She grasped the edge of the vent, jumped and used her arms to heave herself up. All her muscles groaned at the effort, beads of sweat stood on her neck, she gave a small cry of frustration, kicked her legs, her ankle screamed. But she managed it. Inch by painful inch, she raised her body upwards, into the hidden shaft above the room.

The cover to the vent lay where she had placed it. She put it back into position, secured it with a screw. There was nothing she could do about the trolley, whoever arrived first would be sure to see it, would look up, see the duct, guess what had happened. But she had too many other things to worry about, she could only achieve so much. The syringes lay where she had thrown them. She picked them up and heaved them further away, deeper into the tunnel beyond the room. Then she lowered herself back into position, began to crawl, began her slow shuffle, arm over arm, back the way she had come.

It was much harder going back. Her arms were tired, her head ached, her throat was parched. She had also lost the map, had put it down at some point, was now having to remember where to go at each turning. Not that this was difficult, the fine white dust that lined the vents clearly marked her route. It looked as if a giant slug had oozed a trail, sweeping the dust in its wake. She even felt like a slug, dirty and repugnant.

Everything hurt but her ankle cried the loudest, sending heated agony through her whenever she jolted it. She clenched her teeth, determined to return to the entry point, to get back to the washroom, to meet her son. And to drink, to gulp some water into her dry sore throat, to sit and rest her tired limbs. She must keep going, must not give up.

“Don’t think, don’t think,” she told herself, arm over arm, knee after knee, slowly but surely advancing through the shaft.

***

Mel4 was still racing through the reports. Midra had arrived at the hospital, been examined by the medical team. The bullet had pierced a lung, they recommended it should be replaced at once.

A team was sent to prepare the theatre, another to prepare a clone for transplant. The clone needed to be unhooked from most of the machines, rushed to the same operating room as Midra. Everyone was rushing, time was of the essence. Anyone who caused a delay was likely to be penalised, this was not a patient to be relaxed about.

Two young doctors ran to the room where the clones were maintained. The first to arrive, the younger and fitter of the two, saw the mess as soon as he entered. There were instruments in an untidy heap on the floor, a trolley pushed to the middle corridor. He paused, surprised, decided the guards had been in a rush when they left, must have run into the trolley, spilling equipment in their panic. It made sense. The young doctor wheeled the trolley out of the way, gave it no more thought and began to prepare the clone.

***

Max was beginning to stir, the sedation wearing off. Opening his eyes was too much effort, but he could hear. Quiet voices were speaking intently, giving instruction. They sounded tense, cross. He wondered why. He was also aware that he was moving. The bed he was in was being rolled across a floor, he could feel a breeze on his head. That was odd. The bed was very soft, comfortable, warm. He would wake up in a minute, he thought, drifting back to sleep.

***

A new cover for the 2020 edition. Available from Amazon.

Lena finally reached the hatch where she had entered. She pressed her ear against the grill and listened. Nothing. She peered down, trying to look in each direction. The room seemed to be empty. Using her good leg, she stamped on the grill. It was hard, she couldn’t get high enough for there to be sufficient force to knock it from the hole. With a cry of frustration, she kicked again. It fell, clattered on to the floor. No one rushed to look. Lena pushed her head through the gap, checking the room was empty, the trolley bed was still below the hatch. She lowered herself down, fell with a plop onto the mattress. Her ankle screamed in protest. She almost cried with relief; she was out. But not yet finished, still a way to go, must keep going.

Her ankle burned. She needed to sort it before she could go further, it hurt too much to walk, people would notice her. There was a cupboard in the room and she hobbled over to it, checking first that the room door was locked, the glass opaque.

There were rolls of bandages, plasters, bottles of liquid, boxes of syringes. Ignoring everything else, she grabbed a bandage, hopped back to the bed. Removing her shoe was agony but she inched it off, then wound the bandage tightly around her ankle, tucking it beneath her heel, giving it some support, some protection. The shoe was now too small to wear on her enlarged foot, so she hopped back to the equipment, found some scissors. They were wonderfully sharp, sliced through the plastic edges of the shoe as if it were cheese. She put the shoe over the bandage. There was a plastic apron in the cupboard, she grabbed it, draped it to cover her dirty uniform, then went to the door.

Opening it slowly, she peered into the corridor. People were passing, lost in their own worlds, hurrying to where they needed to be. A nurse staring at her computer, an elderly couple—the man leaning on his wife for support, a woman and child. No one looked at her, barely seemed to notice her. It seemed impossible that the world should be normal, everyone going about their business, when her world was upside down, everything had changed.

Lena began to walk. The pain was intense at every step. She willed herself forwards, tried to ignore the pain, the rising nausea, attempting to stay upright, to not hobble, not attract attention. There was a wheelchair, waiting by the wall in a side corridor. Lena detoured over to it, grasped the handles, used it for support, let it take some of the weight away from her screaming ankle. She switched off the directional motor so that she could push it, guide it to where she wanted to go. It was heavy, her progress was slow but she was advancing, step by painful step, back to the washroom. Her safe haven. The place where she would meet up with Max.

When she arrived at the washroom, she abandoned the wheelchair, leaving it against the wall, using the door and walls as her support. She pushed open the door and went inside, looking round expectantly.

It was empty. Lena didn’t know if that was because she was too late or too early. She would not allow the thought that they were not coming at all.

There was nothing more she could do, so she went to the sink, turned on the tap. The water was wonderful, filling her mouth, cooling her cheeks, cold and sweet. She was still there, bent over the sink, drinking deeply, when the door opened.

Lena turned, prepared to flee into the safety of a cubicle. It was her guide; the nurse had arrived.

He opened the door, saw Lena and came in, leaning against the door to secure it. Arms folded he stood there, watching her for a moment. She ignored him, turning back to the tap, intent on drinking. She felt him watching her, knew he would notice her pale face, the bandaged ankle, the shaking hands. She straightened, turned to him. He was smiling: a small bemused smile of disbelief.

“You made it? Managed to do it?”

His voice was very deep. Lena looked up. Suddenly realised he was alone.

“Where is Max?”

Lena heard the desperation in her voice, felt the nausea rise again, knew she had been betrayed.

“He is safe, we have him. He is sleepy, I will bring him in a chair. Wait in a cubicle, out of sight. We need to get you—both of you—out of here quickly, as soon as possible.”

He paused.

“Well done.”

Lena acknowledged the praise, was too tired to do more than nod. The nurse reached up to the hole in the ceiling, passed her the bag, her clothes, her boots. He stood, watching her for a moment longer, as if he would say something else, then changed his mind, turning quickly to the door, leaving Lena alone with her things. She took them into the cubicle, sat, stared at them. Changing was too much effort. She doubted the boots would fit over her damaged ankle anyway. She lowered her head, resting it on her knees and closed her eyes. She may have slept. Time trickled away.

Lena realised she had been waiting for a long time. Her neck was stiff and she raised her head. She was still alone, folded over in her cubicle, dirty, tired and aching. She had no way to check the time, but she wondered what the problem was, the cause for the delay. The nurse had said he was collecting Max. Was he lying? Had he tried to and there had been a problem, had Lena’s actions caused some kind of alarm or security alert? Was Max now in more danger than when she had arrived? The questions began to whirl in her mind, now that her initial exhaustion had abated, she was overwhelmed with fear for her son.

Lena stood—sitting on a toilet would solve nothing. She considered changing into her own clothes, not sure whether they would be less noticeable than her dirty uniform when she searched the hospital. She had no plan, only the resolve that she was not leaving without her son, that if the nurse had deceived her, then she must search on her own.

For a while she hovered, not moving, groping for a decision, a place to start; she had come so far, she must not mess this up. She dressed in her own clothes, it seemed a sensible place to start, and she had to start somewhere. She wasn’t sure if she had any more resources, could summon the energy necessary to start searching, but she had to do something. Her arms were aching, protesting as she pushed them into sleeves. She felt near tears. This wasn’t fair. The boots, when she came to them, looked too much of a challenge to even attempt, so she pulled the plastic shoes back onto her feet.

The sound of the opening door disturbed her. She froze, not knowing if someone was using the washroom, or if her hiding place had been revealed. She heard her name: “Lena!”  and rushed out. There was the nurse, and a woman—and there was Max, slumped in a wheelchair, pale, bald, alive. Lena started towards him, then stopped.

She took in his bald head, the hair shaved to nothing, his crown pink and round.

“Did they…?” Lena began. Was he hurt? Would hugging him cause damage?

“He’s unharmed,” the nurse reassured her, “he never got as far as surgery. He’s just sedated, sleepy. Give him another hour and he’ll be awake. He might have a headache but he’ll be fine. You need to leave now”.

The nurse reached down, picked up Lena’s bag and clothes, stowed them under the chair. He put the coat over her shoulders and she realised she was shivering, shaking, was hardly able to stand. The relief at seeing Max was immense. It took her last reserves of energy. She couldn’t move, stood for a long moment staring at her son, suspended in time, touching him with her eyes but not daring to move; while the nurse moved around her.

Then all at once the spell broke, and she fell forwards, arms around his shoulders, hugging Max to her. She breathed in the smell of him, felt his head hard against her cheek, the warmth of him. Emotions rose hotly inside of her, a great bubble of relief and tears and love that caused a shudder to shake her whole being. He was safe. Her son was safe. She had rescued Max. He moved against her, as if uncomfortable, and she loosened her grip, eased him back onto the backrest. Her hand rested on his head, feeling the warm skin, stroking, reassuring, not wanting to move away.

The nurse placed an arm under her elbow and nodded to the woman next to him. The woman secured a different barcode to Lena’s jacket, then opened the door, indicated they should leave. The group walked quickly, away from the washroom, along the corridor, out through the swishing doors. Lena let herself be led, barely thinking, unable to do more than obey their instructions. Her eyes did not leave her son for a second.

There was a car waiting. The nurse led them to it, lifted in Max, helped Lena next to him. He unhooked her barcode, passed it back to the woman. Put Lena’s bag on the ledge, where it would obscure the internal camera.

“The car will take you to the port. A boat is waiting. It will take you to the island.”

The nurse looked again at the woman and her son. Both almost unconscious. Both brave. Both had achieved more than he would have dreamed was possible. The mother had her arms around her son, holding him close, as if soaking up his warmth, cherishing his life. Her eyes shone with tears and her face was streaked with dust and water, drawn into hard lines of tiredness. Yet something about her was stronger than anything he had ever seen before. The almost tangible love of a mother for her child. He wanted to say something, to keep her for longer, to let her know how much he admired her. He was rarely surprised by anyone, yet she had astounded him. But he didn’t.

He held the barcode under the scanner, shut the door and watched the car drive away.

To be concluded on Sunday. . .

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