Matias participates in a cutting-edge experimental therapy to try and help quell a world-ravaging pandemic; by Michael Saad, illustrations by Adam White.
There was no worse feeling in the world than being trapped in a cold, plastic bubble waiting for a doctor to inject you with poison.
"You know it's helping you, Matias," the hologram of his mother reminded him from the other side of the transparent wall that separated them. "It's medicine."
Yeah, medicine with loopy drugs and robots in it. He thought. All of which wreak havoc on my body.
"I know," Matias answered, rubbing his hand over his bare head, a nervous reaction he developed during this past month of hell stuck in this isolation chamber in the middle of God-knows-where.
More like this past year of hell, when this pandemic first started, he corrected himself.
"You understand why you're doing this, right son?" His mother looked at him with her usual pained, fearful eyes.
"Yeah." Matias didn't want to go through this again with her. He had volunteered for this protocol, having been explained the risks, the procedures, and the absolute necessity of this radical, experimental, and ultimately desperate attempt to counter the Norcavirus that was ravaging planet Earth. I'm helping to save my country, my planet, the fate of the human race on Earth. At least that's what I keep telling myself.
In spite of that, he was going batty being confined inside a plastic bubble all day and night. The hard part wasn't the virus, or the lethargy, dizziness, and flu-like symptoms that went with it, but rather it was being away from his friends, especially Saul. His gaming console and HD holo-projector sat un-played next to his bed. He loved video games - adventures, shoot'em ups, fantasy quests - but the less he got to play them with Saul, his burly, rough-around-the-edges best friend, the less he wanted to play them at all. Matias closed his eyes and remembered a time one year earlier, when life was so much simpler and a lot less threatening.
"Holy Crapola, Matty," Saul had said when the giant, 30-legged slug like monster burst through the bushes after them, catching both boys by surprise. "Is that what I think that is?"
"It's the centipede," Matias said, steering their Dragonfly away from the creature's jaws.
The boys were playing a two-person, holographic, video game called Devil Riders, part of their regular after-school routine at Matias' house during their Grade 8 year. The boys were teammates, playing the roles of two elves, Edward and Blastien, who flew on the back of a dragonfly, protecting their forest-kingdom from the malicious predators who threatened to destroy it. The satisfaction of finally reaching the climax of the game - the showdown with the King Centipede - burned into Matias' memory like a branding iron.
"Hit his belly," Matias said, manoeuvering towards the creature. Matias was Edward the navigator who steered the dragonfly while Saul controlled Blastien the archer, who was saddled behind the driver.
"Giddy-up," Saul said, firing his arrow controller upward at the giant hologram that took up the entire living room around them. "Take that you dirt-bag slug!"
Winding around the monster's flailing legs, each one capable of crushing the boys' dragonfly and their characters along with it, Matias barrelled underneath the centipede's segmented torso, while Saul fired arrows into the creature's underside, tearing up its belly. The centipede recoiled, flipping onto its back, convulsing on the weeds underneath it. The celebratory closing scene signified the game's end.
"Whoa, Matty!" Saul had said. "How the heck did you take him out so fast? It took my older cousin 20 times to beat that thing!"
"I had a good wing-man," Matias answered, smiling at his friend. And thank you Dad, Matias thought. His father had bought him an e-subscription to Orvi's Video Game Central, where Matias had read about the strategies to win the game. 'Always be prepared,' his dad always told him, a philosophy Matias adopted to everything he did in life.
"All right, team," Dr. Callas announced, entering the isolation room, disrupting Matias' train of thought. His nurse unzipped the bubble door for him, and the doctor rolled in his cart with his holo-emitter and the two, separate vials of liquid - one red, the other gritty purple.
Great, Matias thought, poison time.
"Hey buddy, steady and strong," Dr. Callas said, giving him a wink through the plastic face mask of his orange isolation suit. "We've got a war to fight."
The doctor turned on his holo-emitter and opened up a holographic body-profile of Matias' lymphatic and circulatory systems, outlined by the white lymph nodes and vessels that showed, in real time, the flow of blood and lymph throughout his body. The problem, however, were the active speckles of grey could be seen vibrating around his lymph nodes. That was the Norcavirus and, in particular, the white blood cells it had infected - the very cells that had turned against his body and were now attacking it.
Dr. Callas pulled out his rolling bench and sat at Matias' bedside. Matias already had his sky-blue gown open to reveal the Broviac line that threaded into his heart. He looked over to his mother, her hologram pressed against the bubble membrane. The expression on her face said it all.
"It's bad out there, isn't it?" Matias said to the doctor.
Dr. Callas sighed. "The World Health Organization estimates two-thirds of the Earth's population are now infected. Most of which will be fatal cases." He leaned closer to Matias. "Which is why the work we're doing here is so desperately important."
"The quarantined zones are still safe," his mother added. "We're all okay - Saul's family is here."
Saul's family, but not Saul. That was the second time his mother made that slip. Like Matias, Saul wasn't the type to give in without a fight. Matias wanted to believe that his friend was safe - Saul was tough, feisty.
"There are several quarantine centers in the state." Dr. Callas said, sensing Matias' dread. "You know how chaotic things got in such a short time."
"Did you go over my plan?" Matias asked, wanting to get back to the matter at hand. "Do you think it can work?"
"I did and I do," the doctor answered. "Just remember that any contact between a Norcaviral and your white blood cells will increase the risk of infection. This is why you must attack one cluster - one cell - at a time."
"I know." Matias nodded. He respected Dr. Callas - the man didn't sugar coat anything, but was very humble and empathetic in his bedside manner.
"We are close here, Matias," Dr. Callas put his hand on Matias' shoulder. "The Norcavirus does not respond to conventional medicine. Psychoneuroimmunology, for reasons we can't even begin to understand, has given us a fighting chance, but we need you. We need your mind, your imagination - to react to the way the virus is attacking you, and defend yourself. We need you to stay focussed, and fight this thing with everything you've got."
"I will, doctor," Matias said. Psychoneuroimmunology was the practice of helping patients visualize themselves fighting their illnesses directly, usually involving some kind of fantasy play or visualization. The science behind it had largely been discredited, at least until the outbreak, when research pioneers in Europe discovered that the Norcavirus, and the cells it infected, responded to psycho-neural treatment. Dr. Callas became one of the spearheads in the US for the research, and began a series of trials with the CDC, which searched for young, infected subjects to experiment on. Matias had been a prime candidate, and had been recruited by the doctor shortly after being infected. There was something about Dr. Callas - his passion, courage, resilience -Matias just couldn't let him down.
"Okay then," the doctor hit a switch on the emitter, changing the hologram to a computer image of a gleaming silver, streamlined ship that Matias had constructed from memory. Callas picked up the purple vial - the fluid inside was an experimental drug, one that had shown some success in treating Norca, while the dark-purple blotches that swirled in it were the nanites, the microscopic robots that sent neural impulses to his brain, describing the virus' assault. Matias' job was to process the information into a coherent, visual storyline, one that he could follow and react to, then relay that story back to Dr. Callas when the session was over.
"Administering clinical trial agent #3, Trolomorzphine," the doctor said into the emitter's recorder as he injected the purple vial into the Broviac line, "followed by the mild hallucinogenic to maximize the subject's concentration."
Matias glanced over to his mother, her image flickered against the membrane wall. He could tell it was killing her not to be in the same room as him. He gave her a subtle wave, wanting to let her know that he was prepared for the oncoming onslaught.
Matias closed his eyes, and rested his head against his pillow, ready for the hallucinogen to hone his thoughts. "I'm ready."
"Hallucinogen administered," the doctor spoke. "Commencing protocol. Let Operation White Army Stand, Phase 3 commence."
"All right team, how far until target?" The white-furred Sergeant Allas Humbersome stood up from his seat behind the T-Cell pilot. He was the leader of the troupe, dressed in the traditional, orange command outfit of the White Army. He could see they were nearing their destination judging from the ridged marks in the pink and orange sky, the patterns of which served as landmarks that honed him in on the enemy's location.
"About six kilometers," Orvis, the head pilot, responded. He glanced over to his young co-pilot and apprentice, who had been watching his every move since their T-Cell left dock. Both mice wore sky-blue flight suits. "Give the Sergeant a heads up when we fall into range, okay Little Ed?"
"Yes sir," Edward said. He wasn't thrilled with the "Little" moniker that was attached to his name, but for whatever reason, Orvis's nickname for him stuck.
"Blastien, ready the ammo," Sergeant-H instructed his weapons officer, "I want a full spread launched over the enemy entrenchment, then we'll land on the surface and detonate the rest."
"Giddy-up, Sarge," the burly Rat's voice echoed with confidence. Blastien hoisted the purple, rectangular shells like they were candy, and readied them into the cell's firing chamber.
"We'll be entering range in thirty seconds, sirs," Little Ed's voice shook as he peered over the radar screen. So far this mission had been simple - way too simple given the mysterious and deadly enemy they were at war with.
"Okay everyone, steady and strong," the Sergeant said. "We need to hit them with everything we got."
"You guys sound like mites in grade school!" Orvis said, snorting. "I don't care who this enemy is, there ain't anybody gonna survive a blast of those bombs from my Killer T, especially a bunch of drugged out traitors. You mice need to relax."
"The Crona are no ordinary enemy," Sergeant-H warned, "and these explosives are the most destructive on the planet."
"And these aren't drugged out traitors." Blastien said. "They're converted mice civilians, brainwashed into serving the enemy."
"Whatever, kid." Orvis rolled his eyes. "They're the enemy now, and soon they're going to be at the bottom of one, giant crater in the tissue floor by the time this T-Cell gets through with -"
"Look out!" Little Ed shouted before the blaster bolt disintegrated the front windshield, and the shockwave of hot air and glass exploded onto their laps. Little Ed shielded his face just in time, an instant before he saw the bolt slam into Orvis' chest. The T-Cell pilot's body burst into a ball of flame.
"Orvis!" Little Ed pulled out the extinguisher behind his seat. Sergeant-H yanked it from his hands and immediately sprayed the fire. Everything felt like a blur. Within seconds, Little Ed saw his mentor obliterated beyond recognition, burned into a charred, black corpse. Little Ed felt dizzy.
"Get a hold of yourself, soldier, we're under attack!" Sergeant-H shouted over the dark smoke billowing from the controls. "They hit us hard - we're going down. You've got to crash-land this T-Cell! You're the only one who can do it!"
I'm just a co-pilot, Little Ed wanted to say, but didn't. He reacted, reaching over Orvis' body and seizing the controls. He was white and pasty from the extinguisher foam, and his lap was covered in broken glass, but he concentrated and leveled the ship. Their vessel had been hit in multiple locations from Crona fire, and was losing fuel and altitude. The T-Cell dropped like a hailstone. He pulled up on the throttle and hoped he could glide to the surface, praying that the terrain didn't have any surprises for them.
"Can you get us down?" Sergeant-H shouted in his ear.
"I think so, sir," Little Ed said, his mind back in focus. "But sir?"
"You better buckle up - it's going to be a rotten landing!"
They crashed in an open area, where the rugged tissue flattened into a vast plain. Little Ed kept the T-Cell level as they landed, and steered the ship out of the rolling hills that would have smashed it to pieces on impact. The problem was they had no idea how far from the enemy entrenchment they were.
"Way to hold yourself together," Sergeant-H patted Little Ed's shoulder. The Sergeant had unbuckled his seat and put his gear together. Little Ed took a breath - he had banged his snout on the dashboard and needed to clear his head. It took him a full minute to remember he was sitting on the blackened corpse of his mentor.
"I have five purple shells left," Blastien reported, hoisting a large pack over his shoulder, "I can't get at the ones I loaded into the cell's firing chambers without detonating the entire ship."
"Don't worry about it," Sergeant-H said with a grimace. "Take the five shells and whatever ammo you have left. We have to get out of here immediately."
"Get out of here?" Little Ed said. "You wanna abandon our T-Cell, sir? It's the only protection we've got?"
"I'm afraid we have no choice, soldier. The Crona have honed in on our ship. They're going to be coming here to pillage this T-Cell. Heaven help us if they catch us here alive."
"Uh, Sarge," Blastien said as he peered out the open space that was once the cell's view screen. "They're here already."
"Get down," Sergeant-H hissed. The three officers shot to the ground, their eyes peering over the broken dashboard to the view outside. Four expressionless creatures walked methodically towards their T-Cell. They were mice, and yet they weren't. Their civilian clothes tattered and torn, their fur wet and matted - physical appearances were not important to the Crona. The only thing that was important to them, as far as the White Army knew, was the acquisition of cellular material to fortify their weapons, and the conversion of mice populations into the mindless, brainwashed creatures that were marching towards them.
"It's a scout patrol," Sergeant-H said. "They're here to assess the damage on the T-Cell, and eliminate any hostile threats before the virus sends the rest of its arsenal at us."
"Let me guess, we'd be hostile threats." Little Ed said, grimacing. The White Army had never encountered an enemy like the Crona before - one that could physically change the biochemistry of a mouse's brain, and force it to do its bidding. Only a small number of highly sophisticated viruses could do that, yet the Crona exhibited behaviors that were nothing like a typical virus.
"Our only option is to flee this cell, immediately," Sergeant-H said, speaking with a calm confidence that comforted Little Ed. "We have to take out this patrol and retreat to the hills before the Converters get here."
"The Converters?" Blastien asked.
"They're the Crona ships that blasted us out of the air," Little Ed explained, referring to his pilot's briefing on the mission. "They're also the only part of the Crona arsenal that can carry out the conversions. They are unbelievably fast, and fire injector rods into the spinal cords of mice they want to convert."
"We're no longer certain they're ships at all," Sergeant-H added. "The White Army believes they are actually the Crona themselves - individual, living organisms that feed, grow, and reproduce. Our mission is to destroy the Converter nest that's been accumulating in this region. Even though this accident has messed up our plan, we can still complete that mission. Blastien, ready your antibody cannon. Little Ed, take the T-Cell's concussion rifle underneath your seat. We need to leave here now."
"Sarge, look out!" Blastien shouted, as a Crona warrior leapt onto the T-Cell hull and peered through the viewport. The first thing Little Ed noticed was the hazy, orange swirl of its eyes. His heart leapt into his throat.
"Get out of the ship!" the Sergeant yelled, as he drew his pistol and fired into the creature's chest, pummeling it backwards off of the ship's hull.
Little Ed slammed into the side door of the cell, and the mice spilled onto the tissue floor. The three remaining Crona charged towards them. They didn't speak but it was clear they wanted to apprehend the three soldiers. One lunged at Little Ed, grabbing his arm. The young pilot rammed the butt of his rifle into the creature's snout with enough force to crack its nose. The Crona warrior staggered, then clawed at Little Ed's flight suit.
"Shoot him!" Sergeant-H yelled. "He won't feel it!"
With all the might he could muster, Little Ed thrust his rifle into the creature's chest and pulled the trigger. The warrior flew backwards, severing his grip and landing hard against the T-Cell's wall. Little Ed could see the smoldering crater he had left in the converted warrior. Judging from its tattered clothing, it had been a civilian mouse, probably from a village in the nearby Viril region. A sickening sensation crept into Little Ed as he watched the mouse convulse on the ground.
Sergeant-H came to the pilot's side. "Don't fret, soldier. He died a long time ago. You just put him out of his misery."
"Holy Crapola, Sarge, we gotta get outta here!" Blastien shouted, pointing over top of their heads. Two thin, wiry-looking vessels with yellow, corkscrew-like bodies and whirling red propellers zipped over their heads.
"Converters!" The Sergeant hollered. "To the hills! Blastien, cover us!"
On the Sergeant's command, Blastien turned his antibody cannon on the two charging Crona soldiers and fired a volley of bullets at them, knocking them down like bowling pins.
For the moment, the Converter ships appeared more interested in the wreckage of the T-Cell than the three White Army soldiers. They set down on the T-Cell wreckage and began burrowing into its membrane with their front pincers. His mind numb from the wave of death he witnessed, Little Ed followed the two White Army officers into the rolling, red-tissue hills.
The three mice hunched along the southern slope of a pink incline that offered decent cover from the Crona nest they were watching. Thin, rugged grooves jutted outwards along the crest of the hill, preventing any Converters that may be flying overhead from spotting them.
Little Ed felt antsy, though he did his best to not show it. They had been on this hill for 24 hours, counting the number of Crona Converters entering and exiting the nest. Their mission was now one day longer than expected, and they had no way of getting word back home. He knew his mother would be worried. He was all she had left. Even more disturbing, however, was his commanding officer's reaction to the recent developments.
"The situation is worse than I thought," Sergeant-H said. "The Converter ships continue to develop and multiply inside that nest at an accelerated rate. Before long this entire region will be infested with them. The mice settlements in this area produce one quarter of the planet's neuro-electricity. We can't let the Crona take it over."
The mice peered over the ridge at the Crona base. The "nest" was an old nerve plant built by the mice, but seized by the Crona to grow Converters. The nerve plant looked nothing like one now, as the Crona used organic material from smashed cells to build what appeared to be a gray hive around the structure. Electrical wires still ran into the compound, but a band of red energy, much different than the typical yellow band, now traveled along the circuit.
"How are we gonna hit that thing?" Blastien asked. "I doubt my cannon would put a dent in it."
"No," Sergeant-H said, grimacing. "We're going to have to use the purple explosives. We'll have to drop them inside the plant and detonate them there, by hand."
Little Ed and Blastien looked at one another, trying to process what their commanding officer had just said.
"That's right, mice," the Sergeant said, acknowledging the dread they felt, "our duty to our planet is our top priority. This has now officially become a suicide mission."
Suicide mission. The words remained affixed into Little Ed's mind, hours after the Sergeant said them.
It was hard to concentrate on the Sergeant's instructions afterward. They were to establish position a few meters away from the Crona nest, killing any guards roaming the perimeter. Meanwhile, Sergeant-H would create a diversion with one of the explosives, drawing the Converter ships away from the hive. After the Converters evacuated the nest, Little Ed and Blastien would storm the hive, and attack the Crona warriors inside it. Little Ed and Blastien would hold them off until Sergeant-H could double back to the hive and charge in, detonate their remaining four explosives, and destroy the entire building.
As the Sergeant relayed the plan, all Little Ed could think of was his mother. He lived alone with her in an apartment complex in a residential area of the city. She was always worried about him, ever since he joined the White Army. He had promised her he would return home from this mission, and that he would be with her again. He suddenly felt guilty, distressed by the thought she would spend the rest of her life alone.
"Yo, dream boy," Blastien waved his hand in front of Little Ed's face, "you want me to storm the compound by myself or what?"
"You musn't have a family back home." Little Ed replied.
"Yeah, I do," Blastien said, shrugging. "but there's duty, and there's family. And right now, this is duty."
Little Ed tried to make sense of that comment. The weapons officer seemed like a blowhard, obsessed with weapons and fighting, but he was all the young pilot had to talk to. "I'm just worried about my mother. I'll be leaving her alone."
"Don't you have any other family? Brothers, sisters? A father?"
"No brothers or sisters," Little Ed answered. "My father was a White Army officer. He was... killed a year ago in the line of duty."
"That sucks," the weapons officer conceded. "Just remember what the Sarge said," he pointed over the horizon, towards the nest, "this is a life-and-death situation for the mice population we've sworn to protect. If we don't do what needs to be done, then these monsters take over our planet. We have to do our duty, and more often than not, our duty requires sacrifice."
A soldier's moniker, Little Ed thought. Blastien's words weren't comforting, but there was logic to them. The Crona were already using up Isob's resources far faster than the planet could sustain, and the end result would only mean destruction for everyone.
"I'll storm the compound with you," Little Ed said. It didn't matter anyway. They were as good as dead. For the first time since this mission began three days ago, a feeling of calm fell over him.
"I see him." Little Ed nodded. The Sergeant was standing underneath the lines that threaded into the compound. A clever position because the Sergeant's explosive would take out all of the power entering the hive. Though the White Army knew little about the way the Crona was producing its Converters, they recognized that every nest created in the past six months was along a source of heat and energy, probably to incubate the Converter hatchlings.
"Sarge just lit the fuse," Blastien said. "Let's move."
The two officers charged over the hilltop towards the compound. The explosion and its sharp, piercing cracks startled them even though they were expecting it. Little Ed looked up to see the power lines shoot into the air, the red energy sparkling upwards around an explosion of pink soil and orange fire, like fireworks. An angry wave of four Converters charged out of the hive, towards the detonation site.
"There they go," Blastien said. Together, the mice glanced behind them to see the first two Converters smother the fire, literally placing their bodies into the flames to smother them, scorching their torsos in the process. The back two held back, and began tracking the power lines back in the direction of the nest, trying to stamp out any spark or hot spot that travelled down it.
"They're sacrificing themselves in order to protect whatever they're incubating in that compound," Little Ed said.
"They're doing their duty," was all Blastien replied. Little Ed felt grim - he could tell Blastien felt the same. The two mice kept moving.
Within minutes they arrived at the building. Four converted warriors stood at the entrance portal, all of whom stared blankly at the fire to the west of them. They were non-military mice, judging from the dirty, torn-up, civilian clothes they were wearing, used by the Crona as watch-dogs to protect their hive.
"Arrghhh!" Blastien charged them with their backs turned. He clobbered the first Crona mouse over the head with his cannon, knocking him face first on the ground, then turned the barrel onto the warrior standing next to him. "Take that you dirt-bag slug!"
Little Ed was right behind him, shooting the third guard in the back of the head, then thrust his pistol into the snout of the final warrior. He could see the creature's wild and hazy eyes before he pulled the trigger, knowing that this mouse was no longer the citizen of Isob he once was, but an infected, diabolical beast. Do what needs to be done, he heard Blastien's voice ringing in his ear.
"Good work, soldiers!" Sergeant-H said, startling them. He barreled out of the deep- tissue trail behind them, his breath heavy from his dash from the detonation site. "Quickly! Into the compound, we don't have much time!"
Goodbye, Mom. Little Ed leapt through the narrow, hexagonal hatchway that marked the entrance into the hive. He didn't know what to expect on the other side, but was fully prepared to be ripped into smithereens once he landed.
Instead he fell into pitch-black darkness. The ground was hard, wet, slimy. He expected there to be some light, but Sergeant-H's sabotage seemed to have terminated all power to the hive. A well placed detonation, and a powerful one at that.
Nothing was clawing at him. Nothing was attacking him. He felt like he'd fallen into a black hole.
"You're a mouse, aren't you?" A voice spoke inches from his face, startling him. "Are you from the White Army?"
Another voice approached him. This one from behind. "Are you here to rescue us?" There was relief and desperation in the tone. A hand touched his left shoulder.
"Whoa, hey, what's going on?" Little Ed said. He immediately reached for his flashlight and turned it on.
Directly in front and to the side of him were mice civilians, huddled like cattle on the floor. They were naked, and looked to be withered, starving. They were of all ages, men, women, children, and seniors. There were maybe twenty of them, Little Ed guessed. They shielded their eyes from his beam.
He shined the light around him. The electrical equipment and power terminals were crushed. Affixed to the ceiling were three cocoons wrapped in what looked like layers of fuzzy wax paper. Little Ed could see the movement of the orange, hatchling Converters through the layers. The power lines threaded directly into each cocoon, but carried no energy on them, which seemed to be agitating the baby Converters. It was as though they could sense the coldness - the danger, closing in on them.
"Oh crud - Sergeant-H!" Little Ed shouted, realizing what was about to happen. "Abort mission, abort mission!"
"What in the blazes is going on in here?" Sergeant-H crept through the opening, his pistol at the ready. "Why is it so quiet?"
"There are prisoners in here," Little Ed said. "Civilian mice."
"We're victims, actually." One of the mice spoke up, the first to approach Little Ed. "The Crona captured us in the outlying settlements when they took this region."
"And they didn't convert you?" Sergeant-H asked, leaping onto the floor.
"Not yet. They plan to, but only when they need us."
"Need you?" Sergeant-H stood up, turning on his flashlight. "For what?"
"For those," the prisoner pointed to the cocoons on the roof.
"The cocoons?" Sergeant-H beamed his light at them. "What? Do they have you build them?"
"No," the prisoner said, "They build them from us."
"What?" Sergeant-H asked in disbelief. Both he and Little Ed looked closer at the transparent structures - their fuzzy, wax-like membranes, the red and yellow fluid that swirled inside them. The grim revelation turned Little Ed's stomach.
"The skin of these cocoons," the prisoner said, "the wool membrane you see there. It is mouse tissue and fur. They use our blood for fluid. That's how they incubate their Converters. The same Converters you've been fighting."
Sergeant-H looked at the ground. Revulsion coursed through Little Ed's body.
"They convert us, first," the prisoner explained with a matter-of-fact tone. "It's easier for them to rip us to pieces. No resistance to worry about."
Little Ed glanced at Sergeant-H, who looked like he'd swallowed a razor blade.
"We're getting you all out of here," the Sergeant replied. "File to that entrance. We don't have much time."
"We don't have any time," Blastien shouted through the opening that the Sergeant and Little Ed crawled through. "The two trackers are making their way back here."
"Blastien, we're aborting our mission. There are prisoners in here." The Sarge's voice echoed through the entrance. "Start leading them into the hillside valleys, get them to the nearest node station." He turned to the crowd. "It's going to be a long, dangerous trek, but you'll stand a better chance out there than you ever will in here."
The terrified mice clamored through the opening, where Blastien shooed them into the hills, barking at them to keep as low to the ground as possible. Little Ed counted twenty-three prisoners that exited the compound. They had a minimum three-day hike on the landscape, and would not only have to endure the elements, but a host of predators - bacteria, viruses, even the Crona. How they were going to do that, he didn't have a clue.
He paused before he was about to leave. Sergeant-H and the prisoner who did most of the talking stayed behind. Sergeant-H was laying the purple shells along the inner edge of the compound. The two mice appeared to be arguing.
"I'm a White Army Sergeant," Sergeant-H said with anger. "I'm ordering you to leave. Once these explosives are lit, they'll blow this compound sky high."
Little Ed realized Sergeant-H's plan. He was still going to carry out the suicide mission, this time to create a diversion allowing the prisoners to escape. The Crona would think all 23 mice had perished along with the three Converter hatchings.
"I understand that, Sergeant," the prisoner answered. For the first time, Little Ed got a good look at him - he was a middle-aged mouse, with tired, bloodshot eyes, a thinning mane, limp tail, and a frail, bony body. "And I'm willing to detonate them."
Sergeant-H finished laying the explosives, then turned to the prisoner, "I can't let you do that."
"Sergeant, those prisoners need you to guide them back home." The prisoner spoke with a conviction even the Sarge couldn't challenge. "They need your leadership to survive out there. I am weak and beaten. I watched those Converters... rip apart my family. Let me do this. Let me destroy this hell hole." Tears welled from the prisoner's eyes.
Sergeant-H bit his lip, then looked up at Little Ed. The young pilot peered through the portal. The last of the mice disappeared into the hills, and the first pair of Converters could be seen over the horizon, storming towards them.
"We gotta go now, Sarge," Little Ed said.
Sergeant-H put his hand on the prisoner's shoulder. "I swear to you we will continue this battle. The White Army will make these monsters pay." He handed the prisoner the detonation kit. "Just drill the fuse into one of the shells, and light it. They'll all go off after that."
"Thank you, Sergeant," the prisoner said with a faint smile, perhaps the first smile he'd had in months.
"Let's go, Little Ed." Sergeant-H didn't turn back. The two White Army officers bolted through the opening and scurried into the hillside. They sprinted to catch up to the out-of-sight prisoners, blending into the tissue landscape. The two Converters zoomed over them, angrily charging towards the compound. The instant they latched onto the hive dome, the entire structure exploded in a series of bright, purple explosions that sprinkled down debris and fiery ash into the hills surrounding it.
The three White Army officers were congratulated by their commanding officers at a formal ceremony a few days later, which was attended by the prisoners and their families. Little Ed honored Orvis while Sergeant-H spoke about the prisoner - they finally learned his name - Trolo, whose sacrifice allowed them to escape the compound without the Crona thinking they were still alive. In the back row of the crowd, Little Ed saw his mother smiling at him. He gave her a subtle wave as he finished his tribute.
After the ceremony Little Ed sat on a bench outside of the Parliament Buildings. He was to meet with his mother for dinner, but needed some time alone. It was his first chance to sit down, and reflect on the horror he had experienced. He felt numb thinking about the Crona Converters, and how many more were being created as the war waged on.
A hand firmly gripped his shoulder. It was Sergeant-H, who sat down next to him.
"I know it's difficult, soldier," the Sergeant said. "You lost a mentor, and a whole lot of innocence, on this mission."
"Sometimes I wish we had died in that compound," Little Ed muttered.
"I understand," the Sarge nodded, but then turned to face Little Ed, "but we didn't and, like it or not, we carry a responsibility to help the White Army carry forth this war. Now that we know what the Crona are doing with captured civilians, we owe it to Trolo and the scores of other captives to eliminate this scourge from our planet. I'm putting a team together for a T-Cell crew assigned to do patrols. I need a pilot, and I admired your courage on that mission. I want you to fly my ship."
Little Ed looked up. His answer was already in his eyes.
"Count me in, sir." Little Ed clenched his fists. This was his calling - the Crona were the biggest horror his planet had ever seen. "I am going to fight these monsters with every ounce of my being, and promise to stand with you and the White Army to the bitter end if that's what it takes."
"Matias," The blurred shape of Dr. Callas materialized before his groggy eyes. The doctor waved a gloved hand in front of his face. "Matias. Can you understand me?"
"Yeah," Matias said, his eyes adjusting to the backdrop of white light that surrounded the doctor, whose features began to sharpen behind the orange facemask of his quarantine suit. "What time is it?"
"You've been out for three hours." Callas said. The hologram of Matias' systems hovered in 360 degree rotation on the table next to them. "Your blast counts dropped. Your white cell count has also stabilized. These are all good signs." The information came from the operating nanites within Matias' system, which transmuted the information via wireless network to Dr. Callas' holoprojector. The doctor's own bloodwork, conducted when Matias was in his transitory state, would have confirmed the results.
Dr. Callas asked the big question Matias knew was coming. "Do you remember anything from this cycle? Anything at all?"
"They ambushed us," Matias said. He finally learned how to describe his visions. Everything he saw and experienced while under the hallucinogenic, was recorded by the nanities injected and processed by Matias's brain into a visual, coherent interpretation - a story, which Matias could then communicate to the doctor, telling him what happened. "Their Converters attacked our T-Cells, shooting mine down... The Crona foot-soldiers stormed our wreckage, but we fought them off and escaped. They seized our cell though, and tore it to pieces."
Dr. Callas leaned forward and nodded. "This is an aggressive virus. It was taking whatever it could house from the cell to convert it into its own DNA. How did they react to the medicine?"
"I don't know," Matias said, closing his eyes. He tried to remember. The problem was all of the chemicals being injected into his body. The hallucinogenic clouded his thoughts, made it hard to process, while the Trolomorzphine made him weak and queasy. "I think they backed off a bit... I can't..."
"There seemed to be a lot of activity in your cubicle nodes here," Callas pointed to a small, grey blotch on the hologram just under Matias left shoulder, "as a matter of fact, this mass within this cluster of nodes appears to be shrinking. It's actually reduced 4.3% in size since the beginning of today's treatment - we'll be keeping an eye on it over the next several hours to see if this has a lasting effect - "
Matias' eyes shot open. "It shrunk? Wait, I think we blew one of those up." The doctor's observation jogged his memory - the images, events, and story flooded back into his mind. "It was a Converter nest - they had a bunch of mice prisoners there. It was where they created their Converters. It was like some kind of hive. We went inside it and they were using mice parts to -"
"Whoa, slow down here," Dr. Callas held his hand up. He turned on his digital microphone. "Let's get this recorded. You said you went inside this nest? What did you see?"
"There were mice prisoners inside," Matias said, trying to get the sequence of events straight. "The Crona were using them - their body parts - to create... cocoons that were incubating the Converters."
"My God," Dr. Callas ran his hand over his face plate. "Everything we know about Norca suggests it's an RNA virus," the doctor spoke into his recorder, talking more to himself than to Matias, "yet it possesses attributes that are nothing like any virus we've ever seen before."
"The prisoners," Matias continued, "they recognized us right away as being White Army. They told us that the Crona were keeping them alive, until they needed them. Then the Crona would convert them, then use their body parts to create the cocoons - I remember seeing one of the hatchlings inside..."
"These mice," the doctor's eyes went wide, "you talked to them? Just like you've been talking to the other mice in the previous two sessions?"
"Yeah, one of them even helped us - he... blew up the nest while the rest of us escaped with the other prisoners. His name was... Trolo."
Both Matias and the doctor looked at the vial of purple Trolomorzphine. The doctor, as he had during their previous two sessions, looked dumbfounded at what Matias was telling him.
"That's why what Matias is doing is so important, isn't it Dr. Callas?" The hologram of his mother spoke up behind the membrane. "He has the imagination to process what the nanities are recording into information that he - and you - can understand."
"Absolutely, Mrs. Bengstrom." Callas answered, nodding.
"You see Matias," his mother said, giving him a pained smile, "what you're doing is giving us all a chance - to fight, to survive, to live."
"Thanks Mom," Matias said, knowing his mother's words were giving herself more comfort than he. Matias knew the real reason he was doing this. He gave her a glance to ease her anxiety, then turned to Dr. Callas. "I think that the mice may be operating my cells, in my body. I mean, I know they're not real mice, but could they be parts of my cells - parts that communicate with each other, work together to make my cells operate? I don't know, like proteins or something?"
"Organelles, you mean," Dr. Callas replied, shrugging. "Your guess is as good as mine at this point. Either way, I need you to continue to do what you're doing, okay? We're making real progress, Matias." The doctor gripped his shoulder. "With any luck we can devise a treatment to at least neutralize this thing, and get it out to the quarantine centres, maybe start turning this thing around in our favor. You're giving us a chance."
Matias nodded, laying his head back onto his pillow.
"For now, I want you to get some rest. Think about anything else you saw, and let me know tomorrow morning. I am going to send your holos to CDC Headquarters tonight, and go over the results of today's session with them."
"Thanks, Doc," Matias said. He was tired but the thoughts of everything he had seen - the attacks, the Converter nest, the decrepit mice victims - would keep him awake for awhile.
Dr. Callas left the room, carefully sealing up the bubble as he exited. Behind the membrane, Matias could see the holo of his mother looking at him.
"I'm proud of you, son. Your Dad would be too," she said, her eyes wet.
"Thanks, Mom," he replied. "I'm going to be okay. I'm going to get some rest. You should too. Take a nap or something."
"I will. Is there anything you need?"
"I'm fine, Mom. I just want to be alone."
"Okay, well, if you need anything, just buzz the nurses -"
"Go, please, Mom!" Matias tried not to be short with her. He knew he was all she had, but he what he really needed was time to think.
"You little stinker." She shook her head, knowing her son well. "I love you," she said, just before her hologram disappeared.
"I thought she'd never leave," his father chuckled as he emerged from the shadow in the corner of the room. David Bengstrom was a tall, athletic man with dark, curly hair, a handsome face, and burly muscles. Matias preferred to remember him that way. It was difficult to, given the very last time he saw his dad in person - pale, bone thin, wispy, bald head, the twisted expression of his mouth and jaw - ravaged by the final and fatal stage of Norca.
"I'm real proud of ya, Little Buddy. Stay strong for me, okay?"
I will, Dad. Matias thought. I promise. A sudden wave of nausea crept into him, not uncommon after awaking from the medication. Matias closed his eyes. His father faded away into the corner, leaving Matias to his quiet, empty room and with the gnawing urge to throw up.
He considered buzzing the nurse for anti-nauseate pills, but those just made him drowsy, and he didn't want to sleep anymore. Instead, he thought back to today's session, and the one facet of it he remembered wholeheartedly - the vow Little Ed made at the end, to carry on the battle and make a stand. Those were Matias' own words, willingly interjected by his conscious mind into the story. That meant he was literally talking to his cells, organelles, the nanites, and whatever else was helping him conjure up the story and carry out the treatment. He didn't yet tell Dr. Callas this, but deep down Matias knew he was doing more than actually processing the story, he was living it, as a full participant, through the eyes of the Little Ed character. As such, Matias knew Little Ed's vow was ultimately his own pledge to himself, that he would battle the Norcavirus to the bitter end if need be. The sudden adrenaline surge he felt tempered the nausea, at least for the time being.
He turned over in his bed and clenched his hands into fists, his mind drifting back into thought.
Count me in, sir. He pictured himself telling Dr. Callas in person. Whatever it takes.