“The admiral wants you in room L17F5,” Lau tells me. “They say it’s urgent.”
As if the buzzer wasn’t enough of a reminder, I give her a quick nod and finish putting on my scrubs in shades of medical blue and military green before grabbing the most important item in my arsenal—the trusty brown rope I’ve been using since I started this.
Lau buries her face in the tablet in front of her. I’m the only one in my team with a leg on both sides of the frontline, but the four of them are still treated like superstars—because of me.
A few years ago, I would have been modest about it, but now I’m older and I can say what everybody knows—I’m the best at what I do and that’s why they handpicked me to come save lives here, where the war against the howlers feels pointless and soldiers die every day. Even old and tired, I’ve got great hands and the strongest arms. They can’t afford to let me go. Not when the howlers claim so many.
The anticipation consumes me, and I feel their gaze on me.
“What?” I ask them as they finish putting their scrubs on.
“This is your 1000th patient, Dr Sellie,” Angie says as a smile emerges from her lips.
“Funny, I could swear it was more.”
I have always been better at saving lives than taking them. After my son died, becoming a doctor was all I could do. I wish I could have saved him, so now I save the sons of others instead. Whenever the ringer buzzes, I feel the adrenaline and prepare for a battle with death.
The five of us break into a jog, bursting through our improvised common room and through the hallway of the campaign hospital. I look all around the hallway, and we are met with timid side eyes and whispers.
“It’s the cavalry,” two disabled grunts who’ve lost their legs to the howlers whisper as they sit in wheelchairs. “They called the cavalry.”
“Must be a bad one,” another one says.
I smile under my mask as I pass and give them a salute with my right hand. Startled, they salute me as well. By now, they should know it’s always bad.
The hallway has standard fake marble flooring, the easiest to clean. The drab olive walls are the constant reminder from our dear military leaders that even the hospitals belong to them.
Or perhaps to tell us that doctors are a bit like soldiers too.
“Doctor Sellie! Here!” an excitable nurse calls from about fifty metres ahead.
I quicken my pace as the rest of the crew hurries behind me. The urge to jump straight into the patient is strong, but I must resist, so I tighten my grip on the rope to keep my emotions in check, as if it could tame me. There are things I need to figure out first. The nurse is young, but she knows me and wastes no time with pointless chatter. I almost want to thank her for that.
We all enter the five-by-five metre room with its green wallpaper and the marbling floor, but I focus on the patient.
“Brief me,” I command the medical crew I’m taking over from.
They take their time to answer. They look deprived, pale and with heavy bags under their eyes. The exhausted woman who must be the team leader looks at me and accepts failure with a nod. She knows better than to beat herself up for that.
“Twenty-five-year-old male,” she says. Her voice drags under the blue facemask. “Got bitten while on patrol. The wounds are almost impossible to close. We can’t stop the bleeding.”
“Bitten by what?” I already know the answer.
“A howler,” she says, assessing my reaction.
“Thank you, doctor. You and your team may leave now.”
She doesn’t need to be told twice and immediately exits the room with her crew, closing the door behind them, and I focus on the man. I assess him quickly. He’s young, strong and well-built. But a howler bite…
“Mari, oxygen levels?”
Her hands move with precision as she inserts a tiny probe in the patient’s neck. Her sharp features are hidden behind the facemask but her unblinking eyes stay locked on the patient, trained by years of experience. She knows to treat every patient as the most important. The only rule for working under me.
“Dropping quickly. We’re losing him,” she says.
“We need to cauterize the wound and remove the infection,” I say. That would be hard to do when his blood has been infected with howler saliva.
With Mari monitoring the oxygen levels as she tries to keep his failing heart pumping and his lungs working, I pick up the small slab of spare synthetic skin brought to me by Fren. I do my best to burn it onto the man and cover the disgusting bite wound while Quinn closes it shut and Manu drains the blood out.
If I burn too little, the howler infection will spread, and he will die. If I burn too much, I’m doing more damage than the howler did, and he dies anyway. This is no ordinary wound.
That’s why they called the cavalry.
I press the burner against the skin in his abdomen, adding a new battle scar to the collection. Judging by how many he already has, something tells me the young man must have a few screws loose inside his head. But that’s none of my business.
“Doctor, we’re losing him. Heart rate is still dropping,” Mari says. There is a calmness in her voice. She expected this, just like me. And she’s good at her job. Anyone who has been on the battlefield knows men and women don’t survive with wounds like this. At least their bodies don’t.
“We’ve done all we can,” I say and swallow. Even after a thousand patients, I still have to stop my hands from shaking just thinking of what’s to come. “Lau, get the hololight ready.”
She takes off her medical gloves, pulls out a large metal spotlight and sets it on the room door, by the patient’s feet, pointing it straight at him. The bright light makes his skin shine, and the gruesome, purple howler saliva that drenches his wounds makes me grimace. Relentless, Lau picks up the tatamic vessel, a long and narrow hollow plastic tube the length of a forearm. The lid is open at the top end. She holds it tightly with both arms and points the lid side at the patient.
“I’m ready, doctor,” she says.
“Heart rate near flat,” Mari says.
I remove my gloves and grab my old friend, the rope. I tie it into a lasso as I have done all these years and hold it tightly with both hands, the right one ready to snap and throw.
“Any moment now,” Mari says, her voice faltering. She’s as nervous as I am, as we all are in these circumstances, though she’s good at keeping it to herself. Still, the facemask betrays pursed lips underneath.
I can sense it in the flickering hospital lights. A morbid scent in the air.
Suddenly, a bright, glowing figure appears in the hololight, emerging out of the injured soldier’s body. I waste no time and let my lasso fly before the figure can escape the hololight and be lost forever. My crew immediately gets behind me, well aware of what to do next. I cannot afford to lose any jumpers, so my lasso loops around the floating, hollow figure and tightens against it, creating tension in the rope.
The grip is as strong as expected, even with four others behind me pulling on the rope as well. My 1000th jumper caught right inside my lasso. But I’m getting old and the man’s soul is youthful and strong.
Soul. What a shitty word.
It pulls and heaves in all directions, and I grit my teeth. If a soul escapes, it will turn into a howler in less than twenty-four hours. I refuse to let this one go and follow my son’s fate. My perfect boy was barely a man by then, much like this one. He had so many dreams of winning the war and making something of his life. Maybe find someone and start a family. The howlers robbed him of that. And I couldn’t save him. I let him become nothing but a casualty. I think back to his youth and his tiny hand holding mine. Looking at me with that big, devilish smile. It gives me strength to hold the rope and pull like his life depends on it.
At least this one I can save with my hands.
“Lau!” I shout. She knows what to do.
She rushes to the figure with the open tubular tatamic vessel pointed at it. That’s our cue to steer the jumper towards her. As always, my arms strain and the veins look like they’re going to burst out as I struggle to maintain my grip, pulling hard, my feet planted on the floor like tree trunks and the backs of my legs flexing as if I am trying to pull a tank. I put my back into it. My body is on the line. The same goes for the rest of the crew.
Little by little, the straining jumper gets closer to Lau’s tatamic vessel. We keep pulling, but the soul takes a while to decide if it wants to seek refuge inside the tube. I keep my rope tight until Lau positions the vessel opposite to us. She gives us a count to three and we release the rope, causing the jumper to shoot directly into the tube. Lau closes the lid and locks it inside.
The figure contracts in an impossible flow of light, as if it were swimming in a quiet and miniscule pool.
I take a deep breath and remove my face mask. The smell of death rises up to greet me yet again, but so does relief. Another close call. In bed, the patient’s body remains pale and motionless as Mari turns off the heart monitor and Lau turns off the hololight.
As I open the door and step outside, I’m greeted by a small crowd of drab, olive vests and white gowns holding their hands close to their hearts. In front of them stands a tall, austere man with a shaved head and a feigned toughness. Emblems of all shapes, sizes and colours cover his uniform.
“Did you save his soul?” the man asks.
I look for the nurse, but don’t find her, so I have to face him. “You mean his jumper? Yes, I did.”
Relief floods the man’s face. “Thank God.”
“No, Admiral. Thank me,” I say, making the military man stiffen. I shouldn’t have said it, but I couldn’t resist. I turn back to my crew. “Come on, Lau. We don’t have much time.”
I walk towards the main hangar, tailed by my team, but the Admiral is still following us. The veins in his neck are almost bursting out of his skin and he furrows his brow, but he doesn’t dare get in my way, at least not until my job is complete.
“You will be able to speak to your son again,” I say, trying to ease the man’s nerves. My lieutenants exchange looks but say nothing. The admiral looks at me like a soldier caught sleeping on duty.
“How did you know he was my son?”
“Same ugly mug, sir,” I smile, catching the man by surprise. He isn’t used to being talked to like that. He doesn’t ease up as I had hoped.
When we reach the hangar, hundreds of foot soldiers run in the coordinated chaos typical of war zones. The ceiling is as tall as a four-storey building, and it is wide enough to host three dozen planes and a few more tanks. Vehicles need fixing. Others need refuelling and ammunition must be replenished. The wounded must be carried to the hospital, and the dead must be incinerated in the furnace. I follow Lau as she holds the tatamic vessel with the jumper inside. She knows how little time we have before the jumper gets contaminated, and I let her do her part.
“We need a body!” she shouts, paying no mind to military ranks. We get away with it because without us, the uniformed fools would have lost the war a long time ago.
Two sharp-looking bald-headed youngsters ask us to follow them, and we do. We reach the left side of the complex and then I see it. The twelve-foot-tall titanium-built robotic shell sits there motionless with two dozen cables tied to its back. It never ceases to amaze me.
Lau follows the soldiers, climbs up a four-step ladder and inserts the tatamic vessel in the robot’s chest, a perfect fit for the tube.
She joins me as the admiral and a few other officials and sergeants stand around us, waiting. The two grunts remove the ladder and punch into a holopad the number of the room where the soldier’s soul was captured, as well as his military number and unit. The robot’s cables strip themselves off its back with bursts of steam hissing one by one.
The robot’s eye sockets turn bright yellow and suddenly there’s movement. His right hand twitches. His legs move. It’s like waiting to see if a baby cries right after birth.
“Dad?” it asks in a metallic voice. “Dad, is that you?”
The admiral gasps and takes two steps forward. “Son,” he says, his legs fumbling beneath him. He drops to his knees, losing all sense of candour, as if he is no longer the admiral but a relieved father of a missing child who’s just turned up. He sobs violently, his head bobbing back and forth, oblivious to the looks he gets from his underlings. “It’s me. It’s dad. I thought I had lost you. Thank God you’re still with us. Can you hear me?”
“I… died,” the robot says.
“Your body did. You’re still you, soldier. It’s just that your body is… different now,” I say.
“Th-thank you,” the admiral says.
I nod and bite my tongue, wondering how it’s possible to be both happy and miserable at the same time. Why is it an admiral that gets to see his son live while mine died? I am forced to hear it now. To see it. To be reminded that I failed to protect the only one who mattered. It’s a punishment I deserve. I just hope my son forgives me.
With my back turned to them, I hear their tension and concerns dissipate into timid laughter as they joke together as father and son, and my tongue tastes the sourness of jealousy, so I keep walking away even faster.
As Lau and I walk out and back to our common room, I see a propaganda clip of the glorious tatam robots fighting a dozen howlers each, their souls intact inside the titanium bodies. They are the reason the war is still winnable. The admiral’s son will soon be a war hero, leading hundreds in the front lines and I… I will be saving more souls like his.
© João F. Silva