Friday, October 29, 2021

In Vulnerable - A Short Story

Another background tale from the Starforce Saga. This story takes place a few years before Burden of Solace and features a couple of the characters from that book. You might even recognize an unnamed redheaded medical student in the beginning. 😉 This story answers Cassie's question from Burden - "Who's Gina?" It also features one of my favorite characters: Ironhorse. More about him later.
BTW, this story took 2nd place in the 2019 Writerwerx Short Story Contest.

In Vulnerable

by Richard L. Wright

   Nate’s thoughts blurred as they wheeled him through the emergency room entrance. Hands pressed against his chest, urging him to lay back down on the moving gurney. Concern etched the face of the young redheaded woman as she looked him over, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes. Nate tried to look around, hoping to see his father.
   Where is he? Was he sent to a different hospital?
   “Please, sir,” the redhead insisted. “You need to keep calm.”
   “How is he still conscious?” Nate heard another voice whisper. “I can’t imagine the pain.”
   The small entourage that surrounded him banged through one set of hallway doors after another, finally arriving in a room. Two nurses and the petite redhead efficiently transferred his prone form to an examining table. He looked to his right and saw Gina lying on the next table. She met his eyes for a scant second and then cringed, looking away before someone pulled the curtain between them. Over the chaos of activity, he couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like she was crying.
   “I keep telling you, I’m fine. Where’s my father? Jim Gorman - big guy, early 60’s. Is he OK?”
   The redhead exchanged looks with a paramedic as she prepared an IV line and tied a length of soft rubber tubing around his upper right arm. The paramedic shrugged.
   “I don’t know,” she answered. “I’ll try to find out. But, right now you need to let us worry about you. Now, you’re going to feel a little stick. Hold very still.”
   She positioned the needle against Nate’s skin.
   “Good luck with that,” the paramedic snorted.
   Nate watched as the needle bent, crumpling into a zig-zag.
   “Dammit,” she muttered under her breath. She detached the ruined needle and tossed it into a red plastic container attached to the wall, then reached for another IV set from a bin. Before she could rip open the plastic bag, the paramedic laid a hand on hers.
   “Don’t bother,” he said. “I wasted seven on him. None of them went in.”
   She slapped the EMT’s hand away, anger flaring in her green eyes. “You just don’t know what you’re doing.”
   The paramedic shrugged, smiled, and began packing his portable gear back onto the gurney. “Let me know how that works out for you.”
   A white-coated male doctor came in, wiggling his fingers as he snapped the cuff of his blue nitrile gloves. He gave Nate a quick visual survey, then gingerly lifted the edge of one of the many gauze bandages covering Nate’s left side. Nate saw the doctor’s eyes widen before they moved to meet his.
   “Mr. Gorman, can you hear me? We’re going to give you something for the pain.”
   Jeez, these people act like I’m half-dead or something.
   “I’m OK, doc - no pain, and my hearing’s just fine. But I need to find out about my dad. Is he here?”
   “Dammit!” The redhead tossed another ruined needle into the sharps container. “Doctor Olsen, I can’t get an IV started. The catheters keep bending.”
   The doctor rolled his eyes and moved to Nate’s right side. “Don’t they teach you kids anything useful in med school? Here, let me show you.”
   The redhead threw up her hands and stepped back. “Yeah, you do that.”
   It took nine bent needle-catheters before Dr. Olsen finally admitted defeat.
   “Seriously guys, I feel fine,” Nate said. “This is a lot of bother over nothing.”
   Olsen regarded him with disbelief. “He’s delirious. Get a gas-passer in here, stat.”
   Nate was about fed up with these people. He felt fine and he had no idea why they were making such a fuss over him, or why half his body was wrapped in gauze. His dad was a different story. The radiation levels Jim Gorman had received were serious, probably lethal. If it weren’t for the restraining straps on his arms and legs, Nate would have just gotten up and left.
   Another doctor wheeled in a cart with several compressed gas tanks and began fiddling with knobs and hoses. When Nate saw him attach a face mask to the hoses, he realized they were going to knock him out.
   “No. I need to leave.” The doctors exchanged looks and nods, and the mask came closer, hissing its siren song of sleep. “Stop!”
   His left arm jerked up, ripping the buckles off the leather restraint. His right leg followed suit, tearing through the strap like tissue, just as the mask clamped down over his nose and mouth. Nate tried to twist his head away, but the gas went straight to his head. He collapsed back to the bed as darkness descended.


   There was a single point of light somewhere in front of him, but Nate couldn’t tell if it was far in the distance or just a pinhole. Was Dad there? Nate tried to focus, but there weren’t any details to latch onto, no fixed points to use for reference. Voices bounced around in the void.
   “…can’t believe these burns are new…”
   “Dammit. Nurse, another 10 blade.”
   “…negative on the diamond saw. Maybe the laser can…” 
   Nate focused on the sounds, following them back to the world.
   “… four dead. Our two are stable.”
   Two. Dad?
   That thought - the idea that his father had somehow survived, that Nate could see him, talk to him, one more time - ignited Nate’s mind. He clawed his way back into the light.
   He sat up, eyes wide. Restraining straps fell away like ribbons from a maypole. The two nurses in the room dropped whatever they had been doing and made a hasty retreat, fighting each other for the doorway.
   The room was darkened. No sunlight seeping around the blinds so it was probably night. Nate’s eyes adjusted quickly, enough to make out a figure seated against the wall. A middle-aged black man in a wrinkled suit clicked on a lamp beside his chair. An unlit cigarette filled the corner of his mouth, bobbing as he spoke.
   “The docs said they gave you enough anesthesia to keep an elephant in la-la land for days. Good thing I stuck around.”
   Nate threw the sheet aside and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The remaining leg straps snapped like licorice whips. He noticed that his left side was now more formally bandaged. His hand went to his chest, moving up his neck. The bandages extended to that side of his face.
   “I’m glad you’re awake, Mr. Gorman. I’m Detective Bill Walsh, Atlanta PD. I have some questions about the… accident.”
   Nate’s eyes narrowed as he turned his attention to the detective.
   “It wasn’t an accident. It was sabotage. A bomb.”
   Walsh locked eyes with him, pausing a couple of heartbeats before nodding. “Agreed. But I know that because my forensics guys say so. I have to wonder how you arrived at that same conclusion. Unless, of course, you’re the one that planted the explosive?”
   Nate shook his head, fighting off the lingering effects of the gas.
   “What? No. Why would I try to blow up our own lab? I was almost killed. And where is my father? Is he OK?”
   Walsh pulled the cigarette from his lips. His eyes softened. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”
   Nate froze, his legs hanging from the edge of the bed. He had been in motion to stand up, but now he doubted they would support him. “Dad?”
   A part of him knew that his father wasn’t going to make it. The level of exposure was just too intense. But hope wasn’t something you let go of easily. Through the fog in his brain, Walsh’s voice sounded distant.
   “After you were found, they followed the tunnel Ironhorse dug, down to the control room. Except for you and Miss Braswell, there were no other survivors. Ironhorse retrieved your father’s body from the containment vessel.”
   “…the tunnel Ironhorse dug…” Is that what he told them?
   “Can I see him? My dad?”
   Walsh pursed his lips, his head moving in a slow half-shake. “I don’t think that’ll be possible. His remains are dangerously radioactive. Even in a lead-lined casket, he probably can’t be buried in a regular cemetery. Ironhorse had to undergo an hour of decontamination before he was released.”
   Nate’s mind couldn’t process all that he was hearing. He made a mental note to thank Atlanta’s resident exohuman Guardian for recovering his dad’s body. Only someone impervious to physical harm could have withstood the gamma rays still poisoning the area where Jim Gorman had sacrificed his life.
   “Do you want to talk about how you and your girlfriend survived?”
   Nate closed his eyes. It wouldn’t be an untruth to say that their escape was a blur, random memories of digging through rubble and pulling at chunks of broken concrete. He had no idea how he’d done that. He tried to concentrate on what he was sure of.
   “Gina’s not my girlfriend. Not for a while now.”
   Walsh remained silent, waiting for Nate to continue.
   “We broke up about a year ago. We’re just friends now. Co-workers.”
   Walsh’s stony expression told Nate that the detective wasn’t much interested in whatever relationship status he and Gina shared, nor the brightness of the torch he still carried. Continuing on that tangent would only create more suspicion. Best to get on with it, carefully.
   “I don’t really remember much about the explosions themselves, except the noise and the dust. Afterwards, it was dark. The emergency lights didn’t come on right away. I don’t know how long it was, just that I was feeling around for a while.”
   Memories unspooled - the silent darkness, his hearing gradually returning as he scrambled through the dust and rubble to find the others, the horrific realization that two of their friends were buried in that rubble.
   “Jeffrey and Marilyn were killed when the back wall collapsed. The reactor had gone wild, headed for a meltdown. We tried to shut it down, but the control rods were jammed.”
   “We? You and your father?”
   “Yes. Plus Toma - Dr. Stasiuk. He was still alive then. Hurt pretty bad, but we didn’t know how bad until the seizures started.”
   “And Miss Braswell?”
   “She wasn’t hurt, but she kind of fell apart. Shock, I guess. I had to carry her.”
   “You carried her? Ironhorse said he carried you both out.”
   “Yeah, I meant...before, when we tried to unblock the stairway. The door frame was racked, so we didn’t get far.”
   “OK, so you tried to shut down the reactor, but couldn’t. What happened next?”
   “Dad sent me to check the auxiliary controls. It was just a trick, a distraction so he could enter the containment vessel.”
    When he’d returned from the AuxCon, Dad was gone. It had taken him a minute to realize there was no place for him to have gone. No safe place, anyway. Then he saw the necklace hanging on the hatch.
   “He went inside to manually lower the control rods, to try and save us. He knew he couldn’t survive that kind of exposure, but he did it anyway.”
   Nate’s voice broke, and he reached for a cup of water in the bedside table. Again, Walsh waited for him to continue.
   “He managed to get some of the rods dropped, but not enough. But he bought us time. Time to say goodbye.”
   The intercom had still worked, a minor miracle that let them talk one last time, to say things left unsaid for a lifetime. Nate remembered gripping Mom’s pendant, squeezing it so hard that the points of the golden starburst dug into his palm. Then he’d slipped the chain over his head. Dad had worn that necklace since her death, a constant reminder. Now it was Nate’s turn to remember them both.
   “So, how did you shut down the reactor then?” Walsh pulled an old-fashioned notepad from a jacket pocket.
   “I poisoned it,” Nate said.
   Walsh’s expression was almost comical. Nate explained that one of the safeguards against a reactor going out control was a supply of a liquid with a high rate of neutron absorption - liquefied boron. In an emergency, the liquid was dumped into the cooling liquid, effectively stopping the nuclear reaction. Because it ‘killed’ the reaction, it was referred to as a neutron poison.
   “The automated dump valves weren’t working; we tried them early on, part of the standard SCRAM procedure. The only way to reach them, to open them manually, was to climb into the plumbing above the containment vessel.”
   It was a rat’s nest of pipes, wiring, hoses and support beams - all of it three stories up and never intended to be accessed while the reactor was active. The entire area was hotter than any Hell ever dreamt of. Some of the cooling pipes had started to leak, pushed beyond their design by the pressure of superheated steam. The climb had been torture. Nate had flashed back to his teen self, struggling to pull his long, scrawny form up the dreaded rope in gym class. He’d wondered if he could have avoided that particular humiliation if his life had been in danger.
   “I managed to open three of the four valves. With some of the control rods down, opening two was probably enough, but I wanted to be sure. The last valve was in an awkward place, and it was stuck. I had to beat on it. I dropped the hammer and it must have cracked a pipe below. Then I fell.”
   He’d swung one leg across a gap and hooked it over a large pipe. Grabbing an electrical conduit overhead to begin the crossing, it had felt good to be out of the cramped space. For the first time, he’d dared to think that he might actually survive the day. Then Nate’s hand, slick with blood and sweat, had slipped off the conduit. Down the three stories of the outer chamber he’d fallen, bouncing off pipes and cables. A cloud of superheated steam - what happened when nuclear fire met ordinary water - enveloped him.
   “I… I’m really tired. Can we finish this later?”
   Walsh’s lips pulled in as he bit back on a response. Then he nodded. “Just one more thing and we’ll call it a day.”
   Nate could see suspicion in the man’s eyes. He knew he wasn’t getting the whole story.
   “After the techs declared it safe, I went down to that control room. The stairwell door - the one you said was jammed - had been ripped out. Ironhorse said he punched it open from the other side.”
   “OK,” Nate said, nodding. He knew where this was going, one of many loose threads that could unravel his story. He searched the detective’s eyes, looking for a clue to what Walsh intended to do with that thread.
   “Ironhorse has been Atlanta’s guardian for a very long time, all the way back to World War One. He was around before the law required exohumans to register, before they started stripping other exos of their names and assigning them numbers. He’s saved a lot of people around here, including me.”
   Nate sat silently, listening. He realized now that Walsh had been using Ironhorse’s original name, and not that ridiculous “Guardian One” designation the government tried to give him. At the least, the detective wasn’t one of those anti-exo bigots who supported the federal mandate that exohumans weren’t human, weren’t owed human rights.
   “Over the years,” Walsh continued, “first as a patrolman, then a detective - I’ve seen a lot of things he’s punched. And I’ve seen a lot of things he’s pulled. That door didn’t look punched.”
   Nate hadn’t paid much attention to how the door looked after the way was cleared, but he did remember the handle bending in his grip, the door following it as the hinges screamed and popped.
   “Did you have question, detective?”
   The cop stood up, stiff and slow. “Not really. Just making sure we have all the facts straight. I hope you appreciate what Ironhorse did for you.”
   Nate said nothing as Walsh left the room. He collapsed back on the bed.


   It was quiet, as quiet as a hospital gets anyway. Most of the elite surgeons of Atlanta’s premiere trauma center were gone, comfortable at home in their beds while the patients they had stitched back together moaned softly in theirs. Activity persisted in the Maternity Ward and Emergency Room, but these halls were muted.
   Nate padded down the corridor, keeping his bandaged side turned to the wall in case a nurse should come along. He’d asked several times to see Gina but had met with resistance. 'Isolation' was a word they liked to throw around, although they couldn't seem to pinpoint whether it was him that was in isolation or her. When he asked about her condition, all they would say was that she was "resting comfortably."
   He reached the door he sought, ‘Braswell’ written on the masking tape label. He tapped his knuckles on the heavy wooden door and then pushed, just a crack at first. When he didn't hear a greeting, he came close to aborting the visit, but he needed to see her, to make sure she was okay. After their escape, the paramedics had declared her physically uninjured. Her mental and emotional state wasn't something they were qualified to assess or treat.
   "G?" He pressed the door open wider, taking it slow. He wasn't sure if he was wary of her seeing him or the other way around.
   Gina’s voice sounded distant and dull. She was sitting up, the articulated hospital bed shaped into a reclining 'z' shape. Someone had brushed out her long, raven hair so that it fell in almost geometric precision across her shoulders. She had a juice box in her hand, the straw close to her lips like she had been taking a sip and had become lost in thought.
   "How are you, babe? They wouldn't let me see you until now."
She looked at him with faraway eyes. Her smile was slow to form. "I'm fine. Kind of sleepy, I guess."
She tried to focus on him, and a cloud passed over her face. A cleft appeared between her eyebrows before she turned away. "Those bandages... Oh, your poor face. Nate, I'm so sorry."
   "It's OK, G. I’ll heal."
   She refused to look back, her eyes fixed on some point away from him. "Your dad. Toma and Jeffrey. Marilyn... "
   Nate moved to her bedside, reaching out to take her hand, careful to use his unbandaged one, keeping his left side away from her. She looked down at his hand covering hers. Tears welled up in her eyes and she slipped her hand away. "You didn't need to come here, to see me."
   "Of course I did. I love you, G. That's never changed."
   She wiped at her eyes, sniffing. He reached to stroke her hair, something he'd always done when he couldn't take away whatever hurt or disappointment was troubling her. He wanted to shield her, to keep all the bad things from touching her. She turned away again.
   “No one was supposed to get hurt,” she mumbled.
   She reached for the remote control that hung on the bed rail and pressed the call button. “You should leave. I’m tired.”
   Nate stood and took a couple of steps toward the door. Behind him he heard the floor nurse over the scratchy intercom. “Yes, do you need something?”
   “I think it’s time for more medicine,” she said. “I’m feeling... feeling…” Her voice trailed away as she let go of the remote.
   At the door, Nate turned back to look at her, but she had rolled onto her side, facing away from him.


   When he got back to his own room, Nate found someone waiting. An old black man stood at the windows, looking out at the city lights. Dawn wasn’t far off and purple tinged the skyline. The man was big, barrel-chested with just the hint of a gut. His hair was almost completely gray, what was left of it. Shoulders slumped and back bowed, he carried himself with the worn-down posture that sometimes comes with age. Tucked under one massive arm was a motorcycle helmet.
   “Can I help you?”
   The old man nodded, slowly. When he spoke, his voice was deep - the kind of deep that made you think of rocks rubbing together.
   “Maybe. But I reckon you’re the one that could use the help.”
   Nate wasn’t in the mood for visitors. The look in Gina’s eyes haunted him. All the way back to his room, he’d thought about ripping off the bandages and getting out of here.
   “I’m sorry. Have we met?”
   The big guy smiled, a broad, expansive grin. “Not formally, but I’m sure we’ll get to know one another well enough. Today, I just came by to give you this.”
   He held out the motorcycle helmet. It was one of those full-face helmets, black with a mirrored visor. Puzzled and more than a little bit annoyed, Nate took the helmet. He turned it upright and a pair of keys fell out.
   “She’s on level 2 of the parking garage, north corner. The GPS is programmed with a safe location.” The old man turned to leave.
   “Wait. Why are you giving me a motorcycle?”
   He paused at the door and gave a little laugh. It was a deep rumble, like thunder in a cave. “Call it a loaner,” he said.
   Nate bent and picked up the keys. One was clearly for a bike, the other looked more like an ordinary door key. “But…why? Who are you?”
   His visitor turned in the doorway. “Let’s just say we have something in common. We’ve both been through something that changed us, altered the course of our lives forever. It happened to me a long time ago. A very, very long time…”
   His eyes grew distant for a moment, then returned to look into Nate’s. The old man straightened up, his large form shedding the pretense of decrepitude. Nate flashed on a similar shape, clad in red and blue leather, his face concealed by another helmet - a stylized, art deco representation of a locomotive.
   “You’re ‘bout to go through some difficult times, Nate. Just know that you’re not alone. I’ve done what I can to buy you some breathing space, but that’s comin’ to an end. Pretty soon, some people are gonna come lookin’ for you, government people. It’s their job to make sure the ones like you and me don’t rile up ordinary folks. In my day, that meant hiding the color of my skin under a helmet – because a lot of those folks wouldn’t cotton to the strongest man in the world being no colored boy.”
   Nate recalled the stories, legends almost, about America’s first exohuman hero, the unstoppable super-soldier of World War One. His longevity was just part of that legend. Never had there been a hint that under that colorful costume and helmet was a black man. Nate had to remind himself that things were very different a hundred years ago. The idea that this man had lived through all of that history and change, experienced it himself, made Nate wonder if he was now destined for a lifespan measured in centuries.
   “Back then,” Ironhorse continued, “I wore the helmet because I was told to. Now, it’s a way to keep some part of my life separate from what they tell me to do. As for you, well, maybe a helmet will get you through this too. That’s up to you, probably one of the few things you’ll still have a say in. But someday, maybe someday soon, I believe none of us will have to hide anymore. And I think you’ll play a part in that change.”
    He turned once again to leave.
   “You never told me your name,” Nate said softly.
   The old man nodded. “True enough. I think you know what people call me, the name I wear with the helmet. But you can call me Gabriel.”
   Then he was gone. Nate didn’t see him walk away, barely registering a blur where his visitor had stood. Nate looked down at the helmet and remembered that the city’s Guardian could move at incredible speed when needed.
   He went to the narrow cabinet that served to keep a patient’s personal belongings. Some clothes that he didn’t recognize hung there, along with a pair of sturdy boots. He had just placed the helmet and keys inside and closed the door when he heard a soft knock. He turned, hoping to see Gina, but instead a doctor entered, clipboard in hand.
   “Ah, good. You’re up. I was hoping we could chat before the day gets too hectic.”
   “Are we going to talk about me going home?”
   “Uh, no. I mean, not just yet.” The doctor looked decidedly nervous. He closed the door and pulled out a chair, waving for Nate to take a seat on the bed.
   “First, I want you to know how sorry I am for the loss of your father. I didn’t know him, but he struck me as a man of vision, a man that made things happen. We use some of his inventions right here in this hospital.”
   Nate nodded, not trusting his voice to answer without breaking.
   “I’m also sorry we can’t do anything about your…injuries. We tried every method at our disposal - everything from scalpels and lasers to bone saws. We even tried a diamond-tipped drill. Nothing worked.”
   Bits and pieces of overheard conversation came back to Nate, things he had absorbed while under sedation. His mind had shied away from what lay under the bandages, but the memories were still there - memories of falling and searing steam, memories of dying. Memories of rebirth.  He’d read somewhere that the human mind couldn’t remember pain. Maybe that was further proof that he was no longer truly human.
   “As for the rest, well, the hospital doesn’t have much choice when it comes to reporting exohuman Emergence. The law’s very specific and the penalties are severe. Exohuman Affairs has requested that you remain here until they can come and interview you.”
   Nate’s eyes wandered to the cabinet. “Take me into custody, you mean. To strip me of my rights and identity. To assign me a number.”
   “Mr. Gorman, I’m sorry. I really am. I know this is a lot to take in. I wish…”
   The doctor stood up and heaved a sigh. He extended his hand, some hesitation showing in the gesture. Nate took the offered hand, careful not to squeeze too hard. As it was, he saw a slight grimace on the doctor’s face before he released the grip.
   “Thank you,” was all Nate said.
   The doctor left, without haste but also without delay.
   Nate sat for a moment, thinking. Then he stood and walked to the mirror. His right hand came up to hover before his face, certain of what needed doing, but unsure if even he was strong enough for this. He lowered his hand a little and grasped a corner of the tape and gauze that covered the left side of his chest. Steeling himself for what was about to be revealed, he pulled it away in one swift movement, forcing his eyes not to flinch or look away.
   It looked like molten wax had been poured down that side of his body. Rippled and stretched pink skin was crisscrossed by a network of angry red ropes. His eyes traced the knotted rivulets of flesh until coming to rest on a spot in the center of his chest – a pattern buried there under dense tissue, the shape of an eight-pointed star.
   Mom’s pendant.
   A calm filled him as he thought of the sacrifice his father had made - how he had paid the price for Nate’s survival. He touched the raised starburst shape.
   I’m all that’s left of them, the last to bear their name – a name that people are coming to take away from me.
   After a moment, he removed the bandages covering his face. Even after seeing the horror that his body had become, he was unprepared. This time he looked away.
   When the Enforcers from Exohuman Affairs arrived for him, Nate and the borrowed motorcycle were miles away.


Copyright © 2021 - Richard L. Wright

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