A long second passed. The man then returned to the subject matter with a more gracious look in his face, signalling a certain degree of relief from that intermission.
The pestilence had changed the way we understood society and order, forcing us to reconsider our values, our common ideals. Governance had to continue to regard people first. Now more than ever, it was about us, humanity, our kind.
It had taken him a painfully short time, he explained, to understand how beliefs, morals and the ideals of the old world, had profundly changed in this new age. And one such thing was our understanding of class and privilege. The values of yesteryears weren’t the values of today anymore. When a cataclismic event wipes out thousands each passing hour, your understanding of human value is inevitably altered.
He tighten his fists, I noticed, and shook his head as if wanting to wake up to the full realisation of what he had just uttered. Was it sadness or just frustration? Perhaps he was taken by the realisation that those wonderful ideals had never been more in danger and more in jeopardy, than now. As far as I was concerned, I was beginning to get a clearer picture of the situation and what was going to be asked of me.
As the sergeant continued to enlarge on his vision of the world, I began to conjure some questions of my own: was High Command still completely behind the president? What sort of military contingent was available at this base? Was I about to carry some high ranking politicians to a safer destination, perhaps an oversea base even?
The meal arrived. My pretty nurse came holding a steaming tray complete with soup, fresh vegetables and one boiled mackerel. She left the room wiggling her ass a bit more than required. The sergeant looked at me and raised his left eye brow. Then continued to talk.
The total passenger load of the aircraft would consist of twenty two individuals: four health professionals including two nurses, a doctor and a surgeon; the second pilot and myself; one general from the airforce; ten individuals whose identity whould remain anonymous, two bodyguards, two Chinese industrialists and a Russian oligarc.
The exact destination coordinates were top-secret at this stage and would be disclosed only immediately before take-off, with the airplane ready to taxi. The flight would be approximately three hours long and the aircraft would be a military type comprising its own radar system.
I gently lifted my bottom to change my sitting position ever so slightly. My spine was hurting. I tasted a bit of the soup which smelled horribly bad. There were some pieces of chicken skin floating here and there, along with a very liquid puree blend of potatoes and some cereal. The fish and vegetable dish was positively better. I had always loved vegetables, especially roasted or grilled, and welcomed the boiled carrots and celery with enthusiasm. There was also a leaf of artichoke or something similar in it, but it turned out to be made of plastic, for decoration purposes, I presumed.
My attention went back to the sergeant. He was looking outside the window again, at the beautiful pines waving in the wind. He seemed to be longing for pastoral scenes of peaceful and uncompromised beauty.
At that point the man went off on a monologue about the technology behind the safety checks carried out before departure, and all that. He went on and on, didn’t seem to stop with what felt like a rehearsed marketing speech. For a few very long minutes he did his best to reassure me that absolutely every aspect of the flight would be carefully monitored. Did it matter anymore? As I far as I was concerned, I was signing on the dotted line, accepting all risks, happy to help the country in any which way I could.
As he regurgitated his pitch about how little I had to worry about and that nothing could go wrong, I drifted away in thoughts all of my own.
My pilot side of the brain lit on. I was already planning this mission, my head was already in that plane. My concerns as a pilot were only technical in nature, especially concerning the the type of aircraft available to us and the experience of the crew.
The officer added, in no uncertain terms, that I was expected to deliver everyone safely to destination. There would be no room for errors considering the importance of the passengers onboard. I nodded. He looked me straight in the eyes with a coldness and melancholy that he hadn’t displayed during the conversation. He reached a toothpick from the bottom of his jacket pocket and carefully started to work his left molar with the care and patience of a surgeon.
The sergeant left me with a strong shake of hands and kindly reminded me to take all my meds when due and to keep good rest until I would be discharged. I can’t explain why but I felt both sorry and scared of him, all at the same time. I had learned to appreciate strength and straightforwardness in a fellow soldier even thought this had been a meeting of mixed feelings for me. He disappeared into the ambulatory corridor, after leaving his used toothpick in the ashtray. I never saw him again.
From that day, another week must have passed. I, of course, did not follow any of the sergeant’s sacrosanct recommendations. The next day I was openly flirting with my cute nurse and three day later I was playing some very primitive basketball between meals, down in the courtyard of the ambulatory. Those days felt incredibly liberating and tense at the same time. At the back of my mind I kept planning the mission. I couldn’t leave any details uncovered even if I was going to walk into this with basically next to zero understanding of what I would find in that plane.
Besides this, I had at that point, nothing on me. My ID gone, money, cards, all gone. I didn’t enquire about these thing either. I truly felt like I would never need that sort of stuff ever again.
After about twelve or thirteen days in that place, my energies were back to their fullest. My lovely nurse kept feeding me with all the right pills and meds, all very punctually delivered. My room was kept clean and cosy, with a beautiful jar of fresh flowers which arrived every other day. My bed lining was changed every morning. During those times I always made sure to be tacked in bed claiming a bit of headache. This allowed me to briefly sniff my lovely nurse’s low chest cleavage, which she didn’t fail to rub, following what had by then become a ritual, against my nose.
I accepted each day as it came with the happiness of a soul who has escaped hell by an inch. That was enough for me.
Then one night, I was waken in bed by the sound of the wheels of a medical trolley. Confused as I was and in the middle of a deep sleep, I took a few seconds to realise what was going on. A group of medics and nurses had rushed in the room and were hooking me up to a breathing machine. In a matter of seconds I was gassed while tubes were pierced into my veins.
My last moments of consciousness became a nightmare. I was struggling to breathe thinking my tongue was growing out of proportion. I could see it coming out of my mouth, red as a watermelon and swollen like a zeppelin. I was suffocating. I couldn’t breathe. I was dying! In front of me, through the night’s darkness, I saw the silhouette of at least six men and women, all wearing long white lab coats. A man approached me and held me by the shoulders down on the bed. It hurt. I was paralysed. He stayed there for a long time but my muscle had already become so supple that I began not to feel his painful grip anymore. He stood up and left me there, nailed to the bed, incapable of nudging, not a single centimetre.
I looked again at the figures around me, they walked slowly, very slowly, stretching their movement like honey dripping down a jar. Everything took a lethargic effect and the sound of their whispers, communicating to each other, soft as the whisper of a butterfly flying, expanded in the room, gradually becoming resonant like the vibrations of an enormous plank of metal. This went on for a long time. Maybe hours had passed maybe days. I was starting to doze off, unaware and unconcerned about who those people were and what they were doing.
As I was drifting away in my ecstatic state, a face approached me from one side, strangely reflective like a mirror, in contrast with the shadows of the room. The face seemed stiff and pale, like the face of a porcelain doll. I looked again, trying to waken all my senses to understand the features of that strange visage. I felt so druggy, so heavy, so wobbly, but my eyes were moving, I was definitely aware of the world around me.
My eyelids, heavy as the rusty shutter of an old shop, slowly descended over my pupils, making my awareness ever so impossible. I had no doubts that soon all would finished. At that point I didn’t quite recognise my room anymore. What place was this exactly? I was hoping to open my mouth and talk or scream to make me heard, but any efforts were all in vain, constrained by the unresponsiveness of my own body.
At that point, I realised that the mysterious face was on me, almost touching me, staring in my eyes with the most penetrating and disturbing look. His porcelain-like eyes, reflective like cold wax, felt menacing. The pupils were dark red, of a dreadful and deep red, cutting through my brain like a butcher’s knife, charged with sick veins and oozing red tears, frightful, repulsive. Those eyes were now bleeding on me. I had blood all over me! I tried to shake it all off but my body was frozen, cold as stone.
The figure continued to bleed on me, squirting this horrible sour liquid which now entered my mouth unrestrained, nauseating, revolting.
Around me, I could see that the other faces were now bleeding from their eyes also, splashing their inhuman liquids around the room, the smell of which now permeated my brain, a bitter sweet stench.
The figure in front of me now extended his long and pale hand over his face, covering eyes and mouth with his long fingers. When the fingers fully covered the face, its long nails pierced the skin just behind the ear, entering the flesh like sharp blades in order to start removing the skin off the face, living gored flesh, horrid and repulsive at the same time.
Blood poured over me unrestrained. I cried, I screamed but I couldn’t hear myself, I couldn’t hear anything at that point. I gargled in that blood, drawing, suffocating, asphyxiated! The hand had now removed all the skin from the face, revealing the boney and lumpy nature of that decaying skull.
I looked at it screaming and then I realised I was looking at the mutilated and diseased face of the plague, decomposed, deformed, right in front of me and, staring me with its hollow eyes. The silhouette shook, trembled, shuddered in painful convulsions, agonising each second until it suddenly stopped.
I turned my head and saw all the other faces, with their masks removed, showing their horrid true nature, squirting their infected liquids all around them. I shook, I jolted, I shivered, I tried to free myself with all my force, but it was all useless. All in vain. My body was totally paralysed.
As I turned back to look at the decomposed face in front of me I realised in horror that the hand was extending the skin that it had removed from the face, over to me. The mask slowly approached me and was now almost on me, monstrous, infected, poisonous.
And then, as darkness completely engulfed me, I felt its touch, disgustingly warm and humid. The skin of my face, burnt in pain, as if scalded with boiling oil. At that point I stopped to feel anything as if I mysterious calm had taken over me.
All went black but after a few moments I started to see the gentle glow of a sunrise in front of me.