the ladder - secret hospital (part 6)

The Ladder – An experimental web-only fiction series that spans multiple story lines and characters…Tune in on Wednesdays for a new installment.

The guards were dressed in a black armored combat uniform developed as part of the Future Combat Missions project. Despite plans to release versions of the Future Force combat uniform to regular infantry troops, only the most elite and secret military units were deployed using the most cutting-edge technologies. Powered exoskeletons; networked, HUD-enabled helmets at the locus of a tactical sensor and communications array capable of providing 360 degree situational awareness; intelligent weapons that interfaced directly with the headgear to provide greater accuracy and synchronize fire with other networked assets; smart armor both lightweight and resistant to bullets and fire – the Red Cell Guard Detachment was the best equipped force to stand watch over the patient code-named Red Queen. They stood motionless, half a dozen faceless menaces, while another dozen both in and out of uniform remained on stand-by in nearby barracks. Only a single khaki-uniformed man, fresh-faced and freckled behind a podium imbedded with security and door controls, showed any visible signs of humanity.

Dr. Poole stepped out of the cell with a faint smile; candlelight in the darkness of stern military discipline. He hummed to himself as he eased his way past the unsmiling Captain and through the corridors.

“You seem pleased with yourself,” said a voice. Lieutenant Jazara Jones; Nurse Jones. She walked alongside him, fresh from her rounds and carrying a clipboard.

“A breakthrough, you might say.”

Maram had, at long last, put some small, delicate measure of trust in him, however hesitant. She let herself fall into his arms, head turned to look over the shoulder as if afraid he would let her fall. When he caught her as promised, she repeated the exercise with eyes closed.

“How did you do it?” said Nurse Jones.

The psychiatrist smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkling. “Apple pie; you gather the ingredients, you roll the dough for the pie crust, then you put it in the oven and take in the warm apple-cinnamon smell. Finally, the pie is ready. All it takes is patience and love.”

Jones looked at him with an expression of such ferocious doubt Dr. Poole felt like prey to a lion. “You sound like a self-help book.” A smile softened the blow. The psychiatrist studied the nurse’s face, not offended by her skepticism but puzzled.

“What made you decide to follow in your mother’s footsteps?” he said. It threw her off; she had been expecting a sharp comeback, some form of reproach.

“I wasn’t going to at first,” she said. “But when you grow up with military families, you see things…”

Jazara had met many veterans, young men and women who were physically or psychology maimed – often both. Most were vets from the first Gulf War. “All good people,” she said, “who needed looking after.”

Dr. Poole could not point to a similar, direct call to compassionate action; a college roommate with early onset schizophrenia, a shell-shocked grandfather who fought in World War II, a drastic case of mental illness in his personal sphere of influence. Yet while completing his residency, he became fascinated by the influence of the mind on pain, a question that led to a fascination with the mind itself. A rotation in the cold, sterile corridors and cells of a psychiatric ward – a world of screams and delusions, of sheer unreason and otherness. Filled, childishly perhaps, with Foucault on one hand and the psychiatric heroes of literature (somehow Abraham Van Helsing counted among these) on other, he felt drawn towards exploring that mysterious of all human frontiers. Exploring – and curing what had once been dismissed as demonic possession.

As they reached his office, it seemed to Dr. Poole as if the nurse had something else in mind.

“Oh, nothing,” she said when he offered her the proverbial penny. “I’m just wondering what she’s like…you know…”

The psychiatrist unlocked the door and switched on the light. He looked at Nurse Jones with an expression of sympathy, like a mall Santa looking at a child asking for something that he or she couldn’t possibly receive.

“There is a reason Red Queen is beyond idle curiosity,” he said.

Whatever reply Jones intended to offer was drowned out by an announcement on the public address system. “Well, I guess I’d better not keep the director waiting.”

Dr. Poole wished her a good afternoon, adding advice in a soft, old voice, “The wisest choice is always easiest in retrospect.”

Before she could ask, Dr. Poole closed the door and her summons to Colonel Di Nova’s office repeated on the loudspeakers.

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