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The first time she led one of the Diseased to the Labs, she almost broke. It was a boy, only six years old, with matted brown hair that crept down his neck and covered his bloodless white face. Even through the layers of soot and sewage on his skin she could see the bulging veins pulsing black with infected blood and the gaping sores dripping murky pus onto the pristine white sheets of his cot. He didn’t react when she called his name, Timothy, or when she shook the bed. He continued to stare at the ceiling when she swatted him gently with or clipboard.
Puzzled, she glanced up at the Senior Nurse, and gagged as she watched her take a Diseased’s hand and pull him for the door. She was acting as if it was an Uninfected, like its bones weren’t disintegrating into paste and feeding thousands of swarming parasites.
She grimaced and, pondering why she’d taken the job, reached out for the boy’s hands, grateful a million times over for the latex gloves that separated his skin from hers. The effect was instant. The boy jolted up and scampered to the opposite side of the cot, seemingly unaware of how his arm stretched and tore in her grasp. When she whispered his name now he peered at her with bloodshot eyes, frightened.
She told him it was time to go to the Labs and was shocked to see tears spill down his cheeks. Never before had she seen a Diseased act scared, but this one was whimpering and weeping, silently begging her not to take him to the gray doors of the Labs. How she wanted to help him. She knew where the exits were and how to avoid guards, but then the Senior Nurse was there, asking if she needed assistance. Saying no, she dragged the boy off the bed, trying to ignore his inarticulate pleads, as well as the guilt scraping at her heart. The doors closed behind her, and she pushed the boy into the closest open Lab, swallowing tears as the swarms of doctors surrounded him.
It was time again soon. The Senior Nurse found her hiding in the office and scolded her weakness. She was ordered to take an old woman to Lab thirty-one. She found the cot and, without looking, told Julia it was time. She braced herself for the dry, wheezing cough of a Diseased, but instead she heard laughter. She looked up. Julia was a wrinkled mass of distorted flesh and bones, but she managed to find her mouth, half-opened in a desperate cackle.
“Can’t bear to look at me, sweet?” the Diseased asked, “Can’t stand to look as you deliver me to my death?”
She sought for something comforting to say, maybe an apology, but when she opened her mouth, the speech she’d been taught her entire life came out. She said that the Labs were working for a cure, and were helping all those afflicted with infection to the best of their abilities. She told Julia that if she did die, she was already too far along to be saved, and everything the Labs learned from their surgery would help hundreds in years to come. Julia snorted disdainfully.
“That’s what you all say, Nurse. Let me ask you, would you appreciate it if you were about to be strapped to a table and dissected? Hmm?”
She didn’t answer. She transferred Julia to gunnery and pushed towards Lab 31. Every insult, every accusation, cut her to shreds. Julia was right, that was the only way about it. What she was doing was wrong, twisted to the core. But her legs had become robotic, and soon she was choking on salty water as Julia was pulled inside and pinned down with scalpels.
Maybe she would’ve stayed like that, but a merciful nurse saw her, and she was allowed to go home. She was taken home, she was laid to bed. And when the tears stopped coming, she let sleep take her. She dreamed of a revolution, a courageous nurse rising to change the way of the Labs. Of course, she succeeded. But the next day, when the Senior Nurse spoke to her, no brave words came. They remained deeply entrenched in her mind, in that part of her that still believed she could change things.
Her third patient was in phase one. He looked like any other teenager, if a bit scrawny and pale. This time she was ready for the crying, the fighting. But he didn’t do anything. When she told him to get up, he complied. He followed her quietly, and it hurt more than any amount of crying could have. When the doors of Lab 67 opened, he turned to look at her. It was only then that she saw the hate, anger and sadness in his eyes. It hung thick in the air long after he had breathed his last. She looked at the clipboard that held his profile. Aiden Matthews, gone forever, without saying a single word.
Every Diseased one she led away left wounds. They would beg, they would fight, they would accuse, and all she could do was walk faster. She stopped trying to justify what she was doing to them. When they screamed and cursed, she smiled and said she understood. When they clawed and fought, she called the guards. Sometimes, in the quiet of her apartment, she still fantasized about rising up and overcoming the Labs with the other nurses by her side. But, as the fatalities under her name rose, those delusions came further and further apart, and became less and less comforting.
With every Diseased she led to the Labs, her spirit was crushed more. She no longer felt happiness, sadness, or even anger. All she felt was numbness, spreading through her body, mind and soul with every passing day. There was no point in thinking about the Labs, for what could she do to change them? There was no point in making friends, for how soon would it be before they were infected? It was only suppressed, flickering hope that someone stronger than she would come and save her that kept her eating, breathing.
The coughing started a year after she started working for the Labs. Naturally, she concealed it, thinking it was a simple cold. The sores came a week later, and she knew she was infected, and desperation pierced through the fog of numbness that had shrouded her for so long. She began wearing makeup and long-sleeves. She refused to use gunneries, afraid of breaking her now brittle bones. But she couldn’t hide from the Blood Tests. A guard stopped her on the street and pierced her pale skin with a syringe. He shook his head, and she was taken away. She didn’t protest. She knew it wouldn’t make a difference.
By the time a blank-faced nurse came for her, she could no longer walk. She watched the halls she’d walked so often slide by slowly, and felt that last spark of hope buried deep within her die. She was silent as the doors of Lab 67 opened and the surgeon’s arms reached out. And as the scalpels pressed against her skin, she only thought one thing.
My savior didn’t come, he’ll never come.