Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice:
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 23): Breach
The president folds his hands on the desk and looks into the camera with an earnest expression. “Fellow citizens of the American-Canadian Alliance, we’re broadcasting to you from a secure location. The prime minister is sequestered in a separate, equally secure location and extends his greetings and encouragement.”
“Prime minister?” I whisper to no one in particular.
James takes my hand and squeezes it gently. “The alliance is under joint leadership.”
I allow him to hold my hand for two reasons: the need to play the game and because reality is fracturing, the pieces skidding sideways, leaving me wondering which fragment to follow.
“ . . . as transparent as possible; however, for the sake of national security and the preservation of the human race, there is and will continue to be information we cannot share with the masses.” The president pauses, pressing his hands flat against the blotter before taking a deep breath. “Your leaders and representatives around the country have expressed similar concerns. Even separated by the miles, our people are united. You want to know who is responsible for this horrific threat to humanity. You want to know when we can come out of hiding and aid those unaffected by the virus. And, most importantly, you want to know when we will be free of this affliction and able to live in the sunshine again—to rebuild what has been destroyed.” He swipes a rivulet of sweat from his temple with a finger, a muscle in his jaw ticking rhythmically.
My mouth is dry. I’m enraptured by the sight of our commander-in-chief in living color on the flat screen. I assumed complete societal collapse when the virus spread, but there’s obviously a lot more to the story. Knowing the president survived, that there are efforts being made to save humanity, should make me feel better. For a moment it does. Then I remember what the alliance is doing in the name of survival, and my stomach does a sickening roll.
“ . . . investigating how the outbreak occurred. Our main concern at the moment is to keep the virus at bay while developing and replicating a cure. We have troops on the ground protecting all sectors, scientists working around the clock on a cure, workers maintaining power and handling all supply concerns, and we have dedicated crews bringing in survivors as space permits.” In an unusual gesture during a presidential speech, he swipes a hand over his face. The camera zooms closer, showcasing the fine lines around his tired blue eyes. His mouth sets into a grim line. “I wish we didn’t have to keep our locations secret, that we could take everyone in. The usual rules no longer serve the people. We have no choice but to adapt. It was a difficult decision, one that should never have to be made, but the only way to insulate society from complete collapse is through continuity of government. That means protecting essential personnel and . . . preserving the core of humanity. Overcrowding of facilities or allowing enemies to discover our locations will only serve to delay or destroy progress.
“When we deem it safe, I’ll schedule visits to each sector. I look forward to meeting the brave men and women doing their part to keep this country running during this monumental crisis. The reality is there are always enemies waiting to exploit weakness. We have never been more vulnerable than we are right now, but we will prevail. Our spirit cannot be squelched. Our desire to survive will never die. God bless the people of the American-Canadian Alliance. Good night.”
Applause, whoops, and whistles echo around me. Bottles of sparkling cider and a stack of paper cups are brought to each table. I realize I’m still squeezing James’ hand and let go, pulling away to hug myself.
James rubs my back, leaning his head close to mine. “Are you all right, Marie?”
“Fine.” I don't look at him when I answer, afraid he'll see something different in my expression.
“Good.” He gives my shoulder a squeeze and starts speaking with Garth in hushed tones.
I look past James and Garth at my mother’s flushed cheeks, bright eyes, and trusting smile. Lemming. Then I pan nearby tables and see the same giddy hope on many faces. At our table, though the soldiers participate by hollering and stamping their feet, close examination reveals a certain wariness. They celebrate along with everyone else, but many of their eyes suggest a different reality. In contrast, the few soldiers’ companions sprinkled around the table express genuine hope, much like my clueless mother. It seems the unvarnished truth is being withheld from the majority of the people.
Eventually, I come across the icy stare of Lieutenant Gibbs. He’s watching me openly. Unconsciously, I bring my fingers up to my collar and slide them along the cool metal. Gibbs’ gaze drops to my neck and back up, a mocking smirk settling across his cruel lips. He makes a gun with his fingers and aims my way, squinting one eye as he pulls the trigger. I glance at James, but he’s huddled with Garth and hasn’t noticed.
A kitchen worker starts announcing tables. We grab trays and go through a cafeteria style line. James is still deep in conversation with Garth ahead of me. Gibbs manages to sidle up on my other side, looking somewhere over my head with a half-smile. “What a lovely dog collar. I wonder—does it make you feel safe, Marie?”
I ignore him and press closer to James and Garth. Gibbs chuckles, disappearing into the crowd after receiving his meal and doesn't return to our table for the rest of the evening.
James escorts me back to my suite after dinner, quiet and deep in thought as we walk. That's fine with me; I have no desire to pretend I like him tonight. When we reach my door, he touches my cheek, gazing down at me with longing, but bids me goodnight without trying to kiss me.
I wash my face and brush my teeth. Part of me is curious about the titles on the bookshelves, but exhaustion has settled deep in my bones, and I decide to explore another time. I change from the dress to a T-shirt and sweats. Since the apocalypse, pajamas seem like a luxury that can’t be afforded.
I turn down the comforter and slide between the sheets, clicking off the lamp beside the bed. The alarm clock emits a bluish glow, keeping the darkness from swallowing the room. I lay on my back and stare at the ceiling as my newly constructed shell comes apart, and I give in to the turmoil building inside.
Hot tears spill down my cheeks, and I stuff my face into the pillow to muffle the sobs. It was a shock to discover the president of the United States and prime minister of Canada are alive and have joined forces. The president talked of adapting and stressed the need to protect the “core of humanity,” a rather ominous phrase. The president also mentioned sectors. Does that mean multiple locations like this one exist, and are all sectors harvesting the immune? I wonder what the government deems acceptable to do in the name of survival. I don’t want to believe the president and/or the prime minister are sanctioning the atrocities being committed by the alliance.
The tears fall harder when I’m forced to face the fact I huddled close to James all evening—mostly because of Lieutenant Gibbs, but it still feels like a weakness and betrayal.
Gibbs is going to be a problem. I realize there won’t always be someone around to protect me. The self-defense instruction Max provided comes to mind, but the moment I allow myself to think about his handsome face and sea-glass eyes, I sob uncontrollably. What must he be going through? Will I ever see him again . . . touch him again? Be consumed by the intensity of his kisses?
“Max,” I whisper. “I miss you so much . . .” Hugging an extra pillow to my chest, I squeeze it tightly until asleep comes.
* * *
I begin working part-time in the kitchen. James grimaces when I request the position but gives in when I explain how much I’ve always enjoyed cooking.
“It’s not a gourmet kitchen, you know. We’re more concerned with volume.”
“I know, but this is what I really want.”
He shrugs. “Okay. I’ll show you the way and introduce you to Celine. The kitchen is her domain.”
We walk through a set of double doors into a humongous tiled room fitted with stainless steel tables, cabinetry, ovens, and two walk-ins. Several women are busy preparing food on the tables or stirring large pots that resemble vats. I guess feeding the masses is quite different from what I’m used to.
A willowy woman with close-cropped brown hair looks up from the table where she’s chopping vegetables. “General James! To what do I owe the honor?” Celine seems genuinely happy to see James. Her face is mapped with fine lines, deeper slashes surrounding her mouth and intelligent blue eyes. “Who do you have here?” She puts the knife down and wipes her hands on a dishtowel.
“This is Marie, Nina’s daughter. She wishes to be stationed here. Do you have the room?”
“Of course! I’m always rather short on help.” Celine turns her friendly face my way and shakes my hand. “Welcome, Marie. I heard Nina’s daughter had come into the fold. Such wonderful news!”
“Thank you.” I nod politely, keeping my true opinion about being here to myself.
James kisses my cheek. “I’ll leave you in Celine’s capable hands. See you later.”
A few of the women working nearby watch the exchange, two of them whispering. My cheeks flush as James exits the kitchen.
“Let’s put you to work.” Celine puts an arm around my shoulders and glares at the whispering gawkers. “You two! Shut your flaps and finish up!”
She leads me to the other side of her table, points to a crate of potatoes resting on the shelf underneath, and hands me a peeler.
“Wow . . . that’s a lot of potatoes.”
“We’re feeding a large group.” Celine goes back to chopping.
I start peeling potatoes, the normality of the task bringing on a sense of serenity. The repetition is therapeutic.
“You have something against peeling skins?” Celine asks.
“Then why the waterworks?”
I hadn’t noticed the tears. Can’t say I fully understand them either. “I . . . don’t know.” I put the peeler down and swipe at my face.
Celine leans over the table and lowers her voice. “You were out there, weren’t you?”
“Has to be disorienting. I won’t ask what you saw. It’ll probably take some time, but you’ll be okay, sweetie.” She pats my hand.
We continue peeling and chopping in silence for a while. The other women in the room don’t talk, and I have a growing suspicion it’s because of me.
The abundance of fresh vegetables in the kitchen, not canned or frozen, piques my curiosity. “Fresh veggies?”
Celine’s ever-present smile widens. “Wondered when you’d ask. Hydroponics—freshwater and salt.”
“Would you like to see the gardens? If you're going to be working the kitchen, you'll need to get familiar anyway.” Celine drops the knife and plucks the peeler from my hand. She turns to the whisperers. “Hey, frick and frack—come on over and finish this while I show Marie around.”
As we leave the room, the blonde one shoots me a resentful glare. I smile sweetly with a big old screw you in my eyes.
Celine walks briskly through the halls behind the kitchen, and I have to practically trot to keep up with her. I don't think it's purposeful; she seems to be a high energy, no-nonsense person.
The area outside the gardens is industrial and reminds me of the power plant. I swallow the painful pang the thought causes.
“Here we are. Prepare to be amazed.” Celine leads me through a doorway hung with thick strips of opaque plastic.
There's an instant atmospheric change, the gardens warm and humid. Rows and rows of fruits and vegetables grow in troughs, on racks, or latticework. Other than the aisles necessary to maintain and harvest the bounty, every available space flourishes with edible, living things. At the end of the long room, another doorway covered by hanging plastic strips leads to a second, equally large garden.
“Amazing doesn’t begin to cover it, Celine. This is . . . just, wow.”
Celine follows me at a distance with a knowing expression. “We plant in waves—an attempt to produce year round. We have an occasional shortage, but so far, it’s working pretty well.”
“How long have you been here?”
Celine looks me dead in the eye. “I’ve been here a little over a year.”
“A year . . . but . . .” I shake my head. The outbreak happened just over six months ago.
“Sector Seven was built for this. Surely you don’t think this was all thrown together in a few months?” She waves a hand and laughs.
A strange fluttering takes up residence in my chest. “How many sectors are there?”
“That’s above my pay grade, but rumor has it there are twelve or thirteen.”
I fight not to jump all over that tidbit and let her know how shocked and eager I am for more information. “All like this one?”
We walk along a narrow aisle in the second garden and take a right into a storage room with bins of harvested produce.
“Yup. Underground facilities in secret locations, designed to be as self-sustaining as possible—built for a dilly of a pickle, just like the one we’re in now.” Celine grabs a wooden basket and fills it with apples and pears. “Tarts for dessert tonight.”
“What about the survivors they pick up?”
She continues picking through the fruit and doesn’t look my way. “The people they rescue, you mean? Rescues go to quarantine for a while because of the virus. Some end up here, but most of them staff our sister facility. We don’t want to bring an excess of virus here since we’re still working on a cure.”
The way she describes survivors as “rescues” reminds me of an animal shelter. Does Celine know what’s being done to the immune at their sister facility? Are most of these people ignorant of the horrors happening around them? I have a hard time believing everyone here condones the life-threatening experiments. Most important—how high does the evil go? Is this the only sector conducting the experiments, or are they all participating?
“Earth to Marie.” Celine waves a hand in front of my face. “You okay?”
I blink. “Yeah, sorry. Zoned out for a sec. It’s a lot to take in.” I rub back of my neck. “Do you know anything about the cure? I mean, are they close?”
“From what I understand, very close. Rumor has it we'll be the first to know. Most of the top scientists in the country are here in Sector Seven.”
The rest of the afternoon is filled with food prep. The ladies in the kitchen start to thaw, even frick and frack, and by the time I'm leaving to go back to my room, we're even joking around a little.
Gibbs is absent from the dinner table, leaving me to breathe easier. I can't say I enjoy myself, but the food is good, and the people are nice. It's hard to look at the majority of them as my enemies. Based on my initial observations, the alliance keeps their people content and blissfully clueless by segregating them from the immune lab rats. I'm sure broadcasting messages from the president doesn't hurt either.
James escorts me to my room after dinner, removing his hat and tucking it under his arm. “May I come in? Talk a while, have a drink?”
“Um . . .” I'm torn by the need to gain his trust and discover more intel versus my desire to stuff my face into the pillows to cry. “Sure. Not too long, though. Celine worked me like a dog!”
I let us in and turn the lights on. We settle on the couch with a snifter of brandy. James pours, handing me a glass and raising his own. “To better times.”
That's a toast I can be enthusiastic about. “To better times.” We touch glasses, and I gulp the brandy, a trail of heat traveling from throat to belly and blooming into a slow roasting fire.
James refills our glasses.
“Trying to ply me with alcohol?” I ask with a raised brow.
“Is it working?” He grins at me, a devilish glint in his eyes.
I look away without answering. After a few beats of awkward silence, I decide to make the most of being stuck with James and see what I can find out. “So . . . rumor has it the alliance is close to a cure.”
James leans back with a sigh and rubs a hand over the scruff on his face. “Marie, I'm a soldier. I protect, do reconnaissance, kick ass.”
I cross my arms. “Are you immune?”
“You strike me as a man in the know, especially if it personally affects you.”
He laughs. “You're very perceptive. I warn you, I don't know anything scientific.”
“It would go over my head anyway.”
James takes a sip of his brandy and considers me carefully. “You strike me as a highly intelligent woman. From what I understand, the current vaccine still works but its efficacy is diminished. Each time it's given, the length of inoculation shortens considerably. There's also the factor of individual immune systems and prior maladies, which can further shorten the duration of effectiveness for some.”
“My mom mentioned a new treatment.”
“Experimental treatments are being done on those considered at greatest risk to contract the virus—mostly people with preexisting conditions or those who are no longer responding well to vaccine.”
“What kind of treatments?”
James leans forward and taps the tip of my nose with a finger. “That I don't know, sweet Marie.”
“Has anyone here had the treatment?”
“You're just full of questions, aren't you? Citizens undergoing treatment are located and monitored in our sister facility.”
“How many sectors are there?”
“That's classified.” James says this with a grin, leaving me to wonder if he's being serious. He fidgets on the couch and gulps the rest of his brandy, immediately pouring another and shifting closer to me. He pushes the hair over my shoulder and runs his nose up the side of my neck. “I can think of more promising things to explore.” His lips graze my earlobe, and I shiver. James takes it as a shiver of pleasure and cups my face, pressing open-mouthed kisses over my neck and jaw.
I shut my eyes and force myself not to slap him. James isn't doing anything unexpected. After all, I gave him the green light to court me. He has no idea how repulsed I am or that the man I love is alive and well. For the first time, the thought like mother, like daughter flits through my mind. My mother gave up her children for a life of ease. I'm trying to get back to those I love. Big difference. How come it doesn't feel like it, then?
James kisses his way across my jaw until his mouth hovers over mine. “Hey,” he whispers.
My lids flutter open, and he's so close I can see the flecks of navy in his irises. My hands clench into fists, nails digging deeply into my palms.
“Relax.” One hand slips under my hair, the thumb of his other sliding under my chin to tip my face up. His lips ghost across mine, and I shut my eyes again. “So beautiful.”
Please, God. I yearn for that white room with its stained ceiling tiles and day after day of nothing. What have I gotten myself into?
James keeps pressing gentle kisses to my mouth, cheeks, and jaw, approaching me like a scared rabbit. I hate every second, but maybe I can handle this. Perhaps he'll back off; he did promise we'd take things slowly.
I'm frozen, like petrified wood. Does he sense my unwillingness, feel the rigid posture of my body, notice I'm not returning his kiss?
James leans in, guiding us until he's laying half on top of me, the kiss more aggressive. His hand leaves my face and slips under the neckline of my shirt, pinching a nipple between his fingers. He thrusts his hips against my thigh at the same time, releasing a soft grunt.
“Mm-mph!” I turn my head to the side, causing his lips to drag across my cheek. “James, please stop. I can't.”
“Shh . . . come on, sweet Marie. Let me help you forget.” He palms my breast, squeezing gently, and his lips come down on mine again. This time, I smell the brandy on his breath as he parts his lips and tries to slide his tongue into my mouth.
I turn my head again, and he ends up licking my face. “Get off me! Please!” I buck and wriggle beneath him, tears spilling over.
James sits up, pulling me with him. “Hey, hey . . . it's okay.” He raises both hands in front of his chest. “Sorry if I misinterpreted your signals.”
“I—I'm not ready t-to forget.”
“My bad. I'll wait.”
I’m surprised. “Y-you will?”
“Well, I can't take what you aren't ready to give, can I?”
“You're not mad?”
“What kind of monster do you think I am?” He laughs and takes my hand. “There's nothing exciting to me about an unwilling lay. You'll come around soon enough.”
His calmly delivered words don't reassure me; they sound like a threat.
* * *
In the morning, James escorts me to breakfast. He’s pleasant, offering me his arm as we walk, and doesn’t mention the uncomfortable events of last night. Garth and my mother are conspicuously absent. As a matter of fact, half of the soldiers are missing, including Gibbs.
“Stay here. I’ll get our food.” James walks away without waiting for an answer and returns a few minutes later.
“Oh my God, pancakes!” I pour a liberal amount of syrup over the pile of thick, fluffy pancakes and get busy cutting and eating.
James laughs. “If I knew all it took was pancakes . . .”
I halt mid-bite, almost choking on my food.
Feedback squeals through the dining hall as the PA system crackles to life.
Attention, citizens of the alliance: there’s an intense storm system heading our way. Expected landfall is early tomorrow morning, but trajectory could change. Designated emergency personnel, please report to Meeting Room Two for a preparedness conference. Further announcements will be made as necessary. Thank you.
“Shit. I have to go to that meeting.” James scoops up a few more bites and wipes his mouth with a napkin. “Will you be all right on your own?”
“Yeah. Celine will keep me busy.”
“Good.” He stands, picking up his plate.
“Where are my mother and Garth?”
“Over at the other facility.” His brow wrinkles, and he looks uncomfortable. “Marie . . . Nina is receiving the experimental treatment.”
James tilts his head with a sympathetic expression. “The vaccine isn’t working anymore.”
“Why didn’t they tell me?”
“Probably didn’t want to worry you.” He leans down and kisses my cheek. “Later.”
You shunned her every time she tried to talk to you.
Why do I always end up feeling like a heel? The half-eaten pancakes no longer hold the same attraction, so I clear my tray and report to the kitchen. I’m hoping work will take my mind off all the things that are bothering me.
The girls in the kitchen are friendlier than yesterday. Everyone seems on edge about the coming storm. We’re underground, which should keep us safe from land damage. I wonder what plans they have in place in case of a power outage. That could get sticky, especially since we have no windows to let in light.
We’re in the middle of food prep when a loud, wailing siren sounds. I jump, the knife slipping from my grasp and narrowly missing my finger. “Shit! What the hell is that?”
Celine lifts her head calmly, but the look in her eyes frightens me. “Trouble. There should be an announcement any second.”
“Is it the storm?”
Celine shakes her head slowly. “Nope, but that might complicate things.”
The PA crackles and whines.
Attention! There’s been a level three breach in Sector 7-A. All non-essential personnel report to your quarters and await further instruction. Emergency personnel report to hangar two for dispatch. The storm is picking up speed. High winds and rain expected by midnight. Thank you.
Everyone but me starts running around, cleaning up.
I look to Celine. “What does that mean?”
Her mouth is set in a grim line. “It means we’re suffering from a double dose of bad luck. It also means you should get your keister back to your quarters. All of you! Shove what you’re working on into the walk-in, and get to your quarters and pray it’s a false alarm.”
“What’s a level three breach?"
“I don’t know, Marie. We’ve never had one before.”
After the initial rush and buzz of people questioning the breach and the storm, silence descends as we return to our quarters. I wait an hour and leave my room, sneaking through the halls, but end up racing back to my room as if the devil himself is chasing me because the silence is so unnerving.
I can’t read. I do drink two glasses of brandy and end up falling asleep on the couch.
A bang jolts me awake. The lights dim and brighten several times. I strain to hear, wondering if the noise that woke me was real or from a dream. Maybe the flickering lights disturbed my sleep.
I pace around, wanting to look outside but afraid at the same time. I press my ear to the crack in the door but hear nothing.
The lights go out, plunging the room into darkness. I blink, the imprint of the room still floating before my eyes for a few seconds before the dark bleeds into my vision like spilled ink. Panic claws at my chest. I’ve never done well in the dark. Or alone. Alone in the dark.
My breath whistles as panic constricts my lungs.
Dim light shines under my door, and I fumble at the lock, yanking it open. Emergency lights cast a reddish glow in the hall. I breathe slowly and deeply, remembering a happy memory the way Max taught me.
There was a power outage during a storm when Katie and I were twelve. I started panicking, and nothing seemed to help, not even the comforting arms of my twin. Katie sighed dramatically and grabbed the cigar box with her secret treasures. “Here.” She dropped something cool and smooth into my hand.
“What is it?”
“It’s a ring. Put it on.”
“A ring? How’s that supposed to help?”
Katie clicked on her flashlight and shined the beam at my palm. The ring had a small glass globe with dandelion fluff trapped inside.
“Whoa . . .”
“It’s a wish ring.”
“Where’d you get this?”
“A bet with Bobby McKay. He lost, obviously.” Katie slipped the ring on my finger. “Rub the glass and wish your scareds away.”
I side down the wall, closing my tear-filled eyes, and wish my fear away. “I need you, Kiki.”
A scuff at the end of the hall sends my heart into overdrive, but I don’t see anything in the dimness. I listen for another sound, for any sound besides the faint buzz of the emergency lighting, and hear nothing.
I wrap my arms around my knees, scared to sit out here but too afraid to lock myself in a dark room. What is everyone else doing? Why aren’t they out in the hall, seeking the light? My body shakes, and tears blur my vision. This feels surreal, like a nightmare, but I know it’s not.
I notice a shadow of movement from the corner of my eye. A smart person wouldn’t be so obvious, but I turn my head and look directly at the figure coming toward me. In the reddish light, his boots and clothing appear black. When he passes through the shadows obscuring his face, I scream. He’s covered with war paint.
He rushes me, scooping me off the floor and pressing a hand over my mouth. We end up inside my room with the door shut. In the dark.
I struggle, trying to remember all the self-defense moves Dad taught me. He throws me to the floor and straddles me, pinning my arms. With my mouth free, I try to yell, but it’s hard with him sitting on me.
“Shh . . . Marie, for fuck’s sake—it’s me!”
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook