Graham took the breakfast trays to the dish station. As he scraped a few bites of pancake into the trash, he thought about Ian, who had been as irritating at breakfast as he’d been the night before. In general, Ian was rude, sloppy, and boorish. But then, Graham knew he could be awkward, boring, and introverted. Perhaps they were just not meant to get along. Graham decided to give the hologramographer the benefit of the doubt and try to ignore his rough edges, but it was not going to be easy.
And then there was Peggy Lee. He desperately hoped she would come with him on the boat tonight. He wanted to see her smile in the moonlight. He knew she would appreciate his one special place in the world. In fact, he would gladly put up with Ian all day, if in return he got to spend just a few minutes alone with Peggy Lee under the stars.
Charley intercepted Graham as he headed back toward the table. Charley was tall, broad-shouldered, and kept his blond hair in a neat crew cut. Graham had always thought that if the Army’s public relations team ever came to headquarters looking for candidates for a photo shoot, Charley would get the call. He looked like the perfect soldier – fit, young, and strong. He was always smiling and had a way of making people feel at ease. Graham noticed that his uniform was well-ironed, crisp and clean today, as it was every day.
“Sir, we have a situation,” Charley said. “It’s Mirosevich. I checked his suit. The HEPA filter looked like it hadn’t been changed in a while. I just came from the infirmary. He’s coughing up blood.”
“Shit. Did you give him his options?”
“No sir, I wasn’t quite sure what to say.”
“Damn it, this is terrible timing.” Graham closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I’ll go talk to him. I’ve done it before. It’s the least I can do. You stay here and entertain our guests. I should be back in about half an hour. Tell Peggy Lee I have to check on a few details pertaining to our trip. Don’t tell them about Mirosevich. I hate to say it, but a dying soldier is bad PR.”
When Graham got to the infirmary, he immediately heard Mirosevich’s coughing and went straight into his room; he knew that people infected with the silver slayer were not contagious. The young soldier was sitting on the edge of his hospital bed, holding a bedpan half full of blood and saliva. He looked up as Graham entered. The whites of his eyes were stained red, the result of extensive subconjunctival hemorrhaging – in other words, he had coughed so hard during the night that he’d burst multiple blood vessels in both eyes.
Mirosevich attempted a salute, but he was overcome by a fit of coughing before he could get his hand to his forehead. When the coughing subsided, he spit a mouthful of blood into the bedpan. Graham knew exactly what was going on in the dying soldier’s body. The mold had already begun to take over his lungs, creating pulmonary aspergillomas, or dense balls of fungus, white blood cells, and blood clots. The mold was likely also taking root in Mirosevich’s sinuses and ear canals. It would soon enter his bloodstream, if it hadn’t already, and begin to infect other organs, including his kidneys, liver, and brain. He would be dead by the following morning.
“Private Mirosevich,” Graham started, “I’m here to help you. Have you discussed your prognosis with the medical staff?”
“Yes.” A tortured grimace passed over Mirosevich’s face, and he turned away.
Graham remembered Mirosevich arriving at headquarters two weeks prior – on his twentieth birthday. “So you know . . . .”
“Yes.” The boy soldier began to sob.
“I am truly sorry.”
Mirosevich set the bedpan aside and covered his face with his hands. “Yeah, me too,” he said between tears.
After a moment, Graham continued, “You have some decisions to make. We can get you on a hover transport vehicle headed for Fresno if that is what you want. I am not sure how easy transportation from there would be, but we could try to arrange something for you. Or we can make you comfortable here. Where are your nearest family members?”
“East Coast shelter,” Mirosevich managed.
Graham hesitated. “That’s . . . likely too far, I am afraid.”
“What about friends?”
Graham was silent as the soldier cried.
Mirosevich caught his breath, raised his head, and looked at Graham. “I guess I’ll stay here then.”
“I think that’s best.” After a moment, Graham continued, “I recommend morphine, but it’s your choice.”
“I want the drugs. Anything. Everything. The sooner the better. My lungs feel like they are about to explode. But can I call my mom and dad first?” His face again contorted into a heartbreaking mask of despair.
“Of course. I will arrange everything for you. And we will have someone sitting by your side throughout the process.” Graham’s throat tightened – “the process,” what a stupid thing to say.
“Thank you, sir.”
Graham saluted Mirosevich and replied, “On behalf of the United States of America, I thank you for your service and sacrifice, soldier.”
Then, Graham spoke with the chief of medicine for a few minutes before leaving the infirmary.
He walked straight to his quarters, grabbed a jar of white lightning, and poured a heavy shot into a coffee cup. It was the only thing he could do at that moment. He had only met Mirosevich once before, but it still hurt. The med staff would take good care of the kid in his final hours, but that was just cold comfort for the dying soldier.
Graham raised his mug and made a silent prayer for a painless death. After taking the shot, he thought back on all the men he had seen die; it was no small number. Then he thought about the coming years of widespread pain and death. Mirosevich was just one of the many hundreds of thousands who were slated to die before their time – he just happened to have cut the line. And maybe that was for the best in the end. At least that’s what Graham needed to believe; he had to get Mirosevich’s desperate, weeping, blood-stained eyes out of his head before returning to Peggy Lee.
He took another shot and then brushed his teeth. As he walked toward the mess hall to collect Peggy Lee, Ian, and Charley, the booze started to kick in. A familiar warmth ran the length of his body; he could do this.