Hot Iron: Part 4

7.

Kennedy was pulled from Mendez’s room by one of the police officers and directed back into the conference room. She found herself face to face with another suit so sharp it cut her retinas. The man gestured her to sit. Unlike before, half the room’s lights were on. She’d been unable to pin down many of the first group’s features, but this was different, more personal.

He looked a little older than her, a slight gray in his hair, but evidently premature given his youthful features. His posture and stance indicated a formal training. Military, she guessed, or something government. He was clearly a subordinate though, his tone said as much.

“Miss Hart,” he said around the table’s corner from her. He slid forward a tablet computer and something that looked like a cell phone. After thumbing it a few times, he straight to business. “Melissa Fannon is not allowed to know of the true nature of her brother’s injuries. Were it to leak, it might jeopardize ongoing operations by the NCPD, FBI, and NSA.”

Kennedy was flabbergasted, “Uhm, okay. But do you really expect to contain this? I mean, the net’s already flared up.”

He cleared his throat, “We know. But net outrage lasts the length of a news cycle. In two or three days, they’ll have something else to be up in arms about. They’ll focus on that, and this will be forgotten by the general public.”

“But people already know.”

He put up a dismissive hand, “They think they do. What they have are thin corroborations by other net users that could just as easily be a lie.”

“And the satellite photos? The seismographs? What about those? Isn’t that evidence?”

He sighed and rubbed his forehead, “Miss Hart, please, this isn’t why we’re here.”

“It’s why I’m here,” she countered coldly. “I have a patient whose family is now his legal proxy. She needs to be fully aware of his injuries and their cause to act as that proxy.”

He fingered the tablet to a text file, slid it over, “My superiors have anticipated as much. This is your cover story. It’s as close to the truth as can be allowed to better facilitate the ruse.”

She took the tablet with a hint of scorn, “So why is this necessary?”

He readjusted himself, lifted a briefcase form the floor, and fished out a few pieces of paper, “That is the other reason I am here. Apart from that information, which you should defer to when asked specific questions, there is this.”

He slid over an NDA sheet, similar to HIPAA form. Beneath it, an “X” was marked beside “Signature.” Half the document was legalese so foreign she couldn’t pronounce it. The other half was clear enough to say, “sign here, say nothing, or lose your job.”

She forced back actual anger, “I don’t know who you think you are Mister–”

“Barnet,” he said. “Garrett Barnet.”

“Mister Barnet,” she fumed. “And I don’t know who you work for, but I’m not about to compromise my ethics until I am told, in plain English, what the hell’s going on.”

“Sign the form, and I can tell you everything you want to know. Otherwise, my superiors may have to assign someone else to the job. Given what you already know, they may pursue legal action against you.”

She was dumbstruck, “But I don’t know anything.”

His professionalism fell away. “May I make a suggestion?” She was stunned by the shift, silent. “Sign the form. The US Government is an immovable brick wall of bureaucracy, but it also has the power here. If you don’t sign that sheet, it will drown you in legal trouble so thick and deep you may never get out.”

She stared at him. There was no malice in his words. Rather, it seemed as if he truly empathized with her. All the same, his eyes confirmed what he said as truth. If she chose not to sign, the legal headache would crush her brain until it oozed out her ears. She didn’t need it. She already had her patients, coworkers, and ex doing that well enough.

She finally gave in with a sigh, dug a pen from her pocket, “How is this not extortion?”

Barnet grimaced, “When it’s the government doing it, we call it patriotism.”

She scowled, scratched a signature, then shoved the page forward, “I want it noted I’m not doing this of my free-will but to keep my job.”

“Noted.” He slipped the page back into the folder, closed it, then looked to the tablet before her, “You’ll note the file before you contains “Eyes only” information. Things even I am not privy to. Understand that it means you will not be allowed to repeat anything not directly highlighted or notated. Is that clear enough?”

Again, she scowled, “I know how to read, Mr. Barnet.”

“Agent, actually,” he produced a badge that read “NSA.” “I’m with the NSA. I will act as liaison between you and the NSC, who is directing this operation.”

NSA? NSC? Operation?What the hell’s really going on here?

She didn’t exactly have a degree in acronym agencies, nor did she care to know much of them. She knew, however, that the NSA and NSC were the National Security Agency and Council respectively. Supposedly the NSC was the secret court always referred to by tabloids and net conspiracy theorists when blaming “them.” The NSA, on the other hand, was an agency responsible for protecting America– sort of like the CIA, but acting internally as opposed to externally.

At least, that was how she’d learned it. This made no sense though. In fact, the more she learned, the less sense it made. Why bring her in? Why involve her at all? Wasn’t she just another liability? Another possible leak in an otherwise frail pipeline of information? Moreover, if the NSA and NSC were involved, why not take her patients elsewhere? Rush may have been one of the top institutes in the nation, but there were others, with people who’d already been trained to deal with these things.

She saw he was waiting for her mind to finish working. She cleared her throat uncomfortably, “Uhm, okay… what operation?”

He checked his watch with the pointed gesture of an older man, “Have you eaten lunch, yet?”

“Huh?”

He rose, folder in hand, “Come on, my treat.”

Her eyes widened in confusion, her mouth once more agape in speechlessness.

8.

Before Kennedy knew what was happening, her body was propelling her mind toward an elevator. Barnet led the way with a sort of saunter, like a man with no place better to be and no cares in the world. That this was actually the opposite of truth neither showed nor stirred resentment in him. He was well-trained, personality crafted so that despite having a million other things on his mind and to be doing, he appeared content in taking the nurse to the cafe for lunch.

Presently they sat with trays of food, sequestered to a quiet corner of the cafe. The place was closing up after the dinner rush. Only a few people were left in it to clean, though at least one or two would be on duty through the night to ring up food for anyone wandering in.

Barnet sat with a tuna-salad sandwich in his hands, Kennedy across from him with a Reuben. He took careful bites to avoid losing any food on himself or elsewhere. Kennedy watched with fascination; he somehow managed to negotiate even the messiest of foods into complying with his particular brand of cleanliness. Meanwhile, she shoveled food in like a person who might have only moments to do so.

She finished first, sat digesting while Barnet made progress through his sandwich. He paused to suck soda through a straw, then spoke casually between bites, “You know, I never get what people say when they talk about hospital food tasting bad. This is probably one of the best sandwiches I’ve had.”

Kennedy threw back a gulp of water to wet her throat, “Maybe you need to get out more.”

He gave laugh, smiled charmingly, “Trust me, I’ve been out. It’s all the same. In or out.”

“Can we just get to the point? I don’t mean to be rude, but I have a lot of work to do.”

He finished the sandwich with a quick pair of bites, then washed it down. He tossed a crumple napkin into the center of his plastic plate. “I understand your frustration. You’re worried, being worked over by the government, and you’re afraid your job’s on the line.”

“Isn’t it?”

His head tilted sideways in affirmation, “That’s not really my point.”

She pinched at the corners of her eyes, “I just want to know what’s really going on here.”

He pulled the cell-phone like device from his pocket, thumbed it for a moment, “Alright, it’s safe to talk.” He set it aside and Kennedy saw something running; an oscilloscope with spiking waves and various numbers along its side.

Barnet pushed his tray aside, leaned in attentively, “In 2020 the CIA infiltrated a group of European revolutionaries. This group was run mostly by former IRA members–”

“IRA?”

He nodded, “Irish Republican Army. These weren’t soldiers though, more… militant extremists. They’d terrorized London and most of the UK through the 80s and 90s. Their children were raised to do the same. The CIA knew this. So it sent in agents to infiltrate a new IRA-like organization that had been formed. The idea was to turn possible leadership into lethal, freedom fighters. In other words, take those most feasible for it, and use them as external contractors directed by the CIA.”

“When you say–” she looked around, lowered her voice. “Contractors, you mean killers, right?”

He winced, “Think James Bond killers, not Jack the Ripper killers.” She didn’t see much of a distinction, but knew what he meant. “The idea was to use these assets for complete deniability. By doing so, the CIA could ensure two things: First, that the group disbanded; neutralized without a shot fired, and second; that they could continue counter-terrorist work in Europe without the threat of discovery.”

Kennedy wasn’t much for spy games, but she saw the logic Barnet was suggesting, “And since Extremists are well-known as such, they’d have been better cover than say, a CIA agent with a forged background.”

Barnet was impressed. It showed through in a small smile that fell away to speech. “Exactly. The problem was, as is usual, free-agents are generally just that… free. However carefully monitored, they’re also out of control by their very nature. What the CIA had done was taken rabid dogs and turned their sights onto meat they’d gain from in feeding to them. No one in the agency ever had delusions. They knew even in the beginning that no-one would hold the free-agents’ leashes. But that was the point. Turn a clandestine system inward, and let it tear itself apart.

“Did it work?” Kennedy asked out of curiosity.

Another tilt of his head, and a twinging grimace, “Yes and no. Eventually, all those free-agents did their jobs. Once finished with them, the CIA’s director of operations ordered hits on all of them. Bear in mind, this was twenty years ago, we were both just out of diapers.” She raised a brow at him, but he continued unimpeded, “Only one of those free-agents eluded the CIA, and continues to do so.”

Kennedy’s face went blank. Time seemed to pause. Her mind worked through everything she’d learned to separate fact from absurdity. It was all absurd, although that didn’t necessarily mean it was lies as well. When she was younger, the NSA had nearly imploded from information leaks. Whistle-blowers revealed massive amounts of intelligence to the world. Everything from agent dossiers to country-wide surveillance monitoring informed people just how much trust their governments had in them. It turned out “zero” was the answer.

Nonetheless she had difficulty seeing his story’s relevance, let alone its connection to her patients. Something of this confusion must have etched into her face, because Barnet watched her closely, then answered as if she’d asked him the question.

“How this relates to your patients,” he said pointedly. “Is simple. Officers Torres and Mendez were injured in Operation Hot Iron: a raid on a heroin manufacturing facility. That operation, as it turns out, was a sting set up by myself and several of my superiors in the hopes of finding the last, remaining free-agent.” The puzzle piece that fell into place homed Kennedy’s eyes on Barnet’s. “We believed, like the NCPD, that the free-agent would be found in the facility that was raided. Instead, several mercenaries from across Europe and America were arrested, or killed along with Mendez and Torres’ SWAT team.”

Kennedy re-wet her mouth with another drink. “I’m guessing the story doesn’t end there.”

He nodded in affirmation, “None of the arrests, as of yet, have given us anything useful on our target. However, we believe the SWAT team was deliberately targeted. Why and how are still a mystery, but we believe the only way anyone could have known the raid was coming was through a mole. In that case, they would have known both Mendez and Torres would be present. If, in fact, the free-agent hopes to exact revenge on the two officers, he will have to send someone here or come himself. The NSA and CIA both doubt the latter. Instead, we hope to intercept whoever comes on his behalf and follow them back to him.”

Kennedy was beginning to see how she fit in. “And the best way to draw them out is to make them think the officers are dead. Then they can send someone to confirm it.” Barnet nodded, impressed by her insight. She shook her head, “What I don’t understand, is why you think either of them would be worth targeting for retribution.”

He rose casually from his seat, motioned her along to clear their trays of trash, set them atop bins. “Torres was a solider, Army Ranger regiment. What most people don’t know about the last war in the Middle East is that it’s still being waged. Thirty years later, we’re still running ops in the region. Torres was involved in one after the formal end of the war.”

They turned for the cafeteria entrance, passed the table as Barnett retrieved his cell-phone, slid it in his pocket with the app still active.

They pushed through double doors into a drab, off-white hall, “Torres’ squad was ordered to clear a compound. The Free-agent’s partner– in more ways than one– was killed during the fighting. We believe this to be one of the causes of the NCPD being targeted for infiltration.”

They reached the elevator and rode it upward. Just before it deposited them at the ICU, Barnet pulled the emergency stop, produced the cell-phone and checked it. Reassured the app was still running, he produced a folded photograph from his pocket.

He presented it to Kennedy with a grave look, “Kieran Walters. Burn this image into your mind.”

She stared at the man; in his late-fifties, with short-cut, graying hair and something definitively European about him. He almost sneered at the camera, but she suspected he had no reason to. It appeared to be an enlarged passport photo. Were she not commanded to study his features so intently, she’d have forgotten what he looked like almost immediately.

When Barnet felt certain the image had been imprinted, he pocketed it. “You are the only one to know what this man looks like. From here on out, you are to screen everyone that visits both officers.” He produced a second cell-phone, handed it over. “It’s not a phone. It’s a scanner designed to look like one. It will perform a 3-D Infrared scan of a room and its occupants, as well as hack any nearby devices– cell-phones, computers, etcetera. Keep it charged, and pull it out to check it, then press the side button to scan any visitors.”

She eyed the scanner, then Barnet. He was preoccupied returning the elevator to service. It started up again, let out a moment later onto the ICU. He let her step out, then held the door open with a hand. The other reached into his pocket for a business card with a series of dots and dashes on it,.

“If something happens, press and hold the phone’s button in this pattern. It’s Morse-code for SOS. The device will automatically connect you to me. I’ll already be on my way. Please use it only for emergencies.”

He stepped back. She called quickly, “What if it’s not an emergency?”

He grinned and the doors slid shut.

Hot Iron: Part 3

5.

It was roughly 4 AM when Kennedy finally shoved her way into her apartment. She’d had nothing but complications through-out her shift, most related to establishing the team for her two, new patients. When she finally fell into bed an hour later, the sun was just beginning to rise behind her blacked out windows. Working the night shift had forced more than a few, anti-day behaviors on her, and covering her windows with blankets was hardly the most offensive of them.

She slept roughly two hours before her cell-phone vibrated beside her bed. It buzzed loud enough to echo through the wood. She slapped a hand for it, put it to her face, “What?”

A voice sounded, “Kennedy?”

She hated that voice. Everything about it. Especially now. He’d been gone a month with his new slut. Whatever he needed could wait.

“Kevin, I worked all night. Call me when you’re dying. Maybe then we’ll talk.”

“Kennedy don’t!” he pled.

“I’m hanging up now,” she griped.

“I just wanna’ get my–”

The phone cut out. She checked her watch, realized she was still dressed for work, then moaned.

He wanted his stuff back. The problem was, it was probably somewhere in Indiana by now, shoved into a landfill by garbage trucks and bulldozers. The same place he belonged. She managed to sleep a few more hours, and as usual, dreamed of him. Or rather, dreamed about him.

They’d been together for years, a decade almost. They’d finally decided to tie the knot one night, high on something Jamaican and more naked than not. She’d been entangled in sheets, coursing with fresh ecstasy when booze or grass made him finally pop the question. It was six months before they set the date. Another year after that and here they were.

Like before, she dreamed about saying no. Somehow seeing the future, she rejected the drunk, stoned proposal. The reality was, she’d said yes, then climbed atop him to pump their brains out. At least that part was good, anyhow. The rest was a nightmare– an even worse nightmare than the near-nightly dreams about being unneeded at work, only to come home and find him pumping someone else’s brains out on the kitchen counter. He was just lucky she didn’t own a gun. For that matter, so was the slut.

She tossed and turned while various incarnations of the “no” path of life melded with everything else the human brain could concoct. When she awoke, she’d only remembered a feeling of dread. The rest would settle with the hallucination-inducing chemicals common to sleep, if that’s what she could call it, anyway. She never felt rested anymore.

The same morning routine that followed Kevin’s departure from her life began her day; a quick shower, a few tears, coffee at the table, and an open laptop to surf the latest waves sweeping social media.

The first hints that something big had happened came from forums she frequented. The posts were days old by now, but that had only given the armchair detectives more time to work. Such was the nature of the internet that anyone with even a scrap of confidence and an ISP thought themselves an expert. Most of the time, this showed up in places where arguments were most easily driven by opinion– who was the latest, most popular celebrity, who’d win the next Stanley Cup, or whether well-done steak was truly an affront to the Gods. They were innocuous, harmless things.

This was different though. It was always easy to tell the speculation from the evidence-bearing news. When it was real, a site’s admins often got involved, usually pinning the post to the site’s front page for all to see. In some cases, even live RSS feeds would be linked to act as aggregates for all information on a given topic. Mostly those were reserved for dire situations still unfolding as posted. Everything from natural disasters to terrorist attacks were covered, and now it was obvious something had recently occurred.

The pinned post and dead RSS feed at the top of one of her frequent favorites was posted as someone posing a question: “Just heard an explosion outside work. Neo-C piers. Nothing obvious yet. Anyone?” The thread had been up forty hours. She must have missed it during her last, morning net-scour, but it was one of the big ones now. Hundreds of thousands of comments, millions of views; the sort of thing referred to as viral.

To scroll through the comments, she’d have had to miss the giant blotter comprising the first, full-page of the post. Bullet points with random times from the last two days broke up the otherwise mile-long wall of text. They were cold, hard facts, corroborated by a dozens of blue, external links.

She skimmed them, then read them over in depth. Together, a picture formed that became clearer when combined with her last shift: Something had happened on a pier, somewhere in new-Chinatown. The place had been established as a shipping port, then gravitated to for its open, bazaar-like qualities. Sometime in the evening hours two nights prior, an minor tremor registered on seismographs. The lone incident was inexplicably isolated to a small part of northern Chicago, and the armchair detectives had seized it as an opportunity to jump into action. Various private and public satellite and instrumentation sites confirmed some type of explosion with thermal, seismic, and eyewitness data.

The end picture was obvious; something had exploded underwater at the “Happy Fish” imports pier. Eyewitness reports had been suppressed on-scene by police and emergency crews, but a few had made it out. It was enough to tell of rumors of a SWAT raid. Men and women in riot gear had breached a facility, covered by a sharpshooter inside a police perimeter on the water, but nothing else tangible had been concluded.

Kennedy didn’t need years of med-school training to add two and two. All she needed was her two patients and the rumors. Only she could confirm what most suspected. While no-one on the net knew for sure what had happened, Kennedy did. She thought to post, then remembered she’d been bound by the NSA and FBI’s suits to keep her mouth shut. More importantly, HIPAA ensured if she opened her mouth she’d lose her license as well as end up in jail– probably for high-treason.

There was a certain, ominous tone to that thought. She liked it even less than she admitted. Whether from intuition or pure logic, she sensed things had only begun to go sideways.

6.

Melissa Fannon, formerly Melissa Torres, was Juan Torres’ only sibling. His elderly sister by only a pair of years, she’d weathered time better than he’d managed to. She was a bombshell of Hispanic descent with something vaguely Italian mixed in. She held herself to the highest standard of beauty, spending upwards of three hours each day carefully primping, preening, and making-up her face. To any onlookers, she was Miss Universe without the plastic and a heavier head.

Which is why, when she entered to find her brother covered in bandages, her cries shattered the hearts of all those around. A feeling akin to a porcelain doll shattering on a floor swept through the ICU. There and then, the four guard-officers exchanged looks, fidgeted from the shrill cries emitting from Torres’ room.

Kennedy was already inside, standing at the bed, and watching the shattered doll’s make-up run. She swallowed acid to place a lone hand on Melissa’s shoulder as she wept. To the woman’s credit, her tears didn’t last long, but it felt like an eternity to Kennedy. She was frozen in place, too human to leave, too professional to cry. It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever seen, but it ranked, and learning to compartmentalize work and emotions was the only thing that kept her in one piece.

Emotions were a good thing for a nurse dealing with the elderly, children, or clinical-work. In an ICU, ER, or Burn unit, emotions were a good way of killing someone. Most medical work was exact, a science of numbers requiring as much logic as clear-headedness. Emotion was its antithesis. A misplaced thought might incur a slight over-dose of a medication that turned lethal when combined with others. Anything more was a certain mistake to come. Being angry and misreading a chart could kill as easily as putting a gun to someone’s head. Kennedy didn’t like that fact, but she held herself all the more rigidly to its truth.

She retained her composure long enough to let Melissa ease out of her own grief, then pointed her toward a washroom. When she was certain the woman had gone, she exhaled a heavy sigh and choked down her emotions to keep focused. She gave herself a full minute to straighten out, then reset her face into its usual passiveness.

She and Kevin had fought about that for years; being been able to turn her emotions off and on meant she often did it without realizing it. Being in her line of work didn’t help. Perhaps it was the frequency with which she was required to do so that it so autonomous at times. Whatever the cause, he’d often insulted her as being “Robotic” and “Cold.” The truth was, when they fought, she flipped the mental switch and compartmentalized. Most times, she did become cold, logical, and right.

Kevin hated that, had never been able to accept being wrong, and was the type of person confirmation bias had been discovered from. He was always trying to find or twist facts to his point, able to turn a perfectly normal debate into a colossal argument when proven wrong. He was thick-headed, stupid to a fault, and narrow-minded. What else could he be if he expected to pound some whore in her kitchen without her finding out?

Kennedy hated him for that. She hated him for a lot of things. Most of all, she hated that he continued to creep into every facet of her mind.

She went about checking vitals as she considered it. The motions were autonomous, robotic in a way. That was the point; learn your job well, and be able to do it in your sleep. Problem was, it gave her time to think. Time to think meant revealing the roots of their relationship burrowed through-out her life as if some disgusting parasite. Its countless arms and small feelers extended and inlaid over the folds of her brain and life, attached via hooks that held on past death. She’d managed to cut away the beast itself by throwing Kevin out on his ass, but every now and then, disgorged feelers appeared, hidden in places she wasn’t even aware had existed.

I’ll still be finding ’em when he’s dead. Bastard.

The thought gave way to a check of the time as she thumbed Torres’ vitals into a charting tablet. The soft steps of heels clicked a syncopated rhythm over her thumbs as they made their way into the room. Kennedy was momentarily fascinated by Melissa’s recovery. She’d managed to reverse from nuclear fallout to bombshell with astounding quickness. Aesthetically, she looked better now than before.

Melissa sat in a chair beside the bed, held Juan’s hand in hers, “I’m sorry for my outburst.”

Kennedy feigned sympathy, an unfortunate necessity of having to compartmentalize, “I understand. Has the doctor spoken to you?”

She gave a small nod, “I know he’s being kept in a coma. You’re worried about some sort of shock?”

Kennedy was professional again, “Injuries of this nature require we keep the nervous system stable and unresponsive to the pain. At this stage, it would send him into shock and his vitals would go hay-wire. It’s safer this way.”

Melissa gave another small nod, eyes on her brother’s hand, “The doctor said as much. How long will he have to be like this?”

Kennedy’s mouth pulled into a half-grimace, “I honestly can’t say. We can keep a coma going as long as necessary. In his case, a few weeks, maybe longer. He’ll require skin grafts and other surgeries before he can be resuscitated.”

Melissa kissed Juan’s hand, then set it on the bed. She patted it, “I’ve been told to act as his legal proxy while he’s… like this. Will that be a problem?”

Kennedy considered it, “He has no spouse or other family?” Melissa shook her head. “Then no. I’ll be leading the team that sees to his needs, so if you need anything, it’s my job to help.”

She seemed to consider the question. There was a resigned look away that most would have taken for their signal to leave. Kennedy knew better. It was usually what family or patients did immediately before asking or relaying something vital.

Melissa suddenly met her eyes again, “Do you know– they won’t tell me– what happened?”

Kennedy swallowed hard. The words “National Security” came to mind. What did that mean in this instance? Melissa wouldn’t wait for her to figure it out. The longer she stayed silent, the more guilty she looked. She cleared her throat, did her best to evade saying anything specific, “The term is, “injured in the line of duty.” I can’t say more than that. I would like to, for your sake, but until I’m certain… I can’t risk my job. I’m sorry.”

Melissa frowned, “In the line of duty.” That’s more than I knew before. Thank you.”

Kennedy promised to return and offer any information Melissa might need then. She left the room, shut the door, then nearly doubled over with guilt. A stuttered breath made its way through her lips as she choked back tears.

Hot Iron: Part 2

3.

Kennedy Hart, a full-time nurse at Neo-Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, had seen just about everything someone in her occupation could. Between the ICU and ER units in a metropolis, she’d tended to her share of GSWs, horrendous accident victims, every type illness and infection known, and more than an abundance of O-Ds. In short, she wasn’t the squeamish type and had the chops to back it up.

She fast-walked toward the E-R doors in teal scrubs. Her brunette locks were wound up in a bun under an elastic band that bobbed from the half-nod she gave the receptionists. The sea of non-emergency admissions were fixated phones, tablets, and the large flat-screens inlaid into the walls, there to steal attention from those unlucky saps that deserved it more. Comprising more than half the ER’s visitors in the night, it left the unit short-staffed, rushed, and half its patients unstable and spilling over into ICU when they should’ve still been in the ER.

As usual, Kennedy would have to deal with it. She shoved her way through double doors as a buzzer unlocked them at her approach. The RFID chip in her hospital I-D, and its readers stationed around the facility, were probably the most useless, advanced form of technology they had. Funds had been appropriated from various, other places to install the readers. In the process, short-staffed units got overtime when they should’ve gotten new staff. Such was the way of the “industry” these days.

Kennedy emerged from a long hallway for the nurse’s station. Station was a liberal term. It was a desk stacked with black-screen charting tablets, and a pair of flat-screen monitors. Behind it on the wall was a second pair, massive in comparison, and probably costing more then Kennedy’s car. Subdivisions of vitals read out the two-dozen patients’ states networked in from their rooms. From here, a nurse could watch and chart the various EEGs, heart and O-2 monitors before shooting off and up the hall. There, she’d draw meds, pass them out, then double chart and check the patients again for “posterity’s” sake– in other words, to keep from losing her job to a network error.

Given her enormous school debts, the amount of time it had taken to attain her RN status, and the general ire of those she worked with, she found it difficult to believe anyone walking into her field was sane. She certainly didn’t feel like it anymore.

She grabbed a charting tablet off the desk, engaged its screen to thumb at it. Two, equally over-worked, and underpaid women watched with general disapproval. She was too young, too inexperienced to be in charge, or so they felt, anyway. Evidently, their superior felt otherwise. Kennedy loathed her for that.

“Two new admits?” She asked the older, grayer of the two women.

“Mhmm.” Her fingers tapped information into a digital form. “Man and a woman.”

“Severe Burns?” Kennedy said, flipping through the pages. “Who the hell sent us burn patients?” The woman only shrugged. “Christ, clocked in five minutes and already screwing me over.”

“That surprise you?” The less-gray woman asked.

“No, it pisses me off.”

She rounded for the patient rooms, tablet in-hand as she skipped through the last few hours of charts. The new admits had been stuck across from one another, nothing unusual, but certainly not something she’d expected. According to the information, they’d been admitted at the same time, moved from the ER, and into the ICU with orders to treat as burn-ward patients. That was impossible, especially on an understaffed ICU.

She rounded the hallway for their rooms. A line of police officers speaking in hushed tones were clustered through-out the hall between the patients’ rooms. They were packed densely enough Kennedy had to force her way through with a command. She sidled past badges and body-cameras, pushed her way into the first room.

According to her charts, the woman had been placed in a medical coma due to the severity of the 3rd degree burns on her back and side. Kennedy couldn’t see them directly, but the bandage wrapped along her side, back, and angled forward over her shoulder and chest, left no doubt of the severity of her state. The bandages would have to be changed every four hours, the wounds scrubbed, and the anesthetic drip replenished.

Kennedy fumed. There was no way in hell they were equipped to handle a burn victim of this magnitude. They barely had enough people to administer meds on schedule. The kind of intimate care required for a lone burn victim was extensive. Several people and powerful meds were needed to keep them stable, even to clean and re-bandage the wounds. Caring for two was going to be impossible.

Kennedy growled futility, checked the woman’s vitals as quickly as possible, and entered the information into the tablet. She noted the name “Mendez,” under the time, then pushed out and through the crowd for the other room.

The man was considerably worse off– in a way that stung Kennedy’s usually hardened heart. The whole right-half of his face was hidden under bandages, the left side streaked with debris wounds that reddened his olive skin. Little else on him was visible, save random, small bits of unaffected skin between bandages.

Kennedy swallowed hard, felt her chest tighten, then lifted the chart to read “Torres.” Her knees turned to rubber from sickness curdling in her gut. A shaking index finger trembled against the tablet to scroll through the information: Torres’ entire right-side and back had been scorched extensively, it said. The images accompanying the report were grisly. Freshly charred skin mingled with the burned impressions left by super-heated armor plates. According to the O-R report, he’d been operated on for four hours to extricate melted fabric and plastic from his wounds. It was a wonder he was alive, to say the least, but what the hell happened to him, and when? The report was days old.

She ran her quick check, then returned to the nurse’s station to make a call to a superior. When the woman answered she was quick to tell Kennedy someone was already headed down to explain things. The call ended immediately after.

Kennedy was dumbstruck, put off by a finality in the woman’s tone that held something more beneath. The only thing she could place it as was fear, but what scared a burnt-out nurse in one of the busiest hospitals, in one of the largest cities in the world? Kennedy wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t be good.

She turned for the hall and straight into a man with a suit cut sharp it made her eyes bleed. She was stunned. He pulled out a bi-fold wallet, flashed a badge that vaguely registered as FBI.

“Missus Hart?”

“Miss,” she corrected habitually. “Yes? Can I help you?”

“Miss Hart, would you come with me please?”

Kennedy glanced at the other nurses behind the station. They stared up, open-mouthed. Kennedy cleared her throat, stammered out a reply, then followed with a curious amble. The FBI man directed her into a room with other suited men and women, extended a hand to a offer her a seat, and shut the door behind him.

Kennedy eased into her seat, and the room sat together. A man at the head of table examined her for a long moment. Then, with a lean, he interlocked his fingers on the table, “Everything you’re about to hear is a matter of National Security, should any of this be repeated outside this room, you will be jailed and tried for high-treason. Do you understand?”

Kennedy stared.

4.

There was a literal, full minute of silence before Kennedy’s mouth shut and she stammered out a response, “Wh-what’s this all about?”

The man at the head of the table, his face cloaked in dim shadow, cleared a gravelly throat. Someone flipped a switch below the table, and a projection appeared in the middle of it. Two images, side-by-side, were repeated in four places, like a three dimensional cube connected at its vertical faces with the table forming their base. Judging from the ID-like images, and the obvious collars of NCPD uniforms, the two people projected were her patients.

She almost didn’t recognize Torres. It only worsened her gut-sickness. Combined with the clandestine feeling of the dark room, its air, and the people in it, she guessed things wouldn’t be getting better anytime soon.

The gravel-throated man all but confirmed her hunch as he began to speak. “The two patients currently occupying your ward are members of NCPD’s SWAT team. Several days ago, Officer Juan Torres conducted a raid on a suspected heroin refinery. The exact location is classified. We’ve been fortunate to retain media black-out, but several officers were killed in the explosion. It is our hope that we may work together to ensure these two officers do not suffer the same fate.”

A woman down the table, whose only identity lay in the overt confidence of her tone, continued from there, “Miss Hart, we believe these patients may be targeted for retribution by certain suspects or their associates. Given their states, and the care required, it is necessary to reallocate them, as well as their care-givers, to your ward from others units across the campus.”

“Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency hope you will accommodate us in this matter,” the man at the head of the table added. It sounded more like a casually veiled threat than anything.

The room settled back into a ringing silence. Kennedy still stared. She wasn’t sure what the hell was going on. Everything beyond “retribution” had been lost on her. Who the hell sought retribution against cops for something like this? And why’d she have to be worried about it? Moreover, why the hell did they choose the ICU of all places?

The questions kept coming. With no answers in sight, her mouth finally shut. She readied to reply as formally as possible, the situation evidently hinged less on her compliance than her job did. She let out a short breath, “I will, of course, do whatever I can to ensure the safety of my patients. But I’m charge-nurse… for tonight. My job, for tonight, is to act as liaison for the unit’s nurses and our superior. I don’t really have any power.”

“From here on out,” a man said nearer to her. His features were dark, eyes unyielding. He slid over a micro SD card, “You will act as liaison between us and those assigned to these patients. The staff directly in charge of them will take your word as ours. Your other duties are suspended until such time as the two officers make a full-recovery.”

Kennedy drew the tablet over with a hand, slotted the card to access it. A pair of folders appeared with patient ID numbers as the names. Those numbers were the same as the ones used by the various machines reporting their vitals and meds through the hospital’s network. Kennedy could ID both of the patients by them alone.

She gave an outward look to no-one in particular, “I can offer compliance in my case– I certainly can’t refuse anyway, but I have questions.” A resonant pause ushered her onward. “First of all, why have you assigned these patients here, instead of the burn-ward?”

A woman with slightly less confidence than the last explained, “We believe anyone seeking retribution will know to check N-C’s burn-wards. We hope placing them here will better obscure their presence and still allow for the care they require.”

The dark man nearer her added, “Upon closer inspection, you’ll see those files have been doctored. Their real names do not appear anywhere.”

She took his word for it, “Okay. Then my next question–”

The man at the head of the room anticipated her, “We believe the person, or persons, targeting these patients have access to internal NCPD and FBI intelligence. In order to draw them out, and ensure the officers’ survival, we must allow all agencies involved to believe both Torres and Mendez are dead.”

Her eyes widened, “There are thirty cops in the hallway, and you think you can contain this?”

Another man spoke, one that hadn’t yet. From his air of superiority and vernacular she suspected him a doctor, a veteran one at that. “That is why, once your team is in place, you will simulate a cardiac incident on both patients. We will prepare everything externally necessary. Otherwise, you will receive further instructions soon. For all intents and purposes, it will appear as if your patients have died.”

Kennedy’s eyes narrowed skeptically, her tongue sharp– the same way she was when she dealt with her ex that’d left her a week before their wedding. “You want me to fake their deaths!?” Another resonant silence. Awkwardness underlined it this time. Kennedy felt herself squirm involuntarily. She swallowed hard, “I… don’t see how I can refuse, but I’d like it noted I have reservations.”

“Duly noted, Miss Kennedy,” someone said.

She didn’t see them speak, was too busy wrapped in her thoughts. Losing not one, but two patients would look bad on her record. She could lose her job. More importantly, she could lose any hope of getting another if this assembly decided to take charade the next step and “investigate” her. If the media ever did get wind of it, she’d be black-balled faster than she could click a pen.

She spoke to this effect, “I can do what you request, but it will take time. More importantly, I can’t allow this to permanently affect my license. When this is over, any public knowledge must be officially retracted so my livelihood isn’t lost.”

The man at the head of the table replied firmly, “Your livelihood will not be permanently affected, but you may have to follow through with things. We will brief you in time on what that may require.”

With that, the projected image dissolved and the table rose together, save Kennedy. She was stuck in place for another, full-minute before she rose snatched up her tablet and followed after them. She stepped into the hall to find they’d disappeared. The one, confident woman remained behind to speak to an officer. Her hair was fine, golden threads in the lights that reflected off it in a wet-like sheen and gave her a glow that modestly accented tanned skin.

Clearly whatever she did officially allowed for more fun in the sun than being stuck in an ICU all day or night. Kennedy envied her for that alone.

She returned to the empty nurse’s station just as the uniformed officers began to disperse. Two men and women remained to stand guard on either side of the patients’ doors. The blonde woman clicked and clacked her way past along the hall, her face fixed with indifference, and her mind consumed by her work. Her heels sounded her progress past, then disappeared into a stairwell beyond a heavy, closing door.

The grayer of the two nurses appeared, snapping bright-orange, nicotine gum in her jaws, “S’that all about?”

Kennedy shrugged, checked her watch, “Hell if I know.”

Preview: Hot Iron

On the piers of Neo-Chicago’s Chinatown district, an underwater explosion rocks the night. The NCPD’s media-blackout forces locals to take to the net to report and speculate on the event, but one woman alone is set to learn the truth. Kennedy Hart, a nurse in Neo-Chicago’s Rush Medical ICU, arrives to find two burn-victims misdirected to her unit. What she learns soon after will have her fearing for more than her job…

From an action-packed SWAT raid, to a high-speed street pursuit, follow Kennedy as she pursues the truth behind the bombing, her new patients, and the governmental forces holding her job hostage. Will she keep to the terms of their clandestine deal, or will the forces they seek to thwart overwhelm them both? Find out, here, starting next week!

She rounded for the hall and into a man in a suit cut so sharp it made her eyes bleed. She was stunned. He pulled out a bi-fold wallet, flashed a badge that vaguely registered as FBI; “Misses Hart?”

“Miss,” she corrected habitually. “Yes? Can I help you?”

“Miss Hart, would you come with me please?”

Kennedy glanced at the two nurses whom stared, open-mouthed at their computers. She cleared her throat, stammered out a reply, then followed with a curious amble. He directed her into a room with other suited men and women, extended a hand to a offer her a seat, and the room sat together.

A man at the head of table watched her for a long moment. Then, with a lean, he interlocked his fingers on the table, “Everything you’re about to hear is a matter of national security, should any of this be repeated outside this room, you will be jailed and tried for high-treason. Do you understand?”

Kennedy stared.