replacement_heartThe thick, black veil parted and vivid dreams faded away to mere wisps of thoughts and remembrances. I was reluctant to let go. I tried to hold on. Dada kept calling my name and shining a light into my eyes.

“Maxim. Maxim!”

Squinting, I tried to sit up and turn away. A deep breath into cold lungs brought on a violent coughing fit. My chest ached. My head hurt. I felt as if I had just emerged from a prolonged journey in stasis. As the blood began to circulate, perspiration beaded up on my forehead.

My thoughts were a clutter of memories and dreams and rising panic. Dada leaned in with the light and I tried to shield my eyes. My focus was lost. The room spun. I tried to see through the haze, see past Dada. Who else was in the room? Was I safe? Where was I?

“Thirsty,” I whispered, causing my throat to tighten up. I put my hand to my throat and began coughing again. Dada grabbed my wrist and tried to put a cup in my hand. I jumped and knocked it away. Dada backed off. “It’s okay,” he said. “Take it easy, Maxim.”

The coughing continued. I leaned over the edge of the bed and spat. The flooring was bare concrete. Gray. My stomach turned and I wanted to vomit but there was nothing to disgorge.

Dada offered the water glass again. “Take it in sips.”

I took the glass. It was cool in my hands. The water was sweet and cold. Minutes passed. Dada sat in silence. Soon enough, I could see a bit better. This was a different room. It had the same gray walls and a metal door that looked thick, solid. There were no windows.

Dada stared at me, waiting.

“What’s happening here? How long was I out?” I asked in a whisper.

“Six days,” he replied.

I made no reply. I looked at Dada, trying to gauge his expression. His eyes betrayed nothing. I didn’t trust him.

“You’re safe here, Maxim. Things have changed. You’re under our protection now.”

“Safe? How can I believe that? Earlier, your team was ready to tear me apart. What’s different now, Dada?” I asked.

Dada leaned back in his chair and let out a long breath. “During our question and answer session, the medical scan showed us a number of biological anomalies that uh… let’s say… begin to support your claims.”

I remembered the bio-medical transmitter the doctor had attached to my chest. I reached up and felt below my collarbone. The device had been removed.

“Maxim, Dr. Klas was also able to show us a scan of some of your internal organs. Your heart, for instance, is tagged and coded with manufacturer’s data from a bio-technology group that has never existed. It’s also a quality replacement part that looks to be the product of a much more advanced medical system.”

I knew what he was referring to. I nodded slightly. “Yes.”

“Dr. Klas was quite impressed. He was upset that he couldn’t be here when you woke. You’re a bit of a medical marvel, Maxim.”

Thoughts of medical testing and organ harvesting suddenly flooded my mind. I wanted to leave the room, get out, just go. I opened and closed my left hand. It was strong again. The pain in my shoulder was nearly gone. Although I was still tethered by a tube to the drip bag above the bed, I could easily pull it free and walk away. I started to get up.

Dada immediately put his hand out to stop me. “Not just yet. Take it easy for now.”

“Don’t!” I shouted, swiping his hand away.

Dada backed off, hands up, palms facing.

“Please, Maxim. I know this may difficult to see but you are among friends here.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“I understand,” Dada said earnestly. “Give me some time.”

I was becoming angry. I felt trapped. I moved myself to the edge of the bed and began tearing at the tape that held the tube to the flat of my forearm. Dada watched, saying nothing. “Your people almost killed me, Dada.”

“And for that I apologize, Maxim. I can honestly tell you that there is a greater level of group control and cohesion with leadership. Unfortunately, that leadership died with Quinn.”

I felt my heartbeat increase slightly. The blood pumped. I took deep breaths. It felt good.

“Maxim, I need you to understand a few things. Things that are meant to keep you safe. Help us help you.”

“Help me?” I responded, sarcastically.

Dada clasped his hands and hung his head a little. “Yes. Help you, Maxim.” He gave me a look of concern and frustration. “I won’t lie. We intend to help you, in hope that you can also help us.”

“I don’t understand, Dada. Tell me what you want from me.”

Dada took a deep breath. “Maxim, you represent a great gift to us in our struggle against the Director and the LMO development program. There are a lot of unanswered questions…”

“Stop,” I interrupted. “What if I don’t want to answer your questions, Dada?”

“Maxim, we’re at a loss here. Our group is facing a high threat level with you. We have little time. We want a few answers, so that we can make the right moves.”

I was a gift. I was a prisoner. I was under scrutiny and being questioned. My anger and frustration were growing but I had to act calm, bide my time.

Dada sat in silence. I could tell that he was having trouble anticipating my reactions. He appeared slightly anxious, but controlled overall. I could easily see his curiosity. Most telling, however, was his patience. He wanted something.

“What do you want to know?” I asked.

A thin smile showed on his face. “Let’s start with the obvious. Tell me about what we saw on the medical scans.”

“It’s an advanced tissue engineering process.”

“Really? How does it work?”

“A blank scaffold is selected and then recellularized, using my own stem cells. Then they manually pump blood through the scaffolding. Along with the blood, chemical signals from the scaffold allow the stem cells to specialize into the needed tissue. The whole process takes about one month.”

“Amazing. Grow a new heart. Just like that. What else?”

“The major organs, principally. The heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs. All are common replacements.”

“Fantastic.” Dada replied, shaking his head and smiling. After a moment, he eyed me with a strange grin. “Where are you from, Maxim?”

“Which time?” I replied.

Dada appeared confused. “I don’t understand,” he said.

“Most recently, I came from an unknown region of deep space where I was stranded near a supermassive black hole. I was stuck there for nearly three months, battling LMOs that wanted me dead. At the end of it all, I traveled through a wormhole and exited here in Antarctica.”

Dada was dumbstruck.

“But I was born on a military base at Atsugi.”

“Japan?” asked Dada.

I nodded.

“I see,” Dada replied, knitting his brows, as if he was pondering something difficult or troublesome.

“What is it?”

“Well, there is a lot you should know, Maxim. But I believe that this is not the proper time. We should keep you sheltered for now…”

“Tell me,” I interrupted, sternly.

Dada paused. His eyes showed that there was much to say. Much that was difficult to say. He was conflicted.

“The world as you know it is gone, Maxim,” he began. “Although little is known about the origin of the LMO technology, the common story is that a great deal of it was brought here – to this very place – some seventy years ago. When the word got out that a massive amount of technology had simply fallen out of the sky, nations turned against one another and what ensued was an incomprehensible shower of mass destruction that left Antarctica the only habitable place on the planet.”

“Antarctica?”

“Yes. Bellingshausen. This is the last civilization on Earth.”

“Last civilization on Earth?”

“Maxim, I’m sorry.”

I was horror-struck. I could only think about all that I had been through, trying to free myself of the LMOs that had sent me plummeting into the outreaches of space and back again. I was now a prisoner of their time, their place, and their destructive nature.

“Dada,” I interrupted. “When I mentioned that I was from Japan, you gave me a concerned look. Why?”

Dada didn’t answer right away and I knew what was coming before he even spoke.

“Japan is completely gone, Maxim. It’s not even home to microorganisms now.”

I couldn’t believe it. It was too much pain. I shook my head. Madness. Absolute madness!

“This is too much, Dada. I think that I’m ready to have a walk around your city and check things out for myself.”

“Look, Maxim… I’m afraid we can’t let you do that.”

“What?” I shouted. I was furious. “I’m supposed to believe that everything I’ve ever known is simply gone. I’m in Antarctica now, captive, powerless, and under the control of crazed LMOs that oversee the last habitable place on Earth?”

Dada did nothing more than nod slowly.

“I have a few ideas of my own, Dada. And I think that you should let me go now.”

“That’s not a good idea, Maxim. It’s not safe to let you out of our care right now. Bellingshausen, especially here on the outskirts, is no place to wander unescorted.”

“It gets worse?”

“Maxim, I’m not going to mislead you or purposely lie to you. You’re a high-value asset to both sides of the battlefront. The controlling element at the heart of this city knows that you’ve touched down. They have your data patch and whatever information that it contains. Half the battle is already over. The only piece they don’t have is you. I can promise that the Director has unleashed his dogs. You’re being hunted at this very moment.”

“Hunted? By whom?”

“Hunted by what – would be the better terminology, actually. Aside from standard LMOs, the Director has created a number of unique horrors that do his dirty work.”

I was deep in disbelief. I had seen nothing like this in all the history of the LMO program. Nothing made sense.

Dada continued. “Some patrol the underground, sniffing out interlopers. Some crawl the streets…”

“That’s enough, Dada…” I interrupted.

“Maxim,” Dada shouted. “We’ve seen them! We’ve fought them! You can toss around all the disbelief you like, but outside that door are things you don’t want to run into.”

My anger and my impatience with this crazed story reached a fever pitch. As I was about to launch into a series of angry accusations, a loud knock came at the door. I jumped. Dada stood and moved to open it. Nervous, I began to get up and pull the tube from my arm. Dada held up his hand to me. I ignored him and worked the tube free from my arm.

“It’s okay, Maxim. Pili brought you something to eat.”

Dada unlatched the door and let Pili in the room. I looked at the mountain in the doorway. He wore the same expressionless face. Same cold eyes. He had a steaming bowl of noodles and broth in his hand. Even from across the room, the sight of real food made my stomach groan.

Pili crossed the room slowly. His massive form blocked out the light in the room. I had a flashback of my earlier interrogation and pushed myself back from his advance.

Pili stopped short of the bed. With a stretch, he offered the bowl to me. I was frozen, staring him in the eyes.

Dada spoke. “You can trust him, Maxim. I give you my word.”

Pili looked at Dada and back at me, nodding slowly.

I needed the food. I reached and took the bowl from his massive hand.

Pili’s broad face broke into a warm smile. “They make the noodles upstairs. They’re really good.”

I nodded to him, as I dug in and filled my mouth with hot food. It was the first warm meal I had eaten in months.

Pili backed up to the corner of the room. He shot Dada a concerned look.

“What’s wrong?” asked Dada.

“Parker says we have to move soon,” replied Pili.

Dada was immediately concerned. “Why?”

“There’s a lot of chatter, Dada, about movement in the substructure. There are crawlers in the underground.”

“Understood.”

Dada turned from Pili. His eyes darted back and forth for a moment. He looked up at me. “Maxim, we’re going to be moving soon. I need to talk to Ghia and Parker about an exit strategy for you. You’re going to have to prepare yourself.”

I looked at Pili and Dada. I was suspicious and I was hungry. Hunger won over.

“I can do that,” I said in reply.

Dada stepped outside the room and pulled the door shut. With my eyes on Pili, the massive guard standing silently in the corner, I ate slowly, savoring every bite. Dada said that we would be moving soon. Once I was outside this room, I would make my escape.

[Communication Relay: 21MAR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]