Life was cheap. Jhenai considered the value of her own existence as the tiny light danced along the barcode on the back of her neck. It came with a tingle and a pit in her stomach.
After the sensation faded, she turned around and stared ahead. Her right eye met the light next, then her left. She needed a moment for her irises to refocus again.
"Bring the skirt higher," a voice said in her ear.
Her ample bosom was already threatening to fall out of this ancient skin-tight top. But when she failed to comply, the red light appeared in her line of vision once more.
Therefore, she swallowed down her reservation and hiked up the black skirt.
She supposed this was the value put on her life—the price of this outfit.
Behind her, the door to the cylinder slid open. That wasn't necessarily a means of escape.
"Prisoner one four six requesting reactivation," she begged.
A voice pounded in her right ear. "Twenty-four hours granted."
That gave her pause. She bit back a grunt and tried to engage the voice again. "Prisoner one four six requests clarification. I was permitted forty-eight hours previously."
"And previously, you failed."
Never mind the humiliating outfit or the awful and vivid color of the light blue top that would make her stand out like a very easy target, this time's allotment was cruel.
"Prisoner one four six requests a reevaluation. I was previously granted forty-eight hours. That is a set time."
Once she exited, there would be no means of negotiation.
He was being stubborn. That gave her hope. "Hal, hon—"
"Your fixation with this corpse is strange. Referring to me as honey one more time will result in a harassment complaint, thus extending your sentence. You've been warned. Now get out."
Jhenai waited, scrambling for a counter argument.
Finally, she said, "If you were just a corpse, you wouldn't care how I refer to you."
When Hal didn't answer, she allowed herself a smile.
Her arm tingled and she examined her right wrist to see the numbers rise momentarily instead of drop as her sentence dwindled.
Six months. He'd added six months.
"That's petty." Twenty-four hours. She couldn't extend her arm far in the all-white cylinder but she managed to type on her right forearm, entering in the second countdown. "I accept the terms." She asked, "Who is my tether?"
"You get no tether."
Panic flooded her until Hal added, "But your husband is on the other side of this assignment."
The blue top ended above her navel, the skirt started below, both less than ideal for the tethering belt. Rather than dwell on the aesthetics, she did something ill-advised and brought the black tethering band around her left wrist.
"Leave the shoes," Hal informed her.
She'd figured as much.
Once she turned to face the open door, she asked, "Did you get my gift?"
Her arm tingled again and she looked down to see the number rise. Only a day.
The absurdity of it all made her scoff.
From the black band on her right wrist, she tugged a small dot which extended into a thin wire. It could tether to anything. Almost anything.
One step took her out of her cell and into a frigid morning. Immediately, she clutched the silver railing on the hallway wall. In her left hand, she slid the wire along the metal banister as she inched down the corridor. Several people in heavy boots and proper clothing stomped past her. One or two glanced her way. A tethered couple nearly paused before her until the man shook his head to his companion and they walked on.
Getting to the proper room took thirty minutes out of her precious twenty-four hours.
When she finally reached the hall to see the lone guard dressed in yellow, she let out a held breath.
"Nai!" Caleb rushed her, grabbing for the wire. "That prick. He did it on purpose. They said someone'd tether you."
Hal was playing tricks. Good.
Caleb shoved the wire into the belt around his waist. Jhenai stood to her full height. Their pace became a bit better.
"Take it easy," Caleb soothed. "In fact, let me carry you."
"No. That's too risky. Let's just get into the room."
Forty minutes. Wasted.
Once the main lab door closed, Jhenai let out a sigh.
The silver tethering wire snaked back to the black band affixed to her wrist.
"I'm telling you," Caleb complained, "it's not right. None of this is fair."
Jhenai held his face and he calmed. Getting him worked up wouldn't help anyone.
"How is our hero?" she asked.
The once busy reanimation lab now sported a skeleton crew. Other than the two of them, three doctors remained.
Now that she could walk freely, Jhenai rushed to the cryo-bed and peered down at the messy brown hair and pale face.
Caleb joined her, putting his left hand on the small of her back. "Though I can't complain about the outfit, kinda hard to ignore why you've got it on."
Jhenai reminded him, "Hal said it gave off the best results."
"Sure, he did." The stubble of his shallow beard brushed against her skin as he put his chin to rest on her shoulder. "I still can't believe...this is the guy."
This was the guy. The one responsible for their entire world. Their entire existence. As of now, the only person alive worth anything.
So when Caleb snapped his fingers and a blade slipped from his wrist, which he caught, Jhenai held his hand.
Caleb met her gaze then sighed. "I'm telling you, offing him and letting an Upper consume his brain for the knowledge is a better risk."
Jhenai took a step back, inching him away from the cryo-bed as well. "This is no time for jokes."
The muscles of his broad body relaxed. He nodded finally, his eyes hopeful when he asked, "How long you out for?"
She hesitated then answered, "Eight hours."
He stomped once and the room vibrated.
Jhenai hurried to hold his strong arms. "Shh. This assignment is the only reason for my release. Besides, eight is better than none."
"It is none! You—"
"Sir, ma'am," a doctor called from the other side of the cryo-bed, "we're ready to proceed."
Jhenai followed her cue and took the lab coat handed to her. This time around she was sure to check the name badge.
Caleb admired it. "Kinda nice seeing my last name preceded by doctor."
The rare joy in his voice had Jhenai smiling. "Hopefully it'll fool not just you." She slipped the coat on and began doing up the buttons.
He caught her hand and that reminded her of the purpose of the clothing.
"Right. I just felt a little cold." Calling on Hal in Caleb's presence was risky, but she didn't have a choice. "Medic Haller, has the route changed?"
Caleb's jaw clenched as expected.
What Jhenai hadn't counted on was the silence.
Her face warmed and she tried again. "Medic Haller?"
"Oh. So he's there?" Hal's voice came with amusement. "I'd reassigned him."
Jhenai risked focusing on Caleb. At the scowl, she smiled wide. "Medic Haller says the route's the same—"
"It's changed to route B—"
"But I'll change it to route B," Jhenai told those who were in her presence and not tuned into her earpiece.
"Reanimation process commencing," one doctor announced. "In ten, nine...."
Jhenai gave Caleb a forced smile and he understood.
Once he stood at a distance, she brushed herself off and waited. The first stance she took didn't feel right so she tried again. Bosom pushed out, and short skirt hiked high, she waited.
Two blue eyes blinked awake. They became wide at first, as always, then wild with fear.
Jhenai leaned over and greeted. "Welcome to the future!" She waited and sure enough, the spaced brows furrowed. That was also according to plan. "I am Jhenai Haller. Your personal medic."
Someone waved a hand before her and she looked up in time to see a doctor point at his own name badge.
Realization dawned on Jhenai who grabbed her own name tag. She'd said the wrong name.
Though fearful, she forced herself to look down at her new charge and smile.
"How do you feel?"
As he scanned what he could see of his surroundings, she was discreet in unhooking the name tag. She tossed it under the cryo-bed by the time the man sat up.
"Future?" His voice wasn't as hoarse this time. He'd had plenty of practice. "How many years in?"
"Roughly two hundred," she announced. But she could hear it, the panic in her tone. This was bad.
"Calm down," Hal said. "You are instructed to proceed. A new name tag is on its way. Keep him talking." He paused then added, "You can do this, Jhen."
A sense of warmth spread through her. It might have been a simulation that was using that nickname. That didn't matter. It worked.
With renewed calm, Jhenai held out a hand for the man and he stepped out of the bed naked.
He gave her the once over then cleared his throat. "Um, could I get some clothes?"
"Give him your coat," the voice in her head said.
Smiling wide, Jhenai slipped from the white fabric and brought it over the man's shoulders.
"Would this be all right?"
The blush was a thing of wonder.
"Good. These are the best results so far. Get him away from the bed. Try to block the second subject. Remember. Don't let him see—"
"Is that Evan?" The man took a shaky step but steadied. Upon seeing who was behind the glass of the next bed over, he shot toward it. "That son-of-a-bitch is here, too?"
Jhenai jumped before him, putting both hands on his chest. "Calm down. We are not allowed to destroy these pods. Only reanimate them."
"Get him under control. Imagine he was me."
Hal's words gave her pause but she regained her senses and held the man's face.
"Focus on me. Look into my eyes and believe me when I promise you, there is no way on earth Evan Mortice, a warmonger, is getting reanimated."
In time, the man calmed but met her gaze. "Then why keep him?"
Hal's voice pounded in her ears. "Tell him the truth for now."
"Because he's as responsible for making us as you are, sir. We cannot deny that."
The man took a step back, stunned. "What? It—it worked? It's stable?"
Jhenai fought back her panic. She'd have to show a demonstration this time as well. But was worth the risk, especially in this room.
She looked past him to the doctor and said, "Deactivate my implant dampener."
When the weight of her body lifted, she needed no confirmation to know she was no longer restricted.
The tethering coil on her arm drew her focus but that would be too difficult to explain. Instead, she took a deep breath and extended her arms.
Once she rose off the ground, the man gasped.
"It worked! It worked?" He rushed her and grabbed her arms.
She was sure to land and looked past him to the doctors who immediately reengaged the dampener.
While she allowed him to hold her arm and check her pulse, she counted down the seconds until the heavy weight returned and she could breathe easy again.
"I've told you before not to do that," Hal chided.
He had. Again and again but those were the only times where the subject believed quickly. With just eight hours to spare, she needed his trust fast.
"Wow," he marveled, scanning the meager crowd. "So everyone's a superhero now? Everyone?"
Jhenai forced a smile but it couldn't amount to much. "Well...yes. We are." The virtual Implant was supposed to be a revolutionary breakthrough; for a time, it was. "But everyone having superpowers wasn't quite what anyone expected. You are the last human alive without one. And we need you to save us."