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Jayk winced at the sharp pin-prick to the tip of his finger.
The nurse noticed and flashed a quick, sarcastic smile as she squeezed his finger and siphoned off a few drops of the blood that welled out. “Funny how the big, tough guys seem to have the hardest time with this,” she said. “You’d think a little poke would be nothing to a soldier-boy.”
“You’d think,” said Jayk, absently. He thought of the last time he’d come in to donate blood, when Kip had been with him. Kip had nearly fainted more than once that day. “I’ve known people who would rather get in the way of a plasma beam than a needle.”
The nurse chuckled as she checked the readings on the blood sample. “Your iron levels are fine,” she said, scribbling a few notes and numbers onto his donor form. “Stick this card in the box over there.”
“Yep, thanks,” said Jayk. He didn’t need the instructions. He’d done this a dozen times before. Donating blood regularly had been mandatory for soldiers on leave or in the reserves ever since the Fargon had sprung up out of their subterranean caves in the heart of South America and this war had begun.
After sliding his card into the box, Jayk sat down in a flimsy plastic chair. Beside him sat a woman in her 50s with dyed-brown hair that was starting to show grey at the roots. She smiled politely at him and went back to reading her magazine, a celebrity gossip rag from a few months ago. The cover was proclaiming some scandal, accusing an actor of displaying Fargon sympathies. The story was assuredly more fiction than fact. No one actually opposed the war, did they? No one with their head on straight, anyways. Humanity had a right to defend itself.
Jayk leaned over and took a peek past the half wall that separated the waiting area from the donation chairs. Ten or twelve people were lying on the chairs, needles tucked into the insides of their elbows, with tubes running out of their arms into plastic baggies. Every time he came here, Jayk couldn’t help comparing the scene to a dairy farm: the cows line up, they go in, they get the milk sucked out of them, and then down the ramp they go to spend the rest of their day eating, making more milk for the next time. That was what the clinic always felt like to him: it was a farm, and he was a blood-producing cow.
Oh well. Jayk didn’t mind the process, really. He had blood to spare: he’d never gotten dizzy or lightheaded. He could walk out the door as soon as the needle came out and be fine, if they’d let him, but the nurses always made him stick around for juice and cookies. The younger ones especially seemed to enjoy waiting on him, flirting like little birds. It was the uniform that did it. Nurses flock to soldiers like mice to cheese.
A nurse stepped out of a little office and fished Jayk’s card out of the box. “Jayk Baskin?”
“Here, ma’am.” He followed the nurse into the room, and she closed the door and ran him through the long list of prying personal questions that every donor had to endure as a screening process for blood-borne illnesses. Five minutes and about thirty repetitions of “No, ma’am” later, the nurse initialled her approval onto Jayk’s form and directed him to the next waiting area.
There was a longer line-up here. Jayk counted six people ahead of him, so he made himself as comfortable as he could and looked up at the TV on the wall, where a price-guessing game show was playing. He had always been terrible at those. He hated shopping.
After about fifteen more minutes of waiting, his turn came up. A nurse in her mid-thirties wearing narrow glasses and a clean, new pair of scrubs fumbled with his card for a few seconds before reading out his name.
Jayk stood, and she smiled at him. “Do you have a preference for which arm to use, Jayk?”
“Left usually works better,” said Jayk.
“Okay, then, hop up into this chair over here.” The nurse led him over to the chair and swung down the left armrest. She pulled up a stool and sat on it. “Make a fist,” she said, “and hold…” She prodded at the inside of his elbow with her fingers, concentrating hard as she tried to find a vein.
“Done this many times before?” said Jayk.
“Not for a while,” said the nurse. “You can tell?”
“Well… This part usually only takes a few seconds.”
The nurse blushed a little, and kept prodding. “It’s not exactly at the peak of my skill set, that’s for sure. I normally work in an office, actually. I’m part of the Executive, but we’ve been shorthanded all over the place lately, so we’ve all been taking turns helping out where needed.”
“Makes sense,” said Jayk. “We do the same thing on the front when we’re getting a little thin. You know, waiting for reinforcements.”
The nurse looked up into Jayk’s eyes. “You’ve been to the front?”
“I’ve done two tours.”
“It must be terrifying out there.”
Before Jayk could stop the onrushing apparitions, his mind was flooded with visions of the alien Fargon, with their watery eyes and their sharp, pointed mouths, charging the trenches as their spike rifles chattered. For a fleeting moment, he smelled the burning flesh as his plasma gun ripped a Farga to shreds, and he heard its dying screams. He shook his head to clear the memories away. “You can’t think about it,” he said. “You just do what you’re told.”
“It’s always amazed me how dedicated you soldiers are to following orders,” said the nurse. “My brain just doesn’t work that way. I always want to ask ‘why.'”
“If you ask too many questions out there,” said Jayk, “everything breaks down.” He shrugged. “Most times when a soldier dies it’s because he didn’t follow orders well enough.”
The nurse fell quiet and went back to finding a vein. “Have you lost friends?”
“We all have,” said Jayk. He thought of Kip, spiked through the stomach and bleeding out into the mud of that filthy trench. Kip might’ve made it if the medic hadn’t run out of O- blood to give him on the way back to the field hospital. “That’s how war works. There’s no point being a soldier if you aren’t willing to give what they ask you to give.”
“Like your blood?” asked the nurse.
“Especially your blood,” said Jayk.
“Ah, there it is,” said the nurse, sliding her finger along Jayk’s vein. “Found it.” She swabbed a chemical of some sort onto Jayk’s arm for a few seconds, double-checked that the bag and the tubes were all connected together properly, then carefully slid the needle into Jayk’s vein. The blood began to flow.
“Bravo,” said Jayk, sarcastically.
The nurse stuck her tongue out at him playfully. “Thanks for contributing,” she said. “I really mean that. Your blood is saving lives.”
“I’m just happy to be able to help the war effort from home, you know? If I have to be back here on leave, I might as well send something to represent me.”
“Actually, your blood won’t be going to the front,” said the nurse, leaning over the equipment to make sure everything was operating correctly. “Oh, I’m probably not supposed to tell you that.”
“What, is my blood going to civilians?” asked Jayk. “I know I probably don’t have any say over it, but I’d prefer to be helping soldiers.”
“But not at the front?”
“I really shouldn’t have said anything,” said the nurse.
“But you did,” said Jayk. “If you know where my blood is going to end up, I think I deserve to be told.”
Some of the other donors were looking their way now. The nurse smiled at them reassuringly. “Well, okay,” she said to Jayk, in a low voice. “As long as you don’t get me in trouble. Some of the donations are being used for POWs.”
“Prisoners of war?”
The nurse nodded.
Jayk squirmed at the idea of his blood being used to save the life of a captured Farga. “I’m not sure I like that idea,” he said.
“What are we supposed to do?” said the nurse. “Would you rather we just let them die? You wouldn’t do that to a human POW, would you?”
“No,” said Jayk. “I guess not. But still…”
“I can appreciate that it’s kind of an uncomfortable concept,” said the nurse. “That’s why we don’t talk about it much. Some people might stop volunteering to donate, and we need all the donations we can get, both for sending to the front and for using on civilians and POWs.”
Jayk mulled this over. “Yeah, I get it. It’s gotta be done, I guess. Honestly, though, I wouldn’t have thought that our blood would be compatible with theirs. You know, because their physiology is so different.”
A curious, almost hesitant expression came over the nurse’s face. “Do you… actually know much about their physiology?”
Jayk stretched his mouth into a thin, grim line. “I’ve probably seen the insides of more Fargon than you have.”
“Yes,” said the nurse, “you probably have.”
“I’m no scientist,” said Jayk, “but like I said, I definitely wouldn’t have thought that a Farga would benefit from a transfusion of human blood.”
“No.” The nurse’s eyes flickered. “You wouldn’t think that, would you?” She painted on an empty smile and stood to go.
Jayk reached out with his right arm and grabbed the nurse’s wrist. “What aren’t you telling me?”
The nurse tried to pull away, but Jayk held on. “What do you mean?” she said.
“I can see it in your eyes: there’s something you’re hiding from me. What is it?”
“It’s nothing…” The nurse kept trying to twist away.
“Tell me,” Jayk barked.
The nurse’s eyes opened wide in fear. “Fine, fine, okay. The blood,” she whimpered. “It… It isn’t for transfusions.”
“What is it for, then?” demanded Jayk. “What do they do, drink it?”
The nurse looked down at the floor, quivering, and said nothing.
“Oh, hell, no.” Jayk flung the nurse’s arm away from him, tore out the needle that was taped to his left arm, and swung off the chair. Blood welled up out of his elbow as he stormed out of the clinic, nurses trailing frantically after him.
Snow was coming down in flurries outside. Jayk stood on the sidewalk and watched blood drip down his arm and stain the snow at his feet.
How could this be happening? Who would possibly have made the decision to use human blood for such a perverted purpose? This was not right. He would not be milked like livestock to feed the appetites of those disgusting aliens. If the Fargon freaks had to consume human blood to stay alive, then as far as he was concerned they all deserved to die.
Jayk squeezed his fist, and his blood ran a little thicker down his forearm. Rage pumped through his veins and out through the open wound. They all deserved to die. The sounds of war welled up between his ears, and half-remembered, half-imagined apparitions of horror floated past his eyes. His head pounded. He felt faint. His knees buckled. He crumpled to the sidewalk.
He opened his eyes and saw the pale green walls of a hospital room. He opened his nose to the smell of bleach. He opened his heart to a single resolution:
Yes, they all deserved to die.