By Neil Floyd
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The truck is full of blood. This makes Hikari (employee ID 26663) happy. She can go home soon.
Hikari stops at a red light. She checks the list of names and photos displayed on the dash-mounted touchscreen. Up next, donation 16. Name: Bill Watson. Address: 908 North 54th. Height: 73 inches. Weight: 199 pounds. Occupation: accountant. The GPS built into Hikari's retinal implants navigates to Bill Watson's house. She double-parks with the hazards on for safety.
When she gets out, the pedestrians smoking outside the bar across the street scatter. One of them runs into a trash can. Empty bottles and used coffee filters explode over the sidewalk. The other bar patrons disappear into the shadows between the sodium-vapor streetlights. Everybody runs when they see the white truck with the scarlet cross. Hikari doesn't understand. She saves lives.
Hikari opens the truck's back door. Refreshingly cold air rushes past, raising hairs on the back of her neck. The refrigerated cargo has been kept more comfortable than her since the cabin AC broke. This makes Hikari laugh, but then she remembers the cargo is more valuable than her life. After all, there's a shortage of blood, not a shortage of Hikaris.
She runs through the pre-donation checklist taped to her work cart. Restock the IV tubes and hypodermic needles. Handwrite donor information on the blood bag in case of database failure. Sterilize all surfaces, including the stainless steel Automated Hemoglobin Pump (item 09142). Hikari could do this part in her sleep, though that'd be a clear violation of Compulsory Medical Services protocol.
Hikari wheels the cart to Bill Watson's front door. She pulls a drill-like Powered Entrance Device (item 06129) from her tool belt, then connects its hose to an oblate canister on the lower cart shelf. The Powered Entrance Device eats through the door. Then, Hikari flicks a switch on its pistol grip. White gas slithers through the opaque hose and into the house.
After exactly thirty protocol-abiding seconds, she holsters the Powered Entrance Device, slips on a gas mask, and picks the deadbolt. A thick and pearly haze blankets the house's interior. She double-checks her air filter before going inside. The top secret chemical compound in Comfort Fumes (item 023671) is powerful enough to knock out a grown man in seconds, yet gentle enough to also knock out an infant in seconds.
Hikari pushes her work cart through the gas like a dread phantom working for minimum wage plus mileage. Loud snoring echos from upstairs. Hikari sighs, though it's barely audible behind the gas mask. She loves her job--she swears on her life--though she wouldn't mind visiting a donor with an elevator every once in a while. This time, Hikari battles with the work cart as she struggles up the stairs. It's a loud affair, but the Comfort Fumes have permeated the house. Neither Bill Watson nor his family will hear her.
On the second floor, Hikari passes a door decorated with crayon drawings of princesses and cats. She finds the master bedroom farther down. With steady hands, she turns the knob and slinks inside. Her cart tries to slink and fails. This doesn't bother Bill Watson, who is asleep on a California King next to his wife (Janice Watson, occupation: lawyer). Janice isn't on the donor list, so Hikari ignores her. She might as well not exist. Until, of course, the database determines it's her turn to donate.
Hikari removes Bill Watson's left arm from beneath the comforter. Then, she wraps a blood pressure cuff around his bicep. The Automated Hemoglobin Pump boots up automatically, chirping hello. A smiley face appears on the LCD screen before morphing into a readout of the donor's vital signs. She pats the machine. The advanced piece of medical technology is the closest thing she has to a regular coworker. Teammate. Working nights is lonely and--Hikari stops herself. Being introspective on the clock is a clear violation of Compulsory Medical Services protocol. The last thing she needs is a visit from a Behavior Modification Team.
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Hikari opens a line on the biggest vein she can find at the crux of Bill Watson's arm. His eyes flutter when the needle punctures skin.
"No...vam...vampire," he says.
His eyes close as the IV tubing runs red. The Automated Hemoglobin Pump rocks the blood bag like a baby so it doesn't clot. The digital scale ticks upward gram by gram, dinging at 1,419. Three pints of the rare red stuff. Carefully, Hikari removes the IV, covers the site with a bandage, and leaves a Non-Denominational Donor Appreciation Token (item 59631-F) on the nightstand.
She hopes he'll get to see it.
The vampire nickname sounded old-fashioned at first, but Hikari and the rest of the Donor Collections team eventually embraced it. What it lacked in elegance, they agreed, it made up in accuracy. They work during the night. Sleep during the day. Drain people's blood. Still, the nickname incited a public relations nightmare when it leaked--especially so soon after the Donation Mandate increased from two pints to three. Compulsory Medical Services cracked down. Four of Hikari's coworkers who'd tattooed bite marks on their necks were visited by Behavior Modification Teams.
A few months ago, a newer vampire worked up the courage to ask a question: Why was the Donor Collections fleet equipped with wheeled carts when most donors slept in second floor bedrooms? The obvious answer, Hikari remembered thinking, was so they could roll the equipment to the front door. It was right in the Compulsory Medical Services Unified Protocol Guide. How else were vampires supposed to roll their sensitive donation equipment to the front door without wheeled carts? Unsurprisingly, the new employee was visited by a Behavior Modification Team the next day.
Donations 17 and 18 went as planned. The donors were calm and asleep and quite pleasant to work with after the Comfort Fumes kicked in. Number 19 (occupation: part-time bartender) was a near-perfect donation as well, except he'd left a slipper on the staircase. Hikari had avoided it going up, but tripped over it on the way down. She lost control of the cart and it careened into the front door. Before she left, she tried to prop the remains of the door in the threshold. It wouldn't have stopped a burglar, but at least stiff breezes would be covered.
Back at her truck, Hikari performed emergency maintenance on the tank of Comfort Fumes so it wouldn't explode. Hikari didn't understand the circuitry, gears, or hydraulics that connected the tank to the Automated Hemoglobin Pump. Hikari did understand these were moody and complicated machines, much like teenagers that were rumored to explode, which actually sounded more like bombs. She'd heard the horror stories from other vampires. Blood everywhere, according to the rumors, and not the good kind chilling in the truck.
About a minute later, Hikari feels bad about the door. She leaves a Variable Donor Reward/Condolence Object (item 59687-F) on the stoop in a stunning example of following protocol. If number 19 wakes up in the morning, he'll be in for a modest surprise.
Hikari drives under overpasses and over underpasses while the touch screen updates with her final stop of the night. Donor 20. The truck is much heavier than when her shift started, and she can feel the additional liquid weight in the sluggishness of the steering wheel. The tight urban corners of the Fair Gardens neighborhood are a worthy adversary. Hikari shows them no mercy on her quest to save lives.
Donor 20 is close, the GPS says. Name: Ana Taylor. Address: 254 East Brandywine Alley. Height: 65 inches. Weight: 132 pounds. Occupation: unknown.
Wait. Hikari checks the list again when she stops at a four-way intersection. She read correctly. Hikari keys her truck's radio, one of the last in Donor Collections yet to be replaced by a standard telescreen.
"Dispatch, this is Collection Agent 26663," she says, glancing at Ana's pixelated photo.
An operator comes back with a wave of static. "Go ahead, 26663."
"I think I have a typo on my donor list. Ana Taylor, occupation unknown."
The line goes silent. Hikari starts wondering why this donor is the first she's ever encountered without a listed occupation. It's almost as if this shift could end differently than the others, Hikari thinks, or rather, would think if she wasn't so worried about introspection avalanching into--dear God--a question.
Thankfully, Dispatch crackles through the handset before Hikari can violate protocol.
"I've confirmed record corruption due to storage on an old pre-Donation Mandate server. Proceed as normal."
There was a time when vampires only had to draw one pint of blood. Only Hikari's most senior supervisors were around back then. One pint was the beginning, before the Donation Mandate, back when Compulsory Medical Services thought the standard donation unit could save everyone. It only felt optimistic in hindsight. At the time, it was survival.
Hikari still remembers the day the Donation Mandate increased from one pint to two. The vampires had thought Compulsory Medical Services solved it. Cracked the code. Found the key to ease the straining hospitals. A small group of citizens organized a parade outside the capital, with signs and chanting and one of them was so happy he lit a car on fire.
Hikari still remembers the way the Behavior Modification Teams used tear gas to sweep the citizens off the capitol lawn. That's when she learned there was more than one way to save lives.
Rowhomes line Brandywine Alley and it's barely wide enough for Hikari's truck. She tries to park in front of 254, but gives up at 213. The scraping sounds from the parked cars hitting her truck are too loud. She decides it will be more considerate to the residents if she walks her cart the rest of the way. 254 looks much older than the homes it shares two walls with, thanks to the peeling paint and crumbling stoop. Hikari uses her Powered Entrance Device to drill through the door, then she pumps in the Comfort Fumes.
Exactly thirty protocol-abiding seconds later, she enters with her gas mask on. The dark interior matches the exterior: decrepit and sparsely furnished. An industrial-sized cable spool serves as TV stand. The only chairs are milk crates with ratty cushions on top. Old newspapers plastered over the windows block out the street lights. A staircase is next to the kitchen, and it's a nightmare: narrow, steep, and curvaceous. Hikari's body aches. She's ready to go home.
Toward the back of the living space, there's a plastic table under a bare lightbulb. It would be a completely unremarkable table except for the fact somebody is laying on top: a slender woman, face obscured by long, raven hair that matches the headshot on the donor list. Looks like Ana Taylor is sound asleep. Hikari sighs, relief over the donor's convenient bed choice. She wraps the blood pressure cuff around Ana's left arm. The Automated Hemoglobin Pump wakes. It chirps. She pats, careful to avoid the epoxied field repair from earlier.
Then, Hikari turns toward the cart to prepare the IV. Once the line is ready, she returns to her slumbering donor. She gasps. The slumbering donor is wearing a gas mask and holding a knife to Hikari's throat. Even worse, the donor is awake. Hikari allows herself a moment of unauthorized introspection.
Botched it. Botched it hard, girlfriend.
"Drop the IV," Ana says, her voice muffled from the mask.
The IV is Compulsory Medical Services property, the damaging of which is a clear violation of protocol. Hikari hesitates. The introspection was bad enough as it is. Ana presses the cold blade against her throat. Hikari drops the needle.
Ana whistles. Short, sharp, as if it's code for her allies to reveal themselves. Then, her allies reveal themselves. Two slink out of the kitchen and two come down the stairs, all dressed in dirty clothes and patchwork gas masks. They stare at her through the white haze like a pack of hungry wolves.
"Refusing to donate is a capital offense," Hikari says.
"Shut it, vamp." Ana nods to her crew. Two run outside. The others close in on Hikari. "Compulsory Medical Services has been terrorizing us for too long," Ana says. "The new Donation Mandate is killing people in their sleep. How long before it goes up to four pints? Five?"
"I've seen the hospitals," Hikari says. "We save lives."
Ana (occupation: revolutionary) laughs. "Your propaganda won't fool us. The government doesn't get to decide whose life is worth somebody else's."
The two lackeys return from outside. "The blood truck's locked," one of them says.
A split second of distraction overtakes Ana's face. Hikari shoves her over the table, grabs the cart, and rolls it in the only clear direction: the stairs. It's better than getting her throat slit, but not by much. The cart's wheels bang against every step. Her arms burn. She nearly dislocates her shoulders fighting gravity and the cruel vertical nature of stairs.
"Get her," Ana says.
The others gather into a loose mob, rushing toward the staircase in no particular formation. When Hikari reaches the second floor, she strikes the Automated Hemoglobin Pump. The machine chirps with displeasure. Struggling for breath, she hits it again. The servos whine. The diagnostic fields cycle random characters in infinite loops. The LCD readout flashes a deformed and melting smiley face. She pats the pump goodbye, then kicks her cart off the landing. It thumps down the stairs like an asynchronous heartbeat. Hikari watches the canister of Comfort Fumes jostle around in slow motion. She knows how inconsiderate this is going to be to the neighbors. She knows...
Ana and her rebels scramble out of the way as the cart rolls off the steps and spills medical supplies harmlessly on the floor. Nobody moves for a long second.
Then, Ana opens her mouth to speak.
Then, the cart explodes.
Hikari dives into an open bedroom as a white flash surges up the stairwell. Even with her eyes closed, the light is still blinding like the sun she barely knows anymore.
Maybe a minute or an hour later, Hikari can see again. She crawls back to the stairwell. The bottom steps are wiped out, so she has to drop to the obliterated ground floor. The makeshift bomb leveled the shared wall, exposing the neighbor's living room that was tastefully decorated until seconds ago.
The front of 254 East Brandywine Alley is also gone. Shards of wood and brick are lodged in the cars parked out front. Their alarms honk, drifting in and out of time with each other. The passenger side windows are shattered. Hikari celebrates her impeccable aim--most of the automobiles still have at least half their windows left!
Then, Hikari tiptoes across the ruptured floor through the remaining wisps of Comfort Fumes. She's convinced the work cart was vaporized in the blast until she notices a piece of shrapnel embedded in the table. The Automated Hemoglobin Pump's LCD screen. The half-broken liquid crystals are frozen in a messy grin. Hikari smiles, checks for witnesses, then hides the screen in her stained white coveralls. This is a clear violation of at least five Compulsory Medical Services protocols, ranging from incident site alteration to the most severe on the books: reckless introspection.
Outside, the sky is gentle grey where the sun kisses the horizon. She steadies herself with the neighbor's wrought iron railing which promptly falls over. Her truck at the end of the block is still gleaming and white and untouched except for the scrape marks from earlier. She gets in the driver's seat and then keys the radio. This is going to require multiple Cadaver Relocation Requests. There are also many pints of wasted blood in the remains of 254 East Brandywine Alley. She'll have to answer for every single drop when the Behavior Modification Team arrives. And still, despite all that Hikari should be worrying about, she can only muster one non-compliant thought.
I saved lives tonight?