He awoke. He wound his watch. The ticking was reassuring to him; audible and rhythmic, it gave his days framework. He'd never forgotten to wind it, not once, even when he was delirious with fever. By the light of the dim emergency lights, it read 8:46 AM, a little later than his usual, but well within protocol.
He rose from his cot, faced north, and recited his name and number, the syllables running together. Crossing right foot over left, he held his fist to his forehead, and bowed once quickly. Then, seating himself at the metal table against the wall, he began to pump the foot-pedals until a light static sound could be heard from the small metal box that adorned the table.
He requested new orders, and held the channel open for the 200 required ticks of his watch. He expected no response, and received none.
He ate rations, high-calorie and bland, and took inventory. Rations remained for 2,875 more days, assuming one per day. He estimated he could stretch it to 2 rations every 3 days, but protocol dictated that such measures were to be enacted only in the event that fewer than 30 rations remained, or rations would not last until the projected end of the mission.
The waste packaging went into the compactor, and the bathing ritual began. The soap was long since used up, but there was no lack of water, which came from a hand pump sunk deep into the aquifer. He knew he stank, but he could no longer smell himself.
Moving to the stair-climbing machine, he began the repetitive motion, charging up the capacitors and keeping his body from deteriorating at the same time. As he climbed fictional stairs, he watched a stack of green LCD bars climb slowly upward. After they had topped off, he kept going for 48 more steps, knowing that the cells would top off after the bars.
Closing his eyes, he turned on the lights. No new ones were burned out, and the West-side ceiling light took slightly longer than usual to flicker on, but that one had been getting slightly worse for the past month. He could get around in complete darkness here, but lacking simulated night and day, sleep became erratic, and his logs became surlier than usual. Taking the current log book from a drawer, he noted the time, the date, and his activities and observations. He initialed the entry, and opened his footlocker to remove his treasure.
She was blonde, tall, and almost entirely nude, her shapely frame splayed out on a bed of silky fabric, one forearm resting over one breast, the other bent over her head. He sighed, whispered her name, and ran a finger along the curve of her two-dimensional spine. Almost. He could almost feel the warmth of her skin. On the good days, he would reach to touch himself.
This wasn't one of the good days. His next breath came in a sob, and before his brain could catch up to his body, he was crouched beside his cot with his sidearm under his chin, safety off. His brain rallied, raising arguments such as his duty, the dishonor in abandoning his post, and his own long-held beliefs that suicide was weakness. His body countered, screaming that it could not feel her touch, had never felt her touch, could not remember what such a touch felt like. The brain spoke calming words, seeking to pacify the wild urges that could not be satisfied. Over a thousand thunderous ticks of his watch later, the body relented, and he eased the safety back onto his sidearm.
He dressed, he drank water, and put his treasure away without looking at it. His brain could not face her gaze, and his body could not stand to know that her gaze would never change.
He made the next entry in his log book, initialed it, and lay down for his afternoon nap.
He awoke to the master alarm. Scrambling to the desk, he pulled out the code book, and ran his finger down the columns, matching the sequence to its translation. As his finger found the sequence, his heart began to thunder.
*First seal breach*
He spun the wheel on the safe, missing the combination twice before he wrenched the door open. He removed a small box, and a small flask of liquid. Time was of the essence. This outpost must be purged according to protocol.
The liquor went down easily, but produced goosebumps up and down both of his arms. It had been many years since he'd had any alcohol. He gave one last salute, and flipped the cover off of the box's switch.
His brain asked about suicide, then reminded itself of duty. He knew much, and there was valuable intel in this bunker. Neither could fall into enemy hands. His brain briefly tried to remember specifics related to "enemy," but gave up. He was trusted with a great responsibility, and could not shirk from it.
He sucked in a breath, then another, squeezed his eyes shut, and depressed the switch.
*Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick*
The watch kept working. So did he. Of all the mechanisms to deteriorate, it had to be this one. He threw the detonator away violently. Protocol dictated that he must incinerate his logs, and finish himself with his sidearm, but as he cast his gaze over to the thermite incendiary device in the safe, the argument of responsibility and duty was shoved aside by a powerful, desperate need.He looked down at his sidearm, and set it aside. If the enemy were to capture him, at least before his death, he could see and hear another human. Body and brain agreed that this was the only thing they wanted.
He sat down to wait. Dishonor would be a small price to pay. He tried to envision the person who would tear open the hatch and lay eyes on him. He found he couldn't. He looked at his watch, and watched the seconds tick by.
A squealing sound came from the hatch, and the long-frozen latches groaned, and shifted into motion. His breathing quickened, and he stood to face the only way in or out. The hatch moved, and light lanced in. Daylight. Every part of him screamed with joy. A soft cry of delight escaped his throat, as he heard voices. He did not know the language, but he knew the sounds. Human. His eyes blurry with tears, he stepped toward the light.