On the third afternoon we were in the middle of a detailed lecture on using a cardiac stimulator when a uniformed officer quietly stepped into the room and signaled to the instructor. For a few moments they conversed in whispers, then our instructor announced that we were going out on our first call.
"You're just observers," he warned us. "If the uniformed PETs ask you for help, do anything they ask you to. Otherwise stay out of the way." He led us to a parking tower* attached to the building, where we piled into several large high speed fliers outfitted for emergency use. A few minutes later we were headed almost straight up, out of the atmosphere, at which point we'd be able to engage the aninertial drive that would enable us to travel several hundred miles in a few seconds. Our vehicle could actually reach any point on the planet within twenty minutes at most, although normally the nearest PETs are called to any given accident scene.
I looked around curiously. The vehicle I was in was completely unlike the passenger fliers in common use. It was rectangular rather than rounded, with a horizontal wedge-shaped front and the driver's compartment glassed in for visibility. The entire back wall of the vehicle hinged up to provide an entrance into the rear, where injured passengers would be transported and the emergency equipment kept.
Each EMRN vehicle also included an intercom audible from anywhere in the craft, and ours soon crackled to life as our instructor filled us in on events. We were heading for the outskirts of another, smaller city about a hundred miles away. Apparently a large freight transport vehicle had left a barcoded roadway and was floating towards an unloading dock in the industrial part of town, when the driver had received a notice via her telecom to change destinations. The truck had slowly altered direction into the path of a smaller vehicle.
Normally this wouldn't be a problem, except that this smaller vehicle had a malfunctioning collision sensor which the driver had illegally bypassed via some jury-rigged software code. He was just on his way to a repair station, navigating manually via keyed-in commands, when the truck had swung in front of him. As luck would have it he was looking down at his keypad, in the process of entering a direction change, and had glanced up to see the truck when it was too late to stop. He'd hit it just behind the passenger compartment, where the control conduits are located, and bounced off with minor damage to his vehicle. The truck, on the other hand, its drive disabled, had dropped like a stone for a hundred feet onto a densely populated residential district.
Our brief jaunt in space over, we descended into the outskirts of a city. Below I could see a patch of flashing lights standing out from the otherwise orderly pattern of streets and buildings. Passing several heavy transports hovering over the scene, we soon landed within a cordoned off area and piled out of the vehicles.
Before us was the remains of a modest home. Half of it was relatively intact. The other half was rubble beneath a badly battered transport vehicle, its undercarriage visibly flattened. PETs in protective suits were already in the process of welding hooks to the side of the truck. The heavy transports overhead waited with chains dangling, ready to raise the vehicle as soon the hooks were ready. Judging from the large hole cut in the passenger compartment, I guessed that the driver had already been extricated.
I started towards the wreckage only to be roughly pulled back by our instructor, who was clearly keeping a close eye on us. "Not without a protective suit," he said sharply. "We don't need any more casualties." One of the other PETs called to him, and a moment later he was back, pointing towards a cluster of people near the undamaged part of the house. "Go over there and help with first aid," he said. "That'll free up the experienced PETs to work on searching the wreckage."
"You mean there's someone underneath that?" I choked, but he was already chasing one of the other trainees who was wandering somewhere he shouldn't.
There was just one victim being bandaged, a young woman in her late thirties with multiple deep gashes along her arms. I learned later that she'd been in the undamaged part of the house; the cuts had resulted from her efforts to dig into the wreckage looking for her daughter. She was close to hysterics as I took over the job of washing out the cuts and applying heavy cloth bandages to the deeper ones. It must have hurt terribly, but she didn't seem to feel any pain.
"Please let me go," she said repeatedly. "I've got to find Nanza. Please."
"They're working as fast as they can," I said, trying to keep my own voice steady as I started applying light biodegradable bandages to the shallower cuts. "They can find her a lot faster than you could. Just try to hold still. How old is your daughter?"
There was a major commotion as the truck was lifted off the wreckage, dangling from the chains attached to the vehicles overhead. I felt sick as I saw the flattened remains of the house beneath. There was always the basement, I thought. Perhaps the girl had been in the basement.
"Ten," she said distractedly. "She's only ten. She must be terrified. Please let me go find her," she said again.
I was applying another, smaller cloth bandage when a second heavy transport flier slowly lifted off the remains of the roof and ceiling to uncover what was left of the little girl, which wasn't much. I turned to see the young mother staring numbly in shock at the harrowing sight, and grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her away. I saw one of the other trainees retching over by the emergency vehicles.
Later that evening, after we'd finished up what we could do and the mother had been transferred to a hospital for further treatment and assignment to a counselor, we returned to the training center. I was rinsing my face in the locker room sink when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw the instructor eyeing me intently.
"Are you going to be all right?" he asked. "That was pretty rough for a first call." I turned back to the sink to splash some more water on my face. "Yeah," I mumbled. "I'm fine. Dammit. That poor woman. That poor, poor woman."
"Look at me, Senaria," he said. There was a warmth in his voice that didn't usually emerge in class. I turned back to face him, wiping the water from my face. "You've learned a lesson that some of us take a long time to grasp. Those who don't either burn out in a hurry or turn into something that I'd rather not turn into."
"And that lesson is--?" I said, wiping some more water from my eyes that I'd somehow missed the first time.
"Grieve for the survivors, not the dead," he said. "Life is for the living."
That night, although images of the horrors I'd seen floated before my closed eyelids, my mind seemed somehow indifferent to them. But I still vividly felt that young mother's body in my arms, shuddering violently as I whispered "I'm so sorry, so sorry," into her ear through my own sobs. I finally drifted off into a deep sleep.
I don't know why, but that was the night the nightmares stopped.
* These parking towers have been described in considerable detail in Mikiria. Basically they are twelve or more stories high, with railed platforms jutting out on all four sides just wide enough for a person to step out onto. Vehicles are left floating next to these platforms until needed. Parking towers are usually brightly painted, and often feature an onion-shaped decorative dome on top. - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|