I had a message on my telecom the next morning advising me that the first class of the day would start an hour late. When I arrived, it didn't take long to see that there were four fewer people than the previous day. One of the missing was the young man who thought the answer was to "not let yourself get involved."
The instructor made no secret of the absences. "Some of your classmates found out yesterday that this wasn't the job for them. Don't think less of them for that. Not everyone can cope with the kind of things you're going to encounter. Most of what we respond to are minor accidents, like people falling off ladders or having a mild heart attack. There will be days, though, when you'll find yourself wondering if it's worth it, at least until the first time you see someone walking the streets that would be dead if it weren't for you. But if you think you're going to become a casualty yourself, then let me know and we'll make the necessary arrangements."
For the next two months I worked harder than I could ever remember. I found that focusing on the countless procedures and medications that had to be learned was far easier than I'd expected. In med school I'd been so turned off by the endless forms and reports involved that I'd somehow turned off my attention as well, to the point that I'd found it difficult to study. Here I had no such problem. In fact, it was with a distinctly heavy heart that I realized the two months were almost up, and that it was time to go home.
We'd gone out on accident calls with increasing frequency, and more and more were permitted to take part in the operations. Some were, as the instructor had assured us, rather trivial (though not to the hapless fellow who'd managed to get his head trapped in an electronics rack, for example, and had to have the equipment dismantled around him to general merriment). But we continued to experience our share of wrenches as well.
Considering that in the United States firearms and motor vehicle accidents cause over half of all deaths from non-natural causes, you might wonder whether we'd have anything left to do on a civilized planet like Qozernon. But any technological society is going to be a perilous environment to live in, even though Qozernans are a lot less tolerant of businesses that deliberately overlook hazards for a slice of extra profit. After all, there are always plenty of idiots around (some with very high IQs) ready to do stupid things because they're in a hurry or think cutting a corner here and there "can't hurt anything." And don't think I've forgotten about that little ride I gave Alan and Rann back on Deshtiris.* I still get the shivers when I think what I could have caused.
(By the way, the driver of the rigged flier that resulted in our first call was later sentenced to ten years of community service and full financial restitution to the victims of his own particular mistake.)
Most of our calls didn't involve any actual danger to ourselves, but like the first one there were several later on where we were exposed to hazardous wreckage of one kind or another. Because of this we were eventually issued the protective suits I mentioned earlier, routinely worn on all incident responses. These are essentially glorified suits of armor, made of light but very tough plastic with flexible joints at the necessary places. There's also a light helmet with a clear face guard that can be raised or lowered, like a welder's eye guard, as well as puncture-resistant gloves and boots. Unlike the suit, the helmet and gloves are normally worn only when needed.
These outfits aren't at all airtight; in fact they allow a remarkable amount of air circulation, especially around the joints, and are much more comfortable than they look. But they do protect the wearer from being impaled on broken glass, splinters, and all of the other infinite variety of dangers exposed by an unexpected explosion or wreck. In addition, the outside of the suit is electrically conductive and the inside thoroughly coated with an electrical insulating compound, which provides protection against accidental contact with live power lines. For chemical spills and the like there are more sophisticated sealed suits with their own air supplies, audio telecoms and environmental controls, but these are only worn by ERTs (Emergency Response Technicians) specially trained for this kind of disaster.
Built into the suit are various pockets and clips for carrying medicines, medical implements, and other essential tools, freeing the wearer's hands for more important tasks. One of the suit's most important tools, however, is the inconspicuous keypad fastened to the right thigh. With it one can access the suit's built-in utility module with its exotic feature set, enabling one to send communications signals, pre-programmed sequences of control commands to other devices, and other functions too numerous to list.
The first time I donned my protective suit and saw myself in a mirror I had to laugh; I looked like a cross between a Star Wars storm trooper and Zeiram's Iria. (Not to mention that I somehow had to stuff all my hair into the helmet so it wouldn't be in danger of getting caught on anything.) But I quickly discovered that it was light, comfortable and restricted the wearer's movements almost not at all. As for being protective, our instructor challenged us to drive a nail through a piece of one with a heavy hammer, and though several brave knights eagerly took up the challenge all departed vanquished from the field of battle, the battered scrap of material still victorious.
Of course, having protective suits didn't mean we charged into collapsing buildings or flaming wreckage. Becoming an ERT was a special training course in itself, one consisting of a full four months of intensive weekend classes, drills and endlessly repeated exercises. That's next, I promised myself.
"We're home, Tora," I told the little cat as I let us in and turned him loose. The house looked no different than when we'd left two months ago, but now I had my PET certification on my computer record. Even better, my personal emergency vehicle would be delivered within a day or two. I found myself feeling like a much different person, and a lot less shaky. Once I had Tora's essentials set up again to his satisfaction, I wasted no time calling my mother.
"That's wonderful news," she said proudly when I told her about my certification. "Don't you think you ought to call some of the others too? They'd love to hear from you."
"Ummm," I said, not really understanding myself why the thought made my stomach knot up.
"I won't press you on this, daughter," she said. "It's your own decision. It's just that--" and she hesitated.
"Just that--?" I prompted her nervously.
"Well, you know that when your father died you stopped talking for months." I nodded. My own memories of that time were oddly vague and confused, as though of an old movie I hadn't seen since childhood. "It was such a loss for you," she added.
"It was for you too," I said slowly, suddenly ashamed to realize that only now, all these years later, did I really understand how hard losing her husband would have hit her. "I must have been a terrible trial to you."
"It wasn't your fault, child," she reassured me. "You were hurt, and you reacted. How could you know at that age what other people were going through?"
"I should have known better," I insisted. "And then to add insult to injury I nearly scared you to death with Kiri's sword." That was where the scar on my cheek came from; I'd managed to dig Kiri's swords (real ones, not her practice blades) from their hiding place and talked a neighbor boy into "sword-fighting" with me, leaving me with a spectacular gash running halfway down my face. My mother winced.
"Never mind that," she said hastily. "My point is, I wonder if you're doing the same thing now."
"What same thing?"
"Withdrawing from everyone. Retreating into yourself. You know, daughter, you don't live in a vacuum. What you do affects your friends, too. People miss you, and they worry about you. And they wonder if they've done something to hurt you. As do I."
"I'm sorry, Mom," I said contritely. "You know it's not your fault. And as for the others, I just need a little time. Besides, I've been so busy with my training. Look, I promise I'll start calling people soon, okay? Especially you." I hesitated for a moment. "Mom?"
"What is it?" she asked.
"Are you ever lonely these days?" For years, until Kiri had retrieved Will from Earth, the three of us had lived together as a family in this same house on Qozernon. I'd grown up, in fact, regarding Kiri as an older sister until I hit puberty and began to realize that I saw her as something considerably more.
"Sometimes," my mother answered slowly. "I still see Will and Kiri almost daily, same as when you were there. But, you know, even when we were on Qozernon I had days..." Her voice trailed off.
"You never told me about that," I protested.
"You never asked," she said candidly, and I winced. We'd always been honest with each other; I was glad to see that hadn't changed, even if the truth hurt sometimes.
"Have you ever thought of finding someone again?" I persisted. She smiled slightly.
"More than once," she admitted. "But your father was a hard act to follow. And I don't have the patience or the fortitude to go looking. If the right person comes along, then, maybe--" She shrugged her shoulders, again leaving the sentence unfinished.
"Mom?" I said.
"I hope he does," I said.
After the screen went dark, I absently fingered the almost invisible scar on my cheek. It had actually happened when I was eleven, a year after my father died. I'd idolized Kiri at that time, watching fascinated as she honed her astonishing swordsmanship on whoever she could persuade to train with her. When I'd managed to filch her blades and get myself "wounded in battle," I remembered being so proud when she and my mother had come running due to the frantic pleas of my erstwhile opponent, to find me happily wiping the blood from my face.
Kiri, of course, had been anything but pleased with what I'd done; in fact it was one of the very few times in my life I remember her being actually furious with me. But we did came to an agreement, namely that if I'd diligently learn my skills with practice blades she'd give me a real one for my sixteenth birthday, and she was as good as her word. But by then she was no longer the idolized older sister, for I'd fallen hopelessly in love with her.
The next morning I concocted one excuse after another to hang around outside, much to Tora's disgust. Finally, a little after noon, two vehicles descended onto my front lawn. One was a simple two-person flier; the other was my very own emergency vehicle. On the side, stenciled neatly in red, was "Amkor Senaria, PET," reflecting the EMRN philosophy that paint is cheap and pride priceless. The technician who'd piloted my new vehicle had me add my digital signature to his requisition keypad with my ID card, then they both departed in the small flier with a cheery wave. I spent most of the remainder of the day poking around in every possible corner of the craft, making sure that all the equipment was present and in perfect shape. Tomorrow I'd be on call like any other full-fledged PET, and I intended to be ready.
I say most of the day, because there was one unexpected interruption. I'd had all my messages forwarded to the ship's cockpit, and early in the afternoon I received a telecom message from someone identifying himself as Deshtiran Domestic Security and asking if I'd be willing to meet with several investigators for an hour or two. My first instinct was to say no; being a Qozernan citizen and on Qozernon to boot I could have legally refused, and I begrudged every second away from my new toy, but on a moment's reflection I realized they probably wouldn't be bothering me over a trifle, so I agreed.
There were three of them, two men and a woman, all very polite and very respectful. They even showed me a letter from Qozernan security confirming that they were there legally and with the knowledge of the appropriate officials. I did my best to make them welcome, brewing up some hot tea, and then we got down to business.
"We're here to investigate the actions of certain Brizali during the Jack Lucie incident," one of them began. "You're among the few witnesses we have; otherwise we wouldn't trouble you like this."
"What do you need from me?" I asked. "I mean, you have records of their Brizal party membership and all that. How many charges do you need to file?" Quite honestly, I felt that enough was enough, and that driving a few more nails into coffins wasn't going to help anyone.
"Senaria, we're actually more concerned about the ones that tried to oppose Lucie," the investigator explained patiently. "Right now, as things stand, we could probably get them all sentenced to ten years of community service apiece without a lot of trouble. But from what we've heard from the other witnesses, there are mitigating circumstances in some cases. Several of them were even killed trying to stop Lucie's men."
On Earth, of course, it would be defense attorneys trying to do what they could for their clients, and prosecutors single-mindedly seeking the heaviest sentences possible. But that's not how Qozernan and Deshtiran law works. It's the duty of investigators, who aren't responsible to either side, to determine the facts as best as possible and then let the judge decide. Of course a defendant can always hire an investigator of his or her own if they feel they're being treated unfairly, but it rarely happens.
I gave them what information I could. My recollection of the actual conflict was rather hazy, especially as I'd been fighting for my life with Lucie himself during a good chunk of it, but after gentle but persistent questioning I did manage to resurrect memories of some of the Brizali who'd fought Lucie's goons, and identified them as best as I could.
After they left I turned to Tora, who'd been discreetly hiding under the telecom for the duration. "Well, Tora," I said, "who'd have thought I'd end up as a defense witness for the Brizali?" And I went back to work preparing my new vehicle for its first call.
* See The Three Minds. - Ed.
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|