Bonus Short Story: To Strengthen One Another

Exhaustion. That was what he felt as he sat, hunched over on a concrete barrier. His orange vest and hard-hat were the beacons of his status as a rescuer– one of a few-hundred. Like them, he’d worked for near-on thirty-hours to dig corpses and even fewer survivors from the rubble. What used to be a downtown office block was now a post-war zone. The dust had settled, but only for those outside the quarantine zone lined by emergency vehicles for half-a-mile in every direction.

Every few minutes the dogs and their handlers would scurry past. The hounds nosed the ground while their handlers’ eyes were locked on their ears, tails, and muzzles. Like the rest, they waited for any sign that would prompt them to dig. They would hand off the barking dogs, scope through the debri for what weakened scents of the living or dead had been caught.

Across the one-time plaza, a woman in a police uniform with a radio to her mouth took orders to sweep and clear every few minutes. No-one was sure why; the damage had been done, and it wasn’t likely whomever had done this would return. They wouldn’t need to. All they had to do was flip on the TV to see the live vids that revealed the loss of an entire city block, the lives of most workers therein. The woman wasn’t even sure why she was there, but she knew she couldn’t leave. At that, she couldn’t have been dragged away either.

Most at the scene were like her; lost, confused, tormented by a moral quandary of whether their exhaustion was more important than the suffering of others under the rubble. No-one escaped the buildings before the bombs, but just as well, few people had been found. Most were dead. And now the rescue teams were beyond exhausted.

A great rumble kicked up from one of the blockaded roads, and someone shouted something about a convoy. A firetruck’s engine revved to part from the center of a barricade, then a convoy from the Army Corps of Engineers rolled in. It led the way for a series of construction and demolition vehicles. Flat-bed eighteen-wheelers arrived with curious looking, mechanical vehicles atop them. It wasn’t long before their purpose was revealed.

The Engineers piled out, ready to aid the rescue teams with blue-prints, enlivened vigor, and coffee by the barrel-full. The construction and demo-trucks fanned out around the inner-perimeter of the disaster, immediately began work. Bulldozers and back-hoes, front-loaders and excavators, and a quarter-mile’s worth of dump trucks worked with the dogs and handlers.

Together, they combed small areas with resonance scans that gave three-dimensional views of the rubble and Earth beneath it before beginning removal as gingerly as possible. Wrecking-ball cranes were hitched to the largest chunks of debris and lifted for the dumps.

A few more bodies were revealed, all but one dead. The woman was barely breathing, obvious even through her dust-caked, high-quality blouse. Her abdomen had the tell-tale bruises of internal bleeding.

Everyone present had seen her on television at some point– most during the business-segments of news-vids. She was an unliked, well-known contrarian that argued business matters for payment against most definitions of ethics. Even so, she was loaded onto a stretcher as carefully as anyone else, rushed across the site to a triage, and worked on as anyone in need. If it were any normal day, perhaps those present would’ve had words against the woman’s nature.

But this was not a normal day. It couldn’t have been. It is said that sin has no place in disaster; so benign seemed even her greatest sins that no-one even hesitated to help her.

More work, hours passed. More bodies, more dead, fewer survivors. Then came the Mechs;

those peculiar-looking vehicles on the trucks– like giant, hydraulic legs with clawed arms and blocky, snake-like heads atop metal shoulders. They were super-strong, mechanical exoskeletons built of high-strength steels and powerful hydraulic limbs. They could lift, carry, even hurl tons as easily and competently as a human with a tennis ball.

Each Mech was an armored cock-pit, accessible from the back, that an operator stepped into. The operators thrust themselves into computerized braces along the feet, legs, arms, hands, head and torso to allow for full-range of mobility. When the back came down, sealed the operator in, the Mech’s systems engaged to work with the strength of a full platoon of men. In time, the Mechs even gave most rescue workers time to sleep or recollect themselves.

When those workers sat for water or food, they fell asleep without pause, as dead to the world as its reaches beyond the quarantine zone had become to them. The Mech operators were praised for their appearance and timeliness as they quickly sifted through what remained of the buildings, filled the convoys of dump-trucks twice over, and uncovered more than a few people both living and dead.

It was said, after the fact, that over a million collective man-hours had been spent in the search and clean up of those few days. Most there agreed, if only due to the extreme fatigue they all eventually succumbed to. Were it not for the Mechs and their operators, some men and women might have literally dropped mid-dig. Though all there feared it, so too did they know that no man nor woman would stay down long. Each of the rescuers– from the dogs to the EMTs– were ready to commit themselves so fully as to rise in defiance of any would-be collapse.

There is much that can be said of the human spirit, but those few days its existence wasn’t debatable. Not in the sense that it had been before. Whether metaphorical, metaphysical, or just plain curious, that collective spirit became more real, corporeal. It became a wall of bagged sand against a tidal wave of grief and tragedy that, like Pandora’s Box, rose as a lid that closed to keep the worst at bay. Such is the nature of the Human spirit, and in it, the true purpose for our dominance of this planet; to live, love, and strengthen one another.

Short Story: Eternal Optimists

I’m sure you’ve heard of the Paris Incident by now. Who hasn’t? It was the sole trigger to the single greatest atrocity in modern history– and I speak as a German whom hasn’t forgotten her history. The Corps may have purged the bombings from the light ‘net and the media archives, but where I’m from, we still live with it. Everyday.

I wake up to a half-leveled horizon outside my window. There’s always frost there when the sun comes up. It doesn’t help that we have no heat in the building. Unless you count barrels of fire as heating. I don’t. After I eat whatever I’ve scrounged up or gathered from the air-drops by neighboring rebels or surviving humanitarian organizations, I head downstairs to the book store I live above.

Funny how some things never quite go out of style. For decades there were people who said that print media was dead. E-readers and web-books were supposed to make the written word obsolete. I can only laugh at the thought– one of few that elicits such emotion nowadays. Those people never realized you couldn’t use e-readers without electricity, or god forbid, the internet.

I miss the light ‘net. All we get around here’s the dark-net, and that’s used for encrypted communications between rebel cells. We simply can’t risk linking the light-net to any of the people here. The few that even have access are lucky. Most of them rigged scavenged-solar cells to old, power-hungry laptops provided by various cells around the continent. Most are grateful, but it makes me feel like we’re a charity case.

Imagine that, all of Berlin, once a powerful seat of progress in a technologically-minded country like Germany, groveling for scraps and hand-outs. There are probably only a few thousand of us left now. The corp-bombings saw to that. When Lemaire fell, and Paris burst into flames, London and Berlin were next in line. There were other places too, but most were small– too small to notice when they were wiped out completely.

But as a haven of technology and free-thought, instilled since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had the greatest concentration of Augs– that is to say Cybernetic or bionically augmented humans. Whoever wasn’t directly an Aug, was an “Aug-sympathizer.” Everyone knew that, including the corps. So when the proverbial sheisse hit the fan, everyone was splattered with it. When I say that, what I mean is; after two weeks of battling on the streets in major cities around the globe, the offended players banded together to bomb the rest of us back to the stone age. Literally.

Berlin got the worst of it. If there’s any solace to be take from our fate, it’s that we managed to wound the corps’ bottom lines enough to push them out of Germany altogether. We’d taken over most of their buildings, destroyed the rest, cut down those whom sided against us in the fighting. Most were slayed by the waves of bodies that filed through the burning streets.

We Germans have a way of being ruthless to a point of barbarism at times– not from a lack of humanity, quite the opposite in fact. We care so deeply and passionately about things that our natural ambitiousness makes us too strong-headed and hardhearted at the worst of times. Maybe if we weren’t so consumed by our ambitions then, we’d have stopped to look around at what was happening, or sensed what was about to.

Maybe if we weren’t so enamored with listening to our hearts we’d have heard the Raptor-cries. Maybe even, if we hadn’t been so loving of our augged brothers and sisters– whether literal or figurative– we’d have been righteously hardhearted enough to save ourselves.

But we weren’t. We were eternally the optimists. The same people whom, even generations later, were socially guilt-ridden for Hitler’s actions and determined to make up for it. Each of us felt the shame of World War II, promised not to repeat the mistakes that led to it. Somehow, we still let the corps take charge, and until they began their Nazi-esque campaign of extermination against the Augs, we supported them.

That was the issue though. It always has been for us. We let the evil into our hearts with open arms, ever-believing in the good of Humanity. Instead, we’re soon shown to have been manipulated, our love used against us and those that would otherwise truly deserve it.

The first bombs that fell over Europe targeted three, initial cities; Paris, where it all began; London, where the revolution looked to spread most violently, and Berlin, where the Augs that wouldn’t or couldn’t fight were likely to find sanctuary.

Raptors screamed over Europe with their hard-angled noses spitting chain-gun fire and their rounded bellies splitting to unleash hell. In minutes, any hope for a life in Berlin– for Aug or otherwise– was exterminated, burned to dust in the fires of evil. Before the sun rose the next morning, tens of thousands were dead or dying. Those not killed or critically wounded– and even then some– were distraught, chaotically confused. They tried to save what few they could. Everywhere you went it was like standing in a crowded metro whose noise and movements made you want to cower and weep. Many did. A few couldn’t take it, led themselves out.

I was eighteen when the bombs fell, just into university. I was just old enough to drink, and just young enough to feel the last of my innocence dissected from my heart. It was like I’d been given bypass surgery without anesthetic. The sharpness of grief in my chest was omnipresent in those days, punctuated by the stabbing sounds of rubble as we combed for survivors and dead alike. Most found were the latter.

I remember the worst of it, not because of the grisly scene, but because it was the first time I felt hatred. Hatred is something humans speak of out of anger most times. It is often despair masked by the ego to keep one’s image intact. This was different. This was real, pure hatred; a feeling that filled my mouth with a wetness as though I were goring the throat of a foe with my teeth. From there, it infected my being with a sharpened determination, a strength I have not lost since. It has kept my muscles taught when they should have faltered in fear, steadied my hands when they would have trembled with terror.

I saw a young girl curled in her bed. We’d dug a path to her grave from beneath the collapsed upper-floor of her apartment building. Everything around us was charred black. We were forced to don respirators from the dust and stink of days old, immolated flesh. Then I saw her; curled in her bed as if sleeping peacefully, but where her skin should be was the marred, blackened flesh of a war-crime. She was like one of those Pompeiian victims, forever frozen in her death-pose.

I am a healer, a medic, a surgeon and I feel no shame in admitting I have a strong stomach. I have seen things that could bring the strongest men and women to tears and pained retching. Most of the time, I’m forced to power through them for the sake of the victims– my patients– and I do so. This was so awful I stumbled away in tears and vomited all the grief that I’d held back since the attacks.

Every morning I wake up she occupies my thoughts. Even as I go down through the bookstore, and out into street I think of how she was stolen from this world. She could have been my daughter had I not been more careful. At that, she could have been me if the bombs had been dropped only a few years further beyond than that.

So I walk along the street, largely clear of its debris, and watch the city around me with her in mind. It still has the look of the blitzkrieg turning in on itself. Full, corporate towers are replaced by mounds of rubble, steel and concrete land-fills. Nature has done its best to reclaim the rest while we keep it enough at bay to carry on in our missions.

To that end, my part is simple; keep people alive. I do it for her. Most that come to my clinic down the street are badly injured, either from work-accidents, refugee status, or as acting rebels for the cause. Germany is not without its remaining corporate outposts, but even they steer clear of Berlin. I guess it’s to pick their battles. They already took our government away, any representation or sympathy therein gone with it. Maybe they let us live just to remind the world that, while there may be a place for Augs to hide, it is still due to their good graces.

All the same, every morning I rise for her. The hatred of her image never falters or fails to arouse my determination. So I leave, patch up those whom may one day lead us from darkness and into light. While Lemaire’s death may have caused everything, an unwitting catalyst to a global revolution, it was us that let it happen– the survivors. Whether from our own convictions, or a greater cause, we can not allow ourselves to fall again. At least for us Germans, we’re eternally optimists, believing in a better world with heads even stronger than our unshakable hearts, and finally working toward it.