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.

The Collective: Part 9

9.

Rude Awakening

The group returned to Tokyo unscathed. Nothing had changed; either the Collective wasn’t sure of the damage done yet, or they were expertly keeping it quiet. Lex guessed the latter. Rachel agreed; it was doubtful anyone in the Collective was willing to admit defeat, let alone when it spelled disaster for the world’s economy. Credits were still good for the moment, despite not being backed by anything hard, but the news would eventually get out.

Containment was one of the few things the Collective hadn’t been able to exert over the Sleepers. Their lives in the virtual worlds were all connected by RSS-feeds, news blotters, chat-logs, forums; information flowed freely through them all. The Collective had learned the hard way long ago that the more one attempted to manipulate its flow, the more pressurized it became. All the same, contingencies would be enacted to keep people from waking, rioting once the news got out. Lex aimed to make any countermeasures pointless.

She and the others were ready to move almost as soon as they reached Tokyo’s limits. The deaths of Steinsson and Andersson would ensure that the final, few members of the Collective were even more heavily-guarded than the last. Without a doubt there’d be whole GSS contingents between the remaining four members of the Collective and Lex’s group.

They were secondary targets now though. The main targets were already sighted, and their last asset was ready to take the playing field. He’d been informed of his duties on return from Switzerland, all relevant information transferred to him. His allegiance had been assured by the murders of Li and Kay before him, the continued deaths of the Collective further ensured he would honor their deal. Regardless, it wouldn’t be long before the Sleepers woke, with or without him.

Lex and the others piled out of the van long enough to eat, rest, and await nightfall. They vacated a hideaway beneath Tokyo’s streets as the last rays of sunshine were snuffed out, gave way to Tokyo’s neon, light-polluted glow.

Lex led the way through alleys toward their destination. Vehicles were too easy to track given their sore-thumbed obviousness on empty streets. They were easily concealed along the surface all the way to the target building; a giant, server-storage site that stole most of the nearby real-estate with an impressive expanse. It looked about as futuristic as it was; all angles with windows that formed an upward curve along two-thirds of its front, ended with the lowest third’s roof. The rest of the building rose like a giant, crystal chrysalis into the sky. If Lex had to guess, she’d have said there were roughly a hundred and twenty floors between the lobby and the roof. At its very top would be her targets.

She split off from Rachel and the others at the rear-entrance. There was an almost mournful look in the latter’s eyes, but both women knew there was nothing to be done about it. Rachel was needed elsewhere and Lex’s assignment was something she needed to do herself.

She stealthed her way through empty, service hallways. The narrow paths cut through the building’s interior to a grand lobby. Granite floors and marble-topped half-circle reception-desk sat beneath a quarter-wall that split the lobby in half, extended sky ward to the crest of the curved windows. The Global Entertainment logo of a wire-frame globe with solid continents stared down.

Lex passed it, careful not to be caught on any of the dozens of cameras around, and skirted the walls for the elevators at the back of the lobby. She stepped inside an elevator to await the signal, watched a small LED screen glow with an animated version of the globe-logo. It flashed to a face and Lex’s eyes narrowed on the man she’d ordered to speak for the Collective.

His Japanese features were obvious, pristine, but he hadn’t been glitzed with make-up– the sweat that gleamed off his face said as much. In fact, Lex knew for certain he was hiding in a hole, broadcasting through a remote up-link the team maintained from a server-room.

He cleared his throat, “On behalf of Global Entertainment, I would like to speak with you, our loyal audience, for a moment.” Japanese subtitles repeated his words in character script as Lex’s jaw tightened. “Two days ago, the final reserves of Platinum and Gold bullion that back our digital currency were destroyed. For those that do not know, it is these reserves that all money is based off. In effect, our entire economy has been eradicated.”

Lex quit listening. By now there would be chaos across the ‘net. The two Collective’s members on-site, heads of tech Kazue Matsuoka and her lover Maja Stroman, would be scrambling to shut down the link, confused as to why they couldn’t. Lex hit a button for the top-floor penthouse. The elevator lurched upward. She was the distraction, meant to buy time to finish the broadcast, enact the final part of their plan.

Lex touched a communicator in her ear, “I’m moving up.”

Rachel looked back at Ryo as he hunched over a keyboard on the edge of a floor-full of servers. He pressed his ear as he worked, “The broadcast is thirty seconds out. I’m hacking the system now. You’ll be the only functioning elevator. There’s a whole contingent in the penthouse. Be ready.”

Lex’s hands clenched into fists, “Just get it done.”

Rachel cast a look between Yang-Lee and Kaz, racked the bolt on a GSS rifle, “Here we go.”

The elevator-doors opened at the penthouse floor. Twelve rifles lit up the insides. For a moment there was nothing but the sounds of sustained fire. Someone shouted something in Japanese, and it stopped. The squad leader pointed to two of his team, sent them in to scour the elevator with a pair of gestures. They inched forward, leaned into their rifles, with rigid bodies. The rifles swept left and right inside, up and down, found nothing. They relaxed in confusion, turned back to face the rest of the squad.

The squad’s arms lowered. A near-silent of metal on fabric swished. Lex’s boots slammed a vent cover atop the elevator. She plunged through, landed blades-out. The swords angled up, stabbed in at the spines of both men. Blood sprayed from punctures as the blades pierced their fronts. Rifles rose again, chattered against Lex’s double-wide meat-shield.

Holes riddled the dead men. The blades propelled them forward. Lex growled, burst from the elevator with a flying leap, flipped up, over the line of armed men and women, landed behind the squad leader. Fire lagged behind, followed, went silent before it killed the commander.

One blade went left, the other right. A pivot turned to a pirouette. A hand followed through. Lex mentally counted down; Eight.

A wide leg sleep, low gravity. Two bodies tumbled, stunned. One more fell from a dual slice across the belly. Seven.

The sweep turned acrobatic. A flying round-house staggered another man. A blade sliced a second’s throat beside him. Six.

She began another landing; a blade cut the calf of a woman. The other plunged up, in, and out her sternum. Five.

A wide, uplifted sweep, lacerated another woman’s torso. Four.

Lex’s legs drew nearer, body upright. The three staggered men began to recover. She whirled with a spin, made circles to aim. A stab inward through the heart of the last man standing, and one on the ground. Two.

With another sweep, and a fluid shift, she kept the last men down. The blades whirled, plunged down through soft bodies. Zero.

She hesitated a moment to control her breath, then ripped the blades out to survey the carnage.

Tell-tale abstracts of blood were painted across the penthouse’s beige walls. Corpses lay where they’d fallen; some atop one other, others sequestered, alone. All were covered in blood. The penthouse’s hardwood-floor was a crimson pool of still-warm blood beneath Lex’s boots. She straightened with a whirl of her blades. Blood flung from the tips as she marched forward along the wide hallway, into a massive, main room that looked out on Tokyo with a bird’s -eye view.

The sight was breathtaking. Tokyo was a glowing jewel of prosperity in an otherwise blackened sea. Lex was compelled toward the windows. She took a few steps to the large, six-person dining table atop a platform. It shined from a lacquer finished that mixed the faint neon of Tokyo with the room’s low sconces on its supports and walls. For a moment, Lex almost regretted what was about to happen. The click of a pistol’s hammer reminded her of its necessity. From the sound, she guessed something German.

“Miss Stroman. Nice of you to join me.” Only the faintest of feet scuffed wood from a corner of the room, “Tell your wife to stay or I kill her before she reaches the elevator.”

The German woman’s hard-angled face sneered, pulled high-lighted hair tighter around her round forehead. Lex didn’t move. Stroman shot a glance sideways, froze her wife with a look, “Your reckoning has arrived, Alexis.”

Lex ignored her, “It really is a beautiful view here at the top.” The German took a few steps forward, angled wide around Lex with the gun on her. “Join us, won’t you Kazue?” The Japanese woman remained frozen. “Very well then.”

Stroman took the platform’s steps one-by-one, settled even with Lex. The gun’s aim was firm, “Whatever you intended to prove ends here.”

Lex’s body remained steadfast. Her eyes swept the multi-colored beauty ahead, “Maybe.” Stroman’s left hand gripped the pistol beneath the right, further steadied her aim. Lex sensed the shift, waited, her eyes on the horizon, “Then again, perhaps I’ve already completed what I set out to do.”

As if flicked by switches, Tokyo’s city-blocks went dark one-by-one. Stroman didn’t notice until the lights went out above her. Kazue spoke from the corner of the room, “Maja!”

She glanced sideways to see the emerging darkness. Lex struck. In one move, she had Stroman by a wrist, gun pointed outward, away. Stroman eyed the blade hilt-deep in her gut. She grit her teeth, bucked back and forth. Kazue gasped, began to sob in the corner.

Maja’s mouth leaked blood, “You… Bitch…”

“The Sleepers are awakening,” Lex said coldly. “In two minutes power will return across the city long enough for an EMP to detonate.” Stroman fought with her last ounces of life against the grip on her wrist. Lex’s hand was firm, “In two and a half minutes, your world will be ours again.”

She ripped the blade from Stroman’s torso. Her body tumbled down the platform’s stairs to the floor. Kazue launched herself across the room, fell into howls beside Maja. Lex dislodged the gun’s magazine, tossed it across the penthouse. She turned, blade pointed downward, for Kazue.

“You’re a monster!” The woman screamed at Lex. She repeated the phrase, shoved her face against Maja’s chest to weep.

Lex stared down while the words echoed through her head. She didn’t doubt their truth, but couldn’t deny it was the Collective that had made them such. All she’d done was set out to right the world’s balance. There was never a choice for her but to ensure the Collective’s debts were repaid in blood. There was no system left to punish them. No courts to hold them accountable. No police to arrest them. They’d seen to that. With it, they’d as much signed their own death-warrants as formed the monster bound to slaughter them one and two at a time.

“You know what has to happen, Kazue,” Lex said. She ignored her, but her cries went silent. “The Sleepers must awaken. The debt must be repaid.”

Kazue sniffled. She kissed Maja softly on the lips and cheek, rose with a final breath. Her eyes were hard, tearful, but accepting. They met Lex’s. Kazue swallowed hard, stiffened her neck and spine with a small pair of nods.

Lex made it quick; a lone thrust through the heart. Kazue went limp against the blade, fell beside her lover as it retracted. The power faded back for a brief moment, then the sound of something like metal grating shook the building. A wave rolled out across Tokyo. The penthouse lights flared brightly, then died out. A door opened near the elevators, a shielded flashlight attachment on a rifle blinding Lex even at the distance. It lowered to reveal Rachel’s face, the others behind her.

Rachel jogged forward, met Lex halfway up the hall with a pant, “We’re ready to move. We’ll have to take the tunnels, the streets are already turning into chaos.”

“No,” Lex said defiantly. “No-one hides anymore. Hold your own, but don’t harm anyone. The GSS will be inbound. We need to ensure the people are protected.”
Rachel gave a nod, leaned to look past at the two bodies beside one another, “Stroman and Matsuoka?” Lex gave a sole nod. Rachel huffed from exertion, “Good. Come on.”

The rest of the group turned for the stairwell. Lex hesitated, mind caught in Kazue’s willing sacrifice. She hadn’t begged, or pled, merely accepted her fate. Lex sympathized, started forward to follow the others down the thousands of steps to the lobby.