Escape Pod 525: Among the Living

Among the Living

by John Markley

Williams perceives a world of hazy reds and angular grays. He sees through smoke and through walls. He sees the fury of fires and the sparks of life in survivors hundreds of yards away. He sees every crack and buckle in the structure around him.

Most importantly, he can’t see Chicago’s burning skyline as it would look to his own eyes.

The bulky door barring him from the interior of Waldron Arcology shudders as Williams’ gauntlet-mounted saw tears through its hinges, then falls outward. McIlrath, Principe, and Armstrong catch it, lowering it to the ground while Williams’ saw retracts. Team Leader Garcia shouts commands.

The room beyond is an inferno. The five step aside, and a great blast of fire-retardant dust blasts from the Vertical Take-Off/Landing transport on the landing pad.

They advance into what had been the terminal for the 150th floor’s south landing pad. Williams takes the lead, metal ringing under his 500-pound weight with every step. There’s no need for anyone in full Evac Team Armor to wait for the fire to go out; extinguishing it isn’t for their benefit.

Fire-choking sodium chloride and melting thermoplastics spread across every surface, covering everything but sparing Williams nothing. He sees through it as if it were air, sees the skeletal ultrasound reflections of every person who died here.

They died very quickly, Williams reminds himself. One of the floor’s main corridors runs straight through the center of the building to here. The shock wave of superheated atmosphere and debris had been channeled towards this place unimpeded, crushing and incinerating them before they could have registered what was happening.

He hopes. He hopes most of the 150,000 people living here died that way.

Data from the sensors studding Williams’ armor pours in, and he says, “Fizzy, Williams. Corridor spectra coming. You getting it?”

Fizzy’s avatar materializes in the corner of Williams’ vision. “Yeah. Looks like y’all got titanium fires down the hall. Bits blasted from deeper in, I reckon.”

Fizzy is the human interface of Chicago Fire Department Central, an artificial intelligence running on processors distributed across the city. Normally he’s a smiling cartoon glob of flame-retardant white foam wearing an old-fashioned red fire helmet, with big googly eyes and a voice like Slim Pickens doing an impression of himself. Today he’s traded his red helmet in for a black one, and his usual jollity is subdued.

Garcia cuts in. “Alright, turn 150 yards in. Engine 17, Garcia. Negative, that’s negative, on primary hose support. Metal fire suppression down main corridor to 200, two-zero-zero, meters. Central, feed them.”

“Got it, boss,” Fizzy says. He doesn’t like being called “Central,” though he doesn’t make an issue of it during emergencies. “Y’all might want to get outta the way.”

The armored figures march straight into the fire, keeping to the sides of the corridor. High-speed projectiles shoot past them, bursting at intervals and spewing out more clouds of dust. Titanium burns hot, so hot that the water in fire-suppressant foam would decompose into its constituent elements, and there are few laws of fire safety more fundamental than “don’t spray oxygen at it.”

Williams leads as as they storm down the corridor through air still hot enough to kill an unprotected person, ultrasound sensors alert for signs of structural instability. He tries not to think about the temperatures needed to ignite structural titanium in the first place.

150 yards in, they turn right. Williams doesn’t have far to go before reaching another wall of flame. He subvocalizes, and a nozzle mounted on his shoulder whirs into position. Precisely aimed bursts of suppressant spurt down the hall, targeting the telltale spectral lines of burning titanium.

“Y’all are nearly there,” Fizzy says. “Reckon ‘bout 97 people inside, give or take.”

“Give or take what?” Williams asks, subvocally. Sensors on his throat make speaking aloud superfluous.

“Three at a bad angle for biometric sensors inside. Can’t say if’n they’re dead or just restin’.”

Advanced AIs pick up idiosyncrasies over time. “Fizzy” was originally a cartoon mascot used in fire safety messages for children. An intelligence of Central’s complexity can’t be built; it has to be grown. Even in the carefully controlled virtual environments of nascent artificial intelligences, shielded from the unforeseeable chaos of reality, evolution is often unpredictable. Whether this is a sign of actual sentience and volition is hotly debated; what isn’t is that an AI like Central is too valuable to discard and too complex to “fix.”

Williams’ advance is unrelenting, and when he reaches the wall of flame he keeps going. He is the vanguard, laden with sensors and enough tools to cut through or break down virtually anything. Thoroughly extinguishing the fire is the job of McIlrath and Principe, who are better-equipped for it.

The world around him shimmers as pulses of laser light and ultrasound from his imagers refract in the churning air and come back bent. Everything seems like a dream, hazy and intangible. For the hundredth time that day, Williams urges himself to wake up, wake up from a nightmare that can’t possibly be real.

It didn’t work the first time, when he rose from bed just in time to see the first explosions in low orbit light the sky. It didn’t work when he watched a column of fire from heaven saw through the John Hancock Center and send its top 40 floors crashing towards Michigan Avenue. It didn’t work when a constellation of new suns ignited half a mile above the city and the North Side vanished behind pillars of smoke 70,000 feet high. It didn’t work when his sister Jane’s frantic telephone call about bursts of light over Miami was cut off mid-word.

It doesn’t work now. This is reality. The world that hadn’t been consumed in fire was the dream.

He reaches the outer door of one of Waldron’s numerous emergency shelters. Each is armored, insulated, and anchored directly to the building’s indestructible skeleton. Stocked with enough food, water, and air to sustain residents for days while they awaited rescue, they’re a clever solution to the unique safety problem of such a large building–if you can’t evacuate outside quickly, evacuate inside. It works, usually.

But nothing is truly indestructible. That the entire structure had not come down immediately after the laser strike testified to its astonishing strength, but it couldn’t last.

“Need your drips adjusted, Steve?” Fizzy asks, over a private channel. Williams’ suit monitors his vitals and feeds performance-enhancers into his blood. Normally that mostly means stimulants and concentrated sugars, but if the wearer seems in danger of breaking under stress there are other options.

“I’m fine,” Williams says.

Fizzy bobs up and down in a nod, avuncular concern on his animated face. “Figured as much, just checking. Let me know if you do later, alright? Ain’t no shame in it. Reckon I could use a few slugs o’ something ‘bout now myself, and I ain’t even out there.”

The door opens and Williams, Garcia, and Armstrong step into an airlock while McIlrath and Principe remain outside, blasting suppressant. The atmosphere cycles, and the inner door opens. The shelter is well short of full capacity. Disappointing, but expected.

The orbital laser strike sent a shock wave of expanding air and burning debris through the corridors of every floor, killing or incapacitating anyone it reached and turning much of the building’s interior into near-vacuum. Then the outward pressure of the blast wave ceased, sending another storm of wind and fire back towards the core as the searing atmosphere rushed to reclaim the empty space. Anyone who’d been in the right place at the right time to survive that and have an unobstructed route to the shelter short enough to get inside in time had been very lucky indeed. For a certain value of “lucky.”

Groans of pain greet Williams. Faces turn to lo look, many bearing burns. Others are too injured or exhausted to move even that much. People are scattered haphazardly, mostly seated, many sprawled on the floor.

Even with armored boots thudding against the floor, it feels unnaturally quiet. “Alright, who’s injured?” Williams says, then winces as he realizes his exterior speakers are turned up to be audible over the inferno outside. He dials them down. Garcia addresses the survivors, assuring them that everything is going to be okay as he explains the evacuation procedure.

Williams and Armstrong work on the injured, using Williams’ ultrasound array to peer inside people’s bodies for internal injuries. Emergency medicine is mostly Armstrong’s lookout, and there isn’t much they can do here in any case beyond stabilizing the injured enough to keep them alive for the trip out of the building.

In one corner of the room is a pile of burned bodies. Most of them are small children, carried here by parents when they were mortally injured or already dead. Williams’ thoughts wrench back to that interrupted phone call from Jane, when he’d been able to hear his seven-year old niece Daphne crying in the background…

Garcia is a liar. Nothing is ever going to be okay again.

Garcia opens the emergency evacuation suits storage container along one wall. Each suit consists of an insulated smartfiber tunic, socks, gloves, trousers, and a cowl with a built-in air supply. When activated, they fuse into an airtight whole and reshapes themselves to the wearer’s body. It keeps its wearer breathing and can withstand heat that would burn the unprotected to death. Enough to get out of here.

A few people are too injured to walk out, all of them small children; nobody with seriously impaired mobility who was too big to easily carry made it in time. Williams kneels beside the most badly injured of them, an unconscious boy of about six with severe burns and a shattered pelvis.

His nephew Jimmy is six years old. Is he still alive? Is anyone in Miami still alive?

This boy isn’t dead. Not yet.

The child is accompanied by a lanky, balding man with badly burnt hands and forearms, dressed only in white boxers. Suit biometric scanners probe invisibly, transmit data to Central, and produce a name: Hugh Siegel, Waldron resident for only two weeks, 49 years old.

Armstrong turns to him. “Sir, your son’s going to be OK, we-”

“I’m not his father,” Siegel says flatly. “His family lives down the hall from me. Lived. Name’s Tom, I think.” Fizzy scours the residential records. Thomas Fisher, age six. “I just ran into him on my way to the shelter.”

“Reckon he did more than that,” Fizzy says as Williams turns his sensors on the boy. “Look at them burns, hands ‘n arms and nowhere else.”

Armstrong turns to Williams. ” We put him in the co– ET, now.”

Opened on the ground, the Emergency Trauma Evacuation Transport looks like a thick black blanket. It can be carried like a gurney or, if need be, strapped to the back of their armor. As carefully as they can, Williams and Armstrong move the boy onto it. A breather unit seals itself to his face and the blanket begins to move, engulfing him. It’s informally known as “the Coffin,” though calling it that in front of the public is frowned upon.

Garcia recruits uninjured survivors to help their less fortunate fellows struggle into their suits. Some survivors have injuries that will be made worse by being moved. Williams helps Armstrong give them morphine and tries to ignore the screams as they’re moved anyway. Williams sees it happening, sees the ultrasound shadows of fractured bones inside them. There is no better option.

Fizzy’s avatar appears on monitors throughout the shelter, reassuring the children that everything will be alright and helping explain evacuation procedures. Williams is happy to see him; already-terrified kids didn’t always respond well to faceless metal giants booming out commands. Neither did adults, for that matter.

He isn’t supposed to be doing that. CFD Central was designed as a tactical/logistical idiot-savant. It had only been taught to interact with humans, or even be aware of their existence as anything other than mission objectives or resources, to the extent necessary to communicate with the personnel it directed. Consoling frightened children is about as far from what Central’s creators had in mind as anything could be.

It’s time. They open the airlock, inner and outer doors at once. McIlrath and Principe did their job well, dousing the corridor in suppressant to create a path out. Most of the survivors move in single file, each gripping their predecessor by the shoulder. Here and there the line sprouts outgrowths like some ghastly polymer chain, where small children are being escorted or people unable to walk unassisted lean on their fellows. Williams brings up the rear, with the Emergency Transport containing the insensate Thomas Fisher fastened to his back.

The floor wobbles beneath them. There are other survivors still inside, and there will be no time for them. There aren’t enough firemen in the city to get them all out, not when there are burning towers stretching from horizon to horizon. Williams is again glad for the flat gray of lidar and ultrasound. If he had to see this procession of shrouded figures through his own eyes, stumbling half-blind through the smoldering corridor, he’d wonder if he’d died in the attack and was in Hell already.

The wobble becomes a lurch, and Williams feels himself falling. There’s a hard, solid impact, then another, but his descent doesn’t stop. Floors are buckling as a nearby support pillar falters, and he’s crashing through them. Layers of shock-absorbing ferrous fluid in his armor stiffen under precisely controlled magnetic fields, blunting blows that should have killed him. He resists the response trained into him, to land on his back with arms and legs outstretched; the boy is back there. He crashes through five crumbling floors before the sixth stops him.

He pulls himself to his feet as his team leader’s voice comes over the radio. “Williams, Garcia! Can you hear me?”

“I hear you,” Williams says. Garcia and the others are above him, he realizes as he checks his map display. The train of survivors was at the very edge of the collapse when it happened. Thank God.

“We need to get you out of there,” Garcia says.” If we–”

“Negative,” Fizzy says. “There ain’t time; this whole place is coming down. Keep moving, I might be able to–.”

Garcia shouts, “God damn it, Central–”

“Everybody’s gonna die if y’all don’t skedaddle now, Garcia! I ran all the possibilities; think I’d tell ya to leave a man if there were some other way? Get the hell out!”

Williams has never heard Fizzy speak that way to anyone before. “He’s right, boss,” he says. “Just… Don’t forget me if I don’t make it, OK?”

Garcia’s voice goes from a shout to barely a whisper. “We won’t, brother.” The channel switches off.

A moment later, Fizzy’s voice returns. “Loadin’ a route to your display, explain later. Git movin’!” Fizzy’s voice is not accompanied by his usual avatar, just the sterile official CFD Central icon. That’s unusual; Fizzy loves to be seen.

Williams is in the living room of a midsized apartment, surrounded by a halo of ash and embers stirred by his fall. He sees invisible human shadows in the spectral lines of burnt carbon seared into the walls. They died quickly, at least. He hopes Jane and Jimmy and Daphne went as quickly. And his brother-in-law Terrence, irritating blowhard though he was. He hopes everyone who has to die today goes that quickly–-a burst of light, and peace. Most of them won’t.

He’s very, very tired. He wants to lie down, close his eyes, and sleep. Go back to his half-remembered dreams of being a man from the South Side who loved old movies and spent unreasonable amount of money keeping his ‘47 Krupp Chevy running and looked forward to spending the holidays with his sister’s family in Florida every year.

But he’s dead, and the boy is still alive. He begins to move towards the heart of the building, putting his faith in Fizzy’s northward route.

“Steve?” It’s Fizzy’s voice, oddly quiet. His avatar is still absent. Any hesitation or pauses in the speech of an AI the size of CFD Central are a calculated attempt to sound more human. If Central were ever so overtaxed that it actually needed appreciable fractions of a second to consider responses in a single conversation, it wouldn’t be using precious processor cycles on voice synthesis in the first place. It seems no less sincere to Williams for all that. “In case this don’t work, I want you to know I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK, Fizzy,” Williams says, and means it. Leaving him was the right call, harsh though it was, and it was precisely what the AI had been built for: To take in more of the big picture at once than any human could and assign resources where they’d do the most good.

CFD Central certainly hadn’t been built to act as if it felt guilty about it, though. Its aversion to loss of personnel was a negative number a programmer had entered into the cardinal utility function in the code of an artificial neural network before turning it on for the first time. That wasn’t an emotion.

Then again, neither was the evolutionary pressure of kin selection, but that hadn’t stopped Williams from howling uselessly into the receiver and hammering his fist against the wall until it bled when his sister’s voice cut off mid-word as fires bloomed over Miami.

“What’s the plan, Fizzy?” Williams asks. “I’m assuming there’s a reason I’m going all the way across the building.”

“Yeah,” Fizzy says, sounding a bit more energetic. “There’s a hole in the outer shell of Waldron over yonder, where a transport crashed on account o’ EMP. Commandeering a vehicle to swing by.”

“This route goes through the core, Fizzy; there’s nothing there.”

“Reckon you’ll have to jump. And don’t slow down for a second, understand?”

“Good God.” Williams can’t argue with Fizzy’s idea; he has a reasonable chance of pulling it off, and there isn’t time to go around or saw through the outer shell himself. More formally, he says, “Drop primary safeguards. Williams, Steven. Authorization Juliet-Alpha-Mike-Echo-Sierra.” The electroactive muscles of his armor are normally restricted from moving its limbs at speeds that might injure the wearer. Fizzy is supposed to rattle off a list of safety warnings before obeying a command to turn those restrictions off. He doesn’t bother. Williams accelerates, legs burning.

He hurtles through a burning corridor towards the heart of the building, hoping the Coffin will hold long enough. He enters another residential section, and can see how weak the walls are; non-load-bearing structures in an arcology are no tougher than any other building’s. Instead of going around them he simply smashes through, sending clouds of shattered plaster flying from the impact of 500 pounds of metal moving at nearly 40 miles an hour.

He enters a broad main corridor with an unobstructed route through the center of the arcology. Ultrasound shows the floor ahead distorting as the dying structure’s supports continue to shift. At the corridor’s end is a great cloud of churning darkness. He rushes to meet it. “Fizzy, how’s the boy?”

“Had to ease him, I’m afraid.” Williams cringes. Emergency On-Site Stabilization is a dense mixture of enzymes, hormones, sugars, and nanomachines that dramatically accelerates tissue regeneration. It frequently saves the lives of trauma patients who would have died before more thorough medical care reached them.

It’s used sparingly. One reason for that is that the waste products of the metabolic frenzy the drug sets off make the patient violently ill for days afterward.

The other is that it keeps the recipient awake, no matter how much unconsciousness might be preferred. EOSS is euphemistically pronounced “ease” in hushed tones by the same men and women who will cheerfully call an evacuation transport “the Coffin.”

Fizzy continues, “He’s a real brave boy, though, tell you what. Tommy is hanging’ in there. You gotta too, alright?”

“Yeah,” Williams says.

The blackened corridor grows eerily calm. The inferno consuming the outer reaches of the building has little left to burn here. The light of the embers is swallowed up by smoke.

In the heart of the building is a wide open area, extending upwards until it met the sky and downwards farther than any eye could see. From a distance it might be mistaken for an atrium, but only for a moment.

The walls and floors around it are burnt and warped. Where the temperatures rose too high for plastic and concrete to withstand, solid floors give way to twisted lattices of metal and carbon nanotubes extending into empty space, supporting nothing. Larger structural members reach further, until the point where the heat made carbon molecules crumble and titanium alloys burn.

Beyond that is an open abyss, blazing hot and pitch-black with rising smoke. It reaches down through over 100 floors. Every single one of them is in flames. This is Hell.

This is ground zero. This is where a spear of focused light pierced the heart of what had been the home of over 150,000 people. Williams continues accelerating towards it, until he’s going too fast to stop in time even if he wanted to.

He leaps into the dark.

For a few frightening moments, he is left blind. The smoke swallows all light. Infrared is saturated. Violently swirling particulate matter and shifting temperature gradients distort lidar and ultrasound into meaningless gibberish. The outside universe is gone. Only heat and darkness and the crushing awareness of loss remain.

Then he is through. He lands on the other side with an impact that feels like knives shooting up his abused legs, his forward momentum forcing him to keep running or hit the ground face-first. A loud groan reverberates as the world tilts forward several degrees. Williams continues to accelerate towards the breach in the arcology’s outer shell, gasping in pain as sinews tear and joints crack.

Through clenched teeth, he asks, “How we doing?”

“Aside from voiding the warranty on a couple million bucks worth o’ gear, pretty good,” Fizzy replies. His avatar is still absent, but he sounds more cheerful; Williams is surprised at how good that makes him feel. “Need ya to jump again far as you can at the breach, alright?”

“Wait, what–”

“Your ride’s been a touch delayed, so you ‘n Tommy are gonna have to meet it halfway.”

Even after his brief fall, Williams is over half a mile high. “I hate this idea.”

Fizzy relies. “If’n y’all had any other shot–”

“I didn’t say it was a bad idea,” Williams replies with a bitter smile. “Just that I hate it.”

Fizzy’s avatar materializes in its usual spot in his vision, looking more serious than Williams had imagined a googly-eyed glob of cartoon foam in an oversized fire helmet ever could. “I do, too. I won’t let you fall, brother. I swear I won’t.”

Williams further increases his speed. “I know.”

Walls give way to his advance like paper, and Williams barely notices the impacts. He notes that Fizzy has a separate communication channel open to the boy–Tommy, Williams reminds himself, he has a name–running though his suit. The AI’s vast processing power can conduct numerous conversations simultaneously, if need be. He opens the channel, listen-only.

“–safe on the ground ‘fore ya know it! Fizzy’s Word o’ Honor!”

A boy’s voice replies, very small and very weak. His tone is flat and distorted; a synthetic recreation of subvocalizations, not actual speech. “I-I’m still scared. I’m s-sorry…”

“You don’t need to be sorry, boy! Everybody gets afeared sometimes, ‘specially times like now. Ain’t no shame in it.”

“E-even Mr. Steve?”

“‘Course even Steve! You can’t see his biometrics right now, but he’s swimmin’ in cortisol and his amygdala’s lit up like a Christmas tree.” A brief pause. “Though I reckon you wouldn’t know what that means.”

Williams sees the breach. There is no trace of the vehicle that made it, now lying in a shattered heap thousands of feet below. Beyond the breech he can see downtown Chicago, the dark silhouettes of its great towers illuminated by flames. The view shifts as Waldron continues to totter. He can’t see any sign of the vehicle Fizzy promised, either; he hopes that’s just his restricted field of view from inside.

He hits the breach at over 50 miles per hour and leaps into empty space, half a mile high. Waldron Arcology seems to chase him as supports on the north side of the building finally give way and the enormous structure begins to fall. He switches off all of his enhanced imaging, seeing with nothing but his own eyes for the first time in hours.

Thousands of human beings that he hadn’t saved are still trapped inside. They deserve a human witness. Everyone does.

Devastation extends to the horizon in all directions now, shimmering in the light of burning skyscrapers. To the north, where most of the nukes that made it through hit, it looks like the sun is rising into a black noon sky as tens of square miles are consumed in a single common conflagration. Somewhere to his right is Lake Michigan, churning in the winds of the great firestorm.

He falls face-down, arms and legs outstretched. The radio crackles, and Fizzy says, “Steve, last-minute change. Need ya to roll so your right side’s facin’ down… Like that, yeah. Much obliged.”

Williams can see a small light approaching from the west, the running lights of a damaged skybus rushing to meet him. “Fizzy, what’s the deal? You can’t catch me with that, I’d just bounce off the roof and oh God–”

The bus strikes him head-on, pinning his spread-eagled body against its bow. Williams howls as the air is forced from his lungs. The bus barrels onwards at 80 miles an hour, pushing him along with it. “Sorry ‘bout that,” Fizzy says. “Best I could get in position on such short notice. Had to convince the Chicago Transit Authority to lend me something, and he can be a right ornery fella, tell you what.”

Williams struggles to breathe as his battered diaphragm spasms. “The boy.. Tommy… He OK? The impact–”

“He’s fine. Lucky he got a shock absorber. Speaking of which, looks like you busted a couple o’ ribs; you want I should turn analgesics up?”

“No…I’m…fine…” Williams says between wheezes. They’re still heading east, towards Lake Michigan. “Tell the others I made it, would you?”

Fizzy says, “Already done. McIlrath said she knew you were too damn bull-headed to die, as I recollect. We’re descendin’ towards the lake now. I’ll slow down and let y’all drop into the water, understand? Gentle as could be. Then you can walk to shore.”

The bus swoops downward until its roaring tiltrotor engines churn the lake below. Williams feels it slow and slow, and then he’s falling. He barely feels the slap of the water.

He sinks rapidly. Nothing but his headlamp illuminates the murk. He leaves enhanced imaging off; firefighting lidar and ultrasound aren’t built with the bottoms of lakes in mind. His armor can’t swim, but it doesn’t need to. Once he has his bearings, he starts walking towards the shore. The pressure is no threat to him or his passenger, and he strides along the lake bottom at a steady pace.

It’s peaceful down here, a world that isn’t being consumed in fire. Where Chicago’s skyline isn’t a graveyard of thousand-kiloton tombstones, where millions of his countrymen haven’t died in the space of hours and NATO’s counterattack hasn’t turned every city between the Indus and the Bay of Bengal into a funeral pyre, where Tommy is still living because he’s safe with his parents and not because of a stranger who plunged his bare arms into fire rather than leave a child to die.

Where Jane and Jimmy and Daphne and Terrence are all alive. Everything is slow and hazy in the water, like a dream. Just a dream.

Fizzy reappears and says, “I already contacted the nearest unit with somebody outta the saddle to relieve you. They’ll meet you on the beach.” The Department has many more firefighters qualified for Evac armor than it can equip at once. Howtswapping isn’t uncommon. “I got scans o’ how your legs’ insides look, an’ if you so much as think to argue–”

“I won’t, Fizzy,” Williams says. Without the armor’s support he’d be unable to walk at all. He just wants to lie down and sleep. “I know. How’s the boy?”

“He’s OK, Steve. He’ll make it. You could ask yourself.”

He opens the channel to his passenger, where he’s greeted by the sound of Fizzy singing the second verse of “Red River Valley” in a surprisingly good lyric tenor. The superconducting tanks of frozen copper and bismuth selenide sitting in the basement of District Headquarters at just above absolute zero had certainly not been designed to do that. Williams nearly closes the channel without saying a word, but stops himself. “Tommy, can you hear me?”

“Ye-yes,” Tommy replies. “Are you Mr. Steve?”

Yeah,” Williams says. “We’re going to be alright, okay? You’re safe now, and we’ll have you out of the Co–out of that little rescue shelter before you know it. Don’t be scared.”

“Where’s my m-mom and dad? I don’t know where they are…” Williams winces. A moment later, his head breaks the surface of Lake Michigan. He can see the flashing emergency lights of a medevac VTOL, an ancient-looking Chicago Fire Department ladder truck that looks like it was borrowed from a museum, and the silhouettes of the team who’ll haul him out of his armor. One of the gutted skyscrapers lining Lake Shore Drive looms behind them. The water around Williams shimmers with reflected light as it burns.

“I… I don’t know, Tommy. I’m sorry. Christ, I’m so sorry.” Williams struggles to speak. In his head the flat synthetic recreation of the boy’s subvocalizations sounds so much like Jimmy it hurts. “Just… hang on and be brave, okay? You’re going to survive, Tommy. Me and Fizzy are right here with you. Don’t… please don’t give up. Promise me you won’t.”

“I p-promise. Will you s-stay with me?”

He could, Williams realizes. He certainly isn’t fit to return to duty. Tommy won’t be coming out of that ET for some time, so physical proximity makes no difference. And the EOSS won’t be letting Tommy sleep for hours yet. No peaceful unconsciousness, no refuge in dreams, no waking up from this nightmare until it had run its own course.

“Yeah. ‘Course I will, Tommy. I’ll be right here. I promise.”

The dripping metal figure stands on the beach while emergency personnel gather around it. The ET carrying Tommy is detached from its back and prepared for transport. Williams sucks in a deep breath and says, “Unseal and open. Williams, Steven. Authorization Delta-Alpha-Papa-Hotel-November-Echo.” His face feels cold as the viscous impact-absorbing fluid in his helmet drains away, and then there’s a hiss as the front of his armor opens. There are men waiting outside, who carefully lift him out and onto a stretcher.

Williams lies flat, bare eyes staring into the black sky. He can make out a slightly lighter patch where the sun would be, if there were one. Bright jet trails streak across it, left by aircraft bearing supplies and personnel from less ravaged areas across Lake Michigan. It only now registers with Williams that the VTOL on the beach says “Indianapolis Fire and Rescue Corporation” on the side. Strangers, come to help.

“Fizzy? You there?” he asks. With only his small headset instead of his full helmet, Williams has to gasp out every word aloud. He nearly cries out from the pain of the muscle cramps that have begun wracking his body

Williams has no way of seeing his avatar, but the voice responding is unmistakable. “‘Course I am, pardner. You’re gonna be OK. Hold on a sec.”

Williams sees his replacement, a grim-faced woman who looks about 10 feet tall. She glances at him as she passes and gives him a respectful nod that he is too weak to return. He’s utterly used up, and without the stream of intravenous energy from his armor his metabolism is crashing. She understands.

The air shimmers and Fizzy appears suspended a few feet over a startled Williams, popping and crackling softly in the heat of the infrared laser pulses projecting him. He’s borrowed the volumetric projector of the nearby medevac VTOL. It’s designed to paint emergency instructions or warning signals in the air, but it’ll do for other things in a pinch. “That’s better,” Fizzy says, voice slightly out of sync with his image. “Just checking they weren’t planning any fancy procedures out here, ‘fore loading y’all up. Wouldn’t wanna be underfoot.”

“Fizzy,” Williams says, “tell them to make sure I have a com at all times, OK?”

“No problem, Steve.”

“And… not to give me anything that’ll make me sleep or get too out it. Need to… need to be lucid for at least a few hours, alright?”

“I can do that, but… you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Williams says. “Promised the boy… Word o’ Honor, right? Please.” The last word comes out with more intensity than he intended.

There’s a moment of silence before Fizzy says, “I understand. You got it.”

Williams lets out a long, slow breath and says, “Thanks, brother.”

“Sure,” Fizzy says, “I’ll just… I’ll put you back on Tommy’s channel now, alright?”

There’s a brief static hissc before Fizzy’s voice returns mid-word “–ley’s hushed and white with snooow, ‘tis I’ll be heeeeere in sunshine or in shaaaadoooow, oh–”

Suddenly Williams is gagging as something fills his throat. He coughs frantically, desperate for air, as one of the medics kneels beside him and turns his head to one side. He coughs up a brief spurt of digestive acid, forced from his stomach by spasming abdominal muscles; he hadn’t thought he’d had any left. Breathing again is blissful, taste of bile and all.

“I’m alright,” he says, voice raspy. “I’m alright, Tommy. Don’t try to talk, OK? We’re here.” Tommy responds with a weak, approving murmur.

“Well heck, Steve,” Fizzy says, “I don’t reckon my singin’ is that bad.”

Williams laughs weakly, ignoring the new ripples of pain it sends through his cramping muscles and raw throat. He’d wanted that air. It was the first time since waking up that the thought I don’t want to die had entered his mind.

About the Author

John Markley

John Markley is a person that exists.

Find more by John Markley


About the Narrator

Carl Allery

Carl Allery has sold a couple of stories (Farthing Magazine, Killers ed. Colin Harvey), had a couple read out loud (BBC local radio, Escape Pod) and had a couple placed in short story contests (Jim Baen Memorial, Heinlein Society Centennial). He lives in Somerset, UK with 2 Feline Overlords and needs to write more.

Find more by Carl Allery