“Eight three.” The woman drew back her racket to unleash another vicious serve against the front wall of the court. Damn if she wasn’t good. Totally tireless too. Jen nodded to confirm the score, brushing an errant strand of brown hair out of her eyes and back under her sweatband. She just about returned the Orange ranker’s serve this time, but was immediately on the defensive in the rally and having to cover about twice the distance her taller opponent was running.
“Nice shot,” Jen conceded with forced good grace. She disliked how one-sided the match was getting, but her technique would never improve unless she played people who could beat her. She loathed early-morning sports with a passion bordering on raw hate, although she knew it would help her keep fit. All too often over recent months, family duties had meant she’d been unable to find time for more than jogging around the park. Or exercising with the free weights that her current cohab partner had installed in the room that was supposed to be her office.
Another unreturnable serve followed, but the racquetball centre’s priestess mercifully dimmed the lights to interrupt play. “Paging ylo-Jen Czerny,” said a smooth female voice. “Sorry about your game, ladies, but this is a priority call-out from FedSec Dispatch.”
Undecided whether to be relieved at the interruption sparing her a severe hammering, or annoyed at another failure to record a completed game on the ladder, Jen shrugged apologetically.
“No worries, Citizen Yellow.” The athletic black girl may have been ready to destroy Jen mercilessly on court, but was looking at her with renewed respect now. “Dispatch? Duty calls; you can’t help it. Way to go.” She lowered her voice. “We both wanted this match on the books, right? I’ll register it as thirteen six. Always drop a few points I shouldn’t against left-handers. Fair enough, ylo-Jen?”
“More than.” Jen nodded her thanks as the youngster left. “Okay, priestess, patch it through.”
A holo-window popped up, as if Jen was looking into a room behind the wall. There were usually four different dispatchers at the city’s Search and Rescue centre, three Greys plus one Citizen controlling them. Today she saw others in the background too, including two officers. This was serious.
Jen outranked them, so etiquette dictated that the controller spoke first. “Good morning, Lieutenant.”
“Morning, red-Kendal. What’s up?”
“General call-out, Citizen Yellow. Your entire squad. Report to base as soon as possible. What’s your current location?”
“Sports hall round the corner,” she said. “Don’t send anyone to pick me up. I’ll be with you in five. What’s the emergency?”
“Another tremor, ma’am. In Bowcock this time.” A hick town half an hour away by aircar. Half a million residents at most, but populous enough to have its own FedSec forces. “Minor quake, but severe enough that they need your team for underground search and rescue.”
“Infrastructure damage the locals can’t handle?” she asked. “Or did people get caught in it? Not predicted?”
“Yes ma’am, it sounds like they didn’t see it coming,” said the dispatcher. “From what we’ve heard so far, people are panicking because loads of power lines are down.”
Search and Rescue were familiar with that issue. Darkness and dwindling air supplies soon made residents caught underground nervous and claustrophobic. It was one of the rare times Jen found herself praying assiduously to Gaia too, wanting everything about her to be up to date in the Afterlife. In case today was the day her physical body met its end.
“Is it stable? Have there been aftershocks?”
“No, ma’am. But they think it’s likely.”
“Shit.” This could be horrendously dangerous. “Our role?”
Kendal checked his notes. “A report that a tubeway train came off the rails. Caught fire too. They’re afraid it’ll be a right mess and they want the experts in there to back up the paramedics.”
A packed commuter train. This could be a bloody business. Hers wouldn’t be the only team they’d called: every spare FedSec grunt within a hundred klicks would be summoned. She braced herself for the worst.
“Nasty. Right: squirt the details to my pad and I’ll read them on the way in.”
“Roger that, Lieutenant.”
Less than ten minutes later, feeling sticky and sweaty, Jen met her team on the roof of the FedSec tower. There’d been no time to shower, so she’d thrown on her uniform again and sprinted the few hundred yards to HQ. A FedSec aircar was taking them straight to the town that had been hit. They stayed tuned in to Dispatch and the newsfeeds during the short flight. Jen had enough experience to know that every snippet of information they could gather might be crucial, so there was no bantering and joshing on the way. Hers was a tight-knit team with an unusual calling: there weren’t enough rescue operations for a full-time squad, so they generally doubled up on other police matters like the drugs trade too. But now it was time to do what they were trained for, and she was pleased to note that they went about it professionally. Despite the obvious hazard of a further quake, they’d all gone underground to help, even if the silently moving lips suggested that most of them were praying. It had sounded potentially disastrous, and the initial panicked reports had presaged a calamity on a considerable scale. But before they had even landed, red-Jonas had analysed the incoming streams and it had become clear that hassled junior staff had over-reacted and called in the same events multiple times. Jen’s training told her that was positive, cause for cautious relief. It was starting to look as if the fuss was as much due to a lack of communications as any reality on the ground. It had been a low-energy quake, doing limited structural damage apart from the one tube train. That, on the other hand, still sounded ominous, so she redirected the firefighters and paramedics there and instructed the aircar pilot to set them down at the nearest access point to the tubeway tunnels.
As a result, her own team was second on the scene, struggling to put on respirators as they rushed against the flow of sooty smoke into the entrance. Her responsibility was coordination, getting them to help with the fire-fighting equipment and emergency lighting. She ran ahead to see exactly what else was needed, only to be told by an over-excited corporal who looked barely old enough to be out of school that some quick-thinking passengers had stayed calm, operated the extinguishers and got the worst of the blaze under control.
“A lot of filthy smoke,” the girl said. “Horrid. It’s blackened the whole shooting match and everything stinks of singed plastics.”
Acrid and greasy; Jen smelled it too. “Atmosphere?”
If the gas concentrations were safe, they’d dispense with the bulky and uncomfortable respirators.
“Readouts say oxygen and carbon monoxide are fine.”
“No PPE needed?”
“Unpleasant but breathable, ma’am.”
“Okay,” she said with relief, her experience telling her already that this was going to be relatively controllable. Thank Gaia for that.
Other teams from further away arrived shortly afterwards, which meant they had enough numbers. Soon it became a question of liaising with the other lieutenants while the individual rescue party workers – Red-ranked guards accompanying ditto FedMed paramedics and nurses – guided shocked and severely shaken commuters from the wrecked train out along the dark tunnels. They were being idented one by one as they came out, a junior guardsman holding a scanner up to their wrist tattoos. On Jen’s instructions, he was checking them off against a list of passengers compiled as they boarded the train. Should be enough to make sure they didn’t leave anybody inside, unconscious.
The vast majority were Grey commuters, although the concrete dust and sooty smoke over everyone meant it was hard to discern the ranks, with harsh halogen floodlights leaching the colours out of the nightmarish scene even more.
She recognized the solidly-built figure of one of her team and beckoned him over. “Situation report, red-Harrison,” she said. “How many still in there?”
As he started speaking, an Orange corporal from one of the other teams came over to report, an ungainly young giant of a woman who towered six inches over Jen. Harrison carried on blithely. “Sit-rep: walking wounded all out safely, ylo-Jen, and the…”
The higher-status officer was giving him a sour look for not letting her speak first, so Jen raised a hand to shut Harrison up. Time was of the essence: she wanted everyone topside as soon as possible if aftershocks were likely.
“Later, Citizen Red. What’ve you got, Corporal?”
“Driver’s initial report, ma’am.”
“Unhurt and already questioned. Says he’d begun slowing down for the next station when he saw the lights up ahead go out. So he hit the brakes.”
“And the black box backs him up on that?”
Blushing at not having that important detail available, the corporal flipped her visor down. A smirking Harrison did the same. Gaia, the man was annoying at times.
“Er, yes ma’am.”
“No reason to hold him then, is there? Unhurt, you said? Check with the paramedics if he needs treatment for shock first, then release him.”
The corporal nodded. “Roger that.”
“And squirt that report across before you go.”
She scanned it quickly. The tube train had not been going as fast as feared – Jen had once witnessed the meaty carnage of a high-speed accident and it was a memory she could have well done without – and so most of the injuries were no more than banged heads and bruises. The exceptions were a handful with broken limbs who needed hauling out on stretchers. And two asthmatics affected by smoke inhalation, but no long-term effects. Zero fatalities, for which she was grateful. Not only was it satisfying to have rescued everyone (where else was that kick a daily perk of the job?), but there was also less paperwork, fewer interviews and no evidence to inquests.
All in all, it had been a smooth operation, without outside interference for once – one of the few positives of subterranean scenarios was being able to keep the baying newshounds at arm’s length until it was over and she was ready to give them their soundbites.
A trickle of sand from the roof sent gritty dust down the back of her neck. Gaia, just how stable was the tunnel? Time to wrap this one up. Harrison had probably stewed long enough. She beckoned him over and saw him looking upwards uncertainly too.
“Your report backs this up?” she asked. “Not as bad as it looked?”
“Walking wounded evacuated, ylo-Jen,” he said, “and the last half dozen stretcher cases are being brought out now.”
“And you can confirm zero casualties?”
“Yes, ma’am. Gaia knows, it could have been a lot worse.”
“Gaia knows. It certainly could.” She nodded in agreement. “Right, thanks. So let’s get out of here before the ceiling comes down on us. Go and help Miko there.” The smallest member of her team, a diminutive red-ranked woman of Asian extraction, was acting as a makeshift stretcher bearer. Misbalanced with a muscular-looking robocop type holding the other end as they struggled along carrying an obese woman with blood all over her face. Another group was struggling with a powerfully-built older guy who had lost it completely, screaming and lashing out. Not surprising: Jen was borderline terrified herself. Her training could prepare her for blood and injuries, but tons of unstable rock above their heads was altogether more visceral. The FedMeds had calmed the older man down when a distant juddering rumble and slight vibration set him off again. The trickle of sand was ominously faster now. She decided that Harrison’s imposing musculature could be better utilized elsewhere.
“No, you help pacify the guy with the heebie-jeebies. I’ll give red-Miko a hand.”
Team leaders were supposed to coordinate rather than get involved, but there were about four others here already. She’d seen green epaulettes on one and was happy to let a more senior officer handle the media and the local priests and politicos. Her Search and Rescue team numbered only eight – all Reds, two full strata below her with no Oranges in between – and some of the older hands inevitably found that unusual status gap uncomfortable. Being pressed into service as an emergency stretcher bearer might help Jen seem more human to her team. The squaddie at the other end of the stretcher wasn’t one of hers and he seemed astounded to see a lieutenant hop down onto the tracks. But Miko would be glad of the help, at any rate. They had put the stretcher down for a moment and she was now down on one knee getting her breath back. Her slight build was uncommon for a Red with an active job that required a high score on the physical pillar of the ranking assessments. Sporting skills based on reaction speed, Jen remembered. She didn’t know the younger guardswoman socially, but they’d chatted often enough. Miko was heavily into some kind of virtual reality gaming she excelled at. Genuine expertise. Even had one of those visual ports implanted that the top players used. In fact, standing behind her now, Jen could just see the socket above the nape of her neck, glinting through the short and thick jet-black hair. Miko turned to look at Jen, surprised for a second before giving her a friendly smile of thanks.
“Good to see you, Lieutenant.”
“No point me standing about doing nothing, is there? And we all need to get out pronto. So, what’ve we got here?”
“Cut to the scalp and a broken ankle, ma’am. Conscious and FedMed said no major damage, but the bang on the head’s left her too woozy to walk out with just a crutch and an arm around her.”
“And you, Citizen Red, didn’t think you could catch me if I fell,” added their weighty passenger, heavy-duty pain relievers perhaps making her unusually chatty for a non-citizen in the presence of FedSecs. She added, with an unexpected chuckle, “Too right. Don’t reckon you would’ve caught me neither, lookin’ at the size of you.”
“Almost there now, Rose,” said Miko gently as the three of them manoeuvred their hefty burden up onto the platform where a wheeled gurney waited.
“Thank you, Corporal,” Jen said, dismissing the other guardsman. “We can handle it from here.”
Miko turned to the victim. “There’s an elevator fifty yards away, Rose. That’ll take us to an ambulance; FedMed will look after you from there.”
Two minutes later, they were handing her over to the paramedics. Being back at the surface had never felt so good. Jen straightened up, relieved to be rid of the substantial load. Miko did the same, albeit more slowly. Jen gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Great work, kid.”
“Thanks, ylo-Jen.” Miko raised a hand to wave farewell to their erstwhile passenger.
“Thank you, citizens, thank you all.” Jen looked across at Rose, who seemed unsure what to say now; after all, there weren’t many situations in which a Grey would find herself being actively helped by two full members of the Federal hierarchy. “I reckoned my time had come down there, you know, I honestly did. By Gaia. Like the end of the world. I was watchin’ that crazy old prof on the viewscreen. You know, the one who’s always sayin’ he’s got proof the world’s about to come to an end.” The big woman shuddered. “Then bang! Darkness and hollerin’. For a moment I thought he might be right.”