Quote:“The current crisis we face is not one of resources or war, but one of the mind. Innovations in technology have outpaced both our ability to protect the consciousness within a virtual reality. This inability threatens to damage relationships between humans and denizens within the virtual world.”
Doctor Long, The Virtual Conundrum
Gone were the days of fire stations and long poles to slide down. Those buildings had been torn down along with many others abandoned by a dwindling population. Now we slept inside giant fire trucks that looked closer to a party bus painted in red and yellows. We still carried water, first aid kits, generators, three humans, and six robots for grunt labor.
Our giant truck sat in an empty parking lot near Madison and Fifth Ave. I chose to wait outside and relish a brief moment of freedom between minor disasters. Thirteen hours into my shift made me hungry, annoyed, tired and the truck seemed claustrophobic. Two AM is a time for reflection about poor life choices.
Tonight promised to get worse. Behind me, the fire truck flared to life. One red light flashed above and a window slid down rapidly. I was already running for the vehicle.
“Pierce!” The man’s voice bellowed across the empty parking lot. “We’re up! Building collapse, gas line, it’s big!”
“Shit,” I said. Dozens of thoughts came into my head as I hauled ass for the truck. The Auto-NAV system turned it towards the south exit.
I had to leap for the back and grab onto a handle. The giant double-decker sized vehicle sent signals to other drivers and their cars halted to let us out. Inertia pulled me to one side as the truck swung left and pulled out of the parking lot. This was normal for those of us stepping away from the fire truck. Missing the ride would mean being docked a paycheck and that couldn’t happen. Rent was past due.
Tiny fires were one thing, rescuing people or being a first responder didn’t measure as a big problem. Explosions meant wounded, possibly dead, especially if a building collapsed. These thoughts and more ran through as I pulled myself towards the rear truck door.
“How long?!” I shouted up the hallway towards Bert, the driver.
“Three minutes. Get suited!” Bert stepped back down the aisle and started beating on one of the cots. Our third member was still laying back. “Tonya, get to it, woman!”
“Eh.” said Tonya with a wave of her arm.
Inside was a strange mix between a recreational vehicle and submarine living quarters. We had two racks to sleep in, a bathroom that was a size too small, and one fridge where each of us got a shelf for the shift. I grabbed a handful of peanuts from my section of the fridge and quickly used the bathroom. By the time I got done Tonya was on the ground and shoving her suit on.
“Pierce, you’re slow as usual.” She glared at me. Tonya’s bronze skin was mostly covered up by the clothing. Only her face and extremely short hair remained visible. I rolled my eyes and yanked down my own helmet from a stack.
“Alright! Peirce, this is week two, and your first big one. Remember the classifications?” Bert was talking about the different types of fire hazards.
Training had been long. We talked about how to watch for weak floorboards, what doors to open or not. Simulations were done in virtual worlds to prepare us. Real life had proven far less exciting than my class made it out to be.
“Yes.” I nodded anyway.
“Good, everything on site should be shutting down, the gas and electricity are no longer being pumped into the building. We’re going in and backing up the RAFFS on pushing flames away from the kitchens and residential areas.” Bert waved an arm. One wall of the van had a spot for logistical planning. A bird’s eye floorplan showed red and green areas based on temperature.
“Fucking Raffs.” Tonya looked up to the truck’s roof and flipped the bird.
RAFFS stood for – Rescue and Flying Flame Suppressants. They were basically remote controlled fire extinguishers and had enough resistance to lower people carefully to the ground. They saved lives but every so often misjudged where people’s heads were by a foot or two.
“Pack it, Tonya, you get lit, you get under one. I don’t care who’s driving it.” Bert told the short haired brunette.
Our suits were made of a high-tech material that could wave off most things. Normal fires were a mild tickle, and the worst ones would break down the outer layer and start heating the second. We could last a decent amount of time in the middle range before it became a risk. No matter how much science advanced, standing in fire was still a bad call.
“There it is.” Bert waved through the fire truck’s front. Tonya whistled and hung her head while Bert kept muttering. “Damn. No wonder it’s so large, these have got to be at least sixty years old.”
“Tonight’s going to be a long night.” She said, the helmet went on quickly and Tonya got ready by the door.
“Alright, map’s got our suspected point of origin. Bots are being deployed here, here, and here.” Bert stabbed fingers at the small blue markings. The robots were often placed on the outer edges since their circuitry could melt. Humans melted too but we had gear to help.
“Tonya, here. Pierce, here.” Bert outlined our first locations. As humans, our job was typically to sweep and search for people. Occasionally we pulled out valuables and received a commission from insurance companies. “Your headset will be feeding information as always, pay attention and don’t take the helmet off!”
Rule one of being a firefighter, proper use of the equipment kept us safe. Rule two through infinity amounted to the same thing. Follow the rules, use this right. In the field things never worked out perfectly. The video displays guiding us sometimes missed details or took odd turns in the instructions.
“First point, Tonya, go.” The fire truck slowed down but didn’t stop. She hopped out of the side door and two small balls of metal were rolling along the asphalt nearby. They were remote units programmed to spray down areas, in the event of a nature fire they would dig trenches to keep the fire from passing outside a set area.
“Second point, Pierce, go.” I dove out the door and two more units rolled right along with me. We pounded across the pavement trying to get set up.
Behind me, the fire truck should be preparing to hose down different areas. Each fire had slightly different orders. A giant housing complex with a gas explosion required fast response and pulling out survivors, before anything secondary went off.
In this section of town, where all the housing was at least sixty years of date, there were always secondary issues. A message flashed across my headset reminding of the first step.
“Tonya Idolia, active.” She sounded rushed. Her words were pointlessly low.
“Bert Leon, active.” He was gruff and seemed annoyed at having to go through standard procedure.
“Pierce Argive, active.” I said like a perfectly normal person. Twenty-five, male, tired from a long shift that only promised to drag on into the morning.
“Registering users. Welcome to the show, Fifty Seven. Please review your assignments and act accordingly.” Another voice clicked on. It was our dispatch AI, a program by the name of Prometheus that took delight in pointing out anyone not following the rules.
We didn’t have to physically respond. Our headsets picked up a nod easily enough. I was thankful we didn’t have to talk over each other.
“Alright, bringing you into the group.” The dispatch AI started through its normal babble. “Coordination markers are enabled. Keep an eye on your heads-up display for assignments and cleared regions.”
Small check marks appeared to one side of my helmet’s display signifying our nods. Soon the other markers were moving towards destinations and small boxes appeared showing how far away they were. Management decided that since firefighters had become contract workers we were paid based on objectives completed.
I made my way towards my marker while the other two did so in silence. We had another squad of three out here too, but they were on the building’s other side. I turned down the volume on all the background chatter as part of my normal settings.
Fire lit up the dark night sky. My destination showed as the bottom floor of our burning building. We had thousands of square feet to check and not enough time. Whatever was happening didn’t care about all of humanity’s safeguards against disaster.
Portions of the building had collapsed. It looked like an old hotel with dozens, if not hundreds of rooms to search. I started on the ground floor where indicated and laid down markers for the two mindless robot droids following behind me. They unrolled from the ball shapes. Tiny feet made of composite metals and flame resistant paint clanked along the ground.
They cleared tables and tossed flammable objects across the room, trying to separate out fuel for the fire from things that might resist. The best money could buy and most of what they did was move things around like a hyperactive child.
“Pierce, how are you doing?”
“Done with point two, moving upstairs to three.” I answered Bert’s question mechanically despite the severe situation.
“Remember your training. Keep an eye on your footing.” The older man said. I nodded and the headset flashed a green checkmark near my name. Technology made it easy to respond without having to talk.
Ten minutes later and point three was clear. A swift check on my heads-up display showed the fire rapidly getting out of hand. It should have died down by now but wasn’t.
“Hello, is anyone here!?” I yelled out. My job was to find survivors, not fight the fire. We had machines to set up breakpoints or deal with suppression issues. In another fifteen minutes, we would have the full jet from headquarters filled up and spraying down the location. We couldn’t drown the place without checking for survivors first.
Point three was clear. The next destination was upstairs, I made my way watching for weak spots or possible falling walls. So far we were clear on civilians and pets. Most people had escaped by themselves. I stepped it up trying not to waste time.
Someone upstairs was screaming.
“Voices heard on route to point four.” I tried to stay calm while my heart skipped a beat. Finding people on the ground floor who were fine didn’t cause much of an issue. The higher we went, the worse this fire became. Whatever it was doing seemed to widen and escalate faster than a fire should. Our safe zone was rapidly becoming a no-go area.
“Registered. Rerouting other personnel. Visual feed being recorded.” Prometheus listed off status updates reminding me that whatever happened, it would be on video.
“At least two.” I said. Thermals made it hard to tell as heat flooded the building. A high-tech suit prevented a great deal of it from reaching me directly but the helmet was stuffy. Small drops of perspiration lined the inside.
The screaming happened again. Part of a wall collapsed nearby. Flames licked across my field of vision making it hard to read the visual display. I shielded my face with an arm and tapped at the floorboard. Stable enough despite its old workmanship.
I headed towards the noise. Signals in my headset filtered out one portion of sound from the crackle of flames behind me. Small markers pointed down showing where other items were. The RAFFS were off helping others. Ten robots in total cleared the bottom floor and shattered walls in preparation for fire stoppage.
This building shouldn’t be going up in flames so fast. There were technological redundancies that made sprinklers look like kids squirt guns. Flame delaying materials were built into the walls. Even if the wiring codes were insanely out of date we should have been winning. Today’s burning building seemed to be growing in size and intensity.
“Contact. Two, no, three kids.” I saw them across the hallway nearby. They gathered by a window frame that had thankfully shattered outward. Backdraft could have made our tenuous situation so much worse.
“Come on!” I waded through the worst part and held out one hand. “I’ll help you get by!”
“Monster!” The little girl screamed and pointed in my direction.
I had no idea what she was shouting at. Maybe the little one was too young and didn’t know what a firefighter looked like. Our suits were a bit off putting when in a burning environment like this one. I got closer while speedily trying to remember my training.
My three civilians were huddled together. The boy might be thirteen. Behind him was a younger girl whose eyes seemed to pierce right through me. They were frightened. I lost myself for a moment then looked down. She had a crying toddler clutching to her. I didn’t have time to figure out the youngest one’s gender given our current situation. The room around us was in complete disarray.
There was no sign of their parents. The oldest boy looked wild with fear. They huddled against a wall, one of them must have woken up in time to see the apartment complex burning all around and panicked.
We all needed to get out of here.
“I’m here to help you. We’ve got to go!” I shouted, trying to be heard over the roar of flames. Maybe the RAFFS would get here soon and suppress this area, but humans shouldn’t get soaked too long by those chemical heavy foams. Especially not in light clothes, or little kids.
“There was a monster!” The older child boy shouted and pointed.
They were both panicking about the fire. There was no way this mini inferno building around us qualified as a real monster. It was huge and deadly, but not a monster. I yanked at a shoulder patch and pulled out the flame retardant covers. These weren’t enough for prolonged exposure but would mitigate the worst of their situation.
I looked around while trying to get the children ready to escape. We only had one real exit aside from out the window. My floor map didn’t show any sort of walkway through any nearby exit.
“Safe zone! I need a new safe zone!” I demanded anything from Prometheus or my crew. These little ones needed the quickest way out from the fire. My helmet’s display was showing a mess of secondary fires starting up all around me.
“Recalculations are in progress. It is difficult to calculate due to unexpected additional fires all around you.” Prometheus said with a worried tone. I almost threw my headset to the ground and started cursing. Only the idea of three small children relying on me kept things from turning southward. “We’ve had three spots spike in heat during the last two minutes.”
“I need an out dammit!” I shouted into the headset. My hands were busy placing items over the kids’ heads.
“South, down the hallway, if you can get to the stairs. Or fall through the floor, your suit should be able to handle the drop.” The machine AI said sounding calmer than expected. According to the map, all purple Voices were losing heavy amounts of energy the longer they stayed out of the prior zone.
“Now with cargo!” I yelled. Three kids, one too little to walk. Visions of fire would dance in the child’s head forever.
“How many?” Tonya sounded much calmer.
“The monster! It’s behind you!” The oldest boy pointed as his voice took on a higher pitch than anyone should rightfully have.
The shattered mirror to my right showed more than a sea of orange crackling around the building. Something large moved, silent, creeping with its head lowered. It was a dog easily as big as a horse. Its footsteps startlingly light for such an area. From the creature’s mouth, greenish flame seemed to drip. One side of the thing’s face was lifted in a snarl.
“We’re rerouting the RAFFS, they’ll spray in sideways.” Bert’s voice was talking, but I didn’t know what to say. My heart skipped and breath came in uneven jumps.
“Monster!” The girl shouted again. I nodded then rapidly spun around while grabbing at a piece of piping.
“Out the door, find the stairs! Bert, something’s in here!” I tried to give them instructions, but it may not have sunk in.
“What?” Bert raised his voice and cut across the audio communications.
I repeated myself while weaving back and forth. The motion helped keep its attention focused on me instead of the children. Maybe I couldn’t pay bills on time, or spent too much on movies, but letting children die to a monster demon? Not in my nature.
“Crash the Pods on me! Through the window!” I shouted.
“Jesus what’s going on, Pierce?” The gruff older male said.
I looked over my shoulder at the little ones and only had time to utter one word. “Run.”
The girl bolted first, trailing behind them was the older boy carrying the youngest. Their sudden movement caused the horse sized dog to turn and snarl at them. I swung the item in my hand and an umbrella popped out.
I regretted not checking my choice of weapon better. The monster’s face triggered some autopilot response. One hand tore at another pouch, searching for the canisters that would act as air propelled coolant for burns.
The dog creature sent my makeshift weapon flying with one angry swipe of a paw. It seemed to try and bark but a strangled noise came out. Moments later it leapt at me. I tried to spray the canister but hadn’t fumbled it out on time. My foot slipped on part of the housing’s old floorboard.
Giant teeth wrapped around my arm and side. They locked into place and sunk in deeply. Up and down the ground went as it shook violently. I didn’t know what the creature was, or how it came to be. Any vertigo or tearing sensation that would have caused the first stages of pain was instantly bypassed as its mouth dripped liquid fire onto my suit. Glowing green hatred ate through my skin and set my mind ablaze with pain.
There was a crash of glass nearby. Sound shattered as the RAFFS flew in one after the other spraying down the area in fire suppression foam. They swiveled to the new target and sprayed at the monster tearing into my flesh.
The kids were on their way to safety, hopefully, but it was too late for me. At that point, I only knew how to scream.
[The Overseer]‘s log: Scans have turned up something really recent. Possible subject found. Reviewing case files en route with the Ambulance. Visiting home might have paid off in more ways than one.
These initial subject scans show multiple issues of note within the physical DNA. Likelihood of surviving without serious reconstruction estimated to be 13.76% – assuming a positive outlook. I can’t afford to be hopeful, but this latest disaster may work in our favor.
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