Greg Brummel was breaking up his second riot in as many hours. The alleyway was dark and very cold in mid-November, and smelled of rot and blood. Loose papers, faded with age, blew about his ankles, caught in an uncontrollable whirlwind of chill air. Ahead of him, in the street, were the protesters. Greg had learned from long experience that it made no difference what the rioters were protesting, if they were protesting anything at all.
Today the protests seemed to be about food. The last grocery chain had shut down just the other week, and since then food had been scarce in New York City. Some stores were kept open, and some facilities still received shipments, but more and more people on the streets were hungry.
Still, Greg thought, hefting his club, he had to break up this riot. It didn't matter if it was justified.
This opinion was a rare one now. Most people saw the riots as the only way to control things. This didn't make much sense to Greg, so he was breaking them up.
That had been his job, once. Greg had been a policeman before the great Destruction, sixteen years ago. He could even pinpoint the date, if he thought hard enough. July eighteenth, 2020. The provisional leaders of New York, as they called themselves, had lasted five years.
Greg snorted. Government. No one believed in government. Someone watching over your shoulder all the time, taking your money... that was unthinkable, a thoroughly outdated notion. The Freedom Edict of 2014 strictly prohibited government. This was why they had overthrown the provisional leaders sixteen years ago. Not that Greg had taken part in the Destruction. He had tried to stop them, hadn't he? It was hard to remember. There were no calendars.
By now he could hear the wild hoarse shouts of the rioters drawing closer. They were waving homemade flags, gray in color.
Gray flags, Greg thought, were a bad choice. They blended in with the city far too much to be useful. Even black would be an improvement, but black cloth was scarce these days. Hard to find and expensive to buy when you did find it.
He stepped forward out of the shadows and stood tall, holding his club (it was made of oak from a tree he had found fallen in the Park) at a menacing angle above his head. For a while, time seemed to freeze as he stood there, one arm raised, holding the club, the other balled into a fist at his side, his legs spread wide on the ice-slick pavement. A precarious balance.
The protesters wavered. Their yells became ragged and increasingly incoherent and for a moment Greg thought they would simply stop, put down their gray flags and walk away from him. He saw their eyes, wide and frightened, taking in his stature and obvious strength. He saw the small man in the front column of rioters turn and open his mouth as if to say something, sticking a hand in his pocket at the same time.
The object he withdrew had a strange kind of beauty. In the darkness of the November dusk, it glinted with the brilliance of a star or a fluorescent light. Its dark eye, cavernous and empty as the night sky, turned to face Greg.
He heard the sound of a gunshot. It startled him when it came. He had somehow thought that this gun would be quiet, muffled as ice falling into snow, but it was loud. It was heartbreakingly just like all the other gunshots he had heard in his life as a policeman, earshatteringly raucous. It ripped through the night sky and for a moment Greg thought there was time to duck, time to get away from it, but he couldn't. He was rooted to the spot, there on the slick ice.
Greg faltered, blinking. Where had the bullet gone? Something strange and sticky was dripping down his left side, but he was utterly numb. He slid a little on the ice but did not fall. The protesters were silent, staring at him.
The man in front looked up. His face was blank at first and blurred as Greg gaped at him, but the corners of his mouth turned up slowly. His head tilted back, his mouth stretching wider and wider in an expression which wasn't a grin but something more feral. His stained teeth glinted and the barrel of the gun he held gleamed as he lofted it high in the air.
Greg took a faltering step backwards, steadying himself. The world was going blurry around the edges, and darkness was creeping across his line of sight. The last thing he saw before all went dark was a scrap of gray flag, illuminated by moonlight.
There was no way to avoid meeting a group of rioters, in Melanie Mortimer's experience. Today a large group of them was marching across what had once been seventy-first and York, near the hospital. She carefully waited for the to pass. They didn't notice her, standing there. The doctor was a diminutive figure, dressed in gray, and blended in with the general scenery.
She walked out into the street, trying to avoid stepping in anything unsanitary. Her eyes were focused on the sidewalk as she trudged along on her way home. It was barely recognizable as the sidewalk of years ago. Cracks permeated the concrete and various fluids and solids coated the ground.
Melanie Mortimer might not have noticed the large lump lying on the ground had she been any less vigilant. But she was vigilant, and so she looked up and caught her breath when the lump moved.
It wasn't a corpse, then. Dr. Mortimer had seen corpses before, lying on the streets of New York. No, this was a man, groaning a little and moving on the ground. Blood spread around him in a murky pool, and Dr. Mortimer approached cautiously, tapping him on the shoulder.
His eyes opened momentarily, and his confused gaze caught and held hers for a moment before closing again. Dr. Mortimer knew she had to work fast. She flipped the man over onto his back with considerable effort and checked quickly for signs of circulation. He was breathing, but shallowly, and there was blood in his mouth. A quick listen to his chest confirmed her suspicions. A bullet had entered his lung, which had collapsed. She also suspected hemothorax, blood between the chest wall and the lung.
Dr. Mortimer saw that she would have to insert a chest tube at the hospital, to reinflate the lung. There was no other way. As the man seemed to have no other injuries (the bullet, the doctor saw, had lodged in the lung and not penetrated the liver) Melanie Mortimer decided to transport him to the hospital, somehow. She had no car or rescue vehicle with her, and anyway most of the ambulances had been stolen or run out of gas. There was only one solution to the problem.
She would have to carry him.
Luckily, the hospital was only two blocks away, but the doctor had to stop and rest frequently in any case. She was certain this method of transportation was only hurting the man further, but what else was there to do? She panted and stumbled her way to the hospital entrance, feeling her back strain. The elevators, that was it. She had to get to the elevators.
She rode up to the second floor, the emergency care unit, and lay the man down on a wheeled hospital bed. She had to perform the surgery herself.
And then there was the matter of what to do after inserting the chest tube. She couldn't simply sew him up. Dr. Mortimer found herself growing more and more furious. She was furious at a world which did not allow her to care for a patient she found shot on the street, furious at a world in which she could be bombed or shot any day. But she swallowed her fury. She couldn't let it interfere with caring for her patient.
After an hour spent struggling, Dr. Mortimer succeeded in installing the chest tube and removimg the bullet from the lung. The chest tube would now have to be left in for several days, evacuating air from the space between the lung and the chest wall and allowing the lung to reinflate. She hoped the patient would survive.
It all depended on her. She had to stay awake during these first, crucial hours, and for that she would need coffee. Luckily, the hospital still had some coffee, though it was weak and acrid and tasted of rotten lemons. Dr. Mortimer went to get some, once she had made certain the patient was in stable enough condition to survive five minutes alone.
The coffee machine was broken. It gurgled as she pushed the button which drew the stale and fetid liquid from its spout and into a plastic cup. There was no more milk, of course, and she had to hunt around the table on which the coffee machine rested to find a lone packet of sugar. Stirring this into her coffee, Melanie Mortimer made her way back to the operating room.
Her footsteps echoed loudly in the empty corridor, nearly swallowing up another, softer sound. A long sigh, echoing from the operating room, and the glimpse of a dark head in the doorway. Raising her brows in quicksilver surprise, Melanie Mortimer hurried her steps, nearly running back to the OR.
She stopped abruptly at the threshold. Inside, hovering over the bed like a moth, dark-eyed and watchful, stood the boy, labeled Unknown in her medical files. He seemed wholly unaware of her presence and stared intently at the patient lying on the bed, chest gaping around the bullethole and inserted tube. The moment standing there was a short one and infinitely empty. The doctor found herself wondering if you could exist when no one was aware of your presence. She stepped forward, breaking the silence herself.
she said firmly, though her voice rose, at the end, into a question. What was the answer, Dr. Mortimer wondered, to the question of hello?
The boy said nothing, though he did look at her, just a quick flick of his eyes in her direction before the dark head bent again over the man in the bed.
You'll have to leave, the doctor told him, looking over the patient in the bed. He seemed unharmed.
The boy inclined his head but did not move. Frustration welled up in Dr. Mortimer's throat, but she forced it down. She was not generally so impatient: the night of carrying the man and performing surgery must be weighing on her.
Do you understand what I'm saying? she tried.
The boy seemed to hesitate. His eyes gave another flicker around the room, but he did not move. One hand, Melanie Mortimer noted, was placed comfortingly on the man's still arm.
The doctor knew, then, that the boy was shamming. She couldn't say precisely how she knew, but it was clear that he could understand her. Just stubborn, then. Just stubborn and yet somehow he seemed locked away inside himself. Alone.