Part of 2100 CE.
Outside the rain came down in thundering sheets, filling the streets and soaking anybody unfortunate enough to be caught in the downpour. It was the first of what were predicted to be hundreds such storms that were to regularly ravage the east coast. The millions of tons of water vaporized when the asteroid struck southern California were now returning to earth after more than a year condensing and accumulating in the upper atmosphere. The year of perpetual cloud cover combined with rapidly flooding rivers and lakes were drowning what few hardy crops remained resulting in massive global food shortages, even among the superpowers. The United Nations and other international organizations talked about using the coming showers to irrigate the barren Sahara, converting it to agricultural farmland. But even if the cloud cover broke and photosynthesis could take hold, there would still be insufficient supply to meet current demands, and now in an ironic twist of fate, food was being imported from agricultural centers on the moon and the wealthier colonies in Earth orbit. And there was still not enough to go around.
Displaced millions took refuge in larger cities, leading to unrest and finally most recently riots correlated with high concentrations of refugees: Chicago, New York, Boston, and Cincinnati here; Houston, Atlanta, and Nashville in the South; Seattle and Portland on the Pacific coast. While some of the refugees opted to work for the International Civil Service or enlist in the Peacekeeping Forces, thus dispersing them in droves across other participant member-states, most refused to leave their native country. Housing and job shortages added to the extreme stresses of food shortages, and in desperation many otherwise insipid individuals turned to crime. As if to demonstrate the severity of the crisis, international Peacekeepers were being authorized to assist in policing, the first time such Blue Berets had been seen in the country in a half century. These recent additions to the Peacekeeping Ground Forces were, in fact, reserve units composed of personnel who were in one way or another rendered unsuited for “conventional or direct action,” but still capable of fulfilling the basic duties inherent in peacekeeping operations. It amounted to a military police presence composed of men and women wounded too seriously to return to regular duty: an amputated arm, a missing eye, damaged tendons. There was one soldier she had seen with such horrific scarring from third and fourth degree burns that she had been physically startled at the sight of him—and her heart broke. The pain must have been immense, and she could not imagine the psychological trauma at seeing reactions like hers on a daily, possibly an hourly basis. And she had been unable to stop staring. All she could think was, what if that was Emile? What if that was Emile…?
Through the glass doors of the emergency department, she saw one of the military amphibious vehicles used for ambulance duty rumble to a stop under the covered drive. Long streams of water shot off it in every direction, like some grotesque wheeled fountain. Inside the cabin, she saw the paramedic in the passenger seat fiddling with papers and clipboards.
Although working triage in the ER at three in the morning rarely meant true emergency trauma, there were enough patients regularly streaming in to merit a sigh of relief at seeing the paramedic’s lack of alarm or urgency. The driver rounded the vehicle and stood under the covered drive a moment chatting with his partner before the paramedic from the passenger side motioned that he was going to smoke and disappeared into the downpour. The driver shook himself off and came in through the double set of sliding doors.
“You okay?” a voice said at her side.
She whirled around, throwing her arms out in a startled gasp, in the process knocking over a clipboard and some papers.
Nikki regarded her from behind black-rimmed glasses with an amused smile. “Jumpy?”
“Just tired,” Julia said, bending down to gather the papers.
“Right,” Nikki said knowingly. “Off with your head in the clouds, dreaming about some boy.”
Before Julia could respond, a third voice chimed in. “I don’t usually get called a boy, but I’ll take it.”
A hint of a smile touched Julia’s lips. She recognized the voice as Ted’s, one of the emergency paramedics. “Hi, Ted,” she said, replacing the papers. “I didn’t recognize you through the rain.”
Ted smiled at her with a toothy grin. For as long as Julia had worked at the hospital, Ted had been here, having apparently transferred from service with the Navy as a corpsman to civilian work an ambulance paramedic. He was competent and knew exactly what to say to put anyone at ease. He was also one of the funniest and craziest people she had ever met. “I damn near didn’t recognize myself,” he said, shaking water off his jacket onto the floor.
“Oh damnit, Ted!” Nikki huffed, grabbing a towel from under the desk. “Here! Don’t come in here and start causing trouble.”
Ted shrugged sheepishly, toweling off his wet mop of hair and then his rain coat. “Oh Nikki, Nikki dearest, when will you stop this charade and admit you love me?”
“I don’t know how you stand him,” the senior nurse fumed and stormed off.
They watched her go a heartbeat before Ted said, “So, little bunny, what’s this about some boy? I thought it was you and me for life.”
Despite herself, Julia blushed at the nickname. When she first met Ted, she had accidentally stumbled into a conversation she had completely misunderstood. To this day she still did not understand just what he had been talking about—something about a giant marshmallow rabbit—but whatever the origin, she had wound up with the silly nickname little bunny which only he called her. To be fair, he had given everyone in the hospital a nickname at some point, but hers was the only one he used consistently. It made her feel a little weird…
“Oh, it’s just Nikki,” she said with a shrug. Had she been thinking about Emile? She felt silly at the thought. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” she said, changing the topic. “What have you been up to?”
“Oh, you know,” he said, lounging towards her across the desk. “I went down to Nags Head to visit my brother. Did some surfing, a lot of drinking—you know.” He smiled, charming. “Too bad about the weather, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said, and smiled. “How was Nags Head?”
“Oh, it was awesome. Lots of that stuff,” he said, waving towards the doors, “but it’s still a cool place to visit. They’ve done some pretty awesome work on the dikes. Have you seen them?”
Julia shook her head. “I’ve never been.”
“What?” Ted said in mock-surprise.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a few patients in the waiting area look over, startled by his sudden outburst.
“Dude, we have to go! You would totally love it there,” he said, still waving his hands.
To the patients he probably looked and sounded like a crazy person. But then, he kind of was…
“Julia, Julia,” he insisted, “we have to go. Like tomorrow or something!”
Even in this serious, sterile environment, his energy was infectious. She laughed aloud. “Ted, you’re crazy.”
“Maybe—probably,” he said, and his tone was at once mock-business formal. “But seriously, we need to go. Say you’re going to go with me.”
She laughed. “Ted…”
“Say it! Say it!”
“You got to say it!”
“Oh-kay!” she said between bursts of laughter. She was laughing so hard her cheeks hurt and she gasped for breath. “Okay, we’ll go. Just stop making a scene, you crazy!”
As if only now becoming aware of the nearby patients, he flashed them that big disarming grin and waved. “It’s okay, folks, I work here,” he called, pointing to his jacket. “No real need for alarm.”
“Ted, you’re scaring them,” she said in a hushed tone, trying to stifle more laughter.
He turned back, still grinning ear to ear. “I know. But they’re at a hospital—in the ER!—so I’m probably not the worst thing that’s happened to them today.”
She covered her mouth against more laughter, but not before garnering more unhappy looks from the patients.
“So…” he said, “we’re going, right?”
“Ted!” This time it was Nikki, calling from the opposite side of the waiting room where she had just emerged from the treatment area. “Get out of here!”
“Right?” he said, ignoring the other nurse.
“Okay, yes, yes,” Julia said, fighting to stop another fit. “Now go, before Nikki kills you.”
Ted smile, every-charming, but before he could open his mouth to say another silly thing, he was nearly tackled by Nikki. Amid a flurry of sarcastic comments and love overtures aim at Nikki, she ushered him from the desk and out the doors.
As the doors shut out the imminent argument outside, one of the patients stood and approached the desk. “Young lady,” she said, addressing Julia,” you really should tell your boyfriend not to act like that. He is very disruptive.”
Julia, still giggling, smiled at the older lady. “Oh, no. He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just a friend—a coworker,” she said, correcting herself.
“Oh, really?” the woman said skeptically. “Well…you should still keep your relationships out of the workplace.”
Julia just smiled back. She was clearly misinformed, but there no reason to bother trying to explain further. “Yes, ma’am,” she said politely. “Thank you.”
Only later, after her shift ended and she was aboard the light rail home that Emile came to her thoughts again. She saw the disfigured Blue Beret patrolling along the length of the train, passing silently between cars and ignoring the revulsion which filled the railcars in his wake.