Hard Math

My name is Fritz and I work the skeleton shift down at Bronson Medical.

Not my real name, of course, that's just what they call me behind my back, like I'm not capable of noticing. Herr Fritz, twice as bad as Adolf, half as appealing.

Doesn't matter, because I'm the sort of guy who gets things done. When a Type II Crawler pulls itself out of the sewers and onto the streets, starts killing people left and right, guess who's first on the scene? Damn right. You might not like me personally, maybe you might even think I'm a dick with a bad haircut, but that's not going to stop me from doing my job, which is saving your ass. I get paid to make sure you're out of the way of Lovecraftian horror. I'm the only man on the team who can clear a building in under two minutes and those minutes count when said building is about to be flattened by a two hundred ton mass of angry tentacles and claws.

Right now, I'm in the office, doing what I normally do at the beginning of the shift, which is flicking cigarette butts at the new guy, who winces as each one hits. It builds character. I'm testing him to see what his breaking point is. Judging from his facial expression, I'm almost there, which is a good thing because the alarm goes off.

"Pony up, motherfuckers. We got one." I grab my coat and my go-bag and make sure everyone else does the same. The alarm comes with no extra information—we'll see what we see when we get there, I guess. Judging from the address, it's down in the historical district, where all the college kids and other low-lifes used to live. And maybe my aunt and her shit-bag husband, now that I think about it. These days it's all restored buildings and charming shops, a place for aging hipsters to retire on the cheap.

I hate it, nearly as much as I hate everything else. Particularly on days like this when bad sleep and a hangover claws at your throat, makes everything feel like you've got a low-grade flu. Even the lights of the office, kept dim on purpose like they are, so as not to fuck with our night vision, fucking pisses me off today.

"What do you think it is?" Asks the new guy to just about anybody in the room who isn't me.

"Same thing we get every night," I answer him, anyway. "Might be a giant ball of tentacles, might be a big ape or a huge lizard. Don't matter much. They're all hungry, they eat anything nearby. Get your ass moving."

We all get our asses moving. The ambulance is big, cavernous. It's poorly lit inside. On this side of the trip, it's empty, with only the six of us to fill up the bus-sized space.

Back before the giant monsters started crawling out of the earth, I understand ambulances were small, the size of vans. Can't imagine that would last long. Most medical emergencies these days are injuries sustained fleeing coyotes the size of skyscrapers or people banged up falling off of bridges while running from giant pterodactyls.

And those are the lucky ones.

Luckily, the military's gotten pretty damn good at killing these things. A precise drone-strike can take out just about anything nearly instantaneously. The moment something comes up, there's usually a warhead locked on within minutes. The ten minute wait is mostly for our benefit—we have to scramble, get all civilians out of the way post-haste.

People don't last long in our line of work. Either the monsters get them or they burn out. See too many horrible things, have to make too many bad choices. You have to prioritize quickly. You got a building of eight people: four kids, two adults, two elderly. You go for the most mobile, save as many as those fuckers as possible. The ones who stay behind endanger the others if you go for them too hard. Simple math. Four easy rescues beats two harder ones because the two hard ones usually come with more casualties.

The ambulance lurches as it skids around a corner I can't see. I'm locked onto the back brace near the rear entrance ramp, waiting for us to get through. Judging by the sounds, traffic isn't agreeing with the driver's decisions. That's why we've got the cow catcher out front and reinforced bracing. Sometimes you get into arguments and when you're in an argument, any argument, the person with the most convincing points wins. In our case, twelve tons of reinforced armor plating and a ten-point cross-braced reinforced suspension system is very convincing.

"Hey, shit-head."

"Yeah, Fri—I mean, Johnson?"

"This your first run on this shift?"

"Yeah. I worked days—"

"Days are easy-peasy. A cake-walk. Night's where the action's at. You keep your eyes open, keep moving. Don't slow down no matter what. This neighborhood ain't like the suburbs. Everything's tight."

The ambulance thumps as something hits the side. Up front, Sue curses impressively. I'm guessing from the mass of the thump and the volcanic roar which follows, whatever climbed out of the ground knows we're here. This early in the night, it's probably pretty small, about the size of a bulldozer. If the eggheads at Battle Creek don't hurry the fuck up, it'll get bigger, much bigger.

We skid to a halt, probably a half a block up, if I know how Sue works. There's a triple thud as flares deploy and I flip my visor down, motioning for the rest of the team to follow suit.

"Standard formation, three live, two back."

Three of us to fan out, begin processing houses. We've each got Mark 4 Entry Systems to take care of doors and loudspeakers integrated into our helmets. Our job is get people into the ambulance or at the very least running in the right direction. You absolutely do not want to be in the neighborhood much longer: if the monster, whatever it is, doesn't get you, the twenty-five pounds of duodec on the tip of that drone, which is probably leaving the runway right this fucking moment will make you regret all of your life decisions and the most recent ones in particular.

The two in back are there to process people once they get in the van. In cases where time allows, they also have stretchers to get the elderly, injured or immobilized, but time doesn't often allow. They're also there to take potshots at whatever's making life interesting down the street, but getting people stowed is the priority. That's why we have this shit job: keep the mathematically optimal number of people safe.

And finally, we've got Sue, who keeps the engine warm, moves the vehicle when necessary. Fires the computer-linked mini-gun on the roof when that's necessary, too. On day shift, we got separate gunners, but skeleton-shifters don't get that luxury, of having easy manpower.

I crank the release, which is always tighter than I remember, then shoulder the hatch down, not waiting for the hydraulics to let it settle.

"One, left, head back four houses, two go right, head back four houses. I've got the four ahead, both sides. Go!"

The rookie takes off, a carefully-paced sprint, followed by Two, a large woman from Belize, and even more of a jerk than me, if you can believe it. They run moderately, not so fast that they make mistakes, not so slow they waste time. Good.

I hit the house on the left, unlimber my entry system and blow the door open. No time to test the knob. The people inside are already awake, kinda. They're packing. The usual things you often see: money, underwear, pants, books, computers. And then the weird shit you wouldn't expect either: people behave oddly under pressure. They get squirrelly, don't think clear, which is why my job is what it is. One of the women is trying to fit a pair of hockey sticks into a suitcase. I yell, to get their attention.

"No time. Go!" They resist. One in particular, a middle-aged man in ridiculous purple shorts and nothing else, is kicking up a fuss about a safe or something. I don't listen. He's in the way. I taser him and yell at the others until they're out the door.

Outside, I hear a bass rumble. Whatever was down the street just got about ten percent bigger. I don't know what it is and, frankly, at this point I don't care. I charge up the stairs, listening carefully. There's the slightest whimper somewhere. I kick in the nearest door. The room looks empty, but I flip the mattress on the bed in one smooth motion.

There's a kid huddling underneath. I scoop him up under one arm, like he's a football, and head out. No more time for this house.

I bound down the stairs, pass the man I tasered, leaving him there. Hard decisions. You take the easy wins, because a win is a win and stakes can be pretty damn high.

As I half-toss the kid into the ambulance, where he's grabbed by an older lady who might be an aunt or his mother, my radio kicks on.

"Fri—I mean, Captain. Number One. House has four elderly, all bed-bound. Advise."

"Leave 'em unless it's your last."

"Uh, right."

Pretty sure I have family in these parts. Maybe even on this street. No time to tell for sure. I head to the next house, noting glumly that it's a sprawling three floor affair, no doubt subdivided into at least six apartments. This is going to have to be fast.

Down the road, the monster has already acquired wings. It's using a telephone pole as a tooth pick and is ripping into the side of a small house, looking for easy meat. Only seven minutes to go before the drone drops. It's going to be a long night.

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