This story is excerpted from The Palomar Observer newspaper.
A Night of Gatecrashing
Palomar Profiles by Archie McAlester
District 10, Palomar City – Like most nights, the Gatecrashers’ 1900 shift change in Districts 10 and 11 happens at Star Lucky Kitchen. One continuous five-meter, stainless steel countertop runs chest-high across an open kitchen window, where tray after tray of food slides out to hungry customers. Directly to the right is a spotless high security revolving bulletproof package window for medical supplies. Here the two-person Gatecrasher crews grab a quick bite of super spicy street PIM and also restock their supplies since Star Lucky is a licensed dispensary, from micro-dermal plasters to opioid analgesics (up to control series 10), they’ve got it all.
Under the thunderous clatter of the overhead trains, a dozen reactive-armor-clad ambulance, also known as “sleds,” are backed into the parking lot. It’s a bazaar-like alley of tailgaters, with drivers and medics lounging in the back of their sleds, doors open, eating, cleaning, and gearing up for a long night.
Hex Spencer is a 25-year-old driver/medic. Although younger than most Gatecrashers, she’s had no less than eight crew turnovers in her year and a half on the street. “Maybe that makes me a veteran at this point,” she quips. Hex may be right. Statistically, the average length of employment for a Gatecrasher is 18 months. Only 13% of the drivers and medics renew their license after the first year. Hex plans to move to a permanent position at a City hospital after completing the ERDT certification test. But the grueling twelve-hour ERDT is given only once a year and has a mere 36% pass rate, so the stats aren’t in her favor.
Tonight her partner is Puck (no last name given) who, despite working four years in the dispatch garage, is just 20 years old and has barely clocked one shift in a sled. Hex and Puck clear a space for me to sit in the unused rear medic jump seat. The flurry of activity – engines rev, drivers, and medics slam closed armored ports and jockey boxes; doors lurch into place with the heavy clunk of reinforced solid core locks – is like the ticking of a clock as it moves slowly towards 7 pm. When the night shift officially begins, these crews can start processing calls from the 911 dispatch. This is known as Logging Drops. Gatecrasher colloquialisms are colorful and to the point. A ‘Drop’ is a term to describe each patient taken to the hospital – alive or dead.
Sirens whoop, lights flash, as every crew is angling to grab the first call of the night – clearly, it’s competitive. I feel like we’re at the pole position of a Nascar race.
[su_pullquote]Hex has already calculated how much time she has to get the Drop off the roof, back down to her sled, and to the hospital before the tranq wears off.[/su_pullquote] The first team that responds to the broadcast from Central 911 gets the Log. The Log gives their sled the authority to make a Drop at the nearest hospital. That is Palomar City law, yet it is only enforceable if a crew takes a time-off shift to lodge a formal complaint against a crew that blagged (Gatecrasher slang for stole) a Drop. All Gatecrashers can track official calls, and even each other’s movements, through the Palomar Cityscape, an interactive heads-up display (HUD) windshield in every sled. Hex explains that because the Log is tied to making a Drop, and not tied to a person or number of persons, this leaves a wide opening for unscrupulous drivers. She has seen drivers try to pick up an extra Drop en route to the hospital, double-dipping. Or worse, as I’ve heard tales of Gatecrashers selling Drops to the unlicensed Wetware Markets in District 10 or at the docks of the Hacienda. Hex won’t confirm or deny the rumors.
A standard sled crew is a driver and a medic. Though Hex first earned her stripes as a driver, she has been riding medic for the last year. However, tonight she is pulling double duty as she slides behind the wheel, looking at home and confident. “We’d never make a dime tonight with a newbie in the sled if I couldn’t swing both sides.” Hex speaks into her throat mic, “zero-seven-seventy lock on the Drop at High & Culliver.” A thick east-Indian accent crackles back over the dash speaker, “zero-seven-seventy logged for High & Culliver.” Logged in by the dispatcher, Hex jams the sled into gear and tears into the glistening night of Palomar City, leaving behind a small pile of food cartons and empty medical supply boxes.
Sleds are built for utility and speed. I tighten the straps on the jump seat and watch neighborhoods change by the block. The Cityscape HUD is a waterfall of information – addresses, maps, previous emergency call logs, local language translation, building plans, incoming calls pinpointed to the map, and police kiosk locations. It’s a mesmerizing amount of data that the driver has to look through to see the road ahead. The sled weaves in and out of traffic, a sea of bicycles part like a school of fish.
I expected a rush of adrenaline the first time we crash a Gate. I’m Second Generation – I’ve never known a world without them, yet the Gate blurs past as if nothing happened. The sled squeezes through the emergency lane with only inches of clearance, while the traffic at the main crossing sits in gridlock. A loud indicator chimes throughout the sled, signaling a District change as it announces the nearest City hospital’s address and name. Hex later tells me that dispatchers can program the hospital tracking system (HTS) for City or private, nearest or safest, based on the PCHD score. Her dispatcher, Ganesa, chooses nearest.
As we approach the log address, Cityscape pings, and Hex begins barking orders at Puck as he slides past me to grab their kits. He’s jumping through the rear door enveloped in a hiss of hydraulics as Hex, smoothly maneuvering into a stop, assesses the structure before her. “S**t, it’s a Birdhouse.” The ten-story dilapidated building, awash in faded cheap orange paint, is a temple of the Robin (SOR) Scientific Order (SOR), known in certain circles as “Birdhouses.” SOR buildings are closed communities that eschew any form of medical or civic intervention as they rely entirely on the beneficence of God’s will and charity. Using a combination of voice and touch prompts on the Cityscape, Hex quickly searches for more religious protocol background.
Hex pounds on the door to announce herself. It’s locked, and not a peep from the inside. Hex checks address and status with Central – who finally responds after an achingly long 12 seconds. Right place, 7th floor. Hex looks at me with a questioning glance. I ask her what she usually does in a situation like this. She lays out two options: “Terminate the call and log another, or go in hard.” She’s eloquently short with words and gets right to the point. “99% of the people in Palomar City don’t want strangers walking around in their building. Rich, poor, law-abiding, or not. Just because I’m wearing the red-cross doesn’t mean I’m honest and good-intentioned.” In the few short hours that I’ve to know Hex Spencer, she’s made me believe that she is honest and good-intentioned. Before I can ask another question, she pulls two micro-shape charges out of her kit, blasts the handle and deadbolt, and kicks through the front door. We’re going in hard.
We make our way up the stairs of the rickety and worn building. Although its centuries of existence show, it is well kept and cared for. Doors open and close, eyes peep through cracks, mail slots, and specially designed one-way interior windows. Hex takes it in stride and notates every nook, cranny, and resident with the attention of a special-forces soldier. On the 7th floor, we find the mess. A Gatecrasher medical kit trashed on the floor, and a thick messy trail of blood leading out an open door and up the stairs. Without skipping a beat, Hex drags her Romy MediPen through the streak of blood to log the type and make a quick DNA scan. It’s mixed, two types.
The rooftop is a horrific mob-scene, one side is a mass of ghostly pale parishioners in robin-orange jumpsuits screaming at a small grandmother who’s got more fire and life in her than the whole bunch. Huddled in the other corner are two Gatecrashers; one could be dead, the other held captive with a gun to his head by the person that appears to be our Drop. Hex’s glare shoots daggers. This Gatecrasher crew clearly tried to “blag” this Drop.
But as quickly as she clocks this lapse in Gatecrasher etiquette, she zeroes back on the task at hand because this is no ordinary Drop. This Drop sports high level, expensive Wetwork, nothing you’d expect to see in a Birdhouse. No simple Skins, he has major fins and what appears to be titanium alloy forearm bone-replacements – which I have a full view of because the entire muscle system has been stripped cleanly away. Without any muscle to control it, his left-hand flops uselessly limp at his side. I can’t tell if it’s shock, drugs, or pure adrenaline that keeps him standing, but he’s also lost control of his fins, which are fanning wildly from his shoulders to his right forearm, making him look like a wounded tropical fish. Unfortunately, at the end of the damaged arm is the hand that holds the gun trained on the Gatecrasher.
As I try to back away to the safety of the stairs, the crowd surges forward to overtake the small older woman, who then throws herself on Hex and begins babbling that it wasn’t her grandson’s fault. Hex seems to have heard it all before and keeps her focus on the Drop, who is looking worse by the minute with frantic wide eyes.
It is said that when a person is thrust instantly into a life-threatening situation, the mind bullets so intently, flushing all non-essential stimuli, that time appears to shift into slow motion. It was in this state that I witnessed Hex, in one balletic motion with every sinew in her shoulder muscles dancing under red cross tattoos which completely cover her shoulders, pull an unseen gun from her utility belt, her other arm pulling grandma in a tight embrace – a protective bear-hug – while firing one perfect shot which hits the Drop squarely in the chest.
At the clap of the gunshot, the SOR crowd scatters like water over a grate, scrambling past me to disappear into unseen doors and hatches.
I find myself standing in utter disbelief. We have all heard horror stories of people who get picked up by Gatecrashers for a broken leg, only to arrive at the hospital with an arm missing. Or a loved one who leaves the scene of an accident in stable condition, but dead on arrival at the hospital with the only official response being, “would you like to sell usable parts or cremate?” But here I actually witnessed a Gatecrasher shoot a patient.
Hex carries a self-modified Piccoli P238 with 9mm short tranquilizer rounds. These deliver 100cc of Bifeprox™ via jet-propelled flat-impact sub-dermal spike patch. This is licensed and authorized by Palomar City Authority for use as “neutralization of persons who are not in control of surgically implanted, non-organic bio-controlled personal appendages.” Read Wetwork, primarily Fins, Claws, and Telescoping Canines.
Of the 30,000 licensed Gatecrashers in Palomar City, less than half have completed the EMT certification beyond Level 2, basic emergency response, life support, and cultural acuity training.
Hex, along with approximately 8% of her colleagues on the hospital track and are studying for the ERDT, are nothing short of paramilitary street surgeons. It’s the bureaucracy that keeps them out of the hospitals, not experience and knowledge. Though she never graduated, Hex was enrolled in CUPC’s medical school in District 12 for five years. She says she left for financial reasons. The press office confirms that she is on leave but claims, “confidential administrative issues.”
Hex has already calculated how much time she has to get the Drop off the roof, back down to her sled, and to the hospital before the tranq wears off. She has Puck prep the stretchers. The conscious Gatecrasher says he’s only a driver, no medical experience. “Great. A wanna-be blagger and useless.” Hex takes her Drop’s vitals and, without delay, does an emergency amputation of the hideously damaged arm using a laser scalpel. She straps the arm in with the patient on the gyro-stretcher. Hex, Puck, and the other driver negotiate the twelve stories of narrow staircases, balancing two loaded stretchers between them. Despite her size, there has been no doubt that Hex has been in control since she kicked in the building’s front door and entered into this warzone. On the roof, she ran this call like a military maneuver. Fast and precise.
We started the night under the bridge in District 11, and the first Drop brought us to District 09. After leaving the hospital, the next call took us into District 07. I will have crashed through more Districts in one night than most Palomar City citizens see in a year, or even a lifetime. The Gatecrashers disappear into the chaotic fabric of our metropolis often unnoticed, ignored until we need them. The Gatecrashers’ life is one of cultural privilege as they pass effortlessly between the Gates, followed closely by emotional hardship. They are stateless ambassadors on a mission of goodwill, yet reviled as suspicious outsiders.
I ask Hex why she does it, and her response leads me to believe many secrets are hiding beneath her answer, “I guess this City just needs someone to take care of it.” She shrugs and reflexively speaks into her throat mic, “zero-seven-seventy lock on the Drop at East 84th and City River Drive.”
© 2017 Zachary Mortensen | 001.002.01 “A Night of Gatecrashing”
The Gatecrashers Series 01