The North Tower

A lone ambulance parks itself at the base of the north tower. Somewhere buried in the fog, police cruisers have set up a barricade; This borders on pure formality in a city with fewer than one in a thousand manual-navigation vehicles. Habituated to long waits during suicide negotiations, two EMTs sit in the cab, staring at opposite ends of a three-level chess board.

Suruchi has just lost a pawn. Forehead tight and lips pursed, she stares at Mark's dark, brooding zombies, looking for a weakness. As she considers drawing out his queen from its perch on the lower level, her fingers hover over a beautifully-rendered, seahorse-like knight at mid-level. The knight breathes sparks and tightens the curve of its tail in anticipation. But just as she reaches to pick it up by the neck, the cab gives a thunderous lurch and her hand sends both dragons and zombies flying.

“Jesus Christ!” Suruchi shouts into the silence that follows, clutching her chest and breathing hard. Mark stares at her, wide-eyed, through the dark lenses of his port. The dense, ice-crystal fog of El Blanco rolls by outside the ambulance windows, glowing mildly under the vehicle's fog lights. Mark relaxes his face and, in typical fashion, hides his feelings behind a joke.

“Hey, no need to forfeit, Rooch. You weren't losing that bad!”

Suruchi just stares at him. He sighs, nodding. With two fingers held out like an airline attendant marking the exits, he makes a sliding motion along the chess board's edge, revealing a simple control panel. He pinches a small cartoon magnet to make the pieces fly back into place.

“To be continued,” he says, squeezing the board between open palms until it's the size of a baseball. He shifts it to the dashboard with a wave, opens the passenger-side door, and steps down to the road. Suruchi takes a deep breath and steps out from behind the override-wheel.

“I think it came from the back,” Mark calls from the other side of the truck. “Oh fuuuuu…. Yep. That would do it…”

Approaching the ambulance tail lights, Suruchi knows what she will find, and she desperately hopes that she's wrong. Sure enough, the negotiations have failed. There are the limbs, resting at impossible angles. There's the head, light hair darkly drenched around a fist-deep crater at the back of the skull. Eerily, the body is still breathing, though she knows this won't last long.

This isn't Mark's first ride, but it is his first year on the road, and he's hanging back, aghast. Uncertain.

“You ok?”

He nods, but says nothing. He's chewing on his lips. Suruchi has never seen anything like this either, but she's seen enough minds blown from “acute lead poisoning” to know she can handle it. She nods back.

“Radio Control that we've got an FTF. I’ll get started on obs.”

“Failure to fly?” Mark says, rediscovering his tomfool bravado. “I was thinking vehicle collision.”

She raises an unseen eyebrow at him as he walks back to the truck, chuckling to himself.

Merc. Headlights,” Suruchi says, subconsciously adjusting her enunciation for the benefit of the hgOS listener in her pendant.

The machine pauses for—to it—an eternity (roughly the blink of an eye), waiting for potential additions to her request, then, at the speed of light through silicone—through plastic, flesh and air—the pendant beams a simple order to the portal on her head. A series of gates opens up, freeing millions of pent-up electrons, which stampede like invisible bulls through tiny diodes at her temples, knocking loose photons which throw a bright and ghostly glow wherever Suruchi turns her head. It's currently aimed at the rig, next to where Mark had been standing, and spotlights a circle in which she now sees something wet dripping off the top-most warning beacon at the top corner of the box.

Suruchi climbs up onto the bumper and steps sideways until she's half a meter from the point of impact. The roof is dented and…she lets out a long moan. Just above the cracked light, hanging from one of the red-painted rivets, a single silver hair. Dangling from that: a small chunk of scalp.

Bracing herself with a deep breath, Suruchi hops back down to the road, careful to avoid the gleaming spatter-trail of biological shrapnel which—she can now see thanks to her port beams—coats the road in a straight line from the rear fender to the fresh corpse…and beyond. Gizzardy bits glisten like flecks of thick ink flung from a swinging brush.

A shiver trickles through Suruchi's throat and down her chest as she fights off her own imagination; It's trying to get her to see a fast-spinning body spraying crushed gray matter and bone in a fanning arc. She deflects the thought with a shudder before turning her attention back to the body. As she works, she can hear Mark, muted through the fog, talking to dispatch in the cab.

The impact seems to have flipped the body aggressively forward, folding the woman against the pavement like a nightmarish rag doll doing yoga: legs spread out in front beneath a gossamer sundress; chest nearly to the ground; arms flung forward, one clearly dislocated at the shoulder. Stepping around the victim's feet, Suruchi swallows hard to see that the woman's face and bare heels have been sand-papered by the road.

She puts her port in recording mode with a wave, and slowly walks around the body, letting it generate a complete cap of the scene: lidar model, color map, infrared, GPS tagging…the whole 8 meters. Standard procedure.

When this is done, she plucks a pair of nitrile gloves from a box inside the truck, and prepares to take notes.

Merc. Transcribe.

A virtual page now hangs in her riph, ready to soak up her thoughts. With careful articulation, Suruchi begins her observations, occasionally darting her eyes to the page to check for mistranslations.

“Patient found, um, unresponsive with massive head trauma. No pulse. Won't attempt resuss. Patient has suffered…” she takes a deep breath, “…um, occipital and interparietal bones have been crushed, with visibly irreparable damage to the occipital and parietal lobes, and probably cerebellum. Spinal cord likely severed by over-extension of the cervical vertebrae.”

Aside from a few drops of blood, there appears to be no external damage to the woman's back, unless you count the spotted-leather build-up of too many sunburns. The skin—visible between twin spaghetti straps and along the bare, outstretched arms—has a loose quality to it, like an old birthday balloon, or a deflated pregnancy.

“No portal. No sign of pendant straps,” Suruchi says, with a cursory peak at her notes. Then curiosity gets the best of her and she pauses the transcription by twisting her right hand into a closed fist, like a conductor silencing the orchestra.

“Hey, Mark,” she hollers, still crouching, “come give me a hand!”

But he's still talking to Control, and she's already lifting from the side, rolling the torso heavily up and off the splayed thighs, looking to see if maybe there's a purse or a wallet hiding under there. The soft flesh at the back of her throat recoils at the close-up stench of evacuated bowels, sealing the passage between her mouth and her olfactory system so that she won't have to taste the full pungency of the breeze-blown air.

Behenchod!” Suruchi swears, taking advantage of one of the few phrases her parents have passed down to her from her immigrant ancestors. “The poor fucker’s green guts are all down her leg…ugh.”

There's plenty here to shock even Suruchi's hardened world view, but the first thing to truly grab her attention isn't the face, or what's left of it, nor the horrid mix of body fluids puddled in the dark. Instead, her attention zooms in on a thin triangle protruding from the hip. It's unusual to see anyone carrying paper these days, but even more unusual to have a functioning pocket in a diaphanous dress!

Still pushing hard to keep the trunk raised, she slides the paper out. It's a postcard, folded in half, with a photograph of somewhere tropical printed on the outside. Suruchi is vaguely aware that this is not her purview, but there won't be a chance to look at it later, any more than she gets to follow the fates of those who leave her care still alive. Hazard of the job: the mobile medic never learns the rest of the story.

Flipping the card around and unfolding it, she glances over the street address (no addressee, destination: Hawaii) an uncancelled Forever stamp on the right, then focuses on the…message?…on the left. It’s looks like an Al mark, but without the logo and, like the address, it’s written in blunt pencil; each block traced and retraced, leaving cuts in the card that cannot be erased.


Nonplussed, Suruchi shrugs, refolds the card, and tries to slide it back into the dress pocket.

It's much harder to get in than it was to get out, and she finds herself, while wriggling it, she sneaks a cheeky peak at the now-exposed mess that used to be a face. She is trying to see the injuries without having to actually look, though, perversely, there's not much to see: everything resembling a face has been shorn off by the final slide across the asphalt.

“Why couldn't you have jumped into the Bay like everyone else?” she grumbles.

“Maybe she's afraid of sharks.”

Mark's voice is so close in her ear that she rears up, startled, clocking him in the chin so hard that his teeth come together with a worrying clack. As Mark stumbles back, face-in-hand, Suruchi finds herself standing beside him, still holding the folded postcard. Without thinking, she stows it in her own pocket while Mark is still yelling, “Fucking hell, Rooch!” into his cupped palms with his eyes shut tight against the pain.

“Yeah, well…” she says, stifling a snigger. “Don’t creep on me like that! And don't call me Rooch.”

This makes him laugh, which—still unready to forgive her—he unwisely attempts to stop. The wet tissues at the back of his throat can't hold back the pressure from his lungs, and so a good amount of air escapes through his nose in a sniggering spray of nasal blood. He pushes his palms away from his mouth and stares at the scarlet polka dots now dappling his white nitrile gloves.

There are drops forming on his upper lip and chin, but Suruchi knows he’ll heal soon enough. Compared with what she has just seen, Mark’s bloody nose seems like so much stage paint.

“You look like a well-fed vampire,” she teases him.

“Fuck you,” is the best he can do.

Suruchi’s thoughts travel from vampires to spirits, and a chill traces her spine.

“Sorry,” she says, not to Mark, but to whatever ghosts might hang here, tangled in the fog.

“Good. You should be.”

Mark sounds angry, but he's grinning wide, and shaking from the effort of trying to stay serious. Despite a valiant effort, the muscles of his lips lose easily in the reverse tug-of-war against his diaphragm, and the sudden spray of jet-powered air nebulizes the drop of blood that he’s trying to catch in his hands. Suruchi swears she can feel some of this crimson mist land across her cheek, which she wipes against the back of her hand.

“Chutiya gadhe!”

They explode together then. The laughter feels good, as had the apology. Suruchi has forgotten about the hitchhiker in her navy blue cargo slacks. Being nothing more, after all, than worn ink and wood pulp, it will come to mind at only the most inopportune of times.

First, there will be the police officers, including a detective. An inevitable bro-ey banter will ensue. Suruchi will join in. Whatever it takes to shake off the oppressive truth lying on the road! Then she’ll feel that chill again, drawing her attention to the thing in her pocket. She will promise herself to bring it out as soon as the cops ask whether they found anything on the body. They will not get the chance.

The Fire Chief will arrive, claiming she just had to see this for herself. More banter, and then Suruchi will again lose herself in the moment, watching the cops collect flecks of glop from her rig—including that grisly strand of scalp-dangled hair—into sterile containers. The Chief will suddenly snap back to business, pressing Mark and Suruchi to grab their bags from the ambulance and follow her to her cherry-red EUV. As it drives them back to the station, the Chief will lecture them on the importance of trauma therapy after “this kind of thing.” Suruchi will realize that she has now taken the postcard from the scene. Her chest will slowly swell with guilt, but she will pay it no mind as she fills the silence after the speech by converting her notes into a formal report. Three members of the SFPD will glide through the City, their arms dancing before them, manipulating the soft-space world as seen through their separate ports.

In the steam-filled locker room, Suruchi will stumble on the card while taking off her pants. For a moment, she will stare at it blankly while ancient pathways in her brain declare the paper trash: something to be recycled. Then she’ll hear the dripping silence of an ended shower around the corner, and, panicked, Suruchi will plunge the contraband into the depths of her gym bag, there to be forgotten once more as she cloaks her guilt in badinage, bantering with her towel-wrapped colleague before biking home.

There, emptying her duffel into a laundry basket, Suruchi will finally pause to give the postcard a slow look. Only then will it occur to her that she is carrying someone else's property. Not the stiff’s, of course. The deceased is now just a pile of doomed meat, incapable of owning anything. But the printed address and the valid postage will argue for a future owner. Someone—someone whose name starts with R?—was supposed to receive this message in the mail. Or were they?

When Suruchi has exhausted her quiver of unanswerable questions, she will settle on posting the card the next morning in the blue box down the street.

But later, as she startle-wakes from her first attempt at sleep, it will dawn on her that she has, technically, robbed a corpse. On federal property. And everything’s traceable these days. Cameras on every drop box. It's too soon. The FBI and SFPD are probably giving the case special scrutiny. After all, it's not every day someone splashes their brains across the 101. And cryptic messages hide cryptic motives. What am I getting snarled up in?

After a night full of dread-deepening dreams, Suruchi will revise her deadline for mailing the card to: Someday. Maybe.

The postcard will rule the roost, for a time, atop a small stack of non-urgent Things To Do, only to be slowly buried by her own keep-sakes, and other half-baked commitments. From there, it will eventually make its way into a box, which will maneuver itself into a storage unit. Forgotten.


But for now, Suruchi and Mark are having a good laugh as she fetches supplies to help him mop up. “Medic!” he hollers as another carmine drop splashes into his cupped, albescent palm.

She pops open a kit and starts mopping him up as a set of red-white-and-blues pulls loose from the row of throbbing emergency lights that make up the distant barricade. It eventually resolves into a slow-rolling police cruiser, lazily crunches the gravel, stopping a few meters away. Its day runners bring fresh illumination to the gruesome scene.

As Mark sidles over to greet the newcomers, Suruchi stares off in the other direction, out toward the pitch-black ocean that hides below the brilliant mist.

Behind her, the victim's blood pools and ripples through valleys in the asphalt. Following gravity to a crack designed for rain, dark, glistening beads drop silently down, down, down, to be swallowed by the sea.

©2022 Elbong Gearny