Bright Light Dim
I'm a search light soul they say / But I can't see it in the night / I'm only faking when I get it right… 'Fell on Black Days' - Soundgarden
He glanced up at the leaden sky and pulled his collar tighter about his neck. It had been trying to snow all day, but what fell from the heavy, dark clouds was an inconstant mist that was not quite flakes and not quite rain, but all of it seemed determined to find its way down the back of his coat. With the afternoon fading into twilight, the temperature was dropping; it would soon be too cold to snow.
It would be perfect weather to find a nice warm tavern and enjoy a few rounds of hard, mulled cider with friends –and maybe cuddle up to a soft warm body or two, if he was lucky. Except there were only a few taverns still standing and there wouldn't be any alcohol served in any case. At best, the offering would be thin soups and stale bread to grimy, tired volunteers wandering in after a long day of clean-up, or search and rescue.
He snorted derisively as he pulled the bandana from his nose and mouth and shook the grit off of it. Three months after the invasion, 'rescue' was a misnomer. Anybody… any body they found was usually long past the point that it would do them any good.
Unless he was buried by the 'system'.
Records of known survivors -and even a few soldiers- was a massive cluster-fuck. New lists from each area of the city were supposed to be turned in to main ops at the end of each week, mimeographed, then distributed to all the other ops so they could keep track. It took time, energy and determination to go from sector to sector hitting up each chief of ops for information, only to be met with confusion… or indifference. Some names never made it to any list; living, dead, injured or missing.
The sound of gastric distress from one of his search partners drifted from behind the crumbling remains of a stone wall that had once housed a florist, and Jean Havoc -newly promoted to captain in the aftermath of the invasion—sighed and pulled out a cigarette. A querying whine from his right stayed his hand before he struck the match and he glared down at the third member of their party; a large black and tan –and mostly grey from crawling through rubble—dog. "Hey, I haven't had one in hours and it looks like we're gonna be here awhile."
The dog; an indeterminate breed that looked like he was mostly shepherd and whom someone had the brilliant idea of naming Pookie (and the moron who thought that was funny was going to get a boot up his ass if Havoc ever met him… 'Pookie' indeed), whined again, then flopped down on the cold, damp ground, rested his head on his outstretched paws and gazed up, giving a couple of hopeful thumps with his tail.
"Good idea," Havoc said, and sagged down onto an exposed step where the door of the shop once was. He lit the cigarette, took a long, deep drag, then let the smoke escape his lungs slowly. Resting his arms on his knees, he hung his head, letting the cigarette dangle from his lips. He was bone-weary, but they were still on patrol for four more hours. He just hoped they were uneventful, because he really didn't have the energy -nor the patience- to wrestle some two-bit punk to the ground if he caught him robbing someone. He'd probably just shoot the bastard instead, and get it over with quickly.
Martial Law had been declared immediately after the invasion, but the survivors were not secure. There weren't any doors to lock on tents and shacks, after all. Solid shelter was in short supply as any building even moderately sound had been taken over by triage and operations. Even the main building of Central, which housed the military and Parliament offices, was occupied. Although billeting the government, the top brass of the military and their families, one floor had been converted into a surgery that handled the patients triage couldn't. In a stroke of irony, it was the only building left standing that was entirely self-contained. The headquarters had its own water supply, along with heating and sewer and generators that kept the power on.
Main operations was placed in the center of the parade grounds, and soldiers were given at least one hot shower, cooked meal and a night in a clean cot per week, before being sent to their next assignment.
Hasn't been assigned to demolition. No one's seen him on patrol.
It could have caused some consternation among the rest of the survivors that only the upper echelons and military were given the privilege of these accommodations, but at the end of the day, the Prime Minister's wife was indistinguishable from the prostitute standing next to her and everyone was working together, regardless of social status or station.
Like morning toadstools after a summer rain, enclaves of tents and cobbled-together shelters –some little more than lean-tos- had sprung up in any clear space around Central and rapidly spread down into the newly uncovered city below. All of them easy targets for criminals who seemed to disappear as stealthily as sewer rats whenever they got wind of a patrol coming their way.
Of course, it wasn't only survivors making camp where ever they could. Within days of the attack, any able-bodied soul who could offer skills –or even a strong back- along with State and private alchemists from across Amestris had arrived to help repair the devastation; within weeks more had arrived from Xing to assist with medical needs, as well.
Survivors and volunteers had buzzed around the ruins like flies on a corpse, choking tenuous pathways even as they were attempting to clear them, and Parliament finally had to order soldiers to stand sentry at the entrances. Volunteers were being turned away; not because they weren't needed –Providence knew that there was more than enough work to go around—but because there just weren't enough resources and soldiers available to keep order. Too many were already being pulled off search and rescue to patrol the ruins and restore some semblance of peace in the many fights that popped up around Central like wildfires.
It's almost like he's never existed. Goddamned gossip's more reliable.
In the beginning, everyone had remained hopeful even through the shock, as survivors outnumbered the dead, but as the days -and then weeks- stretched on, the ratio had begun to turn. A sense of quiet desperation had settled over the remains of Central as any trainable dog was conscripted to help search for bodies. No one said it out loud, but everyone knew that the longer someone went missing, the greater the chances they'd be found as cold as the stone that had trapped them.
Pookie whined again, and Havoc felt the shepherd's cold nose nudging his palm. Giving in to the dog's request with a tired smile, he scratched him behind his ears. Pookie was one of the better dogs assigned to help patrol the devastation. He did a damn fine job of finding survivors and never balked at being sent into tight spaces to sniff out a cadaver –and he was big enough that body weight alone would usually subdue some of the trouble-makers they'd stumbled on. Havoc wondered if –after it was all over with—he would be able to keep him. Of course, if he did, he would have to come up with a better name.
Soldiers and volunteers had rounded up the dogs that hadn't gone completely feral and weren't so skittish that they couldn't be approached –and it was these that were trained to assist. A good dog was often the difference between finding a survivor or a corpse.
It was debatable, though, whether being found alive was the lesser of two evils.
There was no guarantee that those found still breathing would survive long past their rescue. Medical supplies were growing scarce; most of the manufacturers had been located at the outskirts of the city and had taken hits from the attack as well. They were scrambling to set up and process pain killers and antibiotics as quickly as they could, but it took time. Those manufacturers that were operating in other parts of the country were working day and night to take up the slack, but the shipments weren't always making it to Central. Too many trucks were getting hijacked, and there weren't enough soldiers to cover security for all of them.
The make-shift triage units set up all around the city rang with the cries of pain and reeked of sickness and infection, and even the surgery in headquarters was not immune to the short supplies and patient losses. Only those patients suffering the worst, but expected to live, were given anything, and then it was in low doses in the hopes that what was available would hold out until the manufacturers could create more.
Doctors and nurses were being forced to make decisions that went against their oaths by withholding medication to the dying; not even an aspirin to make the patient's remaining moments a little more comfortable. They only thing they could offer was a warm blanket and a cobbled-together screen for privacy while the life left the victims in screams and strangled sobs. There wasn't even a hand available to hold, as every one was needed to treat the survivors.
Pookie's ears pricked and Havoc glanced up as a jeep rolled slowly past, laden with injured and sick on their way to the closest triage unit. He almost took his hat off as a show of respect for the walking dead, but figured no one would appreciate the gesture.
People who'd originally escaped harm in the invasion were starting to fall, too. At first it had been injuries from unstable rubble or thug attacks, but it soon became illness.
He hasn't been working with any of the SARs units. He could've still gotten his ass trapped, though.
Scarves and bandanas weren't enough to completely hold back the dust from crumbled buildings; microscopic flecks of lead paint and asbestos floated through the air and settled on every surface, only to be kicked up again when the searchers dug through one pile or another looking for someone… anyone… who might still be alive. Fine grit from mortar and brick and coal used in heating joined the more invisible contaminants, etching away at nasal passages and lungs, starting with a tickle in the throat and growing to a chronic cough that became tinged with blood in the more severe cases. They were slow and painful deaths, and there would be people dying this way for years after the restoration became little more than a chapter in history books.
And that was the least of the dangers.
Minor contusions that went unnoticed or ignored could become deadly infections with exposure to decomposed corpses and raw sewage and no one could be completely certain of what might be in the water that filled basements and craters. Epidemics of typhoid and typus were expected and prepared for as best as was possible; cholera was already hitting hard because of the lack of sanitation. And now that cold weather had begun to set in, the risk of pneumonia and influenza was greater.
No one's found him in any triage.
It was estimated that at least half the remaining population was going be wiped out from one or more of these diseases. That was if they were lucky and the medical supplies started arriving soon.
"You still alive back there, Breda?" Havoc called and was rewarded with a groan and more distressed noises. The captain rolled his cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other and frowned. That wasn't good… Breda had been growing increasingly sicker as the day went on. At first it was just a complaint of indigestion, but it soon became mad dashes to anywhere he could lean or squat over as he alternated between vomiting and diarrhea. And with the number of flooded basements they'd waded through in their search—well, he really didn't want to think about it. "Make sure to check your stools, man."
"Yeah, yeah," Breda groaned. "The shit's still nice and brown. You wanna look?"
Havoc chuckled. If Breda could still find the energy to be a crude bastard, maybe he'd be all right after all. "Ah, no. Thanks."
Even with most of the city fairly clean –if not yet restored- the stink of refuse and decomposition still hung heavy in the air, mingling with the acrid reek of gas fires that would spring up periodically, and the smoke from burning garbage… and burning dead. It was worse in this sector, though. It was the last place to be slated for clean-up; the slums of Central. Rumour had it that the whole area was probably just going to be demolished. Havoc hoped not; everyone deserved a place to live, even if it wasn't a mansion in the Wauge district.
He ground out his cigarette and sighed. At least here, the unit he commanded –a mix of soldiers and civilians- had something to do and got regular breaks. There were sectors of the city that had people just taking up space, and other units that were undermanned. Lt. Colonel Armstrong and Major Hawkeye had been petitioning the Brass to redistribute people where they were needed most, but Havoc hadn't heard anything on that since last week.
Hawkeye's gonna put a bullet through someone if we don't get some answers soon.
The wind shifted and the reek of sewage and decay was suddenly more putrid. Pookie sneezed, whined and pawed desperately at his nose, and Havoc scrambled to get his bandana back over the lower half of his face. "Ugh!"
Breda came around the crumbled wall, still fastening his pants and shot both dogs a dirty look. "I covered it up as best as I could."
Havoc shook his head and pointed toward the south end of the city where a soft orange glow lit the darkening sky. "It's that."
"Is that from the burning grounds?" At Havoc's nod, Breda said, "I heard those guys are working double-time, and still can't keep up."
"How many bodies do you think they're trucking in every day?" Havoc asked as he stiffly came to his feet. He'd set on the cold concrete step for too long; he was going to pay hell for it in the morning.
"Too damn many," Breda said. Then, softy, "You think that's where he is?"
Havoc didn't answer. Instead he clucked at Pookie and started back on patrol.
Disclaimer: Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) was created by Arakawa Hiromu and is serialized monthly in Shonen Gangan (Square Enix). Copyright for this property is held by Arakawa Hiromu and Square Enix.