New Debts – Chapter 10

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When I stepped off the transport jet from the Tower, I had no idea what to do next. There was a target on my back. What was worse, anyone I involved at this point might end up with the same target on them. Perhaps most frustratingly, I didn’t know why. I stopped in my tracks, the VTOL’s idling engines rippling my suit around me, and looked up at the Tower. “The next time I see you, Kvioh, I’m going to ask you. I’m going to ask you: ‘Why?’”

There was only one way out of this situation. I had to go on offense. Neither Rupert nor Balan had known who they were up against, or even that they were in danger. My advantage was that I knew not only I was in for a fight, but I knew who I needed to fight.

There might not be much time to plan an attack, but I knew a group of trained men and women who also owed Balan their lives. Getting in touch with the members of the ART who’d been with me the day I was blinded seemed like a good first step. As the beginnings of a plan formed in my head, I had another thought. There was a stop I needed to make before I began contacting people to help me take down Kvioh. Taking out a Guardian was going to require sudden overwhelming force, and I had a guess about where I could find that force.

His contact info was programmed into my pocket terminal. “Mr. Malhotra? I need to come talk to you right now. Are you at your office?”

“Yes, Henry. I’m here. You remember how to get here?”

“Yes sir. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

As I transferred Glimmer to the automated cab, I remembered how I’d been concerned about my spending yesterday. The time for thriftiness had passed and the time for speed had come. It’s funny how things can change in just a few hours.

Mr. Malhotra’s bail bonds office hadn’t changed at all. The same big glass double doors adorned the front of the building. ‘Rainy Day Bail Bonds Co.’ still adorned the sign in large white letters over the doors. The interior of the office was empty until Mr. Malhotra came out from the back to greet me. He motioned me to a chair in front of one of the two desks in the lobby. After he’d offered me coffee, Mr. Malhotra sat on the other side of the desk. I recognized the ritual. He was treating me as a potential customer.

“What kind of help do you need, Henry?”

“I need to get access to some weapons. Someone means to do me harm and I need to protect myself. In fact, I need enough weapons to arm eight people. The person who’s coming after me is…very dangerous.”

My former employer sat back and tapped the fingers of his right hand on the arm of his chair. “I run my business according to the law, Henry. You know that. You worked for me. Really, it’s a bit insulting that you would even come ask me for something like that. If you’re in trouble, you should go to the police. Another thing you should already know. I don’t think I can help you.”

“Mr. Malhotra, you’ve helped all kinds people all over the years. You and I both know that sometimes the law can’t help you. Sometimes you have to help yourself. The kind of trouble that’s coming after me…” I trailed off, covered my face with my hands, and sighed in frustration. “I can’t even explain it to you without putting you in danger as well.”

When I looked up at him again, Mr. Malhotra’s normally placid expression had slipped into one of true concern. “I see that you’re very upset. Tell me what’s happening. I will help if I can.”

I wanted to thank him and walk out of there, but I couldn’t think of another way to get the weapons I would need. Even if the Armed Response Team agreed to help me, which I thought they would, there was no way for them to get hold of weapons from the Police Department without going through four layers of requests and administrative approvals. While I felt sure that the threat was real, what I actually knew and could prove didn’t even come close to probable cause for an official police response.  Telling Mr. Malhotra everything would put him in danger, but he wasn’t going to help me commit multiple felony crimes without knowing why it was necessary.

“This is going to sound crazy, but it’s the truth. A Guardian murdered my wife’s uncle. I’m not sure how, but she arranged for him to be hit by a Maglev train. She killed him because he’d discovered information about the original Traveler Worshiper Cult. Two Hunters who called themselves the Shepherds had something to do the Traveler Worshipers and, I suspect, their disappearance. When I asked another Guardian—Balan, the one who saved me when my eyes were burned—to get information about the Shepherds, he died hours later. This Guardian, her name is Kvioh. I think she’s been following me around as I retraced Rupert’s steps. She was with Balan when he died. I saw her at the memorial service and the way she looked at me, I could tell that she knows me. She doesn’t want anyone to know about the Shepherds for some reason. I’m next on her list, Mr. Malhotra. You know me. I’m not some over-dramatic conspiracy theorist. I’m in danger and I need your help.”

“Report what you told me. Tell the Police. Tell the Vanguard. You’re a New Monarchy man, tell them. Executor Hideo has dealings every day with the Guardians. He’ll know how to help you.”

I shook my head. “I only have enough evidence to believe what I’m telling you, not enough to actually prove it. Humanity wouldn’t even exist anymore without the Guardians. I can’t just go around accusing them of murdering civilians, not without hard proof. I don’t have time to gather more evidence.  She’s coming for me. I figure I have a few hours at most.”

Mr. Malhotra breathed in deeply through his nose, nodded and stood up. I stood as well. “Alright, I’ll do what you ask. Come back here in an hour, I should have some weapons for you. My cousin is an executive at Tex Mechanica. He won’t like me asking, but he won’t say no to family.”

My voice caught in my throat as I thanked him and shook his hand, I was so grateful I could barely speak. Mr. Malhotra just nodded and guided me toward the door. “Go,” he said. “Find some friends to help you. I’ll make sure you aren’t bringing knives to a gun fight.”

As I pushed open one of the double doors to leave the office, Mr. Malhotra called my name. I turned, keeping the door propped open against my back. “I’ve just had another idea. Instead of fighting this Guardian, go public. Put everything you know, everything you suspect, out to the news services. She can’t kill the whole city.”

My jaw dropped open. I realized he was probably right. Giving everything I knew to media would put all this out in the open. The diary would lend credibility to what I said, and the news would definitely jump on the Traveler Worshiper angle. I would be too famous to kill—even if I died in an accident, it would just make it look more like I was telling the truth. My brain was rapid-fire testing this idea from every angle I could think of. I was also kicking myself for not thinking of it hours ago. I’d been so angry over Balan’s death, I hadn’t been thinking straight. The door started to swing shut as I moved to come back into the office. Something buzzed past my ear and Mr. Malhotra’s chest exploded.

I shouted something meaningless and flinched away from the blood spray that hit me in the face from across the room. Mr. Malhotra spun backward and slammed to the floor on his side. When I got to him, blood was pumping out of his back and chest in spurts. Pressing my hands against the entry and exit wounds, I told him to breathe. The wound in his back was larger than my hand. It seemed like it took him a long time to die, but it was probably only a few seconds. He wasn’t able to make eye contact while he was dying. Some part of my brain found a way to be grateful for that.

She was coming. I had to get help. My pocket terminal almost slipped out of my hand. The screen showed: No Connection. No connection? That had never happened before, not anywhere in the City.  Kvioh must have found a way to block the signal. I stepped over Mr. Malhotra’s body and ran deeper into the office. The front doors slammed open behind me. I ran faster.

There was a rear exit that led into an alleyway. The alley was no good: a straight shot for fifty meters in either direction. She would shoot me down as soon as she saw me if I went that way. Instead, I went up the interior stairwell, hoping against hope that if I got to the roof, I could get away from whatever signal-jamming device Kvioh was using.

Ten stories of stairs to the roof. My legs and lungs were burning at floor five. When I caught the sound of footsteps below me between my labored breaths, I found more strength.

The roof door was a hatch type; I had to push it up and out to open it. I pivoted as soon as I exited onto the roof and slammed the hatch back down. It shut with a thunderous slam. There was a rooftop garden. That was incredibly lucky for me, because whoever maintained the garden also installed a large rack with rain gathering drums. It stood as tall as me, had four full drums of water, and it was set right by the hatch.

Placing both hands on the top of the rack, I pushed and was surprised when the thing barely moved. I looked down and realized that the rack had been nailed to the roof. That made perfect sense—you didn’t want wind just blowing the thing over. There was nothing else to do: I dug my feet in and pushed with everything I had. The nails started to come up, but slowly, so slowly. She couldn’t be far from the hatch now. I sprinted away from the rack, stopped, turned and charged back at it. The rack was heavy, metal, and it felt like I’d broken my shoulder when I hit it, but the nails gave way with an ungodly shriek. The entire rack, the water drums, and I all crashed over on top of the hatch. The drums clanged and sloshed and leaked, but didn’t empty out. They were fed with rain from the top by a large funnel and tubes.

I was still groaning and trying to get off the rack when a massive thump from below rattled the entire pile of metal and water. My vision blurred as I stood up. I didn’t know if it was from exhaustion or pain or some damage to my electronic eyes. The screen of my pocket terminal was barely readable. I finally realized that was because it was smeared with blood. After I wiped it on my shirt, I saw it still said there was no connection.

“Help!” I yelled. The tail end of a beautiful sunset was backlighting the Traveler. It was a gorgeous tableau. At least I was going to die with a nice view of the Last City.

The hatch slammed up again but didn’t come all the way open. I whirled around and faced the Tower. My eyes darted around the roof looking for another idea. There was three-meter-tall antenna mounted on the corner of the building. Several smaller directional microwave transmitters were mounted on it. I trotted over to the antenna, making adjustments to my pocket terminal, then I leaned out over the edge of the roof.

My focus was entirely on my terminal, so I didn’t register that it had been a long time since I’d heard anything. I shifted my terminal from my left hand to my right, keeping it carefully in place, and turned back toward the hatch. Kvioh was looking at me. Somehow, she’d managed to quietly push the hatch up in spite of the hundreds of kilograms of weight on top of it. She was standing there, her head, shoulders and torso visible, legs still hidden below on the stairs, holding the hatch open with one hand.  The other hand flicked out at me. I didn’t even have time to flinch before the knife plowed into my chest.

It felt like getting hit with a rock. The initial impact hurt, but for whatever reason the wound itself wasn’t immediately painful. As I staggered backward, my feet and legs hit the low wall at the edge of the roof. There was a short struggle with gravity as I tried not to fall off the roof. I won and stayed upright, though propped against the wall. I felt something warm dribbling down my back. Blood, I guessed. The damn knife was huge, it must have gone all the way through and now I was bleeding out of my back.

My arms had pinwheeled for balance when I was hit with the knife, so I had to readjust my terminal and get it pointed in the right direction again. I got my left elbow up on the edge of the wall and scrabbled my feet underneath me. A lot of blood was soaking the back of my shirt. All I could do was wait and watch as Kvioh took her time sauntering over to me. I closed my eyes and said goodbye to Kara and David.

When I opened my eyes she was standing over me. “Why?” I croaked.

Those stunning green eyes regarded me minutely. My labored breathing, the knife sticking from my chest. Her expression was flat, but instead of just killing me, she must have decided I at least merited an answer. “Because we’re shepherds. You’re the sheep. Sometimes you have to thin the flock, for the good of the rest.”

“Go to Hell.”

She shook her head dismissively. “There is no Hell. Goodbye.”

“Kvioh! What are you doing?!”

She’d been reaching for the knife, but instead she turned to address the voice behind her. “Giovanni. Go get started on the cleanup downstairs. I’ll finish him off and bring the body down. We’ll figure out what do with the remains after that.”

It was the dark-haired, plain-looking Guardian who’d been with Kvioh at the memorial service.  Of course: the second Shepherd. He was furious, waving his hands wildly, a natural counterpart to Kvioh’s deadly calm.

“Cleanup? There shouldn’t be any cleanup! You should have talked to me before you came here.  We could have figured something out. Another accident. You saw how I placed that tether right on the light pole. It was a perfect shot. The lawyer was trapped right on the tracks. We could have done something like that. Not this horrendous mess.”

“We can’t always wait, Giovanni. Sometimes we have to act. You never know when to attack, that’s why I stick around.”

“And you never know when to hold back. How are we going to clean this up? How do you know he hasn’t already called someone?”

“My Ghost is blocking the signal from his terminal. He hasn’t made any calls or sent any messages. I can think tactically when it suits me.”

The sun had completely set now. Only a red smear was left on the horizon. It was getting harder and harder to breathe. The air was hitching in my throat, and my chest was on fire. Small groans were escaping me at every breath. I hoped I would black out soon.

Kvioh and Giovanni were still bickering. High above us, I heard the scream of a VTOL. Kvioh  turned back to me. “You can lecture me later. We’re committed now. I already killed his boss, the one that was probably orchestrating all this investigating. Now, this one has to die, then that will be the end of it, finally.”

She raised a massive revolver. I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to close my eyes. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. Something heavy dropped onto the roof between Giovanni and Kvioh.  When Cayde-6 rose to his feet I could see his blue eyes glowing in the night. They left trails in the dark as they flicked from me, to Kvioh to Giovanni.

Kvioh had turned to face Cayde and dropped into a crouch when she heard him smash into the roof, but she hadn’t fired. Giovanni had taken a step back, but he made no move to draw a weapon.  “Cayde,” he said, his voice a strange mixture of happiness and fear, “you’re here. The three Shepherds are back together again. I’m glad to see you.”

The three Shepherds. I’d gambled wrong, called the wrong help. I’d been able to get a signal out by sending a direct line of sight microwave transmission from my terminal through the microwave transmitter antenna next to me on the roof. I’d linked the feed from my eyes to my terminal and transmitted it direct to the contact point Cayde-6 had given me. I coughed out a laugh. Sorry, Kara. Made the wrong call.

Cayde didn’t speak. He rose and looked from Giovanni to Kvioh and back again. The moment spun out. I started to shiver.

“No!” Kvioh snarled and raised her gun.

Cayde was so fast. I’ve never seen anything that fast. Light exploded in his hand, the legendary Golden Gun. I’d heard about it, but I never expected to see it. Exos are machines, or at least they’re beings who are built out of machines. There are all sorts of Exos and they do all kinds of jobs. It was like Cayde-6 was a machine imagined, designed and built to do exactly what he did on that roof at that moment and only that. He shot down Kvioh before she even got her gun up. She exploded in a beautiful burst of golden plasma. For a half second her body was there, outlined in superheated exotic particles, then she was just gone. Giovanni had a fraction of a second more to react. He actually managed to get his gun out and pointed in the right direction. Cayde shot him down as well.

The dead Shepherds’s ghosts popped up and hovered where their masters had fallen. Cayde sprinted over to me. The glowing pistol in his hand was very bright, but it didn’t seem to give off any heat. Too bad; I was cold. He knelt beside me. “There are medtechs on the way. They wanted to land with me, but I made them wait until I’d clear the roof.”

I nodded, barely. I could feel myself fading fast. The Hunter Vanguard turned away from me.  “Don’t do it, Ghost!”

Giovanni’s Ghost focused on Cayde, then apparently made its decision. Giovanni’s form began to snap back into existence. Blue light coalesced from nowhere. The Golden Gun fired a last shot, and the shattered machine was slung across the roof. Giovanni’s form vanished.

Cayde just pointed at the remaining Ghost, Kvioh’s companion. “Don’t test me.”

“Yes sir. I mean, no sir,” it replied.

“You’re a Shepherd?” I croak-whispered.

“I used to be. A long time ago. The three of us, we brought a lot of pilgrims to what would eventually become this city. I never thought it would come to this.”

I finally passed out not knowing if he meant the city or his friends.

I woke up. I hurt, and my mouth was dry beyond belief. From prior experience, I realized quickly that I was in a hospital room. I am a detective, after all. Cayde was sitting in the room, looking at me.

“Water?” I asked.

“Oh sure, sorry.” He hurried over to a pitcher and poured a plastic cup of water for me. I managed to be smart and only take a small sip. My chest felt strange and rubbery, like it wasn’t really part of me.  In spite of that, a deep part of me knew that I did not want to take a chance on coughing.

“It’s funny,” Cayde went on, “after a while you don’t miss being hungry or thirsty. You still crave certain foods sometimes, but I haven’t gotten that phantom urge to eat or drink in a lot of years. She was wrong, you know.”

I was caught completely off guard by the abrupt turn of the conversation. “Who was wrong?”

“Kvioh. She said there’s no Hell.”

“How did you know that? My eyes don’t transmit audio.”

“My Ghost can read lips. It translated for me.”

“So, there is a Hell?”

“Oh yeah. It’s run by a guy named Variks. I’m going to see that she spends a long, long time there. The rest of her life probably. The Vanguard will have to convene a tribunal and give her a trial, but thanks to you, the evidence is pretty overwhelming.”

“She murdered people. Civilians. This isn’t just a Guardian thing.”

“I know. She and Giovanni killed Rupert Dillon, Balan Riordan, Stephen Malhotra and tried to kill you. It’s worse than that, actually. I talked to her while you were unconscious. They killed all of the Traveler Worshipers as well, and used some of their corpses to stage human sacrificial rites which they made sure were attributed to the Traveler Worshipers.”

My jaw dropped open. Denise, the author of the diary. Murdered by the Guardians she thought were going to protect her. Sorry, kid.

Cayde nodded. “Yeah. Beyond heinous. They were afraid humanity was becoming like the Fallen.  They worship the Traveler as a god and in a lot of ways it’s crippled them. I also got the distinct impression that Kvioh did not like to think of herself as a servant empowered by the Traveler to assist humanity. That was a main part of the Traveler Worship dogma, and it was gaining in popularity until the Shepherds put a stop to it. She and Giovanni pretty much think Guardians are the ultimate expression of Light. Energy focused into corporeal form and directed by will. As far as Kvioh is concerned, she’s the end-all be-all. The Traveler Worshipers were bringing a lot people around to the idea that Guardians are the means rather than the ends.”

“She should be tried here in the City.”

Cayde nodded. “I get that. And you might be right. But where would you hold her after she was convicted? What jail could keep her in? Or should the death penalty be instituted just for Guardians?”

I thought about it for a minute and shook my head. “I don’t know. Above my pay grade, I guess.  The Vanguard and the factions can figure that one out as far as I’m concerned. All that aside, thanks. You saved my life.”

Now Cayde shook his head. “No thanks necessary. That’s my job. I’m not a Traveler Worshiper, but I know what a Guardian is supposed to do. Hey, your wife was here while ago. She said she would be right back. I’ll see if I can find her.”

“She’s my ex, actually.”

The Hunter shrugged. “Not what she said, but whatever.” He walked toward the door. When he moved, I saw there was a pan of lasagna sitting on a table near the window.