new debts fiction story

New Debts – Chapter 7

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“This is stupid. I’m going to get killed. I can’t believe I’m doing this.” I didn’t usually talk to myself, but I knew from my days as a cop that if you walked into the wrong bar without backup you were taking your life into your hands. People are territorial. They like to feel safe among peers, and when an outsider sticks their nose into territory that doesn’t belong to them, they’re apt to lose that nose.

I sighed and looked up at the wooden sign hanging above the door. It bore the name “The Second Pillar.” A picture of a pillar shaped mug of beer appeared below the name. I shook my head, pushed open the door, and walked into the Titan bar.

I’d read through the night and as soon as I’d finished the diary, I sent a message to Balan asking if I could meet him. After sending the message, I took a shower and heated up a ready-made meal. I had a meeting that morning with the client I’d put off yesterday: the suspicious wife. The meeting went fine, though my brain was only half engaged. Exhaustion was starting to set in, so I drank two cups of coffee during the meeting and took more notes than I really needed to, just to try to keep my brain active.

In the small amount of experience I had in this job, I could already tell that the wife was probably right, her spouse was probably cheating. I didn’t say that, though. I just promised to look into it and get back in touch with her in two days with what I found.

I found a return message from Balan waiting on my terminal. He was going to be on Mars that morning, but he planned on being in the City at his favorite bar that afternoon and said that I could meet him there. Both his casual mention of traveling to Mars for a morning and the idea of meeting him at a bar entirely populated by incredibly powerful living weapons left me nonplussed for a couple of minutes. I knew, intellectually, that normal humans had once traveled to and lived on Mars. My generation was the first one, post Collapse, to have more than a mostly subsistence level of prosperity. A lot of people consider my generation an almost unworthily lucky one because of all the relative comfort we now take for granted. Once, though, I could have met someone for drinks on Mars or Venus without a problem. Thinking of all we’d lost made me angry and sad if I thought about it for too long, so I tended to concentrate on what I did have, not what humanity once might have had.

The meeting at the Titan bar was a much more immediate concern. Balan didn’t intend me harm with the invitation, at least I didn’t think he did. Maybe he was just naive about what kind of reception I was going to get. Growing up you learn about the Guardians. A few people get to know them and work with them in the Tower. But you don’t socialize with them or try to be friends. It’s like trying to be friends with a tornado. The idea sounds cool, even alluring to some. The reality is that much power packed into that small a package is dangerous to normal people, no matter the intentions of said package.

I started to type out a return message to Balan suggesting a different meeting place and then deleted it. He was probably already past the Moon. Also, I didn’t want to sound like a wimp.  I would just have to meet him at the Second Pillar.

Turning my attention to the police report, courtesy of Sgt. Zeram, it was filled with information that I already knew. There were some really horrific pictures of Rupert’s remains I hadn’t seen. These were the kinds of images and pieces of evidence that were not released to the family. Looking at them, I just had to remind myself that the massive damage meant he wouldn’t have felt a thing. It just would have been bright light, huge noise, and then nothing.

The investigation looked like it had been done thoroughly and well. A neighborhood canvass had turned up a surprising number of people awake at that hour. It was surprising to me, anyway; I’ve always been a sound sleeper. Thirteen people reported being awake at the time the fatal train came through. Only one person said he was looking outside at the time: a guy named Devarius Scout. That last name was a refugee name. His family had probably specialized the job of scouting for their group during their time in the wilderness before the City. He’d probably grown up around people who called themselves Gunners, Shotguns, Cooks, Scouts, Waterbearers, Scavengers and Medics, because that was the job they and their family did.  Sometimes part of surviving the Collapse was letting go of what you had before—even your name.

Mr. Scout reported that he was reading and was drawn to the window because of the light from the train-warning pylon at the intersection. His window faced the tracks and was pretty close to the intersection. However, it wasn’t close enough to actually see the intersection, so he didn’t see anything other than the train going by. He hadn’t noticed anything strange about the train.

There were a lot of statements in the file similar to that of Mr. Scout: nobody noticed anything strange about the train coming by. Why would they? It happened every day, multiple times a day. So, I wondered, why had he gotten up and gone to the window? Was he getting up to stretch and just wanted to have a look out the window? Was he a train enthusiast? Maybe he was just bored of his book and wanted a break. The officer’s report was just a summary of what Mr. Scout had said. No statement had been directly recorded from the witness. The officer’s report was vague.  Sometimes details from the witnesses made all the difference. Sometimes they just added unnecessary junk to the file. I made a note of Devarius Scout’s address and contact information, then continued reading.

Nothing pointed to, or even hinted at, a foul play in the death of Rupert Dillon. That was the conclusion I came to when I finished the file. The cops had done a good job with the investigation. The canvass of the neighborhood for witnesses had been impressive and that level of dedication and attention to detail was present throughout the investigation.

The problem was I knew something the cops didn’t. I knew about the Traveler Worship angle. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I had the definite feeling that I was pulling at some real thread. I swiveled around in my chair and looked out the window. No answers jumped at me from the window. I checked the time and realized I had time for a nap before my meeting with Balan.

As I was sitting down on the bed and taking off my shoes, my pocket terminal blipped. A message from Kara asking if I had any news. I started and then deleted several long reply messages. My brain felt like it was made of rubber. Finally I typed a short reply and sent it: “No news yet. There might have been something unexpected going on in Rupert’s life. I promise I will let you know as soon as I know something for sure.”

I closed my eyes hoping for some new insight as to what all I knew might mean. When I woke, I didn’t have any revelation other than to remember that I had closed my message to Kara with “Love, Henry.” I slapped my forehead in embarrassment. She’d never ended any of her recent messages that way. Why did I do that?

I shambled to the bathroom and splashed some water on my face from the sink. Looking in the mirror I called myself a dumbass several times, then I brushed my hair. A few minutes later I was catching a cab to The Second Pillar.

It was dark inside the bar, as it should be in any good bar. The rest of it was somewhat startlingly normal. The bar was on my left as I entered. The bartender was a Frame. Several sets of eyes tracked me as I made my way into the room. Tables and chairs were off to my right. The wall farthest from me, where you might expect dartboards or pool tables to be was what looked like a concrete hallway. It wasn’t a hallway, though. The back wall was entirely concrete and I could see that the floor was concrete in a meter and a half wide strip that also appeared to run the length of the back wall. A waist-high half wall cordoned off the concrete strip from the rest of the bar except for entrances at either end. The concrete area was mostly dark but I could see a lot of light fixtures set into the ceiling above it. That area was obviously intended to be very well lit on demand.

There was quiet conversation going on all over the bar and music was playing from somewhere. The Frame bartender was telling a joke to a patron while its visual sensors followed my every move. The punchline was something about Warlocks needing an ancient tome to decide what to eat for lunch. Everyone sitting at bar cracked up. I didn’t get it.

A waving hand at the bar got my attention. It was Balan. I was walking over to him when a blue and white wall appeared in front of me. I stopped short and looked up. It wasn’t a large moving wall, which had been my first impression. It was another guardian, an Awoken guy with short pure white hair and light blue skin. My eyes were just about at the height of his collar bone, or where I guessed his collar bone would be under the heavy armor he was wearing.

I opened my mouth to say something, I wasn’t quite sure what, but he was already speaking. “We risk our lives every day to protect this city and all you civilians. We just want a quiet place to ourselves where we can drink in peace and remember our dead friends. There are lots of other bars. Go find another one.”

“Sorry, I’m here to-”

“I said, find another bar!” I could hear some slur in his words and smell beer coming off him. Wonderful. A giant, drunk combat veteran used to facing off with monsters of a kind I couldn’t even conceive, and he was pissed off at me. He raised a mitt the size of my head and was about to poke me in the chest with a massive index finger when a hand landed on his shoulder. He sort of jerked, obviously surprised that anyone would be interrupting him.

“This is my guest, Torvald.” Balan, to the rescue. Again. At least he was a little quicker this time.

Balan and Torvald were of a height. Balan was human in appearance. Caucasian, blond hair worn medium long, to cover, I suspected, his mangled right ear.

“You should meet with your guest somewhere else, Balan. This our place. I didn’t face down forty Hive knights, keeping them safe,” he pointed at me when he said “them,” “just so I would have to mind my manners and act like some kind of tame dragon when I get a chance to relax.”

“For one thing, you had plenty of help facing down those knights, as I heard. Second, I also distinctly remember knocking you completely off the Bannerfall Tower yesterday. If you don’t leave my guest in peace, we’ll go for round two right now.” Balan didn’t sound angry or even excited. What raised the hairs on my neck is that he actually sounded cheerful.

There were subtle shiftings in the room. I could tell people were getting ready to move if need be. There were no weapons in sight, but I knew there was still more than enough power in the room to leave me broken and bloody in an instant. “Well,” I thought, “if I’m going to die in a bar fight, it might as well be a Titan bar fight. It’ll make a good story to tell at my funeral.”

Instead, Torvald and Balan eyed each other for a couple of seconds and then Torvald laughed and tried to pretend that he’d been joking. He slapped an open hand down on the bar, leaving a slight dent and making a sound like a gunshot, and said my first drink was on him.  Then he moved off to a group standing near the concrete hallway.

“Sorry about that.” said Balan as a big laugh went up from the group where Torvald was standing. The Awoken Titan didn’t look at me, but I could guess who was the butt of the joke.  Balan continued after I’d ordered a tonic and lime. “Torvald was only brought back a couple of years ago. Some newer Guardians, they fight some major battles, see some of their friends get killed, and start believing that they know the truth about why they have the power that they do.  It takes them a while to realize that the power to do a thing is the responsibility to do it right and for the right reasons.”

“That’s actually very similar to…something I read recently.” I replied. Toward the end of her entries, Denise recorded part of a sermon by Father Domingo. He’d said: “The Traveler spread the Light out to all of us. Not just in the form of the Light’s servants: the Guardians and the Ghosts. But very directly to us in the form of the existence of our lives at this instant. Our lives are the product of the Light and therefore we must use them to protect, serve and spread Light and Life.”

I didn’t recount any of that to Balan and he didn’t ask what I’d read; he just nodded.  “Guardians are just that. We’re here to serve as guards against the Darkness. Titans especially.  Warlocks like to learn, Hunters like to explore, Titans like to fight. Especially when we’re fighting for a cause.”

“I can get behind that. I became a cop for the same reason. I don’t do much fighting anymore though, not with these delicate eyes of mine.”

Balan’s eyes flicked away from mine. I realized the poor guy actually still felt guilty about what happened to me. I opened my mouth to set him straight, but he talked over me.  “Anyway, I’m sure you didn’t come here to listen to drunken philosophy from a guy who runs around with a glorified bucket on his head most of the time. What can I do for you?”

“Have you ever heard of a group of Hunters called the Shepherds?”

He took a deep breath and thought it over. At length he shook his head. “No, and I’ve been around for a while. When were they operating?”

“Probably around the time of founding of the city. A couple hundred years ago.”

“Ah!” he raised his eyebrows. “Well, I haven’t been around that long, but a lot of Guardians have. I’ll ask around. How are your wife and son doing?”

“They’re good. Uh, we split…what are those guys doing?” I’d been watching Torvald and his group for last minute or so. They’d split up into two groups of two. The pairs of Titans had gone to either end of the concrete hallway. Then a single Titan had walked into either end of the hallway and stood with one hand touching the wall. Another member of the group, one standing outside the concrete hallway, raised a hand in the air and then dropped it. When the hand dropped both Titans had started running from their respective end of the concrete hallway.

They closed the distance incredibly fast. I was about to ask if they were running wind sprints when Balan’s eyes popped wide and he said: “Cover your—” but the rest was lost when a massive bomb went off in the bar. The sound of it was beyond belief, like a thunderclap inside a bass drum. I felt the floor vibrating under me and only then realized I’d fallen off my barstool. I looked up and saw Balan leaning over me extending a hand. I looked around. The bar seemed very intact given the size of the explosion that had just gone off. The Guardians also weren’t at all concerned. Some were laughing, some were clapping their hands. I couldn’t actually hear any of the clapping or laughing, mind you, I was pretty much deaf.

One of the Titans running in the hallway had been knocked completely over the partial wall and onto a table. The occupants of the table pushed him unceremoniously off the tabletop to the floor. A Ghost floated over to the fallen Titan and looked him over with every appearance of weary concern. Torvald stood in the hallway grinning, fist raised in victory.

“They call it Shoulder Ball, even though there’s no ball.” Balan shouted into my ear.   “It’s a bar game some Titans play.”

I stopped trying to dry tonic water out of my shirt with napkins and stared at Balan. “A game? Darts is a bar game! That was terrifying! I think I swallowed that entire slice of lime from my drink.”

He shrugged. “I just said we’re warriors of Light. I didn’t say we’re all smart.”