Click here to read Chapter 1.
“Mr. Hill? Mr. Hill—Henry? Can you hear me? Do you know where you are?”
The voice talking to me was muffled and it took what felt like a long time to get my head around the simple question. “Yeah, I can hear you. I hope I’m at the hospital. Where’s my team? What happened?”
“Everybody’s okay, Bird. Zero is 10-6 and the team is all here. You’re going to be okay.” This was a different voice, one I recognized: Sgt. Zeram. I started to get scared then. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I no longer had anyone to worry about but myself. Or maybe because I had heard of a couple of guys who ended up in the hospital with injuries. They always tell them they’re going to be okay, and they rarely are.
“Why can’t I see?”
“Your eyes were injured. I’ll get the doctor so she can explain everything.” The first voice again, a female voice, a nurse I guessed, based on her deference to the doctor. I felt a hand on my right hand. “My cousin is a cop. I’m going to make sure everybody takes good care of you, okay?”
“Okay, thanks.” I heard rustling that sounded as though someone was leaving the room, but it was hard to tell without a visual to go with the sound.
My breathing started to speed up. I was as scared as I had ever been. “Is she gone, Sarge?”
“Yeah, Bird. It’s just us.”
“Just tell me, man. How bad is it?”
“It’s bad. Your body armor saved you from any severe burns on your body, but you caught a bad hop on a spark from one of those bolts. It hit you right in the goggles. I don’t know if they’re going to have to do surgery or what, but your eyes looked pretty bad.”
“Zero is dead?”
“Uh huh. So is the other guy, Dubard. They brought him in at the same time as you, but he was DOA.”
I was fighting panic now, trying to concentrate on something other than the fact that I might be blind, crippled, out of a job, scarred and deformed. My palms were sweating and the pain in my face was starting to catch up to the pain in my back. I could feel the wrappings around my head. I started wondering if I was going to have ears or if they had been burned off.
“Who shot Zero?”
Sgt. Zeram laughed. “Nobody. You’re not going to believe this. A Guardian blew in the entire damn exterior wall and smashed old Zero like he was a piñata.”
“For real. A titan, I think. Said his name is Balan. I wish you could have seen it, man….” Abu made a choked sound, realizing what he’d said. “Anyway, the doctor is going to be here in a second and so is Kara. I’m going to go let the guys know that you’re awake. Are you okay by yourself for a minute?”
I told Abu that I was fine, even though I wasn’t. My mind was whirling again. It would be several days before I started wondering about why a Titan would have come through that particular wall at that particular time. I wondered how Kara had managed to get away from her job teaching elementary school to come to the hospital. I know it sounds stupid: I was her husband and I was in the hospital, injured. Of course she was coming. But my mind wasn’t right. Logic, imagination and panic kept falling all over each other in strange ways.
My wife did come to the hospital, and eventually a doctor did come to talk to me about my eyes. Kara did her best to hold it together, but I could tell without seeing her that she’d been crying before she got to the hospital. The doctor pretty much laid it out for me. My eyes were, for all intents and purposes, useless. I would have significant facial scarring, and I was looking at several surgeries and extended physical therapy. The good news was that cybernetic implants were readily available. I would see again.
At the time it sounded like really good news, and it was. Three years on the other side of it, though, I have to say that I don’t believe I ever did see again. Not really. Imagine always looking through a video feed at everything. Always. The implants are better than blindness, but it isn’t sight. The implants make me feel disconnected from the world in a way I have trouble describing. There’s no latency issue, that’s not what I mean, but when I look at my hand, I’m not looking at my hand, I’m looking at a video feed of my hand.
This sounds like whining; I realize that. I was totally blind for six weeks before the implants were put in, so I got a taste of that. I prefer being able to see, even if it is video. What I’m trying to explain is what happened after the implants. It would be reasonable for you to expect that I’d be grateful to have the chance to look at my son’s face again, when I could easily have been dead or had such extensive nerve damage that implants weren’t an option.
I was grateful, sometimes. But most of the time I was angry. The disconnect between what I thought of as real sight and what the implants gave me got to me. I would turn the implants off and stumble around sightless because somehow that felt more natural. But when I did that my inability to see made me angry. Turning the implants back on made me angry. My wife trying to help made me angry. My wife giving me space to figure it out made me angry. Ditto her suggesting therapy.
Balan came to see me during that period. I thanked him for saving me and the team. It was strange to have a superhuman space warrior standing in my living room. I’m sure he felt awkward and out of place. I made it more awkward by saying that I wished the Vanguard had been a little quicker with the intel that morning. When our radios started squawking right as Gregor blew the hinges on the door, that was our dispatcher trying to warn us that the Tower had just called down with information about high level weapons in the apartment, and that we should abort and let guardians do the entry.
Balan took my rudeness in stride and said he wished that they’d been quicker as well. As soon as he’d gotten word from the Vanguard leadership of what was going on, he’d scrambled a transport vehicle to get to the scene. He was probably flying down as we were making entry. He’d jumped right out of the damn plane from an extremely unsafe altitude and managed control his fall in such a way that he hit the apartment wall. He came right through into the kitchen using some kind of flaming hammer of God or some such thing. It’s an almost unbelievable tactical maneuver, but that’s the kind of stuff Guardians do.
Another thing that made me angry was losing my job. The implants allowed me to have vision, but they were too delicate for me to go chasing around after suspects, or risk getting hit in the head by an errant elbow from a drunk. The implants are metal and silicon and carbon fiber—they’re incredible pieces of technology, but they aren’t flesh and blood. If they get knocked around in my head, they could cause all kinds of nerve damage and I could end up really, permanently blind. Eventually the sick leave ran out. I didn’t have near enough seniority in the department to push for a desk job or a detective position. Frankly, I wouldn’t have taken one if they offered it at that point. I considered myself a beat cop, a hard charger, an ass kicker and I was proud of that. Too proud and too angry—and too drunk—to make much in the way of good decisions.
Unsurprisingly, I started spending a lot of time at the bar. I managed to stay off the pain pills, but first beer, and then liquor got a good strong hold on me. You’re probably starting to get the picture of what that year was like. Kara stuck with it for a year after I got injured but she finally accepted what she’d known for months by that point and divorced me. My lawyer actually laughed at me when I told him I wanted to try for custody of my son, David. That pissed me off, of course, but hell, I’d shown up for the meeting drunk. What did I expect?
It was winter again when I left the courthouse after the final divorce hearing. I was almost twelve kilograms heavier than I’d been the previous year, none of it muscle. My head was pounding and my hands were shaking from detox symptoms. I was flat broke, didn’t have a home to go to and no expectation of employment. My dad had come to the courthouse with me, just for moral support and invited me home with him and mom for dinner. I stayed there for three months.
Two weeks after I moved in with my folks, I was lying on my single bed in the basement, about a meter and a half from the clothes washer. I was almost done feeling sorry for myself by that point and had just begun to think about what the hell I was going to do next. I was looking up at the bare rafters when I heard a knock at the door at the top of the basement stairs. I called for whoever it was to come in and sat up on the bed.
Two sets of feet came down the stairs. It was my dad and a guy I’d never seen before, who Dad introduced as Stephen Malhotra. Mr. Malhotra was a dark skinned guy my dad’s age, which is to say probably in his nineties. Human life spans being what they are in these post-Traveler days, it’s funny how people’s parents can vary in age. My parents waited until they were in their sixties to have me. Kara and I didn’t wait that long; we were both twenty-eight when we had David.
“Mr. Malhotra is a bail bondsman, Henry. I was doing some drywall work at his office and he mentioned that he needs some help. I told him that you’re looking for a job and a little bit about you. He said that he’d like to meet you.”
I stood up and shook Mr. Malhotra’s hand. “What do you need done?”
“I need someone who knows their way around the city and can track people down. I don’t need an enforcer or a skullcracker. I need somebody who can think and talk. I need somebody to do filing, deal with paperwork, empty trashcans, make coffee and help my bonding agents. Maybe you can get your license someday, we’ll see about that. What kind of cop were you? Did you just like beating people up, or what?”
He was testing me, to see if he could piss me off. I had enough sense, and had toned down my drinking enough, to see what he was doing. “No, sir. I just did my job. Just because somebody ends up in handcuffs doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. It just means they’re a person who made a mistake. As for knowing the city, I can drive it blind if I need to. We had to learn how to get where we were needed as quickly as possible. I know the territories and I speak three languages good enough to make conversation. I know a few folks in the FWC, New Monarchy and Dead Orbit who I can call if I need to get information.”
We talked some more and Mr. Malhotra eventually told me to come to his office the next day. I thanked him and did that. I worked for him for six months learning the bail bonds business. Honestly, a lot of those guys are scumbags. They run sloppy operations that are all about making money and not about honoring their commitment to the courts (i.e. making sure people show up when they’re supposed to), or about honoring their commitment to their clients (i.e. making sure that they stay out of jail as long as they’re legally entitled to and that they know when and where they’re supposed to be in court). Mr. Malhotra wasn’t like that at all. He ran a clean business according to the law. Both the clients he dealt with and the police and lawyers all respected him for doing his job competently and honorably. I respected him as well, and I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me the first toehold I needed to start putting my life back together.
My parents had a stationary bike and I started riding that. I quit drinking entirely and I lost weight. I slept and I got my hands on some anti-anxiety meds. After six weeks, I checked the scale and found that I’d lost most of the weight that I’d put on since I was blinded. When I looked in the mirror, I started to see myself again. I looked different—the scars around my eyes were partially responsible for that—but I was a different person as well. I was different, but I was me again, if that makes any sense.
I was talking with my folks one night at dinner, telling them about my day and about the business, when my dad asked me if this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. “No,” I said without thinking. It just came out. I didn’t know I’d been thinking about that, but I had. Mr. Malhotra had a good business. He made a good living and he was respected, but I knew that bail bonds was not where my life would be spent. I needed something else. Being a cop had fit me so well, I really didn’t know what else to do with myself.
My bowl of stew started to look greasy and unpleasant. My stomach was churning because I was starting to feel anxious about not knowing what I needed to do next. The brilliant idea came from my mom. “Be your own boss, Henry. You’ve got all that training. You say you’re good at finding people. Put it to use for you. Sometimes people need help dealing with things that a cop is good at but that it’s not a cop’s job to do. Be a private investigator. We’ll help you with money so you can get an office and get started.”
Dad and I both started to object at the same time and she rapped her spoon on the lip of her bowl. We both shut up. “It’s a loan, you can pay us back. Now, listen. You know the story of your middle name, but I’m going to tell you again, because I think you need to hear it. Your father and I were trying to get to the city. It was just the two of us. Horrible things had happened, things I’ll never forget.
We’d been separated from our group. I started to go into labor, lying in a field beside the road. You can’t imagine. You were born there in the wilderness and your father and I were exhausted and not paying attention like we should have been. When that flock of starlings flew up out of the woods, we knew something was close by and we ran. Those starlings saved all of us. That was a gift from the universe. You don’t get many of those, but I believe you got a second gift when you didn’t die in that apartment. You’ve gotten enough gifts. It’s time for you to go use what you’ve got and make a life for yourself.”
She was right and so I did what she said. That’s how I went from a drunk, self-pitying jerk who lost his job and failed his marriage to being Henry Starling Hill, Private Investigator in the Last City on Earth. You can call me Bird.