Click here to read Chapter 1.
The Last City is a complex place. New and old, unified yet divided. People from all over the world got here by whatever means they could. It’s a city of survivors, believers, and hopeful people who know humanity is on the edge of extinction, yet most people feel a sense of pride about that. Though we be few, we be mighty—that type of thing.
Bits of Golden Age technology are always cropping up to be used by people who were brought up learning to make fire to survive and to kill or be killed. There’s a Mongolian barbecue place that I love. The grill is made of salvaged metal from a shipping container. It also has a state of the art holographic display, so you can watch Sparrow Racing while you eat. That’s the city all over. Traditions dragged from all over the world and adapted to work in near-apocalyptic conditions with the highest imaginable tech thrown in for convenience and flair. We have towering skyscrapers and a maglev train public transit system, but most people still teach their kids to keep a go-bag packed with essentials in case the Fallen storm the walls. It’s a strange, wonderful, desperate, beautiful place to live and I have always loved getting to know its ins and outs.
I’m a heterosexual Caucasian male who basically thinks the New Monarchy are okay, and in spite of all the unity that we precious little sparks of Light feel for one another, that means there are some neighborhoods where I am not welcome. That goes for every racial group, sexual orientation, gender and political affiliation in the Last City. The vast majority of places you can be and say and do and believe exactly what you please, as long as you don’t hurt anybody else, and no one will bat an eye. But there are some places in the city where you just don’t need to go if you are this or that. As a cop, it was my job to go wherever I was needed, but there were some places that I knew I could go with just me and another officer, and then there were places I was told never to go unless I had a full squad of armed and armored cops with me. All of the no-go places are very isolated, often just a square block or two.
The Traveler is such a constant presence above us all that no one really notices it anymore. The shadow it casts and the effect it has on the weather are just part of life. However, if an apartment has a view of the Traveler, I’ve heard that the rent is sometimes as much as ten percent more than what a similar apartment looking out over the river would go for. The main commercial hub of the city is directly underneath the Traveler. For whatever reason, that’s where people first congregated and that’s how the city grew.
My office does not have a “Traveler View;” it’s a couple miles from downtown, east of the Traveler. The office is just across the Bridge of Saint-14 on the second floor of a thirty-year-old office building. The building is in pretty good shape. My office is above a dry cleaner’s shop which means there’s always a lot of foot traffic. I bet I’ve probably gotten more than a few jobs simply because people saw my name and occupation on the door beside the dry cleaner.
Mr. Malhotra actually pitched me my first few jobs. He would pay me a little bit to track bond jumpers down and gave my name and contact info to his “clients,” who suspected that their spouse was cheating on them and wanted pictures. My new eyes have a fair amount of digital storage space in them. I can record both video and still shots and send the recordings to my secure terminal at the office. The recording feature isn’t an optional extra: it was just built in to allow the medtechs to run visual diagnostics on the fly as I was getting used to the eyes. I paid a teenage streethacker 30 glimmer and lunch at that Mongolian barbecue place to free up the user permissions on the recording feature so I could use it myself. Now, if I can see it, I can record it. Images, anyway. The eyes don’t have any direct digital connection to my ears so there’s no audio on the recordings. They used to say that pictures are worth a thousand words. I typically charge about 120 glimmer for my pictures. With a decent pair of binoculars (my dad gave me the ones he used during our time as refugees), I’m a walking, talking telephoto camera.
After six months, I was getting pretty steady business on my own merit. Several attorneys were paying me regularly to serve court summonses and it seems there are no shortage of suspicious spouses. I thought that I was getting the hang of this investigation thing. My first real case showed me different.
I was in my office on a clear morning in early spring, drinking my second cup of coffee and reading the news feeds on my terminal when I got a call from Kara. A bubble of pain and hope appeared in the center of my chest and I tamped it down as hard as I could. This was an exercise I’d gotten good at. She’d almost cut off communication with me entirely when I begged her to give me a second chance. I understood that I’d broken her trust, but I also knew she felt guilty because of the decision she’d had to make to divorce me. After thinking about it, I finally figured out that the best way to push her further away was to try to pull her back. So, instead I just tried to be a decent person and let nature take whatever course it would. I also regularly went the gym and beat a punching bag until I couldn’t raise my arms anymore.
“Good morning, Kara. What’s up? How’s David?”
“David’s good. He’s talking constantly about spending next week with you.”
Equal measures deep happiness and guilt filled me at that statement. “I’m looking forward to it as well.”
“I called because of Rupert.”
I frowned in confusion. She was talking about her uncle, Rupert Dillon. Rupert was a decent guy. A lawyer who did something with contracts or property or something. He’d died a couple of weeks ago. He’d been walking home from work one evening and been hit by one of those maglev trains I mentioned earlier. It had happened about three o’clock in the morning and a postmortem blood test showed traces of alcohol. Poor guy had been putting in a lot of hours and had tried to beat the train so he could get home to bed.
“Is there some problem with his estate or something?”
“No, he’d had everything arranged. No wife, no kids, nothing really complicated to figure out. What’s bothering me is that…” She sighed and I could hear the frustration building in her voice. “I can’t accept that he died that way! It doesn’t make any sense. I know about the alcohol in his blood, but Uncle Rupe wasn’t a drunk. He walked that same route home from his office for twenty years. And it’s not like it’s easy to miss those train warning lights and alarms. Those buzzers would have woken him up even if he’d been drunk and asleep! You told me yourself that the dope-heads don’t nod off around the train crossings because the warnings wake them up.”
“That’s true,” I said. What I was thinking was “sometimes stuff just happens—look at me,” but I didn’t say that. I was happy that she’d called me for help and I knew if I was dismissive, this conversation wouldn’t end well. Her mother had probably dismissed these concerns, which was part of the reason she’d called me. “What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know! But it’s really bothering me that everyone is just accepting this as an accident and carrying on without stopping to look at it for even a second.”
“Everyone? The police did check the scene and they did an autopsy. He definitely died of massive blunt force trauma and they found…evidence, on the train that hit him, confirmed by DNA analysis. I feel like they did some investigation.”
“Yes, and they checked the electronic locks at his office. He’d been working extremely long hours for the last three months. I know, I know. My mother just wants to wrap up the estate and be done with it. She’s says I’m not ‘grieving properly’.”
“I’ll be happy to take a look around, Kara. I’ve got to tell you, though, I doubt I’m going to find anything new.”
“Thank you. So, what are your rates?”
“Don’t say that. I don’t want you to pay me anything. Besides, I’d just send three quarters of it back to you anyway.”
“I’ll feel bad if I don’t pay you something. I don’t want you to do this out of guilt or some leftover sense of responsibility to me. I expect you to support David, of course, but you don’t owe me anything. I’m just the bitch who left you after you got blinded in the line of duty.”
“I really hate it when you say that. Look, how about lasagna?”
“Yeah, lasagna. You, me and David. I’ll let you know when I think I’ve found out everything I can, and then we can all have dinner. I’ll lay out everything I’ve found afterward.”
There was a long pause. Just when I was about to start backpedalling, Kara finally spoke. “Okay. Deal.”
I got a few more details and the access codes to Rupert’s office and house, then ended the call. I sat back in my chair and turned to face the window. The sun was climbing toward midmorning, the sliver I could see of the Traveler was in full sun, its ancient hide glowing. I could just barely see light reflecting off the river to the north of me. I could hear all the usual city sounds below me, and above them, the rumble-scream of the VTOL jets that were constantly coming and going from the Guardian tower.
Right at this moment, there were space knights using magic and rocket launchers to fight aliens, demons and time traveling robots all over the solar system. The only thing that mattered to me was that I had just gotten a fingernail width of a chance at getting back with the girl I loved. Time to get to work.