David wakes up because someone keeps shining a light in his eyes. He doesn’t like it. He turns his head, mumbling a protest, and sluggishly raises one arm to push the light away. Immediately he feels a sharp pain in his side. He drops his arm and sucks in air through his teeth.
He hears laughter—a low, soft, chuckle—then a woman says “well, that’s a good sign.”
He’s in a hospital. He knows he’s in a hospital because the sheets on his bed feel too thin and the walls are salmon pink. He closes his eyes for a second, opens them again, and the blur clears up enough for him to see that he’s in a private recovery room. A doctor leans over him, her mouth turned up slightly into an amused smile, as she tucks a light pen into a shirt pocket. “Good afternoon, Lieutenant.”
David shakes his head. “Retired.” His voice is hoarse. He coughs lightly and clears his throat.
The doctor raises an eyebrow. “You’re a little young for retirement, aren’t you?”
David shrugs. “Yeah.”
She stares at him for a moment, shrugs, then goes to the foot of his bed to write something on his chart. “Well, you fooled me. You had quite an escort when they brought you in. Even Sky Commando! Did you know Sky Commando was a woman? I always thought it was a man in that suit…”
David smiles slightly. “Where am I?”
“Bronx-Lebanon. You kept us pretty busy when they brought you in.”
David feels a mild surge of panic. “How bad was it? I was already injured…”
“With a concussion, I saw your history. When you came in there was some brain swelling, and we were concerned about that. We put you in a medically induced coma for 24 hours—that helped quite a bit. I’m not a specialist, so I can’t say anything definitive, but so far we haven’t noticed any signs of permanent brain damage.”
David sighs in relief. He feels a twinge of pain shoot down his right side.
The doctor notices him wince and nods. “Unfortunately, you’ll have some other issues to deal with that will make your regular rehabilitation even more frustrating. The man who attacked you fractured several of your ribs. None of them are actually broken, but it won’t feel nice. With that, and the severity of your concussion, you might want to consider getting a caretaker for a while.”
She sees his expression and nods sympathetically. “It’s not something you need to think about right now. Right now you should try to get a little more rest.”
“What day is today?” David asks.
David frowns. “You said I was in a coma for 24 hours. I went to the grocery on Thursday…”
The doctor smiles. “You were in a coma for a day. Then you slept on your own for a day. You should sleep a little more, OK? I’ll have a nurse check up on you in a few hours, adjust your bed to let you sit up if you want to. But sleep first.”
David sighs and nods, closing his eyes. By the time the doctor leaves he’s fallen back to sleep.
He wakes up a few hours later as the nurse enters the room to check on him. He asks her to raise the bed, and she cranks it up a little—not as much as he wants, but it’s better than nothing. He asks if he can watch TV, and the nurse says the doctor won’t allow it until the neurologist has seen him. David tries his best not to show his frustration.
A few minutes after the nurse leaves, Alishia Webb walks into the room. She tries not to grin when she sees the look on his face.
“Someone just told you not to do something,” she says.
“Officer Webb.” David smiles, relieved to see someone he knows. “Nice to see you in one piece. I guess you cut the red wire.”
“I cut five,” she says. She drags a seat over to the side of the bed and sits down next to him. “And it’s Sergeant, now. They promoted me right after you left.”
“Sergeant Webb!” David grins at that. “Congratulations. It was a long time coming.”
Webb shifts uncomfortably, and tries to play it off. “The bump in pay is nice. How are you feeling?”
“Like I was kicked in the face and ribs,” David says. “A lot.”
“Speaking of that,” Webb says, “the Captain wants me to remind you that you’re supposed to be retired.”
“Yeah,” David says. “I was hoping I’d last at least a month before something like this went down.”
“The good news is that I won the pool,” Webb says. “The techs owe me a lot of money.”
They lapse into silence. The silence gets awkward.
“That building,” David says. “Was anyone inside?”
“Did they—” he trails off when he sees the expression on her face. “Damn.”
“Only one victim,” she says. “I suppose that’s something. If those bombs had gone off there would have been a lot more.”
David raises an eyebrow. “What kind of bombs were they?”
“Overkill,” Webb says. “The kind that would have left a very big hole in the ground. Definitely ultraviolet-class stuff. That was a good call on your part.”
“What were they doing?” David asks. “Was it a suicide run?”
Webb shakes her head. “I don’t think so. I think they were planning to motor as soon as they set everything up. But they were expendable. You were right—they weren’t trying to take me out, they were trying to distract me until the bombs went off. They wanted that building wiped off the planet.”
“Do you know why?”
Webb shifts her weight uncomfortably.
David nods. “I’m a civilian, it’s an ongoing investigation. I get it.”
Webb sighs. “It’s more complicated than that. You said they were the same soldiers who attacked the Forrester house. How did you know that?”
“I recognized the guns,” David says.
“But how did you know?” Webb asks. She looks tense and worried.
David looks at her blankly. “I read the crime scene reports. Saw the photos. You know—I looked it up.”
“Civilians can’t access any of that information,” Webb says. “David, if you’re pulling strings to look into this, you could get in a lot of—”
“I wasn’t a civilian,” David says. “Webb. It was the first thing I heard about my last day there. I walk in and Benny asks me if I knew anything about it. So after I make the rounds and fill out all my paperwork, I have six hours to kill before the shift is over. What do I do? I get on my computer and look up the Forrest case.”
“That was restricted information,” Webb says.
“I was still technically Sky Commando at the time,” David points out. “I had enough access.”
“Well ever since we carted you in here a guy from Internal Affairs has been asking questions. He doesn’t believe you could have come by that information honestly.”
“Then he didn’t read my exit interview,” David says. “They asked me what I did and I told them I looked at the case. Nobody said it was a problem then. The Captain was there. Ask her.”
Webb looks relieved. “Sorry. The Forrest investigation is getting weird. Sky Commando unit isn’t involved. At all. We were specifically told to stay out.”
David frowns. “Really?”
“Yeah. It got kicked over to the Feds. Not even the FBMA—I know some of those guys, and they’re complaining about being locked out too. It’s some part of the DHS I never heard of before. So now all of a sudden we’re in it again and whoever is running the investigation is pissed. They’re trying to find a way to kick us back out, and I think they’re trying to go after you.”
“What?” David shakes his head. “Why me?”
“I told you Internal Affairs is asking questions. It’s not just how you got the information. They’re asking how you’re adjusting to the outside world. If we think you can handle retirement after being in the program for so long. If there’s a chance the concussion has impaired your judgment, and made you a danger to the general public.”
“A danger to the general public?” David can’t keep the incredulity out of his voice.
“They’re not my questions,” Webb says, slightly defensively. “I just thought you should know.”
David sighs, exasperated. Then he starts to laugh. “I have to admit, Thursday didn’t go too well.”
Webb laughs as well.
Someone clears their throat. Standing in the doorway is a uniformed police officer.
“Sorry to interrupt, Sergeant. It’s almost one o’clock.”
Webb sighs. “Thanks. I’ll be right out.”
The uniformed officer nods, then steps out of the room.
“Gotta go,” Webb says. “Briefing for something about something.”
“Yeah,” David says. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“Thanks for pulling through,” Webb says, smiling slightly. “Take care of yourself, OK? Try to enjoy the quiet life for a while. I know it’s not your style, but you earned it, and it’d be good for you.”
David tilts his head to one side and looks at her thoughtfully. “What do you mean by that?”
Webb hesitates. “It’s like I said. Things are getting weird. And you’re more exposed now that you’re not in the suit.”
“I noticed,” David says. “My ribs want to thank you for stating the obvious.”
“Not just that way,” Webb says. She looks out the door and frowns. “I mean politically. You’re a civilian now. That makes you exposed. Be careful.”
She leaves the room before David can think of anything to say. He sinks back into his pillow and stares at the ceiling. “That was weird.”
“She’s just worried about you,” a familiar voice says. A slightly overweight, balding man in a cheap brown suit stands in the doorway, smiling pleasantly at him. A rolled up newspaper is tucked under his arm.
“Pete Travers,” David says. “Didn’t expect to see you.” He waves him in.
Travers takes two steps into the room and leans against he wall, looking relaxed and unconcerned. “I heard about your post-retirement adventure and wanted to stop by. Make sure you were OK. So you seem to be having a difficult adjustment period.”
David snorts. “I hear a lot of people are concerned about that.”
David likes Travers. More than that, David trusts Travers. They’ve worked together a lot in the last few years—Sky Commando is part of the NYPD, but the program was frequently involved in the kind of stuff that turned into “multi-jurisdiction operations.” They’d have to coordinate with the FBI, the ATF, the Federal Bureau for Metahuman Affairs… and Pete Travers, as the New York coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, would be the one who had to make sure everything went smoothly. He was fantastic at his job.
Travers shrugs. “It’s not an unreasonable concern. When you’re in a high-stakes, adrenaline heavy job—and your job definitely qualified—it’s hard to go into the quiet life. Even when you enter it with the best intentions. It makes some people go crazy.”
“It’s only been a week,” David says. “It doesn’t make people go that crazy.”
“It can, for some,” Travers says. “But we both know that’s not you. That said, I know you better than some of the others asking the same questions…”
Something in his voice catches David’s attention. Travers’ demeanor hasn’t changed—calm, genial, pleasant—but his eyes are sharp and hard. Unhappy. David is immediately reminded of a hostage situation he had to deal with a year and a half ago, when one of the hostages had been ordered to tell the police that everything was fine, nothing was wrong, it was all a big misunderstanding. His daughter’s life was on the line, and he put everything he had into making it look like nothing was wrong. It was a good performance, very convincing. But the whole time he was talking to Sky Commando he was trying to tell him something else.
Travers takes the newspaper out from under his arm and puts it on David’s chest. “I know what it’s like to have a concussion. Ten years ago, due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, Curveball broke my jaw. As it turns out, he also gave me a concussion. Not as bad as I hear yours is, but I still had to go through recovery. One of the things I always hated was that they wouldn’t let me watch TV, and they limited the amount of time I had to read. I got very picky about what I read because of that. I wanted to make sure it was good. I think you’ll like this.”
David unrolls the newspaper. It’s called The Weekly 832. The text is too small to read—it swims in front of him, going in and out of focus so rapidly it makes him dizzy. As he unfolds the paper, a USB thumb drive spills out and lands on his left shoulder. David picks it up and looks at it curiously. He glances at Travers, who shakes his head and puts one finger up to his lips. Don’t ask.
David nods thoughtfully and closes his hand around the drive. It disappears from sight.
“I really missed watching TV,” Travers sighs. “Did you know that the only way I ever see a movie these days is if I catch it on TV? Network TV, that is. I don’t have cable.”
David stares at Travers in surprise. “At all?”
“Don’t like it,” Travers says. “Anyway, a few nights ago I saw a movie I’d never heard of before. It was released in the 90s and I didn’t even know it existed until this week. That’s how bad I am at seeing movies. Big-name cast, too. Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Patrick Stewart.”
“I remember when that came out,” David says. “I was in high school.”
Travers shakes his head. “I didn’t need to hear that. Anyway, fascinating movie. Parts of it bother me, though. The bit where he has a newsletter that’s full of crazy conspiracy theories, but there’s one article that’s actually true so they try to kill him for it—why didn’t they just kill him outright? The only way it makes sense is if they never knew he existed in the first place, only found out about him just before it was too late, and they had to act fast.”
Travers points at the newspaper. David raises an eyebrow.
“It’s an amusing piece of fiction, I guess. I prefer the one where the lawyer learns that the government is tracking everything he does, all the time.” Travers casually looks around the room, then glances at him meaningfully.
“Right…” David keeps staring at the paper. Occasionally the text comes into focus long enough for him to catch a few phrases. What he reads doesn’t impress him—it’s standard nutjob conspiracy stuff. “I remember that one, too. Will Smith, Gene Hackman. The NSA essentially bugs his house, his work, even him. I don’t remember why. Something about a corrupt politician?”
“Something like that,” Travers says, nodding affably. “Funny that both those movies were made during the Clinton administration.”
“Yeah,” David says. He rubs his eyes, pushing back the pain in his ribs as he moves his right arm, and tries to get the words to stay in focus. “Well, thanks for the reading material.”
“Sure,” Travers says. “I hope it helps you pass the time. Anyway, I have to go. Take care, David.”
Travers leaves, closing the door behind him. David returns his attention to the newspaper. His focus is improving, and after a minute of effort the text finally comes into focus enough for him to read the articles. He settles back, trying to figure out what it was about this paper that Travers found significant.
Thirty minutes later he’s checking himself out of the hospital against medical advice.