l'Appel du Vide: Interdimensional Detective Agency

1 - Bridge

When I drove my sister's car off the bridge, I didn't have any particular reason for wanting to die. More like I had no reason to live. I'd been in Afghanistan fifteen months, though I never saw combat. I defused bombs instead. They were the misty-eyed good times, ammonium nitrate and fireworks. I was a combat engineer before joining EOD, and so I was well-trained for the combat I never saw, a designated killing machine. Or I should have been. But without ever holding that gun in my hands and holding it at some Afghani kid's head, how could I know? How could I know what I was capable of?

I couldn't. And I think that's what got me in the end. That little saw blade of not knowing. It obsessed me to the point I'd almost forgotten I was an EOD tech. Sure I had moments when I was in the grocery store and I grabbed a tin of peas off the shelf and then turned it around and around in my hand barely even knowing what it was and half expecting it to explode. But those days were unreal, and they were outnumbered by the days I spent lost in combat which had never happened. The feeling I didn't know what I was capable of first hit when I got back home to the States, bit harder when I accepted my sister's offer to come stay with her a while in Chicago. All my life I'd just kinda gone with the flow. Taken whatever option somebody else recommended. That last night in Chicago, well, driving off La Salle's Street Bridge seemed the easiest thing in the world.

When I took the shortcut to the river it was at the end of a long day spent in town trying to find work. No one had taken me, but I'd been looking six months now and no one had taken me, and I was learning to deal with it. Traffic was steady, thickening a little as I approached the bridge. Not heavy though, you know, just standard end of a late day stuff. Put it this way; there was no one gonna stop me.

Just in the back of my head as in the front of my head was full of taillights on one side and headlights on the other, and the lowering fuel gauge and the half-funny talkback radio show somewhere in between them, was the thought of the night lying ahead. I'd go back to the house where Brandy, that's my sister, would have dinner put on for us, and we'd watch some mindless television and chat about people we used to know, and then I'd make an excuse not to stay up any longer even though it was still early and go lie in bed and then I'd think of a scenario where I had a gun and a reason to use it, and I would ask myself over and over again, would I shoot?

Most of the times I pulled the trigger. Sometimes my imagination would trick me, and my unit would have opened fire on an honest bunch of kids out collecting firewood or just curious about us. That was always pretty bad but I dealt with it, because at least I'd pulled the trigger. At least I knew.

And those times I didn't...

They were difficult to justify.

I had the thought in the back of my head that tonight may be a night where I didn't pull the trigger, and as that thought bubbled murkily to the fore the headlights and taillights in front of me sliced lines in the tall curved railing of the bridge, and I thought, hell. Hell and damn it, Henry, just drive off the side. Just drive. That's a nice long drop and not much chance you'll survive it. So do it. How hard can it be, to die?

Now usually a thought like that will jump out of your head the moment you have it. But not this one. I wasn't letting it go. I held it tight, because I knew it would escape, even as I gripped it and revved the engine in anticipation of fulfilment, the thought slipped between my fingers and fled into the sheer blackness beyond the bridge. Like crazy I chased it. Cutting across traffic, heard the squeal of brakes, but I only cut across one lane and then I was on the sidewalk, having steered through a gap in the inner railing. The pedestrian railing beyond that was thick steel, but if I had to get out of the car and jump then I would, but luckily the car hit the railing at a good speed the railing warped across the front of the car and part of it broke and exploded in through the windshield and missed me by some crazy chance, and then I heard the engine grunt as the little Impala's front wheels dug into empty air, and the nose dropped and I thought, hell, maybe this isn't such a crash-hot idea, then the back wheels were gone and I was falling, darkness in every window, the blare of horns maybe, the talkback radio show, my head hit the steering wheel and-

They say I was unconscious for eleven days. I was senseless for another month on painkillers.

The first time I remember, I mean really remember, wasn't just half insane and garbling for my folks and for Brandy and for that old dog I used to own, a nurse came to me and she had a mirror, and she said,

"You wanna see your face?"

And I said, "Why, I look like Frankenstein?"

She pulled a funny smile. "Who?" Then she showed me my face in the mirror.

I wasn't hideous, as I'd hoped, and nor was I as handsome as I used to be. Calling your past self handsome, this is the prerogative of the mutilated. I had a big fishbone scar on my cheek where the surgeons had done a hasty job of sewing my face back together, and another fainter one down from my hairline. My face didn't seem quite as even as it had been before, like make the impact with the riverbed had knocked all my features off and the surgeons weren't entirely able to figure out where they were meant to go.

I raised one eyebrow at the nurse. She was a portly African American woman in her late thirties. She was pretty. Her name was Cola. She looked like she could cut a man in half with a word. "Is that all?"

Her smile was smug. "You can move. Have a look."

My hospital gown was pink. That was odd. The blankets of my narrow bed were white wool, pulled up to my waist. With clumsy fingers, dulled from under use, I undid the front of my gown and peered at my chest. Couple of unfamiliar scars, nothing to complain about. I wriggled my toes and they wriggled back at me.

So that was that. I'd survived, and I could walk. Emotion hit me like an undetected landmine. My chest squeezed tight, my airways closed, tears milked themselves from my throbbing eyes. God damn it, God damn it. I pushed the mirror towards the nurse, leant over my knees, let emotion wring my throat and clutch my lungs. I'd survived. Oh, the farce of it all. There are people out there struggling every day to survive, people dying in need and uncared for every day, and driving off a bridge to end my total waste of life, someone had saved me.

Cola laid her hand on my back. As I swore, over and over, under my breath, nails biting into my palm, teeth drawing blood from my lip.

"Sweetie," she said after a minute, when because I lacked liquid or because I lack substance my tears dried up, "why you crying?"

I didn't give her an answer.

She rubbed my back, which was nice of her. She went on. "You shouldn't cry. 'Cause you ain't all that ugly, for one. And for another, the doctors saved your life before they checked for health insurance. Sweetie, you gotta be glad about that one."

I wished I was ugly. Frankenstein's monster ugly. Just as ugly as sin, just as ugly as I felt. Feeling stupid now, I lifted my head, I looked blearily to the bedside table for a glass of water, but there wasn't one. What there was was a cannula chugging away at a bag of fluid on an IV rack. LOBOMINE. The name meant nothing. It didn't look much good to rip down and take a swig of. To Cola, who was expecting an answer, I said, "I have health insurance."

"That so?" her lips pursed. "You're Henry Falcon? I saw your wallet. Yain't got health insurance, honey. Not with any provider in this country. We mighta saved your life, but sweetie, I hope you can pay for it."

This was a lot to take in for someone who'd spent a month unable to string a sentence together. Maybe I wasn't understanding her properly. My head throbbed more with every passing moment. I had to lie down. Lie down, make sense of this next time I could make sense of anything.

I laid a hand over my eyes to strain the overhead light. Cola kept talking. "You're done? That's fair enough. Your temperature is good, blood pressure good. You should be outta here any day now. We'll just have to wean you off the Lobomine and you'll be good as new." Her hand squeezed my shoulder. "See you in an hour, sweetie."

"Wait," I called out too quickly, she must have still been standing there. "My sister. Brandy. Has Brandy been here?"

Cola made a sound in her throat. "Ugh. This again? Mr Falcon, we've told you we can't find your sister. There is no such address. Your folks either – you should know better than to tell such fibs. Though maybe now we cut down the Lobomine your addresses might be a little more... realistic."

With a cluck of her tongue she was gone, refusing to be called back. But what did she mean, what did she mean?

Fifteen days crawl by. Clarity returned to my thoughts as my dosage of Lobomine dwindled. The hallucinations it induced divided themselves from reality, then disappeared entirely. Brandy never visited. Nor did my folks. I knew their numbers by heart, I found a phone and called and called. Brandy's number rang out, the number for my parents wouldn't connect. I asked at the nurses' station about using the internet; they regarded me as if I were quite mad.

I was sharing a room with two old guys and an obese middle-aged businessman who spent all day on the phone. One of the old guys was senile and the other only spoke Greek. The businessman kept talking about some parts for robots that he needed to be shipped. These parts were gonna fix the police – his words – "We need 'em to fix the cops!"

One day I borrowed his newspaper. Chicago Daily Bugle. Not a damn word of it made sense. All talking about territory wars tearing apart the city and a new 'model' of police officer being brought in to combat them. I mean hell, man, I'd been out of it for a while, and I hadn't been back in the country all that long, but damn. There was a picture of a cop and he sure wasn't human. His designation was Officer Johnbot #11082. Johnbot had a tiny tin head with big chrome visors on top of a thick tin body. He wasn't one of the new cops. He was an older model who wouldn't be put out to pasture until the new models (Officer Danbots) were installed all across the state of Chicago.

And that was another thing. State of Chicago?

"Thank you for the loan, sir," I said to the obese businessman as he waddled painfully over to retrieve his paper, "though I didn't understand head or tails of it."

Even in the cool hospital air, he was sweating. He waved me away. "Sure, who does? These punk gangs running around like they own the place – these days we can't keep enough food supplied to the inner city, forget cops. But ah! We need the cops. You think the punks might help out. They gotta eat too, huh? They don't think if they bust the Ropo that the taxpayers gotta pay for them as well as food."

"Right," I agreed, trying not to laugh. Ropo? Robot police? And punks? Hell, I think I'd seen this movie.

Thanks in part to the businessman, we got a TV put in our room that night. A little grey cube of a thing. The hospital must've bought it at a yard sale or something, thing was so old. So trashy it was almost comical. No one else seemed to notice. Only when it was turned on did I no longer feel like laughing.

The wars, the robot police, the state of Chicago, and the Ununited States of American; they were all real.

And the thing was, I could no longer blame my medication.

Either I was crazy.

Or I was in a different world.

I was let out of hospital the next day. Given a bill and threatened with litigation and pretty much kicked out. The nurses let me keep my pink robe and the pyjama pants a social worker had found for me. They were all I had. My clothes, thick with mud and badly torn in the crash, were incinerated weeks ago. My wallet was returned to me. Bills soaked and dried out into a flaky wad. Licence, health care card, bank cards. I had hope for the bank cards, though not much. If my health care provider was a myth, and my sister's phone number was a fallacy, chances were the banks would be the same.

And so I was turned loose on the streets of Chicago state. It felt wrong saying it. Chicago is a great city, a gigantic city, but it was by no means a state. Not in my world. Not on planet Earth.

I felt a little tragic as I wandered through the hospital doors, out into the bright brown city morning. Brown streets, brown skyscrapers. The whole place was so damn eighties. Plenty of neon on the sides of skyscrapers. Teenagers walked the streets in big white shirts and blue jeans and bright green pumps. Punks sauntered in bigger groups, most of them in studs and leather, brightly coloured hair spiked up into mohawks and piercings dangling from their ears and noses. They were the kind of punks the world hadn't seen in thirty years. Gangster-walking, trash-talking, sniggering, spitting punks.

Other people avoided them and so did I. Keeping to a sidewalk running beside a low concrete wall. Spray tags criss-crossed the wall. Beyond it was a long drop onto a concrete boardwalk over a wide brown river. I could make out a red steel bridge up ahead through the haze. There was a dirty four-lane highway separating my path from a wall of skyscrapers. All shiny brown, brown chrome. There wasn't much traffic on the highway and there weren't many people going between buildings. The punks and the teenagers showed no interest in what they were passing; they were simply on the way to someplace else. Those who did leave the buildings were in suits, and they glanced furtively up and down the street before taking off in a clutter of dress shoes and heels. They all wore shoulder pads. One woman's shoulder pads were so broad that they brushed either side of the door frame, and she was not a large woman.

There was traffic, however, and it was above us, roaring on a huge raised concrete motorway which shadowed the road and part of the river. It must have been sixteen lanes easy. Its belly was lined in neon cabling. The noise from it was paramount to the gargling of a thousand dragons' stomachs upon the sighting of a single dainty princess.

I thought about throwing myself into the river. Even if I missed the river, I might hit the concrete boardwalk, and that would probably kill me. Or I could find a way up onto the motorway and put myself in front of a truck. Maybe I'd get lucky and it would collapse on top of me. Well, that was just lazy. It was a lot of work, dying. Here just two months ago I'd driven off a bridge, and now I was walking with barely a limp. A bit of a limp, a slight nagging pain in my hip, in my head. But nothing that would kill me.

The water seemed to be calling me. So did the motorway. Throw yourself in, Henry! I stopped at a teller machine to check my cards; none worked. None were even recognised. I read the names on the side of the ATM to see which banks were accepted – Cirrus, MisterCard, Bank of Chicago, PING... I should have gotten by on Cirrus, but the machine wouldn't read my card.

So then.

If I really was in a different world, one where my bank account and so presumably my army pension didn't exist, one where my sister either didn't exist or lived somewhere else, where I didn't know the rules and where I had absolutely nothing (I had a hospital bill, so there was that), where could I go? What could I do? And with every step my hopelessness grew, and the call of the river seemed sweeter.

At last I stopped. The motorway curved from overhead, sweeping sharply inland. Skyscrapers rose either side of its neon cabled flanks. The red steel bridge was close now, there was something of a plaza leading up to it. Brown stone, a café with red umbrellas a small distance from the short concrete wall. A few people at the café, others milling at the entrance of a subway or underground arcade. It was nothing like the Chicago I knew. It wasn't like anything at all.

I sat on the wall, tired. Watching the café. From here I could let myself fall backwards and hopefully land on my head on the boardwalk. The urge to do so was very strong. It was abated just slightly by curiosity. This world – what was it? How had I ended up here? Was it real, or was I mad? Could I find anything resembling home?

Footsteps approached. I didn't look around. Some punks had shouted at me, but I'd been otherwise avoided. It was probably my hair. Yeah, my hair, so untidy. Not the pink hospital gown and the pyjama pants, nooo.

You'll imagine my surprise then, when a very dapper gentleman in a fawn suit with vest, stopped before me with his jacket over his arm, and with a tweak of his villainous moustache, announced, "It's tempting, no? To throw yourself in? Let me give you a push."

And he shoved his hands against my chest.

Whoa! Nice to see you. IDA will be updated about twice a week. It will be updated slightly faster on fictionpress until I catch up with its release on my DA page, which won't be long. All going well, IDA will run for 18 weeks in its first season. This is the first time I've worked on a proper web serial, and so I'm very excited and not very good at closing statements. R&R, I will return the favour, and hope to see you soon!