Regarding the Titans

eyeballs

When the last Titan fell the world threw a party. The one Emilia went to was in the largest dance hall in the city, and it had been decorated with their remains. They had not been human, nor nothing like; yet still she found it in poor taste. Here was a clawed manipulator tall as she was; here a flanged bit of armor; here an energy core, which had once pulsed red with power. “That was taken from the one they called the Flamer,” said someone nearby, who was wearing a Navy uniform. “Destroyed half of Seattle before they got it with some artillery.”

Ed Durrow, who had dragged her here, growled his approval. “Damn right. Sent it straight to hell.”

“Do machines go to hell?” Emilia asked.

“These have, I’m sure.”

On the stage a band of twelve was playing jaunty music, and people were starting to dance. “Emilia!” cried her friend Kelsey Sullivan, spying her and rushing in for an embrace, face flushed. “Isn’t it great? Come on, let’s have a toast!” She began pushing through the crowd, pulling Emilia in her wake.

Emilia drank the proffered champagne and tried to smile. All Chicago was drinking, it seemed, and no doubt all America, and the world. The machines had landed, and fought, and been destroyed. Humanity had triumphed. “What’s wrong?” Kelsey yelled over the music. “Are you and Ed fighting?”

“We’re fine.”

“Then what? This is a night to be happy!”

Half the cities of the world lay in ruins; Chicago itself had seen a quarter of its buildings destroyed when three machines had attacked its factories, and been attacked in turn. Yet the last of them were gone; the world was safe again, at least for now. “What if they come back?”

Kelsey gave her an astonished look. “Well, they’ll think twice about it now, won’t they?”

“I suppose.” Or would they? No one knew from where they had come; they had simply landed that day in 1927, lines of fire screaming through the sky, striking the Earth with a sound like the world ending, as indeed it seemed to be at the time.

But the Titans for all their technology, had not prevailed. When the Titans realized they were in a real fight, they responded in kind. But there were only a few thousand; and when one was destroyed, it was rarely replaced. Now it was June 1932; and the last of them lay in pieces, hung on the walls as garish trophies.

After a while, Ed found them again and took her hand. “Come on, let’s dance.” His were eyes were too bright, breath redolent with liquor.

She shook her head. “You two go ahead.”

“Not feeling good?”

“A headache.”

She found a seat by the wall and rubbed her temples. Soon someone sat beside her: the lieutenant from earlier. “I’m John Russell,” he said.

“Hi, John.”

“What’s your name?” So she told him. “Can I get you a drink?”

“No thank you.”

“Not feeling like dancing?” She shrugged. “Why not?”

If he was going to ask… “We don’t know anything about them,” she said. “Nothing at all. Where did they come from? What did they want? Are there more? We’re all here celebrating, but we’re like children, celebrating something we don’t understand.”

He looked at her more seriously. “You don’t have to understand something to know it’s attacking you. You just have to defend yourself.”

“I saw one once,” she continued. “Early on, in the first weeks after Invasion Day. I was visiting with family for the summer, and after the news we decided we better stay on the farm for a while, thinking it would be safer.

“In a way it was; it was never harmed. But one one of the Titans came through the fields. It was just as big as they say: taller than the barn as it walked by. I remember most that it shimmered silver as it walked; it seemed to be covered in lights, or some luminous material. It was near sunset, and it shone as it walked.

“I had been out walking myself, and of course I stopped and hid in the corn when it came by. It turned, and seemed to look right at me. Then it just kept going. It went to our car, a Cabriolet, and tore it apart. That was terrifying. When it was done, there wasn’t much left but the tires.

“Then it left. Just walked away.”

After a while Russell said thoughtfully. “You know they changed over time.”

“How do you mean?”

“They were altering themselves. That’s why they always went for machinery, heavy metals. They used the materials to repair themselves, to make changes, to build new Titans. But they were slow about it, which was fortunate for us.”

“I never heard that.”

“Can I show you something?” He stood up. “Come on, I won’t hurt you. Won’t even hit on you, too much.”

She let him lead her backstage. “I helped set this up,” he explained, as they passed a number of broken and mysterious objects, in strange shapes and hues. “Brought the parts here for people to see. But we didn’t use them all. Here, look at this.”

And there they were, three great orbs, slung from a hook on the wall like a cluster of grapes. Her own eyes widened in surprise. “These are from a Titan?”

“Yep. One of the last to fall, right here in Chicago.”

“But they’re so… human.”

He nodded. “I’m not sure the machines even realized who and what they were fighting until late in the war. Maybe they thought they were fighting other machines, and of course in a sense they were. But they started to catch on, toward the end.”

He unhooked one from its netting and handed it to her. It was smooth and glassy, surprisingly heavy. She sat down in a stool and cradled it, its gaze innocent as a child’s.

Mia in the Maelstrom

Three weeks after they were captured Mia had the dream. The sky above the warehouse grew dark with clouds in a gathering spiral, growing ever more massive, high and thick. Within the storm flashed bolts of crimson lightning that suffused the clouds with color, so the whole Texas sky was a slowly revolving blood-red maelstrom replete with flying shingles, barking dogs, cars, houses, all caught up in the irresistible wind. Finally the clawed finger of a twister reached down, right through the roof, and touched the plastic bracelet that had chafed on her ankle all these weeks.

Morning came as it always did, with the guards simply turning up the halogen lights in the warehouse. After a little while they opened the gate and the kids began filing out for breakfast. After Mia had gone past, however, the guard on duty, Johnson, grabbed her roughly by the arm. “Whoa, whoa. Where’s your bracelet? Huh? Dónde está tu bracelet?” He pointed at her bare ankle.

“No sé,” she whispered, wide-eyed.

“Come on.” Holding her arm in a painful grip, he dragged her back into the holding area. “Where’s your bed? Where do you sleep?” With trembling finger, she pointed it out. He stalked over, flung off the covers, and found what he was looking for.

Frowning, he picked it up. His frown deepened when he saw where it was broken, how the plastic looked like it had melted.

They took her to the doctor, Dr. Apgar. It was Apgar who had done their initial physical exams when they’d been admitted to the facility, which had been one of the most frightening experiences of Mia’s short life, sitting in her underwear and a green hospital gown while he poked and prodded and took her blood and performed other, stranger tests. The nurse said they were worried the children had a disease from Mexico, and that was why they had to take medicine every morning. But Mia had felt fine at the time, and none of the other children seemed sick, either.

Now Apgar, who was balding with curly, dark hair and glasses, held up the ankle bracelet. “Can you tell me how you did this, Mia?” he said in Spanish. “We’re very interested to know. Did you do it, or someone else?”

“It was just a dream,” she whispered. But this actually seemed to make him excited, and with his assistant he got out some machines and taped electrodes to her head and chest.

Then he asked her many questions, and asked her to remember her dream, and held up a simple metal spoon.

“Can you bend this?” he asked. She reached for it, and he stopped her. “Can you bend it without touching it?” But that didn’t make any sense.

Hours later, she was exhausted and crying, and the doctor seemed dissatisfied. Finally he said to his assistant, “We’ll keep her under observation tonight. We can continue in the morning.”

She thought they would lead her back to the holding area, but instead they took her to a plain white room that held only a bed, a sink and a toilet, along with a mirrored window.”I want to go back to the other kids,” she pleaded. She was only seven, but she knew a cell when she saw one. They didn’t listen.

There was no one to talk to, no toys, no TV, no books, nothing on the walls. She tried the door, but it was held by a solid steel deadbolt. “I want to go back,” she kept saying, slapping at the mirrored glass.

She lay down on the bed. She wanted to sleep, but the light was too bright. At last she fell into a troubled half-sleep with her arm over her eyes.

The dream came again: the very same. But this time it was like the twister was her finger, and she reached down and touched the light that was bothering her. With a noise it popped, which actually startled her awake. She was left sitting there in the dark, holding her knees.

After just a few seconds the door opened. In the bright light from the hallway the person there formed a featureless silhouette, a looming shadow. Then her eyes adjusted, and she saw it was Dr. Apgar. “The light was bugging me,” she said by way of explanation. ImageForJoel

“We’ll fix it,” he said. Turning, he asked a guard behind him to find a new bulb. When the guard was gone, he stepped into the cell and looked closely at the bulb, and at the glass on the floor. He picked up a piece, at the seemingly melted edge of the glass.

He sat on the bed with her. “Would you like to leave this place, Mia? Go somewhere more comfortable?”

“But where?” she asked.

“Somewhere far away. Not in Texas.”

“I want my mama,” she said forcefully.

“Ah. Of course.” As though it hadn’t occurred to him. “Well, probably that can be arranged.”

“I want my mama,” she repeated. “Where is she?”

“We’ll find her,” he said. “Don’t worry.”

“But where is she?”

“We’ll find her,” he repeated. “We’ll find her, and then you can be in a new place. If you show me how you broke the light, understand?”

He didn’t know, she realized suddenly. He didn’t know where her mama was, and for that matter didn’t really care. He might never find her.

Unbidden, she saw the red storm in her mind’s eye, the great crimson mass revolving. The twister reached down.

It was just a light touch, the lightest. No more than would take to bend a spoon. When it withdrew Apgar lay twitching on the bed, eyes scrunched shut behind his glasses, hands at his head. A bit of blood was coming from his nose. The lightest touch, in the right place, could topple mountains.

She got up and went to the door. For a moment she stood there looking outward, eyes adjusting to the light. She had neither plan nor destination, and soon the guard would return. All around her spun the maelstrom.

A Picnic Interrupted

ant

I tell ya, it’s getting so you can’t take a dame to an abandoned beach no more without some giant bug trying to crunch you between its mouth-hooks. There I was with my client, Ms. Harriet Flores, when this giant ant comes over the rise, and it looks red, mean, huge and hungry. I stand up lickety-split, pulling my bean-squirter. I look once at Flores, who’s looking right back at me, and then the ant is rushing us. But I didn’t spend six years in Uncle Sam’s shooting club for nothing, so I put a slug right in one of its ugly eyes, and down it goes, flailing its legs and stirring up a cloud of sand right in our faces.

When I’m done spitting grit, I grab Flores’s hand. “Come on, we gotta run.”

She stands, but none too quickly. “What for? It’s dead.”

“You ever see just one ant at a picnic? Come on!”

***

Seems like lately I been seeing ants everywhere. Must be how some hop-heads feel, always scratching imaginary bugs, only mine are real and oversized.

Last Wednesday this guy by the name of Selva comes into my office. He’s clean-cut and in a good suit, so I figure maybe he’s got some dough. Then he says he’s a civil-rights lawyer, so I reconsider. But I hear him out.

“People are dying in the fields,” he says. “Three so far. The others are terrified, but they don’t want to talk to the police.”

“What people?”

“Migrant workers. Fruit pickers.”

“I thought that was all done by ants these days.” You see ’em all the time, driving around California – little black knee-high buggers tending the crops. Helluva lot cheaper than paying any kind of human.

“Ants are best for low plants.” He puts his hand at his waist. “For orchards, not as good. So there are still humans. This is in the orange orchards in Riverside.”

Seems three workers are picking oranges in the sky now. He shows me pictures, and they aren’t pretty. Looks like someone went at ’em with a machete. “Hard to believe the police aren’t looking into it.”

“They think it’s maybe gangs from Mexico, drugs. But it’s not. And right next door to the orchards is a military base, and they don’t answer questions.”

I’m about to tell him if the Army’s involved, there isn’t much I can do – I’m a private dick, not a spy – but he pulls out three C-notes and I shut my yap. I promise no results, but for that many berries, I’ll give it the old college try.

***

The Riverside base has fences twelve feet high and electrified, miles of ’em, and some big warehouses in the distance. The guards at the gate eye me as I cruise past slow on the highway. No way am I getting in there.

But I have my own sources. Find out there’s a lot of animal feed getting shipped in there, and a lot of scientists going in and out. Word is it’s some kind of testing facility, but no one’ll say what they’re testing.

***

A week later Flores shows up. She’s real put together, like a Swiss watch, and about as complicated. “Are you Ray Denton?”

“What it says on the door. What can I do you for?”

She says she’s looking for her sister, who disappeared a few days prior. Probably her sis has just run off, but she insists otherwise. “We were staying at a beach house down by San Clemente. I went out for groceries, and when I came back she was gone.” I tell her my rates, and here again she pulls out two Benjamins and forks ’em over. My lucky month.

So we pile in her convertible and head south to look at the beach house. The Pacific’s blue and the breeze is fresh. Here and there are cars by the side of the road where people have pulled over to swim or to ride horses, which they do around here – just before we stop I notice two silver horse trailers.

When we’re parked, she takes a little perfume and dabs it on her wrists and neck. “Is this a date now?” I ask.

“Anything’s possible,” she says archly. And before we even get to the house, she asks if we can stop a minute. “Let’s just enjoy the view for a minute.”

I’m getting paid, so I’m perfectly amenable, and maybe she wants to tell me something. I’m about to ask her what the deal is when the ant shows up.

***

With the first ant dead, we run, and I swear she’s slowing me down the whole way back to the car. With twenty yards to go I spot three more of the big red suckers, and hoo boy can they move. I fire at one and hit it, judging from the squeal it makes, and tell Flores to give me the keys. “I can drive,” she protests. It is her car, after all.

I show her the business end of the revolver. “Keys now, lady!”

We burn rubber out of there, and damned if the bugs don’t keep pace for half a mile. Then we’re doing sixty-five and they’re out of sight. Fifteen minutes later I pull over. “You want to tell me what this is really about?”

She tightens her lips. “I think you’re going to have to tell me.”

“All right, I will. You don’t have a sister, never did, and there’s nothing much in that house. You drove me out here to take care of a problem, and maybe to give your damn bugs some practice. You brought the ants out here in those trailers, and put that scent on right before heading out. I’m betting it’s some kind of pheromone to let ’em know not to kill you. It stinks, by the way.

“Whoever you are, you work for someone at the base at Riverside, and you’re cooking up something nasty – for-real Army ants that will only attack the enemy. But one got out and decided to see how the locals taste. That about the size of it?”

She sneers. “What if it is? What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m going to kick you out of this car, is what.” So I do. Then I keep heading north, looking for someplace scenic, cold and giant-insect-free.

Mingus Rides North

mingus

Mingus rode north and Death rode with him. Mingus was, or had been, a canary. Death was this Swedish kid named Niclas he’d picked up hitchhiking outside Billings. Kind of a strange kid, truth be told. Did a lot of drugs.

“Stop here,” urged Niclas as they approached a Petro-Canada. “I need smokes.”

Mingus angled the Malibu toward a spot out front, but gave his passenger a dubious look. “You should let me go in.”

The skull looked at him intently. Mingus could see the back of its eye sockets, which wasn’t something you often saw when you looked at someone. “So what now, I never can talk to another human being?”

“That’s just it,” Mingus gently argued, “you don’t seem to be human exactly anymore.”

“I have a body, man. Look, it’s human.”

“It’s a human skeleton, yes. Walking and talking and smoking.”

“Yeah, like I say.” Niclas looked out the tinted window with dissatisfaction. “Fine, you go. But then we stop at a rest area or some place.”

“Okay.” Mingus got out. In Canada, it seemed, even the gas stations had beautiful views – mountains, a lake with a dock. Some boats down there. He felt refreshed, like maybe things would work out for the best after all. They’d find somewhere without any people, and spend their days chopping wood and carrying water and such. It was all admittedly a little vague, but it felt worth pursuing.

Inside the forty-something clerk was watching a television on the counter. Her gaze barely left the screen as she retrieved the cigarettes. Bizarre creatures were loping and flying and squirming down city streets, buildings burning, policemen in riot gear. “What do you think?” she said, jerking her chin absently at the TV.

He glanced at it nervously. “Oh, I don’t know. Probably good to stay away for now.”

“But what do you think it is? Look, this cop just turned into a walking refrigerator.”

“Well, if I had to guess… I’d say that probably a scientist was researching interdimensional phase changes using planar crystals in a lab in Denver. Then, probably, she found out she’d succeeded when her canary, which she kept around partly to warn of dangerous dimensional fluctuations, suddenly turned into a middle-aged man in a blue suit.

“Then, probably, she made the mistake of touching him, which initiated another phase change, turning her into an octopus. It’s like how very pure water won’t freeze until you introduce a little impurity, and then it freezes instantaneously.”

Her eyes narrowed. “But what about all this shit?”

“Oh, well, turns out it’s communicable. Just by touching. So… might want to stay at home for a little while. Or just not worry about it. It’s not so bad.”

She backed away. “I think you should go now.”

He nodded. “No worries.” He was hearing shouting anyway.

Outside a big red-bearded guy was backing away from his motorcycle, which Niclas had come out to admire. “You’re not taking me!” the biker was yelling, ducking around the pumps toward Mingus. “I’m not ready to go!”

“I’m not really Death, man,” said Niclas. “It’s just how I look. I can’t help that, you know?”

Mr. Redbeard seized a window-washer from a plastic well and waved it in front of him.

“Back off! I’ll use this!” Washing fluid sprayed the concrete.

“Excuse me,” Mingus said, and tapped the fellow on the neck. With his bare finger.

There was a crackling noise and a brilliant fragmented alteration of the space around the biker, as though he’d been suddenly encased in a sparkling glass mosaic. When it dissipated, there stood a short, exceptionally ugly gray-green demon thingie. Sharp, curving horns, flesh like rock, remarkably large triangular teeth, flaming orange eyes.

This squat devil looked down at itself, gasped, and made a rush for the motorcycle, deciding death was preferable to staying put, but unfortunately the keys had disappeared in the transformation along with his clothes. Also, his short legs couldn’t reach the chopper’s pegs. He raised his hideous visage to the sky and howled.

“Calm down, man,” said Niclas. “It’s okay, you’re just a little different now.”

The biker’s name was Fred. After a lot of reassurance, they all sat on the curb and contemplated their changed existences. “Listen,” Mingus said finally, “I’m sick of driving anyway. What say we walk down to that dock, steal a boat, and look around for a nice cabin on the lake?”

Fred shrugged in defeat. “Sure. I mean, I was going to meet my buddy in Prince George, but now he wouldn’t even recognize me.”

“Hey, everybody changes, man,” said Niclas breezily. “Can I take your helmet?”

Out on the water the air was crisp and fresh. As a canary, he’d been kept in a cage. This new life was confusing, but the mountains offered grand vistas of possibility.

Mingus rode north, and Death and the Devil rode with him.

Beyond the Worldwall, Chapter 3: The Surgeon, Fallen

tropical-rainforest-jungleThrown by that horse, was his first jumbled thought. That worthless roan. He was not a terrible horseman; but that mare had looked at him with almost a feverish eye, and fought the bit. But deep as he was in the opium, and deep as his infatuation was with Mary Henneman (whose father owned this land for miles around), he had jerked the reins and imposed his will upon the beast. Now she had had her revenge.

With great effort, Gowan MacMillan lifted his head and looked down at his body, aware of profound pain through the haze of the drug – grave bodily injury – his leg especially. He saw the blood soaking his gray trousers below the knee, lay his head back and croaked, “Help.” With that he was exhausted, and closed his eyes. He could just fall back asleep – that was the wonder of laudanum. Whatever your condition, the tincture laid a calming hand upon your brow and said, “It’s all right, it’s always been all right, everything will always be all right.” Sweet Mother Poppy.

No, dear God. You could bleed out as you lie here, you idiot. The others may not even know where you are. With a great effort, he opened his eyes again, looked up at the forest canopy – the strangely thick and verdant forest canopy – and yelled with what strength he could muster, “Help! HELP!” Continue reading

Beyond the Worldwall, Chapter 2: Dr. Phlogiston

balloon

Reverently, Dr. Philippe Joubert placed his hand against the unyielding surface of the Worldwall. It was perfectly smooth, perfectly even, and in the midday light revealed their reflections readily; but up close it had a translucent quality – a smoky gray depth not apparent from a distance. “Like glass,” he breathed.

“Some say it’s made of pure diamond,” Durmoth reflected.

“A diamond ring around the world,” said MacMillan. “To mark what union, I wonder?”

Sykes laughed. “Ever the poet. It doesn’t look like any kind of metaphor to me.”

“And you, madame?” Joubert asked Bisette, who had pulled off a glove to stroke the wall delicately with her fingertips. “Are you impressed?”

“Impressed, yes,” she allowed, craning her head back at its nearly inconceivably height. Withdrawing, she pulled her glove back on. “But undaunted.”

Joubert clapped his hands once in admiration, laughing. “Bravo! Just so! Our patroness shows us the spirit, gentlemen. Onward and upward!” Continue reading

Beyond the Worldwall, Chapter 1: Devil Dick

When they reached the port of Tewabo, just a hundred and eighty miles north of the Worldwall, Joubert brought out two bottles of an excellent Almithean wine he had been hiding somewhere. He poured a modest glass for each present in the company chief’s dining room (minus the seamstress, who had recently embraced teetotalism), raised his own and said, “It may seem that our greatest obstacles are ahead, especially that single great obstruction that cuts our world in twain. But in reality our greatest difficulties are now behind us. We have travelled across the first the Galling Sea and then the Rolonia. It has been an impressive and instructive journey, such as few have made.

“But before we could set off, we had to assemble our supporters, convince and cajole those with wealth to part with it, not for hope of material gain, but for knowledge and glory. And even before that, we had to defy gravity itself, using our science to set humanity free from the mud from which it arose.”

Prolix bastard, Richard Durmoth thought, not for the first time. His eyes flicked across the table to the seamstress, Bisette, who refused to meet his gaze. Continue reading