Thursday, July 26, 2018

Clip: Slip of the Shoulder.

[The following is an excerpt from the chapter "Slip of the Shoulder" from my upcoming novel City Limits.  The main character in this story is a young man who enlists in the Alliance Armed Forces at 15 years old and is reflecting on his early days in the service.  Enjoy.]

Used to hear tell people talk about the “machinations of war.” I’d listen. Try to make sense of it. Try to hold onto the words, slippery as they were. I’d nod along while my father and his brothers opined away into the evening, pontificating over glasses of corn liquor. Booze made ‘em loud to beat the band, and all the while my mother going about her business and rolling her eyes behind their backs and making faces of mock amazement at their soapboxing, all for my benefit. Tried to participate once or twice when they waxed political but all I’s doing was parroting Mr. Sheffield down at the shop, seeing as he used to complain to me well into the night when no customers were around to listen to him. Daddy and his friends ferreted me out quick enough and teased me back into silence. End of the day I couldn’t make sense of it.

One summer night, age of 14, I snuck a sip of his corn when he was leaning on the front door saying goodbye to Uncle Steven. I fought my lungs to keep from coughing lest the old man discover me nipping at his supply and tan me. Presently, my lungs settled down and I got one more large, slow sip in. Went upstairs to bed, crept out the window onto the roof, stripped naked and laid on my back. With the warm evening air caressing me and the ebb and flow rhythm of the beast under my house I stared up at the clear, starry sky and God and His infinite universe, my brain relaxed and fuzzy, my heart aglow and singing with its every beat all the praises of peace and love and compassion, and “war” seemed a foreign and stupid concept somewhere beyond the horizon that would never come. Just to be safe, I’d listen in equal parts morbid teenage curiosity and childish fear for the “machinations of war,” for the war machine itself, with its sounds of metal squealing on metal and gears turning. But wasn’t nothin’ doing. Can’t hear when you’re using the wrong ears.

*     *     *

[Then, deployed to a skirmish in Chicago and uncomfortable recollecting it...]

We sat inside the building to escape the wind and the snow for days. Wrapped ourselves in blankets, sleeping bags, even plastic tarps. Before the Ascension – or maybe even after – someone was kind enough to open a large air duct ‘t led to the rooftop from one of the top floors and convert it into a sort of chimney we could build fire in. Firewood came courtesy of donations to the war effort by civilians – chair legs mostly, but some bed posts, shelves, chopped-up tables, so on so forth. And when we ran out of stories to tell, only place to look to was forward. Some nights, heard whispers of desertion – sneakin’ out when ev’body was sleeping. Staff Sergeant Reynolds put a stop to that. Swore any deserter would be found, hogtied and fed to the Sao-born. And things got real quiet after that. Time seemed slower. Tried to focus on the fire. Listen to it.  Listen to it crackle, watch it flicker and dance for us, see the sparks rise and fade away with every snap of wood like souls leaving bodies in the night. Remind us of death, sparks. Remind us of gunfire and war. Flames, remind us of The Devil and his untamed fires licking at us poor sinners from his Nine Rings, red all. Firewood, burn and turn to ash; perform your duty protecting us and then die and be covered in white, like so many of us will on this rooftop in this city soon enough. Too soon. But soon enough all the same. Can’t look away from the fire now. Can’t look away from any of it. Entranced by the orange glow. Above our heads, steel and ice and the inevitable. 1,200 some odd feet under us, quiet soil, ivy come up the buildings and streets, the legend of the surface-dweller children, billions of skeletons, the fog. Look away from the fire any direction and all that awaits us is one looming thought. An ending of some kind. And that mirror: a sky blanketed with clouds and snowflakes, a ground shrouded by poison mist. As above, so below. And…

And…


[to be continued in City Limits: Fogworld vol. 2]

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Battle of New York.


[Setup:  Mayor Greg Davis of Triton has clashed with our female lead, the Sao expatriate Iris 13, over how to best fight against Sao when the rebelling titan finds them.  Adolescents too young to fight have been integrated into the Triton Youth Auxiliary, performing non-combat services to help the war effort during battle.  Iris has insider knowledge that some kind of fire-based attacks should be prepared for.  On October 12, Iris is just returning from time abroad on Proteus, another colossus allied with Triton.]

Cargo line!” Iris shouted through cupped hands.  Cargo line!

She didn’t know if the harbormaster heard her until, several seconds later, a second rope arrow shot down from Triton and struck the rooftop of 432 Park Avenue with great force.  Wasting no time, Iris walked two of the three heavy duffle bags to the edge of the rooftop.  She set the bags on the ledge outside the balustrade and threaded the cold metal arrow through their tightened shoulder straps.  She tied the rope in a tight and sturdy double knot and yanked the rope twice, as hard as she could, before shoving the bundle over the edge of the building.  Her heart skipped a beat as she doubted whether the dock workers had locked the reel in place, but as she watched the cargo swing away from her, she saw that it lost no altitude.  Iris sighed in relief, threw the third duffel bag over her shoulder and locked onto the other line.

With the added weight, she struggled to reach the top.  Come on, girl, she thought.  We can make it.  Don’t stop.  Don’t slow down.  Ignore the pain.  Keep climbing.  Iris felt her biceps tightening, her palms burning.  When she was halfway up, she heard a sound that made her heart sink.  Far off in the distance, out on the horizon, she heard music.

“Oh shit,” she said.

Iris heard the drums and the bass first.  Then the lyrics, muffled as they were from such a distance.  She redoubled her climbing efforts and cursed incessantly to herself.  Not yet, she thought.  Still…so much to prepare.

There was only one kaiju on Earth with the capability – or the desire – to blast music so loudly against the fog.  As Iris neared the top, she did her best to use Triton’s flank to walk upwards with her feet while she continued to climb the rope hand over hand.  A crowd had begun to gather and stare off into the distance, looking for the source of the sound.

“Go!” she screamed.  “Get indoors!”

Nobody listened to her.

“Sound the alarm!”

The words of the song came into focus. 

“In your face like a can of mace, baby
Is it burning?  Well fuck it, now you’re learning
How I don’t even like your motherfuckin’ profile
Gimme my fuckin’ shit: cha-chick BLAOW!
Last seen and heard, no one knows
You forget: niggaz be quiet as kept
Now you know nothing, before you knew a whole fuckin’ lot
Your ass don’t wanna get shot
A lot of emcees came to my showdown
And watched me put ya fuckin’ ass low down.”

“I said sound the…” Iris saw people begin to huddle together and look fearfully at the approaching titan.  Most of them had never seen Sao before but the sight of the two-legged creature adorned with bodies, skulls and dried blood was beginning to set them off.  It was exactly what Jeremai wanted – to draw them out, then to intimidate them.

Fuck it, Iris thought.  She reached the pier and grabbed the balustrade with both hands, pulling with her last ounce of strength and throwing her arms over the top of the railing.  She shoved off with her feet and her body flopped over the balustrade, scraping her stomach to bleeding.  She landed on her back, on the duffel, which was as bulky and painful as bricks.  She ignored the searing pain across her midsection and the crippling aches along her back and she stood.  First she ran to the other ballista, where the cargo line was just about up.  She shouted at the dock worker urgently.  Hide that – and for Christ’s sake don’t give it up until they’re gone!”

Too alarmed to argue, the dock worker nodded dumbly.  She had to trust that he’d follow through.  She ran to the crank-operated siren in the center of the theriopolis and revved it as hard and fast as she could.  Within seconds, the sirens at all four corners of town sounded as well.  Thank God for that, she thought.  She kept sounding the alarm, stopping only for a moment to drop her duffel bag on the floor with a clank.

From houses and businesses on every block, familiar faces emerged from doorways and rushed to the center of town, just as they’d practiced throughout the year.  The speed and collectiveness with which it happened brought tears to Iris’s eyes.  Yes, she thought.  That’s right.  Come together.  We can do this.  There was some slow foot traffic since the alarms had shocked the onlookers back into coherence and caused them to realize the gravity of the situation.  Women and small children flocked back to their homes for water rations against the flow of the soldiers, the volunteers, the Triton Youth Auxiliary, but all in all, the town remained cool-headed and shaved precious seconds off their preparations.  Less than a minute after Iris had climbed back onto Triton’s pier, the streets were virtually empty of civilians and the park was full of armed men and women sporting sky blue Alliance military armbands – or handkerchiefs where supplies ran low – standing in formation.  All were armed.  Iris stopped cranking her siren; the others followed.  More continued to trickle in, having been further away from their assigned firearms at the sound of the sirens.  The last of the civilians evacuated from the port side of their hometown – from which Sao approached – to the starboard side.

“Snipers, to me!”  20 men and women rushed to Iris.  She opened the oversized duffel at her feet.  Inside were 20 Dragunov sniper rifles.  “Merry Christmas!  Two clips each – two clips – then you go back to your standard loadout.  Get to your rooftops!”  They retrieved their new supplies and deployed as Iris continued.  Sao’s music grew ever louder.  Iris barked orders over the din.  The remaining troops deployed as she ordered them.

“All infantry to combat positions – enemy approaching from the port bow!  I want Youth Auxiliary to lead the non-combat volunteers and retrieve buckets of water from every house that’s set them out!  You start halfway across at the starboard side and work your way back here until you hear otherwise.  No knocking on doors today kids; we don’t have the time!  Medics – stock up on burn treatment supplies if you don’t have ‘em!  Then hold positions three blocks behind the front and await further instructions!  Grenadiers – where’s Williams?”

A middle-aged man stood out from formation.  “Here ma’am!”

“Got the key?”

“Ma’am!”

“Grenadiers – follow Williams to Armory Delta and retrieve your explosives and slings.  Stay low and out of sight until these bastards are well within 1,000 feet!  Your targets are the heavies on Sao – not Sao itself, goddammit!  The first kid who comes back with water, I’ll send him with a fire piston to help light up what you need.  Let him know when you’re at 20% ammo and he’ll bring me Williams’s key.  Then I’ll send the kids to bring up more ammo from the other armories.  Move out!”

She scanned the remaining few people in the crowd, including Mayor Davis and the defense contractors.  She was so frazzled she knew she’d left someone out.

“Who else is still hiding back here – besides the politicians?”  A laugh came from those still present.  Then it occurred to Iris.

“Oh right – scouts!” she said.  “You’re on recon.  Alpha Unit, I want regular updates on holes in their defenses, dug-in troublemakers and any surprises they’re packing that we haven’t planned for!  Beta Unit, you’re on ammo runs for infantry.  Scatter!”

One scout hesitated.  “Um, ma’am?” he asked.

“What is it?”

He nodded towards her stomach.  “Your, um…”

Iris looked down and saw droplets of blood seeping through her shirt.  Stupid girl, she thought to herself.  “Alright, thanks.  On your way now.”  He headed to the front.  Iris rolled her torn shirt up her belly – the series of gashes from the balustrade were large and numerous, and a couple were bleeding openly.

“Shit,” she said, turning and heading to the frontlines.  “Not much use this way, am I?  Medic!


*      *      *

Jason Axtell, an Alliance sniper, fired the first round in the engagement.  While he’d spent several long seconds glassing the Sao warriors parading around their titan of hedonism, dancing to their music and hoisting their rifles into the air, he rid his mind of them before allowing fear to set in.  He set his sights on an enemy rifleman who stood profile to him.  Jason had prepared for this moment for months.  He inhaled, held his breath and squeezed the trigger.  The report from the Dragunov was deafening, but the shell of the 7.62x54mmR cartridge ejected and its bullet passed through the Sao-born’s chest, entering under the armpit.  It found its way close enough to its intended target – the heart – that it dropped him, motionless, to the ground.  It exited the man’s far side, shattering a rib on its way out.

He’s dead, Jason thought.  I took a life.  My finger moved a quarter-inch and I killed a man.  My God.

Along their line, other snipers began to fire.  Jason took cover and his hands shook.  My God.  How much did it hurt?  Does he still hurt?  Is he still…in there?  No.  Not now.  Think later.  Defend our home now.  Protect Samantha and Alice now.  Stop shaking.  Can’t save anyone shaking.

As if giving himself a command, he pulled the small 50ml bottle of scotch from his pocket and opened it.  It was over 100 years old and had been fished by a prisoner before the war broke out – it was part of a case of similar bottles – and distributed to the soldiers to help with nerves.  He took a tug from the little bottle and breathed several times, then finished it.

“You alright man?”

Jason snapped his attention to the voice next to him.  It was a scout.  Jason nodded quickly and got back into the fight, taking position to find another target.  Infantry on both sides began to fire.

The scout, Allen Franklin, had been studying the Sao frontline as well, but for different purposes.  Recruited for his near-photographic memory, Allen made mental notes of everything he saw, including things he didn’t recognize or that looked strange to him.  When he saw Jason retake his position, he did the same, once more raising his binoculars to his eyes.  He was sure the other scouts along the edge of Triton saw what he saw, but just in case, he catalogued everything he could remember.  The difficulty, he found, was the lack of organization and clear difference between Sao-born fighters.  They seemed to have constructed makeshift cover out of things brought up from the surface and fastened together, including ballistic shields and sandbags, but people with all manner of weapons crouched behind any one of them to avoid Alliance bullets.  Then he noticed the shielded mounted gun standing at the top of a high construct on Sao.  Allen saw sparks glinting off its shield as it drew a high concentration of Allied fire, and he saw the blinding light of the muzzle flashes regularly firing from the end of the gun’s barrel.  But something about it looked strange.  He readjusted the focus on his binoculars and took a closer look at the gun and its operator.  Then, without thinking, instinct took over and he sprinted from his spot, leaving Jason behind, urging him to ignore the mounted gun on his way out.

Allen ran down the rear stairs of the building they had sat atop, taking them two at a time and jumping down the last half-dozen.  He rounded the corner around the back entrance to the house too sharply and banged his shoulder on the doorframe as he sprinted to find Iris.  He ran safely, two blocks of buildings separating him from the edge of the city, but when he passed a cross street he still stayed low and his heart raced.  Block by block he narrowed the gap between himself and the command center, telling soldiers not to bother with the mounted gun as he raced down the streets.  He didn’t know if anyone was listening to him but he had to try.

Allen found Iris front and center along Triton’s port side in a reinforced storefront serving as Triton’s command center.  A nurse was just finishing wrapping Iris’s midsection in gauze.  Iris clenched her teeth and hissed through them in pain.  “Okay, okay; I’m fine,” Iris said.  “Someone else needs you more; move along.”

The nurse left without a word; Allen caught Iris’s attention.

“Scout Franklin, urgent report ma’am,” he said in gasps.

“What have you got, Franklin?” she asked.

“It’s fake,” he said.  “The mounted gun at the top of their battlement – it’s a decoy.”

“What?!”

“The muzzle flashes are fireworks or something,” he said.  He was still catching his breath.

“What about the guy operating it?”

“Corpse,” Allen said.  “Strung up and tied to the gun.”

“God dammit,” Iris said.  “How the Hell do we tell the entire regiment to stop wasting their ammo on that thing?”

A member of the Youth Auxiliary who Allen hadn’t noticed shot up out of her seat and stared hard at Iris.  Iris turned to her and spoke fast.  “Claire, get to Williams.  Tell him I’m approving use of the M79 to take that mounted artillery out.  If he asks for an authorization code, tell him I forgot it and to go fuck himself.”  Claire was halfway out the door by the time Iris shouted after her “He has two shots; we need to save the rest!”

Iris turned back to Allen.  “Good work.  Did you see anything else out there?”

“N-no ma’am,” Allen said.  He sounded deflated.

“Hey, it’s alright,” she said.  “That mounted artillery intel is a huge help.  Get back to your post and keep an eye out.”

“Ma’am.”

On her way out of the building to find Williams, Claire collided with a scout coming from the opposite direction that Allen had.  He was rushing to Iris to give her a report of his own and once he and Claire recovered from their impact, she asked if he knew where Williams was.

“Negative, kid, but he’s up there somewhere,” the scout said.  Claire picked up her pace to continue towards the bow of the creature and the scout shouted to her “I was just in the smoke shop on First and he ain’t there!  Don’t waste your time!”  Claire waved her thanks and continued towards the creature’s head.

Claire remembered the training.  Pause at the corner, check for clearance, sprint low, jog along the buildings for cover, repeat.  And as she ran, she saw things no child should see.  She looked down one cross street towards the fight to find a medic, hands covered in blood, applying pressure to a stomach wound.  At the next intersection, she looked out to the enemy colossus and saw a Sao-born, half-naked and half-feral, stacking bodies of his own countrymen to use as cover.  Then he saw her.  In shock or from fear, she gasped and spun back around and pressed her back up against the building on the corner she had been ready to cross.  Her back to the fight, she looked ahead of her for just a moment.  She saw some of the other kids in the Triton Youth Auxiliary, carrying water in buckets or carrying the wounded away from the frenzy on cots.  Water in a vessel, blood in a vessel, she thought.  Water in a vessel, blood in a vessel.  Carry the vessel, carry the fluid inside.  Stop thinking.

She ran across the street.  As she reached the far side, the Sao-born who had spotted her took aim and pulled the trigger.  She heard a shattering sound and suddenly her face was on fire.  Instinctively, her hand rose to the area, but her hand didn’t burn.  It wasn’t fire, she realized, but her cheek felt strange and misshapen.  She pulled her hand back away and stopped for just another second and looked down at it.  It was streaked with blood.  Her blood.  Before she could think, more drops of blood fell to her hand and to the floor.  She gave her jaw a wiggle and though in extraordinary pain, it moved properly.

Don’t think about it, she thought.  She kept running.  Don’t think about it – building debris – don’t think at all find Williams – face shredded – tell him Iris said go fuck himself, M79 two rounds then find a medic – tissue damage? – get treated and get back to running supplies just like training – bullet in the building or somewhere in my face – just like training.

A block before Armory Delta, where all the grenadiers had gone, Claire turned down an alley and started asking for Williams.  She kept her teeth clenched and grunted to talk.  The first two infantrymen she asked didn’t even look up from the scopes on their rifles.  “Not now, kid!”  “Who the fuck is Williams?!”  The third made a kill and marked it on a tally he’d drawn on his wrist.  He had to reload and told her to ask a grenadier one block back the way she came.  Then he looked up while loading a new magazine and did a double-take at her.

“Holy shit,” he said. 

“Is it bad?”

He ignored her.  “Here, take this – my own private reserve.”  He grabbed a flask-sized scotch bottle from his pocket and opened the cap with his teeth and shoved it in her hand.

“I’m too young to –“

He shook his head and ripped a piece of his shirtsleeve off, handing it to her.  “Douse this and put it on your face – gently, you hear?  Hang in there, kid; find a medic.  And hey!”

“Yeah?”

He nodded at the scotch bottle.  “Save half that and slug it when you find the medic – you’re gonna need it.”

Claire thanked him and went on her way to find Williams.

The rifleman with the torn sleeve turned to the young man next to him.

“Hey, Banks!”

“What?” Christopher Banks replied without taking his eye from his spyglass.

“Did you see that girl’s face?”

“I’m sure she was a real looker, Thomson.”

“No, she –“

“Oh shit,” Banks said.  He collapsed his spyglass and got up.  “I’ve gotta run!”

“What do you see?”

“Armored heavies!  Miniguns, suiting up outside the penitentiary!  I need a sling team on this pronto!”

With that, Banks was gone.   Thomson turned to the soldier next to him, who he believed had been carefully lining up a shot.  “Hey buddy, did you see that girl’s face?  Buddy?”

He patted the soldier’s shoulder.  The soldier idly rolled over, revealing a bullet hole where his left eye used to be.

“God dammit,” Thomson said.  He licked his thumb and erased one tally mark from his wrist.

Banks weaved through storefronts along Triton’s port side, staying low to avoid incoming fire.  He found a sling team crouched behind a low wall near the entrance to a clothing store, looking out at Sao.  The double-wide store window had been blown in from enemy fire and glass littered the floor.  The sling team was part of a makeshift platoon that had assembled in response to the action outside.  Two infantrymen, both of whom would die from enemy fire before the day was over, clung nervously to their AK-47s.  One woman was stationed to each of the side handles on the sling, holding them slack; a third crouched on the floor between them with one hand resting on a strap at the back of the pouch.  A wide-eyed young man from the Youth Auxiliary shook in fear behind them, kneeling next to a milk crate of homemade explosives.  As Iris had promised the grenadiers, the kid was one of many carrying fire in a carved-out animal horn.  Without looking back, the three women at the sling had a quick discussion.

“What about that mounted gun up top?”

“I don’t know if we’ve got the range.  Plus, it’s a small target.  We overshoot that and we’re just flushing munitions.”

“Ballistic shield wall?”

“Aren’t those fireproof?”

“Shit, maybe.”

Banks glanced over at the display stand next to him.  It was adorned with baby clothes, most of which were filthy and unusable, covered with dust and debris.  A handwritten sign above them read “Gently loved onesies – 12 to 24 months.”  One had a small engraving on the arm.  J. Burke Designs.

“Ok, sandbags?” he heard one of the women say.

“Reduce their cover, right?”

“Hell yeah.”

“Light ‘em up.”

The two grenadiers on the side handles stepped back from each other, the thick rubber piping of the sling stretching taut between them.

“Hey kid!” shouted the woman at the pouch.  “Gimme a drink!  Make it a double!”

A drink? Barnes thought.

The kid jumped at being called, but he regained his composure and picked up a rag-stuffed bottle from the milk crate, inspected its contents, then replaced it.  He repeated this twice before settling on a larger, heavier bottle.  He held the horn to the rag and it ignited.  Fearfully he handed the bottle to the woman at the pouch – “M-Ma’am?” he said – who placed the bottle in the pouch and began walking it backwards on her knees.

“One of these days, kid, I’m gonna convince you to say ‘Order up,’” she said.  She turned to the woman on the left.  “What do you call that?  270?”

“Mm, 280,” her friend said.  The woman behind the pouch pulled back a little harder.

“Set!”

The infantrymen sprung to life.  “Suppressing fire!”

They rolled out of their cover and began aggressively emptying their magazines at the enemy colossus.  At the same time, the women on either sling handle stood in unison, arcing the trajectory of the shot.

“Stick your peanut-dick in this, rapists,” the woman holding the pouch said.  She released the bottle an eyeblink before releasing the strap behind the pouch and the Molotov was away.  Everyone resumed their cover.  An eternity of silence followed.  The grenadier on the right handle poked her head up and whipped her head around to her sisters-in-arms with a grin.  “Direct hit!”

They cheered.  Suddenly Banks remembered his purpose.

“Um, excuse me…”

The grenadiers looked at him and their faces dropped.

“Jesus Christ; didn’t I just get rid of one of you?” the woman behind the pouch said.  Her friends laughed.  Banks didn’t understand.

“Ma’am?”

“Never mind; what can I do for you?”

Banks retrieved and unfurled the map of Sao he had in his pocket.  “We’ve got two armored heavies coming out from here and here,” he said, pointing to where he’d seen the monstrous suits of iron emerging just minutes ago.

“What are they packing?”

“Miniguns, ma’am.”

“Shit,” she said.  “Ladies, tag ‘em and frag ‘em!  You – thanks for the heads-up; now get out of here so I can do my goddamn job!”  As Banks left to return to his post with Thomson, he took one last look back and saw the women on the sling handles using binoculars to spot the armored gunners.  The woman behind the pouch, still sitting, spun around on her backside and brushed the glass from the area in front of her.  She laid on her belly, pulled a cigarette from a case in her pocket and held her face near the flaming horn to light it.

“At least this one was in better shape than the last kid,” she said to the Youth Auxiliary member.  “I wonder if she made it to Captain Williams?”

Claire’s arm looked normal aside from the thin line of blood that ran down it from the rag in her hand to her elbow, dripping onto the pavement and leaving a Hansel and Gretel trail wherever she went.  She hadn’t taken the rag off her face since she doused it and she hadn’t let go of the half-empty scotch bottle since it had been given to her.  Her face still felt afire and she had lost some of the spring in her step but she had a definite location on Williams from the women in the clothing store and she was closing in fast.  She began to feel funny.  Not quite light-headed, but slightly disconnected from her own body, as though there were an infinitesimal delay between her brain giving her body its orders and her body taking them.  After what felt like forever, she saw a middle-aged man she recognized from the formation earlier.  He was on the rooftop of a church, giving orders.

“Captain Williams?” she called, still through gritted teeth.

He spun around.  “What is it, trooper?”

“The mounted gun, sir – it’s a decoy.  The gunner behind its shields…it’s just a body – I mean, it’s a corpse.”

“Yeah, no shit, kid,” he said, turning away from her.

Claire’s heart sank.  He knows?  she thought.  Why did I…Was this all for nothing?  For the first time, doubt filled her brain.  Her hand fell away from her face.  The rag came with it and she let it fall to the floor.  She had no further orders beyond this moment.  She knew she should report back to Iris or regroup with other members of the Youth Auxiliary but she couldn’t make her feet move.  Her wound stung anew, tickled by a gentle breeze that blew through the air.

“The trouble is,” he said, “My boys use any of my best explosives without orders from the top brass and they’re liable to court martial our asses.  Whole bureaucracy’s a giant cluster-“

Claire’s brain kickstarted back into gear.  Hope flooded back into her veins.  “That’s it!” she shouted at him.

He turned back to her and saw her face and started.  “Jesus Christ, girl!  Medic!  I need a medic here on the double!”  He approached her and grabbed her wrists.  “Kid, you need to sit.”
“No!” Claire screamed, throwing his hands away.  The extra effort and adrenaline was taking a lot out of her.  “Iris told me to tell you she’s authorizing you two rounds from the M79 to take out that gun.”

Williams grabbed her again but eased up when he realized what she’d said.  “Did she give you an authorization code?”

“She said she forgot it.”

Williams eyed her skeptically.

“And to go fuck yourself.”

Captain Williams laughed with relief.  “That sounds about right.”  He thought for a moment.  “Okay.  Roger that.  But I need you to sit down right now.”  She complied this time, all her energy gone.  He set her down, supporting her head with his hand, and he lifted his head up and looked for someone, who he found.  “Peterson!”

A young man, another member of the Youth Auxiliary, answered his call and rushed to his side.  “Sir?”

“Go downstairs.  Get the box next to the podium on the dais and bring it up here now.”

“Yes sir.”

“And bring me a field medic!”

The boy ran downstairs.  Williams looked at Claire.  A dozen shards of glass stuck out from one side of her face.  The largest one was lodged in her cheek, near the jaw.  Silently, tears began streaming down to her chin.

“Do you see the bullet?” she said.

“Bullet?!”  He searched her face.  “No, kid; there’s no bullet.  Must’ve missed you.”

“Then what’s –“

“Glass,” he said.  “Pretty good amount, too.”

Her face contorted in despair.

“Don’t talk,” he said.  “You’re gonna be alright.  The medic will be here any second.”

She remembered the scotch.  She loosed the twist-off cap with her free hand and it made a small clinking sound on the floor.  Williams looked down and saw the bottle nearing her lips.  He opened his mouth to speak but he stopped and chuckled in surprise instead.

“Don’t tell my parents,” Claire said with a wink, upending the bottle and drinking from it.

“Psh; don’t tell the medic,” he replied.

She laughed with her mouth full, sputtered a bit on the scotch and moaned from the pain it brought her.  She recovered and cleared her throat.  Then they both heard two pairs of footsteps rushing up the fire escape.  They knew it was Peterson with the medic.

Claire thought about what was coming next.  This is really going to hurt.  She took one last swig from the bottle and tossed it aside.  It slid along the rooftop and stopped with a bump at the far corner.  Peterson and the medic appeared from the side of the building.  The medic knelt down next to Claire and opened her field bag. 

“What’s happened to her?”

Williams shook his head in ignorance.  “She came here from halfway across town…I think this is debris from a window – maybe 10, 15 minutes ago?”

Claire nodded.  As soon as the medic cushioned Claire’s head, Williams gently removed his hand from under it.  He thanked her and took the box from Peterson and left her sight.

“Hullo dear,” the medic said.  “Looks as though we’ve gotten into some trouble then, have we?”

Claire snorted a bit and popped her eyebrows up and down once.  The medic smiled and injected something into the crook of Claire’s elbow.  Claire flinched.

“Sorry love.  That’ll help with the pain.”

Claire nodded.  The medic retrieved a clean metal tray from her bag then searched for tweezers, gauze, a needle and thread.

“Let me patch you up proper then we’ll get you to hospital.”

Claire shook her head.  “Gotta get –“

“Don’t speak, please, darling,” the medic said.

“Report to Iris,” Claire said.

The medic laughed sweetly.  “Darling, you’re lucky to be alive, let alone conscious.  Look at the state of you!”

Claire shook her head again and tried to sit up.  The medic easily and gently pushed her back.  “You’ve done a brave thing today,” she said, nodding towards Williams and out beyond the rooftop.  “A quite brave thing.  Now hold still.”

The medic leaned over Claire with the tweezers.  Nervous, Claire breathed quickly through her nose.

“Grenade out!”

Claire heard a strange “thunk” sound and saw a piece of glass the size of half a playing card enter her field of view.  For a moment she wondered if the glass had made the sound on its way out – which, despite the scotch, agonized her.  Then she heard an explosion in the distance and realized the source of the sound.  The M79, she thought.  Did it…  The sound of cheers and back-slapping brought a smile to her face.  Claire shut her eyes and let the medic work on her.  The painkiller slowly took effect and she relaxed.

Iris saw the mounted gun explode and she smiled.  Nice work, kid, she thought.  Now where the Hell are you?  As she looked out at Sao, it was hard for Iris to resist the temptation of finding her way over to the rogue titan and sneaking into the prisons to find Jeremai and kill him right here and now.  He’s so close, she thought.  He’s hearing the same sounds I am, smelling the same gunpowder and fire and blood.  He’d earned his place on his throne by stacking bone and flesh and slaves in a pile and she knew she had to see him dead.  However, Iris knew that as insane as he was, he had an instinct for self-preservation.  He was a scurrying rat on a sinking ship who would step on the faces of every person on Sao to keep himself above the rising tide.  Worse, he was an apex predator – a strong, vicious, remorseless ape of a man whose hulking frame ingested violence and sex and raw human meat the way families gorged themselves at holidays.  His heart pumped disease and insanity and psychopathy from four generations of inbreeding and cannibalism; Iris often wondered if he’d even spill normal human blood when injured.

She shook herself out of her thoughts and back into the present.  She saw a fire on Sao.  It was a row of sandbags they’d been using for cover.  Several Sao-born ran away from behind it, some of whom were on fire.  One ran off the edge of the creature in a frantic, aimless sprint, flaming all the way down and being reclaimed by the fog.  Unconsciously, Iris spat downwards at the floor immediately in front of her in disgust.  A regular succession of rapid fire sounded from either side of Sao’s surface.  Iris’s eyes searched for the source of the sound and her eyes widened at the sight of two large men in full-body armor holding miniguns and slowly fanning them across Triton.  Instinctively, she took cover as bullets ripped through the command center just above her head.  She was about to leave the building to direct the army’s firepower to the heavies when she saw one of them stop firing, look down at the ground in front of him, drop his gun and turn to run away.  Suddenly an explosion threw him into the air just far enough to cast him over Sao’s edge and to the earth below.  Iris turned to the other armored gunner but something further out, near the harbor, caught her eye.  Lines had been fired from both the portside ballistae and over a dozen soldiers were ziplining down them to board Sao.

Davis, she thought.

Allen Franklin had returned to his post and watched as the small platoon fired the ballistae.  He turned to the sniper.  “Jason, did you hear anything about them sending a unit in to flank Sao?”

“Nobody tells me anything, bud,” Jason said.

The miniguns roared.  Allen and Jason took cover.  Then one of the miniguns stopped.  Allen took three rapid breaths and broke cover to investigate through his binoculars.  One of the armed heavies was gone but the other was still spraying his payload across the front.

“Jesus,” he said.

“What?”

“This guy looks like a goddamn trash can.  He’s in an enormous suit of armor.”

“Like a knight?”

“No, no; like a robot.”

“What?!”

“It looks like he strapped a couple of those old coal stoves to himself.  Take a look!”

“I’m fine right here.  Shouldn’t you go tell someone?”

“I doubt they’re missing this, Jason.”

The second heavy stopped firing.

“Is he exposed anywhere?”

“Oh shit,” Allen said.

“What?”

The armored gunman stared – or appeared to stare, through his helmet – at the ropes connecting the two colossi and the men traversing them.  Allen couldn’t hear him, but he could see that he called to several other Sao-born and ordered them towards the arrows hooked onto Sao.  For just an instant, Allen tried to tell himself that the Alliance force may be able to cross the line in time, that they could fight the Sao warriors back.

But then the armored heavy picked his minigun back up.  The chambers began to spin.  Allen turned his gaze to the Allies.  Holes ripped through the soldiers’ bodies one by one.  Some had just enough time to put on the brakes and try in vain to climb back before ultimately being perforated by the rounds shot at them.  Blood rained down to the streets of New York City as the soldiers went limp, their ziplines idly obeying gravity and sliding down the ropes towards a battlefield they would never reach.  Every fighter who mounted the ropes died, stopping with a bump at the end of the line, adding to the increasing bottleneck of corpses at Sao’s flank just as the previous soldier had.

Everyone saw it – literal dead weight, sickeningly and slowly passing along the ropeway and gathering in a mass.  Allen would be haunted by the helplessness and indignity of the scene for the rest of his natural life.  He lowered his binoculars and sat back behind his cover on the rooftop for several moments, shaking his head and staring at the ground.  He thought he might throw up, but nothing came.  While he was turned away, one of the Sao-born who had been sent to check the ropeway took a machete to each rope and severed the arrows from the lines.  The bodies fell down along Sao’s body like rag dolls, climbing gear and all, and vanished into the fog.  The ropes fell limply to Triton’s side.  Then a Molotov from a sling team that had been filled with something like napalm took the second heavy out of commission.  He swiped at himself frantically for several seconds and tried desperately to escape his armor, but it appeared someone had helped him strap into it from behind and he found no escape.  He fell to the floor and continued to struggle, writhing and clawing at himself until he finally ceased to move.  The cheers from Allen’s immediate area brought him back around.  He looked to the armored gunner and saw the smoldering metal, the flames rising from it, the heat lines dancing and distorting everything behind the body.  He’d barely reconciled the events of the last five minutes as part of reality when, at the sound of an airhorn from the other colossus, every living warrior on Sao took cover.  Triton ceased fire, and for one full second, everything was silent as the grave.

One single object rose into the air from behind one of Sao’s ballistic shield walls.  It was small and flat in shape and black as pitch.  Allen squinted to determine what it was.  Then he saw it had a friend rising to meet it.  Then another.  As they reached an altitude of 50 feet, they began to fly towards Triton.  More and more of them flew into the air from behind walls on Sao, but still the Sao-born fighters stayed behind cover.  Within seconds, dozens of the airborne black things came for Triton.  Instinctively, the Allied forces began firing on the swarm of flying objects and the things they carried.  A couple fell, but their size and the speed at which they flew made them hard targets.  Then someone managed to hit the tube-like object one of the flying things carried and it exploded.

Bomb…?  Allen thought.  He frantically retrieved his binoculars and glassed the tiny mechanical invaders.  They were unmanned drones – quadrotor remote-controlled flying helicopters just larger than a book – and they were swarming towards Triton with cargo.  Allen saw one with a lit Molotov, a second with a pipe bomb, another with a grenade dangling by its pin.

Jason get inside!” Allen screamed.  He clambered down from the rooftop to the top floor of the building on which they’d been stationed and threw himself into a rear corner of a room and covered his head with his arms without thinking.  Allen heard glass bottles breaking and the whoosh of fires suddenly burning.  Explosions blew walls out from houses.  The infantry and grenadiers fell back two city blocks and sheltered themselves from the flames, all the while trying to shoot down more of the drones.  He was certain he heard everyone screaming “War!  War!” and he didn’t understand why.  When he finally looked up, he peered out the window and down the street.  Every member of the Triton Youth Auxiliary had come to the frontlines and was putting out the fires.  They moved as one, faster and more covertly than the adults, sprinting to an open flame and dousing it with water, turning on a dime and running back for another bucket.  Every young man or woman he saw running empty-handed was out of sight for just a fraction of a second before heading back the way they came, just as fast, with another bucket of water or a plastic water cooler with a hose tied to the mouth, extinguishing Sao’s fires as far as the eye could see.

“Water,” Allen thought.  They weren’t saying “war.”  They were calling for water.  This is the water brigade the kids have been talking about.  They’re putting out the fires.

Smoke and steam rose in plumes and curls from the front.  Drones continued to come, but fewer and farther between than they had at the outset.  Some of the drones had been piloted back to Sao, where they were being laden with more explosives to deliver.  It finally occurred to Allen that he hadn’t seen Jason since he fled from the rooftop.  Fearing the worst, he returned topside to find his comrade.

Jason never heard Allen tell him to run inside.  The moment he saw the first drones rise and begin to move, he knew what they meant.  He loaded a fresh clip into his sniper rifle, blinked several times, put his eye to the scope, aimed and squeezed the trigger. 

And then he did it again.  The guilt he felt from killing his first enemy combatant had faded over the last 40 or so minutes and was now, in the face of the drones, utterly absent.  Whereas he’d been able to fire on the Sao-born despite his reluctance towards taking lives, he felt infinitely more capable against the machines because of that reluctance.  Not only was he still fighting to protect his home – now literally – but there were no lives to take from the little helicopters.

Protect Samantha and Alice, he thought.  Send these things all the way down to the ground and let them take their bombs with them.  Once he was even able to detonate the pipe bomb a drone carried while it was far above and between the colossi, which in turn destroyed several others in its proximity.  Jason had better luck with the drones nearest him and Allen than at the opposite end of the battlefield, near Triton’s head.  No fire ever came near their rooftop.  He stopped counting after his first dozen hits. 

Jason heard footsteps scramble back up to the roof behind him.  Assuming it was one of the Triton Youth Auxiliary, he shouted back “Ammo!  Now!  Sniper rifle!” and kept firing.  Once the drones started to thin, he was afforded the time to take pot shots at their pilots, who still mostly hid behind cover.  Another magazine of rifle shells crashed at the ground to his right and he reloaded, looking up at the kid who brought them.  It was Allen.  Jason chuckled and thanked him and crouched back down.  He took one final shot and caught a Sao-born in the hip.  The shot rang out and before he could steady his aim again, a lurch threw him off his mark.  Triton was moving.  His hour in New York had ended and he began his hours-long trek to Philadelphia.  At the same moment, Sao turned and began to leave.  Everyone stopped.  Nobody could hit a moving target from a moving platform.  Having fired the final shot of the battle, Jason quickly gave in to exhaustion.  His arms shook.  When he stood, his knees buckled.  Jason gathered his gear and he and Allen headed back into town, arm in arm, the children stepping over the bodies in the streets and continuing to put out their parents’ fires.


All words by jonny Lupsha (c) A Carrier of Fire except song lyrics from "Brooklyn Zoo" from Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version.