Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

The Mechanical and the Strange

by Andrew Reichard




On this the 60th day of Marn, a celebration on the ground level of Angel City: I took an expensive windcar to beat the pressing and the sweating people. We had to zigzag through Cog Loft Corridor because of the smokeworks bursting and drifting out from Takatie Center. The smoke display surged its many-knuckled claws up and up and over the Dirigible Monuments above our heads--sinister, floating idols bumping the atmosphere like a giant child's lost balloons. Archaic tetra-shapes heckling the sky.

I hated Angel City celebrations. Dipped in bent, engineered history. Splattered with red patriotism. All over propaganda from the scaffolding-ringed Winged Lights (those two horrid curved monoliths of inscrutable architecture and government) to the aero-shanties and subhamlets. I hated Angel City holidays and its ticker-tape parades and its smokeworks that rose into the upper level cityscapes in a blouse of fire like we were all under attack. Ashes and dust and revelry.

I'm being dramatic. I'm in a bad mood. I need a strong drink.

Forgive me.

There are flowers here too. Pretty ones. Blue-and-golds, letterheads, daffodils. There are flowers in Angel City, but it takes a trained eye to spot them. An eye for things like Clare has. Sometimes I envy her.

Cops like me see only the decadence in all this carousing, and most partake with one hand and tap their tazeclubs with the other. Hypocrisy. Banal and stupid. This is just another cop story.

"Pull down here," I said to the driver over the turbines and sputtering wing-things. The box in which I crouched was uncomfortable. I had to pee. The wind coach nodded his assent and set down slow enough to give people time to jump out of the way. I paid him. I got out, hopping awkwardly. The windcar heaved its bulk away with someone else clutched in its grasp.

Yellow lights pooled and swam over surfaces, over faces, over shadows, and moved on. The eastern side of Takatie Center, where I landed, was spotted with yellow like a backwards leopard from the lights of the carburetor houses above us--puffing and scudding like tin clouds. I put on shades.

The back of my coat was damp through with sweat, and my face felt clammy. I jostled a few folks to cram my way into an ugly brewery packed like a lump of dough between boarded buildings. Called the King of Hearts. It was a small place, but I couldn't see to the far wall with the smoke and the folk. I shoved off to the counter, and a burly man with a ridiculous brimmed cap waved me over. He pushed a glass toward me. I gave him the rude finger and headed for the latrines in the back.

I returned muttering about bad plumbing, the man wasn't listening. I guess I wasn't listening to myself. I sat.

"Bruner's brought bad news from the Calamire Socket," said my partner. The smoke rendered him blurry even from this close.

I shook my head. "I need a second drink before real talk." I waved at the bartender, pointed at my empty glass. "How's your wife?"

"Shut up, James, you know I ain't got a wife," he said. His name was Gribner Dokkenhiest. I never called him by his name. I think he resented it a little.

I apologized and said something about the weather.

Gribner agreed about the weather.

"Listen, James," he said, earnest. "The Calamire Socket."

"What about?" I asked.

"It's bad."

I shook my head. "No. It's not. Bruner doesn't know here from else. Bruner ain't a cop like us, and we know there's little we can do unless our befuddlement of a governing order does something heavier. That whole district is wide-eyed in its own blood. Violent and incredulous. Bruner saw something ordinary."

"I haven't even told you what he saw."

I humored him. "Fine. What'd he see?"

"Something out of the ordinary," said Gribner.

I turned on him. "Listen," I said. "Leave off the vague shadow descriptions and the hear-say. I haven't got the time."

"You've heard about the animal fighting they do down there?" he asked.

"Sure."

"Something about them went wrong."

"Good," I said. "They're illegal." I pretended to get up from my chair.

"One of the fights went bad. Folk died for it," said Gribner over me. "Died in a bad way, but that ain't the end. They have their fights in the gambling pits and the tunnel coliseums, and we leave 'em alone long as they keep down low and quiet, but some of the smarter ones have taken to..." he snapped his fingers, looked at the smoky ceiling for inspiration, "rigging their beasts," he said finally.

"Drugs? Stakes that high?" It probed my curiosity despite myself.

"No," he said, casting about again. "Gears, cogs, mech-artifacts, scrap metal. I don't damn well know. Some nut showed up with a machine-fused animal, and it got the better of whatever else was there for the fighting. Bruner says there's a bit of bad panic."

I laughed. I laughed and laughed. I bought another drink. "What'll they think of next," I said, sniffing.

But I felt a little cold because Angel City always thought of something next.


* * *

Things like this made cops nervous, especially the ones like me who didn't wear the uniform and had to get their hands dirty behind their long sleeves. Angel City made me nervous.

Calamire Socket made everyone nervous. The Socket was Angels City's blood clot--a dark zone of democratic cardiac arrest. Hell, I'm not a doctor. I don't know what I'm saying, but it sounded bad in my head and didn't calm me a wit to think it as Gribner and I passed under the drop-off point.

Gribner knew it too, but he insisted on inspecting, and I shoved grudgingly after him. Not that it made a difference. The paperwork would be on my desk come morning anyway, and I'd be back here before the sun tipped the Winged Lights.

Once we passed the drop-off point and left the rest of Angel City glowing behind us in its various levels of industry and air, I sort of shut down. I geared my mind to signs of danger, of course, but to all else I stayed blind.

I could see Gribner noticing, though. The details I refused to heed, he poured himself into them, and the horror was writ on his face. The whole Socket was malformed from the buildings to the children playing in the street. What few scudding carburetor houses the Calamire locals had looked like tumbled soaring junk piles. They paced the Socket skyline like confused animals--a sordid mimicry of upper city functionality.

We walked with the listless crowds in the mud and gunk and the reek of human feces, and they left us alone. Gribner was thunder with a blunderbuss, and I had my pistol in plain sight.

Law enforcers come to town. Give 'em space.

We passed a dog carcass in the road.

Spindle vine shoots rose up between ruptured pavement squares. I weaved around them...

This inner monologue is sick and cliché. A bad habit, like smoking.

"James. You sure you ain't drunk?" asked Gribner. He was a good man, but I didn't like him sometimes.

"I'm not drunk," I said.

"Hellooooo you person, you two persons!" shouted a boy. A news crier. The last thing this part of the city needed was expression of opinion. He clutched a folded snatch of paper, and he opened it as he approached revealing a sketched face of a man on the front. "Have you people seen this man?" he asked, belligerent.

"Naw," said Gribner. "Looking for him? Is he missing?"

I rolled my eyes and lit up behind him. The first puff of smoke blotted out some of the stench.

"No!" shouted the boy. "You people stay away from this man, you hear me? He's a bad man."

"Well sure," said Gribner, losing interest just as I perked up. "Plenty of bad men."

"This a bad man," said the boy. "Very...very dangerous. Kill many people. Very smart about it."

I snapped at the picture. "Let's see."

He handed it over reluctantly. "Only one I got, sir."

"Thanks." I studied the image. "Ha! It kinda looks like you," I said to Gribner. The sketch was of a man with a round face, his hair a mess of lines, his eyes beaded and shallow and shadowy. He didn't really look like Gribner. He looked like all bad men do in drawn pictures--sunken and strange. "He supposed to be missing an ear?" I asked. "Where did you get this?"

"Hey!" shouted Gribner. "Get back here,"

"Don't bother," I said. I pocketed the sketch. "He was just a clown drawing pictures of people and spreading nuisance. He must have seen my badge. I wasn't thinking to bother with him, but that's how folks are down here."

"It's a wonder he didn't run at the sight of our guns," said my partner, peering at my empty hand where I'd been holding the picture.

"Don't be thick," I said, smoking. "This is Calamire. People only run when someone starts shooting."


* * *

We found nothing useful, just as I knew it would be. Better to wait for the paperwork to come in and deal with it after the deputy starts breathing down necks. That's how things get done around here, and who am I to burn the system? This is how cops get killed on their own watch. Not that we were off duty, just that we weren't supposed to be here. Some parts of Angel City are off limits even to cops.

I let Gribner lead, and he led. He led me along dark streets and darker streets. The Calamire Socket was the place under the shadow of the second level city--built into the valley directly under the Cog Loft Corridor--below that low gravity orbit of debris and city dust where nothing ought to be built. The rest of Angel City reached up and up on the mountains, everyone vying for the sunlight like a rainforest. The Calamire Socket was where things traveled when they couldn't afford a spot in that light.

Or things too disreputable. Things that didn't want the sun.

We passed empty lots littered with cast off mechanical odds and ends. Vines tangled them, choked the rocky ground. We crossed under aero-bridges leading the heavy, miserable freight windcars to mine the Dirigible Mountains. We passed dilapidation and rust. I tried to only notice the people as much as I needed to in order to pass by without consequence.

Gribner noticed them only, his eyes sad, his heavy brows downcast like a pitiful Labrador. "So many people down here," he said at one point.

"See anyone who looks like the bad man, give a shout," I said back.

He had not answered, and after a while I saw his lips moving in what I took to be prayer. I thought of a few angry words for him in my embarrassment, but I ended up saying nothing, knowing they would ring stupid and petty on both our ears.

I finished smoking my cigarillo, and then I finished another.

My head felt a bit light by the time we reached the animal coliseum. It was deserted, so we had a look. The coliseum itself was a shallow pit in the ground piled with empty cages and metal wires, and dead things. Bits of animals from past matches, it looked like, and I wondered why the myriad slavering dogs we had seen slinking through alleys weren't nosing here.

I could smell death, but I had smelled death before. We looked around, Gribner and I, like cops were supposed to, and we found a few more furry messes and scraps of this or that. I imagined the place full of hollering lunatics all betting on fear-maddened dogs or birds of prey. I imagined gnashing teeth and disease and blood, and (you know what?) I felt like praying a bit myself.

"I don't see any mech or gear," I said.

Gribner hefted his blunderbuss on his shoulder, shadow-eyed. "Neither do I," he said.

"Nor do I see panic or human bodies littering the streets, though I wouldn't necessarily think it out of the ordinary if I did," I said.

Gribner's eyes shadowed further until they were almost gone in shadow. "Neither do I," he whispered.

But as we began the long hike back up the soiled path to the city proper, we did see a body.

A girl. Her age was difficult to determine, but she appeared to me younger than thirty. She was covered in dirt and dried blood, and parts of her flesh on her belly, legs, and face had been ribboned by something very sharp, something very nasty.

"Could a mechanical animal have done that?" asked Gribner. He had knelt down, and he held his free hand out hovering over the girl's shoulder as if he had been about to try and comfort her.

"Looks like a grisly knifing," I said, still standing and trying on various expressions of professionalism.

"We'll have to get her back to the office," said my partner. "Forensics will know."

I thought of scalpels and sterile metal trays. "Right," I said. "I'll go flag down a windcar. You stay put and take your gun off safety."

"It ain't been on safety," said Gribner, still inspecting the girl's wounds. "This was someone's baby," he whispered like a prayer, and I hated him for cracking my professional calm. Even for a single moment.

When I got home that night I felt dirty and sick, and so I filled the tin tub with lukewarm water and sat in it until it cooled and I became chilled.

And then I got out and went to bed.


* * *

I sit down to write, and my hands feel shy with the task as if they'd forgotten how. It's been a while, but doc says it does something helpful and should keep me from drinking as often.

He lied about the drinking.

My hands are out of practice (these words are appearing slowly), but the rest of me has had plenty. That rumbling narration might as well be on paper to laugh at later when I need the lift. No. That's not right. This whole act--this charade--only depresses me further.

Revelry outside, continuing--they're still at it with the cheers and the forced, urgent happiness sandwiched between the mechanical and the strange of Angel City. Today is Marn, the 64th. Holidays are for the inoculated, the tranquilized, the less observant. Doc says I need a holiday. I told him a joke: There's a holiday outside right now, and we're in here talking about metronomes and nails on chalkboards. Irony.

Irony is boring.

At least my handwriting is in straight lines. Neat straight lines.

I heard a sound. A sound in my house.

I got up, gripping the fountain pen in one hand and hefting my short fire pistol in the other. The door to my room was closed; I always close doors. Lock them too, so whoever was paying me a visit was unwelcome.

Creaks on the stairs.

My heart. My heart is shaking in its cage. Out on the street, I reflect that I'm not easily frightened, but here in my home...this is my home.

What if they see the letters?

I consider putting bullet holes in the door as a warning shot, but then I think what if the chief sent someone to get me? I didn't show up at work yesterday. It was probably Gribner, though he would have had to break in, and I would have heard that.

The voice that spoke caught me up and practically rolled me out flat on the ground. By the time I got my thoughts in order, she was opening the office door, and I was swearing and throwing papers aside and inside drawers. I kept opening and closing folders and drawers to spread the suspicious around so she wouldn't know where to look if she did look.

"What are you doing in my house?" I said. It occurred to me to hide the decanter of whiskey, but what the hell, she wasn't my mother, and she could have smelled it on my breath from the door.

"I came because I have news, James," she said, and damn, she had a way of saying my name.

"What'sa news?" I didn't dare look at her eyes.

Her voice was heavy, "I'm getting a job on the other side of town," she said. "At a florist."

I studied the hem of her pale yellow dress. Damn fine dresser she was, was my Clare. "What the hell you want to work selling flowers?" I asked.

"Because, James," she said, (and there was my name again in that low voice of hers), "Flowers are pretty, and I'm tired of Takatie Center. I need color and a little peace. You know my health."

"You're leaving me for color?" I said.

"James, I was never with you. I could never be with you. You're..."

"Insane? A terrible drinker? A scoundrel?" I asked.

"No, not those," she said quickly as if worried I might become so if she didn't deny it. "Just... just, you don't have time for delicate things, James. You're a hard man, and I don't think I should stay here."

"I had time for you," I said.

"Just as I said. You had time for me."

"I still have time for you," I lied, and I looked in her deep, somber eyes and I stepped forward, took her shoulders in my arms and kissed her.

I led her to my mess of a bed, and we kissed and fondled to the panicked, swimming light of the Takatie housing district that bled in from my window. I felt like we were two fish, swimming under the scattered light of a harvest moon, our bodies rubbing, jolting.

I worked her pale yellow dress up around her waist and began unbuckling my belt, but she took gentle hold of my wrist and looked at me like she was trying to read a different language.

"Not anymore, James. I came here to give my goodbyes." She sighed, licked her lips as though second-guessing herself. I wished she would, and I wished she wouldn't. Some part of me hoped for her to leave so I could go back to my whisky and my journal--so I could pour out more of that sick, self-pitying monologue and in so doing, deepen and nurse my misery--my acted out role-play insanity that charmed me so much.

She shook her head very slightly. "No," she said. "My goodbyes are goodbyes." Clare lifted her waist and slowly pulled the hem back down properly as if giving me a good last look. I was powerless. Where else was I supposed to look?

But it wasn't the image of her pale, beautiful legs or what was between them that sat in my memory long after we had said our goodbyes that night. It was the color of her dress. A subdued yellow. It was her slow, deliberate movements. It was the pensive look in her eyes, and it was my realization from that sight that Clare had been a far smarter girl than her beauty had led me to realize. I must be a very bad person.

I sat at my desk, and I could not stop thinking about her eyes. I wanted to go out that very night and find a girl with similar eyes. I'd sit her down and talk to her and listen to her. Suddenly, I felt shaky with guilt, and I cried for a long time, and I spoke Clare's name to the room--empty and meaningless that it had been to me.

And I thought of the dead girl in the Calamire Socket street, dirty and broken. Her empty and meaningless gaze, and I saw it over and over, flashing at me.

It was my job to be observant, and what was I thinking, and what was I thinking?

I went back to my journal and tore from it the venomous, mockingly insane pages I had written earlier. I fed them to the fire.

I began to pace the room, ceaselessly.


* * *

"Where've you been?"

I nodded cordially at Gribner, not answering his question. "Just got out of chief's office. I'll be on probation after we wrap up this case, so let's get it over with.

"Hell of a reason to hunt down a murderer," said Gribner. "So where've you been?"

I'd started pacing in the hallway again, my feet warming to the pattern they had run all the night before. I studied myself to find exhaustion and found it, but it was buried beneath more important things. "What have the Exhumers found about the girl?" I asked.

Gribner wrinkled his nose at my coarseness. "The forensic team," he said carefully, "haven't been able to tell whether this was done by a mechanical dog or something of that ilk, but it's undoubtedly a homicide, and it's your case, James."

"Helpful. Exhumers are always helpful," I said.

Gribner grabbed my shoulder. "You don't need any more enemies around here."

I barreled past him, trying to drown my cynicism with obstinate energy before I got tired again. We left the police station--a mausoleum of pyramidal levels and geometrical sternness. "I want to talk to Bruner," I said. "You said you got word from him that the animal fights were terrorizing people in the Calamire Socket. I want to talk to Bruner."

"It's about time we got a start on this case," said my partner, stuffing that ridiculous cap on his head. "You left me with all the damn paperwork."

We headed down the street, hands stuffed deep in pockets and badges hidden under our coats. That's just how cops behaved in Angel City. It wasn't a good city for cops.

I started up again as soon as we had left the station monstrosity behind and were charging down the throat of Three-Eyed District. "You're taking me to Bruner."

"I'm taking you to Bruner," he said.

We skirted industrial busyness spanning several city layers that looked to be impending disaster. The broken skeletons of old carburetor complexes were being stripped down and refitted to other uses. Things were recycled--crunched down by metal jaws and coughed up as little, indecipherable packages of material. Arms and wreaking balls of prehistoric proportions and angles screamed their way through heaps of things, and workers in helmets and (in some cases) body armor delegated--small and fragile ambassadors to giant, steaming beasts.

"Is it any wonder we're dealing with gear-tampered animals and mad scientists?" I asked over the noise.

"We don't know what we're dealing with," shouted Gribner.

"And I don't know what the hell I'm looking at," I said.

"They're building things. This is the fastest way to South End, and you know it," said Gribner. "I know how much you hate windcars."

"Is that what they're doing? Building things?"

"Listen, James. You think too much," said Gribner. "Let's just see what we can't do about this murder and the animal fights in the Socket. We can talk about your prejudices over drinks later."

After we passed Three-Eyed, Gribner put a hand on my shoulder. "Bruner," he said. "I know you don't like him, but try to keep civil."

"I don't like that bastard," I said, and my partner nodded as if to say that would be all he'd hear about it.

I shut my mouth as we reached the station, and he rapped on the office door like a private house. The place looked like a barracks or a prison. Old-fashioned buttressed adornments layered the roofs, making it stand out. Most of Angel City's larger structures were coated in metal, but South End Station looked like a neglected castle--a poorly disguised artifact of a dark age past.

A guard peered down at us from a slider cut into the door. Gribner flashed his badge surreptitiously. I didn't bother. "Here to see Bruner," said my partner.

"Tell him he's a paranoid bastard," I added.

"Tell him yourself," said the guard, cranking open the door.

Bruner's office was just like him: filled with useless and outlandish weapons. A range of serrated angel-fly knives were on display in a box on his desk, as if I was supposed to admire them--point one out and ask if I could hold it. A crank arbalest lay partially assembled on an end table under the window, its innards open and spread about. My eyes rolled across an assortment of blades and side arms and exotic bamboo-barreled guns hanging like pictures on the walls. A sword (a sword) hung regally and pointlessly on two metal screws directly behind the desk.

John Bruner himself was surprisingly young for a man of his position, but he fit the rulebook for a head militiaman: military-shaped hard ass with legendary disregard for subtlety.

"You should tack a rendition of your family right there between that old musket and the five-inch bayonets." I pointed out a portion of empty wall space and smiled inwardly at Gribner's grimace.

Bruner acted like he hadn't heard. He took a sip of brandy from an iced glass and made an ostentatious show of swallowing liquor. He offered some to Gribner and then to me. We both declined.

"James Romnemulzak," said Bruner. "It's a pleasure to see you down here in South End again. We welcome you to Angel City's first frontier of defense against the slum-towns. There have been some bad nightmares nosing their way out of the Calamire Socket these nights. Glad to have some first-rate cops on the job."

I held up a hand. "Spare me the diatribe." It was clear his pride was wounded from our presence. Bruner and his entourage were little more than glorified warders. I would have the opportunity to cut him down much worse, but I kept to my quiet distain, knowing he would do something rash if I cranked his gears. "Gribner here has just been telling me about your mechanical bogymen."

"The Calamire animal matches are notorious," said Bruner. "Funds the local Heroin Lords and gangsters. Keeps them on the top, but there's enough of them that it's a balance. Outside of that there's little actual competition in the sport, but the locals will bet their last scale on the winner. We keep close tabs on the whole affair, and as long as the ambitious few have a high turnover rate, the money stays circulating in Calamire alone."

"And the poor stay poor," said Gribner.

"Spare us," I said, and then to Bruner: "And the catch? You lost control over the matches?"

"We never really had control," said Bruner grimly. "The crime lords deal with themselves; they keep each other in check, and the cops don't have to get involved. "

"Wouldn't that be nice."

Bruner nodded, allowing himself another glass of brandy. "The rules for the animal games are stringent. Practically the only organized thing about the district. They had been for a long time until recently when somebody cheated." He swallowed half the glass in one swig. "Somebody a little more cunning than all the rest, and now our buffer of squabbling gangsters has all turned up a pile of corpses in the streets. As far as we can tell there's only one loony running the theater, and he's some sort of crooked bio-engineer. Reassembles animals--strays. Rodents mostly. Makes them into some sort of engine monstrosity. For the first time in Calamire history, people are more afraid of the four-legged scavengers than other people."

I realized with a spark of interest that John Bruner actually seemed to be haunted by this new development on his doorstep. "You saw one of them?" I asked.

The militiaman nodded. "We sometimes watch the games," he said. "Everyone's welcome who pays, and it's a relatively safe way of keeping an eye on the flow of power down there." I saw his eyes go hard, his pupils dilate like a man waking from a nightmare. "Everyone cheered when this young fool opened his cage and released a great sewer rat that had had its limbs surgically replaced by mechanical extensions. It didn't look proper. It had something sharp and glistening replacing its lower jaw too. Something that clicked." Bruner's eyes still had that deep look. "Everyone cheered for the sheer obscenity of it, but they knew a rat, even an augmented one couldn't content with the opponent's Dane. The hound had just dispatched another dog to mewling pieces.

"We watched this thing click its way up the Dane who just stood there watching it like a statue.

"And then it went strange. The Dane--I swear this dog would come up past my waist--simply rolled over and whimpered. You ever hear a dog afraid for its life?"

"No," I said, not appreciating the melodrama.

"Well, it's not as bad as the sound of a dog in mortal pain. This rat-thing eviscerated the Dane in seconds. Seconds. Pulls out its guts and drags its heart back to the sidelines where the master waited. The next day my men tell me the rat had fought again and won just as brutally. Then the sightings began to be reported in the streets, and the people who moved things in Calamire Socket got themselves dead pretty fast."

"Sounds like a job for the military," said Gribner.

I scoffed. "The military won't get involved over a story, especially not one down here. This is how it works. We're next in line. What's the death count, do you think?"

Bruner shrugged. "Only some formally dangerous gang kings and a few unfortunates. Whoever he is, he doesn't want competition, and he's the only one in Calamire who can take what he wants." He hesitated. "But there's a few good bets about where he stays hidden."

"The sewers," I said, realizing I had stolen Bruner's thunder. "Where the rats are."

"I think we'll want back up," suggested Gribner. "Might not want to go down there until we know what we're up against."

I looked at my partner a little disdainfully. "What kind of cop do you think I am to jump into the rat sewers all by my lonesome?"


* * *

Gathering cops for a bust is like organizing schoolboys. The masculine ego thunders in everyone's ears, and people take their own orders because they can't hear over the rush of heroic thoughts and adrenaline. Bruner added his contingent to the mix. They were worse. More eager to prove themselves. Less eager to take orders.

I reminded the twenty or so that we were killing rats, and extricated myself from Bruner's over-compensating office before I had to endure the banal rips about hunting season and fresh meat to take home to the kids.

Unwitting suggestions were made. "We could use the fire hoses, burn out the rodents."

Others had answers.

"To call the tunnels below the city sewersis misleading. It's a subterranean network of mountain veins, both manmade and other. Too big. We'd only scatter them."

"It's uncharted territory."

"The next frontier of scary monsters and buried treasure."

The kind of answers you get from men equipped with guns and imagination. I remained casually detached, not suggesting or leading more than I had to, though I was the long-coat man for the job. Gribner followed me, and Bruner tried to look like he wasn't.

It was Bruner's guard--the one who had let us in--who led us to the staging ground, the nearest opening to the underworld. There were thirteen of us: a perfect number in cop theory--enough to make a move and keep in contact without compromising stealth. Not enough, unfortunately, to make a closed circuit around the tunnels, but I would have needed half the city for that, and someone much fatter and meaner to run the show.

The tunnel mouth came in the form of a waist high grate under the lip of the first rim below the drop off point. It was too high for the sewage to run through and served more as a supposedly haunted destination for drunken idiots than as a maintenance point.

Calamire sprawled out behind us. I turned my back on it and was the first to enter the labyrinth.


* * *

Angel City is as layered below ground as it is above.

We slipped underneath with gas flames and blowtorches and guns. We peered. We squinted into the dripping dark. We moved like ghosts.

It was difficult to pass by without sound or whisper. Each of us concentrated on the maw of darkness before us. Gribner held his blunderbuss steady at my shoulder, and for the first time that day I admitted to liking his presence. He was a good man.

The tunnel twisted down and led us under the city and then under the Calamire Socket. It began to transform into a network of sewers, and my men forgot their fear for their disgust. Curses nettled the air, preceded by wet noises from a slipped boot or a drip of sordid liquid. I decided that adding my voice would only cause more of the same, so I opened my eyes wider. We weren't going to sneak up on rats anyway, natural or otherwise, and so my party of cursing cops began to barrel their way forward, trying to breath as little as possible but unable to staunch the rush of adrenaline.

We were far beneath. I could not have said how long we pursued the main path, but it could have been hours or days before we saw the first sign of our adversary in that dark tunnel-world. Time holds to a different lucidity in the un-relinquished dark.

And so does blood. In torchlight and shadow, blood enjoys a far more insidious display. Especially when there is lots of it.

Where it came from was nowhere easily apparent, and so we spread out and sighted into the ghostly distance with all our senses. It was, perhaps, possible that something had been dragged here, but there were no traces of anything but blood on the stone. We continued. It was mind numbing to continue.

I heard mutterings about backup, and I tried to think about something else (anything) to take the edge off the fear. I found myself imagining Clare and I together. Not a daydream. Memory. We walked the streets together and hugged close to the spiraling structures, giving names and personalities to the husked forms of the Dirigible Mountains hanging in the air above us. Laughing together at our ingenuity and drunkenness. It was a different celebration, another time. Revelry around us, and I had not minded in the least.

That night we had had a fight. I remember that we did, but I can only replay the laughter and the bars and the walking home and then the sex, and the clarity of the scene ends there just before the drop-off point. Just before I lose its beauty.

Then we heard clicking. It could have been anything--dripping water, loose pebbles, anything--but there was something unmistakably mechanical in it, and I remembered instantly what Bruner had told me. The rats had found us.

We were crossing an open chamber that ducked out into shadow above and past our lights. We stopped. The clicking continued getting closer, but the way the sound cascaded around whatever forgotten catacomb we were in detached itself from its direction.

"Flares," I said. "Fire." I pointed ahead and to both sides. "There."

Men threw sputtering points of light into the darkness ahead. They passed our sphere of light and flew farther, and on all sides (on every side imaginable) we saw the glint of metal and eyes.

They surged toward us. The clicking became a horrific applause, and each one of us took a ragged, impressed breath before the onslaught of our hidden audience hit.

Chaos erupted under the blanket of stillness with such violence that I almost forgot to use my pistols. We threw the weight of our expensive weapons at the clicking, chattering creatures with bullets and noise. Gribner's blunderbuss bucked in his arms. Someone beside me opened a spitfire hose and began unloading a backpack magazine into the tide ahead of us. Gas-stench filled the air.

Then they were upon us. Something hit me in the back, and I rolled away and came up facing my crew. I saw a man wielding a saw-gun strike sparks from a mech-and-fur body. Two other rat-things tackled him, and the weight of iron brought him down. I rose and rushed to his aid, afraid to fire into the mix, but other rats cut me off. They were the legendary city rats everyone claimed to have glimpsed, but no one really believed. The kind the size of a small dog, but these rats were creatures of less definable shapes. They had metal jaws and plating on their flanks and armor welded to bits and parts of reddened scar tissue. Some had even more alien accouchements: barbed collars, extra appendages jutting awkwardly, cruelly stitched clutters of recycled warehouse items.

They were a violent mobile junkyard, and we killed them as much out of disgust as fear. I heard a man screaming in pain. Another had been buried by teeth and claws, and he wasn't going to get up, but the rats provided a less horrible onslaught than I had braced for. Harder to kill, they were, but most were weighed down unnecessarily. They moved aggressively but erratically--some of them clearly in pain.

I stomped down on an unprotected head that was chewing at my boot. I nosed my barrel into the face of another and fired. Organic flesh scattered with metal filings. I noticed all this in seconds of screaming and guns. The fire hose had taken its toll on the creatures, but there were so many clicking feet, and we were getting separated. More than one man was down pressing shaking hands to themselves to hold in the pain stray bullets had caused. Others were screaming down at chewed wounds in legs and bellies. I saw things the academy hadn't prepared me for, and I astounded myself by staying calm and putting my anger into my bullets.

Griber and John Bruner flanked me. I felt my partner's presence like a stone at my back, silent and immovable. He had not made a sound, had not screamed curses at uncomprehending ears. He just killed. His blunderbuss coughed fire and smoke and bucked in his hand, and rat-things were smeared across several feet of rock.

I was proud of him, and I wanted to tell him about it. "One at a time," I shouted to the others over the loud. "Kill one at a time. Aim for the flesh parts and calmly dispatch one at a time like you were trained." I practiced taking my own orders as the rats pressed in on us.

"Gather together mates," shouted Bruner. There was a hysterical note to his voice, rising at the camaraderie in his words, but it was a good command. We tried to pull in toward each other, create a circle. I didn't have time to count how many of us had fallen. Some were being dragged away, screaming. Those who chased them were separated and attacked. Some of the warders, Bruner's men, in their over-zealous walking-arsenal style had traded guns for long blades, and I hated myself for not thinking of it.

A hand clawed at my shoulder followed by a grunt of pure frustration. I spun to see Gribner holding his side. A metal-jawed rat clung grimly to his leg, and blood seeped between his fingers. The press of iron and fur came on hard then, and we were torn apart. Bruner and others were at my back, but Gribner was being dragged away from us by six or seven of them. He lost his footing, shoved the muzzle of his short-range cannon-like gun down a rat's throat and obliterated it. Bits of metal cascaded into the thinning horde, but Gribner's weapon betrayed him after that.

His blunderbuss clicked uselessly, and the rest of us flung ourselves at the creatures between us, but Gribner was being dragged away, leaving a lot of blood behind. I realized I was screaming and fighting, but my mind was ahead of us where Gribner disappeared into the dark tunnel without a sound.

I could still hear fire and clicking and the mingling wails of humans and rodents, but it all seemed far away. My mind had fled from the wriggling chaos and reverted back to the neat, straight lines of that horrid, journalistic monologue. I retreated into myself. I categorized the things I was disgusted with and put all sorts of labels and names to this place and this battle, and during that time, I ran after Gribner.

I was aware of rats around me, running also, but if they struck at my heels, I didn't heed them. I stumbled, my light corkscrewing across the stone monolithic walls of the chamber until the walls themselves became part of the mechanical innards of Angel City. I wasn't aware of the transformation at first. I only chased Gribner who was always ahead of me, always just out of sight.

Great hooded statuary machines loomed to either side, and sounds like industry and bodily functions poured from them. Some of them vomited smoke that registered greenish against the firelight of my flare. Somewhere the rats had retreated, and I stumbled along the trail alone, petrified and hypnotized. Avenues of cables pointed the direction to the center of this mad laboratory, and a haunting white light signaled a second chamber that I entered carefully, pistols raised.

There were no rats in the chamber. A man stood near what looked like a surgical bed in a makeshift area crammed with tools--a junkyard of supplies. He had a welder's mask strapped to his head, but it was tipped back, and I could see his face. "I know you," I blurted stupidly. I thought I did, but I couldn't place him in reality. At least I had the since to keep one gun trained on him as the other swept the room with my furtive gaze.

He looked at me, not speaking as I tried to find and place his features in my memory.

"What did you do with my partner?"

"You officials should not be here," he said. He was holding nothing but a simple wrench like a carburetor grease-man, and there were no obvious weapons nearby. "You get in the way. Now I've had to make a mess, and it's your fault."

"I'm arresting you," I said, stepping forward carefully. "Where's my partner? He was dragged away by the rats." It was an effort to keep the hysteria from my voice. I thought about neat straight lines and how my bullet, if fired straight, would travel out of the barrel in a beeline through the man's forehead. I thought of Clare and her kisses and her eyes that were more real than mine, and I thought of Angel City celebrating and living and dying above us.

I inched forward, and I wondered if he might be fast and have a hidden weapon and kill me.

He spoke. "There are many branches and many more roots of government in Angel City, cop," he said to me. "The one you receive your wages from is not necessarily separate from mine. Cops are paid for their ignorance so they can be the public bastions of tamed civilization. I'm paid to stay underground and to know everything. I'm the real mover."

I heard the clicking of rats behind me, but I wouldn't let myself turn my head from this man. "If you know everything, then where is Gribner? Where is the man I followed here--"

And then I knew the answer. I knew where Gribner was, and I placed this man in my memory simultaneously. "Gribner. You were down in Calamire Socket the day Bruner saw the first mechanical rat in the pits. It was you."

"Here's one cop that's one step closer to understanding," said Gribner.

"But you were just wounded a moment ago. I saw your blood."

"Not mine, I'm afraid. Neither is the face." He pressed gingerly at the fake skin someone among the Exhumers must have helped him with--flabby, round face, sunken eyes. The disguise was pulled up badly against one ear and looked like it was a knotted mess. I had a matching sketch still folded up in my pocket.

"I suppose you noticed Calamire while we were all blinded to their suffering. So you took it into your own hands. Hid your brilliance. Wasted in on a failed vigil anti act," I said. "I trusted you."

Gribner was laughing. "Nothing so exciting as that," he said. "I never worked for you. I was given this job by people you'll never know for who they are. Other, bigger movers. It was just a job, and I did it. Cleaned up the Socket without the government officially getting their hands dirty. You sacrificed a few of your men, and I'm sorry for that, but it only helps solidify my story."

"Not if we share that story with the city," I said, stepping forward, gun raised. "I'm still arresting you, partner."

Turns out he was fast, and he had a weapon I hadn't seen.

Gribner Dokkenhiest was dead before I could blink. I don't think I ever knew him. I looked down on Gribner's body and shuddered just as Bruner and a few others caught up with me.

Ashes and dust. It was all ashes and dust.


* * *

Ashes and dust. That was my first thought, and it remained with me for some time. There was more drinking after that, and the days were blurry, but the time came for funerals. We had to bury the cops who died that day, and I found myself sober and wearing clean clothes and staring blankly at eight holes in the soil with eight matching coffins.

Clare had visited me the day before. She had flowers in her hair, and her eyes were as deep and real as I'd ever seen. More so, now that I had truly noticed them. I asked her if she wanted to get food, but she had shaken her head, and her curls had bounced. Said she had just wanted to check up on me. Check up on me since my partner had died and I was probably taking it hard.

I told her I was still figuring things out--that I probably would be for a long time.

But I didn't tell her that I think I had already figured everything out.

Clare said she was having a good life working at the florists. She had met someone.

I tried to be happy for her.

And then I found myself at a funeral, and there were ashes, and there was dust, but that wasn't really on my mind, and neither was the promotion they gave me.

"Huh," said Bruner. He was wearing his evening coat, and two pistols were strapped absurdly to his waist belt. "The fool died in the end, and all the rats were rounded up and killed. Took about three more assaults on the underground, but we got 'em, and no more deaths. Looks like justice has been done."

"Nothing ever ends, and you can't call it justice," I said, and I felt again that I should be saying these things to Gribner, my partner. He would have understood. I was going to miss him, and I was going to miss Clare, and I was going to (sometimes) miss my empty, forsaken monologue in my journal at home, which I had resolved to burn as soon as I took a hot bath. I felt all the missing, and I felt it right to my core.

And then I felt that I could stand up under it and all the millions of lives and all the millions of deaths in Angel City. At least, I felt I could for a while longer.

THE END


© 2014 Andrew Reichard

Bio: In the author's own words, "With my stories I seek not only to blur the lines between literature and fantasy, I also hope to cultivate worlds richly imagined and beautifully rendered. I have never been published [before] but am no stranger to the rejection letter, which only makes me more determined to hone my skills and write a story that will in a way move my audience, however small. "

E-mail: Andrew Reichard

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.