Fireworks in Rome
rating: +9+x

It was an exceptionally hot day in the blasted hellscape of Phoenix, Arizona. This was not unusual, though, as every day was exceptionally hot. From the mountains surrounding the valley, it was a common practice to simply watch the heat rise from amongst the hardy saguaros and sagebrush.

These days, there were much fewer saguaro in the valley proper, enclaves of cactus only sticking to the roadsides and hilly slopes. The ones in the valley itself had long since died off, due to the extreme heat. Back in the 2050s, it caused a panic amongst the residents, but when the megacorps moved in, everyone found something else to worry about, and promptly forgot about it. Most people had entirely forgotten the fact that saguaros even used to live there; the only remains being rare wooden skeletons of the majestic cactus.

It wasn't the ecology of the saguaro on the mind of Cassandra Severens. As she stared from her high-rise apartment into the Sonoran desert below, her mind was filled with worries and doubts. Yes, her apartment was nice, but it was paid for by the company, and could be taken away at any time. She glanced back into her apartment from the deck, half expecting a man in a suit to be waiting at her kitchen table. No one was present.

A train horn sounded below. Cassandra glanced at it in the distance, and saw a line of train cars definitely over a mile long. The train line cut through the desert like a knife - railway tracks, each two feet across and eighteen feet in gauge, led over the horizon, further into the dust and the heat and the sand. The line seemed to stretch to infinity - but in reality, it only led to the massive trainyards of Cape Canaveral, where the massive trains were loaded up with equally massive rolls of nickel-steel and linium. The rolls of metal inevitably ended here, in Phoenix, to feed the insatiable appetities of the various factories and foundries dotting the outskirts of the city. She could see them from here - spitting toxic fumes into the skies which hung in the air above the valley like a particularly malevolent cloud.

A fair amount of the metal ended up somewhere Cassandra was intimately familiar with - the production of industrial and combat Titans. It was, understandably, a large industry here in the desert. After all, with the Chrome Dome smack-dab in the middle of Phoenix, and the financial sector dedicated to the support of the nationwide Titan industry headquartered here as well, there's no better place to make the parts for any and all robotic kaiju. It was even rumored that Phoenix was the center of American Titan ingenuity earlier than the 2000s, but no records survived before the Incident. After all, the city was hit particularly hard by the event.

From her balcony, Cassandra could see the towering skyscraper of Talos Corp., the foremost center for mechanical kaiju in the world. Beneath the skyscraper lay the massive complex of warehouses, Titan Assembly Buildings, and trainyards that any kaiju-based megacorp would need. She stared at the small building labeled Pilot Training. The name was almost imperceptible from her perch, but she knew it all the same. After a moment, she got up and returned to her kitchen. Best not to dwell on it, after all.

To be selected as a Pilot Trainee for a Titan is no minor feat. A very small percentage of the population is compatible with the neural-link, and a significantly smaller pool is physically fit enough to be able to handle the stresses to the body. In Cassandra's case, she was both. To be the pilot of a Titan is a life steeping in wealth, influence, and fame - anything a girl from the Phoenix outskirts could ever want. She had spent her childhood staring up at the skyscrapers and high-rises of the Phoenix downtown, and above all enraptured by the glittering Lyman Nexus. And now, here she was, relaxing and pouring a cup of tea from the kitchen of her apartment in the same high-rises she used to marvel at, all on Talos Corp's dime. Pilot prospects were treated quite well by the company, it seems. She wasn't complaining, at the very least. It was too late to think about all of that. She started early tomorrow, and would barely get enough rest as is. Quickly, she retreated to her bedroom, turned out the lights, and drifted off to sleep.

To pilot the greatest mechanical constructs ever made by human hands is an exciting proposition; most definitely. That is not to say it is not equally terrifying. As Cassandra tried her best to catch a few hours of fitful sleep, Talos engineers and techs in Titan Assembly Building 17, a midsized assembly yard, worked tirelessly to hoist the massive frame of Polyphemus onto its cradle. Umbilical connection hissed and wires sparked, as the massive frame was powered on once more. It was not a relic frame, but it had certainly seen its share of combat. The metallic braces had been dented and scratched, and the power reactor occasionally vented superheated steam into the surrounding chamber. Regardless, the next morning, the tech team had signed the frame off for testing.

Far above the Titan Assembly Building, Cassandra was awoken by her phone alarm. It was still quite dark out - she had set the alarm for 5 AM. As she stumbled out of bed and dressed, her breakfast sat untouched on her table. After making it, she realized she was too nervous to eat. No matter.

The company car was waiting for her when she stepped outside the building. It was an inconspicuous thing, an old Mercedes-Benz with a gloss black finish, the Talos Corp. logo emblazoned on the side in a hardly-noticeable matte black. The driver averted his gaze from her, and simply opened the door to the back seat. The interior was sparse - only a bottle of nutrient shake was left in the cupholder. The driver gestured towards it, but made no sound. It was obvious to her that she'd need it. It took an effort to choke it down, but in the end she was successful.

The ride passed in silence. Eventually, Cassandra was let out in front of Titan Assembly Building 17 - one of the older buildings in the complex. The paint was peeling in some places, and rust had begun to appear around the helipad on top of the massive structure. Ahead, two security guards stood on the curb. Once Cassandra stepped out of the vehicle, they accompanied her up the concrete walkway and into the welcome area. A friendly receptionist, seemingly new on the job, called out.

"Miss Severens? Could you step into the cleanroom on your left? Remember to close your eyes and breathe out through your nose."

The receptionist's voice was strained, and a few of the words caught in her throat. It was clear something was bothering her, but Cassandra couldn't put a finger on what.

Cassandra did as she was told. The two security officers stood outside, while she stepped into the blinding flourescence of the chamber. As the windows dimmed to full opacity, a screen flashed ahead.

Please deposit your clothing into the provided receptacle.

Once more, Cassandra did as was requested, and placed her clothing, neatly folded, into the bin. With surprising speed, the bin rectracted flush into the wall. It was then that the foam began to fill the room. One would think a decontamination foam treatment might be something like a bubble bath, but that idea couldn't be further from the truth. For one, the foam is freezing cold. As if that wasn't enough, the bubbles are caustic against the skin, scrubbing for bacteria but not having the sense to stop. Time slowed down for Cassandra as she remained there - blinded, frozen, and slowly melting. Just as quickly, however, the bubbles began to pop in turn, and soon none remained. Gingerly, Cassandra opened her eyes, and saw that another recepticle had opened for her. Inside it was a bulky single-piece outfit, fitted with what looked to be armor paneling and a large connection port on the back. With no instructions, and her normal clothes now disappeared, there was no choice but to put it on. The material was oddly prickly. The door hissed open, this time exposing the room ahead.

It was massive. Cassandra had never in her life been in such an open space - she even saw clouds coalescing at the roof of the megastructure. The blinding white of the floor and walls was countered by the massive steel monstrosity of catwalks and support beams, which were in turn countered by the men and women in white coats who swarmed the steel like ants. She couldn't keep her eyes on them, though. Instead, she was drawn to the incomprehensively massive figure held aloft by chains and support lines. She recognized it at once - Polyphemus. The one eyed giant.

Wasn't Polyphemus scheduled to fight tomorrow?

Regardless, the frame of nickel-steel hung motionless from the giant support structure. The moly-bronze armor panels surrounding the core were illuminated with an eerie blue glow, as the powerplant at its center hummed with renewed vigor. Cryo-coolant vaporized and spilled out of the umbilical ports along its chest, rhythmic and constant, like a heartbeat. Shower after shower of the vapor rained down on the attending engineers. Some rose, and integrated itself into the clouds above. Regardless, the work continued. A figure noiselessly approached Cassandra, and gently shepherded her towards an elevator at the far side of the building, nestled into the mess of scaffolding. The two approached in silence.

The figure itself stood regal and noble. The armor itself glinted with the copper-blue tint so common of moly-bronze, and was arranged not unlike a knight of old crossed with a skeleton. Stylized and exaggerated shoulder pauldrons held within massive servos supporting massive arms, each cased in a metallic carapace easily over a meter thick. The core was exposed, a maelstrom of blue lightning and purple plasma, held within a magnetic stasis chamber. Even from here, though, the radiance washed over the pair in an uncomfortably warm wave. A gargantuan processor array rested on its back, visible through gaps in the armor. However, it was the head which garnered the most attention. Engineers scurried once more across the faceplate, a solid nickel-steel reinforced bulb more reminiscent of a deep-sea submersible than a real combat vehicle. The eye-like bulb housed a clear sclera and pupil - layered plexiglass, doubled for the pilot to see through. An antiquated design, but no doubt how the combat mech got its name. Polyphemus - the cyclops of old.

Draped across the walker's frame, in unusually anachronistic fashion, lay synth-parchments, coats of arms, and tapestries depicting previous pilots and their heroic actions. Many were filled with single-line entries: few pilots survived their debut fight. Weren't they supposed to be the best of the best? The thought worried her.

Cassandra wondered how the astronauts on Apollo 11 felt, riding the elevator towards the capsule of the rocket. Footage of the launch had survived the Incident, and was still taught in schools. During lessons, Cassandra had found herself mesmerized by the ability of the men within to tame such a monster - to make it do their will. She pondered to herself.

Did it feel so overwhelmingly wrong for them, too?

"Step into the pilot's suite, Miss Severens," echoed the voice. "Take your seat, it'll only be a moment."

She noticed the figure averted his eyes once the glass dome hissed open, quick to descend the elevator just as fast as he had risen through it.

Once more, Cassandra did as she was told. Once she had lowered herself into the uncomfotable-looking seat, the ports within began to whirr as they interfaced with the port on her suit. The whirring mechanism seemed to catch for a moment, and in that moment her mind was filled with unimaginable pain as thousands of tiny needles jammed themselves into her flesh. In the next moment, she felt nothing.

When Cassandra awoke, she was not within the cockpit of a Titan. She was not, for lack of a better term, anywhere, really. All that she could see was a semi-liquid void of pure white. She looked down, and saw her body, still clothed in that same, blasted suit. She tried to move her legs. She could still technically see her legs move, but it was not what she had focused on. Instead, pasted over the event like some poorly managed project, she saw a vision of Polyphemus' leg's move, in turn, in a similar matter. The ground beneath them was sand and shards of metal. She felt a jolt, her vision was jostled to the side, and then cut entirely. Back to the white void. She raised her arms. Once more, pasted over her vision in some kind of double-sight, the massive metal arms of Polyphemus were raised in a guard. She could see a stadium behind them. Just then, the massive reptilian fist of Punisher crashed through the guard, and the vision was cut once more. This one hurt, sending a jolt of pain down her spine.

Wait, Punisher?

Punisher was one of Cassandra's favorite Titans to watch on TitanClash LIVE whenever she had the opportunity to see it. In fact, she knew for a fact there was only ever one time Punisher had ever fought Polyphemus.

I know that match. Polyphemus lost. But didn't the pilot…

"Die?" a voice called out, from nowhere and everywhere at once. "Yeah, I did. Bastard caved in the cockpit and speared me on a sheet of plexiglass. Didn't even get a proper burial, as far as I know."

"How are you…"

"Talking to me? Honestly, don't even bother asking the questions. I can see right through you. A benefit of being wired into this blasted thing."

The voice paused a moment.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get upset at you. Still coming to grips with this thing. After all, it's eternity in here. Right, now where was I? Anyways, this frame's old. Older than you or me, probably by centuries. It's seen a lot of pilots. It learns, you know? Each of us. Our thoughts, our fears, our loves and our passions. There are many of us in here. Too many to count. They told me to break the news to you. I was the most recent, so they figured I'd be best equipped."

"From what I understand, this machine reads us, the moment we step in. Some engineer back before the Incident probably figured it was a good way to increase pilot survivability, have an abundance of skill to draw from. But something went wrong, and now all of us are stuck. Not us, really, just recreated guesses based on what the in-built neural network interpreted from our actions and brain chemistry. Or at least, so say the older ones. Could've fooled me."

The voice began to sound as if it was under water. She managed to just barely hear the former pilot yell out,

"Be prepared, they like to watch the new ones flounder!"

Eventually, it was incomprehensible, all vocal noise drowned out by the buzzing which was slowly, steadily, gaining in volume. This was all too much to take in. Surely, this was just a dream. Surely. When the hands began to reach out through the void, and the buzzing coalesced into human voice, Cassandra awoke.

Polyphemus stood at the center of the main dome in the Lyman Nexus, Cassandra at its helm. For what it's worth, the battered Titan did look majestic. Moly-bronze armor wrapped around a glowing central reactor, exaggerated sculpted shoulder blades draped in ornamental tapestries like knights of old. In its hands, it held a massive shock lance, crackling and glowing with power. Cassandra was wholly unsure of her place, how she got here, and why, but as she blinked the spots out of her eyes she began to understand.

They like to see the new ones flounder.

The mech's central eye scanned the crowd, and Cassandra waved. If she made it out of this, she had better make some good ad money from it.

The ground began to rumble. Cassandra had watched enough matches to know what that meant, and eagerly waited for the opponent to appear. As the hulking figure emerged from below the sands on its lift-platform, her blood ran cold. The figure which emerged stood in stark contrast to the noble, albeit battered form of Polyphemus. No, ahead stood a monument to all that is unholy - a rudimentary metal frame housing an unfamiliar heat pump, venting steam into the atmosphere with each cycle of operation. The core of this Titan was a horrifying mound of flesh, crudely bolted onto the frame itself, but seemingly in control of the massive machine. It towered even over the massive frame of Polyphemus, giving Cassandra a moment to look at the creature in detail. It had no face, no mouth, nothing but rolls and rolls of too-clear flabby flesh, pulsing with blood and phlegm and criss-crossed with sensor wires. She could swear she saw eyes surface across the beast, only to be swallowed once more beneath the ever-shifting mass. The umbilical wires attached to it dropped off, each leaking a sickly blue smoke. The announcers word's were drowned out by her terror alone, and by the buzzing of hundreds of voices in the back of her mind. She still managed to pick out one word.

Promethius.

The horrifying amalgamation of flesh and steel began to stir. Polyphemus lowered its crackling lance at the enemy, prepared to intercept a charge. The rippling meat made no sound, but immediately lunged at the smaller Titan. Seemingly uncaring for the massive weapon pointed in its way, Promethius gored itself on the massive spear. The flesh around the wound began to twitch, then sizzle, then drip. The lance had speared right through the flesh of Promethius, emerging on the other side, arcs of energy leaping off the in-built generator. The crowd goes wild. And yet, the kaiju walks foward, seemingly unfazed. Polyphemus vainly attempts to maintain control of the lance as it is ripped from its hands, meter-long power cable spewing arcs. As the blade is wrenched from the hands of its owner, the hilt finds its resting place - within the servo-bays of Polyphemus' right leg. The Titan is brought to its knees near instantly, alarms blaring in Cassandra's cockpit. The cacophony of voices rises to a fever pitch - an unholy combination of shouting, panic, prayer, and acceptance.

Cassandra was not humbled. She diverted main power to the servo, attempting to snap the blade and regain footing. It worked, but as Polyphemus rises, she is put down again by a massive fist. The left pauldron had crumpled in on itself - useless for any more protection. The Titan raised its arms in a guard before the next fist can once again pummel it. Scrambling back, the Titan regained its footing, but once again Prometheus was on it, relentless in its approach. The creature was met with a flurry of blows from Polyphemus, as each hit reverberated through the arena with the strength and desperation of a cornered animal. Cassandra had tuned the alarms and the voices out by now. It was only her against this beast, this mindless thing, this abomination, which wanted her dead. She lashed out with the fury befitting a vile thing such as this, landing hit after hit against the unholy mass.

Polyphemus struck Promethius over and over again, and it looked as if the crippled Titan could eke out a victory, against all odds. The businessmen cheered from their upper stands, eager for the new pilot to defeat its opponent and win them some money. All was looking up for the scrappy Titan. That is, until Promethius caught one of the punches. It was over in a moment. With its left arm in Promethius' grip, all it took was a strong tug. The arm, engineered to perfection, was ripped off the Titan with a sickening tear. The pain in Cassandra's grew somehow greater, as if it was her own arm that was taken from her. As the massive construct fist reached for the Cyclops' eye, Polyphemus flailed wildly against the monster, ripping chunks of flesh away from it. The monster's flesh became a river of blood, plasma, excrement, and amniotic fluid as its flesh was tenderized and ground to a bloody pulp. Even still, Prometheus held on tight to the Titan's head, grip tightening with each passing moment.

Eventually, the plexiglass and nickel-steel bulb could no longer hold. With a pop, the eye of the Cyclops collapsed in on itself, liquefying anything and everything within. The once regal Titan, now missing its head and arm, slumped defeated onto the bloodstained sand. As normal, subduing harpoons were fired from the rim of the stadium as recovery crews rushed the pit, saving all that could be saved of the Titan. Doubtless, it would be rebuilt anew. It had suffered more grievous damage in the line of duty before, after all. However, there was some that could not be saved.

When Cassandra awoke again, the white void surrounded her. A new voice echoed into the abyss.

But didn't she die?

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