Front Row
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James sees his first kaiju fight when he is six years old, his stubby fingers and fat cheeks pressed up against the glass of his family’s penthouse suite. He hears a titanic crash of metal on metal every time the indistinct shapes in the arena below meet. His mother holds her head and feels a migraine coming on.

Long after one of the shapes has stopped moving, James hugs his father’s midsection when he returns home draped in the oppressive Phoenix heat. His father looks at his face-print on the glass overlooking the sprawling chrome basin they call an arena and ruffles his hair with an easy laugh. It’s been a good day for the family’s breadwinner. Business is booming.

The modern American Southwest is built around Phoenix, Arizona, and Phoenix is built around the Lyman Nexus. Colloquially referred to as the Chrome Dome by fans and critics alike, the beating heart of the largest stadium complex in the world is fed by the ever-expanding megacity around it, with an appetite for resources exceeding that of even the heaviest titans. Some of the most lucrative industries in North America were built on hauling all manner of tech, beasts, and raving fans to the city. Shipping megacorporation and Nexus namesake Lyman Solutions serendipitously got its start here after rising from the ashes of Amazon. It’s also where James’ father holds an executive position.

When James is eight years old, his parents finally relent and buy a subscription to TitanClash LIVE. He rides the high for weeks. It becomes a herculean task to unglue him from the screen, so much so that his mother steps in to impose limits. Still, it’s all he can talk about at school. There, he finds like-minded individuals to further augment his interest. Sitting at the edge of the lunchroom trading cards and discussing whether the Corivash Giga Coil or the Exxon Pulverizer would win in a fight becomes second nature. Posters, banners, stickers, and figurines populate his walls and shelves. When one of his idols falls in battle, another one rushes to take its place, because who is he to comprehend the concept of permanence?

Admittedly, mechanical kaiju are far easier to repair than their biological counterparts. You get lucky, and the core circuits might even be salvageable when the dust settles. Whatever isn’t totally wrecked gets carted back to the plants at Albuquerque and the rest gets dumped in Death Valley. The opponent coming back bigger and badder in a year or two is practically a guarantee for any high-stakes match in the Chrome Dome. The Pulverizer has remained a top pick in the cybernetic league for nearly twenty years because when it gets knocked down, a fresh shot of oil money gets it right back up on its feet. The titan’s longevity has earned it a rabid fan base, and whenever it comes back to Phoenix, the streets are clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic from the surface level all the way down to the motorways beneath the cracked ground.

James is twelve years old today, and the Pulverizer is back in town for his birthday. On this particular summer day, the sidewalk he walks hand in hand with his father on is hot enough to fry an egg. The sun beats down in incessant waves; one can suffer heatstroke even in the shade of the gigantic parasols propped up on the walkways. His father flashes a silvery card and a winning smile, and the two skip the line that wraps around several city blocks. The older man has gotten used to the glares digging holes in his back, but James hasn’t. He doesn’t think he ever will.

The floor-to-ceiling posters of promotional material for the upcoming fight distract him with sharp contrasts and neon lettering that pops right off the wall. In one corner is the Pulverizer, returning to its homeland to continue an unprecedented winning streak. The heavyweight robot resembling a colossal mechanical gorilla is covered in shiny plates, reflective as a mirror and stronger than steel. An intricate metal lattice protects its eyes from attack, and its heat vents are pictured open in the process of ejecting a stream of burning hot waste gas. Although it normally is seen on all fours, this depiction portrays it as standing on two legs, raising its disproportionately massive hands over its head and opening its crushing jaws — for show, of course.

In the other corner is a newcomer to Phoenix, Slag Eater from Cornerstone Construction. This one is all jagged edges and interlocking alloy plates in the rough shape of a menacing armored lizard. An orange light emanates from within it, undoubtedly to go with the theme the Cornerstone marketing team came up with. The conglomerate has plenty of money to throw away on projects like this, gleaned from the ballooning low-income housing market. There’s certainly plenty of that in Phoenix, and only more to come as the margins of the city grow. James stares at the matchup in wide-eyed wonder until he’s pulled along to see the real thing. Maybe he’ll bring one of the posters home to hang on his wall.

The debacle surrounding the bulldozing of countless city blocks to make way for the Nexus never really ended, but the backlash continues to lose steam as the years go by and the memories are eclipsed by title bouts. The relocation efforts proceeded with minimal difficulty, kick-starting the first great territorial swelling of Phoenix and its suburbs. After all, Lyman has been in bed with the United States government since before kaiju were cool. Annoyances like protests and legislative barriers didn’t put up much of a fight. The acres of barren land that James is staring at and the complex around it only took a decade to build.

Despite the cool mists and blissfully shaded seats, all he can focus on are the gigantic blast doors placed on opposite sides of the arena. Every so often, a boom emanates from behind them as the titans struggle with their bindings. They must be powered on and calibrated already.

The announcer’s opening remarks fly right over his head as the seats slowly fill. Not everyone is so lucky to be out of the sun and the blistering heat. The boy feels a twinge of something he can’t place as he looks at them before his father directs his attention back to the large screen hanging above the stadium. Sponsors are thanked with empty platitudes and betting tables are set up as the newest pop music blares loud enough to drown everything else out. The time is nigh, and the air is electric. James bounces up and down in his seat until he’s stopped with a firm nudge and a pointing finger. The blast doors are opening.

The poster didn’t do justice to the sheer size of these things. He’s memorized the stats by heart and watched the battles from the comfort of his own home, but seeing them proverbially in the flesh is another matter altogether.

After they lumber out of their enclosures, the cybernetic hulks seem to stare at each other for what feels like an eternity, sizing each other up. The audience waits with bated breath.

The Pulverizer is the first to move, bounding forward on its fists and powerful legs to close the distance between itself and Slag Eater. The lizard responds by turning around faster than anything its size reasonably should be able to, whipping a heavily spiked tail at the approaching gorilla. The Pulverizer skids and stops short, but not short enough. The barbed tip of the tail scores the steel on its forearms, the beginning of a rent already forming. A collective hiss resounds from the audience, but James is silent, his body frozen, his senses overloaded.

The Pulverizer recoils, unwilling to show even the slightest weakness. Somewhere, engineers are already planning the next improvement. Slag Eater’s lights flare triumphantly as it scuttles forward to take advantage of its opponent’s retreat. It’s fast, much faster than the gorilla. Its sharp claws dig trenches into the ground to propel it forward into a full-on head charge, which the Pulverizer narrowly avoids with a sideways lunge. Despite the arena’s extensively engineered shock-absorption capabilities, James feels the reverberation from the lizard’s armored skull colliding with the metal barrier in his bones and teeth. On the other side of the Nexus, some of those with cheaper accommodations are jostled from their seats. The announcer babbles wildly.

Slag Eater, however, is unfazed. It vents hot gas and turns around to face the now seemingly off-balance Pulverizer. The slits in meters-thick alloy plate that pass for its eyes give the impression of cruel glee before it charges forward again, intent on delivering a killing blow while the iron is hot. Near and far, gamblers prepare to make or lose a fortune. Particularly trigger-happy investors are already selling their shares in Exxon. Nearly everybody is too frenzied to notice the Pulverizer’s massive fingers curling in a calculated, deliberate motion as the mechanical primate lowers one hand to the ground.

Whether a prospective fighter is mechanized enough for the cybernetic league is a contentious decision arbitrated by a notably corruptible selection committee. Companies practically race to see who can get away with the most biological material in their “robot”. Why? Well, there are a lot of things that are easier — and cheaper — to do with flesh and blood instead of pure metal. Neural hardware, precision motion control under pressure, and damage minimization are all deciding factors in a kaiju’s success or failure, and even Albuquerque’s best and brightest struggle to match Mother Nature on that front. It’s not uncommon to find cybernetic kaiju with up to 30% integrated biology.

The Pulverizer slides back a few meters from Slag Eater’s collision with its palm, but holds fast. Fingers tighten around the bottom of the lizard’s head as it strains to reposition itself with little success. The crowd gasps. The Pulverizer jams its other hand under Slag Eater. James is on the edge of his seat.

Then the gorilla flips Slag Eater over, and the crowd goes wild.

The spiked shell embeds itself in the ground with a rolling crash like close thunder. The lizard’s face plate is askew, revealing delicate engineering underneath, but that’s not what the Pulverizer is going for. Slag Eater’s underbelly, covered in light, flexible plating and cooling apparatus, is exposed. Not so far away, somebody is getting fired. Exxon’s prodigal child beats its chest, opens its mouth, and plunges a fist straight through the armor.

Bright red arterial blood spurts out, splashing the gorilla’s forearms and staining the ground. James’ breath catches in his throat. Cornerstone’s stock price drops like a rock. The other arm reaches in to widen the wound, tearing off a misshapen amalgamation of steel and organics. The crowd is ecstatic, far too loud for the boy’s father to hear his pleas of “What’s going on?” and “Dad, I’m scared.” More pieces fly off, the showers of coolant and viscera going as far as to wet the announcer’s screen. The crowd is frothing at the mouth. Slag Eater writhes helplessly. James tugs on his father’s sleeve, but the older man laughs and politely claps as if he was watching a golf match rather than a disembowelment. He has no stake in the matter, of course, not being keen on gambling away his generous salary. Besides, spectacles like this tend to attract more investors to Lyman.

With a sickening crunch, the Pulverizer pulls out a final chunk of bloody metal, and Slag Eater goes dark and still. The boy’s wide eyes fixate on the spinal cord that the gorilla holds over its head with a triumphant roar, oblivious to the crowd cheering or the announcer boisterously declaring a winner.

James is twelve years old. Today is his birthday.

James is twenty-one years old, and he’s driving through what was once known as the Mojave Desert. He’s leaving Phoenix for the last time. The setting sun glints off something in the mountain of scrap at the roadside, drawing his attention to his rear view mirror.

His blood runs cold. A dusty, colossal face plate emblazoned with the Cornerstone logo looks back at him from the graveyard of titans, as if it doesn’t know everything it stood for is gone. Something inhuman stares through those slits where lights once were. Something that was never man’s to own or create.

In a moment, it’s out of sight, and he realizes he’s gripping the wheel with white knuckles. He exhales, and reiterates the promise he made to himself nine years ago.

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