In Their Wake
rating: +12+x

Trip sat under a tree, resting her weary legs, fighting sleep. The cries of children rose from a playground nearby, happy that they were out of their shanty classrooms, even if only for half an hour. The sky was dim with gray clouds, cool air blowing over the mountains into the valley. Reaching into her pocket, Trip pulled a red paper box and a lighter out. The small box had no décor on it save for the bold, black name of the brand: "JUDECCA". Opening the top, Trip pulled out a cigarette, sticking it between her lips and lighting it. Judeccas were the cheapest cigarettes on the market, though you wouldn't need a price tag to be able to tell. They were completely filter-less and the tobacco was notoriously ridden with a myriad of mystery chemicals and unregulated GMOs meant to facilitate faster growth and keep pests away. They smelled terrible too, even by cigarette standards. It didn't matter to Trip though, her lungs were already done for.

Taking a drag, the thick smoke ran over her tongue and down her throat, flecks of impurities and junk stabbing at her all the way down, spurning a cough as the pinpricks reached her lungs.

Deep breaths as you make your way through the hot interior, squeezing through a tight pathway, your face almost pressed up against the asbestos insulation. They didn't cover the guts inside because it'd make it harder to repair and, more importantly, it was cheaper to leave it exposed. You don't have time to consider the consequences, not until you're dead. Your job is to find what's broken and fix it, whether you want to or not isn't a factor.

You continue your search, inspecting machinery and trying to listen for anything that could give the issue away. The shoddy welding kit strapped to your back isn't making it any easier to traverse, but it's a necessary tool. The next few breaths you take tell you that you're near the problem. The air's thick with metal dust, you can practically taste the steel. Something's grinding down, an easy fix this time.

Trip shook her head, coming back to reality. The cigarette lay smoldering in the grass, having fallen from her mouth. The nicotine already had her heart beating in her throat. She blinked a few times, staring at the discarded cigarette, before bringing her foot on top of it, grinding it down into the dirt.

The past was long gone, yet clung to her like a foul scent that she tried to mask with cigarette smoke and booze. Sans booze these days as the prices were beginning to exceed her paychecks. The affordable swill resembled acetone in smell and piss in taste. In her eyes, you'd be better off huffing coolant than trying to down a rancid concoction made in someone's bathtub, so she'd put a cap on the drinking. Trip leaned her head back onto the tree, closing her eyes as she shoved the worries away and breathed slowly to calm her heart.

The breeze felt good on her skin, and she was so, so tired. She needed rest, needed to find recuperation where it'd been missing in her day-to-day. Trip felt her head lulling a bit to the side as visions of empty orange bottles and somehow even emptier bottles of alcohol floated through her mind. She was so very tired, and the obscured sun warmed her skin while the cool air kept her from getting too hot.

You keep slinking forward through the tight passageway, the air growing thick with particulates. A metallic clang rings out, quickly followed by more and more without stop as bullets pelt Amontillado.

The battle's begun.

You pick up your pace, trying to find the issue before you're responsible for a loss. One of the clangs rings out louder than the others before the passageway is filled with the sounds of a bullet ricocheting. There was someone with a high-caliber rifle aiming for chinks your kaiju's armor, trying to hit something internally that was particularly sensitive. You don't know if you were lucky that the ricocheting bullet hadn't hit you or unlucky that you were in the same place where the bullet had penetrated.

There was a hand on her shoulder, a calm voice asking her something, but everything had been shoved through a dense filter, only fuzz coming through. Trip stared at nothing for a moment before shaking her head to try to dispel the fog encasing her mind.

"Olivia? You okay?"

It was one of the teachers. They always refused to use her name, preferring the professionalism of "Olivia" more than the nickname she felt more attached to since her enlistment.

"Yeah, just dozed off is all."

"Well, we're headed back inside. You can stay out here if you want, pretty sure the kids are feeling extra docile today," the teacher chuckled.

Trip looked over to the playground. The crowd of kids once there were now filing back into the massive, worn down building. Trip rubbed her eyes before standing up unsteadily. "Nah, need to get on my feet anyhow. Plus, it's my job. Can't be slacking."

Trip began weakly walking back towards Malbolge Education Center, a kindergarten-to-high school situated in a long dead kaiju plant. A few years ago, the town of Malbolge had seen itself become a modern day boom town as massive deposits of platinum were found in the surrounding area. A company under the name of Tenpar Logistics came in, the brazenly thin-veiled subsidiary arm of a multi-national corp with hands a little too grubby for direct operation in the US, and established a mining, refinement, and manufacturing organization in the town. Having all three processes in the same area and under the same umbrella made it not only yield greater profits but also provided a multitude of job offerings. People flooded into Malbolge, chasing the industry and high-paying jobs. But once the resource dried up, the corporation abandoned Malbolge, leaving empty mines, a giant factory, and thousands of now jobless people behind.

A majority of the population packed up and left, chasing after the next opportunity or simply fleeing the parched landscape. Those that remained had either established roots too strong to pull, were too poor, or were naïve. At a glance, one would never know that Malbolge had once been a thriving hub of industry. The cracked and pocketed roads wound to and from destitute buildings, homes on the brink of falling apart, long closed businesses, and trailer homes sitting at the end of gravel paths. Weeds sprung up from pavement overlooked by graffitied brick walls, shattered glass strewn across sidewalks. It was a town as soulless as its inhabitants, left for dead by the world they'd helped to perpetuate. Roadkill on the shoulder of a highway, trampled by progress.

Malbolge Education Center was established only a few years after the town died. The old schools were too costly to upkeep, the modern technology within that it relied on to function was no longer able to be repaired as everyone with the proper knowledge had left. So the remaining people who hadn't yet succumbed to despair cleaned out the interior of the abandoned kaiju plant where electronics and larger-scale industry had been produced, setting up shanty classrooms with walls of plywood and cheap electric lights run on minimal solar power. However, the industrial essence was never fully scrubbed out of the factory, the scent of oil and metal permeating the entirety of its stripped corpse. The classrooms didn't have ceilings; a child could look up from their desk, past the metal beams holding lights, and see the cavernous roof far above them, almost obscured by darkness.

Many onlookers claimed that the effort could have been used to refurbish the already existing schools, that they were simply trying to hide the past away underneath a humanitarian façade. Others argued that it was more economic for the town now that its prosperity had been stripped away. Better to have it all in once place where everyone could pool into a bus with a single destination, saving money in the long run. Some said it came from a place of self-loathing, a wish for their children to vicariously understand the circumstances that had lead to their demise so that they too may be miserable.

Trip didn't know what tale to believe, though she had seen enough of the people who lived in Malbolge to know that they lived life with a wound in their chests. She'd arrived after the school had already been established, seeking out a job and a quiet place to die. The government has placed a permanent black stain on her, keeping her unemployed and near destitute. She had no education higher than a high school degree with a 2.2 GPA tacked onto it and her physical aptitude was far too poor for most employers looking for muscle to overlook the splotch.

Operators were one of only a few groups within the military who were privileged with receiving high-quality augments. Once a soldier had concluded their service, they were permitted to keep their augments, but Trip had been stripped of hers and given the cheapest replacements possible. Had they been able to, they would have given her nothing, but she would be completely unable to perform many basic motor functions without cybernetics. Only one augment hadn’t been replaced, the chip in her brain which allowed her body to use the other augments. Without it, her body would have started rejecting them the moment they had been introduced to her body’s little biosphere. Augment sickness. The only problem was that the chip was hard-wired to act as a muscle relaxant, the muscles of her arms and legs limply puppeted by the high-grade cybernetics she once had. A second skeleton of titanium and graphite and gold and plastic.

Trip took a shaky step. Her muscles had withered and the chip prevented them from regrowing while the cheap shit they’d stuck inside her provided just enough strength to stand straight, on a good day. She could get a brain chip replacement, technically, but the procedure was so dangerous as to be left in the hands of either doctors who'd charge a fortune or illicit, shady "doctors" who'd either kill you in the process or render you braindead after botching it.

Malbolge Education Center didn't really need an armed guard. The outside world had long since forgotten of the town's existence. But there was apparently a reputable vagrant— who's name changed every time Trip heard the story— who'd witnessed strangers in the night scrounging through the factory's guts, looking for something-or-another. People got paranoid, got afraid, so when Trip came into town looking for a job, they were more than willing to look past her smeared record if it meant she would guard the factory. In a little more than a year of working there, Trip had never seen anyone inside the factory aside from teachers and students. Most parents wouldn't even enter the building if they came to get their kids for whatever reason. A kindergarten to fifth grade talent show, meant to be a fun and cute little shindig, brought multiple kids to tears because their parents refused to be inside the old kaiju plant.

Trip's job, unofficially, was to keep kids in line as needed, break up fights, and take care of any disturbances. Though most days came and went without incident, Trip slowly wandering the halls and sitting in classrooms. As time slipped by, however, her job had become something… else. She had been a ship adrift at sea, writhing in a black ocean, but Malbolge threw her a rope, something to tether herself to. More than a job, an identity, ratty and lean as it was. She’d spent so much of her life as an appendage that suddenly becoming her own organism had left her lost and afraid. A parasite without a host, withering into a plaster façade of herself.

Hours later, Trip was back home. Like the majority of the days before it, this day had no incident. The hours melded together into an amalgamation of disjointed moments of clarity interspersed by a catatonic haze until she was standing in her kitchen, leaning on the counter, staring at yellowed papers. With a sigh, she broke herself away from them and began her nightly ritual of disassembly. Slipping her coat off of her back and hanging it on a chair back, shoes untied and slipped off, wallet and cell phone laid on the counter, and her holster next to them.

Legally, she couldn't own a firearm, but a seller in the backwoods strapped for cash had been willing to skip over paperwork. Trip slid the handgun out of the holster. The firearms in the military had been sleek and light, deceptively so; they were mass-produced garbage that jammed easily, the chasse cracking after nearly a thousand rounds. You were liable to snap a part during disassembly and reassembly. The one Trip now held in her hand had a matte, unpolished exterior, the metal it was made with giving it significant heft— at least compared to the standard issue military one she'd had.

Trip had little use for a firearm, all she'd shot since she'd gotten it was vermin and a diseased coyote that had bitten a kid. She kept the holster inside of her waistband, she didn't flaunt it or try to use it for show. After years in the army with one strapped to her side at all times during her waking hours, she found that she felt incomplete when it wasn't attached to her, like she was missing a part of her.

Looking into the mirror hanging on the wall behind the counter, Trip took notice of her hair. It'd fallen loose from its tight, orderly form, strands falling haphazardly. The disarray irked her, betraying a sense of disassembly and disorder. Quickly undoing the tie in the back, Trip gathered the stay hairs with their brethren before putting it all back up again. Nice and neat. Satisfied, Trip snatched up a remote, slouching down into the living room couch and turning the TV on.

Her options were limited to very few programs, mostly news broadcasts and occasional reruns of old, old movies. Trip didn't care to pay for any of the multitude of available packages offered to her, she couldn't budget any out even if she wanted to with how absurdly expensive they were. So the news it was, the screen showing a man in a suit, his hair neatly combed and his face bright with the faux enthusiasm news anchors were notorious for.

"-oday Lyman Solutions ended the eight week long workers' rights strike with the overwhelming force of the local police combined with two neighboring precincts' well equipped officers. Now, as I'm sure most of you viewers at home have been waiting on the edge of your seat for, the results of today's IDDL match: the long awaited fight between titans Gaiylon and 天伸冤器, more commonly known as Leavenworth!"

Titans. Trip hated that name. It had come into popularity in the last two and a half decades, signaling the shifting cultural view of kaiju. The monsters had always been beloved, as is any mass weapon by those who've never been the target of its wrath, but the new common nickname for them told of an almost fanatical adoration. These monstrosities, metal and flesh alike, were becoming like gods in the eyes of the people. It disgusted her.

Trip changed the channel, there was nothing for her in that news broadcast.

"-ighting desperately for their survival, truly a showdown for the ages! What you're gonna see next is Gia-"

She changed it again.

"-a bloody, bloody mess! Oil and blood spilling everywh-"

"-ard to believe, but even after all this time, Leavenworth is still going strong-"

"-lon crumpled to the grou-"

"-ven Leavenworth anymore? A real Theseus' sh-"

"-claired the victor of-"

Trip turned the TV off, staring into her reflection in the blackness. She shouldn't have been surprised, it was the year of the International Disaster Deathmatch League, one of— if not the— most popular sporting events in the world, happening only once every five years. Of course every news broadcast would be covering it. The people were enraptured by their veritable new-age gods. Blissfully uncaring of their true nature.

You're scrubbing metal shavings out of a tight corner to prevent a jam when two gears catch the tip of the gloved ring finger on your right hand. They only have a hold of fabric, giving you a moment of complete stillness as you try to process what's happening. Quickly, your free hand begins to shove your right sleeve up to get at the velcro fastening, but before you can the gears pinching your glove click forward, crushing the tip of your finger.

The pain is excruciating as the bone in your finger is pulverized by the hellish industry. You begin trying to jerk you hand back in a vain attempt to free yourself, but nothing budges. Some mechanism in the kaiju moves and the teeth of the gears rotate in turn, bringing your finger further in, now nearly at the middle joint.

You tug only a few more times before coming to your senses. In that moment, when the adrenaline's fully kicked in, you realize what needs to happen before your palm is drug in as well. The gears begin to turn again. Undoing a clasp on your vest, you draw your bowie knife. You slice the fabric that covers your trapped finger, separating the cloth finger from the glove.

You take a deep breath as you prepare to wedge the blade in the joint between your palm and finger, raising it slightly before plunging down.

Trip woke up in a sweat, clenching her jaw so hard that it ached. She'd jostled the covers off of her in her sleep. Night after night she would try to sleep before being haunted by a passing ghost. It'd taken an uptick in the last month, beginning to bleed into her waking moments. The empty orange bottle laying in a trashcan spelled out the culprit quite blatantly, but there was nothing she could do. There was no pharmacy in Malbolge, none still in operation, and she had no car. Drugs, prescribed or otherwise, were illegal to ship through any sort of delivery system thanks to a law passed recently that aimed to combat the selling of drugs on online markets. Of course, the law preventing your mail from being searched without reasonable suspicion was still in place, meaning the only places who had stopped mailing drugs were pharmacies. The dealers just began using more subtle, disguised packages.

Trip slowly slipped out of bed, accepting that sleep would evade her that night. The darkness of the room invited far too much speculation, a canvas for a wandering mind. Flicking on the lamp on the nearby nightstand, Trip took a few moments to let her eyes adjust before walking over to a long, squat dresser. Hidden away in the bottom right drawer was her last bottle of alcohol: an unopened gin. She grabbed this bottle and the book sitting on the nightstand next to the lamp.

Trip took both of these items back to her living room, the black screen of her TV taunting her with the image of a woman on the edge. She did her best to ignore this as she sat down on the couch, resting the book in her lap. It was a collection of short stories and essays, one a friend long ago once spoke highly of. Wedging her finger underneath the bookmark that stuck out of the top, Trip pried it open. She'd last put the book down after finishing a story, now picking up at the beginning of the next one, The Devil and Tom Walker. She unscrewed the cap on the gin, raising it to her lips and taking a gentle sip. It'd been a good month since she'd last drank, but the overwhelming urge to imbibe had won her over, a wish to distract and muddle.

"A few miles from Boston, in Massachusetts, there is a deep inlet winding several miles into the interior of the country from Charles Bay…"

Trip's eyes rolled over the words, taking in the story of Tom Walker. She wasn't a proficient reader, having to reread passages to fully comprehend their meaning, occasionally looking up the meaning of particular words on her phone.

"In a word, the great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then in the country had raged to an alarming degree, and everybody was dreaming of making sudden fortunes from nothing. As usual, the fever had subsided, the dream had gone off, and the imaginary fortunes with it…"

Deals with the Devil, blackened treasure, and sins. The sips turned to gulps turned to chugs. The world faded away slowly into a warm haze, Trip's eyelids growing heavy as she fought off drunken sleep. She was unable to finish the story, leaving off with the Devil coming to collect his due.

"He had left his little Bible at the bottom of his coat pocket, and his big Bible on the desk buried under the mortgage he was about to foreclose: never was a sinner taken more unawares."

The ringing bell startled Trip awake. She'd fallen asleep in the teacher's lounge again. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Trip stood up from the table. The bell meant it was time to go eat lunch. Trip wasn't particularly hungry, but this was the time where she was typically needed most as kids got into fights over others snatching something off of their tray. The kids all got their lunches free, Trip and the rest of the faculty forfeited a portion of their pay to see to that, but for a majority of the kids it was their only consistent source of food. Nothing incited petty theft like hunger.

The cafeteria was bustling with students. The school population was small enough that everyone from every grade ate at the same time. Easier for the people that volunteer to be lunch workers. There was general jostling and some mild horseplay, but nothing that pulled Trip from her leaning position on the wall. Steam and the smell of cheap meat spread outwards from the kitchen, the only room in the school that had a roof. Occasionally gunk dripped down from the ceiling and there had been a token effort to maintain hygiene. Not that it made much of a difference. Trip had done her fair share of wiping splatters of the thick, sticky liquid off the desks, smelling faintly of old meat. Some fungus or mould in the roof. Nobody knew, and since there was no way to go up to check, it was ignored.

The kids filed into queue for their lunch, the multitude of conversations creating a cacophony of noise as they bounced around the concrete room. Trip was miserable. Loud, crowded spaces made her feel enclosed and dug a pit in her stomach, but she always pushed those feeling down and out of sight. She could be weak at home, but for now, she had a job to do.

A teenager wrapped in an orange jacket, probably tenth grade, slickly slipped a milk carton off of a kid's tray as he passed by. A quick call of "Hey! Kid in the dumbass traffic cone jacket!" by Trip followed by a command to return the stolen item solved the issue. She was relieved that that was all it took these days. She'd shown her brawn early in her time at the school, breaking up fights by physically separating the kids, restraining drunk parents with fire in their eyes— and the odd drunk teenager too. Nowadays, she found that she'd grown weary of fighting.

Having relaxed once more, probably seeming more approachable, a smaller kid did just that. He couldn't have been much older than nine, staring down at worn shoes as he nervously asked Trip if her could talk to her. Assuming someone had yanked something of his, Trip of course said yes, putting a softness in her voice that didn't come naturally to her in an attempt to assuage his fears. To her it sounded disingenuous, but it was seemingly enough for the boy as he grabbed her hand and led her over to a lunch table in a corner of the cafeteria. After sitting down across from each other, the kid piped up.

"Didn't you fight in wars, Ms. Trip?"

The ability for kids to be so blunt with their questions continued to astounded Trip. "Yeah, yeah I did. Long time ago. Singular though."

"Uhm, well, in class today Mrs. Kennedy told us about how they used to sometimes use titans in fights and I was wondering if you ever saw one."

Trip began to bounce her leg. Talk about her military career always seemed to jump some kind of battery in her. "Yeah, I saw some kaiju."

The boy's eyes lit up. "Really?"

Trip cleared her throat. "Yup. Sure did."

The boy sat for a moment, pondering what his next question should be. Maybe he hadn't been expecting a yes from her, maybe he just hadn't thought much further than the initial questions.

"So, is it true that titans back then ran on gas? That they didn't have the big batteries the fighting ones today have?"

As you pass the primary medical tents, you see a familiar face laying on a cot, coughing violently: Garret. You thank whatever god is looking over you that you don't work with the fuel and exhaust for your kaiju. That's the job of the poor soul currently infirmed. More than likely, it'd soon become someone else's.

"Kinda. They actually ran on diesel. It's like gas, but a lot thicker. It's used in bigger machines. More efficient."

"Ooohh. Okay."

"Do you ride a bus home?"

"Yes ma'am."

"If I remember correctly, they run on diesel. At least, ours do."


"Don't quote me on that. Ask your bus driver after school, I'm sure they'd know better than me."

"I can do that!"

"Great. Anything else?" Trip was ready to get up and leave.

"Did you ever get close to a titan?"

Trip closed her eyes, trying her best to not show that she was gritting her teeth. "Yeah. I was actually an Operator for one."

The boy's eyes widened even further, his mouth almost agape. "You drove a titan?" he asked, awe filling every word.

"No. No, I didn't. Mostly just ran around inside and did repairs."

Trip reached into her pocket, pulling out the pack of cigarettes. She had no intention of smoking in the lunch room, much less right in front of the kid, she just needed something to fiddle with. She was getting jittery, tapping her fingers on the table. When she had the pack in her right hand, she tried flicking it with her ring finger on instinct, but of course nothing happened.

The boy gazed at the cigarette pack, having flinched upon seeing it in her hand. For the first time, Trip noticed the small scars on the boys wrists, dots scatted about. Some were older and fading back to his skin tone, others were more red. Two or three seemed to be fresh, the underlying skin yellowed. Trip quickly stuffed the pack back into her pocket. Tapping her fingers was suddenly preferable.

A moment of silence passed between the two before the boy spoke up again. "How'd you lose your finger?"

"Had an accident."

"What happened?"

"I'm, uh, not sure I wanna talk about it."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"Hey, hey, nothing to apologize for. Curiosity isn't a sin."

"Yes ma'am."

"So… How, uh, you into kaiju?"

The boy quickly perked up again. "Yes ma'am! Me and my big brother Carson like to watch the battles on TV!"

"That so?"

"Yeah! They're so cool, big monster-thingies battling in big arenas. My favorite's The Beast From Water! He's this big one that people say was built with ape DNA. I really like his blue coloring, plus he fights with this big spear!"

"That's really cool, you're right."

"Yeah, but I missed The Beast From Water's last fight though 'cause Pa was home. I was really sad about that."

"Does your dad not like kaiju fighting?"

"No ma'am, he loves it. But Carson doesn't let me watch with Pa."

Trip began connecting strings. "How come?"

The boy paused before answering. "Well, Pa really hates kaiju. He always gets really angry, yelling at the TV and whoever's in the room too. Throws his whisky bottles. Carson had to get stitches once. So whenever Pa gets home from work and wants to watch a kaiju fight, Carson takes me to his room and we play board games. He always plays music, but I still hear Pa screaming and swearing."

Trip tasted iron. She'd begun biting the inside of her cheek unconsciously. But, the anger was soon drowned in a wash of some hollow acceptance. Slowly gazing around the crowded lunchroom, Trip was forced to stare down the defeating reality that so many of the kids were facing the same thing. They bore the wrath and spite of their families on their skin and spirit for something that wasn't their fault. For many, something that had come and gone before they'd even been born.

She'd never asked the kid his name, didn't know who he was. Trip looked down at him and found that she couldn't make out what made him distinct from the other kids. He was just another portrait of futility. He was born here, he was hurt here, and he'd one day die here without ever stepping foot outside of Malbolge. It was the endless cycle of the petromyzon as it latched onto its inhabitants, a chronic hook sunken into their chests that pinned them to the mud lest they dream.

Trip didn't even dismiss herself when she stood up, walking out of the cafeteria wordlessly, her tongue suddenly far too dry for her liking as she left the school early.

Walking silently through her front door, gray plastic bag in hand, Trip's eyes were half-closed, barely relaying information to her brain.

Sitting on the counter were the yellowed legal papers that she had been served, informing her that she was being dishonorably discharged from the military. She kept them because they were the anchor of her identity. Every time she dangled the papers over the shredder, her stomach twisted into a knot. She could never bring herself to move that extra inch, to let the teeth take hold of her past and rend it until she was finally free. She would always sit with the papers almost touching the shredder, staring as tears welled up in her eyes. Those papers were her identity, who she'd become. The prospect of killing herself in such a manner terrified her.


SUBJECT: Notice of Discharge

TO: Olivia Gyre Tripptern, Infantryman #78-334IAB

* You have been issued a(n) Dishonorable Discharge from your military career in service of these United States of America. If you believe that you should receive a higher type of discharge, you may appeal to the Discharge Review Committee for further review / a rereview.

* If you wish to appeal to the Discharge Review Committee, you will need to fill out Form D443 ("Application For Review of Discharge or Other Separation From the United States of America Military"). This appeal must be submitted to the Discharge Review Committee within six (6) years of your effective discharge date.


Gross failure to follow a commanding officer's orders
Gross negligence

It wasn’t paper that she would be shredding. It was skin, her skin, the skin of the paper monster she had become, tearing and wearing thin with every movement, an origami soldier left in the mud, dampness and filth crawling up her as she slowly fell backwards. She couldn’t turn those papers to nothing. She couldn’t kill herself like that.

She put the papers down gently and scraped the sweat of her palms off on her trouser legs, suddenly aware of the paper leeching moisture from her fingertips. She folded it along the familiar grove in the middle and slid it onto the shelf between the box of light bulbs and the wall where she could pretend to have forgotten about it.

She slept about as well as she usually did.

“Miss Olivia?”

It was the kid again. She attempted to replicate her patient smile in the hope it made her look even vaguely like she knew what she was doing. “Yeah?”

“I asked the bus driver about diesel and he said that the bus does use it. Just like your titan.” He seemed very pleased with his discovery.

“That’s good,” Trip said. There was a pause. “Well done,” she added. “That’s good… investigating.”

“Only I have another question, Miss. You must have been fighting ages and ages ago,” the kid continued with the powerful lack of tact that most children wielded. “So why do we still use diesel for cars and trucks and things if titans are all electric now?”

“Well, there’s lots of reasons,” managed Trip. “Titans are very… expensive, for one. And, uh…” her brain practically whirred as she attempted to condense late-stage capitalism into a form a child would understand. “Diesel engines are cheaper to make,” she finished. She sighed. “Maybe ask a teacher.”

“I thought you said you were an engineer?” The kid was practically doing puppy eyes.

“Yeah,” said Trip. “But that’s not really an engineering question. It’s more… kaiju are different, because…” Because they made money, and because people paid well to be fed somebody else’s pain.

“You mean titans?”

“Well,” Trip said patiently, “I prefer to call them kaiju because that’s… what I know them as.”

“But they’re called titans now, miss.” The kid looked somewhat indignant at having to correct a teacher on such an obvious fact. “Kai- kaijoo isn’t even a real word. It’s Chinese or something.”

“No, it is a real… word,” said Trip distantly. “It’s… definitely…”

“And on the TV they call them titans,” continued the kid, who was starting to look smug at having one-upped a teacher. “Soo…”

Trip grimaced. “No, I mean kaiju,” she snapped. “I mean the things we dreamt up as a story to make sense of the fact that we had the power to kill entire cities with a single bomb. I mean the things we went ahead and made real because we wanted to play with that power like toddlers with matchsticks in straw houses. I mean the machine that ate my finger and filled my lungs with asbestos and killed my friends- no, not even killed them, wore them down until there was nothing left to kill. I mean the things we build to tear each other apart because making chickens and dogs and bears fight wasn’t cruel enough. I mean kaiju.” She stumbled and leant on the table behind her, slumping clumsily onto a bench. She was breathing deeply but oxygen wasn’t going into her lungs. There was dark pushing at the corners of her eyes and she couldn’t think. People was calling. Was she back in Amontillado? Were they waiting for the rain to come? Was she…

She dreamed of the smell of brushed metal and acetylene.


She groaned. “How long was I out,” she said, trying to inflect a little wry humour into her tone. “I didn’t scare the kids, did I?” She was in the tiny bed in the sickroom they used for when one of the younger students ran a temperature. She tried to sit up but her cybernetics wobbled and she flopped backwards. She stared upwards at the ceiling above. There were little chinks of light shining through where the metal sheeting, far too high up for anyone to reach to repair, had worn through.

For one long moment one of the lights blinked out. Trip frowned.

“Are your lungs feeling okay?”

Trip met the teacher’s eyes. She couldn’t remember her name and being talked to like a child in a child-size bed which her feet poked off the end of wasn’t improving her disposition towards her.

“I’m fine,” she grunted, stifling a cough. She failed, rolling over and retching into the crook of her arm. When the fit subsided she took a careful breath, watching the concerned look on the teacher’s face carefully. It seemed genuine, which was somehow worse. “I mean, I still have asbestos in my lungs,” she said, trying not to make it sound as vicious as it felt.

The teacher seemed pretty reluctant to share in Trip’s sense of humour. “Are you okay to get back home?” she asked.

Trip frowned. “No, no I’m fine,” she said. “I…” she attempted to swing herself off of the bed. Her legs ached like she’d run a marathon wearing a lead shirt. “I’m not doing too good,” she admitted. She thought of the stairs up to her apartment. The lift was broken. She’d have to be carried.

Trip pressed her eyes shut for a second. “Is it okay if I spend the night here?” she asked. “I’ll be fine in the morning.”

“Olivia, I think you need to see a doctor,” said the teacher. Trip forced herself to think of her name. Uh…

“Look, Mary, I’ll go to see a doctor myself tomorrow,” she said, knowing full well that she’d down some painkillers to stop the ache in her legs and forget about the problem.

Until it kills you.

She ignored the thought.

“It’s Madaline,” said Mary. Trip decided that the correction counted as a slight against her and ignored it. “And I’d really rather get someone to see you but…” she trailed off. “It’s seven o’clock,” she said. “Do you want me to set you up with some food and painkillers? I’ll stay here with you while I do some marking and… I can pop back in around three AM to check on you. I don’t live too far off and besides, who sleeps through the night in this day and age.” She laughed thinly. “Sorry. I know it’s not ideal, but I’ve already called in a favour to get my kid home.”

“That’s really kind,” Trip said, closing her eyes. “I really owe you one.”

“Please,” said Madaline. “Please don’t think you need to owe anyone because you’re sick.”

There was the rustling and tapping of a stack of papers being neatened and then the scrape and creak of a plastic chair. “Right,” said Madaline breezily, “Homework marking. What got handed in.”

Trip grimaced. “At least I don’t have to do that.”

“It’s not so bad,” said Madaline quietly. “They can be surprisingly creative, especially when you let them write about Titans.”

Trip didn’t respond. “…I’m going to close my eyes for a minute,” she said. “Are there any painkillers here?”

“One sec… here.” A small medical-blue cardboard box was placed next to her head. Before Madaline could offer a glass of water Trip pulled out the foil sheet and popped four little white pills, dry-swallowing them in a bundle. She’d been through enough to know she wasn’t going to die from a paracetamol overdose, and if she did then at least she’d die like a warrior. In a tiny bed in a tiny plasterboard school inside this factory, the calcified husk of a mechanical kaiju womb.

She fumbled for a smoke, finding the reassuring cardboard geometry of the carton in the pocket of her cargo pants. She clenched the cylinder of the cigarette between forefinger and thumb, feeling the cheap tobacco squeezed between the calloused skin. She remembered what it had felt like to hold that same cigarette between index and middle finger, the paper rasping over the soft flesh between her knuckles.

Her missing finger hurt.

She held the cigarette there and waited for the painkillers to reach her bloodstream.

When she woke again it was dark. The teacher- Madalane- had up and left some time ago with a patient vow to return at three o’clock. Trip wondered how teachers managed to summon those apparently endless reserves of patience. Maybe they went home and screamed and wrecked shit.

Or maybe they just watched kaiju fights.

Trip groaned into the damp summer silence and tried to swing her legs off the bed. They moved, albeit shakily, and she managed to sit up. The back of her shirt was clinging to her back like a remora from the meniscus of sweat stewing in it and her lungs still felt like lumps of cancer. She noticed that the cigarette was still hanging in her right hand.

Might as well.

She lit it and took a drag. It was salty and sticky and limp but there was no discernible difference in quality. The taste of woodchips didn’t matter as much as the fact that it was delivering nicotine.

She stood up, taking a sharp drag on the cigarette against the swimming of her head. Once it cleared, she felt strangely… out of place. The school was so familiar as to be burnt into her brain like a nuclear shadow but here, in the dark, it was… something else. She wandered the corridors, the steps she’d taken ad nauseum now tentative and uncertain. She was- had been a soldier, and here she was. Starting at the sight of the stacked-up chairs in a preschool classroom.

“Jesus,” Trip said, to nobody in particular. She laughed to herself, not entirely dismissing the nerves.

She wandered out of the school and into the empty space beyond.

The air was hot and seemed stripped of anything breathable. Trip could hear the breath rasping in her throat, tasting the lingering mechanical tang of the kaiju factory. Solder and metal and oil that had soaked into the pores of the floor and the walls, worming into the concrete to emerge now as if tasting some opportunity in the silent night. And below it all was that same smell of wet meat. The factory must have fitted cybernetics to living tissue at some point. Maybe there’d been spillage. Some titanic gallbladder bursting on the floor, engineered flesh joining the rest of the stenches.

Trip found herself in the centre of the factory.

There was something disconcerting about the openness of a space that smelled so much like Amontillado.

You spend three adrenaline-soaked hours inside the kaiju, welding small wounds, oiling machinery, and realigning anything that goes crooked. You're grinning the entire time, laughing as you ride the high of glory.

Somewhere in the darkness, there was a faint, wet splat.

Trip frowned.

Out of a lack of anything better to do, she wandered towards the source of the noise.

More of that gunk. Not surprising, really. She prodded it with the tip of her shoe, a string of thick, pale liquid clinging to the toe like an umbilical cord. In the dark, with only her torch, it seemed somehow less likely that it came from a fungus.

A sucking, gristly popping echoed from wall to wall. Trip’s muscles seized.

“A-are you there?” said a voice, not quite human, breathy and hoarse and seeming to reverberate within itself, the echoes within the huge empty factory making it sound like it came from everywhere at once.

“The clock… it tells me it is time,” it continued. “I have been waiting. Little enough else to do.” A pause.

“I am hungry,” said the voice, and behind it something else joined in, something bigger, louder, less human.

“I was dreaming,” said the voices. “I dreamed I heard footsteps. Talking. Perhaps I was talking in my sleep, no? No.” There was a heavy silence. “No,” said the voice.

Somewhere in the rafters, something shifted. Something big.

Trip looked up and was met by the whites of a pair of eyes.

“Hello… Operator,” said the eyes. “Strange…. strange to see you here so late. Unexpected.”

“What the fuck,” whispered Trip, the beam of the torch flickering dimly over the twin glint of the eyes before they swerved and disappeared into the darkness. The weak beam of her torch swung up but all it illuminated was the distant complexity of the roof girders and the damp-streaked concrete of the walls. There was nothing there but the usual vague shadows of the factory roof far, far above.

“Show yourself,” Trip ordered, hand going to her handgun. She was glad she’d managed to practice with it, even with how hard it was to get her hands on ammunition. She felt the brassy rounds, almost greasy to the touch, were about to come in useful.

“I have a gun,” Trip called out, forcing herself not to think of the last time somebody had called her Operator.

“You don’t need it,” the voice called back from somewhere up in the vague shapes above. There was a faint splat of moisture falling somewhere. “I don’t want… hurt nobody.”

“Then come down,” Trip said.

“Put… the gun down. Then I come down.” That voice was human. Almost.

Trip swallowed. “Why should I trust you?”

“Why trust any-” suddenly the voice cut off into a fit of phlegmatic coughing and retching, accompanied by a splattering of liquid onto the floor on the wall to Trip’s left. She started back and looked above it but all she caught were faintly moving shapes, like limbs.

“Why trust anybody in this economy,” the voice finished. “Why do they trust you at that school? A desserter? A soldier? Young children? A bad mix, surely, but maybe they see something in you. Something I… I don’t.”

Trip refused to answer that.

“I’m not a monster,” said the voice. “Please. I just want to be left alone. I… I have… I just want to talk? Please?”

Her hand tightened on the gun.

“I didn’t ask for this,” it said. “I think you’d understand, if you… just let m… me talk.”

Trip weighed her options. There weren’t many of them. She was in no state to run, and if it came down to it even less of a state to fight. She couldn’t even see it, for fuck’s sake. And if it wanted to kill her… well, it evidently saw the gun as a threat.

But she was tired.

“I’m going to put my gun down,” said Trip, taking steps away from the wall. If she stood in the centre of the room she stood a better chance of seeing it coming down, at least. A few seconds to grab the gun and put a bullet in it. She made a show of putting the gun down on the floor by her feet.

“Step away from it,” the voice said.

Trip took a step backwards, very aware that she had yielded her only weapon. The torch shone unsteadily on the wall. Then the edge of the light caught something sitting at the base of the wall, something large and pale, too big to be a human, and her beam of light snapped onto it. It cringed backwards a little, shielding its eyes with a long, thick limb.

“Hello, Olivia,” it said. “It’s rare to meet other Operators these days.”

Trip watch numbly. “Who the fuck are you?” she asked, voice hardening as she saw just what had been clambering in the rafters above.

“My name is Harriet,” said the creature. “And to free you from following that question with ‘What are you?' I’ll-” Harriet cut off in a burst of coughing. Something thick and wet dribbled down her chin.

“Jesus Christ,” said Trip.

“Why, you know the man?” asked Harriet. “I think I could use his help.”

What was visible of its- of Harriet’s body was half-concealed by a quietly throbbing mass of pale invertebrate flesh from which six arms, shining stickily in the warm light of her torch, radiated. Each terminated in a long-fingered humanoid hand, steel climbing spikes and wet suckers riddling the palms and the pads of the fingers. At one point, perhaps, this had been intended as a suit- a mobile kaiju frame, the next generation of fighter, a prototype, a new way to get closer to the action, closer to the safe brutality of a kaiju fight, than ever before, but the way the pale sluglike dampness blended into Harriet’s face, her human face, eyes fighting back desperation with a forced smile, made clear that removing it was not an option any more. The puckered, softened skin of her face perspired wetly, giving her the appearance of a waterlogged corpse.

“How much for you to keep this a secret? I- I have… I need… It’s hard to explain, and my head… I’m not awake, not all of me. Sleepy.”

Harriet’s sudden speech broke Trip out of her frozen reverie. “You need to leave,” she said, eyes flicking down to the gun on the floor between them. “And not come back. Whatever you want from here, it isn’t worth it.”

“Whatever I… I’m not looting this place,” Harriet said, confused. “The factory was stripped bare when they left. They even took the signs. There’s nothing here but rust and dirt. And, well, me.” A shaky human arm emerged from the chest cavity of the… kaiju? and wiped at her mouth before retreating back into the gap between the flesh and her body.

“Then you…” Trip frowned. “Are you… living here?”

“I don’t know where else to go, Olivia. And…”

Trip’s lips thinned. “Don’t call me that,” she said. “My name’s Trip.”

“I apologise,” Harriet said. “But please. I can’t… I can’t leave. Not now. I… I have…” she hissed through her teeth, the kaiju snorting from thick nostrils in parody.

“How long?”

Harriet sniffed. “Since the first rains fell. Since the first things crawled from the muck. Before mankind ever looked into the shadows and saw monsters.” She grinned weakly. “I’m joking. A bit after the corpos left. Before that I was hiding in the sewers but it was too busy down there, of all things. I though the suit would like it. Maybe I thought I would like it… I don’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t have… haven’t had anyone to talk to in a long time, apart from them, and they’re… not… god…” It was hard to tell in the torchlight if the dampness of Harriet’s face was tears or sluglike perspirance.

“Keep talking,” said Trip.

“I was made here,” she said. “I mean… no, no. The suit was made here, I was just… I can’t remember where I was born. But I can feel the vat. The warmth. The sounds of the factory outside. The people looking down at me. The amniotic fluid made everything yellowy. Like honey. I… I was pulled back here. It was empty. But it felt wrong. Like I was expecting my parents to be here, like being back here would make me a child again. The suit… his memories are muddled into mine. Neither of us can go back to how things were.”

Trip just stared.

“I wanted children once,” she said. “I remember that. The school… I’m sorry. Sometimes I like to listen. The kids are harder than I remember. World’s changing. They’re calcifying. The past is golden with vat fluid.” She looked up, meeting Trip’s eyes. “I’m rambling. I’m sorry, Operator. You were in Australia, right? They tell me things, the… but I’ll get to that. I remember the war. That was why I volunteered for the first test with the suit, and then all the others after it. I was good. Didn’t even notice when I passed the tipping point. You know what they say about memory? That when you remember something, you’re really remembering the last time you remembered it?”

“…Yeah,” Trip replied. It sounded like the kind of thing Garret would have told her.

Harriet shifted her body forwards, the arms of her suit stretching as she slumped down against the wall. “Well turns out if you link two nervous systems they start using each other.” She reached outwards with her arms and the suit reached for hers, fingertips touching. “I can’t leave,” she said, small, wet fingers enveloped by the huge palms of the suit. And not just the suit, I… There are other things I… people, who I need to… control.”

The gun lay on the ground, a darker blotch amidst the mouldering concrete. “Who?”

Harriet’s fingers danced against those of the suit, like a child playing pat-a-cakes. “Some people, they don’t get this new world,” she said. “They see these corporations and the words of their holy men start to sound wrong, oh so very wrong, and no matter how hard they pray nothing changes, so they grow bitter, and wrong, and meanwhile… something you can go out, and touch, and feel, and be made insignificant by, is all over their screens, and it is screaming. They see power, Operator, and they see a new kind of god in it.” Her eyes locked with Trip’s. “These people, they see that in me,” she said. “They’ve gleefully pushed themselves to the tipping point and the only thing holding them together, holding them back, is me. The anger they can map onto me. The power they think I have.” She stepped forwards, shivering arms seeking comfort in the suit’s clammy embrace. “They’re dangerous people, Olivia. And were I to leave, I don’t know… what would happen.”

The shuddering of Trip’s blood in her ears pressed closer, louder. “A cult,” she said. “You’re running a kaiju cult in a fucking school.”

“I’d say you built a school in my temple.” The bulk shifted, pale flesh crawling closer over Harriet’s face. Above her head lines of yellow eyes opened, one by one.

Her throat was dry. “Why are you telling me all this?”

“I’ve already told you, Operator.” The flesh started to close over her eyes. “It’s been so, so long since I could talk to someone without repercussion. So lonely. The flesh tightened over her mouth just as it hardened into a grimace. “And I wanted you to… know.”

A door opened.

“Because you are… interesting, Operator. I’ve watched you when I dream.”


“Sometimes I wonder if I would have turned out like you, had things gone differently.”

A light. A voice calling out, full of the conviction of the righteous. “Meatspeaker?”

“But stuck in this dying town, unable to live like I once did, unable to speak from the heart…”

The clicking of a gun. “Who’s that with you?”

“We know who we are, Operator.”


"We have a guest," Harriet said, the kaiju's thrumming voice joining hers and almost masking the slight harried stumbling of her words. "Someone who I have reached an agreement with, and I bid you respect. Fortune has favoured me this night." Her eyes turned to Trip,

The words dropped from Trip's mouth like lead slugs, the words crawling past her teeth autonomously. "I didn't agree to shit."

Harriet pushed herself up, four yellow eyes burning holes in Trip’s retina, only three times her height, tiny for a kaiju but still large enough for those steel-spiked hands to burst her like a cheap sausage. "Please," she hissed, the footsteps of the cultists hurrying closer. "For your own sake, play along." Her eyes were under torsion, pleading pools of fear and regret.

Legs failing, lungs full of burning gunk, mind stumbling along the edge of a deep, dark place she had no reason to fear any more, Trip went for the gun.

As her elbows tore on the roughness of the concrete and her hand went down on the cold, dark metal, the weapon an odd colour that wasn’t quite night-black or oil-black or the dirty silver of broken mirrors that she knew as gunmetal, her fingers fumbling desperately for the trigger, she remembered a line from that book, one of the stories… The Devil and Tom Walker. She’d had this niggling feeling reading it, like she almost, nearly got what it was about, but not quite. Garret would have known- hell, would probably have found some humour in her confusion. She’d never been academic in that way. Never got stories, not even as a kid, that synthetic wood desk protractor-etched with phallices and student’s names, a worn paperback, slightly greasy, in her hands, brows furrowed like there was some splinter in her mind she was trying to push out. Hell, she’d felt that way her whole life, like she’d been given some great puzzle and couldn’t even grasp the meaning of her failing it.

The finger found the trigger, palm meeting with the grip of the stock. Cold and plasticky like those paperback books. Harriet’s arm descended. Or the arm of a kaiju? She didn’t know. Couldn’t even find the inner fire to hate kaiju any more. Just another thing they’d taken, because you could throw everything at a kaiju, all your invention, all your rage, all your bitterness, all your love, and nothing, nothing would change.

A bullet thwacked into her side as the gun raised and the safety clicked off. She knew where to aim. The pistol went off, and off, and she wasn’t sure if the bullets were hitting her or the kaiju.

And then the gun was clicking empty. The world seemed to sharpen and dull in turns, a cassette tape overused and stretched past coherence.

“Never was a sinner taken more unawares.”

That was it. Something… about money? Justice being brought against the greedy, and the corrupt, and the cruel?

Trip saw the kaiju stumble and fall and noted, in the quiet place she’d formed behind the pain, that it had pushed itself aside so not to fall on her.

She wondered at the spreading darkness around her. Was it blood or oil?

The flesh pulled back and human eyes met hers. A hand reached out then fell, lifeless. Was Harriet saying something, or were the lips moving silently?

Was Trip the sinner, taken unawares by the devil in the system? Or was Trip the devil, come to bring to hell on a fast horse she that had taken the system’s gift and used it for her own devices?

No, she realised, patiently slipping into death. She was an Operator. A part of the system itself. An angel of operation, of function. Performing the role she had been changed to fill.

Kaiju were made to kill kaiju.

The demotion, the desertion papers, the hatred were nothing. She had never left Amontillado.

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