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Excerpt from Chapter 1 of "Burn Brightly"



KITT DASHWYNN – I


To fear water is to fear yourself, my father told me. And he was right, in all the different ways he meant it. Water tried to drown me as a child, yet I need it every day to bring me life. It fuels Grimmoor City and all its churning, burning, wicked parts, from the steam engines that power the city lights, the bridges, and the Plaitium factories to the underground camps that bloom and multiply like fungi below the metropolis. And water flows through the child inside me, so new I don’t know about her yet, just barely beating and without sense or fear. But above all these things and all the people within it, most importantly, the mechs need water. And we need mechs or we will die - or so they tell us.


But I don’t fear dying. I fear the memory of dying or anything that could cause me to relive those sensations around it. I remember my lungs burning in rage, the painful pressure in my ears, the cold that crackled my bones. I remember the hopelessness of a strange underwater world all around me whose surface was too far away to break through. But mostly I fear the memory of slipping away. A dark door at the end of a dark horizon, outlined by burning light. But instead of whatever lies after death, the light had been from the beam of my father’s Diver, racing towards me at a pace faster than any living creature could have mustered. It just barely beat the turn of the door handle and I was rescued within seconds.


The mech that saved me is long gone, confiscated and recycled by Arc along with the other “illegal” or “unlicensed” models of what were once known as Strongfairs. The Strongfairs were the true original mechs, with countless designs and variations, manufactured to assist their creators for no other purpose than that – to assist. There were Racers that flooded the streets at night and held meets beneath the sparking lamplights. There were Transports of all kinds and sizes for all kinds and sizes of drivers. A Jinx could alert you to trespassers and Nova’s followed you with warmth and protection as you worked chores outside in the rain. I remember Alley Cat’s that climbed on the roof to adjust the antenna or the Tammy that checked for monsters under the bed.


Back then, anyone could build or design a mech and many did. Everyone had a mech, like a kitchen table or a garden hose. And for those without a technical touch, there were dealers both above and below ground that could provide any Strongfair to meet your price. But my father was not a designer, he was a collector. But really, he was more like a scrounger. He found discarded mechs and tinkered with them until he brought them back to life. The yard was his workshop, the house was practically a toolshed. Some came to life and others remained dormant until the grass overcame them. But those mechs brought him back to life too, a distraction from the drudgery of a day job and family. And when they went away, a part of him did too.


The threat of war with neighboring Qobolta gave Arc the chance they needed to change everything. You would think a massive overhaul like that would take time, years maybe, but it seemed to happen overnight. I guess war does that, even if it never happened - and still hasn’t. The Strongfairs were confiscated for their parts, stripped and repurposed into the new Plaitium Ryder models that were trademarked by Arc itself. A necessary sacrifice for the cause, we were told. All other mechs were deemed too unpredictable, we needed order in the looming chaos, found only in these Ryders that could protect us at any given moment. They offered us jobs, great jobs with great pay. We need more, more, more, they said. And here we are, years later, still making more, more, more. That’s what we are in Grimmoor City, we’re all part of a giant cog that just endlessly keeps on spinning.


If my father were still here, he would say I was doing just fine. My mother, a higher up at Arc, is still here and says I could do better. I think I am somewhere in between. I work for Arc like my father did and everyone else in Grimmoor City, but I steal parts at the end of my shift. I am home by curfew just like everyone else in Grimmoor City, but then I sneak out to wander the cool streets at night. Every morning I recite the laws of the city, but afterwards I pray to Talaris, her crest worn around my neck at all times. I’ve managed to keep the door at the end of my horizon shut for now, but I’m not so special. My life so far is the very proof of that.


I want to escape Grimmoor City. It’s all I’ve ever known and that’s enough. Even from my family home on the outskirts, near the endless licking waters that almost drowned me, the smell is unbearable. Damp, sticky, and tangy with oil, the steam from the factories float down from the stacked towers like mist descending from a mountaintop. Sometimes, when they are cleaning out the engines or just freshly reoiled the gears, the steam is so thick you can part it with your hands. The sprawling streets that wind around and then wind around again are slick with oil, no one ever brings their shoes inside. Sometimes we have breaks of daylight when the wind blows in extra strong, startlingly warm and amber-like. But mostly our light is a gray night until darkness arrives and the street lamps flicker to life, little flames struggling behind the clouded glass.


Working for Arc was never a choice, but it’s all there is. The government is Arc and if you don’t realize it then you’re an idiot. Arc is all things, now. If you don’t work in security or the design department or even the factory cafeterias, then you’re on the assembly line or packaging or photography, or even an easy desk job like research. If you’re not at one of the main factories, then you’re a side contractor that specializes in making some necessary part we need. Or you mine for Plaitium to fuel the Ryders or maybe you cook breakfast for the overlord of Arc, Kir Nero himself.


My father did not do well at Arc, he struggled to keep up until they just let him go, they had no patience for a man that followed a pace of his own. So he stayed home with me for as long as I could remember, tinkering endlessly, maybe trying to find something that connected him to her. To my mother. She rose to the top one level at a time, as though she was climbing a staircase with her hands clasped behind her back and never felt out of breath, with never a misstep to be found. She was determined to go up, up, up. At night before bed, I would watch the lights in the windows atop Arc Tower and wonder which office belonged to her. My father and I never knew much, maybe because she was never home much. And eventually, she just wasn’t there at all, taking a residence at the heart of Grimmoor City. But when I turned 16, a letter came in the mail that congratulated me on my new appointment in machinery. I guess she did remember me, after all.


© 2020 Erin Ritch