The sun is oppressive and cruel, beating down on them as Oscar finishes tying the laces of his boots.
“You look sick,” he calls back behind him, biting his lip as he loops them and ties the noose on the bunny ears.
Tariq glances up from his crouched position, his legs slowly sinking into the sand as he parks the bike under a looming piece of metal. He isn’t smiling. “And who’s fault is that?”
“I’m just sayin’,” Oscar begins, loosening the cloth wrapped around his mouth and pulling his goggles off. He doesn’t think much about them before stuffing the frames into the back of his sagging pants. Deepening in distaste, Tariq’s expression worsens and Oscar sticks his tongue out. “If ya’d listened to me and avoided the fish special, ya wouldn’t be lookin’ this close to shittin’ yourself.”
“I am not,” he hisses, ripping his boots from the sand and making his way over to where Oscar stood, relaxed. His eyes are trained on the barren wasteland before them, the desert rippling like waves in the light wind. “Not to be disagreeable, but I am not seeing a titan anywhere.”
Oscar squints at the radar in his hands as it beeps softly. He taps the screen a few times, confused. “it’s sayin’ there’s one right here. We’re practically on top of—”
It’s suddenly obvious. Realization hits both of them with a sharp turn of the wind as they slowly look down at the shifting sand below.
“You must be joking,” Tariq whispers, eyes widening as he shuffles his weight from his left leg to his right. It’s hard, Oscar notes, having prosthetics in this environment. Tariq’s often expressed fear of the ground being eager to swallow him up the moment he’s stood still for too long.
“I have never told a joke,” the bike calls, its lights flickering to snag their attention. “You must find it. It is mandatory for the survival of the human race. It will wake soon, and its damage will be immeasurable!”
“Yeah, yeah. We heard this all before, Cain,” Oscar grunts, flinging the radar into the passenger seat. Cain’s lights dim in understanding, the motor lulling to a slow stop before cutting out completely. “We’ll get it done, like always.”
Tariq hasn’t removed his goggles, his sight poor without the prescription lenses. He’s hopping now, keeping the weight from sitting on the surface for too long. “There must be a way down. A displacement in the sand, possibly a trap door?”
“That’ll be too convenient.”
“It used to be a city, you know….” Tariq starts.
“Relax, I will not go into details. I am simply saying that I am not seeing the ruins of a city. Are you?”
Oscar squints again. “No?”
“Then there must be a trap door.”
“I doubt it’ll be that easy.” Oscar steps forward. “Let’s split up. You go right, I’ll go left.”
“And then you will vanish amongst the sand and I will be fated to wonder what has happened to you.”
“Is that code for ‘I’m gonna be really bummed when you’re gone’?”
“Your corpse is going to be unrecognizable once the sun has its way.”
“Note taken. Bad joke. Got it.”
Tariq begins to move forward, pulling his backpack higher on one shoulder and glancing back. It’s hard to make out his eyes with the reflection from the goggles staring Oscar in the face. “Do not stray too far, Oscar.”
Oscar immediately strays too far.
He’s a good distance from their original split point, the bike a small dot in the rolling hills, when he notices the gradual shift in color the sands take. There’s a gradient, starting from a golden glitter and seeping into a muddy red, growing darker the further he walks. The sand makes a trail, growing in thickness until he can comfortably trace its path. At first, Oscar assumes it to be spilled wine, as if a gallon truck carrying the fine liquors of Olaira through the wastelands had tumbled over and had leaked its contents, soaking the dusty earth. He’s briefly tempted to dip his fingers and check if remnants remain just below the surface.
It’s guiding him, and Oscar senses that this path has been walked many times before, in another life.
His first instinct is to call out to Tariq. Upon receiving no response, Oscar pushes forward. He follows the trail of deep red until it abruptly ends, piling into a circle that’s just wide enough to stand in. The sand in the middle is shifting, moving as if pushed by a current of air. There is no breeze, the sun beating mercilessly against his forehead as he stares.
Slowly, as if any sound would break the moment, Oscar drops to his knees and leans down, planting both hands into the earth and bending low, until his ear nearly touches red sand. There’s a low rumble from beneath him, a soft whistle he almost misses. It tickles the back of his neck.
Somethin’s breathin’ down there.
“Don’t tell me,” Oscar whispers, abruptly sitting up in shock, pivoting his knee to push himself out of the circle, but he’s too slow. And so, Oscar falls.
And he falls and falls and falls.
When Oscar reaches the bottom, it’s with a deafening crack and a dull bounce that lands him on his back. His elbows ache, and he can tell by the faint twitching of his right hand that he’s broken one of the two prosthetic fingers. Sitting up to better assess the damage to his hand, he feels a painful jab on his lower back. Oscar wiggles around a bit before pulling loose his goggles, now cracked with his lenses shattered on the ground.
“Shit,” he hisses, gazing up as the long tunnel gives way to spiral stairs that Oscar conveniently missed on his way down. The sun bleeds down from where he fell before the desert seems to shake itself into place, slowly covering up the opening. It reminds Oscar of a healing wound, the sand knitting the desert back together. Soon, the light is completely blocked out and Oscar finds himself alone in the dark.
Tariq’s gonna fuckin’ murder me.
It takes a couple of minutes for Oscar’s eyes to adjust, realizing it wasn’t complete darkness that encased him. On the staircase, little lights line the edges to make the steps visible. There’s more too, studding the ceiling like stars in the night sky. Pillar-like structures reach up high, holding what seems like the entire desert above. Six pillars, separating the land from the city beneath.
Oscar’s found the titan.
He’s sitting inside it now, somewhere where the lungs once were and where factories were reacted to simulate its breathing. There’s a faint outline of skyscrapers, tall buildings with sharp peaks, connected with the lines of an old train network. Empty streets with long stretches of concrete road that undoubtedly lead to the head. A city in a titan, a home in a once warm body. As common as they are, it still startles him.
It’s in one of these carcass cities that he met Tariq, sitting on the edge of the balcony with white pant legs fluttering in the wind.
The ribs above him shift ever so slightly, expanding as a cool breeze washes over him. The same he’d felt before his fall.
“You’re still alive, aren’t ya, big guy?” Oscar asks, absentmindedly patting the crosswalk where he sits before pushing himself to his feet. “Well, we can’t have ya wakin’. Sorry, fella.”
The major road he’s on still has functioning lamp posts, albeit flicking dimly against the darkness. Which means it mirrors the path of the spinal column, leading him on the path directly to his destination. He can’t see the head from here and unfortunately, it’s moments like these where he wishes he had Tariq’s prosthetics rather than his own flesh and blood.
He can hear Cain’s voice in his head, robotic and bemoaning his laziness. The world is at stake, Oscar! It’s your calling. Now walk!
“I’m on it,” he groans, ripping the remains of his goggles off and dropping them unceremoniously on the concrete.
Then, Oscar starts to walk.
The eerie silence is what gives it away.
Tariq hears no boisterous singing of old rock songs, no whistling to The Sound of Music, no clanging of metal when it seems Oscar has found a particularly pretty sheet of steel that he desperately needs to smash.
“I assume he is dead?” Tariq asks, eventually having made his way back to Cain. The bike’s lights flicker on and off but there’s no voice, just the near quiet hum of the engine. “Oscar says you talk. With full sentences.”
The bike remains silent, and Tariq feels his face grow hot with shame.
“Fine, I will find him on my own. As per usual.”
He leaves Cain and heads east.
Left, the voice of Oscar in his mind supplies. Directions are too hard.
“Of course,” Tariq mutters, attempting to find footsteps in the sand that weren’t swept away by desert winds. Instead, he felt his own imprints as he walked, the weight of the legs dipping hard into the earth. Tariq hates the desert, moving in it with prosthetics exhausts him and the sun makes the metal too hot to touch.
He finds the dark swirls of red moments after. Each step a cautious one, he follows the path until he spots a circle, no larger than a sewer hole. Upon closer inspection, Tariq notes the slight push of air from beneath. Slowly, he takes one step and lets the weight of the prosthetic do the work, sinking into the sand until it meets a hard surface. Exhaling, Tariq moves the other leg forward, watching it too fall beneath the surface, deeper than the other.
Stairs, thank god. Oscar must have found them.
Sucking in a deep breath and making sure his goggles are fastened on tight, Tariq plugs his nose and gingerly traces the spiraling staircase until he’s submerged in the earth.
He extends his hands out, keeping his eyes trained to the ground as he buries himself, hoping to avoid a misstep and tumble however deep the shaft goes. It’s like willing yourself to drown, an agreement with the earth to bury yourself. It would have been terrifying if he hadn’t been down this road before. When he can no longer feel the heat of the sun his face, Tariq looks up, spotting the sand form a makeshift cover where his body had passed through, effectively sealing him inside cool darkness.
Except it wasn’t complete darkness.
Small lights line the stairs, mirroring the atmosphere of a swimming pool during a midnight dive, hazy like the winter sky.
His fingers drop from his nose and he attempts to shake the sand from his hair. The stairs are incredibly high up, the edges of the titan’s ribs nearly coming up to meet him. Below, a city is encased in ruins, a single string of lamposts acting as its only light. It reminds Tariq of the landing strips back home.
Pushing his glove back to expose the watch on his wrist, Tariq marks the time. Three hours, then nightfall.
“Oscar!” He calls, receiving no response. The city is deathly still, abandoned and decaying, the only sound coming from the hard clunk of the prosthetics on stone.
It takes him thirty minutes to reach the bottom, the pathway more direct from this angle. Assuming the lamps correlated to the spinal cord, following it would lead directly to the end of this mission. Logically, Oscar must have booked it in that direction the moment he figured it out.
Tariq stares at the long winding road ahead, glances once more at his watch and begins to massage his thigh. I can get there quickly if I sprint, he thinks flexing the legs and spreading the toes within his boots. He takes one step forward, hears a crunch and pauses, faltering nearly enough to trip. He catches himself before the near-devastating fall and glances down, pulling his right shoe off the ground to see what lies beneath.
Goggles, bright orange with ridiculously crude drawings etched into the corners, sit smashed, the lenses in pieces.
Tariq narrows his eyes. “Typical.”
And then he begins to run.
Oscar checks his watch again. Two hours. He’s been walking for an hour, his ankles already complaining. “Alright,” he sighs, dropping his backpack. At this point, it’s only wearing him down and he hasn’t run into anything else here, so half the tools in it are useless anyway.
Tariq has probably found the path down here and, knowing him, has the right sense of mind to take the fucking stairs. It won’t be long now before his partner caught up to him.
Somehow, the thought annoys Oscar.
As he walks, the lampposts begin to flicker, threatening to die out, a near-inaudible buzzing coming from them. Oscar
watches the lights as he walks, feeling static in the air, the little hairs on the back of his neck standing up.
“Something’s wrong,” he mutters, reaching behind his belt to unhook the walkie talkie, pulling it up to his lips. He checks the channel, sure it’s the one he and Cain agreed upon, before pressing down the transmission button. “Hey, Cain. You said this titan would awaken at nightfall right?”
It takes a few seconds and Oscar is suddenly aware that the signal might not make it back to the surface, let alone to their bike. When a robotic voice travels through the line, a deep breath he’d been holding releases itself.
“Yes, Oscar. That is correct!”
“And that’s in two hours, ya?”
“Another correct statement!”
“So the ground shouldn’t be moving under my feet?”
“You’re on a roll, Oscar—wait. Oh, no.”
Oscar looks down as the pebbles that have broken free from the concrete roads start to dance at his feet. There’s a deep groan of something clicking into place, huge amounts of steam suddenly pouring from the manholes around him, knocking the lids high up and forcing him to run forward to avoid being knocked out.
The tall buildings begin to twist and bend and soon, the world is no longer flat but tilting, bending upwards like a slow-building wave that he’d just caught the end of.
Something spills onto him like dense rain. He shakes his head and watches as sand tumbles to the street. As Oscar looks up, he shades his eyes to see the ribs begin to scratch the makeshift surface, poking holes where the sun, now a low orange glow, peeks in.
Slowly, Oscar clicks the walkie talkie again. “Cain, I think it’s fuckin’ waking!”
The ground agrees, picking up speed and lifting itself until the horizontal becomes vertical and Oscar scrambles to grab the nearest lamppost to avoid falling. A fall he’s sure this time would break more than just his goggles.
The rumbling continues, Oscar feels the vibration in the lamppost as he hoists himself up to straddle it. The next one isn’t too far, he could make the jump. From this angle, he can see the head, the back completely exposed except for ratty bars, left after the metal plating had been skinned off.
The titan is awake.
It maneuvers from sitting position to standing swiftly, destroying buildings and breaking through the layer of sand that acted as its barrier from the world, a secret well kept by the earth. Two monstrous hands extend, pushing itself up to ground-level. As the sand rushes down to meet him Oscar pulls his scarf to cover his face, and clenches his eyes shut.
He imagines it must have been a sight, the relatively peaceful desert with rolling dunes and swirls of sand, seemingly untouched just before the sun set, deep colors of orange and purple bleeding into the sky, a titan rising from the depths.
It rips itself above the surface, the wash of sand nearly throwing Oscar off the pole and choking him. He doesn’t open his eyes just yet, feeling the last remnants of the sun beat against his exposed forehead. He watches as massive joints spin and click and interlock as the titan pulls the last pieces of its legs from its burial site, standing tall enough to pop Oscar’s ears.
Oscar looks down and sees no trace of Tariq behind him. His radio is clicking frantically, the robotic voice chanting “It’s up, it’s up!” over and over and when Oscar attempts to tell Cain to just shut up it slips from his hand, dropping and vanishing in the dark, now-vertical city below.
“Fuckin’ great. Love that shit.”
Oscar whips his head upwards, gains footing in the pole and pushes himself up in one motion. He reaches the next
post without a problem, wrapping his hands around it and hoisting himself up.
No sweat, he thinks, glancing at the spinal road, leading directly into the brain. Sweat beads down his forehead. Thirty more to go.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Tariq sighs, standing perpendicular to the road.
The legs’ clamps had ripped through his boots in the panic, digging themselves deep into the concrete and locking him in position as the wave of sand passed around him. He didn’t close his eyes this time.
The titan has woken up two hours early, which goes to show that maybe leaving things to the last minute is absolutely the worst possible idea they’ve ever had.
And it’s because Oscar wanted seafood.
The thought of it makes Tariq’s nausea resurface, but he bites his tongue to will it down.
At this rate, Oscar has either fallen to his death or is finding some wild means of scaling what’s left of the titan. Which means Tariq needs to move quickly.
Bending down, Tariq reaches low and unclamps one foot. Immediately his world is turned upside down as he swings and slams the back of his head against the street, the other foot acting as his only safety from splatting on one of the many ruined buildings below.
He groans but continues to work, removing the boot and letting it fall quietly below. He slams his foot back down, as best as he can with his angle and hears the clamp activate, digging itself into the concrete. He repeats the motion with the second foot, hearing the click of it locking before swinging himself upright. The titan wasn’t completely linear, climbable.
Tariq feels the muscles in his thighs tighten as he swings himself until he’s set in a runner’s position, his hair swinging wildly from the angle and the growing wind the higher the titan stands. He takes one heavy step forward, than another and another and soon, Tariq’s long strides are taking him up the spinal road. The soft hums of his legs in motion set a calming pace.
He makes it a few more steps before something comes flying towards his face. Reflexes kick in and his hand appears just before the object smacks into him, gloved fingers wrapping around it. When he pulls back to inspect it, he’s staring at Oscar’s radio.
Tariq sighs, clicking it into his own belt before wiping the sweat from his brow and breaking into a sprint.
Oscar is three lampposts away, because that’s the best way to judge distance. He can see it from here, the latch that opens to the head, bolted shut. It looks rusted, probably easy to break into. He can do this.
The titan had started walking, long strides carrying it miles effortlessly. Oscar had briefly attempted to figure out the closest town to where they were but instead, figured that Tariq would know. And besides, he needed to place his focus solely on stopping it.
He jumps. Two lampposts away.
The titan sways and groans, it’s jawless head mimicking the sounds of dying motors. Oscar looks to jump, but before he can, the titan seemed to have wisened up. It begins to build up speed, long legs ripping itself free from the sand to move quickly. The sudden momentum nearly shoved him off the post, the ground shaking so fiercely that he could barely hold on.
“Can you fuckin’ chill?” He screams as the last rays of light vanish behind the horizon and night greets them. The air gets cooler but Oscar’s heart is racing too fast for him to notice much else. He can no longer jump, not at this speed.
He needs to.
“I’m gonna,” he mutters, setting his position as best as he can, “get so wasted after this.”
His arms extend forward, reaching outward to clasp against the metal of the next pole but he’s too short or he didn’t jump high enough or he wasn’t in the proper position before because his fingertips barely graze against it.
And he’s falling, once more.
The world moves slow, and he watches as a string of lampposts dance past him, too stunned to reach out and catch himself.
Oscar tries to remember what the point of all this was. He closes his eyes, waiting for the inevitable splat and instead he slams into something solid, ripping a cough from him and a wheeze behind him.
Oscar’s eyes snap open, craning his head to see a very unamused Tariq, his hair whipping wildly back and forth as he stands somewhat upright, as if waiting to catch him, one hand on a lamppost to keep them straight and both legs clamped to the ground.
Oscar remembers exactly why he’s doing this.
“My goddamn hero,” he laughs, reaching up behind him to pat at Tariq’s face, who frowns and ducks away.
“You are dead, once we get out of this.”
Tariq helps him secure his grip on the post before turning around. Oscar moves so they’re back to back and Tariq begins to walk backwards as he walks forward.
It’s unspoken but they develop a rhythm, the fear in Oscar’s chest quieting at the reminder of the security Tariq brings, his back, shirt soaked with sweat, large and firm and solid. The two of them propel themselves up the remaining distance until Oscar is kangaroo kicking the latch in. It swings open effortlessly and he crawls inside.
Tariq follows soon after, hoisting himself up and swinging the latch closed. The metal is steady beneath their feet and Oscar glances up.
He’s seen a few titan brains, this isn’t his first rodeo. But still, it’s never not breathtaking. Encased in this dome-like structure is a mind of wires and cables, shocks of blue electrical currents darting back and forth, steam that bleeds through the cracks in cording. The cords themselves are clear, the color traveling through them evident in hues of blue and purple and gold.
The titan launches forward, sending them both tumbling.
Tariq groans. “What are you waiting for? We are close to Yula. We cannot afford this thing getting there.”
He sounds mad, but Oscar figures he’ll deal with that later. He shoved himself up and makes a beeline for the center.
Tariq watches, keeping his place on the floor, his back aching from the extraneous effort of pushing Oscar up the spinal road and the legs are barely responding to him.
Just wonderful, he thinks, grunting as he uses his arms alone to sit up. They shake as he holds himself up, barely holding his face above the warm metal.
Oscar has moved to the center of the mind. He reaches up with his hand, the one with all natural fingers, and presses it against a screen Tariq never seems to understand. It clicks like it recognizes him before falling open, as Oscar takes a step back. A small crystal floats down in a beam of light, alien-like as it hovers just in front of Oscar. Seemingly innocent, soft in color, but they both know that it’s the heart of everything, the awakening, the power that Tariq doesn’t completely understand but is linked so intrinsically to Oscar that he often thinks they’re one in the same.
Oscar stares at the gem, his eyes taking in its fine color, glowing like the flickering street lamps now below them. He reaches out and wraps fingers gently around it, his hand encased in warm blue light. For a moment, an expression Tariq can’t describe crosses his features, Oscar holding the stone and reaching out to lay his hands against the mass of cords. Almost as a comfort, almost as an apology.
“Oscar!” Tariq calls, because time is running out and he can’t walk anymore, he can’t do anything.
Oscar closes his eyes, his hand tightening around the crystal until Tariq hears it, the finality of life. The last breath.
The crystal shatters in his hand, blue dust floating in the space of light and coating his fingers before vanishing and suddenly, everything stops.
Oscar’s hands fall to his side.
The currents stop, the colors vanishing from all the cables and tubes until everything is replaced with thick black tar, like oil has spilled in.
Like the brain is bleeding, Tariq had thought the first time he’d witnessed the death of a titan.
Oscar sighs, jogs up to Tariq and crouches down to help him sit up and rest his back against the wall.
“I think that’s a success,” he teases, his eyes fading back into that dull honey color Tariq has grown so familiar with.
“That was a fucking mess.”
“Oh! You swore. How uncouth.”
Oscar laughs and Tariq sees the absurdity of the situation enough to laugh with him. They sound hysterical.
“At least it did not reach town.”
“Though, this is the first time we were in one that was awake.”
Oscar sits beside him, sliding down. “Yeah, that’s my bad.”
“It’s fine,” Tariq hears his mouth say, though it’s definitely not fine. At least they’re alive.
There’s a groan below them and Tariq’s eyes snap up.
“If it is dead—” he begins.
Oscar’s eyes are closed as he hums. “Hmm?”
“What is keeping it up?”
Oscar bolts upright. “Oh, fuck me—”
They both grip each other, screaming as the titan crumbles to the sandy earth, throwing them out the glass windows of its eyes and into the empty night.
When Tariq wakes up, he has been somehow collected into Cain’s passenger seat of, his scarf tied and his goggles fastened tight. He turns to see Oscar driving through the night,his lips moving, as if speaking to Cain, a voice Tariq will never hear himself.
At least we’re alive, he thinks, before closing his eyes for the night.