“I got a job,” Oscar calls out, plopping down on the occupied mattress. He shoves a couple slices of fruit into his mouth, stolen from Tariq’s plate as the other absentmindedly cut from apple.
“Oh,” Tariq realizes the severity of this statement. “Weird.”
“Fuck you. It’s at a local garage. They were lookin’ for a part-time mechanic. Apparently, automatons are huge in Yula.”
Tariq looks skeptical, finishing his work with the fruit and sliding the remaining pieces onto Oscar’s plate. “How many jobs did you go through to get there?”
“Bitch.” He has no faith in me, Oscar thinks, frowning. “Three.”
Tariq’s legs aren’t connected right now, and instead the two of them are positioned on his bed waiting for the sun to rise. He has another shift at the minimart with the old lady today, and the shop doesn’t open until the sun’s in the sky. Oscar tries to avoid it, but whenever Tariq is looking away, he finds his eyes casting down at the scars on his thighs. Long and jagged, as if he’d been mauled, though Oscar indulges that it isn’t far from the truth. That was the deal they made, to leave Syla behind and scour the endless landscape. Find the titans, stop their awakening, maybe make some money.
“I should be able to get some parts for your tune up. Maybe even an upgrade.”
Tariq frowns. “I don’t need an upgrade—”
“Your clamps are worn down after the last job. Plus, a knife would be sick.”
Tariq’s frown somehow manages to deepen. “Don’t get ambitious.”
Oscar stands up, catching the first rays of sun peeking through the windows. The room rattles from the first train, traveling above them. He could smell the smog. “Want me to help ya attach the stilts?”
“No, I’ll do it.”
Tariq always says no, as if putting on his legs is an intimate process, and he’ll claim that it is, but Oscar knows its misplaced shame that has him hunched over himself, connecting nerves. He’s often contemplated telling Tariq that he knows, has always caught the Tariq’s fingers idly trace the marks of poor stitching and gasping when he reaches the sharp end encased in metal. Metal from the first Titan Oscar ever scavenged, before he knew things such as awakening and death.
“Okay,” Oscar says, checking his pack and making sure that the key card is sitting snug in his back pocket. “I’m off.”
There’s a moment of silence when he reaches the door. He can hear it too, even if it only sits on the edge of Tariq’s tongue. Stay safe, don’t stray too far. “Don’t cause any problems,” Tariq calls.
Oscar feels the burning of cheeks when he casts a glance back at the man, small despite his looming frame. He watches as the arms flex to lift up the metal legs on the ground. Tariq’s eyes don’t leave him.
Oscar smiles. “See ya tonight.”
“What are you planning for today, Oscar?”
Cain sits patiently, waiting for him at the bottom of the motel stairs. The train rattles and drops a small amount of rain on them overnight, which has given the motorcycle an impromptu shine. Oscar shrugs, as if Cain had eyes to witness it. “I got a job at the local garage. Need to collect some parts for Tariq but I might as well make some money on the side.”
“Why bother?” Cain asks, and Oscar has answered this question many times with silence.
“Any new awakenings happening?”
Cain’s headlight flashes as it scans the area for a moment. Oscar sits himself on the rider seat and watches the radar snugly fitted into its front. The green screen remains still as a beam travels through the area. Eventually, the beeping stops.
“Nope! Only possible titan in the area is 500 miles west, and it is in slumber.”
“Well, these awakenin’s are happenin’ in a pattern anyway, so we’ll head there next.”
“Which means,” Oscar says, sliding off the motorcycle and giving it a pat. “You’re stationed here for today.”
Cain doesn’t say anything else, flickering in acknowledgement.
Finding the garage again is a test of patience. Oscar has spent the majority of his time on the road following Tariq’s spatial memory. He’s always been poor with directions and is worse when there aren’t any remarkable landmarks. And Yula had no remarkable landmarks. Covered completely in sand, no building reached higher than three stories, with an incredibly long interconnecting train that ran through the sky above all the buildings. Apparently, taking the train completely through acts as transportation to Thast, a huge hub of culture and technology. It’s the only major city in a 500-mile radius, bigger than Syla and probably fueled by a titan. Probably.
Syla was a city within a titan, but unlike the rest, that titan had long since been dead during the city’s inception and mountains had grown around it. Fresh water flowed freely from the highest points and powered their technology, the wealthy claiming their homes in the peaks and the rest resting comfortably below. Syla is where they met, Tariq and he.
Syla is also where he met Cain. Oscar doesn’t like to bring it up, but he can’t help but notice the tension between his two companions. He’s never really given it much thought before. Cain started as a voice in his dreams, and then a voice in his head, and then a motorbike that sat innocently outside his rundown apartment until Oscar gave in and turned it on.
The dreams were always the same. An entity larger than life, roaming about the lands, and at the bottoms of its feet, endless piles of corpses, as if their flesh softened the heat from the sand as it moved. In these dreams, the titan is hard to look at, eyes awfully too bright and sometimes the face was too humanoid it made Oscar uncomfortable.
You’re the only one, Cain said, nearly a year ago. You’re the one to put them to rest. Before it’s over.
What’s over? Oscar asked.
Everything, Cain said, and that was the end of it.
Everything meant that when Oscar turned in his rotting mattress in shitty motels, he wouldn’t see Tariq’s face, twisted in whatever nightmare his consciousness riddled him with. He wouldn’t be able to count his lashes to calm the unsteadiness of his heart or collect the small smiles like precious gifts. He wouldn’t be able to travel and eat new foods together, he wouldn’t be able to eventually convince Tariq that the weight of his stilts doesn’t have to keep him heavy and that he should let Oscar help him.
Everything meant Oscar would be alone again.
Though now, with Tariq’s incessant nagging and Cain’s constant need to be Oscar’s priority, he doesn’t get much peace and quiet anymore.
Eventually, Oscar does find the garage and he’s smart enough to look apologetic at the owner. Chuck, a burly man whose beard reminded him of a titan that had massive cobwebs around its jaw, one of the first ones he’d ever seen. Oscar considers asking if spiders live in it too.
They put him to work on repairs, fridges and microwaves, a telephone booth, and funnily enough, a karaoke machine that had him humming some old tunes once he got it to start up again. He works through everything surprisingly quickly, to the point where Chuck even offers to buy him lunch for all his efforts. Oscar agrees and when he gets a sub sandwich, he’s careful to save half of it, wrapping it up and placing it deep in his pack.
“Afternoon, Chuck,” a voice calls in halfway through the day. It’s melodic and polite, a hint of an accent Oscar hasn’t heard before. It distracts him enough to look up from being arms deep in an ice box.
The man who entered was dressed cleanly, pristine even in the harsh Yula winds that sent its sand rushing about in the air. Not a speck of it seemed to land on him and his shoes, sharp and black, looking as if they hardly touched the ground. Despite this, his face was the most interesting part of him. Scars lined the majority of his features, and yet there was a handsomeness to it that piqued Oscar’s interest.
Chuck didn’t seem to share the same interest.
“I have what you’re looking for,” he grunts, the politest thing he’s said all day. He bends down below the vehicle he’s been working on to a small latch. It takes a few seconds, but he unlocks it to pull a small metal box out. He has to unlock that too, but when he does he produces a small black card. A look of pain crosses his features as he hands it over to the stranger.
The man dressed in white smiles, places the card on a small device and waits. It beeps once, twice, and then the card is handed back.
“Is everything in order?” Chuck asks.
“Everything is in order, Chuck,” the stranger replies.
Chuck sighs and takes the card, placing it back in the box and where it once was. The strange man glances at the workplace and his eyes stop at Oscar. They were a piercing blue that froze Oscar in place, half turned to the fridge.
“New help? That’s unfamiliar face.”
“Yeah,” Chuck says, quickly. “We needed some help around here.”
Oscar beats Chuck to it. “One of the best.”
The stranger smiles. “Don’t be leaving town so soon, I might have a job for you.”
Chuck glances at Oscar, but his expression is unreadable. “Sure,” Oscar says, because why not.
The stranger nods, turning towards the door. “It’s been a pleasure, Chuck.”
Chuck says nothing, and the wind outside closes the door closes harshly.
No one wants to answer Oscar when he asks about it. It’s dodged with an expert level of charisma, from Chuck and everyone else in the garage. He eventually gives up, choosing instead to look at the pile of discarded prosthetics that resided in the corner of the workplace and shift through for something salvageable. A lot of the components were ancient to Oscar, older tech that hadn’t seen much of the light of day.
“Tariq must be a sight,” he mutters, thinking of the Spartan-like structure of Tariq’s stilts. The base metal was scavenged off a titan and carried a sleek deadliness to the design that Oscar was rather proud of, even if Tariq won’t let him do as nearly as many upgrades as he wants. It’s for the best, and despite the strength of Tariq’s thighs and back, any more weight could cause him serious strain.
“A gun in the heel woulda been sick though,” Oscar sighs, throwing the useless scraps behind him. The people in Yula seemed to focus more on minimal efficiency, the majority of the prosthetics acting as peg legs rather than the nerve-controlled limbs they could be. It makes Oscar cast a glance at the two artificial fingers in his hand. He flexes them, watching as they dig into his palm like the rest of his fingers. A mechanic’s most important tool, other than their ingenious brain, are their hands.
He briefly wonders if Chuck would still be able to work without a few fingers.
Oscar leaves the garage with a wave to Chuck, a couple more credits on his card, and the suns setting before him. It painted the sky a harsh red and silver, drawing milky lines that vanish beyond the horizon. It’s beautiful when he can sneak a peek in between trains passing overhead.
Cain said the sky was made by titans, long ago, and the suns were handpicked by the mightiest titan of them all. It rang similar to the lullabies he would hear from Alice when he was young and in her care. Tariq argues that space is more vast than mere humans and titans, but Oscar likes to think that everything was perfect by design and molded with hands. Even ones with missing fingers.
Oscar weaves his way around Yula, dodging stands of fresh fruit and jewelry. He passes by an ice cream shop and contemplates blowing everything he’s earned on something sweet but the look of disappoint he can already imagine in Tariq’s eyes holds him back.
The shop where Tariq is working is still open, its sign flickering and the old woman who runs it is smoking on a plastic chair in the front. She notices Oscar approach and shoots him a cheeky smile.
“Well, if it ain’t the young man that sold his friend off.”
“I didn’t sell him off,” Oscar says, grinning. “I selled him up.”
“If you’re lookin’ for him, he’s stocking shelves.”
“You don’t mind the distraction?” Oscar asks, because he’s not a complete idiot. The woman shakes her head and makes a hurry up gesture to usher him inside.
“We closin’ soon anyway.”
Oscar pushes the door as he’s greeted by cool AC, and is instantly jealous of the difference in their working conditions. The tank top he’s wearing now makes him feel underdressed, despite the heat outside, and he has to hold himself from sneezing due to the rapidly cooling sweat.
“You’re making a gross expression.”
Winning the fight against his body, Oscar glances up to his right and spots Tariq chilling on the highest point of the ladder, empty box in his hand as he aligns the last bright yellow can of tomato juice on the shelf. When he’s sure its perfect, he turns over his shoulder to face Oscar, squinting.
“You can’t even see my face, ya piece of shit,” Oscar calls out, watching Tariq’s eyes narrow further.
“You’re right, I left my goggles in the motel and now I’m working based on the bright colors. Funny though, I don’t have to see you to know you’re being ugly.”
“You know the only place I wanna be degraded is the bedroom, right? Punish me with ya words.”
“Stop right there. This is a fine establishment.”
“My dick is a fine establ—”
Tariq slides down the ladder effortlessly, and if it weren’t for the heavy clunk of his stilts, it would almost have been graceful. He’s bootless again, the cheap pair they bought the day before seemed to have already lost its usefulness. Oscar thinks it must be hard to look at his feet. Tariq pointily doesn’t.
“Have you eaten?” He asks, approaching Oscar. When he gets close enough, Oscar is so sharply reminded of their height difference, and their frame difference, and their everything difference that he ends up snorting when Tariq tilts his head down to look at him, sweat on his brow from the prior exertion.
“Yeah. Brought ya some.” Oscar fetches the half-eaten sub from his pack and hands it over, which Tariq accepts gratefully. He’s gentle with unwrapping it and takes small bites, as if patiently savoring it, despite being a simple turkey and mustard deal.
“This is abysmal,” Tariq says after a moment, but finishes it at the same careful pace.
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll never do anythin’ to satisfy you.”
Tariq shrugs, careful to fold and compress the wrapper.
Oscar continues, “You ready to head out?”
“Did you come to pick me up?”
“I wanted to check out yer gait. See what I need to keep track of.”
Tariq frowns. “The stilts still function fine.”
“Don’t lie to my face, I’m too smart for that. Plus, any excuse to watch that ass—” Oscar isn’t prepared when the wrapper is shoved into his mouth, effectively silencing him as Tariq snags his jacket from the back. By the time he gets it out and into a nearby trash bin, Tariq has said goodbye to the old lady, locked the shop up and is patiently waiting for Oscar to lead the way. Which he does.
They wander aimlessly through Yula, memorizing the small town, when the man in white pops unapologetically into Oscar’s mind. “Somethin’ weird happened today.”
Tariq has taken to counting the intervals between trains. He seemed to always fall into the habit of over-focusing on his surroundings. “Oh?” he says, after muttering “Twenty-three.”
“Yeah, a man in a white suit.”
Tariq’s eyes snap to him. “With a gnarly scar?”
“I saw him too...Twenty-two. He appeared to be collecting debt. Twenty-five.” Another train goes by. “Two. That’s odd.”
“Stop countin’. He did the same to the garage. He looks wealthy, like credits fallin’ outta his asscrack as he walks wealthy.”
Tariq finally quits his count and frowns. “His accent was weird.”
“Not Yulan for sure. Reminded me of the visitors in Syla.”
“No, it was even more proper than that.”
“...He wants me to do some work for him later.”
Another train goes by, and the sky is completely dark now, not a single star in the sky. It’s the smog, Oscar thinks. Tariq’s hair blends right into it.
“Be wary,” Tariq says after a beat. “Titans are easy. People are strange.”
Oscar doesn’t know what to say to that.
Another train rumbles by.