Mar 5 2013 2:30pm
The Age Atomic (Excerpt)
The Empire State is dying. The Fissure connecting the pocket universe to New York has vanished, plunging the city into a deep freeze and the populace are demanding a return to Prohibition and rationing as energy supplies dwindle.
Meanwhile, in 1954 New York, the political dynamic has changed and Nimrod finds his department subsumed by a new group, Atoms For Peace, led by the mysterious Evelyn McHale.
As Rad uncovers a new threat to his city, Atoms For Peace prepare their army for a transdimensional invasion. Their goal: total conquest – or destruction – of the Empire State.
She was pretty and her name was Jennifer and she was going nowhere, not tied to the chair like she was. She had long brown hair with a wave in it and was wearing a blouse with ruffles down the front that Rad thought looked nice but which meant she must have been freezing.
The man standing next to the chair was less pretty. His name was Cliff and he had a face to match, and he was holding a gun that was pointed at Rad in a way that made the detective nervous. The thug was wearing a trench coat, and beneath the coat were muscles, hard, solid; muscles that spoke of bar room brawls and violence in the small hours. Rad Bradley was a detective now and had been a boxer before, but Cliff’s frame made him decide that, when it came down to it, he didn’t want to go one-on-one with Cliff, even if he could get that damn gun out of the way. But, then again, a job like his on a night like this, punching someone you didn’t want to was likely to be in the cards.
The gun in Cliff’s giant fist was a revolver, and the hammer was back.
The back of Rad’s throat tickled. He needed a drink, and soon, assuming his stomach wasn’t going to be perforated in the next few minutes.
The lopsided slit that was Cliff’s mouth twitched into a smile.
Jennifer’s wide eyes flicked between Rad and her captor. Her lips quivered along with the ruffles on the front of her blouse. Rad thought she might burst into tears but then he decided she was more likely composing a particularly choice string of abuse. She was shaking not because of fear but because of the cold.
Cliff jutted his chin out to cut the air between them like an Ironclad steaming out of the harbor.
“Don’t tell me,” said Cliff in a voice made for radio, which was lucky given his face. “You’re too old for this kind of thing?”
“No,” said Rad, with more than a little hurt pride. What, crooks thought he looked old now? He squared his shoulders, which helped suck his gut in a little. Cliff’s smile opened with a wet click at the corner.
“What I was gonna say,” Rad continued, “was that it’s too cold for this. The city starts to freeze and now and again it gives a shake or two, and everyone’s in a panic. This makes my job a little more difficult than I would normally like, you see.”
Cliff nodded, his eyes flicking back and forth between Rad and Jennifer. He adjusted the grip on his revolver.
“The cold is good for business,” he said. “Good guys stay indoors, leaving the city to us. And sure, it’s cold out, but a job’s a job. I thought you’d understand that, detective. The way things is.”
Rad nodded. “The way things is,” he repeated. Then he laughed.
“Something funny?” Cliff snapped the gun up. With practiced ease the thug slipped his free hand inside his coat and pulled out a silver hip flask.
“Oh, I was just thinking,” said Rad, his eyes on the flask. “Reminds me of something everyone used to say, not that long ago. ‘Wartime’. Remember Wartime?”
Now Cliff laughed, and the laugh turned into a cough. It came from deep in his chest, and sounded like rocks banging together underwater. Rad wondered how many you’d have to burn through in a day to get a sound like that in the six months since Prohibition had been lifted.
“I do remember Wartime,” said Cliff, uncapping the flask with his teeth and taking a swig. “I fought in it. Even got me a medal.”
“That a fact?” asked Rad, knowing full well that it wasn’t. Cliff couldn’t have fought in the War, because only robots had fought in the War and only one had come back from beyond the fog and it wasn’t Cliff. The cold was messing with the goon’s head.
Cliff smiled and took another swig. “Sure. But you’re right about the cold. They say it’s going to get worse too, that it’s never going to end.”
“That a fact?” asked Rad, this time with a tang of anxiety. He didn’t like to dwell much on the problem of the Empire State’s never-ending winter, but Cliff was clearly reading the newspaper too.
Cliff shrugged. “The hell do I know? Maybe you’re all going to turn to ice like the water. Maybe they’ll figure out a way of stopping it. But what I do know is that in the meantime, I’ve got work to do.”
“Uh-huh,” said Rad. “Funny way of putting it.”
Rad scratched a cheek and pointed at Cliff. “We’re going to turn to ice, or you’re going to turn to ice?”
Another swig, another smile.
Rad ran his tongue along his bottom teeth. His mouth was dry and the flask sure did look good. But his night wasn’t going to plan and it occurred to him that this was now often the case. “Crooks like you got thick skin, then?”
“Yeah. Pretty thick,” said Cliff, recapping the flask and slipping it back into his coat.
Rad blinked. Jennifer’s teeth were clenched against the cold, but she was looking at him with narrow eyes. Even Cliff lowered the gun just a bit.
Jennifer looked up at her captor.
“Look,” she said. “Tell me what you know. Help me, and I’ll help you.”
Cliff chuckled quietly. “Lady, you got the wrong guy.”
“Of course I haven’t,” she said. At this Cliff raised an eyebrow. “We’re both looking for something. I think we both know that time is running out, so let’s cut out the macho and get down to it. Right?”
“Hey,” said Rad. “You never said you were looking for something.”
Jennifer looked at Rad with something close to disdain. “You don’t know the half of it,” she said.
“You called me,” he said, gesticulating in the cold air. “Said to come down to an address, which turns out to be an old warehouse in a quiet part of town. Said you needed my help taking down one of the new gangsters who’ve moved in downtown – which is handy, since I’ve been on the trail of Cliff too. Said that maybe you were onto something else, something big. Only when I get here I find you need my help more than I’d guessed. So maybe you should be grateful I’m here, considering you’re the one tied up with the gun pointed at you.”
Cliff twitched his wrist. “The gun is pointing at you too, pal.”
“Cliff, look,” said Rad, “give it up. You and your cronies have attracted the attention of not just people like me but people like Jennifer, and she works for the city. It’s only a matter of time before you’re out of business.”
Cliff’s thin lips formed something like a smile. “That so, friend?”
Jennifer shifted in the chair. “Tell you what, Cliff, let’s cut a deal.” She jerked her head in Rad’s direction. “Ignore him. Let’s talk. Let’s work it out. Because you and I both know the whole city is in danger, right, and when times are tough you can’t pick your friends, right?”
Cliff seemed to consider this while Jennifer shivered in the chair. Rad saw her coat lying on the floor in the shadows nearby, a big overcoat in dark green that matched her pencil skirt. Cliff must have dragged it off her so she couldn’t slide out from the bonds holding her to the chair. Rad was cold himself– freezing, in fact– but Cliff didn’t seem too bothered, even though his trench coat and hat, and suit underneath, were more or less the same as Rad’s. Rad thought again about the hip flask. He promised himself to get sorted in that department in the morning, assuming he and Jennifer made it out of the warehouse.
Cliff had picked a good spot too. Since the citywide curfew had been canceled six months ago and the once-regular police blimp patrols halted, crooks had been able to spread out across the city, finding a goldmine of disused, empty buildings that nobody else came near and that the police would never find. The city had become a crime-ridden rabbit warren and there was no shortage of work for Rad, although at times it felt like he was one man against a multitude. The gangs were organized, running under the tight leadership of thugs like Cliff, one of the city’s most wanted men, someone Rad had been trying to get a tail on for weeks now. Rad was out of his depth, he knew that; chasing organized crime was liable to earn him a pair of concrete boots instead of a paycheck. Which was why the unexpected call from Jennifer Jones had been something of a relief.
Jennifer Jones. Rad reminded himself once they were home and dry to ask her about what exactly she did, and how exactly she’d gotten his number to ask for his help by name.
The warehouse was the size of a blimp hangar, lined with individual lock-ups, each with a roller door like a one-car garage. The floor space itself was filled with crates that Rad had no clue about at all other than whatever was inside them was packed around with straw. Lots of straw. The stuff was everywhere, all around them on the floor… which meant, Rad thought, that the warehouse was still in use. Perhaps Jennifer had found Cliff’s own little hidey-hole, the place used by his gang to hide illicit goods. Rad was just thankful it was only Cliff who appeared to be home at the moment.
Cliff sniffed and waved the gun, his deliberation over.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” he said. “If it’s all the same to you, I think we need to bring events to their climax. And you two are something of an obstacle.”
Jennifer gave Rad a look that asked very clearly for the detective to hurry up and do something already.
“I understand,” said Rad, looking at Jennifer.
“Understand what?” asked the thug. For the first time, Cliff moved his head, turning it to look down at his prisoner. It was enough.
Rad kicked out, catching a sheaf of straw on his shoe and tossing it toward the thug.
Cliff ducked instinctively and pulled the trigger, but Rad was already out of the line of fire, Jennifer throwing her chair sideways. Cliff turned at her movement and brought the gun to bear, his attention off Rad for a moment.
Rad’s fist connected with Cliff’s jaw and brilliant white pain exploded in the detective’s knuckles. Rad, surprised at the force of his own punch, swore and staggered backward, but Cliff had gone over sideways. Rad blinked, but Cliff didn’t move.
Rad shook his fist, and tried flexing his fingers. They hurt like all hell. Cliff had lived up to his name: it had been like punching a brick wall. Gritting his teeth, Rad slid down to his knees beside Jennifer’s chair and with his good hand began to work on the rope holding her in place.
As soon as she was loose Jennifer scrambled for her discarded coat. Rad helped her into it and pulled her close to get her warm, the both of them still on their knees.
“Thank you,” she said into his ear with hot breath. She pulled back and looked down at her former captor, then glanced at Rad’s hand. “You OK?”
Rad kept his fingers moving, teeth clenched against the pain. “Nothing a little ice won’t fix. And we’ve got a lot of that in the city right about now.”
Jennifer laughed, but just as she went to stand the warehouse shook, the vibration rattling the roller doors that surrounded them. The pair waited a moment, crouched together on the floor. Then the tremor passed and Jennifer stood and pulled her coat tight.
“My imagination, or are those getting more frequent?”
Rad stood himself, and moved over to where Cliff lay.
“Yeah,” he said. “Stronger too.” He peered down at Cliff. The thug was out cold, his mouth slightly open. It didn’t look like he was breathing, and there was something shiny on his chin where Rad’s fist had landed.
Jennifer joined the detective. “Terrific,” she said, nodding at the body on the warehouse floor. “Out with a single punch? Not bad, Mr Bradley.”
“I used to box, or so I’ve been told. I’ve got a medal and everything.” He reached forward with his good hand and felt Cliff’s neck, his heart racing a little. There was no pulse and more than that the skin was cold, apparently the same temperature as the frozen air of the warehouse.
“He’s dead,” said Rad, not quite believing it himself. He looked at Jennifer.
“Depends on your definition of dead, I suppose,” she said.
Rad’s jaw moved up and down but he couldn’t find the right words to answer. He carefully lifted one lapel of Cliff’s trench coat with his injured hand and reached inside with the other. Maybe there was some ID, or something else that would be useful. Instead, his fingers closed on the smooth metal of the hip flask. He pulled it out and looked at it.
Well, he needed a damn drink, and it didn’t look like Cliff was going to mind much. He glanced back to the body and uncapped the flask to take a sip.
Rad ignored Jennifer as his nostrils caught fire, reacting to the poisonous fumes from the flask. His throat closed in a reflex action and he choked – then coughed, hard. Through watering eyes he saw Jennifer move in front of him and he gasped as she knocked the flask out of his hand. The detective retched and bent over, and saw the flask on the warehouse floor, a thick liquid spilled from the open top.
“Sweet Jesus,” Rad said, his voice a rattling croak. He coughed again and stood. Jennifer scooped the flask up and held it away from her, looking at it like it was about to explode.
Rad’s throat was raw. Jennifer tipped the flask upside down, letting the rest of the liquid escape. It was bright green and pooled on the cement floor like oil. The smell was sharp, like gasoline and coal smoke and lemon juice.
Rad managed to find his voice.
“What is that?” He peered closer, fascinated by the evil liquid on the ground. Jennifer crouched near to the floor to take a closer look.
She looked back up at the detective. “It’s anti-freeze,” she said.
“He was drinking chemicals?”
Rad stroked his chin with his good hand, and looked down at the dead body in front of them. Dead? His punch hadn’t been that heavy, unless maybe the guy had had a fractured skull to start with.
He looked at the wet mark shining on Cliff’s chin. Then he swore and knelt down again. He poked at the thug’s face.
“Son of a bitch,” said Rad as he pushed hard at the shiny patch, enough for the skin to slide back over the bottom of the jawbone.
Except it wasn’t bone, not at all. The shining patch was metal, silver. The whole goddamn jaw was made of it.
Rad jerked his hand away, only for Jennifer to take over. She pulled at the torn skin, then gripped at the edge with both hands and yanked. She rocked backwards on her heels as a rubbery beige something that had been Cliff’s face came cleanly away.
“They’ve started already,” she said, and she stood, tossing Cliff’s face to one side and putting her hands on her hips. She pursed her lips in thought.
“He’s a robot,” said Rad. “And you’re not surprised. Who’s started already? More robots? And where do robots like this guy come from anyway? The only robots I know of are the ones that the Navy used to make. He doesn’t look like one of those.”
Jennifer looked at him and nodded. “It’s been modified. Upgraded.”
“Oh,” said Rad. He had that sinking feeling again; here he was, helping someone who knew more about what was going on than he did.
Jennifer pushed Cliff’s head to one side, revealing the rear half of the skin-mask. She pulled the robot’s hat off; Cliff’s hair was still in place, slick and proper just like any self-respecting crook would like it. But beneath, in the dim warehouse light, his real face shone, all silver and wet and angular, a whole lot of triangles and rectangles that explained Cliff’s special kind of handsome. Inside the metal mouth were teeth which looked pearly white and human enough, as did the eyes set into the steel brow.
Rad felt a little ill and rubbed his finger against his pants. He wasn’t sure what the flesh-like material was that covered the robot but he had a feeling he didn’t want to be touching any more of it. He looked down at Cliff again. For a robot, it sure had gone down easy. Maybe he’d punched out a fuse. Not a great design for a mechanical gangster.
Rad coughed and sniffed and turned away, directing his attention to the closest stack of wooden crates behind him as he wrapped his arms around his chest, trying to beat some warmth into his body. His feet shuffled through the straw on the floor, his toe nudging a small silver metal rod, like half a pencil, the blunt ends wrapped in copper.
Rad picked up the rod and turned, holding it out, but Jennifer was hunched over Cliff. Rad closed his mouth and slipped the rod into his pocket and turned back to the crates.
He pulled on the lid of the one nearest him. The nails slid out with surprising ease; the crate had been opened before, recently.
Rad pushed his hat back on his head and pulled a few handfuls of straw out of the crate, his punching hand functional but sore.
“I don’t know what these guys were moving,” he said over his shoulder, “but it’s not booze or guns.”
Rad pulled a gunmetal grey something out of the crate. It was a cylinder about six inches long and three wide, capped at one end by black glass and finished at the opposite with some kind of electrical terminal. Rad shoved more packing out of the crate and found a length of curly cable secured with a wire twist, long plugs on each end, clearly designed to mate with the end of the cylinder. He looked for a third time in the crate, and saw at the bottom a sort of trapezoidal box like a radio with dials and buttons on the front, and a handle in black plastic on the top. He gave the handle a tug but the object didn’t move much. It felt heavy.
Rad turned back to Jennifer and the robot, cylinder in one hand and cable in the other.
“You wanna start telling me a little about all this? Because if you want my help then you’re going to have to fill me in on this one. And we’re going to need to discuss my retainer.”
Jennifer stood and looked Rad in the eye. “He said you could be difficult.”
“Captain Carson. Who else?”
Rad blinked. “You know Carson?”
“Sure I do. I work for him – worked, anyway. Nobody’s seen him since–”
“Since he walked over the ice and disappeared into the fog,” said Rad. “Yeah, I know. So you wanna tell me why I’m rescuing one of Carson’s agents from a robot gangster? I would have thought the Commissioners would send the big guns in, one of their own in a mess like this.”
Jennifer laughed. “Big guns? There aren’t any. Or haven’t you noticed? Not since… well, not since before, anyway. Carson had some grand plans, but now with the Fissure and the cold, the whole place is a mess and…”
Rad waved his hand. He didn’t like to be reminded of the status quo, because the status quo was bad. Carson, the new City Commissioner was gone, abandoning his post when the transdimensional tear that connected the Empire State to New York City – the so-called Fissure – vanished. And with the Fissure gone the city was slowly turning into a solid block of ice, one apt to shake itself to pieces too, if the tremors were going to keep up like they were.
Rad had heard things were bad at the Empire State Building. There was no one in charge, no one to give orders, no one with any kind of solution, because the one man who knew how any of it all worked had apparently committed suicide.
“Yeah,” said Rad. “I got it.”
Jennifer nodded. “Carson spoke highly of you. Said you were the best. Said to call you when things got difficult.”
“So things are difficult?”
“Something like that.”
“You said they’d started already.” Rad gestured around the warehouse, his eyes scanning the lock-ups. “I take it you’re on the trail of something?”
“Yes,” she said. She straightened and moved to the nearest of the roller doors, giving the padlock at the bottom an experimental kick with her boot. She pushed at the door, rattling it, but it held firm. “We need to see what they’ve got in here.”
Rad gently pushed Jennifer to one side and knelt next to the lock. He took a pair of lock picks from inside his coat pocket, holding them up for Jennifer to see. She smiled and folded her arms.
“Hey,” said Rad. “Detective’s best friend.” He turned back to the padlock and got to work. The padlock was large but nothing special, and within moments Rad had it sprung. He stood, one hand on the roller door release, but then paused and looked over his shoulder at Jennifer. He had a bad feeling about this.
She nodded. Rad sighed, and pulled the door up. As the roller snapped into its housing, he yelled in surprise and jumped back nearly a foot.
“What in the hell?”
Jennifer darted forward before Rad could say anything more.
“God damn,” she said, her breath clouding in front of her.
The lock-up was filled with robots, tall and silver and inactive. They filled the space wall to wall, five in a row. Rad stood on his toes and counted ten rows to the back of the space.
“Fifty,” he said, his eyes wide. “There’s fifty robots in there.”
Jennifer stepped closer. Each robot had glassy eyes that were dark. She stared up at the closest one, then reached up and tapped the front of its head.
“Careful!” said Rad, tugging on Jennifer’s arm. She didn’t resist as he pulled her back, but when he turned her around he was surprised to see her smiling.
“We need to get out of here,” said Rad. “I don’t like this one little bit.”
Rad huffed in the cold air. “What?”
“They’re not active,” said Jennifer. “Open another lock-up.”
Rad was frozen to the spot. Behind Jennifer the ranks of inactive robots stood like life-size children’s toys.
“OK,” he said, finally, not quite believing what he was doing. He moved to the next roller door on the left and picked the padlock. The door shot up with a bang that made him jump.
Inside were more robots. Another fifty. Rad looked down the length of the warehouse, then turned and peered into the gloom over the other side of the vast space. The building was lined with the lock-ups, at least sixteen on each wall. Sixteen times fifty was…
“He’s been busy,” said Jennifer. “They have warehouses all over the city. If they’re all filled with robots…”
Rad shook his head. “Someone is hiding a robot army in the city?” He swept the hat off his head, the scale of the mystery he’d stumbled into almost too big to comprehend. He licked his lips and decided to focus down on something a little smaller. He moved to the nearby stack of crates.
“What about this stuff?” He lifted out the metal cylinder again. “Any idea what this is?”
“It’s a Geiger counter,” said Jennifer, “part of one, anyway.”
“That so?” Rad raised the cylinder to his eye and tried to look into the end that was black glass, but it was totally opaque.
“It detects radiation.”
Rad looked at her over the metal cylinder.
Jennifer blew out a breath and it steamed in the air between them. “Welcome to the age atomic, detective.”
The Atomic Age © Adam Christopher 2013