Nothing But Monsters
KATIE M. FLYNN
I was passing through Fort Dick with a truckload of swine for slaughter when I made a stop at a roadside diner, Lou’s Steak Shack or something. It wasn’t that long since quarantine, and I was still savoring every last breath of open air, like sea in those parts, settling on the skin.
I took a stroll around the back of the building where they took bets, had beer. Today, it was a bear they’d trapped in town. I could see it huddled in its metal cage, black eyes shiny and timid.
The bears had come back after those nasty airborne viruses, ransacking our empty towns, making a mess of our refuse while we watched from indoors, unable to do a thing. We blamed it on birds or swine, but it was our own, American ingrates who'd agreed to be carriers, who sacrificed their lives to cull the crowding.
It wasn’t that long since quarantine, and I was still savoring every last breath of open air.
There were maybe twenty guys hiving around the chicken wire and wood fight ring, riled up and calling bets, leering at the machine they’d made to battle the bear. It didn’t seem very stable on its lawnmower base, the tower of car batteries that powered it, the school locker wound in barbed wire that held its machine insides. It had a giant speaker for a head, a nest of nails for a mouth. At its sides were jointed two toilet plungers, razor blades sunk into the rubber for claws. Whoever made it had a messed-up sense of humor for sure. What chance did it have against a bear?
Elbowed up at the back-of-the-van bar, I ordered a beer. The leather face manning the kegs of homebrew in a sleeveless Crass t-shirt asked me, “Who you bettin' on?”
“I don’t think I’d put too much stock in that thing,” I said, chinning in the direction of the plunger and razor blade beast.
“I don’t know.” His skin was so deeply grooved I imagined it breaking apart like a supercontinent. “This fight is bear on bear.”
“What do you mean, bear on bear?”
His skin was so deeply grooved I imagined it breaking apart like a supercontinent.
Leather Face gave me a wide, nodding smile, and I could practically hear the plates of his face cracking loose and shifting. “Old Andy got his hands on the tech to upload, and for kicks we tried it on a bear.”
"You uploaded a bear?”
“Not just any bear. Her.” I followed his eyes to the caged creature. “She’s gonna fight herself.”
Not like it was a big deal—they’d been uploading for years. After quarantine, all those dead, it made sense to people. Hell, my own ma was on the waiting list, always nagging, “Jerry, get me one of the good bodies, would you? One of those skin jobs. You know. Young, with long legs and a full head of black hair, curly, and—” She could go on like that for hours. How could I convince her it was better for everyone if she went naturally? I’d have to work back-to-backs to lease and service her.
I tunneled through the crowd toward the fight ring, guzzled down my beer, waiting for them to power Machine Bear on. It wasn’t right, copying a living creature, turning it on itself. I understood now why the religious had made sure only the dead came back in machine form, even if it was tricky, with a tiny window, mere minutes they say. But the tech was loose in the world like a sickness, and the law didn’t matter much at Old Andy’s fights.
It wasn’t right, copying a living creature, turning it on itself.
Still, when the tiny pin of a cam atop Machine Bear’s speaker head blinked on, I cheered with the rest of them. It lurched forward, jerking a plunger paw up, clunking itself in the head. As it wobbled under the weight of its locker chest, the crowd barked with laughter.
They opened Meat Bear’s cage. She stalked into the fight ring, curling and snuffling along its edge. Machine Bear had righted itself and stood perfectly still, and I wondered, did it know her? Did it recognize itself?
A sound like metal noise and anger came out its speaker head, its grill of nails. I startled back, stepping on toes, earning a push and a “pussy,” though I didn’t do a thing about it, too busy watching Meat Bear charge. She drew up on hind legs, going for the head. I thought Machine Bear was done for, but its lawnmower base had been suped up and goddamn was it fast, hurtling forward, metal teeth clamoring over the cement, sending off sparks. It plunged its plungers into Meat Bear’s midsection, drawing blood, and the crowd went rabid. It occurred to me that a skin job could be there among us, but they were, at the very least, well made machines. And this lot? Nothing but monsters.
I thought Machine Bear was done for, but its lawnmower base had been suped up and goddamn was it fast.
Meat Bear howled, huddling small, and Machine Bear howled back, metal blaring out its speaker head, and I got to wondering, was it real rage or hardware limitations?
Wheeling to face the frenzied crowd, Machine Bear raised its plunger paws, tottering under the weight of its locker chest. It fell onto its back, its wheel belt whirring at the air. Meat Bear took advantage, pouncing, tearing at the wiring where a neck should be. It didn’t take long for her to gnaw through the wire’s plastic casing. There was a frying egg smell, and the both of them slumped over.
The crowd booed. It should not end like this! “We want our money back,” I caught myself yelling, though I hadn’t bet a bar of credit. Some party, that’s all I was thinking as I paid for another beer, headed to my rig for some rest-eye. I checked my phone, four messages from Ma, shoved it back in my pocket. God, the air tasted good, like sweat, only it was just air. The bear and its machine copy were laid out on top of one another, and sure it was sad, but goddamn it, I was tired. Driving, I had miles to go tomorrow.
Katie M. Flynn's stories have received two Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in A Cappella Zoo, Barrelhouse, Cease, Cows, Flyway, and elsewhere. This story takes place in the future world of her novel-in-progress about the complex shapes love takes when the dead linger in machine form. She lives in San Francisco and can be found on Twitter @other_katie.
Illustration by Keit Osadchuk.