Titan City 1931
“What did you say this was again?” Anson Walker prodded the leathery, brown sac with a pen. It was almost as tall and wide as the desk upon which it sat and excreted a musty, oily smell. A keel-like ridge sloped along the center, ending in a slight curl at the edge. It pulsated with an even rhythm and put off enough heat to warm the office several degrees.
The lanky, milquetoast man who brought the sac to Anson, rubbed the back of his head. He wore round, tortoiseshell spectacles and a satchel slung diagonally over his shoulder. His white lab coat was stained brown. His nasally voice grated on Anson’s hangover. “It's an ootheca.” He blinked and adjusted his tilted, polka-dotted bow tie.
Anson pushed his tongue into his lower lip and scowled. “No I heard you, I just don’t know what that is.”
“I’m sorry I forget that not everyone is an entomologist. Sometimes I get carr--”
Anson snapped his fingers. “I didn’t ask for the life story, kid.”
“No I suppose you didn’t.” The young man rubbed his arm. “An ootheca is an egg sac.”
“An egg sac? Why the hell did you bring it here?”
The young man pointed at the Anson Walker: Exterminator sign on the door’s frosted window. “My colleagues, the ones I have left, told me you were the monster guy.”
“The ones you have left?”
“Several of my associates disappeared from our job site.”
“Who is it you work for?”
“Oh, they work for me. I’m Carl Leandros, head of Promethean Labs.” He outstretched his hand.
Anson ignored it. “I’ve heard of you. You rebuilt the lab after your father went bankrupt building that crazy underground city for the World’s Fair in 1918.”
Carl frowned and moved his hand to his satchel strap.
“How many people have disappeared?”
“And you think this thing is related? Where did you find it?”
“It was out on Miracle Mile.”
“Why are you poking around that old amusement park?” Anson cocked an eyebrow.
“It’s the only real estate my father left me. I’m trying to reopen my lab out there.” Carl’s shoulders dropped as he exhaled. “This was in one of the access stations for Subtopia. I brought it straight here after I found it.”
Anson looked back at the sac. “Are you going to be able to pay me? Sounds like you have a lot of your assets tied up.”
“Fortunately, we’ve moved away from subterranean architecture and into medicine, biology, and a few other natural sciences.” Carl smiled and met Anson’s skeptical gaze. “I’ve had some profitable patents in the last couple of years.”
Anson reached into one of his desk drawers, careful not to touch the ootheca, and grabbed a clipboard. “Standard contract then. I have a per diem of $10 to cover expenses and health liabilities. I also charge a fee for the monster in question, relative to size, threat, esoteric abilities, and hive likeliness. That price fluctuates but it averages around $200.” Anson scooted around the desk, holding his tie away from the sac as he did so. He handed the contract over.
Carl took the clipboard and flipped through a couple pages of the document. “Anson Walker is not personally liable for any possessions or maimings that may occur as a result of extermination?”
“Just a little liability waiver. Nothing to worry about.” Anson waved the page away and placed a pen in Carl's hand.
“You’re the expert.” Carl signed on the dotted line. “What do you think this could be?”
Anson pulled the contract off of the pad, folded it, and placed it in the pocket of his long, black coat. The cool fizz of magic bubbled across his fingers as he pulled his hand from the pocket. He gestured to the ootheca. “There aren’t a lot of monsters that lay eggs, especially this size. A dragon maybe.”
“Maybe, but this would be the biggest dragon egg I ever saw. It’s probably not--”
A burping noise escaped the ootheca and a stream of noxious liquid began to pour out of the curled lip. The chestnut, fleshy membrane squirmed as shapes pressed against the walls of the sac. Segmented legs pushed through the lip and peeled back the sides, dropping several slimy, black insects the size of terriers onto the desk and floor.
Their long antenna flicked to and fro as the bugs found their footing. The insects had oval-shaped carapaces, the shine and color of obsidian. Each hissed and snapped their mandibles at the air. Their segmented eyes focused on Anson and Carl. The insects on the floor paused, though more were falling out of the ootheca.
Anson sputtered and fumbled back into his pocket, trying to grab his cane. “I didn’t see that coming.”
Carl reached into his satchel and produced a camera. “Fascinating. Those appear to be German cockroach nymphs, but significantly larger than anything on record.”
“For the record that is not what a nymph looks like.” Anson’s fingers brushed against the fangs of the dragon head atop his cane.
“The term nymph is given to a stage of development of many insects, not just cockroaches." Carl removed the lid from his camera lens. "When insects were first being scientifically studied, those most often studied were those whose nymphal stage is aquatic--”
“I didn’t ask for explanation.” Anson pulled his cane from the pocket. It was a length of African blackwood, topped by a silver dragon’s head holding a large diamond between its teeth.
“I don’t know if now is the time for a walking stick, Mr. Walker.”
“The diamond channels my magic. Makes it so I don't kill everything around me casting a spell.”
The insects were still pouring out of the sac in groups of three or four. The creatures on the ground were starting to spread out and chew on Anson’s furniture. One knocked the wastebasket over and was crunching on an empty Scotch bottle and discarded paper. A pair were gnawing on one of the desk’s legs.
Carl raised his camera. “They do not appear to be hostile.” He snapped a picture. The flashbulb filled the small room with white light.
The nymphs’ attention snapped to Carl and they hissed.
Anson rolled his eyes. “Really?”
A group of nymphs charged forward. Their legs clacked against the cheap linoleum. The insects pounced at Carl.
Anson interposed, forming a circular shield of white light. He smacked three of them aside, but the fourth latched onto his neck. The mandibles tore into Anson’s soft flesh, sending clouds of ash into the air.
Carl snapped another photograph.
“Dammit, will you stop that?” Anson kept his focus on strengthening the magic of the shield. More roaches flung themselves forward, frying themselves on the ward. Anson tugged on the body of the nymph attached to him. His hand sank into the spongy exoskeleton as he decapitated the insect.
The nymph’s head remained lodged to Anson’s neck, and continued biting, its antenna brushing him in the face.
“Let go of me.” Anson pried the head from his neck, tearing a portion of flesh with it. The skin crumbled into black ash in the head’s mandibles.
“Fascinating. They appear to retain motor function and muscle strength post-decapitation.”
Anson smacked a roach out of the air with his cane. A thunderclap filled the room as the nymph collided with a group of his comrades and exploded. “I’m glad you’re having a nice time, Carl, but shut the hell up.”
Nymphs stopped falling out of the sac, leaving two dozen or so insects in the office. The remaining roaches pulled back beside the desk and rubbed themselves against each other. The metallic taste of magic filled the air along with a deep hum. A crimson glow emanated from the nymphs’ black carapaces.
The roaches hissed in unison and fired a scarlet lighting bolt across the office. The blast took Anson by surprise, catching him in the chest and hurling him throw the door. His frosted window shattered in the process.
The electricity burrowed into Anson’s torso. Power coursed through his veins, rupturing arteries and exploding capillaries. He swore as he hit the wall opposite his office and slumped to the ground in a heap. His muscles spasmed and smoke spiraled off of his body.
Anson steadied himself against the wall and stood. Ashes swirled inside him, repairing the lightning damage. He limped over to the doorjamb and raised his cane.
Carl’s feet were sticking up out of the ootheca. The remaining nymphs encircled the sac and had their front legs raised, almost in prayer. One of them made eye contact with Anson and hissed, causing a chain reaction of noise. When the last roach had sounded off, the ootheca disappeared in a flash of red light, Carl and all. The insects then swelled and exploded, showering the office in slimy, red goo.
Anson let his weight rest against the door frame. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it on one of his smoking wounds. At least he signed the waiver.
The cab dropped Anson off at the gates of Miracle Mile an hour later. The ruins of the amusement park were bathed in work lights, probably for the Promethean Labs crew. The faded rides, abandoned clam bars, tents, and shacks stood in stark contrast against the night sky. A derelict Ferris Wheel, picked for scrap wood and metal, loomed over the boardwalks. Anson raised his hand and an energy blade appeared in his palm. He sliced through the lock and made his way inside.
Anson remembered reading about this place when it first opened to the public thirteen years ago. The papers had called it, a ‘Great time for families across the city, no matter status’ and the Most miraculous spectacle in Titan City since Professor Mysterium.’ He wasn’t sure which description turned his stomach more. He’d never considered having a family, something he considered to be a wise choice for an immortal.
Anson’s worn boots clicked against the pier as he crept along, disturbing the dust and ghosts of Miracle Mile. He passed building after building, trying to find some indication of where the new lab was being built or access to Subtopia. The roaches had to be building their nest in the underground city, it was far from light, far from humans, and full of things for them to break down for nutrients.
The ruin of an old directory lay in the center of a crossroads along the pier. Its faded paint lost to the ravages of exposure and time. Anson reached into his pocket and palmed a pair of polished silver disks. He placed them on either side of wooden box and stood.
Anson centered himself, planting his feet, concentrating on the solidness of the wood beneath him. White motes of light snapped into existence and surrounded the directory. A hum reverberated through the crossroads. The magic formed a spherical grid around the directory. It floated off of the ground and hovered in front of Anson.
Anson clasped his hands and whispered, “Kronos, Gegute, Lhamo, Etu, and all the other Lords of Time, peel back the years and allow me to see what was.”
The hum echoed and the directory shuddered. The wood began to warp and unwarp, dust and debris fell away, and stark new paint appeared on the map, details reappearing in reverse. Anson stopped it as soon as the directory was legible again. He mapped a route to the closest Subtopia access point and dropped the directory back in place.
Anson made his way through Miracle Mile. Here there was a carousel who’s poor horses had been long-forgotten by children who were now grown. A row of neglected carnival games, doomed to never part a fool with his money again. Crashing ocean waves and the occasional rusted hinge were the only noises on the wind.
The Subtopia access point was constructed of concrete, giving the appearance of a bunker more than a portal to a brighter tomorrow. Smashed and burned out light bulbs lined the stone around the tarnished bronze doors. Art deco designs were carved into the doors along with the words, ‘Subtopia: The City of Tomorrow’ across the top. Anson pulled the handle down, crunching through years of rust, and slid inside.
A sharp ping, like a hammer striking metal, sounded as Anson descended the staircase into Subtopia. An ancient engine rumbled to life somewhere in the darkness beyond, and worn light bulbs flickered on one by one. He was in a lobby of sorts, a hallway lined with time-worn murals depicting a better life for mankind. The cage elevator at the end of the room dinged and opened.
I am definitely charging him more than two hundred for this.
Anson glanced at the murals as he made his way to the elevator. Once colorful frescoes depicted a world where every city was hundreds of feet below ground while the surface was given back to nature and farms. A world where every building would be carved into the Earth itself, and these new molemen and nature could live in harmony, the fever dream of an eccentric with too much money.
The cool sting of magic washed over Anson as he entered the elevator. The door clicked shut and the car shook as it began its descent. A man’s voice crackled out of a radio in the ceiling. “Wel-- to Subtop-- I am Adonis Leandros and I wo-- to thank you for --pping by. Imagine a world unli-- We have nothing to fear about our subterranean realm! We will tam-- new frontier. It is Man’s des-- Promethean Labs wou-- your stay.”
The light bulb snapped off, along with the elder Leandros’ voice, plunging Anson into silent darkness. The elevator ground to a halt.
Tink. Tink. Tink.
The skittering of segmented legs broke the silence. A roach was climbing along the outside of the cage.
The elevator shifted as another leapt onto the opposite side.
Anson tightened his grip on the cane. Their feet slipped between the bars as they made their way to the door.
Metal groaned as the roach dug into the hinges of the door. A segmented eye the size of a dinner plate peered into the cage.
White lightning crackled across Anson’s hands. He fired the spell into the roach. A deep hiss filled the shaft. The car lurched and a crack rang out. The chain snapped.
Gravity asserted control, sending Anson and the car into a freefall. The rush of air coming in through the bars buffeted Anson about as he struggled to reach the elevator’s floor.
Anson formed a massive cocoon of white energy and braced for impact. Fifteen seconds later the car hit the bottom of the shaft and exploded. Anson’s shell shot out of the crash and ricocheted down the hall, jolting and jerking Anson along the way.
The cocoon came to a stop in a crevasse. Anson groaned and lifted his head. One of his ribs poked out of his chest, leaking black liquid on his white dress shirt. His right arm didn’t cooperate when he tried to move it. He raised his left arm instead and snapped the exposed bone off. Anson bit back a scream and pushed the other half back into his skin. The ashes began stitching him back together.
Anson grabbed his cane with his good hand.
Crunching legs pulled him out of his stupor.
A cockroach the size of a Packard car skittered around the corner. Its feelers, as thick as sailing rope, twitched in the air. Its carapace was tan and two parallel streaks lined its thorax. A pulse of crimson light emanated from the antennae.
The magic passed over Anson’s cocoon.
The roach turned its massive head toward Anson’s hiding spot. It strode forward, making a beeline for the cocoon.
Anson moaned as he tried to brace himself but aggravated his injuries. He clenched his left hand and prepared to drop the shield, but something caught his attention. The husk of an ootheca sat in a nearby crevasse.
Instead of dropping the shield, Anson strengthened it. He filled in all of the viewports, creating a solid white orb. He choked back the pain of the effort and waited.
A minute passed.
The crunch of mandibles sounded on either side of the orb. The cocoon jerked as the roach lifted it into the air. They began to move.
The roach dropped Anson’s ootheca on the ground twenty minutes later. Anson waited a moment, listening for the skittering legs to fade away. He rolled out of the cocoon, swearing as he hit the ground. Anson steadied himself against the cocoon and staggered to his feet.
The chamber around him was a massive, cavern of worked stone. Its arched ceiling was hundreds of yards up and luminescent fungi cast a pale teal glow across the room. The smell of oil and must was enough to make Anson dry heave and the sound of crunching exoskeleton gave him chills.
The flash of a camera pulled Anson from his retching. Carl was coated in brown slime, kneeling, and snapping pictures. He laughed like a madman, giggling in his insanity. “Arthropoda, Insecta, Blattodea, Ectobiidae, Blattella.”
Anson placed his cane in the crook of his arm and snatched the camera from Carl. “Wake up, wise guy, we have to get out of here.”
“Blattella, Blattella, Blattella.”
“If I wanted to listen to Latin gibberish, I’d go to Mass again. Come on.”
A smooth baritone voice spoke from behind Anson. “You’ll find that Mr. Leandros is quite insane. Best to leave him be.”
Anson wheeled around. Dozens of enormous cockroaches filled the space behind him. The sound of hundreds more marching his direction echoed from the tunnels at the edge of the cavern. One roach stood on a stone platform, carried by its brethren.
Anson just bit his lip and frowned. Talking cockroaches? This is step up from hive likeliness.
“Why have you come here, magic man?” The speaker was one of the roaches on the platforms. He had a dark red carapace and black streaks running down his thorax. A massive ruby hung from his neck, its chains made of some solidified secretion.
“Heard Miracle Mile had a roach problem. Upton Sinclair is going to go bananas when he hears about this.”
“Miracle Mile has a human problem. It belongs to the roaches.”
“Is that why you kidnapped those people?”
“No.” The roach snapped its mandibles together. “We took them so they could make more magic.”
"Where are they?”
“They are all around you.” The roach clapped his front legs together and red light bathed the cavern around Anson.
The five Promethean Labs employees were hanging from lines of solidified secretion along the walls of the cavern. Large stones protruded from their abdomens, coated in thick blood. Smaller rocks filled lined their arms and legs and were thrust into their eye sockets. All of them were dead.
The roached yelled. “Now we have more of the red rocks. We will have the magic.”
Anson closed his eyes and shook his head. “That’s not how it works.”
“My great, great grandfather took magic from the red rock. Make the little man give us red rocks."
Carl shrieked as the roaches hissed and stepped forward.
Anson stepped in front of Carl. “Wait, almighty… cockroach. Carl cannot give you magic, but I can. I am a wizard.”
The bugs stopped their advance. The leader gazed at Anson, a sinister gleam in it's segmented eye. "Prove it."
"Prove that I'm a wizard?"
Anson nodded and leaned on his cane, staring at his useless arm. "Of course, your eminence. Behold." Pain wracked his body as Anson conjured an orb of white light.
The roaches hissed, seemingly in applause. The leader reared back on his back legs and let his wing flaps clap together. “Bring the magic man rocks and we will have magic.”
“I told you, it doesn’t work that way.” Anson waved his good hand when the roaches screeched. “I can still give you magic. But I need to see your stone, your eminence.”
A hush fell over the roaches, only the sound of their joints snapping against each other filled the silence. The leader regarded Anson for a moment. “No tricks?”
“Never. You can trust me.”
“Very well. Bring him the stone.”
Another roach pulled the amulet off the leader’s neck and scuttled over to Anson. It placed the gem in his hand and skittered back to the crowd.
Power pulsed inside the ruby. It had been decades since he’d held another wizard’s focus, but this was the genuine article. Anson traced his fingers along the facets and focused his own energy. “Oh mighty magic of mine. Restore radiance, regality, and romance to these rascally roaches.”
Anson raised the ruby above his head and started to funnel white magic into the stone. The red magic screamed in his mind as Anson’s power overtook it.
“Cradle these cockroach casters as they carry your call.”
The roaches began to glow with white light. They pressed together and hissed.
The stone cracked and Anson forced a final torrent of energy through the ruby. The gem disintegrated into sparkling white powder. A shockwave of energy cascaded through the cavern, overtaking every roach at once.
The insects screeched and stampeded each other as Leandros’ magic disappeared. Anson formed a dome around himself and Carl as the chamber descended into chaos. In a matter of minutes, the enormous insects shrank into ordinary cockroaches and scattered.
Carl’s head flashed with crimson light and he toppled over.
Anson dragged him out of the main cavern and pulled smelling salts from his pocket.
Carl's eyes fluttered open. “Where am I?”
“We’re in Subtopia. I dealt with your roach problem.”
“Where’s my team?”
“I’m sorry.” Anson frowned turned away from Carl. “I never found them.”
Tears dropped out of Carl’s eyes. "How did I even get here?”
“I think it’s called an ootheca.”