Titan City 1936
Piper Sinclair wheeled out from beneath a white 1933 Packard Super Eight Model 1004. The owner, a flashy kid from Collingdale, dropped this beauty off with a complaint about a grinding noise. After an hour or so of careful inspection, it seemed most likely that was a human error, not mechanical. There was nothing wrong on physical level, quite the contrary. She was in excellent shape, angular and sleek like an aeroplane. Engine sang like a canary; the new adjustable brake system and seventeen-inch tires were in perfect order.
Still, it was a wonderful car, and it was nice to have a project. The Depression had a funny way of making everyone their own mechanic. More often than not Piper would sit around for hours waiting for something to do. Piper grabbed a rag from her coveralls and wiped the grease from her forehead. She pulled her goggles up into her black hair and rubbed her face. Her shoulders ached as she loaded her toolbox and left the garage.
Sinclair’s Service Station was an auto repair shop founded by Piper’s mother, Fiona, after the Great War. It was a four car garage attached to a parts store inside the Smithburg district of Titan City. Piper crossed into the store, navigated the narrow inventory aisles, and slapped her toolbox up on the counter. Chipped black and white tiles covered the floor. The smell of oil and gasoline filled the cramped space. Piper opened the register and started taking stock of the day’s transactions.
Old Man McTavish purchased three quarts of oil around noon. Mr. Marik had come to buy a replacement headlight for his master’s limo at two-thirty. The kid dropped the Packard off at four. The ringing of a bell pulled Piper from her figures.
Four rough men, dressed in leather coats, walked into the shop. The oldest among them stood a little ahead of his fellows. His face was tanned and scarred like battered boot leather. Deep callouses covered his hands, and grey sprouted along his temples. He looked around the room, pursed his lips and nodded.
Piper closed the register. “Welcome to Sinclair’s. It’s not often we get customers after seven o clock. What can I do you for?” She tried to hide her nervousness under a sweet tone.
The old man ran his tongue across his teeth and spat on the floor. “Where is Fiona?”
“Oh, you’re Russian. Welcome to the city.” Piper reached for the wrench under the counter. “Mom isn’t in tonight. I can take a message if you like.”
“You are her daughter, da?” Wickedness coiled in his stony eyes. “You will tell her that Pavel is calling in favor.”
Piper bit her lip and nodded slowly. “May I ask what kind of favor?”
“Mechanical. I have engine for her to fix.”
“Oh.” Piper dropped her hand back to her side and exhaled in relief. “Why didn’t you say so? You really had me going there. Of course we can help with that. Is it a V12, V8, four--”
“It is unique.” The old man’s face didn’t budge from it’s stoic grimace.
“You mean like European?” Piper smiled and grabbed a manual from behind the counter.
“We will put in garage.” He whistled and the other three left the shop. “Tell her, we will return tomorrow.”
Piper flipped the book open and thumbed through the worn pages. “I haven’t even taken a look at it yet. Just leave me your address and I’ll send for you when we’re finished.”
“No.” The old man placed a hundred dollar bill on the counter. “We will return tomorrow.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Pavel.” Piper placed the bill in the register. “I’ll get started right away.”
He nodded, turned on his heel, and left the shop, Piper on his heels. The other men loaded into a car and a flatbed truck. Pavel uttered a few words in Russian and the vehicles departed. Piper frowned as they drove away. Something was funny about all this and her mother needed to know.
After locking up the shop, Piper took off on her bicycle. The pale glow of an autumn sunset warmed her neck as she made her way downtown. Alarms and bells sounded throughout Smithburg as factories and plants closed for the day. Soon the sidewalks and alleyways would be choked with dirty laborers eager to make their ways home or to a favorite bar. Lord knew her mother was already at the pub.
Her mother’s favorite pub was a hole in the wall Irish joint called the Foundry. It sat on the waterfront, smashed between two shipyards. The squat building had gold-painted bricks along its foundation and a neon green sign depicting a hammer striking an anvil. Piper pushed through the worn green door and made her way inside.
Bits of metalworking, nails, gears, and tools hung from the ceiling and along the walls of the cluttered common room. The bar was nestled in the corner, booze tucked on three stout shelves. A poster of Piper’s mother in her dirty coveralls, a wrench at her side and a fist in the air was plastered along a wall opposite the gold, white, and purple suffragette flag.
Piper squeezed her way through the crowd of working women. She exchanged a smile and a nod with the gals who recognized her, declined a drink or two, and found her mother’s usual table. Fiona Sinclair sat in the middle of a group of women, each of whom was drinking and laughing. Piper knew some of the faces, other former suffragettes, and old coworkers of her mother’s.
Fiona was the toughest woman Piper knew. She wore her black hair in a tight bun, usually with a red bandana wrapped over the top to hide her ever increasing number of white hairs. Her mother always wore pants and practical shirts, preferring to keep her calloused hands in her pockets as she walked. A burn from an old munitions accident colored her cheek.
Her mother smiled and directed the group’s attention to Piper. “Look who’s finally decided to join us, ladies.”
Piper bowed her head and smiled. “Actually mom, I was hoping I could talk to you for a second.”
“Was there actually something wrong with that Packard?” Fiona raised an eyebrow.
“No she was fine. I went ahead and changed the oil though so we can charge him for that.” Piper shifted her weight. “We got another customer tonight, some Russian guy named Pavel.”
The color drained from Fiona’s face. “You’re sure?”
“Yeah, dropped off an engine. Sai--”
Fiona raised a hand. “Ladies. Would you excuse us? Molly, why don’t you go ask Cheryl to bring us another round?”
The women let Fiona shuffle out of the booth. Fiona grabbed Piper by the elbow and dragged her away from the table. “Did you look at the engine?”
“No.” Piper pursed her lips and slid her arm out her mother’s grasp. “It seemed queer so I came to you straight away.”
Fiona nodded, her thoughts a mystery to Piper. “Good, did he say anything else?”
“That he was calling in favor.” Piper did her best Russian accent. “Then he gave me a hundred bucks and said he’d be back tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is too soon.” Fiona rubbed her burn and swallowed hard.
“Mom, what is this about?” Piper stepped closer. “Are we in some kind of trouble?”
Fiona placed a hand on Piper’s shoulder. “No, but I have to go see Professor Mysterium tonight. She will know what to do.” Fiona pulled Piper into a hug. “Promise me you won’t mess with that engine.”
“Mom, you’re scaring me.”
Fiona pulled away to face Piper. “Promise me.”
Piper stared into her mother’s eyes. She’d never seen fear there before. “Of course. I’ll head home and wait for you there.”
“Thank you. I’m sorry.” Fiona brushed a tear out of the corner of her eye. “Tell the girls I went off to check on the shop will you?”
“Sure thing.” Piper grinned and watched her mother walk out of the Foundry. She passed along the message and hopped on her bicycle and turned toward the shop.
Piper unlocked garage number four and slid inside. It was a weird feeling breaking into the shop. She’d unlatched that door more times than anyone, other than her mom, but this was the first time it felt like she didn’t belong. Judgment hung in the stuffy air. Each footfall was like crushing a carton of eggs, but she had to know. Her mother wasn’t the kind of person to panic, but that Russian spooked her.
The lights popped on with a steady electric hum as Piper hit the switch. A canvas covered mass, filled the garage. It was longer and wider than any car Piper had ever seen. Were the Russians smuggling an aeroplane engine? Piper pulled away the fabric and gasped.
It wasn’t an engine at all, but a fifteen foot black and silver meteorite. A network of neon blue lanes spiderwebbed across its surface. Heat washed off it in steady waves. A cerulean sigil glowed on the front tip of the rock. Its light flickered, dimmer than it ought to be. Piper placed her fingertips on the symbol. The meteorite hissed and panels opened along its shaft.
Piper moved along its sides, her mouth agape. Machinery snaked along the inside of the panels. She knelt alongside the rock and peered inside. The mechanics blended naturally with the stone within, there were no signs of nuts or bolts. Almost like someone molded it around the machine. The technology was amazing, but she recognized some of the design elements. It was an engine of some sort.
She rushed over to her toolbox and wheeled herself under the meteorite. Piper sat up and examined the interior of one of the panels. There were more neon lines inside the engine. They ended in clusters along various points within the rock. A glowing blue crystal sat in the center of each cluster. All except for one.
That cluster was dark and the gem was cracked. Piper pulled down her goggles and reached for the crystal.
I bet you’re like a spark plug. Don’t reckon I have any jewelry I could swap in for you.
Her fingers brushed the crystal, but she couldn’t get a good grip. Piper dug into the toolbox and snagged a pair of pliers. She forced the tool inside and set its jaws around the gem.
I just need a bet--
Energy pulsated through the meteorite. Piper was showered with fluid as the neon lanes tore open. Stone cracked and the strange metal hummed to life. Piper shrieked and tried in vain to wheel away on her back.
The stench of burning metal tore through her nostrils. Liquid seeped into her pores. Everything fell silent and color drained from the world, plunging Piper into a greyscale universe.
Piper flipped over on her stomach and crawled away from the meteorite. She scrambled to her feet and turned back. Blue fire crept out of slow forming fissures. Piper ran to the corner and ripped the fire extinguisher off the wall. She yanked the pin and pressed the handle. Nothing happened.
She squeezed tighter, but still nothing. Piper looked in the hose. White foam oozed within, crawling out of the extinguisher. Piper dropped it and ran across the street to a telephone booth. She plunked a quarter into the slot and wheeled for the operator. There was no answer, but Piper noticed something in that moment.
Two men ran along the sidewalk, terror plastered on their faces, but it was in slow motion. Piper blinked and shook her head.
What is happening to me?
Garage number four exploded with that same slowness. A blue fireball lumbered into the night sky. Wooden shrapnel lazily drifted through the air. Piper grabbed the men and pulled them away from the combustion. She set them on the ground a few blocks away. They moved to roll over, but at a snail’s pace.
Piper looked at her hands and ran off into the night.
To be continued...