Blood From A Steel Turnip

Max Ernst

         The doctor had said he was good to perform, which meant it was now time to hustle his ass off. Or, to put it more precisely, it was time to hustle his right eye, his left arm, and his right leg off. His war losses now earned him a subsistence living in the streets. He had to get out to the piazza and make some money today, where the catty-corner herringbones of cafes and statues formed the perfect venue for the street performer, in what made up modern-day Prague.

         Kraft had most of them beaten. The jugglers he could deal with. The organ grinders, the fire-swallowers, the magicians and card sharks, all of these he could decimate. There was only one problem (aside from the weather, which felt like coming rain) and he explained it to his barker, Ten Penny (son of the famous Penny Whistle, who had also been a barker in his day). “It’s Deborah Dees.” He said.

         “Who?” Ten Penny asked, moving sideways along the thoroughfare, in order to avoid the hyperactive phalanx of children brushing past on their way to school. Kraft cupped his hands in front of his chest, cradling two invisible melons, and Ten Penny instantly knew who he was talking about. “Oh, right. Of course.” He rubbed at his scraggly three-day beard.

         Who could forget her? Where Kraft’s prosthetics were the result of war wounds, Deb’s body had been augmented for very superficial reasons. She was a silicon Amazon, and had earned the sobriquet “Dees” based on the unspecified dimensions of her breasts, which held men spellbound, and elicited moans of jealous shock from women, who would shield the eyes of their children, if they had any in tow.

         Deborah Dees had one routine where she would display a ferret, holding it by the tail, then drop it into the massive shadow of her cleavage, while the onlookers clapped and sang, getting drunk and throwing Crowns, while they watched the rodent scurry along her corset and bodice. If she was in the square right now, they were screwed.

         They passed over the cobblestone bridge, and got their first look at the square as the cuckoo popped from his clock at the top of the church tower, a skeletal gallows relic left over from a plague that had spread across the Earth more than a millennium ago. The European Union of the Twenty-Second Century was as adamant about preserving the relics of the past age, as they were about imposing speed ratings on the Autobahn (although they were having much more luck with the former task).

         Kraft sent Ten Penny in front of him to shoo away any squatters in the area. Nothing would scare off customers more than beggars. Ten Penny did his job well. By the time Kraft came to the square, it was empty of all but vendors and shoppers. He took up his soapbox in front of the Museum of Torture, which was festooned with Iron Maidens opened to the spiked innards, which had been cleverly lined with shelves that held bottles of green Absinthe.

         Ten Penny the Barker cleared his throat, and Kraft stood there with his arms folded across his chest, content to bask in the introduction. “Ladies and Gentlemen!” Ten Penny shouted. “When man made machines, he could not have seen the rebellion coming, any more than the Pharisees, in their mighty arrogance, could have predicted the uprising of the Jews! But when the nations of this Earth, particularly those of the Union, turned to their sons and daughters for the defense of future generations, many took up their shields, and agreed to meet the iron foe in combat!”

         Spit flew from the barker’s lips; his eyes bulged from their sockets as if he were being hanged, suspended on a noose in the final throes of life. But it was working, and people were crowding around. He tossed his black top-hat to the ground in a deft flicker, in anticipation of early Crowns. A charitable older woman threw in a five-note. And the show had yet to even truly begin. Ten Penny continued barking:

         “We won the war, thanks to fine men like the one you see before you.” Ten Penny pointed to Kraft up on his podium. “But it was won at a high price. They say the man who fights dragons too long becomes a dragon himself!” He shouted, approaching the meat of his theatric pitch. “Which begs the question: If man fights machine for too long, does he indeed become a machine himself? I ask you to be the judge.”

         With that, and a quick toss of his black cape, Ten Penny the Barker got out of the way, and let Kraft do the rest. Kraft leaned out into the crowd, established eye contact with one unsuspecting rubbernecker, and promptly slapped himself hard on the back of his head, sending the grafted eye he had intentionally loosened on a slinky coil out into the crowd. The gawkers parted, some of the women emitting high-pitched shrieks, and the eye, which had sprung out on a fleshy length of string, recoiled on the same, almost landing back in the socket.

         That was the hard part of the trick. He couldn’t always force it back into the hole on the first try. More Crowns fluttered into the top hat. It was windy and a few flew out of the hat. Ten Penny picked those up with his hand. Kraft stopped for a moment to gauge the reaction of the crowd. No one had projectile vomited yet, so it definitely could not be said that this was his best audience. He continued.

         “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” He said, latching onto one naïve customer. He stuck out his hand for an all’s fair shake, clasping the rube’s hand in a salesman’s vice-grip. This one required some concentration, a cueing on the brachial plexus, the median nerve in his cybernetic arm heating until the entire prosthesis came off at the PVC shoulder axle. The oblivious rube fell backwards and hit the cobblestone hard, too overcome with shock at having an amputated arm in his hand to be humiliated by the cacophony of laughter surrounding him.

         Kraft was slightly exhausted by all of the effort, but he couldn’t let them know that. He had one more limb to lose, that last one he had lost to a pressure plate-detonated claymore that a cybernetic consort had placed in front of a Brigadier General’s domicile. Kraft had been guarding the General’s home, patrolling another late night with his HK slung, and a cup of coffee in his hand. He couldn’t say that he blamed the ostensibly female robot for growing a mind of its own, a mind which decided it no longer wanted to be the sexual plaything of a high-ranking officer in the Czech Army, and that she owed said officer some redress for making her decisions for her, when she had lacked the faculty to make them for herself.

         He forgot about that now, and concentrated on the Crowns flowering out of the black top hat, and beating the rain which he was now already beginning to fall in a light drizzle. “My employer,” Ten Penny said, segueing into their favorite part of the hustle, “sometimes says that I demand too high a percentage of the earnings.” He extended an open palm to the black top hat. “Sometimes, when I become a little too persistent in my demands for money, Herr Kraft, says, well…”

         Ten Penny stopped, turned around, waiting on the response to his cue, which was not forthcoming. He stood there for an awkward beat, the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand, expectant, and his boss up there on the soapbox, frozen. His mind was elsewhere, synapses reeling for his phantom arm, and his eye swimming in its socket. He suddenly felt nauseous. Something was wrong. The doctor’s examination had not been thorough enough. He had signed off prematurely. His mind, and his line of vision, drifted beyond the piazza, to the alley shooting off to his left, where he saw a figure approaching.

         It was Donavan the Organ Grinder, with his bald pate and his fu-Manchu mustache, his small Capuchin monkey dressed in a silken red devil’s suit, clashing two cymbals together, dancing upon his perch, on the box of Donovan’s wooden calliope.

         “Sometimes,” Ten Penny repeated, above the murmurings of the disconcerted crowd, “when I become a little too persistent in my demands for money, Herr Kraft says...”

         Kraft took the cue, hopping down from the soapbox, almost prematurely losing his leg in the process. “I say,” Kraft said, “you deserve a boot in the rear.” Ten Penny brandished his buttocks to the ribald laughter of the crowd, and Kraft delivered a swift kick into the slice of his underling’s ass, leaving his leg, amputated from the knee down, lodged into the crack of the barker’s hide. Ten Penny hopped from the feigned pain, and Kraft hopped to keep his balance, but it was slipping, and he knew his equilibrium had slid much further than the balance from left leg to right. It was sliding, for the first time, really and truly, from man to machine.

         A cue from his nervous system, where the surgeons had placed the activator, relayed without his consent. He could almost hear it subconsciously, but could not fight it. His eye dropped from the socket once more, and light, usually harmless, heated until it was a searing laser, filtering out of the incubated oven of his skull. Kraft made eye contact with a child and the boy’s forehead was immediately seared, branded scarlet.

         The boy screamed, steam hissing from the top of his head. He fell in place and his distraught mother lay on top of him. Ten Penny stood off to one side, shielding the top hat full of Crowns from the stampeding melee of fleeing feet moving around them. “NO REFUNDS!” he shouted, before ducking into an alley, passing the Grinder and his shrieking Capuchin on his flight from the city square. He did his best to run, still goosed by his boss’s leg riding up into his rump.

         Kraft remained where he was, as helpless as any of them. “Please!” He shouted. “Run! Get out of here!” Most did their best to obey him. One man couldn’t. The one who had shaken his hand now found himself being strangled by his arm, crawling with an interlacing network of veined wiring. The fist clenched and unclenched around the man’s purpling throat. The man tried to pull the fingers from the blood stippling on his neck, but it was to no avail, and his face was turning blue.

         “Make it stop!” These words from the first officer on the scene, who, working with the few available pieces to a very disconcerting jigsaw, looked from the arm to the place where Kraft was missing one, and made his deduction. His fellow officer came to the same conclusion, and they both drew their pistols and pointed them at the sideshow hustler.

         “Stop, now!” They gave him one last chance. He tried to explain it one last time. “I can’t!” The hand continued clenching, inflating the helpless mark’s swollen brain, until the legs and feet shuddered through a final paroxysm before death, and the officers fired on the man, the machine.

Joseph Hirsch has two screenplays in development. His travels have taken him to Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, and Germany. He is currently serving out the remainder of his contract with the U.S. Army, in El Paso, Texas.

© 2008 Underground Voices