Into the Light

[This story was written for Round 2 of the NYC Midnight 2015 Flash Fiction Challenge. The assignment was to write a story up to 1000 words--in one weekend--in the assigned genre of "Science Fiction" with a setting of "A fountain in a public park" and including "a paper airplane."]

September 17, 1899 was the 182nd day of the alien occupation, and, being Sunday, was a day on which the “pets” were allowed to play. And so, ordinary citizens, making the best they could of the situation, dressed in suits and bowlers and “Rainy Daisy” skirts and whatever finery remained to mill about Central Park and appear to pleasantly accept their lot in life. Under the watchful eye of the automaton guards that had been sent down from the flying fortresses in the sky, people walked hand in hand or bicycled in pairs, smiling like mannequins in the Christmas window at Bergdorf.

Where 72nd street cut across the park, the transverse created a kind of trough that spilled the cream of the West side and the East side into a sort of basin, trickling down to a man-made lake. In this body of water, quiet naval battles were fought as ambitious receivers of new money glided past the inheritors of old money in boats piloted by their servants, each appearing better than the other. On the southern shore lay a tiled plaza, centered around an ornate fountain with an angel on the top. The Angel of the Waters looked out of cold stone eyes over the paralyzed city. Her arms reached out as if to help, or at least embrace, but she was still.

Guy Pitman paced the terra cotta stones at the angel’s feet. He chewed his nails and glanced from person to person. The young lovers laughing and stealing kisses. The aging nanny attending to a baby. The young mothers gossiping while their young boys played swords with found sticks. The athletic young marrieds on their bicycles. The elegant wheels spun round and round. Overhead, on the bridge that connected the two halves of the city, an automaton sentry scanned these same faces for the hint of a frown.

Guy had seen what happened when the terrible weapons of the automatons were discharged. How the piercing blue light first singed the smoking skin, before the flesh began to burn and fall away from the bone. In the first weeks, he had seen street toughs and angry young men attack the metal overlords, but every last one of them was turned to vapor. He had heard news of the cities foolish enough to fight back en masse, particularly those belligerent diehards of the Southern and Midwestern heartland—Charleston, Roanoke, Cleveland, Pittsburgh—whose destruction made New York City look like Paradise.

But as Guy searched the faces, he wondered, has no one any fight left? If sticks and stones don’t hurt the machines, we shall invent better sticks and stones. We are Americans. This is the age of industry. What can we not do?

Even now, there was magic underground, even if the metal gods from the sky had not realized it yet. Although he had hidden the papers, in his mind, Guy could still see the designs he had drawn for the intricate lace of tunnels beneath their feet, for the underground trains that might never come to be, lest we lift this yoke from our necks.

Walking over to the lake’s edge, Guy looked down through the green surface at the fish below. They were rumored to be mere goldfish, as one would keep in a bowl, who grown to enormous size in such a large body of water.

Yet we are going to grow smaller, he thought, stuck in this bowl.

He imagined slinking away from their gaze, under cover of darkness, into the safety of the underground.

If I could send some message to everyone here, and have them pass it along to someone else, secretly, through subtle innuendo or a coded blink of the eyes, we could just slip out of sight.

It might be cowardly to skitter away like cockroaches, but we would be safe.

Guy clenched his fists at his side, trying to smile through his frown. He raised his face to the sky, hoping his forlorn look would be mistaken for straining to see something in the bright daylight. Framed between the silhouettes of the angel’s wings hovered the great disk. The “mother ship,” as they called it, hung there like a dark sun.

We could run, he thought. Or we could fight. If only there were a way to meet them face to face. If we cannot fight these metal beasts down here on the ground, we could cut them off at the neck, by destroying whoever is holding the puppet strings up there.

Whack!

Guy turned, startled, to see what had struck him and sent his hat flying to the ground. He whirled around in time to see the two little boys, cackling and running away back to their mothers. He picked up what appeared to be some kind of folded paper dart, which one of the boys had thrown from behind the rim of the fountain.

Guy carefully unfolded the paper glider, which was revealed to be a flyer advertising the automaton’s upcoming “Autumn Dance,” another festival to keep the pets happy. He studied the folds, turning over in his mind how this could glide through air. It was rather like the way fish swam through the water, he thought. If you got the surface area correct.

He had read about some mechanics from Ohio that had been trying to build such a thing. But so many great ideas were lost in the invasion…

Already, Guy’s mind was drawing up the plans for how a much larger version of this device might work. One built out of the materials he knew were hidden deep under the city, out of sight.

Until the day came for their chance at freedom to be brought up into the light.