Originally Published in Wizards in Space Literary Magazine
San Francisco, 1905
The crowd shrieked with delight as the kraken recoiled and hissed when it rallied, swiping at the ship with a powerful arm. Most of the spectators were only just laying out their blankets and lunches, so the battle had probably started a short while ago. Alice, still panting from the run from Geary Street, paused at the bottom of the hill and surveyed the skyline, eyes crackling with excitement. She always prayed that each attack would be the last, but if such things had to happen, she was glad when they did so on a Sunday: fewer fishermen would be in the water, and she would not be too busy with her piecework to come watch.
The fight hit a lull, each side backing away for a breath, or whatever krakens did in place of breathing. Bakers Beach buzzed with a hushed excitement that was broken only by laughter as battle-induced waves splashed higher than expected and soaked people’s shoes. Alice stopped beside a white woman wearing a hat piled high with blue feathers. It seemed a perfect viewing spot—not blocked by too many heads, but not close enough to ruin her clothing.
The white woman wrinkled her nose and scuttled half a step away. “You no standee there!” she said. “You go far ‘way now!”
Alice tilted her head, concerned. Was she alright?
“Go ‘way now!” the woman said. “You no speakee English?”
Oh. One of these. “Of course I speak English. I just wasn’t sure if you did.”
The woman huffed, ruffling her feathers. “Would you just go away?”
Alice considered saying something smart, but the woman’s complaints had caused several others to turn and glare at her as well. She didn’t come here for this.
She walked a short way down the beach, passing by what must have been half of San Francisco. Some had dressed casually, some had clearly rushed here from church, some had binoculars, some had small children on their shoulders, and none looked at all receptive to the idea of watching the action next to her. She kept going, glancing every now and then as the kraken managed to get a loose grip on the ship, until she came to the strip of beach that had evidently been reserved for people like her. Here, they chatted and cheered in Chinese—a language that would forever remain impenetrable to her, no matter how many afternoons she’d spent in Chinese school or how many nights she’d been lulled to sleep by her father and uncle conversing in their native language as they starched and ironed the night away—and would not care about her presence so long as they thought she could understand them.
The ship’s captain yelled an order, and at least a dozen guns fired at once in a blaze of noise and smoke. Several yards from Alice, an enthusiastic white boy with a telescope cried out, “They got it! They got it!”
His friends crowded around, all demanding a turn at the telescope, but Alice didn’t need one to know that the sailors had merely winged the monster at best. It had released the ship, tentacle flailing back, but refused to retreat. Alice’s lips thinned. They needed better weaponry, something stronger than rifles but more maneuverable than cannons on a roiling ship. It would probably be best if the sailors could get off the water altogether, perhaps with armed aircraft, or maybe even a—
“Well aren’t you intense?”
Alice blinked, her brow unfurrowing as her cousin George grinned and waved his hand in front of her eyes. She hadn’t realized she’d been glaring. “I was just trying to get a better look,” she said.
George shook his head, still grinning, and flopped down onto the sand by her feet. Alice glanced at her dress, decided she didn’t like it all that much anyway, and sat next to him. He handed her a Tootsie Roll, and the sweet chocolate was almost enough to overpower the bitterness that flooded her throat in George’s presence. She loved him almost as much as she envied him. He got to go to high school—Mission High School, the same one Alice had planned to attend. She’d been so eager to leave the Chinese Public School, to get away from the overcrowded rooms and attend a well-funded school for the first time. She never deluded herself into believing she would get to be an engineer, but she could at least learn enough to shock a few white men into dropping their pipes.
The day before the school year began, her mother had brought home a great bundle of plain slippers and a box of bright glass beads—yellow and red and silver, all glinting dully in the pale light—and placed them on the bed they shared.
“I can’t finish all of these before school tomorrow,” Alice had said.
“Why do you need school?” her mother had replied. “You read good. You write good. You’re fourteen. Now you stay home and make money.”
And that’s what she did, sitting in her little room as the sun crept through the sky, back aching and fingers slowly stiffening, sewing the hours away in exchange for a few pennies and the promise of another Sisyphean day come sunrise. Her whole world had been chipped and hacked and torn away until it was nothing but beads and beads and beads.
At first, she held out hope that her parents would change their minds and let her go back to school soon enough that she’d be able to catch up to her peers. Two years on and she knew better.
George, though. George didn’t have to hope. She’d probably hate him for it if he hadn’t offered to share his textbooks with her. (And the candy wasn’t bad, either.) It was nice having something to entertain herself with as she worked, even if she’d probably prick her fingers a lot less if she kept her eyes on them instead of the pictures of skyscrapers she would never see and suspension bridges she would never build.
The crowd gasped and groaned as a dozen sailors were knocked into the sea with one broad sweep of a tentacle. Alice bit her thumbnail, lost in thought once again. The sailors would be much safer with armor instead of merely guns and cannons for protection. Not just regular armor that would drag them down if they fell overboard, but steam-powered armor. The same force that propelled beautiful metal beasts along tracks her family had risked their lives to lay down could just as easily be used to save lives. All it would take was a condensed steam engine small enough to fit on a person’s back, complete with a water tank and thick insulation to prevent heat loss and burns. Not only would the sailors have protection against the kraken, they’d have twice the strength and a dozen times the speed and maneuverability. It wasn’t hard. She had even drawn up rudimentary blueprints and sent them to Mayor Schmitz and Governor Pardee. That was almost a year ago. Neither had replied.
Another holler from the ship’s captain and the sailors fired again, this time with deep cannon fire accompanying the crackle of rifles. The kraken shrank away, eerily silent, and the entire beach seemed to hold its breath as the last writhing limb vanished beneath the heaving surface. The universe fell silent as both civilians and sailors strained their eyes for a sign of the monstrous enemy.
The sun shone.
Waves smashed against the sand.
Finally, the ship turned back to port and the spectators applauded in what seemed to Alice a terribly inadequate show of gratitude. In the old days, such warriors would be granted half a kingdom from their valor.
Well before the ship returned, the spectators packed up and drifted away, forgetting about the danger until it once again came close enough to lend spice to their day.
George stood and stretched. Alice could see pencil smudges on his fingers. He must have been doing homework when the kraken attacked. “Do you think it’s over this time?” he said.
“It’s doubtful. Even if they killed that one, there must be at least a dozen others just like it.”
“Well, more fun for us and more work for the navy.” He brushed sand from his pants, pausing long enough to wave at some white kids he probably knew from school. They waved back, much to Alice’s surprise. “I’ll walk you home.”
“You go on. I’m not going home right away.”
George grinned. “Your father won’t like that.”
“I’m not doing it for him. And don’t forget, you promised to lend me your geography textbook.” She had read all she could at the library but she couldn’t spend a lot of time there, and depending which librarian was on duty, there was no guarantee she’d be allowed to walk out with the books she wanted.
“I have an exam next week,” George said. “If I lend you my book now, I’ll fail. Wait another week.”
She tried not to look ungrateful as she agreed and waved good-bye. George didn’t have to lend her his books at all, really. His life would certainly be simpler if her father didn’t scowl and accuse him of unnecessarily distracting her every time George came by. She could make do for another week.
On her way up to the street, she noticed the white woman with the blue feathered hat directly in front of her. She slowed her own pace until the woman had crested the hill.
The water calmed at last, peacefully undulating in sun-speckled waves as though nothing had happened at all. As though the sailors they’d watched topple, screaming, into stygian waters just minutes before had simply gone home to their wives and children.
She walked past China Beach whence still more spectators streamed onto the streets, but Alice paid them no heed, her mind refusing to abandon the souls lost. No one had even bothered to check for survivors. There was no point: if the kraken’s hit didn’t kill them immediately, it would have injured them badly enough that they’d drown before their fellows could stop fighting long enough to effect a rescue. If only they’d had her armor! The ship clearly didn’t provide adequate protection. Why wouldn’t anyone listen to her?
Perhaps she should have signed her letters Joe Smith instead of Alice Jung…
She wandered with minimal direction until she came to the Cliff Line depot. A group of tourists stood in front of a streetcar, posing for a pictorial remembrance of their fifty-cent city tour. The car was electric, Alice noted; they’d started converting all the old steam cars to electric ones earlier that year. George said that someday everything would run on electricity. If that meant she wouldn’t have to sew beads by hand anymore, she would welcome the change with open arms and a fresh pot of tea.
A cool sea breeze made her smile and introduced her ears to the faint sound of laughter from the Cliff House and the Baths below. White San Franciscans congregated there every Sunday to, well, to do whatever it was white San Franciscans did on Sundays. They certainly seemed to enjoy it, whatever it was. Alice never wondered about their activities in the same way she never wondered what it would be like to walk on the moon. Instead, she wondered about the old steam cars. Would their frames be recycled for the new electric cars, or would they be scrapped entirely, destined to rust and rot in a field someplace? Surely all that metal could be put to better use.
The breeze died down, leaving the city as quiet as it ever got. Alice ran her perpetually sore fingers along the side of the car, up and down the thick railings, every inch of it strong and unyielding.
Her heart raced in tandem with her mind. She gripped the railing tightly.
The government would never let their sailors wear armor designed by someone like her. They would rather send their boys to their deaths month after month, year after year—they’d even risk the kraken breaking through to the bay rather than risk breaking tradition. Someone else would have to do what they refused to, someone who already believed in her and knew what she was capable of.
Alice pressed a kiss to her fingers, then pressed them against the side of the streetcar before going to ask the depot manager about the fate of the old streetcars. She had work to do.
Eileen Gonzalez lives and writes in Connecticut, where she also collects comic books and listens to a lot of Queen. Her short stories have appeared in Potomac Review, Toasted Cheese, Vitality and other literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel featuring Alice Jung and her spiffy suit of armor.
Tumult in Tenochtitlán
The Book of Jodie
Jury’s Greatest Hits
Without a Trace
A Sinner in San Diego
A Hoodlum in Haddam
A Welcher in Whitefish (Coming March 2017)
Whenever the kraken returns to threaten their city, hundreds of eager San Franciscans gather on the beach to watch as their brave sailors fight the creature until it is forced to retreat. Only one—Alice Jung, a Chinese-American teenager who had to drop out of school to help support her family—has a real plan to end the menace once and for all, but no one with the power to put her plan into action would ever listen to an undereducated Asian girl. There’s nothing for it but to turn away and return to her little room to sew beads on slippers for the rest of her days... is what someone else would say.