Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Cale and Stardust Battle the Mud Gobblers of Hudson Valley

Cale squirted a zigzag of avocado paste on his toast as the mud gobbler floated down the river. The mud gobbler was, thankfully, chewing on the other side of the river today. Mud gobbler is what Cale called them, although Stardust preferred dirt whale. “Fucking dirt whale,” Stardust said, walking up to the kitchen window. “I’d like to gut it like a fish!” Stardust’s belly was getting big now, swelling like a whale itself. Cale could hardly imagine the creature swimming inside.

The gobbler screeched as it chomped on the hillside. The teeth left large ruts down the land. It wasn’t allowed, technically, to gobble above the waterline. But no one was enforcing technicalities these days.

“It’s almost taken out the Huangs’ gazebo,” Cale said.

The Huangs were Cale and Stardust’s neighbors across the river. Their gazebo’s foundation jutted a foot out from the hill. A few more chomps of the hillside, plus a heavy rainstorm or two, and the gazebo would tumble into the Hudson. Then it would probably get gobbled itself.

A small figure, Mr. Huang, ran up beside the gazebo on the hill overlooking the river. He began hopping up and down. Mr. Huang held a long gun or possibly a small grenade launcher. It looked as thin as a toothpick in the distance.

“Do you think he’ll shoot?” Stardust said. She turned to the Ms. Kettleworth machine. “Lady Grey tea. Drop of honey. Two drops lemon.”

Right away, luv, the Ms. Kettleworth said.

“He won’t shoot,” Cale said. “Even if he killed the captain, there’d be another one munching on the hill next week while he was hauled off to jail.”

Stardust was on her tiptoes, so her middle rested on the marble counter. Her belly button peeked out from the bottom of her Eat the Rich hoodie. Cale slid the toast to Stardust, squirted more paste on a fresh slice.

The mud gobbler swung its metal maw away from the hillside and plunged into the water. The gears cranked. The maw was pulled back up, swiveled back, and opened so the pounds of dirt and silt could drop in gobbler’s belly.

“I’m going to record these assholes,” Stardust said, opening an app on her tablet.

The drone took off from the porch and buzzed down to the river. That wasn’t as far as it used to be, thanks to the gobblers.

“Shit.” Stardust lowered herself into the chair. She leaned over, hand on her stomach. “This baby’s scraping away my insides.”

• • • •

What really grinded Cale’s gears was moving upstate was supposed to be the “adult thing” to do. Everyone had kept telling him that. “It’ll be the adult thing to do.” His parents, of course, but also his friends, many of whom, at that point, had already left the city to buy a house upstate themselves. “Don’t you want to be an adult?” “Don’t you want to have a yard for the children?” “Don’t you want to settle down and grow up?”

And his favorite, from his mother: “Land, Cale. Put your money in land. It’s the only thing no one can ever take away.”

Now, Cale and Stardust had done it. They’d given up their dreams of being cosmopolitan artists and moved upstate. Started a family. Built equity. Done the adult thing. What did they get for their sacrifice? Isolation, boredom, and mud gobblers chomping away at their net worth every morning.

It was the same thing with the whole country. The president would get on the holofeed and smack the podium. “We have to be adults now. For the past two hundred years we’ve been spoiled children treating the environment like a playroom. We burned the forests. We melted the ice caps. We ran amuck without thinking of the consequences. Now the adults have to put away the toys.”

Cale agreed, but also why did being an adult always mean the rich assholes who caused the problems got away scot-free and everyone else had to clean up after them?

• • • •

Before moving upstate, Cale and Stardust had been struggling artists in Brooklyn. Or perhaps they’d simply been struggling to be struggling artists. Neither of them had much time for the art part. Stardust had settled into a job as the program manager of a graduate film school, earning a not uncomfortable salary selling her as-yet-unfulfilled dreams to eager students with trust funds and daddy’s credit card. Cale got one of his sculptures in a group show now and then, but most nights he was too tired from designing social media assets to head into the studio.

The problem was time. The problem was money. The problem was distractions, the email inbox, the state of the nation’s broken politics, the complexities of the modern world. Where was the solution?

Then Stardust’s mother called and said they were moving to Florida, purchasing a lot on the newly carved coastline that scientists said would stay dry for at least twenty years. They were willing to sell them their little cottage on the Hudson at a “below market rate.” Stardust’s parents were also selling their Prospect Heights condo, but “obviously”—as her mother put it—Cale and Stardust couldn’t afford that.

Cale thought even a below market rate would put them underwater. But when Stardust worked it all into a spreadsheet, they saw how affordable it would be. They’d actually save money. A lot. Enough to invest in a future. 401(k) plans. IRAs. Hell, an actual vacation.

“I could work remotely,” Cale said. “You could get a job at Bard or do online classes.”

They were lying in bed, laptop resting between his left leg and her right. Their other legs dangled nude off the sides for temperature control.

“We could even scale back to part-time,” Stardust said, her hand floating across his chest.

The word “part-time” shot through his veins like a syringe of adrenaline. Cale thought it might be the most magical adjective in the English language.

“You don’t think it would be abandoning our dreams?” he said.

“It would be embracing them.”

“No more subway commutes, at least.”

“No more two-hour waits for a twenty-dollar brunch!”

They laughed, and Cale hopped out of bed to pour two glasses of rosé so they could clink them together and said “fuck you” to the city no one could make it in anymore.

• • • •

The islands had been the first to go. Most of them had been small bubbles of land with a tree or two as decoration. Places you could kayak out to with a couple seltzers and a sealed picnic pack to spend an afternoon. The mud gobblers gobbled them right up. Floated back down to the city with the islands in their bellies and barfed them up in the bay.

Then the gobblers came back and started in on the walls of the river. Scraping away the land and thus increasing the river itself. Making it wider, stronger. Or so the governor claimed. It was supposed to be a “win-win for everyone.” The Hudson Valley would have a decreased risk of flooding and New York City would get its added land. New, higher land for new, higher buildings. The city was too important to abandon to the climate apocalypse. It had to be regrown.

There were swarms of mud gobblers on the coastline, chewing up the dirt not protected by private guards. There were other gobblers too. Sand gobblers in the deserts. Rock gobblers in the mountains. It was a city emergency. A state emergency. A national emergency. New York City was drowning. And so was Miami. And New Orleans. And San Francisco. The government was buying land from Mexico and Canada. They were dredging it from the depths of international waters. But it was a lot cheaper to shift it around at home.

“Climate change can be an economic opportunity,” the president said, arms hugging the podium. “Let’s save our stock market and ecosystem at the same time! We’re all in this together.”

• • • •

When Cale and Stardust first moved into the house, before the mud gobblers, it did seem like a promised land. It was a two-story Cape Cod with sky blue paint and a backyard stretching all the way to the water. The house was on the small side yet might as well be a mansion compared to the apartments they’d had in the city with their cramped bathrooms and nonexistent closets. They dropped their bags on the doorstep and ran through the house. “This will be my office!” Stardust shouted at the same time Cale said, “I’ll use this as a studio!”

They’d made love in one room. Then the next. “Let’s consecrate every room in the house,” Stardust had said, her back coated in sweat and dust. They ran out of steam though and decided to finish the sex blessing later in the week.

Now, a year had passed. They’d built a nice life for themselves. But somehow the free time hadn’t materialized. It turned out freelancing meant more time working on unpaid pitches and drafting follow-up emails about months-late deposits. Plus, the house always seemed to have a new issue that needed handling. A leaky pipe or a mouse nest behind the automated stove. Gutter cleaning, lawn care, rotting boards on the porch.

It was the same with Cale’s body. Each morning, Cale felt some new ache or noticed freshly gray hairs in the mirror. Time was gobbling away at his life with more persistence than any machine. What would he have to look back on when the last chomp came?

• • • •

“We’re both just so happy for you two,” Raj said.

Ryan had one ear pressed to Stardust’s belly. He lifted his head, mouth open. “Oh my god, something is really in there!”

Raj and Ryan were visiting from the city, the first of their friends to do so in months. Raj was a novelist and Ryan was a holo programmer. The four of them were sitting on the back porch drinking cocktails and listening to classic pop songs from their college years.

“It’s gorgeous here. A goddamn paradise,” Raj said. “That’s my blurb for your house. A tour-de-force goddamn paradise.”

The night air was warm and filled with cricket chirps. The fading red sun bounced off the water, tinging the whole valley a soft pink.

“It’s not so bad,” Cale admitted. And it wasn’t, not right then.

“It’s so peaceful,” Raj said, sipping his basil gimlet. “I couldn’t even stand it it’s so peaceful. Like I’d go insane. I would literally go mad.”

“He needs his noise,” Ryan said.

“I guess I’m a city boy at heart.”

Cale went inside and grabbed a tray of imitation drumsticks drizzled with homemade hot sauce. The drumsticks were made from processed peas and nut paste, but they had fake veins and bones in all the right places.

“How’s the city? Tell us everything we’ve missed!” Stardust said.

Ryan slurped the fake flesh off the imitation bone. “Oh, you know. Overcrowded. Overpriced. Overrated.”

Cale snorted and covered it up by pretending to sneeze.

It wasn’t that he resented his friends who still lived in the city. He was happy for them! He just resented how they stayed. How they had parents who bought them brownstones or spouses with six-figures finance jobs. A “surprise inheritance” they’d been planning around for years. Sure, Stardust’s parents had helped them. But not as much. And that as much made all the difference.

“We had to move to Brownsville,” Raj said. He stuck out his tongue. Then he smiled and waggled his head. “Which has gotten pretty hip, honestly. They turned the church on our block into condos, and there’s a great gallery on the first floor. Ooh! You should show your sculptures there, Cale!”

“The gallery really is very cute. It even has an espresso bar. Still, there’s not enough housing with the rising waters. It’s crazy. The whole city is getting herded into a smaller and smaller space. Like we’re sheep.”

“Sheep paying five thousand a month in rent,” Raj said. “But they’re adding that new land. The planned skyscrapers are supposed to be totally resistant to climate disasters.”

“New land?” Cale said, a little spit in his sound.

Stardust mouthed “don’t start.”

Cale contained himself, but an hour later, when Stardust was inside 3D-printing pastries and slicing strawberries from the farmers market, loud mechanical slurps echoed in the valley. A foreboding shape floated into view.

“What, and I can’t stress enough, the fuck is that?” Raj said.

Cale went off.

The words gushed out of his mouth. How the gobblers were coming up and stealing land and smuggling it to Manhattan. Yeah, the governor claimed they only dredged the bottom of the river, but it was a lie! It was way easier to chomp away at the banks. It was easier to screw over people like Cale and Stardust, two struggling artists trying to start a family, and protect the bankers and politicians and assholes who live in the city.

“He doesn’t mean you,” Stardust said, glaring at Cale. She placed the tray of mille-feuilles on the table.

“No, no, I totally get it,” Raj said. He flipped off the gobbler with both hands.

“I’d be pissed too. There’s this construction going up behind our apartment and it’s completely obscuring our view,” Ryan said. “It’s like, I didn’t sign a two-year lease thinking I’d have douchebags in hardhats watching me meditate in the morning.”

“You guys should do something.” Raj held up a fist. “To, you know, fight the power. Get back to your activist roots!”

• • • •

Stardust was snoring. Cale couldn’t sleep. He watched her roll over, belly facing him. He reached out and grazed his fingers along the vessel growing their child. He could feel the warm blood circulating around. It felt magical, calming. He closed his eyes.

But Cale couldn’t get back to sleep. His mind buzzed like a bumblebee trapped in a jar. He tiptoed to his office, strapped on his VR goggles, and pulled up a livestream as a mud gobbler floated into view. The city was so lit up that it might as well have been the middle of the day. God, he missed it.

The gobbler flowed under the George Washington Bridge, past the rubble wall. When the Manhattan floods started, Cale had imagined the buildings getting washed out to sea like bottles with messages inside for some distant civilization to find. Instead, the buildings rotted on the inside—lost generators, broken boilers, burst sewer lines—until everyone had to be kicked out. The city blew them up to avoid squatters and used the rubble to form a protective wall along what used to be the highways. The rubble didn’t stop the rising sea levels, but it blocked some of the worst effects of the now monthly hurricanes. Most importantly, it protected the real estate values of the remaining skyscrapers.

The gobbler made its way to the remains of Tribeca, where it joined a whole flock of ships. It cranked up its hose and spewed. All the dirt, silt, sand, and ecology of the Hudson sprayed in an undifferentiated tan gush.

Cale took off his goggles. Rubbed his eyes. He felt dizzy, like he might vomit himself. He opened his computer and pulled up a site that showed how cities will look like with another inch, another foot, another yard of rising sea levels. Right now, at current levels, the map of Manhattan looked mostly intact. Cale could remember what had been lost—most of Alphabet City, the Navy Yard, Red Hook—but it still looked like the New York City of his childhood if you squinted.

Cale slid the bar to three inches. Watched the blue pixels creep across the city’s outline like invading termites. He yawned.

He slid the bar over to a foot. The edges of Manhattan dissolved. The island looked diseased, dying.

He slid the bar to maximum and put the city out of its misery in a flood of dark blue.

• • • •

Stardust stirred her charcoal-infused matcha tea with such force a few dark drops splashed on the table. She clanked the spoon beside the saucer.

“We need to do something,” she said. “Raise awareness.”

“Whose awareness?”

Stardust held the mug in her fist. “Like Raj and Ryan were saying. Why don’t we start an online fundraiser? Save the rivers. Fight the machine. That kind of thing.”

Cale pushed his toast through the bubble of yolk. “Stardust, baby, they were just being polite. All our friends live in the city. They’re counting on the dirt.”

“But it’s our dirt,” Stardust said. “That’s what they need to be aware of!”

• • • •

Cale didn’t regret the pregnancy, it wasn’t like that. He’d always wanted to be a father and Stardust had always wanted to be a mother. They just hadn’t planned on being parents so soon. So in the middle of being in the middle of so many things.

Stardust had always wanted to make a complete feature film, even if only a cheap one with her actor friends and a few drone cameras. “Just to get it out of my system,” she’d say. Cale had been hoping for a Bushwick solo show for years. Cale constructed “cyborg taxidermy” sculptures, hybrid creatures made from dolls, trash, and electronics he scavenged from specific neighborhoods. The Bushwick Bear, Prospect Pizza Rat, Red Hook Snappers, and so on. He would pose them in dioramas with satirical paintings in the backgrounds. Gowanus Gators swam in a river of sludge and hypodermic needles while hipsters took meet cute selfies on the railing above.

Cale tried to scrap in the upstate towns, but other than an abandoned Kingston Kangaroo, he hadn’t been inspired.

Plus, the baby. The baby.

“Sometimes life just happens this way,” Cale’s mother said. “Thank god I won’t die before becoming a grandfather,” Stardust’s father texted. The baby was a joy, a blessing, an unbelievable miracle. But it also put their plans on hold—not scrapped, they were sure to tell themselves, never scrapped—just on hold for a little longer. Till the baby got out of the terrible twos, probably. Then they’d finally get to work.

• • • •

“We need to go down there and blow those fucking dredgers up!” Stardust yelled. “In a nonviolent, ecologically-friendly way,” she added.

Stardust was standing on the holographic pad, conferencing into the meeting.

Cale couldn’t see the other community members. Only Stardust gesticulating in the living room with large black goggles covering half of her face.

“Whose river? Our river!”

Watching Stardust stomp, Cale felt flooded with love. Her protests probably wouldn’t change anything, but it inspired him to try and get inspired. He remembered when he’d met her sprinting from the cops down Fifth Ave. during a Strike to Save the Climate protest. She was wearing a shirt saying Guillotine for President and he burst out laughing right as they hit the blockade. They always told friends their first date was in the back of a cop van. Instead of dinner and a movie, it was pepper spray and a pair of zip ties.

Cale stepped outside where a pair of mud gobblers gnawed on the banks. These ones were painted bright orange and had chompers on both ends.

Cale pulled out his phone and ran down to the water, shouting. “This is going online! You assholes! This is live!”

• • • •

The doctor printed out the model from the sonogram data. Stardust and Cale held it jointly in their palms. It was still warm from the printer. It—no, she, they learned—was so small, so weak. So in need of protection from the horrible, fanged future swimming toward her.

“Can you believe this is something we’re making?” Stardust said, rubbing the model’s smooth back with one finger. Cale couldn’t believe. Not at all.

• • • •

The baby overwhelmed Cale. His mind was a jungle of anxieties. Every time he found a solution to hack one down, three new potential problems bloomed.

Stardust had a different reaction.

“I’m fired up,” she said, “and ready to return fire!”

She came up with the name, Sacred Order of the River Guardians, while they painted the baby’s room a calming and neutral violet. Cale did the graphic design. Silhouette of a pregnant woman—modeled on Stardust—standing astride a river as a skeletal sea monster roared. Fertility vs. destruction, life vs. death. The website was listed at the bottom.

They drove to different towns, hopping out of the car and slapping the stickers on stop signs and sidewalks in the middle of the night. “Old school organizing,” Stardust said. “Antidote to the surveillance age.” They stuck stickers around Cold Spring and Cornwall-On-Hudson, pasted fliers in Germantown and Tivoli. Soon, Cale and Stardust were getting a couple messages a day in their protected email account.

• • • •

Action day came.

Cale wanted to be out there on the waters, fighting the monsters, but Stardust said she needed to lead the first mission. “I have to do this thing for myself. We need you to coordinate.”

“But the baby,” Cale said.

Stardust put her fists on her stomach. “Don’t be sexist. Our baby gives me power. God, I feel so alive.” She kissed Cale long and wetly until he began to get aroused. She pulled back and clapped. “This is what we needed. A cause.”

When the gobbler came to the designated part of the river, Cale sent out the signal. River Guardians on both banks jumped into their kayaks and canoes, making a blockade in the middle of the water. They were dressed as otters with anti-surveillance make-up to scramble any cameras. Stardust was in the center in a crayfish costume holding a red bullhorn. “The Hudson is protected by the Sacred Order of the River Guardians!” she shouted. “You corporate defilers are hereby banished from the land.”

Cale livestreamed the whole thing from drone cameras hidden in the trees. He got his media and journalists friends back in the city to share and spread. The follower count ticked up.

The gobbler dropped its mouthful of mud back into the water. The crew stood around the edge of the boat, staring and shrugging. Soon the gobbler started to move back upstream.

Cale called in the reinforcements. A new group of River Guardians paddled out, shouting and jeering.

There weren’t quite enough of them. Several people had dropped out at the last minute, including Matilda and Martin Crain who’d said they had to be home from 10 a.m. to three p.m. to wait for the internet repair guy. The workers on the gobblers lowered long metal poles. They pushed the Guardians to the side. One woman capsized and other Guardians dove into the river to help right her neon green canoe.

“Shame!” they shouted. They could barely swim in their costumes. “Brutality!”

The gobbler floated away, the workers doing their own gestures and jeers now.

Still! They’d gotten the word out. They’d racked up forty-three thousand viewers. Already their anonymous email account was getting requests for media interviews. They’d started something. Really started something.

When Stardust came home, she pulled Cale into the bedroom without even showering, the smell of the river mingling with their sweat.

• • • •

While the River Guardians hadn’t received much attention at first, a story about the protest went viral with the headline Dirt Thieves: How NYC Has Stolen Land from the Pilgrims to Today. Donations started trickling into their digital bank. The River Guardians bought supplies and issued communiques. A radical puppeteer couple in Germantown began staging satirical shows at nearby farmers markets. Comrades in Albany installed a hologram of a thirty-foot fisher cat holding a “SELL OUT!” sign in front of the governor’s mansion. The image was scrambled and then disabled within five minutes, but the River Guardians got several good photos to spread online. They hadn’t stopped the mud gobblers yet, true, but they’d let them know their corporate pirating would face a fight.

• • • •

Cale couldn’t believe it, but when the baby arrived—a girl they named Ursula after Stardust’s favorite science fiction author—nothing else seemed to matter. For a little while.

• • • •

Cale wanted to spend every minute with Ursula. Watching her, touching her, teaching her things. Yet after a few weeks, Stardust and Cale agreed it would be good for their mental health to have at least some alone time.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Stardust said, blocking the doorway to Ursula’s room.

“Any more fondness and it will burst. Let me just pinch her toes one more time. For good luck.”

“No. Go!”

Cale went. He wandered around the outside house doing minor yardwork until he looked back and saw Stardust waving him away with a scowl. He went down to the river, a good old-fashioned book in his hands. Yet as soon as he got to the banks, he got so angry he couldn’t even read. The gobblers weren’t around, but he could still see their teeth marks all over the edge. He drove into town. Wandering through the cobblestone streets outside of a gastropub whose sandwich board advertised CBD-infused organic popsicles, Cale saw a hubcap by the side of the road. It gleamed among the wet stones.

The image came to him in ferocious flash: A new cyborg taxidermy sculpture. The largest he’d ever made. A mascot inspired by their river resistance, a totem to ward off the evil gobblers. It would be sleek, terrifying, triumphant. The Hudson Hippo.

• • • •

Cale had worried becoming a father would drain his energy, as if his child would be an adorable vampire sucking his lifeforce to grow. Instead, he felt energized even with the lack of sleep.

While Stardust and Cale had taken a step back from the River Guardians and the number of actions had decreased, the group was still bringing in donations. There were cells everywhere from Tomkins Cove to Coxsackie. The New York City media was paying attention and the dredging companies threatened lawsuits while begging the governor for state trooper protection.

Breaks from working or parenting were rare, but Cale made use of them. He drove around scavenging everything from chicken wire to broken drones. In the backyard, the mighty river in front of him, he welded his finds to the growing Hudson Hippo.

When finished, the creature would be shellacked purple and have glowing red eyes. It would be fierce. Not the hippo of a children’s cartoon, but a hippo of the real world: a terrifying primordial monster that could crush human bones like quinoa crackers. He daydreamed of the sculpture roaring to life. It would leap into the water and tear apart the hull of a mud gobbler in one loud chomp. As the ship sank, Cale would be laughing from his yard.

• • • •

Hurricane Arya spun around the Atlantic like an angry ballerina, then pirouetted up the coast. Arya was a category five, the third of the year to hit New York state. There’d been so many storms this year they’d already run through the alphabet and spun back around to the As.

The Sacred Order of the River Guardians had no defense against a hurricane, and the group had already hit a lull. It wasn’t that people didn’t still believe in the cause. It was just the start of summer and all the parents had to deal with screaming, school-free children now. Many of them went out of town to summer houses and family vacations in unravaged Caribbean beaches, vowing to pick up their activism when their schedules cleared up.

Cale felt he was going mad trying to prepare for the storm. He went through much of their savings buying supplies to protect the house. He hauled his Hudson Hippo, who he’d named Herc, down into the basement and wrapped it in tarp and duct tape.

The storm arrived.

Cale, Stardust, and Ursula sat in the dimly lit silence. The winds picked up. Cale rolled out his scrollscreen and they watched footage of the river thrashing like an enormous eel.

“It’s almost beautiful,” Stardust said.

Branches were torn off trees and flung through the air. The waters frothed and gurgled yet stayed within the confines of the river.

“Maybe we’ll be okay,” Cale said.

Then it flooded. The water spilling over riverbanks, swallowing docks and lawns in big gulps. Ursula woke up, crying. They took turns swallowing Ursula in their arms, swaying her as if she was rocking on gentler waters.

The house survived without too much damage, but the resulting flood destroyed their well system. Their tap water was replaced with undrinkable sludge. “This must be teeming with disease,” Stardust said, turning off the faucet. Her fingers were stained gray from the gunk.

Cale couldn’t say for sure if it was because of the mud gobblers or not, if they’d chewed up the land’s natural defenses and sealed their well system’s doom, but he blamed them anyway.

• • • •

“It was simpler in my day,” Cale’s father said on the phone. “Back then you bought a piece of land and you built a house on it and you popped out some babies. That was it. Easy peasy.”

“It isn’t like that anymore, dad.”

“Well it was in my day.”

Cale was in the yard, surveying the damage. The ground was so waterlogged it felt like walking through the mushy bottom of a river.

“Right. Sure. But your generation left us with this mess. I mean not you individually. I’m just saying. You didn’t exactly leave the planet in better shape than you found it.”

Cale could hear his father suck in his breath. He pictured his eyes narrowing and lips curling down. “I worked hard, Caleb. Damn it. Your mother did too. You don’t know what it was like back then.”

“I know you had less debt. Cheaper healthcare. A healthier planet.”

“We had other problems to worry about. The commies. The Chinese. The terrorists. Complete morons running the country. Your mother and I went to protests, okay. We voted for the good guys. We did what we could.”

“Okay, okay. I believe you. I’m just asking if you can loan us some money. So your one and only granddaughter can have clean water.”

Cale’s father sighed. “Do you know how much medical care costs at our age? Your mother’s new hip is already malfunctioning. She needs some kind of expensive software update. And Dr. Owens is trying to convince me to get one of those hybrid bladders. You hear about those?”

“I read one exploded inside a guy’s gut in Texas. They seem risky.”

“It’s all risky!” his father snapped. “This is what you young people don’t get. Being old is an endless parade of surgeries and the confetti is unpaid bills. I’m afraid we need every penny right now. You’ll have to make your own way, like your mother and I did.”

• • • •

Cale felt jealous of his friends in the city. He felt jealous of his friends who moved to the West Coast, where the California government had struck a deal with Nevada to vacuum up their sand and drive it out to the Pacific coast. Jealous of his parents and their whole generation. Jealous of his friends who were still making art. And yes, he knew he was doing better than so many other people in the country not to mention the world. He owned a house. He had a fantastic wife and a healthy child. He knew there were countless people sitting around feeling jealous of people like him. It was like the entire country was on a gigantic ladder. No one looked down. They could only look up, desperate to swap places with someone one rung above.

He knew that, but knowing never stopped feeling.

• • • •

“What do you mean you don’t have time for the Sacred Order of the River Guardians?” Cale said. “Don’t you care anymore?”

Stardust was on the couch, Ursula resting in the crook of her arm like an extra limb.

“I care,” Stardust said. “But I care about other things too. Like Ursula. You remember her? Our family is a bit more important to me than some mud.”

Ursula opened her eyes. She grasped the air with her tiny hands. Cale held out a pinkie for her to clench. Her fingers seemed so impossibly small they might pop off as easily as flower petals with a tiny tug.

“You say that like I don’t care about her. But we were doing this for her. For her future. Her inheritance.”

Of course, Stardust wasn’t the only one giving up on saving the river from the gobblers. Actions had dried up. People were afraid and had reason to be. The governor had used the hurricane flooding to increase the Hudson dredging. He claimed the only way to save the river was to dig it up. The city’s lawyers were ready with the proper eminent domain laws. “Anyone who stands in the way will face the consequences. I don’t like to use the word terrorist lightly. But we won’t bow to Nimby terrorists.”

Ursula pulled Cale’s pinkie toward her mouth. She gummed the nail.

“We’ll be okay,” Stardust said lazily. “I have to believe that. Fatalism isn’t good for our mental health.” She picked Ursula up, flew her around the air while making farting noises with her lips. She craned her neck back. “Do we have anymore seltzer?”

Their water tank still wasn’t fixed and they’d gotten hooked on soda water with bizarre—yet almost tasteless—flavors like raspberry lime, rosemary vanilla, and guacamole.

Cale grabbed two cans of “fruit cup” from the fridge.

“What happened to ‘we have to do something’?” he said, handing one over.

Stardust flopped her hand around in the air like a fish. “The world is ending anyway. Who cares?”

Ursula giggled and then burped.

• • • •

Winter came and the trees shriveled to black sticks. The river became sloshing ice. All the gobblers went into hibernation, waiting for the land to defrost.

Cale took up extra freelance work editing hologram ads. He put fifty cents of every dollar into a college fund for Ursula.

Stardust started prepping for her spring semester classes.

Ursula grew at an alarming rate. Each morning, Cale looked into her crib and felt like some mischievous pixie had flown into her room at night and fed her magic grow berries.

When he wasn’t holding Ursula, Cale was depressed. The cold of the winter seemed to be frosting his very bones and whispering in his ear to give up. After a fight with Stardust over something that Cale instantly forgot, he marched outside. He watched his cloudy breath disperse and tried to empty his mind.

A thin brown critter circled the edge of the river. It was a long furry animal, sleek and strange. Its body flowed like a furred river as it crawled up a tree trunk. It looked at him, cocked its head, their eyes locking for a second before it scurried off into the bushes. A fisher cat. He didn’t know there were any left in the valley.

Cale went back to the house and down into the basement. He pulled off the tarp from the lump in the corner. Herc the Hudson Hippo. He wasn’t that far away from being done. Only needed to finish the mouth, complete the wiring, seal together the fiberglass shell.

Cale began to go down to the basement every day whenever he felt overwhelmed. By the time the birds began chirping again, Herc was finished. He was the size of a phonebooth with sharpened teeth made of abandoned butcher knives. The body was spray-painted dark purple and covered in clear fiberglass. It looked gorgeous and ferocious. On the pedestal, Cale carved This Machine Kills Gobblers.

• • • •

Spring thawed the river and the mud gobblers returned in droves. Their backs were patrolled by armed guards now. Cale still sent drones to document their destruction, but the gobblers’ crews started capturing them in nets and tossing them in the river. The River Guardians online followers had dwindled anyway. The donations evaporated. There were other things going on in the world. Rumors of war. Contested elections. Environmental disasters far worse than a little upstate flooding. People had only so much attention to ration out.

“Mr. Huang is still out in that gazebo,” Stardust said one morning as they sat on their back porch for breakfast. “Some people don’t know when to let go.”

The gazebo looked like it could tip over at any moment. Cale wondered if Mr. Huang wanted to die. To go down with the ship, defiant even as he sank into the dark muddy bottom.

Cale ran into Mr. Huang at the farmer’s market one weekend. He was buying a handful of purple turnips and a pound of fiddlehead ferns.

“Going to be summer pretty soon,” Cale said.

“Yep.”

“I see you haven’t abandoned the gazebo yet.”

“Nope.”

Mr. Huang inspected a basket of strawberries.

“You’re not afraid they’d dredge more before winter? Knock it over?”

Mr. Huang looked at Cale. He sighed heavily. He placed the basket of strawberries down. “Those cocksucking motherfuckers think they can scare me away? I was the president of a Citibank branch. I’m a cowboy. A quarterback. You think I back down?” Mr. Huang gave Cale a hard look that seemed to have been borrowed from an actor in action movie. “You can’t let anyone control your life. If you do, you’re a machine not a man.”

He gave a quick, definitive nod. He shook Cale’s hand and then walked off.

Cale bought the bunches of kale he’d come for and a gallon of apple cider.

In the car, he texted a few friends to come over and help him haul Herc down to the river’s edge. Cale and Stardust had gotten a letter in the mail saying the governor had applied eminent domain to all land within a few feet of the river. “Any property within ten feet of the water needs to be moved or else forfeited.” This is where Cale would place Herc. His hippo totem would guard his land, his house, and his family.

It took Cale and his friends a couple hours to finally arrange Herc on a wooden slab near the riverbank. Herc’s eyes glowed in the evening light.

“He looks fucking badass, Cale,” Duncan said.

“Brutal, buddy,” Connor added.

“Take a photo of me.”

Cale scrambled up on Herc’s back. He was astride the fearsome purple beast.

“You look like a barbarian! We could put you on the cover of a fantasy novel.”

Cale yowled, thrust a swordless hand in the air.

He posted the photo on the River Guardians’ Instagram account. It got twelve likes.

• • • •

Cale knew it was the heteronormative thing. The toxic masculinity thing. But he still felt like he had to be the one to protect his family. He had to be the man, metaphorically speaking. Or a knight. A gender-neutral knight who protected the innocent. Stardust had stepped up and started the River Guardians. She’d done her part. Now it was his turn to ride into the sunset with his horse and revolver and not come back until the family ranch was safe from outlaws. Even if these outlaws were backed by the law. He had to stop the goddamn cocksuckers for good.

• • • •

Except now he wouldn’t have the chance.

“Sell?” Cale said. He pushed the plunger of the French press down so hard the coffee splatted up his sleeve. “Sell the house? Our house?”

Stardust brought him a wet wipe. She held his hands in hers. “My parents agreed to cover any losses. They say they feel awful about how things turned out. And it really is kinda their fault.”

“So we simply give up? I thought this house was our future? Our base of operations?”

“It was a good base. Now we need a new one,” Stardust said. “Look we’re both bored up here, right? We’re stalled. And the house is driving us crazy. We fight all the time now.”

“You mean the mud gobblers. The corporate piranhas. They’re the problem!”

Stardust gave him the Lower your voice! Ursula is finally napping! look.

“Them, yes.” Stardust spoke calmly. “Also the floods. The stinkbug infestation. The Hendersons’ yappy dog. The mold in the basement. Do you really want Ursula growing up with all this stress?”

Cale went over to the window, looked out across the rolling green yard. A family of deer were nibbling on the flowers. In the river, a blue gobbler sat dredging.

He scraped his fingers over his face.

“The rich always win,” he said. He shook his head. “The privileged take and take. They take the money. They take the resources. They even take the goddamn dirt.”

Stardust squinted at him. She jangled her earrings with a finger. “Cale, we’re privileged. We’re selling a house on the Hudson. My parents are helping us out. We’re not the starving orphans with cancer tripping on landmines, okay? Let’s save our energies for helping people who really need it.”

“How are we helping other people by abandoning the River Guardians?”

Stardust laughed, bright and bubbly and floating into the sky. “Cale, baby. There are no River Guardians anymore. It’s just us. You, me, and Ursula.”

• • • •

Cale told himself there would be other battles. An endless stream of them really. The mud gobblers of Hudson Valley might be monsters, but they were level one minibosses compared to the giant final foes who were destroying the planet on a global scale. The whole world was falling apart. In the twenty-first century, humans found a way to fight over everything. Air. Trees. Water. Dirt. You had to pick your battles, and sometimes that meant giving up.

• • • •

Raj and Ryan had taken the Metro-North up to help them pack the U-Haul.

“It has been just miserable in the city without you two,” Ryan said.

“I can’t believe you even survived up here this long,” Ryan said. “I mean no offense, but there is one Thai restaurant in town and the food was about as spicy as a jar of mayonnaise.”

“We’re excited,” Stardust said. She bounced Ursula on her hip. Ursula responded with a quizzical eyebrow. Her hands were curled into pink little fists.

“This one is going to be a tough ass city girl,” Raj said. He mimed uppercutting her jaw. “Pow. Pow.”

Cale laughed, but he felt the sadness slosh inside him. Maybe he was destined to always feel defeated. It was his generation’s inheritance.

Then, as if to mock him, the largest gobbler he’d ever seen came into view. It was black and massive. Its’ screams filled the valley. It looked like a swimming skyscraper. It had six red mouths, one on each corner and additional ones on the sides.

“Jesus,” Stardust said. She pulled out her phone for a photo. “I won’t miss those things.”

“It’s so ugly! What did you call them? Dirt ogres?” Raj said. He shook his head, then squatted to pick up one side of a table.

“Here,” Cale said, grabbing the other side. “Let’s put it on top of the couch.”

They waddled toward the U-Haul. Cale was walking backwards, watching the gobbler’s mouths plunge into the water. It was heading toward their bank.

Cale dropped the table.

“Fuck,” he said. “Fuck, fuck.”

“Hey!” Raj said.

“What is it?” Stardust said.

“Herc,” he shouted. “The Hudson Hippo. My sculpture!”

Herc sat small and purple on the bank as the giant gobbler approached.

“Oh shit,” Raj said. “I don’t think we’ll fit it in this run. We’ll have to come back for it.”

Cale barely registered their voices. He was sprinting down the hill.

“Cale! Wait! I can’t run with Ursula.”

Cale shouted over his shoulder to record the bastards. He ran as fast as he could to the river’s edge.

Up close, the water seemed to be boiling around the gobbler. The mouths plunged into the water with gigantic splashes as black smoke churned from the belly. Cale felt like he was facing some demon loosed from the pit of hell.

Herc sat on the ledge near the water. He looked small, helpless in comparison to the gigantic gobbler.

“No!” Cale shouted. He jumped up and down, arms spread. “Go the other way. Eat the other side.”

The gobbler didn’t heed him. It was cold. Mechanical. Inevitable.

He scrambled on top of Herc. “Go back,” he shouted. He stood up the purple back and waved his arms in defiance. Cold winds whipped around him. He drained his lungs. “I command you to leave this land!”

The gobbler’s metal gears groaned.

At that exact moment, the clouds broke open and blinding white light shone across the river in a glowing column.

• • • •

The next part happened very quickly. Cale couldn’t quite follow it. Fear and disbelief scrambled the sequence. People were shouting above him and behind him. Metal groans. Blackness.

Then Cale was on his back, bleeding, in pain. He sat up. His right leg was trapped under a pile of dirt. The severed head of a hippo gazed at him with sad, glowing eyes.

He and Herc were on top of a large mountain of dirt, silt, and detritus. The enormous gobbler groaned all around him.

Cale pulled his leg free. His jeans were ripped and the remains were being dyed with blood. Cale somehow stood up on the other leg. Some minutes had passed. The gobbler had continued its course down the river toward the city. Stardust and Ursula were the size of dolls on the far bank. He waved his hands, trying to signal them.

“Hey,” one of the guards on the gobbler’s bow yelled. “Hands up!”

Cale turned. From up on the ship’s back, the river was a winding slice of blue carved into the lush green hills. A distant train chugged by like a children’s toy, then disappeared behind a patch of trees. The wind was warm. “I said hands up!” Cale had never seen the Hudson from this point of view. It overwhelmed him. He spun around, trying to take it all in, from the rolling hills to the dense clusters of forest, and then, from either the beauty, the pain, or the feathered tranquilizer dart that appeared like an angry hummingbird to bite his thigh, Cale passed out.

Unconscious, Cale floated back home.

Lincoln Michel

Lincoln Michel’s debut novel The Body Scout (Orbit) was named one of the ten best SFF books of 2021 by The New York Times. He is also the author of the story collection Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press) and the co-editor of the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated anthologies Tiny Crimes (Catapult) and Tiny Nightmares (Catapult). His work appears in The Paris Review, Strange Horizons, F&SF, Granta, and previously in Lightspeed. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.