On the Destruction of Copenhagen by the War-Machines of the Merfolk
By Peter M. Ball
6 July 2009
1. When it starts we're in a hotel room, the two of us curled up on a double bed. It's a two-star kind of place: cracks in the walls, curtains covered in faded daisies, the clinging smell of camphor attaching itself after the first few of minutes of your stay. The television stutters as we flick through the channels, colours bleeding together and rendering the devastation a fuzzy blue or green. Still, we see it happen: the great machines of the merfolk coming up over the shore, rampaging through the city with devastating effect. We watch a robotic mermaid hammer her fist into an apartment block, the dust cloud from the explosion engulfing the nearby camera. It's quick, sudden, a surprise that's ruined by the later repetition of the footage. We breathe in and all we can smell are mothballs. It's almost a disappointment.
We're not in Copenhagen, but it's possible my sister is. She was there when last I talked to her, and I don't know when she was leaving. My knowledge of her trip consists entirely of reports on the quality of her breakfast. I don't know when she was planning on leaving the city, but I know Copenhagen makes excellent waffles and cream. This knowledge, once gathered, proves to be useless. I explain all this to the girl beside me, and she looks up, wide-eyed. She asks if this means we'll be going home early, just in case. I think about it, and then: No, I tell her. No, of course not. There's nothing I can do at home that I can't do here.
This is selfish, I know, but I console myself with the knowledge that my sister doesn't stay places for longer than a few days. She was going to Iceland next, and there's a good chance she's moved on. I say as much, when pressed. Iceland, I say. Odds are, she's in Iceland. Nothing to worry about unless we hear otherwise.
The girl beside me asks why Iceland? I tell her I have no idea. My sister's travels are guided by a logic she doesn't share with others.
2. I won't leave you in suspense. That would be unfair. My sister didn't make it to Iceland. Her flight was cancelled on account of the attack. No one tells us this. My sister doesn't call. In the absence of news, my mother panics. She leaves worried messages on my cell phone. I do not panic. I place my trust in my sister's ability to take care of herself, even in the face of vast robotic war-machines and cancelled flights.
My sister carries trouble with her like luggage, always ready to be unpacked. It's a habit that's given her plenty of experience surviving the unexpected.
3. My date is only twenty-two. I'm almost thirty-five. We don't tell people that we're going out. Her name is Hayley, though this is probably a lie. She thinks my name is Dean, though she is unsure of whether this is a Christian name, a surname, or a nom-de-plume.
The best thing about Hayley: she smells like cotton candy. Lying in bed with her, smelling her hair, is frequently better than our stilted attempts to have sex.
Hayley has a cobra tattooed on her left arm in green ink. She has a blue mermaid tattoo on her right thigh. She sent me photographs of both when we were flirting online, but the cobra seems more threatening when seen in real life. Hayley met me at the hotel wearing cut-off jeans and a tank top, all her ink on display for the whole world to see. I booked the hotel room while she watched me through the glass door. We booked in as Mister and Miss Dean.
In theory, we are both engineers. This is the occupation both of us offered, when the question was raised online. We bonded over this, our mutual interest in machines. It greased the early days of our relationship admirably.
We are liars, and we assume as much. This is a basic precaution in the age of the Internet. Yet both of us enjoy the game more than we let on.
4. My parents text me, pinging my cell every couple of minutes. Text messages are a bad way to communicate in an emergency. They would seem comical if I wasn't watching the news, even though my parents aren't known for their sense of whimsy. I read their messages to Hayley during the lull in the news reports: Have you heard from your sister? There's a giant robot mermaid crawling through Copenhagen. It's fighting its way to the Christiansborg Palace! Do you remember the name of your sister's hotel? Do you remember the name of your sister's airline? Have you heard from her since this started? My god, did you see the damage that tail caused? Have you heard from your sister? Has she tried to give you a call? Why aren't you answering your phone?
5. We don't hear from my sister for three days. Then we do. She leaves a message on my phone: Not dead, not in Iceland, everything okay. Give you call when I get home. I forward this message to my mother and scan the limited breakfast options on the hotel's room-service menu. Hayley and I order raisin toast that comes with not enough butter. Hayley tells me this is her favourite breakfast ever, the only thing she can eat at the start of the day.
6. It emerges that no-one knows why the attack took place. The merfolk's statement on the matter is a collection of high-pitched whale songs that remain difficult to decipher, so people develop their own theories to make sense of the destruction. My favourite suggests that perhaps, in retrospect, the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen harbour may have been something of a mistake; that the merfolk may have taken it for some kind of taunt.
My sister visited that statue three times in the past. Each time, she says, regardless of the season or clothing she's wearing, it's the coldest place she's ever been. My sister has been to many cold places. She has seen both the Arctic and Antarctic circles. She is not sorry to hear that the statue was torn down in the wake of the attack.
7. It should be noted that visiting Iceland is still on my sister's to-do list, thanks to this horrible tragedy.
8. There are some people, my friends among them, who will believe the destruction of Copenhagen is an urban myth. Others will believe it's a cover up for something both more mundane and infinitely more sinister. They will blame the Americans. America is easy to blame in moments like this.
My sister suffered three injuries during the attack, though all of them were minor. The worst was a sprained right ankle, which ballooned up and forced her to limp along on crutches for a week before it healed. She sent me photographs of her injuries, her ankle dark and swollen like she's hiding a storm cloud beneath her skin.
The photographs of my sister's ankle will do little to convince those who doubt the attack ever truly happened. They will tell me such injuries could have happened to anyone, at any time, and I cannot prove them wrong.
9. There were five robots in Copenhagen. I told Hayley they were simultaneously works of innovative engineering and one of the poorest designs I had ever seen. She snuggled close and asked me to explain. I closed my eyes and breathed in the smell of her hair.
The genius of the robots was in their scale: two hundred feet tall and strong enough to smash a building into rubble. The merfolk did this using parts scavenged from sunken ships, each robot a patchwork construct made from metal and waterlogged wood. That the robots worked at all is a marvel, requiring foresight and ingenuity that few human engineers could match.
The flaws of the robots lay in their scales: the use of the merfolk as the base form, rather than a creature adapted for movement on land. Each war machine was covered in a scaled shell of metal that leaked water every time the robot moved, forcing them to return to the ocean at periodic intervals where they would sink beneath the surface as a flurry of air-bubbles boiled the water. This flaw ensured the rampage was limited to a small section of the Copenhagen shoreline.
Hayley was impressed by my observations, commenting on my insight. I told her I never wanted to be smart; I wanted to be free to travel the world on a whim, just like my sister.
10. The games we play to pass the time: Hayley is an Italian maid and I'm the horny tourist she walks in on. She's a stunning French philosophy student and I'm the horny waiter at her favourite café. She's a terrified Danish film star and I'm the rampaging robot that picks her up and fights off the air force while clinging to the side of Copenhagen's tallest tower.
Then news reports tell us that the rampage is over, that the robots ranged too far from the shore, leaving the pilots gasping for air inside the dormant constructs.
11. They announce the final death toll. It's lower than either of us expected. We pack up and go home the next day. The war with the merfolk is over.
12. The next time I see Hayley she will be older, wiser, less prone to dating men that she meets on the Internet. Her hair will smell like something other than cotton candy. We will spot one another at opposite ends of the cereal aisle at the supermarket. I will be reaching for Coco Puffs; she will be reaching for name-brand muesli. I will be fatter and growing a beard, and I will stop myself from calling out her name when I see her standing next to a friend who may-or-may-not know of Hayley's double life as Hayley-the-Engineer. I will feel a sudden surge of jealousy: Hayley's friend will know if her name isn't really Hayley, but I will never know. My arm will falter. I will smile instead. Hayley will smile back. She will excuse herself and hurry down the aisle so she can kiss me on the cheek. She will ask after my sister. I will tell her my sister is fine, thought she's currently stuck in Korea, paying off an impressive bar tab generated during a wild night at an underground casino. We will laugh at that. We will not mention our time together. Hayley will excuse herself. She will go back and start talking to her friend, making some comment that explains who I am without mentioning the fact that we once dated.
The merfolk will have gone underground, censured by the global community for their actions in Denmark. The oceans will be deemed unsafe. We will worry about ships lost at sea; each new incident will become global news. We will lose faith in our navy. Hayley will rejoin her friend. She will choose a more expensive brand of muesli and place it in her shopping cart. I will watch the two of them go, walking away from me, disappearing around the corner of the aisle. I will admire the curve of Hayley's back. I will wonder if Hayley was ever her real name. I will close my eyes and wish. I will wish that we could sleep together, just one more time. I will wish we were back in the hotel room, that the merfolk invasion could start again. Hayley will be gone. I will miss her. I will wish she still smelt like cotton candy, and I will breathe in the sugar-sweet smell of the Coco-Puffs and pretend that I'm smelling her for a little while longer.
Later I will remember that my sister still hasn't made it to Iceland. It's the one place I can still go that she has never been.