Chapter 1: Warning Shot CHAPTER 1 WARNING SHOT
The intruder paused midstep, fixing his attention on a party of finches who’d been eyeing him from their perches up ahead. Well, they weren’t eyeing him, he reminded himself, so much as the thing he was in. A curiosity, to be sure. And weighing in at two hundred tons, it would be hard to miss. Even out here, in the middle of nowhere.
He clicked the image magnification dial to the right, telescoping in on the flock until he could count each bird’s feathers if he wanted. They had stopped chirping, every one of their dark little eyes intent on this stranger’s next move. He stared back, admiring them through two circular screens that dominated the curved wall in front of him, each one nearly ten feet in diameter.
Hello there. Even though not a soul—bird or otherwise—could actually see him, he considered for a moment how strange he must look, suspended by a leather harness in the center of a gyroscope that swiveled in tandem with his every movement. Not to mention the tangle of cords, the panels of blinking lights that encircled him. He shifted his weight to one side, careful not to let his feet push the omnidirectional pedals below. They were calibrated to respond to the slightest pressure—a feature he was still getting the hang of.
In spite of his precautions, the finches sensed something. A vibration, maybe? In a blink, they were gone.
The intruder hadn’t come all this way to bird-watch. But still. Their sudden departure left him feeling even more alone in his command center than he had at the outset of his trek. Now all he had to keep him company were the flickering readouts of the console.
Stay on mission, he told himself. The digital displays all glowed under his nose, giving him a steady flow of information. He checked his latitude, longitude, altitude, wattage, engine temperature, hydraulic pressure. There were measures for everything. Then he looked at the readout above them all, the one labeled TIME/DATE. It read:
06:14:37 AM / WED 06-22-1983
A short grunt of surprise. The sun would be up any minute. Where had the night gone? For the next twenty-three seconds, he watched the last two digits in the TIME column continue their endless tick upward until the minutes turned over to :15 and the seconds reset to :00 to start all over again.
Below that, one more readout caught his eye, labeled OCCUPANTS. Unlike all the other numbers, it remained unchanged:
He nodded. Time to get going.
With great care, he resumed the practiced movements from his harness. Each step he applied to the pedals activated one of the colossal mechanical legs far below, hundreds of times heavier than his own. When he did it right, the hushed sounds of the machinery were almost imperceptible among the constant creaks and cracks of the old forest—which was impressive when you considered the size of the thing.
Whirrrrrrrr… tick… grong…
Whirrrrrrrr… tick… grong…
Whirrrrrrrr… tick… grong…
Everything running smoothly.
In this patch of Ohio, far south of the cornfields, the woods grew especially dense, and with each mile, the terrain had become more unpredictable. Steep drop-offs and gorges crisscrossed through the hills and hollows, many of them hidden under a canopy of leaves. For every two trees that held upright, there would be one leaning over at an angle, too old or too tired to stand without help. Other trees were laid out flat entirely, slowly becoming part of the forest floor.
For a metal giant, it made for precarious steps. An ever-changing obstacle course. But also not a bad place to hide. And from where he dangled, the view was nice. At a hundred feet up, he could see just ahead where the trees finally thinned and the earth smoothed, giving way to a string of small houses along a narrow two-lane road.
He approached from the back of the neighborhood. The homes were simple and squat, with low pitched roofs and tiny windows. Easy to miss—and step on—if you weren’t paying close attention. But he was.
The backyard directly ahead distinguished itself with a tire swing in one corner and a trampoline in the other. Both appeared to be well-worn. All good signs.
The intruder checked his map to confirm the location, marked it, then continued forward, zeroing in. The houses were well spaced apart, separated by stretches of grass. But they were close enough that the sound of someone causing a commotion could still travel between them.
He slowed his steps.
One colossal foot came down on a newly fallen tree, snapping it in two. He immediately tried to correct his footing, but too much in the opposite direction. Wider than a dump truck, the steel sole slipped, sending the log, along with several others, rolling down a moss-covered slope, into a ravine that cut diagonally through the wood. A quick chain reaction of thumps and crashes. The intruder froze.
Somewhere, a dog started barking.
Up ahead, a light blinked on through one of the tiny windows. Then another.
The intruder tilted both handles downward to assume a crouch position as he maneuvered partway into the gorge, still allowing him to peek through the tops of the trees. He waited.
With a sharp creak, the back door burst open, and a broad-shouldered woman pushed her way through. Her body was draped in a spectacular teal and gold muumuu, with the hair on both sides of her head wound tight in rollers, which somehow made her look even more formidable. She ambled down the porch steps and tromped across the length of the backyard, dog by her side, stopping at a chain-link fence that met her at the waist.
The woman held something in her hands.
He zoomed in. Click, click, click. It was a double-barreled shotgun.
The edges of the sky grew pink, and he suddenly became aware of how, in just a few moments, the sunlight might glint off the top of his metallic shell. He crouched down even deeper into the gorge, metal legs scraping against the outcropping of stone. No longer able to see over the trees, he aimed both audio sensors straight ahead.
The woman was shouting into the shadows.
“An’ ya better stay off our land, if’n ya know what’s good for ya….”
He slipped his hands off the main grips that controlled locomotion, pressing his palms together. They were a little sweaty. Didn’t want to cause any sudden movements that gave his position away. Statue still.
The woman carried on with her threats in his general direction, along with the dog. Then, through his speakers, he heard the amplified metal clink of a gate being unlatched.
“Go get ’em, Boz,” she said.
Boz took off like a rocket, crashing through the underbrush. By the sound of it, the dog was quickly closing the distance between them.
The intruder’s hands danced over the control panel, toggling the switches that caused the articulated limbs to contract in on themselves, section by section. But there were limits to how small he could make a giant. The tractor-size claws that served as hands dug into the earth, crunching felled trees and underbrush. He powered down.
Now his view barely cleared the ravine’s edge. He was just above ground level.
Two minutes later, a snout poked through the bushes to the left, followed by the head, body, and tail of a very large hound. Boz. After a few tentative sniffs at the lifeless giant, the dog started baying with renewed vigor. His howls were long and loud. Whatever the metal intruder smelled like, Boz clearly did not approve.
“Ar-ar-aroooooooooooooo…,” the hound persisted.
Not good. The operator considered his options. He flipped a switch, powering the primary systems back up. A sharp hum of energy filled the small clearing around the gorge. He pressed a few more buttons. With a low groan, the massive head swiveled on its bulky, neckless body. Now they were face to face.
Without warning, the two gigantic, perfectly circular eyes went incandescent. The dog’s terror-stricken face was frozen under a bright green glow. He managed one whimper before turning tail to run.
Beyond the trees, a shotgun fired, echoing through the predawn air. The blast was quickly followed by the unmistakable shunk-shunk of a reload.
“Next’un won’t be no warning.” Muumuu was still on duty.
The intruder took three deep breaths before extending the giant’s limbs back to their full length. Rising up, he stole one last glance at the tire swing and trampoline before looking back down at the control panel. The displays all danced before him, save one that remained fixed. OCCUPANTS: 01. Heart sinking, he leaned to one side in the harness, pushing his weight to the right pedal while squeezing the left-hand control to pivot.
In perfect sync, the massive metal foot turned on its heel. Stepping out of the ravine, the giant robot kept low as it made its retreat, the first traces of daylight chasing behind.