Preview Fiction from Blue Shift- “A Lonesome Speck of Home” by Beth Cato

Robot soldier

A Lonesome Speck of Home

by

Beth Cato

 

The goddamn robots were at it again.

Victor scowled out the living room window at a panorama of churning dust and powdered debris. “Get off your damn phone,” he muttered into his cell phone, pressing redial again and again as he encountered a busy signal.

Not another house remained standing on his street. Most of the trees were gone, too, nothing more than toothpicks along the cracked and crushed sidewalk. Telephone poles leaned together as if consoling each other. He saw it all with his eyes, yet refused to let reality sink in. The lot across the way still belonged to the Smiths; old lady Periwinkle should still be next door. The hum of his generator covered up the whistle of the wind across the trampled desert.

The receiver at his ear clicked. “Major General Montague’s office,” said the slick voice of the clerk. Victor made a quick tweak to his hearing aids so he could hear through the din.

“This is Victor Lynch,” he yelled. “I’m calling because—”

An especially heavy thud jarred the house, and the shiny butt of the two-hundred foot Mega Robot skidded parallel to the street, over where the Clarks and Smiths used to live. The rainbow-patched robot scrambled upright, its massive black and pink metal feet stirring up dirt and crushed concrete.

“Yes. You again.” The clerk did not sound enthused.

“Damn it, transfer me to Montague or—”

“Or what?” The gruff voice of the general took over the line.

“They’re at it again! Mega is fighting some new alien that just landed. It’s blue with a boar’s mask. Now, you said you’d get some planes in here—”

“Victor, you’re an idiot. I said I’d get planes in there if I could, but I can’t.” His voice creaked. “We have other attack zones in progress across the country right now, and some of those are near high density areas. I’m sorry—”

“My life’s in danger here! I’m a United States citizen!”

The boots shoved backward and the new robot’s feet dominated the window, all shimmery and turquoise. With a spur of rocket boosters, it leapt up. Heat lashed Victor and he stumbled backward.  The window throbbed, new cracks in the surface zigzagging like lightning bolts, but it didn’t shatter.

“You’re in danger because you’re a stubborn old fool. No one is holding you prisoner. It’s only by sheer luck that your house is still there. If you get stepped on, it’s your own damn fault.” Major General Montague paused, taking in a sharp breath. “Victor, I’ve known you since I was a kid. I can’t change your mind, and hell, I’m tired of trying. I’ll make sure there’s an honor guard at your funeral.”

Dead air filled the line. Victor stared at the cell phone and slammed it shut. Arrogant jerk. Victor put every last dime of savings into buying this house thirty years before–his perfect little retirement bungalow out on the fringe of Palm Springs. At sunset, the brown hills formed a craggy silhouette against a spilled-watercolor sky.

Now, the property wasn’t worth squat. Insurance didn’t give a damn; invasions of alien robots fell under some ‘Act of God’ clause. He had mucked through monsoons in Korea and Vietnam, spent a few decades with a bottle permanently adhered to his hand, and finally emerged sober and divorced. This house was all he could rely on. His family–damn them all. Not even his grandson Ned would stay loyal forever.

The boar-faced robot jabbed Mega, sending the rainbow robot flying backward. The boar pivoted, and Victor already knew its intended target: the high school. That’s all the invaders cared about.

There were a lot of theories about these damned alien attacks, but two things were clear: they always took place near high schools, and some colorful robot always rushed to the schools’ defense. Therefore, the school was intact in the midst of No Man’s Land. Idiots on the news kept saying the attacks were some plot to slaughter the younger generation, which didn’t make much sense since the schools all shut down when the attacks began. He recalled that a few campuses had been destroyed in some other states, though.

Not that it was any loss. These teenagers were all morons, anyway. Education wouldn’t seep through those thick skulls.

Grabbing his shotgun, Victor headed into the front yard. The grass had died but his beloved rose bushes along the sidewalk were still alive, though they had shed every petal. He had planted those roses for his wife back before the divorce, and those blooms had stayed prettier a lot longer than she had.

Years ago, he had busted some girl stealing his blooming roses. Yelled at her, made her cry. The next morning, he found a wrinkled five dollar bill beneath a rock on his front step. Victor stared down the street. That kid was probably dead in the initial attack, or had been evacuated.

Mega swiped a leg, tripping the alien. It fell face-first into the ground. A cloud of dust obscured the action for a minute, and, when it cleared, Victor could see both robots upright and wrestling. They were near the same size, differentiated only by color and head design. Despite the dirt, their metal bodies gleamed, their curves elegant and smooth like a ’55 Chevy. And the way they moved–God, it was like two snakes striking at each other, faster than a blink.

A lone missile plumed from the boar’s back, the contrail curling like ribbon. The explosion flared between the two robots’ faces. The boar staggered backward. Mega seemed unfazed as it reared back a blue fist and jabbed, sending the alien robot airborne. The boar arced high in the sky, heels up, and vanished over the hills.  The ground shuddered.

Everything was still. He waited, watching. Was that it? After several minutes, Mega lifted its arms. What should have been a triumphant gesture seemed abrupt, tired. Mega’s rockets flared, and it took to the sky. The day’s battle was done.

He stared into the distance where the boar-headed robot had crashed. It hadn’t looked too banged-up at last sight. The hills were littered with the carnage of past battles: half-busted metal craniums, fists, miscellaneous shrapnel, missile craters.

So much for his beautiful sunsets.

This new robot was worth checking out, but there’s no way he could walk that far. He headed toward the house. Time to give his sucker of a grandson a call.

#

About an hour later, Ned pulled up to a crushed curb in his rickety Toyota truck. The young man leaned out his window to gawk at the neighborhood. “Pop, when you said you were the last one left, I didn’t think you really meant it.”

“It’s still home.” Victor heaved himself inside the truck, grateful the cab had plenty of space for his shotgun.

“Doesn’t this get to you, looking out your window at this every day, knowing that most of them are—”

“I haven’t cried in fifty years and I’m not starting now. Are you going to drive this damn thing or not?”

Ned hunched over and shut his trap.  They drove a few miles into the hills, dodging extraterrestrial scrap metal, and found where the boar-headed robot had skidded to rest. Ned whistled as he debarked.

“Wow. It looks pretty good.” He tossed his keys on the seat.

Victor marched towards the head where the cockpit surely lay. Ned moved about as fast as Jabba the Hutt and had a similar body type, but he tried to keep up.

“Something smells like bacon,” Ned said between gasps.

“Yeah. Him.” Victor pointed at the snout-faced alien draping from the robot’s mouth like a flaccid cigar. “Saw one of these guys last week during a battle. Shot him dead. He was stuck in your grandma’s roses.”

“Grandma hated those roses.”

“She sure did. Hated them so much, I got the house in the divorce. I love those damn flowers. God, why do these things have to be so blasted huge?” Victor couldn’t climb up the slick surface of the arm, so Ned helped. By the time they reached the top, both were panting and soaked with sweat.

Victor hauled the pilot’s carcass out and let it roll down to the desert floor beside the robot’s armpit. The glass windshield of the cockpit had shattered cleanly. Black scorch marks showed the damage the craft’s own missile had caused. Ned climbed over the edge and fell into a massive chair big enough for two. He filled it.

Victor leaned over the robot’s lip. Lights and buttons flashed along the console.

“The computer looks like it’s functioning,” said Ned. “Look at that.” He motioned to something above Victor’s head.

The old man lay on his back and gazed up. The screen depicted a satellite view of that high school down the street. An overlay showed circles and lines of what he could only guess to be missile trajectories.

“Why the hell is that high school so important?” he asked.

“Why are any of these high schools important?” Ned’s thick fingers glanced along a switchboard. “I mean, there are about fifty of these attack zones around the country, right? Plus all the places abroad.”

“Yeah.” He gnawed on his chapped lip. “You like computers. Why don’t you play around with this thing for a while?”

“Play around? No! God, no! I don’t want to launch nuclear missiles by accident.”

“Out here, no one would notice the difference.” He slid out of the cockpit and sat upright, letting the blood return to his head. “I’m going to borrow your truck for a while.”

“What? You don’t even have a license anymore.” Ned’s hands gripped the chair arms as he tried and failed to pry himself up. “Pop, no—”

“I’m going to check out this high school. I’ll be back later. Don’t break my robot.”

“Your robot? Pop! Stop! You need to call the government. Don’t leave me with this thing!”

Victor didn’t stop. He blocked out the yells, just as he blocked out the vision of ruins beyond his front door.

#

            Debris pock-marked the sprawling school grounds. The doors to the main building remained locked, but a gate creaked open. Not even birds chirped. At least cemeteries had birds and greenery and flowers.

Victor hunched his shoulders. How many had died in the first robot attack? Thousands. It had happened at the butt crack of dawn. No one saw it coming.

A tattered United States flag dangled from a pole in the quad. He paused for a moment. Back when he was a kid, that flag meant something to him. Then: blood, death, loneliness, a homecoming to derision and indifferent children, an inebriated haze, abiding loneliness. The latter, at least, was a conscious choice.

Now he had his house. That, and his pride.

Victor’s hearing aids picked up the distant low murmur of voices. He pressed his back against the wall, rifle barrel against his shoulder. His shadow stretched long against a cinder-block wall. He rounded the corner to find a door ajar.

Hot, stale air pressed on him like a blanket. Voices echoed from down the hall. Damn. Vandals. Nothing was sacred to these punks. He sidled down the hallway, his left knee creaking in rhythm with his steps. A wall display showed chemical compounds and twined DNA ladders. The door to the next classroom stood open.

He propelled himself through the doorway, bringing the gun level. Five kids in colorful costumes sat on the floor surrounded by an array of liquor bottles. Victor opened his lips to scold them, then noticed the wall behind them was a rippling iridescent portal like something out of a goddamned movie.

His jaw fell limp, and he stepped forward.

“Stop!” The girl in turquoise leaped to her feet. “Don’t move.”

“Or what?” growled Victor, brandishing the rifle. The first six inches of the barrel vanished. A cascade of gray dust drifted to the floor. He scrambled backward, staring at his lopped-off firearm.

“It’s a force field,” said the boy in red, his words slurred. “If people wander in and see that,” he jabbed a thumb at the portal. “They waltz right into the barrier. Never knew what hit them.”

“Damned alien technology.” Victor eyed the invisible wall, but couldn’t even see a distinct line in the ceiling or floor. However, he did see dust. Piles of it, on both sides of the barricade. “You’re prisoners? Where are the guards?”

The kid in yellow laughed. The sound edged on maniacal. “Prisoners? You have to ask if we’re prisoners?” He flung a bottle. It arced straight at Victor, and then was gone. Only amber dust drifted across his chest. “We don’t need any guards, not with that thing.”

“You should have just let him walk into the barrier,” said the kid in red.

“No.” The girl in turquoise sat down again. Straight black hair draped to her jaw in crude chunks, as if hacked with a dull knife. Sweat glazed her dusky skin. “You’re the old guy in the last house. The one who won’t leave.”

“Yeah. And what the hell is this?” Victor jerked the gun barrel towards the portal.

“God. Just go away.” That came from the kid in yellow. “You don’t want to know.”

“That’s the dimensional shortcut that leads directly to Mega.” The girl in turquoise said it matter-of-factly, then whipped her head to look at her companions on either side. “Someone needs to know. One of these days…” Her voice cracked. “I want someone to know. Someone from our neighborhood. We can tell him. He’s already proven he won’t leave.” She tilted back a bottle of hard lemonade as if to fortify herself. He stared at her. Why did she look so familiar?

“She’s right.” That came from the slender girl in pink. “The military knows, and they’re still alive. Why not him?”

“The military knows?” Victor took in everything. “You all pilot that Mega Robot. And you’re drunk.”

The pink girl waggled a finger. “We’re drunk now. This is our little celebration for another battle won. There won’t be another fight until tomorrow, at least.”

“Tomorrow. God, tomorrow.” The red-garbed boy shivered.

“I want to know what’s going on,” Victor said.

The girl in turquoise set down her bottle. “It’s pretty simple, really. We’re unwilling contestants in the ultimate intergalactic game show run by these aliens called the Gonquins. We were selected because we’re considered the optimum age group. Teenagers. A dozen of us were grabbed, all honors students. We have to protect the high school using Mega.”

The high school. The robot. The pieces slipped together in Victor’s mind. “So what is this, some damned game of capture the flag?”

“Yeah, but the game is rigged. It doesn’t matter how many times we win. If an alien pilot defeats us once and destroys the school, they own the region. That’s it. Game over.”

The boy in yellow nodded. “The Gonquins look at schools like churches or something. Nothing is more sacred. Having one at stake and eventually blown up is like some big alluring taboo.”

“In our case, when someone else wins, it means they own all of southern California,” said the kid in red. “They can do whatever they want with it.”

Victor gnawed his lip as he thought. “Some high schools have been destroyed. Damn. So the kids’ robots lost those battles?”

“Yeah,” said the kid. “In New Jersey and Detroit.”

“Goddamn. No wonder no one knows the difference.”

“The aliens like to see everything destroyed,” said the girl in pink. “They cheer. It’s like that old TV show with the home videos, and how everyone laughs when a guy gets kicked in the nuts.” She clenched her eyes shut. “The Gonquins laugh a lot.”

The girl in turquoise pointed towards Victor. “We’re all that’s left of our school’s pilots. The others couldn’t take it.” She nodded towards Victor and took another long guzzle from the bottle.

He didn’t need to ask how. Twelve. Now five. God, all that dust along the barrier wasn’t just dust.

Victor forced his gaze to the teenagers in their sleek suits. He knew these kids. Not by name, but from the neighborhood. Staring through blinds day after day, he’d see them walk to the basketball courts down the street, or play in the Smith’s yard across the way.

“Your families are dead,” he said.

“Yeah.” She frowned into her lemonade. “We couldn’t warn them or anything. We either sit here or in the lair with Mega, or walk into that force field. Zap.” She flared out her fingers. “A Gonquin brings us food and whatever else we need.” She tossed the bottle across the room where it landed atop a stained glass mountain of broken bottles. “You don’t know what it’s like doing this, day after day, knowing that if we don’t win…”

God. Victor knew. Not with stakes this high, but he knew. He knew about the jungle and dead friends and how his heart galloped as he listened to the whistle of dropping shells, wondering if the next would land on him. But damn it, he’d volunteered. He was an idiot, but a willing one. These kids—and they were kids. Goddamn, two of them were pizza-faced, and only one of the boys had facial hair.

Heat stung his eyes. This wasn’t right. Nothing about this was.

“With so much in the neighborhood gone, it makes me smile to look at your house sometimes,” whispered the girl in turquoise. She lifted up her chin, and for a split second he saw her as she used to be, all pudgy-faced with wide, dark eyes. “The rose bushes are about the only green things left.”

He stared. “That’s who you are. You’re the kid, the little thief. The one who paid me for the roses.”

She didn’t meet his eye. “Yeah. For my mom’s birthday. She loved them. You never caught me after that, but I kept taking roses, every year. I didn’t always have money, so I would pull weeds from the sidewalk, save your newspaper from the gutter, stuff like that.” She smiled into the distance. “Mom loved those roses.”

“How much does the military know about this game?” Victor asked, his voice rasping.

“As much as we do, I guess. They aren’t allowed to interfere or they forfeit the entire country. All they can do is help refugees and monitor everything.”

No wonder Montague couldn’t bring in planes. Everyone in this was powerless, even the kids with their rainbow robot. Victor refused to be powerless. He was eighty-one years old. What did he have to lose, his life? His house? His roses? The thought of those bushes only bolstered his resolve.

“I want to know the rules of this game,” he said.

She shook her head, shorn hair sticking to her cheeks. “The rules are simple, but they won’t do you any good. The winning pilot has to be in a combat robot, defeat us, and must destroy the entire high school. That’s it.”

“It doesn’t matter where the pilot’s from?”

“No. They win for their home planet. These contestants come from all over. Why? You have a spare robot in your backyard?” She snorted and reached for another bottle.

“As a matter of fact, yes I do.” A slow smile crept across Victor’s face. “I think it’s time you threw the match.”

She leaned against her sweat-soaked leggings, thoughtful, and said nothing for several minutes. The others looked at each other, communicating something beyond words. Then, slowly, each of them nodded.

The girl stared into her white-gloved hands. “We’d have to—we’d have to put up a fight. It’s all for entertainment. If it’s too easy…”

“We can do this. It’ll work.”

“Yeah,” she said, and each of them nodded again. “We’re ready for this to end.”

#

            When Victor returned to the fallen boar-faced robot that evening, Ned awaited him, flush-faced and angry. He did not respond well to Victor’s plan.

“Pop, no. I mean, Dad told us you’re crazy for years and staying in your neighborhood proved it. But this? Trying to win some alien game show?” He shook his head, sweat flying. “No way.”

“They told me how to operate the damn thing.” Victor had retrieved a paper pad from his house and queried the kids on the basics, even sketched out schematics based on their descriptions. “It’s meant to be piloted by a team.”

“Team.” Ned laughed, nigh hysterical. “You don’t know the meaning of the word. And you ask me, after abandoning me in the desert all day?  No. I don’t care if you have every switch labeled with a sticky note. I’m not doing it. You’re on your own from here. Literally.”

Victor watched his grandson drive away. The kid was right to be angry. Hell, leaving Victor in the hills was probably safer than returning him home. And, when it came down to it, he didn’t want to get Ned killed. Maybe it was for the best.

“I used to be part of a team,” he whispered. Conrad, Jessup, Marco, Martinez, Belding. He hadn’t thought of them in years, not since he saw them leave ‘Nam in coffins too big for their contents.

Now he was part of a team again, and he didn’t even know the kids’ names.

#

Morning sun glared through the glassless cockpit. The robot lurched with each long stride and slid Victor side to side in the massive captain’s chair. Along the dash, he had taped translations on usage and toggle functions. It would be enough to get the job done.

An alarm wailed above, a blue light spinning and flashing. The label: ENEMY IN PROXIMITY.

A distant roar came from behind him; Mega was on its way. Victor crested the last hill, kicking a decapitated robot head on the way down. It bounced across the deserted valley like an oversized soccer ball. His house looked like a mere anthill from this height and distance. It looked insignificant, and it was. Victor’s gnarled hands clutched at the two-foot, wishbone-shaped steering wheel.

The roar behind him grew louder.

A yellow light began to spin. Incoming missiles. Time for evasive action. He couldn’t help but grin. Although, that very type of thinking on the freeway had cost him his driver’s license.

Victor threw himself forward, pressing down on two pedals. Cold air whooshed into the cockpit as the robot leapt up. His body jerked against the bloodied seatbelt, but it held. Rocket boosters rumbled from the soles far below. He glanced up and hit a sequence of three switches, pausing to look at his scribbled instructions, and then pressed a large green button in the center console. A screen dropped into his sight range: there was the high school, green-tinted, the trajectories highlighted.

Damn, where did Mega go? Victor hadn’t enabled all of the screens, and he didn’t dare turn the thing around too fast. The robot had to be somewhere above him.

He pressed the button again.

The robot rocked as missiles shot from barrels on each arm, three from right, two from left. Fluffy contrails arced towards the school.

God, let this work. Victor sagged forward, his heart threatening to pound out of his chest. He was too old for this damned stuff anymore. They had to make this look like a battle; like Victor won, fair and square.

“Mr. Lynch.” The girl pilot’s voice rang over a small speaker, as clear as if she stood next to him. “I just want you to know, we’re okay with this. We’re ready.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” A panel to the right beeped in a steady rhythm. Victor frowned. The beeping was supposed to indicate the missiles’ proximity to their target, but they were nowhere close to the school yet.

Alarms from Mega rang over the speakers. “You have to defeat us–”

“Defeat you? No, you didn’t say it, not like that. Blowing up the school should be enough–”

“I’m sorry. We have to do this, or it wouldn’t be over.” She paused. “Thanks for the roses.”

In a distant rainbow blur, Mega dropped out of the sky and directly into the path of the two left-hand missiles.

Victor stared out of the gaping cockpit, then at the dash, then back out. There was nothing he could do. Those kids—damn it, he should have seen this coming.

“You’re all just kids,” he whispered. He and his buddies used to be kids, too. That was long ago, so very long ago.

The first explosion caught Mega in the chest. Its arms pin-wheeled backward as if to regain balance, then the next missile struck. Even from a mile away, the pressure shift rocked Victor in his seat. Mega became a towering inferno and crumpled to its knees.

Behind it, more explosions. Mushroom clouds billowed from the school grounds. When the dust cleared, the screen showed craters instead of buildings. The sirens silenced. Victor’s hands fell limp in his lap.

Every screen above the console flared to life, more descending from the sides. They showed crowds of alien beings—some pig-snouted, others cat-like. Some he couldn’t even describe beyond saying they were damned ugly.

He’d won.

Victor sat there a moment, staring at the screens, staring at the button labeled “REPORT TO GONQUINS.” He finally leaned forward and compressed it.

“My name is Victor Lynch, and I declare this frigging victory for Earth.” He didn’t recognize his own voice. God, he sounded old.

The rejoicing on the screens didn’t stop. This is what those kids had seen almost every day after killing someone, after stomping a five mile radius into dust. Even if they didn’t kill their own families, the guilt was there, logical or not. And the aliens cheered.

It all became clear then. He saw his neighborhood and the lonesome speck of his house and how he had squandered the last fifty years of his life on bitterness. He had screamed at that little girl for clipping off a single rose. Now, when he would give all of the blooms away, there were no roses, no people.

Victor leaned against the console and sobbed.

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