By Manny Jasus
In a world where the Manhattan Project never created The Bomb, but Giant Robots trampled Japan into submission instead; a new era has been ushered in by a maniacal mad genius – a Cold War waged with Heat Rays and Marching Steel.
Marcus Maddox’ eyes snapped suddenly open, then closed again almost instantly. The wall of light in front of him was painfully bright, and even with eyes closed he could feel its incredible heat forcing itself against him. Sweat beaded on his forehead, ran slowly down his face, and split in two paths by his nose before it stopped at the corners of his mouth, salty and warm. His mind reeled as he struggled to remember where he was and how he’d gotten there. His heart beat wildly, but he forced himself to breathe slowly, to calm down, and things began to come back in pieces. Oktiv. He brought him here. But where was here? Probably the bottom of a launch silo from the absolute silence and smell. What WAS that smell? Behind him?
He started to turn his head, and as he moved he felt it – the sharp burning in each wrist, growing continuously more intense, moving up each arm until it met and settled in the middle of his chest and throbbed painfully in time to his heart. He was seated and restrained, though only his wrists were bound as far as he could tell. He tilted his head and tried flipping the damp black hair that was just long enough to cover his eyes (he usually combed it back) out of his face. It didn’t work. He shifted nervously in his chair as he suddenly realized a Sentry was behind him, holding his arms in its unrelenting steel grips. Standing almost eight feet tall meant that it did so at an angle that was excruciating.
Most people referred to these mechanical monsters un-lovingly as “Greasers” – which made sense given the oil and other fluids they continually leaked. Marcus should know, after all, since he had created them. And as always, he hadn’t had time to work out the problems in the external connection seals. He never had time to finish what he started. Oktiv expected, NO, deMANDED everything be delivered according to his maniacal timetable, and believed extreme pressure drove bleeding edge innovation. This was true, but often at the cost of elegance and grace … and working connection seals. In this case it also meant Marcus was an unfortunate victim of Oktiv’s incredible impatience. He struggled to speak.
“You … can’t possibly sustain this Alexei. Eventually …” he paused and drew a painful breath, “… even you will run out of resources.”
Oktiv laughed. “Have no worries Mr. Maddox. I’ve been acquiring gold since before the Depression. It has been no small feat keeping that enterprise a secret, especially after FDR made it illegal to own more than four ounces. But I assure you, that HAS NOT hindered me in the least. I will be funded well into the future.”
He held an oily, grease-stained finger to his lips as he paced slowly in front of Marcus – causing an odd man-shaped eclipse as he passed in front of the light – then paused ever so slightly, as if waiting for his next words to mysteriously reveal themselves. Professor Alexei Oktiv was a man that demanded respect – mostly because he couldn’t command it naturally. At last he forcefully spoke.
“When I marched on Hiroshima and crushed Nagasaki under the trampling steel of my boots, I was LAUDED as a conqueror and CELEBRATED as a hero! Now, NOW they LAUGH at me?! How quickly they FORGET! I WILL REMIND THEM!”
He stopped, closed his eyes, smiled slightly, and then continued in a much calmer tone.
“The question as to whether you will be at my side when I do still remains a mystery Marcus. What … say you?”
Marcus winced as the Robot, as if by Oktiv’s wordless will, clamped harder.
He whispered through gritted teeth, “Go. To. Hell.”
Oktiv was enraged! He threw himself closer, until he was inches from his prisoner. Eyes wide, blazed with anger. Words spat themselves across Marcus’ face.
“YOU are forgetting ONE thing MAR-CUS! I have the power to bring forth HELL upon the EARTH!”
Marcus turned his head slightly to the left, disgusted by the spray of saliva, then continued softly, never breaking Oktiv’s gaze.
“And YOU … are forgetting one thing yourself, Professor.” Oktiv’s eyes narrowed, waiting for Marcus to continue.
He did so forcefully, “I CREATED THIS SENTRY!”
He twisted his wrists quickly and swung his arms forward. With a loud CLICK, each of the Robot’s hands broke free at its connector cuff, stabilizer rods sliding out of each forearm, hanging from the Robo hands still attached to Marcus’ arms. He stood. It took most of his strength, but Marcus swung his right arm as hard as he could at the Professor, aiming for his head. The hardened steel of the stabilizer rod met Oktiv’s face with a sickening KA-RUNCH! The weight of the metal-wristed follow-through sent Marcus spinning. He steadied himself for another blow, but there was no need. The Professor was collapsed in a heap at his feet, bloody and unconscious.
As if awaiting a new command, the Sentry stood motionless behind the chair it so ominously guarded. And so it stayed as Marcus freed his wrists from the heavy steel hands and ran quickly from the room.
Rick’s Café Américain had character – “had” being the operative word. Its descent into “dive bar noir” was surprising, but understandable. It still attracted a mixed clientele that preferred to stay a bit off the beaten path, to keep their business their business. And Rick? Rick was a whisper of his former self. Ironically, the moment that had defined him a few years earlier was now his deepest regret. Sending Ilsa away saved her life, but Rick would be sorry he hadn’t gone after her for the rest of his.
A radio crackled in the background, “Today marks another year since the Empire of Japan signed the Instrument of Surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the United States Navy battleship Missouri, thereby ending the Second World War. Remembrance celebrations are taking place all over the world …”
Rick reached up and turned off the radio, “Well how about that? Another reminder that nothing stays the same.” He looked at the empty room beyond. “Except the things that do.”
Turning to the man beside him at the bar, he pointed with his half-smoked cigar, the ash at its end threatening to fall off at the slightest of gestures.
“How about you war hero? You have any heroic tales with which to regale us? This is, after all, a special occasion … isn’t it William?”
William nodded slightly and gestured a silent salute of sorts with a glass of beer he could have sworn had been full a moment before. Most people left the last half inch of beer in their glass and ordered another. What they missed was the payoff for their effort; the slight shift in perspective that only came when looking at the bar through the bottom of an empty pint. William swirled his glass slowly in a circular motion, coaxing the liquid back to life, coating the side with the subtle lacing some people thought was the mark of a better beer. In truth, it just meant his glass was clean, which in this gin joint, was really saying something.
Some people drank to forget. William drank to remember. How long had it been? Five years? Ten? He closed his eyes to hold the memories a bit tighter. It seemed like yesterday he was leading a bomber squadron over Japan, blazing a trail so ground forces could waltz in and end the War. Now he had his own plane and was flying wherever fortune led, running shipments of whatever for whoever paid him to do it. A bit adventure-cliché for sure, but it was what it was. He opened his eyes and noticed the almost empty glass. Raising it to his lips he took a final sip. This was a much better gig.
“HALE. WILLIAM. S.?” It was more accusation than actual question. “COME WITH US WILLINGLY” The voice was cold, metallic. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Without looking he knew it was a Greaser – probably two. The whirr-chick, whirr-chick of their binding core-gears spinning slightly off balance was unsettling – and a dead giveaway. That, and the smell of rusty rotator joints, probably meant these Cans had been on patrol for a while without being serviced. Great, grumpy Metal Heads – just what he needed.
William looked up into the mirror behind the bar and slowly crossed his arms. His right hand slipped under his leather jacket – the same bomber he’d worn every minute of every mission he’d ever flown in the War. Somehow he just couldn’t bring himself to replace it, even though his stint in the Navy was done. His fingers closed around the handle of his custom 5-shot revolver, The Can Opener as he called it. It had larger chambers and a barrel to accommodate the higher caliber rounds he was fond of.
It was a good weapon – solid. He liked the weight of it, the comfort of knowing it was strapped to his side just within reach. It was reliable and jammed a lot less than the 45 he was issued at the start of the War. Plus, in a shoulder holster, he could keep it pretty well hidden. No need walkin’ into a potential suck-fest situation screamin’ that you’re packin’ heat. He swallowed and exhaled slowly, enjoying the subtle sting the warm beer left on his tongue as he answered.
He was worried. A search of his plane was the last thing he wanted. And he knew his clients didn’t want inspectors poking around their cargo at checkpoints either – the extra money they paid him made sure that never happened. Still, none of that would matter if he was in custody getting his ass handed to him by a couple-a disgruntled Rust Buckets.
William’s co-pilot was probably still refueling, so it looked like he was on his own – at least until he could improvise something believable to get out of the room and back to the hangar before the Bots.
Greaser #2 cut in. “YOU HAVE AVOIDED INSPECTION CHECKPOINTS. WE WILL INSPECT YOUR CARGO AND PRESENT YOU WITH APPROPRIATE FINES. FAILURE TO COMPLY WILL RESULT IN ARREST … INTERROGATION … INCARCERATION. COMPLY.”
William took his hand off the handle of his weapon and raised both arms above his head in that “I’m cooperating” gesture most criminals use right before they make a run for it. He agreed to lead them back to the plane. Maybe the long way. He needed some time to think. Aw Hell, who was he kidding! As soon as they were outside on the crowded boardwalk, he dropped his arms and started to run. Shoving his left sleeve halfway up his arm, he twisted the bezel of his watch counterclockwise until it clicked. It was a standard military issue Elgin A-11, but William had concealed a short-range radio transmitter/receiver in its case. He raised it to his face and yelled.
“Isaac! She awake?! We gotta go!”
Isaac’s voice, tinny through the transistored speaker answered immediately, “Yes Captain, Amanda is awake and alert.”
“WILLIAM HALE. STOP.” amped the first robot. Planting its front foot, it raised an arm.
William didn’t wait to find out what horrible death weapon was pointed at him. He ripped his gun from its holster, swung his arm around and fired without looking. BLAM … SMACK! The bullet slammed into the chest of the first Greaser and exploded with a horrible BOOM!
“Thank GOD for frag-rounds” William thought.
The impact knocked the now smoking Robot over, bumping the other Bot in the process, causing it to stumble slightly before quickly regaining its balance – and pursuit. William didn’t have time to fire twice. He was already in the hangar, sprinting towards the plane.
The Amanda Fae was William’s C54 Skymaster transport plane. She’d seen her share of action, so William got her for a song after the War in the European Theater had ended. Her model was dubbed ‘The Sacred Cow’, the plane that took President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Tehran, Casablanca, Hawaii and other less exotic meeting spots in the USA in the mid 1940’s.
She was a four-engine, long-range airliner with a four-man crew and accommodations for up to 49 passengers. She was 93 feet 10 inches long, 27 feet 6 inches tall, had a maximum speed of 280 mph, a ceiling of 22,300 feet and a range of 3,900 miles. These of course were the tech specs before William and Isaac made a few modifications of their own:
- First, they extended the area to the rear of the cockpit and installed a larger, more substantial Captain’s chair with 180 degrees of clearance around it. Behind that were two jump-seats (one on each side of the cabin) and between them a sealable door that led to newly constructed crew quarters, small washroom and passenger seats beyond.
- Next, they gutted the passenger area leaving just the front two rows of seats, added an additional bulkhead and another sealable door behind them and ended up with a fairly sizable cargo bay behind that.
- They removed the washroom and storage closets between the rear passenger entry door and the aft cabin bulkhead and installed a cargo ramp in the bottom of the tail. This ramp was used for loading larger objects into the cargo bay. When the ramp was closed, it was indiscernible from the rest of the fuselage.
- They added extra fuel capacity to increase Amanda’s range, and retrofitted short-burst booster rockets to the backs of each original Pratt & Whitney R-2000-9 radial engine. This gave her an extra little kick when it mattered most.
- William and Isaac installed hidden weapons systems that could be deployed quickly and discretely from various parts of the plane.
- They also replaced the outer skin with a thicker, more bullet-resistant aluminum, which they kept its natural unpainted gray. Avoiding heavy paint also resulted in a significant speed increase.
- The only place this wasn’t true was near her nose, where “Amanda Fae” was emblazoned in bold colors on each side of the plane.
- They made some other minor changes to the environmental systems to keep them from freezing on longer transatlantic flights. With all of these changes, William and Isaac could live on the plane for extended periods of time, which they had for the better part of the last year.
To the casual observer Amanda still looked like a passenger plane. Nothing from the outside screamed fight – but she had teeth, and the additions William and Isaac had made gave her a deadly bite.
The sounds of heavy steel pounding well-worn boardwalk were getting louder. That meant the Bot was closing fast. Bang, Clank, BANG, CLANK, BA… William looked back to see the robot had stopped. Mounted to its right arm was what looked like a Heat Ray. The two glowing tubes at the base of the barrel confirmed it. It was now raised and ready to fire a blast that would rip a hole through him, the plane, and more than likely, the side of the hangar behind them both.
Amanda’s engines roared – props spinning furiously, chomping at the bit like a racehorse rearing at the gate. Her front howitzer mount descended from its concealed compartment near the landing gear and spun around. William hit the deck as the turret stopped and fired two short bursts. RaT-a-Tat! RaT-a-Tat! Metal exploded as the guns cut the remaining Greaser in half at the waist, leaving two stiff, smoking legs planted firmly on the boardwalk. William jumped to his feet, ran to the rear of the plane and up the cargo ramp as Amanda rolled forward.
“Hello Captain” said Isaac as William burst breathless into the cockpit.
“Thanks. That was a little TOO close. Let’s get outta here.”
William slumped into the Captain’s chair as Isaac pushed the throttle levers all the way forward. Amanda sped out of the hangar and rose gracefully into the sky.
Isaac (“Industrio-Synthetic and Actively Cognizant”) was a Robot.
At full height he stood 7 feet tall, though his legs could compress like pistons to walk in areas with lower clearances. He was covered in a dull gray metal punctuated by minor wear and tear scratches and small dents. He wore them as badges of honor.
His eyes looked like large, round goggles. The lenses were a piercing green, but would change color depending on the level of danger he perceived around him. He was lanky, with relatively thin upper arms and legs. His forearms and shins were larger, ending in powerful hands, and feet that resembled large steel boots, fitted with electromagnetic treads and booster rockets for short flights. He weighed almost 800 pounds (not very heavy for a Bot) and was incredibly strong. He could smash with his robo fists, but also pull the trigger on a handgun, assemble/disassemble it, work on a plane engine and perform other intricate work requiring reasonable dexterity. He carried a 50-caliber handgun in a low-slung hip holster.
He didn’t wear the heavier armor plating of his newer, Greaser counterparts. What he did wear was a leather bomber that matched William’s down to the squadron insignia on its back. It was a gift – a show of solidarity and appreciation after Isaac had saved his life during a job gone horribly wrong. And while his lack of armor made him more easily wounded, it also made him faster and more agile in close-quarter combat. The trade-off was worth it.
When Isaac spoke, it sounded hollow, like taking through a metal tube from far away. This made sense since his audio receptor and vocalizer units were built using receiver and transmitter parts from a standard issue SCR-300 field radio, housed internally instead of being worn as part of an external pack. His body was the antenna.
He was created during the War by Professor Oktiv as a super-soldier prototype, and although a great success on the battlefield, was eventually marked a failure and deactivated when it was realized the wiring and instruction storage mechanisms that gave Isaac his incredible intelligence, understanding, and split-second decision making, also resulted in a higher sense of reason and compassion. This was confirmed when the Robot refused to kill civilians during the Battle of Berlin, choosing instead to complete his objective with as few human casualties as possible. Oktiv replaced these “weaknesses” in future Bot models with an unwavering and absolute devotion to a pre-determined command-ideology; No mercy.
William found the discarded and inoperative Robot, recognized his potential and repaired him. Over time, Isaac became William’s co-pilot, selfless ally, and friend.
William sat, elbow on the armrest of his Captain’s chair, head in his hand, and stared straight ahead. Isaac was seated in his usual place at the controls, making sure Amanda was pointed in the right direction. But William’s thoughts were farther ahead, past Isaac, through the canopy and into the endless sky beyond. The blessing and curse of transatlantic flight was all the time to think – and for better or worse, William was. As he did, one thought kept running itself over and over through his mind. What was he doing?
After the War ended he just kept flying. It seemed to make sense. It was really his only marketable skill, and he certainly wasn’t cut out to be a full-on commercial pilot. Those guys were by-and-large conceited gas-caps, flying the same group of routes over and over? Gimme a break. Any entry-level NavBot could do that, and probably would have if it wasn’t for the Airline and Pilots Unions putting an end to that discussion before it even started. Plus, the right hook he threw his Supervisor at Sans Atlantic certainly sealed that deal.
There was the smuggling, though he hated that term – it made it sound like he was knowingly moving illegal and/or stolen cargo. Well, he was, but he didn’t see it that way (especially since he always stopped his clients before they told him too much about what he was transporting – plausible deniability and all that crap). “Hot, cold, dry, wet, breathing or not” was usually all he needed to know before he tossed it in his hold. He was providing a service, a convenience to people that paid him well to perform it. That was enough of a reason – at least that’s what he kept telling himself.
Then there were the occasional “disagreements” with port officials that wanted to inspect his cargo. Sometimes he could grease a palm or two to make these as painless as possible. Sometimes he couldn’t, and had leave said port in a hurry when things went sideways. But those were just temporary distractions from thinking about the bigger issue – a cold emptiness that lived silently in the pit of his stomach – the certainty that something was always just a little bit off – resting at the base of his chest with its incessant ache when he sat long enough to let it. And in those moments when he was still enough to listen, and honest enough to admit it, he knew the reason he’d kept flying was to ignore it; to outrun it; his constant companion – never shouting, but always there, whispering gently, waiting patiently for him to acknowledge it and deal it its due.
And it’s not that he wanted the feeling to stop. Quite the opposite. He wanted to play it out, see it through, follow it to the end, knock it over, stomp the life out of it and carry on to walk beyond it. But for now, thinking about it scared the Hell out of him. He tried pushing it away with thoughts of where he was headed next, what he had to drop and what he was getting paid. Slowly the feeling complied …
There was a loud bang in the cargo bay. Isaac turned around but William shot him a look and raised a finger to his lips. Without a sound, he walked from the cockpit, through the passenger bulkhead and into the hold. Moving a hand silently across his body, he carefully grabbed his pistol and released the holster strap with his thumb.
SNAP! The only sound in an otherwise silent moment. Then, CRASH! A crescent wrench fell off a storage box to William’s left. He approached slowly, drew his weapon and lifted the lid in a single fluid motion.
“DON’T SHOOT!” cried the huddled figure inside the box. He stood slowly, hands over his head. When he spoke it was with a slight English accent, “My name … is Marcus Maddox … and I need your help.”
William holstered his sidearm. “Well Mr. Maddox, we usually toss stowaways out the back. But you’re a lucky man. We’re over water here, so there’s a good chance you’ll survive.”
Marcus shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I suppose you’ll do what you feel is right. But you might want to hear what I have to say before you decide.”
William was intrigued, but something told him he might regret it later. He held out a hand. “Welcome to the Amanda Fae.”
Isaac interrupted, “Captain, we are being followed. Two Drone Fighters at our 6 o’clock. I see two smaller blips travelling faster that could be rockets.”
William walked into the cockpit and stared nervously at the radar display. “Three minutes, four at the most and those Cutters’ll be up our ass. Take us outta the ceiling, down below radar range – that low fog oughtta buy us some time. If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to try and float-land her on the water and hide for awhile in the thicker stuff! Maddox, sit here.”
Marcus sat in one of the rear jump-seats, tightened his safety harness and white-knuckled the tops of his thighs. “HEY! Can this thing even FLOAT?!”
William smiled. “Lucky for you I’ve done this before. Well, not THIS exactly. I crash landed in a field once. Isaac, how long ’til we hit the fog?”
“One minute 57 seconds Captain.”
William moved quickly back to the hold, closing hatches, securing cargo – things he probably should have done before they left. Someday he’d learn to keep a pre-flight checklist of some sort. Although in fairness, those Greasers did a good job of speeding things up!
The air screamed outside the plane, followed instantly by an ear-shattering explosion just off the right wing. The rocket had exploded too early, blowing out one of the cockpit windows. Amanda shuddered violently, then dropped without warning – five hundred feet before Isaac regained control and leveled her out. William slammed the button on a bulkhead intercom.
“Isaac! Everything ok up there?!”
“Yes Captain. I have regained control. We are approaching the fog now.”
William turned to the first of two wooden barrels strapped to a palette in the middle of the floor. Yanking a knife from its sheath on his shoulder holster, he pried out a cork in the top of each barrel. Turning, he yelled into the intercom again.
“Marcus! Get in here!”
Marcus unbuckled his safety belt and hurried into the hold.
“Hand me the rags in the toolbox next to you!”
Marcus looked confused as he fumbled with the toolbox, “These?” he shouted as he held up the rags.
“That’s them! Hurry!”
Marcus took a step towards the barrels. He tripped and almost fell. One of the rags slapped him in the face. It was damp. He inhaled and almost passed out.
“What the?! Is this gasoline!?”
William was annoyed. “Give. Me. The rags!”
Marcus complied. William took the pieces of cloth and stuffed one in each barrel hole so their ends hung out. Flicking open his lighter, he carefully lit the end of each rag.
“Let’s give ’em something they can hit!”
He walked quickly to the cargo bay ramp, pulled the release handle next to the locking mechanism on the floor, then pressed a green button on the wall beside it. The ramp began to swing down, heavy hydraulic rams pushing it open. Turning back to the barrels, he crouched lower, cutting the straps that secured them to the palette. He tried rolling them off but couldn’t.
“Well don’t just stand there Maddox, help me push these out before we blow the ass off my plane!”
Marcus snapped back, “Maybe you should have lit the fuses AFTER we figured out how to move them?!”
William frowned, “Give me a hand, wiseguy, unless you wanna ride one out!”
Both men leaned into the barrels, pushing them until they hit the deck with a heavy thud, rolling down the ramp and out into the sky, falling clear of the plane. William pressed a red button below the green one he had pressed before and the ramp swung up and closed.
“What was in those barrels William? I’m assuming more gasoline?”
William smiled. “Whiskey!”
“Barrel proof straight bourbon whiskey! I was shipping it for a client and BOY is he gonna be PISSED!”
At this point the wicks had burned themselves into the barrels. Each of the separate fireballs produced by the flaming whiskeys was impressive. The second rocket adjusted its trajectory and followed the closest of the flaming targets. It closed the distance and hit its mark with a resounding smash, splintering what was left of the barrel.
“A direct hit Captain. Although it appears the second rocket was a dud.”
The rocket lurched leeward then fell from the sky, burying itself deep into the ocean below.
Isaac looked up from the controls. “Those rockets were somehow guided to the heat our engines produce, though it is minimal. You were correct in your assumption that igniting a decoy would draw the rockets away.” Isaac paused, “The Drones are approaching from the East, Captain.”
William rushed back into the cockpit, Marcus close behind him.
“You better strap in Mr. Maddox!”
William threw himself into the Captain’s chair, grabbed the lift-releases on either side of the seat and heaved upward. It rose quickly through the top of the plane, which had split into two sections over his head and slid out of the way just in time. The chair stopped when William’s head was just above the level of the fuselage and connected itself with a loud click. Two .50 caliber M2 machine guns lifted themselves vertically from the sides of the chair and swung smoothly into their horizontal positions.
Marcus yelled from his seat, “What are you going to do, shoot the Cutters out of the sky?”
William spoke through the headset he had just put on, piping his voice into the rest of the plane.
“I have to … we’re all out of whiskey!”
Isaac spoke above the noise, “Weapons Systems are ready Captain. Happy hunting.”
William grabbed the cannon controls with both hands, eyed up to the targeting-scope and gritted his teeth.
The Cutters were closing in.
Their small size and sleek shape made them extremely maneuverable and incredibly fast. It also made them harder to hit. They resembled the Allies’ single-engine P-51 Mustang fighter planes, but at a much smaller scale. Their nose and tail were also shorter, making them look more like winged-rockets than airplanes. They were skinned in the same dark metal the Greasers wore as body armor.
Instead of a cockpit, they had a sort of metal saddle/seat area that a Greaser could straddle and leaning forward, reach the controls and pilot the craft. In official circles they were referred to as “Sky-Bikes”, although the Gatling guns on either side of the fuselage gave them their less polite, but more deadly accurate “Cutter” nickname. During the War, they were infamous for slicing through squadrons of enemy aircraft, literally cutting them in half with their guns. They were faster than Amanda and covered the distance between them quickly. Now their guns were pointed at her.
Isaac reported, “Captain, they are upon us.”
William spun his seat towards to back of the plane. The turret cannons had been engineered so they wouldn’t fire for the split second each passed in front of the tail. He saw the Cutters immediately behind him, and wondered if they knew this and were staying safe in that no-fire zone for the moment. He readied himself for the onslaught. Suddenly the Cutters split. One climbed, the other dove, both in tight arcs back towards Amanda.
William yelled over the intercom, “They’re aimin’ to cut us in half! Fire the rockets on my mark!”
He tracked the top Cutter with the cannons, trying to lead it as best he could. When it started its descent, William squeezed both triggers and held them tight. The bullets sprayed into the front of the Cutter, destroying its propeller and puncturing oil and other fluid lines behind it. Although disabled, it still raced towards Amanda.
William yelled again, “NOW!”
Isaac flipped a switch, turned a dial next to it all the way to the right and pressed a button below it. There was a slight hissing sound, then the sudden, ear-shattering boom of the boosters as they exploded into tails of flame, propelling the aircraft forward. It was just in time. The bottom Cutter slammed full-force into its nose-diving counterpart. They met with an incredible explosion that would have rocked Amanda if she had been anywhere near it. Fortunately, she was long gone.
The boosters disengaged and Amanda returned to her normal speed. William was relieved. Smoke poured from both cannon barrels as he lowered his Captain’s chair to its original position and spun it around until he was face to face with Marcus in the jump-seat behind him.
“You wanna tell me what THAT was all about?!”
Marcus stammered a reply. “I … I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
William was pissed. “Like HELL you don’t! The rockets! The Cutters! You seem to know a whole lot about those! I never ONCE drew a second glance from a Greaser before today! Why are they after me?!”
Marcus inhaled slowly to calm himself. “They aren’t after you Mr. Hale … they are after me.”
William was surprised, but let Marcus continue.
“I’m not sure how much you know about Professor Alexei Oktiv. First of all, he’s brilliant! He’s also quite mad, but definitely brilliant!”
William smiled sarcastically and shook his head like he’d just heard a dirty joke. Marcus frowned but continued.
“He was an asset to the Allies … created cutting edge weapons. His Giant Robots were the deciding factor in bringing Japan to its knees, ending the War. He was thanked and honored publicly, but he wanted more than medals and applause. He wanted power and control. He announced he’d run for President, but no one took him seriously. They said THAT was a job for a politician or even a soldier – not a scientist. When Truman was elected, one of his first acts as Commander in Chief was to quickly revoke Oktiv’s access to military assets and reduce his influence inside and outside the government. That pushed Oktiv deeper into madness and intensified his anger and insatiable lust for revenge. So he decided if he couldn’t ‘rule America’ then he’d rule the world.”
Williams’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know this?”
Marcus hung his head and stared at the floor. “Because I helped him.” The air hung heavier in that moment; a moment broken as he continued, “I designed and built his Robots – and anything else he had mind to invent. After the War was over, he forced me to stay. And when I refused to build anything else for him, he imprisoned me. I escaped. I ran. I hid, fearful of what Oktiv would do if he found me. Then I heard rumors … whispers … stories of a highly decorated war hero and his Robot companion having scandalous adventures and making interesting names for themselves. The rumors led me to Casablanca, where I stowed away on your plane, hoping to convince you to help me stop Oktiv for good.”
William was direct. “Fancy words and flattery aside, why’d you think I’d jump into this mess? Hero stuff’s for kids looking to make a name for themselves. I like it just fine keeping to myself, makin’ drops and gettin’ paid. Anything else’ll get ya killed.”
Marcus looked up from the floor and pointed at Isaac. “Because I also made him. And if the rumors I heard about your ‘exploits’ are true, I know you both will be powerful allies. And let’s not overlook the fact that Oktiv discovered I was on your plane before you even left Rick’s, and sent Sentries to stop you from leaving. That’s proof he wants me dead and is willing to kill YOU in the process!”
William swore under his breath, then spun his chair away from Marcus.
“Isaac, turn us around. We’re taking Mr. Maddox home.”
Isaac responded. “Yes Captain.”
William turned his head and yelled towards the jump-seat. “You DO remember how to get home don’t you Marcus?”
Marcus smiled slightly. “I do. Although I can’t guarantee the welcome will be a warm one.”
Marcus saw the door at the end of the passage first.
“Beyond that door is the Atrium to the Robot Silos. I designed the door and the locking mechanisms myself. So, unless it’s unlocked – which is highly unlikely – it looks like a dead end.”
William stepped forward. He grabbed the round wheel that looked like it belonged on a submarine hatch and struggled to turn it.
“No use, won’t budge. Isaac, how ’bout a hand?”
Isaac approached the door as the two men stepped back. The Robot grabbed the middle of the wheel with its right hand, steel fingers alternating with the spokes of the handle. Closing his fist, he pulled his arm straight back. The door groaned in protest of the Robot’s strength, but with a loud CREEEAK-SNAP it was ripped from its frame. Isaac placed it gently on the floor, leaning it against the wall next to the opening.
Marcus smiled. “Isaac, your energy-to-output ratio has been greatly improved!”
William pushed past them both, adding sarcastically, “He’s been working out. Let’s keep moving.”
The Atrium was a large round room with eight doors (including and just like the one they had walked through) spaced evenly around its inner circumference. The space in the middle was roughly 25 feet in diameter and at least 100 feet high. It might have been higher, but in the murky light it was hard to tell. William drew his pistol.
“Keep your back to the wall. We’ll work our way around the circle and check each door. I don’t want any surprises.”
The group fanned out until there were a couple of doors between them. Marcus tried the handle on the door in front of him. It turned easily.
“This one is unlocked!”
There was a loud CLICK from behind one of the unmanned doors, followed by another, then another, all the way around the room.
William yelled across the circle, “Talk to me Marcus. What is this?!”
Marcus didn’t have time to respond. The door in front of him swung suddenly open, knocking him over as it did. He struggled to his knees, in pain but still conscious. He touched the back of his head – his hair and neck were wet, and in the dimness he could barely see that his hand was covered in a thick dark liquid. It started to drip down his arm as he struggled to steady himself. His eyes fluttered, then he passed out, falling into a heap on the floor.
William yelled again, “Marcus!”
Isaac turned and peered through the gloom, eyes glowing a sharp green, cutting the darkness.
“Captain, it appears Mr. Maddox has fallen. Shall we help him?”
Around the room, the rest of the doors swung open. Dark figures loomed largely behind them, hunched under doorways, stepped out, and rose to full height, gun-metal gray contrasting the blackness of the shadows. Seven Robots in front of seven doors. Seven arms raised with cannons ready. The CRA-CLICK of their barrel bolts echoed in eerie unison, biting and sharp against the cold smooth cylinder of the atrium.
William frowned, “Greasers.”
Turning to Isaac he whispered, “Clear me a path. I’m going for Marcus.” Then yelled, “NOW!”
The Robot’s eyes snapped suddenly red as he reached for the handgun strapped to his leg. He started walking. William started running. Moving as fast as he could, he still had trouble keeping up with the longer strides of Isaac, whose large frame was providing much needed cover. William pointed his weapon and fired twice, burying both rounds in the chest of the Greaser fifteen feet in front of him. The shells exploded and the Robot fell in a smoking pile of burning metal. William skirted the wreckage and kept moving forward.
“That’s one for me Isaac!”
The Robot tracked his targets, calculated distance, velocity and angle, then fired four times in rapid succession. The .50 caliber rounds hit their marks in the heads of four separate Greasers, puncturing then obliterating each in spectacular bursts of sparks and flames. When the bodies realized that the signals from their Robot brains had ceased, they crumbled, motionless.
Greasers six and seven ran toward Isaac from opposite sides of the room. Six arrived first, leaping. Isaac turned, reached up with his left hand, and grabbed it by the throat. With his right hand, he jammed his pistol into the Bot’s middle and fired. The bullet tore through the armored plating, severing the connector rod joining torso to legs. Spinning at the waist, Isaac swung the now legless Robot in a high arc over his head, hammering the final Greaser into the ground up to its knees. Jamming his weapon under its chin, he fired his final round up through jaw and out the top of seven’s head. Isaac’s eyes snapped green. The fight was over.
He dropped the legless Robot then clicked his pistol’s cylinder release with his thumb, flicking his wrist forward to open the gun and eject the smoking shell casings. Quickly and methodically, he selected new bullets from his belt and reloaded the chambers. When he was done, he flicked his wrist again and closed the gun with a satisfying click. Holstering his weapon he approached William.
“That is six for me Captain. We are an efficient team.”
William was silent. He was kneeling beside Marcus, leaning over him with his ear close to the Englishman’s mouth, listening for breath sounds. They were shallow, but at least they were there.
William straightened, “He’s alive Isaac, but he’s hurt. I can’t tell how bad. How ’bout some more light?”
Isaac’s eyes snapped again, shining two beams of bright white light. Marcus woke suddenly, sat up, then squinted.
“It’s true! I see it! The Light! It’s my time, I’ll walk towards it!” Marcus stood. “I’m ready Lord!”
William laughed. “Marcus, I’m sure Isaac’s flattered, but this ain’t your time. Don’t worry though, the night is young.”
Isaac’s eyes snapped back to green as Marcus looked at William. “But I thought I was dead. The head wound, all that blood!”
William scraped some of the dark liquid off Marcus’ neck with his finger. “THIS blood? I think you’ll live.”
Marcus was confused. Isaac reported, “That liquid is diesel oil. Unless you are a Robot, I do not think it is flowing from your fuel system.”
“It was all over the door that whacked you.” William continued. “You’ll have a nasty headache for a while, and an impressive goose egg, but you’ll be fine.”
Marcus was slightly embarrassed. “Oh I see. And my blathering about the Light and all, I was just …”
William cut him off. “No need. I think we all could use a Higher Power right about now.”
Marcus looked around the room at the piles of wrecked Robots. “It looks like you and Isaac had a bit of fun while I was out.” Then he was suddenly distracted, walked to the door that had laid him out, and looked into the room behind it.
“Empty!” He ran to the next door, “EMPTY!” and then to the next. “All these silos are empty!”
William was confused. “So?”
Marcus was nervous. “That means Oktiv is on the move … marching to war.”
William smiled sarcastically, “Ok, how much havoc could a couple Giant Robots wreak? You built those things – you gotta know how to bring em down. Besides, Isaac and I love a challenge!”
Marcus was worried, “Yes, good point, if 7 or 8 Robots were our only concern. But this atrium is one of at least a dozen. I’ll assume the other silos are empty as well.”
William’s face fell. “Crap.”
BANG! “AHHHHHHH!” A woman screamed from behind one of the open doors. Marcus ran towards it. William tried to stop him but it was too late – he was already in the room.
“Come quickly! There’s a woman in here!” Marcus yelled.
William and Isaac entered next. There was indeed a woman there, chained to a metal chair that Marcus had lifted back to a sitting position. The room was dim and damp and her hair lay limply across her face. Yet even in the darkness, it was obvious she was an attractive woman.
She was wearing a flight suit that had been forcibly torn open and now hung loosely around her waist. Her olive drab tank-top revealed arms that were stained with grease and grime.
William was beside himself. “It can’t be!”
He took off his jacket and gently placed it over her shoulders. Then he looked down at her.
“Lift your hands in front of you.”
When she did, William noticed the dark tattoo. A small circle on her left wrist just below the palm of her hand. Inside the circle was a stylized eagle, wings open at its sides, curving around the circumference. Its head faced forward, a defiant contrast to the side-facing eagles prevalent in symbology down through the ages. This was the sign of a secret society, a mark of achievement and distinction.
William knew immediately that this was the symbol of the Ailerons. To the public they were an all-women’s stunt flying team founded by Amelia Earhart before the War. After Pearl Harbor, they were acquired by the Navy as a good will PR arm to attract new pilots. The real purpose of the Ailerons, however, was kept in the strictest of secrecy – and the fact that they were all women pilots was by design; a gimmick; a clever ruse to draw attention away from their true purpose. In this way, no one would suspect they were some of the best pilots in the world. They flew off-book, secret missions in state-of-the-art aircraft, in and out of occupied areas, reporting and sometimes destroying enemy targets before anyone was the wiser. The woman in the chair had been one of their greatest heroes.
William twisted the bezel of his watch clockwise until it clicked, then pointed it at her chains. The bezel began to glow. A second later a beam of blue light shot from an energy emitter in the crown and sliced cleanly through the steel links. He cut the chains at her feet next.
When she was free, William stepped back.
“Meet Amanda. Amanda Fay Earhart.”
Amanda felt the bruises on her wrists where the chains had cut into her skin. She stood, pulled the bomber jacket tighter and moved closer to William. She looked at him coldly, raised her hand suddenly, and gave him a left hook that sent him reeling.
“THAT’S for Morocco.” She walked past him, through the door, and out into the Atrium.
Marcus was surprised and confused, but said nothing.
William touched the side of his mouth, now bleeding then made his way past Marcus and after Amanda, “I guess she remembers it differently.”
When he’d almost reached her, he called out, “Ya know, you got a lot in common with your Mother, disappearin’ like that!”
She stopped dead in her tracks, her back to him. It was a cheap shot and William knew it. Turning suddenly, Amanda walked over quickly, jabbed her right hand under William’s arm and grabbed his pistol. She squeezed the trigger, punching a hole through the bottom of his holster. William yelled in shock as the bullet exploded into the concrete wall fifty feet beyond. Pulling the gun out, Amanda cocked the hammer with her thumb and jammed the barrel into William’s chest before he could stop her.
“YOU gotta nerve! I was shot down – captured!”
William closed his eyes and calmed his voice. “No, I mean, why’d you make that flight? It was a suicide mission.”
Amanda looked away. “You didn’t give me much of a reason to stay Will. You were consumed with whatever it was you were looking for back then. And … I was tired of waiting for you to come looking for me.”
Ouch. Her words cut deep. She was right though, and William had nothing to say.
He raised both arms slowly, wrapped them carefully around her waist and pulled her close. Her gun-hand dropped gently to the side, thumb de-cocking the hammer as it did. She was trembling.
William spoke softly “Am, I’m sorry. I thought you were dead. Truly. I looked for you for weeks, fighting my way in and out of occupied areas. When I finally found your plane, burned out and ripped apart … there was nothing left.”
He was tearing up, “Leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, Amanda. Isaac had to drag me out. We almost didn’t make it.”
Amanda leaned in, burying her head in his shoulder. The smell of his clothes mixed with burnt gunpowder and the aged leather of his holster straps was a familiar comfort.
She continued in a whisper, “Oktiv questioned me for days … didn’t let me sleep … ranted on and on for hours until his words bled into my subconscious … did things … horrible things … and then he stopped … and just left me alone.” Her words trailed off. “I felt like you gave up on me Will, and that hurt worse than anything Oktiv did. So yeah, maybe I was dead after all.”
He tried to comfort her, “God Am, I’m sorry. I …” but she stopped him, placing her hand on his mouth, her first two fingers gently touching his lips. She looked up, tears in her eyes, running down and wetting her soft cheeks. She closed her eyes, and tilted her head back slightly. William leaned forward. And then they kissed – melting into each other like mist into air.
William wiped the tears from her eyes, reached down and gently removed the weapon from her hand. He opened the gun, noted it had three rounds left, spun the cylinder and slammed it back into the gun. He put the pistol in his holster and walked out of the room without a word. The others followed closely behind.
They made their way back to the outermost hangar. When they were close, Amanda looked at the nose-art on the front of the plane.
“Nice touch, naming her after me.”
William smiled slightly, “Don’t flatter yourself, I spelled her middle name different.”
Amanda returned the smile, “Say what you want, but I always was your favorite Aviatrix.”
William laughed, “You make that sound a lot dirtier than it is.”
When they were in the air Isaac spoke, “Reports indicate Giant Robots are closing in on the Northeast Coast near Massachusetts. Should we pursue Captain?”
William closed his eyes and nodded. Marcus looked over, curious, “What’s our plan?”
He was silent for a second, then, opening his eyes, William answered without looking back, “First we take out those Giant Walkers. Then we find Oktiv … and I fire my boot up his ass.”
Marcus smiled, “How poetic.”
Amanda laughed sarcastically, “You have no idea.”
Alexei Oktiv was seething. Arms crossed, brow furrowed, the bottom of his long white coat flapped furiously over the hardened steel of his knee-high mechanical boots, slapping against their metal studs in the salty ocean air. Not only did they give him an admirable height, but their electromagnets kept him from falling off the Giant Robot’s head into the churning waters below.
It had taken longer to fly his massive minions over the ocean, to a location they could march dramatically into the harbor, than he had envisioned. More time in the air meant more time visible on radar and more time for the city to prepare its defenses. But no matter. What he lacked in surprise he would more than make up for in an oppressively mind-blowing brute force invasion.
Atop this metal beast, Oktiv thought himself Hannibal, marching elephants over the Alps, trampling all to dust before the gates of Rome – teaching them the true meaning of fear. He reached deeper into his mind. Hannibal had vision but lacked sufficient power and resources to succeed. Oktiv had vision, power AND resources in obscene abundance. HIS army needed no food, needed no rest. HIS army marched, endlessly onward, crushing everything in its path.
He stared steadily ahead, goggles humming and clicking, adjusting and re-focusing in time with the subtle movements of his eyes, bending light into crystal clear images, magnifying and clarifying every detail in high definition. He gazed through the horizon, past the curvature of the earth to his glorious victory. The invasion was a formality in his twisted mind. They WOULD bow to him … WOULD recognize his right to rule them. But Oktiv did not want a kingdom. He wanted revenge, and he planned to relish it … to remember the looks on their weak and feeble faces as he stamped them into the ground under the steel of his conquering heel! He would succeed. He … he was interrupted.
The handle on the access hatch behind him in the middle of the Robot’s head spun wildly and then opened. A nondescript technician, wearing oil stained coveralls climbed out of the opening and slowly approached the Professor, nervously addressing him.
“Sss-sir, our scouts have reported a destroyer squadron at the mouth of the harbor. Shh-should we change direction to avoid them?”
Oktiv did not turn, but reached back with his mechanically modified right arm, grabbed the man by the face and lifted him slowly off the decking. Besides being ominous, his armored gauntlets gave him extraordinary strength and dexterity. He turned and looked at the man whose visage he was slowly crushing by degrees.
“Did you know that the facial skeleton serves to protect the brain; house and protect the sense organs of smell, sight, and taste; and provide a frame on which the soft tissues of the face can act to facilitate eating, breathing, expression and speech? The anatomy is complex, yet elegant, in its suitability to serve a multitude of functions.” 
The underling made an unsuccessful attempt to reply. The Professor squeezed harder, then continued, “The amazing thing about these gloves is that I have incredibly precise control over the amount of force they exert. A twitch of my thumb and forefinger and I crush your maxilla. It wouldn’t kill you, but it would make everything quite frustrating.”
Oktiv twisted his body until the technician dangled helplessly over the front of the Robot and shouted to the wind, “WE WILL NOT CHANGE OUR DIRECTION! WE WILL NOT WAVER IN OUR WAY! WE WILL WALK OVER WHATEVER IS IN OUR PATH – STAMPING OUT OUR WRATH IN THE BLOOD OF THESE BOILING SEAS!!!”
And then he let go. The wounded man screamed in pain, flailed wildly, and grasped helplessly at the air, until he was lost to the foaming waters below. Oktiv crossed his arms again and stared defiantly past the warships blocking the harbor to the skyline of Boston beyond. Below him machinery clanked loudly as heat rays mounted in the huge eyes of the Giant Walker kicked on and began to glow an ominous red.
“This is Rome” he whispered. “And it will burn.”
William pulled the zipper on his flight-suit until it stopped just below his chin, then buttoned the flap at his neck that protected the pull. He looked across the cargo bay at Amanda as she struggled to do the same. Walking over, he took her hands carefully in his and looked longingly into the endless depths of her dark brown eyes.
“You don’t have to do this Am. No one will blame you if you sit this one out.”
She gently moved his hands until he let hers go, then finished zipping her suit.
“I’m not ok Will! I can’t sleep. I can’t stop hearing his sadistic laughter; his cold hands; the bite of his breath on the back of my neck!” She turned away.
“And that’s why I’m doing this … NEED to do this.” She turned back to William, eyes wide and wet and tragically beautiful, “I NEED this to be over.”
William tightened his lips and swallowed slowly. His eyes were sad. He said nothing, nodded twice quickly then walked back to the other side of the bay. Marcus burst quickly through the bulkhead, a bundle of energy, and tossed a duffle into the middle of the floor. It landed with a loud thud.
“I grabbed these from my lab before ‘taking leave’ of The Professor. I figured we’d need them later.”
William opened the bag and pulled out what looked like a long metal cylinder. It had a pointed projectile sticking out of one end, a ring on the other and a single round button set flush with the surface of its body about halfway down its length.
He was cautiously curious, “What’s this?”
Marcus was excited, “I call it a grapple-gun! It will slam through 3 to 4 inches of armor plate before the claws deploy. Clip it on the belt of your flight-suit. If you fall off one of those Marching Monsters you’ll be glad you have it!”
Amanda reached into the bag and pulled out a heavy metal boot – it was more like the leg of an armored knight than actual footwear.
William chuckled, “Nothing says ‘Maniacal Evil Genius’ quite like mechanical thigh-highs.”
Marcus jumped in, pointing excitedly at the boots, “… with magnetic treads! Stomp once to activate the magnets in the soles of the boots. There’s also a button to deactivate them if you need to.”
Amanda tossed the metal leg to William. He caught it and set it upright on the floor.
“This is great Marcus, but do you have anything a little less Medieval Chic?”
Marcus walked over to the boot and tossed it to Isaac as he walked into the cargo bay.
“Isaac, please adjust this boot to better the good Captain’s mobility.”
Isaac complied, “Yes Mr. Maddox.”
Holding the boot in his left hand, he grasped the heel with his right thumb and forefinger, squeezing release buttons on either side. The sole broke cleanly from the foot. Isaac handed both pieces back to Marcus who handed the metal foot to William.
“The other boots break down the same way. Put them on over your boots. Think of them as magnetic crampons – they shouldn’t impede your range of motion much.”
William and Amanda put the metal feet on the floor and stepped in, sliding the toes of their jump boots under the front bindings. Their heels snapped in with satisfying clicks. Next, William walked to a storage locker, lifted the lid and pulled out three chute-packs, handing one to Amanda. He pulled on his own, tightened the harness straps and snapped the three-point clasp in the front.
“These aren’t full chutes, but they’ll slow us enough to get on top of the Bots. If we hang in the air too long, enemy fire’ll cut us to pieces.”
Marcus spoke up, “I definitely don’t envy your projectile-like approaches. I’m not one for Roller Coasters.”
William tossed the third pack at a very surprised Marcus, “Well, you better get over that real quick. Today everybody rides.”
Even from a distance, the lumbering giants could clearly be seen, marching in line, moving as one – like a great gray blanket sliding slowly over the city, enshrouding the harbor in an ominous darkness.
Isaac reported, “Thirty seconds to optimal drop-zone Captain.”
William lowered the goggles over his helmet. Amanda and Marcus did the same.
“Marcus, you’re with Isaac. Amanda, you’re with me. After you jump, count to ten and pull the ripcord. There’s your Jump 101 refresher. Everybody ready?”
They nodded. Marcus raised both hands in a sort of blessing, “Godspeed to us all!”
William grabbed the cargo-door release and pulled it. The door opened letting in the deafening sounds of engines and air. He moved to the opening, shouting over the noise.
“IT’S GONNA TO BE A HELLUVA LOT FASTER THAN THAT!”
Looking back at them, he raised two fingers to his right temple in a smart-ass solute, then jumped out. Amanda followed closely behind once William was clear. Isaac was next. As he fell, his boot rockets fired, hurtling him like a bullet towards the nearest Walker. Marcus moved to the door last, closed his eyes, took a deep breath to steel himself, and stepped out into the empty air.
William closed his eyes and counted slowly. The feeling of weightlessness and the intense pressure of the air cradled him peacefully. He clung to the feeling as long as he could, then he opened his eyes.
“… nine Mississippi, TEN Mississippi!”
He pulled the ripcord and his chute deployed, yanking hard against his harness straps, jerking him suddenly slower as it did. As many times as William had jumped, this was still the part he wasn’t used to.
As he approached the first Machine, William realized he was still falling too fast. If he wasn’t careful, he’d overshoot the Bot and land in the water. He pulled on his chute-lines, hoping somehow to slow himself down. This worked so far as it pulled him in line with the top of the Robot, but he was still coming in too high and too fast. And then he was there. The tips of his boots slid loudly along the metal platform atop the Bot. He tried desperately to force his feet down to make contact with the decking and engage his magnets, but it wasn’t enough. He was already over the side of the Robot headed towards the water.
Suddenly he stopped, jerked back again by his harness. His chute and lines had caught the edge of the platform on top of the Robot. William swung and hit the Bot full force like one of those shiny steel clicker-clack contraptions owned by professional desk-jocks everywhere. William however was not a steel ball, and the Robot didn’t transfer his force like another ball would. He hit the dull metal with a loud CLANK that echoed through his body, followed by a quiet but no less intense pain. He was now hanging precariously in-between the Robot’s eyes, dangling like a fish on a hook.
Amanda landed a second later, inches from the edge, boots flat against the metal decking, magnets activating with a loud KA-CHUNK. The wind grabbed her chute again, filling it like a balloon, yanking it backwards. She fumbled helplessly for the harness release, but willed herself forward against the wind and looked over the edge at William, yelling over the noise of the lumbering Bot.
“William! Stay away from the eyes!”
Finally feeling the clasp, she pulled the release and the chute-pack ripped itself from her body with incredible force. She struggled to stay steady on the constantly moving Robot.
“Stay AWAY from the EYES!”
As if on cue, the giant eyes hummed loudly and began to glow an ominous red. William tried to climb up the face of the Bot but there was nothing to grab on to. He tried pulling himself up the chute lines, but it was no use. He was stuck.
“Am, these things are throwing off some serious heat! Pull me UP!”
Amanda bent down, grabbed the lines and pulled, but she wasn’t strong enough to lift his dead weight. Then William had an idea.
“Am! If I can get my feet on the face of this Bot, I can turn on the magnets and walk up the side! I’ll push off. Use my momentum and swing me farther out from this thing!”
Amanda nodded. William moved his hands close together in front of his chest, palms flat against the side of the Robot. He took a deep breath then counted loudly.
“ONE! TWO! … THREEEEE!”
He pushed as hard as he could against the cold metal. Amanda heaved and swung the chute lines. William held tight to the lines and flew out, like the Bob on a pendulum. This time, instead of slamming into the Bot with his whole body, he lifted his legs and planted both feet on the side. After that, it didn’t take much to climb up and over the side of the Robot’s head. Amanda grabbed William’s arm as he stepped onto the platform, and her eyes met his with a warm smile. William smiled back, but didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to.
Marcus walked to the center of the metal deck atop the Robot’s head he and Isaac had just landed on, knelt, then spun the handle of the access hatch until it stopped. He paused before pulling it open.
“Isaac, after we scuttle this Walker, we’ll need a way off – preferably BEFORE it falls into the sea. Can your boot rockets carry both of us?”
Isaac responded, “Impossible. My left boot was damaged as we landed. The rocket will not fire.”
Marcus frowned, “Then we’ll need to think of something else.”
With that, he removed a small metal can from a cargo pouch on his leg, pulled a pin from the top and swung open the access door.
“Down the hatch!” He chuckled at the awful cliché.
The can hit the Control Room floor with a bouncing CLANG and a moment later exploded in a cloud of thick green smoke. After that there was no sound.
Isaac detected an approaching Cutter travelling at tremendous speed. He looked closer, lenses locked on the distant target. He walked to the side of the Bot, waited three seconds, then raised his right arm and effortlessly grabbed the foot-rail of the passing Sky-Bike. The Greaser straddling it flew head first over the handle-bars and fell into the empty sky. Isaac pulled down the bike, turned it off and set it gently on the deck.
“Will this work Mr. Maddox?”
Marcus smiled wide, like a proud Dad whose son just caught his first fly ball.
“Yes Isaac, that will do.”
When the smoke had cleared, Marcus stuck his head into the access hatch and gasped.
“There are no people inside! These Robots are controlling themselves!”
Moving to the center of the platform, Amanda opened the access hatch, then she and William descended into the heart of the metal beast.
“Ya know, it’s not much steadier IN-side this thing.”
The Robot continued walking, mechanical arms swinging forward and back in time with the lifting and lowering of its giant metal legs. William steadied himself and worked his way to the main panel at the front of the Control Room.
“We need to figure out how to stop this thing.”
Amanda moved to a side station and started looking at the buttons and screens. It was then that William’s wrist-radio crackled to life. It was Marcus.
“William! I figured it out! The Walkers have been set to follow a beacon signal by themselves! I never had the time to finish that part of their construction, but apparently Oktiv did! This is VERY exciting! Well, if you ignore the stomping-everything-into-a-finely-ground-powder, death-and-destruction part of it all.”
William shook his head at Amanda then replied, “So how do we stop them?”
Marcus sighed, “We don’t.” He sounded dejected, “When I do figure out how to give them new instructions, there won’t be enough time to reset each of them before they enter the city. They’ll continue marching, destroying everything in their path, until they reach the beacon.”
William closed his eyes, squeezing the bridge of his nose with his right thumb and forefinger.
He spoke determinedly, “Then we need to move the beacon.”
SLAM!!! Something heavy hit the top of the Bot.
William and Amanda looked up at the ceiling reflexively, as if they’d somehow be able to see through it at whatever was on the other side. A second later they heard heavy footsteps. William looked down at the screen in front of him and turned the dial to the right of it. The picture snapped on quickly, producing a glowing green image. What he saw made him angry.
“Amanda, stay here. I’m gonna end this thing right now!”
Amanda grabbed his arm, “You go, I go.”
William sighed but knew there was no way to change her mind. They climbed up the ladder and out the hatch. They saw him on the other side of the platform.
Oktiv had nowhere to run. His only option was 80 feet straight down, although he showed no concern for this fact. Quite the opposite – he relished the finality of it. He turned slowly towards William, sneering as he did.
“It looks like you’ve won Mr. Hale! Bury a bullet in my brain and complete your victory!”
William frowned, “I find there’s never enough reason for a man to shoot another man – besides, you ain’t worth the bullet.”
Behind him a Cutter screamed through the air at full speed. When it was close, the Robot flying it leapt off. Without looking William drew his pistol, swung his arm around behind him and squeezed the trigger. BLAM! The bullet hit the leaping Greaser in the chest, sending it head over feet into the fog.
William smiled as he gestured with the smoking gun, “‘Course, Cans’re different.”
Oktiv lunged suddenly forward, grabbed William’s right wrist and lifted him into the air. William’s smile broke – along with most of the bones in his wrist. He groaned painfully and dropped his gun. It bounced on the decking of the Robot’s head then slid almost to the edge. Oktiv tossed William like a rag-doll, flinging him to the opposite side of the platform. He hit it hard – wind knocked out of him. Oktiv walked casually towards the gun.
“That’s where you and I differ Mr. Hale – I’ve no such pretensions of good will or delusions of heroic gestures.”
He picked up the pistol and pointed it at William. William raised himself on an elbow and stared down the barrel of his own gun.
“Go ahead. Do it! Killing me won’t stop the storm that’s coming for you!”
Oktiv pulled the hammer back.
“Mr. Hale, your metaphors amuse me. But it is not yet your time to die.”
He swung the gun toward Amanda and fired. The bullet exploded into her chest, with enough force to pull her magnetic boots off the metal deck and knock her over. William stood and reached out in vain from across the platform, yelling as he did.
This time Oktiv turned and pointed the weapon at William.
“NOW … is your time WILL-YEM!!”
William reached down with his left hand and grabbed the grapple-gun hanging from his belt. He raised it quickly, resting it on his crushed wrist for support, flames of pain racing up his arm, and aimed it at Oktiv. But the weight was too much, and the gun fell back to his waist as his injured arm gave out. He winced, gritted his teeth and waited for the inevitable.
SHOOM … THWAP … SKRAKKK! The grapple hit Oktiv in the stomach, ripping through his mechanical suit, hooks burying themselves then opening inside the shocked Professor. He was uncharacteristically speechless, eyes bulging in panic and pain as he looked across the Robot to where the shot had been fired.
Amanda stood defiantly, grapple gun raised, her chest still smoking where the frag-round from William’s gun had ripped through her flight-suit and embedded itself in the thick skin of the armored vest she wore underneath.
Oktiv’s robotic boots kept him standing, but the impact of the grapple caused him to step back forcefully. When he did, his back foot failed to land on solid surface, catching air instead. Oktiv fell backwards over the side, screaming as he did, grappling-rope playing itself out of its cartridge and over the side with him, buzzing and straining as it rubbed roughly along the edge of the platform.
Amanda quickly unhooked the grapple-gun from her belt and let it fall to the deck. It slid immediately across the platform, caught on the edge, and stopped. Then suddenly, the line snapped under the weight and friction of its movement.
Amanda and William moved to the side of the Bot and peered over, but the Professor was gone, undoubtedly lost to the churning depths below. Looking over at William, she could see the look of relief as it washed itself over his face. He tapped the steel of the protection plate at the top of Amanda’s chest with his index finger and smiled.
“So that’s why you couldn’t zip your suit. Good thinking Am putting on that vest.”
She smiled back. “Marcus convinced me and I’m glad I did, your gun packs a HELL of a punch”
She felt the plate where the bullet had exploded, looked down at the twisted metal and went weak in the knees. William caught her just in time.
William and Amanda climbed back into the head of the Giant Robot. There was a sudden crackle of static in William’s wrist-radio followed by Marcus yelling excitedly, “I isolated the beacon’s signal! It was about two miles in from the harbor.”
William was confused. “What do you mean WAS?”
Marcus laughed. “Isaac really IS an astounding machine! You’ve done an amazing job improving his systems and cognitive processes!”
William sounded annoyed, but inside he was proud of Isaac was well.
“Ok, great, what about the beacon?”
“We moved it! Wait, let me back up. First Isaac caught a Cutter mid-flight – which was incredibly impressive itself – then he found the beacon, picked it up, flew it out over the open ocean and dropped it in! We didn’t want those Bots stopping in the middle of Boston Harbor after all. Can you imagine what a headache it would be to clean up that mess? Although it would be a fitting memorial …”
William interrupted, “SO … what happens now?”
“Well, in theory, the Robots should respond immediately and alter their course. Although in reality, it might take a minute or two for them to receive the signal, comprehend it and then modify their active systems. We’re flying back from the drop now so you should feel something soon!”
Suddenly, William and Amanda’s Bot lurched to a stop. They staggered but remained standing. An air horn in the back of the control room screamed two short blasts. The room began to spin as the head of the Bot rotated, until it was 180 degrees from its original position. When it stopped, there was a loud creak, resolving itself in a metallic CLICK that echoed through the control room. A moment later the Robot was walking in the opposite direction.
Amanda smiled. “Well … I guess our metal friend is double jointed.”
CLANG-CLANG-CLANG! William looked at Amanda and then at the ceiling. The access hatch flew open as Marcus yelled down.
“Need a lift?”
When Isaac had flown them back to the Amanda Fae on the Cutter he’d plucked from the sky, William, Amanda and Marcus sat in the passenger cabin, each quietly lost in personal thought. Marcus spoke first.
“It’s a shame we won’t be able to study those Robots. I feel like we only scratched the surface of what Oktiv did to those machines.
William looked across the aisle and laughed as he spoke. “If you want us to drop you off, I bet you could still catch one.”
Smiling to himself, he turned and looked out the starboard side window. The great gray blanket continued onward, but this time it moved away from the city and slid steadily out to sea. William watched the war machines as they marched, until they were barely specks against a desperately fleeing horizon; until the very last was covered, head slipping silently under restless waves, descending into the darkness of the deep.
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