NOTE: This story is Part III of my new series "The Invaders." Although each story is meant to stand alone, the installments will form a larger narrative. Before reading this installment consider checking out Part I: The Rumor & Part II: We Are Here To Help
They walked across the scorched earth. Reaching the border would be their best chance. Ray was the only one holding the group together. He tried to quiet the boy down in case any killer machines were still on patrol.
The boy was hysterical. Brendon seemed to be in shock. Ray didn’t blame either of them. The three had barely escaped. If Ray hadn’t instinctively grabbed onto them, both Brendon and the boy would have met the same end as the boy’s family (crushed under the collapsing bunker).
Each had a difficult trip ahead. The boys’ trouble was glaring, but Brendon’s journey would also be challenging. Ray supposed that the capital had been leveled, and that the airports, borders and embassies were closed. Brendon was a tourist, but that wouldn’t matter if they encountered the wrong people.
Ray wondered if he could help foreign traveler to hide out for a few days, or weeks. But that just delayed the inevitable. Brendon needed to reach the border and bribe his way out.
It was morning, but none of them had slept. They were too tired to run. Ray held the boy’s hand tightly, and the group pushed forward.
The main road was lined with houses. Before everyone had fled, it had been a nice neighborhood. Not the quaint homes of a 1950s sitcom, but houses with internet and satellite dishes.
A thought hit him.
“You’re a tech expert, aren’t you?” he asked Brendon. The tourist nodded. “What do you think the machines are doing?”
The question recharged Brendon. “I actually have a decent understanding of their operating system works. They’re all part of the internet of things. And there’s a built-in backdoor, a terribly unsecure design flaw that …”
He interrupted. “What does that mean?”
“It means they all share data and info instantaneously, but I could hack into them with a decent internet link-up. I could probably convince one to protect us.”
Ray led them into the nearest unlocked house. Brendon found a computer. He typed quickly. In the kitchen Ray found a chocolate bar that he split into pieces. “Breakfast,” he said, handing a half to the boy.
“It got it!” yelled Brendon.
Outside there was a crash.
Ray’s stomach dropped.
Sitting out front was a machine.
In daylight the machine looked smaller, like a mid-size car. Its polished metal reflected the sun. Ray squinted.
“It’s okay,” said Brendon. “Now this one is under our control. None of the others will bother it. Think of it as a friend who’ll help us to the border.”
Brendon became the leader. Ray no longer worried if they would reach the border. Now he was anxious about what would happen when they all arrived.
He hid out in a larger bunker last time. During the previous attacks, Ray stayed in a bunker with extended family members. At first the situation felt more family reunion than last-ditch survival effort. Ray usually made any excuse to avoid visiting aunts, uncles or cousins. They considered him an oddball since he didn’t have a wife or kids. But he’d proved himself useful during the weeks in such close quarters.
This bunker was shoddier than the last, and poorly stocked. Ray supposed this shelter a retrofitted natural cave. Bug crawled through cracks in the wall. He wondered how long would it be until they ate the beetles and ants.
At least he wasn’t alone. Ray brought Brendon with him. And there was already a family when they arrived. A mother, father and two teenage sons. Ray was grateful the family let them in, as they clearly didn’t trust Brendon. Ray explained to the family that Brendon was a tourist. That they’d been on their way to the ruins. Ray promised that Brendon wasn’t an Invaders, nor a foreigner who’d come to fight alongside the faction groups. But he felt that the family didn’t believe him. They were suspicious that anyone would visit a country on the brink of civil war.
And Brendon’s behavior didn’t ease the family’s distrust. He paced around the small space, inspecting every crack and fissure in the cement. Putting an ear to the floor, Brendon remarked that he could hear an underground river running beneath them.
Ray tried starting a conversation with the older of the two sons. Usual small talk questions, “What subject do you like in school?” and “Who’s your favorite footballer?” But the boy remained quiet, a mix of nerves and regular teen awkwardness.
Eventually Brendon grew tired of pacing. By midnight everyone was asleep except for Ray and the mother. Each remained alert. Both heard the noises and exchanged glances. The metallic hums and booms were closing in. Ray had only heard stories of what it looked like when the robots fought. Heavily armed steel boulders twice the height of a man rolled into combat against swarms of flying micro-machines. He hoped these battles wouldn’t destroy the ruins.
Everyone awoke. The clanging was deafening. The bunker shook. Ray figured the fight was directly above. By early morning it was quiet. After an hour or so of stillness, Ray made out one strong voice yelling, followed by a coded knock on the bunker door. He opened the latch.
Two red lights glared into the bunker. Headlamps from a machine. “We are here to help. Do you need medical supplies or clean water?” the machine asked in the local language. Ray was frozen. He didn’t trust the machine.
Brendon stood up before Ray could respond. The machine fired a warning shot into the floor and said, “Remain calm. Limit sudden movement. We are here to help.”
The shot cracked through the brittle cement floor. Brendon had been correct. There was an underground river beneath them. Water shot out like a geyser. Within a few seconds it rose to their waist. The current was strong.
“We are here to help. Detecting fresh water.”
“Move!” shouted Ray. Grabbing Brendon and the younger brother, he pushed his way out the door. Overwhelmed by the rising tide, the machine fired sporadic shots. Ray heard it short-circuit as it was dragged down into the water. The bunker collapsed.
Outside there were no other robots. The machine must have been conducting a solo reconnaissance mission. In the morning light, Ray saw the ground was completely scorched. On the horizon, he could make out the ruins burning.
NOTE: This story is Part II of my new series "The Invaders." Although each story is meant to stand alone, the installments will form a larger narrative. Check out Part I: The Rumor!
Another last minute cancellation. One or two more and he’d call off the tour. Ray (the name tourists called him) was the last guide still taking groups to the ruins. From the city center they were a half-day drive. Recently there’d been some skirmishes along the route. But he knew the factions wouldn’t attack tourists. And there was violence in the city center too.
This wasn’t the future Ray imagined for his country. Everyone had been optimistic after the invaders left. His country had been the epicenter of a proxy war for two distant nations. Despite noble platitudes, the real mission for both sides was to test their newest military technology. One side fought with heavily armed truck-sized robots. The other countered with swarms of insect-like mini-drones
He had never been a soldier. During the worst of the fighting Ray hid with extended family members in a concrete bunker leftover from a previous invasion.
The robots were unable to fight more than type of enemy at a time. By organizing into factions, and varying evasive tactics, the people overwhelmed the machines, and forced their retreat. Still, as usually happens in these situations, the capital was leveled, and soon the factions were fighting among themselves.
Thankfully neither robots nor warlords had destroyed the ruins. There were fewer tourists after the war, but the ruins continued to draw international visitors. Ray made up for the lower number by charging more for security.
Eager for a few more costumers, Ray went down to the city center. The old town center, marketplace and river docks were desolate. Storefronts were shuttered. Not a tourist in sight. At the docks, he ran into a friend who occasionally chartered river cruises. “Where’s everyone?” Ray asked. “You haven’t heard?” the friend replied. “Rumor is the invader are returning to fight the new factions.”
“That rumor’s come up before. It’s wishful thinking for a lot people.” Ray countered.
His friend took the rumor seriously. “I’m going home soon as I finish tying down my boat. But if you’re sure it’s a rumor, there was one tourist who came by earlier. He’s staying at the Old Town Hotel. I bet he’d still trek out to the ruins.”
The friend was right. This tourist was keen to visit the ruins. Brendon was a tech entrepreneur. He explained ruins fascinated him because “they teach me that nothing I build will ever leave the legacy I except.”
Halfway to the ruins, came the unmistakable hum and clang of metal. The rumors were right. Ray veered off towards a bunker he knew. Ditching the van, they walked the last ten minutes.
He assured Brendon, they’d spend just a night in the bunker. There was a family already inside, and they squeezed alongside them. Ray knew they wouldn’t make it to the ruins, but Brendon was about to get a firsthand lesson in legacies and unexpected consequences.
NOTE: This story is Part I of my new series "The Invaders." Although each story is meant to stand alone, the installments will form a larger narrative.
Well, I'm a little more than a week into #100Daysof1PageStories ... but I'm already about to mix it up a little bit. Starting tonight, I'll be posting Part I of my new short story series "The Invaders."
Although each story is meant to stand alone, the installments will form a larger narrative.
So as not to break my pattern, each story will be accompanied by a photograph. And as usual these photographs will continue to serve as my jumping off point or inspiration for the story.
*Note: If you're not already, please consider following my #100DayProject on Instagram @JulianSeltzer https://www.instagram.com/julianseltzer/
Because she was an old friend of the boss’s father, Miss Nilsen gave them a great rate for warehouse storage. But she was nearly the most unpleasant woman Emmy ever met. She’d let the phone ring three times before picking up, and always answered with the same snarl, “Whatcha want?” Emmy would arrange a pickup time, and Miss Nilsen personally arrived with her van. An assistant loaded in boxes, as Miss Nilsen sat and complained to Emmy about something she heard on the news.
This time she arrived alone. “There’s no assistant today,” she yelled before Emmy could ask. Emmy’s hands shook loading in the cardboard boxes. Miss Nilsen sat and complained that she’d learned from the news how teenagers were making a new street drug from cleaning products.
“Come on, get in the van,” she said once Emmy finished.
Miss Nilsen sped down side streets. She spent the entire ride bemoaning that no one knew how to fix anything the right way anymore.
Emmy was never at the warehouse before. She’d envisioned a large prefab, gray structure. But Miss Nilsen’s storage facility was an expanse of old brick buildings. She parked by Building R. “Hold on a sec,” she said to Emmy. “Before you onload anything, I just wanna say thank you. I don’t personally pick-up any other deliveries. But you’re so nice on the phone and a good listener. You make an old lady’s day.”
As she was almost finished unloading the boxes, one slipped from her hands, revealing bottles of hand sanitizer and cans of dust-off. “No, it can’t be! Not from you! I refuse to be part of a drug ring.” Miss Nilsen cried out
She tried to deny the accusation, but Miss Nilsen wasn’t swayed.
“Don’t lie to me. I don’t give second chances. I’m destroying all these boxes in this storage unit. Get out now or I’ll call the police!”
Emmy walked back to the main road, and got out her phone to call the boss. She wondered how to explain that they’d need a new way to store their raw materials.
He didn’t recognize anything. The entire room was transformed. All the decoration and furniture was new to him. These weren’t faces of people he’d ever met. But that wasn’t the shock. He was used to such surprises.
The ship employed top-notch designers. In an afternoon, they could retrofit the craft to match with whatever theme the party host or hostess wanted. Sometimes he enjoyed the themes. Jungle safaris, the Grand Canyon, and Paris were his three favorites, and rather common themes. Generally, time-period or city themes worked well, whereas animals or movies became stale halfway through the party. Occasionally, there were oddball themes like a hedge maze or the Black Plague. But eccentric themes tended to correlate with quirky guests.
He chartered the same course for every party. Take-off was promptly at eight-fifteen, and he’d guide the craft into a low Earth orbit. The ship took two full orbits, each approximately 92 minutes. Just after the first orbit, he always put on autopilot, and snuck a quick look at the party.
He had been slightly apprehensive about this party. The Great Train Robbery seemed a dubious theme. But the guests appeared to be enthralled. They had all arrived in traditional old west costumes. Looking out, he counted nearly sixty guests. The craft had a capacity of ninety, but he preferred the smaller parties.
Down the middle of the room, a train car ran back-and-forth across a short track. It wasn’t worth trying to figure out how the car functioned in such low gravity. The room was almost unrecognizable except for a small signal flashing on the ceiling. A black circle with a smaller blue circle inside: he recognized it, and knew there would be trouble.
Too late, he tried racing back to the control room. One train robber blocked his path, another grabbed him, and three more surrounded.
“Stop the music!” cried one of the train robbers. The guests turned to see the commotion. “We are the Exploration Group, an organization opposed to the commercialization of space travel.”
These guys are worse than pirates, he thought. At least space pirates were reasonable, and could be quickly paid off. The Exploration Group’s demands were political fantasies. He knew their whole platform too well. He had an exceedingly direct connection to the group’s founding member.
He decided to speak up, “I’m the pilot. Let go of me and I can return this ship safely to Earth.”
“How can we trust you?” asked a lanky robber.
“Because I can call your leader,” he answered. “And he’ll tell you to let his brother land the ship.”
Almost any other day she would have seen the message earlier. But her phone died while driving back from the lake, and she didn’t read Rodney’s email until early afternoon.
She rushed to the bank, joining the long line that snaked around the building. Everyone was on edge. When it was near six o’clock, a manager announced that due to the extraordinary circumstances the bank would stay open until everyone currently on line met with a teller.
It was dark and drizzling by the time she left the bank. The streets were busier than she expected. A radio report said that airships were now hovering over hundreds of cities and towns, but not appearing on radar screens. Arriving home, she went straight to the basement. Rodney was already down there gathering tarps. “I tried calling you dozens of times,” he said.
“I was at the lake earlier, and then the bank,” she said
“I guessed that, but I got nervous because it’s so close to the time.” He sighed. “And you’re sure the bank kept the stones in the lead box?”
“Yes.” She helped him carry the tarps upstairs. “Did they tell you anything else?” she asked.
Rodney shook his head. “No updates since I emailed.”
She took his hand and smiled. “The rest have no idea what’s coming.”
Rodney covered the mainframe with the tarps. She opened her bag and took out the power supply she retrieved from the lake. It was still glowing, but the light was dim. Quickly, she connected the power source to the mainframe and the system hummed. Rodney placed the stones exactly as they had been instructed. The contraption shot a beacon up into the clouds.
“This is too good to be true,” she said. “We truly are the lucky ones."
Months ago he had trusted Yvonne. He showed her his true face, and believed she had done the same. This was before the initial run completely sold out. And ahead of her announcement on national television that the whole thing was her idea.
They agreed to meet at the coffee shop where it all started. Neither would bring a lawyer. She promised not to record their conversation.
Reid arrived a half-hour early, but she was already there.
He brought one trick with him, but she instantly saw through his tactic. “You have them with you, don’t you? In the backpack?” she asked. He nodded, opened the bag, and placed the shirts between them.
She unfolded the shirts. Each was a bright color with a small logo near the collar. “I still hate the name,” she said.
A tall man on his way out of the cafe noticed the array of shirts. “How’d you get all those TB-shirts? I heard they’re on crazy backorder.”
“I’m the creator,” Reid answered.
“Is it true,” began the tall man “even though you claim that for each shirt you sell a dollar goes to eradicating Tuberculosis, most of the money goes to lining the pocket of your own corrupt NGO?”
Yvonne recognized the man. She seized her opening. “Yes, that’s one-hundred percent correct,” she said. “And you can quote me on that.”
She stood up, poured her coffee across the shirts, and continued, “TB-shirts are a scam, and as soon as I learned I arranged this meeting with my former business partner. I’ve relinquished any claim of ownership in the company. I refuse to stand by corruption.”
Reid was speechless. The tall man glared at him and handed his card to Yvonne. “I’m in a little rush now, but I’ll call you. This’ll run in my Tuesday column.”
Given a choice she would pick the same door again. At least that’s what she tried to persuade herself after knocking on the left door. But Leota was never clever enough to convince herself she’d made the right decision. Not after buying that new hybrid car (a poor investment, she later decided), moving in with Jesse (she should have kept her own place), or driving away after hitting a parked car after a night of drinking (she felt someone must have seen). She considered regretting decisions a talent. In this case, Leota had picked the left door, but instantly wished she had chosen the right.
It wasn’t as if I had many hints, Leota thought. The only one was the letter. Already open and torn, it had been forwarded to Jesse’s mailbox even though Leota’s old address was hand-written on the front. Inside the envelope was a half-page with a short message: 4024b Jackson Ave, just go around back.
Leota must have read it a hundred times. She inspected it with a magnifying glass, checked for invisible ink, Googled it, wrote it out in Pig Latin, anything to decipher the note. She memorized every marking on the message: the folded right corner, the coffeish stain under the word around, a smudge at the bottom that looked like an erasure. In the end, she decided the simplest explanation was the most likely. So Leota went to the address and was prepared for anything. She brought a knife with her, but didn’t tell anyone where she was going.
Just around back behind 4024b Jackson Ave were two nearly identical doors. Both appeared boarded up. Neither had a doorknob, a bell, or any lettering. She knocked on the left door. For a moment nothing happened. And then it rolled open.
Leota stepped inside and clutched the knife in her bag. It had been bright outside and it took a second for her eyes to adjust. The room was a garage, and standing center was a middle-aged man staring under the hood of an old car. He introduced himself as Mr. Martine. “I see you found the place alright,” he said. “I guess you know why you’re here.”
Loeta nodded, and relaxed the grip of her knife.
Next to Mr. Martine was the car that she’d scrapped up against a few weeks ago. He said the damage wasn’t too bad. A few hundred dollars would cover the paint. Classic cars were his hobby. It was his garage, and he’d done the repairs himself. He explained that he’d watched the incident while sitting on his porch. “I was close to calling the police, but I figured you’d come.”
“What made you so sure” she asked.
“Because of that new car you were driving. No one drives a hybrid unless they feel really guilty about things.”
Daniel always assumed he knew what someone else was thinking. It was a quality that didn’t exactly endear him as traveling companion for Mason. As they drove for long stretches, Mason’s mind would drift and his expression waver between a scowl, a vacant glance, or a grin. Daniel would catch him in one expression or another and say Are you in a bad mood? Or, I think I know what’s on your mind.
It was a habit of Daniel’s that Mason noticed before they even passed one hundred miles. But by now they’d covered more than ten-times that distance, and Mason was at a breaking point. The car jostled as he drove on an uneven section of highway, and his expression momentarily tensed. Daniel noticed and said, “I can tell you’re a little peeved.”
Mason tried to keep a stoic expression, but it wouldn’t hold.
“There’s no reason to sneer at me,” said Daniel. “If you want I’ll take over the drive.”
Mason kept his hands firmly on the wheel and assured Daniel that he was fine.
“It’s really okay,” Daniel countered. “I can tell we’re hitting a little bit of a rough patch, both literally and metaphorically.”
He considered literally tossing Daniel out of the car, but he needed him there to help split the gas money. This wasn’t the road trip he had expected. He noticed Daniel turned away from him and was starring out the window.
A car pulled up beside them and kept pace with them for a few hundred feet. “Keep your eyes on the road,” said Daniel.
“What? Why?” asked Mason, resisting every urge to look into the car next to them.
“I think there’s someone being kidnapped in the car next to us.”
Mason didn’t even have to ask how Daniel could tell.
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