My Town Runs On Friendly Robots
by Alex Reynard
* * * * *
It was autumntime again. The trees had been busy, generously donating leaves to cover the town in spectacular decorations. Brisk mountain winds left most branches bare; pencil-sketch arms stretching up towards the clouds in Hallelujah. Below on the sidewalks, colors burst like fireworks. Mother nature's glitter. Colors so rich they made your mouth water. Plump pear yellow. Pumpkin pie orange. Apple red. Cinnamon brown. The hues of the leaves made the world feel warm, even as the chill in the air signaled Old Man Winter was once again trundling in his luggage to set up for another season's vacation.
Through the crackling, crunching, musical drifts of leaves along the sidewalk came a swinging fuzzy caterpillar of a tail. Ringed black-and-white-and-black-and-white-again. It went swishy-swish, back and forth, delighting in causing chaos to the papery piles. Aside from birdsong, Its owner's laughter was the only other sound to pierce the air,.
A young and frisky lemur lass. Just over six, bursting with curiosity and playfulness. Her orange eyes feasted on the colorful city around her. Her black-tufted ears were perked and alert. Her off-white fur was speckled with dirt and blanket-fuzz, but that was okay. She clutched her well-loved saggy lion plush tightly to her overalls. Roary went everywhere with her. She gave him a big squeeze as she launched herself high in the sky to stomp down in a mound of leaves, scattering them everywhere in a cyclone of rustling and giggling.
As usual, her first stop of the day was the Speedy Munch on the corner at the end of the block. The little convenience store was always clean and well-stocked, and located close enough to her house to make it a default choice for breakfast. She waved to the rushing cartoon leopard in the logo above the building. As always, the front doors opened with a 'ding'. Just for her.
The young ringtail sat her plush down on the counter, so her paws would be free to make their selection. Roary slumped facefirst against the formica. She scolded him with a 'tsk tsk' as she fluffed his beans and made him sit up straight. Then she selected a basket for her shopping. Not really necessary, but it was fun to carry it along. Putting a finger to her lips, she 'Hmmm'ed. "Allright, tummy, what are we in the mood for today?" After a productive consultation it was decided that, while variety was the spice of life, it was also okay to want the same thing you wanted yesterday. She reached up on tippy-toes for a single-serve cup of Froot Fings cereal, then snatched a Sunshine Harvest granola bar from a lower shelf, and toddled over to the wall of coolers for some milk. She located the half-gallon of 2% she'd used yesterday and put it in her cart.
Up by the cash register, she hefted herself onto the leather stool behind the counter. She found a plate of carrot sticks already set out for her. "Thank you!" she said aloud. She popped one in her mouth like a lollipop and nibbled as she concentrated on pouring her milk. Roary stood guard.
Breakfast was more than satisfactory. The overhead radio speakers serenaded her with her favorite songs. And afterwards, even though her tummy felt full, she managed to find a bit of extra room for a hazelnut candy too.
"Ahhhhh!" she sighed. She drummed on her denim-covered belly. "What do you want to do today, Roary? We haven't added more to our library book tower in a while. You want to watch the toy trains go around? Or I could paint your portrait?" She experienced a wave of pleasant after-meal sleepiness, and considered just sitting down in the magazine aisle and reading or coloring for a bit until a nap overtook her. But no. Today was much too nice for that. "Let's play outside! We might not get too many more sunny days like this with winter on the way." Roary seemed to begrudgingly agree. She hugged him. "Don't be grumpy! If your fur gets messy, I can always give you a nice bath! I know you like that!" Being a cat, he most certainly did not, but she liked to tease him sometimes.
Like a good girl, she gathered her trash and stuffed it in the bin. She capped the milk and dragged it back to the cooler. She knew she'd need some fuel for later and headed for the snack aisle. A Whomp bar looked good. Though when she went to grab another, the box slid back and away from her paw. She blushed at getting caught. Only one chocolate per day, she knew. A packet of almonds would do instead.
Leaves swirled around her sandals as the doors opened and she exited the Speedy Munch. She marveled for a moment at how enormous the clouds looked today. "I see a submarine, Roary! What's it doing up in the sky? They must be lost! Hey! Let's go to the pool and signal them to land!" Despite the possibility of getting wet, Roary seemed to think this was a terrific idea.
She looked down the street to make sure there was transportation at the bike rack. Yup; she'd remembered to park it back there last time. She jogged over to the shiny yellow bicycle.
The little lemur nearly jumped out of her skin! One of those nasty nonev crows was perched on the gutter of the shuttered tobacco shop. The crows didn't like her, she knew. Gathering her courage, Day furrowed her brow and stared down the blank-eyed onyx bird. "Get out of here! You don't scare me!"
"CAW!!!" was the response, clearly not intimidated. It flapped its oily wings and gave her a look like her nose might make a tasty meal.
Day snarled. This bird was being rude. "Get 'im, Roary!" She cocked back her arm and hurled her plush like a boomerang at the churlish corvid.
The crow took off with another squawk as the toy lion zinged towards him. But Roary was faster. He arced in midair and impacted the bird with a heavy WHACK. Feathers flew, and the crow nearly plummeted into the sidewalk. But he managed to untangle his rumpled wings and get the wind underneath him, and thereupon immediately streaked off in the opposite direction from the lemur.
Day jumped up and down, cheering for her plush. "Hooray!! Go, Roary! You're the best!" The little lion corrected course again, skimming across the air into her arms for a hug. Day nuzzled into his frizzy mane and kissed his corduroy ears. "That bad crow will think twice about bothering us again, huh?"
The altercation with the bird had not made the young lemur forget her mission to help the stranded sky submarine. With a final victory kiss for Roary, she mounted the bike rack and climbed up onto the leather seat. The pedals were too far away for her, but that was fine. These grownup-sized bikes were automatic. Just like all the other friendly robots in town.
"To the pool, please," she asked it politely. Then she held on tight to the handlebars as the bike jerked backwards, pivoted, and scooted away down the sidewalk, kicking up a plume of Autumn leaves.
* * * * *
Tom watched her go and smiled in his heart. Every new day with her was a miracle.
The former postman looked up to the tobacconist's roof. "Nice aim, Wyatt!"
The wrinkled stallion standing on the eaves was bent over, bracing himself with hands on knees. "I got lucky. Didn't think I'd make the shot without tumbling off ass over teakettle." He exhaled, shaking his head. "Damn birds. Every other critter around here's got the message. Stubborn like a buncha teenage vandals." He turned and started climbing down.
Tom held his arms out. "Need any help?"
Wyatt got ahold of the gutter and dangled himself off the edge. "No, no. My arthritis is gonna kick my dusty old ass the rest of the morning, but I'll be fine."
The coyote in the postal uniform chuckled. "You know you ain't had arthritis in years."
"Doesn't stop me complainin' about it, now does it?" With a grunt, the old horse's hooves dropped to the sidewalk. He nodded approval at his landing.
Tom turned back, scanned the streets, and could just barely see Gerta and Macsen running along behind Day's bike, keeping it goin towards the community center.
Mary stepped out of the Speedy Munch after tidying up after their little angel. The bobcat was all aglow. "She thanked me, Tom! She actually thanked me! And over a plate of veggies too. Will wonders never cease?"
"Well, after all, you do make the finest carrot sticks in the state of Colorado."
She giggled, then tickled under his chin. "Flirt. What's on the roster for today?"
Tom mimed leafing through a clipboard. "It's an easy one. Just basic housecleaning while she's out. Check her laundry, etcetera. Me 'n Ted are gonna poke around some of the ceiling tiles in the school. Make sure they're not letting in rain."
Wyatt's muzzle entered the conversation. "Anything for me?"
A shrug. "Pick daisies all day if it suits you."
The stallion smiled. "Allright. Then I think I'll head over to the pool myself. I want to see if our girl manages to wrangle that submarine."
"I bet she will," Mary said. "She can do anything."
Wyatt closed his eyes and concentrated on becoming incorporeal. It was so much easier than walking. He felt the wind pick him up and waft him in the direction of the community center, as his two friends waved goodbye and left, hand in hand.
* * * * *
The town had been working together as a community to raise their only living resident for nearly seven years.
Before November 12th (or as many had come to call it, the Last Day) they'd all known Linda Belvedere was a bit of a tramp. Husbandless, always borrowing money, always letting her lawn grow wild. But none of them expected her to sink as low as she did on the Twelfth. As bullets fell like rain and the air became a soup of screams, multiple witnesses saw her drop her newborn in the basket of her shopping cart and haul ass out of the parking lot without ever looking back. Linda was one of the very few who survived that day, as evidenced by her spirit not returning to haunt the town like the rest of them. If not for the soul barrier, many wanted to hunt her down and drag her back to face her responsibilities. But there were more important things to focus on. Even as the confused, shaken souls were standing up out of the bloodied tatters of their former incarnations, one sound carried over the crackling of fire and the squalling of car alarms. A baby girl, left abandoned, crying out for someone to soothe her terror.
The spirits had gathered around. And without a vote, without a meeting, it was simply decided. This child was their new purpose.
Raising the tiny ringtail was a challenge, a joy, and surprisingly therapeutic. The residents of Copperleaf had lost so much in a single, bloody day. But the baby gave them something else to focus on. There would be time for grief later, after they figured out how in heaven's name they were going to feed her, bathe her, diaper her, and keep her from going mad in a world where, as far as she knew, she was all by herself.
Thankfully, though the girl could never see, hear, or touch any of her caretakers, their love seemed to warm her nevertheless. And her need for them seemed to give strength to their early, clumsy attempts to make their wispy ectoplasm interact with solid matter. As time went on, everything became easier. (Mary said it wasn't anything so awful as a vampire slurping her energy. More like she was their sun, and they were soaking in her rays.)
Tom Kay had taken charge in the first days, and had remained their unelected-but-silently-agreed-upon leader ever since. Sheriff Ted was an authority in name only. Copperleaf's most heinous criminal activity tended to consist of loitering and shoplifting, so the amiable old raccoon had gotten rather roly-poly behind his desk over the years. Whereas Tom was out and about early every morning, stretching his legs, saying hello, keeping his ears up to all the town's activity. He had his finger on the pulse. And while he'd always been too shy or too busy to wind up a father himself, he knew Linda Belvedere's little girl deserved one. Or, in this case, many.
They chose Mary Portnoy's house for the baby's residence, as she was well-to-do and had always wished for children of her own. Infant care items were scavenged from stores and houses all around. The men wasted no time in gathering up as much food as possible, from everywhere they could, and cramming it into cold storage at the school and the supermarket. They had no idea how long they'd have to take care of the cub. Surely, rescue workers would arrive shortly. But Tom had a feeling that they'd better prepare in case they didn't.
Time passed, and Copperleaf's ghosts realized they couldn't just call the baby "the baby" forever. They held a vote, and a name was chosen. A beautiful, unique name befitting their little pride and joy. To the best of their recollection, they approximated when Linda had gone into labor. And on the anniversary of that date, they had placed a large HAPPY BIRTHDAY garland across from her crib, and spelled out her name in handmade letters.
This did not work out as planned. They'd figured out how to get the lights and TV working on soul juice long since, and the little lemur happily gobbled up cartoons and educational puppet shows. Everyone was immensely proud and voicelessly cheered her on as she learned to read. Eventually the HAPPY BIRTHDAY banner became clear to her. Though the word underneath was unfamiliar. So, with perfect child logic, she deduced that, since she was happy, that meant her name must be Birthday.
And so it was. (Day for short.)
* * * * *
Day did indeed succeed in docking the loose submarine. Or at least, she decided that seeing it drift past the horizon meant mission accomplished. Then she went off to roll in leaves for a while and hunt bugs. The squirrels outside the church liked her almonds. One even finally came close enough to take it from her paw! Though her delighted squeal sent it skittering straight up the nearest tree.
Then she biked around for a while, singing the spaghetti song to herself, just enjoying the breeze. The town was so big, and there was so much of it she'd never explored. She stopped on a random block and poked around various backyards. One of them had a covered sandbox that wasn't all infested with twigs and cat poops, so she played in it for a few hours. Getting her toes and Roary all sandy. Making an adobe fort for him to command. Then she went inside the house itself and toured it like a museum. She peeked into cupboards. She leafed through the photo album, wondering who these people were. She tried reading a few grownup books but the print was too tiny, and not colorful enough.
She glanced up when the light through the windows started turning caramel orange. Yikes! She rescued Roary from the sandbox (and remembered to put the cover back on again), then hopped on the yellow bike and asked it as nicely as she could to please, please go fast. Sometimes her TV shows and DVDs would rewind and repeat a certain part if it was really important, or turn the volume way up if she'd been naughty. One of these messages was: KIDS SHOULD BE HOME BEFORE DARK. She remembered this message. Though she wasn't too worried. The robots were understanding if she got in a little late sometimes. Or had just been playing in the backyard. The backyard was safe. Some of the animals that came out after dark weren't too friendly though. Most of them seemed like nice neighbors, like the wobbly-bumbly possums and raccoons. (A nice soft skunk had even let her pet him once!) But a hissing stray cat could still be scary. She gave Roary an extra squeeze in case he'd need to defend her again.
The bike got her home before the sky was finished turning purple, so everything was okay. She left it on the lawn and promised to take it back to the bike rack in the morning.
Birthday's house was the prettiest on her block, festooned with balloons and banners and fingerpainted murals. Inside, she shouted "HELLO!" to all the house robots. They blinked the lights and music on for her. She waved to her mountain of stuffed animals on the porch, waded through her grotto of toys. In the kitchen she grabbed a juice box, and thanked the refrigerator for restocking them. Happily sipping, she then settled into her beanbag chair to see what the DVD player had chosen for her this evening.
Many episodes of Thunderdweebs later, a ding from the kitchen signaled dinner was ready. The microwave robot had made her fettuccine. Yum! She ate it all up and had fun slurping the noodles, telling Roary she was an anteater tearing up the wallpaper.
She finished, put her plate and fork in the dishwasher, and had time for one more movie before yawns started overtaking her.
Birthday climbed the stairs to her bedroom, dodging more toys. The door opened for her, and she gave it a sleepy smile. Inside, the room was a friendly cave. She'd built a massive hill of blankets that she could tunnel into and be toasty warm all night long. The stars on the walls and ceiling glowed in the dark. The radio turned on low; the static helped her sleep. The little lemur burrowed in among her less-adventurous plushies and gave them all kisses while she reported about her day.
The lights turned off, and her eyelids fluttered closed.
* * * * *
Four hundred yards away, a pair of binoculars watched her house.
"Surrender, Tango Alpha? Surrender?"
The usual response came through his helmet: "Not even to the reaper, Papa Whiskey. How's the plant?"
The large hydro-electric plant was what they'd come here to survey. Someone had spotted it on a map. Like all the rest, it was bombed nearly flat. "Nothing the core of engineers couldn't fix in a decade or two," PW replied.
This was not surprising news. "And Copperleaf? You've been staring at it quite a while."
"Yeah, well, y'see, that's the weird part. I don't know what the hell's going on in there."
"Yeah, there's a ring of them all around the town like they're waiting in line for a concert. But they look junked. Dead. That's not the hinky shit though. The town looks... abandoned? But not?"
A moment's pause. "Explain?"
"I don't know. The place looks clean. Like people're still living there. Except I can't see anyone, and I've been watching for hours. Seen wildlife. No bodies lying out in the streets though. Someone cleared those up at least. And sometimes, lights'll come on in the buildings. Just one at a time. I don't hear a generator though. You see what I mean about weird?"
"There's been survivors before. Holdouts."
"Yeah, but..." PW struggled to convey the difference. "This place looks like a snapshot. Like nothing's changed since the Twelfth. And if there's enough survivors to keep this place looking this spic and span, why haven't they come down the mountain by now? Contacted us? We only found Copperleaf by accident. No one was curious enough to peek their heads out after six fucking years?"
A longer silence. "I don't know. But if it doesn't look dangerous, we can come around visiting in the morning."
"Dangerous, no. Looks as safe as a postcard. Just..." He shook his head. "I got a shaky feeling about it."
"We'll be careful. Come on in."
"Received. I am not sleeping in the goddamned back seat again though."
"Fight you for it."
* * * * *
Officially, the war had lasted sixteen hours and twenty-two minutes.
This did not take into account the following years of scattered bloodshed. But the initial strike on November Twelfth had taken only that long to subdue one of the mightiest nations on Earth.
It was simple. Global shipping had been fully automated for a decade. There was no one to notice the simultaneous deliveries to cities near military bases, missile installations, communication hubs, and key points of infrastructure. They'd even used ordinary cardboard boxes, like any other business.
Then all at once, all around the country, the boxes opened. The drones flew out. Hundreds and thousands and millions of them.
They cut off phone and internet first. Then the military was decimated with chemical bombs. Systematically, all sources of power were rendered inoperable. The citizens maintaining them were slaughtered. Like a small mountain town where half the citizens worked at the nearby Pritchett Hydropower Facility. Just one among many.
The drones were automatic. They did not distinguish civilian from military. They did not hesitate when their optics registered screaming families and children. They performed efficiently. Perfect disposable soldiers.
When the gunfire and explosions were over, the country was dark and leaderless, and the invaders strolled in at their leisure.
* * * * *
The following morning's sunlight turned Birthday's blanket pile into a fuzzy, comfy kiln. Soon she was popping up like bread in a toaster. She thanked all her animals for a night full of good dreams. She crawled down from her mound and whipped off the previous day's clothes. She stood in her fur before her cavernous closet and composed her latest outfit. Since it was beginning to get cold out, she thought a pair of purple flannel pajama bottoms would be good for pants. And her yellow tutu. And her orange vinyl jacket. And four pink pompon hair bows. And her green rainboots that looked like rawr-ing alligators. She didn't give a second thought to the dirty clothes on the floor: the robots were always very good about making her laundry vanish and reappear clean in her closet.
She leapfrogged down the stairs, giving Roary a bouncy piggyback ride. She stood in the kitchen for a bit, sucking her thumb (an unconscious habit) as she tried to decide between another breakfast at Speedy Munch, or whether she preferred to gather food from the cupboards and have a porch picnic.
These thoughts were suddenly made irrelevant. She dashed to the window as sounds like thundercracks echoed across the morning.
* * * * *
Half of Copperleaf's residents were clustered in a protective phalanx around Day's house. The others stood watch at the edge of the soul barrier. Its existence probably had something to do with being a ghost, they figured. All that jazz about being tied to a location you had to haunt until your unfinished business was done. Encircling the town was an invisible ring that they simply could not pass through. Could not. Plenty had tried. While they could phase through any solid wall in any building in town, the barrier was like hurling themselves at a bank vault. But they could see through it. And right now, hundreds of spectral gazes were locked onto a small black beetle-like car trundling up the highway towards them.
Andy had his face and hands pressed up against the barrier, like a mime in a box. "Doesn't look like any military I've ever seen."
"No insignia either," Clay pointed out.
"They could be the enemy," Wyatt considered, eyes narrowed and flinty. "Come to make sure the job's finished."
"After all this time though?" Tom countered.
None of them actually knew who "the enemy" was. They'd only seen the drones, after all, not whatever nation or faction controlled them. Common guesses included The Commies and Those Terrorists. But it might have been the boogeyman for all they knew.
The beetle-vehicle was an unfamiliar make and model. Possibly customized. Its armored sides rattled as it crept along cracked and pebbly concrete that had been besieged by six years of winter potholes.
Only one vehicle though. Not an invading armada. Maybe just scouts?
Sheriff Ted sidled up to Tom. He carried himself like a man in charge, but whispered to his friend like an actor who'd forgotten their lines. "How we want to play this?"
The coyote's reply had an uncharacteristic grit in it. "They're not getting near her, that's for goddamn sure."
Ted tapped his broad-brimmed hat and nodded.
"But I don't wanna hurt them either. Not until we know for sure who they are. For sure. They could be the enemy, honestly. Or scavengers. Or just teenagers looking for something to spraypaint their names on. We don't know. And I am not going to have any innocent blood on my hands."
"Hundred per cent understood," Ted acknowledged. Though his gut wanted to just unload bullets on the car till it exploded and be done with it.
Tom clenched his fists as he looked down at the ring of deactivated drones. Their electronic murderers. They'd wanted to chuck them down the slope and watch them smash to pieces as they tumbled down. But it seemed they couldn't throw things past the soul barrier either.
"These things killed us," Tom said softly to the Sheriff. "They slaughtered our friends and family. But they're nothing more than tools. Inanimate objects. We've got something to care for more than just our bad memories. So we're going to use them to scare these strangers off. Not kill them. Not harm them. Just keep them away from our girl."
Ted nodded. "I kinda knew this'd happen eventually. What else do we have to work with? Hell, we're a bunch of farts in the wind. We ain't even got chains to rattle."
It was funny, but the coyote's guts were too knotted to laugh. "Send it down the line, Ted. Everyone picks one up. We turn them on. You and I fire some warning shots. No one else. You hear me? No one else does anything more than powers 'em on."
"Show of force. I got you." The raccoon thumped the ex-postman on the back on a comradely way. Then he puffed up his considerable chest and hoped he remembered what it felt like to give orders.
* * * * *
Copperleaf was both easy and difficult to get to. It sat at the top of a sloping plateau, horizontally adjacent to the Pritchett plant and the churning mountain river that supplied its electricity. There was only one highway into town. But it stretched across a vast, empty plane of withered trees, bracing for snow. You could see the city in the distance, and twenty minutes later it felt like it wasn't getting any closer.
Inside the Scarab, Wren and Tracker tried to stay relaxed in the backseat while Adams drove. Nothing about this felt right. Adams kept his hand on the wheel and his eyes steady, motionless as a petrified redwood. Despite the cold morning wind, Wren could still feel beads of sweat trickling in his uniform like crawling bugs. He stared at the frayed upholstery of the transport's roof. He'd watched the town for hours last night. Nothing about it added up. There was no series of events he could imagine that plausibly explained a city frozen in time. As if the massacre that erased its citizens had never taken place. And they had to have been. That was always the pattern: crater the power plant, nuke the workers so they couldn't get anything running again, collapse any routes into town to keep out rescue crews. There was nothing but flat all around Copperleaf, so that last step hadn't even been bothered with.
Adams was a golden retriever. With his crewcut, he couldn't have looked more like an action figure of a soldier. Tracker was a boar. Built like a tank. He tended to keep his mouth shut until it was time to issue orders. Wren was a common brown squirrel. Stereotypically alert and nervous, but also fast.
Tracker was cleaning his rifle to give his hands something to do. Seeing this, Wren started polishing his binoculars.
Halfway up the slope into town, Adams braked and parked on a diagonal for traction, just in case the whole shitty section of road crumbled away beneath them. Grass and dandelions were growing up through the cracks in uncountable places. "Allright. Anyone else feel like getting out and winning the fabulous prize of pissing in an indoor toilet for the first time in weeks?"
Wren half-laughed. Tracker didn't. The boar simply got out and stood in the open sunshine without hesitation. The other two followed.
Tracker stared hard at the town. "You said you didn't see anyone? Anyone?" he asked Wren.
The squirrel shrugged. "I did my best. There might be people, but I just didn't see them. One or two squatters in a whole city? Come on, it's a big area."
Tracker made a grunt like that was a fair excuse, but he was still disappointed.
Adams could see handful of buildings from his position. Some weathering, but not complete desolation like a lot of other places they'd picked the bones of. He sniffed. No smell of old death either. Maybe there was never anyone here in the first place? But then how...?
"Come on," Tracker said abruptly, and headed up the road without looking back at his two subordinates. He'd listened to the quaver in Wren's voice describing the town. He was not about to humor a spooked scout believing in ghost stories. They would walk right in like they owned the place. If there were holdouts, they'd be relocated. If they were hostile, they'd be dealt with. Simple.
Adams cast a glance back to Wren and they followed along behind Tracker. The boar and retriever had their rifles out and ready. Wren only had a sidearm, so he parked his hands on his belt buckle to keep them from shaking.
"Maybe it's nothing," Adams called over his shoulder. "Maybe it's just some smarthome system, turning the lights on and off on a timer."
"I..." Wren didn't want to say out loud how idiotic that idea was. With no source of power, for over six years?
"Look on the bright side. Might be some places we can crack open, find some ancient TV dinners or like that. Have a decent meal for once. Or if there is someone here keeping the place runnin', maybe she's got big tits."
Pebbles of concrete crunched under Wren's boots. It would be easy to trip and go barrel-rolling all the way back down the hill. "Yeah. Maybe. Or maybe some old coot with a shotgun and HOLY SHIT!!!"
That was the squirrel's reaction to seeing at least a hundred of the for-sure-dead-and-harmless cuntcopters suddenly whirr to life and rise up in the air like a synchronized swarm of giant killer wasps.
He was the first one back in the car, covering his neck with his arms, when the shooting started.
* * * * *
In the decorated house on Lark Bunting street, a young lemur pressed her face against the glass and tried to see what was making the noise. She'd thought it was thunder at first. But even though she'd never heard one fired in furson, she knew what gunshots sounded like from TV. "Roary, something's happening out there. What do you think's going on?"
The little lion had no answers for her.
"Should we go look? Someone might be in trouble and need our help."
Both Roary and her inner voice said that, while that was a noble sentiment, it was probably a lot smarter to stay the heck inside and not risk getting hurt.
Day clutched her plush protector close and put kisses in his mane. Her heart was making thunder sounds now too.
* * * * *
Tom the coyote had never operated an assassin drone before, and only ever touched the damned things to shove them far away from town after they all finished their task and went dormant. But being a ghost had its advantages. He was well-used to letting his phantasmic energy flow into power tools or air conditioners. Letting himself inside as replacement electricity, he could somehow feel the inner workings of the device. Know how it all worked on an unconscious level, like instinct. So it was no trouble at all to sink his fingertips into the hated mechanical bug at his feet, start its four rotors spinning, and heft it up to start blasting away at the intruders.
He glanced over at Ted. The raccoon played at being gung-ho, but saw he was also firing way off the mark. Not even hitting the road. Tom nodded approvingly. Unknown as they were, the intruders were still people.
"HAW HAW!! It's working! Lookit 'em run!" Ted shouted gleefully.
"Let's wait to celebrate till after they're gone," Tom cautioned, raising his voice over the booming of the guns and the skin-crawling whine of the quadcopter motors. Looking back at the trio on the road, he noticed they were not fleeing in terror, but taking a strategic retreat. Huddling inside their armored car. Not driving away. Tom debated with himself for a second, then aimed very carefully and sent a bullet PINGing off the vehicle's passenger side door, making the whole thing rock on its tires.
"Take the message, you bastards," he whispered to himself. "Get out of here and leave our daughter alone."
* * * * *
Wren felt his heart thrashing against his ribcage like a wrecking ball. Adrenaline had turned his blood to Tabasco sauce. He stared at his boots. 'This is how I die,' he thought, with startling clarity. Cuntcopters sometimes missed, but they never relented. That was what they'd taught him. He'd seen video. They killed with a cold-bloodedness that was completely alien to anything he'd ever seen before. Even a scorpion was still just an animal. The drones would follow them down the hill and riddle the Scarab with bullets until there wouldn't be enough meat left inside to make dogfood out of.
Beside him he heard Adams repeating, "Jesus our lord and blessed savior please forgive me of my sins."
When a bullet punched the side door, Wren shrieked. The high pitch made his cheeks red with shame. 'My last words are gonna be a little girl's scream.'
Tracker was in the front seat now, forcing his eyes to remain open, both hands on the wheel. The drones held steady in a line, like they were nailed in midair. The boar's paw was on the key in the ignition, knowing it barely mattered. With this many against them, the bullets would eventually chew through the armor whether they were in motion or stationary.
But something stopped him. Even though he was panicking inside just like Wren and Adams (only keeping it hidden for the sake of the whole stoic 'captain going down with his ship' routine), his mind could not help noticing an incongruity. Only two of the drones were firing. Only two. There were at least a hundred out there. It didn't make any sense.
Tracker took his hand off the key.
"Why aren't we moving!?" Adams yelped.
"This is a bluff," Tracker suddenly knew. He watched the drones for a moment longer. Then, despite his two subordinates screaming, he got out of the car.
* * * * *
The gun sounds were far away, but still loud enough to make Day's ears ring. She was frozen on tiptoes at the back hallway window, trying to see over the trees. The little lemur's stomach was full of buzzing anxiety bees. Each successive BANG sent her worryometer up another notch. Without being able to articulate it consciously, she knew that if she could just see what was happening, it would be less scary. It didn't make sense, and it was a dangerous idea, but it rang true like a churchbell along every nerve in her body.
Eyes wide with worry, she looked back over her shoulder to where Roary was seated on the pantry. "I just wanna see. We can go out in the backyard, right? That should be safe? And if we can't see what it is from there, we'll come right back inside, okay?"
Roary was completely silent. She'd have to make this decision on her own.
Another gunshot. Day's heart felt like it was drowning. She knew, knew, KNEW this was a bad idea, but couldn't pull herself away from it. Like the scary dream where her feet were pushing her towards the basement door with all the monsters inside, and no matter how she struggled she couldn't turn away.
She scooped up Roary and dashed to the side door. She'd just look for a moment. Just a moment. Then she'd dash right back up the stairs to her blankets.
But when she turned the handle and tried to pass through, something invisible bounced her back.
On her tush, the lemur stared up at the empty frame in utter disbelief and confusion. The doorway was open, but it had felt like stumbling into a wall. Her fear started to mutate, growing spider legs and static shocks. Becoming panic.
She ran back at the doorway and pushed against something unseen and unyielding. Her mind was a whirlwind. This made no sense. This wasn't her robots. Robots couldn't do this.
Her heart was a hummingbird. Suddenly she was engulfed in the simple, primal fear of a trapped animal. This thing resisting her was more alien than whatever outside was shooting, and she pushed against it with all her might.
* * * * *
Nora Walters had her arms linked with Gerta Tubbs and Maxine Fishwater, feeling like a riot cop trying to hold back a line of unruly protesters. Or in this case, a single six-year old, drilling her head into Nora's stomach with surprisingly painful strength. "I'm gonna need more help over here! She's spooked and tryna escape!" she called out.
The poor kid was in a jittering frenzy, making noises like a feral cat in a cage. Nora couldn't hug her currently, but tried caressing the girl's head with her chin. "I'm so sorry, honey, but it's for your own good."
* * * * *
That feathery touch, like the hand of a ghost, sent Day over the edge. She head-butted the invisible obstruction like a berserk mountain goat. She kicked at the ground with her rainboots, churning up clumps of mud. She screamed an inarticulate peal of resistance.
And the power of her living soul overwhelmed all those who were fighting to hold her back.
She burst through so suddenly it startled her. Like punching construction paper. She flailed her limbs to keep her balance, barely avoiding going nose-first into the grass. All thoughts of remaining within the safety of the backyard were gone from her mind. She wanted to get as far away from here as possible. Roary was still clutched in an iron grip below her armpit. Her unremembered default destination switched on, and she ran towards the gunshots.
* * * * *
"NO!!!" Mary screamed, and ran after her.
* * * * *
Tracker exited the Scarab and stood without fear. His gaze was fiery. A look in his eyes like he could grab hold of reality and mash it in his hands into whatever shape he deemed proper.
The drones hesitated. The fact that they didn't instantly cut him to ribbons proved his intuition correct. This was a gamble. But he'd won far more poker hands than he'd ever lost.
He took a step forward. The drones did not react.
Without looking away from them, he called back to his men. "Get out here, you pussies. You can piss your britches later."
Adams and Wren could see for themselves that their suicidal commander was somehow inexplicably not dead. Paws shaking, Adams reached for the door handle. "I cannot believe I'm doing this."
Wren waited until his friend and comrade was fully outside and still breathing before he joined him.
For a very long time, the moment was silent. A few skittering leaves in the wind sounded louder than tank treads.
Wren had his sidearm out now, safety off. This whole fucking situation's safety was off. He inched around the car to stand closer to Adams. Probably bad strategy, as it made them easier targets, but the risk was likely moot and his instinct was to not want to die alone.
Adams didn't say a word. No funny quips to lighten the mood. This was as real as it got. He simply watched and waited, tensed to react.
Tracker calculated in his head. People-math. Silences are uncomfortable for a reason. People liked for things to happen. They hated waiting. Making someone wait was a form of exercising control over them. If you could remain a statue, your opponent would nearly always show their hand eventually. Just to have something to fill the void with.
The boar took long, slow breaths. He blinked, but did not relent his gaze. He prepared to wait for hours if he had to.
* * * * *
"Tom, what the fuck're we gonna do?" Sheriff Ted whispered.
The coyote was debating with himself. Breathing shallowly. The drone he was holding seemed to gain weight with every passing beat of his heart. He hadn't expected them to get out of the car. He had no backup plan for this. They were supposed to leave, not turn this into a game of chicken.
The pressure was unbearable already, and hearing his friend's whimpering plea for a solution made it worse. Tom wanted to snap back at Ted and ask why he didn't come up with his own goddamned answers for a change, allright!? But that was childish. He was not going to turn on his friend. Ted was only being honest about the fear they were both feeling right now.
Tom took a deep breath. He reminded himself of what they were doing this for. This wasn't about him, or Ted, or anyone else in town, or the town itself. They were all nothing but relics. Old, faded photographs. 'Ghosts,' he said to himself. 'Literally something that has no business still being here.'
Except for the reason that kept them bound. Their happy Birthday.
Tom already knew these guys weren't the enemy. Whatever they were, they didn't radiate any evil intent. But even if they were the Good Guys, if they found a little girl living all by herself in an empty town, naturally they'd take her away. Of course they would.
'Over my dead body,' Tom thought, baring his teeth.
He stilled his heart and fired one more time.
* * * * *
The bullet sent pebbles of concrete whizzing through the air, three feet from where Tracker stood.
Like a spring-loaded mechanism, the boar's arms lifted and he immediately bullseyed the drone that had fired, slashing it in half like a samurai's swing.
Adams and Wren watched the clutter of plastic and wires tumble to the ground. The four propellers twirled off drunkenly in opposing directions before crash landing as well.
"Thank you for telling me all I needed to know," Tracker said, enunciating loud and clear so his voice filled the whole mountain sky.
The drones wavered.
The boar began walking slowly forward. Unhurriedly. Moseying. "That shot wasn't aimed at me. It should have been; it's what I would have expected from an automated city defense system. I thought at first you'd rigged one up from these things. However it is you're controlling them, kudos on your skill in electronics. But machines don't second guess. They don't bother with warning shots. Someone's behind a controller. Whether behind a bush or watching on a screen. Let's stop fucking around, shall we?"
Taking ginger steps behind their commander, Adams turned to Wren and cupped his mouth to whisper, "The balls on him, huh? Cast iron!" Wren nodded in complete agreement.
Tracker overheard, and allowed a wisp of a smile. He lowered his voice to them. "If the drones do anything else, start picking 'em off like a shooting gallery. But I don't think we'll need to."
"Aye, sir," Wren said. Adams raised his rifle to shoulder height.
Back to booming, Tracker again addressed their unseen adversary. "My name is Major Jeremiah Tracker of the New American Armed Forces. I'm joined by PFC Adams and PFC Wren. We are not here to do you any harm. We came here to assess the Pritchett plant for possible reconstruction, and admittedly, to survey Copperleaf for usable resources. If you're currently using them yourself, whoever you are, I can understand why you might be miffed at us."
Adams giggled nervously.
"That's fine," Tracker continued, still strolling slowly forward. His eyes never strayed from the remaining drone that had been shooting. "We'd still like to come inside and walk around though. There are people back where I come from who are in need of basic humanitarian supplies and rebuilding materials. Maybe we can have a negotiation. Believe me, I can understand your jumpiness, and it's already forgiven. But only if you choose for it to be."
The boar stopped and stood still, forty feet away from the lethal black dragonflies. "Otherwise, you may as well dispense with the pleasantries and blow a big hole in me right now. The chest, please. I'd like to be identifiable by dental records afterwards, if that's allright with you."
He smiled pleasantly as his gaze drilled a laser straight down the bore of the barrel pointed towards him.
* * * * *
'What the hell do I do?' Tom thought.
His hands were empty. Drone shrapnel littered the ground around his feet. Ted's arms were shaking.
'The one thing we can't do is show ourselves.'
* * * * *
Day ran like the wind, drawing upon an infinite well of little kid energy.
The gun sounds stopped for a while, but then there was one more, and in the silence it sounded even louder than all the others. She didn't know why she was running towards them anymore. A faceless certainty that someone needed her help. And no matter how scared she was, this was more important. Sometimes it's a blessing to be so young you can't believe you'll ever die.
A few more times she felt those creepy air-touches at her back. Like hands trying to grab her. She'd shout and pull away and keep running. She wouldn't let them catch her. She didn't know what in the world they were, but she knew she didn't like them touching her.
The young lemur dashed through backyards and squirmed between fence gaps. Whatever was happening, it was near the edge of town. The place where the old junky helicopter-things were. She knew from TV they were very, very bad, and that she was very, very glad they were always asleep whenever she checked on them. They gave her the willies. But near the old crumbly road there was a gas station and an empty warehouse that looked like a shoebox. Plenty of places she could hide and peek her snoot out to see what was going on.
Plans changed when she reached the Conoco station. (Even after all this time, there was still a smell that made her nose wrinkle.) She darted among the fuel pumps, moving like a cautious little bunny. Trying to be as small and unseeable as she could be.
Then she heard the buzzing. That sound was every kind of evil her nightmares had ever led her to. Without having to see, she knew the bug-copters were awake. Maybe that's what the gunshots were. Maybe the bugs were hurting people, and the people were firing back. Like in the monster movies.
Day felt icicles grow in her blood. For a moment, she wanted to sink down deep into the dark earth and just hide for a year until they went away.
But no. Something inexpressible cupped her heart and whispered into it that this was her moment of glory. Like all the superheroes she loved to watch. Just this once, she could be them.
So even though her lip was trembling and her heartbeat in her ears was loud as a bass drum, she broke away from her hiding spot and ran pell-mell towards the highway.
When she turned the corner and finally saw her nightmare, lightning-bolts of fear struck her body all over. A whole line of them, hovering in the air. Like giant biting blackflies. Buzzing horribly. Louder than cicadas.
She knew exactly what she had to do. Without hesitation or slowing her stride, she cocked back her arm like a major league pitcher and threw with all her might.
"GO GET 'EM, ROARY!!!"
* * * * *
The sound of her voice was a bullwhip to Tom's backbone.
She couldn't be here. Not here, in the middle of a standoff with guns drawn. Not in the crossfire. Images of a limp and bloody little body seared into his mind's eye.
A saggy stuffed lion came soaring through the air between him and Ted, like a touchdown pass.
There was only an instant to make the choice. "Drop them!!" he screamed. "Everybody!! Drop the drones! Cease fire! Abandon ship! Fuck!!"
* * * * *
The three soldiers were perplexed by the sight of an incoming plushie, but downright flabbergasted when a hundred cuntcopters all died and dropped together a moment later, like the world's ugliest snowfall.
A cacophony of cracking plastic, bent rotors, gasping motors and clattering barrels. It was like an EMP had wiped them all out simultaneously. Their lights went black. Their spinning ceased. They were toast.
Three furrowed brows. Three dropped jaws.
And then here came a huffing, puffing, stumbling kaleidoscope-colored kid, seeing nothing else on Earth but her beloved toy lying on the concrete. She rushed over like a field medic and scooped the lion into her arms.
Eyes wet with tears, Day spun in place and gave her plushie the world's biggest hug. "Oh ROARY! You did it!! You DID it!! You're a hero!! They were so scared of you they all fainted! Look! All of them! I'm so proud of you! Yaaaaay!!!"
Wren looked at Adams. The retriever had no answers.
Day eventually wiped her eyes to behold the awesome carnage her hero had wrought. The helicopters looked like a buncha crushed cockroaches. She was just about to exclaim in amazement, when she choked on her syllable and coughed.
There were people standing there. Three of them. "People!" she yelped.
Tracker's rifle was still held stiff as steel in his arms, but he snapped out of it and quickly tucked it behind him, showing his hands open and empty. "Um. Hello, little girl."
The lemur gawped in naked astonishment. "You're soldiers! Like the movies! Oh, lookit, Roary! Real people! You musta been fighting them bugs, huh?"
"Sort of," Adams said. He and Wren also awkwardly lowered their weapons.
Tracker was glad to see the cub didn't flit away when he came closer and knelt down to her level. "Little girl, who else is here in Copperleaf with you?"
She smiled. "It's just me. And Roary!" She held him up so the pig man could see.
He squinted. "I'm sorry? Where are your parents?"
Day shook her head. "It's just MEEE!" she said, exasperated that he hadn't heard her the first time. "My town runs on friendly robots. They take care of me."
Adams was about to comment that the cuntcopters weren't anyone's idea of friendly, but the girl had also viewed them as an enemies, so she must have meant something else.
"Maybe some inventor set something up for her before he died?" Wren muttered to him.
"Or she's been raised by a pack of feral Roombas."
Lemur and boar regarded each other studiously, trying to glean all they could from appearances. Day was fascinated by Tracker's many pockets and pouches. "That's a real gun?" she asked, then blinked. "Duh! Of course it is! I heard you shooting at the bad bugs. So I had to investigate."
Wren noticed the girl enunciated her sentences like a TV character. He and Adams crouched down on either side of Tracker. "Actually, the cun- ah, the copters, they did most of the shooting. Do you know what was controlling them?"
A perfect open-palmed shrug of 'I dunno.' "Maybe your car woke them up? It's a cool car! Can it really go? The ones in town don't move."
Tracker cast a conferring glance at the other two, then answered. "We could let you ride in it. Would you like that?"
She pouted warily. "TV says Kids, Never Get In A Car With A Stranger."
He nodded, acknowledging the wisdom in this. "Does the TV also say that kids shouldn't be alone without adult supervision?"
He had her there. So she changed the subject. She sproinged out her paw for a shake. "I'm Birthday! What's your name?"
The boar couldn't hold in a chuckle. "Birthday, huh? That's unusual. Pretty, though." He took her tiny paw and gave it a firm up-and-down pump. "I'm Jeremiah."
She bowed. "Pleased to meet you."
Adams put out his paw as well. "And I'm Trent. This is Pete."
Wren gave her a wave, then also put his hand in.
Day shook them both at the same time. "This is so cool! I've never met anyone else before! And now three in one day! You guys are so tall! I didn't think grownups could get so tall! Don't you fall over all the time!?"
"Years of practice," Tracker deadpanned.
It was slowly catching up to Day that this was a pivotal moment in her life. For a lot of reasons. Things were about to change for her in ways she couldn't even imagine. And while that was kind of a trembly thought, these three grownups seemed really nice, so maybe the future would turn out nice too.
Little arms reached out and ensnared all three men in a squeeze.
Wren blushed and patted her on the head.
Day nuzzled them all over, feeling new, unfamiliar fur and fabric on her muzzle. Then she sniffed. "WOW! You guys SMELL weird!!"
Adams snickered. "Yeah, not surprising. We been on the road without a shower for a few days. Probably smell like old boiled hot dogs."
"The shower works at my place. You wanna come use it and get all soapy clean?" she offered.
They looked at each other. "Sounds nice," Tracker said. "Thank you. You can show us your town too."
What a delightful idea! And she had so many things to show them! "Sure! Come on!" She bounced away and was already sprinting down the road, mind a-buzz trying to decide what toys and outfits she should feature first. "Oh, and you can use the potty too!!!"
* * * * *
The ghosts of Copperleaf stood and watched in silence that afternoon, as their adopted daughter led the three soldiers around like a shepherd with her flock.
Day was a miniature supernova, babbling joyfully at top speed and volume, about everything she loved and wanted to share with her new friends. She pointed out the treehouse and the school playground. The friendly churchyard squirrels. Main street's boutique with the funny hats to try on. She treated them to a luncheon of candy bars at the Speedy Munch. Then belted out a fanfare as they came within sight of her grand palatial estate. They were awestruck by her exterior decorating. She beamed.
Inside, she introduced all of her plushies by name. When she finally noticed them squirming, she remembered her promise to let them use the bathroom. They took turns showering and all came back looking blissfully relieved. (Unaware that some of the lady ghosts had spied on their physiques and were now having improper imaginings.)
The ghosts clustered in the livingroom or hung around the yard, eavesdropping on the conversations that followed. Slowly, their fears melted and eased away. These were not bandits, come to pillage the town and kidnap their precious girl. These were honest, honorable men of conscience. Reading between the lines of their careful euphemisms, the ghosts were able to work out that there had been a long occupation, and a grim slog of a resistance. Within the last year, a victory. And now the work had begun, picking up the pieces of the country, trying to remember how they'd been assembled. The five branches of the military were no more. Not enough people or coordination. For now there was simply a loose group of volunteer men and women playing soldier, doing their best to erase the mess.
Tracker asked Day if she wanted to go with them. The young lemur considered the idea solemnly. Everything she'd ever known was here. But in the new place, there'd be far more than just three new friends. There were families, and other kids, they'd said. In some way, she knew this would mean giving up a life where she was the most important furson in the world. And yet, her curiosity to see with her own eyes the places and people that had always been confined to the limited window of her television screen...
"I want to," she said at last. "But I don't want to."
Wren floated the possibility that, if she did come along, they could all return someday. After the Twelfth, most of the country's population had been forcibly relocated to two crushingly dense 'holding pens' on the East and West coast. People wanted to expand outward again. And Copperleaf was like a city preserved under glass. Teams of scouts had been all over, and there was nowhere better for resettling they'd seen. Tracker and Adams soundly agreed.
Day's melancholy slowly turned to a sunrise of hope. This could be the best of both worlds. She'd keep her home, but new people would move in. Other kids to play with. Other voices. Other laughter.
She sprang from her chair and gave the squirrel a hug.
* * * * *
Day had a sleepover with her new friends. She made popcorn, they watched cartoons, and when they all went to bed, she insisted that each one of the soldiers have a stuffed animal to sleep with. She even found a squirrel and a doggy. And while she didn't have a piggy, an elephant looked kinda close.
"If I hear a single joke about this" Tracker told his men calmly, "you will never be promoted past dishwasher."
"Jealous old poop," Adams said. He held up the yellow doggy and made it wave to Day. "Looks just like me!"
* * * * *
The following afternoon, Tom and Mary stood at the edge of the soul barrier, as they watched the armored car drive away with three men, a lemur, and her lion.
Mary wiped tears from her cheeks. "I guess I always knew this was inevitable."
Tom nodded, and motioned for her to walk with him. It was pretty noisy by the barrier. The whole town had come out to wish Day goodbye. And even though she'd be returning someday, Mary was far from the only one crying.
The canine felt the feline's soft hand held within his. It was still strange after all these years, to feel living warmth, yet look down and see wisps of silver fog.
He led Mary to the shade of a tree whose auburn leaves had not yet completely fallen. Far enough away that they wouldn't need to shout, but still able to see the tiny beetle-car kicking up gravel as it ambled towards the horizon.
"Yesterday... I would have done anything to stop this moment from coming," Tom softly confessed.
She reached up to touch his cheek. "I know. Me too. How could we imagine life without her?"
The coyote nodded. "But we're not even meant to be here. We're here because of a fluke. Because we had to be. We were supposed to go somewhere else, and we got sidetracked."
"Because she needed us," she finished.
"Yes," Tom said, and rested his head on Mary's shoulder.
They stood together for a moment, communicating only with their intertwined fingers.
"I'm scared to be without her," Tom admitted.
Mary turned her head to place a kiss on his temple. "Scared of what might happen to us next, you mean?"
His fur brushed against hers as he nodded. "Silly, I know. It can't be that bad, whatever it is. But maybe it's okay." He looked back to the road, where the light of his afterlife was heading off to build new adventures. "I might stick around for a while to make sure. It'd be nice to see her come back, you know. Bring new families. See Copperleaf be alive again. But... I don't think I need to," he said, inflecting to ask if she understood.
She did. Perfectly so. "We've done our job. And pretty well, I think. Maybe we can let go."
Tom smiled. "Maybe we can."
It was autumntime, and the days had grown shorter. So the overture of sunset was beginning to paint orange and magenta watercolor streaks across the sky.
He pulled her close. "I'm not letting go of you though."
She laughed like birdsong, and touched her lips to his.