Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#53



A warning to Constable Wilkes and the entire population of Toronto...Watch that first step,
it's a killer...

One Small Step

By Jeffrey Blair Latta


CONSTABLE WILKES DIDN'T SEE HOW IT BEGAN. At the time, he was watching the pigeons and so didn't notice until a few seconds later.

The birds were spread in a grey-white blanket all along the sidewalk clear up to the traffic lights. A lot of pigeons. Probably a hundred or more. Sitting on a bench to rest his tired legs, the constable idly studied them, a faint half-smile on his worn features, lost in thoughts of his impending retirement only a week away.

Lost in their own pigeon-y reflections, the birds seemed oblivious to the honking and snarling of the Spadina Avenue traffic that poured past in a steady torrent. A small boy with a Leafs cap turned backwards on his head was having a gay old time rushing into the flock and scattering them in a vast, feathery cloud. Each time, the birds would settle again in his wake, as if grimly resigned to the fact that such annoyances were a part of life in the city. As if determined to grin and bear it.

Watching those pigeons and the small boy, Constable Wilkes was facing north, away from Lake Ontario. That was why he didn't see how it began.

At first, his mind, contemplating the pigeons, hardly took note of the sudden stalling of the traffic flow. Dimly he did notice a murmur of voices from somewhere further down the street behind him, like a crowd gathering. But this too was not enough to cause him to turn and look. It was noon and the middle of a heat wave and, right at that moment, even finding the strength to turn his head would have been a miracle. So he kept on watching the pigeons. And the little boy.

Once again, the boy bounded through the carpet of pigeons, scattering them skyward in a great flapping cloud, filling the heavy air with the sounds of thrashing wings. Reaching the end of his run, the boy staggered to a halt, then spun about panting to observe the results of his efforts. The air was still dense with the startled pigeons as he turned. For a moment, seeing them, his face lit up with childish delight. His eyes rose, up and up, following them higher and higher, squinting into the sun...

And then he stopped. For a heartbeat, the smile remained on the boy's face, but there seemed to be nothing behind it, like the after-image of a bright light. Then the smile changed, becoming first a look of puzzlement, then, slowly, a look of fear.

Watching the boy, this was the point where Constable Wilkes first realized something was happening. Even then, though, he didn't turn. Not just yet.

Instead, his eyes drifted from the little boy to the crowd of passers-by across the street. They were all facing the same direction as the boy, toward the lakeshore, somewhere behind the constable. Whatever they were looking at, whatever had caught their attention, it seemed to be up high in the sky.

Wilkes wondered if something was happening up on the CN tower. Probably some crazy stuntman trying to get himself in the news by parachuting off the top, Wilkes thought to himself. Every year it seemed there was one nut who tried it.

And yet, the expressions on those people across the street...and on the face of the little boy...those weren't the looks of people watching someone parachute off the CN Tower. They were frightened looks, scared looks. But not scared the way you would be scared if you were in a bank during a holdup. No -- those looks were more like the way you might look if you were seeing something you didn't understand, something that made no sense, but which you somehow knew was something to be frightened of nonetheless.

Now, seeing those looks, for just a moment, Constable Wilkes began to be scared as well. He couldn't have said exactly why, except that, somehow he knew those looks told the truth. Whatever they were looking at, it was something to be afraid of. It was something frightening.

Slowly, reluctantly even, he turned to look.

His eyes too rose up and up, sunlight steadily filling in the shadow under the bill of his cap, higher and higher, until he too was squinting into the sun, then up some more. And then he stopped.

What he saw was a vast towering column of glittering mist. It started at ground level, on the street just in front of the CN Tower, and reared straight up for a good thirty stories or more. It was titanic, so huge it was hard to take it all in at a single glance. So massive it left him dizzy and breathless.

But it wasn't solid. More like a diffuse mist of gold flakes through which he could clearly see the Tower behind and the clouds in the sky beyond that. And the flakes were swirling around and around, confined to their column, but free to move anywhere they wished within that space. It was beautiful and frightening all at the same time.

By now, all the traffic along Spadina Avenue had come to a halt as the drivers leaned from their windows to observe with wide, staring eyes this inexplicable phenomenon. The murmuring of the crowds was a steady roar now, as everyone asked his neighbour the same pointless question. What is it? What the hell is it?

And then, with startling abruptness, the glittering mist seemed to thicken. The clouds in the sky behind, and the CN Tower disappeared, and a deep dark shadow stretched suddenly over the watching multitude in the streets below.

The murmuring stopped.

In an instant, the mist was gone. In its place towered a colossal figure, human in shape, nearly as tall as the column had been, thirty stories at least.

The figure seemed covered with metal from head to giant toe, gleaming in the sun, with two legs and two arms, ramrod straight at its sides. Its head was like a helmet, bullet-shaped, with no facial features except two slots for eyes. The metal surface was scarlet below the waist and hunter's green above, except for the helmet, which was a dazzling gold.

For a good thirty seconds after the colossus appeared, there wasn't a sound to be heard all up and down Spadina Avenue. Because of the size of the thing, Wilkes knew the same thing could be said for most of Toronto. The titan figure would be visible for miles around. Everywhere, in countless streets and doorways, people would have stopped to stare, mouths agape, stupefied by horror and disbelief. Just as Wilkes was staring now.

For thirty seconds, the silence lasted. And then, as if at some secret signal...the panic began.

***
By nightfall, the crowds were pretty much under control. Along with his fellow officers, Constable Wilkes had spent the entire day setting up roadblocks and sawhorses, redirecting traffic and generally holding back the flood tides of frightened but still-curious citizens who steadily swamped the streets around the massive feet of the mysterious metal colossus.

Initially, crowds hadn't been such a problem. When the giant figure had first appeared (or thirty seconds after that, at any rate) the flow of humanity had been decidedly in the opposite direction. Fear had taken hold of the city and that fear was like a broom sweeping everything before it. Nobody knew what the thing was or what it might do, but their eyes told them enough. Whatever it was, it looked like a giant man in metal armour. Whatever it was, it had two feet the size of Olympic swimming pools. And, whatever it was, those feet were made for only one thing. Walking.

And so, for a time, the crowds fled in panic. They poured up the streets, headed north or east or west -- any place so long as it was some place away from those terrible gleaming feet.

But then a strange thing happened. The metal giant just stood there. It didn't start to walk. It didn't move. It seemed like a fantastically huge statue shaped entirely of steel, awe inspiring in its grandeur, brilliantly gleaming in the sun -- not moving.

And, seeing that the colossus wasn't immediately bent on flattening the cityscape, gradually the panicked exodus slowed down, then stopped and, finally reversed. Curiosity overcame fear and the people trickled back, timorously, warily, but they returned. First in small groups, then in torrents, finally in a flood, the crowds flowed back into the streets around the giant's feet.

That was when the order came. Set up sawhorses. Redirect traffic. Do what you have to but keep things under control.

Now it was nightfall and the crowd was under control. Still the colossus stood there. Huge floodlights had been set-up but even their dazzling beams could do no more than illuminate the titan figure in ghostly glowing patches. The head (or helmet) was no more than a dark cone barely visible against the starry sky. If not for the eye-slots, it would have been easy to miss it entirely. But those eye-slots were unmistakeable even in the black of night. They glowed with an eerie scarlet radiance, luridly lit from somewhere within that metal helmet, steadily burning away way up there in the darkness.

By luck, Constable Wilkes found himself manning the barricades near a Sony store. A whole bank of television sets filled the window, the sound audible through the open door. As a result, he could keep a close eye on the bigger picture. Every channel had cancelled regular programming, each screen showing the same thing -- news anchors with set jaws and astonished eyes. All reporting on the "Colossus of Toronto".

On every channel, the same questions were asked over and over again. What is it? Is it a statue? Is it a man in a metal suit? Is it a robot? Where did it come from? Outer space? Russia? And, most important of all, why is it here?

An unending army of "experts" were brought forward and interviewed but all to no avail. What could they say that wasn't obvious to everyone? It was a metal giant. It had appeared in a glittering column of light. It wasn't moving.

It might be alive. It might not. What more was there to say?

But one thing was very clear. Whatever it was, it had the potential to wreak great harm. This was one fact upon which every expert agreed, and which they all emphasized with didactic earnestness. Even if the figure hadn't done anything so far, its capacity for destruction was self-evident. With a single stride, it could demolish an entire streetcar, several streetcars, in fact. Thus it was clearly a threat.

But what to do about such a threat? There was an entirely different question. How could the city possibly protect itself against such an unbelievably titanic menace? If the giant decided to go for a stroll, what force on Earth could make it stop?

By morning, Wilkes was still at it, still manning the barricades and holding back the staring crowds. He was exhausted but there simply weren't enough police officers to allow him time off to sleep. And the situation was getting progressively worse.

As news of the colossus spread across Canada and then across the U.S., the curious began to arrive in droves. The streets were jam-packed with traffic locked bumper to bumper. The sidewalks were a single unending sweating mass of jostling humanity, everywhere a sea of faces turned upward with wide disbelieving eyes, come to see the impossible, come to witness the incredible. Come to be a part of whatever this was.

In the heat, they fainted by the hundreds. But still they came. Nothing could hold them back. Not even fear.

One news station carried a report about a strange cult which had arisen literally overnight. They called themselves the Brothers of the Stellar Colossus. The spokesman for the group insisted that the metal giant was a space traveller from the planet Altair IV come to teach humanity to live together and end war forever.

A rival cult had sprung up in Winnipeg called the Order of the Giant. It was their belief that the giant was a robot, which had entered our universe from the eighth dimension by way of the ozone hole over Antarctica. It was also their conviction that the Brotherhood of the Stellar Colossus was made up of a bunch of strung out crack heads who "wouldn't know a robot from the eighth dimension if it bit them on their sorry flower-child ass."

While most "experts" were of the opinion that the giant posed a serious health risk, there remained the odd voice which took the opposite view. It was pointed out that the giant had not as yet done anything aggressive. It was simply standing there, they said. How could that be construed as threatening? If the colossus really was an alien in a metal suit -- a very large alien, granted -- then its appearance constituted humankind's first contact with extraterrestrial life. Whatever the differences in size, this was a truly historic moment and it would be folly to ruin it merely because of the inconvenience of scale.

In the afternoon, a welcome wind began to gust in off the lake. Constable Wilkes settled his aching bones on a sawhorse and allowed the cooling breeze to breathe over his tired face. He took off his police cap and rested it against his knee, his gaze slowly climbing the towering metal giant as it had so many times in the last twenty four hours.

Clouds were gathering on the horizon, thick, ebony clouds promising rain. But overhead the sky was still clear and hot. In that blue sky, news helicopters circled with thumping rotors, so many of them it was a wonder they didn't crash into each other. So far they had kept a wary distance from the colossus. But the longer the giant stood there not moving, the less threatening it seemed, and the closer they circled, closer and closer still, each one hoping to better the footage shot by their rivals.

Glancing at one television in the window beside him, Wilkes realized he could see the view being transmitted from the helicopter nearest the colossus. The helicopter -- a Bell Jet Ranger -- was circling the giant at shoulder height. The metal surface of the thing was featureless even from that distance. There was no hint of seams or rivets, of welds or latches. It was as if the entire shape had been formed in one solid piece.

The reporter in the helicopter was speaking excitedly: "As you can see, Mary, we're about as close as you'd want to get. The thing is gigantic, truly gigantic! I've never seen anything like it."

And then Mary's voice was heard: "But can you tell whether there's anyone in there? Is it a robot or is it a metal suit?"

"We're going to try to get a peek in those eye-slots," the reporter explained, and even as he said that, Wilkes saw the helicopter bank and start to climb. "Just give me a moment..."

Wilkes had just turned back to look at the television when the screen flickered suddenly, then broke up into snowy haze. At the same moment, a single united gasp of horror rose from the surrounding sea of faces. On the tail of that gasp, there was a tremendous explosion. Wilkes jerked his eyes around just in time to see the helicopter plunging from the sky. It whirled downward trailing rippling flames and thick torrents of smoke. By a miracle it crashed on the roof of a building, sparing the lives of the multitude in the streets below, but leaving no hope for the reporter and pilot.

For a split second, Wilkes stared at the smoke rising in a braided column off the rooftop, then his eyes leaped back to the colossus -- and he saw the cause of the crash.

The giant was finally moving.

Not a lot, only its arms, but that was more than enough.

Still standing there as it had stood all night and all morning, the giant had unexpectedly lashed out at the helicopter, striking it with a single arm the size of a subway. And now, as Wilkes watched in horror, the other arm caught a second helicopter. Wilkes realized that the first helicopter must only have been given a glancing blow, because this second helicopter was struck with such force that it was catapulted clear out over the lake, crushed flat like a tin can even before it struck the water.

In an instant, the other news helicopters scrambled to get clear. Rotors screamed in shrill mechanical alarm. In the confusion and frenzy, there were several near collisions and the news reports broadcast on the televisions dissolved into a bedlam of frantic incoherent shouts.

The giant continued to swat at the helicopters, missing several by scant feet. Then, even once they were all clear, it continued to swing its mighty arms, first the left, then the right, then the left, then the right, back and forth, again and again. And yet, its feet, its huge titan's feet, remained firmly rooted. If it had wanted to, in a single massive stride it could have caught those helicopters and finished them all.

But it didn't. Instead it just stood there -- swinging its arms...

Part 2: Conclusion








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One Small Step is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)