Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#53



One Small Step

(Part 2)

By Jeffrey Blair Latta


THE RAIN ARRIVED.

There was no warning, other than the steadily gathering clouds themselves. It was as if someone in heaven had just turned on a faucet and down it came. The rain began to fall in a roaring shower, a torrent that misted when it hit the blacktop and the sidewalks, the drops themselves stinging sharply when they struck exposed skin. Just the same, after the terrible heatwave, any rain was a welcome relief.

Still sitting on a sawhorse, Constable Wilkes didn't even bother to seek cover but just turned his face skyward and let the stinging drops do their worst. At least it served to wake him up. After something like thirty hours manning the barricades, he was well and truly done in.

And it didn't look like he'd be going home any time soon.

The colossus was still swinging its mighty arms. On the many television screens in the shop window, a consensus of opinions had arisen. The thing was a robot. It had to be. Its movements were too mechanical, too repetitive to be the product of a thinking creature. But why, after standing there so long without doing harm, had it suddenly taken it into its Robby-the-Robot head to destroy the two helicopters? After all, the helicopters weren't doing any harm.

Again, there was general agreement among the experts. The robot must have some sort of defensive mechanism, they theorized, triggered when the helicopter flew too near. For all the damage done in that first attack, it was evident the response was purely reflexive. Moreover, the fact that the robot continued to lash out long after the threat was past further indicated that it was following some sort of programming, without a true awareness of its surroundings.

But that was small comfort. Just when everyone had nearly been convinced the robot, whatever its size, was harmless, it had revealed a most violent side, even if that side was acting according some internal programming. If it could react that way just because the helicopters flew too close, what else might it be capable of -- and what harmless action on the part of the good people of Toronto might trigger another violent response? Obviously, there was no way of knowing.

The city's mayor appeared on the news and made just that point to the listening multitudes. He urged them to keep back from the colossus and to avoid loud noises, not to throw bottles at the thing's feet (this apparently having already happened) and, above all, to remain calm. There was no way of knowing what might trigger another response, nor what form that response might take. The best defense was to just be careful.

Wilkes listened to the mayor's speech, then regarded the colossus standing there towering in the pouring rain. Apparently it didn't mind a little wet. It just stood there, rather stupidly, swinging its train-sized arms, back and forth, back and forth, while the downpour sheeted down its gleaming metal chest and limbs. Without helicopters to swat at, the motion seemed more absurd than threatening. Like a blind man hitting at something he couldn't see...

But then, suddenly, looking at the rain-drenched colossus, Wilkes had a strange sense of deja vu. He felt as if that giant figure reminded him of something...but what? Somehow he felt it was very important to remember, but try as he might he couldn't bring it into focus.

Suddenly he felt that the answer was there right in front of him, nearly within reach, if only he could somehow coax it out. He scowled and shook his head, the rain sheeting off the bill of his cap. "What is it?" he muttered to himself. "What the hell does that make me think --?"

And then, quite suddenly, he knew.

Oh, yes, in a flash of breath-stealing inspiration, understanding came to him -- and with it came a numbing wave of shock and indescribable horror. They were wrong, all of them. Not one of the many "experts", all with their learned opinions and insights, with their degrees and doctorates, not a single one of the bloody bunch of them had come even close to guessing the truth. The terrible truth. The horrible truth.

Deep down, he knew it was probably already too late to do anything. But he knew he had to try. Not only because he was a police officer, but because he was the only one who knew. If he didn't warn them, who would?

If he had not been a police officer, if he had simply been part of the mass of gawking humanity filling the city around the feet of the colossus, he would never have gotten through to the mayor. But he was a police officer.

Using the radio in a nearby squad car, he first got through to his chief, who, once he had heard Wilkes out, pulled some strings until, the next thing the constable knew the mayor was asking him: "I understand you think you have some insight into our problem, Constable...uh, White? You think there may be some danger we haven't considered?"

Wilkes wasn't a young man, nor a healthy one. He had barely squeaked through his last physical, and then only because the doctor knew how close he was to retirement. The terrible heat, all the excitement and lack of sleep of the past hours, everything had taken its toll. Now his heart was racing dangerously and there was a slight pain in his chest as he swallowed and spoke into the radio microphone in the cruiser.

"That's right, Mr. Mayor. You see, I was watching that thing, that metal giant, standing there swinging its arms and suddenly I knew it reminded me of something, but I couldn't think what. You know what I'm talking about? It was there, but it wasn't, if you know what I mean."

"Uh, yes, I guess I do. If you could perhaps get to the point..."

"The thing is, then it came to me. The little boy! It was just like that little boy!"

Wilkes paused, but not for dramatic effect. He suddenly found it hard to draw breath. The rain rattled like BBs on the top of the cruiser. It was getting kind of hard to think, too. He swallow tightly, loosening his collar, sweat beading his forehead.

Over the radio, the mayor prodded impatiently. "What little boy? I'm afraid I don't understand you, constable."

"The little boy who kept running through the pigeons. He would flap his arms just like that. You see? You understand what I'm driving at?"

"Uh, no, I'm afraid..."

Suddenly Wilkes was desperate. His voice rose sharply, not only because he was having trouble making himself understood, but also because a new complication had just made itself evident. With all the excitement, the lack of sleep, the heat -- he was having a heart attack.

No! Not now!

It was hard to draw air into his constricted lungs; a metal band was squeezing his chest and there was a terrible pain in his left arm. Oh, yes, this was the big one, he knew. He was about to pop his clogs, for sure. But there wasn't time to worry about that. He had to warn them, had to make them understand.

"The pigeons..." he gasped, one hand spastically clutching his chest, the other barely able to hold the microphone. "The boy...trying to frighten away the pigeons...the robot didn't react to the helicopter...that was why it was sent here...to wave its arms...like the little boy..." He could hardly form the words, his vision blurring. "...aliens as big as that robot...imagine how big it would have to be...have to clear the city...have to tell the people...before it's too late...."

But even as he gasped out those words, there was a flash of light, like a bolt of lightning, which cast dazzlingly through the rain-speckled windshield, momentarily etching the lines and grooves in his pale face. He heard a united exclamation from the crowd surrounding the vehicle and forced his blurring vision around. He saw the one thing he had feared most.

The giant robot was gone.

With his last breath, he shouted into the microphone: "They don't mean any harm...didn't count on our curiosity...we were supposed to be scared...all that arm waving...out of the way...just like the pigeons...just like the damn pigeons..."

And then, with a gasp, he collapsed on the front seat of the cruiser, his sightless eyes staring up through the windshield at the cloudy sky above. On the radio, the mayor was unaware of his passing. "Constable, I don't understand. Pigeons? What are you saying? Constable...Constable..."

And then the mayor too fell silent.

Quite suddenly, a vast oppressive shadow settled over the streets and the towering, many-windowed buildings, over the multitude who stared with upturned faces, with wide disbelieving eyes. The aliens had come. They had finally come at last. But they didn't mean any harm. They just needed a place to land.

And over the entire city of Toronto, the rain had stopped...

The End.

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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!)