When young Zak Corbin tries to build a robot of his own, mostly to get the attention of pretty sophomore Lisabeth Ryan, it leads to an adventure of gigantic proportions. Zak builds one of his uncle’s banned robots and he quickly discovers the machine goes far beyond what ordinary robots can do. A 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest semi-finalist! Cover illustration and character designs by Daryl Toh Liem Zhan (tohdaryl.deviantart.com) and used by license. No other use or copying is permitted except by consent of the artist.
1940. The outskirts of a small town in Tennessee.
They appeared from the forest’s tree line: their articulated limbs swinging, padded feet flattening the soft ground of the grassy meadow. Some were taller than a giraffe, others no larger than a cargo truck, relentless metal figures marching towards an assembled force of soldiers that hid among improvised foxholes or ducked behind hastily-stacked sandbags. Searchlight beams struck metallic chest plates, torsos, limbs, graspers and heads.
The robots had arrived.
Looming behind the soldiers, the red brick walls of a factory seemed to grow out of a clearing in the Tennessee forest. Adorned with high, narrow windows, square chimney stacks and a peaked roof set with panels of translucent glass, the massive building lay in the robots’ path. The Army troops gathered here had been told by their commanding officer, General Maxim, to defend it…
At all costs.
Still the machines came, plodding along the grassy turf, their arms swinging in regular motion. Strange lights blipped from their heads, optical sensors flickering with beams of orange, blue or red. They were undaunted by the sight of soldiers raising their rifles and dropping mortar rounds down the tubes of their positioned weapons.
“Open fire! Fire!”
Hiding behind a makeshift command post near the factory, a radio operator repeated the order into his set and ripped the headphones from his ears to protect them from the onslaught.
Rifles barked, plumes of flame jetted from muzzles as phosphorous tracer rounds reached out to the oncoming automatons. A water-cooled machine gun chattered from a sandbagged nest. Mortar shells brought down a howling rain of steel. Bullets glanced off thick steel plates.
An infantryman took a knee, aimed the long tube of a bazooka and fired. The anti-tank rocket smoked a trail to one stalking robot and exploded on impact. The striding machine fell backwards and crashed in a heap against the trees.
One of two Sherman tanks took aim at a larger robot and fired. The shell passed through the gap between its articulated arms and head and missed. The other tank changed its gun’s trajectory and fired. A robot took the shell in its mid-section. Steel innards peeled outward like a blossoming flower. The robot staggered a few paces and toppled over from its mortal wound. Riflemen ran as the giant came crashing down. Yet another robot appeared from the trees to replace it.
“Hold them!” General Maxim shouted to his men from the command post, waving a chrome-covered automatic pistol in his hand. “Hold them at the factory!”
Positioned by the General and the radio operator, a young Army captain named Sidney Dexter half-crouched behind a thick metal door that had been scrounged from the factory and affixed to the front of the command post.
Watching more as an observer rather than as a participant, young Captain Sidney Dexter shook his head with a sense of unease. The man who designed and controlled these robots was no ordinary man. Doctor Elias Corbin was a legend in the pantheon of science. His robots were capable of complex actions, could act and react to nearly any obstacle put in front of them, and seemed capable of rational thought. No other robot designer or competitor’s model even came close. Corbin’s work had been studied, copied and revered. Dexter was among those who were fascinated by the man.
But the young Captain knew matters had changed. War had broken out across Europe. The United States stood on the brink, wondering if it too would be dragged into global conflict as in other countries. So America called upon its vast trove of brilliant minds and scientists to prepare for the inevitable conflict. Dr. Corbin had been summoned too, but Dexter was aware the doctor had wanted his robots to benefit mankind, not render harm to it.
Dexter had come between many heated arguments between Corbin and his military minders, especially General Maxim. Then came a horrifying accident that deeply affected Corbin. The doctor withdrew from the cabal of scientists and public life. When Corbin learned that his work had been appropriated (the word stolen came to Dexter’s mind), the doctor reacted by launching this astounding attack against the factory and what lay inside.
The General’s decision to fight off Corbin’s army of robots was, in Captain Dexter’s opinion, the worst idea in the history of really bad ideas. It was absurd, putting all of these soldiers’ lives at risk just to protect a factory. How he wished it had not come to this!
The General surveyed the battle and growled.
“That Corbin’s a lunatic, I tell you!”
“He’s angry, General Maxim. He’s lost everything!” Dexter shouted back.
“What are you, a head doctor now? Like I need you to tell me that he’s gone insane!”
“He’s not insane, sir. He’s lashing out! This proves he won’t stop until he gets his way!”
“Attacking our soldiers on American soil proves only one thing, Captain Dexter!” Maxim pointed at the machines striding towards them. “Corbin is a traitor!”
Dexter covered his ears as one of the tanks fired again. Regardless of the man who controlled these machines, one thing was certain.
“We can’t stop them, sir!”
“To hell we can’t!”
Dexter didn’t want to say it out loud, but the General might just get his wish. Smaller, faster robots were cutting across the battle lines. The soldiers had no choice but to abandon their positions and flee to avoid being stepped on. Despite the impressive display of firepower, it was clear to Dexter that the humans and their weapons were no match for the machines. Bullets and grenades were useless against them. One robot had ingeniously picked up a wayward Jeep and held it over its head, using it as a shield against mortar rounds.
Two smaller machines and one of the giants engaged a tank, all three working in unison to shove against it until it rolled over like a wounded rhino. Another set of robots lunged for the other tank’s cannon and bent it upwards at the tip. The crew popped out of the hatches and ran for their lives.
Maxim took it upon himself to rally his troops. He left the protection of the command post and ran forward, firing his pistol uselessly as the metal men closed.
“Stand with me, men! Stand with me!”
Dexter tried to warn him off. “All the robots want is the factory! It’s not worth saving! Pull your men out!”
The General was not listening. Dexter helplessly watched as lines of troops fell back to the factory’s walls, weapons blazing. They were unable to hold back the mechanical tide. Several of the machines reached the factory’s wall and battered against the brick and masonry with claws and heavy limbs.
Compelled to do something to bring this madness to an end, Dexter seized the portable radio set. He stared at the radio operator who was still fearfully crouched in one corner of the hut.
“Get the hell out of here!”
Captain Dexter sprinted away from the building and nearly ran into a squad of men led by a grim-faced Sergeant named Murray. The squad came from one of the flanking positions and were running over to support the last stand at the factory.
“Captain? Where are you going? Battle’s this way!”
“Murray, grab two of your men and come with me! You drive!” Captain Dexter pointed at the General’s own Willys Jeep, parked in the field with several other Army trucks. Sergeant Murray and one soldier climbed in the front seats while Dexter handed the radio box to the third soldier in the back. He spun the box’s hand crank to build up a charge and laid one cup of the headset against his ear.
“Where to?” Sergeant Murray shouted as a robotic giant destroyed one of the searchlight trucks with a swipe of its immense arm. Twisted wreckage and glass shards flew over their heads. It was too dangerous even to just stand and watch.
“Away from here! Just go!”
Dexter and the soldier holding the radio looked behind. The spectacle was frightening. Factory walls collapsed as the robots smashed their way inside. Sporadic bright bursts of gunfire appeared through the factory’s translucent windows. There was nothing Dexter could do to stop the General from his glorious last stand.
As they drove away, Captain Dexter spun the radio’s dials, searching for the distinct carrier signal. It was the only way he knew so many robots could be controlled at once. The jeep bounced along the dark night road, tossing its occupants in their seats as the Sergeant frantically drove where Dexter directed him. One road intersected with another and then another, leading them farther away from the factory.
He finally came across a familiar sound. There! His fingers twisted the knob as a familiar ‘beep-beep-beep-beep’ came over the headphone speakers. He guided Sergeant Murray north. Then he told him to circle west. The signal grew fainter, then stronger.
“Over there! A house…” the Sergeant pointed. There was a simple farmhouse perched along a dirt road. A warm yellow light came from the windows.
The jeep slammed to a halt. Dexter made a motion for them to be quiet. The same carrier signal he heard over the radio’s headphones was coming, faintly, from a portable shortwave antenna mounted to the awning of the house. He had found him.
Dexter climbed down and motioned to Sergeant Murray and the others to remain in the jeep.
“Stay here. I’m going inside to talk to him.”
The Sergeant looked at Captain Dexter as if he was crazy. “Talk to him? What the hell about? The weather? The damn Yankees?”
“If I talk some sense into him, I can put a stop to this.” Seeing the Sergeant didn’t think very highly of his plan, Dexter conceded. “Fine. If I don’t come out in ten minutes, take the house. Just don’t shoot for God’s sake!”
Just to be on the safe side, Dexter made sure the automatic pistol he carried was still inside its holster. He quietly moved towards the cabin.
The structure was raised off the ground, making it difficult for him to look inside any of the windows. He gently stepped up the porch to reach the front door, grimacing at every creak. As he climbed the stairs, he saw a figure through the front door screen. A man was seated before a portable metal cabinet. The man’s gaze was fixed firmly on several flickering screens, dials and switches. The carrier signal Dexter had detected earlier could be clearly overheard now, a series of continuous beeps.
Dexter took hold of the screen door’s handle, took a deep breath, and stepped inside.
“Doctor Corbin! Please! Stop this attack at once!”
His hopes to startle the doctor into submission failed. Doctor Elias Corbin did not even look up from the control panel where he was working. A proud man with a hawk-like nose, thin lips and receding hairline, he merely spoke an affirmation noting Dexter’s appearance.
“Good of you to join us, Captain Dexter.”
Articulated metal arms wrapped themselves tightly around Dexter’s arms and body. Dexter grunted and twisted to get free, but was held fast. He should have known that the doctor would have kept a robot behind as a guard!
“Were you expecting a different greeting, perhaps?” As if he was watching a televised wrestling match or a football game on video-vision, Doctor Corbin took a drink from a water glass as the battle raged on the screens. He returned the glass near a pitcher perched on top of the control panel’s cabinet.
Unable to move, Captain Dexter’s eyes flicked to the image screens. Transmitting from their optical viewers, Doctor Corbin’s mechanized army was smashing everything inside the factory. The soldiers trapped there were victims of circumstance, caught between the robots and the source of the doctor’s fury: military versions of Elias Corbin’s own machines.
Knowing the robot that held him would do nothing but keep him in place, Dexter insisted on speaking.
“You’ve made your point. End this before any more men get hurt!”
“How can I possibly end it?” Doctor Corbin snarled, pushing switches and sending commands with the press of a button. “It was they who started it! The generals and the senators! Look at what they’ve done to my life’s work!” He waved a pale hand at the screens. A thin locket on a delicate chain swung between his fingers. “Look at what they did to me! To her!”
A tremendous sense of grief filled the doctor’s face. Flushed with anger, he turned away.
“Doctor. Please. Stop it!” But on the flickering screens, it was too late. A massive overhead hoist, damaged by some ricocheting blast, collapsed from the roof and crashed down upon several soldiers. “You’re killing them! Don’t you see? By your actions, your robots are killing!”
Corbin stared up at the screens, his face a ghastly shade of pale, his eyes glazed over in pain. He held up the locket in his hand and brought it to his lips.
“They took her from me. They sentenced those soldiers to die. All the world will suffer because of men like them. This is the road to war … and death!”
Unable to break free from the robot’s grip, Captain Dexter let his hands fall to his sides. Precious minutes were ticking by. Sergeant Murray and the soldiers outside would be quick to turn their guns on Doctor Corbin to get him to stop. Dexter struggled against the robot’s secure grip. There had to be something he could do!
The gun! Still in its holster, Dexter fought and wiggled his fingers until he was able to pull the pistol out.
Doctor Corbin watched him where he sat, almost bemused. He touched a few levers and pressed a few more buttons. His robots would raze the factory, and anyone still trapped inside, to the ground.
“What are you going to do, Captain? Shoot me?”
Dexter flicked his wrist, flinging the heavy pistol upwards. It landed high on top of the control cabinet and bumped the full water pitcher. The pitcher toppled over, releasing a waterfall across the electrical board and the controls. Aghast, Doctor Corbin vaulted backwards from his chair as a series of powerful arcs destroyed the panel. The glass in the image screens cracked and exploded.
The robot holding Dexter dropped its arms. Lunging forward, Dexter grabbed Doctor Corbin by the arm and yanked him away from the dying control panel before he was electrocuted. Smoke billowed from the panel’s top. Corbin did not resist the young captain. Instead, he fell to his knees on the cabin floor.
Corbin slipped to the floor, driven downward by the weight of his deeds. Sounds of weeping filled the room.
Sergeant Murray and his men burst inside the cabin. Dexter waved at them to lower their weapons.
“Stand down, Sarge. The doctor is finished for the evening.”
Two of the soldiers surrounded Doctor Corbin and hoisted him to his feet. His head hung low, they dragged him out of the cabin. The Sergeant lifted the steel helmet off his head, tired and puzzled.
“I don’t get it. What the blazes was this all about, Captain?”
Captain Dexter reached down and found the silver locket Doctor Corbin had dropped to the floor. He let it swing from his fingers in a familiar way. Some of the privates started muttering amongst themselves. Already it had begun. Doctor Corbin would be branded a monster.
“There’s more to it than any of you know,” Dexter remarked as the silver locket swung back and forth.
“…More than any man should have to bear.”
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