The first time i saw the machines, i nearly laughed out loud. Here were these walking tin cans with TV aerials sprouting from their heads, lumbering down the street like a men in big metal suits. They each had two corrugated dryer-hose arms that bowed out into black brackets, ending in clawed “hands” that must have been salvaged from old crane games — the ones where you’d pay a quarter to winch up a stuffed unicorn or a squirtgun. They teetered along on unsteady legs, swaying back and forth and looking every bit like the cover of a 1950’s comic, their angry red lightbulb eyes blinking indignantly. i was just about to blurt out a big belly laugh when one of them scooped up that girl who works at the corner store, twisted her body as though it were wringing out a wet towel, and flung her ragdoll body aside where it smeared sickeningly along the pavement. It was very clear to me at that point that i was in a bad science fiction story.
You never really know just what to do when ridiculous-looking machines appear out of nowhere and start popping peoples’ bones like fresh pretzels. You go into shock. The store cashier had been snuffed out so fast; her ribcage had been crunched like a walnut shell. And moments earlier, she had been walking by on her way to work completely ignoring them. She probably thought they were on their way to a comic book convention or a parade or something. She didn’t see it coming. And i have to admit, if the machines had looked at all fierce or threatening, i would have done what any other doomsday scenario participant would have done – shrieked like a schoolgirl and run like hell. But these machines – they looked so … so stupid-looking. They weren’t shiny or streamlined or svelt or anything. They were a five-year-old’s vision of how a scary robot should look, and as such, they were just laughable. But laughable or not, one of them had just finished stomping on a small dog, leaving a furry smudge in the middle of the road that moments before had been happily yipping and woofing. Ridiculous as they looked, i decided to run.
But in truth it was more of a leisurely jog that carried me back up the street toward my apartment, because i kept slowing down to look behind me, stifling a giggle as the three goofy machines waddled along towards looking for prey. It was still early in the morning – the sun was just rising – so thankfully, there were very few people out on the street. But those who were out were just now becoming aware of the spectacle; in particular, the man who had owned the dog before it had become foot fodder for the machines. It was clear that he, too, must have imagined them to be men in costume, so he was understandably livid as he charged toward them furiously gripping a limp leash. i was about to shout out a warning like “lookout – they’re killer robots from outer space,” but the moment i thought of it i got the giggles because it was such a cliché line, and it suited the situation too well. i had no idea whether the machines were from outer space or not, or even if they were robots – they could have been sinister wind-up toys for all i knew, but the point was that they looked like killer robots from outer space. A series of flashbacks to black and white movies i’d never seen before flooded my brain – movies about monster alien pods and super gamma crystals and spaceship tractor beams and whoops …. the machines had just eaten the dog owner’s head.
Please don’t get me wrong – it was a terrible sight to behold. When you see something like that happen, when you see an apparently evil machine open its metal mouth and tear a man’s head from his shoulders, something in your mind shifts – that memory becomes silhouetted in your brain and it plays back again and again, backwards and forwards, until you can’t close your eyes without seeing it, without hearing the horrible shredding sound of muscle and sinew wetly ripping apart from crackling bone … without watching that same cruel machine drop the lifeless body on the street and soullessly, mercilessly, march on. And then you see one of the other machines aim a hilarious-looking ray gun at the carcass and zap it into a pile of smoldering green ashes, which is really pretty funny, so you kind of forget about all the other stuff.
i mean, this ray gun! Picture every plastic prop ray gun you’ve ever seen in late-night sci-fi TV shows and you can imagine what these machines were packing. They were like painted megaphones with little lights glued to them. They looked like you’d wanna scan UPC codes with them. They clearly weren’t very dangerous at all, except for the fact that one of them had just zapped out a bright green beam and had charred a man’s body to a small crispy heap of dust. Again, i wanted to run, but my brain was getting mixed signals. On one hand, i had just witnessed these harbingers of the apocalypse dole out unprejudiced punishment to three innocent passers-by. On the other hand, they looked so damned cuddly on those stubby little legs of theirs. Still, this was obviously an appropriate time to panic, and so despite any amusement these machines may have afforded me, i turned away from them at last and broke into a run.
But before i had sprinted three feet, i heard a very small voice behind me cry out. It was a little girl from up the street. i didn’t know her name, nor did i know her parents, but i could easily see they weren’t around; the street was deserted except for me, the little girl, and three ruthless but whimsical killing machines. By now, the novelty had worn off and i had the presence of mind to call out to her “hey little girl! Get away from those machines! Run!!” She didn’t seem to hear me, tho. She kept on staring at the machines, which were slowly bumbling towards her. Her eyes gaped as she stood, fixated, apparently oblivious to the hamfisted kitchiness of the machines, all those obvious elements of retro cheese lost on her. All she saw was a trio of scary robots, the kind of scary robots she had drawn on a piece of blue construction paper just yesterday in kindergarten.
What she did not see, until the last second, was one of the machines leveling its ray gun at her tiny freckled face. My heart leapt in my throat and everything played out in slow motion. i must have yelled “look out!” as she suddenly realized the danger, and i broke into a run towards her with a mind to push her out of the way. But moments before i leaped in the air, she tilted her head back, held her arms up in front of her face and screamed this B-movie pulp horror flick scream, straight out of Drive-In film-making 101. My heroic act was nearly sabotaged as my mind giggled “now THAT’S classic.” But this was no movie – no, this was serious. And if she had stopped screaming like that, i wouldn’t have overshot my leap and collided with her so hard.
No matter – i had body-slammed the little girl out of the way just in time; the green laser beam tore through the air and melted a hole in the road right where she had been standing. (And in case you were wondering, yes it did make that standard high-pitched whirring sound.) The little girl stopped screaming, thank goodness – most likely because i had knocked the wind out of her. She was pinned between me and the earth (PLANET Earth, my mind spoke, in a bassy aside), and she may have chipped a tooth, but i was in no position to help her now. The machines, apparently angered, were chattering to each other in a series of – what else? – bloops and beeps. Had i just seen them for the first time, i would have chuckled a bit at the way their bendy arms flopped around as they “spoke,” as though controlled by a puppeteer with a shaky grip on their strings. But now i was a seasoned veteran of their uproarious ways, and i set my sights on one of their phony-looking ray guns.
Steeling my will for the task at hand, i vaulted from my spot on the ground and lunged toward the leftmost machine, hands thrown out in front of me in hopes of grasping the robot’s gun. But i underestimated these fiends; while they looked as though they were cobbled together from a couple of Mechano sets, they were quick enough on the draw to catch me at my game. My target machine suddenly reared up and grabbed me by my forearm, its metal grip already forcing blood into my hand and causing my arm bones to squeak with the strain. For perhaps the first time that morning, the danger was all too clear. This thing was going to pop me like packing bubbles and scorch my body to a mound of green tea.
Against all reasoning, i threw all my weight against the evil machine, swinging on its corrugated arm and twisting its torso backwards as i struggled to get behind the beastly thing, and as i did a jarringly dorky sound issued from one of the other machines. i was turned the wrong way but could nevertheless picture the neon green beam pulsing out of another robot’s ray gun and pelting my assailant in the armpit. A sickening tremor rocked my robot’s arm as its body dissolved into dust, leaving the one whole arm intact; as it did, its vice-like grip on my forearm relaxed, and the machine’s dryer-hose arm flopped to the ground.
Without even thinking i spun on my heel, knowing that the remaining two robots’ ridiculous ray guns were aimed at my head. The disintegrated machine’s weapon lay past a pile of green dust, and i sprang for it. i don’t know what possessed me – maybe the adrenaline, maybe the heat of the moment … maybe the latent memories of the ten o’clock monster movies i may have watched as a kid – but i somersaulted toward the ray gun, as two more death beams shot out behind me. Grabbing the gun in mid-roll, i fell back onto my haunches and pulled the over-sized trigger. The kickback blew me into the nearby hedge as my beam whirred across the street and found its mark – a bullseye, straight into the aluminum chest of the second machine. It sizzled and sprinkled into a tidy pile of dust on the pavement.
Somehow, the remaining robot couldn’t see me through the hedge. i watched it turn from one green pile to the other before throwing up its arms and wiggling around, bleeping and blooping as if to say “does not compute! Does not compute!” How hackneyed! i stifled a laugh and cocked the ray gun, taking aim at its chest from the relative safety of the hedge. i was about to fire, but then a funny thought struck me.
The final robot had spun around, desperate to have revenge on someone – anyone – to avenge the death of its comrades. Its only possible victim was the little girl i had knocked flat a few feet away. No matter – i had a clear shot. i could easily have pulled the trigger and sent the last robot packing. But instead of taking that cowardly, sure-thing shot from the bushes, i picked myself up out of the hedge and calmly brushed off my pants.
As the menacing killer robot ambled towards the recovering little girl, i slowly raised my arm straight out to shoulder level and cleared my throat. The machine turned around to face me and i pointed the gun between the glowing red lights in its head. Then i said in a cool, collected voice, “hey killer robot? Ever consider laser eye surgery?” i fired.
Almost instantly, the last of the machines fizzled away into a heap of green ash. As i struck a heroic pose, i spun the ray gun around my trigger finger and blew the smoke off its steaming barrel.
Why? Because it felt like the perfect thing to do at the time. And let’s face it – given the chance, you’d have done the same.