THE STORY SO FAR:
Braggadocio between American and Japanese robotics engineers on social media escalates to a real-world, multi million dollar face-off. Backed by corporate donors, each team begins building a gigantic robot to compete in a fighting match to the “death” in Las Vegas, Nevada. The winning team will take home bragging rights and a massive purse for the charities of their choosing.
A driven young woman, Lumin Mira, is sent to a secluded location in the southern Oregon desert to manage the American team’s stable of talented but erratic engineers. Her team toils under a tight deadline to design and build their robot using limited resources.
When the Americans lose their financial backers, an eccentric billionaire named Eldridge Roundstone steps in and restores full funding–with the strange stipulation that Lumin pilot the robot herself. Despite Eldridge’s quirks, Lumin finds herself drawn to his charms and their partnership becomes more than professional.
Lumin’s team endures various setbacks, including a disastrous test run of their robot–dubbed “Biz”–and a traitorous engineer who has given designs of their most powerful weapon to an already dominant Japanese team. To ease international tensions, the Americans have agreed to give the Japanese a tour of their facility alongside members of the press.
The entire American Robotics Team (Unofficially known as the “Shuffle Pigs”) lined up beneath a large, event-style tent to await the arrival of the Japanese team, en-route from Kyoto. 22 members of the international press were lined up behind a nearby barrier with cameras and microphones at the ready.
Spotswood pulled at his collar and pushed his fingers through the sides of his pompadour. “Goddamn it’s hot today. They better hurry up, I’m sweating through my Brylcreem.”
“Feh, typical office drones,” said Samuel, shaking his head in disgust. “At least there’s fresh air out here, you should try working in that damn hanger on a day like this.”
Finally, the Kyoto Team’s jet roared overhead and touched down to the landing strip. Stifled laughs and nervous murmuring began as soon as the plane’s hatch opened. Camera snaps began echoing over the desert.
“Is that a cow?” asked Skip.
“Don’t be stupid, that’s a…yup, that’s a cow,” replied Lumin, tilting her head.
A man wearing an all-white jumpsuit led a magnificent black bovine down the plane’s ramp by a braided rope. He brought the beast to the edge of the tent then bowed to the row of engineers. The cow let out a guttural grunt.
The cameras clacked like machine guns. Reporters weilding mics crushed forward against their corral to get a soundbite from the cow.
Lumin returned a bow to the man in white while the rest of the team stared. “Welcome to our–”
“No no,” said the man waving his hand with a big smile. He tapped his watch and made a wrrrrrrrrr sound while waving his hand through the air.
“So, their team consists of one old man doing charades and a cow? We’re doomed.” whispered Skip into Lumin’s ear.
“Shut up!” Lumin whispered back. After pushing Skip away she smiled awkwardly at the man. “I’m sorry, who are you?”
“Miss Mira,” interrupted a young journalist, leaning over the rope. “Do you think the Japanese sent a cow in their stead as some kind of an insult?”
“Um, no comment,” said Lumin, “at the moment, I mean.” She flashed another fake smile.
Seconds later a sudden gust of air rippled over the tent, announcing the arrival of another Learjet. Lumin let out a sigh as the plane landed. “Alright everyone, shape up!” she called to her crew. The jet taxied to a stop near the tent and slowly lowered its ramp.
Kengi Sato was the first to emerge from the plane’s cabin, defying the bland desert landscape in his black crushed velvet suit accented with a blood-red pocket square. His shining Oxfords were dusty by the time he reached the tent. He removed his sunglasses and bowed to Lumin amidst a blaze of camera flashes.
Lumin bowed along with Sato and shook his hand. “Sato-san, I’m honored to finally meet you.”
“Miss Mira, the pleasure is mine,” said Sato.
Katerina audibly swooned and Yasamin elbowed her gently.
A large man in a tweed blazer and magenta t-shirt came out of the plane next, patting sweat off his shining head with a polka-dot handkerchief.
“Hey, that’s um…their armor engineer, right?” asked Spotswood, excitedly.
“Yeah. Kanazawa Saburou,” whispered Richard. “A real hard-ass.”
Kanazawa stayed a few yards behind Sato. He crossed his arms, waiting patiently for a formal introduction. Behind him, three women stepped out of the plane and descended the ramp.
Dezzie leaned to Skip. “The Dokujima triplets,” she whispered.
The three sisters huddled together under a large parasol as they strode forth in unison. Each woman wore a black, thigh-high dress with matching black patent pumps and Ray-Ban sunglasses–only their hair styles differentiated them from one another. A switch on their shared tangerine umbrella extended a long pike from the bottom of the cane into the hard ground, keeping it upright. The triplets took their place beside Kanazawa and stood solid as statues in the shade.
“So awesome,” muttered Dezzie. The journalists were murmuring loudly.
“Here comes the real rockstar,” said Katerina, leaning over to Richard.
Richard swallowed a mouthful of Cheetos then squinted into the distance. “Who?”
Lagging behind the rest of his team was the man simply known as Hayashi. He unbuttoned the jacket of his cream colored linen suit so the wind could catch it dramatically. After leaning on the ramp’s railing he slid down its length all the way to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust with his snake skin boots as he landed. He paused for a moment to run a comb through his slick, black hair then traipsed lackadaisically to the welcoming line.
“Playing it up for the cameras. What a ham,” sputtered Skip.
Seemingly more interested in the Japanese team than the American crew, the reporters inundated Sato’s engineers with a storm of questions but were roundly ignored.
Finally, Sato waved at the cameras and addressed the rabble. “We will answer your questions during the press conference. Please be patient.” He looked into the horizon then redirected his attention to Lumin. “This place is inhospitable yet unsullied. In this vast emptiness one may trod upon soil never touched by humanity. This is an unfamiliar notion in most of Japan.”
“That has to be the nicest way anyone’s ever described a wasteland,” said Lumin.
Sato chuckled. “I’m pleased you do not wish our visit to be overly formal. But how could it be? After all, there’s a cow staring at us just a few feet away.” The journalists laughed obnoxiously.
Lumin looked over and watched the cow swish its tail a few times. “I was going to ask you about that.”
“This cow is my gift to you and your team. It comes from an exceptionally small herd; bred and raised with utmost care in the Kyoto Prefecture. Kyoto Niku is the finest beef in Japan, even sweeter and richer than Kobe. This animal’s lineage can be traced back several generations.”
God, if any of those clowns are vegetarians they better keep their mouths shut, thought Lumin. “Sato-san, this is an incredible gesture. Thank you.”
Sato greeted the old man in white–the cow’s tender–who gave a small bow in return. Sato returned his attention to Lumin. “This is Ryuga Hiro. He is not an engineer. I brought Ryuga-sama to expertly butcher this animal for you. Afterwards, my personal chef, Soshi Eita, will prepare a gourmet meal for us. The remainder of the Kyoto Niku will be packaged to your specifications. Is there an appropriate facility nearby for Ryuga-sama to begin the slaughter?”
Don’t look it in the eye, thought Lumin, turning away from the cow. “Uh, of course! This is rural Oregon, after all. The factory has a fully-stocked kitchen for your chef.”
“Very good,” said Sato.
“Skip, take Ryuga-san with you. Let’s put the cow in the hanger for the time being,” said Lumin. “Wait…first though, pull that cord.”
“Gotcha, Boss.” Skip squinted through blinding flashes and pulled a rope, dropping the veil on the American’s gift to the Japanese. The stone faces of the Japanese engineers seemed to soften slightly, especially Kanazawa, who smiled ear to ear.
Lumin cleared her throat and recited the words she had been repeating over and over in her mind. “Sato-san, please except this chainsaw rendering carved from local Douglas fir trees. It depicts Osamu Tezuka standing alongside his creation, Tetsuwan Atomu–better known as Astro Boy in the states. Tezuka inspired many children to chase their dreams. This sculpture was created by our very own Katerina Andriano especially for you and your team.”
Sato smiled and bowed toward Katerina, making her blush. “Expertly crafted, Miss Andriano. Such a thoughtful gift.”
“Man, I wanted that. I love Astro Boy,” said Skip to Ryuga, who smiled and shrugged in response.
Lumin glared at Skip and pointed toward the hanger.
“Alright, come with me, Sir,” said Skip, putting his hand on Ryuga’s shoulder. The cow mooed loudly as the old man tugged it along.
“This statue will find a home in the commons area of our complex,” said Sato.
“Forgive my rudeness, but your English is surprisingly good,” said Lumin.
“Hmm. Yes. Familiarity with the English language is a necessity for International business. All of my engineers are proficient in English. The Austrian telecast may have left you with a false impression.”
“I suppose,” said Lumin. Her hands felt clammy.
“My German is lacking so I chose spoke in my native language for the interview and instructed my people to do the same.”
“Of course,” said Lumin.
Sato and Lumin introduced the two teams to each other. After a flurry of handshakes and bows the teams retreated to the air conditioning of the factory’s atrium to suffer through a press event. The journalists asked a flurry of questions at the conference, including several proving cringe-worthy:
Will your robots transform?
Do the machines think for themselves and do you worry they’ll turn on their masters?
Would either of your robots win against Godzilla?
The journalists quickly became discouraged. The American team’s responses were brief and boring–just as Lumin had instructed–and the Japanese answers were similarly vague. The press conference concluded with a “weigh-off” style photo opportunity. Menacing looks were exchanged between opposing team members, who were encouraged to hold RC controllers and toy robots in their hands. When the event concluded, only a small crew affiliated with a major cable channel remained, having prearranged to follow Lumin and Sato through a tour of the factory and hanger.
After a mishmashed snack of Kyoto-style bento and American hoagies the engineers broke away into smaller groups to begin private tours.
Richard felt liberated after escaping the scrutiny of the press. He led Kanazawa to his office. “Follow me, I have something you might like.”
“You said this building was refurbished? It has a dark and foreboding feeling. I enjoy it.”
“You think it’s dank out here, wait until you see my office,” said Richard with a laugh as he opened his door. The two men went inside. Richard sat down behind his desk and opened a drawer. “Yeah, this place is strange. It was originally a can opener factory, then a military depot, now it’s a nerd sanctuary–it’s no place for a nuclear physicist. Here, this will take the edge off your jet lag.”
Kanazawa raised an eyebrow. “What are you offering?”
Richard poured some whiskey into an old dixie cup for himself then handed the bottle to Kanazawa. “This is real Kentucky bourbon…the best you’ll ever drink. Gold standard. Good shit.”
Kanazawa laughed and took a swig from the bottle. He coughed and nodded. “Good shit! You know, maybe America isn’t all bad.”
“Keep the bottle, it’s yours,” said Richard. He popped a fun-size candy bar in his mouth and tilted his head to look at Kanazawa’s shirt. “What’s up with ‘Gold Swamp?'”
Kanazawa took another pull of bourbon. “It is how my name translates into English. I am very proud of my strange name. I’ve ‘owned it’ as you say here.”
“I like you, Kanazawa-san…you’re as messed up as the rest of us.” Richard toasted his paper cup of bourbon against Kanazawa’s bottle. “To…whatever.”
“Yes, whatever…kanpai!” said Kanazawa, taking another swig.
Dezzie took it upon herself to show the Dokujima triplets around the pre-approved areas of the factory. The media was intrigued by the women but Lumin wouldn’t allow them to tag along, fearing Dezzie’s unpredictable nature.
The triplets tromped along behind Dezzie, through the atrium, the cafeteria, and the breezeway outside the cleanroom before abruptly stopping in their tracks.
“Everything alright?” asked Dezzie, turning around.
“We were told we’d see a dog,” said Miu.
“Yes, we like dogs,” said Ako.
Kokone said nothing. All three sisters shared the same apathetic expression.
“Oh, you mean Buttercup? He’s in my office! Lumin said I had to keep him locked up but come on…no one will find out,” said Dezzie, with a wink.
The triplets followed Dezzie to her office, featuring a brand new door with a freshly scratched pentagram. “Don’t mind the decor, I’m a bit of Satanist…it’s not for everyone.”
“We are atheists,” said Miu, looking around the office in tandem with her sisters.
Buttercup ran up and jumped into the arms of Ako and started licking her. The woman’s solid face cracked and she began to giggle. The other two sisters held a hand over their mouth and giggled as well.
“Wow, you guys are weird. I love it,” said Dezzie, marveling. “Buttercup sure likes you.”
After a few more licks Ako sat the dog on the ground. The sisters’ expressions returned to frozen indifference. “We know you are the designer of your robot’s weapon systems. We demand to see all of your schematics.”
Dezzie smiled and shook her head. “Well, I admire your bluntness, but no-can-do. Sorry.”
The triplets looked toward the floor and pouted. “Saddening,” said Miu.
Dezzie walked up quickly and put her hand on Miu’s shoulder. “Oh, hey, don’t be like that! Tell you what…you tell me about your deadliest rejected weapon design, and I’ll tell you about mine. I’m sure we both have plenty to choose from.”
The triplets cracked a smile and looked at each other. They huddled closer and whispered in each others ears.
“Alright,” said Kokone, breaking away. “We’ve agreed to share.” Buttercup curled up next to her foot and fell asleep.
Dezzie grabbed a long, black document tube next to her desk and shook the rolled contents out to the floor. “All of these were stamped ‘NO’ by the boss-lady,” she said as she shuffled through her rejected drawings. “A-ha, here’s the one I was looking for.” She smoothed a schematic over her desk and used squirrel skull candles to hold down the corners of the paper. “This design was immediately poo-pooed. I called it Cupid’s Trick: a rocket-propelled, titanium rod tipped with uranium. It’s capable of puncturing four inches of solid steel. The launcher’s targeting system is guided by an infrared temperature array. Once the IR sensors detect the heat signature of a human heart the harpoon fires, piercing directly through the opposing pilot’s chest.”
“How deadly…and romantic,” said Miu. The other sisters nodded in agreement.
“Oh come on, you’ll make me blush!” said Dezzie, rocking on her heels. “So, what do you have?”
Ako took a step forward. “We designed a pair of shoulder mounted, super-cooled chain guns that fired .50 caliber projectiles with an osmium core–the world’s densest metal–at 6,000 rounds per minute.”
“Sweet Lucifer,” said Dezzie, wide-eyed. “The ballistic impact must have been extraordinary!”
“It would have obliterated anything in it’s path. Unfortunately, the cost of the ammunition alone would have exceeded a billion Yen.”
“Impressive. Give me one more–something more exotic.”
The sisters looked at each other again. Ako leaned to Miu and whispered into her ear.
“Very well,” said Miu. “Sato-san also rejected our designs for the Adaptive Acid Bombardment System, or, A.A.B.S. The system fires a rocket propelled grenade carrying a viscous fluid payload of nanomachines at the intended target. After impact, the nanomachines within the liquid spread out to detect the surface composition of the target’s covering to determine if it’s metallic, plastic, organic or a composite. After verification, the nanobots anchor in place and send a radio pulse back to the weapon system, which locks on to the signals and fires a second-stage array of small missiles. Each of the incoming projectiles contain the appropriate superacid needed to dissolve the armor, or flesh, of the target–although fluoroantimonic acid proves sufficient in most scenarios.”
Dezzie grinned and stared at the sisters in admiration. “Brutal. We may be soul mates.”
All three sisters smiled. They shared a silent moment with Dezzie more intense than any words could convey.
“Forgive my boldness but would you allow me to share a drop of my blood with each of you? I would be honored if you would become my blood-sisters,” said Dezzie, bowing. She eagerly pulled out a ceremonial knife she had ordered from the internet out of her top desk drawer.
The sisters whispered once more and held out their fingers. “Yes. Welcome to our family, sister,” they said in unison.
Lumin, Katerina, Yasamin and Samuel were leading Kengi Sato through a tour of the more vanilla areas of the hanger. They were followed by a three-person camera crew from a 24 hour news network. Spotswood and Hayashi lingered a few steps behind the pack, both of them similarly disinterested.
“Sato is always striving for simplicity, but it appears to come naturally to your group. You are all simple minded fools,” said Hayashi with a sneer. “Your facilities are antiquated and so are your engineering skills.”
“Maybe that’s what we want you to think,” said Spotswood.
“Is that so?” Hayashi ran his fingers over a large model of an actuator on a pedestal, then pushed it to the floor where it shattered to pieces. “Your team is bold to put such failures on display.”
Spotswood shook his head. “Not cool.”
“How can you work in such squalor? I’ve seen better conditions in coal factories. Your ceiling is stained with leaks, your tiles are cracked, your walls are faded–embarrassing.”
“We value results over aesthetics,” said Spotswood, sliding his foot over a crack in one of the checkerboard floor tiles.
“Both are vital to success,” growled Hayashi. “Tell me, what kind of car do you drive?”
“A souped-up, jet black, 57 Chevy Bel Air. I restored it myself.”
“Prehistoric. I have a Ferrari 488GTB . Cutting edge.”
Spotswood rolled his eyes.
“How many bedrooms are in your mansion?” asked Hayashi.
“A one-bedroom condo is all I need. We came to the desert to build a robot, not to chase fame or accumulate a bunch of bullshit status symbols.”
Hayashi spit on the floor. “You are a dog. I am a man. You are not worthy to look in my eyes.”
Spotswood made sure no cameras were watching. He moved uncomfortably close to Hayashi and stared down at him. “Is that right?”
“Show me you are a man. Fight me, right now!” said Hayashi with a smile. He jumped backwards and raised his fists.
“I guess this is happening,” said Spotswood, as he began shuffling in an awkward circle with Hayashi, who was at least six inches shorter than him.
The rest of the tour had wandered a considerable distance away from Spotswood and Hayashi, unaware of their confilict as they moseyed through the hanger. The press seemed to be getting restless.
Lumin had just finished showing Sato some long-abandoned prototypes of robotic armatures. She found the constant attention of the media exhausting. “I know this tour has been fairly boring, but I’m sure you understand our concerns, Sato-san,” she said, feeling embarrassed about deflecting so many of his questions.
“As pleasant as this visit has been I realize we are still competitors. I am not bored…I am in awe of how you’ve re-purposed an aging factory and military hanger to meet your needs. Quite inspiring.”
“Again, you’re too kind,” said Lumin. “Next, why don’t we–”
“Spotswood? What the hell. Are you bleeding?”
The camera crew flipped on a dime and started filming Spotswood as he stumbled over to Lumin. “Now we’re talking!” said the man behind the video camera.
Spotswood fell to his knees in front of Lumin, panting, and held up his phone. “You’re…not…answering…your phone!”
“What the hell is going on?” blurted Katerina.
Yasamin crossed her arms and clamped her eyes shut. “Wonderful.”
Hayashi ambled up a few seconds later. He lowered to Spotswood and put his arm around his shoulder with a smile. “This is turning out to be quite an enjoyable tour!”
Sato raised an eyebrow. “Hayashi, your eye…it’s been blackened.”
“No worries, Sato-san, it’s all in good fun. Spotswood here packs quite a punch. He’s more formidable than I expected.”
“Take the phone, Lumin! It’s Skip, he needs you,” said Spotswood, standing up with a grimace. “Ah damn, I think my tooth is loose.”
“Christ you guys!” said Lumin, snatching the phone. “I’m so sorry, Sato-san.”
Sato nodded. “Please, it’s alright. Go ahead.” He glared at Hayashi.
Skip’s panicked voice rattled through the phone. “Lumin, are you there! Jesus, it’s horrible!”
“Skip? What’s going on?”
“I was with Ryuga near the hanger doors. A dust storm was agitating the cow, so he untied it and brought it further inside. Once the cow stepped on the polished concrete it started slipping around and went insane!”
Luming blushed with anxiety. “What are you telling me right now?”
“When the cow started losing its footing it panicked and launched into a full-on run. It snapped its rope and crashed right through a concrete wall into the main hanger. Jesus Fucking Christ! There’s blood everywhere, Lumin.”
The camera crew pushed toward Lumin. “Miss Mira, please, inform us of the situation if you–”
“Not now!” Lumin’s heels clacked as she rushed a few feet away from the group. “Skip, what do you mean…blood?”
“The goddamn cow ran through the hanger and collided with our giant fucking chainsaw!”
“The saw wasn’t running–”
“Thank God!” said Lumin, sighing in relief.
“No, wait! The saw wasn’t running but the electrical crew was cycling the capacitors on the quantum entanglement array. The blades were hot, Lumin”
Lumin was speechless.
“The cow nearly bisected itself on the quantum blades. Holy shit, I’ve never seen anything like that! It took a long time to die, Lumin. Oh God, it was sliding around, half cleaved and bleeding everywhere…I…I threw up.”
“Kill it! Hurry!” shouted Lumin.
“Miss Mira, please!” begged a woman behind a microphone.
Spotswood pushed the reporter backward. “Hey, back off!”
“Spotswood, stop!” yelled Yasamin, getting between him and the reporter. Hayashi was laughing maniacally a few feet away.
Skip’s voice was trembling. “It’s dead. The cow’s dead. Ryuga jumped on it and slit it’s throat. It’s over, but it’s a mess. I’m freaking out.”
Lumin realized two things. One: everyone was staring at her, and Two: the phone had been on speaker the entire time.
Lumin stood up from a hunch and laughed nervously as she ended the call. She looked at Sato with doe eyes, unable to say a word.
Sato shrugged. “Who wants pizza?”