GIANT FREAKIN’ ROBOTS part 25: S.N.A.F.U.U.F.O.

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 a stable of talented but erratic engineers as they design and build the American team’s robot with 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.
The American team endures various setbacks, leaving them a clear underdog to the dominant Japanese team. Less than a week remains until the two teams’ giant machines clash in the first match of a best-of-three tournament.
As match time approaches, a mysterious entity flashing across the sky coupled with an unexpected kiss with a colleague leaves Lumin off-kilter. Pushing back her feelings, she rushes back to the factory to see if any the equipment there can give her an idea what the unidentified object might have been.

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Heat lightning silently illuminated the cresting hills in the distance as a steady dribble of rain plipped into the desert sand. Lumin arched her face to the sky to feel a few cool droplets hit her as she hurried into the factory with Skip close behind.

“What kind of gear do we have attached to this shack?” asked Lumin. “Don’t we have some meteorological equipment?”

“Yeah, I think I remember Richard telling me he was fiddling with some storm tracking gear the army forgot to collect before the factory was sold to Ryan Lumb. When the building was being refitted the IT guys got tired of waiting for someone to haul the equipment off and just routed their cabling around it,” said Skip, punching a group-text into his phone. “Everyone’s huddled together doing systems checks in the hanger. I’ll have Richard meet up with us at the IT closet. I’m having Spotswood go to the security station to grab any outdoor camera footage he can dig up then he’ll join us as well.”

Lumin nodded. “Tell him to get footage from any camera facing north by northwest between 8:05 and 8:08 p.m.”

“Right,” said Skip, texting again.

“I can’t wait to be in a confined space with the three of you and your manly aromas,” said Lumin, gagging as she slid into the elevator with Skip.

“Swamp gas,” said Skip, as the elevator crept upward.

“From your armpits?” asked Lumin.

“No! The UFO! Maybe it was just swamp gas. That’s what they always say, right?” said Skip.

Lumin rolled her eyes. “Supersonic desert swamp gas…right.”

Skip shrugged as the elevator stopped on the second floor. The doors creaked apart, revealing a hunched over Spotswood, panting–his pompadour disheveled. He looked up at Lumin and smiled. “A UFO? For…real!?”

“Whoa, catch a breath, bud. How did you get up here so fast?” asked Skip.

“Stairs…ran…missed elevator. Richard…not coming…fat…lazy.”

Lumin pulled Spotswood in by his arm. “Alright, get in already!”

Spotswood took a deep breath and stood up straight as the elevator started moving again. “I ran to the security station as soon as I got Skip’s text. The guard didn’t see shit, of course, but she gave me the access key for the security cameras. I’m downloading the footage as we speak.”  He patted his tablet computer. “What the hell is going on? Did the UFO land? Did you see anything else?”

Lumin shook her head. “No. It was a bright green, glowing blob moving across the sky. It picked up speed then disappeared in a flash over the hills.”

Spotswood slicked back his hair, which was somehow greasier than usual. “It could have been some kind of atmospheric anomaly; there’s a lot of electricity in the sky tonight.”

“No,” said Skip, “this thing had mass. It broke the sound barrier as it bugged out.”

“Shit,” said Spotswood, shaking his tablet. “Hurry up and download!”

Skip put his hand on Spotswood’s shoulder. He could feel him trembling. “Calm down, Man!”

Spotswood’s eyes were rippling pinpoints in pools of milk. “Don’t you see? This proves a higher intelligence has been watching our team’s progress! No one’s ever built a robot so advanced before…the aliens must have took notice and decided to make contact!”

“How many Redbulls did you drink today, Spotty?” asked Lumin with concern. Before he could answer Lumin’s phone rang. She picked it up and saw Richard’s face grinning at her.

“Mind if we video conference this? I’m in the middle of making tuna salad,” said Richard through Lumin’s phone speakers.

“Christ, you just can’t be bothered to show up, huh?” asked Lumin.

“Just point me at things,” said Richard, taking a messy bite of his sandwich. “Oh, by the way, this isn’t the work of aliens. I’m sure Spotswood has already worked up a lather.”

Spotswood grabbed Lumin’s phone. “Put the sandwich down and drag your fat ass up here.”

Lumin snatched her phone back as the elevator dinged. “Everyone, chill out. Come on, Richard, what am I looking for?”

“It’s this way,” said Skip, moving behind Lumin’s boxed-in office.

Lumin, Skip and Spotswood made their way through piles of can openers and broken down machinery left over from the factory days. Using her smartphone, Lumin held Richard’s digital face in front of her so he could guide them. After assembling in the narrow corridor behind Lumin’s office, Skip pushed some boxes out of the way on the opposite wall to reveal a steel door.

“I had no idea there was an IT closet here,” said Lumin. “Explains that damn humming.”

They shoved open the creaking door and stepped over thick masses of fiber-optic cables clenched with velcro straps. The bundles looked like pythons caught in crude snares, complete with overworked server fans providing the necessary hiss. A pair of dusty monitors were sitting atop yellowing computers in the corner, looking much older than the rest of the equipment in the room.

“Damn, it’s hot in here,” said Skip.

“Point me in the right direction,” said Richard as Lumin held up her phone.

Skip laughed. “I feel like we’re carrying your head around in a jar, Richard.”

Richard ignored him. “There should be a Doppler radar monitoring unit near you. The Army was testing weather patterns in the valley before they decided they’d rather blow up the hillside. I got bored after finishing Biz’s nuclear housing so I decided to turn the unit back on and keep it running for shits and giggles.”

“Oh, to feel boredom again,” Lumin bemoaned. “Okay, this must be it. Is it connected to the network, Richard?”

“Oh, God no,” said Richard with a laugh, crumbs falling off of his lip. “It’s an ancient 386-based tower. There’s a stack of Zip disks somewhere on that desk. They’re thicker than the 3.5 inch floppies. Find a blank one and copy the files from the directory called…wait, I’ll just text you the path.” Richard went quiet for a moment before Lumin’s phone buzzed with his message. “Plunk this into the console. Collect the data by date and time, and try to narrow it down to the span of an hour. Anymore than that won’t fit on a single disk.”

“Alright,” said Lumin, sternly. “I got this, but next time I tell you to be somewhere you better be there with bells on your balls! I don’t care how much tuna you’re shoving in your face!”

“Okay okay!” said Richard, letting out a nervous laugh. “So, once you copy the data onto a disk bring it down to my office and we’ll dig through it. I have a stone age tower here, hopefully the drive still works.”

“I have a feeling this is a waste of time,” said Lumin, clanking on the brown keys of the Doppler machine. It’s innards started grinding as it came back to life from an extended slumber.

———————

A little over half an hour later the group had assembled in Richard’s office to stare at a windows machine that cranked even louder than the Doppler console’s drive.

“I can’t believe these Zip drives still work,” said Skip.

“Jesus, this is taking forever,” said Spotswood, only slightly less agitated than before, “I’m almost done downloading the security footage.”

Richard leaned closer to his VGA screen. “Animation’s done,” he said, hitting the ENTER key. A multi-colored blob began looping on the screen, showing an hour’s worth of atmospheric data.

“Nothing unusual on the radar,” said Richard. “A storm is building to the west. Got some rain coming in.”

“Thanks, Mister Roker. Wait! There!” said Lumin, pointing to a brief flash on the screen as it refreshed.

“That’s our bogey!” said Skip, ignoring Richard’s tuna breath as he leaned in as well.

“Download’s done!” said Spotswood, staring at his tablet. “I just need to find the right camera feeds.”

“Huh…I missed that blip on the radar the first time I looked. You’re lucky I reset the system to update faster. The data is purged each night, just so you know,” said Richard.

Lumin turned Richard’s face around to look him in the eye. “Stop your nightly dump and–”

Spotswood giggled.

“Grow up! Anyway Richard, don’t purge anything. Keep every byte backed up for the time being in case that thing comes back around,” said Lumin.

“The 386’s internal drive is too small, but I’ll rig something up,” said Richard.

“So, using a little dead-reckoning I can confirm our UFO was moving at supersonic speeds until it went out of range.” said Skip. “It’s hard to confirm scale with this type of radar but it looks to be about the size of an air-force drone.”

“Where was it heading?” asked Lumin.

Lumin pointed Richard toward the monitor again. “It left radar range as it moved westward toward the Pacific.”

“Weird,” said Lumin.

“Due west? Are the Japanese spying on us again?” asked Skip.

Richard shook his head. “Unless our UFO landed on a boat somewhere that kind of trajectory would ultimately be a suicide mission. Something that small wouldn’t be carrying enough fuel to make it overseas.”

“Unless it’s extraterrestrial,” said Skip.

Lumin put her hands on her hips and sighed. “Whatever our UFO was I doubt it was on an espionage mission. That thing was flashier than a Vegas showgirl.”

“An elaborate distraction maybe?” asked Richard.

“From what? It doesn’t make sense,” said Lumin.

“Here! I finally found it!” Spotswood plopped his tablet on the keyboard of the moldering computer, causing it to beep incessantly. “Oops, sorry,” he said, repositioning the device. “The cameras only got one good look, unfortunately.”

“Well, at least we knew we weren’t hallucinating,” said Skip, looking at Spotswood’s screen. “Still, I wouldn’t call that a good look–it’s just a white blur zooming across a grey blur.”

“Typical UFO footage,” said Lumin with a sigh. “I guess we’re done here.”

Dezzie Lynch tripped into the room over a thick bundle of cables. Lumin caught her mid-fall. “Dezzie, what is it?”

“It’s about your flying saucer…people all over the world are seeing similar ones. They show up then disappear an instant later. Here, look at this huge list of reports,” Dezzie pulled out her phone and handed it to Lumin. “See? There’s been at least a hundred sightings tonight from the Arctic Circle to the horn of Africa.”

“Invasion!” said Spotswood.

“Shut up, Spotty.” Skip browsed his own phone for a moment then passed it around. “Check it out, other people captured footage too. These things all look exactly the same.”

“Wow, that’s actually pretty cool looking,” said Richard. “Neon green.”

Spotswood was speechless for a time. He kept flipping between three different videos, one of which had captured a craft in all its fleeting glory. “I’ve been waiting for this my entire life!” He pumped his fist in the air. “I need to post about this on my conspiracy forum! Bye!” He rushed out of the room with a grin cracking across his narrow face.

“Hey, get back to work!” yelled Lumin. “Actually, we should all get back to work. This incident obviously had nothing to do with us.”

Well, aren’t we a self-centered bunch?” said Skip. “Still, it was an incredible sight.”

“We can harvest the saucer’s weapons if we can find the wreckage,” said Dezzie.

“Come on, back to reality, folks…we don’t have time for this right now.” Lumin’s mind kept pulling her thoughts back to the kiss she shared with Skip. She could still feel it lingering, like a feather resting on her lips. She grabbed him as the group dispersed from the IT closet. “Skip, hold up.”

“Yeah Lumin?” said Skip, still fighting off the Ghost of a Chance that had been haunting him since their brief embrace.

“Nothing changes, okay? Are we good?”

Skip tensed up. “But Lumin, are we just going to ignore–”

“Yes, we have to,” interrupted Lumin. “I need to deal with the fucking matters at hand. Maybe after the match I’ll be able to think clearly, but…until then, we…” She trailed off and took a step back, breaking eye contact to look a rusty can opener leaning on some splintering pine paneling.

Skip wrung his hands in frustration. “Lumin, you may be able to micromanage your own life but you don’t have the authority to tell me how I should feel. Come on, I care about you…talk to me.”

“There’s nothing to say,” said Lumin, turning away. “Skip, I’m with Eldridge.”

“I know guys like him. You don’t acquire that much money and power without stepping on people and ruining lives along the way. He’s bad news, Lumin.”

“Shut up. What could you possibly know about anything, Skip?” Lumin’s anger was boiling.

Skip shook his head, looking despondent. “Fine, forget I said anything about Roundstone. I understand that you don’t feel the same way I do but I can’t just shut this down with the flip of switch.”

“You don’t understand anything. Stop trying to rationalize and make sense of this, Skip. Somethings just don’t make sense.”

An awkward silence wrapped around each of them, its constrictions drawing raw nerves to the surface. Skip’s emotions were gnawing at his insides. “The rest of the team is firing on all cylinders. My contribution is essentially done. They can finish the tournament without me.”

“What?” asked Lumin, knowing what he was about to say.

“Lumin, I quit,” said Skip, softly. His face drained of color as he turned and walked away.

Lumin slid along the wall and hugged her knees, feeling empty. A few minutes later she picked up the antique can opener and threw it across the room with a scream. Finding no catharsis, she retreated to her office and slumped to her desk. She listened to the low hum behind her wall while waiting for a rational emotion to arrive.


Part 25½: Two days before the match

What is this? I started this “serial” as a way to bring some fun and immediacy to my writing routine. Each chapter is written, edited and posted in a single day (I will do some additional editing if I find a glaring mistake). Chapters are released on an irregular basis.
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