THE STORY SO FAR:
Braggadocio between American and Japanese robotics engineers on social media escalates to a real-world face-off on a massive scale. Utilizing multi-million dollar budgets provided by corporate donors, each team begins building a gigantic robot to compete in a best-of-three fighting tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada. The winning team will take home bragging rights and a billion dollars for the charities of their choosing.
Just as the American pilot, Lumin Mira, is about to snatch victory in the final fight, her robot’s emergency shutdown system activates leaving her literally in the dark to the outcome of the tournament.
Lumin was trapped in Biz’s control bell. The way her body sloshed back and forth in the ferrofluid told her BZ-X was in transit, but where and why were a mystery. “Hello?! Is anybody out there?” she yelled into her helmet, pretending her calls could somehow be heard six inches beyond her face. “Get me out of this damn tank!”
At last, the ferrofluid began draining into BZ-X’s reserve tanks. “About time!” Lumin removed her helmet and tossed it aside as the oily goo finished sliding away from her body. When her eyes adjusted to the light she could clearly see the massive dent Hayashi’s robot had left in the wall of the ferrotank. “Holy shit.”
The warped and twisted hatch above Lumin finally cracked open with a scraping clunk and the retrieval harness began to lower. After she detached from the tank’s control arm she slipped into the harness and activated the winch. Something felt wrong as she ascended to the hatch. “Skip…anyone?”
As Lumin lifted from the bell she took notice of a yellow, robotic arm that had popped open BZ-X’s crumpled hatch with its reinforced claws. “Jammed shut. No wonder it took so long,” she said to herself.
Lumin gasped as she crested the lip of the tank. Through an array of picture windows she could see blue sky surrounding her in every direction. BZ-X was sitting upright in the middle of a huge, cylindrical room with his legs splayed out like a toddler on a play mat…an armless toddler with a crumpled head. After squeezing her body out of the harness she stumbled across Biz’s battered retrieval platform for a better view near the railing. Leaning forward she could see the ground two thousand feet below. “Whoa.”
The constant hum of enormous turbines made Lumin realize she was inside the cargo hold of the hulking Cloudskim airship they used to move Biz to and from the arena. She climbed down a ladder to the grated floor of the airship and hurried closer to one of the windows. The streets around the Vegas strip were completely gridlocked with traffic. Specks of people were rushing out of the casinos and hotels in a panic. Fires were dotting the landscape in every direction. An odd, olive green skyscraper in the distance caught Lumin’s eye and sent a shiver down her spine.
Lumin recoiled in terror with her hands over her mouth. Her wet feet slipped through a puddle of ferrofluid and her legs went out from under her. Before her body hit the ground a pair of arms wrapped around her. She stood back up swiftly and turned around, twisting out of the person’s grasp.
“What are you doing here?”
“Hello, Miss Mira,” said Eldridge Roundstone.
Lumin felt like she was hyperventilating. She didn’t want to acknowledge her ex-boyfriend’s presence and especially not the weird green monolith on the ground below. After taking a deep breath she forced herself to take another look outside. “Christ…that’s not a skyscraper. It’s moving!”
“Here, use these,” Eldridge handed Lumin a pair of binoculars. “Don’t worry, we’re well out of harm’s way.”
Lumin snatched the binoculars from Eldridge and brought them to her eyes. She focused them on the towering beast and waited for her hands to stop shaking. After comparing the creature to a few nearby buildings she could tell it was at least 400 feet tall. “Impossible!”
The monster moved slowly with a shuffling, bipedal gate as two long arms swung at its slides. Its bulky, sloping head featured a mouth full of swirling tentacles. Two large tubes stretched along its hunched back, eventually splitting into a pair of whip-like tails. Instead of skin the…thing…appeared to be covered in clumps of gelatinous drips—similar to melted candle wax but shaking with fat each time the creature took a step. “What the fuck is that?”
“There’s more to see,” said Eldridge, pointing behind Lumin. She swiveled around and saw two UFOs pulsating with red light streak across the sky before disappearing. More came and went from the opposite direction. On the hillside another green beast was slowly clomping through a suburb.
Lumin put her hands in front of her face. “I’m dreaming. Tell me I’m dreaming.”
Eldridge moved closer. “You’re not dreaming, unfortunately.”
Lumin heard a series of muffled booms and ran to a different window. A dozen armored vehicles had assembled in a line and were firing their cannons at yet another humongous verdant fiend. Seemingly unaffected, the creature heaved a tangle of tentacles from its mouth that wrapped multiple times around each tank in the squadron. Lumin flinched as a huge fireball burst across the line of tanks, engulfing them in an instant. The airship’s windows rattled when the sound of the explosion caught up to them.
“It’s an invasion,” said Eldridge. “About an hour ago these red UFOs started showing up all over the world and these horrid creatures arrived shortly thereafter. They’re attacking targets of strategic military importance…missile silos, armories, weapon depots and the like. Thankfully, they seem disinterested in killing people unless anyone gets in their way…like those poor soldiers.”
“Wait! Where’s the rest of my crew? My family!” cried Lumin in a panic.
“They’re fine. A city-wide evacuation was ordered while you were in the midst of your match.”
“Are you sure they’re alright? Don’t lie to me, Eldridge!”
“Your crew escaped unscathed and was taken to an evacuation zone. Your mother and father are heading there as well. They’re all safe, I promise. We’ll join them shortly.”
Lumin took in a deep breath. “How did I end up with you on this damn blimp?”
“Somehow, I willed myself to watch your fight this time around. Early on in the match I noticed your robot had sustained a huge blow that warped your hatch. Knowing the damage would make your retrieval process tricky, I readied the airship company to do an emergency airlift of you and BZ-X from the arena if necessary. Turns out it was necessary…but for entirely different reasons.”
“Thanks, I think,” said Lumin.
“I’ve been waiting for this dreadful day. I’ve had my eyes on the skies for quite some time now…it’s nearly driven me to fits of paranoia on occasion.”
Lumin took a few more steps away from Eldridge. “Hold up…you knew this was going to happen? How? For how long?”
“Please, Miss Mira…this way,” said Eldridge, as he held open a steel door for Lumin. “I’m sure you’re eager to freshen up after being stuck in that tank. After you’ve showered and changed into some fresh clothes I’ll tell you everything.”
“This is your big secret?” Lumin didn’t have much fight in her at the moment. “I’d punch you if I had the strength.”
“This airship’s lounge area is quite pleasant…please, go clean up and I’ll meet you there. We’ll reach out destination soon but until then we should probably start coming up with a plan.”
A sudden realization flooded Lumin’s tired mind. “No…wait Eldridge! This isn’t an alien invasion, it’s the work of Kengi Sato! He’s playing you for a fool. Remember those green UFOs that people were seeing a few weeks back?”
“Those green fireballs were Sato’s aircraft in disguise! He’s dumped his generators off all over the world…but they’re not generators at all they’re—“
“Batteries. They’re batteries. I’ll tell you everything, I promise.”
Lumin twitched, feeling overwhelmed. She went though the door without another word, eager to leave the panoramic view of the chaos below her.
After a quick shower and change of clothes, Lumin met Eldridge in the airship’s lounge; a cozy, wood-paneled room with a fake fireplace and small library. She took a long swig from a huge bottle of water and sat across from him in a leather chair, looking pained. “Spill.”
Eldridge nodded. “Two years ago The National Science Foundation threatened to pull its annual ten million dollar funding from the Arecibo radio dish in Puerto Rico. As soon as I heard the news I jumped at the chance to become the private backer of the research facility.”
“Wait…what does this have to do with anything?” asked Lumin, feeling impatient.
“The Arecibo dish is the largest radio telescope in the world. I had long suspected the surest way to detect an extraterrestrial presence was to keep an ear to the sky for radio transmissions drifting through the cosmos. When I visited the facility I was shocked to learn Arecibo’s radio astronomers had already logged several mysterious transmissions. Unfortunately, their data had been confiscated and labeled classified by the State Department. After cashing in a few favors in Washington I was able to get the gag order lifted, leaving the astronomers free to give me the precise coordinates where the signals had originated.”
“Is there anything a billion dollars won’t buy?” asked Lumin with a sigh.
“Once the research resumed, it wasn’t long before my team discovered more radio signals, nearly identical to the first ones logged. The strength of each transmission became steadily stronger until it was obvious something was rapidly approaching Earth.”
“What did the signals say?”
“The radio signals contained no discernible voices…at least as we know them. The sound was more of a rhythmic, synthesized howl on an endless loop. Although we couldn’t be certain, it seemed likely that the transmissions were some kind of warning.”
“Creep city,” said Lumin.
“Absolutely. Stephen Hawking once stated that alien visitors would not have much regard for the human race should they arrive and after hearing that horrible, looping sound I took his words to heart.”
“What about E.T.? He was nice,” said Lumin. She felt curiously out-of-body.
“You need to think more terrestrially about these matters. Classically, when an advanced civilization meets a more primitive one, it has not turned out well for the natives. Think Columbus, not E.T.”
“Oh…oh yeah, shit,” said Lumin. “You’re telling me aliens are real. You can’t expect me to believe…” Lumin trailed off as she looked out the window again. “Christ.”
“I spent months running through multitudes of possible scenarios for an invasion and sure enough, what we’re seeing now is one of the outcomes I feared most. Removing the Earth’s weapon systems and defense networks is just the invaders’ opening act; once they’ve eliminated our ability to fight back it’s quite likely a ‘hostile takeover’ will ensue.”
“Was that a joke? No jokes,” begged Lumin.
“I believe the aliens’ broadcast was intended to give us ample opportunity to evacuate the premises before they arrived, and seeing as we ignored their warning it’s safe to assume they’ll have little interest in our continuing survival. We have to stop them.”
“No, it’s impossible! That green UFOs I saw belonged to Sato, not aliens. We have the proof!”
“Kengi Sato is my closest ally. Not a single soul at the pentagon or in the private sector would take my findings seriously. I didn’t have enough evidence to satisfy them. Sato is the only person of prominence who has stood by me.”
“What? But you’ve been funding our team in the tournament…not his.”
“Lumin, I’ve wanted to tell you all this but since our breakup it’s been difficult to find the right moment. In truth, I’ve been secretly funding both teams. I’m afraid this tournament has been conducted under false pretenses.”
Lumin slumped in her seat, firmly entrenched in denial. “This is too much.”
“I knew if the conventional weapons of the world failed, something else would be needed to route the invading forces. I’m a man obsessed with contingencies…I always play the long game.”
“You’re insane, you know that? How could I ever let you touch me?”
Eldridge stood up, looking intense. “How could I stand idly by, knowing what horrors were coming? I wanted to spearhead a weapons platform we could utilize before resorting to annihilating the planet with nuclear weapons…with or without the cooperation of the Pentagon. Is that so crazy?”
Lumin was speechless and overwhelmed. A tear slid down her cheek.
Eldridge took a deep breath. “Knowing some kind of power suit, drone or robotics application would mostly likely be our best bet to defeat the invaders, I tasked Sato-san with developing a bleeding-edge energy storage system to power our future tech applications.”
“Was Lumb in on this too?”
After Ryan Lumb somehow discovered a few details of Sato’s secret project we were forced to structure a false narrative. Sato announced he was developing a new type of energy generation system. When he sensed Lumb could be a valuable ally, he began probing his old partner to see if he had an interest in robotics.”
“Don’t say probe,” said Lumin.
“Ultimately, we chose not to reveal the full scope of our plans to Lumb, finding him untrustworthy . However, when he suggested the fighting tournament I saw it as an incredible opportunity to develop cutting-edge weaponry to combat the invaders. Nothing advances technology faster than the spirit of competition, especially within a limited time frame–the prime example being the “space race” of the 60s, which brought incredible scientific progress to the world in only a few short years. Thankfully, our gambit worked; the technology both robotics teams developed for the tournament is revolutionary.”
Lumin shook her head. “So, this whole tournament has been a lie.”
“No! I stand by the stated goals of the tournament, but a billion dollars in charity will do little good in the face of an apocalypse.”
“Eldridge, why not tell me this before?” Lumin’s pain quickly turned to anger. “I could sense you were hiding something from me and it drove a wedge between us. Goddamn it…I cared for you, but you were just using me!”
“I…I’m sorry.” Eldridge went quite for a moment, staring at the floor. “My feelings for you are real, but I can’t blame you for being angry. The stakes were just too high. I wanted you to have plausible deniability if the United States government began to suspect our ultimate goal was private weapons development. It’s been a full time job fending off the Defense Department…I didn’t want you to take the fall if my project failed.”
Lumin crossed her arms in despondency. “So, you used our teams to create WMDs and had Sato manufacture the batteries for your toys. Why the fuck did you have him sprinkle the cubes all over the earth?”
“We quickly realized our fight would occur on a global battlefield. While Sato’s batteries are cutting-edge, they are still limited in capacity. One would only last a couple of hours at the most inside a robotic power suit such as BZ-X, especially one equipped with quantum vibration technology. Leaving the battlefront to recharge could be disastrous and we couldn’t risk airdrops of additional batteries being intercepted by the enemy. We decided hiding them in plain sight within mock power plants and burying them in secret when it was a necessity were our best options. Sending out Sato’s green UFO drones allowed us to deliver the cubes in secret the world over and also helped to prepare the public for the actual alien invasion.”
“You’re building a robot army with the tech we’ve developed? This is absolute fucking madness, Eldridge.”
A reverberation rattled throughout the airship. “We’re here,” said Eldridge. “Please, Lumin…follow me.”
Lumin stood up, eager to get her feet on the ground. She was completely wiped. “Your compound seems to be in good shape. I suppose there’s advantages to living in the middle of nowhere.”
“Nearby Cupertino may be in flames, but my estate has been spared an attack. Luckily, what we’re building seems to be off the invaders’ radar. Our tech hasn’t registered with them as a threat yet, which will buy us some time.”
Lumin followed Eldridge down the ramp of the airship and into his estate. Black clouds of smoke were rolling into the sky in the distance. “How would aliens know what’s a threat and what isn’t? What about sharks…are they afraid of sharks?”
“Very good question. Maybe they’ve based their threat assessments on our planet’s outgoing radio and television signals,” said Eldridge. “The television feed of the tournament may not have reached them yet.”
“Those poor Kardashians,” said Lumin.
“Lummmmin!” Andrew called out, waving at her wildly from a golf cart parked nearby.
“Andrew?” Lumin ran up and hugged him. “I’m glad you’re alright.”
“Yup…it’s nice and cozy in Eldy’s pad. Have you seen the…things? The green things?”
“Yeah, not good,” said Lumin. “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”
“What?” asked Andrew.
“Nevermind…just nerd stuff,” said Lumin. Seeing Andrew’s goofy smile had somehow lightened her mood.
“Man, I’ve missed you. You’re still a babe, even in Roundstone Co. branded sweatpants.”
Lumin couldn’t help but laugh; she needed one. “Thanks. Nice hat.” The graphic on Andrew’s baseball cap read: I’d rather be at Loaf ‘N Jug.
“It goes pretty well with this Hawaiian shirt…see, it’s got naked ladies hidden all over it.”
“Andrew, let’s got to warehouse,” interrupted Roundstone.
“You’re a living buzzkill, Eldy. Hop in,” said Andrew with a grin as he flicked the brim of his hat. After Lumin and Eldridge got in the cart, Andrew revved the tiny motor and started toward the complex of warehouses holding Eldridge’s scientific projects.
“Where’s the inflatable mansion? The monkey race track?” asked Lumin, looking around.
“Unneeded distractions as of late, I’m afraid,” said Eldridge.
“It’s been boring as hell around here…since this invasion business, I mean,” said Andrew.
Lumin shook her head. “I still don’t buy it. I just can’t.”
The cart pulled up to a gigantic warehouse—even larger than the blimp hanger—one Lumin hadn’t visited before. The double doors opened slowly.
“Oh my god,” said Lumin, seeing row upon row of giant robots. They looked similar to Biz except for the black and red motif common to the Kyoto’s Team’s designs. The machines stretched deep into the darkness of the warehouse. “There must be hundreds of them!”
“207, to be precise,” said Eldridge. “I only hope its enough. By my count, the alien giants we’re up against number in the hundreds as well…probably closer to a thousand.”
“Guys! You’re here!” Lumin jumped out of the cart and ran into the warehouse. Her entire team began flooding out to greet her from the bowels of the enormous building. Every engineer and builder from the Shuffle Pig’s Vegas headquarters seemed to be in attendance.
Skip led the charge and hugged Lumin tight. “Thank Christ you’re safe.” He kissed her intensely.
“I’m alright. Is everyone else okay?” asked Lumin.
“Yes, everyone made it here with no problems,” said Skip, looking over Lumin’s head to glare at Eldridge suspiciously. Eldridge nodded in his direction.
“You won that match, Lumin. We all saw it,” said Samuel. Everyone nodded in agreement and snapped out of their collective dread long enough to give Lumin a hearty round of applause.
Lumin smiled graciously. “Thanks. It doesn’t really matter much now I suppose.”
“You made us all proud,” said Yasamin, patting Lumin’s shoulder.
“Mom! Dad!” yelled Lumin, seeing her parents in the back of the crowd. She rushed and embraced them both tightly. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“This is such a strange place.” Evelyn Mira’s eyes were red from weeping. “I was so worried about you.”
“Mom, I’m okay. I swear.”
Diego Mira grinned at his daughter, looking remarkably unperturbed. “So, what are we going to do about this mess? Oh, and when’s dinner start around here?”
“Dad, I have no idea…on both counts.”