The double coat of pigment, binder, and solvent was hastily slathered over the surface. Between talcum and gray ghost, it had been applied relatively recently, before the whole unit sold for a beggar’s price in an already tense market. Faint inaccuracies already appeared: the strokes too lazy; the paint crowded at the end of the two-inch bristles, allowing for small pimples to surface. Careless errands chipped high-traffic areas; standard wear and tear for any atomic family. A tower of blinds, crafted from the same cheap pine, were fitted into the center of the nondescript, hallway closet door. Perhaps the manufacturer envisioned the need to crawl within its confines yet properly keep watch over the kingdom.
At first, the grid of painstakingly installed diodes emitted nothing of value, the perfect disguise for the match at hand. The slats of the closet door angled forward for better reconnaissance, the tilt smooth, pushing them to their wooden brink. The quiet, miniature bulbs reanimated: glowing green stars formed sixty-four congested rows of sixty-four in a set of two. Ample space had been added between them as to appear organic.
The electric eyes blinked.
“No sign of the enemy.” The voice was stained with a permanent filter of modulation, though, through much-maligned trial and error, it eventually softened, only to the point of feasibility and believability. It was high in pitch, innocent, and wavered on the precipice of puberty, somewhat genderless for the manufacturer's reported age. The eyes darted down the parqueted hall: nothing in the living room; no assassins near the bedrooms; certainly, none using the facilities. The bulky mechanical claw resembled an over-sized fastening nut shaved in half; its two-pronged design tightened towards the center, whirring softly, decreasing the angle of his secrecy, casting himself in near darkness, just enough as to not arouse suspicion.
He hovered low over the polyurethaned floor, unconvinced of his safety. A ported series of three enlarging coils allowed a gentle stream of recycled air to pump through his system. Attached to the bottom of his base, they worked tirelessly to keep his metallic body continuously afloat. A boost from his central processor and the command to increase the flow guided him upward, scaling the closet shelves, past the dog-eared parlor games, guest linens, and discarded hand tools. Here he widened the vantage point again, a beast much taller than he possibly lurking in the minimal shadows of his home, only seen from the tallest peak of the closet. Finding nothing, he returned to the safety of the flat earth.
“Status report, Commander,” he ordered. The officer in question cocked her canine head, her triangular ears perking, for he had spoken, and she always listened when he spoke. “Your uniform is out of order!” Quickly, beating the hardwood with stale breath, he rose once more, snatching a coral hand towel from a forgotten shelf. He wiped aside the fingerprints that creased the silver pendant of the pup’s identification tag. He adjusted the collar, making sure her name was in the center of her fluffy, and groomer-puffed, scruff. “That’s better, Commander Pickles, lest we be docked a week’s pay.” His double-jointed, telescopic arms spun furiously, folding the cloth into a perfect square. She licked the side of his dome with appreciation, leaving a trail of sticky saliva. His analog eyes stepped aside to avoid the welcome, though hazardous, affection. He wiped free the kiss, careful to smudge it free from the clear visor casing that protected his diodes and towards the rear of his dome where sensitive instrumentation and electrodes were better insulated.
Cake-head, the others teased. All he needed was the cherry on top. He was nearly the size of peers his age, but his insecurities shrank his ability to remain so.
Returning the dirty towel, he sighed. “I think she forgot about us.”
Pickles whined, laying her head down in yet another defeat. She was Welsh, her stubby legs barely maintaining the weight of a potato-shaped physique above. Midnight black, honey, and bone white; her incessant tri-colored shedding left clues of her whereabouts throughout their home, this game of hide-and-seek perhaps doomed from the start. He, however, had not meant such a terrible outcome to spill from the circular speakers mounted below his bright eyes. He rubbed her gently, running his hard-edged pincers from her head down to her rump. She began to coo, reveling in his ability to calm her and reach all her sore nooks.
The terrible howl came with a winding preamble. Cranking manually upward, it flooded their post. He narrowed his eyes, unscrambling the sudden siren that blared from the street. His pup initiated a guttural warning of her own, her upper lip flexing, preparing for an onslaught. Popping open the cheap wood slats again, he watched a silhouette scream past.
The shelving shivered as a tremor seized the floorboards, climbed the studs, choked the drywall, and struck fear into the trusses supporting the shingled roof. Glass shattered, mixing with a symphony of tumbling cutlery. The loose utilities of the closet danced dangerously to the edge, their top weight launching them free and onto the helpless below. He dove, extending his arms, shielding Pickles from the downpour. Fake currency dyed in pleasing pastels scattered as dice and cardboard accouterment, handy elixirs to beat back the dreary weather of a dull summer afternoon, pelted the back of his stubby unit. Scratchy sheets and towels, forever stained from accidental spillage, muffled the screams and commands that followed. He shook off the debris as the aftershock subsided, the siren song still blaring its eerie, echoing tone. Pickles barked assuredly. He whipped open the door and sputtered into the hallway.
“Annabelle?” he questioned softly, worried that this was a distraction to draw him out of hiding. He checked her room: tangled sheets spilled onto the floor, her dresser drawers askew and vomiting winter clothing yet to make an appearance this season. Her window overlooking the front yard had exploded inward, preventing Pickles from continuing further into the maelstrom with her usual haste.
His jet stream blew a miniature whiteout in a layer of baking flour strewn across the checkered, seafoam green tile of the kitchen. The good china, painstakingly etched with the Prussian blue calligraphy of a gifted weekend artist, splintered, its useless shards buried beneath broken coffee mugs and disheveled bakeware. The chatter of his family was drowned by the enraged wail from the elevated speaker of the air-raid siren, the warning drawing the neighborhood to commence its agreed-upon plan. A woman squealed, sobbing through the exasperated and hopeless ejection. He rotated towards the front door, his exterior bathed in a blinding, white heat. It remained wide open, drawing him to its trembling threshold. The television had been left fizzling, static replacing the morning throes of cowboys and natives.
The clouds began their journey at the base of the explosion, creating a hollow center in which to ferment. They rolled, increasing the diameter, bubbling and churning as the epicenter formed a two-mile ring around the distant downtown skyscrapers. The energy climbed and created a plume, the force so dramatic it began to fold, a bulbous mushroom head plunging into itself slowly, beaming with bright, electric signals. The dome then shot skyward, vaporizing the youthful monuments of glass and steel, sucking them into the central heat and malice of the attack. Devouring the morning light, he was cast in a sunset against the obliteration. All he felt compelled to do was watch, his pup at his side, drinking in the annihilation of the city he had become so familiar with.
A car door slammed, and the Dawnfire Mist Pontiac shrieked in reverse. Annabelle pressed her reddening palms to the backseat window as the family vehicle cleared the end of their driveway, peeling into the manic tornado of the usually bucolic street. “JoJo!” she pleaded, her chestnut hair swinging across her face, the bottom of her fists banging against the glass.
“Mom? Dad?” he whispered, floating down the short porch steps and to the octagonal steppingstones, unsure of the events unfolding and his sudden lack of inclusion.
The dynamic veteran that claimed to be his father survived long enough to make it home, the external scars hidden underneath dress shirts and cutting a swath against his jawline; the internal horrors buried in layers of membrane, awakening in the dead of night, imagining the brutal entrance onto the beaches, awash with blood and bravery. He cocked his head towards the side mirror, eyeing the reflection of the pup of caramel, cream, and licorice, and the hollow, metallic, green android that hovered next to it.
His father’s decision manifested itself in his foot, butchering the gas and plunging the car forward.
“H-hey! Hey, wait!” The protest was deafened by a distracted motorist who had failed to yield, his flame-belting, banker’s hot rod screeching down upon the family car. His father swerved to the right to avoid the collision, the steel-blue missile locked now onto JoJo, the brakes unable to prevent the inevitable.
His arms extended, snuggling Pickles’ abdomen securely. He hurled himself back towards the house, crashing upon the porch, the blur careening past. The bulk of the vehicle burst through Annabelle’s room, shearing it from the mid-century structure. The driver exited through the windshield under the frantic pop of glass scraping against his skin, expelling him halfway through the protective bubble, peeling him nearly down to the bone. With the expensive beast felled, JoJo rolled over and pushed himself upright. The license plate of the Pontiac that escorted him endlessly to the beach and the cinema drifted slowly out of his focus, his sister mouthing his name in solidarity and sadness. “Annabelle…” he quivered. “Annabelle!” He rushed for the mailbox, arms swatting the air, signaling he was ready and willing. To the edge of the driveway, over the black footprints of the swift and warm rubber tires, but he was waylaid when an electric jolt surged through his core, knocking his vision aside and twisting him away from freedom. He was flung to the concrete, Pickles upon him instantly, licking away the theorized pain. His optical unit would need a moment to recalibrate, the picture exchanging focus, color, and depth. A neighbor’s station wagon honked as it passed, issuing a warning to those who lingered.
The friendly denizens of JoJo’s neighborhood filled their arms with supposed treasures: the expensive, lacquered furniture; the prized, studded, and shimmering jewelry; the stuffed rabbits and bears who kept guard from dawn until dusk. The materialistic clambered from their mortgaged bungalows, tossing the useless junk into the trunks of their financed roadsters, peeled back and rushed straight into gridlock. Two men, clothes streaked with grass stains and dew, wrestled, burying their fists into the meat of their opponent, attempting to wrench away a gray and blue duffel bag. “Fuck you!” they howled, clawing for supremacy.
At the house across the street, the old patriarch stuttered to his porch, wrapping his lips around the barrel of an aged revolver. His head erupted in a shower of mesmerizing pink and red, painting the siding of his home. The lifeless body served its purpose and collapsed into a bloodied heap, the eldest daughter begging the universe for mercy.
The coveted duffel bag ripped, raining down a life of savings, the bills soaking up the sweat and fertilization below. The others converged like ravenous gulls, pecking for any bit of opportunity, delaying their escape from the bomb’s inevitable radiation. The air-raid siren suddenly belched, choking on its own alarm, and ceased without warning. Drawn to its silence, the warring clans paused, eyeing the twenty-foot oak pole that supported the safety system.
The buzz was more apparent now, not disinterested honeybees, but menacing hornets coming to defend their nest. JoJo angled skyward, catching the distant airplanes as they leapt in front of the mutated mushroom cloud. A wolfpack formed, spearheaded by the alpha: a distinctively chunky bomber, the side of its belly decorated with a flat, red circle wrapped in a white border for easy identification. Nimble, more compact cousins surged in a formation of nine: little green spitfires darting around the lumbering leader, rallying a cry as they surged towards their target. Each squadron of ten was joined by five identical ones, ripping through the atomic matter and controlling the sky.
The invasion had begun.
No longer concerned with the mundane trappings of fashion, art, or wealth, the doomed neighbors pointed their indexes at the airborne flocks, releasing cries of uncertainty, fear, and death from the back of their throats. The pastel, manicured lawns exploded in two parallel patterns as tracers from the barrels of Type 97 machine guns chewing hungrily. A propellered menace had broken away from its brothers, strafing the stunned below, zipping over the tree lines of their backyards in a thunderous gallop. Another plane followed swiftly, diving like a thirsty hawk. Its ejections consumed the gathered crowd, the seven-point-seven-millimeter rounds ripping flesh, sawing through bone, and leaving a sea of bloodied trimmings in its wake.
The bombers eased open their bay doors and released a quartet of Type 99 No.25s. The tedious gray bodies of the torpedo-like bombs were weighed down by their nearly quarter-ton construction of machine-forged steel. They sank like stones, whistling sharply, blanketing the quiet settlement. Memorials to hard work and booming industrialization erupted in clouds of brick and mortar, scattering debris in violent halos of fire.
The very crust below them shuddered from the mighty display, another squadron releasing their payloads, inching closer and closer. JoJo slapped the side of his dome, synchronizing the two, blurred images of his monitoring system into a cohesive vision. An explosive pierced the shingled, black roof of the cater-cornered home, detonating once it received the blunt force resistance of the expertly polished hardwood floor. The front of the house split down the middle, a fireball enveloped with ash and sawdust eructing towards him. JoJo turned away from the howl, sheltering Pickles against the sheets of flaming precipitation. “We have to get inside!” He tugged her collar, instructing her to run. They stumbled towards the safety of their already-ravaged home, another barrage whistling from the heavens, obliterating their neighbor’s junker. The faded green paint liquefied under the heat, the bumper severed as the multi-cylindered engine crumpled the garage door and released a spiral of shrapnel, the bulk chasing the escaping pair.
JoJo’s movement met another invisible impediment, his back pinging with a wretched whine, his body whipped aside while his head spun revolution after revolution on its gyroscopic swivel. Pickles barked, begging him to rise and continue. The atmosphere blackened from the successive, descending waves, their ordnance poking gigantic holes in the tar-slathered roadway. JoJo shook free the disorientation, followed the pup inside, and slammed his back against the front door, trapping the fiery creatures on the lawn. He breathed in rapid, staccato inhalations, though it was not necessary to his survival, it was merely part of his programming.
The cheap material buckled, blowing the door inward. It tumbled over their heads, its wake flooded by an upper frequency tone that overmodulating his microphone’s sensors. The charred debris sliced through the kitchen, decapitating the faucet and unleashing a fountain of cold water. “The basement!” Another strafing run stirred the yard, machine gun fire chasing away those who dared huddle above ground. They bounded past the closet door, their infinite game of hide-and-seek temporarily on hiatus. JoJo grabbed the knob and peeled back the heavy layer protecting the basement, allowing Pickles to traverse the first few risers.
“My tapes!” he remembered, twisting towards his private room. She bayed at him, transitioning into a hopeless whine as he left her sight, stranding her. Rocketing straight to his quarters, he slid aside his closet door, ripping the copper ring from the inset handle. The house bleated, absorbing the sonic pulse of another successful impact. His busy hands fumbled through boxes of toys and old clothes, throwing the uselessness over his shoulder.
Once coated in a matte sheen, the exterior had been worn away by moisture and time, tucked in the closet from prying and judgmental eyes. He popped open the rectangular, cardboard lid and quickly counted the fat, square diskettes leaning against each other.
The unfamiliar was a stark black, a standout among the others’ muted mixture of gray and forest green. Unsure, though generally satisfied, he slapped the box closed and dashed for the hallway. The backyard squealed as a bomb churned his mother’s vegetable garden into paste, collapsing the memories of her juicy tomatoes in an instant. The heat pursued him with vigor, the heat shoving him through the basement door. He plowed into Pickles, a free hand latching tightly to her neck. The hallway caved in upon itself, a thick stream of flames spilling into the upper stairwell, the residual tremor knocking him further off balance. Clutching the diskettes and his beloved companion, they thundered together into the basement proper, his casing denting against the edge of the final step.
JoJo slammed into the unforgiving, concrete flooring, his hold released completely. Pickles rolled forward into a gathering of gardening tools, the weathered handles thrashing her back. His collection fluttered free of the old box, scraping along the ground as he rolled to an abrupt stop. His home could not survive under the stress, the violent rage driving the construction through the small, basement doorway, clogging any hope of escape. A final punctuation blotted out the light, plunging the cellar into pitch, his glowing diodes unexpectedly snuffed.