(~5000 words, estimated reading time 35-40 minutes)
By M. Flood
“Total destruction will come to those who laughed at me and failed to heed my warnings.”
“What was that sweetheart?” Maggie said, trying to hear her husband over the bubbling of the coffee percolator and the hissing of the eggs on the pan. She didn’t like how strong his German accent had become.
“The world will quake in fear when I unveil my engine of destruction,” Victor said blankly, sitting at the table staring at the newspaper. Perhaps he was having some trouble waking up. The coffee would help with that.
“In a minute, Victor,” she said. Grabbing the wooden handle of the frying pan gingerly, being careful not to splinter it, she efficiently scraped the three eggs off onto the plates. Carefully picking up the broom, she thumped on the ceiling, holding herself back so she didn’t drive another hole through the drywall.
Thankfully, she heard the answering thump of Callie’s feet as the ten-year old rolled herself out of bed and started down the stairs. Ready to scold her again, Maggie was stopped short by Callie’s jumping down the stairs and running into the kitchen fully dressed for school. She even had her bookbag over her shoulder.
“Good morning, Mom!” Callie shouted, not stopping as she jumped onto the black-and-white checked linoleum and slid in her socked feet over to the breakfast table. With a practiced motion she scooped up the egg and dropped it onto the peanut butter and raspberry jam toast, slapping the second slice on top of the first, then dashed over to give her father a kiss on the cheek.
Callie’s kiss seemed to bring him out of his reveries of vengeance and destruction. “Have a good day at school, meine Mäuschen,” he said, putting an arm around her and kissing her forehead. “I am sorry I cannot come.” Again, the German accent. He was so good at suppressing it most of the time.
Still disappointed, Callie nodded.
“Aren’t you going to sit for breakfast?” Maggie asked, wiping crumbs off on her apron.
“No time, Mom, might miss the bus,” Callie said, walking over to give Maggie a hug. Maggie gently stroked her daughter’s blonde hair – so like her father’s – and gave her a kiss on the top of the head. For my sins, she thought, she’d never be able to have any touch in any way that didn’t have to be controlled, measured, precise, like a jeweller or a surgeon. She couldn’t even kiss her only child with fearing tearing her skin.
“Besides,” Callie said, waving her egg, peanut butter and jam on toast sandwich as she started sprinting out the door, “I’ve got it.”
“Did you at least remember your presentation?” Maggie called at Callie’s back.
“Sure did, Mom” she said. Maggie watched her run out along the front lawn, take a right at the pine tree, and disappear out of sight. Her bookbag flopped heavily on her bony shoulders. Why was it heavy? Maggie wondered. It hadn’t seemed that heavy last night when she had come home. Not that Callie ever complained; despite her slight build she was a strong girl. Maybe a bit too strong.
“That girl is a whirlwind,” Victor said, smiling.
“I was going to say hurricane,” Maggie replied, pouring coffee for herself and Victor.
“Just like her mother,” Victor said, beaming at her as he raised the black coffee to his lips.
“In only some ways, I hope,” Maggie said. She’d accidentally crushed the handle of the percolator again. Victor caught her staring at it.
“Well, now it fits your hand like a glove,” he said soothingly.
“Can you fix it?” Maggie asked. She appreciated that Victor tried to lighten up, but she didn’t want it today, not after he’d been slipping back into his old self.
“Ja, meine Engel,” Victor said. He often took along things Maggie had crushed or bent to the backyard workshop where he spent his days – and increasingly his nights. “I can, but not today. The project, you know, taking up all of my time.”
“Yes,” Maggie said, frowning into her coffee, “the project.”
The project that Victor was working on in the shed out back, the shed that the Department of Defense had built for him, twice as large as their split-level blue ranch house. The shed with the twin padlocks and the two-story rolling steel door facing the empty lot behind their house.
“Don’t you think you’re working too hard. Darling?” Maggie asked. It was an old argument; one they’d been having for a year.
“This is about missing Callie’s career day, isn’t it?” Victor said, raising the folded newspaper up between them like a shield while he took a bite of his toast.
“That, and her sports days, and her Thanksgiving pageant, and …”
“Well,” Victor said, popping the last of the toast in his mouth and swallowing the coffee, “got to get started.”
“Okay dear,” Maggie said resignedly, “have a good day at work.”
“I’ll be back for lunch,” he said, lifting her chin to kiss her before heading out the door to the backyard.
Maggie sat for a moment, then got up to clean up the dishes. She deliberately crushed the mug Victor had been drinking from into the sink. The ceramic exploded under her hand as if it had been hit by a bullet. It was the last of their last Air Force mugs from the old family quarters at White Sands Proving Ground.
Victor came back in as she was drying and precisely putting away the last dish in the cupboard, having hidden the shattered mug pieces away in the trash.
“Meine Engel, I am not angry,” Victor began, “but I am concerned. Did you go into my workshop?”
“No,” Maggie said, offended, “why would you ever think such a thing. I understand secrecy every damn bit as well as you do, ‘Viktor’. I would never look in that workshop of yours. You can ignore your family there in private.”
They froze there, almost as if in tableau, till Victor moved first, raising his hands pleadingly. “Please, my dear, just come out to the backyard.”
Maggie slipped on her gardening shoes and followed Victor out the back door. The grass was overgrown here, unmown for two months, Victor insisting each weekend he was going to get around to it but never bothering to finish repairing the mower. Always his excuse was ‘work.’
They walked past the lush vegetable garden, alive with tomatoes and cauliflower and bees, along the stone path to the metal plated door of the shed. Her only requirement to Victor and the Pentagon had been that the shed not be so tall to block the summer sun from getting to the garden. The army engineers had compromised by buying out the Johnson’s place behind their house, knocking the house down, and building the shed there, extending the white picket fence to encircle the new conjoined lot. It was still enormous up close, a featureless aluminum-sided wall without windows, and The almost comically tiny double padlocked door on the lower left side.
Victor grabbed the first heavy brass padlock.
“The mechanism is broken,” he said, “probably because of this.” He pulled down on the brass body of the lock, and it came off in his hand, the shiny loop left through the eye of the latch lock. The second one came apart too. “You see why I considered whether it could be you?”
“Yes, Victor,” Maggie said, feeling like there was a ball in her stomach, “I would never do this.
“I believe you, my dear,” Victor said sadly. “But who…”
“Callie” Maggie said instantly.
On the bus, Callie clutched her bookbag to her protectively, making sure it stayed closed. She didn’t want anyone to see her career day presentation before it was ready. Mrs. Birnbaum had said that even though her father could not make it, she could still talk about what he did. Which was a little hard for her to do.
“What does your father do?” Mrs. Birnbaum had asked the class as she gave them the assignment.
“He’s a scientist,” Callie answered.
“What type of scientist,” Mrs. Binrbaum said.
“I … I’m not sure,” she’d admitted. The class laughed at that – Perry and Stanley and Otis mostly, but the others joined in. Already there were jokes that her father wasn’t at home, that he’d run off with another woman, that if he was there she was too dumb to understand what he did. A town full of engineers and scientists and she the only one who couldn’t name what discipline her father worked in. She’d asked him directly, but he’d never answered. “Secrets, my child,” he always said, “secrecy.”
She had even planned to ask him if she could borrow something from his lab. But Dad hadn’t been at dinner in weeks, and often her only glimpse of him was like this morning, a quick hug and kiss on the way to the bus.
She hadn’t meant to break the first padlock, had just been pulling at it experimentally to see if it had not been locked. After she’d broken that one, though, she’d figured she was in trouble anyway, so she’d broken the second one too and let herself in.
She’d never let her parents or anyone else see how strong she was. Her mom was self-conscious about her own strength and tried all the time to hide it, and Callie had never had the guts to ask her about it. Something about green discs in the night sky when she was about Callie’s age, on a camping trip, and that only gleaned from overhearing her parents one night as she sneaked down after her bedtime to watch the television through the stairway banister. It made Callie feel she had to walk on eggshells around her, because she became so upset every time it revealed itself, like the time she was scolding Callie for fooling around at the grocery store and tore apart the metal mesh of the shopping cart like it was a spider web.
Feeling guilty when she went inside, Callie had snatched the first thing that would fit in her backpack, then snuck out again and closed the locks as best as she could, ramming the parts together till they stuck.
As the school bus pulled up to the school, Callie swallowed hard and swung the backpack over her shoulders. Maybe Dad wasn’t using the device today – maybe she’d be able to return it before he noticed.
“You’ve suspected?” Victor asked. They were standing on the threshold of the workshop now, the door open, only a yawning darkness within, a vague smell of hot iron and machine oil coming out.
“Since she turned nine,” Maggie said, “I was just lying to myself, pretending it wasn’t there. You know what it’s been like for me.”
“Of course, Meine Engel,” Victor said, “It made you a war hero. I had not thought it would be hereditary, though. Because it was a meteor shower …” He trailed off, knowing she did not like to discuss it.
Victor stepped inside, then took her hand and urged her inside.
“You’re sure it is okay?” Maggie asked.
“I don’t care what the classification officer says,” Victor said, “I am giving you permission as my wife to see this.”
Callie’s eyes slowly became adjusted to the gloom. The wall closest to where they stood, running off towards the sliding door at the back, was fronted by a long workbench covered in tools, many that Callie recognized, and several she did not. There were microscopes, calipers, wrenches, dishes of screws, and an oscilloscope. She thought of the boxes she’d signed for when the delivery men came, Victor too busy in his lab: Thermo Electron Corporation, Lockheed, Imperial Chemical Industries, General Atomics. She frowned; it was only barely a ‘new’ project, as he’d told her. She thought she recognized the shape under the largest tarp, farthest from the entry door.
Of course, she thought, the military wouldn’t have contracted him to build something truly new, even something beneficial to mankind. The Army wanted one more of the machine that had stopped the Red Army at the Oder in ’45, making sure the Iron Curtain ran along the Polish border rather than through the heart of Berlin. “Got to have one before the Russkies do,” she was sure they’d told him.
That was why he was slipping back into the mannerisms he’d learned from Von Braun and Heisenberg, the cackles, the superior looks, the monologuing. It had been the same way at White Sands. Who could have blamed her for wanting to leave – who wanted that husband to come home late at night, full of triumph from building new doomsday devices?
“My father,” Callie said, standing at the front of the class, smiling as brightly as she could, fluttery feelings in her stomach, “is an electrical engineer for the Army.”
The other kids in the class did not seem impressed. Callie felt her cheeks start to grow hot, but Mrs. Birnbaum was making encouraging head nods from her desk. The other fathers in the classroom – almost all the other fourteen kids had been able to persuade their fathers to come – smiled encouragingly at her from their wooden seats along the walls.
“He can’t often tell me a lot about what he does,” Callie said, “because his work is super secret. He works all day in the shed behind our house.”
“Yeah right,” Perry said from the back, superiority and contempt on his face. “I bet your dad isn’t even living with you.”
“Perry Jackson,” Mrs. Birnbaum said, “that’s quite enough out of you. One more outburst like that and you will have detention.”
Perry settled back in his seat, looking happy at his triumph. She didn’t understand why he was being mean about it—his own father had not made it that day, either. Driving a garbage truck, Callie thought spitefully, wasn’t the kind of work that gave you time off in the morning.
“I got his permission,” Callie continued, ashamed of the lie but committing to it, “to bring in one of his inventions.”
She reached into her backpack and pulled the heavy metal box up and onto the stool to her right. It was about the size of a volume of the Britannica encyclopedia on their living room bookshelf but looked like the spaceship control console in a Buck Rogers comic – lots of switches, black dials, and yellow and red lights. All the fathers and children in the room looked curiously at the device. She saw some dad’s stroke their chins, eyebrows raised.
“And what does it do,” Mrs. Birnbaum asked, still smiling encouragingly.
“I’ll, uh, show you,” Callie said. She hadn’t anticipated the question, hadn’t even looked at the thing since she’d snatched it from the work bench and guiltily stuffed it into her backpack before Mom and Dad woke up. There were no words under any of the buttons, dials, or lights, just cryptic letters and numbers. She thought some of them were Greek.
Taking a guess, Callie flipped the white switch at the top of the device. She felt her stomach untighten as she saw a row of red lights flick on, and an amber one begin to blink reassuringly.
“It’s a measuring device,” Callie said, “for temperature and humidity.” The science unit for the month had been on meteorology, so she was able to pull the words to mind.
“Very interesting, Callie,” Mrs. Birnbaum said, “thank you.
Through the open classroom window, the bright May morning air carried far off sound of rending metal and a deep, rumbling roar.
“It isn’t ready!” Victor screamed, pulling at his thinning black hair as one of the shapes in the darkness began to rise with a sound of whirring gears and the ozone smell of arcing electricity. On instinct, Maggie pulled Victor out through the door, tugging him so hard she sent him flying out across the grass to land on the vegetable garden, sliding through the green bean trestles. Before she could look to see if he was okay, her attention was riveted by the amplified roar.
She heard the giant metal door give way. The ground shook with the vibration of heavy metal footfalls, and the force of the steel monstrosity tearing its way out brought the roof of the shed, buckling the exterior walls in.
“Goddamn it, Victor” Maggie cursed, “why couldn’t you have just said no.”
Maggie stood in the spreading cloud of dust, watching the twenty-five-foot-tall stainless steel Tyrannosaurus stomp down the picket fence and advance through the Packer’s garden shed and house before entering the street.
“But it looks like a toy,” Perry said, “you don’t know what it does?”
Mrs. Birnbaum, momentarily distracted by the crashing boom sound coming from far off, rescued Callie.
“Thank you very much for your presentation,” she said, “you may take your seat. Iris, please introduce us to your father.”
Callie sat back down at her desk, looking at the device. She tried flipping the switch again, but it didn’t turn off. She pressed a couple of other buttons, which made some more lights come on in complicated blinking patterns. Maybe it had some kind of timer inside it.
Before Iris’s father could start telling them about the exciting field of organic chemistry, a flare of flame shot up into the sky out the window.
“That’s a gas main,” Peter’s father said, unconsciously adjusting his Pennsylvania Gas & Electric coveralls. “Looks like 31st and Wilshire. I’ve got to call it in. Mrs. Birnbaum, where is the nearest phone?”
“In the office, down the hall,” Mrs. Birnbaum said, gesturing. The class had clustered around the second-story window to watch the fire. Black smoke billowed up into the air.
“Oh dear,” the teacher said, “how terrible. I hope no one has been hurt. Would you gentlemen help me close the windows?”
The other fathers were beginning to pull the windows down when an unearthly roar split the air.
“Was that a jet?” Sam’s father asked?
“Not one I ever heard,” Elise’s father answered. He was an engineer at Lockheed and was still tanned from the four weeks he had spent at White Sands.
The ground began to shake. One rumble, then another a second or two later, light at first, but getting stronger.
Perry, seated closest to the window, saw it first.
“Is that a dinosaur?”
Victor was fretting too much, so Maggie drove the Buick, following the trail of shattered houses, overturned cars, and water geysers from knocked over hydrants, and. Many of the buildings and vehicles were on fire, and the streets were dotted with the charred corpses of birds and what Callie hoped were only pets. They drove with the windows down, the air punctuated by an occasional crackling.
“Those are the ruby laser eyes,” Victor explained guiltily.
“That device Callie took,” Maggie said, fingers gripping the wheel hard enough she realized she was bending it, “is it a remote control?”
“We never managed to control it,” Victor said, putting his face in his hands. He looked like he was about to be sick. “Oh, mein Gott, what have I done?”
“Think!” Maggie said, “Victor, you cannot fall to pieces on me right now. Our daughter is in danger. You say you never managed to control it – but the Nazis…”
“We were desperate, so we just cut it loose,” Victor said, “it was Der Fuhrer’s last orders before he shot himself. We left a device on the east bank of the Oder, turned it on, and fled. The beast only stopped when it ran out of fuel.”
Maggie swerved the big car around the scattered wreckage of a house that seemed to have exploded out onto the street – piled mattresses and insulating foam and kitchen cabinets and sinks. The tires of the Buick thumped over wooden beams that had been part of the roof. Charred leaves from the burning oak trees lining the street fluttered onto the windshield.
Maggie struggled to think clearly, tactically, the way she had to every day after parachuting with the 101st Airborne into the Normandy bocage country, there to hunt Nazi scientists for the next war. “How much fuel does this one have?” Maggie asked.
“A year or more,” Victor said, numbly surveying the horror outside, “it has a plutonium power source.”
Damn it, Maggie thought. It was a kind of mania with the Pentagon – everything needed to be nuclear, from the bombs to the planes that carried them.
“So the Army can’t just shoot it with a tank.”
“No, mein Engel, that would shatter the reactor. But even a hundred-and-five-millimeter antitank round would have trouble getting through that armor.”
“I won’t,” Maggie said, clenching her fists so hard she deformed the steering wheel as she pressed the accelerator to the floor.
The gleaming metal Tyrannosaurus drew inexorably closer to their classroom. It had trod flat the chain-link fence and advanced across the playground, uprooting swing sets and knocking over climbing bars. It bellowed again, a deep, bone-shaking sound, then its red eyes glowed brightly. Cars in the parking lot seemed to melt and then explode, filling the air with the stench of gasoline and melted rubber. Like the Martians’ heat ray, Callie thought, too frightened to move.
In the classroom there was pandemonium, children screaming and fathers pulling at their arms to get them out of the classroom. Mrs. Birnbaum grabbed Callie and Perry’s arms, wrenching them away from the window.
“Run, children!” she shouted.
Callie snatched up the blinking metal box and shoved it into her backpack as she ran to the door, Perry just behind her. Mrs. Birnbaum followed them just in time as the windows melted and the desks caught fire. The tungsten teeth of the Tyrannosaurus crashed through the side of the school, sending white drywall and red bricks flying.
Callie and Perry were rushing down the staircase with Mrs. Birnbaum when the wall buckled in on them, knocking them over. Perry cried out in pain as he landed hard on his knee. Callie fell face down on the painted cement but felt nothing. Reaching up a hand to her face, expecting it to come away coated in blood from her nose, she was surprised to find it clean.
The wall continued to buckle inward, leaning over them. As Mrs. Birnbaum shielded Perry with her body, Callie stood up, put her hands on the wall, and braced herself on the floor. The Tyrannosaurus slammed its body into other side of the wall again, but with Callie support it held.
“Run,” Callie said, “I’ll follow.”
Mrs. Birnbaum looked at her in shock for five seconds, seeing the slight, tomboyish, blonde-haired ten-year old who loved science fiction comics holding up the heavy wall, then grabbed Perry and fled down the stairs.
Finally, the force from the Tyrannosaurus was too great. The wall buckled again, and Callie fell to the floor, covered in bricks. Again she felt no pain, but could not move. Then she felt a searing pain on her leg. Pushing an arm up through the rubble, she was nearly blinded by the red laser light blasting out of the monster’s eyes, the heat of it exploding apart the air molecules in a loud, continuous crackling. She threw her arms up over her face.
Suddenly the laser light stopped, and along with it the pain. With a great heave, Callie shoved bricks and drywall fragments off herself and sat upright. Her pants were burned and her legs looked like they’d been charbroiled, but she was still alive. Looking up into the open sky, she saw the silhouette of the Tyrannosaur against the sunlight, its jaws open. She covered her ears as it roared a challenge at something.
Then, from out of Callie’s field of vision, the half-melted engine block of a car arced through the air to slam into the monster’s face. The metal beast staggered backwards, then set its feet again and advanced. Looking to the right, Callie was struck dumb.
Her mother stood on the parking lot, amidst the wrecked cars, long brown hair in disarray, dressed in her red blouse and ankle-length polka dot skirt. She was wearing her brown flats, the ones she wore to PTA nights. Behind her, Callie recognized the blue family Buick, her father standing at the open passenger door, gaping at the scene. In shock, Callie waved at them.
“Don’t just stand there, Victor,” her mother shouted over her shoulder, not taking her eyes off the Tyrannosaur advancing towards her. “Get Callie!”
Her father nodded quickly and ran around the two combatants in a half circle, using a tipped over pickup truck as cover. He scooped Callie up into his arms as they watched her mother run at the Tyrannosaurs leg.
The Tyrannosaur bent down to bite at Maggie, but it was too slow. Gripping the right knee joint, fingers struggling for purchase on the warm polished steel, Maggie lifted. The Tyrannosaur tried to change its footing, but Maggie toppled it over onto its side. Roaring again, it struggled to lift itself. Maggie scrambled up onto the side of its abdomen. There she began punching at the steel casing, each blow sounding like a giant blacksmith hammering a tree-trunk sized piece of hot iron.
“Are you alright, meine Mäuschen?” her father asked, struggling to lift her up. He had always been on the short side, and slight.
“I’m okay Dad,” she said, wriggling out of his arms. “What is that thing?”
The Tyrannosaur by this time had a giant dent in its side where Maggie was pounding on it. It tried to turn over but Maggie took a step back and roundhouse punched it in one of its eyes. The neck servomotor made an ear-splitting whining sound as it turned one hundred and eighty degrees. Then Maggie turned back to pounding on the abdomen. With one more blow the steel buckled, exposing a dark cavity within.
“It’s the red cable, right?” Maggie shouted, not looking up as she shoved her hand into the cavity. The Tyrannosaur tried to flip itself over, but Maggie braced her feet and stopped it.
“Ja,” Victor shouted, “do be careful.”
Callie watched her mother give a giant heave and pull a torn red cable from the Tyrannosaur’s chest, blue sparks spraying from the ripped copper filaments inside. Then the arcing stopped and the Tyrannosaur lay still.
“What was that thing, Dad?” Callie asked.
“Oh,” her father said, “something from work.”
Exhausted by the ordeal, Callie rode in the backseat with her mother as her father drove them home, after Maggie had taken the metal box out of Callie’s bookbag and stomped it into tiny pieces on the parking lot asphalt. Police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks rushed past them. Victor took a long detour to avoid the fifty-foot geyser of flame on 31st and Wilshire, as well as the most devastated streets. They rode in silence, Maggie’s arms wrapped tightly around Callie, not holding herself back. Callie squeezed back just as hard. Maggie looked into Callie’s eyes, green liked her own, then nodded before leaning in to give her a kiss on the top of her head. Neither of them hurt the other at all.
When they pulled up in the driveway, Callie noted the absence of the shed looming over the roofline.
“I’m grounded, aren’t I?” Callie said.
“No, darling,” her mother said, “you’re not grounded. You father is, but you’re not.”
“You’re going to ground Dad?” Callie asked, incredulously.
“Let’s just say he needs to spend a lot more time with his family and find something new to do.”
Victor just looked straight ahead as he let them into the house. After taking off her shoes, Callie ran to the rear windows in the den.
“Dad?” she called, “what are those?”
Maggie gave her husband a sharp look. What had been under the other two tarps in the shed, she wondered. Her right fist was still tender, but she figured she could crush a few more metal monstrosities before she needed lunch.
She walked to the den windows, to look out at two Cadillac-sized green metal Triceratops, contentedly munching on the grass.
“Robotic border defences,” Victor said, “browsing a preset territory. They won’t attack anything if they’re left alone and their grazing land not disturbed.”
“They run on grass?” Callie asked.
“Oh yes,” Victor said, “they weren’t interested in that at White Sands. Nuclear or nothing was the order of the day. My bioresource convertors were of no use to them. Still, I could not drop the idea.”
Maggie strode out into the backyard, ready to tear the things to pieces. The nearest Triceratops looked up at her placidly, then went back to its eating. It was still eating when she stood right next to it. It didn’t change its behavior when she put a hand on its flank. The metal was warm to the touch, almost like touching a cow.
“This is why I was spending so much time away from you all,” Victor said, “working from home I knew I could work on what I wanted to, bring my boyhood dreams of robotic herbivores to life.”
“You used the Army’s money to do this?” Maggie asked.
“Yes,” Victor said, looking a little guilty, “but they were giving me more funding than I really needed. I just didn’t tell them that. They insisted I work from Von Braun’s original Tyrannosaur model, and the cybernetic challenges of control were too great. Here, with the Triceratops, I could start from scratch.”
“They can stay,” Maggie said, “as long as they keep the grass short and won’t eat my vegetables.”
“Of course,” Victor said.
“You are quitting your job,” Maggie said, “and I am going to get one.”
“Really, Mom?” Callie asked.
“Mmhmm,” Maggie nodded, “I’m thinking of something in construction. Something where I can use my hands.”
Victor said nothing, just reached out to take her hand in his. She squeezed back, but not too hard. Just enough to make him wince a little. Then they both gave Callie a hug and stood there, watching the metal Triceratopses peacefully graze in the bright morning sun.