Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Constructor

by Rick Grehan




On a Saturday afternoon in August, I sat on the steps of my front porch and surveyed the neighborhood. Overhead, the sky was a blue playground, sparsely populated with bright and billowy cumulus clouds that raced above rooftops and treetops and hilltops. I watched their shadows chase one another across freshly mowed and sunlit lawns.

I smiled.

Far above those galloping clouds, Providence looked down, studied the figure on the porch steps, regarded that figure's plainly evident happiness, and said, "Behold, he is filled with much contentment, even to the point of great joy--"

"--I'll have to do something about that."


* * *

Behind me, the door opened. A moment later, my wife had joined me on the steps. She was smiling, and even though I saw the smile out of the corner of my eye, I could tell that it was one of her purposeful, tactical smiles.

"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" she asked.

"Beautiful," I agreed.

The word hung in the air. I didn't bother trying to guess the direction she wanted the conversation to go; her unwavering smile told me that she already had her campaign planned to its conclusion. So, all I had to do was wait and--

"In fact, it's a perfect day to fix the siding on the garage like you promised last month," she said gaily.

A cloud's shadow fell over the porch, and seemed to pause there.

"Ok, look--" I began, but she cut me off.

"But, I'm taking care of it, so you won't have to do anything." The emphasis she placed on 'you' and 'do anything' was impossible to miss.

"You're going to fix the siding?" I asked.

"Not me, Uncle Michael. He's coming over after supper to do it. He says he's got all equipment he needs to do job in just a few minutes. Won't cost us a thing, and all you have to do is watch." She stood up. "So, see? Isn't it a beautiful day?" She bent down, gave me a quick peck on the cheek, and added, "No need to thank me." She breezed across the porch as lightly as one of the overhead clouds and went back inside, closing the door almost silently.

Meanwhile, I was frozen. I'd become frozen when she said 'Uncle Michael'. That's a name that has the same effect on me as words like 'exposed high tension wires' or 'phosgene gas'.

Don't get me wrong; I liked Uncle Michael. He was my wife's brother, after all. (Why everyone in the family called him 'Uncle' was something I'd never discovered.) But, he was also a self-styled inventor, and the unhappy events that always unfolded whenever he unleashed one of his inventions made him the sort of person I would rather have known only at a distance... like, say, through newspaper articles or television reports.

And my wife had said 'equipment'; which made her revelation particularly troubling. I tried calming myself with the thought that 'equipment' meant stuff like saws, hammers, and ladders... maybe even scaffolding... but nothing worse.

I thought I heard distant chuckling overhead...


* * *

Twilight was well along its slide into darkness when our front windows were illuminated by a truck's headlights, as the vehicle turned off the street and headed up our driveway.

"Uncle Mike's here!" my wife called from upstairs. I was in the living room, trying unsuccessfully to distract my mind with a book. I tossed the book onto the table and headed outside.

As I came around the corner of the garage, I found a rather large cargo van, like the sort people rent for moving, backing into the parking area. I guessed it was at least a 26-footer, probably more. It was all white, with no emblems visible on sides or doors.

I heard the klunk of the parking gear. The driver-side door gave that metallic groan every truck's door makes when it opens, and Uncle Mike hopped out.

"Hey, Rick!" he called, banging the door shut. "Ready to get that siding fixed?"

"Absolutely," I answered. Eying the truck, I remarked, "That's a pretty big cargo truck you've got there. You must've brought a lot of equipment and supplies. I hope you didn't buy any replacement siding... we've got plenty of it out back."

I heard the truck's passenger door open and close. Gravel crunched beneath another pair of feet that moved around the front of the vehicle. Someone crossed through the headlight beams, and walked toward us.

He was a small man, maybe just over five feet, wearing a white shirt and dark pants. Even in the dim light, I could see that the adjective that provided the best overall description of him was 'round'. His nose was stubby and round, his mouth shaped in a circular pucker--as though he were constantly whistling--his round eyes peered through the round lenses of glasses that hooked behind his round ears, which were affixed to either side of a distractingly round head.

"Nope, we have everything we need," Mike announced as the fellow joined us. I saw then that the man was carrying some sort of electrical control box.

"We?" I asked, glancing at Mike's companion. The little man regarded me with the expression people have when they're looking at uninteresting exhibits in a museum.

"Oh, right, sorry. Rick, this is my partner in this venture, Sidney Pritcher. Sidney, I told you about my brother-in-law, Rick. He's the guy who's agreed to let us use his house for the demonstration."

The little man stepped forward and stuck out his hand.

"A pleasure to meet you," he said in a voice so nasal it almost buzzed. "And thank you for your cooperation."

I extended my hand as well, and Sidney took it. He didn't actually shake my hand; he vibrated it. As he did, I turned quickly on Mike.

"Hold on, Mike," I protested. "You said a whole bunch of stuff that I'm not clear about. Partner? Venture? And I agreed to a demonstration?"

Sidney finished vibrating my hand, and walked to the back of the truck.

"Sidney and I have been working on a project," Mike explained. "We've gotten most of the kinks worked out of it, so we need to film it in action." He paused and thought an instant. "Actually, I should say that we think we've gotten all of the big kinks worked out of it, but... well... never mind that..." He waved his hand and continued. "Sis had said you needed some siding replaced, and we realized that would make the perfect job for our demonstration video." He turned around, opened the driver-side door, and rummaged about in the space behind the seat. Over his shoulder, he said happily, "You get your siding fixed and we get our video, so it's a win-win, right?"

The latch at the truck's rear clanked. Sidney grunted, and the door rattled noisily up.

Looking back and forth between Mike and the rear of the truck, I felt the beginning of a familiar dread. It was a lot like the feeling I get when the roller coaster is almost at the top of the first hill, and I'm waiting for the clank of the lift chain's disengaging.

I don't like roller coasters.

"Project? What project? And what are you demonstrating?" I asked Mike.

"We call it 'Constructor'," Sidney buzzed from behind the trailer.

"I still don't like that name," Mike yelled back as he hefted something out of the truck. It was a flood light and stand. He had already placed what looked like a battery pack on the ground. "But we can argue about that later. The demonstration video is what's important."

"I concur," Sidney called. And from the sound of his reply I could tell that he was somewhere inside the trailer.

"What is 'Constructor'?!" I asked, my voice rising. I was fighting back panic.

"The name of our project, like I said," Mike answered, hefting the lamp assembly onto one shoulder, and picking up the battery pack. He had slung the electrical cabling over his other shoulder. "Only we're still trying to decide if we want to call it that."

"Call WHAT that? What is IT!?"

"I believe I can answer that for you," Sidney said. He was back outside, standing beside the rear of the truck. The controller he'd carried earlier was in his hands. Though it was now dark, I could see in the indirect light from the truck's tail-lights and my house's outside garage lights that a cable ran from the controller to somewhere inside the van's cargo bay. He pressed a button on the controller, and his triumphant face was bathed in the pale green glow of indicator lights.

Something in the truck moved.

Something big.


Something so big that the entire vehicle creaked and swayed.


I heard motors whining, the hissing of air-driven pistons, and the noisy scraping of metal sliding over metal.

Something like a large, metal plate about the size of a manhole cover, attached to a column of gleaming silver cylinders laced with black hoses, emerged from the back of the truck. Another appeared. The whining and hissing grew louder, as did the scraping. And the whole truck was rocking so madly that the rear wheels slid back and forth on the gravel.

The column of cylinders angled downward. The disc planted itself with a ground-shaking thump! on the lawn. The other disc did the same. Now a cluster of interconnected metal components appeared around the edge of the door. It seemed to grip the corner of the truck like--giant fingers?

Sidney's thumbs worked quickly but expertly, maneuvering what must have been a pair of small joysticks. There was a mighty heave, gears and air pumps and pistons made a final sound like someone had pulled a colossal bow across a gigantic bass fiddle, and the rest of what was in the truck ducked out and rose to its full height of almost fifteen feet.

I found that I had sat down, and my position on the ground magnified the thing's size. It was a huge, mechanical man. The discs were its feet, attached to legs of rods and pneumatic cylinders. Its knee joints were complex bundles of swivels and metallic tubes. Two massive arms, also composed of bundles of metal cylinders, hung at its side. It had no head; its torso was a box-shaped framework of pipes and rods and cables, topped by what looked like a small conning tower bedecked with lights and a row of cameras. The cameras swiveled to and fro, up and down, making tiny whirring sounds as they pivoted and rotated.

"God in heaven, Mike!" I cried. "Where'd you get a transformer?!"

Sidney's circular glasses swung around. "The proper term is 'exo-suit'," he said indignantly, managing a cross between a buzz and a snort.

Mike sat down next to me. "I know, it's hard to believe when you first see it." As he spoke, he looked up at the machine with obvious admiration.

"See, Sidney works for--" Mike began, but Sidney cleared his either his throat or his nose (it was hard to tell), and Mike paused. "--uh... this company," Mike proceeded more carefully. "He discovered that the military had a squad of these exo-suits mothballed in--" Sidney ahem-ed again "--uh... a... a warehouse someplace. The original project had been de-funded. Unmanned drones are the big thing now. But these--" he waved his hand up at the mechanical monster "--are manned. Nobody's interested in them these days."

"So," Mike continued, as he stood and dusted his pants' seat off, "Sidney and I thought: Why not re-purpose these exo-suits for construction work? I mean, they're just sitting around collecting dust. No one's using them."

He walked up to the exo-suit. Sidney fiddled with something on the control panel. The exo-suit whirred, and extended its gargantuan right arm. Mike pointed to its forearm.

"Both forearms are multi-tooled. The suit's driver can rotate each tool in place of the hand as required. Variable-speed saw, a multi-headed power screwdriver, drill, nail gun, vise, and--of course--a hand." As he named each tool, something whined, the forearm rotated and clicked, and a new device snapped into place. "And, we're working on other attachments that can be snapped into place 'in the field'."

I stood slowly. "A rotating saw? A nail gun? That thing has a nail gun on each arm?"

"Actually, no," Sidney buzzed. "Only the right hand has a nail gun. Two nail guns seemed redundant, and the complexity of the feed mechanism made an extra one prohibitively expensive."

I regarded the exo-suit for several heartbeats, saying nothing. The only sound was the incessant whirring of the cameras on Constructor's "head".

I turned to Mike. "Put it back in the truck," I said.

"What?"

"You've got a fifteen-foot tall robot built for the military, armed with a high-speed saw, a fully automatic nail gun, powered attachments suitable for hand-to-hand combat--should another fifteen-foot tall robot appear--and --" I pointed at the cameras "--high-precision ocular equipment that I'll bet is telescopic and equipped with night vision. It's standing in my driveway, and it's about to attack my house. Put it in the truck and take it back."

"Actually, the exo-suit's full height is --" Sidney began. He was interrupted by a voice from the front of the house.

"Have you started on the siding yet?" My wife called. "It's already dark. Should I turn on the outside lights? "

"No, don't!" Mike shouted frantically. Then, in a more controlled voice: "That's okay, Sis, thanks! We brought our own work lights! We're going to get started here in a jiffy!"

I heard the front door close.

Mike turned to Sidney. "We should get around the back of the house where the work is. Someone might see Constructor. You get aboard and drive it around while I go set up the lights and the video camera."

Sidney turned to the exo-suit and fiddled with the controls. Mike walked over to the lamp and battery, picked them up, and headed around the house. I was about to follow him, when I heard Constructor's gears whine. I turned, and saw that the exo-suit was now squatting.

The controller that Sidney was holding had been attached by cable to one of the exo-suit's legs. Sidney detached the cable and, winding it around the control box, walked to the back of the truck, where he deposited the unit. He then returned to Constructor, and--with a grunt--climbed up into the exo-suit.

I now saw that the framework in Constructor's center was a cockpit; a cross between a seat and a harness. Sidney sat, but his legs hung freely, and as I watched, he buckled what looked like riding chaps on each leg. A web-work of wires attached to the chaps disappeared into Constructor's interior behind the framework.

Next, Sidney retrieved what looked like a pair of gauntlets from an invisible recess in the cockpit. He pulled these over his hands and forearms, fastening each with snaps or straps I could not see. Like the leg braces, the gauntlets were festooned with wires that led somewhere into Constructor's body. Finally, he produced a helmet and goggles, which he donned.

Sidney's circular mouth formed a satisfied smile. He reached to his right, and touched an unseen button. Banks of multicolored LEDs all around him blinked suddenly on.

The exo-suit's mechanisms hummed, and Constructor rose smoothly from crouch to full height. It took a step forward, and I felt the ground tremble. It took another step, then turned, and began walking toward the back yard. As it moved, I could see Sidney moving in the harness, and it was clear that the little man was 'driving' Constructor.

I shook my head. "Bad juju," I whispered.

Light flooded the back yard. Mike had activated his spotlights, and at that same instant, a thought struck me. I darted after the clumping behemoth.

"Sidney!" I called. "Don't go that way! You're headed for the leach field! That thing'll sink right in and crush the pipes for sure!"

But Constructor had already stopped. The robot swiveled at the hips, and a pair of its directional beams swung down. I had to throw up my hands to shield my eyes.

"I am well aware of the location of the leach field," Sidney barked through a speaker. I didn't think it was possible to add more buzz to his voice, but through the suit's audio circuits, it sounded wholly artificial. "I can see it clearly, thank you."

Constructor swiveled again, and clomped toward the house. I followed at a careful distance.

Mike was standing beside a pair of tripods, facing the section of wall that was to be repaired. The flood-lamp, now illuminating the wall, was mounted atop one tripod. A digital camera was perched atop the other, a red LED above its lens flashing steadily, indicating that the camera was recording.

I approached Mike from the side, avoiding--I hoped--the camera's field of view.

"Does he know what to do?" I whispered, motioning toward Sidney-Constructor, who had strode up to the wall and appeared to be studying it.

"I heard that!" Sidney's voice buzzed.

Mike chuckled, then said, "The headset he's wearing has earphones, as well as the enhanced visuals that you guessed. But, to answer your question, Sidney doesn't need to know what to do. Constructor knows."

"Whoa, wait a minute. You mean, that's not just a suit?"

"Nope. There are four top-of-the-line processors in Constructor, along with several gigabytes of high-speed memory, and I forget how many terabytes of solid-state storage. We've modified the original software to understand the details of most common construction tasks, primarily carpentry tasks. We're working on other areas, but it takes time. You can't just feed it the contents of a few Time-Life Home Improvement books... even though, uh, that's sort of what we did..." His voice trailed off.

"But, if Constructor knows all that, why does there need to be a person in the suit?" I was still whispering.

"All Constructor knows are facts, even though some of those facts are... um... action sequences; like, how to nail a piece of plywood into place, or how to make a mitered cut." Mike was struggling to explain. "Anyway, it takes a human to... uh... gather the actions together, prioritize them, and carry them out. It's... it's complicated."

Constructor approached the house. More high-intensity beams came on, bathing the wall in light. The exo-suit raised its arms, something whirred and clicked, and in place of its hands, I saw what looked like pry-bars. Sidney pushed these beneath the planks above the damaged section, and wood creaked as he began to work the clapboards loose.

Meanwhile, I had been mulling over Mike's earlier description of Constructor.

"It sounds," I said, "as though that helmet Sidney is wearing is a bit more than a head's up display."

"Oh, it is," Mike said, nodding. "While the arm and leg attachments are reading muscle movements to control the suit, sensors in the helmet are monitoring the driver's neural traffic. Constructor works to match the two and, from that, learn how to best accommodate the driver, so that what Sidney tries to do is what Constructor actually does. It also reads his intentions, and learns to provide information in the periphery of the helmet's visual display--information that it deems relevant to the current task."

"Mike, that's way beyond Time-Life Home Improvement material," I said uneasily.

"True, but think of the possibilities. I'm willing to bet that a small squad of just four Constructors could assemble a house the size of yours in less than a day. Minus the interior work, of course."

I shook my head. "I dunno, Mike."

"We have to prove that it'll work, first. That's where this demonstration comes in. But, it's just a start. We'll need to get videos of Constructor doing a variety of jobs."

I continued shaking my head as Mike continued talking. "For instance, when Sidney and I were pulling into your driveway, we noticed the gazebo your neighbors across the street have in their front yard. Bad placement... hides part of the home's facade. Constructor could disassemble it in sections, and put it back together in that little field on the north side of the house. Much better spot. Plus, it looks like their garage could be expanded. Do you think you could talk to them for us sometime this week?"

"That would be the Tuttles," I said. "You want me to walk over to Mr. Tuttle's door, ring the bell, and tell him--what?--something like: 'Would you mind if a fifteen-foot robot came over, tore your gazebo apart, and rebuilt it on the other side of the house?' That about it?"

"Well, you could add that we'd do it for free... " Mike's voice trailed off.

Sidney had finished removing the damaged siding. Constructor's motors whined as it swung around to face us. "Where are the replacements?" Sidney's voice buzzed.

"I'll show you," I said. I trotted over to a corner of the house where a tarpaulin lay, its edges held down by paving stones. I lifted the first of the flat, rectangular stones from the tarpaulin, carried it off to the side, and returned for the next. I felt the ground tremble as Constructor stomped up to where I worked. I found myself in a circle of daylight brilliance as the exo-suit turned its lights on me.

"Please let me do that," the suit's speakers crackled.

"Yeah, Rick, let Sidney do that!" Mike called. "Any sort of work that would happen at a construction site is something we'll want on the video!"

I stepped away from the tarpaulin and, giving Constructor a wide berth, rejoined Mike by the tripods. Sidney had already picked up several of the paving stones, having rotated what looked like an actual hand into place at the end of one arm. At the end of the other arm was some kind of shovel or trowel attachment, into which he stacked the stones.

"Where shall I put these?" he asked without turning away from his work.

"Just by the corner of the house will be fine!" I called back. As I did so, he placed another stone on the stack. I heard the hiss and whine of pneumatics and motors, as Constructor's arm sagged momentarily, then righted itself.

"Hey, careful with those!" I yelled. "There's some repairs on the front walk I'm going to use them for!"

Constructor straightened; turned to face us.

Even through the speakers, I could hear the umbrage in Sidney's voice: "Careful? Please note that the motors and sensors in the suit's manipulator systems are sensitive enough to allow me to measure deviations from either the vertical or the horizontal down to one tenth of a degree. Observe!"

Sidney raised the stack of stones so that it was level with his face. As he did so, Constructor began rotating at the hips, twisting from side to side.

"Even as I lift the stack and cause the suit to rotate first a clockwise and then counter-clockwise, notice that the stones are kept perfectly level, and the stack is undisturbed."

He raised Constructor's arm further. Mechanisms whined and the suit's forearm grew an additional foot or so. He continued swiveling back and forth. He also continued his narration.

"Control is maintained even with the arm fully extended. And..." Constructor lifted a monstrous foot and clomped forward, still twisting. Another foot lifted, the stack of stones held high, the exo-suit still rotating left and right. I realized my jaw had sagged open; it was like watching an oversized rock-em-sock-em robot dance. "... even translating and rotating simultaneously..." The foot came down and the ground trembled. The other foot lifted, swung forward. "... I can maintain complete control and--"

Constructor's manhole-cover-sized foot struck the ground, punched a manhole-cover-sized hole, and sank up to its monstrous calf.

"--and there's the leach field," I moaned.

The giant shape tilted. I saw Sidney's arms and legs flail, and the suit responded, swinging it's massive arms upward like a pair of giant wings. The stack of stones came apart, its individual members spinning into the air in various directions.

Two came at Mike and me, and we dove in separate directions. The whirling rocks thudded into the ground near where we'd been standing.

Others sailed into the night.

One stone, however, went straight up, and came straight back down. It first struck one of Constructor's high-intensity spotlights; we heard a tinkle, saw a flash, and the bulb went dark. The stone then fell into Constructor's framework, bouncing like a ball in a pachinko machine. It smashed a camera, clouted Sidney's helmet, raked a panel of LEDs next to Sidney's shoulder, bounced off his knee, and landed with a thump next to Constructor's sunken foot.

I returned to my spot next to the tripod, scanning the sky for more missiles, thankful that none had hit the house. Mike appeared an instant later.

"You ok?" I asked.

"Yeah, you?"

"I'm fine," I replied. "But, he's not." I pointed to the still listing Constructor.

"Sorry about the leach field, Rick. If there are any repairs--"

I was looking at Constructor. I had to shield my eyes against the remaining spotlights.

"We can deal with my leach field later," I said. "Right now, I think Sidney needs help."

"Sidney? You all right?" Mike called.

There was no answer.

Mike stepped toward Constructor. I followed.

"Sidney?"

I approached the exo-suit, still shielding my eyes from the lights. Constructor was a silhouette, its interior dark, but as Mike and I drew near, we could see that Sidney was not upright in the harness. He slumped to one side, arms dangling, goggles askew.

"Sidney?" Mike called again. We were now standing directly in front of him, and it was clear that he was unconscious.

"I think the stone that took out the spotlight clocked him pretty good," I said. "Looks like it hit a camera, too." I pointed.

"We need to get him down from there now, he might need--" Mike had been stepping forward, and was prepared to climb up into the exo-suit where Sidney hung, but he stopped short as a bank of LEDs next to Sidney's drooping head suddenly flashed on. Somewhere inside Constructor, motors hummed.

I took a step back.

"What the--?"

With a hissing and whining and slorping sound, Constructor straightened, extracting its sunken foot from the hole. Mike moved quickly back to where I stood.

"Sidney? Are you okay?" he called.

There was no reply. Constructor stood immobile, bathing us in its spotlights. Indicator lights lining the cockpit flickered on and off.

Constructor turned and clomped off across the yard, heading for the driveway.

Mike and I shot looks at each other.

"Where's he going?" Mike asked, then shouted. "Sidney! Where are you going?!"

"I've got a bad feeling about this," I said. "I heard that stone hit his helmet. It was a solid whack. I think he's still knocked out."

"But, he can't be!" Mike wailed. He gestured at the receding exo-suit. "Who's driving Constructor?"

Mike started after Sidney. I followed at his heels. Constructor had rounded the garage and was crunching down the driveway. Mike caught up with the giant and jogged beside it, jumping up and down, waving his arms, and calling. After several attempts he stopped, while Constructor continued its elephantine plod toward the street. I arrived at Mike's side and together we watched the exo-suit's spotlight beams waving away into the darkness.

"I wouldn't have believed it, but I think you're right," Mike gasped incredulously. "Sidney's out cold."

"And yet there goes Constructor."

"But... but... how?" Mike shook his head.

I thought a moment, then said, "Didn't you say that the helmet Sidney's wearing has neural pick-ups in it?"

"Well, yes, but--"

"I'll bet you guys never tested that helmet out on someone sleeping, or someone knocked unconscious, did you?"

"Well, no, but--"

"Plus, the helmet got smacked by that rock. So, what if it's all screwed up and Constructor is picking up on whatever impulses happen to be banging around in Sidney's garbled brain right now?"

Constructor had reached the end of the driveway. Its massive feet clanked across the road. The exo-suit was heading directly for the Tuttle's yard.

"He's headed for your neighbor's yard!" Mike exclaimed. "Why's he doing that?"

Somewhere in the back of my mind, a relay closed. I grabbed Mike's collar and spun him to face me. "Mike! What was it you and Sidney were talking about when you drove up?"

"What?" He yanked my hand away. "What does that have to--?"

"You told me that you two were talking about projects to do around the neighborhood once you'd finished my siding."

Mike blinked. "Oh, yeah. Your neighbor's gazebo. We talked about disassembling it and moving it--"

Just then we heard the distant sound of a power saw revving up. We spun simultaneously. Constructor had crossed the street, and was thudding into the Tuttle's front yard. The exo-suit's arm was outstretched, and though Constructor was some distance away, the attachment that had rotated into place at the end of its arm was unmistakable.

"That's the variable-speed saw, isn't it?" I gasped.

Mike nodded. "Sidney's real proud of that attachment."

"And Mr. Tuttle is real proud of his gazebo, which is what Constructor is headed directly--"

I didn't finish, because Mike and I, both realizing what was about to happen, had sprung in two completely different directions. I leaped down my driveway toward Constructor; Mike dashed back for the truck. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that he wasn't running next to me.

"Where the hell are you going?!" I yelled over my shoulder, still running.

"The remote control unit!" he yelled back. "If we can attach it to Constructor, maybe we can turn him off!"

I reached the end of my driveway, and pounded across the road. I heard a clatter from the back of the truck, followed by fast footfalls on gravel. Mike had retrieved the control and was racing after me. Ahead, Constructor had almost reached the gazebo. I realized that I would have to delay the monster until Mike caught up.

The Tuttles had a penchant for lawn decorations. While other yards on our street were broad and uninterrupted plains of mowed grass, the Tuttles' was an archipelago of several flowerbeds, one or two clusters of arbor vides, a miniature windmill atop a small island of stacked rocks--

--and, of course, the gazebo.

The lawn accents were not obstacles for Constructor, who easily maneuvered around them. I, however, had neither spotlights nor night-vision cameras. So, I blundered into one of Mrs. Tuttle's flower gardens... which she had ringed with some of New Hampshire's famous granite rocks... big ones. And, by "blundered", I mean that I ran full-tilt into a boulder whose top what almost as high as my knees.

Newton's laws dictate that if I run full tilt into an immovable boulder, the effect is identical to the boulder's running full tilt into me. Imagine a granite linebacker plowing into your shins. I pitched over its top and belly-flopped into a mixture of mulch and gravel, plowed a respectable trench to the flower bed's opposite side, and filled my mouth with day-lily stalks.

Blowing fronds from between my teeth, I pushed myself painfully to my hands and knees. Ahead, Constructor had arrived at the gazebo. The exo-suit was standing motionless, apparently studying the structure and deciding how best to dismantle it.

I felt something cold and hard under my left hand, and a desperate idea flashed through my mind. I jumped to my feet, took aim, and hurled the rock at Constructor's back.

Though I'd never participated in any school sports, I was a deadeye if you handed me a smooth, evenly-weighted, fits-in-your-hand rock and showed me a bottle atop a fencepost. Tonight, I wasn't aiming for a bottle; I was aiming for the backside of one of Constructor's spotlights.

And I did pretty well, especially considering how dark it was and that I'd just gone body-surfing in a flowerbed. My projectile clanged off the lamp's cowling, and I saw the light's beam jerk out of alignment.

In one, smooth movement, Constructor rotated 180 degrees at the waist. I was bathed in the exo-suit's spotlights, in spite of one being blown out and another knocked askew by my rock. I staggered under the sudden glare.

I heard a sound from Constructor, a noise that I recognized as one of the hand attachments rotating into position. A small voice in my head shouted an alarm. I dove behind the row of granite boulders lining the backside of the flowerbed, flattening myself into the mulch a fraction of a second ahead of a series of clattering pops. Metal pinged off the rocks just beyond where I lay.

"That bulb-headed bastard is shooting nails at me!" I hissed into the mulch. I lay still for several seconds after the shooting had ceased, expecting to hear and feel the tread of the approaching exo-suit. But, Constructor's spotlights swung away, and I cautiously lifted my head to peer through a small opening between a pair of boulders.

Constructor had turned back to the gazebo. I heard the saw rotating back into place.

A rush of feet, and something heavy landed on my back. We both grunted noisily.

"There you are!" Mike whispered. "Are you okay?"

"I was until you jumped on my back!" I whispered through gritted teeth.

"Sorry." Mike rolled away. He crawled to the line of boulders and looked out into the darkness.

"I swear, when Sidney comes to, I'm going to peel him out of that suit and brain him all over again with another paving stone!" I snarled. "Maybe two! He actually tried to shoot me with the nail gun! Why the hell would he do that?"

"Wasn't him," Mike replied. "It's probably some residual code we didn't clear out. And you were lucky."

"Lucky!" I hissed, crawling next to him. "How was I lucky?"

"We're not prying nails out of you, are we? He missed. In fact, he missed by a pretty wide margin. The ocular systems must be out of alignment. Look!"

I peeked over the top of a boulder. Constructor, silhouetted by the illuminated gazebo, was repeatedly waving his saw-hand through the air. It looked like he was aiming for a section of the gazebo's roof, but each time his arm swiped the air, it missed the roof by several inches.

"What on earth?" I whispered.

"Like I said, the visuals are out of alignment. I'm sure the paving stone did it."

I watched in fascination, wondering how long it would take Constructor's systems to work out the problem.

A thought that had been nagging me leaped into the foreground.

"Hey," I whispered, turning to Mike. "That's a military exo-suit. When you said 'residual code', do you mean that some of the original software is still in that thing?"

Mike didn't answer.

"Crap, Mike! I hate it when you say stuff like that!"

"I didn't say anything."

"Exactly. Was that exo-suit originally designed for use in fire-fights?"

He didn't answer.

"Crap!"

Suddenly, a new illumination swept the yard. We both turned. A pair of automobile headlights had turned off the street and were pointed down the Tuttle's driveway.

The family had come home.

"Oh, no," Mike moaned.

"I was wondering why we hadn't heard anything from their house," I said. "What with all the noise we've been making."

The car stopped midway up the driveway. Obviously, they'd caught sight of Constructor standing in front of their gazebo. Exclamations poured through partially open windows. One of the rear windows slid down and a young boy's head poked out.

"It's Bumblebee!" he called. "Hey, Bumblebee!"

Mike moaned again.

"Willy!" Mr. Tuttle's voice barked. "Close that window!" A woman in the car--obviously Mrs. Tuttle--was shouting frantically. I couldn't understand everything she was saying, but I distinctly heard the word 'police.'

"Mike, this is going to get much, much worse, really fast!" I hissed.

"You're telling me," Mike said. "Look!"

I turned my attention back to Constructor in time to see a section of the gazebo's roof slide off the structure and land with a splintering crash. Wood fragments flew. A muffled cry issued from the car.

"He's accounting for the misalignment," Mike said.

"And I'm guessing there were no chapters in those Time-Life books about how to take buildings apart neatly," I whispered.

"We have to stop him somehow!"

"Where's that control you went back for?" I asked, looking around the flowerbed.

Mike thumbed over his shoulder. "I dropped it somewhere back there when he started shooting."

I turned to look, but saw only darkness behind us. As I turned back, something partially illuminated by the car's headlamps caught my attention. I felt a plan stir.

"Hang on," I whispered to Mike. "I might have something." I scurried away in a crouch. Scrambling over the boulders, I darted across the lawn. I kept a sideways eye on Constructor, making sure that he was still intent on the gazebo. I heard the saw at work on wood.

I arrived at my target; one of those shallow, plastic play-pools for toddlers. I was, however, more interested in what I'd seen lying in the grass beside it.

A squirt gun.

Or, more precisely, a squirt-rifle; a super-soaker; the kind with multiple over-sized plastic tanks that could hold enough water to melt an army of wicked witches, and a pump action that could project that water across the better part of a baseball field.

I picked it up and shook it, praying silently. The tanks sloshed and gurgled. I judged them to be about half full. I gave a silent thanks and began pumping the gun.

"Rick? Is that you?" a voice called from the car.

I scurried over to the car and crouched beneath the driver-side window. I could see the top of Tuttle's head, he was hunkered low in the front seat.

"Yeah, it's me," I answered, still pumping the gun.

"What the hell is that thing!? Some kind of alien?"

"I'm telling you, it's Bumblebee, Dad!" Willy's insistent voice came from the back seat.

"And I'm telling YOU to HUSH!" Mrs. Tuttle barked.

I continued pumping. "Yeah, that's it exactly," I said. "An alien... a very confused alien."

Tuttle leaned forward and peered down at what I was doing. "What's that you've got--a squirt gun? What the hell do you expect to do with that?!"

"Hah!" Willy whispered, loud enough for everyone to hear. "Bumblebee's got a plasma cannon! You don't stand a chance!"

"Willy!"

"It's complicated," I answered. "Just stay in the car." I crawled around to the back of the vehicle. I heard Mrs. Tuttle say, "It must be just like that spooky science fiction movie you made me watch about the alien monster in the corn field. Space creatures hate water, remember?" Her husband grumbled an inaudible reply.

From behind the car, I called across the yard, "Mike!"

"Yeah?" he answered from the darkness.

"I have a plan! I need you to create a diversion! Get a couple of rocks! When you hear me whistle, throw them at his back. Then hit the dirt!"

There was a discernible pause, during which I could almost hear Mike's mental gears spinning. Then, "Are you sure about--?"

"Just do it!"

"Ok, ok... will do. Just give me a few seconds to find something to throw!"

I moved around the back of the car to its opposite side, reflecting that I'd always wanted to say "hit the dirt!" in a real situation. It didn't feel quite as exhilarating as I had imagined.

The front passenger window slid down and Mrs. Tuttle's eyes appeared, glaring visibly in spite of the darkness.

"Is that man in my day-lily garden?" she growled.

"I'm sure he'll be careful," I answered.

"I'll have you know that those day lilies are from the gardens of Thomas Jefferson! Those are heirloom flowers!" Her growl had grown to a snarl.

I finished pumping the gun. "Well, they taste awful," I said, and dashed away from the car before she could reply.

Hedges lined the Tuttles' driveway on this side, and paralleled it all the way to the garage. I pushed through an opening in the bushes, and--using the hedges as a shield--made my way quickly to a point near the gazebo. Constructor was still slicing off pieces of the roof.

I located a break in the hedge that I judged was wide enough for me to get through easily, but not so wide that Constructor might see me watching him. I verified that he was still at work on the gazebo, and turned to make sure that my weapon worked. I pressed the trigger, launching a satisfying stream of water into the darkness.

I turned back to the hedge, inhaled, whistled, then held my breath.

A clang rang out. It sounded like Mike's rock hit Constructor square in the back. I tensed, watching Constructor, ready for the exo-suit to spin around so that I could dart through the hedges.

Constructor, however, continued working on the gazebo's roof, peeling away a section of shingles, and ignoring the rock.

I was about to retreat to the car to yell new instructions to Mike, when I heard a muffled shout. It was Mrs. Tuttle, yelling something about 'tearing up my garden'. An instant later, Constructor's whole frame quivered, ringing like a church bell struck by a massive gong. Mike had apparently dislodged a bigger rock, advanced on the exo-suit, and heaved the stone at its back.

Constructor spun around almost instantly. I ducked and bolted through the hedges. As I closed the distance between the hedge and the exo-suit, I heard the nail-gun rotate into position, and the compressor pump clatter to life. I jumped over the pile of lumber and shingles that Constructor had already accumulated. My plan was to be in position when Constructor turned back around. I wanted a clear shot at Sidney.

The nail gun popped repeatedly, and I heard the distant music of metal on rock. I tensed, waiting for yells of pain. Happily, none came. Mike had either found cover before Constructor could get a bead on him, or Constructor's sighting was still off.

I came to a halt just a few feet behind the behemoth and raised the super-soaker. Constructor swung around. As it did, the spotlights flared down on me in full force and, in their glare, I saw a massive, metallic hand swinging toward me. I took a reflexive step back. The heel of my shoe caught on a plank, and I spilled backward onto a sheet of shingles.

Constructor leaned down, bathing me in even brighter light. Squinting, I could just make out Sidney's face, his head lolling crazily forward. The exo-suit's hand descended, and I felt mammoth fingers of metal close over my leg.

I was lifted upside-down into the air. I heard screams and shouts in the distance. Desperately, I clung to the super-soaker, twisting one way and then the other in an attempt to locate my target through the beams of spotlights. Then came the telltale sound of a hand-attachment rotating into place, and was seized with panic. Was Sidney-Constructor about to slice me to pieces with the variable-speed saw?

I managed to swing myself around so that I was facing what I knew from the position of the lights to be Constructor's front. I pulled the trigger, and a glittering stream of water shot out, disappearing into the glare of the beams. I kept the trigger depressed and pumped frantically, waving the nozzle of the gun in what I could only hope was Sidney's direction, kicking frantically with my free leg to maintain my orientation.

I heard a sudden spluttering sound, and Constructor trembled violently. The hand holding my leg shook.

Sidney coughed, then moaned.

"Owwww!" he croaked. "My head! My knee! Owww! What?--Where?--"

"Sidney!" I yelled. "Put me down!"

"Huh? What the--? What are you--? Why are you upside--? Where am I?"

Constructor's arm's jerked spasmodically, slinging me painfully from side to side. I yelped, the super-soaker went flying, and an edge of the gazebo roof swung dangerously close to my head.

"Sidney!" I screamed. "Snap out of it! Put me down!"

Thankfully, the movements stopped. I could hear Sidney moaning and muttering to himself.

Mike called from somewhere below. "Sidney? Are you ok? Can you hear me?"

"Hey, I'm fine! Thanks for asking!" I bellowed.

"I didn't see any blood, so I figured that!" Mike called back. "Sidney! You need to put Rick down! Can you hear--"

At that instant, a new and brighter light lanced down from above. Then another. And a third. From down the driveway, I heard Mrs. Tuttle squeal, "More aliens!"

Mike swore.

I turned my head to look up, and was nearly blinded by three brilliant light sources in the heavens. Wind gusted.

"You in the exo-suit! Put the man down, and disable all your systems immediately!" a voice boomed from above, so loud that my ears rang.

"Whaa—aat?!" Sidney's voice buzzed and squeaked through Constructor's speakers.

The wind blew more fiercely. Dust and pieces of wood chips flew into the air as whirlwinds formed.

Now I heard the whop! whop! of helicopter blades. I became aware of bright movement in my peripheral vision, and twisted my head to see countless pairs of headlights streaming up the road, the flashing blue of police cars among them. Vehicles swerved into the Tuttle's driveway. Others poured off the street and bounced into the yard, engines bellowing and booming. Beams from spotlights and flashlights and headlights crisscrossed the lawn, turning night into day.

"It's the army!" Willy's voice yelled jubilantly. "They've come to help Bumblebee!!"

Mrs. Tuttle piled out of the car, and raced into her yard, waving her arms at the approaching vehicles and screaming about flowerbeds. Mr. Tuttle shot out of the driver's side and tackled her; the two disappeared in the clouds of engine exhaust and flowerbed mulch chips and dust kicked up by the descending helicopters.

"Drop him, Pritcher!!" the voice from above roared.

Sidney dropped me.


* * *

Dawn tinged the eastern sky. I sat on the steps of my front porch, pressing a plastic bag of frozen peas to the lump on the back of my head, watching the general and his aid walk down my driveway toward the row of coal-black SUVs parked across the street. Soldiers stood at attention beside each vehicle. Though I couldn't see inside--the windows were darkly tinted--I knew Mike was in one.

Sidney had been taken away hours ago. They'd wrapped his head and knee in bandages pulled from first aid kits, and carried him off to one of the helicopters. He had then been airlifted to a "secure military medical installation"--or so the general had told us.

My wife was sitting next to me. We both watched the general, his aid, and the waiting soldiers climb into the SUVs. The vehicles pulled away, revealing young Willy, who stood waving at them as they departed. He stepped out into the road and kept waving, long after they'd driven around the corner.

Mr. and Mrs. Tuttle had long since disappeared into their house. In fact, Mrs. Tuttle had to be carried inside, having succumbed to what could best be described as 'a fit'.

And, looking at her yard, I couldn't really blame her. It looked like a war zone; the lawn stitched with tire tracks and ruts, nearly every flower-bed driven over. The little lighthouse lay on its side, surrounded by the stones that had formed its miniature, make-believe island. And the gazebo? It was missing a column, portions of its railing, and most of its roof. A pile of lumber and shingles were heaped beside the structure.

Having been suspended upside-down, then dropped on my head, I had missed much of the commotion. My wife told me later that she'd seen two police cars, four SUVs, four vans, and at least half a dozen unmarked cars pour onto the Tuttles' lawn. Not to mention the three helicopters. A pell-mell of armed soldiers, police, and--as she put it--"sinister-looking" civilians emptied from the vehicles. Some were set upon by Mrs. Tuttle, but...

"... well, like I said, she had to be carried inside. It was all very confusing," my wife continued, "Until that general showed up. He began ordering everyone around, and got things under control. That's when they pulled that Sidney-person out of the robot-thing, and took him to the helicopter. They also took Michael to one of the vans to talk to him. You came to after they'd hooked something up to the robot and walked it back to the moving van it came in." She sighed, then said, "I suppose it could have been worse."

I pulled the frozen peas away from my head, touched the lump tenderly, returned the bag to its spot, and asked, "How do you figure?"

"Well, the general said they would be paying for re-landscaping the Tuttle's yard and fixing the gazebo," she answered, pointing at the destruction. "They're also going to fix our leach filed AND repair the siding--so you STILL don't have to do anything."

"Yeah, that's good," I agreed, "because it stinks back there--"

"Plus, what he said about Michael. Did I tell you? They were amazed at the work he and Sidney had done on the robot-thing. The general said he's actually considering hiring Mike to work on a secret project involving those robots and... well, stuff he said he couldn't talk about. I think that's good, right? It might even be exciting."

I looked over at her. "You think Mike's working on a military project is exciting?"

"Well, yes. Don't you?"

"'Exciting' only partially captures it. I'm imagining a matter bull in an anti-matter china-shop."

Her brow crinkled. "A 'matter bull'? I don't--"

"Never mind," I said, pulling the bag of peas away from my head and holding it out. "It's thawed. Have we got any more in the freezer?"

She took it, stood, and headed for the door. Over her shoulder she said, "There's a bag of corn you can use. I'll bring it out."

"Thanks," I said, turning back to face the world. The sun had now risen fully, brightening a sky that was an exact duplicate of yesterday's.


Across the street, Willy had stood a row of toy soldiers in the middle of one of the larger ruts, and was blasting them down with his super-soaker. Only one was left standing. The boy reached down, picked it up by its feet, and dangled it upside down. "No, no!" he squealed "Put me down! Put me down!"

The boy switched his voice to a mock baritone. "As you wish, puny human!" He then made the screaming sound of someone's falling to their death, and released the toy soldier so that it dropped with a faint plop! into the mud of the tire-rut.


High above, Providence dusted off cosmic hands, nodded, and proclaimed: "There!"


THE END


2014 Rick Grehan

Bio: Mr. Grehan is a software engineer at Dell/EqualLogic in Nashua, NH. He is also a contributing editor for InfoWorld Magazine. (You can find a bibliography of his InfoWorld work here: Infoworld articles by Rick Grehan.) He has written for computer magazines for many years, having started as a technical editor for BYTE Magazine back in the 80's.

Mr. Grehan's most recent appearances in Aphelion were Good Night, Timmy, in the April, May, and June 2013 editions and Intelligent Drain-o in the September 2013 issue. Both were selected for our Best Stories of 2013 list.

E-mail: Rick Grehan

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