"If ya don'a come back wit' the money, we'll kill 'em."
"An' if ya don't come back alone we'll kill them."
"So whatcha gonna do about it?"
I looked at my friend. Henry's question wasn't whether or not I was going to do something, or even when. As I looked into his eyes he nodded. I looked over at my cousin Chuck, part owner of the shop my uncle had founded and where my father had worked until he died. Now I worked there as well as a machinist.
"Don't even ask. You know I'm with you," he nodded.
Tibolt, the old welder, didn't even know the whole story, but he was nodding as well.
"Well, Janet?" Henry was forcing me to say it.
"You still got that one magazine?"
"In my locker."
"Could we build something like that?"
His confidence was encouraging.
"That way you would be alone, like they said. But by the time they figured something was up it'd be too late."
Chuck grinned, "I like it already. But what do you have in mind?"
"How long you got?"
"They said I had to be back with the money by next weekend."
"It's Wednesday now," Henry said. "We got a week and change." Then he looked at Chuck. "Trust me, you'll love it."
"Let's do it. Dammit! Let's do it!" I said.
"Mommy! NO! Mommy!"
"What choice ya have?"
"Bring us everything you can. If it's enough we'll let them and you go. If it ain't ... well, it just better be."
Henry got out the magazine. It was supposed to be science fiction, but it specialized in things which could be built today such as extra-hot portable lasers, cheap and secure long-distance, digital wireless data transfer equipment, miniaturized jet and rocket engines for personal transport, and other such miracles of modern cutting-edge engineering.
It also had a picture of the thing I suddenly remembered I had wanted to build myself -- a war machine robot exoskeleton.
The idea was simple, but the application would tax everything every one of us ever knew about robotics and mechanical enhancement. All the other jobs in our industrial machine repair shop were soon forgotten as Chuck began pouring over the article and sketching out a few rough ideas.
"You need frame. Without frame, she go no where." Tibolt said.
"And it has to get from here to there, so it has to be portable."
"... Self-propelled," I nodded to Henry.
"This may sound ridiculous," Chuck said, standing up and looking around the shop, "but why can't we start with what we got and improve on it? It would make it a lot quicker than starting from scratch."
"You're thinking again," I kidded my cousin and he grinned. "What have you got in mind?"
Chuck walked into the garage bay and looked up at a machine. It was a new-fangled forklift called a "bulk cargo handling machine." Instead of the standard fork in front it had a clawed grappling arm. Its tracks could rotate in place, allowing it to crawl sideways without turning.
Huge, awkward and ugly, I could see it was the ancestor of the thing in the magazine.
"Still a lot o' work," Tibolt said, understating what I had been thinking.
"But we could do it."
"She'll need a lot of shielding," Henry added.
"And it'll be hard to get that thing up there," I said, thinking of the narrow dirt road which led to the cabin. That cabin....
"We're doing you a favor. You can decide if you'd rather be a single woman with no kids again so's you can date some geek."
"Yeah. An' if you don' want'em we'll take good care of 'em."
"Mommy, I want you!"
"Yeah, Mommy. We want you."
My blood dried up.
"Janet. Hey! It's going to be okay. They'll see you, but by the time they figure out this thing isn't a van or something you'll be all over them." Chuck said, trying to cheer me up.
"You can disguise it?" I asked, trembling at what "they" would do if something went wrong.
"I can make anything look like anything. Just wait and see." Chuck said.
"How about weapons?" Henry said coldly.
"We mount shotguns. And those." Tibolt pointed to a laser-sighted semiautomatic rifle on the picture in the magazine.
"Yeah, no aiming. Where the dot is, that's where the bullet goes." I said. "I'll need that."
The discussion quickly became very technical. Tibolt soon tired of standing around talking and started cutting and welding on the machine, removing things that could get in the way and strengthening others. Chuck resumed drawing while Henry rounded up parts. I was left sitting there.
"Jan't. You help me." Tibolt said to me.
"Okay." I picked up my face shield and got busy. We worked into the night.
Chuck finally tapped my shoulder. I was machining down a gear to fit inside a protective shroud to deflect incoming gunfire. I looked up.
"I promise you we'll do some more tomorrow afternoon. After we get the Taylor order out." He pointed at the clock.
It was midnight and I was exhausted.
"Besides, I've got to work on the diagrams for your hydraulics, and Henry has to locate some servos for accurate targeting."
"We really are going to do this." I pushed up my face shield. "We really are."
"You're not having second thoughts. Are you?"
I shook my head and went back to the lathe. My thoughts went back to those people at the cabin on the river. They had dared me to bring the police, to come back with help, or to not bring the money.
"There's still room in our graveyard."
"Or if ya want, Mommy, you can stay and keep me happy and I'll let them go. 'Course they'll never find their way back here wit' the money an' ya'd have to stay with me anyways."
I shivered as I remembered their words, and couldn't stop until I was home with all the lights on. The dream was the same as when it began - the wrong turn on the road, the old truck coming up from behind, the smirking faces, the hateful comments, the leering eyes as I stood before them for inspection, then the orders and threats. But this time it had a different ending ... a violent ending. The grinning, gape-toothed face was beneath the tracks of the cargo-handling machine. The other two went running.
I woke up sweating.
The still apartment was worse than the dream. No kids begging, no dog whining. I couldn't cook in the empty kitchen and I couldn't eat in the empty dining room. All I did was shower and dress.
The next few days passed at a nauseating pace. I led the way in job production. I machined everything in sight. I answered the phone between jobs and even performed the safety inspections. By three I was so pumped I would have jogged to the cabin if it had been suggested.
Henry came up with weapons I thought were illegal. Tibolt welded intricate patterns in the steel and performed wonders of metalworking. Chuck and the part-time engineer, Simon, couldn't find enough hydraulic line, so they made it. Some of the most complicated high-pressure plumbing I had ever seen fell into place. The electronics took shape. The ... thing ... started to look like something, but I didn't know what to call it.
The controls were straightforward enough. We were all familiar with the various types of industrial machines we repaired and their standard control mechanisms, units that would respond to your movements whether through knobs, joysticks, or a big glove full of position and pressure sensors.
What Chuck and the others were putting together for me, and yes, what I was helping to build, was a combination of several of the systems we worked on all the time. It was just a little more specialized.
We worked on it most of the weekend and it took shape. It even looked like something workable. I got comfortable in the driver's seat. It felt good and I could work it. It would serve the one purpose for which it was built - to get my kids back.
"Mommy! MOMMY! They hurt Bouncer!"
"Ya shotted him good!"
My heart stopped. Bouncer lay dead in a bloody, mangled heap. The robot's arm first reached for the dead animal, then I stopped and turned the machine toward that grinning face. But wait! I didn't have any idea about the machine when they shot the furry member of our family. I had to be dreaming again.
I could still hear the crying of my youngest as I opened my eyes and looked around. The lights in the bedroom were still on and the living room was brightly lit. I had even left the TV on last night. I sighed, but the dream was still there on the edge of my mind.
I could not do it for revenge. There would be no vindication for Bouncer. I also knew that no matter how much money I took them, they would still kill my children and me as well - even if the kids were still alive right now. I banished that thought from my mind.
All too soon the alarm sounded and I simply went off to work.
We planned to test-drive the machine tonight after work and the day seemed unending. During lulls in the scheduled work Tibolt tinkered with what had to be the ugliest utility box truck in the country.
The robot was essentially still the cargo handler, but the surface metal was more for looks. If you looked closely enough it was apparent it wasn't a work truck at all. For starters, the wheels barely touched the ground and did nothing to control the truck. To drive it on the road I would almost be laying face down. Henry proposed we transport the "Thing" by trailer into Jersey near the cabin, then I'd go the rest of the way alone.
Like I was told.
It was after dark when I climbed into the driver's seat and strapped myself in. I stomped the starter pedal and turned the ignition key. The Thing coughed to life. A smaller unit that only operated the hydraulic pump and generator now supplemented the main propane engine. Once running at a good idle, the motors were surprisingly quiet. I manipulated the tracking pedals like I had practiced and aimed the Thing toward the open door.
It crawled quickly out of the bay and the radio crackled to life.
"Stand up." Chuck said.
The hydraulic pump screamed as I straightened my body.
"I was afraid of that." The radio picked up Simon talking.
"Go slow for right now. We'll put in the higher capacity pump tomorrow. Okay, now get upright and extend the main arms."
I stuck my arms into the controllers and moved them forward. The Thing's new appendages, the ones with the firearms mated to them, swung into attack position. I lit up the targeting lasers without being told.
The cargo lights and the high-intensity spotlights turned the lot full of broken and forgotten machines into daylight.
"Good. Now squeeze off a few practice rounds." Chuck said.
I didn't need to be told twice. The wax and rubber bullets bounced off the targets just as they had in my latest dream, except in the dream the targets were grinning and the bullets were real.
"Try the manipulator."
I moved my left hand toward the original control panel and the steel claw came to life. I pushed it out, grabbed a piece of junk, turned it over and dropped it.
"Dance." Chuck said.
I moved my feet. The Thing sidestepped on its now-concealed tracks, glided several feet to the right and then forward.
"Okay," Chuck said, "bring it home."
"What?" I answered, "I don't like that tone."
"We've found a problem."
I didn't answer.
"You're almost out of gas."
They discussed installing larger propane tanks and how to armor them against the impending firefight. Henry wasn't satisfied with the defensive armament and devised a smoke-screen launcher. He also had me help him put in a fire suppression system as well.
"Jan, I also want to put in a quick-release system to get you out of the harness in case things turn bad."
"No, Henry, if things end up like that do you want me ending up with them on the ground?"
He thought about it, then frowned. "Okay, Janet. We'll just make sure things don't go wrong."
I thanked him ahead of time.
"She shore look good fer a mom."
"You've took real good care of yourself."
"Why'n't we keep her'n do off the kids?"
"'Cause we need the money. You can get money to save your kids can't you, honey? Nice fancy car like that an' all. You can get a lot of money."
"Either that, or you can stay and we'll make sure you take care of us ... for your kidses sake."
On Friday the machine was as ready as it could be ... but I wasn't.
"I slipped," I had told Chuck and the others on Wednesday.
I was hanging half out of the seat and something didn't feel right. As they got me loose from the harness and down on the ground I felt sick to my stomach. Then I was down on all fours, vomiting for all I was worth. A pain in my side stopped me from talking.
"You've cracked a rib." The words from the plant nurse ran through me like a sword of ice.
"No," I managed to say.
"There's no doubt about it. You need to be taped up and stay quiet for few days. If it separates it could be dangerous. You might even puncture your lung."
"I know," I managed to say. "Just tape me together until after this weekend."
"Why? What's going on this weekend?" She looked at me, puzzled.
I winced as she poked me along my right side where the harness and my bra had fought for attention, with my rib as the loser. "I'm getting my kids back."
She smiled gently. "All right. I understand. You come back here every day and I'll change your tape. But if you're no better by Monday I'm sending you to the hospital."
I relaxed and it didn't seem to hurt as badly. "Monday you can do anything you want with me."
Friday night I was in the harness for the last time before it was for keeps. The strap along my side was padded to prevent further injury to my rib. My only requirement when Tibolt was putting extra wrapping around the belt was that it couldn't get in my way.
"How that, Missy?" he asked me, knowing I hated to be called pet names.
"Fine, Tibi." I said, returning the favor.
In a few minutes Chuck put me through my paces, extra violent ones surely just for my benefit.
"You okay?" somebody said every minute on the minute.
"Shut up!" I finally said.
"She's okay," Henry remarked.
I could make the Thing move without thinking about it. It reacted as I reacted to everything Chuck threw at me. I could aim and fire the weapons almost by instinct. I had, after all, practiced every evening this week, and in my sleep every night since the kidnapping.
"Get out o' the car. You an' the kids. And the dog."
"Mommy, this isn't the campground!"
"She's a purty one, hain't she? An' she got kids too."
"It's time to go," Chuck said gently. I stirred. The break room couch had left its mark on my back, but fortunately not on my rib.
They had loaded the Thing on a flatbed trailer behind a semi-tractor. In the gloom and half-light it could almost pass for a utility truck, or maybe a utility truck that had been in an accident ... almost.
"You don't come in until you see the flare or hear me call on the radio," I reminded them. "If it's the flare, call the cops. The radio, pick us up."
"You got it," Henry said.
I knew he was lying. He knew I knew. Chuck knew I knew.
They were all going.
If I failed, I knew my three guys and Simon, who I didn't even know that well, would come in like the Marines, cops or no cops. I reminded myself that Chuck had been a Marine.
Tibolt leaned out of his car. "You ride with me. Better for your rib."
I nodded. It wasn't more than a couple hours away, but that would be excruciating in the truck. We pulled out and in a few minutes we were crossing the bridge into New Jersey. I felt a chill at the "Welcome" sign.
But then I reminded myself that there was human sewage everywhere. I had just found these three accidentally, by luck. Lucky me.
Since I had driven home with my eyes full of tears, I had to rely on my memory of the roads back to the campground from the small town. After a couple of misfires I found it. The "No Trespasing" with its glaring misspelling confirmed it as we drove by.
I told Tibolt to stop about a mile down the road, and I took a deep breath.
"Make her do somethun'."
"She's naked. That's enough for now. She'll be back."
"An' if'n she hain't got the money?"
"Then we'll have some fun,"
"An if'n she don'a come back?"
"Then you can do what you want with them."
"Whad'cha want me to do wit'em now?"
"Lock them in the shed."
"Mommy! HELP US, MOMMY!"
The only one I didn't understand was the woman. She just stood there and glared at me.
I had never seen such hate in another person in my life. She never spoke, but she never looked away, or at the kids or anything else. She just stared at me with open loathing in her eyes.
She didn't have a gun, like the two men, and she never left their side. But she didn't seem to belong, unlike the man who never spoke who indeed was one of them. He, however, looked at me like a dog looks at hamburger.
Was she a captive, like they evidently had planned for my future? Was she married to one of them? Was she a sister? It was hard to judge her age, but she didn't seem old enough to be their mother. It didn't matter. If she got between my kids and me ... it just didn't matter.
Henry checked the weapons again. I went over my checklist. Chuck looked at the electrical system. Simon saw to the hydraulics. Tibolt, well, Tibolt worried and gave me a lot of good advice.
"We can still call the state police before this thing goes down." Chuck said, turning on his radio.
I shook my head as I strapped the harness around me. I started the Thing and then I was in that uncomfortable position heading down the road toward the cabin on the river. That cabin.
The lane sloped down into the flood plain, and it jarred me until I thought my teeth would come loose. My rib was starting to tell me about it when the road widened into the clearing I remembered.
The sun was just coming up, but these people evidently didn't get up with the chickens. I pulled the lip mike around and keyed the speaker.
"I'm back, and I'm back alone."
I didn't hear them; it was pure instinct. My children were barely peeking over the windowsill. They were still alive, still in the shed! But there was a padlock on the door, and it would take anyone a full minute to get to them.
I kicked the pedals and the Thing scooted sideways. I stopped in front of the shed just as the one I had labeled "The Idiot" came out of the cabin.
"It's her! An' she's come back alone ... in a truck!"
I waited with my hands in the controls. The Thing shuddered in anticipation equal to my own,
"The Talker" came out, followed by "Silent Man" and "The Woman," who was barely dressed in a disaster of a housecoat.
It didn't matter.
"You got our money?" Talker demanded.
"No!" I said over the loudspeaker.
"You're alone. You come to stay?"
"If'n she did, yer done. She's purtier than you!" Idiot told the Woman.
"NO!" echoed the loudspeaker.
Idiot looked at me. Silent Man seemed edgy.
I knew it was time.
I swung my arms forward as the Thing stood up. I flipped the weapons from "STANDBY" to "LIVE," and the Thing hummed and clattered.
"What'n'da'hell is that?" Idiot yelled.
"Git the guns!" Talker ordered. He was the only one who moved.
Idiot lived up to his name as he tried to get his pistol out of his pants pocket. A red glow appeared on his chest. He looked at it, still fumbling with his gun. The red glow became a red splotch as he staggered backwards and fell to the ground, motionless.
Silent Man ducked back into the cabin as Talker came out firing wildly at me. I tried to aim the laser sights at him, but he kept moving. His bullets bounced off the armored glass, but I was afraid they might find a weakness we'd overlooked in our haste. I fired at him without good aim and he ducked behind a junk car.
Silent Man got in the act now, and fired a shotgun from the doorway of the cabin into the glass in front of my face. I unleashed a burst his way and pushed the smoke button. I didn't want them to hit the shed behind me - where my kids were. I tracked away from the shed toward the rear of the cabin.
I lost track of Talker for a moment, but he gave away his position in the garage as his rifle spat in my direction. I simply turned everything I had loose in his direction. The wall disintegrated. Talker took two steps back toward the cabin, firing blindly, and then collapsed.
"You go, girlie!" I heard in the radio. I looked up and saw our transport rig bouncing up the drive. The Marines didn't wait.
Silent Man was firing at the truck from the relative safety of the heavy cover of the cabin's doorframe.
"Oh no you don't!" I said into the radio.
The Thing rolled toward the cabin as I shifted my hand toward the grapple claw controls. I didn't have a clear plan as I maneuvered the claw toward the nearest wall. The cabin groaned, the pump screamed, and the structure gave way under the assault.
Silent Man ran out the back as the roof fell. I swung the right attack arm at him and cut him down like a dog.
Just like Talker had cut down Bouncer. Maybe she had been vindicated after all.
"Go ahead an' go. Jes' remember what we got."
"We gotcher kids, Mommy."
"And come back alone."
"But'cha gotta get dressed. Yeah, ya do."
"Get dressed and go. Get the money ... And come back alone."
I came back alone.
The Woman crawled out of a broken window of the fallen cabin as I gently got out of the Thing. My rib was on fire and I could only breath through deep spasms of pain. I felt it move inside me, it had come apart. But first I had to deal with her.
"Put your hands up!" Chuck ordered her, drawing a bead on her head with an M-16.
She did as she was told as she looked at the bloody carnage and other wreckage around her.
"They're all ...dead!" she said in a weak, scratchy voice which was obviously not used to speaking.
"Yeah. They are." I replied. She wasn't a threat, so I started for the shed to get my kids.
"Thank you," the woman said.
I stopped in my tracks momentarily. Without looking back, I walked to the shed where Tibolt was breaking the lock off.
Both of them were in there, crying, in desperate need of a bath, but alive.
"They wouldn't let me take care of them good. But I did feed them."
"Who are you?" Chuck asked, lowering the rifle.
"This is my place. They stopped by to use the phone."
"What year is this?"
We loaded the Thing onto the trailer and I got in Tibolt's car with my kids. As we were driving on the county road which led to the turnpike, two New Jersey State Police cars roared past us and turned onto the road that led to the cabin. Tibolt patted his phone.
My apartment came to life. We even planned to get a puppy and name her Bouncer Two.
I wasn't alone anymore.
[Editor's note: This story is Fiction. No representation of persons or places, dead or alive, is intended.]
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