Give An Inch
by Jeremiah Reinmiller
Not loudly, that would’ve been stupid and dangerous, but curse she did, in a ground teeth, pinched lip, sort of way. Each near silent word was delivered with some enthusiasm toward the plastic faced source of her frustrations.
There it sat, nestled snug in its ecru face plate at knee height; its narrow slits of eyes and tiny ‘o’ of a mouth staring out at her with mock surprise. As if it couldn’t possibly imagine what the problem was. She restrained the urge to punch in the tiny face, or the twin below it.
It wasn’t the power outlet’s fault. She knew that. Blaming an innocent inanimate object like that would’ve been silly.
It was clearly the extension cord’s fault!
Yes, she had come to that conclusion some moments before. The useless strand of bright orange, plastic clad wire dangled from one clenched fist. Its equally orange plug scraped against her steel toed boot. The other end ran across the floor, through the front room, and out the cracked open door at the front of the house.
She still felt the cable really should be grey like her jumpsuit, or black like, well, all of her other gear, but she also knew that regulations dictated a cable of this obnoxious orange hue. Heaven knew they couldn’t risk something as dangerous as someone tripping over a power cord. It wasn’t as if there weren’t any other dangers around them at all times. Like metric tons of high explosives, or unstable batteries the size of small block V-8s, or numerous aggressive hostiles packing god only knew what in their grubby fists.
Molly forced her hand open before something in her arm started to cramp, and stared down at the orange line dangling over the black leather of her glove.
The stupid thing still reminded her of the one her father had kept under the sink. The one he coiled in a particular way to keep it from tangling, and used for the seemingly endless string of household repairs he had to complete. They could’ve been made by the same company for all she knew. This one even felt the same.
Not that any of this did her a lick of good. The issue before her remained the issue before her. And what a stupid issue it was. She glared at the face plate again, then sighed. One more try, she’d give it one more try. Maybe she’d gotten the angle wrong last time. Or the time before. Or the time before that. She cursed again then made herself take a long, deep breath. She held it, then let the air out. It didn’t help at all, so she swore and got back to it.
She carefully planted her boots against the carpeted floor and put one hand down for balance, then crouched with the power plug in her other hand. A nice strong pressure should do it. She just needed to find a good angle and —
She threw herself forward, as if perhaps she’d catch the cord and outlet off guard and surprise them into a union. There it was. Just like before. The plug remained a rage inducing inch from the outlet.
Molly jerked and heaved and pulled with everything her small frame had. Digging with her boot heels, she pulled with both arms, threw her weight against the cable. And none of it did the slightest bit of good. The power cord was guitar string tight, and goodness knew the other end wasn’t budging. The outlet sat an inch away. Still looking surprised.
With a cry of frustration she hurled down the cord and scrambled to her feet.
It had been one of those nights; one of those weeks really. First they’d gotten lost, then ambushed, and then she got cut off from everyone else. She shouldn’t have expected anything less, and yet here she remained, stranded in the middle of middle-class nowhere, an inch away from salvaging any kind of success from a disaster of a day.
She blew stands of black hair from her face, snarled, and looked around again.
The drab, clichéd decor of the unlit room around her — a living room she supposed from the TV on the wall to her left– only served to remind her of her predicament. The smiling pictures on the walls, a monstrosity of a sofa before the TV, a small table of some kind beside her against the wall. It looked expensive and pointless. Much like her mission.
The wooden tabletop cracked as her boot heel slammed the bit of furniture into the wall. It made a terrible noise, but helped her feel slightly better.
Who built an entire room with no power outlets anyway! If the front room had contained a single one like she’d expected, she wouldn’t be having this problem. But oh no, that would’ve been too easy. She’d yanked furniture from walls, scoured every surface, and found nothing, not one outlet. It didn’t make any sense!
In her apartment — the one she hadn’t seen in over a year, and probably didn’t exist anymore if she was honest — there’d been so many outlets she’d could’ve thrown the damn cable and accidentally plugged it in. But not here. Not in some hundred year old ranch style house where people had nothing more to plug in than one TV and a refrigerator. So here she stood in the living room, with only this one outlet anywhere close to the end of her cord; tethered by a piece of government issued orange cable that regulations dictated be manufactured at one hundred feet, instead of one hundred feet, and one inch.
She looked around for anything else she could break, and froze.
There had either been movement outside the front windows or–
The screen door outside creaked.
They’d probably seen the damn orange cable. Or her Heavy at the other end of it. Her loathing for the cable aside, she had to admit that was probably more likely. Ten foot tall robots were hard to miss. Something started to say they’d actually heard the little stunt she’d pulled with the sideboard, but she shut that voice up right quick as she snatched up her rifle and darted to the side of the doorway into the front room.
The front door groaned open and shuffling footsteps followed. She waited a moment, hoping they’d go somewhere else and knowing they wouldn’t. You couldn’t get a much larger ‘over here’ sign than the neon orange one strung out at her feet. She winced then risked a peek.
Three of them, the Baugot, stood just inside the room. Bloat class. Looking ridiculous as ever.
Even knowing what she did about them, which was quite a lot, she couldn’t help it. Two years ago, when that first pod had plunked down, people had thought they looked silly, and right then, crouched against an eggshell white, flat finish wall, Molly thought exactly the same thing. There were no two ways about it, they simply induced a head scratching dose of, ‘seriously?’
Short, and thick wasted, the drones waddled into the room like the world’s largest pears with arms and legs stuck on. Their tiny heads perched atop thin necks. Tufts of hair sprouted about their faces in a kind of hair / beard combination. Centered in this mess were a cluster of black eyes. Like always, no mouths were visible. No one had yet figured out how they communicated.
Their equally tiny arms ended in tiny hands holding tiny firearms. Molly had seen bigger water pistols, but that didn’t change the fact that–
A picture frame hanging on the wall across from her decided right then it had had enough, and was giving up, and clattered to the floor. The lead alien spun surprisingly fast, and a light at the end of its gun winked red. The floor exploded. Burning bits of wood and carpeting, and what had once been a graduation photo pelted Molly’s face, dug into her skin. She scrambled back, stomach twisted tight, hating the aliens and their silent guns which left basketball sized holes in things.
If they weren’t going to investigate the entire house before, they certain were now. She had only seconds at best to find a place to hide.
The lead Bloat stuck its fuzzy pip of a head around the corner of the doorway. A number of its eyes widened. There wasn’t even time to curse.
She’d managed to keep the muzzle of her rifle pointed in the direction of the doorway. Instead of hiding, she pulled the trigger. Half sprawled on the floor she couldn’t aim, but she was so close it hardly mattered.
7.62 mm rounds might be primitive by Baugot standards, and they certainly weren’t silent, but they still got the job done. The alien stepped into the room, and popped like a twenty gallon water balloon. Something decidedly not wood or carpeting splashed over her. Something much wetter, and much, much worse smelling.
Scientists told them their absurdly proportioned opponents were 90% water and the stuff inside their bulbous bodies was almost chemically equivalent to saline. But that didn’t explain the smell, or the way the somehow both sticky and oily stuff clung to everything. Molly gagged while her ears rang from the dying echoes of six tiny explosions pounded out in two seconds.
Stunned and drained, she lay there feeling suddenly very tired. None of that mattered though, because they were coming, and if she didn’t want to quickly feel much worse, she needed to get moving.
As if to punctuate this point a basketball sized hole appeared over her head, pelting her with plaster and 2×4 splinters. Another joined it. Another. She hauled herself up and ran.
Burned carpet leapt up beside her boot, and then she could see the backyard through a hole in the far wall. She threw herself over the couch and tumbled to the floor.
The thing was a huge, maroon, faux velvet monstrosity, but unless the owners had opted for some kind of a Kevlar option, it wasn’t going to provide her much protection. Burning foam landed in her hair as one of the couch cushions erupted into half a zillion tiny bits. They clearly had not.
She sucked in a deep breath, shoved her rifle over the back of the couch and rattled off a long burst, trying to arc the fire across the room. A satisfying pop greeted her ears, followed by a wet splash. She hadn’t expected to get so lucky, but she’d take it. Especially as the last one was quickly testing the flammability of faux velvet. Turned out the stuff burned pretty well.
Molly flattened herself to the floor, coughing on the noxious fumes as a new barrage turned the couch into a polyester Vesuvius. She couldn’t stay there unless she wanted to find out what having her torso forcibly removed felt like, but she couldn’t run either. The nearest doorway was fifteen feet away and the carpet looked like a slippery sodden mess. More fingers of the fluid leaked past the edge of the couch before her eyes.
That gave her an idea. Not a good one mind you, she’d run out of those hours ago, but hey, it was better than opting for 100% organ removal via alien squirt gun.
She scrambled back against the wall, watched the last of the couch go up in an unflattering puff of yellow foam and burning maroon fabric, then dove forward with every ounce of force she could muster. She’d been right about the carpet. She shot forward on her stomach past the burning wreckage of the couch — she thought it was an improvement in design actually — and right for one surprised Baugot.
It swung its gun toward her, but even their deceptive speed was no match for the sheer velocity of an alien innards slip and slide. Its first shot landed somewhere behind her, its second closer. She flipped over on to her back mid-slide, before it could fire a third time, and then she was there, beneath the Bloat’s over proportioned body, staring up as it craned over trying to find her.
She grinned and unloaded her clip into the Bloat’s nether regions. Or what would’ve been its nethers, if they had any, which they did not, for which Molly was grateful as Baugot’s didn’t wear any pants.
Grinning was a mistake. That’s how alien juice landed in her mouth when it popped, and soaked her through. She wound up retching on the floor for a good minute amidst a truly ruined living room.
When’d she regained control of her gag reflex, Molly spat a couple more times then stood. A bit of alien glop ran down her cheek, she wiped it off and flicked it away. The aliens remained dead, looking like nothing so much as punctured balance balls with limbs sewn on.
She was lucky these Bloats had found her. There were a quarter billion of them — by scientists most recent guesses — but they were easy-ish to kill. If something else had shown up, it might’ve been a different story.
That thought had just crossed her mind, when the head of the alien family scuttled in through the front door.
Family might not be the correct term, she thought it was more like clan, or whatever Meligoup, translated too, but head most certainly was. It was hard to get that wrong when you were staring at a 3 foot tall skull that looked like a cross between an Easter Island statue and a giant baby doll head, crawling toward you on a half dozen limbs that were neither arms, legs, or tentacles. Not exactly.
The Head crawled forward a few inches at a time, its appendages writhing in creepy motion as it reached the living room door. When you’re from an alien species that snaps together like building blocks to form Ultras, those towering alien monstrosities Molly and her crew feared, she was sure being the head instead of the butt had its advantages, but speed of movement when you’re on your own wasn’t one of them. On the other hand–
The head squinted its two large white eyes, and that wasn’t good. Not even a little bit. Molly threw herself toward the nearest doorway as blue light lit the room.
She slid / tumbled / fell into the kitchen and looked back in time to see twin blue lasers carve a gash through the far wall and then wink out.
Yeah, it had laser eyes. Laser eyes! She felt exactly as terrified and amazed, and bit jealous, as she’d been the first time she saw one of the Heads light it up on the battlefield. Bodiless it might be, but that didn’t make it any less deadly. One of them had wiped out Baker squad two weeks ago, and they’d had their Heavies.
She stared at the orange extension cord where it lay, still short of the outlet, and cursed again. And here she was all on her own, feeling quite squishy and easily punctured outside of her armor.
Out in the living room the Head peered around, glowing eyes now wide. The one disadvantage with laser eyes was that you apparently couldn’t see the slightest thing while you were burning the world to cinders. That meant she had one chance before it located her and started playing human soldier disect-o-rama with its lasers again.
She could take a shot at it, but that would do about as much good as a toddler flinging peas at the wall. And would probably result in a bigger mess. For her. All her other weapons were outside, with the Heavy, and still very much out of power.
She couldn’t very well run either. Not without her heavy. She had about as much chance of making it back to base skin side out as a snow ball did of escaping a 4th of July BBQ. Besides, through some fluke in the power grid, this neighborhood was the only one that had registered any power readings before her Heavy decided to take a cold nap. If she didn’t get it recharged here, it wasn’t waking up.
On the other side of the living room, past the still burning couch, a set of stairs led to the second story. She hadn’t been up there yet, but when the options were: trapped burning death, sure burning death, or possible burning death. She had to go with the one with the least terrible qualifier, and hope she’d find something to help her, or she’d gain some kind of inspiration with another ten feet of elevation.
She snagged a kitchen towel and wiped the worst of the muck from the bottom of her boots then crouched like a sprinter in the gates. Thirty feet to the stairs. She could do that. She just needed a couple seconds.
There was no time like the present.
Molly lunged forward, feet pounding linoleum, then gore soaked carpet. The Head turned, its eyes saw her. Just one more second and she’d be past. Its eyes squinted, lit blue.
Molly tripped. On the extension cord.
Apparently the powers that be had been wrong. Apparently painting the cord bright orange had not been a strong enough safety measure. She tried to catch herself, failed, and fell wind milling. The stinking carpet met her hard, and she slid stop, just beyond the burning sofa.
Behind her she heard the sizzle of lasers slicing through housing and was sure she was dead. This was it, grilled Molly flambé served ala middle class. She squeezed her eyes shut and hoped it shot her in the head.
Only she wasn’t dead. Plaster rained down on her instead, and after the stuff she’d had raining down recently, that was pretty mild. She looked up.
The Head was down on its back, laser eyes doing a number on the ceiling. The orange extension cord hung tangled amidst its numerous hand-feet things. Maybe after all the torment it had imparted, the extension cord was paying her back. Or maybe the alien was just really top heavy and had as much trouble with safety as Molly. In either case, she didn’t have any time to sort it out, because as awkward as the alien looked, it was coming back to its feet, hands, whatever.
She scrambled up and pelted up the stairs. At the top were three doors, the one in front of her was open. She rushed through, and skidded to a stop.
Sometimes she hated the terrible generic lower-middle class suburbia she found herself in. And sometimes, rarely, she didn’t mind so much. As she stared down at the six propane tanks clustered in the corner, she had to admit she felt a little love for crazy, survivalist hoarders everywhere.
Not that it had done them much good. When the pixie dust fell, everything with so much as a pulse was reduced to nothing larger than dust on the wind, but, just maybe, their mad planning might get her out of this mess.
If she hurried.
Behind her the squishing tearing sounds meant Mr. Head was on its way up after her. She couldn’t think it was in a super happy mood either.
She seized a propane tank in each hand, and flexing every muscled in her 150 lbs. body, she drug them to the door. Then she went back and drug over two more. There wouldn’t be any time for the others. The bobbing, pale skinned ridge of the Baugot’s head was clearing the top of the stairs.
Through the dirty windows at the back of the room, she made out the backyard, long unmowed. A rusting swing set and the ever present middle-class chain link fence that marked the back of every yard. It would be a hell of a fall, but the earth couldn’t hurt as bad was one of those lasers in her chest.
The Head scuttled into the room, eyes already squinting.
With gritted teeth Molly heaved up one more tank, turned, and flung it toward the alien, then gave herself the same treatment through the nearest window.
She hurtled out past the side of the house, feeling the soft sharp sensation of breaking glass. Then the Head fired and the rest of the house joined her as a force, like the middle finger of an angry god, flicked her away from the world.
She tasted dirt. And blood, probably her own, but mostly dirt. That was the first sensation that shuddered through her mind when her brain snapped back to itself. Everything felt disjointed and wrong, and out of place.
She forced her eyes open.
The world had inverted itself while she was away. That was nice to see. It would take some getting used to walking around upside down, but that might be a nice change. She blinked, more of her brain came back online and she felt the dirt against her cheek, in her mouth, the sharp jabbing in her back, and she realized she was hanging upside down against the chain-link fence.
Using a combination of elbows and curses, she pulled herself down and flopped back to earth. Where she lay for some reasonable amount of time before staggering back up right again. After a few seconds groaning and gentle prodding, she found herself in quite a bit of pain, bit entirely intact.
She couldn’t say the same for the house. Part of it was burning, and most of the second floor had accepted gravity’s invitation and joined the first floor at a more reasonable elevation. Basically it now looked like the rest of the mostly smoking neighborhood. Or the crumbling remains of the city in the far distance for that matter.
The propane tanks had apparently done their job and sent the Baugot Head into an alternate spiritual, metaphysical, and or geographic reality. She didn’t really care which as long as it wasn’t near her. The were no signs of any other unfriendly visitors.
Through the now gaping holes in the house, her Heavy still stood, stoic, and silent on the front lawn. Bristling with and armor and weapons, and still utterly useless.
She wanted to rush over and kick it in the shin, but that wouldn’t do any good. It hadn’t designed itself with eight hours of battery life and then sent itself into a ten hour mission. Men in white lab coats and tight green jackets and done those things, and she’d be having a very serious talk with both of them when she got back.
If she got back.
Neither dead aliens or a collapsed house and done anything to solve her stupid basic problem, and until she sorted that out, she wasn’t going anywhere. It would be easier to remove a rusted sedan from a redneck’s lawn than to move the two ton Heavy a single inch.
Without anything else to do, she started back across the rubble of the house, picking her way amongst sheet rock and 2×4 remains. And there, atop a few chunks of concrete, and a bit of melted maroon velvet, lay her orange extension cord. It looked remarkably intact and unharmed for the all the chaos that had ensued around it. Beside it stood a plastic ecru power outlet, still staring out from the wall with wide eyes; perhaps located closer toward the front of the house now that the entire wall was sagging toward collapse.
It was pointless, and stupid, but at that moment, she only wanted to do one thing.
She knelt, plucked up the power cord, and plugged it into the outlet. Just like that.
It was a futile gesture, but dammit if she was going to let an orange power cord beat her.
Behind her, a tiny light came on with a soft beep. Molly’s head whipped around. It was a very small light on the back of the Heavy, but it was an important one, with an important meaning.
Her arms rocketed skyward on their own, and a shout of triumph escaped her lips. Right then she didn’t care who heard.
She’d done it! Victory was hers! She’d make it out of this middle class nowhere after all.
The metallic sound of a breaker popping somewhere within the rubble of the house was unmistakable in the silence. The light on the Heavy went out. She stared frozen, unbelieving for a very long time. Eventually her lips parted, closed, then parted again.
Molly cursed, and eyed the distance to the neighbor’s house.
© 2014 Jeremiah Reinmiller