Another rock through his window. Third one this week. By now they must know he'll just regrow the glass. Of course they do. He reaches for the rock. On the dingy carpet of his Government-paid house, shards and flecks of glass vibrate and hum, drawing themselves together and rolling toward the window. he holds the rock absentmindedly. Are they outside, watching the show? Still in his robe, he's too timid to find out. A fitting irony, after all he's witnessed. The window clatters and shrieks together. Still holding the rock, he moves through to the rear of the house, past the spartan kitchen and out the sliding glass doors to the cool wet lawn beyond. Seventeen. He stacks the latest addition to his makeshift pyramid. Waits a moment to be sure it doesn't topple over.
The lawn is small and uneventful, a bare patch of grass overlooking long farm fields that stretch almost to the horizon. Near his pyramid, the beginnings of a small ant hill. He watches them move back and forth deliberately in their carefully regulated tasks. Slowly, thoughtfully, he crushes the ant hill with his bare foot, sending them scurrying for cover. It shouldn't be as satisfying as it is. What, he supposes, do they think when his foot comes crushing down? Do they see the face of God?
The twilight air is clear and cool. He remembers, fondly and far away that feeling of dusk in summer, impossibly late, still warm, with a labyrinth of possibilities all stretching out in front of him. On the horizon he can see the coalescing spires of New Chicago. It's as if, he thinks every time he's out here, they chose the house that would never let him forget.
No one much talks about them anymore. They haunt the periphery of the American psyche, tall as buildings, taller in our nightmares. Especially in Illinois.
Billy was fifteen when they landed, the answer to every awkward gangly, pimply fifteen-year-old's prayers. Robots from Outer Space. He befriended them, or thought he did Gave them names, the kind of names a comic book geek thinks of. What goes on in their heads is complex, to say the least. He spoke to them on behalf of the United States of America. Appeared on every magazine cover and news site in the world, pimples helpfully airbrushed. Fifteen years old and his best friend was a sixty-foot alien robot. What kid wouldn't want that? he would repeat later to interviewers, to harassers, to himself. Then the Death Bringers came, and the war, and the smoldering ruin of Chicago and everything changed. Evil was what Ultivox called them and Billy believed it then. That long great adventure, sailing into battle against the Death Bringers, the fate of the world in his hands.
Across the lawn, in a high oak branch, he sees a mockingbird. He'd heard the thing for weeks now, had been trying to catch sight of it with his binoculars for ages. Birding is an excellent hobby for those with no job and a growing terror of leaving one's house. Billy backed slowly toward the glass doors, his eyes still on the bird. Where did he put the binoculars last? Back on the--
A chill ran down his spine. He was not alone. Billy reached out with his othersense, his inheritance from Ultivox. A familiar buzzing of the electronics around him. Second-floor window. They came in while he was out just now. Two men, one woman. Inside the kitchen there is a gun. Nonchalantly, quietly, he moves back in to the house, conscious in the back of his mind that the mockingbird is still singing.
Only once before did someone make an attempt on his life. Spectrix was there to stop them. Russians, that time. The US played up its relationship with the robot,s especially before Chicago. Back through the kitchen. The Russian hit team was a four-man crew posing as tourists. Spectrix destroyed---not just killed, anihilated--them casually as if swatting flies and asked Billy afterward, in a tone which the young man took to be simply curiosity, why bioforms should want to kill other bioforms. Bad guys, Billy explained then. Still, Spectrix didn't get it. These were the days before the war. Billy and Spectrix were on tour, showing off the robots' facility at rebuilding American infrastructure (as well as a none-too-subtle "Hey look at our best-friends' destructive capability").
"You know, evil." Billy said. It would be another year or two before the Death Bringers and Ultivox using that word in a way Billy, upon reflection all these years later, thinks the robot has no specific understanding of. It's just a word he used, an incantation, almost.
In the kitchen Billy reaches for the gun, tucked away in the flatware drawer. He gets there almost in time before everything goes black.
He comes to with a bag over his head and a ringing in his ears. He's in a vehicle. Acoustics suggest a minivan, an older model.
"He's coming around," a man next to him says.
"Don't even think of Reaching into the engine." A woman's voice, familiar. "This van so much as hiccups and you're brains go out the side window."
Of course it would be Kendra Stephenson. Love of his life. "Where are you taking me?"
"Quiet!" The driver.
"Look: whatever it is, I can get it for you. Just give me a phone."
"General Hayes isn't taking your calls, Chief." The driver again.
"Great. So you're going to execute me? Drive me out into the woods and put one in the back of my head? IF that's the plan at least take the damn bag off my head. It's two miles on surface streets and a guy all hooded and zip-tied might attract you some unwanted attention."
A brief, merciless pause before the hood comes off, something not nearly as reassuring as he thought it was going to be. There she is, front seat ahead of him, Kendra Stephenson. "You look great." is all he thinks of to say.
The war brought them together. The tough-as-nails Army corporal with the seen-it-all smile and the Most Famous Teenager On Earth. They were happy, for a while. Weren't they? Ten years gone. "Did you ever have kids?" he asks and she stares at him blankly. "What? I'm probably going to die soon, anyway. I'd like to know. You always wanted kids."
"What would have been the point?" She retorts. "The world doesn't belong to us anymore."
The fight between the Shapers and the Death Bringers consumed the city of Chicago. Pulped it. The robots fought without even an absentminded regard for life or property. Ultivox tried to explain to Billy the complex sectarian motives that pitted deadly sixty-foot tall metal men against one another, but it was obscure and algebraic and in the end he simplified it all to say this was a battle between good and evil. When it was over and the Death Bringers were all gone, Ultivox and his Shapers set to rebuilding the city.
"YOU HAVE DONE A GREAT THING TODAY," Ultivox said in that voice of his so loud Billy felt it in his chest. "HUMANITY IS SAFE BECAUSE OF YOU." It was the last thing the Shaper King said to him before leaving him at the outskirts of the ruin and beginning, wordlessly, to rebuild. Much later it would become apparent what they were building was not, in fact, strictly a repair job, but something altogether stranger, a twisting metal-and-glass pyramid, stretching to the sky.
"They say people are shorter now." Second guy. The gunman. Billy probably wouldn't live long enough to actually learn these schmucks' names. "That we walk all hunched over and afraid, now. "Average height in the US is, what, six feet?"
"Five-ten," Billy, who was five-nine, corrected.
"Anyway, by 2100 they say we'll be all five-eight or something. From cowering.
"Look, what do you want from me? Any other kid in that field on that night, he'd have done hte same thing."
"Then it'd be him with a gun to his head," Kendra replied.
"So, Hayes sent you, then? Or are you freelance. Is this all it is? Revenge, after ten years it comes down to sorry you were there when the aliens landed?"
They reach a stop light and Billy swears he sees the mockingbird alight on a street sign. "Not revenge," the driver says.
"You talk to machines," Kendra now, elaborating. "We're going to help you send a message."
It was his inheritance. A result of Ultivox bringing him back to life at the Battle of Chicago. The robot seemed vaguely disgusted by the whole thing, by having to touch Billy's profane organic flesh. Though maybe Billy was reading into it, then as well as now. Maybe they didn't think of it that way at all.
Before they can see it, he can feel it, and has time to brace himself for the impact. Another car sideswipes the van, burning through the light, sending the van careening into the shoulder, spinning and toppling. Someone shouts Kendra's name. It's Billy. The impact whips Gun Man's head against the window. It shatters and he's unconscious. Through the maze of cracked glass, Billy sees the car that hit them and knows its nature before it begins to judder and shift. Heave and collapse. Implode and rise in a violent sickening dance as what was once a car (or animitation of one, an off-model number you wouldn't look twice at until you did and realized it wasn't like any car you'd ever seen, but rather a generalization of a car, like a kid's drawing) into a bipedal robot. Doors and side mirrors and tail lights vestigial, hanging off it like the collected carapace of an assassin bug. It lumbers close and tears the van's sliding door from its hinges. There are other cars around, they're all speeding away in haste. Hiding. Cowering. Kendra, still belted in the forward passenger seat, has her pistol out and is shooting, though she isn't shooting Billy, which is what he'd be doing. He can see she's bleeding from her head.
Wheelox. One of the Infiltrators. If it notices the bullets, the robot gives no indication. It reaches in, grasps the bench seat holding Billy and the gunman, casually crushing the unconscious man's legs in the process, and tearing the bench free of the van.
"IS THE BILLY HURT?"
"No," Billy finally gasps. More shots now, but Wheelox shields Billy with his sedan-door arm.
"No, no! just...let's go home."
Gingerly, particularly for his size, Wheelox undoes Billy's seat belt and casts the bench aside. It clatters and cracks and he's pretty sure the gunman is dead if he wasn't already. Kendra and the driver are still firing shots. Wheelox makes a space for Billy in his chest and lumbers toward the growing spire of New Chicago. There is a long silence, hours really, as the robot stalks toward its home. Its Tower of Babel, but then they don't know that story, wouldn't understand the moral behind it, would only ask him obscure questions, neither side really understanding the other.
"ULTIVOX SENT ME," it says. "WE HAVE BEEN WATCHING. THERE IS A PLACE FOR YOU IN HEAVEN." As they pass through the edge of the city, Billy thinks he sees familiar forms tossed into the charnel pits.