A parking lot lay ahead rimmed with thatches of trees. The area was vacant, not seeing a car in years considering the outgrowth jutting from the cracks in the pavement. Not a leaf rustled, except the evening wind trailing off solid ground in a quietude beneath a sunset sky. A poplar overhung the far corner where two men, one tall and lanky and the other of medium build, settled themselves. They were tired and bedraggled, keeping watch of their surroundings. The tall man drew into his back pocket and pulled out a lighter. Reaching out, he lit the other’s cigarette before taking a puff of his own, blowing out a relieving cloud that billowed into thin air. The other man held the cigarette with hands stained with lubricant. His cheeks formed divots as he sucked heartily on his first smoke since the afternoon, silently thanking his partner for the stockpiles. Averting his line of sight, the taller man noticed a film of despondency on him.
“How long y’think we got?” he said as he sighed an exhale.
“No telling, Harry,” the taller man said. “I can tell you it’s hard to pick a side.”
Harold dragged and blew, slumping his shoulders in resignation. “Pick yer poison, if y’ask me.”
“It’s one of those cases either side has it in for us.”
“With a loaded gun, but not if we can help it. I’ll risk an early grave if needed,” Harold grumbled. “By the way, Skip. Y’never told me yer an astronomy buff.”
Skip gave a quizzical look as he stared at a few thistles waving in the wind that sidled the crumbling ends of the lot. His cigarette was dangling in his mouth when he looked back talking one-sidedly. “Where did you hear that?”
“I saw some printouts tacked to th’wall. A few stars were marked in red. Figured y’knew about some strange stories over the ham.”
“That? I wouldn’t say a vested interest.”
Harold faced sideways looking at nothing in particular. “Or lookin’ at horoscopes.” He chuckled.
“You’re far from the target. Listen,” Skip changed the subject, “we’ve been through a lot together, for what? Almost six months since the occupation?”
“Without you, we’d be stranded.”
“Thanks. We’re all doing our part. By the way, can you keep a secret?”
Harold was taken aback glancing at Skip through the corner of his eye. He tapped the ashes flicking his thumb and took another drag. “Something th’matter?” Skip, a turncoat? Over my dead body! he mulled.
“To put it bluntly, there happens to be a matter I’d like to discuss with you.”
“I’m all ears.”
Skip reached into his side pocket and pulled out what looked like a pen, except it was smooth of edges or nubs and rounded at both ends. “I want to show you something.”
Harold tipped his chin. “A computer pen?”
“In a way, except you don’t need to lug around a monitor.”
“Let’s see.” He leaned in, blowing out a cloud of smoke.
Skip dropped his cigarette and stamped it out on the frayed ends of the pavement. Extending his index in a wait-a-minute gesture, he began drawing in mid-air, leaving behind trails of glowing amber. Within seconds, a box had been etched out. Harold’s eyes popped. He nearly dropped the cigarette barely keeping his lips together. A tri-d cube floated in place right in front of his eyes without any medium to prop it.
Unable to contain himself, he vehemently spat out a plume of smoke. “Skip! What the h––”
Skip shot his hand up. “Not so loud, Harry! I know we’re alone, but don’t get in the habit of shouting like that. We can’t draw the wrong attention.” He resumed with the demonstration. “Now watch this.” Harold stared, dangling the cigarette in his mouth, fervently awaiting what else this device was capable of. With a gentle flick of his thumb, Skip opened the box, the virtual lid flipping without friction or recoil.
Another anxious cloud puffed out. “And it’s animated too?”
“And interactive.” He lightly jabbed the air within the image and deleted the box as if popping a bubble.
“What else can this thing do?”
“Keep still and observe.”
Skip threaded his hand through the air. Trails of neon lines took form as he drew a snake with wings, a crude representation using simple but recognizable shapes. Harold’s eyes were glued to the magical image; no distraction could break his focus. With a casual adeptness of a conductor, Skip leaned back and dotted the air with the pen, and like magic, the snake came to life slithering through the air flapping its wings like a bird. Harold did a double take and whisked around as the image flew past their line of sight, the glow of their cigarettes arcing with their movement, and watched with amazement as it dissipated with distance. Harold’s heart was pounding with disbelief as he remained fixed to the same spot now clouded with smoke. With a blink, he shook himself out of shock.
“What was that? H-how’d you do it?” he said with hands jittering in the direction he was looking.
Skip raised the pen on three fingers before Harold’s line of sight and casually explained, “I suppose it’s a magic pen!”
“Where the hell did y’get it?”
Skip remained taciturn. “Been in the family.”
“Very funny. So, y’just found it?” He took a nervous puff. “Never seen anything like that!” He pointed with his cigarette.
Skip was busy scribbling in a little dot, then poked it to life and watched it bounce away without hitting the ground. It was amusing to watch his friend’s incredulous expression as he tracked it.
“Y’got me hooked. Do something…y’know, more complicated.”
“Alright. Watch this…you might know this one from childhood.”
He etched out a cow, then a sphere defined by some crude circles over its surface a few feet to the right. The pen plucked the air and the cow jolted to life, scrambling into an anticipation before zooming off and jumping over what became obvious was the moon. Thumping down to an imaginary ground plane, the cow erected itself and lowed.
“You can make ‘em talk too?” He spouted as he exhaled. “You find that thing in some ancient tomb? Certainly puts th’magic in a magic marker!”
“Now you’re getting it! It’s what we call a trident.”
“I’ll get to that. A tridimensional stylus.”
Harold remained incredulous. “A what?”
He held up the trident. “It collects available atomic matter and excites it into ionized tracts of plasma that come out as the lines I created. The matrix comprising the image is recorded and controlled by entanglement.” Harold looked perplexed. “Oh, uh…in other words, there’s a very complicated mechanism built inside the stylus controlling the atomic structure within the matrix, something we generally call the canvas. It’s a field in which the drawing is made that can be manipulated as an instance…er…think of a marionette, but no strings attached.”
“The hell? Everything y’said was Greek to me, but I can’t argue with what I saw! Do another!” He carelessly shoved the cigarette into his mouth and almost bent it.
Without mincing words with his actions, Skip drew out what looked like a court jester with the head of a cat. The design resembled the rest of his etchings using simple geometric shapes pieced into a composite. Another poke with the pen and the jester wiggled to life. The persona whipped into a devious posture gazing about its surroundings, then pranced up to Harold and kicked him in the shin.
“Ow! Hey!” He shouted, massaging the bruise. Piqued, he stared down at the jester as it settled back into its sneaky mien with arms akimbo.
“Come on, Harry. You know that didn’t hurt.”
Harold parted his hands and saw nothing indicating a scar. “I swear…I guess he took me off guard, th’stuck-up jerk. Made me drop my cigarette too!”
“Feisty one, I see!” Skip said, nodding at the character in playful reproof before it disappeared.
Regaining his stance, Harold said, “If they can nick me like that, I bet they’re capable of serious damage. And a whole lot of it! I’m still stumped at how y’do it!”
“Same way. Just a lot more concentration transferred into the matrices. Here…” and Skip drew out a soldier looking closer to a nutcracker than anything meriting an observable threat.
“I admire how fast you crank these things out. Ever work as a cartoonist? You draw like it!”
Skip cocked his brow. “I guess it comes with the territory.”
“Say, what’s he gonna do?”
The nutcracker began marching in place like an animation pencil test, cocked his musket and lunged forward with incredible thrust, jabbing a tree stump, and wobbling to a stop.
“Wow!” He scuttled up to the bole. As the nutcracker pulled out the musket with a few hearty tugs, Harold ran his fingers over the gash in the wood. It was as real as the object that was perforated. Shocked, he spun back around facing Skip while pointing at the bole. “That––that’s a real scuff mark!”
“No less!” Skip replied as he watched the nutcracker throw his musket back over his shoulder and saluted before dissolving into the ether.
“But how long can they last before you have to draw another one?”
“Usually, a few minutes before the particles get a little stirred by their environment. I just happened to clear the cache, so to speak. It’s all exhibition for now. For the sake of convenience, you can actually store the images for future use. Each canvas automatically saves.”
“Am I dreaming or something? This’s the stuff from the gods––“
“And speaking of which, this is how we’ll be fighting back. Stocking arms can only go so far. Imagine when they send us the whole kaboodle. What would our next plan of action be? Get sprayed by miniguns from a couple of fly-overs? We’d be dead ducks unless we dispatch a make-shift army. We can even reuse the same iterations.”
“Jeez. We’ve got the home guard right at our fingertips! Y’suppose it’ll work?”
“Like any weapon, you have to be quick on the draw. That’s what I’m here for. There’s a whole library I’ve drummed up for impromptu means. No more of the old asymmetrics!”
“If y’don’t mind, can I see it?” He flicked his hand.
Skip proffered the trident. “Careful. You don’t want another bruise on the shin!”
Grabbing it, Henry brought it close to his face and flipped it around, analyzing it. He was baffled at the technology involved and was almost afraid to even hold it, despite experience with a cache of assault rifles.
There was a beat of hesitation. “You know I’m holding something that generates…things outta nowhere that’ll turn th’world upside down. Now, I’m adding two and two…Those recent transmissions from the shortwave, oh yeah, and those printouts of the sky have me thinkin’.” He slapped the trident into his palm like a baton. “Nothin’ on God’s green Earth can make anything like this.” Still slapping away, he glowered at Skip. “Who are you anyway? I mean…we’ve worked together for a while now and, from what I know, y’haven’t let any of us down, but I’m wondering if there’s a little more than y’let off.”
Skip stood in place with his hands clasped behind his back, unphased by the threatening tone. He scanned their position, muttered an affirmation, and faced back toward Harold.
“I wish you’d trust me if I told you this secret.”
“Me too, but we’ve all been a little paranoid lately. At this point, y’might as well spill it.” He gestured with the trident.
“Then don’t go flappin’ yer gums about this,” Skip said in a tone playfully mocking Harold’s dialect. “Not even your closest friends or relatives. There’s no telling what anyone would do stuck with an out-of-context problem shoveled onto their doorstep.” Harold beamed, growing more pensive than imposing. “What you hold is just the skin of the apple.”
“Good God! Well, my lips can’t get any looser.”
Skip huffed and lifted his hands to his face. He looked like he was about to rub his eyes, but he began wrenching at it, twisting and pulling until some of the flabs loosened. A shroud of horror overcame Harold as he witnessed Skip ripping off his flesh as if it was an article of clothing. Something burst out from what was once the familiar visage of a trusted partner on the run. An onslaught of bright nascent colors spilled into Harold’s sight, and he instinctively backed away, prepared to dash for his life and escape this unearthly presence. What stood before him was a beast, limbed in a dark outline with tufts of fur sprouting from the neck of the shirt and over the collar of the leather jacket. What it was, Harold failed to guess, but to his surprise, it appeared harmless, having no malicious intent. The creature casually leaned to his side and pulled out a large bushy tail. He shook his head, rustling out the tresses over his scalp that fell past his chin and back and perked up a pair of giant fuzzy ears. What was he?
“Harry…listen…” Hearing Skip’s voice emanating from this felid creature, a cartoon no less, was unnerving to the senses. “I…I’ve always been like this––and yes, I’m not exactly from this side of Orion, but I’m here to help, as you’ve seen. Just don’t panic…”
Harold was shot to pieces and lost all sense of what he had always taken for granted. Nothing could present itself as truth to him any longer. He knew that when his own country turned against him, using every institution and the younger demographics as weapons of annihilation. The war was another matter, enemies offshore with mutual hate in their eyes was nothing to choose over the homeland. Both were rogue forces as far as Harold was concerned. Was this the case with Skip? There was no shade of mendacity as far as he could tell, but the surface can only reveal so much.
Trapped in an irreversible situation, Harold winced before accepting the reality he was given, and faced Skip with a new air of aplomb, straining to keep his courage, as well as a straight face.
“Tell me. Where’d you actually come from?”
“Fair enough.” Skip put down his guard, trusting his terrestrial partner once again. “Well, it’s somewhere in the vicinity of the Scutum-sector…along the galactic plane. It’s what I had circled on the photocopies.”
“So that’s what it was!”
“M-hm. And the rest I’ll explain later,” he said resuming his serious decorum. “Right now, we need to––”
Skip’s shaggy ears perked as he leaned his head to one side listening in on something unheard by Harold. His brow rose into his locks and his mouth became agape, exposing a set of fangs that revealed his species was predatorial, at least at one point on the evolutionary timeline.
“What is it?” Harold said, scanning the direction Skip was leaning into.
“Someone’s coming, and from the way the branches are creaking, it’s higher off the ground…”
“Shsh! And there’s a low-fi whirl of a fan, a bunch of ‘em…and the frequency’s pitching…Quick! Behind that tree!”
Darting around a thick bough of maple, Skip looked like a line of fur tapered with momentum as one…three…five stalker drones emerged from the foliage across the lot. They were fully armed.
Planked to the tree, Skip shifted his eyes toward his partner. “Harry, got that pen?”
Harold was shivering, unarmed but thankfully not alone. “Here…” he said, pivoting his arm over his stomach and handing Skip the trident.
With noted speed, he scrawled a needle-shaped projectile in a single deadly shape. “Can’t make drawings incendiary,” he said keeping side-eyed to the enemy’s position, “but you can make ‘em sharp!” And with the plucking of the trident, the neon images multiplied and darted off.
“Show yourselves!” A menacing rasp bellowed from the stalkers. “Or we’ll f––”
With five short raps in rapid succession, the stalkers dropped on site.
“Next, they’ll send in the UAVs and bomb out the whole place,” Skip said.
“Wouldn’t put it past…now what?”
Skip froze with one ear perked, skewing his face; Harold cursed himself lacking the creature’s auditory range. “Oh, boy. We’ve got more company. And from all the squeaking and grinding and trundling…” his giant eyes distended like a loris, “…sounds like a manned armored tank!” He scrambled up the tree and briefly poked his head out on top, paw shielding his eyes. Bushes and scrubs jostled over the hill. “Yep! Just as I suspected.” With a plume of leaves, he dashed back down and began scribbling out something large.
“How d’ya know it’s––”
“Lemme focus!” he said, scrawling away and humming a tune to keep decorum. “Foot soldiers are common back-up during anti-civilian raids––There!” He made a final jot to what Harold suspected was an escape vehicle etched in amber lines. He jumped in with a blurred streak.
“Hop in. Gotta hustle before the plasma weakens!” Harold followed, clambering in without Skip’s arboreal finesse. The vessel had no wheels; it must have flown.
“I can’t believe I’m in a cartoon made by a cartoon––”
In a heartbeat, they reeled back in an antic, and bolted into a glowing trail into the darkening sky.