In a dark cave hidden from the world, Ro-Man, a seven foot tall alien from another planet is occupied with the destruction of mankind. The creature’s massive, seven foot tall body is covered in some kind of metallic fur, while a breathing helmet and antenna sit atop its head. Instead of a face there is simply a round black void, blacker than the darkest reaches of space, cold and unforgiving. His size and power convey unmatched intelligence and unspeakable terror.
Ro-man turns to a sophisticated piece of equipment. A viewscreen, powered by an unknown, unthinkable source comes to life, revealing another creature: The Great One. It speaks.
“Attention! Attention, extension X-J-2! Attention! Attention, extension X-J-2!”
“WE HEAR YOU, GREAT GUIDANCE,” answers Ro-Man, in a deep, robotic monotone.
“Earth Ro-man, you violate the law of plan. Fact: you have captured the girl and not destroyed her. Fact: you have delayed accepting the surrender of the others. This verges on failure.”
Ro-Man hesitates. “THERE IS ONE THING YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND, GREAT GUIDANCE.”
The Great One is taken aback. Clearly no one has ever questioned his orders before. “You reject the plan?”
Ro-Man haltingly replies “I…WISH TO MAKE AN ESTIMATE OF MY OWN.”
“To think for yourself is to be like the hu-man.”
“YES…TO BE LIKE THE HU-MAN,” Ro-Man’s voice falters, showing emotion for the first time ever. “TO LAUGH, FEEL, WANT…WHY ARE THOSE THINGS NOT IN THE PLAN?”
The Great One gestures angrily while electricity surges around it. The anger can be felt even through the viewscreen. “You are an extension of the Ro-Men. And a Ro-Man you will remain! Now, I set you into motion. One: destroy the girl. Two: destroy the family. Fail, and I will destroy you.”
The viewscreen powers off. The Great One is gone. Ro-Man turns away, his gaze sweeping across the cold, bleak cave.
“I CANNOT AND YET I MUST. HOW DO YOU CALCULATE THAT? AT WHAT POINT ON THE GRAPH DO ‘MUST’ AND ‘CANNOT’ MEET? YET I MUST. BUT I CANNOT.”
“And cut the movie. Over to Jerry.” A TV producer, Alice, notes the time on a clipboard and looks into the television studio. “Boy, these movies keep getting worse and worse.”
Inside the TV studio Ro-Man’s image fades to black, to be replaced by another black and white picture, some kind of mad scientist. He wears a white lab coat, frizzy hair, and speaks in a far-fetched European accent that comes and goes.
“Vell kids, look out! Zat darn Robot Monster vill get us all for sure!”
He gesticulates wildly while approaching the camera, coming close, closer, finally too close so that he is now out of focus.
“But is he a Robot? Or a monsterrr? Or both?! What, uh, vat kind of monsterr would you find under your bed? Und vat kind of ro-bot isss hiding in your closet?”
His out-of-focus eyes peer directly into the camera lens through old welding goggles.
“Vat would you do if you met a real monster from outer space, ehh?”
He laughs maniacally and steps back from the camera with a flourish.
“We will see what vill happen, right after dese commercials!”
The light above the camera turns off. A commercial for a local delicatessen begins as the scientist steps away from the camera. Alice walks out of the control room.
“Jesus Jerry, you’ll give the kids nightmares if you keep it up like that.”
Jerry removes the goggles and wipes the sweat from his eyes. He lights a cigarette and inhales.
“Yeah, I know. But they love it! All those letters we get from parents complaining only makes the kids want to watch it even more.”
The woman smiles. “I know, but don’t push it too far.”
Jerry readjusts his lab coat while talking. “Any kid who would watch this movie and take it seriously needs serious help. Didja see this “alien?” It’s nothing but a gorilla suit with a dime store “Space helmet” on top. My kid’s got better looking stuff.”
Alice shrugs, “George says it’s what the station can afford for these late night monster shows. We don’t have the money for the Invisible Man or Dracula anymore.”
“Well those weren’t exactly Cecil B. DeMille either. But at least they got some production value. This is just a gorilla suit and cardboard props in some Los Angeles alleyway. Anybody thinks they can make a space movie nowadays, just throw some aliens in it.”
“All this talk of outer space,” Alice frowns and makes a note on her clipboard, “It’s not for me.”
Jerry laughs. “Ah, you’re crazy. Every generation has their own stuff. When I was a kid it was adventure stories in India. Then cowboys out west. Now it’s spacemen. Next year it’ll be something else.”
“But this feels different. Kennedy promising to put a man on the moon, all these space launches. I’ve even heard that our TV signals are going,” Alice looks around and lowers her voice, “they’re being beamed right out into space!”
“What’s the matter, you worried the aliens are gonna hear us? Hey little green men, WTAR in Pittsburgh is talkin’ to ya and we’d love Mazeroski to win the world series for the Pirates again!”
“Laugh all you want, but I’m serious. All these space satellites and rockets going up. Who knows what’s out there, or if anyone’s listening?”
Jerry stubs his cigarette out and puts his goggles back on. “Well listen, any time those little men in a flying saucer show up, lemme know. We’ll book them on the show; kids’ll love it.”
Alice smiles weakly and gestures silently toward the TV cameras. Jerry scurries back into his place as Alice points. The red light on the camera turns on as the commercial ends and Jerry picks up where he left off. “Und now kiddieees, it’s time for the exciting conkluusion of your new favorite film, “Ro-bot Monster!” Jerry winks at Alice and she shakes her head.
Outside the TV studio stands the massive television antenna. It’s a clear night with a full moon, and the antenna throws criss cross shadows across the small parking lot. If you listen closely, you can almost convince yourself that you can hear the thrumming vibrations of the TV signal being beamed out. Out to Pittsburgh, the suburbs, parts of Ohio & West Virginia. Up, straight up, and into space. And beyond.
When we think of space, we think of a vast, empty void. But that’s not entirely true. Even among the gigantic distances between star systems, there are magnetic fields, solar flares, gaseous clouds, bits of dust & debris from comets & asteroid fields, and more.
These things all interfere, bend, reflect, or hamper the transmission of any kind of radio or television signal. So even though every transmitter on earth is constantly beaming out material, virtually none of it gets very far.
On this day. in 1962, a broadcast of the Ed Sullivan show got trapped in the ionosphere. Excessive carbon emissions stoped the broadcast of Japanese variety show Shichiji ni aimashō. Walter Kronkite’s nightly news was bent and redirected by the moon’s magnetic pull, while a rerun of an El Santo Mexican wrestling movie lost stability due to a massive solar flare.
British sitcom Steptoe and Son lasted for several months at light speed but eventually got lost in an asteroid field with high magnetic content. Dick Van Dyke tripping over his ottoman got pulled into a black hole, along with .
A Late Movie presentation of Sonia Henie’s 1943 film It’s a Pleasure? Lost after 9 light years in a comet’s tail. Russia’s Little Blue Light variety show? Absorbed in a gaseous nebula. Gunsmoke was lost in the shockwave of an exploding star while the What’s My Line game show simply experienced full signal collapse after 36 light years.
But against all odds, Robot Monster persisted. True, most of it was gone by now. The introductions by Mad Scientist Jerry had mostly disintegrated, as had much of the movie. But the elements remained intact. The giant gorilla suit with a fishbowl space helmet head and the humans cowering before him remained like dusty elements of a Rosetta stone. A gift, a time capsule, a view of how a bunch of guys in the Hollywood Hills thought they could make a few bucks by cashing in on this “space” trend. It persisted. It endured.
For decades the signal flew through space at the speed of light, 186,282 miles per second. An interstellar gift, a postcard from Earth when all the other letters had been lost long ago.
And then, some fifty eight years after the signal was originally broadcast from a transmitter in Pittsburgh, something finds it.
An entity. A consciousness. Something we don't have the language to describe. Something beyond language.
It receives the signal. It deliberates. It reacts.
An ambassador is dispatched.
The entity has no need for light years. For distance or for time. It simply is.
One moment the now-abandoned parking lot of the old TV station in Pittsburgh is empty. The next it is not.
A visitor has arrived. A creature beyond our understanding, beyond time and carbon-based life. It has been sent here to discover more, to examine our race, to explore our world and pass judgement.
The visitor stands seven feet tall. It looks like a tall man wearing a shabby gorilla suit, with a silver fishbowl on his head with antennae protruding from it.
Ro-Man takes its first steps, unsteady, adjusting to Earth gravity. The parking lot is cracked and overgrown with weeds. The building is decrepit, long-abandoned. The moon is full and the sky is bright.
Ro-Man raises its faceless visage to the night sky, and raises its arms. A voice emerges in a hard robotic monotone.
“TO BE LIKE THE HU-MAN!”
Ro-Man lowered its arms. Nothing happened. The parking lot remained empty. In the distance a train whistle sounded over the low hum of urban American life. A breeze picked up, scattering dead leaves across the cracked pavement, bouncing around Ro-Man and clinging to its fur.
Ro-Man turned its head, long antenna bobbing slightly. The faceless visor swept across the parking lot. A voice emerged in the same loud monotone: “IS THERE A CHOICE BETWEEN A PAINLESS SURRENDER DEATH, AND THE HORROR OF RESISTING DEATH? SHOW YOURSELVES!”
There was no answer.
Ro-Man walked forward with the gait of a toddler still getting used to using their new extremities. It approached the long-closed television studio and stopped. An audible buzzing noise emanated from the headset, as Ro-Man swept its headpiece back and forth. The creature proceeded to a padlocked door and ripped it off its hinges. The metal door clattered across the parking lot, sending a stray cat scampering as Ro-Man walked inside.
Inside the studio was pitch black, save for a few shafts of light where holes had opened up in the roof. Ro-Man navigated the darkness with little difficulty, stepping around old shipping containers and filling cabinets, finally arriving in the old television studio. Rats scurried away Ro-Man walked to the center of the studio, illuminated by a small patch of moonlight. The voice spoke again, sounding less like thought than the recitation of a script written long ago. “NONE SHALL ESCAPE ME. I SHALL FIND A WAY TO RID THIS EARTH OF HU-MANS.”
Outside the studio the stray cat was beginning to creep back to its home in the shrubs when another padlocked door exploded off its hinges. Ro-Man walked through the opening, lumbering forward onto the sidewalk. The creature’s gait was becoming more confident, more muscular. It moved more like an actual gorilla than a man wearing a bad ape suit.
The neighborhood was an old industrial area, slowly being consumed by technology startups, co-working spaces, and overpriced luxury apartments that sat empty. Ro-Man stood motionless, across the street from a sign advertising “Luxury / Authentic Living / Sexy Bathrooms” until a car drove by.
Ro-Man’s head turned to follow the car which drove hesitatingly down the street, the back window illuminated with a ride-sharing logo. As the car pulled to a stop down the street in front of a large building, Ro-Man followed on foot.
A young man and woman emerged from the car, tipsy and wearing brightly colored clothes. The man slammed the car door without talking to the driver while the woman looked at her phone. “This is the place…I think? Kinda shabby.”
The sign on the building proclaimed that it was a Moose Lodge, established [YEAR], and while the building had signs of wear and tear, the colorful graffiti and full parking lot indicated that this was indeed the place.
The man sniffed audibly, and looked around. “This is what passes for cool in Pittsburgh, I guess.”
They approached the door, only to be stopped by the doorman. “Sorry guys, we’re at capacity downstairs. If you want to wait, you can enter when someone else leaves.”
The woman audibly rolled her eyes (yes, she rolled her eyes so hard it made a sound) and turned back to her date, who was already on his phone. “Figures. They can’t even figure out how to do clubs in this city. We could go to…”
“YOU ARE NOT LIKE MY PEOPLE. YOU ARE SAVAGE BARBARIANS, NON RO-MAN ANIMALS.”
Ro-Man had appeared next to them, towering above the couple. Electricity crackled from the antenna on its head, its powerful body charged with menace.
“Ugh, costumes,” said the woman. “I thought the Furry thing was over.”
Ro-Man stood silently. The man glanced up from his phone with a practiced, I’m From New York I’m Not Impressed look. He laughed.
“Hey man, I’m from New York. I’m not impressed. Besides, they’re at capacity.”
“I AM BUILT TO HAVE NO EMOTIONS.”
The woman was now visibly irritated. “He said they’re at capacity, what more do you want? Ugh, this is worse than Austin.” She threw a dirty look at the doorman.
Ro-Man surveyed the doorway. There were a set of steps and a glass door propped open, manned by the doorman. The creature took a hesitant step, then another, and paused.
The doorman looked at the couple, then at Ro-Man. “Hey man, it’s a $5 cover, but tell you what, you’re a regular so I got you this time. Go ahead.”
The man huffed and called for a rideshare car while the woman opened Yelp on her phone. The doorman laughed and leaned in to Ro-Man “I just like messing with these New York d-bags. I love the costume. Go ahead, but I just need to see under your helmet. For security purposes, you understand.”
Ro-Man stood in the doorway, blankly.
“Look man, don’t make me regret this. Just lift up the helmet for a second, lemme see your face.” He mimed lifting up a helmet over his head. “You get it?”
Ro-Man turned its blank face to the doorman. Giant arms reached upwards to lift the space helmet from its head.
The man and woman got into the same ride-share as before, without talking to the driver. As the car drove away, the woman turned to take a photo and saw the doorman faint, collapsing down the stairs as Ro-Man replaced his helmet.
“Ugh,” she said to herself as the picture posted on Yelp. “Pittsburgh is too weird.”
As people entered the club they would immediately pause to let their eyes adjust to the dim light. Ro-Man did not appear to have this problem, as it moved swiftly past the fainted doorman, into the club, and down a set of stairs.
The interior of the old Moose Lodge had been converted into a bar and performance space. The long wooden bar stretched the length of the room while mismatched tables and chairs clustered around a small stage and a large dance floor. Bartenders ping-ponged back and forth along the length of the bar as customers swarmed against the veneer, trying to get a cheap beer in a can and a shot of pickle-flavored vodka.
On stage a young woman was DJing. Images of 1950s & 60s dance parties, science fiction movies, and vintage advertisements played on a screen behind her while a disco ball sent flickers of light around the room. The music was loud, very loud.
Everyone noticed Ro-Man. It’s hard not to notice when a seven foot tall gorilla with a fishbowl head walks into your Saturday Boogaloo Dance Party. The majority of people tried not to react.
“Remember, there used to be that guy who came in dressed up in a puppy costume,” one dancer said to another. “He worked at a pet store in Munhall, wearing the outfit all the time.”
“Hey, whatever works.”
There were also plenty of people who gawked, stared, and took pictures with their phones. They were in the city for the night, visiting from the suburbs, and couldn’t wait to share pictures of the CRAZY time there were having. Social media lit up with photos of the hulking gorilla at dance night, alongside selfies of women in the bathroom and insecure men on the dance floor trying to perform their heterosexuality for the camera.
“Can I get a selfie?” chirped a young woman as she didn’t wait for a response and snuggled up to Ro-Man with her phone. The flash reflected off the visor and she went back to her group of friends.
Ro-man stood still, silently. The antenna crackled as its head imperceptibly moved to sweep across the room.
The music pulsated against the noise of the crowd. Dozens of bodies pressed together on the dance floor gyrating to the beat. They moved rhythmically, undulating like one great organism made up of smaller cells, constantly splitting and growing again as dancers went to to the bathroom or fought the crowd at the bar for more drinks.
They closed their eyes on the dance floor. They looked at their phones while waiting for pizza. They looked at the bartenders trying to make eye contact for a drink. They looked at each other with hunger, curiosity, disgust, interest, and judgement.
The bartenders wore headbands to hide their sweat as they worked. Pulling draft beer, stacking cans in a cooler, shaking cocktails, wiping down bars. Avoiding glances, extended $20 bills, and rude treatment from assholes.
The room filled with heat and sweat. The ancient air conditioning system strained against the crush of warm bodies. The wallpaper was damp to the touch and dancers drained a water cooler and asked for more.
The disco ball created a constellation on the dance floor, a spinning galactic map made of music and light. The DJ flipped records with a practiced air while black and white images flashed on the screen behind her.
It was a video she put together for each show, pulling from internet archives, old VHS tapes, film strips, the old weird America. She loved juxtaposing the images; something from a teen beach movie cut against a Japanese monster movie. Women in go-go dresses shingalinged across the screen only be menaced by a giant tentacle.
The black and white images were reflected in Ro-Man’s visor. The blank visage behind them faced the screen, antennas vibrating. A cocktail party. A go-cart race. Godzilla fighting King Kong. A man shaking cocktails. A UFO destroying the Washington monument. Lucille ball. Frankenstein. The light from the screen made silhouettes of the DJ and the dancers.
The images increased in frequency, cutting faster and faster as they flickered in Ro-Man’s helmet. A sleigh ride. A dance contest. Giant ants menacing a small town. Marvin Gaye singing to a crowd of white teenagers. Zombies attacking a home. A cigarette commercial. A rocket ship on the launch pad. A woman looking seductively at the camera. The Jetsons. A plate-spinning act. An audience wearing 3D glasses. A 50 foot woman. The Lone ranger. A giant turtle crushing a pagoda. A movie trailer. Rock em sock em robots. Robby the robot. A family on Christmas morning. A teenage werewolf. Hot rods. Martians. Men. Women. Monsters.
And suddenly a very brief clip from the film Robot Monster, as a giant gorilla suited-man menaces a group of humans, who cower in fear.
The clip activated something in Ro-Man. Its giant hands curled and electricity shot from its antennae. It reached out and grabbed a table, yanking it away from the partygoers, sending beer cans scattering. Ro-Man threw the table across the room where it knocked over the video screen and clattered against the back wall. It barely missed the DJ. She stopped the music as the dance floor emptied with screams of fear.
The largest bartender pulled a baseball bat from behind the counter, ran up to Ro-Man and hit it hard, in the back of the helmet. The bat shattered as though connecting with a concrete slab, and the man winced in pain. Ro-Man did not react.
The room is silent, save for deep intakes of breath. Ro-Man surveyed the crowd and spoke.
“HU-MANS, LISTEN TO ME! I, RO-MAN HAVE DECREED THAT YOUR PLANET IS NOT WORTHY. SHOW YOURSELVES, AND I PROMISE YOU A PAINLESS DEATH.”
Ro-Man fell silent, as everyone in the room held their breath.
Perhaps the most valuable skill a DJ can have is the ability to read the room. You can have your transitions all planned out, have every song cued up and every beat matched but none of that means anything if the crowd isn’t having it. A good DJ will look out at the room, whether it’s full of white wine drunk socialites or a seven foot tall creature from another planet, and know exactly what song to play.
Carla has that quality. She has been DJing the Saturday Boogaloo Night for several months as it grew from her and a few friends to an event that people drive in for. DJing for friends is a lot of fun, but any good DJ will admit that it’s easy. The challenge is to win over a crowd who doesn't know you, doesn’t give a shit about you, in fact you’re not even sure why they’re here tonight. But if you can do it, if you can get that dude sitting there with the crossed arms and the women who keep asking to hear Bon Jovi, if you can get them out on the floor in spite of themselves, then you’re really doing something.
Carla had ducked when the table flew towards her, knocking over the video screen and projector. The laptop she used to show the videos had clattered to the floor, but her turntables remained intact and upright. They were still spinning when she instinctively turned down the sound to call for security and tell everyone the night was over. She’d be goddamned if she’d stand for this shit.
Then she saw Ro-Man. She’d noticed it walk in, of course, but this was something else. It towered over the crowd, fists full of menace, head full of lightning, all hidden behind that faceless, remorseless visor. It stared at her as it spoke, promising painless death.
It finished spearing. There were gasps and a shocked silence throughout the club.
Carla couldn’t say why she did what she did. Without looking she turned up the sound again. The speakers hummed as Ro-Man stared at her. She dropped the needle on the 45, a dusty mid-60s Chicago jam called “Go Go Power” by Sugar Pie De Santo.
There was a pause. A brief crackling.
Then came a drum kick in sync with a bass beat. The two began working together to churn out a backbeat while a tamborine joined in. The groove was infectious, and against her will, Carla found herself nodding her head.
“I’ve a got-a that go go power. I’m gonna kick off my shoes and dance.”
Sugar Pie came in and was quickly joined by rhythmic horn blasts, a scratchy funk guitar, and an organ. The song cast its spell as people in the crowd nodded their heads to the beat.
“Gonna get up from my seat, child when I feel that beat.”
The vocal was earthy, raw, insistent, and urgent. It was not a suggestion, nor an invitation. It was a command.
“Dance in my stocking feet, oooh and a go, go, go go go…yeah child til the break of dawn.” All of the other music dropped out to let the piano punctuate the phrase. Carla couldn’t help but let her hips shake. Ro-Man continued its faceless stare.
As the verse continued, the song built in intensity. The band was precise, mathematic. This was complex addition, algebra even, as the song threatened to break wide open.
People looked around at each other, wondering if this was actually happening. Ro-Man walked forward, parting the crowd, and stood in the center of the dance floor as Carla turned up the sound. The bass blew forward while the air pulsated with the drum beats. Carla was dancing now, defiant, watching Ro-Man as men and women long dead played and sang as though their lives depending on keeping this groove together.
“When I hit that floor, I’m gonna go, go, go go, go yeah child til the crack of dawn.”
And Ro-Man started to dance.
While the guitar solo rang out over a hammond organ, Ro-Man moved its arms back and forth while its feet moved from side to side. Its massive feet bounced up and down in time to the music.
“Is…is it doing the twist?” someone whispered.
“Actually I think it’s the Mashed Potato.”
The bar staff looked at each other. The bouncer was still nursing his arm. They looked at Carla who shrugged as she danced to the music. Ro-Man continued to bounce and dance, as the song began its fadeout.
Carla gasped and threw on another song, catching the fadeout with a transition into Kool Blue’s “I’m Gonna Keep on Loving You,” an uptempo raver driven by piano and a high-hat.
Ro-Man didn’t miss a beat, literally. Its helmet shook up and down to the relentless percussion, while other dancers crept back onto the dance floor. A sea of cell phones emerged as dozens of people filmed the creature from another world dancing with a small group of adventurous dancers.
By the time Carla had moved on to “Build Me Up Buttercup” (this was still a dance party and people in Pittsburgh can’t get enough of that song), the floor was full again. The music filled the room and down the hallways, up the stairs, and past where the doorman was still passed out. The song echoed out into the cool night air under a sky full of stars.
She could hear music from the club as the stray cat approached. She was skittish, unsettled. Too much excitement already this night. This was her territory, hard-fought as the torn corner of her ear proved.
The employees of the club called her Torts (somewhat uncreatively as she was an angry tortie cat) and she lived in the old buildings that surrounded the nightclub. For years she’d subsided almost entirely on scraps from the kitchen but in recent months all the construction of new homes had stirred up a lot of mice and rats and Torts had herself a field day.
Nonetheless she often made nighttime passes by the club to see what might be available. Drunken party goers dropping pizza, one time a meatball. That was a good night.
She slunk down the street without a sound, winding through crumbling sidewalks, construction equipment, and trash cans.
Earlier in the night she’d been stalking a mouse in the television studio, when a loud noise startled her. A giant creature had appeared, bigger than most humans, but smelling very different.
Torts knew humans. She didn’t like them, but she’d made her peace with them. She kept her distance, they kept their distance and fed her, and that was that. Woe to any human that thought they could pet her or pick her up; her claws would do the talking.
But this thing was different. It didn’t smell normal. Not prey, not human, not right. When she saw it again on the street she kept her distance. A bad start to the night.
Still, a cat has to eat.
Approaching the club the noises were louder than usual. Torts generally didn’t like to approach the club when too many people were there, but there was an enticing smell. Fish? Cheese? No…meat.
The front door was open, blocked by the body of the doorman. Torts knew this human. He would throw scraps her way, and she would hiss at him and eat them when he wasn’t looking. She was satisfied with their relationship. Yet now the human was lying in the doorway, breathing but not moving.
More importantly, a sandwich had fallen from his hand.
Torts approached cautiously. This could be a trap. The music was still playing. The street was deserted. She moved closer. The sandwich was right there. She sniffed the human’s hand.
The hand moved, and Torts jumped back, startled. Her back arched as she moved towards the sandwich. The human groaned and started to move, making noise in that crude way that humans do.
Torts retreated but not before grabbing a few pieces of salami in her mouth. She skittered across the road to the dark shelter of a bush, and curled up, guarding her treasure.
As she nibbled on the salami, she watched the doorman get up and stagger inside. The music continued for a while, then stopped. People starting walking out of the club.
Torts finished the salami and stretched out, still hidden, as two police cars pulled up. Their flashing lights made her eyes squint. She began to clean herself, oblivious as the humans made noises.
Suddenly there it was. The smell again.
Torts looked up and her back hair bristled as she saw the tall figure. Bigger than a human and smelling different. She curled into the safety of the bush.
Torts didn't understand what was happening. The creature was standing outside, with humans crowded around it. Everyone was yelling. Two humans with hats and shiny badges were brandishing pieces of metal at him.
Lightning, like when it rained hard and Torts had to hide, shot from the top of the creature. It made the pieces of metal fall from their hands, and they reacted the way humans did if Torts scratched them. They grabbed their hands in pain and made ugly noises.
Torts watched as the creature walked away. People were still yelling, an unpleasant sound.
The creature walked into the shadows of the parking lot and disappeared into the blackness.
The smell was suddenly gone. The people ran over to see if it was hiding in the shadows but Torts knew. Never trust your eyes, humans. The nose knows, and the creature had disappeared.
Torts stretched again and watched as the humans ran around. Lights flashing, people upset. What had happened to her quiet little street?
The men with shiny badges were talking into their cars. More humans would be coming. Torts got up and made her way down the street toward the river. It was quieter down there. Too much commotion for one night.
It was not a night that Carla or anyone from the club would forget.
She ended her show when the cops showed up and that’s when the creature escaped. Or disappeared. No one seemed very clear on that point.
Once it left, the bar manager closed the club down, kicking out patrons who didn’t seem to understand why the party was over.
As Carla broke down her turntables and records, she scanned through social media. The geotags from the party were full of pictures of the giant creature. Carla frowned at her phone, finally finding a clear picture.
One of the barbacks came over to clean away glassware and Carla showed her phone to him. “Does this remind you of anything? Looks familiar to me.”
The barback shrugged. “Looks like something you'd see on the cover of an old hardcore EP.”
He wasn’t wrong, thought Carla. The creature had the vibe of those 1980s zine collages, where punks photocopied old movie stills and books from the library to make their flyers and album covers. They used lots of b-movie stills and…
Wait a minute.
The laptop that she used as a projector was shattered on the stage next to her, so she couldn’t find the files. She took a screenshot of the image and texted it to her friend Kyle. Kyle was a VHS junkie, a b-movie thrifter who lived for this type of 1950s ephemera. She got a lot of her video clips from him.
CARLA: Hey Kyle, weird shit at the club tonight. What is this costume from? I can’t place it.
KYLE: Wow, cool Robot Monster costume.
CARLA: I don’t even know if it was a costume. What movie is it from?
KYLE: Robot Monster! That’s the name of the movie.
KYLE: A 1953 classic or “classic.” Really bad but good, ya know?
Carla was dumbfounded. She remember the clips now; she’d even used them in her live show tonight. A man in a gorilla suit lumbering around a California hillside with a fishbowl on his head, threatening women and small children.
KYLE: Here’s a pic.
Kyle included a still from the film. It was of Ro-Man towering menacingly over a shirtless man and a woman who cowered in fear.
Carla swore under her breath. It was the same, down to the clearly handmade helmet and antenna. Only this creature’s antenna…she swore she’d seen electricity bouncing between them like one of those exhibits at the science center. And it clearly had superhuman strength to throw that table, right? She could barely move one of those tables on her own.
Carla finished packing up her equipment, and went over to talk to Laura, the bar manager.
“Wild night, huh,” said Carla.
Laura was facing cash and rolled her eyes. “Jesus. Never seen anything like that. I mean, we get some weird shit in here on the weekends, but that was next level.”
“Do you…do think it was human? I mean, the way he threw—“
Laura laughed. “Human? Of course, what else would it be. Some big guy gets hopped up on something, comes in here wearing a costume so we don’t figure out who he is. It’s crazy but not that crazy. Fucking people. Danny’s arm is broken and I’m just praying nobody sues.”
“What about the cops?”
Laura set two shot glasses on the bar and poured a drink for herself and Carla. “They don’t have any idea what happened. Guy had some kind of stun gun or something built into his suit, shocked their guns out of their hands. I bet they don’t even make a report, they don’t wanna sound like chickenshits.”
Laura downed her whiskey in a gulp and turned back to her work. Carla held the thick-bottomed glass in her hand. It felt solid, real. Her phone buzzed. It was Kyle.
KYLE: I saw more on Instagram. Did they catch the guy?
He sent a link to an Instagram story that ended with the creature throwing the table at the screen. There was a white flash and then the story ended.
CARLA: No. Laura thinks it was just some attention-seeking meth head or something.
KYLE: That’s disappearing.
KYLE: Disappointing, sorry autocorrect.
CARLA: Thought we’d finally found a man from mars, huh?
KYLE: It’d be a good draw for next month’s dance party.
Carla laughed. What was she thinking? Of course it was some idiot. She’d seen lots of other crazy stuff; drunk guys being abusive, women starting fights in the bathroom, that knife fight that started at Partner’s Bar and ended all the way down 46th street.
She downed her whiskey, said goodnight to the staff and headed out to her car. All things considered, it was an early night and she felt lucky to be going home in one piece. Her laptop was broken but that was her backup anyway, the one she bought for just such an occasion after ruining her good MacBook years ago by spilling a rum and coke all over it.
Carla loaded up her hatchback and got in. She glanced up at the sky as she started the engine.
“Really clear night,” she said to herself as she backed out of the parking lot.
Her red taillights were fading into the distance when a figure emerged from the shadows, from a wall with no door, from the darkness itself.
The creature watched as she drove away into the night.
Carla drove home. She rarely listened to music after a show, usually picking some kind of pop culture podcast. Tonight, still rattled by the events of the dance party, she sat in silence.
With Ro-Man’s voice still in her ears, she took a deep breath and did an exercise from her college years. She’d done some work in audio and had a teacher, a crazy hippie who had run sound for every jam band you could imagine, who was fixated on the sounds of environments.
“There’s no such thing as silence,” he’d say. “In a quiet room, there’s air conditioning or a fan. Or street noise. Outside there’s birds, wind, the sound of the earth itself. The only true silence is in outer space, a complete vacuum. What we think of as silence only exists here,” as he pointed to his head. This would invariably disintegrate into a conversation about which edibles could produce the best results.
But Carla had found that the technique of focusing on what she could hear calmed her. It worked in loud environments; music, the rumble of a dance floor, glasses clinking together, people talking, a door opening, cocktail shakers, a cacophony composed of individual sounds. Sometimes she’d envision all these noises on a giant sound board, with faders so she could bring up one sound over all the others. Our brains naturally do this; tuning out the sound of someone obnoxious, focusing on a song we like, or just tuning everything out.
Even in a quiet car driving along a lonely road at night, there was plenty to listen to. The whine of the tires on the pavement. The hum of the engine and the falter of the fuel pump every time she accelerated. The squeak of her seat when the car hit a bump. The high-pitched whistle of air through an old rubber seal on a back window. And…
What was that, anyway? A buzzing or a humming of some kind. She turned her radio on and off. That wasn’t it. The speakers were definitely off. Was someone calling her phone? Nope.
Some issue with the engine, maybe. But it didn’t sound rhythmic. There was a faint crackle in it, like someone tuning a radio but unable to find the right station.
She shook her head as she steered off the parkway into a residential neighborhood.
Carla lived in her grandmother’s old suburban home, a few minutes outside of the city but enough to be considered “bridge and tunnel.” Many of her friends insisted on living in small, cramped apartments owned by increasingly mercenary landlords just to be close to “the scene.”
But Carla loved this house; the ramble of the large backyard, her grandmother’s wallpaper in the den, the insulated basement that was perfect for making music. When her grandmother died, Carla took over the house with some friends. No one thought it would be worth much so her parents let her stay there in exchange for keeping it up and paying the taxes.
Everyone had assumed it would become THE Party Pad but the truth is that Carla was extremely protective, and never allowed house parties outside of the basement. In the living room she was the one sliding a coaster under a friend’s beer can and asking them to step out on the back patio to smoke. And NEVER use the decorative soaps on top of the toilet tank; those are for COMPANY.
No one was home when Carla arrived; her roommates were out of town for the weekend and frankly Carla was relieved. The house was big enough that everyone could have their private space but it felt rude to not hang out or congregate in the massive den. Even on nights like this when she just wanted to watch Netflix and relax before bed. Maybe sit out on the back porch and admire the stars.
She looked at her phone and saw that Kyle was still texting. Nice guy, but sometimes he didn’t know when to let it go. She wrote back briefly.
CARLA: Just got home. I’m wiped out. Gonna chill out and get to bed. Night!
She saw the bubbles forming and knew he was texting but, but she didn’t look. It was enough for one night.
The fridge held nothing but some a stray tub of hummus, a box of white wine, and disappointment. Carla unceremoniously used her finger to eat the last of the hummus and filled a small jam jar with wine. It had been a night.
She slid open the back door and lit a citronella candle. Didn’t matter the time of year anymore, the bugs were out. She sat down one of her grandmother’s ancient patio chairs as she remembered her phone was inside. She paused and then relaxed into the chair. Why bother?
The wind rattled the leaves in the trees while Carla buttoned up her jacket. It wasn’t even that cold, it just made her feel more secure. It had belonged to her grandfather, an old Pittsburgh Railways denim work jacket that he’d worn to fix cars on the line. The musty smell comforted her as the candle sputtered in the wind.
A few stray clouds cleared and the night sky was visible as the wind died down.
Some stray crickets chirped and she heard the far away rumble of a passing train.
The train passed and the crickets stopped.
The low rumble was gone. She trees were still. No crickets or animals rustling in the woods.
Nothing. It was truly silent. The only thing she could hear was the thumping in her chest.
From out of the darkness stepped Ro-Man, an impossible size to emerge from nothing.
Carla screamed, but no sound emerged. She heard the buzzing and crackling again.
She tried to run but couldn't move. Ro-Man advanced on her, arms outstretched.
“I AM ORDERED TO KILL YOU.”
Carla was terrified. It was what she feared most, the horror of being home alone, of someone invading her safe space to attack her. She froze in fear, unable to scream, wanting to run and hide at the same time. She pressed herself into the solid wood of the Adirondack chair, closed her eyes, and waited for it to be over.
She heard her own panicked breathing. Then the rustle of the leaves in the trees. In the distance a car horn. She opened her eyes.
Ro-Man was standing there, arms outstretched, in the same position. It towered over her silently. It didn’t breath, or move at all. A slight breeze ruffled its fur while the porch light was reflected in the visor.
Carla didn’t know what to do. Her phone was inside. Meanwhile Ro-Man wasn’t moving. The damn thing seemed like it had just shut down. She held her breath.
A dog barked. The citronella candle flickered. Ro-Man stood still.
Carla decided to take a chance. She moved slowly, creeping out of her chair, trying not to startle the creature.
Suddenly it moved again, picking up where it left off as though completing the next stage of a prerecorded motion. It moved a few feet closer as it spoke:
“WE RO-MANS OBTAIN OUR STRENGTH FROM THE PLANET RO-MAN, RELAYED THROUGH OUR INDIVIDUAL ENERGIZERS.”
It spoke much less aggressively than last time. It felt more like it was answering a question that hadn’t been asked. It made no move to restrict her although she had no idea how quickly the damn thing could move, or what powers it had. She’d seen it walk straight out of nothing, after all.
Carla gathered her strength and spoke. “Who are you, and, uh, what do you want?”
Ro-Man’s antenna crackled, and it straightened up.
“HU-MAN. LISTEN TO ME!”
Carla cocked her head forward. In spite of herself, she was starting to find the whole thing kind of ridiculous. “Yeah, okay. I’m listening. What is it?”
Ro-Man looked from side to side, then gazed down at Carla. The antenna buzzed.
Carla was getting mad now. This thing, whatever it was, had scared the shit out of her but she’d be goddamned it she had to sit here and play act against some kind of intergalactic cosplay.
“Come on, big guy. What’s the deal? You show up at my dance party, at my home, what do you want?”
Ro-Man raised his head. “I NEED GUIDANCE. FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE, I…AM NOT SURE.”
“Guidance?! Shit, I’m not your therapist. I don’t charge $90 an hour, and I’m not standing for this.”
Her skin crawling with dread, Carla turned to walk inside. She just had to get in the door, where her phone was.
Her back was turned and she half walked, half ran across the patio, counting the steps. The leaves crunched underfoot and the wind picked up, whistling through her ears. She thought she head footsteps behind her as she broke into a run.
She flung open the sliding door, ran inside and whirled around, slamming it shut. She was sure she’d see it right behind her, fingers reaching for the handle, maybe slamming in the latch itself. She was sure it would be right there, almost on top of her. She was sure.
Instead she looked at the backyard and saw the creature standing where it was. It hadn’t moved at all.
She locked the door and grabbed her phone. The creature stood stupidly outside. A gust of wind stirred up some wet leaves. They swirled around and one stuck to the visor of its helmet. Giant hands reached up to remove it, but its large fingers couldn't gain purchase on the leaf.
Carla stood in her dining room watching this slapstick scene play out in front of her. She had her phone ready to dial 911, but as Ro-Man flailed around outside trying to remove the leaf from its visor, she turned on her camera and took video. Ro-Man stumbled and finally managed to get a gigantic sausage-like finger under the leaf, then promptly tripped over the Adirondack chair.
Carla texted the video to Kyle, with the words “You’re not gonna believe this.”
She watched as the video went through and Ro-Man stood back up, bumping against the table. The Citronella candle had fallen over. She looked down at her phone again, waiting for Kyle’s response.
Her phone buzzed.
KYLE: What? WHAT
CARLA: I know.
KYLE: It’s the same guy?
CARLA: I think so. I mean it has to be.
KYLE: Are you okay?
CARLA: The thing is, I don’t even know if it’s a guy. Or a person.
Bubbles appeared as Kyle was typing. The creature had righted itself and was standing on the porch, arms at its side.
KYLE: Wait. What do you mean
Carla started to type, but Kyle responded immediately.
KYLE: I’m coming over. Call the police
Kyle lived close by, so he wouldn’t be long. Carla looked down at her phone and dialed 9-1-1. Her finger hesitated over the green dial button.
Why was she waiting? What was so difficult about this? The thing had menaced her, almost attached her. Yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was…
She looked up and saw that the Citronella candle had blown against the creature’s feet. Small flames were licking up the creatures’s feet and spreading along its left leg.
Ro-Man seemed vaguely interested in the fire as it observed what was happening. It reached down and touched the flames with a massive hand. The soft fur quickly ignited and it raised the hand to the video for a closer look. The flames danced merrily in the blank nothingness of the helmet.
Carla reacted instinctively. She was good in a crisis, you had to give her that.
She quickly ran to a kitchen cabinet and pulled out a fire extinguisher. She flung open the screen door and sprayed Ro-Man’s with the fire retardant. The extinguisher was old and the switch for the nozzle stuck, so it kept spraying, with Ro-Man standing still, absorbing everything.
Finally she got it turned off. The patio was quiet again. Leaves rustling in the trees, her panting breath, and the quiet “plop” of retardant dripping off the seven foot tall marshmallow creature.
Carla suppressed an urge to laugh as the creature stood motionless. Its antennas crackled briefly, and the giant hands moved to wipe off the visor. It was useless, just smearing more of the white foam around. Carla grabbed the garden hose, still neatly coiled by her grandmother, and turned it on. She approached Ro-Man, which had finished trying to clean its helmet. It looked in her direction.
“NONE SHALL ESCAPE ME!”
“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Carla and turned on the hose.
It was oddly satisfying, she thought. Like hosing down her Subaru at the car wash or giving a dog a bath. Except that Ro-Man didn’t resist or try to get away. It just stood there, with the water spraying at it, washing all the chemicals away. Finally, when Carla was done, she stepped back and turned off the hose.
The creature looked far less imposing now that it was soaking wet. It was hard to carry an air of intergalactic menace when you looked like a drowned rat.
Ro-Man raised its arms in front of the visor and observed the water droplets. They glimmered in the porch light. It lowered its arms and looked at Carla.
A few moments later Kyle pulled up to Carla’s house. The car had barely skidded to a halt before he was running to the door. He hadn’t gotten a response from Carla after he told her to call the police and that worried him.
He ran up the short set of stairs and pounded on her front door. No answer. He could hear a faint high-pitched wine. What was it? Some kind of torture device? He pounded harder and shouted her name. No response.
Kyle picked his way around the house, looking in the windows, not seeing anyone. He feared the worst. He knew he should have met her at home. Or come over sooner. Or…
He rounded the back of the house and saw them.
Carla was on her hands and knees with an old Craftsman wet vacuum, plugged in via an extension cord, trying to dry off the giant seven foot tall creature. Ro-Man watched her with mild interest. She glanced up and saw Kyle staring at the two of them.
“Oh hey Kyle!”
Dan scrolled through hashtags on his phone while drinking a visually pleasing yet average-tasting beer at a visually-pleasing yet average bar.
“What the hell is this?”
Some posts on Instagram caught his eye. Apparently there'd been some big ruckus at that Lawrenceville club tonight. Dan never went down there himself, even though he made sure to talk about how “real” and “unique” it was in all his nightlife blog posts.
Honestly he hated to go anywhere; aggregating other people’s photos into a blog was a hell of a lot easier. Let everyone else do the work for him, but he’d cash the checks that came in from realty companies who wanted to make Pittsburgh into The Next Big Thing. Very well. He’d give them a Thing alright.
As Dan saw it, the nightlife here didn’t really have that…pop. It wasn’t New York, and it didn’t have that glorious “fuck you” vibe of Philadelphia or the warm-hearted sausage-based economy of Chicago. Everyone wanted to call it the new Austin but there were two things wrong with that: 1. Austin sucked and the only people who think it’s special are New Yorkers who haven't been to LA and 2. Pittsburgh wasn’t “weird” enough. It was shitty, which he translated as “unique,” but he hadn’t been able to find a way to classify Pittsburgh. It was a town where they still thought putting french fries on their sandwiches made them special for god’s sake.
But this costume stuff…this was interesting. A giant seven foot tall guy in a retro sc-fi gorilla suit. It didn’t feel like a corporate stunt (and he usually got the early press releases on those anyway), and it looked homemade. It might even be…dare he say it, “unique.”
Shit, Dan thought to himself, people have flipped out for a lot less in this town. Why not?
He snapped his fingers for the bartender and pointed to his empty glass while using an app to pull video from Instagram, twitter, and anywhere else he could find. Fairly quickly he had edited together a two minute video of incidents featuring the creature. Its arrival, selfies with dancers, throwing the table, audience screams, and then of course the creature dancing. Finally a blurry shot of something happening with the cops before it disappeared.
Dan paused, and moved the shots of Ro-Man dancing to the front of the video. Get people interested early.
He paused to swipe through Tinder. Ugh. This city. Half of these women would be pretty if they learned to smile.
Soon he had a blog post and social media blitz ready to go. “WHO OR WHAT IS RO-MAN?” the headline shouted.
Dan paused and decided to do some quick googling. If this really was some dumb promotion for a Marvel TV show, he didn’t want to fall for it. He put “Ro Man gorilla suit” into a search engine.
It spit back…uh…some kind of 1950s movie, whatever. Nobody cares. Doesn’t look like it’s copyrighted. Great.
He re-read the blog post one more time, lined up everything on the platforms, and hit send. He drained the last of his beer and surveyed the bar. It was a game he played, to wait and see how long it would take him to check for results.
He paid his bill and tipped $3. All the guy did was pour a few beers.
Dan stepped out into the evening to wait for his Uber. That itch got the better of him and he looked at Twitter.
Six retweets already, a few dozen comments. Lots of shares of the blog post. It wouldn’t take long to get #WhoIsRoman trending. Not bad for fifteen minutes of work.
Who is Ro-Man? Shit, who cares.
Together Carla and Kyle finished drying Ro-Man. It watched with something like polite interest as they emptied the wet vac.
It had been silent during their cleaning, even allowing Carla to lift its arms to get the armpits with the nozzle. For a seven foot tall alien, it remained remarkably docile.
Kyle stepped back as Carla tipped the last of the water out onto the ground.
“So, did you figure out what his deal is?”
Carla shrugged, ‘Which deal? There’s like, a million questions.”
“Let’s start with why he’s wearing a costume from a really bad 1953 movie.”
Carla wiped her hand and looked at Ro-Man. “Beats me. What’s the movie about?”
“It’s actually not a bad idea, some good stuff in it, but the budget was like, four dollars. It’s about this family, the last family on earth, and this race of aliens who come to earth to kill all humans. They’re called Ro-Man.”
At the mention of its name, Ro-Man straightened up and moved towards the two. Its antenna cracked as it observed them.
“I SHALL FIND A WAY TO RID THIS EARTH OF HU-MANS!”
Carla & Kyle looked at each other. “Uh, okay,” said Carla. “It keeps spouting that kind of stuff. But it’s like I’m not answering the way it wants.”
Kyle stared at Ro-Man. “That’s…so weird”
“I HAVE A MISSION TO PERFORM!”
“See what I mean?”
Kyle pulled out his phone. “It almost sounds like he’s reciting from a script.”
“Seriously?” laughed Carla.
“Yeah, like he’s saying his lines from…here we go.”
The 1953 film Robot Monster was in the public domain, so the script was readily available online. Kyle pulled up a copy of the script and showed it to Carla on his phone. Meanwhile Ro-Man had run out of patience.
“I AM BUILT TO HAVE NO EMOTIONS.”
“Yeah, yeah, aren’t we all,” said Carla as Kyle scrolled through the script. It was nonsense, full of talk about computators and atomic power.
“Here it is! I found where he’s at in the script,” said Kyle. He pointed to the screen where the last piece of dialogue was “Ro-Man: I am built to have no emotions.” The next prompt said that Johnny, a young boy, sticks his tongue out. Carla & Kyle looked at each other and shrugged.
Kyle turned to Ro-Man and stuck his tongue out.
Ro-Man reacted instantly. “THE BOY IS IMPERTINENT.”
Kyle laughed and punched Carla in the shoulder. He mouthed the words “we did it” and then looked at his phone again, stumbling through the terrible dialogue.
“Or is it in the etiquette code of you, i mean you people…that children must be murdered?
Carla grimaced but Ro-Man’s antennas crackled.
“YOU ARE NOT LIKE MY PEOPLE. YOU ARE SAVAGE BARBARIANS, NON RO-MAN, ANIMALS!”
Kyle nudged Carla and pointed to a line in the script for an “Alice.” She squinted at his phone.
“We want peace, Ro-Man. But peace with honor.”
Ro-Man turned its visor towards her.
“I WILL TALK WITH THE GIRL. IT IS NOT IN THE PLAN, BUT ALTHOUGH I CANNOT VERIFY IT, I FEEL THAT SHE WILL UNDERSTAND.”
Carla had had enough. She grabbed Kyle and lead him inside the house. Ro-Man took a few steps to follow them but stayed on the porch as she closed the sliding glass door.
Kyle was too excited. “Why’d you do that? It was going so good!”
“Look, I’m not getting into some kind of weird romance with that…thing out there. I’m not the one who gets rescued, okay?!”
Kyle looked confused. “Okay, I mean…I know, I was worried when I first got here. But now, look at him! It’s gotta be some kinda gag or something. It seems totally harmless.”
“Just don’t put me into some scared housewife scenario, okay?! I’m not the beauty that calms the beast. I’m not the blond virgin and he’s not King Kong.”
“Okay, okay. You’re right. I shouldn’t assume you’d be the female role. But let’s keep going. Aren’t you interested?”
Carla had to admit that, in spite of herself, she was interested. The terror she felt hadn’t gone away but it had definitely taken a back seat to her interest in just how goddamn WEIRD this was. She picked up her reading glasses.
“Okay, send the script to my phone. I’ll play the professor.”
Kyle laughed with excitement, and turned to the backyard, only to see Ro-Man standing inside the dining room. Its hulking mass barely fit inside, and the antenna scraped along the ancient stucco ceiling.
“CALCULATE, HU-MAN! IF I MEET WITH THE GIRL, I MAY FIND A WAY TO INTEGRATE YOU INTO THE PLAN! IT IS NOT A FACT, BUT WHAT YOU WOULD CALL, A ‘HOPE!’”
Kyle gaped at Ro-Man, but Carla stepped forward, holding her phone.
“Name the place, ro-man—I will be there!”
Outside, the wind sent leaves scattering across the porch as the golden light from inside revealed the three figures play-acting, framed by the trees under a starry night.
“Jesus, what’s with this ending?!”
Phil Tucker, a harried-looking man in short sleeves, threw a screenplay across a battered desk. It landed in the lap of the improbably-named Wyott Ordung, who looked just as frazzled as Tucker.
Ordung shrugged. “Look, I told you I had a good idea for a script. I never said anything about a good ending.”
Tucker ran his hands through his rapidly thinning hair and lit a cigarette. He didn’t know why this kind of luck always landed in his lap. It sure wasn’t what he was hoping for when he moved out to Hollywood. Sure, he’d knocked around at some studios, gotten some backlot work through drinking buddies, but those guys all seemed happy with their lot. They loved their union jobs, driving through the Paramount Gates or onto the Warner lot each day, ready to move palm trees or fetch food or drive a crew out to Malibu. Good pay, good life, what else was there?
Tucker still had that starry-eyed idealism. He always felt more in kinship with the young actors he met, fresh-faced starry-eyed kids off the bus from Duluth trying to make their way in this business. Only Tucker was going to be a director. He knew it, he felt it. He just needed that break.
He’d thought that DANCE HALL RACKET would be that break. One night he was drinking at the Lauren Tavern in Studio City and struck up a conversation with a fellow barfly. Turns out the guy was some kind of comedian whose name opened a few doors: Lenny Bruce. Even so the best the guy could do was write his own screenplay about a gangster who runs a “dance hall” (that’s code for hookers). Bruce also wanted to get into acting and wrote himself a part as “Vincent,” a sadistic bodyguard.
Tucker didn’t love the screenplay but thought that with an up-and-coming name like Lenny Bruce attached, they might be able to scrape together the dough to film it. And over the course of a few (very few) weeks, that’s what they did. Tucker convinced the dubiously named “Film Classics” to give them a shot and over the course of a short week (three or four days, Tucker couldn’t remember), they shot the film. It was edited and in a few theaters a few weeks later, although Tucker was never sure exactly where. That kind of sadism shlock always played well in the Midwest.
Bruce was always talking about “another picture, a good one this time” but so far nothing had materialized. Meanwhile Tucker focused on getting something else off the ground; a sci-fi picture. The kids loved space pictures and they couldn’t get them in B theaters and drive-ins fast enough. With his foot in the door due to DANCE HALL RACKET, Tucker got a meeting and then a production office at Astor Pictures, a small company looking to cash in on the space craze. Producer Al Zimbalist went even further, suggesting that they shoot in 3-D.
It seemed like it could be a big deal. Plenty of directors had studios take notice when a scrappy independent did well. This could be his ticket to the big leagues, a cushy job at MGM with a secretary, his own bungalow, and two to three pictures a year.
Except for this goddamn script.
Ordung asked everyone to call him “Barney” because who ever heard of a name like “Wyott? He’d been suggested to the producers by Roger Corman, already a king of the B and C moviemakers. Tucker identified with his can-do attitude although it threw him for a loop when, at their first meeting, Ordung assumed he’d be acting in the fi;m instead of writing it.
“No, sorry for the mistake. Roger said you had a good idea for a space story. He sent you over to talk about the script.”
Ordung had paused, shuffled in his chair, then smiled brightly. “Oh yeah, the script! No problem. Gimme three days. Two! Make it two days. I’ll be back on Thursday.”
Well today was Thursday and Tucker didn’t know how you could even call this a script. Ordung had kept to the requirements that the cast be small and the locations few. Almost all of their budget was going to the damn 3-D camera that none of them knew how to operate.
But everything beyond that…oh, brother. This alien called “Ro-Man” comes to the planet after killing literally everyone on Earth except he somehow misses one California family. Then this creature lumbers around trying to find a way to kill them, all the while falling in love with the young woman in the family and there’s a kid who basically throws rocks at him and this all-powerful alien does nothing.
“And then,” said Tucker, now livid, “after all that, the damn thing ends and it was just a dream?! All just a dream!?”
Ordung smiled sheeplishly, “Yeah, you know, like the Wizard of Oz.”
Tucker shook his head. “Well this ain’t MGM and you ain’t L. Frank Baum. Christ.”
Ordung scratched his head. “Well geez, if you’re not happy I can take another crack at it. Maybe try to fix the ending at least.”
Tucker rolled his eyes and pointed to a production calendar in the shabby office. “There’s no time! What’s today? Thursday. When do we start shooting? Saturday! We gotta do all the exteriors in Branson Canyon this weekend while the cops aren’t out.”
Tucker stubbed out his cigarette in frustration. He wasn’t dumb. He knew this was bad. Worse than bad, even. The costume for the creature, god. They’d called Ordung yesterday and he didn’t have any ideas except that it should be “big and overpowering” so they raided through an old prop shop and found a gorilla suit. It was in mothballs and probably hadn’t been used since some Laurel & Hardy movie. They had an astronaut helmet left over from some astronaut epic so Tucker threw that on top and added some antennas.
“What about his face” asked Tucker. “We don’t wanna see the guy in the damn thing.”
The head of the prop shop looked around and grabbed a piece of black muslin. “We could line the inside with this, so it just looks black. Mysterious, maybe?”
“If we get anywhere near mysterious, I’ll be thrilled. Okay, let’s do it.”
Sitting in the production office with his “writer,” Tucker took a deep breath. It wasn’t this guy Ordung’s fault. He’d tried his best and his best was…well, awful, but it’s what they had.
“Sorry Wy…I mean Barney. I wish we had the time for a rewrite but what the hell. We’ll make it work. Do you think it’ll be long enough?”
Ordung frowned. “Long enough?”
“Yeah, the movie’s gotta be at least 65 minutes for distributors to take it. Even if it shows on a double bill, the audience has to feel like they’re getting something for their money.”
Ordung looked confused. Poor dope.
“It’s okay. I’m going to look at some old stock footage for all the dinosaur fight and end of the world stuff. We’ll use a lot of that. Maybe jazz it up with some special effects & sounds, get a good score. Real far-out stuff, you know? Hell, if we need to we can always repeat some footage of the Robot at the end. We pull the rug out with the “it’s all a dream” ending once, maybe we can make it work again if we end with some shots of the monster coming right out of the screen at the audience. Kind of a ‘maybe it WAS real’ sort of thing? I dunno.”
“That sounds great,” said Ordung with a relieved smile on his face. “Say, do you think maybe there’s a role for me in the picture? I thought that maybe Roy would…”
Tucker smiled wearily. “Don’t press your luck. Now beat it.”
“Really, Johnny. You're overdoing this spaceman act. There simply aren't any such things.”
With that line, Kyle finished the script. Carla looked at him, expectantly.
“Is that it?” she whispered.
“Yeah, I think so. If I remember correctly, it just ends with a shot of him,” Kyle gestured to Ro-Man, “marching out of the cave. They repeat it two or three times, like they were trying to fill space.”
“So that’s the end? What do we do now?”
Ro-Man stood motionless, observing them. It had participated perfectly in the read-along, answering quickly and even including some acting where it would lumber around the dining room. At some point Kyle had gotten them beers from the fridge and the whole thing started to feel like a really weird house party. But like all house parties, there was a point where that one guest just won’t leave and you don’t know how to get rid of them.
Kyle scratched his scraggly beard. “I guess I figured when we got to the end something would happen. A message maybe, some reason for all this. The guy would take his suit off, or something.”
“I don’t want to freak you out, but I’m telling you, it’s not a dude in a suit. It walked right out of nothing.”
“Come on,” said Kyle. “I’m supposed to be the one who believes in aliens.”
“If it’s a suit, where’s the zipper? I went all over the damn thing with the wet vac and there’s no opening. It’s solid.”
Kyle walked over to Ro-Man and examined the creature. True, there were no seams visible anywhere. He could see how it looked like the helmet was just sitting on its shoulders, but he didn’t want to remove it. He pulled over a chair while Ro-Man watched.
“What are you doing?” asked Carla as she finished her beer.
Kyle stood on the chair to examine the helmet. “I just wanna get a closer look at this. It looks like it can come off.”
Ro-Man raised its head to observe as Kyle drew in close. It was the closest he’d been to it. He couldn’t hear or see any breathing, no rise and fall of the chest. It just stood silently, its fur moving slightly as the forced-air heating in the home kicked on.
“It really looks like this helmet is just sitting on its shoulders.”
Kyle squinted into the visor, trying to make out what was inside. “Man, this tint or screen is really dark. You can’t see…”
He trailed off. The darkness inside had no reflections, no light. No hint of eyes or flash of intelligence. Just darkness.
A blackness darker than anything he had ever known. He could feel the void reaching out to him, falling forward into it. A region beyond earth, beyond stars, time, and light itself. Nothing but the black void falling forward to meet him.
Kyle suddenly went limp and tumbled off the chair. Carla caught him and they both collapsed under his weight.
“Kyle! KYLE! Are you okay?!”
Carla bent over Kyle. She didn’t know what to do. Was he still breathing? Yes, it looked like it. He was just out, and didn’t respond to her cries or slapping his face.
“Kyle! Kyle, wake up!”
Suddenly Ro-Man was standing over them, bending down to pick up Kyle. Carla gasped and put herself between the two of them.
“Get away from him!”
The creature brushed her aside and picked up Kyle, holding him in its arms. As Carla watched, dumbstruck, it walked into the living room and gently placed him on the couch.
Carla had finally had enough. She found her phone and dialed 911. As she walked back into the living room, Ro-Man was gone.
By the time the paramedics got there, Kyle had woken up. He had no idea why he had fainted; the last thing he remembered was looking into the helmet. It was hard to explain what had happened. Carla tried her best but the medics clearly thought she and Kyle had been tripping on something; the empty beer cans didn’t help alleviate their suspicions.
The whole process was exhausting.They ran a few tests on Kyle and by the time they were finally satisfied that he was okay, the sun was starting to come up. He wanted to stay (of course he did), but Carla and the paramedics thought he’d be better off recuperating at home. She threw her bicycle in the back of Kyle’s car and drove him home.
On the drive they didn’t have much to say. Carla was running on adrenalin and Kyle nodded off. She nudged him when she pulled into the driveway of his parent’s home and he stumbled out of the car.
“Hey, don’t forget your keys” said Carla, helping him to the door.
“I’m fine,” protested Kyle.
“Aren’t you worried your mom will see you coming home late with me?” teased Carla.
Kyle made a feeble attempt at a laugh. “She’ll probably be impressed.”
Carla let that go and said her goodbyes. She jumped on her bicycle and rode away. Kyle watched her leave.
Despite her exhaustion the cool air felt good on her face as the sun shone through the golden leaves on the trees. The night’s activities had drained her; she had nothing left. No ability to comprehend what had happened. Their cosplaying some sixty-seven-year-old movie with a creature from another world, her exhaustion, her fear but also another feeling. Relief? Concern?
She didn’t have it in her to figure out what it was.
Carla rode up to her house and unlocked the door. Inside the threw the bicycle carelessly into the entryway and made straight for her bedroom. She collapsed on the bed, still fully clothed. She could hear the chirping of the birds outside as she passed out.
Even I don’t know what her dreams were like.
She woke with a start hours later, in that hazy delirium where you’re not sure what time of day it is or where you are. The clock said 2:17pm. In the afternoon. Yes, okay, that made sense.
There were a slew of notifications on her phone, which she ignored. She yawned and made her way to the bathroom. She started to get undressed and stopped. She looked around. Glanced outside the windows. Walked through the rest of the house, checking doors and locks. There was nothing. No one.
Carla undressed and showered. She always took a long time in the shower but this time was a little longer, giving herself permission to just enjoy it. Once it was over she didn’t know what would happen.
She dried herself off and put on clean clothes. She made a cup of strong coffee, wrapped herself in her grandfather’s jacket, and stepped out onto the back porch.
The coffee was bitter and the air was cold. She turned to see Ro-Man standing outside, waiting for her.
“Oh, hey. I figured you’d still be here.”
When Carla was young, she never had an imaginary friend. She’d watched Sesame Street and wondered what the deal was with Snuffleupagus. The concept never appealed to her. She was an only child and maybe that had something to do with it; she’d grown up making her own worlds, telling her own stories. She had plenty of imagination, sure, but never the idea of a best pal who took her on adventures.
And yet now she had one.
Ro-Man watched her as she sipped her coffee outside.
“I suppose if I call the cops, you’ll just disappear again, right?”
Ro-Man didn't answer.
“That’s what I figured.”
A dog barked in the distance. Ro-Man’s head turned slightly towards the noise.
“Let’s get one thing straight: no more violence. No throwing tables or whatever you did to those cops.”
Ro-Man’s antennae crackled briefly. Carla walked up to the creature.
“I think you understand me. In some way.”
She had a brief vision of trying to get the thing to stop its foot once for yes and twice for no, then laughed.
“Can you speak? I know you know ‘Robot Monster’— ”
The antennas crackled and it straightened up at the mention of the movie.
“But can you put those words together on your own?”
Ro-Man bent its head to look at her.
Carla pointed at herself.
“My name is Carla. Carla. What is your name?” She pointed at it.
The antenna crackled.
“What is your—“
“I AM RO-MAN.”
Carla smiled. “Okay, that’s something. Hi Ro-Man, I’m Carla. Welcome to Earth, I guess.”
She took a sip of coffee as a gust of wind picked up.
“Where are you from?”
This time it seemed harder for Ro-Man. The antenna crackled and she could feel the vibrations coming off the creature. Finally after a low deep rumbling, it spoke.
“NOT FROM EARTH.”
No shit, thought Carla. Still, it was insane to hear the thing actually say it. She’d never been opposed to the idea of life from other planets, but it had never been something she spent much time thinking about.
“Yikes. Okay, can you be more specific? Like, where, and how you got here?”
Of course. Why make this easy? Carla sighed.
“Okay then. Well, Ro-Man, what do we do now?”
The creature looked down at her.
“I NEED GUIDANCE.”
It suddenly seemed very sad and alone. Here was this thing, from god knows where, on this planet for some reason it may not even comprehend, asking a twenty-something woman who lives in her grandmother’s house for help. Other than recommending which local bar had the best happy hour wings, she wasn’t sure what she could do. It seemed like days, not just a few hours ago since she first saw this thing at the club.
Hmm. The club.
She wasn’t wild about having the thing around her house without anyone else there, but she couldn’t resist this idea. “Stay right here. I’ll be back.”
Ro-Man stood at attention, watching her bustle around inside the house. In the warmer months she had a setup for playing music outside. Carla dragged two battered old speakers onto the porch, then connected them via long speaker wire to a turntable in the dining room. She turned on the amplifier and went to her record shelf, the same IKEA cabinet that everyone had. She surveyed her selections and then pulled out an album.
“Well” she laughed to herself. “Why not?”
She cued up the record and stepped outside.
“Okay, Ro-Man. Dig this.”
The song came on to a rhythmic horn section accompanied by what sounded like a child’s drum, quickly joined by some melodic horns. Then the voice.
“Two little men in a flying saucer, flew down to Earth one day.”
The woman’s voice poured forth from the speakers like warm honey. It floated effortlessly in between the notes while the band accompanied her.
Ro-Man began to nod his head. Carla watched him. “This is Ella Fitzgerald. She’s the best.”
The creature’s heavy body swayed as it moved to the music. Carla found herself lightly moving to the rhythm too.
The antenna flashed as the creature spoke.
“ELLA FITZ-GERALD.” Carla smiled.
“Then they shook their little green antennas, scratched their purple hair. Said this planet is an awful menace, let’s go back to where we came from.”
Ro-Man showed no sign of understanding what the song was about.
“Is that how you feel, Ro-Man?” she asked tentatively. “Is this planet an awful menace?”
Ro-Man kept dancing.
After some trial and error, Carla determined that Ro-Man liked up-tempo jazz, old Motown, some New wave, Prince, really anything with a good beat. It did not like country music, classical, freeform jazz, or any kind of easy listening. In short, it had the tastes of a child; it wanted a beat it could dance to.
It didn’t seem to need to eat or sleep and it definitely didn’t, ahem, “eliminate.”
It was starting to listen to her. She could tell it to sit or stand and after she mimed the behavior, it would comply.
However the damn thing couldn’t figure out what she meant when she pointed. Carla would point at a chair and it would just look at the end of her finger. It was just as well; she didn’t know how much it weighed and she didn’t want it breaking any chairs.
Before she knew it the sun was starting to set. She’d spent the whole day playing music for this…whatever it was.
She put a frozen pizza in the oven and watched Ro-Man. It stood in the living room, bouncing up and down listening to Huey Lewis.
Carla glanced at her phone. Kyle kept texting even after she told him everything was fine. She scrolled through a few reminders and stopped. She’d forgotten that she was supposed to go out of town tomorrow. She was booked at a drive-in outside of Philadelphia for a giant sci-fi marathon, the annual Monster A-Go-Go Festival. A friend helped run the small, scrappy theater that programmed a bunch of 1950s sci-fi all night long and she was scheduled to play music in between the movies.
The album ended and Ro-Man walked into the kitchen, carefully bowing its head to avoid scraping the ceiling.
“Chill out buddy, I’m trying to figure something out.”
Ro-Man bent his head at her while she looked at her phone. Hmmm. Should she go? Leave it here, or…
She looked up from her phone. The creature’s antennae were crackling.
“What do you mean?
“Why do I play music? Because I love it.”
If a giant creature with a faceless visor could look exasperated, somehow Ro-Man did.
“WHY IS MUSIC? WHAT…PURPOSE?”
Carla smiled. “I never really thought about that. For a lot of humans, music is just something that is part of our lives. It’s a constant across all cultures; everyone has their own form whether it’s recorded,” she pointed to the record played and Ro-Man looked at her hand, so she gave up, “recorded or played live. Or sung, that’s the easiest way.”
Carla hated to sing, but she rolled her eyes and sang, off-key, “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.” Ro-Man watched intently.
“Does that explain…I mean, do you get it?”
“I NEED GUIDANCE.”
“Is there music where you…wherever you’re from?”
Ro-Man paused and its antennas went silent. It stood still, silently for a moment.
“NO. NO MUSIC. NOTHING.”
The stove’s alarm beeped to let her know that her pizza was done. Usually she’d eat in front of the television if her roommates weren’t home. Suddenly she had another ridiculous idea. This day had been full of them so why not try another?
While the pizza was cooling she dug around in an old binder of DVDs. She knew it was in here somewhere, a gift from her uncle to an awkward 10 year old girl who loved musicals. Yep, here it was.
She paraded Ro-Man in to the living room and with some coaxing got it to sit cross-legged on the floor next to the sofa. She put the DVD into the video game console, grabbed the pizza, and pressed play.
“Okay, Ro-Man, this will explain music.”
She took a bite of the pizza and glanced at Ro-Man. It was sitting ramrod straight, gazing intently at the televison as the visor reflected a scene of rolling hills and mountains, and a woman spinning in place as the camera moved closer and closer. She opened her mouth as the music swelled.
“The hills are alive…with the sound of music.”
Soon after finishing her pizza Carla felt sleep starting to overtake her. She’d seen the movie dozens of times, knew every beat. And tomorrow she had to drive to Philly for the Monster A-Go-Go event. She was still wondering what to do with Ro-Man when she fell asleep as it stared at the TV, watching every scene intently.
Alternate Histories is taking a brief hiatus. All orders placed now will ship out on Wednesday, September 28. Thank you!